We met beside the creek that runs below Palmers' Cottage. They do say folks named Palmer actually did live in the cottage, back when, but it was before my day. The shabby old house had stood empty all my life.
It was a hot day. I'd sat on the flat gray slab of rock where the Palmers had probably pounded their laundry clean. I'd tucked up my skirt and dangled my 12-year-old feet in the creek to cool them off.
"What're you doin', there?"
The question startled me so, I nearly fell in the water getting squirmed around to see who'd crept up on me.
He couldn't have done much creeping, for a fact. He was up on a big, dark-faced, dark-legged lobo dun gelding, but I couldn't tell you why I hadn't heard or felt that horse coming up behind me. Wool gathering, I suspect.
I looked up at him and said, "Well, I might be knittin'."
He just looked at me. Smart aleck, I could hear him thinking, and I couldn't blame him. I wouldn't have been so rude except that he'd given me such a fright.
"Sorry." I squinted up against the sun. "I bet I know what you are."
He just watched me for a minute, not saying a word. Then, he replied, "And I bet you think you know everything."
I pulled my feet from the water and stood, balancing on the edge of the tippy gray rock. "I know I like that horse. I bet he can run."
He nodded. "If need be. Ride, do you?"
"Sometimes," I said. "When I can. We got no horses, now. Ma sold 'em when I was little. You don't need 'em when you live in town, she says."
"That where you live? In town?"
I nodded. "We had a place out that way." I waved a hand upstream. "But we lost it. No rain for two years. The well went to dust. Ma said there was no point in staying there just to dry up and blow away."
I ran an eye across the fat bedroll behind his cantle and down over his scarred-up leather leggings and boots. His saddle gun nestled in a fringed leather sheath with a kind of sunburst pattern on it, done neatly in yellow and orange beads. The carbine's stock was carved pretty. I went closer to admire the sculpted silver spurs on his heels. When I did, the lobo dun gave me the evil eye.
There was no rope on his saddle.
"You a cowhand?"
He didn't answer for a time, just sat there looking down at me with clear blue eyes that reminded me of someone. I couldn't think who. They looked straight into you, it seemed to me. I thought it was a good thing I had nothing to hide or he'd see it for sure.
"No," he said after a while. "I'm no cowhand. What's your ma's name, girl?"
"Ivy Masterson. Now, I mean. It didn't use to be."
His eyes prowled around inside me again.
"You know my ma?"
He shook his head... so slightly. "Doesn't matter."
I was 12 and smart enough to know a dead end when I heard one.
"If you're no cowhand, what are you?"
"Just a man."
Not a poor man. His gear was nice. Broken in but not worn. A little prettied up, but not gaudy. I knew because that was the kind of thing I liked to see. I hoped to be a saddlemaker, one day. Ma always said I was addled to think so. It wasn't "fit woman's work". But, from haunting the local saddlery, I knew a saddlemaker had to know about all kinds of leather gear, not just saddles, and sometimes he – she – had to make it pretty.
"I sure admire that beaded scabbard. Never saw anything like that before."
"It's Kiowa made."
I didn't know anybody who was an Indian, let alone Kiowa.
"Is Geronimo a Kiowa? I heard somethin' about him in school. Do you know Geronimo?"
"Geronimo is Cherrycow Apache. No, girl, I don't know him." He seemed faintly amused. "You ask a lot of questions."
"My teacher says that's how we learn things. Asking questions. Don't you ask questions?"
Something stirred in his eyes. "Sometimes," he allowed.
"Did you ever think what it'd be like if we couldn't ask questions?"
One of his eyebrows lifted. "Don't believe I did, no."
"You ought to. I've got part of a sugar cookie in my pocket. Do you think I could give it to your dun?"
"I don't recommend it."
"Well, if he's mean, why do you keep him?"
"He's got bottom. He's comfortable."
"He looks spooky."
"He is, that."
He moved, swinging down from the lobo dun, stiff, as if he'd ridden a long way. His saddle creaked. His fancy spurs jingled in the dust of the path. On the ground, he was still tall. He turned and looked down at me again and asked one of his sometimes questions. "You'd be Jessie Masterson?"
"Yes," I answered, surprised. "How'd you know?"
He just looked at me, the way he'd been doing, as if he was memorizing the look of me, as if he wanted me to read what was in his mind.
Suddenly, I knew where it was I'd seen those clear blue eyes with the little lines at their corners.
They were just like mine.
"Hey," I whispered, awed.
That was how I met my father.
["Lobo dun" is one of several terms for a horse color that is usually called "grulla" in the U.S. It is essentially a black horse whose color has been diluted by the dun gene. The grulla has a dorsal stripe and striping on the legs. Relatively speaking, a lobo dun is a rare thing.
The word "Cherrycow" is an old-time corruption of the word "Chiricahua."]