“This is Sheriff Callahan. Anyone in here better drop their weapons and come on out,” Sean said, stepping into the cabin.
The only response he received was an echo of his voice.
A flickering lantern guided Sean like a light house through the dark interior of the shuttered cabin. He clutched his Remington with a white knuckled grip. Was Pierre’ family even in here? Did they lay in wait for him? If he got closer to the lantern’s light would they put a bullet in his head? Sean’s heart pounded and his breathing grew shallow. The darkness felt like it was smothering him. He drew a deep breath and exhaled to calm his nerves. Then he focused on his other senses. Scent proved to be the strongest of them. The aroma of stew filled the air. Was it garlic and potatoes with chicken or venison? The longer he breathed it in the more he noticed something peculiar about the aroma. A faint rancid stench lingering in it. Had they used the flesh of the dead in the stew? The stench tainted every breath he took. He fought the urge to vomit as bile flooded his mouth.
He took another step, and the floor board creaked. A jolt of adrenaline fueled panic shot up his spine. Did they hear that? Where was Lucas? Had they caught him already, sliced his throat before he could cry out? He shook the thoughts from his mind and took a few more steps. The lantern hung from the rafters. Should he grab the lantern? Or would a family member plunge a Buck knife into his back when he reached for it?
Sean grabbed the lantern and lowered it to shoulder level. A small wooden table sat in front of him. Stoneware bowels and mugs. A pitcher of water and a loaf of bread. A bowel of apples. Pierre had said something about dinner, hadn’t he? At the far end of the table was a pale thin hand with dirty nails. Who was it? Why hadn’t they reacted? Sean moved the sputtering lamp toward the hand.
The corpse of a woman glared at him with shriveled eyes. She had leather-like skin and her lips were pulled back in a macabre grin that revealed her silver front teeth. Lucas’ mother!
Sean recoiled from the corpse. His heart felt it was about to explode. He gasped for breath. Yet he couldn’t pry his eyes away from the corpse. As he tried to calm himself he noticed that someone had put a brand new calico dress on the corpse’s rail thin body. Bones protruded from her forearms and clumps mushrooms grew from her rancid flesh. Why did Pierre have her corpse sitting at the table? Dress her in brand new clothing? This was madness.
Sean swung the lamp over the table. Each bowl filled with a murky liquid with moldy bits of meat and vegetables floating in it. Blue-green splotches covered the bread. The apples, filled with maggots, writhed in the bowel.
His mind screamed at him. Run! Before the lantern burns out! Escape this nightmare! Sean’s body refused to comply. He felt petrified by fear. What about Lucas? Where did he go? Sean closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths to steady his frayed nerves.
His muscles strained as he stepped away from the table. He swept the lantern back and forth. Dusty wooden furniture and cobwebs in the corners. How long had Pierre been living like this? Where was his family? A good wife wouldn’t let her home to fall into such a state.
He swung the lamp to the left. The light washed over a bloated corpse of a young man, much too tall to be Lucas. The corpse stared at Sean with murky eyes that bulged from their sockets. Its mouth was agape and its black tongue lolled out. The missing pinky finger confirmed that it was Jack Kane. The most disturbing thing about the corpse, however, was the fact that someone had put it in a new tan sack suit. What had possessed Pierre do such a thing? Mr. Anderson said that the clothing was a gift for Pierre’s family, but Ruby and Jack Kane weren’t Piere’s kin. What was Pierre doing?
A muffled sobbing drew Sean’s attention to the far corner of the room. Lucas was curled up under a chair. Sean pulled him up to his feet. Lucas howled at him and pounded on Sean’s chest with a fear fueled fury.
Sean grabbed Lucas’ arms. “It’s me! It’s me!”
Lucas struggled to break free for a moment and then buried his face in Sean’s chest.
“C’mon, let’s get outta here.”
Lucas nodded and walked out with his head bowed.
Sean took a couple deep breaths to cleanse his lungs of the cabin’s stench. But there was no easy way to remove the macabre memories of the corpses.
“Sheriff!” Joseph said, “What happened in there?”
Lucas puked his guts out.
Joseph gaped at him.
Sean told him everything about the house. By the time Sean finished Joseph’s mouth hung open.
“Take a seat right there, son,” Sean said, “and this time stay put.”
Lucas sat down and glared at Pierre.
Sean stomped through the snow and kicked Pierre in the ribs. “You son of a bitch! What’re you doing with those corpses?”
“My-my family… is-is inside… dinner table…” Pierre said through his clenched teeth.
“Don’t you lie! They’re not there!” Sean said, shoving the daugerotype into Pierre’s face. “This is your family!”
“Th-they are g-gone…”
“What do you mean gone? You killed them, didn’t you?”
“Tell… me… the… truth!”
Pierre’s chin trembled. “Th-the ava-avalanche…”
“Weh-We go t-to town last m-month. On th-the way an avalanche caught uh-us. I look and I look and I wander and I pray and I search for many day and night,” Pierre said. “I muh-make it home. I wait and I wait and I-I wait! But th-they no come ho-home! Then the Lord s-say ‘Pierre you go to town, you find new family.’ Th-the Lord show me nice place outside town. I-I find nice lady. I find nice boy. I-I try to make new family. I try but it no… no work…”
Joseph shook his head. “The man that brings trouble upon his house inherits only the wind. You’re exactly like the Proverb you wrote on the wall.”
“Why’d you kill Leroy?” Sean said.
“Th-the Lord told me n-not to let any-anyone stop me…” Pierre said, tears streaming down his face.
Sean grimaced. “Come on, let’s get him back to town. I reckon Judge Stone will want to hear all about this in the morning.”
“Non! I m-must try again! I m-must go back to town find more. T-try again!”
“They’re corpses, you sick bastard!” Sean said, glaring at him.
“You fool you don’t know what you done, do you?” Joseph said as he pulled Pierre up to his feet.
Pierre scowled at him.
Joseph shoved the barrel of his rifle into Pierre’s belly. “Go on now, get to movin’.”
Pierre limped through the snow with Joseph and Sean behind him. Before they rounded the corner of the house Sean glanced over his shoulder to call on Lucas. His heart sank when he saw the boy wasn’t there. Now where had that boy run off to? He’d never survive up here alone. Had the corpses in the house driven the boy mad? Was his hiding somewhere out of fear in the snow and woods?
“What’s the hold up?” Joseph said, glancing back.
“The boy, Lucas-”
A gunshot rang as clear as a church bell. All three men dropped to the ground. Sean’s heart pounded as he searched for gunman.
“What he think he doin’?” Joseph said, looking at the barn.
Lucas sat atop the brown and white horse. His eyes blazed with hatred while he aimed his Starr revolver at Pierre, who cowered in the snow like a beaten dog.
Joseph aimed his rifle at Lucas. “I can take him…”
Sean put a hand on the barrel and pushed it down.
“Why’d you do that? I coulda got him.”
“I’ve seen enough corpses today,” Sean said, stepping in between Pierre and Lucas.
“You gonna be one of them if you ain’t careful,” Joseph said, side stepping to get a clear view of Lucas.
Sean raised his hands and took a few steps forward. “Now hold on there, son. You don’t wanta kill this man.”
“Yes, I do!” Lucas said. “Now get outta my way, Sheriff! I don’t want to hit you.”
“I can’t let you do that.”
“B-but he took Mama and Jack fr-from me!”
“I know he did, Lucas,” Sean said, taking a few more steps. “And he’ll pay for his crimes in a court of law. I know you’re all alone and when Pierre stole your kin’s bodies it hurt just as bad as when they died.”
Lucas’ arms trembled and tears streaked his face. “It-it ain’t right…”
“I know, but neither is killing this man.”
“Don’t preach to me about how it’ll make me bad as him!”
“I wasn’t going to,” Sean said, shrugging, “but if you kill this man you’re gonna live the rest of your life on the run. You’ll never be able to rest. You’ll never have a family or a friend. You’ll never settle down and be part of a community. Cause you’ll be too busy looking over your shoulder for the next bounty hunter or law man coming for you. There’ll always be someone coming after you.”
Lucas looked away. “I’ve been on my own. I can handle it…”
Sean took a few more steps. “You don’t wanta be, otherwise why would you visit your family’s graves every day? Why camp near bye?”
Lucas hung his head and his body shook with his sobs.
Sean snatched the revolver from Lucas’ hands.
“You gonna arrest me, too?” Lucas said with his face buried in his hands.
“That wouldn’t do any good.”
“Then what? I ain’t got nobody. I ain’t got nowhere to go…”
“There’s a place for you here in Silvervale, you just got to be willing to take it,” Sean said, slipping the revolver into his coat pocket. “The Padre and his wife would take you in, they’ve done it before.”
“Why’re you helping me?”
“You and me aren’t that different. When I was your age my family was killed. They’d tried to stop some slavers from kidnapping some Free Men that worked on our farm,” Sean said. “I was all alone like you. No one cared about an Irish boy like me. I suffered from loneliness. It ate me up inside. I’d hate to see that happen to you, it’s such a waste. But I can’t make you do nothing.”
Lucas wiped his eyes with the back of his hands.
Sean headed back to Pierre and yanked him up to his feet. Without a second glance back at Lucas, Sean headed for his horse while Joseph followed behind them. As he headed down the trail he heard a horse galloping through the snow. When Sean glanced back he saw Lucas riding away from them.
“You think you done right?” Joseph said.
“A bullet would’ve solved nothing.”
Sean Callahan shoveled another forkful of green chili into his mouth. But he barely had time to savor the taste before his office door opened. Stepping through the door was a boy with short cropped dark hair and a smattering of freckles on his face. The sleeves of his blue shirt were rolled up to the elbows and his blue trousers had patched knees. The boy shifted his weight from one barefoot to the other while standing in the door way.
“I swear I gotta lock that door when I’m eating…” Sean said, tossing his fork down.
Sean peered at the boy. “Lucas?”
The boy grinned.
“You almost look respectable when you’re cleaned up.”
“I’ve been living with the Padre and his wife ever since I see you last a few days back. Getting some schooling, too. On Sunday mornings I help the Padre around the church, too.”
“Been meaning to speak with the Padre about you, but works kept me busy outta town,” Sean said. “Glad you made the right choice.”
“Are you going Lucas said.
“It’s part of my duties to be there when Pierre gets hung,” Sean said, glancing at his pocket watch. “In fact I oughta head on over.”
Lucas fidgeted with his collar.
“What about you?” Sean said.
“Padre said I should forgive Mr. Dubois.”
Sean grunted while getting up and pulling on his great coat. “That isn’t easy.”
Lucas chewed on his lip. “No, it ain’t… but I’m learning…”
Sean dusted off his grey slouch hat and put it on before heading for the door. “That’s better the most men.”
“You think today’s a good day for fishing down at Lonesome Creek?” Lucas said as he followed him out the door.
“I reckon it’s the perfect way to spend this afternoon.”
Lucas scampered down Main Street toward the wooden bridge that spanned Lonesome Creek. About half way down a group of young boys with fishing poles greeted him. One of them handed Lucas a pole, and they all raced down to the bridge. A plume of dust and laughter filled the air around them.
A smile flashed across Sean’s face before he headed off to the gallows.