Matthew's whole body tensed, unsure what exactly Bandit was watching. It was probably just a rabbit, since he wasn't growling.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Ike had spotted the animal, one paw resting on a good-sized trout and gazing upstream. Ike watched it for several seconds. Perfect for my next drawing, he thought. Probably a coyote or a wolf. Slowly, carefully, he dismounted. He didn't want to disturb the animal from its breakfast, if that's what it planned to eat. Taking the sketch pad and charcoal from his saddlebag, he looped the reins over a tree branch and edged closer for a better view. Leaning against the tree, Ike turned to a fresh page and began sketching its body; first the head, then the paw with the fish underneath it. He looked up from his pad to glance at the animal's raccoon-like facial markings, noting how the sunlight reflecting off the water caught its eyes. Just as he finished detailing the trout's head, a sudden movement caught his attention. The animal had seen him and was now on all fours, watching his every move and sniffing the air cautiously. Oh, no! The wind changed direction and I didn't even notice, Ike thought angrily. It wasn't that he was scared of the animal; Ike just wished he'd been more careful. He froze, not sure what to do next.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Meanwhile, Matthew had made his way back to the campsite for his father's rifle. He'd bought ammunition in Denver, just in case. Too bad I don't have time to put on my moccasins. I could do this a lot more quietly, Matthew thought as he went upstream again to cros the creek. He wanted to surprise Bandit's quarry from behind. From fifteen paces, he saw a horse, reins looped over a tree branch. On the ground was a young man about Matthew's age, with his back against the tree. He crept five paces closer. The young man was wearing a bandanna under his hat. Scarlet fever, I bet. Matthew fought to push the memories away, at least for now. Another five paces, and Matthew saw a drawing pad on the man's lap. Matthew carefuly aimed the rifle at the man's left arm, which held a charcoal pencil.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
"Don't move," a voice warned. "Do what I say, and you won't get hurt." Ike realized he'd been holding his breath. He let it out slowly. "Put down the charcoal and paper, then stand up with your hands over your head." Ike obeyed. "Good….Now, turn towards me."
The first thing Ike saw was the rifle, now aimed at his chest. The man lowered it, then added, "You can put 'em down if you want." Ike did. The man jerked his head towards the animal, and Ike looked too. It sat, then cocked its head as if to ask, "What's going on?"
Looking back at the man, Ike saw that he was very suntanned, with serious brown eyes and dark brown hair that hung almost halfway down his back in a braid. Like an Indian, thought Ike.
"Matthew Brady," the man said, by way of introduction. "That's Bandit down there--," he pointed to the creek, "--and the black Indian pony on th' other side is Midnight." Glancing back at Ike, Matthew asked, "You want to join me for breakfast?" Ike's stomach growled, and Matthew chuckled. "That's a yes, then." Ike smiled. Matthew whistled to Bandit, who picked up his fish and followed them to Matthew's campsite.
Ike tied his horse to the back of the wagon, then collected some branches to start the campfire. Matthew took off his hat and put on a fresh shirt. As Ike knelt down to light a match, Bandit dropped his trout onto the ground next to him. Ike looked at Matthew questioningly.
"Can't you talk?"
Ike shook his head. He hated being asked, but Matthew didn't seem like the kind of person who would make fun of anyone just to be cruel.
"You born mute?"
Again he shook his head. Taking a fresh sheet of paper, Ike wrote: SCARLET FEVER.
After a moment Matthew asked, "Your hair, too?"
This time Ike nodded. Matthew gave him a knowing look before changing the subject. "As for Bandit, he knows I don't let 'im eat fish. Too many little bones, hard on his throat and stomach. But he's great at catching 'em!" Mathew got up and took a few pieces of dried venison from the wagon. Ike retrieved the apple and bread from his saddlebag, and Matthew cut each in half with his hunting knife. Handing the meat to Ike, Matthew said, "This is Bandit's breakfast." While they shared the fried fish, Bandit laid down and rested his head on Ike's leg. Ike gave him the meat and stroked the top of Bandit's head.
"What's your name?"
Ike wrote: IKE MCSWAIN.
"Well, Ike. It seems Bandit's taken a liking to you." Bandit licked Ike's hand in agreement. Matthew swallowed his last bite of apple, then asked, "So if you can't talk, how do you communicate? Not just pencil and paper, I'd think. Do you know Indian signs?"
Ike nodded, then signed a question. Where are you going?
"Where am I going? That's a good one. Don't know, really. For now I'm following the Pony Express route to Saint Joseph."
I'm a Pony Express rider, Ike signed. I live at the Rock Creek station.
"The stationmaster at Stevens said Rock Creek's the next one." Ike smiled. He had met Corey Bryant a few times and liked him. "That's not far from here, is it?"
Ike shook his head. Three, maybe four miles.
"What do you do when you aren't riding?"
Do our chores. Go to town, too. I like drawing.Ike held up his sketch pad and showed Matthew his picture of Bandit.
Matthew let out a long low whistle, clearly impressed. "Before we leave, you can finish your drawing. I don't mind waiting. If I can watch, that is." Ike gave him a thumbs-up, then went to get his charcoal. "Pony Express…" Matthew continued, deep in thought. Ike drew some trees, rocks, and the creek.
"Ike, I don't mean to interrupt--" Ike paused and looked at Matthew. "--but I was wonderin'. You think I could work for the Express too?"
Ike nodded. If you can ride real fast, and if you're good with a pistol or rifle.
"What's the pay like?" Matthew didn't want to be so forward by asking that, but he was getting low on money.
Between one hundred and one twenty-five a month.
"How'd you learn Indian sign, anyway?"
My best friend Buck. He's an Express rider too, but I knew him before. You'll meet him when we get there, if he's back.
Matthew put on his jacket and hat, then packed up the wagon and extinguished the campfire while Ike finished his drawing.