She watched the kid ride up, not knowing he was a kid at first. When he was within a couple hundred yards of the cabin she stepped out and waited for him just outside the door. He neither hurried nor slowed his pace; it wasn’t until he was about fifty yards out that she saw how young he was, and even then she wasn’t sure she could trust her senses.
She gestured to the rotted hitching post. The kid made no sign of acknowledgment, but he stopped the horse and tied it up. Then he adjusted the saddle and rigging, and she noticed a rifle scabbard without a rifle in it.
The kid approached her slowly but confidently. He limped slightly with his right leg. His clothing was faded and layered in dust; the skin over his youthful face was cracked and taught, and his eyes—a sharp blue, like the waters in the Gulf of Mexico—shifted like those of a wolf. She didn’t step away from him, but she tensed. He caught her distress and stopped a few yards from the cabin.
“Spare a drink, miss?”
His voice was smooth, not ragged like the rest of him, almost musical. The words were spoken with ease, and he stood still, shiftless and rigid.
She watched him for a moment, hands clutching her worn sundress. Then she nodded. “‘Spose I could.”
She did not think to invite him in. She went through the house, to the well out back, and filled a cup with water. Then she brought it out and walked over to him. He took it carefully, his fingers avoiding hers. She saw cracks in his skin, scars on his knuckles. He didn’t look at her.
She stepped away from him then, watching. There was a revolver strapped to his thigh, and a knife tucked under his belt. The blade of the knife was discolored, aged with blood. When she looked up from the knife the kid was watching her.
“Obliged,” he said, tilting the cup to her. “It’s been a while.”
“How old are you?”
The kid ignored her, taking another drink. He drank slow, like a man who’d known thirst before. He hitched a thumb at his horse. “Don’t reckon you’d have any for him?”
“I can fill a pail.”
He nodded, and she went around back and filled a pail with water. Then she brought it out and handed it to the kid. He gave her back the cup, then took the pail over to the horse and let the animal have its fill.
“Ain’t got no food,” she said.
She nodded, though his back was to her. There was a hole in the back of his jeans, charred around the edges. A gun fired too close, perhaps. Or a cigarette.
“Got no tobacco, either.”
When the horse was done the kid brought her back the pail. The animal stomped around, still thirsty, but she didn’t offer to fetch another pail, and the kid didn’t ask.
He set the pail between them. His hands went to his belt, away from the knife and gun, and rested there. He looked at her, then back to the cabin.
“Where’s your man?”
“Died in the war.”
She wanted to ask him how old he was again, or where he was headed, but she kept her mouth shut, watching his jaw as he chewed at his lip. The bulge of his arms against the worn fabric of his shirt. His hair, blond and stringy, bleached by sun and sand.
He tipped his hat to her, then turned around and walked back to his horse. She watched him mount the animal, then he turned the horse around and said, “How far to San Muerto?”
She gestured north. “Half a day’s ride.”
“Got kin there?”
“Naw. Just a good place to pass through, I reckon.”
He turned the horse and rode off, as slowly as he’d approached. The sun was just beginning to descend from its peak, and she eventually lost him in the glare off the desert rocks. She watched a while longer, thinking of the blood on his knife, then grabbed the pail and went back into the cabin. She closed the door behind her, and locked it, and waited.
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This story was previously published in The Shine journal.
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