Dance With The Deacon
My job on that cattle drive had been simple. I was the hired gun. Oh it wasn't as obvious as the times I hired on to kill specific people. Nonetheless it was my position. The scout was an Indian and damned good at his job. My job was to ride along with him and make sure nobody killed him. I was also expected to hunt down rustlers. It would be nice if I returned the cattle in addition to the bodies of the rustlers. I am not sure how many other drives had a man like me on the payroll but Big Ed Williford believed in preventing trouble by having he fastest gun on his payroll. If he couldn't prevent trouble, he wanted to have the winning hand. Since there were few real gun hands on a cattle drive or rustling cattle he had the best man for the job.

Gun hands were cheap that period shortly after the war of Yankee aggression. Like a lot of other men, when I returned from the war I found the family farm sold to carpetbaggers. I drifted west along with many other former soldiers.

Unlike most of them, I had been a sharpshooter during the war. I didn't fire my gun into the woods hoping to hit a target. I knew exactly when I had killed a man, and there were many. My first year in the west, I found that being willing to kill for money was about the only marketable skill I had.

"Pete, you and the Indian go on up ahead and try to find us some water. These cows are going to need water real bad soon." Big Ed gave the order over our morning oatmeal.

"Okay boss, you seen the Indian this morning?"

"He is over with the horses. He seems to prefer them to us." Big Ed was smiling.

"Can't say that I blame him. Most of the time we act worse." I didn't think Ed cared much for the remark. I had been traveling with the Indian for three weeks. During that time I had seen him insulted ten times or more. It had not come down to guns yet, thank god. I knew it was only a matter of time though.

I walked to the rope line tied between two wagons. The Indian was working on a horse tied to the line. The horse appeared to have a hoof problem. The Indian was holding the hoof between his legs while he worked on it with a large pocketknife.

"Two, you about ready to go looking for water?" I asked it knowing he was still busy. I wanted to hurry him along. As usual he looked up to acknowledge my presence but did not speak. He simply returned to the hoof trimming.

I climbed down from my own horse. I wasn't sure how long Two was gonna be, so I loosened the saddle cinch. With the horse about as comfortable as he was gonna be for a while, I made myself comfortable sitting on the ground leaned against the wagon's wheel. Whenever I had the opportunity I sat on the ground. I had always hated horses. Horses are stupid, clumsy animals at best.

I knew there was no sense trying to hurry the Indian. He did things at his own pace. He and I worked out our differences the first day we met. I knew instantly it was useless to try to impose my will on him. He had absolutely no fear of me. Once that was established it was kill him or just go along with his ways. The drive needed him so no one was willing to pay me to kill him. That made going along the easiest thing to do. Over the weeks we had forged a kind of friendship. Not the kind where you talk about things because the Indian almost never spoke. Rather the kind that allowed us to ride for hours together without trying to kill each other.

The Indian finished his horse then took a look at my horses hooves. He made a single cut after checking all four. When he finished he walked to the chuck wagon for his grub. The cook put his meager rations into an empty flour sack. The Indian tied the sack securely with a single rawhide strip. He then tied the bag around his waist. He walked to his pony then looked over at me. I knew then, and only then, were we ready to go.

The Indian rode a small painted pony. It hardly seemed possible but the small pony was able to go longer than the old chestnut mare I rode. The mare was faster but the pony had more endurance. The Indian had signed onto the drive with two of the little beasts. The other was mixed in with the small heard of horses, which followed along behind the cattle. Since horses were harder to control, the herd had it's own drover. Twenty men could not ride five hundred miles on twenty horses. Each man had at least two favorite horses he used. All the men except me; I hated all of the ugly, stupid, smelly beasts equally. I rode whatever horse was available. I didn't like one any better than another.

The Indian and I rode north all day. We rode at a pace about three times as fast as the slow moving cattle. With the Indian, I had learned to eat in the saddle. If I stopped to take care of necessities, I had to ride harder to catch up with him. When he stopped, which was seldom, I waited. I did so since I had no idea where to go. If I had left him then went in the wrong direction, I might never see him again. The Indian would not come to find me. He was as stubborn as the horse I rode.

It was well after dark when we stopped for the night. There was no reason to start a fire. The food we carried would not be improved by heating it. Which is why we carried no cooking utensils at all. We went to sleep that night it was in a cold camp. There were so few people on the trail that it was not really for security reasons.

It took a second to realize what had woke me. It was the sound of a horse snorting. Hell, horses do it all the time, but sometimes it is for a reason. I looked over to find the Indian's blanket empty. I listened carefully to the sounds of the night. Even as I listened my hand moved closer to the Colt handgun. If it was to be close combat, the Colt was the weapon of choice. I could not imagine a situation in the dark calling for the long gun.

I spent several minutes trying to place the sound. I couldn't pull a similar sound from my memory. I knew it was buried somewhere in there but I had lost the key. The sound was far enough away so that I felt comfortable moving about in the dark. I found the Indian standing by our horses. From that vantage point I still could not see a thing, but the sounds seemed closer. The Indian made a walking motion with his fingers. I nodded my agreement that the sounds were close enough to walk toward.

The Indian and I tried to slip up on the sound. The sound was definitely man made. That being the case the only question was why the sound moved toward us so slowly. The other question was what the devil made the squeaking sound. There was a moon that night so we were able to make out the shape of a small one-horse wagon from far away. I was about to suggest we return to camp and forget it. Obviously, the Indian knew something I didn't. He didn't seem all that interested in the wagon. Still he moved forward.

After what seemed like a long time we drew near the wagon. The horse ambled along without any direction. On the carriage type seat, complete with springs, rested what at first appeared to be a bundle of rags. I didn't really need the closer examination to tell me it was a man. The man might have been sleeping in the awkward position. The Indian and I both knew better. I climbed onto the small step then pulled him over by his black suit jacket. He hadn't been dead long enough to stink but long enough to pass through the stiff as a board stage. I had seen enough death during the war to know how it went. After a few hours the body got stiff. After a few more it went limp again. The body was cold as a mountain stream, so he had obviously passed through that stage.

"Tell you what Two, lets bury him then check his wagon out." He wasn't going to need anything in the wagon. If we ran across a family member's address we would have to consult our conscience.

\tab Fortunately he had a shovel in the wagon. It was just about the only tool. Frankly I was a little surprised until I thought about the condition of the trails in that part of the country. A traveler in a wagon might well be called upon to dig his wheel free.

I stripped off his suit before I rolled him into the shallow grave. Having been raised as a good little Baptist child, I knew a few words to say over the stranger. However, since he was a stranger they were few. After a couple of minutes the Indian and I began searching the wagon. The man carried little. Not only were his belonging Spartan, but his pouch and wallet were almost empty. There was a box of letters but the moon was not bright enough to read. I didn't much like having a fire in a strange place so I decided to wait until morning to read the letters. The Indian and I split his cash. My share was less than two dollars. The money was hardly worth digging his grave.

The man had hardly carried enough food for a week. The distance between where he left and where he was going must have been small. In stark contrast he carried two water bladders. The Indian held them up for me to see. His point was the two bladders were full to the top. I took another look at the horse. The gelding did not look to be in great need of water. It appeared the preacher, as I begun to think of him because of the black suit and the small wagon, had filled up his water bladders recently. The Indian and I silently agreed to backtrack the wagon until we found water.

We unhooked the horse from its traces. The Indian examined the horse while I finished going through the wagon. The wagon was small enough so that going through it took only minutes. After we finished our tasks, I took a good look at the color of the sky and position of the moon. It appeared we had a couple of more hours until sun up. Without a word the Indian and I returned to our blankets.

First light found me still in the blankets. The sky had lightened considerably before I awoke. The Indian had made some sort of noise. It surely had been to awaken me since he moved with the silence of death. That is, unless he wanted to be heard. The dried beef and hard biscuits we had for breakfast were the same as the ones we had for dinner the night before. If we had lunch that day it to would be the same. After a couple of days of jerked beef and biscuits, the beans or stew of the camp would be a welcome addition.

The Indian lingered in camp after the sparse breakfast. I sensed he was curious about our stranger. I found the small wooden box. It still bore the carvings of the cigar company whose products had once been packed inside it. Either the man or someone else had put a finish of some kind on the box to seal the wood. The wood fairly glowed in the early morning light.

I found the first letter to have been addressed to Deacon Burke. It was an approval for Deacon Burke to do missionary work in the west. The Indian did not seem to approve. Missionaries usually went among his people. The letter went on to instruct Deacon Burke to begin churches in the towns he passed through on his way to California. The Church in St. Louis did not care how long it took him to make his way to California. They even compared his trip to Moses' search for the Promised Land.

The other documents were just his letters of reference from different church elders. The religion was foreign to me. A good little Southern Baptist boy knew nothing of the smaller sects. The one thing that did interest me was the fact that Deacon Burke was from Virginia the same as me. There seemed to be a lot of us transplanted rebels around the fringes of the west.

I packed the small wooden box along with his suit into a carpetbag he had in the rear of the wagon. The few other belongings that might be of any value the Indian and I loaded onto the horse. The make shift pack arrangement would not be comfortable for the animal, but it was only a short distance before we would remove them. The wagon itself was the most valuable thing the Deacon owned. It was also the one thing we could not carry with us. On a cattle drive nothing could be taken along unless there was a specific use for it. The small wagon was of no use. It was even likely to be a problem for the camp crew. So it had to be left behind for some other traveler to find.

There was no way to tell how long the horse had wandered but it seemed a good bet that water was close. The Indian did not give his pony water that morning. He knew the horse could smell the water if he was thirsty. We backtracked the wagon even though it went in almost a circle. The Indian's pony began resisting his moves ever so slightly. The Indian gave the animal its head. Not fifteen minutes later we came to a river. At that place the river had high, steep banks. We traveled down it toward the herd looking for a place to water the thirsty animals. A few minutes later we came upon a fence that seemed to go on forever. At one point behind the fence we could see a wide shallow part of the river. It stood to reason that the locals had fenced it off, because it was the only watering spot around. I had no idea why, but it appeared someone was trying to deny the water to outsiders.

I had no idea what Big Ed would do. I hardly knew the man, at all. I knew what I would do though. I also expected it would be Ed's decision. We were just about to leave the fence to allow Ed to decide on the next move when they rode up. The three of them must have been watching us ride the fence for some time.

"Howdy stranger," a thin red headed man greeted me. He obviously planned to ignore the Indian.

"You own this land?" I asked it not being friendly at all. I didn't want to make friends with a man I might have to kill.

"No, but I work for him." His reply came in a rather thick voice. He sounded like a man with a hangover.

I nodded. "Could you tell me what the deal with the fence is?" I asked it trying to appear concerned. I really wasn't. It wasn't my herd.

"Sure, Mr. Evans put up that fence to keep the cattle drives from messin' up his water."

"I see then the water belongs to him. Is that how he sees it?" I was trying to find out what was going on not start a fight.

The man's eyes got hard. "Ain't no seeing to it. Mr. Evans has been on this land for thirty years and the water is his."

"I see. Guess me and my friend will be heading back to the drive." I said that as I watched his eyes.

"You do that friend. Tell your boss the water is not for sale or for the taking. We will fight to protect what is ours."

"I will tell him." I said it nice and friendly. Nobody had paid me to kill him. In addition, if I did, the war would start too soon. If Big Ed wanted to fight for the water, that was fine. It was his decision to make, not mine.

We arrived in camp after dark. The chuck wagon was still open. The stew pot would be on all night for those riding nighthawk. I hadn't been worried about the food.

"Cookie, I got a bag here I need to store, could you shove it in the wagon for me." Without a doubt at the beginning of the drive the answer would have been no. By the time I asked, a lot of the items we had brought with us had been used up.

"Pete, I will if you don't mind it being tied on the side.\'94 It was his way of showing he had no fear of me. He was right not to fear me. He was a good cook. Even a gun hand would get strung up for killing a cattle drive cook. Hell, if I wanted to make friends protecting Cookie would be the way to do it.

"Pete, did you find water?" The impatient voice behind me belonged to Big Ed.

"Yep, but we gonna have a problem getting it." I looked him in the eye daring him to comment on my delay in reporting to him.

"How so?" he asked.

"Water is in a small river. It is slow and deep with steep banks." I took a drink from the coffee cup Cookie handed me. Big Ed waited rather than ask any more questions. "Me and the Indian rode the river south till we came to some wire. Somebody fenced in the only shallow area. Couple of his riders said the water was not for sale or takin'."

"You mean they expect to keep us from God's own water?" His face had suddenly turned red. I had seen it do that a couple of times before. Big Ed did not hide his feelings well. "How many are there?"

"We only saw three, but you can bet this time of the year there are more." I said that as I took a metal plate from the stack on the pull down shelf on the side of the chuck wagon.

"How far is the water?" Big Ed asked.

"For riders half a day northeast. For the herd, a day and a half, maybe two." I was in the middle of filling my plate with stew when he replied.

"Well, finish the grub then you and the Indian go back and find out how many we are going to have to fight for that water." He turned to walk away.

"Ed,\'94 When he turned back I began, "I signed on to fight; these cowboys didn't. You gonna get some of them kilt."

"It will be their choice. Any man don't want to fight, I will pay off and send on his way. On a cattle drive, Pete, you fight for the cattle."

"Sorry Ed, guess I ain't never gonna be a cowboy. I fight cause I am gettin' paid to fight. I sure wouldn't fight for no smelly cow. By the way Ed, the Indian and me brought a horse back. We would appreciate it if you took a look and see if you can buy him from us."

"Where is the owner?" Ed asked it with a very solemn expression on his face.

"Dead, we just took the horse so it wouldn't starve." I looked Ed in the eye. I figured he was smart enough to ask the Indian if he wanted to know how the man had died. I sure as hell didn't plan to tell him.

I had already been saddle weary before the ride back to the fence. The Indian said one of his very few words when we were about a hundred yards from the watering hole. "Wait," he said as he slipped down from his horse.

I could have insisted on going along. That most likely would have gotten us both killed. The Indian could slip into the camp count heads and get back safely. He would never be able to do it with me along. I would make enough noise to get us strung up as spies. I was perfectly happy to sit on the ground in the moonlight with my rifle. The rifle would be totally useless since it was dark as hell. It just made me feel better.

The rifle was an army cavalry issue piece. It was their marksman rifle, a pretty good weapon in its own right. I had the piece redone for me by a gunsmith in Saint Louis. He had re-chambered it by hand. The improved rifle would fire either the .44 caliber revolver round or the larger more powerful .44 rifle cartridge. The rifle had been milled to accept two different sights. The open sight that was standard to most any weapon, and a special German-made peep sight. That one, I carried in a small wooden box in my saddlebag. It was used only when a long accurate shot was needed. That night accuracy was not going to be a factor. There was not enough light for the peep sight.

The single shot rolling block rifle had lost favor with soldiers because it was slow. Soldiers wanted rapid fire so the repeating rifle was all the craze. The new repeaters were still scarce, so the rolling block had been issued to the troops in large numbers. They were also available and in use all over the west. Hell, even the Indians were equipped with them. Those old Springfields passed through a lot of hands before they were finally broken or scrapped.

That thought and a lot more ran through my mind before the Indian returned. When he did I saw his shadow moving along the ground only seconds before he was beside me. The Indian like all his people moved like the animals of the plains, graceful when in their stealth mode.

"How many," I whispered.

The Indian gestured thirteen.

"Damn," I said. I thought a lot more than a simple damn. Thirteen of them, and only twenty of us. Some of our twenty would be left with the cattle. I could probably figure on a slight numerical superiority. It would be quickly lost to the enemy since they would be in fortified positions. If we attacked them we were going to be massacred.

The Indian and I pushed hard to get back to the herd. During that ride I fought hard to find a way to win while staying alive. Going to the gun had always been my stock and trade, but this would be suicide. I had a feeling Ed was not going to sit back while his cattle died from lack of water.

"It is real bad Ed." I said those words when we were standing by the fire. I had a plate of stew in my hand. I knew even as I had dipped the stew that Ed wanted the word, but I didn't much care. I was hungry. If he didn't go along with my plan then we were going to die. I wanted to at least die with a full belly.

"They got thirteen men staying in the bunk house and they know we are coming. My guess is they are going to be on the ground in fighting positions. If we ride into them they will cut us to pieces. Man on a horse is a lousy shot." I thought I had made my case pretty well.

"The cattle have to have water and they have to have it today or tomorrow at the latest. We are going to have to water them, that is all there is to it." Ed was as adamant as I had expected he would be.

"I got an idea. It might work. If nothing else it will get them on the horses and us on the ground." I smiled when I said it. I spent the next ten minutes explaining it to him.

"That ain't got no chance of working, but then again, you are right. We go in there guns blazing and a lot of my cowboys are gonna die. Take ten men and all the shovels we got. Make it look good."

I noted with a great deal of satisfaction that Big Ed did not want to join us. It was why he paid me. It was clear he was a rancher and not a warrior. It was the middle of the day when we arrived at the spot a half-mile above the wire.

"I want a trench dug over here. Make it as deep as you need to so that you can feel safe if we start shooting these people. You might want to go ahead and dig it deep enough for a grave in case we don't talk them into giving us water." Everybody knew it was going to be water or lead. Those were the only possible outcomes. While they dug the trench I set the first charge off at the riverbank. I had no idea what I was doing but it didn't matter. I just wanted to make some noise while I collapsed part of the river's bank.

I had set off three charges before they arrived. I had also made a pretty good-sized little cove. Not enough to water almost a thousand head of cattle but enough to look like it might be possible given a day or two. I would have needed another couple of cases of dynamite at least to do the job.

"Hey, what the hell you doing to my river," the older man asked. I didn't recognize him but I did recognize the two with him. They had been two of the ones I had spoken with the day before. The man was thin in the way old men got on a ranch in those days. If Big Ed lived to be the old man's age, he would lose most of his bulk. The man was small but by no means frail. He was small like dried rawhide, tough and stringy.

"Well Sir, I am making a watering spot for our cattle. I figure it will be done by tomorrow." I noted with satisfaction that he counted guns while I spoke. The man was no dummy.

"What do you plan to do, make a shallow cove here for the cattle?" he asked it with real concern in his voice.

"Either that, or divert the river over to that gully a couple of hundred yards away. Just depends on what I get done with four cases of dynamite." He didn't know, or need to know, that I was all but out of dynamite.

"You know I can't let you do that. It will take the water from my cattle." He looked nervous.

"Dead men don't have to worry about cattle. Nothing else, as far as that goes. Best we can figure you got thirteen or so men. You come back with them and we gonna be in those holes. We are gonna kill ever damn one of them. Then I personally am gonna kill you. Sorry, but that is the way it plays." I gave him my best evil look. I had just done as much as was possible to end the standoff without a fight.

"If I let you water at the shallows this stops?" He didn't look happy at all.

"It stops."

"Bring the cattle on down. We will take down the wire ourselves." He looked like he might have something in mind.

"Good, the Indian and I will make sure there are none of your men around. If there are we come back to this place. I will personally blow hell out of this riverbank. So you best keep them away."

"You don't trust me?" He looked at me with a smile.

"Not a bit," I said with a grin.

"If you need a job after this, come see me." He turned his horse. The three of them rode away.

Everything else about watering the cattle was anticlimactic. Big Ed took the whole next day to make sure all the cattle got enough water to drink. He lost a few head because the watering was so chaotic. I sat in my saddle worrying what treachery the old man had in mind. It was a futile exercise. The old man stayed away. Moving the cattle in and out of the shallows was a miserable job. I was even pressed into service to help with it. The Indian stood guard over us.

Once the watering was complete we pushed north. A few miles up the trail the river turned east so we parted company with it. It had been a dry spring but enough rain had fallen on the plains so that the grass grew regardless of the drought. The search for water kept the Indian busy most of the time. I rode with him just to keep him out of trouble. Big Ed needed him alive and I liked the man. Still there were those who didn't. Some had good reason to hate all Indians, and some had no reason at all. Either way, I tried to stay close.

After the water incident something gnawed at me. Big Ed avoiding the fight really affected me. I realized Ed was no coward. It had to do with his being able to hire men like me to go out and die for him. He could pay for men like me to defend his property. Like I said before, I had hired out my gun previously. I had just never realized that the money was the key. If you had it, no matter its source, you had to defend it. The man with the most money hired the most guns to defend what was his, or to take what wasn't. That knowledge led me on in my planning for after the drive.

While the thoughts ran through my head the Indian alerted me to the rider coming up on our rear. We watched him change from a cloud of dust to a rider on horseback. Then finally to someone from the cattle drive. He was riding purposefully toward us. I figured it meant trouble for me. I couldn't think of any reason that the Indian would be needed badly enough to send a rider for him. I sensed the Indian knew it too.

When the rider got close I noted his red hair. He would obviously be called red or some variation of it. When he got close enough to speak the horse had been slowed then reined to a stop.

"So Red, what's got you all in a lather?" I asked it even though I could have just remained quiet like the Indian. Red was going to tell me regardless.

"Big Ed sent me to fetch you. He is all in a rage."

"Now what had got him all upset?" I asked it, knowing whatever it was had to do with my gun and me.

"Rawhiders cut out ten head and rode west with them. Ed wants them back."

"How long ago?" I asked.

"Well I been riding all day, so it was yesterday."

I turned my attention to the Indian. "You comin?"

He shook his head. Killing wasn't his job and I knew it. The Indian might kill to defend his own life, but the cattle meant nothing to him. I headed southwest hoping to cut their trail. The redheaded cowboy rode along. I didn't bother to ask him why. He was obviously under orders from Ed.

I was moving too slowly for the cowboy. "We never gonna catch them at this rate."

"We are never going to catch them if we ride these horses to death. Yours is already spent. You should head back to the herd for a fresh mount."

"She will be fine," the cowboy said. Hell, he was a drover and should know his horse's limits, so I shut up. When night fell we hadn't cut their trail so I pulled up under the only tree I had seen in over an hour. He acted as though he wanted to build a fire. He didn't say anything just moved around like he was getting the makings ready.

"Forget the fire Red. We run a cold camp." I said it as I began rubbing down my horse. Red, I noted, began work on his animal even though his heart wasn't in it. I had a feeling his mind was on coffee.

"You don't mind if I roll one do you?" He asked it with the pouch of tobacco in his hand. I could have stopped him but I decided not to bother.

"Nope, they are not looking for us. We are looking for them.\'94 I could tell he didn't understand. It didn't matter much.

The next morning before noon we cut their trail headed west. Red and I turned to follow. We had gotten lucky. If we had gone farther west we would have missed them all together. They pulled up not more than two hours after we cut the trail.

I wasn't the Indian but I knew that there were three loaded-down horses pushing ten or so head of cattle. It stood to reason that all three of them were hold up in the tiny shack. The shack was built next to a wandering stream. It would have been ideal had there been a small rise with a stand of trees overlooking the cabin. No such luck, there was only the flat plains surrounding it. I was well within range of my rifle when I removed it from the scabbard. I also removed the peep sight from the saddlebag. Opening the wooden box without dropping it all was a trick on the slightly moving horse.

"What are you doing?" Red asked.

"Getting ready to take back the cattle," I replied.

"Well we are going to get closer aren't we?"

"Why, do you want to get shot at? There is a high probability you will get killed in a gunfight. Is that what you want Red. Do you want to die?"

"Hell no, but I ain't gonna be no good to you this far away."

"Don't worry, Red. You don't have to be." By that time I had the rifle together. It took a couple of more minutes but the men in the cabin came outside. I was too far away to tell much but it was pretty clear they were armed to the teeth. Whether they were or not made no difference. I took aim at the one on my right side of the ragged line they formed. The horse stood perfectly still. I was sure it would be the last time he would do that so I took careful aim. When I pulled the trigger there was the blast of a controlled explosion from the shell. A second later the man fell. It took another second for the other two to react. Their reaction was first to fire several rounds at us. None of them came even close to where we sat.

Since my horse was fidgeting, I climbed down. I dropped his reins since he was well enough trained not to run off on me. The men ran into the cabin when I climbed down. They were smart enough to know that the death of their friend had not been a lucky shot.

I wasted a shot into the cabin's walls just to get them returning the fire. I knew one was standing inside the door and the other by the left hole in the wall. Those holes were what they used for ventilation. There was no glass in them so you couldn't really call them windows.

I aimed the rifle at the spot where I thought the one in the door would be standing. I gently squeezed the trigger to send death over the hundred or so yards. The scream barely audible on the wind told me I had at least wounded him. Smoke poured from the window. Three clumps of dust rose in front of us. The Rawhiders were down to one shooter. I was about to put a couple of rounds through the window when he came out with his hands up.

I drew a careful bead on him. I was just about to pull the trigger when I was stopped by the voice of Red.

"You aren't going to shoot him with his hands in the air are you?"

"I was, but if you want to carry him back to Ed, it makes no difference to me." I said that looking Red in the eye.

"Well I sure don't want to kill him in cold blood like you did the first one."

"Okay then, you ride down there and bring him back here. After that we can go down and get the cattle." I said it looking at the cabin.

"Why ain't you comin with me?" he asked.

"Because Red, odds are fifty-fifty that man inside the cabin ain't dead. He is probably lying in there with his rifle. He could be just waitin' for us to ride down there so he can shoot us. Now, you feel free to go on down there, if you want to take the chance. Me, I will just wait right here for you to come back, or to kill them after you are dead. Don't make no difference to me."

I could see his mind working. "Hell, they are Rawhiders."

"Good point, so I assume I have your permission to shoot the one in the yard?"

"Yeah," he said. I noted he looked away when I shot the man standing beside his dead friend. His body fell almost on top of the first one.

"Well, we still got to go down there?" Red made it a question.

"Yep, but not right now. If he is hurt the longer we wait the better. Blood loss will get him soon enough. If he is dead don't make no difference how long we wait, he is still gonna be dead. The only bad thing about the three-hour wait was that there was no shade. It was hot as blazes.

When we finally went down I chose to circle around. We came on him from a direction he could not see from the door. He could watch from some of the other holes in the shack but not the doorway. It might not help to come up from a different angle, but it couldn't hurt either.

The two in the yard were very dead by the time we finally reached them. The one in the house was almost dead. Red was still outside when I shot him in the head. I walked outside to find the cowboy leaning against the shack. He looked as though his jerky and cold biscuit might just reappear.

"You all right?" I asked it from a few feet away.

"Yeah, I just never killed anybody before."

"You still ain't, kid. I killed them." I watched him for a second. He needed something to do I decided. "Red, lets go saddle up their horses."

"What for?" he asked.

"We are going to take these three back to the drive to bury. I want Ed to see his Rawhiders."

The return trip didn't take all that long. It was just one night on the trail. When it began getting dark I asked, "So Red, you tired enough to sleep with the dead or do you want to push on?"

"If it is all the same to you Pete, I think I would just as soon keep moving." Red looked about to fall from his saddle. Even falling from his horse must have seemed preferable to sharing a cold camp with three stinking corpses.

"Suits me just fine," I said as I turned back to the trail. Just before dawn we cut the trail left by the cattle. We followed it till we found the wagon tracks then followed those. A short while after sun up we were within sight of the wagon.

"Red, you want to ride ahead and find the boss, or do you want to stay with this lot?" I asked it raising the horse's reins.

"Just as soon ride ahead," he replied. I would have bet on that. After what seemed like an inordinately long time Big Ed returned with the kid.

"What the hell did you bring those bodies back here for?" Bid Ed asked.

"You paid for 'em, thought you might want to see \'91em''." I looked him hard in the eye.

"If you had told me they were dead that would have been enough."

"If that had been enough you wouldn't have sent the pup with me." I was still looking hard at Ed. Since the water incident things had changed. Ed felt I no longer trusted him, so I guess he felt he could no longer trust me.

Ed looked a bit uncomfortable when he spoke. "Well get them in the ground. Turn the horses into the herd they; ain't worth much, but we will settle up when we reach the railhead. I got no use for the guns though."

He had seen the rifles tied to the horse with the thinnest man draped over the saddle. The pistols were tied on the side away from where he sat. He could not have seen them.

"They ain't worth much, but I will find someone who wants them." I watched as he turned away.

"Red," I said to the retreating cowboy. "Get us a couple of shovels and lets get these guys in the ground."

"You killed 'em', you bury 'em'," he said it as he rode away.

"Seems like your stomach has returned pup." I said it quietly. I looked around to see what was handy. I found a stand of trees about a hundred yards away. I rode slowly to it. When I arrived I found a low spot in the ground. I cut the ropes holding the bodies to the horses. When all three were in the depression I mounted my horse and rode away.

"Sorry guys, you was worthless, but you should have got a hole anyway. I just ain't up to the diggin' of it."

I rejoined the Indian, as I was tired of the company of my fellow white men. From Big Ed to the cowboys, every one of them made me want to kill somebody. We were almost at the railhead when one of the cowboys caught up with the Indian and me.

"Big Ed wants you, killer." He said it with a smirk. I knew then that the pup, Red, had been talking.

"Tell you what cowboy. If you are ready to die, you talk to me like that one more damn time." I put my eyes on him as if he were already dead. I waited to see if he would break the gaze or go for a gun. Either way he was going to come off second best.

He spun his horse then rode away. I watched his back as he rode quickly toward the herd. "Smart ass is gonna get himself killed one day." I was talking to myself but he Indian heard. He didn't say a word, just nodded.

For some reason the Indian knew something. He rode back with me to the herd, something he had never done before. When we arrived, Big Ed met us.

"Lost about ten head last night. The trail is over that way." With those words he turned then walked back to the chuck wagon. If there had ever been any regard between us, it ended right there. If he had been anyone else, I might have killed him. I didn't only because there were twenty men he owed money. They would surely have killed me.

The Indian rode with me to find the trail. I am not a great scout but I can follow ten head of cattle without a tracker. I said nothing because the Indian always had a reason for anything he did. We found the spot where the stolen cows left the herd. It wasn't more than a few hundred yards before the Indian got down from his horse then walked about.

"Three men on horses with no iron on feet,\'94 he said it as he looked up at me.

"Indians?" It was a question that wasted my breath.

"Hunting party," was his answer.

"Why would they want beef? I thought Indians hated the taste of beef?"

"Not as much as they hate to see their little ones starve." It was a speech of epic proportions for the Indian. And it was a different man who spoke.

"I never heard you speak so much. You sound awfully white." I was smiling.

"Missionary school," he replied.

"You sure we gonna find starving Indians when we find the cattle?" I asked it knowing better than to waste my breath. I trusted him completely.

"I am sure," he replied.

I gave it a lot of thought before I answered. "Well then, I guess my cattle drive days are over." I didn't know what I would have done two months before, but I knew I couldn't kill a bunch of starving Indians over somebody else's cattle. I must be developing a conscience. That thought brought a smile to my lips. The Indian couldn't read the smile so he looked worried.

"You better get on back out ahead of the drive. I will go talk to Big Ed."

The Indian nodded. He had a gut-level understanding of how it was going to end. After we parted I turned my horse to the herd. I found Big Ed at the front of the herd. Somehow he didn't seem all that big to me anymore.

I reined up beside him before I spoke. "Ed, did you know that it was Indians that cut the herd?"

"Saw the tracks." Ed had become a man of few words.

"Well, I am sorry, but I am not going to go shoot up a camp of starving Indians. If they bothered to steal beef they are hungry."

"Why they did it don't matter none. I want my cattle back." He was looking at me with a really strange look. He looked like a man with what he thought was a winning hand. I realized then that Ed had grown uncomfortable with me around. He wanted to get rid of me and it was his way. Force me to quit rather than risk firing me. The only reason he needed justification was so that I wouldn't kill him just for the hell of it. He obviously thought I might. That knowledge robbed him of his aces.

"Well Ed, you should rethink that one. If I go down there and shoot up that camp, the whole damn tribe might come after your herd. You would lose not only your cattle but your hair as well. Of course if that is what you want, I can go down and bring back the cattle or the hides. I am pretty sure that is probably all that is left." I had just shown him the logic although it was all lies.

"Let me think on this a while," Ed suggested. I knew right then I had heard the last of it. The idea that Ed might lose everything over ten head of cows was logic enough for him to let it go. I was beginning to like the idea of talking rather than killing.

Ed and I managed to stay away from each other \'91til we reached the railhead. He changed his mind about the horses. I left camp that morning with $62 in coin and all the gear of the three men I shot. I also carried the carpetbag containing the deacon's suit. Fortunately there were small towns all along the railroad tracks. I rode into Hastings, Kansas around noon on the second day. The town's liveryman bought the horses and saddles from me, including the horse I rode and the saddle I had my ass in. I got a hundred dollars in paper for all of the animals and saddles. I could have done better selling them one at a time, but I was in a hurry to get on a train. I had a plan in the back of my mind.

Half-hour before the eastbound train arrived I sold all the extra guns to the town\'92s general store. The guns were old and poorly cared for. I bought a can of light oil from him first. I used it and a rag he had in the back to clean them up before I sold them to him. Even with the cleaning I received only $28 in coin and a small lightweight .36-caliber, five shot revolver. He did toss in a box of twenty cartridges for the English made piece. I was happy with the little pistol. The English made finely crafted firearms. They couldn't mass-produce them, but what they did turn out were excellent pieces.

The short hop to Saint Louis was only a long days travel on the train. When I arrived I took a room in a hotel on a side street close to the rail station. I spent three days in that room doing my homework. The event itself was anticlimactic.

I sat in the alley behind the Cattleman's Association Bank. I made sure the deputy patrolling passed a few minutes before I pulled on the raincoat. Only after both did I kick in the back door of the bank. I found two of the four employees in the bank a half hour before it opened. I chose that bank because the owner's picture hung on the wall. He was quite handsome in his blue uniform. Beside the picture was a list of the battles he had supposedly been in during the war of Yankee aggression. Seemed only fair that a Yankee colonel paid for my wartime.

"Gentlemen, I realize the money belongs to someone, but it ain't you, so it ain't worth you dying over. Just fill up this here gunny sack." I waited while they did. I was surprised neither resisted nor said a word. I stayed long enough to be absolutely sure I had it all. As far as I could tell I did not leave a penny.

I tied and gagged them before I left the bank through the rear door. I had about fifteen minutes before they could raise an alarm. In that time I dumped the red bandana and the cowboy hat I had worn with my hair pushed up under it. I also found the empty carpetbag I had left behind a trashcan. The can sat at the rear of a ladies ready-to-wear store. I filled it with the money then walked into the lobby of the small hotel where I stayed. I checked my pocket watch. I found I had just a couple of minutes to change into the black suit of the Deacon.

I had checked into the hotel as Pete Sims. I left it as Deacon Burke. Deacon Burke had a letter from the church elders in Saint Louis. The letter directed him to travel west setting up churches as he went. I also had his school documents and his personal references. I left with Pete's ill-gotten gains. Also I left with the Deacon's spotless reputation. That was my plan, at least.

I walked into the train station in a black suit and unarmed to anyone who might have been checking. The colt was almost the only thing in the carpetbag, save the stolen money and a spare shirt. The Morris .36 cal was inside the specially made shoulder holster that had been quickly assembled by a harness maker in Saint Louis.

I walked from the hotel a block to the train station with my carpetbag and rifle in hand. I had to risk the rifle. I wasn't about to leave it behind. When I bought the ticket it was to the end of the line. Actually, to a small town I never heard of at the end of the line. My plan was simple. Hide out until the robbery was forgotten then slip back home to Virginia. Once I was home with the money I had made mining silver in west, I could buy back my Dad's farm. It was a nice long-range plan. The short-range plan was to just hide out for a while without using too much of the money. Going on a spending spree was how most of the bad guys got caught. They left a trail of greenbacks a mile wide. I was determined to get away with the robbery then go straight.

The town's sheriff's deputies came to the platform all in a huff. They went up and down looking over the waiting passengers. They gave me only a glance as they continued on their search. I looked at my watch after they had gone. It showed one hour and ten minutes since I walked out the rear door of the bank. The employees hadn't given much of a description I was sure. They probably got the gun right and that would be about all. The Colt was the gun carried by half the men in the west. At that moment, I was not carrying it. The yellow rain slicker was in a trashcan less than a block from the bank. It had been bought in a different town on the way to Saint Louis. If there was anything to tie me to the robbery it was the time of my departure. Nobody had noticed me leave the hotel through the fire door at the rear. As far as they knew I left as the cowboy who had entered. Pete Sims might be wanted for questioning but he had disappeared. He might resurface in a year or so. If so, it would most likely be in Virginia.

I found my way to an empty coach seat. Even though it was padded to some degree, I knew it was going to be a long ride west. I waited along with the other passengers while another train filled with cattle passed. It suddenly occurred to me how large a job it must be to keep east and west bound trains from colliding. Especially since both used the same set of tracks. I actually remember hoping the little men who ran the stations stayed awake until I got where I was headed. The thought of finally being rich then to die in a train crash was more than I could stand. It would be the ultimate irony; me lying by the side of the tracks with my ill gotten gains floating in the air.

I shook my head to clear it of the black thought. After all, I was a Deacon off to do God's work. Surely he would protect me. The train began to move.

My thoughts turned to where I would go from the town at the end of the line. The papers carried by Deacon Burke had mentioned a town called Sadie's Gulch, Nevada. According to the letter it was suggested that he stop there to open a church. There was the veiled warning about something the bishop has discussed with him before he left Saint Louis. I had no idea what the something was, but the idea appealed to me. It would definitely help make the Deacon more believable to be in the place he should be. Within an hour of starting the trip I had decided my next move. I did realize it would be two very long days before I could do anything.

The first afternoon there were no meal stops planned. The train would be stopping for a half hour to allow the tracks ahead to clear, but it would not be until six P.M. The stationmaster in Saint Louis had told me that there would be somewhere to eat during the long stops. I had not eaten breakfast since I was nervous about the bank job. I was beginning to feel the empty feeling in my belly. If I had been on horseback it would have been possible to ignore. However sitting on the train left me nothing else to do but feel the hunger.

We stopped to take on mail and a few freight boxes in a small town somewhere or other. On the platform there were children hawking fried meat pies. I bought two for ten cents, well over twice what they were worth. Still, I had plenty of money and I was starving. My only regret was that I had to wash them down with tepid water from the crock at the end of the car. The pies themselves were very good. They were spicy enough so their cool temperature was palatable. The boy was more than likely the son of the boarding house owner. I was told the food usually came from such a kitchen on the short stops. She had to be making a killing with the over priced food flying from his little wooden box.

After the lunch I managed to drift off into sleep. I was awakened by a woman shaking me gently. "Reverend, I am sorry to wake you but the seat beside you is empty and I would like to sit there."

It took me a moment to realize she was speaking to me. "Of course madam,\'94 I replied moving to make room for her. "I am sorry that I have taken so much room. Would you like to sit by the window?"

"No thank you sir. Far too much dust for me." She was smiling as she spoke.

I looked about. The train was moving quite fast. It didn't appear that it had made a stop while I slept. "Excuse me Miss?" I made it a question.

"Wilson, Reverend, Edith Wilson," She replied.

"Miss Wilson I am not a preacher. I am but a humble deacon." I had learned a few things in my childhood church attending days. I could see by her curious look that she didn't understand the collar. I changed the subject to get her mind off it. "Did you just come aboard?"

"No Deacon, I can call you deacon?" She seemed to be a bit disturbed by the name thing.

"Yes, I am called Deacon by most folks. My last name is Burke. Now if you did not come aboard recently where have you been sitting? Also why did you find it necessary to move, not that I object to the company mind you?" Actually I did mind the company. The more people I talked to the more likely I was to make a mistake. If she stayed she was likely to hear me snore a lot more than I would have alone.

"I was seated alone in the next car back. A rather loud and rude cowboy sat next to me at the last stop. I am a married woman Deacon. I am meeting my husband at the end of the line. I did not want the cowboy to get the wrong idea. I do hope you don't mind the company."

"Not at all, would you like for me to have a word with the young man?" I asked not sure what I would do if she said yes.

"Oh no please, if you would just allow me to sit here." There was some emotion in her eye but I couldn't place it.

"Very well," I replied formally.

Fifteen minutes later I had begun to regret my decision. Edith Wilson was a chatterer. She was filling me with stories of her Ohio home and family even though she should have known it bored me to tears. It was so boring I fell asleep often. I am not sure whether she stopped talking while I slept or not. She might have continued to ramble for all I know. I do know that whenever I awoke she would begin again or maybe just continue.

I dozed off and on until the train pulled onto a siding for the eastbound train to pass. The conductor advised us we would be on the siding for a minimum of thirty-five minutes. That being the case there was a wagon outside to take those who wanted to the boarding house for real food. For the others, there were again children with boxes of biscuits and beef. I decided to take the wagon since it would be only natural for a deacon to have a little money. Besides which, I was hungry. It did leave me with a bit of a problem. Carrying my bag would draw attention to it. Leaving it unattended was a gamble.

"Are you going to the house for dinner?" I asked the man sitting behind us. He wore a suit. He also spoke like a businessman. I asked it because he looked as though he were not going to rouse long enough to go anywhere.

"No, I think I will get a biscuit and just go back to sleep."

"My name is Deacon Burke," I extended my hand to him. "I have a rather expensive deer rifle up in the luggage rack. I wonder if you might deep an eye on it for me. I would hate to see it wonder off while I eat dinner."

"I expect I would awaken if anyone came near. Hell, everything else wakes me up today. "Sorry Preacher,\'94 he smiled a smile like a kid caught with his fingers in the cookie jar.

"I'm just a deacon sir. I too, have been known to succumb to the urge to express myself colorfully." I wondered where the fancy words were coming from. It took only a second to remember the tutors who came to the house during he summer months when I was a child. Dad had been a believer in education. Then too, there was his status to consider. Dad owned the largest farm in the county. His only son had to at least sound educated.

The war of Yankee aggression changed all that. Three years in the army surrounded by less educated 'young gentlemen' lowered my language skills. Then, there was the pure hell of killing men from a hundred yards away. Somehow, I had slipped into Colonel Boyd's raiders. We were mostly used to ambush the blue bellies. We delayed their advance for the last year of the war by always staying a few miles in front of them playing hell with their advanced scouts.

What I did was not really the heat of battle killing. It was cold-blooded murder in the name of patriotism. It bothered me less at the time than it did when the war ended. I was lucky they didn't hang me. When word came down of the surrender Colonel Boyd himself came by to give us the word. He also told us to dump the uniforms and drift west. His best advice was, don't go home. The yanks are going to be looking for us all. My guess is that they will hang us on site.

I didn't listen. I doubt anyone else did either. I rode home on the horse I had ridden into battle. If you choose to call how I fought the war battles. When I saw what was left of the place my heart broke. I knew my mother and father had been killed in Richmond while there on business. I supposed he was trying to find a way to save the farm. I found out it was going to be sold for taxes. The entire south was, since no one had paid any taxes to the Yanks. There sure as hell wasn't any money to pay them now. It looked as though the Yankees who had profited from the war would be coming down to buy up the cheap land.

With no family and no inheritance, the move west was easy to make. I hated leaving the place, but then there was nothing but ashes left for me in Virginia. As a final act of revenge I burned the house to the ground. It looked as though the memories were the only thing left to me by my parents. They were sweet and gentile, but not of much use to me. The memories of Colonel Boyd were much more valuable.

All that seemed to flash by in a half second. I nodded my thanks to the man then stood to stretch before following Edith into the aisle. She had decided to join me for dinner without being asked. It was a common practice for a woman traveling alone to find a suitable protector. I found it amusing that men seemed to be willing to die for a strange woman. I never quite figured that one out. To die for a woman you were married to, or at least in love with, was one thing; to die for an almost total stranger, was something else again. Those thoughts ran through my mind because of her encounter with the cowboy earlier. I had a feeling there might be more trouble from him. I would be expected to protect her. I would never have even considered it in my former life. I supposed in the life of Deacon Burke, it would be expected of me. For the first time I realized the plan might have a down side. I had to act like a deacon.

I allowed her to lead the way to the end of the car. There I stepped ahead of her to help her down the steps. When she was safely on the platform, I looked around. I saw a wagon with three seats parked by the high platform. It was possible to step almost directly into the wagon. The bed of the wagon was only slightly higher than the platform. It was possible for eight passengers to ride to the boarding house. Nine, if one of them drove, leaving the young man to walk along beside. I rode in the wagon only because Edith accompanied me. The ride was no more than a few hundred yards. Still, Edith would most likely have been uncomfortable walking it in the early fall afternoon, what with all the clothes a woman wore in those days. I found the suit coat I wore almost uncomfortable. I could have taken the coat off. She, on the other hand, could not remove the heavy traveling dress she wore.

The old lady who ran the boarding house must have been doing well with the train business. The place had a new coat of paint on the walls and a few new boards in the porch. Inside the house the long hallway led to two separate dining rooms. One had probably been the parlor before the conversion to a boarding house. It had probably lasted until the train had reached the small town. I figured if she were smart, the old lady knew it wasn't going to last. If the stop became permanent there would soon be a restaurant nearer the station.

The food was simple. There was a stew heavy with gravy and vegetables. It was probably the most economical of dishes. It suited me fine. Stew was filling and quick to get onto the plate. It was almost as quick to get into the belly. The old lady, or one of her kids, made much better biscuits than I ever got living on the move. My own mother made better ones, of course, but that had been before the war with the blue bellies. The coffee was hot and only slightly on the weak side of perfect. For desert there was a sort of dry apple cobbler.

The meal was expensive, probably, because it was the only game in town. It could have been worse. I paid my two bits while looking for Edith. I saw her still at the table with her money purse open looking thoughtfully into it. I could tell from her expression she was regretting the expense of the large meal. I should have known better, but I paid for the meal. I made a point of telling the old lady whom the second two bits were for.

As I waited for Edith and the others to join me for the wagon ride back to the station I noticed that the men were all dressed in suits. It seemed the cowboys didn't care to part with the money for a real meal. I expected, like I had previously done, that they satisfied themselves with the meat pies from the children on the platform.

The wagon left soon after I finished my meal. Edith didn't mention my having paid for her meal so I did. I didn't want the thanks, but I also didn't want the old woman to collect twice for the food.

"Edith, that old lady didn't try to collect for dinner from you did she?" I asked.

"No Deacon, she didn't. Thank you," she replied.

"It was my pleasure. I asked only to be sure she didn't try to take advantage of you. Please think nothing of it."

"Oh but I do. It was a kind and generous gesture. When I reach my destination I will tell my husband what a wonderful companion you have been."

"I really wouldn't do that were I you," I replied.

"Oh, why not?" she asked with a look that told me she knew full well why not.

"He might get the wrong idea."

"But you are a man of the cloth?" It was a question.

"Yes, but I am not a preacher. I am but a deacon and not above sins of the flesh."

"Then I suppose I will leave that part out." She was wearing a broad smile. It was the most attractive thing about her up until that point.

A couple of hours after dinner it began getting dark. If I had been traveling as myself I would have joined one of the many card games in progress up and down the aisles. Since I was not myself, I slipped into sleep. Edith was not the chatty type when tired, thank god, so I was able to nap off and on without interruption. I awoke sometime in the night to find her head on my shoulder as she slept beside me. It was most disconcerting even for a deacon. I had that thought as I laughed inwardly. I am afraid I had some most un-deacon like thoughts about the young lady beside me. For a moment I regretted the pretense. Then I remembered the money. It also came to me that if she hadn't thought I was safe, she would never have been beside me at all. It was the left-handedness of it all that made it so amusing. Not amusing enough for me to forget the warm feeling Edith gave me. Even though I had the desire, I had the good sense not to act on it. I intended to stay in character, no matter what. I also knew Edith was a married woman and not interested in an encounter even with a well-meaning deacon.

Edith pretty much slept all over me. Well as much as one can be on another while slumped in a hard chair. The ride was hard even on a man used to spending long hours in a hard saddle. If must have been truly miserable for a woman. The slightly padded seats of the train soon became unbelievably hard and uncomfortable. After a few hours everyone tended to wiggle his butt trying to find a spot less painful. I awoke often that night. Whenever I did I found Edith in motion trying to get comfortable. It was probably the thing that woke me.

The sun was up before I finally gave up on sleep. I walked to the end of the car where I filled my mouth with water from the dipper attached to the earthenware jug. I stepped into the space between the cars to spit the water into the cool morning air. I stood for a long while enjoying the cool air. I knew the cool wouldn't last long. The air had the feel of a morning just waiting for the sun to rise so that it could become a blistering day.

When I returned to my seat I found that Edith had managed to lie down. To accomplish it she had taken up both seats. Instead of waking her I looked for an empty seat. It seemed that if the seats weren't taken by a passenger they were taken by sleeping men or women. I had no choice if I wished to stay near my possessions I had to move Edith.

I lifted her head and shoulders, as they seemed to be the easiest parts to move. When I did, she wrapped her arms around me. She even tried to pull me against her body. Edith, it seemed, was a very loving woman. When I didn't respond she made a noise in her throat then pulled away seemingly still asleep.

I leaned against the window. I could look out at the landscape covered in a kind of blue haze. The mornings in that part of the country seemed to begin in a monochrome then as the sunlight began to lighten the sky one color at a time was added until nature\'92s full pallet was visible. Yes, it was true of every part of the country, and I suppose every part of the world. That morning I really noticed it for the first time.

I turned my attention to the woman sleeping on my shoulder. I both noticed and remembered her appearance. I supposed it was part of my reaction to the coloring landscape. I supposed even then that I was adding her to my memories of the trip.

Edith Wilson was tall for a woman. I remembered her from the trip to the boarding house. She was at least five nine, no more than an inch shorter than me. That height was unusual for a woman. Unusual enough that she got stares when she stood on the platform and again as she walked into the boarding house for dinner.

Edith was also thin. Not sickly thin like some of the women in Saint Louis had been, but just plain overworked thin. No doubt Edith had helped work a farm somewhere. She had talked about everything under the sun to me. Everything, but about her husband and her life. I would have expected it to be foremost on her mind. Either she had a very private side or she wasn't as excited as she should have been at the prospect of returning home. \tab The dress Edith wore was plain cut to minimize a woman's figure. In Edith's case it worked exactly as it was intended. It appeared that Edith was almost completely without breasts. The small rise in the fabric might have been a wrinkle. Nonetheless she was an attractive woman. Men, for some reason, seemed to notice her before the more voluptuous women. It could be that women of Edith's dimensions were less threatening. Whatever the reason, men often stared at her. She didn't mention it nor did she need to do so. I had noticed the looks again as she walked down the aisle to the bathroom. Also over dinner the night before. It must have been something she gave off. I would hardly have noticed her I told myself. Still I was sitting in the half-light storing her in my mind so as to never forget her.

The end of the line was due that day. After more than thirty hours on the move the train would come to a final stop. At least a final stop for me and those few passengers who were left aboard. The end of the line would actually be farther down the tracks but we would be leaving the train at the last town before arriving at the work camps. The arrival was supposed to be in the late afternoon, but could be anytime after the scheduled arrival. It appeared that we were an hour or more behind schedule. In a time when more than one train traveled the single set of rails that could be disastrous. At that time there should have been no train coming from the other direction. We were past all the rail intersections. The train on which we all rode was the only one on the isolated track, or so I thought.

I was nodding in and out of sleep when the incident began. I heard the voice through my sleep. The voice belonged to a man. He was demanding that the passengers get their valuables together. I was awake only enough to know I had to do something. I didn't want to cause a fuss but I also didn't intend to give up my wallet. I especially did not intend to give up my carpet bag.

"Come on folks we don't have long now get your things together." The voice was harsh and demanding. It seemed our bandit was a bit nervous. That was not a good sign. I slipped the small pistol from my shoulder holster. I had it on my lap as I pretended to still be asleep. I felt Edith tense beside me. The Bandit was apparently very close. I resisted the urge to take a look. I felt the pistol barrel prod me.

He expected me to wake with a start so I did of course. I pushed the pistol barrel slightly to the side as I shot him in the face. The cloud of burnt powder hung over our seats. Edith, like any good woman of the time, fainted. If not, she pretended to faint, which I think was the case most of the time. Of course if she had fainted I wouldn't have blamed her, the very dead bandit fell into her lap. I pushed him into the aisle as quickly as I could. Not soon enough to save her dress. Her lap was covered with blood and other liquids. Not to mention the solid matter from the not so good gun hand.

When he fell the gunman dropped his weapon on the floor at her feet. I reached down to find it under the long skirt. She must have really been out I thought. She didn't move even a little as I moved my hands around her feet. I also had my arms and body over her legs. She would have been beating on me if she had been awake. I did manage to recover the Colt from the floor. It was not in very good shape. I noted that instantly. Strange are the things that stick in your mind.

I stepped into the aisle and over the body of the bandit. I didn't really recognize him. I moved cautiously toward the next car. It was entirely possible that he was not working alone. It was in fact likely that he had accomplices. He would not want anyone from another car coming up behind him.

If that were indeed the case either of two possibilities might occur. The others might rush the car to secure it. More likely, they would just fortify their position and wait for a fool to enter the car in which they were holed up. Most of the train cars were pretty much empty. As the train went on it's way passengers left the train but few, if any, got on. The distance left to go got smaller all the time. As the cars emptied, the conductor closed them to cut down on the amount of walking for him, I supposed.

Of the five passenger cars only three were occupied that morning. I was in the car closest to the end of the train. I was forced to work my way forward. I didn't bother with the long gun. The two pistols I held in my hands would have to do. It I wasn't bushwhacked, they would do just fine. Since no one from the other cars had come to investigate the shooting I had to assume someone was holding them prisoner. At that point I realized it had only been a few seconds.

I turned back to the passengers in the coach. "Folks it is likely a man with a gun is going to come checking on his friend in a second. I suggest you all get your weapons. If a man comes in with a gun shoot first then we will ask who he is." I moved to stand in the aisle at the end of the car. It was the end that let to the engine. It didn't seem likely that anyone would be coming from there.

I hoped it wouldn't be a good guy coming to investigate the shooting. If it were I hoped he would be smart enough to announce himself. Then again, accidents happened. The door opened at the far end of the car. The man didn't appear to have a gun as he stepped into the car. I was about to think he was just a passenger when the gun appeared in his hand.

I fired two quick shots. I have no idea if I hit him or not. The coach quickly filled with the sound of several guns. The cloud of burnt powder filled the air around me. The smell of mostly burned black powder would make some of the ladies ill, I knew. Hell, it almost made me ill. It had the familiar smell of death about it. Remembrances of the war of evil Yankee aggression would have filled my mind if I hadn't stayed focused on the man at the end of the car. It was a waste of time to pay any attention to him. He was pretty much cut to pieces.

I heard screams from the next coach. I rushed over the body of the man I killed then over the body of the man everyone in the coach had killed at least once. In the next car up I found a woman slumped forward in her seat. Somehow someone's shot had penetrated both walls of the train car then struck her in the shoulder from behind.

"Is there a doctor in here?" I asked quickly. I didn't bother looking at the wound since there was almost nothing I could do for the woman.

"You," I demanded of the man seated across the aisle. "Go into the rear car and ask. You,\'94 I said to a second man. "Go forward this woman needs help."

I had no idea what to do so I tried to hold the wound shut with my hand. I am sure I ruined the suit I was wearing, but hell, people everywhere wore stained clothes in those days. I was trying to hold her together when I felt someone push me out of the way. I looked to make sure it wasn't someone wanting to look at the wound out of curiosity.

"Deacon move and let me try to help her." I recognized both the voice and the face of Edith Wilson. I didn't understand at first, but then I did. Edith knew something to do for the woman. Something I didn't know.

I stood close to watch as Edith ripped the blouse of the unconscious woman. She took a look at the wound then pushed the woman back to make sure there was no exit wound. She turned to me with a request for help in her eyes. I helped her move the woman so that her wound would be easier to reach. While I was moving her, the crowd gathered around us.

"I am going to have to get that bullet out. We need to stop the train." She said it to me. How I got to be the leader of our little band was a pure-dee mystery, but here I was. That little piece of white at my collar was proving to be a bit of a bother. I found the conductor more or less hiding in the caboose. I forced him to go forward with me to stop the train. He didn't much like the idea, but then I knew he was a coward. I was about to threaten him when he came to his senses on his own.

As we passed through I found the woman awake. Edith had her drinking what at first appeared to be whiskey. On closer inspection I found it to be Laudanum. Edith had been only mildly lucky to find anyone on board with the drug. It wasn't totally luck as there were many people who took the drug for various pains. I had taken the mixture of opium and whiskey myself for a while. Even after the pain from the horse that kicked me was gone, I still wanted the Laudanum. Daddy locked me in my room for three days until the urge subsided some. Even after so many years the sight of the bottle brought a craving. Once I recognized it I passed quickly on my trek to the engineers small work place.

The conductor explained all the events to the engineer. He shook his head. "Sam you know better. If I stop this train it is gonna play hell with the whole damn schedule. The woman will just have to take her chances."

"Stop the damn train," I replied to his argument for the conductor.

"Mister, listen to me. You ain't even supposed to be here. If I stop this train, there is an east bound one coming this way. I got to make it to a siding to get out of his way."

"How long to the siding?" I asked.

"Half an hour," he replied.

"How long we gonna be there?" I asked.

"\'92Til the east bound passes us. Could be ten minutes could be an hour. If he is on time we will be there about twenty minutes."

"But we could stay there longer?" I asked.

"Yes," the little man looked nervous. "We could stay there for a couple of hours if we wanted. There will be no more east bounds until I turn around and head east." We could send a telegram from the next town to explain and redo the schedule."

"Okay then pour on the coal. We got a woman needs some cutting back there," I demanded. The little man did something because I felt the train pick up speed.

As I walked back through the car where Edith and I had slept I was assaulted with questions. I left the conductor to explain as I went in to tell Edith the news.

"Deacon, that is not going to be good for this woman. She may die." Edith looked more than a little concerned.

"Edith, it is the best I can do. If we stop here all these people may die. I saw two trains run into each other in Georgia. Believe me, it is not something you walk away from. The engineer is pouring on the coals. We might be able to reach the siding in less than half an hour. It is the best I can do." I wanted her to know I had tried. I also wanted her to know that it was the best decision all around. I could tell she wasn't buying it. Fortunately she didn't argue in front of the woman.

I wanted to ask where the white bandage she held against the wound had come from but I didn't. I had seen women during the war ripping up petticoats to make bandages. Mostly though, it was old bed sheets.

"Well if you wont get this train stopped for me then sit here and hold the bandage." Edith almost smiled. She and I alternated holding the bandage on the weakening woman. She was filled with the opium whiskey mix when the train finally pulled onto the siding.

Edith listened to her heart. "She is getting weaker Deacon. I am going to do what I can for her. Why don't you go pray for us all?"

"I might be more use helping out. I have seen plenty of gunshot wounds." I smiled at her. I realized again that she was almost as tall as me. It was strange that I should think of that at such a moment. My mind worked as it wished with no regard to the things going on around it. It was the only conclusion I could reach.

Edith began to work on the woman immediately after the car came to a stop. She first enlarged the opening then found the bullet. She worked it out with what looked like long shiny pliers. The enlarged wound bled only slightly more than the original opening. When Edith finished the removal of the bullet she seemed to fit all the internal things together like a puzzle. She then used a large needle threaded onto a piece of cotton sewing thread to close the skin. I wasn't surprised to see the blood stop. I had seen it all before. Edith was a very competent surgeon. I had no idea what she was really but she had done all the right things for the woman.

"Is it gonna fester?" I asked.

"Well Deacon, you might want to pray for her now. It is likely that she will have some fever. If our delay in operating didn't make her body too weak, she has a good chance. There is no doctor between here and the end of the line. She can go back on the train to see one east of here if she wants."

"You need to talk to her," I replied. "She isn't going to think she needs anything as long as she is on that Laudanum."

"I know, but how do you know?" she asked.

"Long story about a older teenager kicked by a horse. I loved that stuff better than life, at the time."

"It is truly the devil's brew but for a person in pain it is a miracle. It is also the best thing for a person who is dying. One day there will be better things, but for now it is the best thing we have."

"Are you a doctor?" I asked it with a great deal of respect for her no matter what she was.

"Horse doctor," she replied with a smile. \'93You might not want to tell her that without a little preparation. I expect it might come as a shock to her."

"I don't suppose you would like to come back to your seat to rest?" I asked it knowing she would want to stay with the woman.

"No, but thank you for thinking of me." She flashed me a very nice but non-committal smile as I walked through the door on my way to my seat. I suppose it was a combination of the restless night and the loss of adrenaline that caused me to crash. Whatever the reason, I awoke only when we reached the last town before the end of the line.\tab

When I awoke I realized someone had moved the bodies. Who and where I had no idea but they were no longer in the floor. Since they hadn't passed me while I held the injured woman's bandage in place, I assumed they were in the coal car or maybe tied on top of the coach. I honestly didn't give it much thought. The fate of dead bodies had a very low priority with me.

It was easy to tell the man walking down the empty aisle toward me was a lawdog. He didn't even need the badge he wore. The badge was a simple star with the word Sheriff stamped into it.

"You the deacon," he asked.

"Yes," I said it standing. "Would you mind stepping aside so I can get some water?"

He looked as though he wasn't sure what to do. I helped him make up his mind as I move toward him. He had to speak, move or try to stop me. He chose to step aside. He also followed along behind me as I walked down the narrow aisle. I took the dipper rinsed my mouth then took a long drink of tepid water.

"So exactly what happened this morning?" I was not sure what he wanted. I was pretty sure he had interviewed the dozen or so people who knew.

"Couple of guys tried to rob the train and got killed for their efforts." I was still half asleep when I answered.

"Is there some reason you didn't just give them your money?" He was on the right track but didn't know it.

"Sure, I didn't give it to them because it isn't my money." I was pretty sure he would have gotten a telegram to be on the look out for a cowboy with a lot of money. Every lawdog along the rails would have gotten a similar message.

"And whose money is it?" He asked the question while tensing. I am not sure a small town lawdog wanted to go up against such a big time killer as me. At first I laughed inward at the thought of me being a big time killer. Then I realized sadly that it was true.

"Why Sheriff I would have thought you could figure that out. It is the Lord's money. I don't think the folks who donated it would want a common thief to have it. It is money designated for the opening of churches in towns were there are none. It is to bring the Lords words to those crying out in the wilderness." It was crap all right, but he didn't know it.

"Would you mind if I take a look at your pistol?" He asked it just to have the last word I knew.

If he had asked to look in my bag, I would have killed him. Since in those days men respected other men's privacy, he did not want to look without cause. I had given him none. He accepted the pistol, which I handed him butt first. I still did not wish to cause any problems.

"You in the war?" He asked it pretty much knowing the answer.

"I was Sheriff."

"Tell me the difference between a deacon and a preacher?" He demanded it but softly.

"It is simple Sheriff. After the war I was called to do the Lord God's work. I was not called to preach the Gospel. I was called to do other things the church needed done. Things that no preacher could do." I was amazed at how easy the words came to my lips.

"Where you headed? I mean we got a church here in town." The Sheriff seemed more curious than suspicious.

"I have been called to open a church in Sadie's Gulch." I did not elaborate. I had pretty much figured out the less I said to the man the better.

"Holy shit! Sorry preacher, but Sadie's Gulch is the wrong place for a church."

"You mean they don't need a church there? I think you will agree. Every town needs a church." I was just playing on the documents, which I had found in the dead deacon's box.

"Well Deacon, it will be a sight worth seeing. At least they had the good sense not to send another soft preacher type. You are the third preacher to try to open that church."

"Like I said, I am not a preacher." After a moment's reflection I asked, "So what happened to the others?"

"They mostly got scared off. None of them actually got killed. Least not none I know of."

"Well, that is comforting. It doesn't make any difference, but it is comforting to know."

"There might be a reward for those two. If there is, do you want me to send it on to you? To help with the Lords work?" If I said no, he got to keep it. I was sure it was his hope.

"Why don't you donate it to that local church of yours?" I asked it, but I knew the money would never show up in the local collection plate.

"Fair enough, Deacon you did the right thing on these boys. They would have kept it up until they killed somebody. If not yesterday, then today or tomorrow."

"Sheriff, I knew they were wicked. It was not I, but the hand of the Lord who chastised the men." I tried to sound at least a little fanatical. I must have done pretty well since the sheriff would not meet my eyes again. He simply nodded then walked from the car kind of shaking his head. It was a bit of a mystery to me how everyone could have left the car without waking me. Nonetheless I was the only person left in the car.

I removed my rifle and carpetbag from the overhead rack. As I walked from the car I gave some thought to finding Edith to say goodbye. I was so sleep addled that I almost forgot she would be leaving the train with me. It was, after all, the last stop before the end of the line. The workers were laying track ten miles farther down the line.

A wooden platform separated the train tracks from the station. A dirt wagon path separated the station from the town. The town occupied only the south side of the tracks. On the north side cattle grazed inside a barbed wire surrounded pasture. I would have loved a drink of whiskey and a bed for the night. I would have done both had the sheriff not already have made my acquaintance. Instead, I walked to the small general store. Since the town was too small for a livery stable the general store might know where I could fill my needs.

I took no notice of the other shoppers. I went directly to the counter where a man stood watching everyone closely. I had a feeling my stay in the town, though short, was going to be very unpleasant.

"Good afternoon brother," I said trying to stay in character until I left the small town.

"Good afternoon parson, what can I do for you?" The man's face seemed to be set in an unbreakable scowl.

"I am in need of transportation to a town named Sadie's Gulch. Could you tell me if there is a coach to that wicked place?" I didn't smile at him. Instead, I tried to look fierce.

"Not even to a town closer than here. Sadie's Gulch is a mining town and not many people go there except to work. Those go by horseback or they walk. There are freight wagons but they do not carry passengers. They also do not run on any particular schedule. I am sorry, but the best I can suggest is that you buy a horse." He seemed almost amused at the thought. I suppose in the black suit and clerical collar, I did not look like a horseman.

"Very well, where might I purchase a horse?" I looked him hard in the eye. It just did not have the desired effect on him. Again I thought it must be the clothes. He didn't seem as respectful as he should.

"Best thing you can do, unless you want to walk about five miles, is to walk over to the saloon. You can ask around in there. Somebody probably has a horse they want to sell." He was still watching the few people milling about the store. I didn't watch them I watched him watching them.

"Tell me brother.........\'94 I waited, forcing him to answer with this name before I continued.

"Edwards, parson," he finally replied.

"Ah, Brother Edwards, why is it that you watch the customers so intently?"

"I have to parson. Otherwise these people would steal from me."

"You do know that this is all trash in the making my friend." I smiled. I noted with great satisfaction that he did not seem to understand. I walked from the store without making any purchase. He and I both knew I would be forced to return since he had the only store in town. Probably the only one before I reached Sadie's Gulch.

The store did not even have a porch. It was out the door and down two wooden steps to the dirt wagon track. I turned toward the small one story structure with the sign reading 'Sleeping Dog Saloon'.

"Deacon!" I heard the sound of the woman's voice from behind me. I turned to see Edith walking toward me.

"Ah Edith, how is the patient?" I asked it curiously as well as to start the conversation.

"She is going to be fine. I explained to her what I had done. I even suggested that if she had any concerns because of who I am, she might want to find a doctor to take a look."

"And who are you?" I smiled when I asked it.

"Deacon, I am an animal doctor. At least I am, of sorts." She saw my curious look. "It is a long story. If you go along with my plan, we will have plenty of time for me to explain."

"What is it you have in mind Edith?" I really had no idea what she could mean.

"I heard you in the store asking about going to Sadie's Gulch." She had a bold look on her face, something most women did not have at anytime. With the possible exception, if they were forced to defend their children.

"I am bound there to open a church." I explained it hoping she would accept it without question. I wasn't sure I could defend the plan.

"Well, they certainly need one. That is not my concern at the moment. I need to get to a horse ranch about five miles this side of Sadie's Gulch. So I suggest we travel together."

"You mean the two of us alone on the road. I hardly think that is fitting Edith." I said it with what I hoped was a serious look. At that moment, I wished I were my former self. Even though Edith was not a raving beauty she was a striking woman.

"Deacon let me explain something. If you are worried about your reputation, don't be I will leave you before we reach the Gulch. No one there need ever know about our having traveled together. If you are worried about what my husband might think, don't be. He has left me here to fend for myself. You are the best and probably the only companion I could find."

"Edith, I would be happy to accompany you, if you are sure it will not cause a problem in your marriage?" I wasn't thinking that at all. I was thinking more carnal thoughts.

"Not to worry Deacon, there will be no problem in my marriage. None that is not there already." She seemed more resigned to her situation, than sad. I did not understand nor did I care to understand.

"Well it might not matter none, anyway. I got to find a way out of here. We are both going to be stuck here \'91til I do." I was racking my brain to come up with something besides taking a couple of days to find a horse. Even the saloon didn't seem to offer much hope. There were only two horses tied up at the hitching rail besides the building. One day there would be a livery stable in the town since the railroad ran through it. I expected that the train was so new that lots of businesses hadn't had time to catch up to it.

"Did you notice the wagon pulled up behind the store?" Edith asked it in a very serious, all business voice.

"No I didn't. Do you know whose it was?" I thought maybe she could help me out.

"No, but it said The Hennessey Horse Company. Hennessey is a horse breeder like my husband. His man must be in town picking up supplies. We should be able to get a ride with him back to the ranch. He will definitely have horses for sale. You can afford a horse?" She seemed worried about it.

"Yes I can, but can you?" I asked it seriously.

"No, but if you buy me one, my husband will buy it back when we arrive in Sadie's Gulch. Truth is though, for some reason I thought you would want a buckboard or something like it."

At that point I remembered the real deacon's wagon. "That would be best for visiting and the like, but I would just have to sell it when the church was up and running. That is why I had decided on a saddle horse. However, a small wagon would do as well."

"It makes no difference to me. I am at home on horseback. Standing here in the street is not especially good for either of our reputations. Why don't you go in and find Hennessey's man."

It was never a question. I went into the saloon since I hadn't noticed anyone who looked like a ranch hand in the store. I went to the bar first thing. "Whiskey and beer," I demanded. The bartender was quick with it even though he looked a little skeptical. I put the silver dollar on the bar before I drank.

When he returned with my change I asked, "Is there a man from Nate Hennessey's place here.

"Don't want no trouble preacher," he said in reply.

"I need a horse so that I might get out of here. I was told his boss had horses for sale." I turned my back to the bartender so I could look over the room. The two men who sat at a table talking were definitely not ranch hands. They had to be drummers of some kind.

"Jarve is in the back. He should be finished anytime now." It was the bartender authoritative answer. He obviously knew the habits of either Jarve, or the whore with him. I was torn between waiting inside or going out to stand with Edith. I waited at the bar. I even had one more drink.

When the cowboy came through the curtains used to cover the hallway entrance I cornered him. "Jarve, my name is Deacon Burke. I am in need of a horse. I understand your boss has horses for sale."

The man took a couple of seconds too long to process the information. "Sure, what you want to do?" He asked it not exactly understanding my request.

"When are you going back to the ranch?" I asked it wanting to shake him he was so slow.

"Soon as I have me a drink." He was definite about the drink.

"Tell you what, I need to buy some things at the store. I will just toss them on your wagon and catch a ride out there with you. That way, I wont have to come back to town."

"I guess that will be okay," he replied.

Instead of saying anything else that would have been useless, I turned to walk out the door. I didn't see Edith at first. She was inside the doorway of the store. I could just imagine the scene in there. The overly suspicious clerk must be going crazy. I walked across the street toward the store. Edith came out to meet me.

"So?" she asked.

"He is having a drink," I replied.

"Deacon go get him," she demanded.

"I have to buy some things in the store. If he is not out here shortly after, I will." She looked as though she didn't believe me. Well, more like she was impatient with me. She seemed to be in a hurry to get home.

I bought two blankets from the store. I also bought camp cooking items, and a little food for the three-day trip. My only other purchase was a canvas tarp. I could have used my pocketknife to cut the tarp into a ground sheet for each of us. Instead I rolled it in one full sheet. I knew she would have no use for a ground sheet when she got home. I would have wasted a perfectly good tarp for nothing. If she wanted a ground cloth she would be forced to sleep beside me. If not, then she could spread her blanket on the ground. All my purchases fit into a large wooden box, which I added to the Hennessey wagon.

I wasn't too worried about the space the items would take up on horseback since there would be two of us to carry them. There was also the slight chance Hennessey would have a small wagon I could buy. The wagon would add only a few more hours to the trip. The journey would be made over wagon roads anyway.

Edith looked at me with real disapproval as I sat down to await the driver. I could tell she wanted me to go pull him out of the saloon. Edith had never been a man after a long, hard month's work on a ranch. The cowboy just wanted a few minutes to relax. Of course the ugly old and fat whore would help. I hadn't actually seen her but whores in a town as small as the one where I parked my butt usually were all of those things. Their one saving grace was that they were willing. Edith, on the other hand was attractive, young and thin. She however, was not going to be willing. Still, I could only hope that I was wrong.

Jarve showed up a few minutes after I parked my butt. He walked to the wagon without a word to either of us. He saw my box. He stared at it as though trying to decide whether or not to chuck it over the side. He decided against it without even looking at me. His decision was made for other reasons than the look in my eye. I had to work on hiding that look since I didn't think it suitable for a deacon. Then again I wasn't a parson so I might get away with a fierce look now and again.

The ride to the ranch took well over an hour. The ride was almost totally in silence with the exception of Jarve's telling me how long the ride would be. Hennessey was at the house. Judging from his appearance and the glasses perched atop his head he was working on his books. I placed my box on his porch realizing I had made a mistake by bringing it. He pretty much knew we had no choice but to buy a horse from him. He would have known it anyway. We had no other way to get back into town box or no box.



"Mr. Hennessey," I greeted him with a handshake. My name is Deacon Burke. The lady and I are headed to Sadie's Gulch. I need to purchase some form of transportation."

Hennessey looked me over carefully. I expected he was judging my ability to pay. I am sure he was taking that into consideration before he began showing me horses. I didn't mind. I figured I might as well start playing the part.

"Well Deacon if you are going to Sadie\'92s Gulch you need more than a horse and prayer. You need a good sized iron rod."

I had a pretty good idea, but I asked anyway. "Why would I need an iron rod?"

"Sadie's Gulch is about the roughest town in Nevada. They don't exactly need religion as much as they need killin' over there."

"Well Mr. Hennessey the Lord has called on me to start a church there. He did not however give me exact instructions on how to do it." I gave him the fierce look I had been trying to hide. Hell it just slipped out.

"Religion at the point of a gun. It is an interesting concept." He turned his attention to Edith for the first time. Mrs. Burke why don't you go in the house. Emma will be in the kitchen fixing supper. Just follow the smell. I expect she can find you a glass of lemonade."

"Mr. Hennessey, I am not Mrs. Burke. If you have no objection I would like to stay." She had a look that somehow said she was the one making the decisions. I supposed even in those days women could rule their men. The problem seemed to be that I was not her man. She did know more about horses than me. Not that I didn't know about them. I just never made a study of the filthy beasts.

Hennessey made a noise like a man clearing his throat. It was to show his dissatisfaction with a woman at a business discussion. I had no real opinion so I just followed along behind him with Edith bringing up the rear. "So Deacon, what did you have in mind?"

"I don't suppose you have a buckboard or small wagon around here you would part with?"

"Deacon, being a horse trader means I have to take a lot of junk in. When a man goes under around here he brings me his horses and rolling stock. I buy it all. The horses I resell. The rolling stock most likely sits in the shed over there for years. If you can find anything you want over there, I will make you a good deal."

Hennessey stood by his corral watching his horses for a second. It was obvious he wasn't going to bother walking with us. Edith and I made the short walk over to the large shed. Under the shed lay several wagons. They were both large and small types. The one thing they had in common was the way they were stored. They were piled about in total disarray. Large wagons hosted smaller ones inside their beds.

Edith and I weeded through them until we saw a couple we liked. She stood back as I checked their condition. One was very small with hardly more than a seat with a three-foot square area behind. The other was slightly larger but not much. Of the two the smaller one was in the best shape. I could not find any cracks in the wooden spokes. It seemed to be in almost new condition. I decided to get a price on both. The larger wagon was in better than average shape but not nearly as perfect as the smaller one.

"Okay Mr. Hennessey, I found a couple I could live with."

"Good, let's go take a look." He allowed me to show him the ones I had found. Both were atop other wagons. "Well the small one is in good shape but I don't expect nobody else will ever want it. How about twenty dollars?"

In spite of his nonchalant manner twenty bucks was a lot of money. I shook my head trying to find a place to begin negotiating with him. From out of nowhere Edith spoke.

"How about we see the horse that goes with the wagon," she suggested.

"Miss, at that price there is no horse included." Hennessey looked offended. Edith looked amazed. I looked lost. It was quite a scene I am sure.

"You do have horses broke to the trace?" Edith asked.

"Sure I do," Hennessey replied. "I already send Jarve out to get the ones that I have for sale."

"Let's go see how he is doing." Hennessey looked like a man with something more going on than he was telling.

Edith was beside me during the walk. She was out of Hennessey's hearing when she whispered. "Am I embarrassing you?"

"Not at all, are you trying to embarrass me?" I smiled to soften the words. She was smart enough to see through it.

"No, but most men would be livid by now. I mean, a mere woman with an opinion. Hennessey will be soon." She seemed to look forward to it.

"Then he will be. What he does, we don't have no control over." She looked at me then smiled broadly. Hennessey was waiting for us by the corral so she didn't speak again as we walked up.

"Only one Jarve found so far is the gray. You can take a look at her if you want." I looked from outside the fence. About all I could tell was that she was a nag. I could examine her closer and still it would be all I could determine.

"Is that the only one you want to sell us?" Edith asked the question with a hint of humor in her voice.

"I have three others. Jarve is out looking for them." Hennessey was more than a little on the defensive.

"I know, but is this the one you want us to buy?" Edith was looking hard at him as she spoke.

"So you allow your woman to talk to men folk that way?" Hennessey asked it almost angrily.

"Well, she ain't my woman, but yeah I pretty much allow all people to have their say." I was looking away at that time. The gray horse seemed almost listless.

"Well you men folk talk all you want, I am going to go take a look at the nag." Edith said that as she carefully climbed over the fence. She moved gracefully in spite of the heavy skirt she wore.

Hennessey and I watched as she approached the horse. The gray never moved a muscle. I was beginning to wonder if the horse was really alive. It might have died. I supposed it could be waiting for someone to tip it over. The thought brought a smile to my lips.

Hennessey watched Edith closely as she examined the horse\'92s teeth. It is a misconception that horse people look at the teeth. They actually look at the gums to determine a horse\'92s age. When Edith finished with her inspection of the horse's mouth she lifted each hoof. She checked the horse for hoof damage I supposed. After that she did the one thing that probably impressed Hennessey. It sure as hell impressed me. She pressed her ear against the horse's chest. She listened the old nag's heart for several minutes. When she had finished her inspection she walked about fifteen feet back to us then turned. She stood just watching the Gray for a few seconds, which seemed much longer.

When she returned I waited until I had helped her down from the fence. To save her from further embarrassment I asked. "So what's the word?"

"She is old Deacon, but you knew that. I would guess she had one more trip in her yet." The light in her eye told me the horse was old but sound.

"So okay Hennessey how much for the horse and the little wagon?" I asked it waiting for the inevitable haggling to begin.

"Well, forty dollars seems about right to me," he declared.

I was preparing to speak when Edith chimed in. "God, how can you say that. He is going to take a wagon off your hands. One that is too small for any other human on the face of the earth. Plus he is going to save you the trouble of burying the gray."

"Deacon, I don't think I wish to continue with this until you have that woman under control."

Hennessey turned to walk away. I took hold of his arm to turn him back. He tried to pull free. I held him in a grip as strong as I could. I know it must have hurt but he didn't show it. In every part of his being he was a man.

"Deacon, I know you are a man of god. I give you fair warning sir, if you don't let me go there is going to be one hell of a fight."

"Then you will lose Hennessey. You might even die."

"Are you threatening me?" He asked it angrily at first. Then he seemed to come to an understanding as my look finally sank in.

"Mr. Hennessey you have a responsibility. You have horses for sale. We have to have one to get to our destination. I am not going to die, nor am I going to allow the lady to die just because we can not come to terms."

"Edith, tell me the top dollar. How much is the wagon and the gray worth?" I asked it calmly with Hennessey standing defiantly.

"Twenty five is top dollar," she replied.

"Now Mr. Hennessey keeping in mind you are dealing with a man of god. Will you take the twenty five?" I asked it in a calm voice while looking him in the eye. I did nothing else to change his mind.

"Jarve will be along to find the tack. I want you to load up and leave here." With those words Hennessey walked away. I was a little surprised when Jarve showed up a few minutes later with the tack. He and I wrestled the wagon free from its host wagon. Like a giant tic it finally broke loose from the larger freight wagon.

I both watched and helped Jarve prepare the wagon for my trip. He and I removed the wheels and he greased the axles. It sounds like a larger job than it actually was.

I also watched closely as he attached the harness leather to the wagon. The leather along with the two long poles where the attachments which held the old gray to the wagon. When we finished loading the wagon the day was almost gone. I had considered asking Hennessey for a room but he never returned to the yard. In the end, I paid Jarve.

Edith and I headed off into the failing light with an untested horse and tiny wagon. Both our meager possessions could not fill even the tiny wagon's bed. Once we left the gates of the ranch I looked back at the comfortable house with a certain amount of envy. It would have been nice to have a home cooked meal and clean bed for a change. It seemed that even talking hard to a man like Hennessey was enough to get us pushed out into the night. A lesson I would have to remember. It seemed that cold logic and warnings of doom did not make me any friends.

"Well, we seem to have tested his hospitality and he failed.\'94 Edith said it as she noticed my reaction to leaving the ranch. I was taken aback since she seemed to be reading my mind.

"Yes, it appears that Mr. Hennessey is a bit of a sore loser," I replied.

"Deacon, you were a bit hard on him," she suggested.

"Might I remind you Edith, you were the one he wanted to put in her place."

"Mr. Burke, I have no place." Her remark was sad not defiant.

\tab Then why is it I am taking you home, if that is not your place." I didn't have any idea why I asked or even what the question was supposed to mean. It had seemed the right thing at the time but then it suddenly seemed wrong.

"What faith are you Deacon?" Edith seemed curious but also somehow prying.

I quickly reverted to the faith of my childhood. "Why I am Baptist, Edith. I thought you knew." I knew better. I suddenly realized that I should have made it known earlier.

Edith looked away into the gathering gloom. She didn't answer me. It was an irritating habit she had. The old gray plodded on toward town. We rode in silence for most of the way.

"Edith, there is no hotel in town," I suggested.

"I know that. Why do you mention that now?" Edith was not the most pleasant of traveling companions. Since I was a man forced to live an exemplary life for a while, I could only dream that Edith was a saloon girl. I was about to slip into a daydream. One in which I was taking the three day trip with not one but two saloon girls.

"I asked why you mention that," Edith reminded me. Edith had harshly pulled me back to the reality of my situation.

"Because we are going to be sleeping on the ground tonight. This wagon is not even large enough for one of us to sleep in."

"Deacon, you are again stating the obvious." Edith was a hard woman.

"Tell you what Edith. Why don't I just drop you in town? I think we are not going to be such good traveling companions."

"Why do you say that? Is it because I asked you why you mentioned there was no hotel in town? By the way, if there is no hotel what will I do this late at night. No deacon, you and I are going to travel together because a man of god would not desert a woman in distress."

"What distress would that be Edith. Having to find a family who will take you in for a few days until your husband can get to town." I thought it sounded trivial.

"There is no family to take me in. Our people are a ways to the north. Everyone around here knows who I am." After she made the mysterious comments she thought she was going to just dummy up.

"Who are you? What people are you talking about?" I asked it because I was totally lost.

"Two very good questions. On second thought I am not sure who I am. The people to the north probably wouldn't help after all." She was again looking off into the approaching night.

I suffered her silence for several minutes, and then it slipped from my mind. I had decided after the war that I had little desire to become involved in anyone else's problems. I couldn't fix their lives when my own was such a wreck. I did not pursue her openings also because it was a long trip to Sadie's Gulch. It would all somehow come out. Of that I had little doubt.

The sun was completely down when we arrived in the town at the end of the rails. Sadie's Gulch was south of the tracks, while the work gangs were west of it. I made a choice to move due south for a while to put some distance between the workers and us. A large group of men could mean trouble at any time. Alone I would have been a poor parson traveling west hardly worth any interest at all. However, with Edith I was a parson with a pretty young wife. With women being in such short supply even a parson's wife could well incite the passions in a man. While traveling it was going to be inevitable that she was thought to be my wife. Since it would be safer for us both, I doubted I would be the one to set anyone's record straight.

All that passed through my mind as I took the road south out of town. Another hour passed without any conversation. I was at the point of deciding just to keep traveling all night when she spoke.

"Deacon, this horse won\'92t be worth a tinkers dam tonight if you don't stop soon." She didn't seem to mind sharing her opinion even though I hadn't asked for it.

"Well, that pretty much makes up my mind. We are only a few miles from town but we can stop at the next tree we see." I wasn't at all upset. She seemed to think otherwise.

"Would you rather I not give my opinion?" She wasn't asking to be helpful. She was looking for a fight. I ordinarily would have given her the fight. That night I was tired enough to remember I was a Deacon.

"Give your opinion anytime you wish Edith. It will just take a while to find a place to stop for the night."

"You don't have to wait for the ideal place you know. Any place with a little shelter will do."

"Perhaps you would be happier picking the spot?" I suppose in retrospect, I was a bit snappish.

"Of course I will, if you wish. I imagine I have more experience than you." I couldn't tell whether she expected me to argue or not. She was certainly baiting me, or at the very least prying for information.

"You probably do Edith. Why don't you just pick a spot?" I tried to keep my voice neutral. After all it would only be two or three days travel with her at most.

Nothing more was said until we happened upon a small clump of trees just off the road. The trees were barely visible in the moonlight.

"Could we stop over there?" As she spoke she was pointing to the trees.

"Of course," I replied. "It looks to be as good a spot as any." I turned the horse and wagon over the rough ground. Not being able to see the ground was a bit of an inconvenience. We had waited too long to stop. I allowed the horse to find her own way to the trees. Once we were stopped I climbed down stiffly from the wagon seat. I might have helped Edith down had she not have already been on the ground.

I went to the rear of the wagon. Inside the bed I found the large wooden box with the camping gear. When it was on the ground I turned to Edith who had stood watching for the few minutes it had taken.

"Well why don't you cook while I take care of the horse?" I thought it was a sensible plan.

"I would rather take care of the horse while you cook," she suggested. I analyzed her voice but couldn't find anything particularly in it.

"Well if you would rather, that is fine with me." It was too dark to read her face so I began unpacking the camp gear. The new six inch deep cast iron frying pan was the easiest thing to recognize in the dark. The cloth bag with the food, mostly bacon, came from the box next. I also found one of the new tin cans of beans easily enough to include it on the menu.

I found the kerosene lantern inside the corner of the box. The shopkeeper had packed the items rather poorly. It the kerosene had spilled it would have ruined the bacon. I got the lantern lit after a short search in the box for matches. In the out of doors the lantern didn't provide much light but it was better than nothing.

I sat the lantern on the bed of the wagon while I began working on supper. Thick sliced bacon and beans was the simple menu. There was some bread that didn't appear to be more than a day or two old. It would be a little stale but I had a taste for stale bread.

The coffee was another thing all together. I made strong coffee. A lot of it had to do with the length of time it sat on the fire. It seemed as thick as molasses some days. The coffee pot got filled with water and the coffee grinds dumped into it. After that it was just boil the hell out of it while the bacon fried up. I had supper pretty much finished when Edith finished with the horse.

"That poor old horse is in better shape than I thought. She just isn't up to any really long trips." She said it as she seated herself on the wooden box on which I had replaced the lid.

"That's good to hear." I said that just to acknowledge that I had heard her. "Supper is ready." As I spoke to her I spooned beans onto the metal plate along with three thick strips of bacon.

She sat the plate beside her on the box while she accepted the cup of coffee. She took one sip of the coffee then made a face at me. She stood, lifted the coffee pot from the edge of the fire. She poured the coffee from her cup back into the pot.

"Too strong?" I asked it rather enjoying her look.

"Too many grounds," she replied. She moved to the wagon where she opened her carpetbag. From it she removed a smaller cloth bag with drawstrings. From the bag she removed a small piece of fabric. She then returned to the box where she had sat. She fitted the cloth inside the metal coffee cup.

"Now would you pour me a cup of coffee please?" While all that had happened I had stood watching. I hadn't even fixed myself a plate. I poured her a cup of coffee fascinated to see what she would do with the cloth.

With the cup almost full she carefully raised the cloth effectively removing the coffee grinds from the cup. "Well Miss Edith, you do have some strange ways," I said smiling.

"Is it strange to you that I would prefer my coffee without the grinds?" She asked it knowing I had meant something else.

"No ma'am it is strange that you would go to all that trouble over a cup of coffee." I was a little surprised when she continued on the subject.

"Deacon, during the next couple of days you are going to learn a lot about me. One thing I am sure you are going to learn is that I am peculiar. I like things to be a certain way. I do not however insist that you change. I simply adapt to what others do. However, in the end, the results tend to go my way."

"And how do you react when they don't?" I asked it without realizing how personal it sounded.

"If that ever happens, I will let you know." She sounded very confident. Something women didn't usually do. I wasn't sure at the time how I felt about it.

I ended the conversation with a nod. I dumped the remaining thick sliced bacon into the heavy iron frying pan. I used the serving spoon to eat my supper from the pan. I hadn't bothered to buy more than the one plate. Even it had been a concession to Edith. If it had just been me I would have foregone the plate to save money, weight, and space in the pack.

I did have to agree with Edith about one thing, even though I would never have admitted it. The coffee was pretty bad with the grounds floating around in it. Even so I would not ask her to strain mine. The thought of that scene caused a small chuckle. Edith glanced at me. I simply shook my head.

Life on the trail was quite boring in spite of all the glamorous things written about it. After supper Edith did clean the frying pan and plate for me. I used the time to smoke my one cigarette. I seldom smoked. The reason was simple. I never mastered the art of rolling the damned things. I was tempted to switch to a pipe or maybe cigars. I always ended up with the loose tobacco and rice paper. I was very careful not to waste the tobacco even in my sloppy cigarettes.

I sat on the ground while leaning against the wagon wheel. The misshapen cigarette hung from my lips as I looked into the heavens. The sky was filled with stars at night. Showers of shooting stars were so common no one bothered to mention them.

Edith finished and poured herself another cup of coffee. I watched as she laboriously filtered it. "You know, I am going to miss coffee."

"Why are you going to miss coffee?" I asked.

"Coffee is one of the many things that is not allowed on our ranch." I thought she said it rather sadly.

"Edith, if you don't mind me saying so. I wouldn't think you would allow anything to stand in the way of what you wanted."

"Deacon, do you ever get the urge to do something your religion prohibits?" I took a good look at her in the lantern light. She was deadly serious and not a bit flirtatious.

"Of course,\'94 I replied.

"Do you do it anyway?" She was dead serious.

I was forced to do a lot of thinking on that one. "Are you telling me your religion does not allow coffee?" The surprise was evident in my voice.

"That, and a lot of other things," she replied.

"I see." I didn't know what else to say. I had no idea if a deacon would know about a religion that forbade the drinking of coffee. I racked my brain but could not decide if I were walking into quick sand.

"I'm not surprised you have never heard of it. Unless you are a Mormon or live near one of us there is no way for you to know. Of course we do have missionaries out spreading the word."

"The word not to drink coffee?" I was trying to appear deaconly even though I had no real idea how a deacon would react.

"No Deacon, would you mind if we didn't discuss religion, at least not in depth. I am not on a mission, and right now I am not sure where I fit."

"Okay, I promise not to attempt to make you a Baptist. In return I expect you not to try to convert me to a non coffee drinker."

"You got a deal." She said it with what I hoped was a smile.

We spent a few more minutes looking into the night sky. I glanced over at Edith when I finished the cigarette. She appeared to be nodding off to sleep.

"Well, I guess it is bedtime." I said it as I stood. Removing the large canvas and two blankets from the box left it empty. My possessions were few, it seemed. When I unrolled the heavy canvass I found it to be as I had expected. It was a long and somewhat narrow piece of cloth. I could have cut it into two strips six feet by six feet. If I had done that it could never be used as a shelter. I could lay it out in a twelve foot by six-foot strip and we could sleep end to end which is what I decided to do.

I had the heavy canvas spread when Edith spoke. "Deacon, I do not mean to question you again, but do you have any idea how cold the nights get here?"

"No I don't Edith. How cold do they get?" I asked it quite simply.

"Very cold," she informed me. "It would be better if we spread the blankets side by side to share our body heat. Also it would be good to lay that ground sheet by the fire."

"You make it sound like it is going to be very cold." I was a bit embarrassed by her comment, as I didn't know how to take it.

"I assure you Deacon, I will not attack you." She seemed amused by the very thought.

"That is good Edith. I assure you of the same." The statement was a lot more positive than I really felt.

"If I had thought otherwise, I would not be here," she informed me.

Edith did not bat an eye when I removed my coat revealing the small-framed, .36-caliber English revolver I wore in a shoulder holster. She seemed to accept that a deacon would carry a weapon. I supposed that it was not unusual since one never knew what he might encounter while traveling. I could not help but remember that the real deacon had trusted in his god to take care of him. Evidently his god did pretty well against everything except the deacon's own heart.

I was a bit surprised to find how easy it was to fall asleep with Edith so close. I told myself it was the lack of sleep from the train ride. Whatever the reason I drifted off to sleep easily even with the attractive woman beside me.

I awoke in the early morning. The sky was barely past the dead of night stage. I awoke only because Edith had rolled over and was holding me. I was also cold on the side away from her. The fire had died in the night.

Neither the cold nor the weight of Edith had awakened me. It was pure and simple. I had an uncomfortable erection. It was caused a little by my need to urinate, but mostly by the woman pressed against me. I had only to move her arm since we were each rolled in our own blanket. After she undraped herself from me I slipped from the blanket. I made my way to a tree. While standing beside the tree I noticed a slight glow from what I thought was the direction of the town. It seemed to me that there was a light of some kind far off. I decided it must have been some kind of large kerosene light from the town.

I debated relighting the fire before I returned to my blanket. As Edith had promised it was cold, but not so cold that I could not return instantly to sleep. I was tempted to pull Edith to me. For warmth I told myself. I fought back the urge. I decided the Deacon disguise was not such a good idea after all. Then again, she would not have been with me, if I had been anyone else.

Breakfast the next morning was more of the bacon with the stale bread heated in the frying pan. The food was heavy in fat and starch but it had to be since it was the only thing available to us. That and the fact that we had a full day's travel ahead. I had been hopeful that along the way we might pass an even smaller settlement where we might purchase or beg a real meal. After all, I looked like a parson. I was told anyone would feed a traveling parson. It sounded even to me, at the time, that food occupied a lot of my thinking. It did because going without it was uncomfortable and dangerous. Being on the trail was not like being in a town or even on a farm. In those places one might go hungry. On the trail it wasn't could go hungry, you were sure to go hungry, at least some of the time.

Edith had harnessed the gray while I fixed breakfast. After I cleaned the utensils we were off. The wagon moved slowly but steadily behind the gray horse. Since I was reasonably competent as a teamster Edith allowed me to drive the wagon. Neither of us seemed to be much for morning conversation, so we rode in silence.

We had been on the road somewhere around four hours when my curiosity got the best of me. "Edith, tell me a little about this religion that forbids coffee?"

"Deacon, I thought we weren't going to do this. Besides it doesn't forbid it or I wouldn't be drinking coffee. It is a strong suggestion that the members avoid coffee and a few other things. Since it is still just a suggestion, I do not refrain. At least not when I am away from my husband. At home he does not allow coffee on the ranch."

"And where exactly have you been?"

"Back east to apprentice with a horse doctor. I spent two years living with a him and his family and learning the trade."

"That is unusual, isn't it, for a woman to be a horse doctor?" I asked it not all that concerned, just curious.

"Well not if you need a one on your ranch, and you don't need the woman for a couple of years, it is a natural."

"Well it is none of my business, but I don't know too many husbands who would be apart from their woman for that long. Yours must be a strong man."

"Deacon, I might as well tell you now. You are going to hear when we get to the gulch. Since you don't look like the kind of man to put me off on the road, you might as well hear it from me."

"Edith, you make it sound ominous." I could not believe the words coming from my mouth. I actually began sounding as I had before the war. I guess I might have realized for the first time how my educated brain had hidden behind words more suited for the soldier, then gunfighter I had become.

"Well Deacon, you might have a different opinion of me when you hear it." She waited a long moment for me to make a comment. I couldn't think of anything to say so I simply nodded for her to continue.

"I am my husband's second wife." She stared at me defiantly.

"You mean your husband's first wife died?" I asked it harmlessly. I did not expect the reaction it got.

"No damn it, she did not die. She is still very much alive and living in the big house. They have eight children, maybe more by this time." Edith was sitting very straight on the wagon seat. Her back was stiff and her words defiant.

I didn't say anything for a while. I rode along bouncing up and down while digesting her remarks.

"So your religion allows men to have more than one wife. Tell me, do you believe in the same god as I?" It seemed like the logical question.

"Yes Deacon,\'94 She seemed about to go on, but decided against it.

"Then I don't see why I should be especially concerned how you live." I thought about it a few minutes then said, "That coffee thing, though, does seem a bit foolish." I smiled at her broadly.

"Deacon, I think my husband will like you. But he still won't offer you coffee when you visit." Edith smiled broadly.

"So you got sent east because you were a lesser wife?" I asked that after a few more minutes.

"No, because I am barren," she replied.

"Oh I see. Your value is based either on your ability to breed, or the skills you possess?"

"My husband would not agree with that but, it is true."

Still later after another prolonged silence I asked, "So you said your people were in the north?"

"Yes, my husband and my sister left Utah to move here alone." Edith seemed more than willing to talk suddenly. It was as though she needed to tell me so that she could get it all fresh in her mind for her homecoming.

"Deacon, our people live communally in the north. We share everything with the community. My husband grew tired of that life style. He wanted to own things for himself and his family. He decided to leave."

"So you are no longer part of the community?" I asked it seriously.

"We are still Mormons, Deacon, we just don't live with them. I am not sure how the church views us. We are probably outcasts now. It doesn't matter, we are still Mormons."

"How do the residents of Sadie's Gulch feel about your husband having two wives?" I asked it because I was curious.

"We don't go into town much. My husband raises the horses and mules for the mines, so not too much is said to him. My sister and I go into town only with the family. I am not sure how they feel about us. I only know they do not bother us often."

"In that case, you seem to be doing fine with it." I didn't bother to tell her she seemed unhappy. I was sure she knew that already.

The road to Sadie's Gulch was a bit of a misnomer. The road actually ran to the first farm south and west of the small town at the end of the rails. That road was joined by the road from the next farm. That process created a network of roads that led to Sadie's Gulch. The network of roads concept explained why I knew we would be passing by ranches and farms as we weaved our way to the Gulch. It was like a giant spider web.

I munched on a piece of stale bread as I drove along the road. We had not passed even one farm road by noon. By two, I was beginning to wonder if the network of roads only existed in the east.

Shortly after three the road went almost through the yard of a small adobe house. I reined the horse in by the small well and trough. "You in the house," I shouted.

"Deacon, don't shout so. You will terrify the folks in there. You sound like the Sheriff." Edith seemed to enjoy the instant negative reaction I had to that remark.

"The shout must have worked." I pointed to the tired looking woman holding the hand of a ten-year-old child. She was not unattractive, but looked worn. She did not appear to take very much pride in her appearance. Her dress seemed old and thin. It also appeared to cling to her body as though she might not be wearing a petty coat. I expected she didn't own a petty coat. The dress was old and limp which added to it's draping look. The woman had a matronly body I noticed. She stood submissively in the door as she spoke.

"Yes?" the woman asked.

"I wonder if we might have some of your water?" I asked it as I began climbing down from the wagon.

"Ten cents to water the horse and five cents for a canteen," she demanded.

I was taken aback. I looked to Edith as if she would have an explanation. She simply shrugged. Edith didn't wait for a decision she simply removed the bit from the horse's mouth.

"Is your man around?" I asked it pretty sure he and I were going to negotiate about the water.

"My man ran off," she informed me bitterly.

I took a hard look around the place. It looked as though it were going to tumble down around her. Not so much the house, as all the other structures.

"Why don't you move into town?" I asked it trying to figure out how she was living.

"Nothing for me and the girl in town. Me and her are doing all right out here."

Before I could ask her how she could possibly be doing all right, Edith tugged at my arm. She shook her head slightly. Just enough for me to figure out to keep quiet.

I filled our one water bottle then paid the woman. She went back into the house without even a thank you. I urged the horse to begin plodding south again. We were on the road just a few minutes when I could control my curiosity no longer.

"Why did you stop me from trying to get the woman to move into town. There, she might have found a job."

"Deacon, the only job she could get would be working in a saloon. Her little girl would be alone while she did. At least where she is she and the girl can stay together."

"Yes, but she is hardly going to make a living for the two of them selling water. Hell half a days ride from her is free water."

"Deacon, you are naive. She doesn't ordinarily sell water." The look she gave me would have made it clear to even a man with less worldly ways.

"Damn, the thought never crossed my mind." I actually chuckled.

"Deacon!" Edith almost shouted it.

"What?" I asked it genuinely surprised.

"Your language and that evil look in your eye?" Edith expected an answer.

"Edith, I am a deacon not a parson. My job is to prepare the way for the one who comes." I thought is sounded biblical.

"Ah, then you see yourself as John the Baptist."

I remembered my bible school days. "In a way, yes. You do know there were women like that one in the bible. Prostitution is not unknown to the church." I thought it sounded real good.

"Deacon, how much do you know about prostitution?" She asked it with what might have passed for a smile on another day. On that day it looked like a woman curious to know how safe she might be.

"Edith, I only confess to God." I planned it to be my final word on the matter.

"Well deacon, I hope you don't carry any permanent reminders of it."

"Edith, I did not admit to anything." I tried to make that my final word.

"Of course not," she said. It seemed she was determined to have the final word. Edith became lost in thought for a few minutes. When she next spoke the voice was not the one I had become accustomed too. "I should go back for her."

"Go back for the woman?" I asked it because she hadn't seemed to approve of the woman at all.

"No, the child. I should go back and rescue her."

"If you would like, I will turn around." She looked at me to see if I were joking.

"You wouldn't mind taking her along?" She somehow seemed amazed by it.

"Why would I? How much can a child eat?"

"Quite a bit actually, but that isn't what I meant. Never mind Deacon, it would never work." She seemed a little sad at her own thoughts.

"Very well Edith, whatever you say is fine." I wasn't sure what was going on in her mind.

We rode in silence a few more minutes before she finally said, "Turn around Deacon." I noted with approval that there were tears in her eyes.

The ride back seemed shorter somehow. When I pulled into the yard Edith went into the shack. The woman stood at the door as she had before. Edith simply pushed past her. She was inside for what seemed like a long time but might not have been since I had no watch.

Edith returned to the wagon alone. "Get out of here," she demanded.

I didn't answer I simply began driving down the road. I was just a few minutes into the trip when she spoke again. "That woman needs to be horsewhipped."

"How so?" I asked it quietly. I was afraid of what I might hear.

"She refused to allow me to take the child. She said the child helped her around the place and she needed her."

I nodded not sure what I should or could say.

"Damnit Deacon, she is going to turn that child into a whore." Edith suddenly had menace in her eyes.

I went ahead and turned the horse again without being ordered. The drive back seemed ominously long suddenly. It looked as though I was about to do something really stupid for a man on the run. I was about to take a child away from her mother.

I got down from the wagon before Edith could. "You stay up there. I am going to handle this." Edith didn't like it much but she also could read the look on my face.

The woman met me at the door yet again. She held a rusty old Colt in her hand.

"Put that silly thing down." I spoke in a loud commanding voice. When she lowered the barrel to the floor I again spoke. "Listen to me carefully. You do not want your child to become part of this. She deserves better. That woman can make her life bearable."

"Reverend, why don't you and your wife mind your own business. I can take care of my little girl." She said it as she turned into the house.

"I took her arm. I showed her a bruise I had noticed on her arm. "Can you really protect her from some drunken cowboy who wants a younger woman?"

She jerked her arm away then burst into tears. She cried gently holding herself, and then she said. "Ten dollars."

I knew what she meant. "Get her things." I demanded it as I counted out ten silver dollars. I was tempted to go on until I reached thirteen but decided against it. I wanted the child out of there, not to humiliate the woman. While I counted the money the woman put some things in an old flour bag. It was a small parcel that represented all the little girl owned. She did have one filthy rag doll she held as we walked to the wagon.

The mother didn't leave the house as I held the little girls hand while we walked away. When we reached the wagon Edith greeted the little girl. Edith had somehow become a different woman while I was in that house.

"Hi there honey," she said to the little girl. Edith was on her knees in the dirt. She obviously did not plan to tower over the child. "What's your name honey?"

The child whispered something I didn't get. I waited while the two of them talked in whispers. I looked back to see if the mother would come say goodbye to the child. She didn't leave the house.

"Why don't you two ride up front. I can find a spot in the back." I had no idea why but I knew they needed to be together. A chance for the young girl to know Edith. A chance for her to know that she was safe.

"I think that is a marvelous idea. Deacon this is Jessie. Jessie my name is Edith and that man with the beard is the Deacon. He looks rough Jessie but he is really a sweet man." The child gave no indication that she heard. She seemed to be frightened. I couldn't blame her. She was about to leave her mother and home. She didn't realize how poor an existence it was. It was the only one she had ever known.

I helped Edith onto the seat of the wagon then lifted the little girl up after. Edith made her as comfortable as possible. She didn't even flinch at the dirty little thing sitting beside her. Somehow I was absolutely sure that Jessie would be the only dirty thing allowed to touch her. I was also sure Jessie would not be dirty much longer.

Edith drove continually until she reached a small stream. The old gray took some urging but she finally walked through it. When Edith had the wagon safely across the stream she turned from the road. I knew what she had in mind so I did not question her. She followed the stream north as far as the field allowed, which was only a short distance.

It was early afternoon when we stopped for the day. I knew better than to object. I wasn't especially in a hurry to reach Sadie's Gulch anyway. I climbed down from the wagon. Then I helped Edith and Jessie down.

"Deacon, why don't you unhitch the gray and I will start supper." It was no suggestion, it was an order and I knew it. She had masked it but there was no doubt that it was the way things were going to be. It would either her way, or one hell of a fight. I again didn't really mind. One day it might come down to a knock down drag out fight, but not on a two-day trip. After all I was supposed to be a man of God.

Before I freed the horse I removed the box of camp gear from the rear of the wagon. Shortly thereafter the gray wandered about the meadow as much as her hobbled feet allowed. I rolled a sloppy cigarette then found a shady spot to rest. When I finished the cigarette, I drifted off to sleep. When you were hungry most of your adult life you learned to sleep through some of it, at least.

I thought at first it was the smell of boiling beans that woke me. Only after a second of pretending to still be sleeping did I realize it was the laughter of Edith and the child. The laughter came not from the camp but from the creek.

I was pretty sure they were bathing. I was also pretty sure I should not go look. I was absolutely sure I would look. I slipped down to the edge of the creek to see what the two of them were up to. Mostly I slipped down to see what Edith looked like naked.

The tiny pool where they washed was no more than a foot or so deep. They each sat in the water but it did not cover more than their legs. Edith, even sitting, I noticed looked tall and thin. She was facing away from me but I could still make out the swell of her small breasts. It was obvious that Edith had scrubbed the child clean. The child's hair as well as Edith's hung down in those wet strings I always associated with Saturday night.

I was afraid I was about to do the wrong thing but I couldn't help it. I wanted Edith to know. Why I wanted her to know was a mystery even to me.

"So there you are. I was beginning to worry about you." I stood on the bank watching them. I waited to see what Edith would say or do. What she did was turn to me just as if she were fully clothed.

"If you will wait about five minutes you can wash. God knows you need it." For some reason she turned to smile at Jessie. "Don't you think the Deacon could use a bathe honey?"

The little girl only nodded, but she was smiling brightly. I returned to the wagon to await their return. The sight of Edith's body kept running through my mind. I suddenly needed the bath in the cold creek. I was experiencing a slight amount of pain. I would definitely have made a fool of myself had not the child been along when they returned from the creek. The child was wearing a blouse that obviously belonged to Edith. Edith was wearing men's jeans topped by a white blouse.

Edith saw my interest. "Not a word Deacon. Go bathe. When you are finished dinner will be ready."

I left without a word. Edith handed me what was left of a bar of sweet smelling soap as I passed her. She also gave me a very warm smile. I had no idea where it came from, but I knew it didn't mean what I wanted it to mean. I moved to the creek very much disappointed in myself. It was going to be very difficult for me to act like a deacon.

I sat in the foot deep creek while I washed my body. The creek was probably cold at its source in the mountains. By the time it arrived where I sat the water was only slightly cool. It ran over a gravel creek bed under a bright sun, which accounted for the increase in temperature. The scented soap and the cool water actually were quite nice. I sat in the creek remembering days in a tub before the war. I remembered sitting on the porch in the summer in a copper tub of water quite a bit deeper than the creek. I was so lost in the memory I expected Beebee to come through the door with more hot water. It was a pleasant memory of a time long gone.

When I finished my bath and my trip down memory lane I began looking for my clothes. I found the black suit and even the clerical collar. Missing was my lightweight cotton union suit. It was the kind with short pants and no sleeves. I had purchased it at the same time as the shirt that was also missing. Since I was pretty sure there were no roaming bands of under wear bandits in that part of the country, I slipped into the wool pants and coat. My first clue as to what happened was when I found the union suit and shirt drying on a scrub bush.

"It is a good thing I was sitting with my back to you Edith. You should have let me know you were there. I might have turned accidentally."

"But Deacon, if I had said anything you would have turned to answer. In which case it would not have been accidentally. I preferred to take my chances."

"You seem to be a bit of a gambler Edith." The remark was passed with what I hoped appeared to be a harmless smile. It was in fact my first small but unmistakable flirting remark.

"Sometimes Deacon, sometimes," she looked me hard in the eye as she spoke the words. I found myself at a loss for words. Edith was either a very bold woman or I had totally misread her.

Edith was as good as her word. Supper was ready. I was able to change the subject without seeming to be afraid. "So what's in the pot? It sure smells good." Before she could answer Jess spoke.

"Edith let me help. We fixed oatmeal with bacon."

"Well Miss Jess, what part did you do?" I asked it as I knelt on the sparse grass. I was the same height as Jess when she answered.

"I fixed the Oatmeal. Edith was afraid of the bacon grease." She seemed almost defiant.

"Well that pan is heavy. The bacon grease would leave scars, if you got it on you." I thought standing with Edith would be a good idea, partly because she was right and partly because I wanted to keep the peace that had formed between us. I couldn't help the stray thought which followed. If Jess turned out to be as defiant in everything else, she would be a perfect match for Edith. Maybe not one made in heaven, but a match nonetheless.

Supper was not only filling, as it had to be, it was also tasty. It would have been improved with the addition of honey or brown sugar to the oatmeal. I should have checked with the dry goods store. He might have had honey since it was late summer.

Jess ate from the one plate; Edith had her oatmeal from a coffee cup and, as before, I ate from the pan. Edith and I shared a cup of coffee in the second cup. I was forced to admit to myself at least that it was pleasant sitting around the fire with the little make believe family.

I was half through with my oatmeal when Edith spoke. "Deacon there is a rider coming in." Edith seemed worried. She didn't know or trust me. Even without a shirt I had replaced the shoulder holster. I might be playing a deacon, but I was a gunman for real.

I turned to look down the road. The cloud of dust rose high into the air. The rider was coming hard from the town at the end of the tracks. "Now who do you reckon that is?" I asked it knowing Edith had no answer. She might have a fear, but she couldn't have known for sure.

"I'm not sure, but we should know real soon," she replied.

"Yep,\'94 I said it surprised at our seeming understanding. "Why don't you and Jess go upstream a ways to see if you can find some berries."

"Would you mind if I get something from my valise first?" Why she asked I had no idea. I am pretty sure she would have done it either way.

"Good idea, there might be rattlers up there." The small caliber revolver she removed was a lot like the British .36 caliber of mine. It was built on an even smaller frame. What they really shared was the necessity of being real close when you used it. I knew I could look a man in the eye as I killed him. I had no idea whether Edith could or not. Then again she did have Jess. That kind of responsibility could make a woman do things she would never do if she were alone.

"Are there really berries here?" Jess asked it as she allowed Edith to take her hand.

"We will have to look honey. I once saw a patch of wild strawberries growing beside a stream." She disappeared into the heavy brush holding onto Jess' little hand.

I leaned against the wagon to await the arrival of the traveler in such a hurry that he raised the cloud of dust. As Edith had predicted it didn't take long. The horse was tall which made the rider look tall. I really couldn't tell.

"You must be the preacher?" It was a question that he asked still seated atop the horse.

"I am. I got some coffee if you want. Sorry the foods all gone. You can use the fire to cook your own if you want."

"Didn't come to eat. I came to take the whore's whelp home." He looked real mean when he said it.

"Well you can see she ain't here right now. Even if she were you wouldn't be taking her anywhere. Her mamma and me made a deal. The woman I am traveling with is going to take care of her. You go on back and tell her ma that."

"Preacher.."

Before he could finish I interjected, "It's deacon. I am called Deacon Burke."

"Deacon, preacher it don't matter none." He said it with a sneer.

"Actually it does." I said it as I pulled the .36 from under my armpit. "A preacher would not blow your ass into next week. Now a mere deacon is something else again. So cowboy tell your friend to come to Sadie's Gulch and we will discuss this. Also, tell her to never again send a man with a gun to negotiate with me." We both knew the next couple of minutes were critical. If he turned and rode away it was over, or at least maybe it was over. If he tried to bluff it out, things were likely to escalate. If he went for his gun, he was going to die. I could see in his eyes he was debating it.

"Son, it you go for that hogleg, I am gonna kill you. Tell me, is making a couple of points with a whore worth dying over?" The logic of it must have worked.

He turned to ride away. For a few moments at least he rode quickly. He seemed to want to put a lot of distance between us. I walked to the wagon where I removed the Springfield. I slipped a round into the chamber then closed the rolling block. I didn't think he would stop to try the Winchester on me. I just wanted to make damned sure I had the biggest dog in the fight. I must have made a believer of him because he didn't even look back. He simply disappeared into the distance.

I continued to lean against the wagon as I rolled a cigarette. I lit the misshapen thing with a wooden match. I smoked it while I waited for the girls to return. Actually, I finished it and was thinking about the money in my satchel when they returned. I had enough time to decide that I needed to spend at least six months as the deacon.

When I saw the girls appear from the brush I asked, "Well, did you find any berries?"

"Not a one," Edith replied.

"I told Edith I didn't think there were any berries here." Jess was very serious as she spoke.

"Well I guess that proves you are a smart little girl," Edith replied. Edith looked at me with a question in her eye. I simply smiled at her. Edith then returned the smile. She even added a little warmth to hers.

That night it turned cold. Before morning we were piled up like a litter of puppies. Jess was between Edith and I. I am not sure what the reasoning was but our bodies kept her warm and she kept Edith and I apart more or less.

Morning found me up early. I built a larger than usual fire just to keep me warm. Edith left Jess under all the covers so that she could join me. She didn't bother to strain the coffee that morning.

"So, do you want to hitch the horse while I cook breakfast?" Edith smiled at me. It was a bright smile one I hadn't seen much of till Jess joined us.

"I should let you do it all you know. You are better with the gray than me. You sure as hell cook better." I smiled so she wouldn't think I was being critical.

"Well Deacon, you aren't much with animals or food." Edith actually made a chuckling sound.

"No, I guess not," I replied.

"It is a good thing you are a man of God." Edith did not give me a clue as to whether she was being sarcastic or believed me.

The horse was hitched and the cornmeal mush ready before she woke Jess. The sleepy little girl was ready for breakfast a few minutes later. The mush was okay but not something I intended to get used to.

After Edith cleaned the one plate and other cooking gear we headed off for the days travel. I was surprised to find how close we had been to a farm road. I was tempted to go down it to try to buy some additional food. I didn't, only because Edith assured me there would be others. Possibly one closer to lunch time, so that we could perhaps eat with a farm couple.

Edith's memory wasn't as good as she thought. The next road we saw was closer to mid-afternoon. I took it for about ten minutes before we pulled into the yard of a farmhouse. Like the house where we had found Jess, it was made of adobe. Unlike Jess' house it was in good repair. There were also a few chickens moving about the yard. When I pulled the horse up I noticed a man move cautiously from the shadow of the house. He appeared to be a bit nervous until he saw the make up of the wagons passengers. After he recognized us he spoke.

"Welcome Reverend, why don't you and the misses step down?" I watched as he put aside the shotgun he had hidden behind his leg.

"Thank you sir," I replied. "I really would like to water my horse. I would also like to buy some food, if you have any to spare."

"What kind of food? You know, most of it comes from the store in town." He was a little hesitant.

"Not that kind, sir. If you have any eggs or jam that sort of thing." He understood that I meant any food he or his wife had produced.

"Not much to make jam from here I am afraid. I got some honey though and a few eggs I can let you have."

"That would be just fine. Anything at all would be good." I looked around. He seemed to be farming but I didn't ask what he was growing.

"Why don't you ladies go on in? Me and the Reverend will take a walk to the store house." Edith looked at me before she left. She had a concerned look in her eyes. I simply smiled.

"So Reverend, you on your way west? Headed for California, I reckon?" He asked it as he maneuvered me to a slight hump in the earth. The slanted doors only a foot of so above the dry earth told me it was a cellar type storage area.

"Not really, I am headed for Sadie's Gulch to open a church there." I said it expecting about the reaction I got.

"Reverend, you must be a little crazy. Nobody in Sadie's Gulch is interested in Church meetings. They are miners there Reverend."

"Surely there are a few families even in a mining town." It was a question I had been meaning to ask one of the skeptics. "It is my understanding that there was once a church there?"

"Yes, there was Reverend. At least that is the rumor. Have you heard how it ended?" He asked it as he swung the doors to the cellar open.

"I have not." I spoke the words as I followed him down the stairs. The cellar was filled with baskets of vegetables and jars of canned goods.

The farmer began moving potatoes from one basket to another. When it was almost empty he moved to add a few carrots to the basket. From there he moved to put a couple of scoops of dried beans into a paper bag. While he did those chores he spoke.

"Last preacher they had to stay any length of time at the gulch took up with one of the women of the church."

"That is a sad fact of church life." I said the words my mother had said when the same thing happened in her church. "Even so, God's work must continue.

"The woman was the wife of the biggest mine owner. They say he bought the land and church after the preacher left. He swore there would never be another church in Sadie's Gulch."

"Sir, he might have bought the building. He did not buy the church." I couldn't believe I said those words. I had just defined the fight that was most likely to come. Me, one of the world\'92s great sinners was going to fight to open a church in a town that didn't want one. I wondered if it was my way of doing penitence for the robbery. It could have even been for the men I had killed. Whatever the reason, it appeared I was about to become a Christian soldier as my mother called the martyrs. There was one thing that made me smile. I was going to prove a damn sight harder to kill than those Christians who went to the lions in the coliseum.

The three of us left the small farm with more than enough food to make the journey. Not only was there enough, but Edith relished her domestic role. I was sure it was Jess, not me that brought out the woman in Edith. She cooked every meal. She even forced me to stop at noon so that she could cook. I guessed that there was just something about women and children.

Edith had me stopping so often I felt sure it was more to prolong the trip than to feed the child. The two of them made me stop to pick the sparse fall wild flowers. It was at that point that I knew Edith was in no hurry to arrive home.

On the last night after the three of us were rolled into our blankets Edith seemed to fall quickly to sleep. I was usually the one who drifted off first. For some reason Jess slept in a different spot she was on the outside of the blankets leaving Edith in the middle.

Whether in her sleep, half sleep, or pretend sleep Edith curled up against me. When I felt her body against mine I had a very un-deacon like reaction. It was almost painful in it's intensity. I supposed it was a good thing Jess had joined us.

Because the child was present I did no more than allow my hands to roam Edith's body. Her reaction at first was to turn away then without warning she turned back to me. I felt her body move rhythmically for a few moments. She suddenly shuddered before turning her back to me. It was some moments later before I fell asleep.

When three people sleep huddled for body warmth they tend to wake all at the same time. Edith moved from the bed to the shelter of a few scrub bushes. When she returned I was awake. Jess was drifting back to sleep with her small body pressed to me. I left the covers only after making sure she was covered with both blankets.

The only two differences between that day and the one before were minor. We ate better thanks to the farmer we had found along the way and we saw no one. Not even a stray cowboy crossed our path.

Edith had fixed dinner in the one pan somehow. When it was done she remarked. "Deacon, if you plan to do much traveling in the future buy a stew pot."

"I'll keep that in mind Edith. I think my first purchase for the road would be a shotgun though. It would have been possible to kill a rabbit or two had I possessed one before this trip."

"All right Deacon, a shotgun and a stew pot." Edith had begun to smile a lot since Jess joined us. I could only approve of the change.

On that final day, I followed Edith's directions to her husband\'92s ranch. The smaller road to his farmhouse was long. It seemed to take fifteen or twenty minutes to reach the house. It could well have been the fact that he was discouraging company.

The house was adobe like most of the others we had seen. The yard seemed to be filled with children. My god, I thought, these can't all be John Wilson's. I knew better; they all looked alike save their height and sex. Wilson was a fertile man it seemed. A quick head count showed eight head of children. No telling how many more were out working on the ranch.\tab

"How many children are there here?" I asked it with awe in my voice.

"Margaret, my sister has eight. John's first wife, who passed on, had four. Those four are not in the yard so they are probably out working with John.

"Seems John not only works all day, but he also works all night." I smiled to let her know it didn't matter to me.

"Too bad he sees it as work and not fun." Unlike me, Edith was not smiling. She seemed bitter.

"If you and Jess will be okay, I might as well head on out." I was pulling the wagon to a spot beside a smaller house to the right of the main house. The house seemed to be older than the main house. The adobe was more brittle looking, if that were possible.

"No, you don't. You are not going to leave until you have a decent meal and meet John. I expect you two will hit it off famously." Edith wasn't smiling at all.

"Edith, if I don't leave now I am going to have to travel in the dark." I said it making what I thought was perfect sense.

"You don't have to travel at all tonight. We have a guesthouse. I am sure John will invite you to stay. After all Deacon, you are a man of God." She smiled a smile with a hidden meaning. It was a meaning I did not get. I was also sure I didn't want to get it. I did not want to face any problems at that moment.

"I will stay to meet your husband because it is the right thing to do." I looked Edith in the eye just so she would understand I had nothing of which to be ashamed. I had treated her honorably. Well all except for a small grope the night before.

"Good, I am sure you will not be sorry Deacon. You wait here I will find out where John is at the moment. I can ride out to find him if he is going to be very long." With those words she left Jess clinging to me. She walked to the larger house.

"Jess honey, wouldn't you like to play with the other Children?" I asked it to see if I could move the shy little girl.

"Yes, but I don't know them." She had almost moved to hide behind me.

"Well honey, that is easy enough to fix. See they are all waiting for you to introduce yourself, but come on I will do it for you." I walked to where the other children stood watching me and Jess.

"Hi,\'94 I said it to the children staring down at them all in turn. "This is Jess. She would like to join you."

The tiniest of the children moved first. She walk to me then reached over to take Jess' hand. She actually led her to the other children. That little girl was going to be a heart breaker I decided. She was full of courage.

Edith returned shortly after Jess began to play with the other children. She was still holding back of, course, but it appeared she would do fine. Edith was followed by a woman who looked exactly like her but a few years older and a few pounds heavier.

"Deacon Burke, this is my sister Margaret." Edith seemed interested to see what my reaction would be to her sister.

I nodded my head then said, "Hello Margaret, Edith has mentioned you to me."

"I am sure she has Deacon. Would you like to come in? I have some lemonade."

"Well if it wouldn't be too much trouble. I do love lemonade." The lie should have choked me. I figured I should start acting like a deacon. Charm the ladies and kill the men. The idea brought a smile to my face.

"Stop smiling," Edith said it in a whisper only I could hear. We left Jess in the yard playing.

"Do you like cookies?" Margaret asked me as I took a seat at the kitchen table.

"Oh yes, I have a sweet tooth I am afraid. One of my minor sins." I smiled my most charming smile.

"Seeing as how you and my sister traveled together I hope it was your only sin." She obviously was trying to gain information.

"Don't forget we also traveled with a ten year old child. Even if we hadn't, Margaret, you need not trust me. You need only to know your sister to know what did not happen on the trip." I said it pleasantly but I stood to leave the table without my lemonade or cookie. I turned to Edith.

"Mrs. Wilson, it was our agreement that I deliver you here and I have. I will now take my leave." They both recognized the irritation in my voice.

"Margaret, you are such a busybody." Edith said that as she stood. "As for you Deacon, sit down. You and John have business and you are not going to leave here until it is completed. I do not intend for you to lose money because you helped me."

"It is not necessary Edith," I replied angrily.

"Deacon, sit down." Her voice was demanding. I did sit down, but only because I did not want to argue in front of her sister. I felt it would be a hurtful thing for Edith. For some reason, which I did not understand, I did not want to see Edith hurt.

"Edith, let us finish this now. I do not need to wait for your husband to return." At the mention of John as her husband Margaret reddened. She was about to speak but seemed to think better of it at the last minute.

"Deacon, why don't you wait on the porch? I am sure Edith can find John, she knows our ranch well." Margaret's words appeared to be a challenge of some sort. I did not understand the challenge but I understood the tone.

"Yes Deacon, wait on the porch since Margaret seems to be in a mood today." I followed her from the house. I seated myself on the porch as Edith walked into the dirt yard. She seemed to think a moment then return to the porch.

"Deacon give me your pistol," she demanded.

"Only if you promise not to shoot anyone,\'94 I smiled to let her no I was joking.

"I am not going to shoot anyone at the moment. It is the best promise you are going to get from me today." She was smiling.

"Close enough I guess." I handed her the small pistol from my shoulder holster. Edith walked into the yard then fired two shots waited a moment then fired a third.

"Indians?" I asked.

"No, just a message to come in immediately. John and the boys will be here shortly. In the meantime if you really want lemonade I will fix you some."

"No thanks, I really want a drink." I smiled as I said it.

"'Sorry Deacon, no alcohol allowed on the ranch." She didn't seem to mind that one.

I sat on the bench under the shade of the porch while I await the arrival of both the Wilson women's husband. "Tell me Edith, why are you and your sister so short with each other?"

"Sorry Deacon, I only confess to my husband and my father. You sir, are not someone with whom I care to share secrets."

"Sorry, I was trying to make conversation." She seemed to accept the statement even though we both knew it was not the truth.

After several more minutes of uncomfortable silence two men rode into the yard. Both of them rode large well-conformed horses. The horses were superb, even to my untrained eye. The older of the two men appeared to be in his forties, at least. He looked on the verge of being old. The younger man was a copy of him. The difference being the amount of wear on his body. My guess at the time later proved to be accurate.

The older man stepped down from the magnificent looking horse. He did not embrace Edith. He did however go to stand in front of her. "It is good to see you home Edith. Why did you feel it necessary to call us in from our work?"

"John, I want you to meet Deacon Burke. He brought me from the railhead. I thought you should welcome him, so that he would not feel uncomfortable here with Margaret and me. She has already questioned him, even though he is a man of the cloth."

"Deacon,\'94 he said it turning to me. "You are welcome in my home. I also would like to thank you for bringing Edith safely to me." His word were not especially warm, nor was his handshake. He turned to Edith. "Deacon Burke could have brought a message you know. I would have sent Jerome to fetch you." It seemed to be something of a rebuke.

I would have defended Edith. If there had been anything I could have said to make a difference. Even the smallest most innocent statement would have been suspect. So I did the next best thing. I confronted John Wilson. "Well, you two seem to have plenty to talk about. I think I should just be moving on. Mr. Wilson it was nice to have met you." I pointedly did not extend my hand to him.

"Just one minute, Deacon. I asked the Deacon to bring me here on his way to Sadie's Gulch. You may or may not approve. Nonetheless, Deacon Burke did me a great service. He transported and protected me. I owe it to him to keep my word."

"And what promises did you make him?" John was fighting back the anger.

"Deacon bought a horse and wagon to transport me because you had left me penniless. I promised him that you would reimburse him for those items."

"If you will come into the house Mr. Burke, I will get your money. That is assuming you have a bill of sale for the horse and wagon. I will do it even though I have no need for either."

"If that is the case, keep your money. I'll just be leaving now." I said that as I went to the wagon. I was glad I hadn't bothered to unhitch the horse. You can't make a grand exit statement then take the time to re hitched the horse. It takes something away from it.

"Deacon stop right there. Husband, come with me." Edith turned to the smaller house so quickly that her back was already to me when I looked toward her. She rightly assumed her husband would follow. There was a defiant appearance to her walk. I smiled as I waited. I had a pretty good idea what was going on in the house. I had a feeling that Edith had wanted the wagon for her horse doctoring. I also had a feeling she had rescued the old gray and intended to keep her. Finally I had a feeling that neither John Wilson nor any other man could stand up to her when she had her mind set.

Margaret had witnessed the whole thing from her porch. I could not tell her reaction as she went into the house. She was the first to return. She walked from the porch with a plate of cookies and a glass of lemonade. I didn't expect her to speak but she did.

"Deacon, I know our ways must seem strange to you. Don't judge us too harshly please. We are trying to find our way in the world."

"Margaret, I judge no man or woman. I am a Deacon not a parson. I have my own faults. There is even a pastor in Saint Louis whose only job is to pray for me." The remark made her smile, as I was sure it would. I had thought the remark out for Edith but had never gotten the chance to use it.

"Deacon what exactly do you do for the church?" She was interested, it seemed. Or she was trying to divert my attention from the moment\'92s events.

"Well Margaret, the Baptist sect believes in turning the other cheek, but only once. I am the response to the third slap."

"My god you don't mean your church hires killers?" She asked it but it was not in horror I noted.

"Margaret, there have always been secular deacons who defend the faith. These days, the faith just needs a more active defense." I knew it was a lie. I hoped god would forgive me for it. Since he and I hadn't been speaking much since the first battle I fought I didn't expect he would.

"You know, there are men in Sadie's Gulch who will try to prevent you from opening a church." She said it helpfully.

"I have heard that. Why that is, I do not understand, but I will open a church in Sadie's Gulch. It will be open on the first Sunday after I arrive. Bring your family to church Margaret. Even a Baptist Church is better than no church." I didn't understand why getting that church open was so important to me. It had become a vital part of my thinking. The money, of course, occupied a slightly larger place in my mind.

Margaret and I had fallen into a not so peaceful silence. She seemed uncomfortable with the invitation. I was uncomfortable thinking about the conversation going on inside the house. For the first time I noticed the younger man still sitting on his horse. He was, no doubt, the son of the first wife. It was hard for me to keep all the wives and children straight, but I felt I had a pretty good handle on it. I realized that Margaret had not offered the boy anything at all. I took the plate of cookies to his horse. I noticed he seemed nervous.

"Have a cookie, young man. I haven't tried them yet but I am sure they are fine." I turned my attention to Margaret. Could you get us another glass of lemonade?" I am sure I lost any goodwill I had managed to garner. I frankly didn't care at that moment.

The boy took a cookie with a conspirators smile. I smiled back. John Wilson left the small house where Edith had taken him. Jess again clung to my leg as I watch Wilson walk angrily into Margaret's larger house. Not only were the wives confusing so was the compound they all called home. Aside from the barn there was a third building.

"What's your name son?" I asked it of the young man on the horse.

"Abraham," the young man answered.

"Do they call you Abe?" I asked trying to appear friendly. He nodded. "So Abe, what is that building over there?"

"That is where my brothers and I sleep. There are also bunks for the extra men we hire in the spring."

"I see and do you take your meals with one of the families?" I knew when I said it that it sounded wrong."

"We are all one family, Mr. Burke. We ate with Edith before she went east. I hope we are allowed to eat with her again."

"Is she a good cook?" I asked it smiling light heartedly.

"Not really, but she is, or was, much more fun to be around." I noticed that he did not leer. I had to assume it was a harmless fun of which he spoke.

When Wilson came from Margaret's house, as I had begun to think of it, he carried a small leather pouch. I imagine the pouch to be horsehide since there would be plenty of it around.

He handed the pouch to me. "It is all there, Deacon. I am sorry about the misunderstanding. It seems I owe you my thanks. I had no idea you had saved Edith's life on the train. Word of the robbery has not reached us of course."

"Did Edith tell you she saved the life of another passenger?" Wilson shook his head. "I didn't think so. Well your wife is quite skilled and does not shake easily. If there are heroics, I think she is in line for a share."

"Deacon, we would be pleased if you would stay for supper. Abraham can drive you into town in the morning. You will be there by noon."

"All I have eaten for days is traveling food. I would be grateful for a home cooked meal."

"It is settled then. You can spread your blankets in the bunkhouse. Margaret will ring the bell for supper." He turned his attention to the boy. "Abe we still have an hour. Let's try to find those strays." With that he swung back into the saddle.

Edith waited until he had gone before she came to claim Jess. I forced her to speak first. "Deacon, I do apologize for John. I have no idea why he reacted like that."

"Let me see. You are his wife. You have been on the trail three days with another man. I think I have a pretty good idea."

"I know, but why he would be jealous, I have no idea. We haven't made love in over two years."

"Edith, I do not need to know all this." I said it as I turned to the bunkhouse.

"Why not? You are my friend." I assumed then that she did not see me as a man. To her I might be simply a man of the cloth. I was about to disappear into the bunkhouse when I turned back. I found Edith smiling at me. That smile left me totally confused. It was not the smile a woman gives to her preacher.

"Will I see you at supper?" I asked it as an after thought.

"No, Margaret and I do not share a table these days." She looked sad suddenly.

"I am sorry. Sisters should be close. After all, you are family." I left her standing there as I went into the bunkhouse.

Like all bunkhouses, it smelled of stale sweat. I immediately opened all the windows. I doubted the smell would go away in such a short time, but it couldn't hurt. I found a horsehair mattress on one of the unused bunks. I pulled it off, and then I carried it onto the porch. I laid it out in the late afternoon sun to air out. Just like the room itself it wouldn't help much, but then again, it couldn't hurt. With all that done I moved to the wagon where I removed the blankets. The smell of Edith's soap and perfume made quite a contrast to the smell of sweaty men.

With all the preparations that I intended to do done, I sat on a rickety chair to have a smoke. As usual, the cigarette was so malformed that I got only a couple of puffs from it before it fell apart. I continued to sit under the porch cover watching the early afternoon sun. As the sun moved toward the horizon the temperature began to drop. It reminded me that winter was on the way.

I figured I needed to stay in Sadie's Gulch \'91til the spring. If I stayed that long the law dogs would have shifted their attention to other things. Four months without a break in a bank robbery tended to put it on the back burner. Usually they got solved only when the robber got caught for a new robbery. I didn't plan to ever do it again. All I had to do was to stay lost until they forgot about that robbery.

I drifted off to sleep sitting in the sun. I was warm, comfortable and dreaming about Edith, of all things, when the dinner bell rang. It startled me. I looked at the sun and guessed I had been asleep three hours. The sun was close to being over the horizon. By the time the workers made it home it was twilight again.

We ate by lamplight. It seemed that everyone but Edith and Jess would be eating at the larger house. The four boys were seated at the kitchen table. I took a closer look and realized they were hardly boys. They appeared to be near twenty or a little past it in some cases. All looked remarkably like their father.

I carefully followed their lead at dinner. I stood until John seated himself. He asked me to say grace but I declined.

"It is your home, John and your food. I would prefer you say grace." He didn't bat an eye when he offered a prayer.

Dinner was good and filling. It seemed as though Margaret had fried enough chicken for half a dozen more people. I could understand why. Cold fried chicken was a favorite of mine.

"If you cook like this often Margaret, I can see why Mr. Wilson is so contented looking." I smiled to show that I meant no offense.

"If you mean my extra weight Deacon I assure you it will be gone in the winter. We eat well here when the food is available and sparsely when it is not." He didn't seem to be offended just explaining his slightly portly condition.

"It is the same with me. I am afraid the seasons have less to do with it than my living conditions at any given moment."\tab

"Do you spend a great deal of time on the trail Deacon?" It was Margaret who asked.

I gave it some quick thought before I answered. "Yes Margaret, I travel far too much for my own good, I fear."

"Surely the Baptists could find someone else to open its new churches." John added that.

"Not too many men who possess my particular skills serve the church John. I am sure you can understand that."

"Deacon, I am not sure I understand exactly what your skill is." John seemed less curious than a man in need of getting a hidden thing into the open.

"I thought it was clear John. My position in the church is to defend the faith from those who would persecute Christians. It was decided years ago that no more Christians would be forced to walk into the lions den." Hell it sounded good to me. Just the kind of thing a true believer would say. At least I thought so at the time.

"It sounds very noble Deacon, but I fear it really means you are a killer." John had suddenly slipped back into the attitude he first took with me.

"No more than a sheriff is a killer John." I felt my youthful education was more than enough to keep me in the discussion. It should have been evident to him by that time that I had been the recipient of a decent education.

"Then you enforce gods laws?" He asked it, knowing I did not. The statement had been made to continue the argument which was still light hearted enough that I did not fear where it might lead.

"I enforce no laws John. I merely make sure the work of my church gets done."

"And if the work of your church is counter to the laws of the land?" He obviously had a reason to ask. I expected it was his way of explaining the multiple wives.

"As much as possible I render unto Caesar. If Caesar forces me to choose between his law and my God, then of course Caesar is going to lose." I looked at John to see if I had passed his inspection.

"But what if I see Gods law different that you?" He had finally gotten around to asking me how I felt about his lifestyle.

"John, I have been speaking for myself. What you see as your duty is between you and God. I do not have to answer for it. There is no reason for us to be at odds because it does not concern me. However, if you chose to persecute others because they do not believe as you do, then it becomes my business." I gave him a very hard look. "You are not in the religious persecution business are you John?"

He took a moment to reply, "Of course not Deacon."

"Then all this is simply intellectual conversation. Which makes it pretty much a waste of time to pursue further." I continued to watch him carefully. I did not expect a threat from him. I did it just to be very careful.

"I agree. So how did you find the trip from town?" John asked it simply.

"Interesting, but do you really call that a town?"

"Sadie's Gulch is a bit larger, but not much. Mostly, it is because they mine at the Gulch."

"I keep hearing about the mining. Who is the owner of the mine?" I asked it suddenly interested in mining his brain.

"There are several small mines and lots of prospectors but the dominant mine is owned by a man named Samuel Deville. Deville is a Frenchie who came here years ago."

"So he found himself a mine?" I asked.

"Hardly, he stole himself a mine. He was a bartender at the Saloon when the strike was made. Sadie owned the saloon. Deville was a fancy man if you know what I mean?"

"I do," I replied shortly to keep him talking.

"Well, he got the prospector drunk and bought the mine for a hundred dollars. I give him this he didn't know at the time just how much silver there was in that hole in the ground. He let the other men dig it out on shares, at first. When he had enough money he began to push them out and hire men to work. He pays them good I have to admit. Pretty soon, he had a town full of men. When the second lode was found he couldn't get enough miners, so he made a deal with the Warden of the territorial prison. He began to mine with slave labor. Deacon, Deville has become a very hard man."

"John, I shouldn't have any dealing with him that would put us in adversarial roles." I hoped it was true but his look told me it wasn't.

"Deacon, surely Edith told you about the church there."

"Sir, Deville might own the church building, but he does not own the church." I had liked the phrase before and I still did.

"Well, did Edith tell you that when the last preacher left town he took Deville's wife with him?" John looked almost pleased to tell me that.

"Yes, but John that seems to have been a while back."

"Deacon it don't matter how long ago it was. Deville wasn't through with her. He is not going to take kindly to your starting a new church. He has run off several preachers."

"That may explain why I was sent. No matter, I am going to prove a bit more difficult to run off."

John smiled at me. "For the first time since I came here I wish I lived in town. It may well prove to be a show worth seeing."

"Probably not, I believe men see logic when God talks to them." I tried to sound pious.

"Yes that is especially true when God's messenger is carrying a .44."

"I hope it won't come to that." It was truly my hope. If it came to a real gunfight, it would probably bring in the wrong kind of people. The law dogs might well come to investigate the death of a prominent citizen. I figured if I couldn't talk sense to him, I would simply disappear.

We left the table to step onto the porch. I rolled a cigarette that looked pretty awful. I lit it before John spoke.

"Deacon why would you not say grace?" I was being tested.

"John, if you came to my house and were not of my faith, I would say grace. I could not expect you to know our customs, nor would I think you wished to accidentally offend me."

"I see. You were afraid you might offend me?" He seemed to be challenging me again.

"John, tell me what it is that I have done to set your teeth on edge." I wanted to get it out in the open and done with.

"Deacon, I am sure you meant no harm but traveling with my wife looks." He paused a moment while he searched for the right word. "Well it looks unseemly."

"John, your wife was left with no money. You did not meet her train. She had been through an ordeal on the trip. What would you have had me do?"

"I know Deacon. My wife explained it all." He made sure I got the wife part. I wondered if he were expecting some kind of comment from me.

"But you were not satisfied?" I asked it simply.

"Frankly Deacon, I am sure that nothing happened between you two. I have a feeling both you and Edith share something since the incident on the train and the trip. Frankly I will feel much better when you are gone."

"Then I will leave right this moment. Have someone bring me the Gray and I will hitch her up and be gone. Or if you prefer loan me a horse and saddle. One of your boys can pick it up in the morning."

"It would be for the best." John did not seem to be at all embarrassed by my sudden anger.

"John, I will get my things together then say goodbye to Edith while you have a horse saddled for me."

"I would prefer that you did not say goodbye to my wife." He looked cold as he spoke.

"I will say goodbye on the porch of her house. John make no mistake, I intend to speak with her." I went into the bunkhouse to retrieve my bag. I looked quickly inside just to make sure the money was still inside. Since it was, I stepped into the yard. John was still standing under the porch cover to the main house.

I walked to him first. You can have the boy bring my camp gear when he comes for the horse tomorrow. I am sure he will recognize the horse I shall leave it tied in front of the building where I find a bed."

John simply nodded. I didn't think he trusted himself to speak. I had strapped on the .44 while I picked up my case. The weapon in the shoulder holster had suddenly seemed too light.

I turned my back to John Wilson somehow knowing he wasn't a back shooter. I walked to the smaller house. I knocked hard on the door. Edith came.

"Deacon?" she made it a question.

"Edith, I have decided to ride into town tonight. I did not wish to leave without saying goodbye."

"Deacon, what is wrong? Did John ask you to leave?" She looked as though she were about to have words with her husband again.

"Not really, I just decided I could do without his hospitality. I think it would be better all around if I left. It is only one night Edith. I would have been leaving first thing in the morning. I did want to invite you and Jess to church on Sunday. Of course, all the others are invited. Just come to town someone will know where the service is being held." I suddenly realized part of the urgent need to get a church going was to see Edith again.

"Deacon, you are going to get yourself killed trying to start a church there. Why don't you just move on to a safer place?"

"Why don't you?" I asked it and waited for an answer. When one did not come I turned to walk away. I stood alone in the yard not speaking to anyone even though I noted that John Wilson had watched it all. A few minutes later the son call Jeffery came from the barn leading a horse. The horse appeared to be calm. I wouldn't have put it past John Wilson to give me a green horse.

The horse was in fact calm as I rode from the yard into the night. Traveling alone at night makes a man nervous. Not too many legitimate travelers ventured onto the roads at night. Even with my case of nerves I held the horse to a walk. I arrived in Sadie's Gulch after midnight. The whole town was buttoned down. Not one of the ten or so buildings was lit. I tied the horse to a hitching post in front of the saloon. I was sorry that I had not taken my blankets from the camping gear. It seemed as though it was going to be a long cold night.

It was cold but there was no wind so it was bearable. I dozed off and on. It wasn't long before I was awakened by a man walking on the wooden sidewalk. I heard the noise far enough off to have the colt in my hand when he approached.

"Hey cowboy you got no place to go?" The man asked it in a neutral voice.

"No, when I got here everything was closed. I didn't want to wake anybody." I said it watching him closely.

"Well you are going to freeze out here. At least come on over to my place. I got a fire going there. If you can sleep all huddled up here you should do fine over there."

"Well I appreciate it neighbor, but who are you?" I asked it of the dark hulk above me.

"I am deputy Sawyer. Now come on we can talk inside at least."

"Is this town large enough for a jail?" I asked it surprised.

"Hell no, I got a shack where I spend the nights between rounds. I keep an eye on the place after everybody goes to sleep."

"Well if you got a fire, then you got company." At that moment I didn't care that he was a law dog. I was cold and miserable.

"Hell cowboy, I even got coffee." His smile was in the voice it was too dark to see his face.

"I got to check a couple of more doors first. You want to come along or let me pick you up on the way back?"

"Think I will tag along. It is way too cold to just sit here."

"I don't know how you stood it before I came. It is cold out here tonight." He seemed to be curious.

"Well, it was about to get too much for me."

I walked beside him as he went to the rear of each building. He checked each door's lock. He finally pronounced the town secure. Afterward, he led me to a shack at the rear of the hardware store. The shack had no door just a piece of canvas over the opening.

The stove in it was hardly fancy. It seemed to be made from an old clay pot. The clay tile stove pipe went right through the wall. The stove was small enough to have been a jug of some kind. The fire was more or less open there was no door on the stove. It was a design I had never seen before, but it heated the room efficiently enough.

On the small flat surface of the stove just over the fire sat a coffee pot. The deputy poured us each a cup. The liquid was black and hot, but it sure wasn't coffee. I figured it was made from the bark of some local tree or maybe a nut. Either way, I was grateful enough for the warmth to keep my mouth shut.

The deputy, as was the case with most midnight law dogs, was not very bright or healthy. He had a nasty cough and a stiff elbow. He did seem to understand from the clerical collar that I was not a cowboy.

"Damn Preacher, what you doing in the Gulch?" He wasn't smiling when he asked.

"Well I don't know that I will be staying Deputy. By the way what is your given name Deputy Sawyer?"

"Thomas, but everybody calls me Tom."

"I would have guessed that. Thanks for the warm room and the coffee. It is a life saver."

"Well preacher, it ain't much but you are welcome to curl up in the corner if you like. Sorry I don't have no bed in here. This place is just for the night deputy. We ain't supposed to sleep.

"You got heat, so it is fine. I have slept on many a floor." I found a fairly empty outside wall. I lay down on the floor to sleep. I again cursed myself for having left the Wilson ranch without a blanket. Hell, I cursed myself for having left at all. It had been my chance to sleep in a real bed again. I hadn't stretched out in a soft warm bed since Saint Louis.

Had that been less than a week before? It somehow seemed much longer.

The smell of frying meat woke me. I was hungry but I also knew how little a night deputy would have. "Preacher you hungry, I got some bacon frying."

"I don't think so Tom. I have my mouth set on some eggs. No offense, it is damn nice that you offered." I said it and I meant it too.

"Well the best place where you can get that kind of grub is down to the cafe. It is down to the edge of town. Miss Henson will be starting to serve in about an hour."

"You reckon there is a room anybody will rent to me. I know preachers ain't real popular here. I don't expect a deacon to fare much better."

"Oh, widow Edwards, at the boarding house, would be tickled to have you, but she stays pretty full with the miners and all."

"Where do the miners eat?" It was a question that needed to be asked. I had a feeling theirs was a sorry lot.

"There is a hall for them. It is run by the company. You couldn't eat there unless you was working for Deville. Besides preacher, the food there ain't much. Only reason the miners eat there is that it is free."

"Nothing is free, Tom except salvation." I didn't have any idea where that came from. It just popped out of my mouth. I shook my head at myself. I could only hope Tom didn't notice my confused look.

"I guess you are right at that. You know if this was a gold strike where everybody was getting rich, things would be so expensive they couldn't afford a night deputy. The only ones getting rich here are the three mine owners. The prospectors can't find enough silver to hardly fill a tooth. Deville has most of the money and most of the miners work for him. The other two don't hardly count at all."

I stretched then walked to the door. "Well Tom guess I better get started finding a place to live."

"Preacher, if the widow is full there ain't no decent places to live around here. Got a flophouse for the miners but the same bed is used by different people night and day. Ain't no fittin\'92 place for you."

"Well Tom, I have slept in worse, but it ain't exactly what I had in mind." I was tired of the talk, so I stepped into the twilight. I walked from the shack to the front of the general store. I realized that I should have asked Tom which way to turn for the cafe. I might have gone back, but I decided that it was a good chance to see the town even if I turned the wrong way.

If Sadie's Gulch hadn't been a mining town there would have been more wooden walkways along the street. Since mining towns came and went quickly nobody bothered much with such things. Besides which, the climate was dry, so they were pretty much unnecessary.

When I reached the street I turned right. I supposed that one of them schoolteacher types might know why I always turned right when the direction was in doubt. I sure didn't know. The turn took me past the general store, then a few shops and buildings with no signs at all. When I reached the blacksmith's forge I knew I had taken a wrong turn.

I retraced my steps passing still other buildings with no names at all. There had to be saloons but no signs were over the street. I expected when open there would be plenty of evidence to lead one to make the determination. Almost all the buildings were framed walls then tent roofs. It was pretty typical of a hastily thrown together mining town. It was also similar to the camps thrown together for railroad workers laying new track.

I shivered in the morning chill, as I kept moving to avoid the bone chilling cold that would set in. I was lucky to have avoided it the night before. The more I thought of the cold the angrier I became at John Wilson. I could have slept in the warm bunk house and eaten with the family before my trip into Sadie's Gulch. I shook my head. That kind of thinking was not for the new deacon. That one got a chuckle from me as I tried to concentrate on finding breakfast. I passed what had to be the miners dining hall. Men were shuffling around outside the closed door. There were only a few but I was pretty sure the number would begin to grow soon.

Not much farther down the street I saw what must have been the cafe. It smelled of food from the day before, or maybe it was today's menu that smelled. Either way it was definitely food. The door was closed and locked up tight. There were no signs to give any indication of the opening times. I took it on myself to walk around back.

In the rear of the half tent building the door was open. Even in the autumn chill the air coming from the kitchen was hot. I stuck my head inside the door. "Good morning," I said to the very large woman peeling potatoes.

"Damn, are you a preacher?" She blushed when she realized what she had said.

"No ma'am I am just a deacon." I noticed her look of confusion it happened almost every time I tried to explain. "What time are you going to open?"

"When the help gets here. Probably be just a few more minutes. You look pretty cold Deacon. You want a cup of coffee to warm you up?"

"It would be most kind of you." I said that as I moved to the stack of metal coffee cups. I took one then filled it with strong black coffee from a giant coffee pot on the stove. Beside the coffee pot was another large pot boiling with grits. I could smell the bacon grease in the grits. The smell was strong. It was probably intensified by the fact that I was hungry.

"Go ahead and get you a bowl of them grits." The large old woman had seen me looking at the pot.

"I hate to eat before your customers get here." Even as I spoke I filled a bowl with the grits.

"That's okay deacon, you can just leave your money on the counter." It seemed that neighborliness did not extend to business. I hadn't expected that it would.

"Since this is a business deal, do you happen to have any bread?" I asked it smiling to show there was no offense taken.

"In the box by the wash rack." The woman continued to peel.

Since there were no chairs in the warm kitchen I stood to eat. I preferred standing in the heat to sitting in the chilly dining room. When I finished the food I asked. "You got any idea where I can find a room?"

"Depends how long you are staying?" She asked it but I knew nothing depended on it. She was just curious as to my business.

"Don't know for sure. I came to open a church. When it is open and running a preacher will come to take over. I will be going the day he arrives." I tried to look as though it didn't matter to me how long it took.

"Now that I would pay to see." She chuckled at what she thought was a joke.

"What would you pay to see?" I knew what she was going to say.

"The opening of a church in Sadie's Gulch." She smiled up at me.

"Well bring your money, we will be taking an offering." I smiled down at her. It was more because I had been able to remember what happened inside a church than at her idea.

"Well deacon, you do know Deville will not allow you to open a church. He will kill you first." She was grinning with what I noticed was a mouth less than full of teeth.

"Well Ma'am that is why they sent a deacon to open the church instead of a preacher. A deacon takes a lot more killin' than a preacher."

"Then Deacon, you better buy yourself a gun."

"Oh I think I have enough guns." I spoke the words switching my look from friendly to deadly. I saw the shiver run through her. It should have. People always told me that when I turned that look on, I looked like an undertakers best friend. "Now about that room?"

"Best you can do I expect is a tent over in the flats. Probably can find one at their little store over there. People come and go all the time over there."

"Where would I find the flats?" I asked it returning to the smile.

"Just a little ways outside of town." You can't miss it."

"Now what exactly is it I can't miss?" I asked it to determine what I was getting myself into.

"The flats is the place where the miners with families live. The people in this town are either single miners or old timers like me. Old timers are the ones who were here before the big strikes. Some of the men came in to work the mines when they were smaller. There are a lot of us widows here deacon."

"I suppose mining is a dangerous job." I spoke as I slipped my hand inside my pocket. "How much for the coffee and grits."

"Nickel, and I am only taking it cause you are not likely to need it when Deville gets wind of you." She had a very solemn expression on her face.

"Then you are doing the right thing mother. No sense giving a dead man gifts." I smiled at her just to let her know I didn't mind. I also did it because I wanted to stand in her kitchen by the fire until the sun came up.

The other kitchen help arrived while I waited. The place was about to open its doors when I walked from the back door. I walked around the canvas and frame building to the street. With the sun up a bit, it was almost bearable outside.

I tightened the cinch on the Wilson's horse before I rode him the few yards to the Henson house. The two-story frame house was bustling with activity when I arrived. When the sun rose in Sadie's Gulch the town came to life. It was nature's alarm clock.

I would have knocked on the front door, but I expected everyone of importance to be in the kitchen working to feed the boarders or cleaning up after them. I knocked on the rear screen door.

"Come on in," the female voice shouted. I was surprised when I entered the house to find a youngish middle-aged woman sweating over the stove.

"You the widder Henson?" I asked it not knowing what else to say to her.

"Lord no, I am Laura's sister." The woman smiled at me but it was one of those I am busy smiles.

"Is your sister around?" I didn't much mind asking it of the woman since she had already gone back to her biscuits.

"She is in the dining room but she will be back in a minute. You want a cup of coffee preacher. If you do you can just help yourself as you can see I got my hands covered in biscuit dough."

"That is fine. I have already had three cups at the diner. So I know the widder's name is Laura what is your name, miss?" I asked it to pass the time. I also knew I should be making friends with the locals. It was going to prove to be a chore since I was usually a loner.

"They call me Sara. Preacher, you ain't lookin' for a place to stay, are you? If you are it would be better if you looked someplace else." Her smile was still there, but somehow it had turned cold.

"How come?" I asked it pretty sure Deville would be in the answer somewhere.

"Truth is, my sister is a religious woman. She won't be able to say no to you."

"What would be so bad about me boarding here? I can pay, you know." The statement was just my way of saving a little face.

"Even so, it will not be good for Laura. Mr. Deville, the owner of the biggest mine will be mighty upset if you stay anywhere, especially here."

"Now why would he be upset about me staying anywhere, especially here?" I kept my warm smile even though it was hard to do.

"Surely you know what happened with the last preacher."

"I heard he ran off with Deville's wife, but that is not going to happen with me. She is already gone." That time I tried to smile a rakish one.

"Did you know they were never heard from again? The preacher's bishop tried to find them, but never could. Word is Deville sent someone after them. In some little town somewhere there are two holes in the ground, I am sure."

"This Deville does not sound like a nice man." I said it while smiling. The smile was not my evil one, but my innocent one. She probably didn't need my evil look to know I wasn't quite the pushover a preacher would have been.

"Actually, Samuel is a very nice man. He just has power. When he got hurt he used it."

"You sound as though you know him pretty well." It was no more than a probing question. She had two answers but both required explanations. She chose the third option. She changed the subject.

"You really should just ride away."

"For one thing this horse does not belong to me. For another I have a job to do here and that is to open a church. So, if you don't want me to ask your sister for a room, where am I going to stay?"

She moved to the dry sink where she washed her hands in a pan of water used for all kinds of cleanup. After her hands were somewhat clean she wrote a note, which she handed to me. "Take that to the proprietor of the general store down in the flats. He will find you a place. There are always people down there needing a little extra money."

"Since I don't require much I will take your advice. I really should wait to tell your sister how well you take care of her." I smiled again with that innocent look.

"Don't bother, she knows.\'94 The woman smiled at me again; hers was not innocent at all.

It was then that my intuition, that almost never failed me, kicked in. "I see, so what name do you go by when I am not here?"

She looked only a little surprised, "Laura."

"You didn't have to pretend, you know. You could have been yourself." I wasn't angry just a little miffed.

"I am sorry Deacon, but Laura can't say no. Besides I really am a religious woman. If you had put up an argument I would have given in immediately."

"Not to worry, I will be fine." I was surprised that she had stayed in the kitchen during the conversation until a younger less attractive version of her came into the kitchen.

"Laura, they need more biscuits in there."

"Take those in the basket. They are still warm."

When the young woman had left the room I asked, "Was that Sara?"

"No, I am Sara too. That was my daughter Rebecca."

"So who are you now?"

She suddenly looked at me with a different look. "You do understand, don't you?"

I thought I understood, but I wasn't quite sure. Then again what I thought was really strange. I wasn't sure about it at all. "You didn't just make up Sara did you? You are both Sara and Laura aren't you?"

"Keep your voice down preacher. How do you know?"

"I am not sure that I do know. Sometimes during the war men would become children in order to avoid going back into battle. They had the same look in their eyes. I am not sure that it was anything more than that."

"What look?" she demanded.

I was saved the effort of attempting to explain the unexplainable by the arrival of Rebecca again. "Now, they want more jam." The young woman smiled at me as she went into the pantry.

"Well, I need to be moving on. I will be having a small service to rededicate the church Sunday, do try to come." I turned quickly before Laura could object.

I had no idea where I was headed as I pulled the reins forcing the horse back into the downtown. During the short ride I decided to try the general store at the flats. The flats was an easy area to find. It was no more than a meadow half a mile from town. In the meadow were about fifty or so tent houses. I had no idea what they were really called. The dwellings were no more than flimsy wooden walls with a tent top. My guess was that the flimsy walls were the miner's efforts to make the tents taller therefore more livable. It also created a bit more stable dwelling. The canvas nailed to the wooden walls would be a bit more stable during the winter winds than would the tent alone. I took one look at the tents sitting less than ten feet apart and knew that neither I, nor my money would be safe or happy in the tent city.

"So, this is where the miners with families live?" I asked it of the man behind the packing case counter inside the frame and tent building used as the general store.

"It is where most of them live preacher. What can I do for you?" He seemed more curious than customer service oriented.

"They tell me in town that you can help me find a place to live?" I asked it purely in passing, as I had no intention of living in the flats.

"To tell you the truth Preacher we are all filled up here." I noticed he did not meet my eyes as he spoke. The man was a very poor liar. For his sake I hoped he did not play poker.

"Just as well. Tell me though who builds the tent houses out here?"

"Mostly the miners do it themselves. It ain't very hard." He was trying to get rid of me. It just wasn't going to work. At least, not until I got ready to go.

"Really, how does one go about it?" I asked it smiling as though I didn't know he was in a hurry for me to leave. It was pretty obvious he feared reprisals from Deville.

"Well you just sink a few posts in the ground then nail a few boards to it. The canvas just hangs over it."

"If that is all there is to it, I guess I can build my own place." I could tell by the light in his eyes that the thought appealed to him. If I did that he would have nothing to do with it.

"Yes you can. I suppose you can read?" It was nothing more than a passing remark since he obviously wasn't trying to insult me. Nonetheless I was insulted and I showed it.

"Of course I can read. Can you?" The remark didn't seem to bother him since he still saw me as a preacher.

"What I mean preacher, is I got a set of instructions for building one of these things. I wrote it out for the miners. Some of their wives can read them the instructions as they go along. I can sell you all the lumber and canvas for it. I can even loan you the tools, for a fee of course."

"Of course," I agreed. He still didn't notice my lack of religious piety. "So how much for this little package?"

"Depends on the size house you want. Usually the house materials for a ten by ten place sell for ten dollars. Since you are a preacher I won't charge for the tool rental." He smiled as though it was some kind of deal.

I knew the lumber would come from some poor devil up on the mountain cutting boards from trees. The cost to the merchant would be almost nothing. The canvas might be a little expensive because of the shipping. I expected it came from ships traveling around the Cape so it might be a bit expensive unless there were mills in California, which I doubted. Still, it shouldn't be much. My guess was that the canvas would be in sheets just like my ground cloth. It would not be sewn into tent shapes.

The merchant handed me a sheet of paper. "Just follow these directions and come to me when you have it ready for the canvas. I will cut you off the pieces you need."

"We need to come to terms on the cost first. Ten dollars is outrageous."

"Preacher it is the going price for the materials. If you don't buy them some miner will be happy to pay it." He looked as though he were trying to dismiss me. I almost laughed at the small, gentle man. It was time to give him an education.

"First of all friend, I am not a preacher. I am a deacon. A deacon does not abide by the same rules as a parson. Now you and I are going to come to terms on the price of these materials based not on what you can swindle from miners, but for what you should sell them to an employee of God." It was crap but I liked the sound of it. "Now, I want you to rethink the price of the materials." I gave him a look I hoped explained that he would reconsider. If he chose not to do so, he was going to be out of business. How seriously out of business depended on his answer.

He changed at least the way he addressed me. "Deacon, are you threatening me?"

"I do God's work merchant. I do not have to threaten. I only have to warn. You will chose to do what is right by God or you won't. If you do not chose to do the right thing then God will punish you. I might well the instrument of that punishment." I loved the sound of that.

He lowered his eyes to the packing box then mumbled. "I can sell you the lumber at my cost two dollars. The canvas will cost you three dollars and fifty cents."

I placed two silver dollars on the counter. "Have the lumber delivered this morning. Have it dropped at the church I will show your driver where."

"Deacon, do you mean that church downtown?"

I nodded.

"That church belongs to Mr. Deville. He is not going to allow you to use the place, let alone allow you to build a house there."

Merchant, Mr. Deville has no say in the matter. The church belongs to God not to any man. Just have your man deliver the lumber there. I will show him where to drop it." I was almost out the door when I turned back. "Two more things, don't forget to send the tools and tell Deville I will be expecting him."

I hadn't intended any of it. Something was moving me along. The something I was not sure of at all but it was there. An unseen hand possibly God's hand setting the penitence for my evil ways. The thought made me laugh out loud as I climbed back into the saddle. I am sure if the merchant saw me he was truly terrified. He had to picture me as a religious madman; probably the worst kind of madman. The sun was well up when I arrived at the mud church. With it, came the morning heat. The heat might not be oppressive, but it would he noticeable.

I tied the horse to a hitch ring set on the low mud wall surrounding the church. I walked to a window with no glass. The shutter was cracked so I pulled it back to look inside. I found boxes and machinery stacked around here and there. The pews were piled against one wall. When set up right it might hold fifty people. There probably were not even rats in it at the time. There would be no food for them.

From looking inside the church I went around to the back where I found a large open space. The space appeared to be a kind of courtyard, possibly used as a playground or maybe picnic area. Behind that space was an overgrown field. Not a single animal grazed in the space. I was frankly a little surprised. The grass was high in the field and totally going to waste it seemed. I decided to build my shack in the field. It might put off the confrontation but I doubted it. I expected to see Deville's men about any time.

Wilson's son arrived first. He was sent to deliver my gear, and of course to pick up the horse. "Hello son, how are things at home?" The kid was bright I give him that.

"They are not as tense, now that you are gone." He smiled broadly. "Miss Edith sent you this. She said you might be needing some food about now." In addition to my gear he handed me a flour sack. Inside the sack were about a dozen biscuits.

"Will you please thank her for me. Also tell her and your dad that services at the church will be at ten A.M. Sunday. I would like to see you all here. Tell your dad we all share the same God."

"Deacon my dad don't think there will be any service Sunday. He said if you were foolish enough to continue you would be dead before Sunday."

"Then tell him to come to the funeral on Sunday." I actually managed a sick laugh.

"Deacon, I don't think you are going to be dead on Sunday." He said that as he swung back up on his horse. "I think I will be at church on Sunday." He rode away leaving me to decide what my next move would be.

I figured word would spread quickly. I thought about hand writing some flyers about church but decided everyone would know it all soon enough. I sat in the shade of the church porch as I awaited the lumber. I also found time to recover the Colt from my carpetbag. I hung it from my waist and tied the holster down. The Colt would give pause to any would be musclemen. I expected even more understanding when I took my coat off to work on the house. When I did that the hidden .36-pistol in the shoulder holster would be quite visible. One man with two guns was not exactly what one would expect to see on the back lot of a church.

The man who arrived on horseback was definitely not a deliveryman. He was a messenger from Deville, I decided. I stood to greet him. I wanted to give him a good look at the tied down Colt. Might as well send my own message. I chose not to speak as he sat on the horse looking down at me.

"I think we need to talk preacher." He looked at me with a bit of a smirk.

"Then talk friend." It was my turn to look at him with what I hoped was enough evil to end the conversation. Unfortunately it didn't.

"You are trespassing. I came to move you along." He suddenly looked like a man with business on his mind.

"I am about to do you a favor friend. It is the last one I will ever do you or any other man who comes here with evil intentions. First and foremost, this is the house of God. It does not belong to anyone but God. I am on God's business so I am not trespassing. But then, neither are you, as all men are welcome in God's house." I had no idea where the words came from just as before they came from my mouth but were not my words.

"That is nice....." He tried to speak but I cut him off.

"That was just part of it. Now let me give you the other part. If you go for that hogleg you are wearing, I will shoot you dead. First of all, you don't stand a chance as I am much faster than you. Also, that horse is going to move. Even if you are fast enough to get off a shot, it is going to go wild. I, on the other hand, promise you I will not miss. I do not want my first service here to be a funeral, but that, friend, is your choice."

He looked hard at me then smiled. "You a gun hand ain't you?"

"I am a Deacon in the service of God now. It is true I have killed men." I figured he might as well know what he was up against.

"Fair enough Deacon, next time I won't have this miserable animal under me. Then we shall see."

"I would invite you down friend to find out now, but I don't think God would care how I dispatch you. From that horse it is guaranteed you will be in hell before the clock strikes again."

"Oh I know Deacon. It is the reason I am going to show you my back."

"That is safe friend, I am no back shooter."

"Never thought you was. Matter of fact Deacon, when they come for you, and they will, don't look for me to be with them."

"You are a wise man, my friend. Come to church on Sunday at ten. You can be my first conversion." Good God, what had I just said?

"I think I will be in Silver City on Sunday. I had gotten pretty tired of this job anyway. Thanks for the offer, though. Deacon, do you want to know about the others?"

"No thanks friend, what will be is already written." I said it with a friendly smile.

"Amen to that Deacon. Well it is a long ride to Silver City. Be seeing you again but not like this." He tipped his hat as he rode away. He headed back into town. I expected it was to get his gear."

I went back to dozing on the porch. The wagon pulled up a while later. The old, almost crippled, man helped me unload the lumber. He also helped me unload the tools I would need.

I began digging holes in the high grass before the sun was directly overhead. I began with the sidewall that required only two posts. That wall had no openings. The postholes were fairly simple with the narrow spade. Once the hole was a couple of feet deep I set the post and packed the hole with clay. I then poured water in the hole before tamping as much mud as possible around the post. The firearms were mostly in the way as I worked, but I dared not leave them on the ground. I expected more company at any moment.

The next visitor was the town Marshall. He was about fifty pounds overweight and no gun hand, that was for sure. I watched him walk up then shuffle his feet as he prepared to speak.

"What you planning to do Mister?" He asked it with as much authority as he could muster. It wasn't all that much.

"Well I am planning to build a house here."

"Well that is public land so you can homestead it if you want. Not good for much though. You planning to raise cattle on it."

"No Sheriff, I am planning to open that church." I pointed to the mud brick building as I spoke.

"I heard that. I am here to tell you that building there belongs to Mr. Deville. He don't want no church there."

"Would you bring me the deed to that church please."

"What?" The Marshall seemed confused.

"I want to see his deed to that building. I do not think he owns the building. You see, Sheriff there was no one with the authority to sell him that building."

"It is Marshall not Sheriff. I don't see what you are driving at."

"When that church was abandoned there was no one with the authority to sell the building to Deville. It therefore still belongs to the original owner, who, by the way, is God."

"Deville bought it from the county for taxes." The Marshall looked a little lost.

"No he didn't. Counties cannot tax churches my friend. Deville just took the building like he took everything else. I am here to take it back Marshall."

"Well I don't know about no taxes. I know you can't open that church, though." He was trying to be strong but he didn't have it in him.

"Well Marshall, you work for Deville while I work for God. Now who do you think is going to prevail here?" I had avoided showing him my evil nature up until that point. I planned it for my next move. I didn't have to do it.

"I am going to see the deed. When I do. I will be back."

"Marshall, you are welcome to attend the Sunday morning service. As a matter of fact, I insist on it. Also, when Deville cannot produce the deed tell him to move his junk from God's house. He has defiled it too long already."

The town Marshall left without a further word. I figured he would be back with a deed in about an hour. Or at least with orders to evict me. At that time, we would be dancing again.\tab After two hours I judged my progress. I figured it was going to take me a couple of days at least to finish the house.

The first couple showed up mid afternoon. "Howdy preacher," the middle aged man said as he extended his hand to me. His slightly younger wife smiled shyly.

"Afternoon neighbor, I am sorry to inform you I am not the preacher. I am but the one who comes to prepare a place for him. I am Deacon Burke." By that time I had his firm handshake.

"Well, either way, we are happy to see you. I came to see, if you could use a hand on the house here." The man had spread his arms to encompass the pile of lumber.

"I can always use a hand neighbor. I expect all men need a hand now and then. And what would be your name brother?" Damn I thought, that religious talk comes way too easy.

"I am Amos Thorn and this is my wife Louise."

"Amos, I thank you for the offer and Louise it is nice to see you. Amos there is one thing, Deville will not take kindly to your helping me."

"Oh I am not going to help. I have a bad back Deacon. However, I have six men coming off a mine shift in about an hour. I think they could use a little extra work. With that many men it shouldn't be long till the house is finished."

"Then I take it you are a mine owner?" I asked it in a bit of wonder.

"Yes Deacon, I own the Lazy Susan one of the smaller mines. Deville owns the largest one. He is also the only one opposed to the church. The married miners need the church as much as the single ones need the saloon."

"Are you sure you want to help me? Deville still owns most everything here."

"It seems he don't own me or you Deacon. I can have you a crew here at three. You just make sure they get away by dark. Also, make sure they do not get hurt working here."

"I can't promise you they won't hit their finger with a hammer, but I can promise you they will not be shot." I knew his concern.

"Deacon, from the word going around, I am damned sure you can. I will have the men here at three."

After he had gone I realized his wife had not spoken a single word. Even though he had promised I continued to work just as hard. Promises were not worth spit. If they showed up, then that was going to be something else all together. I had the post for the one side and the rear wall set when the crew showed up. The crew consisted of only four men, but it was more than enough. Not only were the men in a wagon from the mine, they also brought their own tools.

Each of the miners was familiar with the construction of the tent houses since they either lived in one or had friends who did. Within an hour there were poles rising from the hard clay everywhere. The front wall had openings requiring more poles than the right side or the rear. The left side also had additional poles. I wasn't quite sure why but I didn't object since I had no idea.

The pole setting gave way quickly to the nailing of boards onto the poles. The attaching of the boards took a man nailing and a man on the inside holding the post solid. Still, it went quickly. The wagon was dispatched for the canvas while the miners and I built the roof structure. It was no more than a series of poles lashed together.

The miners were a quiet crowd. No doubt, they were worn out from their days work in the mine. When I handed the miner the three dollars and fifty cents for the canvas he smiled. He knew something I didn't about the cost of the canvas. Since I was satisfied with the price, I didn't pry.

We had the building ready for the canvas when it arrived. The men made short work of the cutting and installing of it. The final thing to do was the installation of a clay pot stove like the one the deputy had used in his shack. The window like opening in the right side was for the clay stove pipe. The man had brought a pile of clay from the store as well as the pot. He filled the hole around the pipe with it. The clay made the insulation for the stove pipe. It would prevent the pipe from burning the wood.

When the house was finished, the men were sitting about the yard in the dying sunlight. They were resting when suddenly a wagon pulled up. From the wagon Amos Thorn's wife and two other women stepped down.

"Good Evening sister Thorn. What brings you back?" I could see from the baskets she and the other two women carried that they had brought food for the men. Presumably I was to be allowed to share.

"I thought we should at least feed the men who were courageous enough to stand up to Samuel Deville." It seemed she had very little use for Deville. I nodded before I turned to the men.

"Gentlemen, it seems the ladies of the church have brought our dinner please come forward so that we may eat."

Everyone was standing about, afraid to start filling his plate. I was about to reach for a plate when I remembered we should pray. "Ladies since it is your food would you bless it?" I am sure no man had ever asked a woman to say grace. "Would each of you say a few words, please?"

The women, though shy, were articulate. They each gave thanks and most said a special prayer for their families and friends. I was even mentioned by Mrs. Thorn. When they finished I said a hardy Amen then filled my plate with cold chicken and biscuits. One of the items I found interesting was a potato concoction made to serve cold. It was very tasty.

"Deacon what will be the subject of your Sunday sermon?" It was one of the ladies who obviously, was the wife of the tall, thin man who had more or less taken charge of the building.

"I really hadn't given it much thought. I am not really a preacher, you know. The service will be more or less a celebration of the return of God's house to him. I suppose I will have to throw in a couple of \'91men don't beat your wife\'92 kind of things." I smiled at their laughter.

"Deacon, why would a man do a thing like that and then sleep beside the woman?" The question came from Mrs. Thorn.

"Mrs. Thorn, you have no idea how foolish men can be. I assume you men will agree with that." To a man they nodded their agreement.

"Deacon, you ever been married?" It was one of the men who asked.

"No, so far I have not been lucky enough to stay in one place long enough to find a wife. First there was the war, then there was church business."

"Which side did you fight on during the war?" The man who asked had worked beside me all afternoon. I did not want to offend him.

"Why, the right side, of course." I grinned not elaborating. Everyone laughed.

"Deacon, I ain't much of a church-goer, but I will be there on Sunday. If you don't mind, I think I will bring my shotgun?" The man who asked had helped me set the roof on my house.

"I think, on this one occasion, God will look the other way, Thad. He might even approve." I smiled at the men. They all smiled back at me. When they left they took both wagons and the rental tools. I didn't care whether they returned them or stole them. I did expect that the storeowner would get them back though. The men all seemed honest.

I spread my canvas from the trail on the trampled grass inside the house. That and two blankets would keep me pretty warm even without the stove. I did not have enough wood for it. I made a note in my mind to buy firewood the next day.

Before I went to bed I returned to the space in front of the house to smoke a poorly rolled cigarette. I sat on the bench Thad had made from the few left over scraps of lumber. I supposed I could have made a fire from the scraps of lumber left from the sidewall construction. The fire would have lasted only a few minutes; such was the closeness of the measurements. It seemed the merchant in the flats was as close with the lumber as he was with a nickel.

I heard the rattle of a horse drawn wagon before I saw it. The night was moonless at that time. I had the Colt drawn and by my leg as I waited. It would be just as hard for the driver of the wagon to see me. As I waited the tension grew. I had to hold myself back to keep from shooting at the noise.

I recognized the old gray before I did the wagon. I walked out to greet the wagon not sure exactly who would be on it. I half expected it to be one of John Wilson's children. I was happy to see that it was Edith.

"Well Edith, what brings you here?" I asked it smiling up at her.

"Actually I came to see if you needed doctoring. You have been here a whole day now. John expected you to be shot by this time."

"And you? What did you expect?"

"Well I didn't expect you to have your own house built in a day. I figured you to be at the Widow Henson's place. When I left here she wasn't keeping company with Samuel Deville."

"Ah, so that was the reason. In any event I had some help with the house. Would you like to at least get down. I'm afraid I have no fire going."

"No thank you, I was in town to see about ordering medicines from the catalog at the general store. I brought you a present but I should have brought firewood instead."

"Oh, what kind of present?" I asked it to change the subject, as well as from my curiosity. Rather than answer she handed me a ball of fur. "It seems that, in my absence, my dog Sally went and got herself with puppies. They are two months old. I figured you might need some protection." Edith was grinning I could tell even in the dark.

"It is a little dark to see is this a girl or boy." I grinned but I knew Edith couldn't see it.

"It is a girl. It seems you do better with women Deacon."

"I am not going to argue with you one way or the other Edith. Why don't you get down for a while?"

"Sorry Deacon, I have to get home. I did bring you more presents. Seems Abe forgot this." She handed down my Springfield rifle. "The basket in the back is for you too."

"You can't get down because John will be worried?" I knew better but I couldn't help it. I didn't even bother to comment on the rifle or to open the basket.

Edith laughed. "Deacon, I will be at church on Sunday along with the boys. I do not know if John will be with us."

"He, like everyone else, is invited. Please do come and bring anyone else who would like to attend."

"I better get on home now. Deacon, you take care of yourself. These men play rough."

"Oh, I think I can hold my own."

"I know you will manage, but I would rather you be alive than have a church in town." Edith did not give me a chance to reply. She turned the gray back over the rough field, then drove the wagon back to the main road.

"Well girl what shall I call you. I best not call you Edith." I said that as I took the large, but still puppy inside the wood framed tent. "How about Sheba after the temptress of King David." The puppy seemed to like the name. At least she didn't object to it.

I tried to have her sleep with me to keep her warm but she left the bedroll to sleep on my clothes piled in the corner of the one cold room. I should have objected since I would be wearing those clothes again the next day. I didn't mind because she looked happy to be there.

I used those few scraps of lumber to make coffee the next morning. The camp equipment that Wilson's son had returned came in handy. The basket from Edith contained two more cook pots. It also contained jam and butter, both in small clay pots.

I fixed oatmeal with bacon bits for myself. I had one of Edith's only fair biscuits. I shared the oatmeal and biscuit with Sheba. She ate her share as gratefully as I did mine.

After breakfast the pup followed me into the downtown, if you could call it that. We found the general store almost empty. I went to the counter with the pup at my heels.

"Good morning brother," I said to the man there. "I find myself in need of firewood. Could you arrange a load for me."

"I could Deacon,\'94 I could tell from his attitude it was going to be another of those days. "But I don't think I will."

"Oh and why not brother?" I asked it calmly.

"Because I do a lot of business with Mr. Deville. He made it plain yesterday that he would be very unhappy, if anyone did business with you." It took me about ten seconds to decide on a reply. That is a long time to stand in the glare of a killer. The storeowner was very uncomfortable when I finally spoke.

"Let me ask you brother, how do you think you are going to like hell?" I looked at him with as much malice as I could get into the glare.

"If I go to hell for refusing to help you, I suppose I will be very unhappy." He seemed not to understand.

"Let me explain this a little better. Brother I am here to do God's work. If I have to make an example of you to save the others, then that is God's plan for you. So if you are prepared for the outcome of your decision, it will not be on my soul, it will be on yours." At that moment he understood it was my intention to kill him. He looked at me for only a second in defiance then he crumbled.

"You would kill me over a load of fire wood?" He was visibly shaken at the thought.

"No brother, but if I have to kill half the men in this town to save the other half, then that is what I am called to do. Anyone who stands in the way of my opening that church will be moved by God or by me. You might want to spread that word. It would probably make my life a whole lot easier."

"All right Deacon Burke,\'94 he looked down as he replied.

"How much for the firewood?"

"No charge, call it my donation." He looked as though he didn't like the idea much.

"Well, look at it this way, brother. If Deville does kill me, you can take it back." I smiled at him as I walked out the door. I did turn back just inside the front door. "I will expect the wood before dark."

Sheba got curious when we left the store. She headed off on her own in a totally different direction. Just like a woman I thought. Once the excitement ended she was off looking for more. I walked past the church on the way to my tent. I was suddenly reminded that I had to clean Deville's junk out before I could hold a service the next day. I was tempted to forget it since I had no idea if anyone would dare defy Deville. He was, after all, the source of most people's income. Still I had promised there would be a service the next day.

I began moving the things that I could handle alone into the yard. I piled them by the side path. Deville could get a wagon down it to move them. He probably wouldn't for a while. I am sure he expected me to be out of his hair fairly quickly, one way or another.

I noticed the traffic on the street was heavier than it had been the day before. I realized again that it was Saturday. Many of the local families would be coming to town to do their shopping. Cleaning out the church would be noticed by many people who otherwise would miss the invitation to the morning service. I was sure the word would spread without a sign.

I had most of the stored junk out of the church. The exception being three large boxes I could not move. I sat on one of them trying to decide what to do next when John Wilson and his two of his sons walked up.

"So, you are serious?" It was John Wilson who asked.

"Of yes, I am dead serious." I said it smiling so that he might see the humor in the remark.

"Well in that case my family and I will be here tomorrow."

"Good, could I impose on you for a small favor right now?" John didn't seem to want to commit. I guessed that from the length of the pause before he answered. "I just need the help of your boys to move a couple of boxes." I didn't think it would matter that there were three.

"Oh course," he replied.

The boys and I made quick work of the boxes. We sat them by the wall to await either my death or Deville's wagon. Personally, I preferred the wagon. Wilson stood in the church looking it over.

"This place is going to need some heavy cleaning Deacon." His comment drew my attention to the amount of dust and dirt in the place. I had been so intent on moving the junk I had failed to notice the dirt.

"Yes, I suppose it will. I suppose I need to get a couple of rags and a bucket." I smiled. John and I both knew how out of place a man with three pounds of iron on his leg would be with a scrub rag.

"Hold off a bit. I might be able to get you some help. Let me tell you one thing Deacon. If Margaret and her lady friends clean this church, Deville better not stop the services. These women can do more to hurt him than you can."

"Hell hath no fury kind of thing?" I asked it with a smile.

"Worse than that, did you know when the Indians want to really torture a man they turn him over to the women?" Wilson laughed. It surprised me. I hadn't thought him capable.

"I honestly did not know that. From the things the married people I know say I am not surprised. It seems a universal fact that the female is the more deadly of the species."

"So it would seem." Wilson seemed to have lost some of his good humor.

The women arrived as the sun was moving close to the horizon. There were enough of them that the work went quickly. Even so, they finished by lamplight. The church was fitted with enough kerosene lamps to defeat the darkness but not all the shadows. I supposed I might find some errant dust in the next day\'92s sunlight. Somehow, I didn't think it would be a good bit though. The women seemed to be thorough.

"Well Deacon Burke, it appears we have finished the cleaning. Is there anything else we might do for you?" Margaret Wilson's words were slightly cool. I knew she meant the cleaning of the church. If it had been Edith Wilson, her words would have brought a smile to my lips.

"No sister Wilson, you and your friends have done much more than I could have ever expected." I smiled at her rather than risk taking her hand.

"In that case Deacon we shall be going." It was a bit strange that she spoke for all the ladies. Margaret Wilson was not of their faith but was somehow a natural leader. It had been the same with her sister Edith. It was a question to be puzzled on a cold night. How two sisters shared the same traits but obviously could not get along. The inevitable question had to be, why then, would they marry the same man? I didn't even try to ponder that while busy with other things. It might make for interesting musing one evening soon.

I waved to the women as they rode away atop their wagons. I didn't wait for them to leave my sight. Instead I turned from their departing figures back to the church. I noted for the first time that the church had insufficient heating facilities. It could have been that the former preachers wanted to make sure no one got too comfortable. Best give them a taste of discomfort here on earth. I supposed it would be easier for them to believe in hell that way.

There were four small clay stoves. Even so the chances that they could heat the large high ceiling room were very poor. I considered starting the fires immediately in the hopes that the room would be at least a little warm for the next day. I decided against it. I had other things on my mind.

I walked in the cold to my tent house behind the church. The tent was warm since I had left a fire burning in my clay stove. I looked out several times while I made, and then drank my coffee. It finally got dark enough for my little ruse. I moved several pieces of the firewood into the tent. I made a pile that would resemble a man sleeping. I covered it with a blanket then looked back at my handy work. If it was dark and one only had a quick glance the pile might resemble me sleeping. I expected that it would fool a person just about long enough for a quick trip to hell.

After I doused the light I took the other blanket from the corner. With it for cover I lay on the canvas ground cover under the table I had taken from the church. It was absolutely no protection from flying lead. I just hoped the subterfuge would give me the second I needed to end the fight to my advantage.

The puppy slipped into the tent sometime later. I felt her curl up beside me for the body heat. I drifted off into a troubled sleep. I had no idea how long I slept before I felt Sheba stir. I listened to the footsteps outside the tent as they came closer. I slipped the Colt from my holster onto the ground beside me. I held Sheba to keep her quiet as the tent flap moved near us.

He moved quickly inside the door. As I expected he hardly looked about. He saw the woodpile in the corner near the stove and fired into it. I wasn't really waiting for him to fire. I was more curious than anything else. He fired two quick shots before I fired a shot into his belly. He staggered back out the doorway. I should have shot him in the chest and would have, if the table hadn't been in the way. Still the angle was upwards so I was pretty sure he was finished.

Since I didn't know how tough the shooter was I went carefully out the door. I found him lying on the ground, still conscious, but barely. "Brother, I think you should pray. I fear you are about to meet God." I didn't even bother to look at him. He was for sure dying.

"You ain't no man of god to do this to me." He was breathing hard. The air seemed to rattle in his lungs.

"Now friend, you come to my house to kill me. Then you expect me to pray for you. I think not." I actually managed a smile.

"Ain't you gonna call nobody to help me?" He asked it almost in disbelief.

"You got here on your own. I expect you can find your way out of here. That is, if you start to crawl now. I don't expect you can make it to the street, but you can try. As for me, I am going back to bed." I turned to walk away. I did not, of course, sleep again. I listened to him moan as he died outside my door. I might have tried to rationalize it by saying that nothing I could do would have helped or harmed him. It would not have been the truth. I simply wanted to make a statement for Deville.

Ten A.M. came and I had no idea what I was going to say. I walked into the church to find a few more people than I would have expected. There were mostly women in the pews. The men lined the walls.

"I see we have a full house today. For those of you standing I promise this will not be a long service." I paused to take a drink of water. "This service is simply to rededicate this building as a place of worship. It is a place where you may come in times of sorrow. A place you may come in the times of Jobe. A place of safety in the wilderness of despair." I walked from behind the crude pulpit.

"This is Gods house and, like his world, all are welcome in it. This place will be open to any man or woman who comes in peace. Your relationship with God is solely between yourselves and him. The only requirement here is that you come with an open heart."

I saw the man standing in the door. He was dressed much better than anyone else. He was also better fed than most. I knew who he was without being told. He had the air of a man in charge.

"Welcome, I presume you are Mr. Deville. There are no seats but we can find a space for you to stand I expect."

"You are all trespassing on my property." He said it but the malice was missing from his voice.

"No Mr. Deville, this property belongs to God. I will not debate this point with you sir. I will tell you simply I am here as God's representative to take back what is his. I have done that. I will defend my God from anyone or any thing. It is my duty, sir."

"I will not debate it either. You will all leave this place immediately." His face was beet red. I expected him to fall over from apoplexy.

"Deville, lest some innocent be harmed, we should take this into the courtyard." I gave him my best evil look. The one that usually cowers the strongest of men.

"Listen to me people. Did you just hear your man of God threaten me?" Deville was doing something that I had not expected. He was trying to win the people over.

"Deville you must surely know I am not a preacher. I am a deacon. If I must kill you to make this church safe for these people, I will do so. If I must face the gunmen you can hire, then that is what I must do. I do give you a warning. If you send a gunman here to disrupt this service I will kill him. Then Mr. Deville, I will come for you. Sir, you can not hire enough gunmen to save you from God's wrath.

Without warning a young man walked from the rear of the church. He walked right to me. I watched his eyes as he moved forward. He did not speak a word he simply went for the Colt on his hip. He was fast, but not nearly fast enough. I chose, for some reason known only to God, not to shoot him. Instead I clamped my hand over the .44 as it came up. I swung it off to the side so that when it fired the shot went into the wall of the church.

He was so shocked that he stood open mouth as I struck him hard with the barrel of my pistol. He fell to the floor bleeding. It was a strange sight to see him falling while I still held onto his hand. He slumped to the floor more than fell.

"Billy!" It was Deville who shouted it. I knew instantly that Billy was his son.

"Deville, you owe me for his life. My price is this church. If you are a man of honor, I expect you to pay your debt. If not, I will collect my debt, I promise you that."

From out of nowhere Edith appeared. She did not have her bag so she ripped a cloth from the altar to stem the flow of blood. "Someone help me get him flat."

As men helped to lay him on the table in front of the pulpit Edith gave me a look of disappointment. It was my guess that I was no longer to be her hero. Since it was never my intention to be anyone's hero, I felt only a slight loss.

The kid came around quickly. He was trying to get up before Edith finished sewing him up. Hell, once he was awake, he spent most of his time whining. I stood patiently until Edith finished. The congregation sat quietly, mumbling to itself. Finally, I tired of it all.

"I suppose we have had all the excitement we can handle for one day. I suggest we close this service. There will be a service next Sunday and every Sunday there after. Since this is your church not mine I think a final prayer should be offered by one of you. How about you decide who should represent you? You tell me who should speak to God on your behalf this morning.

The mumbles continued for a moment then a name was presented. I did not know the man. He was a miner. I called the name of Simon Tims. Simon came forward. He was almost shy as he began. He ended his prayer with a powerful voice the transformation was wonderful to see. His last sentence was the essence of it all.

"Thank you Lord for bringing our church back to us. Even more for bringing us back to your church. We had lost our way but your servant, Deacon Burke has shown us the way home."

That one shook me to the core. I had only intended to hide out, not be a beacon in the dark. I smiled inwardly at the thought of it all. Edith was still holding the younger Deville down as the congregation left.

"I will see you at home Edith." It was John Wilson who spoke.

"Yes husband," Edith did not lower her eyes as she spoke. Edith was never going to be a submissive wife. To John's credit, he seemed to understand and accept it.

A few minutes later Edith stood, and then stretched. Deville helped his son from the church. He did not speak. Edith looked up at me. "Am I forever going to be sewing up or burying your enemies?"

"Hardly, I think this one ends it all." I meant it when I said it. "I think I can send the wire to Saint Louis now. The real preacher will be on the way in a few weeks." I hoped it would be at least spring before he arrived.

"I expect this battle is over Deacon, but what about the next one?" She looked at me just as she did her husband. She did not blink nor look away.

"The next battle will not be here in Sadie's Gulch. I expect things to be peaceful here."

"I know that. I know that asking this may make me a bold harlot in your eyes. When you leave here Deacon will I be going along?"

The remark caught me off guard. I stood dumbfounded.

"I see that answers for me." Edith turned to leave.

"No Edith, it does not. Turn around and listen to me."

"There is no need to make it easier for me Deacon. I can see it in your eyes."

"What you saw was surprise. I had no idea that you had any feelings for me." I hurried on with my stumbling. "I have thought of you often Edith. I have to admit I have thought about what I will do next. In those thoughts you do appear. I just never had any idea you considered the same things."

"Deacon, you have no idea who you are do you?"

"Yes Edith, I do know who I am."

"No Deacon, you don't have a clue. You my dear Deacon, are Lancelot of the lake."

"Okay then I don't know."

"Well you don't have to know. I promise you this will not end the same. When the new preacher arrives you, Jessie, Sheba, and I will leave this place together."

"I will have to leave the church, you know?" I said it trying to act sadly. What I was doing was to cover my bases.

"Deacon, you can fool all the others, but you cannot fool me."

I didn't even try to argue with her. "Should I kiss you?" I asked it as a joke.

"Not till we leave here. I will stay John's wife and you will stay the Deacon until we are gone from this place. The Church must not suffer for our weakness." If she really felt it a weakness, she was holding up well. She had the most catlike smile on her lovely face. I would have argued my case had it been anyone else. With Edith I knew arguing was a waste of time. We all know that waste is a sin.

I simply reached out, wrapped her in my arms. I pulled her to me, and then kissed her. The kiss began with fire then built. When the kiss ended I had no idea what emotion filled Edith but I was filled with pure animal passion. I tried to pull her to me but she fought me. She put up enough of a struggle to convince me it was real. She stepped back. I expected to see anger in her eyes. Instead there was smoke, but a different kind.

"I will not do this Deacon. I will not make love to you then go home to sleep in my husband's bed." She looked at me with something akin to anger but I knew it was not.

"Why not? You told me yourself he wouldn't be in it."

"I know Deacon, but it is still his bed."

I hung my head then turned away. It was a good thing she had stopped me. It would never do for someone to have walked in and caught us making love on the floor of the church. I would never have been able to explain that one.

Edith walked up behind me. I knew it only from the touch of her hands on my hips. "Deacon, it will be as you wish but we must wait."

I turned to her. When I did she kissed me gently on the lips then hurried out of the church like a schoolgirl. She wore probably the happiest smile I had ever seen on her face. I was sure it was the happiest one since our trip to Sadie's Gulch had ended.

I sent the wire the next day. I addressed it to the church that had sent the dead deacon to Sadie's Gulch. I figured to leave a few days before the new preacher arrived and hope nobody described me to him. With a little luck, I could slip away clean.

The answer to the wire was better than I feared but not as good as I would have liked. I had two months or more to wait for the preacher. That was good. However I had no more than four. The new preacher could be expected in the early spring. I would have liked for it to be a little longer but then, I wasn't really in charge.

I spent the next few weeks organizing the church along the lines of the one I remembered from my childhood. The cleaning and repairs on the building took up only a small amount of my time. I spent some time writing talks to give on Sundays. I tried to toss in a few bits of Scripture that I remembered. I also read pieces of the Bible to get new ones. I was more than a little surprised to find that I understood the passages much better as an adult.

Just as I expected, Deville sent men to remove the machinery he had stored in the churchyard. He did not bother me or the people who came to my church. I expected it was less to do with any change of heart he might have had, and more to do with the fact that I promised to leave his whelp alone as long as he left my church alone. It was an unspoken promise, as was the veiled threat.

By the end of the first month the women of the church were so well organized that even Deville would have been hard put to close it. The women had used the church as a place to begin the civilizing of Sadie's Gulch. They planned functions to raise money and to lift the moral level of the town. I barely managed to head off a drive to force the whores from town. I negotiated a compromise. The ladies who had plied their trade inside the town limits agreed to move their tent houses to an area outside of town. Their little compound was on the opposite side of town from the married miners little village.

No one seemed to notice that Edith joined in every function of the church. Those who knew her should have wondered at it. No one mentioned it, even if they noticed. But then, in Sadie's Gulch no one recognized her as John Wilson's second wife. Those facts allowed Edith and I to meet. The meetings appeared to be harmless to anyone who observed them. That is because no one observed her slipping into town well after midnight. Edith and I came awfully close to sleeping together but always managed to stop short.

The town seemed none the worse for the churchwomen's efforts to tame it. I personally was happy to see it. I got a great deal of satisfaction, not to mention home cooked food, from it all. I should have known there would be a day when the man upstairs would collect payment for the easy ride I had.

It came during my second month as leader of the church in Sadie's Gulch. Sheba informed me of the approach of someone. The someone turned out to be Tom the night deputy. "Deacon you got to come to the mine. There has been an accident."

"What kind of accident Tom?" There aren't many harmless accidents in a mine. None that I could imagine to send Tom out in the middle of the night.\tab

"The main shaft caved in. There are a lot of men trapped down there." Tom had already turned to leave. I might have gone back to bed, had I not known I would be expected to join the others in a vigil.

I was torn. The mine was no more than a short walk from town. I could go out there in the cold and try to comfort the waiting wives. I could also stay in the warm church. I could allow its use as a comfort station in the cold night. The third and least appealing of the options, was to go help dig the men out.

Fortunately, I was spared the decision. Edith showed up soon after Tom left. She had been summoned to help with the injured. She barged into my tent. I suppose I was visible through the canvas while sitting in the lantern light. I was making coffee. It seemed she had been called long before me. Which was as it should have been. She could at least help the living remain alive.

"Deacon, what are you going to do?" she asked it knowing I would do something.

"I am going to finish breakfast. Then I am going to build fires in the church. Once that is done I am going out to the mine to bring the wives back to the warmth of God's house."

"Then what?" Edith asked it for some reason I did not understand.

"Then I am going to take a shovel and go into that damned mine." I hoped it wasn't just for her that I said it. It was a definite possibility that it was just that. It could be that Edith had shamed me into doing the right thing. It was then that I realized the true power of a woman.

"Deacon you don't have to do that. You can do more good comforting the wives of those poor men."

"No Edith, like you said, I can fool the others but I can't fool either of us. You comfort them. I will try to save their husbands. I don't expect that we will, but I will try.

There were a few more than twenty women in the church when I left for the mine again. I left them with the instructions to keep the church warm both for themselves and the injured that might be taken there. Edith stayed with them to help them as best she could.

When I arrived at the mine for the second time I was shocked to see the men who had been in the mine during my first visit. They were sitting around the few fires in silence. I found one of the men I knew from the few church services we had held. "Herman, is there another group of miners working down there?"

"No Deacon, ain't no use. There must be a ton of rock between us and them men. I expect they are all dead."

"Well we ain't gonna know that till we get to them." I looked around at the men. They were beaten. Physically and emotionally beaten.

I almost said something then figured there was no way I was going to be a preacher that day. I found Deville standing talking to one of the foremen. He was as clean as he was on the day he barged into my church. I walked to where he stood.

"Well Deville, I am going to make you a damned legend." I whispered it to him. "You and me are going to walk over to that pile of tools. You are going to get a shovel and I am going to get a bar. Then Deville, you and I are going to walk into that mine. We are not going to make speeches. We are just going to go dig out your men."

It took him about thirty long seconds to decide. I had no idea what his motives were. He simply said to me, "After you Deacon."

The murmur started at our backs as we walked past the men. They all knew Deville and I hated each other. The iron bar was heavy and I knew it would get heavier as we worked. I looked over to see Deville grin.

"I am going to work you into a heart attack Deacon. I am going to get rid of you after all."

"Deville you done had yourself too many years of the Widder's cooking. Let's me and you get to it."

I followed his lantern as he led the way to the end of the tunnel. Without a single word I began prying at a rock. I chose one larger than I could pry loose. I was no miner that was for sure. Deville stood leaning on the shovel.

Suddenly I felt the bar moving. It was not because I had gotten stronger or God had intervened. It was because someone was helping me on the pry bar. When the rock moved Deville began loading the smaller rocks it pulled loose. He was joined by more men at the task. Still others wheeled them away then returned with an empty wheelbarrow.

An hour later every bone in my body hurt. I was filthy and bleeding from blisters that had burst. I looked over and was gratified to see blood on the handle of Deville's shovel. Deville and I were rested; the others had been working hours before we arrived. That extra energy made it possible for us to keep up with the hardened miners.

Deville was determined to work until I dropped. I was just as determined to see him on the ground. He and I worked through meals. The others came and went. At least I think so. Somewhere along the way I had drifted into a place where I didn't think, I just reacted. The first break in the wall of rocks did nothing to lighten our mood. There was only silence from the cave like area behind the wall.

We had found a few mangled bodies along the way but nothing could prepare us for the sight in that cave. The men had suffocated. Some showed signs of a struggle others had just found a place to stretch out while awaiting death. We had just been too late. The worse thing of all was that the bodies were still flexible. I was afraid we were late by only minutes. I collapsed against a rock wall.

Deville looked inside the cavern then walked to me. "Come on Deacon. We have to talk to the wives."

I followed numbly behind Deville as we exited into the night yet again. Could we have been working only hours. Was it possible that we had moved that much rock before sunup?

Edith was suddenly at my side. "Deacon, are you all right?" Her question did what Deville could not do. I dropped to my knees.

"Get away," I heard Edith say. "He is praying."

She knew it was a lie. I suppose she wanted to maintain the myth. I didn't know or care at that moment.

After few moments I looked up. I took the dirty hand that was offered to me. The hand belonged to Deville. "Come on Deacon, you need a decent meal and some rest."

It was all I could do but I said, "Send someone ahead, then lets go eat in your dining hall."

"You are determined to show me aren't you?" Deville was not smiling.

"Not really, it won't make no difference but you ought to see it once."

"I have seen it just never ate there. If they know I am coming it will be better than it would if they didn't know.

"Good, I don't want the eat that slop they usually serve."

Deville laughed.

"You know Deacon, I sure feel sorry for that preacher coming here." When I gave him a blank look he added, "Ain't no way he is gonna fill them boots."

"Well, you are going to help him, ain't you?"

"Hell no, but I wont hurt him either."

"That sounds fair to me."

"You know Deacon there are two things I ain't never gonna forget."

"What is that?" I asked it trying to walk straight.

"The sight of those poor devils who knew they were gonna die. Some of them fighting it and some just laying down peaceful."

"I know what you mean it was a powerful difference."

"What was the second?" The voice came from our rear. It belonged to Edith.

"The sight of that skinny assed Deacon trying to pry that big damn rock loose."

"Well, it got moved."

"Not by you alone,\'94 Deville was smiling.

"No, but it got moved, that is what counts."

After that night I was pretty much secure in the belief that Deville posed no further threat to the church. I began to sleep in the open inside my tent. I no longer cowered under the one table waiting to kill or be killed.

My immediate threat changed completely. The threat became Edith and that I would lose my cover. More and more it became my desire to leave Sadie's Gulch with Edith and Jessie in tow.

To make matters even worse, Edith began finding excuses to throw us together. I had a feeling it would soon be evident to John Wilson what was going on. After he became aware it would be even dicier. If I were forced to kill Wilson it would not be good for Edith or me. Still I continued to hope it would all somehow work out.

It was the dead of winter when Sheba alerted me that someone approached the tent house. From old habits I removed the heavy colt from the holster by the bed. I had it pointed at the flimsy door when I heard the voice of a younger man.

"Deacon it is me, Michael Thomas can I come in?"

"Of course Michael." The young man of about twenty entered the tent. Even though he was not armed I made absolutely sure he was no threat before I put the colt away. "What can I do for you Michael?"

"Miss Wilson said to get you quick. My wife Thelma is having a baby. I am afraid something is wrong."

"Okay Michael,\'94 I said it as I pulled on my pants. I had returned to sitting on the edge of the makeshift bed with the blankets covering my long johns. I quickly slipped into my wool pants. I dressed quickly but not as much from the urgency of the mission as from the cold.

During the short walk to his tent house Michael Thomas spoke not a word. He was worried sick. We were almost at his house when I asked. "Michael is this your first?"

"Yes Deacon, I know if we come to church more you would know but we just ain't your faith sir."

"Oh, and what faith would that be son?" I asked it because everyone in town asked it sooner or later.

"I am not sure what your faith is preacher but Thelma and me are Quakers. Ain't none of us around here." He didn't seem a bit concerned about his lack of support.

"Well Michael, I do think it is the same God we worship. You and I might differ in the way we do it, but that don't make no difference to him. So when this is all over I expect to see you in the church on Sunday." Michael just nodded one of those 'sure you will' nods.

When we arrived Michael stood back a ways while I knocked softly on the door. Edith came out rather than invite me in. We walked around to the side of the tent house to speak in private.

I looked to make absolutely sure Michael was out of hearing and sight. I quickly kissed her before she could move away. She didn't resist though she did make sure it was a quick kiss.

"So, what's up?" I asked after I reluctantly released her.

"Thelma Thomas is pregnant. Her time is now." I could tell from her look that Edith was not happy about it.

"So what can I do?" I tried not to act irritable. I could see no reason for having sent for me unless it was to hold her hand, which I would gladly have done.

"The baby is coming out wrong." Edith said it with finality in her voice. Somehow she managed to impart to me that it was a deadly situation.

"This means something bad I assume." Like most men I knew little or nothing about childbirth.

"I can't save them both Deacon. I can save one or the other but not both."

It still took me a second to grasp it. "You mean you have to decide who lives and who dies?"

"Worse Deacon, I have to do whatever I do knowing one of them is going to die. In effect I am killing one of them. Playing God, if you will."

I could tell she was upset. "Is there no other way?" I asked it knowing if there had been, she would have already done something.

"Yes Deacon, I can do nothing and they both will die." I knew that the decision to do nothing was not in Edith's nature.

"So do you want me to tell you that whatever decision you make will be the right one?" I asked that wondering if she really needed support.

"No Deacon, I can not decide this. The husband has to make the decision. I want you to talk to him so that he makes the right one."

"I don't understand Edith." I really was confused. I had no idea why she wanted me to talk to the husband.

"Deacon, when you talk to people they tend to see things your way. Michael needs a rational person to talk with about this."

"I see. What exactly is the right thing here Edith?" I hoped she could tell me cause I didn't see a right direction. Every choice seemed to leave a lot to be desired. It also hit me that Edith didn't want to play God. She wanted me to do it for her. Well she would have to tell me what direction God wanted us to move. The reason was simple. God didn't talk to me about such things.

Edith shook her head leading me to believe she didn't have any more idea than I did. She turned without another word to return to the tent house. I supposed it was to give Thelma more Laudanum, a mixture of whisky and opium. I knew from experience one could become addicted to the mixture. It was easy enough to get the drug so I supposed that it was fairly harmless.

Michael's approach had evidently prompted Edith's return to Thelma. I waited until he was close before I began the distasteful chore.

"Michael something is wrong with the delivery. It appears that the baby is turned wrong."

"What does that mean Deacon?" He didn't seem to understand.

"Michael the best I can figure, because the baby is turned wrong it can't get out. If Edith doesn't do something they are both going to die." I hated that I had to be so blunt but I didn't know any other way to tell it.

"Oh God Deacon, what are you saying?" He asked it but his face seemed calmer than it should have.

"Michael, I am saying that either your wife or the child is going to die. There is still time for you to make a choice as to which one. So Michael, take a few minute and give it some thought." I watched as he turned his back on me. I knew what he was going to decide. I wasn't sure how I knew but I did. I almost tried to stop him from saying it. If and when he said it there was no way to take it back. I wanted him to give it more thought.

I couldn't stop him. He blurted it out in a rush. "Thelma would want to save the child. We have talked about this before."

I knew that arguing with him was useless. Worse it would only cause him to dig his feet in. "Michael go take a walk while I talk to Edith." My tone was not that of a counselor or friend. I was quite sure he could judge my feeling from my tone.

I waited for Michael to get far enough away so as to be out of earshot before I knocked. Edith was looking even worse when she returned to the door.

"He has made his decision. He wants to save the child." Edith looked away from me for a second.

"Well, is this what you want Deacon?" She looked hurt more than angry.

"No Edith, it most definitely is not what I want. Ask the mother." It was an order. Edith ordinarily would have raised hell at me for issuing it. Instead she simply returned to the house. I half expected her to return with the mother's decision.

Michael and I suffered from the cold for two hours while Edith did whatever she did inside the tent. I didn't look at Michael during the whole two hours. At that point I was there to help Edith, not him. I had to force myself minute by minute not to kill him.

Edith walked from the cabin. She spoke not a word to either of us as she carried her case to the wagon. The old Gray stood quietly by the side of the tent house. Edith finally walked to us.

"Mr. Thomas, I am sorry. I couldn't save the child after all. Thelma needs to rest now. She is going to need a cup of this every few hours for the pain." Edith handed him the bottle of Laudanum. "See if a neighbor won't check in on her for a while."

Edith put the bit back into the horse\'92s mouth. She turned to look at me. For the first time since I met her I saw the disappointment on her face. When I looked away in shame I noticed the look on Michael's face. He too, was disappointed. I had a fleeting second when I wondered about his marriage. It had been far to easy for him to consign his wife to death. Possibly I should have killed him after all.

Edith did not offer me a ride. Since she did not I assumed she did not wish to discuss the events of that night with me. After she had gone I left Michael without a word of goodbye from either of us. I walked toward town.

On the walk I realized Edith had sought support for a decision she had made before she asked me to talk to Michael. What Edith had wanted was for me to make him understand. I wished I had known before I talked to him. Edith never intended to allow that woman to die. All I had accomplished was to make the marriage worse. I had certainly been no help to Edith. Her face had shown that as she climbed onto the wagon.

The walk was long and cold enough without the thoughts of my failure haunting me. With them on my mind the walk was truly miserable. I looked forward to the warmth of my tent house. It would be cold since the fire had been dead even before I left. Still the cold wind would not be trying to drive me all the way to Canada.

I saw the old gray horse and small wagon behind the tent. It was not only a good windbreak for the gray; it would also prevent the wagon from being seen from the main street a block away. I was glad to see her for many reasons not the least of which was the smoke coming from the clay pipe extending from the tent. The smoke meant heat. I needed the heat more than I needed Edith telling me how I had failed her.

Edith was sitting on the box where my meager food reserves were stored. She rose without speaking. She opened her arms in an undeniable invitation. I moved slowly to hold her. She was warm from the fire I supposed. Her body heat along with the heat from the small fire caused me to shiver. She held me even tighter as I shook uncontrollably.

When I finally stopped shaking I kissed her.\tab Several more minutes passed before the feeling turned from simply cold to arousal. I began to feel her body not as simply a warm thing but as a soft living thing. Her body responded to my somewhat clumsy caresses. Edith began to press her hips to me in a grinding motion. Her motion was in response to the same kind of thing from me. Between us there had risen a monster. I had no idea the source of her movement but it had the effect to encourage the monster.

My hand moved from simply rubbing her back to cupping her butt while pulling it tighter against me. While I was so engaged she had her hand in my long oily hair pulling me into a deep even more passionate kiss. We seemed to be almost engaged in a struggle. Some kind of dance would be a better description. Edith suddenly pulled back.

I wasn't surprised. We had agreed not to let our emotions carry us away. I looked into Edith's dark smoldering eyes. So intent was the gaze I almost missed the fact that she was unbuttoning her over blouse. There was no need for conversation between us. We both knew what was about to happen.

A few moments later Edith whispered a question in my ear. "Deacon, when was the last time you were with a woman you didn't pay?"

"Quite a while," I replied.

"Let me help you then." It wasn't as much a statement as a question. I simply nodded my agreement. Edith subtlety guided me through the night. In doing so she also mapped out her body for me. It took a long time of doing seemingly nothing but in the end it was the most intense sexual experience of my life.

Afterward I lay soaked in sweat while shivering under the two heavy wool blankets. I am not sure why but it felt like we had made love to reassure ourselves that we were indeed alive. Edith slipped from the bed without a goodbye kiss or even the words goodbye leaving her mouth. She dressed quickly without once meeting my gaze. Edith was simply in the bed beside me one minute then gone the next.

When I awoke the next morning I was shivering but it had nothing to do with the cold. It had to do with the look on Edith's face when she left my tent. The look on her face was more pain than anything else. The pained expression could have been due to her losing her battle with death. More likely though, it was the loss of her battle with morality. Edith seemed to hate herself even as she lost herself in the passion of the moment. I sat wondering if I had done something to bring us both down. I shook my head at the thought. Only time could answer any of our questions.

Of course I had no way of knowing time was running out. Three days after Edith and I made love I heard from the Bishop in Saint Louis. I would rather have heard from the silent Edith. As was the case with all things in life I had no control over who contacted me.

The letter came on the freight wagon from the town, which had been the end of the rail line. It was by then the town on the rail line closest to Sadie's Gulch. Since I found myself in Deville's good graces the delivery boy for the general store had brought it. I took the letter into the church to read.

The letter offered me a break from the whitewash work. I had taken it on as a way to fill the time. Without the whitewash I probably would have rushed to the Wilson ranch every day. The mixture of lime, water and soap would wait while I read the letter. The church had been sorely in need of the new dirt cover. It seemed no one had bothered with her appearance during the years she had served as a storage building.

Sitting in the chair on the raised floor by the pulpit I began the letter from the Bishop. Somebody had written to the Bishop outlining my good works. I sure as hell hadn't. I had begun wishing I could just stay lost a while longer. I didn't expect that I needed any more time for the Sheriff in Saint Louis to forget me. I just needed some time for the issues with Edith to resolve themselves. Besides I had begun to like my position in the town of Sadie's Gulch.

After the high praise which began the letter I had a little hope that the Bishop had decided to leave things as they were for a while. I was disappointed in the second paragraph when his secretary informed me that the Reverend Holcomb would be arriving on the train within two weeks. In actuality it was ten days no more. One Sunday service to say goodbye then I would be expected to vacate the church.

Paragraph three informed me not so gently that I was needed in California. The church wanted to establish a larger presence in the state. The next site for me to work would be a mountain town in northern California. I knew for a damn fact that I was not going to be living in the mountains of California. I had seen all the barren spaces I ever wanted to see. It was time to live again with real people. I did need time to develop a plan. It would be necessary for me to work it out rather quickly. I had to make my plans before the Sunday service. From that service on there would be no turning back.

I wished I could just take the next five days to plan. I couldn't. I had to prepare the church and the town's people for my departure. Why I had no idea, but I did feel a duty to them.

I walked from the Church to Deville's office. Deville's secretary was a woman. That was a bold move for the times.

"Hello Louise,\'94 I recognized her from church. She was a widow whose husband had died in the mine. He had been killed a few months before I arrived. It seemed to me that mining was a risky business. It didn't pay all that well either. "Is your boss in? I need to have a word with him."

"Sorry Deacon. He is out to the mine for the day. Won't be in at all. Anything I can do for you." She looked me over before she went on. "I know Mr. Deville would want to help if you need anything."

The last was to cover her somewhat flirty attitude. Louise was attractive enough in her slightly matronly way. It seemed she had a status as both a widow and Deville's Secretary. She seemed to be very confident in the impression she made. It took some doing but I managed not to deflate her ego.

"Just give him a message for me."

Louise nodded.

"Tell him that if he wishes to attend a service while I am still here, he needs to be in church on Sunday."

"Oh no Deacon Burke, you aren't leaving are you?" She seemed genuinely interested. I expected that it was for the gossip value of the information.

"Yes Louise, the church has decided to send the real preacher along. Reverend Holcomb will be arriving a week from Wednesday. Just tell Mr. Deville I would like to see him at the Sunday service."

"I will Deacon. We are going to miss you." There did seem to be a slightly sorrowful tone to her voice.

"Thank you Louise but I expect you will be in good hands. Reverend Holcomb has my full confidence." It was a lie but hell nobody would care what I thought anyway. Holcomb would have to prove himself the same as I had done. It was only right that he did.

The word was on its way when Louise went to lunch that day. The large cafe absorbed the information then regurgitated it in every nook and cranny of the town. By the end of the day people had begun stopping by the church to talk. As they arrived I handed the men a whitewash brush. They all sensed I wanted to leave the church in good condition. It was their way of saying goodbye to me. Hell it might even have been good riddance in some cases.

The next day I spent finishing up the whitewash. It was done before dark on Tuesday. I lay awake all night hoping that Edith would come. My mind would stray from her to my need for a plan.

When I hadn't heard from her by Wednesday I borrowed a horse from the owner of the general store. He agreed to put off his deliveries until the afternoon so that I could ride out to see Wilson. I explained that I had to see John Wilson to rent a horse and wagon for the trip into Junction City. I hoped no one knew about Edith.

The ride out to Wilson's ranch took three hours on the nag I had borrowed. When I arrived at the ranch I was informed by one of Wilson's boys that John Wilson was visiting the Army post nearby. He was making a deal for horses I was told proudly.

"Well that is nice for him. Is Edith around?" I noticed instantly the dark look cross the boys face. He knew or thought he knew something. The something might or might not concern me.

"She is out on the south pasture. We got a mare sick out there. Can't even get her to the barn. Edith is out with my brother trying to get her up."

"Would it help if you and I went out there?" I asked it more to judge his reaction than to be of any help.

His reaction didn't seem to indicate that he knew anything at all. "No, they will get her up or not depending on the old nag. Pa just hates to lose her becauseshe is a good brood mare."

I successfully fought back the urge to ask which one he was talking about. I managed because I knew Edith was not a good brood mare. Her sister would be the one John Wilson would hate to lose on that score.

Well son, you might be able to take care of it for me. The Preacher is coming to take over the church. I need to rent a horse and wagon so I can go fetch him. I need it from Sunday till Saturday. You are probably going to need to deliver it to me in town. Then pick it up when I am done with it.

"Gee Deacon, I have no idea what to charge you. Pa will have to decide that. Would it be all right if I bring you word after I talk to him?" The kid didn't know what to do since I seemed to be in a hurry for an answer.

"I guess that will have to do. Let me know as soon as you can. I need to know for sure how I am going to have to fetch him."

"Deacon, can I ask you something?"

"Sure Son,\'94 I said it with a rather serious look. He might know or suspect something with Edith.

"Are you gonna be staying on?"

"No, I am leaving probably on the first thing out of town after he gets here."

The boy nodded not making any show of either approval or disapproval. I almost asked the reason for his interest. I didn't only because I feared it might confirm any suspicions he might harbor.

The sun was at its apex when I arrived back in town. I returned the nag before I settled in to work on my plan. The plan had to be simple but still effective. Planning before I spoke to Edith was foolish. I needed two plans at least until I spoke with her.

The people who had either attended my little church, or at least had intended to attend stopped by daily. They brought with them gifts, in many cases. I declined all of them that would have meant a sacrifice to the offering families. Food was hard to come by in the dead of winter so I quietly refused almost all of it. It was hard for me to refuse the jams and jellies, but I did.

The visits were pleasant so I enjoyed them. I had two visitors I especially enjoyed. The widow Louise Thomas from Deville's office showed up over lunch one day toward the end of the week. She brought a picnic basket so we had lunch on the grounds of the church. It was a cold day but the conversation kept my mind off the cold.

The second visitor was the owner of the boarding house outside of town. I had seen her as both her personalities at the church. She was an amazing woman and a special friend of Deville's. I wondered which of her personalities he enjoyed the most. She came as her wise and knowing persona. She asked why I hadn't been around since our talk on my first day in town. It was certainly the personality I like best. She left after mildly flirting with me for an hour. The hour was spent on the porch of the church sitting on the steps. No sense making things look bad for the next preacher. Taking advantage of the twins, as I had come to think of the boarding house mistress, wasn't really in my best interest.

I had expected at any moment to see Edith Wilson. She never showed. I had begun to doubt her interest in me after all. Could I have been so mistaken as to her motives? Could it have been simply her desire to have an affair? I suppose in her mind, I was an acceptable clandestine lover. If that had been the case, it was too bad she waited so long. It was a cavalier thought not worthy of her. It lasted only a few seconds. No matter how Edith felt at the time, I had come to love her. She had been one of the few things in the first few days that had been, at least, pleasant. Hell, I probably fell in love with her skinny ass on the train when instead of being traumatized by the sight of a dead man; she went to work to save the passenger. She showed more courage that day than any of the men, me included.

The days passed quickly until the Sunday service. I was pretty sure I would see Edith. I looked over the congregation as we sang the opening hymn. I searched each face, but alas, there was no Edith. It appeared that she would not even come to say goodbye. I was hurt beyond belief. I managed to deliver what I thought was an outstanding goodbye message. All filled with love thy neighbor bullshit. The greetings at the door were surprisingly long and emotional. The people stood around the courtyard of the church. They seemed to be searching for words. It could have been just my perception since, for some reason, I could not find the words to say a real goodbye either.

The owner of the hardware store finally asked what seemed to be on everyone's mind. "Deacon, since you have finished with the church business, why don't you just settle here. I am sure you can find something to put your hand to."

"I am sure I could. The church however has ordered me to California. It is my duty. As God is my witness, if I had the choice I would stay with you my friends." Hell, if I could have pulled off the masquerade with the new preacher in town I might well have stayed. It would be only a matter of time. Hell, he might even recognize that I was not the real deacon at the train. That is, if I was stupid enough to meet the train.

Everyone finally left about an hour after the service ended. Deville surprised me by having come to the meeting and having stayed until everyone else had gone. "I never did apologize for my whelp."

"One man can never apologize for another. He either learns to do it himself or somebody kills him. It is a harsh land out here."

"I hope you are wrong Deacon."

"For what it is worth, I usually am." I smiled as I offered Deville my hand.

"Deacon, this town is going to miss you. Hell, worst of all I am going to miss you."

"Well it is nice to hear but it will take the new preacher about a month to win the town over. You will probably forget me tomorrow." I was smiling broadly when I said it.

"I doubt it Deacon. I figure a week at least." He smiled again. Then he turned showing me his back. Deville was gone in just a few seconds leaving me alone in the courtyard. I closed all the doors to the church. Then I made sure the fires were all out. I lingered for a long last look at the inside of the church. It had been a great deal of hard work but the place was very clean and bright. I hoped the preacher, who at that moment would be doing his last minute packing, could turn it back into a real church.

The old gray was not tied up outside my house. The horse was younger and stronger than my old nag. The wagon was larger to accommodate the new preachers belongings. My bedroll and camp equipment took up no room at all. I considered putting a torch to the tent house but decided to make it my donation to the new preacher. He could use it until he and his wife found a home of their own.

Even as I climbed aboard the wagon I looked for Edith. She was nowhere to be seen. I headed the young horse with the large wagon north toward the railroad line. The road to the rail town lead past the Wilson ranch. It was my hope that Edith would meet me there.

The entrance to the Wilson ranch came and went without Edith. I was tempted to pull into the ranch entrance then down the road to the house. If I had any idea that I could have handled a meeting with her in front of anyone else, I would have done it. A scene like that in front of her family could only harm her. I felt venomous. Still I could not hurt her.

When I camped that night several miles past the Wilson ranch, I still expected to see her. She did not come. Sleep eluded me almost all night. When I awoke cold and hungry the next morning I realized not only had I not eaten the night before. I had not eaten at all that day.

I glanced up at every sound the wind made in the trees while I gathered wood. Every time the fire crackled I looked back toward the town. When I ate the parting gift bacon, on the parting gift bread I did so looking back.

Sheba sat beside me on the wagon seat most of that second day. She seemed to realize that I was feeling miserable. I drove the horse and wagon late into the evening. It was almost dark when I found a spot I liked.

When I built the fire, I built it twice as large as needed. I supposed it was to make a beacon for Edith. I couldn't face any more of the cold fried chicken so I gave it to Sheba. I ate beans warmed over the fire. I did open a jar of applesauce given me by the widow who worked for Deville. I ate about half of it before I replaced the lid.

I felt much better about Edith by that time. I spent only a few minutes searching the road for Edith before I rolled into the blankets and canvas for a hard night's sleep by the fire. I awoke cold a couple of times. The fire got smaller each time. By morning it was no more than a small cook fire.

I remembered enough about the rail town to find the boarding house outside of town. It was late when I arrived; probably too late for dinner but the owner might be able to find me a biscuit lying about. At least that was my thinking when I pulled into her yard about seven P.M. It was dark but not so late as to make me appear dangerous.

I knocked on the door with Sheba standing beside me. I waited patiently as first one boarder then another looked at me from down the hall. Finally a woman I did not recognize came to the door. I had never met the woman of the house. I had passed the house on my journey from the train to buy the horse. Jarve had pointed it out to me.

"I am full up stranger." The woman informed me. She wore the full apron as a mark her position since she would have been finished in the kitchen by that time.

"Not gonna be here that long ma'am. I just rode in from Sadie's Gulch. I could use some food, if you got any to spare."

"You need to go to the dry good store if you are outfitting. If you are begging come to the rear door and I will find you something."

I wondered if she couldn't see my clerical collar. I was offended by the begging remark. I looked down then realized I was wearing a miner's coat over my suit. The coat was made from a wool blanket. It was full length to protect the poor miner from the winter wind.

"Ma'am I am hungry, but I can pay. I would like to come in out of the cold to eat." I opened the over coat to show my clerical collar.

"Dear God, you are the Deacon from Sadie's Gulch. Come in Deacon and please forgive me. We heard you was comin but I had no idea you would stop here."

"Thank you Ma'am, but you know, I think I will just ride on into town after all." I turned without another word to remount the wagon. As I drove away I wondered what she would be saying about the rude Deacon from Sadie's Gulch. I doubted that she realized what she had said and done. I hoped when the story was spread, and it would be, that someone would point it out to her.

The second thought I had was that word of my arrival had preceded me. I wonder how and why that had happened. I supposed that gossip traveled fast even without newspapers. The freight wagons would have made their rounds a couple of times since the news was made public. The driver probably spread the word. I wondered how much he knew. That thought brought a smile to my lips even with the cold wind still blowing in my face.

The Cafe was my first stop. Food is almost as important as water on the trail. I had put off dinner hoping to find a decent meal in the town. As far west as the town was located there were not enough trains yet to build large restaurants. There were train passengers only a couple of times a day so I was surprised to find the cafe still open.

The cafe was not warm by any means but it was a great improvement over the outside. I chose a seat by the metal stove. That stove put out more heat than any I had seen since my arrival in Nevada.

"What can I get for you?" It was a man of at least my own age who asked. He had the rough looks of a cowboy. I figured he had wintered down working for the cafe.

"How about a steak and four eggs?" I wasn't sure exactly what they had but steak and eggs was a pretty good bet.

I was still chilled. I had the miner\'92s blanket coat wrapped around me tightly.

"That will be four bits Mister," he said. It suddenly dawned on me why the rough-cut cowboy was waiting tables. He needed to work through the winter and the owner needed somebody to make sure he got paid. The railroad must have made some real changes in the place.

"You want me to pay before you bring the food?" I asked it more than a little amused.

"It is the way we do things here Mister." He wasn't backing away a bit.

I reached into my pocket to remove the four bits. I placed it on the table. He reached for it. I grabbed his hand. "Now you seen my money cowboy, I want to see your food."

"It ain't the way we do things." He gave me his best bad man look. Then I gave him mine. "Okay, just leave the money on the table. I expect it will be all right."

"I expect it will too." I said it as I turned my chair to make sure he couldn't get behind me.

It took several minutes before I got warm enough to remove the miner\'92s coat. When he returned I was in the clerical suit complete with the dog collar. I watched as the recognition lit his eyes. It seemed the rumor had been spread pretty wide. He put the food on the table without a word. He made no move to pick up the money. It was a good thing. For some reason, known only to God, I was ready to kill him over the damn steak.

It wasn't a very good steak and certainly not worth four bits but I left without killing anyone. It might have been because they stayed out of the empty dining room while I ate. I put the remains of the steak into the cloth napkin. No one saw me but I doubted anyone would have objected.

Sheba waited outside the door. I found her huddled in a corner of the building. She had found a spot out of the wind. I gave her the steak then walked away leaving the wagon beside the cafe. Sheba must have understood her role in life as she stayed with the wagon.

The two-block walk to the train station seemed even colder after the warmth of the Cafe. "What time is the morning train from the east due in?" I asked it of the sleepy looking stationmaster. If he was sleepy looking at 9 P.M. the place must close early.

"Station opens at 7 A.M. and the train will be here about 10 A.M.."

"Well go ahead and give me a ticket for the first stop in California." I said it with the coat open. He obviously recognized me.

"Yes sir Deacon, er that is what they call you?" He had noticed my look of surprise.

"Yes it is. If there was a message for me where would I find it."

"You mean like a telegram. I have those and there ain't been none for you."

"Give me a piece of paper please." It was more of an order than a request. I had no idea what had come over me. I knew only that I was in a terrible mood. Life was of very little value to me that day.

"Dear Reverend, I find it necessary to leave you the wagon for your trip to Sadie's Gulch. I have been ordered to California and decided to get on with it. You will find a dog with the wagon. The wagon is outside the station and the dog's name is Sheba. She is a good watchdog. Take care of her and she will take care of you. Just stay on the road and you will find Sadie's Gulch just fine. I am leaving you some money with the stationmaster. You should buy some food for the trip with it. There are some blankets and some canvas for the ground in the wagon. If you are concerned about going it alone, hire a driver with the money and let him take care of everything. The stationmaster will help. The wagon belongs to John Wilson. I signed it Deacon Burke."

"Now I want you to give this note and this money to the Reverend when he gets off the morning train. I am going to get his wagon now. I want you to point it out to him when he gets here."

"Very well,\'94 The station master was struggling with how to address me. I didn't give him any help.

I parked the wagon beside the station out of the wind. I removed the harness from the animal, and then fed him. I found a fire pit where cowboys had built scores of fires since the station's appearance on the scene. I stole wood from the station's pile to build yet another one. I didn't think anyone would object. Sheba slept inside the covers with me something, she had seldom done. It wasn't any colder than usual. I felt that she knew I was leaving and wanted to be close one last time.

In the morning I ate again at the cafe. There was a different cowboy. He did not use the same tactic. It might have been because it was daylight and he wouldn't have to chase me into the dark, or maybe the word had spread. Either way I was glad not to have a repeat of the scene.

I returned to the station to nap in the sunshine. An hour before the train was to arrive I hitched up the horse to the wagon. I went to the platform with my meager belongings several minutes before the train arrived. When I stepped onto the platform I saw her sitting on a bench. I instinctively looked for Jessie. I was hoping for a clue from her presence or lack of presence. I saw neither Jessie nor a bag of any kind. Still both could be inside the station out of the cold.

I walked slowly toward Edith. The sound of my boots on the wooden platform seemed to grow louder as I got closer to her. She did not look up as I approached. How she could have missed that sounds I had no guess. She must have been lost in thought.

"Edith?" we both knew it was a question.

"Oh Deke,\'94 She said it as she stood to hold me.

I wrapped her in my arms and felt her body racked with sobs. "What is it Edith?" I said the words in a whisper because I knew.

Edith stepped back before she answered. "Oh Deke, I thought I could do it. I was all packed and even had Jessie a little bag. I couldn't do it. I just can't leave."

"Why not? You don't love John and he doesn't love you. Your sister isn't exactly your best friend."

"My sister hates me. She thinks I tried to take John from her. I didn't, you know. I thought I loved him. He was kind to me. Much kinder than my own father."

"Well then, why can't you come with me?"

"Because doing so would destroy us both. I could never work past the guilt of leaving my husband. In my church it is one of the great sins."

"You are supposed to make your life miserable so that you can make John's life just as miserable and this pleases your God?" I looked at her questioningly.

"I know it sounds foolish. I knew when you said it that it would. The truth is Deacon I believe what you just said. I also believe for me it is impossible to disobey the teachings of my church."

"Even though the church has cast you out?" I asked it shaking my head in disbelief.

"Yes Deacon, I see it as my duty to stay with my family. It is your duty to move on both for your church and to remove temptation from my life."

"A better man will come along to tempt you Edith, then what will you do?" I asked it angrily.

"Deacon, if I could resist you there is no man I can not resist. You are the love that comes but once in a woman's life. It is sad that most of the time when she recognizes it, she is already lost."

I turned to look out over the platform. "So you are sure?" I could see the line of black smoke on the horizon. The smoke reached upward from the black-headed snake.

"Yes Deacon,\'94 There were tears in her voice.

"Then please see to it that the new preacher gets to Sadie's Gulch."

"I will. Where will you go?"

"California, there is a town there in need of a church. That is the word from Saint Louis."

We stood in silence for a few minutes while the train closed the distance. I didn't know what to say. It seemed that Edith didn't either. She did walk across the platform to stand near me and hold my hand. I could not force myself to look at her. I supposed that I was hurt. I could have just been angry. Either way it was not a good day for a man to give me trouble.

"You Deacon Burke?" The voice asked from down the platform.

"Yes, and who might you be?"

"Jessup, have the lady step away. You do have a gun?"

"I do. Go inside Edith. This will only take a minute."

"No Deacon, I will not let you do this."

"I don't seem to have a choice Edith. Now go inside so I don't have you as a distraction."

Edith moved away to the door but did not enter the station. She blocked it to prevent any innocent people from coming out.

"Well Burke, I hope you know why you are about to die?"

"Don't matter none, does it? One of us is going to die no matter what you say."

"Gonna be you." His eyes danced as his hand went to the leather. There was only one shot that rang out. The stranger named Jessup fell onto the tracks in front of the train. The train was stopping but not fast enough. It didn't matter because Jessup was already dead.

Edith ran over to hold me. She was again sobbing. I let it all flow through my mind for a while before I asked. "Did he know you were leaving?"

"Who John? He could never have sent a killer for you."

"No Edith, did Deville know?" The sound of the train dumping steam prevented her from answering. I walked down the train until I found a set of steps. I climbed onto the passenger car in time to see the preacher and his wife step into my line of sight to Edith. She was gone when the preacher walked toward the station doorway.



Epilog:

Several weeks later a rented wagon was found upside down in a rushing stream several miles from the railroad town where the deacon had left the train. They never found the body but everyone was sure he drowned in the stream trying to reach the small town in need of a church.

A few months later a man calling himself Deacon Burke purchased an abandoned farm in Virginia. The farm became the beginning of a dynasty.... the end



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