Authors: Kathleen Y'Barbo
O praise the Lord, all ye nations:
praise him all ye people.
For his merciful kindness is great toward us:
and the truth of the Lord endureth forever.
Praise ye the Lord.
To my best friend and protégé,
the second-best historical writer
in all of Christendom.
November 12, 1893
He could still see the dead child, even in his sleep. Or what passed for sleep lately.
Ever since he’d stood on that side street in San Antonio and watched an innocent be used as a shield for the guilty, Texas Ranger Josef Muller had found precious little reason to sleep.
A litany of if-onlys passed through his mind during the day only to increase in volume when his head hit the pillow. The shooter was a known bank robber who went by the name of Pale Indian. Joe happened on the scene by accident, practically tripping over the Indian’s half-Mexican accomplice behind the livery.
Unfortunately the Indian spied them first and hauled the livery owner’s youngest boy against him as a shield. When Joe didn’t shoot, some cowboy with more liquor than sense in his skull had, and in the ensuing chaos a child died and a killer got away.
Though the money was returned and the Mexican was tried and convicted, Joe refused to let the death of that boy go unanswered. The cowboy did three days in jail for public drunkenness, a poor answer for his even poorer choice to play hero, but Pale Indian had yet to be prosecuted. Though he’d likely only be sent up on robbery charges, the Indian killed that boy plain and simple.
With a calm he had to force back into place, Joe lifted his pistol and stared down the barrel at the three targets placed at random on the limestone boulder. His finger on the trigger, left eye closed. One shot and the tin can flew off the fence, proving his aim was true. Another shot and the second can flew, and then a third.
Joe lowered his arm. Three for three. Just like always.
And yet he hadn’t the good sense to use his sharpshooter’s aim when it counted. When he could have saved the life of a child by taking the life of that worthless murderer.
“I still don’t understand why You let that happen, Lord,” Joe said under his breath as he slid his weapon back into the holster then slipped his boot into the stirrup. “Or rather, why I wasn’t up to killing a man who deserved it.”
Following a tip on the Indian’s whereabouts halfway across ten counties had seemed like a good idea until last night when the weather turned cold and the ground turned hard. Now he had aches in places he didn’t remember existed.
Not that any of this mattered when his pride had taken the worst bruising of all. Pale Indian had been in his sites just as surely as those three tin cans, and he’d somehow let him slip away.
Joe thought of the killer now, dressed as if he’d come off the reservation, his white-blond hair stuffed under a wide-brimmed hat that all but hid his face. They’d stood at no more than a hundred paces in that alley and yet he couldn’t say he saw him clear enough to know him in the light of day.
The moment replayed in Joe’s mind. Eerie calm on the other man’s demeanor even as the child struggled and cried out. Then, a volley of shots that went everywhere but their intended target. Chaos, and an escape. What the Indian would soon know is there was no escape; not when the Texas Rangers were in pursuit.
Joe rolled his shoulders to ease the kinks.
To make things worse, the telegram that found him by way of Sheriff Arrington’s office in Hemphill County indicated Pale Indian had been spotted getting off a train at the Bitter Springs depot. Of all the backwater towns in Texas, why choose the one town Joe had worked so hard to escape?
No matter. Joe had a job to do, and he’d use the familiar territory to his advantage rather than concern himself with going back to a place with nothing but unhappy memories. Two hours later, he began to recognize the landmarks of his birthplace.
Joe shook his head. He saw nothing to prove him wrong in thinking the best thing about Bitter Springs was the trail leading out of town.
He’d said that so many times that it figured he’d now be plagued with an assignment right here in the place he’d happily left some years ago. But a Ranger went where he must, and today he found himself in Bitter Springs.
If Pale Indian was here, he’d soon be caught. In a town the size of this one, no one could remain hidden for long.
This he depended on as he skirted downtown and followed the curve of the Guadalupe River over rolling farmland. Here and there he remembered a spot, thought on the memory, then discarded it.
It wouldn’t do to get attached to anyplace, much less this one. His allegiance was to the rangers now. And homesick ranger was a dead ranger.
Come morning he’d check in with the sheriff, but for now his belly complained. Unless he missed his guess, Mrs. Klein had a pot of something warm and delicious simmering and a spare bed made up in the guest room.
She always did, though he rarely took her up on her open invitation to visit. Partly, he decided, because his work had hauled him too far from Bitter Springs to easily return and partly because it was easier to chase memories away when they didn’t live down the road.
The widow’s charitable nature went way back, tying the Klein and Mueller family trees together with equal strands of good deeds and companionship. Mama cared for Ida Klein and Tommy, Jr. when Tom Klein was shot in cold blood while riding fences back in ‘79.
Not long after, Ida Klein tended both Ma and Pa until the influenza took them then insisted he let her see to him too. Too sick to climb out of bed for his parents’ funeral, Joe fought the fever while the older woman kept cool compresses on his brow and clear broth in his belly.
By the time the fever was gone, so was any desire Joe felt to stay in Bitter Springs though he remained long enough to finish his schooling. Thus far, his mind had not changed, though his conscience prickled a bit when he thought about how easy it would have been to post the occasional letter or detour to visit on those times the trail had led him near enough.
No, it was easy enough to remember school days spent with his best friend Tommy, the widow’s only son, rather than dwell on the unpleasantness that caused him to hightail it south and slap on a badge. At least Ida Klein had Tommy to keep her occupied, and unless he missed his guess, there’d be a whole slew of grandbabies to fuss over by now.
Tommy always was one to attract the ladies. One of Joe’s regrets was that he couldn’t manage to convince Tommy to ride out of town with him.
“Someday,” his friend would say. “Just not today.” And off he’d go extolling the virtues of the latest female who’d fallen prey to his charm.
Joe swiped at his brow and glanced up at a sky that promised rain before nightfall. Reining in his mount as he came across the rise, Joe spied the Jones spread off to the north. Pretty girls, those Jones ladies.
Bessie Mae, plain as day.
He cringed at the memory of the rhyme he’d pronounced at the church picnic after Tommy’s ribbing got the best of him. The one that stuck far longer than it should have.
Likely Miss Bess Jones – or whatever her married name was - had long forgotten the stupidity he’d invoked, but Joe knew it to bother him on occasion. If he saw her, maybe he’d let her know what a heel he felt for being the cause of it. Or maybe he’d just kept that to himself.
Women were funny about things like that. Saying anything might be akin to opening a can of worms.
Joe shrugged off the thought. Why was it that he could put himself into the mind of a cold-blooded killer quicker than into the mind of a woman?
What was Pa was thinking when he hired a man to patch the roof?
She could have easily helped with the repairs before the rain set in. With her two sisters married off and gone to the far reaches of the state, it wouldn’t have been the first time Bess Jones had been called on in a pinch.
And his excuse? She huffed as she recalled Pa saying it was unladylike to be climbing on roofs.
Since when was he worried about what was ladylike? Hadn’t she been the one to fuss over her sisters in that department while he allowed them to work alongside him or flaunt tradition in so many ways?
Why question me now?
“That’s the widow’s influence,” she muttered as she threw a cup of sugar into the pitcher then stirred with a bit more vigor than usual.
Lately Pa had been spending an inordinate amount of time over at the neighboring farm. Helping out, he claimed, though Ida Klein had an able-bodied son, Thomas Jr., who could have easily done the work her father now cheerily performed had he not been overly occupied with his job at the railroad.
And to top it off, Pa had taken to whistling. Bess heard it now even as she dropped the spoon into the sink and reached for two glasses, adding them to the pitcher of tea now on the tray. Surely the men folk would be ready for something cool to drink, what with the temperature rising to almost warm after last night’s surprise frost.
Not that a frost in November should be a surprise. With the weather staying on the decent side so far, the chill slipped through open windows like a thief in the night.
Now the sun’s warmth did the same, but Pa swore rain would come before nightfall. At least that’s what he claimed his bones told him.
“Maybe your bones ought to tell you to stay off the house and away from the widow next door,” she muttered as she lifted the tray.
Even as she said them, the words pierced her heart. That Pa was still able to work alongside the heartiest of the hired hands was God’s own blessing given his age.
And the fact Alpheus Jones might find a moment’s happiness with a woman after two decades spent mourning Mama was a blessing as well. This Bess could admit in theory. Watching it unfold was altogether different, however, especially given the reminder that even Pa could find a spouse before her.
Bessie Mae, plain as day.
The taunt gave ample reason why she’d been left to see to the care of an aging man.
Bess sighed. “Unfortunately, I suspect he’s an aging man in love.”
Balancing the tray, she negotiated the porch steps to set the tray down on the old stump near the eastern side of the house. Shading her eyes against the sun, she peered up to see Pa’s hired hand watching her.
“Thought you might be thirsty,” she said to the fellow.
“”Preciate that, miss.” He spoke the words quietly and without breaking his gaze.
“Pa,” she called. “I’m going to take the eggs to town.”
She waited a minute. No response. Only the steady stare of the stranger.
“You hear me, Pa?”
Her father’s gray head appeared at the roofline. “I hear you,” he said. “Didn’t think it required a response.” He paused. “You plan to make lunch ‘fore you go?”
Lunch? For some reason, the question tipped the scales on her brimming anger.
“No,” she said. “I figured your hired man could make lunch for you.” A pause for good measure and she stepped back into the clearing. “Or better yet, have Mrs. Klein fix your lunch for you.”
“Now that’s a right good idea,” Pa said, “except I figured to take supper with her. Meant to tell you not to worry over setting a place for me at the table tonight.”
So she’d be eating alone? Again?
Consider it a blessing he’s happy,
Bess reminded herself. And yet all she could consider is what would happen should Pa do the unthinkable and put some besides her in charge of caring for him. What would become of her then?
Frowning, she stormed to the barn and retrieved the basket of eggs she’d gathered on her rounds then made for the road toward town. She’d almost reached the turn at Klein’s farm when someone called her name.
The stranger, Bess realized when he loped up beside her. Until now she’d not been any closer than a few yards to the lanky man.
Figuring him to be someone’s relative from the old country, she first greeted him in German. At his confused look, she shook her head. “What can I do for you?” she amended.