"No, Pa! Don't do it!" begged thirteen-year-old Robbie Bancroft. "Don't go shootin' the old man or you'll get hung or go to hell or prob'ly both and Ma and me can't get by without you. Pa! Don't do it!"
"Third time in a month Carter's busted up my fence and let his cows into my pasture," Pa answered with a snarl. "It's got to stop or the next war's goin' to start right here an' I reckon it won't be stoppin' 'til the Platte runs red!"
Al Bancroft, wearing chaps and riding boots didn't loosen his grip on "Old Buck," the Spencer Carbine given to him when his father came back from the Civil War. Now, twenty years later, newer rifles with better ammunition like the Winchester were all the rage. But the Spencer had never let him down and its .52 caliber slug could reduce a fence post to splinters from 100 yards. It could also, as his father used to say, put a hole in a man that even Jesus couldn't heal.
Al was proud of his son, as proud as any father could be, and was already beginning to think of him as a man instead of a boy.
Listen to the boy, he told himself. He's right. I can't shoot the old man . . .
"Hell, Son," he said as his face began to soften from the rage that had driven him to the point of storming out of the house with his rifle, "I'd just as soon shoot the cows but it ain't none of their fault."
The thought of shooting cows turned his fading frown into the first-born hint of a smile.
With a sigh and a slow shake of his head, he set the rifle in the corner next to the front door and sat down on the three-legged stool the boy sat on when he milked their own two cows.
"So," he asked, "what do you think I oughta do? We've been raisin' cattle on this land since afore you were born, near fifteen year. Now folks like old man Carter and Mrs. Sarah are showin' up and layin' claim to 160 acres for homesteadin'. By the time you're old enough to take over the herds, there won't be nothin' left for them longhorns to live on."
"It ain't our land, Pa, and you know it's so. Mr. Phelps in town set me straight on it. He says it's government land and they can do whatever they want and we've got no claim to it."
"Just because it's the law don't make it fair," Pa answered, grimly, "and the government stole it from the Indians anyways so who's to say the government's got a right to it a'tall?"
The heavy thud of hooves mixed with the creak of wagon springs filtered through the thin walls of the Bancroft's home.
Robbie shot a glance through the window.
"It's the Marshal, Pa, and Mrs. Sarah."
Pa stood and picked up the rifle from the floor.
"Not what I'd expect from Carter," he said. "A-sendin' a woman and the Marshal to do the talkin' for himsel'. 'Spect she'll be wearin' the pants and him the petticoats soon enough."
Before he reached for the door he put on his hat-not that he needed it but so he could tip it as a greeting to Mrs. Carter.
"Boy," he added as he stepped onto the porch. "run down to the creek and tell Ma she's got company."
It was the end of May and Al felt the heat of the mid-morning sun as he stepped off the porch.
"G'day, to you, Sarah," he shouted as he touched a finger to the front brim of his hat. "And same to you, Marshal," he added, as U.S. Marshal William Kemper dropped from his horse and landed on the ground with a puff of dust.
As Kemper tied his horse to the water trough, Al helped Sarah down from the wagon, loosed her draft horse from the wagon and tied him up next to the Marshal's.
"Come on in and set a spell," he said as he waved them up the steps and led them into the house. "Molly's down at the creek launderin' but I sent Robbie down to fetch her so she'll be here soon enough."
Al thought it odd that Sarah and the Marshal took seats as far away from each other as possible.
"And while we're waitin', I'll get some water. Makes no sense to provide for the horses without doin' the same for them that rides'em . . . .or drives 'em," he added with a nod to Sarah, "as the case may be."
"That would be right nice of you, Mr. Bancroft, and I do hope I didn't come by at a bad time . . . "
"Here," said the Marshal, as he stood up and shadowed Bancroft out of the room, "let me help."
"What's with you and the Carter woman?" Al asked when he and the Marshal were alone in the kitchen. "Comin' here together, I mean?"
"We didn't come together," the Marshal whispered. "We just happened to show up at the same time from opposite directions."
While Al filled three glasses from a bucket of rainwater, the Marshal continued.
"I don't have all day, Bancroft," he said in a tone of voice that Al took as threatening. "I just want you to know that Carter . . . Mr. Carter . . . filed a complaint with my office sayin' that you've been denyin' him access to public land by puttin' up a fence to keep him and his cows from gettin' in. What do you have to say about it?"
Instead of answering the question, Al handed the Marshal a glass of water and turned to leave the room.
"Now hold on," the Marshal said in a quiet yet commanding voice. "There's more."
Al stopped and turned back to listen.
"In the complaint he says you threatened to shoot him the next time he broke through your fence."
Al shrugged his shoulders and said nothing.
"Did you threaten him or didn't you?"
"I did, and when I said it, I meant it. Now . . . I've got better things to do with Old Buck than waste a bullet on Sam Carter."
"Glad to hear it," said the Marshal, with no attempt to hide the sarcasm in his voice. "And you best be takin' down that fence or else puttin' in a gate to let his cows into that pasture you've been keepin' to yourself."
"And there's nothin' I can do to stop it?"
"Not a thing, less'n you file a homestead claim of your own—one that includes the pasture."
"Well, then," Al replied after chewing on the Marshal's answer for a bit, "then I guess I can't do nothin' about my steers stampedin' his cows or if'n I let loose my bull into the herd. That bull's mighty fond of the ladies, if you catch my drift. After all, it's public land and my herds got as much right to be there as his does."
"Sounds like feudin' to me," the Marshal glared back. "Sam's got a double barrel for huntin' rabbits and you've got Old Buck for God knows what. But you both better let it be and not make things worse than they already are, for yourselves . . . and for me, if you catch my drift."
"Thanks for stoppin' by, Marshal. I'd enjoy talkin' some more but I have to get this water to Sarah a'fore it goes cold."
"You're more full of beans than an old pot," laughed the Marshal as he nodded a passing good-bye to Mrs. Carter before leaving a small trail of dust behind as he rode away.
"Sarah, so good to see you," Molly said as she entered the room with Robbie following behind.
"Here's some water for the thirsty ladies," Al said as he offered the two glasses he still held in his hands. "Enjoy yourselves while Robbie and I finish up some chores."
* * *
"I'm glad you came," Molly said, as she sat down in a chair facing her neighbor. "I can fix some tea if you'd like. I'm afraid I'm all out of biscuits."
"I'm fine with the water, and I didn't come all this way to eat biscuits, either. I'm here because I'm worried about the bad blood that's boiling between Sam and Al. I know Al's Pa was Blue and Sam's was Gray, but that's no excuse for starting up the war all over again."
"That may be true," Molly answered, "and I'm worried, too—about the men arguing and all. But I'm not so sure it has to do with what side they were on. Al feels as if his life's work—building up the herd and marketing it in Omaha—is going to be taken from him by homesteaders like you and Sam. That's not saying you've done anything wrong—the law is on your side and you're working hard to make a living out of that sorry sod house you've got."
"So, then," Sarah asked, "what are we going to do about it?"
* * *
"What did the Marshal want?"
"Same as you—warnin' me not to go shootin' anybody."
"Ma's got a book about Abe Lincoln."
"What's that got to do with anything?"
"It tells how Lincoln is asked why he treats his enemies so kindly instead of destroyin' them."
"And?" Pa asked.
"So Lincoln says, 'Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?'"
"Come on, boy. Out with it. You're tryin' to say somthin' but you're not sayin' it."
"Pa, a while back you asked what we should do about Mr. Carter, and I got to thinkin' about it when I was runnin' to fetch Ma and it hit me hard that what if you and Mr. Carter decided to be friends. And instead of arguin' and fightin' over the land you became partners and worked out some way to share it—the land, I mean—and maybe that would be good for both of you."
"It's too late for that," Pa replied. "Before he came along and made his claim, I was already usin' his land for the water—now he's got more water than I do. Hell, I was fixin' to build a mill alongside that stream until he stole it from me. Now all we've got is the creek."
"There you go, Pa. Think about it You give him somethin' and he lets you build a mill on his stream and then you slap each other on the back instead of stabbin' each other all the time."
Pa stood frozen in place as if he were suddenly lost in a dream.
"And Mrs. Carter," Robbie added, "she's nice and Ma needs a friend and they're the closest neighbors we've got, so why not?"
"Why not?" Pa asked in a whisper so soft that it took Robbie a few seconds to figure out what his Pa had said.
* * *
"Where are you going, boys?" Molly asked as her husband and son walked through the front room and headed out the door.
"We're gonna build a gate, Ma," Robbie said excitedly. "We're gonna put it in the fence right across from the Carter's place, the same as where Mr. Carter's been breakin' it down to get into our pasture."
"Robbie?" asked Sarah, "While you're there would you or your Pa be so kind as to tell Sam that he's eating here at your place tonight at seven. That would save me driving all the way there and back again."
"Yes'm," Robbie answered with a grin. "And what's for dinner?"
The two women looked at each other and began laughing.
"For some reason, Sarah and I both have a hankering for biscuits."
"And gravy," Sarah added with grin of her own.
* * *
That evening at seven o'clock, two Carters and three Bancrofts sat down to eat dinner together.
Before they ate, Al Bancroft offered a prayer, thanking God for the food and asking God to bless it.
Then, before he said, "Amen," he repeated the same prayer. But this time, as he gave thanks, it was not for the food, but for his neighbors and new friends, the Carters.