Western Short Story
John Grocker, minister of the Anywhere Church of God, clad in a dark suit and bow tie, black hat, and riding the biggest, blackest horse in all of Arizona, rode up to the Yuma Territorial Prison to visit the first female prisoner ever locked in one of Yuma’s cells. From which there was only one escape in the history of the prison, at least to his knowledge.
He talked openly to his horse, as if the horse was an alter ego, a private confessor: “I really don’t like coming here, Dutch, but I’m bound to. She’s not an easy woman to talk to, nothing like Mother Grace back at the ministry in Chicago, but she’s damned to Hell if I don’t come to speak and spread the good word. And the good word to you, horse, is whoa!”
In a matter of ten minutes, Madge Evers, volatile, noisy, cantankerous, beautiful as sin can be at times, a deadly accurate shooter with rifle or hand gun, horse rider without peer, in a very private cell of the territorial tank, “outhouse of humanity” she had called it on earlier visits Grocker had made, heard the minister’s heels clicking on the slate floor.
“Stand to,” she said to herself. “Here comes the talker. Man could have been great at a carnival, locking up the crowd for the takings.”
Any observer could see that Madge Evers was about as beautiful as a woman can get. Despite her intrigues on the back of a horse, her hours in the sun, the skin on her face was clear of blotches, pimples and bothersome freckles. A single red birthmark, in the crescent of her smile, right side, set itself off as a true beauty mark, because she was able to manipulate that perfect imperfection. Her eyes, if set on another pair of eyes, could send signals readable from across a dance hall floor.
She recounted her own inventory and her place in this world: she was lonely, she was hungry, she was going to hang in 36 hours. Now, down the stony path, came a man of the cloth, but a good looking man of the cloth. She hoped he brought something decent to eat. She made a verbal assessment; “Prison food is worse than trail food, worse than what comes off the back end of the chuck wagon at the end of a drive, worse than the slop they feed drunks at half the saloons in the west.” She felt how flat her stomach had gotten, as if she had been riding trail for a few months, eating lean off the earth, prairie eggs, young porkers shot through by a bullet, a shared chunk of a “lost” cow with a hungry family on the move, birds of the wide grass tasting suspiciously of hard lead, or buckshot.
Hope, dreams and movement, she realized, were prevalent in the west. It was a way things went, the carrot out front of the horse, a goodie in the hands of a dog trainer, gold and land and trapping for the taking for every man who was man enough --- or every woman who was woman enough. Everybody in the whole west was moving from one place to another, all of them hungry, half of them stealing, some going up and some down, some east and some west, some under boot hill grass or boot hill sand at the edge of towns that would not be there in another year --- gone with prairie wind, fire, storm, froze up in winter and never coming out of the freeze.
“What a twist I’m in today,” she said, but could only count the one promised tragedy: “I wonder what they’ll do with my boots after I’m terminated. They’re almost new, one-ride broke in, one-horse broke in, and I can shine them up in ten seconds if I had a mind. But nary a mind – they won’t last long on the coals of Hell.”
“Oh, my,” she said, “I ain’t leaving much, but I hate to leave. Hope the preacher has a good word that’ll last a few hours this time. He sure tires himself out when he ain’t here to take care of his self. Like the man does spread himself too thin for the taking.” She smiled at her own deep thoughts, thinking she was still alive and had a chance to keep it going. At least an outside chance.
The key in the hands of a guard was noisy against the rugged iron of the cell bars and Grocker was ushered into the cell.
“He is a handsome dog,” she said to herself, as the cell door slammed shut.
“Good morning, Madge,” Grocker said. “I brought you some food from a kitchen down the trail, from a friend of mine. She feeds me well every time I pass through.”
“Like coming to Yuma is about the only place to go to around here. It’s a day’s ride from Hell and four days from any place else. You earn your collar making this call.”
“I came to help you, Madge, not to let you wallow in the old stuff. You’ve got to get ready to meet the man upstairs who has the final say in all of this. You’ve always known that, haven’t you?”
He opened the sack and revealed three covered tins on a wooden tray, then uncapped one of the tins. A pleasant aroma immediately spilled into the cell and she recognized a kind of piccalilli or relish as the source. It made her think of her mother’s kitchen back in Illinois before all the bad stuff started her on the wayward path.
“I’m ready to tell you a few things, my own Revelations, Reverend Grocker, letting you know I’m not all ignorant of the Good Book.” Taking a piece of roast beef and cutting it into small pieces, she said, “I make these cuts small so my teeth don’t work overtime, don’t wear out before they’re supposed to.” She flashed her beautiful white teeth at the man of the cloth, and he noted their brilliance, her red mouth, the sweep of her lashes the likes of which he had not seen in a long time. A helping of the piccalilli made it onto her plate and she rolled a piece of beef into it. “Tell your lady friend she’s a good cook. She live far from here? Strange place for a woman to put herself.”
“Her husband was here but was executed for murder of two stagecoach men and their two passengers. No mercy was spared for him, as he had none for his victims. But she loved him, for whatever reason, and she camped out here waiting for it to happen. Just never left after that and has feelings for anybody who is slated for the same punishment.”
“She’s my kind of woman, and if you asked me, I’d say she’s your kind of woman too.” Her lashes flashed at him, her bright teeth, her whole personality lighting up. You been married, Reverend? Or did I ask you that last time?”
“Yes you did. No I’m not, and I have no immediate plans. But this is my call on things, why I am here.”
“You didn’t kill those people on the train. I did. You didn’t kill those people in the Shady Tree Bank. I did. So this is my party, isn’t it? And I get to ask all the questions.”
“You always so pushy at things, like this, you at the end of the row?” He looked at her lashes again, and then the light bouncing from her eyes like she was holding out on a secret from him, and he could see his face in her eyes as if she had accosted him, took him for her own. Her very own.
“Until the very end, Reverend. Until the very end.”
Grocker, trying to soften his tone but knowing it was useless, said, “There’s no way out of here, you know, not from Yuma since the day they put the first man in here to start his rot and ruin. I don’t believe in jails, not from the minute I saw my first one, the one I was in. I was jailed for five years until a man of the cloth got me twisted back the right way.”
“Why were you in jail?”
“Some carpetbaggers did their thing against my folks and I set it right. No killing, mind you, which is why I got another chance, but I sure showed some crooks the good way. So, I believe in the hope of man, and the realization of his wrongs and the true way to go. One escape from Yuma in twenty years, from what they tell me, and they’re sure the man died out there on the desert. Never saw hide nor hair of him since, or seen any track on him.” He agreed with his own assessment that her lashes were the longest he had ever seen. A curl in them made them seem longer, made her eyes, blue as they were, as big as a couple of moons caught in the faded blue sky he’d seen once over a lake. A girl tried to come back with that image of the lake, but she couldn’t make it all the way back. Madge Evers, taking the place of the girl at the lake, employed the red birthmark to tantalize him more, flashing it as if it was a private deed she performed only on special occasions.
“When I spoke about Revelations, I wasn’t talking about yours, Mister Grocker.” The smile was more beautiful than ever. She had to be the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, and, of course, she had to be worth every ounce to save her soul … or her beautiful person some part of his own person seemed to say.
“I’m sorry I broke up your thoughts,” Grocker said, “but I am not perfect and it was part of my effort to set the way right.”
“Oh, my way is coming, Mister Grocker.” They both knew she was employing wiles and subtleties in a gratuitous manner, and each accepted what she was --- she was a woman, and, in support of the differences, he was a man.
“The warden gives me so much time to do my job. He appears to be an honest man, but he is a man too.”
Madge Evers smiled. She had cracked the barrier of two men who were set up against her from the beginning of time, and the start of hunger for her brothers and sisters, and her parents. The first robbery came back in such a flash she thought it might have leaped right out of her.
“I robbed some rich grocer and hotel owner who wouldn’t even give us his leavings. I was young and let him get too close to me and took his money bag and said I’d scream to the high heavens if he didn’t and they’d hang him from a tree. So he didn’t say a word, but later on, after I scare d him some more, he sent somebody after me and I did shoot that man with his own gun, as he got too close to me before he was to do what he had been sent to do.”
She eyed Grocker with the blue eyes, the smile, the understanding that her messages were not all totally hidden. “That’s Revelation 1. The second Revelation of my three Revelations is this; one man of power in this Hell hole also gets too close, but he knows I’ll call him down on it if he doesn’t help me get out of here tonight.”
Grocker came fully upright. “You’ve got help to get out of here? My dear, how did you come by that?” Then he knew the answer and said, “What do you want of me?”
“After midnight tonight, if there’s a horse for me at the pile of rocks out on the road heading to where your old friend lives, the one who feeds you so good, I can get to meet her and be on my way. I have a map of water holes on the way I’m traveling. There’s no other way to do it. I came by the map from another friend.”
She stepped closer to him. Her eyes fluttered, the smile grew warm and spread its sensations clear through him, and the red birthmark in the curve of that smile hoisted itself like a victory flag as she put her arms around the man of cloth and kissed him on the cheek. She whispered in his ear.
The horse was behind the rocks well before midnight. Madge Evers met Reverend Grocker’s friendly female, and set off on the plotted course. Hours later two canteens were filled at the first water hole and tracks covered as much as possible. The second water hole was plotted. The moon came out from behind dark clouds, parting as if in answer to prayers. Two coyotes talked across a long stretch of a rugged range, and a storm at sea announced its intentions for the coast even as a dry wind touched the ground every so often where swirls of dust flew up and covered part of the trail.
Nobody east of the high country in Oregon, up along the Columbia River, ever saw such a beautiful woman again, or the man known as John Grocker.