Coble Bray ©
I rode into Hard Times a troubled man with nothing behind me but pain and suffering. Men had stood before me—murderers who maimed and killed. Sometimes they came in bunches. The job given me is to bring them to justice or leave them where they lay. There is no middle ground.
The Friars who gave me their brand of learning called me fraught with luck, but withheld grace. It was a fine line I walked—the line between hunter and hunted seemed blurred at times. Their sins are my own.
I feel older than my twenty-five years. If, like the knights of old who would drive their broadswords into the soil—the hilt making a cross to kneel before, the armor of my soul is dented and tarnished.
The town I rode into was a haphazard collection of buildings in eastern Kansas, a few miles west of Joplin, Missouri. A windmill graced the center of the street, blades turning a lazy circle—too dirty to reflect light, its shadow blinking cadence on the trough below. A malevolent sun beat down on my bleached hat and the pommel of my saddle was too hot to touch. Dust rose from the footfalls of my sorrel gelding and followed me like a cloud that no amount of speed could outrun.
There was a piece of shade next to an eatery called Jenny’s Café so after a bit of water at the well, I left the horse leaning on the building and stepped up under the awning. I used my hat to dust off my pants and desert-style moccasins that came up to my knees.
The shaded interior was a welcome relief when I sat at a table next to the window. Only a couple of people were in the room sipping coffee from blue-speckled pewter cups.
A woman came from the kitchen looking as weathered as the building. She tried to be friendly, I’ll give her that. The smile on her face was genuine and her voice so rough it hurt to listen. I wanted to clear my throat.
“Howdy. I’m Jenny. I’d give you a menu, but it wouldn’t do no good. We got beef and beans, maybe some spuds on the side. A little bread to mop it up with. That suit you?”
Between dried sweat and an ominous mood, my face felt wooden. I hadn’t smiled in a while, but tried to give her one. “Sounds about perfect, ma’am. Add a tall glass of water and some coffee to that and we’re in business.”
Her gaze dropped to the star on my vest. “You’re a marshal?” She glanced to the side as someone dropped their cup, and then turned back to me with a smirk as the room emptied out.
“Next time put that star in your pocket, so you don’t make the miscreants around here nervous. We’re mighty close to the Nation.”
She looked to be a down-to-earth country woman. I liked her and it was good advice. The bible says the wicked flee when no one pursueth. I’d heard of marshals being killed minding their own business by men who were afraid of discovery. That paradox did not escape me.
“Next time, I’ll do that very thing.”
She went to the kitchen and I stared out the dirty window. There wasn’t much to see except a few horses tied to the hitch rail in front of a saloon across the street. I watched a rider walk his horse down the street as my mind traveled the back-trails that led me here.
I was a youngster and only child when the Apache wiped us out—old enough to remember my name—not old enough to know why they attacked. There’s always a reason. Most of what I remembered about our place was told to me later. We had a little two-by-twice farm when they took us and the fight was over before I knew what was going on. I don’t remember a shot being fired. Years later I could figure what happened to ma, but by then captivity had hardened my soul. I rode by the old place once, and it was fit for raising scrub brush and rocks… and little else. I remember wondering why people put their lives at risk for something of such low return.
It was in my sixth season with the Apache when a cavalry unit attacked our village, led by a scout named Caleb McGill. I saw my chance when they went slashing through the camp and leaped on the back of his horse. He was trying to shoot under his arm at me when I yelled out I was a captive. Giving me a startled look, we took a powder out of there.
Once he had my story, told in a mixture of broken English and Apache, he took me in. He said he’d seen an orphanage once and wouldn’t do that to anybody.
In the following years, he taught me everything he could. He left the army and turned into a good sheriff for a few towns. I helped and learned what I could from him. No matter where we were, he made sure I could read and do my numbers. Like many folks, the Bible was the only book we had.
School was one thing he wouldn’t let me slack on. There was a school run by Franciscan friars for the Indians. He enrolled me and then left for a while. Most of their order resided in the southwest and I never knew how this mission was started. They once told me their order was dying out. All I knew was most of the Indians being taught were a lot smarter than me.
One day Caleb showed up with a judge in tow and handed me a badge. Because of my background it wasn’t long before I was being sent down into Indian Territory serving warrants. Caleb went his own way and we’d meet up once in a while in Kansas City or Joplin. Last I heard he was in southern Missouri—a place called Big Springs, looking to retire.
I was jolted off the memory trail when Jenny set a plate in front of me. I decided a plate that full needed cleaning so I set to the task.
She stood staring at me, wiping her hands on her apron. “You starving?”
I glanced up at her, swigging some scalding coffee. “No, Ma’am. I ate a couple days ago.”
Clearing her voice, she spoke again. “I’ve seen you before, you know. It’s been three-four years, but I remember.”
I gave her a glance but didn’t stop with my mission of cleaning that plate.
She kept at it. “I always wondered why they called you the Deacon. I been to church in my younger days. We had preachers and elders. Never heard of a deacon.”
“Preachers preach. Elders look after the flock. Deacons are teachers.” I glanced at her. “I claim none of that.”
“Some say I catch evil men and read to them from the Book.”
She smiled and it washed years from her face. “Well they got that wrong. From what I hear, you mostly read over them at the burying.” Her gaze held me a moment. “You don’t look like the killer you’re supposed to be.”
I shrugged. “It’s not a mantle I took on purpose. Sometimes a road doesn’t end where you want or the finish of it where you expect.”
“I’d say you’re not finished yet. So, did they deserve it—those you’ve read to from the Book?”
I shook my head and met her level gaze. “A much wiser man than me said we all deserve it—one time or another. I expect he’s right.”
The twinkle in her eyes told me she was about to lay some more country wisdom on me when the sound of three muffled shots interrupted our conversation. They were so evenly spaced I thought someone might be target shooting.
My handful of spoon and taters paused on its journey as I listened.
“Maybe it’s just a cow pusher drunk on skullbuster.” Her voice was skeptical.
A woman screamed from down the street, followed by the sound of hoofbeats fading away. I gave a sad look at my half-finished meal.
Sticking a last spoonful of spuds in my mouth, I tossed a dollar on the table. When she went digging for change I waved her away. Grabbing my hat I stepped outside. A man rushing by with a pistol drawn about run me over. Seeing a star on his shirt I figured he was the town marshal. Why he was in such a hurry was a mystery. I figured the shooter was long gone.
I paused and looked back. She was younger than I thought and seemed wise beyond her years. Maybe she was like me, putting up a front to guard the one within.
The stage office was a few doors away, with the coach and six-horse team tethered in front. I had a stray thought that if they didn’t water those horses soon they’d drop in their traces. By the time I got there the marshal was coming out the door with an grey-haired woman in tow. She stood on the porch while the marshal gazed down the street. A faint dust cloud still hung in the air.
When he turned and saw me, I watched his gaze settle on my vest. His shoulders slumped when he saw it was a US Marshal’s badge. I could see relief on his face.
“I’m Ed Stone, the town marshal.”
I shook his weathered hand with some curiosity. This was his town, his shooting—there were things to do.
“Coble Bray. Pleased to meet you.”
The man stepped back. “You’re the Deacon.”
I nodded, waiting him out. You could read the thoughts bouncing around his brain by his facial expressions. His gaze wavered between the older woman and me. What I didn’t expect was the level of honesty.
He shook his head. “That man’s going toward the Nation.” His glance at me wasn’t weak… exactly. “I should go after him. He killed three good men. To tell the truth, I’m afraid. I know I can’t match that man with my gun and he won’t come back if I ask polite.”
The marshal dropped his gaze and then met mine with a pleading expression. “I got a wife and kids.”
I wondered if this was the worst thing that had ever happened in this tired looking town as I put my hand on his shoulder and nodded. Nobody much cared if I didn’t show up for supper.
He gestured toward the woman. “Missus Peabody saw the whole thing.” He couldn’t get shut of us quick enough. Mumbling something about an undertaker, his run-down boots stomped back the way he’d come.
Dressed in blue calico with a bonnet to match, Missus Peabody gazed at me with a stern look through little round spectacles. She reminded me of every school teacher I’d ever seen. I was surprised when a slow smile graced her face. I knew what she saw—a tall young man in faded clothes with two pistols strapped to his waist, and a bone-handled skinning knife on my left side. I needed a new hat a year ago.
“You going to fetch that boy?”
I looked at her a moment and then inclined my head. “I reckon.” I grinned at her. “You the one that screamed?”
She gave a very unladylike snort. “That was the gal inside behind the counter. It was worse than the gunshots—like to busted my eardrums. Then she fainted. I wish she’d fainted first.”
“Do you know who did this? A name, maybe?”
“Seen him around. I never heard a name, so I just called him Baby Face. Looked harmless.”
I thought of that a moment while looking at someone’s leg sticking out the door. It twitched once and then was still. The window was open and powder smoke still drifted out of the room. She picked up on her story.
“Craziest thing I ever saw. Crazy as in strange. That boy walked in the door… nobody paid him no mind—and he didn’t say boo to anyone. He just pulled his shooter and killed the agent, stage driver and guard. It was like he’d gone to the dry goods store and was pointing out things he wanted. No expression at all. It spooked the hell out of me—pardon my French. They’d already unlocked the strong box, so he flipped the lid open and took a bag of money.”
She looked at me, shaking her head. “Just one bag, like it was an afterthought. Any outlaw worth his salt would take the whole box. Don’t make sense.”
“No ma’am. It never does.” I shrugged, wondering how the expression of the killer shocked her more than the shooting. “So, the best we have is I’m looking for a baby-faced man who kills casual-like, and with no name.”
I started to leave when she stopped me. “I can help some more.”
She walked over to the hitching rail a few feet behind the stage. “This is where he tied up his pony. It was small, kind of a brown and white paint. Not big like that ugly cuss you rode in on.”
I hope my horse didn’t hear her. He was cranky enough without hurting his feelings. “You notice a lot, don’t you?”
“I’m old. Got nothing else to do.”
I walked over and looked at the dusty earth by that empty hitch rail. The horse hadn’t been there long enough to scuff up the dirt much. It looked as if the right front hoof had a broken horseshoe that hadn’t worked loose yet.
“Well, now.” That was handy.
I went back to wake up my horse. Leading him to the water trough again, I let him drink a moment—just not enough to swell up. Swinging up on the saddle, I was surprised when Jenny brought out a bag and a wooden canteen.
“You didn’t get to finish so I threw together some chicken. It’s good, cold or hot.” She shaded her eyes with one hand. “You be careful, Deacon.”
I thanked her and rode out of town, tipping my hat to Missus Peabody standing sentinel on the boardwalk. What kind of life had she led that the killing of men bothered her less than the mystery of expression?
Later that afternoon I stepped off my horse under the shadow of a live oak. Trees and brush choked the banks of a meandering stream and from a distance it looked like a green snake that wandered through the rolling countryside of eastern Kansas. Since it flowed south, I figured it would connect with the Neosho river in Indian Territory. I took a slow look around before examining the churned earth.
Someone drove a small herd of cattle across the shallow water earlier and it took a moment to find the right tracks. Standing with the reins of the horse in my hands I studied the trail. The print was there. The trail of Baby Face lay on top of the others, and it was fresh.
I stepped past that oak leading my horse. Shucking my Winchester from the saddle scabbard, I started a winding path downstream looking for any sign. The water at the crossing was clear and not showing any fresh tracks. The older impressions were smoothed over by the fast-moving water of the riffle.
As I followed that creek south my head was up and looking around. I’d see his trail easy enough if it was there. Being raised by the Apache as a young boy had taught me many things. One was the value of ambush and this was the country for it. I didn’t like anything about this and it was getting worse with each step. The feeling of being watched rode my shoulders like a sack of rocks. The only sound I heard was my horse clomping behind me and the gurgling of water over rocks.
There was a bend in the stream just ahead and I stopped, concealed in the brush. A man squatted in the clearing ahead, holding the reins of his horse. His other hand held a gun but it was pointed down and he was looking the other way. The sandy earth was soft so I got within a few feet before he whirled and saw me. He didn’t bring the pistol up so I didn’t dust him off with my long gun. We stared a moment at each other while his horse walked away a few steps.
His pony was a paint and the man surely looked like a baby-faced boy. I figured he was the shooter from Hard Times. Another body lay at his feet.
“I’d appreciated it if you’d holster that pistol—real slow.” I didn’t want him to drop it—a dropped pistol can go off and you never know what direction it will shoot.
He surprised me when he did as I asked. I had the drop, but he gave in too easy. A shootout would get him killed and I’m betting he knew it. I figured he’d bide his time, thinking to catch me unaware. But he seemed listless like he’d given up. That surprised me. When I walked behind him I leaned the Winchester against a log and then grabbed him by the collar, taking his pistol from its holster.
“Now back up from that body and kneel down.”
He stared at the body as he backed up a few paces. His knees locked for a moment in protest and then he knelt when I pushed him down. I took a quick look around and saw no one else. I was nervous about this and looked to see if he had help. What this boy did at the stage station was stone cold. When I looked in his eyes all I saw was sadness.
“Why did you kill this man?”
He finally met my gaze. “Didn’t. That’s my pa. He was waiting for me.” He nodded toward the body. “Did you look at him?”
“I will.” Dead men were no mystery to me. Taking some rawhide strings from my saddlebag I tied his legs above his boots, and then his hands. “Did you kill those men back in town?”
A tear cut a dusty trail down his cheek as he shrugged. “I did.”
“Why didn’t you just take the money and go?”
“I knew the sheriff wouldn’t chase me. Those three were the only ones that might. Pa said to make sure no one followed me.” He nodded at the body. “Look at him.”
The man was laid out on the ground with his hands folded across his stomach. He may as well have been lying in a coffin. Far as I could see, there wasn’t a mark on him. A pistol was in his holster with the thong over the hammer. If this was the boy’s father, he’d either got sick and died or there was another killer about. I didn’t like that thought much.
I nudged the body and it was stiff. “When did you last see him?”
“Early this morning, about sunup.”
I knew it took less than half a day for rigor to set in, especially in the heat. It would be gone tomorrow.
“Did he know you were going to rob the stage?”
“He sent me. We needed money. He told me to not take it all. Maybe folks wouldn’t be so mad.” He pointed with his chin over his shoulder. “We got a place south of here.”
“Any more family?”
I sighed at that. It might be true, but likely not. They wouldn’t be the first to ride away from a homestead and not come back. It was a tough land. I felt sorry for those likely left behind.
The dead man’s eyes were open and I tried to close them. It didn’t work but I noticed something protruding from his mouth. Curious, I pried his jaw open and took it out. It was something I’d seen a lot. A small cross, like would be worn on a string around your neck.
I looked around, studying the trees and low hills. A man of reason would figure he’d been killed shortly after the young man had left. I’d accept that for now. Few people would stick a cross in their mouth if they were dying of natural causes, or have the time. I took him by the shoulder and rolled him over. No blood or wounds. What killed him? And who? It was what every lawman hates. A mystery.
If I was one of those new-fangled doctors from back east, maybe I could figure out more. I’d seen my share of the dead, some by my own hand. This was different.
I started to get a blanket off the boy’s bedroll when something occurred to me. “What kind of horse did he ride?”
He was staring at the body and didn’t respond for a moment. “Just like mine. We raised them.”
Walking a slow circle, I didn’t see any tracks but those of mine and his. No footprints—someone had to lay the body out like that. No tracks, and it wasn’t a windy day. It was like he fell out of the sky.
I’d pulled the shell belt and holster from the dead man to add to the kid’s hanging from my pommel. The small bag of gold coins was in my saddlebag. I had a small shovel in my pack that I mostly used for digging a fire pit. The ground was soft to about three feet down—that was all he was going to get. Not the best place, but I wasn’t going to wait a day for his body to loosen up enough to throw across a horse.
Rolling the body in a blanket I drug it into the grave. I untied the boy’s feet so he could stand. We stood at each end of the grave.
I couldn’t understand how a man sends his son to rob a stage office. I took a worn Bible from my saddlebags, but no verse came to mind to ease his pain. All things considered, he’d join his father soon enough. If the judge didn’t hang him, the people of Hard Times would.
“He was your pa. Whatever he was meant to be—what troubles he had… are long gone now. You can take comfort in that.”
His tear-streaked face turned to me and his gaze met mine. “Can you say some words over him?”
I nodded with a sigh and prayed for lost souls like his and mine. My mind was full of that blurred line between him and me. Not knowing how many words were required, I didn’t know if the boy was pleased—nor did I care. We all make choices. He made his.
Something splattered my face and the only sound I heard was the boy falling on top of his father. I dove into the nearby brush. My rifle was leaning on an old log. I had a strange thought that if all this flotsam came from high water—it must have been before I was born.
What wind there was blew away to the north, and I figured that shot came from a long way off. I wasn’t surprised I’d not heard the shot with the wind blowing away. Since no more came, I figured whoever made that shot didn’t want me. Another mystery.
I stood, half expecting to be hit with a bullet, and walked to the grave. It was a head shot to the boy and from the angle and direction, the shooter had to be in a low line of hills about a half mile away. I couldn’t make that shot in my wildest dreams. I’d heard of sharpshooters during the late attrition between the states doing it. I have to see something before I can shoot at it.
As I watched, a rider appeared on the crest of a hill. We stared at each other across that distance. I couldn’t tell if it was a man or woman. Finally, whoever it was raised a rifle over their head for a moment and then disappeared from the skyline.
I could have leaped in the saddle and given chase. I glanced back at the grave. I had two men that needed burying, but most important, a tired horse. I gave a disgusted sigh and the sorrel pricked his ears at me. I’d check for tracks later, but didn’t have much hope of finding anything. I wasn’t too sure if what I’d seen was any more than an apparition, but the kid’s head wound was real enough.
The burying was over and I rested on a log eating the chicken Jenny sent along. She was right, it was good cold. If the water in the stream ever rose this high again it would wash the bodies out of that shallow grave. I looked at the sky. Pigs would be flying by then.
I packed up and caught the reins of the kid’s horse. Mounted, I sat and looked at the hills. I still had that cross the killer stuck in the older man’s mouth… at least, I assumed the killer did it. A cold-blooded murderer was getting away free for the moment. With the same honesty the town marshal gave me—I admitted to myself I was afraid.
Riding to the top of the hill where I’d last seen the shooter, I looked back and could see the fresh grave. If this man wanted me dead, I’d never know it. Maybe I should take comfort in that, but it didn’t set well.
A fluttering of white caught my eye and I rode down the back-side of the hill to find a piece of paper stuck on a small branch. There was a printed note on it.
“You are too soft. If you don’t harden up, you’ll never catch me.”
I crushed that paper into a ball and started to throw it away—had another think and put it in my shirt pocket. Was this a game?
There was a slight indentation of a trail on the dirt surrounding the bush. It didn’t take much to figure out burlap was tied on the hooves of his horse, so that sign would be gone soon. The wind was picking up and starting to smooth over the dusty soil.
I turned back toward Hard Times to report to the town marshal. Three men gone in a day, for no other reason than desperation. Two more were gone at the whim of an unknown assailant. None by my own hand. That was an oddity I didn’t want to think about.
I looked around at the lengthening shadows. It was getting late, but I could make it back for supper.
The shooter? I’d bide my time on this one and keep my eyes open. My gut feeling says he’ll be around. Whoever made that shot may think this is a game—I do not.
More adventures of Coble Bray are found in the just released novel HALLOWED GROUND. Sold on Amazon, BarnesandNoble, Kobo and iBooks in paperback, ebook, or Audible.
Darrel Sparkman is a western novelist and feature writer in www.saddlebagdispatches.com
He’s also featured on www.ropeandwire.com and www.hometownreads.com
Witches of Bennett’s Pass ©
By Darrel Sparkman
The front door of the sheriff's office flew open and a massive form cast an ominous shadow on my desk. A commotion caused me to turn and I caught sight of my deputy fleeing out the back door. Damned coward.
A strident voice wheeled me back to the front. I'd just got an office chair with wheels on its legs, and liked the hell out of it. I can wheel about anywhere.
"Sheriff Coble. I'm glad you're finally in your office. It would be easier to find you if you'd stay here and keep regular office hours."
That one surprised me. Most would define my job as the county sheriff as being 'out of the office'.
"Call me Billy, Mrs. Arnold. Now what's the problem today?"
She pulled a small man around from behind her and I immediately wondered who else she was hiding. "Tell him, Samuel."
Samuel was about half the size of his wife, a phenomenon I'd seen before. I always looked for bruises, but never found any on him. I'm sure she was the sweetest thing on earth.
He took his hat off and worried the brim a little. "Well, Emma thinks that witch is at it again."
I mentally practiced a few times before I replied. "Which witch?"
Both of them turned to the side and spit between their fingers.
I felt relieved it landed on the floor.
"There's more than one?” She turned back to me. "I knew it."
I must have looked like a stepped-on frog. "Did you just spit on my floor?"
They both shrugged in unison. "It's how we keep spells away. You should know things like that."
"You just spit on my floor. I'm the county sheriff and you just spit on my floor. I could arrest you for that. Hell, I could shoot 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 over them at the couple. "We don't have any witches around here."
I expelled air in the sigh of the eternally oppressed. "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."
"All our milk cows are dry. Again. And we can't find a couple of our pigs."
I knew my face was twitching because I could feel it. When I tried to stop, it got worse. Maybe I was coming down with something.
"Your cows went dry?" I sounded like the village idiot to my own ears. "Do I have to explain the birds and the bees to a farmer? Cows go dry after a certain length of time, and then they need to get cozy with a bull. It's the way life is, unless you're a lizard." I paused a moment. "Where's your bull, Samuel?"
His hat was not going to survive the onslaught of his feverish fingers. "Uh, he ran off."
"You mean that falling down split rail fence you have didn't keep in a two thousand pound bull? I'm shocked."
He sidled closer to the desk as if imparting a secret. "We're thinking that witch ran him off. It's what they do."
I’d been doing enough head shaking to give myself a headache. "Your bull has been over at Fred Hansen's place taking care of his cows. He didn’t appreciate your bull breaking in his heifers. Some of them weren’t ready. He figures you can come and get your bull anytime next week. It should finish the job 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 and I was nearing that point. "Is there anything else?" Please, no.
"Well.” Emma put her hand on Sam's shoulder for support. "Tall Johnson, you know—the one that 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 turns over all by itself. His crops ain't doing so good because of that."
Finally, I could nod. "I know old Tall. He has two problems. One, he hardly ever leaves the tavern. His wife or local volunteers do most of the work around his farm. The second thing—he's trying to grow crops in the shade. If he wants to raise corn, he needs to find some land with sunshine. Is that it?” I was back to shaking my head. “Anything else?"
Emma examined every wall except where I stood. "There is one other thing, but it's embarrassing."
My fingers drummed on the walnut grip of my pistol and I sat back down. "I'll try and control myself."
"There's dancing going on."
"Oh, hell no.” I guess my voice gave me away.
Her voice became strident. "Someone saw women dancing in the woods yesterday evening. They said those witches 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?"
Samuel spoke up. "They weren't real sure. I guess they didn't notice any faces."
Naked dancing? In my county? Finally, something I could investigate. I love a mystery. "I'll get right on this, folks. You have my word."
I sat back in my new chair and visualized several evenings of investigation. Deputy Jones interrupted my muse by slinking in through the back door.
"Jones, you been messing with Tall's horseshoe again?"
"Aw, come on, Billy. It's just so easy. He only has one nail in it."
"Well stop it. He's going to shoot your ass someday while you’re sneaking around there. You'll cause an insurrection or something."
Jones just grinned at him. "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. 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 hereabouts know me, and some call me a traitor. Not to my face, though. I had a reputation for being a good scrapper even before the war. I fought for the North. The only thing that adventure got me was a couple of wounds that hurt when it rains—and a job as the county sheriff.
If I fought for the South, no jobs would be available. The carpetbaggers and bankers would try to steal any land I had—which I didn't. When my appointment came through from Fort Smith, I sent the Federals fogging it out of there. They went, because our county was so small and there were easy pickings about anywhere else.
My belly was grumbling so I walked down the street to Etta Mae's place. She put on a simple fare for folks passing through and some town folk that didn't want to go home and cook. After a meal of fried chicken and a slice of dried apple pie, I sat back in my chair thinking about life and women—dancing naked. And skeeters. I could look for women with enough skeeter bites to look like they had the pox. Or, I could look for missing women. Some of our skeeters are large enough to carry off a small woman.
Now, Etta Mae is good-looking. We have several around, but the war did that to us. The room had emptied out of customers when she ambled over to my table with a coffee pot and extra cup. She sat down and topped mine off before pouring herself a cup.
When I'd returned from the war, I'd made some eyes at her—thinking I'd settle down. 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 didn't know why she was still single, and she didn't care to tell me.
"You didn’t ask for seconds today. What's going on, Billy? You seem to be mulling over some problem."
I decided to lay it out for her. "You're friends with most of the women-folk around, aren't you?"
She nodded, getting a wary look about her. "Most of them."
"You know Emma Arnold? She's reporting some witchy things going on. You heard of any of that?” I watched her real close and noticed a tightening around her eyes.
“Witchy things?” 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. "It's my sworn duty to investigate that."
She gave me a mocking look. "It must be awful, having to investigate something like that. Getting anywhere?"
"Just started." I shook my head. "We can have some fun talking about it, but you know the folks around here. Something like this could have a serious side. There's some... well, peculiar folks about."
With a sobered look, she looked around. We were alone. "I know where you’re going with this and it doesn’t have to be something bad. Look at it this way. It's the middle of summer, Billy. It gets so hot in here it's hard to breathe. We can fry an egg on a flat rock, if it's out in the sun."
Her voice turned soft. "Just think about how nice it would be. A nice swim in a cold spring. Dance until you're dry all over and breathing in the smell of jasmine and honeysuckle. Did you know pine trees release their scent at sunset? It's so clean and fresh. You ever think about that?"
I am now.
I felt an urge to loosen my shirt collar. It must be warming up outside. "I'm starting to get my mind around it."
She scratched at her side as she spoke to me. "Well, there's no harm done by it. Is there? Not that I'd know anything about it."
It took me a moment to figure out how to answer that, distracted by her scratching. "I don't want anyone to get hurt, Etta Mae. For whatever reason. People might not understand it. Some of these hill folk haven't been twenty miles from home. Ever.”
I stopped as a sudden thought hit me. “My God, woman. There are Baptists around here. You need to spread a word of caution." I 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. I could see concern in her expression and wasn’t fool enough to think it was for me. "There's a nice little spread a couple of miles north of here—down on Cold Hollow. A widow lives there. She might know something."
"Got 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 is a nice person. And she’s a friend of mine. Be careful."
Her expression was serious. "I'm thinking you have a lot more expertise dealing with men and horses, than women. Sarah has a way about her."
I left a note telling Jones to hold down the office. I'd be gone all day. I could never call my deputy by his first name. Why in God's name would someone name a child Herkle I'd never know? For all that, he was a good man if his practical jokes didn't get him killed.
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. 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.
When I rounded a limestone outcropping I stumbled on a curious sight. Considering the players in the act, it would have been funny—if not so serious.
A woman stood in the back of a buckboard. Her black hair shone bright as a raven's wing, and piercing blue eyes settled on me as I rounded the rock. The sun shone through the canopy of leaves overhead, holding the woman in its bright clutches. It was as if a halo surrounded her. The light also highlighted the rope around her neck and hands tied behind her back.
"You." Her voice was soft, but carried well. Then she smiled.
The horses hitched to the buckboard were skittish so I jumped my horse forward and settled them down. Looking around, I wasn't surprised at the participants in the small lynching party.
I didn't have to ask what they were doing here. "I thought you burned them."
"That's what I said." Emma's voice was triumphant as she slapped Samuel on the arm
Besides the Arnolds, there were four men present. One was Tall Johnson, and I didn't know the other three.
"Mr. 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 shotgun pulled back. "I'd hate to shoot a woman, but I could manage it—if I had to."
"We'd just shoot you, Sheriff. You’re outnumbered." I noted the man who spoke, a stranger to me but a face I'd remember.
"That's all right. I've been shot at 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 good, Samuel."
He gave me a look that made me think he might be mean as Emma, but did as I asked.
I glanced at that woman standing in the wagon. "What's your name?"
"I am Sarah." She said it like a pronouncement, but I was too busy to follow up on it. I couldn't spare her another glance.
"Are you hurt?"
"No, sir. I am not... thanks to you."
I spoke to the others. "You folks go on home. I don't want to hear any more of this foolishness. I could press charges for attempted murder 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. She hexed me."
"He had his hand up my dress." Her response was calm. "Way up."
I noticed he'd been rubbing his face since I'd come up on them. "Tall, if you ever sober up you'd know that's plumb foolishness. But I'm betting you'll rub a hole in your face if you don't quit. If that gets infected, you could have a problem."
Emma had a parting shot. "Don't let her look straight at you, Sheriff. You'll get hexed, if you ain't already."
They all rode off, but I stopped the three men 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."
Finally... "We're from Missouri. Just looking about for a place to light for a while. This seems like good country."
Yeah, like I would believe that fairy tale. "How'd you happen to be here, helping the Arnolds on their witch hunt?"
Their spokesman was the man who'd threatened me. He looked about as trustworthy as a fox eyeing a chicken. "We just rode up on them, same as you."
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.
"All right. Here’s what is going to happen. About a day’s ride in any direction will get you out of my county. I'd take it as a personal favor if you'd pick a trail and leave."
The man tried to bluster. "We done nothing wrong."
"Oh, I'm sure you will—just not in my county."
I only saw one rifle, but pistol butts stuck out everywhere. Most border guerillas carried several. It was common practice during the war because there was no time for reloading. I guess these boys were carrying on the tradition.
They didn't like it one bit, but nobody argues with a double barreled shotgun at close range. After a couple of mean looks they left. I didn't know those men, but I knew their type. I'd stay wary of ambush for a while.
Her voice was soft and conversational. "It might have been better to shoot them."
I turned to look at her. She was beautiful in a thin blue cotton blouse and grey, pleated skirt. Reaching under the seat, she brought out a hooded bonnet. She put it on her head and tied the strings under her chin.
It surprised me that I could speak. "Seems a shame, covering up that hair."
Moments later that bonnet came off. "Whatever you wish, Billy."
How the hell? "Well, since you know my name that makes things simple. How'd you run into the Arnolds?”
"I was on my way over to Tall's place to talk with Emily. We're thinking of having a party. I didn't get far." She looked at me. "You know anyone plays the fiddle?"
"There's a few around. I bet Etta Mae would know of them."
I sat my horse looking at her. She didn't seem to mind, holding a small smile on her face. She was a rarely beautiful woman.
"You should carry a weapon. There's a lot of riff-raff out in these hills. I thinking you just met three of them." Something was bothering me. "When I rode up, you acted surprised it was me."
She shrugged. "I knew someone would come, and we'd be equally yoked for the rest of our lives. That it was you—well, that surprised me. Etta Mae said you gave up on women when she turned you down."
Well that phrase surprised me. I’d read my bible too. That it came from someone suspected of being a witch was disconcerting.
We sat in the near silence of the forest looking at each other. I'd seen other people do that, but they had many married years behind them. The wind whispered through the tops of the pines and never seemed to touch the forest floor. That same off-key magpie had followed me around and a squirrel barked nearby.
"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 just rob a bank."
Her laughter was a beautiful sound. "No, you don't need to do any of that. Not that you would. You're a good man."
Shaking my head, I said. "You haven't talked to the right folks. Some would disagree."
She looked around a bit, and then her gaze settled on me. "The war robbed us of a lot. You of your innocence—me of a husband. But we can recover."
I'd been staring into her eyes too long. "Are you putting a spell on me?"
"I hope so.”
"Lady, you don't even know me. I'm not a good man, at least not one any decent woman would want."
"Nonsense." She fluffed out her hair and then fingered errant curls away from her eyes. "You're an old soul, Billy. You have no idea what you are or are capable of doing."
Now that confused me and I was a little scared. "How could you know something like that? I’m not even sure what you mean."
She shrugged, looking away. That halo of hair seemed to sparkle. "It's not important. I just do."
I wasn’t having any of that. "It's important to me. I have decisions to make."
"All right." She settled on the seat of the wagon. "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 brave man and a damned fine shot."
She nodded, using another accent that I knew well. Her voice seemed to change at will. "And what do you know of Wales?"
I nearly laughed at that one. "A place that Englishman didn't like and his fear was noticeable. He said it was a spirit land. We didn't get along much when I told him my momma was from Wales."
She seemed to mull that over for a minute. "And your father? Where is he from?"
"Home grown—right here."
"Are they still alive?"
"Yes ma'am. When I went north to join up, they went to Texas. I got a letter from them. They’re living on the coast, fishing every day."
"I'd like to meet her. I'm too am from Wales. There are things of Wales you cannot know—should never know. Your mother and I would have many things to talk about." When she finally looked back at me, her face turned serious. "You need to take me home."
I was a little affronted that she thought knowledge beyond my ken. "Why? You got all the way here by yourself."
Those blue eyes pinned me to my saddle and my horse shuddered. It probably had a fly in its ear.
"Do you know the word peckish?"
"Folks around here would call me nettlesome." Even the horse looked at me on that one.
She shook her head, and then smiled at me. It was a big smile. "You're educated. Good. I guess I'll have to add to that. But for now it seems the riff-raff, as you called them, are at my ranch."
I looked around. How did she know that? Maybe that magpie was talking to her. I keep telling myself I don’t believe in any of that witchy stuff—I don’t. Of course, I could be whistling past the graveyard.
I let her lead the way, driving the buckboard so I could do some thinking. I sure couldn't do it sitting next to her. She smelled too good, and when she talked, it seemed I had to drop everything and listen. I didn't believe in witches—but, every woman practices a type of witchcraft in her own way.
Most folks wouldn't call me educated because we didn't have schools around. But, momma was and she taught me. She filled our home with books and my mind with stories she told. Papa helped but, for the most part, he farmed and hunted. We never wanted for much and it was a good life. The hills around us had just as many girls as boys, so my education wasn't lacking.
My problem is I have a mean streak. I'd call it perverse. Momma called it mule headed. I don't like anyone pushing me a certain direction without it being my choice. Maybe mule headed was a good description.
When my folks went south, it wasn't a peaceful thing. Papa was mad at me for siding with the North. I couldn't help it. When I looked at the problem, I knew the southern states were in the right—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? Raising cattle? Raising food?
Slaves? I'd never seen one, didn't know anyone who had—and didn't hold with it anyway. That wasn't what the fight was about.
The wagon stopped and brought me out of my reverie. Maybe that was my problem. She was leading me. 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 windbreak in the winter. A few horses grazed in the meadow. The wooded hills around made a natural fence. It was a beautiful place.
Her voice was quiet, indicating the valley with a nod of her head. "How do you like it?"
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." 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. Even if we leave, 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."
I nodded. "Teach them the error of their ways. Smite them hip and thigh. From the Book."
"So we're going down there? Are you sure you’re all right? You’re looking a little pale."
Seems she forgot those men have guns. Three to one isn’t good odds. Anyone not scared spitless in a fight is crazy. "Yes, ma'am. I have to go. You don't."
"Oh, yes. Yes, I do. I left my sister down there.” She looked at me and smiled. "She's the witch you're looking for. I hope we're not too late."
Three armed men and a witch. What could go wrong? I pointed my horse down the trail toward that house, and she followed close behind. It seemed the temperature dropped and I shivered—right there in the heat of the day. No wonder they called it Cold Hollow.
Of course, I finally remembered this place. There were several springs surrounding the valley. Those springs were so cold you could hardly swim in them. Cold air stays close to the ground.
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. I held the Greener 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 pulled off to the side when we stopped by the front porch. No sound came from inside the house. I started to dismount but 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. If they didn’t care, that meant they intended to kill us. That put a whole different think on the situation.
When I walked in that cabin, all eyes were on Sarah as she ran to her sister. They’d tied her twin to a chair and they looked that much alike.
The three men must have been agnostic toward witches. They had pistols drawn but not pointed anywhere in particular. I guess they thought they'd won a prize, with two beautiful women in hand.
I spoke from the door. "You boys drop those pistols."
To say I startled them would be an understatement. The man nearest me bleated like a sheep and shot into the floor. The other two were turning towards me with their guns coming up so I cut loose with that shotgun. One 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 still hung on the windowsill. The man that moved first wasn't going anywhere. He’d taken the full charge of buckshot.
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 hitting me high on the shoulder. I reached out and cracked him on the head with the barrel of my gun. He dropped like a sack of potatoes.
The boot hanging in the window was starting to move. I grabbed the shirt collar of that man, and pulled him back into the room. I guess he found out a window ain't that easy to go through, especially one as well built as this one.
I drug them both outside and roped them to the hitching post. When I went inside Sarah had untied her sister and both stood staring at me.
Sarah spoke to her sister. "He's a little sudden, but I do like him."
The twin spoke to me. This was going to be a 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 on their floor. "Yes ma'am. I could see you had them under control. What I noticed is they had you trussed up like a Christmas turkey on that chair. Did you get a late start with your spell?"
Sarah looked at her sister. "Don’t mind him. He's peckish."
By the time I pulled the dead man out and off the porch, I was feeling 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.
I offered to replace their wooden floor, but my words kind of slurred and I don't think they understood. I slumped down into a chair. About that time, Sarah noticed my wound.
With a screech, she grabbed me up from the chair and took me inside. She threw me on a bed and ripped my shirt apart. That was a good shirt, too. I figured 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. "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 they shot you. I've never heard of a fever coming on that quick."
"I feel pretty good right now. How could I have been sick? Don't you have potions, or something?" My addled brain finally caught up. "What about those men?"
"We got hold of Mr. Jones and he came out to get them. Seems they robbed a bank."
I snorted and it hurt my shoulder. "Jones figure that out for himself?"
"Well, we had to help out some. Emily was here too, so she kind of helped."
I just shook my head. "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. Pleased to meet you. And, thank you for rescuing me."
Heaving myself up from that bed, with Sarah's help, I walked to the table. "Well, Kate. That's all well and good, but I’m the sheriff of this county and we need to have some words."
"All right. Spit them out and I'll try to get them sorted."
She was stirring something in a black kettle hanging over the fire. I contemplated that a moment, thinking of frogs and newt's eyes. I looked at her but she wasn’t wearing one of those pointy hats like some drawings I’d seen. I didn’t remember seeing any cats around.
"I'm sworn to protect the folks in this county. That’s my job. Now, some of them are getting a mite skittish about things. They're afraid of spells, potions, and other witchy things going on around them."
“Witchy?” Sarah came over and put out a plate of biscuits with milk gravy poured over them. It was chunky gravy with pieces of chicken in it. It smelled so good I almost fainted.
"They also don't like women dancing naked in the woods. Some folks might think that's some kind of pagan ritual."
Kate looked over her shoulder at me. "I didn't think anyone cared. There were around ten, maybe twelve people hiding in the brush and watching us. They didn't seem to mind."
Now I hadn’t heart that. "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 love fried chicken.
Her voice was soft, while Kate watched with an intense gaze. "Is there anything else, Billy? Can I cut this up for you?"
Well, I looked around that room a minute. My mind seemed to be jumping all over.
"There is one more thing.” Both looked at me, their expressions expectant. I sighed. They'd breached the ramparts and I knew it. I did the only sensible thing I could.
"I see molasses in that jar. Would there be some hot bread to go with that?”
Bennett's Pass is quiet now. I married Sarah. It's a good thing, too. We have a baby on the way.
The Arnolds just up and moved their witch hunting business to Missouri and never did get their bull back. It would have been a long trip for the poor thing anyway. The last I saw him, he was plumb tuckered.
Tall Johnson didn't die from a boil on his face. That was nonsense. He walked out of the tavern, tripped and broke his neck on the hitching rail. Folks said he was sober, but I don’t believe it. I'd never seen him that way.
Herkle Jones has an alibi. He was delivering bank robbers to Big Springs. Emily went with him.
Etta Mae still throws together a good breakfast and we eat there most mornings. I quit trying to figure her out—she’s still a mystery.
We're getting a few more single men moving to the county, so the women are happier now. We had a strange circumstance. All the Carpetbaggers ran away—complaining of bad luck and strange sounds during the night.
We don't see Kate much. She's busy doing things. I don't know what. 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 county sheriff 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.