Where there's life
A Ranch Days story
By Maz McCoy
Nathan watched Annabelle pour the hot coffee into a metal cup. In particular he watched how her skirt pulled tight across her behind as she bent over and returned the pot to the fire. He smiled when she stood up, walked towards him and held out the steaming cup. Annabelle smiled back when their fingers touched as he took the cup from her.
"Thank you," he said, not taking his eyes from hers.
"Looking at me." She settled herself beside him on the hard ground and looked up at the stars.
"I like looking at you."
"It makes me self-conscious."
"Because it does." She studied the constellations.
"Are you telling me a man can't look at his fiancée?"
Annabelle turned to face him. "No. I'm telling you your staring makes me…nervous."
Nathan smiled wickedly. "It does?" he put down the cup. "Why?" On his hands and knees he began to move towards her. "You got something to hide, Mrs Eldon?"
She giggled and shifted further away. "No!"
He moved closer. "When we're married you're gonna hafta get used to me looking at you a lot."
"I intend to look at every inch of you."
He drew closer. "Every. Inch."
"Nathan, stop it!" He moved closer. "Nathan!" Closer still.
"Huh?" Nathan opened his eyes.
The man sighed. "WHAT?" Grumpily, he pulled his blanket up around his chin.
"D'you hear that?" the kid asked.
Nathan listened. "I don't hear anything. Shut up and go back to sleep."
"I heard it. There. There it is again. That sound," the kid insisted.
"All I hear is a really annoying kid."
Nathan let out a loud sigh. He threw back the blanket, sat up and glared at Jed Curry. "I was asleep. I was having a pretty good dream. No! I was having a really good dream. One that was about to get even better! The sort of dream a man doesn't like being woken up from. Now there'd better be a darn good reason for wakin' me or so help me, Jed, I am gonna strangle you!"
Jed looked contrite. "Sorry. I didn't realise you were sleepin'."
"It's night-time, I'm under a blanket with my eyes closed. What the hell d'you think I was doing?" Jed assumed he wasn't meant to answer that. Nathan signed. "What did you hear?"
"I don't know."
Nathan's eyes narrowed. "You woke me for nothin'?"
"No, it was…" A sound caught their attention. "That."
"Probably some animal," Nathan said dismissively as he lay back down.
A distant mewing sound broke the silence once more. Nathan lay with his eyes open. He didn't suppose Annabelle was waiting for him to get back to sleep anyway. He didn't believe that Jed would ignore the sound either, whatever it was. He silently cussed Jeff Collins for sending him out to the line shacks with the kid but then it could be worse. Heyes could be here too and he wasn't sure he could cope with the two of them. One enthusiastic youngster was enough. A second one, yakking all day long and forcing him to watch as he opened yet another padlock, was more than he could take.
Nathan threw aside his blanket and reached for his boots. "This had better be worth it, kid."
Jed smiled and got to his feet. He already wore his boots and had strapped on his gun belt, just in case. He watched as Nathan stood, scrabbled around in his belongings for his own gun belt and buckled it on. The man shot him a look.
Jed pointed and Nathan headed in that direction.
"What d'ya think it is?" Jed asked as he followed.
"You're the one's been hearin' it, you tell me."
"I thought maybe an animal got trapped in something or it's a lost calf or…"
Nathan stopped mid-step and turned to face Jed. "Or what? A mountain lion? A grizzly cub? You sure you want to be creepin' around in the dark lookin' for what might be a wounded animal?"
Jed looked sheepish. "Just thought we should take a look."
"Yeah, well next time forget the 'we' part. Just go look for it on your own and leave me with Annabelle."
They trudged on through the undergrowth, stopping every now and then to listen. Occasionally the mewing would start again and they set off in the direction of the cries.
"This is ridiculous," Nathan grumbled. He brushed aside a branch. "What the…?"
Jed stood beside him looking at the wreckage of a wagon. Boxes, broken furniture and tins were scattered around them. A sack of flour had been torn open and tiny white footprints led off into the bushes.
Jed looked at Nathan.
Nathan looked at Jed.
You don't think?
They scrambled over the wrecked belongings. Nathan pulled aside a torn tarpaulin.
He lifted a box out of the way and…
Jed looked over his shoulder at… "It's a baby."
"Where d'you think its parents are?"
"I don't know."
"It's a baby."
Their highly intelligent conversation might have gone on longer had the baby not opened its eyes and fixed them with a look. Two big blue eyes focused, as much as a baby's eyes can, on Nathan. The infant smiled, or was passing wind, it was hard to tell. Either way it had the desired effect. Nathan reached down and lifted the blanket wrapped babe out of the wagon. He held it close to his chest.
"How long d'you think it's been here?" Jed asked.
Nathan touched his fingers to the baby's face. "Some time, I reckon, little thing's pretty cold. It has to be starvin' too." He looked around. The wreckage appeared relatively new. There was little sign of damage by weather or animals. "We'd best get it back to the fire."
"What d'you think happened here?"
"I don't know. It didn't slide down the hill." Nathan looked at the wagon. "But that wheel's broken so maybe…Look we can discuss this later. I'll take this little one back, you, take a look around. See if you can find its parents."
"What if they're here?"
"Then call me."
"What if they're…dead?"
"Then I don't reckon they'll do you much harm. Go on. Look. I'll head back." Nathan turned to go. "No, wait. See if you can find any of this little one's stuff too.
Jed watched Nathan head up the hill then, reluctantly, scoured the wreckage for anything belonging to the baby. A trunk had been thrown open and the clothes inside scattered on the ground but they were too big to be the baby's. He stepped over the wreckage, looked inside the wagon, moved to the other side and…Jed stared into the open eyes of a dead man. His body was trapped beneath a huge crate. One side of the crate was broken open and crockery, pots and pans had tumbled out. It looked as if the man had been crushed by its weight. Jed stood perfectly still; the man's eyes appeared to study him. Jed swallowed. He took a step backwards. Then another and another until he was able to release himself from the hypnotic stare.
Jed looked around for a few more minutes and to his relief found no other bodies. However, he found nothing belonging to a baby either, which surprised him. Picking up a tablecloth Jed returned to the dead man. He used the cloth to cover man's head then wondered if he there was anything else he should do. The last time he'd seen a dead person he was…
"JED!" Nathan's cry pulled him from his memories and he ran to find his friend.
"D'you find anything?" Nathan asked as Jed entered the camp. The fire was raging brighter. Nathan still held the baby and was rocking it gently in one arm as he rearranged his blanket, trying to create a suitable bed for the child. When Jed didn't reply, Nathan looked up. The boy's face was pale. "Jed?"
"I found a man. A dead man."
Yeah, it looked like he had. "Pour us both some coffee will ya?" The boy didn't move. "Jed."
The boy seemed to snap out of it and headed for the fire and the warming pot.
The baby lay on Nathan's blanket as the man rummaged in his saddle bags.
"There's gotta be something I can…Ah ha!" He pulled out a pair of gloves. Turning to Jed he pointed to the boy's bags. "Pass me one of your shirts."
"You goin' deaf?"
"Good, then pass me one of your shirts."
"The baby needs a diaper." Jed stood still. His mouth opened. Nathan looked up. "What is it?"
"You want to use my shirt for a…A diaper?"
"Mine are too big. Hand one over. And get a pot of water boiling. We need to think about feeding this little one."
"I'll think of something, just get me your shirt."
Jed pulled one from his bag and held it out. "I won't want it back."
Nathan chuckled as he held the shirt out by the sleeves and tried to figure a way to tie the thing around the baby.
Nathan unfolded the blanket from around the tiny child. The long robe it wore was badly soiled and he turned his head away as a foul smell reached his nose.
"Oh yuck!" Jed expressed it for both of them.
Nathan peeled away the stained clothes. He dipped a piece of Jed's shirt into a bowl of warm water and began to clean the child. Suddenly he smiled. He looked at Jed.
"It's a girl."
"A girl?" Jed looked down. Sheesh! Yep, it was a girl all right. He looked away and heard Nathan chuckle.
"I thought you said you had sisters."
"I did but I…I mean I didn't...I never…" He blushed.
Nathan shook his head and laughed. "Well, you will one day."
Tying a diaper made of a now button-less shirt proved more difficult than Nathan had imagined, but, eventually he had the small bundle clean and wrapped up against the night's chill.
"Now we have to decide what to feed her," he stated as he held out the child to Jed.
The boy looked at the baby. "You want me to hold her?"
Jed swallowed. "You sure?"
"You're the one had sisters."
"Take her." He thrust the girl into Jed's hands and turned to his bag.
Jed rocked the baby in his arms and made shushing sounds as Nathan looked through the food they'd brought with them for something suitable for the little girl.
"Ah, ha! Henry, I luv ya!"
Jed looked up. "What you found?"
Nathan held up a tin. "Milk powder. It's the best we can do." He set about making a cupful of milk. When the warm liquid was ready he dipped a finger into it and placed it against the baby's mouth.
"Come on little one, this'll be good for you."
The baby looked up at Jed. "Take the milk," the boy advised.
Nathan dipped his finger in the milk and tried again. This time the little girl's mouth opened and she sucked at the finger. Nathan and Jed exchanged silly grins. Nathan tried another finger of milk. The baby suckled again.
"You do it. I have an idea." Nathan handed the cup to Jed. The boy hesitated then dipped his finger into the milk and placed it on the baby's mouth. She opened her mouth and caught a drop of warm liquid.
Nathan picked up the glove he had found earlier and reached into his boot for his knife.
"Whatcha gonna do?" Jed asked.
"You grew up on a farm, right?"
"Yeah. Oh! You making a teat?"
Nathan looked at Jed. "Better than tryin' to use one of our own!"
The boy laughed then rocked the baby. He watched Nathan pour the milk into his leather glove, then squeeze it until some of the milk dripped out of the end of one finger. He held out the glove to Jed. "I don't know if this will be better than our hands but…D'you wanna try?"
"Okay." Jed took the glove and lowered the cut finger slowly towards the infant's mouth. She turned her head away from the glove. He tried again. On the fourth try the baby took the finger into her mouth and…The men waited with baited breath until…She began to suckle. Jed looked at Nathan. Both wore silly smiles.
"That's our girl."
"What d'you think her name is?"
"Unless we find anything in the wagon, we may never know." He looked at the child as she sucked on the glove finger. "What d'you think we should call her?"
Jed looked up. "You wanna name her?"
"Why not? Someone might have to."
Jed studied the little pink face and the blue eyes staring back at him. "I don't know. What does she look like?"
"Like a baby?"
"I mean my Ma always…" He took a deep breath.
Nathan laid a hand on the kid's shoulder. "Quite a night for memories, huh?"
"Yeah, and seeing that man was kinda…It just reminded me of when…" He took another deep breath. "Least I remember my folks."
"So what d'you wanna call her?"
"If she was a dog I'd call her Lucky."
Nathan chuckled. "I don't think she'd appreciate that name."
"She's got blue eyes."
"You wanna call her Blue?"
"No! I just…I don't know, what does she look like to you? What name?"
Nathan leaned over to get a closer look at the little girl. "She's so innocent. Where there is life there is hope." He smiled.
"What's that about?"
"It's a quote."
"Who you quotin'?"
"He live in Claremont?"
Nathan laughed and shook his head. "He was a Roman philosopher."
"A Roman what?"
"A thinker. It's just something my Ma used to say. I'm more intelligent than I look, ya know." Nathan smiled at the kid.
Jed smiled back. Besides you couldn't really answer that without insulting someone.
"How about we call her Hope?" Nathan suggested.
Jed nodded. "I like that. What do we do with Hope now?"
"We forget about sleep and head back to the ranch. Get this little one somewhere warm. I reckon the sheriff'll wanna come out and take a look at that wagon. Figure out what happened and who the man is." He stood up and threw the remaining water over the fire, dousing the flames with a hiss.