"This is really good, ma'am," the man said, scraping the last bit of stew from his bowl and licking the spoon. "It really helped warm me back up."
"Well, we know it's a long ride," she said. "Especially at night and in the snow."
The man couldn't ignore the subtext. "Well, you're right." He dabbed his mouth with a napkin. "About as far as from here to St. Louis."
Joe stopped. "Look, I don't want any trouble." May wouldn't take her eyes off their guest.
"I'm not bringing any," the man said.
"So what are you bringing?"
The man sopped up the rest of the stew juice with a small piece of bread. "An opportunity."
Joe saw May out of the corner of his eye as she stiffened. Such a loaded word. Opportunity had been something that had definitely not been lacking in their lives. Opportunity had both driven them from their old home and brought them to their new one.
"Money?" Joe said it before he even realized he'd wanted to.
"Yes," the man said. "Fifty dollars and it's honest work." He said it like he knew of dishonest work.
"What is it?" May asked. The baby stirred.
"A posse," he said.
Joe and May exchanged a knowing look.
"Look, Joe, I'm going to be honest with you. I know very little about you, and what I do I've cobbled together from the bits that've been presented to me."
Joe narrowed his eyes. The baby began to cry.
"Excuse me," she said, and walked to the far corner of the room. Outside, the wind-driven snow beat on the walls of their house.
Richter leaned in to kill the noise. "I think you're running from something, Joe. A man doesn't pack up a wife and a baby
and leave to settle here in the west just before winter starts without a reason to go. And those Stephenson pistols, you
either stole them or earned them by using them. My guess is that you used to work crime back east. St. Louis or Chicago
was my best supposition. And because of that, I think you know how to use these things . . . " He
reached to the bag at his feet, pulled out the pistols still wrapped in the same cloth, and placed them on the table.
Joe looked away, toward his wife. "I don't want them back."
"I know that," the sheriff said. "That's why I'm not giving them to you. I bought them myself. But I want to loan them to you, to use tomorrow."
"Why do you need me?" Joe asked.
The sheriff carefully arranged the cloth over the guns as he spoke, to keep them out of sight during their conversation. "I've made a lot of enemies in this town. And they've all gone over to the side of the man I'm going to serve a warrant to. Don't think they'll look upon my visit too kindly. They seem to think they can do whatever they want."
"Bevington," Joe said. He'd heard the name the few times he was in town. Bevington was a big name out here, snatching up Homestead land 160 acres at a time and building a cattle empire. There were murmurings about how he came across his stock, but Joe chose to stay away from the conflict.
Now, of course, the conflict had come to meet him. It always did.
"Yep. I have to arrest the son, Uriah. The dad's gone to Texas for the winter."
"What did he do?"
"Killed an Indian," Richter said.
"And that's against the law?"
May cuddled the baby on their bed at the far end, facing away from the table. She wasn't listening but she could hear.
Sheriff Richter finally stood up and grabbed his coat and hat from the chair. "I'm leaving my office at ten tomorrow morning. I'd appreciate the help, if you'd give it."
He nodded to May in the bed and lowered his voice. "Please tell your wife thanks for the stew."
After he'd finished he re-equipped himself for the weather and quickly ducked out the door. Joe left the guns bundled on the table and got ready for bed.
"How is Charlie?" Joe asked, sliding his suspenders up onto his shoulders. His wife had just begun to stir. The baby slept between them last night, in the warm pocket they created.
* * *
"Better," she said. "Getting better." She paused. "Are you going to town?"
Joe looked down, looked away, anywhere but right at her. "I need to go take care of the hogs." He went outside. The cloth still lay where the sheriff placed it.
The snow had nearly stopped, finally, tapering off to a dearth of tiny ice crystals that rode the wind but never seemed to reach the ground. Joe looked to the roof, noting the foot of heavy fluff, and went round to the far side of the attached barn to climb up to remove it before it caved in the top of the house. By the time he finished and came inside May held the baby at the table. The boy was nursing, greedily.
"It's nine o'clock," she said.
Joe kept his coat on and walked over to the fire. He poured a few drinks of coffee into his tin cup and drank it down.
"I need to go mend fence," he said. He left. The cloth stayed on the table.
Joe came back in at supper, where May had fried up some bacon and made a thin gravy with the grease to serve with two biscuits. He kissed her on top of the head before he sat down at the table.
"I thought you would go," she said, placing a plate in front of him.
"I promised you I wouldn't get involved anymore."
"Did you?" she asked.
He sensed her apprehension. "Moving out here was my promise," he said.
May looked to the bassinet. She did that when she didn't know what to say. He took her hand.
"Being a good man, being a bad one. Neither one is easy."
She cried, and Joe didn't know why. Maybe she cried because the past he'd lived might never leave them alone.
Maybe she cried because a good man may be lying dead in the snow somewhere over the mountain, and her husband could have done something about it.
"I'm finished with my chores," he said. "It looks like another storm's coming, so tomorrow I'm going to town again, to take the guns back to the store. I'll get more medicine and food while I'm there."
He ate the rest of his supper in silence. When he finished he read out of a book but spent quite a bit of time staring into the fire.
It was another heavy snow, there in town, that tamped down all the noise like cotton in the ears, but also there was a buzz to the place, an electricity, and Joe felt it as they stepped into the opening of main street. There weren't many people outside-perhaps they'd already hunkered down for the storm-but a small group had congregated near the far end, past the doctor but not the general store, at the jail.
Joe pulled his hat down lower over his eyes, partly to shield himself from the chilly wind, but mainly to hide himself in case someone sought to find out about him. Indeed he only ever talked to four people in the town since they moved in. The doctor and the owner of the general store, from the day before, the stableman at the livery, to buy a new bridle for Bojo, and the sheriff.
He approached the sheriff's office, where three men came out from under the awning and climbed on their horses. As one of them swung his leg over, his coat opened to reveal a tin star. He glanced at Joe with a cold look before snapping the reins and following the other two off down the street. Joe stopped in front of the general store, threw his reins around the hitching post, and brought his saddlebag inside.
"What's happening?" Joe asked.
The owner watched out the window as the distraction from the sheriff's office died down. "Bill Richter is dead."
Joe made no reaction. He'd had a lot of practice back east, in hearing of the death of someone. Whether expected or surprising, he could keep it down. "How so?"
The shop owner again looked out the window, checking the street both ways. He was anxious. "Found him at the bottom of a ravine on his way to serve Uriah Bevington for killing that Indian boy."
Joe felt the bag hang heavy from his shoulder.
The shopowner finally turned to him. "Did you need something?"
"Yeah," Joe replied, and he put the bag on the counter.