A Sheep in Wolf's Clothing - A Short Story
A Sheep in Wolf's Clothing
He was big and ugly, sitting up there on his tall horse, viewing the situation with obvious disdain. Behind him were two loaded pack horses. To the south was a shady, wooded area, adjacent to the flat, grassy meadow where the horses were now cropping.
“Name’s Charley Watters. Now what the hell are you doin’ out here, all by your lonesome?”
Mary poked her head out of the canvas top covering the wagon, her green eyes flashing dangerously.
“He’s not alone. I’m with him!”
The big man grinned, showing wolfish yellow teeth.
“Well now, you are a right smart looking little filly, ain’t you?”
Jonathon Smiley stepped to the big man’s horse and looked up at him, jaws clenched.
“I’ll have you know sir, that you are addressing my wife, and I’ll not tolerate that sort of talk about her.”
Charley Watters stared down at him.
“You sayin’ she ain’t pretty?” He glanced at Mary again and back at Jonathon. “No, I cain’t say I agree with you, mister. She sure enough looks pretty to me.”
Thoroughly flustered, Jonathon’s face darkened.
“That was not my meaning! I mean you ought not to speak about another man’s wife like that.”
Charley Watters spat over his shoulder and wiped his tobacco stained beard. He nodded at Mary, tipping his greasy hat. “Beggin’ your pardon, ma’am. If your husband says you ain’t pretty, it shore ain’t my place to argue agin’ it. I reckon you ain’t pretty after all, more’s the pity.”
In spite of herself, Mary smiled at his pretended bewilderment. Then she put her hand to her mouth to stifle a giggle.
“Now see here! I’ll jerk you off that horse and give you a proper thrashing!” Jonathon Smiley was now red-faced and angry.
Charley Watters stared down at him again, thoughtfully tugging at his beard.
“Well, you have sand to talk to me like that, what with you not armed, and I’ll give you that much. But if you whup up on me - and that ain’t likely - who will help you get that wheel back on?”
They had left the small train of five wagons yesterday, after a passing trapper told Jonathon of a long valley with a small lake and a reliable stream that flowed all year, just ten miles south. But a few miles short of their destination, the left front wheel fell off, and the axle nut was nowhere to be found. Jonathon had been told to pack an extra nut for each side, but he didn’t see the necessity. Now they were marooned.
“I’d be obliged for the help, but I can’t find the axle nut either. I spent all day yesterday looking for it.”
Charlie Watters spat again, and slowly shook his head. “Didn’t no one tell you to carry a spare for each side?” The axle threads were usually reversed, from one side to the other, to help keep the nuts tight.
Mary looked at her husband reproachfully from her seat in the wagon. She loved him, but sometimes his stubborn streak and refusal to take advice from anyone irritated her. Last night, she scolded him, and he admitted his fault, but that solved nothing.
Now he meekly looked down at his toes, as he admitted his mistake to Charlie Watters.
“I did not listen, and that, I admit, is a fault of mine. I don’t like to take advice.”
Charlie Watters dismounted and walked over to Jonathon, who was still looking down in shame. Then he abruptly backhanded Jonathon hard, knocking him down. Mary screamed from the wagon and Jonathon stared up from the grass at the massive, towering figure.
“Now you listen to me, boy. When you talk to a man out here, you look him in the eye, even if you are ‘fessing up on a wrong thing. Men out here don’t cotton to no damn coward who won’t stand his ground! You will do well to remember that.”
Jonathon came to his feet, and wiped his bleeding mouth with the back of his hand. He stared at the blood for a moment, and then abruptly drove his fist hard into the big man’s stomach. He had been in several fights, and such a blow usually stopped the fight or put the other man down, but this time, it was like hitting a barn door. Charlie Watters simply turned and walked back to his horse, digging in his saddlebags.
“I carry a couple of spare axle nuts. You ain’t the first greenhorn I have came across and you won’t be the last.”
He glanced at a bewildered Jonathon. “I admire that you took a whack at me, bein’ I’m twice your size and all. You ain’t no coward, sure enough, so you just look a man straight in the eye and you’ll do. And carry you a sidearm. This ain’t no place to be unarmed, especially with a woman to protect.”
“I have a rifle in the wagon.”
“Where it will do you no good. You keep it ready to hand from now on, you hear?”
He knelt and wiped the dirt and grass off the axle stub. Then he tried the nut, and it fit.
“You got grease and a leather for the makin’ of a washer?” Jonathon nodded, and went to fetch the materials while the big man dug an axe out of one of the packs. He walked to a tree and began cutting off a stout looking, low lying limb. Mary watched his expert use of the axe in grudging admiration. She did not approve of his teaching methods.
Charlie Watters cleaned the limb with a few strokes and carried it back to the wagon, sliding it under the front axle. He pointed to a rock.
“Fetch that rock, son, and when I lift the axle with this here pole, slide it under, and we’ll clean and grease the stub. Then I’ll lift it the rest of the way while you slide the wheel back on.”
Mary made a meal while they worked, and after they were done, they ate. Jonathon asked Charlie about the valley, and he nodded thoughtfully.
“It’s a might fair spot sure enough, but most folks fight shy of the place, because a party of prospectors were killed there by injuns, about twenty year back. Some damn fool camped there a few days after, and he told a tale about ghosts and haints hooting around so much that night that he packed up and skedaddled. Since then, no one seems to want the place. It’s open to anyone who ain’t scared.”
Jonathon waved at the pack horses.
“Where are you headed?”
Charlie Watters pulled a pint of whiskey out of his pocket and offered it to Jonathon, who shook his head no. Charlie shrugged and took a long pull. Then he belched loudly.
“Just comin’ back. I tried me some prospecting, but came up empty.” He pointed north. “There’s a fair sized town name of Wayside maybe ten miles yonder. I got me a job there, and I’m headed back. When you folks need supplies, it’s the closest place.”
He stood and stretched. “Reckon I’ll be on my way.” He looked at Mary and grinned again. “It ain’t often that a pretty young thing with all them soft places can also cook, but you surely can. If your husband ever gets himself foolishly killed, you just come look old Charlie up!” Jonathon just shook his head in dismay. There was little else he could do other than shoot him, and the rifle was still in the wagon.
Two months later, the cabin was standing, and a crop was in, so they hitched up the team and drove to Wayside. After five miles, they ran across a rough road, and figured correctly that it would take them to the town. They took a room at the hotel and traded the big Conestoga wagon for a farm wagon and two riding horses. Then they began to load the wagon with much needed supplies.
The next morning was Sunday, so they dressed and headed for the small church on the outskirts of town. As they neared, several townspeople joined them. As they turned up the church path, Jonathon looked ahead, and was startled to see a familiar big man standing at the bottom of the steps.
“Look Mary! That’s Charlie Watters! Who would have thought him a church going man?”
The man in front turned around and grinned. “Well I should hope to smile he’s a church goin’ man. He’s the preacher!”