“She’s pretty, that’s for sure Pete.” There was no one but me and Pete riding out on this side of the herd. “You saw her. I think she smiled at me. Not sure. Could be. What do you think?”
I could trust Pete to never tell anyone what I’d just said. Horses are good that way. Lots of listening and no talking.
“Anyway, she smiled whether it was at me or not. She’s got a pretty smile.”
The trail boss introduced me to her when we went into town for some supplies and to post some letters the hands had written for families back home – wherever that might be. Most of us were a long way from home out there on the range. Not the trail boss. He rode into home when we rode into town, getting a lot of nods and a couple “Hey look, Tom’s back!” He smiled and waved easy at them all.
We tied our horses up in front of the general store so we could buy a small keg of salt. Cookie said we had plenty when we started out but it all got ruined last night. That’s what happens in snake country.
No, snakes don’t ruin your salt but if the salt barrel is next to the camp stove and a snake comes sidling up to the fire to get warm and a greenhorn on his first cattle drive doesn’t see it until it’s sliding over the top of his boot, nearby salt barrels tend to get kicked over.
So the trail boss and I rode into the nearest town the next morning while the herd moved slowly north. Normally he’d have just sent a couple of us hands in to get it, but seeing as how the next town we came to was his home he wanted to come himself. Nobody blamed him, even the fellow that would’ve come with me if the trail boss hadn’t.
I carried the little keg of salt outside while the trail boss paid, and held the door for a young woman on her way in. The door closed behind me but not before I heard her say, “Tom! When did you get into town? Wait until I tell my parents you’re … .”
I strapped the keg behind Pete’s saddle and reached for the letters in the bags hanging down his flanks so I could take them to the post office. The trail boss stood in front of the store by the time I got back, the young woman on his arm.
They were a handsome couple. Striking, you’d say if you saw them yourself. She looked up at him and he looked protective over her.
“Here he is, the one I was telling you about.”
I took my hat off.
“I thought you said the cowboys you rode with were not well-mannered,” she said.
“Now don’t go getting me into trouble, Kitty. I said that riding the range was no place for fine manners. But the men I ride with are good stock, and this here’s one of the best.”
I twirled my hat around as I held it in front of me.
“Oh, you’ve gone and embarrassed him, Tom. Be nice and introduce us proper.”
“I thought I was being nice. All right, all right, stop poking my rib like that.” He gave her my name and said, “And this is Miss Catherine Elliot.”
“Pleased to meet you, Ma’am.” I put my hat back on, pulling it down lower than usual.
That’s when she smiled at me. Or at something. But it was in my direction.
And what a smile it was. My heart took up residence in my throat and my mouth got drier than Oklahoma in summer.
“Please tell your mother I couldn’t stay to visit this time, but the drive will be over soon and I’ll be back once we get the herd sold at the stock market.” He gave her a peck on the cheek. “But don’t tell her until I get a ways out of town or she’ll run me down and tell me I’m a worthless good-for-nothing for not stopping by the house myself.”
“She’d do nothing of the sort, Tom, and you know it.” She gave me a wink – a wink! – and said, “My mother might think those things, but she’s too much of a lady to say them out loud.”
By mid-afternoon we saw the herd in the distance.
“You’re awfully quiet, even for you,” he said. “Not a word since we left town.”
“I was just thinking a spell.” I checked the straps on the salt keg, looking for something to do. “You and Miss Elliot known each other long?”
“All our lives, why?”
“I could tell is all. The way you two looked together. And how you seem to know her mother so well.”
“I should,” he said. “Aunt Polly’d tan my hide if she knew I came to town without stopping in to say howdy. I’ll have to make it up to her when I come home for the winter.”
“She’s his cousin, Pete, not his sweetheart! Can you believe it?” Pete swayed beneath me as the herd moved along beside us. “And she winked at me. Maybe that smile was just for me too. What do you think of that?”
Pete didn’t answer, but he didn’t need to. I had my own opinion on the subject.