(Another installation from the current work in progress – Isobel Becker is accompanying her new husband and a herd of cattle to establish a new ranch in the Palo Duro region of North Texas … when the herd is suddenly and deliberatly panicked by a cattle rustler, hoping to round up a goodly number of stray cattle in the aftermath. Isobel and the elderly Daddy Hurst, the trail cook are alone in the camp …)
Chapter 15 – Palo Duro
The main body of stampeding cattle ran straight for the the cookfire, the wagons, and the draft horses which pulled them now stamping uneasily at the ends of the picket ropes. Isobel cast another glance over her shoulder; tossing horns amid a cloud of dust, rolling inexorably towards. She caught a brief glimpse of a man at the edge of the herd, crouched low on the neck of his galloping horse, attempting to ride ahead of them, but in another second that sight was lost. The horses – the cattle would panic the draft horses, the picket ropes would never hold; already they had caught the contagion of panic, even as Daddy Hurst ran towards them. Isobel knew instantly what the old man intended – to calm the horses, lead them closer into camp, and into a fragile shelter behind the wagons, but another instinct told her it was not going to work; six horses would be too much for the old man’s strength. She would have to help him. She caught up a blanket from hers’ and Dolph’s bed-roll, with a mad hope of covering one of the horses’ heads with it – that’s what Mr. Arkwright had always said – Cover their eyes, Miss Isobel – if they can no’ see, then they must trust you. Now the onrush of cattle sounded like an endless roll of thunder – worse than thunder, as she could feel it, feel the ground under her feet trembling. She ran towards the horses, while Daddy Hurst struggled with the picket ropes; he had two, three of them freed from the picket-pins screwed deep into the ground … and then one of them reared, neighing so loudly that it sounded like a scream, jerking the rope out of the old man’s hand.
Isobel had never in her life before heard a horse make a noise like that – and in the midst of that horror, Daddy Hurst fell. Isobel did not see clearly what caused him to fall; she was certain that he was not kicked by the struggling horses. He simply fell, the picket ropes falling from his slack hands, and the terrified horses dashing away.
No time, no time – the cattle were nearly upon them. Isobel shook out the blanket, remembering how the hands had talked of other such stampedes, how they would wave their jackets in the face of panic-stricken cattle. She ran a short way towards them from the wagons, hardly aware that she was screaming, shaking the folds of the blanket as if she were shaking dust from its folds. Her heart pounded in her chest, but was it her heart or the earth pulsating underneath her feet? She must make them avoid running through the camp, running over where Daddy Hurst lay helpless. Now the dogs were howling behind her, and she shook the blanket again, hardly thinking of her own peril. The cattle would wash over the camp, a wave of them, as unrelenting as an ocean tide sweeping all before it… but in a flick of an instant, the tide broke and parted. They thundered past, some to one side of Isobel and the wagons, some to the other. She was enveloped in a choking cloud of dust, and sank to her knees. From the buzzing in her ears she thought she might faint from the sheer terror of it. But she did not. Slowly, she stood up, on legs that trembled violently. The main body of running cattle was beyond the wagons now. It seemed as if they had gone in all directions, gone as suddenly from her sight as they had appeared from the canyon. The three horses which Daddy Hurst had tried to lead to safety were gone; Isobel could hardly begin to see where. The other three remained, nervous and stamping uneasily at the end of their picket lines. One of them had managed to loosen the picket-pin halfway from the ground. Isobel dropped the blanket from her nerveless hands and stumbled towards that horse on unsteady legs. She managed to catch the rope, just as the horse jerked away. The coarse grass rope ripped at the flesh of her hands and the picket pin slipped all the way out of the ground. The pin flew up, the sharpened end slashing the side of her face, and Isobel gasped from the sudden pain in her palms and cheek. She held on, gasping out soothing endearments to the frightened horse. The rope slackened, as the horse calmed, and stopped pulling away from her hands, which now were slick with blood. She could never drive the picket pin in solidly enough to hold fast. She led the horse to the cook-wagon and tied the picket rope securely to one of the straps that secured the water-barrel. Now to see to Daddy Hurst.
He lay very still, just as he had fallen, his eyes half-open to the sky overhead. There was no injury to him that Isobel could see, no disarrangement of his clothing that would hint at an injury to the flesh underneath. She took up his hand, which was unnaturally limp in hers. She could find no pulse in his wrist; no steady beat of a living heart in his chest. Isobel sank back on her heels, stunned with the feeling of being suddenly and completely alone. The hands, her husband, and all the wranglers – they were chasing the cattle. They would eventually return … but how long until then?
She was not entirely sure how long she knelt there, with Daddy Hurst’s hand in hers, but eventually she was aware of Sorsha and Gawain, crouching on either side of her. Gawain nosed at her other hand, and whined piteously. That recalled her to herself; no, she was not entirely alone. There were the dogs, of course. She laid Daddy Hurst’s hands on his chest, and straightened his limbs, thinking that she had been right to worry about him. Where were his family; would they know that he would likely be buried in a lonely grave?
The dust settled quietly, and Isobel recovered something of rational thought. It had all happened in the blink of an eye. The fire burned unharmed, although some of the iron pots around it were upset and scattered. Daddy Hurst had just set a covered iron kettle of sourdough rolls on the fire – the kettle stood where he had put it down, although the passage of a cow had tipped it sideways and farther into the coals than it should have been. The long cooking fork he had dropped at the moment of going to rescue the horses lay on the ground. Isobel rescued the fork and the kettle, wrapping a fold of her skirt around her bleeding hand, and setting it on the edge of the fire. The pot of beans, though – that was upset and scattered beyond redemption. She would have to begin another pot … surely the hands would be hungry, when they returned? The little calf bawled piteously from her wagon – she let down the gate, and it jumped down readily, and looked around, obviously quite puzzled at the absence of its mother.
A quick shadow passed overhead, and Isobel started; a bird, gliding on dark, outstretched wings. It landed on the ground near to where Daddy Hursts’ body lay; the bird was a large one, almost the size of a goose, but with black feathers, an ugly naked head and a hooked beak. It hobbled purposefully towards the old man, and Isobel cried out in horror as it was joined by another. Vultures – that’s what they were! She had noted them, gathered by some dead thing, close by the trail, and scavenging whenever Daddy Hurst had butchered some game for the evening meal and thrown away the scraps and innards. She bent and grasped his body by the shoulders of his shirt and waistcoat, while the dogs darted towards the scavenger-birds. Isobel dragged him a short way, closer to the shelter of her wagon. His body was pitifully light; she moved it quite easily. Then she covered him tenderly with a clean blanket, while the birds flew away, flapping their wings heavily. They went but a short distance, apparently content to wait until Isobel’s attention was distracted.
Those horrible birds – they would certainly return. Isobel considered what she could do; digging a grave herself was out of the question. Covering the body and standing guard would be the best for now, as dusk was falling. Perhaps the men would return soon. So she should build up the fire, with wood that Daddy Hurst had gathered. The men would be hungry, and they would be looking for the fire, after dark. She lit the lantern that usually hung from the back of the cook-wagon – something else that the men would see, and busied herself with assembling another pot of beans, feeling all the while that Daddy Hurst was lingering at her elbow, directing her efforts, instead of a quiet still shape some twenty feet distant.
She was not in the least bit hungry, but her hands hurt, and she was thirsty. Recalling what Anna Vining had said of the medicinal properties of sage tea, she set a pan of water to boil, and made a decoction of the leaves to wash the wounds on her hands and face, and to drink with a little sugar in it. She pulled the cotton-stuffed mattress closer to the fire, where she could sit and guard both the meager evening meal and the still, blanket-swathed body of Daddy Hurst. She sat on it, with a tin cup of herb tea warming her abused hands, and the dogs pressing close against her for some mutual comfort, and waited … waited for what? She was not quite sure. What would happen in the morning? She was not quite sure of that, either. What if no one came? What would she do then? Well, if it came to that, she could hitch two of the remaining horses to her wagon and return south by the way they had come. Cuz Peter Vining was two or three days journey behind, with a second herd of RB cattle. It might be better to wait here, though. That was what she could do, Isobel concluded. Wait for Peter Vining … but what if someone lay in wait to stampede that herd, as they had the first? She had definitely seen that black, kite-shaped thing, through the spyglass. Yes, of course – now it came clear. That was a place where someone deliberately set out to stampede any herd of cattle passing by. The way that a man departed on a fast horse when Dolph shot into the thicket argued a guilty conscience. Isobel was resolved at once: If her husband and the other hands did not appear within the next two days, she would hitch two horses to the wagon, and set off south to warn Peter Vining of the hazard presented.
She felt somewhat more tranquil, having arrived at a course of action, and poured another cup of sage tea; nothing now to do but wait. The sun set, a dark red orb in a smear of red sky, wreathed with cloud-shreds that briefly flamed in tints of purple and gold. Isobel roused from an exhausted stupor to add more wood to the fire, and to take the oven of bread from it. The lantern burned brightly at first, but then it faded against the moon – a full moon which burned with a cold silver light. Isobel dozed, comforted by the presence of the dogs, and the weight of the revolver at her waist. Once, she woke from a dream of calling on the Home Farm, and passing the cows in the field; the gentle tinkling of a bell from her dream merged with the present world. In the dark, a large creature came to the campfire, and a gusty breath stirred her hair. At her side, Sorsha growled, and she opened her eyes to see Old Blue looking down at her, interrogatively.
“Sorry, old thing – nothing tonight,” she said, and Old Blue clomped heavily away, although she thought he remained close at hand, for she heard the bell tinkling as he grazed for a little.
She slept and dreamed again, but such was the nature of the dream that she was not sure if she were waking or dreaming, when she opened her eyes again. The stars in the east had begun to fade; so had the moon, and in the queer directionless light of early dawn, there was a strange creature romping just beyond the cook-fire, which had died down to a bed of pulsing red coals. The creature appeared something like a dog, smaller than Sorsha and Gawain, lean and with shaggy fur and ears that pricked upwards – not a wolf or a coyote. The edges of its ears, tip of the tail and the long hairs of its coat shimmered with the look of the moon reflected in rippling water. Isobel watched, curiously intrigued. Sorsha and Gawain slept at her side, undisturbed, as the dog-wolf creature pounced and pirouetted; it seemed to be chasing something small, catching and then letting it go, all for it’s own pleasure and amusement. Isobel watched it incuriously, feeling no particular threat from the creature. After some minutes of play, the creature it sat down on its haunches, across the fire from her. It scratched the back of one ear with a hind-foot, and regarded Isobel with curiosity.
“This is a strange place for you, isn’t it?” the creature observed, and Isobel was so caught in this waking dream that she didn’t think it the least odd that a dog-wolf thing should be talking to her in a voice that sounded as chiding as Lady Caroline’s. Curiously, the creature’s mouth didn’t move, when it spoke … what it said was communicated directly to Isobel’s mind. It was another aspect of the dream that this did not seem odd in the least.
“It is,” Isobel agreed.
“Is there a reason for you coming here, if I might ask?”
“You may,” Isobel answered. “The cattle were panicked and all ran away. My husband and the men followed after … to catch them, if they can. I am waiting for them to return.”
“I didn’t mean that,” the creature regarded Isobel, and its voice was tinged with impatience. “I meant you. Why are you here? Where are you going – and what did you come here to find?’
“I don’t know.” Isobel said. The creature’s eyes fixed on hers – they were curiously human eyes, but they glowed with an odd, golden light.
“That’s a lie,” the dog-wolf said, as if it were self-evident. “You do know. Just as you do not know your husband, whom you married without love.”
“I wanted to escape.” Isobel thought about it for a moment. “I was in a trap, and he was the only way out. I thought I might come to love him. And I have…” Her voice trailed off, uncertainly. “I had hoped that he might come to love me, but of that I am unsure.”
“Ah … so you looked at him, and thought he was the perfect gentle knight in splendid armor. But if not him, than any other would do. Was that it?”
“Yes,” Isobel admitted, struck anew with the old sense of shame and worthlessness. “But … then I have always wondered why he would consent to marry me.” There it was; the worm at the core of the apple, the doubt that ate away at her, even as she danced in his arms, lay with him in bed at night, or when he teased her at the dressing-table. Why her, indeed?
“You are not without gifts or appeal,” The dog-wolf observed, in such dry and clinical tones that Isobel derived little satisfaction from that mild degree of approval.
“I am clumsy and fat and tactless,” Isobel answered, in bitter recrimination. “My mother has always said so. I never can think of the right thing to say or to wear … and I hate Society, and everything to do with it. I hate the ladies I must be polite to, and their spiteful daughters who are presumed to be my equals and confidants … all I ever wanted was to be left alone by them … to have a respectable husband and a dear little house of my own to look after … and children, too. Those awful people – it was because of them I was made to marry a perfect stranger in order that I might gain that and to get away…” tears wobbled on the edge of her eyelids, and she concluded, “And now I am all alone in this horrid wilderness of a country, keeping the vultures from eating the corpse of a dead man.”
“Your greatest failing you have left unmentioned,” answered the wolf-dog. “And that is that you have allowed others to tell you what you are … and have taken such counsel too much to heart. You have allowed others such power over you as you ought not to have permitted. You should be stronger than that.”
“I am not,” Isobel felt the tears now spilling out of her eyes and trailing down her cheeks. “I don’t know how I can be.”
“Ridiculous girl!” the dog-wolf snorted, suddenly sounding very human in mild exasperation. It stood, and walked around the fire, to stand before her not an arm’s reach away from Isobel, regarding her with those unfathomably knowing eyes. The dog-wolf’s pale fur shimmered with an unearthly luminescence. “No one made you do anything. You can be who you wish to be here, and now. You married freely – unless oaths mean nothing. He asked you and you said yes.”
“I still don’t know why.” Isobel sniffed and wiped her face with the back of her dirty hand. At her side, Gawain shifted and settled into a comfortable position, still pressed close against her.
“Because – although you have no belief at all in yourself, you still have courage,” The dog-wolf explained patiently. Now she sounded uncomfortably like Anna Vining. “Which counts for much; that and decency towards those small things that have no other defender. That also counts in the eyes of your husband, as he is a knight-errant to his soul – he lives for rescuing the weak and helpless. People, too. It could very well be that soon he will see you as a fit mate. Besides, your children will bind you together, tighter than you can even begin to imagine.”
“Children?” Isobel gulped. “Do you know for a certainty that we will have children?”
“You already have them,” the dog-wolf replied cryptically, as it lifted its pointed nose and sniffed the air. “Dawn comes,” it added, as it turned and trotted away. Isobel called after it – or thought she did, so very real was this dream – “Wait! Children? How many children?”
“Two for now,” answered the dog-wolf over her shoulder, and Isobel seemed to see – what was that? A pair of cubs, with the same pale luminescent fur, who rose out of the short grass, hardly an arm’s-reach away from where she sat with Sorsha and Gawain. The cubs seemed to look at her, although one appeared to be timid, and looked away almost at once. The other held Isobel’s gaze for a long bold moment – blue eyes it had, the same sky-blue eyes as her husband, as Lottie also – and Isobel held her breath, as they trotted briskly away after their mother.
All this – and Sorsha and Gawain had hardly been disturbed from their sleep. Isobel blinked; her face suddenly felt itchy, from the tracks of tears dried on her cheeks, and the sky was now well-alight with the fire of the sun, which was just showing a thread of itself on the eastern horizon. Was she still dreaming, or had she been awake, during that strange interlude? Isobel stretched her cramped limbs and looked around; the remaining horses and Old Blue, with the bell around his neck occasionally chiming as he moved, were grazing peacefully a short distance away. A scattering of cattle bearing the RB brands had joined him, and the forlorn calf was greedily nuzzling at its mother’s udder. So some of the cattle had returned, at least; Isobel was reassured by that sight. The fire had burned down to a heap of ash. She uncurled her legs – so stiff that it was acutely painful to straighten then – and tried to stand. There was a man on horseback in the distance, casting a long and moving shadow. Isobel staggered to her wagon, climbing up into the seat, to where she could retrieve the spy-glass.
No, not her husband – but Wash Charpentier; even at a distance she could not mistake his hat, with the brim turned up and the mop of curly hair falling on his shoulders. The sense of relief left her breathless. She was not entirely alone – and perhaps Wash Charpentier could give her news of her husband, perhaps even that he and the other hands had found most of the scattered cattle.
“Miz Becker!” he called, when he was within earshot, with a grin of relief that almost split his countenance in two and which she did not need the spyglass to see. “Yo’ alive, an’ doin’ fairly, I see?”
“I am,” Isobel answered. Her voice – and herself trembled with relief. “What of my husband, the other men? Where are they – surely there was no one injured. I was … certain that someone would come … I had set some beans to cook last night and Hurst…” He throat closed. She must tell him of poor Hurst.
The dogs romped to meet him, as he swung easily down from the saddle.
“Mister Becker, he an’ young Seb an’ dat other English fella, they’re all in mighty fine fettle,” Wash exclaimed. “Dey is all fine, but dat Trotter kid, he’s likely scared out of a year’s growth. Mister Becker, he say for me to tell you, he’ll be returning wid dey cattle by noon – dat dey could find. He tol’ me to tell you an’ Daddy we would camp here some days, while de fellers look for more of our cattle … an’ take care o’ some business. Miz Becker, has Daddy fired up the coffee pot yet? I would kill fo’ some o’ dat coffee…” He cast a brief look around at the campsite, and the merriment fled his face the instant his gaze fell upon that long, blanket-covered form, even as Isobel answered,
“It happened very suddenly last night – just as the cattle overran us. He fell, as he was trying to calm the horses. I believe his heart failed. There was no injury on him, and his face … his face was quite calm. I do not think he felt any pain at all … he just fell.”
Wash had already doffed his hat – now he hunkered on his heels next to the blanket-covered form of Hurst, and turned back a corner, so that he could gaze upon the old man’s still face for a long moment. When he finally covered Hurst again with the blanket – tenderly tucking it in, as if he were putting a sleeping child to bed – he rose and turned towards Isobel.
“If that ain’t a discouragement, Miz Becker,” he remarked, and the expression of desolation on his face belied the casual tone of his voice. “Miz Hetty, at de ol’ Vining place, she will be that grieved. She called him an ol’ fool … but he was boun’ an’ determined. The RB outfit surely will miss him.”
“I am sorry also, for I shall miss him,” Isobel confessed. “I liked him very well … and he served the RB trail drives with such devotion and efficiency. And he was teaching me to cook!”
“That he did,” Wash Charpentier agreed, and then he looked searchingly at Isobel. “Miz Becker, when the boys return with the cattle … they’re gonna want grub, an’ want it soon, mos’ like they’ll be back tonight wid de cows dey find.”
“I can manage, well enough,” Isobel answered, and with an odd confidence that she didn’t quite know where it came from. Yes – she could cook for the hands – simple, plain food. Nothing like for a hundred guests and royalty too! “But … there is another matter, Mr. Charpentier – the cattle were deliberately frightened – I saw, through the spyglass. There was a black shape in the trees, that suddenly emerged and spread itself … and that was what started it all. I saw – I was watching.”
Wash Charpentier slowly nodded. “Dat’s what it looked like to me, too. Mister Becker – he had us all on guard – he thought dat fellow that ran away when he shot into dat thicket – he thought dat fellow was gone. Guess he sneaked hisself back … couple a hunnerd head o’ RB cattle, too much to let pass by. So – what you want me to do, Miz Becker?” He looked at her with an earnest expression, which reminded Isobel of what Anna Vining had said – that in the absence of her husband; the ordinary hands would look to her authority. Isobel took a deep breath.
“You must ride south – at once – and warn Mr. Vining about the danger of this particular passage. I do not think that this enterprise can risk a second herd of cattle being scattered, as was this first. You need not have a particular care for me – I am well-armed and guarded by the dogs, and in time my husband and the other hands will return here. But it is imperative that you warn Mr. Vining … and tell of him of what has happened.”
“I surely will indeed, Miz Becker,” Wash turned his hat in his hands, seeming reluctant to leave. “I don’t like leavin’ you here alone. It ain’t fittin … an’ I sure ain’t looking forward to give Mister Vining that news … ‘bout Daddy.”
“Was Hurst related to you?” Isobel asked, feeling at once guilty for not having offered her condolences. “I am terribly sorry – he was a comrade of many years to the other men, and to my husband…”
Wash Charpentier shook his head. “No, he warn’t no kin, but I knew him mos’ my life. He and my mama, they both b’longed to Old Marse Burnett, during slavery days; Daddy, he hired himself out to Ol’ Miz Vining, so I never saw him much – but I knew of him. All the colored folk in Austin knew Daddy, an’ all de white folk, too … everyone thought well of Daddy Hurst.”
“I am certain that he will be greatly missed,” Isobel ventured, squaring her shoulders. “But he is beyond pain, and the care of the cattle is important – my husband said so. I will be quite safe.” She patted the butt of the revolver at her side, and added. “The six statues of Colt will see to that.”
“It shore will, Miz Becker – you can depend on that!” Wash clapped his hat upon his head once more, his face set in lines of determination, and what Isobel suspected was relief at being given a definite order when he might otherwise have felt torn between several different proposals of action. He fairly leaped into the saddle of his horse, and galloped off towards the line of trees that lined the margin of that shallow canyon, as if personally determined to bear the good news from Aix to Ghent.
Although his departure left Isobel alone once more, she did not feel particularly disheartened – no, she was cheered by the news that he brought. Her husband and all the other men had survived the cattle stampede, and it seemed they were on a good way to recovering most of the cattle. The sun was well-up in the sky, and there was a task for her to perform. And … she wondered briefly about the vivid dream of the wolf-dog. Might she already be with child? Isobel counted back the days and weeks – what a ridiculous notion. She had the usual monthly course not three weeks ago, and such an inconvenience it was to do with the usual rags – soaking and washing them, out of sight of the men. It might not be so much an inconvenience to be with child, if it meant that the monthlies were banished for some nine months or so … save for the danger and the pain of delivering a child at the end of that time. Although … dogs and cattle didn’t seem to be too much inconvenienced by the process. Isobel firmly set that possibility aside. Unto the day of it were the evils thereof. She must prepare a meal for the men, when they returned. Last night’s bread was probably too dried to be eaten … she might make a pudding of it! Yes, of course … and Isobel’s thoughts went along a comfortable track. A pudding, of raisons and sugar, of condensed milk, to mix with the bread; the men would find it a sweet reward after their exertions in searching for and retrieving the panicked cattle … she went to ransack the store of goods in the back of the cook-wagon, grateful for the new purpose, and the distraction that it provided.
Just as Wash Charpentier had told her, as the sun stood high overhead, her husband and a handful of the other hands appeared on the distant horizon, driving a much-diminished herd of cattle ahead of them. She saw them coming from a distance, and heard them as well – the faint whoops and cries from the men, the areole of dust rising from the passage of many hooves, although the horses and men looked as small as ants in the distance. She was as much relieved by seeing the proof of Wash Charpentier’s assurances as she was in knowing that from her own efforts she had provided a good meal for them – as good a meal as Hurst had ever managed. Dolph would be proud of her, she was certain, as proud as Hurst would have been, and maybe Lady Caroline might bring herself to admit that her younger daughter could be of use.
The faint drumming of hoofs from another direction drew her attention – a horse at a gallop burst from the canyon – from that place which had provided a hiding place from which to stampede the cattle the day before. Two more horses followed at a more sedate pace, one riderless and on a lead-rope lead by the other. Isobel’s breath caught in her throat – the first rider was hatless, and his hair was the same wheat-pale fairness as Dolph. It must be Peter Vining. Isobel wiped her hands on her apron and nervously ran them over her hair. She had gathered from casual remarks made by her husband and Wash Charpentier that the Vinings held Hurst in particular fondness. Now Peter Vining’s very haste towards the camp where Hurst’s body lay gave indication of how deep that affection ran.
Peter Vining reined in his horse as he came to the camp. He flung himself from the saddle of his panting horse, letting the long reins fall to the ground, and rushed past Isobel without a word to acknowledge her presence. He went to his knees as Wash had done, next to the still and blanket swathed form of the old trail cook, and just as Wash had, he folded back the blanket to look at the face underneath. And to Isobel’s secret horror, Peter wept openly, unashamedly – a grief so profound that his shoulders shook with the force of his grief. There was nothing that Isobel could think of that might offer comfort in this moment, no words, no sisterly embrace. She did seek out the cleanest of her own calico kerchiefs from her luggage in the wagon, and to press it into his hand – but otherwise, there was nothing to be done save wait for the worst of that storm of sorrow to pass over.
Isobel withdrew to attend to her business of setting out the plates and tin forks and spoons for the men, oddly reassured that Hurst would not go into a lonely grave, unmarked and mourned only in the most perfunctory manner. The family that the old man had could not have been any more grieved over him – and Isobel was reassured in her own mind that Peter Vining would see that they were informed. Both Sorsha and Gawain were made uneasy by his all-to-obvious sorrow – and presently Isobel called them to her. The men were coming with the cattle, and best that the meal be ready. She did hope that the worst of Peter’s grief would have passed by the time they did – there was but little privacy on the cattle trail, and what there was seemed to be the result of a silent and mutually-agreed upon arrangement to look away – as when she had need to relieve herself, a little distance from her wagon. The men did not take notice of such occurrences – there was almost a palpable wall, as solid as if there were an actual one; solid and made of brick, or the native stone that Dolph’s family home had been built from. But still … a man in such audible and terrible mourning – there ought not to be casual witnesses to it.
Wash Charpentier had followed at some distance, with another horse – and now Isobel saw that the second horse was laden with a number of wide milled planks, a bundle of long boards tied on each side of the saddle. The horse did not seem to appreciate being used as a pack-beast. With sudden insight, Isobel realized that they were for – a coffin, of course. Peter Vining had mentioned that the second herd would be accompanied by a wagon of lumber and those items necessary to build a simple ranch house.
“I have made coffee,” Isobel said to Wash Charpentier, as he unsaddled his own horse, and loosed it to graze with the scattering of cattle and horses in the meadow that Dolph had marked for the evening bed-ground for the herd. Was it only yesterday? Isobel wondered – it seemed to have been an age.
“Bless you, ma’am,” Wash Charpentier smiled gratefully over his shoulder, as he went to relive the second horse of the burden of planks. “An’ thank you. I think that Mr. Vining will thank you for a cup an’ some consideration … he is sore grieving,” Wash added, as he loosed the ropes that held the planks fast and they tumbled to the ground with a clatter.
“I would not have guessed,” Isobel replied, and regretted her levity almost at once. “I … thank you for bringing the boards. I would not have thought of it.”
“Don’t seem right, Miz Becker – puttin’ a man straight in the ground,” Was Charpentier agreed, softly. “Ol’ Hurst, he done plenty o’ coffin buildin’ in his time. I reckon it’s only right to pay him back. Them tools be where they allus are?”
“They are,” Isobel answered. Wash Charpentier nodded. “You bes’ see to Mr. Vining, then – I’ll start work.”
“You know carpentry?” Isobel was startled, and Wash Charpentier chuckled.
“Miz Becker, when I ain’t on the trail, I work at mos’ anything that pays – carpentry, painting, digging ditches … don’ matter much what, so long as it pays. I’ll get right to work,” he added hastily.
Now Peter Vining was silent, although he still knelt by Hurst’s body; as Isobel cast a worried glance in his direction, he blew his nose into the handkerchief in his hand and rose awkwardly to his feet. Isobel already had a tin mug of coffee poured and sweetened with molasses, the way that the hands liked it. Upon consideration, she had also added a dollop of the harsh whiskey, several bottles of which were secreted away in the cook-wagon for medicinal purposes, reasoning that the man whom her husband fondly called ‘Cuz’ probably needed a bit of restorative. He took it from her hands, with a forced smile on his face – he looked composed now, although his eyes were reddened. He looked so like Dolph, also; her own heart was wrung with sympathy.
“Bless you, Cuz Isobel,” he said, and Isobel answered,
“I did put some whiskey in it; I hope you don’t mind … I’ll give you another cup, if you do.”
“It’s what I need, I think,” he admitted. His expression was desolate, and Isobel ventured, “If it is any comfort to you – I do not believe he suffered, and it was very sudden. I told Mr. Charpentier that I believe his heart failed, under the stress and terror of the cattle stampeding through the camp. It was very frightening,” she added, and then recalled that she was not supposed to be excusing herself, or asking for sympathy. “You … he meant much to you? Everyone says so. Had he been one of your family’s … people for a very long time?”
“I cannot recall when he did not,” Peter Vining answered, with a slightly crooked smile. Isobel was relieved at seeing it – he had passed through the first wave of grief. “But he was not ever owned by our family, Cuz Isobel – my mother was in her heart an abolitionist. She did not believe in owning a human being, as you would own a horse, or a cow. She paid wages to Hurst for years and a pension to him in her will.” He took a long drink of the coffee – now Isobel was assured that the first terrible grieving had passed, for his voice remained steady, although there was still an expression of desolation in his eyes. “I do not recall my father, Cuz Isobel. Hurst stood in stead for him, all my life. When I came home, after the settlement at Appomattox – which ended the great war, you know – all of my family was gone. Mama, my stepfather … my brothers; all of them, gone, save Daddy Hurst and Miss Hetty. Everyone else whom I knew and loved well … they were all gone. It was Daddy who brought me to myself, I think, after a time – he advised me to seek out out Mama’s brother – or his family, since he was murdered in the war, also. So …” another one of those crooked smiles crossed Peter Vining’s scarred countenance. “I went to the Hill Country … those hills that restoreth the soul. It was excellent advice, since it also restored a part of my family to me, and brought me my wife. Daddy’s advice … there was none better in the world. I shall miss him more than words can say. He always seemed to be indestructible. And now he is gone. Is your own father in the living world, Cuz Isobel?”
“He is,” Isobel answered. “I love him very much – there is nothing that can happen to you, I think – which will leave any mark, as long as there is a loving father to come to your aid and give proof of love everlasting, no matter how far away he might be.”
“No doubt,” Peter Vining answered. “And now my father in spirit is gone. He did more for me than mine in blood ever did.”
Isobel was briefly fearful that he might begin to weep again – but Peter Vining did not. As her husband rode into the camp, Peter Vining was assisting Wash Charpentier in construction of a coffin for Daddy Hurst.