The front door of the sheriff’s office banged open and a massive form called Emma blocked out the sun. A screeching grunt and fumbling commotion made me turn and I caught sight of my deputy fleeing out the back door, his overturned chair left spinning on the hardwood floor. Damned coward. I thought the back door was stuck. It didn’t take him long to fix it.
Emma’s strident voice brought my attention back. I’d just received a slat-backed office chair and was trying it out. I found it in a catalog over at the mercantile and the stage brought it late yesterday evening, along with several hand-delivered ribald and unsavory comments. The chair was made special with wheels on its legs and I liked the hell out of it. Took me two months to get it. I figured to charge two-bits a ride, kids were free for a once-around. It even had arms on it so you wouldn’t get throwed.
The only trouble with it so far? The old building housing my office didn’t have a square corner in it and when they put in the wooden floor—well, level wasn’t a real concern. I kept drifting, one way or another. The heaviest thing in the room, not counting Emma, was the pot-bellied stove. The way it made the floor sag I’d have to be careful in the winter.
The woman seemed to have no thought for my chair riding ability and didn’t waste time. “Sheriff Bennett. I’m glad you’re finally in your office. It would be easier to find you if you’d stay put occasionally and keep regular hours.”
I’m not easily startled, but that took the cake. She’d found me every day for a week. And as county sheriff, my job would be defined as being out of the office. That’s where all the miscreants and ne’er-do-wells are. Out there. Hiding in the bushes.
Holding up a placating hand, I tried reason. “Missus Arnold, you called me Billy every day last week. You might as well keep using my first name. Now what’s your new problem today?”
She pulled a small man around from behind her and I wondered who else she was hiding. I started to roll my chair to get a better angle when she spoke. “Tell him Samuel.”
Samuel was about half the size of his wife, a phenomenon I’d seen before. I always looked closely for bruises, but never found any on him. I shouldn’t be suspicious. I’m sure she’s the sweetest thing on earth.
He sure was jumpy. If you came up behind him and poked him in the ribs, he’d jump about two feet in the air. Some of the boys had taken to coming up behind him on the street and setting off firecrackers. Jumpy. I needed to catch those boys because the noise was hard on horses. We had a couple run off. One had Arnold on it.
He took his hat off and worried the brim a little. “Well, Sheriff, Emma thinks that witch is at it again.”
It was a morning for contemplation. The most wonderous thing is how ideas get started—good and bad. Most folks hold their opinions to themselves. Seems the ones we don’t want to hear are always proclaimed the loudest. The dangerous thing disturbing my contemplation is that these people were serious and that was disturbing. There’s no amount of trouble that can come from people who convince themselves in their own stupidity and follow their new-found belief in righteous indignation. I studied them close as I practiced my reply. My lips may have moved some.
Emma gasped. “There’s more than one?”
In a practiced move, both turned to the side and spit between their fingers. Hers landed first but she’s a lot bigger—more power.
She turned back to me with a triumphant stare. “I knew it. We have an infestation.”
Visions of broom-handled harridans in black hats flooding into town flashed across my mind. Maybe it was time I took up drinking. Moments passed before I could speak. Flummoxed is a big word but it was adequate for the moment.
“Did you spit on my floor? You can’t run around here spitting willy-nilly. Are you possessed or just addled? ” They both shrugged in unison, although Arnold was edging around to stand behind her again. “It’s to keep from being hexed.”
“Hexed?” I tried a calming, deep breath—didn’t work. “You just spit on my floor. I’m the county sheriff and you just spit on my floor. That kind of disrespect cannot be tolerated. I could arrest and jail you for that and I don’t have keys.”
She leaned to the side, trying to see into the back toward the jail. “You don’t have locks on the cells?”
“Oh, I have locks—just no keys.” The building’s architect, along with an aversion to square and level, must have had a strange sense of humor—or, forgot to order keys. The only locksmith around was a tinker that roamed the hills fixing watches, or about anything needed fixing. So far, he hadn’t been around. Emma gave me a look she must reserve for recalcitrant children and husbands. “We should spit more. It’ll help soak up the dust.”
Conceding the point, I settled back into my chair, steepling my fingers as I stared at them. I anchored one leg to keep from drifting away. “Listen to me. I don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish, but there are no witches around here. There are no witches anywhere. No witches. None. Period.”
It looked like neither would accept my proclamation. I expelled air in the sigh of the eternally oppressed, shaking my head. I was starting to get a headache. “Alright. I’m going to hate myself for this, but why do you think there’s a witch working in my county?”
Emma puffed herself up and started to speak until I held up my hand. “You tell me, Samuel.”
He stood straight, about shoulder high to his wife. His oversized hat stuffed full of paper covered his ears. A drooping mustache made him look like a miniature Mexican bandit, at least like the dime novels described them. He wore an old dragoon horse pistol that Emma would have to help him draw from his holster. I don’t know how he pulled the hammer back. Maybe it was just for show.
His thin voice was indignant. “Our milk cow is dry again. And we can’t find a couple of our pigs.”
My face twitched. When I tried to stop, it got worse. My left eye started to leak water. “Your cow went dry?”
I sounded like the village idiot to my own ears. I’m not sure I could fix that. Or convince myself that I wasn’t. It was too bad the deputy ran away. At least he’d have been a witness to this conversation.
“Do I have to explain this to a farmer? Cows stop giving milk after a certain length of time, and then they need to get cozy with their favorite bull again. It’s the way life is, unless you’re a lizard.” I paused a moment. “By the way… where is your bull, Samuel? I know you have one.”
His hat was not going to survive this encounter and some of the paper stuffing fell out. “Uh, he ran off.”
“Well, I’ll be damned. You mean that falling down joke of a split rail fence you keep working on didn’t keep in a two-thousand-pound bull? I find that hard to believe. You do know that Jerseys are skittish and head-strong—the bulls doubly so? You can’t tell what they’re going to do from one moment to the next and they’re dangerous because of it. The only way you can keep him close is with a rope and a nose ring. You should know that.”
I was raised in these hills and knew it was an unfortunate fact that superstition always trumped logic, so the next comment didn’t disappoint me.
“We’re thinking that witch ran him off. It’s what they do.”
“How do you know that? Are you the town expert on witches?” If there was a book on witchery, I needed to get it and study hard. I could be missing something. “You’re thinking a witch, who probably spent years in training, would waste their valuable time running your livestock around? You don’t think there are more important things they could do?”
I shook my head at them. “For your information, your bull is visiting over at Fred Hansen's place taking care of his cows. Fred appreciates the loan and told me you can come and get your bull anytime next week—the week after at the latest. He should be finished visiting Fred’s herd by then. And before you ask… I have no idea where your pigs are. There are plenty of those razorbacks out in the hills, go grab some new ones.”
Both were silent long enough for me to stand up and look official. Maybe this encounter was over. I moved my pistol belt to a more comfortable position. Some days you feel like you gotta shoot something just to watch it blow up.
“Is there anything else?” I should have left with the deputy. Predictably, there is always something else.
“Well.” Emma put her hand on Sam’s shoulder for support. “Tall Johnson, you know—lives over on Bitter Creek? Something keeps turning his horseshoe over. He keeps it nailed over his door, pointed up so his luck doesn’t run out. That leads to some dire problems. He’s feeling poorly and his crops ain’t doing so good.”
“Dire?” I nodded. It looked like an easy day for problem solving. “I know old Tall and don’t doubt your word on that for one minute. He couldn’t find luck in a field of four-leaf clovers. But he has two problems, other than being the worst farmer I’ve ever heard of.”
“The first problem, he hardly ever leaves the tavern. He feels bad because he’s always drunk or hung over. His wife does all the work around the farm. And Emily is no bigger than a pound of soap so can’t do the heavy stuff. But she’s a worker and tries real hard.”
“The second thing? He’s trying to grow crops in the shade on rocky ground. If he wants to raise corn, he needs to find some land with sunshine on it and dirt you can’t use for cannon balls. He can’t raise enough corn to feed the racoons. Is that it? Anything else?”
Emma examined every wall except the one behind me. The spiders were already hiding out in the corners, except for the ones running up and down my spine. She interrupted my yearning glance toward the back door.
“There is one other thing, but it’s embarrassing for a lady to speak of.”
I flinched at that obvious misconception. My fingers drummed on the walnut grip of my pistol and I sat down before I did something foolish.
“I’ll try and control myself. If it gets too delicate, I’ll hold my ears. So, please. Trot it out.” I was curious how such a large person could have such tiny eyes that never settled on anyone. Except now. Her gaze pinned me with a level stare.
Taking a deep breath, she continued. “There’s dancing going on.”
My face twitched again. “Oh, no.”
Words broke uninvited from my mouth and I guess my tone gave me away. “You mean like with instruments, singing, and such?”
“You don’t believe me?” Her eyes bulged and her voice screeched. “Someone saw women dancing in the woods yesterday evening. They said those women didn’t have enough clothes on to wad a shotgun. It was awful.”
My feet slammed to the floor from their lofty perch on my desk. “Who was it? Where did this happen?”
Samuel got caught up in the excitement. “They weren’t rightly sure. It was getting on dark and I guess they didn’t notice any faces.”
“So, you have witnesses that don’t know their own names, or those of the dancers? And they couldn’t remember where it happened? Sounds like they lost their minds.”
I thought a moment. “Wait. Is Wiley Odoms spreading his corn squeezins around again? He’s got to start aging it more than a couple of days. A man I know swears on a stack of bibles he drank a jar of that and woke up in the woods holding a half-eaten bear leg—hair and all. Did you know the blacksmith uses that stuff to start up his fire?”
But, naked dancing? In my county? Finally, something I could investigate. And I do love a good mystery. I stood and offered to shake their hands.
“As upstanding citizens, I appreciate you letting me know about this. I’ll get right on it folks. You have my word as the Bennett County Sheriff.” The looks they gave me were not encouraging. After they slammed the front door, Deputy Jones came slinking in through the back. He gave up trying to close the warped door and left it to swing open.
My new chair was developing a squeak. “Jones, have you been messing with Tall’s horseshoe again?”
His feet scuffed the floor, but I could see him smiling. “Aw, come on, Billy. It’s so easy. He only has one nail in it. We kind of use it for a signal. When the horseshoe is pointing up, I know he’s home.”
“And when it’s down, he knows someone’s been there.” I shook my head. “Well stop it. He’s going to figure it out someday and shoot your ass for trespassing and sneaking around his place. You’ll cause a scandal, or something.”
Jones grinned at me. “Emily thinks it’s kind of funny.”
“And that’s the other reason you need to stay away. In case you forgot, Emily is his wife. Now, I understand Tall is a drunk and hardly ever home to work his land proper—I know that. But I figure he’s the one should be plowing his fields and he still knows how to make a gelding out of a stallion. And no one would blame him. Are you hearing me?”
“Sure.” He shrugged. “You’ll need some help investigating those dancers. I’ll be glad to help.”
I tried to keep my gaze stern. “Nope. That’s something I’ll have to do. It’s my job, you know.”
Sometimes it’s hard to keep the peace. And I’ll admit my idea of peace isn’t always the same as other folks. I don’t believe in meddling with people’s business unless they’re harming someone else. Most people know me, and some might call me a traitor. But not to my face. I had a reputation for being a pretty good scrapper before I left home and folks remembered that. Some had to be re-educated.
I fought with the Third Arkansas Cavalry Regiment which was about the dumbest thing I’ve ever done. I vowed early on not to shoot at anyone I knew but it’s hard to ignore Minie balls coming at you like a cloud of hornets. About the only thing that misadventure got me was a shoulder wound picked up Jenkin’s Ferry that hurts when it rains, and a job as the county sheriff. If I’d fought for the Secession no job would be available and the Federal Government would steal any land I had—which I didn’t.
I applied for the job when we mustered out of the army. Me being a Union soldier went along with their idea of reconstruction and occupation so that greased the wheels—along with no one else wanting the job. It didn’t hurt that the county already had my name. It was a small county, mostly uphill and down, with one settlement sitting in a notch between the highest peaks. Since most travel funneled through the pass, the town prospered.
When my appointment came from Fort Smith, the first thing I did was send the Federal soldiers high tailing it out of there. They grumbled and cussed but they went. You might put it down to how mean I am, but you’d be wrong. I just reminded them our county was small and poor. There were easier pickings other places.
There was wealth in Bennett’s Pass, but it was hard to find for an outsider. And it’s been my observation that mountain folk are obstinate. They’re full of life and love. But if there’s a scab—don’t pick at it. Outside folks don’t recover from meddling in mountain affairs.
Riding a rolling chair on a sloping floor is hard work and my belly was grumbling so, leaving my deputy in charge of the office, I stepped outside thinking about lunch. Our town is small enough to survey the street with a couple of glances. But a glance could never harness the intrigue an observant man could see.
One end of the street sported the Mountain Goat Saloon and Billiard Parlor. I asked once about the goat part but didn’t receive a satisfactory answer—in fact no answer at all, just a stare. And it’s a blank stare. They think I don’t know. A local group from deep in the hills call themselves Mountain Goats. They sell their product to the saloon—unrefined and fresh. One drink and you know why they call it skullbuster. Or block and tackle whiskey. Take one drink and you’ll walk a block and tackle anything. But I keep watch on them. Most of the trouble hereabouts walked through their doors on a regular basis. Walking in. Staggering out.
A mercantile selling everything from bullets to shovels was across the street, along with a dressmaker and clothing store. And they make hats. We have fine hats in our town. If they sell it to you, they’ll clean and re-shape it for you after it’s been sat on, run over, stomped on or caught in a turkey stampede. They even repair bullet holes. And free of charge. Everyone bought at least one of their hats because that hatmaker is talking about moving to Texas. Why worry about hats? It’s a town badge, a rite of passage. Dirty, beat-up hats spelled stranger and usually trouble.
My side of the street had the sheriff’s office, a barber shop and the Rest in Peace bathhouse. A husband and wife team ran that establishment. They’d alternate depending on what clientele came through their doors. The building sat atop a warm spring that bubbled up and then ran off down the valley. Using an aqueduct system invented by the ancient Romans, I took Herbert’s word on that one, they had hot water for private rooms. The first part of the week was reserved for men and the women used it the rest of the time. There was a soapy run-off going down the valley, but it didn’t seem to hurt anything. We may be poor, but we’re clean.
That the apothecary in the building next to the bathhouse dispensed medicinal concoctions probably didn’t have anything to do with resting in peace and comfort. Probably. But they always had a cure for what ails you. They may have been closely related to the Mountain Goats. Their medicine didn’t cure your malady, you just forgot you had it.
Seeing no excitement on the street, except for a buzzard keeping lonely vigil on a hitching post, I walked down to Etta Mae’s place. Before entering I glanced back at that buzzard. It seemed to be waiting. Evil portent? Lost and tired? Dunno. Don’t know who to ask.
Etta Mae was a single woman who put on a simple fare for folks passing through and townsfolk that didn’t want to go home and cook. After a meal of fried chicken with the fixings and a slice of dried apple pie covered in cream, I sat back in my chair thinking about life in general and naked dancers. My assumption was that they were all female—I refused to think of any alternative.
And skeeters. And chiggers. I should look for women with enough bites on them to look like they had the pox. Mountain country is one of the reasons clothes were invented—it was scratchy country. Or I could look for missing women. Some of our skeeters are large enough to carry off a small woman or child.
Maybe I needed some help. I sure didn’t want to waste valuable time. This needed to be solved quick so it didn’t get out of hand. The only drawback? All the clues I needed to see would be covered by clothing.
Etta Mae was a good-looking woman, unencumbered with menfolk. Maybe that was why. We had several ladies around town in that circumstance, but the war did that to us. Many of the local men didn’t come home for one reason or another. Some died, some left for parts unknown. I can’t figure what they’d find in other places that would be better, but some cannot ignore the quest for adventure.
She was as big an attraction as her cooking. With hair so light colored it was almost white, soft brown eyes and near flawless skin, some came to drink coffee and watch her. She didn’t seem to mind if they were a paying customer. I could tell she knew I wanted to speak with her because she kept watching me—kind of like I’d watch a hothead and troublemaker in the saloon.
The room had emptied out of customers when Etta Mae ambled over to my table with a coffee pot and extra cup. She sat down and poured herself a cup, staring at me the whole time while hitting the cup dead center. I couldn’t do that on my best day.
When I returned from the war, I’d made some eyes at her—thinking I should settle down with a good woman. After she asked if I had some sort of affliction, I quit doing that. She seemed to appreciate it. Upshot is, we became good friends. I don’t know why she’s unattached, and she hasn’t enlightened me on that subject. Some things you don’t ask if you want to keep your head attached to your shoulders.
Her voice was butter smooth and made the hair on my neck stand up and wave. “What’s going on with you, Billy? You seem to be mulling over some weighty problem.”
I saw no reason to delay my investigation. And there was no way to sugar-coat this. “You are friends with most of the women-folk around, aren’t you?” She nodded, getting a wary look about her. “Most, not all.”
“You know Emma Arnold? She’s reporting some witchy things going on. You heard about any of that?” I watched her real close and noticed a tightening around her eyes.
Etta Mae snorted into her coffee cup, and then used her apron to wipe her face. “Pot calling the kettle black, don’t you think? That woman’s a witch in the oldest sense of the word.”
I couldn’t argue with that. “There’s also a report of women dancing naked in the forest.” I grinned at her. “You do understand it’s my sworn duty to investigate that.”
We always seemed to be comfortable together. Her gaze was taunting as she grinned right back at me, the afternoon sun highlighting little blond curls escaping the white cap she wore while cooking and making shadows in the dimples of her cheeks. You might call her fetching. Pretty wouldn’t do her justice with those brown eyes staring at me. Be nice if she would blink, though. At least, occasionally. We took another sip of the black liquor called coffee.
“Why, Billy Bennett. It must be awful having to investigate something like that. I don’t know how you stand it.” She slipped into a southern accent, bringing visions of antebellum homes set amid trees adorned with Spanish moss. And yes, I’d seen them. “I just cannot imagine the trials and tribulations you face being the county sheriff. But then, you were always strong. Are you getting anywhere with your quest?”
“Nope. I just heard about it today.” I wanted to roll my eyes, but it would have ruined the stern look I projected as I shook my head. She didn’t seem impressed. “Look. We can have some fun talking about this, but you know the people around here as well as me. This could have a serious side. There’s some… well, peculiar folks about.”
“Peculiar?” She gave a quick look around and seeing the cafe was empty, relaxed in her chair. “Look at it this way. It’s the middle of summer. You know it gets so hot in here sometimes it’s hard to breathe. The only breeze we can get is if I hold a chicken in the air and let it try to fly away. I can fry an egg on a flat rock, if it’s out in the sun. All those old sayings apply here because they’re true. Just think about how nice it would be, say after a nice swim in some cool, limestone spring, to just dance and enjoy the sunshine until you’re dry all over. You can stand and breathe in the smell of jasmine and honeysuckle. Pine trees release their scent at sunset, do you remember? Of course, you do. It smells so clean and fresh. You ever think about that?”
“I’m starting to get my mind around it.” I felt an urge to loosen my shirt collar and hoped she didn’t think I had a fever. “To be honest, I doubt if I will think of anything else for a good, long while.”
“You’re always honest. It’s one of the things I like about you.” She looked pointedly at me as she scratched at her side. “Well, there’s no harm done by it. Not a bit. Is there?” She smiled at me again, bigger this time. “Not that I’d know anything about that kind of goings-on.”
It took me a moment to figure out how to answer that, distracted by her scratching, and I don’t know if I got it right. We were having fun with this, but it could be a serious matter. If a dozen people look at any one occurrence, there will be a dozen opinions about what went on. Some could be harmful.
“I wouldn’t want anyone to get hurt, Etta Mae. For whatever reason. Some might not understand it. There are folks in these hills that haven’t been twenty miles from home. Ever. Some of their opinions haven’t changed in a hundred years.”
A thought occurred to me. “My God, woman. There are Baptists around here. Look, you need to gather your… friends and spread a word of caution.” I stopped and smiled at her. “Not that you would know anything about it, of course.”
“Wait. I’ll help with your investigation.” Etta Mae put her hand on my arm to stop me as I got up to leave. “Here’s what you should do. There’s a nice little spread a couple of miles north of here—down in Cold Hollow. A widow and her sister live there. She might know something.”
My sleuthing was getting somewhere. Etta Mae probably felt the heat from my probing questions and was deflecting to someone else. “Does this widow have a name?”
“Sarah Bray. She bought the old Bronson place early this spring to raise a few horses.” She stopped me again. “And, Billy? She really is a nice lady. And a friend. But you be careful.”
That set me back. “Now, why would I have to be careful?”
“You’re ripe for the picking, Billy.” Her expression turned serious. “You’re an easy-going man and don’t take yourself too serious. I appreciate that and your friendship. But you want more than I can give. I’m thinking you have a lot more experience dealing with men than women. You’ve been sidling up to me for a while, so I know you’re looking for something more permanent. But Sarah has a way about her and she’s looking for someone too. You might say she’s waiting for the right man to come calling. So, I wouldn’t want you to go there unless you want to be caught.”
I gave her the saddest look I could come up with. “No chance for us? Not even a little bit?” I wasn’t sure what I’d do if she changed her mind but thought I’d ask. It was the polite thing to do.
She shook her head, meeting my gaze. “You wouldn’t understand, but no.”
An easy-going man? Maybe. I do believe it’s easier to walk the valleys than trudge the peaks. So. The widow Bray? Caught? Well now. I have some wiles of my own. I said my goodbyes, wondering why Etta Mae would be so shy about commitment. And wondering how my light-hearted quest had turned serious. It wasn’t how I thought my day would go. *** I left a note at the office telling Jones to hold down the fort and that I’d be gone all day. He should be fixing the back door, but I suspect he’s helping Emily Johnson inspect horseshoes.
No one calls my deputy by his first name. Why any sane parent would name a boy-child Herkle I’d never know. For all that, he was a good enough man and passable deputy if his practical jokes didn’t get him killed. I gave it even money.
I’d never been to the old Bronson place that the widow bought. All I knew was a general location—north of town and a little west. But that was enough for someone raised in hill country. After a mile or so, the trail jogged to the right and I went left, following a trace through the hills. It was just wide enough to hold wagon tracks. Any sign of recent travel was lost in the spongy leaf-covered forest floor.
The morning was glorious, and it was days like this that I knew why I’d come home after the war. Dappled sunlight painted the ghost of a trail that I traveled. Leaves from seasons past muffled our progress and I could hear a mockingbird in the distance trying out some new notes. I wished he’d get it right, because he was off-key on most of them. If I had a flock of them singing at once, I could get any criminal to confess—even if they were innocent. It was such a beautiful day I felt like whistling just to mess with him.
Trying to figure out that bird’s tune, which switched from imitating tree frogs to a strangled crow, I didn’t pay as much attention as I should on the trail and got surprised. Rounding a limestone outcropping, I stumbled on a curious sight. It would have been funny—if not so serious.
A woman stood in the back of a buckboard. Her black hair shining in the sun had a life of its own. Bright, blue eyes settled on me as I rounded the rock. The sun picked this spot to shine through the canopy of leaves overhead, holding the woman in a golden halo. The only discordant note was the rope around her neck and hands tied behind her back.
“You!” Her voice was soft but carried well. A surprised expression gave way to pleasure, and then she smiled at me. Only at me. For a moment it seemed the two of us were alone in that clearing. I’d heard poets, or those that claimed to be, talk of that but never experienced it. Around lonely campfires in the deep woods late at night, whether listening to the hounds give voice to their chase or wounded soldiers wailing in despair, everyone is a poet. I could never get it right.
I took a sudden, deep breath trying to get rid of a spidery feeling making my hair stand up. I’d never seen a woman this beautiful. Fond memories of Etta Mae slunk away without a whimper, as well as the warning she gave. I could imagine her smirking at me, shaking her head.
At the woman’s one spoken word, the people surrounding the buckboard flinched so hard the horses hitched to that wagon got skittish. She was calmer than I would be in that circumstance. Jumping my horse forward I grabbed a bridle and settled them down. Looking around, I wasn’t surprised at the members of the small lynching party.
I centered my gaze on Emma. “I thought you were supposed to burn them.”
She slapped her thigh, startling the impossibly small horse she rode with a triumphant yell. I had to grab those horses again. “That’s what I said. But these girly men don’t have it in them to do it.”
Besides the Arnolds, there were four men. One was Tall Johnson, and I didn’t know the other three. My head shook once as I sighed. How they pulled Tall out of the saloon for this misadventure was a mystery for another day. I backed my horse so I could keep all the party in view.
“Mister Arnold, it would be a kindness to me if you’d untie the rope from the tree, and then let that woman go. We don’t want any accidents here.” When he didn’t move, I pinned him with a level gaze. “Consider that an order.”
Emma raised her hand, intending to lay a quirt on the horses pulling the buckboard.
When you travel around the hills of Arkansas, you’d better go armed. There’s no end to the kinds of critters you can run into, bear and big cats being the friendliest. Some of the hill-folk are cranky. Being prepared, I already had the hammers of my double-barreled coach gun pulled back and we were into ‘can’t miss if you try’ territory.
“I’d hate to shoot a woman, but I could manage it—if I had to. The upside is… it might solve some problems for the community in the future if you go ahead and try. It’s up to you.”
“We’d just shoot you, Sheriff.” I noted the man who spoke, a stranger to me but a face I’d remember. He didn’t have a gun drawn.
“That’s all right. I’ve been shot before. You just do what you gotta do.” I looked back at Samuel and wondered why he was hesitating. Maybe he figured to get rid of two bothersome problems at once? Not that I’d blame him.
“Samuel, right now would be a good time to move.”
He gave me a look that made me think he might be as mean as Emma but finally doing as I asked, even untying her hands.
I glanced at the woman standing in the wagon and asked something I already suspected. “What’s your name?”
“Sarah.” Giving Emma a look that turned the woman pale, she stood rubbing some circulation back into her wrists. “I’m honored to meet you and pleased you’ve been sent to me.”
Well, that was formal. And how would she know that? I hadn’t heard the thrumming of a carrier pigeon to bring her a message. She said it like a pronouncement, which made me curious, but I was too busy to follow up on it. I couldn’t spare her a glance. The three strangers were getting antsy. As I turned to face the three men, I spoke to her again. “You haven’t been harmed in any way, Sarah?”
She was moving around but I still couldn’t give her another glance. “No, sir. I have not… thanks to you. The only harm was in their intentions, but you stopped them.”
I turned my full attention to the others. “You folks go on home. I don’t want to hear any more of this foolishness. I could press attempted murder charges and hold you until the judge comes around, if he ever does, but I’ll let it go… just this once. Now git.”
Tall’s voice was plaintive. “You can’t let her go, Sheriff. She told me I was going to get a boil on my face and die from it. If we hang her the curse goes away.” Emma squirmed like she had a saddle sore in an embarrassing spot while Sarah gave her a little smile.
“Tall, if you kill her you’ll die anyway, and I’ll use the noose you’ve already made to hang you.” If I ever wondered how whiskey could pickle a brain, the evidence called Tall Johnson straddled a horse in front of me. “Now, if she really did lay a curse on you, which I doubt—why would she do something like that?”
A very unladylike snort came from the wagon. “I can answer that question. When he tied my hands, he had his hand up my dress. Way up.”
I shook my head again. I’d noticed him rubbing his face when I rode up on them. “Tall, if you ever get sober, you’d know that’s plumb foolishness. However, I’m betting you could rub a hole in your face if you don’t quit. If it gets infected, that could be a problem. But that’s on you, not her.”
Wheeling her horse in the small clearing, Emma had a parting shot. “Don’t let her look directly at you, Sheriff. You’ll be hexed, if you ain’t been already. It’s what they do.”
The Arnolds and Tall Johnson rode away slinging righteous dirt-clods from their horse’s hooves, but I stopped the three strangers from leaving. They had a nervous look about them.
“Where are you boys from?”
I still had that Greener cocked and they didn’t quite know what to do about it. It didn’t need to be aimed, just pointed in their general direction. “Just so there aren’t any misunderstandings, did you notice how the ends of the barrels on this shotgun are kinda flattened? It was made for riot control in prisons. The barrels spread the pellets out sideways in a big hurry and the load is double-ought buckshot. It ain’t for hunting birds.”
One man finally found his voice. “We’re from up in Missouri. Just friendly folk looking about for a place to light for a while.”
Their clothes were dusty, and the tired-looking horses crusted in sweat. Bedrolls and slickers hid heavy saddlebags. Looked like they were on the move. I nodded to them.
“You know, I’ve heard fairy tales since I was knee-high to a short frog. And I think I just heard another one. How’d you happen to be here, helping the Arnold’s on their witch hunt? Did you just happen by?”
Their spokesman was the man who’d threatened me. “That’s right. We just rode up on them, same as you. Hadn’t quite decided on what to do about it when you showed up.”
“It didn’t look like you were objecting much.” I contemplated them a moment. The sound of the woman climbing over the seat of her wagon came to me, but I kept my attention on these men. They’d done nothing wrong, that I knew of. I just didn’t like their looks. There was another kind of spidery feeling running up and down my spine—far different than that caused by Sarah.
“All right. Here’s how we’ll play this. About a short day’s ride in any direction will get you out of my county. I’d take it as a personal favor if you’d see how quick you can make that trip. And you get to pick the direction.”
The man tried to bluster. “We done nothing wrong—”
I held my hand up to stop him. “Oh, I’m sure you’ll remedy that given enough time, you’ve got the look—just, not in my county. You can take your mischief elsewhere.”
An explosion echoed through the valley, rustling the leaves around us, seeming to come from up the mountain.
“What was that?”
Head shaking, I didn’t take my gaze from them. “Probably the Mountain Goats. I told them they shouldn’t put black powder in their skull buster. The strychnine gives it enough kick for anyone. They never listen.”
After giving me the stinky stare, they ran out of reasons to stay and I was glad to see them turn their horses and ride away. Armed with rifles and handguns, a lot of handguns as most border guerrillas carried them during the war, they still didn’t want to argue with that double-barrel shotgun at short range. That was wise on their part. It would take saints and sinners alike and I’m sure their horses were grateful. I didn’t know those men, but I knew their type. I’d stay wary of ambush for a while.
“It might have been better to shoot them.”
Her soft voice was tight and angry. I decided right then not to low-rate this woman. She looked gentle, but I had an idea I didn’t want to see the other side of her disposition.
The last thing I wanted on my mind was fabric and color but dressed in a blue cotton blouse and gray, pleated skirt she looked like a beautiful painting perched on the seat of that wagon. Reaching beneath her, she brought out a long-hooded bonnet, put it on her head and tied the strings under her chin. Somewhere I’d lost control of my mouth—maybe my senses. “Seems a shame, covering up that hair.”
She glanced at me, startled and curious. Her look softened and it took but a moment for that bonnet to come off. “Whatever you wish, Billy.” Well that sounded… I shook my head. How the hell did she know my name? “How did all this come about, Sarah? What brought you and the Arnold’s together?”
Her shrug was expressive and slow. “I was going to Tall’s place to talk with Emily. We’re thinking of having a party in a week or so. I didn’t get very far, did I? I can’t believe Tall treated me like he did. He’s never shown me disrespect before.”
Her attention seemed to wander a moment before she turned to me. “You know anyone plays the fiddle? Or, a guitar?”
I hesitated a moment at the abrupt shift. “There’s a few around. I’d bet there’s a fiddle stashed under the bed in almost every cabin in these hills. Etta Mae would know of them.” I glanced at her. “I’ve been playing second fiddle most of my life.”
It disturbed me that she could follow my train of thought when I never knew its intent before it left my mouth.
“Not anymore, Billy. Not anymore.”
She didn’t seem to mind me watching her, holding a little smile on her face as she met my gaze. This was a rarely beautiful woman. Far too pretty for the likes of me. To be honest, she gave me an unbalanced feeling like I couldn’t quite find steady ground. I’d felt like that once before in the Louisiana swamps where the hummocks of earth seemed to be floating on water. People that lived there called them quakies and horses would stand spraddle-legged until someone led them off.
“You should carry a weapon.” I took off my hat and wiped the headband with a handkerchief. “There are bad people out in these hills on occasion. I’m thinking we just met three of them.”
Her laugh was soft. “Just three? I wouldn’t put a chance on any of the six.”
I enjoyed watching her another moment. It could get to be a habit. “I’m curious. When I rode up, you seemed surprised it was me. Were you expecting someone else?”
She shrugged. “I knew someone would come. That’s the only reason I let them treat me the way they did. We’ll be equally yoked the rest of our lives. That it was you, surprised and pleased me. Etta Mae said you gave up on women when she turned you down.”
Sarah laughed. “She’s always thought well of herself and I think she’s wrong. You’re a handsome man, Billy Bennett.”
Well, this was a bit sudden. Equally yoked? That phrase she threw in surprised me. I’d read my Bible too. That it came from someone suspected of being a witch was unsettling. I didn’t think they were big on the Bible. Then again, I could be wrong.
“Well, I did give up on romancing Etta Mae. Let’s say I did some retreating and contemplating. But we’re still good friends. Who told you someone would come?”
Evasion wasn’t a good look for her, but she surely dodged the question. “I just knew.”
We sat in the near silence of the forest looking at each other. I’d seen other people do that, but they’d been married for a lot of years. It’s hard to lock gazes with someone for any length of time without some sort of embarrassment setting in—the gaze darts away, only to come back after losing the staring contest. There was none of that. It was more searching, curious about a new-found interest.
That same off-key mockingbird had followed me around, and a squirrel barked nearby—could have been the bird. Wind moaned through nearby pine trees bringing the smell of far-off rain.
I sat relaxed as a cat in sunshine. And if I was a cat, I’d have run out of lives a long time ago. Curiosity seems to be a curse, but I wasn’t ready to let it go. There seemed to be much at stake and I wanted to know why.
“Are you one of those fortune tellers? Can you tell the future? I’m only asking, mind you, because I’m short of cash and don’t know whether to start gambling or rob a bank.”
Her laugh was a beautiful sound and unrestrained. “This is going to be fun. No, you don’t need to do any of that. Not that you would—you’re too good of a man.”
I watched the trail the three men took, wishing we were under cover. And a good man? Right then I knew she was lacking education. “Maybe you haven’t talked to the right folks. Some would disagree with you.”
“Maybe.” She gave her raven hair a slow shake, using her fingers to comb it from her eyes. “That damned war robbed us of a lot. You of your innocence—me of a husband. It left many of us broken and searching for our proper way in life. But we can recover from our hardship. I believe that.”
I’d been staring into her eyes a long time. Too long? Maybe Emma Arnold was right. “Are you putting a spell on me?”
She laughed again. “That’s obvious don’t you think. You are a little slow about some things.”
Can’t argue that. I like things spelled out. “Why? You don’t know me. I told you I’m not a good man, at least not one any decent woman would want. You’re wasting your time. Perhaps I’m just a distraction? Something to spice up a dull day? A dalliance?”
“Nonsense.” She fluffed out her hair and then fingered errant curls away from her eyes again. I was detecting a habit. “You’re an old soul, Billy. You have no idea what you are or can do. It’s important to have someone at your side for guidance.”
Now I was confused, and a little scared. Did I need a keeper? “I’m not really good at being guided. Got a stubborn streak a mile long. Even if I knew what you were talking about, which I don’t—how could you know something like that?”
She shrugged, looking away. That halo of hair seemed to sparkle. “That’s not important right now. I just do. The what is always more important than the why.”
I settled in the saddle, hooking my knee around the saddle horn. “Well, it’s important to me. I have decisions to make. Why things happen helps.” “Decisions?” She studied me a moment and the little smile came back. “Well, that’s different.”
Settling herself comfortably on the seat of the wagon, she picked up and began untying the knotted rope that had graced her neck. Then her direct gaze held my eyes. Her voice changed into an accent I’d only heard once.
“What do you know of England?”
I was startled enough at the change to back my horse a step. “I once served with a man from England, from London to be exact. He was a fine man and a crack shot with any weapon.”
She nodded, coiling the rope and tossing it in the back of the wagon. Continuing, she used another accent that I knew well. “And what do you know of Wales?”
I had to chuckle at that, thinking of a livid face and cursing soldier. “A place that Englishman didn’t like. We didn’t get along much, once he learned my momma was Welsh.”
She seemed to mull that over for a minute, slowly rocking on the seat as she studied me. “And your father?”
I’d had a good time being raised in these hills. Poor, but everyone was. My wave took in the surrounding forest. “He was home grown—right here, as am I.” “Are you sure?”
“Well, we’re all from somewhere else if you go back far enough. Even the Indians took this land from somebody. They didn’t just spring up like a rock.” She watched me—more like inspected me. I began to wish I’d shaved and spruced up a little. “Are they still alive?”
Well, that was a sore subject. “Yes, Ma’am. At least, as far as I know. When I went north to join up, they went south to Texas. I got a letter from them once. They are living on the coast, fishing every day and living the good life—providing you like fish.”
“I must meet your mother. I’m from Wales, too. We’d have many things to talk about. Especially about her boy-child.” She stiffened, and her gaze met mine. “You need to take me home.”
“Why? You got all the way here by yourself.” I thought my quip was disarming… friendly. And I had every intention of taking her home.
Those blue eyes pinned me to my saddle, and I swear the temperature changed. My horse rolled his eyes at me and quivered. Probably had a fly in its ear.
“I can see why you’ve never married. Do you ken the word peckish?”
I sobered some at that, gaze narrowing as I stared at her. “Well, folks around here would call me nettlesome.” The horse shuddered again and looked at me. He had that wanting to get-gone look to him.
She shook her head, and then smiled at me. It was a big smile. “You’re educated. Good. It will make conversation easier for us. But for now, it seems those men you ran off are headed toward my ranch.”
Glad I was educated? One thing I remembered of my father. After an argument with my mother he told me an educated man is more easily led down a path to destruction. Did he mean persuaded?
I was starting to get an inkling.
She led the way, driving the buckboard with single-minded purpose. The trace was narrow, so I lagged. Being away from her allowed me to ponder, although it seemed her thoughts touched me occasionally. Surely, I imagined that.
Being close to her was a distraction. It might take some getting used to. She smelled too good and looked too good. When she talked it seemed every word was so important, I had to drop everything and listen. With few words she seemed to offer something, but I wasn’t prepared to go there on an hour’s notice. Although some might bring up the adage of not looking a gift horse in the mouth.
I don’t believe in witches. I do not. But then, every woman will practice witchcraft in her own way at times and for many reasons. And I suspect some are better at it than others. I’d tried the same thing with Etta Mae with disastrous results. It didn’t take much imagination to hear her laughing over that incident.
Most folks wouldn’t call me educated because we didn’t have schools around. But momma was and she taught me all she could. Although, she seemed to think there were some things my head wasn’t ready for. Our home was filled with books and my mind with stories she told. Papa helped with stories too, always told to make a point, but mostly he farmed and hunted. We never had much but it was a good life for a boy growing up.
The hills around us had as many girls as boys, so I’d been educated a few times that way. It seemed to be a mutual quest at the time. And what that circuit-riding preacher didn’t know wouldn’t get him all riled up to preachify our sins away. Seems about all the hill folk could raise on poor ground with any consistency was children.
What food we had was fetched by hunting and fishing or gathering greens. Anyone starving was too lazy to go find food. It was all around us. Of course, an occasional chicken from a neighbor’s roost wasn’t out of bounds—long as we just took one.
I do have a problem, and I’ve acknowledged it from time to time. Some call it a mean streak. I’d call it being perverse. Peckish? I don’t like to be led. And if I am to do something, I want it to be my choice. I have heard the phrase ‘stubborn as a mule’ applied to me more than I thought proper.
When my folks went south, it wasn’t a peaceful thing. Papa was mad at me for siding with the Union. I couldn’t help it. And it was my parent’s fault. They’d taught me to look at problems in a straightforward manner and take that knowledge to a logical conclusion.
Thinking of the war, I felt the southern states were in the right. The states had every right to secede from the Union by a vote of the people. But they were going to lose the war. For the same reason the Indians would lose their war. It was a game of numbers. The Confederacy would run out of resources while fighting long before the Federals. If every man-jack in the South went off to fight for state’s rights, who was tending the farm? Taking care of family? Raising cattle? Growing food? Fishing?
Men in the northern army thought all southerners owned slaves to tend the farms. I’d never seen one, didn’t know anyone who had slaves—didn’t hold with it anyway. That wasn’t what the fight was about, but most weren’t told that. Toward the end of the war a Union officer asked a Confederate why he was still fighting. The reply was simple. Because this is our land… and you’re on it.
Sarah stopped the wagon and brought me out of my reverie. My mind had gone off on a rabbit trail instead of tending to business. Maybe that was my problem. I was being led and it sure looked inviting. Was it somewhere I wanted to go? I’d known her a mere hour, but it seemed an important decision. I couldn’t see a down-side. Most men I know want hearth and home, or some version of it. She seemed to be offering that in a beautiful package, all tied up with a bow. Why?
Before us lay a small valley. The house and barn nestled up against a bluff that would make a good windbreak in the winter. A few horses swatted their tails at flies as they grazed in a meadow of belly-high grass. The hills around made a natural fence that only the most adventurous horse or cow would try to navigate. Most wouldn’t leave available food and water unless driven. It was a beautiful place.
She spoke quietly, indicating the valley with a nod of her head. “How do you like it, Billy?”
When I replied, I was looking at her. “It’s beautiful. Peaceful. Dangerous.”
Her head whipped around. “I’m not, you know. Especially not to those I hold dear. And never to you.”
She continued. “What about those men down there? If we go down, they’ll want me. I doubt if they’d have let me hang, although that would be preferable to what they had in mind. And we can’t run, they may follow. I keep wondering why you’re a sheriff. Etta Mae says you’re a gentle man with a fine mind, not given to violence. I’ll not have you killed. Let my sister and I take care of this. We have our ways.”
Well now. Was this our first disagreement in our short history? “Etta Mae should have gotten to know me better. I’ll be going down there to have a word with them.”
That hair got messed up again, covering one of her eyes. Guess I knew why she wore a bonnet. “You know. Teach them the error of their ways. Instruct them in proper behavior. Maybe smite them hip and thigh.”
“Are you sure you can… Etta Mae said you always tried to avoid any kind of… never mind. I’m babbling like a little girl. So, we’re going down there? Are you sure you’re alright? You’re looking a little pale.”
Fright? Common sense? Maybe some of both. “Yes, ma’am. I surely am going. It might be better if you stay here. You don’t have to go.”
“Oh, yes. Yes, I do. I left my sister down there.” She grinned at me and her expression was something I’d have to ponder about given that she should be scared. I’d seen cats with that expression—not necessarily predatory, just watching. If she had a tail to twitch…. “I don’t know what you’re after, exactly. But she might be the witch you’re looking for.”
It took a moment to find my voice. “I hope the games you ladies are playing don’t get someone hurt.”
“Games? You think…?” Her hand came to cover her mouth a moment. “Oh, Billy.”
I pointed my horse down the trail toward that house, and she followed close behind. It seemed the temperature dropped, and I shivered. No wonder they called it Cold Hollow. I finally remembered what I’d been told about this place.
There were several springs surrounding the valley. Those springs and pools were so cold you could hardly swim in them, even in the summer. Turtles and frogs were smart enough to stay away. Cold air stays close to the ground and there wasn’t much sunlight on the road to warm it.
She’d seen me shiver and misunderstood. “You should not worry. You need to stay strong and know you’re protected.”
“Protected?” I was already watching the windows for any sign of life in that house. I held the Greener across my saddle and took the loop off the hammer of my pistol. “You know what I’ve learned in my short time on this earth?”
“What?” She raised her voice over the rattle of the wagon and her horses.
“Change is a constant, and we can never understand everything we see. Says that in the Book.”
A cattle stampede couldn’t be noisier than that wagon. I saw a curtain move and my Greener covered that window. We stopped by the front porch. No sound came from inside the house. I started to dismount, but before I could say anything Sarah breezed through the door.
One thing I noticed on the way in. One of the bags hanging over a saddle had Bank of Big Springs printed on it. A large withdrawal of legitimate funds? Doubtful. Maybe they thought we couldn’t read, or just didn’t care who knew? And if they didn’t care…?
When I walked quiet like into that cabin, all eyes were on Sarah and the men looked plumb delighted. They grinned like Santa had just delivered another present for them. The women favored each other enough to be twins except one was tied to a chair. Guess the men were agnostic toward witches. Their guns were drawn but not pointed anywhere in particular. I wondered about that. Seemed careless. Whoever peeked out that window must have only had eyes for Sarah. They didn’t seem to know I was there. And that was more curious. Strange, in fact.
I spoke from the door. “You boys drop those pistols.”
My words seemed to get their attention and brought action. To say they were startled would be an understatement. The man nearest me flinched, bleated in surprise and shot into the floor. By the time I said ‘pistol’ the other two were turning their guns toward me, so I aimed between them and cut loose with the shotgun, thankful the ladies weren’t in the way. One man moved just as I shot and the other turned and dove through a window, glass, casing and all. I don’t know what he hit going through, but one of his legs remained hung up on the windowsill and didn’t quiver. The man that moved first took the full charge and wasn’t going anywhere.
The third man was little more than a boy. As he cocked his pistol again, he dropped it and the gun went off, the bullet slicing me on top of the shoulder before burying itself in the wall behind me. I reached out and tapped him with the barrel of my pistol. He dropped like a sack of potatoes and didn’t move an inch.
The boot hung up in the window was starting to move, so I reached through and grabbed the shirt collar of that man and dragged him inside. I guess he found out a window ain’t that easy to dive through, especially one as well built as this one. His eyes wouldn’t focus on anything and his hat wasn’t going to fit because of the knot on his head.
Helping both men outside, I roped them to the hitching post. When I went back inside Sarah had untied her sister and both stood staring at me—hands folded in front and alike as peas in a pod. With the window broke out and the door open, the powder smoke was almost gone.
The sister spoke first. “Is this the one? He looks kind of… scruffy.”
Sarah spoke after nodding to her sister. “He seems a little sudden, but I do like him.” One eyebrow rose as she studied me. “The violence does surprise me.”
The twin spoke to me as she rubbed the rope burns on her wrists. This was going to be a real problem, because they had the same voice. “You needn’t have done any of that. I had them spelled. When you came in, didn’t you see they weren’t moving at all?”
My shoulder was starting to hurt, and I was leaking blood on their floor. “Yes Ma’am. I should have seen you had them under control, guess I missed that. What I did notice is they had you trussed up like a Christmas turkey on that chair. Did you get a late start with casting your spell?”
Sarah looked at her sister and shrugged. “He’s peckish.”
By the time I pulled the dead man out and off the porch, I was feeling kind of weak and breathing heavy, sweating more than the work required. I felt bad for messing up their floor with that dead man. Of course, he didn’t feel it none.
I amazed myself when I offered to replace their wooden floor, given my inability to join two boards together, but my words kind of slurred and I don’t think they understood. Confused, I slumped down into a chair on the porch to rest. I wondered if there were some left-over spells hanging around in the air and I’d caught one. I’d have to learn how to avoid such things.
About that time, Sarah noticed my wound. With a screech, she pulled me up from the chair and walked me inside. She threw me on a bed, at least it felt like it, and ripped my shirt apart. That was a good shirt, too. It was good for at least four, maybe five more washings. I started to argue about that, but somewhere in the discussion I just faded away. *** When I awoke, I could smell chicken frying and see the two women bustling about the cooking area. I must have made some noise because Sarah came over, putting her hand on my forehead.
“Good, the fever is gone.”
“What fever?” I moved my shoulder and it didn’t feel too bad. I’d been notched before. “How long have I been here?”
“Going on three days. You caught a fever. I figure you must have been coming down with something before you were shot. I never heard of a fever coming on that quick from a wound. And it’s not infected. We took care of that.”
Holding thoughts together wasn’t something I was doing very well. “How could I have been sick? Don’t you have potions, or something to give me?” At her irritated expression my addled brain finally came to its senses and I changed the subject. “What about those men I tied up? You didn’t let them go, did you?”
She smiled and I was glad to see it. I was going to take a personal interest in not making her mad.
“We got hold of Mr. Jones and he came out to get them. Seems they were wanted for a bank robbery in Missouri.”
I snorted, thinking of the printing on the bags, and it hurt my shoulder. “Yeah, I’m guessing Big Springs. Jones figure all that out by himself?”
“Well, we had to prod him a little. Emily was here too, so she kind of helped. He gets awfully distracted with her around.”
“No wonder Tall stays drunk all the time. That girl has a wandering eye.” I looked at the twin. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Kate and I’m most pleased to meet you. Thank you for rescuing me.”
Heaving myself up from that bed, I felt a breeze. “Uh, Sarah? Where’s my pants?”
Huddled with a blanket over my lap, I watched as she crossed to a chair and picked up my store-boughts. She handed them to me and stood watching. I stayed right there, waiting her out.
Finally, she smiled. “Modest? Now? How do you think you lost your pants?”
I didn’t budge.
With a smirk, she turned her back. Dressing wasn’t easy, I was still dizzy, but got it done. With Sarah’s help, I wobbled barefoot to the table buttoning a new red shirt I didn’t remember I owned. Maybe Jones delivered it.
It was never a good practice to put off something you didn’t want to do. But duty called. “Well, Kate. I’m glad everything turned out good for you, but we need to have some words.”
“All right.” Her smile was like Sarah’s. It was a cat watching a mouse kind of smile. “Spit them out and I’ll try to make sense of them.”
She was stirring something in a black kettle hanging from a rod in the over-sized fireplace. I contemplated that a moment, thinking of frogs and newt’s eyes—the exact witchy recipe eluded me, and I had no idea what a newt was. At least she wasn’t wearing one of those pointy hats like some drawings I’d seen. No cats, either. Problem was, I didn’t smell beans or roast from that funny smelling pot. Fighting back a chill, I shuddered and continued.
“Kate, I’m sworn to protect the folks in this county. Now, some are getting a mite skittish about certain things. Sarah probably told you. They’re afraid of spells, potions, and other witchy things going on around them.”
Her eyebrows rose to an impossible height before she smiled. “Witchy things?” She glanced at her sister before laughing.
Sarah came over and put a plate of biscuits with milk gravy poured over them right in front of me. My stomach grumbled, and I nearly fainted from the smell. How could they know this was part of my favorite meal? I tried to take my eyes from the plate in front of me.
“They also don’t like women dancing naked in the woods, thinking there is some kind of pagan ritual going on to call in the devil’s minions—or, something.” Kate looked over her shoulder at me. “I didn’t think anyone cared. There were at the least ten, maybe twelve people watching. They didn’t seem to mind. Never complained a bit.”
I closed my eyes a moment and sighed. I hadn’t heard that—except the part about not seeing faces. Which was understandable I suppose, depending on whether men or women were watching.
“Well, it’s got to stop.”
Sarah came over and leaned against my good shoulder while she put a couple pieces of fried chicken on my plate. Damn, I like fried drumsticks. And added to biscuits and gravy? Oh, my.
She spoke softly, while Kate stared cat-eyed at us. “Is there anything else concerning you, Billy? Anything at all? Can I cut this up for you?”
Well, I looked around that room a minute. My mind seemed to be jumping all over, searching for a way out and finding none. They’d breached the ramparts and damned well knew it—I could tell by their knowing smiles. I hadn’t got a shot off defending my castle—well, not at them.
“There is one more thing.”
Both looked at me expectantly. Sarah had another piece of chicken speared on a fork. I sighed. Again.
“I see some molasses in that jar. Would there be some hot bread to go with that?”
There was. *** I awoke that evening when a piece of green wood popped in the fireplace. My dreams came rushing back—the gun battle and fever, an excellent meal served up by sisters who could be twins.
The tick tock of a mantle clock kept syncopated cadence with a raven pecking around outside, perched on the windowsill. I flinched when it stopped and looked at me before returning to its quest. My foolish thoughts were thrown back into the well of superstition. I have enough problems without inventing more.
Unless the ladies were outside, I was alone. One thing about fried chicken and all the fixins. It’ll put a serious nap on you. Fully dressed, I was stomping into my boots when I saw the note lying on the table.
Gone to town. Etta Mae in trouble.
I pondered that a moment and felt no urgency. What kind of trouble could a purveyor of eateries get into? Most people I knew would ride miles to sit at one of her tables. Someone doing her harm could expect serious consequences.
But still… I’d woken in a restless mood, so I saddled my horse and headed into town. It was near dark when I arrived. The street seemed deserted except for several horses tied up in front of the Mountain Goat. Lanterns were being lit, showing yellow through windows and doors. Someone had baked a pie and I nearly turned into the wind to go find it. I imagined it sitting on a windowsill to cool, waiting….
Tying my horse in front of the jail, I left a dusty trail through the dying sunlight as I crossed to the saloon. Laughter carried through the open windows, overshadowed by someone playing the piano like a blacksmith beating hot iron.
As I stepped through the doorway conversation died. Tables and chairs were full along with several men leaning on the bar. The scuffed brass foot-rail shone in the flickering light from the oil lamps and chandelier.
We have a small community and I knew everyone in the building, if not personally then by sight or reputation. Some nodded hello but most ignored me—not from acrimony but because I was a common fixture around town. Body language is something every lawman learns. Men gazed at me and then gave a furtive glance toward the one man in the room I did not know.
He was dark of visage, like a weathered seafarer I’d met once, with a gold ring in his left ear. If there were pictures of pirates, he’d be on the poster. He dressed all in black, with a silver hatband and studded pistol belt. Ivory handles shone from the tied-down holsters. A dandy of the finest order. I wondered if the mercantile would have an ostrich feather for his hat. He seemed to want to give the impression that he was a gunfighter—a bad man. I wondered if it was all show. There was only one way to find out.
I could see him watching me in the mirror fronting the bar as I stepped up beside him and motioned to Wilhelm, the bartender. The mirror was a painting in reverse showing the two of us at a hastily cleared counter, the local denizens all staring at our backs. It wasn’t odd that the women were present. Wilhelm didn’t allow working girls in his establishment and ladies were welcome to come in and enjoy a sarsaparilla or fine wine, sometimes whiskey. They could even sneak in a cigarillo if they thought no one was looking. It was noteworthy that they huddled in a corner like three damsels in distress.
“Wilhelm? That bottle we keep for special occasions. A shot of the house finest for this gentleman, please?”
The dandy turned to me as the two glasses arrived, gaze lingering on the badge pinned to my vest. Though he tried hard, he couldn’t keep his distaste from showing. “Do I know you?”
I held my glass up, admiring the amber liquid a moment before drinking it. “Nope. I’m Billy Bennett, sheriff of this county. What’s the name you’re using today?”
He gave me a flat stare. How could he not like me? We’d just met. “Bane Wolfe. With an ‘e’.”
“On the Bane or the Wolfe?”
It seemed a fair question, but he didn’t reply. The man seemed edgy, like his plumb bob would never center over the mark. One hand or the other always seemed to be caressing a pistol butt. He had two and they were very pretty.
“Well, Mister Wolfe. I always buy strangers a drink as they’re passing through our town. Kind of a tradition.”
Pausing a moment, my gaze met his. “You are passing through, aren’t you? The trails are easy, even at night.”
He gave me a cold smile as he held the drink up to his nose. “What is this? It smells funny.”
I didn’t answer right away. Glancing toward the women, my attention was on the violent shaking of Sarah’s curls. A warning? The other two women were drawing strange figures in the air with their hands. To be honest, they looked a bit addled. If she was trying to pass a message, I was too dense to get it. Moving my attention away from the ladies, I nodded to him. “Elderberry wine, of the finest grade. It’s a house specialty, very medicinal and tasty. We take pride in fine things.”
“Wine? I’m a whiskey man myself, it’s more a man’s drink, but I’ll try it.” He knocked it back, then admired the glass. “Kind of fruity. I’m not sure I like it.”
“Oh, it’ll grow on you.” I gave him a friendly pat on the arm. “A few more glasses and you’ll feel ten feet tall. What’s your business in town, if I might ask?”
He pointed over his shoulder at the three women huddled in the corner. “I’ve come to take these women away. I’m starting a new coven.” Sarah stood staring at me with a strange expression that morphed into a smile as she met my gaze, while her sister and Etta Mae frantically drew designs on the floor with a piece of chalk.
“Wilhelm? Did you know they’re marking up your floor?”
“I saw that.” He filled the glasses again and then stood polishing the counter with a puzzled expression. “I ain’t cleaning that up.”
Turning back to my new drinking partner, I shrugged and picked up my glass. “You may as well drink up Mister Wolfe. I have some bad news for you.”
After chugging our wine, I continued. “Those ladies over there are free to go where they choose, with whom they choose and at any time they choose. What they are not allowed to do is go anywhere with you. That’s a town rule.”
He had the courtesy to look surprised. “You have a rule on that?”
“I just made it up, but I’m sure it’ll pass at the next town council meeting.”
He stood straight up in front of me, his right hand on his pistol. “That’s ridiculous. Do you know who I am?”
A quick glance toward the ladies showed Sarah still shaking her head and staring at me, eyes pleading—what? Yes or no? Stop or go? The chalk pushers had drawn a circle around themselves. They looked a little smug for the amount of anxiety they’d been showing.
“Yessir, Mister Wolfe. I do know who you are. You’re a stranger in our town with a made-up name meaning a wolf that brings misery and grief—or some such. Your real name is probably Smith. If you were Mexican it would be Gomez. Now, it is possible you’re a legend somewhere. It’s possible. But this is Bennett’s Pass. It takes a lot to leave an impression here.”
His smile was cold as he glanced at the ladies. “You don’t understand. Do you know what I am?”
Tilting my hat back, I rubbed my forehead. Headaches seemed to come more frequent lately. “You’re not meeting me halfway, Mister Wolfe. Please try harder. I thought we covered who you are.”
His stare was intense as he gave me his full attention. “I’m a Warlock. I can bring fire and misery down on this entire town. I have the power to level this place.”
Shaking my head, I shrugged at him. “Well, it’s a free country. You can be whatever you want. If you want to be a… what was it… a warlock? More power to you. I’m all for free enterprise. But not in this town. You can go to the next county and warlock over there. Or up in Missouri. They might need that sort of thing.”
With a snarl, he went for his guns. He must have practiced that growl because he did sound like a wolf. Or what I imagine a wolf would sound like. If I was ever close enough to hear a wolf growl, I’d be either running or shooting.
We stood close together so when his first gun cleared leather, I took it and placed it on the countertop—the same for the second gun. I admired them a moment. They sure were pretty. I wondered if my pay would allow such things. He stared at me, blinking slowly.
I couldn’t help my grin. “Sorry, Mister Wolfe. It must seem like we have a lot of rules around here, but we really don’t. We’re pretty much a do what you want community. You’re just hitting all the high points. We don’t allow gun play here either, along with warlocking.”
The man stood swaying as he watched me. We were both startled by the yell from the corner. Well, I was. His eyes widened some, but he didn’t flinch.
“Yes!” Kate and Etta Mae came bounding over, grabbing the man by the arms. “It worked.” I looked over their heads to see Sarah watching me with a strange expression. That little smile made me nervous.
They pushed the man down in a chair while he looked around, not struggling. Deputy Jones weaved his way between people and tables, finally standing next to me. I gestured toward Mister Wolfe.
“How about you bundle this man up and take him north to the county line and then dump him. He’s worn out his welcome here. Judging by his clothes, his horse is probably black with silver trim on the saddle. It’ll be tied out front.”
Sarah stood by me. How could she smell so fresh in a smoke-filled room? After the bit of tension everyone seemed to light up a cigar or pipe. Her voice was soft in my ear as she leaned close. “You know he’ll come back.”
Jones met my gaze over the top of her head and nodded. I went back to getting lost in her eyes. “Mister Wolfe? I don’t think that will happen.”
She stood against me, holding my arm as the would-be bad man was dragged out the door by a couple of men, Jones trailing behind. “I can’t believe they were able to ward off the Warlock. I’ve never seen Kate come up with so many spells in so short a time. She was frightened half out of her mind.”
I was thinking she wouldn’t have that much to spare. Kate and Etta Mae were all smiles now that the crisis was over. Kate’s voice came rapid-fire and high-pitched. “I knew we could do it. That man is evil and powerful but no match for us.” She hugged Etta May close to her. “We did it together.”
I nodded to them, half listening as I dug in my pocket. I planned to look through the posters in the office. Something about him was familiar. But whether warlock or troublemaker, if Jones did his job the man wouldn’t be back. We tend to generate enough trouble on our own without outside help. But it was good to see the ladies happy. I flipped a gold piece to Wilhelm, and it disappeared into a pocket as if by magic, his hands hardly pausing from polishing glasses. The circus must be missing a juggler.
The bartender spoke over the returning noise. “I didn’t think he’d take the drink. That Elderberry wine did the trick.”
Sarah stared at me. If she didn’t start blinking occasionally, I was going to start running. “What was the gold piece for?”
No point in starting our budding relationship with a lie. “Laudanum.”
Her laugh was more a nervous bark. She glanced over her shoulder at her sister and then turned back to me. “You spiked his drink?”
“We did.” I watched her to see how she’d take it. Some would call the act unfair. But the trick is to win a contest before the other man realizes there in one.
“Why? You’re good with a gun… I’ve seen that.” She just wouldn’t let it go.
I gave her the first thing that came to mind. “He was aiming to take away my girl—”
Her smile was quick. “Your girl. I like that.”
“—and that was not going to happen. Besides, why on earth would I want to trade bullets with some half-wit just because he thinks he’s some kind of witch and a gun slick. In a crowded room, several people would get hurt or killed. Makes no sense.”
“He’s not a witch but a warlock.”
“Is he? Really?” I watched her mull that over a moment.
She shook her head, bouncing her curls. “It doesn’t matter if he is, or not. He thinks he is and that’s just as dangerous. It will lead him to do stupid things. Don’t tell Kate and Etta Mae about your trick. They’d be devastated.” Her giggle sounded more pent-up nerves than mirth. “Laudanum.”
The ladies headed for Etta Mae’s place, given the late hour. I was glad. The trails were no place to be at night. Returning to the office, I fired up a coal-oil lamp and pulled out a stack of posters. Most were bad drawings, and the descriptions would match most of the men I knew, me included. Something niggled at my brain, but I couldn’t bring it up. I rubbed my tired eyes and took my frustrated mind to the cot in the back of the office. Sleep was restless and full of dreams better left in those closed rooms in your mind that you try to keep nailed shut.
Morning did not start well. I fought to free myself from a tangled blanket when Deputy Jones came through the front door and stood staring at me. With his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down, I figured he had a serious case of dry mouth. Uneasy at the fear showing in his eyes, and throwing the offending blanket on the cot, I handed him a dipper of water.
He finally found his voice, still breathing hard as he watched me. “I’m sorry, Boss.”
I’d read once that men plan, and gods laugh. Why do I keep being surprised at things life puts in front of me? “All right. Things can’t be all that bad. What happened?”
“We lost him. Me and those two boys that helped drag that Wolfe fella out of the saloon was about to the county line, just past Fiddler’s Ford when he disappeared.”
“Disappeared?” I felt mindless as a parrot repeating words that held no meaning for it.
“Yessir. He was tied to his saddle horn and I was leading his horse. Jed and Lemuel rode behind him. We were going to get him to the county line, work him over a little, and then send him on up toward Joplin. He’d fit right in there”
“Then, he just wasn’t there. I don’t know how I lost hold on the reins. Must be something wrong with my hands—didn’t feel a thing. Anyway, we searched high and low… couldn’t find him at all. Heard of a Creek medicine man doing that once, scared the hell out of people, but they found him under some bushes later. I’ll get some men and go search some more. Now that it’s light, we’ll find him.”
Disgusted, I sat in my roller-chair. “Don’t bother. I’m sure he’ll be back.” I gave him a hard look. “Just how drunk were your helpers?”
Jones grinned. “Hell, if they were sober, they wouldn’t have gone out dragging a witchy man around in the dark. That was plumb crazy.” “He’s not a witchy man. There’s no such thing.”
Jones straightened to his considerable height. “Then how’d he get away?”
I pointed toward a can resting on the desk. We kept some money handy for incidentals… like tipping bartenders. “How much money is in the kitty?”
“I need to leave.” He bolted toward the back door. There was a thud and frantic rattling of the handle. I’d put a couple of nails in it so the door wouldn’t keep banging around. “That’s a nasty trick, Billy.”
I gazed idly out the window as footsteps approached and he stood in front of my desk pretending he’d never left.
His voice was hoarse. “Dunno.”
“Oh, come on. Make a guess. You were looking in it the other day.”
He sighed, glancing wistfully toward the front door. “About twenty dollars.”
I nodded. “That’s about right. Now. Here’s the deal. You can have it all as a bonus if you can convince me you weren’t asleep leading that man’s horse.”
He tried to stare me down. “I never….”
“Herkle? Remember that little fishing trip we took? We left before daylight and you fell out of the saddle before we ever got to the river.”
“I got a smooth-gaited horse.” His shoulders slumped. “I’m sorry, Boss.”
“No.” I held up my hand. “It’s my fault for sending you. But you know, I figure you’re paid pretty good for what you do, being this is a small town. Don’t you think?”
I stared at him a moment as he watched the floor. When he didn’t speak, I continued. “Don’t lie to me again.” His head bobbed hard enough to jostle his hat. “Yessir.”
He trudged out the door as Sarah came in. Maybe I should put on those batwing doors like you see in some saloons? Or charge a toll? I was getting a lot of traffic.
The sun was peeking over the top of the building across the street and followed Sarah through the door, blinding me as I rubbed my eyes. “Don’t you people ever sleep?”
“What’s going on, Billy? Your deputy looks as if he has a belly full of green apples and the girls are restless and nervous.” I stared a moment and then shrugged. “Seems Mister Wolfe disappeared last night.”
She came around the desk and sat on the edge, watching me as she moved. Her legs swung idly a moment as she nodded. We may as well have been discussing the weather. “What are you going to do?”
“Other than threatening abduction, the man’s done nothing wrong.” I held her gaze a moment. “Still, it’s my job to keep the peace and that man did not strike me as being peaceful. He may need a little more help leaving the county.”
That door would be worn out by the end of the day. Jones came stumbling back, followed by Kate and Etta Mae. I’d never seen his eyes so big. “They’ve got her, Billy. They got Emily!”
It was getting tiresome interrogating my own deputy. “Slow down and tell me.”
“Tall rode into town and started banging on the front door of the Mountain Goat yelling he needed a drink bad. When I asked what was wrong, he said three men came to the house and took Emily. One of them he described sounded like that Wolfe fella. We gotta do something.”
“What’s Tall doing right now?”
Jones shrugged. “He broke in a window, so he’s probably drunk already.”
Sarah was herding the ladies out the door and then she turned and looked at me. “Their trail would be easy to follow. It rained about sunup.” Her smile was sugar sweet. “Not that you’d know, sleeping in like you were doing.”
“I know what you’re thinking but forget it. You’re not going.” I glanced at my deputy. “And neither are you. You’re too jumpy about this.”
He pulled his pistol to check the loads. “I can shoot. You need me.”
“Nope, you stay here in case he comes back this way. Besides, the last time we had target practice all you hit was a boot—and I was wearing it.”
Tall’s place was close to town and I arrived about a half hour later. The trail I needed was easy to find. I figured the tracks going in circles were Tall’s. There were only two trails with access to his home buildings. Going any other direction would make you climb some mighty steep hills. The riders wouldn’t go far. If the men wanted to use Emily, they wouldn’t wait long to do it. But I didn’t think that was the plan. I’d slighted that man and now he wanted some payback. I figured this was a trap, so I went slow. My deputy would have gone at a dead run—and wound up shot. I followed the churned earth with my shotgun across the saddle. About a half mile from the farm buildings the tracks turned away from the trail and went over a small rise. I knew where they were going.
Over the low hill and across a wet weather creek was an overhang of limestone, the underside more of a cut-out than cave. At some point in the past some enterprising soul used mud and gravel for mortar and walled up the opening with rocks. This land was rock poor, so he had a lot to work with. Whether done for a home or hideout, it was ill advised since the high-water mark was well above the ceiling of the cut—arguably how it was made in the first place. Still, it was a good camping spot in normal seasons.
I topped the rise and walked my horse down to the creek. I’d looked up and down the creek for someone with a rifle but didn’t see anyone setup for an ambush. I wasn’t surprised. That’s not how anyone named Bane Wolfe would want to do it. Two strange men were leaning casual against trees and I was glad of it. They were amateur wannabe bad men with no experience. To straighten and draw their pistols would take an extra second they wouldn’t have. I’d known a few bad ones and they’d have had their guns out already, maybe shooting when I came over the ridge.
A small, smokeless fire burned around a blackened coffee pot. Emily was tied with her back to a small tree, looking like the damsel in distress from some dime novel. Bane Wolfe sat on a rock next to the coffee, partially shielded by the woman. That didn’t surprise me.
The off-key mockingbird had followed me from the other day, and I could see its grey and black form flitting between the scrub oak and juniper. When that bird shut up a moment, things got quiet. The run-off water from the hill above splattered into the creek. It could have been peaceful. Seemed everyone was just waiting to breathe.
The day wasn’t getting any better. Mistakes were made. I thought these men would talk. I really did. They thought I wouldn’t be ready. We were both wrong. When I stepped down off the horse the two men went for their pistols. Dropping down to one knee, I shot under the belly of my horse. Both barrels fired at once, a known problem with that Greener coach gun. The horse squealed, rose straight up and then tore off down the creek for parts unknown, leaving me with an empty shotgun and no cover. I dropped the Greener and pulled my pistol.
The shotgun accounted for one of the men, and the other fired at me. He wasn’t schooled in down-hill shooting because he shot over my head. Uphill is easier. We traded shots again and he went down cussing with a broken leg, tossing his pistol away. It went off again, the bullet notching the tree behind Emily.
Knowing I was out of time and expecting to take a bullet, I rolled on the rocks looking for cover and came up with my pistol pointing at Wolfe. The look on his face made me think someone slipped him laudanum again. He stared behind me and his face looked white as the chalky limestone he stood by. When he glanced at me, only his eyes moved. His hands held pistols down by his side. I could see the strain on his corded forearms and neck as he tried to lift them, but the guns may as well have weighed a hundred pounds. He gripped his hands so hard, one of the pistols went off into the ground at his feet, rock chips cutting his boot. The shot echoed between the rocks and assaulted my ringing ears. Blood oozed out of his boot.
His voice was shaky, and he seemed to plead as he looked at me. “I can’t feel my arms.”
I never got a chance to answer. Sarah dismounted and walked to me, putting her hand on my arm. She never stopped staring at Wolfe as she spoke to me. “You’re alright? Not hurt?”
I could see a tear coursing down Wolfe’s cheek as he struggled, leaving a muddy trail and collecting under his chin. He seemed to be having trouble breathing. Nodding, trying to control my breathing, I replied. “I seem to be. Not sure yet. Lotsa bullets and rock chips flying around.”
She stood close, rubbing my back and arms like I was a lost child she’d just found. “Sorry I was late, and you had to shoot those men. You shouldn’t have had to do that. I missed the spot where you left the trail… had to backtrack.”
Emily broke into my confused thoughts with a voice calm as what’s for dinner. “Could someone please untie me? I’m getting a cramp and I gotta pee.”
While Sarah took care of her, I ignored Wolfe who seemed to be frozen to his spot and walked over to the wounded man. Blood covered his thigh and it bent at an awkward angle. It didn’t matter. Sometimes when the upper leg breaks, the splinters cut into the main blood vessel. He hadn’t wasted time in joining his partner. Glancing back, the only movement from Wolfe was his eyes as he tried to track movement around him. He was so stiff, I felt if I pushed him he’d fall over still at attention.
The women indulged in a long hug before Emily scampered behind a rock, and then Sarah stepped up to Wolfe. I drew my pistol again, just in case. “Sarah, don’t get between us.”
She glanced my way, smiled and promptly ignored my advice.
“You may holster your pistols.” Her voice came soft, barely heard over the wind sifting through the trees and the gurgling waterfall.
His hands moved and my pistol came up, but he dropped his guns into their holsters. He flinched as he tried to grab Sarah, but his hands fell again to his sides. I could tell how hard he was trying to move by the sweat dripping off him.
She stared at him with an intensity I’d never seen. “Do you know what I am?”
Now that was curious. Not who, but what? Kind of like what he asked me the night before. The bigger question was—did I? He nodded to her and for the first time I saw fear in him… could smell it as he stared at her. If he could move, it would be a tossup whether he ran or fainted.
She put her hand on his chest, resting soft over his heart. It was an innocent gesture and I felt a moment’s jealousy at the intimate contact. But his face started turning red and then lost all color. The cords of his neck stood out as he fought for breath. I almost didn’t catch her soft words.
“If I ever see you again, I’ll take your heart and feed it to you. Do you understand?”
His nods came fast just before his eyes widened and he fainted. I almost did, too. Those words from that sweet, kissable mouth? Maybe I misunderstood?
Emily was gathering the dead men’s horses—a good thing because I’m betting mine was still running. I’d lost a decent saddle and a good set of saddlebags. I had to clear my throat a couple of times before I could speak. “Is he dead?”
Sarah glanced at Wolfe. “Oh, he’ll wake soon enough.” Her gaze turned to me. “You can put your gun away.”
I watched her close, wearing my surprise like a stepped-on frog and had trouble closing my mouth. I’d seen some things in my life, strange things, but…. “I’m not sure about that. What just happened here?”
“I could never hurt you, Billy. Surely you know that.”
We swapped gazes a moment and then she kissed me. It was just a quick peck on the lips but it was enough to get my attention and holster my pistol. “You didn’t answer my question, Sarah.”
Her head shook those black curls again. She watched Emily a moment before turning back to me. “Still don’t believe?”
“It’s a bit of a struggle. What I see and what I believe are at odds right now.”
That mockingbird started trilling off key again, trying to imitate a pig squealing, until Sarah glanced its way looking irritated. It cleaned up a strangled note and flew away. I was ever so thankful.
“Well.” Sarah smiled at me. “Since you don’t choose to believe, what happened is this—and I’ll do my best Billy Bennett imitation. I was out looking for Emily when I came upon my man engaged in a fight for his life against someone of unknown abilities and intent. I rode up to the miscreant causing all the trouble and asked him politely to please stop. He grew agitated and then fainted. Will that work for you?”
“You’re being peckish, Billy.”
I thought about it a moment, watching the man on the ground. He was staring at the canopy of leaves above us, eyes open and unblinking like a dead man—still breathing while his fingers twitched.
One of the oldest instincts, right next to procreation, is self-preservation. I shrugged. “That sounds about right. And I do appreciate the help.” *** Bennett's Pass is quiet now. Our wedding went off without a hitch. It’s a good thing, too. We have a baby on the way. She already knows it’s a girl. Don’t ask. I still don’t know where the parson came from.
The Arnolds pulled foot and moved to Missouri. They never did get their bull back. I heard it died of exhaustion. Don’t know if their Jersey started giving milk. Don’t care.
Tall Johnson didn’t die from a boil on his face. That was just his own superstition. He walked out of the Mountain Goat Saloon and Billiard Parlor, tripped on a loose board and broke his neck on the hitching rail. Wilhelm claimed he was sober. I think he’s lying. There are no witnesses that have ever seen Tall sober.
And Herkle Jones had an alibi. He was busy putting two nails in that tipping horseshoe. I’m sure Emily helped.
Etta Mae still throws together a good breakfast and we eat at her cafe most mornings with several of her women friends. I mostly ignore the conversation. I heard from a lawyer once to never ask a question if you don’t already know the answer. And I do not know the answers.
We’re getting a few more men moving into the county, so the womenfolk are happier now. Somehow all the Carpetbaggers were run off—complaining of bad luck all the time and strange sounds during the night. One or two had large boils in strange places.
We don’t see Kate much. She’s busy doing things. I don’t know what and don’t ask. It’s none of my business. She still gives me the willies—even if she is Sarah’s sister.
I make sure we have a barn dance once a month. In public. With clothes. I’m the sheriff of Bennett County and we must put my foot down somewhere.
And Bane Wolfe? Never heard from him again. I can only assume he woke up from his faint—although, how he could be frightened of a beautiful woman like Sarah I’ll never know. Maybe he had a fever.
Life is good so I don’t meddle much. And a rarely beautiful woman that can straighten out a mockingbird and fry chicken the way she does? Time to settle in for the long haul.
And witches? Not in my county.
Read some of my stories and those of other fine writers FREE on