Maybe she did egg him on; everyone knew she was a mean old cuss; and maybe she was reaching for the old Sharps above the hearth when he lost his cool and opened fire; and maybe he did scram before rifling for the silver. But none of these things mattered to Jim. What mattered was that son of a bitch Ed Rickets shot a mean old cuss of a sweet old lady in the back. Twice. And what’s more, that mean old cuss of a sweet old lady was Jim’s granma.
Like many before him in same and similar situations, Jim thought he should have been and wished he could have been there. But it happened the night the dun mare was due, and the foal was in breach, and Jim had to be there up at Mr. Hampton’s barn to hold down the mare while Mr. Hampton placed the cold barrel of the Spencer against her head and pulled the trigger. See, they had to save the foal. It was promised to little Thomas, and Mr. Hampton didn’t break his promises to his children.
The Spencer and the Walker Colt must have gone off at the same time because Jim only heard the one shot at first. But when he heard the second, he went running, out the barn and across the field, jumping the fence, and splashing across the muddy creek bottom (not bothering to push aside the bushes and brambles, so that when the Hamptons finally caught up to him the first thing Mrs. Hampton would say was, “oh look at his poor face,”) to the little cabin that sat at the edge of the Hampton property, out by the road.
When he arrived, she was already gone. All that was left was a calico print-covered bag of old bones and organs with a pair of large, red holes in its back. Jim couldn’t remember what happened next. The world only returned in the arms of Mrs. Hampton. “Poor boy. Lost all his kin. Poor boy. Poor boy.”
Jim was no stranger to death. He remembered watching his father labor and shrink as the pneumonia desiccated him and filled his lungs with fluid. Jim would sit at his father’s side in those waning days and Byron Gibbard, not old but looking it, would try to share some last bits of wisdom with his son. “Jim, a man’s gotta stare a thing in the eye and put it down before it puts him down.” That’s how Byron died, staring the pneumonia in its eye, but he couldn’t put it down. His last words were barely a whisper. “Jim, a man’s also gotta show mercy when it’s asked for. That’s what we failed to do in the war. Oh, how we failed to do that.” And that was it. Byron shrunk and left this world, leaving his son and his mother-in-law.
And now there was just the son, and he had no chance to hear his granma’s last words. All he had was the body and the funeral and the not-working attempts of Mrs. Hampton to make it better again.
After the funeral, a short affair with Doc Allard saying the words and Jim not crying because he was done crying and he thought he was all cried out, Mr. Hampton came to Jim at the cabin where he was now alone. “I reckon I know what you plan to do. I’d do the same thing. I’ll lend you the Spencer if you’d like.”
Jim looked up from the forage bag where he had just placed his father’s Navy, wrapped in oilcloth, atop a side of bacon and a loaf of hard bread. “I reckon I’m a good enough shot that I’ll just need the Sharps, and if I ain’t the shot I think, I wouldn’t want to go losing that nice rifle of yours.”
Mr. Hampton nodded. “Well, take the old gelding. He’s all saddled up for you.” That Jim did accept. Otherwise he’d have to walk after Ed Rickets.
One might wonder how Jim knew it was Ed Rickets, but if one had lived in that neck of the woods, one would know that the crime bore all the markings and signatures of the old thief. And if it wasn’t Ed Rickets who did it, it was someone like him, and them people are largely interchangeable.
The crime happened on the night of the first Tuesday in September, and the funeral happened that Sunday, and on Monday, Jim set out on the cold road. It was a fine, crisp day. The sky was a blue ceiling a million miles high, empty save for a slow circling hawk. The wind whipped Jim as he left the ranch and rode south towards the Territories. When someone did something like Ed Rickets did, they let out for the Territories. It was just the way of things.
Jim rode south with the wind and winter building behind him, stopping at small houses and roadside watering holes to give the description of Ed Rickets: a tall, thin man with black hair going to gray and a scar across his collapsed left cheek, right under the eye, where he took a bayonet stroke during the war. Most people didn’t know of whom he spoke, but enough had seen the man or another similar man for Jim to reckon he was on the correct path. A week of this left Jim cold and hungry and thin but determined, still determined to see justice done.
A week later, Jim finally caught him. About a mile off, in the saddle of two low hills, Jim spotted the red checked shirt and caught the yellow glint of Union cavalry stripes on his blue trousers. It had to be Ed Rickets, for that was his outfit, the only outfit he wore. Jim thought for a moment before deciding to give Rickets the same chance his granma got. He unslung the Spencer, sighted along its short carbine barrel to a point at the center of the red checked shirt, and squeezed the trigger.
The cloud of powder smoke obscured his view for a moment, and when it cleared, Jim had to conclude that he wasn’t the shot he reckoned. The red check and cavalry stripes couldn’t be seen over the coppertone mound of the fallen sorrel. Jim shook his head at his self and rode towards the pile.
He arrived to hear the last mutter of a dead horse and the moaning of an alive man. He saw the man for whom he had nurtured a great hate pulling his body free of the wreckage of flesh and muscle. “Ed Rickets, you son of a bitch,” Jim said, and it was as though Rickets hadn’t noticed him until then.
“Jim? Jim Gibbard?” he asked.
“That’s right, you son of a bitch. You killed my granma, shot her in the back. Shot her twice in the back. You son of a bitch. You son of a bitch.”
“I ain’t never shot no one’s granma. You got the wrong man.”
“You lying son of a bitch. You get yourself up and get ready to draw.” Righteousness was upon Jim now. He dismounted, determined to give Rickets the chance his granma didn’t get.
Rickets pulled himself up from the road. “You wouldn’t shoot me, Jim. You’re just a boy. Go on home and forget about this.” But Rickets was a wily one. He didn’t give Jim a chance to answer this. He drew, and two retorts cracked from his Walker Colt.
Jim saw the barrel raise and the flash of fire and felt the first one whiz by and didn’t hear the second one, and then it was like he was someone else or his hand belonged to someone else. He saw it rise before him, firmly holding the Navy. He saw a finger, his finger, squeeze the trigger. He didn’t feel the kick or smell the powder or notice the puff of smoke, for his eyes were intent upon the ragged hole in the red checked shirt and the deepening crimson that blossomed from a point just above Rickets’ gut.
Ed Rickets moaned and rolled on the ground, the Walker fallen at his side. “You shot me. You shot me in the gut.”
“It’s what you deserved, you son of a bitch,” Jim said as he stepped forward and picked the Walker up and placed it in the band of his belt, behind his back. All the while, he kept the Navy pointed at the man moaning and rolling at his feet.
Rickets held forth a hand glistening with sticky red blood. “Oh, Jim, please. Mercy. I don’t want to die like this. I don’t want to die. Please, Jim. Mercy. Mercy.”
Jim considered what Rickets said. He considered what his father said. “You son of a bitch,” Jim said. Then he dragged Rickets up and lashed him to the hind of the gelding like a slaughtered hog.
When they stopped that night, Jim dribbled canteen water into Rickets’ mouth and made a bandage from a torn strip of the checked shirt. He considered binding the man, but the soft moaning and glassed eyes made him reckon it wasn’t necessary, but he still emptied the unfired cartridges from the Walker into his forage bag.
Jim sauntered out two weeks before to kill this man, and now he rushed, he stormed, he worked the gelding to a foam to save this man’s life. As they hurried north, back to the ranch, back to the town, back to Doc Allard, Rickets would moan for mercy, and Jim would answer, the same answer, “you son of a bitch.”
It was at night, nearly a week later , when Jim and Rickets arrived at Doc Allard’s place. Rickets’ groans had turned to whispers, and Jim’s replies had lost their vehemence.
Doc Allard answered the door after Jim started hollering for him. He lived alone, having lost his wife to the same disease that took Jim’s father. With bleary eyes, he looked out past the tallow stub, to the gaunt young man standing on his porch. “Jim? Jim Gibbard?”
“Yeah, it’s me doc, and I got me that son of a bitch, Ed Rickets. Only he’s dying, and he don’t want to die, and I– I don’t want him to die.”
Doc Allard nodded and looked past Jim to the bundle on the swaying gelding. “Help me get him in.” They labored with the softly moaning Rickets and carried him in and placed him on a chair. The color had left his cheeks. Blood was seeping again from the bandage Jim had made. His chest barely rose with the effort of breathing. Doc checked over him and sighed and turned to Jim. “Tell me what happened.” So Jim told him. As he finished, another smell, rich and rank, joined the smell of blood and sweat.
“Well, Jim,” Doc Allard began, looking at the body, “you’re a damn good shot, as good as a shot as your daddy was.” Jim was speechless. Maybe he didn’t know what to say, or maybe the effort of holding back realization was too much to let him speak. “You’re a good boy, Jim, but–” and then Jim forced himself to look over to where the hands had relaxed and the mouth had given up its pained grin and the eyes had rolled back and the labored rise and fall had stopped.
“That son of a bitch,” Jim said, and the tears came rolling. “That son of a bitch.”