Western Short Story
I’d been in town for less than an hour and had only met two people, Huck, the boy who worked at the livery and Ray, who owned the town’s general store, when three men with attitudes decided they didn’t like me and wanted me to leave the town saloon, the Dusty Rose. These had to be the same three men who hit Huck.
After a long time on the trail, I was thirsty, plus, I just don’t take well to people telling me where I can and cannot be. It didn’t take long before the situation escalated from unpleasantries to gunplay. I was forced to kill one of the men and run the other two, without their guns, out of town. Turns out they were the same three men who had struck Huck shortly after I rode in, when he tried to stop them from looking at my rig. I don’t know the boy well, or much at all, but I like him and I can’t abide by grown men whipping a young boy.
Now that a few minutes have passed and the outlaws, living and dead, have left, those still in the bar have gone into a collective shock that often happens when people who aren’t used to what they just saw find themselves confronted with sudden and violent death. Movements are few and slow, and talking is done in whispers. I feel the glances and questioning looks of those who, regardless of the reasons or circumstances, fear anyone quick with a gun and willing to use it.
The townspeople will need to absorb what happened before they even begin to think about the ramifications or next steps. I think it’s best to let them talk among themselves before I get further involved. Plus, I know they’re going to need to talk about me and about how they feel about what I did. Anyway, I leave without saying a word, or hearing one.
As I approach Ray’s store, I see Huck, sitting by himself, on the same bench I was sitting on with Ray less than an hour ago. For some reason, this gives me pause, and I am struck by the thought that I’ve been in town for a little bit, but my life, and the lives of so many, including Huck, have now been changed forever.
As I walk up the steps, Huck says, “Thank you. Mr. Hinton said you like these cigars, so I bought you one.” I sit down next to Huck and accept the cigar.
“Thank you, Huck. Are you OK? How does your face feel? Should we get the town doctor look at it?”
The questions come out faster than I expect and faster than Huck can answer. Part of that might be because of the gunfight and the burst of energy that so often follows a situation where one’s life, even for the shortest of moments, is in danger. And part of it, I think, is because, in a very short time, I have grown to care about Huck, in ways that are new to me.
“Huck, thank you again for standing up to those men when they wanted to see my rig. I don’t think I could have done that when I was your age. I was scared just now, standing up to them at the saloon.”
“But you did. Why?” asks Huck.
“Because it was the right thing to do,” I answer.
“Me too,” says Huck.
“I was thinking about tonight. Mr. Hinton invited me for supper, and I’m certain he won’t mind if I bring you along. Why don’t you go finish up at the livery, and let me finish up here. Then, we’ll have supper.”
Huck quickly agrees and heads down to the livery. I walk back into the general store, which is empty except for Ray. I sort of lost track of time sitting outside with Huck, but I guess everyone else must still be down at the Dusty Rose talking about the shooting.
“How are you doing, Brock?” asks Ray.
“I think I’m OK. I’ve faced a couple of these types of shootings in the past, and I think OK is the best I can feel, at least for now. I need to think about what happened. Should I have done something differently? Could I have? A man is dead, a man I didn’t even know existed a few hours ago. And he won’t be the last one.”
“I heard that you told them they could go. They’ve been hanging around for a couple of weeks, taking what they want and never paying for anything. I agree with what you did and what you said. So, why do you think there will be more killing?”
“Men like that are always looking for what they think is the easy way. Until I got here, it seems like they controlled the town and the people in it. Now, they feel like I’ve taken away what’s theirs, and they’re going to want it back.” Ray looks surprised.
I continue. “They figure if they kill me, that’ll prove to the town that they can’t be forced out, and they’ll have everything their way. They’ll be back, looking for me and ready to fight. You and the other men are going to have to decide how you want to live your lives and if this town is worth fighting for.”
“We’re not fighters, Brock. We’re ranchers, farmers, businessmen.”
“Ray, you seem like a peaceful man, as do the others in your town. I saw in the faces of the men in the saloon how quickly some of them came to think of me in the same way they think of those other men. They group people as gunmen or not gunmen, not by right and wrong. When a man, or a town, lives awhile in peace, they begin to forget that it wasn’t always so and may not always be so. They forget that sometimes peace has to be fought for. It has to be won, and then it has to be defended. Unfortunately, sometimes that means good men die.”
I wait for that to sink in.
“You didn’t ask for these men to come to town,” I continue. “But they are here, and they’re going to need to be dealt with. I’ll stay and help, but it’s not going to be easy. You mentioned there are others, which means they have at least four hardened gun hands, and we have one. And now that they know I’m here, we have lost the element of surprise. They don’t know who I am, but they know what I can do.”
“As you can see,” says Ray, “we are not gunmen. What can we do against these men?”
“For now, nothing. They will need tonight to absorb this, just as you and everyone else here in town will. I’ve asked Huck to join me at your home for supper. Maybe you can talk to the men in town and ask everyone to meet at the Dusty Rose tomorrow morning. We have quite a bit we need to talk about. Tell them to come armed.”
“If we’re done here,” I say, “I’ll walk down and get Huck. Maybe you can head down to the Dusty Rose and talk to the men, and then we’ll meet at your place for supper.”
“OK. I’m about a half mile straight up that hill, sitting on top of that little bluff. If you get there first, my daughter’s name is Sophie, and while she won’t be expecting you, she’ll know Huck.”
Ray locks up the store, and we head in opposite directions. By the time I get to the livery, Huck has already mucked the stalls, fed and groomed the last couple of horses, and is cleaning up his tools. I help Huck finish up the last of his work and give Horse a good brushing and an extra bucket of corn, and Huck and I started walking toward Ray’s house. It’s easier to walk half a mile than it is to saddle Horse, ride, unsaddle her and then saddle her again. I realize when we are about halfway there that I am extremely hungry. I have not eaten since noon yesterday, and now that the excitement of the day is starting to wear off, I’m reminded that I am accustomed to more frequent meals.
Looking ahead at Ray’s home, I can already see the presence of a woman’s touch. It may have started with his wife, but certainly his daughter has continued it since her mom’s passing. The windows have curtains, and there are planter boxes with flowers in them on the large front porch, which has recently been swept clean. The hanging swing has a cushion, and as I get closer, I can see that the water barrel is full, the water smells fresh, and there is a clean towel hanging from the side of the barrel. Huck is a young man of manners, and having beaten me up the steps, he starts to wash for dinner, showing me that he’s been here before.
As I walk up the steps to the porch, I turn and look back at the town. I can see the back of the general store and the Dusty Rose, over the tops of the buildings and on to the plains beyond. The view is beautiful and peaceful, and looking now, one wouldn’t know that only a short while ago a man needlessly and violently lost his life in a gunfight. I wave at Ray, who is almost to the house, and at the same time, I hear the front door open.
Knowing it will be Ray’s daughter, Sophie, I turn to introduce myself. I am about halfway turned and about halfway into my hello, when I suddenly stop, struck by her beauty. Long flowing red hair, a shape not hidden by her work clothes, and a presence that would be as arresting in the great halls of Europe as it is in Dry Springs. But mostly, it’s her smile. I can’t stop staring at it. So beautiful, so confident, so warm. I must make quite a sight, right hand still waving at her father, left hand hanging at my side, my feet not moving and my mouth wide open, but with no words coming out.
Time may not stop for me during a gunfight, but it sure seems to now. Perhaps sensing my awkwardness, Sophie turns and says to Huck, “It’s nice to see you Huck. When you’re done washing up, please come in and help me with dinner.” She turns back to me as I struggle, unsuccessfully, to find the ability to speak, and kindly introduces herself. “I’m Sophie Hinton. And you are?” I stand there, not moving, staring now into her eyes, a shade of green I’ve only ever seen in the hills of Ireland, unwilling to look away, embarrassingly still unable to speak.
Just then, Ray reaches the bottom of the porch and says to his daughter, “His name is Brock Clemons. He got into town this morning.”
I nod in gratitude and agreement.
I am struck by the insight Ray had to answer for me as I struggled to find the words, any words, to introduce myself to Sophie. But I'm guessing that this isn't the first time a young man has been struck dumb by his daughter’s beauty. It is, however, a first for me. I struggle again, still unsuccessfully, to speak, hoping the words in my head will soon start to come out of my mouth. They don’t, so I shuffle over to the water barrel, grateful for the diversion and hopeful that, in addition to cleaning my dusty face, the cold water will shock me enough to allow me to talk.
I finish washing my face, try to pat down my unruly hair, wish my "good set of clothes" looked a bit better and, in general, find myself more concerned with my appearance than I’ve been at any time I can recollect. Huck, Ray and Sophie are already in the house. The front door is open, and the smell of dinner cooking reminds me of the way my mom’s kitchen smelled when she prepared our dinners. I take a moment to collect my thoughts—which include not only my hunger, but also Ray, today’s shooting, tomorrow morning’s meeting and Huck. But mostly, right now, my thoughts are about Sophie.
I walk through the open door and am immediately aware of the fact that I have entered a home. I’ve spent the last few years sleeping outdoors, in hotels or in line shacks, and until right now, I had forgotten how welcoming a well-kept, warm, beautiful home, with the unmistakable touch of a woman, can be.
A fire burns invitingly in the large fireplace. The smell of freshly baked bread and meat being grilled is almost overwhelming, and I am reminded again of how long it has been since I’ve eaten. Ray is already seated at the table, and Huck is standing comfortably next to Sophie, obviously not for the first time, helping her wash the fruits and vegetables. Ray comes to my rescue once again by simply asking me to sit down.
I thank him and am finally able to speak to Sophie. “Is there something I can do to help, ma’am?”
can start by not calling me ma’am,” she says graciously with a
twinkle in her eye and a smile.
Overcoming another bout of embarrassment, I ask, “Sophie, is there anything I can help you with?”
“Why don’t you take a seat with my dad. Huck and I are almost done here, and dinner will be ready in a few minutes. I didn’t know dad had invited guests, so I’m just adding a couple of things to the menu to make sure there’s enough. Dad mentioned you’re doing some work for him. What does he have you doing?”
Ray jumps in again and says, “He’s helping out around the store for a few days.”
I take this as a clear indicator that he doesn’t want to talk about what happened today at the Dusty Rose, at least not yet, plus, I’m broke and I can use the work. I’m not sure if that’s for Sophie’s benefit, Huck’s, or both. Since I still haven’t had a chance to fully digest what happened, or really think about what might happen starting tomorrow morning, I am happy to avoid the subject. Huck, again with wisdom beyond his years, also picks up on Ray’s hint and doesn’t say a word.
Building on Ray’s response, I tell Sophie, “I left Denver about three weeks ago and have been traveling by myself ever since. I stumbled across your little town and thought it was about time for a home-cooked meal, a hot bath and a soft bed. I’m about flat broke, and Huck here told me your dad needed some help. He was nice enough to sign me on for a few days.”
“Not many people are on their way to Dry Springs. Are you heading anywhere in particular?” Sophie asks. Ray turns to listen to my answer as well, since this is not something we’ve discussed. Even Huck seems interested in where I might be headed.
I’m not ready yet to share my full story, so I answer, “Nowhere in particular, just riding through the territory,” which is honest, but not entirely candid. Sophie gives me a look that lets me know she thinks there’s more to my story than a casual sightseeing trip. I wonder what else she sees when she looks at me.
I am saved from responding once again, this time by Huck, who enthusiastically announces, “Dinner is ready!”
On the trail, a good meal is often defined by quantity and ease of preparation. More than once, after a couple of days without food, stale, hard biscuits from the bottom of my saddlebags have tasted like a king’s feast. But, when in a town, even a small one, the standards for a good meal move beyond quantity and availability and begin to include quality and presentation. And, of course, any meal is made better with the right company. But, no matter how a meal is judged, this one is excellent. Pan-fried steak, hot buttered bread, fresh fruits and vegetables, all topped off with a pie that—if my manners were less, or perhaps if I were quicker—I’m sure I could eat completely on my own.
I don’t think I’m the only one who is either hungry, lost in thought, or both, as the conversation consists mostly of, “Please pass the salt,” “Yes, I would love another steak,” or “I haven’t had fresh fruit in a long time, thank you.” And, while we speak little, there is a comfort among the diners that, in my experience, usually requires a much longer time to develop.
But, when the meal is finished, finally, and the dishes have been washed—Sophie did allow Huck and I to do that—we step out onto the porch. We all bring drinks: bourbon for Ray, myself and, surprisingly, for Sophie, and lemonade for Huck. Ray pulls out two cigars, handing one to me and keeping one for himself.
With Huck still in the house and everyone settled down, Ray takes the opportunity to explain to Sophie what happened in town today. When he gets to the part about the gunfight, Sophie looks me straight in the eyes and simply says, “Thank you.”
As our established pattern seems to dictate, I once again don’t know what to say, so I just stare at her. I think of her home, her beauty, her cooking, her bourbon, her way with Huck and her completely unexpected reaction to the Dusty Rose shooting, and I begin to have thoughts and feelings that I have never had before.
A long, slow sip of bourbon and a long pull on the cigar give me the time I need to finally try to hold up my end of the conversation.
“I’m not sure that ‘you’re welcome’ is the right thing to say after killing a man. I’ve had very little time to think about it, but while I don’t regret having shot him, I regret that it was necessary for me to. It has been my experience that it can be easy to shoot a man, but hard to live with having shot a man. Sometimes, it seems that certain men only understand violence, and I’m afraid, from what I saw today, the violence isn’t over.”
Ray speaks up and says that as the men were riding out of town he overheard the big guy say, “Kurt’s not going to be happy when he sees that Weeds is dead.”
Now there is a name to go with the man I killed, and I’m guessing “Kurt” is one of the men who wasn’t in town today, but leads the outlaws. I have no doubt that Kurt and I are going to be crossing paths soon, possibly as soon as tomorrow. But for now, I’m feeling better, and—while remaining mindful that her father is sitting next to me—I turn my attention to Sophie and shift the conversation away from today’s events and tomorrow’s plans.
After a few minutes of small talk, in which he participated very little, Ray generously excuses himself to the house. Sophie gently turns the conversation back to my travels, clearly wondering why a man would spend weeks at a time riding alone through territories populated with hostile Indians and men who long ago abandoned any ethical commitment to society’s mores. I’m still not ready to share my entire story, but I do tell Sophie, “I’m relatively new to the West, having been on this side of the Mississippi for only two years. I’m still learning my way, and I’m curious about the land and the people.”
“Do you plan to settle down at some point?”
I answer honestly, though hopefully not too transparently. “I’m closer now to settling down than I have been at any time since I left St. Louis.”
I don’t know what Sophie thinks about my answer, but neither of us speaks for a couple of minutes. I’m starting to think about how nice it would be to have a porch like this, a home like this and a woman not like Sophie, but actually Sophie. When I was a schoolboy, I had my share of schoolboy crushes. And, during my travels, I have fortuitously enjoyed the company of beautiful, educated, passionate women. But until tonight, I have never felt like this. I want to leave. To ride out to the prairie, spend some time alone and try to figure this out. And yet, I don’t ever want to leave. I can’t imagine enjoying anyplace, or anyone, as much as I am enjoying this evening—and Sophie.
The spell is broken when Sophie asks, “How do you spend your time when you’re traveling alone for weeks?”
“When I’m on the trail, I’m able to think. When riding, especially alone, one constantly has to pay attention to the trail and the dangers that are always a part of it. At the same time, there is time to let one’s mind wander. Sometimes, I think about the past, especially about my family. How are they doing? What are they doing? Sometimes, I think about the future. What will I be doing? And who will I be doing it with? I don’t always have answers, but I feel better after having chewed on the questions for a while.”
Sophie seems interested in my answer, and I realize that the thoughts I just expressed were ones I had not really ever shared with myself, much less with anyone else. But, it seemed right to share them with her, and I find myself hoping she will share her thoughts with me.
I keep going. “My midday meal is a welcome break. Not just for me, but for Horse and Wolf.” I start to tell her more, but she stops me.
“Horse and Wolf?”
I explain as well as I can who they are and what they mean to me. I know that Horse is doing just fine in the livery, and I wonder for a moment where Wolf is and what she is doing. She always travels with Horse and me on the trail, but never comes into town. I wonder if I were to settle down one day, whether Wolf would stay with me or whether she would need to keep moving, always looking to see over the next hill.
I offer to introduce Sophie to Horse tomorrow and go back to explaining my midday activities. “I enjoy reading and try to read a little bit each day.”
“What are you reading now?”
“The only book I have in my saddlebags is a well-worn copy of Plutarch’s Lives. It was a gift from my uncle, and I carry it wherever I go. I read other books when possible, but I have never tired of reading and rereading Plutarch.”
Sophie gets up from her chair and gestures for me to follow her into the house. As we enter, I nod at Ray, who kindly chooses this time to go check on the barn and Huck. Sophie brings me to a well-stocked shelf of books that I had somehow missed earlier while my attention was focused on Sophie and food. Among the other books on the shelf is a beautiful copy of Plutarch’s Lives, which she says is one of her favorites. Not for the first time, I marvel at my good fortune to have met a woman like this anywhere, but especially in a place like Dry Springs. I ask her about all of the books, some of which seem like children’s books.
“I would like to start a school in town. I was pretty close to doing it last year, which is why I have all these books, but then mom died, and I had to take care of dad and help with the store. At least, up until the last couple of weeks.”
Very few of us have our lives turn out as we plan, if we even do plan. So many things are out of our hands. How different would this town be if Sophie’s mom hadn’t passed, and she’d opened a small school? How different would my life be if I hadn’t been low on supplies and had just ridden around Dry Springs, never meeting any of these people? How different would their lives be?
Next to the bookshelf is a small, upright piano. I ask her if she plays, and she responds by sitting down and playing a couple of songs that seemed quite popular when I was in Denver. She seems surprised when I reach into my pocket, pull out a harmonica and lead her in a rousing version of Oh Susanna. I had won the harmonica from a Confederate soldier in a poker game, on one of the rare nights, at least for me, when luck overcame skill.
The soldier told me it was made by a German company and was popular with soldiers on both sides of the war. He said that some nights, the two armies were camped so close to each other that he could hear the Union soldiers playing their harmonicas, and it struck him as odd that they played the same songs on the Union side as he and his friends did on the Confederate side—he wondered what else they had in common. He even told a story about how one of his friends avoided near certain death when a well-placed Union bullet struck the harmonica in his chest pocket, rather than his chest. The harmonica never played again, but he still carried it as a reminder of how close he had come to having played his last song.
Sophie and I play together for a while, both sitting on the small piano bench. I’m not much better on the harmonica than I am at the poker table, and I struggle even more because my attention is focused on Sophie and not on the music. She pretends not to notice, and we play until the door opens, and Ray walks in.
Sophie suggests to Huck that today has been a long and trying day, and it’s time for him to get some sleep. As every twelve-year-old boy in history has done, he puts up a fight about going to bed so early, but it doesn’t really take much to persuade him, and it doesn’t take long for him to fall asleep.
I’m disappointed when Sophie is next to excuse herself, and I hope it is because she’s tired, or senses that her dad might want to talk to me, and not because she doesn’t want to spend the time together.
Ray and I sit down at the kitchen table. I carry two Remington 1858 Army revolvers—a gun that I understand was quite popular in the War Between the States, especially in the South. Sensing that Ray wants to talk a bit, I think this could be a good time to clean them. A man traveling alone doesn’t carry much, but what he does carry has to work. A bedroll and a canteen, neither with holes, a healthy horse and guns that fire easily and accurately when needed. I fire a gun for two reasons: for food and because someone either has, or is about to, fire at me. My experience has been that these situations rarely afford second chances, so making sure your gun is clean, loaded and working properly is time very well invested.
Ray asks how I am, and I tell him, “I’ve had a chance to think a little about what happened, and while I’m not done thinking about it, my attention is turning to tomorrow and the problem of the remaining outlaws. There is no part of me that thinks we’ve seen the last of them. But there is a large part of me that is concerned about what is going to happen and how the town is going to handle it.”
Ray takes a moment before answering, something I have always respected in a man and another reason why I’m cleaning my guns. It gives me something to do besides stare while Ray gathers his thoughts. He starts slowly, but with strength.
“We should have stood up to these men right away. There are worse things than death, and not feeling like a man seems to be one of them. But I can’t imagine leaving Sophie alone with these men hanging around. When you showed up, I prayed that you might be the answer to our problems—and maybe you are. But I’ve come to see that how I feel about myself is not about these men, or even Sophie, it’s about me. I can’t speak for all of the men in town, but I am almost certain that others feel the same way I do, or soon will. Brock, tomorrow, we’ll look to you for leadership. What I’m asking might be unfair,, but I’m asking anyway. You tell me, us, what to do, and we’ll do it.”
We sit in silence for a while. I finish cleaning my ’58s while Ray whittles on a stick that, by now, is just about whittled down to a twig. I think about what he said and wonder how many of the men of Dry Springs are having the same thoughts. And, while the men of Dry Springs look inside themselves, hoping for courage, I have no doubt that Kurt and his men are making plans to win back “their” town. Which means they have to be gunning for me. And, as I look at Ray, listen to Huck snore and think about Sophie, I realize I am beginning to think of Dry Springs as my town and these people as my people. After a few more minutes, Ray and I both retire for the night.
It is strange enough to wake up in a bed, but even stranger still to have the sun pouring in through the window, a clear indicator that it is way past dawn, way past my normal rising time. Huck is gone, and his side of the bed is cold, so it’s been a while since he left. I can hear a fire crackling, no doubt why it’s warm in here. I can’t hear anyone talking, so I don’t know who is left in the house. I do hear at least one person walking around, softly, and unless my sense of smell has totally failed me, I believe there is coffee brewing and fresh trout sizzling. I know I should get up, but I don’t.
For having killed a man yesterday—undoubtedly making new and dangerous enemies in the process—suddenly having three new people in my life that I care about, anticipating a tough meeting with the townsmen and expecting an even tougher meeting with some, if not all, of the remaining outlaws, I am strangely calm. I take a few minutes to enjoy the solitude, think about what might happen today, savor the comfort of the bed for a bit longer and, mostly, think about Sophie.
Of course, I have no idea if she has any interest in me. And, even if she did, what would that mean? I have no money, no prospects, and my job’s not done. If things don’t go well today, I may very well have seen my last sunset and missed my last sunrise. But, I can’t stop thinking about her. What is she really like? What does she like? Who does she like?
And then it hits me. The woman of my dreams—and probably the answers to some of my questions—might just be on the other side of that door, and if my nose hasn’t failed me, so is breakfast. I hop out of bed and get dressed, once again wishing for a better set of clothes and less unruly hair. And while Sophie doesn’t seem like the type of woman who would judge a man based on a cowlick and some threadbare clothes, I’d sure feel a lot better.
I step into the main room and immediately confirm my trout and coffee suspicions. The front door, which is directly across from me, is wide open, letting in light, a gentle breeze and a perfect view of Sophie as she sweeps the front porch. I say hello, and she sets down the broom, walks back into the house and asks how I slept. I am relieved to find that I can actually speak to her without the assistance of Ray or a twelve-year-old boy.
“Far better—and longer—than I expected to, or than I’m used to. My habit of rising at dawn was no match for a full stomach and a warm bed. Thank you for both.”
“You’re welcome, and while I’m glad to see you slept well, perhaps you’re hungry again?”
“Yes, very,” I enthusiastically respond.
I move over to the part of the main room that serves as the kitchen and help her prepare our plates. I notice that her plate is nearly as full as mine, and being what my mom used to call “a healthy eater,” my plate is fairly full. I flatter myself again, or maybe it’s hope, that she waited for me to have breakfast, and at the same time, I notice how comfortable I feel working with her, in silence, while we settle in to eat. I am reminded of how easily she and Huck worked together last night preparing dinner.
I’m not a religious man, but I wait to see if she might like a morning prayer before we start. She dives right in, no prayer, no conversation, trout first, so I do the same. After taking the edge off of my hunger, which is larger than I would have expected after how much I ate last night, I ask, “Did I just miss your dad and Huck?”
She laughs and says, “They left about two hours ago. Huck went down to take care of things at the livery, and dad had some things to do at the store before the town meeting, which is starting in about an hour.”
With everything that is happening, I find that the first thing I’m thinking about is how I have another half hour with Sophie before I need to get ready and walk to town. And, while I’m looking forward to spending this time talking with her, after that I need to concentrate on the job at hand—which remains, in all likelihood, me and maybe some townsmen dealing with at least four angry, violent outlaws.
Sophie, in a way that is quickly becoming familiar, says, “Brock, I appreciate what you’re doing for our town and especially for my dad and Huck. Dad told me this morning about what happened with the man in the Dusty Rose. But, why? Why are you here, and why are you helping?”
I had hoped the conversation would run a little more in the direction of, “Isn’t the weather nice?” “How long have you and your dad lived here?” and “The breakfast is delicious, thank you.” But I see that isn’t going to happen.
It will take more time than we have this morning to answer the question, “Why are you here?” But I find myself very much hoping that there is a time when I can explain it to her. As for why I’m helping, answering is not easy, but I find myself wanting to try. On the trail, I have plenty of time, days if I need it, to work out my answers, and I have the advantage of usually asking my own questions. Here, sitting across from Sophie, I launch into an answer that I hope will make sense to her—and to me.
“I helped because it was the right thing to do. My uncle helped my mom raise me, and he taught me that a man doesn’t have to go running into every fight he sees, but he can’t run away from a fight where he sees wrong being done. These outlaws, these bullies, are very used to getting their own way and don’t care who they hurt to get there. Your dad is a good man, but sometimes that isn’t enough.”
Sophie doesn’t say a word and doesn’t take her eyes off of mine.
“After that, things just seemed to happen. I told myself there are enough men in this town that they should be able to take care of this themselves. I was even pretty close to convincing myself that it would be better for them to do it themselves than have me do it for them. I’m still not sure that wouldn’t have been the right thing to do.”
“Why did you stay?” she asks, still looking directly at me.
“Huck,” I say without thinking.
“At the exact moment when I was trying to figure out whether to stay or go, that boy walked up to your dad’s store, his face still red from where they quirted him and determined to find those men and get his money—all by himself. There’s not much worse than a grown man who will hit a child, and here, one held him and one hit him. Still, he was going to march right down to the Dusty Rose and demand his money. I have no doubt he would have gone and very little doubt as to what they would have done to him. Now, I couldn’t allow that to happen to any child, but this boy especially has a way of climbing inside you and setting up camp in your heart. So, I asked Huck to stay with your dad, and I walked down to the saloon.”
“Huck’s been spending a lot of time with my dad and with me here at the house,” Sophie says. “He’s a good kid, and I like having him around. Dad works long hours, and it’s been a little too quiet since my mom died.”
“Your dad doesn’t seem to want you down at the store. Why?”
Without hesitation, she answers, “From the time I was no longer a child, men have stared at me. At first, I didn’t notice, and then, even when I noticed, I didn’t understand why. And, for a while, I even found it flattering. I soon realized, though, that the attention had very little to do with me, and I’ve learned to ignore it. But Kurt was different. He stared at me with a conceit that left me feeling anxious, even exposed. Most men won’t stare if my dad is there, and always before, they have stopped when I’ve stared back. But not Kurt. He ignored the fact my dad was there, or worse, maybe he enjoyed it. And when I stared back, he didn’t turn away or look down. He just kept staring, with an evil, conceited smile on his face. I felt reduced to a possession or a prize. My dad and I were both scared, and when dad asked me to not come back to the store until this was over, I agreed to stay here—even though I miss the townspeople and know dad needs the help.”
As my anger toward a man I have never met continues to grow, I realize that when Sophie and I first met yesterday, I had been staring too.
“I hope that yesterday, on the porch, when I first…” I find myself once again stumbling for words, and I am extremely grateful and relieved when she interrupts me.
“It was the first time in a long time that I found it flattering and the first time in a long while that I wanted to stare back.” Seeming to have gone as far as she wants to with this part of the conversation, she quickly and abruptly changes the subject.
“Is it hard to kill a man?”
I start to realize that if I am going to spend time with Sophie, and I very much hope that I am, I better get used to answering tough, direct questions.
“Since I left St. Louis, I’ve had to kill four men, plus some Indians. I don’t mean that Indians aren’t men—it’s just that Indians almost always carry away their dead, so I don’t know for sure how many I’ve killed. And it’s different when the gun battle takes place on horseback, or behind rocks. You don’t know their names, and you can’t see their eyes. But yesterday, when I shot Weeds, that was his name, it was the fourth time I’ve killed a man in a gunfight. Each of the men I’ve shot, I shot because they were going to shoot me, or someone I cared about. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time thinking about the first three times, and while the situations were different with each of them, the stories aren’t that different from what happened yesterday. And, if I’m fortunate enough to wake up tomorrow morning, I will spend more time thinking about Weeds and whatever else happens today. And so I guess, no, it hasn’t been hard to kill the men I’ve killed. I just need to be sure it never becomes easy.”
“You could leave now. Huck is safe, and the townsmen are meeting at the saloon. They know now, after yesterday, that they have to act, and I believe they will do so with you or without you. And there’s still a chance that the men will have left on their own.”
“Sophie, we both know those men haven’t left, and I just can’t see a way where they’d leave outright, or find a way to fit peaceably into the Dry Springs community. There are going to be more killings before this is over, and you know that too. I didn’t start this, but I did push it, and so I feel somewhat responsible. I’d have a hard time living with myself knowing I’d stirred up the hornet’s nest and left when they started stinging. Plus, I’d hate to see anything happen to the people of Dry Springs. I’ve already come to care about this town, your dad and Huck.”
“Anything, or anyone, else?”
“Yes,” is all I can manage, as I quickly get up and start getting ready for the town meeting, the day and for whatever happens after that.