A Dangerous Servant

The title of this novel comes from what I think is an extraordinary quote from George Washington:  Government is not reason, it is force, and like fire,  a dangerous servant and a fearful master.  And though I’ve given away one of the fundamental ideas in the book… give it a shot.  I think it a rousing adventure.

A Dangerous Servant (excerpt)

 

The sensitive and careful nature of a good mule has never ceased to amaze me, and Clare, well, Clare was a good mule. Named after my Uncle Clarence, one of the best mule men I’ve ever known, he (the mule) was my pride and my joy. A gaited mule, he could run-walk – a smooth rocking gait – all day long and never tire.

Yet despite the gentle slap of the reins against his neck, and the nudge of my knees into his ribs urging him onward, he stepped gently, near gingerly, through the patch of ginseng and may-apples where he trod. I smiled at that –  he would not be urged past his caution Yep, one damned fine mule – he hitched his stride of a sudden, laid his ears forward, and his nostrils flared. I leaned down towards those perked forward ears, rubbed the line of his jaw and near whispered, “What is it, boy?”

His nostrils flared again, shifted his ears back near parallel to his neck. I reached behind me and pulled the rifle from its scabbard.

A mule has an acute sense of hearing, and if Clare felt the need to be cautious, so did I. I gave a gentle tug on his reins, threw my leg over the pommel, slipped down from the saddle.

The trail we followed topped a rise about twenty feet from where we stood. I motioned for him to stay put, walked halfway up, then rifle-crawled to the crest of the low ridge. I pulled the binoculars from behind my neck and swept the open valley floor beneath me.

It took a moment to find them. Three men in camo gear and a woman standing next to four horses, run hard and lathered.

The foremost man struck the woman across the face. Her scream echoed down the valley. Clare snorted alarm. I pulled the rifle to my shoulder, eye to the scope –  brought it to bear.

The man struck the woman again, harder this time; knocked her to the ground and leaned over, ripped her blouse. A second man ran forward, knelt at her head, grasped her arms to hold her.

The first – the one who’d hit her – tugged at his belt. He was smiling lewdly when the 308 took him in the throat, just beneath the angle of his jaw. The shot was six inches high. Not bad for the distance. The man that held her arms looked up in shock at his friend as my second shot hit him in his chest, just beneath his left arm. Dead on.

The third man was no fool. He was already in the saddle and galloping east. I took a quick shot. Hit the horse clean in the rump. He went down hard. Goddamn. I hate shooting a horse.

I looked back down the hill where Clare waited patient, tapped the side of my right leg. He came up to me on the trot, smiling. I paid his showy extravagance no mind, but offered him a sugar cube, which he took with a snort.

I sheathed the rifle, grabbed hold the pommel and pulled myself into the creaking leather saddle. “Let’s go, Clare. We’ve got business to attend to.”

 

* * *

 

I knelt beside the woman – more girl, really. She was filthy, frightened, and sobbing uncontrollably. I don’t think she’d moved from the position where she’d fallen after being struck. Eyes shut tight, large tears flooding from both their corners. Left eye badly bruised.

I pulled the flask from my hip pocket and handed it to her. “ Moonshine – White Dog. Have a drink.”

She didn’t respond.

“You’re going to be OK, darling,” I said, touched her forehead with the back of my hand, setting the flask down beside her. “Now, I’m going to walk over here and see about this other fellow still roaming the woods. I’ll be back shortly. Rest easy. Have a drink of the shine. You’ll feel better.”

I drug the bodies out of the clearing and away from the girl, walked back to Clare and pulled out the 12 gauge. There ain’t nothing better than double-ought buck for brush work.

“You stay here,” I told her. “I’ll be back in little bit.”

The poor animal I’d shot lay struggling on the ground, its eyes white with pain and fear. Nothing to do for him. I knelt down, rubbed his ear, spoke soft and gentle words to him, pulled my 1911 from its holster and finished him. Damned shame. Fine looking animal.

When the horse went down, the man was thrown and landed hard on his right arm, dragging it as he ran away. The blood trail was easy to follow. Must have broken that arm bad – compound fracture, I guessed. Maybe cut a big vein or artery. He was sitting behind a large oak tree when I found him, tying off that arm with his belt. He reached for a knife lying beside him on the ground.

“Not if you want to live through the day, son.”

“You made a big mistake, mister,” he shouted.

I put the butt of the shotgun hard into his temple. His head flopped like a drunk chicken’s.

The kid was out cold. I reduced the fracture, cut some fabric from his shirt, and put a pressure dressing on the wound. I splinted his arm with thumb sized limbs cut from the oak beneath which he sat. He was more agreeable when he came to. I guessed his age at eighteen years, gap-toothed, slender as a willow switch, long black hair.

The girl had calmed some by the time we returned. I sat the boy down by a careworn poplar, told him to stay put if he knew what was good for him. The girl had taken my advice, quaffed a few sips from the canteen.

“You alright?” I asked.

She nodded her head, fear in her eyes. “You killed them.”

“I did –  I was near a thousand yards away. I couldn’t have got here quick enough to… It wasn’t right what they were about. I don’t reckon I had a choice.”

She nodded her head, realized her shirt was open, her small breasts exposed. She pulled at the torn blouse. I turned away, removed my shirt, handed it to her behind my back. “Here, put this on. There’s a creek just down the hill,” I said, pointing in its direction. “You can get yourself cleaned up there.”

I pulled the camp shovel from Clare’s pack, and buried the two men I killed. The boy and I stood beside the graves in the early afternoon sun, the cloudless blue and unjudging sky above us, and I said words over them.

The girl said she didn’t give a damn and they could go both to hell for all she cared. I reckon she had a right to feel that way, but I felt duty-bound to do it. Figured they deserved at least a simple burial, bastards as they were. No man should provide a feast for the crows.

After I finished, the kid looked at me, “You made it look easy.”

“What’s that?” I asked, placing the last of the stones atop the grave.

“Killing them. Damn near killing me. You made it look easy.”

I shook my head at the boy, looking at him there, wondered if I was ever that young and that stupid, and reckoned I was at one time, a long time ago – “Hell son, killing people is easy. It’s living with ’em that’s hard.”

 

* * *

 

I packed up Clare and readied the three horses for the journey to Fin. Some of the finest looking animals I’d ever seen. Thoroughbreds for certain. Lexington area I imagined. In years past, horses like these would have gone for tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. Mighty fine animals for pond scum to be riding.

The girl cleaned up real nice. Finely boned, she couldn’t have weighed a hundred and ten pounds. Stood maybe five foot four. Wiry strong though. Her hair was cut short, auburn and curly. Sad, pixie-like, blue eyes lay beneath sharp and chiseled brows that straddled a long narrow nose.  Even with the swollen eye she was downright attractive. She mounted and sat the large, frenetic mare without so much as a blink. Knew what she was about on the back of a horse.

The boy grimaced when I  boosted him up on the long legged roan gelding he’d chosen to ride.

“I haven’t got anything to help with the pain of that arm, but when we make Fin, we’ll get something there for you.”

He nodded, “Where you taking us?”

I handed him the reins. “For judgment, son.”

“I done nothing wrong, mister.”

“You were with the men that…”

“I was, but I wouldn’t hurt Lo, I…  I like her a lot.”

Lo turned, cocked her head at him. “You stood by and watched, boy. You could have helped her.”

“No I couldn’t. Jed and Jared was nothing but killers. I’ve never harmed anybody, a man or woman. They’d have killed me certain.”

“He’s right, Mister….”

“Kraft.”

“Mister Kraft, Hyman was always kind to me. Not like them other two.”

I looked over at the girl. “Nevertheless, it’s for the judge now.”

I shoved a sugar cube under Clare’s nose. He took it with pleasure and winked at me. I mounted him, and with the roped gelding trailing along behind, the three of us set off for Fin.

As we topped the rise and Fin lay before us, the golden sun had dropped behind the western range of hills, and to the south, the trees blazed a near translucent fire – like shimmering liquid gold in a flaming crucible.

The town sat in a deep, south facing bend of the Fincastle River. Several hundred acres of prime bottom land lay planted and flourishing in a broad crescent with the small village in its inner arc. Neat log cabins with brightly painted doors and window boxes full of flowers dotted that inner arc.

The men, a few women, and their mules were stringing in from the fields. I tugged on Clare’s reins when I reached the the first of the twenty or so cabins that made up the village. I threw my leg over the saddle horn and hit the dusty ground.

Clare turned his eye to me. Threw his nose in the air as if to say thanks. I pulled a sugar cube from my vest pocket and shoved it under his curled lip. I spoiled that critter terrible.

Townsfolk gathered around us, curious about the newcomers, but kept a respectful distance.

Cecil Bowman, whose small, ropy body hinted at his jockey talent said, “Them’s some fine looking horses, Archer. Fine looking horses.”

“They are that, Cecil.”

I moved to help the boy down from the gelding. His ashen, sweat-streaked face grimaced as his feet hit the hard packed earth.

Ellie Blair shifted her boyish lean frame to stand beside me. “What’s wrong with his arm?” Ellie was a nurse that served as doctor to the village.

“Broke it falling off a horse.”

“And the girl?” she asked, studying Lo’s bruised face.

“She was struck.”

“That your shirt the child is wearing?”
“It is.”

“They need tending to?”

“They do.”

Lorena slid down from the mare to stand beside me.

Ellie reached out to take the girls leather stained hand. “Come with me.”

The boy stood there, eyes fixed tight on the girl as she departed. Ellie turned. “You too, young man.”

“Yes ma’am.” He followed her through the bright yellow door of the nearest cabin.

I finished tying off the horses and followed most of the men to the small public house where they poured generous servings of White Dog – fine, fresh, grassy tasting corn whiskey – all around. A great fire was burning at one end of the substantial room, several large covered pots hanging over it.

Candlelight flickered over the faces of the gathering. Cawood Sparks sat in one corner and played a mournful fiddle tune, while little Bobby Spears unpacked his banjo. Two couples were slow dancing in the middle of the floor.

There was a festive feel in the room, and I could sense the curiosity about the boy, the girl, and the horses on which they rode, but folks were too polite to ask.

I caught up with the most recent goings-on in the small hamlet, and a few inquired after Pap, whom they had not seen since last fall.

The conversation flowed, lubricated by the whiskey. Lem McDaniels, the head man of the community stood by himself in the nearest corner of the now bustling common room. He caught my eye and motioned me over.

I picked up my whiskey, wove my way through the lively crowd to stand at his side.

“The young ones?” he asked.

Lem was a man of few words. Six foot six, broad and burly, he had a commanding presence, but was quiet and gentle as pond water on a windless day. Some in the community lovingly referred to him as the dumb ox, but when he spoke, his words were always pointed.

I recounted the story, his face impassive as the limestone rock that lined the valley through which the Fincastle flowed.

“That means charges, Archer.” I had to lean into him to hear his voice over the crowd.

“That is why I come in.”

He nodded his near-bald and bushy-bearded head at me and motioned me back to one of the rough-hewn tables to continue my drink. He called Sarah, his wife, over to him, whispered in her ear. I watched her leave.

Conversation about the crops, fruit trees, and  early spring flowed as easy as did the drinks until Sarah returned with the boy and girl.

I heard Lem clear his throat over the noisy chatter. “I need witnesses,” he said.

I could feel the surprise in the room. The men and women separated, spoke amongst themselves, then two from each group stepped forward. Ellie Blair and Cecil Bowman were the youngest of the four. The second pair were Artie Steuben and Nonnie Parker.

Artie was contrary as they come, but honest to a fault, and old Nonnie Parker was the matriarch of the community. She walked with two canes, her back bent over almost ninety degrees, but sharp as Pap’s Arkansas Toothpick, baked the finest cornbread west of the Blue Ridge, and was well loved and respected by everyone she knew.

“Acceptable?” Lem asked surveying the crowd.

All except me and the two young ones raised their hands. Tables were shuffled, and the four chosen as witnesses sat at one, while the boy, the girl and I sat at the other.

The room was abuzz with excitement. Judgments didn’t often happen in Fin, and all knew they were soon to hear a story. The tame soup of their lives was about to have some spice added to it.

When everyone settled themselves and Lem nodded at me to begin, I told my story. When I recounted the shots I’d made, one of the men towards the back of the room shouted, “Damn fine shooting, Arch.”

I heard a “hell yeah”, and a good bit of laughter.  Lem raised his chin and set his jaw to quell further comments.

When the room quietened, I told how I  shot the horse from beneath the boy. This also brought a number of remarks – not all of them positive.

Lem raised his hand, “If you can’t shut your yaps, we’ll go on with just the witnesses.” He paused a moment. “Go on, Archer.”

I told how I’d tracked the boy through the brush, found him beneath the oak and put the butt of the shotgun into the side of his head.

When I recounted the burial, Sparky Marcum shouted, “Hell, Archer, you shouldda let the bastards rot!”

“Sparky…,”

Sparky interrupted Lem before he could finish. “Well he should have, Lem. Them assholes didn’t deserve the decency of a burial.”

I heard several of the folks laugh at this. One man in the back whose voice I didn’t immediately recognize shouted, “Shut the hell up, Sparky!”

Lem put his fists on the table and unwound his sizable frame from the chair to glare at the man. “Sparky, I’ve told you several times. Now sit down, or, or by God, I’ll throw your ass outta here.”

Sparky didn’t want to let it go. “You know its true, Lem.”

Lemuel took a deep breath, pulled his fists from the table, and drew himself up to his full height. On that note, the men sitting in the chairs beside Sparky grabbed his arms and pulled him into his seat.

Lem eyed him for a few more moments and returned to his chair. “Go on, Archer.”

“I’m done.”

He turned his attention to Hyman and Lorena. “Is this the way it happened?”

The two looked at one another. “Yessir,” said Hyman, “that’s pretty much the way it happened, but I wouldn’t hurt Lorena for nothing. I tried to get them to stop. They wouldn’t listen to me.”

Ellie Blair raised her hand.

“Ellie.” acknowledged Lemuel.

“Did you consider, Archer, there was any other way you might have rescued this girl, aside from shooting these men?”

I thought for a moment. “I didn’t. I couldn’t have reached her in time. I acted. I did not think. They were near a thousand yards away. It seemed the thing to do.”

“It seemed the proper thing to do was to kill these men?” interjected Nonnie.

“Proper? I don’t know as I’d use the word proper when it comes to killing another human being, Miss Nonnie, but I believed, at that moment, it was the only way to keep those fellows from… Her clothes were torn by the fellows assaulting her. One of the men had already struck her. There was no other way I could have stopped what they were getting ready to do to the child.”

A low murmur filled the room. Lem scanned the gathering, eyes raised beneath bushy brows. They quieted.

Arnie Steuben’s hand went up. An old man when I was twenty, he didn’t look to have aged a day these last twenty-seven years.

“Artie,” said Lem.

“Arch, you said you shot the horse from beneath the boy as he rode away. Did you intend to to do that?”

“I did.”

“And why is that?”

“The boy wasn’t near the girl, couldn’t have hurt her, but I didn’t want him to get away, Artie. I hated to shoot that horse, though. It was one damn fine looking animal for certain.”

This brought a chuckle from a few in the room and nods of agreement from a few more.

Lemuel waited a moment, and no other witnesses raised their hands. “Young lady, would you state your name, please?”

The petite young woman sat silently, as she had for most of the proceeding. Her eyes held no fear, but there was a hint of confusion in them. She spoke quietly. “Lorena Proffit, but my family always called me Lo – but, can I ask a question, sir?”

Lemuel offered the barest hint of a smiled at the gentle and respectful tone of the girl. “Of course.”

“I don’t really understand what’s happening here.”

“You ain’t familiar with a judgment?”

“No, sir.”

“Well, young miss, we only have a few laws in this country – we hold a man and woman’s person and property dear. Archer’s killed two men. He’s called for a judgment. If we determine these deaths unnecessary, they’ll be judged criminal. The consequence will be his death.”

She sat forward in her chair so fast she bumped the table forward. “What… you mean… wait… this is wrong. You mean he’ll die for protecting me?

“Only if he’s judged to have killed these men without provocation. Now the witnesses will have questions for you. You’ll answer them truthfully and to the best of your ability.”

“Yes, sir. I will.”

“How came you to be with these men, child?” asked Nonnie.

“I ran away. They were chasing me.”

“Ran away, Miss Proffit?  From what?  From whom?”

“I was to be the bride of the colonel.” Heads turned. A buzz of whispers filled the room.

“The Colonel?” continued Nonnie.

“Yes, ma’am, the Colonel. Do you know of him?”

“I do not.”

“Do none of you know of him?” Her gaze swept across the room. “He is a famous man.”

“Who is this Colonel?” asked the witness.

“He calls himself God’s True Prophet, but I don’t believe him. He loves only himself. I was to be his sixth wife.”

A low murmur ran through the crowd at this revelation.

Nonnie was startled, “His sixth wife, did you say?  But why would you run away if you had chosen to be his wife?”

“Oh no, ma’am. You don’t choose to marry the Colonel. He chooses you. You must submit to his wishes.”

“And so you ran from him?” asked Nonnie.

“Yes, ma’am I did. My sister and me. My father stole the horses from the Colonel’s stables. They killed him…” She dropped her chin to her chest. “…and caught my sister.”

Nonnie crossed her arms and nodded her head in understanding. Artie Steuben asked, “Do you believe these men that Archer killed were about to rape you, child?”

“Yes, sir.”

There was a break as the witnesses conferred among themselves, then Artie Steuben stood to look at Lemuel.

“We would state our judgment.”

“Go ahead, Artie,” said Lemuel.

“We judge Archer Kraft innocent of murder. We have questions of the boy.”

The crowd burst into shouts, and claps, and comments of justice being satisfied, and Lemuel stood to quieten them, “I won’t ask again for a peaceful proceeding. You folks are testing my patience awful.”

After everyone had calmed down, Cecil Bowman asked in his high pitched, near girlish voice, “What’s your name, young fellow?”

“Hyman Lowell,” he replied in a meek voice. I figured he sensed the prejudice against him.

“Were you with the men who attempted to brutalize this young woman?

“I was, sir, but I wouldn’t have harmed her.”

“But you were with them?”

“I was,” he said, resignation in his voice.

The witnesses conferred for a few minutes, and Arnie Steuben once again stood. “We judge the boy guilty of attempted rape. He will be whipped and branded as outcast, or slain, by the girl’s choice.”

Lorena looked over at me and whispered, “No.”

I searched her eyes and saw the concern she had for the boy, who was squirming like a night-crawler on a barbed hook – How in hell did I get myself into this? 

I patted Lorena on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, darling.” I stood and cleared my throat. “I’ll take the boys judgment upon myself.”

“My sudden and unexpected offer dampened the noise level in the room considerable.

Lemuel drew his head back in surprise. “You sure about this?”

“I am,” I said, sensing Lorena’s confused relief, and wanting to kick myself in the ass.

“For  two years, any crimes this boy commits against person or property falls on you, Archer. You understand this, Archer?”

“I do.”

“Well, alright then,” said Lemuel, rubbing his hands with excitement, “judgment’s passed, and justice is served. It’s time for vittles. I’ve done worked up an appetite.”