Standing on an overlook above a stretch of prairie, wind whipped Leila's dress, causing the material to make
noises like fingers being snapped. She tightened the knot of the chinstrap to her hat and adjusted her gun belt.
Squinting from the glare of the sun, she watched as a small herd of bison made their way through tall brown
prairie grass. As bits of dirt battered her face, she turned her head toward the sun-bleached rock formations
that rose from the prairie in the far distance like mountains that had been stepped on and broken into pieces
by the foot of God.
"Are we close?" Sarah asked from the seat of the wagon, holding the reins to the two horses. There was a rigidity
to the way she sat, as if her spine had been replaced with a column of stone. In her face there was none of the
freshness of a girl of nineteen. She had the haggard and wary look of an aging coyote.
"Very close," Leila said. She took another look toward the bison. They had disappeared, camouflaged by the colors
of the dry earth and sunburnt grass. Familiar with how the landscape could play tricks on an untrained pair of eyes,
she kept her focus on where they had last been seen. Within minutes their movement was detected even before she made
out their hulking brown forms, as if they had been swallowed by the prairie and were being spit up from it. She got
back in the seat of the wagon and took the reins from Sarah's hands. She lightly slapped the reins on the sides of
the horses' necks.
"Giddyup there," she called.
As the horses began to trot through the grass, their hooves kicking up small clouds of dirt, Sarah removed her bandana
releasing her long, dark brown, oily hair that hung down the sides of her face like dirty thread. "I remember none of
this," she said.
"You were very young," Leila said raspily. She spit soil from her mouth over the side of the wagon. A small brown streak
of it dribbled down her chin. "I remember almost every blade of grass."
Sarah leaned back and looked up at the scattered balls of snow-white clouds in the baby blue sky. "It hasn't rained since
we left Kansas City. What I wouldn't give for a bath."
"That's how it is on the plains," Leila said. "You could have stayed home."
"I could have," Sarah said. She put the bandana back on her head and tied the two ends together under her chin. "Sixteen
years is a long time to be away from a place. You think it's changed much?"
"Places change, but the people in them rarely do," Leila said.
As the horses stepped out of the grass and onto a dirt road, Leila said, "We'll be there shortly. Get in the wagon and
change into something more respectable looking. I'll stop the wagon just before entering town and you can get out the back."
"Okay," Sarah said. Before climbing under the white canvas cover she said, "It's been nice knowing you."
* * *
Bliss Atkins put a glowing red horseshoe on the anvil with the tongs, lifted a hammer and brought it down on the shoe. The
smashing of metal on metal rang out discordantly, reverberating in the stable. White sparks sprung up from where the hammer
struck the shoe. He hit the shoe again, lifted it with the tongs and examined both sides, then tossed the shoe into a bucket
of water. Wisps of steam rose out of the water accompanied by hissing like that of an angry snake. He leaned against a beam
that held up the roof and tried to ignore the rivulet of hot sweat that was running down his back.
Leila pulled her wagon to a stop at the open front door of the stable. She watched him for a minute as he wiped sweat from his
forehead and eyes with a bandana before saying anything. His appearance hadn't changed since the last time she saw him. He was
the definition of brute strength and ugliness. "Where can I tie up my wagon and stable my horses?" she asked.
Bliss removed the bandana from his eyes and ran his knuckles down the long, thin red scar on his cheek that ran from below his
right eye to his chin. "Where's your man?" he asked. He eyed her in the way a coyote eyes a rabbit.
"I have to have a man to take care of my wagon and horses?" she replied.
He flashed a smile that quickly vanished. "I just don't get many women who come here on their own pulling a wagon," he said. He
placed the tongs on the anvil, stepped out of the stable and stood beside the wagon looking up at her. He laid his massive hand
on the wagon floorboard perilously close to her boot. "You look kinda familiar. You been here before?"
"No," Leila said. "I'm just passing through and heading west." In her head she was hearing the breaking of his fingers as she
crushed them beneath her heel.
"All alone? With Indians still on the loose?" he asked. Despite his looks, he wasn't a stupid man. He pulled his hand from the
floorboard and momentarily let it hang in the air like a wounded hawk before dropping it to his side.
She put her hand on the handle of her gun. "I can take care of myself." She hadn't seen an Indian since leaving Kansas City and
half-wondered if they had mostly been driven from the open plains just like the buffalo.
"That gun ain't going to save you if you're being chased by a dozen of them savages," he said.
"That's my concern, isn't it?"
He scratched his scar again. "I guess it is. You can pull your wagon into the paddock behind my stable and I have room for your
horses." He stepped back from the wagon while staring at her face. He knew he had been lied to, that they had met before, but he
couldn't place when or where. He saw so few new faces that the ones he had seen were seared into his brain as if branded there.
"You sure we haven't met before?"
"Certain of it."
* * *
Standing in the doorway of the drygoods store, Lizzy fanned her face with the lid from a tin of crackers. An eddy of dirt
whirled across the street, falling apart just as it hit the wood walkway a few feet in front of her. She brushed from her
apron the flour that had spilled onto it causing a white cloud that was blown back into her face. She wiped her face with
her hand and turned facing the dimly lit interior of the store. Dan Blevins, the store owner, was behind the counter, his
head bowed over a ledger as he mumbled numbers aloud. His bent shoulders reminded her of those of a turkey vulture. He
looked up from the ledger and looked at her over the tops of wire rim glasses that rested on the end of his nose.
"You done with your work?" he asked.
His face fascinated her. It had the look of a man who was born with wrinkles; like he came out of his mother's womb old.
Although only about twice her age, whatever youth there may have once been in him had dried up long ago. With the light
from the oil lamp cast on the ledger and one half of his face, the wrinkles hidden in the shadows were like dry gullies.
"Yes, all done except for sweeping the floor," she said.
"Get to it," he said. "I don't pay you to stand around gawking."
She took one more look out the door. Walking down the middle of the street carrying a threadbare purple carpetbag was her
twin sister, Sarah.
She grabbed the broom beside the door and quickly swept the dirt and flour in the doorway out onto the walkway where the
hot wind caught it and spread it across the walkway's boards like drifting sand. At the railing, Lizzy looked over her
shoulder to make sure Dan wasn't watching her and tapped the broom handle against the wood rail three times.
Sarah casually turned her head and without pausing in her steps, imperceptibly nodded.
Lizzy lazily brushed the straw of the broom over the boards as peripherally she watched Sarah leave the street, step up
onto the walkway and enter the hotel.
"This store won't sweep itself," Dan called out from inside.
Lizzy carried the broom inside.
* * *
At the counter of the High Winds Hotel, Leila slapped the palm of her hand down on the small upside-down bowl-shaped bell.
The bell chimed like an empty tin can being struck with a wooden shoe horn, but it was surprisingly loud and echoed in the
lobby. Painted a pale rose color and simply furnished with one chair and a large mirror on one wall, other than the counter
where guests checked in, the lobby served no purpose and was almost never used. Because of its paint, it was the prettiest
place in High Winds. Within a minute, Hurse Margrove opened the door behind the counter and stepped out, pulling the door
closed behind him. He hastily shoved his arms into the sleeves of his ill-fitting coat and smiled wanly at Leila. Remnants
of the charred beef he had been eating in the back room coated his teeth.
"Can I help you, Madam," he asked.
"I'll be needing a room," Leila said.
He rubbed his coat sleeve across his lips and unsuccessfully tried to hold back a belch. It came out sounding more like a squeak.
"Excuse me," he said sheepishly. He locked eyes with hers as if trying to recall something. "Is this your first time in High Winds?"
"Yes," Leila said. "I'm heading west."
"The stagecoach isn't due until tomorrow. "How did you get here?"
"Dangerous way to travel. Your husband handy with a rifle?"
"I'm not married. I'm traveling alone."
Hurse tilted his bald head and stared at her appraisingly. He had seen many strangers check into the hotel over the years and
few of them who came through High Winds were model citizens wherever they had left. "If the law is after you, it's better to
let them catch you than risk being alone going across the prairie."
"They're not," she said. "May I have a room?"
He flipped a page in the ledger on the counter, dipped a pen in the inkwell and handed it to her. As she signed her name he
leaned over the counter and peered down at her small brown leather suitcase sitting by her feet. "You travel light," he said.
"I'm a woman of simple tastes."
Hurse turned and took a key out of the box numbered "5" and handed it to her. He was about to offer to carry her bag up the
stairs for her when the front door opened and the bell above it tinkled. A young woman carrying a purple carpet bag entered.
He turned to see Leila going up the stairs carrying her suitcase. Before the young woman got to the counter he looked at the ledger.
"Leila Prescott" was written in bold lettering on the top line of the otherwise blank page.
At the top of the stairs, Leila stopped and watched as Sarah stepped up to the counter.
"I'll be needing a room," she said.
* * *
While leaning on the sill of the open window of his office, Sheriff McDill had watched Leila drive her wagon into town and down
the street. Thinking her husband was probably inside the wagon, he stopped watching as soon as the wagon had passed by. A half
hour later he watched Sarah stroll into town carrying the purple carpetbag. A young woman walking into town all alone made no
sense at all. High Winds was practically in the middle of nowhere. There wasn't a place within walking distance to walk from or
to. She carried the carpetbag as if she had been born with it attached to her hand—and he was certain that he had seen the bag before.
Leaving the window, he sat in the squeaking chair at his desk and thumbed through the "Wanted" posters that had been neglected for
weeks. In the stack there were only men on the run from the law. He leaned back, put his boots up on the desk and with his hands
behind his head stared up at the thin cracks in the gray ceiling, feeling his gut being twisted. In a town with sixty people there
wasn't much to worry about until strangers came to town who didn't come in by stagecoach.
When dust began to blow through the open window, he raised the bandana that had been tied around his neck up to his mouth, got up
and opened the office door.
Westward, a slightly curved wall of dust stretched across the horizon from the ground to the sky and it was barreling across the
plains headed straight for High Winds. The thunder from the storm rumbled like a thousand Indian drums.
* * *
Lizzy closed the shutters across the store's plate glass window then went inside and pulled the door closed. She brushed the dirt
and bits of prairie grass from her dress then took her bandana from her head and shook it. The lighter tin cans on the shelves
trembled with each roll of thunder. She dipped the metal ladle into the barrel of fresh water, and as she drank from the ladle,
she stared at Dan who was at the counter with the cash register drawer open and counting money. She dropped the ladle into the barrel.
"You knew my mother," she said.
He continued counting coins. They clanked as they were dropped from his hand into a small burlap bag.
Lizzy came nearer to the counter. "You knew my mother," she said again.
He stopped counting. "Your mother?" he asked. "You're not from here, so how could I have known your mother?"
Wind screeched through the spaces between the boards at the front of the store.
"My mother was Hannah Carson," she said.
"Hannah Carson? Never heard of her," he tied a piece of red yarn around the top of the bag.
"Sixteen years ago, my family was going to homestead on a piece of land not far from town. The western boundary was the overlook."
"What's it to me?" he asked, removing the glasses, holding them in his hand and running his fingertips across the glass.
"You and two other men raped and murdered her," Lizzy said.
"You're crazy," he said as he slammed the register drawer closed.
Lizzy pulled a .455 Webley from the pocket in her dress and aimed it at him. "A fourth man told my father what happened and who was involved."
As he started to grab the gun he kept on the shelf under the counter, Lizzy shot him in the right shoulder. He fell back against
shelves of tobacco and bottles of whiskey behind the counter.
"Let me explain," he pleaded.
"There's nothing to explain," she said.
The building shook as the wall of dust and dirt battered it. She shot him again, between the eyes.
He slid to the floor gripping onto his broken glasses.
* * *
The shutters over the hotel's lobby windows shook as the wind and dust smashed into them.
Standing behind the counter, Hurse slurped large spoonfuls of beef soup into his mouth. A thin layer of grease on the top of the
soup had the look of pond scum. After each spoonful he loudly smacked his lips with satisfaction. When Sarah came down the steps
and stood in front of the counter he didn't bother to stop eating.
"My sister let me know you were still in town," she said.
He swallowed a fatty chunk of beef. "Your sister?" he said.
"She arrived here a couple of weeks ago by stage," Sarah said. "I think she stayed here a couple of nights."
"Who's your sister?" he wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
"We're identical twins. I'm surprised you didn't mention her when I checked in."
"I don't really pay attention to what folks look like, although the woman who checked in just before you arrived looked somewhat familiar."
"She's a relative of ours," Sarah said. She raised her hand that she had been hiding in the folds of her skirt. In it was a Webley
Bull Dog Pocket Revolver. She aimed it at his head.
He slowly put the soup spoon into the bowl of soup. "Is this a holdup?" he stammered as his jowls wobbled.
"No, it's not. This is revenge for what you and two other men did to my mother," she said.
"Your mother?" Hurse asked. "Who was your mother?"
"Hannah Carson." She pulled the trigger. As the bullet struck him in the forehead he crashed back against the boxes with the room keys.
Leila came down the stairs carrying her suitcase and Sarah's purple carpetbag.
"Feel better?" she asked Sarah.
"A little," Sarah said.
Leila handed the purple bag to Sarah, then opened the door. The last of the storm blew dirt through the opened door.
* * *
As he slid open the door to the stable, Bliss saw the two women crossing the street heading his direction. Watching the way the
older woman walked, made him realize who she was. He thought about quickly closing the door and locking it, but they both raised
their hands and aimed their guns at him. The closed door wouldn't stop the bullets if they decided to shoot. He raised his hands over his head.
"Why'd you do it?" Leila asked.
"It wasn't me, it was them. They wanted to make sure that land along the overlook wasn't homesteaded," he said. "They planned
on building on it themselves as High Winds got bigger. They figured with Hannah out of the way, her husband would take the children and leave."
"It worked," Leila said.
"You have to believe me, I had nothing to do with it," he said as he backed up and they stepped into the stable.
"You could have stopped it," Leila said, pointing her Colt Walker revolver at his head.
"I tried," he said. "That's how I got this scar on my face. "Dan Blevins said he'd cut my throat if I interfered." He stared at
Leila. "You remember how mean Dan was back then."
"Hold it right there." It was Sheriff McDill. He was standing a few yards behind Leila and Sarah and had his rifle aimed at them.
"Either of you make a move and I won't hesitate to shoot you in the back. Now, turn around."
The two women slowly turned, facing the sheriff.
"What's this all about?" Sheriff McDill asked.
"Hannah," Bliss said. "They've come to settle the score."
"That so?" the sheriff said. "Who are you two?"
"Us three," Lizzy said as she stepped behind the sheriff and put the barrel of her pistol in the middle of his back. "Drop your rifle."
Sheriff McDill turned his head slightly to look at Lizzy. "Hannah had two sons," he said. He raised his rifle.
Just as Leila shot him in the lower back with her revolver, he instinctively pulled the trigger on the rifle. The bullet caught Bliss in the chest killing him instantly.
"Quickly, get the sheriff out of the street," Leila said.
Sarah and Lizzy each took one of his legs and dragged him into the stable and closed the door. He lay on his back, a trickle of blood running out of the side of his mouth.
"Get the hair scissors and our clothes out of the bags," Leila said as she pointed her pistol at his head. "Make sure to put your mother's carpetbag back in the wagon."
"Luke Carson?" Sheriff McDill mumbled looking up at Leila.
Leila nodded. "It took the boys and I six months to grow our hair and learn how to act and sound like females. No one between here and
Kansas City saw or met anyone who fit our real descriptions."
"What now?" the sheriff said.
"We continue on west, and from the look of things High Winds will probably turn to prairie dirt soon enough," Luke said. "What you did to my wife was all for nothing."
"If it's any consolation, Hannah fought like a wildcat the entire time," Sheriff McDill said.
Luke shot him in the head.