The Road Back

by aloneagain

Copyright© 2009 by aloneagain

Western Story: Could he find some peace that would allow him to tell the truth, a truth that would see his brother convicted of murder and sentenced to hang.

Tags: Historical   Slow  

A very heartfelt Thank You to ErikThread for his fabulous editing. His skills make your reading pleasure better.

His cold eyes looked out the window of the dingy room at the busy street below the hotel. When he turned from the window the coldness did not leave, nor did the hardness of his mouth relax. Tomorrow he would face, across a courtroom, the man who killed his fiancée. He would not be happy to answer the questions asked of him. He should be, but he was not. The man did him a favor, although Richard did not like it.

However, that was a matter for tomorrow. For now, he would have his supper in this unfamiliar city and try to find some peace that would allow him to tell the truth, a truth that would see his brother convicted of murder and sentenced to hang.

"Yes, he did."

The attorney looked at Richard as if he didn't believe him, and then asked, "Do you know that, because it was something you heard, saw, or did someone tell you?"

"He told me."

The attorney paused for a moment and walked a little nearer. "Tell me what he said, please use the same words, as nearly as you can recall."

"Ronnie said, 'Hell, Richard, you got you a good one. I was in her room last night and she welcomed me like a whore gettin' a twenty dollar gold piece from a cowboy off a long hot trail drive.'"

"And tell this fine jury what you did after hearing this from your own brother."

"I turned around, left him standing there, walked out of the hotel and went to the saloon."

"Did you say anything to your brother?"


"Did you strike your brother?"

"No, I did not."

"What would you say if I told you someone said they heard you yell at him and saw you slap him?"

"That person would be wrong."

"What did you do when you arrived at the saloon?"

"I asked the bartender for a drink."

"And then what happened?"

"I heard yelling in the street and went to see what was happening."

"You walked out of the saloon?"

"Yes. Me and several other men were standing on the boardwalk."

"And what did you see?"

"I saw Ronnie walk out of the hotel and Sandra was running after him."

"And then what happened?"

"She tried to grab his gun and he slapped her."

"Go on."

"He took the gun away from her. He raised it and shot her in the chest."

"And then what happened?"

"I believe I leaned over the edge of the boardwalk and vomited." There was a faint smattering of laughter in the quiet courtroom. "But I am not exactly certain of that. I know I felt sick."

"What did you do after you vomited?"

"I went back into the saloon and finished my drink."

"What did you do after finishing your drink?"

"I ordered another drink, then several more after that."

"Do you recall what happened to you after you finished drinking?"

"No. I woke up the next morning in jail, in the cell next to my brother."

"The two of you look somewhat alike, don't you?"

"Some people say so."

"Then tell me, and this fine jury, how anyone can be certain that you did not shoot her?"

"Because I was still a little wobbly-legged and smelled like vomit. Ronnie was clean and sober."

"I have no further questions, your honor."

"Mister Patten, you are dismissed."

He did not stay around. He simply walked out of the courtroom, got on his horse, and rode out of town. He didn't ride fast; his horse was cold and would not appreciate being whipped. Richard calmly walked the horse until the animal felt warmed and began to trot on his own.

It was a long ride back to the small ranch, but it would be no easier for him when he got back there. No one would understand why he had sat there and let that attorney ask him all those questions. Half the people he knew were still sitting in the courtroom, and some of them would not believe what he said. At least two of them were there, that day, standing beside him on the boardwalk.

The first night, on his ride back to the ranch, was not easy. He made a small fire, mainly to keep away the darkness, and chewed on a piece of tough jerky from his saddlebag. He tried to sleep, but only stared at the stars in the sky, wondering how many there were up there. He thought about his brother and all the fun they had growing up together.

The second night was a little easier. Near sunset, he shot a rabbit and watched as it roasted over his small fire, but could eat only a small amount of the meat. Any other time he would finish the whole thing and see what else there was to fill his hollow belly. For the past several days he had felt like the time he fell off his horse and his mother wrapped his chest, saying he probably broke some ribs. Tonight, however, he could finally breathe without constriction.

The third night of his ride back to the ranch was better than the first two. He considered why he had not taken the train and put his horse in the cattle car. But he knew. He was not ready to be back with people who knew him. They would wonder why he was not angry about what happened.

He remembered the woman. God, she was beautiful, especially when she looked at him and smiled. Ronnie followed her around like a puppy wanting to be petted, but Sandra would send him away and then turn to Richard and smile.

Sometime the next day, he began to see a brand on the cattle that belonged on his ranch. By noon, he was off his horse, walking into the house. He found the cook in the kitchen and told him he was going to town to see his mother. Richard packed some clean clothes and got back on his horse. He knew he was asking more of the horse than he should have, but he needed the time to think and believed his horse would forgive him because he was taking his time.

Richard saw the dust where the hands were moving some cattle and looked for the palomino his foreman would be riding. When he was near enough to be heard, he called to Smitty. "I cannot stay here ... for a while yet. If you need something, go see my mother." He did not answer questions nor acknowledge a hand waved by any of the men, but merely walked his horse toward town.

In late afternoon, he reached the first few buildings of town. He dismounted and walked to the stable, and after removing the saddle, he turned the horse into the corral. The horse was well known and would be taken care of until he returned. With his saddle bags over one shoulder, Richard walked behind the few buildings at the edge of the small town. He wasn't avoiding people, he just wasn't interested in talking to anyone. His chin was down, watching as he calmly placed one foot in front of the other as if his next step were the most important thing to do that day.

Richard stopped when he saw two women sitting in the shade of a tree. He watched his mother stand and go inside, returning a moment later with a handful of knitting. She sat down on the rocking chair, said something to the other woman, and then began to knit.

Richard turned and walked between two buildings. He crossed the street and got his ticket at the train depot. The station master recognized him and asked where he was going. He told the man he was going to see his Uncle John. When the train arrived, Richard climbed aboard and did not look back at the small town. He did not know when he would return, but for the time being, he could not stay there. The pain was too much to bear.

It was a long train ride through the darkness of the night. Before dawn the cars moved to a side railing to let another train pass. Richard remembered very little of any conversation he may have had with any of the other passengers. He probably bought a sandwich from someone on the platform when the train stopped, but couldn't recall doing so. One night he slept on the train during the overnight stop and another night he went to a hotel.

By the time he arrived at his destination he was running a fever, aware he was very sick. He had managed to find a small buggy outside the train station and told the driver where he wanted to go.

He knocked on the front door and was greeted by a black man. Richard didn't recall saying a word to Perry but felt himself being led into the house, up the stairs, and into a room. That was all he remembered for a very long time.

"You gave us quite a scare, young man."

"Yes sir, I'm sorry, Uncle John. I did not know where else to go."

"Well, I'm glad you came here. You get some rest. We will feed you some good food and we can talk when you want."

"Thank you, Uncle John."

Richard fell asleep before the bedroom door closed. His next recollection was being awake with a young girl sitting beside his bed. She had a tray on her lap with a bowl of soup on a plate and a spoon beside the bowl.

"Hello, Marie."

"Papa says you must eat every drop of this soup or he will not allow you out of bed."

"Can you help me? I'm afraid if I try to lift the spoon I will drop it."

"That is why I am here. Let me put a pillow behind you so we don't make a mess." With the honesty of a young girl, she said, "You stink. And you need a shave, but I don't know how to do that."

It took some effort to raise his trembling hand, but he felt his beard and was surprised at how long it had grown. "Marie, how long have I been here?"

"Lots of days, Papa says you were in a 'stupor, ' but I do not know what that word means."

"Then if you will help me with the soup, I will try to wash and shave so you will know who I am."

"I know you. You are Richard. Papa says he will send Perry to help you wash and shave. He doesn't want you to cut your throat. I don't either. Polly says it's too hard to wash blood out of the sheets."

When he had as much of the soup as he could hold, Marie reminded him that her papa said if he didn't eat all the soup he was not allowed out of bed. Richard thought it was a little humorous but he did not have the energy to laugh. Perhaps, though, maybe he should smile.

He slowly opened his eyes to see Perry standing over him with a razor in his hand. "Damnation, Richard. I thought I'd have this easy and you sleepin'. Don't move or I might cut your throat."

"Marie would not like that, Perry. She says it's too hard to get blood out of the sheets."

"That girl liable to say anythin'. She need a keeper, someone ta make her be a lady and not a ruffian."

"I thought that was Polly's job." Richard knew he was going to be better; he could remember names.

"Humph, that Polly don't do nuttin' but cook and eat, but she ma woman and I likes lots o' woman. You think we ken git you inta tha chair so's I ken wash you. You stink."

"Perry, you hold me up and I will move my feet. And clean sheets might help too. I'm sorry to be so much trouble."

"It ain't trouble, it the smell. Fever is a bad smell. We fix you. You rest, I git tha water an' Polly to clean tha bed."

A few minutes later a large, or rather, a very large black woman walked into the room with a pan of hot water. "You stink, boy. But we fix that. That no-good Perry shave you? Now, you look like Richard. I'm ta change tha bed and Perry gonna wash you, jist like you was a babe." After this monolog, the woman went into peals of laughter.

Perry returned with a towel and soap and proceeded to wash every inch of Richard, the husband and wife trading insults while she changed the bed. It was good to be among people who, if they knew about it, did not speak of the reason Richard had come to visit.

Washed, shaved, and naked as he was born, Richard was back in a clean bed, exhausted from even such small exertion. He relaxed for a few minutes, thinking of how hard he normally worked in a day and still had time to do something else before bedtime, yet sitting here in a chair for a few minutes had exhausted him. In minutes, he fell into a true sleep for the first time in over two weeks, getting the good restful sleep that heals.

It was either sunset or dawn when he awoke to see his Uncle John sitting in a chair beside the bed. "Are you feeling better now, son? No, don't get up. You aren't strong enough yet."

"Yes sir, but I need the privy or a chamber pot."

"I will help you. It may be a little painful, but you can take it slow. Your kidneys and bladder have had a rough time for the past two weeks. You need to rest. Fluids and good food will help you regain your strength."

"Do you know what happened? I mean to cause the fever. I had some kind of illness?"

"I don't know, son. Exhaustion, sorrow, illness, or all of them combined can give even healthy men a pretty hard time. But you are strong and this is just temporary. You will see."

"I need to write Mother and tell her where I am."

"I did that for you, son. You can write again when you feel up to it." Richard watched John's face as he spoke. When John grew silent, his face showed a faraway look and then deep sadness came over him. John left the room, without saying another word.

"Now take another step and stop. Your face is white. If you fall I will have to watch you go down the stairs. So, before that happens sit down." Marie was helping Richard walk downstairs for the first time and her typical truthfulness gave him an occasional twinge, but they had become buddies, of a sort. She insulted him when she felt like it and brought him treats she would sneak out of the kitchen, saying if he told, they would both get a spanking.

"You are supposed to help me, Marie. You are not supposed to tell me that I am not doing a good job of walking."

"That is not what Billy Allen says. He said if he was nice to me, it meant he did not like me. He has to be nice to his step-mother and he does not like her. So, if he is not nice to me, it means he likes me."

Richard couldn't laugh. He barely had enough strength to get down the stairs and thank whoever was responsible for the chair at the bottom. "Alright, but an insult is different from not being nice."

"How is it different?"

"I will think about that and tell you tomorrow. Now, can we go outside? I have not seen the sun in three weeks."

"Well, you are not going to see it today either. In case you have not been listening, it is raining. Papa says we are to let you sleep, eat good food, and get exercise. He did not say you could go outside in the rain. I think this exercise is not a good idea. You sure are white."

"Marie, I'm tired. Is there a more comfortable chair I can sit in, instead of this hard thing?"

"You can sit in Papa's chair. You have to get up when he gets home. Polly says it is the polite thing to do. I am not particularly fond of being polite, but I am fond of Papa, so I do it, but not because Polly says I must."

He would dearly love to tell this young girl, who had attached herself to him, to go away, but he didn't. She had given him the only reason to smile for three weeks.

"Marie, please lead me to your papa's chair."

"Well, come on, it's this way."

It seemed like a long way to go for comfort, but by the time he got there and sank into the cushioned seat, he was glad he made the effort. Marie was looking at him as if she were going to insult him again. Richard simply held up his hand to silence her and said, "Later ... I need quiet."

He was not aware when she had left him. Eventually his breathing slowed and he could open his eyes. He was alone, and although that was what he thought he wanted, he discovered it was not. He missed Marie's chatter and company. When will all this end?

"Good evening, son. I see you came downstairs. That's good. Little tough though, I imagine. A good supper will fix you up. No, don't disturb yourself. I will sit here and we can have a nice chat."

Richard told his uncle what Marie said about sitting in Papa's chair and the two men had a good laugh. John shook his head and said she gave him as much trouble as she does Richard. He was pleased to be relieved of her agitation for a few days. Then they laughed again because the only way John was relieved was because Richard was now on the receiving end.

After another one of Polly's good meals, she said she was glad to see him downstairs. Perry agreed and added he wasn't going to take any more meals upstairs. John and Richard returned to the large front room, which John said he refused to call a parlor. A room with that kind of a name was for rich folks, so he just called it his sitting room.

After a moment of silence, John looked at Richard and asked, "Do you believe in the old Bible adage of being your brother's keeper?"

Richard did not answer, he merely looked down at the toes of his boots and said nothing, not really sure where the conversation was going.

Not really expecting an answer, John asked, "Did your father ever tell you that we had another brother?"

Richard looked at his uncle in surprise and said, "No. Is that right, there were three of you?"

John replied, "Yes, and well, I'm not really surprised he didn't tell you."

John explained that Richard's father, Martin, was the oldest, that much Richard knew, and John was next. But there was a third son of the Patten family, Mathew, whom they called Matt. Matt was terribly jealous of Martin and bedeviled him constantly.

When Matt was just a little fellow he would kick and hit Martin as hard as he could. Martin would have to hold him off until Matt got over his tantrum. And golly, did that little boy have a temper. Often while Martin was holding Matt to avoid being hit or kicked, Matt would back up and run at Martin trying to get a fist or a kick in before Martin could stop him. Many times, Martin finally managed to subdue the young boy only by getting him to the ground and holding him still until he had expended all his energy and would lie panting, while his temper subsided.

Although John did not always escape Matt's temper, Martin was usually the target. It was difficult for a twelve year old to understand how a four or five year old could have so much built up anger. And John was sure Martin tried, but occasionally it just got the better of him and he would hit Matt, which made Matt's tantrum worse.

Matt was sly. He seemed to be able to hide his attacks, but Martin did not think to do so. Martin was often punished, or even whipped for hurting his brother. By the time Martin was in his teens, he could not stand the sight of Matt, and Matt took advantage of that, too. Being so much younger, Matt went to bed earlier than Martin and Matt often left a surprise in Martin's bed. Sometimes it was a frog, once a snake and several times he defecated in Martin's bed, and of course Martin was blamed. It got so bad, that at times Martin would sleep in the loft of the barn just to get some peace.

When Martin got interested in girls, Matt told one particular girl, whom Martin was interested in, that Martin was also seeing another girl. When she told Martin not to come see her anymore, he asked why and she told him what Matt had said. Martin lost all reason and hauled Matt out to the barn, Although he broke Matt's nose and two ribs, Martin, himself, did not escape injury. Matt was such a dirty fighter that he hit Martin over the head with a board and left him there in the dirt on the barn floor. It was hours before Martin came to. Martin continued to have headaches for the rest of his life.

Luke Patten, the boys' father was not a gentle man. Some might have called him a harsh man, while others said he was mean. In truth, he was probably a little of both. For some reason, he had a blind spot about Matt. After his oldest son and youngest son had their fight, Luke told Martin to leave, just get out, and never come back. So, that's what Martin did, he left. He roamed around for a few years and John would occasionally get a letter, which he never told his father about. Usually, there was no return address or any way to contact Martin, but once in a while, Martin did give an address because he was happy where he was working and John could write and tell him how things were at home.

One night, Matt and a few friends broke into a small store, stole some merchandise, and did some damage inside. The result was that Matt was sent to prison for a year. At the time, John had an address for Martin and wrote to tell him about Matt.

Martin showed up at the prison on the day Matt was to be released and took him back to the ranch where Martin was foreman. He thought that perhaps Matt could straighten out his life; at least he was away from the other young men with whom he had associated.

Matt did pretty well for a few months. He was liked by the other men. He and Martin seemed to get along pretty well, although Matt sometimes complained when told what to do by Martin.

Sometime later, however, Matt and two other men were found with around twenty head of cattle of various brands they were trying to sell to a buyer at the railhead.

Well, western justice was usually swift, and for a reason. When Martin found out, he cut his brother down from the tree where the ranchers had hanged him and he cut down the other men, too. He buried all three in a small church graveyard and marked the graves. He wrote a letter to Luke to tell him of the death of his youngest son. Luke was so distraught he drank until he could barely stand up, put a gun to his head, and killed himself.

John did not know if Luke was saddened by the death of the son he cared so much for, or if he finally admitted to himself that Matt was no good and Luke had wasted all those years on something that was not worth it. It really didn't matter. Luke had been such a bitter man in his last few years that even John couldn't stand being around him and never visited.

After John's description of the youngest Patten brother, he and Richard discussed how it would be to live with a father like Luke. Richard felt Martin had been a good father, a quiet and sometimes distant man, but he was never harsh or mean.

"Well son, let's get you upstairs to bed. The sleep will do you good after being up most of the day."

The next morning before he was half awake, Marie came bouncing into his room, telling him the sun was shining and they are going for a walk. It was an effort, but Richard finally convinced Marie to wait for him in the hall. He walked down the stairs, a little easier than the day before and did as Marie insisted, walked for twenty minutes down the street and then back, feeling like his legs were going to fall off. After he sat in the swing on the front porch for a while, he went inside to eat breakfast and sit in John's chair until the mid-day meal, which Polly said would fatten him up a little. Instead of trying the stairs, he went into the back yard and spent a while lying in the grass under a big shade tree. He woke some time later with Marie tickling his face with a blade of grass.

She insisted that it was time to go fishing, but Richard told her it would have to wait until he could walk a little farther.

Marie asked to go fishing every day that week until Richard was ready to risk a walk that far. He helped her dig a few worms, showed her how to bait her hook, and watched to see what would happen. They had fried fish for supper.

After Polly told Marie it was bedtime and everyone listened to her complaints, Richard and John sat, appreciating the quiet of the sitting room, neither interested in an early night nor in anything else.

"Son, have you given some thought to what I asked you about being your brother's keeper?"

"Yes. Can I ask you a question? Why do you call me 'son' all the time? I very seldom hear you call me Richard and I just wondered."

"Oh, I guess ... well, that is a story I will have to tell you at another time. So, you remember about being your brother's keeper?"

"Well, I guess I do. I suppose you mean the story in the Bible?"

John nodded his head, and then asked, "Why don't you tell me what you know about that story."

"Alright, as well as I can. After God sent Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden they had two sons, Cain and Abel. Cain was jealous so he killed Abel. When God asked Cain where his brother was, Cain said, 'Am I my brother's keeper?' That's what I know of the story."

"Yes, that is the story, but why did Cain kill his brother?"

"Because God was pleased with the sacrifice Able brought and was not pleased with the sacrifice Cain brought. He was jealous. Jealous of the attention Abel received from God."

John agreed and began to talk about the relationship between father and son, Luke and Martin, at least from the way Matt saw it. Luke called Martin "son." "Son, go get some firewood." But he called his second child John and his third child Matt. "Son, go get some firewood. John, you go help him. Matt, you can go too." Matt was jealous that he was not the son. When Matt would taunt Martin, he usually called him "son." He would say things like "Hey son, did Papa whip you for hitting me?" and then he would scream, "I am his son." Over and over, the same words, "I am his son. I am his son," with every swing of his fist he would repeat those words.

John looked at Richard and asked, "Did your father tell you very much about our mother?"

Richard thought for a moment and answered, "Not really, no. He might occasionally say something like "My mother made cornbread this way," but not much more than that. All I really know is that she died when he was about six or seven years old."

"Yes, that is correct, and it was several years later that our father married his second wife, the mother of Matt."

John continued that he wasn't sure if Matt thought he should be called son because he was the first child of Luke's second wife or if he just wanted to feel like he was part of a family. Luke talked about his first wife as if he hated her. John said he never did figure out if Luke was angry that Martha died and left him with two small boys, or if he never did love her. He would say insulting things about her any time Martin or John mentioned their mother.

But Luke worshiped his second wife. Oh, did he ever worship her. She was very young, little more than a girl when he married her. She was only three or four years older than Martin, and Luke was jealous because Millie was nice to both Martin and John.

"They ain't nothin' but gets of that whore, Martha." He would tell her and then he would chase her around the house until he caught her, and then drag her to the bedroom and the two boys could hear her screaming at the way he treated her.

Luke was a big man, as were his first two sons. John said it would not be hard to imagine what a big man could do to a small young wife if she resisted him in any way, particularly if he was jealous and the man worshiped her, as Luke did Millie. John said he and Martin did not understand the problem then. But they may have come to understand it somewhat in later years. And perhaps it was one of the reasons Martin and John had respect for women for the remainder of their lives, to make sure they never treated a woman as their father had done.

When Millie was pregnant, the attacks slacked off, but did not stop altogether. After Matt was born, he was a sickly baby, but he eventually grew out of it and was a healthy little boy, still a little small for his age. Luke would sit with Matt on his lap and stroke his blond hair, hair just like his mother's, and say, "Matt is my pretty boy. Matt is my good boy." And although Martin and John couldn't really do anything to win his approval, they still tried everything they could think of to please Luke.

When Matt was about four years old and Martin was twelve or thirteen and John about ten, Millie disappeared. One day she was there and the next day she was not. Luke didn't say a lot, but he cursed her, talking about her as if she had run away, but he never did say where she went and he never went to look for her. Matt had so much attention from Luke that he seldom missed his mother. Luke would say things like, "Us men, we don't need no woman no-way. They are just in the way and always wanting pretty things." And for the most part, Martin and John were glad for her, that she was gone, if it had not been for Matt's attacks and temper tantrums.

John looked at Richard, "You look a little tired tonight, son. Let's make it an early night. I could use some extra sleep, myself."

The two men put out the lamps and climbed the stairs to their beds. Richard stayed awake for a while, thinking of all he had learned about John's father and the kind of life he had when he was so young. Maybe now he could realize why his own father was such a quiet man. Richard thought back over many years, and finally understood why his father never appeared angry, nor did he ever see him raise his hand to hurt another person, not even an animal.

"Marie, why do you like to go fishing so much?"

"Because Billy Allen says girls can't catch fish. Some day I'm going to catch a really big one and take it to his house and let his mamma cook it for Billy Allen's supper."

"I think we have eight, right now. Wouldn't it be just as nice to take eight fish for her to cook for his supper?"

"Nope wouldn't be the same. It has to be a big one."

Not bothering to argue with the logic of a ten year old, Richard continued to watch his cork. He wondered what Marie would do if he caught that big one. Would she take it to Billy Allen's mother? Nope. It wouldn't be the same. Still eight smaller fish made a fine supper.

John brought mail home with him that night and there was a letter from Richard's mother. It was a short letter, telling him to get better. She had moved back out to the ranch to make sure everything was going well. She wrote that he needed to come home, but not until he was ready. Then she signed it, Love, Mother.

Richard held the letter out to John, but he waved his hand indicating he did not want to read it. Instead, John was looking out the window and said, "Tell me about her."

Richard asked, "You mean you want me to tell you about Mother?"

John shook his head and said, "No, tell me about Sandra."

Richard thought for a moment and admitted, "I don't know if I am ready to do that."

John looked at him, "Son, it isn't going to go away, and you will need to talk about it sooner or later. Might as well do it sooner, get it over with."

Richard nodded his head and said he never thought he would find a woman that could smile so pretty. The first time he saw her, she was getting off the train and he wanted her. He watched her walk to the store and go inside and he sat right there for at least an hour thinking she would come back out. Finally he walked to the store, went inside, and asked Mr. Haskins who was the young lady that came inside a while ago. Mr. Haskins said she was his niece and she was going to live with him and help him in the store. That was all Richard needed to know. Soon he began to pursue her. He went all the way to town at least twice a week until she would finally say more than "Good morning."

Of course, there were other single men in town and lots of them on nearby farms and ranches, and most of them wanted her too. But he was not going to let that stop him. It took Richard six months to work up the courage to ask Sandra to marry him. He was not expecting her to say yes, but she did and he reached out and kissed her.

His mother had already moved to town, saying she was going to let the boys have the ranch as long as they would pay for her to live at the boarding house and give her a dollar now and then. The day Sandra said she would marry him, Richard took her to meet his mother and asked her to come to the ranch with Sandra so he could show her around the place where she would live after they were married.

It might have been then that Ronnie started watching Sandra, talking to her and sitting beside her--or it might have been earlier but Richard did not notice. His foreman told him Ronnie should not be trusted, but Richard thought he knew better and felt he did not need to be concerned. He thought Ronnie was just being friendly.

For the few days she was at the ranch, Richard would come home late in the evening and find Ronnie sitting beside Sandra talking to her. She would tell Ronnie, "Go away, right now, I want my sweetheart to sit beside me." She would look up at Richard and smile, so Ronnie would go away. After those few days, Richard took his mother and Sandra back to town.

Sandra began to sew herself a nice dress to be married in since it would take about two weeks before the wedding. Richard and Ronnie rode to town in the middle of the next week. Richard went to see Sandra. They sat on her uncle's front porch and talked about being together every night, just like they were together right then. The next morning Richard and Ronnie rode back to the ranch.

The day before the wedding Richard, Ronnie, Smitty and a few of the other men went to town since their boss was the one getting married. Richard went to Mr. Haskins house and took Sandra to the hotel where he paid for two nights of the best room in the hotel. He left her there and said he would be back in the morning to take her to the church to be married. He kissed her for only the second time in his life when he left.

The next morning, right before the wedding was supposed to start he went to the hotel to get his bride. When he knocked, his younger brother opened the door, grinning at him. "Morning, big brother." Richard asked him what he was doing at the hotel in his future wife's room and Ronnie said, "Hell, Richard, you got you a good one. I was in her room last night and she welcomed me like a whore gettin' a twenty dollar gold piece from a cowboy off a long, hot trail drive."

Richard turned around and left the hotel, went to the saloon, ordered a drink and heard screaming and yelling coming from the street. Smitty and the other men went out to the street to see what was happening. They were all laughing, so Richard went to look, too. The men moved aside to let him through, and he saw his younger brother exiting the hotel with Richard's half-dressed bride pounding Ronnie on the back. Ronnie turned around and slapped her across the face and said, "Shut up, I'm not going to let you ruin his life, too." Then he slapped her again. She tried to get his gun and he pulled it out of her hands, put it up against her chest and pulled the trigger. Sandra just crumpled to the ground.

Richard leaned over and vomited, then did it a second time, getting it all over his shirt. He turned back to the saloon and got so drunk he passed out and woke up in jail in a cell right next to Ronnie.

Ronnie said, "Morning, big brother." Richard tried to hit him, but the bars were in the way and all he did was hurt his hand. Ronnie laughed and said, "She's got the pox, gave it to me, gave it to her uncle, which he ain't, and probably half the men on the ranch." Then he was laughing again until he stopped to say, "Good riddance" and started laughing, again. The sheriff let Richard out of his cell and took Ronnie to the capital to be tried for murder.

Richard talked to Ronnie only one time before the trial. Ronnie said that once a decent woman learned he had the pox, they would never look at him so he might as well die right now and save himself the misery. Ronnie turned away from Richard, never to speak to him again.

Richard told John about the trial and what he'd said on the stand. He didn't know if he did anything wrong, but it probably wouldn't have changed anything anyway. He was just sorry his mother would never get to know how much Ronnie did for him.

John looked at the man in the chair beside him, wondering how he would ever heal. Maybe healing would come with time, but a lot of time. He stood and said, "Come on son, let's get to bed. It's late and you still need some good rest." He turned as the younger man walked behind him.

Richard was too tired to stay awake. It took a lot of energy to tell Uncle John about Sandra and it was even worse when he had to talk about Ronnie. He wasn't sure if there was really forgiveness for the kind of sin Ronnie had committed, but Richard felt he needed some.

It was several days later when Richard asked, "Marie, can you ride a horse?"

Richard wanted to ride out into the open country where there were no people. He wanted to yell, sing, or do something. He was restless.

"No, can you?"

"Yes. Would you like to go for a ride with me?"

"Papa does not have a horse. He walks to the store."

"Well, do you know anyone who has a horse?"

"I think Billy Allen's papa has one, but it pulls Mrs. Allen's buggy."

"Is there a stable in town where I could rent a horse?"

"I don't know. What is so important about a horse? All they do is eat grass and drop their nasty in the street."

"Marie, that is not a nice thing for a young lady to say."

"Well they do, and what am I supposed to call it?"

"Alright, I am going to go to town and see if I can find a horse to ride. Do you want to go for a ride with me?"

"Can I ride in front?"

"May I ride in front, that's what you are supposed to say."

"Alright, Richard, may I ride in front?"

"Yes, you may, if I can find a horse. You stay here and I will be back soon."

"Richard, MAY I come with you to find the horse?"

"Yes, I guess so, but first we must tell Polly where we are going."

"Aw, she doesn't care as long as I'm with you."

"Maybe that is so, but we are going to tell her, anyway."

It was not the easiest thing to do, to find a horse to ride. But after a little looking around, Richard found a fairly good one, although not nearly as good as the one he had left at the stable when he left home. It was a long ride to find some open space. It was getting late when they finally got back to return the horse and get home.

John smiled when saw them walking down the street, the tall young man holding the hand of the small girl while she looked up at him, talking as fast as she could. Both were dusty. Marie's nose was a little red from being in the sun but they looked like they'd had a wonderful day.

At supper, Marie could not stop talking. "I am old enough to have a horse of my own. I held the reins and I even rode by myself while he walked. It is a long way down to the ground from way up there." She fell asleep almost before Polly could get her up to her bed.

"Son, I believe you had a good day."

"Yes, sir, and Marie did too. Next time I do that, I'm going to start a little earlier."

"Yes, but maybe you would like to do it alone next time."

Richard thought about that and said, "No, I don't think I'm ready to be alone, yet. Marie is very entertaining."

"Yes, she is. And you don't have to think when she is with you."

"I had not considered that until you said it, but I guess you are right. No, I don't have to think when she is with me."

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