By Davin Ireland
Seth Abner found his way onto our land just as sundown was departing the rural Kentucky skyline -- a tired horseman drawing rein at a tired part of the day.
“D-Dirk, help me,” he whispered, and dismounted his ride in the pitiful, trembling stages of an ageing rheumatic minding his joints.
My father, in the midst of closing his bible ahead of supper, stepped down from the porch to greet our nearest neighbour wearing the expression of a man who’d bitten into an unripe pawpaw. His gait was uneven due to the deflected bullet he’d caught witnessing his first-ever gunfight aged eleven, yet nothing could hide the urgency that informed his movements. He clumped over to the old man, right heel scuffing a wavering line in the dirt.
“D-Dirk,” Abner repeated, eyelids fluttering on the edge of consciousness. I could tell he was hurt bad. The old slouch hat he wore was blood-encrusted and all stoved in on one side. His exposed left ear was blackened by gunpowder residue and had a piece missing. He was also caked from head to foot in trail dust -- a clear indicator he’d travelled a long way to get here.
My father caught the local wheelwright just before the latter hit the ground, and half-carried, half-dragged him to the dead oak stump we used to chop our kindling.
“Billy, get us some water,” my father growled, even as I moved in to lend a hand. “And tell your mother to get that fire stoked!”
I did as I was told. By the time I returned, Seth’s wind-burned features had greyed out beneath the dust and he had taken to moving his lips without speaking. I also noticed how pain had turned the seams at the corners of his eyes into miniature irrigation ditches watered by moisture dribbling from his tear ducts. He tried to speak again, much with the same result.
“Hush now,” my father told him, “you need to save your strength for what’s ahead.”
I had no idea what that meant but the old man clearly did. With a wheeze that might have been part chuckle, he slipped a hand inside of his shirt and withdrew a crimson, shaking claw. It was a magic trick conjured by the Great Deceiver himself. As if to confirm this, the departing sun struck a pincer-like shadow off the claw that trailed all the way to the woodshed.
Our neighbour was dead before nightfall.
In keeping with tradition, Dirk Brennan rose in darkness the following morning and shaved by candlelight. Careful to stay well hidden, I watched his reflection through a crack in my bedroom door. As with countless times before, I found myself wondering how a man so revered for his stoicism made such an engaging and popular schoolmaster. It seemed odd to me how one so in love with language could reserve his affection almost entirely for the written word. And yet the children of the valley idolized him, as did I. In fact, most of the parents I knew were as enamoured of his ways as we were -- an affection inspired not least in part by the Lincoln quote inscribed on the lintel above the front door:
RIGHT MEANS MIGHT
He was gone before the first delicate threads of dawn touched the skyline. Saddlebags packed, my father mounted Severin and clopped out of the gate clad in a black, knee-length frock coat. I wasn’t fooled. I knew he was dressed like that because it was the best way to conceal the holster strapped to his thigh. That meant he was anticipating trouble, possibly even an encounter with Seth’s killer. Right then and there I decided to follow him. If my father was heading for a showdown with an unknown enemy, he would not do it alone. Galvanized by the notion, I began making preparations of my own -- and in the process found a note on the dresser advising my mother to expect the Abner menfolk later that afternoon. I took that as a sign that the Abner homestead was my father’s destination. It also reminded me that old Seth had elected to come here rather than die in the bosom of his family. The thought scared me.
My father had retired from his part-time role as a deputy sheriff after my mother fell pregnant with my older sister, Corrie, back in ’66. While I’d never seen him so much as raise his voice in public, I was well aware of the rumours surrounding his past. One such rumour featured the notorious Clipper Brothers Gang. The story went that the gang had fled south from Hardin County, Illinois, one year following the murder of a bank clerk who’d tried to reason with them. They were said to be aiming for Tennessee when word arrived that Dirk Brennan was riding out to meet them. On hearing the news, the gang detoured west all the way to the Missouri Bootheel, just to avoid a confrontation. But that was a long time ago.
There was another problem. I didn’t much appreciate the idea of my mother being left alone to fend for herself while my father was away. The Abners were good, honest folk, if not a little rough at the edges, and experience had taught me to trust their judgement. The thing is, grief can do strange things to men blessed with more courage than restraint. Maybe that’s why my parents had stayed up past midnight preparing the body. I can only assume that they hoped the sight of the family patriarch lying in state, albeit temporarily, would calm whatever baleful passions burned in the heart of his kith and kin. Still, I feared for my mother’s safety -- and for Corrie’s, too. My unease only intensified with the following sentence, added in the form of a postscript: ‘I shall tell them that the fugitive died from his wounds, lest they join me in order to satisfy their appetite for revenge.’
The note ended with a second postscript addressed to me, meted out in my father’s faultless copperplate script. My instructions were pragmatic and curt, listing as they did quantities of water to draw, corn to shuck and homework to complete (I’d been excused the night before due to the traumatic nature of events). I returned the note to its place on the dresser and changed out of my nightclothes. With no time to waste, I drew the requisite amount of water, some of which I used to fill a basin. I dragged a comb through my hair and tried to match the look in my father’s eye as the gleaming straight razor traced the contours of his throat and chin. The comb’s pitted bone shaft made for a poor substitute.
‘Billy,’ my mother called, ‘don’t forget to empty the fire grate before school.’ The instruction preceded a change in pitch and tone: ‘Corrie Brennan, breakfast’s nearly ready. I want you out of that bed now, young lady, and I mean right this minute.’
The words scarcely registered. The blood was pounding so hard at my temples that I had trouble hearing myself think. All my mother had to do was glance out of the scullery window and there I’d be, thirteen years old and heading out of our smallholding on Seth Abner’s chestnut gelding -- a frightened child with scant knowledge of the wider world, tracking a man who knew the wider world only too well and had grown weary of it.
But my mother was too busy preparing for the day’s guests to pay her only son much heed. Pretty soon I was out of range and sorely regretting a youth dedicated to domestic chores and the schoolhouse. Ticks and saddle rash were responsible for much of that disillusionment. I guess the drudgery of the open road took care of the rest. There was one bright spot. Shortly before noon, with the sun glowering down from a sky that seemed to have forgotten the sight of clouds, my father paused at a creek to water Severin and work the kinks out of his legs. That was to be expected. If he rode for too long without a break, his hip tended to trouble him on account of that bullet he’d taken. I slowed when the dust trail up ahead drifted off-track and into the brush. A minute later and I was tethering Seth’s gelding in the shade of a Kentucky coffee tree.
Glad to be out of the sun, I stretched and took a turn around the shaded area beneath the tree’s sprawling canopy. A falling seed-pod slapped one of the gelding’s stirrup irons on its way to the ground. Another clipped the brim of my hat. Shedding early this year, I thought. It wasn’t until a third pod landed at my feet that I caught a suppressed giggle and looked up. And there, high up in the branches and framed by a dense backdrop of leaves, was a familiar outline. Isaiah Pound was the son of a Negro drayman who delivered and collected goods the length and breadth of the valley. Isaiah was my age, and because his mother and grandmother were seamstresses, went shod in the smartest of jean-cloth britches and light-weight cotton shirts. He was invariably bare foot and always wore a straw hat with a brim he deliberately frayed himself. It was Izzy’s contention that nobody ever stole a straw hat with a frayed brim.
“Whatchoo doin’ walkin’ in circles, Will?” he called down, and giggled again.
“Gettin’ rained on, by the look of it. How ’bout you?”
“Collectin’ coffee nuts for my pops.” He switched to a nearby branch and clambered down a few feet. “Tole me to stay hid up here till he gets done deliv’rin’.”
I shaded my eyes with a hand. “You know that ain’t real coffee, right?”
“Tastes fine if’n you boil it up right.” He dropped down another level and found himself a seat beside a leather water bottle that was securely wedged into a fork in the branch. “Your daddy just came by,” he added, and for a moment wouldn’t meet my eye. “But I guess you already knew that.”
“You speak to him?”
Izzy seemed to think about this. “Uh-uh.”
“He speak to you?”
He shook his head.
“Well, are you coming down?”
Another shake. I could understand his reticence. The history we’d learned in class meant I knew it had only been twenty-one years since Lincoln’s Cooper Union Address and a mere sixteen since the Thirteenth Amendment. A Negro boy alone on the open road, even in this part of the Blue Grass State, had to keep his wits about him. That said, Isaiah and I were on good terms. That was my impression, anyway. “You got nothin’ to be afraid of with me around, Izzy,” I said. “I’m your friend.”
He nodded but frowned at the same time. “I tole you, my pops said to stay hid up here in the tree. Don’t leave it for nuthin’ nor no-one, he said. His exact words.” I opened my mouth to reason with him, then closed it again. Up until that point I had missed the dread look in Izzy’s eyes. He swallowed but managed to hold my gaze. In a voice barely above a murmur, he asked: “You hear about what happened? Over that ridge up yonder?”
“I heard. We’re headed out that way now.” I waggled my canteen. “You need a refill? I can take it down to the creek for you.”
He patted the bottle wedged in beside him. “Got plenty, thanks. Already ate, too. Passed a plum tree on the way in.” He swallowed again. “Shoulda brought more, though.”
“I tell you what,” I said, and ventured out into the sun. I studied the track east to west. The dust had settled in both directions. If there was a sound to be heard above the shrieking of the cicadas, it failed to reach me. I withdrew into the shade again, scratched the gelding behind the ears. “If you keep a watch over this old boy while I’m gone, I’ll fetch plums enough for the both of us. How about that?”
A grin broke across Izzy’s face. He nodded so hard that the frayed brim of that old straw hat slipped down over his eyes.
An hour later, my father drew rein at the Abner homestead. He mounted the porch in that strangely upright manner of his -- back straight, head held aloft -- and rapped the doorpost with his knuckles. Left untethered, Severin made her way to the trough to replenish whatever fluids she’s lost since visiting the creek. I ate a plum while I waited for the inevitable. It didn’t take long. The screams of the women pierced the air like whippoorwill cries at night. A young man burst from the house seconds later and raced off in the direction of the fields. Three mounted riders eventually departed the homestead in my father’s company. They treated him with deference and solemn appreciation but were armed. When they took off west in a thunder of hooves, my father stayed put and watched their dust cloud recede until it was far out of sight.
I surmised that Izzy would hear the approaching rumble of horses and know to keep himself hid. My mother and Corrie would not be afforded that luxury. I thought they’d be okay. The men had been visibly shocked by the news but appeared otherwise reasonable and determined. I sucked the juice off the plum stone and spat it out. Something was bothering me. It took me a while to figure it out. The men had no cart with them. How, I wondered, did they intend transporting old Seth after taking possession of the body? And then it hit me. The local drayman was doing the rounds of the valley that very day. He’d more than likely be along to the smallholding in the next few hours. Somehow that didn’t make me feel a whole lot better.
Dusk came and went. I shivered, peered out from the enveloping murk of the deep woods. I was cold despite the warmth of my saddle blanket and the heat radiating from the gelding’s flanks. My attention kept straying to a distant clearing. The clearing was rock-strewn and dotted with the ashes of old campfires. Severin stood on the far side of a crackling fire, nosebag looped around her ears. A familiar figure, silhouetted by the blaze, passed the time whittling a stick down to nothing.
I began to experience a fresh sense of unease. I had always perceived my father in that one narrow sense -- as my father, the paternal half of a parental union, the central purpose of which was to educate, discipline and nurture offspring. Out here in rural McCracken County, camped out beneath the stars, he was just a man alone -- a respected citizen of Dutch-Irish descent, it was true, but still a mysterious adult with an inner life I knew almost nothing about. A stranger, in other words. I had known him for as long as I could remember, yet there were parts of him I didn’t really know at all.
Hunkered down beneath a flowering dogwood, a three-quarter moon riding high in the sky, I fancied I saw him just as others might see him: a tall, sinewy fellow with a face unnecessarily stern for its years. Flinty, deeply religious, he was known to possess an almost boundless compassion for those less fortunate than himself. Although that compassion, I had come to understand, rarely extended to children -- his own or others. Perhaps that was because he had lost his own father at a young age and had been largely obliged to fend for himself ever since. I am not ashamed to say that I loved and feared him in equal measure. What I feared most was witnessing a side of the man heretofore unseen. Would he curse or belch out loud now that he was alone and beyond my mother’s influence? Shoot woodchucks for fun? Extinguish his campfire by pissing on it?
My stomach whined at the smell of cornbread and salt pork warming over hot embers. I had already exhausted my stock of plums ... and with the passing of time my heart yearned for the stolid comforts of home. Yet where did I find myself? Lying low like an outlaw in a part of the country I had never seen before. I was a spy, a traitor to my upbringing, and as such had betrayed the man to whom I owed most. It was then that I began toying with the idea of quitting. I figured that if I rode all night, my mother would be so relieved to see me that I’d avoid the beating I so richly deserved. I had no more imagined the outcome of that scenario, however, than my father’s voice rang out clear and strong in the night: “You don’t get over here soon, son, I’m apt to finish this cornbread all by myself.”
The stab wound that killed Seth Abner was the work of an Indian labourer, my father revealed once we were done with supper. “A Shawnee, to give it a name.” He threw more wood on the fire. “We haven’t seen their kind in this part of the world in, oh, fifteen years? He’s holed up an hour’s ride from here. The way Seth told it, he’s commandeered himself an abandoned hide of some sort. From the description, I’d guess a deer-hunting blind, but who knows?”
Darkness seemed to encroach upon the campfire at the very mention of the elusive redman. “Darrius Pike told me all about them Shawnee,” I confided in a low voice. “His great-grandpa was a U.S. Marshal back in 1776, reckons he helped run ’em out of the state during the Chickamauga Wars.”
My father removed a toothpick from the corner of his mouth and rolled it between his fingers. It was one of several he had whittled from that stick. He studied it for a while, then tossed it into the fire. “That was an awfully long time ago,” he said at length. “Still, I’d like to hear more of what young master Pike has to say.”
The toothpick flared and blackened amid the flames. I felt light-headed with unforeseen privilege. My father was actually interested in something I had to say. He was treating me as an equal, an adult. Talking man-to-man. I squared my shoulders, reflected but for a moment. “Well, Darrius reckons they got horns, some of ’em,” I ventured. “They eat their new-borns when there’s birth defects or famine -- and mutilate their squaws’ faces if they so much as look at another man.”
“Is that a fact?” My father sipped ruminatively on his coffee, eyes taking on that same distant look they acquired when the straight razor moved across his face.
“Uh-huh. And in winter-time, they slice open live buffalo and bury their feet in the guts to ward off frostbite.”
My father took another sip of his coffee, grimaced in the act of swallowing. He seemed to be liking the taste of it less and less. “Good Christian folk’ll do that too if the weather’s cold enough,” he offered, “and they’re desperate enough.” He swirled the grits in his cup and tossed them after the toothpick. The campfire replied with a peremptory hiss. My nostrils caught an acrid whiff of burnt coffee. “And not just with buffalo. If the choice is between losing toes to frostbite and sacrificing a pack animal, most church-going folk won’t hesitate to do the exact same thing with a mule or, if they have to, their own horses.”
The question earned me an inscrutable look. “I wouldn’t lie to you, William.”
The mention of my birth name stirred up something within that left me on the brink of tears. The upset seemed to well up inside of me from nowhere, borne aloft on a stinging salt tide I had to bite down on to smother. This was one of the few times I could recall my father calling me William instead of Billy or Will. I should have been glad. I should have felt gratitude for this newfound level of respect. But I felt nothing of the sort. Instead it were as if by revealing a glimpse of adulthood’s desolate realities, my father had forever cast me out of his bosom.
Further details of Seth’s demise remained vague. From the old man’s final, tortured gaspings, my father had gathered that the Indian in question, unmarried and missing an eye, was a man by the name of George Killaneca Blackhoof.
“I knew George when he lived over in Paducah,” my father confessed. “Worked the fields most days. Helped his sister in the kitchen when he could, too. That’s pretty unusual for a man of any breed.” It was mid-morning, and our route east was taking us into wilder country. The searing heat of the previous day had given way to cloudy skies and fits of warm drizzle. I was still digesting the uncomfortable news that my father had known the fugitive personally, when he said: “Old George never quite learned to read, as I recall. A retired pastor read both testaments to him aloud and he just memorized the parts he liked.” A shadow of doubt crossed his brow. “Hard to tell if he was quoting scripture because it meant something to him or just reciting stories from memory because he liked them.”
“Is that why they killed him?”
“George? Far as I know, he ain’t dead yet. And don’t tell your mother I said ain’t.”
In the act of articulating the thought, my father pulled Severin up short and unholstered his gun with a speed I wouldn’t have imagined possible. We were making our way around the edges of an abandoned farmstead at the time. A derelict stable was nestled at the base of a line of rolling green hills. Barn swallows wheeled and swooped about the eaves, agitated cheeps piercing the air at regular intervals. My father leaned over and gently took hold of the nameless gelding’s bridle. A full minute passed. I couldn’t tell what he was looking at. After another minute, he straightened up and relinquished his grip.
“Just a hawk,” he murmured -- and the next time I looked, the gun was back in its holster. I’d seen him use it before, of course. To put lame horses out of their misery. To scare predators from our land when fences and traps proved unworthy deterrents. I once saw him empty all six chambers of his revolver into a grey wolf that had carried sheep off of the farm on consecutive nights. And on one memorable occasion, I’d looked on in astonishment as he’d fired a warning shot into the air when a barroom brawl had spilled onto the street. But I’d never seen him so much as train his gun on another human being, let alone pull the trigger. Gathering my courage, I asked about the chain of events that had followed George Blackhoof’s encounter with the posse.
“They put a bullet in him when they couldn’t get the noose round his neck,” my father responded, “presumably to make him behave. They must have overlooked the blade tucked into his britches.” He guided Severin around a rocky formation at the base of the latest hill, expression the same as when he’d taken that final sip of coffee the night before. “I guess he had just enough strength left to use it.”
“Is that how he escaped?”
The cheeping of the barn swallows faded to nothing. It was just the two of us now, riding side by side. Partners on a quest. “He escaped because the posse was blind drunk. They were as much a danger to themselves as they were their quarry. I assume that’s how Seth got that piece of his ear blown off.”
I listened to the tale unfold with growing bewilderment. Something was missing, and it took me a while to locate the gap in the narrative.
“Exactly what did he do wrong?” I sensed that part of the account had been omitted for my benefit, and the notion irked me. “And where was the sheriff in all this?”
My father surprised me by cracking a rare smile. “You’re a bright one, Billy,” he said, “no doubt about that. And what he did wrong is a question for the ages. Cattle-theft, is what Seth claimed, along with some other stuff I barely remember. But there’s a more fundamental issue at stake here, son. You understand what I’m saying?”
I told him that I wasn’t sure.
“Some years ago, George’s sister married a Black River Chippewa and moved to Oklahoma. George was alone for a long time after that. More recently he’s been ... well, the only polite term for it is ‘co-habiting with a white woman’, but I’ll say no more on the subject.”
I had no idea what ‘co-habiting’ meant, but when the words white woman appear in a sentence referring to an Indian, even indirectly, you don’t need a dictionary to take the essence of it. “Is she dead?”
My father opened his mouth to speak, only no words would come. His eyes narrowed. His grip on the reins tightened so hard the leather creaked in his fist.
The thing he’d spotted at the top of the next rise was a hanging tree. Beyond and above it, half a dozen turkey vultures rode the thermals with a grace that belied their ghastly appetites. After ascending to the summit, we discovered the ground beneath the noose to be deeply gouged by hooves and bootheels. “Must have fought like a cat in a sack,” my father observed, and angled his chin at the thicket beyond. “Plenty of undergrowth between this hilltop and the next. If he’s hurt bad, he’ll be down in that ravine somewhere. The vultures will guide us.”
My stomach clenched in apprehension. I began to feel sick. “You’re not taking him back to town, are you?”
My father abruptly raised his hand for quiet. “Get down,” he whispered. Drawing the gun once again, he dropped from the saddle and practically yanked me out of mine. His final instruction was to remain by his side at all times. Then he drifted into a nearby stand of pignut hickory like smoke wafted on a breeze.
I’d never seen my father in such circumstances before. He seemed every bit as confident and assured in the face of impending danger as he normally did conjugating verbs on a schoolboard. With swift, fluid movements, he graduated from thicket to clearing to briar-choked slope, halting every now and then to put his ear to the wind. That stiff, clumping gait I’d watched deteriorate over the years seemed to vanish completely.
The final swell of undergrowth gave onto a rocky incline choked with weeds and straggling bushes. The bushes continued on down the incline till they crowded the banks of a dry riverbed. Just the place to spring an ambush, I thought ... only to spy a pair of moccasin-clad feet sticking from beneath a ragged laurel bush halfway up the opposite slope. The bush was augmented by branches torn from a low-hanging shingle oak.
“Must be the hide Seth mentioned,” my father whispered, and swallowed.
Some hide, I thought, but kept to myself. “Is he dead?”
The question received as its answer the silence it deserved.
The ailing Shawnee failed to respond at the sound of our approach. I could hear him breathing from a distance of ten feet, lungs bubbling like a stew pot over high heat. My father eased his way around the bush, gun cocked and ready. He signalled for me to begin removing the piled branches, which I did, dragging them down towards the riverbank one at a time. What remained of George Killaneca Blackhoof was revealed in gradual stages.
He was in his mid-forties, dressed pretty much as we were aside from his moccasins and a leather braid to keep the hair out of his one good eye. Part of his abdomen had been blown away by a long-rifle or weapon of similar high calibre. Fractured ribs protruded from a blackened crater of scorched flesh and punctured organs. Among the ruins, the exposed lower half of a single lung inflated and emptied. Its owner was deathly pale, lips blue from lack of oxygen. My father knelt at Blackhoof’s shoulder, fed him sips of water from his canteen. Their eyes locked on the final sip. For a time, neither of them moved nor spoke.
I crouched opposite my father, who acknowledged my presence without seeking eye contact. “I think it’s time we did what we came here to do,” he said.
I regarded the dying Shawnee for what felt for like a very long time. A mounting dread blurred my thoughts.
Discarding the canteen, my father dislodged the cylinder of his revolver with the heel of his palm and checked the load. “Open his shirt.”
I gazed at George Blackhoof, who looked as if he had been turned half inside-out, and began to cry. Only three buttons remained on the upper half of the blood-encrusted garment. As far as I was concerned, that was three too many. “W-what?”
“Do as I say. Open his shirt.”
I began to shiver. “Do I have to?”
I had never imagined I would be required to touch the man we’d sought. The stench arising from his exposed entrails was close to unbearable. And what Darrius Pike had told me about the Shawnee’s ways only increased my revulsion.
“Do it,” my father ordered, and without even looking struck my face with an open hand. It was a vicious roundhouse slap to the cheek, the force of it all the more potent for the disdainful manner in which it was delivered. Perhaps that’s why it stung so much. I was no stranger to my father’s discipline –- he once thrashed me so hard that I’d had to eat standing up at the dining table for two nights running. But never had he struck me in the face. I would have been no more shocked had he turned the gun on me and pulled the trigger.
Blubbering now, tears dripping off the end of my nose and chin, I reached down with hands that shook uncontrollably and fumbled to unbutton the gore-stained fabric. Off to one side, the revolver’s ammunition cylinder span and clicked back into place.
I undid the last of the buttons and pulled the lapels apart. “Can I stand up now? Please, Daddy?” I had stopped calling my father Daddy at the age of five.
The look I received in reply conveyed such unmitigated contempt that for one irrational, heart-stopping moment, I feared my father might shoot me for real. But instead he ordered me to lay my hand on the dying man’s chest. He pointed to the exact spot.
I couldn’t do it. Terror and humiliation had rendered my hands useless artefacts of skin and bone. I just sat there and wept in the shade of the laurel bush. My head throbbed, as did my cheek. The stiffening wind stirred the foliage at my back, leaves rustling not unlike the furtive wagging of tongues. Mocking me, taunting me, rendering my humiliation complete.
Renouncing the final shreds of my dignity, I begged my father to release me from my intolerable burden. To no avail. He slapped me again, this time with real venom. My head rocked back with the force of it. The world turned grey. When I had recovered my senses, the world was still grey. It took me a while to understand that I was flat on my back and staring straight up at the overcast sky. Those cursed turkey vultures continued to ride the thermals, only there were more of them now. My father’s voice was rough with emotion the next time he spoke. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he’d wept tears of his own. “You will not defy me this day, my lad, do you hear me? There is a lesson to be learned here, and so help me God, you are going to learn it ... or I will return home to your mother without you.”
And with that declaration, I sank into the deepest despair of my young life. Never had I been so crushed or felt so utterly worthless. “Yes, s-sir,” I snivelled, and dragged myself into an upright position. The tears had stopped. I was all cried out. When I cuffed the remaining moisture from my eyes, I noticed how Blackhoof’s skin prickled with gooseflesh in the strengthening wind. There was nothing for it. Trembling from head to toe but knowing I had exhausted every option available to me, I laid a hand on the dying man’s chest. His bare skin was sickeningly warm to the touch despite the change in the weather. It was also clammy with sweat.
And then a question my father had never asked me before: “What do you feel?”
I thought about it as calmly and rationally as I could. My parents valued honesty above all other things, as it was the closest a mere mortal could get to Truth. “Scared,” I managed to choke out.
“I did not mean on the inside.”
Fearing another blow, I stared helplessly at the back of my splayed hand. It could have been a symbol in Blackhoof’s native Algonquian tongue, so indecipherable was its meaning. But then, my stare unbroken, I experienced a breakthrough of sorts. “His skin,” I whispered with relief, “I can feel his skin. It isn’t as cold as it looks.”
My father’s jaw clenched. Somehow he held his temper in check. “That’s the fever, boy,” he urged. “What else?”
Blackhoof had spent the course of our exchange gazing at me without a trace of doubt or rancour. The look in his single functioning eye appeared to be one of fondness. He knew the end was near and accepted it with baffling good grace. He closed his seeing eye and gently laid his own hand over mine. That was all it took.
The answer rippled up through the fevered flesh in a rhythm that was irregular, distressingly faint, and all too real. Its presence made me cry all over again, simply because I hadn’t expected such an obvious solution to the riddle my father had set me. To their eternal credit, the two men waited on me in respectful silence.
“His heart,” I finally managed to sob out. “I can feel his heart.”
“Say it again.”
I did as instructed.
“His heart, boy. His heart.” A sound loaded with frustration and regret escaped my father’s lips. “You just remember that the next time the Darrius Pikes of this world tell you these people have horns. Or that they eat their young in times of hardship. Now look at me.”
Filled with bottomless shame and self-loathing, I met my father’s gaze. He seemed to have aged, even as I had regressed. He turned the gun over in his hand and passed it to me stock-first.
“Give him this,” he said.
I took what was offered and placed it in George’s pale hands. Were my worst fears about to come true? Was I to be executed by a Shawnee for disrespecting his people? I should have known better.
The dying man, who barely had the strength to maintain a grip on the gun, smiled at me through the pain. Then he did the same for my father, who placed his canteen on the ground beside his friend before turning to leave.
“Let’s get back to those horses, William,” he said, and laid a hand on my shoulder. We returned to the hanging tree without a word passing between us. I watched as my father positioned Severin beneath the dangling rope and stood up in the saddle. When he was fully upright, he unknotted the noose before cutting the whole thing down. The rope hit the ground just as the report of a gunshot rent the torpid McCracken County air. My father went rigid. His jaw tightened again. For a moment, his eyes assumed the vacant lustre of glass. Then he scabbarded the knife and dropped back down into the saddle. Neither of us looked back over our shoulders during the journey home. Nor did we ever speak of that day again. Somehow we didn’t need to.
It is the year of our Lord 1926 and I have far exceeded the age my father had attained when we embarked on that fateful excursion out of the valley back in 1881. Since then, the world has progressed in ways my thirteen-year-old self would scarcely have imagined possible. The age of the internal combustion engine is upon us. Live radio broadcasts are an everyday fact of life. But as I have come to understand, progress -- not unlike Newton’s Third Law of Motion -- has a way of counteracting itself with the equal but opposite force of corruption. Last fall, a den of Klansman set light to a cabin full of slumbering Negro sharecroppers, only to open fire upon the unfortunate occupants once they fled the burning building in terror. The Klan elevated its kill-ratio that night by employing another modern invention. The submachine gun.
I can only guess how my father would have reacted to such wickedness. Sadly, guessing is all that remains to me. Dirk Brennan joined my mother in the next world the week of President McKinley’s assassination. I lost my beloved Corrie to consumption in 1905. Which leaves just me, William Sander Brennan, as the last of our line. I’d like to tell you that things have come full circle in the decades since George Blackhoof’s death. I’d like to boast of raising a family of my own, of working the land of our smallholding as my father did before me. Or that I maintain faith in scripture. Or that I teach in the same schoolroom that has served the valley for generations. But none of those things are true.
The reality is that I became Sheriff of McCracken County at the ripe old age of 29 -- the youngest in the history of the Commonwealth of Kentucky -- and it is a role I fulfil with all the dedication and integrity at my disposal. After many years bunking down on a cot in the jailhouse, I recently moved to a single room above the hardware store across the street. Being the local lawman is a tough, demanding existence but it is not a solitary one. The courts may have prevented me from electing Isaiah Pound as my deputy, but there is nothing to stop Izzy riding with me in an unofficial capacity. Even so, there are days when I lack the courage of my convictions. And on such days, I recall the sting of my father’s open hand striking my face and understand that fear is there to be overcome.
For the real enemy that day was not the drunken posse nor the violence it visited upon an innocent man, but their own boundless ignorance. And mine. That ignorance be the enemy of civilized society is a truth as enduring and self-evident as those that inform the Declaration of Independence, and as such it is a lesson from which none of us may hide.
Right. Makes. Might.
Davin Ireland recently returned to the south of England after spending three decades in the Dutch city of Utrecht. His fiction credits include stories published in over seventy print magazines, webzines and anthologies worldwide, including Aesthetica, Here & Now, Storyteller Magazine, Zahir, The Quiet Feather, Independent Ink Magazine, and Reality Complex.