A Close Call For Henry
By Thomas A. Rice
Earl had a really nice Colt, one of those six shooters with the ivory butts. Well polished and bright - quite well kept. Absolutely beautiful. The only thing I didn’t like about it was that I happened to be looking at it from the wrong end. It’s odd how the barrel of a colt looks more like the mouth of a napoleon when it’s pointed at your head. Funny thing is, I was pretty sure it wasn’t loaded. It struck me he’d just made a show of cleaning that gun a moment before. Thinking back, I couldn’t remember him actually loading the gun up again. But, then again, that’s the sort of thing you really want to be sure about. I frowned a little, puzzled, wondering what he was doing.
“You’ll be letting Henry out of jail now, Clem.” And he waved me off toward the holding cell where his brother resided.
“I will do no such thing, Earl. Now put that weapon down and let’s talk about this.”
But my words were of no use, and I knew it even as I answered him. Earl’s got a vein in his temple that stands out every time he gets his gander up, and when he gets stubborn that way you just can’t talk to the man. Right now it was threatening to pop out of his skull. You could see blood pulsing through it, almost. Earl can be almost as stubborn as my horse when he wants to be, which is often. But that’s why I like the man and that’s one of the reasons I had hired him as my deputy.
“Clem, you are my best friend. But Henry’s blood. And I know he’s innocent. I can’t let him hang. I won’t kill you, Clem, but I’ll sure shoot you if I have to. Let him out, right now, and don’t go for your gun.”
Seeing as how I didn’t want him to bust a vessel - or shoot me, for that matter - I walked over to the cell casually, slowly, like nothing was wrong. I was still wondering what his game was. He looked so damn serious I eyed his gun again just to make sure he didn’t have bullets in it. He winked at me real quick in a way that his brother would not notice.
I was not completely convinced that Henry was actually guilty of the murder he had been charged with, so I decided to go along and play it out with Earl. I unlocked the cell and stood aside. Henry Kaufman breezed by me to the wall where his gunbelt was hanging while Earl waved me into the cell and closed it. As he buckled his belt on and tied down, Henry looked back at me.
“I didn’t do it, Sheriff. Honest.” He said, picking up his rifle and walking towards the door.
“I know you, Henry.” I replied steadily.
He had no answer for that so they went to leave, but I got a last word in.
“I want your star, Earl.”
Earl holstered his pistol, reached up and removed the deputy star from his chest. He stared at it for a long moment and as God is my witness, he started to cry. Just a little bit, which he wiped away quickly, like he was ashamed. The star made an unnaturally loud thump as it landed on my desk. Maybe it was the stillness of the morning, or perhaps it was responsibility that gave weight to that badge, but when it hit I think we all knew that our world, such as we saw of it, had just changed for the worse. Earl didn’t even glance at me as he strode out.
I heard them mount up and ride off, quietly, and watched them from the cell window as they disappeared into the early morning mist. I suppose I could have yelled out and roused the town, but I needed time to think and besides, I wanted to see what Earl had in mind so I just sat down in a chair, reached through the bars and pulled the chess table close, turning the chess board around to ponder my next move.
Henry had actually been a pretty good chess player. This may have been due to the amount of time spent in my holding cell awaiting trial, of course, but I do believe it also reflected well upon both his intelligence and his ability to learn when he felt so inclined. Plus I had a tendency to be lenient on anyone who beat me in a game, and that gave prisoners an encouragement to learn chess.
I always figured if a cowboy took the time to learn chess, then he also learned - indirectly, and without his knowing it, of course - that he could apply thought to his life in general. And maybe next time, instead of being rash and stirring up trouble, he could think himself out of a jam or reason before he fought. That was the plan, anyway. Lord only knows if it worked. It didn’t, apparently, with Henry.
So instead of screaming like Dante in Hell, I picked up a rook and advanced it aggressively. My daddy had always told me, “Two rooks can do the work of a queen, if you position them properly.” I believe the old codger was right. Positioned correctly, they can overpower just about any other combination, especially if you back them up with a little help.
I spun the board and worked from white’s side. In spite of having the first move, white was on the defensive now. Henry is a brash, young man, and it reflected in his stylish play. Overexposed early, I had quickly countered a weak offensive, and now he was trying to maintain some control of the center of the board without losing too many pieces. I thought about how he could maintain his position and just couldn’t find a way. Neither could I see how Henry could recover three of his primary pieces - a bishop a rook and his queen - without losing at least one of them.
And it hit me then. Just like the Twenty-Fourth Maine at Gettysburg. The Rebs had been at us all day. Men on both sides of me had been killed, one by a bullet in the head, the other by bayonet - and let me tell you that death by bayonet is an ugly way to die. They were coming up again, a slow, grayish wave climbing that Godforsaken hill with the grim determination of men who would not be denied.
We had the honor of holding the leftmost flank, which meant that we had no intention of retreating before the eyes of the whole army. If we fell, well, where would it stop? The Colonel had had all that he could stand of the Reb attacks, which had persisted all day, and he was grievously upset with the carnage they had wrecked upon his troops, so he said to heck with it, let’s finish this fight once and for all: then he shouted for bayonets and ordered a charge. When we swooped down that hill, one thin line of ragged blue, bayonets set and death in our eyes, they just stopped in their tracks and gaped at us. We whupped them good right then and there, mostly out of surprise.
I didn’t kill anyone in that charge - heck, I didn’t even have any ammunition - but I did manage to capture three Johnny’s who, fortunately, didn’t have any shots left either. After the fight was over they just sat on the ground in shock, refusing to believe they had surrendered to a force one-fourth their size. Most of them, I suppose, were just happy to have survived the fight.
My eyes focused back on the game and I dreamily lifted the bishop up and planted him deep within my lines. Check.
Blacks only counter was to step the king to one side, for the soon-to-be-taken white queen was protecting the bastard. Just like a woman. Cantankerous to the end. Earl and Henry both should have been women, they were that stubborn. I advanced the white rook. Check.
My king sidestepped again, forced into an untenable position, like jumping your horse over a ravine that you know, deep within your heart, cannot be jumped.
I had the power, the men and, I felt, the skill to beat him. But Henry had position and sometimes that is enough. The queen advanced, protected by the rook. Check and mate. 'Well how about that!' I thought to myself. It only took him thirty-four games to beat me.
I got up from the chair, pulled off my shoes and laid down on the cot. It was time to figure out what to do about my buddy and his crony brother.
If Earl truly thought Henry was innocent, then Henry might not have killed that gambler after all. Earl, like I said, was a tough old buzzard and he don’t fool like most do around here. He is sharp like an arrow and fast as a hare when it comes to thinking. He wasn’t the type to risk everything, his wife, his job, his freedom, for some convicted murderer if’n he didn’t have a pretty good picture of what had really
happened that night.
The trial itself had been a quick one. Henry had lost every cent he had to Willie Anderson, a gambler that had hit town three nights before the murder. Being penniless, he couldn’t afford a room and he was too drunk to make it back home, so he staggered outside and ended up in the hay loft at Johnny Parker’s stablery.
Willie decided, as most gamblers do, to leave town in the middle of the night, and went to saddle-up his horse. A shot rang out, and several citizens, along with Earl found Willie a few moments later, dead from a head wound. Roughly one hundred dollars was scattered about the body, Henry’s gun was found at the foot of the ladder leading into the loft, and Henry was found snoring away, with another two hundred dollars stashed in his pocket.
The county prosecutor claimed Henry heard Willie enter the stable, confronted him, and in a fit of alcoholic rage shot him dead, retrieving some of his money in the process. With the drink overcoming him, he staggered up the ladder and tried to hide from anyone coming upon the scene.
Henry claimed innocence. The only witness that spoke for him was Tad Johnson, who claimed that Henry had drank a whole fifth of whiskey and was in no shape to walk, let alone kill a perfectly sober man in a straight up fight. Henry also stated that, if he were to kill a man he certainly wouldn’t leave a hundred bucks lying on the ground unclaimed, no matter how drunk he was.
As crazy as that logic was, it rung true to me that Henry certainly wouldn’t have left drinking money on the ground to be spent by someone else. The prosecutor simply relied on the fact that Henry’s rage was drink induced, that he perhaps was not thinking clearly and that he would not have been able to stagger elsewhere anyway, had he thought of it.
It didn’t help any that Henry had the reputation of a killer, one that he had earned on numerous occasions, usually by unconfirmed rumor.
That was the other concern that I had. Up until this incident, whenever Henry was thought to have been involved in something illegal, it could never be proven: He had always been careful to make sure no blame could be laid upon him. Nobody ever saw him steal or commit a crime. As a matter of fact, I don’t think I ever saw him do anything at all in his whole life. Yet he always had money.
To sum it up, people generally thought Henry had killed Willie and if he hadn’t done the deed, well, he had probably done something else to deserve hanging at some point in his life. Even if justice wasn’t served for Willie’s murder, one less criminal would walk the streets.
So Henry lost out and was sentenced to hang for murder. In fact, I was the one supposed to do the hanging in a couple of hours. I could understand why Earl had done what he did, but I wasn’t exactly sure what his intentions were. If anyone was going to solve this, it would have to be me, and it would have to be quick, before a posse could form and run them down. Earl might surrender peacefully but Henry would go down blazing and he would take a lot of good men with him.
I rubbed my eyes then closed them, trying to look for The Coincidence. You see, I don’t believe in coincidence. It may happen upon occasion, but not in murders. So, coincidence. I thought back to the night of the murder. Four players, all of whom lost money to a fifth, a professional gambler. Not coincidence. Gamblers are supposed to win. Poor gamblers would starve, and as such, would not be around to play three nights in a row. Each of the poker players had a reasonable alibi except for Henry Kaufman. Not a coincidence. In spite of the time, two of the three were still playing cards with some others - Red Dog, the game was - they claimed, and the third ‘had company’ upstairs in his room, two of the saloon's ‘ladies’. It was, apparently, a slow night.
I itched my head as I am wont to do while contemplatin'. Something was floating out there, an idea that I just couldn't grasp. Coincidence. There had to be another coincidence. He had been killed while trying to leave town. Was that a coincidence? Well, not really, since that was the first time he was truly alone that night, and he had quite a lot of money. But he wasn't alone because Henry was there sleeping.
Money? He was killed and he had lots of money on him. Well, sure. That’s why Henry had killed him in the first place, the prosecutor would argue. No coincidence there. But I wondered. How much money was a lot? The first night he had soaked several cowboys and townsfolk with his play. I knew Bill Kenney, the prosecutor’s cousin had lost fifty-five to him that night because he told me as much out on the street later. We were watching Willie through the window as he cleaned out several other cowboys that worked with Billy at the Double J ranch. Jim and John Bormann - father and son - had rode out of here with the cowboys the night before the murder, so they were innocent. Surely he had a good stake of money before hitting town, he had been a flashy sort of fellow.
And I saw part of it, there, hanging like a gloomy cloud on the horizon. There wasn't nearly enough money. Where was the money from the first two nights? Surely he had more than three hundred dollars after fleecing so many on the first and second nights. By the third night word had spread and only the stubborn or stupid played against Willie. He had not taken in as much as the first two nights, but had cleaned Henry out of ninety dollars and the other three for one hundred more. Was that it?
I sat up, restless, and heard people walking along outside. But I didn’t want company yet, so I scooted over to the chessboard and reviewed the game again. Something that I suddenly remembered about Henry, but hadn’t put much notice to before was how thoughtful he had seemed while playing against me the last few games. I had put it to his impending death but I realize now he was concentrating on the game, developing a strategy. In fact, the last few games had felt familiar to me, like perhaps he was building a pattern, a web he was perfecting just for me to walk into. It had worked better than he planned, for I found myself liking him, and that is something I never thought I would here myself admit.
So perhaps Henry had not killed Willie. Perhaps he had merely slept in a drunken stupor through the whole incident, while a stranger killed Mister Anderson and planted a few dollars on him to allay suspicion away from the true killer. But that would imply a coincidence.
Willie was supposed to be alone. Wasn’t he?
Why wasn’t he alone? Because Henry was broke. No coincidence that he was broke. But why stay in the stable? Why would he do that? I stood up and walked to the window, waiting for a passerby. It was becoming clear to me, no proof, just a feeling, a feeling that perhaps there were a few more questions that needed asking before Henry was hung.
A middle-aged woman turned as she walked by.
“Could you come around and see me inside? I need to speak with you.”
She frowned, wondering I suppose if she were in trouble, but she quickly disappeared around the corner and came in through the front door. She gave me the keys and I unlocked the cell myself. I made up an excuse and walked her to the door, but she knew there was supposed to be a hanging today and she also knew I was not the one supposed to be locked in the cell, so I knew, as I watched her scurry down the boardwalk that I only had a few minutes left before the town started bawling for a posse.
Personally, I didn’t want to spend the next three weeks up in the mountains trying to find Henry without getting bushwhacked by Earl. Tough as my life is, I prefer it over death, if you understand my feelings on this.
So I jumped off the walk and went looking for Bingo, one of the other losers that fateful night. He worked for the railroad selling tickets at the office, so I was there in a flash. He looked up at me and gave me a worried smile, real tentative-like. This is to be expected and it doesn't bother me anymore. Really. The scar on my face can be useful sometimes, when I need to intimidate people.
I leaned forward on the counter and gave him a good look at it.
"Bingo," I began, "I need you to answer a few more questions for me about the night of the murder."
He started perspiring immediately, like I thought, for some reason, that he was party to it.
"M-Murder?" He managed to stammer.
"Just a few questions, and I'll be on my way, all right?" I waited a moment while a couple came up to purchase a ticket. After they left I continued. "Think back to that night, Bingo. What was Henry drinking? Whiskey?"
"Yeah. Well...beer to start with. Most of the night he had beer, probably seven or eight, like Tad said, then a solid fifth of whiskey. He was drunk'rn a skunk and about as smelly. I still don't see how he shot that gambler."
Once he figured out I wasn't after his hide, Bingo got downright friendly.
"Okay. So, he was losing at poker."
"Oh heavens yes!" Bingo smiled. "He lost big right at the start off three jacks and went downhill almost every hand after that. By eleven or so he was through."
I thought for a minute.
"When did he start drinking whiskey?"
He sold some tickets to a dusty group of travelers before replying. "Maybe nine or nine thirty."
"So where did he get the money for a bottle of whiskey? Did he buy it? Wasn't he pretty much through for the night?"
"Oh!" He perked up, "She bought it for him. Er, Rosalie. Yeah, that's right. She was walking by, he leaned out, grabbed her and plopped her on his lap, asking her if she'd buy him a beer."
"He asked her for a beer?"
"Yeah, but she said 'I can do better than that for you, honey.' and got Jim to toss her a bottle of whiskey."
Jim was the bartender, and he had established alibis for the gamblers. He was a solid man, someone to depend on, so I trusted his word.
"Okay, so she got him a bottle. Did she stick around to watch the game?"
"She sure did." Bingo was actually smiling now. "She flirted with all of us. Mostly Henry, though. She stuck around for quite awhile. Then Henry started to get sick, so Jim shooed him out the door."
"Well....how did he get to the stable? Did he have help?"
Bingo scratched his beard, pulled some gunk from it and puzzled over it for a moment. "Um...no, he walked off on his own. I don't know how, but he did. Honest to God, sheriff, I've never seen someone drink like that. You know they could barely raise him from his sleep the next day. I think it's a miracle he didn't die from it."
That feeling I had had earlier was back. I felt a vague uneasiness, a certainty of sorts that I was onto something, that the answer was right there before me waiting to be discovered. But I just couldn't get it. Thanking Bingo, I turned and started over towards the saloon. Perhaps Jim could help me puzzle on this. But I stopped short with a final question.
"Bingo," I said, looking back at him, "Why did he go to the stable?" I counted off alternatives on my hand. "He could have gone to the missionary - they have cots and blankets there waiting for stragglers-in like him. I know for a fact he has stayed there plenty after a hard night. He has friends in town. He could have gone to them. Earl was on duty at the jail. He could have slept it off at the jail by a nice warm fire." I walked back towards him, sure that I was on track. I didn't know what the answer was, but I knew it was here. "So why, why did he go to the stable?"
Bingo shook his head. "Why, I hadn't thought of that with all the excitement. As he was getting up to leave. That's when it was. Rosalie. She whispered to him, 'Why don't you sleep over at Parker's? It's real private there this time of night, and I hear it is real comfortable in the loft.' As I was sitting fairly close to him on that side, I heard her pretty well. She emphasized the word 'real' like it should mean something else and she winked at him. Henry may have been drunk but even he could read what was on her mind."
There it was. Rosalie. She gets him drunk, then gets him to the stable. I would be willing to bet that Willie had two or three thousand dollars on him that night. He shows up at the stable, she kills him with Henry's gun - who is, of course, unconscious by this time. By all accounts he should have been dead of whiskey by then. That didn’t prove how she knew he was leaving town, but that didn’t take a great leap of imagination. She could have made a proposal to him, but he’d likely just take her upstairs. If however, she was to say someone was gunning for him, perhaps the cowboys from two nights before, or maybe even Henry, he would hit the trail like fire on wood and never look back. But I couldn’t prove any of this. Not yet leastways. But I had the beginnings of an idea.
I took an hour or so to concoct my plan, then showed up to Henry’s Hanging just in time to quell the gathering crowd.
“Where’s Henry?” One fellow shouted. “I hear he’s escaped!”
The crowd got ugly and pressed forward with a hundred questions for me. I pushed them off and climbed up the gallows steps shouting to be heard, but they were having none of that. The one man that was loudest, he kept getting in my face all fire and brimstone, following me all the way up the steps. Failing peaceful talk and negotiations, I decided to take a clue from Earl. I pulled my Colt out and whipped it up, pointing it at his face from a distance of about a foot.
The nice thing about action is that the results are immediate. I could’a talked til I was blue in the face and that crowd would have kept yakking like migrating geese. But when I cocked that pistol you could have heard a pin drop.
“Back off or die.”
That was all it took. Amazing. I turned to the crowd and told them of the events to date, leaving out my suspicions of Rosalie but mentioning that I had a pretty good idea who the real murderer was. I told them to bear with me and to withhold judgment on Earl and Henry until I checked out a few new leads that had come to light. And to calm them, I promised that I would lead a posse out to get the Kaufman brothers if I was not able to make an arrest within twenty-four hours.
That quieted them down, but now I was on a deadline: I had to hope I was right about Rosalie. If wrong, I had just sentenced at least one of the Kaufman brothers to die. Earl might choose to go down with his brother. Like I said, he’s on the stubborn side. After the crowd dispersed, I sauntered over to the saloon.
Jim was there and I spoke with him briefly in a subdued voice, as we had planned earlier. Then I passed through the ‘ladies’ who were busy cleaning up the saloon. This was part of their duties when not otherwise ‘occupied’, and Jim liked to keep the saloon up. As I climbed the stairs I heard him tell them to put some sawdust down after they had finished cleaning, and he went out the front door. I could feel Rosalies eyes burning into me as I walked out of sight. Her room was the last one on the left.
It took her almost ten minutes to work up the gumption to come upstairs and confront me. When she walked in I was sitting on her bed counting the stash of money she had hidden in an old carrying bag. From her smile, she was going to use her ‘wares’ I suppose, as an excuse for checking on me. The smile turned to a frown when she saw the wads of cash in my hand.
“Hey!” She yelled indignantly and stormed into the room. “You can’t do that! That’s my money! Give it here!”
I stared at her in a hateful rage and told her to sit down. “I’m afraid I need this money. For evidence.”
She remained standing. “That is my money, I earned it. I’m saving up for a house. I didn’t murder him.”
Pausing, I said in a straight voice, “I don’t recall mentioning a murder. What makes you think that I’m here for that? Is there something you think needs confessing? I’ll go get a witness, someone else to hear if that’s what you have in mind.”
All I managed to do was enrage her. “Of course you think I murdered him! You idiot! After your little show outside,” She waved towards the window, "It’s obvious you don’t think Henry killed him. Then you march right over here and search my room, stealing my money like a common thief. I ought to have you arrested!” She finished with her hands on her hips, looking virtuous in a venomous sort of way.
“Well, it’s gonna be kind of hard of you to arrest me since the only other lawman hereabouts is currently under warrant for assisting the escape of a convicted murderer. And frankly, you’re gonna have trouble convincing me to arrest myself. I have a witness, Rosalie.”
This took some of the fire out of her. “What are you talking about?”
"Jim overheard you talking to Willie. Telling him to get out of town fast ‘cause someone was gunning for him'. I don’t have the details yet. He’s down at the Judge’s now, writing out a statement.”
“So what? That doesn’t prove anything. Besides which, Henry did say he was going to kill him.”
“Additionally,” I added in a quiet voice, “He saw you come in the back way shortly after the murder. That door is supposed to be locked. With money like this you could buy several houses. You wouldn’t be living in this dump, doing what you are doing if you had had this money more than a few days. And finally, Bingo heard your proposal to Henry. You get Henry drunk, steer him to the stable. You scare Willie into leaving town, so he goes for his horse. You sneak out back and get to the stable before Willie. You put some money - probably from your days work - into his pocket, take his gun and kill Willie. Spreading a few bucks on the ground, like you were in a hurry or drunk, you leave through the back of the stable with several thousand in cash. I can sell this to a judge or a jury. The only question is, do you hang or do you go to prison?”
“What?” She gasped, then chose, finally, to sit down.
“This is the west, ma’am. A rope doesn’t care who’s neck it stretches. If this murder had been an act of rage, an unplanned act of agression, you would go to prison. You, however, arranged the cold blooded murder of a man and framed an innocent one to hang for the deed. Failing a confession on your part along with a sincere show of remorse, I’ll see you hang. Are you going to confess?”
She thought long and hard about that, and started to cry before answering.
It was almost a whimper.
It took twenty minutes, maybe longer for her to confess it all. I sat still on the bed and let her talk. After she was done and had wiped her tears I stood up and glanced over at the closet.
“Did you get all that?”
The door squeaked open to reveal a stern faced Jim. “Yeah. Every word.”
“What?” She stammered, standing up and gawking at the two of us. Turning to Jim she said “I thought you were making a statement!”
“Well, to be honest with you, Rosalie, I lied a wee bit.” I was smiling now, because my plan had worked. “Jim didn't see you come in the back way and he didn’t hear you say anything to Willie. I just figured that’s the way it happened. However, I could not prove it until just now. We have proof now. Thanks for confessing.”
“This won’t stand up in court! You can’t prove any of this! I’ll just say you are lying. Without any hard evidence, you’ll never convict a woman for his murder.” She was almost shouting at me now, working her courage up. I decided to put an end to that.
I chose my words carefully.
“You still have a choice to make, Rosalie. Go with this confession and get a prison sentence, or fight it in court and hang by your neck until dead. Just remember, out West we don’t let technicalities get in the way of a fair trial ma’am. I’m telling you now, from the bottom of my heart, that if you fight us in court you will hang.”
Eventually, she gave us a written confession.
Surprisingly, it was almost two months after these events before the Kaufman brothers finally came back to town. I was beginning to think they had gone to Mexico or something. Both of them were tentative as they came into my office.
“Is it all right to come back?” Earl asked, like I was going to shoot him or something.
I smiled and waved them in. “Yeah. Though I should lock you up for pointing that gun at me. Where the hell have you two been? Rosalie’s trial was over two months ago. I began to wonder if you’d taken up a life of crime or something.”
“Well, we were holed up, Clem.” answered Henry. “We didn’t know when it would be safe to come out. I sure didn’t want to hang and Earl here wasn’t keen on being shot.”
Earl gave me his ‘I’ll tell you about it later’ wink. “Well, we thought we’d better check in with you just to make sure we weren’t wanted. Um...I know this is a sensitive issue, Clem, but.....could I have my star back?” And he let his brother see him eyeing the star that sat on the corner of my desk, still untouched.
He was good, Earl had a real talent here, trying to look like he was being casual when he really wasn’t when he really was. Like I said, he was good.
“No, Earl. I can’t. I understand why you did what you did. Heck, I would have done the same thing myself in that situation. But you pulled a gun on me, Earl. I can’t work with a man who would willingly shoot me to get his way. When you wear a badge, you are swearing an oath of fealty to the laws of this land, laws that you must enforce no matter how distasteful or unfair they are to you or individuals you care about. When you drew on me you burned that bridge, Earl.”
“But, he was innocent, Clem. You would have hung the wrong person! Doesn’t that count?” He looked at me with his puppy dog eyes, and Lord I caught a whisper of a tear on his cheek.
“No, Earl. And as for you, Henry, I am glad your brother saved you. You almost got yourself hung. That was a close call for you Henry, it should give you pause to reflect upon your life.”
“But I didn’t do anything! I was just sleeping off some whiskey!”
“Henry, you have a past. Out here reputation is everything. If you are a known troublemaker, you will never get the benefit of a doubt from honest, hardworking folk. If Earl here had been arrested for that murder, he never ever would have been convicted. And do you understand why, Henry? Because Earl is a man of integrity. People know that his word is good. Just like they know that your word is bad. If you change your ways, four of five years from now folks around here will start forgetting the things you’ve done in your youth and will start to respect you. If you don’t mend your ways, they will always - always, Henry - look at you as a murderer and a thief. And eventually your body will be found hanging under an oak tree somewhere without so much as a proper burial spot to mark your passage.”
Earl turned on him too, just then. "Your reputation just cost me my job. Think about that for a while, little brother."
They just stood there for a bit, not saying anything. Henry was chewing on all of this. I’m not sure what is was about him, but he seemed different, somehow. Thoughtful. Like when he was playing chess with me. Eventually he spoke up.
“I'm sorry. I’ll be going now.” Was all he could choke out, and he fled outside, jumped his horse and rode out of town, hard. We watched him ride off, heading west towards the sun and I knew we were not going to see him for a long, long time. We went back inside for a little talk.
"You think he fell for that?" I asked nonchalantly and tossed Earl his badge.
He pinned it on his coat quickly, like he had found a long lost love. Then he pulled out his ratty old hanky and blew his nose. "Sometimes I amaze myself. I had him scared to death we were going to get hung, bushwhacked or worse." He admired the two month growth on his face at my shaving stand then reached for a razor and started dry-shaving. I winced as he hacked away with the thing, like it was a dang axe.
"I had him eating like a bandit on the run for two solid months. You may have noticed we both slimmed down a might. Lordy if I were any skinnier a stiff wind would send me back east. We ate berries, grass, bugs, you name it. Some meat when we came upon it, but I told him we had to be quiet, so as not to gain attention. We hid during the day and only came out at night. I wanted him to know what it was like to be on the run. I think that lesson stuck. Having to choose between a life of eating bugs or going straight, I think he'll get a notion to start working. And with a little luck, he'll be feeling guilty about me losing my job for a long, long time. Maybe it will mature him. I should have thought of this a long time ago."
"You ate bugs?" I asked, appalled.
"Yeah. Crunchy little bastards. I hope he comes to appreciate all that I've done for him someday. I wouldn't do this for just anybody, you know."
"I hope not. And don't you be bringing your bugs in here neither. By the way, what on earth possessed you to break him out of jail, anyway? I could've shot you, you know."
"Well" He drawled, "That thought did cross my mind, that's why I winked, you know. That was my 'Don't shoot me, just play along' wink. And heck, my gun was empty - you knew that, or you’re not as quick as you ought ta be. Justice was moving way too fast around here. I just wasn't comfortable with the thought of watching my brother hang and wonderin' if he had really done it or not. So I decided to break him out of jail and lay low while you sorted out this mess. I knew you'd do it, too. Course, I wasn't planning on spending no two months out there, but it took that long to break him. He's a changed man, Clem. Eventually, we came down and heard about Rosalie, so I figured it was safe to come in. My horse died about a month ago, so I had to hoof it. Henry practically begged me to share his horse with him, but I would have none of it. I told him, 'I killed that horse through ignorance, so I gotta walk the mile.' But really, I was just trying to make him feel guilty about that as well."
I looked Earl over good this time, noting the haggard look of his now semi-shaven face, the shreds of clothing literally hanging off of his gaunt frame and the limp in his left leg he had picked up but was trying to hide. He had gone up into the mountains on the spur of the moment, without supplies, without so much as a change of clothes and with a convicted murderer no less - even if it was his brother - and lived off of bugs and grass for a period of two months in the belief that I would search for the real criminal and Henry would mature. And he was right on both counts. And then, after he had apparently killed his horse in an accident, he walked back down from those same mountains, refusing to ride Henry's horse, just to make the kid feel a little bit guiltier about all the trouble he had caused. I was at a loss for words.
"Earl, you are a stubborn son-of-a-gun." Was all I could come up with.
He laughed at that and replied, "Stubborn? You should see my wife try to cook. Her mother taught her when to cook, but not how."
It was an old joke he liked to tell that usually meant he was missing her.
"I don't care how bad a cook she is, it beats eating bugs in the middle of the night."
There was a certain mirth that returned to his eyes then, a bit of the old Earl. At that moment I knew he was gonna be okay.
"Aye, that's the truth. To be honest," He continued, winking at me, "Cookin's not the reason I married up to her, if you understand me. She does her best cookin' outside the kitchen! I'm gonna pretty myself up before I go on and see her. I imagine she's a mite ticked off at me, seein's how I didn't tell her I was leaving. Can I borrow some clothes?” And he just helped himself to my spare without so much as waiting for a reply. “By the way, Henry taught me how to play chess. The durned fool carved his own chess set while we was sittin' there. I told him I hate the danged game, but he wouldn't hear of it and kept at me. I started feeling guilty on account of me making him eat grasshopper stew, so we started playing. The game kind of grows on you, don't it?"
This time I did the smiling. Maybe my strategy was paying off after all.
"Well, I'll tell you what, Earl. You get on up the street and help your wife...er...with her cookin', then beat a path back here. I want to see how good you are. Tell her we got business to finish up on account of Henry and that you'll be back soon. Take my horse, that way you can get there and back quicker."
He laughed and limped on out of my office. My clothes almost made him look handsome. Almost.
“You sure do like your chess.”
As I watched him ride down the street I couldn't help thinking that there goes the stubbornest man I know on the stubbornest horse I ever owned. If they ever crossed words, it’s hard telling who’d end up carrying who. But I know for sure, it’d be a story worth tellin’.