By Pat Cunningham
(I started this story for an anthology, then got distracted by vampires. I may finish it someday. Until then, enjoy the opening.)
Jillian Spooner shaded her eyes and peered first at the sere expanse of grass her ranch had become, then up at the pale, bleached sky. No clouds at all up there, no promise of relief. No water, no rain. No hope. A phoenix, its brilliant feathers bedraggled from the heat, dropped down to perch briefly on the withered tree beside the corral, uttered a single melancholy squawk, and then flapped on.
Sighing, she trudged to the well and began the tedious process of cranking up enough liquid to fill the trough and water the stock. The horses were a tough breed, descended from fey mares her grandfather had brought up from the south. They could live on dew and the wild beans whose vines crisscrossed the pastures, but not forever. They needed grass and grain to stay healthy. All the valley did. There must be water, and soon.
Jill turned gritty, bitter eyes to the north, to Fountain Hill. The spring on its peak, it was said, had been a gift of the benevolent, maternal Goose Woman herself, enchanted to never run dry. In happier times water had tumbled in an unending cataract from that hidden source, and irrigated the entire valley. But times change, and magic ends. The track of the cataract gleamed like a bone, the Goose River had shrunk to a narrow trickle in its cracked and brick-dry bed, and what people said of Goose Woman now Jill would not repeat.
The Spooners had their well, but that was not nearly enough. The Peterses, their nearest neighbors, had already packed up and gone, leaving their pumpkins to split and curl beneath the merciless sun. The widow Mary Sparks, contrary to the last, clung stubbornly to her parched garden patch. She’d outlasted troubles worse than this, she said, and vowed to sit tight. Jill wanted badly to do the same, but how long could they hold on?
With the trough three-quarters full, Jill set to drawing two last buckets for herself and Uncle Orly. Alerted by the scent of water, the horses drifted in, their once-bright faerie coats now dulled by dust. Her heart ached to see them so. “I’ll make it better,” she promised them. “Somehow.”
Phaedra, the lead mare, halted abruptly. She turned her head and pricked her ears toward the wavery horizon. Jill squinted along the line of her interest and spotted movement. Another neighbor pulling out? That didn’t look like a wagon. That was a rider, headed for the ranch.
Jill set the bucket down, suddenly alert. She’d left her rifle inside. Before she could move toward the house, however, something about the rider struck her as familiar. She froze in place, staring, as her heart did a series of painful flips and her throat became a dry and dusty echo of the land. All the while the rider drew ever nearer, nearer.
She stood rooted to the earth and let him approach her. No mistaking him now. Within the lean, rangy face and form of the man she could still make out the sparkling eyes and careless ease of the boy she’d known. That brought back to her mind the careless
, easy way those eyes had broken her heart, just before he’d ridden off without a word to her. Her legs found their resolve again, and she reconsidered a dash for her rifle.
Too late. He reined his horse to a stop just inside the gate. She automatically assessed the stallion with a horsewoman’s practiced eye. Those eyes grew wide. A tigerstripe! Their fey blood mingled with Gorgon; it was said they couldn’t be tamed. Yet horse bore rider with no complaint. No easy or careless man could get near a wild tigerstripe, let alone catch it and break it to saddle. She peered more closely at his face, suddenly uncertain. Perhaps this wasn’t Jack after all.
His voice dispelled her doubts. “Jillian,” he said. Just that, but it broke open her heart and flooded through her like a torrent down an arroyo. Somehow her mouth found enough liquid to swallow.
“Jack. You’re – ” She couldn’t go on.
“I’m back,” he said simply. He removed his hat. There were the sparkling eyes and the lean face with its easy smile. The eyes did not sparkle as brightly, but the smile still invited a woman’s confidence, and tempted her lips to touch his. A dangerous thing, that smile. First in the hands of the boy he’d been, especially now on the face of the man he’d become. Jill tried to steel herself against it, and already felt herself faltering. The bucket weighed like lead in her hand, but she couldn’t look away from him long enough to set it down.
“What do you want?” she managed.
She wavered anew before his frank stare. As if he were assessing her, as she had his horse. The tigerstripe eyed the mares at the trough. Jack looked at her with much the same expression.
“I’ve come home,” he said, “to claim what’s mine.”
Before she could respond to this, a rifle clacked behind her, startling them both. The tigerstripe skinned back its lips, revealing teeth far too sharp for a normal horse. Jill risked a glance over her shoulder. Uncle Orly stood in the doorway, the rifle trained on Jack.
Jack only smiled. “Orlando Spooner. Peaceable as ever. How’s that dance-hall girl you got to run away with you?”
“She run off on me. What do you think?” Uncle Orly settled his aim on Jack’s chest. “You ride on, Horner, and you keep on riding. You’re not welcome here.”
“Too bad. That gal was quite a dish.” He resettled his hat on his head, and tipped its brim to Jill.”Jillian. I’ll be seeing you again.”
“No, you won’t,” Uncle Orly said,. “There’s no place for you in Goose Valley. You be on your way.”
Jack smiled to them both, but mostly at Jill. He turned the tigerstripe and rode off at a leisurely trot.
Uncle Orly didn’t lower the rifle until Jack had traveled well byeond the gate. “Horner,” he muttered. “Like we didn’t have enough trouble. You all right, sweetheart?”
That was debatable. Up until five minutes ago she’d have sworn before the parson Jack’s return would not affect her, that she’d cried him out of her system years back. That was before he’d trained his eyes on her and made that remark about claiming. Somehow the pain and the years between dissolved before those eyes.
Mentally she shook herself. She was no woman to wear a man’s brand. Certainly not Jack Horner’s. She hefted the bucket. “I’ll be all right,” she assured her uncle. “Let’s get dinner started.”