The Handsomest Man in the Country

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Authors: Nancy Radke
graze. This was man's work and I'd let my man do it once he was able to go longer between rests, but I figured he needed the sleep.
    As it was, two hours later when I came back and hitched up and looked around, he had those fish fried and the coffee hot and he'd done one other thing.
    He'd shaved. At last I could see what had been under all that black beard and my first thought was why he hadn't left it on.
    I tell you he was the homeliest man I'd ever laid eyes on. Now I like mules better'n most horses and its not because of their looks, but I'd never seen the back end of a mule as ugly as this man. Of course he was still all gaunt and thin and sickly from the treatment the Indians had given him, but he'd never win any beauty prizes. Pa always warned me to judge a man by his character and not by his looks, but this man's character had better be considerable.
    He had a square jaw, long face, high cheekbones and deep set eyes. His eyes greeted me, steady gray eyes that took in a lot of territory. "Eat up," he said, offering me a couple of fish and we dug in.
    That fish was the best I'd ever tasted. He could cook, but most western men could do some basic cooking, it was cook or starve. His fire was small, big enough to do the job but small enough to cover with your hat. I made note of it, realizing that the rest of us made our fires too big and wasted fuel.
    A body doesn't think of going easy on the fuel until he lives in a land where there ain't none. Around here you burned grass and buffalo chips and little bits of twigs and brush. It would be a crime to cut down the trees; there weren't enough of them and those few were needed for shade. Also the fire was easier to put out when we were ready to roll.
    We pulled out first in line that morning and for the first time in days I wasn't eating dust. We left the Little Blue and headed northwest for the Platte, figuring to make Fort Kearney before the week was up.
    It was mighty nice, sitting there beside him on the wagon seat with nothing afore us except those mules. We sat there quiet for awhile, just enjoying the morning, then we commenced to talking. We hadn't done much to get acquainted, we'd either been working or sleeping. To really talk, serious like, a body needs some time.
    I asked him about these western plains for he looked like someone who knew how to survive out here and he did. He knew the plants and animals, the weather and the Indian tribes; how to survive a blizzard and what rivers could be counted on to have water. I wasn't going to get it all in one day, but if I could get him to talking a little every day, I'd sure get me an education. One that might keep me alive.
    One thing, I wasn't going to have to worry none about food with that man around. He pointed out plants that were edible as we drove by them, things the Indians gathered and ate. They were few and far between, but they were there.
    "Tomorrow morning I'll hunt us some fresh meat," he said.
    "Sounds good. Uncle Dem wasn't much on hunting and we had to make do on what we could trade from the others."
    "If it weren't for the Indians, you could've hunted; you're a good shot." Surprised, I looked my question at him and he added, "Web told me. Bragged on you. He also said I'd better marry you 'fore someone else beat me to it."
    "He did, did he?"
    "Figured you were in a corner, but beat down tired or you'd have put a gun to Hayes and told him to mind his own business."
    His eyes had a twinkle in them and there was a lightening of the lines around his mouth. I smiled too. Web had figured it right. Already I was resenting what Hayes had done.
    "Now the way I see it, you and I got married to keep them wolves away from your door. I never took kindly to shotgun weddings; a woman and man had better think well of one another before they try pulling in double harness. So I'll just keep them away until we reach a settlement and you decide what it is you want."
    A body couldn't ask for a fairer deal than that. "And if I

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