John sat atop his gray mare, one hand on the pommel, and stared down the ridge at the structure below. It wasn’t much of a house. From this distance, it looked like a square clapboard frame that held only one room, two at the most. Spiraling up from a rock chimney, a wisp of smoke trailed through the air and smelled of mesquite wood, and he wondered what Lois had been cooking. More important, however, he wondered what he would say when he finally faced her.
It had been a long time since he last saw the woman he once swore he would marry. It wasn’t so much that Lois had ever said anything; it was in the way she looked at him, with a wink and a smile, like it was only an issue of time that separated their souls and that time was growing shorter with each passing day. It was destiny.
His father didn’t much believe in ideas like that. Growing up, raised to help with the daily details of the so-called good work, John listened as his father proclaimed that fate and destiny were like two saloon whores who sang songs and promised much but always left a man alone to wallow in his beer of could-haves and might-have-beens. The only destiny a man could count on was that he was headed for one place or the other when he died and that was it. Still, Lois had been the dream John held on to, the one he never gave up in spite of the wood pounding and spittle his dad had to offer. She was his salvation, and John figured he would face even the gates of hell as long as he had Lois by his side.
At the time, he hadn’t wanted too much, really, just a small place out on the plains where he could raise cattle and have a family, sleep with the woman of his dreams and provide her warmth and comfort on those long winter nights when the wind howled through the roof timbers. But as it turned out, life never looked at John with favor. Everett Wilcox had changed all that. Everett with his reckless ways. Everett with such self-assurance that he could do anything he wanted and have anyone.
John grabbed the reins. With the heels of his boots, he tapped the mare’s sides lightly.
“All right, Sadie,” he said. “No better time than now, I guess.”
The horse responded with a nod of its head as it plodded ahead, slowly descending the hill.
As they approached the house, a woman stepped through the front entry and leaned against the doorpost. She wore her hair pulled back and tied up in a roll behind her head, and in spite of the heat she clutched a white shawl around her shoulders. The dress she wore was plain and simply made and held the color of a clear blue sky.
A few feet from the house, he stopped the mare.
Lois smiled and slowly shook her head.
“Well, well, if it isn’t John Colton,” she said. “Didn’t think I’d ever see you again.”
Her voice sounded as smooth and relaxed as remembered it--something he wished he felt at the moment. During the long ride over to Wilson, and then out to this place, he had thought of all the things he could say. He dreamed up each word, the rise and fall of each syllable, like a lyric of poetry. He wanted to express all of the things that had been left unsaid, let it gush out as a long soliloquy of pain and regret; but now, sitting on his horse, Lois standing in front of him, John found that none of those words came.
A long moment passed between them, both saying things with their eyes that their mouths couldn’t speak. Finally, Lois broke the silence.
“I heard rumor you had taken off with the cavalry. That you were fighting the Indians out there somewhere in the Arizona territory.”
John shook his head. “I got no issue with the Indians.”
She nodded. “I’d also heard that you’d headed south, crossed over into Mexico and was shot down by a couple of Rurales, something to do with a young señorita.”
“It appears that you’ve been listening to the wrong people.”
She smiled. “Well just last month, I heard that you were the sheriff over in Sundance. And by the looks of the star on your chest, I’m guessing at least that rumor turned out to be true.”
He didn’t say anything to that.
After a moment, she pointed toward the side of the house. “Well, why don’t you tie up your horse and come on inside? I’ll make you a cup of coffee.” She turned to go in the house, but stopped up short. “You look like you could use a drink of something strong.”
That one stopped him and at first he wasn’t sure how he should respond. Had she heard about his drinking? Did Everett share that with her? But then he saw the humor in her eyes and figured he must have looked terrible, which was most likely given he’d just spent the night in a jailhouse with a prisoner who wouldn’t shut his mouth.
He nodded. “I could use some coffee.”
As she stepped inside and he tied off the horse, John thought she hadn’t changed much at all over the years. Not one bit. In fact, it felt like the years were only a dream, and he was still looking at the same girl he’d loved only yesterday.
He walked around the side of the house and paused at the doorway. He stared out across the way. It would be so easy to ride back up that hill, he thought. Just move on, be the sheriff of a small dirt-water town and let Lois live her life. But then he remembered that night and why he came, and he figured there was no life worth living until, like Everett had suggested, he settled all debts.
And this was just one of them.