“I reckon we need to come up with something to call you,” Wayland said as they chewed their breakfast of tough jerky and tougher coffee. “If you have no recollection of your name, then I suppose you pick any name you like.”
The girl smiled at him across the fire, the denim in his shirt making her eyes blaze blue. “I think I should be called…Elizabeth,” she pronounced with a nod of her head.
“Elizabeth…” Wayland said, rolling the name around on his tongue. “I can get behind that, I reckon. I might call you Liza for short, though.”
“I suppose as how I could live with that, as long as I can call you Way. Calling you Brother Wayland all the time might get tiresome,” she gave him a playful grin, and he grinned back. They settled into an easy silence for the next few bites, then Elizabeth cleared her throat.
“What’s on your mind, Liza?”
“What are we going to do?”
“Well, now we come back to you asking questions that can go in a myriad of different directions. How about you narrow the focus for me a touch, and I’ll consider my answer.”
“What are we going to do about the fact that we are apparently several days’ ride from anywhere to get more food, with one horse, two people, and I am wearing nothing more than your castoff shirt? I think that might be a fair place to start.”
“Those are indeed fine questions,” Wayland relied, popping the last chunk of jerky into his mouth. He chewed on the leathery meat for a long moment, then washed it down with a big gulp of coffee before continuing. “Well, the way I see it, we need to find some shelter, and some provisions, and then look to acquiring a horse. That is, if you wish to travel along with me.” He held up a hand as Elizabeth opened her mouth. “I’m not saying you don’t want to, but I also don’t want you thinking you have to accompany me through the desert. If you should decide you’d rather strike out on your own, I will help you acquire such food and water as I can spare, and you can retain ownership of my shirt. I suppose I can buy another one sometime.”
“I think I should stay with you, at least for now. Since I know neither where I was coming from nor where I was going, nor, in fact, who I am, I think it might be useful to have someone around who is familiar with weapons. I assume that part of your work as a Brother of the Gun does involve the use of one?”
“I have been known to make use of a shooting iron on more than one occasion.”
“Then I think I’ll stay with you for the time being, if you’ll have me.”
“Well, you snore less than Mazy, so that’s good,” Wayland said with a half-grin. “Now all we need to do is find a spring to replenish our water, someplace to trade for food, and some boots for you, and we’ll be in fine fettle.”
“Pants might also be nice,” Elizabeth said, gesturing at her bare legs.
“I can see as how that might be a benefit,” Wayland agreed. “For today, you’ll ride pillion with me on Mazy. She won’t hardly notice the little bit of added weight, and I can roll up a blanket for you to sit on. If we make good time and don’t encounter any interruptions along the way, we can make Pecos in about two days. Shouldn’t be any trouble to resupply there and get you some clothes and a good hat. Until then. Make sure you keep your sleeves down and tie these bandannas around your face so the sun doesn’t scorch you completely blind.” He handed her a pair of faded red squares of cloth, and she did as he said.
Wayland got up and rooted around in his pack, coming up with a pair of tattered jeans. “These are gonna be a might long and big around for you, but it’ll be better than going naked. I dug out a pair of socks, too, so your feet will have some cover. I don’t have anything for shoes.”
“Thank you. This is more than I expected. I’m sure you don’t plan on rescuing half-dead amnesiac women on the road.”
“It’s not an everyday occurrence, I’ll grant you that,” he said, that half-smile flashing across his face again, moving him almost partway to handsome. “Now get your britches on and let’s put this fire out. I’m going to get Mazy saddled up and we can ride.”
Hours later, Wayland snapped the reins and clucked the horse to a stop. “Whoa, girl,” he said, his voice dry in the midday heat.
Liza stirred from where she drowsed against his back, then sat bolt upright. “I’m sorry,” she said, pushing back away from him. “I must have fallen asleep.”
“It’s fine, little one,” Way chuckled. “But I need you to slide down now. Mazy needs to drink, and it wouldn’t hurt us to refill our canteens.”
The girl looked around, then peered around Wayland’s shoulder. “Where is she going to find a drink? I don’t see anything.”
“That doesn’t mean it’s not there,” Wayland said. “Take my hand.” She did as he instructed. “Now sling one leg over Mazy’s rump and slide down.” She did, then immediately dropped to her knees in the sand.
Wayland dismounted and looked down at her, a kind smile reaching across his face. “Let me get this old girl unsaddled, and I’ll help you up. For now, just let your legs stretch out a bit. Ain’t nothing easy about your first long ride.” He loosened the cinch and pulled the saddle off his horse, then tossed it onto the dirt. He pulled the saddle blanket off and laid it on top of the saddle, then reached down for Liza’s hand.
She took it and stood, rubbing her thighs and grimacing with every small step. “Where are we going? I still don’t see anywhere to water the horse.”
“You won’t,” Wayland said. “You have to know it’s here.” He led the horse and the limping girl across the broken highway to a smooth patch of concrete and the last remaining wall of a ruined building. The small cinderblock building had crumbled through neglect or malice many years ago, but two four-foot high chunks of wall still rose in a rear corner, marking where the building once ended and the desert began. Now, the desert claimed the entire space, and just a few splintered blocks and a patch of cracked concrete floor marked it as a place of men. Wayland led them around to the back of the building, along the outside wall, and reached down to turn a small valve on a pipe that jutted out of the wall. The pipe coughed, sneezed a brown explosion of water, then after several seconds of spluttering muck across the ground, a steady trickle of clear water ran from the faucet.
“How in the world…?” Liza’s tone held wonder, and more than a little fear. “How did you find this?”
“I didn’t,” Way said, his voice soft. “Someone showed it to me, when I was a young man. He took me through the desert, and taught me the places where water still runs from the Time Before. There aren’t many, and they dry up faster and faster, but this one still has a few drops left for us.”
He knelt, passing his hands under the water and scrubbing them across his face. Lisa stood and watched as he filled his cupped hands once, twice, and sipped long draughts from the stream. “Now you,” he said, standing up. “Might be easier if you just fill the canteen.”
She looked at him, then, seeing no mockery in his face, knelt in front of the faucet. She rinsed her hands and face, then filled her canteen and stood. She sat on the top of the broken wall, sipping the water.
“Drink your fill,” Wayland said, pulling his hat off and placing it upside down on the ground, making a basin for the horse to drink from. He filled a canteen of his own, then stepped away so Mazy could drink from his hat. The horse stuck her head down into the stream, then backed away, spluttering and giving Way a nasty glare. “You know better, you glutton. If you wait until I turn the water off, you won’t get your nose soaked.”
Liza laughed, then looked around, as if surprised.
“What’s wrong?” Way asked.
“I don’t know…I guess it just feels like I don’t laugh very much.”
“You don’t have to lose your memory for that. Nobody laughs very much. Haven’t for a long time, from what I’ve read.” Wayland took another long swig from his jug, then reached down to turn off the water. Mazy ducked her head and started to drink from his hat, delicately keeping it from tipping over.
“She’s a very smart horse,” Liza said.
“She’s pretty extraordinary,” Way agreed. “I don’t say it often, at least not where she can hear it. I don’t want her to get the big head.” Mazy lifted her head to throw a baleful eye at the man, drawing another laugh from Liza.
“Is she…I don’t even know what I’m trying to ask.”
“Enhanced? No, she’s all horse, and all Earth-native, at least as far as I know. She’s just really smart is all. If we’re going somewhere we’ve been more than twice, I can just tell her where to go, and I can sleep in the saddle if I have to. Comes in handy if I’m hurt, too. More than one time I’ve passed out in the saddle and woke up in front of a doctor’s office or hospital. Took me a while to convince her that a vet wasn’t the best solution.” He laughed and looked down at the horse. “She’s a good girl. A good partner.”
“How long have you had her?”
“Almost ten years now. Ever since…” His voice trailed off and he took another drink. “Ever since her last rider, the Brother that mentored me, died.”
“I’m sorry. What happened?” She held up her hands as his face whipped around to her. “If you don’t want to tell me, that’s fine. I was just making conversation. I don’t have a lot to contribute, since…” She gestured toward her head as if to remind him that she had no memories.
“No, it’s fine,” he said. “It’s just not something I talk about often. But I reckon we’ve got a fair bit of riding left to do, so let’s make sure all out canteens and waterskins are filled, and I’ll give you the whole sordid story once we’re back on the road.”