“You can have it. You can have it all.”
“Ain’t no question whether we can have it or not, Beaufort. Question is, do we want you to live after we got it?”
Nate Powell crouched behind a rock and watched. He’d just traveled two thousand miles, the last thirty on foot, with one purpose in mind, and getting involved in stopping a holdup wasn’t it.
It was getting dark, he was tired, and the chill of a Texan spring night would soon set in. He’d seen a campfire from afar and hoped for nothing more than to share it, but he’d approached to find firelight flickering across the nervous face of one man holding up his hands and the back of another holding up a gun.
Tin clanged as two men, pretty as a pair of skunk pigs, scavenged through Beaufort’s belongings. One of them threw down a sack. “Ain’t nothing here worth stealing.”
That was no surprise. Judging by Beaufort’s scraggly beard and even scragglier clothes, Nate could have told them the man was too poor to rob and saved them the trouble.
“Help yourself to some food,” Beaufort stammered. “Jackrabbit should be about done.”
One of them tore off more than his share of meat. “I don’t like the way Beaufort here’s looking at me. I say we kill him.”
Nice way to thank the man for his hospitality. Nate hoped they were only harassing Beaufort.
“You don’t like the way anyone looks at you, Mel.”
“I don’t like the way you look at me neither, Bill. So how about I kill you right after I kill him.”
Nate bit his lip. He’d seen those names before.
“Why don’t we just introduce ourselves to him proper so we can be sure he knows who we all are?” The man who said those words was the one holding the gun on Beaufort. He turned into the light and confirmed Nate’s suspicions.
Nate ducked and centered himself behind the rock. Those were the names and faces on the “Wanted Dead or Alive” posters he’d been following from Kansas City to Dodge City. He didn’t know anything else about the Krugar Gang other than the members were worth one thousand dollars each.
Which meant they were killers.
Nate slid his gun out of its holster then slid it back in. I can’t get involved. Although he should have slipped away, he peered around the rock, looking for a solution for Beaufort.
“What do you say?” the man holding the gun said to the shadows. As Nate recalled, his name was Tom Drown. “Do we kill him?”
A fourth figure came into view but stayed away from the light. It was a smaller figure, and although the poster listed the name of the gang’s leader as Joe Krugar, it didn’t show a picture. Krugar remained elusive even now by staying in the shadows.
The figure gave a nod.
A bang pierced the quiet.
“Let him go. He’s not doing you any harm,” Nate called out from behind the rock. Seemed he’d gotten himself involved, since it was his gun that had gone off.
Thumps and rustling followed as the gang scurried for cover. Snorting and shuffling of horses told where that cover was.
“Come on out.” Tom was the spokesman for the gang. “Let’s talk about this.”
“Sure.” Nate snickered. “You come out first.” He couldn’t resist a stupid answer to a stupider statement. He listened for the snap of a twig of an outlaw trying to flank him. Not a sound. Being in the dark and having a rock to hide behind put him in a better spot than Beaufort, who should have taken the opportunity to dive for cover.
The man had the virtue of hospitality, but quick thinking wasn’t his strong suit. He started to run.
“Don’t move,” Tom shouted, stopping him short.
Beaufort raised his hands again.
“Beaufort here a friend of yours?” Tom called out.
“Never seen him before,” Nate answered.
“Then you should have left this one alone,” Tom said.
He was likely right.
“Why don’t we all just leave this one alone?” Nate said. “You continue on your way, Beaufort will continue on his, and I’ll continue on mine like nothing happened.”
“We got to shoot Beaufort,” Mel said. “He seen us.”
“Well so did the one out yonder,” Bill replied.
“And so did hundreds of other people passing through Kansas.” Nate called out to the squatting shapes the slender silhouettes of acacia tree trunks couldn’t hide.
“He knows who we are,” Mel said.
“I do,” Nate said. “But Beaufort here doesn’t, do you, Beaufort?”
“He’s right.” Beaufort stood shabby and jittery, hands up, in the firelight. “I don’t know who you be.”
“How good a shot are you, mister?” Tom called to Nate.
“The truth?” Nate said. “Fair. But I’m good enough to get at least one of you before you figure out where I am. So who’s going to make the sacrifice?”
“Bill,” Tom said, “you go on over there.”
A figure started to move in the wrong direction. They had no idea where Nate was hiding.
“Bill,” Nate called, “sounds like you’re the one they can do without.”
“I ain’t going out there.”
“We’ll wait you out until morning,” Tom said. “We ain’t in no hurry.”
Nate leaned against the rock. He was no gunman. In the daylight he’d have no chance at all. He peered behind, into a darkness that once more beckoned him to escape. He’d come all this way to accomplish something long overdue, not wind up dead.
But the ragged man standing with hands raised looked like the loneliest man Nate had ever seen. Nate raked his hand through his hair. Since he couldn’t outgun the gang, he’d have to outsmart them. “It’s a good thing you’re not in a hurry,” Nate called, “because you’ll have to get wherever you’re going on foot.”
Tom asked, “What do you mean?”
“I’m going to shoot your horses.”
“Let’s get out of here while we still got horses,” Bill said.
Nate liked the sound of that. “I’d say we’ve got a standoff.”
“We do,” Tom said. Then he fired.
Nate shot a few rounds to scare the gang away from Beaufort. They fired back, but nowhere near him.
“Don’t waste your bullets. We ain’t going to find him tonight,” Tom said. Then he called out to Nate, “Not tonight, mister, but we’ll be back for you.” The pounding of horse hooves followed, and they were gone.
Nate crept up to where Beaufort lay on his stomach, outside the light from the fire. He rolled him over.
Nate’s heart almost came out of his chest. “I thought you were dead.”
“I was watching his hand. When it moved toward me, I sort of fell. Bullet went through my arm.” Blood had stained the ragged sleeve red.
“Well, even though they didn’t kill you, that gang is nothing but a band of cold-blooded murderers.” Nate heaved a sigh. “The Krugar Gang won’t be looking for us tonight. We’d better forego that warm fire and a good night’s rest and get you to a doctor.”
Beaufort didn’t argue as Nate bound up Beaufort’s arm as best he could with the man’s neckerchief.
Nate grabbed two sticks from the ground to use for walking. He gave one to Beaufort. Night was a treacherous time to walk, but fortunately, the moon was full and bright. Nate looked up at it as if he were seeing it for the first time. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been in these parts,” he said as they started walking.
Beaufort plodded behind him, leaning heavily on his own stick. “Where we headed?”
Nate stared out toward Ramsden, Texas. “To the last place on earth I want to go.”
“Then why would you want to go there?”
“A woman.” Nate stepped wide around the shadowy shape of a cholla cactus. “Last I’d heard, she hadn’t married. But even if that’s still the case, it’s a thousand to one shot she’d give me the time of day after what I’d done to her.” But he’d come a long way from the unruly youth who’d left his hometown years ago. A long way.
“She must be one special gal.”
The sign by the picket fence indicated that the doctor was still where he used to be. Nate handed Beaufort enough money to pay the doctor, get a few good meals, and stay in the hotel if he needed. After several knocks, a light lit up a window. Nate slipped away into the night, not wanting to be seen by anyone.
Then he quickened his pace toward the direction his heart drove him, but common sense rebuked was a waste of time.