Recap: In Part 1, Sue Beth, her younger sister Liza Beth and their pa are heading for a new life in the recently opened territory of Oklahoma. However, halfway through the overland journey, they find themselves relentlessly pursued by a dark stranger. Is it someone who is lost or is it Ol’ Nick himself? Are her father’s sins finally catching up with him?
By Gregory M. Smith
Sue Beth was so happy she couldn’t speak. All she could do was nod her head. She pulled her herself back inside the wagon and moved over to the steamer trunk that held her and Liza Beth’s clothes. It had been much too long since she’d gotten to wear her Sunday best.
As she set the trunk down flat, she happened to glance out the rear of the wagon…
…and blanched. There he was. The stranger was behind them again!
She stuck her head out the front and warned Pa. He scowled, barely managed to stifle a blasphemous curse and glanced back through the wagon openings. Indeed, the dark stranger was once again trailing them.
Pa didn’t hesitate. He whipped the reins hard and sent the team of horses flying ahead. Dust kicked up mightily, totally obscuring the dark stranger. Sue Beth and her sister were flung about and had to flatten themselves down to the floor to keep from sliding out of the wagon.
“God, I’m sorry if’n I angered you,” he shouted to the heavens as he spurred the horses on. “Please, don’t take it out on my young’uns.”
Pa was hell-bent for the settlement, which consisted of several houses, a large building with a steeple, what appeared to be a livery and several adjoined buildings that could have been stores. He guided the team towards the church after spying a small crowd of people heading there.
Women screamed and jumped back when Pa rode up hard and then reined back on his horses to stop the wagon right in front of the fence by the church. The women were in their Sunday finest and most tried to move out of the way of the dust cloud that caught up with the wagon. Several of the men folk rushed up to help Pa, demanding to know what was wrong.
Pa quickly explained his predicament, pointing out towards the horizon where everyone saw the dark stranger on horseback approaching rapidly. After listening to Pa’s ordeal, the men ordered their women to head into the church. They then rushed back into the heart of the settlement and came back in less than two minutes with pistols and shotguns. Two of the younger women helped Sue Beth and Liza Beth out of the wagon, taking care not to further injure Sue Beth’s sore wrist.
“Oh, you poor dears,” one of the settlement women said. “Hurt by that Devil. Quickly, come on down to the general store. Doc can fix you up right nicely and look after you.”
Sue Beth let the women guide her, but looked back at her Pa, who was loading his rifle as he stood with the other men. It didn’t seem strange to her. They were strangers in town yet the settlers were ready to stand by them and protect them as if they were family. That was how it was with Christians, she knew, just like her mother had always taught her. Still, she couldn’t help but be afraid for her Pa. It seemed like the dark stranger was more than mortal. Why would a mortal man pursue them so relentlessly?
“Come on, girls,” one of the settlement women urged. “Let’s get inside. There may be trouble.”
Sue Beth and Liza Beth went inside the general store. A tall man with gray hair and beard came out of the back and Sue Beth quickly learned he was the owner of the store and doubled as the doctor. Hearing of Sue Beth’s injury, he bade her sit down on a stool and had one of the women go to the back room to fetch some water brewing on a stove.
Within ten minutes, Sue Beth had soaked her wrist in some warm water and had had it splinted. The doctor assured her that nothing was broken, but she would have to rest it for several days to prevent any further injury. Relieved, she thanked the doctor and then went back to the front of the store to check on her father.
She gaped when she saw the men standing in the middle of the street, a lot closer to the general store now. A man in a black suit stood with them. Sue Beth saw that he held a Bible and guessed he was the settlement’s preacher. He was holding the Bible up in the air and appeared to be saying something.
Sue Beth cracked the front door open a little and caught what sounded like a warning from the preacher, extolling the Devil’s minion to cease its pursuit of her pa, lest it face the wrath of God’s faithful followers. A small shout of triumph arose from the men when it appeared that the dark rider had wheeled his horse around to leave, kicking up a cloud of dust. That euphoria died, however, when the dust settled and the men saw only a riderless horse sauntering about in the street.
The men darted their eyes about, scanning high and low for the stranger. Someone shouted and pointed and two men fired one shot each in the direction of the pointing finger. Then, it was silent.
All of a sudden, the dark rider darted out from one of the buildings, running across the street fast as lightning or so it seemed to Sue Beth. Anyway, it was quick enough that no one had time to react, but not quick enough that Sue Beth couldn’t see that the man was truly dark, his face almost a shadow, as dark as his clothes and the riding gloves he wore. The only thing blacker had been his horse.
By the time anyone got off a shot, the rider was in the shadows between the livery and a storehouse. The men set off in pursuit, the preacher in the rear shouting out more defiant statements. Sue Beth felt a shiver run down her spine and she crossed herself.
“Please, young miss, close the door,” the doctor said from behind. “I would hate to have to treat you for a bullet wound, too.”
Sue Beth realized he was right and quickly closed the door. She could be headstrong like her mother, but she also knew when to err on the side of caution. She moved back away from the door and towards the center of the store. She joined the women and saw that the doctor had retrieved his double-barrel shotgun and cradled it in his arms, though he looked as if he could barely heft it.
“Is it the Devil?” Liza Beth asked, a tear rolling down a cheek, as one of the women cradled her gently in her arms. “Is he coming to take Pa away like he done with Ma?”
“Nonsense, Liza Beth,” Sue Beth snapped, harshly. “You take that back, right now. Ma wasn’t a witch like they said she was. They were just jealous that she could use the herbs better than they could. Now, that’s the Devil’s work, getting righteous people to be jealous of each other. And, by the way, it’s ‘like he did with Ma,’ not ‘like he done with Ma.’ Remember your grammar, like Ma told us.”
“Don’t you girls worry now,” one of the settlement women said, trying to reassure them. “We got God on our side. Just trust in the Lord.”
As soon as the woman said that, the rear door of the store was kicked in. A pane of glass in the door came loose, fell to the floor and shattered. The doctor was so surprised he fired off both barrels of his shotgun and blew a hole in the ceiling. The recoil knocked him right off his feet and sent him back into a pile of blankets. One of the settlement women fainted dead away.
The dark stranger jumped in and slammed the door behind him. He had two guns drawn and had both of them pointed in the general direction of the women. He said nothing, just looked at them.
Sue Beth pulled her little sister to her bosom and tried to protect her with her uninjured arm. She stared at the stranger and suddenly knew why he was so dark. He was colored. He was dressed in cowboy gear, like she had seen in some of the catalogs back home. She had never seen a colored cowboy before and suddenly she wondered if maybe he was in league with the devil. Was he looking for revenge against white people for years of slavery? Was that why he’d relentlessly pursued Pa? Pa had often told her how he’d earned extra money as a youngster by tracking down runaway slaves.
“Away from her, you devil!”
Sue Beth glanced over her shoulder and saw that three men had entered the store through the front door. They had their rifles trained on the dark rider and he had one of his guns pointed at them. Footsteps in the rear of the store made her turn back around and she saw Pa and two other men in the open doorway of the rear of the store. The distraction at the front had allowed one of them to reach in through the missing pane area and silently turn the knob.
“Devil, back to Hell where you belong,” her pa ordered. “You won’t git either of my daughters today. Not while I’m still breathin’ and livin’ God’s will.”
Sue Beth knew that the dark rider was outnumbered and outgunned. However, if anyone fired a shot, the dark rider wasn’t going to die alone. He had a gun pointed at each group of men and couldn’t miss. And there was always the chance that a stray shot would catch her, Liza Beth or the settlement woman who hadn’t fainted.
“I want no trouble,” the dark rider blurted out, his voice deep, strong and resolute. “I have only come for delivery.”
“God as my witness, you will not deliver your master’s evil news,” the preacher said, sternly as he entered the store, his Bible held out before him.
“I…I have admitted my sins to the reverend here,” Liza Beth’s pa blurted, lifting his head proudly. “I admit that I blasphemed God because I was angry at him for lettin’ my wife die. But, I realize it’s God will and not ours to question. I have sought to atone and the good reverend here has seen fit to forgive me. So, you can git now. You and your boss ain’t got reason to hound me now. I have atoned.”
“Ahem, I said ‘delivery’ not deliverance,” the dark rider rebuffed the preacher and Pa. “Read it.”
Sue Beth looked down and noticed a small parcel on the floor at the dark rider’s feet. She couldn’t remember seeing him with the package, but it was there before her, nonetheless. She watched him kick it over to her. Slowly, she bent down and picked it up. Nervously, she began to open it.
“If’n it’s a contract, we want no part of it, Devil,” Pa said, sternly.
“You’ll want this contract, sir,” the dark rider replied. “It’s fulfillment of a contract with my employer and you yourself signed it.”
Sue Beth saw her Pa’s face go ashen at the revelation. Now, she was afraid to open it. Had Pa made some kind of pact with the Devil when he’d cursed God the day her mother had died? The Devil was one tricky fellow. Was the contract coming due now? Was that why Pa had suddenly seemed more religious?
She didn’t want to read the contract, but she knew she had no choice. She was her mother’s daughter and she’d inherited her mother’s steadfastness. She knew it was ultimately better to know the truth than to try to run from it. She unfolded the contract and began reading.
“It is a contract, Pa,” she finally said after an unearthly silence. “And you did sign it.”
The dark rider was the only person in the room who did not gasp and shudder at the news.
Suddenly, Sue Beth spun around and gave her father a scornful glare.
“It’s the contract for the house, Pa,” she snapped. “The one you made with Mr. Mitchell at the general store back home to sell the house and forward the proceeds. Here’s all of the money with it.”
“I’ve been trying to catch up with you for a week, sir,” the dark rider explained. “But, you wouldn’t slow down. And then it seemed like everyone was shooting at me.”
It was if someone had pricked a balloon. All the tension went out of the store in an instant. Rifles were lowered and pistols holstered. The sighs of relief were heavy as many of the men realized just how close they’d come to killing an innocent man and on the Sabbath day, no less. The settlement woman and a man went over to help the woman who had fainted, while another man helped the doctor get back on his feet.
“Oh, great,” the doctor muttered as he adjusted his spectacles and looked up. “I’ve had that shotgun for 10 years and the one time I actually fire it, I blow a hole in my own ceiling. If’n my brothers get wind of this, I’ll never hear the end of it.”
“I…I don’t understand,” Pa finally said, as he felt a dozen angry pairs of eyes glaring at him. “If we was shootin’ at ya’ why did you keep pursuing us?”
“Well, sir, I don’t get paid until I deliver the contract and get your signature,” the dark rider replied, matter-of-factly.
Pa suddenly looked very sheepish and the men around him felt very stupid. They turned to look at the stranger who had unnecessarily upset the peacefulness of their little hamlet. They watched as he stepped forward and scribbled his signature upon a small piece of paper in the dark stranger’s hand.
“I hope you’ll understand if I don’t stop and partake of anything in your town,” the deliveryman apologized.
He walked past them and out the front door. The townspeople watched him stop and whistle, waiting as his horse sauntered up on command. They watched him climb into the saddle, wheel the horse about and then take off at a gallop, leaving a big trail of dust behind him, as if the Devil himself – or maybe something worse -- was at his back.
“I guess we should go thank the good Lord that no one was killed,” Pa said in an understatement that failed to turn any of the angry glares away from him. “And, eh, seeing as how I have some money, I can pay my tithes.”
The men were still staring at him, angrily.
“And…I guess the first round’s on me,” he added.
“Hallelujah, brother,” the preacher agreed and, after a little hesitation, everyone shrugged shoulders and filed out of the store, heading for the church.
Liza Beth was taken in hand by one of the younger women who guided her along and made pleasant conversation. Pa made small talk with some of the men, but Sue Beth lagged behind a little. Pa slowed down to allow her to catch up. As they walked up the street, Sue Beth leaned in close to him.
“I’m sorry, Pa,” she said. “I should have had more faith in you.”
“That’s okay, Sue Beth,” her Pa replied, with a slight grin. “I shoulda’ had more faith in myself and God. I hope you’ll understand better some day when you have young 'uns of your own.”
“Oh, I do, Pa,” Sue Beth said, while giving her pa a big hug. “Well, almost. There is just one thing I don’t understand.”
“And what’s that?”
“Well, it’s just that, well…why are you buying the whole town a drink?”
“Atonin, my dear Sue Beth,” her embarrassed pa replied. “Atonin’.”
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Copyright © 2010 Gregory Marshall Smith
All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, locations, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination, or have been used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, locales, or events is entirely coincidental. No portion of this work may be transmitted or reproduced in any form, or by any means, without permission in writing from the author.
Gregory Marshall Smith