Thunder and lightning had Clay Nelson mesmerized by the storm coming at them. Huge dark clouds rumbled across the open prairie. Birds hushed; the grasshoppers stopped jumping.
"A storm's kicking up, dad, we better hurry up and get those chickens in the coop." Clay hollered at his dad.
Charlie Nelson came closer, glanced at the sky and nodded.
As he came up to his son, he studied him for a moment. "Clay when you gonna marry, son, and give me some grandchildren?" Charlie asked as he shaded his eyes and looked out over the horizon.
Black clouds were already forming to the north and it looked as though it was going to be a gully washer. Clay surmised that it wasn't time to take up a conversation like this. Still, he couldn't quite believe his father was taking it up at all. After all, they'd rarely talked about his getting married, and Clay preferred it that way.
It wasn't that he hadn't considered it a time or two in his thirty years, but there was no one in his life he wanted that badly.
A lonely wind whistled through the Texas prairie as the clouds formed an ominous position. "Bad weather is on its way." Charlie mumbled as if to himself.
"Dad, I don't have time to talk about it now, that storm is moving in fast, and I've got to get the chickens back in their pen, the horses brushed down and you've got to get supper on."
"You never want to talk about it." Charlie fussed, knowing the weather had nothing to do with their conversation. "I wouldn't have said anything, but your thirty years old, son and not even thinking along the lines of a family. I'll be dead before you decide to have any grandchildren."
Clay glanced at his aging father, a slender man with graying hair and usually a big smile on his face, except today. What he'd said was the truth and Clay had to admit he hadn't given much thought to marriage. Nor had he given any thought to his father's death.
"Look dad, managing this place with just you and me, there's no time for courting. No decent woman would marry without a fair amount of time spent on it. I don't have that time to pay court like a gentleman." Clay answered him, this time with a frown. "Besides, I haven't met a woman I admire as much as my own mother. And until I do, I won't be doing any courting."
"What's wrong with Laura Martin, she's been sweet on you a while now…?" His dad persisted. "And she sure cooks good."
Clay smiled. "I'm to marry a woman because she cooks well? If that's all it takes, you marry her. You get along with her so well. In case you haven't noticed, I don't. Look, we've been doing fine without a woman all these years, why bring it up now?"
"She's a fine-looking woman, and if I was younger, I might just do that. But it's not me she's doing all that cooking for, son." His father cast him a light grin.
Clay set the saddle on the top of the stall gate and turned to look at his persistent father. He brushed his long red hair away from his face, his dark indigo eyes penetrating his father with a glance. Clay's brows raised in question, as his frown bore down on him.
"There's more to marrying than saddling a lady, you know." Clay turned away quickly. "Look at this place, what woman would want to live here. I mean, it's fine for you and me, but a woman would expect a fine house, I don't have that to offer."
"Well, don't you ever get the itch, son?" His father asked with a grin. "And you can always build a house."
"Not very often, no. And when I do, I go into town to the saloon and take care of that itch." Clay shook his head and wished his father would help him now and again. "Besides, I'm too busy. And you and I don't need a bigger house."
"You know," his father looked down at the hay on his boots. "A man worries about his kid when he doesn't take no interest in women."
Clay studied on that statement before answering. "Well quit fretting, there's nothing wrong with me, I just don't have the time nor the inclination at the moment. If the right woman came along, I'd snatch her up like dirt on a stick, I promise."
"What's wrong with Laura, she's been coming over here for months now, bringing us food and stuff." His father wouldn't let it lie. "If that isn't a hint, I don't know what is."
Clay studied on that too. "Laura, is a fine woman, but I’m not in love with her. She's a good friend, but I have no personal interest in her, dad. Besides, her and I don't see eye to eye on a lot of things."
"Maybe it's time you took the time to find a wife. I don't want to leave this world knowing that you are alone here, with no future, son." His father chuckled. "But you realize that to find a wife you gotta have some personal interest in her, and you gotta use some persuasion."
Now Clay really frowned, "Well, I think it might help on those cold winter nights if you loved her a bit, dad. I'm not stupid. I mean I know how you loved Ma. Don't try to tell me it wasn't important."
Now his father laughed aloud. "Okay son, I'll let it lie, but I sure wish you'd hurry. I could die before you decide to marry."
Clay chuckled now, "You're too onry to die."
His father walked off and went in the house.
Clay shook his head. What had come over him. His father had never even suggested he take a wife before. Maybe the fact that Hank Evans just got married had him thinking along those lines. Hank was almost the same age and sure talked it up at the wedding. Truth be told, Clay hadn't considered marriage with any woman. Oh, he'd looked, but no one caught his eye as special. And he knew his father dearly loved his mother, that's what he wanted, if it ever came around.
He'd admired Martha Blakely; a fine-looking woman and he'd been a bit interested until he found out she was sweet on John Evans.
He knew most the women in town, but he also knew most of the good women were taken. He supposed he might have waited too long to show interest. He realized that a grandchild would certainly perk the place up, but a woman…he didn't need one, except on those occasions when he had the itch.
A few years ago, he'd thought about it, but most of the girls he liked had already married and had children too. He supposed he'd let that part of his life slide a little longer than most, but he wasn't about to marry someone he didn't love.
Maybe he'd hire a woman to come cook for them, his father's cooking lacked a lot to be desired. He was tired of a stew that had little in it.
He'd think on that. Perhaps he hadn't given enough consideration to a real courtship when he was younger and now it seemed unimportant to him.
He caught a half dozen chickens and locked them in their pen, then he went back to the barn to curry the horses.
His dad would think of Laura, but Clay didn't feel anything for her but friendship. She was a bit too chatty, a little arrogant, as she was always claiming she was third generation Texan. So what, that didn't matter to Clay. He didn't care about courting a woman nor what generation they were either. He figured if and when the right girl came along, he'd know it and act accordingly. Of course, that hadn't happened either. But Laura wasn't someone he'd even considered for marriage, although he was sure it was on her mind.
What had he been looking for all these years? Maybe he'd been leading her on a bit too long. He enjoyed the meals she sent over to them. And he wasn't blind to what she was up to. She was close to his age, and it was hinted a few times she was reaching old age material.
But marrying Laura was out of the question. She was pretty enough, but she was too refined for him, always telling him how he should do things proper. He didn't consider himself a proper man. He was a rancher, not a gentleman. If a woman did come along, she'd have to take him like he was.
Had he become too set in his ways?
When he came in for supper, his dad had a rabbit stew cooking again. Problem was there wasn't much stew to it, some rabbit and gravy, but not many vegetables in it. Of course, he made the same old dry biscuits and it did soak the gravy up.
Clay's stomach growled. What he'd give for a nice juicy steak about now.
The storm was kicking up and thunder could be heard from far off. It wasn't long before the sound of the rain hitting the tin roof made a powerful noise. It made Clay sleepy just listening to it. Rain gave them both an excuse to take an afternoon nap.
Why did his dad have to nag him about women? What woman would put up with a man that had to have a nap every afternoon.
A shutter in the bedroom was flapping against the outside wall, and Clay went to pin it up, he was closing the shutters when he saw two horses riding up.
They seldom had company, so it was a surprise.
Whoever they were, they rode slow and he didn't recognize either one of them. He didn't recognize the horses either.
The rain came fast and furious, beating against the tin roof, creating a music of its own. It was hard to make out their company though. He went to the front door and held it open as they approached.
"Who's out there?" his father called.
"It's a white man and it looks like maybe an Indian woman." Clay told his father.
"Howdy!" Clay yelled to them.
"Howdy. Mind if we come in and get out of the rain?" The man asked with a friendly demeanor.
"No, come on in. We were just sitting down to supper, come on in and join us." Clay insisted, eyeing them with curiosity.
Out in the country, far from a town, Clay was cautious about people approaching. But he never minded feeding anyone that was hungry.
The man was much older, but he must have taken an Indian wife, she was quite pretty too and a lot younger.
That was strange, how quickly he assessed her.
They came in and Charlie greeted them and introduced himself. "Sit down, dry out and have some vitals with us." Charlie encouraged.
The old man smiled stomping his feet at the door to knock the mud off and nodded to the girl.
Clay watched them as he closed the door and came to join them at the table.
The old man was white headed, short and well weathered as his face carried a lot of wrinkles.
The girl was young and rather shy, Clay noticed.
Charlie got out two more plates and poured them both a cup of coffee. But when she took her coat off, Clay saw the baby. That he hadn't expected. What a strange pair, he thought to himself.
A bit shocked he sat down at the table so as not to stare at them.
"Traveling far?" Clay asked.
"Just came from the Apache camp up on the North River." The man said, casting a glance at the stew.
Clay nodded. "I see. On the reservation?"
The woman said something to the old man, and he nodded, "Can she change him somewhere?"
"Sure," Clay intimated the bedroom.
She went inside.
Clay eyed the old man, "Been married long?"
"Married? Why son, she's not my wife. That's my daughter." He said as though Clay should have known that.
Charlie who'd been quiet perked up, "Your daughter huh?"
"Yeah, I pulled her off that reservation, most of them are starving up there. But they weren't too happy. I sort of kidnapped her. I didn't know she had a kid until we were fixing to leave. She kept him hid under that fur thing she's got on her shoulders. But he's kin I guess, so what could I do?"
"Where's her Ma?" Charlie asked.
"Her Ma's dead, died of the fever. That's why I went to get her. She belongs with me, even with that baby. They made her marry the chief's son, to stay with them, and she had the baby later."
"She didn't want to marry him?" Charlie asked.
Clay needled him in the ribs and frowned as though he'd spoken out of turn.
"No, but they were sending them to the reservation, and the chief told her to go, or she'd have to marry. But she's not too upset. You see, he's dead too, now."
"I killed him." The old man snickered. "Had too, he come at me with his knife when I tried to take her."
Clay and Charlie looked at each other in shock.
"He wasn't going to let her take the baby with her, and she wouldn't come without him, so I had to kill him."
"Then you got some on your trail?"
"Probably. But we've come a fair peace…we should have lost them by now." The man answered as though it was no matter.
Clay frowned, and then went to look out the window.
"Uh, I don't think they are that far away… and it looks as though you didn't lose them." he turned to look at the old man. "And to my knowledge, you don't lose Indians when they are on your trail."
"Aw hell, I should have known," The old man got up from the table, and glanced over Clay's shoulder out the window.
Clay turned to look at the old man. "Known what?"
The old man glanced at Clay. "Well, he was the son of the chief, so he wanted that kid, and the old chief is probably pretty mad about me killing his son, and taking his grandson, but I had to do it." The man fretted. "He wasn't going to let her go. She's my daughter and that's my grandson."
"Who are you?" Clay asked.
"Sorry, I should have introduced myself. The names William Turner," He stuck out a hand to shake.
Clay stared at his hand, "And her?" He shook his hand.
Now that she returned to the table, he got a better look at her. She was small, almost delicate looking. The girl had the shiniest black hair that fell to her waist in the back in one long braid, and huge brown eyes, but those eyes never looked at him, only at the ground. "Maybe you better go talk to them." Clay insisted.
"They'll kill me. I cain't go out there now!"
"Look, there's no need all of us dying for this…" Clay insisted.
Charlie got up from the table and opened the door. He studied the Indians staring at him now. "I'll go, I speak a little of their language."
"Dad… this isn't our fight."
"Maybe I can reason with them." Charlie insisted.
After a long talk, Charlie walked back to the cabin slinging mud on his boots.
"They said the woman can go, but they want the child." Charlie looked from the Indian girl to her father.
"I will not give them my child," the girl spoke perfect English now and raised her eyes to meet the frown on Clay's face.
"You speak English?" Clay frowned.
"Of course, my mother taught me. I am half white." She raised her chin in defiance.
Clay noticed her skin wasn't as dark as most Indians he'd seen.
When an arrow flew inside the window and hit the wall, they all ducked.
Clay and Charlie got their rifles, William pulled his handgun. The girl merely watched and held her child close to her.
Clay stared at the girl. "Do you want to go back with them?"
She seemed to think about his question before answering. "No," she met his gaze now. "My father risked his life to come get me, I will stay with him." She said, as she hovered over her child. "My husband is dead; I have nothing to go back to."
Clay turned all his attention on the Indians. They were not going to give up.
An hour of fighting wore them all down. The ammunition was getting low, arrows were all over the place, and Clay was scrambling for ideas on how to run them off. The rain had finally stopped.
But Clay glanced at his father and noticed an arrow sticking out of his arm.
"Dad!" He shouted and came up to him.
The girl came too and pushed Clay away. She had lain her baby down on a blanket in the other room, then rushed to Charlie's side. "I will take care of him."
Clay stared at her a minute, then nodded.
William turned to his daughter, "I couldn't leave you there Willa, you'd have starved…"
Willa nodded. "I know. "
About that time an arrow pierced William's back and he fell to the floor, dead.
Willa ran to him and cried, "Father…. You cannot die now… I won't allow it." She said as tears rolled down her cheeks.
Clay shot her a look of sympathy.
With silent tears she looked up at him, their eyes meeting. "I am sorry, I have brought this on you. I will go… " She moved toward the door, after gathering her child in her arms.
"No… " Charlie hollered from the bunk in the far corner. "You stay put. Your pa didn't want you with them, you won't go. We'll handle this." Charlie shook his head adamantly.
She had pulled the arrow from Charlie's arm, and bandaged his wound as though she were well used to doing such things. He stood up now and got his gun.
After Charlie and Clay managed to shoot three or four of them, they gave up and left.
Clay slid to the floor with a long hard sigh. "They'll probably be back."
"Maybe…" his father shot him a glance.
Charlie stared at the girl, who was nursing her child right in front of them.
Clay's mouth fell open. He'd been prepared for a lot of things, but not this. He couldn't pull his gaze from her now, it was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. She had draped a soft blanket over her shoulder and was staring lovingly at her child. She wasn't exposed but the way she smiled at her child lit her face, and Clay swallowed hard at the beauty of the moment. It hit him in the gut, as though just now aware of a woman who would nurse her child in front of him. Still, she was Indian and to them it was commonplace, Clay reasoned.
But the sudden notion that he had no idea what to do with this woman hit him square in the face, too. His dad was hurt, her dad was dead, and that left, him, the girl, and the baby.
The Indians had gone, but Clay was sure they hadn't heard the last of it.