Western Short Story
Comanche Moon
Darrel Sparkman


Western Short Story


Comanche Moon ©

By Darrel Sparkman

Becker smelled dust in the air and reined his horse under the feeble shade of a twisted mesquite. He eased himself in the saddle and took off his hat, wiping his brow with a faded red bandana while looking at the earth in front of him, dimpled and churned with the passage of horses.

Enough of them were unshod to have Comanche written all over it, and he cursed softly. This was their land and he’d hoped to pass through unnoticed. The tracks pointed west, and he was headed north, so he didn’t give it much thought until he noticed the heel tracks of someone being dragged on a rope behind a horse. A few feet more, and he could see where the person regained their footing. He swung down from his horse and knelt to study the small tracks of feet that barely sank into the churned earth.

A woman, or a child.

The more he thought of it, he knew it must be a woman. The braves would throw a child on a horse, to keep from slowing them down, and the captor would be responsible for making them keep up. A woman would ride too, for that matter.

They must be mad at this one and not planning to take her far.

Reading the trail was a simple thing for him. Raised by a fiddle-footed trapper and sometime wolf hunter who always wanted to see the other side of the mountain, he hadn’t seen a town larger than a few adobe huts until almost grown.

Following the trail a bit, he chuckled. The woman had dug in her heels hard, and a few feet further, he saw where her captor had hit the ground. He’d bet good money the Indian got tired of holding the rope, and tied it around his waist. She must have seen that, and took a little revenge, or tried to get away. Right about then, he knew he had to take a hand.

An hour later, he was trailing the Indians in lengthening shadows as the sun moved toward the horizon. He figured five at most, which still didn’t give him very good odds of helping the captive. And, he was getting close to them, real close.

A few minutes later he heard a short scream from an angry voice that didn’t sound like there was any quit in it. Score one for the little lady. She wasn’t giving up.

He eased up through the brush and saw the group in a small clearing. Four of the Comanche were laughing at her, pushing and pulling the girl between them, while sharing a bottle of whiskey. A fifth worked at starting a fire. A cold knot settled in his belly. That wasn’t a cook fire.

The men were too busy tossing the girl around to notice him sitting on his horse, wishing he were somewhere else. She looked Spanish or Indian, with long black hair and a petite build, incongruous in a voluminous dress that hampered every move she tried to make. But, her voice was all Texas and she was fighting mad, spitting at the men and cursing them with every shove they gave her. One glance told him she was a fighter.

He had two choices. He could cut and run, which he figured was the smart thing to do, or try to snatch her out of there. If he shot into them from where he sat, they’d kill her and likely get him too.

Surprising himself as well as his mount, he spurred his horse into action. Not used to such treatment, the gelding fairly leaped into the clearing. Becker rushed the group with a wild yell and leaned over the saddle, reaching for the girl. She didn’t need an engraved invitation, and using his arm as a pivot, swung up behind him like a circus acrobat. They left in a cloud of dust, with her digging her own heels into the horse, urging it to more speed.

He couldn’t believe they’d made it. Of all the hare-brained things to... he heard the shot from off to the side, just as he felt his horse bunch under him. Urging the animal toward a buffalo wallow he saw just ahead, the horse suddenly went down in a loose pile of lifeless flesh and bone. They pitched sprawling to the ground.

Rolling between a couple of prickly pear clumps, and leaping to his feet, he grabbed the voluminous dress, hoping the girl was still inside it, and tossed the whole thing into the protection of the wallow. He heard her land with a muffled thump, and an indignant-sounding shriek. His rifle lay pinned under the horse, and his searching hand found an empty holster at his side. He ran to the horse and tried to free the rifle, with bullets thumping and whining around him. Finally giving it up, he scrambled to the protection of the wallow.

I can’t believe I did that.

Becker shook his head and wiped sweat and dirt from his eyes, muttering to himself. “Damn.”

“Not too bad.” Her soft voice was butter smooth with the lazy drawl of Texas and country all rolled into one.

He looked at his rifle, trapped under the saddle on his dead horse about fifty feet away and shook his head again in disgust.

His prized yellow boy Winchester was as far away as next year’s wages.

“Dammit.”

“There ya go. Put some life in it.”

He could tell this young girl was laughing at him, but somehow didn’t seem to mind. He glanced at the horse again. “Son of a....”

“Hey. Whoa, now. Let’s not get carried away. I ain’t that worldly.”

He glanced at the girl’s dirty-faced grin, framed by the blackest hair he’d seen this side of Mexico, and quickly revised his opinion. This brown-eyed beauty was no young girl. She was a lot of woman in a tiny package.

He took off his battered hat and edged up to the lip of the buffalo wallow. Dirt splattered into his face before he heard the shot and whine of the retreating ricochet.

“Why don’t you shoot back?”

He turned and looked at her. “Lady, if I had a gun—which I don’t, you’d be seeing the fanciest shootin this side of anywhere.”

“You don’t have a gun?”

He could see a barely-concealed smile behind her hand, and heard the laughter in her voice. “No. I don’t have a gun. My Winchester is still on the saddle under the horse, and I lost my pistol when those Comanche shot my horse out from under us. He was a damned good horse, too.”

“You dropped it?” She gave up and laughed outright. “What kind of hero are you? You dropped your gun?

“Look, lady, if you... what’s your name, anyway?”

“Mandy Jakes. Please to make your acquaintance, Mr...?”

He eased up to the rim again and a bullet knocked his hat spinning into the wallow. “John Becker, ma’am. Look, you may think this is funny, but we’re kind of in a situation here.”

“I assure you, Mr. Becker, I don’t find this situation funny.” She paused a moment. “I find you funny.”

“Well, I’m happy to be so damned entertaining. If you can keep from laughing yourself silly, you might look around for a club, or something to defend yourself.” He took a quick look around the wallow. “OK, maybe a rock. I don’t know what got those boys out there so riled up, but they seem just a bit unhappy. They shouldn’t be trying so hard to get you back. Skinny thing like you... well, small I mean, wouldn’t make a good squaw. They like their women strong—to haul wood, do the skinning and such. Hell, you couldn’t even pick up a lodge pole.”

“I’m not skinny. And, what kind of rescue was that, anyway? Didn’t you have a plan?”

“Oh yes, ma’am.” He started edging up to the rim again after retrieving his hat. “I had a plan. I had a great plan. My plan was to ride on up to Kansas, and ride the rails. A man told me that a train could go forty miles in an hour. I didn’t believe him, him being drunk and all, but I thought I’d look.”

“Sure hope we get the chance to see. I’ve never seen anything like that.”

He caught the tremor in her voice, and looked at her cautiously and then grinned at her. He couldn’t help himself. Her humorous outlook was catching. “We? That’s kind of a sudden engagement, ain’t it?”

She shook her mane of black hair and her voice turned angry, losing some of the drawl. “When that stage full of Indian fighters I was riding with took off, I figured my time was up. I sure couldn’t see much of a future, ‘cept being beat with a stick every day and kept in a dirty hogan for all the... well, you know. That didn’t happen, thanks to you. The way I see it, anything good that happens from now on, is just gravy on the ‘taters.” She gave him the benefit of a full smile. “I’m thinkin you’re the gravy.”

Before he could answer, a searching shot hit the bank behind them, and then a scattering of shots bracketed the wallow. He figured they were trying to keep him from looking around and there was only one reason to do that. He pulled his heavy bladed Bowie, wiped his sweaty hands on his shirt, and gripped it firmly. There were two things working for them. This buffalo wallow was a lot deeper than most, and from the short glance he got, all the braves looked young.

A startled bird flew up a few feet away with a thrumming beat of wings, and the first Comanche came over the rim, followed closely by two more. They must have expected to see Becker at the bottom with the girl, because they missed him crouched at the rim.

The war cry of the first man over the top turned to a scream of agony as he staggered on by, trying to hold in his belly where the knife sliced through his buckskins like butter. Writhing in pain, the man fell to his knees in front of the wide-eyed girl. The second man was already dropping over the side and tried to bring his rifle around to fire, but he grabbed it with both hands and smashed it back into his teeth. The brave kept his grip in the rifle and came after him with a vengeance. While both men scrambled for possession of the rifle, he saw the last one go after the girl.

This had to end in a hurry. If he lost, not only would he die, but also the girl behind him, or something worse. Knowing Indians knew little of fist fighting, he let go his grip on the rifle and slugged the man in the belly. The brave gasped for air and his jaw dropped open just in time to meet a looping overhand roundhouse that broke his nose. Following closely against the back-pedaling man, Becker kneed him in the groin, and then jerked the rifle from nerveless fingers and fired into the man’s body. Levering a new shell into the rifle, he whirled at a shot behind him. The last man slumped over the girl.

He came up out of the wallow just as the remaining braves decided to rush. Snap shooting the Winchester, he peeled one off his horse and then peppered dust around the last rider as he wheeled his pony and fled.

In the silence following the short battle, a gust of prairie wind rustled the sand and brush, and he could hear the girl sobbing behind him. He leaned the rifle against his leg, took off his hat and wiped his brow with a blue-checked handkerchief. At best, they should be dead. At the worst, they could be captive. He offered a short ‘thank you Lord’.

He turned back to the wallow and saw the girl had all but disappeared under the bulk of the dead Indian, and as he watched, her heels quit digging into the dirt and lay still.

Dropping to the bottom of the wallow, he grabbed the Indian by the hair and pulled him off the girl. She lay limp with her eyes closed. Seeing the blood covering the front of her dress, he quickly unbuttoned the front and looked for a wound. The bloody undergarment ripped apart in his hands, but he still couldn’t find a wound. Her breasts contrasted white against the darker tan of her throat and red blood on her chest. Still looking for a wound, he started to turn her over.

Her voice startled him. “You were right. That was a short engagement.”

He lifted his gaze from her chest to her eyes. “You’re not hurt?”

She rose up on her elbows, looked at him warily, but made no move to cover herself. A slow smile brightened her face and she chuckled. “Not yet.”

“You’re sure you’re not hurt?” He used that excuse to drop his gaze to her body again.

“Yep. I’m sure. And, I’m just having the greatest day.” She followed his gaze looking down at her ruined dress, and then looked at him with the first hint of tears. “I just bought this dress. It’s the first I ever owned.”

He fumbled at trying to pull her dress together, but couldn’t seem to get it right. “I guess I’d better....”

She interrupted with a very unladylike snort. “I guess you’d better.”

He turned and searched the body of the Indian, but not without another glance at her.

No, not skinny.

He found his knife, and then stripped the other bodies of their weapons. Sweating in the heat, he picked the bodies up and heaved them out of the wallow.

“What’d you do that for?” Semi-dressed, she stood on wobbly legs.

He reached out to steady her. “When it rains....” he paused to look around at the parched earth. “If it ever rains again, this wallow will collect water. No need in ruining it for everyone.”

She looked out over the top of the wallow. “Don’t the Comanche always come back for their dead?”

“Usually. But, I got some lead in the one that got away. Maybe we’ll get lucky and he’ll bleed to death before he gets back to his camp.”

Armed with a rifle and a couple of Sam Colt’s cumbersome old horse pistols, he felt a little better. A nagging thought picked at his mind, and finally came into full bloom. He whirled around and looked at the girl. “Wait just a minute. You had a gun?”

She held a little pepperbox derringer up for his inspection. “I only had one shot left.”

“Where’d you hide that?”

“Well, they hadn’t got around to pulling off my unmentionables and nevershows,” She looked at him with a scowl. “They weren’t near as quick about tearing my clothes off as you. Anyway, I was just waiting for the proper time, when it would do me the most good. Of course, they were working up to that notion, when you came a fogging it out of the brush. That was right opportune, I don’t mind saying.”

“It may have been your lucky day, but I’m not too sure it was mine.” His thoughts turned to the problem at hand. “You could have told me about the gun, you know. It might have made a difference.”

She grinned at him. “Yeah, I can just see you holding off those Comanche with a derringer.”

He had to smile back. “Well, it’s more than I had to work with.”

“Not much more. You seemed to be doing a fair country job with that Bowie.” She paused a moment. “My pappy was good with a knife.”

“Where did you come from girl?”

“Oh, I was raised on a hard-scrabble ranch over toward the Sabine. It was just Pap and me, and he sure didn’t know much about raisin a girl. He took off to bring some cow critters back to the home range, but never came back. I gave up waiting after a month, headed to San Antone and picked up a job with a biscuit shooter too old to ride a chuck wagon anymore. That’s about the whole story, mister.”

He stood looking at her, amazed she was taking the situation so well. “Oh, that’s not all of it. So, how did these Comanche happen to get you?”

“That was the easy part. That cook I worked for decided I needed to move to his house and was real insistent about it. I thought a better notion was to leave. I was riding the stage with a bunch of tinhorns and whiskey peddlers. The driver stopped to rest the horses and next thing we knew the shotgun guard was down, looking like a pincushion, and we were combing Comanche out of our hair.” She paused a moment to take a deep breath. “They were looking for guns and ammunition, and maybe a little whiskey. Still, I don’t think they’d have bothered us much if I hadn’t shot that one.”

His voice was incredulous, matching his expression. “You shot one of them?”

“Hey, now. I ain’t no saint, mister. But, one of them started to get a little... what’s that French word, amorous? I guess he thought I’d make a fine addition to his wikiup. I was in no mind to do that, so we had us a difficulty.”

“A difficulty?” He paused a moment. “This love-struck brave have a name?”

“Yep. Of course he had a name. He thumped his chest a lot, strutted around like a rooster, and called himself Spotted Elk.”

He just stared at her. “Spotted Elk? You killed a Comanche named Spotted Elk?”

“Mister, that Indian had more hands than a bunch of cowboys at a Saturday night fandango.”

He shrugged, trying to fight off the cold feeling coursing up and down his spine. “I’ve heard of him. Spotted Elk was a prince of the Comanche. Real big medicine.”

“He’s a prince of the daisies, right now.”

He sighed. “That just tears it. They’ll chase us from hell to breakfast.”

She smiled at him. “You’ll manage.”

He shook his head in wonder. “So, they killed everyone and took you captive?”

“Oh, hell no. While the warriors were trying to decide what to do about their fallen chief, those four-flushing tinhorns and wannabe bad men jumped on the stage and tore out of there like their tails were on fire, leaving me standing with my petticoats flapping in the wind. It was a might awkward.”

He shook his head, trying to hide a smile. He’d been keeping watch while they talked, and knew it was time to move. “It’ll be dark soon. The one that got away will be looking to bring back some friends. You got anything against walking?”

“Well, unless it’s a midnight stroll with Mr. Right, I’d just as soon have a horse. Besides, I ain’t exactly dressed for marching.”

He eyed the dead Comanche. “I reckon we’ll have to get you some new clothes.”

She glared at him and backed away. “Of all the low down... nope. Not going to do it. You can’t make me wear those clothes.”

“Shouldn’t be too many bugs in them.” He saw one of her eyebrows arch slowly. Chuckling, he held up one hand. “Now, ma’am, you’ve shot enough men today.”

“I can always fit in one more.”

He laughed, and he hadn’t laughed in a long while. “Where were you headed, Mandy?”

“Anyplace away from where I was.” Her tone didn’t invite any more questions.

“Well, I reckon that’s where I’m headed, too.”

***

They waited until full dark before they started. He’d gone back to his dead horse, and with the girl’s help, finally freed his Winchester from under the saddle. He threw his saddlebags over his shoulder. Beyond the carcass of the horse, he caught a gleam in the fading light and retrieved his Remington handgun.

His canteen was full, but he knew it wouldn’t last through the next day. Their best chance was to make it back to the stage road and catch a ride, or find a way station. His saddlebag yielded jerky wrapped in oilpaper, a few sulphur matches in a tube sealed with wax, and a box of cartridges that fit both his weapons.

He had an extra pair of pants and a shirt in his saddlebags, but they were hopelessly too large for Mandy. He cut the pants off at the knees and the arms out of the buckskin shirt. She consented to him cutting down a pair of moccasins taken from one of the dead Indians.

She instantly began to strip off the dress, but stopped when she saw his astonished look. “Close your mouth before the bugs fly in. You’ve already seen my ‘bits’, I guess it won’t hurt if you see all my ‘pieces’. Just think of it as one of the rewards for rescuing a damsel in distress.”

“Just one?”

She gave him a long look, and then resumed trying to make small clothes out of big clothes.

Later, after she had dressed the best she could, she came to him. Her voice was softly intimate, as she sat close enough to rub shoulders.

“How will we be able to travel tonight? It’s dark as the bottom of a well out here.”

“Comanche moon. It’ll be about bright as day in a short while.”

She watched him a moment and then spoke in a serious sounding voice. “Let’s stop pretending. Did you think I wouldn’t recognize your name, Marshal?”

He’d just swallowed some jerky, and nearly coughed it up. “What?”

“I told you, I worked tables at the Bucket restaurant, in San Antonio. You know how men talk. From what I hear, it seems like a lot of men die at the places you show up.” She chuckled. “Indians, too.”

“Too many have died. I’m done with all that, except for one last job. After that I’m heading for a place I know to try ranching.”

She shook her head. “He wasn’t on the stage.”

He turned to look at her, barely outlined against the stars. “What are you, one of those gypsy fortune tellers? You got one of those crystal balls hid out somewhere in those petticoats you took off?”

“Don’t get in a snit. Everyone knows you were sweet on that girl. What’s her name, Anne?”

He shook his head and the quiet stretched out. “You’re wrong. She was just a friend. A good friend, but that’s all.”

She gave a little snicker. “Right.”

“But, she didn’t deserve to die.”

His mind flashed back to San Antonio. John Dent had killed several men, usually from the back. Most people in the town knew that Becker’s job was to bring him in. Anne came to warn him that Dent was laying for him, when Dent stepped out of a doorway, firing at Becker. Anne went down, and in the confusion, Dent got away.

Mandy’s voice could change from cattle drive loud to boudoir soft at a moment’s notice. Now, she had him leaning toward her to hear. “None of us deserve to die. But, sometimes we have to.”

“Have to? What does that mean?”

It was getting lighter and he saw Mandy give him a look that put him somewhere lower than a prairie dog, and just taller than a snake.

“No matter how you felt, I’m betting you weren’t just a friend to her.”

“So,” he said, changing the subject, “John Dent wasn’t on the stage?”

“Nope, but his partner was. That Hobie guy.”

He vented an exasperated sigh. “And?”

“Hobie mentioned something to one of the other men about meeting Dent in Kansas.”

“Where, exactly in Kansas?”

“Hobie didn’t say.”

He got up suddenly and started gathering his gear.

She jumped up, matching his sudden urgency. “I doubt we can get there tonight.”

***

They started north just as the moon spread its bloody light over the landscape. Not as bright as day, the full moon still gave enough light to make walking easy.

“Kind of early for a planter’s moon, ain’t it?” She panted as she tried to keep up with his long strides.

“Comanche moon. Young men get all excited. Howl at the moon, make a night raid on some unsuspecting settler, steal some horses so they can buy a wife, no end to the fun they can have.”

“I thought they didn’t like to fight at night.” She was trying to see behind every bush while she walked.

“If they get killed in the dark, some believe their spirit can’t find their way. You’ll notice it’s not too dark right now. Besides, there are always a few agnostics among them.”

“Agnostic? What the hell does that mean? I wasn’t exactly brought up in some highfalutin boarding school, you know?”

“Unbeliever.” He slowed his pace so she could keep up.

They’d been walking about an hour when he heard them. Grabbing her arm, he pulled her into the shadows of an outcropping of rock. Smart enough to make no sound, she crouched beside him.

Soon the shuffling sound of horses traveling on soft ground came nearer, and they watched a party of Indians ride past, silent and deadly. From what he could see, all of them carried rifles and their bodies looked surreal, painted white and black, ready for war. In the bright moonlight, he could see they’d decorated their warhorses with whatever symbols they thought would bring them good luck. Their silence scared him more than anything else did. Wherever they were going, it wasn’t going to be pretty when they got there.

She stirred beside him, and he pulled her close, holding his hand over her mouth. She settled easily into his arms and seemed content to stay there.

He waited a few minutes, making sure there weren’t any stragglers, before he started to relax.

She bit him.

He leaped to his feet with a curse, dumping the girl unceremoniously on her back. “Jesus, woman!” He held his hand up in the moonlight to look at it. “I’m bleeding. What the hell?”

She stood up and brushed off her rear. “I like being held as well as the next girl, but I couldn’t breathe. Don’t hold my nose next time and I’ll be more likely to cuddle.”

Reaching up, she pulled his hand down and inspected it. While he watched in astonishment, she put his wounded finger in her mouth, and licked it clean. “Hmm. Tastes like that beef jerky you had earlier.”

Ignoring a rush of emotion on several levels, he cleared his throat a couple of times before he could speak. “Deer. Deer meat.”

She gave his hand back. “There you go. That’ll hold you for a while. Let me know if it starts bleeding again.”

Starting back on the trail, she turned and looked at him. “Well? You gonna stand there and let me go all alone?”

“I don’t know. I might.”

They were walking in silence when he fell on his face.

“John?” She leaned over to look at him.

“I found the stage road.” He pushed himself up and pointed to the shadowed ruts in the ground, cut by the iron clad wheels of the stagecoach.

“I knew you could....”

Her voice dwindled away as they heard the sound of shooting, carried on the wind. They waited a few moments, and then heard another volley, followed by a few raggedly spaced shots. The last round seemed to be closer.

“We have to find a place to fort up. Right now.”

Though the sun was not up, there was just enough light in the predawn to see. She pointed up the trail toward a jumble of boulders. “There.”

“You got cat eyes, girl.” His voice was ragged as they jogged to the formation of rocks. “This’ll work just fine.”

Once they were behind the protection of the rocks, and were watching in the direction the shots came from, she spoke softly. “What’s got you spooked? What are you thinking?”

“Those shots were heard were in a volley. Disciplined firing. That means those Indians ran into an army patrol.”

“Good. Why don’t we head that way?”

He looked at her, shaking his head. “Those Comanche won’t stand up to a pitched battle with the army. They’re not stupid.”

“But....”

“Those Indians are going to come helling back down this trail, and they are going to be mad. Real mad.”

“So, we’re in trouble.”

“Lady, we’ve been in trouble since I first laid eyes on you. This is just another chapter in the book.”

“Don’t let them take me.” Her voice broke, and then she looked fiercely at him. “I was going to do it before... before you rescued me. I had the gun. But, I hesitated and then they were all over me and I never had a chance.” She shook her head. “Don’t leave it up to me.”

He looked at her in the morning light, and his heart ached with wanting. She stood there in a cut-down shirt, pants twice her size, a raggedy pair of ill-fitting moccasins and so much hair she’d never need a hat. In a moment of startling clarity, he realized she represented everything he wanted—hearth and home, children and a woman to walk beside him.

For a moment, he couldn’t speak, and she watched him with a small smile on her face. And, that eyebrow thing. He reached out and pulled a piece of cedar from her hair. “They’ll not take you.” He took a deep breath. “Not while I’m alive.”

She reached out and touched him, her hand flat on his chest. “Are we having a moment, here?”

“It’s that damned Comanche moon. They call it a planting moon. Or a marrying moon.”

She laughed, rose on her tiptoes and kissed him lightly on the lips. “Well, I can’t say you’re just real quick on the uptake. I had this figured since you threw me into that buffalo wallow. This ain’t a land for long courtships and romantic speeches.”

When he started to take her in his arms, she stopped him. “Now, I’m not above doing some planting and fertilizing the next time that moon comes out, but right now you’d better look out yonder.”

Becker whirled and grabbed his rifle. Loping toward them on lathered horses, the Comanche warriors carried wounded men in front of them, and several riderless horses followed behind.

Seeing their tracks in the loose dirt of the road, the band of riders stopped, looking toward the rocks they stood behind. After a moment, he moved out into the open. One of the men, the leader by his stature, rode slowly toward him. They stood looking at each other for a moment, and then Becker put his rifle in the crook of his left arm. Holding his right hand flat with the ground, he motioned them away.

“Go in peace. I’m not your enemy.”

There was no sound, except for a whispering footfall when Mandy came to stand beside him.

Finally the warrior spoke. “Is this the woman who killed Spotted Elk?”

“Yes.” Both answered at once, and then looked at each other.

The Indian nodded and said mildly. “I should kill her.”

“Not going to happen. Besides, killing us won’t help you.”

The Indian gave what might have passed for a smile. “This is your woman?”

She answered for him. “I am.”

The man shook his head. “If we let you live, I would ask you to raise your children far from here. We have enough trouble. Go in peace. Spotted Elk was a fool.”

The man raised his arm and the band at his back moved off down the trail. He stopped, and turned back. “Your name?”

“Becker.”

“I will remember your name, white-eye Becker. You are much man, for this woman to choose you. Somehow, you must find your own voice.” The man actually smiled this time. “The warrior woman cannot speak for you always.”

When they left, two horses remained, tied to a mesquite.

“I can’t believe they let us go.”

He laughed. “Don’t put too much nobility into that. It probably had more to do with the army patrol coming up behind them. We’re forted up pretty good. Although, they could have made it bad for us. They left the horses so we’d come out and the army patrol would have to deal with us. They can’t leave us out here.”

She stood close enough to breathe his air. “What now, John?”

“Well, I thought I’d want to go to Kansas, but somehow that doesn’t seem too important, now.”

“You a marrying man, John?” She was watching him closely, and he could see the start of a tear in her eyes. He realized this was as close as she would ever come to showing fear.

He chuckled and brought her to him. “I’d be honored.”

She relaxed, then, and leaned her head against his chest. “I’ll need some proper clothes. I don’t have a dowry. All I have to offer is right in front of you.” She leaned back and gave him a quick smile. “And, you’ve seen most of that.”

“Then we’d better be finding a sky-pilot. That moon’s going to be coming up pretty damned quick.”