Vigilantism and frontier justice is nothing new, but not every conflict is solved at the end of a gun. — ed. N.E. Lilly
The mirror cracked in 4212. Rose figured Granny’s death and the Darwin Settlement Wars could be blamed on that crack. She’d never replaced the glass. She wanted to remember the power of things — things like mirrors and crows and bitternut trees deserved respect.
Rose stood in front of the flawed mirror, adjusted her wire-rims, smiled — though stained and sparse, she still had enough teeth to enjoy fresh-pulled corn. She stepped back and picked up a battered hat from the dresser top, tied it on with a double-knot bow. She frowned, straightened the hat.
“No sense in wearing a hat lopper-jawed, Halifax” she told a red squirrel balanced on the bedpost. Halifax chattered a response and jumped to Rose’s shoulder. She made kiss-kiss sounds at Halifax, smoothed her apron bib so it laid unwrinkled over her sagging bosom, fussed with a few white hairs that frizzed about her cheeks, sighed. Rose turned from the looking glass and went through the living room to the kitchen. Two more squirrels scampered around her feet as she flicked on the burner under the teapot. The trio of hyperactive rodents leapt to the countertop when she pulled a dented canister down from the wooden shelf above the sink.
“Here you are, dearies,” she said and poured a mix of hulled sunflower seeds and dried corn kernels into three small bowls. She knew Halifax, Yukon, and Dodge didn’t like to share a bowl. Just like jealous five-year-olds, they’d get into a quarrel, and she’d have to patch-up the loser. After sipping the last of her comfrey tea, she set the mug in the sink and headed for the backdoor. The squirrel trio padded after her as she pushed open the screen with her good hand, stepped down onto the back porch.
The morning sunshine filtered through the twisted branches of a bitternut tree. “Looks like a fine day,” she told the huddle of squirrels who sat on their haunches and watched their caregiver. They tilted their faces up, chattered. Rose bent and stroked their silky backs as their small spines arched in response.
The squirrels’ fur reminded her of Mama. Mama had died from Bloodfly Fever when Rose was only eight. She had few memories of her mother, though she did recollect running her little-girl fingers through wavy, russet hair as Mama sang sailing songs.
Rose didn’t remember her father, a shipmate on the freelance freighter Chancy Lady, at all. Hort Vector had been knifed in a fight between planets, and his body jettisoned into space. And so Rose had been raised from age nine by her mother’s mother. Though Rose never went cold or hungry, Granny Briggs was a hardscrabble woman with little need for affection, and no tolerance for slothfulness.
The call of the rain crows from the thicket beyond the garden brought Rose back to the task at hand. She straightened. Her back clicked three times. Rose winced, then thought perhaps cracks were like sneezes: three meant good luck. She glanced down again. Squirrels wove between her legs, rubbed against her well-mended stockings. She laughed at their antics and scolded, “Enough daydreaming. We need to be picking and cleaning today.”
As if they understood, the squirrels led the way to the vegetables with Rose close behind. Rose squinted at the suns’ light bouncing off the pieces of scrap aluminum she’d tied to the lima bean strings to keep the hares out. Just a field hare or two would nibble the young plants down to green nubs overnight, and with the new interplanetary tariffs, seed was too expensive to replace.
Rose started at the beginning of the first row of beans. She picked quickly with all eight fingers. She rarely thought of the wagon accident that left her two-fingers-short. Why she considered herself lucky! Just last fall, Jeremy Macnab had lost both legs when his uncle’s plow rolled over him. The Clinton Church of the Devout had held a Benefit Guinea Hen Fry and Auction to help collect enough credits to purchase a set of prosthetic legs for little Jeremy from the off-world traders who landed at Blacklake ”“ eight hours west of Clinton. Rose had donated a handsome quilt that sold for more than 100 credits. Yes, eight fingers served her fine.
Rose continued to pick the vegetables as Halifax, Yukon, and Dodge played a frenzied game of tag up and down the rows of beans. She didn’t need to squeeze or pod-pop to tell which limas were ready. Decades of practice had taught her which beans were ripe, sweet to the tongue.
She looked up from her picking, watched a squirrel swat at his reflection in a bit of shiny aluminum. “It’s yourself, Yukon,” she said and returned to her work. She’d finished picking the limas and moved on to the snaps when Emmy strolled into her yard.
“Mornin’, Auntie Rose. Want some help? Daddy told me to go find something to do while he worked on the roof.”
“I’d be glad for your help. It’ll be good to talk to someone besides these old squirrels.”
As if he heard her comment, Dodge jumped into Emmy’s arms. Rose smiled at the girl who was rubbing her face against Dodge’s fuzzy back. She knew the smiling made her skin crinkle up so she looked like an quince-head doll, all leathery and wrinkled, with tiny black eyes peering out from behind her glasses.
Rose squinted, noticed the girl’s left eye had been blackened and there was a fresh bruise on her cheek. “How’s your daddy doin?”
“Okay, I guess,” replied Emmy as she tugged down one of her sleeves in an attempt to cover four ugly purple finger imprints on her forearm. The girl rubbed her face in the squirrel’s fur, then looked at Rose and continued, “He stayed out late twice this week, and he’s been real snappy. This morning he said if you weren’t such a busy-body, he wouldn’t have to worry about me.”
Auntie Rose frowned. “He said that, did he? Well, I’m glad I took you from your mama’s stomach, because if I hadn’t, I’d have to pick all these beans myself.” Emmy giggled and began to help Rose pick snaps.
It irked Rose when she thought about Monty Hawkins. Instead of being thankful he had a daughter, he farmed Emmy out to anyone who’ll keep an eye on her and complained about the woes of being a widower. Lately, thanks to corn whiskey, Monty was saying hurtful things to Emmy. Just three days ago, he’d told her the only reason he’d married her mama was that Sally had named him the father of the baby she was carrying.
Rose knew that Emmy’s mother, Sally, had come from Blythe. Monty had met her at a town dance and ridden his piebald gelding over to Blythe most every day for a month after that dance to visit Sally at the dry goods warehouse where she worked. Sally had confided in Rose one day when she stopped by to trade for some lemon balm tea that Monty had gotten her pregnant, married her, and brought her back to Clinton to live, only because Sally’s father threatened to kill him if he didn’t do right by his daughter. Rose shook her head, wondered if Sally had put her left shoe on first the day of her wedding — because she certainly had bad luck.
And it hadn’t just been the marriage that was wretched. As if being wed to a mean-spirited man wasn’t enough, the pregnancy had been rough. Rose had known from the beginning that Sally’s marriage probably wouldn’t make it. Sally’s father had been killed in a rustling incident just a month after the wedding, so Monty felt no pressure to be a good husband. He’d made Sally work too hard, and left her alone while he went out hunting, rodeoing, and partying with some of the boys who frequented The Rebel Yell Saloon.
That summer thirteen years ago, he’d been gone two days before Rose walked up the road to visit Sally, see how she was doing. As she’d turned into their lane, Rose had heard a dog howling, a sure sign death was close. She’d hurried up the path to the Hawkins place.
Sally had been in labor for more than a day. She was breathing real shallow and didn’t know who Rose was. It’d been beyond Rose’s ability to save Sally, but she did save the baby. Monty had come home the next day from a bull-riding competition. He was hung over from celebrating a second place win, and bruised and cut up from a brawl over prize money and some delinquent debts he owed to a local bookie. Monty had named the child after the barmaid he’d been cheating on Sally with, thinking maybe she’d come live with him and help out with the baby. She hadn’t come. Rose and several other women from the church had ended up raising Emmy.
“Yes, child,” answered Rose as she returned to the beans.
“Papa tried to get into my room last night.”
Rose frowned. “What happened?”
“The knob jiggling woke me up, but I had the door locked like you told me. I heard him loading and unloading his pistols, the knob jiggled again, he cursed, and then, it was quiet. He must have gone back to his room. He didn’t say anything about it to me this morning.”
“You just keep that door locked at night. Your daddy doesn’t know what he’s doing when he’s been drinking.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Emmy ran her hands through Yukon’s fur, then asked, “Can we snap the beans and pop pods now?”
“Only if you promise to stay for lunch.”
“Sure. Here, let me carry that basket to the house for you.”
Rose’s eyes narrowed as she watched Emmy. Rose had bided her time waiting for Monty to sober up and treat his daughter right. Thirteen years. And not only hadn’t Monty improved; he’d gotten more violent of late.
A shout from the front of the house hurried Rose’s steps. Someone had stopped to buy her fresh-cut zinnias, crocheted table scarves, rag baskets, and homemade jams and relishes. By the time Rose rounded the front hedge, Emmy was waving at a one-horse buggy as it pulled away from the house. The sorrel kicked up dust as she trotted down the road.
“Look! He bought over twenty-two credits worth of stuff,” Emmy said as she rattled the tokens in her hand. “You live in the best place to sell things when it’s not market day.”
“Indeed I do. Now, how about hurrying down to the root cellar for me and bringing up some more jars of preserves and jellies.”
After Emmy disappeared into the house, Auntie Rose began to think about Monty again. She’d watched him looking at Emmy at the last Clinton Homesteaders’ Pancake Supper. He didn’t look at her like a father should. When Monty had been over by the fireplace talking to some of the other men and making rude gestures, she’d told Emmy to lock her bedroom door at night.
“She needs us now,” Rose whispered to Halifax, Yukon, and Dodge. The squirrels clapped their paws, winked as Emmy came across the yard. Rose adjusted her glasses, smiled at the girl, “Classes will be starting soon, won’t they?”
“Your birthday’s next week, and I’d like to take you to Ridley’s to pick out a new outfit and some school supplies.”
“Oh Auntie Rose, you don’t have to do that.”
“I know, Emmy, but I’ve been doing real well at the market stand this year and you come over all the time to help me with the pickin’ and cannin’ and such. It would make me proud to buy you something special for your birthday. Just like your daddy says, if it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t be here. So I guess that makes me like family.”
The girl hugged Rose. “You are family. I just wish I could live with you.”
“I know. I know,” Rose murmured as she patted Emmy’s back. Rose had asked Monty to let her have Emmy for good about a year ago.
“You old hag,” he’d jeered. “Why didn’t you bed a husband of your own if you wanted a child? Oh, I forgot, crones lose their powers when they lose their maidenhood. Ain’t that right, Auntie Rose?”
The other men sitting around the front of Ridley’s had stopped talking. Though Rose had never done an unkind thing to any of them, she’d seen fear in their eyes. They all knew Rose tended the graves. She ventured out in the graveyard after dark when the moons shone round and bright. Auntie Rose was the local wisewoman. Birth and Death were two doors. She helped open them both for the residents of Clinton, Blythe, and beyond.
Rose had stood silent. The only sounds had been the buzzing of flies, the background hum of the power generator located behind the Saloon, and an occasional shoosh as Frank Hughs spit tobacco juice into an empty molasses can.
“‘Course if the price is right, I’m willing to sell her to most anyone,” Monty had said and elbowed Frank in the ribs.
A couple of the men had glanced at each other. Emmy was right pretty, and Rose knew that most of them would’ve considered buying her if she hadn’t been standing there. She had studied the face of each man loitering in front of the general store. One by one, they’d shaken their heads and looked at their boots. Finally, Rose’s eyes had met Monty’s.
“How much?” Auntie Rose had asked, staring hard at Emmy’s father until he’d begun to fidget.
“Too much for you,” Monty had answered. “In fact, I’d shoot her in the head before I’d sell her to the town busybody. So why don’t you take your shriveled-up face somewheres else and leave us men alone.” Monty had laughed, elbowed Frank again.
In a voice so quiet that the men had leaned towards Rose to make out all the words clearly, she promised, “Someday, you’ll wish you’d given her to me.”
Monty had shifted his weight from foot to foot several times, cleared his throat and said as Rose was walking away, “You don’t scare me none. A hard-favored woman like yourself ought to be nicer to folks, so when she’s in need, somebody’ll take pity and help her. But not you. You go ’round town threatenin’ poor widowers and children.”
Rose had kept walking. She’d heard Frank warn, “You’d better shut up, Monty. Auntie Rose is well-thought-of by most people ‘round here.” She’d been too far down Main to hear Monty’s reply.
“Come on, Auntie Rose,” Emmy called from the side of the house. “Let’s go in and start on the beans.”
“Lead the way, child.”
Later, after the lights in the nearby homes were dimmed, Rose went out to the herb garden and knelt in the warm soil. She shrugged off her nightgown and began to gather an assortment of plant parts from her medicinal shrubs and vines. The moons’ light illumined her naked flesh as she chanted a harvesting rhyme from one of Granny’s herb books.
“Moons’ gift to wisewoman kind: root and weed, stem and seed. I call upon the Olden One to bless these gifts and give me powers, for the need is great, and short the hours…” Rose continued to chant as she collected the ingredients for Granny’s version of skullcap tea. Luckily, Rose had plenty of madweed in the back corner of her garden, so the recipe’s mainstay was at hand.
Though usually diurnal, Halifax, Yukon, and Dodge had gone to the herb garden with Rose. They crept over her skin ”“ clinging to its wrinkled paleness with their clever paws and chittering softly. Their small voices sounded like a chorus of children joining in Rose’s harvest chant.
As Rose slid her arms back into her nightgown, a barred owl called from the bitterwood tree, “Who, who cooks for you?”
The wisewoman chuckled. “I cook for Monty, but no one cooks for me.” With her squirrels perched on her shoulders, Roes walked into her kitchen carrying a basket of blessed plant parts.
The kitchen was filled with a noxious steam as Rose boiled the ingredients for skullcap tea. Tired and wanting to avoid the smell of the bubbling concoction, Halifax, Yukon, and Dodge scampered to their little beds and dreamt the night away ”“ as Rose worked until moonset. When the day broke, Rose poured the distilled liquid into several vials and sealed them with corks and wax. One vial, she slipped into her crocheted shopping sack along with several jars of canned beans.
Rose, accompanied by the squirrels, went over to the Hawkins place around nine in the morning. She noted a rusted bale of barbed wire tangled in a harrow, several large pieces of jagged scrap metal, a broken pitchfork with its prongs pointing up, an uncovered well in the front yard, and bullet holes.
There were bullet holes in the side of the dilapidated barn, bullet holes in the fence boards, even bullet holes in the shutters on the cabin. She assumed if you swung those shutters closed, there’d be slugs embedded in the logs underneath. Everybody needed a little target practice to keep sharp, so she’d expected to see the usual gunshot-shattered bottles and hole-riddled tin cans. But this was different.
“He’s giving us no choice,” she told Halifax, Yukon, and Dodge. The squirrels chattered their agreement. “It’s not something I enjoy.” The trio chittered their understanding. Her pets clapped their paws.
Then it’s decided, thought Rose. She forced a smile and hollered, “Hello. Emmy? Hello in there.”
“Auntie Rose?” Emmy looked out the screen door. “Boy, am I glad to see you. Papa didn’t come home again last night. It gets lonely here when there’s no one around. Come on in while I finish picking up the kitchen.”
The squirrels made squeaking sounds. “You three can come in, too,” Emmy added and laughed as Dodge launched himself into her arms.
“Don’t mind if we do.” Rose stepped inside, looked around the cabin. Emmy made an effort to keep things clean and mended, but the lack of money and repairs made the place look rundown. And the row of empty whiskey bottles lining the windowsill didn’t help.
“Did you eat?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Emmy replied as she wrung out the dishrag and hung it over the corner of the fireboard. Dodge jumped to the floor from the girl’s shoulder, raced around the room playing tag with his siblings. “I fried up three of the guinea eggs I gathered this morning and had them with some biscuits from yesterday.”
Rose nodded. “Well, here’s two pints of limas and two pints of snaps from yesterday’s canning,” she said as she pulled four jars from her shopping sack.
“Thanks. I’ll run these down to the basement and be right back.” Emmy, followed by Yukon and Dodge, clamored down the cellar stairs.
“I’ll be waiting.” As soon as Emmy was out of sight, Rose slipped the vial of skullcap out of her bag. “Watch for her, Halifax,” she said to her pet. The squirrel sat at the top of the steps staring down into the basement as the wisewoman worked. Rose poured the vial’s contents into a half-empty jug of whiskey that was sitting on the sideboard.
Halifax chattered, danced on his hind legs.
“Thank you, dearie,” Rose whispered as she put the empty skullcap container back into her shopping sack. As Emmy re-entered the kitchen, Rose turned to the girl and said, “Let’s go to Ridley’s and buy your birthday gifts.”
“Okay, if you’re sure you want to do that.”
“I’m sure, child. I’m always sure of what I want to do.”
Rose and Emmy started back down the lane towards Main Street. “Home dearies,” the wisewoman ordered Halifax, Yukon, and Dodge. The trio dashed up Rose’s lane.
Rose and Emmy were nearly to Ridley’s General Store and Emporium when Monty went careening by on his walleyed piebald. Startled by the horse and rider, a crow flapped up from the dirt street where it’d been scavenging some spilt corn, and followed Monty cawing and cackling.
Rose lowered her eyelids slightly, watched Emmy’s father gallop past without so much as a wave to his daughter. She shook her head and then followed the girl into the general store and over to the school supplies. They picked out two pencils, three pads of paper, and a gum eraser. Rose pursed her lips. The brew wasn’t deadly poisonous; it just made the drinker confused. After drinking a small amount, a person lost his sense of direction and his fear of dangerous things ”“ things like narrow trails, loose rocks, steep drop-offs, uncovered wells, and guns.
They walked to the clothing section. Auntie Rose nodded as Emmy selected a second-hand skirt, a flowery blouse, and two sets of under things. Rose thought about Monty. It was a sin the way he neglected Sally. It was a sin the way he neglected Emmy. It was a sin the way he used all his women. There were plenty of settlers who’d like to see him gone. She sighed. Certain actions needed to be taken for the good of the settlement.
“Got everything you need for school? Remember, learning is the only way to better yourself.”
“Yes, ma’am. Thanks, Auntie Rose.”
Rose paid Amos Ridley the credits for the merchandise, watched Emmy clutch the bag of clothing and school supplies. Emmy and Auntie Rose exited the store and wandered by the stalls of the traders. She listened to the hum of conversation as settlers swapped produce, handicrafts, lumber, and aboriginal artifacts unearthed during planting season for the expensive off-world goods.
They spent several minutes rummaging through boxes of odd bits of machinery, appliances, motors, and such at Otto’s Salvage, a stall near the corner of the street. Rose needed a replacement burner for her stove. She didn’t see anything that would do, but knew if you mentioned something to Otto he might just locate it on his next salvage run.
Rose spotted Otto watching them. She waved the trader over. “Have you come across any parts for a wood stove?”
“Not lately.” Otto scratched his chin. “But I’m headed out on a run next week, so I can keep an eye out for some stove parts.”
“I’d appreciate that,” answered Rose. “I’m especially interested in burners, but a few other parts could use replacing.”
“You paying in credits or barter?” The trader had slid his hands into his pockets and was smiling a gap-toothed smile at Rose and Emmy.
“Credits, I think.” She knew traders always preferred credits. And Otto was no exception.
Otto’s smile broadened. “I’m sure I’ll be able to find something for you, Miss Rose, by the first of next month if not sooner.”
“Thank you,” responded the wisewoman with a nod.
They departed Otto’s Salvage and visited a few more traders’ stalls. Rose was in no hurry. She wanted to be seen in town for several hours. “How ‘bout a birch beer?” she asked Emmy.
Rose smiled at the girl’s excitement. “I believe we should be celebrating, and a cool glass of birch beer is the perfect way to do so.”
“Celebrating my birthday?”
“Of course, Emmy. What else could I mean?”
After finishing their drinks, Rose and Emmy walked back to Rose’s house for a late lunch. They canned some tomatoes in the afternoon under the watchful eyes of the red-furred squirrels. Rose heard the dogs howling around five o’clock. It is just past six when the sheriff rode up to Rose’s place on his buckskin mare, leading a walleyed piebald with an empty saddle.
“Emmy. Emmy Hawkins. You in there, girl?” The sheriff called out as the horses trotted into Rose’s yard.
Rose and Emmy stepped out onto the porch. The squirrels raced out the door with them, scampered up Rose’s dress, and clung to the wisewoman’s shoulders. Halifax, Yukon, and Dodge made rhythmic gurgling sounds deep in their small throats, flicked their tails like semaphores, and stared at the sheriff with bright eyes.
The lawman took off his hat, fiddled with its brim, and cleared his throat twice. “Emmy, I got some sad news for you ‘bout your father.”
As Rose slipped her arm around Emmy’s thin shoulders, three red-haired squirrels clapped their clever little paws.
- SpaceWesterns.com First Year Writer’s Interviews by N.E. Lilly (Jun 29, 2008)