Through her small kitchen window, the barn taking up a heavy portion of her view, Grace Yardarm saw her son, Adam, 16 and her only born, ride off toward town, already figuring he'd end up seeing Martha Collins after completing his errands. Grace's sudden smile seemed to warm the kitchen, a batch of memories leaping for her favor. Then, with a casual side glance when she caught sight of a strange man peeking around the corner of the barn, a whole suspicious scene beginning to formulate at the back of her head, fear cleansing her mind of ordinary thoughts, she turned to reach for the rifle her husband, the local sheriff of Connor's Rock, both newly infamous, always left in her easy reach. Before she could reach up over the fireplace in the corner of the room, the kitchen door opened inward with a timid creak, and the handle in the hand of another strange man, clad like a saddle tramp at total loss.
"Don't do anythin' stupid, lady," the intruder said hoarsely, "or you won't ever see that boy again." His face agreed with the tone of his voice, a guttural and throaty sound full of foul breath and the promise of curses galore. "We been watchin' the pair of ya for a couple of hours an' gettin' damned good an' tired of it. So, like I said, don't go anywhere near spoilin' your day. Lots of sunlight is left for perchin'."
The once comfortable kitchen was cold in a hurry, and swelling with invasion, threat, and unusual ugliness. One ear of the second stranger lacked a chunk of lobe, as if it had been torn off by bullet or sliced by knife, and the imbalance matched the slewed, corrupt curve of his mouth, which only gained ugliness. The clothes he wore would stink out the barn, let alone her kitchen, but such thoughts quickly disappeared and she prayed that Adam had not forgotten anything that'd bring him back to the ranch house. He'd spend the start of his visit with his father, Ben Yardarm, the best man she had ever known, and who told her, when approached by town council to be sheriff, "I'll take the job, Grace. so long as you stay out of my duties and keep to the boy and the kitchen."
As usual, it was more than a promise; more like an oath heavier than the swearing-in. She had counted on him since the beginning, almost 20 years earlier, on their departure from Chicago and the yen for space working on both of them. Like a dog or a favored burro he had worked all those years, slow, steady, performing every task to the ultimate. "Some men," she remembered her mother saying once, "grow to the brim and some leave it in the saucer."
"Do like I say, lady," the ugly one said. "You're comin' with us 'cause your husband, that cow's ass, has our pard in jail an' we aim to candle up a swap, burn two ends our way." She knew immediately he had tried to load his voice with added vile, but there was little need for it, being despicable from the start. She said nothing in retort, hoping Adam was in town, safely away from the ranch, safely by his father's side. Her eyes, though, carried a different message, which made the ugly one add another element to the drama. "Best consider yourself lucky, lady. We could have grabbed the boy, easy as takin' a heifer from his momma way he moped around the barn this mornin'. He mad at somethin'?" He tried to add laughter to the moment but it proved a hollow moment to Grace Yardarm, visualizing what either her husband might attempt or even what her son might try in his own stead, neither one realizing how much they were alike.
Adam Yardarm, at that precise moment, spurred his horse again, not making any ride into town a "tot's trot" as his father was fond of saying. "Business calls for all a man's attention, Adam. Remember that when you think about resting your head on a soft spot."
Of course, Adam was thinking again, as he often did, about what his father had said, knowing a lesson was hanging somewhere in its place. Lessons were to be learned every way you turned, especially for a boy his age, believing he was in love with his angel of the barn, knew horses and mules down to their shoes, how to bring up the rear in a cattle drive or ride fence or stand guard in darkened silence. Once, before he was 15, he had even been a member of a posse. Promise showed a place in him that home life nurtured.
There had been lessons for him since he could remember, at every age, with every pertinent action in his young life, as though the classroom was glued to his backside or stuck tight to his pants. And the teacher, with the whole west as a classroom, also performed his sheriff's job in a commanding manner; the latest escapade resulting in the arrest and coming trial of a killer, Banjo Cookman, with both guns drawn, shots fired in both directions, his father grabbing the back end of a runaway horse and wagon to change his position, enabling him to send several rounds into Chalmer's barn onto a pitchfork that fell and pierced Cookman's shoulder as though it had been thrust into him.
In a hurry the bandit had cried aloud and rolled his way to captivity, trying to shake loose the penetrating tines, his pistol not helping the task. Much of the town, on a Saturday noon, from points of safety, had observed most of the affair, afterwards hailing Ben Yardarm as "the best man we ever had for the job." There had been a small celebration after the arrest, but one customer was dead outside the bank from a wild bullet and nobody else hurt but Cookman in the whole affair. Not one dollar had been taken from the bank, two obvious confederates reported later as sneaking out of town, seen by a late comer who had spotted them in a hurry outside town.
All the recent events working in his mind, including a chunk of pride about his father, young Adam spurred the horse one more time as he saw the peak of the Chalmer's barn come into view at the edge of Connor's Rock, two dozen good-sized buildings lining the dusty main road, three partially framed new buildings saying that Connor's Rock was "on its way" though not a soul walked the middle of the main street, the sun hot, the dust rising like smoke when a horse trod along.
The Collins' General Store shone at the center of Connor's Rock, like a bracelet on a pretty arm, Adam thought, and keenly remembered having the same thought on his most previous visit, like comparing Martha to an emerald, though he had yet to see an emerald in his life. His father's office and jail were directly across the street from the store, two horses were tied at the rail in front of the jail. Laird Collins, his daughter running the store for the time being, was most likely chatting with his father at the noon hour, a regular calling when business allowed at either end of their vocations. Adam visualized them standing at attention at a wedding someday.
The young man spent a somewhat inattentive half hour with his father and Laird Collins, both men noting Adam's nervous and fidgety nature working on him. They were dwelling on that point, enjoying the idea of promise, what the future would bring to all concerned, when a rider, in full flight came pounding into town calling out, "Sheriff! Sheriff! They took your wife! They took Grace from the ranch. They got her someplace. They took her!"
He was waving a piece of paper over his head."I found it tied on a tree coming from the Felton Spread!"
Connor's Rock came alive!
Sheriff Yardarm, Laird Collins and Adam Yardarm stood in front of the jail reading the note, the cowboy having handed the note to the sheriff and shaking his head as though the end of the world was upon them.
"What's it say, Pa?" Adam said, his hand resting momentarily on the Colt in his holster, pushing himself into the midst of discussion, his face gone stern and out of character, suddenly looking a year or two older, maybe 10 years older. Neither his father nor Laird Collins missed the simple reaction of hand on gun, each man having visions of desperation or death within the community, the boy also signaling changes were coming due, and in a hurry.
The sheriff, scanning the note in bold and irregular script, said, "They want their pal Cookman freed, or else." His tone changed on the spot, at the next words he spoke to his son. "They have your mother hid out someplace and will only let her go when Cookman is given a horse and rides it out of town. If anyone gets too close looking for her, they'll kill her. Says we'll never find her, though, and maybe never again if anything goes wrong." He looked at Adam and said, "They had an idea of taking you, Adam, but decided on your mother in case you and I don't get along." He shook his head at that statement.
"That's their second or third mistake, Pa. Trying to rob the bank. Taking Mom instead of me. Getting you and me and the whole town all riled up. Payday's coming for them, but they don't know it yet."
The sheriff and his son were in close conversation in the jail when Laird Collins' wife and their lovely daughter Martha rushed into the jail office, busting for information. Martha Collins said, "What's happened to your mother, Adam? All that yelling I heard." Tears had begun their build-up in her eyes. "Is she really kidnapped?" Adam took her hand in his hand, the one so recently on his six gun.
The sheriff seemed to ignore her, almost talking to himself: "Nothing, 'cept thinking what we can do, how to do anything. What the hell will I do without Grace if anything happens." But he didn't stay long in that mood, adding, "We have to put all our heads together on this, thinking about where they could hide where they think nobody can find them. Can't be far off. Someplace Cookman must know. I'll start on him."
The sheriff stood abruptly and said, "I can't sit around doing nothing. First I'm going in there to see if Cookman will give anything away," and he pointed to the interior of the jail. "I doubt it, 'cause he's one tough nut. I already found that out. Then I'm going out to the ranch and try to track them as far as I can. I have no idea of where they're hiding her. I can't picture a single place they'd pick in a dozen or so miles. Three people, three horses, looks kind of tough to squirrel away anyplace I know of.
He did not notice Martha Collins hang her head, eyes out of sight, just after she cast a glance at young Adam. It was, in essence, tell-tale to Adam, and also to her parents, who said nothing, remembering a few discussions about Martha's long picnics of a sort with Adam. His wife had understood their secrets before Collins did.
It had come back in stark memory, that discussion: "Probably some nice place along the river," she had announced at the time, "or the stream joining it, out of sight generally, but known spots. Heck, we did some of our own courting there on good days, special days." Her eyes were raised in a kind of approval, acceptance and a grasp at refreshed love, the lingering smile escaped the sheriff, though the air was filling with secrets of a sort.
A keen observer could note that hands joined with other hands, looking for solace or sharing, but not including the sheriff.
Meanwhile, upriver a half dozen miles, in a deep and narrow divide under an overhanging and dangerous looking cliff, Cookman's two pals and the sheriff's wife sat at the opening of a deep cave with a narrow entrance. Grace Yardarm, trussed in rope, sat leaning against the rocky wall and continued to study her captors, one she might refer to as Number One Ugly and the other as So-So Ugly. Neither man was spoiled by water, not a bit, and she wondered how and where she'd sleep this night, and what that sleep would reveal about the two men.
"Don't you worry none, lady. We ain't about to borrow you from your husband, if you know what I mean. My momma gave me no leave on stuff like that, not from day one. I done good on that account and account of her, and because of her, we ain't got your boy here 'stead of you."
"Where will I sleep tonight?" said the woman. "In a cave that might be full of snakes or other creatures. That'd make for a comfortable sleep, won't it?" Her irony was almost visible to the pair of men.
"Hell, lady, we already kilt half a dozen of 'em and the goat man who was here two weeks ago, when we started our bank watchin', said he killed 'em all an' ate 'em. Ate all of 'em. Ain't that a cleanin' out?" He slapped his partner on the back like a celebration was remembered. "Sure did a good job, that old buck stinkin' to the high heavens from the first day. Sleeps with 'em goats like they was his kids." Grace noted that he laughed at his own words again, the way pleasure comes to some people.
"Day I found this place, hearin' the goats, I smelled the kilt snakes an' I swear that smell must still be here, though I might be some used to it now. Not many folks gonna find this place. You can yell all you want in there, lady. No one'll hear ya, but maybe another snake you yell loud enough." It twisted on her as if a second rope had been added to her bonds.
She wondered what her husband and son were doing at that very moment, and a plethora of ideas, situations, possible preparations for search already underway, Connor's Rock jumping with activity. Her eyes closed down on several of the possibilities, the images almost real scenery and real people. Of course, her husband was beside himself with nerves and worry, but under his own command and tenor. The side arms he carried, one each hip, gleamed with an oily reflection, the sun shining off the steel, her freedom caught in the mere shine. She did not worry about his way or his place in this matter; he was adept, experienced, solid in his thinking. However, that surety, that near visible combination of man and duty, was bothersome when she brought her son into the picture.
There was no way that Adam could reach yet the attributes and qualities, the sure abilities, that her husband possessed. He'd most likely jump first and look later, haste coming on him before deep thought ... not the way his father went at things out of the ordinary, the supposedly uneventful day suddenly gone on edge.
The talk going on between her captors, often as crude as imaginable, went generally unheard by her with an ease of a woman in her kitchen, at her world of creation. It was between a pie and a loaf of bread, heat in the kitchen bringing a thin sweat to drop droplets at her breasts, that she unearthed a new worry: seeing Adam running full steam at her and the ugly two men who hovered over her in their casual and awful conversation she assumed was their attempt at violating her. Adam was too young, too quick; she supposed for the instance that he was much like his father at the same age. Coming to her senses, up through some aspect of imagination, she saw them as twins at odd times, at odd hours, but so alike.
What was Adam doing at this moment?
An odd thought, a stray outside the lines of her normal moment, she remembered Adam's long afternoons away from the ranch, all his jobs done in a sudden thoroughness and dedication... and his departure to see Martha Collins in a late afternoon of sweet amour. She tried to picture them at ease, at riding among the prairie flowers, riding along the stream watching fish jump or the sun reflect on sudden splashes. In a flash she knew they did not spend their time in gawking at wonders ... but must have moved to their own wonders, just as she and her husband had in their early days.
Where did they go? That blaze of light hit her, made her sit up. Of course, she thought, there were few places out of the way as where she was at the moment. The flash came again: of those back at Connor's Rock, it was Adam and Martha who must know where she was hidden from all . . . in this trysting place, this out of the way hideout, this paradise among the rocks, this prison.
Fear gripped her. She saw frail Adam, her only born, on his way here at this very moment. Frail Adam once, but no more, her son, Martha's lover, bent on rescuing the woman who had brought him into this world. With the thought came the warning that she'd have to deter her captors when her son came upon them. She had to think her way to distracting them, knocking them off their aim, keeping them off guard, keeping their attention locked on her, on her helplessness, her womanly hungers, her acute desperation all rolled into one scene as despicable as she could imagine.
Big Ugly said, "You sure got damned quiet of a sudden, lady. Whatcha thinkin' of, waitin' for us to go to sleep, one of us to fall off the log?" He snapped his fingers clumsily."Know what could happen just like that?" He licked his lips. "You shore do, I'm willin' to bet, 'gardless of what my Momma said." He shook his head and added, You are one prime lady, I got to say." He stood up in his manful pride, braced his chest, reached for a power he did not possess.
Grace Yardarm, now more in charge of her fate than she had been since the first moment, brought up the first smile of the escapade, for there, at the farthest end of the break in the cliff face, in a movement of black like a mouse in a night corner, she saw movement. movement so still yet so moving that it cried for belief. Her soul and her deep mind told her it was her son, that it was her Adam; Adam first in the order of things, her first born, first here at the place of her captivity. She had depended upon him and her husband and now he depended on her here in this piece of a lost world, of unknown measurement, of deepest secrecy, where nobody else knew where they were but the oddest lot ... Cookman the prisoner and young Martha Collins who one day she was sure would be her daughter-in-law and would bring children to visit one day in the future; that singular joy almost smothered her still in ropes.
She dared, for her son, she dared.
"You probably think I'm too old for any of this, had my fair share of too much boring loving these long years. You probably think I'm too old and tired of the good stuff, the stuff that makes us hum and sing music when we're alone. I'm not one of them ."
She shrugged one shoulder at him as if it was a key shaped for new freedoms.
His smile caught at the phlegm in her throat, as though a fist had made entrance. It made her cough loudly.
The two men looked at her steadily, not believing what they thought they had heard. Each one stretched in place, puffing themselves, exhibiting more of vanity than prowess.
Big Ugly said, "Now, we're talkin'. Lets loosen up them ropes. Free up your whole self." His language had changed, his demeanor had changed, vanity riding him like an applied medicine, a dose of goodness and a dose of hope.
He was standing tall, a hand reaching down to grasp her loosened hand, when the shot from a rifle took him off his feet, his pistol falling free from his holster, Grace Yardarm grasping it in quick succession and aiming it at the second captor. ""Move and you're dead," she said, a sudden harshness and meanness mustered in her voice for the first time in her life, and which cowed the man down to his boots. He dropped the pistol from his holster in a thoroughly lethargic manner.
Captivity was undone for her. Her son hugged her. She hugged her son back with the same heartiness, with the same love.
Adam said, as if he was a seer, "Don't tell Pa how I knew about this place," the understanding in both of them.
"Don't worry, Adam, he probably knows already. We've been here before."