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Math and Poetry and Gunmanship

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They found the farm at dusk, a burnt-out shell of a house and a tumbledown barn, visible for miles across the cracked and broken plain. It looked like there was nothing useful here. But the water-finder, a compass-sized object cupped in Leo's palm, had led them here, and there was still water in the well, clear and cold. Leo knelt beside the reservoir casement and tested half a bucketful of water with the little spike in the water-finder's back end, and the top glowed a reassuring green.

And there were walls, and part of a roof on the barn, and places to pasture the not-horses. The farm was on top of a bluff looking down on a dry riverbed with the fallen-in remains of an old bridge across it and a war-machine, long since frozen and dead, standing sentinel on the far side. They'd stayed in worse places.

Which was good, because Frank wasn't doing well at all.

He'd said nothing all afternoon, which wasn't exactly unusual for Frank, but whenever Leo looked back he was hunched in his saddle, head down and hat hiding his eyes. Normally they took turns leading the way, or rode side by side in flat country. But he'd let Leo and her not-a-horse lead all day, making no corrections, not even bothering to point out the little things he sometimes pointed out to her: animal trails in the dust, disturbed places that might be minefields or trapper nests, the dark patches out in the wasteland that sometimes indicated water, the rock piles that might be used for a bandit ambush or a tigersylph's lair.

None of which he'd done today, and Leo rode upright in the saddle and looked around, keeping the shotgun across her lap. She'd seen nothing living all day except for a few birds high up and once, a distant scattering of something that might be antelope, but they were gone before she could get the binoculars out to check.

Her legs and hips ached, but she stopped for only a few minutes in midafternoon to water the horses and pee behind a bush. Frank stayed in the saddle. She was increasingly uncertain that he could get back in if he got out of it.

A part of her was quietly panicking. But she tried to do like Frank had taught her: don't think too far into the future or focus on what you can't change. Just break each task down into the parts that need doing. Life is a thought problem. Figure out each part of it, and you've got the solution.

And what needed doing was finding a safe place to camp, and water, because they were almost out. The water-finder had led them astray twice in the last couple of days, finding sources too badly contaminated to even be worth filtering.

But this time it had led them true. She dipped up water and set the buckets down for the not-horses, who dipped their long muzzles, and then she hesitated before reaching a hand up and shook Frank's leg. "We're camping," she said. "Hey. Can you get down?"

He seemed to come back from a long ways away, nodded slowly, and with jerky, slow movements levered himself out of the saddle and slid down the not-horse's striped side to stand, for a moment, leaning against it, one hand gripping the stirrup.

It occurred to Leo, very belatedly, that she'd watered their mounts and made sure to take sips from her canteen regularly, but she hadn't even thought to check if Frank was drinking. Frank was the one in charge; Frank was the one who knew everything there was to know about the wilderness beyond the walls of Stockade Dome. He'd made it clear to her from the beginning --

"Follow my lead and do exactly what I tell you, every single time. No questions, no arguing, no doubts. Out there, you stop long enough to ask me a question, you die, understand?

-- that that was how it worked, how it was going to work: Frank gave the orders, she took them. Except now apparently she was in charge, because Frank couldn't, and the awareness of her new responsibilities shivered through her.

At least making camp was something she knew well. She left Frank hanging onto Rosie's saddle and went ahead and unsaddled Storm. By the time she finished that, Frank had moved a few feet away and was sitting on a tumbledown fence, so she took off Rosie's saddle and packs as well, and scratched her forehead beside the small glowing knot of the control implant. The two not-horses reacquainted themselves with each other, nibbled at each other's necks and rubbed their tall humped shoulders together, and then wandered off to browse on the thorny brush they'd been bred to live off of.

Meanwhile, Leo gathered dry pieces of brush -- one thing about this part of the wasteland, there was no shortage of fuel for fires -- and started a small, nearly smokeless fire the way Frank had taught her, at the base of one of the farmhouse walls. They had two walls at their backs, and could look out across the dead riverbed to check for anything coming from that direction. The not-horses would alert them if anything came around the camp.

She dragged the saddlebags over to the fire, and then the saddles, to sit on or lean against. And then she went and got Frank.

"Come on," she said, tugging at his arm. He jerked away, and after a minute, got up on his own, swaying.

 

***

 

He had ridden out of the wilderness three months ago, and Leo had been ready. She'd been working hard, sweeping floors and waiting tables and delivering packages, saving every penny. She found him in a bar by the Main Gate, and walked in and sat down across from him.

"Little young to be in here, aren't you?"

"Did you get my letters?" she asked.

"I don't even know who you are, kid."

Leo swallowed and laid her envelope on the table. "I want to hire you to help me find my parents. There's money in here. I don't know how much you want, but --"

Frank shoved it back toward her. "I don't want you to pay me, kid. There's nothing I can do for you."

"My parents are David and Sarah Lieberman. Ring any bells?"

He paused with his glass of whiskey halfway to his mouth, and looked at her.

"Yeah, that's right. You're their friend, aren't you? You guys all knew each other, back when me and Zach were babies."

"Little Leo Lieberman," he murmured, giving her a newly thoughtful look, and then his eyes darted away. "Where's your brother?"

"Here in town. We're staying with an old couple, friends of Mom and Dad's. Zach can stay here, but --"

"What happened to them?" he interrupted. "David and Sarah."

"They went out with one of the long-range survey crews, the ones trying to get the roads back up and running. They were supposed to be gone for four months." She swallowed. "It's been a year. I've been talking to everyone, and I found people talking about you. You know the wasteland. You can help guide me through it --" She pushed the envelope back toward him.

He took it, and then all but threw it at her, a sudden sharp explosion that shocked her. "I'm not taking your money. But yeah, I'll look for your parents. Tell me everything you know."

She did that, and at the end, she said, "And I'm coming with you."

"Hell you are. You gotta stay here with your brother."

"He'll be all right with the Yangs."

"And I don't need a kid weighing me down." He took a critical look at her. "How old are you now? Eleven? Twelve?"

"I'll be thirteen in September."

Frank shook his head. "I'm not a babysitter."

"I'm not asking you to babysit me," she flared. "I can pull my weight. Dad showed me how to track and set traps and all of that kind of thing. We've been going out ever since Mom and Dad joined the survey crew. He said I picked it up faster than he ever did. He said it was stuff that you taught him."

The look he gave her was flatly hostile. He was a scary-looking guy, she thought. If she'd just seen him around town, she'd never have guessed that he had been friends with her parents back in the bad old days. She would have taken him for just another of the hunters, traders, and tech-salvagers who came in off the plains, frequenting the Gateside bars and never venturing into the nicer parts of town like the quiet middle-class street where the Yangs ran their restaurant and store. Hard, rangy men and women in dusty coats and wide-brimmed hats, openly carrying the rifles and handguns that were prohibited outside the Gate district, sometimes accompanied by some of the weird and exotic wildlife that lived out on the plains: loping hyena-dogs and tame cheetahs by their owners' legs, tall hump-shouldered not-horses walking with no visible means of restraint except the glimmer of the control stud beneath their antlers.

But, strange as it seemed, he had known her parents. Her only memories of him now were of a faceless adult picking her up, infinitely tall and strange in the way of adults to small children. But her parents had told her and Zach about Uncle Frank and Aunt Maria, and she had read the few often-refolded letters that had come years ago, with Maria's drawings of their homestead in the wilderness.

After her parents went missing, she had started sending messages with every trader, scout, and surveyer who might be going anywhere near Frank and Maria's homestead. She didn't even have a clear idea where it was, just that it was somewhere on the same river that ran around the edge of Stockade Dome, but that was a thousand miles of river and they could be just about anywhere on it.

"You must have gotten my letters," she said.

"I didn't get any letters. Just came to town for supplies. I forgot you were even here."

"How could you forget? You wrote to us!"

"Long time ago, kid," Frank said, and he took another drink.

She looked at him again, trying to see the person her parents had known in this scruffy stranger. His face was weatherbeaten like old leather, deeply creased, making him look much older than he had to be if he was about her parents' age.

"Do you still live out there?" she asked. "On the river, with Aunt Maria?"

His hand froze on the nearly-empty whiskey glass. Then he reached out, very carefully, and gripped the bottle by the neck, and poured it up to the brim.

"I'll find your parents, kid," he said. "And I won't take your money. You go back to your little brother now."

Instead she was waiting for him in the gray of pre-dawn. She'd asked around, found the stable where he was keeping his not-horse, and then slipped out of the Yangs' house as soon as everyone was asleep. She didn't dare wait until morning, not if he left at night. She hurried through the dark streets, avoiding the curfew watch, panic beating in her chest -- what if she was already too late, what if he'd left already?

But the not-horse (Rosie, she later learned) was lying down at her stanchion. Leo crept up to her nervously -- she'd never been entirely easy around the big animals, but Rosie didn't try to bite, and Leo patted her nose and then sat against her warm side and waited for Frank.

As the darkness outside the small, high-up stable windows was beginning to lift, she heard voices outside. Rosie lifted her head and pricked up her ears, and Leo stood up.

Frank walked in, hat tilted over his ear, laden with saddlebags. He stopped at the sight of her. For a moment they just stood there and looked at each other.

"I'm going with you," Leo said.

"No you're not." Frank dropped the saddlebags and loosed the light rope that held Rosie in place. It was for form's sake only; the not-horse could easily have broken it if she'd wanted to.

"You can't stop me. If you leave without me, I'll follow."

"I don't need you slowing me down."

"I won't," Leo said. "I'll pull my weight. I said so." And she stuffed her envelope of cash pointedly into the nearest of the saddlebags.

"What's your brother gonna say when he wakes up and finds you gone? Or is he coming too?"

"He's not," she said. They'd fought about it, fought endlessly -- but Zach had never been like her; he wasn't drawn to the world outside the city's walls the same way Leo was. And she'd pulled out the older-sibling card, pulling rank, making him promise to wait the same way their parents had. They'd hugged goodbye at the Yangs' house before she slipped out the window. On the long walk to the stables, she'd looked back frequently to make sure Zach wasn't following.

Frank snorted, and stared at her, and then turned around and got down Rosie's massive saddle from its post. He dropped it into her arms. Leo squeaked and collapsed, going down to her knees under its weight.

"You're gonna pull your weight, all right," he said shortly. "And there are some ground rules."

 

***

 

Most of Frank's rules came down basically to Do as you're told, and don't dawdle about it. Which didn't make him that different from the Yangs, or her parents for that matter. But in this case, she couldn't. Because Frank couldn't tell her what to do. Frank had been hurt two days ago saving her life and he was really, really not okay and she was the one who had to do something about it.

If she hadn't come, would he be fine right now? Would he be twice as far along, and twice as close to finding her parents?

She swallowed against the dry ache in her throat. Focus on what needs to be done, not what you can't change. Cry about it later.

Frank had stopped near the fire, and just stood there, swaying, like he wasn't quite sure what to do with himself. Leo swallowed again and got over herself and took hold of him by two fistfuls of his long leather coat. This time he let her, not resisting as she steered him to sit on the ground with his back against Rosie's saddle.

They'd been traveling together for two months, but in some ways she still felt as if he was an utter stranger, a distant older relative that she had nothing in common with. And yet, they had done things she'd never done before with anyone but her parents. He'd taught her to shoot, big hands repositioning hers on the stock and trigger with the same kind of brisk skill that he used to put Rosie's tack on her. He pointed out animal tracks, taught her to set traps, taught her to fight -- sometimes with a kind of vague amusement that made her defensive and angry, as if the things her dad had taught her weren't enough (but they weren't enough, she was coming to find; not nearly enough).

But he didn't really talk. He certainly didn't chat. The conversation they'd had in the bar was more talking than she usually got out of him in two or three days. She didn't know anything about his past, how he'd met her parents, whether he'd gotten most of the letters they'd written to him over the years. She still didn't know what had happened to Maria. She found out by accident that he had kids; it was a tossed-off comment one day, when he was teaching her to set a rabbit snare. "My boy was good at these," he'd said, and then he'd looked as startled as she was, and closed his mouth, and didn't say anything again for the rest of the day.

Still, she kept trying to have conversations with him, and that's what she'd been doing two nights ago while they were eating, scraping a kinda-gross stew made of dried meat and beans from the bottom of their tin camp bowls by the flickering light of a low campfire. She'd been talking about school, and whether the Yangs would be mad at her if she wasn't back by the time classes started again; in Stockade Dome you were supposed to go to school until you were fourteen. Zach didn't enjoy it but she'd always liked going to school and she had won a city-wide poetry contest when she was ten.

It was just words, really, trying to fill the silence and the lonely dark. When she ran out of words, she'd hesitated and then asked him a question, about what subjects he'd liked in school, or something like that. Just being friendly. She kept giving him openings like that, and he kept not taking them, but she went on trying. It was better than sitting around the fire in silence.

This time, he'd abruptly lowered his bowl and said, "Kid. Listen. I'm not your friend, okay? I'm not your buddy. I'm definitely not your dad. You hired me to do a job and I'm doing it. That's all."

She had stared at him, feeling heat rise into her cheeks and tears press behind her eyes. She was humiliated and furious. She'd just been trying to be nice. "So it's all just about the money after all?" she snapped. She got up, throwing her plate to the ground, and turned and stomped away from the fire.

"Leo!" She heard him get up, too. "Leo, stop, it's not safe out there."

"I'm not going far!" she shot over her shoulder. She was going to be crying in a minute, and she didn't want to do it in front of him.

"That's a god damn order!" He caught up to her with a few strides of his longer legs. She started to break into a run, but he caught her, grabbed her shoulder and spun her around. She tried to squirm away and then lashed out at him with a punch. He took it on his elbow, somehow without ever letting go of her arms. "You made a promise. You said you'd do what I tell you. Right away. Every time. Throwing a fit like this, you're gonna spook the animals. Go back to the fire."

"No!" she yelled into his face. "Why should I? I thought you were my parents' friend, but all I am is money to you. All they are is a job."

If it bothered him, if it hurt him, she couldn't tell. It was dark out here, and he was backlit by the fire. "Get back to the fire. I'll carry you if I --"

He stopped, and she was drawing in breath for another volley of yelling when he clapped a hand over her mouth. She started trying to pull free, and he drew her against his body, one strong, wiry arm pinning her while the other held her head still and her mouth closed. She sucked in air furiously through her tear-clogged nose, feeling like she was drowning, and then he leaned close and hissed in her ear, "Shhhh."

The urgency of his tone got through to her what she'd been too upset to notice: there was a feeling of sharp alarm coming through the controller for Storm's implant, clipped behind her ear with its transmission pins resting against the bony ridge of her skull.

The not-horses usually got spooked by something once or twice a day, but this wasn't crow-hopping at a hawk swooping over their ears or an automated piece of farm machinery out in a barren rockscape that had once been a pasture, still mindlessly chomping dust. This was milling panic.

Frank took his hand very slowly away from her mouth, but kept holding onto her. Now that she wasn't trying to get away, it felt more like an embrace: the strong arm holding her against his coat, the smell of dust and leather. The night was very quiet. The wind had come up, rustling the grass. There was a distant snort from one of the not-horses, the sound of restless hooves.

"Go to the fire and get your gun," Frank murmured. He let go -- the night felt suddenly colder without his warmth against her -- and gave her a little push toward the campfire.

She had made it all of two steps before the night-terror came out of the dark.

It seemed impossibly huge, a glistening whirl of spikes and blades, making a peculiar whine that shivered down her nerves. Frank grabbed her and spun them both around, and she felt his body jerk, the blades slashing the leather but rebounding off the Kevlar lining of the coat.

"Gun!" he yelled, giving her a tremendous shove.

She ran for the campfire and got there just as the snorting, panicking not-horses did. Underneath their flashing hooves, she dived for her shotgun. There was a series of sharp, echoing pops behind her: Frank's guns. Did guns even work on night-terrors? She turned around and froze.

It was dark beyond the campfire. All she could see were flashes of movement, the glitter of firelight on the thing's gleaming spikes. There was a muzzle flash, very close to it, and the thunder of Frank's guns rolled across the wasteland.

He'd trained her on all his guns, but primarily the shotgun because he said it would stop anything and wasn't hard to aim. All you had to do was point it in the general direction of whatever you wanted to kill.

But a situation like this -- she didn't know what to do. She couldn't see Frank clearly. Even in daylight, she didn't think she could shoot at something like that without hitting him.

And just as she was thinking that, Frank stumbled into the firelight, his coat hanging in rags. He grabbed for his rifle. "Shoot!" he snapped.

She did. The shotgun bucked in her hands, and then Frank was standing over her, the rifle snugged up to his shoulder. She'd never seen him miss with it. He didn't this time. There was a high, keening wail, and just as suddenly, the thing was gone.

Frank slowly lowered the rifle and then sank down on Storm's saddle, breathing hard.

"You okay, kid?" he asked gruffly.

"I ... I think so." She started to set down the shotgun with trembling hands, then picked it up and reloaded it, as Frank had taught her. Keep your guns close. Make sure they're ready to go. Most of the things we'll meet out here won't wait for you to count out your shells and get them loaded.

Then she laid it down and turned to Frank, who was leaning forward, lifting the edge of his coat to pluck at his shirt. Something dark and oily gleamed in the firelight. At first she thought it was oil, then realized it was blood, turned black in the dim light.

"Yeah," he said, seeing her looking. "It got me a couple times. Not deep. The blood'll flush out the wounds."

That was what he'd said, and she'd believed him. A little later, wrapped in her blanket by the fire, she watched him lay out the first-aid supplies.

"Do you need help?"

He shook his head. "I've been taking care of myself longer than you've been alive. I'm good at it."

Yeah, she thought, rolling away from him and the fire, facing out into the big wide dark, where her parents might or might not be. You sure are, I guess.

 

***

 

Now he was hot to the touch as she pulled back the ragged coat, peeled away the torn pieces of his shirt, and tried to get a look at what it had actually done to him.

"Oh," she murmured, shocked. There were metal spines embedded in his side, maybe as many of a dozen of them, glistening in the swollen flesh between his ribs. "Frank, what's this? Didn't you take them out? Aren't you supposed to take them out?"

"What?" he asked, dazed. He looked down and frowned, as if he wasn't sure what he was looking at. "Oh. Hell. They must've been in deeper." He paused to take a couple of shallow breaths. "Working their way out."

"What do I do?"

"Pliers. In the toolbox."

"Pliers," she muttered, digging through the saddlebags. "Unbelievable."

She poured some of their limited supply of rubbing alcohol over the pliers and then knelt beside Frank. Even in the firelight, he was visibly pale and sweaty, but he held the coat back and craned his head, trying to see. "I can do this," he said in a hoarse voice, reaching for the pliers.

His hand was trembling. So was hers, but for a different reason. "No you can't," she said, firming her voice, and tried to pretend that it was just like digging a cactus spine out of the not-horses' hooves, not a big deal at all. "Just move your arm out of the way so I can see."

She could hardly see anyway. The firelight was dim and erratic, and blood and worse things crusted his side. But in a way, the dimness was a help; the firelight struck gleams from the tips of the metal spines, making them visible where they might have been hidden by half-dried gore in full daylight.

She got the pliers on the tip of the first one and pulled. It came out to a length of nearly two inches. Blood bubbled after it. She reached hastily for a cloth from the first-aid kit.

"Let it bleed." Frank's voice was a breathy wheeze. "Cleans the wound."

"Fat lot of good it did for you before," she muttered, but she tried to ignore the glistening trails of fresh blood. She dropped the needle behind the saddle and settled the pliers on another one.

The worst were the ones she had to dig at. She used the tip of Frank's knife, also doused in alcohol. He held astonishingly still through all of it, though sometimes he made a tiny, choked noise in his throat. But he never moved.

"I ... I think that's all of them." She was as wrung out as if she'd run a marathon, her shirt drenched with sweat. Storm had come up halfway through the process to find out what she was doing, drawn by the distress coming through the controller. She had shooed him away and taken it off and set it on top of her saddlebags, and went on. She wasn't sure how long ago that was. Now her hands were shaking, her whole body was shaking, even though she'd managed to stay rock solid while she worked on the spines.

Frank looked as bad off as she felt -- though for much better reason, she thought; he'd had to endure it, while all she had to do was get the spines out. He took a couple of gulping breaths before he managed to say, "Let it bleed for a few more minutes, then ... clean it." He nodded to the pliers. "Clean those too."

At least one thing they had was plenty of certified-clean well water. She got up shakily, stood for a moment on cramping legs until she was sure she had her balance, and then went to get a clean bucket of water from the well. She did what she realized she should have done earlier, and filled a pot and set it over the fire. While that heated, she rinsed the pliers thoroughly, washed her hands -- another thing she now realized with horror that she'd forgotten to do -- and put away the rest of the supplies except for the first-aid kit.

Frank watched all this with fever-glittering eyes, leaning back against the saddle. When she knelt beside him with the warm pot of water, he said quietly, "You did good, kid."

"You told me what to do." She bowed her head and dipped a cloth in the water, and started carefully washing his side. By now she was used to doctoring small hurts in the animals, and she'd been helping take care of Zach's scrapes and cuts, as well as her own. She told herself this was no different.

"Not one in a dozen men and women could stay as steady as you did."

She blushed, keeping her head down, and sponged some of their limited supply of disinfectant onto the wounds. "Should I bandage this?"

Frank shook his head. "Leave it open to the air overnight. Heals better that way. In the morning we'll put something on to keep it from rubbing."

"You should probably have some aspirin or something." She dug through the kit, found aspirin, and also a bottle of old antibiotics with a worn label. "Some of these?"

"Guess so. Two aspirin. One of the other ones."

She handed them over, and he took them with deep gulps from their replenished canteen, then nodded to her as he handed it back.

"And a clean shirt?" she suggested, wrinkling her nose at his cut-up, crusted one. Neither of them changed their clothes all that often, but he had to have something better than the shirt he'd been bleeding on for two days.

"In the morning. No need to get it messy tonight."

Leo sighed and went to dig through their supplies. They were going to need to hunt again, but for now they had enough dried food that she could soak some meat and grains, and make one of Frank's horrendous stews. She shook out some vitamins from a bottle, handed one to him and swallowed her own. He'd impressed on her the importance of avoiding deficiencies when they were traveling like this, with few opportunities for fresh fruits and vegetables.

Maybe they'd find a homestead or a town soon. They had trade goods, and it would be nice to talk to other people. That was the part of this trip that she'd found she liked best, other than getting to learn some of Frank's wilderness survival skills. It was exciting to meet new people and see places that were strange and different and unlike anything she'd learned about in Stockade Dome. They had met people with little farms and people running big industrial-sized farms that even had some of the old machinery working. They'd met a family who lived in a house perched like a wasp's nest at the top of an old radio tower, and a town that was built vertically up the side of a cliff, and people who lived on houseboats in a lake.

But not her parents. Not so far.

She ducked her head, squeezed her eyes shut for a minute, and stirred the stew that was beginning to bubble. If she let the meat soak long enough, it might even get soft enough to chew, sort of.

"It was math," Frank said quietly.

"What?" she asked. She dashed at her eyes and blinked at the fire before she looked over her shoulder. Blobs danced in front of her vision, half blotting Frank as he slumped with his back against the saddle.

"My best school subject." He cleared his throat and made an effort to sit up a little straighter, shifting the remains of his shirt so it wasn't brushing against his side. His coat was still on his left arm but only draped over the shoulder of the right, injured side. "You asked me. That's what it was."

"Oh." She couldn't help grinning, and she wasn't even sure why, but she felt strangely lighter. "You were a math nerd? Really? Is that where you know my dad from?"

"That was later. And I'm not in your dad's class when it comes to math. I was just good at adding numbers."

"But you liked it."

"Yeah." He smiled. She'd seen him do that a few times, usually when she'd managed to make a difficult shot with the rifle or managed a particularly tricky knot he'd been teaching her. She never stopped feeling like he seemed like a different person when he was smiling, not like one of the hard-eyed people of the Gate district, but like somebody you could imagine walking around her neighborhood back home, shopping in the Yangs' store, playing with kids.

But maybe the mistake she'd always made was thinking those were different sorts of people, and not just the same people with different things behind them. Maybe her parents were different too, out here.

"They used to give us these math problems," Frank said. "An old ag-bot is going five miles an hour, and a newer one is going twenty miles an hour, and you have to figure out where they meet."

"I hate those." She made a face.

"I think they're fun. Like a little puzzle you have to figure out."

"I'm pretty bad at math," she confessed. "I used to get Dad to help me with it." She had to stop talking, the sweet-painful memory catching in her chest of the lamplight at the kitchen table in the house they used to have, before her parents left, with her dad leaning over her, warm and strong, not giving her the answers but teaching her how to work through a problem that was stumping her.

"Yeah," Frank said in a strangely gentle kind of way. "He was good at that kind of thing, when he'd try."

Which made her look at him, really look at him, the distant look on his face, soft and gentle, like he was looking back into a kinder past. All the time they'd spent together, and he'd never talked about her parents, and all along she'd thought maybe it was her, or maybe it was that they had never been that close after all. But now she thought it was Frank, and that thing he'd talked to her about, looking forward and not back at the things you couldn't change. Frank, she thought, must have a lot of things he couldn't change.

"But you're good at poetry," Frank went on, after a moment, jolting her out of her thoughts. "Won that contest, you said."

She hadn't even realized he was listening to any of that. "It was a long time ago. And I was only competing against kids in my grade and the one above."

"Still. I never won a poetry contest."

The idea of Frank writing poetry made her laugh, giggling helplessly as she spooned out the stew into their bowls.

"What?" he asked, with a hesitant grin, sitting up a little more to take the bowl. "You think I couldn't?"

"I tell you what," she said. "We'll have a poetry contest. Just us. I mean, we've got plenty of time in the saddle to make something up."

"I think you got a natural advantage."

"I know," she said, grinning. "I won a contest already. But you know, you're ages older than me, so you ought to be able to come up with something."

"You can teach me a few things. It's about your turn to do that."

She looked at him very carefully, but he didn't seem to be making fun of her. "I guess," she said.

"We gotta get an impartial third party to judge it, though."

"Dad," she said. "When we find him."

Frank gave a hoarse, startled laugh, and she almost dropped her bowl. She'd never heard him laugh before.

"Why is that funny?"

"Because I don't think your dad would know anything about poetry if you threw a book of it at his head."

"Okay, fine, Mom then. Or Mom and Dad, both together. Deal?"

She held out a hand. He hesitated, then reached out slowly and grasped her hand with his: shaky now, and cold, but still strong on hers, rough with calluses. Gunman's hands. Wilderness salvager's hands.

She was starting to pick up a few calluses of her own. Just a couple, on her palms from the reins, and on her middle finger where it scraped against the trigger guard. But it made her feel like she was, well ... getting this. Pulling her weight, like Frank said.

And the way he shook her hand was serious, one adult to another, and he smiled at her when he let go, and she smiled back.