Anthrocide

Anthrocide.net is the official website for D.L. Hamilton, author of several Christian novels and essays.

The Kentonsville Town Council

Jake stared at the horizon behind them for a good ten minutes. No dust. No one coming. No one following.

The ever-fidgety Chet was pacing his horse, up a few steps then back to the others then ahead again. It was as if he was trying to illustrate to Jake what moving forward meant. He could not abide just waiting around. He had asked twice if Jake was ready to go. The ominous “hush up” he had received in reply the second time made it plain there was to be no third.

Not that Chet was afraid of Jake, exactly. He was not afraid of anybody. His lightning-quick draw and pinpoint accuracy saw to that. He was never intimidated; he was the intimidator. He loved the sport in bullying some poor sap until one of two things happened. Either the fool made some threatening move with gun or fist and wound up dead, or used those wonderful words Chet loved so well. Words of cowardice; words that always meant, “You are the master, I am your patsy.” That was not what they said but it was what they meant. What they actually said was, “Look, I don’t want no trouble, mister.” Every time he heard some guy say that, it reinforced his position of invincibility. It always brought a smile of deepest satisfaction to his face. The only thing on earth that could top it was if the guy saying it was with some gal. That, thought Chet, means somewhere deep inside her she knows that I’m more of a man than the yellow-belly she’s with—and secretly wishes she was with me. Chet knew that if it ever came to a showdown he would pump three shots into Jake before the latter’s gun cleared leather. So, no, he was not afraid of Jake. Not exactly.

But Jake called the shots and whether Chet agreed or not he never countered him. Jake was too crafty, too calculating. He was always five steps ahead in planning what they would do and always ready for any contingency. Jake could not outshoot him, but he was certain that if Jake ever took a notion to kill him it would happen—while Chet was asleep likely as not. When he had first become acquainted with Jake, a fellow inmate named Dawkins had appeared to be Jake’s close friend. But, as Dawkins had no skills that would assist Jake’s escape plans, he had not been invited to join them. The day before the breakout, Dawkins threatened to blow the whistle unless he was included. Jake gave-in to the threat seemingly with no ill will. Then, when they were scarcely outside the prison walls, Jake had slit Dawkins’ throat from behind with a shard of broken glass leaving him writhing and strangling to death in his own blood. The obvious message: Nobody threatens Jake Cummings and nobody better cross him either.

So, Jake had companions but not friends. He was with Chet and Jesse because they were of use to him. Nothing more. They, of course, were with Jake for the same reason. He had masterminded the escape and would be clever enough to get them out of the reach of the law. Once that was done, the three would part company—assuming none of them had been killed by the others first. For the present they were companions with a common goal. That kept them civil to one another and able to work as a unit.

Actually, they were quite a formidable unit. Chet had entertained ideas of them sticking together as the terrors of the Territory. No one would be able to withstand them; most would be too afraid to try. They could have their way with the yokels all through these parts taking whatever they wanted, doing whatever they wanted. But Jake was too much of a loner and Jesse had a whole different agenda.
Where the battle-scarred Jake would have looked at least 60 were it not for the complete absence of gray in his black hair and beard, and the weather-beaten Chet looked every minute of his 40 years, Jesse looked like everyone’s kid brother. Sandy-haired and baby-faced he fancied himself a real ladies’ man. Truth be told, Chet was certain that before it was over some woman would be Jesse’s undoing. The kid was obsessed with anything in a dress and rarely took no for an answer. He would spend their brief rest stops lifting boulders and setting them down again, which seemed crazy to Jake and Chet. When they had asked him why, he had removed his shirt and flexed his bulging muscles.

“Show me a gal that won’t slobber all over herself to wrap her arms around this body, huh?” he had said. Chet had shaken his head and chuckled. Jake had squinted one eye and glared his disapproval causing Jesse to put his shirt back on. Nonetheless, his brute strength had proven invaluable during their escape. Two guards with quietly busted necks—courtesy of Jesse’s bare hands—had bought them valuable time that blaring pistols would not have allowed.

“Okay,” growled Jake finally. “They’s nothin’ coming. Guess we’re clear for now.”
He squinted at the sun off to the west. “Not more’n an hour of daylight left. We better find a place to camp. Down in that ravine, yonder. It’ll hide our campfire case anybody comes along.”

Chet grimaced that they were not going to push ahead more. If they kept at it, in a few days they could be across the border. At this rate it would take more than a week. Of course, he had more at stake than the other two. Unlike them he had been awaiting execution for murder. The sooner he got out of the reach of the law the better. Jesse had been sentenced to 20 years for second-degree murder. He had beaten a man to death in a fist fight—over a girl, of course. As Jesse told the story, witnesses claimed he had pummeled the victim with over a dozen punches to the head after he was already unconscious. Only the fact that it had started as a “fair” fight between the men kept him out of the hangman’s noose. Neither Chet nor Jesse knew why Jake had been imprisoned or what his sentence was. Only that no man was ever so desperate to get out.

“You sure we shouldn’t go some after dark, Jake?” asked Chet tentatively. “If anybody’s huntin’ us they won’t figure on that, so it’d put a whole ‘nother hour or more between us and them. ‘Sides, we ain’t got nothin’ to eat for supper. There’s a town up ahead and—”

A squint-eyed glare from Jake told Chet he had talked enough. The two stared at each other for several seconds before Jake’s features softened a bit. “You good enough with that pistol to kill one of them jackrabbits yonder?”

Chet’s face twitched several times into a smirk. He turned his horse slowly toward two large buck rabbits at the edge of a clump of brush some 50 yards away. His pistol was still in the holster. The horse drew a few steps closer to them when the closest rabbit bolted. One leap and it was dead before it landed. For good measure Chet killed the second an instant later before it could dash into the brush for cover. He brought the two by the ears back to Jake, each with a hole directly through its heart.

“Man oh man,” shouted Jesse. “That’s some shootin’. Hoo-wee! I ain’t never seen anybody that fast and that dead-center. You gotta teach me that.”

“Can’t be taught,” mumbled Chet as he looked pridefully off toward the horizon. “You just gotta have talent for it.”

“You ever see shootin’ like that, Jake?” asked Jesse.

Jake grinned a little. “Now let’s git us a fire goin’ and eat them critters,” came his low, raspy voice.

While the two skinned carcasses roasted on a makeshift spit, Jake handed each man a small strip of jerky made with an overabundance of pepper. The spicy meat would make them feel fuller than the meager meal could and would compensate for the unseasoned rabbit. Each drank from his canteen.

“Y’know, Jake,” said Chet, “we got a ways a’ ridin’ to go yet till we reach the border. We’re going to need some supplies. We can’t count on finding jackrabbits handy every time we got to eat. Besides, we ain’t even got coffee or nothin’. There was a sign a ways back about some town up ahead somewhere. Kentonburg or Kentonville or something; it can’t be much of a town, I never even heard of it. Probably ain’t got a sheriff or even a telegraph office. We could load up some supplies and be on our way ‘fore anybody even knew we’d been there.”

Jesse brightened. “Yeah, maybe they got a general store where we could get us a pan and a side of bacon and some biscuit fixin’s. Who knows? It might be run by a lonely young gal stuck out here in the middle of nowhere pining away to meet a real man.” Jesse gave a short laugh then caught a severe look from Chet. He was ruining Chet’s chances of persuading Jake. Assaulting some gal would not help them remain anonymous, something Chet was sure Jake wanted.

“We ain’t going to spend enough time there for anything like that,” said Chet, his mouth twitching. “Just get what we need and move on; nothing suspicious.” He looked down at the canteen with the Confederacy’s markings on it from last decade’s war, half full of tepid water. “Just so’s we get some grub and coffee.”

Jake, who had appeared not to be listening, rubbed his stubble. “Coffee?” he growled. Chet started to make a defense when Jake continued. “I need me a shot of rye whiskey.”

A smile gradually twitched itself onto Chet’s face. “Yeah,” he said laughing. “Yeah, that too, a good shot or two to hold us over, right Jesse?”

Jesse’s eyes brightened at the possibilities. “Yeah. They’re bound to have a saloon. Where else are these cow-farmers going to clear the sod out of their throats?” He got more excited. “There might even be a little saloon gal or two. Hey, Chet, how far you reckon it is to this here Kentonburg?”

“Can’t rightly say. Sign didn’t say how far, just said ‘To Kentonburg.’ Tell you one thing, though. This must not be the main road into town. We ain’t seen another soul on this road all day.” The others nodded. Chet tried not to look too excited. He had gotten his way and they were going to stop in town. But it would be more than just a quiet trip to the general store and a couple of quick belts at a saloon. Despite their desire to keep under cover, people would know they had arrived. They would have to because, Chet knew, he and his cohorts would have their way with this Kentonburg or whatever it was. They did not have one cent among them so they would either steal what they wanted or, more likely, take it by force. These Territory farmers would try to stop them and the three outlaws would leave a bunch of grieving widow-women in their wake—at least one of whom would have been ravaged by Jesse in all probability.

“Them rabbits about done?” said Jake.

********************

It was not much after sunup when Tad Peterson pulled the buckboard up in front of the Kentonsville Mercantile. He needed fence-building materials for a corral to keep his two newest colts from wandering off. Of course, he did not need to get them this early. There was another reason for that.
He walked across the dusty street at an angle from the Mercantile to the Stagecoach Inn. He could smell biscuits baking before he even reached the door. But as he entered, it was not the aroma of food or even fresh coffee that was the focus of his attention.

“Mornin’ Tad,” said Dinah with feigned surprise. “Awful early for you to be here, ain’t it? A body’d think there was something special you’re here to see. That or you smelled my biscuits a-cookin’.”

The young man laughed. “Phooey on your biscuits, I’ll show you why I’m here.” With that he reached a big arm around her tiny waist and pulled her to him.

“Tad,” she cautioned in a stage whisper. “One of the guests might be coming down.” She put her hands on his chest but made no real effort to push him away. He looked off toward the stairway that led up to the rooms from the little combination restaurant and hotel lobby.

“It’s clear,” he whispered. Then he pulled her to him and kissed her quickly.

As soon as they parted she looked behind her conspiratorially and then did push him away gently. “Now you come sit yourself down over here and I’ll bring you some coffee.” She guided him to the table nearest the kitchen and plopped him in a chair, then stuck her nose up in mock petulance. “‘Sides, I got no time for such foolishness; too much work to do.”

He grabbed her arm and stopped her, looking deeply into her smiling, coal-black eyes. Given her long, silky hair of the same color one could almost surmise that she was part Cherokee. That is, except for her fair skin. In this scorched climate most women’s skin weathered and tanned till it looked like saddle leather. But, although by no means a homebody, Dinah’s was delicately white with a hint of natural blush. Contrasted with her black hair and eyes it made her a young lady of stunning beauty.

“Dinah,” he moaned. “Why do I have to wait three more weeks yet before we can get married? Can’t we just do it Sunday?”

“Tad Peterson I’ve told you a dozen times. It’s because the preacher won’t be back from Abilene till week after next.”

“But I hear there’s a preacher upstairs; came in on the stage. Why can’t he do it?”

“He ain’t going to be here Sunday; he’s leaving tomorrow.” She got a more serious look. “‘Sides, there’s the wedding dress, too. Seein’ as how Ma died in the fire when I was a baby, I got no dress handed-down to me and nobody to sew one for me. So, I’m having to make my own. Even with Mrs. Stroud’s help it’ll still take some doing.” She put her hand on her hip and wagged her finger in his face. “And it ain’t going to get done by Sunday.” She smiled and tenderly stroked his hair. “You’ll just have to be patient,” she said softly. “Waitin’ for something you really want makes it that much better when it gets here anyway.”

“Oh, Dinah, it don’t need to get no better.” He sat her lightly in his lap. “I just think sometimes I’m gonna perish from wanting us to start our lives together. It’s like each day don’t mean nothin’ by itself, only that it’s one day closer to us belonging to each other forever.”

“I know,” she sympathized. “I feel the same way most of the time—like I’m going to bust open like one of them popcorns on a fire if that wedding day don’t hurry up and get here. But it’ll get here, and when it does we’ll be the happiest people in the territory.”

They kissed again then she jumped up. As she did he grabbed her by the apron but she pulled it out of his hands.

“Nope,” she said. “No more time for that. Got guests that’ll be wanting their breakfast and I imagine you’d like some eggs and grits too, right? I got to get back to work.”

As if on cue the handful of guests at the inn began gathering in the dining room. Kentonsville was in the middle of farm and ranch country (or as the more cynical put it, the middle of nowhere) with no other industry to speak of. But it happened to be at the crossroads of the southwest-northeast stagecoach route that terminated in St. Louis and the north-south route through Abilene. It was a transfer point for some passengers and that kept a small but continual influx of guests at the inn as they waited anywhere from overnight to as much as three days to catch their connecting coach. There was also a road that entered town from the northwest but since the Wyoming cattle drives no longer came this way it was seldom used.

The guests there awaiting their connections exchanged pleasantries and arranged themselves at tables in the dining room. At the table to the right of the outside door sat a middle-aged couple whose travel was necessitated by the death of the woman’s mother, almost as beloved by her son-in-law as by her own daughter. Hence, the long, rough trip was made even less palatable by the pain and loss that would reach its pinnacle upon their arrival at their destination. The woman, Abigail Post, had soft chestnut hair and blue eyes that might have made her pretty were it not for her perpetual frown of worry. Her husband Mitchell’s graying temples had seemingly become more pronounced since the trip had started as he was continuously aflutter over how to soothe his wife’s grief.

Sitting with them was a meticulously groomed aspiring preacher named Charles Redden scarcely 25 years of age on his way to his first ministry: circuit preaching for a group of farming communities near Springfield. He had endeared himself to the couple by offering God’s comfort in their time of emptiness. The experience had been a blessing for him as well. He had quickly come to realize that people suffering over the death of a loved one did not need platitudes about how much better-off the deceased was or how God used difficulties to toughen His people up or discipline them. Initially he had not really known what to say except that the dear departed must have been a wonderful person for her passing to bring such emotion. Then, his loss for words being perceived as wisdom beyond his years, he listened intently as mile after mile of delightful memories were shared by the couple. They even had managed an occasional smile or chuckle. He had restricted his comments to a few prayers for God’s strength and comfort for the couple and to note that, having heard such stories, he truly wished he had known her. He was astute enough to grasp through this experience that grieving people did not want answers—indeed it was plain to all that there were no satisfactory answers. They just needed someone to listen, someone to understand, someone to care, and the assurance that God’s love remained. Such a discovery at the outset of his ministry could only prove invaluable as his distant, rural destination would undoubtedly have its share of deaths attended by despondent loved-ones. For all that, though, there was a question that Abigail asked repeatedly for which Charles truly wished he had an answer. Why did her generous, kindhearted, God-fearing mother die so soon while so many vile, wicked people continued to thrive and plague their fellow men?

At the table nearest the other side of the door there was a sweet, silver-haired matron named Penelope Holmes. She was escorting her seven- and nine-year-old granddaughters back to their parents after a summer-long visit. The girls were as well-mannered as their ages would allow and were rewarded with their grandmother’s doting smile and general joy of life. She engaged in a near-continuous dialog with the talkative children but never once did her mind wander or did she disregard a single word from them, no matter how childish the prattle. If one could neither see nor hear the three in conversation but only read a transcript of it, the natural conclusion would have been that they were all of about the same age. Her son had often teasingly accused her of never having grown up. The girls delighted in having an adult so interested in their every word—as if they were not just kids but were important. For her part, being with the girls served to further revitalize her youthful spirit. Though she was well along in years her only obvious wrinkles were the laugh lines around her eyes.

The inn, which was both the only hotel and the only restaurant in town, only ever served one breakfast: eggs, grits, ham, and biscuits with butter and sorghum molasses. But, lack of variety notwithstanding, even the pickiest eaters raved about Dinah’s cooking. She had run the place by herself as desk clerk, maid, cook, waitress—whatever needed doing—ever since her father had died suddenly two years before. The very afternoon before Tad had proposed to her, an Irishman named Patrick O’Rourke, a coach passenger, had shown an inordinate amount of interest in the place. He quizzed her on how much it brought in, how much work it took to keep it running, and how accepting the town would be of immigrants. Liking her answers, he offered to buy the inn from her. He said he’d had enough of factory work in the crowded city and, having come into a small inheritance from a distant relative in Dublin, he wanted to bring his family out to the wide-open spaces. His offer was near the low end of being a “fair price” but truthfully Dinah had been longing for someone to take the responsibility and demands of the place off her hands. That became even more important when the next day Tad asked her to be his wife. He told her that, based on prayer and faith alone he had built a new home for them out on his and his brother’s spread southeast of town. She and Tad were convinced that the offer coming out of the blue was no mere coincidence but was God’s hand at work arranging their future together. Mr. O’Rourke had made a sizable cash down payment and left to bring his family back by the end of the month—a few days before Tad and Dinah’s wedding date. Yes, it would not be for much longer that she would have to cook a dozen or so breakfasts every morning but, for the present, she needed to get busy.

********************

The terrain ahead was flat almost to the horizon, devoid of the rolling hills the three had seen the day before. Beyond where the wagon ruts in the road merged into a single line due to the distance stood a tiny clump of something too squared-off to be a grove of trees. It was Kentonsville.

“Wonder if they got a bank in this burg,” said Chet.

“Wonder if they got a cathouse,” said Jesse. “We could take the money from the one and spend it in the other!” He laughed loudly.

Chet half grinned and shook his head. “You rob a bank and then, ‘stead of gettin’ away you go visit a cathouse, you’ll wind up back where there ain’t no women!”

“No.” It was Jake’s voice—cold, stern, final. “I ain’t never going back to jail. Never. If they want to kill me, so be it, but I ain’t never going to be behind bars again. Not never.”

It was the most impassioned oration either of the other two had ever heard from Jake.
Chet twitched his face nervously. “Heh, kill you? They’d be the ones kilt more like.”

“‘At’s right, Jake,” said Jesse. “Betwixt the three of us I don’t reckon nobody’s going to be puttin’ us in no jail; if that place has even got one. Might be needin’ a bigger cemetery, though, if they tried any such foolishness.

“Looka there,” Jesse said pointing at a ranch house in the distance off to their left.
“Ain’t nothing but plow-farmers and cow-ropers around here anyhow. I’m sorta hoping they do try something to rile us. I’m tired a’ being chased. ‘Bout time we showed folks who’s in charge. Ain’t that right, Jake?”

When Jake gave no answer, Chet twitched his face into a spasmodic grin. “Right enough, Junior.” The wildness of his eyes and his twitching grin almost convinced Jesse that Chet was about to leap from his horse, tear off his clothes, and go raving and shrieking into the distance.

Instead he voiced the performance being staged in his tortured mind. “Then you can go find you a pretty gal and take her right off her beau’s arm. And when he starts to be a hero, I’ll show him my gun barrel.”

Chet’s pistol was drawn so quickly and so smoothly that a person could have debated whether Chet’s arm had even moved or if it were some kind of magician’s trick. Chet gave a short, hysterically high-pitched laugh, then said, “Then the hero says, ‘Listen mister, we don’t want no trouble.’ A-ain’t that great? That means he’s surrendering; begging, ‘Take my gal and do with her what you will only just don’t kill me.’”

The words hung there with Jesse waiting for the punch line. When none came, he asked, “Then what?”

Chet glared at him wild-eyed as a grin twitched across his face. “Then we kill him anyhow.”

He laughed insanely for a moment. “‘Course, you do what you want with the gal. ‘N me too. Maybe even old Jake there if he’s a mind to.”

“‘Et’s enough!” ordered Jake. “We survive long’s we keep our wits. Fancyin’ on about such makes you feeble so’s you start making mistakes. ‘N that gets you caught.” He clearly did not need to reprise his feelings about getting captured.

They pressed on in silence until they reached the outskirts of the tiny town.

“Looka there,” mumbled Jesse uneasily. The very first building they saw was not to their liking. It was not much bigger than an outbuilding made of rough stone, but it had two tiny barred windows and a heavily bolted door.

“Humph,” grunted Chet. “Don’t look like such a much. Probably for cow-ropers that gets a little too much Saturday night in ‘em. ‘Sides, don’t matter if there ain’t nobody alive to put you in it.” He twitched a grin and winked at Jesse who smiled back and seemed to relax a bit.

It was a good quarter of a mile to the next group of buildings, the actual center of town. Along the road they were on were only some houses and a smithy until they reached the intersection of the roads that defined the town. Most of the businesses ran along the northeast road that headed toward St. Louis. Prominent were the Stagecoach Inn, the only two-story building in town, and across from it the Kentonsville Mercantile, the largest building overall. The Mercantile was on the corner with a tiny building next to it with simply the word Saloon over the door, as if the town were embarrassed to have one. The Stagecoach Inn was flanked on one side by the Building and Loan and on the other by the Wells Fargo stagecoach depot itself. At the far end of the street they could see a modest church steeple and across from it the Post Office with the tell-tale wire leading to a pole indicating a telegraph office.

In his typical well-studied manner, Jake sat motionless atop his horse for several long minutes taking it all in. It was still very early so there were few people about and very little activity.

“Think we should take this Building and Loan first?” asked Chet, antsy to do something besides standing still. “Bet they got cash money on hand.”

Jake turned to him and curled his lip the way one does when watching a dog vomit. “They ain’t even open yit.”

Chet’s face flinched a dozen different ways at once. He let out an exasperated sigh. “Well then, what are we going to do?”

Jake deliberately stared up and down the street a good minute before he spoke, as if purposefully bringing Chet to his maximum irritation point.

“Okay,” he said authoritatively. “First we’re going to go into that inn and have some grub and coffee. Jesse, you get finished first and while Chet and me’s still eating go down yonder and rip down that telegraph wire. If anybody raises a ruckus kill ‘em quiet-like the way you know how. I got no problem killing folks what needs it, but I’d sooner not tip our hands till we get what we come for.”

Jesse grinned with pride at being considered so trustworthy for the “boss.”

“A bit after Jesse leaves, I’ll head over to that general store there and get us some supplies. Chet, you just have yourself some more coffee like as if you was going to pay for all of us. Jesse when you’re through at the telegraph, come help me load the horses. Chet, keep an eye out and when you see Jesse over there, send everybody in that inn up to the top floor and tell ‘em you’ll kill anybody that comes back down or looks out a window for the next ten minutes. Anybody gives you grief, you kill ‘em. Then get over to the general store and join us. If the owner squawks, put a bullet in him. Oh, and if he ain’t got any rye whiskey Chet you go get some from that saloon—same rules. Then we’ll hightail it out of town on the southbound road. Now, everybody clear?”

“Yep,” said the others.

“We’ll hitch our horses by the store there,” said Jake.

“Jake, there’s a buckboard there by the store,” said Jesse, trying to help with the planning. “Reckon we could get plenty of supplies on it.”

Chet expected Jake to dress Jesse down but good. Instead he just shook his head.
“Too slow,” said Jake. “No good with the law or a posse on our tails.”

They hitched the horses beside Tad’s buckboard and walked across to the inn. Their olfactories were treated to the aroma of ham, coffee and biscuits as they opened the door. Dinah was just setting plates of food in front of Penelope and the girls.

“Mornin’, gentlemen,” said Dinah, the joyfulness of her greeting waning as she got a better look at the dour, unkempt gunmen. “Just have yourselves a seat. I’ll be with you quick ‘s I can.”

Their preferred tables—those nearest the door—already taken, they sat at the table one over from where Tad sat next to the kitchen. As they sat, a grinning Jesse could barely navigate his way to a chair, his eyes glued to the lovely Dinah, something not missed by her or by Tad.

Remaining upbeat despite her sense of foreboding, she brought cups for the three and began filling them from a huge metal coffee pot.

“Ham, eggs, and grits okay?” she asked.

Chet, scanning the room, merely nodded while Jake grunted an okay. Jesse was about to crawl out of his skin.

“Well now, little lady, I reckon I’d like anything you got to offer,” said Jesse as he stroked his hand down the folds of her skirt. Dinah, who might well have been tempted to pour the boiling coffee onto his head, instead brushed her skirt away from his hand and stepped away.

“I’ll bring y’all’s food once I get these other folks taken care of. It’ll just be a few minutes.”

As she headed back toward the kitchen she exchanged glances with Tad’s smoldering eyes and, with a furrowed brow and a shake of her head, begged him to let it be.

In record time she brought breakfasts for the Post’s and Rev. Redden. As she rushed Tad’s out to him a lock of her hair fell across her eyes. She brushed it back with the back of her hand and called to the other table, “I’ll have y’all’s next.”

“Well, now, little lady looks like you’re a-working way too hard,” said Jesse with a lecherous grin. “I imagine you could use some extra hands out there in the kitchen. And I can put my hands anywhere you’d like.”

Tad jumped to his feet. “That’s enough! You have crossed the line, sir! I don’t know how y’all treat ladies wherever you’re from, but hereabouts we behave like gentlemen. You will apologize to Miss Dinah at once or I’ll have my satisfaction.”

Jesse stood with a gleeful look. “Hear that boys? This here cow-farmer is a-wantin’ to tussle. Just what I ‘uz a-hopin’ for. So tell me, cow-farmer, is she yourn or are you just aiming to defend the fair lady?”

“Both, I reckon.” Tad was a good five inches taller than Jesse but clearly nowhere near as muscular. Plus, he had not been in a fistfight since he was a schoolboy. “She’s to be my wife, but I’ll not sit by while a ruffian the likes a’ you insults any lady.”

“Nor will I!” said Charles snapping to attention.

Jesse’s eyes and his grin widened. “Now, preacher-man, don’t go thinking I won’t whup you without a shred a’ mercy just ‘cause you got that backward collar on.”

“Then you’ll have to contend with me, too, sir,” added Mitchell, also rising.

“Well now,” said an eager Jesse. “Three of you, eh? That suits me real fine.” He unbuttoned his shirt cuffs and began rolling up a sleeve.

“Jesse,” commanded Jake. “Not yit. Jest set and eat like we agreed.”

“Aw, but Jake, this’ll be fun. And when I get done with ‘em there’ll be two gals for us.” He leered at Abigail.

Tad stepped toward Jesse, but Dinah grabbed him. “Tad! I don’t want no fighting in here a-bustin’ things up. Got to keep it presentable so’s it’ll sell. Just sit and I’ll get their food and be rid of them.”

She looked over at Charles and Mitchell. “You fellas, too. I been talked to a lot worse. No use a-startin’ a brawl in here.”

“Dinah, this ain’t for you to decide,” said Tad more sternly than she had ever heard him speak to her. His eyes never left Jesse and he started forward again.

“Jesse,” barked Jake. “I told you to set!”

Chet sprang up and his gun materialized in his hand. He wore a twitchy grin. “I reckon they is too many people a-standin’ up in here. I suggest ever-body just ease back into your chairs. Trying to be a hero is a good way for a feller to get hisself kilt.”

All three of Jesse’s opponents stared at Chet’s pistol.

“You talk pretty brave with that gun in your hand,” said Tad. “Folks don’t walk around Kentonsville wearing sidearms. You going to shoot unarmed men down in cold blood?”

“Without no hesitation,” said Chet gleefully. “And if y’all don’t quit standing there you’ll find out firsthand. Now sit yourselves down.” The wild-eyed look on his flinching face quickly convinced everyone he was indeed as menacing as he seemed. He clapped Jesse on the shoulder. “You, too, Junior. There’ll be time later. For now, do like Jake says.”

The four men sat in unison, then Chet did, too, his gun back in the holster. Dinah stormed off to the kitchen to prepare three more plates. The reference to there being time later had registered clearly on the faces of her and the others.

The girls, who had been holding their breaths in shock and fear, now looked at Penelope and began to tear-up. Penelope stood up and took each of her granddaughters by the hand.

Instantly there was a metallic click and she turned to see Chet pointing his pistol at them.

“What do y’all think you’re doing?” Chet asked.

Penelope’s face showed no expression. “I’m leaving with my two granddaughters. If you’ve a mind to shoot an old woman and two little girls in the back, then go right ahead. But I will not let them sit in a place where cowards wave guns around.” With that she turned to leave.

“Hold it,” ordered Jake.

Penelope paused and looked back, clearly determined to do as she had said.

“Okay,” said Jake. “You can go, but not outside. You got a room upstairs?”

She nodded.

“Front by the street or back?”

“Back. It’s Room 3.”

“Go on up there then,” said Jake. “But don’t try sneakin’ out or nothin’.

The grandmother and girls turned and headed up the stairs as Chet once again holstered his gun and sat.

“And don’t none of the rest of you think of trying anything like that. Nobody leaves this room till…” Jake thought and chose his words carefully. “Till all of us is done eatin’.”

“Reckon I better go see what that little filly is doing so’s she don’t run out a back door or something,” said Jesse standing. Tad also stood immediately and for a moment it looked as if the earlier scene would repeat itself.

However, at that moment Dinah came out with their plates and distributed them, being careful to stand between Chet and Jake putting the table between her and Jesse’s roaming hands. It did not, however deter his eyes which never left her nor ceased undressing her.

To remove herself from his leer she headed back toward the kitchen announcing, “I’ll get everybody some more coffee.”

An instant later she reappeared with the large metal coffee pot and began pouring for Tad when the front door opened. A squat older man in a pin-striped suit entered noisily, a shock of white hair revealed as he removed his hat.

“Morning, Dinah. I’m headed over to Sweetwater so I thought I’d get some coffee ‘fore I left.” He headed toward the table that Penelope had vacated as Chet’s hand instinctively found his gun.

Dinah’s eyes widened and she licked her lips thinking how to react. “I’m sorry, Farley,” she said too loudly. “I’m all out of coffee.” She waved the coffee pot back and forth as if illustrating it was empty. “I was just pouring the last dregs out.”

There was a silent pause with all eyes on Farley, and with no one eating or drinking, the tension in the air was palpable.

“Well,” he said good-naturedly as if trying to calm the room, “I’m not in such a hurry I can’t wait till you make some more.”

“Th-that’s just it,” said Dinah, half-shouting, “there ain’t no more. I’m plumb out. Don’t know why I was so foolish as to let that happen.”

His eyes surveyed the room suspiciously. “Would you like me to go over to the Mercantile and get you some?”

“No!” She forced herself to speak calmer. “I-I have a list for Tad to take over there shortly.”

Farley lifted an eyebrow and reversed himself back toward the door. “Oh. Okay. Tad, here you’re not even married yet and sounds like she’s already gettin’ you henpecked.”

Tad gave an obviously forced grin. “Yeah, reckon so.”

Farley hesitated a beat waiting for some further comment but was met with only thick silence.

“Guess I’ll head on over to Sweetwater then.”

“Oh, one thing,” said Tad as Chet and the others snapped their heads around redirecting their stares at him—stares full of warning. “The mayor wanted me to tell you there was to be a meetin’ of the town council soon as possible.”

Farley, hand on the doorknob, turned with both eyebrows raised. “The mayor did?” He gave a facial shrug. “Hmm. Okay I’ll see to it ‘fore I leave.

“Ladies,” he said replacing his hat, and exited.

“Reckon I ought to go after him?” asked Chet.

Jake thought for a long moment then shook his head. “Nope. We’ll stay with the plan.”

At the reference to “the plan” Abigail gripped her husband’s hand tighter and her perpetual look of worry was multiplied tenfold. Charles, noticing this, spoke up so all could hear.

“Mrs. Post, since we have gotten acquainted you have asked me one question several times in the wake of your dear mother’s passing. And it is a question that, till now, I have been hard-pressed to answer. But I believe I can now make an attempt.

“Your question has been why a wonderful, saintly, kindhearted woman such as your mother would be taken from this world while evil, low-down scoundrels—like these desperadoes here—are allowed to live and make life miserable for other folks.”

Chet and Jesse exchanged sardonic glances while Jake just glared unbridled hatred toward Charles.

“And, now, just why might that be?” asked Jesse with a wider grin.

“Love,” said Charles simply. There was an extended pause as he sipped his coffee casually.

Never good at waiting, Chet could bear it no longer. “What?”

“Love. God’s love. It’s because of God’s love in two different ways. See, Mrs. Post here had a dearly beloved, God-fearing Christian mother. Her passing is deeply regretted by all who knew her and will miss her. But she, herself, is in the most wonderful, glorious place there will ever be. She is, even now, rejoicing in the warm comfort of her loving Savior. Tears, pain, sorrow, disappointment, loss, and unhappiness are all forgotten. She raised a family in the Lord, showed Christ’s love to many, many people. She had fought the good fight and finished the race. Now she’s home.

“But as for you desperadoes, God shows His love for you by letting you live. Not so’s you can bring pain and fear to others. But every sunrise He gives you is one more chance for you to accept the grace, mercy, and forgiveness that can be yours if you turn to His Son. See, He lets you live another day, another hour, that you might come to know Him and, at last, really live.”

Jesse flashed a sardonic grin at Chet. Chet, however, was transfixed on Charles. Jake’s eyes were lowered, his countenance softened.

“Well now,” Jesse half-shouted, “that there was a right nice sermon, preacher-man. Too bad we ain’t got a pump organ we could sing us some Bible hymns. Right, Chet?”

Chet gave a thoughtful snort. “Yeah, too bad it ain’t Sunday,” he said halfheartedly.

Jake seemed to snap out of his reverie. “Jesse, you ‘bout done eatin’? You got a chore to do if you remember.”

“Yeah, but first I’m going to have something sweet—kinda dessert-like.” He leered at Dinah. “And I ain’t never seen anything as sweet as you little darling.”

The tension in the room went off the charts but before Tad could respond the door opened and four wranglers strode in noisily and sat at the table Penelope had previously occupied. They all carried bedrolls or saddlebags.

“Mornin’ Dinah,” said one as they all doffed their hats.

“Got some coffee for us?” said another.

“Need me some of them grits,” said a third.

“Mmm, smell that ham and biscuits,” added the fourth. “Get us some plates a-goin’. This’ll be one of our last chances at your cooking ‘fore Tad there gets it all to hisself.”

They all laughed good-naturedly apparently oblivious to the drama into which they had walked.

Dinah looked at the strangers’ table helplessly. That out-of-coffee routine just was not going to work this time.

“Morning gents,” she said nervously. “I-I’ll get started on that right now.”

“You’re a lucky man, Tad,” said the oldest one of the four with a gravelly voice. He was short but husky with a bald head, a bushy white mustache, and skin that looked like old leather.

“Thanks, Wilbert, and don’t I know it.”

The four went on talking and laughing with each other. Tad’s demeanor was noticeably less tense than before, and Jake’s eyes narrowed. He glared at Jesse then leaned close to him and spoke in a low murmur.

“You need to get on down the street like I told you.”

“No, Jake,” hissed Jesse. “I ain’t had me a woman in eight months and I’m takin’ that one upstairs ‘fore I do anything else.”

Jake’s stare seared Jesse’s face like acid. This was the first time one of his cohorts had disobeyed his orders. He narrowed his eyes ominously. “Follow the plan, boy.”

“No,” he stage-whispered. “I’ll have me that woman and I don’t care how many cow-farmers there are in here. I’ll kill the whole dang bunch of ‘em if I have to.”

“Junior,” said Chet quietly. “Do like Jake says. We’ll get her and take her with us when we come back for the whiskey. Wunst we get her out of town you can do as you please with her.” A grin twitched onto his face. “Shoot, we all will.”

Jesse started to reply but the door again burst open and four more men of varying ages entered. One was clearly the town’s barber and the others looked like professional men: bankers, lawyers, and such.

“Mornin’ Tad, mind if we sit with you?” said the one that looked most like a banker. “Looks a mite crowded in here today.”

“Not at all,” said Tad. “Have a seat.”

They all sat at Tad’s table and were again each carrying a briefcase or bag of some kind.

Jake leaned across the table to his companions. “I got me a bad feelin’ about all this. Jesse get on down the street like we agreed. Now.”

Jesse hesitated, pouting.

Dinah brought a tray of cups and the big coffee pot to the table with the first group of four. They all stood and asked if they could help her distribute cups or pour.

“Go on, Junior,” whispered Chet. “My idea will work. Wait and see if it don’t. Now get going.”

Jesse thought for a moment then, a look of resignation on his face, started to get up.

Again the door opened and in walked a large, powerfully built man accompanied by none other than Farley. The two of them closed the door and stood directly in front of it.

“Mr. Mayor,” announced Farley as the whole room went quiet. “Believe there’s a quorum present.”

“Thank you, Farley,” said Tad.

The three ruffians looked at each other in confusion. Chet, his brow furrowed, mouthed, “Mayor?” Then he noticed that the group that had stood up for Dinah had not sat back down but now stood all along the far wall with their hands behind them.

Tad stood up and all his table companions stood as well. They then formed a picket fence between the Post’s table and Jake’s gang.

“Very well,” said Tad. He rapped his spoon on the table. “This here meeting of the Kentonsville Town Council is now in session. Before we do anything else, Mr. Sanderson would you escort the folks at this table out the back way along with Miss Dinah?”

The big guy at the door nodded once and went around behind Tad’s former table companions.

Chet sprang to his feet, pistol in hand. “Y’all just hold it right there.” From the other side of the room came the sound of hammers cocking. The three villains’ heads whipped around to see each man with a rifle or pistol except for Wilbert who held a ten-gauge sawed-off shotgun. All were aimed at them.

Wilbert spoke calmly. “Reckon you oughta put that gun away, feller.” Then, much louder, “Now!”

Chet hesitated and wondered how many of these yokels he could kill before they got off a shot.

There was the sound of an explosion and Chet’s pistol flew out of his hand. He turned to see smoke rolling from a pistol held by the barber on Tad’s side of the room. An instant later he felt a sting in his gun hand and saw blood flowing out of it.

“Oops,” said the barber. “Didn’t mean to hit your hand; little rusty I guess.” The others on that side of the room also had pistols trained on the gang.

“Hey!” cried Chet. “Y’all got no right—”

Jake jumped to his feet, his voice booming with fury, “What’s goin’ on here? What’s this all about? We ain’t done nothin’ but come in here and eat our vitt’ls. We’re paying customers same as anybody else. Y’all better be puttin’ them guns away unless you’re intending that a whole bunch of you end up dead on the floor here.”

“Jasper,” called Tad.

“Yes Mayor?” said a blond man in his thirties with a rifle trained on Jake.

“We got any kind of ordinance agin’ three des-pa-ray-does that don’t live in these parts a-wearin’ guns in town and threatening folks?”

“Don’t recollect as we do, Tad—um—Mr. Mayor. But I’ll make a motion.”

“Make it,” said Tad. “And Mr. Sanderson, go on ahead and escort them folks out the back like you was going to. Oh, and then go up and get that nice lady and her granddaughters and take them out the back way, too. Ain’t good for them young ‘uns to hear a bunch of shootin’.”

The burly man hurried the Posts, Charles, and Dinah off toward the kitchen. Tad nodded at Jasper.

“Okay. I move that whenever there’s three des-pa-ray-does from out of town here in Kentonsville a-wearin’ guns and threatening folks they got till the mayor’s count of three to throw all their weapons on the floor or they are to be shot immediately by a firing squad made up of this here town council.”

“Sehh-cond,” intoned Wilbert.

“Okay,” said Tad. “Y’all heard the motion. Those in favor?”

“Aye,” said a chorus from around the room as they all aimed their weapons at the three.

“Anybody votin’ agin’ it?”

“Now hold on here,” started Jake.

Wilbert growled, “You ain’t allowed to talk less’n the mayor calls on you.”

That’s right,” said Tad. “You ain’t votin’ members. Motion passes.”

He gaveled his spoon on the table and looked directly at the three.

“Y’all got till I count three to throw all your weapons on the floor or we aim to kill the lot of you. One.”

“Now look-a here,” said a panicked Jesse, “we ain’t hurt nobody. We ain’t done nothing to nobody.”

“Two.”

“Jake?” said Jesse.

Tad’s tongue was behind his front teeth ready to say, “Three” when Jake shouted, “Okay! Do like he says.” He immediately unbuckled his gun belt and threw it to the floor some six feet from him.

Jesse followed suit albeit not as quickly. Chet stood frozen, his eyes darting over to his pistol on the floor to his left.

“Do it!” Jake shouted at him.

Chet squinted at him and then at Tad. “I ain’t got no weapon. It’s laying on the floor over yonder.”

“Don’t matter,” commanded Jake. “Take off your gunbelt and th’ow it down like we done.”

“Jake, you going to let a bunch of cow-farmers take our guns?” asked Chet as he slowly undid his belt.

“It’s just temporary,” said Jake. “We ain’t done nothing so we’re going to be leaving this town and never come back.”

Chet tossed his belt with the others.

“Just have yourselves a seat for a bit,” said Tad.

“Now look!” roared Jake. “We done just what you told us. Now let us be on our way.”

Tad’s voice was low and ominous. “I said sit down. ‘Cept you,” he said to Jake. “You lay on your belly across that table there and keep your hands flat on it up above your head.

“Farley, check his clothes, his pockets, his boots, everything for any kind of weapon at all. If you find even a pocketknife, just get away quick ‘cause we’re going to shoot him. The ordinance was for them to throw down all their weapons.”

“Hold it!” said Jake. He reached down into his boot top and produced a six-inch stiletto. He tossed it down with the belts. Then he looked at Chet and nodded.
Chet frowned but then unbuttoned his cuff and unclipped a derringer from a strap above his wrist. He angrily threw it down.

“Never mind, Farley, I think we made our point,” said Tad.

Tad then turned toward the men surrounding the room. “Things being the way they are, I reckon we’ll dispense with the reading of the minutes and the fi-nance report. Guess we just need to figure out what to do with these here des-pa-ray-does.”

“Well, we could hang ‘em,” suggested Jasper matter-of-factly.

“Naw,” rumbled Wilbert. “We already got our guns on ‘em. Be easier just to go ahead ‘n shoot ‘em.”

Jesse was getting jumpy. “Looka here. We never done nothing and we didn’t hurt nobody.”

“That’s right,” added Chet. “You got no right to be talking about executin’ us.”

The barber spoke up. “Fella, we all seen you pull a gun and aim it at Harold over there. No question you’d a-shot him if I hadn’t shot that pistol out of your hand. Oh, and sorry again about nicking you. Anyways, that’s attempted murder.”

“He pulled his gun on me and Dinah and all of the guests, too,” added Tad.

The barber nodded. “That’s two counts of attempted murder.”

Tad then pointed to Jesse. “That’n there was just fixin’ to try to defile Dinah and kill anybody what tried to stop him when y’all came in. That a capital offense, Farley?”

“Reckon it oughta be,” said Farley. “We could make a motion.” He pointed to Jake. “And that one there is the ringleader. That’s conspiracy. I think that might already be a hangin’ offense.”

Chet’s face was twitching more than ever. “Wait now, ain’t there no law, no sheriff, no judge in this town? Y’all can’t just be a lynch mob.”

Tad looked thoughtful. “There’s a U.S. Marshal over to Sweetwater makes his regular round here in two days and the circuit judge will be here, when?” He looked at Farley. “Next Tuesday-week?”

“Yep.”

Wilbert looked impatient and waved his shotgun at the three. “Yeah, but they won’t know no different if we kill and bury this bunch today. And I’m going to guess there ain’t nobody going to be pining away if’n these des-pa-ray-does just ups and disappears. Let’s execute ‘em and have done with it. I got things to do today.”

Several council members nodded in agreement and Chet spoke with his voice at a higher pitch. “Now look, mister. W-we don’t want no trouble. We was just sorta funnin’ around. I wasn’t going to shoot nobody. Fact is, if I’d intended to, I’d a-done it. And Jesse here, he just likes pretty girls and fightin’. What real man don’t? But he was just talking when he said he was gonna git her. All’s we was going to do is get some supplies and head out. A-a-ain’t that right, Jake.”

“S’right,” growled Jake. “Y’all got no call to be threatening us. I know enough about the law to know we ain’t done nothing more than a two-dollar fine’s worth if that. Why don’t you just let us be on our way and we’ll all git on with our lives. And you and that little filly can get hitched like you’s aimin’ to without no worries of us wantin’ revenge.”

“Hmm,” said Tad. “I hadn’t thought about revenge. But it’s clear it’s on your mind. And I’d bet my ranch that if we sent y’all off without no weapons you’d come back to town tonight and try to kill us all in our sleep.”

Jasper sighed. “I make a motion that we execute these here three des-pa-ray-does here and now and be done with it.”

“Sehh-cond,” rumbled Wilbert.

“Now hang on boys,” said Tad. “Farley already said we ain’t got a law yet says we can execute ‘em.”

Jasper sighed again. “Want me to make another motion says what they done is capital crimes?”

Jesse’s fear now made him furious. “What kinda law you got in this town? Ain’t there nobody makes real laws here?”

Tad frowned in thought for a bit. “Nawp. Just the Kentonsville Town Council. We make the laws as we need ‘em. Anybody bring any rope?”

“You brung some didn’t you Buck?” said Jasper to one of the men against the opposite wall from Tad.

“Yep,” came a sleepy-sounding drawl. “You want us to hang ‘em Tad?”

Jesse’s eyes widened and he shouted at Tad. “Looka here! Y-y-you can’t hang a man just ‘cause he flirted with your gal. We got rights. Don’t there gotta be a trial with a real judge and such?”

“Yeah,” said Tad. “I know. Rope ain’t for hangin’. Buck, you and Harold tie these yay-hoos up so’s we can take ‘em over to the jail. We’ll let the Marshal take ‘em into custody when he comes. I’ll telegraph him before he gets here, in case he needs to bring more help.”

“Y’mean you’re going to let ‘em live?” asked Buck somewhat disappointedly as he cut three segments off the long, thick rope.

“Yeah, unless there’s any resistance from them. ‘Sides, there might be a reward. I got me a feeling they might be escaped convicts or something; look at them shoes on the young one. Yeah, might be a real nice reward, maybe enough to re-roof the schoolhouse.

“Buck, go ahead and tie ‘em up.”

He approached Jake with a piece of rope.

“NO!” fumed Jake. “Ain’t nobody putting me back in no prison! I’d rather die first!”

With that he shoved Buck down and grabbed the rifle out of a surprised Jasper’s hands. He whirled around and pointed it straight at Wilbert when the room shook from the thunder of the ten-gauge. The force of it lifted Jake back across the table causing its far legs to collapse. Chet barely managed to jump out from under it and Jesse yelped from being hit in the arm by a couple of stray pellets.

In the shocked silence that followed, all eyes were on the motionless Jake whose now-sunken chest became a puddle of blood.

The barber strode over and felt Jake’s neck. “Dead,” he said nodding.

“Reckon the Marshal will be upset that I killed one of ‘em?” asked Wilbert as he put a new shell in the shotgun.

“Not the way I see it,” said Buck picking himself up off the floor. “Not only was it self-defense, the feller said he’d ruther be dead than in jail. You done just what he asked for—sorta granted his last wish, you might say. I reckon you done the poor guy a favor, Wilbert.”

Wilbert pondered that for a moment. “Yeah, well, I reckon I always been kinda soft thatta way; y’know, helpin’ folks out when they ask.”

Then he looked at Tad. “Tell Dinah I’ll replace the table and fix any pellet holes in the wall over yonder. Oh, ‘n I’ll scrub the floor where he’s a-bleedin’.”

“Yeah, I’ll tell her, Wilbert. Duncan? You being the undertaker, you and Harold want to take that body over to your place for now? The Marshal will probably want to see him ‘fore he’s buried.”

The two men nodded and hauled the body out the door as Tad looked at Jesse and Chet.

“Either of you other two yay-hoos want to die now ‘stead of going to jail?”

Jesse gritted his teeth and shook his head. He held out his hands for Buck to tie them.
Chet stood and stared as if in a trance. He spoke in a monotone. “Don’t much matter to me. I’m dead either way. You’re right; we escaped from the penitentiary a few days ago. I was in there waiting to be hanged.”

Tad’s eyes showed a bit of sorrow for him. “Jonas,” said Tad quietly to the barber. “Feller’s a-bleedin’ from his hand. Reckon you could bandage it ‘fore we tie him up?”

“Sure.” He reached into the bag he’d brought in and found a strip of cloth. “Here, let me see it,” he said to Chet. “Real sorry about the hand, fella.”

Chet stood stoically as, the bandaging finished, Buck tied his hands. As the Council began to lead the two of them out toward the street, Jesse turned to Tad.

“Could I make a request?”

Everyone stopped and Tad gave a slight nod.

“Could that gal of yours—Dinah?—could she do the cooking for us whilst we’re in your jail?”

Tad’s eyebrows rose.

“I-I mean she don’t have to come around us or nothing. It’s just that she’s a real fine cook. She’s going to make you a real fine wife. You’re a lucky man. Sometimes I wisht I’d-a… Well, could she? Cook for us, I mean?”

“Yep, she always cooks for the prisoners—till early next month, that is.”

Then Chet spoke quietly. “One more thing. You reckon you could send that preacher around to the jail ‘fore he leaves? Reckon I might want to hear some more of what he’s got to say.”

“I’ll see to it,” said Tad. Then, looking around he added, “Gentlemen, this here meetin’ of the Kentonsville Town Council is adjourned.”

A Short Circuit

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