See You Around

That first autumn, he paid for the use of two mules and a wagon, and he built four lean-tos at the four corners of his claim, and stocked each with blankets, tinder, firewood, a cache of food, and a jug of water. The day of the first snowfall, he drove the mules back to town, with his own horse hitched to the back of the wagon. Gold was already getting cheap by then, so he brought along two pronghorns he'd shot and dressed out that morning, to trade for the rest of his own winter's supplies.

Throughout the long winter, he rode the circuit of his claim every day until the snow got too deep. Then he donned snowshoes and walked it once a week, occasionally spending a night in one of the shelters. He brought enough food for himself, plus enough extra to re-stock the caches, but there was no need. The tightly-sealed tin boxes were untouched.

In the spring, he picked up nuggets and droplets where he saw them in the gravel washed down by the thaw, but his main interest was to find a spring in the high rocks he could channel downward to his cabin. The once-barren land seemed greener than it should have been; he wondered if something about the explosion might have enriched the soil. Or perhaps it was all the blood that had been spilled there, human and alien both. Once the weather settled and the ground dried out a bit, he rode into Absolution for supplies and talk. He found he missed human speech, though for a long time he'd felt no need of it.

A surprising number of people nodded to him, though most didn't say anything. Doc and Maria, as usual, refused to let him pay for his whiskey. Doc asked about his plans, and when he mentioned the spring, showed him a book with drawings of something called aqueducts; all different ways the old-time Romans had used to get water from here to there. In another book he had a picture of a sluice-like arrangement that would, as Doc put it, "pan for gold by itself while you do something else"; Maria, who was a good hand with a pencil, copied several of the drawings for him.

Sherriff Taggart was out somewhere, but Emmett heard Jake was in town and came to see him—all arms and legs and seeming six inches taller and a whole year older instead of just six months. The dog at his heels ducked and grinned at Jake as though they shared a secret.

Percy was a lot quieter and looked like his face hurt him. He couldn't meet Jake's eye and sidled away when he saw him, but when Jake stopped by the general store for supplies, Percy had left a box for him containing tools, a keg of nails, and, of all things, garden seeds—corn, beans, squash, even tomatoes and chiles. It was too large and heavy for the saddlebags, but it turned out Percy had thought of that; Jake was to have the use of a pack mule and one of the Dolarhyde hands to lead it out and back.

That spring he put in a garden patch, and managed to coax a thin stream of water down from the rocks to a small cistern he dug; enough to keep the plants watered. He built a sluice like the one in Doc's book, and until the summer heat dried out the stream, he found a little color every day or so, which he tucked in a little deerskin bag.

Every day or two he rode the circuit, kept the lean-tos in repair, swapped out the old food for fresh as needed, kept the water jugs topped up and the blankets aired every week or so. Some of Black Knife's folks rode by one afternoon, traded him some jerky for some of his garden sass. He gave them some of the seeds he had left—tomatoes were new to them, and they looked closely at how he'd planted and tended his. They pointed in the direction of the four corners of his claim and seemed to be asking a question, but he couldn't think how to answer them, so he just shrugged.

Eventually fall came around again, and the whole pattern repeated. And thus it went, season after season, year after year. The lean-tos became small cabins, stocked with more food, with proper bedrolls, and with a buffalo robe each in the winter. Occasionally a lost traveler, stranded in the snow or the desert heat, would find one of the shelters and survive. Occasionally a hunter or a drifter would rob his stores. It was all the same to him. He replaced what was used or taken, shrugged off thanks, kept riding his bounds and adding, grain by grain, to his stock of gold. He grew leaner and even more silent. He stopped going into town, though Emmett, now grown and married, rode by to check on him every month or two, bringing small gifts of whiskey or cigarettes, or replacements for his worn boots and clothes. He always offered to pay for the things, but Emmett just shook his head and smiled.

It was a fine spring day when Emmett came by, trailed by a second rider mounted on a pony. This one was a girl, blond braids halfway down her back, her too-large hat hiding her face. She looked about eight or nine.

"Say hey to Mr. Jake, honey," said Emmett fondly. The girl bobbed her head and mouthed a silent "Hey."

"Jake, this is my daughter. We named her Ella."

Jake levered himself up off his stool and took off his hat. "Pleased to make your acquaintance," he said in his rusty voice. "Won't you come in and have some water?"

Jake owned only two cups; Emmett and Ella shared one. After a while, Emmett told Ella where to find the cistern; this time of year it was rich in frogs and other delights. The two men watched her go.

"You're still waiting for her," Emmett said. Jake nodded.

"Is there anything we can do for you?"

Jake shook his head. "I got what I need," he said. Then after a while, "I'd be obliged if..." he trailed off, looked off into the hills for a while. "Come a time when I can't check on things..."

Emmett nodded. "I'd be proud to," he said. "And I can show the girl what to do after me. We'll keep things ready."

"Thanks," said Jake.