He knew, all things considered, she didn’t need him. He may need her like breath, but she could slip in and out on less than a whim. He always felt lucky when she stopped by and resented that he felt that way about it. Natural as nightfall, she slipped between the picketed horses, around the sleeping men, and toward the glow at the center of the camp where he stood. Not one of the men stirred as she strolled through.
“Evening Mariah,” he said. He looped his thumbs in the front of his belt and leaned back on his heels. “S’always a pleasure.”
She fell in at his shoulder, dress swirling around her ankles, and looked up at the stars. The empty desert all but fell away around them to be swallowed by the wide black sky. The moon was a thin sliver like a ladies comb holding the masses and curls of stars in place.
“‘Lo Joe,” Mariah said. “How you been?” Mariah balanced easily on the balls of her bare feet. She spread her toes against the rocky ground and dropped a glance on the sleeping men. “Looks quiet.”
“Usually is. Been steady. Same old same old.” He turned his head. “Seen you around.”
She smiled soft and wild. “I’m always around.”
Joe shifted and the spurs on his boots chimed softly. Joe cleared his throat. “Haven’t seen much of your sister.”
Mariah’s sigh gusted over the camp. “You know Tess. She doesn’t stop unless she wants to and she always liked the mountains and the water better than the plains and mesas.”
Joe chuckled. “That she does.” Mariah’s sister was much like her, but more temperamental and pickier than a cat about some things. Mariah, well, she liked singing. She was humming now, some low slow song.
“You seen Pete?” Mariah asked after she finished her tune.
Joe turned toward her. “That why you finally stopped to talk? You missing my brother?”
Mariah cuffed his ear. “I haven’t seen your brother in nigh on a year and Tess is worried about him.”
Joe rubbed his ear. “So you only stopped because your sister is missing my brother.”
“Don’t get all sharp with me, Joe. I’m not in the mood.” They watched a cowboy stumble to his feet and make his way to the edge of the camp, then they ignored him. Mariah reigned in her temper and tone. “Maybe if you didn’t flare up whenever I came around, I’d mosey over more often.”
Joe shrugged, mood shifting lightning quick. “Maybe I like the way you flare right back. Seems to work for us.”
Mariah rolled her eyes, but a smile lurked at the corners of her mouth. The cowboy ambled back into camp and stretched back out under his coat. Joe and Mariah looked over the camp again.
“Pete’s avoiding them.” Joe indicated the men in the camp with a nod. “Took himself away somewhere. Got tired of getting riddled with holes whenever he tried to do something interesting.”
The news settled visibly on Mariah’s narrow shoulders, like clouds over a cliff. “We shouldn’t be leaving him alone to brood.”
Joe selected a twig from the ground and snapped it in half with a crack. “If we knew where he was, maybe. But even then, would you really go in after him?”
Mariah sighed, her shoulders slumping. “I’d take a look, but if he’s really gone deep you know I’m not able to go that far.” She looked over at Joe. “You and Tess can.”
“And maybe we will, if’n we get an idea of where he’s gone.” He looked over the snoring men, the small wagon, and the nickering horses. “We’ve all got responsibilities up here. We can’t just leave.”
Mariah laughed. Joe loved the sound of her laugh, challenge and freedom in one rolling sound.
“That’s one way to put it.”
He saw the way she shifted her feet and turned her shoulders toward the horizon. He kept his peace. She never stayed.
She laid a hand on his shoulder and he felt her touch like a brand, but she wasn’t looking at him when she spoke. “Don’t let them work you too hard, Joe.”
“See you around Mariah.”
She took off, and Joe settled down, waiting for sunrise and sleep.
I’m a thief! I stole the first line of this piece from Bek’s “Wants and Needs“.
Check here to see what other thieves did with the line.