4 – Dirty Hands

The bandits’ camp was an old smuggler’s cache they had discovered. Nothing notable at first glance, it was a single-room shack that had a distinct lean and an oilcloth for a door. The shack’s lone window had broken wooden slats nailed across it from the inside. More importantly to two aching and exhausted bandits, there was a fire pit in front, a log to sit on, a clear creek nearby and a hidden cellar that was twice as large as the hut itself. A cellar that was now filled with items pulled from the trainwreck.

Their heavy lifting over, the bandits had washed and changed back into their normal clothing. Without needing to wash grease from her hair, Ryan had a cooking fire started and a can of beans heating by the time Millie returned from the creek. Laying on the human’s foot was a giant mastiff who thumped his tail against the ground at the sight of the returning elf.

Some breed of old world mastiff, Fyr was Ryan’s shadow. He had protested with the biggest, saddest, puppy eyes the two women had seen when they left him tied at the camp. Now that they were back, and dressed in their normal clothing, Fyr had no intention of letting his person out of his sight again.

“Welcome back,” Ryan said, glancing up from the fire. “Manage to get all the grease out?”

“Most of it,” Millie said, joining her friend on the log-turned-bench. If they had made an odd pair earlier that night, dressed as bandits, they made an odder one now. Ryan was dressed well: a dark duster kept in good condition despite its extensive wear, a white shirt under a leather vest, and tailored slacks. Her stetson was resting by Fyr’s paws, safe from the fire.

The elf’s clothing was far more eclectic. Millie wore a poncho instead of a jacket, the fabric now sun-faded to a series of greys and blues. Hints of orange and red could still be seen in the folds, but it suited her just fine as it was. Buckskin leggings clashed with the mostly-white cotton shirt and grey wool vest. Her own hat in hand was flat-brimmed and had feathers tucked into the braided band.

Quite a pair.

Settling by the fire, Millie looked over the camp and set to combing her fingers through wet hair. She hadn’t bothered telling Ryan how she had liberated the camp some time months ago from its previous inhabitants, and her partner in crime hadn’t asked. The bodies weren’t nearby and she’d kept watch for anyone looking for the now-missing men.

There weren’t no honour among thieves no more, Millie thought. No one came to check in on those boys. Their loss.

“Want a comb?” Ryan asked, pulling a wooden one from the sack of toiletries she had been packing up. “Might help.” The comb was made of wood, and Millie could see a simple design of carved wheat gleam in the firelight.

“I’d appreciate it. I’m pretty sure there’s some grease left in there,” Millie said. “Especially the way that dog of yours keeps licking his chops at me.”

Ry grinned and said nothing, leaning down to pat the mastiff’s side. Fyr looked up at his lady, his tail thumping faster against the ground. He stood up with a little whine and tentatively walked over to sniff at Millie’s hair. He didn’t even have to stretch his neck up, he was as tall standing as she was sitting on the log.

“Thank you,” Millie said to the dog dryly as she received a few slobbery licks to her forehead. She sighed, patting his meaty shoulder as he sniffed and licked at her hair. “This is extremely helpful, Fyr.”

“Maybe next time, don’t use bacon grease?” Ryan asked, and while Millie couldn’t see her past Fyr’s giant head, the elf heard her friend trying to stifle her laughter.

“Next time, definitely not using bacon grease,” Millie agreed, and turned to look over their handiwork.

Around the camp, horses were grazing in overgrown grasses. Some had bits of mane and hair singed off from the trainwreck, while they had tied crates to the horses to carry them to camp, Millie hadn’t spotted more than superficial injuries. Singed tails would grow back and the few with burns would-

Wait a minute. Millie squinted, counting heads.

“Am I seeing things, or do we have more horses than we started out with?” she asked, feeling Ry pull at Fyr to get him to stop licking Millie’s hair flat to her scalp. Ryan was a strong woman, but Fyr was a boulder of a dog. A boulder who loved bacon.

“Yeah, they’ve been trickling in- Fyr, please, leave Millie’s hair alone,” Ryan said, grabbing the scruff of Fyr’s neck. His tail wagged furiously and he whined before reluctantly returning to his master. Rather than lay down again, he stuck his head into the bag she had been packing, sniffing at all the new things.

“Sorry ’bout that,” Ry said, looking back up to her. 

Millie watched the human’s pale eyes fixate on top of her head and then Ryan’s face contort as the woman tried to keep from laughing. It bubbled out anyways. Ry held out the comb and tried to catch a breath.

“Most of the horses arrived while you were washing your hair in the creek. I’m sorry,” Ry said between laughs. “He got some of it standing straight up.”

“It’s the latest fashion,” Millie said with a haughty sniff, “Dog-lick mohawks.” She ran a hand through her now wet-with-slobber hair. It might be silver again, but it did not feel clean. Millie made a face and started to braid her hair back into place.

“Sorry,” Ry said, still chuckling.

“S’alright, it wasn’t clean yet anyways,” Millie said, watching the horses. “So, I’m thinkin’ we should split the herd. A bunch of tasty horses all together like this might draw out our big Blue friend again. And apparently these hacks aren’t interested in wandering the plains freely like they escaped all on their own.”

“I bet that’s why they keep showing up,” Ryan said, face grim. “They don’t want to be alone with something that scary out there.” She checked on the beans and poked the coals with a stick, sending up orange sparks into the early morning darkness.

Millie nodded. Following the sparks, she looked up at the sky to see stars twinkling and a smudge of slightly grey that was –much to her relief– just a cloud. Dragons might not be the only things out in the darkness that they had to worry about, but they were one of the few things that scared her. Not that Millie would ever admit as much aloud.

“How ’bout I take the quarter horses and mustangs out to Anya’s ranch?” Ryan said. “That leaves-“

“The pintos and ponies,” Millie said, a small smile touching her face. The painted horses were especially prized by the wild clans, elven and otherwise. “Thank you,” Millie said. “But don’t think I don’t know this is because your dog tried to eat my hair.”

“Guilty as charged,” Ryan said. “Are you gonna report me to the sheriff?”

They both laughed, eventually settling into comfortable silence until the beans were ready. It was only after they’d eaten, when the horizon was blushing pink, that Millie asked the question.

“Did you read that letter?”

Ryan’s lips pressed together and her pale eyes grew hard as she stared into the fire.

“I did.”

Millie waited a moment for Ryan to elaborate, but when it became clear Ryan wasn’t going to, the elf nodded. There was time, and she wasn’t going to press for answers if Ry wasn’t willing to give them. Not yet, at least.

“Alright.”

**

Bellies full, the women had parted the herd and set off on their separate ways. Ryan had the easier job of it at the start, using Fyr to help herd the larger horses toward the Ranch. It was a shorter ride than to the Clan, but Anya would be a harder sell to accept that they had ‘found’ horses. Ghost clan’s camp was further away in a valley near the badland foothills. A longer ride, but the elves wouldn’t ask questions about where the horses were from nor the providence of goods that were now strapped to Millie’s swayback mare. An old but sturdy girl, Buttercup wouldn’t travel faster than a trudge, but she could continue at that pace until the ends of the earth.

Millie had planned to walk, a gentle pony with long eyelashes and a fluffy mane had nudged at her pocket, looking for treats. Testing the saddle on his back, he seemed agreeable to the idea of carrying her. So in exchange for the ride Millie gave him one of the withered carrots that would be her lunch.

Tying her mare’s to the saddle, Millie added a lead line of the older horses, looping her rope through their halters with enough space between for them to feel comfortable. That done, she mounted up with a last rescued treasure on her shoulder, and set out toward her cousins.

“Come on now,” she called over her shoulder to the rest of the horses and ponies. They trudged after her before long, following the line of horses she had tied to her little pony. Swaying in the saddle, Millie pulled the guitar from her shoulder and began to tune it.

Somehow, miraculously, the guitar had emerged from the wreck with only soot and a bit of warping largely protected by it’s leather case. Hardly a quality instrument, the guitar was the first she had been able to get her hands on since she’d arrived to the frontier.

Millie’s ears perked and twitched with each pluck of the strings as she adjusted the tension of it’s strings, coaxing it back into tune. Before long she was satisfied, and strummed a chord. The pony’s ears flicked back, curious what she was up to.

“A music lover, are we?” Millie asked him. She was rusty, but her hooved companions wouldn’t mind. She picked out some of the simpler tunes she remembered, humming along to pass the time.

Around them, the sun had risen, casting the plains in a beautiful golden glow. Leaving the smoking wreck of the train behind, Millie adjusted her hat to keep the sun off her ears, and felt herself relax. Family was ahead, the weather was good, and she finally had a guitar.

Sometimes, she thought, life was good.

It was mid afternoon when Millie heard a songbird warble in time with her guitar. After a few hours of practice, her fingers had remembered their songs. Millie reached up with achey fingers to hold her hat on and looked up to see who had joined in her song.

Ahead, a cream coloured pipit flitted over the tall grasses. It chirped and trilled, flying over to land on the mane of Millie’s pony, too light to earn a flick of a fluffy ear. Millie rested an arm on her guitar and looked at the small songbird expectantly.

It ruffled its feathers and chirped again, regarding her with a beady little eye.

“Well, hell. I dunno who you think yer foolin’,” Millie drawled, a single eyebrow arching at the little bird. “But it sure ain’t me, Arabelle.”