More than anyone on the roundup, Cort was grateful for the end of the trail, even though it had not been difficult to retrieve the wayward horses. Typically, he was easygoing whenever it came to adventure and mishap; but this unexpected side-trip into the wilderness did more to ruffle his temper than any ornery horse or cantankerous Brother on a tear.
Could be that he was more than a little frayed because of the run-up to the fundraiser, he mused, as Onyx ambled behind the entourage on their way to the stables. The coming Friday was the day the Retreat opened to the public. Today was Tuesday and he was already catawampus with last minute details, breakdowns, and miscommunications. All the hard labor that went into the design, construction, and finish of the retreat house now seemed like sandcastles compared to the leviathan task of coordinating a simple party. Like a leviathan, it just kept rising and rising, not stopping, until it filled the view he used to have when it all began.
Truth be told, Cort was more than a little nervous about the final moment of reveal. For all his ideas, sometimes he worried it would be nothing more than a huge monument to ambition. He entertained, more than once, a fantasy of Siobhan or Tina walking up to him and granting him another year’s preparation. Reprieve and redemption.
Say a little prayer, preacher. Have a little faith…
At least, that was what he told himself as he sat loose-hipped and thoughtful in his saddle. The frayed temper was a sign that things were coming to a head, that was all. It certainly wasn’t because of a pair of mournful eyes looking down at him as he rappelled into the ravine.
Cort shoved that memory aside. The last thing he needed at this time was a pretty distraction. And he’d been very careful not to touch or get too near her, even with the strong little voice in the back of his mind yammering that this one was different. He had responded as any other sympathetic man would to a woman’s emotions as she came to grips with her situation: a pang of chivalry for someone completely helpless in the face of confusion. It certainly wasn’t because he’d felt any kind of...attraction…
He flexed his hands. Maybe he should go practice at the gun range. Exploding gunpowder had a way of clearing his mind.
“You’ve gone quiet,” came a voice behind him.
Cort turned in his saddle to see another man on a bay trot up to his flank. Tom Reece was a bit older than he, somewhere in his fifties, with blue eyes like sharp bits of glass in a sun-burned squint, a grimace that came from staring long miles into the desert horizon. This man was a fictional man, a character from a movie like himself, played by Glenn Ford, a genuine cattle drover from a time when cowboys had reached mythic proportions. He’d been among the first contacts for Cort when the purple sage trail to Old Tucson opened up.
“I’m always quiet,” Cort replied. “And a howdy to you, too.”
“I hear you had a bit of a fuss.” Reece’s eyes squinted even more in mirth.
“Looks like you’re done, though,” was Reece’s laconic observation.
“Kinda late to the game, aren’t ya?”
“What game? All I saw was a bunch of coffee boilers battin’ their eyes at a bunch of horses,” Reece said. “I know when to make an appearance.”
“That what you tell them back in Old Tucson? Right after the smoke has cleared?” Even though Reece’s own “creator,” Glenn Ford, had been considered the fastest gun in Hollywood, not every persona held that same ability. While Reece could fight as well as any of them, he was hardly a man to face down a shootout in the street. The cowboy was one of the cagiest, shrewdest characters Cort had come to know, but he still liked to needle the man in good-natured camaraderie.
“I keep tellin’ ya, son,” Reece said with mock menace, warming to the familiar jibe, “I’m a shit-kicker, not a fighter. Looked like y’all had it all under control.”
“Well, then, what in God’s grace brings your unrepentant soul here to the Point?” Cort asked in amusement.
“I hear there’s gonna be a fandango,” Reece said, taking a draw on his hand rolled cigarette.
“You have plans to be there?”
“The retreat’s one of the reasons for that fandango,” the preacher replied.
Reece only grunted. He had an agenda on his mind. Cort could see it.
“When you plan a return to Old Tucson? Any time soon?”
“I bet you came all this way just to ask that,” Cort mused, with a trace amount of exasperation. “Lemme guess: you gotta another faro party set up.”
Reece gave one nod of assent.
“Been a long time since you set up,” he replied.
“Naw, it’s only been…,” Cort began to argue and then quickly calculated the last time he’d taken a trip to Old Tucson. “House afire, it has been a while!”
“You think maybe you could make your way next week?”
“I think I’ve done enough damage there already,” Cort grinned.
“The hell you did! They hardly let me back into the games anymore.”
“They figured out what an old cuss you are.”
“They say I cheated by bringing you on board!” Reece sounded genuinely offended. “Told me not to come back until I got myself straight.”
“Yet, here you are, asking for more trouble.” Cort laughed.
“Look, all I’m saying is you need to come try again. I got a different take this time.”
“Maybe,” Cort hedged. “I guess it won’t be long before I’ll need money to add outbuildings to the retreat.”
“I’ve been building a house, Reece. Actually, bunk houses…for kids to leave the city for a while and learn there’s more to life than gangs and violence. They can ride horses, run around in the woods, burn marshmallows over a fire. It’s the most I can do, since I can’t have a congregation outside the Point,” Cort explained. “You know…since none of us can really exist outside…”
“Oh.” Tom Reece looked impressed. “Yeah, I remember some fiddle faddle you were talking back then. So, you were serious.”
“Yeah. In fact, why don’t you stay at the Point for the week? Our big opening is on Friday. There’ll be wine, music…”
“Well, that’s just fine,” Tom grinned and nodded his approval. “Think I’d like to see that myself.”
“Good,” Cort rallied. “I’d been meaning to talk with you anyway. Thinkin’ maybe we could do a cowboy camp sometime next month, tell stories about cattle drives and life in the times we knew.”
“Now why would little kids want to hear about flea-bitten slab-sided beasts like cattle?” Reece groused, but Cort could see he was pleased with the idea. “You’re as bad as Frank…all loco-headed with ideas about God’s critters and their smarts or something. I suppose you’re gonna want us to talk about our horses, too.”
“If it inspires you.”
“Well, if that’s what you want, I’ll talk to the others…”
Turning, they saw East riding up on his horse, with Johnny and Dominic trailing. Hando trundled up on his ATV.
“Aubrey said there’s a new sheila at the Point,” East asked. “Is it true?”
Cort nodded. He’d nearly succeeded in forgetting the warm buzz in his chest.
“What’s her name?” Dominic demanded.
The words came out of his mouth before he had time to remind himself that he’d only caught it once and really shouldn’t make it a point to remember the name until he knew something more about her.
“Chloe Navratil. She’s a close friend of Tina’s, apparently. That’s who they visited last fall,” he added, and they nodded in response. John and Tina had taken a small vacation to San Antonio, a way to get away from things before winter set it. While the Brothers’ had taken to stepping outside the Point more often themselves, John and Tina had done so sparingly. After much encouragement, they’d taken a vacation away from the Point and come back with huge grins. Sometimes it did a world of good to step away from things for awhile. If visitors the Point take a breather here, so could the Keepers find a second wind Outside.
“Is she pretty?” Johnny asked.
“In God’s eyes, we’re all beautiful,” Cort said as a sidestep, knowing the words would frustrate them. Much better to take the High Preacher road than let yes, yes, yes come spilling out.
“What was she doing out in the woods?” Hando asked.
“That’s something you’ll have to wait and hear from her,” Cort hedged, suddenly not liking the idea of the entirety of the Point bearing down on her. She’d looked so lost…
“I don’t remember her checking in,” Hando said.
“She hadn’t,” was Cort’s short reply.
“Another shiela arsing about where she shouldn’t,” Hando groused with a roll of his eyes. “Fuck me, if I hear of another one of them…”
“We’re not sure how she got out there,” Cort snapped and realized he was going to have to cut this conversation short. “She’s lucky she was thrown clear the way she was. She’s at John and Tina’s right now, but I don’t think either one of them will take kindly to being saddled with curious gnats.”
“No worries!” East replied, affably. “We’ll just see her at the Tavern. Don’t twist your knickers up about it, Cort.”
“Must have been too much sun out there in the woods,” Reece commented after they left.
“They’re used to it,” Cort replied, absent-mindedly, then woke up to the subtle dig. Reece’s weather-beaten face was inscrutable. “Oh, you think I was harsh?”
“I think you stomped on ‘em for bein’ eager to meet a new face,” Reece said, tone neutral.
“Yeah, well, this whole thing about the horses escaping got under my blanket,” Cort grumbled, and turned away, feeling a bit guilty. “Never happened before.”
“There must be some reason,” Reece replied, and then spurred his horse forward. Neither one of them spoke again until they got to the barns and by that time, no one was in a good mood.