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The Brother - A Short Story
"Take a swallow."
The voice floated like a misty cloud somewhere beyond her delirium, and she knew it was real, but her exhausted mind refused to respond as she drifted back into her soft prison of nowhere.
"You need to take a swallow, ma'am. Wake up now, and mind what I say."
The low voice was unfamiliar and insistent, but not unpleasant. She felt a strong hand slide under the back of her head, and lift slightly. Something cool and hard touched her lips and she could smell water.
"C'mon, ma'am. Open your eyes and take a swallow for me." She felt the first drops of moisture on her cracked lips, and the coolness made her eyelids flutter. The face was unfamiliar, but she was not afraid. There was something in the crinkles around the warm brown eyes that assured her that she was in safe hands. There was a week's growth of beard, and as she opened her eyes, it split into a warm smile of straight, white teeth.
"That's better. Just a small swallow for now, if you please, and then another one shortly. We don't want you to start cramping."
She parted her lips, and he poured a trickle of water into her parched mouth. She was shocked by the way her body responded, greedily soaking up the coolness. She gasped with pleasure, and he immediately withdrew the canteen, thinking she was choking.
"Let that much settle on your stomach, ma'am. There is more when you are ready."
Slowly, reality reentered her vague world, and along with it, the shock of memory. How long had it been since Pardy Jomax had abandoned her? Two days? Three?
She glanced around. She was in the ruins of a long abandoned adobe house. At least she assumed it was a house. She vaguely remembered stumbling into it during the night, and that was all. She dimly remembered the thought that if there was a house, water could not be far off. Then she succumbed to exhaustion.
She had met Pardy in Saint Louis after cholera took her family on their trek west. He was handsome, and well dressed, with flowing black moustaches, and ebony eyes. She was alone in a strange city, frightened out of her wits, and vulnerable. Pardy Jomax read the signs immediately, and her fate was sealed.
Within a month, they were headed west with a large group of other travelers, in her family's covered wagon, and with Pardy at the reins. He was to marry her when they reached California, but she let the others think that they were already man and wife. She had no choice, because Pardy said there was no time to marry. She refused his many advances in the night hours, but she still felt cheap and used.
They were taking the southern route, through the deserts of the territories, and they abruptly left the train at a faint, little-used trail south of Tucson, where Pardy spoke of a brother he wanted to see near the mission of San Xavier del Bac. After another fifteen miles, he halted the team and turned to a now thoroughly frightened Abigail Thurston with a smile. "Well, Abby, I guess this is where we part. When we met, I had nothing and you had this wagon, team, and all those gold Eagles in that false bottom." He grinned at the shocked look on her face. "Yes, Abby, I found them just a week ago, although I suspected they were there all along. Now you have nothing, and I have it all! If there's any question, I'll just say the Apaches took you."
At first, she was too stunned to realize what he had in mind, but once she was on the ground and he was driving off, she understood. She had been left to die, with no water, no food, and no horse. She had but a vague idea where Tucson was, but she knew it was at least fifty miles north. She picked out the faint blue peaks of distant mountains and set off, frightened and alone.
By that night, she figured she had made some fifteen miles, despite the stinging cholla and sharp rocks. She spent the night huddled under a mesquite, only a little hungry, but with a raging, painful thirst. She slept little, kept awake by the sounds of the night, so she was up and on her way well before dawn. By the time she stumbled on the adobe ruins, she was almost delirious and in a bad way from thirst and exhaustion.
His name was Rand Killian, and he was a part time prospector, cowhand, and gambler. He had come across her tracks yesterday, and followed, wondering why a woman would be out on the SonoranDesert all alone. He found where she had slept the first night, and realized by the lack of any sign other than that made by her small body, that she had no gear at all, not even a canteen. He quickened his pace, and his horse responded, sensing the need for urgency from his rider. Following on a line was his string of pack horses and a spare saddle horse.
By late morning, the water was beginning to take effect, and she was feeling much better, so he made a meal of jerky soup and leftover biscuits. She thought it was the best nooning she had ever experienced.
As she ate, she told Rand what had happened, and when she mentioned Pardy's name, she thought she saw his eyes narrow slightly. As she talked, she noticed that while he was obviously listening, his eyes were ever busy, constantly looking all around. Finally she asked him if he was expecting someone. His eyes crinkled again and his lips parted in a smile.
"If a man expects trouble at any minute, ma'am, he'll probably survive. It's the overly confident man who doesn't last long, and I've been out here some twenty years now. It pays to be just a little scared."
She doubted that last part. He looked perfectly comfortable with himself, despite having her as a new burden. He seemed to read her mind.
"Don't you fret none about being a nuisance, ma'am. You ain't no bother at all, and a homely man like me don't often have the pleasure of having a woman to talk to, especially such a fine looking lady as yourself. When you're able, we'll put you on one of my horses and head for Pete Kitchen's ranch."
"My name is Abigail Thurston, Mister Killian, and I'd be pleased if you would address me as Abby."
"Yes ma'am...I mean Abby, and I answer best to Rand. I ain't been called Mister Killian since I was in court for fighting."
That night, they ate spicy Mexican beans and beefsteaks on the back patio at Pete Kitchen's place. As they were eating, Pete carried a plate to the table and joined them. He nodded as the story unfolded, and he chewed thoughtfully. Finally, he spoke.
"He was here two days ago. He brought that team in fairly worn to a frazzle, and wanted me to swap horses, but I wasn't willing. I don't hold with abusing critters, and that team was too worn to gone on, so I bought the whole lot from him, save his saddle horse. He seemed pleased with that bargain, so he rode on out."
He pointed to a distant barn. "Your outfit is over there ma'am, although I reckon your gold is for sure gone." He looked at Rand Killian. "You go on and take her on to Tucson with her outfit in the morning, since it's rightfully hers. I'll deal with Pardy Jomax my ownself. I don't cotton to a man who would sell me stolen goods, all the while swearing it belonged to him."
The Mexican cook came in with a plate full of hot sopapillas, fresh churned butter, and honey. She also had a fresh pot of coffee. At Abby's questioning look, Pete Kitchen laughed. "It's a Mexican fried pastry. Just put some butter and honey on it. You'll like it."
He glanced at Rand. "I'll have some men ride with you, come morning. The Apaches have been quiet mostly, but there are a few young bucks about looking to make something of themselves, so we ride guns ready to hand. You drive her wagon for her, and the boys will bring your string along."
Abby lifted the cook stove door and put more wood on the fire. One large iron skillet held over a pound of bacon, and another was frying half a dozen eggs. She wiped her damp brow and glanced through the pass through window at the breakfast crowd. The morning rush was almost over, and Doc's Cafe was starting to clear.
She had been in Tucson for two months, but Pardy Jomax was nowhere to be found. The sheriff told her that he had indeed been in town, but had quickly disappeared after buying the necessaries. No one had seen him since. Rand Killian had found her a room at Ruth Anne's boarding house, and she landed the job at Doc's by baking up a batch of her mother's blue-ribbon biscuits.
Rand was around town, and he was friendly enough, but he seemed to avoid the sort of closeness Abby now secretly wanted. It was as if he had something on his mind, and something very important. He seemed to be on some sort of quest.
She wondered if the fondness she felt for him was genuine or perhaps just her romantic female response to the man who saved her from death out on the desert. She sometimes smiled at herself and her girlish ways, but she was also mature enough to question her own motives. Still, she could not deny the quickening of her pulse whenever he came in for a meal.
Doc Sorenson stood in the kitchen door.
"Can you serve the Bickfords, Abby? I need to talk to old man Jihnson down at the livery."
Abby smiled and nodded. Doc watched over her like she was his own daughter, and she in turn, adored the kind old man. She plated up the bacon and eggs and went to the dining room.
Dooby Bickford smiled and held up an empty cup, so Abby went behind the counter to fetch the coffee, idly glancing out the window as she poured. She put the pot back on the stove, pulled Doc's Greener shotgun from beneath the counter, and handed an astonished Dooby his coffee as she swept past and out the front door, still carrying the shotgun..
Abby strode down the boardwalk and into the dusty street, not bothering to lift her skirt out of the dirt. She walked up behind a tall man who had his back to her and lifted the shotgun.
"I want my gold back, Pardy."
Pardy Jomax spun around, his jaw dropping at the sight of a very much alive Abigail Thurston. He glanced nervously up and down the street as curious onlookers turned to watch. He gathered himself and smiled at Abby, tipping his hat.
"You have the advantage on me Miss. I don't believe we've met.'
Someone chuckled, and Pardy felt more at ease. Then he saw a man as tall as himself rapidly striding through the dust. He stepped up beside Abby and pushed the shotgun barrels down. At that, Pardy smiled.
"Thank you, Mister. This young woman seems to have mistaken me for someone else, and I don't like having a shotgun pointed at me before breakfast.
Someone laughed out loud, and Pardy Jomax grinned in their direction, now completely at ease.
Rand Killian looked down at Abby, and gently turned her back to the boardwalk. "This is my party now Abby, so you just step back out of the way." He turned back to a puzzled looking Pardy Jomax.
"I caught up with Ace Farley in Prescott. He was far too slow. Then I found the Larson brothers in Show Low, and hung them with their own ropes. Now there's just you left to pay, Pardy."
Pardy Lomax took a step back and paled. He now knew who was standing in front of him, and that he was staring death in the face. Rand Killian was a known gunman and a killer.
Rand raised his voice and spoke to the crowd. "This here is Pardy Lomax, and he, along with three other cowards, now deceased, killed my baby sister for five dollars in silver." His voice was bitter. "She died for five dollars."
The murmuring of the bystanders grew angry. They had all heard of the killing, and that her brother had tracked down three of her killers. Now the fourth was standing in the street, and so was Rand Killian.
"He's also the man who left Miss Abby Thurston out in the desert, on foot and with no water."
They all knew that story too, so the mood of the bystanders grew uglier, and there was talk of a rope. Pardy Lomax was now sweating freely and looking around in desperation when a new voice spoke up.
"A man stands by his partner, and I partner with Pardy Jomax, so you all had best stand down."
The speaker was behind Rand, and Pardy looked relived.
"Looks like we got you in a bad spot, Killian! You'd best reconsider before you get yourself killed. That there is Joe Boswell, and he ain't foolin' about."
Joe Boswell had a reputation as a killer, although some said it was usually in the back. But they had him boxed for sure.
Behind him, Rand heard the double click of the hammers being drawn back on a shotgun and Boswell's startled voice. "Now you just hold on! You ain't got no call to...!" The shotgun roared, and then roared again. Then there was a startled silence.
"Pardy just lost himself another partner, Rand. Now it's just you and him." It was Abby's voice, a little shaken, but firm and determined. "And I want my gold back, Pardy. That was the life savings of my father and mother."
Pardy Jomax reached carefully into his pocket and withdrew a heavy leather pouch. "Here's this and the rest is in my saddlebags, save one ten dollar piece I used for food." He held it out as if to hand it to Rand, but when Rand reached for it, he dropped it in the dust of the street and grabbed his revolver. He was just bringing it up when Rand's first bullet slammed into his throat. The second hit him in the chest, and he died in the dust, realizing that he had not fired a single shot.
Abby took off her apron and turned the damper on the cook stove to minimum. Rand was finishing his breakfast, so she grabbed the coffee pot, warmed up his cup and sat down with her own cup.
"What are your plans today, Rand?"
"I'm going out to the Parson Ranch. I figure on making him an offer, and he may accept it because he wants to spend his old age days back in Illinois."
Abby nodded. "I'll save you the ride. He sold it this morning, right at this table."
Abby saw a shadow of disappointment cross his face, but it quickly disappeared, and he grinned ruefully. "Guess that's what I get for putting it off." He looked at Abby. "I aim to get me a place, and I'm doing it for a reason." He chewed his lip for a moment, as if he was making up his mind. He glanced at her again. "I've been aiming to ask you to marry me Abby, but first, I'll need a place of my own. I can't ask you to live in a boarding house."
Abby nodded again. "You already have a place, Rand. I'm the one who bought the ranch."
He blinked. "Well, what on Earth...?"
She smiled. "I figured that was what was holding you up, and I'm tired of waiting, so I bought it, lock, stock, and barrel. So do you want me as a partner or not? And I mean a partner for life."
He stared at her. "You surely do beat all."
Someone snickered at the next table, and Rand's neck grew hot and red. A grinning cowboy walked up to their table and looked at Rand. "If you don't say yes, you damn fool, I may take her up on that offer my ownself." He winked down at Abby, who grinned back.
Rand and Abby Killian stood on the brow of a hill and looked down on their ranch. The house was small and plain, but Abby had womanly plans for it. Rand had put in a chicken house, and purchased a small herd of milk cows, so they would have a steady supply of milk and eggs to use and to sell. The valley stretched off to the south, and was dotted here and there with K Bar K cattle.
Abby leaned against him. "I thought I would die out there in the desert, Rand, and now I'm here on the ranch I love with the husband I love. Who would have thought something that began so badly could end up so well?'
Rand shrugged and put his arm around his wife. "The Lord has His ways, Abby, and I don't try to figure them out." He looked at the setting sun. "It's getting late sweetheart. Let's go on home."