Colorado paused inside the doorway of the hotel, surveying the familiar front room. Nothing much had changed since his last trip through town a few months earlier; the wooden wainscoting was clean and gleaming, the fancy wallpaper above it still bright. He didn't recognize the clerk who sat behind the desk. The rifle on the wall above the bar, he did, though it had been a decade and a half since that gun had seen any action.
"Ah! Mister Colorado!" A dark-skinned girl in a gingham dress popped out from a side hall. "It is so good to see you again. I will fetch my father, he will want to greet you!" She darted off, and Colorado shook his head. Maria Robante looked half again as tall as the last time he'd seen her.
It didn't take long before Carlos arrived. "Colorado," the shorter man said, striding out to meet him. "It is so good to see you, my friend." He reached out to pump Colorado's hand. "You have just arrived in town, yes? How was the cattle drive?"
"It went fine," Colorado said with a smile, taking back his hand. "Thought I'd stop by for a bath, a shave, and a drink."
Carlos hesitated. "There is a barber who has opened up a shop here in town since the last time you came through," he said.
"Saw it on the way in," Colorado said with a nod and a bit of a smile. He stuck a thumb through his belt. "I came here."
"But of course you wish to come here, instead," Carlos said, brightening. "Come, my friend."
An hour later, scrubbed and shaved and wearing the cleanest clothes he had while Carlos' wife and daughters scrubbed trail dirt and sweat from the rest, Colorado sat at the bar nursing a whiskey. He relaxed and let his friend's words wash over him. It was more words together than Colorado usually heard in a month, but he didn't mind. Carlos stood behind the bar, chattering about changes in town and how his family was doing. He'd given Colorado a discount, but even full-price it was good whiskey for what he was charging. Railroads offered quick and cheap transportation that cut into the need for riders like Colorado, but they also brought the price of luxuries down. And they also brought in more customers for Carlos than the stagecoach had.
When there was a break in the flow of words, Colorado nodded at the gun mounted above Carlos's head. "I notice you still have the gun up on the wall."
"Yes I do, and there it will stay for as long as I own this hotel, and possibly longer," Carlos said with a firm nod. "It is good for business to remind everyone that I, a Mexican, stood with the Sheriff when Burdette tried his tricks."
"People give you trouble?" Colorado said, frowning. Carlos hadn't done much in the fight but add a little incentive for Burdette and his men to keep their heads down. Still, it had taken guts, and Colorado wasn't about to let his friend get pushed around.
Carlos shook his head. "No, no. But I am friends with the Sherriff, and everyone knows it. Most of my people, they are not so lucky. And also, if Dude retires as Señor Chance did, well, it is best to be prepared, yes?"
"Guess so," Colorado said with a smile, finishing his drink. He stood. "Nice talking with you, Carlos. Send my stuff over once it's clean, will you?"
"You are staying with Dude this time?" Carlos asked. It wasn't much of a guess. If Colorado were staying out on Chance's ranch, there wouldn't be any need to stop by the bar for a drink first. But there was no booze in Dude's house.
"Yeah. Oh, and if you could send someone out to Chance's place, tell him I'm in town, I'd appreciate it."
"It will be done, Colorado," Carlos said, reaching to shake his hand again. "If I do not see you before you leave town, I wish you safe travels, my friend."
"Thanks," Colorado said. "Take care." Colorado grabbed his hat and headed out, pausing to adjust it as he stepped out the door.
It was always a little jarring, these days, looking out at Main Street. About the only thing that hadn't changed was the hot sun beating down. Carlos' hotel wasn't the only two-story building, any more. Most of the old crumbling adobe had been replaced by new adobe, or brick or clapboard buildings. The jail was the same, a sturdy brick building with heavy wooden shutters, but next to it a big brick building was going up—the new courthouse Dude'd mentioned in his letters.
Colorado nodded to the deputy sitting on the porch outside the jail as he passed it; Dude wouldn't be there, it was almost dinner time, and he had a home to go to, now. Just past the jail, he took a cross street and walked down towards the tidy whitewashed house on the end. A garden grew beside it with a fence to keep out critters, and neat white curtains fluttered out of the open windows. Colorado stopped in front of it, and let loose a warbling whistle.
"Colorado!" Dude strode out the door. He stood tall and proud, dark hair glinting in the sun, the few white hairs giving a little extra shine. "You weren't supposed to get here until tomorrow!" He grabbed him up in a bear-hug.
"The trail went quicker than I was expecting," Colorado said, returning the embrace.
Dude clapped him on the back and let go. "You're in luck," he said. "There's a meeting at the church tonight—all the ladies and children will be there. We'll have the place to ourselves, no rug-rats underfoot." He said the last in a raised voice.
Colorado looked past him. In the door to the house stood a plump woman in a plain dress, wiping her hands on her apron. By her side was a girl with brown pigtails, laughing. A boy who looked like his father stood behind her, and their little brother peeked past his mother's skirt. "Howdy, ma'am," he said, tipping his hat to Dude's wife.
"Good to see you, Colorado," she said with a smile. "There's dinner on the table, come on in and make yourself at home."
"Yeah, come in, stay awhile," Dude agreed.
"Thanks," Colorado said with a smile. "It's good to see you, Dude."
"Yeah, well, you're a sight for sore eyes yourself, kid." Dude gave him a playful punch to the shoulder.
Colorado paused inside, letting his eyes adjust. A needlepoint sampler with a Bible verse hung on the wall opposite the door, over a rocking chair with a blue seat cushion. An overstuffed loveseat sat next to it, with a braided rag rug in front of it. To the right, through an open door, sat a table set for dinner. His mouth began watering. "That smells real good, ma'am," he said, hanging his gun-belt and hat on a hook by the door.
"Why, thank you, Colorado," she said, untying her apron. "If I'd known you were coming tonight, I would have cooked more, but there should be enough to go around. Suzie, please set another place."
Colorado bowed his head awkwardly during grace, and then set to his food with a will. Conversation was mostly taken up by the boys, who couldn't hear enough about life on the trail, and how many men he'd shot, and whether he'd ever fought Indians or cattle rustlers, and so forth. Dude watched, smiling, but didn't say much more than the occasional comment or question. The interrogation lasted through dinner and the washing up. Colorado didn't mind, exactly, but he wasn't sorry when they heard a wagon pull up out front, either.
"Hello, the house," came a booming voice from outside.
"Come in, come in," Dude said, striding to the door and opening it.
A brown-haired woman with feathers on her hat entered the room. "Feathers—you're looking good," Colorado said, standing. She was; the years had added character, but not taken beauty.
"Hiya, Colorado," she said, looking him up and down with a smirk. "You don't look half-bad, yourself. It's good to see you again."
Behind her stood John T. Chance. The hat was just as shapeless as ever, but the hair it covered was several shades lighter than it had been. Startled, Colorado realized the older man had shrunk since their last meeting. Not a lot, but enough that the difference in their heights was noticeably smaller than it had been. And he'd lost weight. Chance must be almost sixty, now.
"Chance," Colorado said, holding out his hand. "It's good to see you."
"You, too, Colorado," Chance replied, returning the handshake with vigor. "But I notice you don't say anything about how I look."
"Aw, that's just 'cause he was blinded by the sun glinting offa that snowy pelt of yours," Dude said with a grin.
"Actually, I was just thinking it's a shame Stumpy isn't here," Colorado said. It was a lot harder to pull off the innocent look he'd traded on so much in his youth, now he'd lost the baby face at last. "We could have a little beauty contest, between the two of you."
Dude started laughing. "He's got a point there, Chance!"
"Just you wait," Chance said with a stern face. "Your time's coming. I'll get you for that, yet."
"I'll walk slowly, so you have a chance of catching me."
As Dude laughed and Chance struggled to suppress a grin, Feathers spoke up. "Sorry to interrupt you boys, but it's time for us to head over to the church. Colorado, how long will you be staying this time?"
"Through the end of the week," Colorado said. "Then I have to head out to my next job."
"So soon? Well, I'll get to see a little of you, the next few days, at least." Behind her, Dude's wife was getting the children out the door.
"I'll come over to your place, get in a few good hands of poker," Colorado said.
"I look forward to it," Feathers said, nodding goodbye. "Have fun, boys, and we'll see you after the meeting."
As she walked out the door they heard her voice through the open window. "Now, Sarah, don't give me that look. I don't play for money any more, nor in public …"
"Want some coffee?" Dude asked.
"Yes, please," Colorado said.
"I could do with a cup," Chance said.
"Make yourselves at home while I get it," Dude replied, gesturing them into the sitting room.
"So, how've you been, Colorado?" Chance took a seat on the rocking chair, settling into it with a sigh.
"I can't complain," Colorado replied, perching on the armchair by the door. It was comfortable, if a bit too frilly. "The last trip didn't have any problems to speak of—I wish they all went as smoothly. How have things been here?"
Chance shook his head. "Things have been quiet in town. Me, I'm glad John Junior's old enough to take a decent share of the workload on the place," he said. "This growing old business isn't for the faint of heart."
"You can say that again," Dude said, bringing the coffee in. He set it on the side table and sprawled out on the couch, toeing his boots off before getting them on the cushion. When Colorado had first met him, Dude wouldn't have bothered. He was fairly domesticated, now, though. "I'm starting to get enough aches here and there to sympathize with ol' Stumpy."
"You may feel like Stumpy, but you're sure a lot prettier," Colorado said, looking him up and down. It was true; despite being in his forties, Dude was still a fine figure of a man, muscled and strong. The lines added character to his face.
"Kid's got a point, there," Chance said. "Stumpy'd agree, too. Say, Colorado, if you can dig up some soap that smells like roses on your next trip, we can complete the picture, have him smell as pretty as he looks."
"I thought wanting me to smell like roses was Stumpy's thing," Dude complained. "Don't you start." He turned to Colorado. "How about you? Age sneaking up on you, kid?"
"I'm doing just fine out riding all the time, sleeping under the stars," he replied. "It's the ground that's getting harder every year."
"Of course," said Dude. "Not the fact that you're not twenty, any longer. Yeah, it's all the fault of that pesky ground." He paused. "Say, you getting tired of always being on the move? There's still some good land around here, to be claimed, or the ranch down the road from Chance is up for sale, house and barns and all." He leaned forward, speaking faster as he got excited. "Sarah's got a cousin, real pretty, good cook, good housekeeper, looking for a husband. You'd be in town, we'd get to see you all the time instead of once or twice a year if we're lucky. And you wouldn't have to always be on the go, get to sleep in a nice warm bed. What do you think?"
Colorado paused, taken aback. "I'm not really the marrying type," he said at last. "And I like trail-riding. Gives me time to think."
"Yeah, time to think about all the comforts of home you're missing out on," Dude persisted. "Warm house, feather beds and pillows, hot baths, clean clothes, good food …"
"We had ourselves a good chuck wagon, this last time out," Colorado said mildly. "And I like travelling light."
"You may change your mind yet," Chance said. "I did. But I understand the lure of the trail. Dude, you've never been a trail rider. It's quite a thing, riding out, under the sun and the stars, no fences far as the eye can see, sleeping under the stars."
"Do you miss it?" Dude asked.
"Naw," Chance said, shaking his head. "I'm happy here, with Feathers and the boy and a home, working my own land, coming into town for a game of poker or pinochle of a night. But when I was Colorado's age, that was a different story."
"Well, if you change your mind, you just let me know," Dude said, settling back into place with a shrug. "I'll introduce you to Sarah's cousin."
"All right," Colorado said, although the idea of getting married held no allure for him. "How about some music?" He got up to get his guitar out of its case.
"That sounds like a real good idea, Colorado," Dude said. "You got any requests, Chance?"
None being forthcoming, Colorado tuned the guitar and swung into the first verse of "Yellow Rose of Texas," Dude's baritone joining his own tenor in a familiar harmony. Chance leaned back in his chair and sipped his coffee with a smile, listening. They'd never once gotten him to join them, but he always said he liked to listen. When the last chorus was over, Dude started off with "Shady Grove," and after that Colorado opened up with "I wish I was an apple, hangin' in a tree …"
"You know, that song just isn't the same without Stumpy," Dude said as the song drew to a close.
"His singing, or his mouth organ?" Chance said.
"I don't think anyone misses his voice," Dude said with a laugh. "He played a mean harmonica, though."
"Yeah," Colorado said. He hadn't known the older man well; Stumpy'd died just a year or two after their standoff against Burdette's men, and he'd been prickly enough that Colorado had never really gotten to know him—never even known the man's real name until he saw it on the tombstone. Still, he'd been brave and loyal and good company, and Colorado had been sad to hear of his death. He picked up his coffee cup, raised it up. "To Stumpy," he said, wishing there was something worth toasting with.
"To Stumpy," Dude said, raising his own cup.
"May he always have something to complain of, wherever he is," Chance said.
Dude laughed. "I don't rightly know he'd call it heaven if he couldn't complain."
"I know he wouldn't," Colorado said. "In that high, squeaky voice of his." He shook his head. "Sometimes it's nice singing, just the two of us," he said, grinning at Dude.
Dude smiled back and launched into a new song. "The sun is sinking in the west, the cattle go down to the stream ..."
Colorado joined in on the guitar, basking in the familiar camaraderie.
The sun is sinkin' in the west
The cattle go down to the stream
The redwing settles in her nest
It's time for a cowboy to dream
Purple light in the canyon
That's where I long to be
With my three good companions
Just my rifle, pony, and me
Gonna hang my sombrero
On the limb of a tree
Comin' home sweetheart darlin'
Just my rifle, pony and me
Whippoorwill in the willow
Sings a sweet melody
Ridin' to Amarillo
Just my rifle, pony, and me
No more cows to be ropin'
No more strays will I see
Round the bend she'll be waitin'
For my rifle, pony, and me
For my rifle, my pony, and me