She sat in the strange dress on the bank of the creek, a makeshift fishing pole and line out.
Stud lay on the ground, his head in her lap as she cast out occasionally. She held the line with one hand, using her other to trace curlicues around his face. Around the nose that was such a familial trait, around the closed eyes, through the thick scruff on his face. The beard was growing in brown with silver on the chin.
The blood had washed off her hands. It didn’t feel like it washed off her soul.
But here they were, in the clothes Sylvia had lent them. The Deputy and Kit had dug a grave for Butch. Not that they wanted his body on the property, but he was dead and that was that.
A tug on her line and she pulled it in carefully. She wasn’t sure how good of a hook she’d made with the twig. Good enough, apparently. A rainbow trout was on the end of her line and flashing in the sun.
“Nice,” Steve murmured.
She killed it then hung it in the tree. She wanted to get at least three more so all of them could have a fish for breakfast.
She settled back on the bank, making another hook with the knife and sticking a worm on.
“Fresh fish is the best,” she said. “I don’t know if I could handle more stew.”
He laughed. “I think that’s all they eat.”
“Sylvia showed me the salt pork and I was a bit, ‘oh no.’”
He laughed. “When we get home, we’re going to flop on the couch, order a pizza and get into my latest batch of chocolate stout.”
A little piece of her thrilled to hear he was making plans for them to be together once they got home. That he’d still be with her.
She got her line situated and cast out. She started tracing her fingertips over his face again. Watching the way the smile would flicker in the corners of his mouth. How he’d nestle his head into her thigh. The sighs coming from his chest.
“Steve,” she blurted. She hadn’t been meaning to talk, it just came out on its own.
His eyes snapped open with worry.
“What’s the matter?” he said. He sat up and put a gentle hand on her thigh.
“If we’re stuck here, I want to stay with you.” She choked on her words and bobbed her head, then said, “No, that came out wrong.” She lifted her head to see him watching her carefully. “I want to stay with you. Regardless of where we are and what we face.”
Joy lit his eyes. He leaned forward and kissed her cheek, once softly.
“I don’t know what a son of a bitch like me did right, but I can’t imagine how I’d deserve you,” he whispered.
“This,” she said, putting her hand over his heart. “This right here.”
He shook his head. “I’d never told anyone about the cattle before. That I still took care of them. That I wasn’t willing to let go of the land yet.” He took a turn to bob his head. “It’s like you look at me and see what’s in my heart. It’s like I don’t need to hide anything.”
A tug at her line and she turned her attention back to the pole. She pulled in her fish as he watched her, the pleasure at watching her in his eyes. The sheer joy at being with her and enjoying all the things she could do, from catching fish, to physical pleasure, to writing financial software, she was sure.
She hung the fish in the tree with the first. “I think we’ll have some fish in fast order.”
“You’re good at this.”
She shrugged. “The fish are just hungry.”
“This is not something most people can do.” He looked up the hill to the cabin. “Kit can’t.”
“I couldn’t build a cabin.”
“The hell you couldn’t. You could build a cabin.”
She grinned. “Is that why you’re keeping me around? Because I can do shit.” It was a lopsided, teasing grin and she was just waiting for what he would say.
He went serious and said, “It’s because I love you.”
Her smile died, but a solemn warmth filled her chest.
He stood up and touched her cheek, then looked in her eyes. “Except I’m sure you know this already.”
She shook her head. “I didn’t, but…” The warmth was turning into a smile all through her body. It was a flushing warmth spreading through her, the emotional answer to their physical intimacy from earlier.
He nodded his head. “We’ll be together, Judy.” He leaned forward and kissed her cheek. “Whether that’s here or there, we’ll be together. If I can be with you, if I can protect you, I will.”
She sighed and leaned against him, pressing her forehead to his neck. “Let’s get these fish. I’m starving.”
He laughed and they settled again. Somehow, they’d be together and everything would be okay. They’d come through.