The First Fast Draw
When the shelter was finished, thatched heavy with pine boughs, I went inside and built myself a hatful of fire. It was a cold, wet, miserable time, and nowhere around any roof for me, although here I was, back in my own country.
Hungry I was, and soaked to the hide from a fall my mule had taken in the swamp, but I kept my fire small, for I'd come home by the back trails, figuring to attract no notice until I could look around and take stock.
They'd given me nothing here in the old days, and I'd given them a sight less, and the only memory they would have of me would be one of violence and anger. Yet hereabouts was all I had ever known of home, or was likely to know.
The woods dripped with rain. Sometimes a big drop would fall from the thatch overhead and hiss in the fire, but other than that and the soft fall of rain in the twilight forest, there was no sound. Not at first.
When a sound did come it was faint. But it was not a sound of the forest, nor of the rain, nor of any wild animal or bird, for these were sounds I knew and had known since childhood.
It was a rider coming, maybe two, and nobody I wanted to see, but that was why I'd put together my lean-to back over the knoll and hid down deep among the rain-wet trees.
This was a rider coming and I could only hope the rain had left no trail they could find, for if trouble was to come to me here, I wanted it to wait, at least until I had walked the old path to the well again, and seen where Pa was buried.
Behind me the raw-boned mule lifted his head and pricked his ears against the sound, so it wasn't only me heard the sound.
When at last they came in sight there were two riders and they rode as tired men ride, and there was that about them that was somehow familiar.
My Spencer carbine was behind me and so I reached a hand back for it and pulled it close against my side for shelter from the rain.
When I saw them first through the farthest gap in the trees, I'd seen nothing but a couple of men hunched in their saddles, one wearing a ragged poncho, the other a gray Confederate greatcoat.
A moment only, a glimpse, and they were gone from sight among the trees that lined the trail below, but at the nearest point they would be no more than thirty yards away. So I waited where I was, trusting not to be seen, but keeping the Spencer to hand in case of trouble.
They drew up in the trail below, in plain sight and an easy shot for my rifle, and they talked there, and one of their voices had an old, familiar ring. So I stepped out of my shelter and strolled down the slope of the knoll toward them, walking soft on the dead wet leaves underfoot. The carbine was in my right hand and in my belt was a Dragoon Colt, within easy grasping.
"Bob Lee," I said aloud, and no louder than needed.
They turned sharp around, but it was to the more slender of the two whom I spoke. He looked at me, measuring me, then making up his mind.
What he was seeing wasn't much. A battered black slouch hat, a shabby buckskin jacket, squaw-made by a Ute west of the big mountains, with cabin-spun shirt and pants, mighty worn. My boots were Army issue, and the man in them a lean, dark young man standing two inches more than six feet in his socks, and weighing nigh two hundred pounds, but with the face of a man who had known much trouble and little of softness or loving--the face of a man born to struggle and the hard ways.
"Cullen, is it? Damn it, man, it's been years!"
"I'd have guessed it longer, Bill Longley, meet Cullen Baker, such a man as we need right now in this country."
"I'll take no man's word for that," I said. "They'd no use for me before."
"You were a hard lad, Cullen. And once the trouble began you believed we were all against you, all over the five counties."
"Coffee yonder." I turned away, walking back up the knoll not wanting them to see how it moved me, the friendly way of them to a man just back in his own country, but where he'd expected nothing.
Hunkered down beside the fire, I stirred the coals and got out my cup. Each of them dug a blackened cup from among his gear and we shared the coffee in my beat-up old pot.
"You're returning at a black time, Cullen. The Reconstruction people are in, confiscating property and raising hop generally with anyone who fought for the South. If they've not taken your place already, they'll be after it."
"They will buy trouble, then."
"Trouble is what they want, I'm afraid. They have the Army here, and more of it coming, and they've friends from about here to tell them the choice land."
"You've got to jump to their tune or you'll have to fight," Longley said.
"I've had enough of fighting," I replied. "I want no more of trouble from any man."
"Your wishes won't chop much cotton, Cullen. If you have what they want, they'll take it. And if you don't accept their rule with a tight mouth, you'll have trouble." Bob Lee glanced at me. "It has come to me already."
Rain fell among the leaves, and I'd a sorrow on me, and a deepening fury, too. Could a man not be left alone?
Folks would not have forgotten Cullen Baker. They would remember, and that was handicap enough without trouble shaping up with Reconstruction soldiers and carpetbaggers. The ones from Texas could be the worst, poor whites and such; now they had their chance to strut and talk up, they'd use it.
All the way home I'd seen them coming like locusts into a cornfield, the poor kind of men quick to jump on the band wagon once they'd heard the music and knew which way the parade was going.
Sitting there, huddled over our small fire, we yarned the hours away, with Bob Lee telling about the war and the State of Texas, and what had happened and what he figured was going to happen. None of it shaped up as likely for a man named Cullen Baker, who'd be caught fair in the middle.
I'd no family awaiting me. Ma died long ago when I was a youngster, and Pa died while I was gone west. Nobody cared whether I came or went, but here I owned property, and here I aimed to stay, to raise me a crop, and to try to make something of myself.
When the Civil War broke out I was west of the Rockies. When most folks got worked up about it the whole shebang seemed far away and mighty unreasonable to me, and I couldn't get wrought up. Never being sure which side was right I lost no sleep over it, and out there in Utah it seemed far away. When I did come east it seemed that being from the South I should join up, and Quantrill being the nearest to me, I joined his outfit.
From the first I didn't shape up with that crowd. They were a lot of murdering, drunken thieves, burning down farms or attacking unarmed folks--didn't seem right to me. I had come east to fight a war, not to rape farm women and burn barns. Right after the first shindig I decided I'd bought myself a ticket on the wrong train.
Cap'n Weaver--he was my boss with that outfit--was a thick-set man with a rust-red beard and a blustering loudmouthed way about him. He shaped up like a man who was all noise and bluster, and no kind of man in a scrap. He had with him a kid horse thief they called Dingus who had a Bible-toting brother. I liked none of them.
Morning after that fight I rode up to Weaver. "I don't like this outfit. I'm riding out."
He set there starting at me and those two brothers they set there, and then Weaver says, "You can't go nowhere thout permission, an' permission you ain't about to git."
"Ain't asked for it. I'm just a leaving. I don't cotton to the way you do things in this outfit, destroying crops, burning up farms, and attacking womenfolks. I worked to raise a few crops myself and I won't have no part of such carryin' on."
Well, sir, his face was a sight. Behind those dirty whiskers he began to swell up and flush up red like a country girl caught in the back of a farm wagon with a boy. There for a minute I thought he'd bust a gut. Then he spoke up real big. "You got two minutes to git where you b'long or you'll be court-martialed for refusin' duty."
Most accidental-like my carbine was lyin' across my saddle and pointed right at his heart, and my hand was right over the trigger guard. But I wasn't leaving those brothers out of my sight, either. "You better get on with whatever you've a might to do," I told him, "or I won't be around to see the fun."
Weaver, he made a start for a gun but the click of that cocking Spencer stopped him. I never did figure him to have belly enough to stand up to a man. "Now you looka here!" he began to loud-mouth it. "You cain't--"
I already have," I told him, and rode out of camp.
That was miles ago and weeks ago, and now I was back, almost within hollering distance of the home where I was brought up, the only one I could rightly recall.
The farm would be there; most folks called it a ranch. There would still be the orchard and the cabin would be standing and there was land belonging to me that stretched away down to the Big Thicket.
My plans were clear and proud. First off I'd break ground and put in a crop, and once I'd earned some cash from selling my crop I'd buy a brood mare and start raising blooded horses. Maybe a man could find a stallion with good lines; there was money to be made with a well bred stallion.
Some time maybe I'd find me a woman. Not in this country. I'd go away for that. Hereabouts the name of Cullen Baker was a bad name and nobody was likely to want me.
Nobody talked much when we saddled up come daylight. We parted company at the Corners. "Better come with us, Cull," Bob Lee advised. "You won't find anything but trouble and knowing you like I think I do, you won't stand still for it."
"I'm a man wants to sleep under his own roof."
"You fight shy of that widow woman. She'll make you more trouble than all them Union soldiers!" Longley said, grinning.
When they had dusted out of sight I turned that buckskin mule down the grass-grown lane. There'd be no time for widows. It would take all my time to get a crop in, to work and even get my seed back; by now the whole ranch might have grown up to crab grass.
Turning the corner of the back lane along which I'd come, I drew up before the gate.
There it was, then.
Three years I'd waited to look upon it again, and the three years seemed like ten, or even fifteen. It seemed another lifetime, another world than this, and yet I was back. All was the same and yet nothing at all was the same.
The yard, which had been hard-packed earth there at the back of the house, had grown up to weeds and grass. The house itself looked older than it was, weather-beaten, blistered, baked and warped by sun and rain.
Swinging down from the saddle I opened the gate, taking my time, almost scared to go in, for opening that gate was opening the memories I'd fought back for a long while now.
It seemed any minute Ma was going to open the door and call me for supper, or Pa would come, holding out his hand to greet me. Only they weren't going to come out, and nobody at all was coming to that door, which had remained unopened these two years now.
Leading the mule through the gate I dropped the bridle reins and walked slowly forward, and in my throat there was a lump.
The boards on the stoop were warped and gray, and brown leaves had gathered in the corner between the stoop and the house. Only the iris still grew along the path where Ma had planted it, and the redbud tree Pa and me dug up from the river's edge was well-grown now and making like a tree more than a shrub like they usually are.
Every step was a memory for me, and time to time I'd just stop and stand there, remembering. The mist used to rise off these swamps sometimes in the mornings. Here was where the deer used to come to eat the green grass and get into Pa's corn--many a time I got me a deer down at the end of the cornfield.
Used to be deer along the swamp edge but tonight my luck was played out, so I contented myself with a duck who got up lazy from the water, the dark, dark water among the lily pads. The Spencer took his head off just as he was clearing water so when I started back toward the place I had my supper. And then I heard voices and knew it was the sound of trouble.
Three mounted men at their horses in the yard, sizing up my mule. There was a tall man astride a mighty handsome bay gelding, and the next man was Joel Reese about whom I could remember nothing good, and the third man was a fellow with a face to remember--if a man was smart.
"Whose mule is that?" The man on the bay gelding was talking. There was authority in his voice, but my first impression was he was an empty man, impressed overmuch with himself, but knowing all the time there was nothing inside him. "You told me the place was deserted, Reese."
"Some rider-by or all-nighter," Reese explained. "The place has been abandoned for years and sometimes folks stop the night when passing through."
Looked to me like this was my time to talk up, for they had not yet seen me yet. "The place isn't abandoned and it is not for sale," I said. "I'll be living here myself."
They turned sharp around to look at me, and Joel Reese grinned at me, with a mean glint in his little eyes. "Colonel, this is that Cullen Baker I told you about."
The Colonel had a cold eye, and there was nothing pleasant in his eyes when he looked at me, but I'd looked into eyes over a gun barrel that were colder than these.
It was the third man who was holding my attention. The colonel was no fighting man and Reese would only fight if he had an edge, a big edge. But the other man was a different kettle of fish. That third man was a full-fledged red-in-the-comb fighting man who had grown his own spurs, I knew the type.
"Seems I should know you," I looked directly at him for the first time.
"The name is John Tower. I've come into the country since you left."
"Were you ever west of the Rockies?"
Tower's eyes became suddenly alive. "Could be," he said. "A man gets around."
The colonel interrupted. "Baker, you fought with the Confederacy. You are known hereabouts as a trouble-maker. We will have no trouble from you, or interference with the Reconstruction program, and you'll go to jail. Also, we're going to take steps to confiscate this land from you as an enemy of your country."
"You'd better look at your hole card, Colonel. There's no record of me fighting on any side. I've been out West the whole time. Only fighting I've done was with Comanches, Utes and such like."
"What's that?" The colonel turned on Reese, his face growing red. The colonel was a man quick to anger. "Reese, is this true?"
Reese was worried. "Colonel Belser, sir, I just know he fit for the South! Why, why, there just ain't no other way he could fight!"
"Joel Reese," I explained, "was always a yellow dog. He should be right ashamed to mislead you this way. If he knows anything at all he should know that I spent the war in New Mexico and Utah. Shortly after the war broke out I drove a heard of cattle east and sold them, and then three years ago I went back West.
"Reese hates folks around here because they'd no use for him. My advice would be to go easy on anything he may tell you. He'd be like to cause you trouble, getting even with the folks he figured treated him wrong."
"I need no suggestions from you!" Colonel Belser was furious. He jerked his bay around . . . no way to treat a horse as good as that one, or any other horse, for that matter. "The records will be checked as to your service with the Confederacy. You will hear from me again."
"I'll be right here," I told him. "I'll be growing corn."
It was not until they were out of sight that I turned and saw the girl under the dogwood tree.
She was taller tan most girls, with dark hair and a fair skin, and she stood very still with one uplifted hand upon a dogwood branch. She wore a white dress, and she was young, but there was in her eyes none of the guilelessness of the child. Beautiful, she was. Beautiful and graceful as the dogwood beside which she stood.
"Did I surprise you?"
"You weren't expected, if that is what you mean."
"I am Katy Thorne, of Blackthorne."
There was no reason for me to love the Thornes, or even to think of them, for my only friend among them had been Will, and Will had been the strange one among the Thornes, whether those of Blackthorne or the others. His cousin Chance had been my worst enemy. And I remembered no Katy Thorne.
"You related to Chance?"
"I was his brother's wife."
"He tried to be a soldier and charged very gallantly with Pickett, at Gettysburg. Were you a soldier, Mr. Baker?"
"No." Maybe there was bitterness in the tone. "I have been nothing that mattered, Mrs. Thorne. I have never been anything but Cullen Baker."
"Isn't it important to be Cullen Baker?"
"Maybe, in the wrong way. Maybe"--why I said it I'll never know-- "maybe I can make it mean something to be me. But hereabouts folks have little use for me, and I've less use for them."
"I know. I saw it begin, Cullen Baker, I was there at the mill the day you gave Chance Thorne a hiding."
"You were there? " I was astonished.
"Sitting in the surrey with my father and Will Thorne. I thought Chance deserved everything he got."
It was a day I'd not forget, for I'd come as a stranger with a sack of grain to the mill for grinding. We'd been down from Tennessee only a few days, and I'd not been off the place. Soon as I showed up Chance started on me, and the boys around followed his lead. He started making fun of my shabby homespun clothes. They were patched and they were worn, but they were all I had. They had shouted at me and laughed at me but I'd taken my grain to the mill, and when I came out and started to hoist it to the mule's back they rushed at me and jerked my suspenders down and then they clodded me with chunks of dirt.
It wasn't in me to hurry. That was what made some of the men turn to watch, I think, for I heard somebody speak of it. The first thing I did, with clods splattering about me, was to pull up my pants and fix my suspenders. Then still with dirt splattering me, I hoisted my sack into place, and then I picked up a chunk of wood and started for them, and they scattered like geese, all but Chance Thorne.
He waited for me. He was a head taller than me, and some heavier, and he was dressed in store-bought clothes, which I'd never had and had only rarely seen. He looked at me and he was contemptuous. "Put down that club," Chance had said, "and I'll thrash you."
A dozen men were watching now, and none of them likely to be my friends. So when I put the club down he rushed me before I could straighten up, and he expected to smash my face with his fists as I tried to straighten, but in the Tennessee mountains a boy has to fight, and sometimes I'd fought men grown. So I didn't straighten, I just dove at his knees and brought Chance down with a thud.
He got up then, and I smashed his lips with my fist as he started to get up, like he'd tried with me, and my fist was hardened by work and it split his lips and covered his fine shirt with blood.
Maybe it was the first time Chance had seen his own blood and it shocked him, but it angered him, too. He walked at me, swinging both his fists, but there was a deeper anger in me, and an awful loneliness for there were boys cheering him on, and none of them with a shout for me. I was bitter lonely then, and it made the hate rise in me, and I walked into his fists driving with my own. There was nothing in him that could stand against the fierce anger I had, and he backed up, and there was a kind of white fear in his eyes. He sorely wanted help, he wanted to yell, but I ducked low and hit him in the belly, and saw the anguish in his face, and white to the lips I set myself and swung a wicked one square at that handsome face. He went down then and he rolled over in the dust, and he could have got up, but he didn't; he lay there in the dust and he was beaten, and I had an enemy for all my years.
Other men rushed from the mill then, Chance's father and uncle among them, and they rushed at me, so I backed to my club and picked it up. I was a lone boy but I was fierce angry with hating them and wanting to be away, and hating myself because I was afraid I would cry.
"Leave him alone!" I did not know Will Thorne then, a tall, scholarly man. "Chance began it."
Chance's father's face was flushed and angry. "You tend to your knitting, Will! I'll teach this young rascal to--"
He paused in his move toward me, for I'd backed to the mule and was set with my club. "You come at me," I said, "and I'll stretch you out."
He shook his fist at me. "I'll have you whipped, boy! I'll have you whipped within an inch of your life.!"
Then I'd swung to my mule's back and rode away, but I did not ride fast.
And that was the beginning of it.