SHORTER days and colder nights made for slow going on the trail, but Gideon Makepeace didn’t mind, and he knew his companion didn’t either. Any excuse to be out of doors and away from the judging eyes of civilized white folks was reason for celebration for Jedediah Buffalo Bird, even with temperatures cold enough to nip at their toes through leather boots and wool socks and bite hard at his wrists where they were bare between coat and gloves. The winter chill in the air made this part of the Arizona territory even more crisp and clear; every morning they woke to white frost that blanketed the barren ground like snow and blue skies so clear it made his eyes hurt to stare up into them. The icy frost hollered “Winter!” at him, and he thought of Christmas coming.
It might almost be upon them now, though Gideon had lost track of time since they’d left the Pacific coast, and he didn’t know exactly what day it was.
He glanced over at his companion and felt his heart go all mushy at the serene look on those handsome, foreign features. The eastern sun had only just climbed high enough that it wasn’t in their eyes any longer; Jed’s hat shaded his face, and that squinting scowl had faded now that the man wasn’t half-blinded.
“Storm coming in,” Jed said, his first real words since they’d broken camp this morning. He’d hummed for a while, those deep guttural words of his people that meant nothing to Gideon’s head but somehow still spoke to his soul. The Injuns, they’d had something that Gideon’s white culture lacked; that “something” was a big part of what made Gideon love this man so.
“I reckon,” he said, agreeable.
“Cold,” Jed added. “We might see snow.”
Gideon didn’t care overmuch. If they were caught in the wild they’d dig in, find a cave or make a lean-to under a tree, build themselves a nice big fire and have the weather as an excuse to cuddle close together. Not that they looked for excuses; they were still too new to each other, and just a look or a smile could inspire want in the other. But they’d picked up a stage route on the east side of the desert, and the excuse would be helpful if they ran into people. “We’ll bump into a town soon enough,” he said. He was itching to know what day it was. Itching for a hot bath, too, if there was one to be had.
Jed frowned at him. He smiled back, fascinated by his beloved’s expressive features. “Don’t be like that,” he chided gently. “We’re just passin’ through; they won’t give you any trouble.”
Jed’s mother had been a Sioux, his father an unknown white man who’d visited the worst of crimes upon the woman. It was the rape that had given Jed his Indian name, Buffalo Bird—for the birds that planted their eggs in the nest of another for the other family to rear. Jed might be a half-breed, but he carried his tribal blood high, with thick black hair and warm brown skin, and the flatter face that reminded Gideon a little of them Chinese. His eyes, though, were blue like a stormy sky, and when Gideon looked at them for too long, he forgot everything hard about the world. Jed honored his Indian traditions too, wearing his hair long and keeping his eagle feather carefully tied to his saddle blanket.
“Give us both trouble,” Jed said flatly.
Gideon didn’t argue; it was a waste of breath he could ill afford in this chill, and he honestly had no idea how townsfolk in these parts would treat his man. “If they do,” he said simply, “we’ll move right on.”
Jed frowned again, and Gideon flashed him a smile that he’d been assured could charm the birds right out of the trees. It seemed to have little effect on Jed, just increasing the furrow between his dark brows and deepening the lines beside his mouth. Gideon secretly thought that Jed resented being appeased, but before he could tease, he heard the barely audible hum from the back of Jed’s throat, hyuh-uhn-uhn-nya, and he wondered what ghosts or spirits Jed was calling on.
Not much later, Gideon started seeing signs of civilization: dirt tracks veered off this main road, wide enough for wagon ruts, and cleared fields along both sides of a swollen river lay fallow this time of year. “Where do you reckon that water’s coming from?” Gideon asked. They hadn’t seen rain since they’d turned away from the roads at the stagecoach stop in Victorville.
“Sky,” Jed said.
Gideon felt a grin tug at his lips. Jed’s outlook on life was simple, pure, even, and it went a long way to calm Gideon’s youthful energies. Before he could get to asking Jed to be serious with him, he heard that barely audible hum again, hyuh-uhn-uhn-nya. Didn’t seem right that Jed had so much faith in the unseen when his gods had done so little for his people.
The temperature continued to drop over the next hour even as a watery sun climbed toward its zenith, and soon enough they lost even that faint heat; the clouds Jed had remarked on had caught up to them, thick and dark and moving in fast from the west, bringing with them a chill that ate right through the back of his oilskin coat. The thought of rain made him glad they had a chance of a roof over their heads; Jed would call him soft, and he was. He’d grown up in luxury, compared to Jed. Life in a traveling show had been hard and lively, but you carried your wagons or train cars with you, so you never had to sleep too rough. “Won’t make it,” Jed said quietly.
Still, the threatening rain was barely spitting at them by the time the outskirts of a town revealed themselves through sheep-mown grass and straight fence posts. When they passed the city limits sign that read, “Welcome to Kingman, Population 375,” Jed’s chanting faded until Gideon could just barely feel it in his bones. At the first picket fence, it stopped altogether. Gideon kneed Star over just long enough to tap a lean thigh and promise with his eyes that together they’d take whatever came.
Not five minutes later the road bent alongside another branch of the river, and he saw buildings up ahead, and a passel of kids huddled out front of what must be the schoolhouse. This wasn’t some half-abandoned stage stop, but a real city, and the kids who’d just been let out of school lagged despite the icy rain, talking about Christmas and avoiding the work that waited for them at home. He felt a thrill of excitement, because real cities had real bathhouses. “Hey!” he called as they pulled alongside the school. “Where’s the livery around here?”
Three boys broke from the gaggle of kids and ran for the fence, and the biggest one pointed down the street and volunteered, “Right that way, mister. Other side of town.” His eyes were big and wide and glued to Jed’s dark skin and his long, black hair. “You a real Injun?” he asked, hushed.
Gideon grimaced while Jed nodded. “Yeah,” Jed said. Then he flicked the reins and rode on.
“Thanks, kid,” Gideon said, and he clucked Star into a trot to catch up.
This town’s main street curved with the riverbank forty or fifty feet away. Even that distance looked too close, with white water running high. Right fine buildings all stood on the eastern side of the street, some of brick or stone, others of wood.
He smelled the livery, or the manure pile sure to be in back of it, before he saw it, and tilted his head. “There you go,” he said when it came into view. The thick, black smoke of burning coal competed with the clean smell of horse manure, and he heard the rhythmic, heavy clang of steel on steel: must be a smithy here.
“Could get Pony shoes while we’re here,” he said.
“Never needed shoes yet,” Jed repeated his oft-worn phrase.
“Never lived in a real city before,” Gideon reminded him. Jed’s pony was smart and as well-schooled as his own trick mare he’d raised and trained from a yearling. “I keep telling you, you leave it unshod on cobblestone streets and it’ll go lame.”
Jed blinked. “No promises he’ll be on cobbles long enough to go lame.”
Gideon sighed; whenever Jed felt the pressure of too many white eyes on him, he got snippy. But it wasn’t like Gideon could blame him.
He kicked his foot over the pommel and slid to dismount, tossing Star’s tied-together reins up over her head in a practiced move. The rain was getting heavier, as cold as a witch’s tit, but the smithy had a tin awning that stuck out a good twelve feet, plenty of room for them to ease their horses in out from under the weather. Jed stood back, though, and waited in the light, cold rain. “Afternoon,” Gideon said.
The smith, a short brawny man at least twice Gideon’s twenty years, barely paused in his beating of orange-hot steel. “Stalls rent for a quarter a day,” he said. “That’s for hay, no oats.”
Gideon took a step closer. “I’m more interested in a bath, to be honest, for me and my friend here.”
He watched the smith look up, caught the narrowing of his eyes. “Bath around here might be too expensive, if you know what I mean.”
“I’d pay just about any price I can afford,” he said, keeping it friendly. “Been on the trail a week now, and it’s damned cold.” He shivered involuntarily and rubbed his gloved hands together to warm them up. The heat from the smith’s forge almost reached to where he stood.
The smith nodded. “Water in the corral’s free, if you pump it yourself. Store your tack in the shed alongside. Bathhouse is on Denney Street, thataway,” he directed with a nod of his head. “Might be a boarding house that’ll take him on Alder, but maybe not.” He sighed and stretched tall, and then used his tongs to pick up the hot steel off the anvil and drop it into a tub of water. Steam hissed and sizzled. “If not, come back by after you’ve ate and cleaned up. He can stay here in the loft, if worse comes to worse. Wouldn’t put man nor beast out on a night like tonight.”
“Thank you kindly,” Gideon said sincerely, “but I’d rather keep him with me.” At the smith’s frown, he went on, “I heard a rumor there was trouble here and there. Don’t want him to get caught on the wrong side of someone’s worry.”
The smith’s frown faded a little and he nodded. “What with rumors of uprisings down ’round Fort Apache, people are a little more het up than they need to be. And we don’t see too many red-uns this far into the mountains. Best stay close to him.”
Gideon flashed a grin at Jed, who was sure to have heard every word, and on whom this kind of generosity was almost completely wasted. “Much obliged. I’d be happy to bring you back some biscuits from wherever the best place to eat around here is?”
At that the smith grinned, and even Jed would admit that they’d reached a friendly understanding. “Mrs. Colton’s, two doors from the bathhouse, other side of Denney Street.”
Gideon reached to shake the man’s hand and tried not to wince at the firm grip, and then he followed his pointing finger to the corral at the side of the stable. The rain looked thicker now and felt even colder for his brief respite. “Jed, hurry it up,” he said as he stripped off Star’s saddle while Jed walked on over to open the corral gate. “Hate to put you out there, girl, but if we stay the night I’ll pay for a dry place for you,” he promised her. The smithy looked at him like he was loony, but he got that a lot; saddle and bags over one shoulder, he tugged off her bridle and stepped back. “Thank you,” he said, giving her a sign. She lowered her head almost to the ground and pawed lightly with her right hoof. “Back up. One, two, three….” She backed up a step each time he spoke, which always entertained folks who wanted to believe she could count. “Good girl. Follow Pony.” He smiled when she tossed her head and turned away at a trot.