The Lone Stranger
Last Gulp. The crudely carved letters were written on a board that hung from rusty barbed wire over the road leading into town. The board was bleached nearly white, the letters already fading. The town was no more than a few years old, but the weather was fierce on the edge of the plains, and anything left outside soon grew battered and worn.
Which was exactly how Lone felt as she surveyed the sign and then the town spread out before her. There wasn't much more than a mercantile, a jailhouse, a bank, and a saloon, but it was more welcome than an oasis in the desert. Lone was tired and ached to sit down for an hour or so. Just a quiet hour with no dust blowing constantly into her mouth, no smell of horse invading her nostrils, and best of all: no trouble.
She glanced at her partner as he rode up beside her. Poncho shifted in his saddle, looking as ready as she was to be off his horse.
"Last Gulp." Poncho read the sign with a grin. "Think we can get a drink here, Lone?"
Lone lifted a sardonic ebony eyebrow, and kneed her white stallion, Fantasma. He nickered softly, smelling mares and clean water and headed rapidly toward Main Street. Poncho's horse, Manteca, followed at a more sedate pace.
"Do you think we'll run into any trouble, Lone?" Poncho cried out to his friend as they headed down Main Street.
Lone turned around and scowled at him. "If we do, I'm holding you responsible. You just had to bring up the 'T' word."
"Sorry." Poncho shrugged. "Forget I said anything. We'll just have a nice quiet drink, maybe some dinner, and then be on our way. No trou·I mean, no problems."
Lone grunted, hoping that Poncho hadn't already jinxed their quiet afternoon. She slowed Fantasma and glanced at the few townspeople who were making their way along the raised sidewalks on either side of Main Street. The creaking planks of the walkways broke the silence. None of the townspeople spoke to each other, though they occasionally nodded a wary greeting.
OK, Lone mused, I wanted quiet, but this is ridiculous.
She glanced at Poncho, who met her eye and shrugged. He noticed the silence too, but in his typical style, took it in stride. Taking things in stride wasn't as easy for Lone, and she kept her eyes on the town, glancing through doorways and watching for twitching curtains.
But everything seemed in place, and as they neared the saloon, the tinkling of an out-of-key piano could be heard. Lone's twitching nerves eased slightly at this ordinary sound. Fantasma seemed to agree as his pace increased slightly until he reached the hitching post and water trough outside the saloon.
Lone jumped off the white stallion and laid the reins loosely on the hitching post. Poncho also dismounted and tied Manteca more securely to the post.
Lone nudged Poncho and pointed to the sign outside the saloon.
"Last Gulp Saloon," Poncho read out loud. "Real stretch of the imagination to come up with that name, huh?"
Lone grinned at her friend's sarcasm, then caught the eye of a man exiting the saloon. He had obviously heard the quip and frowned at the two, his eyes sparking with anger. He seemed about to say something, but Lone flashed her own blue eyes right back at him, adding a tiny movement of her hand near her gun holster, and the man wisely retreated.
"Poncho?" Lone asked as she watched the man disappear around the corner.
"Did I remember to tell you that if we run into trouble, it's your fault?"
Lone stepped into the saloon. The place was characteristically dark, illuminated only by a wagon wheel holding six lanterns, hanging from the center of the ceiling. Lone kept her hand on her pistol until her eyes adjusted to the gloom. It was a habit that usually scared the locals, but it had saved her life on several occasions. Once she could see clearly, and had met everyone's eyes until they turned back to their own business, she sauntered over to a table tucked into a corner.
"I'll order the drinks and a couple of steaks," Poncho said.
"Sounds good." Lone put a hand on Poncho's arm before he moved away. "And Poncho·"
"Stay out of trouble."
Poncho smiled and snorted as Lone took a seat with her back against the wall. She leaned her chair back on two legs, stretching her own long legs in front of her. The posture looked either relaxed or precarious; both gave the impression that she wasn't a threat. Which was of course exactly what she wanted. It usually put the people around her at ease, and left her to enjoy her drink and dinner.
This time, however, was different. As Poncho returned with two mugs of beer, Lone watched the eyes shifting around her and listened to the whispered conversations.
"The beer's good," Poncho reported, taking a sip that left a trace of foam on his jet-black moustache. "Steaks should be coming up soon."
"You notice anything strange here, Poncho?" Lone asked, taking a sip of her own beer, but keeping her eyes on the room.
Poncho wiped his moustache and glanced around, being careful not to obviously stare at anyone. "It's quiet. Except for the piano. Is there some reason they can never keep those things in tune?"
"Too many temperature changes and too much dust," Lone explained. "But forget about the piano." She leaned toward Poncho and said quietly, "Why all the whispering? The shifty eyes? These people look like they're scared."
"Probably because some loco, gun-toting, six-foot tall woman just walked into their saloon," Poncho whispered back.
"My novelty has already worn off," Lone replied. She could feel a tingling on the back of her neck, as if someone was blowing softly against the fine hairs. "These people are scared of something far more threatening than me."
"There isn't much that's more frightening than a loco woman with a six shooter," Poncho said. He shifted in his chair, starting to feel his own neck hairs prickling. "How 'bout we get the hell out of here?"
"Oh no." Lone's eyes gleamed and she grinned, showing off pearly white teeth. "Now I'm curious."
Poncho groaned and put his head in his hands.
"Relax," Lone said, slapping him on the shoulder. "We'll have a nice dinner, a few more beers, and then we'll go. May never find out what's up with these people."
Poncho hoped that would be the case, but he had to suffer through the wait for the steaks, and then the slow process of eating. The steaks were cooked to perfection, and came with unexpected fried potatoes. The food was delicious, and despite Poncho's desire to eat and run, it was absolutely impossible to hurry Lone. She savored every mouthful, actually moaning with pleasure a few times.
Finally, Lone took the last bite of potatoes, the last slug of beer, and belched loudly. Poncho was breathing a sigh of relief and reaching into his pocket for two bits when the swinging saloon doors creaked on their hinges and the piano player stopped with a sudden discordant jangle of notes. Poncho sighed with resignation as he watched a group of six men enter the saloon and all of the other patrons quickly exit. Trouble had finally arrived. But damn it, it wasn't his fault.
"Those guys smell worse than your feet at the end of the day," Lone whispered loudly. Poncho frowned and looked at the bad smelling ruffians who were taking seats around two tables in the center of the room, hoping they hadn't heard. The men clustered around the biggest and dirtiest of all, who was obviously their leader. Luckily, no one had taken notice of the pair sitting in the dark corner.
"Virgil, bring us your best bottle of whiskey and six glasses," Big Stink ordered.
"Sure, Jed, right away, Jed." The bartender grabbed a bottle from beneath the bar and collected six shot glasses in the folds of his apron. He hurried to the group of men and placed the bottle and glasses on the two tables.
Lone watched the bartender's hands tremble. It took a lot to make a grown man shake like that, especially in these parts where survival was a daily battle.
"This glass is dirty," Jed said conversationally, not even pretending to look at the offending item.
"Oh, I'm sorry about that," Virgil said, reaching for the glass. "I'll just-"
He was interrupted by a swift motion as Jed threw the glass savagely across the room. It struck the wall above the piano, shattering and spraying the area with tiny fragments. The young pianist flung his hands in front of his face and scrambled away from the shower of glass.
Lone quietly drew her gun from its holster and laid it in her lap, ready. If throwing glasses was the worst he could do, she'd let him get on with things. The gnawing in the pit of her stomach told her there was much worse to come. Unfortunately, her stomach was never wrong.
"Just bring me the merchandise," Jed said. "I've been in town long enough."
"Of course, Jed," Virgil replied quickly, actually bowing slightly as he moved away from the man. "I'll just go upstairs and-"
"Now!" roared Jed. When the bartender scampered up the stairs, losing his footing a few times in his haste, Jed laughed derisively. The men around him echoed his guffaws.
Poncho felt a trickle of sweat crawl between his shoulder blades. He wanted desperately to be out of the saloon and back on Manteca, heading out of town as fast as his horse would go. But he knew that getting out of the saloon meant moving past the men. That would definitely draw more attention toward him and Lone. Attention was a bad thing. It wasn't as if the men didn't see them. But so far, they were being ignored. Being ignored was a good thing. Good and bad. He smiled, marveling at the simplicity of the equation, and then watched Lone raise her beer mug to her lips. She held the mug with her left hand, which meant that her right was already wrapped around her gun. Yep, life was simple. And deadly.
"No, please, you can't make me do this."
Poncho saw Lone's eyes narrow in reaction to the desperate plea, but stay fixed on the men. He looked toward the stairs and watched as Virgil and a huge bull of a man dragged a young redhead down the steps. She was putting up quite a fight and managed to wrap her foot around the banister, but the large man yanked it free, then carried her over his shoulder the rest of the way down.
"Well, ain't she a beauty," Jed said.
The large man placed the redhead down, holding her arms behind her back. She stood defiantly, staring bravely back at Jed, who slowly approached. Jed walked around the girl, eyeing her as if she were a prize mare, presented for his approval.
"She'll do nicely, won't she boys?" Jed said, turning back to leer at his gang.
Poncho watched with disgust as the other men nodded excitedly, some of them visibly drooling.
"You can't make me go with them," the girl said to Virgil. She tried to speak steadily, but her voice betrayed her, quavering with fear.
Virgil turned away without a word, moving back behind the bar.
"Please," the girl cried out more forcefully. "This is crazy."
"Don't waste your breath on him, Little Lady," Jed said, running his hand down her cheek, then reaching down to squeeze her breast. "Nobody in this town cares about what happens to you."
The girl squirmed, trying to get away from Jed's roaming fingers, but the large man held her tight.
"You're wrong about that," Lone said. Her voice carried across the room, and everyone froze, turning toward the dark corner. "Someone in this town cares a great deal about what happens to her."
"Well, well, well, a Good Samaritan." Jed peered at the woman that he'd previously ignored. "Do yourself a favor, ma'am, and keep your big nose out of our business, or you might find it cut off."
Poncho picked up his cue, moving away from the table, pretending to take Jed's suggestion and leave the saloon. Lone remained where she was, her legs spread out before her, her hat tilted back on her head. The picture of relaxation. Jed decided that the black-haired woman had a big mouth and was probably crazy, but was certainly not a threat, so he returned to pawing the girl. He chuckled as she whimpered.
It was the last sound he made, if you didn't count the gurgling of blood as it bubbled up from his chest and out his mouth. Of course, it would have been hard to hear that over the echoing boom of Lone's six-shooter.
And then there was pandemonium as some of the men ran and others reached for their weapons, looking for a target that was already gone. The redhead was covered in a fine spray of blood, and screamed as the drops rolled down her cheeks and across her chest. The man holding her let go and ran outside, shouting the news of Jed's death. Poncho moved toward the girl, who stood still in shock. He grabbed her around the waist and dragged her toward the bar. She struggled until she saw the welcome safety of the space behind the heavy wooden bar, and ducked down where Poncho nudged her.
Lone had killed forty-one men in her life. She never lost count. Despite the fact that each and every one of them was an evil rat-bastard, she was never proud of killing them. And she never, ever killed a man if she could wound them or capture them for the law. So in spite of the fact that she could have killed all six of the ruffians in that saloon with each of the bullets in her gun - before even one of them had his own weapon out of its holster - she had a very different plan.
She stood swiftly from her hiding place beside the piano and aimed at the rope that held the wagon wheel chandelier. With one shot, the rope snapped, sending the wheel and its six lanterns into the middle of the group of remaining men. Burning oil exploded across the tables and men, setting two shirts on fire, and adding to the chaos that already ruled the room.
Lone moved swiftly across the saloon, ignored by the men who ran or fought the flames. She gathered Poncho and the girl and moved outside, throwing the girl onto Fantasma, and jumping up behind her in the saddle. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw that Poncho had untied Manteca and had quickly mounted the horse.
"Rapido!" she cried, then held on to the girl and the reins as Fantasma ran like the wind out of town.
They headed west, toward the setting sun, riding for several miles before climbing a bluff. Once atop the high vantage point, Lone whistled and Fantasma slowed and then stopped. He stomped his foot to let Lone know he was enjoying the race and wasn't happy about the interruption. Lone patted him, showing her understanding, then turned around in the saddle and looked down the valley.
"Damn," she said as Manteca and Poncho finally caught up.
Poncho followed her gaze and saw a group of riders making their way toward them up the trail that bisected the valley.
"I figured if we killed their leader, they'd be too disorganized to care," Poncho said.
The girl had been so quiet and still during the ride that Lone had nearly forgotten she was there, despite the fact that she had her arms wrapped around the girl's slim waist. As it was, the voice was little more than a whisper, but it grabbed Lone and Poncho's attention.
"What do you mean?" Lone asked. She felt the girl begin to tremble.
"Jed wasn't the leader. He worked for someone called The Mad Russian."
"Nice name," Poncho said. "Hey, Lone, can I change my name to The Mad Mexican?"
"What exactly was going on?" Lone asked, ignoring her friend's joke and the girls increasing shaking.
"I just arrived in town," the girl explained in a detached monotone. "But from what I learned, this Mad Russian showed up a couple of months back and set up in an abandoned U.S. Cavalry fort outside town. He sent his men in to rob the bank and the mercantile. They took whatever they wanted, day after day. Soon, they started riding off with the young women. This Mad Russian liked young, pretty girls around him so that·um·I mean, he would·uh·"
"We get the idea," Lone said.
"Anyway," the girl took a deep breath, then continued, "the townsfolk were helpless against him. He controlled everything going in and out of town - even cut the telegraph lines. The people were desperate. They didn't want to see their wives and daughters taken, but whenever someone tried to fight back, they were killed. So Jed, the bar owner, convinced The Mad Russian to let them advertise. They sent word with a rider heading east that the town needed barmaids and a school teacher."
"Let me guess," Lone eyed the girl's low-cut, frilly dress. "You weren't applying to be the new school marm."
Poncho snorted, but the girl looked stricken. Her eyes filled with tears before she turned her face down toward her chest, and hugged herself. Lone hated emotional women, and quickly dismounted, reaching her hand up toward the girl. The redhead took the offered hand and Lone pulled her down off the tall white stallion. Before she got her balance, Lone picked her up and placed her behind Poncho on Manteca.
"I'm going to go slow down our friends," Lone said, mounting Fantasma and turning him back the way they'd come. "You two keep riding west. I'll meet you at The Hole in the Wall."
Poncho nodded and clucked his tongue at Manteca, who headed off quickly. Poncho felt slim arms wrap around his waist, holding tight as the horse moved across the uneven ground at the top of the hill. After a few moments, the girl rested her head against his back, and he could feel her warm tears seeping through his shirt. He patted her hand awkwardly, not much better than Lone at dealing with upset young women. Surprisingly, the gesture seemed to help. The girl took a deep breath and her trembling slowed. Poncho sighed in relief and turned his attention to guiding Manteca to their destination.
"Hey. We're here." Poncho felt the girl's warm breath against his back and knew from her slow, deep breaths that she'd fallen asleep. "Don't fall off."
His words echoed in the box canyon as the girl stirred and lifted her head.
"Wow," she said in a sleepy croak. "Where are we?"
"Lone and I call it The Hole in the Wall. Looks like an ordinary box canyon, right? One way in, narrowing down to a dead end."
"Yeah," the girl said.
"Well, just wait." Manteca continued to move through the canyon as the walls narrowed. Finally, at the very end of the canyon, the horse arrived at what looked like a wall of rock. But this close up, the girl could see that one wall jutted out, hiding an entrance to a cave.
"If you look down here from the head of the canyon, it just looks like a dead end, so people pass it by." Poncho led Manteca into the cave entrance, which opened into a huge cavern.
"If you want to get cleaned up, there's a pool just behind that pile of rocks." Poncho dismounted and helped the girl down. He held tightly to her arm as her legs nearly buckled beneath her, but she stretched slowly and regained her balance.
"Thank you. My name's Ellie, by the way." The girl smiled shyly. Her green eyes sparkled, and Poncho realized for the first time just how beautiful she was. Even with blood smeared across her face and chest.
"Here, Ellie." Poncho reached into a saddlebag and pulled out a piece of soap, a clean cloth, and a change of clothes. "The water is warmed from an underground hot spring. The clothes will be big on you, but they'll do until your dress dries."
Ellie nodded, smiling again, and walked to the rocks, ducking down behind them. After a few seconds, her green satin dress was flung across the rocks. Poncho blushed and busied himself with preparing camp, trying not to think of the pretty girl bathing in the warm pool.
"Why do you call her 'Lone'?"
Poncho turned from the fire that he'd just coaxed alight to see Ellie standing before him. She'd made an attempt to make the borrowed clothes fit, rolling the shirt sleeves and pant legs up, but they still dwarfed her. She held onto the waistband of the trousers with her left hand.
"Here, let me get you something to hold up those pants." Poncho dug in his saddlebag and found a long piece of leather that had once been part of Manteca's tack.
"So?" Ellie pushed the leather through the belt hoops and then tied it tight around her waist. Poncho noticed how slim her waist was and figured if he tried he could put his hands around her middle and just about touch fingers. His mind began to wander as he imagined his hands around her waist, maybe dancing in a fancy dancehall.
"Huh? Oh, sorry." Poncho felt the burn of a blush creep across his face and turned away to poke at the fire. "Well, that's a long story."
"I like long stories," Ellie said, sitting beside the fire and holding her hands out to warm them.
"All right," Poncho said, taking a seat on the other side of the fire. "I suppose we might as well get comfortable while we wait for Lone." He settled himself into the soft dirt of the cave floor, and peered across the fire. Ellie's green eyes sparkled as she waited for the story.
"A few years back I was living in my village in Chihuahua," Poncho began. "I don't suppose you know where that is."
"In the northeast corner of Mexico." Ellie met Poncho's surprised expression. "I used to like to study maps," she explained with a smile.
Poncho saw a hint of melancholy in her smile, and hurried on with his tale. "Well, we used to get flash floods now and again in an arroyo near our village. One day, two children went into the arroyo, though they had been told not to. A wall of water rushed down from the mountains. An old woman saw them get swept away. Just the tops of their heads bobbing on the surface for a few seconds, and they were gone."
"That's terrible." Ellie looked as if she had seen the accident herself, shock and dismay written plainly across her face.
"Of course, their parents were devastated," Poncho continued. "The whole village went into immediate mourning. Life in the desert is hard, but it is never easy to lose the lives of children."
"No," Ellie agreed, nodding her head sincerely.
"But a few hours later, as the village was gathering together, the two children came walking over the hills hand in hand. They were fine - a few scratches, a bruise or two, but other than that, right as rain."
"We asked them that very question, and they said it was 'el extranjero solitario' - the lone stranger. We asked them what this person looked like, but they couldn't really remember, at least nothing concrete. As tall as a mountain, as strong as an ox, as beautiful as an angel."
"I'd say that about sums it up." Ellie smiled dreamily.
Poncho knew in that look that he'd lost a battle he'd hardly had time to consider, much less fight. But he wasn't surprised, so he simply smiled and continued his story.
"Anyway, we all figured the kids had gotten thrown from the flood by some lucky circumstance, and didn't think much more about 'The Lone Stranger'. But a week later, a mountain lion attacked my neighbor's goats, and the Lone Stranger came out of nowhere to kill the cat. With her bare hands."
"Her," Ellie said. "So you found out she was a woman."
"With hair the color of the darkest night and eyes like the sea," Poncho said with a nod. "My neighbor got a good look at her. Still claimed she was as tall as a mountain and as strong as an ox, of course."
"Of course." Ellie grinned, the bridge of her nose crinkling.
"Well, I have to admit, curiosity got the better of me, so I set out into the hills to find this Lone Stranger." Poncho smiled, remembering his quest. "It was tough to track her down, but being just about the best tracker in the West, I finally managed."
"Best tracker in the West?" Ellie and Poncho turned to see Lone entering the cave, Fantasma following behind. "You couldn't find the trail of an elephant, even if there was a sign that said: 'Big elephant walked this way.'"
"Well, I was going to make you some rabbit stew," Poncho said indignantly, standing up and putting his hands on his hips. "But I guess I'm not a good enough tracker to find a rabbit."
"The last rabbit you found was caught in a snare," Lone shot back. "It doesn't count as tracking when you trip over them."
Ellie watched the exchange between the friends, knowing by the twinkle in their eyes and the barely suppressed grins that it was all in fun.
"But I never did get an answer to my question," Ellie said, interrupting the argument. "Why do you call her 'Lone'?"
"Lone Stranger was too much of a mouthful," Poncho replied, poking at the fire.
"You mean she never told you her real name?" Ellie asked.
"No," Poncho said with a wide grin. "But if I can guess her name, I win her lucky gold nugget."
"And how long have you been trying to guess?" Ellie asked
"Coming up on three years now," Lone said, chuckling as she sat near the fire.
Ellie laughed, the sound ringing through the cave. Poncho grinned sheepishly.
"So," Poncho said, deciding it was time for a change of subject, "did you take care of our friends back there?"
"Yeah," Lone replied. "They won't be following us for awhile." She noticed Ellie grow quiet and pull her legs up, wrapping her arms around her knees.
"I think I'll go find those rabbits I promised," Poncho said. He stood out of Ellie's line of sight and made eye contact with Lone, nodding toward Ellie and raising his eyebrows. Lone shook her head and tried to stop Poncho, but he was gone faster than the rabbits he was after down their holes.
The snap and pop of the fire was the only sound in the cave as the two women sat silently.
"Did you kill them?" Ellie finally whispered.
"No," Lone replied. "Just slowed them down. They won't pick up our trail until sunup."
"Shouldn't we keep moving then?" Ellie asked. "We need to keep ahead of them."
"See that hole in the rock over there?" Lone pointed toward the back of the cave.
Ellie peered into the dark and could just make out a crevice in the rock.
"Tomorrow we go out that way," Lone continued when Ellie nodded. "It leads through the mountain. On the other side, there's a pile of rocks tied above the exit. Cut the rope and the way is blocked by rocks. The only way through after that is at least two day's ride away."
"Wow, that's brilliant." Ellie looked at Lone, her eyes glowing with admiration. But when her glance caught Lone's, she looked away shyly. "Thank you for saving me," she said softly, poking the fire with a stick and watching sparks fly toward the ceiling high above them.
"No need to thank me," Lone said gruffly. "Poncho and I have a knack for ending up in the middle of trouble. It's nice to be able to help somebody out of it for a change."
"Well, thank you anyway." Ellie finally got the courage up to look again at the woman sitting next to her. With hair the color of the darkest night and eyes like the sea.
"You're welcome." Lone met the green eyes. They reminded her of moss on rocks near a cold mountain stream. She pictured such a place, not too far from where they were at that moment, and felt a sudden desire to take Ellie there.
Quit it, Lone ordered herself, suppressing the attraction that drew her to the girl.
"Well, I'd best clean up before Poncho returns with dinner," Lone said, standing up and brushing off her pants.
"I noticed some wild onions just outside, and some other bits and pieces. I could get a stew started if you have a pot," Ellie offered.
"You can cook?"
Lone's stomach rumbled a loud rejoicing at Ellie's answering nod.
"Well, that was the best thing I've eaten for a long time," Poncho announced after taking the last bite of rabbit stew.
"At least since those steaks and potatoes we had for dinner," Lone agreed.
"I made those too," Ellie said. She laughed at her new friends' raised eyebrows. "They told me if I was a good enough cook, I wouldn't have to·um·you know."
"Entertain the men?" Poncho suggested.
"Yeah." Ellie nodded. She pulled her legs up and wrapped her arms around her knees, in a gesture that Poncho and Lone were now getting used to.
"Ellie," Poncho said gently, "why'd you go to Last Gulp? I wouldn't have picked barmaid as a good career choice for you."
"It's a long story," Ellie said, looking into the fire.
"I like long stories," Poncho replied, echoing the girl's words from early that evening.
"Well, I don't," Lone said. As much as she wanted to understand the girl, she could see the exhaustion written in the lines across Ellie's face. "Poncho, you're on first watch. Make sure some mountain lion doesn't decide that this is his house."
"Has that ever happened?" Ellie asked with wide eyes.
"Yep," Lone replied, laying out her bedroll.
"Only once," Poncho corrected. "Lone growled at him, and I think she scared the poor kitty cat out of eight of its lives that night."
"Just wake me up when you can't stay awake any more," Lone said. "And remember·"
"If there's trouble, it's all my fault," Poncho finished with a sigh.
Lone grunted her agreement. Manteca whickered, as if to agree as well.
"And you can shut up, my so-called friend," Poncho said to his horse.
"I know 'Fantasma' means 'Ghost'," Ellie said, helping Poncho tidy the camp for the night. "But what does 'Manteca' mean?"
Lone snorted and Ellie turned curious eyes on her.
"Lard," Poncho answered with a grin. "When I bought her, she had a bit of a weight problem."
"Still does," Lone said. "That horse will do anything for a handful of sugar." Manteca whickered and stomped her foot, and that earned a real laugh from Lone.
"I don't think she likes that much," Ellie said, joining in with a giggle.
Lone grunted, then closed her eyes and pulled her hat over her face, settling into her blanket and listening to Ellie's soft laughter as it tinkled like tiny silver bells.
"Well, that's it guys," Paige looked up from her journal into the expectant eyes of her audience.
"Mom!" Jack lifted his head from Paige's lap, his mouth wide.
"Paige!" Laura cried in dismay.
Paige chuckled at the identical looks of outrage on the faces of her lover and her ten-year-old son.
"OK, I admit I've written more, but I just can't decide how to end it." Paige flipped over the next few pages in her journal. "I've written two different endings."
"Mushy!" Laura said.
"No!" Jack argued. "I'm sick of mushy."
"They're in love," Laura pointed out. "They're soulmates. They're destined to be together."
"Barf!" Jack pretended to throw up in his mom's lap.
"So what do you think then?" Laura challenged, throwing a cushion at Jack.
"She's faking it," Jack said, throwing the cushion back. "She isn't really an innocent girl."
"OK, OK," Paige said, holding up her hands. "No pillow fights in the living room." She waited for a minute, keeping her eyes on the two "kids". After deciding that they were holding to a temporary truce, she continued. "I'll read you both endings, and you can decide which one you like better."
Jack and Laura considered for a moment, then settled down again, ready to hear the end of the story.
Lone awoke to a sound that she couldn't identify. It was a loud rumble, but from far away. Earthquake? Thunder? Her sleep-fogged mind tried to wrap itself around the meaning of the noise.
She sat up and looked around her. The fire had burned down to a soft glow. Poncho snored on the other side. Ellie was·gone. Another challenge for Lone's brain.
Gone. Extra blanket·gone. Bag of food·gone. Poncho's gun·gone. Lucky gold nugget·gone. Manteca·.gone.
Lots of stuff gone. Ellie gone.
"Poncho!" Lone's brain had completed the puzzle.
"Huh?" Poncho sat up and rubbed his eyes, reaching for a gun that wasn't there.
"God damn son of a lame mule!" Lone shouted.
"Lone?" Poncho continued to try to find his gun, then gave up and tried to find his boots. They hadn't been part of Lone's inventory, but they were missing as well.
"She fooled me. Damn green-eyed gal. Played me for a wet-behind-the-ears, just-walked-outta-the-cornfield, love-struck fool."
"Lone?" Poncho gave up looking for his gun and his boots, and watched his friend stalk around the cave. Lone's rants had turned to angry mumbling, punctuated with her right fist hitting her left palm. Poncho watched this for awhile before Lone's pacing took her past the horses. Or rather horse.
"Where's Manteca?" Poncho asked. He turned around and surveyed the cave, a befuddled look on his face.
"Where's Manteca?" Lone stopped pacing and stared at Poncho. "Where's Manteca?"
Poncho nodded, still trying to put together the pieces.
"'She'll do anything for a handful of sugar.' Does that sound familiar?"
"Uh·" Poncho tried to decide whether yes or no was the better answer.
"'If I guess Lone's name, I win her lucky gold nugget.' Remember that?"
"Uh·" Poncho was still debating his response.
"And I told her how to get out of here and block the exit." Lone decided that hitting her hand wasn't punishment enough and slapped herself on the forehead.
"You're saying Ellie is gone?" Poncho finally managed.
"Yes," Lone replied. She stopped her pacing and closed her eyes tightly, pinching the bridge of her nose.
"And she took my gun and my boots and your lucky gold piece·and Manteca?"
"Yes, yes, yes·and yes."
"But·" Poncho's mind balked at the picture he'd drawn.
"But?" Lone's eyes blazed, their fire pointed directly at Poncho, who withered a little under their power. "There is no 'but'. That little snake played us for fools, and now she's on the other side of that mountain with half of our stuff, and she's blocked the way out."
"She took Manteca?"
"Yes she took Manteca!" Lone roared. She considered shaking her friend until the facts penetrated his cotton wool brain. But as she walked toward him, her hands outstretched to wrap around his throat, a thought managed to penetrate her own thick skull.
"She took Manteca," Lone repeated.
"OK," Poncho cried, throwing up his hands in surrender. "I heard you the first time."
"Get up and help me gather the few things she actually left us," Lone ordered. She began to roll up her bedroll.
"It's two days' ride to the other side of the mountain," Poncho pointed out. "She'll be long gone by the time we get there."
"Poncho, she took Manteca."
"Yeah, I got that."
"The horse that will do anything for a handful of sugar," Lone reminded him.
"Right, got that as well." Poncho began to put out the fire. He looked for the left over rabbit stew, and wasn't surprised to find that missing, along with their only cooking pot.
"Manteca, the horse that will do anything for a handful of sugar except cross a body of water," Lone added.
"Not unless he's tied to Fantasma," Poncho agreed.
"So, Poncho," Lone said, saddling her horse. "What's on the other side of these mountains?"
Poncho considered for a moment, rubbing his chin. "Well, there's a valley, and a river, and that big rock that looks like my grandmother."
"Oh, this is too hard." Lone took a deep breath and turned to Poncho. "There's a valley, a river and a big rock that looks like your grandmother. Let's talk about the river, shall we? Ellie needs to cross the river to get to the valley and the big rock. Manteca will not cross the river without Fantasma. We have Fantasma. Ellie will be stuck. If she goes right or left to find a way to cross the river, she will get stuck. We will be able to catch up with her. Am I making this simple enough for you to follow?"
Poncho considered for a moment. "I just have one question."
"Yes?" Lone struggled to remain calm.
"What will you do when you find her?"
"Make her regret the day she ever crossed the Lone Stranger," Lone replied. She led Fantasma to the cave entrance. She couldn't see the rising sun, but it's light was just beginning to brighten the sky. "And Poncho?"
"Next time you bring up the 'T' word, I'll pull your moustache off hair by little black hair."
Poncho grunted and followed Lone down the box canyon. It was going to be a long couple of days. But he had to admit, he was actually looking forward to seeing that pretty little green-eyed gal again. And he had a sneaking suspicion that Lone did too.
"Cool!" Jack declared.
"But what happens next?" Laura asked peevishly. "Will there be a sequel?"
"Maybe," Paige replied. "But that's not the point. What did you think of this story?"
"I need to hear the mushy ending before I decide," Laura said.
"Gross," Jack put his head under the cushion. "Wake me up when you're finished."
"Well, here goes." Lone cut the rope with her knife and jumped back as the rocks fell over the cave exit. "If those good-for-nothing bandits do manage to find the cave, they're not getting through the mountains this way."
Poncho and Ellie clapped as the last of the rocks rolled into a heap. Lone replaced her knife in her boot sheath and mounted Fantasma, settling in behind Ellie.
"We'd better get a move on if we're going to catch that stage," Lone said as she led the way down the trail.
Lone saw Ellie's head dip slightly. She knew the girl wasn't exactly excited about being put on the stagecoach. But Lone had a friend in Laramie who would help the girl out, get her a decent job and a place to live. It was about time Ellie got a break in life.
Lone wondered again what Ellie had been through. She knew that the past few days in Last Gulp had been bad, but there was something much worse in Ellie's past. At breakfast, Lone and Poncho had gently tried to get some information about her family or home, but each time they started getting close to anything personal, Ellie changed the subject or withdrew inside herself. The haunted look in the girl's eyes when that happened chilled Lone to the bone.
So even though the girl had started making vague hints about staying with Lone and Poncho, Lone knew their life was not what the girl needed. Whatever had happened to her, she now needed a stable environment - not riding into trouble every few days.
"I·um·wanted to thank you." Ellie put her hand on Lone's, giving it a gentle squeeze.
"You did that last night," Lone said. She wanted to say so much to the girl, but she was never very good with words.
Ellie had as much trouble coming up with something to say, so they continued on in silence until they reached the crossroads where they would flag down the stagecoach.
"Stage should be along soon," Lone said, dismounting first and then helping Ellie down. As she wrapped her hands around the girl's waist, she could feel Ellie's heart flutter.
"Unless it's late," Poncho offered. "The river was pretty swollen. Hope it didn't get stuck on the crossing."
Lone shot Poncho a threatening look.
"I'll·just·" Poncho stuttered. "I'll just go water Manteca over there."
Lone watched as Poncho rode over a small rise, then turned to Ellie.
"I don't want to go," the girl whispered desperately. "I want to stay with you."
"You can't," Lone replied. "And that's that."
Ellie saw fierce determination in Lone's blue eyes, and realized the woman wouldn't be changing her mind.
"I'll never forget you," Ellie promised.
"We'll see each other again. Poncho and I'll come visit you in the spring."
A distant rumble and creak interrupted them and they peered up the road, spotting the stage approaching.
"You know, I don't much care for the name 'Lone'," Ellie said shyly. "If I were to call you anything, it would be 'Friend'."
Lone smiled, a rare blush creeping across her face.
"Here." Lone reached beneath her leather vest into her shirt pocket and pulled something out. She handed it to Ellie.
"Your lucky gold nugget? But you promised that to Poncho if he guessed your name."
"Well, seems to me you came as close to guessing as Poncho ever would." Lone paused, debating with herself for just a second before leaning down and placing a kiss on Ellie's lips.
Ellie stood transfixed. Tingling warm fingers seemed to be touching her all over.
"We'll see you soon," Lone promised.
Ellie looked up and wiped at a sudden tear that fell from her eye. "Right," she said. She couldn't manage to say any more.
Lone flagged down the stagecoach, which slowed and then stopped. She handed two silver dollars to the driver.
"Take her all the way to Laramie," she said.
The driver nodded and Lone opened the door for her friend, holding her waist as the girl climbed up. Once Ellie was safely inside, she shut the door tightly.
"And Ellie," Lone cried out.
Ellie poked her head out the side window. "Yes?"
"Stay out of trouble."
"Well, what did you think?" Paige asked.
"Too mushy." Jack's voice was muffled under the cushion, but his sentiments were clear.
"Wonderful," Laura declared. "Definitely go with the second ending."
"You're crazy!" Jack pulled the cushion off. "The first ending was way better."
"Was not," Laura said.
Laura gave up on the verbal argument, deciding that tickling would work better. She scurried across the carpet and sunk her fingers into Jack's belly. Jack tried valiantly to fight back.
Paige got out of the way before the two combatants decided to turn on her. She closed her journal, deciding on the ending for her story and contemplating the sequel.
No matter what, Lone and Ellie and Poncho would certainly live happily ever after.
The End (Really)