I slept like a baby and was late to breakfast.

Understandable, I suppose considering the night before. Freezing my ass off in the dunes was no fun.

“I thought you were taking those damn bodies to El Paso?” Newell asked Tom.

Newell stood leaning in, like he expected an answer, Tom replied, “I rethought about it.” He fitted a bit, then continued, “The Dunes are in New Mexico, we are all known in New Mexico. I am a deputy in good standing in Las Cruses. I’d hate to be crosswise in Texas.” He grinned like a cheese eating mouse, “And that’s the last I want to hear of it, damn it.”

Newell walked away. Stood staring out the window, but not another word was spoken.

I stood at the doorway watching the two of them. Nothing more was said.

Gail walked up behind me, stood there a moment, then asked, “You looking forward to seeing Jenny?”

“How did you know I was meeting Jenny?” I asked.

She gave me a side wise glance, and grinned. Every move about her implied, I was a dumb dog, and then she said, “Newspaper, remember?”

Every one in the room laughed, she handed over the Santa Fe New Mexican and I read the story on page one.

“Jenny Dashes To Santa Fe,” was the headline.

The story by Earl and Cheri Adams of Saint Joseph, Missouri Dispatch, and wired to New York, San Francisco, and Santa Fe, detailed that indeed I was building a railroad, banks, a brewery, a refinery and several other enterprises even I hadn’t thought of.

“Don’t you even know that half the newspapers in the country sell out in an hour after hitting the street?” Gail laughed. “They have to print double issues. Advertising revenue is through the roof. Look at our ad, it is a quarter page on two pages.”

I read the ad, I liked the ad, it was classy and I said so.

“You really have some pretty jewelry, don’t you?” I changed the subject.

She nodded.

“Are you taking your stuff to El Paso to market?”

She nodded.

“Show me what you’ve got, please?”

She brought out a wooden box, layered with velvet, showcasing gold rings, silver rings, gold and silver pendants, earrings, bracelets, cuff links for men, turquoise jewelry, and turquoise studs for men. I selected gold earrings, for Jenny. I picked a gold bracelet for Rose. And a silver pendant for both, Kelly, and Veronica. She placed each piece in a small velvet bag she’d prepared for sales, and pulled the tiny black drawstring cord.

“Go ahead and show them, and I’ll pick them up in El Paso,” I nodded at Gail. “I won’t need them until after I get there.”

Breakfast was being served in the dining room by a Mexican woman I didn’t know. Piles of bacon, scrambled eggs, and biscuits fluffy as a cloud, with bowls of jelly and fresh churned butter. Newell, Tom, and Gail sat around the table and we filled ourselves with the meal.

I’d always wondered why they didn’t talk much when food was served, but I realized, we were always busy eating. Newell took an extra layer of bacon and loaded it up with jelly in a biscuit when he’d finished his breakfast. Tom suggested we get tortillas and roll some burritos for the trail we were fixing to ride south.

Gail disappeared into the kitchen and returned with a knapsack of food, already prepared, ready to go.

horse“Fifty miles, we’d best get after it,” Newell moaned as he walked out the door.

The horses, saddled up, waited by the rail in front. We each tied on our saddle bags, tightened up the cinches, and mounted for the ride. Gail had long since given up being treated like a lady, her gouchos fit well, and she wore boots to ride. She didn’t wait for help to saddle up, she mounted like the rest of us. I noted the double saddle bags, shaped and wrapped for her jewelry boxes. Her roll included a change of clothes, and personal items the men didn’t carry.

“South?” I asked at the border.

Newell nodded and Tom guided his horse to the right, down the narrow trail into the hills and Gail followed. Newell hung back a bit. I said, “Cut to the south, then east at the flats, I don’t want any surprises on the trail.”

Newell, “You’re expecting something?”

“Not expecting, just wary.” I admitted.

Newell reined his horse onto the narrow trail and caught up with Gail. I continued hanging back, waiting. I wasn’t sure what I was waiting for, but my hackles were up.

Long after the sun sank into the west half of the skies, Gail pulled under an outcropping shaded by a mesa and stepped down off her horse. I’d never understood how she could ride so long. The horses were tired. The men were frazzled. We dropped the reins, and let the horse drink from a shallow pool of water. Gail gathered her canteen and refilled it up stream from the horses, and the men did the same. I looked out over the prairie, wondering why I’d been concerned all day. Nothing had happened. I shrugged, and joined the men filling canteens.

Gail returned with a full canteen and removed the burritos, tamales, and a selection of wrapped delicacies from her knapsack on the rocks where we gathered to eat the evening meal. “I don’t think we should stay here tonight.” She offered her opinion as we settled in for the meal.

I didn’t respond, but I noticed Newell wasn’t taking off his hat either. Tom had loosened the cinches, but the horses were still saddled, and riding out wasn’t going to be a
We laughed and drank our tequila around four and ate burritos because the tamales were delicious and all gone.

Within a few minutes, I noticed Newell getting antsy. Tom got up, tightened the cinches, and we mounted for another ride. We hadn’t pushed the horses hard, but they were tired. We walked along the base of the mesa, following the ridge to the south, and rode out into the open prairie as the sun set to the west.

Gail had taken the lead and she wasn’t stopping.

Newell and Tom fanned out to the right and left, and we kept riding through the bramble letting the horses find their way at a slow meandering walk. If we’d had a full moon the  width of the prairie would have been in view. With this sliver hanging over us, the dim shapes of shrubs and trees faded into the darkness. Nearing midnight, I heard a slight gasp from Gail’s direction and pushed my pony to catch up with her.

“On the left, couple miles…”

I looked to the left and saw it. A layer of yellow against the horizon, low and bold.

“Smoke.” Tom rode up.

prairie fireNewell pointed in the direction of the yellow and we slowed…

“The wind has picked up. And it’s blowing toward us. There’s nothing here…” Gail sounded frightened. “How far are we from the river?”

“An hour maybe?” Tom answered. “What started the fire?”

“Our compadres,” I answered. “They think we’re on the trail and they haven’t found us yet, so they’re burning us out.”

“Trade me horses, Tom.” Gail dropped the reins and shifted out of the saddle. She dropped to the ground and took the reins of Tom’s horse.

“Why. What are you doing?” Tom asked, dismounting himself.

“I weigh less than you and my horse is faster, less tired.” She answered, “Take him into El Paso to the motel. Take care of my jewelry.” Gail mounted Tom’s horse. “Let’s go!”

Newell kicked his horse into action behind her, and I followed. “Crazy woman is going to get us all killed. Ride Thomas!” I called back to Tom.

Nothing sane about riding directly into the middle of a prairie fire, but that’s where we were headed. Before we got into the smoke, Gail found the trail and rode east. Newell followed. I pulled up the rear at a slightly slower pace. Exhausted from riding through the night and this rushed pace into the fire, the horses slowed to a walk, and we topped out to the east somewhere near the edge of another outcropping. Away from the river, Gail had found the only place on the prairie where we’d be able to climb out of the fire. We were there.

Gail dismounted, and Newell and I led our horses up the side of the hill.

At the top of the rise, Gail collapsed on the side of a rock, bubbling over with laughter. Newell sat down on a rock and took a long slow drag from his canteen. He poured some water in his hand for his horse, and I did the same. I took care of Gail’s horse and sat down on the oversized stone where Gail giggled the night away.

“You don’t think we’re at risk of someone hearing us?” I asked.

“No… They’re out there,” she pointed ahead of the fire to the open prairie that wound it’s way just north of the river.

I followed her finger pointing across the open space and watched a torches worked a pattern across the prairie.

“How did you know?”

“That’s my brother, I already told you, I’d know where they were on this run.” She answered, the laughter subsiding as she drifted off to sleep.

Exhaustion was taking all of us, but I had to take care of the horses. They needed another drink before I snuck in some zz’s of my own. Newell had taken care of his horse, and I took care of mine and Gail’s.

In the early, pre-dawn hours, we slept. First light, we’d be headed south into El Paso and we needed to be fresh, at least look like we were alive… I negotiated the process in my head, wondering how we were going to get out of this mess. Too tired, I couldn’t think. I just prayed somehow we had averted the danger, by moving out of the line of fire.

sunrise

With the light of dawn, I awakened to the brilliant colors of a desert sunrise. Sweeps of yellow across the sky revealed the darkness of the burn and the dying prairie fire below us. Without the wind to carry it across the river, it had stopped on the edge below. A single fire in the river bottom sent a spiral of smoke up into the western sky.

“They stopped for the night. Probably think we’re in El Paso.” Gail sat up on the edge of the rock, her gaze taking in the breathtaking color of the day.

“Look!” Newell pointed off in the distance, a group of horseback riders, headed hard toward the campfire. “Is that Tom?”

Gail watched them ride along the rise, then drop into the river bottom near where the smoke churned up from the camp fire. “You don’t suppose…”

“Looks like we need to ride into town,” I stood up and gathered the reins on the horses.

Newell tightened up the cinches, and we mounted. Gail took the lead, across the hillside, down into El Paso. We rode right up to the hotel, coming in from the east side. Newell took the horses to the Livery while Gail and I went inside the hotel to get settled.

Gail cleaned up and borrowed a dress from Jenny, and I shifted from cow poke to business owner, quick as a shave, and a change of clothes were brought my way. Woody had put together a crew of men to get started on our next project, and any who hadn’t known better might have thought we’d been there for a week.

Newell collapsed in Jenny’s room and slept the day away before he showed up well into the third morning after our arrival.

Meanwhile, Tom showed up at the campfire and rounded up the trouble makers who fought to the death against landing their happy asses in jail. When the bodies were found in Las Cruses, Tom explained that he’d been on their trail and had escaped by the brim of his black hat the night they set the prairie on fire. 

 

 

 

 

 

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