A Place for the Winter
Again, two cowboys (these Old West). A sweet, gentle story.
It was coming up on winter, the time when most trail riders started looking for a place to put their feet under the table for the cold months. Their last drive was maybe two days out, and the nights had enough of a nip to them that they were sleeping closer and closer to the fire when they weren’t on watch.
Enoch was tired, way down deep in his bones. Maybe this was the year he ought not sign on with a big spread for the winter. Maybe this was the year he ought to take his little savings that he had sewn into the lining of his saddle bags and his bedroll and look for a little place of his own.
‘Course he wasn’t gonna do that without talking to Isaiah. Him and Isaiah had been riding together for nigh on five years, and Enoch surely wouldn’t know what to do without him. At first he looked up to the quiet, capable drover. Then they’d got to be friends, and Enoch had purely gotten to love him. Isaiah was the salt of the earth.
His earth, at least.
So, after they’d had their beans and biscuits and bacon and were saddling back up to go out for the night, Enoch nodded off to the far side of the herd, silently asking Isaiah to follow him.
Isaiah grabbed his tobacco pouch, wandering on behind, rolling one as he walked, sure-footed, pushing the longhorns aside without even looking.
Enoch waited until Isaiah had a smoke rolled and started, a thin stream of smoke rolling up into the sky before he spoke. He wasn’t all that good at the big speeches, so he just said what he was thinking.
“So, what do you think about winter?”
“Steers got them a heavy coat on already. Looks to be bitter, I reckon.”
He had to smile at that, ducking behind his hat to hide it, rubbing his knuckles over his nose. Man had a way of stating the obvious. “I was meaning what were you thinking on doing for it.”
“Oh, guess I’ll find me a spot somewheres. Like normal. You got a spot yet? ‘Cause I haven’t.”
“No. I thought about old man Hamer, as he usually takes on charity cases like me, but. Well.” Lord. His ears heated almost painfully. Only one way to keep on, and that was to keep on. “Been thinking about buying a plot from some greenhorn heading back east and setting up for myself.”
“You don’t say?” He got a long, quiet look, the red coal on the smoke bright. “Setting down roots, then.”
“Thinking on it, yeah.” He needed something to do with his hands so he grabbed his own tobacco and took a chaw, stuffing it in between his cheek and his gums. “Thought I’d see what you thought.”
“I reckon you’ve a good head on your shoulders, ought to make a run of it better than them greenhorns, right enough.”
He did his damndest to keep his heart from plummeting right into his boots, but it was a hard thing. Even harder to spit out the next batch of words, along with a stream of juice. “Was kinda hoping you’d come with me.”
“Come with you?” He got a tilt of the head, a curious look. “On a homestead?”
Enoch’s heart set up a beating so he was surprised the cattle didn’t stampede. Surely Isaiah could hear it. And surely their years of friendship had to mean something to the man. “Well, yeah. We’ve been riding together a long time. Figured I’ve got enough saved to give us both a decent enough place to hang our hats.”
Isaiah looked down, then looked up at him. “I’m not the settling down type, Enoch. Shit, I ain’t slept in the same spot twice in right near twenty year.”
“I know. Haven’t I been with you these last five? I’m gettin’ old. I want a place to settle my bones. And I’d… well, I’d miss you, you weren’t with me.”
There. That was the best way he could think to say it. Enoch hooked his thumbs in his belt to try to keep from twisting his hands.
“Yeah. Yeah, I guess I… I reckoned we’d ride along together further myself.”
“Well, then. How about it?” He just couldn’t meet Isaiah’s eyes. Just couldn’t. But he had to ask. “Come on with me.”
“I… I can’t. I got time left in the saddle and… I guess you’ll let me know where you end up somehow?” Isaiah turned away, shoulders hunched, smoke going sailing into the dirt. “I reckon I’ll be easy enough to find, so long as the Bar K keeps running cattle.”
Lord. He wanted to take it back now, just go on and find work and pretend he hadn’t said nothing, but he couldn’t. Oh, sure, he could save some face by laughing it off, but not one bit of him from bootheel to hat crease was feeling like laughing. “You could at least winter with me. I’d be glad to have you.”
Isaiah’s head drooped forward, the look sort of broken and bent. “I cain’t. I… I just can’t, Enoch. I gotta go on watch. Cooter’s waiting on me.”
Isaiah walked back through the cattle, just like that, silent and steady as he’d come.
Enoch watched until that long form disappeared into the gloom, then looked down to where his shaking hands were clenched against his thighs. Why’d he have to go all hopes and dreams now? Hell, the man was probably embarrassed by him, all cow eyed and begging.
Too bad Enoch wasn’t embarrassed at himself. He’d beg a hundred more times if it wasn’t for the bald finality of Isaiah’s refusal. It wasn’t there. Not with Isaiah. Not like it was for him.
And now he’d ruined whatever good time they had left. He didn’t have to talk to Isaiah again to know it. It would be there between them even if Enoch stayed on and tried to hitch his wagon to the same spread as Isaiah.
Enoch spat out his chaw and headed for camp. They weren’t long out of Abilene. Not so far that one drover would be missed. In the morning he’d ask the trail boss for his wages and head out, because he didn’t think he could stand for Isaiah to see the look on his face whenever Enoch looked at him.
A man had his pride.
* * *
Enoch was… somewhere in Texas. He couldn’t rightly remember where. All he knew was that for a quarter a week he could sleep in the barn next to his horse, and that the saloon served the foulest whiskey he ever did taste, but it was as good at getting him drunk as any.
So he stayed.
Because he was a damned fool, wasn’t he? He should by rights be finding himself a place to set up home. Instead he was chancing pneumonia or worse sleeping out in the damned cold and drinking the day and the night away.
Damn, he missed Isaiah. And whose fault was it he was missing him? His own, of course. Enoch figured he never had learnt to keep his big mouth shut, though lately folks had called him downright taciturn.
A good word, taciturn.
Enoch crawled out of the straw and brushed himself off, grimacing at his stiff clothes and bristly face. Not that it mattered. Give him an hour or more and he wouldn’t be noticing it. He patted Scout’s rump and headed right on out of the stall for the saloon, figuring it was time to start drinking again if he could even say words like taciturn.
Someone managed to block his way, tall as shit and covered in traildust. “You look like something the cats dragged in, Enoch.”
Enoch blinked. Blinked some more. Hell, maybe he’d been drinking already and was back in his bar, sleeping the sleep of the righteous, because he’d be damned if that didn’t sound like Isaiah.
“Isaiah?” His own voice sounded broken. Scratchy as a rusty gate.
“Yes, sir.” Isaiah tilted his head. “I been looking for you.”
“Why?” Enoch swayed on his feet, feeling all swimmy headed.
“I reckon we’ll jaw on that when you’ve had a bath, some food.” Isaiah’s hand circled his elbow. “Come to the boarding house? I got a room for the week.”
Well, he went, because he wasn’t sure what else to do. Isaiah looked good. So good it ached, right down in his belly where the whiskey usually burned everything away.
Isaiah got him dunked right in the tub, hot water right up to his neck, a jar of slick soap put in his hand. “I’m taking your clothes. There’s a girl who does the washing for a nickel.”
Enoch just sat there, looking at the soap and wondering what the Hell was going on. Then he figured he might as well use the damned bath since he wasn’t paying for it, and started scrubbing.
Isaiah wandered in and out. Once there was a razor and a chip of looking glass. Another time a sleeping shirt and a towel. All the while the tall rider was quiet, every so often one long hand would push through the dark hair, those eyes would linger on him.
By the time he was clean and shaved and dry, dressed in that long shirt, Enoch figured he was gonna go just as quietly crazy. It was like always with Isaiah. Silent and easy, and doing for him like the man wanted nothing else out of life. But the silence grated on his last nerve. Made it jangle. Not knowing what else to do, Enoch sat on the narrow bed and waited, hands folded, bare toes curling against the dusty floor.
Isaiah brought in a big bowl with stew, a chunk of bread, and put it down. “You better?”
His stomach growled, and Enoch nodded, taking in the lines around Isaiah’s eyes and mouth, the way those eyes looked at him. “Yeah. I reckon.”
“You’re a hard man to find.” The bowl was handed over.
The stew went down slow, his stomach not at all sure it wanted it. But things settled right enough, and Enoch ate all the way through before he asked what he really wanted to know. “Why were you looking?”
Isaiah’s eyes were fastened onto the floor like the Good Word was written there. “Because I didn’t do you right, Enoch. Because I… I reckon…”
Isaiah swallowed hard. “Was the stew good?”
“It was. I’ll have to tell the widow lady. This is the widow lady’s house?” At Isaiah’s nod Enoch went on, taking a deep breath. “You reckon what?”
“I reckon that when I said I couldn’t, it was more that… Well, a man gets used to getting the pointed end of the bull from life and sometimes… Well, sometimes it’s a damned sight better not reaching for the reins if you’re thinking the fall off the pony’s gonna break you.”
Damn. Oh, damn. Enoch stopped himself from reaching for Isaiah’s hand halfway, fingers brushing air. “You saying you maybe made a mistake?”
“I’m saying I’d rather risk the fall than lose the ride.” Isaiah’s eyes finally met his, tired as hell, but right there.
Oh. Hell. This time his fingers found Isaiah’s, curling around them. “You’re it for me. Always have been. You’d better be sure. Damn near broke me, leaving you.”
“Watching you ride away once was enough.” Those fingers twined with his. “I been looking since Kansas City. Buster needed a bit to replace me.”
Isaiah’s hand was warm, calloused and scarred. Like his. He knew every inch of that skin, but had never touched it before in his life. “I didn’t figure I could stay on and see you.” His voice broke, and Enoch just sat there, clutching Isaiah’s hand like it was a rope and he was in quicksand.
“Well, I’m thinking if I throw my rope in with yourn and start pulling, we could get us up a right fine place. Won’t be any bosses to worry on then.” So tentative, so gentle, soft as suede that voice.
A smile started up, feeling unfamiliar as new boots, stretching his cheeks wide. “Nope. Just us and the animals and maybe a little cabin. I still got my savings.”
He was vibrating, wanting to say a hundred stupid things, wanting to take Isaiah in his arms, but he sat grinning instead, happy in his bones.
“I reckon we’ll find our way, Enoch.” Those fingers squeezed his, thumb sliding over the top of his hand. “I’m thinking your Scout will be happy to ride out with my Miss Bess, find greener pastures.”
“And I reckon I’ll be happy to have a warm place to spend the winter months and someone to rest these old bones with.” He couldn’t help himself anymore. Enoch used Isaiah’s hand to pull the man close, leaning his head against that solid chest and closing his eyes. “Ain’t nothing I’d like better.”
Isaiah was stiff and still for a minute, long enough he got worried, then one of those hands stroked his head, his hair. “You rest now, I’m watching over you.”
Then the low sound of Strawberry Roan rumbled through the lean chest, the sound familiar and welcome as a church choir’s.
They could both rest for a bit, now they were back where they belonged. The rest? Would work itself out just fine. Long as he had Isaiah with him he wasn’t feeling so tired and aching and old. With Isaiah he figured he could catch his dream and hold it.
And that was good enough to winter on.