Chapter Four, Part One—Rattlesnakes and Puppy Dogs

     The afternoon ride passed uneventfully. Lance made a lot of jokes, Garret was his usual charming self, Polly and the judge held hands the whole way, and I spent most of my time staring out the window at the passing countryside. If somebody asked me something, I responded courteously enough, but I didn’t volunteer anything. I never really had in my life so this wasn’t much of a change. You grow up largely alone and you don’t have anybody to talk to. So you don’t talk much…

     Susan glanced at Kendrick occasionally, wondering how much of what he had told her was true. Maybe some of it…I can’t see the “Garret is a rattlesnake” thing. That probably IS a bit of jealousy, and…he obviously doesn’t like gamblers. He…Funny thing. I don’t even know his first name. Just…Kendrick…
     There was a brief rest stop in the middle of the afternoon. Susan had one more question she wanted to ask Kendrick, so breaking away from Garret and Lance for a moment, she went over to him. “Can I ask you something else?”
     “Lance. Is he a rattlesnake, too?” She tried to keep the sharpness out of her tone, but it was hard.
     Kendrick looked at her. Susan knew there was a little fire in her eyes, but he just smiled at her softly and shook his head. “Naw. Lance isn’t a rattlesnake. He’s just a little puppy dog.”
     “Well, I’m glad you think kindly about one of them.”
     He continued to smile. “Of course, that depends on what the puppy dog does.”
    Susan was exasperated again. “Ohhhw. You are the most frustrating…what is THAT supposed to mean?”
     He just shrugged, still smiling.
     Susan turned quickly and started to walk away. Then she stopped and looked back. “Mr. Kendrick, can I ask you what your first name is? We don’t even know.”
     Still smiling. “Yes, you do.”
     Susan was thoroughly flustered now. She threw up her hands. “I give up. The man is insane,” she said, mostly to herself, but within his hearing as she turned and walked back to the stagecoach.

     She’s not the first person who’s ever thought that, I mused, then stared after her thoughtfully…

     The next way station had burned down two months previous, so we had to stop that night and make camp in a wide circle of large boulders about 100 yards off the road. The area itself was perhaps 100 yards in circumference, and 30 yards in diameter at its widest. Much of the snow had melted by now, so the area was clear and dry. It was cold, though, so we built a huge fire that reached to every part of the “pit,” as Josh called it.
     “We been stayin’ here ever since the Stockton Station burnt down. They’s workin’ to rebuild it, but won’t have it done fer a few weeks,” Josh told us.
     “Oh, but this is nice,” Polly said. “Camping out. We used to do this when I was a child back in Ohio. What fun.” She giggled.
     I had had plenty of camping out in my life and “fun” wasn’t a word I generally associated with the activity….

     After supper, everybody was sort of milling around, or leaning back against a rock. The fire was kept burning high and hot. Garret came over to Susan as she was putting some things away in her bag and said, “Can I talk to you for a moment?”
     “Sure,” she said.
     "Let’s go over there,” he said, “I’ve got something to show you.” He pointed to a rock at the edge of the big circle, a little behind the rest, and in some shadows.
     They walked over there and Garret sat down and patted the earth next to him. “Sit down and take a look at this.”
     When Susan sat down next to him, he held out to her a small bracelet fashioned as a snake bangle. It had a carved snake’s head and a curving, twisting body that wound around three times. “I found this the other day when I was exploring the caves.”
     Susan took it, her eyes wide. It was golden, and it had little beads of turquoise imbedded down the snake’s back. “Wow, it’s beautiful,” she commented. “Is it really gold and turquoise?”
     “I’m pretty sure it is,” Garret responded. “I know a little bit about Indian folklore up here. This bracelet would have been made for a princess. The snake was to ward off evil spirits and”—here he smiled—“unwanted suitors. I thought it probably fit your current circumstance quite well, so I wanted you to have it.”
     “Oh!” Susan exclaimed, still dazzled by the bracelet. “For me?” She slipped it on her left wrist and it fit perfectly.
     “See?” Garret said. “Made for a princess.”
     “Oh, Garret, thank you!” Impulsively, she leaned over to kiss him on the cheek, but he turned his head and met her lips fully with his. She started to pull away, but then decided not to. After all, it was a magnificent bracelet. And another romantic night.
     After a few seconds, it was clear to Susan that Garrett wanted to prolong their current…attachment. A prolongation to which she had no objection whatsoever….

     Near the fire, Lance, who had just returned from a nearby stream where he had been washing up, was warming himself and his ice cold hands. He happened to turn and spot Garret and Susan just as she slipped the bracelet on. A few seconds later, Lance saw two heads come together and stay that way. He watched for a full minute, then grunted indignantly when the two heads didn’t separate. Then Lance turned back to the fire and grinned. Anything he can do, I can do better…at least she’s not totally unwilling…Lance began to plan. He thought for a few moments, then another smile came across his face when an idea started forming…
     Fifteen minutes later, Lance checked again….and the two heads were still together and showing no signs of imminent separation…

     Garret and Susan remained engaged in their amorous entanglement for several more minutes. It fleetingly went through her mind that everybody could see them, but it didn’t bother her enough to want to stop. When they finally broke the kiss, both breathing very hard, Garret asked Susan if she’d like to go behind the rocks.
     “Just for a few minutes. It won’t take long.”
     She knew what he meant, of course, and it was a temptation, but not an overpowering one. She smiled at him and gently pushed him away. “No, Garret… not…yet…”
     He smiled, not pushing it. “Ok, but I’ll imply from the ‘not yet’ that there’s still a possibility.”
     For some reason, some words she had heard very recently leapt into Susan’s mind. “Imply anything you want, gambler…” She frowned momentarily, but caught herself and smiled at him. “We’ll see,” is all she said about that, then followed it up with, “I’m going to bed. Josh will have us up early tomorrow.”
     As she made preparations for sleep. Susan glanced over and saw Kendrick cleaning his gun. He didn’t even look at her, as if she wasn’t even there. It’s an act, I know it is. He saw me and Garret, I’m sure he did…She felt a little smug about it. Then a little angry that Kendrick was ignoring her. Or at least it appeared he was. In a huff, she jerked her blanket down and thought, I hope you shoot your foot off…
     Susan lay awake for awhile after she got under her blankets. She was looking up at the stars again, a soft smile on her lips. She thought about her evening with Garret and was still aglow from their intimacy. Boy, if every rattlesnake could kiss like that, I’d be out hunting them every day…And she giggled to herself. Take THAT, Mr. You Think I Know Your First Name But I Don’t Kendrick…She felt the bracelet around her wrist. How old was it? Hundreds of years, perhaps. Gold. Turquoise. Wow, this thing could be priceless…and he gave it to me…Garret is a very sweet man, he’s no rattlesnake…if he were as bad as Kendrick implied, he would have kept it himself...and with that satisfactory confirmation in her mind, she rolled over onto her side, and prepared to go to sleep.
     But she frowned. Rattlesnakes kept coming into her mind. Kendrick…not Garret…why? She rolled over thinking that would help. It didn’t. Rattlesnakes. Kendrick. Bracelet or not, something was gnawing on the back of her mind. She shook it off. Tomorrow will be better…
     And with that thought, she went to sleep.

     Susan was wrong. I hadn’t seen her and Garret. I had been too busy cleaning my rifle and then my pistol. And even if I had been looking for her, I wouldn’t have seen them because, from where I was sitting, there was a boulder between us. I did think about her a couple of times. I don’t think she likes me very much. But then, I don’t especially like flirtatious women. I smiled. Especially if they aren’t flirting with ME…Then I pulled a wry face. Not that I’ve given her any reason to…Then a frown. She said I was jealous…am I?….
     I think I’m glad I hadn’t seen her and Garret…

     The noon stop was at about 11:15 the next day. Josh was making good time. He decided to give everyone an hour for lunch and rest. Carson’s was the name of this station, and it was nice. A big, log structure, with the necessary barn and stables behind. The dining area could probably seat 30 people, and there was a nice fire blazing in a fireplace. It was cozy and comfortable.
     The owner was a man named Carson, and he had an Indian woman, who looked to be in her mid-20s, as helper and cook. The lady was pretty, but she didn’t talk much. But Susan could tell that she didn’t miss much, either. Garret and Lance sat on each side of her, as they always did, and their company, as usual, was charming, gentlemanly, and humorous. Garret, again, said nothing to Susan about the intimacy between them the night before, and if anybody else saw, they didn’t say anything, either, though Polly did give her a smile and a wink and a shift of eyes towards Garret. But that was all.
     The Indian girl’s name was Sara—obviously given to her by her husband. If he was her husband. Susan was intrigued, so when she finished eating, she helped clear the table and take the dishes back to the kitchen.
     “You don’t need to help,” Sara told her.
     “No, I want to,” Susan said. “It’s cold outside and I’m chilled so I want to stay in. I help you with the dishes.”
     Sara didn’t argue, in fact, she seemed grateful for the assistance. And to have a female to talk to, something that probably didn’t happen very often.
     As they were washing the dishes, Susan, trying not to sound too nosy, asked Sara, “Is Mr. Carson your husband?” It was a legitimate question. He looked about twice her age.
     “Yes. He has been good to me.”
     “How did you…meet him?”
     Sara gave her a wry smile. “As he and his troops were killing everyone in my village.”
     Susan looked horrified.
     Sara sighed. “He was in the U.S. army. It was his duty, I guess. Our braves had been raiding, pillaging, and killing white settlers, so the army got orders to destroy our village. They hit us early one morning. I was seven years old at the time. Sam was a lieutenant and happened to be in charge of the raid. I stood outside my teepee, watching the soldiers killing everyone. Our people were fleeing. Being run down, shot, stabbed, whatever. I just stood there. I didn’t try to flee because I knew it would be useless. Sam came riding up and pointed his pistol at me. I just looked up at him, waiting. For some reason, he didn’t shoot. He looked at me funny, then reached his hand down to me. I took it, and he pulled me up and sat me in front of him. ‘I will finish raising you,’ he said, ‘teach you our ways, and then you will be my wife.’” She gave Susan a wan smile. “And that is what happened.”
     “Tragic, but sweet, too,” Susan replied.
     “Yes.” Then Sara asked abruptly, “Which one of the two men are you going to choose?”
     Not quite understanding, Susan asked for a clarification.
     “The two men you sat between. They obviously both desire you greatly. So you get to choose one. Which one will it be?”
     Susan was amused. “Oh my, you mean I have to choose one of them?”
     “Oh, no, you should get to know both of them. That is what I would do. How else can you tell which one you like best? But then you will have to choose.”
     Susan was having trouble suppressing a laugh, but she couldn’t deny the logic. “That’s true, I suppose.”
     “It is nice to have a choice like that. In my village…before Sam…marriages were arranged. Indeed, I was purchased by a warrior for six horses when I was five years old. I had no say in the matter.” She shrugged. “It was our way. And it worked well enough.”
     Susan pulled a face. “Well, as long as it works.” She didn’t think she would have liked that custom, but if that is what she had grown up with, she figured she wouldn’t have known any better. Sold for six horses? Of course, being from back east, that was…strange…to say the least…
     “So,” Sara said. “Which one will it be for you?”
     Susan smiled playfully and replied, “Oh, I don’t know. It’s such a difficult decision. You choose for me.”
     Sara looked thoughtful. “Hmmm…one is dark, handsome, quieter. The other is full of energy and laughter….” She shook her head. “I cannot choose for you. You must do that yourself.”
     “What about the other man?”
     Sara was puzzled. “What other man?”
     “The man who sat by himself and said nothing to anyone. Kendrick.”
     Sara said, “He does not seem interested in you. Are you interested in him?”
     Susan opened her mouth to reply, but found no words coming forth. Am I? She frowned. Sara continued, “If you are, you must let him know.”
     Sara smiled. “You are not lacking in many feminine charms, Miss Bedford. I suspect you know how.”
     Susan frowned again. Not with him. I’ve already blown it, I suspect, by implying he’s crazy or a liar or both. So she just said, “I guess so.”
     “But if he is the one you want, enjoy the other two first. That is what I would do. No regrets later.”
     Susan smiled at the thought. Well, I certainly enjoyed Garret last night, and I’m not necessarily opposed to enjoying him again…
     Josh called for boarding. Susan gave Sara a hug. “Please come through again,” Sara said. “I will not forget you and I will want to know what you have done.”
     “Ok. I will if I can.”
     She headed for the coach, a bit amused and a bit perplexed. Enjoy them both, huh…The idea had a certain appeal to it. Enjoy them both, then grab Kendrick…
     And then she realized something. A bolt from the blue. That’s the only way to describe it.
     He IS the best of the lot…But how do I know that? What is it about him? He’s so disdainful?…aloof?…arrogant?…Susan couldn’t quite find the right word. She glanced up. He was looking at her. He didn’t smile, he was just…looking at her. Susan kept his gaze, but he turned away.
     I don’t think he’s interested. I don’t think I am, either. I don’t like him, he’s too…mysterious, too closed, too cold…That reasoning satisfied her.
     Then she saw Garret and Lance get into the coach. She smiled. Enjoy them both…why not?…no regrets later…

     The ride that afternoon was uneventful. Garret and Lance managed to get Susan between them, which didn’t bother her in the least. Garret showed her a few card tricks and Lance told a few stories that had everybody laughing. Except Kendrick. He keeps his head buried under his hat…I’ll bet he’s not asleep…he’s listening…he’s jealous, I know he is…Susan smiled smugly…And I’m going to keep him that way…

     Wrong again, lady. I was asleep. I slept for two hours and didn’t hear much of anything. When I woke up, I heard Lance’s tales, and Susan laughing. I didn’t think Lance was funny and I thought Susan’s laugh sounded silly. Jealous…ha…I put my hat back on my head and stared out the window….

     That evening, another way station stop, of course. B&J’s it was called, for Barney and Judy, the husband and wife proprietors. It was a nice place, set among some cottonwood trees with a stream running behind it. Everyone was looking forward to a hot meal and a warm bed.
     The group had been there about 15 minutes, gotten cleaned up in the stream and waited for supper. Before she went inside the station, Lance came up to Susan.
     “Come here a moment, I want to show you something,” he said.
     He had that mischievous look in his eyes, so Susan suspected something was up.
     “What is it?” she asked.
     “No, come on,” he said. “Don’t be so suspicious.”
     Well, that was fair, Susan thought. I can always say no and come back…She glanced around to see if anybody…Kendrick…was watching her leave with Lance. He wasn’t. Susan steamed a bit. He’s so annoying…
     Lance led her to the barn and they went inside. “Um, Lance…” Susan said, getting more cautious by the moment.
     “It’s ok. Please. Just a couple of minutes, then you can go back if you wish.”
     “All right.”
     It was dark inside the barn, except for one small light coming from the loft. Lance went over to the ladder leading up to the loft and started climbing it. “Come on,” he said again, “just have a look.”
     Susan gave him a wary look, but she climbed the ladder and peaked over the edge of the loft. She smiled.
     There was a blanket spread on the hay, with a single candle burning near it. Two cups and a coffee pot. “The coffee should still be hot,” Lance said, “but I’ll have to run down to the kitchen to get our food. Have a seat and I’ll be right back.”
     Susan thought it was sweet, and appreciated the time and effort Lance had put into the idea. I haven’t spent any time alone with him…So she climbed on to the loft. Lance hurried down the ladder and out the barn. Susan sat down, her legs curled under her. She smiled again. A candlelight dinner…how romantic…what was it Sara said?…enjoy them both…well, I’ve definitely enjoyed Garret…A queasy, but warm, exciting feeling came to her stomach. Now Lance? This is nice, so thoughtful…both of them…but do I want to…? Flirting was one thing, and she liked both men, but she began wondering if she was getting in a little too deep. Still…she looked around. The single candlelight was dancing shadows on the wall of the barn….the wind moaned softly outside…a very handsome man was coming…this is incredibly romantic…
     Idly, still thoughtful, she reached over, picked up the coffee pot, and poured herself a cup of coffee. It wasn’t steaming, but it was still warm. The barn was cold, but she hardly felt that.
     She heard the barn door squeak open and shut and then soft footfalls coming in her direction. In a moment, Lance’s head, grin and all, appeared over the edge of the loft. He held out two plates of food. “Here. Let’s eat before it gets cold.”
     Susan took the plates and set them down. “The coffee is still warm,” she said, “so that’s ok.”
     “Good,” Lance replied as he scrambled onto the hay and sat down next to her. The food looked very good—meatloaf, green beans, corn, stewed apples. They had had some good meals on the trip, and this one certainly got Susan’s food glands stirring.
     They started eating. “How did you come up with this nice idea?” Susan asked.
     Lance grinned, chewed, swallowed, took a sip of coffee, then said, “Sort of came to mind when I saw you and Garret last night…” Susan blushed. She figured everybody had seen; Lance was confirming that he, at least, had.
     Then he chuckled. “I thought about interrupting and seeing if I could get a turn.”
     “Ha ha,” Susan responded.
     “I like this idea better anyway.”
     “I do, too,” she replied, and their eyes met and held for several moments. Enjoy them both…Lance’s turn?…Susan was beginning to feel uncomfortable…but…a candlelight dinner…so thoughtful…and he’s so handsome…Lance, how could you DO this?…The impulse was beginning to overpower her. It did overpower her…what harm can it do?….
     Still looking into Lance's eyes, Susan set her plate aside, food about half-eaten. She said, very softly, barely above a whisper, “I don’t want to eat any more.”
     Lance put his plate away as well. His gaze shifted from Susan’s eyes to her lips. “I don’t, either,” he responded, and moved towards her…
     Susan waited, then shivered when Lance’s lips touched hers. He held the back of her head in one hand; she squeezed his soft blonde hair tightly. A long moment…Susan was going over the edge, she knew it, and couldn’t stop it. Slowly, Lance began to lean her back until she was lying prone on the blanket. He continued to kiss her fervently, non-stop, and all Susan could do now was lie there, virtually helpless, trying to rally the will-power to stop him…a will-power that just wasn’t there. She felt herself falling…falling…falling….
     Then something blasted the whole thing apart. Stopped it dead in its tracks. Completely, totally ended the heat, passion, and desire that had overwhelmed Susan’s body and soul.
     The thought froze her like she had been dropped into a vat of liquid nitrogen. Ohhhhw…I HATE that man…Immediately, she grabbed Lance’s shoulders, pushed him away, and sat up.
     “Lance, I’m sorry…but…no, it…it’s just not…that’s enough…” She didn’t know what to say.
     Lance looked at her like she was crazy. “Susan…it was so…I thought you were enjoying…” He stopped.
     Quickly, Susan got up. “I was. I’m sorry. I just can’t. Thank you for…everything. It was…very nice.” And with that, she hurried down the ladder, and ran out of the barn.
     Lance watched her until she was out of sight. Then he sighed and shook his head. “Women. Absolutely no explaining them…”

     A few minutes later, Lance went back into the main room of the station. Everybody was finished eating and sitting around the fire, drinking coffee or whiskey. They all looked up when he came in. He glanced around, searching for Susan, but she wasn’t there.
     “Did Susan come in?” he asked.
     “No,” Polly replied, “we thought she was with you.”
     “Well,” Lance fumbled, “we…had dinner outside…but then she…left. I thought she came in here.”
     “Nope. Haven’t seen her.” That from Garret.
     “Maybe I better go find her,” Lance said, “just in case.” And he left the room.
     Susan had gone to the stream and was sitting under a tree, watching the water slowly drift by, but not seeing it. Garret the rattlesnake…Lance the puppy dog…Kendrick the…insane? How could that happen? Garret is NOT a rattlesnake, Lance is NOT a puppy dog, but Kendrick IS insane…
     So why did I let him stop me?
     Why isn’t he here right now?
     Why did I stop somebody who at least enjoys being with me because of somebody who doesn’t?
     Susan lay her head down against her propped up knees. She didn’t hear Lance come up until he sat down next to her and asked, “Are you ok?”
     She looked up quickly and saw Lance. She smiled weakly. “Yes, I’m fine, thank you.”
     He remained quiet for a few moments, and then said, “Do you…want to talk about it?”
     Susan looked back at the stream. “No. There’s…nothing really to talk about. I just…needed to stop it, Lance, that’s all.” Her eyes found his, and she smiled softly, but looked away again. “I’m…just not sure yet.”
     Lance hesitated. “Is it…Garret? I won’t get in the way if it is.”
     That’s sweet. “No, it’s not Garret. It’s just…” She sighed. It’s just what? It’s just some guy that haunts my mind though he shows no interest in me…”I’m sorry,” is all she concluded.
     He looked at her thoughtfully. “Ok. I don’t want to rush you into anything.” It was a bit abrupt, he thought; it was going so well. Something is bothering her…”Do you…want me to leave you alone?”
     She smiled softly at him again. “If you don’t mind, I would…sort of…like to be by myself for a little while.”
     Lance smiled and nodded, then stood up. “Ok. I’ll be inside if you need anything.”
     Lance left. It was cold, but Susan sat by the stream for awhile longer. Thinking. She was an intelligent lady, level-headed, so it didn’t take her long to shake off the effects of what happened. She smiled to herself. Enjoy them both…then take Kendrick…
     Doesn’t look like I’m going to do ANY of that…