(This is the next chapter in my envisioning of a certain classic western. Young Jim Reade and his Delaware Indian sworn brother have taken up Captain Jack Hays’ volunteer “secret service” in Republic-era Texas, and been given a task – to damp down what threatens to become a deadly feud between two families.) 

            The rain fell continuously all night, but as morning broke, the grey sky cleared; washed fresh and as blue as turquoise. A scattering of clouds floated in it, like enormous cotton-bolls. Captain Hays allowed as he had to write letters all morning. Creed said that he was going for his daily constitutional around the plaza.

“I try and walk a little farther every day, without resting,” he explained. “The first day that I tried, I only got as far as the old Spanish governor’s palace. And it took me an hour, at that.”

“Tell me about this family quandary of yours,” Jim suggested. Creed assented and Jim put on his hat. It was a slow progress, for Creed walked with a halting step and often had to stop to rest, as pale as a man on his deathbed, but he shook off any assistance or suggestion that perhaps he should return to Captain Hays’ place and rest a little more.

“See, there’s my brother Pitkin and I, and our sisters. Poppa Josiah brought us all to Colonel DeWitt’s grant – I was about four years old, then. We came from Alabama … Old Bill Sutton and his kin, they were neighbors of ours then, but not the real friendly sort. We didn’t ever have words with them outright … but they’re standoffish, think better of themselves for being from old South Carolina gentry. It never bothered me much, but I think it riled Poppa Josiah some – we’re close kin to Zachary Taylor, after all. Anyway, Silas and his two brothers took up a piece of land out south a ways and Mandy came to live with them when Old Bill and his missus died. I’ve heard it said that Mandy and Silas’ wife Mattie didn’t get on so well, but …” Creed shrugged. “Women gossip to pass the time. I didn’t care much about the Suttons anyway, so I hardly paid any heed.”  They had reached the far side of the plaza, shaded by a spindly tree behind a wall at their backs. “Jim, I think I need to sit and catch my breath.”

“Take your time,” Jim answered.

“Hell to be as weak as a newborn kitten,” Creed grumbled. “Not when there’s things needing doing.” He sank onto a handy bench, where the market-women were setting up to dispense that rich, spicy red-bean stew from the kettles they had brought from their kitchens in the little rambling mud-brick houses in the neighborhood around the main plaza. Even at mid-morning, there were a scattering of hungry diners. “I’m right fond of this place,” Creed added, most unexpectedly. “I know that most of the Mexes here would sell us out to Santy Anna for nothin’ more than the satisfaction of getting their own back … but I can understand. This was theirs – the water is clearer, the sky is bluer, wildflowers brighter than anywhere else that I’ve ever been. The aguardiente is fierier, the fighting bulls are braver, the chile-stew is hotter and the women prettier’n anywhere else in the world. I’d want all that back, if I were a Mex. I can’t blame them at all. I just wish that they’d be honest about it. That’s all. I prefer honesty, Jim. I just can’t approve of being two-faced. I’ll leave that to the Suttons.”

“Your cousin Nate … what makes the Sutton menfolk so certain he’s paying court to her?” Jim asked. “You said that he was more the upright sober sort.”

“He is,” Creed affirmed. “He’s ‘bout fifteen years older than me. He was married to a girl back in Alabama for a while, but she died of the yellow fever – I don’t think he has looked at another woman since. He’s a wheelwright and cooper in Lavernia … has an apprentice helping with the work, or he did the last time I saw him – Micajah Boone. I purely don’t see Nate taking any interest in Mandy Sutton. She’s a headstrong, stubborn little chit of a girl; I think she was the youngest of Old Bill Sutton’s children, so she’s been indulged considerable.”

“Is she pretty?” Jim asked; in his limited experience a stubborn and spoiled girl was apt to be forgiven practically anything if she were pretty. “And did she inherit anything special from her father or mother?”

Creed shook his head. “I don’t think she got anything out of line in her daddy’s will. And she’s not what I’d call an eye-full, either … square jaw and a ‘don’t touch me’ look. Skinny as a rail an’ no shape to her, though that might have changed since I last saw her. Still, Parris Fletcher was all about tying the knot with her, as soon as she was sixteen. Parris has a league and a labor of land on the other side of Gonzales. He and Silas are good friends, so I’d have said it was all settled.”

“I’ll ride over to Lavernia in a week or so,” Jim said, after silently considering what Creed had told him. “But I must visit Bastrop first … my brother’s wife lives there. I think it may be me who tells her that Dan’l is dead.”

“A hard task for you,” Creed observed. “But I’m grateful in any case.” He rose to his feet with an effort. “It’s been a puzzle to me – since I have been laid up healing. Nate and Mandy Sutton; I purely don’t see it at all – and I can’t think why Silas Sutton has gotten such a bee in his bonnet.”

Two weeks later, he and Toby set off on the short journey to Lavernia on the Cibolo – a tidy little hamlet out to the south east, on the road toward Victoria and the coast. It was a mild winter day, the sky as clear as if it had been scrubbed, all but the faint haze of wood-smoke which hung over Bexar. The wind came from the north at their backs, keen and cold. They rode without speaking much, Jim drawing his heavy hunting coat around him. His arm still ached, but he was grateful for the diversion of the journey. The road was a well-traveled one, deeply rutted and grooved with the wheels of wagons which had passed that way. Rain which had fallen in recent days filled the deeper ruts with narrow puddles, now skimmed with ice. Frost covered all else with a grey and sparkling haze, until the sun had shown long enough to briefly turn it all to crystal droplets of water.

“I guess that Creed’s brother will give us shelter,” Jim ventured at last, when they could see two or three threads of smoke rising from the scattered chimneys of Lavernia. They paused in a grove of oak and pecan trees at the edge of the winter-burnt ploughed fields at the edge of the hamlet to reconnoiter and consult the careful sketch map which Creed had made for them – a handful of random small squares signifying the various home-places broadcast like a handful of grain along Cibolo Creek and the road to Victoria. “His house is that one, under the trees at the edge of the Cibolo. Cousin Nate’s house and workshop are there at the crossroads. That would be the big house with the sheds and barn at the back.” Toby shrugged.

“It is no matter to me, James. I do not like spending nights in your white-man’s houses. The air … it does not smell right to me, and I cannot sleep well. I will set a camp here in the open air …and,” he added with a shrewd sideways look at Jim. “I cannot think that your people would entirely welcome one of my kind under their roof. That is one of those matters that is.”

“And I am sorry for it,” Jim answered, helplessly. “If it were left to my own judgement, then you would be an honored guest … in a house of my own, the best chamber and bed would be given to you without hesitation. The best portion of a meal, too. I owe you much…”

“We are brothers,” Toby replied with a careless wave of his hand. “You need not render such an apology for your world being what it is. Now …” his gaze upon the distant hamlet sharpened. “There is something happening, I hear men shouting.”

“Unless I have missed my guess, that’s coming from Nate Taylor’s place,” Suddenly apprehensive, Jim spurred the wall-eyed paint pony. It would do no good to get there just too late.

The tableaux unfolded before Jim and Toby as they rounded the corner of the wheelwright’s business – an open-fronted shed of sawn planks, awash in a litter of sawdust and wood-chips and filled to the loft with the detritus of his trade; hubs, spokes and rims, and finished wheels as well as unformed lengths of wood. Half of it apparently served as a stable, for there was a ladder at one side led to a hayloft loft above. Four men stood in adversarial attitudes facing a fifth, while a single weeping woman stood at one side with her shawl pulled over her head. One man stood in the doorway of the shop, with a carpenters’ hammer in his hand – from his leather work apron, and likeness to Creed, Jim assumed he must be the cousin.

“You tell us what you have done with her!” The leader of the group shouted angrily. “You stinking son of a whore … my little sister has been gone for five days now! Where is she?”

“I have no idea,” Nate Taylor answered, with remarkable calm, considering that his interrogator was holding the end of a short-barreled Baker rifle under his nose. “I have not seen or spoken with Miss Sutton in some days.”

“She told us she was going to stay at the Bonners to help Sarah nurse the little ones sick with the flux – but Mattie says she last saw her walking towards your place,” one of the other men confronting Nate Taylor snarled. “And Miz Bonner, she says that Mandy only came to visit for a day, nothing about staying.”

“You tell me why my sister would tell a lie like that!” the man with the Baker demanded. Jim could just now see the expression of exasperation on Nate Taylor’s face.

“Perhaps she got tired of you beating her an’ Mattie like a rented mule?” He suggested, in mild and level tones, and Jim thought, ‘He certainly has cold nerve, saying that to a man with a rifle pointed at his throat.’

The eyes and attention of everyone were intent upon Nate Taylor, while the woman sobbed into her shawl. Realizing that drastic measures might be called for, Jim unshipped his own Colt revolver and fired three shots into the air, which had the effect of snapping everyone’s head around to him, sitting breathless in the saddle for a long moment. He noted with relief that the Sutton with his rifle at Nate Taylor had lowered it with commendable alacrity – but that also and dispiritingly – that weapon now wavered between him and Nate. The woman – Mattie Sutton – was now wailing like a banshee with redoubled energy.

“I came from Bexar,” Jim announced, although his liver was now doing a backflip and trying to hide behind his heart. “Captain Hays sent me to see what the blazes was going on in Lavernia. Nothing good that I can see.” He was dimly aware that Toby lurked at his back, his fearsome war-hatchet in hand. Likely Mattie Sutton had mistaken Toby for a Comanche warrior in full paint and feared the worst – although it didn’t seem as if she’d get treatment from them much worse than she already had from her lawful-wedded husband.

“By whose right?” the man with the Baker demanded, his chin jutted aggressively. Jim swung down from his horse.

“Mine and the Captain’s,” Jim answered feigning a cool authority that he did not feel at heart. Luckily those doubts didn’t show overmuch, and Toby stood silent at his elbow, the war-ax in his hand a promise and a threat. This was not his place, a courtroom was more like it, but he had faced down loud talkers in his time, under the disinterested eye of a judge – and Silas Sutton was in his judgment, the worst kind of bullying loud talker. “And the law. Remember what the law is – Mr. Silas Sutton, I take it? It’s the yoke that lies over us all as civilized men – not what a bully with a big mouth and a bigger weapon takes in hand to administer at a whim. Now …” he cast his eye over the small assembly. “I’m Jim Reade, I’ve read law and Captain Hays is known to you all. So, I will ask – what is going on here?”

“We came, looking for Miss Amanda Sutton,” the youngest of the quartet at the doorway of the wheelwrights’ shop answered, with something of a shamed face. “My name is Parris Fletcher – we are to wed in the summer. But Miss Sutton has vanished entirely and her brothers are naturally worried about her well-being. Everyone had it that Mr. Taylor was a particular friend to her…”

“The wench is a child,” Nate Taylor growled. “I’ve no interest in paying her romantic attentions. Have her with my blessing, Fletcher – but take a care for your new brothers-by-law. Their manners are as unpromising as their person, and their intellects are even less to boast about. Take that rifle out of my face, Silas – afore I break it over your fool head. She’s not here, has never been here – or any farther than the workshop, at any roads. Search the place if you like. I insist on it, as a matter of fact. And when you have done so and found nothing,  go and shut your foul, gossiping mouths about my concerns and my friends.”

“I don’t think that would be wise, Mr. Taylor,” Jim murmured quietly, out of the corner of his mouth. “A search … your home is your palace, which remains secure until a warrant is produced…”

“They’ll find nothing,” Nate Taylor answered, assurance and a degree of disgust on his features. “I am sick of this, Mr. Reade – sick of this petty calumny and persecution by the spawn of the Sutton clan.” He turned towards Silas Sutton and Parris Fletcher and spat contemptuously at their feet. “Have at it – search the place, every inch of it. The house, workshop, the smokehouse and don’t forget the woodpile and the privy-pit. You’ll find nothing. Go on – and let me get back to work.”

Parris Fletcher had the grace to appear somewhat shamed, but the three Suttons sullenly took Nate Taylor at his word. A glowering Silas surveyed the inside of the workshop in a single glance; all that was within could be plainly seen from the door. The other two and Parris Fletcher went to the house – a two-pen cabin with the open breezeway, while Mrs. Sutton followed them, wringing her hands. Obviously nothing was hidden from sight in the workshop, and Silas set his Baker aside and climbed the ladder to the loft overhead. Meanwhile, as if to indicate his utter disinterest in the Suttons, Nate busied himself with setting spokes into a massive wooden wheel-hub.  Presently, someone came running up the road, likely in belated answer to Jim’s firing his Colt. It had not been so many years since the great burning of Linville, when the Penateka Comanche swept down from the Llano and scoured the valley of the Guadalupe.

“What the hell?” the newcomer demanded, as he rounded the shed. He was hatless, with a belt with two revolvers in it strung over his shoulder and a long rifle in the other hand, a young man and obviously ready for any exigencies which might occur in a place only a little removed from the frontier. “Nate, what’s going on? Who is this?”

“You must be Pitkin Taylor,” Jim answered readily. “I’m Jim Reade, a friend of Creed’s…”

“I told those damned Suttons to go ahead and search my place and be done with it.” Nate answered. He jerked his chin at Jim and Toby. “They’re Captain Hays’ – Creed’s doing – come to see this all settled, one way or another.” They could hear Silas moving around in the loft over their heads, and a little dust sifting down from overhead. Nate continued, “Don’t be mistook, Pit. I’m in favor of ending this. I got work to do – more than ever now with Micajah striking out on his own.”

“Pleased,” Pitkin nodded towards Jim, somewhat diverted from the conversation. “He did? I knew he wanted to set up in Victoria, mebbe even Indianola. He’s a good boy, Nate – I’ll reckon you’ll miss him. You treated him more like a son than a ‘prentice.”

“He went last week, with my blessing and a set of good tools to give him a start.” Nate turned back to his workbench. “Hitched a ride with a carter fellow, taking a load of hides to Indianola.”

“Better him than me,” Pitkin chuckled. “Smellin’ those stinking hides all the way … I’d sooner walk. So you’re friends of Creed?” He turned towards Jim – obviously a simple man, not accustomed to writing much, or accustomed to the larger world outside his little holding on the edge of Cibolo Creek, but still interested in news regarding it. “How was he, when last you saw? We don’t write much. I know he was hurt bad in the Salado Fight.”

“He’s recovering,” Jim answered, although he was not inclined to tell how that recovery was proving painful and gradual. “But he’s worried about you all. As if it ain’t enough to fight the Mexicans and the Comanche; Cap’n Hays doesn’t like seeing us fight each other over misunderstandings.”

“Misunderstanding?” Silas Sutton snarled from the loft over their heads. “Damn your eyes, I’ll give you a misunderstanding!” His countenance distorted by fury, he came down the ladder in a rush, a bundle of calico cloth under one arm. “Parris! Bill! Mattie – get here, an’ see what I found in the hayloft!”

The two Taylor men looked at each other, baffled, while Jim straightened from leaning against the door. The Suttons and Paris Fletcher came running severally from the house and outbuildings, as Silas shook out the bundle.

A woman’s blue calico print dress and petticoat, creased and crumpled from being wadded into a ball. Mattie Sutton gasped. “It’s Mandy’s dress … that she was wearing the last that I saw her.”  Nate Taylor looked at it in honest puzzlement and dismay, as Silas thrust it at him.

“You heard what my wife said – it’s Mandy’s!” Silas shouted. “You tell me how it got there, you cur! All wadded up, pushed into the farthest corner behind the hay! What did you do with her, then!”

Nate looked from the dress to the angry faces of the Suttons – and the baffled one of Parris Fletcher. “I haven’t done anything,” he answered, his own countenance reddening with indignation. “And I don’t have any notion …”

“I wager that you do!” Silas thrust the dress at Nate, whose own temper snapped before Jim could even interpose himself between the two men.

“Go to hell, Sutton – all of you!” Nate snapped, and before Jim or Pitkin could move, Silas caught up the Baker rifle and emptied it into Nate’s chest, at such close range that his heart’s blood sprayed Jim’s face and shirt-front with crimson drops.

 

Nate’s body fell backwards like a rag doll thrown by a child. Horrified and half-deafened by the shot and blinded by blood and black-powder smoke, Jim knelt at his side, frantically stopping up the wound with his hands, for Nate still breathed. His lips moved, and Jim leaned closer to catch that last whisper. Two words; “Young Rome…” and then he was gone, utterly limp and lifeless under Jim’s hands.

Jim sat back on his heels and looked up at Silas, his empty Baker in his hands, the horrified face of Parris Fletcher, and the angry one of Pitkin Taylor.

“Good job, Mr. Sutton,” Jim said, at last. “You’ve murdered about the only man who could have told us where your sister is.”

3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Two weeks later, girl missing for five days . . . Sorry, inner editor escaping.

  2. Avatar

    For something that started as a joke, this is excellent. Can’t wait to see what happens next, I suspect I know where the girl went and want to know if my guess is right.

  3. Celia

    Earlier, it was only Silas creating about Mandy and Nate being unsuitably familiar … five days before Jim and Toby came to Lavernia was when she vanished.

  4. Pingback: A Chapter of the Next Book: Under the Harsh Blue Skies | Celia Hayes – The Accidental Texan