Part I of this story was published last week. You can read it here. http://wp.me/p6LAko-IJ
While the three men walked their horses over to the spot Zeke had pointed out, he stirred the fire, pulling the now black potato out of the fire. Did they see it? He picked up the harness and carefully used it to pick up the potato, doing his best to look normal.
He walked to his tent, one eye on his guests, and slipped inside. He dropped the harness and potato on the ground. The wire holding the potato together hadn’t been covered and a spot on the heel of his hand was burned. He poured a little water from his canteen onto his neckerchief and wrapped it around the burn. Hand dealt with he examined the harness for damage. Some scorching but nothing serious. That was good. All he needed was for the harness to be irreparable. Zeke kicked the potato in a corner of the tent where other provisions were stored and pulled stuff around it to hide it from view then stepped out of the tent, harness in hand.
Nate was walking by on the way to the creek, canteens hung around him and in hand. Zeke nodded and went to the horses. Hanging the harness in its usual spot, Zeke decided to keep watch on the men. He needed to look busy though. This is where he’d go up to the mine but not now. Now he wanted to keep watch. Butter nuzzled him, bumping his arm. He reached an arm around her neck and gave her a scratch. “No treats today, greedy girl. How about a curry, though.
Butter nickered. Zeke picked up the brush and began to work on the horse.
Daniel and Earl were laying out bedrolls. Nate was out of sight down the creek bank. They’re gonna want to eat their supper at my fire. If I tell them no, they’ll make their move soon. If I invite them, it’ll look like I’m not suspicious. Zeke could feel Butter stretching her back with the brush. He was just grabbing the comb to do Butter’s mane and tail when Nate came back through the camp. Zeke nodded again. Nate spit.
That didn’t make Zeke feel any better. He didn’t like the way Nate was looking at him. He finished with Butter as the three strangers sat on their rolls. They were all looking his way and talking. He could hear the murmur but they were keeping it quiet. Were they making plans about him?
“How about you, Jenny. Ready for your curry?” He picked up both brushes and his rifle and walked to where the donkey was staked. The little gray donkey shook, clouds of dust rising in the air. “I guess so.”
Zeke curried the donkey, again keeping the men in view. He found a cut on the animal’s back left leg. He went to the tent for some ointment and applied it to the cut. The whole time the men watched him. Grooming finished, he led the horse and donkey to a new spot and staked them where there was some fresh grazing. Not having anything else to do after he put the ointment away he took the buckets to the creek and filled them then emptied them into the barrel he kept near the fire.
Daniel, Earl and Nate came back to the fire with arms full of wood. “We saw the pile was low, Zeke.” First Daniel, then the others, dropped the wood in Zeke’s pile.
“Appreciate it. Since you’re stayin’ the night, you’re welcome to cook your dinner here. You brought the wood, after all.”
“Kind of you, friend.” Daniel was all smiles.
Zeke didn’t like the look of the brother or Nate, though. They were studying him. Looking for weaknesses. If he had any sense he’d shoot these three right now and be done with it. “I don’t have much to share. I’m gettin’ ready to pack up. Thought I’d get supplies before I move on.”
“We have food, no worry there.” Daniel hunkered down next to the fire. “Spent a lot of time on those animals.”
Zeke shrugged. “Yeah, well, I don’t groom them often enough. Today seemed like the day.”
“Where you gonna go?” Earl pulled a dry stem of grass and began to pick his teeth with it.
“I don’t know. Thought I’d check in town for news.”
Nate pulled his gun out of the holster and began checking the works. Zeke’s heart sped up. “Maybe California. I heard the gold country there is a lot prettier than here. Greener.”
Earl pulled his gun and began to wipe it down. Zeke’s hand hovered over his rifle but left it alone. They were just cleaning their weapons, right? He stood up. “I’ve got some bacon, that’ll help stretch your beans.”
“Mighty nice of you, Zeke.”
Zeke went and got the bacon and the cast iron pan, then some flour, lard and salt and in his makeshift kitchen, a stump he’d cut tall, he mixed biscuit dough while the pan sat over the campfire cooking the bacon. None of his guests offered to help though they did go get their food and began heating it, still in the cans, in the fire.
“Not Mother’s cookin’ but it’ll do,” Zeke said as he passed around bacon and biscuits.
The men nodded as they crumbled bacon into their beans. Zeke spooned bacon grease onto a split biscuit and put bacon slices between the halves. He ate. The others ate. No one spoke though they watched each other intently.
While Zeke cleaned the pan and bowl, Daniel told tales of Chicago, where they were from. After dark, Zeke announced he was going to bed and thanked them for the company. He dropped the tent flap, something he didn’t usually do, then sat cross-legged in front of the flap and watched, rifle in his lap.
End of Part II, next week, Part III.
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