By Gregory M. Smith
Sue Beth glanced back over her shoulder and then hurriedly looked straight ahead again. Next to her, her pa held tight grip on the reins of the team, almost ruthlessly pushing them to get an extra ounce of speed out of the weather-beaten Conestoga wagon. Sue Beth knew he shouldn’t push the horses that hard; after all, they’d gotten her, her pa and her little sister Liza Beth – she was asleep in the back – all the way to Oklahoma from Kentucky. But, she also knew what lay behind them and that terror even threatened to push the common sense she’d inherited from her ma aside.
Suddenly, Liza Beth poked her head out from inside and said “He’s still behind us, Pa.”
Sue Beth cursed silently, lest her pa hear her blaspheme. She looked over her shoulder and gave Liza Beth a sharp glare that told her little sister to say no more about it. It was already difficult enough knowing that there was man in black trailing them by horse without Liza Beth constantly reminding them of the fact.
They’d been three weeks out of Kentucky and had experienced very few surprises. The food had held out more than long enough for them to reach an outpost or two to buy some more. Water was plentiful, stored in old kegs in the back. The wagon was a Conestoga, the type pulled by up to six horses and most commonly used to carry freight. Thus, it was perfect for them and all their possessions, along with plenty of food and water.
They’d been a week since the last sign of humanity. Alas, that had been by design. The Oklahoma territories were not quite as civilized as Pa had been led to believe when he’d uprooted his family after his wife’s passing and had decided to realize a lifelong dream of going out west.
Outlaws, most of them former Civil War raiders, had fled to Oklahoma in droves to escape the Texas Rangers and Buffalo Soldiers. Indians were also still a problem. Pa had wanted to avoid the likely routes the outlaws preyed upon. But, Sue Beth knew he couldn’t avoid them all.
“I’ll be durned if’n I know who this fella’ is,” Pa grumbled, sneaking a quick glance over his shoulder to peer through the covering of the wagon. “He’s ‘lentless, just pure ‘lentless.”
Sue Beth knew better than to correct her pa when he used incorrect grammar. She knew he meant to say “relentless.”
She tried to use correct grammar at all times, as her mother had stressed to her when she and Liza Beth did their studies after school. Her mother had wanted to raise her daughters up to be fully educated, so that they could survive in a harsh world, without a man if need be.
Right now, however, Sue Beth didn’t care about grammar right now. She only knew that her pa was right. The stranger had been following them relentlessly for a week, basically right after they’d left the last trading post.
“If’n he’d only get a little closer I could try ta’ plug him,” Pa muttered as he snapped the reins and tried to coax more speed out of the team.
Sue Beth suddenly felt cold. Her pa had hated guns except for killing game. He’d seen too many gunfights between many a reckless man, usually over a game of cards, some dancehall girl or just for bragging rights, nothing worth dying for. For her pa to be contemplating shooting a man meant he was almost at wit’s end about the stranger behind them.
Suddenly, the team darted right and Sue Beth only saw the drop-off at the last second. The left front wheel drove right into it and bounced the entire wagon into the air. Sue Beth was pitched out and did a rather painful belly flop into some scrub brush. It took her pa more than two minutes to regain full control of the team and pull the wagon to a stop.
Sue Beth tried to push herself upright but stopped when she felt a stabbing pain in her right wrist. She tasted the awful coppery sensation of blood in her mouth and when she spat, she turned a small spot on the ground crimson. Horrified, she began touching her teeth with her tongue, hoping she hadn’t lost one of them. She felt a little better when she counted all 24. She figured she might have cut her cheek or gums.
She felt strong hands on her and recognized her pa’s strong embrace. Liza Beth soon joined her and she tried to reassure both of them that she was all right, that her right wrist was only a little sore. Liza Beth wanted her to take some water and mix it with a little salt to swish around, a trick their mother had used whenever they’d lost a tooth.
“Stay down, both of you,” Pa warned and only then did Sue Beth notice that he carried his rifle.
She wanted to stop him, didn’t want him to be like those gunfighters who killed wantonly. Hadn’t those preachers always said that killing was wrong, that it was breaking one of God’s toughest commandments? She’d remembered how her pa had cursed God the night her mother had died. Sue Beth had desperately wanted her pa to come back to God, but how could he if he took another man’s life?
But her pa was Pa. She had to do what she was told. He was her father and it was his duty to protect his family. Maybe God could understand it if Pa killed in self-defense, she told herself.
She screamed when the rifle cracked once, twice, three times. Liza Beth cowered next to her and covered her ears. Neither looked up until their pa kneeled next to them.
“Dang it, I think I missed him,” he said, angrily. “I musta’ done something to make God angry at me. I had the man dead set in my sights. Maybe I got me some atonin’ ta’ do.”
Sue Beth looked up at her pa and, for the first time in a long time, she felt some hope for him. Then, she looked back to where she’d last seen the stranger. She saw nothing. She gaped and suddenly felt an even stronger surge of hope. She tugged at her Pa’s sleeve and made her look where she was looking.
“Well, I’ll be the son of a mule,” he exclaimed. “He’s gone. He and his horse.”
“Maybe he was never there,” Liza Beth offered in explanation.
“Oh, come now, Liza Beth,” Sue Beth retorted, hastily. “You saw him following us for a week. You think the Devil could have been strong enough to make us see a mirage for a whole week? Use your head.”
Liza Beth dropped her eyes and Sue Beth instantly knew she shouldn’t have been so hard on her baby sister. Sometimes she knew she could be too practical and blunt, two of her mother’s worst traits. She reached over with her uninjured wrist and gripped her sister’s left shoulder reassuringly.
“Well, praise be to God,” Pa muttered. “He helped us show the Devil who’s boss. Come on, girls. Better get back in the wagon.”
As she walked back to the wagon, Sue Beth felt joy. Her pa had acknowledged God again. He was coming back around to the right way. When Pa got the team going again, Sue Beth let her sister ride up front while she gargled with some water and salt in the back. She then broke out her mother’s Bible and read until it became too dark and she fell asleep.
“Sue Beth, wake up.”
Sue Beth slowly opened her eyes and realized it was daylight. She’d fallen asleep reading the Bible, which was still in her uninjured hand. She sat up and looked at her sister who sat beside her. She then poked her head out and saw Pa gently guiding the team. His eyes were bloodshot but his demeanor and the steady trot of the horses meant he must have stopped the wagon for a few hours for some rest. She’d slept so soundly she’d missed everything.
“There’s a settlement up ahead,” Pa said, glancing down at his eldest daughter. “Today’s Sunday. Maybe if’n we can find someplace to wash up, we might jus’ thank the good Lord for bringing us this far. Would ya’ like that?”
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!
To be continued August 31, 2011.
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