Home Light Burning
Jim H. Ainsworth
From the corner of the building, she had watched them from black shade provided by a thick stand of tall pines. They interested her … the men and their horses …especially the way they had handled Anderson Bonner, a man looking for a reason to kill any white man.
She had an eye for horseflesh and considered the trait to carry over to men. The mare looked familiar, but she could not place it in her memory. Most men who passed through rode poorly fed, ungainly beasts with big heads and plodding hooves dressed in worn out saddles, fighting bits ill-suited to their mouths. These men rode good horses that stepped lightly and alertly, suggesting that they could move in any direction with grace and speed. The horses’ ears pointed forward, alert to all movements but frightened by none. Their gear was well worn and worn well. A hickory stick a little shorter than an ax handle was tied behind each saddle cantle. One carried a carbine in a scabbard, the other a shotgun. The scabbards were covered in wooly sheepskin to keep them from galling the horses.
Pistols and knives sat on them like appendages attached by an unseen force. Hats bigger than most of the local farmers wore. Neckrags that had been jaunty before they faded. Small feet surrounded by worn-out boots with tall tops and floppy mule ear pulls. Long angular faces with sharp lines that reminded her of the small carvings old men whittled from pieces of soft pine. They appeared as ghosts of themselves, searching for a way back to former lives. Soldiers without uniforms.
One was hurt—she could see that. She liked the way they carried themselves. Something about they way they mounted and dismounted—the way they walked. Confident but wary.
Hy stood on the porch, resisting returning to the dun. “What’s your hurry? We need something to eat and maybe a place to lay down out of this wet.”
Lev seemed unnerved as he looked up at the sign. “This ain’t the place. First time I’ve been under roof in a long time. Felt like I was gonna smother in there. Ain’t nothing stinks as much or looks as bad as a saloon in the daytime. Thought we were looking for a doctor, anyway.”
“It was that ugly, stinking dog, wasn’t it? Grandma’s superstitions again.”
“Don’t want to spend no time under a roof with a thing that claims to be a dog, but looks like the devil’s own son. It’s a bad omen.” Lev felt a hand on his right leg and reflexively grabbed it.
When he saw her, he was embarrassed at his nervousness. A young girl, her hand caught, looked up at him. Lev thought her face was dirty at first, because it was the color of the wet red mud on the road. Small white lines crept away from eyes that had probably seen too much sun. Her thick coarse hair was rust-colored and unruly curls had been pulled back and tied with braided strands of horsehair. Her pine needle scent cleansed the smell of the bar from his head.
She stared at the hand holding her wrist. “Understand you need a doctor.”
Lev released her. He was wary, trying to recall what Grandmother Armelia had said about redheaded women encountered on the trail. He believed it was a bad sign, but it might have been good. “You know where one is?”
“My daddy was the town doctor here since before I was born. Died right inside there.” She pointed toward The Good Samaritan.
“We’re sorry about that, but don’t reckon your daddy can help us much now.”
“No, but I can. Been doctoring since I could read. Daddy taught me everything. He was in a lot of pain for a long time before he died … I did most of his patient work.”
Hy looked at his brother and winked. “Where do you do your doctoring?”
“Right in there.” Her eyes darted almost imperceptibly toward the Good Samaritan. “I keep a couple of rooms out back. Do everything from pulling teeth to setting broken limbs. That little drugstore in the corner is mine. I been known to barber, too.”
Lev eased Yank back a few steps. “Never seen a woman barber. Well, ma’am, we could use a haircut and shave, but just ain’t got the time. Much obliged.”
The girl pointed to Lev’s chest. “You’re giving a little to that right side. From the smell, you been putting some sort of nasty hog poultice on an injury. Best guess is you been shot.”
Hy laughed out loud. “So far, she’s smarter than any of them army doctors.”
Lev put both hands on his saddle horn and eased forward to look closer at the girl. “Say you’re right. What would do you with a man been shot in the chest?”
“How long ago was it?”
Lev figured. “Best I can recollect, it was a little over two weeks ago. We been traveling for the better part of twelve days.”
“Carrying that bullet and riding all this time?”
Lev winced as he felt the bullet stab him. “It was either that or walk.”
“I’d say that’s good. Main thing to worry about now is being nasty like you are. You need to get that hog poultice off, clean the wound … and yourself. I’ll know more after I examine it.”
Lev sniffed himself without meaning to. “Well ma’am, it ain’t that I don’t appreciate it, but you don’t look old enough to be a doctor.”
Hy interrupted. “What’s the harm, Lev? We already decided that we need to lay up a day or two before we head home. Ain’t no doctor here. Seems like she’s the next best thing.”
“My daddy said I had the gift. Even the Caddos come into town to see me. They call me medicine woman.”
Lev took off his hat and ran his fingers through his black hair. “You seem mighty anxious to help us out, ma’am. Why would you care about two strangers?”
She looked toward the saloon and lowered her voice. “I need the money. Trying to get away from this saloon to my own place.”
“Didn’t your daddy practice here?”
“No.” She pointed down the street. “See that burned out spot? That was our house.”
“Lost your daddy and your house?”
She inclined her head toward the saloon. “Lots of places burned around here lately. Daddy left this world owing a big bill to Filson in there—plus a few other folks in this town. I’ve paid just about everybody but him.”
Hy looked toward the saloon door. “Filson the big barkeep?”
Lev stepped off the mare. “We ain’t got enough between us to pay off much debt, but I guess it can’t hurt for you to take a look. Ain’t saying we’ll stay, but where could we get a good bath, a hot meal and a bed if we decided to?”
“It’s not much, but I got a room out back I rent out. Got tubs and beds. You can even throw the horses in with mine. I got a shed you can put your saddles under. Horses won’t be in the dry, but they’ll be well fed.”
Lev loosened his cinch again and retied to the rail. “Let’s see about that bath first. We’ll leave the horses here till we decide.”
When they reached the corner of the building, they heard a whinny coming from deeper in the piney woods. A white horse walked the perimeter of a small corral made by nailing boards to pine trees. Two strands of cotton rope served as a gate.
Hy whistled under his breath. “What’s that?”
“That … is the best horse in Cherokee County.”
The brothers smirked as they stared at the barrel-bodied horse with white, curly hair. “That’s your horse? Sorry, but I thought it was a big sheep.”
“His name is Sheep, for obvious reasons. Follow me, and I’ll show you your room.” She extended a hand. “My name is Olivia … Olivia Brand.”
Hy took her hand. “Hiram Griffin Rivers. Call me Hy. This is my little brother Levin. Call him Lev.”
Lev smiled as she walked closer and stared at the dark spot on his shirt, wrinkling her nose. “You got a clean shirt? If you don’t, I can wash that one.”
“Got spare outfits in our saddlebags, but they a long way from being clean.”
She led them across a narrow back porch to a large room. Washtubs sat on each side of the wood stove in the center of the room. Four single beds were pushed against one wall. A dressing screen stood in one corner beside two cane-bottom chairs with towels draped across their backs. The stove was cold. “Too hot for an inside fire. It’ll take me awhile to get hot water going outside.”
Hy touched her sleeve as she started to go. “Miz Brand, my brother here can go for days without eating, but I’d like to sit myself down to a hot meal.” He smiled as he inclined his head in Lev’s direction. “If he was a better hunter, I wouldn’t be so hungry.”