Unforgiving, dawn again rose red upon her camp. The evening shelter she’d found amongst the rocky outcroppings offered little protection from the heat.
Just moments after the sun’s blazing return, Eve already longed for a watery respite. Finding such liquid sanctuary here was a feat bordering on the miraculous. With faith in nothing more than a horse and her own instincts, however, miracles somehow found her out.
Her stallion nickered nearby as she stretched the stiffness away. Eve clicked her tongue, and the horse made his way through the rocks to stand by her side.
Together they broke camp and set off across the parched mesa, ready to find or work a miracle.
She had not a clue how long this quest might last, but instinct did not often leave her wanting.
The horse was the “damned finest” she’d ever ridden, “sure-as-shit better than any human” traveling companion, or so she’d written in infrequent letters to great Aunt Hattie.
She had little use for talk in general, even less for fancy words. The horse was most obliging in this regard, as happy to take in her intermittent ruminations as he was to bask in her stoic silence. He gave no lip, regardless of what she said or did, quite unlike those tongue-waggin’ townsfolk back home. Rather than settle for life amongst the nattering rabble, she struck her own path with the only male she could count on — the four-hooved one called Virgil.
The cool breeze that stroked her face a couple of hours later signaled Providence had smiled upon her again. Virgil must have detected the temperature change too and picked up the pace a bit. The two barely contained their excitement as they neared the river bank.
It had been nearly a week since she last washed away the range. Though these impromptu baths were brief, Eve liked the break from the heat, stink, and grime.
The last time she’d ridden through any village of consequence, she put up for the night in a spot called the “Come Right Inn.” She had not appreciated the sign-painter’s wordplay at first.
The room had been cheap enough, and the stables suitable to the only other soul whose opinion mattered. The real draw, however, was the woman with whom she wound up spending the evening. Eve passed easily as a man when she needed to, the nature of her visage was quite mutable; in her case, beauty really was in the eye of the beholder. As a quiet cowboy drifter, she raised no eyebrows. A single young woman on horseback, on the other hand, raised heckles and risked harassment or worse.
The working-girl who “beheld” her that evening was indeed professional in her efforts to flirt and charm. She thought it a little humorous, however, that the girl was unaware that she also was a woman — at least until the time came to get down to business. Once the realization washed over her, though, Eve was pleased to find the girl’s enthusiasm (and consequently her own) augmented instead of diminished.
Truth be known, she preferred the company of women. There was nothing wrong with the odd man here or there, but after being out roping and riding with them for so long, they just did not appeal or suit her needs. She was not afraid to love a man, but she wasn’t afraid to shoot one, either. The two hadn’t gotten much sleep that night but, after a knowing smirk and a tip of her hat to the “Come Right”, she rode off much happier and cleaner than she had ridden in.
They were close enough to the river to smell sweet water now, its babbling flow beckoned her to its wet embrace. She quickly slid off the horse’s back and walked him the rest of the distance. Along the way, she shucked off articles of clothing, casting them aside to fall carelessly in her wake.
Virgil was content to drink at the waters edge while Eve strode directly in, pausing only momentarily when she caught her reflection in the still pane of a small inlet.
She wondered how dark her skin was becoming. She was tall enough that the waters stopped just beneath her breasts; most women would have been shoulder-deep. Though she had never been a typical beauty, she used this to her advantage. Always boyish in stature and physique, she had few curves to give her away. Not hard-looking, exactly, but she did appear to most to mean business. In the nude, only the lack of a male organ revealed her true nature. She loosed her braids and freed her coppery hair to flow behind her and lay back into the cooling waters.
She floated for a time, enjoying the freedom of her solitude. She was caught-up in carnal remembrance, savoring the velvety kiss of the river. Typically, she was not a head in the clouds woman but gave herself license to drift a bit. That indulgence came to an end when she noted the sun had moved as far as she’d intended to allow it whilst she daydreamed and pretend played with water nymphs. It was time to come back around.
She wrung her hair as she climbed back onto dry land, donning articles one at a time as she retraced the earlier steps back to her hat. To the outside observer, she seemed to have planned the entire sequence, but not one instant of thought had she given the matter. She was a creature of instinct, not of strategy.
She headed for her saddlebags and her water skins inside. Who knew where the path ahead lay or how far from water they might end up? Water was the most precious resources in this arid land.
Virgil shuffled nervously in place as she approached. She instantly looked to the dusty ground, searching for the source of his anxiety. There it was — a rattler a mere ten feet away.
“Whoa boy, calm down. That’s a good boy, Virgil. Now, Halt!” she soothed the stallion, easing her hands into the bag, and lay hold of her revolver.
As long as the horse remained steady, she knew she could make the shot. Fortunately, he listened far better than most folks she knew. At the word “halt” he held perfectly still.
Aiming for the viper’s triangular head, she held her breath and calmly squeezed the trigger.
“KaBOoM!” The gun’s report echoed off the surrounding hills and through the nearby canyons.
The horsed flinched a bit reflexively but otherwise stood motionless.
Her ears rang. Momentarily deafened, she spied the newly headless snake. Eve could no more hear the final death-throes of the viper’s rattle than it could see the glower of her steely scowl.
Virgil was soaked with sweat but his natural senses informed him of danger now averted. Eve continued soothing the handsome beast with her words. She reloaded her revolver and carefully packed it away again. Taking a moment to appreciate the adrenaline coursing through her veins, she thanked her lucky stars for such a high quota of daily miracles.
Shining now lower in the sky, the sun prompting them onward. They would need to locate a suitable camp and feed themselves before bedding down.
As the sun sank deeper into the horizon and painted the skies in hues of purple and red, she marveled at the beauty and reminded herself that their journey had only just begun.
In case you missed it, here’s the previous chapter:
To read from the very beginning: