The man clanged around behind the seat for a tin cup. He filled it carefully to the top from one of the water bags hanging from the side of the wagon. The woman stood behind her husband and peered at the boy. Her tensed facial muscles kept her from smiling. Her eyes narrowed, but hesitated to touch him even as she reached her hand out to him.
Taking the cup, she squatted beside the boy; her blue-checkered dress billowed as she set her straw hat down beside her. She brushed away the stray hairs tickling her face. She shushed at the child and muttered to him in soft tones.
“Careful Lizzy, it might have the madness,” the man said.
“You hesh up now, the poor thing’s near done in,” she said. “And it ain’t no it.”
Thirst drove fear from the boy. He lunged at the cup. It clattered from her hands. She squealed. The water soaked into the sand all at once. The boy clawed at the drying spot, picking up handfuls and shoving it into his mouth. He spat and sputtered. Horatio handed his wife another full cup.
“Here, here,” she said. Now the boy stood. Legs quivered. Hands shook. Eyes pleaded for more. She handed the boy the cup, holding onto it. The boy’s crusty hands wrapped around hers and he put the cup to his cracked lips and drank it down. He gasped as he gulped. Seeming stunned that the cup was now dry; he held his eyes on the woman and whimpered. Horatio handed his wife another full cup of water. She passed it into the boy’s hands. He downed it again in one gulp. His scrawny legs gave way and he plopped in the sand.
“Well, it’s a boy-child.” The woman sat back. “What in the world is the poor thing doing way out here?” Her eyes scanned the barren landscape for sign of his people.
“From the looks of him, he’s been on his own for a spell.” And then Horatio climbed into the wagon. Standing on the seat, he squinted into the fading landscape for sign of others.
“How has he stayed alive?” the woman said. “Why would someone turn a child out in this God-forsaken land?”
“Don’t see hide nor hair of a single soul. ‘Cept a coyote or two and some ravens off yonder-ways.”
The caws and fluttering silhouettes of ravens off in the distance faded into the darkening sky. Crickets crowded at the base of the creosote bushes set up a near steady racket. The rasping of cicadas joined in.
“Don’t know about water, but he’s been gettin’ his fill of bugs.” Horatio pointed to the crickets and parts of crickets scattered around the base of the bush.
Her hands went to her mouth and she gasped. “Oh, poor thing.”
“He’s an Injun’, Lizzy, they eat most anything a coyote’ll eat, I ‘spect,” Horatio said.
Elizabeth rubbed the boy’s greasy, knotted hair gently. Her touch radiated from the crown of his head to the tips of his cracked and caked toes. His body melted. His eyes, reflecting coppery in the light, turned to the strange otherworldly woman.Her hand fluttered to her lips. Her skin tingled. She pushed away from the boy. “Oh, Horatio, he ain’t no Injun’.”