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Authors: Robert Lautner

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BOOK: The Road to Reckoning
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‘You want the horse?’ asked the man who had left my side as if I was not there.

‘Why would I want a horse with no dick?’ Heywood said. ‘Leave the wagon. Get the guns and the money. Take it all. Leave the boy and the ground.’

The hatband giggler stopped his mirth. ‘Leave the boy?’

‘He’s a boy. Get moving.’

I do not think this was mercy.

I had not stirred past looking at the top of my father’s head. I watched the silver-haired man take Father’s watch and purse and kick him back over again. Someone rubbed Jude Brown’s nose and he settled down while they robbed the wagon. There was laughter at the discovery of the wooden gun and they threw it on my father’s back.

I did not notice them leaving. They said nothing to me and just melted away.

I sat in the dark for a half hour, I guess. Jude Brown tried to talk to me. He just wanted to know that everything was all right, so at some time I stood up and rubbed his neck. I sat up on the Brewster and played his reins through my fingers.

I sat there for hours listening to the owls and the forest creaking, watching shooting stars and hearing things snuffling just outside our camp. Branches fall at night, did you know that? You can be sitting in silence and suddenly something falls and you jump.

Eventually false dawn came and I got down and went to our tin of char cloth and striker. I made a fire. There were flying insects everywhere, even on my hands as I sparked and they did not care. I pulled out the cups from the ash and drank what was in them. They had taken the oven pot.

My father’s body gurgled but I knew he was not alive. After an hour I rolled him over. I recognized nothing about him, and in a way this was easier to me. His mouth was open and bloodied wet and his eyes stared up. I tried to close them but they would not. I tried to close his mouth but his teeth just ground and it flopped back open. It felt like rubbing a brick against another and the feeling of it through my arm made me throw up my belly.

I went through his pockets and got just his compass and spectacles. I picked up the wooden Paterson and stuffed it in my belt. They had tossed away my father’s order book and I stooped and plucked each one of the white paper chits like picking cotton and placed them back.

Dawn now and the birds tried to get rid of me again with their cries. I knew I could not pick up his body. I was not strong enough. I have had to live with that.

I covered him with our blankets, not thinking of the next night, and me and Jude Brown went back the way we came.

I did not cry. Not once. It is very important for you to know that. I would not get anywhere with crying. I wooed Jude Brown and clucked when I wanted him to get along. I do not think he cared anything about what had happened and he stopped when we cleared into wide ground until I fed him. He took an age with his bag, and I chewed corn dodgers for breakfast and waited for him. There was no satisfaction in my eating. I could taste nothing.

When I got back up onto the seat my feet touched the loaded Paterson that my father had practiced with. He had left it underneath and it had moved as I rode. Heywood had not seen it. I took out the wooden one and put it at my feet and put this steel one in its place. Jude Brown took us to a creek and I had to untie him to let him drink. I washed for I had the smell of gunpowder and smoke all over.

I would go back to Milton, back to mister Baker. He knew me and my father. That would do for now.

SEVEN

I had done back through Lewis and on to Milton. It had taken the best part of the day and the town had gone quiet for suppertime when I reached Baker’s store. Mercifully he was still open. I put the guns in the sofkee bag and hid it under the seat.

I hesitated before my hand reached the door. I realized I had not spoken to anyone since last night and that I had not thought of what I was to say or why I was to say it. I was childishly embarrassed. I was used to not piping up when I got the small piece of pie, to be thankful for the warm buttermilk. I sat quietly in corners and let adults talk. But I knew I needed the company and security of good men. I would say it all just as it was. They would know the right thing to do and I would go back to sitting quietly in corners while they made the world right again. I opened the door.

Mister Baker was behind his counter, I doubted if the town recognized him without a bar of wood in front of him. He stopped wiping something and fixed me with a questioning look, then recalled me and looked over my head for my father’s shape. I had frozen in the doorway for I had heard lewd laughter and the chime of glass from the dark area. I had not thought on the possibility that I was coming back into the den where I had first seen beasts.

The change in me had not gone unnoticed and mister Baker came closer to me along his counter.

‘What is it, son?’

I took off my hat and stepped up to the brass rail along the foot of the bar.

‘My father,’ I said. My voice was dry and I swallowed to moisten my throat but I had nothing in me to wet it. ‘He has been shot and killed. I would like to go home now.’

Mister Baker had no wife but he found a neighbor who held me tight to her bosom when she heard and gave me a good stew and dumplings, which I did prefer more. She had no children, which was to the good. I would not know how to address myself to them now, my usual shyness of other children presently deepened by my horrors. She called me ‘dear’ at every word and made me a cot in her parlor. I kept the sofkee bag with the guns beside me.

I was a little fearful when mister Baker left to take care of Jude Brown but I comforted myself that he was only across the street. The neighbor did not leave me a light when she ‘deared’ me good night, which at first worried me, but I realized that no-one would have reason to look in through the window of a darkened room. Before settling I got out from under the four-patch quilt and checked the locks on the windows. I slept a little. I dreamed a lot. I do not want to write about them dreams.

There was no law in Milton. That would come when they got a post office. The bank had men on a payroll of a dollar and a half a day to protect its interests and they could be persuaded to keep order on a Saturday night. Mister Baker informed me in the morning after he had opened and set me down in a chair with my bag by my feet that we would have to apply to a judge in Lewisburg and make Thomas Heywood a matter for the marshals.

I dreaded the concept of repeating my entire story to a man in black who did not know my father from a hole in the ground but I trusted mister Baker as a man who had at least conversed and traded with my father. He was kin to me now. Even today every shopkeeper reminds of him whenever I see a white apron and cuff protectors. I have found most of them to be polite and warm. They are the few of us who often see all walks of life and unlike with a doctor or a lawman it is mostly a happy event when someone purchases something, and they meet us at our best, which must be good for their souls. They become the begrudging kind when they have been taken advantage of or stolen from too often. I have met these also.

The evil men who had done this to me had left me with Jude Brown and our Brewster and our clothes. I had no money in the world and was dependent on strangers. I expressed to mister Baker that I wanted to get back to New York.

‘What about your father’s body, Thomas?’ he asked. ‘Would you not like to give him a Christian burial?’

I thought on the blankets I had left over my father’s body. I thought on the snuffling and howls of unseen things.

‘I would like that, sir, but … it has been some time … and it will be more time to get back to …’

Bless mister Chet Baker. I saw my uncompleted thoughts trawl across his face. I had burdened him with my dilemmas unfairly. I had asked to go home and now this poor man had to spend part of his precious day considering my future, which had walked into his store. A good shopkeeper finds it hard to say no. As I understand it, in China, if one walks into a store and asks for something that the store does not stock, rather than say no and disappoint, that little Chinaman will keep nodding and bringing out things that you may like instead. I guess mister Baker was of this tradition.
No
was not a word for him.

The bell broke our cabal and I jumped at the door swinging wide. A tall man blew in and hung holding the door as if Odysseus had returned. He had a gray greatcoat that did not suit the warmer weather that April was bringing. He looked at mister Baker and me like furniture and walked to the counter with a grunt.

He wore a weak hat that could have been his grandpa’s for it certainly looked older than him but his beard made him older. He could have been seventy with them whiskers. He had those same black-flapped holsters around his belt that I had come to fear and smaller ones that probably held just as terrifying devices.

‘I have a list, Chet, if you please,’ he said, and occupied the counter with a great familiarity as if he owned the place.

Mister Baker tapped my knee and stood and brushed his hands down his apron. He went to his stage. The man looked back at me with a cocked head and sniffed and turned away.

‘Right with you, Henry.’ Mister Baker’s voice was friendly and I relaxed a bit. He took the list and perused it with a squint. I guessed the man to have bad script. ‘Are you stopping a spell, Henry?’

‘No, I am not,’ the man said. ‘I am on to Cherry Hill. They may have some loose prisoners to fetch. Men like to escape for the summer. Let me try your jerky.’

Mister Baker handed him a strip of the beef that was strung on a cord above and the man leaned on the counter and surveyed the room and me.

I knew of Cherry Hill. This was the Philadelphia state prison shaped like a wagon’s wheel. It was the largest jail in America and freshly built. Pennsylvania was famous throughout the world for its efficiency of handling criminals for reform and punishment, and the Pennsylvania system of separate confinement would become the model for the world. It even had flush toilets in each cell. Even President Buren did not have one of those, although with the state of the country he had gained from Jackson he probably had need of it.

My face must have lit up at the sound of places close to home for this man Henry studied me more.

‘You making opinion on me, boy?’

‘No, sir.’

He snorted and went back to his business. ‘I have tobacco twists to sell, Chet. Virginian. Don’t want to take it with me.’

‘I know, I know, Henry.’ Mister Baker waved him down and went about with his cans and bags to the counter. ‘Store-pay or coin?’

‘What you will. What is with the boy, Chet? You a wet nurse now?’

On this morning I had no opinion on Henry Stands. He was of those rough-and-ready, broad, fat men we tended to elect as presidents and senators when they were too old to do anything else and too ornery to lie down. He had that same military bearing and attitude of patience that they had seen it all and leaned on the seasons like
fences and watched the rest of the world cluck and run around.

Mister Baker stopped in his actions and lowered his voice. ‘His father has been killed. Not two days gone.’

‘Killed by who?’ I still think that a strange, direct questioning.

‘Thomas Heywood. He was working on the canal building last I knew. Do you know him?’

‘I do not.’ Henry Stands turned back to me. ‘You are not hurt, boy?’

‘No, sir. It was not just Heywood. There was four of them.’

‘Where is your mother?’

‘The pock took my mother last year.’

Mister Baker seemed to sink. ‘I did not know that. I am sorry, son.’

Henry bit off more jerky and spoke through his chewing. ‘So you are an orphan now, boy?’

This had not occurred to me. But it was true. An orphan.

‘I cannot say,’ I said, and meant it. ‘I have my house with my aunt.’

‘My, Chet, you have inherited a piece. What’s your name, boy?’

‘Thomas Walker, sir.’

‘Henry Stands.’ And that was his introduction. ‘Thomas Walker.’ He said my name as if he were chewing on it to see if it was something he should swallow or spit. ‘You hold the same name as the man that done this? That is unfortunate. Well, boy, there is no shame in being an orphan. I am an orphan myself. That is because I am old and that is what happens. You may become a smarter man than me as it has come to you so young.’ He rubbed his nose. ‘I am sorry for your loss. I’ll take tea, Chet, and rum if you has it in half bottles or I will take gin.’ He turned away.

‘Henry? You are heading east. Could it not be available that you could take the boy with? He is of New York.’

Henry bit off more jerky. ‘I am not to New York. I am to Philadelphia.’

Although I had not yet formed my views on Henry Stands I saw an opportunity to leave this place, and right soon, for this man was set to leaving and that suited me.

I stood up. ‘I am not to New York. I am for Paterson, New Jersey.’

They both looked at me. ‘Mister Samuel Colt is expecting me there.’ I knew how to catch this old goat. ‘He has monies for me. We have business. I can pay.’

‘What’s he jawing about?’

‘His father was selling guns. I bought half a dozen myself on promise and one for my own.’ He reached below. ‘Now see this here.’ The Paterson came out. Henry took it by the barrel and reversed it into his palm quicker than I could see. He weighed it smartly.

‘Should be brassed. It’ll rust like nails.’ He half cocked it and watched the cylinder click round and the trigger drop. ‘That is pretty.’ But he said this with scorn. He took it all the way and the cylinder finished its trick. It was not loaded but he did not fire; such action can damage the placings for the caps. He let the hammer back. This was an experienced man.

‘It does not load down the barrel? How is it to be done?’ He tugged down on the barrel. ‘Does it snap? I fear I will break it and owe you, Chet.’

I stepped across.

‘I will show you, sir.’ I held out my hand for the gun. Henry Stands grunted and passed it over. I half cocked it again and showed him the key wedge on the barrel. ‘This taps out,’ I said, and did it exactly as my father had shown me using the pocket compass as a hammer. ‘You can pull the barrel right off.’ I did and placed it on the counter. ‘This makes it perfect for cleaning or for buying longer barrels for greater accuracy. Now you can take the cylinder off the arbor and load the chambers. The arbor will double as a ram for the shot in a pinch or you can use your own tool or the one supplied, which fits through this slot in the arbor.’ I assembled the gun again with my father’s hands.

BOOK: The Road to Reckoning
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