Two weeks later. Lawrence, Kansas
Blood spattered the wooden walls and floor of the room. Two bodies lay on the ground, their life seeping through the floorboards and onto the dry ground below. The door to the saloon hung open, the gunman having just disappeared through it, quickly followed by the two men pursuing him. This had been more than just another job for the gunman. More than the usual order that involved killing a couple of men. This time he did it for himself.
His breath rasped in his throat, as if barbed wire were being forced down his gullet. His feet pounded the hard dirt as he ran into the night. He ached all over, his body was stretched to breaking point, but still he kept on going. He stole a glance over his shoulder but all he saw were the lights of the town behind him.
He had a head start on his hunters but he didn’t’t know by how much in precise minutes. At least the darkness hid his tracks. His Colt .44 slapped against his thigh as he ran, its barrel still warm from just minutes ago. Even though he sweated profusely, a cold chill passed through him. Voices. He heard them coming. Behind. Carrying the sounds of the chase on the wind. The sound of death. He changed direction, angling to his left, like a hunted rabbit. Sweat ran into his eyes, obscuring his vision. He felt lightheaded, running blind.
He stumbled once, falling in a heap in the dust. He smashed his right knee into the hard ground but the pain didn’t even register. Almost instantly, he was back on his feet, though weaker, his body responding more slowly. He stubbed his foot on a rock and fell forward, his hands cart-wheeling as he tried to keep his balance. This time, he fell heavily and his head crashed against a stone. A bearded face stared at him down the barrel of a Winchester: the last thing he saw before a black veil of unconsciousness enveloped him.
* * * *
He was alive. He opened his eyes slowly, gradually allowing the daylight to seep into his aching head. His whole body jolted and his head rebounded off of something hard. This time he was fully awoken and cursed loudly, the impact reverberating in his skull as if a mule had kicked him. He lay down, clutching his head in his hands.
“Looks like our guest is awake. Give him some water, Betty.”
He heard sounds of scrambling and within moments a canteen was pressed to his lips. He drank thirstily, washing away the dust and pain and fear. Slowly, his head cleared and he felt a little of his strength returning. He pushed the canteen away and propped himself up on his elbows, face to face with a woman wearing a gingham dress and a Poke bonnet. She smiled benignly on him and he was just about to ask who she was when there was another great jolt and he was slammed down once more. That’s when he realized that they were moving.
When he gathered his senses enough, he pulled up into a seating position. He looked about and discovered that he was in a wagon, lying on its flat wooden floor. The bearer of the canteen had left. Maybe he’d imagined her? He wondered who these people were and why they’d saved him. They couldn’t be Maxwell’s men; he’d be dead by now, if they were.
He wasn’t’t wearing his coat and he frantically scoured the wagon until he realized that he’d been using it as a pillow. He unfolded it and reached to an inside pocket. What he felt there reassured him and he allowed himself a smile. However, when he put his hand to his hip he discovered that his Colt was missing. He rose unsteadily to his feet, his back hunched over, as the wagon roof was too low to allow him to stand upright. “Time to figure out what the hell is going on,” he whispered to no one in particular.
The covered wagon was not designed for comfort and he found himself dodging various household items as he tried to gain his feet. He staggered toward the daylight that streamed through the open end of the wagon. Sitting up there was Betty, the woman who gave him the water, and what looked like the strong square back of a man. His boots banged on the floor as he moved so that the man must have heard his approach and turned to face him. He recognized the wagoner’s bearded face immediately: the last thing he’d seen before he passed out.
“Come up and join us,” the bearded man said, his voice booming in the confines of the wagon. “Bit of a tight squeeze, I’m afraid.”
Betty moved over and he sat next to her. Pulling the wagon were two yoke of oxen, plodding along slowly and deliberately. Ahead, four more wagons, similar to this one. As well as the wagons and the oxen pulling them, many more steers and cows wandered along the prairie, as well as some saddle horses and mules. From time to time, they all grazed lazily at the grass.
“Welcome to our Prairie Schooner,” said Betty.
The fact that this was an emigrant train slowly dawned on his aching mind. He just nodded in reply.
“Name’s Chet Harrington,” said the broad shouldered man, “and this here is my wife, Betty, whom you’ve already met.”
“Howdy,” he growled in reply.
“I guess you’re not much of a feller for talking,” Chet said. “That’s fine with me, but if you’re going to stay with us, you’ll have to speak to Bolster, the head man. He’ll decide what’s to become of you.”
* * * *
He said little for the rest of the day as they crossed the prairie, trying to get things straight in his head. As evening fell, he helped the wagoners get the cattle settled. The other emigrants hadn’t paid much attention to him during the day, besides a few curious glances cast in his direction.
He prepared himself for the interrogation that he was sure would come. What would he say to them? Chet had saved his life but he was wary of telling him what he was running from. Chet might just as quickly shoot him or leave him hanging from a branch if he learned of what he’d done and who he was… He resolved to play it by ear. If the worst came to the worst, he could steal a horse and make his escape. Even without his Colt, he was sure that he could fight his way out.
They settled to eat in a clearing formed by the circled wagons. A fire burned in the middle and the families ate by their own wagons, in silence, weary from the day’s traveling. He ate his meal with Chet and Betty and as they finished eating the folks from the other wagons drew near and they all mingled and talked as they drank their watery coffee. There were four wagons in all, a small train, he learned, waiting to join with a bigger group as they made their way west.
“These are all nice people,” Betty told him, “but they can be suspicious of outsiders – especially those they know nothing about.”
He nodded. He didn’t know if Chet had told the others how he found him. He was sure he’d find out soon enough, though. Chet patted him on the shoulder as he got up. He walked away, leaving him behind with Betty. They would come for him soon, he knew.
The men gathered in a group. They stole glances at him out of the corner of their eyes as they talked amongst themselves. In the twilight, he found it difficult to make out how many there were in this group. He guessed that they were all families. Four wagons meant at least four men, and probably accompanying wives and children too. He assessed the situation as he had many over the years and thought the odds were in his favor; if it should come to it.
A figure emerged out of the gloom, the tip of his cigarette glowing in the darkness. “My name’s Bolster, Emmet Bolster. How’re ya doing, feller?”
He sized Bolster up. Maybe fifty years old, maybe a few less. Flecks of gray showed in his beard but he was still in impressive physical condition, no doubt honed by years of working the land.
“I’m in charge of this company and Chet’s told me all he knows about you, which ain’t much.” He received no reply, just a steely glare. “Says he left camp last night to go into Lawrence to buy some supplies and ended up with a stray. You…” He stared. “My only responsibility is to the folks in this wagon train. You could be a murderer as far as I know, waiting to slit everyone’s throat.”
Three more shapes loomed behind Bolster. He recognized one as Chet but not the other two. They didn’t’t offer their names. They were wearing their gun-belts and all but Chet had their hands on their shooters. They moved closer and stood over him, trying to intimidate him. He stayed sitting, sipping his coffee.
Chet spoke first: “Seeing as it was me that found you, and the bad state you were in, I think I’m entitled to a few answers at least.”
“Fair enough,” he replied. He looked Chet straight in the eyes and ignored the others. Chet was right, he knew that. At the very least he owed him some explanation, even if it wasn’t’t an entirely truthful one. If Chet hadn’t found him… The alternative didn’t bear thinking about.
“Ask away,” he said.
“What’s your name? And why were you running away from those fellers like they were the hounds of hell?”
He drained the last of his coffee and rose slowly to his feet. His interrogators took a step back as he stood, all except Chet. He looked at each of them in turn. “Name’s Charlie Weston,” he said, “and the first thing you should know is that I don’t want no trouble. The reason I was running out of town last night when Chet found me was because I’d danced with the wrong lady in the dancehall. Her husband didn’t’t take too kindly to that and decided to teach me a lesson. Had to go out through the window, couldn’t get to my horse. That’s the beginning and the end of it.” He met each of their gazes in turn until the men looked away. They weren’t going to get any more out of him, at least not for the moment.
“What d’ya think?” one of the men asked Bolster. Weston sized him up. Smaller than the others, but wiry. Strong-looking. These were probably all family men, with children most likely, as well. They wouldn’t’t take easily to him if they thought he might cause danger to their group. Maybe he shouldn’t have said that he’d danced with another man’s wife. Maybe he should have told the truth.
“I don’t know, Walt,” Bolster replied.
“Well, I don’t like the look of him,” the fourth man said. “I don’t believe a word he says. I can find out easily enough about him, Emmet. I’ve a brother living in Lawrence, remember? He’ll let us know who this feller really is.”
“I’m not from Lawrence,” Weston replied. “Just passing through when I got mixed up in that bother last night. Don’t know anybody there.”
“Now, take it easy,” Chet soothed. “Let’s go back to your wagon, Frank, and talk about this.”
Weston now knew the names of the four men. Chet: broad, bearded, reasonable; Emmet: in charge, imposing; Walt: small and wiry. And Frank, staring at him with thinly disguised distaste in his eyes.
The four men went away while Weston sat back on the ground and lit a cigarette. He could hear them discussing in hushed voices which were occasionally raised in exclamation. He couldn’t’t tell if things were going in his favor and neither did he care.
They returned after a few minutes. He rose to his feet and walked in their direction in his long purposeful stride.
“Where are ye headed?” he asked. “California? Oregon?”
“California,” Bolster replied warily.
“Through Fort Laramie, right?”
“Any of you crossed the Platte before?”
He could tell by their silence that they hadn’t.
“The question here is whether I should stick with you and not the other way around,” Weston said. “I know this country like the back of my hand, every fording point, the best places to camp and I know what to do if Indians start harassing you.” He paused for a moment.
The wagoners remained quiet.
“So,” he said at last, “I’ve decided. I’ll stay. Today is your lucky day.”
He turned on his heel and headed back to his resting place, leaving the four men standing stunned.
“Welcome aboard,” Chet murmured eventually.
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