Chelsea had dreamed of the prairie often since leaving. She had never imaged she’d return the same way she had arrived, exhausted and heart-sick.
The white trailer that housed the Blind Bronco was overflowing with people. So much so that Chelsea considered leaving Bentley in the car. The big mutt had other ideas though and squeezed past her as soon as she exited the door. She hesitated, then popped her car’s trunk. The last few months on the west coast had altered her wardrobe a touch. She had kept the black, fringed duster, but traded her black Stetson for hand-woven beanie. It was time to change hats once more.
She wandered to the front door of the haunt, but didn’t enter. Mostly because of the empty fire pit. Beau Chang had been a fixture at the door, sitting on his stump, Stetson gleaming white in the night, warming his gnarled hands at the perpetual fire. A few hunters she didn’t know stood around the pit, but nobody had lit a fire or sat at Beau’s stump.
Chelsea walked over to the empty seat. The grain of the wood had long since gone shiny with wear. She rubbed at hand across it the semi-smooth surface, remembering the old man’s delight at Bentley the first time they met.
Swallowing a thick throat, she finally screwed up her courage and opened the door to the haunt. The bar was standing room only, and booze was thick in the air. A few people looked around as she and Bentley crossed the floor. One or two even waved. Chelsea ignored them, eyes looking for Florence.
The teenaged beauty queen was holding court at the bar, as always, but her usual sparkle was not evident tonight. Chelsea pushed through the crowd. “Something local, please. In a bottle.”
Florence’s head snapped up and tears fell from already red eyes. “Oh, you made it.”
“Told you I would.” Chelsea leaned across the bar and pulled the girl into a hug. “I am so sorry, and so is Keegan. He couldn’t make it, but he sends his love.”
For a moment Florence clung to her. Then the girl sighed and pulled away. “Thanks. Grand liked you a lot. He’d be happy you made it back.”
Chelsea found a smile, but it was hard. “I liked him too.” She cleared her throat. “How– What–”
Florence shrugged. “His heart. He was an old man, and he lived pretty hard when he was young.” She laughed, slight and sorry. “And when he was older too.” She turned to the cooler behind her and pulled out a brown bottle.
Chelsea forked over some money. “Funeral is tomorrow?”
“At our place, yeah.” She reached under the bar and pulled out a set of keys. “For the bunk. I kept it open for you.”
“Thanks.” Chelsea pocketed them. “Let me know how I can help.”
Other customers needed attention, so Chelsea beelined toward the door. She had adored Beau Chang and his family, but she’d never been one for crowds. Sipping on her beer, she froze outside the door. The bunk was just behind the Bronco, but the tiny, refurbished shed held no more appeal than the bar.
The still empty fire pit bugged her as much as the dumbfounded hunters standing around it. Chelsea headed to the shed beside the Bronco, and sure enough wood lay stacked neatly inside. She grabbed some smaller pieces as well as a handful of kindling.
The hunters moved out of her way as she squatted by the metal ring and built a small pyramid of sticks and paper. Someone lent her a lighter when she held out a hand. The flame caught, and Chelsea fed it smaller sticks until it was burning merrily.
“Thank you.” The strangely familiar woman’s voice was pleasant. “This place doesn’t feel right without a fire.”
Chelsea stood and craned her neck to see the woman’s face. She almost fell into the fire once she got a good look. Caramel skin, black eyes, and perfectly symmetrical heart-shaped face, gorgeous without makeup. “Sonja?”
The taller hunter studied her. “We’ve met?”
“At Scott’s. You were teaching us to fight with polearms.”
Sonja settled on Beau’s stump. “Right… you were the one who…” Sonja paused obviously searching for the right words, “… was looking for her girlfriend.”
Chelsea swallowed a laugh, amazed at herself for being able to. The last time she had seen Sonja she’d been holding a break-up note from Amber. “Yeah, that’s right.”
“Did you ever find her?”
“Still looking actually. Hunters, you know?”
A murmur of laughter came from those gathered around the fire. Chelsea settled on the ground, and Bentley snuggled up beside her. “So you knew Beau?”
Sonja shrugged. “Anybody who hunted out here knew Beau.”
A dirty man in a trench coat settled across from Chelsea. “Ain’t that the truth.” He smiled and a piece of food fell out of his beard. “Please ignore my partner’s terrible manners. You are?”
The man nodded. “Claud Elder.”
Beside and above him, Sonja rolled her eyes. “Claud, you have no room to talk about manners. When was the last time you showered?”
He waved a hand at her. “Whatever, Red. Now, you said you were looking for another hunter?”
Chelsea swallowed and nodded. “She sticks to the east coast mostly. I was on my way back there when Florence called.”
He scratched at his dirty beard. “You should start at Rita’s then.”
Sonja answered. “Haunt in Pittsburgh, the biggest outside of NYC. Rita can help you find her.”
“Thanks for the advice.” Chelsea slung an arm around Bentley. “So did you two ever hunt with Beau?”
Claud shook his head. “He was long retired, even I when started.”
Chelsea smiled. “I got to hunt with him. Just the once.”
A woman from the crowd laughed. “Oh yeah, you helped harry Taku-He last fall.”
Sonja raised her beer. “Tell us about it?”
A warm fire and a cold beer loosened her tongue. “My partner Keegan and I got a job. Something big was killing livestock. After talking it over, we decided it was too big for us to take on ourselves. So we came here, looking for some help. Lucky for us we did. Taku-He would have destroyed us. Even luckier, Beau had helped fight the last one that had come through here, and had a plan.”
The crowd settled in around her as she took a sip of beer. Beau Chang had saved their lives and let them keep the bounty. She smiled at the fire and let the memories flow. The laughter from the crowd only encouraged her.
When she was done, a familiar older man started telling about the first hunt for Taku-He. Chelsea leaned into Bentley, tears coming easily. She kept the fire going long into the night and the stories.
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