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Henry - A Western Short Story
Spitting and sputtering, she pushed herself up out of the mud. She was covered in muck from her face to her toes, while the offending pig was warily watching her with its beady eyes from the corner of the pen and the expression on its long, snout-face looked for all the world like a smile. She wiped her face with a grimy hand, and spat out some more mud. Behind her, she heard a low chuckle.
He was tall and thin, but in a wiry way. He carried a sack on his back, secured by a rope over his shoulder. He leaned on the top rail, grinning at her.
“Well I don’t see what’s so funny. That pig has a jowl boil, and I need to catch him up and put salve on it. If you was any sort of gentleman, you’d catch him up for me.”
He looked around and found an old gate leaning on the side of the barn. A few moments later, the pig was trapped in a corner of the pen and she was applying salve to the open sore while he held the gate in place. She suddenly realized how awful she looked and blushed fiercely, but he couldn’t see it for the mud.
“Who are you and why are you here?” She finished smearing the salve as she spoke, not looking up.
“Name’s Henry. Henry McCarty. I smelled cookin’ and thought I’d see if I could work for a meal. I ain’t et since yesterday, and I could use some food.”
“That your horse?”
He grinned again. “Well, there ain’t nobody else around, so I reckon he must be mine!”
“She stood up and stared at him, unsmiling. “Put him in the corral. There’s hay in the box and water in the tank. When you’re done, wash up by the back door and we’ll eat.”
When he opened the corral gate, it almost twisted out of his hand. The lower hinge was broken, and badly in need of repair. He stripped his gear off his horse and rubbed it down with an old feed sack he found, thoughtfully looking all around.
He name was Ruby Jackson, and she lived here with her mother. She was seventeen.
“Pa died after being kicked by a horse. It didn’t look so bad, but about a week later, he just took sick and died. He’s been gone some three months now.”
The food was good, and he enjoyed it. Ruby’s mother poured him another cup of coffee and offered him the last of the fried chicken, but he shook his head. “I’m full as a tick, ma’am, and purely satisfied. You sure are some cook.” She smiled and began to gather the plates.
“I noticed that there are things around that need mending, so if it suits you, I’ll stay a few days and tend to it. I promise not to eat like that every time.” He grinned at Ruby, who pointedly turned away.
For the next two weeks, he mended fence, chopped wood, fixed the roof on the henhouse, and sharpened tools. He mowed the barnyard with a hand scythe, and put new leathers in the well pump. Ruby secretly watched him from the windows, and her heart soared. He slept in the barn, and she shocked herself with wanton thoughts of sneaking out to meet him in the dark. She found herself dressing differently, and daringly stole a dab of her mother’s perfume to put behind her ears. Her mother knew it of course, and smiled.
He wasn’t handsome, because his ears were too big and stuck out. His front teeth were prominent, and his shoulders were sloped, but there was something about him, and Ruby was deeply in love, although she thought she was hiding it well. She loved his easy, self assured ways, and his quick sense of humor, even if she was often the reason for his laughter.
Saturday morning, Henry hitched up the team, and they took the wagon to town. They were low on supplies, and Henry needed a barber. Her mother also wanted two dozen chicks and feed, while Ruby wanted her first bottle of lilac water
“Looks like everybody had the same notion as me.” Henry pointed at the full bench waiting in front of the barbershop. “Where will I find you?”
Mrs. Jackson accepted his hand and stepped down from the wagon. “I’ll put my order in at Murphy’s general store, and then I have business with the bank.” When he offered his hand to Ruby, he suddenly realized that she had changed somehow. There was a new blush to her cheeks, and her hair was different. The change was subtle but dramatic, and she was stunningly beautiful. He lifted her off the wagon by her narrow waist and gently placed her on the ground in front of him. For a long moment, they gazed at one another, and there was an unspoken understanding. Henry turned and stumbled down the street, his heart pounding. Ruby watched him go, and smiled to herself. The day seemed suddenly brighter and more cheerful.
Lovely Lillian Frey, the banker’s daughter, stepped off the boardwalk and started across the street. Henry halted, and waited for her to pass in front of him, doffing his hat. Ruby felt a strange pang of jealousy, until Henry turned and looked back at her, grinning, He then doffed his hat to her too, bending far over at the waist, and she laughed in spite of herself. Lillian Frey sniffed, and spun her parasol as she stalked away.
Their order was in the back of the wagon when Mrs. Jackson and Ruby left the bank and stepped into the street, raising their skirts to avoid the dust. Suddenly their way was blocked by big Dan Butler, who stood there grinning. He had heavy black mustaches, and wore a bowler hat. In his mouth was a heavily chewed cigar, and he reeked of the smoke. He had held the mortgage on the farm until Ruby’s father inherited some money last year and finally paid it off. He was thoroughly disliked by most people, and the Jackson ladies were no exception.
“Would you kindly allow us the road sir?”
“I’ll need a word with you, Mrs. Jackson.” He pulled a piece of paper from his jacket pocket, and the grin was still on his face. “Your husband borrowed five hundred dollars from me shortly before he died, and he put up the farm to secure the loan.”
Mrs. Jackson abruptly grabbed the paper from the startled Butler and turned her back when he tried to grab it back.
“Keep your hands to yourself, Mister Butler or I shall scream and you will have the town’s men come down on you.”
Butler looked around nervously. Manhandling a woman was cause for a lynching in the west and he knew it. Mrs. Jackson read the note and turned back. “You are a liar sir. This is not my husband’s signature, and he had no need of a loan. He received half of his inheritance when he paid you off, and there was a substantial amount left over. The other half was delivered to the bank shortly after. Now go away before I have you horsewhipped.”
Butler angrily spun on his heel and had started to leave when Ruby spoke up. “I would not dirty a horsewhip on such a man.”
It was too much for a brute like Butler, who spun around and threw the cigar on the ground. “I have a good mind to slap some manners into you, girl. In fact, that’s just what I will do!”
He was reaching for Ruby when he heard the double click of a hammer being drawn back to full cock. He glanced to his left, and saw a freshly groomed young man standing nonchalantly with a revolver, and it was pointed straight at him.
“Hell, you ain’t nothin’ but a boy. You put that gun up before I take it away from you!”
Ruby stared at Henry in fascination. She wondered where he had kept the gun because she had never seen it. And why was he so calm? He seemed different somehow.
“You’d best get on with it, mister.” Henry’s voice was quiet and measured, like he was discussing the weather.
“Get on with what? What are you talking about, boy?”
“Let that be the last time you call me ‘boy’, and you need to get on your knees and apologize to these ladies for your insults and crass ways.”
Dan Butler stared at Henry and snorted. “You talk big with a gun in your hand!”
Henry regarded Butler for a long moment. Then he let down the hammer on his Colt and put in his waistband.
“You also have a gun, mister.”
Onlookers quickly scurried out of the way, and the Jackson ladies backed up a step. Butler turned slightly to face Henry and was startled by what he saw.
Henry stood with his arms crossed, and his eyes were bland. His smooth young face was calm, and he was clearly not afraid. Suddenly, Dan Butler knew that he was just seconds away from death, because this young man was perfectly willing to die, if need be. There was now only one way out, so Dan Butler slowly went to his knees in the dust of the street.
“Ma’am and Ruby, I apologize for my misdeeds and my impertinence.” He glanced up at Henry. “Will that be satisfactory?”
Henry nodded silently, and Butler stood, beating the dust off his knees with his hat. The crowd chuckled, and his neck grew cherry red around his collar as he stalked off, humiliated.
Henry sat on the porch smoking his pipe, and listening to the quail calling one another to bed in the mesquite trees. The glow of the sun was almost gone and the first stars were appearing in the east when Ruby came out. Instead of sitting across from him as usual, she drew up a chair close beside him and sat silently. After some time, she quietly placed her hand on his arm, and he put his hand on top of hers, giving it a gentle squeeze. He could smell her new perfume.
“Did you think Lillian Frey was pretty?”
“I sure did. But would she still be pretty if she fell flat on her face in a muddy pig pen? My girl did that once and still looked as pretty as a spring wildflower.”
There was a long silence. “Am I really as pretty as a wildflower Henry?”
“You’re as pretty as a whole field of wildflowers, Ruby.”
“Am I your girl, Henry?”
“I don’t know. Are you?”
She answered by putting her head on his shoulder.
“I’m like anyone else, Ruby. I got things that need fixin’ so I’m going to get about it, and if I can, I’ll be back.”
He had been on the Jackson place for six weeks, and now, he was packed up and ready to ride. He looked all around, and then down at her from where he sat his horse. “I’ve taken quite a liking to this place, Ruby and to you and your ma. I want to come back. I surely do.”
“You have never even kissed me, Henry. Aren’t you going to at least kiss me?” Her eyes pleaded with him, and the tears were brimming.
“It would be better if I don’t. It would be like a promise that I might not be able to keep.” He looked down again and smiled. “I do love you Ruby Jackson, and I’ve never loved anyone before. Does that make a difference?”
She nodded, and he wheeled his horse, riding away as the tears streamed down her face. Her mother came out on the porch and put her arm around her shoulders. They both watched until he finally disappeared over a distant rise.
“Not much to tell, really. When Dan Butler learned that this Henry McCarty feller was back in town, he went looking for him with a scattergun. He was alone, because no one wanted to be around him after the way he took water from McCarty. What he didn’t know was that McCarty was behind him the whole time. When he found out, he turned to fire, but McCarty put two bullets in his heart, just as pretty as you please, and Butler missed McCarty entirely.”
The town marshal took another drink from the dipper. “A county sheriff come by the next day, asking after McCarty, since that was the name he was using.”
“You mean his name wasn’t really Henry McCarty?” Ruby’s face was pale.
“Oh no, ma'am. That's his given name, far as we can tell. He was truthful about that. But he also uses other names. Here, take a look.”
Ruby’s hands were trembling as she took the circular from the marshal. That the face was Henry was not in doubt. But he had never mentioned that he was also called William Bonney, and commonly called Billy.