The front door of the sheriff’s office flew open and the sun was blocked by a massive form called Emma. A commotion caused me to turn and I caught sight of my deputy fleeing out the back door. Damned coward.
One good thing. I thought the door was stuck. It didn’t take him long to fix it.
Her strident voice wheeled my attention back to the front. I’d just got a chair made special with wheels on its legs and liked the hell out of it. The only trouble with it? The old building didn’t have a square corner in it and when they put in a wooden floor—well, level wasn’t a real concern.
“Sheriff Coble. I’m glad you’re finally in your office. It would be easier to find you if you’d stay put and keep regular hours.”
That one surprised me. As the 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.
“You called me Billy every day last week, Mrs. Arnold. You might as well keep using my first name. Now what’s the problem today?”
She pulled a small man around from behind her and I immediately wondered who else she was hiding. I was starting 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’m sure she was the sweetest thing on earth. Maybe. He sure was jumpy.
He took his hat off and worried the brim a little. “Well, Emma thinks that witch is at it again.”
These people were serious and that was disturbing. I studied them close as I practiced my reply. My lips may have moved some. “Which witch?”
“There’s more than one?” In a practiced move, both turned to the side and spit between their fingers. I was relieved it landed on the floor.
She turned back to me. “I knew it. We’ve been infested.”
Visions of broom-handled harridans flooding into town flashed across my mind. It took a moment 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.”
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. I could arrest you for that.”
Mrs. Arnold gave me a look she must reserve for recalcitrant children. “It’ll help soak up the dust.”
She had a point. I settled back into my chair, steepling my fingers as I stared at them. “Listen to me. There are no witches around here.”
When it looked like neither would accept my proclamation I expelled air in the sigh of the eternally oppressed, shaking my head.
“I’m going to hate myself for this, but why do you think there’s a witch at work?” Emma started to speak until I held up my hand. “You tell me, Samuel.”
He stood straight, about shoulder high to his wife. “All our milk cows are 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 cows went dry?” I sounded like the village idiot to my own ears. I’m not sure I could fix that.
“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?”
His hat was not going to survive this encounter. “Uh, he ran off.”
“That falling down joke of a split rail fence you keep working on didn’t keep in a two-thousand-pound bull? I’m shocked. Besides, Jerseys are skittish and head-strong. You can’t tell what they’re going to do from one moment to the next. You should know that.”
I was raised in these hills and knew 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.”
“Really? You’re thinking a witch would waste valuable time running your livestock around? You don’t think there are more important hauntings 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. He should be finished visiting by then.”
Both were silent long enough for me to stand up and look official. I moved my pistol belt to a more comfortable position. Some days you feel like you just gotta shoot someone.
“Is there anything else?”
“Well.” Emma put her hand on Sam’s shoulder for support. “Tall Johnson, you know—lives over on Bitter Creek? Somebody keeps turning his horseshoe over. He keeps it nailed over his door, pointed up for good luck, and it keeps getting turned. His crops ain’t doing so good.”
I nodded. “I know old Tall and don’t doubt your word on that. He has two problems. One, he hardly ever leaves the tavern. Any work around there gets done by his wife, Emily. She’d no bigger than a pound of soap."
“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 and dirt you can’t use for cannon balls. Is that it? Anything else?”
Emma examined every wall except the one behind me. The spiders were already hiding out in the corners. I should have gone with the deputy. My glance toward the door was interrupted.
“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 back down before I did something foolish. “I’ll try and control myself. If it gets too delicate, I’ll hold my ears.”
I was curious how such a large person could have such tiny eyes.
“There’s dancing going on.”
“Oh, no.” Words broke uninvited from my mouth and I guess my tone gave me away.
Her eyes bulged and she screeched. “Someone saw women dancing in the woods yesterday evening. They said those women didn’t have enough clothes on to wad a shotgun.”
My feet slammed to the floor from their lofty perch on my desk. “Who was it? Where?”
Samuel spoke up. “They weren’t rightly sure. I guess they didn’t notice any faces.”
Naked dancing? In my county? Finally, something I could investigate. I love a mystery. “As upstanding citizens, I appreciate you letting me know. I’ll get right on this, folks. You have my word.”
After they left, deputy Jones came slinking in through the back door. Now it won’t close. And it creaks.
“Jones, you been messing with Tall’s horseshoe again?”
He watched his feet scuff the floor, but I could see him trying to stop smiling. “Aw, come on, Billy. It’s so easy. He only has one nail in it.”
I shook my head. “Well stop it. He’s going to shoot your ass someday, 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, Tall is a drunk and hardly ever home—I know that. But I figure he still knows how to make a gelding out of a stallion. Are you hearing me?”
Sometimes it’s hard to keep the peace. Most folks knew me, and some called me a traitor. Not to my face. I had a reputation for being a pretty good scrapper before I left home and that was remembered.
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. About the only thing that mis-adventure got me was a shoulder wound picked up Jenkin’s Ferry that hurt when it rained, and a job as the county sheriff. If I’d fought for the Secession no job would have been available and the government would steal any land I had—which I didn’t.
I applied when we mustered out of the army. As soon as 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 to how mean I am, but you’d be wrong. I reminded them our county was small and there were easier pickings other places.
Riding a rolling chair on a sloping floor is hard work and my belly was grumbling so I walked down the street to Etta Mae’s place. Etta Mae put on a simple fare for folks passing through and some town folk that didn’t want to go home and cook. After fried chicken with the fixings, and a slice of dried apple pie, I sat back in my chair thinking about life and naked dancers.
And skeeters. I could look for women with enough skeeter bites to look like they had the pox. Or ask about missing women. Some of our skeeters are large enough to carry off a small woman.
Maybe I needed some help. I sure didn’t want to waste valuable time.
Etta Mae was a good-looking woman, unencumbered with menfolk. We had several ladies around town in that circumstance, but the war did that to us. A good portion of men didn’t come home for one reason or another. Some died, some went away 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 and the unknown.
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 and hitting the cup dead center. I couldn’t do that on my best day.
When I’d returned from the war, I’d made some eyes at her—thinking I’d 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 still 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 problem.”
I saw no reason to delay my investigation. “You’re friends with most of the women-folk around, aren’t you?”
She nodded, getting a wary look about her. “Most.”
“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. “Pot calling the kettle black. That woman’s a witch in the oldest sense of the word.”
“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.”
She grinned right back at me, the afternoon sunlight highlighting little blond curls escaping the white cap she wore while cooking. You might call her fetching. Pretty wouldn’t do her justice with those blue eyes staring at me. Be nice if she would blink, though. At least, once in a while.
“It must be awful, having to investigate something like that. I don’t know how you stand it. But then, you were always strong. Are you getting anywhere with your quest?”
“Nope. Just started.” I tried to give her a stern look 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. This could have a serious side. There’s some… well, peculiar folks about.”
“Peculiar?” She gave a quick look around and then relaxed in her chair. We were alone.
“Look at it this way. It’s the middle of summer, Billy. You know it gets so hot in here sometimes it’s hard to breathe. I can fry an egg on a flat rock, if it’s out in the sun. Just think about how nice it would be, say after a nice swim in some cool spring, to just dance and enjoy the sunshine until you’re dry all over and breathe in the smell of jasmin and honeysuckle. Pine trees release their scent at sunset, did you know that? 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. “I doubt if I can think of anything else.”
She looked pointedly at me as she scratched at her side. “Well, there’s no harm done by it. Is there?” She smiled at me again, bigger this time. “Not that I’d know anything about it.”
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.
“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. My God, woman. There are Baptists around here. You need to spread a word of caution.” I stopped and smiled at her. “Not that you would know anything about it, of course.”
Etta Mae put her hand on my arm 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 on Cold Hollow. A widow lady lives there. She might know something.”
“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, be careful.”
Her expression turned serious. “I’m thinking you have a lot more expertise 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 than I can give. But Sarah has a way about her so I wouldn’t want you to go there unless you want to be caught.”
Caught? Well now. I said my goodbyes wondering why Etta Mae would be shy about commitment.
I left a note at the office telling Jones to hold down the fort. I’d be gone all day. I could never call my deputy by his first name. Why a parent would name a boy child Heckler I’d never know. For all that, he was a good man 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.
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 I traveled, and I could hear a magpie 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.
When I rounded 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 had a life of its own, shining in the sun. Her 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 its light. It was like a halo surrounded her. She had a rope around her neck and hands tied behind her back.
“You.” Her voice was soft but carried well. And then she smiled at me.
I took a deep breath trying to get rid of a spidery feeling running up and down my spine.
When she spoke, the people surrounding the buckboard flinched so hard the horses hitched to that wagon got skittish. I jumped my horse forward 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. “That’s what I said.”
Besides the Arnold's, there were four men. One was Tall Johnson, and I didn’t know the other three.
“Mister Arnold, it would be a kindness to me if you’d untie that rope from the tree, and then let that woman go.” When he didn’t move, I said. “Consider that an order.”
Emma raised her hand, ready to lay a quirt on the horses pulling the buckboard.
When you travel around the hills of Arkansas, you’d better go armed. I already had the hammers of my double-barreled Greener coach gun pulled back. “I’d hate to shoot a woman, but I could manage it—if I had to.”
“We’d just shoot you, Sheriff.” I noted the man who spoke, a stranger to me but a face I’d remember.
“That’s all right. I’ve been shot before.” I looked back at Samuel and wondered why he was hesitating. Maybe he figured to get rid of two bothersome problems at once? “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 did as I asked, even untying her hands . I glanced at the woman standing in the wagon. “What’s your name?”
“I am Sarah and I’m glad you are the one sent to me.” She said it like a pronouncement, but I was too busy to follow up on it. I couldn’t spare her a glance.
“You haven’t been harmed?”
“No, sir. I have not… thanks to you.”
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, but I’ll let it go… just this once. Now git.”
Tall’s voice was plaintive. “You can’t let her go. She told me I was going to get a boil on my face and die from it. If she dies the curse goes away.”
A very unladylike snort came from the wagon. “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 sober up 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.”
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.”
The Arnold’s and Tall rode away, but I stopped the three I didn’t know. “Where are you boys from?”
I still had that Greener cocked and they didn’t quite know what to do about it.
One finally found his voice. “We’re from up in Missouri. Just friendly folk looking about for a place to light for a while.”
My gaze traveled over their dusty clothes and tired-looking horses. I nodded to them.
“You know, I’ve heard fairy tales since I was knee-high to a short frog. I think I just heard another one. How’d you happen to be here, helping the Arnold’s on their witch hunt?”
Their spokesman was the man who’d threatened me. “We just rode up on them, same as you. Hadn’t quite decided on what to do about it when you showed up.”
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 to these men. They’d done nothing wrong, that I knew of. I just didn’t like their looks.
“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 do that.”
The man tried to bluster. “We done nothing wrong.”
“Oh, I’m sure you’ll fix that given enough time—just, not in my county.”
I was glad to see them wheel their horses and ride away. Armed with rifles and handguns, a lot of handguns as most border guerrillas did during the war, they still didn’t want to argue with that double-barrel at short range. 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 her other side. She was dressed in a blue cotton blouse and gray, pleated skirt. The last thing I wanted on my mind was describing fabric and color, but she looked like a beautiful painting perched on the seat of that wagon. Reaching under the seat, she brought out a 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.”
It took but a moment for that bonnet to come off. “Whatever you wish, Billy.”
How the hell did she know my name? “What brought you and the Arnold’s together?”
Her gaze turned hard. “I was on my way over 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?”
Her attention seemed to wander a moment before she turned to me. “You know anyone plays the fiddle?”
“There’s a few around. I bet Etta Mae would know of them.” I paused a moment. “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 color before it left my mouth. “Not anymore, Billy.”
She didn’t seem to mind me watching her, holding a small smile on her face as she met my gaze. She was a rarely beautiful woman.
“You should be armed. There are bad people out in these hills on occasion. I’m thinking we just met three of them.”
“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 were surprised it was me.”
She shrugged. “I knew someone would come, and we’d 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. You’re a handsome man, Billy Coble.”
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 . “Nope. I haven't stopped. But I did give up on romancing Etta. Let’s say I did some retreating and contemplating. We’re still good friends.”
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. That same off-key magpie had followed me around, and a squirrel barked nearby. Wind moaned through nearby pine trees.
“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. “This is going to be fun. No, you don’t need to do any of that. Not that you would—you’re a good man.”
I watched the trail the three men took, wishing we were under cover. “You haven’t talked to the right folks. Some would disagree.”
“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. But, we can recover.”
I’d been staring into her eyes a long time. Too long? “Are you putting a spell on me?”
I could hear frustration in her voice. “That is obvious don’t you think?”
“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.”
“Nonsense.” She fluffed out her hair and then fingered errant curls away from her eyes. 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. “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. “It’s not important. I just do.”
I settled in the saddle. “It’s important to me. I have decisions to make.”
“Decisions? Well, that’s different.” She settled on the seat of the wagon picked up and began untying the knotted rope that had graced her neck. “What do you know of England?”
Her voice changed into an accent I’d only heard once. “I 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 mama was from Wales.”
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. “Home grown—right here.”
“Are they still alive?”
Well, that was a sore subject. “Yes, Ma’am. When I went north to join up, they went south to Texas. I got a letter from them once. They were living on the coast, fishing every day and living the good life—providing you like fish.”
“I must meet her. I’m too am from Wales. We’d have many things to talk about.” 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 smile was disarming… friendly.
Those blue eyes pinned me to my saddle and my horse quivered. It probably had a fly in its ear.
“I see why you’ve never married. Do you ken the word peckish?”
I sobered some at that. “Well, folks around here would call me nettlesome.” The horse shuddered again and looked at me.
She shook her head, and then smiled at me. It was a big smile. “You’re educated. Good. It will make things easier for us. But for now, it seems those men you ran off are headed toward my ranch.”
I let her lead the way, driving the buckboard so I could do some thinking—knowing I couldn’t do it sitting next to her. She smelled too good, and when she talked it seemed every word was so important I had to drop everything and listen. I didn’t believe in witches—but then, every woman will practice witchcraft in her own way at times.
Most folks wouldn’t call me educated because we didn’t have schools around. But, mama was and she taught me. Our home was filled with books and my mind with stories she told. Papa helped too, but mostly he farmed and hunted. We never wanted for much but it was a good life. The hills around us had just 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.
I do have a problem. Some call it a mean streak. I’d call it perverse. Peckish? I don’t like to be led and told what to do without it being my choice. I have heard the phrase ‘stubborn as a mule’ a few times.
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. When I looked at the problem, I felt the southern states were in the right, they had every right to secede—it wasn't a shooting matter. But they were going to lose the war. For the same reason as the Indians would lose. They’d run out of resources while fighting. If every man-jack went off to fight for states rights, who was tending the farm? Taking care of family? Raising cattle? Raising food?
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.
I was brought out of my reverie when Sarah stopped the wagon. Maybe that was my problem. I was being led and it sure looked inviting. Was it somewhere I wanted to go?
Before us lay a small valley. The house and barn nestled up against a bluff that would make a good wind-break in the winter. A few horses swatted flies with their tails as they grazed in the meadow. The hills around made a natural fence. 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. And we can’t run, they may follow. I’ll not have you killed.”
Well now. “I guess I’ll be going down there and read to them from the Book.”
That hair got messed up again, covering one eye. Guess I knew why she wore a bonnet. “You know. Teach them the error of their ways. Maybe smite them hip and thigh. Words from the Book.”
“I’ve never heard that. 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. You don’t have to go.”
“Oh, yes. Yes, I do. I left my sister down there.” She grinned at me. “She’s the witch you’re looking for. I hope we’re not too late.”
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. Of course, 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. Cold air stays close to the ground and there wasn’t much sunlight on the road to warm it up.
She’d seen me shiver. “Superstition and witchcraft can only hurt you if you believe in them, you know.”
I was already watching the windows for any sign of life in that house. My Greener was held across the saddle and I 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.”
I saw a window shade move and my Greener covered that window. We stopped by the front porch. No sound came from inside the house. I started to dismount and before I could say anything, Sarah beat me to 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. Maybe they thought we couldn’t read, or just didn’t care who knew?
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 spoke from the door. “You boys drop those pistols.”
To say they were startled would be an understatement. The man nearest me bleated in surprise and shot into the floor. The other two were turning their guns toward me so I cut loose with that 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 was hung up on the window sill. The man that moved first wasn’t going anywhere.
The scared man was little more than a boy. As he cocked his pistol again, he dropped it and the gun went off, the bullet tapping me on top of my shoulder. I reached out and cold-cocked him with the barrel of my pistol. He dropped like a sack of potatoes and didn’t move.
The boot hung up in the window was starting to move, so I reached through and grabbed the shirt collar of that man and drug him inside. I guess he found out a window ain’t that easy to dive through, especially one as well built as this one.
I drug them both outside and roped them to the hitching post. When I went back inside Sarah had untied her sister and both stood staring at me—alike as peas in a pod. With the window broke out and the door open, the powder smoke was almost gone.
Sarah spoke first. “He’s a little sudden, but I do like him.”
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 that. I had them spelled. 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. 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. “He’s peckish.”
By the time I pulled the dead man out and off the porch, I was feeling kind of weak. I felt bad for messing up their floor, but that dead man sure messed it up worse. Of course, he didn’t feel it none.
I offered to replace their wooden floor, 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. 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 along the line, 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 got shot. I never heard of a fever coming on that quick from a wound. It’s not infected.”
“How could I have been sick? Don’t you have potions, or something?”
At her irritated expression my addled brain finally caught up and changed the subject. “What about those men?”
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 holdup in Missouri.”
I snorted 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.”
“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, with Sarah’s help, I wobbled barefoot to the table. At least I had most of my clothes. “Well, Kate. I’m glad everything turned out for the better, but we need to have some words.”
“All right.” Her smile wasn’t like Sarah’s. It was more like a cat watching a mouse kind of smile. “Spit them out and I’ll try to listen.”
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 witchy recipe eluded me. 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.”
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 like to fainted from the smell. How would 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 that’s some kind of pagan ritual.”
Kate looked over her shoulder at me. “I didn’t think anyone cared. There were at the least ten, maybe twelve people watching us. 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. “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 chicken. And added to biscuits and gravy?
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 hadn’t got a shot off—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?"
Bennett's Pass is quiet now. The wedding went off without a hitch—with Sarah, of course. It’s a good thing, too. We have a baby on the way. She already knows it’s a girl. Don’t ask.
The Arnold’s pulled foot moved to Missouri. They never did get their bull back. I heard it died of exhaustion. Don’t know if the Arnold’s Jersey is giving milk.
Tall Johnson didn’t die from a boil on his face. That was just his own superstition. He walked out of the tavern, tripped on a loose board and broke his neck on the hitching rail. The bartender claimed he was sober. I think he’s lying. There are no witnesses that had ever seen Tall sober. Not ever.
And Heckler Jones had an alibi. He was delivering bank robbers to Big Springs. I think Emily went with him, though I can’t prove it either way. I did hear he put two nails in that horseshoe.
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. Heard from a lawyer once to never ask a question if you don’t already know the answer.
We’re getting a few more men moving into the county, so the womenfolk are happier now. Somehow all the Carpetbaggers got run off—complaining of bad luck all the time and strange sounds during the night. One or two had boils in strange places.
We don’t see Kate much. She’s busy doing things. I don’t know what and don’t ask. She still gives me the willies—even if she is Sarah’s sister. There is one strange thing. Sarah goes out to visit occasionally. She acts a little different when she comes back. I can’t put my finger on it but don’t try too hard. A few days later things will be back to normal. Life is good so I don’t meddle much.
I make sure we have a barn dance once a month. In public. With clothes. I’m the sheriff of Bennett’s Pass and we have to put my foot down somewhere.
Oh, I know. I sold out for fried chicken and a beautiful woman. There are worse ways to go. And it’s damned fine chicken. ###
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