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He was in a bad mood, and he knew his words offended on many levels. The man who had given him a ride was probably about forty years old, just a few years ahead of Gumpson himself, so he could easily have avoided use of the word "old" had he chosen to be civil. He also knew that the wagon was close to its destination, and that night was falling, so the old man did not want to go to the bother of stopping the wagon, giving the horses something to chew on to keep them happy, and unpacking Gumpson's tent and supplies. Nevertheless, the man quickly agreed, which meant that he was glad to get rid of his scraggly, disagreeable rider.
"Jordan is not far," the man said, making a token effort at keeping Gumpson aboard.
The old man was mannerly, one had to hand him that. Probably trying to set a good example for his two little girls, who were a principal reason why Gumpson wanted off the wagon. They giggled. They cried. They tried to play with him. They wanted him to pet their dollies and comb their dollies' hair, which he did, grudgingly; if the boys back in Missouri could have seen that, there would be big laughs all around.
The old man was right. Jordan was not far, but from what Gumpson had heard there was not much to recommend the place. It was supposed to be dull, even for Montana. A few log houses, a tiny store, no bar, not even scenery to amount to anything. This place looked good enough for the night, maybe even for a day or two. No one out here to ask questions. No one out here who might ever get a gander at a newspaper. Just the dark sandstone walls and towering rocks that rose straight up, leaving little sunlight to nurture the scrabbly patches of grass that eked out an existence below.
The old man stopped the cart and sent the girls to entertain the horses. His wife sat up front on the plank seat, as grim and immobile as a mummy. She was no doubt younger than her husband, but looked older, and was so motionless that for a good portion of the trip Gumpson had genuinely wondered if she had passed away and the husband just couldn't bear to part with her company.
"Much obliged," Gumpson said after the old man had tossed down his tent and pack.
"Think nothing of it," the old man said, coughing against the dust that his actions had raised.
"Getting dark," Gumpson said. "You better get going."
He handed the old man a wad of money that had just a little more in it than they agreed to. This was the result of intensive calculation. Gumpson did not want to underpay the man, which could make him mad. Neither did he want to pay exactly the agreed-upon sum, which might also make him mad. On the other hand, he did not want to pay him too much, which would make him suspicious. He wanted the old man to forget he even existed, and to do so as quickly as possible. The amount he had selected was engineered to do the trick, and it had the added advantage of fitting within his regrettably meager budget.
"Take care," the old man said, although his tone indicated he was not going to worry too much about Gumpson's fate. "Might be varmints out here."
"Nothing I can't handle," Gumpson said. "Just wildcats and wolves to worry about out here now."
The girls reclaimed their space in the wagon, and their dollies waved stuffed-arm goodbyes. Too bad they didn't leave one of those yarn-haired dollies, Gumpson thought. He could really use some kindling.
He had the tent up just before the sky went completely purple with sunset. It really was beautiful out here. The rock cliffs caught the light like ancient temples, and somewhere down in his heart Gumpson said a little prayer of thanks for the beauty, although not to any god who would demand work or allegiance from him. His tent looked a little forlorn, perched as it was against the gigantic splendor of Montana. It was a good, rugged Army tent, but looked as insubstantial as a child's twig fort. It would have to do, at least until he reached California, where he could get a place that was a little more comfortable.
Gumpson had heard about the lignite coal that blanketed the area, and before too long had a decent fire burning, one that combined coal with clumps of the patchy grass that grew up to his knees. It didn't smell too good, but he could live with that. In the morning he would walk over and examine the rocks that rose all around the tent, just for fun, but tonight he didn't want to fool around in there and risk breaking a leg. Once the fire was well under way he poked around in his pack and brought out a hard biscuit and two strips of hardtack, along with a small tin of whiskey to wash them down.
The attempted job in Hannibal had probably been overkill, in addition to being unsuccessful, but the police were still in an uproar when he left so it probably didn't matter. He didn't get any money out of the deal, but they didn't catch him either, and that was the main thing. His only regret was that his string of jobs had made it fairly clear that he was heading west, although surely nobody would expect him to go this far. He was a city boy, everybody who knew him knew that. He couldn't stand to be away, off by himself, they would say. He would show them. He sat in silence, chewing slowly. Or maybe they were right. The quietness of the night was beginning to feel oppressive, as was the incredible parade of stars above his head. He didn't have so much as a mouth harp to entertain himself, and for the first time in his life he felt lonely and small. The glorious array of nature that surrounded him seemed designed to make him feel insignificant.
"Hang in there, buddy," he said to himself. "You made it this far, you'll make it okay."
No sooner had the words left his mouth than he heard a rustling sound from the darkness, off to the right. He dropped the biscuit and whipped out his pistol, although he kept the whiskey firmly in hand.
"Who's there?" he asked, taking care to keep his voice level and free of fear. "I'm armed."
He heard the rustling again, but no response. It was probably just some varmint passing through. He was not sure if he should stay close to the fire or venture away. He seemed to remember hearing that wolves and their ilk did not like fire, and so perhaps he should stay close to it. On the other hand, by staying close to it he sacrificed his night vision and the ability to see whatever this beastie might be. Well, he had a gun, so surely it wouldn't matter that much. Gumpson rose to his feet and stepped away from the fire.
What happened next occurred so fast that his mind could barely process it. Some sort of thin green fire, for surely that was the only applicable word, appeared from the darkness and froze his right hand, forcing him to drop the six-shooter. The line of fire made no noise at all, but the sickening thump of his gun on the ground was sound enough. Gumpson let out a whoop of surprise and crouched low, trying to locate the pistol with his other hand. He found it just as another green line appeared, heading straight for him. With a speed that he hadn't used in weeks, he rolled over and avoided it. Just like old times. He righted himself and got off a shot in the direction of the fire, and was rewarded with the sound of a grunt of surprise from that end.
"Stop and you won't get hurt!" he shouted, but his assailant was not to be denied.
He saw a figure approaching through the darkness, a figure now revealed to be a man, a tall man with long hair. Gumpson jumped to his feet and fired another shot. The approaching man somehow managed to avoid it, but Gumpson wasn't quick enough to do the same when the green fire reappeared.
The fire caught him right in the midsection, knocking away his breath. He dropped his gun again, this time from the pain. It felt like a steel band had been tightened around his stomach, squashing everything inside of him. He raised his head to inquire of the man why this was being done, but no sound came from his mouth. The stranger approached, and Gumpson could see now he was a pale man with blonde hair the color of straw, like the hair on the departed dollies. He wore a nondescript shirt, trousers, and duster, but there was something odd about him.
The green fire reappeared, jumping from something the man held in his hand. This time it hit Gumpson's left knee, which froze like a branch in winter. Gumpson toppled over on his right side, hitting his head most painfully on a rock. That was the least of his problems.
He heard two sets of approaching feet. The pale man loomed over him, now joined by another man who looked almost exactly like him. This man was also tall, pale, with long blonde hair. Seen together, they looked like members of some sort of vindictive theatrical troupe. Gumpson longed to ask them questions, find out what was going on, maybe even join this strange long-haired gang, but words failed him. Soon consciousness did, too.
Excerpted from Two Tiny Claws by Brett Davis Copyright © 1999 by Brett Davis. Excerpted by permission.
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