by Elle Cyre
A lawman trails a gunman.
A cloud of dust whirled through the street. Standing beside the hitching post, Samantha twisted and tilted the brim of her hat for protection from the fine particles. The gray dust lingered on the faded blue shawl about her shoulders. She looped her pony’s rein over the nail and stepped to the boardwalk.
“Evenin’ Miss Sam.”
The voice drawled from a rocking chair beside the doorway of the dry-goods store. A white head and beard topped a baggy figure nestled in the seat; one heel of his boot rested on the floor to propel the gentle motion back and forth. Both thumbs occupied the front pockets of his golden vest so his elbows stuck out on either side.
“Good evening, Mr. Dawson.”
The old man tilted his head and a slow smile lifted one side of his mustache. “Now wha’s a nice purdy gurl like you doin’ in this ol’ durty town tonight? Oughtn’t you be back a’ ta farm width yur maw?”
Samantha set her thin jaw. At nineteen, young and supple as a cottonwood sapling, her dusty jeans tucked into the tops of her riding boots, a broad-brimmed hat clamped over the long black hair pulled back in a braid, she was the picture of action. She returned the kind gaze of the old man without batting a thick eyelash.
“Ma needed some milk for the baby.”
“Ahhh…” The white beard bobbed and the chair creaked back and forth as Dawson took another glance over her dust-caked shawl and the spotted pony shivering at the post behind her. “Uh-huh…” A mischievous twinkle lit his eye. “Must av’ been needin’ it somethin’ bad.”
Sam yanked the hat from her head and slapped the dust off against her thigh. It provided an outlet for the emotion racing beneath her red-checkered shirt and her voice remained cool.
“Maybe Patches needed the exercise.”
A low sound escaped Dawson and his rounded midsection vibrated with silent mirth. “Shore, youn’ lady, it’s non’ of my bidness…” His head angled toward the dusty street that lay empty and silent. “I was jus’ wonderin’ if meybe you was com’in ‘ere ‘cause of dat mister marshal man dat come ridin’ in.”
The pallor that spread over Sam’s tanned face betrayed her. “Is he here already?”
Dawson nodded with a slow dip of his head. “Arriv’d dis mornin’.”
The girl twisted her face away, but not before the old man saw the panic flood her eyes and the hard bite of her lip. The amusement melted from his voice.
“He ain’t seen Nate yet.”
Sam turned back to him. Her boyish face had never looked more feminine, the midnight wells of her eyes sunk deep, her bronzed complexion washed into milky white and the full rosy lips parted with concern.
“Is he here?”
Dawson nodded toward a building a block to the west on the opposite side of the street. Sam’s gaze followed his and her hand crumpled the brim of her hat.
“And the marshal?”
Dawson thumbed in the other direction. “Still width Sheriff Franks, ma’am. I reckon they’ve been gassin’ a heap.”
“Why didn’t Nate leave?”
Dawson replaced his thumb in his vest pocket and tilted his head to one side. “I reckon you kno’ em bedder den I, ma’am.”
Sam stomped a heel. “The fool!”
This she spoke toward the hotel. A second later her nimble feet skipped across the dusty road. Dawson’s old eyes followed her with a suspicious mist starting in them.
“Por’ lil’ Sam.” His white head trembled. “Why’d she av’ to go in an’ fall for a man like Nate?”
Inside a square little room two men sat smoking. One rested his feet atop his desk, chair tilted back against the wall. The other straddled the side of the desk, one foot on the floor. Wisps of the feathery haze drifted around in the poor ventilation.
“How long you’ve known him?”
This question came from the black-coated man seated on the desk. The sheriff took a draw on his cigar before answering, letting out the heated breath between his chapped lips.
“Lemme see…” His eyes narrowed. “Four, five years now. Wasn’t more’n kid when he showed up, skinnier than the legs of a newborn colt, but actin’ the part with his tall hat an’ them guns.”
He blew another ring of smoke.
“Me an’ him clashed right off. He didn’ seem too eager on respectin’ authority an’ had a wild streak that’d com’ rushin’ to the front whene’er somethin’ didn’ settle quite right. Had a few spats with them guns but no mor’ trouble th’n the average cowpuncher on a bad night.”
The marshal picked the cigarette from his mouth and rolled it between his fingers as if studying the waning orange glow at one end.
“Ever killed a man?”
Sheriff Franks replaced his cigar and twisted his head back and forth. “Didn’ seem t’ av’ it ‘n him. Took him fer a false alarm. I saw him flash them guns tho. Guess it shoulda’ warn’d me.”
“So…” The lawman lifted his head. “…you never tried him?”
“Sho!” The sheriff coughed and brought his chair down to the floor. “D’ ya think I av’ time b’tween keepin’ peace width da homesteaders and ranch bosses aroun’ here to test ma’ draw agains’ a ‘slinger like Burner?”
The marshal chuckled. He flicked his cigarette across the room and straightened. His coat opened to reveal a heavy cartridge belt and holster slung low at his right side. He stood a moment, gazing down at the sheriff and his dark eyes twinkled.
“I don’t blame you at all for steering clear of Nate.”
The sheriff blinked. “Wha’d’ya inten’n on doin’?”
“My job.” His boots twisted toward the door and his hand jerked his stetson over his hair. As his hand closed over the knob, he tossed a parting farewell: “…and mind you, Franks, I don’t get paid to keep the peace.”
Sam pushed through the hotel doors and bounced against the counter, out of breath. With a glance at the register book, she flew up the stairs and rapped on the door beneath the number she sought. No one answered. She tried the knob, but finding it locked, she rapped again louder.
“Nate, open up.”
She heard a low exclamation. Then the bolt rattled and the door opened. A tall, sandy-haired figure stood holding the knob in his left hand, his lithe frame bent ever so slightly in the same direction, his right hand poised above his right hip.
Sam nodded. His keen eyes scanned the hall behind her and traveled all the way down to the stairway. Then he drew back and beckoned her inside.
“Y' shouldn’ be here, Sam.”
The girl closed the door and leaned against it. “Nor should you.”
The pale blue eyes found her steady ones, lingered a moment and then turned away to the window. His boots made no sound on the rug as he sauntered back to resume his watch of the street below. One finger lifted the lace curtain while his right remained at his waist. Sam stared at the revolver protruding from his holster.
“Dawson told me Marshal Thompson came to town this morning.”
Nate gave a slow nod.
Sam lifted her eyes from his gun. The loose blue shirt and red handkerchief around his neck couldn’t hide the strength of his shoulders. The cool poise of his blond head and the steadiness in his bronzed hands made the tightness of her chest become a throb.
“You could go back to the ranch, Nate, back to Mr. Redford and the boys. They’d--they’d stand with you--”
Nate glanced at her and his voice lapsed into the familiar drawl. “Why…would I drag my friends into somethin’ that ain’t their fight?”
She bit her lip. “Whatever the marshal has on you, you don’t have to meet him like this.”
A certain wistfulness entered his eyes and they trailed back outside. “Y’all don’t know the marshal…”
“Nate…” She caught her voice. “Please…”
A sound from Nate made her look up. He straightened, eyes fixed. Sam slipped to his side and peered through the window; Marshal Thompson stepped outside the sheriff’s office, his hat atop his head, coat thrown back away from his six-shooter. He strolled down the dusty street toward the hotel.
Sam's delicate fingers closed around Nate’s arm. She felt his muscles tighten as he whirled, but she held him back.
His eyes met hers and an easy smile came over his lips. “No need t’ get anxious, girl. I’m just a goin’ t’ talk t’ the marshal.”
“Thompson is the fastest gun in the West.”
“Aw, y’ don’t say?” Nate flashed his teeth and then, seeing the expression in her eyes, a hint of seriousness entered his voice. “Sammie--y’ ain’t worried none ‘bout me, are y’?”
Her lips parted but no words came; only her eyes spoke the truth. Nate’s grin grew wider.
“Back n’ a bat o’ y’ eye.”
He darted from her like a cat and ducked out the door. For a moment she stood frozen. Then the rapid beat of his boots on the stairs snapped her back to life and she tore after him.
She halted in the doorway.
Marshal Thompson stood twenty paces away, feet spread apart, hands on the heavy belt about his waist. His gaze focused on the rangy cowboy who sprang from the hotel. With hat tilted back, chin lifted carelessly, Nate folded his arms across his chest.
“Evenin’ Marshal. Reckon it’s been ‘round ten years, ain’t it?”
“Five.” The lawman’s eyes, keen as a hawks, waited for the slightest movement from the gunslinger.
“Aw shucks! Time shore does move slow--especially when you’re nothin’ mor’ ‘n kid.”
“You’re a man now, Nate.”
Nate lifted a finger to scratch his cheek. “Meybe I am. An’ meybe I ain’t as slow now neither…eh Marshal?”
His easy drawl made a flicker pass across Thompson’s face. His jaw tightened.
“Naw…” Nate settled his arms back across his chest. “Reckon I’ve ne’er once drawed furst and I ain’t aimin’ to start now.”
Again, a subtle doubt flashed in the Marshal’s eyes. Then they narrowed and Sam saw them fill with hate.
The word came a second before the marshal’s back stiffened and his right arm darted toward his gun. The barrel flashed in the sun as it leaped into his hand, but somehow Nate, from his casual stance, dropped his hand like lightning and leveled the pistol before the marshal’s cleared his holster.
Both weapons barked. Nate twisted to the left and Thompson to the right. Both took a long step to steady themselves. The marshal regained his balance to stare at his empty hand and the revolver which lay in the dust. Nate straightened with a lurch, holstered his gun, and gave a strange grin.
He stepped sideways, swayed, caught himself and then pitched forward on his face.
Samantha screamed. “Nate!”
She flew forward. Marshal Thompson reached Nate first and turned the cowboy over. The easy grin still lingered on his face.
“I--beat you--didn’t I?”
The marshal’s face was grim. “You sure did. And I had a head start on you.”
Nate blinked. “Guess I…bit the dust anyhow…”
“Why did you wait for me to clear the holster? Why’d you aim for my gun?”
Nate gazed at the frontier marshal. That wistful look returned to his face and his soft drawl weakened.
“Reckon I’ve waited a tolerable long time t’ try an’ prove t’ y’ that I ain’t the sort o’ man that y’ took me fer…”
A cold gleam lit the marshal’s eyes “You’re a killer--you’ve been one since you gunned down Johnnie.”
Nate twisted his head. “Wasn’t me, Marshal. Me an’ Johnnie…we were pals. I tried t’ tell y’ that night…but y’ tried to plug me…”
The marshal’s chest heaved. “Why didn’t you tell me earlier?”
A smile flickered across Nate’s lips. “Cause ‘slingin’s the only language y’ understan’.”