(c) 2010

ILLUSTRATED BY KEVIN DUNCAN

My pa died of lung disease when I was just fourteen years old, leaving me to take care of my distraught mother and my twelve year old sister.

We came out west from Kentucky in the hope that my pa's health would improve, but by then it was already too late. My ma just sort of faded after my pa's death until she joined him not long after my nineteenth birthday. Now you might think these were burden enough for me, and that the good Lord had already passed out plenty of suffering and hardship to me, but more was to come.

My sister, Martha Jane, she was the prettiest girl you ever saw, with cornsilk hair, bright green eyes, the high cheekbones and lovely tanned skin that came from some Cherokee that entered the Worthington line just a few generations back. I had my hands full keeping the boys away.

You might say such is to be expected with a pretty, young sister, and you would be right, but you can't guess what came next, it is for sure I wouldn't have guessed it in a hundred years. My sister fell in love with a tadpole.

His name was Shem Callister. He wore a block shaped head with dull gray eyes that showed no spark of intelligence. Indeed, he could not read or write beyond spelling his name out in big block letters. Crooked teeth filled the mouth that held a dull smile, and he was constantly brushing aside his shock of yellow greasy hair.

I've heard you should not judge a book by its cover, and so I foolishly thought, Well, this fellow must have something besides "looks" going for him, perhaps he is a good talker, has what they call a "good personality". No such luck, the boy was dumb as a box of rocks and you could get more stimulating conversation from a fence post. I could not for the life of me understand why such a beautiful, intelligent, and sweet girl would fall in love with this ox.

Martha Jane married Shem not long after our mother died. I had split the farm in two, giving Martha the best farming land, but did that lummox Shem take advantage of that good ground? Of course not, he barely grew enough crops to keep them fed. If not for my sister's hard work, they might have starved. Our preacher said that to hate someone in your heart is like killing that person you hate in your heart. Then I was a murderer, having "killed" Shem in my heart more times than I could count. How could my sister make such a poor choice when she had her pick of men?

I never figured anything could change my view of Shem Callister. As far as I was concerned he was the bane of my sister's existence.

We lived just outside of the small town of Cold Springs. And I spent plenty of time there when not working on my farm. I constantly needed supplies, and must visit the mercantile, and every Sunday I went with my sister and her worthless husband to church. Sometimes I sat about the saloon, enjoying hearing the latest news and jawing with the fellows.

One day four drifters came to town. These were like many young men who drifted west after the war, most were good guys just trying to find a place in the world, but there were also some wicked men among the drifters and these four were of the latter persuasion.

My Tennessee relations fought for the Federal Union, and my Kentucky relations fought on the side of the Southern Confederacy. Had I not been so young and so busy trying to manage a farm, I might have gone off to war as so many others had. Yet whether I would have fought for the north or south I cannot say for sure. So I had no prejudice against these four young men over their gray uniforms. But I did have a prejudice against them taking what they wanted from the storekeeper, being rough with women on the street, and pistol whipping our town sheriff.

The four men camped near the south end of town, and terrorized the townsfolk night and day. No one would stand up to them. I made the mistake of trying to reason with them. Catching them in the saloon one day I approached two of the troublemakers at the bar.

"You fellas are causing a lot of trouble and generally scaring the townsfolk. Now I never served in the army, but surely you fellas had a code of conduct in there? Now if I was you--"

And the world went black. I awoke face down in the street, the back of my head wet with blood and a goose-egg bump quickly rising. It was no mystery what happened, one of their companions must have come up behind me and decided to silence my soliloquy. I later learned this was the case. Well, they would have no talk, I must find less gentle ways of persuasion to use against them to help free our town. But four against one? That was not good odds. And no one else in town was likely to help. The sheriff was in no shape to help, I was on my own.

***

From my boyhood I'd learned that the only way to deal with a bully was to stand up to them. And that was the wisdom I decided to apply to this situation. But there was a problem with my logic. Four ex-Confederate Raiders who were used to robbing and killing as if it were second nature were a type of rabid dog that would not respond to someone simply standing up to them. Many people had stood up to the Raiders and now lay six feet under. My uncle William in Kentucky had stood up to Raiders who tried to take his favorite horse. They shot him down in cold blood. I would only think of these things later. Right now I was mad as hell about getting knocked out and thrown into the street like trash.

I got no volunteers to help me beyond a few young fellows who helped to turn the wagon over in the street to provide me some cover, but then they lit out as fast as their feet would carry them. And none too soon, the Raiders came in as usual at the south end of town, and stopped, curious about the obstacle, wagon, in their way.

"You men have had your fun," I said. "It is time for you to move on." Now I was well armed, a Colt pistol in my waistband, a double-barrel shotgun leaning up against the wagon, and a Winchester rifle in my hands.

"Who the hell do you think you are mister?" asked their leader, a youngish-looking man who did not look the part of a Raider and was all the more dangerous for that.

"Why its that talker who we threw into the street the other day, Tom," said a heavy man with dark, greasy hair.

I opened my mouth to speak and it hung open in shock as they split in four directions, all the while firing their pistols at me. I can imagine they had done this move so often they did not need to think about it, and it worked, by the time I registered what was going on they were out of the street, in hiding, and had put splinters in my face from their gunfire striking all too close to my head, sending splinters flying like rain from the wagon I used for shelter.

Yet one rider did not hide. The heavy, greasy-haired rider had charged his horse toward my wagon, swinging around the right side of the saddle to prove a difficult target. His first bullet grazed my neck, and from the burning sensation I thought he might have finished me rather than simply wounding me. But the greatest shock came from behind me. Two shotgun blasts caused me to finally come out of my stupor and duck beneath the wagon.

Call it pride, call it Scotch-Irish stubbornness. But I don't like to be proven wrong. When I saw that Raider who had nearly killed me go flying off of his horse, and realized the shotgun blast was aimed at him instead of me, and who did the deed -- I had no words, and my thoughts were racing to try and rectify my ideas with what I just saw.

It was Shem. Shem had shot the man who nearly finished me off. He spoke first, and just as well, for I was speechless.

"Howdy brother." (I hated it when he called me "brother", but right now I didn't mind so much). "When my beloved, your sister, told me you done come to town by yerself to deal with these villains," He pointed to the dead man in the street with the huge hole in his chest, "well I just knew you'd need some help."

"Than. . .thanks Shem." It was the first time I'd ever thanked him for anything. "I believe you may have just saved my life. That Raider was sure to get off another shot if you had not taken him out."

He turned back to the business at hand. "I guess we better teach these other villains a thing or two. Now if you would just lend me your rifle, brother, I think I can give that fellow hiding in the mercantile something to think about. You'll notice he done left his foot sticking out of that doorway."

Now my eyesight is pretty good, but I could hardly make out the boot of the fellow Shem had in mind. Nevertheless, I handed Shem my Winchester, and to my amazement, and the shock of the fellow who owned that boot, Shem hit his target. A loud yell confirmed it.

"Brother," said Shem, "I think if you can draw the fire of that tall man hiding behind the water barrel, I might get a shot at him.

Shem was in charge now, and glad I was for it. The man I considered completely worthless and useless, the bane of my family, he was pure cougar in a fight and proved it more and more with every minute that passed. I followed his order, revealed a bit of myself from behind the wagon as I fired again and again at the water barrel. My pistol was empty, and the Raider rose up to kill me, but Shem was waiting for this moment, and I stood yet again in shock as Shem's shot left a red hole in the tall Raider's head. The villain fell backwards.

I should not have been so completely absorbed in this scene, for there was yet a fourth Raider I'd forgotten about. But he had not forgotten about us. Two quick shots came from our right. My left arm lit up with vicious pain as a bullet struck it, and spinning around I saw a red stain growing on Shem's side.

There was a time, and God knows it ain't Christian, when if I'd heard Shem had been shot I'd have done me one of them wild Indian dances for joy. I ain't proud to admit it now, but the truth is the truth. So when I found myself deeply concerned now for Shem's wound, it was if I'd entered some strange land that my mind could not adjust to.

"Don't worry, brother, he just grazed me, looks worse than it is." He was thoughtful for a minute then said, "We ought to give these rattlesnakes the chance to hit the trail, but if they don't take it, we should go ahead and kill the vermin."

It was the closest I'd seen of Shem getting angry, and it could not quite be called anger, but rather determination.

I yelled, "You two fellows who are still alive, you are free to leave if you want, but if you stay you are dead men."

The man with the wounded foot came out of the store with his hands up, then hobbled away to the south end of town. The other Raider did not move or make a sound.

"One villain left to kill, brother."

"Yes, brother," I said, using that appellation for Shem for the first time. And though I could never have imagined ever considering Shem as a brother, right now he was a brother in arms.

We split up, keeping close to cover, closing in on the Raider.

"OK!" he yelled, throwing up his hands and stepping around the corner of a building. "I'll leave."

***

I had not been the only one in our town who had a low opinion of Shem. Yet after "The Battle of the Raiders" as it was called afterward, Shem became a big man in town, was offered the job of deputy sheriff, which he accepted, and became highly regarded by everyone.

As for me, I would be lying if I said I thought Shem was a worthy match to my sister, but my attitude toward him drastically changed. Until taking the job as deputy, Shem was a poor provider, bad farmer, and generally uninspired man, along with being ugly as sin. But I knew this—Shem could and would always protect my sister and the children that would come along in years ahead, beautiful children that looked like my sister, which I thanked God for. But I also thank God for Shem, because without him I'd have likely been killed that day. The ugly, worthless man, he had proven his worth to me.


CONTENTS

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