I aim to kill the man in the cabin down below. I’ve shot him once already today. I know I got him because I saw his right arm go limp and drop the reigns to his horse. He somehow managed to keep a tight hold on my sister with his left arm all the same. I figured that the bite of the bullet would take the fight out of him and he would drop my sister as well, but he didn’t. I could just as easily have put the bullet through his heart, but it might have passed through him and into my sister, which is why I aimed wide.
What possesses a man to ride into a camp in the middle of the night and snatch up an eighteen-year-old girl as she warms herself by the fire? I’ll never know. I’m guessing his newly useless right arm will put a damper on any sorry intentions he may have had for my sister. She’s lucky I couldn’t sleep and was checking the camp for snakes, rifle in hand. I shot a snake, all right, the two-legged variety. The next time, I won’t be aiming so wide.
As I work my way down the ridge and closer to the cabin, two things catch my attention. First, I’m struck by how thick the smoke from the chimney is. The smoke is what brought me to this location. They had a head start in unfamiliar territory at night, and I’d all but lost them until I saw that smoke at sunrise. He certainly isn’t trying to conceal it. Could it be a trap? Maybe my sister has tricked him into giving away their location? The second thing I notice is that the beautiful bay horse he was riding isn’t tethered or corralled. It’s just wandering around in front of the cabin, reigns dragging on the ground. The scoundrel clearly has no respect for his fellow man, but somehow I thought he would be more careful with such a uniquely spectacular animal.
As I draw up to the cabin, I know something isn’t adding up. My senses are on high alert. The smoke is the dominant smell, but I can smell the sweat of the bay that has been ridden hard all night and hasn’t been wiped down. I hear him snort and snuffle as he munches the grass. I feel a light breeze pass over me like a spirit leaving a body. I’ve come here to kill a man, and suddenly I’m afraid that I already have.
I know I was right to shoot him, and I’m not going to lose my nerve now. Still, killing a man at sixteen seems like the first step on the road to perdition, if ever there was one. I’m certain my father wouldn’t approve. He’s the only man I know who refuses to wear a gun. He won’t even touch one for that matter. It’s part of his pacifist upbringing back east, I suppose. I wouldn’t have the rifle I’m holding now, if Momma hadn’t taken my side. She’s the more practical one when it comes to worldly affairs, but would she approve of what I’m about to do?
I tighten my grip on my weapon and steel my nerve. I’ll just have to settle with my parents as best I can, once I’ve settled with the man inside. With or without their blessing, I’m determined to finish what I started.
I attempt to peer in the side window, but the curtains are drawn. I think I can detect some movement in the room, but it might just be flickering shadows cast from the fireplace.
I climb onto the edge of the porch and carefully approach the front window. There is some mild creaking of wood despite my best efforts at stealth. The front curtains are drawn as well, but I duck anyway as I slip by and come to the doorway.
Standing at the door, I can’t decide whether to gently try the knob or to just to kick the thing down. Both supply the element of surprise, but kicking the door in would be more in keeping with my mood. Plus, it would give the man a clear idea of the wrath that was about to come down upon him.
I brace myself and give a hearty kick. The door swings wide open with a bang. The fireplace is directly in front of me, and my sister is bent over tending to it. She immediately leaps up and spins around, iron poker in hand.
“Where is he?” I demand, barging into the room. I look first to my right and see no one. Then as I look to my left, I spot him.
He is sprawled out on a cot, and there is blood everywhere. He stirs ever so slightly, so I know he hasn’t died yet.
“Get up!” I shout at him as I advance, my gun aimed at his heart.
He moans and turns toward me. His face is ghostly pale as his eyes flicker open. I think for a split second that he looks vaguely familiar.
Then I hear my sister screaming, “No, Joseph!” just as something hard smashes into me and knocks me to the ground. The gun discharges as it falls from by hands and blasts a hole in the wall of the cabin.
I roll onto my back and look up to see my sister standing over me, iron poker raised above her head ready to strike again.
“What are you doing?” I cry out in confusion.
“It’s not what you think, Joseph.”
“He kidnapped you, Ellie. How can you defend him? I don’t care if he is one of God’s creations. He deserves to die!”
“No, Joseph, he doesn’t. If anyone deserves to die, it’s me,” she says, lowering the poker and turning towards the man. Tears begin to run down her face and her body wracks with sobs. The poker clatters to the floor as she falls to her knees.
“What are you talking about?” I ask.
“It’s Caleb, Joseph. It’s Caleb, and I’m afraid he will die if we don’t get him to a doctor soon.”
I stand up and look more closely at the man. Now I know why he looks so familiar. Caleb had been a good friend of my older brother, Bill, back in Utah before our family had been forced to leave. He has grown quite a bit during the three years we spent living in California. He has gone from a spindly seventeen-year-old youth to a muscular twenty-year-old man, but I definitely recognize who he is now.
“Ellie, I don’t understand,” I say.
“It was my idea,” she says. “I tried to get Daddy to let me marry Caleb three years ago when we left for California, but he wouldn’t hear of it. He said that he had already lost one child to the Mormons when Bill married Miriam, and he wasn’t going to lose another.
“But Momma’s a Mormon. How can he say that?”
“That’s exactly what I told him. He just said that he had married Momma back before he’d been run out of Utah for not converting, and that had changed his opinion about some things. I told him that I didn’t mind converting and staying behind like Bill was doing, but he insisted I was too young to make such a big decision.”
Caleb gives me a weak smile. “We never figured on you, Joseph. I knew your Pa didn’t believe in guns, but Ellie never mentioned you were a crack shot.”
“I didn’t know, I swear,” Ellie pleads, looking at Caleb and then at me. “I sent my letter with our travel route long before I even knew Joseph had a gun, much less that he could use it.”
“She’s right,” I say. “Dad only reluctantly let me have the gun and made me keep it secret from the other kids until we were well on our way to Texas. I’m really sorry. Guess I wasn’t the only one keeping secrets.”
Naturally, that sends Ellie into tears. We both look at her for a moment and then Caleb says, “Well, I guess you can make it up to me by cauterizing the wound. I was trying to get Ellie to do it, but she couldn’t build up the nerve.”
I glance at the poker on the floor then over at the fireplace. “Let me take a look at it,” I say.
Caleb rolls onto his side. “Give me a hand, Ellie,” he says.
She dutifully begins unwrapping the wound. I realize that the bandages are made from her skirt and then notice for the first time she is dressed only in her petticoat and blouse.
Turning my attention back to Caleb, I am not prepared for what I see. I involuntarily begin to wretch and have to look away. After regaining my composure, I look back. Ellie is holding pressure, and Caleb gives a low groan.
“Okay,” I say. Ellie lifts her hand away to expose an oozing crater of raw flesh. There is a smaller hole below the larger one.
“I think the bullet ricocheted off my shoulder blade,” Caleb says. “Otherwise, it would have gone through my lung, and I wouldn’t have made it this long.”
“I think you’re right,” I say. The smaller hole is a perfect circle and crusted over with dried blood, but the bigger one is a mess. I don’t think a doctor would be able to do much more than what I’m about to do.
“Keep holding pressure,” I tell Ellie as I pick up the poker. Just like branding cattle, I reassure myself. I walk to the fire and thrust the poker deep into the embers.
As the iron heats up, I try to make small talk. “So what exactly was the plan, before I got in the middle of things?” I ask.
“Well, there’s a town not too far from here with a small mission church. We figured on getting married, telling your folks about it after the fact, and then coming back to this cabin I rented,” Caleb says. Then he adds with a weak laugh, “I guess the part about the cabin panned out.”
“I guess so,” I say, pulling the glowing metal from the fire and holding it aloft. Caleb winces and closes his eyes. Ellie looks away.
Not wanting to lose my resolve, I stride the few steps across the room and plunge the poker into the wound. If my parents couldn’t find us by the smoke, they were sure to find us by the screams.