When the winter wind on the west Kansas plain
blows straight from hell, your prayers are in vain.
Joe Vanek said the poem to himself as he quickly worked to patch the small hole in his wall that let in that cold, night wind. Quickly because his hands were going numb. Quickly because his wife and infant child deserved to be sheltered from the wind. Quickly because it was all his fault they were out there, anyway.
He could hear the boy crying inside, now, the victim of croup or some other prairie sickness that would be easily curable back in St. Louis, or Chicago, but was an unsigned death warrant here. They had a pitiable life already, back in Missouri, but the promise of free land for a little hard work was too good an offer for him, the son of Czech immigrant parents who worked themselves into early graves.
He poured a little water onto the last bit of dirt he'd brought from the floor of their hovel and poked it into the small hole in the wall, eclipsing the small glint of lantern light that trickled out into the night air. The rest of the dirt was already frozen hard in the ground, the effect of an early winter chill that rode down the mountains with inhuman vengeance.
He picked up the ash pail at his feet and made his way back inside. The warmth of the fire was only matched by the appreciation of his wife.
"It already feels better," she said, bouncing lightly with the poor baby in her arms. He was wrapped in a blanket her mother had knitted for her when she was that age.
"Good," he said, taking off his outer wool coat but leaving on the lighter one he wore underneath, at least until he got over the psychological shock of taking off cold clothes to get warmer. The boy hacked a wet cough.
"He's gonna need medicine," she said worriedly.
"I know, May" he replied. "It's just so expensive out here."
She quickly looked over to their wardrobe, but looked away before she thought he noticed. It didn't work.
"You still want me to sell them."
She didn't say anything. Instead she turned toward the fire.
"I know I'd get good money for them, but it seems rather rash to sell them, knowing I might need them again."
"I thought that's why we moved here?" she said. She stopped, turning to the baby to comfort him in his despair, singing him a sweet song in between the pops of the fire. Joe watched his family in the orange light.
The snow began early the next morning, coming down in large silver feathers that stacked on the roof and fenceposts. Joe quickly worked to saddle up his horse, Bojovník, before the roads became more unfamiliar. They'd only lived there for a few weeks, and he'd only been to town a few times, and he didn't need to add difficulty to what was already a laborious journey over the top of the nearest low mountain.
* * *
He placed a wrapped bundle in his saddlebag and fastened it closed. The trip to town usually took a couple of hours in the best conditions, so he packed some hard tack as well.
Bojovník snorted as Joe checked all the straps one more time. "I know, Bojo," he said knowingly. "I don't want to be out here, either." Joe smoothed down Bojo's impossible shaggy mane, which exploded out the top of the stallion's neck like fireworks before cascading down, the ends dangling below the neckline. It was what first drew Joe to the horse in the first place, the unkempt hair. The dark eyes that were always watching. An impressive nose that not only could smell strangers from a half-mile away, but he'd let Joe know about it.
They both gave one last look to the house and Joe squeezed the horse's haunches with his heels. Together they left the homestead, the morning light broken into a million pieces by the falling downy fluff.
Silver Creek was a small prairie outpost at the western end of Kansas, with neither a vein of silver nor a worthwhile creek within a hundred miles of the place. No, the name was more of a marketing decision than a truth of geography, and about five hundred poor saps had been deceived by it. May said that the town was strange in and of itself.
But it had a doctor and a general store, and both of those things were enough, for now.
Joe tied Bojovník to a post outside the general store and removed the bundle from his bag. He brushed the snow from his coat as he stepped inside.
The shop owner stared out the window next to the counter as Joe approached. "We'll get two foot of snow out of this by the end of the day."
"How do you know that?" Joe asked.
"I've seen this kind of snow before," the owner replied, lost in thought. "It blows down from the mountains, unforgiving." He finally turned toward his guest. "What do you need? Must be important."
Wordlessly, Joe placed his bundle on the counter and unwrapped the cloth to reveal two shining pistols. A man to the side gathered his purchases and walked to the door.
The owner whistled when the polished steel caught the light. "Well, well," he said, licking his lips in anticipation. "These yours?"
"Yes," Joe replied. "At least for now."
The bell rung as another man entered the store, replacing the one who was leaving. Joe watched carefully as the man went to the back of the store, toward the dry goods.
"These are Stephenson guns," Joe said.
"Oh, I know that. These don't come on the market very often."
"How much will you give me?"
The owner blew a sigh through his pursed lips. "I'll give you fifty dollars."
Joe's eyes bulged. He knew that the guns were each worth at least seventy-five, but the thought of the money in his pocket, of medicine in his son's belly, quickly surmounted any offense. "Okay."
Reaching underneath, the shop owner pulled a pile of paper bills from a bag and placed it on the counter. "Thanks for doing business."
Joe took the money and gave one more look to the man at the back. He was tall, thin, and had a gray moustache that hung over his mouth like a curtain in a cheap opera house. The man nodded to Joe and a small amount of snow escaped to the floor.
The doctor's office was across the street, or at least the rutted dirt pathway that separated the buildings on each side. The young physician in there was cordial, polite, and he gouged the hell out of Joe for the price of the medicine. Joe took a small envelope of powder without comment and began the long trip back home. There were three inches more snow on the ground than when he arrived.
Nighttime came hard, and early, as the blinding white blizzard of the day turned blue in the darkness. The baby got his first dose of medicine midday, when Joe and Bojo returned from over the mountain through six inches of accumulated fluff.
* * *
"His fever's broken," May said.
"Good," Joe said. He peeked into a pot hanging over the fire.
"It'll never cook if you keep taking the lid off," she said, chiding him.
"I just want to warm up. Eat something warm. It's a long way to town and back."
"And I appreciate you going," she said.
"A dollar fifty for that powder," he said. "They overcharge for the medicine and won't give you half what your stuff is worth."
She wrapped her son in a blanket and placed him in his bassinet. "Are you mad at the price or mad at what you had to sell it for?"
He snuck another look at the stew and she slapped his hand. He didn't realize she was that close to him. "Can't it be both?"
She smiled at him.
An hour later, after supper, after Joe ventured outside to grave an empty bucket full of snow so they would have water to make coffee in the morning, Joe heard Bojo scuff at the ground in the barn attached to the house. The horse sensed something, and so Joe did, too.
"What?" she asked as Joe pulled open the small window cut into the door.
"Someone's out there," Joe replied.
"Why would someone come out in this?" she asked, but knew it was rhetorical.
Joe looked toward the wardrobe and frowned as he remembered what wasn't there. He still had a rifle, but it was useless in a fight, especially if this person was already close to the house.
Joe turned back to the small peeping window just as someone knocked from the other side. He jumped as he heard the noise and saw a man through the hole or, rather, a hat and a gray, curtained moustache looking back at him from the porch.
"Can I come in?"
Joe looked back to his wife, who had grabbed the rifle herself and kept it trained on the door. She placed herself between the baby and the door and looked at him with scared eyes.
"I'm Sheriff Richter. I saw you at the store earlier," the man said. "You sold the Stephensons."
Joe finally turned away from his wife. "So what?"
"I'm here to give them back."