“That’s just the way the sun sets out here, I reckon.”
Sam Cade squinted into the western sky at its brilliant shades of orange, yellow, pink, and red. The sun was sizzling, melting into the jagged peaks of distant mountains.
Sam squatted over a small fire. Out here in the badlands, a big fire might draw the unwanted attention of thieves, malefactors, or Indians. He had built the fire and boiled the beans for himself alone.
That was before the redheaded youngster asked to join him. Couldn’t have been more than 16, traveling the wilds of west Texas by his skinny lonesome. Sam wanted to tell him to get lost, but he figured he already was and the weather-worn, lanky Texan really didn’t favor the notion of riding up on the kid’s carcass in a day or two. He’d feel bad and there was no sense in feeling bad when all you had to do to avoid it was share your fire and beans.
Over a tin plate of piping hot beans and days old cornbread, the kid acknowledged the brilliance of the sunset, which evoked the aforementioned grunted reply from Cade, who wasn’t that all-fired keen on gabbing all night when he had thinking to do.
“Well, it never sets in such a fashion back home,” the kid offered.
“Where’d that be?”
“Up in Missourah.”
Missouri. Cade knew it well. He had been unwittingly and unwillingly caught in the crossfire between Governor Boggs and Joseph Smith’s Mormons back in 1838. He was on 24 at the time – a young bounty hunter up from Texas in search of criminal John Hicks, wanted for the murder of a Texas Ranger.
He was in Jackson county when bloodthirsty locals assaulted a Mormon, intent on tarring and feathering the elderly Mormon leader. The young Texan carried an over-developed sense of justice and duel six-shooters. He left three dead men in Missouri and escaped back to Texas before anyone could identify him.
“You get lost going to the barber or something?”
“What’re you doing out here in the high lonesome? Indians’d likely consider that red hair of yours a real prize.”
“I’m headed for El Paso.”
“Why in the name of all that is holy would a Missourah mule of a kid wanna go to that God-forsaken outpost?”
“There’s a senorita down there. I met her in the Thirsty Mule Lounge up in Springfield. I aim to find and marry her.”
The kid lit up like a lightening bug when he mentioned the girl.
Sam was nonplussed.
“A working girl? That ain’t the kind for marrying. Girls met in places like that are for…well, they ain’t for marrying.”
“This one is.”
The kid was obviously firm in his position and, since he was already committed to the journey, there was no sense arguing the point further. Sam moved onto another topic.
“You are not old enough to be frequenting joints like the Thirsty Mule.”
“Reckon I’m older’n I look.”
“How old’d that be?”
“I am not entirely sure. Just older’n I look,” was the answer.
“How can a body not be entirely sure of his own age?”
“Nobody ever told me how old I was, really. I don’t remember back that far myself,” the kid answered a little uncomfortably. “Do you remember your own spawning?”
“Of course I don’t, but there were witnesses that did. Like my sainted mother, for instance. She told me the where and when of it, so I would be able to give an intelligent answer when someone inquired as to my gawl-danged age. I’m a little surprised yours never shared as much with you.”
The kid stood, the plate no longer so hot he couldn’t hold it and no longer full of beans. He sopped up the lingering bean juice with his cornbread, stuffed it in his mouth and considered.
“I expect she woulda, but apparently she didn’t survive the ordeal of birthing me.”
Sam felt bad now. He hated feeling bad, because it often led him to do things he didn’t want to do, like entertain a guest at his fire.
“Your Pa never told ya, neither.”
“’Parently, my Ma was some fashion of whore and none of her clients were inclined to step up and claim me as theirs. I heard there was a ginger-haired farmer that lived somewhere out in the Illinois sticks that hailed all the way from Ireland likely sired me. Anyways, he’s dead, too, I heard. Kicked by a mule he bought whilst in St. Louie, where he was supposed to have mounted my Ma.”
Sam pondered the boy’s story.
“I expect that explains why you got no better sense than to embark on such a journey as this. Who did raise ya anyhow?”
“Me mostly. I lived with a fat bitch name of Mary Mitchum ‘til I was old enough, fast enough, and smart enough to escape. She run a orphanage in Kansas City. She beat me regular and was prone to saying I was the seed of Satan hisself with this mess of red hair. She ‘lowed other things, too. I don’t care to discuss ‘em.”
Sam Cade sighed and poked the fire. He used a little canteen water to clean his plate and the youngster’s. He said nothing for a long while. It wasn’t until he lay under his itchy old wool blanket, head resting on his saddle, staring up at the heavens bedazzled with a million or so stars that he said anything at all.
He was minutes from yielding to sleep when he mused aloud, “I s’pose I’d run away from a fat bitch that wouldn’t do me the simple courtesy of telling me my own age.”
“If she’d been as kind as you, sharing your fire and beans and all, I woulda stayed.”
Sam didn’t hear him. He was snoring softly and running barefoot across some distant field, recently plowed, towards the log house and the woman with the apron and infectious smile.
“Ma,” he mumbled.
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