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Unflinching

Unflinching

Book excerpt

Chapter One

They swung the wagon down into the tiny side street, which ran alongside the store. Randall pulled on the wheel-brake and gave a long sigh. Stained with sweat and dust, his shirt stuck to his back and when he pulled off his hat, tangled hair clung tight to his scalp. The thick, acrid air sucked all the moisture from everything, including himself, but now, having reached his destination, the first signs of relief trickled through his bones and the strain left his features. He smiled across to Elisabeth who sat stoically beside him, eyes straight ahead. She said, “Is this finally it?”

He was in awe of her composure, how she remained so elegant despite the rigors of the past weeks. “It is.” He reached over and patted her knee. “The worst is over now.”

She turned. “Can you be sure?”

“We got through those Indians, didn't we?” He kissed her lightly on the cheek. “We can relax now, turn our mind to normal things.”

“Like the things we used to concentrate on.”

“Precisely.” He replaced his hat. “I'll go and get some supplies then call on the sheriff, see if he can point us in Widow Langton's direction.”

“I have a bad feeling about all of this. Why didn't she answer any of our correspondence?”

“There'll be a genuine reason, I'm sure.”

“Maybe she's sold her place to someone else.”

“I doubt it. My lawyer drew up the deeds. She'd be a fool if she did that. I don't believe she's a fool, and her family connections over in Illinois stand as security. It'll be fine.”

“Well maybe she's dead.”

He gave Elisabeth an understanding look, conscious of her anxiety, of being so close to a new life. The trail had proven hard, the recent drought one of the longest ever known. People out on the plains were struggling to survive, settlers and natives both. Desperation led to excesses on both sides, brought out the very worst in people. But this town, with its fine buildings and well-ordered streets gave a sense of hope. He wished she would accept it. “Honey, there'll be an honest explanation for why she didn't return my cable. Communication is spasmodic at best in this part of the country. Maybe the lines went down, who knows? We're out west now and we have to get used to the fact that life here is different.”

“Primitive is what you mean.”

He smiled. “We've talked about all this – it's only natural to have these self-doubts. We're taking the first steps on a brand new life, with all its uncertainties, but it's exciting too. Once we're in our new place, have settled in, got into a routine, everything will seem a lot brighter. I promise.”

“I know.” She looked around her, to the wooden buildings on either side of the quiet street, then craned her neck towards the main drag. “I hate to say it again, but it just seems so… primitive. It's nothing like Chicago, that's for sure.”

“These towns, they are new, maybe only been here for a few years. Now that the rush is over, it'll take time to readjust, to create new, longer lasting opportunities. We're at the forefront of that, Elisabeth. Pioneers.”

“Or what are those other name they give us – tenderfoots? Sod-busters?”

It'll be okay,” he reassured her, gathered himself and jumped down onto the dirt. “You wanna come with me?”

“No. Just don't be too long in there. When you're done, we'll go to the sheriff's together and get the legalities moving.”

Always his little lawyer, his rock. He smiled and tramped down the street.

One or two people acknowledged him, but for the most part the street was quiet. Opposite him ran a group of stores, a small hotel and a telegraph office with a bank squeezed in between. A milliners took his attention and he thought about buying Elisabeth a new hat. After the visit to the sheriff perhaps, after the papers were signed and they were both feeling more reassured, they could take some time, get their bearings. Buy things. He knew in his heart this was a good move, the right move. A fine ranch, with a dozen acres of good grazing land, sweet water, space to grow. The land registry had assured him the purchase was sound. Widow Langton was an honest woman, the lawyers said so and Randall knew it. The time for doubts and uncertainties was gone. They were here, safe, unharmed; the first day of the rest of their lives.

He stepped up onto the boardwalk and doffed his hat as two ladies in fine bonnets and trailing dresses drifted by. They smiled in return, a simple gesture, but one which caused his heart to swell. Buoyed up, he clumped along towards the hardware store, crossing the window fronts of the small bank and the telegraph office – which would come in handy for when he needed to send a message to his sister back east that all was well. He recalled how forlorn and concerned she’d looked, standing on the station platform, tiny handkerchief pressed to her mouth, her other hand waving. Elisabeth had cried. So did he.

But that was then and life changed from the moment they alighted the train. The purchase of the wagon and horse, supplies, listening to the stern words of advice from the proprietor of the hardware store. Two old prospectors joined in. Reading between the words, it was clear none gave father and daughter much chance of surviving. The trail was hard, unforgiving, with many dangers along the way. He'd need to shoot, they all advised, and Randall could shoot. The proprietor didn't seem convinced and the two old men laughed. A week into their journey, when the Indians came out of the dust, with their intent clearly visible in their scowls and nocked bows, Randall blew them out of their saddles, no questions asked. A pity nobody back at the store had witnessed it. Their low opinion of Randall may have been somewhat upgraded. He shook his head, pushing such thoughts to one side, took off his hat and went through the door of the store.

There were a couple of young women in the far corner, giggling as they sifted through a large catalogue. One of them glanced over to him and caught his eye before she looked away, cheeks reddening, and nudged her friend, who checked him out and smiled.

Randall nodded and stepped over to the counter. He was a lean, rangy man who moved with the grace and easy stride of a big cat. His forearms rippled with muscle, the skin tanned. A hard life, close friends with death, made him tough, resilient. For twenty-five years he'd followed his father's path through the military; now the time was here for him to pursue a new path, and with his wife Caroline passing away, nothing remained to hold him back. He tipped his hat at the girls and they giggled again.

He pushed the bell, and within a few moments, a trim, middle-aged woman emerged through a beaded curtain. She was small, dressed in a tight black dress, hair pulled back into a bun, showing off her handsome features to good effect. Her face, pale and serious, gave nothing away as she studied him from head to foot. “We don't give credit.”

Randall blinked, shooting a glance towards the girls, who both laughed. He coughed. “I, er, don't intend to ask for any, ma'am.”

“Well that's good. I always like new customers to know where they stand before any purchases are considered.” She frowned and Randall stared back, face blank. “Before they buy, that is my meaning. That way there cannot be any misunderstanding.”

“Yes, quite understandable. But I have money. I need some grain for my horse and,” he looked down and tugged at the threadbare knees of his pants, “some work clothes. We've been on the trail for something like three weeks and we're both in desperate need of something new to wear.”

She nodded, pointing vaguely behind him, “There's a selection of items behind you. Both of you, you said.”

“Yes. My daughter is with me.”

“I see. Well, ladies’ clothes are somewhat more difficult to acquire, but as you can see, we have a catalogue.” The girls giggled again, whispering to one another. “If you're planning on settling, that is.”

“Indeed we are. We have purchased Widow Langton's place.”

“Have you indeed? Well, that's a right tidy spread, built up by her good husband before the fever took him. “

“She is still alive then? I was hoping the sheriff might—”

“Oh, she's alive. No question. She boards at Drayton's, just a way along Main Street, second on the left. Nice place. She seems happy.” She frowned. “What might you be needing the sheriff for?”

“Pay my respects, prepare some papers, that sort of thing. As we're strangers here I thought it best to introduce myself to the town officials before settling into our new place.”

“Well, Sheriff Pickles will no doubt help you with the formalities an' all. Can't say I know what those formalities might be, but we are a friendly town. Treat people right and they'll treat you the same. No doubt we will be seeing you in church on Sunday?”

“Of course.” He smiled and reached inside his pocket. He brought out an ancient leather wallet, which almost fell apart when he opened it. He extracted a dollar bill. “This is for the grain. I'll take a look at those clothes.”

She smiled, an action which changed the entire complexion of her face. Her features relaxed, any nervous tension slipping away as she picked up the money and put it into a drawer underneath the counter.

Randall was about to say something when from out in the street, a voice cried out in alarm, quickly followed by a series of gunshots. The girls in the corner shrieked and one of them stumbled backwards, falling into a shelving unit, which gave way under her weight and collapsed. The storekeeper clamped her hands over her mouth and more yells and shouts echoed through the street. “Oh my, that must be the bank!”

Randall's only thought was for Elisabeth, still sitting outside on the wagon. He had no idea what caused the mayhem outside, but he wasn't about to expose his daughter to any danger, especially not the kind that involved shooting. He crossed the store in three quick bounds and tore open the door.

He squinted into the sunlight. There were people running along the street, horses were bucking and neighing loudly close by and as he looked to his left, he saw them; two men, neckerchiefs over their mouths and noses, brandishing heavy-looking firearms, one of them bleeding from the arm, the other holding a canvas bag which appeared weighty in his fist.

Two others erupted from the bank, revolvers barking in all directions, mainly skywards. Randall suspected their intention was to frighten, not harm. He instinctively reached for his hip, and swore when he remembered his own Army Colt was back in the wagon, together with a single shot carbine. With Elisabeth.

Randall wanted nothing to do with these men and made his decision to get as far away as fast as he could. As he went to move towards the side street where he’d parked the wagon, Elisabeth came tearing around the corner towards him, hair and eyes wild. He wanted to shout out, tell her to stop, return to the wagon, but his words became lost as a large, pot-bellied man charged from out of a building opposite, firing off a series of shots from his handgun.

Bullets zipped and cracked overhead, forcing Randall to dive face first to the boardwalk. He clamped his hands over his head, straining his neck to catch a glimpse of Elisabeth, holding her tresses, pressing herself against the side of the general store. She slid down to the wooden slats, screaming. She was in shock.

“Stay down,” screamed Randall as another bullet smacked in the woodwork above where he lay. Did the buffoon with the handgun think he was one of the robbers?

He didn’t receive an answer. One of the real robbers, standing a few paces away from him, fired his revolver, and hit the big man in the chest, throwing him down into the dirt. He lay there on his back, blood seeping from the wound. The robber ran across the street, sweeping up the man's gun and looked back. “Nathan, get to the God-damned horses!”

All hell was breaking loose. People, some of them armed, were appearing from all areas of the street, many shouting, most looking on and seeming petrified. The third and fourth robbers were blazing away with their firearms, some of the townspeople returning fire. The smell of hot lead filled the afternoon air, bullets slapping into woodwork, pinging off metal stanchions, or fizzing overhead.

“Get the hell out,” screamed the first robber. Randall got to his knees and watched him levelling his revolver at the stricken man in the street. Without any outward show of hesitation or conscience, the robber blew the man's head apart from point-blank range. A collective wail rang out across the street and the majority of the onlookers stampeded in every direction. The killer whirled and his eyes settled on something across the street from where he stood.

Randall climbed to his feet and swayed, uncertain, light-headed. He saw Elisabeth standing frozen, ashen, eyes unable to take in such horrors, tears streaming down her face. He took a step towards her, dismissive of the danger all around.

“Mason, grab that wagon and get off the damned street!”

The panic welled up from within Randall's gut. The killer must have spotted the wagon, and now meant to take it and escape, with all that meant for father and daughter. With no possessions, the new life he’d dreamed for them both would be undermined before it began. Randall could not allow such a thing. He took another step, then something as heavy as a blacksmith's anvil slammed into his back and he pitched forward onto his face once more. The world flipped all around him, everything skewed, senses confused, head spinning. From far away, Elisabeth screamed and Randall, unable to understand, or move watched as a man's feet stepped over him and strode towards her. Randall tried to raise himself up, move the weight from his back, but he couldn't. The strength was leaving him, leaving him quickly. He saw the man taking Elisabeth around the waist, lifting her. She was kicking, struggling, but the man was too strong.

“Get her in the wagon, God-damn you!”

Another robber appeared in view. He spotted Randall, seemed to be considering something before a gunshot rang out, the bullet taking him high up in the arm. He groaned, staggered to the side and hit the building with a grunt. Three, four, five more shots hit him in the chest and stomach, the blood blooming like red-roses across his body. He crumpled, died.

“Oh no, Nathan!”

With the clouds parting in his head, the sunshine burst through and Randall's brain pieced together the details, although the pain in his back burned and the muscles in his legs refused to work. But he saw them. He saw the first robber, the killer of pot-belly, stooping beside his dead companion as the other two struggled with Elisabeth, who kicked and screamed. They were taking her to the wagon, for God-knows-what awful reason. If only he had a gun. If only he'd thought. He groaned, tears sprouting, frustration overwhelming him. For it all to end here, in this nameless street, after the life he'd had. Dear God, where was the justice in that? And Elisabeth. Please, don't take her from me!

The robber was on his feet. He held two guns, one spent, hammer clicking on empty cylinders. A bullet struck him in the throat and he went down, gurgling. Randall heard the sound of a whip cracking. They had the wagon. Oh no, please, please!

More gunshots. Randall thought he saw money floating in the breeze. Crisp dollar bills. Was any of it real, or a dream? He didn't know, his only desire was to be able to stand, to walk, to rush to Elisabeth's side. He heard another scream, but more distant this time. A cry of “Father!” More gunshots. Oh God…

A quiet voice came to him from out of the confusion, a cool hand on his neck. He turned. Black clouds were settling over the town. A storm was coming. He saw her in the gloom, the storekeeper, her face so lovely, but gripped by anguish.

“Dear God, mister. Hold on, hold on. We'll get a doctor.”

Why would he need a doctor? All he needed was to get to his feet, stop those horrible men from manhandling his Elisabeth.

“Please,” he said. He wanted to say more, to tell them to rescue his daughter, to apprehend the robbers. At least he wanted to say those things, but for some reason he didn't have the strength. So he turned his head, lay his cheek against the cool of the boardwalk and breathed through his mouth. No strength now. No worries. His one remaining desire, to sleep.

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