Skirmish on a Summer Morning
by Bob Shaw

A flash of silver on the trail about a mile ahead of him brought Gregg out of his reverie. He pulled back on the reins, easing the buckboard to a halt, and took a small leather-covered telescope from the jacket which was lying on the wooden seat beside him. Sliding its sections out with a multiple click, he raised the telescope to his eye, frowning a little at the ragged, gritty pain flaring in his elbows. It was early in the morning and, in spite of the heat, his arms retained some of their night-time stiffness.

The ground had already begun to bake, agitating the lower levels of air into trembling movement, and the telescope yielded only a swimmy, bleached-out image. It was of a young woman, possibly Mexican, in a silver dress. Gregg brought the instrument down, wiped sweat from his forehead and tried to make sense of what he had just seen. A woman dressed in silver would have been a rare spectacle anywhere, even in the plushiest saloons of Sacramento, but finding one alone on the trail three miles north of Copper Cross was an event for which he was totally unprepared. Another curious fact was that he had crossed a low ridge five minutes earlier, from which vantage-point he had been able to see far ahead along the trail, and he would have sworn it was deserted.

He peered through the telescope again. The woman was standing still, and seemed to be looking all around her like a person who had lost her way and this, too, puzzled Gregg. A stranger might easily go astray in this part of southern Arizona, but the realization she was lost would have dawned long before she got near Copper Cross. She would hardly be scanning the monotonous landscape as though it was something new.

Gregg traversed the telescope, searching for a carriage, a runaway or injured horse, anything which would account for the woman’s presence. His attention was drawn by a smudge of dust centred on the distant specks of two riders on a branching trail which ran east to the Portfield ranch, and for an instant he thought he had solved the mystery. Josh Portfield sometimes brought a girl back from his expeditions across the border, and it would be in character for him—should one of his guests prove awkward—to dump her outside of town. But a further look at the riders showed they were approaching the main trail and possibly were not yet aware of the woman. Their appearance was, however, an extra factor which required Gregg’s consideration because their paths were likely to cross his.

He was not a cautious man by nature, and for his first forty-eight years had followed an almost deliberate policy of making life interesting by running headlong into every situation, trusting to his good reflexes and a quick mind to get him out again if trouble developed. It was this philosophy which had led him to accept the post of unofficial town warden, and which—on the hottest afternoon of a cruel summer—had faced him with the impossible task of quietening down Josh Portfield and four of his cronies when they were inflamed with whisky. Gregg had emerged from the episode with crippled arms and a new habit of planning his every move with the thoughtfulness of a chess master.

The situation before him now did not seem dangerous, but it contained too many unknown factors for his liking. He took his shotgun from the floor of the buckboard, loaded it with two dully rattling shells and snicked the hammers back. Swearing at the clumsy stiffness of his arms, he slipped the gun into the rawhide loops which were nailed to the underside of the buckboard’s seat. It was a dangerous arrangement, not good firearms practice, but the hazard would be greatest for anyone who chose to ride alongside him, and he had the option of warning them off if they were friendly or not excessively hostile.

Gregg flicked the reins and his horse ambled forward, oily highlights stirring on its flanks. He kept his gaze fixed straight ahead and presently saw the two riders cut across the fork of the trail and halt at the fleck of silver fire, which was how the woman appeared to his naked eye. He hoped, for her sake, that they were two of the reasonably decent hands who kept the Portfield spread operating as a ranch, and not a couple of Josh’s night-riding lieutenants. As he watched he saw that they were neither dismounting nor holding their horses in one place, but were riding in close circles around the woman. He deduced from that one observation that she had been unlucky in her encounter, and a fretful unease began to gnaw at his stomach. Before Gregg’s arms had been ruined he would have lashed his horse into a gallop; now his impulse was to turn and go back the way he had come. He compromised by allowing himself to be carried towards the scene at an unhurried pace, hoping all the while that he could escape involvement.

As he drew near the woman, Gregg saw that she was not—as he had supposed—wearing a mantilla, but that her silver dress was an oddly styled garment incorporating a hood which was drawn up over her head. She was turning this way and that as the riders moved around her. Gregg transferred his attention to the two men and, with a pang of unhappiness, recognized Wolf Caley and Siggy Sorenson. Caley’s grey hair and white beard belied the fact that he possessed all the raw appetites and instincts of a young heathen, and as always he had an old 54-bore Tranter shoved into his belt. Sorenson, a thickset Swedish ex-miner of about thirty, was not wearing a gun, but that scarcely mattered because he had all the lethality of a firearm built into his massive limbs. Both men had been members of the group which, two years earlier, had punished Gregg for meddling in Portfield affairs. They pretended not to notice Gregg’s approach, but continually circled the woman, occasionally leaning sideways in their saddles and trying to snatch the silver hood back from her face. Gregg pulled to a halt a few yards from them.

“What are you boys playing at?” he said in conversational tones. The woman turned towards him as soon as he spoke and he glimpsed the pale, haunted oval of her face. The sudden movement caused the unusual silver garment to tighten against her body and Gregg was shocked to realize she was in a late stage of pregnancy.

“Go away, Billy boy,” Caley said carelessly, without turning his head.

“I think you should leave the lady alone.”

“I think you must like the sound of your own bones a-breakin’,” Caley replied. He made another grab for the woman’s hood and she ducked to avoid his hand.

“Now cut that out, Wolf.” Gregg directed his gaze at the woman. “I’m sorry about this, ma’am. If you’re going into town you can ride with me.”

“Town? Ride?” Her voice was low and strangely accented. “You are English?”

Gregg had time to wonder why anybody should suspect him of being English rather than American merely because he spoke English, then Caley moved into the intervening space.

“Stay out of this, Billy boy,” he said. “We know how to deal with Mexicans who sneak over the line.”

“She isn’t Mexican.”

“Who asked you?” Caley said irritably, his hand straying to the butt of the Tranter.

Sorenson wheeled his horse out of the circle, came alongside the buckboard and looked in the back. His eyes widened as he saw the eight stone jars bedded in straw.

“Look here, Wolf,” he called. “Mister Gregg is takin’ a whole parcel of his best pulque into town. We got us all the makin’s of a party here.”

Caley turned to him at once, his bearded face looking almost benign. “Hand me one of those crocks.”

Gregg slid his right hand under the buckboard’s seat. “It’ll cost you eight-fifty.”

“I’m not payin’ eight-fifty for no cactus juice.” Caley shook his head as he urged his horse a little closer to the buckboard, coming almost into line with its transverse seat.

“That’s what I get from Whalley’s, but I tell you what I’ll do,” Gregg said reasonably. “I’ll let you have a jar each on account and you can have yourselves a drink while I take the lady into town. It’s obvious she’s lost and …” Gregg stopped speaking as he saw that he had completely misjudged Caley’s mood.

“Who do you think you are?” Caley demanded. “Talkin’ to me like I was a kid! If I’d had my way I’d have finished you off a couple of years back, Gregg. In fact …” Caley’s mouth compressed until it was visible only as a yellow stain on his white beard, and his china-blue eyes brightened with purpose. His hand was now full on the butt of the Tranter and, even though he had not drawn, his thumb was pulling the hammer back.

Gregg glanced around the shimmering, silent landscape, at the impersonal backdrop of the Sierra Madre, and he knew he had perhaps only one second left in which to make a decision and act on it. Caley had not come fully into line with the hidden shotgun, and as he was still on horseback he was far too high above the muzzle, but Gregg had no other resort. Forcing the calcified knot of his elbow to bend to his will, he managed to reach the shotgun’s forward trigger and squeeze it hard. In the last instant Caley seemed to guess what was happening and he tried to throw himself to one side. There was a thunderous blast and the tightly bunched swarm of pellets ripped through his riding boot, just above the ankle, before ploughing a bloody furrow across his horse’s rear flank. The terrified animal reared up through a cloud of black gunsmoke, its eyes flaring whitely, and fell sideways with Caley still in the saddle. Gregg heard the sickening crack of a major bone breaking, then Caley began to scream.

“Don’t!” Sorenson shouted from the back of his plunging mare. “Don’t shoot!” He dug his spurs into the animal’s side, rode about fifty yards and stopped with his hands in the air.

Gregg stared at him blankly for a moment before realizing that—because of the noise, smoke and confusion—the Swede had no idea of what had happened, nor of how vulnerable Gregg actually was. Caley’s continued bellowing as the fallen horse struggled to get off him made it difficult for Gregg to think clearly. The enigmatic woman had drawn her shoulders up and was standing with her hands pressed over her face.

“Stay back there,” Gregg shouted to Sorenson before turning to the woman. “Come on—we’d best get out of here.”

She began to shiver violently, but made no move towards him. Gregg jumped down from his seat, pulled the shotgun out of its sling, went to the woman and drew her towards the buckboard. She came submissively and allowed him to help her up into the seat. Gregg heard hoofbeats close behind him and spun round to see that Caley’s horse had got free and was galloping away to the east in the direction of the Portfield ranch. Caley was lying clutching a misshapen thigh. He had stopped screaming and seemed to be getting control of himself. Gregg went to him and, as a precaution, knelt and pulled the heavy five-shot pistol from the injured man’s belt. It was still cocked.

“You’re lucky this didn’t go off,” Gregg said, carefully lowering the hammer and tucking the gun into his own belt. “A busted leg isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a man.”

“You’re a dead man, Gregg,” Caley said faintly, peacefully, his eyes closed. “Josh is away right now … but he’ll be back soon … and he’ll bring you to me … alive … and I’ll …”

“Save your breath,” Gregg advised, concealing his doubts about his own future. “Josh expects his men to be able to take care of their own affairs.” He went back to the buckboard and climbed on to the seat beside the bowed, silver-clad figure of the woman.

“I’ll take you into town now,” he said to her, “but that’s all I can do for you, ma’am. Where are you headed?”

“Headed?” She seemed to query the word and he became certain that English was not her native tongue, although she still did not strike him as being Mexican or Spanish.

“Yes. Where are you going?”

“I cannot go to a town.”

“Why not?”

“The Prince would find me there. I cannot go to a town.”

“Huh?” Gregg flicked the reins and the buckboard began to roll forward. “Are you telling me you’re wanted for something?”

She hesitated. “Yes.”

“Well, it can’t be all that serious, and they’d have to be lenient. I mean, in view of your …”

As Gregg was struggling for words the woman pushed the hood back from her face with a hand which still trembled noticeably. She was in her mid-twenties, with fine golden hair and pale skin which suggested to Gregg that she was city-bred. He guessed that under normal circumstances she would have been lovely, but her features had been deadened by fear and shock, and perhaps exhaustion. Her grey eyes hunted over his face.

“I think you are a good man,” she said slowly. “Where do you live?”

“Back along this trail about three miles.”

“You live alone?”

“I do, but …” The directness of her questioning disturbed Gregg and he sought inspiration. “Where’s your husband, ma’am?”

“I have no husband.”

Gregg looked away from her. “Oh. Well, we’d best get on into town.”

“No!” The woman half-rose, as though planning to jump from the buckboard while it was still in motion, then clutched at her swollen belly and slumped back on to the seat. Gregg felt the weight of her against his side. Dismayed, he looked all around for a possible source of assistance, but saw only Sorenson who had returned to Caley and was kneeling beside him. Caley was sitting upright and both men were watching the buckboard and its passengers with the bleak intensity of snakes.

Appalled at the suddenness with which life had got out of control, Gregg swore softly to himself and turned the buckboard in a half-circle for the drive back to his house.

The house was small, having begun its existence some ten years earlier as a line shack used by cowhands from a large but decaying ranch. Gregg had bought it and a section of land back in the days when it looked as though he might become a rancher in his own right, and had added two extra rooms which gave it a patchy appearance from the outside. After his fateful brush with the Portfield men, which had left him unable to cope with more than a vegetable plot, he had been able to sell back most of the land and retain the house. The deal had not been a good one from the point of view of the original owner, but it was a token that some people in the area had appreciated his efforts to uphold the rule of law.

“Here we are,” Gregg said. He helped the woman down from the buckboard, forced to support most of her weight and worried about the degree of personal contact involved. The woman was a complete mystery to him, but he knew she was not accustomed to being manhandled. He got her indoors and guided her into the most comfortable chair in the main room. She leaned back in it with her eyes closed, hands pressed to her abdomen.