The man was back.
She had come to his empty house several times to drink from the water.
This time when the sun was high in the sky she came out to the clearing and smelled smoke coming from the roof. There was also the smell of the food of the two legged. It was the first sign that he was back. She rounded the house to see if he had brought something out for her, when she noticed another two legged. A young one. She knew young ones who wanted to be carried around by her. They were loud, pulled the reins so her mouth hurting, poked their shoes into her belly and slumped up and down on her back so it ached after a long day of being around those young ones.
She was very careful and stood back by the corner of the little house, watching this young two legged who was sitting on the pier. She thought it must be a mare. The hair was long and straight. Two legged mares had long hair, not the stallions.The warm summer breeze played with a few strands of it, just like it did with her mane sometimes. She liked the wind playing with her mane. Liked the wind whipping around her head and ears when she was running fast.
The child looked funny. All two legged looked funny in the fur they wore. She knew they weren't born with it. They had to "dress" in it. This one seemed to have a fur much too big for his small frame. Maybe it belonged to the man? Was the child the man's young one? Where did it come from? Had it been taken away from him and he had rescued it from evil hands and brought it back home?
She scrabbled the grassy ground with her left hoof and jerked her head when a mosquito threatened to bite her neck.
Nobody had ever come to take her home again. She had been taken from the mountains and then lived in a closed house with others of her kind. The two legged lived in houses, too. But they were free to leave. She and her mates had been held as prisoners, except for the times when she'd been allowed to walk in circles, carrying people on her back. That had happened a lot after one man had spent many days to hurt her and made her wear something called a saddle. The man had hit her with a stick and tied her legs together with a rope. But she had fought, using her hooves, legs and teeth. They had left her without food and water until she'd been weak and could not fight that bad man anymore. Then he had tried again and again... and one day she had carried him just so that he would stop hurting her.
They had said she was tamed then.
The young one still sat at the pier, legs swinging and toes splashing in the water. The two legged had funny toes. They were funny creatures, very soft and breakable.
She had never seen a young two legged being so still. She knew them running, laughing, screaming, fighting and playing all the time.
Careful, so he would not see her, she took a step closer to the lake.
Then there was the creaking of the wooden porch steps as the man came out of the house. Usually she would turn and greet him with a low snicker. She felt a warm flutter in her belly at his sight. She had missed the man. Had missed his gentle voice and large hands.
But she wasn't sure of the young. Would he come and demand to ride her if he got sight of her? Would the man tell him not to?
He talked to her as he stood and watched the child, too.
"Hey, beauty. Missed me?" Jack watched the Palomino as she stood a few feet away. She didn't come closer, which seemed to be a little odd. Maybe she was careful now that she hadn't seen him in a while.
Then he spotted Daniel sitting on the pier. Okay, maybe that was something she'd have to get used to. He pulled out an apple from behind his back. He had seen her coming and wanted to give her a treat.
"C'mon. He's not gonna bite ya. Look. I got an apple. Come over here, come on," he coaxed her.
She took a couple of steps closer as she craned her neck and head as much as she could. Even her nostrils seemed to stretch as she parted her lips and tried to make her teeth long enough to get the apple from his hands.
Jack chuckled and humored her. He held out his arm so she could snatch the apple. A moment later she was chewing happily, juice dripping to the ground as she munched.
"Meet Daniel," he said and waved at the boy. "You'll like him."
She didn't seem to be so sure of that. Once she was finished with the apple, she took another step closer and nudged him with her nose as if to say thanks. Then she turned and walked away.
"Come back later so I can take the burs out of your tail," he called after her. He also noticed she was limping a little. Not bad, though. She might have a stone stuck in her hoof.
Jack walked out to the pier where Daniel was sitting for hours now, gazing out onto the water.
When he woke up this morning he had found Daniel next to the couch on the floor, wrapped into Charlie’s blankets, the tatty paper sheet tightly clutched in one hand. Jack had let him sleep and silently slipped out and took a shower. When he'd dressed and returned, the kid was sitting with his back to the couch, looking at his picture.
"Mornin` Danny," he had greeted him brightly. "Slept well?"
Daniel had looked up and nodded his head yes. Well, hello. That was something. They seemed to have their previous level of communication back at least.
"Good. You want me to show you the shower?"
The head had turned from right to left and back.
"O-kay. But you have to wash up a bit. Bathroom's next to Charlie's room. I put your toothbrush and towels in there." Jack had taken the basic stack of things with him Siler had gotten for the kid. A toothbrush, hairbrush, towels, some underwear, a couple of shirts and two pair of jeans. "Why don't you go and get ready. I left some of the new clothes in the bathroom for you. In the meantime I'll see if I can catch us some fish for breakfast."
He had held his breath, not sure if Daniel would comply now that he had overcome his fears of staying in the house, but the kid finally scrambled up and left. Jack followed him through the hall and was beyond relief when Daniel entered the bathroom and after a few moments of hesitation started to turn on the water and washed his face. So far, so good.
Jack had stood there a few moments until he'd been sure Daniel would handle things on his own for the moment, before he had gone out to the lake to set up the fishing rod.
It hadn't taken long before Daniel had come out and sat down next to him. Jack had noticed he'd brushed his hair and looked clean. But he was still wearing Jack's shirt and boxers.
But there had been other things more important than Daniels state of clothes. They needed to go shopping. And Jack had no idea how to get the kid to town and through the shopping without freaking him out.
Well, first they had to have breakfast. Jack had caught two fish and offered Daniel to show him how to prepare them. But he'd gotten no response. Daniel had been sitting there, his toes splashing in the water, gazing out at the lake and the wild geese that were dimpling far away near the other shore. When Jack had asked him if he was okay sitting there until breakfast was ready, Daniel had nodded absently.
He had prepared the fish and grilled it over the open fireplace outside the cabin, all the time keeping an eye on Daniel, who didn't move and didn't look back at him.
Then they had eaten their fish out at the pier. Daniel didn't seem to like it very much. He'd taken a few bites and grimaced, which made Jack grin. "So you can pull faces after all, huh? How about a smile for a change?"
Could have worked.
So here they were now, Daniel still sitting at the pond and Jack agonizing his poor brain over how to get him moving and into the truck. When the mare was gone he walked over and sat down next to the kid again. "We need to go shopping, Daniel."
A tiny head shake. No.
"Yes we do. We need at least food."
Nononono went the head, hair flying.
Scrubbing a hand over his neck, Jack thought fast. Then he said, "Look, kid. You didn't like the fish, right? Well if we don't go shopping, fish is all you'll get around here."
Daniel stared at the water and hugged himself. Jack wished he would be able to see his face, but it was hidden behind all that hair. However, the boy's shoulders were tensed and the self hugging was so tight he might be cracking a rib.
This was going nowhere. Jack knew this wasn't the attitude of a stubborn child. Daniel was scared at the thought of going shopping. If it was about going to town in general or meeting foreign people, Jack couldn't tell. Last night the kid had crawled into himself even more on the flight and the drive home. But he had complied at least. Like he had known he had to go with the flow to get out of the mountain. But now that he was here he didn't seem to want to leave again.
Jack sighed. "I'll call Harry and ask him to come out here and deliver. You wanna come in and help me make a list?"
Harry was an elderly surdy guy with friendly gray eyes and not a single hair on his head. He used to polish his dome with a big red-white checkered hanky. He'd been running the little grocery store in town as long as Jack could remember. He also offered fishing equipment, dog and cat food and some useful tools like axes and knives. His store was also the local post office and a hang out spot for the old men who would sit in the shade of the store's porch in the summer and inside in the back room in winter with some drinks and a deck of cards.
When Jack helped Harry to unload the pick-up and carry the bags inside, he knew Daniel was going to be the subject of gossip at Harry's over the next few weeks. Not much happened in the little village near the cabin that called itself "town". Harry took a look at the kid sitting on the pier. "Is that your niece? Didn't know you had any. Your brothers never show up here."
"Nah, he's mine," Jack said, realizing that he had poured fuel to the gossip now. But now that he said it, there was no turning back, so he added, "I adopted him."
Harry, who was permanently chewing on a toothpick, shoved said pick from one corner of his mouth into the other as he asked, "Him? What's with his hair?"
"He likes it that way." Jack shrugged as he fumbled his money from the back pocket of his jeans. At the store Harry would take his Visa, but Jack opted for paying cash so he didn't have to drive into town anytime soon to pay a bill. Who knew when and if Daniel could be coaxed into leaving his spot at the pier...
"Comes from the city, eh? Little punk you got there?" It wasn't meant as an insult, merely a statement. Harry wasn't one for prejudice. He was friendly to anyone who'd enter his store, no matter the color of skin, hair cut or anything else as long as they paid and behaved like civilized people. He was just simple. And a long haired boy wasn't something he was used to.
"Nah," Jack said again as he handed the money over to the older man. "He's shy. Doesn't talk much. Is a bit skittish. No punk."
"Well, bring him down one day and get his hair cut." Harry shrugged, as he pulled out his hanky and wiped it over his bald head. He pocketed the money away. "I'm looking for some help in the store. None of the youngsters around here give a damn. Not that I blame them. Who in his right mind wants to work in an old dusty store. Maybe your kid gets bored out here and wants a job."
"Sure," Jack said noncommittally and a moment later waved as the pick up left in a cloud of dust.
In the afternoon Daniel started walking around the cabin a couple of times. Jack didn't follow him. He sat on his porch and watched him vanish behind the house, then waited for him to come back. When that didn't happen after the third walk-around, he got up, went inside and peered out of the back window from his bedroom. The kid was wandering across the clearing towards the woods, then turned and came back, which made Jack sigh in relief. They hadn't established any do's and don't's yet. Actually, O'Neill was just observing Danny right now and wanted to interfere as little as possible. But knowing this was Daniel he had a feeling that wandering off was something they had to talk about in the near future.
He went back to the porch as Daniel cornered the house again. The sun had come around to the front and it was getting hot. Jack slapped at a few mosquitoes that wanted to settle on his arm. Daniel stopped his walk in front of the house and looked up at the blue sky and the sun. Then he sat down next to the small path that wound itself down to the lake. He sat there and held his face up into the sun, his eyes closed.
For the first time since Jack had met this reincarnation of Daniel there was something like peace on his face as he seemed to soak up the sun like a sponge.
When Daniel sat in the midday sun for a while, Jack tried to coax him into putting some sun block on his face, arms and legs, but the kid refused and rather retreated to the shadow of the porch.
Jack started to clean up Charlie's room. He carried the boxes out and stacked them in his own bedroom, making a vow to himself to unpack them sometime later that week. He dusted and swept the room and took a better look at the blankets and pillow. Maybe washing them would be enough. They had to do that the next day though since it was too late to get them dry by tonight. Jack tried to get Daniel involved a few times, but had no luck with it. The boy leaned in the doorway and watched for some time and then quietly vanished and went back to his spot on the porch.
So two hours later Jack was sweaty, dusty and thirsty. The room was clean, if still not suitable for a kid. Well, it would do until Daniel was better and they could drive into the next city to get some new furniture and other stuff. Jack sat on the bed and wiped sweat from his brow, when suddenly a small figure emerged from the hallway, holding a glass of water.
"Thanks." Jack smiled and took it carefully, making sure their hands weren't touching.
Daniel looked around the room, showing at least a little bit of interest before he hung his head and those skinny arms went around his body again.
Oh, great. Now what?
Jack took a gulp of the water and held the cool glass against his forehead for a moment, before he tackled this new crisis. "What's wrong, Daniel?" He let a moment pass before he tried again. "I know you can show me. Try at least, okay? What's bothering you? Come on, buddy. Just let me know and I'll fix it." When Daniel pulled up his shoulders and avoided Jack's eyes, he got a clue. "You don't like the room?"
A tiny nod and more self hugging. Daniel took a step back into the shadows of the hallway.
"Hey, hey, easy. It's not a great room. I know. We'll work on it. As soon as you'll feel safe enough to go shopping we'll get new stuff, okay? I can't do that without you, kid. I need to know what you’d like it to be. It's your room, so it's gonna be your choice."
Reluctantly Daniel came back in and shook his head. Then he stepped forward and took the pillow from the bed. Clutching it to his chest he seemed to think of what to do next, then he spun around and left the room.
"O-kay," Jack drawled and followed him. Daniel walked into Jack's bedroom and put the pillow down on the floor next to the bed. He pointed at the pillow, then at himself and at Jack. Then he hurried out again and a moment later came back with his blanket.
"Right. I get it." Jack sighed, slapping a hand over his face. He should have known.
Then he started to move the boxes back into Charlie's room. When he worked on dismantling Charlie's bed so he would get it through the doors, Daniel came in and sat down at the opposite wall to watch him. Jack started to explain every step of what he was doing, for what it was worth. Daniel liked being talked to and as Jack was working and talking, the kid relaxed and stopped hugging himself.
He ran out three more times to get the water glass refilled while Jack set up the bed again in his own room.
All in all it wasn't a bad start.