They were a few miles from the fence line when Cowlick warned him of the storm. Her ears pricked and she twitched restlessly, jogging a crooked course while JJ looked for low ground and waited for the thunder. Lightning balls of electricity rolled over the prairie, and he had trouble controlling the petrified animal. Cold drops started before the thunder even stopped, and they hid out in a hollow littered with butterfly weed until the danger of lightning passed.
JJ thought he’d fall on his face before he got a fire started on the rain-pelted grass beside the stream. Too tired to make it to the pines where he’d have more shelter, he hobbled Cowlick under a tree and rigged his tarp as a lean-to for himself and the fire.
He pulled his boots off, propping them upside down on sticks in front of the fire, and then warmed his half-frozen feet. The aspen branches clashed in the wind, and cold rain ran down his back, but he sat there exhausted.
After a minute he dug out a can of beans, and leaned forward toward the coals to warm them. Water poured down from the crease of his sodden black Stetson, turning the fire to wet gray ashes. With the dismal despair of a boy whose present misfortune is past calculation, JJ stood up to retrieve extra matches from his saddlebag and felt his sock feet sinking in the mud. His tarp and blankets were soaked now, and he sank to the earth close to tears.
Ahead, a vague shadow appeared in the night’s blackness; the vaguest of shadows, at once defined by a whinny.
“Who’s that?” JJ called out.
The horse whinnied again. The night wind got colder and the rustling echoes from the nearby trees strengthened as the rain stopped. Squatted against the earth, JJ finally caught a silhouette of the horse against the pale-black sky, but saw no rider. Rising he clucked his tongue gently, stepping nearer the trees.
The horse moved toward Cowlick. “Steady—steady.” JJ moved close to the horse and caught hold of the bridle, his palm touching a hide that held only faint warmth. And then he felt a hand.
Sweat cracked through his forehead, running down his face with the rain from his hat. Scratching a match on his belt, he held up the light to see a body, slumped in the saddle. In that moment he recognized the derby hat and the waxen face that had belonged to Snake.