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New American Western
Saddlebag Dispatches




Western Short Story
Who Shot Jesus?
Darrel Sparkman


Western Short Story

Union soldiers showed up at my neglected ranch a day after I came home from the war and caught me trimming poles to repair the corral. There was a nice stand of white pine right close to the barn. They wouldn’t last long, but it was a quick fix and pines are easy to cut.

The soldiers had a banker from Big Springs with them and a paper that said they owned my place, because of my participation on the wrong side in the late difficulty. My folks bought this land from the Cherokee years ago. I’d been expecting something like this—just not so many at a time.

When I produced a legal deed filed at the county seat, I saw a bunch of guns pointed at me by kids playing soldier—in uniforms that never saw dirt. They were young and I don’t think they’d ever fired a gun at anything but a target. I didn’t want them to practice on me. Those new recruits were fidgety with their trigger fingers and that banker was grinning.

I figured this was no time to debate the subject, so I gathered my things. Me being dead would just make things easier for them. The bluecoats held all the cards and it was time for me to throw in my hand. The Reconstructionists were stealing land right and left. It was pure thievery and everyone knew it. This day and time, there wasn’t much you could do about it.

Some of the local boys stayed and fought the best they could, especially the ones who’d been with Bloody Bill and the like, but I didn’t see any future in that. I knew the Union was still fighting the war—only now, they fought it with bankers and lawyers. A man once told me that when governments go to war, people lose on both sides. I reckon he was right.

I’d seen enough killing. My idea was to raise horses, and I could do it somewhere else as well as here. I still had an Appaloosa stallion that I’d named Apple. A good neighbor kept him for me, and a couple of mares for a fresh start.

Those soldiers sat and watched as I gathered my horses from the corral, loaded what little belongings I had, and was ready to go.

You boys want the shirt off my back? It’s kind of faded, but the color won’t run.”

Somehow, they didn’t think that was funny because about then that banker decided he needed my horses for interest on the loan I didn’t have.

I still carried my Spencer repeater. I’d taken it off a Union soldier that didn’t need it anymore, along with a saddlebag full of Blakeslee loaders. I pointed that rifle casual like, right at the banker’s belly. Since I was using my saddle and mount for a shield, about all they could see of me was my rifle and hat. Losing my land was bad enough, although it was all rocks and brush. I wasn’t about to give up my horses. Fighting was near enough in my past I still knew how to do it.

You may not know it, being a banker and always hiring your fighting done, but a .56 caliber ball makes a mighty big hole when it goes through a man. Most of your innards will be draped on those men behind you like Christmas tinsel.”

That fine, beautiful morning got real quiet and I could hear a wren fussing under the porch. A crow called in the distance and somebody was getting nervous on his saddle because I could hear the leather creak. Finally, a grizzled sergeant worked his way through the troops and held up his hand. He rode his horse in front of the banker.

His voice was soft, but carried where it needed to go. The soldiers were already putting away their rifles and turning away, relief showing on some of their faces.

Blevins, you’ve taken enough from this man. Let it go. We’re leaving.”

I guessed he wasn’t so brave without the soldiers, because that banker turned and followed them away. With a half-salute to the sergeant, a man I figured had a belly full of fighting same as me, I grabbed the tether ropes and lit a shuck out of there. I hated to leave and it stuck in my craw, but dead men can’t raise horses.

It took me awhile to leave the Ozark hills, dodging cavalry units along the way. I’d done nothing wrong, but didn’t want to have to explain that to every jack-leg blue belly that I was just moving through the country.

I hoped to find work in Kansas City, maybe the stockyards. At least, until I found something better. Folks couldn’t get shut of me quick enough in Joplin, or Union as some called it. They said I looked like a troublemaker. I didn’t think I looked any worse than those boys working in the lead mines. But, rough-looking or not I was able to trade one of my mares for a pack full of supplies and ammunition for my pistol.

I was a day out of Joplin and a month out of the Arkansas hills, heading northwest. When I saw that cabin, I like to cried. It was bitter cold and I was in trouble. I couldn’t feel my hands or feet, and my face felt like stone.

The snow had started yesterday. I’d camped early last night to gather enough firewood to keep warm, while I could still find it, and then rolled out at daybreak. Today the weather turned from sleet to freezing rain and covered us in a sheet of ice. Down in the gullies I could hear tree limbs breaking from the weight. A layer of ice covered the ground. If we hadn’t had a snow the night before, the horses wouldn’t have been able to walk. I worried they’d cut up their legs, but so far hadn’t seen any blood. The crunching sound of hooves breaking through ice sounded loud in a bitter cold, silent world.

That cabin I came upon looked deserted. The shuttered windows shown no light from within and no smoke came from the chimney. A lean-to barn sat next to the house and I rode to the entrance. The rain stopped, but the air was colder than before. I stumbled when I dismounted from Apple because I couldn’t feel my feet. The reins stuck to my glove and I had to pound my left hand against the saddle to break the ice away.

I looked around inside the barn and didn’t see much. There was no tack at all, and the stalls didn’t look used. Taking the saddle and pack off the horses, I left them out of the stalls knowing they’d want to roll to get the ice off. There was a small stack of hay, mostly straw by the looks of it, and I pitched it down. Maybe they could eat the mice that came with it. Apple shook his head at it and I shrugged. I was hungry too.

Grabbing my saddlebags, I put the pole across the entrance and went to the house. The porch had some shingles missing, and I saw a broken board on the floor. The latchstring was out, meaning someone hadn’t pulled it back inside. I opened the door, thinking the house abandoned.

My face was stiff and I was so cold I could barely walk. The bullet hit me as I stepped through the door. It notched my shoulder on the top, putting a hole in my slicker I’d have to repair later. I stood there, near frozen and I didn’t think of going for my pistol. It rested under my coat and my rifle was in the barn. It was a testament to how cold I was that I didn’t move for a minute, I don’t think I even flinched.

The boy standing in front of me struggled to re-cock an old LeMat horse pistol that looked bigger than him. If he’d used the shot-gun option from the center bore, pieces of my shoulder would be splattered all over the porch. He had on bulky mittens that kept getting in his way. His breath was fogging the space between us and he looked to be near panic.

Ears ringing from the shot, I reached out and snatched that pistol away, laying it on a table.

You shot Jesus!”

The voice came from a pile of coats and blankets next to a big cast iron stove—and that stove looked as cold as the bitter wind outside.

I shook my head a moment trying to get the cobwebs out, turned and closed the front door. There wasn’t much difference between inside and out, it was cold to the bone. Powder smoke and fog from our breathing filled the room. Looking around, all I saw were the two kids and a door I guessed went to another room. The statement finally registered. I’d been called a lot of things…

Why do you think I’m Jesus?”

The shaky, high-pitched voice came again. “Mama said Jesus would come to save us.”

I looked at the boy and his face looked pale from the cold, and I wondered how he could stand upright with all the clothes he had on. He was edging towards the gun, so I set it up high on a shelf.

Where’s your fire?” My mind had slowed to a crawl by the bitter cold. I couldn’t understand what I was seeing in the frozen house.

The little boy backed away from me. “It went out a few days ago. I couldn’t find matches.”

I looked around thinking no matter how bad things are for you, there’s always someone worse off. The stove was big and had a flat top for cooking. When I opened the door to the belly I noticed sticks of wood were laying flat against each other. I jumbled them around a little so air could get in amongst the wood, and then pulled out my waterproof skin of sulphur matches.

There was tinder in a box behind the stove and some that looked like a mouse nest so I stuffed that in between the sticks. My fingers were shaking with the cold as I got that fire going. Finally, it caught hold and after opening the damper to give it air, I closed the metal door.

I was afraid to ask, because I knew if the sound of that shot didn’t bring someone running—they weren’t coming.

Where’s your folks?

The boy pointed and I opened the door to that other room. A woman lay on the bed, and she wasn’t coming out. Ever.

She looked asleep and peaceful, with her hands folded across her stomach. They’d draped a faded blue dress over her like a cover, and her bright red hair was spread out and combed. It looked like someone had put black Sunday shoes on her and they were polished. Looking closer, I could see flecks of copper-colored blood around her mouth and guessed she’d been cleaned up some. It looked like she’d had a hard time of it, and I hoped her kids hadn’t seen it—but then my cold-addled mind corrected itself. Of course they’d seen her. They had to have washed her. There was no one else around.

The little voice behind me like to broke my heart, and I’ve been called a tough man. “We did the best we could with her. She’d want that. I knew she’d want to look nice when Jesus came.”

I turned to see a miniature version of the dead woman. She looked to be about five years old, dressed like the boy in every stitch of clothing they could find. Tears coursed down her cheeks. Then whatever was left of my heart—she stomped on it.

You took your sweet time getting here.”

It was freezing cold in that room and my mind just wouldn’t keep up. Finally… “What are your names?”

The boy took over. “She’s Josie and I’m Michael Kelly.”

What’s your mama’s name?”

Moira.” I looked toward the bed. “She always told us it was spelled with an oi, not just a plain old I. It was important to her.”

I’d known a lot of Irish who fought for the South so that didn’t seem uncommon. “Your mama would be proud of you. What happened to her?”

Josie shrugged and sniffled. “She got sick. Every day she coughed more. She couldn’t stop.”

Michael was crying now. “Few days ago she could barely walk and went to bed—said she was tired. She’d been coughing something awful. I knew something was wrong. It was the middle of the day and supper wasn’t fixed.”

He wiped his hand across his nose. “I was scared and asked her not to go to bed, but she went anyway. She coughed real hard for a while and then went to sleep. We couldn’t wake her up.”

I closed the door to the bedroom, and gathered the kids in front of the stove. It was turning red on the bottom and making a real difference in that room. I had the sudden thought that we’d have to move their mother’s body outside soon.

You kids start peeling your coats off. You’ll be warm, soon enough.”

Will we die, too?”

I could barely hear her voice. That question shocked me. I didn’t know what to say. It was as if they’d accepted it. I felt things were simple for little kids, although I didn’t have much experience. The important questions in their life were black or white, yes or no. I wished the world was that simple.

As soon as they shucked enough clothes, I gathered them to me. They hung back at first reminding me of a couple of foals when I’d hold out treats to them, but I figured they needed someone to hold them.

I’m sorry your mama died and you’ve had to go through this.” I was still searching for the right things to say. “You’re going to be all right, now. I won’t let anything happen to you. I promise.”

They were both crying as I held them. This wasn’t anything I was used to. The last few years left me a hard and bitter man and I never dreamed I’d be holding and comforting children.

A small voice came from against my chest. “I’m hungry.”

Well, how stupid can I be? Of course, they were hungry. That should have been my first thought. I sat them on a bench close to the stove and grabbed the saddlebags I’d dropped near the door. There was some hardtack biscuits in there and pemmican trail mix. “Chew on this real slow. Not too fast or you’ll get a bellyache. I’ll see about fixing something more to eat.”

I went out to the lean-to and rummaged around in my pack until I found a side of salted pork. It was near froze, so I brought the whole thing back inside to thaw a little so I could cut it. The horses were hungry and I needed to find forage for them soon. A horse can take a lot, as long as it has food and water. Apple tried to stomp on my foot and bumped me as I went out, but it couldn’t be helped. I was responsible for him and he knew it. I just didn’t have feed for them.

When I came back those kids were leaning against each other, faces blank and just staring at the stove. I’d seen that sort of look before on the battlefield. It was the look of defeat, and being too tired and broken to breathe.

I fried up some meat and then after I got a pot of clean snow, added the meat and hardtack to the melted water. I boiled that water first—something I learned on the battlefield. Dirty water killed more men than rifle balls. It was a makeshift stew and needed things in it that I didn’t have, but the broth would be nourishing. I looked for food and didn’t find any.

Michael, what have you kids been eating?”

He look at me a moment, still chewing on that trail mix. “I found a couple pieces of bread. It had green stuff on it. Mama saved it to try and catch a mouse.”

They were getting sleepy, so I made a pallet next to the stove out of all the extra clothes they’d worn. After I gave them a drink of water from my canteen, I laid them down. I think they were asleep before I stood up. That was all right with me. The stew would be ready when they woke up.

I fed more sticks into the stove and the heat pushed the cold into the corners. I realized I hadn’t taken off my slicker and coat, and still had my hat and gloves on so I peeled them off.

This whole thing seemed unlikely as any story I’d ever heard. With the cold, no telling how long their mother had been gone. And without decent food? Where did they get water? They just stayed here waiting for Jesus, like their mama told them.

And, for that matter, how close had I been to freezing? I couldn’t remember much of the morning after I’d left that last camp. A sheet of ice covered us. It was a wonder I’d chanced upon that cabin.

Growing up, the only book in our cabin was a Bible. My mama would read it to pa and me. I’ll admit, the words were wasted most of the time. It was too bad, because these kids were going to be plumb disappointed with me. I remember someone called me a devil once, but never Jesus. As soon as the kids woke, I’d feed them some more. Then I’d find the nearest town and turn them over to the locals. Surely someone knew them.

I still had to keep an eye on that stew, so I sat and leaned on the table… and woke with Josie tugging on my sleeve.

I need help.” She was holding a pan with snow in it. I hadn’t heard her go outside. “I think that stew is going to burn if we don’t add some water. I can’t reach it.”

We’ll have to boil it first.”

I had the thought that their mama tried to teach them everything she could before she died. The sadness and desperation must have been overwhelming. It was a testament to their mother’s character—it showed up in her children. They were so young.

Once we took care of the stew, I sat back down and she came and crawled up on my lap. She was studying my face as if she was memorizing it.

Papa went away.”

What do you say to that? “I’m sorry, Josie. Where did he go?”

She kept talking as if I hadn’t interrupted. “Mama thought something bad happened to him or he’d have come back. He’s been gone a while.”

I looked at her. “You sure talk good for your age.”

I know. Mama teached me.”

She was close to going to sleep again. I smiled at her misuse of the word. Many men I’d known didn’t talk as well as her.

You talk a lot, too.”

Like most women I’d known, she ignored me. “Mama made us do lessons every day. Who’s going to give me lessons?” Her shoulders shook a couple of times. “Mama died.” She looked up at me. “Should I die too? And be with her?”

Lord, help me.

No. She’d want you to keep living. Look, we all die sometime. That’s just the way God made us. But, you and your brother are strong. And you won’t die as long as I’m around. I promise.”

I realized that was the second promise I’d given and wondered if promises made to little girls were the same as the ones made in the night—to fade away at the break of dawn. I didn’t know if I could keep them.

It was getting light outside and I could hear water dripping off the roof. The fickle weather was starting to turn warm. When the sun came up, we ate that stew for breakfast. It wasn’t good, but they didn’t seem to care. They were just skin and bones and I wondered again how long it’d been since they had a good meal.

I went outside, saddled Apple, and set the pack on the mare. By the time I was done, the kids were on the porch watching me. They had their coats on and cloth wrapped around their hands and feet.

Michael spoke first in a tremulous voice. “Are you leaving?”

He held his sister’s hand and wouldn’t look at me. That was a brave little boy.

It’s warming up. There has to be a town near. You kids need to come with me.”

But, mama—”

She’d want you to go. We’ll come back for her.”

I banked the stove and made sure it wouldn’t flare up and cause sparks. The last thing we needed was to burn down their house. We went outside and I mounted, and then put Michael in back of me and Josie in front. I could see a lane now that the snow was gone, and some old, muddy tracks.

Town that way?” I pointed and Michael nodded.

We’d been riding a few minutes when Michael spoke up. “I’m cold.”

I reached around and grabbed him by the waist, pulling him to the front, and then scooted back behind the saddle to make room. “We’ll hold Josie between us, that way she’ll be warm too.” I had my arms around them and they seemed content.

An hour later we came to a small town, just a few buildings down both sides of the street. Michael pointed to one building that had Sheriff painted on a sign. I wondered how he knew where to go.

I reined Apple up to the hitching rail, and climbed off the horse. I didn’t blame Michael for wanting to move earlier. Riding behind the saddle was no place to be.

A man stepped out of the building. “Looks like there’s been trouble.”

I just shrugged. “You could say that.”

We got the kids off the saddle and took them inside by the fire while I told the story. He stuck his head in another room. “Zeke, you need to bundle up and go get Mary.”

I heard what sounded like iron bars clacking together and then a man came out shrugging into a patchwork coat. Slapping a hat on his head, he did a double take at all of us and then scurried out the door.

He turned back to me. “I’m Frank Bonner, the Sheriff of this county.” Looking closely at me, he continued. “And you’d be?”

I hesitated a moment. “I’m Joe Cane.” He looked startled and was about to say something when the door burst open, letting in a blast of cold air.

It was my turn to look startled because it looked as if the dead had come back to life. The woman shook her long red hair out of a scarf, glanced at me shortly and then ran to the children.

Aunt Mary!” Michael and Josie started chattering at her in hushed tones, and started to cry again—her along with them.

Well, that answered that. Pleased with the results, I turned to go.

Not so fast.” The sheriff’s tone said it all. He wanted answers.

I’m sending some men and a wagon out to fetch Moira.” The woman turned and looked at me, listening. “They’re not going to find anything different from what you told us are they?”

I looked at him, knowing a strange man showing up with a couple of kids could have gone a lot of different ways, and then at the woman.

I’m not given to lying.”

The sheriff watched me closely, but the decision seemed to come from the woman as she spoke softly.

Thanks for bringing in the children and taking care of them. I had no idea….”

When I nodded and turned to leave, the children ran and grabbed me by the legs. Trying to get them to turn loose, I said. “You’ll be all right, now. Your aunt will take care of you. She’s family.”

Mary put her hand on my arm. “Why don’t you go over to the boarding house and get a good meal and rest.” When I tried to say no, she insisted. “Look, we owe you. You’re tired, I can tell. The sheriff will take care of your horses, and you can get some rest. Another day lost on your journey won’t hurt, will it?”

Well, looking into those eyes it was hard to say no, but I was going to manage it until that little girl spoke.

Please, don’t leave us. Mama said Jesus would come and you did. You can’t leave us now.”

I looked into those eyes of hers, and then at Mary. “I ain’t Jesus.”

Josie spoke up again and I was already learning she liked to argue. “If you’re not, how come Michael shot you and you weren’t hurt. I saw him shoot you.”

Mary was smiling as she reached out and tousled the boy’s hair. “You shot Jesus?”

Papa told me to take care of mama and Josie. I didn’t know who was coming in the door.” He was scuffing the floor with his rag-covered feet. He looked up at me. “I’m sorry.”

I tried again, although it was beginning to feel as if I were on a runaway horse and had lost the reins. “I ain’t Jesus, and the boy missed—although it was a good try. He notched me a little.” I raised his chin so I could look at him. “It’s all right.”

That’s it.” Sheriff Bonner’s voice was gruff and I could tell he was trying not to laugh. “You stay until tomorrow until we can investigate this shooting.”

I sighed and looked down at the two children holding on to my leg. They stepped back as I knelt down by them. “Listen to me. I’ll stay until tomorrow and we can talk things over. You can trust me. Have I ever lied to you?” They both shook their heads. “Now, you go with your Aunt Mary and let her take care of you and we’ll meet up in the morning. I promise.”

Mary gathered them up. “You can rest up over at the boarding house, and get a good meal.” She looked him up and down. “And I’d recommend a bath.”

The trouble with getting warm and having a good meal is you get sleepy... and I’d been short on that awhile. The room had its own stove. They’d filled a metal tub with warm water and I stripped and climbed in. I about drowned when I went to sleep. Spluttering awake, I made it into some clean clothes that mysteriously appeared and made it to the bed. The next thing I remember is light coming in through the window.

The sheriff joined me for breakfast in the dining area. “We got the whole story from the kids—hell of a thing. They could have died out there and we wouldn’t have known. You’ve made quite an impression on them.”

I nodded, stuffing my face with the first biscuits and gravy I’d had in a long time. Pulling a slab of bacon off the platter and onto my plate, I poured gravy on that too.

It was just luck I found them. Pure luck.”

Yeah. Maybe. Kids are usually a good judge of character. They’re rarely wrong.” He took his hat off and ran his hand over his head before seating it again. “Well, the undertaker went out and got Moira. We’ll get her buried when the ground thaws out enough to dig.”

He looked pointedly at me. “Just so you know some more of the story, we found their pa a couple of weeks ago. He’d been shot dead along the trail between here and his ranch. I figure it was a robbery.”

I think the kids suspect something like that. Have you told them?”

He looked down at the table and shook his head. “No I haven’t, and I’m not ashamed to say it. Their pa wasn’t much. He gambled and wore fancy clothes, and always seemed to have plenty of money.” He gave me a level stare. “You saw what their place looked like?”

I knew why he didn’t tell them. The place looked run down with no money spent on stuff that needed done, like a sick wife and hungry kids.

It’s a good thing I didn’t know him. I might have shot him myself.”

Frank just nodded and got up from the table. Looking down at me, he seemed to be debating something. “There was a sharp-shooter rode with the Texas Brigade during the recent difficulties. His name was bandied about quite a bit. Name of Joe Cane. He did a lot of damage.”

Well, I just sighed and kind of settled into my chair. “A lot of damage was done by both sides, Sheriff.” I told him my story of losing my land.

The man nodded. “Sometimes when you win a war, it’s hard to win the peace. It’s unfortunate.”

Nobody won that war.” I looked up at him. “Except the Federal government and they just wanted what we had. But, the war’s over and I’m not looking for trouble.” I guess that was what he wanted to hear because he left after telling me my belongings were over at his office.

Breakfast finished, I loosened my belt a couple of notches, donned my coat and wandered over to the sheriff’s office. They’d saddled Apple and he looked happy for once. The mare didn’t look so pleased—she looked like Apple kept her up all night. I noticed my pack, along with a lot of other boxes and sacks, was in the back of a buckboard hitched to a mule. The way the mule and Apple were looking at each other—I could predict another war coming on.

I went inside and saw Mary and the kids. They all looked pleased about something, smiling at each other, and I thought about bolting out that door. There were a whole lot of people looking happy and I wasn’t one of them.

The sheriff pointed to a chair and I sat down. As soon as I did, the kids came over and sat on my lap. Mary stood by the sheriff’s desk and stared at me.

He spoke after a moment. “Joe, we got some problems here. Since I’m the proper authority in this county, this is how I’m going to solve them.” He held up a piece of paper. “This here is all legal-like and signed by a judge. It makes you a co-guardian of Michael and Josephine Kelly.”

I started to say something but Josie elbowed me in the gut.

The other guardian has to be Mary Kennon, since she is Moira’s sister and the only living relative.” He waved that paper at me again. “This has to happen because the kids won’t let you go and their well-being, so to speak, is the most important thing to consider here.”

Once again, I started to speak and he waved that paper at me. “You’re not going against a legal court order, are you?”

I snatched that paper from his hand and looked at it. “You’re the judge, too?”

Handy, isn’t it? It solves a lot of problems in a small county. So, here’s what is going to happen. That paper deeds the ranch and water rights to Michael and Josie. And there’s quite a bit of it. As their guardian, you’ll be legally required to take care of the ranch for them until they’re old enough to assume ownership.” He looked pointedly at me. “I figure a good man can grow that place into something special.”

Stunned, I looked at Mary. “What’s your part in all this?”

She tried to sound severe, but her smile ruined it. “You don’t think I’m going to let you take those children out there all alone, do you? They need care, schooling, and a hundred things you can’t do while running a ranch.”

I looked at her, shaking my head. “You don’t know anything about me. All that could be done from town.”

We’ll be starting even. You don’t know anything about me, either. But, the children seem to know you. That means a lot to me.” Her gaze was steady on mine. “Mr. Cane, my husband didn’t come back from the war. I had word recently that he died in Andersonville prison.”

He fought for the Union?”

She dropped her attention to her hands. “He did. There’s not much a widow can do around here, and not a lot of decent men. I can’t just leave and make a fresh start somewhere.” She looked at me long enough I got uncomfortable. “I don’t want to be a burden on anyone, and I don’t want to die a widow. With the right man, I want children of my own.”

That’s a lot of wanting you’re throwing out there.” I looked at Frank and he nodded his head.

My wife and I took her in and she cooks, mends clothes, and works at the boarding house some. She’s a friend. I’d take it as a favor.”

The favor is mine, Frank. I ain’t much of a bargain.” My head snapped around. I was thinking of me asleep in the bathtub. “Did you bring me new clothes?”

She colored up a might, but there was firmness in her expression. “I’m a good woman Mr. Cane—”

I’m glad I was wearing my hat. And my name is Joe.”

All right, Joe.”

So you’re going to be my—”

No.” Startled, she shook her head. “We’ll need an extra room built just for me. Until then I’ll stay with the children and you can sleep in the barn. Just think of me as their nanny.” She smiled. “Besides, nothing can happen between us until I’m convinced you aren’t Jesus.”

Everyone was grinning but me. They looked like a bunch of gamblers that just pulled something on a greenhorn. My deck of cards was different from theirs, or at least, their expectations.

I looked at her and those kids, realizing I’d just drawn a fistful of aces. “Well, now. That won’t take long at all.”

Her smile faded and she cast a wary look at me.

It was my turn to smile.


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