Published on Friday, January 24, 2014
By Callie Smith
None of this would have happened if Mick's buckskin mare hadn't shied – and shied at what, I still don't know. All I know is she suddenly skittered to the side, slipped on some loose shale, then pitched herself and Mick down the gully.
The six of us could only rein in our own horses, then watch as Mick and his mare rolled to a stop ten feet below us. Neither got up. The buckskin floundered a second in the wet leaves, and I could tell she'd snapped a leg. Mick lay beside her, looking like a crushed minnow, his shirt turning red just under his right arm.
Mick was bleeding bad. A sapling stub had pierced his side as he fell, and who was to say that the horse hadn't stoved his ribs in too?
"Blasted shame!" spat Dempsey, looking at the mare. He'd been eyeing that horse since Mick had joined the gang a month ago. Now no one would get to ride her, especially not Dempsey.
As if they thought Mick was as much a goner as his horse, nobody was helping him. Cursing shakily, I stuck both my hands over the bloody spot, even though the warm ooze brought bile to my throat. Swallowing it down, I said, "We gotta help him."
Mick was gasping something; sounded like he was cursing that mare. I couldn't say I blamed him.
Brady squatted down beside me and impatiently said, "Move aside, Ben."
I moved aside, brushing my hands on my trousers to wipe the blood away. But I couldn't wipe it all off; I just smeared it some.
Reid's gang had four men who could shoot a blue jay from a treetop while riding full gallop (I wasn't one of them), and all of them were cool hands in a gun fight. But not one of us had a doctor's skills. Brady knew the most about doctoring, said he'd seen a lot of it while he fought for the reb army twenty years back. He was old enough to have fought there – almost sixty, I'd guess. Except for Mick, Brady was the oldest. But Reid was the smartest, and he was the boss.
As Brady pulled out the stub and bound up the wound, I heard Lee and Sean, the Kai brothers, commence to grumbling about the time.
"It's near sundown," Lee muttered. "How we gonna get there with the old man all bunged up?"
"The road's still miles off," Sean said. "Let's just put him and the horse outta their misery and get going."
I don't think Mick heard that. He was fading out, and wouldn't have heard a shotgun blast if it had gone off beside him. But I heard, and my skin prickled with fear for Mick. I'm not saying I particularly liked the old man, but I didn't dislike him. He was always decent to everybody.
So I found myself stammering in a voice higher than I'd have liked, "That ain't your call!"
Lee made a show like he was mystified, then asked Sean, "You hear that? Thought I heard a bird chirping somewhere."
I was weighing the wisdom of socking Lee's already sunken jaw, when Garrick called down from the path, "Boss, the winds pickin' up, and the horses are getting shifty."
He was right about the wind. Even in the shelter of the woods, I could feel the October gusts slice through my thin jacket. The western Virginia Mountains were cold as they were treacherous.
"I know it!" spat Reid. He then turned to Brady. "How about it?"
Brady straightened. He'd turned Mick's shirt into bandage strips, then buttoned Mick's coat back over the whole thing. "He'll pull through if he can lay still for a few days."
"What," Lee said, "you're saying we camp out right here for a week – until the he gets all better?"
"I ain't waitin' around," echoed Sean.
"This ain't the place to wait anyhow," said Brady, hugging himself against the wind.
My mind suddenly raced back the trail a couple miles, and before anybody else could say a thing, I shouted, "That old cabin we passed a ways back...we can take him there!"
"Yeah," sneered Lee. "And miss the stage."
Predictable as a mill wheel, Sean backed him up. "It'll take forever to back-track, even if it wuttin' near dark."
"Ain't neither of you got sense," Reid snapped, and the brothers went quiet. Then he said, "One of us'll take the old man to the cabin. We'll make the raid, then meet up back there."
It all made sense when Reid sorted it like that. Reid was smart, and that was why he was in charge.
"Well, we gotta hurry, anyhow," called Garrick.
Reid shouted for him to "just you mind the horses and shut up," then nodded toward me. "The kid'll take Mick."
If Reid had twisted my ear I couldn't have been more ashamed than when he called me a kid. I was no kid. I'd been grown up ever since I left my pa to his whiskey a year back. But the rest of Reid's gang being at least ten years older than me, they had it in their heads that I couldn't keep pace with them. Even old Mick talked down to me, though I knew I could out-fight him any day. Of course, I wouldn't have fought him, since he was old enough to be my granddad; but the way he always called me "son" irked me. I don't think he meant it bad, but I hated it all the same. I wasn't anyone's son anymore.
Maybe that was why I said, "Why me, boss? You need me."
It was an empty claim, but worth a try.
Lee laughed. Sean looked at Lee, then joined him. Reid's mouth tugged upward at one corner, and I grew hotter than I thought possible on a night like this.
"We've gotten by without you so far," Reid said. "I think we'll make do tonight. But tell you what – I'll let you get some target practice in. I'll let you shoot the mare."
At these words, the heat inside me seeped out like I was full of holes. But seeing Lee's mocking grin, I squared my shoulders and tried to look like I'd been dying to shoot the mare all day, even though the only things I'd ever killed before were snakes and varmints. I drew my pistol and walked to the mare. She'd stopped struggling to rise, and just lay there looking at me like she expected me to help her. My back was turned to the others, but I could hear Brady and Sean hefting Mick up the hill. And I could feel Reid watching me like a falcon.
I aimed for the place just above the mare's eyes and shot her twice. The way she twitched before finally lying still made my eyes started stinging, and I was glad for the growing dark.
We all climbed back up to the path, where I helped Brady strap Mick to the saddle with his own lasso. Then we took the dead horse's tack – the horse I'd killed – and lashed it alongside him. No sense in losing a good saddle and bridle.
"Take him to the cabin, then wait," Reid said to me. "Wait right there."
I wondered just where else he'd expect me to wait, or just what I'd have to do to show Reid that I wasn't a kid. And I wondered what it would feel like to show Lee and Sean up – to ride faster and shoot straighter than either of them. On the next raid I'd do that, then they'd be the ones staying back. Aloud, I said, "Okay, boss."
They left us – me holding my gelding's reins, Mick slumping over the saddle, and the wind getting colder as dusk turned to night. I glared after the thudding hoof beats, then turned my gelding, leading him and Mick in the opposite direction.
The cutting wind matched my thoughts. Reid had made me stay back for the last two raids as well. But during the six months that I'd been riding with the gang, I'd grown surer with my gun and my reins, and Reid had said he figured I wouldn't hold them up this time. I would have proved myself tonight if Mick's horse hadn't shied. My stomach quailed as I recollected killing the mare, and I cursed my squeamishness. If Reid knew how yellow I was, he'd send me packing straight off. I had to show him I was as much a man as he was. But when I looked back at Mick I felt even yellower than before, because I wondered if he'd die. What if I got him to the cabin and found that I was alone with just a corpse? I knew what that was like. When I was five, my ma had died with only me in our shanty...the drunk who called himself my pa had never been around.
I shook the memories off. That time was passed, and now I just needed to keep Mick alive. I wasn't going to see another death tonight. And if I could keep Mick from dying, then Reid would know I was able to tow my weight as good as anybody. As good as Lee especially.
I'm fast, and the time couldn't have topped an hour before I'd found the deserted cabin. Pushed off the path as it was, it was almost lost to the night; but I was looking for it, and caught the tin roof's faint glint. I tied the horse on the side shielded from the wind, then looked over
Mick. He was alive, though still out colder than the freezing night.
I unlaced him from the saddle, and since he was taller than me, I had to drag him instead of carry him. The cabin's one room was dark as a grave, but at least there was no wind. A minute's groping found me the fireplace, and finding the fireplace soon had me wondering if I should risk a fire. I didn't wonder long; at the moment, having light and heat seemed to outweigh most any risk. Besides, we'd lost that posse days ago, and the night was cloudy enough to mask what little smoke a fire would make. That figured, I checked out Mick again. I couldn't feel any fresh blood around the wound, and I knew Brady's bandage must be holding up. It should be all right to leave Mick long enough to fetch kindling.
The night was dry. So far, that was the one thing going right. Just five minutes found me an armload of dry sticks and pine needles, and soon I had a young flame reaching up the stone chimney. I went to Mick again, felt him shivering even though he was senseless, and I noticed for the first time how damp his coat was. Dragging him close to the fire, I then took off my own coat and I laid it over him. He needed it more than I did, and I wasn't letting him catch chill and die on me. As for his own coat, I opened it out and spread it before the fire to dry.
That was when I noticed something.
There was a bulge in the inner lining, and a rip in the bulge's corner. Maybe the fall had caused the rip, through which I could see something that flickered white in the firelight. It looked like paper.
What kind of person kept paper hidden in his coat? Because that was what it was – hidden – and looking at it gave me a hungry feeling. The hunger wasn't just in my gut (though I swear the hoecakes from hours ago were long spent); it was in my mind too. My ma had taught me reading, and I'd always been curious about words. My pa...that is, people, had said reading was for weaklings, so I'd kept quiet about my learning. But now I was glad I could read, because I was hungry to know what was on those papers. Besides, I had nothing else to do.
I ripped the pocket open all the way, then fished inside. One folded paper... no, two. I plucked them out, unfolded them, then held them close to the fire. The glow turned them orange, like they were about to jump into flames themselves. I squinted at the words, printed words. I saw the photograph, then the handwritten list.
I nearly dropped the papers as I wheeled to stare at the man lying on the rough wood floor.
Then I looked back at the glowing papers, which told me that Mick's real name was Joshua Harding, and that he was a rat. A Pinkerton rat. I figured the papers were purposed to prove who hhe was. To prove who he was when he was ready to betray us to the nearest posse.
"What're you doing?"
It was no more than a whisper, but I nearly jumped out of my skin. Mick was awake. Maybe the sound of rustling paper had penetrated his faint, or maybe the fire's warmth had thawed him back to life. Either way, there he was, staring at me quietly.
A fleeting moment had me feeling like I was the rat, instead of him. Then it was gone, and all
I felt was mad. I flapped the papers at him. He looked at them blankly, then knowing seeped into his sharp eyes.
I spoke first, still brandishing the papers, "Joshua Harding, Pinkerton man. This here's your picture, so don't try and lie about it."
Mick – Joshua, that is – looked at my coat over his chest, grimaced at the bandage, then said simply, "Well, all right."
I hesitated, not sure where to go with that.
Joshua filled in the quiet, saying in a weak voice, "My mare?" He took a deep breath, as if that question had drained him dry.
"Sprung her leg, so I shot her."
"Shame. Fine cutter. Where're the others?" "They're gone to hold up the stage," I huffed. "Where else? Reid sent me here to keep watch over you."
"Looks like you kept watch." He took another sighing breath. "Over my belongings too."
Though my toes were icy, my face grew hot. I told myself the the hotness came from the fire, not shame. "Good thing I did, too. When did you plan on turning us in?"
He sighed again. "For now I was just learning Reid's haunts. Stopping what robberies I could."
"Like this one?" I snorted. If he'd planned on stopping this raid, he was too late now.
He didn't answer, just asked, "Reid's coming back here, then?"
I took up a loose stick and stirred the fire. It was blazing brightly now, turning the wood to hot coals. "Yeah." Only then did I really think about what would follow the gang's return. What would happen when I told Reid who the old gun hand really was.
Joshua must have been thinking the same thing. "You're gonna tell them about me."
He spoke so quiet you'd have thought he was mulling over a card game. His quiet unhinged me, made me sick inside. I scowled down at him. "What do you expect me to do?"
"Reid will finish me off."
That was true. When Reid found out Joshua was a Pinkerton, he'd kill him, just like he'd killed his horse. Well, sticking to facts, I had killed his horse...
That thought made me look away from the old man. It was plain now that if Reid killed Joshua, it would be because I'd told on him. If Reid killed Joshua, I might as well own to killing him too, just like I'd killed his horse. But why should that bother me? Hadn't Reid once said that only children were scared of killing? I was no child.
Eyes still trained on the hot coals, I said, "You'd have seen every one of us hanged."
"No, I'd have seen every one of you brought to a judge."
A judge. Fat chance I'd have in a court house. I stayed silent.
He spoke up again. "How old are you, anyhow? Seventeen? Sixteen?"
He was mighty close to the mark, but I doggedly said, "Twenty."
"Now who's lying?" he asked, dryly. "Listen, son. If you part ways with this bunch now, you could stand a chance getting as old as me." This speech left him breathless, and he waited for me to think this through.
But I didn't want to think it through; I'd made up my mind six months ago that this was my place. So I surprised myself when I said, "What, you got a plan?"
"Keep quiet about who I am. In a couple days I'll be on my feet..."As he paused for breath, I observed he'd probably need more than a couple of days to be on his feet. "I'll cut out then," he went on. "No harm will come to you or the gang. And if you want to go with me, I'll help you start fresh, son."
Turning to glare at him, I said, "I ain't your son, and I don't need your help."
His gray eyebrows met as he frowned. Then he said quickly, like it was hard to bring himself to it, "Well, I need yours."
I stared at him, surprised. In all my days, I'd never heard a man talk like that, saying he needed someone's help. Joshua didn't look happy that he'd said it, but he didn't take it back.
I looked away again, not answering because I didn't know what to say. Joshua didn't speak either, and I figured that although he'd asked for help, he wasn't up to begging for it.
We both kept quiet a while, except for me offering him some water from my canteen and him saying no. Time dragged by, marked by me steadily stoking the fire and the Pinkerton man breathing shallow.
I ran out of firewood after a while, and I shivered at the thought of ducking back into the cold night. And I wondered if it would be smart to leave Joshua alone in here. What if he tried ambushing me when I came back in? But looking at the old man, I guessed I need not worry.
He lay there staring at the rafters and looking limp as withered grass. I ran my hand over my pocket, where I'd wadded those papers, then said, "I'm getting more wood."
He blinked, but didn't answer.
Hugging myself, I looked at his coat still spread on the hearth. It wasn't dry yet, but its shelter would be better than nothing. "I could use your coat," I said.
"I can't stop you," he muttered.
The Pinkerton's coat was too big for me, but I tucked it into my belt as I stepped into the night. The evergreens around the shack masked the clouded night sky, and only a stray shaft of moonlight made it through to the leaf-strewn ground. Rushing against the wind, I hunted out more dead branches and wondered when Reid would return. It shouldn't be long now. But as I thought about him getting back, my head grew hotter than if those fire coals had been piled on my hat. Would I give up Mick...I mean, Joshua? Should I?
Sounds broke into my puzzling, and I stiffened. Hooves pounded the distant path. Reid was coming back.
That was when I knew for certain that the last thing I wanted to do was rat on Joshua. I didn't want to kill him any more than I'd wanted to kill his mare.
For some reason, deciding this made my head cooler and my limbs lighter; I ran back to the cabin, only just remembering to peek through the door crack to make sure Joshua was still in his place and not waiting to jump me. Then I swung inside, panting as if I'd run five miles instead of five yards.
Joshua turned his head to me.
I gasped, "They're coming."
"What happens now?" He sounded way calmer than me.
I moved quickly as the hoof beats grew louder. Drawing the papers from my pocket, I thought about tossing them into the flames. But I changed my mind. Walking to his side, I placed them beside his hand and whispered, "You said you'd leave us be when you're stronger. If you do that, I'll keep your secret, old man."
He sighed long and loud, and only then did I see how scared he'd been this whole time.
Feeling ashamed for him, I pretended not to notice. I walked to the door again and cracked it open. I could just make out shadows up the path.
Looking back at Joshua, I saw him wrap a hand around the papers. He said, "We'd do better to burn them."
I'd done enough double-dealing for one night. I grumbled, "You're close enough to the fire – you do it."
He made no move, but asked, "You can see them?"
I peered back outside. The figures were closing in fast, surrounding the shack. Now they were all but at the door. Suddenly I caught my breath, then shut the door.
Joshua looked at me, puzzled. "What ails you?"
I don't know why I grinned. This sure wasn't funny, but I felt like I was about to tell him some joke.
My throat gone dry, I said, "There's a posse outside."
At twenty-three, Callie Smith is a freelance artist who has sold both fine art and commissioned work for the past five years. If you'd like to view more of her artwork, feel free to visit her website or on wordpress.