By the time James walked into the tavern in Missouri, he'd grown a beard. He was lean and hard and carried the Hart carbine cradled in his left arm.
* * *
He had already killed one of them in Maysville, last October. Toward evening he'd come on a slave auction and searched the crowd. He spotted Charlie Vance wearing Luke's beaver hat. Next to Charlie was Tom Vance. James worked his way closer while the auctioneer offered a young black woman.
Charlie said over his shoulder, "Hey, Coleman, there's your meat."
The man directly behind Charlie said, "You go to hell too, Charlie."
The young man next to Coleman laughed and Charlie said, "What about you, Jack? You can get her cheap."
James thought: That's them, all four—the Vances, Coleman Hayer, and "the young fella." Don't see the mule. They have a wagon? Horses?
Coleman said, "Let's get us a drink 'fore we head down river."
"I'm for that," Charlie said.
James stayed back and followed them with his eyes. They left the square and went into a tavern by the landing. He went over to a stand of trees next to a small implement store and general goods. He waited with the carbine ready. He wasn't sure what to do. Should he try to shoot all four when they came out?
The auction ended. The crowd quickly thinned out, disappearing into the town. The evening eased into night while he waited. Shouts and the sounds of barrels and carts moving on the landing came from behind him. Occasionally men went into the tavern. James saw bodies outlined in the doorway in the lantern light. One wore a beaver hat.
He waited nearly two hours or more and then Hayer staggered out and went to the side of the tavern. He stepped into the dark. James crossed over and followed.
Hayer swayed and groaned as he urinated on the ground. He buttoned his trousers and turned around. James said, "You're one of them."
"What? What the hell?"
"You killed my brother."
Hayer swayed, shook his head, then pushed James aside. James dropped the carbine and grabbed Hayer by the collar. Hayer spun around and swung wildly at James. James pulled out his hunting knife and thrust forward and up into Hayer's stomach. Hayer grunted and his knees bent and he fell. James wiped the knife on Hayer's arm, then the grass. He picked up the carbine and backed off into the dark.
Hours after, the other three came out of the tavern. Beaver-hat Charlie called, "Hey, Coleman, where the hell are you?"
Tom Vance said, "Passed out somewheres."
"Hell with him," Charlie said and the three staggered off.
James cocked the carbine and fired just as they turned the corner. One of them yelled, "Damn! My ear! My ear!"
Men ran out of the tavern. Shouts of "What was that? A shot! A shot?"
James turned and disappeared into the night. He ran down to the river and away from the town. He went several miles until he was too tired to go on. He crawled into a thick clump of brush and, after a few minutes, fell asleep.
The cold of an October dawn awakened him. He crawled out to look at the mist rising from the river. He heard voices coming up from the water and then a flatboat appeared surrounded by a halo of filtered sunlight. At the front of the boat drinking from a jug was a man in a beaver hat. Two more men were back by the cabin—one had a cloth or bandage around his head—and a third was in the back steering.
James raised the carbine, said to himself, "Not much chance," and fired.
The three in front dropped to the deck.
James watched the flatboat slip away into the mist.
The bar was a thick plank set on three barrels. Two men stood there drinking and talking with a bartender. On a bench and leaning against the wall, his eyes closed, was Tom Vance.
* * *
A man came in to yell, "Boat ready to head up river."
The two at the bar downed their drinks and brushed past James as they left.
Vance shook his head and stood up.
James raised and cocked the carbine as he stepped toward Vance.
Vance opened his mouth to speak as James fired. The bartender ducked behind a keg. The tavern filled with gunsmoke. James loaded a fresh cartridge and cap. Behind him a man in the doorway called, "Hey, Tom, come on." There was a pause and then: "God damn!" James spun around to see Charlie Vance, still in the beaver hat, take off.
Tom Vance was on the floor trying to crawl away. James turned back, raised the carbine, and shot Tom in the head. He quickly reloaded, but before he could go after Charlie, through the haze of smoke, he saw the bartender pointing a pistol.
"I'm not here to kill you," James said.
"I don't aim to let you."
"He killed my brother."
"Maybe so, maybe not. I don't much care which way it is. You just turn around and walk on out."
"How do I know you won't shoot me in the back?"
"You don't. But you should know I will shoot you in the front."
James shrugged. He still had two more to get and he saw no reason to kill this man. He turned and very slowly walked out into the sunlight. He saw the packet-boat going away up the Missouri River. Several men were down at the landing and a group of four or five was coming his way. He got on the horse he'd bought in Ohio and started up river. When he heard the bartender shouting from the tavern, he kicked his horse into a gallop. The horse decided a fast trot was good enough.
For nearly one year James had followed them, asking at every river town or landing along the Ohio about three men, one in a beaver hat, another missing an ear. By the time he reached Cincinnati he realized that the best place to ask was at a riverfront tavern. There he found they'd boarded a barge carrying hogs. He was weeks behind them now, and that's when he bought that horse. He paid twenty dollars for the horse and bridle but only got a blanket instead of a saddle.
* * *
But he cut wood and split rails in Indiana for food. He stayed from November to early February in Illinois repairing a barn and doing other rough work for a widow and two daughters. He was too young for the widow and too quiet for the daughters, who had suitors as it was. He slept in the barn and kept to himself. The widow and her neighbors thought there was "something not quite right" about James.
In spring he was hunting again. He picked up their trail in Golconda at the ferry. They hadn't crossed over to Kentucky but headed west. They worked there as hands for most of the winter. He found out a farmer's daughter had run off with them. "She's a wild one," the farmer said. "No good sense. Sixteen and she got the itch real bad." "She took off with the young one," the wife said. "A no-good with half an ear," the farmer said. "What did you expect?" the wife asked. "What is there here for her?"
In a tavern in Belleville, he was told they were with some travelling show folks going on to St. Louis. Outside St. Louis he found the manager of the show who said the Vances had skipped out one night with twenty-five dollars in gold and one of the mules. In the morning the young man and the girl had left too "for Independence, they said. They were set on going to Oregon. The young man's name? John Howard, but they called him Jack. He called the girl Liza. She's not much to look at, but neither is he. Somebody shot off half his ear." "The Vances? Any idea which way they went?" "Not certain, but Elsa said she heard a horse or mule going away from town. Could've been our mule. Both probably were on it. No account thieves. Why you want them?"
"They killed my brother."
So now he'd killed two and he was close to getting the third, Charlie Vance. After that, he'd hunt down John Howard.
He kept the packet-boat in sight well after sunset, but the going got rough and the night was dark without a moon. He dismounted and led the horse at a slow walking pace. Eventually he couldn't go on, so he sat down, leaned against a tree, and fell asleep. At dawn he was up and on the horse.
* * *
Well before noon he came upon the packet-boat at Miller's Landing. Several men were busy on the boat. A man, in a cap with a short bill, stood on the dock shouting at the men. "Don't you tell me you can't fix it. You get down there and go to it. Damn no good lazy . . . "
James walked over to the man and asked, "Mister, could you tell me if you know where your passenger—"
The man turned and snapped, "What? What? Don't bother me. Can't you see I ain't got time to mess with the likes of you."
"You had a passenger wearing a beaver hat."
"I don't see him here."
"Course not. Let him and his damn mule off on a bar last night. Said he was sick . . . feverish. I pulled over right quick. Fever means the pox. You know about the pox? Six, seven years ago it come up river and wiped out most of the Mandan and Blackfeet and Crows. I didn't want to get wiped out too. Hey, you God damn useless . . . "
James got on his horse and started to backtrack. He rode slowly and often dismounted to walk as he stayed close to the river. By mid-afternoon, he noticed bent low branches, tracks, then a sand bar close to the shore. Now he had a trail to follow.
At dusk he came on a small cabin in a clearing. He dismounted and led the horse across a small patch of ground, scattering several hens and an irritated rooster. He passed an outhouse and a small shed without a door. A plow leaned against the shed. Laying a few feet from the side of the cabin, face in the dirt, was the body of a man. James leaned down and saw the back of the man's head was caved in. The hair was dark from clotted blood. An axe lay next to the body. The body was stiff and cold. He noticed the feet, strangely pale in the faint light, were bare.
* * *
He went around to the front. A door hung cockeyed on one leather hinge. From inside he heard low whimpers, soft weak crying. He called, "Hello? Anybody in there?"
He heard scraping or someone crawling.
He peered into the dark and saw someone or something over against a wall. He stepped inside, the carbine loose in his right hand.
He heard a voice, a woman's quavering voice: "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me." Then she began to sob.
James took a few steps toward her.
"Please, please," she said, "please don't kill me."
"Lady, I'm not going to kill you. No, no. I'm not going to hurt you. I'll go away if you want."
"Wait, wait. Stand there in the light, in the doorway."
He stepped back.
"You . . . you're not him. Not him. He killed Micah. He killed him and stole his boots. Then he . . . he grabbed me . . . and . . . and . . . " Standing now, she began to sob, and her whole body seemed, to James, to be shaking. He wasn't sure what to do. He just stood there and waited.
She lit a candle set on a mantle. Seated on a chair by the fireplace, bent forward with hands pressed on her lower abdomen as if holding it in, she told him that the stranger had showed up and asked for food. She didn't like his looks but Micah, her husband, said that it was their Christian duty. So she prepared a meal of biscuits and boiled chicken. The stranger ate and then went outside with Micah. She watched from the doorway. The stranger picked up an axe and struck Micah. She quickly shut the door. The stranger tore the door open and "had his way with her." Then he took their mule and Micah's "Andrew Jackson pistol my father gave him" and rode off on his mule. She had looked at Micah, saw he was dead, came inside, then became sick to her stomach and fainted.
* * *
"He wear a beaver hat?'
"Yes, yes, he did. He never took it off . . . not even when he . . . "
James said nothing. He waited.
"Micah—he can't lay out there like that. It's not right."
"You want me to bury him?"
"Would you? I can't."
"You have a shovel?"
"There are implements in the shed. I think he'd like to be put out by the blackberry bushes. He was right fond of blackberries. He said more than once he wished we had a cow so he could have blackberries with cream. Back in Brown county, there were blackberries on his folks' farm. You never seen so many blackberries. He was like a little boy about those berries."
His eyes accustomed to the dim light of the moon just rising over the trees, James dug the grave by the blackberry bushes near the woods. He wrapped the body in a piece of canvass taken from a wood pile, carried it to the grave, and placed it in the ground.
The woman—"Rachel Wetzel but Brooks before I was married"—came out with a thick candle stuck on a plate. She walked slowly, one hand pressing on her lower body. James held the candle so she could read the twenty-third psalm from her bible. At "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever" James handed her the candle and began to fill in the grave.
As they walked back to the cabin, Rachel said, "I see you are a good Christian man. I thank you for all you have done. The Lord will reward you."
At the cabin door, James said, "I'll sleep out here on the ground. I'm used to it and I can be sure nothing happens." He saw to his horse, lay the blanket on the ground, and after a long time looking up at the sky and the moon and the far stars, he fell asleep.
He woke at dawn and lay quietly for a long time. He heard her stirring in the cabin. She came to the door and said, "I started a fire and the pot's on. It's real coffee Micah bought in St. Louis."
He stood up.
"I've a bucket of water if you want, but there's fresh from a spring back in the woods."
He found the spring. He washed his face, did his business hidden in the trees, and returned.
She came to the door and handed him a mug of hot coffee. Behind her, in the fireplace, a pot hung over glowing coals of kindling. "Corn meal mash for breakfast. I expect you're hungry. Maybe you can find an egg or two the hens laid and I'll add that. One never knows where they drop them. In the grass somewheres, I guess. But finish your coffee first. By the way, could you tell me your Christian name?"
After breakfast he told her he had to move on, but he would take her where she needed to go because he didn't think it was safe for her alone.
She said, "That is very Christian of you, Mr. Macklin. I guess it would be best if I went back to my family."
"Where are they?"
"Brown county, Indiana."
James didn't know what to say. The trip would be near five hundred miles. But he'd said he would take her.
Rachel wore a long white dress, a shawl, and a bonnet. She filled three old flour sacks with the clothes and the few things she wanted to take. She gave James her husband's coat and a pair of trousers and clean socks. She wrapped biscuits and pieces of chicken in her only table cloth, the one her mother had given her. He loaded the horse with the sacks and then lifted her onto the blanket. Because of her dress, she sat sideways.
* * *
She said, "Micah's grave—it needs a cross."
James split a board from the shed and formed a cross from the two pieces. He used twine to hold it together, then drove it into the ground with the flat of the axe. He noticed the dried blood on the axe, then tossed the axe into the bushes. He went to the shed to find anything useful. He grabbed a folded length of canvas and a coil of rope. He brought them back to the horse.
When he returned, she said, "It won't need a marker with words. God knows who's there." Then as they were leaving she looked around and said, "I believe this would have been a fine good place to live one's life." She paused. "But it was not His will."
James walked beside the horse, his hand on the halter.
Within five miles or less, he heard her moan, and when he turned, he saw her slide to the ground. She rolled over on her back and looked up at him. Her face was pale and tears filled her eyes and there was blood on her chin—she'd bit her lip. The front of her dress, from the waist down, was dark with blood.
He bent down. She said, "I thought it would stop. I put cloths, rags and rags and rags like my time. I thought it would stop. He hurt me . . . inside . . . inside."
He was down on his knees beside her. "What can I do?"
"Carry me back."
He lifted her and went to put her on the horse. She began to fall and he grabbed her. "Carry me," she whispered.
On the way to the cabin he felt her suddenly get heavier, her head fell back, her mouth opened, and her eyes stared at nothing. He went on and the horse followed.
He buried her next to her husband. He didn't remove her dress or bonnet. He cut a board and carved "Rachl Brooks Wetzl" on it, sharpened the end, and pounded it into the ground with the shovel. He read the twenty-third psalm from her bible, sounding out each word very slowly. The bible had been the book Ma had used to teach him to read.
He left everything, except for the biscuits and pieces of chicken, in the cabin.
Charlie Vance's trail went south, then west. Because of the mules it was easy to follow