UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 07/2012
TO GOOD ENDS
I heard the boys shouting for me, so I ran to the open door of the house and onto the porch. Luke and Manley were propping a third individual between them, and it took me a moment to recognize him. I took in his torn clothes and the blood and dirt smeared all over him, then I said, "Boys, bring him in."
They carried the man in and laid him on the sofa. He was groaning, his eyes closed but conscious. When the boys had him down I said, "Take the truck around back. Then clean yourselves up and come right back here."
I could tell they weren't too eager to leave, but I looked hard at them and Manley took the hint. He grabbed his brother and they went outside. I listened to them on the porch, watching the man. Helen was standing in the kitchen, staring at me, but instead of asking what was going on she said, "Hot or cold water?"
"Cold," I said. "Oren's a mite thirsty, I reckon."
He opened his eyes and squinted at me. "I know you, mister?"
"Hobbes." I dragged a chair next to the couch and sat down. "Jeb Hobbes."
"Oh." He half-smiled at me, then looked away. "Didn't recognize you."
"It's been a while. Didn't know you were still around."
"Where you working now?"
"The Peterson place. Their eldest boy joined the army, so they've been needing an extra hand."
Helen brought the water in, and she saw who was on the couch and said, "Well, Oren Kendall. What brings you back here in such fine condition?"
He sat up a little, wincing, and took the glass she handed him. "Money, Mrs. Hobbes. Gotta say it's money, like always."
"Indeed." When he was done drinking she took the glass and asked if he wanted another. He didn't, and looked at me, and I nodded to Helen. She went into the kitchen and didn't reappear.
We sat in silence for a few minutes, him gently lifting his leg. I glanced at the one he'd been favoring, his left, and saw that the ankle seemed a little swollen.
"Might have to cut the boot off," I said.
He nodded, and we just sat there again until the boys came back in. They came immediately over to the couch, and I told Luke, "Close the door."
"But it's hotter 'n hell in here."
"Close the door."
He did, and when he was done I told the boys to head upstairs. They groaned a bit, but I think Manley might've had an idea what I meant, 'cause he hauled his brother away. When they were gone, I eyed the kitchen, where Helen had disappeared, and I said, "All right, Oren. We're alone. What you doing on my land?"
"Runnin'," he said. He pointed at his leg. "That damn cattle guard ya'll put in. Must be new."
"Two years ago. Can't say as it's been worth the price."
"Yeah, well. It works, Mr. Hobbes, it works."
"What you runnin' from, son?"
He shrugged and sat himself straighter. It must've hurt, but Kendall was always one to look you in the eye when he spoke, and he needed to be level with me.
"A man runs bad enough to twist his ankle," I said, "he must know what it is he's runnin' from."
"Maybe it's best you don't know, Mr. Hobbes."
I nodded. "Damn right it's best I don't know. But fact of the matter is, son, I'm gonna know, ain't I?"
"I reckon so, sir."
"So." I waited. He said nothing, didn't even look at me—he was looking out the window, and I soon followed his gaze. It was flat out there, flat and barren, the fields dusty and ill-used. The weather had been bad this summer, real bad, and the cattle weren't eating well enough, and the beans didn’t appear to be coming in right. It could all turn around, I knew, but I'd seen enough summers like this to know we'd have to skimp this winter. And even then, the odds weren't good.
I was the first to give in. I could've waited, could've been sympathetic; after all, he'd always been nice to my boys, always respected my wife and I. But I had to remain objective; out here, that's the only way to do things, sometimes.
"How they travelin', Oren? They got a truck or horses?"
"Horses," he said. "They're horseback."
I nodded. That would slow them down a bit more, make it just that much harder to track. Though, aside from the Peterson ranch, there wasn't another property this side of town for miles. Assuming Kendall would be heading into town—as they surely would—he would almost certainly have to cross my property. Bad luck he hadn't known about the cattle guard, and bad luck he'd been too panicked to look for it.
"Three. Brothers, I think. Two of 'em look alike."
"You owe them money, Oren?"
No further explanation. He was still staring out the window, his ankle forgotten. I watched his hand groping at his jeans, the fingers clenching unconsciously. I wondered what he was trying to clutch, in his tangled mind; what was he grasping at, what was he attacking? He must've felt my eyes, because when I looked up from his hand he was looking at me.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Hobbes," he said. "I'm truly sorry 'bout this."
It didn't much matter whether he was sorry or not, I told him; it was happening, that was all there was to it. Nobody's fault, not his or mine or even God's, probably. If anything, best to blame the three men coming for him, best to blame the motivations of such men.
That's what I told him. Inside, I was cursing him, wishing him to get the hell out of my house and go as far as his bum leg would take him. That ain't the kind of thing you say to a man in need, but it's often the kind of thing you think. I guess he must've seen it in my eyes 'cause he said, "I can go out the back, Mr. Hobbes. Just go and keep goin'. Maybe I can hide out there somewhere."
"Nowhere to hide," I said, which wasn't saying I didn't wish there was. "Flat as hell out there, son."
I saw something move from the corner of my eye. Helen was there in the kitchen, and I knew she'd been listening. I said to Kendall, "I'll get you another glass of water," and I got up and joined her.
She probably had about as much fear in her eyes as I did in mine. She said, "Jeb. The boys."
"I know." I listened for them upstairs. I wondered if they'd been listening in as well.
Helen was whispering, her voice a bare rasp against the heat. "We have to get him out of here."
"We can't." I went past her and got a glass of water. As I was passing her again I leaned in close and said, "You know I would," although I'm not sure if she knew any such thing.
I went back and gave Kendall the glass. He took a small sip from it then set it on the table beside the couch. He nodded towards the window. "They're comin', Mr. Hobbes."
I looked. I could see the dust first, then the vague shapes of three men on horseback. I counted off in my head how many men in the county still went on horseback, but there was quite a big number, so I said, "Who are they, Oren?"
He didn't answer.
We watched the men draw closer. It took a long time before I could see them clearly enough to identify them: three men and four horses. Two of the men did look alike, and the third was a little older, and he carried himself like the colonels I'd seen in the war. He was also dressed better than the other two, in the same shabby clothes but with more care as to presentation. I could see the sun reflecting off his buttons before I could even see his face.
I knew the three by sight but not by name; I pegged them as from Shelby County, maybe Handover. Not necessarily local boys, but I'd seen them in town from time to time, which meant I'd probably seen them at the Sheriff's Office when I went to vote or pay bills. I wasn't sure if that was a good thing or not. They weren't law; I would've recognized them if they were law. Except the man in front. He'd been law at one point, 'cause he was too young to have been in the war, and yet he certainly wasn't no regular hillbilly.
Kendall and I watched them until they rode up and stopped a few feet from the porch. The boys must've been looking too, because they came to the edge of the stairs and Manley said, "Pa?"
"Go upstairs," I told him. "Shut yourselves in your room."
They did. Helen was standing at the entrance to the kitchen again. I asked her, "Anyone around back?"
"Good." I stood up and went to the door. I glanced out the window again first, and the well-dressed one saw me and dismounted his horse. I opened the door and stepped out, leaving it open behind me.
The man stood a few feet from the base of my porch, looking up at me. He was in his late twenties, with a groomed mustache and gelled hair beneath his hat. His eyes were pale blue, and in them I could see a gentleness that I didn't believe for a second. The tautness of his shoulders, his hands held just off his holsters said otherwise.
The two men on the horses were definitely brothers, in their late teens or early twenties, with unkempt beards and hats that had seen more sun than was customary. One of the men had a revolver half-drawn; the other held a rifle at his side, aimed down and forward.
"Good afternoon," the well-dressed one said.
I nodded at him. "Good afternoon."
Silence. I met his eyes and held them, but it wasn't easy. He smiled a little and said, "Allow me to introduce myself. Jeremiah McClellan."
I didn't say anything, just looked up at his companions.
"William and Everett," McClellan said. "Friends of mine."
"Jeb Hobbes," I said. Neither of us offered to shake hands.
I stood within just a foot of the door. He was eyeing the house, paying special attention to the windows. The two on horseback were just looking at me, and I was doing my best to ignore them.
"Mr. Hobbes," McClellan said again. He seemed not to like my name much. "I believe we got us a situation, do we not?"
"I reckon we do. You're on my property."
"We are." He nodded somberly. "And without your kind permission, I regret. No time for formalities. The nature of our business requires us to proceed with promptness and haste, which lends itself, by its very nature, to rudeness. My apologies."
"But Mr. Hobbes, it is our business which brings us here." He nodded at the door behind me. "You've a man in there, I presume."
"I may have."
McClellan smiled at me, then called out, "Oren Kendall!"
Kendall didn't respond. McClellan watched me the whole time. After a few seconds of silence he said, "Is he conscious?"
When I didn't say anything he continued, "Mr. Hobbes, it would be best if you answered my questions with all due haste and veracity."
"Can he walk?"
"Depends on what he's walking to, or depends on how he's walking?"
McClellan licked his lips. He glanced up at one of the upper story windows, and I was tempted to follow his gaze but I kept my eyes on his face. He looked back at me, smiling again, but it wasn't quite as comfortable this time, which meant it was more genuine and I relaxed slightly. The way you relax when the wolf has finally revealed itself in full—you know where it is, you know that it's not at your back.
"What is he to you, Mr. Hobbes? Besides a man who stumbled in here injured and hurried."
"It don't matter." I eyed the revolver at his waist, then the guns of the two brothers. "He's here with me, and not with you."
"I assure you, if you knew what he'd done, you'd let me walk in there and retrieve him."
McClellan laughed a little. "Mr. Hobbes. You aren't a man for this. Let me get him."
"Then bring him out here."
"Won't, you mean."
"If I told you I was well within my rights to go in there anyways and get him."
"I'd call you a liar, Mr. McClellan. I don't see any badges."
"A badge is a piece of metal, Mr. Hobbes. Any man can carry one."
"Then you get yourselves some and come back."
I could see the two horseback men getting restless. The man with the pistol had it drawn in full now; it was resting across his lap, but I figured he could have it up and firing at my chest in less than a second. The other had lifted the barrel of his rifle, so that it was now aimed in my general direction. McClellan hadn't drawn his revolver any further, but he hadn't moved his hand away from it either.
"You gonna shoot an unarmed man?" I asked. "An unarmed man who ain't done nothin' wrong?"
"You're harboring a fugitive," McClellan said. "That counts as wrong in most books."
"A fugitive from what? The law?"
I nodded. "Well then. Sheriff Haney handles the justice around these parts. You bring him out here, we'll talk."
McClellan leaned forward. He took a couple steps, until he was almost on the porch. "Mr. Hobbes. We got no need of the sheriff in this. This is a personal matter, to be settled by me and the boys here. While I've no doubt the law would side with us, we have no time for decisions to be made. Even your decision is, I dare say, an inconvenience."
"Too bad. I've decided."
"Would you like to know why we want him?"
"Maybe you'd like to ride out to the Peterson ranch. Maybe you'd like to see what's happened to Valerie Peterson. Her husband. Her kids."
I said nothing. I glanced out at the fields, in the general direction of the Peterson ranch, and I watched my cattle grazing. They were thin, almost too thin; I hadn't the money for good feed any more, and I could see this farm slipping away from me like water from a leaky faucet. My boys wouldn't be farmers; Manley was good at it but also good at school, and Luke just didn't have the interest. I didn't blame them—the boys they went to school with weren't from farming families, most of them. Their fathers worked at the mill; a few worked at the bank, or the groceries. My boys didn't know many farmers' sons, and I can't say I was all that upset by it. Good kids will come to good ends; that's what my father told me, and it worked out well enough in my favor, more or less.
"Don't think of him as a man," McClellan said. "Think of him as an animal. A coyote in your barn that you need to get rid of. A creature that will cause harm to your family if he remains inside your home."
McClellan's horse was getting restless. It stamped a little, and he turned and whistled at it. The horse walked up to him and nuzzled his throat. He pet its muzzle and turned back to me. "We are leaving here with him, Mr. Hobbes. You know this."
"You aren't a man for this. I've seen you before, your kind. You're a good man, Mr. Hobbes, but you're not one for this precisely because you're a good man. Myself and the boys here, we're good men too, but we're a different sort of good, the kind that sees its share of blood every now and then. The kind that doesn't need badges, Mr. Hobbes, because if we had badges, we wouldn't be any different than we are now. You understand me?"
The brothers were watching the house now, the upper windows. Taking stock of who all might be watching. One of them even got the idea that there might be someone else around, and craned his neck about. We were far from the road, and no other homes were in sight. I liked the isolation, and so did Helen, but just at that moment I wished we lived in the heart of town, right next to the bank and the Sheriff's Office. Haney wasn't the most sober or competent man I knew of, but I also knew worse, and I was certain he could handle a gun far better than I could.
"Mr. Hobbes, I need to be sure you're listening to me."
I turned my eyes from the brothers back to McClellan. "I'm listening."
"And are you hearing me?"
"Oren Kendall, despite what you may think, despite whatever state he may be in, is not a good man. Because I know you have family listening, I won't go into the particulars of his crimes. But rest assured, Mr. Hobbes, if you had been out at the Peterson ranch, you would hand him over to me with a ribbon around his neck."
"I want you off my property," I said. "Or I'll call for Sheriff Haney."
McClellan was smiling now. He knew it was pretense and nothing else. "You do that, Mr. Hobbes. And maybe, by the time he gets here, there'll still be a house standing." He nodded towards the horses. "Picked up some kerosene from the Peterson ranch. We can have us a little fire right here, no fuss, no trouble."
I figured he was bluffing—I didn't see any kerosene—but I saw the opportunity not to call him on it and took it. I swallowed, my throat dry and sticky, and nodded. I stepped back into the house, where it wasn't any cooler, and turned to Kendall on the sofa.
He was watching me. The dust on his cheeks was running with his tears, and he said, "Mr. Hobbes—"
I stopped him. "I'm sorry, Oren. I have my boys."
Helen looked at me, and even though she was nodding, I couldn't lift my head to her. To Kendall, I said, "Please, Oren. I don't want that man in my home."
He didn't argue further. He let me get my shoulder under him for support, and I led him to our door. His tears had stopped, but he mumbled, "I didn't mean no harm by it." I didn't respond because he wasn't talking to me.
McClellan had ascended the porch steps. He took Kendall's other shoulder, glancing down at Kendall's left foot. "Hello, Oren. Had an accident, I see."
Kendall didn't say anything, and McClellan led him to the spare horse. Kendall's bad ankle banged against a step once, and I thought for a moment that he was going to lose his composure, but all that slipped out was one loud sob, and then he clammed up. One of the brothers hopped down from his horse and helped McClellan put Kendall on the unaccompanied horse. Then the brother remounted, and McClellan turned to me.
"I appreciate your holding him for us, Mr. Hobbes. Very Christian of you. I wish you and your family the very best."
He got on his horse, and the four of them rode off, Kendall's horse lagging behind, a rope stretched almost taut between them. Kendall looked back briefly, and when he did I turned away and went back into the house. The door stayed open behind me.
Helen was there waiting for me, and she hugged me. Luke and Manley came downstairs in a rush, and Luke said, "Pa, why'd we give him up?"
"Yeah," Manley said, though I'd almost expected more of him. "We have guns. We could've fought them off. Oren would've done the same for us."
Kendall wouldn't have, and I almost told them that, but Helen said, "Boys, I think we can use a good meal after all this. Why don't you help me with the preparations? Your father needs a few minutes to himself."
The three of them went into the kitchen, the boys still saying I should've fought the men off. And listening to them, part of me agreed. It was a small part, an irrational part, and it said there had only been three of the men, and all four of us in the house—plus Kendall himself—knew how to shoot. We could've fought them, before they burned down the house, and held them off until Haney and his deputy got there. It would've been bloody, but we could've done it, and Kendall would still be on the sofa where I sat.
But he wasn't there, he was gone, and I had the other part of me—the part that McClellan had seen, the part he'd mocked, in his own way—to thank for it. I also had my wife, and my boys.
I decided, in the morning, to take out the damn cattle guard. It was more trouble than it was worth. I'd be able to trade the metal for feed, and put a little more meat on those cows. And maybe, come next year, there'd still be something left of the farm I'd managed to protect.Daniel Davis was born and raised in Central Illinois. Currently, he is the Nonfiction Editor for The Prompt Literary Magazine. You can follow him at Facebook.com/DanielDavis05 or at www.dumpsterchickenmusic.blogspot.com
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