Dawn’s light shined through Talbert and Lani Schmidt’s bedroom window with the same golden brilliance that it did every morning since the completion of their country home, ten years prior in the late spring. Talbert yawned and opened his eyes. The sun was warm against his face and he basked in it a moment, let his eyes drift shut and kept them closed a little while longer before looking drowsily at his wife, Lani, who lay comfortably next to him in a nest of fluffy pillows. Talbert smiled and kissed the back of Lani’s head. “God bless our souls,” He whispered, “for the Lord has seen it fit to make me the happiest farmer on two legs, and you my bride.”
Talbert swung his feet out from under the white duvet Lani had spun together the previous winter using a bundle of sheep’s wool she had traded over in Fort Boise for a sac of good quality corn. “God’s light shine on them boys over at The Hudson Bay Company,” She had told Talbert. “Good lot, they are.”
Talbert stood and stretched his weary bones. He walked around the bed, to the window, and looked out at the bright new day.
Talbert had built their bedroom on the east side of the house so that the sun would wake him in the mornings, and so he could enjoy the stunning view of the countryside without leaving his room. Talbert loved waking to the sight of rolling green hills and blue skies, the sound of birds chirping and the sight of their vivid aerial bodies darting in and out of the trees. It reminded Talbert of how generous God had been to him. It reassured the middle-age man that moving west had not been done so in vain.
As he stood with his arms folded over his hairy chest and his eyes scanning the beautiful countryside, Talbert thought back on the ugly disorder he had once risen to as a boy in Cincinnati.
Tired and sore, Talbert woke each day to the sound of whining horses and the ring of the blacksmith’s hammer against his anvil. The youngster grumbled and pawed sleep from him eyes, then rose from his thin mattress and crept across the cramped attic, having to hunch to keep from bumping his head on the low ceiling, to the window. Only, it was not a window so much as a hole in the red brick skeleton of Schmidt & Son’s General Goods, the business his father owned.
From the fracture in the wall, Talbert had a bird’s eye view of Main Street, and he used to it to observe the city with the curiosity of a young boy.
He watched the hustlers shamble down the block in beaver hats and trim suits through an early morning twilight. He saw women in flashy dress, all puffy and frilly and fancy, and wondered where they were going. Talbert also saw grunge-stained cowboys canter through the smoke that rolled out of the blacksmith’s shop and filled the street like a fog, riding horses that Talbert thought majestic and battered from war. He liked those men, with their larger than life hats and the spurs on their black boots, their pistols always reflective silver no matter how much filth covered them.
The folk Talbert did not like were the disheveled drunks stumbling or being shoved out of Bernie’s Saloon across the street. Their hats were always tattered and their trousers always soiled, their beards untrimmed and wild. Sometimes they just sat in front of the building and spewed, or reached into a hidden pocket of their coat and retrieved a flask. Sometimes they fell asleep and Talbert had the pleasure of watching a deputy come by and give them a swift kick in the gut with his freshly shined boot. The deputies he liked. The guns of order, the fist against the scum. He liked the way people treated them, how they nodded and shook the deputies’ hands when they passed by on the street, all smiles and “God bless ye.”
Talbert’s father, Eli, also despised the sin-seekers who ruled Cincinnati. He was a God-fearing man, after all, and attended church every Sunday with his family. Him and his wife, Molly-May, ushered their litter of three down the clogged streets to the church, every one of them speckled in their neatest attire for the occasion. They sat front row and gave selflessly when the collection plate came around. Sometimes, Father Maxwell was so courteous as to invite the Schmidt family over for dinner on Sunday evenings. That is how embedded Eli was in the community.
Yes, Eli Schmidt was a God-fearing and law-abiding man. He built his business from scratch at a young age, married Molly-May before they had ever lay together as man and woman, and thanked the Lord for every meal. These traits were inevitably passed on to his children, and Talbert became a devoted Catholic at a young age.
Talbert was educated at Sister Cleo’s Catholic School with other boys of his pedigree. He was tight of lip and sharp of mind, and never had an issue with scholastics or behavior. He learned the sales trade from his pa, and woke bright and early seven days a week to watch Main Street come alive. He peered down at all the strangers and wondered where they were off to, and why they all appeared so angry, then crept across the attic abode he and his sisters shared and woke the girls. After breakfast, Talbert walked to school, and after, helped his father in the store until closing. It was during those hours that he observed how Eli interacted with his customers, both the pleasant and the unruly sort, and discovered a great deal about people.
“You need to listen to people,” His father had told told him one evening after work, sitting in the back of the shop on some wooden crates while Eli smoked a cigarette. “You don’t know if the lady who’s just walked in is a widow, if her husband died ten minutes before. You don’t know if the dirty fellow with coal smeared over his face is the richest man in the east, or if the bloke in fancy cloth is a beggar. You simply can not know someone by looking at them, and you need the patience and earnest want to find out. What you discover will shock you at times. I promise you that. At other times it may repulse you. Sometimes the things people divulge to you will make you want to cry, or laugh, or any manner of thing. But what you need to remember, Talbert, is that God fits us each with a different soul, and all in his image. Remember to respect everyone as if they were your brother, and always have the courage to open your heart to them.”
Talbert did remember. If there was one speech his father ever gave in all his life that stuck with him, it was the one from the night in the dimly lit storage room of Schmidt & Son’s General Goods.
Standing now in the house he had built with his own sweat and blood, Talbert ran his hands along the smooth wood of the windowsill and recalled the sanded surface of his father’s shelves, stacked to the brim with odds and ends, trinkets and doo-dads. It made him smile.
He decided to let Lani sleep another twenty minutes and went into the kitchen to prepare some java, and perhaps reminisce, just a little more.
Talbert could see his crops from the kitchen window. He lit a match and set the coal stove to warming, then gazed out at the long rectangle of soil that was bordered by a low fence. There were rows of potato plants there, perhaps four-hundred spuds in all. Behind them were long stocks of corn. Talbert had planted the seeds at the beginning of the season, and soon would come harvest, which happened to be his favorite time of the year. Him and his son, eight-year-old Johnathon, would head out into the field at sunrise with beige sacks and pull the gritty vegetables from the ground until they were sore and filthy. Lani would come later to assist with the corn, and the day ended as a family affair and all around good fun.
To the left of the field was the chicken coup. It was a small red building that housed two dozen chickens. A short wooden ramp led to the closed door and it smelled, as Jonathon put it: “Like when the outhouse is too hot in the summer and you have to plug your nose while you do your business. Gross!”
The outhouse, in fact, was behind the chicken coup. Talbert thought it was a good idea to keep all the foul smells in one area. No one disagreed with him on that.
Talbert’s tool shed was on the other side of the crops. It was not quite as glamorous or as cute as the little red chicken coup, but it did its job, and that was fine with him. Beyond the shed was the pasture. It went on for miles—rolling green fields to the horizon and to the south of them the forest.
The stove top was hot from flame and Talbert placed a metal canister on it, then looked back out the window to see Daisy and Fiona meandering lazily through the meadow a few yards away. Jonathon had named the cows at five years old, even though Talbert had already named them Becky and Bruce, since one was a male and the other was female. But, with Jonathon’s decree they were renamed, and both became girls. Where the boy had come up with the names, Talbert and Lani were clueless.
Taking his eyes out of focus for a moment, Talbert caught sight of his reflection in the glass and decided he needed to shave after morning chores. His stubble was growing a tad too stubbly for his liking.
Talbert yawned, covering his mouth as he did so, and walked over to the kitchen table. He took a seat and waited for the water to boil, again thinking back to his father’s shop.
It had taken Eli half his life to establish a respectable business in Cincinnati. His father had come from England as a boy and had brought with him money. That helped. Determination helped more, and by the time Talbert was born things were booming.
However, Eli did not much care for Cincinnati itself. He loathed the saloons and the brothels, the boozers and the mine men. He did not care for the noise or garbage that never seemed to leave the sidewalks. But he loved his business, and on the day that Talbert made the firm decision not to spend his adult life in that cesspool of trash, and voiced as much, his father had calmly said:
“I know this town stinks, my boy. I know. It’s full of sinners and instigators. But there are decent folk here, too. God-fearing folk. Besides, we make too good a living to try elsewhere and in time, God will cleanse the tragedy of this place.”
“But that man stabbed the other man in his neck,” A young Talbert said. “He just stabbed him. He called him names and killed him, right there in front of all the people and no one did a darn thing.”
“Watch your mouth!” Eli said. “And listen close. I’ll not let a bully leech me of my spirit or scare me from my home. God in Heaven will see to that scoundrel, and be our shield against his ilk. As for moving, forget the idea. I’ve poured my life into my business, and when I’m gone it will be yours. The house I built will be yours. Everything I do now I do for you, and of course for God. When you have a breed of your own, Talbert, they will dictate your actions as you dictate mine now. It may seem strange to you at this moment, but in time you will come to understand. As a man, I hope you have the strength not to let your life be ruled by fear of devils.”
Talbert had nodded, confessed that he understood, and agreed to discard any notion of leaving Cincinnati. It was the first time that he lied to his father.
The water bubbled inside its cage. Talbert rose from his reverie and filled the upper chamber of the drip coffee pot with black dust, then poured the boiling water over the grounds. As he waited for the coffee to filter, leaning against the counter and looking dully across the kitchen, Talbert’s memories turned grim.
Eli Schmidt died of a whooping cough during one particularly harsh winter when Talbert was eighteen.
It had come on fast and ended faster. Talbert was seated at the dinner table with his parents when the first attack occurred. Eli lurched, his plate of potatoes and corn and fresh baker’s bread soaring from his hands and spilling onto the table, and began to hack.
It was gentle, for a second. He wheezed a bit and shards of potato spewed from his mouth. But it persisted. Eli strained and his face flushed and rose in redness until it was as dark as a beat. His veins bulged from neck to forehead and he pounded his fists against the table and fumbled for purchase. And he coughed. He coughed and coughed and fought for breath. He sucked in air whenever he could and spittle flew and drool oozed and Molly-May and Talbert looked on in horror.
What Talbert still remembered, as he stood daydreaming in his kitchen, was how scared his father had looked. Never had Talbert witnessed his great and powerful dad afraid of anything, ever. Yet as Eli struggled to simply breathe, his eyes popping from his skull and darting wildly about as if he would find something to save him...
Well, that was a striking image.
So striking that it had haunted Talbert all through his life, and when Eli passed away six weeks later in a cold hospital bed with blood in his uncut beard and his eyes fogged over, twenty pounds lighter, the image of his Pa gagging at the dinner table was still more terrifying than the sight of an emaciated Eli, frozen stiff under a bland hospital sheet.
A grown man standing in his kitchen, Talbert shivered.
His thoughts then drifted to two years later, when his life in Cincinnati had come to a devastating end.
After Eli passed to the other side, Molly-May—though she knew he was in God’s kingdom—became depressed. “To fill my time,” She had told Talbert, “and my heart, I am going to stay in the new hospital on the west side of town and give my time to the Sisters of Christ’s Faith.”
Talbert smiled and told her it was a wonderful idea.
“My children are grown,” She went on. “You are busy with the store and with the pretty girl I see you courting. Your sisters are nurturing children of their own. With your father gone, I need a place to put my energy and faith. I know Eli would have supported me on this.”
Talbert had been happy for her. She went away and sometimes she came for dinner in the apartment above Schmidt & Son’s General Goods and informed her son that everything was going just great, that she was helping so many strong, Catholic souls.
Unfortunately, like the other sisters at the hospital Molly-May had been exposed to the brave trailblazers who rode into town vomiting and shitting their trousers, bursting with cholera, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, and other ravages of early settlers. Also like the other sisters at the hospital, it did not take long until Molly-May contracted an unknown ailment, and fell hopelessly ill.
The house doctor had her figured for TB, but her condition progressed so rapidly that he was unsure. She was admitted to the same ward in which she had caught the cursed disease in the first place, and suffered a long, drawn out, and painful death.
Talbert and his sisters had taken turns sitting by their mother’s bed. One of them was always by her side, every night until God claimed her. At the time, Talbert was pursuing Lani’s hand in marriage, and as the situation with Molly-May worsened, he had recruited his future wife to help at the store and sometimes accompany him to the hospital for a long and miserable night of watching Molly-May writhe in agony and cough up blood.
Her misery lasted six months.
Molly-May had been lethargic through it all, and occasionally delusional. She lost control of her bladder and shed pounds at an alarming rate, often crying the whole night through. In the end, her death was a blessing. He never did say it out-loud, but thought it, and by thinking it, felt shame. But it was Hell. Pure Hell for everyone. His sisters were both caring for tiny infants and the stress of having to make the trip to the hospital every other day was too much for them to handle. As for Talbert, he had a store to run and a woman to flatter. Besides the obvious emotional distress caused by watching his mother waste away to a corpse, something barely human—and it was a lot—he had a life of his own to live, and they all knew Molly-May was not coming back. “She is in God’s hands,” They had all said.
And God let her slip through his fingers.
Remembering those dreary nights brought a solitary tear to Talbert’s eye, and he quickly wiped it away.
The coffee was done. Steam rose from the press and into Talbert’s noise. He retrieved two porcelain mugs from the cupboard and filled each to the brim with hot black sludge, then took a sip and peered out the window. Daisy had wandered from Fiona and was grazing off in the distance. The sun had climbed too high, Talbert knew. His morning had been eaten by reflection.
He tried to pull his mind out of the dark pit it had fallen into, and began making a list of chores for little Johnathon to do when he woke up.
Sweep the floors.
Clean out the chicken coup and feed the chickens.
Fetch water from the well.
My father’s bloodshot and bulging eyes.
Churn a new batch of butter.
My mother’s taut, ghoulish face when I peeled the sheet away to look in her glassy eyes.
“Stop,” Talbert whispered, shutting his eyes and pinching the bridge of his nose. “Stop this foolishness. You’re not a boy anymore. You can’t dwell on such things.”
It was hard not to. Once the box of memory had opened in Talbert’s mind it was difficult to close. Images of his mother and father in their worst states of decay tumbled out, unfiltered, to cycle through his head and reopen old wounds. He felt like a boy again, sitting with his head cradled in his hands and struggling to overcome a nightmarish daydream.
Talbert looked up and saw his wife standing in the doorway, wearing her gray nightgown. He had not been crying, but it felt like his eyes were puffy and probably red. “Oh, good morning, Lani,” He said.
“Good morning,” She said, “And a blessed morning at that. Is everything quite alright, dear?”
Talbert sighed. “Yes, everything’s fine. I was just... Just thinking.”
As Lani walked into the kitchen, she regarded Talbert with the same inquisitive hazel eyes he had fallen in love with as a kid. They seemed to know. They always seemed to know.
She went to him, bent and kissed his forehead. “About what?” She asked.
“The past. My father. My mother. A whole shipload of memories spilled loose this morning. I haven’t even woken Johnathon yet.”
Lani smiled. She sat down beside Talbert and picked up her still steaming coffee, took a sip. She put down the mug and slid her hand over his, her skin warm against his cold knuckles. “It’s been a while since you’ve talked about them. Why today?”
Talbert thought. He looked around the room, frowning, then his gaze fell on Lani and he grinned. “Well, I just haven’t the slightest notion, to be honest.”
“No matter,” She said. “Sometimes it’s good to remember, even if the memories hurt.”
He considered. “Yes. I think so, too. Besides, the unfortunate passing of my father—having to watch him suffer like that, followed by the six months of my mother’s anguish, led us west. It was God’s plan, after all, and maybe this morning he needed to remind me of the sacrifices it took to get us here.”
Lani smiled, warmly. She released Talbert’s hand and cradled her coffee. “That could very well be the case, dear. Sometimes we need a reminder from God, so we don’t forget why, or how, we got to where we are, and who got us there.”
“You should have been the preacher’s wife,” Talbert said, teasing.
“Now, now, you don’t need to be a preacher’s wife to speak the wisdom of The Lord. You know that.”
“Aye, so I do. No woman preaches it better than my wife.”
She smiled and so did he. Lani looked beautiful and five years younger that morning, as she always did with a bit of sleep in her eyes and her brown curls wild. Talbert, shirtless and hairy, a tad too stubbly, looked very much his age.
They sipped their coffees and after a few quiet moments Talbert said, “Do you like our life here, Lani? That is to say, better than our life would have been in Cincinnati?”
She raised a dark eyebrow. “Are you having doubts? Has sifting through old memories uncovered a naughty little seed of doubt? You know how devilish doubt can be, dear.”
“Not doubt,” He said, shaking his head and looking into his mug. “Something else. Curiosity, I suppose. I’m thinking about the trip here, after I sold the shop to Mr. Hannah and we packed up and left, not knowing where God would lead us.”
“Or straight off a cliff.”
They both looked into their mugs then, smiling thinly. The jest was half funny, half a serious reminder of the immense risk they had taken by leaving Cincinnati. Now that it had been mentioned, Lani and Talbert could not help but pause and think back to when they first embarked on the journey west with nothing more than two good mules to pull their wagon and all their belongings tied down between its rickety wheels.
The ugliness of their situation had been that neither of the newlyweds had the slightest clue as to where in the great big blue world they would settle down. Sure, they had heard of settlements on the coast, towns that had sprung up across the mid-west and to the south. On the other hand, they had also heard of the reputations of these growing cities; full of thieves and outlaws. Lani and Talbert wished to find a more peaceful commune, quiet and without violence, a place where The Lord’s light shone brightly.
They also needed to survive the arduous trip to their new home, which was the real problem. Food and water were not big issues, for wild game and clean rivers were in abundance. No, the danger came from the cruel diseases that ravaged travelers and left many new world seekers dry bones in the dust of the prairies. Not to mention the bands of criminals, savage marauders, rapists, and lunatics that claimed sanctuary in the unpopulated mountains and expansive forests of the new land. Lastly, there were the Indians to contend with. The red men who burned wagon camps to ash and feasted on the pale occupants, or so Talbert and Lani had been told.
“I still can’t believe we made it,” Talbert said. “The hazards we avoided, the hardships we overcame, the things we saw. It was a true miracle that our wagon ever rolled into Emmert.”
“By God’s grace, so it was,” She said. “Never had I dreamed of discovering a hub of safety in such godless chaos. And I couldn’t in all my life of asked for a warmer welcome. The folk here were the real miracle.”
“Aye. When I saw the tall wooden gate and how it’s pillars were shaved into thick spikes,” He gestured with his hands the tall pillars of Emmert’s defensive wall. “Well, I dare say I thought we had stumbled upon a fortress of scalp-hunters. But when Sheriff Rackem came to greet us—when those wooden gates swung open and the snow sprinkled street appeared, the humble cabins glowing with lamplight, the gentle folk looking curiously on at us—Oh, how disheveled we must have appeared! And Sheriff Rackem ushered us inside. Well, it felt like I had just been welcomed home. Dare I say, it just felt right.”
“Yes, dear. I feel the same.”
“For Rackem to have offered us this plot of land—well, that was almost too generous. It was lucky we had the money from my father’s store to afford the wood to build this house, and things like this new coal stove.” He pointed to the giant cast iron stove near the window, the black chimney a long cylinder ascending through the roof. “And Fort Boise is only a four-day ride,” Talbert continued. “The lads over at The Hudson Bay Company had just about everything we needed to create this paradise. Anything they didn’t, well they sure found. Heck,” He said, grinning, “do you remember the day I came home with that set of glassware, the ones with flowers etched into the sides? You looked about to faint!”
“I was sure surprised,” Lani said. She stood and collected their empty mugs, placed them on the counter. “I’m not sure how I feel about Fort Boise, though.” She wrinkled her nose. “Bit of a slum.”
“Aye, it’s no place for families. The men in Fort Boise are rugged forest men. I reckon they drink and gamble, and I’ve got my suspicions about the company of women they keep. But the traders are fair and decent, and for that alone, I pray to God to bless them, and help direct them away from sin.”
Lani smiled and nodded. She looked out the window at the bright green day. “It’s getting late,” She said, “noon’s just around the corner.”
Talbert sighed. “Aye, so it is. I suppose I should dress and wake Johnathon.”
“Yes, and I’ll make everyone an egg and slice up some of that bread Miss Huntly brought over yesterday.”
Talbert stood and gave himself a tired shake. The grim memories of his departed parents were already fleeting. “That woman bakes the softest, most delicious bread on this side of the pond,” He said. “It was awful nice of her to bring us a fresh loaf.”
Lani smiled. She pulled three eggs and the loaf of bread from the small pantry while Talbert shuffled towards their bedroom.
He felt ready to face the day.
Talbert slipped his feet into a pair of warm, woolly socks that reached his knees and pulled on his favorite black boots, the ones with the silver spurs that clicked when he walked. They were Sheriff Rackem’s old pair, and he had given them to Talbert as a gift.
The two men had become quite close in the twelve years since Talbert and Lani entered Emmert’s gates on that cold winter morning, frosty and unbathed and looking more than a little deranged. Rackem had taken them into his home, which doubled as the town jail—never used—and the sheriff’s office. He sat them down in front of the roaring hearth and went to fetch a bottle of cheap whiskey. Of course, Lani and Talbert refused the toxic stuff on account of being good, wholesome Catholics, and so Rackem made coffee while the couple relaxed and let the warmth of his fireplace dissolve the bitter cold that had seeped into their bones; A dreadful condition they thought never to be rid of.
Sheriff Rackem returned with two steaming mugs of coffee and his guests nodded their thanks. He sat in his reclining chair and poured himself a glass of warm, yellowish whiskey, then leaned back, stretched out his legs and rested his boots on the brick mantle of the fireplace, one on top the other. Rackem grumbled to himself as he rolled a cigarette, then bent and struck a match on the leather of his boot. He cradled the wavering flame below his chin and squinted as his cigarette erupted—as the paper flared and a surge of smoke rushed past his face. Lastly, he flicked the match into the fire.
“Right, let’s get to it,” Rackem had said. His voice was rough, eroded by gallons of whiskey and as bristled as his face. “First off, I need to know where you’ve come from. We can move on after that.”
Talbert glanced at Lani. They were both bundled heavily in deer hides and their faces looked small, pale. “Cincinnati,” Talbert said.
Rackem considered and drew on his smoke. “Cincinnati,” He repeated. The word rolled slowly off his tongue, like it was foreign: Siiin-sinnn-atti.
“That’s right,” Talbert said. “We’ve been roaming northwest now for... Well, I dare say I don’t know how long. Perhaps a year. Maybe two. Only God can say for certain how many days we’ve spent rambling along wagon trails, up mountains and back down again, through plains of dust, forests without end…” Talbert trailed off and stared dead-eyed into the flames, haunted by the memories of those desolate places.
Rackem grumbled and blew smoke through his nostrils. “As is so often the case,” He said. “God tends to count the things we can not.”
“Aye,” Talbert said. “So he does.”
Lani raised a dark eyebrow. “Are you a man of God, Sheriff?”
“I reckon we are all men of God, Ma’am. So, I’m inclined to assume your curiosities lay more in the realm of whether or not I am a godly man; whereas, do I pray to The Lord of Creation, or do I spend my days in sin, in the company of whores and villains.”
Lani’s silence said that he was correct in his assumption.
Rackem grumbled. His expression was hidden beneath the shadow of his hat and all Lani could see was the black bush on his jaw shifting as he spoke. “I suppose it’s only natural,” He said. “For if you say true and Cincinnati was indeed the home you fled—in search of greener pastures, no doubt—then I know well the road you traveled. Savage beasts roam it, as you’re surely aware, things lesser than men. Witches, too. They lurk within these western woods, though you’d be hard pressed to come upon one and tell the tale. Few are.”
Now it was Rackem’s turn to stare dully into the crackling hearth, as if he too had been besieged by sudden memories.
“Nevertheless,” He said, recovering from whatever struck him. “After such a long march down that road of lost lives and abandoned hopes, sickness and strife and monsters of the kind, and as winter’s frigid winds beat down upon you and the world is a white, frosty purgatory, no less, an end appears through the snow. Yet, instead of coming face to face with a more desirable character—a ginger fellow with spectacles and a lovely wife, perhaps—you’re sat down before me, a worn-out sheriff.”
Lani thought a smirk parted the thickness of his beard, but could not have been sure.
“A man,” Rackem went on, “who as I’m quite sure you’ve noticed is unmarried at the gray age of forty. A man who dresses like a sinister gunslinger. I appear a dark denizen of Hell itself in this black jacket of mine, I know, and my hard-to-love face obscured below the brim of my wide hat like the Reaper himself. An unlikely friend, to be sure. I also know that the stench of old whiskey and stale smoke permeates throughout my home, similar to any whorehouse one might stumble into across this nation. No ma’am, not a whiff of ladies’ perfume to be found in my den, nor the elegance brought by a wife’s gentle nature. My house is disorganized and cluttered, uncouth in its arrangements and lazy in its upkeep. My fault, without doubt.”
The sheriff tilted his head back and inhaled loudly, spat a wave of white smoke at the ceiling.
“But I yammer. My apologies. Let me answer your inquiry so I can put your minds at ease as best I can. You see, I understand your skepticism of me and my secluded town. I also understand the state of mind one is restricted to after dealing with the threats and tricks of the trail. But let me assure you that, though I may be a rare and ugly sight, I would not harm a hair on any decent man’s head, be they red, white, or any variation otherwise. And let me be clear that here in Emmert we do not harbor fugitives, criminals, thieves, murderers, rapists, practitioners of evil--”
Rackem spewed the list of rejects from his mouth like scraps of sour tobacco.
“Or any of their ilk. This is a place for peace and prosperity and we have zero tolerance for violence or ill-will of any kind. I can proudly say that as sheriff I have never once had to commit someone to the crude jail I’ve built in the cellar of my house, nor have I needed to act as lawman because of some overconfident drunk or disgruntled husband. No, there is simply no hatred here. The people of Emmert are as kind and docile as a herd of grazing doe.”
Rackem took a sip from his glass and grimaced at the strength of it, the burn of the poison. Then he pinched his fleeting cigarette between stained teeth and inhaled, flicked it into the fire.
“Still,” He said, smoke curling out of his mouth. “I am their protector. You could call me the wolf that protects the sheep, I suppose. It’s a title I flaunt with great seriousness. This town is a bright example in a world of growing darkness, and I won’t see it marred by allowing one bad egg to breach these walls and hatch. That’s why I ensure that only the purest of pilgrims enter here.”
Talbert and Lani nodded that they understood, though Rackem’s attention was fixed on his boots, black as grease in the firelight, and they doubted he saw them.
“We produce quite a generous harvest in the fall, so you know. Almost every family who lives here began as unsettled vagabonds, just like yourselves, stumbled upon this place by accident. I sit everyone down, just like this, and we either strike a deal or we don’t. If we come to an agreement, the new citizens of Emmert are welcome to a plot of fertile land and encouraged to build and to merge with the community. Those I turn away are sent off with nothing, pointed in the direction of Fort Boise.”
Rackem shifted in his chair and placed his feet on the floor. He tilted his hat upwards and, for the first time, looked Talbert in the face, then Lani. The couple were shocked at how Rackem’s icy blue eyes radiated out of his dark, weary visage.
“The reason I’m telling you all this,” He said, earnest enough, “is because you’ve entered my home humble in your frost-crusted furs and I believe you to be good-natured and deserving of a chance, especially after your hardship. What I’m saying is that I would like to offer you a place here. We have good land come spring, and a warm hearth for you to rest beside until winter’s cruel grip on the land fades.”
Talbert and Lani did not know what to say. They peered at each other in utter shock at everything Rackem had just said. They did not believe it. Four hours ago they had been lost in the snow and so hungry that their remaining mule would have been dinner by nightfall. Now they were offered land and friends and a secure home. It was a lot to take in.
Rackem tilted his hat back down and a shadow encompassed half his face, then he started to roll another cigarette. “You don’t have to answer now,” He said. “Drink your coffee. Think. Talk amongst yourselves. As for my relationship with God, or my godliness, as you were so interested in.” He paused to strike another match and light his smoke. “Let me just say that God’s wrath is as real to me as it is to you, and that no man fears it more.”
Talbert rolled the sleeves of his linen shirt up to his elbows, just the way he liked them when toiling in the field on a hot day alongside his only son. He enjoyed the heat on his forearms. It reminded him of something he could never quite place. He buckled his belt and placed his big straw hat on his head, then went to wake Jonathon.
Talbert’s farmhouse was not large. From his and Lani’s room it was a short trip down the hallway to little Jonathon’s door. The scent of fried eggs and fresh bread followed him the whole way.
He knocked on the boy’s door. “Rise and shine, Johnathon. You’ve had the whole morning to sleep. I think you know God’s view on laziness.”
There was no reply from within.
Talbert twisted the knob and pushed open the door.
There was no one inside.
Johnathon’s bed was empty. The blankets were tousled as though he had risen in the night to pee, but never returned. The small dresser Talbert had built for him was undisturbed and the oil lamp on its surface was unused. The window was closed. The curtains were drawn.
“Johnathon?” Talbert called into the eerie emptiness.
No one responded.
Talbert entered and looked under the bed. Nothing but dust and a carved horse head on a stick. His heart began to quicken.
Talbert fled to the kitchen. “Lani,” He said, short of breath, “have you seen Johnathon?”
She looked confused. “No, of course not. He’s in bed, isn’t he?”
“His bed is empty. Can you see him outside?” But Talbert did not wait for an answer. He raced out the back door and onto the porch, where he stood with his hand to his brow scanning the yard.
Lani came out behind him. “What do you mean he’s not in his bed?”
Talbert ignored her. “I don’t see him out here,” He said. “Check the house, quickly. Look out front. I’ll look in the chicken coup.”
But Johnathon was not in the chicken coup, nor was he hiding in the tool shed. Talbert found no trace of the boy inside the corn field or out in the pasture. Lani found no sign of him in the house.
Lani and Talbert Schmidt searched the confines of their property all morning.
They never found Johnathon.