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John Sampson felt as if he was being watched.
The prickling sensation made him rein in his big bay, straining his sense of hearing while he squinted into the midmorning sun. He was stranger to this high country and gazed with a kind of reverence across the expanse of grass and mountains climbing to the sky in the north.
He had ridden eighteen hundred miles to put distance between him and the war-torn South and was wearing the dust to prove it, but more truthfully, he was eating the dust to prove it. His throat was scratchy and his tongue tasted grit across his teeth. Listening to his horse’s wheezing told him the bay needed water maybe more than he did.
Sampson’s hand drifted to his holster, fingering the new model Walker Colt, heavier and more powerful than any he had kept fastened to his hip during the war. The revolver was the one possession that had given him comfort on his westward trek. Too lean after four years of war, he’d parked his rangy, six-foot-four-inch length in the saddle for too many months to more time on the ground to make up the difference.
He had climbed steadily upward through high meadows and narrow river valleys. His plan was to push still further while he searched for something as yet undefined inside him. Solace was what he hoped to find, and peace. So his soul would finally come back to him and his quest would become just a memory.
In the meantime, he still had to cope with the glaring sun and sudden gusts of dirt-devil wind swirling around man and horse at times, like something alive. When he turned his face away and tried to swallow, his tongue got in the way. He could sense his horse, Jeb, wilting under him.
It didn’t help to watch buzzards wheeling in lazy circles overhead. Sampson figured the scavengers marked a puma kill. Maybe that’s who was watching him? The big cat had been interrupted during his meal.
Sampson smiled a little at his jitters. No puma would attack a man when he had easier prey to go back to.
He tried to shake off the feeling of being watched. Right now, it was his thirst that needed to be quenched, and that of his horse, who he cared about even more than himself.
He pushed back his wide-brimmed Stetson and let his eyes scan across the grasslands, searching for even a small sign of water. There was none, but his attention settled on a stand of willow and cottonwood in the distance. With a little prayer, he steered the big bay in that direction, feeling certain there would be water close by.
When he came to a swift running creek among the trees, he let his horse drink his fill, patiently waiting while the animal pushed its nose through the water to wash the dust from his nostrils. Again, he let his eyes scan the area around him. Nothing out of the ordinary jumped at him. The little forest glen he had cautiously treaded into only held its magical wonder on display to welcome him.
He breathed deep and finally dropped from the saddle. Stripping off his shirt, he shook it free of the dust that told of the miles he and Jeb had put behind them this day. Then he knelt on the rocky bank and dunked his head and shoulders into the icy current.
When he finally came up for air, a sound of contentment escaped from his lungs that let him take his time filling his empty canteen. He pulled the cork from the neck and squatted down to sink the oval flask into his shimmering reflection. Ripples broke across his slate-gray eyes staring back, causing him to think maybe soon he should make use of his straight razor.
He didn’t know what made his head come up, only that he was staring out across an expanse of water, suddenly aware of an eerie silence that had descended around him, even to the other side of the creek.
Jeb nuzzled him forcefully enough to get his attention, with eyes wide and head bobbing. The jays had stopped their screeching. And the cicadas had stopped their incessant mating calls.
He swore under his breath. Silence was never a good omen in the wild. He came up off his haunches reaching for the Walker Colt, but the ratcheting of a breech lock froze his fingers before they touched his holster.
In his other hand, the canteen dangled dejectedly from its tether.
When he turned, his attention settled on a rifle trained on him from
barely twenty feet away. So quickly had the man appeared in the brush
that Sampson’s horse danced back and snorted air, sliding fetlock deep into the creek.
“You made a big mistake, stranger,” the voice behind the rifle snapped when Sampson had succeeded in calming the animal down. “You ain’t welcome on this side of the creek.”
Sampson did not take his eyes from the rifle. “Mister, I don’t think you could make it any plainer. I’ll just turn and go back the way I came . . .”
“No! ” The single word cut him off angrily. “You ain’t going nowhere now. Too bad that sneaking son-of-a-bitch you take orders from can’t leave well enough alone. Now I got to show him I back up what I say.”
The man came the rest of the way out of the underbrush he had been concealed in. Sampson stared at a grizzled old-timer in wrinkled clothes and boots run down at the heels, a match to the worn gun belt cinched tight around his middle. Long, stringy gray hair peeked out every which way from under a battered old hat.
“I’ve been tracking you from the brush for a while now,” the man went on, pulling Sampson away from his narrow-eyed evaluation. “And I noticed you looking around real curious like. Maybe to see who might be watching you, huh? ” he asked, before answering his own question. “Well, I was, big man. I was watching you real close. And now it’s payback time.”
Sampson stared hard into a pair of eyes that showed only distrust. Should he try one more time to get a word in edgewise? “Listen, mister . . .” “Shut up! ” The voice rose louder, with a tone that said the man wanted
to hear no more talk. Then he motioned with a nod of his head toward a break in the trees. “First, lift that six-gun with two fingers and let it drop. Then move.”
Sampson’s lips pressed into a thin line as the rifle barrel made its own gesture toward his holster, but he made no move to comply. Instead he said, “You better make your shot count, mister. That old single-shot carbine is not much good against this Walker Colt,” he added casually.
The man’s eyes narrowed. His tongue licked his lips. “Are you trying to test me, big man? ”
Sampson’s response was soft and measured. “I might, if you don’t give me a chance to talk.”
Now the rifle wavered a bit in the man’s grip as he took in the stranger standing there stripped to the waist, with his right hand still dangerously close to the gun on his hip. “I only need one shot, mister.” He tried to put timber back into his voice. “Now get rid of that gun! ”
Sampson shook his head slightly and held his ground. If the old man was not going to listen to reason, then why should he? When he spoke, he was careful to keep his tone matter-of-fact. “And I’m telling you, you
better not miss; or else reconsider this little encounter and let me ride out of here. I promise you, I won’t come back.”
Sampson watched the man lick his lips again. Could they at least end up with a stand-off here? he wondered.
But the thought was cut short as another voice found its way through the underbrush. “What in the hell have you got trapped in your sights, Jeffrey? We were wondering what was taking you so long out here.”
Even before the words died away, a second figure appeared on the bank of the creek, not far from Jeffrey.
Now Jeffrey let his breath go in a rush and chuckled. “You just lost your edge, big man. Do you still want to go for that six-gun? ”
Sampson’s gaze went from one to the other. He wanted to kick himself because he had been reluctant to push harder against Jeffrey when he had the chance.
“Now, let’s try this again.” Jeffrey’s mocking tone drifted to him clearly over the soft ripple of the creek, bolstered by the arrival of an ally. “First, lift the gun with two fingers and let it drop. And second, climb aboard that horse and leave your feet out of the stirrups.”
This was a hell of an introduction to the high plains of the Colorado Territory. One minute he and Jeb were alone out here and the next minute they had drawn a crowd!
And now, here he was, letting his horse be led through thick underbrush overshadowed by tall cottonwood and willow trees. They stood like sentries, looking down in silent disdain as Jeffrey stayed close behind him with that sorry old single-shot carbine.
“I’m not the only one out here,” Sampson’s voice broke through the silence that had grown between them. The strength of his words made the man leading his horse stop. “Every bird and every crawling thing went quiet on both sides of the creek,” he added when he saw he had the man’s attention. “They heard something we didn’t. Someone else is watching all of us, I tell you.”
The man holding the reins of Sampson’s horse looked nervously back at Jeffrey. Jeffrey cocked his head and listened intently. When no new sound came to him, he motioned impatiently ahead. “Let’s get out of this damned brush,” he growled. “I’m beginning to get the willies out here, myself.”
The man pulled on the reins again. When they came out into a clearing, angling toward a house and barns, two others turned to regard the stranger in cold silence. “We finally got one of the troublemakers,” the man leading his horse broke in. His tone indicated he was feeling good at this moment.
Still two more added to the growing crowd! Sampson swore under his breath, but still loud enough for those around him to hear it. He had
thought if he came peacefully he would stand a better chance they would listen to him. “You boys are a mite spooked,” he said in his best southern drawl. “What do you think one man is going to do against four? ” He shifted his weight in the saddle to look back at the rifle trained on a spot between his shoulder blades.
“Trying to run won’t do you any good now, mister,” the man with the rifle reacted to the movement. “Better you should pray.”
“Running from a fight is the furthest thing from my mind, friend.” The easy drawl was gone. Now Sampson’s words carried a quiet warning. He watched the three men facing him move in closer. “Are you boys going to be a part of this,” he asked, as his gaze went to each in turn.
They were just ordinary cowboys, nothing more, with gun belts buckled over baggy pants, tucked into run-down boots. Two had beard stubble they did not bother to remove often; the third cowboy had no beard stubble at all. Hell, he was just a kid, but the gun he wore made him as dangerous as the others. Sampson leveled a stare at him the longest and his eyes wavered. But none of the three volunteered an answer to his question as they cast a furtive glance toward Jeffrey.
Where was this going to go now? Sampson wondered. Something that had been simmering under the surface for a long time was coming to a boil, and he was about to be put in the pot.
That sobering thought was interrupted by a door opening on squeaky hinges. And then booted footsteps echoed on the wooden deck of the porch.
He turned his attention toward the house as a woman came into view, balancing there on the top stair, watching what was playing out with a look of open curiosity she did not try to hide. For an uncomfortable moment, she studied him, trying to probe behind his eyes, it seemed, to what he was like inside.
To Sampson, she seemed strangely out of place among this unkempt lot. She was full figured and wore a plain, dark grey farmer’s dress, almost paper thin from too much scrubbing. The off-the-shoulder sleeves pulled tight across her full breasts, letting Sampson focus for an instant on the buttons straining to hold the top closed. The length was cut just above her ankles to show plain-toed riding boots, but letting his attention wander higher, made it clear there was nothing else plain about her.
Her hair was the color of wind driven snow, except for curious streaks of ebony above each temple that gave evidence to advancing age held in check, at least for a while longer. Her face still made a man want to keep looking at her, even stare at her, especially into those luminous blue eyes studying him attentively.
He felt he had let too much time go by waiting for her to speak. He touched his hand to his hat. “Ma’am,” he acknowledged, keeping his voice steady with an effort. “It seems you all have me at a slight disadvantage here. I’m not whoever you think was intent on doing you harm . . .”
“Goddamn, son-of-a-bitch,” Jeffrey screamed. The rifle came up to shoulder position. “I warned you, mister. We’re through listening to any more bullshit from the likes of your kind. Now get down off that horse before I shoot him out from under you! ”
“At least hear what he has to say, Jeffrey,” the woman broke in calmly. Her voice was a surprising contrast to the man’s unbridled anger.
So, she did have a voice after all. Sampson had begun to wonder. “Damn it, Hannah. This ain’t your place out here,” Jeffrey barked,
bringing his temper under control. “Now get back inside and let us handle this.”
The woman ignored the token offer to do as she was told. “Just look at him, Jeffrey,” she went on. “He’s covered with trail dust and as gaunt as a scarecrow. He doesn’t look like a man begging for trouble. I think he would be looking for a square meal to fill out those ribs.”
Jeffrey’s temper flared even more than before. “Get inside, Hannah. Now! I ain’t going to tell you again! ”
This time his anger put an end to any further attempt to negotiate a truce. Hannah pushed a wisp of hair impatiently away from her face as she looked down at her hands. There was no place else to look, unless she wanted to stare at the stranger again.
She began to wring her fingers nervously, clearly wanting to say more. Finally, with an air of resignation, she turned toward the door and closed it loudly behind her.
“Okay, mister. Get down from that horse,” he heard one of the cowboys say as the seconds passed, while he hoped the woman would come back out onto the porch.
But he knew she wouldn’t.
“I said get down,” the cowboy yelled this time.
Everyone’s patience had worn thin. Suddenly the cowboy took hold of
Sampson’s boot, pushed up and twisted hard, lifting him bodily from the
saddle to land sprawling in the dirt.
Even before he was halfway to his feet they were on him, two taking
hold of his arms while another drove a fist into his middle. He doubled
over with the pain, but the fourth man yanked his head back, so the one
who liked to use his fists could hit him again, in the face this time. He
swore bitterly at all of them and shook the pain off, while he fought against
those holding his arms.
“Now, you talk, mister. It was Calder who sent you, wasn’t it? ” The words came from Jeffrey, still holding the rifle, searching for confirmation to an answer he already thought he had.
There was certainly no mistaking the growing threat now, or the twisted humor they seemed to be getting from this. It showed in the wicked grins that etched deep lines at either side of their mouth. “I don’t know anyone named Calder,” Sampson managed, trying to swallow blood mixed with spit and take in new air. “But if he’s one of those out in the brush, you’re going to need my help.”
“Do you take us for fools? We say you’re a lying son-of-a-bitch.”
We? The word caught Sampson’s attention. Only Jeffrey, still holding
that damn rifle, was doing any talking. “I made you an offer. And now I
say go to hell,” Sampson snapped back. “For not letting me talk.”
That brought a fist smashing into his face again, only this time he
saw it coming and turned his head. His cheekbone caught the full force
of the blow and his head rocked back. He felt warm blood flow. But the
satisfaction he got was hearing knuckles break, and the man who hit him
scream in pain.
“We want to know why you came here, you bastard,” another of the
four demanded. “Someone already busted our corrals and scattered some
of our horses. The next time they tore our dam apart. What were you
going to do? ”
Sampson had not been given a chance to talk before and he did not
try to answer now. He only looked toward the man with the broken hand
and heard him still crying. A twisted satisfaction came from knowing he
wouldn’t be hitting anyone else for a long time.
The feeling was short-lived as his lungs threatened to explode from
another fist slamming into him, and then another. Christ Almighty! Now
they were actually taking turns on him.
It was going to be a long afternoon.
No one expected the words that came to them next. All attention had
been on Sampson and the hate they were taking out on him alone. So this
new voice, coming from some distance away where they never expected it,
rang loud across the yard and made the four cowboys turn as one.
“Hey! You’re taking our fun away.”
Still doubled forward in pain, Sampson heard horses snort and paw the
these new arrivals in their midst.
The two cowboys holding Sampson’s arms let go of him and he sagged
to the ground, suddenly forgotten, because all attention was now riveted
on this new threat which was much more real.
From his position at their feet, Sampson managed to lift his head and watched three riders come on. It was clear these men weren’t just ranch hands. These men were more familiar with guns. Their holsters were tied down low on their thighs. One man even wore two crossed gun belts.
When the riders were close enough to see fear spread across each man’s face, they pulled up. And next Sampson heard impending horror in the threat that came to them all. “No, I guess the fun you four are having won’t be any better than what we got in mind, at all.”
The words became a fuse. Suddenly one of the pair who had been holding Sampson’s arms clawed at his gun. He yelled as he fired again and again, because now it had come to that, in the blur of motion that followed, the tumult of mixed sounds that became deafening gunfire, squealing horses, and cursing men.
Sampson scrambled out of their line of fire, quickly dismissed in this battle of horsemen against men on foot. He heard bullets strike flesh behind him. In the next instant a gun went silent as its owner was slammed to the ground.
Even as the man screamed and fell back almost on top of him, he pulled himself behind the still form and stared at what was taking place in front of him. From this new position he looked up to see the kid and the man with the rifle, the only two left, facing the three riders charging at them, firing their guns as they came. He watched the kid’s stance wither under the onslaught, watched his face showing fear as he suddenly turned and began to run toward the barn and what he hoped was safety.
“No, kid! No,” Sampson yelled, half to himself. His own words made him look back at the men on horseback and grimly watch them close the distance on charging horses.
One rider split from the others and went after the kid, even as he made it to the opening of the barn. The other rider veered away to chase down the old man named Jeffrey. A kind of fascination kept Sampson’s eyes locked on those charging hooves, while panic built inside him because he was right in the horse’s path and there was nothing to do but crawl, to try and scramble up, just as the horse crashed into him and rode right over him, leaving him to lie there in the settling dust only half conscious.
Over the pounding thunder inside his head, he heard someone cry out. The kid! Then he let his eyes close mercifully, waiting for his own time to come.
He was pulled back among the living by a high-pitched scream, filled with terror. A woman’s scream.
When he heard the scream cut through the air again, he lifted his head with an effort and a blurred image came slowly into focus. The killers were
off their horses and taking sadistic pleasure in finishing what they had come here to do, but in their own way.
The man who had held the rifle on him, not giving him a chance to speak, was being drowned out there in the shallow pond above the dam. Two of the killers held the old man’s arms, taking turns pushing his head underwater, and then letting him come back up. Before he could take in air, they pushed his head back down. It became a twisted sport, up, down; a shorter time up, a longer time down.
The lone killer on the bank holding the woman began to laugh, more a cackle; that carried the same chill through Sampson as the woman’s scream. What held the killer’s interest out there in the water made him force the woman to watch also, as a final breath made the man being held underwater fight to stay alive. He was pleading with them to stop, begging them, but the words were lost in a sputtering attempt as water gushed from his mouth and his nose.
Sampson swore at the brutality of it and forced his body to move, even while the man’s head was pushed underwater again and this time was not allowed to come back up.
The new stillness tore another scream from the woman’s throat, even louder, pulling Sampson back to her personal torment as he saw her twist away from the killer holding her and plunge into the waist-deep water.
The sheer horror of what was taking place put new strength in him and again he started to crawl, but this time toward a gun lying just beyond his reach. His eyes darted back to the woman and he watched her struggle toward the drowned man, as the killer caught her from behind. His weight pulled her down in a foaming spray, and when he came back up, he had her in his arms. He was still laughing while he wrestled her back to the edge of the pond where the other two joined in, pawing her with an animal hunger even as she tried to struggle free of them.
After that, Sampson watched only the gun and his own hand reaching toward it, watched his fingers close around the grip and slowly pull himself up. For a brief moment he stood there swaying, while he gathered strength and fought down a mixed feeling of panic and hate and revulsion inside him. Then he yelled, as loud as he had ever yelled in his life. “Behind you, you bastards; here! ”
His words put an end to their twisted sport as they all turned to stare in disbelief at this stranger with gun in hand who had seemed to rise from the dead.
One of the men even forgot to pull his own gun completely free of his holster. So he died like that, with the surprise frozen on his face and his hand still on his half-drawn gun, as Sampson fired, before riveting his
attention on the other two suddenly moving farther apart from each other, returning his fire wildly now.
He pressed toward them, cocking back the hammer and squeezing the trigger in a rapid staccato that slammed the second killer back to collapse like something of straw. As he gave his attention to the only one left standing against him, he saw naked fear spread across the killer’s face, heedless of the woman suddenly in his retreating line of fire. He yelled, but it was too late, the killer’s gun spit flame and the woman cried out as the impact of a bullet sent her staggering back.
The killer tried to maneuver around her, to keep the stranger in his sights, but Sampson was already lunging to close the distance between them. Too late, he saw the killer line his sights on him and braced for what he knew would follow. But no gunshot sounded; only an audible click came to him.
The killer cocked back the hammer and squeezed the trigger again. Sampson already had his fingers around the gun barrel and was pointing it away when the hammer fell again, on another spent shell!
The sudden realization that the killer’s gun was empty made little difference. The killer was in front of him, staring into his eyes with only a foot separating them, showing a rage that was turning to fear as Sampson raised his gun high in the air over his head. And then he was chopping down viciously with the gun barrel at the man’s skull, taking grim satisfaction in the sound of metal striking bone, again and again, as he drove the killer to the ground.
Only the soft cries from the woman made him forget his anger for the three dead men as he stood there breathing hard. Finally, when he had calmed a little, he stepped over the crumpled body at his feet and went to kneel beside her.
He let seconds pass, while he stared at her lying there and tried to adjust to what had taken place. His stomach began to retch, bringing memories flooding back, of blue and grey uniformed soldiers killing each other across a distance no further than this.
The sight of blood beginning to show through the woman’s dress, spreading slowly across her shoulder, pulled him back. He picked her up gently, glad to hear her soft crying stop as he carried her into the house.
He felt a bit uncomfortable, undoing the buttons down the front of a strange woman’s dress. Even more so while she watched him slip the thin cotton fabric down off her shoulder to expose the high mound of her breast so he could stop the heavy bleeding. The red stain clearly spread further, but he decided to leave that delicate cleanup for a doctor.
Only after he bathed the wound and was applying strips of makeshift bandage to her shoulder did he meet her eyes again. Somehow he felt drawn into those topaz pools, sorry for the emptiness he saw there, sorry for the hurt she was carrying inside. Her lips trembled as she attempted to form words she could not speak.
His thoughts were pulled back to this woman being forced to watch the man being drowned, someone she cared about, judging from her effort to save him, of being groped while she fought off the man’s killers. Anger welled up in him as he tore the bed sheet into more bandage strips with a savage strength.
When at last the makeshift bandage was applied as well as he could manage, he looked at his work closely. He wanted to say something to break the silence, to offer words of sympathy. Anything would help, he knew. “Rest easy, ma’am. I’m going to see what help I can be outside” was all he could think of to say. Her eyes met his again, now with a sense that danger had passed, but still she remained silent. He turned and went hurriedly from the bedroom.
He could not help but wonder what he had come onto here. He let his glance travel slowly over the meager furnishings in the main part of the house with a growing curiosity. Only a small lithograph on a prized secretary desk got his attention. He moved closer to study the couple looking back at him, young and smiling, on their wedding day. There was no mistaking the woman lying wounded on the bed. The same beauty was evident even now, only a more mature beauty, with a more mature fullness to her body.
Out in the yard, he built a smoke and dragged on it deeply, viewing the slaughter around him with little show of emotion, accepting it for what it was; the actions of an untamed land. It was just too bad mankind never seemed to learn.
The cigarette suddenly tasted bitter in his mouth. He ground it out beneath his heel and went to each man in turn, rolling the killers over with his toe, staring without expression into the still faces. Going on to the two cowboys, he turned them almost gently, feeling disgust well up in him when he found them to be past help, as much past help as he knew the man in the water to be.
Only two? He scanned the ground around him. The kid who had run for the safety of the barn, where was he?
In the next instant a faint sound out of place in the silence of the yard made him go still. When he heard it again, he whirled around to see the kid stagger to a shuffling halt there in the opening of the barn into which
he had managed to crawl. He was fighting to hold his drawn gun steady in front of him. “You butchers,” he growled.
Suddenly the gun went off, kicking up dirt between Sampson’s legs before the bullet whined angrily away. He let his breath go slowly as the kid’s finger began to tighten on the trigger again, but he forced himself to stand quiet. “I’m not one of them, young fella. I was pulled into something that was none of my business. You just wouldn’t listen.”
The kid digested what he had heard. The gun started to waver in his hand. Then the gun barrel lowered to point at the ground, while the kid’s eyes took in the carnage around him, and next strained to look closer at this stranger who had spoken with a tone of simple truth. “And I couldn’t stop them,” he said weakly, as the full realization of all that had happened took hold. Suddenly he wilted. Sampson reached him barely in time to let the youngster sag into his arms.
He started to cry softly as Sampson half carried him toward the house. “I can’t go in there,” the youngster broke in when they reached the porch. “Please. Don’t even help me.” His voice rose as he struggled free and backed away. “I ran. And now they’re all dead.”
“The woman is alive,” Sampson answered softly. “But she needs a doctor. And so do you.”
“Hannah is alive? ” The kid sank down onto the steps and buried his face in his hands, while Sampson went into the house for what was left of the sheet.
Sampson bandaged the kid with care, knowing it was a wasted effort even as he did so. He wondered if the kid knew it too, and as he helped him back into his bloody shirt, watched his clouded eyes give silent thanks, Sampson was sure he did. “Rest easy, young fella,” he said then, not knowing what else to say, but feeling words were needed yet a second time. He left the kid slumped over on the porch and went toward the barn to hitch up a team and wagon.
The kid did not move when Sampson ground-hitched the horses in front of the steps and went past him into the house, until he came down off the porch carrying the woman wrapped in a blanket. As he put her carefully in the bed of the wagon, the kid came around to study her like some fragile thing. In spite of the urgency Sampson felt, he waited while the youngster continued to look at her and reached out a hand to touch her tenderly. “Oh my God, Ms. Hannah,” he whispered, seemingly unaware of the stranger looking on. “I wasn’t much help today . . .” His voice cracked.
The woman’s eyes focused on the young man’s face. A hand came up to touch him. “Don’t say that,” she managed. “There was nothing you could do. You’re just a boy . . .”
“I just wanted to help you, Ms. Hannah. That’s all,” he continued softly. “I just wanted to help you.”
No more words came. Only silence grew as the kid shook his head, saddened by his own shortcomings. Sampson interrupted the display of feelings regretfully because time was running out. “In which direction will I find a town, young fella? And how far away is it? ”
“No! Not you.” The kid’s voice sounded almost desperate, pleading. “I’ll get Mrs. Marco there safely, mister. Please, I want to do it.”
He saw Sampson start to protest and added, “I didn’t earn my pay today and I don’t want it no other way. You’ve got to understand . . .” He let the rest trail off and Sampson studied his face, carefully noting his quiet determination.
The stern set of his jaw let Sampson know the kid would make good his promise, so he simply nodded and said finally, “All right. I’ll take care of things here.”
The kid needed help up onto the wagon seat, and Sampson complied. With a final sideward glance the kid would have started the wagon forward then, but Sampson could not let him leave quite yet. He gripped the trembling hand holding the reins and made the kid hold up. “Just two questions, young fella. Who were they? And what made them come here to do this?”
“Who were they? ” The kid repeated the words, while his eyes sought out each dead body scattered randomly across the yard. When his gaze came back to Sampson he said, “It’s better if you don’t know, mister. Bad trouble is brewing, and everyone in the territory will have to take sides.”
“I need more than that.” Sampson pressed gently.
The kid volunteered just a little more. “Southwest of here is Max
Ruttlinger and his Long R ranch. This has been his country for more than
twenty years. Now someone thinks he’s too old to keep it.” The kid grabbed
at his stomach, but managed to continue on. “I hope that isn’t so, mister.
I just hope to God it isn’t so. But now that you know the story, you’ve got
a choice; to stay, or to leave.”
Sampson watched them go from the yard. The kid was slumped forward
to lessen the pain of his wounds as he guided the team of horses toward distant
hills and a town he knew was there. The woman lay quiet in the wagon bed,
not yet past the nightmare that had sucked her into its core of terror.
When he turned back to the grim scene spread out before him, he
built another cigarette and dragged deep before he went to the pond and
waded in. As he lifted the drowned man up and cradled him in his arms,
he studied the man’s face, changed a little now in death, and a lot by age
and the land. Even in spite of the changes, Sampson recognized him as the
man in the lithograph by Hannah’s side on their wedding day.
The sun had moved past noon when the three shallow graves for the ranch hands had been dug. Sampson decided against saying a prayer, only looking toward the heavens briefly before he glanced one last time at the three killers where they had fallen. As he left Marco Ranch, a feeling of determination tugged at him, a feeling that would not let him just step away from what he had been pulled into.
So he pointed his horse to the southwest, in the direction the kid had silently indicated. Until he topped a gentle rise and took in a far different scene before him than the one he had left, a scene that was almost tranquil, with a rambling house, and barns, corrals with horses.
No sign of trouble down there.
He breathed deep to settle himself and nudged his horse into motion,
hoping all was what it seemed, with no one ready to point a gun at him,
and then trying to kill him.
At first all had been quiet around the ranch house, but it wasn’t long
before a solitary figure appeared on the wide porch and peered in his
down on him, to position themselves to his right and to his left for the ride
back to the house. At least these men did not have the look of being more
comfortable with guns than with horses.
They passed under an arch bearing the legend, Long R Ranch. In front
of the barn, he drew rein. Behind him, he was aware of the four riders
doing the same. He turned just enough to see their look matched his own,
guarded curiosity, not menacing suspicion.
It was plain to all of them he had been beaten. The split lip was still
swollen and the bruises had turned yellow, tinged with blue. The dirt
ground into his clothes was certainly more than just trail dust. But still,
no one thought enough to show even a little concern.
“Stay aboard that bay, big man.” The voice that came to him was a woman’s, but strong, holding authority.
About to dismount, the words stopped him cold. He listened to the woman add, “You’re only going to be here long enough to tell us why you came, then you’re going to be on your way.”
“It seems no one around here knows what the word friendly means,” he said to them, letting irritation show. But he made no effort to turn fully and acknowledge them.
“Tell us why you came here and I’ll decide if you’re friendly or not,” the woman snapped back. With that, she maneuvered her mount around to face him.
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