This novel, the forth in the “Trail” series, is
dedicated to all of us who have spent our days
on horseback from dawn ‘til done.
It ain’t easy, but it ain’t bad.
Little Bill growed faster’n a patch a spring rhubarb an’ me an’ Harmony took some pleasure in watchin’ him kindly come inta hisself a mite. Come September Harmony figgerd he was up to it, so the three a us struck off in her daddy Verlon’s buckboard wagon an’ went all the way up to Dunston to stand up for Homer an’ Miss Susie in they weddin’ an’ such.
As you might know by now, I am some fond a bein’ out on the trail, but I was worried a mite ‘bout havin’ Harmony an’ little Bill with me on the trip. I was usta it bein’ just me an’ Willie, or maybe Marion or Homer along, an’ concerned that Harmony an’ the boy not be too much put out over the conditions we might come on. Truth be tolt, I was some concerned about me too, havin’ to accommodate a woman an’ a young child on the journey. I went so far as to cut up a tarp an’ take poles along to make a lean-pee when we’d stop of a night so my wife an’ son would have a place to sleep out a the weather an’ such should it turn off bad for some reason.
I got a mess a canned goods to take along, plus Harmony’s revolver an’ my ol’ Yellaboy Winchester, an’ two or three raggedy sheets to cut up inta extra dydies for little Bill. I tied Willie to the back a the buckboard in case one of the harness horses was to come up lame, an’ done everythin’ else I could think of. I guess I brung enough truck an’ possibles along to care for a fair size posse. It took me two days to git everthin’ together. Harmony never said a word about it while I was gittin’ ready. She just smiled quite a bit an’ give me a extra kiss on the cheek now an’ then.
When the time we was to leave come, I passed little Bill up to her an’ got in the wagon an’ took my seat, with her grinnin’ quite a bit. She looked at everthin’ I had packed away an’ asked me if I thought we might have room for the woodstove from the parlor in case it got chilly at night. It come on me then that I mighta overdid things some. She seemed to take enjoyment in how much her an’ Bill bein’ comfortable meant to me. The four day trip to Dunston was without event, but I never did regret takin’ as much with us as I done. I gotta admit that it was just fine settin’ around a night campfire lookin’ at Miss Harmony holdin’ little Bill in the glow of it an’ smilin’ that sweet smile a hers. It was a long way from the trail camps I was used to, but it was a pleasureful thing to be part of an’ I was thankful for it.
We got into Dunston in the middle a the mornin’ on the big day. Homer’s weddin’ brung out most a the county, I reckon. Miss Susie was as purty as a picture, wearin’ herself a shiny light blue dress with little white flowers scattered all over it. An’ Homer! Homer had shaved his face an’ cut his hair off some short an’ put on a black suit a clothes with a white shirt an’ a string tie, an’ black boots that was shined up ‘til they durn near glowed.
The weddin’ was helt out to Royce Taylor’s place an’ everbody that come brung more’n two or three folks could eat. Lord. That social went on most a the day. I innerduced Miss Harmony an’ little Bill to the barber Kenny Jones. He talked to Harmony now an’ then as the afternoon went on, an’ would git her to laughin’ ‘til she had tears in her eyes. Mister Coulter was there an’ said he was right pleased to see me agin an’ meet my little family. It seemed to me that there was a change in the way that the air even felt now that the Treadstone bunch was gone an’ the town warn’t under the thumb a the Calico Cattle Company no more. Two or three fellas that had their places took from ‘em an’ then give back by the guvmint come to meet me sayin’ how grateful they was for what we done an’ all. I confess to bein’ guilty a the sin a pride a time or two. It was a fine cool day an’ folks made over little Bill like he was coated in silver or somethin’.
Things commenced to break up on toward dusk. I was standin’ on Royce Taylor’s porch with Homer, watchin’ folks leave, when he looked down the road a ways an’ grinned.
“Well I’ll be dammed,” he said. “Here comes the ugliest horse in the world with the toughest ol’ bastard alive settin’ on him.”
The last buggy left afore Marion arrived. Royce had come out an’ the three of us set an’ watched as that godawful strawberry roan come up the lane. Marion stopped by the big oak an’ got down, ground tyin’ his horse. He walked up an’ set with us, everbody lookin’ out across the field.
“Marion,” I said.
“Ruben,” he said. “Royce.”
“Marshal,” Royce said.
We set a spell afore Marion spoke up agin. He turned his head a little sideways so he could see Homer outa the corner a his eye an’ spoke up.
“How the hell are you?” Marion said.
“Married, I reckon,” Homer tolt him. “You missed it. That ugly horse a your’n too slow or what?”
“By God,” Marion said, “I didn’t come all this way just so you could criticize my steed. Where’s yer bride?”
“What’s it to ya, ya ol’ cob?” Homer said.
“I’m fixin’ to give somebody a hug,” Marion said, “an’ it damn shore ain’t gonna be you!”
Homer grinned then, an’ give Marion a shove on the shoulder that bent him over some. “Are ya all right, pard?” he asked.
Marion set back up an’ commenced to chuckle. The rest of us joined in an’ all of us set there laughin’ for no particular reason.
Miss Susie come out on the porch then an’ Marion stood up.
“I come to save ya, M’am,” he said. “Am I too late?”
The three women on hand durn near lined up to give Marion hugs and then all fussed over him makin’ sure he got enough to eat. Harmony brought little Bill out an’ Marion set an’ helt him an’ talked to him an’ made over him somethin’ awful. I never woulda figgerd on that kinda behavior from Marion Daniels an’ I was plumb got by it. It brung a tear to my eye to tell the truth.
It was full dark afore things broke up. Harmony an’ little Bill stayed up at the house, Royce joined Marion an’ me down in the barn, an’ Homer an’ Susie went off to the little place Royce had built for ‘em. It warn’t quite finished, but it was enough done they could stay in it an’ be all right. Royce brung out the jug an’ we passed it around a time or two. It had been a long day for everbody an’ we was quiet. Purty soon they both was asleep. I laid there for a spell, enjoyin’ my memories an’ the company a their snores.
We spent the next day an’ night at Royce Taylor’s place visitin’ an’ eatin’ up as much a all that food as we could. Marion went down to the barn to git into his saddlebags an’ give Susie her weddin’ present. It was a hand-held lookin’ glass an’ a comb an’ a hairbrush all made outa silver an’ engraved in curlicues an’ such. Miss Susie was took by it, givin’ Marion a kiss on the cheek an’ cryin’ some ‘cause them things was so purty an’ Marion had thought that much of her an’ all. It got to Homer quite a bit, too. I could see it in his eyes.
It was a wonderful day, even if it did rain some. Royce’s daughter, Mandy, wouldn’t hardly leave little Bill alone, watchin’ him an’ playin’ with him an’ fussin’ over him an’ the like. She thought he was the best thing in the world, I guess. I got up real early the next mornin’ so I could go gather up the eggs with her. That pecky one-eyed red hen warn’t there no more. I asked her about it.
“We et her,” she tolt me, an’ struck off toward the house with them eggs.
We left about the middle a the mornin’ askin’ Marion if he wanted to ride with us, but he had some marshalin’ business up in Ioway an’ had to go on that direction. On the way home, we took the time to change course an’ stop by the Thorsen Place. Mister and Missus Thorsen an’ their son Agner was glad to see me an’ meet Miss Harmony an’ little Bill. That boy, Wesley, that we took with us after we done for ol’ man Waxler, had gained a bunch a weight, growed about a foot, an’ was so happy to see me he got to hoppin’ up an’ down. Agner tolt me that Wes had took to workin’ with the goats like it was somethin’ he was born for, an’ was learnin’ his numbers an letters right smart. It pleased me to see he was doin’ so good after the way he’d been mistreated all his life.
We spent a day an’ night at the Thorsen’s, Harmony gittin’ several recipes from Missus Thorsen on how she baked some a her wonderful pastries an’ such. She fed us like we was starvin’. We durn near had to escape the place while we was still able to climb up into the buckboard. Mister Thorsen sent three or four gallons a his wine with us, makin’ us promise to be sure an’ stop by when next we was up that way. Missus Thorsen give Harmony a bunch a Agner’s ol’ baby clothes an’ such that she’d made for him herself, an’ had tears in her eyes when we went off.
We was settin’ by the campfire on the last night afore home, Harmony holdin’ little Bill an’ watchin’ sparks drift up into the dark sky while I was lookin’ at how purty she was lit up by the flames, when she smiled at me.
“You love those men, don’t you?” she asked.
“Who?” I said.
“Your feet don’t fit a limb,” she said. “You know who.”
I took a drink a coffee an’ looked at the fire. “Reckon I do,” I tolt her.
“Do I keep you from them, Ruben?” she asked me.
That question kindly hit me like a slap. “Lord no, Harmony,” I said. “They has been times when they has kept me from you, but you ain’t never kept me from them.”
“Seeing you with them brought it to my mind,” she said. “It seems like they’re family for you, too.”
“I guess in a way they are,” I said, “but it don’t compare to you an’ little Bill.”
“That may be true,” she said, “but I know that if there wasn’t me and Bill, it’d be them.”
“Harmony,” I said, “I would throw my badge in the river an’ dig potaters for a livin’ if that’s what it took to keep you an’ little Bill.”
Harmony grinned at me. “You would?” she said.
“I would,” I tolt her.
“I believe you,” she said, gittin’ up to put Bill down for the night. “But you wouldn’t like it.”
I looked back at the fire an’ caught myself smilin’. Lucky as I felt right then, it seemed a shame not to take up gamblin’ for a livin’.
Deer Run, bein’ near the river an’ not terrible far from Jeff City, was beginnin’ to prosper some. Durin’ the two months afore Homer an’ Susie’s weddin’ an’ up until little Bill’s birthday in November, me an’ Verlon added enough room onto his barn to hold three more stalls for boardin’ horses an’ storage space for his new big buggy an’ a good little gig he rented out to folks. They was also a increasin’ call for rental horses. He come up with two likely bays, a sorrel that always looked to me like he needed dirt brushed outa his coat, an’ a gray that was nice enough ‘cept he’d walk into a tree if a fella didn’t rein him around it.
Right after little Bill’s birthday, Verlon come down with the pleurisy an’ was terrible sick from it an’ in awful pain. Harmony got right fearful for him an’ concerned he might die, but the doc tolt her Verlon would git over it with time an’ care. An’ he did. By Christmas he was his ol’ self, ‘cept from then on, when he was workin’ at the forge, he kept a damp bandana wrapped round his face an’ over his nose an’ mouth to keep from breathin’ in the fumes an’ such.
It commenced to snowin’ in early December an’ fell off right cold. Me an’ Verlon had cut an’ chopped close to ten cords a wood an’ was glad we had, it gittin’ so cold an’ all. The river got treacherous an’ boat traffic was shut down earlier than usual, makin’ it hard for some folks, but Deer Run took care a them what was real poor or old, an nobody in town was credited with dyin’ from the weather.
Little Bill got through his birthday just fine, figurin’ how to walk some. Arliss showed up on Christmas day with a little wagon he’d built for the boy. It was a real work a art like. He made Bill a durn buckboard about two an’ a half feet long, with spoke wheels, a tailgate that folded down, a tongue with a handle at the end of it, an’ even a little metal grease bucket swingin’ from a hook set behind the rear axel. It was made outa maple with pine sideboards that could be left on or took off.
It took little Bill about a minute to figger out that walkin’ was some simpler if he just leaned on that wagon an’ pushed it along in front of him. That was fine, except he didn’t have no workin’ knowledge on how to bend the tongue back to where he could reach it an’ guide the thing. An’ he didn’t seem interested in learnin’ how, even when his momma showed him. That boy was as independent as a hog on ice. The result was a nick or two in some chair legs, an’ on the legs a the davenport. He got some upset when Harmony put the wagon up for a while so none of us had to foller him everwhere he went, but got over it when she give him some a the cinnamon-maple candy I kept around for Willie.
January was terrible cold. Three or four times a day I had to bust ice in the little spring creek, an’ then bust ice agin in the troughs to keep water for the stock an’ carry some up to the house. The cistern even froze up an’ wouldn’t pump. They warn’t a lot a snow, though, an’ that was a blessin’. I kept most a the icicles busted off the back porch roof to help with the drinkin’ water, but they was one I left alone that finally reached plum to the ground an’ was there for near two months.
For Christmas, Miss Harmony got me a drover’s coat that reached past my knees an’ was waxed to shed water an’ such. It was lined with two heavy layers a wool blanket an’ had a big ol’ sheepskin collar on it an’ was slit up the back an’ tied together. A fella could untie that part an’ it would lay out over a saddle real nice, or he could wrap the bottom a that coat up between his legs an’ tie it to where it split at the front, makin’ hisself sorta chaps that would keep his legs warm on horseback. I bet that coat weighed fifteen pounds, an’ I loved ever ounce of it.
Come February the weather commenced to break some for a day or two at a time an’ folks was real glad for it. By the middle a the month that big ol’ icicle was near gone an’ it was above freezin’ most afternoons. Things in town had been fair quiet. All winter long there had only been one shootin’ an’ that was a accident. Harold Dickson’s wife, Lula, had picked his ol’ Remington revolver off the table to put it in a drawer an’ dropped it. When it hit the floor it went off an’ shot her through the outside a her leg. It was of a light caliber. The doc put a bandage around both wounds an’ tolt her to put her foot up for a few days. She was some put out by the event, blamin’ Harold for it, even though he warn’t home when it happened. When she got better, she filled up a carpet bag or two an’ struck off for St. Elmo, Illinois to live with her sister. Harold tolt Arliss that if he’d a knowed it woulda been that easy, he’d a left guns out all over the house years ago.
It was about the last day a the month an’ I was down in the gunshop visitin’ with Arliss while he was fussin’ with the magazine on a Henry Rifle. I was lookin’ out the winda at some light snow fallin’ when I seen a long an’ lanky fella ride up out front on a terrible ugly strawberry roan, made even uglier by enough shaggy hair to cover a buffler. He tied off at the rail an’ come stompin’ inside, shakin’ snow offa his sheepskin coat and heavy chaps.
Arliss looked up from the Henry. “By, God!” he said, “I got walls, a roof, an’ a floor to keep that there snow outside where it belongs. I don’t need no saddle tramps bringin’ none in here. If I want any I can go get it myself!”
Marion Daniels grinned at Arliss an’ knocked some snow offa his hat. “Ain’t you dead yet, ol’ man?” he asked.
“No, I am not,” Arliss said, “and I have outlived a mess a pistoleros that was a damn site better than anybody named Daniels. You might wanna remember that.”
Arliss smiled then an’ him an’ Marion shook hands over the counter. Marion slapped me on the arm.
“I’m hungry, Ruben,” he said. “Let’s go to the Sweetwater.”
I grabbed my coat an’ he helt the door for me. When Marion followed me out, he left it standin’ open. We could hear Arliss cussin’ as we walked away.
Marion ordered hisself some chicken stew an’ cornbread. I’d et at home that mornin’ so I just got coffee an’ a piece a apple pie with a little sugar on the side. After the coffee come, Marion looked at me. “This ain’t jest a social call,” he said.
“Didn’t figger it was,” I tolt him.
“Dan McIntyre, the Attorney General a Missouri sent for me,” he went on. “I just come this way from meetin’ with him over in Jeff City. He’s got a favor he needs done for him to help out a old friend. Back in his school days at someplace called Westminster College, he had a friend name a Kenneth Collins. Collins is a lawyer over in St. Louis someplace. He had a brother name a Carl or somethin’ that had hisself ten or fifteen sections a land down in Southern Missouri near the Arkansas line, where he was runnin’ a few head a cattle. The brother died an’ left that land an’ such to Kenneth. Kenneth is purty much set where he is, so he give the place to his son, Mason, to run for him. Mason done purty fair at it, but a couple weeks ago, he got hisself killed south of a little hole in the wall in Ozark County, Missouri, by the name a Lick Creek. That’s down nearly on the Arkansas line. He may a been killed in Arkansas near some sorta place name a Payback.”
The waitress come with his stew an’ fresh coffee then. When she left, he went on.
“The law in that neck a the woods leaves a lot to be desired. That part a Missouri is bad enough, but when a feller crosses the line into Arkansas, things change. I was down that way about ten year ago. Ruben, it is a different world. The war ain’t over down there much. A lot a folks there ain’t never been no place but within ten miles a where they was born. They doan like outsiders, they hate everbody with the government, they are suspicious a anybody that ain’t in their own family, an’ they doan trust nobody that warn’t born on their hill or down in their holler. The Ozark County law thinks the Collins boy was killed by some Arkansawers from a wide spot in the road named Payback that come north a the line near the Northfork River. That’s all the information that anybody could get. What Missouri law they is don’t have no authority across the line. Dan McIntyre wants me to go down that way and look around some as a favor to his friend. He’s activated me as Captain Daniels of the Missouri Marshals. He even suggested that I take Marshal Ruben Beeler along.”
“Me?” I said. “Why me?”
“He’s heard of ya. Spoke highly a what you did in that mess with the Calico Cattle Company.”
“I bet he did,” I said.
“You wanna go?” Marion asked.
“Oh, hell,” I said. “I hate to miss a good ride in fine weather. I’ll go.”
Marion nodded. “It’s a ways off. We’re gonna need a fair amount a chuck an’ possibles. You reckon Verlon would give us a couple a horses to use for pack? Arliss the mule ain’t fast enough for what we might need. The state’ll pay him.”
“I speck he would,” I said. Ol’ Arliss the mule has kindly turned into the family dog anyway. He’d sleep under the porch if he could fit.”
“Well,” Marion went on, “we need to git after it. I’d like to hit the trail early the day after tomorrow.”
I nodded. “We bein’ Missouri marshals ain’t gonna mean shit to nobody in Arkansas,” I tolt him. “From what you said, prob’ly just make ‘em mad.”
“We’ll both be federal marshals, too,” Marion said. “You’ll get paid twice for this job.”
“Us workin’ for the federal gov’mint ain’t gonna build no lastin’ friendships with nobody down that way neither,” I tolt him.
Marion smiled at me. “Maybe we won’t tell ‘em,” he said. “Then agin, maybe we will.”
Verlon give us both them new bays a his for pack, an’ I was glad for it. Bein’ on the trail in cold weather can take a lot out of a fella an’ it was welcome to be able to carry enough meat an’ canned goods so we could eat good to not lose our strength on the ride. I spent the next day gittin’ the chuck an’ such together. On the night afore we was fixin’ to leave, Marion et over at the house with us, an’ messed with little Bill quite a bit, draggin’ him around in that little buckboard Arliss had built an’ fussin’ over him. After Bill went to bed we was settin’ in the kitchen an’ Harmony talked to Marion about it, sayin’ she was kindly surprised at how much he took to Bill an’ all. Marion got up an’ looked out the winda for a spell afore he spoke up.
“That’s a fine son you got there, Harmony,” he said. “Puts me in the mind of my boy, Chester.”
Them words kindly slapped at all of us an’ nobody said nothin’. I could see Marion gather hisself up like, an’ then he went on.
“Bessie and me got married purty soon after I come home from the war,” he went on. “In ’67 Chet come along. He was about Bill’s age when the scarlet fever took him. Bessie was a delicate thing an’ it hit her terrible hard. She lost weight an’ got so poorly to where she could hardly even git outa bed. Four or five months after Chet passed, she kilt herself. I crawled into the bottle for a spell until a friend poured me out of it. He saved me from myself, I reckon. Years later, he saved your husband, too.”
“Arkansas Bill Cole,” Harmony whispered.
Marion nodded an’ went back to lookin out the winda. Harmony got up then an’ went over to him, givin’ him a hug from behind. They stood that way for a minute ‘til Marion kindly shook hisself. He patted Harmony on the shoulder an’ looked at me, a sad little smile on his face.
“A while back, Ruben,” he said, “I told you about how important it was to keep your ghosts locked up in your head, and it is. But it’s also good to be in the company a such folks that you can let one out for a little bit.”
He went out into the cold on the porch then, an’ stood there lookin’ at the night.
“Sweet Jesus,” Verlon said. “That is a load to carry.”
I went in the bedroom an’ watched little Bill sleep for a spell.
It was unusual for me, but I woke up well ahead a dawn the next mornin’ an’ eased outa bed real careful like so as not to wake Miss Harmony. When I come back from visitin’ the convenience, they was lamps burnin’ in the kitchen an’ she had coffee on an’ was makin’ up sourdough biscuits. She give me a smile an’ I give her a kiss an’ went to sawin’ slices offa chunk a salt-cured ham that was on the cuttin’ board. They is a mess a folks in this world that can slice a ham better’n me I guess, but I went at it real careful an’ come up with four slices that warn’t mor’n a quarter inch thick. Harmony chuckled at that, knowin’ that my usual slicin’ fell quite a bit short a what she considered proper. We didn’t have a egg to our name, but Harmony’s gravy made up for any lack a cackleberries.
Them ham slices had just hit the skillet when Verlon come in, pullin’ up his suspenders. The coffee was ready. He patted his daughter on the back an’ poured three cups, settin’ Harmony’s beside the stove an’ bringin’ mine to me when he took a chair.
“Fair cold this mornin’, Ruben,” he said to me.
“It is,” I tolt him. “Harmony set a pan a boilin’ water on the back step a little bit ago, an’ it froze so quick the ice was still warm.”
Verlon was takin’ a drink a coffee when I made that statement an’ had quite a bit a trouble with it. That set Harmony to laughin’ an’ that done it. Little Bill announced that he was up. She went off to see about him, I got up to tend to the ham, an’ Verlon snorted into his kerchief for a while.
Harmony come back with Bill about the time the ham was lookin’ ready an’ give him to me. I helt him in front a me at the table while he fussed some, wakin’ the rest a the way up. He got that from me, I guess. Him an’ me both was slow to git to sleep, an’ slow to git shed of it when mornin’ come. Bill’s granpa pulled a buckeye outa his pocket an’ commenced to flippin’ it from hand to hand, then showed his closed fists to little Bill. It was a game the two of ‘em had come up with. Bill studied them fists for a minute then patted the left one. Verlon opened his hand an’, shore enough, there was the buckeye. That meant that Verlon had lost an’ he had to hold Bill up in the air over his head an’ shake him a little while Bill giggled. Them two thought a lot a each other.
Marion stomped up on the porch about the time them biscuits come outa the oven, an’ with Harmony passin’ out plates, they warn’t a lot of conversation. Verlon, Marion an’ me all got to eatin’ like it was our last meal, while Harmony fed Bill tiny bites a ham an’ little pieces a biscuits soaked in gravy. When the eatin’ was over, Marion an’ Verlon struck off to the barn to git the horses ready, leavin’ me an’ Harmony time to ourselves. I offered to take the boy so she could have some breakfast, but she tolt me that she would eat after we was gone. We set an’ just looked at each other for a while, Bill bein’ unusual quiet. Finally Miss Harmony spoke up.
“There’s nothin’ I can say to you that I haven’t already said when you were leaving to go in harm’s way,” she tolt me. “You are the best man I have ever known Ruben Beeler, and you are going off with as competent a person as lives. He thinks nearly as much of you as I do and he is a wonderful human being and a terribly hard man. I trust you, I trust God, and I trust Marion Daniels. You go do whatever it is that you have to do, and then you come home.”
I got up then an’ strapped on my gun belt, one Colt in a short drop on my right side, another one in a crossdraw to the left a center. I put on that big ol’ drover’s coat Harmony got me, grabbed the little scattergun in it’s saddle holster, and picked up my Winchester 45/75. Harmony handed me a sack a biscuits an’ looked up at me.
“Godspeed, Ruben,” she said.
“Miss Harmony, you leave a lamp burnin’,” I tolt her, an’ went out into the cold.
When I got to the stable, Marion and Verlon had the panniers up on both them packhorses and Willie saddled. I put the Winchester in the scabbard an’ hung the little scattergun on one side a the horn an’ that bag a biscuits on the other. Then I took a piece a candy outa my pocket an’ give it to Willie. Arliss the mule come wanderin’ in to see what was goin’ on an’ Verlon caught him up an’ put him in a stall so he wouldn’t foller us. Marion an’ me swung up on our saddles then an’ each of us took a lead line to a packhorse. Verlon wished us both good fortune an’ we headed out of the barn. As we passed the house I seen Miss Harmony in the winda holdin’ little Bill, lookin’ us on our way. I waved to her an’ me an’ Marion struck off on the Payback trail.
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