The Sky-Liners

Everybody in our part of the country knew of Black Fetchen, so folks just naturally stood aside when he rode into town with his kinfolk.

The Fetchen land lay up on Sinking Creek, and it wasn’t often a Sackett got over that way, so we had no truck with one another. We heard talk of him and his doings--how he’d killed a stranger over on Caney’s Fork, and about a fair string of shootings and cuttings running back six or seven years.

He wasn’t the only Fetchen who’d worked up to trouble in that country, or down in the flat land, for that matter. It was a story told and retold how Black Fetchen rode down to Tazewell and taken some kin of his away from the law.

James Black Fetchen his name was, but all knew him as Black, because the name suited. He was a dark, handsome man with a bold, hard-shouldered way about him, as quick with his fists as with a gun. Those who rode with him, like Tory Fetchen and Colby Rafin, were the same sort.

Me and Galloway had business over in Tazewell or we’d never have been around those parts, not that we feared Black Fetchen, or any man, but we were newly home from the western lands and when we went to Tazewell we went to pay off the last of Pa’s debts. Pa had bad luck several years running and owed honor debts we were bound to pay, so Galloway and me rode back from the buffalo plains to settle up.

This debt in Tazewell now was the last, and our last cent as well. After two years we were right back where we started, except that we had our rifles and hand guns, and a blanket or two. We’d sold hour horses when we came back to Tennessee from the hunting grounds.

We walked across the mountain, and when we got to town we headed for the town pump. Once we’d had a drink we started back across the street to settle our debt at the store that had given Pa credit when times were bad.

We were fairly out in the middle of the street when hoofs began to pound and a passel of folks a-horseback came charging up, all armed and loaded for feudin’ or bear-fightin’.

Folks went high-tailing it for shelter when they saw those riders coming, but we were right out in the middle of the street and of no mind to run. They came a-tearing down upon us and one of them taken a cut at me with a quirt, yelling, "Get outen the street!"

Well, I just naturally reached up and grabbed a hold on that quirt, and most things I lay a hand to will move. He had a loop around his wrist and couldn’t let go if he was a mind to, so I just jerked and he left that saddle a-flying and landed in the dust. The rest of them, they reined around, of a mind to see some fun.

That one who sat in the dust roosted there a speck, trying to figure what happened to him, and then he came off the ground with a whoop and laid at me with a fist.

Now, we Sacketts had always been handy at knuckle-and-skull fighting, but Galloway and me had put in a spell with Irish track-layers and freighing teamsters who did most of their fighting like that. When this stranger looped a swing at my face, I just naturally stepped inside and clobbered him with a short one.

I fetched him coming in on me, and his head snapped back as if you’d laid the butt end of an axe against it. He went into the dust and about that time I heard Galloway saying, mild-like, "Go ahead, if you’re a mind to. I’m takin’ bets I can empty four, five saddles before you get me."

Me, I’d held my own rifle in my left hand this while, so I just flipped her up, my hand grasped the action, and I was ready. The two of us stood there facing the nine of them and it looked like blood on the ground.

Only nobody moved.

The big, handsome man who had been riding point for the outfit looked us over and said, "I’m Black Fetchen."

Galloway, he spoke over to me. "Black Fetchen, he says. Flagan, are you scared?"

"Don’t seem to be, now that I think on it. But I’ve been scared a time or two. Recall that Comanche out there on the short grass? There for a minute or two I figured he had me."

"But you fetched him, Flagan. Now, what all do you figure we should do with this lot?"

"Well, he made his confession. He owned up fair and honest who he was. He never tried to lie out of it. You got to give credit to a man who’ll confess like that."

"Maybe"--Galloway was almighty serious-- "but I think you’re mistaken in this man. He owned up to the fact that he was Black Fetchen, but there wasn’t the shame in him there should have been. I figure a man who can up and say ‘I’m Black Fetchen’ should feel shame. Might a least hang his head and scuff his toe a mite."

Black Fetch had been growing madder by the minute. "I’ve had enough of this! By the--!"

"Hold off, Black." That was Colby Rafin talking. "I seen these two before, over nigh the Gap. These are Sacketts. I heard tell they’d come home from the buffalo range."

Now, we Sacketts have been feuding up and down the country with one outfit or another for nigh on to a hundred years, and nobody could say we hadn’t marked up our share of scalps, by nobody could say that we hunted trouble.

When Rafin said that, we could just sort of see Black Fetchen settling down into his saddle. We weren’t just a pair of green mountain boys putting on a show. He was a brave man, but only a fool will chance a shot from a Winchester at forty feet. Knowing who we were, he now knew we would shoot, so he sat quiet and started to smile. "Sorry, boys, but a joke is a joke. We’ve come to town on business and want no trouble. Shall I say we apologize?"

That was like a rattlesnake stopping his rattling while keeping his head drawn back to strike.

"You can say that," I agreed, "and we’ll accept it just like you mean it; just so’s there’s no misunderstanding, why don’t you boys just shuck your artillery? Just let them fall gentle into the street."

"I’ll be damned if I will!" Tory Fetchen yelled.

"You’ll be dead if you don’t," Galloway told him. "As to being damned, you’ll have to take that up with your Lord and Maker. You going to shuck those guns or do I start shooting?"

"Do what he says, boys," Black said. "This is only one day. There’ll be another."

They did as ordered, but Galloway is never one to let things be. He’s got a hankering for the fringe around the edges.

"Now, Gentlemen and Fellow-Sinners, you have come this day within the shadow of the valley. It is well for each and everyone of us to recall how weak is the flesh, how close we stand to Judgment, so you will all join me in singing ‘Rock of Ages.’"

He gestured to Black Fetchen. "You will lead the singing and I hope you are in fine voice."

"You’re crazy!"

"Maybe," Galloway agreed, "but I want to hear you loud and clear. You got until I count to three to start, and you better make sure they all join in."

"Like hell!" Tory was seventeen, and he was itching to prove himself as tough as he thought he was...or as tough as he wanted others to think he was.

Galloway fired, and that bullet whipped Tory’s hat from his head and notched his ear. "Sing, damn you!" Galloway said; and brother, they sang.

I’ll say this for them, they had good strong voices and they knew the words. Up in the mountains the folks are strong on goin’ to meetin’, and these boys all knew the words. We heard it clear: "Rock of ages, cleft for me, Let me hide, myself in thee."

"Now you all turn around," Galloway advised, "and ride slow out of town. I want all these good people to know you ain’t bad boys--just sort of rambunctious when there’s nobody about to discipline you a mite."

"Your guns," I said, "will be in the bank when it opens tomorrow!"

So James Black Fetchen rode out of town with all that rowdy gang of his, and we stood with our rifles and watched them go.

"Looks like we made us some enemies, Flagan," Galloway said.

"Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof," I commented, liking the mood, "but don’t you mind. We’ve had enemies before this."

We collected the guns and deposited them in the bank, which was closing, and then we walked across the street and settled Pa’s account.

Everybody was chuckling over what happened, but also they warned us of what we could expect. We didn’t have cause to expect much, for the fact was we were going back to the buffalo prairies. Back home there was nothing but an empty cabin, no meat in the pot, no flour in the bin.

We had done well our first time west, and now we would go back and start over. Besides, there were a lot of Sackett kinfolk out there now.

We started off.

Only we didn’t get far. We had just reached the far end of town when we sighted a camp at the edge of the woods, and an oldish man walked out to meet us. We’d talked with enough Irish lads whilst working on the railroad to recognize the brogue, "May I be havin’ a word wi’ you, boys?"

So, we stopped, with Galloway glancing back up the street in case those Fetchen boys came back with guns.

"I’m Laban Costello," he said, "and I’m a horsetrader."

More than likely everybody in the mountains knew of the Irish horse-traders. There were eight families of them, good Irish people, known and respected through-out the South. They were drifting folk, called gypsies by some, and they moved across the land swapping horses and mules, and a canny lot they were. It was in my mind this would be one of them.

"I am in trouble," he said, "and my people are far away in Atlanta and New Orleans."

"We are bound for the buffalo lands, but we would leave no man without help. What can we do?"

"Come inside," he said, and we followed him back into the tent.

Out behind it we had noticed a caravan wagon, painted and bright.

Making coffee at the fire was a girl, a pretty sixteen by the look of her. Well, maybe she was pretty. She had too many freckles, and a pert, sassy way about her that I didn’t cotton to.

"This is my son’s daughter," he said. "This is Judith."

"Howdy, ma’am," Galloway said.

Me, I merely looked at her and she wrinkled her nose at me. I turned away sharp, ired by any fool slip of a girl so impolite as to do such as that to a stranger.

"First, let me say that I saw what happened out there in the street, and you are the first who have faced up to Fetchen in a long while. He is a bad man, a dangerous man."

"We ain’t likely to see him again," I said, "for we are bound out across the plains."

"Have you ever been to Colorado?

"Nigh to it. We have been in New Mexico."

"My son lives in Colorado. Judith is his daughter."

Time was a-wasting and we had a far piece to go. Besides I was getting an uneasy feeling about where all this was leading.

"It came to me," Costello said, "That as you are going west, and you Sacketts have the name of honorable men, I might prevail upon you to escort my son’s daughter to her father’s home."

"No," I said.

"Now, don’t be hasty. I agree that traveling with a young girl might seem difficult, but Judith has been west before, and she has never known any other life but the camp and the road."

"Hasn’t she some folks who could take her west?" I asked.

"At any other time there would be plenty, but now there is no time to waste. You see Black Fetchen had put his mind to her."

"Her?" I was kind of contemptuous. "Why, she ain’t out of pigtails yet!"

She stuck out her tongue at me, but I paid her no mind. What worried me was that Galloway wasn’t speaking up. He was just listening, and every once in a while he’d look at that snip of a girl.

"She will be sixteen next month, and many a girl is wed before the time. Black Fetchen has seen her and has told me he means to have fact, he had come tonight to take her, but you stopped him before he reached us."

"Sorry," I told him, "but we’ve got to travel fast, and we may have a shooting fight with those Fetchens before we get out of Tennessee. They don’t shape up to be a forgiving lot."

"You have horses?"

"Well, no. We sold them back in Missouri to pay up what Pa owed hereabouts. We figured to join up with a freight outfit we once worked with, and get west to New Mexico. There’s Sacketts out there where we could get some horses until time we could pay for them."

"Suppose I provide the horses? Or rather, suppose Judith does? She owns six head of mighty fine horses, and where she goes, they go."

"No," I said.

"You have seen Fetchen. Would you leave a young girl to him?"

He had me there. I wouldn’t leave a yeller hound dog to that man. He was big, and fierce-looking for all he was so handsome, but he looked to me like a horse and wife beater, and I’d met up with a few.

"The townfolk wouldn’t stand for that," I said.

"They are afraid of him. As for that, he says he wishes to marry Judith. As far as the town goes, we are movers. We don’t belong to the town."

"Sorry," I said.

"There is one other thing," Costello said. "I am prepared to give each of you a fine saddle horse and a hundred dollars each to defray expenses on the way west."

"We’ll do it," Galloway said.

"Now, see here," I started to protest, but they were no longer listening. I have to admit that he’d knocked my arguments into a cocked hat by putting up horses andmoney. With horses, we could ride right on through, not having to tie up with anybody, and the money would pay for what we needed. Rustling grub for ourselves wouldn’t amount to much. But I still didn’t like it. I didn’t figure to play nursemaid to any girl.

"The horses are saddled and ready. Judith will ride one of her own, and her gear will be on another. And there will be four pack horses if you want to use them as such."

"This here girl," I argued, "she couldn’t stand up to it. West of the river there ain’t a hotel this side of the Rockies fit for a lady, and we figure to sleep under the stars. There’ll be dust storms and rainstorms, hail the like of which you never saw; and talk about thunder and lightning..."

Costello was smiling at me. "Mr. Sackett, you seem to forget to whom you are talking. We are of the Irish horse-traders. I doubt if Judith has slept under a roof a dozen times in her life, other than the roof of a caravan. She has lived in the saddle since she could walk, and will ride as well as either of you."

Well, that finished me off. Ride as well as me? Or Galloway? That was crazy.

"Look," I said to Galloway, "we can’t take no girl?"

"Where else are we going to get horses and an outfit?" he interrupted.

He was following Costello out the back way, and there were eight horses, saddled, packed and ready, standing under the poplars. And eight finer animals you never did see.

Right off I guessed them to be Irish hunters with a mite of some other blood. Not one of them was under sixteen hands, and all were splendidly built. The sight of those horses started me weakening almighty fast. I’d never seen such horses, and never owned anything close to the one he’d picked for me.

"Irish hunters," he said, "with a judicious mixture of mustang blood."

"I’d like to," I said, "but--"

"Fetchen wants these horses," Costello added, "and as they belong to Judith and her father, they would go with her."

"That makes sense," I said. "Now I can see why Fetchen wanted her."

She was standing close by and she hauled off and kicked me in the shin. I yelped, and they all turned to look to me. "Nothing," I said. "It wasn’t anything."

Then you had better ride out of here," Costello said; "but make no mistake. Black Fetchen will come after you. Today was the day Fetchen was coming after Judith."

When I threw a leg over that black horse and settled down into the leather I almost forgave that Judith. This was more horse than I’d ever sat atop of. It make a man proud. No wonder Fetchen wanted that fool girl if he could get these horses along with her.

We taken out.

Galloway led the way, keeping off the road and following a cow path along the stream.

When we were a mile or so out of town, Galloway edged over close to me. "Flagan, there’s one thing you don’t know. We got to watch that girl. Her grandpa whispered it to me. She thinks highly of Black Fetchen. She figures he’s romantic--dashing and all that. We’ve got to watch her, or she’ll slip off and go back.&quot

Serve her right, I thought.