On a deserted road laying under autumn skies, a rickety wagon traveled, bumping around the sole passenger in the driver's seat. He wasn't a handsome man by any means, with his broad, bearded face beneath a slouch hat, but that mattered little to him, as he prided himself more on his brains than his looks. Woodson Hex believed himself to be the craftiest man in these parts, and whenever an opportunity arose to put that craftiness to use, he jumped on it like a cat on a field mouse. He was returning home from one of those opportunities, as a matter of fact: he'd made a deal with some of the local saloons to buy their empty liquor bottles at a dime apiece, then turned around, filled them with homemade moonshine, and sold them to unsuspecting Indians at a dollar-and-a-half, never telling them that the still-labeled bottles no longer contained the contents listed. He made sure to occasionally slip in the real thing so they wouldn't catch on, and so far they hadn't. Sometimes Ah'm so clever, Ah cain't stand muhself, he thought with a smile, listening to some of the leftover bottles clink against each other in the back of the wagon. His craftiness did have a price, or at least he believed that was the reason most of the folks he knew looked down their noses at him -- they were jealous, plain and simple. They couldn't stand the thought of him succeeding, so they gave him dirty looks when he rode into the nearby town of Haverville, overcharging him in the shops to steal away his hard-earned money. Someday he'd show them all, just buy the whole damn town out from under 'em and turn 'em out into the street.
For now, he'd have to content himself with his little plot of land a few miles outside of Haverville, surrounded by fields of buffalo grass and bordering a strip of woodland. Like its owner, the homeplace was lacking in looks, but for Woodson, it was what lay inside that counted. As the shack came into view, he thought of his beautiful wife Ginny, and how much he looked forward to laying with her in the dark, drawing her close and running his hands over her soft skin. Sadly, he couldn't do much with her beyond that, not until the baby was born, but even with that swollen belly between them he could have a little fun. Those thoughts soon flew out of his head, however, when he saw a man leading a horse out of the small stable on his property. A dark look quickly clouded over his features, for as sure as he held tightly onto his money, he held onto his wife even tighter. Snapping the reins, he urged the horses on home a bit faster, his mind trying to decide if he should just shoot the man from afar or throttle the life out of him with his bare hands. He began to calm as he drew closer, seeing the man was only Doc Albano -- he must have been stopping by to look in on Ginny. Woodson brought the wagon to a halt in front of the stable, calling out, "How do, Doc. Everything check out fine?"
"More than fine," he replied, and offered his hand after Woodson climbed down from the wagon. "Congratulations."
Shaking the doctor's hand, he said, "Thanks...whut fer?"
"For becoming a father. You got yourself a new baby boy in there."
"Now? But it just turned November...yuh said the baby might not get here 'til Christmas."
"Looks like the baby had other ideas," the doctor said with a grin. "Your wife went into labor yesterday. Lucky for her, I came on by not long after...spent the whole night with her, tryin' to convince the tyke to hurry it on up. Finally talked him into it this morning."
"Well now, don't thet beat all...Ah leave home fer a few days an' look whut happens." Eager to see the new addition to the household, he began to head for the shack, but the doctor laid a hand on his arm to stop him.
"If you could hold up a minute...your wife seemed a mite worried 'bout how you might react. Y'see, the baby..."
"Whut's wrong? He a cripple? Sick?"
"No, he's a healthy tyke: good weight, ten fingers and toes, the whole mess. It's just..."
"It's just nothin'," Woodson replied, and shook the doctor off. "If'n he ain't sick, ain't crippled, then it's nothin'." He started for the shack again, calling out as he opened the door, "Ginny? Where yuh at, sugar?" It was unnecessary, as Ginny was sitting in the front room by the hearth in her rocker, her long blonde hair tousled and a blanket-wrapped bundle in her arms. She looked exhausted, but she managed to give her husband a small smile when she saw him.
"Hello, dear," she said, "I heard you talkin' with the doc...did he tell you?"
"He told me the baby's come, but after thet, he got as flighty as yer sister." He reached out to take the bundle from her, but she pulled it close to her chest.
"Not yet. I want you to promise that...that you won't get angry. I know how you've gotten in the past about things, and I don't..."
"Why would Ah get angry?" Her eyes were insistent, though, and Woodson sighed, "Alright, Ah promise not tuh get angry...now kin Ah see muh son?"
Ginny hesitated, then handed the bundle to her husband. He folded back the blanket, and there it was: a perfect little baby, rosy-cheeked, eyes half-closed, and a lock of red hair curled on his smooth forehead. Absolutely flawless.
"Whut the Hell is this?" Woodson growled at his wife. Unconcerned with the change in tone, the baby reached up and tangled his tiny fingers in the coal-black hairs of the man's beard.
Ginny cowered in her rocker, saying in a small voice, "You promised you wouldn't get angry..."
"Yuh ain't seen angry yet, yuh two-timin' whore!" He grabbed Ginny by the wrist and pulled her out of the rocker. Still weak from childbirth, she fell to the ground at his feet as he yelled, "Who's the red-headed bastard y'all been sleepin' with behind muh back?"
Doc Albano, hearing the commotion, came in and tried to intervene. "Mr. Hex, please stop this!"
"Stay outta this, Doc!" He still held the baby in his other hand, his grip tightening enough to make the infant cry out. "Yuh did yer part, an' now Ah've gotta do mine." He gave her a shake, saying, "Ah go off fer days at a time, earnin' enough money tuh keep a roof over yer ungrateful head and food in yer belly, an' the moment Ah'm out of sight, yuh spread yer legs fer whoever comes a-knockin', don't yuh? Don't yuh?"
"Woodson, please," Ginny begged, "I love you, I've only loved you..."
He let go of her wrist and slapped her across the face. "Yo're a liar and a whore! How yuh explain the red hair? It sure as Hell ain't from me!"
"Mr. Hex, if you could just listen for a minute," the doctor said. Woodson glared at him hard enough to make the man back up a couple steps. "T-traits can sometimes skip a generation or two," he continued with a stutter. "Your wife told me she had a grandfather with red hair, so it's perfectly reasonable that the baby could as well."
Woodson turned back to Ginny, still kneeling on the floor with tears flowing down her cheeks. "Is thet the truth, woman? It better be, 'cause if'n Ah find out otherwise..."
"He's yours," she sobbed, "I swear by all the saints in Heaven, he's yours."
The baby cried again, strong and clear. Woodson regarded the bundle in his hand for a moment, then handed the infant over to his wife, muttering, "Ah've gotta go unhitch the horses." He walked back outside, passing the doctor without a word. The doctor himself shuddered after the man left -- he'd only been practicing in Haverville for about a year, but in that time, he'd heard quite a bit about Woodson Hex's temper. He'd also heard a thing or two about the man's wife, but that was no concern of his. Right now, the only thing on his mind was getting out of there before the next flare-up, but his oath as a doctor prevented any sort of hasty retreat.
After helping Ginny back into her rocker, he gave the infant a once-over, to be sure that no harm had come to him. There was some bruising near the baby's shoulder, but nothing broken. The mother had bruises of her own on her wrist and jawline, but seemed to pay them no mind -- her full focus was on the baby in her arms, tucking the blanket securely around his body once again. "Isn't he beautiful?" she said to the doctor.
"He's a peach," he answered, wondering how she could sound so calm after what happened just minutes ago. "Have you thought of a name yet?"
She shook her head. "I was hopin' for a little girl."
"How 'bout callin' him after your grandfather...the redheaded one, I mean."
"I could...but Woodson'll probably want to name the baby after himself."
"Reckon that's why God invented middle names."
Ginny brushed a finger across the baby's downy-soft hair, thinking it over. "Jonah...Jonah Woodson Hex. That sounds fine, don't you think?"
"More than fine." The doctor stepped over to the door, saying, "I'll stop back in a day or two, just to be sure all's well." She nodded in response, never taking her eyes from the infant. He said goodbye to Woodson outside the stable as he climbed onto his horse, but the gruff man ignored him completely. Riding away from the Hex homestead, Doc Albano could only pray that what he'd seen that day would not be a common occurrence, and that the Lord Above would watch closely over little Jonah.
When he was four-and-a-half, Jonah left the confines of Haverville for the first time. It was also the first time he saw a dead body. His mother told him the man sleeping in the long box was his Uncle Silas, and that he was in Heaven now with Jesus and the angels, which didn't make much sense to Jonah -- how could he be in Heaven and in the box at the same time? He kept asking his mother to explain, but she shushed him and made him sit still beside her on the hard wooden pew while a preacher stood in front of the box and talked really loud for what seemed like forever. Even his father, who sat on the other side of Jonah, began to fidget after a while. The worst part of it all was listening to his Aunt Aretha bawl the whole time -- the heavyset woman leaned hard on her younger sister Ginny, a handkerchief covering her face as her sobs echoed off the church rafters. Jonah's father, sensitive as ever, muttered under his breath at one point that if she didn't stop it soon, her dead husband might jump out of the casket and slap her fat face just so he could rot in peace.
After the preacher stopped talking and they put Uncle Silas in a really deep hole, everyone went over to Aunt Aretha's house and ate cold chicken and pie and talked a lot (not as loud as the preacher, but some of the words were the same). Woodson, tired of listening to his sister-in-law carry on, found a bottle of whiskey and wandered off with some other men. Jonah wanted to get away from there too, away from all the strange people that kept coming up to him and patting him on the head and telling him what a handsome boy he was, they could see a lot of his mother in him. He especially wanted to get away from Aunt Aretha and all the noise she was making, it was giving him the shivers.
Ginny insisted that they stay with Aretha for a few days, just until she calmed down a bit -- Woodson raised holy Hell about that, and tried to persuade her otherwise with the back of his hand, but she could be stubborn sometimes. Eventually, Woodson decided to leave himself, making his wife swear that she'd return home in a week -- he was wary of letting her out of his sight for so long, but it seemed a better choice than facing Aretha's endless dirge. While Ginny did her best to help her sister recover, Jonah was left in the care of his older cousins. Aretha's brood consisted of three boys: Tommy was the eldest at eight years old, and the twins David and Daniel had just turned six. Seeing as how they lived a good two days from Haverville, they'd never even met their cousin Jonah until the funeral, and they certainly didn't know why all the grownups thought they'd be friends with him right off simply because he was kin. Tommy felt the most put-off by Jonah's presence -- it wasn't enough that he had to be the man around the house now, he also had to contend with keeping an eye on a brat he barely knew from Adam, not to mention his own brothers. They tried to ditch Jonah at every opportunity, but soon found he was hard to shake -- it didn't matter how far they went from the homestead, as soon as they turned around Jonah would be there, looking at the boys with his big blue eyes.
Three days after the funeral, the boys had gone down to the pond not far from their home for a swim -- while it wasn't fully summer yet, the dry Texas climate made it feel close enough. They'd stripped down to their knickers and were readying to launch a small wooden raft they kept down there when they heard a rustling in the nearby weeds. The next thing they knew, Jonah popped up, barefoot and smiling, and the boys groaned.
"He never quits," David said, and Daniel yelled, "Go on home, yuh baby!"
"Ah'm not a baby," Jonah said, trying to stand a little taller to emphasize.
"Aw, forget about him," Tommy told his brothers, and dragged the raft into the water. The twins joined him, and when Jonah tried to get in on the action, one of them pushed Jonah down on his fanny. He sat in the shallow water and let out a whine as the boys laughed at him.
"See? Nothin' but a big baby!" Daniel said. They paddled the raft out to the center of the pond, then used it to dive off of as Jonah watched from the shore, arms wrapped around his knees. After a while, they got bored with swimming, and sat on the edge of the raft, wondering how they could get back and avoid dragging their little cousin along. "Don't matter how fast we run," David said, "he always finds us."
A wicked grin crossed Tommy's face. "Ah got an idea," he said, then shouted to the shore, "Hey, Jonah!" The boy immediately jumped to his feet at the sound of his name. "Me an' the boys decided if'n yuh can swim on out here, then yo're big enough to play with us," Tommy continued, waving to him. "C'mon, yuh can do it!"
"What're yuh doin'?" his younger brothers said as Jonah struggled to get his shirt off, but Tommy just smiled and slipped back into the pond, one hand on the raft. They watched Jonah as he did his best to swim out to them -- he didn't have much experience in the water, and landed up gulping down a mouthful every few strokes. He kept coming, though, kicking his legs and flailing his arms and making painfully slow progress.
When he was more than halfway there, Tommy began to kick his legs as well, pushing the raft just a few more feet away. "That's it, yo're almost there!" he told Jonah, laughing. His brothers quickly caught on, and paddled with their hands every time Tommy kicked the raft a little further out of reach. Soon, the raft was nearly at the opposite shore, and Jonah was struggling to keep his head above water at the pond's deepest point. The older boys kept egging him on, laughing every time his head bobbed below the surface. When the raft bumped up against the other shore, the boys jumped off and ran up the slope, leaving Jonah to tread water in the middle of the pond.
"Hey...hey! Wait!" He tried to wave his arms, but he was too exhausted to raise them above his head. "Don't leave...don't..." In a panic, he stopped kicking, and he began to sink immediately -- his mouth filled with water as he tried to yell again, then he managed to break the surface, coughing and crying. Jonah could see his cousins standing on the top of the slope, looking down at him, then nothing but water as he went under, his heart banging inside his small ribcage and his lungs on fire. He could see his hand float above him as he sank, no feeling in it, no control, just a shadow against the fading light over his head.
Then something blocked the light, and Jonah felt a tug, and suddenly there was air again, but he still couldn't catch his breath. He felt firm earth and dry grass beneath him, and someone was slapping him on the back and face and hollering, "Breathe, stupid! Breathe!" His stomach spasmed, and he vomited up pond water and breakfast all over his cousin Tommy. That earned him another slap on the face. "Yuh dummy! What's wrong with yuh?"
Jonah looked up at his cousins -- Tommy glared down at him, while David and Daniel stood behind their older brother, scared out of their wits. "Oh my God, we almost killed 'im," one of the twins (Jonah couldn't tell which) said.
"Shut up," Tommy snapped, then leaned close to Jonah. "Yo're lucky Ah came back for yuh...only reason Ah did is 'cause Ma's upset enough already. But if'n yuh keep followin' us like yuh been, Ah might change my mind an' drag yuh back here. Understand, dummy?"
Jonah nodded, his throat hurting too much to talk. The thought of going back in the water, sinking down and down until he hit the inky bottom...he started crying, not caring if his cousin hit him again or if they called him a baby. He was still crying when the boys took him back to the house -- his mother gathered him up in her arms and tried to console him, but Jonah refused to tell her what was the matter, nor did she know why he stuck so close to her for the rest of their stay, not even wanting to go outside when his cousins did.
Ginny and her son went back to Haverville a couple days later, and Jonah began to act like his old self not long after. However, the first time she gave him a bath after their return, and tried to get him to dip his head under the water, Jonah started screaming and scrambled right out of the metal washtub, refusing to even let his mother rise off the soap.
“Get back over here, boy! Yuh want me tuh blow yer fool head off by mistake?” Woodson grabbed his son by the shoulder as the boy walked out of the underbrush and gave him a good shake. “We’s out here tuh do some huntin‘, not tomfoolery!”
“Ah’m sorry, Pa,” Jonah said, “Ah thought Ah saw...”
“Yuh never think, an’ thet’s yer whole damn problem.” He tucked the shotgun under his arm and reached into his coat to pull out a flask. The late-November air had quite a chill that day, and he needed a little nip to warm himself up. “The Good Lord didn’t give yuh the same sense he done gave a mule, Ah swear.”
“Sorry, Pa,” Jonah repeated, not really meaning it -- he’d found at an early age that it was better to simply apologize to his father right away than to wait and see if he’d get hit. He seemed to apologize a lot.
Woodson downed a mouthful of whiskey, then tucked the flask away. “If’n yuh want something tuh eat fer Thanksgiving, yo're gonna have tuh listen tuh me,” he told the boy, “not run around in the bushes an’ scare off all the game.” He brought the shotgun up again and continued his path through the woods near the homeplace, Jonah following close behind. Winter was approaching fast, making it hard to find any wildlife worth emptying a barrelful of buckshot at, but they were trying their luck anyways -- the holiday just wouldn’t be the same without some sort of fresh meat on the table. “There we go, son,” his father said quietly after a while, and pointed to a round brownish shape huddled in a blanket of dead leaves. “ Reckon thet rabbit there’ll make us a damn fine supper.”
“He’s a beaut, Pa.”
The elder Hex shushed him, then knelt down on one knee and took aim. Jonah watched his father, paying close attention to how he handled the gun. The man had let him do a little target shooting before, and found Jonah had a good steady hand for it, but he wasn't about to depend on his nine-year-old son to bring home supper just yet. So the boy could only stand by as Woodson waited for the right moment, finger on the trigger and eye on the rabbit, until...
BAM! The gunshot rang out in the forest, the rabbit bolted, and Woodson cursed. “Sonova...go get ‘im, boy!” He slapped Jonah on the back, saying, “Ah know Ah hit thet sucker dead-on, so he couldn’t have gotten far.”
“Yessir, Ah’ll find it!” He ran in the direction the rabbit went, easily spotting the flecks of blood it left behind on the ground. Unfortunately, that was all he could find. Keep lookin’, Jonah thought, Pa’s gonna be real cross if’n yuh don’t bring it back. He went back a few steps, kicked at a large pile of leaves, but still nothing. Then he heard a noise behind a fallen tree -- it lay in the opposite direction of the blood trail, but he had to try. As quietly as he could, Jonah circled ‘round the deadfall until he found the source of the noise: a small raccoon, its back leg badly twisted in a trap. It stared up at him, its fuzzy chest moving rapidly up and down, obviously terrified.
“Don‘t be scared, boy,” Jonah said, and knelt down beside the animal, “Ah ain’t gonna hurt yuh, Ah promise.” He inspected the wound, careful not to touch it. “Ain’t so bad...just need tuh get yuh outta this here trap, is all.” He took hold of the metal jaws and tried to pry them apart, but all he succeeded in doing was making the raccoon shriek. It nipped at Jonah, and the boy pulled back. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” he said. “Ah’m just tryin’ tuh help, the trap’s...”
“Whut in the blue Hell are yuh doin‘?” Jonah’s head snapped up, and he saw his father towering over him with anger in his eyes. “Ah sent yuh out here tuh get a rabbit, not play around!”
“Ah ain’t playin’,” he started to say, but Woodson’s hand whipped out and slapped him hard across the face.
“No backtalk.” He peered around the boy at the raccoon. “Whut yuh got there?”
“He’s hurt, Pa. Ah’m tryin’ tuh set him free, but the spring’s too tight.”
“Ain’t right tuh go messin’ with other folk’s traps,” he said, knowing full well that he’d done it himself when the opportunity had come along. "Let it alone an’ go find thet rabbit afore Ah...”
“But he’s just a baby!” Jonah said, forgetting the earlier admonishment about backtalk. “We cain’t leave him here, he’ll die! If’n yuh let him out, Ah’ll...Ah won’t ask fer no Christmas presents. Just let me take him home an’ fix him up, Ah’ll keep him out in the woodshed an’ take care of him ‘til springtime. Please, Pa...”
Woodson stood there silently for a minute, regarding his son and the animal, then got down on his knees. “Put yer scarf over him an‘ hold him down, he’s gonna fight like the Devil,” he said. Jonah did as he was told, and his father pried the trap apart -- the raccoon let out an awful shriek, but it was soon over. Jonah wrapped his scarf around the poor trembling thing and held it to his chest, petting it and talking softly. “Thet leg’s broke bad...Ah don’t think it’ll heal up proper,” Woodson told him.
“Ah’ll make him a splint. He’ll be okay, yuh’ll see.” He smiled at his father. “Kin Ah take him home, Pa? Get him cleaned up?”
“Fine...yo’re just in muh damn way out here, anyhow.” Jonah had jumped up and started running before his father even finished talking. There were no words to express how excited the boy felt: he had a pet now, all his own, Pa said it was okay and everything. Most days, his father scared him half to death, but sometimes the man would surprise him, and those times made all the blows and mean words tolerable, even if only for a short while. The homeplace wasn’t too far away, and Jonah made it there in record time, throwing open the front door and yelling, “Ma! Ma, come see whut Pa let me have!”
Ginny had been fixing up an apple pie for after the Thanksgiving feast, and was startled by his sudden entrance. “Goodness, Jonah, you’d think the stable was on fire the way you burst in. Did you and Pa find something for supper?”
“No ma’am...look!” He held up the bundled raccoon, its little gray head poking out. His mother's eyes widened at the sight of it -- it was a little smaller than a housecat, but it was still a wild animal. “His leg’s hurt, but Ah’m gonna fix him up right as rain,” he explained.
"I'm sure you will, sweetheart," she said, "but you'll do it outside. No critters in the house, injured or no."
"But Ah need something fer bandages...an' food, Ah reckon he's real hungry." He looked up at his mother expectantly, and she soon gave in, relinquishing an old rag and a slice of apple to Jonah before shooing him out of the house. He headed for the woodshed, and after making the raccoon a bed out of straw from the stable, he set to work fixing up his new charge. The animal put up little fuss once it had food to distract it, and let Jonah clean out the wound and wrap a splint around its leg. “Yo’re gonna be all right now,” Jonah told the raccoon, pulling it in his lap. “Ah’m gonna take care of yuh, an’ maybe when spring comes, Pa will see whut a good job Ah’ve done, an’ he’ll let me keep yuh ‘stead of turnin’ yuh loose. Won’t thet be fine?” He smiled and stroked the animal's fur. “An’ if’n yuh behave real good, maybe Ma will let me keep yuh in the house. Yuh kin sleep right next tuh me, an’ Ah’ll teach yuh tricks...Ah bet yo’re real smart. Yuh look smart.” He held the raccoon up to his face, saying, “Yo’re gonna need a name, though, so’s folks’ll know yo’re a pet an’ not just any old ‘coon. How ‘bout Ah call yuh Roy? Yuh like thet name?”
The newly-christened Roy merely stared at Jonah with eyes like black marbles.
“Yeah, thet’s a fine name. We’s gonna be best friends, Roy, we’ll...”
“Jonah! Are you still playin’ with that raccoon out there?”
He poked his head out of the woodshed and saw his mother standing by the front door of the shack. “Yes’m, we're right here!”
“Well, you come on in, I need help peelin’ potatoes for supper.”
“Yes’m.” He set the animal down on its bed, tucking his scarf around it like a blanket. “Yuh get some rest now, Roy. Ah’ll bring yuh some more food after supper, maybe some o’ thet pie.” He patted the raccoon’s head, and before he closed the shed door, he pointed a finger at Roy and said in a firm voice, “Stay!” Figured he should start teaching his pet things right away.
While Jonah was still working on the potatoes, Pa came home from hunting. “Ain‘t much, but it‘ll make a nice supper fer the three of us,” he said, handing Ginny a burlap sack. “Got it all cleaned an’ ready fer yuh, so y’all go on an’ set it tuh cookin’. Ah’m so hungry, Ah could eat it raw!” He then went over to the pantry and brought out a fresh bottle of whiskey as his wife and son finished preparing the food.
A few hours later, the feast was all laid out on the sawbuck table, the game Woodson brought home roasted to perfection and smothered in gravy. Once grace was out of the way, Jonah proceeded to tear through the meal on his plate, making sure to set aside a few bites of corn pone and vegetables for Roy. His mother scolded him for wolfing down his food, saying he was liable to choke if he didn't slow down. "Sorry, Ma, but Ah want tuh get back out tuh the shed an' check on Roy," he told her.
"I'm sure he won't mind if'n you leave him be awhile longer," Ma said.
"Don't see why yo're makin' such a big fuss over the thing, anyhow," Pa muttered as he poured himself another glass of whiskey -- he'd already put away two or three before supper, not to mention the flask he'd polished off in the woods. "It was just a flea-bitten runt whut was probably gonna die afore the week was out, his leg was chewed up so bad."
Jonah's face paled at the thought of losing his new friend. "Don't say things like thet, Pa! Roy's gonna be okay, Ah cleaned 'im up real good."
"Ah saw thet, but it don't matter now," he said, then took a drink. "Whut's done is done."
"Woodson..." Ginny started, then looked at the platter of meat she'd fixed up, and a hand flew to her mouth. "For God's sake, Woodson, tell me you didn't..."
"So the Hell whut if'n Ah did! Ah'm the man of the house, ain't Ah? A man's gotta do whut's right fer his family, 'specially when it comes tuh providin' meat fer the table!"
The meaning of his parents' words slowly sank into Jonah, and he pushed his plate away, suddenly ill. "Yuh killed him..." he said quietly, then balled up his fists and banged them on the table, yelling at his father, "Yuh killed him! Yuh done killed Roy!"
"Dammit, boy, whut's wrong with yuh? It was just a damn raccoon, thet's all!"
"No, he wasn't! He was mine, yuh ain't got no right!" He stood up and grabbed his tin plate, throwing it at the man. "Yuh said Ah could have him, an' then yuh done killed him! Ah...Ah hate yuh!"
Woodson reached across the table and grabbed his son by the wrist, twisting the boy's arm at an uncomfortable angle. "Watch yer tongue, boy," he growled. "Hate's an awful strong word tuh use against yer own Pa."
"Stop it, you're hurting him!" Ginny pleaded, and tried to make him let go, but he only shoved her away.
"This is all yer damn fault! Yo're always coddling him, an' now look at him: not one damn ounce of respect fer his own flesh an' blood." He got up and yanked Jonah away from the table, throwing him to the floor not far from where the boy's plate landed. "Rather Ah let y'all starve than harm one mangy hair on a 'coon's head...whut the Hell sort of thinkin' is thet?"
Say sorry, Jonah thought to himself, say it quick an' like yuh mean it. But he couldn't do it, not this time. His Pa had done awful things before, to both him and Ma, but this was the worst of all, he'd killed someone Jonah cared about with nary a thought -- Jonah could never forgive that or soften the coming blows with false apology. Instead, he grabbed the plate again, but his father's boot came down on his hand, pinning it to the floor. The boy bit his tongue, refusing to cry out, even when the man clouted him on the side of the head. His mother tried to stop Woodson before it got any worse, but it was no use, he merely knocked her aside and continued to discipline the boy.
Once the man was done knocking some sense back into him, he ordered Jonah to pick up all the food on the floor and put it back on his plate. The boy did as he was told, his face bruised and bloodied. Woodson then grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and dragged him back to his place at the table, laying the plate before him and piling on more of the roasted raccoon meat. "Finish yer supper, boy," the elder Hex said. When Jonah only sat there, he dug his fingers into the boy's neck, telling him, "Yuh'd best get started, afore Ah decide tuh shove every last piece down yer damn gullet with muh fist."
Slowly, Jonah ate what was on his plate, every last scrap, the image of Roy's small whiskered face hanging before his mind's eye the whole time. There were a few times when he wasn't sure he could swallow the meat, for fear that it might come back up his throat, but he somehow managed to keep it all down. What sickened him most of all was that, despite knowing just what he was eating, he still enjoyed the taste.
His parents were fighting again. Never seemed to stop, really. He'd grown accustomed to sleeping through most of it, but tonight they were having quite a row, and even holding the pillow over his head couldn't dampen the noise. He could clearly hear whenever Pa slapped Ma, or when a piece of furniture got knocked over, intermingled with his father's booming voice and his mother's weakening cries.
"Filthy whore!" Whack! "Every time Ah turn muh back..."
"We were just talking, I swear, that's all..."
Whack! "Don't yuh lie tuh me, woman, Ah know when yo're lyin'!" Another blow, followed by a crash, then wracking sobs.
Jonah wanted to make them stop, but when he'd tried to intervene in the past, he only ended up aggravating his father more. The best thing to do was to stay quiet until it was all over...but it was so hard, especially when he heard his mother crying. She didn't deserve it, not one bit -- she was so pretty and kind, yet Pa treated her like dirt.
Eventually, Jonah heard the front door slam, and after waiting a while to make sure his father was truly gone, he ventured out of his bedroom. He found his mother in the front room, sobbing at the kitchen table. Objects were strewn across the floor, some broken, and Jonah carefully stepped over them until he stood next to her. "Ma? Are yuh alright?"
She looked at him, eyes red and her right cheek beginning to swell, and did her best to give him a smile. "I'm fine, sweetheart, everything...every..." She couldn't finish the lie, and started to cry again. Jonah wrapped his arms around her, and she returned the gesture in kind, pulling him into her lap and rocking him in her arms like she'd done when he was a toddler. It seemed to help, but he wished he could do more.
"Where's Pa gone?" Jonah asked after a while.
"He has some deliveries to make," she said, referring to the homemade moonshine Woodson sold -- of all his schemes, it was still the one that brought the most money into the Hex household. "He should be home by tomorrow night." She looked down at him and said, "You should get back to bed, sweetheart. It's late, and you've got school tomorrow."
"Don't wanna." He held onto his mother a little tighter.
"Come on now, it's all right." She eased him off her lap and led him down the hall to his room. After tucking him under the covers, she brushed his hair aside and kissed him on the forehead. When she pulled back, she found her son looking up at her with worry in his eyes.
"Why...why does Pa hate us so much?"
Ginny turned her head away from him, just enough so she wouldn't have to look directly at her son. "He doesn't hate us, sweetheart, he just...he has a hard time showing his feelings, that's all. He's a good man, he...takes care of us." She turned back to him, lips pressed in a thin line. "You'll understand when you're older," she said, then moved to the doorway. "Sleep tight, dear."
"G'night." Jonah lay there in the dark, staring at the door long after his mother closed it, and wondered if perhaps Ma wasn't old enough to understand yet, either.
Jonah saw little point in going to school: he had reading and writing down pat (although the teacher tended to whack his knuckles with a ruler whenever she caught him writing with his left hand), and he could juggle numbers fairly well, so why did he have to keep sitting through it day after day? His mother insisted on him getting a proper education, though, so Jonah tried not to put up too much of a fuss.
The schoolhouse was a good two miles away, and Jonah started walking there not long after dawn, his books held together with an old belt and banging against his leg. About a half-hour into his long trek, he spotted a drummer's wagon heading his way from the direction of town. A man in a natty suit drove the wagon along, and when he neared Jonah, he reined the horses in and stopped before the boy. "Hello to you, young man!" he called down from his perch, tipping his bowler as he did so. "And where are you off to on this fine morning?"
"School," he said, holding up his books for emphasis.
"Ah, very good! A man can get very far in this world with a wise head on his shoulders. I, myself, am an excellent example of that." He waved his hat to a sign on the side of the wagon:
PRESTON W. DAZZLEBY Fine Dry Goods & Sundries
"I have built up this business with only my wits and my own two hands, and none of that would have been possible without receiving proper instruction as a lad. Keep that in mind, my young friend, as you sit in class today." He popped the bowler back on his head and said, "Now, if I may inquire to you on the status of potential customers back from whence you came?"
The man known as Dazzleby sighed. "Are there a lot of folks living up this road?"
"Just me an' Ma an' Pa. We ain't got much money, though, so Ah don't think..."
"Nonsense! I pride myself on bringing to the wide West an array of reasonably-priced goods that even the most destitute of families can afford. Thank you very much for your time, young man. I shall now let you go on your merry way, whilst I proceed to your humble abode and endeavor to improve upon your family's lifestyle in whatever way I can." He tipped his hat again, then snapped the reins to get the horses moving. Jonah shook his head as he watched the wagon bounce on down the road, thinking it was a good thing Pa wasn't home -- the man had no patience for smooth-talking salesmen.
When he arrived at the schoolhouse, the teacher hadn't rung the bell yet, so many of the children were still out in the yard. Jonah automatically tilted his head down as he approached, hoping that he could get through the day with a minimal of fuss. When he saw four of the boys jostling each other as he neared the school, however, he knew that wouldn't be so.
"Hey, Hex!" one of them called out. "Is yer mama free tonight?"
"His mama ain't free any night," another said, "you gotta pay right up front!"
Jonah could feel his face turning red. Just keep on walkin', he told himself, don't start no trouble. He tried to get past them, but the boys blocked his path.
One of the boys held up some money, saying, "Ah've got two bits, how far will thet get me?"
"Are you kiddin'? She ain't thet cheap...take you four bits just tuh get in the door!" The boys roared at their companion's jab, and Jonah did his level best to wish himself invisible. Every day, he had to endure their taunts about him and his family, just as he had to endure his father's cruelty every night. There was never any respite for him.
"Ah just want tuh go inside," he told them quietly, "please..."
"Whut fer? Ain't nothin' in there fer the son of a tramp!" One of them shoved Jonah and made him stumble backward, but he didn't raise his fists. He wanted to fight back so bad, wanted to knock them all flat, but it never did any good, they would just gang up on him and beat him senseless. Either way, the bullies won.
In as firm a voice as he could muster, Jonah said, "Muh Ma ain't no tramp."
That just made them laugh louder. "The Hell she ain't! Everybody knows it, why don't yuh just..." The boy's words were cut off by the peal of the schoolbell, and Jonah sighed with relief as he went inside. So long as class was in session, he didn't have to worry about being teased too much -- Miss Rooke kept a close eye on all her students, and wouldn't stand for any horseplay.
As always, the school day seemed to drag on forever, with one boring lesson after another. They were in the middle of English when the boy behind him reached out and pulled the hair at the nape of his neck. "Stop it!" Jonah hissed, and swatted at the boy's hand.
At the front of the classroom, Miss Rooke stopped talking and focused right on him. "Do you have something to say, Mister Hex?"
"No, ma'am," Jonah answered, and sank down in his seat. As was common in most schoolhouses, the benches the students sat on were attached to the desk behind them, and when Jonah began to slump, his tormentor took hold of the edges of his desk and gave it a jerk, causing Jonah to slide right out of his seat. With a yelp, he hit the floor, and the class burst out laughing.
The teacher rapped her ruler on her own desk until they settled down. "That's enough, children. Mister Hex, since you obviously can't be still long enough to finish the lesson, perhaps you should come up here and assist me until we're through."
"Yes'm." He got up, grabbed his reader off his desk, and started up the aisle, then came crashing down again as another boy tripped him, the book flying out of Jonah's hands and sliding under the other desks.
The kids erupted once again, and Miss Rooke ordered, "Quiet! This is getting out of hand. Mister Hex, you have until the count of ten to get up here, or else..." She slapped the ruler into her open palm. Jonah winced at the noise, and searched frantically for his reader. To his surprise, one of the boys that had been teasing him outside held it out to him with a smile. Jonah took it from him and hurried to the front of the classroom. "Much better," the teacher said, and laid a hand on his shoulder. "Now, I want you to stand here and begin reading aloud from page sixty-three...and enunciate, young man, I won't tolerate lazy speech." She then took a few steps away from him, folding her arms across her bosom with the ruler at the ready.
Jonah opened his reader and started to look for the page in question when he noticed a piece of paper sticking out of the book. He couldn't recall it being there before, so he flipped to the section it was tucked into and unfolded it across the pages. The paper wasn't very large, just big enough to cover the pages, but considering what was scribbled on it, it was large enough. Rendered in smudgy black ink was a crude drawing of a naked woman on a bed, a slit of a smile on her face and a man, also naked and his privates exaggerated to almost-comical proportion, laying on top of her. A line ran from the woman's mouth to a sentence scrawled at the top of the paper: Whatevur you doo dont tell Jonah!
He could hear the teacher telling him to proceed, but Jonah had lost his voice. His eyes went from the paper to the children seated before him, some of them still trying to stifle giggles. When they saw Jonah's face begin to flush, they stopped fighting it and let go. In the midst of them was the boy that handed him the reader, sitting at his desk with a smug look on his face. At that moment, Jonah could feel something inside him snap -- all he could see was that boy, that mean-mouthed, heartless tormentor, and he decided that he wasn't going to take it anymore. Jonah stepped forward, and before he knew it, he was running down the aisle, raising the book still in his hand and bashing the boy across the nose with it. He fell out of his seat, and Jonah began pummeling him with his bare fists -- the other kids gathered round, yelling at the two of them as they tussled on the floor. Miss Rooke fought her way through them until she was within reach of Jonah, then grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him off the boy.
"What in God's name is wrong with you?" she said as Jonah kicked and hollered.
"It's him! It's all his doin', look!" Jonah worked his way out of her grip and picked his reader up off the floor, flipping through it to find the paper, but it was gone. "Who took it?" he yelled, whirling on his classmates. "Who's the skunk thet's hiding it fer him?"
"I have had enough of your misbehaving for one day." Miss Rooke took hold of Jonah's arm and dragged him over to the door outside, swatting him repeatedly on the behind with her ruler as she did so. "Get out of my classroom," she said, forcing him down the steps and into the schoolyard, "and don't come back until you've learned to act like a civilized human being!" The teacher then headed back inside, pausing long enough to say, "Tell your parents they can expect a visit from me very soon!" before closing the door.
Jonah stood there for a minute, rubbing his sore backside and glaring at the schoolhouse -- he could hear the children carrying on in there, then Miss Rooke's voice overpowering them until they settled down. It ain't muh fault, he thought, finally turning away from the building and beginning the long journey home. It ain't never muh fault, but Ah'm always the one thet gets blamed. At least he got a few good licks in this time...and if that kid, or any kid, ever tried to talk foul about his Ma again, he'd give 'em a hundred times worse, yessir. He didn't care if they never let him go back to school again, Jonah wasn't gonna let 'em make up lies about his Ma no more.
As Jonah neared home, he could see a wagon parked out front. Thinking Pa got back early, he slowed down -- he knew the man would tan his hide if he discovered Jonah had been fighting. When he got closer, however, he realized it was the drummer's wagon he'd passed on the way to school. Reckon he was right, he did have something worth sellin' tuh Ma, Jonah thought as he walked past the wagon to the front door. He went inside, expecting to see Ma and the salesman sitting at the kitchen table, but there was no one there. Then he heard laughter coming from his parents' bedroom, and he headed on down the hall to find out what was going on.
The door was open just a crack, and when Jonah looked through it, he saw his mother in the arms of Mr. Dazzleby. She was wearing a fine new dress, certainly nothing like he'd ever seen her wear before, and playing with the man's necktie. "Please, Preston," she said, "how do you expect me to finish packing if you won't keep your hands off me?"
"Why bother with packing?" the salesman answered. "So long as you travel with me, my dear Virginia, you'll never want for anything." He then leaned close and kissed her full on the lips.
Jonah clutched at the doorframe, feeling suddenly faint. "Ma?"
Ginny pushed herself away from the man at the sound of her son's voice, saying, "J-Jonah? Is that you, sweetheart?" She opened the door further and saw him standing there, his face pale and eyes wide. "What are you doing home so early, dear? Are you sick?" She knelt down and went to place a hand against his forehead, but he shied away.
"Why...why did yuh..." He couldn't finish the sentence, it was too awful for him to utter. Instead, he pointed at Dazzleby, who busied himself with smoothing out his suitcoat.
"It's not what you think, sweetheart. Pres...Mr. Dazzleby...he's going to help us," she said. "You were right, Jonah: your Pa is mean to us, very mean. But Mr. Dazzleby wants to take us away from all that. We'll go someplace safe, where Pa will never find us." Like last night, Ginny didn't look directly at her son when she talked. "It'll just be me an' him at first, an' once we're all settled, we'll come back for you. So you've got to be strong until then, sweetheart. You..." She pressed a hand over her mouth, and Dazzleby came up behind her and helped her to her feet.
"Don't you worry, son," the salesman said, "Preston W. Dazzleby is a man of his word. If I say that you'll be delivered from this squalor, then you can count on it being so." He then turned to Ginny and said, "Now, my darling, we'd best get moving, before your errant husband returns home to roost."
Jonah followed the two of them out of the shack on numb legs -- he felt like he was walking through a nightmare. As the man loaded Ma's bag onto the wagon, she gave Jonah a hug and kissed his cheek and told him to be a good boy while she was gone. "Please, don't leave me here," he begged her, tears rolling down his face, "take me with yuh. Ah won't cause no fuss, Ah swear."
"I can't, sweetheart. I wish I could, but..."
"We're ready to go, Virginia!" Dazzleby called from the driver's seat of the wagon.
"Coming!" Ginny kissed her son's cheek one last time. "I'll see you real soon, Jonah...I love you."
"Ah love yuh too, Ma." He watched his mother climb aboard the wagon, giving the salesman a kiss as she settled in next to him. With a flick of the reins, the wagon trundled away from the homeplace, and as it faded off in the distance, Jonah fell to his knees in the yard, shaking and sobbing. He was still there when his father arrived home a few hours later, and when he told the man what had happened, Woodson whipped him with his belt for not trying to stop her.
It was a beautiful spring day, but Jonah hardly took notice of it. He was busy mending the barbwire fence that marked the border of the Hex homestead, and if he didn't have it done by the time Pa got home, he could count on having the tar whupped out of him. The man was drunk almost all the time now that Ma was gone, and he'd taken to beating Jonah for even the slightest transgression. Some days he hurt so bad he could barely get out of bed, but he had no choice -- Pa expected him to cook all the meals and do all the other chores that had been his mother's responsibility in addition to his own, leaving little time for normal boyhood activities. He hadn't even been back to school since Miss Rooke threw him out of class, and surprisingly, he missed it.
Wearing thick work gloves, Jonah twisted the new wire around the fence post and gave it a good tug to make sure it was secure, then leaned against the post and wiped sweat from his forehead. Just a little further tuh go, Jonah boy, he thought, then yuh kin head back tuh the house an' rest a bit. He picked up the box of tools and wire, looked down the length of fence before him, and sighed. The quicker yuh work, the sooner it's done. As he made his way along the fence, he saw movement in the tall buffalo grass beyond it. At first, he thought it was a dog or some other large animal, but then he caught sight of a blue shirt. "Who's there?" Jonah called out.
The movement abruptly stopped. Never taking his eyes from the spot where he'd seen the blue shirt, Jonah bent down, grabbed a hammer out of the tool box, and held it behind his back. He then slipped between the fence wires and slowly approached the spot, saying, "Yuh'd best come out afore Ah..."
A hand suddenly shot out and grabbed Jonah by the ankle, pulling him down. He raised the hammer to defend himself, but before he had a chance, a handgun was shoved in his face, cocked and ready to fire. A rough-looking man with dark hair glared at him from out of the grass. "And you'd best drop that hammer before I drop mine," he said. Jonah did as he was told, and the man let go of him, but the gun never wavered. "Pretty stupid, boy, walkin' out here with nothin' but hardware in your hand. Would've been better off runnin' back to the house and gettin' your folks."
"Ain't nobody home," Jonah said, then silently chided himself for telling the man such.
The man grinned. "Even better. Now how 'bout you help me up? My side's all torn to Hell." And indeed it was: the whole right side of the man's shirt was soaked with blood.
"Jeez, mister, whut happened?"
"Get me to your house over yonder and I'll tell you all about it." The man's legs were shaky, and he leaned hard on Jonah's small frame the whole way there. Once inside, the man collapsed in one of the chairs by the kitchen table while Jonah cast about for something to use as bandages. "No need to get fancy, boy, just grab a few rags," the man told him as he laid the gun on the table and stripped off his ruined shirt. "I ain't got time to waste."
"Yessir." The boy set a basin of water and a handful of clean rags on the table. "Who shot yuh, anyhow?"
"Goddam Texas Ranger. Ambushed me this morning...didn't even have the decency to let me finish breakfast before shootin' me and my horse full of holes. Damn thing dropped dead a few miles from here."
"A Ranger? Really?" Jonah had heard about them -- they were the bravest men in all of Texas. "Yuh must've done something real awful tuh get them gunnin' fer yuh."
"Well, the fact that I killed his partner the day before yesterday probably didn't help." He picked up the handgun and said, "It was worth it, though, when you consider this fine piece of iron I took for my own. It's a damn sight better than my old pepperbox, that's for sure." He saw the way the boy stared at the gun. "You ever seen a Walker Colt before, boy?" Jonah shook his head, and the man told him, "Well, now you have. And unless you ever run into a Ranger, you never will again. You know how to shoot?"
"Yessir! Ah'm a crack shot! But..." Jonah looked down at the floor. "Muh Pa says Ah'm too stupid tuh be trusted with a gun."
He flipped the gun around, holding the butt out to the boy. "Reckon Pa ain't here right now, though, is he?" Jonah took it, almost dropping the heavy weapon, and ran his fingers over the smooth revolving cylinder in admiration as the man cleaned up the wound in his side. Lucky for him, the bullet had passed on through, but that didn't make it hurt any less. "Trust me, boy, just 'cause your pa might be bigger than you don't mean that he knows everything. Hell, my own pa used to tell me that I wasn't good for nothin' but pushin' a plow, but I sure showed him. You walk into any saloon from here to the Mexican border and ask 'em 'bout me, and they'll all tell you I'm a man to be reckoned with, I don't fool around one damn bit." He packed a wad of cloth over the wound. "Now set down that iron for a bit and help me with this, okay boy?" Jonah did as he was told, and wrapped some long strips of rag around the man's midsection. "That's damn fine work, son. You're handy to have..."
Suddenly, there was a knock at the front door. Jumping up and grabbing the Colt, the man hissed at Jonah, "Who's that? That your folks?"
"N-no, Pa wouldn't..."
He grabbed his bloody shirt off the floor and began to back down the hallway, the gun trained on the door. "Whoever it is, get rid of 'em. And don't say a word about me, you hear?"
Jonah waited until the man ducked into his parents' bedroom before opening the front door. Waiting on the other side was Sheriff Harper and some of his deputies from Haverville, along with a tall Tejano he didn't recognize. The guns holstered on the belt across his chest, however, were very familiar: twin Walker Colts, with the badge of the Texas Rangers pinned above them. "Ah need tuh speak with your pa, boy. He about?" the sheriff asked.
"No sir. He...he's gone fer the day, might not be back 'til suppertime."
"Well, maybe you can help us," the Tejano said, and knelt down to meet Jonah's eyes. "We're looking for a man...he's wounded, and dangerous. We found his horse not too far from here, and we figure he might've headed this way." He reached into his jacket and pulled out a piece of paper with WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE - BART MALLORY printed in bold type above a picture of the man inside the house. "Does he look familiar to you?"
Jonah said nothing, only bit his lower lip. "Don't waste our time, boy!" Sheriff Harper snapped. "You seen him or not?"
Staring at the ground, he said, "No sir, Ah've been inside all day. Ah ain't seen no one."
"Are you sure? Come clean, son," the Ranger prodded, "don't be afraid to tell us."
"Tuh Hell with him. Boy's as useless as his pa." The sheriff spun on his heel and walked back to his horse. "Let's get movin' afore thet bastard gets any more distance 'tween us than he already has."
"Right behind you." Jonah watched as the Tejano mounted up alongside the sheriff and rode off, giving the boy an odd look as he did so. The boy tried to be casual about shutting the door, but inside he was shaking -- he'd just told a bald-faced lie to a lawman...and a Ranger! They could probably put him in jail for that!
After a minute, Jonah went down the hall and opened the bedroom door. "Good job, boy, I heard the whole thing," Bart Mallory told him as he pulled on one of Pa's shirts to replace his own ruined one. "Now how 'bout some chow before I skedaddle? Gonna have to wait a bit to make sure the coast's clear, might as well have a bite." The two of them returned to the kitchen, and Mallory helped himself to some whiskey as Jonah fixed him a plate of food. "You've saved my butt twice now, boy, and don't think I ain't grateful. Hell, you're my new lucky charm." He reached out and tousled Jonah's hair when the boy laid the plate before him.
"Ah shouldn't have lied. They's the law, an' they help folks..."
"The law don't help no one but themselves, trust me," Mallory told him around a mouthful of food. "Don't let the badge fool you: wave enough money in front of a lawman, and they suddenly become very blind to all sorts of crooked deeds, even murder. I've bribed my way out of more than one tight spot, so you know I know what I'm talkin' 'bout." Once he'd finished his meal, Mallory sparked up a smoke and asked Jonah how well he knew the surrounding territory.
"Ah know 'tween here an' town pretty good...Pa don't let me go much farther than thet." He fell silent, then asked, "You been a lot of places?"
"Hell yeah. Been all over the damn place, nothin' holds me back. Just give me a gun an' a horse, an' I'm set. No boundaries, no ties to nothin'...just pure freedom." He took a drag on his smoke. "You like the sound of that, boy?"
"Hell yeah," he said quietly, then added, "but Ah cain't do thet. Ah'm too young yet...maybe in a few years..."
"Ain't no such thing. What're you...ten? Eleven? Hell, I ran away from home when I was eleven, never regretted it since. You can't let your pa or nobody else hold you back from what you really want. This is a mean world, boy, you gotta fight for everything you want, every inch of it." He leaned towards Jonah and said, "So tell me: what do you want, deep down?"
Jonah lowered his head in thought, and when he raised it again, he had a dead serious look in his eyes. "Ah want tuh ride with yuh, Mr. Mallory. Ah want a Colt of muh own, an' nobody tellin' me whut tuh do all the time."
"Well now, sounds like I might have myself a new partner," Mallory said with a grin. "If you're gonna ride with me, you'd better tell me your name, so's I know who to shout for when the chips are down."
"Muh name's Jonah Hex, sir...an' Ah don't fool around one damn bit, same as yerself."
Hidden in the woods not far from the Hex homestead, Sheriff Harper hunkered down next to the Texas Ranger, muttering, "Ah don't see why we're wastin' time here. Mallory's gonna get away if'n we don't get a move-on!"
"No, he ain't." The Ranger, whose name was Ramirez, smoothed down the bandana covering his long black hair and kept his eyes glued on the shack. "If you'd been paying attention instead of blowing up at the boy, you might've noticed the bloody rag on the kitchen table. There were a few drops of blood on the floor too, as well as on the threshold. Plus that boy seemed awful nervous from the moment he opened the door. If Mallory ain't in there, I'm Santa Anna."
In Harper's opinion, the half-breed Mex beside him may as well be Santa Anna, Ranger's badge or no. He didn't care that the man's father had died at the Alamo, all Mexes were the same to him. "So how long we gotta sit here afore you..." he began to say, then stopped when Jonah stepped out the front door with Mallory right behind him, a shotgun slung over his shoulder. "Sonovabitch, there he is!" Harper leapt to his feet, but Ramirez forced him back down.
"Hold up a minute. Let him think he's in the clear, then we'll head after him." The sheriff started to object, but the Tejano told him, "He's got the boy with him, we can't risk a shot yet." He watched the two of them walk into the stable, then come out a few minutes later, riding double on a horse. "Soon as the boy's away from him, though, it's open season on Bart Mallory."
Sitting in the saddle in front of Mallory, Jonah asked, "Why yuh want tuh go into town? They's a-lookin' fer yuh high an' low!"
"They's lookin' fer me out there," he answered, thumbing back the way they'd come, "and no way in Hell is they gonna expect me to be so bold as to ride right into town. Of course, they don't know I've got a new partner, do they, Hex?"
"No sir!" His heart swelled with pride -- Mallory talked to him like an equal, didn't hit him or call him stupid like all the other grownups always did. It was a dream come true. "Whut we gonna do when we get there?"
"Well, we need to lay low for awhile, which means we'll need money...so we're gonna make a withdrawal from the bank." Jonah was about to say he didn't have any money in the Haverville Bank, then realized what Mallory meant. "After that, you and me's gonna ride for Mexico and find some sleepy little town to sack out in. I'll teach you to shoot better'n any Ranger and ride faster'n the Devil, then we'll come on back to Texas and rip the whole damn state wide open! How you like them apples?"
"Hell yeah!" They passed the town's border, and Jonah directed Mallory to where the bank was located. He walked the horse over to a hitching post down the street from it, then led Jonah to a nearby alley.
"Listen up, Hex. Most folks won't expect a kid to be helpin' out with a bank robbery, so you're my ace in the hole. I want you to stand out front and be my lookout while I go inside and do the deed. Can you do that for me, boy?" Jonah nodded, and Mallory flashed him a grin. "Great. Now I'm gonna trust you with something, and you've gotta promise to be careful with it, don't use it unless you absolutely have to." The outlaw tucked his Colt beneath Jonah's belt, then pulled out the boy's shirt so it fell over the gun. "I know you've got more experience with the shotgun, but it's too obvious. Now how 'bout you show me how fast you can draw that sucker out?"
It took a few tries, but soon Jonah got it down pat, moving his shirt aside with his right hand and whipping out the Colt with his left. Mallory told him he was a natural, and tousled his hair again before sending him ahead to see if the coast was clear. Jonah did so eagerly, his head held high and a smile on his face -- he was his own man now, yessir, he had a gun and everything. When he got in front of the bank, he casually leaned against the wall, then looked back the way he'd come and gave Mallory a nod. The man nodded back and stepped out of the alley, smoking a cigarette and strolling up the boardwalk. Passing Jonah, he whispered, "Be ready for anything, partner," then entered the bank, shotgun at the ready.
As Jonah kept an eye peeled for trouble, he could hear Mallory inside ordering everyone to get down on the floor. He wondered just how much money was in the bank, and if they'd be able to carry it all with only one horse. Maybe we should grab another one afore we go, he thought, and looked down the street to see if there were any unattended mounts nearby. While he didn't spot any, he did see one of Sheriff Harper's deputies headed his way. Oh Lord, whut do Ah do? He tried to stay clam as the man came towards him, but then the deputy broke into a run and reached out for Jonah, grabbing the boy and pinning his arms to his sides. He couldn't reach the Colt, so he hollered and kicked at the deputy until the man clamped a hand over his mouth and dragged him away from the bank. Jonah then saw the Ranger, Sheriff Harper, and two other deputies run into the bank, guns drawn.
Moments later, a flurry of gunshots rang out. Jonah managed to slip out of the deputy's arms and run inside the bank, but it was too late: Bart Mallory was sprawled out on the floor in a pool of blood. The boy cried out and tried to go over to the body, but the Ranger held him back.
"Don't worry, son," he told Jonah, "it's all over."
The Ranger escorted Jonah back home, the boy not speaking the whole time. Ramirez figured him to be in shock over the ordeal, and tried to reassure the boy that all was well, he'd soon be home safe and sound. That didn't seem to help Jonah's disposition one bit, and he could see why once the shack came into view and Woodson stormed across the yard towards them.
"Where the Hell yuh been, boy? Ah come home an' there ain't no supper on the table, the fence still ain't finished, an' yuh left the tools all scattered about! Damn lazy little..." He grabbed hold of Jonah the moment he dismounted and slapped him across the face. "Get thet horse back in the stable, then go inside an' fix me up some supper...an' if'n Ah'm feelin' generous, Ah'll let yuh have some too." He gave Jonah another whack as the boy took the horse's reins, then turned his attention to the Ranger on his own mount, saying, "An' who the Hell are yuh?"
"I'm Antonio Ramirez, Mr. Hex, with the Texas Rangers. Your son was kidnapped by an outlaw who forced him to assist in a bank robbery. Luckily, the man didn't harm him before..."
"Bank robbery?!?" Woodson removed his hat and said, "Yuh'll have tuh forgive me...Ah try tuh teach him right from wrong, but it's tough tuh do all by muh lonesome. It's his damn mother's fault, runnin' off an' leavin' me with thet brat. Well, don't yuh worry none, Ah'll knock any notion he's got of bein' an outlaw right outta him."
"I don't think you understand," Ramirez answered. "Jonah doesn't need discipline, he needs a sense of security. Bart Mallory could have killed him today, and you beating on him the moment he gets home won't help his state of mind any."
Woodson's expression darkened. "Ah don't need no fancy Ranger a-comin' on muh property an' tellin' me how tuh raise muh boy!" he snapped. "Less'n yo're plannin' on chargin' him with something, he ain't yer damn problem no more, so get the Hell outta here!" He hit Ramirez's horse with his hat, startling the animal. The Ranger got it under control easily enough, and glared at the elder Hex before turning the horse around and riding away. Woodson then walked over to the stable just as Jonah was coming out.
"Ah'm sorry, Pa. Ah won't never..." he started to say, but the words were cut off as his father smacked him across the mouth. Jonah stumbled back into the stable as his father advanced on him, pulling off his belt.
"Not bad enough yuh misbehave 'round here, now yo're goin' off an' breakin' the law...bringin' shame tuh my good name..." The belt snapped out like the crack of a whip and cut into Jonah's skin. "Ah ain't gonna tolerate yer foolishness no longer!" The boy covered his head with his arms and fell to the ground, but the lashes continued to rain down. He wanted it to stop, he'd be good if Pa would just stop, but he couldn't do anything but lay there, he was helpless...
Then Jonah remembered the gun. He hadn't told the lawmen about the Colt Mallory had given him, it was still hidden under his shirt. This is a mean world, boy, the outlaw had told him, you gotta fight for everything you want, every inch of it. If he ever wanted to be free of his father, Jonah realized, he would have to start fighting back, the sooner the better. In one perfect fluid motion, he rolled over onto his back, drew the gun, and pointed it at his father's head.
Woodson took a step back, stuttering, "W-w-whut the Devil...where did yuh get thet?" Jonah didn't answer, he merely thumbed back the hammer, and the man's eyes grew wide. "Have yuh lost yer damn mind, son? Yuh don't want tuh hurt yer dear old Pa, do yuh?"
"Yes Ah do," he said coldly, holding the gun in a two-fisted grip as he sat on the stable floor, bits of straw sticking to his clothes. "Ah ain't gonna let yuh whup me no more...even if it means Ah gotta kill yuh."
Woodson swallowed hard as he looked down the gunbarrel, then forced a smile onto his face. "Yuh really think yuh got the guts tuh kill yer old man? Hell, son, yuh kin barely hold thet gun steady," he said. "Yep, them arms of yers is definitely a-tremblin'."
"Shut up." His finger tightened on the trigger. "Ah'm gonna do it if'n yuh don't shut up."
"Then do it already, if'n yo're so dead-set on it. Reckon yuh ain't really got the guts tuh pull the trigger, though." He stepped forward, reaching a hand out towards the gun. "Takes a real man tuh kill another man...an' thet's something a coward like yerself will never be."
"Shut up!" Jonah said again. He tried to jerk away as his father grabbed the Colt and forced his hand down, slamming it against the floor. The weapon discharged, but the bullet hit nothing more than the stable wall, and the man soon twisted it out of his son's grip. Woodson then took the gun and clubbed Jonah in the head with the butt end until he was barely conscious.
"Don't yuh even think 'bout doin' something like thet ever again," Woodson said as he stood up, slipping the Colt into his pocket, "'cause if'n yuh do, Ah swear Ah'll snap yer goddam neck." He then turned and left the boy lying on the floor of the stable, broken and bleeding.
Not long after sunset, Jonah managed to drag himself to his feet and stumble across the yard to the house. He found Pa passed out at the kitchen table, an empty bottle of whiskey still in his hand. Jonah moved through the house as quietly as he could, cleaning himself up before finally collapsing in his bed. Every inch of his body hurt, he could taste blood in the back of his mouth...but deep down, he felt good. For just the briefest of moments out in the stable, he'd seen fear in his father's eyes, and Jonah had put it there. He's got good reason tuh be afraid of me, he thought, Ah ain't gonna be a little boy forever. Someday Ah will pull thet trigger on him, an' then he'll know thet he was in the wrong all this time. Ah ain't no coward, dammit, Ah ain't worthless, Ah know it...an' someday, so will Pa...