A Western Short Story - Joe's Final Request
Joe's Final Request
Rob Kirby sliced bacon into the pan and set it down in the slow morning coals left over from the night’s fire. The air was still and nothing moved except a murmuring mother quail and her long line of chicks, winding quietly among the cactus. The branches of the gnarled mesquite over his head dissipated what little smoke came from his fire. He took one last, long look around and headed up to the knoll.
Three months earlier, he and Joe Darby had found color in the creek. It wasn’t much, but with work, the gold was enough to keep them in food and supplies until they found better diggings elsewhere. Then Joe had found a crack in the bedrock of an old high bank streambed, and they had a true bonanza. The first pan had over an ounce of dust and nuggets, and the partners celebrated that night with a bottle.
Joe woke up feeling sick the next morning, which both men put it down to the whiskey consumed and paid scant attention. But by noon, Joe was delirious with fever, and Rob was worried. They were miles from any medical attention and even if Joe could ride, which he could not, there was little hope of help. Rob bathed his partner’s brow with cool water from the creek and talked to him in a low soothing voice, trying the best he knew how to comfort his friend. At last, Joe fell into a delirious sleep.
Rob was asleep himself when he felt a tug on his sleeve.
“I’m dying Rob. I can feel it.”
Rob started to reply, but Joe cut him off with a wave of his hand.
“Don’t say nothing Rob. Just listen because I ain’t got much time. I have a daughter in El Paso.”
At that, Rob’s eyebrows went up. He had known Joe since they were both boys in short pants, but this was a surprise.
“Her ma was Sally Evans, that dance hall girl I was sweet on.” He averted his eyes. “You know I ain’t never been one to talk about such things Rob, and I ain’t gonna start now. It’s enough to tell you Sally birthed my daughter and she’s in El Paso.”
Joe held up his hand and Rob placed a canteen to his lips. He took a couple of swallows and turned his head away. Rob added a few sticks to the fire and waited. After a long pause, Joe turned back to him and began again.
“Sally had herself some education, so when she was carrying Mary - that’s my daughter’s name - she packed up and moved to El Paso where she took up a teacher’s job, claiming she was a widow. At least that’s the story I got from a woman who knew her.”
Rob felt Joe’s head and he was burning with fever. He dampened a cloth with water out of the canteen and mopped his partner’s forehead.
Joe studied Rob with his dark eyes for a long moment.
‘I should have married Sally. I’m sure she would have been willing, but she was a dance hall girl, and I was ashamed. I thought folks would think less of me so I turned away. I’m a damn fool and now I’m dying without ever having seen my daughter or making it right with her mother.”
With that, he drifted back into delirium, and Rob was left to his own thoughts. He had known Joe had eyes for Sally Evans, but he hadn’t known it had gone that far. Joe was handsome and charming, but he was surprised that Sally Evans had fallen for him. She was usually level-headed and although she worked a dance hall job, she wasn’t what was known as a sporting lady. In fact, she was as much a lady as those town women who saw themselves as respectable.
Dawn was showing to the east when he again felt Joe’s eyes on him. Joe’s mouth was working but he was too weak to talk. At his look of silent desperation, Rob asked him the question he’d been pondering for several hours, “You want me to take your share to Sally and your daughter. Is that it?”
Joe breathed a sigh of relief and weakly nodded his head. The first rays of the sun appeared over the ridge, and Joe chose that moment to die, satisfied that Rob would see to his last wish.
Rob stood on the knoll and quietly studied the small mound in front of him. After burying Joe, he had taken a hammer and cold chisel out of his pack and laboriously carved an inscription on a slab of rock he had chosen for a headstone:
“Well, I finally finished cleaning out that crack Joe, and she held at least three thousand in dust and nuggets. I’ll be taking your share to El Paso like you wanted and look up Sally and your daughter.”
He paused and looked around. “This is a fine, quiet spot to rest Joe. I’ll be back come next spring. There’s another likely looking spot up there on that old streambed, and I’ll be wanting to put down a better headstone for you. This one will do for now I reckon.”
He smelled the bacon frying, and taking one last look around, he headed back to camp.
El Paso was a long, narrow town squeezed between the Rio Grande on the southwest and the Franklin mountain range to the northeast. Across the river was Ciudad Juárez, and Mexico. The river was the international boundary, established in 1848 by the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Although officially American for nearly forty years, El Paso was still largely populated by Mexican nationals, so the town was observing siesta as Rob Kirby rode down the quiet, dusty street.
The interior of the cantina was dark and cool. He ordered a beer and listened to the talk of cattle and the nearby railroad construction. Most of the men were armed and so was he. A man never knew when he might need a firearm for self defense, or a thousand other good reasons. He himself had once caught his foot in a stirrup and had to shoot his panicked horse before it dragged him to death.
The talk drifted to a local tough and outlaw by the name of Felipe Garcia, who was also known as El Cuchillo – the knife. He was a killer, and while he preferred a blade, he was also reputed to be very gun handy. Two nights before, he had killed a man in this very cantina by thrusting a thin knife into his heart with his right hand while his massive left hand gripped his victim’s gun hand. He had used the same ploy before. He closed without warning, giving his target no chance.
Rob waited for a lull and then asked his question.
‘Where’s the schoolhouse located?”
The lull instantly turned to dead silence, and they all turned to stare at him owlishly. The bartender finally broke the silence.
“What’s your business with the school, señor?’
“Well, as you said, that’s my business. Now where’s the school?”
“It’s up the hill behind the cemetery.”
“Is Sally Evans the teacher?”
If anything, the room became even quieter. The bartender paled, and then nervously nodded his head.
“What the hell is wrong with you folks?” Rob looked around the room, but no one spoke up. Finally, the bartender cleared his throat.
“Sally Evans is muy bad medicine señor. She is the woman of El Cuchillo.”
There was a hitch rail in front of the school and Rob tied off to it. It was a one room building with a front porch and a belfry. Behind it loomed the Franklin range and he could see part of a faint trail running along the face of the slope. Behind him and below were the roofs of the town, shimmering in the late afternoon sun. He mounted the steps and opened the door.
The young woman at the blackboard spun around, a mixture of joy and fear crossing her pretty face.
“Rob! What on earth…! How did you find me? Oh never mind that, It’s wonderful to see you, but you are in great danger being here.”
He crossed the floor and stood in front of her, removing his hat.
“I have sad news Sally. Joe Darby passed away from the fever some months ago. That’s why I’m here.”
“Oh I’m so sorry, Rob! I know what great friends you were. In fact, I’ve long wanted to talk to you about Joe. There are things that need to be said. There are secrets that I no longer wish to keep.”
A shadow suddenly blocked the light from the door and Sally gasped. Rob turned around, stepping in front of Sally protectively.
‘Why are you here with my woman, señor?”
The speaker was a very large Mexican with long black hair and flowing mustachios. He loomed in the doorway, flexing his huge hands and staring at Rob.
Rob looked at Sally. “Are you his woman?”
A shadow of real fear crossed her face, and Rob realized she was terrified of this man. Her eyes fell to the floor and she nodded slowly.
“My guess is you’d be the one they call El Cuchillo. My guess is that you are a murdering skunk and a man who frightens women, cabrón.”
Enraged, Felipe Garcia's hand flew back to his revolver, but as his fingers touched the grips, he heard the crisp double click of Rob’s Colt .44 and he halted, standing stock still. He glanced down at Rob’s hand and saw the large black eye of the unwavering muzzle staring back at him.
For a long moment, no one moved, and then Garcia put both hands in front of him, palms out in a gesture of defeat. He grinned, showing large white teeth in a dazzling smile.
“You are a very fast hombre, señor. No one has ever bested Felipe Garcia. I would shake your hand!”
“Fine with me, but let’s step outside into the warm sun. My eyes don’t like the dark.”
Warily, the big man backed out the door and Rob followed slowly. Garcia was at least two inches taller and thirty pounds heavier than Rob, so he would use it to his advantage by trying to close and grapple with Rob.
Two men were waiting in the schoolyard, and as Garcia backed out, both stood bewildered for a moment, unsure and hesitant.
“Tell those two to drop their gun belts and head down the path to town. Tell them that if they do anything that I don’t understand, I’ll put a bullet in your belly.”
“Echen sus pistolas y bajense del monte!”
The two men hesitated and then did as they were told. Rob backed Garcia into the schoolyard and then holstered his gun. Felipe Garcia smiled and held out his hand. Rob took it and Garcia jerked him in close, slashing for his chest with the hidden knife now in his left hand, but Rob was no longer there. On being pulled in, he immediately rolled to his left and drove his own left hand blade to the hilt in the side of the big Mexican’s neck.
In desperation and with his last bit of strength, El Cuchillo slashed at Rob one more time, drawing blood from his arm. With an astonished look on his face, he sank to his knees with Rob’s knife still jutting from the side of his neck. He tried to speak and then he was dead.
Rob released the dead man’s hand and withdrew his knife. He glanced back at Sally who was standing in the doorway staring at Garcia with a look of horror on her face. She raised her eyes to Rob and burst into tears.
“I have been so frightened! He was a brute who told me that I was to be his woman. I had no say, and no one dared to confront him!”
She glanced at his arm, her eyes growing wide. “You’re bleeding! Come with me.” Her own fright forgotten, she took his hand and led him down the slope to her house.
She brought him a cup of coffee and examined the bandage one more time.
“It looked worse than it was. The cut was only about three inches long, but the way it bled, I thought you might lose your arm.”
“You did a nice job of sewing it up.”
She sipped her coffee. “I wasn’t always a dance hall girl Rob. I had a genteel upbringing back east and sewing was part of it. That was not the first wound I’ve pulled together.”
“Mommy?” A small girl appeared in the doorway, staring at Rob.
“Mary, this is Mr. Kirby. Please say hello.”
“Hello Mr. Kirby. How do you do?”
She was about four years old and resembled her mother, except for her mother’s blue eyes. Hers were brown. Sally excused her and she ran outside to play.
Rob waited for a time and then cleared his throat. “The reason I came here was to give you this.”
He handed her an envelope with nearly two thousand dollars in it. She looked at him with questions in her eyes.
“Joe wanted you to have that to help raise Mary…his daughter.”
At her shocked look, he went on.
“Joe was dying, and had little time, so he told me about you and that he was the father of your daughter. I hate to talk like this about something so private Sally, but I don’t know any other way.”
She looked at her lap. “I never told you about Joe. Perhaps I should have.’
“It was none of my business.”
She sighed and rose. She walked to the dining table and stood there for a moment, her back to him. Then she turned and faced him.
“I was lonely, and he was nice. I never loved him and he never loved me but he was company for a time. It was wrong I know, but there it is.”
“I’m not judging you Sally.” He smiled ruefully. “Who am I to accuse anyone?’
She went to the stove and picked up the coffee pot, filling his cup and her own. She took her seat and faced him, her chin up and defiant.
“Well, Joe was wrong. He is not Mary’s father. You are.”
His mouth fell open and she continued.
“Neither of you knew about the other. After Joe left and you came along, I had hopes that I had finally met a man that I could love, and love you I did, but then you abruptly left. I don’t want a man if I have to trap him, so I said nothing about being with child.”
He stared at her for a long moment, and then gathered himself.
“I left because I had nothing to offer you Sally, and a man must have something to offer the woman he loves. I left with hopes to one day return a successful man and ask you to marry me. I left because I was poor and ashamed. I left because I loved you. And I am here today because I still love you and always will. Will you forgive me? I’m just a man.”
She came and sat beside him on the love seat, turning to face him. “Was that a proposal Rob, because if it was, the answer is yes, of course I’ll marry you.” Tears welled in her eyes as she took his big rough hand in her own soft hands.
“She has your eyes you know. They’re Kirby brown and beautiful.”