Half a mile beyond the Reynolds’ place, up there in the dry wash where the mesquite clings to the scree walls, that’s where they found him. Pardee’s boys took perverse pleasure in their work; Josiah Morris’s death wasn’t pretty.
Johnny made sure they never headed that way when he rode with Emily.
But one day Emily came back from following her herd of wild horses all pale and shaky with something clutched tight in her right hand. When she held out whatever she had, the first thing Johnny did was take her hot small hands in his cool big ones for a minute. Then he turned them over to help her unclench her fist.
“It was just at the edge where the water had dried up. I saw it shining there and I thought oh, no, I hope it isn’t a gold nugget. So I dug it up…”
It was a cufflink, crusty with mud . She’d scraped it off to show the delicate engraving: JQM.
“Josiah Q. Morris.” Johnny said the man’s name with respect. “What’s the ‘Q’ stand for?”
“Quincy.” She stared at the cufflink until Tramp butted her shoulder and knocked her into Johnny’s arms. She grabbed on and buried her head in his shoulder, and he held her while she unwound a little.
“I wish I told you not to go that way,” he murmured to the top of her head.
Her answer was muffled by his shirt. “I wouldn’t have listened.”
He gave her a quick squeeze before he held her out at arm’s length. “You just have to follow those horses, don’t you?” He hoped his teasing would make her smile, and it did.
But he knew what she was going to say next.
“Will you go back there with me?” She didn’t look at him when she asked, like she didn’t think he would.
Johnny thought of bloodstains, and pieces of fabric and leather – all that would remain of a man murdered a year ago. “Why, honey? Murdoch buried him, didn’t he?”
Emily nodded. “But if there’s this, there might be something else…” She opened her hand to stare at the cufflink again. “I know it doesn’t make any sense, but I don’t want him to be out there all alone.”
She wasn’t crying but Johnny knew she wanted to. He hated how helpless it made him feel.
The air shimmered with heat as Barranca and Tramp picked their way down the arroyo where Emily had found Josiah’s cufflink. Near the bottom they tethered the horses to the mesquite scrub and started scouring the ground for anything that looked out of place. The mud of the creek bed was cracked on the surface and smelled to high heaven.
Johnny knew that Morris was killed upstream from where they were looking; he figured the cufflink had washed down during the winter floods. He didn’t share that thought with Emily but felt obliged to look north a ways as he checked the surrounding terrain. Emily probed the muck with a stick she’d picked up, her mouth set in a frown.
Every now and again he looked back at her, hoping she was ready to give it up, but she stayed stubbornly fixed on her search so Johnny kept at it, too.
The day wore on; they didn’t find anything. At one point Johnny rubbed his hand against the back of his neck and promised himself it would be the last time he was ever going to help her. Then he looked at Emily and wondered who he was kidding. He didn’t know how it happened, but she touched his heart in a way that made him want to take care of her, to help her out even if it meant a wild goose chase in a miserable stinking gulch on a hot day.
Finally she’d had enough. Even the horses seemed relieved when they mounted up. They rode until they found a shade tree where they could sit cross-legged on the ground and drink from their canteens. Emily’s face was flushed and when she took off her hat her hair fell over her face until she tucked it behind her ears.
She gazed into the distance, away from the arroyo. “I guess there’s nothing else to find.”
“Guess not.” Johnny stripped the bark off a branch he’d almost sat on. When it was bare he stuck it in his mouth, chewed on it a little. He waited.
“I think I’m glad.”
Johnny sighed in relief. “Yeah, me too.” Glad he didn’t have to keep looking in the stench and the hot sun, but mostly glad he didn’t have to figure out what to say if they found something.
Emily fidgeted a little, turning more towards him. Calm and sad at the same time, she said, “Josiah was a good man. He was a good husband. ”
“Did you love him?” Now where did that come from? He looked at the ground and felt like a fool. “Sorry, it’s none of my business.”
“No, it’s a fair question, now that we’re…courting, would you say?” She smiled a little.
“Is that what you call it?” Johnny glanced up and saw her smile. Courting, huh? He’d never really courted anyone before. He rolled the word around in his head for a minute, enjoying the sound of it. Sort of sweet, and gentle.
Johnny’s fingers started on a new stick. “So… did you love him?”
Emily scooted back to lean against the trunk of the tree. “Not at first. I wasn’t expected to – it wasn’t a love match. He was older than me and he took care of me. He was very patient with my lack of housekeeping skills, very supportive of me wanting to finish my education. He treated me kindly.”
“Know what I think? I think your husband was a lucky man.”
She blushed. Then she was silent for a long time before she went on. “I felt affection for him. He cared for me; he was just sort of…we didn’t really have much to talk about.” Another pause; then Emily looked at Johnny with that direct gaze of hers. “We didn’t have any fun. I didn’t realize it at the time; or maybe I thought life wasn’t supposed to be fun.”
Johnny grinned at her. “What’s the point of anything if you can’t have fun?” he teased, but Emily took him seriously.
“I see that now. You’ve taught me that. I miss Josiah, but I’ve been feeling bad lately because, in truth, I don’t think of him all that often.” She looked away, shy all of a sudden. “Now I think of you.”
“Whew! That’s a relief.” Johnny spoke lightly, but his heart thumped a little. He cocked his head with a smile as she looked back at him. “You’re in my head a lot, too. I’m glad it goes both ways.”
She smiled, too. “So am I. I was a little scared to tell you that.”
“Yeah? Well, I was a little scared hearing it.”
Emily laughed. “You? Scared? I never thought you would be scared of anything.”
Johnny chuckled and shook his head. “That’s where you’d be wrong. Everyone you meet is afraid of something. Trick is to know what, and what you’re going to do about it.”
“What do you mean, ‘what you’re going to do about it’?”
Johnny scooched over until they were sitting arm to arm. “See, I know you’re afraid of telling me how you feel.” He reached out and tipped her chin up. “And here’s what I’m going to do about it.”
And he kissed her.