They had ridden an hour from the Strutter place into the small town of DeClarius, Texas for supplies. While the list was filled, Roland drank coffee at the cafe and the boy worked at the stable.
Now Roland stood in the doorway of the livery stable and watched the boy brush the mostly white horse across the way in the corral. It was cold, but the sun warmed his face. He stood quietly, unobserved by the boy, who had clearly finished brushing the horse and was simply prolonging his time with the animal by repeating the process.
He spoke to the owner standing behind him in a tone that left no room for any further questions.
“Just do what I asked,” Roland said. “Tell no one.”
He stepped outside, untied Horse from the rail, and swung into the saddle. The boy, looking up from his task, saw him; and Roland waved him over. He gave the boy the money that he’d earned.
“Sam probably has our stuff together, Jake. We best head on over there.” He pulled his brown scuffed left boot out of the stirrup and reached down to boost the nine-year-old to his spot behind him. They headed two blocks down the dirt street and stopped in front of Sam’s Mercantile where the Strutter family’s mule was tethered to a post. He was laden down with goods. There was flour, sugar, and coffee as well as a new pair of work boots hidden in a sack for Jake’s Christmas. It was December 24th.
“Do I have to ride that jack ass back, Roland?” Jake Strutter asked.
Roland couldn’t see his face but imagined Jake’s expression, his freckled face all squinted up, blue eyes shining.
“Jake, you rode him in here, didn’t complain or whine like some boys would… most, I reckon. You can ride behind me.”
Sam came out, untied the mule, and handed up the lead to Roland. He tossed a small bag to Jake and Jake gave him the money he just earned at the stable, then put the gift for his mother in his jacket pocket. Roland felt the child’s arms tighten around his waist as he tipped his hat and turned Horse toward the little farm outside of town.
Tom Strutter was sitting on the front porch in a rocking chair with a cup of black coffee and the two blankets over his legs. He tossed the coffee into the yard, sat the cup on the porch on top of a folded sheet of paper, and struggled to his feet as they approached. He held fast to the railing with both hands. Roland noted the six-guns slung low on the man’s hips and didn’t have to wonder why he was wearing them.
“Jake,” Tom said. Even in the cold of the late afternoon, a noticeable sheen of sweat had popped out on his face. “You put Horse and the mule up. Feed them and make sure there is plenty of water. Me and Roland here are going to have a little talk.”
Roland eased Jake down then sighed and got down himself. He turned to Tom as Jake led the two animals away.
“You been here two weeks,” Tom said. “You mended most of our fence, chopped and stacked enough wood to last us the rest of the winter, ate food from my table with my family… and this morning I found that in your saddlebag.”
Tom looked down at the paper under the cup.
Roland didn’t look at the folded paper. He knew what the wanted poster said and besides he always kept his eyes on the eyes of any man who might just be about to draw on him. Always.
“You going to hold that rail with one hand and draw on me with the other?” Roland asked.
“I ain’t going back.”
“Never said you were.”
They stared at each other.
Suddenly, Tom’s eyes glazed over, then rolled back in his head and he fell forward over the rail at Roland’s feet. Roland picked up the wanted poster, stuck it in his pocket and yelled for Delores.
When Tom came to he was in his bed, his guns gone. The smell of fresh cooked rabbit stew was strong, but as usual he was not hungry. His son sat in a chair beside him and read in a whisper from his mother’s Bible in the glow of a lantern. Tears welled up in Tom’s eyes but he willed them away. He cleared his throat and Jake looked up, startled.
“You hungry, Dad?” He asked and Tom just had to lie to him, again.
“Sure, I am. I could eat a horse.”
Jake grinned and headed for the kitchen.
While Jake fed his father in his bed, Roland and Delores sat at the kitchen table eating the stew, talking quietly.
“Can’t or won’t?” Delores asked.
Roland swallowed the stew, then wiped his mouth. “Amounts to the same thing.”
“Jake will be heartbroken,” she said. “He loves Tom but he follows you around like a puppy. You’ve seen it, I know you have.”
“Jake needs whatever time he has left with his father,” Roland said. “I’m a distraction, that’s all.”
Delores knew better than that, but let it go. She slid her foot under the table to make contact with Roland’s boot the same way she had done for the last three nights. This time Roland didn’t move his foot in response.
“I want to talk to Tom, before I go to bed.” Roland said. “Can you get Jake out of the way?”
“Sure.” Delores said.
“I’m leaving first thing in the morning, Tom.” Roland said. He sat in the chair that Jake had just left. Roland felt the boy’s warmth still in the cushion. “You’re right. I’m a bounty hunter and I came here with the intent of taking you back to stand trial. Jake changed that.”
“He’s a good kid,” Tom said. “He deserves better than a father who is a common criminal.”
“None of us are all good… or all bad, Tom.” Roland said. His eyes fell on the Good Book left by Jake on the bedside table. “We all fall short.”
“He believes I got shot fighting Indians; but one day he will know, and he”ll hate me.”
“Tell me where to find the other two, Tom.” Roland said. “Jake might find out one day his father did some bad things but, he can know at the end, you tried to make it right. I know you didn’t shoot that bank clerk.”
“It is almost the end, isn’t it Roland?”
“Find whatever peace you can today,” Roland said. “If I’ve learned anything, I’ve learned that.”
Tom Strutters nodded and told Roland everything.
“Thanks, Tom.” Roland said as he stood when the tale was told. “Take credit for any blessings that might come your way in the time you have left.”
“What does that mean?” Tom asked.
Roland just shook his head and then Tom’s hand and left the room.
The fire in the rock fireplace of the tiny deserted bunkhouse that Roland had called home for the last two weeks roared. He sat in front of it with a half bottle of whiskey and a cigar that had long went out and stared into the flames. He should have been asleep, it was only five hours until dawn and he planned to be on the road shortly before the sun rose. He heard the steps on the porch and knew who it was before the door opened.
Her cheeks were red, and Roland suspected it had little to do with the cold wind that had started about sundown. She backed up, pushing the door shut behind her. She leaned back against it, and waited for Roland to make the next move.
Roland sat on Horse on a rise well above the Strutter place and watched as the sun began to peek through the snow clouds. His breath billowed out and hung in the cold still morning air like the ghost of a life he would never find. He rolled the first cigarette of the day and saw two dots on the horizon. He smoked that cigarette and the next one before he could make out the man from the livery stable leading the mostly white horse up the path to the house. Roland waited. The man got off his own horse and tied the mare to the rail on the front of the ranch. He got a big bow out of his saddlebag and tied it to the horn on the saddle, then got back on his horse. He sat for a moment facing Roland on the hill, then took off his hat and waved it.
A light snow began to fall as the man rode out of the yard. Roland pulled the brim of his hat down on his brow, turned Horse west, and spurred him to a canter.