Authors: Audrey Couloumbis
I stared at Maude. Her grammar was atrocious. I gathered she thought it would make her sound more like a boy. I knew she thought I told Joe too much, and she was right about that. But she acted like she didn't even know it was Joe who killed Aunt Ruthie.
“I don't see why we have to ride out at all,” I said, hoping to look like a boy turning stubborn. “We can just sit here and stay dry today.”
“You don't want to get caught on the plains in a blizzard,” Joe argued in a mild way.
“I don't want to die of pneumonia either,” I said.
“Why, you're no boy!” Joe said suddenly. “You're that girl that came asking if I was going to hang.”
“What?” Maude said, the blood draining from her face.
“I am not,” I said. There was no going back, though; I'd tipped him off somehow. “How'd you get out of jail anyway?”
“Sallie,” Maude said, “what are you talking about? What is he talking about?”
“You're not supposed to call me Sallie.” “It's one of those heated moments you mentioned,” Maude said, going pink with embarrassment.
“I thought you said you had a sister,” he said, giving Maude a measuring look. “You're no boy either. Is that it?”
“How did you know me?” I asked him. “Did I do something girlish?”
“It's your voice I knew,” he said. “I have a memory for voices, that's all. Why're the two of you dressed up this way?”
“So we can travel,” I told him. “We're on our own now. You made orphans of us, once and for all.”
“He's the one who shot Aunt Ruthie?” Maude asked, her eyes going wide.
“He is,” I said. “And it's a sad state for a man like you to arrive at, Mr. Harden. I've read about your exploits and you never conducted yourself so poorly—”
“I told your little sister, here,” Joe said. “I'm right sorry.”
“Then you did shoot our aunt?”
“I wasn't shooting at any relatives of yours,” Joe said. “I wasn't shooting at anyone.”
“Joe Harden never misses,” I told Maude, and she clapped a hand over my face the way she used to do when we were younger, clapped a hand over and squeezed so that her thumb and a finger bit painfully into the hinge of my jaw. It always shut me up when I was little, and it shut me up now.
“What were you shooting at?” Maude asked in a polite fashion, as if she weren't squeezing the life out of my face.
“Bottles,” Joe said. “First I was winning at cards, but then I could see the worst loser was getting up the juice to shoot me. So I bet him I could hit more empty bottles in a minute than he could. He's known to be a handy enough shot, and my intention was to lose a few dollars back to him.”
“What if he was too drunk to shoot his best?” Maude asked him.
“That was the tricky part, all right,” Joe said. “We checked that our pistols was fully loaded, and borrowed as many guns as we could from the other men in the room. This was more armament than you might expect. Cedar Rapids isn't the kind of town a man expects to get shot up in.”
If this was a bid for sympathy, it was lost on Maude, who said, “Go on. Tell us what happened.” For that matter, it was lost on me. It was a bitter disappointment to me to hear of Joe Harden taking part in such poor sport to save his sorry skin. To find that Maude was only too right; he was not much of a man at all.
“Since I was to shoot first, I figured I had to miss altogether to ensure that I lost,” Joe said. “So I pretended I was just drunk enough to be clumsy as we stood a long line of bottles at the end of the alley.”
He paused, as if the picture he drew bothered him too much to go on. Maude went on waiting for the rest of the story, her eyes boring into him like coals through a blanket. I waited too, because she never let go of her grip on my face.
“One of the loser's buddies knew my reputation and kicked my foot out from under me as I took aim—I got a bad ankle on this side. The shot went wild as I fell, hitting a stone bench, and the bullet ricocheted. It's purely bad luck that I didn't hit one of them fellers instead of your aunt.” Joe thought for a moment and added, “It's a rough crowd those saloons draw, miss.”
“So you're sure it was your bullet that hit Aunt Ruthie?” Maude asked. She relaxed the hold she had on my jaw.
“Of course, he's sure,” I said. “He's Joe Harden.”
“Oh, will you stop nattering about those dime novels, Sallie? He's no more Joe Harden than I am.”
“Your sister is right, my name ain't Joe Harden.”
“It ain't?” Maude said, but then shook her head as if to clear it. “Well, of course, it isn't. You're a real flesh-and-blood man, not a walking piece of a story.”
“We're all walking pieces of a story, miss,” he said. “My name is Marion Hardly. I wouldn't last long out here with a name like that, though.”
“But you are the man who killed our Aunt Ruthie,” Maude said, never one to let a thing go.
Marion said, “They were going to hang me. They don't take an accident lightly when it appears you were careless of another's life.” He nodded. “That's as it should be, I agree, but I wasn't drunk, and I wasn't careless, I swear to you.”
“It doesn't matter to me, one way or the other,” Maude said.
Marion couldn't be satisfied with this. “It took nearly every penny I had to make good on that bench I damaged, but that's the kind of man I really am.”
“It just seems like such a no-account reason to die,” Maude said sadly. “Getting shot while doing a little household shopping.”
“I don't personally know anyone who died of a good reason,” Marion said.
E RODE DESPITE THE RAIN AND COLD, ACCOMPANIED BY
Marion Hardly. He told us it was the wisest thing to do, if we were on the run. He said the rain might hold up the ones who were chasing us for a day. That would put us a day ahead.
We had not told him we were on the run, but the man made good guesses.
was on the run, of course. “So how did you get out of that jail?” I asked him.
“I just waited till the middle of the night when everyone was sleeping. There's only one lawman around most times anyway, so once I figured the whole town was asleep, I just jimmied the lock and left.”
“You were there for a long time,” I said. “Why didn't you leave before?”
“I didn't want to go till I was sure they wanted to hang me. There's no reason to add being a hunted man to my bug bites unless it's the only way to stay alive.”
“You thought they would find you innocent?” Maude asked him, but not as if she found this ridiculous.
“No, Miss Maude, but I thought they might see the accidental side of it.”
She nodded and asked him no more about it. I hadn't figured out how she managed to be so forgiving. Not that I expected her to shoot him to get revenge, but she did seem to swing far and wide to the other side.
Myself, I thought he deserved hanging for shooting Aunt Ruthie. Not that I wanted it to happen. I had the strongest notion that hangings were nowhere nearly so entertaining as dime novels would lead a body to think.
I had come close to seeing a hanged man only once. A number of those people who were tall enough to watch the whole business vomited in the street directly after, and that's the main thing I remember about it, that smell.
I decided to let the matter drop, for the time being. There would be plenty of opportunities to question the finer points of Maude's thinking on forgiveness, I figured, and better times to do it.
“What were you doing in Cedar Rapids?” I asked Marion.
“Just passing through,” he said. “I was running short of funds, and I thought a card game would put a little change in my pocket. But as I said, things went wrong. It didn't look like such a temperamental little town as it turned out to be.”
Maude gave him a hard look.
“I mean the card players,” Marion said. “About your aunt Ruthie, well, the sheriff was doing his job, of course.”
I found I didn't want to hear any more about Aunt Ruthie's misfortune. It made me feel a little low. So I was just as happy when Marion turned the conversation in another direction. “If you don't mind me asking, what made you girls settle on Independence? It's a long, rough ride through Missouri.”
“You have a better suggestion?” Maude asked him.
She sounded rude to me, but Marion took it in stride. “You might have gone back east.”
“We don't have any people back east,” I told him. “We might be able to find our uncle Arlen in Independence.”
“Well, now, there's some good news,” Marion said, almost heartily. If he was taking comfort from the notion that we weren't orphans after all, Maude wasn't about to let him have it for long.
“We don't know if he's dead or alive,” she said. “Even if he is alive, we don't have any idea where to look for him once we get there. We have a letter that stated he was leaving for parts unknown. If we find him, we don't know that he'll want to take us in. If we make it that far ourselves, which we might not.”
She settled his hash.
We rode without another word said for nearly half an hour before Marion came up with a less touchy subject. He instructed us on the wisdom of pacing horses in the rain. Warm them up by starting out with a longish walk, shift to a brisk trot, offer them a little gallop to get their blood running, but then let them slow down again.
“Prairie dog burrows cave in and become hidden mud holes,” Marion said. “You don't want a running horse to step down in one of those holes. Less'n you want to fly to Independence.”
Maude didn't have anything to say to this, but I sensed he'd softened her up a little. I didn't know what more there was to say about horses, so after we had our little gallop, I asked him again if he was the Joe Harden in the book, even if he was really Marion Hardly.
“What book would that be?” he asked me.
Joe Harden, Frontier Fighter.
“I imagine it's purely coincidence,” Marion said. “I can't believe anyone is writing about me.”
I told him the one Joe Harden story I could just about recite word for word. And I gave him the gist of the other stories I'd read. I finished by saying, “I'm sorry to say I haven't been able to get even half of them.”
“Who wrote these stories?” Marion asked.
I had to think for a minute. “J. H. somebody,” I said. “I always thought it was you, because of the initials. I thought maybe the last name was just for show, so you could tell the stories without embarrassment.”
Marion gave me an odd look. “You mean you thought it made it easier for me to brag?” He sounded half mad.
“I don't think it's bragging to tell how things were,” I said. “You'll see. You can have a look at one of them later.”
Marion made grateful noises, to be polite, I guess, but I gathered he didn't have a good opinion of dime novels. “I read one once,” he said, “and I had to put it down. The hero made such poor decisions, I just knew it for a story written by someone who had never come as far west as the Mississippi. But I allow John Henry might have learned a few things since then.”
“John Henry?” Maude said. “You know who wrote them?”
“No, no,” Marion said, pulling himself up straighter in the saddle. “It's just the name I give to those initials your sister told me.”
This conversation only carried us into strong daylight, not that strong daylight was so easy to find under a sky the color
of pewter. By late morning the three of us were soaked to the skin and wishing for another pine tree. We hadn't bothered with conversation for two hours at least.
The wind picked up and pushed darker clouds across the sky. “Looks like we're in for some weather,” Marion said. “I hope that's a cabin up ahead.”
“Where?” Maude said, and stood in her stirrups to see. “I don't see anything but that wagon.”
“Your eyes aren't adjusted to distances,” Marion said kindly. “Mine are adjusted, but don't get your hopes up; it might not be a cabin. It's just a bump in the flat as yet, even for my eyes. I reckon we're an hour's ride from it.”
I kept shut. I couldn't even see the wagon.
We picked up speed a little, but it seemed like the longest hour of my life. By the time we reached the bump, my teeth were chattering and so were Maude's. The bump in the flat was not a cabin. It was an abandoned wagon.
“I guess you were right,” Marion said to Maude.
A rocking chair sat next to it like an invitation. Or a cruel joke. The disappointment was severe. Maude choked back a sob. I understood. She thought he must have seen something beyond the wagon.
“I told you not to get your hopes up,” Marion reminded her. “We could tip the wagon for a windbreak and get a little fire going. But that don't shelter the horses. I say we keep going.”
“How far?” Maude asked him, shivering.
“We can make Skunk Hollow by nightfall,” he said. “But I hesitate to take you gals in there, even looking like boys. It's a rough place. We'd best push for Des Moines.”
Maude's teeth clacked, which I took for a kind of giving in. Marion was made of hardier stuff; his teeth kept quiet. His fingers were no less blue than ours, I noticed, so he understood that Maude was nearing the end of her rope. “It's not much further.”