Eloy now had something in his life other than his obsession watching over Rubicon Ranch. His new friend whimpered and licked his hand, as if prompting Eloy to hurry up and finish his snack so they could get going. He was still a little shell-shocked that it took so little time to add a new addition to his household. The canine, Eloy had promptly named Captain, had made the choosing easy with his lolling tongue and hopeful eyes, sitting patiently in his cage at the animal shelter, as if he had been expecting Eloy.
The pup was remarkably well-trained and there had been only one mishap so far. Captain had widdled near the back door and remained there, head down, looking so shameful that Eloy didn’t have the heart to scold him. Eloy was now as well-trained and knew that when Captain sat patiently at the back door, that was the cue to be let out to do his business. The Lieutenant Colonel reveled in his good luck for finding such a good little soldier, but Eloy figured that, actually, he had been found.
He pushed his plate aside, reseated his ball cap embroidered with the Army insignia and picked up the red leash from the table. “Okay, boy, let’s set off on a little adventure, shall we?” Captain let out a yip that pierced Eloy’s ears. The Australian Shepherd/Labrador mix danced on the tile floor, its toenails and dog tags clicking a flamenco beat.
“Onward, soldier,” Eloy commanded after snapping the leash to the collar. Captain ran to the door, sat and waited, tail thumping against the doorjamb.
Eloy was careful to remember his cane this time. The desire to care for someone had kicked in so hard he’d forgotten all about his cane when his neighbor had suffered the fall. Although he was quick to remember his feigned inflictions, and made a show of hobbling against the umbrella when he returned from his house with the requested water, he could only hope his audience didn’t notice how quickly he had bounded down the steps to offer assistance.
His mood and spirits rose with the excitement of the two people now in his life. He reminded himself to be cordial to Ward and Egypt every time he spotted them. He scowled at the saber that sat on the table near the front door. Regret tapped his shoulder, cautioning him to never again be foolish enough to think a better day would not follow.
Now that he’d had the nerve to move off of his porch, he’d added a third new “friend” to his list by actually speaking to the actress posing as a “real person”—for a reason Eloy had no idea.
“And I’ve got you too, don’t I, boy?” Eloy bent down to scratch Captain’s ears and was rewarded with a staccato of notes that sounded remarkably like Chewbacca in Star Wars.
Actually laughed. The emotion and utterance so unfamiliar he clamped his hand over his mouth.
“Okay, easy now. You mustn’t pull. We’ve got to make this look good to anyone watching,” Eloy said as he opened the door.
Captain seemed to understand every word as he took cautious steps to the end of his lead, then looked back and waited for Eloy to catch up.
The sun felt good on Eloy’s face as he gently snapped the leash to prompt Captain to turn toward the open desert beyond the neighborhood. He felt a little sad that they hadn’t encountered anyone on the street so that he could show off his six-month-old buddy. Then again, he figured they may all be avoiding him as usual—although surely stunned to see him away from his property, a trusting canine at his side.
Oh well, he thought. Their loss.
He followed Captain up a steep path and was soon out of breath. He cursed not working his cardio as stringently as his daily weight lifting regimen. When they took another turn Eloy spotted someone familiar. He picked up his step, but then remembered to hunch over and to accentuate his limp.
“Hello,” he said when he and Captain stood a few feet away. Melanie Gray spun around so fast Eloy thought the camera she held would fly from her hands.
Her eyes grew wide and she stepped back.
“I’m sorry to startle you, ma’am. We haven’t formally met.” Eloy switched the cane to the hand holding the leash and extended it. His smile fell when she didn’t immediately grasp his handshake. She seemed to reluctantly hold out her hand, keeping her eyes on the dog. He was surprised by the strength in her handshake and matched the intensity for a moment before letting go. “I’m Eloy Franklin, and this is my new friend, Captain. I’d hope to find you.”
“What?” Melanie flicked her suspicious eyes to Eloy. “Why?”
“I often see you with a camera and I don’t currently have one. I’d like to get a few pictures of him while he’s still a youngster. They grow so fast.”
“Oh. Yes, of course.” Melanie stepped back, raised her camera and clicked off a couple of shots.
“Sit proud, Captain,” he said, and the pup raised his ears in an alert, proud pose that made Eloy and Melanie chuckle before she took a few more pictures.
“Much appreciated, ma’am.”
“Melanie. Please call me, Melanie.” She knelt down and stroked Captain’s glistening coat.
“I’ll gladly pay for the film processing.”
She raised the camera and gave him a slight smile. “It’s a digital camera. No film to process. I could print you a few copies and drop them by.”
“I’d appreciate that very much, Mrs. Gray. And you could sign the book you wrote with your husband. It’s a very good book, by the way. Especially the words that accompany the photographs.”
She lowered her head and muttered, “Thank you.”
“Morris won’t be a problem any longer,” Eloy said before he gave the words any thought.
“I heard your exchange with him a couple of weeks ago.” His heartbeat quickened, afraid that he’d spooked the woman. “Morris is a sorry excuse of a man. From what I’ve seen—and I’ve seen a lot—he causes nothing but trouble and worry for anyone in his path. Please know that . . . well . . . you don’t have to worry about Morris bothering you.”
“I won’t?” Melanie stood back up and began to fiddle with her camera. “Not that I can’t take care of myself—”
“Oh, no, ma’am. I didn’t mean to imply that at all. You’re clearly a very capable young woman.” The words came out a strained croak. He hadn’t carried on a complete conversation since he couldn’t remember when and he feared his voice wouldn’t hold up. He didn’t want to give Melanie the wrong impression now that he’d summoned the courage to approach her so figured he’d better wrap up their visit.
“All right then,” he said. “It’s been a pleasure spending a little time with you. And I appreciate you capturing Captain with your photographic skills. Perhaps you’d be willing to help me catalogue his growth as the months pass.”
“Well, I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be here after my book project is done.”
“Sorry to hear that. I hope you’ll consider staying. Rubicon Ranch wouldn’t be the same without you.” Eloy tipped his hat and gave the leash a gentle snap, prompting the dog to stand. “Good day, ma’am.” He lowered his head and studied his dusty shoes. “I’m sure sorry you found that foot.”
He turned away with Captain, regretting the last words that came out of his mouth before he could stop them. He didn’t intend to put the woman off, but hoped she wouldn’t find anything else unfortunate lying in wait in the desert . . . or anywhere else.