Published on Saturday, July 27, 2013
By L. Upton Illig
He had not thought it possible to feel worse, but this day had proved him wrong. The drizzle that lingered after two days' hard rain would not quit. Water dripped from the brim of his hat and ran down the folds of his black slicker. The spring storm had carved pools of water along the trail. His pony picked his way through the mud, tentatively, uncertain as to what lay beneath.
He estimated that it was early afternoon. He had ridden just ten miles this day.
"You there, Jake. You think you know a lot, but you are not so smart after all." The pony flattened his ears at the sound of his rider's voice. "Yes, you go ahead and laugh. But if you hadn't quit the trail, we might be clear of this by now."
Before first light they set out, and when the trail began twisting westward he realized his mistake. They had climbed up out of the bank at a different angle, and were headed on a new path.
He talked less and less to his pony Jake.
He would have to change plans. They were lost in hard country, and the most that he could hope for now was shelter from the rain. "Why, the way we are going, a bear cave—momma and all—would be preferable to this."
And he had not counted on how weary he was. Pushing ahead during the day, and sleeping at night in the open, in the rain, had caused his back to stiffen. "At least the pain will keep me awake, right, Jake?" Nevertheless, his head nodded several times and even now his eyes were closing when he heard Jake snort and felt him quicken his gait.
He looked up and ahead on the path through the black trees he could see the outlines of a building. Jake's ears turned up and he whinnied. "Well, Jake, it looks like we might find relief after all. It's a good thing that your ears are better than mine because—don't shoot!" he yelled as the blast of a shotgun tore through the air and shots ricocheted on stones near his pony.
Not wanting to repeat yesterday's misadventure, he wheeled the pony around in tight circles until Jake stopped, wheezing. He stroked his neck and turned his attention to the shooter. He wondered if, after all that had happened, he would be shot by a stranger.
"Don't shoot!" he yelled again. "I'm the circuit rider—Preacher John—I'm passing through—got lost on the road to Carthage—and would appreciate some shelter from the rain!"
"Come along and don't get off your horse till I tell you to."
He relaxed. The voice was high, and thin, and belonged to a woman. "Yes, ma'am. I'm coming slow."
As he rode around a bend in the trail he saw outbuildings—a lean-to with a mule, a corral, what looked to be a chicken house—and a cabin. A woman, standing in the doorway, held a shotgun aimed in his direction.
He pulled Jake up a good way from the house, still taking everything in, and deciding that whoever had built the cabin had done well. It was situated on a rise, with a view of the road clear enough to discourage intruders.
Despite the inclement weather he took off his hat and held it down by his side. "I'm sorry to disturb you, ma'am, but I'd be grateful for a few hours shelter. I'm the new circuit rider, and there is business that I need to attend to in Carthage—"
"You're a sight off the road to Carthage. Get off your horse and walk toward the house. Keep your hands high."
He dismounted and lifted the reins over his pony's head. As he walked toward the woman his boots sank deep into the mud, and he had a fearful vision of the earth swallowing him whole before he reached the cabin.
"Stop there! I heard about the new preacher. What proof do you have that you are him?"
He unbuttoned his slicker—the barrel of her shotgun began to rise—to show a white collar. "My pony's name is Jacob, and he was lent to me by Reverend Burnham, who's riding the circuit up in Kansas now. I've come from Diamond Grove."
He thought swiftly, sensing the woman's suspicion. "You may have heard about the Jackson wedding, down in Neosho? I did the officiating. It was in February. The Jacksons have a big hog farm down there."
The shotgun was lowered. "Put your horse in the corral. Come in the house and get dry."
He looked down. "If it wouldn't be too much trouble, ma'am, I would rather put my pony in the barn. He has had the worst of it during this trip. I can stay with him in the barn. I would not like to inconvenience you."
The shotgun pointed at the ground. "My husband's two plow horses are in there, but I expect there's room for yours." She hesitated. "Come inside the house, then. Bring your gear with you. But I'm keeping the shotgun on you."
As he took off Jake's saddle and bedded him down, he looked around the barn. The two plow horses were there, as the woman had said, but there was also a black-and-white paint, unaccounted for, tied up. Harnesses hung on the walls, and a plow, dull from use, stood in the corner. Buckets of tools and nails, and an old saw, sat on a bench. All that's missing, he thought, is the farmer.
As he lugged his saddle, rifle, and gear across the yard in the rain he allowed himself a smile at the woman's expense. If I had really intended harm, she would not be here now, he thought. And then: But if she had intended harm, I might not be here now, either.
As he opened the door he saw the woman, sitting in a chair, the shotgun still in her hands. But he also confronted a sight that surprised him: a nervous young man, with a shock of carrot-colored hair, standing next to her, gripping a single-action Colt. The unlikely pair unsettled him. Could he be dreaming—still astride Jake, and asleep? He forced his mind back to the present, and recalled the barn, and thought, this boy accounts for the extra horse.
He addressed the woman first. "I am grateful for your hospitality, ma'am, and after a few hours rest will be glad to trouble you no more." To the boy he said, "I'm pleased to meet you."
"Don't try anything, Mister, because I'm ready—"
The woman interrupted him. "It's a little late for that, ain't it, Billy? Put your gun down. I'm sorry, Preacher. I'm Carrie."
"Thank you, ma'am," John said, fixing his attention on the boy. "I am most sorry that I have disturbed you and your son—"
She laughed. "This youngster? I should say not. He's another traveler passing through—so, you see you're not my only guest today. Put your gear in the corner and use that blanket. You can make your bed over there." She looked out the window. "It's not likely to clear up soon. You might as well stay the night, too."
He did as instructed and unrolled the blanket. It is just the woman and her husband, he thought.
And the husband is not at home.
He avoided the boy's scrutiny. Something in his dark eyes bothered him, and the gun . . . . He was still puzzling over it when fatigue claimed him and he fell asleep.
He did not know how long he had been sleeping when the smell of food woke him. He sensed something amiss but in a few moments remembered where he was—Jake safe in the barn, the cabin, Miss Carrie, and Billy. He could hear them talking at the table but he did not move. They were talking about him.
"But how do you know he's a preacher? He could have robbed the real preacher and taken his gear."
"He seems all right."
"He could be one of the horse thieves!"
"That's enough, Billy. I can't see why you're so anxious about him."
John yawned, deliberately, and sat up. He looked at his hostess and hung his head as if he had committed some blunder. "Pardon me, ma'am, but I expect that I have taken advantage of you and overstayed my welcome. How long have I slept?"
"About two hours," Miss Carrie replied. "Your snores were like to wake the dead. Supper's on the table. I've not been cooking much since Ed left, but I expect this'll be enough to tide us over until tomorrow."
He took a seat at the table and sipped the tea. It was cold and sweet.
"I am grateful to you." As he took some bread, he asked, casually, "Has your husband been gone long?"
"About a week. But I expect him any day. Ed never stays away from the farm too long. Horse thieves have been robbing the families hereabout, and Ed and the others have ridden out to—scare them off." She had hesitated too long and could not cover her mistake.
But he only nodded. "I have heard about the thieves. And also, that some of the judges can be bought. It is a bad business."
Miss Carrie ladled stew into his bowl. "My Ed and the neighbors are good men. They'll do what they have to do and no more." She went to the stove, and standing with her back to him, asked, "Did you say you were from Diamond Grove?"
"No, just passing through. I'm from Little Sparta. You probably haven't heard of it," he added. "It's down across the border in Arkansas."
"Why, I believe the Millers live down there. You probably know them?"
Now it's my move, he thought. "No, I don't think I do, but I was only a boy when my family left there. I haven't been back."
Throughout their conversation he could feel Billy staring at him. Suddenly the boy exclaimed, "Say, what kind of preacher are you, anyway? Aren't you going to say grace?"
"I hope you will forgive me. I am afraid that my stomach has gotten the best of me. Miss Carrie, I would be privileged to say grace, unless you would like to do the honors."
The blessing was dispensed with, and John focused on the boy. "Where are you from, Billy?"
"Baltimore. They call me Baltimore Billy. I'm heading to Texas to sign up for a cattle drive. I'm going to be a wrangler."
"That's a far piece, Maryland to Missouri. I hope that your travel has been pleasant."
"Pleasant! I guess not."
John kept his eyes on his plate. "Trouble?"
"I'll say. But I took care of it!" And he waved his gleaming firearm, holster and all, for them to admire.
Neither John nor Miss Carrie spoke.
But Billy was eager. "I got them—or at least one of them! Two bushwhackers jumped me in the dark. I was making camp, and they didn't think that I heard them. But I grabbed my gun and shot one dead. If the other hadn't made off on his horse I would have gotten him, too." Billy launched into an elaborate account of the ambush and ended with, "I buried the fellow I killed the next morning, which was more than he deserved!"
"You're most too young to be shooting a man," said Miss Carrie.
"Age ain't got nothing to do with it! You got to have a gun in this country. When you got a gun, people listen to you."
John put down his tin cup. "You didn't get a good look at the other man?"
"When did you say this happened?"
"Two days ago."
"No—must have been twenty miles from here."
"East or west?"
"East. Didn't I say I was traveling west?"
"My Ed says that guns shouldn't be in the hands of bad men, young men—or fools," Miss Carrie said. "We're God-fearing folks. We try to turn the other cheek, just like it says in the Bible. Ain't that so, Preacher John?"
"The Lord wouldn't want you to do anything else."
Billy's face reddened. Pointing to John's gear in the corner, he said, "I see you carry a rifle!"
"Your eyesight is mighty keen, Billy."
The boy refused to let go. "I bet you never had to shoot a man!"
"Not since I became a preacher."
When, at length, the wind began to moan, breaking the silence, it was a relief to all of them.
"I wondered when the wind would pick up," John said.
"Wind always comes after a big rain," Billy muttered.
"That's so," John agreed. "It will be bad for a while, but it will clear out the storm."
Miss Carrie began to collect the supper dishes but stopped. "I better check to see if the animals are all right. Ed will have a fit if we lose any of the livestock."
"As if those old nags of yours were worth anything, anyway!" Billy said.
John rose. "No need for you to go. I'll see to it."
The chicken house door was latched. The mule, tied in the lean-to, was worrying his rope, but John figured that it would hold. I'll ask Miss Carrie in the morning if she has a stronger tether, he thought. He stopped for a minute and eyed the mule. "You settle down—we're not tolerating any foolishness tonight." Then he went into the barn.
All four horses were standing quietly. "You, Jake pony. You think that boy is lying, don't you?" He rubbed Jake's ear and the pony stuck out his tongue. "Maybe. I hope we don't have to find out." The pony shook his head sideways, as if in response to a poor joke.
His revolver was still in his saddle roll. It might be his only advantage.
When he returned to the cabin, the woman was in her chair, crocheting a scarf. Her hook darted swiftly in and out of the loops of yarn. Baltimore Billy, his head down, was polishing the barrel of his gun.
"Everything is closed up and the animals are standing pretty easy. It looks to be a rough night, but I expect that they will come through it all right."
"Thank you, Preacher. I don't mind saying that I'll be glad when Ed gets back. He should be coming along pretty soon." She slipped some of the stitches off her hook. "What business did you say that you had in Carthage?"
"I have to bury a fellow."
"Ah." And after a few moments: "Ed and I aren't able to get down to church very often. Since you're here, would you mind reading some scriptures?"
"My Bible is packed in my saddle roll, ma'am, but—"
"You can use mine. It's over there by the lamp."
Still in the game, he thought. He examined the small leather-bound book. The edges of the pages were yellowed. He turned a few and stopped.
"This inscription here, ma'am—'To Edmund and Carolyn Brown, upon their Sacred Union, Joplin Creek, Missouri'."
"Yes, the preacher down there married us, thirty-two years ago. Our anniversary is June 6. Thirty-three years! It don't seem possible."
John put down the Bible. Miss Carrie's face, half-hidden in shadow, bent over her needlework. "I'll be glad when Ed gets back," she said again.
John looked out the window. "Is there anything in particular you would like to hear?"
As he read, the wind grew and pushed its way through cracks in the log cabin. John stumbled over one of the verses. Miss Carrie seemed not to notice.
It was the boy who heard it first.
"What was that?"
"Didn't you hear it? Something—outside the house."
All three stopped what they were doing.
"I expect it was just the wind tossing some branches around," John said. "When I was out there earlier—"
"I hear it again!"
Miss Carrie dropped her needlework in her lap. John was about to get up when he heard it, too.
Something near the house.
Billy jumped up with his gun in his hand. "I'm not going to sit here and get killed!" And he ran to the door, pushed back the bolt, and rushed outside into the dark.
John did not hear Miss Carrie's cry as he ran after the boy. But he could make out his shape in front of him—or was it two shapes?—and then the sound of the boy's gun split the night over and over again and John heard something go down.
He grabbed the boy from the back and shoved him to the ground, yanking his gun from him. With one hand holding him he aimed the gun into the night.
There was a groan directly ahead of them, and then silence.
"Who's there?" John called out. "Tell me who you are and I won't shoot!"
John lay still. Billy, shaking under his grasp, whispered, "Did I get him?"
"Shut up," John said.
They were lying on the wet ground in the wind. There was no movement from the thing in front of them. John shivered, but it was from a coldness growing inside him.
"I must have got him?" the boy asked.
"Don't move," John said. He lifted his head and saw the wind scattering the clouds and guessed that in a few minutes the moon would break through. "Stay on the ground and don't move."
John left the boy's side and inched forward on his stomach toward the figure on the ground. He was still working his way forward when the moon burst full in the sky and flooded the yard with light and he saw what lay ahead.
He stood up and lowered the gun. The boy scrambled to his feet and ran to him. He stopped so fast that John had to hold his arm to keep him from falling.
"You got him pretty good. Miss Carrie's mule won't be troubling us again any time soon, I expect." John walked over to the dead mule and examined his frayed tether. "I guess I was wrong about that."
He looked down at the mule. "You should have listened to me, mule."
Dawn had not broken when he heard sounds outside. He was still half in a dream, in which Jake was in the kitchen eating Miss Carrie's cornmeal batter, when he realized that the sounds were real. He saw that Miss Carrie was not up yet and he got his rifle and went out.
Billy was leading his horse out of the barn, saddled and ready to go.
"Leaving so soon?" he asked.
John looked up at the sky. A clear sunrise was chasing out the last of the stars. "You'll have good traveling weather today. You should be able to make twenty miles by nightfall."
Billy swung up into the saddle. "I'm going home."
"Not joining the trail drive?"
"No. Maybe when I stop shooting mules I'll come back." He fumbled in his saddle bag and gave John a handful of greenbacks and coins. "You can give that to Miss Carrie for the mule." He pulled down his hat. "Say, if you want to ride along with me—I can wait."
"No, you had better go ahead. Maybe Miss Carrie and I will meet up with you in Carthage."
"Why, does she have business there, too?"
"Yes. It's her husband I'm burying. "
"I didn't know it until I saw the inscription in her Bible. The townsfolk were supposed to send someone out, but I guess they got held up by the storm. Those horse thieves her husband and his friends were after—they shot him dead. And got away."
Billy's face flushed. "Why, you knew last night and didn't tell her! What kind of man keeps something like that to himself!"
"She'll find out soon enough."
They both looked toward the house. Smoke was rising from the chimney.
Billy stared down at John. "You know, for a preacher, you sure don't sound much like one."
"And you don't sound much like a mule killer."
John put his hand on the horse's cinch and tugged on it. "'Wisdom is the principle thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting, get understanding.' Proverbs, 4:7."
Billy's eyes widened but John, tightening the cinch, stepped back and slapped the pony on the rear. "So long, Baltimore Billy!"
The pony trotted out of the yard. John watched until they rounded the bend and disappeared behind the trees.
L. Upton Illig is a book critic for the company, Children's Literature www.childrenslit.com, and specializes in identifying and promoting high-quality Western literature for young readers. Illig's reviews are distributed to schools and libraries around the country, and often appear on the Barnes & Noble website. Illig's own short stories, in a variety of genres, have been published in magazines such as The North Atlantic Review, Residential Aliens, and Larks Fiction; non-fiction has been published in Sky and Telescope.