Ad Jorgensen whipped the reins again, then again, his arms flailing in the air. The horse, already frantic with fear, reared in its traces, fighting the reins, turning to run with the leaders of the herd bearing down on the wagon.
“They’re coming faster,” the child said quietly, barely heard over the pounding of hooves, the bawling of cattle, and the shouts of the riders driving them in wild stampede.
When the first reached them, the wagon jarred and rose up on one side. Back down with a crash, the rear pushed sideways. The horse screamed and reared, and Jorgensen’s arms still flailed, slapping the slack reins in the air until the side of the wagon rose again, pushed by the bodies thundering past. Jorgensen went to his knees on the floorboard when it dropped back to four wheels, his arms over his head, and ducked under the seat where he stayed until the bumps against the wagon ceased and the thunder of hooves faded away. The wagon stopped, the horse stomping and shaking. Anna still clutched to the wagon seat to keep from being spilled to the ground.
She sat quietly on the seat, either frozen in terror or with nowhere to go. Her father was still on his hands and knees taking up all the space between the seat and side. “Papa, the man—”
“Don’t start asking stupid questions,” he snapped at her, working out from where he’d wedged himself under the seat. On his knees, he nearly went over backward in violent recoil.
The rider sat on his lathered horse a few feet from Anna’s side of the wagon. The hat pulled down tight on his forehead shaded most of his face. His mouth and jaw were clearly visible, though, the jaw clenched to a degree the nerves in his cheeks jerked.
“Liberty, what the hell do you think you’re doing?” someone shouted.
Liberty didn’t look around, but a slight tug on his reins signaled the horse to back.
“Thank you,” Anna said.
Jorgenson’s and Liberty’s heads jerked around at her words. Liberty stared at her a moment, his amber-colored eyes shifting for a quick glance at her father before he gave her a nod and set his horse into motion with a slight nudge of his heels.
With her face eggshell white, making her eyes look bluer and larger, Anna took a deep breath and released her hold of the seat. “Nice man,” she commented.
Dragging himself up to flop on the seat next to his daughter, barely managing that much for his trembling, Jorgensen snorted. “If I had any doubts of your stupidity, you just proved it. They just tried to kill us.”
“Be silent and don’t you make a fool of yourself when we get to town.”
“Yes, Papa,” she answered, her gaze looking off in the direction Liberty rode. A moment later, the child hummed a sweet, sad song.
* * * *
Anna sat on the bench, the same place she had been for hours. She knew not to move too far. Ad Jorgensen tolerated no disobedience. She’d watched people come and go until the shops were closed. What movement there was in the town was restricted to one street over, where the saloon was. For another hour, she’d tapped danced her toes on the boardwalk, concentrating on missing the cracks until it grew too dark to see them. Humming, singing softly, even occasionally walking back and forth the width of the store filled some of the hours. Sitting for such an extended length of time made her ache. Hunger made her tummy growl.
The saloon was filled with Bar-C riders to judge from the sounds drifting through the night. Her papa told her drink muddled the mind, leaving the door open for evil to enter in the absence of common sense and decency. Those were the reasons he gave for telling her to wait there where she wouldn’t be seen by those bad men. When the lone rider came in, she shifted her feet, drawing them beneath the bench, taking her toes away from the faint light cast by the streetlight.
The rider stopped at the hitching rail, not ten feet away and facing her. He dropped the reins across the saddle horn and took out the makings for a cigarette. She sat perfectly still while he rolled it, but when a match flared, she startled, seeing his face clearly for the first time as he touched the flame and took a deep breath. With eyes squinted against the glare and smoke, he snapped his wrist to extinguish the flame and flipped the match to the street.
Anna startled again when a voice came from the narrow space between the buildings. “Liberty, Cass wants to talk to you.”
Liberty didn’t move or tense, other than laying his hands over the pommel. The cigarette hung in the corner of his mouth, and his head tilted to the side to keep the smoke from drifting into his eyes. His voice soft and low, he answered. “Nothing to talk about, Dobbs.”
“You were willing to talk to Rhodes.”
“He talked to me,” he corrected.
“Cass wants to know about what, right now.”
A deep red glow lit his face as he inhaled deeply on the cigarette. One hand rose to his mouth, removing the cigarette as he blew out smoke. “I wore the brand then. That’s all he needs to know.”
“You won’t come with me?”
“That’s all I need to know.”
Liberty’s arm rose, taking the cigarette back to his mouth. “We’re not alo—”
A gunshot cut off his words, and his right arm slammed into his chest. The cigarette fell, showering sparks over his left hand gripping the saddle horn, and his body tipped. A second shot sounded. His hold ripped free, the impact of lead in his chest, driving him off the horse.
Anna stared, both hands over her mouth, jerking when the body thudded on the ground just as she’d jerked at each gunshot. Liberty lay on his back in the dirt street. His horse backed away, letting the street light fall across him. Blood darkened his shirt in rapidly growing patches, but Anna made not a single sound until the sound of running feet faded, and Liberty’s head rolled to look at her.
Sobbing, she rose to her feet as if a string pulled her erect. With movements jerky as a marionette, she shuffled across the boards. Tripping, she barely caught herself on the hitch rail when she stepped off the walk.
Liberty’s hand rose, just a bare few inches off the ground, fingers extended toward her, only to drop back down. His mouth moved, but like his hand, he had not the strength to finish the effort. He could do no more than stretch out his fingers with his hand on the ground. Anna broke and ran, passing by him so closely the wind she created fluttered his hair. The fingers relaxed, and Liberty sighed. He didn’t turn his head to watch her disappear and closed his eyes as the curious came to stare.
They gathered around him in a circle, and not a one moved forward to help him. When Sheriff Venturn pushed his way through the crowd, demanding to be told what happened his only reply was, “No better than he deserves.”
“Get out of the way,” Doctor Edwards ordered, shouldering his way through.
“You’re wasting your time, Doc,” Venturn told him.
Kneeling beside Liberty, fingertips to his throat, Edwards said, “He isn’t dead.”
“Still wasting your time.”
“He isn’t armed,” someone in the crowd pointed out.
“Don’t make no difference with him.”
Edwards used his handkerchief to tie a crude tourniquet around Liberty’s forearm. “I’ve got to get him to my office. Give me a hand.”
No one offered until Edwards grabbed the arm of the man nearest him and pulled. Venturn moved then, taking Liberty’s shoulders and grumbling, “I still say you’re wasting your time. Cass’s men aren’t anything more than gun hands.”
Another man took Liberty’s ankles. “He won’t be anymore; not with his arm shot up like that.”
“If he lives, he’ll be easy pickings,” someone in the crowd said.
* * * *
Doctor Edwards lit another lamp, turned backed to his patient, and jumped so hard he nearly dropped the lamp. “Anna, what are you doing here?”
She didn’t answer, moving closer to the table.
“Does your father know you’re here?”
She didn’t shrug exactly. She lifted her shoulder and touched it with her chin, all the answer she gave. Lifting her hand, she barely touched her fingertips to the table’s edge.
“You better go find him.”
“I know where he is.” She walked her fingers toward Liberty’s arm just as Liberty started coming around.
“Hand me that cup,” Edwards ordered, lifting Liberty’s head. Anna didn’t hesitate in obeying, jumping to catch up the cup and place it in his outstretched hand.
Liberty’s eyes opened, but he drank only because fluid filled his mouth. Edwards had seen the look in his eyes enough times to know the man didn’t understand the words. As soon as he lowered Liberty’s head, his eyes closed again.
“Like a sleeping doll,” Anna said quietly, back beside the table, her fingertips resting on the edge. “I saw a doll like that. Papa said it was—”
“Anna?” She tipped her head to look at him like an inquisitive little bird. “Won’t your father be worried about you?”
She made that strange little shrug and shook her head. Her blue eyes had a purplish tinge around the sockets, shock he supposed, but her expression was one of disturbing placidness. He busied himself tending to Liberty. “Don’t you think you should go find your father?”
Anna’s eyes swung up and to the right. She shook her head again. “If I’m not where Papa told me to be, he went on home.” Her eyes swung back to gaze straight at him. “He says if I’m not there when he’s ready to leave, I can walk home.”
“In the dark?”
“One time in the rain. He said if lightning struck me it would be my punishment for disobedience.”
While she talked, her fingers walked over the sheet covering the table to stretch out, lightly touching Liberty’s arm, still moving forward a fraction of an inch at a time. Edwards stopped watching her, concentrating on his patient’s wounds.
“I never said I wanted the sleeping doll. It was very pretty, but Papa said it was frivolous.”
One bullet had penetrated Liberty’s chest. The other left a gash across his ribs on the right side. With the arm wound that made three, the two minor wounds cutting down the chances of him surviving the chest wound with the additional blood loss.
“He shot him twice,” Anna commented, tipping her head to look at Liberty’s face.
“He must have had his arm in front of him.”
“He was smoking.”
Edwards glanced at her to see she’d gotten her hand all the way over Liberty’s arm, holding slightly. Liberty, however, took his attention completely, groaning when he probed the arm wound, looking for the bleeder. “Hold his arm down if he starts to come to.”
Anna used both hands, the one she already had on his arm and the other curling around his hand. “He has funny colored eyes,” she said. “They wouldn’t make a doll with light brown eyes. People would say that doesn’t look real. Or yellow eyes. That looks mean.”
Edward didn’t answer, reaching behind him for a clamp.
“He doesn’t look mean now,” Anna commented.
“Helpless men seldom do.”
“If it was wickedness, it would always be there.”
“It just lays in wait until the body is strong again.” He probed, and Liberty stirred again. “Hold that arm down.”
“He isn’t awake.”
“He will be if—” What he tried to warn her of, happened. He hit a nerve, and Liberty reared up, twisting away from Edwards to get away from the pain and toward Anna. Edwards caught him by the shoulders pushed him back down. Liberty’s left arm would have gone up to push him away, but Anna held on, hugging his arm to her chest, with Liberty dragging her closer.
“It’s all right,” Anna said softly. “The doctor will make you all better.”
“Dobbs, no,” he cried out, pulling her so close she laid against him. His words drifted off to a mumble, then silence and stillness again.
“Is he dead?” she asked, shifting back to her feet, but not relinquishing her hold of Liberty’s arm.
“No.” Getting back to work and without looking up, he asked, “How old are you, Anna?”
“Papa says I’m twelve and big for my age. They’ll say I shouldn’t have come for you.”
“Don’t tell them,” Edwards told her, suspecting she was older than twelve and not at all big for her age, despite the appearance of a younger child in her calf length dress and twin plaits of her hair. At a quick estimate, he’ll guess about five feet five inches. If she actually was twelve, she’d be close to six feet fully grown, not impossible, but he’d heard gossip of her being simple-minded and could see it was more than speculation.
“I don’t think he’s wicked,” Anna said.
Knowing he had the time with the bleeder clamped off and watching her face closely he asked, “Why?” She stared at him blankly for a moment before her chin touched her shoulder. “You must have a reason.”
She looked at Liberty’s face, holding his arm cradled against her. “Papa says I’m notional.”
“I won’t. Tell me why you don’t think he’s wicked,” he urged, going back to his work. He still had a chest wound seeping blood and thought she wasn’t going to answer. When she did, he took time for another glance at her face.
“Sometimes anger looks wicked. I’d never seen his eyes before when he wasn’t mad.”
“He isn’t angry now.”
“What is he?”
“Dazed and hurt.”
“Shock and pain,” Edwards said with a nod.
“Hurt,” she corrected, “deep down where a bullet can’t reach.”
“You mean his soul?” he asked, pausing in his work in surprise over so profound a comment coming from her.
Anna stared at him, hesitating, and when she spoke, it wasn’t to answer his question. “Will he die?”
Edwards got back to work. He thought he’d embarrassed her and was sorry for it. “He’s bad off, and he’ll need care for a long spell, but he should live.”
“Will he go away then?”
“I don’t know.”
“Will Mr. Dobbs try to kill him again?”
That jarred him. “Dobbs? What would—oh, because of what he said. That could have meant anything. He worked with Dobbs.” Anna shook her head. “Unless you know something I don’t, it wouldn’t be a good idea to say things like that.”
“Papa says I should never speak. He says I’m too stupid.”
“I don’t think you’re stupid. It would be easy for people to think that from—”
“I better go now,” she stated, but made no move to release Liberty’s arm. “Papa says girls need protecting and shouldn’t see bad things. He would say this is a bad thing.”
“You don’t want your papa to know you’ve been here?”
“No.” She laid Liberty’s arm down gently, her fingers lingering just a moment. “I don’t like it when Papa gets mad.” Her chin went to rub at her shoulder. “Can it be a secret? I don’t think Mr. Dobbs would like it if he knew I saw him shoot Mr. Liberty.”
“You didn’t tell me you saw the shooting,” he said in alarm.
Anna backed away. “I didn’t tell anyone, and I hid. I’m not so stupid as Papa thinks.”Though Anna’s behavior was unsettling, the conversation with her called to mind an old proverb. “Out of the mouth of babes.” Not being stupid either, he was tense and still angry when Jacob Cass, Dobbs’s boss, came to call later that night