"Miss Susan, do drive on. I am an excellent shot," Alexander said, peering slightly up at her from beneath the brim of his hat.
"Sure hope so. Get off."
"I will not, for I cannot condone this strategy."
She turned to glare at him full in his pinkened face. "Listen to me, mister," she hissed, hoping that Loulou wouldn't hear. "I didn't drive all this way to become somebody's captive or worse. If I'm goin' down, I'm goin' down a'shootin'. Sit up here and watch if you want." Susan turned around and slithered off the other side of the wagon, leaving Alex dumbfounded on the seat.
She stalked to the back of the wagon, muttering. "Condone? What does that even mean?" She thrust her hand inside, palm up. "Loulou, hand me the ammo." With its comforting weight she crawled into the shade between the red wheels, settling the heavy wooden box beside her. For a moment, only Loulou's faint sniffling marred the perfect fearful silence. Then the voices of the two warriors drifted through the hot afternoon air. They'd stopped too, and stood together out of range talking with foreign and frightening sounds. "They're talking about us," Susan whispered to herself. "They're making their plans."
A flurry of activity came from the seat. Alex jumped to the ground, then unstrapped the water barrel to roll it to one side of the wagon. He scaled the back of the wagon to retrieve a large wooden trunk which he placed on the side opposite the barrel. After tying Lucifer by the oxen, the Englishman slipped into the shadows with Susan. She cast a long sideways glance at the second, shorter gun in his hand.
"You may get into the wagon with your sister. I can protect you." His voice sounded sure and he loaded the gun with an air of disinterest.
"You can't shoot but one of those guns at a time," Susan protested. "We're better off together."
"You are a lady and it is not fitting --"
Susan pointed toward some low brush. "Uh oh, he's moving, going to circle 'round. You good at long shots? I'm not so good at long ones."
"Miss Susan, you sound frightened. Just wait in the wagon," he commanded.
"What sane person wouldn't be frightened? And I won't wait in the wagon, so stop telling me to. Now, which side do you want?"
Alex checked the position of each Indian crouched behind a low shrub on opposite sides of their makeshift fort. "I shall take the one behind you. Miss Loulou, are you going to be all right up there?"
"Fine." The thin voice barely penetrated the muffling effect of Ma's quilt.
Susan's stomach went queasy at the thought of actually shooting her target. "Alex, I think we should try to scare them off. Killing them could start another Indian War."
"Agreed." The two stared at each other for a long moment. Alex reached out to squeeze her hand. "We shall prevail, Miss Susan."
Susan's coffee-colored eyebrows moved together in consternation. "That don't mean we're gonna die, does it?"
"No, it means you are going to be fine."
"Cuz when I said I'd die in Gateway, I didn't mean today," Susan added.
A faint smile cracked the stiffness of Alexander's features. "I promise to take care of you today so you can live to be ninety."
A shot rang out and the bullet pinged almost instantly against the ground, scattering dust around and on them. Alex lifted the pistol to fire toward the source. Twigs sprayed over the Indian's head.
"Nice shot." Susan untied her bonnet and flung it to one side. Blam, thunk. Susan's Indian fired one into the side of the wagon. The Winchester wavered in her hands until she laid it over the curved top of the trunk. She aimed low then squeezed the trigger. The recoil nearly knocked her off her knees.
"A bit to the left, Miss Susan."
"I know. I'm trying." Her hands shook while she reloaded and chanted, "Oh lord oh lord oh lord."
A bullet whined overhead, making two poofing sounds as it passed through the cover.
"Loulou!" Susan cried.
"I'm okay," her sister replied tearfully.
Susan fired wide again. Her Indian laughed and hooted. Alex swung around, barely pausing to aim before blasting the bush away beside the Apache's head.
"That shut him up," Susan complimented.
Alex thrust the pistol at her. "Load it." The Indians fired at the leisurely pace required by hand-loading their weapons. Alex defended both sides of the wagon while Susan kept their guns primed and ready. A bullet hit the water barrel in front of Alex. He barely noticed. The trunk thudded opposite Susan. "No, sir," he muttered as he aimed the Winchester. Pow, thwok.
Susan's Indian shrieked, dropped his gun, and gripped his bicep. He glared through the low brush. Alexander shouted at him. "You do not shoot at women!"
She stared, open-mouthed, at the Englishman. He'd set his sweat-covered jaw into a stubborn clench, his hair hung in dark disarray around his face, and he shook his gunless fist toward the wounded warrior. He'd pushed up his shirtsleeves, exposing hairy forearms contoured by long lengths of lean muscle. "Alex!" she exclaimed, "You're human! You're all riled up!"
He frowned at her, grabbed the pistol, fired it, handed it to her for reloading, and picked up the rifle again.
Neither Apache was shooting any more. They crouched, silent, more intent on their surroundings than the guns under the wagon until, as if of one mind, both slunk away in the direction they'd come from, soundlessly fading into the low scrub. Alexander crawled toward the back of the wagon to observe.
"Now what?" Susan asked. She leaned forward on all fours to get a better look, but the instant her hands touched the ground she sucked a sharp breath between her teeth.
Alex turned. "What is it?"
Susan stared at her sand-blotched right palm. "My hand hurts. It got wet somehow and the dirt’s sticking to it." She shook it then blew on it, but the dirt stayed.
"Here, let me see." He crawled back to her side. She tentatively offered a view of her palm. "We need to clean it. Put it under the water leaking out of the barrel."
"Ouch! Oooh, that stings." When he'd rinsed the sand away, he took a moment to roll the barrel over so it would stop losing its precious contents then gently cradled Susan's hand. Broken blisters covered her palm, thumb, and fingers.
"How did you burn yourself?"
"I…I don't know. The pistol felt a little hot."
"The pistol?" He glanced doubtfully at the accused weapon.
"When I grabbed the barrel --"
"Why did you touch the barrel?" The 'you stupid idiot' hung in the air, unspoken.
"Because you were holding the other part," Susan spat back.
Alex's eyes widened in horror. "I did this? How could I have been so unchivalrous?"
"I don't know that word, but you were perty busy saving our lives. Darn, that smarts." She tried to withdraw her hand from his. He held tight and blew on the damaged palm. The sensation sent a shiver up her spine. Their eyes locked, regal English blue bound up with simple American brown.
"I am sorry I hurt you," he murmured. Susan swallowed, then nodded. He looked down at her hand again and gently ran the pad of his index finger across the unblemished tips of her four fingers, letting it drift off her pinkie. The unexpectedness of the caress swirled around them in the heat of the afternoon, and he stared at her hand as if it wasn't supposed to be there.
Loulou whispered urgently. "Susan, I hear people."
"What?" Susan blinked, trying to cast off the veil of intimacy she shared with Alex. "More people? Where? Who?"
"I don't know." Loulou whined just a bit when she got scared. "Listen."
Pa's voice clarified in the fever under the wagon. "My girls! We gotta save them! Loulou! Susan! Are you there?"
Alex dropped Susan's hand so suddenly it might have still held the heat of the pistol.