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Jeremy Steele ordered a halt at the crossroads. The troops relaxed in their saddles as the horses dropped their heads and stood quietly, sides heaving. Jeremy gave his mount a commiserating pat on the neck. His dog, General Lee, gave a little yip and lifted his snout in the air as if trying to sniff out Jeremy's intentions.
He reined the horse toward the road on the left. The General bounded forward, leading the way.
Muted groans and a few cautious whispers announced his men's dismay.
"Aw, hell, Captain--nobody wants to go back to that place." Nailor, the soldier who dared to speak out, left no doubt of his opinion of Providence, Colorado, by directing a brown stream of tobacco spit in the town's direction. "We still have a few hours of daylight. Let's ride on a ways. On this other road."
"The horses are tired."
"They have a few miles left in them yet. We're bound to come across someplace better to spend the night."
The dog had paused. The hot Indian summer breeze ruffled the General's shaggy brown coat. He cocked his head and gave a questioning whine, obviously puzzled by the delay. Hell, Jeremy was perturbed as well. His men usually greeted any town with cheers and whistles. They never questioned his orders.
They knew he hated explaining himself. He'd told them time and time again that a man didn't need to waste time explaining himself and convincing others that he knew what he was doing. A man ought to let his actions speak for his character. Right now, though, his men looked darned near ready to mutiny. Jeremy was tired enough, and so set upon findingdiversion that this seemed like the right time to make an exception.
"There's a saloon in Providence, Mr. Nailor, and a few gals living upstairs anxious to earn some money. What more could a tired and hungry soldier ask for?"
"Decent whiskey, and whores who ain't so mean they hold a knife to your balls, like that half-breed Lorena did to Fellowes last time we was here." Nailor cast another sour glance toward the rutted road that would lead them to where Providence's collection of ramshackle buildings huddled against the harsh landscape.
"There's enough sweet-natured whores for you men," Jeremy said. "I'll take Lorena. She's partial to green-eyed men like me, she says."
He'd tried to make a joke, but the men didn't laugh. They shifted uncomfortably in their saddles. A couple of them cleared their throats. Nailor darted him a sideways glance and swallowed hard, looking like a man summoning the courage to say something unpleasant.
"Half-breeds is always unpredictable. That Lorena's worse than most. She's flat-out crazy." Nailor pulled off his cap and fanned himself like someone trying to chase away a bad memory. "You ought to stay away from that woman, Captain."
Silence--the kind that marked unspoken agreement--greeted Nailor's warning.
Jeremy's men watched each other's backs during battles. They drank together and whored together and somehow managed to make sure that one of them remained sober enough to keep an eye out for troublemakers. The rest of them were able to have a good time without worrying they would lose their pay packets or valuables. Jeremy knew this because he watched it happen time and again.
He always watched; never took part. He wouldn't let himself get included in the activities, and over the years the invitations to join in grew fewer and farther apart, until he couldn't recall now the last time the men had invited him to sit down for poker or toss back a whiskey. Maybe they didn't think he had the same needs as every other man. Maybe that was what held them back now--sheer disbelief that he'd been thinking along those lines.
Jeremy held the opinion that an officer ought not mingle socially with his men. He knew some officers did, but the non-fraternization rule was a handy unwritten regulation to fall back on to excuse his natural reluctance to take part in off-duty carousing. He supposed that behind his back, his men told soldiers from other companies that Capt. Jeremy Steele wasn't the type to get friendly with the enlisted men.
A man didn't need friends. He didn't have to say it right out loud for them to know this.
They respected his aloofness. Always. Which was why Tom Nailor's overt concern and persistent arguing convinced him that even more explaining might be required.
"To my mind, Lorena's saner than most women I know. She doesn't believe in fairy tales. A man can bed her and ride off in the morning. It's the so-called sensible females who start thinking that a little bit of lovin' leads to marriage and homes and kids, and all that happily-ever-after nonsense."
"Ain't nonsense," someone muttered.
"It's not my place to argue the point," Jeremy said. Truth to tell, he was annoyed at himself for letting the unusual circumstances ease him into revealing as much as he had about his personal feelings on love and women. A man had many lessons to learn throughout life. Some men learned better than others. Some men never learned at all.
He always took special pains to avoid listening when his men grew maudlin and reminisced about women, or put into words the secret dreams they held dear. He could swap sad stories with the best of them, if he were so inclined, but he'd bet none of them had taken those lessons to heart the way he had. No doubt some of these very fellows could claim mamas who'd died. Lovers who'd promised to be true and then tearfully declared they'd found someone else who made them happier. The lessons learned from those sorts of things were as plain to Jeremy as the snout on a pig.
People who promised to love you forever died. Or changed their minds. People who made any kinds of promises couldn't be counted on to keep them. They might not mean to break their word, but that was what happened. A man couldn't count on anyone besides himself.
Some men couldn't seem to learn these things. They would return home after their stint in the army and find that their wives had taken off or fallen out of love with them; others would learn that those they loved had up and died while they were gone. They'd be heartbroken, maybe blame themselves for doing something wrong, when their only real mistake had been in believing they needed someone else to make their lives complete.
Life was a lonely business, Jeremy had learned. Men like him didn't saddle themselves with wives or kids or anybody who would only turn around and gouge out their hearts later. Men like him took care of their bodies to stave off illness. They found themselves a good dog to keep them company. They found something worthwhile to devote their lives to, such as he had done in signing on with the army.
A man could count on himself as long as he kept his own body healthy. His dog. His country. He couldn't be sure of anything else.
"We can camp right here, Captain," Nailor said. "Let them green eyes of yours grab some shut-eye and get a fresh start in the morning."
Jeremy froze in shock at Nailor's familiarity, but had to admit that it was his own fault. He'd been downright jocular in mentioning how much Lorena had liked the color of his eyes; and now look what had happened: his men thought it a good idea to try swapping jokes with him. A kind of hollowness seemed to burgeon inside of him, making him distinctly uncomfortable. Remorse, most likely, for letting down his guard.
He had to get away from the men for a while and regain his usual distance. He'd been swallowing road dust and bouncing his butt against saddle leather for far too long. He craved sweet smells and softness, silky female hair sliding against his skin instead of his horse's mane stinging his cheeks.
"Suit yourself," he said when the silence dragged and no man made a move to indicate they'd changed their minds. "Camp here. I'll see you in the morning. Or maybe not until afternoon, if Lorena's strength holds out. Lead on, General Lee." The dog barked and frisked on ahead.
Jeremy worried they would follow him once they got to thinking about whiskey and women. He cast a glance over his shoulder just as the horse began rounding a bend in the road. His men had dismounted, but rather than immediately striking camp they were all simply standing there, staring after him. They watched him, grim faced, arms crossed, reminding him of the way people lined up to witness the last steps of a condemned man as he set off on his walk to face a firing squad.
They were troubled, but smart enough not to ask him to reconsider. Not enough to set aside their own doubts and come along with him. Thank God for that. If it had been, say, Tom Nailor riding off to bed Lorena, they'd be heckling, or running alongside slapping his leg in camaraderie.
Jeremy much preferred riding on alone. Let them save their concern and strength for defending their country. He didn't need them.
He touched the brim of his hat in an ironic salute, and turned to face forward again.
The road behind him lay quiet, and stayed that way, throughout the long minutes until Providence revealed itself as a nondescript hump against the horizon. He didn't aim straight for the town, but rather toward the squat little cabin that sat well away from the clustered houses.
Unlike most whores, Lorena plied her trade from her own house. He hadn't realized before how thoroughly Lorena had isolated herself. Nailor's warning that Lorena was crazy niggled at the back of his mind. No whore with sense would set herself up away from the steady business and protection offered in town.
General Lee scampered on ahead, his tail a waving plume, sneaking quick sniffs and poking his nose into any likely looking clump of rubble. Jeremy laughed, partly in admiration for the dog's tirelessness, and partly because he somehow needed to hear a human sound to dispel the foreboding that suddenly gripped him. The trouble with his laughter was that he so seldom found anything funny enough to laugh about, and so when he did laugh it didn't pack a lot of mirth.
The hell with laughing. Nothing but a waste of time and breath. He turned his attention back to the road, where it belonged. He'd been without a woman so long that his common sense must've left his head, leaving him prone to uncharacteristic flights of fancy.
"My own men have left me to my own devices, which just goes to prove my theory," he said. General Lee stopped his explorations and stood at attention, his head cocked to listen, just as Jeremy knew the dog would do. Yes, a man certainly could count on his dog. He tipped his hat in the General's direction, which set the dog's tail wagging.
He congratulated himself as he approached the cabin. Lorena would take care of his body's needs. Freshen his mind, keep him sharp, so he could do a good job of guarding this land he loved so well.
His dog. His body. His country. A man didn't need anything more.
Posted March 9, 2010
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