Every Undertaker’s Friend
by Trek Journeyman © 2016
Chapter Fifteen Start at Chapter 1.1
Nate froze, caught unaware by Jessica’s blatant intrusion into a conversation that was none of her business. He couldn’t speak for almost a minute. When he did begin to speak it was almost with a whisper. “I suppose I could. The right kind of woman might appreciate my plans. Do you think I shouldn’t bother to invite a woman into my life, being a gunfighter and all?”
“Ain’t like that at all Nate. I was hoping you might be interested in Erica. Hate to see her pass up a chance to live on a mountain homestead. All safe and secure from the vagabond life of the circus.”
“Father!” Erica burst aloud, her face so red, neither the night nor the orange glow of the fire could hide it.
“Be just the right kind of life for her. As long as you really do settle down like you claim you want to. Wouldn’t be good for her if she had to worry about you getting mixed up in trouble. Not that you’re ever the cause. It would catch up to you and she would suffer for it.”
Embarrassed by Joseph’s overtly forward acceptance of Nate, Nate remained quiet. Once again the brave fighter didn’t know how to respond.
Erica interrupted the awkward silence. “I can find my own prospective husband father. I don’t need you arranging my life. Besides, if he were to ask me to marry him…” She paused, reluctant to announce her true feelings. A crowd had gathered to listen to their leaders discuss the possible threat from the two ships. She felt embarrassed the topic had focused on her.
“I would say yes.”
Nate was taken aback, completely surprised by her admission. Jessica had been right. He glanced at Jessica, who he knew felt the same about him as Erica. She stared into the fire, poking a stick into it. Though she feigned a lack of interest, he noted how her ear faced him, to better hear his response.
“Well, Aluissi. Have you got anything to say?” India was standing behind Joseph, drilling her eyes straight into Nate. “Where could you find a better woman this far out in the sticks?”
Joseph stood. “I’ll go check on things upstairs. See if anyone’s come snooping around in orbit.” He left and the crowd broke up. They all knew they shouldn’t be listening to something they had no business listening to.
Soon it was only Nate, Erica, Jessica, and India surrounding the fire. Nate had been taken by surprise when the conversation turned to marriage. He was further embarrassed by Joseph coaxing him toward his daughter. Erica was plenty embarrassed too, as she sat quietly gazing into the fire.
Neither met each other’s glances, taking turns seeing if the other was looking. Nate admitted to himself how much he would like to be married to Erica. There was nothing he wanted more than to be married, especially to her. Regardless of her admission, he didn’t believe he had any real chance to marry her. He had intended for the conversation to lead to her politely turning him down. Then he could stop distracting himself with this crazy idea of marriage.
He had no right to be the husband to a woman such as her, considering his lifestyle. Or any woman for that matter. Joseph had been right about one thing. Trouble would always find him. That meant she would live in constant apprehension of his possible death. And he of her own. He was so sure she would refuse him. Jessica had told him of her observation about Erica loving him. And the part about Erica not knowing it herself? He had thought Jessica was trying to manipulate him. Using a backwards sort of reasoning to get him for herself.
Erica had said a lot of things about the sort of man Nate was. All negative. Nothing her years on Terra or with her father had prepared her for the men she would meet on the frontier, good or bad. Nor had it prepared her for the harshness of frontier life. She was strong. Strong enough to face it with her father and the circus around her. She had what it took in many ways, and she was certainly adapting to this life, but only as a result of this voyage. But for her to accept him and the baggage he carried was too good to be true.
They were sitting close to each other, only a space the width of a person separated them. He had no clue what to say. He was always a man of few words, a man of quick reaction. A man of results. His words usually foreshadowed violence. His way of life evolved from the hard struggles common to frontier life. Hard work, fair play, politeness to women, and serving others in need; all components of the honorable and chivalrous man of the frontier. To that he added his believer status, how he sought to know his creator, the creator of space-time and all it held.
His life had not given him much opportunity to participate in relationships with women. He was a fighter, not a suave pursuer of women. He was confounded by the idea of talking to Erica about this topic. It was still too hard to believe what he had heard from her. He retrieved his plate and spooned at it, feigning he was still trying to eat. He thought about the future. Maybe it was time for him to step away from the warrior stage of manhood, and step into the kingdom stage, to have his own kingdom shared with someone. A kingdom consisting of responsibilities beyond just him, his gun, and his ship. Deep in thought, he suddenly realized there wasn’t any food on the plate. He was spooning at nothing.
He looked toward Jessica, but she looked completely at ease with the situation. He thought she might glance his way, to make another attempt to sway him toward her. But no, she was a straight shooter. She wouldn’t manipulate him anymore, now that Erica had settled the matter. She soon saw him looking at her from the corner of her eye. She turned to face him, then stood up and bore her gaze straight into him. Erica took note of the look too.
“What are you doing, Nate?” The question felt as though he was taking a broadside from a battleship. “Somebody needs to kiss somebody. It’s like I’m back in middle school. So, are you going to ask her or what?” Then she leaned in closer as her voice became lower. “Or are you chicken?”
“I am not a chicken You run your mouth too much!”
A laugh pierced the quiet. “Maybe you don’t even know what to do. Well, I could have taught you,” Jessica was mocking him.
“Go pack your things and stay out of sight!” Nate grumbled. “You’re too smart for your own good.”
“At least one of us would know what to do,” retorted Jessica as she walked away.
Nate sat his empty plate down and preoccupied himself with the fire. For a moment he started to worry Jessica might share how he turned her down earlier that morning. Then just as quickly he realized she wouldn’t do that, she wasn’t like that. She was a good sort of woman in her own way.
His current thoughts were getting him nowhere, so he focused on the troubles that would soon come. But it was of no use, he was too aware of Erica’s presence and how they were the only ones left at the fire.
Eventually, he looked toward her. She looked back, nervously nibbling her lower lip. “Did you mean what you said?” he asked.
“I can’t promise it’ll be without troubles from my past.”
“No one can make that kind of promise. But I’ll have a good home and a good man to share it with.”
Nate paused, unable to respond. It was that particular word that had him all knotted up: Home. Something he hadn’t known much of since he was waist high. He was intimidated by the idea of the sort of home he could offer. It might not be a home at all. Any day he might return home in a stasis box, with only a few atoms left to adorn a mantle. Nate had known men sent home to wives in that same way. It would only be a matter of time before he was too.
He would be asking Erica to risk become one of those wives.
Nate got to his feet, an urge to be busy driving him. The compulsion to busy himself was overwhelming, but he had no idea what to do. The thought occurred to him to take her into his arms, but it felt too strange for this situation.
“I’m going to make a loop outside camp,” he said. He grabbed his beam rifle and walked away, soft cussing carrying back toward the fire. He wasn’t happy with himself for how he had left Erica alone at the fire. Grass crunched under Nate’s boots as he walked through the tall grass surrounding the ships. Glancing up he noticed a ship making a transit across the sky. As far up as it was, he couldn’t see the details that would let him know it was Esparza. Looking down again he saw where the grass ended and the desert began. On the horizon sat a single moon. There was no sign of habitation on this planet, so he strolled about unconcerned about any dangers. As he crossed through the grass, circling the ships. He walked until the grass gave way to the shore of the lake.
Erica again occupied his thoughts, distracting him from noticing a set of pig tracks. He was a fool to have thought he could marry Erica. She was willing to forever bind herself to him, and he had already tied his own destiny to his guns. If they all made it through this disaster, then more trouble would pop up somewhere else. It always did. He had hope, but they weren’t out of the woods yet.
So far, they all had been uniquely blessed to make it this far. Especially concerning the pigs. He stood still, listening to the surrounding landscape. The grass whispered in the breeze. It was then he noticed the tracks. The tracks looked as though the pig had walked along the shore, and they may have been there before landing. Not taking any chances, Nate tucked his rifle into his shoulder and made his way back to camp, scanning in every direction.
He commed Joseph, “We leave now. There are pigs here, but I don’t know where.”
Soon he was back outside his ship as everyone scrambled to break camp and board their respective ship. Aboard his own ship, he prepped the craft for take off. As he did so he thought about Esparza. He put himself in Esparza’s boots. How would he make his own way in the same direction? The pigs might have some form of association with the slavers in the region. What might that entail?
Whatever the case, he had a gut feeling Esparza wasn’t out of the picture yet. The man only had to link up with his associates and fix the sensor console to be back in play. There was too much at stake if word got out about what the former slaver had attempted.
The two ships made orbit less than fifteen minutes later. The course Nate set arched them above the ecliptic, to avoid proximity with the asteroid belt. For the moment they were clear from any danger posed by ambush. Nate knew Esparza, maybe even the pigs, would make their move soon. Maybe both would move in at the same time.
Esparza had to stop them from reaching civilization and the pigs would want vengeance. The two together might have Nate’s little squadron out matched. Either way, there would be nobody left free or maybe even alive. Erica was of concern to him most. She would be sold as a slave. He couldn’t live with that. They had to make it all the way. At that point he would ask her to marry him, and they would find a place to call home.
Any planet with a nice climate would work well, and they could raise brontos. He could work for the local security forces too. He could do anything, except hire himself out or vagabond their way about the stars. He and Erica couldn’t settle anywhere his reputation had traveled to. In the Sagittarius Arm, where Joseph planned to go in the first place, Nate had no reputation. So they would stay there. At least Joseph’s circus would be close by, giving a certain level of comfort to Erica.
Three uneventful weeks creep pass. The ragtag group made two other stopovers without sign of the pigs or Esparza. Nate had yet to drop his guard. They were entering another system that held the promise of a habitable planet. The AI informed him of a high level of traffic for what should have been a backwoods planet. It didn’t occur to Nate that civilization had reached this far. It had, to a limited extent.