Gun For Hire
: Biding Time by Catherin Elizabet Belle
With Jude moving North, I turn my horse southwest planning to circle ahead of him. Moving through the trees, I hear varmints scurrying through the brush. As the golden globe rises higher in the sky removing shadows, the forest comes alive with the tat-tat-tat of the woodpecker, the warble of the sparrow perched aloft, and the flap of wings as the eagle soars high in the blue dome above the oak, hickory, and a dotting of pine. I rode for an hour then veered north to come in ahead of Jude remaining in the trees.
Riding into a dense thicket near where he would cross the border of Texas into Oklahoma; at least that's what I surmised. An hour passes when I hear something moving through the brush ten to twelve yards north of where I stand. Placing my hand over my horse's nose to quiet him, I wait. Silence creeps through the morning as the birds quiet with the intruder's approach.
That ole Reb paused ten feet away wipes his brow replaces his rebel cap and moves northwest. As he travels further away the natural hum of the forests returns to the aura of the woods. With relief I mount riding due east in the search of game to help Callie and Jake back at the cabin. They shore got it hard.
Dismounting, I lead my horse searching for squirrels or a rabbit; hell, I'd take a deadly old rattler. Skinned out and fried they taste good enough to eat. It's gettin' on toward evenin' when I spy the trail of a snake slithering through the dirt and I look to see where he's coiled.
Shor 'nough he's basking in the afternoon sun under a low-hanging branch. Pulling my old hog leg, I shoot him in the head as he makes his first warning rattle. Taking my knife, I slice off the head and let the blood drain out before coiling to put in my knapsack.
The sun is dipping below the trees to the west. Riding east I'm an hour's ride from the cabin if don't run into any trouble. Staying in the lengthening shadows, I move with caution through the undergrowth to avoid those who're up to no good.
Approaching the cabin in the darkness I ride in slow noticing a light in the cabin window when I hear the click of a rifle. I stop and hear a young voice say, "Who goes there?"
Smiling I answer, "Jake it's Jeb, can I dismount?" I heerd scurrying feet and Jake comes flying out the barn door as my boots touched the ground. Then Callie's silhouette stands in the cabin door with the glow of the lamp behind her. Her apron wrapped around her shoulders against the night chill.
Jake reaches for the reins saying, "Jeb, I'll take care of your horse."
Nodding, I reach for my knapsack striding toward the porch tipping my hat to Callie, "Not much game, Callie, kilt a rattler. I'll skin it and tack the skin up on the barn." No words came from her lips, but a shadow of revulsion crossed her eyes. "Callie, it don't taste bad, jist fry it up like you would a chicken."
Nod a word did she utter as she turned back to the cabin shutting the door behind her. Taking the pouch to the barn I skin out the meat as Jake watches. "We gonna eat that old rattler, Jeb."
"Yup, son, we need meat; its meat."
Digging the toe of his boot into the dirt floor he asks, "Whatcha gonna do with that thar rattle, Jeb?"
In the dim glow of the lantern I see the same look I had in my eyes the first-time paw skinned out a rattler thar in south Texas. I understood the hungry yearnin' for that rattle. Grinning at the memory I ask, "Jake would you like to have it?"
His youthful face aglow with hope his toe poised in mid-air, "Could I Jeb, could I have that rattle?"
"Well, I reckon as how you shor can?" Cutting it off the end of the skin I hand the prize to a boy whose exuberance shows in the light shining from his young eyes. As he darts toward the barn door, I say, "Whoa boy, take the meat to your maw. I'll be in soon."
Shaking my head, seems a hundred years since I was as young and innocence as Jake but the truth of its jist five long years of shooting and dodging bullets. Stepping inside the barn using my knife I scrape the meat off the skin rubbing salt into the hide. Picking up the hammer I move to the south side of the barn nailing that rattler's hide up to dry.
That old moon is high in the sky as I move toward the cabin. I stop to wash my hands in the lean-to, picking up my rifle I step inside the warm cabin. The fresh aroma of cooking meat reminds me of my hunger. Callie fixed a mush with the rattle snake meat fried as I told her. Sitting at the table her eyes held the unasked question about the visitor early today. "Callie, that Reb moved on North." Her body relaxed.
Jake was a magpie throughout supper until Callie says, "Jake let Jeb eat."
Blushing, I tilted my head down and mutter, "Ah shucks ma'am that's how the boy learns, asking."
Jake grins, but he keeps quiet, guess 'cause his maw said too. Shows respect, that's how it should be.
As Callie clears the table I step outside hearing her say, "Jake, bedtime." A sadness creeps across my soul and a dark shadow shades my eyes as I recall those exact words from maw. It was the night I snuck out to join the Rangers; I been gone quite a spell.
Standing in the cool evening breeze listening to the sounds from the forest around the cabin, I heerd an old hoot owl swoop through searching for his supper, a bat or two winging through the trees, but no big game to feed Callie and Jake when I leave. With that uneasy thought I move into the barn settling in the corner away from the door my gun at my side.
Awake before the sun is full over the trees. I search the barn looking to mend the corral; finding rope, old rawhide and dull axe with a grinding wheel back in the darkest corner I set to mending the corral. Callie is determined to stay on the land and I jist can't ride off with things in such disrepair, wouldn't be right.
As the sun tops the trees spreading a pale-yellow sheen across the land, I'm mending the west side of the corral when I hear Callie call out, "Jeb, come eat."
Moving toward the cabin I notice that her apron folded over her breast with her arms inside it. For a moment I saw maw standing there calling me for supper as she had been the morning before I rode off to join the rangers. Only the discipline of five years of war keeps me from mounting my old horse and riding hell bent for leather home. Instead, I shake my head of the vision haunting me and say, "Be right thar, Callie." I wash up at the lean-to before entering the cabin.
As I sit down to the meager meal I heerd Callie ask, "Whatcha doing Jeb?" as she pours the mush and berries into the bowl, she sits in front of me. "Jeb you be needin' different clothes; them's plum wore out. My husband's will most near fit you; I'll be layin' them out for you."
Taking the bowl sitting it on the wooden table I reply "Thought I mend the corral, Callie, before I leave."
As the words leave my mouth, Jake comes from the loft yelling, "Jeb, you aint leaving, are you? You ain't are you?"
Glancing at Callie I smile saying, "Not today Jake. One day soon I'll be riding out. I shor wanta get back home, been now on five year since I saw the folks."
Callie grabs Jake by the arm pushes him toward the stool, "Sit yore self and eat that mush while it's hot."
As Callie joins us at the table conversation stops as we eat. Finishing the meal, I say, "That was right filling, Ms. Callie." With a wink at her I turn to Jake, "Whatcha say we go hunting after I finish the corral. We shor could do with fresh meat."
Knocking the stool backwards with his excitement spilling over as he shouts, "Can we Jeb, can we?" Then quick as a rifle shot he straightens his shoulders picks up the stool and in a mature manner says. "Jeb, right nice of you be taking me with you." In the blink of an eye an enthusiastic young boy took on the demeanor of a serious young adult.
Looking at Callie I reply, "With your maw's permission, we'll leave at sunrise."
Jake looks at his maw but says not a word waiting to see what she'll say. She clears the table, then turns back and smiling she says, "Yes, Jake. You mind Jeb here, do what he says." Wiping her hands, she adds, "Finish your chores."
Standing erect joy bubbling out every pore, he replies in a man's way, "Okay maw."
With hat in hand I say, "I'll be thankin' you for the clothes, Callie."
Leaving the two in the cabin I step outside on the porch listening to the night sounds just enjoying the quiet; so peaceful after the war years with Terry's Rangers. Moving toward the barn a restless urge to hit the trail is strong. Settling in the hay with my rifle I know that soon as I can get meat for the folks it'll be pastime to travel.
I jist closed my eyes when I hear my horse whinny in the back stall. Without moving I open an eye glancing around, nothing is moving in the barn. Slipping out the side I see movement at the edge of the clearing and a set of eyes in darkness. Well, that old bobcat jist ain't gonna get any older. Taking aim, I fire dropping him in his tracks. As the rifle sounds, I hear footsteps hit the porch, and I yell, "Stay put, Jake."
Walking to the edge of the woods with pistol drawn I approach the kill. Yup right between the eyes. Holstering my six shooters, I pick up the carcass heading toward the barn as Callie steps on the porch beside Jake.
"Jeb, what's going on out here?"
Approaching the porch with my burden I stop saying, "T'was a bobcat; we've got meat. Jake come daylight I could use your help if you're a mind."
"Jeb, I can come now."
"Boy, you need your sleep."
Callie laughs, "You might as well give in Jeb, he aint' gonna be sleepin' none." Turning back to the cabin she continues, "Get on with it you two."
Striding through the barn door, "Jake light the lantern; and pull that bench over here close." Standing my rifle by the door where it's right handy I pull my knife and lay that bobcat on the bench as Jake sets the lantern on the edge. "Fetch a bucket of water, son."
The sun is peaking above the pines as we finish gutting and skinning that cat. Glancing out the barn door, there's a pale glow in the window of the cabin. Guess Callie is stirring. Handing the carcass to Jeb, "Boy, take this to your maw."
Shuffling his feet, as he walks across the ground I smile. That boy is plum wore out, but he ain't goin' to own up to it. It's jist a part of growing to be a man. Despite the weariness in his young body, he sprints to the barn skidding to a halt near on top of me. "Jeb, whatcha gonna do with the skin of that varmint?"
"Whoa, thar boy." Tilting my hat back, I peer at the anxious look glaring from those intent young orbs. "Well son, hadn't given it much thought, got any ideas?"
Jake shuffles from one foot to the other digging his toe into the dirt on the barn floor with his head lowered and his voice to a whisper, "You reckon I could have that hide?"
"What was that you said boy, speak up, son."
The harsh tone of my voice startled Jake jist as I intended. He steps away from the bench straightens his shoulders and asks, "You reckon I could have that hide?"
Putting my hand on his shoulder I ask, "You know how to cure it out, son?" That young anxious face staring up at me reminded me of me the first time Paw let me have my very own hide.
"Yes, Sir, Paw taught me fore he went off to fight them yanks."
Nodding I reply, "You got yourself a bobcat son."
Stepping out into early dawn the shadows are disappearing as the sun climbs higher over the trees surrounding the clearing. Waiting on the porch Callie calls, "Breakfast is ready. You fellows wash and set yore self to eat."
Jake rushed through his food and darted out the door. Callie rises from the chair, "Well, I declare that boy is shor a puzzle."
Smiling I reply, "Not so's you notice, Callie, he's young. He's a goin' to the barn to tan out the bobcat." Standing Jeb continues, "I'll be working on the corral for a spell," and steps out on the stoop. High overhead an eagle soars across the blue dome of sky, 'tis a sight! Entering the barn, I see Jake working on that pelt as I gather a few tools to work on the corral. Neither of us said a word jist going about our chores.
Worked on the corral most of the day, it was late in the afternoon lengthening shadows spreading out among the trees when Callie brings a bucket of water to the corral, "You be needin' a drink, Jake," handlin' me the dipper.
She looks at the dirt between us digging her toe into the soil; it's for sure she got sumpin on her mind. "Jeb, I'm not one to be beholdin'; shor can't pay you for the work." Pausing, she looks at me, "I reckon you best be movin' on."
Understanding her words and not sure what to say, I ponder on it before saying, "Callie, you feed me purty good that's more than a plenty. It's me who should be beholden to you." And before she can protest, I continue, "Being here with you and your son has been right nice after years of fightin' and killin'. If you don't mind, I'll stay a spell."
She nods her head takes the dipper walkin' toward the cabin. After a few steps she turns, "Jeb grubs ready, come up to the cabin." Moving toward the barn I hear her call to Jake. Smiling, I pick up the tools and move toward the lean-to to wash up as Jake dashed across the yard inching in front of me. That boy's growin' up to be a good man; he's nigh on fourteen. Same I was when I lit out to join the Rangers. We ate a real tasty supper of bobcat and beans from the garden. Callie is right handy in the kitchen. Jake chattered on about tannin' the hide from the bobcat and how he stretched it on the side of the barn to dry. I tipped my head so he wouldn't see the grin on my face. I remember feeling jist as proud when I was a wee bit younger and paw gave me my first hide.
'Twas the cool of the evening, out on the stoop watching the stars glowing across the ebony sky the three of us jist sittin', except Callie, she's snapping beans from her garden. In a small patch she planted a few stalks of tobaccie so's I could enjoy a good smoke, a habit I picked up during the war. The shoots 'twas peaking though the soil, she meant well, but I doubted I be here when it's growed. Gazing into the night, I move to the edge of the stoop. "Callie, I'll be turnin' in now."
"Night Jeb," she picks up her bowl of snaps, "Bedtime Jake."
Sauntering to the barn I had fixed up the tack room with a makeshift bed for privacy. Lighting the lantern I set to cleaning my pistol. After finishing it, I was still restless but didn't want to be wandering around the clearing. Repaired a harness hanging in the barn which it took little effort. Hum, bet they had a cow. Jist afore dawn, I nodded off my head resting on my chest.
Hearing the rooster crow heralding the dawn arising, I slip on my boots, six shooters, and hat stepping out doors. Off in the distance I heerd the lonesome wail of a coyote heading to his den. As I look toward the cabin, I notice the pale-yellow sheen of a light in the window. Callie must be up.
Today's a good time to fix the porch and re-caulk areas where the wind keeps seeping into the cabin. As the ebony night lightens to gray, I take hammer and nails move to the corner of the stoop and jist as I pull up one of the sagging boards, Callie calls out, "Jeb, coffee's hot."
"Yes'um, that shor sounds good." Entering the cabin Jake is descending from the loft, "Howdy Jake."
Yawning Jakes asks, "Jeb, what we doing today?"
"Son, I'm repairing the porch. Thought we go to the creek later get buckets of mud and mix in prairie grass to poke in between the logs to keep the winter winds out." Seeing him poised to charge to the creek I add, "Finish your chores, boy."
Callie turns from the hearth, "Jeb here's a bowl of mush to go with the coffee. Sit."
Smiling, I do as she says watching Jake swallow his breakfast and dart out the door letting it slam behind him as he goes to complete his chores. Enjoying a second cup when Callie sits across the table, I notice a shadow creep across her brow. "Callie, you got sumping to say?"
"Naw, Jeb, jist thinking how we gonna manage when you move on." As her words fade her hands over her face with a slight shiver, she straightens and sips her coffee.
Not shor what to say sipping the coffee looking into the fire in the hearth I say, "Callie, I t'was the same age that boy when I left home to join the rangers. He'll do." Turning my gaze to her I ask, "You move into town?"
Shaking her head, "Jeb what could I do? Left my paws farm when I married Calvin, don't knowed nothin' but farming." Twisting her hands, she continues, "This small orchard is all I have; and it's only a few acres."
Standing I say, "Callie, you think on it. Jake and I will prepare a larger patch for the garden today then we'll enlarge the root cellar. You're right good at growin' stuff you and the boy will do jist fine."
Jeb and I lay out a small plot on the south side of the cabin; rich soil, plenty of sun. Clearing the weeds is a back breaking hot task. As the temperature rose in the day, I pulled my shirt off with sweat making lines in the dirt covering my body; tweren't long afore Jake stripped off his shirt hanging it on a nearby bush. Nary a word said as we work.
We stand from our task as Callie brings water a midmorning. "Thanks Callie, shor takes good." As she hands me another dipper full, I pour it over my head to cool off.
Jake with dirt smeared over his face where he'd wiped the sweat from his brow looks at her, "We's fixin' a nice spot for your maw."
Careful not to let Jake see me grin as he takes a second dipper from his maw and pours it over his head. Yup that boy learns fast.
As we work, the breeze rustles the trees at the edge of the clearing, a hawk soars overhead, and the sun beats down hot and miserable as it makes a gradual descent to the western horizon. There's a right nice pile of weeds at the south end of the plot where we're resting. "Jake, reckon your maw can get a late planting done afore the snow comes."
"Yup, she'd like that, Jeb. Last year the deer kept eating what she planted.' He pauses looking across the way, "Taint no deer this year reckon it's no worry"
Taking the tools "Jake, let's put these in the barn and mosey to the creek and wash off this dirt." As we approach the cabin Callie steps out on the porch. "Callie, we're going to the creek, we'll be back soon."
She raises her hand, "Supper'll be ready."
As we return from the creek, Callie standing on the porch a horse and rider a sittin' there. Jake runs toward his maw when I catch him by the arm motioning for him to be quiet and to follow me. Moving around the edge of the clearing out of view of the rider Jake and I enter through back of the barn, leaving Jake in the barn with his rifle I say, "Cover me Jake." I pick up my rifle stepping out the barn door walking toward Callie. Reaching midway between the house and the barn, I call out "Howdy Mister."
He turns in the saddle, "Howdy, Can I water my horse, Mister?"
As I reply, "Help yourself, over by the corral." I notice he is wearing Reb pants. "Where you headed?"
Letting his horse drink he takes his hat off wiping his brow and says, "Texas Panhandle, worked as a drover up that a way before the war." Leading his horse away from the trough, "Mister, I aint et much in a while. Could you spare a meal?"
"Whatcha you called Reb?"
"Well, mister, most folk's jist call me Cal short for Calvin Bent."
Looking at Callie I call to Jake, "Whatcha see, boy." I knowed he been watching as I told him. He's up in the loft where he can see good.
"Nothin' movin' Jeb."
"Come on down son." Smart boy, Jake comes in from behind the house. "Cal, Jeb Smith, that thar is Jake and Callie on the porch."
Callie smiles at me and Jake, "Cal we's a sittin' to supper you welcome to what we got. Jake show him where to wash."
As they finish the meal I remark, "Cal you're welcome to sleep in the barn tonight if you're a mind."
"Be obliged, Jeb. I'll be ridin' afore sunup."
Standing I pick up my hat, "Callie, thanks! I'll be showin' Cal where to bed down." Heading for the door I turn, "Guess I'll turn in."
Callie nods as she gathers the dishes from the table. "Jake, bring in the wood before you turn in son."
"Yes um, Maw."
Darkness covers the land as quiet of night brings the forest alive with the flap of the owls' wings searching for dinner. In the distance a coyote's howl echoes through the night air. I lay awake listening to Cal snore across the barn. Knowing he is leaving early for home sends a shadow of yearning for me to ride out. Shaking my head, I won't be leaving for a while; still have the root cellar to dig for Callie. Listening to the quiet my head droops and I doze pistol in
Long before I hear the rooster crow, I sense movement in the barn. Cocking one eye open I see Cal saddling his horse. As he turns, I sit leaning against a bale of hay, "You ridin', Cal?"
"Yep, eager to get home, it's still a fur piece." Cinching his saddle Cal continues, "I'm obliged to you."
I follow as he leads his horse outside the barn. He mounts tipping his hat sinks spurs and gallops west as the eastern sky fades from ebony to gray. Stopping at the edge of clearing, he turns in the saddle looks back and rides down the trail.
It's quiet in the cabin Cal's leaving did not wake Callie and Jake.
Gazing at the sky with the clouds drifting overhead, there's a chill in the air as the wind picks up rustling the leaves of the trees around the cabin. The bears are foraging for winter except that one that came a visiting a couple weeks back, he's curing. We salted a part and roasted a part; showed Callie how to make pemmican.
Jake and I are washing up for supper. Glancing at Callie standing on the stoop with the apron over her breast her arms underneath, it's so like maw. There's a gnawing itch to see my folks. I knowed it's time to hit the trail.
The moon is on the downhill side of midnight when I saddle my old cayuse leading him out of the barn. No light glows from the cabin's window, but there's a shadow at the edge of the stoop, Callie. As I walk toward her, she steps down to meet me, "Jeb, here, take this sack. You'll be needin' vittles." When I stand ridged not moving, she shoves it at me turns and walks back into the dark cabin.
Quickly, I turn my old cayuse riding into the darkness of the forest. I didn't look back at the cabin where I had spent the past several months.
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Catherin Elizabet Belle
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