Rebecca laid quiet in the box and peered through the small crack at the men who had just killed her family. There were five of them, ragged and dirty, and they had been very businesslike and thorough.
Father had said hello and they had not even bothered talking to him. The one with the crooked arm had simply pulled his pistol and shot into Father three times. Mom had let out a small scream of shock and horror, and the bald one had pulled his pistol and said, "Do not do that, Ma’am." Whatever he hadn't wanted Mother to do she had gone ahead and done, raised the shotgun probably, and he had shot her one time. And that was how her family had died.
It had happened so fast that it didn't seem real to her yet. It was hard to believe that Father and Mother were lying above her with the life blasted out of them. It was too much awful for a fifteen-year-old girl to comprehend, and so she laid quiet in the box. Laid quiet and waited to see what would happen next.
Father had built the box himself, adding it under the wagon. Blending it in under there so it wasn't something a body would notice right away. He had built it big enough for her and her mother, only when the strangers had shown on the horizon Mother had chosen to stay out with him even though he had tried to send her into the box with Rebecca. He had built it with the idea that they could hide in it in the event of an Indian attack, only it had not been Indians but rather men of their own like who had proved to be the real savages.
The five men sat on their horses for a long minute looking at what they had just done, and Rebecca made herself look at them hard, made herself imprint their likeness in her mind before they slowly dismounted.
"That seems like a real shame," said the one wearing an old Confederate uniform jacket. He walked around the front of the wagon and out of her view.
"I told her not to do that," whined the balding one who had shot her mother. "You want I should have let her shoot me?"
The next was a hard-looking young man with wild yellowish hair and he laughed weird and harsh. His laugh was a little too harsh, a little too tight, and it reminded Rebecca of Walter Krone back home. Walter had been not quite right in the head, an embarrassment to his parents and prone to do shocking things and then laughing about them. Like the time he took off all his clothes and walked into the General Store for some new ones.
The young man ran his dirty hand through his wild hair with no apparent result. "If she had shot you there would have been more for the rest of us," he said. The balding one looked annoyed.
"I do get tired of you riding me all the time, Boy," the balding one said. He paused and looked at the wild headed one long and serious. "Someday I may have to put a hole in you," he finally finished.
"I am sooo scared I am shaking all over," the boy said back followed by that scary strange laugh. He walked toward the back of the wagon, limping badly. In a moment Rebecca heard and felt the back-gate slam down.
The fourth man was older with wrinkles creasing deep in his face. Not that he was past his prime, just that he had done some hard living, most of it out of doors. He took off his dirty hat and wiped his forehead with his forearm. Seemed funny that he should be sweating when it was so cool.
"I seem to remember telling you no killing." he said, voice tight with anger.
"Hey Jubal," whined the last one, the one with the crooked arm who had shot her Father. "I heard you tell us that. I really did not want to shoot him. He was going for a gun."
The older man looked disgusted. “Do not give me that, Amos," he said. “Do not lie to me like you think I am stupid or something, you hear?"
"I do not think you are stupid, Jubal," Amos said and Rebecca could easily hear the fear in his voice. "I thought he was going for a gun. Honest."
Jubal turned away from him and walked to the rear of the wagon. "You are a liar, Amos," he said, voice more calm but somehow deadly, "and the next time you do not listen to me I will kill you."
Now they were all out of her sight and she laid there and listened as they rummaged through the wagon only inches above her.
She didn’t think they would discover her. The cover was closed and bolted, and it blended in with the wagon floor, so nobody would ever suspect it was there. All she had to do was stay quiet until they were gone. She tried to keep her breathing as silent as possible, tried not to think about the only two people in the world she had loved, now lying dead just above her.
She heard the stuff of their home being dragged out of the wagon and dropped carelessly to the ground. Mother had so loved some of those things and it made her angry to have those dirty-handed strangers pawing through their belongings. As the hour wore on, she listened to them bickering about who got to keep things that were not rightfully theirs to begin with and anger gradually replaced her fear. She would get even. Someday. Somehow. She would find them and she would get even. They would pay for callously killing Mother and Father. Pay hard and slow so they would have time to regret what they did to her family. What they did to her.
“Should we camp right here?" asked Confederate Jacket. “We could eat off a real table and chairs for a change.”
"Now there's a real intelligent idea," from Jubal. "Let us hang around here until somebody comes and discovers what you morons have done and then we can really 'hang' around here."
"And you think I am stupid," said Amos to Jubal.
"Yes, Amos, I do," said Jubal and the kid with the limp laughed his awful cackle.
"Gather up their horses," said Jubal, "And let’s get away from here." The sounds of harness being removed, dropped, and then slaps and the horses trotted off.
They came back into her view and Rebecca watched them swing back into their saddles, all of them with some of her family's belongings tied on behind. She could see their quilts and blankets, some of Father's clothing and even one of Mother's fine Sunday bonnets.
They turned and kicked their horses into motion, her family's four horses trailing behind.
"Four horses, thirty-two dollars, some clothes and blankets," Jubal said. "Their lives weren't worth much."
"Hey, I said I was sorry," whined Amos. "Besides, better them than us."
"Shut up, Amos," said Jubal.
"Okay, Jubal," Amos said. "I'm shutting up."
The sounds of the horses faded into the distance and soon only the soft cold wind remained.
"I have been thinking on giving up this profession," Wiley said as he drew a bead on the spot where the Indian had vanished. His rifle blasted, and the recoil slammed against his shoulder. A puff of dust rising from the prairie grass clearly told him that the Indian had moved, and his shot was wasted. He levered another shell into the chamber and looked down the barrel, waiting for a target to present itself. "I am not quite sure what profession I should get into though," he went on in a conversational tone. "Any ideas?"
His companion, lying beside him in the swale, never took his eyes off the prairie to their front. "Whatever it is," he said, "It better not involve any serious shooting." Wiley, of course, took offense right away.
"If you are referring to that last shot," he said indignantly, "I could have hit him if I wanted. I just figured on scaring him, that's all."
"You figured on scaring a Sioux?"
"Only seems fair," Wiley came back. "They are sure scaring me." His friend smiled.
"Me too," he said. He studied the prairie. If a body didn't know for sure there were six or seven men out there, he'd swear there was nothing there. The grass wasn't that long either and it was hard to believe that full grown men could disappear so completely. 'Course these weren't normal men. They were Indians, Sioux probably, and they had a habit of doing what was hard to believe.
"So how do you figure it?" Wiley asked.
"They want our horses and guns, o'course," Nestor came back. "Way I see it they are working on surrounding us while we are lying here resting."
"Yup," Wiley said with a long sigh. "That's just about what I thought." He rolled over on his back, so he could watch behind them. Their two horses and pack horse chomped the dry prairie grass contentedly, not caring that they would very likely be wearing paint and feathers for the rest of their horsey lives. "Do you think maybe they will get tired and go on home?" he went on.
"Prob'ly will," said his friend. "Right after they are finished killing us."
"I think I will become a clerk," said Wiley like he hadn't heard his friend. "Maybe in Patterson's General Store. I believe I could sell things to the women in town. Or maybe I could go to a big city and work in the library. There is a whole lot of quiet in a library you know." His friend didn't respond so Wiley glanced over at him.
Nestor was studying on the prairie to his front, trying to find a target for his Winchester. There was a place out there where the grass looked a little shorter than the rest and he was reasonably certain there was a very healthy and rather irritated Indian in that particular spot. He toyed with the idea of slapping a shot out there but decided to wait for a little more confirmation before wasting a round. He adjusted his position slightly because his badge was digging into his chest.
“I do not think you will make it as a storekeeper," he finally said.
"Take you a month or so just to learn the trade," Nestor came back. "That seems a little excessive since it does not appear you have that much left in your natural lifespan."
"You do not have a very hopeful outlook," Wiley observed, "Especially where I am concerned."
"You forget I have seen you shoot," Nestor said.
In spite of himself Wiley chuckled, then "Not funny," he said through his smile.
"No offense," from Nestor. He straightened up a little. "I think we are about to be rescued," he said, amazement clear in his voice. Wiley rolled over and looked in the same direction as his friend.
Yellow Knife heard the footsteps coming long before he could see anything. He was quite earnestly engaged in making himself as small a target as possible, willing himself to become part of the earth itself. Those two men were armed with long guns and they were not slow about using them. Three Fingers was already hurt, and maybe dead and Yellow Knife did not see any reason to hurry and join him. His first time out with a hunting party had not quite turned out the way he had imagined.
At first it had been wild and exciting, chasing the white men across the prairie, hair flying in the wind and his horse running beneath him. Then they had taken to ground and one of them had shot Three Fingers with his long gun and Yellow Knife had been shocked at the raw power a single bullet had. Three Fingers had flown into the air when the bullet hit him in the front of his shoulder and when he came down and fell to the ground, there was a large area of torn meat on his back where the bullet had gone out of him and his blood was running out of him like water.
And so he stayed motionless as the footsteps approached, trusting that he was very hard to see as long as he didn't move. The feet crunched closer and closer, crushing the dry fall grass under their tred and he held his knife and waited to see what life had in store for him next.
The feet were coming right toward him.
They stepped up right directly by the side of his head and stopped.
They were so close, so close.
Yellow Knife didn't know whether to stay still or look. Curiosity won out. He turned his head very slowly until he could look up at the intruder.
It was a young white girl, and she was standing there looking down on him, confusion plain in her eyes. She was carrying a very large pistol in her hand, but it was hanging straight at her side pointing harmlessly at the ground. They contemplated each other seriously for a long moment. Yellow Knife really had no desire to harm the young girl, but he felt he should do something, so he moved his knife hand slowly forward. The girl matched his movement raising the pistol until it pointed at his head. He moved his hand back where it had been before, and she let the pistol hang down once more.
This was humiliating. He knew he should do something, but he didn't know what. This young girl had stumbled upon him and he laid there like a foolish boy until she had him at her mercy. He closed his eyes and turned his face back down to the ground. They would laugh at him around the fire tonight -- if she let him live.
In a minute, she walked on.
"Over here, Girl!" called Nestor. The girl looked over at where he was waving to her, hesitated a moment, then walked over to where the two men were huddled in the swale.
"Hello," she said in a conversational tone.
"Come down here, Girl," said Nestor urgently. "There's Indians about." The girl casually walked down into the ditch.
"They must be gone," Wiley said to his friend. "Else they never would have let her come walking in here like that."
"They are still out there," she said. "I almost stepped on one of them." She didn't seem overly concerned.
"You almost stepped on one of them?" Wiley repeated dumbly.
"Yes," she said. "I thought at first he was going to do something because he moved his knife but when I pointed Father's pistol at him, he settled down and looked away like I wasn't even there."
Nestor rolled on his side and studied on the girl for a moment.
She was little more than a child, maybe fifteen years old. She had pale blue eyes that peered out somberly from beneath her gay blue bonnet. Her dress matched her bonnet and the only thing out of place on her was the big Walker Colt she was carrying in her right hand. She looked back at him calmly.
"You know how to shoot that cannon?" he asked.
"I have never really shot it," she said back somewhat defensively, "But I know how to do it. You just pull back the hammer and aim it and squeeze the trigger. I saw Father do it once." Nestor grunted and turned his attention back to the front. Nothing moved out there.
"Where is your father?" Nestor asked. When there was no answer right away, he glanced over at the girl. Her expression was tight, almost haggard, but her eyes shown with inner anger.
"He is dead," she said, looking him right in the eye. "He was killed for thirty-two dollars, four horses and some blankets and clothes. He and Mother are back that way," she pointed one small hand, "about half a day's walk."
"Indians get 'em?" Wiley asked without taking his eyes from the prairie in front of him.
"White men," she said. "Five white men."
"How long ago?" from Nestor.
"It was not yet mid-morning when they came up on us. Father sent me into the hiding box before they saw me, and they never knew I was there. That is why I am not dead like my folks."
"What's your name, Girl?" Nestor asked.
"You come on over here and lay down beside me," he said. "We are lawmen and will go back and bury your parents and hunt for the villains as soon as we get over this little piece of Indian trouble we are presently involved in."
"You are lawmen?" she asked. Nestor rolled over so she could see his badge.
Satisfied, she nodded, walked casually over to him and carefully lay down on the grassy bank beside him. It was obvious she did not want to get her dress dirty and Nestor figured that maybe she had put on her best outfit before she began walking into the prairie...into the unknown. He glanced over at her and she stared back somberly.
"My name is Nestor, Rebecca," he said. "It is a good thing you stumbled on us on account of you are heading west and it is a long way to the next town."
"I was not looking for a town, Mr. Nestor," she said, matter of fact. I was looking for the men who killed my parents. It was my intention to shoot them with father's pistol."
Nestor looked into her steady blue eyes, impressed in spite of himself.
"You are long on courage, Becky," he said. "Long on courage and just a little short on good sense. You would have died out here and even if you had found the men you seek, they would have likely killed you."
"I prefer to be called Rebecca," she said, then "I am not as foolish as you might think, Mr. Nestor. You appear to be the one in danger. I was doing just fine, thank you."
"For someone whose life I am saving, you are certainly a snippy little thing," Nestor observed. "And I prefer to be called Nestor if you please," he mimicked her voice.
Her blue eyes hardened with anger and he could see there was a temper there.
"Listen, people," said Wiley. "If you could maybe finish your conversation later, I believe they are up to something out there.
Nestor snapped his attention out to the front and thumbed back the hammer on his rifle. Sure enough, he could see movement in the grass but for the life of him he could not see any sign of an Indian.
Yellow Knife felt Crooked Fist tug on his foot and looked over at him. He had not heard Crooked Fist coming at all and he was impressed with his friend's prowess. Crooked Fist was grinning at him.
"How do you like your first battle?" Crooked Fist asked.
"Better than Three Fingers, I think," Yellow Knife said. Crooked Fist's grin disappeared.
"He is dead," he said. "I do not wish to be the one to tell his wife." Three Finger's wife was a large woman, loud of voice with the temper and disposition of a cornered coyote. She would not take news of his death well and would doubtless blame the messenger. Yellow Knife believed that no matter how bad dying was, Three Fingers was better off dead. The others would miss his clowning, however.
"If we finish this," Crooked Fist said, "More of us will die. These men shoot well."
Yellow Knife waited to hear the decision of his friend.
"Why did you let the girl go free?" Crooked Fist asked.
Yellow Knife had been dreading the question. "I do not make war on little girls," he said. It was a good answer.
"Especially little girls with big hand guns," Crooked Fist observed with a trace of humor.
Yellow Knife looked back at his friend. It was going to be as bad as he thought. Crooked Fist had seen everything, and Crooked Fist was a good storyteller. Everyone would know. Still, it was better to be the butt of jokes for a little while than to be dead forever.
"I think we should go away and live to fight another day," said Crooked Fist. "I would truly like to have one of those rifles for my own," he added wistfully.
He turned and slithered away.
Yellow Knife took one last look where the white men were lying with their rifle’s and then followed his friend.