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Published on Monday, November 12, 2012

Vengeance Comes to Town

The Storekeeper Part 2

By Paul Peppers

 

"Will she be alright, Doc?"

Jake squeezed his daughter's limp hand and felt no answering pressure.

The doctor was a small man with carefully tailored clothes and silver spectacles. Reaching up, he placed a comforting hand on Jake's shoulder. "She appears merely to be sleeping, but when will she wake to face the world? I can't say. There is much about the human mind that still remains a mystery to the medical profession. She was terribly mistreated. The Good Lord only knows when she will come back to us."

"They took her from me," Jake said, rubbing his eyes. "They took her as sure as if they'd killed her." There was a knock, the door swung wide, and the sheriff filled the doorway.

"Sheriff," the doctor said with a nod.

"Doc," he replied.

If anything, the lawman appeared more unkempt than usual. A growth of salt and pepper whiskers covered his cheeks. His eyes were bloodshot, and the front of his black vest sported a myriad of stains. He seemed to be having trouble meeting Jake's eyes.

   

"What say, Sheriff?" the storekeeper asked.

"Three men are dead and folks are asking a question is what. Some are saying it needn't have happened."

"I tried to bring them in nicely, but they declined the offer."

"I got to arrest you, Jake." Sweat trickled down the lawman's fat jowls. "You understand?" The storekeeper said nothing. "You understand, don't you Doc?" The doctor did not reply.

"That's not going to happen," Jake said. There was no going back to being the man he'd tried to be. After what had happened, there wasn't enough reason to try.

Jake limped closer to the sheriff, and though the lawman was a head taller and several pounds heavier, he took an involuntary step back in the face of the other man's scorn.

"Sheriff-" He could feel nothing but contempt for the man.

"Those strangers rode roughshod over the whole town, raped my daughter, and you were too yellow to do anything about it!" The sheriff seemed to shrivel and shrink before him. His shoulders slumped, and he stared dumbly at the floor. "If you'd done your job, I wouldn't have had to. "

The doctor looked from one man to the other, dried his hands on a towel and left the room, closing the door softly behind him.

The sheriff tried another angle. "You're not an outlaw, Jake. For God's sake, you're a respected member of the community. I'm sure the judge will see things the same way."

" 'The Hanging Judge?' " Jake snorted laughter. "Yeah, he's known for his fair judgment."

But what the sheriff said made sense. He didn't want to ride the outlaw trail if there was any chance that Anne would come around.

"Besides, you have the girl to think about," the sheriff said, guessing the direction of his thoughts. "She will need you if-or when she wakes up."

The anger that had fueled him suddenly dissipated, leaving him exhausted. The two Colts hanging on his hips suddenly felt very heavy.

"Alright sheriff," he said simply. Unfastening his gun belt, he handed it to the lawman.

The ghost town that had appeared when danger threatened, now thronged with citizens. The door opened and silence fell as the two men walked out, a silence that held for only a second. It seemed that everyone began talking at the same time. Jake looked around. He knew them all, but they seemed like strangers to him at that moment. He and the sheriff cut a trail through the milling people. "Move aside," the sheriff said. "Clear the street. Let us through. You folks need to go on home. We best get off the street, JW. We are making a spectacle of ourselves."

The school teacher, Missy Pendleton, plucked at Jake's sleeve as he passed. "I'm sorry about Anne," she said. "Will she be alright?"

Jake only shook his head and continued walking.

The jail was no more than an old storeroom with bars on the doors and windows. "It ain't much," the sheriff said. "But you get three squares a day, and the deputy changed them corn shucks so they ain't no bed bugs in them now."

Without comment, Jake entered and lay on the bunk. He attempted to get comfortable on the lumpy bed but soon realized it would be impossible. As the hours passed, he slept despite the lumpy mattress. He was sleeping lightly when the sheriff woke him.

"I managed to get a telegraph to the circuit judge," he said. "He is over to Red River right now. It will likely take him two, maybe three days, to wind things up and get here."

A day passed while he remained a prisoner in the tiny cell. He had no worries for his own future. Whether he was found guilty or innocent concerned him little, as overshadowed as the situation was by the plight of his daughter who remained unconscious. He feared she would never wake. Guilt assailed him. He had not protected the girl, had not protected her well enough to keep the three men from raping her. Though he had killed the three, the damage had been done, and he felt in his own heart that he deserved to be punished.

A knock sounded on the door. The sheriff rose and glanced through the peephole as the door swung wide. The schoolteacher breezed past him without a word.

"Missy," he said, "It ain't necessary for you to bring meals to him." The lawman looked covetously at the steaming plate of food.

"The deputy usually takes care of this sort of thing," he added.

Missy gave him a severe look. "No trouble, Sheriff," she said. "It is a duty that I look forward to. And I shall thank you in the future to call me Miss Pendleton."

"Yes ma'm," he squeaked.

"And I might add that a bath and a change of clothes would improve your demeanor considerably. You are a public official sheriff, and the citizens of this town expect you to comport yourself in a manner commiserate with your position."

Jake thought a bath surely would improve the sheriff's demeanor, and a jump in the river might handle the laundry problem, but he said nothing.

The sheriff sputtered ineffectually, crammed on his worn hat and stomped from the jail in defeat.

The teacher's black hair was done up in braids, and he could see her dress was one of the finest that could be bought.

"Good to see you," Jake said. "But for once, I find myself in agreement with the sheriff. This jail is no place for a lady."

Missy smiled at him. "That is high praise coming from you," she said. "But it is no bother, and anyway, you shouldn't be here either. You just did what you had to do."

Jake pictured his girl raped by the trappers and still asleep. "I did a poor job of defending her Missy," he said.

"Nonsense!" the school teacher said. "You did what you could and no one can fault you for it. I checked on her before I came here."

"Was she awake?"

"No, but the doctor believes she will recover."

"That's good news." He had felt himself incapable of feeling love toward another woman since the death of his wife but he was beginning to care for the schoolteacher. A little embarrassed, he dropped his gaze and ducked into the fried chicken, mashed potatoes and snap beans she'd brought him. She watched him eat and was obviously pleased to see him enjoying her cooking.

A storm raged through the mountains. The wind cracked hardwood trees and snapped the pines like kindling. A bolt of lightning flashed from a sodden sky, tearing into an ancient oak and stripping its limbs. The trunk split into a barrage of noise and flame. The mountain people huddled inside their rude homes while the storm worked through the night. Lightning flashed, and thunder took their little cabins in its grip and shook them like a child's play toy. A lone rider entered the little clearing. His tattered clothing hung sodden, and water poured off the wide brim of the hat he wore. He rode under the shelter of the rough lean-to, which served as shelter for the horses. He dismounted, tying the horse reins and breaking loose straw for the horse to eat.

He entered the small cabin. Rushes were sticking to his wet boots. Small puddles gathered around his feet.

"I went down to Cedar Town like you wanted," he said.

The woman was seated at a rough-hewn table in the small, gloomy room. She could easily have passed for a man, dressed in soiled buckskins, a chambray shirt and old boots, with a pistol-the grip shiny from use-strapped to her side.

"Well?" she demanded.

"Zekiel, Virgil and Osee is dead, Maw."

"Dead!" she exclaimed. Her face paled, making her dark red hair seem to blaze. She uttered a single sob then clamped down on the emotion. "What happened, boy?" Her cheeks were filled with chewing tobacco, blurring her words.

"It was the storekeeper. He gunned them down while they was in the saloon."

'The storekeeper?" she asked incredulously. "The storekeeper? They must have been passed out drunk. Where is he now?"

"They locked him up."

"Well, ain't that nice. We won't have to hunt for him." Standing, she rested her hand on the heel of the pistol holstered at her side. The boy was terrified of his mother and with good reason. She had been known to strike out in anger with whatever came to hand. She pointed toward the door and kicked him in the seat of the pants to urge him on his way. "Tell your uncle Abraham to get ready to travel. We're going to visit this storekeeper." She yelled at the retreating figure, her voice carrying over the thunder and lightning of the storm. "There will be a reckoning. Mark my words boy."

The silence between the storekeeper and the schoolteacher was disrupted by the sound of gunfire. From time to time, cowboys would fire off their guns in town, but Jake thought he heard the give and take of a gun battle. The two looked into each other's eyes, knowing that their moment of intimacy had passed and might never be regained.

"What has happened?" Rising from her seat, she smoothed her dress self-consciously and moved toward the front of the jail.

"Wait!" he said. "Missy, the people I care about haven't fared too well lately. I don't believe-I mean-I couldn't handle it if something happened to you on my account."

"I'm only going to look out of the window," she said. "Doubtless the sheriff will tell us more when he returns."

He said nothing, but remained tense with worry. But before she reached the window, the sheriff burst through the door.

"God almighty!" She put a hand to her breast. "Sheriff you scared ten years off my life!"

Without pausing, he slammed the door, shot the heavy bolt home and put his back to its surface. "Shit, I'm done for," he croaked and slid down to a sitting position on the floor. A red trail marked the wood where his back had touched it. The man held one hand to his stomach in an attempt to staunch the flow of blood which nevertheless seeped between his fingers. The reek of burnt gunpowder clung to him.

"Sheriff!" Missy exclaimed,

The sheriff motioned with his pistol like a teacher waving a pointer. His voice was rough with pain. "You'd be doing me a favor if you put a bullet between my eyes, girl," he groaned. "Couple'a more years, and I was planning to turn this job over to..."

He emitted another grunt of pain. "The red-haired bitch killed Bob, shot him down like a dog just for wearing a badge. She said he should have stopped the storekeeper from killing her boys."

How many, Sheriff?" Jake asked.

"I ain't sure," he said. "Maybe five, I reckon. They came in the saloon." The old man's voice lapsed into a string of nonsense. The hand he held against his midriff relaxed slightly, and Jake could see the gray sheen of the sheriff's insides.

The school teacher dropped into a chair, her face pale and bloodless. Jake felt sorry for the old man. During his time in the Mexican-American War, he'd seen many a comrade fall before the guns of the Mexican army. Shredded flesh and torn limbs were one thing, but a gut wound was a slow and torturous death. A quick death would have been much, much better. Gunshots sounded, pulling him from his thoughts.

"Missy!" he said urgently. "Missy!"

"Yes," she answered in a small voice.

"Help me out of this cell."

With an effort, she gathered her wits. "Keys," she said, "keys." Jumping from the chair, she began rummaging through the sheriffs desk for the cell keys. She was trying not to look at the wounded man.

"He put the key in a vest pocket," Jake said.

"Alright, I can do this." Searching the sheriff's blood soaked vest, she soon held the key in a red-stained hand.

"Quick," Jake said. Running back to him, she unlocked the door.

He went to the wounded man. "Help me lift him." The two of them lifted the big man and helped him to the cell bunk. "Bandage him, Missy. Do the best you can." He ran to the gun cabinet and retrieved his gun belt with the two Colts and strapped the guns on. He felt an instant sense of confidence. The guns were like old dependable friends. There was a scattergun in the cabinet, which he took to the schoolteacher. He demonstrated how to cock it. "Just hold on tight and pull the trigger."

He took the sheriff's dragoon pistol, checked the loads and shoved it into his belt.

"Will they-will they come for us?" Missy asked, looking numbly at the wounded man.

"For me," he said.

He pulled the woman to him and pressed her full red lips to his. He would not endanger her. "Listen," he said, holding her to him. "I'm the one they want."

"Water," the sheriff groaned.

Rummaging through the desk, Jake found a half-bottle of whisky. "Missy, see if you can find a back way out of this building." Going over to the sheriff, he held the bottle while the sheriff drank. The wounded man gagged on the amber liquid but grabbed the bottle when Jake started to pull it away.

"Sheriff!" someone yelled from outside, "You still alive in there?"

Jake looked out the window of the jail and spotted furtive movement to the side of the building. The bark of a gun sounded, and he jerked his head back as a hail of splintered glass exploded from the window. A piece of glass cut a red streak across the back of his hand. Cussing, he fired through the busted glass to give them something to think about. Powdery smoke clouded around him.

"I found another door," the school teacher said, appearing beside him. "It's boarded up."

"Ok," he said. "Keep an eye on the street." Firing another shot, he quickly reloaded as he spoke. The teacher was still holding the shotgun to her bosom like a security blanket. He took the long gun from her and shoved the Colt into her hand.

"Bear with me for a little while," he said. "I'll get us out of this. If you see so much as a puff of dust out there, call out, and I'll be back so quick it will make your head spin."

Hard work was involved in the making of both boards and nails, so there was never a surplus of either. And as he had hoped, the opening was sparsely covered. He wrenched at one of the boards and was rewarded with a squeal as rusty, square nails pulled free. Cautiously, he looked out. The door opened on an alley next to a warehouse and was unseen from the diamond.

"Jake!"

He hurried back to her side. Missy was holding the gun straight out in front with both hands, her arms trembling under the weight of the pistol.

"Two men ran from the saloon and ducked down by the boardwalk," she said, gratefully lowering the weapon.

He couldn't see anyone, but that didn't mean they weren't there.

"Let's go," he said.

"Sheriff!" The call sounded all too close.

A bottle crashed against the outside wall, and he smelled turpentine. "Let us have him, Sheriff, or we'll burn you out!"

"Go to hell!" he yelled back. Jake shoved the shotgun back into the schoolteacher's hands and motioned urgently for her to leave. "Go!" he said. "Go! I'm right behind you."

The sheriff groaned.

"Sorry, Bill," Jake muttered. "Sorry..." He felt ashamed of how quickly he'd forgotten the wounded man.

"Either you give him up, or we'll bury his damn corpse and you along with it!"

"It don't make me no never mind. I'll kill every one of you." Another bottle crashed, and flames began to lick up in front of the broken glass. He craned his head to see either side and yelled. "The law will decide what to do with him."

A woman called out, "An eye for an eye, that's what the good book says."

Smoke began to boil through the broken window. Heat radiated from the wall like a coal furnace. He ran for the back in time to see a burly, black-haired man grab Missy by the shoulder, ripping her fine dress. He jerked her to him, making her drop the scattergun. She wrapped her long, black braids around one beefy hand and cinched them tight like a halter on a troublesome mare.

Diving into the open, Jake drew and fired all in one motion. The trapper's face froze in a look of surprise as the .44 slug drilled a clean, round hole into his forehead. He was dead before he hit the ground. Missy clawed franticly at the hand that still clung twisted in her hair. She managed to free herself, though strands of hair remained clinging to the dead mans hand. A lot had happened to the schoolteacher in a short time, but she was dealing with it well. "You've got to go girl," he said. "That shot will draw them like flies to a carcass."

"I'm going to take care of this business one way or the other," he said. "The Good Lord willing." The schoolteacher looked at him strangely. He wondered if she was surprised by the words coming from the formerly mild-mannered storekeeper. The attack on Anne had torn the cover from a dark place inside his soul, and it was a different man that looked the schoolteacher in the eyes, a man she no longer knew.

A shot bit into the dirt of the alleyway, and the shot from the firearm echoed between the buildings.

"The sheriff?"

"The sheriff is dead," Jake said coldly. "And better the smoke and flames than the card he drew."

"Jake," she said, positing a thousand pleas with the one word.

"Go," he said harshly. "I can't worry about you and still do what needs doing." He turned away from her, but looking back to see her leaving, he allowed himself a brief smile.

The building he crouched behind was mounted on flat rock pillars. Dropping low, he looked under the foundation. He could just see a muddy boot shifting back and forth on the far side by the boardwalk. Taking careful aim, he fired and was rewarded for his effort when the toe of the boot disintegrated into a mist of blood and the man began hopping and howling in pain. Retrieving the shotgun from where it lay in the dirt, he headed in the opposite direction from that the teacher had gone.

By this time, the jail was an inferno of flames. There was no bucket line attempting to quench the fire and no onlookers besides the strangers. All of the townspeople had gone to ground. Cutting between the buildings, he crept forward, hoping to flank his enemies. They stood in the open, the snap and pop of ammunition igniting in the fire and the sheer spectacle of the blaze holding them mesmerized for the moment. The storekeeper crept near enough to hear them talking. "Go and check on Abraham boy," the woman said. The boy started forward then stopped when a man limped from the alley. "Lanny," he said.

"Abraham's dead," Lanny said. He dropped to his rear in the dirt, holding his injured foot. "I'm shot," he said. The tip of his boot was gone, along with three of his toes. Blood poured from the severed stumps.

"Abraham is dead?" the woman asked.

"Head shot," Lanny whimpered through gritted teeth. "I'm hurt, Maw."

"Shut up whining," the little woman snarled. "Life is pain. Pain brought you into this world boy and pain will take you out. Now you shut your crying."

Jake stepped into view, leveling the shotgun at the four strangers, neither of whom noticed him at first. "Unfasten them gun belts and let'm drop," he said. He was surprised no one moved. "Now!" he snarled.

The cold metal of a gun barrel pressed against the back of his neck. Instantly, he jerked his head to the side, spun and buried the stock of the long gun into the face of the man behind him, ripping his cheek down to the bone.

The trapper fell, discharging his pistol so close to Jake's head that his ears rang and powder smoke stung his eyes. Without pause, he fired the other barrel of the scatter-gun into the downed man at such close range that a six inch round chunk of meat vanished into a ragged hole that quickly filled with blood and guts. Turning, he threw himself to the ground as a hail of bullets struck around him. He knew that if he paused even for a second, he would be dead. Pulling out the Colts, he began firing as he rolled toward cover. The boy Lanny was on a level with him, and a slug took him in the chest, slamming him back in the dirt.

Jake rolled until he was partially blocked by the hitching rail and watering troth. A rifle shot sounded from somewhere and another of the trappers dropped, clutching an injured leg. The bullet must have severed an artery, because blood flowed copiously. Jake knew from experience that without help, the man would be dead in seconds.

A bullet cut a red hot groove across his shoulder but he shook off the pain. There was meanness in him that would not be satisfied until his enemies lay dead and bleeding.

"Hold it!" The doctor's voice rang with authority. Jake could see four different rifles aimed at the trappers from the windows across the street. "Drop your weapons or die where you stand."

The red-haired woman and a rough-looking bearded man were still holding guns. The man with the leg wound lay still and was presumably dead. The woman muttered something, and the two dropped their guns.

The storekeeper was angry at the outcome. He wanted the remaining two trappers dead, but he could not bring himself to shoot them unarmed. At once, a myriad of different aches and pains assaulted him, and he realized that he was exhausted. The flesh wound burnt like fire, and the old wound on his leg throbbed like a sore tooth.

The doctor came to him then and gave him a shoulder to lean on. "Anne asked for you," he said. "She is worried about you."

"She's worried about me?" The storekeeper could not keep tears from his eyes.

Missy put down the rifle she was holding and ran to him. She pulled his other arm across her shoulders. Jake looked into her eyes and knew it would no longer be just he and Anne. "I have been thinking that it would be a nice thing to have a school teacher in the family. Now let's go and see the girl."

 

*         *        *

 

The little red haired woman lay back on the corn-shuck mattress with her hands behind her head. She seemed outwardly unworried, but anger seethed within her. Not so her son, who paced back and forth stirring dust from the dirt floor of their tiny cell.

"What are we going to do Maw?" he asked. "They mean to hang us."

"Shut your crying boy," she said. "Our kin will soon be here to bust us out of this damn jail. This cursed town will answer for what they done."

She smiled as she contemplated the vengeance she would take on the town.

"There will be a reckoning," she said. "Mark my words..."

THE END

 

Paul Peppers is a diesel mechanic in Cartersville Georgia. He has an Associate of Applied Science Degree from Coosa Vally Technical college and is fifty-three years old.

 

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