Ben stopped and looked over his shoulder as if he had forgotten that she was even there. “Going outside town to set up camp.”
“Can’t we stay in a hotel?” she asked. She would have assumed that the hotel was full of prostitutes at work, but she knew it would be much more comfortable than sleeping on the prairie. She also didn’t want to be alone with Ben out in the middle of nowhere. She still wasn’t quite sure what to make of him.
“No. We’ll do better camping out. It’s cheaper and we’ll get closer to Devil’s Rock.”
Sarah let out a sigh and unhitched her horse to follow after Ben.
They rode a few miles away from the town and Ben stopped, indicating that they would make camp there. Since the warm sun had vanished, a coolness settled itself over the desert and Sarah found herself shivering as she dismounted from her horse.
Ben disassembled a tumbleweed that was drifting nearby into tiny twigs for firewood and pulled out his flint to strike them ablaze. Somehow Sarah got the feeling that he did this more for her sake than for his.
Sarah reached into her saddlebag and pulled out her blanket. She eyed her pistol that sat on the bottom and bit her lip anxiously.
“If you want to keep it by you, I don’t blame you,” Ben suddenly said from behind her. Sarah jumped and looked over her shoulder to see him prodding at the meager fire, coaxing it to burn brighter. His golden eyes, however, were fixed on her.
Without even asking how he knew what she was thinking, she pulled the pistol out with the blanket.
Once free from her owner’s attention, the mare bucked and scampered away from the camp, unwilling to be closer to Ben than what was necessary. Sarah watched as it disappeared to graze on the parched roots and weeds protruding from the ground. She didn’t blame her horse for being so skittish. She wished that she could afford to keep her distance from Ben as well, but she needed him too badly.
She spread the blanket out upon the ground across from where Ben was squatting with the fire.
She watched him closely, searching for any sign of malicious scheming in his eyes. Besides the flickering reflection of the flames from their campfire, she saw nothing of the kind. What puzzled her was that she saw something totally unexpected.
Sarah had figured that a man so strong, so intimidating in his demeanor, would have all of the confidence in the world. She didn’t picture him as a cocky fellow, but simply sure of who he was. But she didn’t see that. Instead, she saw brokenness and a sorrow that she couldn’t even begin to understand.
“I’ll be right back,” he muttered as he rose to his feet and began to wander away from the fire’s glow.
“Where are you going?” she asked anxiously, suddenly afraid that perhaps he would run off and leave her out there alone.
“To get food,” replied curtly, then disappeared into the darkness beyond the reach of the fire’s light.
Sarah sat herself upon the blanket and lifted one edge of it to make a feeble attempt at wrapping it around her shivering shoulders. Her eyes probed the dark veil beyond their camp, searching for any sign of Ben. She strained her ears for any rustling of his duster or shuffling of boots, but heard nothing. She saw nothing. It was like he had vanished into thin air.
She sighed and scooted closer to the fire, reaching out her hands to the warmth. Her mind drifted back to her family. She missed them dearly. A part of her wished she had been with them during their final moments, even if it meant sharing in their fate.
Her concentration was broken as she saw Ben walking back into camp with a dead prairie dog gripped in his fist. Sarah remained silent as she saw him pull out a knife and begin to skin the animal of its pelt.
“This doesn’t repulse you?” he asked, cocking an eyebrow at her.
Sarah shrugged. “I’ve watched my father do the same thing before.”
“I would think that most ladies would be disgusted by this.”
“I was at first.”
Ben then proceeded to gut the animal of it’s intestines and threw them out into the darkness, far from the camp so vultures wouldn’t wander in looking for the rest. He cut up little bits with his knife and stuck them over the fire to cook.
Sarah caught herself staring back into his golden eyes, fear giving way to curiosity and a macabre fascination. Before she had a chance to filter herself, she opened her mouth to speak. “What are you?”
Ben froze and looked up at her, caught off guard by the question.
“I beg your pardon. It just seems pretty obvious that you aren’t human, so you must be something else.” Sarah anxiously awaited his answer, her heart thundering in her chest.
He turned his eyes away and they fell upon the blackness. He seemed to be watching something hidden in the night, but Sarah couldn’t see it. “I’ll tell you want I’m not. I’m not a demon. I’ve been called that before, but I’m not.”
“Then what does that make you?” Sarah asked, her voice laced with desperation.
Ben ignored her and plucked off the cooked meat from the tip of his blade. He stood up and approached her, offering out the bit of food held between his fingers.
She cautiously reached out and took it, the tips of their fingers grazing against the other enough to send skitters down her spine. He saw her tremble and without a single thought, shrugged off his duster and offered it to her.
Sarah was even more hesitant to take his coat, but she was too cold to refuse it. She took the dirty garment in her hands and wrapped it around her shoulders in place of the blanket.
“Thank you,” she whispered, and then bit into the prairie dog meat. She found it surprisingly tasty.
Ben grabbed the carcass of their dinner and continued to slice pieces off, cook them and hand them to her until she was contently full. Resisting his impulse to eat the rest of the animal raw, he cooked in the same fashion and ate it. Though it did little to curb his hunger, he knew it would have to do for the time being.
While Sarah ate, she couldn’t help but stare at his exposed arms. They were strong, muscular and tan from years of baking under the western sun. She also didn’t notice how taunt his ragged shirt was against his chest. She wondered how he had become so strong.
“Do you work for anyone?” she asked, trying to fill the awkward silence between them.
“No,” he replied as he seemed to stare into the nothingness that surrounded them.
“How did you come to be out here?”
“Well, that is obvious.”
“Not really. I could have taken the train.”
A ghost of a smile crept across his lips and Sarah found herself grinning as well. “But what I mean is: why are you out here at all? I’ve never heard anyone talk like you do.”
“I’m from the state of Georgia.”
“Really?” Sarah said, maybe with a little too much enthusiasm. “I’ve never been there before. What did you do over there?”
Ben continued to stoke the fire, making embers crack and sizzle in the heart of the burning pile of wood. “I served under the Confederacy.”
“You don’t look like the soldiers I’ve seen. They’re all much older.”
“I served when I was very young.”
“Do you have any friends or family back home?”
Ben went still as the question reverberated in the corners of his mind. “Only a few.”
Sarah hesitated to ask, but found the boldness anyway. “Do you have a wife or sweetheart there?”
His free hand balled into a tight fist and inhaled deeply. “Yes.”
“Then, what are you doing all the way out here then?”
Ben’s lips parted to answer, but he paused to reflect on it. After a long moment, he replied, “I reasoned it was better for me out here than back home.”
“But why?” Sarah hugged the duster flaps tighter around her to shield out the cold wind that was sweeping through their camp. The fire quivered under the force of the breeze, but wouldn’t blow out.
“There are fewer people.”
“Why is that a good thing for you?”
Ben paused in thought once more. He hardly knew why he was opening up so freely to this girl. He hardly knew her and she didn’t need to know this much. “People and I don’t mix well, as you can plainly see from this evening.”
Sarah sighed and gazed into the fire. “I don’t think I could ever go without being around people. It’d get too lonely.”
“It is,” Ben mumbled without thinking. He glanced up, but Sarah didn’t seem to hear him. Her mind had trailed back to the saloon they had just come from.
“Would you have killed him?” she asked, turning her eyes up to him.
Ben sighed and continued to stoke the fire. “You should probably get some sleep. It’s a couple of days journey to Devil’s Rock.”
Sarah knew that Ben was avoiding the question and it told her that he would have been more than willing to kill that horse thief. The idea frightened her.
Without another word, she laid herself down upon the blanket, curling her legs up underneath the tail ends of the duster. Sarah snuggled herself deeper into the coat, letting it engulf her tiny body.
Ben watched her eyes as their closed heavily and she surrendered to sleep.