If there was anything good about the drought, it was that you could see a man coming from miles away.
Jed Harper had watched the dust cloud move across the Kansas prairie for a good quarter hour, and he knew what it was about. One of his neighbors had finally run their well dry and remembered the stories about how deep and strong Jed’s own water supply was.
“What’s going on, Daddy?”
Outside, Frank Harris drew his paint to a stop and swung out of the saddle. Ned pulled his head back behind the window frame but kept his pistol trained on the visitor. He looked over his shoulder at Grace.
The girl stood in the middle of the cabin, clutching her raggedy doll. Fear and innocence smoothed her face.
“Don’t say a word!” Jed held a finger to his lips, then motioned for Grace to move toward the back of the house.
Boots scuffled across the hard earth outside, stopped at the front door.
“Jed? Jed Harper … you in there?”
Jed slid silently across the dusty floorboards and flattened himself against the wall next to the door. He aimed his gun at the spot where he figured Frank’s head was. Jed didn’t want to hurt anyone, but desperate times made men do desperate things, and Jed was going to protect his family.
“Jed, we lost one of our cows yesterday. We don’t have much water over at our place, and I’ve had to cut back on the livestock’s portions just to make sure Martha and the kids get theirs.”
Here it came. Frank was going to ask for water, and when Jed refused, there would be a scuffle. Truth was, even the deepest wells were choking, and Jed feared for his own family’s well-being.
“Well, anyways,” Frank said after a pause, “weren’t a whole lot of meat on the poor animal, but we were able to salvage some flanks, and the round”
Something thudded on the porch, and Jed thought Frank was fixing to bust through the door. Jed pulled the hammer back on his revolver and set himself, ready to fire.
But then … boots scuffling across the dirt again, heading away from the little farmhouse this time. And then the sound of hooves beating against the hard earth. Jed chanced a glance out the window, and he could see Frank Harris riding off the way he’d come.
When the dust ball that was his neighbor faded to a smudge on the horizon, Jed lowered his pistol and eased open the front door, still half expecting Frank to bull-rush him. There was no one in sight, but on the stoop were piled a few blood-soaked packages, wrapped in tattered old cloth and tied off with strands of tumbleweed.
Jed recognized the shapes — beef flanks and round.
“Is everything alright, Daddy?”
Jed’s face softened, and he turned to smile at Grace who was peeking out from the back room.
“Everything’s fine, sweetheart,” he said, a mixture of guilt and gratitude washing over him. “Just a friendly neighbor come by to check on us, is all.”