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When Susanna stepped down from the wagon Duncan had the fire going, but he sat staring into the flames, forearms resting on his knees, hands hanging loose.
"Duncan?" She was a slender, graceful and unusually pretty woman. "Duncan? What is it?"
"It's this . . . all of it." His gesture took in their surroundings. "I had no right to bring you and Tom into this, no right at all."
"We discussed it, Duncan. We all took part in the decision. We all decided it was the best thing."
"I know, Susanna, but that was back east. It was one thing to sit in a comfortable living room and talk about the west, but it's something else when you are face to face with it." He looked westward, toward the open plains. "What's out there, Susanna? What are we getting into?"
"Somebody's coming, Pa." Tom was twelve. If his father had doubts, he had none.
They looked where he pointed. A rider was coming through the scattered trees toward them. He was a tall, rough-looking man on a roan horse, and he carried his rifle as if born with it.
He pulled up some fifty yards off. His eyes swept the camp. "Howdy. All right if I come in?"
There was nothing about his looks to inspire confidence but Duncan McKaskel said, "Come on in. It's all right."
He rode up, stopping across the fire from their wagon, dismounting with his horse between himself and the fire.
"Seen your smoke. Figured you might have coffee."
Rifle in hand he walked to the fire, seeing Susanna he removed his hat. "Sorry, ma'am. Don't like to butt in like this but I been ridin' all night, an' no coffee for three, four days."
"Be seated. Breakfast will soon be ready."
"I am Duncan McKaskel. My wife, Susanna, my son, Tom."
He added a stick to the fire, glancing at the wagon and the deep-cut tracks. "You got quite a load there. Ain't goin' far, I guess."
"We're going west," Duncan said.
"You ain't goin' far with that load." He accepted the cup Susanna poured for him and squatted on his heels. "You got four head of mules out there . . . good mules. But that's too much load."
"We will manage," Duncan's tone was cool.
The stranger was, Susanna decided, very good-looking in a rough way. He wore a mustache, was unshaved, and his boots were down at the heel. All his clothes were shabby, yet there was an animal strength about him and an almost feline grace.
"Good coffee." He reached for the pot and refilled his cup. "Ever driven on the prairie? I mean where there's no road?"
"No, I haven't."
"Had a sign of rain lately. The grass is good for the stock, but it makes the pullin' mighty hard. You ain't goin' far with just four mules an' a load that heavy. An' s'posin' your mules wander off? How'll you find 'em?"
"We have riding horses."
The stranger sipped his coffee. "Not no more, you don't. They've been took."
"You had you a pair of sorrels? Big, handsome horses?"
"Then you don't have them no longer. They been stole."
"What's that?" McKaskel came to his feet. "What do you mean?"
"A couple of fellers drove them off just before full light. Fellers from the settlement, yonder."
"I don't believe" McKaskel started to move off, then glanced from the stranger to Susanna. He stopped. "Tom, you run and check on the horses."
Susanna was slicing bacon into the frying-pan, her face flushed from the heat. "You're a mighty handsome woman, ma'am."
"When you crossed the river, yonder? You come right up through the settlement?"
"We stopped there." McKaskel decided he did not like this man.
"Figured you had. They seen your stock, and they seen your woman."
"What do you mean by that?"
"That's a mean outfit. Small caliber, but mean. They seen that heavy-loaded wagon, your wife, an' your stock. They mean to have them."
Tom came running, his face white. "Pa! The horses are gone! There's tracks . . . right across that sandy place toward those shacks."
McKaskel felt sick. He had known there might be trouble in coming west, but felt sure that if he minded his own business he could stay out of it. He got up slowly, then went to the wagon for his rifle.
"Duncan . . .?" Susanna was frightened.
"I must have those horses. I'll just walk over and see if I can find them."
The stranger picked two slices of bacon from the skillet. Without looking up he said, "You ever kill a man, McKaskel?"
"Kill a man?" McKaskel was startled. "Why, no. I haven't."
"You walk into that settlement with that gun an' you better figure on it."
"I don't think"
"Mister, folks say this country is hell on horses an' women. Well, it's hell on tenderfeet, too. You walk into that place without bein' ready to kill an' your wife'll be a widow before the hour's gone."
"That's nonsense. I'll go to the law."
"Ain't none. Folks out here generally make their own."
"I can use this rifle. I've killed a dozen deer"
"Was the deer shootin' back at you? Mister, that outfit figure on you comin' in. They want you to. Why do you s'pose they left all them tracks? They figure to kill you, Mister."
"They seen your woman. That gang figures your stock and your wagonload are worth somethin'. They took your horses so you'll come lookin'. They want you to come armed. Nobody will ever ask questions, but if they do they'll just say you came in there a-frettin' and a-steamin' and made a fight, so they just had to kill you."
"So what am I to do? Let them steal my horses?"
"Uh-uh. You just go in there with your eyes open, figurin' you're goin' to have to kill somebody. You spot you a big fat man, an' when you start talkin' you just sort of careless-like get your rifle pointed at him. Then you tell them to trot out your horses."
"Duncan? Don't do it. It isn't worth it. Not for two horses."
"We raised those horses, Susanna, and they belong to us. I shall go after them."
"He's got to try, ma'am. If he don't go in they'll foller after an' steal your mules."
"How do you know so much about it?" Susanna demanded. "How do we know you are not one of them?"
His grin was sly, amused. "You don't, ma'am."
"I'm going in," McKaskel said, again.
"You better . . . while the notion's on you. You just go right on in, an' don't you worry none about your woman, here. Anything happens to you an' I'll take care of her. I'll do just that."
"Now, see here!"
"You got it to do, McKaskel. You better have at it."
McKaskel hesitated, glancing from one to the other.
"Duncan," Susanna said quietly, "if it must be done, do it, and do not worry about me. I will be all right."
"Pa? Can I go with you? I can shoot!"
"You stay with your mother."
He took up his rifle and strode out of camp. His mouth was dry and he was frightened. Only three hundred yards to the shacks, and he did not know whether he wished it were nearer or farther. He had seen the men sitting on the saloon porch as he and his family came through and he had been glad to leave them behind.
He thought of his rifle. It was a good one, and he could shoot straight, but he had never shot at a man. Could he do it now? And that stranger back there? He had left his wife and son with him, and how did he know that the stranger was not worse than any of those in the settlement?
The shacks were there, right in front of him. The horses were there, too, tied right to the rail in front of the saloon. No attempt had been made to conceal them. They were a challenge, an affront.
He remembered how they had looked at Susanna. He had planned to drive right out on the prairie, but he had hesitated, for once they left the river and its rim of trees they had left all behind, they were committed to something he now began to see as sheer folly.
Back east, with the west far, far away, it had been a topic of conversation, but the talk had continued until they actually packed up and moved west.
Those men were waiting. He could see two men seated on a rough bench, another standing in the door, and they had seen him coming. He could not turn back now. They would know he was afraid.
The stranger was right. They planned to kill him.
How? It was all so obvious. The horses were there, he had only to walk in, state his ownership and bring them away.
That was all . . . or was it?
Back at the fire the stranger emptied his cup. Susanna's features were white and strained. "Well," the stranger said, "you better make your plans. He went in an' I wouldn't give a busted trace-chain for his chances. You're goin' to be a widow, ma'am. Now I ain't much, but"
"You're going to let him be killed?"
"None of my affair."
"You his woman?"
"We are married."
"Wasn't what I asked. I wanted to know if you was his woman? It ain't always the same thing."
"I am his woman and am proud to be so. He is a fine man. And I am a decent woman."
Lazily, he got to his feet and moved to his horse. "I'll just mosey on in an' see the fun." He swung into the saddle. "Of course, if he gets himself killed, you got you a choice . . . me or them."
"I shall go back home." Susanna replied. "I am sure Tom and I could get along."
He grinned at her and swung his horse. As soon as he emerged from the trees he could see McKaskel walking into the street. The stranger turned his horse to use the cover of the trees and came up to the town at an angle from which he could not be seen as he watched McKaskel. Drawing up in the shade of the trees, he drew his rifle from its scabbard.
There really was not much he could do. So much would depend on how the game was played.
He could hear McKaskel speaking. "I see you found my horses. Thank you for holding them for me."
The thin man who answered him seemed amused. "Your horses, you say? Now how would we know that? Those horses come driftin' in, an' my boys tied them up. We figure to keep them."
"They belong to me. I have their papers."
The man grinned lazily, a taunting grin. "Papers? Now, ain't that too bad? I cain't read, Mister. I just cain't make out them words . . . neither can my boy."
McKaskel remembered what the stranger had said. The fat man was lounging in the doorway. McKaskel shifted his feet slightly, and managed to turn the muzzle of his gun, an easy, natural movement, but suddenly it was there, covering the fat man.
"I shall take my horses. I am sure you will thank your son for me, but tell them we reared these horses and we must keep them. We intend to keep them."
He stepped toward the horses.
The thin man spat lazily. "Mister, was you to untie them horses somebody might get the idea you was tryin' to steal them. You ready to get yourself shot?"
McKaskel kept his eyes on the fat man as he spoke to the thin one. "Even if I was to get shot I'd still pull this trigger, and I couldn't miss that man standing in the door."
The rifle tilted ever so little, and he kept the fat man covered as he pulled the string to untie the knot.
"Don't nobody do nothin' foolish!" The fat man shouted the words. "Let 'im go!"
Holding the rifle ready, Duncan McKaskel put a foot in the stirrup and swung to the saddle. Turning his horse he untied the second horse, keeping his rifle in position as he did so.
He backed the horses into the street, keeping the rifle on the fat man, but as he turned the horses his rifle swung off target and on the instant the fat man disappeared into the saloon and the men on the porch threw themselves right and left, one of them scrambling toward the open door.
There were two shots.
Duncan McKaskel heard them both, and in an instant of stark panic he realized he had been perfectly set up, the horses and the men on the porch drawing his full attention while the real danger lay behind him.
He felt the whift of the bullet past his cheek at the instant he heard the ugly bark of two shots, the sound of one shot almost lost in the sound of the other.
Turning his horse sharply to face the street, his rifle up, he found the street empty. The men were gone from the porch, but from the loft door of the barn opposite the saloon hung the body of a man, his head and one arm visible.
In the dappled shadow of the trees near the entrance to the street was the stranger, holding a rifle in his hand.
"Just back off easy now, and if anything moves, shoot."
Rifle on the street, McKaskel rode diagonally away from town, keeping his rifle on target. Turning sharply then, he trotted his horse away under cover of the trees. Suddenly he was shaking all over, and his stomach felt empty and sick.
"I want to get out of here," he said aloud. "I want to get out right now."
The stranger was gone. It had been he who shot the man in the loft door.
Susanna was standing out from the trees, shading her eyes toward the town. When she saw him coming she walked back to the fire. She edged the coffee toward the flames, then turned toward Tom.
"Better bring up the mules, Tom. Water them and bring them up."
Reluctantly, the boy turned away. He had seen his father coming and longed to hear what happened.
Duncan McKaskel rode into the clearing leading the other sorrel. "We must go now."
"Tom's gone for the mules. You had better eat something."
"No . . . just coffee."
He accepted the cup, took a swallow, then looked at her, his face gray with shock. "Susanna, they were ready for me. I was thinking of the horses and the men on the porch, and there was a man in the loft behind me with a rifle."