Dell Norris stood in the shade of the stage depot's porch watching the people around him. The crowd was eddying
up and down the street, and the noise was considerable as the citizens conducted their affairs, but Dell Norris
heard none of it. He had heard nothing since the mortar accident during the siege of Petersburg ten years ago.
Dell had been engulfed by an immense explosion that had knocked him out, tossed his body like a ragdoll, and
deafened him to the world of men.
Since that awful day in Virginia, Dell had learned the hard way that nobody notices deaf people. Deaf folks look
normal, and go about their business in the usual ways, but they miss out on the sounds of ordinary life, and tend
to become cut off from regular human interactions. It is a lonely and frustrating existence where a man is
surrounded by people yet unable to communicate properly with them. Dell's answer to this loneliness had been to
retreat into his work designing windmills. Dell could still communicate with others through his drawings, but his
boss Mr. Mackey insisted that he get out in the field occasionally to see how his designs were holding up in the
real world. Dell was on one of those trips right now, and although he hadn't left the station yet he was already
wishing the trip was over.
When the stage arrived for the Strasburg, Colorado to Hays, Kansas run Dell was confronted with another unpleasantness.
There were two female passengers riding with him today, and he would have to publicly announce to them that he was
deaf, or there would be all sorts of social miscues. Dell reluctantly introduced himself, and mentioned that he was
hard-of-hearing; the older, Miss Abagail Irwin, had seemed offended by Dell's remark, while the younger, Miss Debra Platz,
seemed sympathetic enough. But after his admission Dell assumed both women would ignore him since a deaf person would
be little help with conversation.
Once the stage got moving Dell stared out the window, trying to keep his mind on windmill design, but his thoughts and
eyes kept drifting back to the young woman seated across from him. Dell wondered what life would be like with someone
like Miss Debra Platz, but it was hopeless to think that she could understand him, so few people could anymore.
Across the stage's cramped interior, the young lady in question smiled to herself as she toyed with the beaded bag her
father had given her as she packed. This was Debra Platz's first long trip alone, and she was looking forward to
talking to the people she met and hearing their stories. Debra considered the silent deaf fellow a bit of a challenge,
but the trip would be long, and she hoped to find a way to communicate with him. For now, Debra tried to converse with
the older woman, and was surprised to find that she was an unemployed veterinarian from Portland Oregon.
Miss Abagail Irwin, the unemployed veterinarian, fidgeted awkwardly in her seat; she wasn't used to sharing her
personal life with strangers, but here was this silly slip of a girl asking damn fool questions. How she wished she
was back at her infirmary in Portland, tending her patients in peace.
But Dr. Francis, the head veterinarian in Portland, didn't believe a woman should be handling large animals. He had
given Miss Irwin the task of overseeing feeding procedures instead of working with the sick. Embittered by this
treatment, Miss Irwin had offered her resignation in a fit of pique, and had been mortified when it was accepted.
Now an angry Abagail Irwin was on her way to Kansas, hoping to obtain work there as a veterinarian. Miss Irwin
was actually glad when the lone man in the stage announced that he was deaf; that meant she won't be expected to
talk to him. His presence would be a nuisance, but at least he wasn't continually chatting like this young woman.
Debra sat beside Miss Irwin and bubbled with enthusiastic conversation as the stage rolled along; the young woman
was excited about everything, and assumed her companions were as well. If Debra noticed Miss Irwin's reticence she
ignored it after she discovered that Dell could lip read. Debra had made a comment about how rough the road seemed,
and Dell had been looking at her at the time and nodded in agreement.
"I think the station masters are responsible for road maintenance," he said, not realizing he was interrupting.
"Well, I could do with a little less of this sort of excitement," Miss Irwin grumped, as she bounced in her seat.
"Travel by stage robs a person of their rest."
"Oh, I don't think there has been a stage robbery for quite some time," Dell answered, not realizing he had
misunderstood the lady's concern.
Debra made certain that she was facing the man when she spoke, "Do you think there's danger?" she asked.
"There might be some," Dell conceded.
"Don't worry, dearie," Miss Irwin snorted, "The conductor's armed."
After that the conversation lagged, and even Debra lapsed into a fretful silence as she toyed with her beaded
bag while the coach bounced along. The road grew rougher as it crossed a part of the prairie littered with
arroyos, washes made by run-off water from the hills. The coach was forced to slow down each time it crossed
one of these depressions, and the passengers began to dread the hard bounce the wagon made as it hit the bottom
of the grades.
The stage had just started up the far side of one of these washes when a rifle shot echoed across the prairie,
and the team's lead horse dropped like it had been hit by lightning. As the coach lurched to a stop, three
armed horsemen appeared out of the sagebrush shouting for everyone to get their hands up. The passengers complied,
but the conductor foolishly thought to try his luck with the desperados, and raised his weapon, only to be shot
by the marksmen still hidden in the sage.
The force of the bullet pitched the conductor's body into the coachman, knocking the man down onto the road. Now
the dying guard sprawled awkwardly across the stage's roof, and the driver groaned in the dust wondering if he
would ever use his broken left arm again. The bandits ignored the passengers; they had come for the Wells Fargo
chest that was lashed to the coach's roof. One bandit covered the coach's occupants with a pistol while the other
outlaws fetched the strongbox, and released the stage's team. The desperados kept one horse to act as a pack
animal, and scattered the rest into the sage.
In less than ten minutes the bandits were heading south, and the doors of the stage were tentatively opening as
the passengers stepped out onto the prairie. Dell looked around blinking at the glare of the midday sun. He walked
over to the driver who was sitting beside the road cursing quietly as the shock of his injury turned into pain.
Dell was wondering what he could do to help when the man looked up and said, "See to my partner."
Dell read his lips, and climbed up on the stage seat, but as soon as he looked at the conductor he knew the man's
wound was fatal. "He's dead," he said.
Meanwhile the women had exited the coach; Debra stood forlornly beside the road clutching her beaded bag while Miss
Irwin knelt beside the driver and examined his arm. "Both the ulna and radius bones are fractured, there may be
damage to his wrist as well," she announced as she looked up at Dell, "We need to get this immobilized and elevated."
But Dell wasn't looking at Miss Irwin, and began pulling the conductor's body down. Miss Irwin felt her diagnosis
was being ignored, "Leave the dead man! We need to see to the living!" She said irritably.
"You know he can't hear you," Debra answered sharply. She stepped forward and tugged at Dell's pants leg, and when
the deaf man looked down she said, "Please help her!" while pointing to where Miss Irwin was examining on the driver.
Dell smiled, and stepped back down looking at Miss Irwin to see what she needed.
"I'm sorry," he said loudly as he pointed at his ears, "I can't hear; I was next to an explosion—"
"I couldn't care less about that right now," the older woman interrupted, "We need to get this arm immobilized." She
looked around. "Make yourself useful, and find some straight pieces of wood to use for a splint."
Dell didn't understand what the woman wanted until Debra took the time to explain. After a bit of a search they
managed to find several wooden seat supports to use for splint material. While Debra helped Miss Irwin, Dell pulled
down the dead man, and removed his suspenders to use as binders.
Miss Irwin took the proffered suspenders without a glance at the man helping her, and went to work on the driver
who cursed roundly as his bones were set. Feeling a bit ignored, Dell decided to examine their surroundings, but all
he could see was sagebrush in every direction. He concluded that the bandits had picked their ambush point well, and
it was unlikely that anyone would find them soon, "Does anyone know how far it is to the next station?" He asked
Miss Irwin merely grunted as she worked on the driver's arm, but the patient spoke up, "It's at least fifteen miles to
Pete's Place . . . JEEZUS lady . . . " he gasped as Miss Irwin roughly
knotted the suspenders around his arm.
Debra realized that Dell was wondering when help might arrive, so she tapped his shoulder, and when she had his
attention passed on the driver's information. Dell nodded and said, "I think one of us needs to try to walk to
the station for help."
"Well that's up to you mister," Miss Irwin said as she gave the suspender a final tug before looking up from the
brace she was building. "This fellow certainly isn't in any shape to walk that far and, as I'm sure you've noticed,
women's shoes aren't designed for hiking." She waved an arm at Debra's high heeled shoes which were buttoned firmly around her ankles.
Debra looked at her feet as if she had never noticed them before. Then she remembered something, "I have other shoes!"
she said suddenly. "I intended to use them once I reached Hays, but there is no reason not to get them out now!"
The young woman went to the stage's boot, and began tugging at the straps holding the tarpaulin in place, "Can
someone help me get to my trunk?"
The veterinarian and the stagedriver looked at each other in disbelief before Miss Irwin nudged Dell and pointed.
"Help her," she said dismissively as she began arranging a sling for the driver's arm.
Miss Irwin's attitude was lost on Dell who looked around for a moment before figuring out what she wanted him to do.
While the deaf man helped Debra, the driver spoke up, "They'll send someone to check on us when we're overdue."
"And you might pass out from shock before they get here," Miss Irwin pronounced. "That is a bad break mister. If
you were a horse I'd recommend putting you down," the driver wilted at this, groaning as pain flowed up his arm.
Meanwhile Dell had found Debra's trunk, and the young woman was going through the carefully packed clothes
searching for her boots. Dell wondered what she was looking for, but no one volunteered the information, so he
turned to the driver, "Do you have a canteen? It's going to be pretty hot today," he said.
The driver pointed at the wagon seat, "There's cold coffee in a canteen up there."
Dell climbed up to the blood-stained seat, and retrieved the container, "I'll take this," he said, "There's
water down in the wash if you get thirsty."
Realizing that Dell was serious about leaving, Miss Irwin turned her ire on him, "So, you're just going to leave
us here with a corpse?" She spat out the words. Dell didn't hear her, and continued to prepare to leave. The
angry woman finally placed herself in front of the deaf man, and wagged a finger in his face as she said, "You're
not leaving till that man is buried somehow!" She pointed at the conductor's body.
Dell stared thoughtfully at the corpse before turning his attention back to the crabby woman, "Have you handled
dead bodies before?" He asked.
Miss Irwin stiffened her spine and retorted, "Of course. I've handled many dead animals in my day. I'm capable of
any medical function from births to autopsies," she huffed.
Dell nodded, "Good. Grab a leg, and we'll pull him into the brush. You can cover him while I go for help." Miss
Irwin was surprised by this casualness, but Dell had gotten used to seeing the dead during the war. Now he waited
patiently by the body, and after a moment the veterinarian caved in, and they towed the conductor into a wash.
Dell pointed, "You can break sage branches off to cover him with. That should keep him fresh till someone comes
from Pete's Place," he said.
"So, you're really leaving?" Miss Irwin asked.
But Dell had turned away and didn't see the question, but Debra heard it and answered, "He's not leaving alone!
I'm going with him!" She said as she tugged on her new boots.
Miss Irwin looked at Debra and smirked. "I don't think he knows that, dearie," she said acidly. "You should
think twice before marching off in the desert with that deaf fool. You don't know what you could run into out
there." She looked at Dell hard. "You know he won't be much help if there's trouble," she warned.
"I'm going," Debra said as she picked up the canteen and her beaded bundle, "I'm sure Mr. Norris is very capable.
However, he may need me to listen for him. You should stay here, Miss Irwin. You don't have proper shoes, and
the driver may need your assistance."
Miss Irwin gave a dry chuckle. "Dearie, I've lanced an abscess on a Tiger's gum, and caught an elephant calf
when it was born." She gestured toward the injured man. "I can take care of things here with no trouble at all."
The driver looked at his nurse in horror, wondering what he had let himself in for.
Dell heard none of this, and was surprised when Debra presented herself in her flat-soled boots carrying her beaded
bag in one hand and the canteen in the other, "You're sure you want to come?" He asked, "It's a long walk in the sun."
When the young woman nodded he pointed at her head, "You should have a hat." But the only hat available had belonged
to the conductor, and Debra couldn't bring herself to wear it, so they settled for a scarf instead. Dell picked up
the shotgun, "Do you mind if I borrow this?" He asked, but neither the driver nor Miss Irwin bothered to answer, so
Dell took the gun and a handful of shells.
The man and woman began their journey eastward with the sun at their backs. At first the walk was pleasant after
being cooped up in the stage, but that feeling quickly passed as both the temperature and the dust rose around them.
Dell offered to carry the canteen and Debra's little bag, but she insisted that if she was making this trek then she
was going to help, and Dell respected that.
Following the well-worn trail wasn't difficult, but the pair soon noticed the stage road wasn't built with pedestrians
in mind. The track meandered across the prairie skirting places where a wagon would find rough going. This wandering
increased the distance Dell and Debra needed to cover, so to pass the time they began to chat after a fashion. Telling
their respective stories meant that they had to pay close attention to each other since Dell understood nothing unless
he saw Debra's lips move. Communicating in this way allowed Debra to see the pain on her companion's face as he related
how he had lost his hearing, and Dell noticed the wistful look in Debra's eyes as she related how she had stayed home,
caring for things since her mother died.
"Daddy is always so busy at his brewery I can never get away," she sighed. "That's why I'm so excited about this trip."
Dell laughed. "I never leave the office unless Mr. Mackey sends me someplace."
Debra looked at him. "Don't you want to get outside sometimes?"
"Sure," Dell agreed. "But when you can't understand what folks are saying you tend to stay away from them," he said.
"I can understand you," she said.
"You're different," he answered.
"How?" Debra asked.
Dell thought about that for a moment. "You take the time to look at me and listen," he finally said.
Debra stopped and faced the deaf man before she asked her next question; she wanted to be sure he understood
what she was saying. "Mr. Norris, why are you making this hike? The driver is right you know, someone will eventually come for us."
Dell smiled a little sadly, "I guess to prove I can still do things that matter . . . even
though I can't hear." He shrugged. "Why are you walking with me?"
Debra looked down; sometimes it was hard to think straight when he stared at her mouth, "I guess I wanted
to talk to you a bit," she smiled. "I like to walk like this," she said. "It seems to make everything a
bit of an adventure, doesn't it?"
Dell looked around at the empty prairie, "Well, if you wanted adventure I can think of other ways of finding it."
They shared a laugh at that and resumed walking. After several hours, the pair reached a prominence where Dell
paused to survey the country before boldly stepping off the road and heading in a straight line down the hillside.
Debra pulled at the man's sleeve, "We should stay on the trail," she pointed out.
Dell shook his head. "It's fifteen miles as the crow flies to Pete's Place, but it's probably closer to twenty if
we stick to the road." He pointed downhill. "Besides, you can see where the road crosses that ridge over there.
All we have to do is walk in that direction."
Debra looked worried, but agreed. The short cut would save them some steps, and her new boots were chafing her feet
terribly. They headed downhill, but hadn't walked far when they discovered a fresh trail made by shod horses traveling
in single file. Dell examined the tracks carefully. "White men or Mexicans on four to six horses," he said as he
pointed out where someone had spit tobacco juice in the dirt, "Looks like they're headed northeast."
Debra faced the deaf man. "Maybe they would help us?" she asked hopefully.
Dell read her lips and answered. "Maybe . . . " he said doubtfully. "Or maybe the bandits looped
around, and are headed north now. Let's keep going the way we are, we can always cut back to this trail later."
Privately, Debra felt that if they caught up with whoever was on those horses they could ride to Pete's Place,
and it certainly would be pleasant to get off her feet. But Dell resolutely stepped across the tracks, and they
continued downhill with the man assisting Debra as she struggled with her new boots and long skirts. Dell was
beginning to wonder if allowing Debra along had been a good idea. He held his peace though, and ten minutes later
they reached a swallow arroyo. There was water in the wash, and Dell looked at the girl questioningly. "Oh yes,"
she said, "please, let's rest a moment!" Debra clutched her beaded bag tightly as she looked for a place to step down.
"What do you have in the bag?" Dell asked.
Debra sat on a stone, and loosened the laces on her boots before looking at Dell shyly, "Just some lady things I
didn't want to leave behind. Do you mind if I take off my boots for a moment?"
Dell sat down, "Go ahead," he said, and then frowned when he got a look at her blistered feet. "You shouldn't have
worn those boots without breaking them in," he pointed out as he watched her face for a response.
Debra felt foolish. "I know, but I couldn't stand staying at the coach with that Miss Irwin," she answered as she
rubbed water over the sores. Debra tried not to meet Dell's look. She found it unsettling to have him stare at her
face right now. Debra wondered what he must think of her, traipsing through the desert like some Indian, then pulling
off her boots and exposing her ankles like some saloon girl, when any real lady would have stayed at the stage.
But Dell accepted Debra's answer. Briefly he wondered how the driver was faring with Miss Irwin, but his thoughts
kept returning to the woman bathing her feet beside him. Communicating with hearing people was a challenge, but
dealing with women placed the problem on another level. As much as he wanted to speak to her, Dell thought it best
to just let Debra alone for a bit. She probably felt silly for some reason or other, and he resolved to say no
more about her feet or her shoes.
The duo's respective reveries were interrupted by three rifle shots. Dell started at the sounds and looked around
alertly. Debra touched his arm, and when he turned to face her she asked, "Could you hear that?"
Dell nodded, "I can hear loud noises," he grinned, "I just don't always know what they mean."
"It was gunfire," Debra said. "What do you suppose it was about?" Dell answered with a shrug.
There was no way of knowing unless they went to look. The deaf man stood up and pointed toward
where the sounds had come from, and Debra nodded.
Dell frowned, "Lace up your boots," he said as he checked the shotgun. When Debra was ready, the pair moved up the
wash with the young woman limping slightly as the new boots settled over her blisters again. Fortunately, walking
in the hard sand of the wash was easier than ducking around sagebrush, and after about fifteen minutes they came
upon a dry camp in the shade of a large cottonwood tree. There was an empty whiskey bottle lying in the sand, and
a horse tied up nearby. The animal was flicking at insects with its tail while nuzzling a small pool of water at its feet.
Dell pointed to marks in the sand where horses had dragged away three heavily bleeding burdens. Then the gleam of an
empty cartridge lying by a stone caught the deaf man's eye, and he picked it up. "From a Henry repeater," he said as he looked about.
"There doesn't seem to be anyone around. Do you suppose we could borrow this horse?" Debra asked. Dell handed the
shotgun to her and turned his attention to the beast. The animal swiveled its ears toward Dell as he patted the
dusty flank, and untied the line holding the bridle, "This is one of the stagecoach's horses," Dell said as he
pointed to the horse's rump. "See the brand?"
But Debra was looking at something under the sagebrush. "Isn't that the strongbox from the stage?" She gasped.
Dell saw her question and nodded. "Looks like, and that means we need to get out of here as quick as we can," he said.
"Do you think they'll come back?" Debra asked.
Dell glanced at the bloodstained sand. "The ones that are still alive will," he said as he turned his attention back
to the horse. Dell was thinking that he should put Debra on the animal and let her ride to spare her feet. He ignored
the strongbox. Let the stage company retrieve it if they could. The horse didn't move, but its ears flicked in another
direction, hearing something the man couldn't. Dell realized that someone was coming, and as he turned he saw Debra
pointing up the wash.
A cowboy was approaching on foot. He was rangy man with a growth of stubble covering his face, and the brim of his hat
shading his eyes. The man's plaid shirt was faded, and his leather chaps were worn to a glossy finish in places, but the
Henry rifle in his right hand looked well cared for. The man looked startled when he saw Dell and Debra; he obviously
wasn't expecting company, but he managed a smile showing a set of tobacco stained teeth. "Howdy folks," he said.
Dell looked at Debra who was a good fifteen feet away. She was watching the stranger and clutching her bag in one hand
and the shotgun in the other. "Hello," she managed to say, "we're . . . sort of lost. Can you help us?"
Dell looked back at the cowboy. The man was eyeing him curiously, probably wondering why Dell let the woman speak for him.
The cowboy relaxed a bit, and answered Debra civilly enough, "Lost huh? Where you trying to get to, missy?" he asked.
"To a way station called Pete's Place," Debra answered. "Our coach was held up, and the conductor was killed. The bandits
cut the team loose, and left us stranded, so we decided to walk," Debra looked at Dell, but he had switched his attention
to the man with the rifle. She took a step in Dell's direction and went on. "We stopped for water, and heard some gunshots,
so we decided to look for whoever was shooting, but all we found was this horse . . . " she let the
sentence trail off because she didn't want to mention the strongbox under the sagebrush, and the cowboy didn't seem to be
paying attention anyway. She was wrong.
The stranger shook his head and said, "Oh, Lordy, where are my manners? I'm Bo Harper, and that was me you heard shooting.
I was hunting coyotes. My horse run off when I opened fire, and I was chasing it. That animal there is my pack
train . . . " Harper switched his attention from Dell to the girl, "What's the matter with that fella?
Why does he stare at a man so?"
Debra grinned. "He's deaf, he reads lips," she said.
"Deaf?" the cowboy said thoughtfully before changing the subject. "So you were held up on the way to Pete's Place huh?
Did you see who did it?" he asked casually.
Debra told a short version of the robbery, and Dell busied himself with the horse, but he kept an eye on Harper as he worked.
The stranger took several more steps toward them, and was now holding the rifle with both hands as he listened to Debra's tale.
When she finished talking, Dell walked the horse over to where she stood. "Get on," he said.
"Hey now! "Bo yelled, "I said that's my animal! You could at least ask!"
Dell didn't hear this outburst of course, and he ignored the girl's startled look as he took the shotgun from her and suddenly
stepped away, leveling the weapon at Harper. "Drop the rifle or you're dead," he said flatly. The cowboy started to speak but
looked at the stubby shotgun in the deaf man's hands and dropped his rifle.
"Mister, you're making a big mistake—" Harper began.
Dell read his lips and interrupted. "Not as big as your ex-partners did when they trusted you." Dell gestured with the shotgun.
"Now back up and get down on your knees." The cowboy backed up and knelt in the dirt. Dell picked up Harper's rifle, "It's
still warm, Debra," he said as he turned his attention from Harper to the girl.
"I was hunting coyotes," Bo repeated.
Dell was looking at Debra, and couldn't hear the excuse, "We didn't see who shot the conductor," he said, "But that horse was
pulling our stage, and that strongbox was on the coach!" He said as he gestured at the whiskey bottle, "I'll bet those shots
were this fellow finishing off his partners after he got 'em drunk, and the bodies are up that wash somewhere—" but
Debra wasn't listening. She was pointing and soundlessly yelling.
Dell started to turn, but Harper tackled him, and with a gun in each hand the deaf man fell heavily. Harper pressed his
advantage, punching Dell with his fists, and the deaf man let go of the weapons as he tried to fight back. Harper dived
for the rifle only to be brought up short by the crack of a pistol, and a spurt of dust where a slug buried itself between
his outstretched arms.
"HOLD IT RIGHT THERE MISTER!" Debra commanded. "MAKE ANOTHER MOVE, AND IT'S YOUR LAST!"
Harper froze with his fingers a good foot away from the rifle.
Dell heard the shot, and sat up wondering what was going on. Debra was standing about twenty feet away holding a smoking
pistol in her tightly clasped hands; the empty beaded bag lay crumpled at her feet. As the young woman coolly re-cocked
her weapon, Dell retrieved the rifle and shotgun. "Just a few things you didn't want to leave behind eh?" he said, and grinned.
Debra looked at Dell and answered primly. "A girl can't be too careful Mr. Norris. How was I supposed to know you
were so trustworthy?"
Dell looked at her admiringly, and Debra gestured with her gun, "Perhaps we'd better tie this one up?" she suggested.
Dell read her lips and realized he had finally met a woman who could understand him.