She walked among the dead and dying, the smell of death hanging heavy in the air. In the distance, lightning lit the sky, turning the dark approaching clouds an angry purple. The light breeze picked up and blew a small gust of wind that held the promise of more to come with the approaching electrical storm.
She studied the faces of the men laying scattered about, until she finally found the one she was looking for.
His face swam to the surface of her memory, a bit murky and a little out of focus, but she was sure it was him. It was the scar that she hadn’t forgotten. The purple, puckered flesh that ran from the corner of his left eye down to the tip of his chin.
He sat with his back against a log, bent over, clutching his swollen distended stomach, like a woman in the throes of labor. He was too focused on his own pain to notice the stranger that walked among them, until a swift kick to the bottom of his boot got his attention.
Looking up through blurry, anguished eyes, he tried to focus on the figure before him. The dark figure loomed before the dying firelight, dressed all in black from head to toe, the face, hidden in the shadow of a black stetson, pulled low, where it met the upturned collar of the black trail duster. Maybe it was the way it stood, but something about it, felt menacing. Whoever it was, they weren’t speaking, just watching him, waiting for something.
He tried to swallow, but his throat was so dry it felt like his tongue had turned to dust in his mouth. Grabbing the canteen next to him, he raised it to his parched lips. Empty. He threw the vessel back down in angry dispair.
Never in his life had he felt pain like this. Hell, he’d been shot, more than once, in his life. He’d been stabbed in the gut and slashed in the face by a disgruntled Cajun whore up along the banks of the Mississippi. He’d even had his leg and some ribs busted by a damn loco horse. In those cases, revenge had always made him feel better. He’d killed all the men who had managed to get a shot off first, one man he tracked across three states before he caught up with the sorry som’ bitch. The whore had gotten her just deserts when he’d wrestled the knife away from her, slashed her throat, and then fucked her hard, as her life ebbed from her body. But, he had always held a soft spot for animals, so a well placed bullet had ended it fast for the horse.
None of those things had caused him even one-tenth of the pain he was feeling now.
Slowly he closed his eyes and willed his body to surrender.
A bucket full of cold water jerked him back from the refuge he so desperately sought.
“Wake up!” the eerie voice echoed through his head.
Coming to, he tried once again to focus on the person before him. “Help me.” he managed to moan.
“I’ll help you, if you tell me what I want to know.”
The words seemed to be coming from the person in front of him, but they echoed in his head, as if coming from inside a long tunnel, and it sounded almost… feminine.
Shaking his head, he tried to clear away some of the fog, as well as some of the water. “What is it you want to know?”
“You rode with Jarvis and Adams. Where are they.”
His body was suddenly wracked with the pain of a thousand knives being buried deep into his stomach. Screaming out in pain he fought the urge to vomit. The last time he’d done that, it was nothing but big pools of gelatinous blood and something that looked suspiciously like stomach tissue.
The dark figure waited patiently for him to answer the question. When he was finally able to speak again, he cried, “You’ll help me?”
“You have my word.” it growled.
“They split the group.” he croaked. His answer was punctuated with groans and gasps. “Half went with Jarvis… up to a place called… Idaho… wants to start a damn town. Adams… to… Oregon, I think, he’s going to build a town too. Stupid bastard’s… think their gonna be kings…or something. And me? I was headin’ down to Ol’ Mexico… ’fore I got waylaid, that is.” Squinting, he tried to make out a face in the one before him. “Who are you?”
The figure seemed to ponder the question before answering. Dark and murky came the reply. “Angel.”
“Angel, huh?” he smiled hopefully, through the tears and pain, “Angel of Mercy, I hope?”
“No… Angel of Death.” the figure said, and turned to leave.
Panicking, he cried to the retreating shadow, “Wait! You said you’d help me!”
The figure stopped and turned at his words.
Striding back towards him, the long black duster was thrown open with a snap. The wind that had suddenly sprung up, caught the edges and billowed them out, lending them the look of dark leathery wings, like some evil creature sent straight from the Devil himself.
“I’ll help you...”
The leg was brought straight back, then it swung forward, driving the pointy toe of her boot into the white quivering mass around his belly. “Find your way to hell!”
Two things happened at once. A black gooey substance shot out of his mouth, and his distended belly quivered, then split open, like a buffalo bladder full of water, spilling its vile contents out onto the ground.
The outlaws mouth open and shut a few times, before he slumped sideways and hit the dirt, already dead.
Directly above, lightening cracked and thunder boomed, rolling and rumbling in protest.
Lifting her face to the dark boiling sky, she yelled above the harsh wind, “Vengeance is mine!” sayeth the daughter.
Turning, she walked to the edge of the camp and scanned the area that lay beyond, until she found the spot she was looking for.
Earlier, after the men had made camp, they had nearly ran for the cooling waters of the deep slow moving creek, leaving their camp blissfully unattended, finally giving her the chance to work her magic. Later, all the men had returned to camp, except one, he had fallen asleep in the shade of a giant sycamore tree, and now he was back, watching from the cover of the trees. The screams and cries of the heavily poisoned men would have alerted him to the danger before he reached camp.
Inhaling deeply, she imagined she could almost smell his fear. Discovering that all eight of the hard cases you rode with were wiped out by a single stranger, could probably do that to a person.
“I know your out there,” she called loud enough to be heard above the storm, “I’m letting you live so you can deliver a message! You tell Jarvis and Adams, I’m coming for them!”
She looked down as she felt the hand tug on her foot. “Help me…” the dying outlaw begged weakly.
Lightning flashed, and in that split second, the man recognized her as the girl they had left for dead. Frantically, he clawed for the gun on his hip, “Fuck…fuck!” he cussed, his voiced strangled with fright.
Pulling her own gun, she smiled at the look of pure fear in the outlaws eyes.
Bringing her boot down, she stomped on the hand that grasped the pistol, crunching the bones in the outlaws hands with the heel of her boot. He screamed in pain and outrage. Toeing the weapon away, she knelt down and shoved the cold steel of the gun barrel under his chin.
Another bright flash reveiled her black, souless eyes. “No… fuck you.”
Pulling the trigger, the bullet entered the fleshy underside of his chin, then exploded out the top of his head, scattering bits of bone, blood and brain matter about.
Standing, she turned her attention back to the tree line and shouted above the howling wind, “You tell ’em I’m coming! I’m coming and I’m bringing Hell with me!”
The soldier squatted on his haunches, peering intently at the small, but well kept cabin across the field from the stand of trees that hid him. It was barely breaking daylight when the door opened and a girl walked out.
He studied her form as she headed across the yard to the barn where the animals were kept. She appeared to be sixteen, maybe seventeen years old. She walked, not with the carefree bounce that so many girls of her age had, but with long purposeful strides. She wore denim britches and a cotton work shirt, her long dark curly hair was pulled back on the sides in a clip of some sort, the rest left free to cascade down her back. As she pulled the barn door open, he noticed with a frown, that she also wore a gun, holstered and hanging from her trim hip.
The soldier waited for what seemed like an eternity for her to reemerge from the barn. In that time he imagined her inside going about her daily chores. Feeding the animals, taking the time to stop and talk to them. Inspecting each with an ever watchful eye, always on the look out for injury or illness.
He turned his attention back to the house.
He could see a faint light that had been left burning, setting the inside of the cabin a glow. He watched the muted light within, looking for any change in light or shadow, that would alert him to someone else’s presence. He saw none.
Loud squealing from the barn drew his attention. Hogs, weanlings from the sounds of it, fighting over slop. As the sound diminished, he pictured them quieting down, all lined up in a row, their curly tails wiggling in their excitement, doing their best to get as much as they could before it was gone.
A few minutes later the girl reemerged. Watching her walk back across the yard to the cabin, he felt his heart constrict with longing. Unconsciously, his finger’s reached out, hesitantly, as if he could touch her from this distance. All to quickly she disappeared back into the house.
He sat where he was and wrestled with his options. One part of him wanted to walk across the field and claim what was rightfully his, the other told him to cut and run. He sat pondering that very idea, when a gun barrel nudged him in the back.
He froze for half a second, then grinning to himself, he shook his head. “Hello, Gracie.”
Ben Walker stood slowly and turned to face the beautiful dark haired girl behind him.
Grinning at her with sad eyes, he said, “It’s been a long time, Angel girl. I see you haven’t lost your touch any.”
For as long as he could remember, she’d had the ability to sense when someone was coming. Same as she always knew were something was hiding, animal or human. Her older brother Luke, hated playing hide and seek with her when they were little. She’d hide her eyes and count, and no matter how far he went, or how good he hid, when she was done counting, she would walk right to wherever he’d been hiding. Damn’dest thing he’d ever seen.
Finally, over the initial shock, Gracie smiled back, “Been wondering when you were gonna show up.” and then, “It’s good to have you home, daddy.”
Ben took a step forward and pulled his daughter into an awkward embrace. She sure had grown in the four years he’d been gone. Hardly seemed like his little girl anymore. “It’s good to be home, Angel girl.” he said, using the nickname he’d called her since the first time she’d smiled up at him from the cradle. Frowning, he realized the endearment didn’t roll quite as easily off his tongue like it used to. Too much time had past. Damn war.
Stepping back, he pasted on a bright smile, clapping her on the shoulder, “How ’bout we head on up to the house. You got any coffee for an old broke down rebel soldier?”
“You bet, pots on the stove.” she said. “How’s a breakfast of bacon and eggs sound?”
Hobbling along as best he could over the uneven ground, he answered, “Sounds like heaven, Angel girl. Sounds like pure heaven.”
After Ben’s belly was stuffed full, fuller than it had been in a long time, he limped out onto the porch and eased himself into one of the chairs. As he rolled a cigarette he asked the question he hadn’t wanted to ask.
“I seen a grave over yonder, in the trees. That be your ma or your brother?”
Gracie sat in the chair next to him and sighed. She hadn’t been looking forward to answering the question any more than he’d been wanting to ask it. “That’d be momma. She took sick the winter after you left.” Smiling sadly, she added, “She held on for as long as she could. She made it as far as the next spring, purely out of stubbornness I suppose.”
“That right?” he said striking a match and touching it to the tip of his cigarette.
“Oh yeah, she hung on, fighting it till the very last, she did. Couldn’t tell ya why.”
Turning his head to the side, Ben spat out a piece of loose tobacco, “You take care of her all by yourself?”
Well, that would explain it in Ben’s mind. The evil woman probably held on as long as she could just to make Gracie’s life a living hell for a tad bit longer.
Ben had met and married Loretta James back in ’46. She’d hailed from up in Missouri and he’d met her while attending a social function with his uncle.
He’d thought she was the prettiest girl he’d ever laid eyes on. That night they had danced to every song the band had played, all under the watchful eyes of her kin. Ben didn’t know until later, that there was a reason no one else was asking the dark haired beauty to dance. Seems her kin was from rough stock, and they didn’t take real kindly to men messing with their womenfolk. Not that they had much to worry about, seein’s how most of their women were ugly as sin, all except Loretta. But Ben, not being from around those parts, had no idea the trouble he was bringing upon himself. That is, until he took a trip out back to relieve himself later that night.
The whole dance had went dead silent as he made his way slowly back through the crowd, back to his Loretta. He’d been beaten black and blue. One eye was completely swelled shut, the other was on it’s way. His lip was split wide open, and his nose was growing by the second.
When he was just feet from reaching his goal, her pa had stepped in between them.
Earl James was a big, ugly, mean son of a bitch. He’d glared down at Ben for a long minute, then he asked him, “Are you stubborn, or jes’ plain stupid, boy?”
Ben had stood there thinking about it, and finally answered with a cocky half grin, “I’d say a little of both, I reckon. Now, if you‘ll excuse me, that pretty little gal behind you is waiting to dance.”
Audible gasps had went up around the crowd. Mother’s had covered their young’uns eyes, men put protective hands on their women folk, ready to shield them from danger if need be, everyone was froze like statues, waiting to see the dumb Arkansas boy ripped apart by the James men.
But Ben had just stood there, grinning at the huge hulk of a man, and no one was as surprised as Ben was, when Earl James finally shook his head and started laughing, long and loud. Slapping him on the shoulder he’d said, “You got sand boy, I’ll give ya that!” then to the band he’d yelled, “Strike up the music boys, my daughter wants to dance!
There had been many times over the years that followed that Ben had wished Earl would of shown him some mercy, and just killed him on the spot.
It turned out that Loretta James was twice as ugly on the inside as she had been beautiful on the outside.
Gracie interrupted his thoughts, “How’d you get that limp, daddy?”
“Never you mind about that right now. Where’s yer brother, Gracie.”
Looking out over the field, she sighed, “Gone. I ran him off right after momma died. Him and that no account Billy Weaver think their startin’ a gang of some sort. Luke thought that this would be a good hideout for them. I had to convince him otherwise.”
That damn kid might of came from Ben’s loins, but his ma had ruined him to the quick. Turned him into an arrogant, self centered, lazy little bastard. His being gone weren’t no cause for grief, that was for damn sure.
Loretta had treated that kid like he was the second coming of Christ, he could do no wrong in her eyes. But poor little Gracie, she never could do no right. There just weren’t no two ways about it, Loretta hated Gracie from the git go.
She had claimed, almost from the time Gracie was born, that she had the devil in her. He and Loretta used to get into horrible fights over the way she treated her. Until, that is, Ben started noticing that Gracie would turn up the next day with terrible bruises. After that, Ben held his tongue and kept his trap shut for over a year. He had walked on egg shells around that woman so she’d have no reason to be mean to Gracie in his absence.
Until one night when he returned from the fields and Gracie was no where to be seen. He’d kept quiet most of the way through supper, even though he’d been sick with worry at her absence. Loretta and Luke had been down right chipper all through the meal, talking and laughing, as if nothing were amiss. Ben had waited as long as he could, till he couldn’t stand it no more. Finally, he asked Loretta where Gracie was.
‘She didn’t feel well, so she went to lay down.’ She had said, shrugging nonchalantly.
But she had gotten panicky real quick when Ben stood up and announced he was going to check on her. Grabbing his arm and pasting on a smile, she had tried to stop him, ‘She’s fine Ben, sit and finish your supper.’
When she realized that wasn’t working, she jumped up and tried to block his way, and the next words out of her mouth had made his blood run cold.
She had laughed, though it sounded strained and tinny to his ears, almost on the edge of hysteria, ‘My word, Ben, I just don’t know what I’m gonna do with that girl. She just insists on being bad! Someone’s got to teach her right from wrong!’ She had shouted the last part to his back, as he shoved past her and strode towards Gracie‘s bedroom.
He walked to the far end of the cabin where two small rooms had been partitioned off for the kids. As he walked through the doorway he could see her laying on her bed, curled up into a little ball beneath the covers. She had looked so small and fragile.
He had gently scooped her up, listening to her whimper like a hurt puppy, then sat down on her bed, holding her close to his chest, slowly rocking her back and forth.
One side of her face was bruised horribly, her eye was swelled and her lip was split. And those were just the injuries he could see. The way she stayed curled in his arms, told him there were probably far worse injuries under her clothes.
He had sat there, fighting the rage that was building in side of him. ‘I am so sorry, Angel.’ he had whispered to her.
Her little hand had began patting his chest, consoling him, ‘I’s alright, daddy. I’m okay.’ she’d mumbled through swollen bloodied lips.
Ben had fought to choke back the sob that threatened to escape. It wasn’t all right. How could someone do that to a child, and not just any child, but their own child. Flesh and blood. His thoughts had turned murderous as he thought about his depraved wife. God, he wanted to kill her. Just wrap his bare hands around her throat, and choke the wretched life right out of her body.
Carefully, he had laid Gracie down and tucked the blanket around her.
Then he had went to find Loretta.
She had been standing in the kitchen with her back to him. Luke was no where to be seen as he crossed the room to the woman he had married, the woman who had bore his babies, the woman who had miserably failed not only him, but also their children.
She had heard him coming and spun around, her eyes wild with fear, and a large boning knife gripped firmly in her hands, ready to strike when he got close enough. ‘She’s evil Ben! You’re a stupid blind fool! That girls got the devil in her! Why don’t you see that?’
Ben’s steps never faltered. He grabbed her slim wrist, squeezing hard as he bent it backwards, feeling the crunch of cartilage beneath his fingers. Then he grabbed the knife with his other hand, and threw it across the room. Next, he cut her off in mid-scream, with a hard right to the mouth.
Never in his life had he struck a woman, and he didn’t abide by men who did, but he’d also never hated anyone as much as he had hated her right then, and all he had wanted to do was kill her.
In a blind rage, he had delivered blow after crushing blow, intent on beating her to death. He’d kept quiet for a whole year, letting all his anger and resentment build up behind the wall he had carefully constructed, but the damn had broken.
He was in the midst of unleashing a years worth of furry on her, but stopped short, as he heard his little girl say, ‘Daddy?’
He had looked up to see Gracie, standing by the kitchen table, tears streaming down her bruised, scrunched up face. The look she had given him had broke his heart in two, and turned his rage to shame in an instant. It had seemed to say, ‘Not you too.’
Ben cleared his throat, “You been taking care of this place all by yourself?”
“No, sir. Reverend Sharp moved into the barn right before momma died. Got himself a pretty nice little set-up out there. He helps out quite a bit when he’s here.”
Ben nodded. He was glad to hear that his old friend was staying here and keeping an eye on the place. He had met Sam Sharp down in Texas, when things were first gearing up for the Mexican-American War. Ben’s uncle ran freight for the Army, and he had ridden with him on more than one occasion.
They’d been sitting in the middle of the army camp when Ben had seen the flap of the General’s tent open and a man, just a few years older than himself, walked out. He was young, maybe eighteen, but he was big. Easily six feet tall, he had massive shoulders, slim hips, and long powerful legs. Walking across the encampment, men of all ranks, from soldiers to lieutenants, greeted the man. Some stopping him to have a few words, shake his hand or slap him on the back. It was all to evident, that whoever he was, he was greatly respected by all the men there.
His uncle had noticed him watching the man, and told him, “Yer lookin’ at a living legend. That there is Sam Sharp. ”
Ben studied him, “How old is he, ya think?” he asked.
“Don’t rightly know.” his uncle had said. “Not quite twenty years I think. But age don’t matter out here, that boy over yonder’s pro’bly one of the fiercest fighters you’ll ever come across. Hell, I heard tell he started fightin’ Comanche as soon as he was old enough to pick up a gun, and even then he had to stand with his back against a tree, just to keep from getting’ knocked on his butt. Heard he’s an expert tracker too.”
“Is he in the army?”
“Naw, Sam wouldn’t throw in with them, no matter how much they begged.”
“But, he’s here now.” Ben pointed out.
“Yep, of his own free accord. He’s what you’d call a ‘free agent’ I guess. Army’s been wanting him to help their fight with the mex’cans, seems maybe they done talked him into it. He’s got the respect of every man-jack around, and with good reason, he earned it. That boy’s got some serious sand.”
Sam Sharp had shown up in town a few years before Ben had left to fight in the war, only now, instead of packing his customary arsenal of weapons, he was toting a bible, and calling himself Reverend Sharp. Ben had about fell over.
“Guns and knives can fight all sorts of human foe, but only the bible can fight against a man’s demons.” Sam had told him when Ben asked him about the sudden change in professions. That had been the only time they had spoken of it.
Ben stared out into the half plowed field and felt a stab of remorse. He’d only been home a few hours and already the list of things that needed doing on the farm was overwhelming. Fields needed plowed and planted, there were fences falling down all over the place, and he’d seen three drip pans in the main room of the cabin alone.And he’d come home a goddamn cripple.
The doctor who treated him had painted a grim picture of his future. The bullet had hit him in the hip and lodged in the bone. The doc had called it- the invisible war souvenir, he had said, ‘Your not gonna be able to see it, but your sure the hell gonna feel it.’
Ben had felt like shooting him for his bedside manner alone. He delivered bad news with all the excitement of a demented peddler, hawking his wares. “Congratulations!” he’d told the man in the bed next to him, “You made it though the war, son. Your gonna git to go home! Only- your legs aren’t going with ya! Hahaha!”
He was a sick man. He like to brag that he could saw off a man’s leg in forty-three seconds flat, but somewhere he’d heard a rumor that another army doctor could do it in forty, a time he had been trying fiercely to beat.
Absently, Ben rubbed the top of his bad leg, at least it was still there. Looking over at his daughter he said, “Gracie, this farm is fallin’ down around your ears, and I’m afraid I ain’t gonna be nothing but a burden to you.” Seeing the flash of anger and hurt in her eyes, he quickly added, “I know’d you tried your best, no ones sayin’ that ya did’nt, but a fact is a fact, Angel girl. So, I’ve been thinking… is Mr. Stanley still trying to buy this place?”
Gracie jumped up and faced him, she was furious, “I don’t care what you’ve been thinking. Now, I’m glad your home daddy, but lets you and me get one thing straight right now. I’ve been taking care of this place for the last four years, and I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let you waltz in here and start telling me what you think. I’ve worked my fingers to the bone and until my backs nearly broke, and if it’s not good enough for you, then you can just, just… leave!”
Ben regarded her with amusement, “I see you found your tongue while I was away.”
The fact that he found all this funny, just infuriated her even more, “And if you think your just gonna sit in that goddamned chair all day and have me wait on you hand and foot, you got another thing coming! If your gonna stay on my farm, then your gonna work! There’s plenty of things around here you can do. The whole damn barn’s full of busted riggin’, busted tools, axes that need new handles and their blades sharpened, there’s an endless number of things you can do right from that chair, but if your not willin’, then grab up your war bag and git on down the road!”
Ben couldn’t believe his ears, “Why, you little smart aleck!” he yelled as he watched her stomp down the dilapidated stairs. The last one broke under her weight, almost pitching her onto her butt.
Pointing at the broken, splintered piece of wood, she yelled, “That can be your first project!”
Ben stood, his breath hissing sharply as the pain shot down his leg, “This is my farm, Missy! And I’d thank you kindly to remember it!” he yelled at her retreating back.
Watching her stomp across the yard, the anger started to subside, and he found himself chuckling, “I’ll be goddamned, if’n she ain’t just like me after all.”
He found her out in the barn hooking up the yoke and traces to the big Missouri mule. Limping up behind her, he said, “I’m sorry Gracie, I didn’t mean to imply you haven’t been doing a good job around here, I know you’ve done yor best.”
Turning, she looked at him with angry tears shining in her eyes, “You know what, daddy? Some days I work so hard all I can do is collapse into bed at night, too tired to even eat supper. But you know what? Every morning, I get up, and I do it again. Not once in the last four years did I ever give up on this farm. Not once!”
He looked into her big brown eyes, full of hurt and unshed tears, and felt about two inches high. He’d been ready to suggest earlier that they sell the farm, pack it in, and maybe move to a bigger town, and start all over. But seeing her reaction and hearing her words, he’d rather cut out his own tongue than mention such a thing now. And she was right. This was her farm now, bought and paid for by her own blood, sweat and tears. He could never take that away from her.
Slowly he removed the hat from his head and held it in both his hands, nervously flexing the brim. “Yor right Gracie, I was feeling sorry for myself back there, and I thank you for setting this ol’ fool straight.” Gesturing with his hat, he continued, “None of this is yer fault, Gracie. I ran off to fight in that damn war and left you here to shoulder my burdens. This farm, yer mother, all of it. And that wasn’t fair for you, hell, I wouldn’t have blamed you at all if’n you’d run away, went out and made a life for yourself, but you didn’t. You stuck it out and you did a damned fine job of it, and I’m proud of you. And yer right, this is your farm, you’ve more than earned it.”
“Now,” he said smiling, stuffing his hat back on his head and clapping his hands together, “What would you like me to do first, Boss.”
She stared at him for a moment, then threw her arms around his neck, the added weight almost knocking him off balance. “Thank you, daddy.”
Ben squeezed back, and whispered, “Like I said, I’m right proud of you, Angel girl, right proud.”
That night, after a supper of beans and freshly baked bread, Ben sat watching his first sunset in four years from his favorite spot on the front porch. How many times had he dreamed of doing this very same thing, while he fought for his States Independence in the War between the States. The fact that he had survived and was sitting here at all, was a miracle in it’s self.
It had been a crazy goddamned war. One they were doomed to lose, almost from the start. Even though the South had the fiercest fighters, the North had them out numbered two to one, they also had better weapons and more money to keep the fight going, where the Reb’s had been flat broke and starving.
It also grated on his nerves that the war he’d enlisted in, had slowly evolved from a fight to keep the Confederate States of America independant from the United States, to a fight solely over slavery. Truth was, he didn’t give a rats ass either way on the whole slavery issue, and neither did most the men he fought with. Nights spent on the darkened battle fields had gotten to be plain ridiculous, with the Union soldiers shouting things like, Let your slaves go! Free the negros! Free the slaves! What goddamned slaves? He didn’t own any slaves, hell none of the men he fought beside did. Only the rich people had enough money to buy and house negros, and none of those bastards were out on the battle fields.
Ben stretched his bum leg, wincing as he did so, it had been a long day, but a damned good one. He had took Gracie’s advice and made himself useful. Out in the barn he had worked on sharpening an axe, he honed it to a razor sharp edge, then shimmed up the loose handle and dropped it in a bucket of water to soak, by morning the wood whould be swelled up tight. He’d also worked on the corral fence, banging in more than a few nails and shoring up a couple of loose posts. He even found the time to replace the broken bottom stair on the porch. All in all, it wasn’t much, not near the amount of work that Gracie had done, but he figured a pinch of progress was better than a whole heap of indolence.
He was rolling his second cigarette of the night, when Gracie came out and quietly joined him.
Father and daughter settled into a comfortable, companionable silence, watching the colors in the sky shift, deepening as the sun dipped low over the horizon. The forest frogs had began their nightly cadence, then the lightning bugs began to slowly waltz to the tune. For the first time, in a long time, Ben felt totally at peace.
Ben Walker awoke that first night, from the familiar hellish nightmare, that left him dripping with persperation, his heart racing. Slowly he eased himself back onto the bed, breathing deeply through his nose and exhaling through his mouth. Ben considered himself a strong man, there wasn’t much that frightened him, but the dark dreams that had plagued him ever since he’d been shot, left him trembling like a goddamned baby. He hated that, hated himself, hated those dreams.
The nightmare was the same every time, evil, faceless demons, chased him through a dark forest, branches and briars pulled at him, trying to impede his getaway, and no matter how fast he ran, or how well he hid, in the end, they always found him.
As he lay in bed trying to slow his beating heart, he heard the whisper of light footsteps across the room. “Gracie, is that you?” he called quietly.
“Yes, daddy.” came the whispered reply.
“Did I wake you?” Ben knew that often times he would holler and yell out in his sleep during the dark dreams, and he suspected that was the reason she had come into the room.
Earlier, Ben had moved his son’s old cot into the corner of the main room, he just couldn’t bring himself to sleep in the bedroom that had been his and Loretta’s. That bed held nothing but bad memories.
There was a hint of panic in Gracie’s voice when she answered, “No, you didn’t wake me.”
Alarmed, Ben sat up painfully and swung his feet to the floor, as he did, she struck a match and lit the lantern. “What is it, Gracie?”
She looked at him from over top the lit lantern, the glow casting strange shadows that made her dark eyes look like they burned black. “Someone’s coming.” she said softly.
Ben felt an icy cold hand wrap around his heart, freezing it in his chest. “How long ago did you get that?” He knew from past experience that she often got the feeling about five minutes before someone would show up. Another little gift of hers, and another one of the reasons her ma had been sure she had some connection with the devil.
“A few minutes ago, maybe three or four.”
“Son of a bitch!” Ben yelled as he tried to stand up. His damn hip had a tendency to lock up at night while he slept, and it always took some slow moving in the morning to get it working right, but there was no time for that right now. Falling back on the bed he grabbed for his pants, while yelling, “Gracie! Go get dressed, hurry now!” When he seen she wasn’t moving, he barked, “Go, goddamnit! Run Gracie, and snuff out that goddamned light!”
She had just turned, heading back to her room, when the front door exploded open. There, in the light from the lantern, stood one of the faceless demons that was always chasing Ben in his dreams. Only this time, he wasn’t dreaming. This was for real.
“Hello, Ben.” came the rough gravely voice.
Ben felt the chill of certain death settle in around him, weighing him down. “Hello, Russ.”
Ben let out a deep sigh as he looked longingly at his loaded rifle, leaned against the corner of the cabin, a good ten feet from where he sat. His army issue .44’s were in his holster, under his cot, he had no hope of reaching either of them. He could try, but he would never be quick enough to beat the bullet from the gun that Russ Conner’s had trained on him. Dragging a weary hand down his face he looked over at Gracie. She was standing stock still, her eyes wide with fear, staring at the massive, monsterous frame that filled the doorway.
Russ Conner’s stood a good six foot four and weighed a little over three hundred pounds, every ounce packed with pure evil. He had long, dark, wildly disheveled hair, and a wide, uneven purple scar that ran from the corner of his squinty left eye down to the tip of his chin, making almost a half moon.
Russ and his friends had been reprimanded, more than once, during the war, for using brutal torture tactics against the enemy. The last time they’d gotten caught, the Colonel had been so repulsed by what Connors and the others had done, that he had discharged them immediately and sent them packing. Russ Conner’s had screamed and cussed in outrage, then went into detail about what he was going to do to the Colonel when he got a hold of him.
After they finally got Conner’s and his gang of hard cases out of the camp, the Colonel had turned to his chief guard, and looking a little green around the gills, ordered him to triple the guards around his tent.
The man, and the men he ran with, were sick, twisted, miserable excuses for human beings, and now, the evil son of a bitch was standing in his house.
Ben sat atop the nervous horse, tears drying on his face, staring straight ahead with dull, unseeing eyes. Every ounce of his energy had been drained out of him, right along with his will to live. He’d witnessed things in the last two hours, that no man should ever have to see, he’d endured more pain than any man should ever have to bear, until finally- something inside him just snapped and shattered.
Earlier, Russ Conner’s had him thrown up in the saddle, his hands bound firmly behind his back, the business end of a noose wrapped tightly around his neck, the other end was thrown up and over a large branch and tied off at the trunk.
Then he’d had to watch as they set fire to his house, Gracie’s house, the men laughing as he screamed and cursed them. Ben’s cries of outrage had reached a frenzied pace as, in the sickly orange glow of the fire, his worst nightmare began to play out right in front of his eyes. It had took two men to hold the frightened animal still, beneath him. They weren’t ready to hang him yet, they wanted him to watch what they did to her.
Gracie was thrust into the circle of men, her clothing ripped roughly from her body, before being shoved to the ground, completely naked and helpless. Ben had screamed with every fiber of his being, split flying, white foam collecting in the corners of his mouth, as the first man, Conner’s, took his pants down with a smile.
Gracie had fought him like a wild cat, but that had only seemed to fuel his brutal rampage. Ben could see how much the man enjoyed it. The harder she fought, the more violent and perverted he became. He wanted desperately to tell her to stop. That fighting it was only making it worse, but he just couldn’t bring himself to say it. It was her fight now, and all he could do was watch the horror unfold.
Gracie fought her way through four more men, before her efforts became noticeably weaker as her will exhausted, until she seemed to give up and lay quietly, staring up into the night sky, staring up into nothingness.
She had eventually closed her eyes, her face becoming lax. Ben was afraid she was dead, and even more afraid that she wasn’t. Sobbing, he apologized to her over and over, ignoring the cruel taunts it drew from the men. He alone had brought this evil down upon them. Even though it was the vile men that were committing the unspeakable acts against his daughter, he alone was responsible.
“I’m so sorry Gracie. I’m so sorry I couldn’t protect you, Angel.” he choked out.
He watched as her head slowly turned towards him and she opened her eyes to look at him for the last time. “It’s okay, daddy.”
Those three words hit him harder than a shot gun blast to the chest at close range. They tore holes straight through him, shattering what was left of his soul. Their hollow eyes remained locked on each other, until finally, the last man was done. Nine men in all, had violently raped his daughter, his Angel, right before his eyes, and there wasn’t a damn thing he could about it, except watch helplessly.
He heard Russ Conner’s evil chuckle, “I got one more present for you, Ben. This one’s from Jarvis and Adams.”
He couldn’t tear his eyes away from Gracie’s. They were held together, bound by pain, humiliation, sorrow, and the eternal love that exists only between a father and his daughter.
Russ stood at Gracie’s head. Pulling his gun from the leather at his side, he cocked the hammer back. Ben watched in numb horror as Gracie’s eyes gently fluttered closed in acceptance and surrender. A moment later the gun roared in the night, the bullet striking her in the head and ending her pain forever. Sending his precious Angel, home.
It was a beaten and broken man that raised his heels, then brought them down sharply, sending the horse under him on its way, and delivering him from evil.
Gracie awoke to a white hot blinding pain. There wasn’t a square inch on her body that didn’t scream out in unbearable agony. She lay, trying desperately to remember what it was that was causing her all this pain. Her head felt like it was going to explode, and the pain between her legs was hot and fierce, every muscle in her body burned.
Fighting the urge to vomit, she rolled onto her side and forced one eye open. Her vision was blurry at first, but slowly things started to take shape. The blades of the trampled grass around her were coated with a sticky looking red substance. Looking a little farther, the trunk of the big oak tree that grew in the side yard came into focus, and then she seen the boots. Her daddy’s boots.
They swung slowly in the light breeze, back and forth, back and forth. It was then, that the signifigance of the softly creaking of the rope registered in her mind, and she remembered.
Memories began to pour in, one after another, piling on top of each other, and crowding an already distressed mind, to the point of breaking.
It was precisely at that moment, that young Gracie Ann Walker, died.
Reverend Sharp was a few miles from the Walker farm, when an old familiar feeling settled over him. Trouble was coming. He’d spent most of his life down in Indian Territory, and had learned from a very young age, that paying close attention to those feeling would keep a man alive, and his scalp intact. It had been years since he’d had that feeling, but like an old familiar friend, it walked right up and settled in.
When his palms started itching he instinctively reached for the set of pistols that no longer hung from his sides. Grimacing, he told his horse, “Old habits die hard, I guess.”
Instead, he reached back and threw open the flap on his saddle bag and drew out the old dog-eared black book. Running his fingers along the worn leather cover he began to pray
“Jesus Christ!” Reverend Sharp cursed. He wasn’t praying any longer, he was staring at the burned out shell of the Walker home. Gracie’s home.
“Gracie!” he yelled, panicked, and waited for a reply that wouldn’t come. Icy fear gripped his heart at he began searching for clues that might tell him what had happened in his absence.
The dirt directly in front of the cabin was torn up with both boot and horse prints. The grass in the yard was trampled and ate up, nudging his horse forward, he bent in the saddle to examine the ground more closely. Riders came in from the east, a lot of them, from the looks of it. Rode right up to the front porch, then several scuffed boot prints headed around the corner, towards the side yard. As he rounded the corner, two things jumped out at him. The first being a pile of clothing that he recognized as belonging to Gracie, it lay ripped, ruined, and ground into the dirt. Next, he seen the rope, hanging from one of the lower branches of the big oak tree, its end swinging in the breeze.
Clutching his bible, Reverend Sharp dismounted for a closer look. The rope had been sawed through and now hung in frays. The ground beneath it, ripped up by hoof prints, beside those, more boot prints. It looked like someone was struggling to keep the horse in place.
With a heavy heart, Reverend Sharp turned to look across the field to the stand of trees, to where Loretta Walker had been laid to rest. Beside it was a fresh mound of dirt. “Oh, my God.” he moaned.
Fighting tears, he made his way to the new grave. Gracie had been like a daughter to him, and now she was gone.
Standing in front of the freshly dug, unmarked grave, he opened the old tattered bible and began to pray, he voice choked with emotion, “Ye, though I walk through the valley…”
“What do you mean she’s not dead!”
Sherriff Kendle shook his head, “No, Reverend, Gracie’s not dead. Ben Walker’s buried in that grave.”
Reverend Sharp had ridden hell bent for leather into town to find out what had happened to Gracie, and this new revelation knocked him for a loop. Sitting down heavily across from the sheriff, he ran a weary hand down his face. “Start at the beginning sheriff. What’s happened, and where is Gracie Walker.”
Sheriff Kendle was pushing sixty. Lean, wiry and tough to the quick, he upheld the law according to the ways of the west. He’d seen some shit in his past, lived a fast and hard life, and he didn’t take crap from anyone. And rarely ever judged a man wrong.
He knew the reverend sitting across from him wasn’t being entirely honest about who he was. He had the hard look of someone who’d seen entirely too much. To much evil, to much strife, to much injustice, and too much blood to have lead a simple life dedicated to the Good Lord.
“The doc’s wife came to fetch me three days ago. Told me there’d been trouble out at the Walker farm and that Gracie was in a bad way.” The sheriff leveled a look at the reverend, “It was worse, much worse than what I could have ever imagined.” he shook his head at the memory. “She’d been beaten, and raped repeatedly by a gang of men, and then shot in the head. The scum had left her for dead, but luckily, the bullet had just grazed her.” The sheriff leaned back in his chair, thumbing the brim of his hat up a notch, he continued. “When I was finally able to question Gracie, she told me Ben had returned home the day before, maybe two days, she wasn’t sure how long she’d been unconscious. She said that night a group of hard cases had shown up at the farm, looking for Ben. Seems he got himself into some trouble with the wrong men before he came home from the war. And he brought that trouble back with him.”
The reverend interrupted, “So where is Gracie now?” he asked impatiently.
The sheriff leaned back in his chair, “I’m getting to that part, Rev.” he assured him. “Doc took me aside and told me the rest of the story. Seems these men stung ol’ Ben up and made him watch as they took turns with Gracie.”
“Reverend, the doc told me that those men… they did horrible, vile things to Gracie, and the, uh…damage, was quite extensive. He didn’t know how she was able to walk, let alone bury her father all by herself and then ride into town.”
Sliding open the bottom drawer of his desk he removed a bottle of whiskey and two shot glasses. He poured two drinks and slid one across the table to Reverend Sharp.
Sharp shook his head, “No thank you, sheriff.”
Kendle smiled sadly, “Suit yourself, I guarentee your gonna need it though.” and he downed his in one gulp. Refilling his glass, he shoved the bottle out of the way. “Me and deputy Thomas took a ride out there and seen their tracks. They were days old. There was no chance of catching up to the sons a bitches.”
The reverend nodded in understanding, “Not to mention, that you didn’t have the jurisdiction to follow them.”
The sheriff gave him a hard look, “Never gave a shit about jurisdiction before, and I ain’t about to start, but unfortunately, like I said, those boys were long gone.”
The reverend smiled grimly, then he asked, “Any idea who the men were, or why they were after Ben?”
“Yep. Gracie found a note in your room from Ben. Seems he didn’t know if he was gonna stick around and he wanted you to know why, and to warn you to be on the look out for some men that might be lookin‘ for him.”
“The letter said him and some other soldiers were put on detail, guarding a shipment of gold, bound for the confederacy. It was suppose to help fund the war for a while longer, only some of the soldiers got greedy. They planned on hijacking their own shipment, make it look like it was the Union what done it. They tried to bring Ben in and he declined, so when they made their play they tried to kill him along with some of the other soldiers to make sure there was no witnesses, but Ben got away after taking a bullet in the hip.”
Reverend Sharp shook his head. Just an hour ago he’d grieved and prayed over Gracie’s grave, only now to find out it was his old friend.
He’d get her home, set her up in his room and get busy rebuilding her home. There were probably a lot of men in town that would be willing to pitch in and help. Everyone one liked Gracie, people felt almost protective of her. The poor girl had lost her ma, then her dirt bag brother had run off, left her to run the farm by herself and now her pa was dead. It wouldn’t be hard to rally up some help.
“Is Gracie still at Doc’s house?”
Kendle nodded towards the reverends glass, “This is where that drink might come in handy, Reverend. Gracie came through the incident with more than just physical wounds. The doc said she was traumatized beyond belief, and that’s why she seemed a bit off. He said men sometimes get like that after war; shell shocked he called it.”
The sheriff downed the rest of the fiery liquid in his glass, then shook his head sadly. “I went and talked to her, Reverend. I wanted to take down an official statement of the events to secure warrants for the trash responsible for her rape and Ben’s death. I think our Gracie did die that night, and what took her place… I don’t even know how to explain it.”
The reverend was confused and said as much.
“That girls hell bent on destruction. Absolute annihilation of the men that killed her pa. It aint as simple as revenge, I’ve seen revenge at work, hell, I’ve felt it and dealt it a time or two myself… but this different. That girls done come uncorked, and now the only thing that drives her is bloodlust.”
The reverend was having a hard time picturing that. His sweet Gracie? But at the same time, if the sheriff said it, it had to be a fact. Sheriff Kendle was known for telling it straight. Men of his ilk weren’t known for mincing words. But still… “Your sure about this, Sheriff?”
“Look reverend, I’ve dealt with all sorts of people in my line of work over the years, crazy, deranged, evil men, but… she scared me. And I don’t scare easy.”
Reverend Sharp knew the sheriff well enough to know that he probably wasn’t exaggerating. He was the ‘call it as he see’s it, tell it like it is’, type of man. “Was she hysterical when you talked to her?” the reverend asked hopefully.
“Nope, she was as calm as a kitten.” Seeing the confused look on the reverends face he added, “Reverend, talking to her, it was like looking into the face of the devil himself, nothing but pure evil. Like I said, she done scared the shit out of me.”
None of this made sense to Sharp. On impulse he grabbed the drink in front of him and tossed it down. Ignoring the sheriffs raised eyebrows, he said, “I need to go see her right away, is she still at Doc’s?”
“Nope.” Kendle once more refilled the reverend’s glass.
“Where is she?”
The sheriff nodded to the full glass and waited. Sharp stared at the sheriff until it became apparent like he wasn’t going to say anything until he had drank it. Sighing, Sharp grabbed by glass and tossed it down.
“She sold the farm to Jacob Miens over at the mercantile. You know he’s been wanting to buy it from Ben for years. Gracie sold it to him at a very fair price, with the stipulation that you got to keep your room in the barn.”
The reverend knew the answer to his question before he even asked it. “Is she going after the men that killed Ben?”
“Yep. She stocked up at the store with everything she needed and took the rest of what Jacob owed her in cash. Now she’s out there somewhere loaded for bear, literally. When I asked Jacob what she had took with her, there was two things that struck me as being peculiar. One of them was a bear trap.” Sheriff Kendle grimaced, “Kinda lets you know where her minds at, don’t it?”
The reverend grunted.
“She also bought enough guns and ammo to outfit a small army. Only problem is, she ain’t got no troops.”
“Give me a minute, would ya sheriff?” the reverend said as he stood and walked towards the door.
Sheriff Kendle watched the reverend walk out to his horse. The man stood there a long time staring out into nothing. A man fighting with his inner demons. Finally, the reverend bowed his head, and right there, in the middle of the dusty street, he began to pray.
A minute later he reached up and removed his white collar. After studying it for a minute he lifted the flap on his saddle bag and put it inside. Walking back in side, he asked the sheriff, “Will you let my congregation know that I wont be returning. Gracie’s just like a daughter to me, and if she needs help, she’s gonna get it.”
The sheriff studied him a moment. The man that had walked outside and the man that had just returned, seemed to be two different people. His soft, gentle eyes had been replaced with cold, callous ones. The set of his mouth that had always held the hint of a smile had turned hard, and his slumped shouldered stance was now ramrod straight and rigid. His casual stroll was now a confident swagger. Even his voice had changed, it was now rough and harsh.
Finally the sheriff smiled, “I’ve known ever since you showed up in my town, that you weren’t who you claimed to be. But since I hadn’t seen you on any wanted posters, I decided to leave you be. .”
Sharp smiled at the sheriff, he knew that not much slipped by the old dog, “The name’s Sharp. Sam Sharp.
“The Sam Sharp? From down Texas way?”
Sharp nodded, “That’d be me.”
The sheriff let out a long, low whistle, “Holy shit.” then he smiled, “Well now, Gracie couldn’t ask for better help trackin’ those lowlifes, now could she.”
Sharp took a seat and poured himself another drink. “Sheriff, I left that life long ago and I never planned on going back. Seems fate’s gone and tipped my hand though.”
“Sometimes it’s not easy doing the Lord’s work, is it?”
Sharp grunted, “I don’t think you’d call what I’m about to do, ‘the Lord’s work’, Sheriff.”
The sheriff reached into one of his drawers and pulled out the makings, rolling a cigarette he chose his next words carefully. “A long time ago, I had this old yeller dog. Best damn dog I ever had.” he struck a match and lit his cigarette. Leaning back in his chair, he blew a smoke ring while Sharp waited to see where this story was going.
“He was smart as a whip, and loyal too. That old dog hardly ever left my side, but one day we were out huntin’ and he tangled with she-coon. Boy, she tore that dog up before I could get a shot in. He was a tough ol’ thing though and he was on the mend in no time. A few weeks went by and I had forgotten all about it, till one day he just up and turned on me. He came at me, hair raised, foamin‘ at the mouth, and murder in his eyes.”
“He was rabid?”
“Yep, that damn coon had hydrophobey. I tell ya, it about killed me to put that dog down. But, you see, I had no choice in the matter, and I did what had to be done. Besides that, he wasn’t my dog anymore, he had the sickness and he just went plum crazy in the head.”
Sharp nodded, seeing the distant, painful look on the sheriff‘s face. “I bet that was hard on you.”
“You bet it was, but like I said, it had to be done. Even though it wasn’t his fault, he was sick and he was dangerous.” Looking at Sharp he asked, “I imagine your wondering where this stories going? You said that you weren’t going to do the Lord’s work, but, you don’t know that for sure. Don’t you think that it’s possible that the Lord feels the same way about those men, that I felt about that dog?”
Sharp was thinking on that when the sheriff added, “It could be, that He’s sending you to put down his rabid dogs, before they can bite anyone else and spread their sickness.”
Sam looked at him, studying his eyes, trying to read the sheriffs thoughts. He wasn’t stupid, he had caught on to the sheriffs double meaning. Not only was he saying the killers were rabid, he was also insinuating that Gracie was bit, and therefore infected, and what? That he might have to put her down too? No, if Gracie was acting as strange as the sheriff said, there was only one cure to be had. Justice. Justice and revenge, plain and simple.
Sharp thanked the sheriff and turned to leave. At the door he paused, “You said that Gracie had bought two peculiar things, one was the bear trap…what was the other?”
“Rat poison. Lots of rat poison.” he grimaced.
“Rat poison? What in the hell was she going to do with that?”
Shaking his head, “I can only imagine.”
Shutting the door behind him, Sharp walked to his horse and mounted. Casting an eye to the blue sky above, he was thankful for the break of nice weather. Usually at this time of the year, when the rains came, they came hard and heavy. One good downpour would significantly hinder his tracking efforts, wiping away any trace of the men he was going to follow. And right now, he couldn’t afford to lose any time, Gracie already had a good two or three days head start on him.
He needed to hit the mercantile and get geared up before heading back to what was left of the old farm to retrieve his meager belongings. It was already late in the day, so he would have to wait until morning to head out. He knew he had a long restless night ahead of him, every nerve in his body sang out with urgency, he had to find Gracie, and fast. He wasn’t going to be able to shake the feeling that she was in great danger until he caught up with her.
Riding down the street he was assaulted by many of the good citizens of the town, most of whom attended his church and looked upon him as their reverend. But he was surprised by how easy it was, once he had removed his white collar, to slip into his old self. The transition had felt good, like the most natural thing in the world, and he was finally himself again after all these years. So he was now having a hard time playing Reverend Sharp one last time. The reverend would have been patient and kind to those seeking answers and offering condolences. But Sam Sharp seen past all the pretenses of goodwill and worry, and seen it for what it was- just plain nosiness.
In a town this size, gossip reigned supreme, and the title of Head of the Women’s Auxiliary, was given to the one with the most.
She found him inside the mercantile while he stood in front of the shelf containing skeins of rope in various sizes.
“Oh, Reverend Sharp!” Mrs. O’Leary exclaimed, making her way to him. “How are you doing? You just don’t know what a relief it is to have you back!” she went right on speaking, not giving him a chance to respond to any of her questions. “I take it you’ve heard the awful news about what happened out at the Walker farm? It’s just simply dreadful what happened to poor Ben, to be murdered on the eve of his return from the war! Such a travesty. Oh, we must hold a funeral now that your back in town.” Lowering her voice to a staged whisper, she continued, “I just cant believe what happened to Gracie, but for her to just bury her own father without the benefit of a proper elegy, tsk-tsk, but its no wonder, you know, with her going crazy and all.”
Mrs. O’Leary faltered as she finally noticed that Sharp was no longer wearing his white clerical collar. Her eyes narrowed as she studied his face, whatever she saw there, caused a soft ‘oh’ to escape her lips before she slammed them shut. It was at this point that Sharp decided that he easiest way to get rid of a yapping dog, was to simply throw it a bone.
“Mrs. O’Leary, it is with my deepest regret that I have officially stepped down from the position of Reverend. And I shall be leaving town immediately to track down our ‘poor Gracie’ and help her exact revenge on the worth piles of human shit that killed her pa.”
Mrs. O’Leary took a few steps back, her eyes wide, and her jaw resting somewhere in the vicinity of the wooden floor.
“It has been an absolute pleasure knowing you, Mrs. O’Leary, and I trust that you will let the rest of the congregation know of my termination.” Sharp reached out and selected three skeins of rope to add to his collection of gear he would be needing. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some men I need to track down before I send them on their merry way, straight to the bowels of Hell. Good day, Mrs. O’Leary.”
That night he opened the wooden truck at the end of his bed and studied its contents. Running his fingers over the smooth leather of the well oiled gun belt, he heard Thou shall not kill, immediately followed by, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.
Two separate but equally important passages from the bible.
Wrong vs. right, good vs. evil, ying and yang and tit for tat. He knew that man had struggled with that probably since the beginning of time. It was an age old debate, but one he settled easily after asking himself one important question. Could he just sit back and do nothing? No. Hell no. He could have fought with himself all night, but decided to just go with what felt right. Kill them all and let God sort them out later.
The thought both repulsed him and excited him. Dueling banjos popped into his head, and he immediately started humming the tune as he took the gun belt to his bed and sat down. Slipping a pistol from the holster he felt the cool weight of the gun in his hand. He would of thought after so many years that it would of felt weird to hold them once more, but he was wrong. They felt good, they felt right.
Slipping the gun back into its holster he went back to the chest to study the rest of its contents. His eye landed on an old leather sheath that housed his Sheffield Bowie; the famous Arkansas toothpick. His father had given this to him on his tenth birthday. It had a dog bone handle with a nickel silver wrap, and a thirteen inch blade that that had never seen a dull moment in its life. From the time Sam had received it, he had kept it honed razor sharp. He smiled as his fathers words drifted through his memory.
“Son, never be caught with yor pants down, yor knife dull, or yor powder wet.”
His way of telling Sam to always keep his guard up. Growing up in the midst of the Comanche nation, it was an everyday part of life just trying to stay alive. Along with keeping the thieving bastards from stealing them blind. It had become a big game among the Injuns to see what they could steal from the Sharp family. So it was almost an everyday occurrence that some brave would try and sneak close enough to the farm to get their red hands on anything that didn’t belong to them. They stole everything from dish towels off the clothes line to buckets left out by the hog trough. Stupid little things that wouldn’t be missed until you needed them. Mama had thought that she was going crazy at first, misplacing everything, until the family caught on to what was really happening.
Sam thought back to a particular day, not long after he had gotten his new knife, his father had sent him to fix a leaky shingle on the roof. He had carried a pole ladder, hammer, and a bucket of nails to the backside of the cabin and set his tools down while he positioned his ladder up against the house. Sam had turned around to gather up his things before climbing up on the roof, and damned if his hammer wasn’t missing. He’d not turned his back for twenty seconds, and the red thieves had snuck up behind him and took his hammer.
Knowing that his father would be furious that he had lost their one and only hammer, without any thought for his own safety, Sam had charged into the woods. He caught a glimpse of the culprit about twenty feet in and took off after him like a shot. Sam was still growing into his long legs, and some days they liked to get into his way and trip him up, but not that day. They worked just like they were supposed to and within a matter of minutes, Sam had caught up to the Injun and launched himself through the air to land on the braves back. Down they had went, hitting the hard dirt and sliding to a stop a few feet away. Sam had then struggled with the Indian, trying to turn him over while he slid his new knife out of its sheath at his side. Bringing the big blade up he pressed it into the injuns throat, and then for the briefest moment, their eyes met, and held.
He was looking into the face of a boy, younger than himself by a few years, his huge dark eyes were afraid, silently pleading with Sam to spare him his life. And Sam did. He couldn’t bring himself to kill that young boy, so he had turned him loose.
The boy had scrambled to his feet and took off running, but just before he disappeared behind some bushes, he had stopped and turned to look back at Sam, and then he smiled and waved.
After he was gone, Sam had sat on the forest floor going over everything that had just happened, stopping when he thought back to the boys smile. It wasn’t a thank you for not killing me smile, it was more like a shit eating grin. Looking around, Sam realized that he’d been had. The damn Injun had took his hammer- again! “Son of a bitch!” he had muttered, and then smiled as he thought about it. He knew when he’d been bested, and he just had, by a boy no older than his little sister. “Son of bitch.”
Sitting down to supper that evening, Sam was hearing it from both ends. He had told his parents about the incident with the hammer, and they were mad. Not because he had lost the hammer, two times, and not because he had let the Indian boy get away, but because he had let his temper get the best of him and had chased the little thief blindly into the woods.
“I raised you up to be smart, to think on yor feet in bad situations, and then you go and do something stupid. Makes me wonder if you’ve ever heard anything I’ve told you.” his father said.
His mother had took a different approach, she just cried and made him feel guilty. “I can’t believe you almost killed yourself. There could’ve been ten Indians hiding back in those bushes, waiting to kill you dead! Dead!”
Sam had been trying to figure out a way to disappear, somehow just slide to the floor and slip between the cracks like spilt water, when his father said, “Shhh…listen.”
Everyone froze, trying to hear what Sam’s father was listening to, when they heard the sound of horses approaching. Lots of horses.
It didn’t take Sam long to scramble over to one of the gun ports, the rest of his family right on his heels. As he looked through the port hole, his blood ran cold and his mouth went dry. “Son of a bitch!” he’d croaked.
His father had smacked him in the back of the head, “Watch yor mouth!” and then he had shoved him out of the way so he could get a look. “Son of a bitch.” he whispered, then louder, “Get ready for an attack!”
In the next instant the solid little cabin was a bee hive of activity, as each member of the family raced to perform the drill that they had practiced so many times. Only this time, it was for real. Living right on the edge of Indian territory certainly had its distinct disadvantages, like being attacked by hostile Indians. But Sam’s father had built their home as sturdy as any frontier fort. Logs, two feet thick, made up the walls, planed by hand to fit snugly together, and sat on a rock foundation three feet high. The doors were four inches thick and reinforced with two wooden drop locks, it would take a person half a day to break through those doors. But best of all, in case the hostiles caught the cabin on fire, they had dug an escape tunnel under the cabin that was accessed by a hidden trap door. The hole dropped down eight feet then the tunnel ran about thirty feet to where they had built a small alcove stocked with food and water, enough to last them a few days.
Each person sat at a gun port waiting for a sign that would signal the attack. Sam and his father were manning the front of the cabin, while his ma and sister watched the back. Sam counted the grim faced Indians that were lined up at the edge of the yard. Fourteen. He recognized the leader, a chief by the name of Buffalo Hump, or Potsana Kwahip in Comanche, as he held up his arm, signaling to his men to stay put as he kicked his spotted pony forward. He rode up to the cabin alone and sat stoically, waiting to be acknowledged by the people inside.
Time ticked by slowly, what was probably just a few minutes, felt like forever, then his father had sighed, “Well, I reckon I ought to go see what he wants.”
“Pa, no! You cant go out there by yourself, it might be a trick.”
“I don’t think so, son. I haven’t seen any weapons, and their not made up for war, I think he just wants to talk.”
His father leaned his rifle up against the wall and headed for the door. Sam heard his mother gasp behind him, but she never uttered a word.
“Keep a sharp eye out, but don’t do anything foolish, you understand? Lets keep this as peaceable as possible, but any sign of trouble, you get ready to drop the bar down on the door.”
“Yes, pa.” Sam gulped.
He watched as his father opened the door and stepped out onto the porch. It being summer, it was still plenty light outside, so Sam had no problem keeping an eye on the line of Indians at the edge of the yard. He tried to keep up with the conversation between his father and Buffalo Hump, but since it was mostly in sign language, he missed a fair amount of it.
After a few long minutes, his pa called to him, “Samuel, come on out here. Leave the gun with yor ma.”
Sam thought that his father had looked so brave, walking out to face the red devils that awaited him. He hadn’t realized how much courage that took, until he had to do it himself. Standing with his hand on the door, and his heart threatening to explode in his chest, he felt like he was walking out to face a firing squad. Sucking it up, and taking a deep breath, he opened the door and walked out to stand by his father in the yard.
Smiling, his father told him, “Son, Buffalo Hump has come to thank you for sparing his son’s life today. It seems the boys of his village have made a game out of stealing from us. Counting coup, they call it.”
“We’ve been being robbed by a bunch of… kids?”
Just then, Buffalo Hump jumped off his horse and walked over to stand in front of him. The chief had looked as large as a mountain, and just as formidable. They each studied each other from head to toe, sizing each other up.
Sam was caught off guard when the big Indian’s hand shot out and gave him a violent shove. If he hadn’t steeled himself a split second before he was pushed, he’d be sitting on his butt in the dirt.
“Steady, Sam.” his father warned.
“What the hell was that for!” Sam asked his father, “I thought he wanted to thank me!” He could feel the heat rising in his cheeks as the anger settled in. Every nerve in his body started humming as he became instantly alert.
When the Chief’s hand shot out again, Sam was ready and knocked it to the side. And when the other hand came at his face, he was ready for that too, and blocked it as he ducked his head to the right.
Then, without thinking, he grabbed the knife at his side and dropped down into a crouch glaring at the chief, waiting for him to make his next move.
Beside him, his father was frantically trying to diffuse the situation, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Sam, settle down.”
He sensed movement behind Buffalo Hump, the string of Indians were slowly advancing towards them, still mounted on their horses but starting to fan out. But Sam didn’t dare look away from the chief who stood so close.
All of a sudden, the great chief’s face broke into a smile, and he nodded with approval. “You great warrior.” Clenching his hand into a fist, he thumped his chest once, “You strong heart. Great warrior.” Turning to his people, he spoke in his native tongue, as Sam cautiously replaced his Bowie. It surprised him, that Buffalo Hump, had spoken English so well and wondered where he had learned it. Then Sam had remembered his father telling him about the Indians taking white people, women and children especially, captive. The thought had brought a shiver up his spine.
One of the Indians slid to the ground and came forward. Sam recognized the boy from the woods. “You!” he said angrily, turning to his father, he said, “That’s the one that stole our hammer.”
The boy walked up and stood in front of Sam. Smiling, he shrugged his shoulders and held something out before him, it was the hammer.
Before he left, Buffalo Hump had looked down at him. “Till we meet again, Little White Warrior.”
As the Indians rode away that day, Sam had asked his father, “Do you think we’ll ever see them again.”
“I don’t know, son. Indians are notional creatures, just because you earned their respect today, doesn’t mean they wont cut yor heart out tomorrow. Remember that.”
In fact, they did cross paths again, just five years later. It was on a day that turned Sam Sharp’s world upside down, and changed his life forever.
He ran the silver blade slowly along the skin of his forearm, watching the fine hairs fall away, leaving nothing but a path of smooth skin in its wake. Satisfied it was razor sharp, he slipped it back into the sheath. Blowing out the light, he lay back in bed, shutting out the past and focusing on the future. He had to find Gracie. And then he had to help her. He knew that the only way anyone could truly be rid of their demons, was to kill them. Kill them all. Even if it meant tracking down and killing a hundred men, he would do it.
Sharp left early the next morning. The sun hadn’t even poked its head above the horizon yet, as Sam stopped beside the freshly dug grave of his old friend. After swearing that he would do whatever it took to help Gracie find the murdering bastards and get the revenge that would bring her peace, he set out for the long journey ahead.
He followed the obvious trail south for two days before things became complicated. He rode bent over in the saddle, studying the ground and reading the sign as well as any scholar reads a book. He could recite every move they made, like a storybook uses words strung together in a certain way to tell the story, he could take seemingly begien objects and paint a vivid picture in his minds eye of the events that had occurred. His father used to say that he could track the shadow of a bird across the prairie if he had a mind to.
But right now, tracking wasn’t the problem. The group of men he had been following had met up with an even larger group of men. From what he could tell, there was twenty seven men in all, quite a large number to have to deal with if they stayed together, but he wouldn’t have to worry about that. They had spent the night camped out along the river and rode out the next day, once again split up into two groups.
The original nine that he had been following since the farm, and the large group, that he guessed belonged to Jarvis and Adams, the men that the sheriff had talked about. The two men that had ordered the murder of Ben Walker, to make sure that no one discovered their deception of the Confederacy and the large shipment of gold that they had stolen.
Sharp knew it wouldn’t be long before he started seeing the wanted posters on the three main men, Joe Jarvis, Nathan Adams, and Russ Connors. Sheriff kendle had already contacted the federal marshals and it was only a matter of time before they arrived to pick up the journal that Ben had been keeping. In it, was all the proof they would ever need, the whole heinous crime written down in black and white. And by killing poor Ben, they had proven their guilt and signed their own death warrants.
The sheriff had implied that there would likely be a high price on each of their heads, “Someone could collect a lot of money for their troubles, and since your gonna kill them anyways…” he’d let the sentence drift off.
“Sheriff, I wouldn’t take money from the government if they gave it to me on a god damned velvet pillow. Those bastards have murdered more innocent people than the small pox. I would, however, like the chance to tell them where they could stick their money.
Sharp had been following their trail in a southwesterly direction for more than a week. They had stayed shy of the few small towns in the area, keeping to themselves and making good time. Once they had dropped down into Texas, they had crossed first the Red and then the Trinity Rivers, it was when Sharp was getting close to the Brazos, that things, once again, got interesting.
The first peculiar thing he noticed was a red tailed hawk, flying in erratic circles. The large bird was obviously an adult, but it’s wings dipped to and froe unsteadily, like a fledgling on its first flight, trying to keep its precarious balance in the air. Then Sharp watched in disbelief as the bird approached a large pecan tree, and instead of landing gracefully among the branches, it smacked head on into the trunk and tumbled to the ground, some forty feet below.
Sharp tugged on the reigns and headed for the base of the tree. That was the strangest damn thing he’d ever seen and it made him want to get a closer look. Swinging down from the saddle he stood over the still body, noting the strange angle of the birds head. “Damn thing broke its neck.” he mumbled to himself.
It was while examining the bird that the light breeze changed direction and he caught the all to familiar smell of something long dead. He instantly became wary. His eyes scanned the area as his nose followed the scent that was becoming increasingly strong as he went. About a hundred feet from the tree he came upon the body of a coyote laying in the tall prairie grass, its stomach grotesquely swollen, a black hole gaped in the middle where it had burst open and its lips pulled back to reveal razor sharp teeth in a death grimace. The body stunk of rotten dead meat, but it wasn’t as strong as what Sharp was smelling.
Visions of finding Gracie’s dead body hidden in the tall grass filled his head as he continued walking into the wind. The acrid stench was getting worse, making his stomach churn, and his eyes burn as they teared up. Yanking his bandana up around his nose he pushed on.
When Sharp finally stumbled upon the camp, he had already past two more coyotes, an eagle, and a raccoon. And that was just on the trail that he cut through the grass, there was no telling exactly how many dead animals there were scattered about, but from the smell, he guessed a lot. Something in the area was killing them. His first thought was the creek that was running nearby. He’d heard of poisonous watering holes in the desert, usually identified by the bones of dead animals that were scattered around, and the lack of vegetation at the pools rim, but he’d never heard of running water being a source of such poison. But, if it wasn’t the water, the only other explanation would be a contaminated food source. That seemed very likely, because all the animals he had seen thus far had been of the scavenger variety.
As he stared at the grisly scene around the camp, the sheriff’s words came back to him, “Rat poison. Lots of rat poison.”
Arsenic. “Holy Jesus.” he murmured.
That night, as he sat by the campfire, he thought about the problem at hand. He had only lasted a few minutes at the site of the death camp, two miles down stream from where he now sat. The sights and smells there were more than he could take, and as he had felt the sickness wash over him, he had made his way to the creek that was beyond the camp. That was when he had made another shocking discovery. The banks of the creek, and the water itself, were littered with dead and rotting animal carcasses. He had heard before, that rat poison made its victim extremely thirsty. The rodents would seek out water where it would mix with the poison in its belly, and essentially eat the thing from the inside out.
Sharp didn’t believe in undue torture, that was one of the reasons he had never used the stuff himself. He preferred using barn cats to keep the rodent population in check, it was a natural and effective method.
He wasn’t sure how Gracie had managed to poison all of those men, but it was clear that she had. And he didn’t feel one bit sorry for those bastards, they deserved everything they got, and more. He hoped they were burning in a lake of fire that very minute, it would serve them right, but something needed to be done with their bodies, they couldn’t just be left out in the open. They were poisonous, murdering, rotten bastards in life, and now they were still at it in death. All the dead animals who had tried to feast on them, was proof of that.
And now, he was going to have the unpleasant duty of disposing of their remains. He couldn’t bury them, not only would that be more work then he was willing to do for them, they were to close to the large creek, he figured the poison would eventually work its way into the water. No, he would have to burn them. And not just them, but all the dead animals in the area. He had to stop the spread of contamination or the consequences would be far and wide.
The next morning, Sharp dug out his oldest set of clothes. The rags had defiantly seen better days, and now, this would be their last. He would burn them too, after his job was done today. He also rummaged around in his pack and pulled out his only set of leather gloves, he would hate to lose them, but they could be replaced. He wasn’t gonna touch any of those bodies without gloves. He also pulled out a white undershirt. He would soak it in the creek and wrap it around his face to cut down on the smell. He shivered as he remembered to horrible odor, he had never smelled anything like it, ever. A good reason to skip breakfast today, he thought, setting water on to boil for coffee. It would have been nice to eat some solid food for the energy he would need, but coffee would have to due. He figured the food wouldn’t have stayed in his stomach long enough to help anyway.
He rode to within a quarter mile of the camp and picketed the horses. Taking the supplies he would need, he set out on foot. This was a day he would not likely forget.
It was long, hard work, and the wet rag did little to cut down the smell, but he stomached it better than he had done the day before. As it was, it took most of the day to finish the work, a lot of time was spent finding and dragging enough dry wood to create the large pyre, then more time still, finding and dragging all the dead animals to the camp and hoisting them onto the pile. He had swept the area in a one mile radius, but lucky for him, most of the carcasses were down at the creek, close to the camp.
Once finished, he stood back and looked over his handy work. Earlier, he had drug the remains of the men into the center of the camp, laying them side by side. Then he had piled all the dry wood he could find on top of them, and finally, topped it off with the dead animal carcasses.
Satisfied with the job he had done, he lit a match and tossed it onto the pile. The flame caught hold and quickly moved along the kerosene soaked wood and within minutes the fire roared, billowing black noxious smoke high into the air.
Sharp bowed his head out of habit, “Lord…” Finally, stumped for words he just said, “I’m sending you this trash, it’s up to you what you wanna do with it.”
He stood back and watched the fire awhile to make sure it was going good, then he shucked his clothes and tossed them into the fire. Slipping his boots back on he grabbed his pack and headed up stream to bathe. In the morning he would set out to find Gracie.
On the surface, the vast countryside was serene, filled with wide open spaces, rugged mountain ranges and breathtaking beauty. But Sharp knew as well as anyone who had spent any length of time in the wilderness, that looks can be deceiving. Danger had a way of hiding in the shadows, and then jumping out at the most inconvenient time. He worried about Gracie, a girl who had barely ever left the familiar surroundings of her home town. Now she was out roaming a strange land in search of blood, blood and revenge.
He found her abandoned camp as the made his way to the creek, upstream from where the men had been killed. There were clear tracks leading into and out of the shelter of the trees along the creek. After he had bathed, scrubbing himself several times with the strong lye soap to get rid of the awful order that clung to his skin, he dressed and went back to study her abandoned camp more closely. It was in the bush around the camp, that something shiny caught his eye. Walking over, he bent to retrieve the large canister from the bushes. It was easy enough to tell what the contents had been at one time, the large evil looking rat on the front gave it away. The container claimed it held two pounds of the poisonous substance, even though it was now empty. Jesus, he had no idea how she had actually managed to slip that much poison to the now dead killers, but she had.
After starting a fire and putting some beans on to cook, he pondered the next problem. There were only eight bodies at the camp down stream, meaning one of the men got away. Sharp had found evidence of the ninth man down by the creek, looked like he had split from the group at some point. But, was it before or after the other men had been killed? Must have been before, but for some reason he had spent a considerable amount of time watching the camp from the cover of the trees. It could be, that he hadn’t trusted his compadres not to follow behind and kill him too. It was Sharps theory, that non of the criminals could trust each other, why would they? They were called criminals for a reason. No honor among thieves, and that sort of thing.
In any case, there was one more of those sneaky bastards out there somewhere. He would of liked to have rode out after him, maybe torture some information from him, but he couldn’t chance losing track of Gracie. He couldn’t follow them both, so he had no choice but to follow her, and hope the other would meet up with some injuns along the way. If he did, then justice would be served. Indian torture was the worst, they did things to a man that would send a shiver down the spine of Satan himself.
Sharp set out at dawn the next morning. He would travel nonstop, from sunup to sundown, in hopes of catching up to her quickly. By his count, he was four days behind her, and he would have to do some fast tracking to catch up.
Three days later he sat scratching his head. It was apparent from following her trail, that she had no idea where she was going. The trail zig zagged in a mostly south-westerly pattern across the countryside, with no clear rhyme or reason. She seemed to just be… wandering aimlessly, not a good thing in Indian country. She stayed out in the flats, making an easy target of herself. With no where to hide, her only hope in a surprise attack would be to outrun them. Not an easy thing to do, injun ponies were fast. They had to be, they were counted on to run down big game, enemy tribes, and the occasional trespasser, all while out maneuvering deadly obstacles at high speeds. Hitting a chuck hole or tripping over a mesquite root or large rock, meant certain death for both horse and rider.
An hour later he stopped to study a new set of tracks, two horses had crossed her trail and then turned, following her. By the look of the unshod hoof prints, he figured it was most likely Indians. But, were these two part of a hunting party out scouting for food, or were they hostiles out hunting for trouble. A few miles up head the tracks veered off and shot north again. Not good. That meant that they had found her trail worth following and had turned back, most likely, to report their findings to the rest of the group.
“Shit.” he cussed, when he came upon the tracks of about fifteen horses, all unshod, that joined her trail again from the north.
Nudging his horses into an easy canter he followed the war party as they made their way towards the west. Towards his Gracie.
Sharp followed the trail to where the Indians had dismounted, leaving their horses ground reigned. Then, the much harder to read tracks of their soft soled moccasins as they stole up upon Gracie’s camp. They had split the group into two, and half had made its way to the east, to circle around and attack from the opposite side, trapping her between the two. Sharp knew what was coming next, and he swallowed the big lump that had formed in his throat. “Aw, Gracie.”
She wouldn’t have had a chance. A lone woman on the prairie surrounded by fifteen Indians, there would have been no way to escape the red devils, no warning that they were even there, until it was too late. They could be as silent as ghosts one minute, and strike with the swiftness a panther the next. Most never even knew what was happening, until they had an arrow sticking out of their chest.
As he dismounted and walked to her cold deserted camp, he held a glimmer of hope. He knew that some women were taken captive, a fate that was worse than death, but if that was the case, he could track them down and steal her back, or at least die trying. But he would find her.
He stared at the empty camp in disbelief. The only set of tracks here, were her own. There were no signs of a struggle, or spent cartridges that would have meant that she had tried to defend herself, no dried blood trail leaving the area. Nothing. There was absolutely nothing to suggest that anything out of the ordinary had happened.
Circling around the camp he followed the tracks of the Indians as they met up again on the west side and had turned back towards their waiting ponies. For some reason, they had just left. That didn’t make any sense, why would they get ready for an attack, and then just call it off? It wasn’t like an Indian to mount an attack and then just leave empty handed, but then again, they could be down right peculiar at times. Maybe the moon wasn’t right, or they heard the call of a night owl as some warning from beyond. What ever it was, it was a mystery to Sharp.
He picked up Gracie’s trail again, and resumed the pursuit. He followed along until night fall and then started looking for a good place to bed down for the night. As he scanned the countryside he notice a plume of smoke, far off in the distance, at the base of a hillside. Someone had a good sized campfire. He abandoned his search for cover and headed for the area up ahead. He didn’t know if it was Gracie, but he had to be sure.
He found her easily enough. The damn fire she had built was big enough to be used as a smoke signal. He was sure he wasn’t the only one who had seen it, a person would have to be half blind to have missed it. She sure had a lot to learn about survival in Indian country, and it just so happened, that he had a lot to teach her. But the first lesson he was planning on giving her, had nothing to do with basic survival skills. It was going to be about the dangers of rat poison. Even though it had been four days since he had cleaned up her little mess back yonder, the damn smell was still stuck in his nose, and he was not happy about that.
He had left his horse and snuck up on her camp to make sure that it was, in fact, Gracie, and not someone else. He was relieved to see that it was. She sat by the fire, within the circle of pines, dressed all in black. She wore a black cowboy hat, tipped low on her head to hide her face, but even from that distance, he knew in a second that it her.
He was about to hello the camp, when she raised her head and looked directly at his hiding spot, “You gonna stand in the bushes all night, or are you gonna come in.”
It wasn’t a question, it was more like a challenge.
He was surprised that she had known right where he was, he had been careful to not make a noise as he injun’d up on the camp, maybe he had spent too long behind the collar, maybe, he was losing his skills.
Smiling, Sharp shook his head in bewilderment and stood up, walking into camp, “Hello, Gracie,” he called. As he stepped into the ring of light, he asked, “How’d you know it was me?”
He stopped short when he seen the look on her face. It was a weird mixture of contempt and wariness, two things he had never seen on her before. “Because I‘ve been waiting for you.” she answered flatly, and went back to poking at the fire with a stick.
Sharp stood uncertainly. He thought that after following her erratic trail for the last few days that made it quite clear that she was lost, and that she would’ve been happy to see a familiar face, one that could guide her to where she needed to go, and one that had been her friend and confidant for a long time.
“Gracie? Are you alright?”
Without looking at him, she answered, “Of course, Reverend Sharp.”
It was evident that she wasn’t going to invite him to sit down, so he went ahead and did so anyway. But for some odd reason, he did so cautiously. All the fine hairs on his body were standing straight up.
After a minute he said, “I was so sorry to hear about what happened to you and your pa, Gracie…”
He had been going to tell her how he had tracked her all the way here, determined to help her find the men responsible, but the rest died on his lips as she turned to stare at him, and he looked into her flat black, soulless eyes, eyes that didn’t belong to her. “Oh my God…” he whispered, caught off guard.
Smirking, she said, “God’s not here, Reverend. But I’ve been waiting for you to show up, so I could tell you to go on back home. You don’t want any part of this. You need to leave while your conscious is clear, and your record is still clean.”
As she leaned forward to stare at him intently, the flames from the fire danced eerily in her large dark eyes, “I aim to find the men responsible for killing my daddy, and when I do, it will rain blood, Reverend. The streets will run thick with it. I won’t kill them quick, and there will be no mercy. Do you understand that? When I find them, I will rip them apart. I’ve already sealed my spot in hell, so whatever happens from now on, doesn’t matter, because I’m already damned. But you, you still have a chance.”
Sharp felt a cold shiver run down his spine. He had heard a lot of men make threats like that in the heat of the moment, but they had always sounded hollow and empty. He had learned that people liked to talk big, but most of the time they lacked the sand to back it up. Gracie’s words were different, they rang with truth and finality. She would do it. The men she spoke of were walking corpse’s, their violent end’s were inevitable. Their fates were sealed, written in stone and highlighted with blood, their blood, if she could get to them.
Gracie had turned back to the fire, so Sharp took a few minutes to think about his next words. The sheriff had been right. Gracie was different. So far, he hadn’t seen even the smallest hint of the kind, humble girl that she used to be. Revenge and the need for blood, was all that fueled her now. But none of that changed his mission any. He had started out to help her, and whatever she said now, wasn’t going to change that.
“I wish you’d quit calling me that.” she said flatly.
“Calling you what?”
Confused, he asked, “Well, that’s your name ain’t it?”
She turned to look at him once more, “Reverend, your Gracie’s not here anymore. She died the night her father was killed.”
“What are you talking about? Of course your Gracie.”
He watched her shrug her shoulders indifferently.
“Well, if your not Gracie, then who are you?” he asked cautiously.
“Angel.” she said softly.
Sharp immediately recognized her father’s pet name for her. “Angel, huh? That’s a… right nice name.” He decided it was best to just play along. If she wanted to change her name for the time being, it wasn’t a big deal to him. He figured, in a weird way, it would protect Gracie’s innocence in the end. After it was all over, it would help her to go back to normal, or, as close to normal as she could get after the hell she’d been through. Gracie wouldn’t have killed anybody, Angel would have. Is that what she was doing? Creating her own scapegoat?
“The men your after will probably be changing their names too. Sheriff Kendle sent their names to the federal government, its only a matter of time before they see their own likenesses on a wanted poster.”
Sharp watched as her eyebrows knitted together, she wasn’t happy about this new revelation, it would make it harder to find the men once they went into hiding.
Finally, she shrugged, “The country where their headed is pretty sparsely populated, it still shouldn’t take much to find them, even if they do change their names.”
Incredabily, he asked, “You know where their heading?”
She grinned evilly at him over the orange dancing flames of the fire, “Russ Conner’s decided to spill the beans, right before he spilled his guts.” shaking her head, “That one certainly didn’t die well for how tough he thought he was. Nope, he died crying like the coward he really was, pissed in his pants and everything.” she sighed, reveling in the memory, “I guess it’s hard to brave when your puking up your own guts.”
She didn’t just kill those men out of retribution, she killed them slowly, painfully… and she thoroughly enjoyed it. He could see it in the way her eyes lit up, and for the first time, she became animated. Every second of their agony had brought her extreme pleasure, that knowledge was a little shocking for Sharp. Usually when you killed for revenge it brought a sense of justice and satisfaction, but it seemed to him that she got more from it. Like a perverse sense of blissful ecstasy. Interesting, he thought.
She was staring off into space, her lips curled into a small smile.
He cleared his throat to draw back her attention, then asked, “So, where are they headed?”
She frowned slightly at the interruption, “Nathan Adams is going up to the Oregon territory, and Joe Jarvis is headed to Idaho. From what Conner’s told me, their both going to build towns.” she snorted. “They think their going to be kings of their own empires. Kings? Can you imagine?” she laughed errily, then sighed, “It will be fun knocking them off of their thrones though.”
She grew somber again as she watched the flames flicker. When she spoke, it was low, as if she was talking more to herself, than to him, “When they hear I’m coming for them, they’ll both hire a small army to protect them, if they haven’t already. But that won’t matter, a hundred men wouldn’t be able to stop me. But I do want them to feel safe, like nothing in the world can touch them. I want to see the look on their faces when they realize it was all for nothing, that there was no where they could of ran or hid, that I wouldn’t have found them. Then I want to see the fear in their eyes as they realize their going to die”
“How will they know your coming?” he whispered, already fearing the answer.
“Because a little birdy’s going to tell them.”
The more Sharp listened to her talk, the more he believed that she was probably insane. She wasn’t just being foolish, she’d gone and tipped the rocker.
That was just great. It was going to be hard before, now it was probably impossible. In her state of mind, he could picture her just walking into a death trap, indifferent to the danger, solely focused on their death, and not her own. She was going to be killed, and he would be right beside her. But still, they had quite a ways to travel before reaching the Northwest territories, a lot of miles to convince her to be reasonable.
“Well, we’ll get started on your suicide mission in the morning, then.”
“There is no we, Reverend. I go it alone, and that’s final.”
“Listen Gracie… er Angel, you need my help, whether you want it or not. I’ve been following you, so damnit, just admit that your lost. Did you know you were surrounded by Indians last night? I don’t know what kept them from killing you, but, you lucked out on that one. You might not be as lucky next time.”
Throwing a hunk of dried mesquite on the fire, she chortled, “Of course I knew they were there. I was ready for them, but in the end, they decided that they didn’t want to play. And no, I’m not lost. Like I said, I’ve been waiting for you to catch up,” her eyes shone bright in the fire light, “You would have been here a long time ago, if you hadn’t stopped to clean up my mess back there. I don’t have time for such niceties, Reverend, I’m on a mission. Those men deserved to lay there and rot, but you wouldn’t leave it. Did your conscience get the best of you, Reverend? Because I don’t need that. I must say, I was surprised to see that you burned them, instead of burying them. Too much work for one man?”
Sharp half smiled, “No, it wasn’t my conscience that made me do it, and I wasn’t being lazy. I had to burn them. Every scavenger within a ten mile radius was been poisoned by their meat, and if I would of buried them, they would of eventually leaked into the creek, poisoning that as well.”
“Oh, I see. That still doesn’t change anything though. I’m doing this on my own, without your help.”
“No, your not. I know you want Adam’s and Jarvis, and when the time comes, I promise, they’ll be all yours. But this is a tough country and your gonna need some help crossing it. So, will you let me help you?”
She thought on it a moment. “I can manage on my own, Reverend. Like I said, I don’t want you involved. When I find these men, I don’t aim to preach them the bible, I’m going to kill them, and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.”
“You think I want to stop you?” he asked incredibly. “You’ve got this all wrong, my dear. I want to help you. I don’t plan on preaching to them either. Them bastards got what’s coming to them, for what they done to you, and for what they done to Ben. I want to see them dead as much as you do.”
She eyed him cautiously, her eyes lingering on his neck, “Where’s your collar, Reverend?”
An obvious question, but one that he found hard to answer.
She’d thought of him as nothing but a man of the cloth since they’d met. How many times had they sat around the fireplace at night after supper and read from the bible? They would discuss passages and he would answer her questions about Jesus and His teachings. Never once, in all the years he’d known her, had he ever mentioned his past. Or the reason he hid behind the bible, using it to shield himself from the nightmares of his past.
Would she ever believe he was once a murderer? That he alone had led a march to slaughter a whole village of innocent men, women and children? And that those memories haunted his every waking minute, and invaded his dreams at night, making sure he wasn’t allowed a single moments peace. That the sounds of their screams followed him into the depths of every bottle he drank, while trying to wash them away? It was only until he was at his lowest point, the bottom of the barrel, there, in the black depths of despair, that he had found God. Or, rather, God had found him.
Sharp had awoken from one of his numerous drunken stupors, laying in a puddle of his own vomit, in the back alley of some little nameless town in eastern Texas. Dragging himself to his knees, he had noticed a book laying beside him. It was the bible. Picking it up, he had carried it with him back to the room he had rented the previous night, laid it on the bedside table, and abruptly passed out again.
When he had woken up again, it was laying on his pillow, under his cheek. Rolling over, onto his back, he opened the front cover and read the inscription through whiskey blurred eyes. It had said, Sam, Look unto me.
That was it, that was all it said.
He had tried to forget about the book, surely it wasn’t meant for him. Someone named Sam had obviously dropped it in the alley. It was just a coincidence that he had passed out by it. It was silly to think that God had just came down and gave him the bible, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave it behind when he left town. He carried it in his saddle bags for months, refusing to look at it, but unwilling to toss it away either. He thought about it night and day, his thoughts were constantly drawn to it like a magnet, until finally, he picked it up one day and started reading it.
Just a little bit at first. A few lines a night around the campfire couldn’t hurt. Besides, it gave him something to do, something to take his mind off of the impending nightmares that visited him night after night.
But, as the weeks wore on, he noticed his nightmares were becoming more and more infrequent, and less intense. Until one night, they had stopped altogether.
Angel had been watching the emotions as they played across his face, “Looks like I’m not the only one who’s fallen from Grace, Reverend.” She reached behind her and drug her pack to her side, digging through the contents she came up with two tin cups.
He nodded and watched as she poured them each a cup from the fire blackened pot. Handing him the pungent brew she went on to say, “It’s a little tame for people like us, but it’s the strongest thing I got on me right now.”
Taking the cup, he took a tentative sip, “People like us?”
“Killers, murderers.” Seeing the surprised look on his face, she continued. “Don’t look so shocked, Reverend. You don’t think I can recognize one of my own kind?”
Closing her eyes, she tipped her head to the side and inhaled deeply. “I can smell it on you, reverend. Just like I can see it burning in your eyes, It festers in your heart like a rotting sore.”
Opening her eyes, she leaned forward and whispered in a conspiratorial tone, “You know, your dirty little secret.” Laughing softly at his arched eyebrows and shocked expression, she continued, “I’m surprised you were able to hide it from so many people, Gracie included. It just goes to show how stupid people can be. All they ever seen was your pristine white collar, and must have assumed that you had a soul to match.” Shaking her head, she sighed, “Like lambs led to the slaughter. Drink up Reverend, your coffee’s getting cold.”
He put the cup to his lips and took a drink, while he watched her over the rim, take a drink of her own. She was a mystery. Besides the fact that she changed her name, and was talking like a crazy person, there was something about her that he just couldn’t put his finger on. There was something about the way she was looking at him that made him feel anxious and uneasy. Frankly, she was giving him the creeps.
A shiver ran down Sharps spine as the sheriffs words floated back to him, “Reverend, talking to her, it was like looking into the face of the devil himself. Nothing but pure evil.”
He took another drink of coffee while he mulled over the situation in his head, and finally figured out why he felt so nervous. He felt like an animal trapped in a corner, watching a predator circle, and knowing that death was coming at any moment. Not a good feeling- impending death.
He scoffed inwardly at himself. What did he have to fear from the girl he thought of as his own daughter. His sweet, gentle Gracie. Gracie’s not here anymore, it had said.
It? Why would he think of her as an, it? And why was his head suddenly feeling so funny?
Sharp tried to focus on the face across the fire. It was blurry, but he thought he could make out a smile stretched across it’s face. Not an innocent smile, but an evil one, leering at him with sharp teeth, and eyes that glowed a reddish-orange.
Shaking his head to clear the image from his mind, he looked again.
“Who are you?” he asked, his voice echoing in his own ears, as his vision turned black and he tumbled through the darkness.
Sharp awoke the next day, his head resting on his saddle and his body wrapped in his blanket. The chill of the previous night had been replaced with the blistering heat of the midday sun. Swinging his arm, he threw off the cover and sat up. Looking around the camp he spotted his horse on the other side of the clearing.
Someone, probably Gracie, had found where he had stashed the gelding the previous night and brought him here, picketing him to a small sapling.
Sharp stood slowly, and gingerly picked his way over to him. His legs felt like they had hundred pound weights strapped to them, and his head didn’t feel any better. He grabbed the canteen off his saddle horn and uncorked the top. He was in mid-swig when he remembered what had happened the night before. The coffee!
Choking, he sprayed water into his horse’s face.
Caught in the throes of a coughing fit, he watched helplessly, as his horse shied, breaking it’s reigns and bolted through the trees to the South.
Once the coughing and choking were under control, he unceremoniously dumped the entire contents of the canteen out onto the ground.
“Son of a bitch!”
Not only had he been duped by Gracie, or Angel as she was calling herself these days, but his damn horse had took off and left him. “Son of a bitch!” he growled. Knowing that thick headed bastard, he’d run clean to Mexico just to spite him.
“Well, ol’ son, you got yourself into a pickle this time.” he berated himself.
As he imagined his retreating horse getting farther and farther away, he thought quickly. He couldn’t just leave his saddle behind, depending on how far he had to walk to catch up to the blasted animal, it might take that much longer just to get back, and put him that much father behind Gracie.
Because he wasn’t going to let her get away that easy. He didn’t care how crazy she was, he planned on catching up to her, and giving her a big, loud, ungentlemanly piece of his mind. Besides, in the light of day, he wasn’t scared of her. But slipping some kind of sleeping pill into his coffee, what was she thinking? He supposed it was better than arsenic, but at the moment, the thought didn’t calm him down any. And now, he had to chase that damn horse down. “Son of a bitch!” he cursed again.
First thing first though. He needed to find some water. It felt like someone had wrapped his tongue in cotton batting. He would get started on his journey right after he quenched his thirst.
The sun was going down on the horizon when he came to the end of the tracks. Letting his saddle slide down his back it landed with a dull thud on the prairie floor.
He cursed for the hundredth time that day. “God damn it!” then he waited for that familiar feeling of shame at taking the Lord’s name in vane. He waited, but it didn’t come.
Nope, it didn’t, but the Indians sure as hell had. Came right up to his horse earlier, and stole it for their own.
He stared in disbelief at the tracks that didn’t lie.
“Son’s a bitches!” he screamed into the darkening silence. “Why don’t you just come on back and put an arrow in my heart, finish me off fast! Bunch of god damned thieves! Shit fire!”
Sharp screamed, cussed and kicked at the dirt for a full five minutes.
After he finished throwing his temper tantrum, he sunk to the ground, sitting on his butt. It had been building up all day, just waiting to burst forth, and now that it had, he felt just plain silly. “When did you turn into a foolish, young school girl, Sharp?” he grumbled, berating himself. “Grown man acting like a spoiled brat, that’s just right damned ridiculous.”
He couldn’t really fault the Indians, they’d come upon a fine looking horse all alone on the prairie, they’d of been crazy not to take it. No, the only person he could be mad at, was himself.
At the moment, he wasn’t one tenth of the man he used to be. All the years spent drinking, coupled with the even longer stretch of being a Reverend, had made him soft.
And not just in the head, but his body too. Right now he was feeling his years, and every muscle in his body was burning with fire from spending half a day on the trail, carrying a saddle for a horse that no longer existed. Near as he could tell, he was a good seventy miles from the nearest town, in the opposite direction of Gracie’s trail.
Once she had left the camp, she had doubled back on their trail. He’d spent a few hours thinking about that as he had walked today. At first he figured maybe she was lost and had just headed in the wrong direction, but then he had started wondering, if she had purposely gone that way, what would have been her reason? He knew she wasn’t giving up and heading back home, but if she stayed on the trail, it would lead her straight back to Arkansas. Maybe to pick up the trail where the group of men had split up along the creek? But, she wouldn’t need to do that if she really knew where they were heading.
No, the only thing he could think of, was that she was going back up to catch the Oregon trail. If that was the case, it was a smart move on her part. The Oregon trail started in Missouri, and cut through Kansas, Nebraska, and Dakota territories, over the easiest of the Rocky Mountain passes, South pass, and right through the bottom of the newly formed Idaho Territory. And that’s where she was headed- Idaho.
He didn’t expect her to join the masses of people heading out with the promise of free land fueling them on. She’d stay on the outskirts, a lone woman on a mission. And what a mission it was.
Sam collected the dry wood needed to build a small fire, and set about heating some vittles. It was while he was digging in his packs that he found the letter. It simply said: Who am I? Rev. 6:7-8.
His heart sped and his hands shook as he dug around for his bible. He already knew the jest of that particular passage, but needed to read it straight from the Good book himself.
Unlike some of the others in his past profession, he had always steered clear of Revelations in his sermons. He’d seen, and heard, others, teaching and preaching the fire and brimstone, painting an angry, wrathful, vengeful God, hell bent on punishing the unrepentant. But Sam had never felt comfortable with that approach. His God was none of those things.
Finding the book, his trembling fingers quickly found the passage he was looking for:
“I looked and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him.”
The next morning Sam set off carrying his saddle bags, the heavy saddle was left lying in the dirt. He headed North, away from the Brazos, and settled into a pace that he would be able to keep for most of the day.
As he made camp that night, he figured he’d walked a good twenty five miles, and surprisingly, he didn’t feel too bad. Of course, come the morning it might be a different story, but for now, he felt much better than he had the previous night when he had made camp next to the tracks of the small Indian party that had took his horse.
His rations were getting scarce, so supper would consist of dried beans boiled next the fire. He’d seen a nice buck that morning, but with no way to haul the carcass, or anything extra for that matter, he’d simply watched it spring away, listening to the rumble in his belly.
Sam was stirring his beans, when he heard horses approaching, followed a few seconds later by a “Hallow the camp!”
He watched as an old man, riding quite possibly the ugliest horse he’d ever seen, followed by a much nicer looking mule loaded down with gear, enter the camp.
The trio looked pretty harmless, but Sam still held his rifle firmly across his knees.
“I was hoping I’d run into ya.” the old man was saying, as he swung down from the saddle. “I cut yer trail awhile back, and I was curious to see who was roaming around here on foot.” He tethered his horse to a tree and began walking towards the fire. “Don’t see many people a walkin’ ‘round here. Knew you wasn’t an injun though, on account’a yer wearin’ boots.”
He reached the fire, where Sam now stood, and held out his hand, “Names Zeb. Zeb Tucker. Mountain man extraordinaire.” he laughed from under the brim of his floppy prospectors hat. “Got called that at Rendezvous, back in ‘39, by some news-man outa one of them god-damn eastern states, but what do they know, right? Now, who might you be young feller?”
Sam smiled down at little burly mountain man, “Sam. Sam Sharp.”
“Sam Sharp, huh? You would’nt be the Sam Sharp would ya, outa Texas?”
“Yep, that be me.”
Zeb Tucker laughed heartily, “Well, hell son! I done heard you’s dead!”
Sam laughed back, “Nope, still alive and kickin’.”
“I see that. Where the hell ya been? Kinda dropped off the face of the earth didn’t ya?”
“That I did.” he smiled.
When Sam didn’t offer any excuse, Zeb waved it away, “That’s alright, son. Every body’s intitled to their reasons.” Looking down at the pot simmering by the fire, he asked, “What’s fer supper, Sam Sharp?”
The old man rubbed his grey whiskers thoughtfully, “Wall now, that sounds mighty tasty, mind if’n I join ya?”
Sam eyed the pitiful pot dubiously, he’d only had a handful of beans to throw in there. “Uh, sure you can. I’d enjoy the company.” Zeb wouldn’t be getting full from this meal, he thought. There was hardly enough to fill the belly of a tit mouse.
Squatting down, Zeb pulled the lid off the pot and grabbed the spoon to give it a stir. “What else ya got in here?” he asked.
“Water.” Sam admitted weakly. He been out of salt pork for a week, not to mention that he didn’t have any onions or seasonings of any type, and he’d drank the last of his coffee that morning.
“Let me go to my pack, see what else I can rustle up to go with these fine beans of yer’s.”
Sam watched Zeb come back with his arms loaded. Twenty minutes later they were drinking hot coffee and watching venison fry over the fire. The smell from the pot of beans was making Sam’s mouth water. Zeb had added a small chunk of salt pork, a generous amount of wild onions, salt, and fresh cracked pepper. In another pot, he was simmering a can of peaches with some honey and a part of a cinnamon stick. It was a feast fit for royalty in Sam’s hungery eyes.
“Now that we’s all settled in, why don’cha tell me what yer doing out here on foot, son.”
It was so embarrassing that Sam entertained the thought of lying for a second. But looking across the fire at his new found friend, he just couldn’t do it. “Well, I’m ashamed to say, that I lost my horse. Damned thing spooked, got away from me and left me on foot.”
Zeb didn’t laugh, but he did smile, his blue eyes twinkling under his bushy grey eyebrows, “Wall, I figured it was something like that. I run inta a small band of Kickapoo hunters yesterday evening’. They was stringin’ a shod horse baring a saddle imprint in its hide. Bet that was yer’s. To bad too, that was a nice lookin horse.”
“That it was.” Jerking his chin, he motioned towards Zeb’s animals, “That’s a fine animal your riding, too.”
Zeb laughed, “Ya mean ol‘ Ugly, o‘er there? Don’t look so surprised there, boy. You think I don’t know ugly when I see it?” he laughed. “Ya shoulda seen my third wife, she belonged to the flathead tribe up North, but that’s a different story. But, Ugly right there, he’s pert’ near the best hoss I ever had. Pretty sure he’s got some jackass in his line somewhere… but that damned thing will go anywhere, an aint afraid of nothin’. ’Sides, an ugly hoss is better’n no hoss, wouldn’t ya say?”
Both men laughed good naturedly at Sam’s expense. “You got me there, Zeb.”
After supper was done and the dishes were cleaned and put away, they sat by the fire drinking the last of their coffee.
“Ya know them Kickapoo that stole yer hoss? They was all worked up when I ran inta them. It was the strangest damn thang, they told me a story I couldn’t hardly believe at the time.”
Sam waited to hear the rest, he knew what Jeb was probably getting at, but let the old man get there in his own time.
“Word travels like wild fire through the Indian tribes. If one Indian knows it, they all know it, you can be sure of that. Them Kickapoo were on their way of getting gone from around here, and you know, them Kickapoo don’t run from much. But this had them damned injuns scared shitless.” Zeb cut his eyes, trying to read the look on Sam’s face, but they might as well of been holding cards in their hands. He had his poker face screwed on tight.
“Seems evil’s among us, boy. According to them, that is. They’s claimin’ the devils loose and runnin’ amuck,” he laughed “And they say he’s disguised as a woman, of all things.” He waiting for Sam to reply.
“Is that right?”
“Yes sir-ee. They told me a devil woman was on the prowl, and some crazy white man seemed to be chasing her. They claim she kilt a whole passel of men down along the Brazos. Kilt them in a horrible way, they didn’t go into detail mind you, but I got the jist of it. And they said the evil she left in them was killin’ the animals that ate off’n ‘em for miles around.”
“Huh.” was all Sam said.
“Then they said that that white man came along and burnt those bodies, releasing their souls from the Devil and sending them along to the Great Spirit in the sky. Now, what do you make of all of that?”
“Sounds pretty crazy to me.” he said, not meeting the old mans eye.
“That’s what I thought. Then they tol’ me that the horse they had with them escaped from the white man, ‘cause he didn’t want to chase the Devil down anymore, so he sought refuge with them. Now, what do you think of that?”
Sam smiled and shook his head, “I’d say that those damned Kickapoo talk to much.”
Zeb chuckled, then stroked his beard thoughtfully, “I figure, your that white man they were talkin’ bout, so you wanna tell me what’s going on that has the whole Indian nation in an uproar?”
Zeb sat quietly, staring thoughtfully into the flames of the fire, while Sam explained the whole situation. He started with himself being a Reverend in their small town, and renting a room in Gracie’s barn when her momma got sick, and ended with her spiking his coffee with some sort of sleeping agent, and running off on him.
Zeb occasionally grunted, shaking his head, but waited until he was sure Sam was done before he spoke.
“That girl a yourn, is hunting a world of trouble. Damn good thing the injun’s think she’s the Devil, even if she aint, it’ll guarantee her, and you, safe passage. As it is, they wouldn’t touch her with a hundred foot tee-pee pole. Tomorrow we head for Fort Worth, it’s only about a half a days ride from here. We’ll get you outfitted again, then I’ll show you the way to the Oregon trail.” Seeing Sam was about to protest the offer, Zeb continued, “Now, you aint putting me out none, I was a headed that away, anyhow. I heard the railroad’s paying good wages to keep the hostiles a bay while their a layin’ track, and I aim to git me a piece a that. ‘Sides, you’d be doing me a favor, we wouldn’t git messed with, on account the injuns think your a God.”
Sam about choked on his last drink of coffee, “They think I’m a what!”
“Their a thinkin’ you’re a God of some sort. Sent down to fight the Devil himself. And I tell you what, they aint gonna mess with you.” Zeb chuckled, “They were a little peeved though, said something about the Great Spirit sending a white boy to do a warrior’s job. But that’s neither here nor there. Bottom line is, you and that girl, both got a free pass through Indian territory, and that don’t happen very often.”
Sam couldn’t hardly believe his ears, a free pass through Indian territory? Well, that certainly took a load off his mind. Trouble was, if they ever found out what he had done in his past, all hell would be breaking loose. But Sam didn’t want to think about that, his main concern right now, was riding into Fort Worth. Before Zeb had come along, he’d planned on skirting the settlement and heading towards Johnson Station, he told Zeb as much.
“Hell fire, boy! That’s another good twelve, thirteen miles past Fort Worth. They probably aint got the hoss selection that The Fort do. I bet you could git yourself a fine war hoss there, Johnson Station aint got nothing’ but old farm nags. Take it from me, that’s where I picked up ol’ Ugly over there, ‘bout three years back.”
Sam doubted that Zeb wanting to go to Fort Worth, instead of Johnson’s Station, had anything to do with the quality of their horses, as opposed to the quality of their whiskey. Forts, as a rule, tended to serve good, store bought liquor, where as bars in small towns usually served homemade rot-gut out of old rotten water barrels.
Smiling, Sam said, “Your right Zeb, Fort Worth it is.”
Later, after they were under their blankets, laying beside the low burning fire, Zeb said, “Boy, I jest cant wrap my head around you being a preacher.”
Smiling in the dark, Sam answered, “Was a preacher.”
“Is that something that you can jest… quit being?”
“Well, I don’t rightly know, Zeb. But I did.”
“You gotta do some sort a ceremony for that?”
Zeb laughed quietly, “Did you tell yer Boss you was quittin’?”
Sam thought about that, “Well, now that you mention it, I guess I didn’t.”
“Well, mayhaps your still workin’ and you jest don’t know it.”
Sam chuckled, “Maybe, but I doubt it.”
“You never did say why you took up that particular profession…”
That was something Sam wasn’t ready to talk about, even to the old mountain man that he’d taken such a liken to. Though their friendship was only a few hours old, he felt like he’d known Zeb Tucker for a very long time. “I think I’ll save that story for another night, Zeb. I’m pretty bushed.”
Zeb wasn’t no dummy, and he took the hint. “That’s alright, boy. I’m pretty tired myself, and we best be gittin an early start in the morning’. I’m looking forward to hittin’ The Fort tomorrow, catch up on all the local gossip and maybe have a drink or two at the local waterin‘ hole. Boy, I aint had me a descent sip of whiskey in a long while.”
Sam smiled under his covers, “Sounds good to me. G’night Zeb.”
Zeb was snoring almost immediately.
Sam lay listening to the slow quiet cadence of the old man sleeping across from him, and let his mind wander. He wasn’t looking forward to reaching the Fort, nearly as much as Zeb was. Mostly, he was hoping he wouldn’t run into anyone he knew from his past. But since most of the residence were likely Texas Rangers, the prospect wasn’t good. A lot of soldiers from the Mexican-American war had signed up to be rangers after the war.
Sam let out a big sigh. He guessed he couldn’t run away from his past forever. Besides, if everything went well, they would be at The Fort for less than twenty four hours. What’s the worst that could happen in a day?
“Look alive, Clancy! You got yourself a gen-u-ine American hero in your midst, you big dumb bastard!”
They had been at the Fort for less than two minutes, and Zeb had already let the cat out of the bag.
“Is that what you call, ‘keeping a low profile’, Zeb?” Sam growled.
The mountain man smiled at him mischievously, “Sorry, Sam. I guess I already plum forgot, damn memory just aint what it used to be.”
Turning back to the stocky Irishman standing at the door of the livery, he hooked a thumb towards his riding companion, “I forgot, me and Sam Sharp here, we were gonna lay low while we were in town. If’n there’s one thing Sam Sharp doesn’t like, it’s a bunch of god damned gawkers, asking a bunch a dumb questions.”
Clancy, as Zeb had called him, looked Sam over carefully. Spitting a brown stream of tobacco juice into the dirt, he asked skeptically, “Are you really Sam Sharp?”
Sam was about to answer when Zeb cut in, “Wall, hell yes, he’s Sam Sharp, you big buffoon! You don’t recognize a livin’ legend when you see one?”
“Settle down, Zeb. The man just asked a question. Clancy, is it?” He waited for the big man to nod his head in acknowledment, “Well, Clancy, maybe I am and maybe I’m not, but one things for sure, I’m not a hero or a legend. My friend here tends to exaggerate.” He gave Zeb a meaningful look, warning him to keep his mouth shut. Turning back to the man, he said, “I am, however, looking to buy a horse. I take it from your sign there, that you’re the man I need to see?”
At the prospect of making a buck, Clancy smiled brightly through his chaw, “Yes sir, you’ve certainly come to the right place. Climb on down outa that saddle and come take a look at me stock. I got the finest horse flesh this side of New Orleans, you wont be disappointed, no siree- I guarentee you wont find one better.”
Once they had their feet on the ground Zeb clapped Sam on the back, “I’ll be takin’ my leave now, hoss trading can be a nasty business. You know where to find me when your done.” he sang and then broke into a whistle, as he headed for the nearest drinking hole.
By the time Sam walked into the saloon, there was quite a crowd gathered. The first man to walk up to him looked a bit familiar. “Hey Sam! How ya been?” he asked as he pumped his hand.
It took him over twenty minutes to make his way to Zeb, who was sitting in the back of the packed saloon, looking like the cat that ate the canary.
Zeb smiled and shrugged his shoulders, “Word sure travels fast around here.”
Sam took a seat next to Zeb as the bartender fought his way through the crowd. He leaned across the table in order to be heard above the noise, “Hope your thirsty, Mr. Sharp. Every man in here has already bought you a drink, some of them bought you two.” Checking a figure he had written on the palm of his hand, he said, “You got thirty-six drinks a’comin’. How do you want ‘em?”
Thirty-six drinks! Hell, even in his drinking days he would of never came close to that number, even on his best, or worst, night. Doing some quick thinking, he answered smiling, “Me and my friend here will take beer, and I’d like to buy the house a round.”
The bartender smiled back and winked, “You got it, Mr. Sharp.” Turning to the milling crowd, he yelled, “Listen up, boys! Mr. Sharp here, has bought the house a round!”
The cheers and applause was deafening as it bounced off the narrow walls of the bar room.
As it turned out, Sam didn’t have to do a whole lot of talking. After everyone had their drinks, they settled in around the room, some at tables, but a lot either stood or found a spot on the floor, their backs against the wall. When all was quiet, the stories started.
Without it being said, men began to tell the legendary stories of Sam Sharp’s life. Some were funny, some were serious, but all painted a picture of an impossible hero. And all were pretty near to being true. Several times during the telling of a story, the teller would look to Sam for reassurance that they were telling it right. He’s give them a nod, and a shot of courage to continue. It was clear, by the careful and respectful way they told the stories, that he was greatly admired by every man-jack there.
Hearing his stories told second hand had an odd effect on Sam. He hadn’t seen the events the way the others had. To him they were common, ordinary everyday occurrences. But hearing them told through the eyes of others, they took on an epic quality that he had never seen in himself, or his life, until today.
They told of a man who was both brave and heroic, a true legend of his time, a man among men, an icon to look up to and emulate.
The experience was both, profound and humbling. He was truly overwhelmed by the admiration cast upon him by the men in the saloon, and he felt completely undeserving of such high praise. In short, it kinda made him feel like a jackass. He couldn’t help but think, that if they only knew the truth, he would be swinging from the branch of a tall tree at the edge of town, instead of being hailed a hero.
It also reminded him of the thousands of times that he’d wished he could take back that one day in his life. If only he could erase that one black mark, maybe he too, would of seen himself as the others did. But he couldn’t. Not now, not then, not ever.
Even though all of those thoughts were rolling around in his head, he played the part well. He laughed, smiled, and clapped the men on their backs, all on queue. Other times he would nod gravely, or shake his head sadly, all depending on the story.
Zeb, on the other hand, was having a grand ol’ time. He sat watching Sam proudly, like an explorer sharing a new found ancient relic with the world. Or, strangely enough, like a proud father showing off his hero son.
Sam noticed a particular table, off to his left, where the three gentlemen who sat around it, weren’t nearly as impressed with him as everyone else. In fact, they kept throwing somewhat hostile looks his way.
The big one in the middle said something quietly to the others, then they all laughed, leering in Sam’s direction.
He wasn’t the only one to notice. A man by the name of George Burris, had had enough of what he deemed disrespectful, nasty, and just plain rude behavior, stepped away from the bar he’d been leaning on, and called the three out. “You three got a problem with our guest?”
The big lout in the middle sneered, “We were just taking bets on when you all were gonna line up to lick his boots and kiss his royal ass.”
The skinny man on his left, laughed, “Yeah, if’n you all do it in the next five minutes, I’m gonna win me a dollar.”
The guy on the far right kept his head down and his mouth shut. It was obvious he was uncomfortable, and didn’t want any part of his friends’ drunken confrontation.
After a moment of shocked silence, the barroom erupted with shouts and threats, men were all but foaming at the mouth over the appalling show of disrespect.
Above it all, Zeb could be heard loud and clear, “That’s a god damned insult to the whole state of Texas! Sam Sharp is one of the bravest men that ever come out of these parts, so show some god-damn respect!”
The leader of the idiots, ignored all the other ranting and raving, zeroing in on what Zeb had said, “Hero?” Looking directly at Sam, he sneered, “All through the war I had to listen to stories about you! How great you were, how brave you were, ‘fiercest fighter to ever come out of Texas’’ he mocked. “And where were you? Where were you when we was face down in the dirt, or gettin’ our asses blown off by the god-damned Blue-bellies! If your such a hero, why weren’t you there fighting with us!” He stood and started walking slowly towards Sam, “According to the legends, we might a won that war, if’n you’d a bothered to show up!” he screamed.
Sam had also risen from where he sat, walking towards the angry, shaking man, he said, “You boys fought the good fight, we all know that. But it wouldn’t have mattered if I would of have been there, it wouldn’t have mattered if there had been a thousand of me there, there was no winning that war. They had more money and they had more men, it’s as simple as that. They out numbered us by more than two to one.”
The man’s eyes narrowed, “So you were scared, was that it? You turned yellow and stayed home, sucking on your momma’s tit while we were being slaughtered!”
“That’s not it at all…”
The other man cut him off, screaming, “Where were you? Where were you when my brother was dying!”
Sam saw it now. He saw the real reason why the man in front of him was so upset. The man had fought hard, seen his friends and his own brother, cut down right in front of his eyes. What he had wanted most in the heat of battle, what he needed in the midst of war, was a hero.
Feeling the pain of the man’s loss, he clamped a gentle hand on his shoulder, “I’m very sorry for your loss…”
Sam knew almost immediately that he had made a big mistake. He seen the other mans eyes round with surprise, and then narrow with fury. He instinctly steeled himself for the fist that was already flying his way.
Sam’s head snapped back and to the right by the force of the impact. Afterward, he calmly reached up and rubbed his aching jaw, “I don’t want to fight you…”
“The fuck you say!” the man screamed, throwing spit in Sam’s face as he talked. “Stand there, or fight. It doesn’t make a god-damned bit of difference to me, ‘cause I’m gonna whup yer ass!”
“You didn’t let me finish.” Sam said calmly, as his eyes steeled over, “I don’t want to fight you, but I will if I have to.”
The silent room roared to life as men began pushing the two towards the door. Shouts of wagers were already being called as they hit the boardwalk. Of course, most all of the crowd was betting on Sam Sharp to best the other man, which didn’t help the odds, or his confidence any. Sam kept his eyes on the burly man in front of him, as they marched out into the street.
He only stood two inches over Sam, but looked like he out weighed him by a good fifty pounds. More than that, he had just come back from the war and was in tip-top fighting shape, and he was mad as hell.
Sam, on the other hand, had spent the last few years doing the Lord’s work, which was not physical in any way, shape, or form. Worst of all, right now he just wasn’t mad enough to fight. He still couldn’t help but feel sorry for the man standing in front of him, but that was about to change very quickly.
The men circled each other, fists up, each waiting for the other to start the fight.
The big man could see that Sam’s heart just wasn’t into it, so he decided to egg him on a bit. He’d been spoiling for a good fight, and it just wasn’t going to be that fun unless Sam fought back.
“Right after I kick your ass, I’m gonna track down your momma and fuck her three ways from Sunday.”
Sam frowned, but kept his fists up. “Obviously, you don’t know my mothers dead.”
The big man smiled wickedly, “Well, your gonna have to point the way to her grave so I can piss on her bones, then.”
That did it.
Sam feigned with a left and struck with his right. Everyone in the crowd could hear the cartilage crunch, as the man’s nose smashed flat to his face. Blood poured down over his mouth and chin, as he bellowed with rage. The next few minutes were spent trading punch for punch, jab for jab and grunt for grunt. The other man might have been bigger, but Sam was still lightning quick, and his punches were brutal. The other man soon gave up on the hand to hand combat and grabbed him up in a crushing bear hug.
Sam’s arms were trapped at his sides, but his head and legs were free.
He brought his head back, then whipped it forward, cracking their skulls together. Then, he wrapped his long limbs around the other man’s and brought his heels in sharp, smashing them into the backs of the other man’s knees. The man folded and fell backwards, letting go of Sam to try and break his fall.
But Sam rode him to the ground and took advantage of his new position. Sitting a top of the man’s midsection, he kept him pinned down while he pummeled his face with wicked hard blows. When a big hand snaked up and wrapped around his throat, the thumb cutting off his air supply, Sam pushed a thumb of his own into the mans eye socket, applying a hard, steady pressure. The hand on his throat finally released as the big man screamed in pain and rage and fought to save his eye.
From somewhere in the crowd, Sam heard Zeb’s voice, “Hold up there, dirt bag. This aint no free-for-all, you’re a gonna have to wait yer turn.”
He wouldn’t have to wait long, the fight was over in under a minute. A sharp right on the big man’s chin rolled him over the edge, and left him snoring and bleeding in the dirt.
As Sam gained his feet, he looked to his friend. The mountain man had the tip of his Arkansas toothpick shoved uncomfortably into the adam’s apple of the man who had lost his dollar in a bad bet he had made earlier on. There wasn’t going to be any boot licking or ass kissing today, unless they were the ones that were gonna do it.
Zeb asked the man, “You ready to tangle with the tiger?”
He answered, defeated and through clenched teeth, “No, I’m out of it.” he said, raising his open empty hands to show he had given up.
“Wall, you got more brains than I figured ya for.” Zeb said, as he placed the big long bladed knife back into the sheath at his side. Smiling at Sam he said, “Come on, boy. I’ll do ya for a drink. ‘Pears to me you might’a worked up a powerful thirst.”
Laughing shakily, Sam said, “You got that right ol’ timer.”
The other men were shouting, laughing and slapping each other on the backs as they headed back into the saloon.
Dusk was settling into the street, and lights could be seen glowing in the windows of some of the store fronts. Sam’s heart was still racing, his knuckles were swollen and stiff, some were split and bleeding, his forehead ached from where it had connected with with the other man’s, and he could feel his left eye starting to puff up, it’d be a doozy in the morning. He hadn’t felt that, and that good, in a long time. Sam smiled to himself- he felt alive.
They were getting ready to step through the batwing doors to join the celebration inside when they heard a scream from behind them, “Face me now, you fucking coward!”
As Sam turned, his hand was already snaking for the colt on his hip. As his eyes found his target, he seen the other man was doing the same, only his had already cleared leather, the black hole of the barrel gapping at him. In a blur that came as natural to him as breathing, he jerked iron and threw lead before the bigger man even had time to pull the trigger. The bullet hit him square in the forehead, snapping his head back and spraying the street behind him with brains, bone and blood.
His crony, screaming in outrage, fought to pull his own gun. In a flash, Zeb had palmed the big knife once again, did a half spin, and had the blade buried in the mans neck, almost as fast as Sam could comprehend what was happening. His attention had been focused solely on the man in the street, standing stock still next to his dead friend.
When he seen Sam and Zeb, both eyeing him, he immediately threw up his hands, “Wait, wait, wait!” he screamed, waving empty palms. “I don’t want no part of this, never did. Just because those two were my friends, doesn’t mean I agree with what they did. I aint got no beef with either of you… I swear!”
Sam believed the man. He had seen the way he had hung his head in shame back in the bar when his friends were mouthing off.
Sam shook his head, “Alright then, lets let this be over. But I’m warning you, you come gunnin’ for me and I’ll kill you dead.”
“Me too.” Zeb seconded.
The man nodded his head emphatically, “Yes sir, Mr. Sharp, Mr. Zeb. You wont be getting any trouble from me.”
Sam nodded gravely.
The men in the bar had poured back out through the doors when they had heard the shot, they now ambled about, inspecting the two dead bodies.
“Drilled Art right threw the noggin, he did.”
So that was the big man’s name.
Someone whistled, “That pig sticker ‘bout took ol’ Larry’s head clean off.”
The bartender yelled at the man still standing in the street, “You there! Run on down to Clancy’s and have him bring a wagon. Then load up your friends here and git rid of them, their bloodyin’ up the place.”
“Yes, sir!” The man took off in a trot, glad to be getting away from there.
“I reckon I’m ready to bend that elbow now.” Zeb told Sam. “Come on, Compadre.”
The men left the Fort, heading north, the next morning. The sun had barely had a chance to shake hands with the day.
“Where we headed to now, Zeb?”
“First stop is the Red River Station, we’ll grab up some more supplies, then continue on up north, and it‘ll eventually bring us out into Kansas.”
“You plan on us riding smack dab through the middle of Indian Territory?”
“Them injun’s wont bother us any. Besides, I been through there a time or two, and its a lot faster than back trackin’ to follow yer lady friend, or even cuttin’ over to catch the Santa Fe. I figure it wont be long before the gover’ment pushes the injun’s out of there, too.”
“Out of their own territory?”
“Hell, son, this is all their territory.”
“I know that, Zeb. The way their treated by our people, don’t sit right with me, but if we keep pushing them out, where in the hell are they supposed to go?”
“Son, those men sittin’ back east don’t give a goll damn about that,” Turning in his saddle, he looked at Sam, “I have at say though, I’m a might surprised to hear you say that. Weren’t your folks killed by hostiles?”
“Yeah, both my parents and my little sister when I was thirteen.”
“Well, I’m right sorry for yer loss. That’s a terrible thing, losin’ yer family so young, an all.”
Sam nodded, “Yes it is.”
He told the story that night as they sat around the low burning campfire.
“My father was commissoned in 1840 by the Ruplic of Texas to attend negotiations with the Comanche in Santa Fe. It was supposed to be a big event, thirty Comanche chiefs were coming in under the white flag of truce, and Texas wanted my father there because he spoke Comanche pretty fluently, and got along with a good number of them. Texas wanted their hostages released from the Comanche villages, and the Indians wanted to establish the boundaries of the Comancheria.*”
“He left the first part of march, and I, thinking it sounded like a great adventure, begged him to take me with him. ‘Course he wouldn’t, said I had to stay home to watch over my mother and sister. Be the man of the house while he was away.” Sam smiled, “ I was thirteen at the time.”
“Our cabin was no more than three or four miles away from the Penateka Comanche tribe, and their leader, Chief Muguara, was suppose to be attending the negotiations down south. His war chief, Buffalo Hump, had stayed behind with the tribe. We hadn’t really had any trouble with them, there was some theiving at first, but that turned out to be nothing more than the boys of the village playing a little game of ‘counting coup’.”
“My father had been gone for three weeks when I was out hunting one day. I rode south-east for about half a day looking for game, before deciding to turn back. It was then, that I seen the big colum of black smoke boiling into the air from the area of the Penateka village. It was huge, and ominous looking, I knew right away it meant big trouble. I took off for home on the run, I traveled as fast as I could to warn my mother and sister, but it hadn’t been fast enough.”
“By the time I reached home that evening, it was too late. They had been taken by surprise while out working the garden plot to get it ready for planting. My sister lay not five feet from the cabin door, plugged through by a dozen arrows. She had been the lucky one. I found my mother three miles from our home. The bastards had thrown a loop around her and drug her until there wasn’t much left to drag. The only way I could tell it was really her, was from the little bits of her calico dress that were left here and there.”
“Sweet Jesus.” Zeb murmured. “No boy should ever have to see that.”
“They would have stood a chance if they could of made it to the house, my father had built it as strong as the best fort, but they had been taken by surprise and they had just been too far away.”
“It was while I was burying my mother and sister, that something in me just…snapped. I could feel my anger and sorrow building with each pile of dirt that I shoveled, and by the time I placed the last rock on my little sister’s grave, I was no longer myself. I was a being that only craved one thing, blood. The only thing I thought of was revenge. All I wanted was to spill the blood of the red man, and I didn’t care how I did it, but I was going to get revenge for their murders.”
“The next morning at first light I picked up their trail, which wasn’t hard to do, I was following the whole damn village, plus a lot more, as they moved steadily south. I didn’t know it at the time, but the whole Comanche Nation was on the war path. They moved swiftly for how big they were, and I was a whole day behind them, but I did my best to catch up. I would occationally see tracks where the Indians from other Comanche villages would merge with Buffalo Humps tribe as they continued south, until the main group was near a thousand strong, men, women, and children, but I didn’t care. The further I rode the more distruction I would come across, the madder I got. The Indians moved through the countryside like a swarm of locust, destroying everything and everyone in their path. Whole settlements reduced to ashes, the people killed, buildings looted and then burned, and the livestock stolen.”
“I finally caught a glimpse of them one day. I was up on a ridge, over looking the flats, when I seen them down below, about a mile away. They were huge, they were angry, and they were definatly on the war path. That’s when I decided to try and go around them, warn the people at the next settlement, and together, maybe we could ambush the hell out of them. Of course, we wouldn’t be able to get them all, but we could cut their numbers down, and if I could keep jumping in front of them, we could keep killing more and more, until there was none left.”
“So that’s what I did. I swung to the east and rode hard. I had went maybe five or six miles when I ran into my father, right there, in the middle of nowhere, we found each other. I didn’t even have to tell him the news, he knew it by the look on my face. He took it real hard. Then he told me that the negotiations had failed at the council. All hell had broke loose in the meeting, and twelve senior Comanche leaders were gunned down by the guards when they refused to be taken as prisoners until all the white hostages were released from all the Comanche tribes, which, in turn, started a riot. In all, there were thirty cheifs and warriors, three Indian women and two small Indian children that were killed during their so called ‘peace talks’.”
“Obviously, word had spread like wildfire through the Comanche Nation, resulting in them going on the war path.”
“Boy, I done heard about that. That there was a bad deal.”
“I know it was, Zeb. And if my family wouldn’t have been murdered, I would have been on the Comanches side for sure.”
Zeb waved his arm, “Go on with your story, Sam.”
“Well, I told my father of my plan to get around them and warn the people so they could stand against them, and fight. At first, he tried to get me to stop. He could see how tired I was, and that I had gone more than a little half crazy in the process. He said he was worried about me going off half cocked against so many Indians.”
“Up until that point, I had saved him from the gory details of my mother and little sister’s deaths, but I had to get him to see it my way, and that was the only way I knew how. Stir the fire, so to speak. Finally my father seen it my way, so we set off right away for Victoria. As planned, we got there before the Comanche and told everybody that hell was a coming, and they best get prepared. The doors to the suttler’s store were thrown open, and the citizens took what they needed to arm themselves.”
“By the time the Comanche showed up, there was men, armed to the teeth, in each window of every building, and more lined the rooftops, and they let go with everthing they had as the Indians swarmed the town. My father and I were stationed in the saloon, the glass of the front window was broke out so he could fire through it. My job was to quickly reload, and hand him the fresh rifles as he emptied the others.”
“But there were so many of them. They filled the streets, and no matter how many you killed, there was a hundred more to take their place.”
Staring into the flames of the fire, Sam spoke as if he was in a trance. “I remember it like it was yesterday. People screaming, both red and white alike, the roar of the guns were drowned out by the sounds of seven hundred angry warriors screaming their war cries. It had almost seemed like a bad dream, the kind where you keep falling and falling, and you just cant wake up, until you hit the ground, that is.”
“That moment came for me when my father turned from the window where he had just shot and had three arrows buried in him. One in the chest, two in the stomach.”
“The look in his eye shocked me wide awake, and reality crashed down on me like a thousand pound boulder, I was pinned under the weight of it. I couldnt move, I couldn’t breathe, all I could do was stare into my fathers eyes. Eyes that were filled with pain and regret. He knew he was dying and he was sorry that he was leaving me alone by myself. A thirteen year old boy with no family, no home to speak of, not a single soul left that cared about him. Yes sir, reality hit hard that day.”
Sam was silent for a long time before he started talking again. “My father snapped the arrows off at the skin and grabbed me up quick, shoving me towards the back door. Once we were outside, we ran for about thirty feet before he had to stop. He just couldn’t run anymore, even though I begged him not to quit. I remember him taking me by the shoulders, looking me straight in the eye, and saying ‘Promise me, son, that you’ll grow up to be a great man. Don’t you settle for being a good man, be a great man. I know you got it in you.’
“All I could do was cry. I just wanted him to keep running, I wanted to get him far away from there, and then he would be alright, he had to be alright. I was thirteen and I didn’t want my father to die. Not then, not ever. He was my whole world, and I knew I couldn’t face life without him beside me. I just couldn’t.”
“Promise me!” he had screamed, shaking my shoulders. I had thought about not answering. Maybe if I didn’t answer, didn’t promise, maybe he would find a way to live, to make sure I would grow up to be the great man that he wanted me to be. But looking into his anguished eyes, I just couldn’t do it.
“I promise!” I finally yelled back. Then he looked me dead in the eye and whispered, ‘I love you, Samuel, more than you’ll ever know’.
Sam shook his head sadly, “I didn’t even see it coming. I was about to tell him that I loved him too, that he was my whole world and that I would surely die without him, but before I could, he sucker punched me. Knocked me out cold.”
“I woke up some time later. My face and chest and body, was covered in blood. My fathers blood. And he lay across me, dead.”
“It took me a while to figure out what happened. He had knocked me unconscious, covered me in his blood, then layed on top of me, hoping the Indians would think I was dead. His plan worked. I was told by some of the men that were stationed on the roof, that a group of Indians had rode by us, not giving either of us a second glance.”
“It was then, that any saneness I might have had left in me, just up and left. The towns people tried to collect my father to bury him along with the other eleven men that were killed that day. I wouldn’t let them. I just couldn’t let go. I laid beside my father for three days, drifting in and out of consciousness.”
“There was a lady from town, Kate was her name, that kept checking on me. She would sit by us, waving part of a corset to keep the flies off of us during the day, and in the evening, she would cover us both with a blanket and she would read passages from the bible out loud. I remember thinking that she had the voice of an angel.”
“It was on the third day that I had a dream. I dreamt that my father and my mother and my little sister all came to see me. They were sitting by a creek, and they all looked so happy and healthy, there wasn’t a mark on them. My father told me that it was time to let him go. I begged them to take me with them, I didn’t want to be alone, but they said I had to stay. That I still had many things to do in my life before I could come with them… and then they vanished, and I was left cold and all alone, shivering in the dark.”
It had took me a minute to realize at the time, that I had woke up. It was night time and all the lights were off in the town. But, I did like my father had said, and I got up. Got up, found my horse and was on my way. I did regret leaving Kate without saying goodbye, or thanking her for all she had done for me, she was an angel of a women. I still think that now, looking back I guess that she was an angel, my angel.”
Sam looked across the fire at Zeb, and seen the old man quickly wiping his eyes.
Laughing self-consciously he said, “Jesus Christ, you tell quite the story, don’cha ya?”
“Sorry, Zeb. I didn’t know it would have that effect on people.”
“Shut up, and finish the damn story. What happened after you left Victoria?”
“I followed their tracks clear on down to Linnville, or what was left of it by the time I arrived. The Comanche did a bang up job there. The people in town had took to the water to escape the red devils, and watched from the boats as their town was tore apart.”
“I heard stories of Indians running around wearing fancy hats and clothing that they had stolen from one of the warehouses. Some were even carrying parasols. They had stood on the banks of the water and mocked the people watching them from the boats. I heard of one man who’d had enough, and actually swam to shore and was gonna fight off a thousand pissed off and drunk Indians, with an unloaded gun. They said it was all so ridiculous, that the Indians just laughed at him, and left him alone.”
“They stayed in town for two days, loading up all the available mules and horses with all the stuff they had stolen, which also included a hefty sum of silver bullion, before they burned most of the town and left.”
“That worked out good for me. They were loaded down so much that they moved a might slower than before. I caught up to them the next day. They had stopped and set up camp for a huge celebration. And a lot of them were still wearing all them funny hats and clothes, and they were drinking from barrels that I could only guess held some kind of liquor, cause it wasn’t long before they were stumbing around and falling over, laughing themselves silly.”
“I waited until all was dark and quiet, then I snuck in and went to work with just my knife. I circled the whole camp, silently taking lives as I went. Most of what I did is all but a blur now, like it was then. Something came over me when I was in that camp, all could think about was my family. What they looked like when they passed, what those people had done to them, and what they had stolen from me.”
“By the time I left, I couldn’t even begin to imagine how many dead they would find in the morning. I didn’t keep track, I just kept moving from body to body, until it just felt right to leave. I had did what I had came there to do, and I was done. There wasn’t no magical number, I just worked until it felt like my job was done.” he shrugged.
“Boy, I heard it was close to a hundred.”
“I learned the exact number later on, when Buffalo Hump found me.”
“You went a round with Ol’ Buffalo Hump and lived to tell about it! Boy, you got a bigger set than I already thought ya had! He’s the fiercest fighter the Comanche’s got!”
Sam chuckled, “Hold on there, Zeb. I havent got to that part yet. Believe me, it wasn’t like that at all. We never did fight, but we did have us a talk.”
“Wall, hurry up an git to the good part.”
“I will, but first things first. After I left their camp that night, I hightailed it as far as I could before daybreak. I didn’t want to be anywhere near that camp when they discovered the dead, for one thing, I knew that their trackers would be hot on my trail. And they’d be out for my blood.”
“Come morning I ran into a creek. I lead my horse down for some water, and after he got his fill, I was planning on taking a bath and changing my clothes. I hadn’t realized until I was standing there, that I was covered from head to foot in dried Indian blood.
As my horse got through drinking I picked up the reins, and when I stood up I seen fifty guns pointed at my head from the other side of the creek. I about fainted at the sight.”
“There I was, staring at a line of Texas Rangers. I whooped for joy and jumped in the creek, wading the waters trying to run as fast as I could to get to them, so it took me a minute to realize that they were screaming at me to stop. So, I did. But that was confusing, I thought they were there to help. The Texas Rangers were hero’s and legends, defenders of the common man, they were supposed to be helping me, but instead, they were threatening to shoot me. I wanted to warn them that the Comanche were on their way, but they just kept screaming at me.”
“One officer stepped forward and said a bunch of jibberish, that sounded somewhat familiar, but at the same time, it didn’t make any sense that the words were coming from a Texas Ranger. But he kept yelling the same sentence, over and over.
Finally, one of the other men told him, “Maybe he’s stupid or something.”
That caught my attention real fast. I was starting to get really mad, there I was, standing in freezing cold water up past my knees, I was tired and hungry, and I knew there was some mad Indians on my trail. I didn’t have time to stand around and chew the fat, so I spouted off, “Who are you calling stupid, you dumb-ass.”
Then, I heard the man say, “He speaks good English, for a little heathen.”
“I was such a mess that they thought I was an Indian, and was speaking to me in Comanche! After we got that little matter cleared up, I told them that the real Indians were on their way, so they’d best get ready.”
“That turned out to be the Battle of Plum Creek at Good’s crossing. Two hundred Texas Rangers against almost a thousand Comanche Indians. But, more importantly, that was the day I learned not to put to much stock into so called hero’s and legends, cause in the end, their only human. My hero’s crumbled in front of my young eyes and fell from grace that day. I figured out right quick, that they were nothing more than regular men, that sometimes do extraordinary things.”
“The Comanche came and the battle begun. Within minutes the rangers had them on the run. The Indians were slowed down by the mules that they had loaded down, so they cut them loose to move faster. That’s when the silver bullion that the mules had been carrying was discovered, and the chase was abandoned. They could have had them on that day, but they just… gave up. Decided the silver was more important than going after the murderous theives. They had been roaming the countryside, murdering, pillaging, and burning as they went, and the Rangers just let them go. I screamed and cussed, trying to get them to keep going after them, but they wouldn’t. All they cared about was splitting up the silver. They weren’t even planning on taking it back Linnville where it belonged, they claimed that the town was destroyed, that there was no where to take it back to, so the money was up for grabs. I stood there, calling them every horrible name I could think of, until I got a gun shoved in my face and was told to‘leave it alone’.” Sam shrugged, “And that was the end of it.”
Now Zeb understood why Sam had taken such an offense to being called a legend. In his eyes, there were no legends, or hero’s, for that matter. Just ordinary men who could be just as fallable as the next. Zeb understood all of that. What he didn’t understand, was what had caused Sam Sharp to have such a low opinion of himself. As far as he knew, he’d never heard a bad word against the man, but maybe in time Sam would come to trust him with the secret.
“So what ‘bout ol’ Buffalo Hump?”
“After I left the Rangers fighting over the silver, I followed the Comanche’s trail. I wasn’t real sure at the time what my plan was, but that seemed good enough for the time. It was that night as I sat in my make-shift camp, that I had a visit from Buffalo Hump. He walked in silent as a ghost, waving a white piece of cloth, that showed he came in peace.
“White warrior, I come to your fire in peace, and with much sorrow in my heart. I hear you still track me, you are silent as a shadow, but I still feel your presence. What is it you seek, White Warrior? Was not enough blood spilled last night to end your grieving?”
A fury had been building inside of me since the first second I laid eyes on him. I screamed and rushed him at the same time. Weapons be damned, I wanted to rip him apart with my bare hands, and leave him in a bloody pile, like what had been done to my mother, but he stood as solid as a rock. I hit him and kicked him with everything I had, but he didn’t even flinch, not even when I hit him in the face. Never even grunted when I punched at his stomach. I felt like as helpless as a two year old throwing a trantrum and flailing uselessly at my parent’s legs.
I screamed, “Why wont you fight back!”
And he said. “I am taking your pain as my own. I will not fight you today, White Warrior, I have only come to talk.”
“I was so mad, the only thing I could do was cry. I stumbled back to the fire, sat down, and bawled like a baby.
After I was quiet, he spoke again, “I am sorry for the loss of your family, White Warrior, it was my fault. We were joined by one of our brother tribes from the north, the Kiowa Apache, and as we gathered to leave our village to fight for our fathers who were slaughtered by the white men, I failed to tell them of your family. They did not know you were friends to the Penateka.”
Sam smiled at zeb, “Then he offered to let me come and live with his tribe, as one of his sons. He told me he would be proud to have such a fierce warrior as one of his own. When I declined the offer, he asked me how many dead Comanche warriors it would take to make up for the loss of my family. I came back and asked him how many white men would it take to make up for the loss of his land and his people. We both knew the answer, it would never be enough, there was no amount that would ever bring back what we had lost.”
“Then he offered up the offending Apache warriors that actually killed my mother and sister. He told me that out of the twenty eight men I had killed in his camp, not one of them had been an Apache.” Shaking his head at Zeb, he said, “I had no idea at the time, but when Buffalo Hump told me that, I felt sick at the thought. I knew in my mind that the men I had killed were probably guilty of other crimes, hell they were taking Texas by storm, and a lot of innocent people were killed in those raids, but that didn’t make me feel any better. I had set out to kill those that had wronged me, not anyone else.”
“I declined his offer of the Apache lives, I told him I had had enough killing for a while.” Sam smiled, bitterly, “I was thirteen years old, and I was tired. I mean, bone tired. All I wanted was to go home, crawl in my bed, and sleep for a year. Only, I didn’t really have a home to go back to. I’m sure the cabin still stood in the same spot, my bed was still there beside my sister’s, but it was no longer my home. My home was destroyed, my family was destroyed, I was all alone, and I had nothing but my horse and my guns.”
“Me and Buffalo Hump came to an understanding that night and he left as quietly as he had come. In the morning I woke up to find a large finely beaded deer skin bag lying by my head, and when I opened it, I found it was full of silver bullion. It was more money than I had ever seen in my life. And not ten feet away, a Comanche war staff was sticking in the ground, decorated with what appeared to be twenty Apache scalps. Presents from Buffalo Hump.”
“Holy shiiit.” Zeb drawled.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought.” Sam smiled.
“So, what did you do after that?”
“Sam shrugged, “Well, after I rested up a bit, I did the only thing there was to do. I raised hell. I’m ashamed to say, that I was still so full of hate for what happened to my family, I went on a warpath of my own. I hired myself out to the army as an Indian scout and we tracked down the renegade Indians that were attacking the white settlements all over Texas. As you already know, I earned a reputation being a pretty fierce Indian fighter, all at the whopping age of fourteen. I had units all over texas vying for my allegiance, everyone wanted me to fight with them, and my sevices didn’t come cheap. I learned real quick how much money there was to be made in war- if your good enough. And I was good.
“There were other men working at the time who were commissioned to find the main villages so the government could offer up some bullshit peace treaties or talk them into giving up and moving to the death lands- reservations, they called them. I didn’t hold with them then, and I don’t hold with them now.” Sam winked at Zeb, “Even I had standards. I knew that what they were doing to the Indians was wrong. They’d go into the villages and tell the people they were giving them an area to stay on, an area that already belonged to them, and then six months later, they would take it back, tell them they had to move or be killed. No wonder the Indians were pissed off. I would have been too. That’s why I only went after the renegade hostiles. We would get word of a settlement or farm being attacked, and we would high-tail it to the place and I would start tracking them. And once we caught up to them, we’d either capture them or kill them, didn’t make no matter to me which, especially when I had seen their distruction first hand. Those Indians could torture a body in the worst possible ways imaginable.”
“You ever run into Buffalo Hump again?”
“No, I made sure I steered clear of his area. I didn’t want to fight him, as far as I was concerned, our deal was done, just like we had agreed that night. Later on, when I was about nineteen, I was hired by the government to throw down on the Mexicans.” Sam shrugged, “And the rest is history, as they say.”
“Is that when ya started being a preacher?”
“It was a while after that. I spent a few years being a drunk first. I’m not real proud of that time in my life.”
Zeb rubbed his whiskered chin thoughtfully, “Any perticular reason you started drinkin’ like a fish?”
Sam sloshed the remaining coffee in his cup around to stir up the grounds in the bottom, and then chucked the liquid into the brush behind him.
He leveled a look at Zeb, “You don’t kill as many red devils as I did, without aquiring a few demons of your own along the way.”
Seeing that Sam obviously wasn’t going to supply any more information, he nodded his grey head thoughtfully, “Fair ‘nough.”
“What about you?” Sam asked brightly, trying to lighten the mood, “Any extraordinary adventures you’d like to share?”
Zeb smiled and shook his head, “Not tonight, boy. I’m plumb tuckered out jest listenin’ to yer’s. We best be hittin’ the sheets, we got’s a long trail in front of us.”
Both men rose to their feet and started moving around, gathering their bedding and spreading their blankets out by the fire. Sam made a quick trip into the trees to relieve himself, and reappeared a minute later.
“Zeb, you’ve been this route before, how long do you reckon it’ll take us?”
Zeb was just crawling into his blankets and waited until he was good and settled before answering, “In good weather and travelin’ light, like we are, a man should be able to make Kansas in ‘bout fifteen days, give ‘er take.”
“Fifteen days? Your kidding me.”
“Give ‘er take. That’s a sight better than going around, wouldn’t ya say?”
“That’s incredible. How’d you find this trail of yours.?”
“I didn’t. I heard about it from the Kiowa. This here trails been here a long time. That’s the funny thing about old Indian trails, they know their land like the back of their red hands, and if they make a trail somewhere, you know its gonna be the easiest and fastest way to get there. You know as well as I do, them Injun’s aint no dummy’s.”
Two days later they sat on the southern side of The Red.
“You had much experience dealing with The Red, boy?”
Sam smiled to himself. No matter how many times Zeb called him boy, it just struck a cord in him that made him want to smile.
“Not to much.” he admitted.
The old mountain man shook his head, “Uh, huh. Well, yer ‘bout to git some schoolin’ then. Look at the water and tell me what ya see.”
Sam, sensing this was a test, studied the river closely. “Well, I’d say it’s about fourty-five feet across, maybe three or four feet deep there in the middle. Its moving pretty slow, since it hasn’t rained in a while.” He knew there was something he was probably missing, but he didn’t want to stain his brain too hard, he wanted to give Zeb a chance in share his knowledge.
“I’d say yer partly right. Would you say its safe to cross here?”
Sam shrugged, “I don’t see anything wrong with it, Zeb.”
Zeb nodded as if he already knew what Sam’s answer would be, and that it would be wrong. “The thing about the Red is- it’s full of sandtraps. Quicksand. It’ll swaller up a horse and it’s rider quicker than a whore can suck off a school boy, and that’s a fact. I’ve witnessed it myself a time or two.” Chuckling, he added, “The quicksand part, that is.”
Sam studied the seemingly harmless river bottom. It looked alright to him. “So how do you know when there’s quicksand.”
“That’s the tricky part, ya don’t. Did you notice how the trail veered off to the west, back yonder?”
“Yes I did. I just figured you knew where you were going.” he said dryly.
Zeb ignored him, “Now, look closely at the bank here. You see any animal tracks?”
“That there’s another indication. If the animals don’t cross here, it just might be for a reason”
“So what your telling me is, your not sure if there’s really any quicksand here or not.”
Zeb nodded, and turned his horse, “That would be a fact. But its not a chance ya ever want to take, is it? Our best bet would be to follow the beaten path. That way, yer usually always safe.”
On their way back to the main trail, Sam thought it would be a good time to broach the subject of stopping at the the Red River Station.
“I’d surely appreciate it, if when we get to the station, you’d kindly keep my identity a secret, this time.”
Zeb, didn’t turn around, but Sam got the impression the old man was stifling a smile.
“I’m right sorry ‘bout what happened back at the fort, Sam. I just plumb forgot I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone. I tell ya, getting old’s a bitch. Yer mind goes, yer hearin’ goes, yer eyes go, and I wont even mention what happens to yer dick, but it’s a down right shame. Nothing works right anymore! Ya spend yer whole life taking those things fer granted, and then, when ya really need ’um- poof! Their gone. There is something to be said fer dying young, at least a body don’t have to suffer the humiliation of breakin’ down.”
“I’m sorry, Zeb. I hadn’t realized you had it so rough.” Sam said dryly, “And here I thought it was you leading me all this time. I had no idea I’d taken on the burden of caring for a geriatric.”
“Don’t you smart mouth me, boy! I still got enough of my senses to know when someone’s bustin’ my nuts.”
Sam stifled a laugh, “Just promise me that you wont go blabbing my name all over town.”
Zen turned in the saddle to look back at Sam, and groused, “I don’t know why yer so goddamn sensitive about it.”
“Well, lets see… if you would of kept your trap shut back at the fort, those two men back there would still be alive.”
Zeb turned back around as he harumphed, “Like we didn’t do the world a favor there.”
“Fine, fine, have it yer way.” he waved, and after a minute he asked “So how do you plan on introducing yerself then?”
“Well, I’ve been thinking’ on that. I’m going to tell them that my names Sam Smith.”
“Oh, …that’s real original.”
Sam gave the back of Zeb’s head an exasperated look. “Smith was my mother’s maiden name.”
“Sam Smith.” Zeb said.
“Sam Smith… Sam Smith… Sam Smith.”
Sam was glad to see that Zeb was taking it so seriously this time. He kept repeating the name out loud so he would be sure to remember it once they hit the Red River Station.
“Sam Smith… Sam Smith…… Sam Smith!”
Sam shook his head as Zeb continued to yell his name louder and louder.
Zeb finally pulled up on the reigns of old Ugly, and turned in the saddle to look at Sam petulantly. “Wall, that aint gonna work, is it?”
Frowning, he asked,“What are you talking about?”
“Wall, I’ve been up here saying yer name a hundred times, and you havent answered it not once. So hows this gonna work if’n you caint remember yer own name!”
Sam groaned. “Zeb!”
“What!” he answered back. “You see how I answered ya right away? That’s because I know my name.”
Sam smiled and shook his head. “Zeb, you are a test.”
“Test a what?”
“Never mind, just keep riding.”
Red River Station. Red River Station… there was something vagely familiar about the small town but Sam just couldn’t put his finger on it. Not so much the name, but the actual town itself, not that it didn’t look like a hundred other small towns that were smattered across the west. It had the usual livery, dry goods store, saloon, resturant and hotel, but there something about it that was tickling the edge of Sam’s memory.
They had checked their animals at the livery and even paid the extra fifty cents for a good rub down and an extra fork of hay.
As they walked up the street towards the local watering hole, Zeb nudged Sam. “I gotta make a quick stop at the mercantile for a new plug of tabaccey, you wanna come with me?”
“No, I’m good. I’ll meet you down at the saloon.”
“Alrighty then, suit yerself, Sam Smith.”
Sam chuckled as Zeb veered off and entered a building with an old sign above it that announced the name, Red River Mercantile.
As he walked along the boardwalk to the Red River Saloon, he studied the buildings on the opposite side of the street. The Red River textiles was a small hole in the wall, next came the impressive sized Red River Station House which boasted clean rooms, home cooked meals and even hot baths for a dollar. Next came Hanks barber shop, the only business in town that didn’t start with Red River, as far as Sam could see, anyway.
He made his way through the swing doors and into the saloon. He eyed a small table at the back and made his way to it. It was getting late in the afternoon and the place was already filling up with men. Doing a quick calculation in his head, he realized it was Friday night, time for the working men in the area to cut loose a little.
A small piano sat tinkering in the far corner. Sam wasn’t sure if it was badly out of tune, or if the thin, bald man who was hammering away at it, just didn’t know how to play, but the god-awful noise was grating on his ears.
He sat studying a table full of men playing poker when she walked up. He had always had a fondness for the cards, but as a Reverend he had dismissed the game as the gambling evil it was, but since he no longer had to follow those rules, it probably wouldn’t hurt to sit in on a hand or two.
One minute he was watching the game, debating with himself whether or not to throw in on a hand or two, and the next, a pair of boobs was obstructing his view. And what a magnificent set of boobs they were. They were full, and round and practically falling out of the red dress that was doing its damndest to keep them in check.
His eyes lingered, then finally traveled slowly up to the pretty face that smiled seductively down at him. She had thick honey colored hair pulled up into a loose bun with little tenderils falling to frame her face, smokey blue eyes that let a man get lost in their depths, and a set of full deep red lips made for sin.
Sam swollowed hard. He could feel little beads of persperation popping out on his forehead as his blood pressure spiked up a notch. Damn, she was a fine looking woman.
When she spoke, her voice dripped like molasses, “What’s your pleasure, Cowboy?”
He was happy to see that she was studying him as closely as he was studying her. “Probably the same as yours, sweetheart.” he drawled.
She cocked an eyebrow suggestively. “Bourbon then?”
“What?” he asked slightly confused, and then “Oh yeah, bourbon. That sounds just fine.”
She laughed huskily, “I’ll be right back.”
Sam watched her ass swaying provocatively in her tight dress as she walked away. He reached up and wiped the sweat from his brow as the guilt settled in.
Shameful, just shameful the way he was acting. He had barely just quit the clergy, and here he was, ready to bend that woman over the first table he could find, and rut his way to glory. He was acting like he hadn’t been laid in…ten years. Ten years! Had it really been that long? No wonder his dick was trying to jump out of his pants.
As a reverend, he could have easily taken a wife. Reverends were allowed to marry, but the truth was, church going women just didn’t get his juices flowing.
He had always been attracted to the soiled doves, well, the pretty ones anyways. He had also been with his fair share of ugly ones. But ugly wasn’t always that bad- if you drank enough first.
Sam’s head was spinning. He just couldn’t believe how easy and natural it was to slip back into his old ways. Here he thought he had rose above all of his transgressions, had gotten rid of them for good, when in reality, they had just been set off to the side all this time. You just can’t shake a lifetime of bad habits.
He was still waiting for his drink when Zeb walked in and found him.
Tossing his pack on the floor he eased his weight into the wooden seat. Smiling he asked, “Did ya order us up something to sip on?”
“I ordered me something to sip on, I wasn’t sure how long you’d spend flapping your jaws over at the mercantile.”
“I tend to make it quick when I’m thirsty.”
Sam chuckled, “I’ll be sure to remember that.”
“You do that.” Zeb nodded in all seriousness. “I seen an old friend of mine over there, though. Nate Sherman, you ever heard of him?”
Sam shook his head thoughtfully, “Can’t say that I have.”
Zeb started in telling him all about his friend, Nate, but Sam didn’t hear a word of it, he was watching the hot blonde making her way back to his table with his drink in hand.
Zeb stopped talking when he noticed that Sam wasn’t paying him a speck of attention. “What’re ya looking at?” Then he followed Sam’s eyes, “Oh…”
She set his drink down in front of him and waited for him to dig out the money. While she waited she looked at Zeb. “So, what’s your friends name?”
Zeb smiled, his eyebrows arching knowingly, “Wall he’s sittin’ right here, why dontcha ask him yerself?”
“Zeb! Be polite to the pretty lady.” Smiling up into her smokey eyes, he said, “My names Sam. Sam Sharp.”
“I thought it was Smith,” Zeb said as he elbowed him.
Shit. He had forgot he had made up a name, beautiful women tended to addle his brain. “Shut up, Zeb.” he groused.
The old mountain man thought the situation was pretty funny and laughed loudly, slapping his knee. “And I thought I was the forgetful one, haa haa haa!”
Ignoring his friend, he handed the woman the money.
“It’s very nice to make your aquaintence, Mr. Sharp.”
Sam grinned up at her dumbly and thumbed his cowboy hat up a notch, “Call me Sam, Miss…”
Zeb smacked his hand on the scarred top of the wooden table, “Wall Libby, I aint getting any younger over here, I’d like to order me a drink before I’m laid to rest.”
Libby laughed her sultry, sexy laugh, “Alright then, what’ll you have?”
“Same as him,” Bending over the table he studied the glass, “Good ol’ fashion whiskey, I presume?”
“Bourbon! Forget it, that’s sissy stuff. Bring me a whiskey, Libby my dear, and make it a double.”
Both men watched her saunter away. Zeb shoved a hand into the front pocket of his trousers, “How much do you reckon that one costs?”
Sam chuckled, “The whiskey or the woman?”
Zeb grinned, his eyes sparkling, “Both of them will git you in a peck of trouble, but only ones worth it.”
“Probably quite a bit then. But I bet she’s worth every penny.”
Counting his poke, he teased his young friend, “Maybe I’ll jes’ find out.”
Sam studied him thoughtfully, “I thought your parts weren’t in working order, Zeb.”
Zeb’s jaw dropped, unhinged. “Bite your tongue! There aint nothin’ wrong with my parts! Their a workin’ just fine, thank you.”
Sam laughed at Zeb’s offended look, “Hey, you’re the one that said it, not me.”
“Damn yer ears, Sharp! That’s not what I was talkin’ about! I was talking about pissin’. I cant hardly piss a straight stream anymore.”
Sam frowned pensively, trying to keep a straight face. “Well, usually if one function isn’t working right, the other one isn’t either.” Leaning towards Zeb, he lowered his voice, “Have you had a chance to try it out lately?”
Zeb’s eyes popped open. “Wall God damn ya! That’s a fine thing to ask a man!”
His tyrade was was short lived however, as he was interrupted by a glass of whiskey and a pretty lady.
“Here you go, handsome.”
She might of called Zeb handsome, but she smiled and winked at Sam. He of course, returned the friendly gesture.
Two hours later, they were still playing the flirting game, only he was quite a bit drunker, and a lot more brazen. He and Zeb had been drinking them down at a pretty fair clip, mostly to keep Libby and her luscious curves at their tableside.
They were waiting for another round when Zeb took out a coin, “I’ll flip ya for her.” Tossing the coin into the air, he said, “Call it. Tits or ass?”
“I aint flipping for her. Besides, I seen her first, old man.” he teased.
Zeb growled. “Fine, I guess I’ll take that fat dark haired one then.” He said, eyeing the rather uncomely older lady across the barroom.
Sam chuckled, “I believe that one’s the bartender’s wife, so good luck with that, my aging friend.”
Zeb grumbled, “Smart aleck.” Scraping his chair backwards, he offered, “I’m gonna check out the cards, you wanna come?”
“Uhmm…” Cards or Libby. Libby or cards. No contest. “I think I’ll just stay here.”
“Suit yerself.” He got up and walked two tables over to try his hand at a game of five card stud.
Sam waited for Libby to make her way to him. When she finally arrived, she set down another drink, dipping so low the fabric on her dress threatened to give way and spill its contents all over his face. “This ones on me.” she whispered wetly in his ear.
It wasn’t long before Sam had her talked into taking a seat on his lap. It turned out that her tongue was just as talented as he thought it would be. She nuzzled his neck and nipped at his ear, driving him wild with desire.
The thought occured to Sam, that once she had him in her lair, that he’d probably last about as long as a new born calf surrounded by a pack of hungery wolves. That would be just down right shameful in his eyes. It had been too long since he’d slipped between the velvety folds of a womans bed. He didn’t want to embarrass himself by letting her down, therefore, he knew his best bet was to uncork and relieve some of the pressure before hand.
“Uh, I need to visit the facilities out back, darlin’.”
He was leaned back in the chair, his eyes closed and his hat knocked askew. Her skillful tongue had his ears ringing and his head feeling like it was going to explode any second.
She ran the tip of her tongue slowly around the rim of his ear, then breathed, “You want me come with you.”
Oh my lord. “No, no, no. Later.” Sam fought his way into a fully erect position. Slapping her on the butt, he said, “It wont take me but a minute, darlin’. Why don’t you bring me another drink while your waiting.”
Libby arched a beautiful eyebrow and kissed him slowly on the corners of his mouth while she spoke. Her breath soft as satin, “Are sure you want one more? I have plans for you in my bed tonight and you would be mighty disappointed if you passed out any time soon.”
Sam groaned. That would be a shame. “You have any coffee?”
She ran an artfull hand up his stomach to kneed the hard plains of his chest. “Do you like it dark and hard, or creamy and sweet.”
Why did everthing that came out of her sexy mouth sound so nasty?
“Both.” he smiled devilishly.
Sam made his way out the back on unsteady sea legs, pitching to and fro. Shit, he needed to sober up and fast. He hadn’t realized how much he had drank until he had stood up and room tilted off kilter. Hanging onto the edge of the table he waited for the horizon to settle before trying to walk. Half way to the door, he prayed the coffee that Libby was bringing would do it’s trick, so he’d be a little steadier as he climbed aboard her later.
For the last few weeks he had been slowly inching his way back into his former self. But, with a jerk and a groan, he took the final leep and settled fully into his old skin.
Grinning a bit drunkenly, he muttered to himself, “Welcome back, ol’ son.”
Weaving his way to the back door of the saloon, a thought occurred to him, “I’m going to hell, riding on the skirts of a big busted blonde.” laughing out loud, he missed the door handle the first time, and had to grab for it again, “What a hell of a fun trip this will be.”
Staggering into the saloon he set his sights on his recently vacated table expecting to see Libby waiting for him, instead Zeb had returned and was sitting in his seat.
Horny ol’ goat’s probably trying to weasel in on my girl, he thought, but when he seen the look on the old man’s face he became instantly alert. Well, as alert as could be expected after consuming so much alcohol. Taking a seat to give his wobbly legs a rest, he asked, “What’s going on?”
Zeb leaned across the table and said in a low voice, “Sam, do you know that big feller over there?”
Sam looked at the man standing in the middle of the room, and noticed for the first time, that everyone was quietly watching the big fellow, anxiously. The man was turned, facing away from Sam, so he couldn’t get a good look, but nothing about the backside of the man rang any bells, “No, I don’t think so, why?”
Leaning towards Sam he spoke in a low tone, “Now, don’t be alarmed, but he came in here looking fer ya.”
Sam blinked, trying to focus on the one Zeb that wasn’t moving all over the place, “Me?”
“Yeah. He come in here, hollerin’ fer ya, right before you came back in.”
From across the room the deep voice boomed, “Where in the hell is Sam Sharp! I know he’s in here somewhere,” His question was met with silence, but he was turning a slow circle, meeting every man’s eye. Finally, Sam got a good look at his face.
“Oh shit!” he murmured fiercly, as he ducked his head to the side and pulled the wide brim of his cowboy hat down to hide his face.
“You recognize him now?” Zeb asked
Sam was studying the alcohol and tobacco stained floor as he was whispered to Zeb, “I thought this god damned town looked familiar. I think I’ve been here before.”
“I reckon you have, and made quite an impression from the looks of it. That feller’s right pissed off, what’d ya do?”
Sam ran a tired hand down his face, “I slept with his wife- a long time ago.”
“Oh damn! A man ain’t likely to forget something like that, no matter how long it’s been.” Zeb noticed that when Sam looked at him, that his eyes were more that just a tad bit crossed. “You best duck on out the back son, your in no condition to fight that big ugly som’bitch. Your flying higher than a two bit whore with a five dollar gold piece.”
The mans voice boomed again reverberating off the clapboard walls, “I said, where’s that dirty rotten son of a bitch, Sam Sharp!”
From somewhere in the quiet crowd someone asked, “What’re ya lookin’ fer him for?”
“Because that no-good, low-down, piece of shit slept with my wife, that’s why!”
Someone else in the crowd mumbled out loud, “Who hasn’t?”
Stifled snickers and low chuckles sounded around the room.
The large hulk of a man looked wildly around the room, his eyes bulging, “Who said that! Who the fuck said that! I’ll fight any man who dares call my wife a whore!” he bellowed like a wounded bull.
Of course no one said a word.
As the events of that perticular night came back to Sam, he figured in all honesty, the man had a right to be pissed. He probably did deserve a good beating for it, but that didn’t mean he was a glutten for punishment, either.
“I’m out of here. Tell Libby that I’ll be back as soon as that jackass leaves.”
His chair scraped louder than he intended it to as he slid it back. Ducking his head he made for the back door. He had just about made it too, but then he heard, “You there! Stop and turn around!”
Shit. He was busted, and he knew it. There was no sense in trying to hide now, even though the last thing he wanted to do was fight the big son of a bitch.
Sam straightened slowly and turned to face the music. “Hello, Bob.” he said sheepishly.
Bob’s eyes narrowed, “Sharp! Get out in the street, I’m gonna beat yer scrawny ass and tear you limb from limb.”
Sam hooked his thumbs in the front pockets of his jeans and rocked back on his heels, and almost tipped over, “Come on, Bob. It’s been what, fifteen years? Can’t we just settle this like gentlemen?”
“I said, get outside!” Bob raged. The color of his face was steadily going from a beet red to a dark motled purple, not a good sign.
Sam tipped the brim of his hat back on his head, “You know, to be fair, she never told me she had a husband…or three kids.”
Murmers of agreement went around the bar, they obviously knew what type of woman she was, but Bob looked like he was ready to have a stroke, “Don’t you stand there and play innocent! You might not a knowed she was married at first, but then after I caught your naked ass diving out my bedroom window, what’d you go and do? You went and let all my stock loose. And then when I went out, chasing them from here to kingdom come, you snuck back in to finish the job!”
Zeb, still sitting at their table, snorted and shook his head, “Oh, shiiit.” he drawled.
The men in the crowd snickered again. This time Bob chose to ignore them.
Shit was right, Sam had no recollection of that. In a show of surrender, he threw up his arms, “Alright Bob, you got me. But to tell you the truth, I’ve had a little bit to drunk tonight. Is there anyway we could postpone this hooraw until tomorrow?”
“Really, Bob, tomorrow would be…”
“I said, OUT!”
“Okay, okay! Just thought I’d ask.”
As Sam made his way through the crowd, men were patting him on the back solemly, showing him that they knew the gravity of the situation, but their eyes sparkled with the prospect of blood shed. Life could get pretty boring in a sleepy little north texas town.
Libby was there too. She met him in the middle of the room and planted a big wet one on his lips, “Good luck, cowboy.” she smiled, “I’ll be waiting for you.”
Sam was starting to feel a little like a spring lamb being lead to slaughter.
When he reached the front of the saloon, Bob shoved him roughly through the double doors, then followed closely behind. Out on the boardwalk he pushed him aside so he could be the first one down the steps.
Zeb took the opportunity to pull Sam aside. “You cant fight him in your condition, he’ll tear yer house down fer sure. But don’t you worry none, I’ve got a plan,” he whispered quickly.
Zeb had been around a long time. He had seen and done things that most men only dreamed of doing. He couldn’t have gotten to be his age with learning a thing or two along the way about survival.
Sam was relieved to have someone who could impart some wisdom in this dire situation. “Okay. What’s your plan?” he asked hopefully.
Zeb took a hold of Sam’s shoulders and looked him straight in the eye. “When he hits ya… fall down.”
It took a moment for the answer to fully reach Sam’s alcohol soaked mind, and then another minute for Sam to come to the conclusion that that was the stupidest plan he had ever heard. He stared at the old man incredulously, “Fall down? That’s all you have, is fall down!”
“Ya! Just fall down, pretend yer knocked out, maybe he’ll just give up and leave ya alone.”
“Where in the hell did you come apon that little bit of wisdom?”
“I heard it somewhere…” Zeb scratched his temple, “Although, I think it had something to do with a bear… ya! It was definatley a bear.” he shrugged, “Same thing. It’s worth a try though, aint it?”
Sam thought about the plan, and then smiled a bit lopsided, “You know, that might just work, Zeb.” Sam took Zeb by the shoulders and looked him in the eyes, “I just want you to know- that you’re my best friend. But, I have a funny feeling, that when I look back on this tomorrow, I’m gonna figure out this is all your fault somehow.”
Zeb nodded his grey head solemly, but his eyes sparkled mischieviously, “You probably will, at that.” he admitted, “But I’m not the one that diddled that man’s wife, either. Now, you best git down there and git it over with. Makin’ that giant wait wont improve his mood any.”
As Sam turned reluctantly and walked down the stairs, he watched Bob pacing angrily back and forth in the street, his gigantic feet kicking up little dust clouds with each step. He could tell the man was rapidly working himself into a mad frenzy.
Unbuckling his gunbelt, he handed the rigging to Zeb for safe keeping. “You hold on to these, and don’t sell them off as suveniors till your sure I’m dead.”
Zeb smiled and winked, “I wont. Now, go git ’im, tiger.”
Sam walked slowly out into the dusky street. He was readying himself to face his opponent, when he heard a high, trilling voice call, “Yoo-hoo, Sam! Over here.”
He looked across the street to the woman standing in front of Hank’s barber shop, smiling and waving.
It was Bob’s wife. “Hi, Sam!” she sang again.
He gave her a half-hearted wave in return and grumbled, “Hi, Lorraine.”
Jesus, what had he been thinking? She was as ugly as a mud fence, and almost as wide. He couldn’t believe he was about to get clobbered over that. Now, someone like Libby- that he could see. Hell, he’d gladly hand over over a couple of ribs and some spilled blood for a night between the sheets with her.
Movement caught Sam’s attention and he crouched as Bob came towards him.
Then he heard the high pitched voice of Lorraine yelling, “You leave him alone, you big bully! Your just jealous cause I told you he has a bigger pecker than you!”
Sam’s jaw dropped as he turned to stare at the mud fence in disbelief. He was shocked she would say such a thing to her husband. Did she have no shame?
Caught off guard, he never even seen the big fist flying at him. With the first bone crushing blow, Sam’s world went black.
When he came to, he was vaguely aware of people yelling and cussing, and it took a moment for the searing pain to register in his spongy brain. All at once, two things became very clear in his mind.
One, Zeb had been very wrong. Bob didn’t care if he was unconscious through the beating, just as long as he was getting beat.
And two, if the pain and blood were any indication, his nose was probably broken, as well as a rib or two.
At present, Bob was holding him up by his shirt front with one beefy hand, while he delivered blow after vicious blow with his other. Sam’s head lolled uncontrollably to the side as he tried to throw his weight backwards to break the hold.
Bob’s arm was cocked and ready to fire again when a loud gunshot pierced the early evening air and froze everyone in their spots. Only their eyes moved to the person standing in the middle of the street holding a mean looking scatter gun.
Libby, looking downright sexy in her red silky dress, eared back on the second hammer and steadied a bead on Bob’s head. “He’s had enough, Bob. Let him go.”
Bob hesitated, fighting to reach a decision, until she yelled again “I said, let him go!” She meant business, and she had the make and mettle to back it up.
Bob let go, and Sam crumpled to the hard packed ground like a sack of spuds. His head was spinning, and his vision was blurred, but he managed to look up at Libby and smile, “I think I love you.”
Libby winked and smiled back, then turned her attention back to Bob, “Your done here. Get your wife and go home.”
Bob was infuriated at the interuption, “I don’t have to listen to no whore!” He yelled, breathing hard and glaring at her defiantly.
“You’ll listen… or,” she lowered the barrel of the gun, “I’ll blow off that tiny pecker between your legs- your choice, Bob.”
In the end, a frustrated Bob decided that a little pecker was better than no pecker at all, and left with the squalling mud fence in tow.
Libby picked a couple of men out of the crowd told them to carry Sam up to her room. “Don’t you worry, cowboy, I’ll be gentle,” she whispered into his ear when he finally regained his feet with help of the two men.
Sam looked into her beautiful blue eyes and teased, “I still think I love you.”
She leaned forward, and whispered in his ear, “If you only think it now, I promise- you’ll know it by morning.”
Libby’s room was on the upper deck of the Red River Saloon, last door on the left, facing the main street. Sharp let his eyes roam around the small, cramped room. The ceiling was just dark exposed rafters, and the walls were old faded grey, rough-hewn boards. There were only two windows, both facing the noisey dusty street, and both were cracked, hanging slightly askew and badly in need of repair. She had tried to spruce the room up a bit. Yellowed lace curtains framed the two broken windows, a dresser stood on the side wall, an old ornate mirror hung above it. Most of the glass was speckled black from where the silver coating was peeling off the back, and the gold gilding on the frame was crackled and flaking off in spots. The dresser top held a pitcher and bowel for washing up, a small picture frame that Sharp was too far away to see who was in it, and various bottles and jars of god knows what, probably girly stuff, which he knew absolutelynothing about- perfume, powder, make-up, and some such. A kerosene lantern hung from a peg by the door, and a hand woven rag rug graced the rough pine floor.
Picturing Libby living in this cramped shit hole day after day, made Sam sad. She was so beautiful and had so much potential, he figured it was about the equivelent of taking a fine racehorse and sticking it in front a sharecroppers plow. Sure, it could plod along, day after day, tilling up the sod as good as any old nag, but if it just had half a chance, it would be winning races on the track, living the high life and being pampered and praised by it’s prominent owners. If Libby were to go to a big city, men would be lining up to pay top dollar for her services. Sharp frowned, he didn’t like that idea either. God, what was wrong with him!
Sharp watched Libby walk across the bedroom, her supple body moving gracefully to a small table that held a glass pitcher of cool water. They had spent the night making slow tender, love- instead of the carnal coupling he had had in mind. Due to the injuries from the damn fight, they had to be real careful. He was pretty sure that at least one of his ribs were cracked, but luckily his nose wasn’t broke like he had originally thought, just banged up a little.
He was laying on his back, fingers laced together under his head, when he finally asked the question that had been bugging him. “Why are you here, Libby?”
After taking a drink, she set the glass down slowly and turned unabashed to face him in all her glory. “That’s an odd question, especially since your in my room.”
He smiled warmly at her and then let his graze slide down her naked body. God she was beautiful. “What I mean is, why are you here, in this town?”
She walked back to him, crawled up on the bed and straddled his hips gently. Her long golden hair fell down to cover her breasts, so Sharp brushed the locks back to afford himself a better view. Girls in Libby’s profession were anything but shy, one more reason why he preferred them over the common woman, they never tried to hide who they were, they just layed it all out for you to peruse, without all the silly, shy coyness of a proper lady.
As he looked into those smokey blue eyes, an unusual feeling washed over him. What was it? More than lust… more than caring… affection maybe? He groaned out loud, was he starting to have feelings for her? No! Shit.
Libby misinterpreted his groan of self-loathing for one of desire, and started moving her hips in slow inticing circles.
Sam squeezed his eyes shut and ground his teeth together as she ran her fingers lightly up his stomach to his bare chest. “I thought you’d be all played out after last night.”
He blew out the breath he’d been holding in a loud rush. This wasn’t going as planned. What he wanted, was to know more about her, as insane as that sounded. Why did he have to get injured? If he could of just took her the way he wanted, none of these stupid feelings would be sneaking up on him.
This was all Zeb’s fault somehow, he just knew it.
“I think I do feel sort of drained,” he admitted.
She gave him a sympathetic smile. “Poor baby,” she purred. “Just let me know when your ready, Cowboy,” she said as she slid off to lay beside him. Reaching over to the bedside table she snagged a cigarette and a box of matches. Lighting the end she inhaled and exhaled, blowing out a small cloud of pungent smoke, then she offered it to him.
Sharp reached for it, “I’m already bound for hell, so I might as well live it up.”
She laughed as she curled into his side, laying her head on his shoulder, “Your going to hell for smoking a little tobacco?’
“No,” he said as he blew out a puff of smoke, “I’m going to hell for lots of things. This,” he said, waving the small cigarette, “Is just one more log to throw on the fire.”
“You are not going to hell,” she chided. “Only evil people wind up in hell, and you, Sam Sharp, are not an evil man.”
He smiled down into her lovely face, wiggling his eyebrows up and down in a dastardly fashion, “And how do you know that, my little buttercup?” he teased.
“Oh, I can just tell. I’ve seen evil before honey, and you might have a dark side in there somewhere, but your not evil.”
She kissed his rough cheek, liking the feel of the prickley whiskers against her soft lips, “Besides, you have the gentlest green eyes I’ve ever seen.”
Sam chuckled with flattery, “Well, there’s only one way to find out for sure where I’m heading, and I plan on postponing that meeting for as long as I can.”
He turned his attention to a large oil painting on the wall. It was a painting of a quaint cottage house, surrounded by beautiful flowers, arbors full of pink and yellow wild roses. Smoke curled out the top of a rock chimney, and the windows glowed with a soft yellow light from within. It was the one piece in the whole room that didn’t scream squalor, and it made him curious.
“Where did you get that painting, Libby?”
She turned to study the picture in question. “Why, do you like it?”
“Yeah, its very pretty.”
“I painted it.”
Sam was stunned, “You painted that?”
“Yes, I did. It’s a picture of my father’s house, before my mother passed away,” she sighed sadly, “It doesn’t look like that anymore though. The yards mostly just dirt and weeds now, the roof of the house sags in the middle, and all of those beautiful arbors have fallen down.”
Sam was still trying to wrap his head around Libby being the painter. “My god, Libby. You could move away from here and become a painter with all of your talent,”
Nodding toward the picture, he said, “People would pay good money for one of those to hang in their parlors, and you would’nt have to do… this for a living.”
She rolled over and studied his green eyes closely, “Do you think I like doing this day after day?” she laughed mirthlessly, “Believe me, if I had the choice, I would move far away from here.”
Sharp frowned, “But, why couldn’t you?”
She pointed back to the picture sadly, “That’s why. Even though the house is practically falling down now, my father still lives there.”
Her eyes were so sad, he wanted to pull her close and hug her hard. He wanted to make her feel better and wipe the pain from her eyes, but he didn’t, instead he asked, “He wouldn’t leave and go with you, now that your mother’s gone?”
Libby shook her head. “He built that house with his own two hands for my mother. Every stick and stone was placed with love. He would never leave it, or her. She’s buried on a small hill behind the house and he visits her everyday.” She took a deep, shaky breath before continuing, “He’s dying. He’ll never admit it, but I see it in his eyes. Like a candle that gets dimmer as the wick burns low, the lights are slowly fading. Every week when I go out to visit and bring him the groceries, I’m afraid of what I’ll find, or wont find, when I get there. I don’t want him to die, he’s all the family I have left, but some days I almost wish he would just go. He’s so lonely without her. He’s suffering.”
“He must have loved her very much.”
“Yes, he did,” she whispered softly, wistfully, “Not many people find love like theirs.”
Sam grunted through the pain as he rolled towards her. Stroking the side of her pretty face with his rough thumb, he said, “Love is a rare commodity, indeed.”
“What’s eatin’ you?”
Sharp wiped the sweat off the back of his neck with a hankerchief, “Nothing.”
They had been on the trail most of the day, and Sharp was busy keeping a watchful eye out, trying to find a good spot for them to bed down for the night.
“Don’t you ‘nothing’, me. You’ve been actin’ funny all day, boy.”
Sharp didn’t want to talk about it, so he kept his mouth shut. Besides, his bruised ribs were killing him, even though Libby had carefully bound him up tight for the trip, all the jostling in the saddle was taking it’s toll.
Zeb studied him carefully before breaking out into a toothy grin. “Wall, don’t tell me you went an fell for the chippy!”
“You did!” he laughed. “Oh, I wouldn’t worry to much about it, son, it happens to the best of us every once in a while. Especially when it comes to ones as pretty as yer Miss Libby.”
Sam did not want to talk about Libby. “How did Bob know I was in town yesterday?” Sam asked abruptly, his voice full of accusation.
“Yeah, about that… I might ’a mentioned somethin’ about you to my friend, Ned, at the mercantile.”
Sam laughed harshly, “Of course you did! Why is it, you can’t follow simple god-damned instructions. All I asked was that you call me by another name, was it really that hard to remember?”
Zeb frowned, “Wall, I’m sorry, but ya don’t have to get all bent out of shape about it. If‘n you remember, you made the same mistake in the bar.”
“I just can’t trust you at all!” He yelled, then seeing the hurt look on the old mans face, he immediately regretted what he’d said. Damnit! It wasn’t really Zeb that he was mad at anyway, it was himself. Why did he have to go and fall in love with her.
Love? Where did that come from? Goddamnit!
Zeb had trotted ahead after he had yelled at him, now Sharp gigged his horse to catch up, the added jostle felt like he was being stabbed in the ribs with every bounce. “Zeb, I’m sorry too. It wasn’t all your fault.” he said, trying to lighten the mood, “Hell, if I hadn’t slept with that ugly woman all those years ago, none of it would have happened.”
Zeb tried to keep the hurt look on his face, but a smile slowly crept up, “Boy, ugly is right. If you stuck her next to Ol’ Ugly here, you’d have a hard time figurin’ out which one to mount…and which one to stick a saddle on!”
Both men laughed.
Zeb’s eyes crinkled in the corners as he smiled, “I hadn’t realized until I seen her, how big of a drunk you really were.” he teased. “But I was serious when I said not to feel bad about fallin’ fer Libby. That there is one hell of a fine gal. Deserves more than what she’s got, that’s fer sure. How do ya reckon she ended up there?”
“She told me she was married, her husband was in the war for only a short time when she she got word that he had been killed in battle. Then, right after that, her mother passed away, leaving her father alone, now she does what she has to to take care of him.”
Zeb shook his head sadly, “That’s to bad. You suppose her daddy knows what she’s doing to support herself, and him.”
“I’m not sure. I really doubt it though.”
They rode in silence, following the well defined trail, until they came upon a suitable area to camp over night. Zeb went into the woods in search of dry wood to build a fire, as Sam unloaded their gear and fed and picketed the horses.
Once the fire was going and the stew was on, they sat back relaxing with their hot, steaming cups of coffee.
Zeb bent to stir the stew. “You ever been married?”
Zeb harrumphed, “Smart man. Most of them women will give ya nothing’ but trouble.”
He smiled across the fire, “But every once in while, one comes along that’s nothin’ like you’ve ever seen, and they make ya feel all sorts a things you’ve never felt before. It’s kinda like coming upon a rose in the middle of the desert, it’ll give ya a start, then it’ll steal yer heart- and that’s how it happens.”
Sam knew what Zeb was getting at, “I didn’t know you were a poet, Zeb. But, I’m not in love with Libby.”
“Didn’t say ya were, just telling’ ya like it is, is all.”
Sam watched the flames, his thoughts growing serious. Listening to Libby talk about her father had refreshed his need to get to Gracie as fast as possible. He hated the thought of not knowing what she was doing, where she was and if she was safe…
The man watched the woman’s head emerge from the inky black water of the large pond, her hands wiping the moisture from her eyes.
He had come upon a set of fresh horse tracks while riding to meet the gang at their hideout. Well, really it was just an old rundown abandoned shack, but it was off the beaten path and suited their purposes perfectly. They were meeting to discuss their next job, a bank down by Amarillo, that was badly in need of being robbed. Harris and Judd had volunteered to go down and scope it out, they were back now, so the gang could go over the details and devise a plan of attack.
Miles was getting low on funds, and was looking forward rolling the big job so he could pay a visit to one Miss Lacey at the Four Aces saloon, back in Ballis.
Miss Lacey’s ‘special services’ did not come cheap. Like any whore, if you payed them enough, they’d let you do anything, no matter how much it hurt them, and that anything is what he wanted most. Only, he didn’t have enough to cover what he wanted, and she did not- under any circumstances- extend credit. Fucking whores anyways.
Miles watched the woman as she made her way back to the shore. Her naked body gleaming slick and wet in the low light of sunset, her nipples hard from the cold water.
He couldn’t afford Miss Lacey, but now he knew where he could get those same services for free.
He knew for certain the woman was alone. He had slowly circled the area and found no one but her and her tall black horse. He was still a good three miles away from the cabin, so there would be no one to hear her scream. And if he hid her body back in the tree’s when he was done, no one would ever be the wiser.
As he prepared to step out of the woods, he smiled to himself. How often does a present such as this just fall into your lap? Not often enough, he thought, reaching down to rub the bulge in his pants, not often enough.
The woman was making it easy for him. After bathing she had grabbed a blanket and spread it on the ground. Laying on it, naked, she was catching the last rays of the day to dry her body, her eyes closed, lips slighty open, relaxing.
Miles drew his gun and crept silently towards her.
She was humming a tune that he had never heard before as he walked up. The humming helped drown out his footfalls, letting him get right up on her before she opened her eyes.
He expected her to be startled, scream with fright and try to get away, but instead she just looked at him cooly, ignoring the gun in his hand.
“I was wondering when you were going to come out.”
Miles was momentarily caught off guard. “You were waiting for me?”
She smiled, even though the smile didn’t quite reach her eyes, “Of course.”
“Why?” he asked, bewildered.
She slowly drew one knee up, spreading her legs. “Why do you think?”
Oh man, he thought as he licked his lips. Was this some sort of dream? He didn’t remember falling asleep. Things like this just did not happen, and if they did, they sure as hell never happened to him, maybe it was some sort of trap? Nervously he began scanning the area, looking for anything out of the ordinary.
“It’s not a trap.” she murmured impatiently.
Miles looked at her, startled. What’d she do, read his mind? “I didn’t say it was.”
She spread her legs a little farther, and ran a delicate hand down her flat stomach. “Then what are you looking around for… when what you want is right here?”
Miles looked into her eyes and felt a chill run down his back. They were black. Not brown or blue or green, they were completely black. What the fuck is going on here, he thought wildly. Who is this woman, girl really, now that her got a good look at her face, and why was she out here by herself ? Women didn’t travel alone, especially in these parts.
His heart was beating so hard it felt like it was going to jump out of his chest. Why was he suddenly scared of her? Hell, he was the one with the gun, and she was laying there defenseless as a newborn babe, and just as naked. Quit being such a pussy, he scoffed at himself, just take your pants down and do the bitch.
“Isn’t this what you wanted, why you followed me here? Quit being a pussy and do me!” she yelled, startling him.
Miles jumped. “What the hell, lady! Who are you?” he demanded. This bitch was creeping him out. He was really starting to regret the fact that their hideout was so far away. He’d feel a lot better if the boys were here. That’s what he’d do, he’d take her to the cabin and they could all share her. Of course, he’d get to go first, since he was the one that found her.
Pointing the gun at her head, he said, “Get up.”
She smiled sweetly, “Of course, if that’s what you want.”
She rolled over onto her knees and reached for the front of his pants. Grabbing the fly, she jerked hard, hard enough to pop all the buttons open at once.
“What are you doing, lady!”
Easing his drawers down she teased, “You don’t really want to share me with your friends, do you?”
As she took him into her mouth, all of his fears abated as lust took over. And even when she took the gun from his hand and tossed it aside, he still wasn’t worried, because she was already pulling him down onto the blanket. Once his clothes were off, he even let her assume the dominant position on top, letting himself get lost in the expectant pleasure.
She wrapped a cool hand firmly around his dick, positioning herself over him.
He closed his eyes, waiting for the warm satiny feeling he knew was coming, and missed seeing her reach under the blanket for the knife she had hidden there earlier.
Blinding, white hot pain seared through him. He screamed, his whole body going rigid. Looking up at her through the pain and between the screams, he seen she was hanging onto his bloody member, dangling it in front of his face, a sinister smile stretched across her lips.
He bucked wildly, trying to throw the woman off of him and struggled to get his arms free from where she held them trapped against his body with her knees, but she held him like an iron vise. He screamed in terror and rage as she held up the bloody knife, the razor sharp edge glinting in the fading light. Poising it in front of her, she brought it down, slashing it across the exposed skin of his abdomen. His intestines spilled out onto the blanket.
He screamed again, but this time, the sound was cut short when she sliced through his vocal cords. Eyes bulging in pain and shock, he watched her eyes close in bliss as his blood sprayed across her face, reveling in it.
A few second later, his eyes drifted shut for the last time and his head slumped to the side.
Angel leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek, tasting the coppery warm blood on her lips. “See you in hell, loverboy,” she whispered in his ear.
Standing over him, she looked down admiring her handy work, her black eyes gleaming in the twilight. Satisfied, she turned, smiling, and walked slowly back into the water, humming an eery tune.
Sam and Zeb camped along the red banks of the Washita river. Even though the weather had been holding mostly on the steady side, the water ran a deep muddy red, forcing them to use the water they carried for coffee and cooking.
It had been seven days since they had left the town of Red River behind, and Sam’s nerves had had him on high alert ever since.
Scratching the back of his neck, he muttered, “I’ll sure be glad to be shut of this country. I’ve felt like a bug under glass for the past week.”
“I know what ya mean, them injuns are keepin’ a close watch on us, that’s fer sure.”
“Well, as long as they keep their distance, I’ll be happy.” Stuffing his bed roll behind his saddle, he began stringing it in place while talking over his shoulder, “Come on Zeb, we’re burning daylight here.”
“I just thought of something.”
“What’s that?” Sam asked as he checked the cinch on his saddle. He’d come realize that the horse he had purchased back at the Fort, had the exceptional ability to bloat up and hold its breath for a long period of time. He’d almost been dumped, more than once, when his damn saddle had came loose and started slipping off sideways.
“I was thinking that maybe we shouldn’t have camped so close to the river. Ya know, the noise from the water makes it hard to hear if’n anybody’s sneaking up on us.”
Sam gave the horse a firm knee to the gut trying to get him to expell some of the excess air, “All the more reason to get a move on.” he said over his shoulder.
“I would, but now’s not a real good time to be makin’ any sudden movements.”
Sam turned to look at Zeb, puzzled. “What?”
Zeb nodded his head, looking to the east.
Several Indian bucks, Comanche from the looks of them, sat on horseback not fifty yards from their camp, watching the two men stoically.
Sharp thumbed the brim of his hat up to get a better look at their welcoming committee. “What do you suppose they want.”
“Wal, hopefully they jes want to have a palaver, maybe trade us some goods. I figure If’n they were lookin’ to kill us, we’d already be in the mix, them Comanche don’t mince words when it comes to fightin’.”
Sam walked a short distance from camp and gave them a wave, signaling he would like to talk, “Maruawe,” he greeted in their native language.
The seven Indians rode slowly towards them, their eyes wary. The big buck, who seemed to be the leader of the small group, raised a hand back at Sam, then gestured for them to follow. “You come,” he said, “Meet with chief.”
Sam and Zeb looked at each other, both knowing they really had no other choice but to do as they asked. If they refused it would offend the Comanche, and probably touch off a small war. As the lead buck had already indicated, his chief was somewhere nearby, which meant that the whole damn village was probably close by, too. If they fired off any shots, a war party would be out in force within a few minutes.
Sam looked at Zeb and shrugged, “Shall we go meet the neighbors?”
Grunting as he stood, he arched his back, working the kinks out. “I reckon we ought to. Seems that would be the polite thang to do.”
They quickly finished breaking camp and followed the Comanche east, both praying for the best, and trying to prepare their minds, for the worst.
After a few miles, the village finally came into view. It looked to be roughly two hundred strong. The tee-pee’s were spread out along a small valley floor. A clear stream running beside it, fed into the muddy Washita about a half a mile away. The temporary village was a beehive of activity as people went about their daily chores.
Some of the women were down at the creek bank, washing clothes and pots, while other ones sat scraping stretched out hides to make garments. Dirty little boys with bare chests were chasing each other loudly through the camp, with a small pack of yapping mongrels hot on their heels. The young girls sat dutifully by their mothers, watching the boys wistfully, yearning to join in the fun. Surprisingly, none of the Indians gave Sam and Zeb more than a mere glance as they rode through. Everyone seemed completely relaxed- that went a long way toward making the men feel at ease.
Sam had been in enough war camps in his youth to know when trouble was brewing, the tension in a village would be so thick you’d have a hard time cutting it with a knife.
The two men were led to a large tent in the center of the village. The big buck in the lead slid down to the ground and walked quickly to the opening, pulling back the flap, he spoke to someone inside. A minute later an old man appeared, wrapped in the soft folds of an old buffalo robe, and walked straight towards Sam.
His hair was a steel grey and hung in two long, thick braids which were decorated with strips of fur and feathers. His wizened old face looked like a crab apple that had been left out in the hot sun; baked, browned and shriveled. But his eyes shone bright with life, strength, and intelligence that belyed the mans age.
The two men regarded each other warily.
The old man raised a wrinkly liver spotted hand and crooked an old knarled finger, beckoning him closer.
As Sam ducked to the elders level, the same hand that had beckoned him closer, shot out with amazing speed and smacked him soundly on the cheek.
Momentarily stunned by the action, Sam snarled and glared at the old man as the anger flared up inside him. Then, as he tamped down the flames, a smile slowly crept across his face as recognition set in.
“Buffalo Hump. Good to see you, old friend.”
The old Comanche war chief smirked, “I see you haven’t changed much, White Warrior. Still the hot headed buck of yesterday, although…” The chief’s smirk turned into a wide, mostly toothless, grin. “I think that maybe you have grow taller since we’ve last met.”
Sam smiled down at Buffalo Hump, and clapped him gently on the shoulder, “And I think all those scapes you’ve been in must of shaved a few inches off of you.”
“I-eeh, that is true, that is true.”
Motioning towards Zeb, Sam said, “I’d like you to meet my friend. This is Zeb Tucker, mountain man extrordinare.”
Zeb glared once at Sam, and then shook the old man’s hand looking some what embarrassed. “Nice to meet you.”
Buffalo Hump nodded, then looked to Sam, “What is this ‘extrodinare?”
“I think it means he’s the best. And very famous in the white world.”
The chief raised his eyebrows as he regarded Zeb, “Ah, it is a great honor to have you in my village then.” Turning back towards the big buck that had summoned him, Buffalo Hump spoke in rapid Comanche.
“White warrior, we must talk- alone. Your friend, Extrordinare, will be well taken care of.”
With that, he turned and disappeared back into the tee-pee, expecting Sam to follow.
“Well, Zeb, I guess you’ll have to sit this one out.”
“I reckon I will.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll fill you in later.” Sam knew how much Zeb liked to be in the know. Secrecy drove the man crazy.
Sam ducked through the opening and took a seat across the small fire from Buffalo Hump.
He studied the old man in front of him. The years of running and fighting had taken its toll on the man. The once mighty war chief, that had seemed larger than life when he was younger, was now old and decreped, and steadily declining into his twilight years. It made him feel sad and old himself.
As if the chief had read his mind, he said, “Do not fear old age, White Warrior, for with the passage of time, comes great knowledge. Although my body is weak, my mind is stronger than ever. When I was young, I fought with my strength, and now, I fight with my mind,” he chuckled, “It’s much easier that way. Less painful.”
Sam smiled and nodded his head, but before he could comment, the chief went on.
“Your in trouble White Warrior. That is why I have brought you here.”
“Trouble? What kind of trouble?”
Buffalo Hump smiled seriously, “The female kind.”
“Oh, I see. You’ve heard the stories about the girl, then.”
The chief studied him for a long moment, before talking again. “Yes, I’ve heard the stories, but more than that, I’ve been having visions. I have always relied on our shaman, Neeh-lahn, to guide us with his visions. Usually I am quite blind in that area… except for when it comes to you.”
Sam was puzzled, “I don’t understand.”
“Neither do I, but that is the way of it. For many years now I have had visions where it concerns you, White Warrior.” Buffalo Hump shrugged, “Even though we have not seen each other in many moons, I have seen glimpses of your life.”
Sam looked at the old man skeptically. He knew the Indians had spiritual beliefs and sacred rituals known only to them. Each tribe was different in its views of the spirit world. But could they really see into the future, or know things that they couldn’t possibly know any other way?
“I know that for a time you were a holy man to your people. Before that, you were lost in the dark spirits. They had you by the hand, dragging you down into the darkness- until you were saved by a book.” Buffalo Hump leaned toward him, his eyes intent on Sam’s. “It was no accident the book found you. For many moons your sadness plagued not only you, but me also.” he gestured with his hands as he spoke, “I felt your pain, like a knife in my stomach. I felt your sorrow, ripping at my heart, and I felt the hatred for yourself, like an invisible hand, squeezing at my brain. Your nightmares, were my nightmares, White Warrior, and I suffered as you suffered- lost in the dark world of shame and regret. And… I know why you were there.”
Sam swallowed the large lump that had formed in his throat, threatening to choke him. How did Buffalo Hump know all those things about him? He had spent many years trying to forget about that time in his life, and he had never told a living soul.
His voice, barely above a whisper, asked, “Why?”
The old war chief shook his head sadly, “You brought death to the wrong people. You sent your men to kill innocent people, men, women, and children. The children, it was their screams that haunted your dreams the most.” He made a cradling motion with his arms, “And the woman. She haunted your very soul. I seen her face many times in my dreams, in my nightmares. You remember her. And you tried to drown the memory by drinking.”
Sam’s thoughts took him back to a time he had tried to forget…
They were on the tail end of a two year war against Mexico when a message came over the wire. It said that a renegade band of hostile Apaches were attacking homesteaders outside of the forts. Homes were being burned to the ground, their occupants tortured and murdered, or worse.
A detail was dispatched immediately. Lt. William Bradsford at the lead, and Sam as their guide and tracker, led the thirty man strong detachment, East.
Checking the reports against a map, it was clear that the homesteads that had been hit seemed to spoke out from one general area. The Big Thicket. The renegades were holing up somewhere in the southern part of it, just north of Sour Lake Springs.
The spring had become quite a hot spot for the white people looking to cure their ailments in the mineral laden waters, the only problem was, the Springs were also used by the Indians. Not only for the healing waters, but also for the black sticky pitch that collected along it’s loamy shores.
And almost as a rule, the Whites and the Indians, couldn't share anything. That posed a big problem.
The men rode hard for nearly a week, stopping only when it was necessary to rest their mounts and grab a quick bite for themselves. By the time they reached the town of, Sour Lake, the detachment was exhausted and looking forward to getting some much needed rest.
Sharp left them as they began to make camp, and rode his weary mount on into town, nearly a mile away. He made his way to the sheriff’s office, but found it empty. After asking around, he found out that two more homesteads had been hit in the week it had took them to get there. They had discovered the second one that very morning, not three miles east of town. The sheriff and his deputy had ridden out when they had learned the news.
Sharp hightailed it back to camp to round up the troops, but they weren’t nearly as enthusiastic about the prospect of a fresh trail.
The lieutenant bucked him from the get go. “My men are tired and need to rest. We’ll take up the savages trail in the morning.”
Sharp pointed at the greying sky, “Yeah, and if those clouds get any thicker, it could rain. We’d loose the trail and have to wait for them to hit another homestead. Are you willing to stand by and let them kill more innocent people, just so you and your men can get a few hours of beauty sleep?”
They had stood glaring at each other, until Lt. Bradsford finally turned and commanded his men, “Mount up! We ride in five minutes.”
Two days later, Sam wiggled his way back down from the crest of the knoll until it was safe for him to stand. Walking the rest of the way down the slope, he joined the others.
Sharp nodded, “Yep, their down there, all right.”
The lieutenants features were rigid, his eyes hard. “How many are we talking about.”
“Oh, I’d say twenty, maybe thirty.”
“Your sure it’s them?”
Sharp was already busy loading and inspecting each of his weapons. “I’m sure that’s where their tracks lead. I wont know whether or not their really down there until I go talk to them.”
The lieutenant stared at him in disbelief, “You aren’t seriously thinking of going in there by yourself, are you?”
Sharp flipped the cylinder closed on his .45. “You bet I am. From what I could tell, it aint no war camp. I seen a few squaws and some little ones walking around, could be they have a few renegade bucks in the mix, but, all in all it looks pretty quiet.”
He toed a stirrup and eased himself into the saddle. “Have your men line up on the ridge. If we give them a show of force, they’ll be less likely to get any funny notions.” Sharp gigged his mount forward as the lieutenant shouted orders to the troops. Turning in the saddle as he crested the hill, he warned, “Just keep everything nice and quiet, unless I give you the signal.”
Lt. Bradsford frowned, “What signal would that be?”
Sharp grinned, “You ever hear the sounds of all hell breaking loose? Cause that’d be it.”
He rode slowly down the slope to the meadow floor. Already he could see that he had caught the villagers attention. Mothers were busy shooing their young’uns into tents while the men gathered, watching the approaching strangers warily, their heads bent in whispered conversation.
About fifty feet from the village, Sharp drew up on the reins and waited. After a minutes discussion, an elderly man, the Chief, walked towards him, flanked on each side by two armed braves.
After a long discussion, which involved a lot of gesturing and angery shouts from the Apache, Sharp rode back up the hill toward the awaiting soldiers.
The lieutenant came forward and met him half way. “What did you find out?”
“According to the chief, the renegades we’re looking for were here earlier. They rode into the camp this morning, demanding food and shelter, and when the chief denied their request they looted and ransacked the village before taking off with one of the chief’s daughters.”
The lieutenant listened, but his eyes were busy scanning the village below. After Sharp finished his account, he asked, “And you believe them?”
Sharp shrugged his shoulders, “Only one way to find out, I think we should cut their trail and see where it leads us.”
Bradsford shook his head, “Well, I for one, don’t believe them. I think they’re smart enough not to tell you, and that trail you talked about, is probably a trap. I’m sure they've got some young, crazy warriors, waiting somewhere to take us out.”
Sharp frowned. He didn’t like the lieutenants tone or demeaner. “So, what do you aim to do?”
As if reaching an important decision, the lieutenant sat up straight, squaring his shoulders, “I’m going to take my men down there and search that camp.”
Sharp glared at him in disbelief, “Well that’d be the dumbest damn idea you’ve come up with so far. I thought you were smarter than that, Lieutenant
“Excuse me?” Bradford asked incredibly.
“You heard me.” Sharp pointed to the camp, “I don’t reckon those people down there are going to like having their village ransacked for the second time today. We need to find the renegades trail and run them down before they get to far. From the sounds of it, we’re only a couple of hours behind them, so if we shake a leg, we might just catch up.”
“No, it’s out of the question. Me and my men will handle those down there.” Keeping the reigns tight and squeezing with his heels, the lieutenant sent his horse into a nervous prance. “I don’t believe we will be requiring your services any longer. Your dismissed, Mr. Sharp.”
Sharp shook his head, his features cut in granite, as he yelled at the lieutenants back as he advanced up the hill towards his troops, “Don’t be an idiot. You go riding in there, your going to start a war!”
Bradsford shouted behind him, “Then it will be a war we will win!”
Sharp had watched in disgust as the cocky lieutenant rallied his troop and advanced down the hill. The man’s stupidity dumbfounded him. Only an idiot would take his men into that stirred up bee’s nest down yonder. But there was nothing Sharp could do, except sit by and watch. He had been dismissed.
A loud clap pulled Sam back to the present.
Buffalo Hump still sat across from him, an impatient look etched upon his ancient features. “The past, is what it is, White Warrior. There is nothing you or I can do to change it. It is time to let those demons lie, because there is a new one you must face now.” Buffalo Hump leaned across the fire, his obsidian eyes blazing with urgency. “And this time, White Warrior, you must not fail.”
Sharp strode across the camp, his eyes searching out Zeb. After talking to one squaw, he was lead to the tent of another. He whipped back the flap, ready to enter, then stopped.
Zeb lay on his stomach atop a pile of buffalo robes, stripped to the waist, a naked Comanche woman knelt beside him, massaging his shoulders. Both stared at him, frozen.
“Ten minutes, Zeb, then I’m riding out.”
Sam let the flap fall, shutting out the sounds of Zeb’s protest.
He didn’t have time to listen to Zeb’s mouth, he had more important and pressing things to worry about.
Like the fate of them all...
Message from the author:
Thank you for reading Part 1 of THE DAUGHTER.
I hope you enjoyed reading it, as much I enjoyed writing it.
Part 2 is finally FINISHED!!And available on my profile page.
Sam and Zeb certainly have their work cut out for them, as big things are heading their way. And as for 'Angel'...
Well... I'm afraid, that only time will tell.
Please leave a comment/feedback on your way out- let me know what you think of the book so far.
Publication Date: 07-22-2010
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