@bountyman  

       Gunsmoke and the faint, cloying scent of blood drifted through the air as the lone rider neared. His shape stood dark and tall in the saddle, moonlight turning his face to sharp silver lines and shadowed angles. He rode steadily yet unhurriedly forward, finally drawing rein but a few yards away.

         There he stood, suddenly still. Steam rolled off the pale horse and though the rider’s face was obscured, there was an odd, creeping sense of being watched. Unseen eyes bored straight ahead. The prairie was silent. Not a cricket chirped, no coyote howled, not even the wind dared breathe. All was quiet… And then he spoke.

         “I’ve been tailin’ you for some time now,” said the Rider, his voice low and soft as a desert breeze. “Don’t worry, I don’t mean any harm. I was only thinking you look a little lost.”


~*~

    The last seven years hadn’t been easy for her – for, anyone, really. Not since losing – well.

    While in her right mind she would agree stealthily leaving the house in the middle of the night for a day’s journey was downright insane… her act of rebellion being for the greater good would be forgiven after all, right?

    Annie could have waited until Benny’s letter reached Uncle Jason. She could have waited until Grandpa Leon arrived from San Francisco on Thursday. But she had grown weary of waiting – now with a gnawing sense of urgency. Her mama was ill. And not the ‘It’s just from the heat, children’ or ‘Mama justs needed some rest’ sort of ill. But the kind that needed sophisticated medicine to get better.

    At only 14 years of age, Annie had made up her mind and swore in her heart, she wasn’t going to lose mama Priscilla now too. And while her more able-bodied brothers were braver, stronger, than her… she knew Benjamin needed to guard the ranch, and Charlie was still too young to even think about leaving the house alone (he made a better nurse anyways). Besides. She was one of the best horsewomen among her peers, thanks to her unbreakable bond with good ol’ Quincy.

    However, her canter had slowed to a walk after she started to notice the cactus. Why did they start to look like ones she thought she had already passed 15 minutes ago? She shook her head. These lands were filled with cactus.

    Annie gasped in fear hearing the voice and stopped suddenly, spinning around to stare in the man’s direction. That voice. – No, it couldn’t be. Lost, that is. She knew these roads well from many a horse ride… well, during the daytime and not in the dead of night that is. Her bright blue eyes squinted as she tried to make out the figure in the moonlight, and then coughed, in an attempt to mask her voice to sound deeper.

    “Don’t mean no trouble, stranger. And I ain’t lost either. Just on my way now.” Picking up the reins, she turned to walk on.