by Nancy Cole Silverman
Red Handed was first published by WordPlaySound in January 2012.
It was Christmas, 1884. That winter the snows had started early, and the gloom that came with it made the empty cabins, least those that hadn’t been burned out in the fire around Hayden Hill, seem so much darker than they might. Used to be things around this small mining town was exciting, with miners coming by our store for fixins’ and a little grub. But after the mines failed, things started to change, and Pa had to find somethin’ else to support us all. He tried work at the mill, but loggin’ wasn’t in his bones. Snapped his arm clean in two, and after that, the foreman told him, he wouldn’t hire him for day work no more. I suppose that’s why he figured stealin’ really weren’t no sin, ‘specially if your family’s as hungry as we were, and the fella you were stealin’ from owed ya anyways.
Trouble was, Pa wasn’t much of a thief and Mr. Semler, a big old cattle rancher, who lived the next town over, caught him stealin’ one of his cows. That might not have been so bad, ‘cept Semler came after my dad with a gun, and the two struggled. Semler’s gun went off, and Semler was wounded. Lassen County Sheriff said he caught Pa red-handed, came upon him right after the shootin’. Said my Pa was still standing there with the gun in his hand. Judge said cattle rustlin’s a-hangin’ offense, and the shootin’ didn’t help matters none, ‘ticularly since Semler was kinda of a big shot ‘round these parts, and the judge sent Pa off to jail up near Susanville. Ma did her best to keep things going after that, but how do you do that when the town ya live in ‘bout to go bust and your Pa’s in jail, readyin’ to meet his maker?
I ‘spose the Sheriff felt a bit bad about the situation, spoke at Pa’s trial, telling the Judge, my Pa’s a good man, just desperate like a lot of people ‘round here. See, Sheriff Sam didn’t work just our town but the whole of Lassen County, on fact of the matter that Hayden Hill was too small and too poor to have a sheriff all its own. And one day he shows up with this rangy lookin’ livery horse named Copper, told my mom he’d been a cavalry mount, “Lieutenant’s horse,” he said, “for his rider got killed in an Indian raid.” Truthfully, I ‘suppose he didn’t want me to end up goin’ bad, figured I’s headed that way, and a horse might just be the thing.
“Won’t let nobody on his back,” Sheriff said. “The Army kept him ‘round out respect for the Lieutenant. Shoulda put ‘im down but used him as a livery horse, cuz nobody but that Lieutenant could ride him. He’s a mean ol’ cus. But I figured your boy here might make use of him, help you out a little bit with the mercantile, deliveries and all.”
I took one look at that horse and knew he saw my soul. Could see it in his eyes, ‘cept I figured that might not be so good, cuz I had a lot of anger in me. And I didn’t care a lick for what Sheriff Sam said ‘bout not trying to ride him. First time I did, my butt was barely on his back, ‘fore he surprised me—this big old ugly horse—he took off like a wild creature, I could feel his big muscular frame ‘neath my skinny legs, as he lurched ahead, twelve, fifteen feet a stretch, with me holding on for all get-out. His breathing so hard I could feel the heat of his breath against my face as I buried my head in his neck, his heart racing—or maybe it was mine—running full-out ‘neath the trees. Damn near killed me, for I reached up for tree limb and let him go, running crazy-like, his mane and tail cutting the wind like a knife behind him. Once he was free of me, he turned, looked back and snorted all victorious like. There I was hanging in the tree like some monkey and him all sweaty, his hair matted, his mane knotted, looking at me, with his nostrils flared, the air puffing out of him all white smoky-like in the cool chill like an angry dragon. I approached him, cautiously, certain that at any instant he’d bolt, his eyes wide and full of fire as he studied me. That’s when I figured the two of us were really just like brothers, angry at life and not a lot we could do about it. And reaching out ever so slowly, I promised him right then, long as he didn’t try to kill me, nobody’s ever gonna sit on his back again, ‘least not until he wanted ‘em to.
From that day on, I used him, just like Sheriff Sam said, as a livery horse, tied him to the buckboard, where nobody woulda looked twice at him and thought he was anything more than a broken down ol’ nag. But old Copper, he came in useful, delivering things anywhere from Hayden Hill to up around Susanville. Allowed me to pick up a few extra coin here and there, and over time we began to respect one another. That is as long as I never tried to mount him, and pretty much let him have his way, picking the path as we went. Anyway, that was our agreement, so when holidays started to roll in, Ma asked me to take something to Pa, ‘fore they moved him up to Folsom. It’d be the last time anyone in our family would see him, and she figured I should go. She couldn’t, on count of the fact my little brother came down with croup, and she feared she’d lose him like they had my little sister the year before. That’s the way life was, tough, and ya struggled through best ya could. “No point in whinin’. Lord helps those who help themselves.” That’s what my Pa told me and that’s what I believe.
So I hitched old Copper to our buckboard, and a bunch of neighbors, mostly widowed folk, cuz in a town like Hayden Hill, with nothing but ghost mines, ain’t no working men left, gave me a bunch of stuff to sell or trade along the way. Mrs. Rooper, she gave me an old saddle, Mrs. Wilcox, she give me a spinning wheel, and Mr. Morris, he gave me a bunch of ol’ mining stuff, said he didn’t need it no more. ‘Neath my jacket, I tucked my knife and a loaf of bread my Ma made for my Pa. Ma wrapped a kerchief round my neck, weren’t no more than rags really, but the fact she sewed ‘em together and hugged me made feel all warm and confident inside as I set out.
I sold the spinning wheel in Bieber to a farmer’s wife and the saddle to a man who’d just got off the train near Madeline. A real gringo who come in on the narrow gauge from Reno. Said he had won a deed to a gold mine, bought a horse, and was headed into the hills to find his fortune. For a few extra bits I told him I’d throw in some of Mr. Morris’ old mining equipment, and wished him luck, but I knew better. Told Copper they’d probably find his bones whitewashed in the mountains come next spring, then got back in the buckboard and headed towards the jail in Susanville. I wondered along the way if the ten bucks I got from the sale of the saddle and the spinning wheel might be enough to bribe the guards and bring my dad home, but it was of no use.
The guards at Susanville gave me ‘bout an hour with my Pa. It was the most difficult hour of my life, knowing I’d never see him again in this world, and all we could do was make small talk. He looked at me, his dark eyes steady. I didn’t see any sign of fear, just resignation as he asked me ‘bout the horse. I ‘splained the sheriff came by and give him to me. He said that was real nice, and I needed to be thankful to Sheriff Sam ‘bout it. I didn’t know how I could be thankful to Sheriff Sam about anything, but I didn’t want my dad to see me cry, so I just told him the horse was nothing but an angry, old nag. “Hardly worth being thankful for,” I said.
“You sound angry, son, and I can’t say as I blame you. There are some who are gonna look at you and think there goes the son of a thief, others ‘ill say, I was just going after what was owed me, but the truth is, boy, I was angry, it’s what got me here. Gotta put that behind you, make yourself a better man. Ain’t nothing good gonna come of your anger, and your Ma, your brothers, and sisters, they’re gonna need you to be strong, not angry.”
I looked at my Pa, and I wanted to scream. This wasn’t fair, but he put his arm round me and told me he loved me, that I always a scrawny kid, reminded him of the young saplings we planted round Hayden Hill after the fire destroyed so much town. At the time, I thought that odd. Said, “They just like you boy. Got everything in ‘em, just like the strong tree they’ll become, holding up the sky. You just gotta dig down deep and believe it.”
I knew that was the best he could do. That he was telling me I had everything I needed, cuz he wouldn’t be around to guide me. But at the time, I just didn’t believe it was enough.
When I left, I cried. My eyes stung, and I couldn’t see the road for the flood of my tears. I took hold of the leather reins and let Cooper lead the way. There’s a turn-off, just outside Susanville, where the road forks and you can go up towards the lake and round back to Hayden Hill. It’s slightly longer, but the ground is flat, and in inclement weather, much safer. The shorter way is steeper, that is if you’re coming from Hayden Hill, and unfortunately, much more treacherous if you’re returning, ‘ticularly in the winter. The incline can be slippery, and every year some drunk packer would lose his load coming down the slippery grade. And as I said, our weather that year was mighty unpredictable. Started snowing early, round first of November and unfortunately, I was paying no attention after I left the jail. When the snow started, at first it was just flurries, and I bundled up and ignored it, then it started coming down harder, and soon there was hail and ice along the wagon ruts in the roadway, and we was slipping along.
My first indication of trouble came when Cooper raised his head and started to whinny. Instantly I knew we were in real trouble. The wagon was slidin’ in the ruts on the mud and the ice. I reached for the break on the buckboard and pulled hard. We slipped sideways. Copper bucked in the harness, breaking the left side and straining against the remaining straps, his eyes wide with terror, as the advancing buckboard, threatened to pull us over the cliff and into the narrow cavern below.
“Copper!” I yelled.
I could see the terror in his eyes as the wagon slid, pulling Copper and me with it; ahead, a drop-off, certain death unless I did something. Then suddenly, just inches from the edge, we stopped. A small, sapling was all that held the front wheel of the buckboard from going over the cliff.
I could hear my father’s voice. “No point in whinin’, boy. Lord helps those who help themselves.”
I was near frozen with fright, but slowly I reached for the knife in my jacket and inched forward. To my right, a thousand foot drop, and below, I could see the snowy tops of trees, while directly in front of me, tangled in the harness, was Copper. He was breathing heavy, his dark eyes wide, the same look I’d seen in Pa’s eyes like he was resigned to his fate.
“That’s not gonna happen, boy. Not today,” I yelled, and crawled out onto the hitch, then jumped down beside him, praying with my every move Copper wouldn’t freak and send us tumbling into the abyss below. I whispered, my voice hoarse with fear, “If we go, Copper, we go together.” It was the one time in my life I was glad I was poor, and we didn’t have a strong, durable leather harness, but a mismatch of ropes and leathers lashed together. I sawed through them with my knife, cutting Copper free and as I did, I jumped sideways, Copper bolted, and the buckboard tumbled behind us, like a giant bolder hitting the sides of the cavern, ricocheting off the canyon walls with thunderous claps.
I stood staring down the canyon, the buckboard had splintered into about a thousand pieces before the bulk of it came to rest on the canyon floor below. I still have a vision of it, framed by the pointed toes of my boots. There I was looking down, and as I did, I see this little sapling, hangin’ on the edge of the cliff, uprooted from its home by the wagon wheel, like it was just waiting for me to pick it up. So I did and wrapped it in my scarf and figured I’d give it to my Ma, tell her it was a gift from Pa. As I picked it up, Copper comes up behind me. He must ‘ave run a good mile ‘fore he stopped and ‘cided to come back. I could feel this hot breath on my back, as he stood, breathing hard. I said a silent prayer right then, thanking the good Lord for not taking me and Copper, with that buckboard over the side of the cliff, then looked back at Copper.
“It’s a long way back fella. ‘Ticularly with me walkin’.” That’s when I knew my dad was right, anger wasn’t gonna get me anywhere, and I was ready to put it behind me. People say horses give back what you give them, and when I put that anger behind me, so did Copper, and I rode him home that day and every day thereafter. I gave my mom the sapling, a Christmas present, I said, from Pa, and we planted it outside the mercantile where it grew big and strong, and I like to think, just like Pa said, it holds up the sky.