The first time I’d seen them two they was riding along my fence line, heads and hats bowed against the hail that’d begun to fall a minute or so afore and their horses bouncing around under ‘em irritated as all get out by the sting of it. By the time I’d fetched my scattergun from inside, they was within range and darned if Jimmy wasn’t running out to greet ‘em. I lifted my weapon in a panic and took aim, screaming out, “Jimmy, you stop right there! You two turn tail and ride on outta here less’n you want to add buckshot to your misery.” Jimmy skidded to a stop about five feet from those riders and froze. He knew the sound of a chewing out coming his way. Me, I felt my heart choking my throat.
“Ma’am, we mean you and your boy no harm,” says the slick-looking one with the dimples and fancy hatband just as nice and friendly-like as you’d wish. “We were just hoping to take shelter in your barn.” He glanced up at the dark clouds gathered overhead. It was plainly fixing to blizzard from the looks of ‘em.
The other was watching me like a sidewinder waiting to strike. Don’t think I didn’t notice that hog leg he was toting. He was watching me like a hawk while I had his friend facing down the barrel of my shotgun. I snugged it up tighter and mustered all the venom I could, shouting, “He ain’t my boy, I’m his grandma.” It slipped out and caused me pause, wondering why I’d felt the need to explain to these gunslingers. It also made me mad as a wet hen. “I said git! Now go on with you!”
No sooner had the words left my lips then that blond fella broke out in a smile that warmed me like a summer day. “Yes, ma’am. We apologize for botherin’ you.” With that, he swung that big bay of his around. “C’mon, Joshua.” The dark fella nodded and tipped his hat to me as polite as could be before meekly following his friend. I knew right then and there they weren’t who I’d thought they was and that thought was chased by the idea they could be the answer to my current predicament. ‘Sides, turning away folks in need rubbed me raw.
“Hold up!” The men reined up and turned again to face me as I lowered my shotgun a notch. “There’s a bunkhouse out back. It ain’t much but I reckon it’s better than nothing. Get yourselves settled then come on up to the house and I’ll rustle you up something to eat.” Huge smiles sprang to life and them two started falling all over themselves with gratitude. That put paid to my suspicions. The men I’d been expecting wouldn’t have wasted time winning me over. They’d have shot first and taken what they wanted. He’d been right there. One of ‘em could’ve snatched Jimmy right up and ridden off without me being able to shoot for fear of hitting that boy. It made me sick to my toes thinking it.
Weren’t long before them drifters came scratching at the back door. All cleaned up with their hair still wet from the dunking they’d done in the trough. They stood on the stoop all nervous and awkward like two young’uns instead of the gunslingers their tied-down holsters said they was. I waved ‘em in. “Set yourselves down right there. Jimmy, you scoot over and give…Mr. er…what is your names?”
The dark one smiled gently, “Joshua Smith, ma’am, and this here’s Thaddeus Jones.” The blond was giving me a sheepish smile. He knew right off the bat I knew aliases when I heard ‘em. My eyes shifted to my shotgun now resting upright in the corner next to the stove, but they pretended they didn’t notice and sat down polite as could be.
“We appreciate you lettin’ us stay, ma’am, and maybe we could earn our keep fixin’ a few things or doin’ some chores for you,” said Jones.
“My name’s Millie, Millie Barnes, and that’s Jimmy McCracken, my daughter’s boy.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Millie. Jimmy are you visiting your grandma for a while?” asked Smith.
“I live here. My ma and pa are dead so I’m an orphan.” Jimmy looked up at me unsure if he’d said too much. I gave him a smile. The boy was still getting used to smiles. Smith and Jones both shared a glance and I saw the pain in it.
Smith cleared his throat. “We are, too. Lost our folks in Kansas. You’re lucky to have a grandma who loves you and took you in.” On account of his age, I figure he meant Bleeding Kansas and despite my reservations, I felt for these two. They wouldn’t have been much older than Jimmy. Maybe that explained the kind eyes and the tied-down guns. Violent loss does that. The weak wither from it and the strong grow stronger. And sometimes a body does a little of both.
“Jimmy, go on out to the hen house and fetch me up some more eggs. Find me the brown ones.” I watched and waited until the boy was nearly to the coop before shifting back to my guests.
“It just so happens I could use your help. You any good with those sidearms you’re packing?” I don’t beat around the bush when I want something.
“We can usually hit what we’re aimin’ at. What are you askin’ us to do, Millie?” Wariness had replaced Jones’ smile.
“Don’t look at me like that!” I snap before I can control myself. “I ain’t asking you to kill anyone. There’s been enough death here to last me a lifetime. I just need someone to stand up to that boy’s grandpa. And no, I ain’t talking about no husband of mine.”
“Maybe you better explain exactly what it is you think we can do for you, Millie.” Smith was frowning. I’d botched it completely. Both men looked ready to jump up and bolt out the door.
“Hear me out. Jimmy’s parents died in a stagecoach accident, but it was a blessing if you ask me. That spoiled rich boy treated my girl bad. She never would listen to her ma and he swept her off her feet. Things changed the minute she was a missus.” I paused taking note of the sadness on the men’s faces. I didn’t want their pity but I was feeling glad I hadn’t judged ‘em wrong. “I just thank my lucky stars Jimmy was here when it happened. I love that boy and I’ll give him his best life. Only Jimmy’s grandpa don’t agree. He never would have anything to do with Jimmy when his son was alive, said he’d married beneath him, now McCracken wants the boy bad and he’s flat out said he’ll take him by force if’n it comes to that. I ain’t giving Jimmy to him. He’s an evil man and he already raised one monster. I ain’t letting him raise another.”
“Maybe a lawyer could…”
I cut Smith off. “You think I got money to hire a lawyer? Look around you. That’s what his grandpa is hoping for. He’s got money enough to bury me in lawyers.”
“We’re not hired guns, Millie.” Smith said it quietly but I heard the steel in his words.
“No, no, no. I already said I ain’t looking to hurt no one. I want you two to get me and Jimmy to the train depot tomorrow morning. Just see us there safe and you can be quit of us. I can’t pay you, I used what little cash I had put aside to buy us tickets to go back east where he and I got family. But one way or another, I aim to disappear with the boy. I can do it. It won’t be the first time.” I saw the interest blossoming in Smith’s eyes and I didn’t want him asking me more so I quick snatched the stew off the table and started ladling it into the empty bowls in front of ‘em. “Look, I can’t explain right now,” I saw the coop door opening and hurried on. “Jimmy’s coming. His grandpa tried to take him once already. I thought he’d sent you. That’s why I drew down on you. Thought you might be here to take him. Shush now and eat up.”
Jimmy barreled in slamming the screen door behind him. “Grandma, I found six!!” He held up the egg basket proudly, blood dripping from his wrist. “That mean old hen pecked me good but I got her egg.” I tousled his hair, but he ducked away and sat next to Jones, resting the basket on the table.
“Nasty hens are the worst,” says Smith. “My ma had a Dark Brahma, meanest hen you’ve ever seen. I was scared silly to fetch eggs from that feathered fiend.”
“You were?” asks Jimmy, wide-eyed. “How’d you do it?”
Smith started grinning and it was a beautiful sight. I found myself grinning, too.
“I kept a pitchfork by the door. I’d wait until the chickens were asleep and I’d sneak in as quiet as could be, take that fork, and slip the tines under that chicken and her nest, then I’d lift the whole thing up as slow as I could. Most times the eggs would slip through the tines and the straw and I could scoop them right up.”
“What if they didn’t?” Jimmy leaned forward eagerly listening like what Smith was telling him was the secret of the ages.
“She’d squawk and come at me pecking. The rest of the chickens would set up a fuss, too. I got pecked plenty.”
“Grandma, do we have a pitchfork?”
“We do. I’ll get it out for you the next time you fetch me eggs.” Jimmy sat back, satisfied by my answer, but I felt terrible. I knew, God, Smith, and Jones willing, that boy wouldn’t be fetching eggs from that hen ever again. I took the basket and put the eggs in the pot I’d set to boiling on the stove. They’d help feed us on the way to Boston. When I turned around, I found Smith staring at me. He nodded once and I knew I’d gotten the help I needed to put my plan in motion. Jones loudly scraped the bottom of his bowl and I lifted the stewpot for a second round feeling easier than I had in days. Smith and Jones were like that. A soul just knew if they said they’d do something, they would.
The ride to town began like every other ride. Jimmy and me rode double on Shakey, our old plow horse. Smith and Jones rode on either side of us. The snow that had fallen the night before blanketed the field and trees making it feel like Christmas morning. It weren’t yet, it was my hope to spend Christmas with my sister, Ethel, and her family, but it still felt like I was opening the best present ever.
We hadn’t gone three miles before we saw riders coming. Five of ‘em. I swallowed hard when I saw McCracken in the lead. My stomach rolled and I looked at Jones. He smiled, relaxed as if he was meeting up with old friends.
“Mornin’,” called out Smith. He crossed his arms over his saddle horn and leaned forward like he was fixing to jaw a while. McCracken reined up hard and his men drew before their horses had come to a full stop. I felt outright ill. What had I done? I was getting myself killed and taking these two innocent young men with me and poor Jimmy had to witness it all. That’s what made me the sickest.
McCracken didn’t bother with the niceties. “Give me the boy.”
Still smiling, Smith said as easy as pie, “Nope, I’m not gonna to do that.”
Things happened so fast I never could piece it all together. McCracken gave a small jerk of his head and the shooting started. I grabbed Jimmy and slid off Shakey down to the ground. I let that poor horse shield us while I fell on top of my baby boy. It was only a few seconds, but it felt like hours. Then the gunfire stopped, and it was quiet as church on Monday morning. I sat up keeping Jimmy hugged tightly to me. The boy was quiet while I frantically searched him for blood. There wasn’t any. Looking up at Jones, I saw he was still sitting there relaxed and undisturbed, his gun in his hand. The barrel smoking. Turning, I saw Smith slide off his horse and cross to where there were five men rolling around in the reddened snow. They were moaning and groaning. Sounding for all the world like they was the little boys. They’d been shot but none too bad. McCracken was clutching his sleeve. Others held a hand or an arm or leg. All of ‘em had dropped their weapons and a few had raised their hands, knowing it was the smart thing to do. Smith went around and picked up guns, putting ‘em in a flowery bag he’d had tied to his saddle. He slid rifles from their scabbards and added ‘em to the pile. Next, he checked wounds. Carrying everything back to his horse, he tied it all to his saddle and then turned back to the wounded men while I watched, stupidly mute with shock.
“We’ll just be taking these to the sheriff. You can pick them up there. Of course, he may not be too happy to give them back but I’m sure you won’t have any problem explaining why you tried to gun down this lady and her grandson.” With that, he came over and help Jimmy and me onto Shaky, then mounted his own horse before nodding to Jones. Jones twirled that big gun of his as pretty as you please and dropped it back in its holster.
I turned back as we rode away. Won’t ever forget the dazed look on McCracken’s face. It’s warmed me many a night.
That Christmas Eve, while we were dressing the tree, Ethel presented me with two tatted angels she’d made for us. “This one’s Jimmy,” she said, “and this one’s, Millie.”
Tears sprang to my eyes. I never cried but that did it. “Nope. This one’s Smith and that one’s Jones.” I never did explain it, but Jimmy knew and he never forgot.
He’s grown now, a fine husband and a good father. Every Christmas, I help him put Smith and Jones at the top of his tree.