Published on Wednesday, June 2, 2010
Two for Jessup
By Glenn D. Hayes
Out of the waving heat, two riders on horseback crossed the boundary of Cal's homestead. Cal, who had his back to the strangers, was on his hands and knees preoccupied by a meddlesome weed that he was trying to uproot, one of the particularly frustrating and endless tasks that filled his day, now that he was alone. His long-handled shovel lay on the ground beside him, along with his dog, Jessup; that is, until Jessup stood and barked at the approaching riders. Cal grabbed his shovel and stood, facing the strangers.
"Hush, Jessup," Cal said, not wanting to rile the strangers in any way. With both hands, he leaned on his shovel, anxiously watching the riders. He was unarmed, having foolishly left his rifle, which he normally kept close at hand, propped against the porch railing. As the strangers neared, he gripped the shovel tighter and felt the sweat from the heat, the work, and his nerves flow down his back. They were cold, sneering, hard men who exuded trouble. One had a dirty, black sombrero pulled low and rode a big brown, and the other, who was smoking a stogie, had a dark-gray ten-gallon hat with a red bandana wrapped around; he was on an appaloosa. Reaching Cal, both men looked down with dead, cold eyes - eyes used to killing. Cal smiled and nodded most neighborly, but the one with the sombrero responded by spitting a glob of tobacco juice that splattered on the ground. Jessup barked sharply twice and started a low defensive growl. Cal peered down at the muck near his feet and stopped smiling. His anger rose as he watched them ride slowly and disrespectfully through his property, not caring on what of his and Emma's hard work their horses trod. As the riders neared the house, Jessup became more aggressive, his nape fur stood, his ears went back, and he started barking intensely and moving nervously.
"Hush now, hush," Cal said, bending to restrain Jessup, but before he could, the dog bounded off, running and barking at the strangers.
"Jessup!" Cal yelled, only to see the one with the ten-gallon hat pull his gun and with a loud, resounding blast send Jessup into the air and crashing to the earth.
Cal dropped his shovel and ran toward his dog. The strangers whipped their horses and headed in the direction of Tinsley, the nearest town. Cal heard their derisive laughter echo in his ears.
Reaching Jessup, he skidded to a halt, kicking up dirt and pebbles. Cal stood over his dog, staring but not seeing, and collapsed to his knees. When he arose with Jessup's lifeless body in his arms, he could not help but think of Emma, and his eyes narrowed as they moved from the damage done to her work by the horses' hooves to the men galloping away.
He carried his dog into the house and laid Jessup onto the bare wood floor. Regaining his senses, he rushed back outside, grabbed his rifle, and took aim, but the men were too far away. He went back inside, placed the rifle in a rack by the door, and took his gun and holster from a hook next to the rack. He slung the holster onto the back of a chair and placed the gun on the heavy, wood slatted table that he and Emma had built. After retrieving his cleaning tools, he sat down to clean his weapon. No rush. He knew where they'd be, and he'd face them both. Disassembling his gun, he remembered how Jessup had come into their lives.
One morning, shortly after he and Emma had wed, Cal was near the house with a wheelbarrow full of boulders and stones, which he was trying to rid from their land. From behind the house, came the skinniest, meanest-looking mongrel that you'd ever want to see, baring its fangs and growling. It was moving slowly and menacingly toward Cal, who reached into the wheelbarrow and grabbed two good-sized rocks.
"Don't you dare," Emma said, coming out of the house with a handful of stew meat. She approached, holding the meat in front of her, and talking to the dog in the sweetest, friendliest voice. The dog walked cautiously toward Emma, who had tossed a bit of the meat onto the ground in front of her; that piece was gobbled down immediately. Piece-by-piece she fed the dog the stew meat. By the last piece, she was patting him on the head and had him eating out of her hand. She had a knack for taming wild things.
"Don't you know nothing about dogs," she said, as she turned and walked to the house, with the dog trailing after her.
"You're going to keep that thing?" Cal called after her, tossing the rocks back into the wheelbarrow.
"You know I'm partial to drifters," she said, with a laugh. "And I'm naming him Jessup, after my dad; he was cantankerous, too." Jessup was Emma's dog, and Cal remembered how long it took him to gain Jessup's trust. Emma knew she needed a dog just like she knew she needed a man around the place. All were pieces of her dream. Cal remembered how he and Emma met.
He had drifted into Tinsley about a year ago and went into the saloon like most men. He had noticed a sign that stated bath water available for ten cents, so he decided he'd buy a bath. While soaking in the sudsy, dark water, Emma entered with some more hot water and poured it into the tub.
"Hey, get!" Cal yelled, putting his hands over his privates.
"This is my job, mister," she said, smiling. "You ain't got nothing to hide that I ain't seen before." With that comment, she left. She saw him later, though.
Cal was seated alone at a table with a bottle of whiskey in front of him when Emma grabbed a shot glass from the bar and joined him. They both had some youth left, but there was no youthful innocence left in either one. Neither one would be considered great-looking, but they were good-enough looking. He guessed she may have been a couple years older. She was a big-boned woman with all the curves and all the softness in all the right places that men like.
"I figure you'd like some company," she said, filling her glass. Cal liked her boldness. She was a wild thing, and that intrigued him.
He learned her name - Emma Walker, and after some harmless and respectful conversation, she asked, "Are you as hard as your eyes say you are?"
"Nothin' that you can't handle, darlin'," Cal replied, taking a sip of whiskey.
"I can handle anything," she said, downing a shot herself. "You don't scare me." He had to laugh, something he hadn't done in a long time. She laughed, too. Cal saw under her toughness she had a lot of sweetness to give a man, and it made him feel real good.
"You have some place to stay?" Emma asked.
"Maybe under the stars," Cal said, shrugging. "Or upstairs in this saloon a bit." She saw that he wasn't enthusiastic about either choice.
"In this flea bag?" she asked, with a look of disgust. "Outside would be better, but we've been having some god-awful weather."
"Where else?" Cal asked, already sensing her answer.
"I have a small place outside of town," she said. "It's not much to look at now, but someday, it's gonna be something." She smiled at him most invitingly.
"Let's go," Cal said, returning her smile.
Cal had spent some time in Texas bronco bustin', but the ride Emma gave him that night made him hold on tighter than ever. From that night on, they were together, marrying a few weeks later, when the Justice of Peace came to town. They were the third couple to wed that day.
He had finished cleaning and loading his gun, and with a glance at Jessup, he put the gun into its holster and strapped it on. He walked to the barn, saddled up his horse, and headed into town. As he rode, more thoughts of Emma came.
She had inherited the place from her dad who was a farmer and a drunk; her mother died when she was a little girl. Her father had big ideas when he bought the property, but whiskey and life came in the way. One thing, though, he had picked a decent spot -- they had a good well, and the river was reachable. Out here, with water, you had half-a-chance. When her father died, Emma knew what she had to do, and she did whatever it took to earn the money to keep the place from falling to seed, which had hardened her.
Cal can't remember a day that didn't pass without some arduous labor, but Emma did the same work as he did. He'd crawl into bed bone-tired, about to collapse, but she'd be excited about what they had accomplished. She'd talk about her plans and what they should do the next day. He had to admit, the place was coming together, and even he was surprised at the progress. Still, as hard as the work was, he loved Emma, her hopes, and her dreams for their future. He was used to thinking a day at a time, sometimes even shorter, and the prospect of living instead of dying captivated him. On those occasional trips when they took the buckboard into Tinsley to shop for provisions and were greeted by folks who smiled and waved, he, also, dared to dream.
As he rode toward town, he looked around at the rock-burdened land, the weeds, the dust swirls, the hills in the distance, and he felt the utter solitude, similar to the lone hawk that swooped above him in the sky. It was such a hard country. You could work it, but you had to give so much. Were they crazy - he and Emma? He looked back at the house, at the patch of green that was theirs, that shimmered like a mirage in a desert. No, Emma wasn't crazy. She had a dream, and had worked awfully hard to make it come true. He had just helped. He would've done anything for her, but he couldn't save her.
Emma fell ill during the winter, and despite Cal's protests, she insisted on doing backbreaking work instead of resting. She got worse and had to take to bed. By the time Doctor Prescott got out to them, Emma was suffering dearly, burning with fever, drifting in and out of consciousness, and Cal was praying, something he hadn't done since he was a kid. He was standing on the porch, getting some air, when the doctor came out of the house shaking his head.
"You've got one tough wife," he said. "Anyone else would have given up days ago." Beyond those words, Cal could see in the doctor's eyes that Emma didn't have long. "Go to her, Cal," Doctor Prescott said, "comfort her."
As Cal reached the bed, Emma had a terrible coughing fit that wracked her body. He fell to his knees, lay his head on her shoulder, and hugged his love, his hope, his reason for living. All he could say was, "Oh, Emma . . . oh, Emma." Cal felt her hand on his head, weakly stroking his hair. He listened to her labored breaths, clinging to each one and hoping for another. Her hand dropped, and she was gone, along with a part of him. He felt Doctor Prescott's kindly hand on his back; still, he wept unashamedly.
Cal had Emma buried on the property. Although others from Tinsley were at the funeral, he and Jessup, who sat quietly and obediently at his side, were the only family members present at the interment. The day she died, Emma had only one request: "Keep Jessup for me."
Cal saw the silhouette of the town, when he thought of Jessup again, and remembered his oft made comment, "If anything happens to you, that dog's outta here in two seconds." The remark was made mostly in jest because Cal actually had been amused by and liked Jessup's feistiness. Unfortunately, he had never told Emma. After she passed, Jessup's temperament changed drastically. The dog followed Cal the same way he had followed Emma, didn't growl or bare his fangs anymore, and, in the evenings, whether on the porch or in front of the fireplace, he'd lay at Cal's feet, just as he did with Emma. It was a quick, strange reversal, but Cal enjoyed the company, and, in a way, he understood. Jessup was Emma's dog, and the dog brought back fond memories of her. Maybe, Jessup felt the same. They were both drifters, and Emma had given them a reason to stay put.
Cal entered town and rode up to the saloon. He dismounted and tied his horse to the hitching post, next to the big brown and the appaloosa. He looked up at the sun and thought it was good day to die. He walked to and pushed his way through the saloon's swinging doors. Inside, he scanned the room and saw several men standing at a long-bar across the room in front of him. To his right and left, a few other men were eating and drinking at haphazardly arranged tables.
The bartender, who was clearing glasses from a nearby table, said, "You want something, Cal?"
"I want those two dog-killing bastards," Cal said, his voice cutting through the buzz of conversation, laughter, and other barroom clamor, which ended abruptly at his comment. He stood tall as all eyes turned toward him. He would have appeared comical with his dirty work boots and tattered work clothes with dirt caked on the knees, and with his frayed straw hat -- more fit for a scarecrow, except for, the massive blood stain on his front and his gun. His eyes were locked unmistakably on two men at the bar - one wore a black sombrero and the other wore a dark-gray ten gallon hat with a red bandana wrapped around.
"You must be crazy, sodbuster," the one with the stogie and the ten gallon hat said, looking over his shoulder, with a slight smile. Disdainfully, he looked Cal up and down. "Go home before you wind up like your dog." He turned back to the bar. The one with the sombrero faced Cal, leaning against the bar and rolling his whisky-filled shot glass between his fingers. He stared at Cal, and one could see the purple rage rising from his neck into his face.
"Yellow bellies," Cal said, holding his ground. A few men walked hurriedly out of the saloon. Others grabbed their drinks and moved out of the way.
"I've had enough of this jackass," said the stranger with the black sombrero. He downed his whiskey, slid the glass to the bartender, who had returned to his station, and commanded, "Fill it." He headed toward Cal, followed by the other who said, looking around, "I warned him." All was silent, except for, the ominous sound of their spurs clashing at each heavy step against the hardwood floor.
Frantically, the saloon owner, rushed in between the impending trouble, arms waving and eyes full of fear. "No, no fighting in here. Take it outside." He froze as both strangers kept walking, glaring coldly at him.
"You best get out the way," said the one with the sombrero, flicking his thumb. The owner retreated quickly and moved a chair out of the path of the strangers. Turning to Cal, he warned, "Don't be stupid." Others seconded his advice, but Cal wasn't listening.
He backed out through the swinging doors, and walked slowly into the middle of the street, keeping his eyes on the strangers. Cal stood ready with the sun at his back.
The stranger in the ten-gallon paused on the landing of the saloon, extending his arm causing the other to stop, "Well, I'll be . . . the sodbuster is crazy," he said, chuckling.
"Just like his dog," said the other, pushing his companion's arm away, "Come on."
The two strangers walked into the street opposite Cal, positioning themselves several paces away. The one with the ten gallon hat, who was still smiling, stood to Cal's right; the other stood to his left. All pedestrian and horse traffic scattered to safety or to a good watching distance.
"Someone ought to get the sheriff," a bystander said, turning to a small throng, with no intent of abandoning his own prime viewing spot.
But, soon after, nothing or no one moved; no one even dared blink or breathe. All eyes moved either from the two strangers or from Cal and back again; though, a few women preferred to bury their faces into their men's chests or backs, some stifling screams. For a brief surreal moment, death's agonizing grip held them all. The stranger in the ten-gallon stopped smiling, and the other, whose eyes seemed locked on Cal's, squinted slightly, and . . . he pulled. Two shots broke the silence and both strangers fell. The one who wore the sombrero was not moving, but lay flat on his back, hatless, with one leg bent awkwardly. The other writhed in pain, clutching a hole in his chest, his hat and gun lay a few feet away. Cal held his weapon at his side, strode to the two strangers, and discerned that the sombrero-wearer was dead. He moved to the other and stared down into the man's confused eyes, and watched them succumb to death's eternal seal, before returning his gun to its holster. Cal walked to his horse, mounted, and rode slowly out of town. Behind him, the town erupted with a cacophony of sound and movement. Rising above the din, he heard a woman's belated scream and someone call, "Cal! Cal!" but he ignored everything, except for, his own inner demons. He grappled with them during his ride beyond the boundaries of the town and into the barren wilderness that lay before his homestead. Somewhere in that untamed stretch, he yielded again to his being alone, free to roam, and, if need be, a killer of men.
Later that evening, Cal, who had just come out of his house carrying saddlebags filled with provisions, some gear, and a bed roll, noticed a solitary figure on horseback approach. While he loaded and tied his supplies onto his horse, he kept a keen eye on the nearing rider. He recognized the sheriff, who reined his horse to a walk, and stopped a few feet away.
"Is that you, Cal?" the sheriff said, squinting. "I hardly knew you in that get up." Cal was garbed in all black, from his black wide-brimmed undertaker's hat to his knee-high black boots with silver spurs. The sheriff took particular notice of the gun in the black holster, which was strapped low.
"You come for me?" Cal asked, stepping slowly away from his horse, squaring up, and facing the sheriff. He looked at the sheriff with eyes as cold and deadly as a poisonous snake's, coiled and ready to strike.
The sheriff put both hands on the reins, purposely holding them in plain sight, and stammered, "I . . . I just come to tell you that . . .ah . . . you got two thousand dollars coming, as soon as I . . . ah . . . get the marshal's order." And in an awestruck voice, he added, "You killed the Henry brothers, and that's two thousand -- dead or alive." He paused for Cal's reaction or response, but got none. "People in town are still talking about it. Ol' man Fergus said he hadn't seen anything like it in all his days. His son, Will, swears when Wayne Henry stopped smiling, he saw a smile break on your face." He snickered nervously, but Cal remained silent. The sheriff shifted uncomfortably in his saddle. "But that's his version." He looked slowly around the property. "You and Emma sure got a lot done in a short period of time."
Cal walked to and mounted his horse, saying, "Mainly, Emma."
"That gal was special," the sheriff said, still inspecting the result of their efforts.
"Yes, she was," Cal said, nodding wistfully. "Get my money," he said, glancing at two graves, which he had covered with stones. "Have it, when I come back." The other man didn't miss the threat in the statement.
"You bet," the sheriff said, as he, too, glanced at the graves. "Where you headed?"
Cal scanned the surrounding expanse, shook his head, and said, as he nudged his horse into motion, "Just a hankering to go . . . that's all."
As Cal rode slowly away, the sheriff, burning with curiosity, not able to contain himself any longer, called out, "Who are you . . . really?"
Seemingly oblivious to the question, Cal's dark form and undertaker hat moved in-sync with each slow gait of his horse; until, he responded over his shoulder, "Emma Walker's husband."
Glenn D. Hayes is originally from Boston, Massachusetts. He moved to New York City, where he still resides, to attend Columbia University for graduate school. Several of Glenn's stories have appeared in: The Lamp-Post of the C.S. Lewis Society of Southern California, The Pink Chameleon, Dark Moon Rising, and Inkburns.