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Imogene shook her head and arranged her skirts around the swaddled coyote so he couldn’t reach her with his teeth.

            The coach rolled into the inn yard and Noisy pulled up before the steps. “Sarah!” Imogene called as she climbed down. “Sarah Mary!” The door burst open and Sarah darted out of the house, her apron clutched up under her chin in both hands.

            “Look who’s come out to meet us! Maybe it’s my birthday or something and I don’t know it,” Mac teased.

            “Imogene,” she gasped, grabbing the older woman’s arm, “a rat chased me out of the kitchen. It stood up on its hind legs and jumped at me. It was huge.” She held her hands, one above the other, about a foot apart. “This tall.”

            “A rat ran after you on its back legs?” Imogene tried not to sound incredulous.

            “Jumped at me.” The coach door opened and a round-but-tocked man backed out. Sarah made a couple of little hops to demonstrate the tactics of her attacker.

            Mac laughed. “Must’ve been a kangaroo rat.”

            “Mac,” Imogene admonished, “it scared her.”

            He looked hurt. “I’m not fooling. Kangaroo rats come out around this time of year. About so high, big-bottomed, long tails—they hop around like kangaroos.”

            Imogene and Sarah eyed him warily.

            “It’s the truth if I ever told it,” he protested.

            Sarah glanced nervously over her shoulder at the passengers emerging from the coach, knocking the dust from their clothes. “I better be getting on with lunch,” she murmured.

            Imogene handed her the quail. “These ought to go in the icehouse unless we’re having them for supper tonight.”

            “Just chase that kangaroo rat out with a broom or something,” Mac hollered after her. “He’ll leave you alone.”

            “She don’t mix with folks much,” Noisy said.

            “Sarah’s a shy little thing,” Mac admitted, “till she gets to know you.”

            “She’s better.” Imogene held the gunnysack away from her. It was wet and beginning to smell. She hung it back over the post by the seat. “Sarah works herself to death, thinking she has to make up for letting me meet the coaches and take care of the customers. She’s quite a cook. And she can skin a rabbit in half the time it takes me.”

Imogene greeted the passengers as Mac and Noisy busied themselves with the livestock. It wasn’t until after lunch had been served and cleared away that Imogene remembered the coyote pup.

            The gunnysack hung slack on the post, looking empty. In the bottom, a slight widening indicated the pup. Imogene cupped the inert form in one hand and lifted the sack free. “Hey, little fella,” she called softly. There was no answering squirm. She carried the puppy, still wrapped in the sack, into the kitchen, away from the noise of the dining hall. Sarah was doing the dishes, humming a song to herself in a sweet, high voice. Gently, Imogene set her burden on the plank tabletop and unwrapped it.

            “What’ve you got there?” Sarah dried her hands and came over to the table.

            “A coyote pup. I’m afraid I’ve killed it. I forgot about it and left it out in the sun.” She freed the small form from its burlap prison and stroked the dirty fur. The puppy, light brown and feathery-tailed, was no longer than her two hands. He was gaunt, and his fur was caked with his own filth. “He’s breathing, I think.” Imogene rested her hand lightly on the tiny ribcage. “I’ll put him someplace cool and maybe he’ll come around.”

            Sarah got a wet cloth and squeezed a few drops of water on the pointed nose. A pink tongue flickered out. The fur around the pup’s mouth was crusted with dirt and stood out in spikes.

            “He looks as though he’s got moss growing on his jaws,” Imogene remarked. “The water seems to be helping.” When the pup ceased to accept water, they laid him on the back porch, near the trap to a small cellar, where it was cool. They folded the burlap bag into a cushion and sat a bowl of water nearby. Sarah left the door ajar so she could listen for him.

            In the middle of the afternoon, much recovered, the little dog tottered out of his nest. Sarah was at the kitchen table peeling and dicing onions. He growled, a sound so small it was almost a purr, and Sarah looked up.

            “Hello, little moss-face,” she said softly. He growled again. “Don’t you growl. You’re too little to growl.” Talking reassuringly all the while, Sarah slid out of her chair and sprawled prone on the floor propped up on her elbows.

            When Mac and Imogene came in from the barn an hour later, Sarah had coaxed the little animal onto her lap and was squeezing milk into its mouth from a badly chewed corner of her dishcloth.

            Imogene pulled off her work gloves and knelt beside them. Mac, leaning in the doorway, pushed back his battered hat and wiped away the perspiration with his forearm. “Wish you gals would get yourself a hired hand. Bucking hay and mucking out ain’t women’s work. Nor an old man’s, neither.” He scrubbed his grizzled stubble with his finger stumps. “You’ll bust something inside, you keep at it, Miss Grelznik.”

            “I’m strong as an ox, Mac, you’ve said so yourself. There’s a lot of men that don’t work as hard as I do.”

            “Still and all…”

            Imogene reached out to stroke the pup’s fur, but he growled at her, a funny gurgling sound through the milk. Sarah looked up. “Mac, will he kill my chicks, do you think?”

            “He might. ’Less you teach him different. You maybe could teach him, coyotes are smart beggars.”

            “How do I teach him?”

            “First time you catch him messing around the chickens, hit him between the eyes with a two-by-four. That’s got to get his attention. Then just tell him real nice not to do it.”

           

            Dinner was over. A fire crackled in the stone hearth at the end of the dining hall away from the bar. Most of the clientele had left on the northbound for Fort Bidwell. Two wagoners played checkers at a table near the bar. Noisy was gone, opting to sleep outside to save money, though the temperature still dropped below freezing most nights. He was going to retire when he’d saved enough, he said, find the fat of the land and a rich widow, and live off them. Mac and Imogene sat near the fire, their chairs drawn up close to the blaze, nursing their after-dinner coffee. Except for a kerosene lamp turned low over the checker game, the fire was the only light in the room.

            “Sarah still playing with her new dog?” Mac asked.

            Imogene smiled. “I imagine. She set about making a bed for him out of an old crate so the little fellow won’t get cold. She’s good with small, timid things.”

            “She’s got a feeling for what it’s like being scared, maybe. Creatures can sense a person’s insides that way. That little gal is doing fine. I never figured her for a life as hard as this, but she’s doing okay.”

            “Sarah Mary is stronger than she thinks.”

            Mac slurped his coffee noisily and stared into the fire. The sound of the checkers slapping down mixed pleasantly with the pop of the burning pitch. A spark flew out and Imogene reached for the shovel.

            “There is no Mr. Ebbitt, is there?” Mac asked.

            Imogene scooped up the burning ember and threw it back in the fire. “That’s right, Mac. I forged his name on the lease.”

            For a long time, neither of them said anything. The fire burned low and—more for something to do than from necessity, since it was warm so near the hearth—Mac threw another log on the grate.

            “You two gals oughtn’t to be trying to run this place alone. It’s rough country out here.”

            “We’re doing all right.”

            “I expect you are. Better’n some. Food’s a damn sight better, but the place is looking rundown, needs some paint and nails.”

            “I can do it, Mac.”

            “I’ll give you a hand when I can.”

            “You’re not going to tell Mr. Jensen?”

            “No, I ain’t.”

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