Cowboy Paladin (part 5)
a short story by Alexis Morgan
Two hours later, Jethro slowed the mare to a stop on the rise looking down at Patience’s farm. He’d half expected to find her animals slaughtered or even the house burned to the ground. It wouldn’t be the first time that a bunch of escaped Others had gone a bloody rampage, especially when denied their favored prey. He’d hoped that her father had stayed gone, but there was an unsaddled horse in the corral. He was very much afraid that someone’s luck had run out.
Jethro nudged the mare forward, moving slowly down the hillside. “When we get closer, I’m going to leave you on the horse and check things out in the house and barn before letting you get close. If anything—anything at all—looks wrong, fire a shot to warn me and then ride like hell for town. Got that?”
She nodded. “That’s my pa’s horse. Before going inside either the barn or the house, I’d shout first that I sent you. He can get a bit trigger happy if he feels threatened.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Not that a bullet would keep him down for long. Maybe a full-on shot to the head, but that was about it.
When they reached the bottom of the hill, he dismounted and gave Patience his pistol and the reins. “I’ll check things out and wave my rifle if it’s safe for you to approach.”
He took off at a ground eating lope straight for the barn. Before going inside, he stopped to listen. No Other heartbeats or even human ones. He had no idea if that last part was good news or not. He called out, “Mr. Kort, your daughter Patience sent me. She’s safe.”
No response. Damn. Just in case, he tried again. “I’m coming in.”
One look inside the barn was all it took to know that Patience’s father had cashed in his chips for the last time. At least it looked like the Others had killed him quick and clean. That wasn’t always the case. In fact, it wasn’t even usually the case. Rather than let her walk in and see the old man lying there in a pool of blood, Jethro pulled a horse blanket off a railing and covered the body before stepping back outside to signal her to ride on in.
He hated like hell to be the one to tell her that her father was gone for good this time. From the short time he’d known Patience, she wasn’t going to take kindly to him telling her she had to abandon her home for the foreseeable future. A woman alone wouldn’t last long, especially when he had no idea how big the infestation of Others was or when he’d be able to get enough men to the area to exterminate them.
Son of a bitch, he hated this. It was one reason that he rarely let himself get close to anyone outside of the Paladins. He fought and died for people who had no idea of the ongoing war, and that’s how he liked it. Emotional entanglements just made it harder on everyone involved.
He made a cursory check of the cabin before stepping back on the porch to wave his rifle. Patience started forward, and even from this distance he could tell she was expecting bad news. Since she’d already recognized the horse in the corral, Patience had to know her father had returned during the night.
He walked out to meet her. Her clear gray eyes were already brimming with tears. “Is he…is he?”
“I’m sorry, Patience. I know it’s no comfort, but it looks like he went quick.” He held up his arms and caught her as she slid down off the mare.
Her voice was thick with pain. “Where?”
“In the barn.” He blocked her way. “I know you’ll want to see him, Patience. After you do, we’ll need to take care of the animals and then get you into town. Do you want him buried here on the farm or in a cemetery in town if there is one?”
She staggered back as if he’d slapped her. “Are you in that much of a hurry to be shed of me, Jethro? Can’t I grieve for a few minutes before you start ordering me around?”
What could he say to that? He settled for the truth. “Patience, I’m so damn sorry about all of this. I’m sorry those crazies found you, and I’m sorry your father got killed by them. But sorry won’t keep you safe. Chances are they’ll be back as soon as the sun goes down. They’re definitely creatures of the night, so they’ve likely gone to ground in that cave where you saw them.”
“Maybe not.” She looked past him toward the house. “Did they find the tunnel?”
Had she told him about a tunnel? He couldn’t remember. “What tunnel?”
“My pa dug a tunnel from the house to those rocks over there so we’d always have another way out of the house. The entrance is through a trapdoor in the cabin.”
Oh, hell. If they’d taken cover in the tunnel, they could come boiling up out of there even in the daylight because the cabin would shield them from the direct glare of the sun. He handed her the rifle. “Go ahead on into the barn. I’ll join you after I check on the tunnel.”
He studied her pretty face for a few seconds, hurting for her pain. “Take as long as you need, Patience. Once I know we’re in the clear, I’ll help you anyway I can.”
She closed the distance between them to wrap her arms around his waist for a long hug. He froze briefly but then returned the embrace. Once again, he was struck by how right it felt to hold her in his arms.
No matter what happened from this point on, it was only going to get harder to ride away from Patience. For her sake, he’d do it, but damn it was going to hurt.
Time passed in a blur while Patience prepared her father’s body for burial, wrapping it in one of her mother’s quilts in the hope that little bit of his wife would help him rest in peace. He’d always said he wanted to buried next to her mother on the hillside overlooking the farm that they’d both loved. Jethro had made quick work of taking care of the livestock and then set to work digging a six-by-three foot hole.
By late morning the two of them stood over the grave. She’d taken a few extra minutes to put on her best dress and to tame her curly blond hair in a braid. As she read the Twenty-third Psalm, Jethro took off his hat and stood with his head bowed. She drew comfort from his strong presence right standing right beside her.
“He was a good man, Jethro. He just never got over losing my mother. When she died, he was never the same again.”
As she walked back toward the house, Jethro put his arm around her shoulders. “He still had you, though, so he wasn’t alone. That’s more than a lot of people have.”
“I know, but somehow I was never enough to fill that big hole in his heart. I loved him anyway.” She looked up at Jethro. “How about you? Do you have family somewhere?”
He shook his head. “Never knew my father. He died before I was born. My mother passed about ten years ago.”
“You must have been a child when she died. Who took care of you?”
Jethro laughed. “I’m older than I look, so I was already on my own and working.”
She did a quick step to get in front of him. “You can’t be much over twenty-five. Fifteen is still a kid as far as I’m concerned.”
“I’ll be thirty come November, Patience.”
If that was true, he really didn’t look his age, especially on the rare occasion when he smiled. She wouldn’t have guessed him to be much more than her own age, and she’d turned twenty-two on her last birthday.
They’d reached the cabin. “I guess we should head on into town. I’ll need to fill the sheriff in on what’s happened and give him a description of what the men who killed my pa. He’ll probably want to talk to you, too, Jethro. And I know you’ll want to make sure there’s enough time for us to get back before nightfall.”
His jaw immediately took on a stubborn look. “I’ll come back to do the evening chores, Patience, but you need to stay in town. I’m not sure how soon it will be safe for you to be here. And we need to leave the sheriff out of this. I’m sure he has enough to do keeping the peace in town, and he doesn’t have the manpower to comb these hills looking for the crazies. I’ll send a telegram and call in my own men to hunt these bastards down.”
There was no use in losing her temper when she knew he was trying to protect her. She kept her voice low and calm as she laid it all out for him. “This is my home, Jethro. I won’t abandon it because of a bunch of outlaws. Now that I know they’re around, I’ll take precautions. While I’m in town, I’ll buy another rifle and load up on ammunition and supplies.”
Jethro walked away from her. Even from a distance she could hear him cussing up a storm, no doubt out of pure frustration. Her pa had always said she’d have been married by now if she were so darned stubborn. Well, too bad. It took both gumption and stubbornness to build a life out here where the nearest lawman was miles away.
After a bit, her rescuer came marching back. “Go change into something suitable for riding hard and fast. Once we get to town, we’ll only be able to buy what we can carry in saddlebags. The wagon would be too slow, and we’d never make it back by dark. I’ll talk to the sheriff after I send a wire to my men.”
Then he got right up in her face. “If I let you come back with me, promise you will follow orders without question. Otherwise, you will stay in town if I have to lock you in one of the sheriff’s cells to keep you safe.”
He still wasn’t happy. “And I’m going to buy a lock for that trapdoor. If there’s any chance those outlaws found it, I don’t want them sneaking back into the cabin that way.”
“That sounds right smart. Thank you for understanding, Jethro. I can’t abandon my family’s home. Not now. Not ever.” She looked around the house and barn her father had built and the garden she’d planted. “It’s just my home now. Guess I’ll have to get used to being alone all the time now.”
Jethro shook his head. “You won’t be alone tonight, Patience, or tomorrow either. I won’t leave you until I know you’ll be safe. I promise.”
Then he sealed his vow with a kiss that outshone the sun and drove her grief and fear back into the shadows.