While coffee brewed the next morning, Son went over the plan in his head. Now, if he could only convince Ignatius the time had come for the man to make things right in Virginia City and retrieve his daughter. Five minutes later, Ignatius walked through the door and brushed the snow from his shoulders. "Damn, it's frosty out there."
The words came fast and firm. "We're going back to Montana."
Ignatius stopped brushing the wet flakes from his jacket and peered at Son. "These crazy thoughts keep you up all night?"
"They're not crazy. I can't think of a better time come spring."
"You hit your head again? If I go back, the first thing I'm going to do is buy a burial plot. I'll need one."
"That's your home. You mentioned you still owned eighty acres, and what about Jade? Hell, she must think you're never coming back for her."
"Whoa! Slow down. Once we get there, then what?"
"We'll go to the law, the sheriff, set things right."
"Big Bill Sheets is the law; at least his word is."
"We'll go to a higher law then; someone has to listen."
"I won't drag you into this mess." Ignatius smiled. "You're just getting out of one. Besides, it's my fight and you'd be putting your life in danger…again."
Son slapped his knee and laughed. "What life? I don't even know my name." He narrowed his eyes. "When spring breaks, we're going to Montana and nothing you say will change my mind."
Indecision flitted through Ignatius' eyes and then resignation. "You're right, of course. A man can't run forever."
"My wounds should be well-healed by then."
"Yeah, reckon they should, but what about your loss of memory?"
"Let's cut through the bullshit. My recollection of the past might never return, and if it does, I don't think it matters whether I'm here or in Montana."
"The mind is strange, nothing more than a gray mass of matter, but filled with locked up secrets, memories and pictures. I figure one day the incident that brought you to that river bank will surface, your memory will return and––."
"Ah, you're a philosopher now too?"
"Let me finish. The brain acts as a defense mechanism when reality is more painful than forgetfulness. When you're ready to face what happened, the truth will filter through—same as light filling a dark room."
"In one way, we're both running from our pasts, and neither one can afford to sit here and wait for things to right themselves."
Ignatius poured two cups of coffee and settled in across from Son at the table. "Reckon that's true."
"To Montana and Jade," Son said with a smile and raised his cup.
* * *
Ignatius yanked hard on the saddle strap and cursed. "Boaz, quit holding your breath. That ain't fooled me for years."
"That why you're so distracted this morning?" Son asked. "Little horse trouble?"
"Hell and damnation. You'd think Boaz wouldn't make me go through this every time."
Son cracked a smile. "He's stubborn...reminds me of someone else I know."
"Mules are supposed to be stubborn, horses smart."
"I think they run hand in hand, don't they? Maybe stubbornness is the same as cunning."
"Could be." Ignatius puffed a long breath of air, turned to Son and put his hands on his hips. "You asked me why I'm distracted. Since we're staring out on this foolhardy journey this morning, I been thinking about the day I left Montana with no destination in mind. I rode across the Dakota prairie." Ignatius tossed a blanket roll onto his mount's back, securing it with the saddle strings. "In the peak of summer, a scorching sun had commandeered the land and the air. I'd pray for a late afternoon thunderstorm, a few brief moments of respite."
Son took the reins Ignatius offered. "Shouldn't we miss the hot season leaving now?"
The elderly man didn't answer but kept on chatting about his last journey. "When the blessed nights came, steam clung to every breath I took. Not a damn hint of a breeze." Ignatius looked up. "That's why I pushed to leave as soon as possible."
When Son walked outside that morning, Ignatius had already saddled the horses. He looked at them now—an imposing huddle of muscle and power.
"You do know how to ride?" the man said with a smirk. "Don't you?"
He scratched his head, searching for a glimpse of recollection. "I think I've ridden before, yes."
"This ain't no parade down Main Street. The land is harsh and rugged once we enter Dakota Territory, dotted here and there with Indians, trappers, the lone settler's cabin. We might see a white man if we're by a river, and no doubt we'll run into the army. Settlers are squeamish 'bout setting down roots in the territory while the red man and white are at war."
"You going to talk me to death all morning or do you think we can ride out?" Son tossed the remainder of his coffee into the dirt and mounted. "Won't know about my riding skills until we do."
Ignatius' narrowed his eyes. "It's one hundred and fifty miles to Sioux Falls and five hundred through Dakota Territory."
"Like I said, let's be about it."
"And another five hundred and fifty miles after that to Virginia City." Ignatius scratched his chin. "At forty miles a day, I'm thinking four weeks in the saddle."
An exasperated sigh left Son's lips. "Damn, are you trying to change my mind or yours?"
"Neither, but I want you to know what's ahead." Ignatius shrugged. "If your mind is set—"
"It is." Son shifted in the saddle, trying to determine if the seat felt natural. "Anything else you want to say before we leave?"
"Yes, but you seem detached this morning."
Damn, the man was wordy, from loneliness or long wind, Son couldn't tell. "I'm not much for talking first thing in the morning but something tells me I'm going to anyway."
"We'll cross the James River soon after we get into Dakota." Ignatius smiled. "Then the next one—the biggest in the country is the Missouri. We have a choice about which route to take from there. We can head straight across the territory, ride through the Black Hills or we can follow the Missouri River up to the Cheyenne. Then we're almost to Montana. Either way, our odds of meeting up with Indians is the same. Course, those hills are a sight to behold." He glanced at Son, waiting for a response.
"I don't know one way from the other so you decide." A wave of nostalgia crashed through him when the mount jigged beneath him. So he had ridden in his prior life, and often.
Ignatius took a last look at the place he'd called home for the past few years and turned his mount west. The morning passed in silence, unusual for his friend. When the sun reached its highest peak, Ignatius turned in the saddle. "Did I ever tell you I'm a self-proclaimed expert on horses?"
"About a hundred times, I think."
"I'll tell you again in case you weren't listening. Horses are creatures of habit. They strive hard to please their masters. It's important to be consistent right from the start, while they're colts. Bad habits are hard to reverse."
Boaz, Ignatius' big bay stallion, stood seventeen hands at the shoulder and Son's mount, Digger, was a sturdy-boned beast, dark brown with a black muzzle and matching mane. A distinctive black stripe ran the length of Digger's back, from his thick shoulders to his coarse tail. He wasn't as tall as Boaz, but a sure-footed gait and strong legs made up for the disparity.
Son patted the mount's neck. "Digger is a strange name for a horse."
"Nothing else suited him."
"When he breaks into a fast gallop, a hoof-footed Devil can't outrun him. Every step is a desperate attempt to put the ground far behind him." Pride glistened in Ignatius' voice. "If someone's bearing down on you, he'll leave 'em in the dust."
"Nice to know, but I hope we don't have occasion to find out."
"Take old Boaz here. He's not as fast as Digger but he's as predictable as the sun rising. He has two purposes in life; one, to please his master, the other, to eat. Well- trained, old Boaz, never balks at the bit or saddle. You can be sure he won't cow kick you."
Son stole an admiring glance at the bay, a fine piece of horseflesh. "Cow kick? I don't recollect that term."
"Some horses don't take kindly to anyone behind 'em. They'll push a hind leg out, sometimes both, send you flying through the air. The ornery ones sit down on their hind legs and roll over while you're still mounted. I had a mare do that to me once."
Laughter spewed from Son's throat. The image of a horse rolling over on Ignatius Blue Moon was the funniest damn thing he ever imagined. "What happened then; you get crushed?"
"Nope, I clobbered that nag alongside the head with the butt end of my rifle. She never took that notion again."
Trying hard to bring his laughter under control, Son nodded toward the mares trailing them. "So what are the names of the beauties behind us?"
"That's Nell behind Digger." Ignatius arched his neck back. "The sprightly lady chasing Boaz is Delilah."
"Delilah? That name sounds familiar."
Ignatius snorted. "Maybe you were a Bible-thumper in your other life."
"Delilah from the Bible. She brought Samson to his knees. Our Delilah here, she's a hussy, not particular who she beds down with."
Son shook his head. God, the man could talk.
"Horses are no different than people. They come with their own oddities and peculiarities. Man has to be smart enough to figure out what makes 'em tic."
"What are Nell's oddities?"
"She's a hard worker, Nell. You hitch her to a wagon with Delilah and she'll do all the work. She's game and reliable too. Something ever happen to my Boaz I'd take Nell in a heartbeat. If she puts her ears flat and blows air through her nostrils, means someone is coming."
The horse lessons and small talk continued for the rest of the afternoon and that suited Son fine. He needed distractions to keep the questions from stampeding his brain.
At sundown, they camped for the night along the banks of a stream. Son fed and watered the mounts and hobbled them to a low branch of a sapling. And then he stoked a low-burning fire and spied Ignatius entering camp. The rabbits dangling from his wrists would complement the potatoes cooking in a skillet. After the meal, Son and Ignatius rolled their bedrolls out under a canopy of silver stars. It had been a perfect ending to a perfect day...except Son still couldn't remember his name.