No Time for Sweetness

I listen to the hall clock strike eleven while I stare at Daddy’s pocket watch open in front of me on the kitchen table. The hallway clock is five minutes fast according to Daddy’s watch. He was always fussy about it keeping good time what with being a train conductor and all. I can’t say it’s as accurate as when he was alive but I’ve done my best to keep it wound since he was shot down.

The hallway clock clangs its way through all eleven chimes. Each one sounding more and more like a nail in my coffin. If Mama was still alive she’d tell me these dark thoughts are what come from plotting revenge. But all I have left of her is the rifle in my lap hidden beneath the white linen tablecloth so I suppose it doesn’t matter too much.

I told Jess Cartwright to meet me here at eleven. I’m not sure now what time he might go by. All I know is I plan to point Mama’s rifle at him as soon as he sets himself across the table from me. Mama and Daddy both would have said there were better ways to get information from a man, especially for a pretty girl like me. Especially when the whole town knows Jess has been sweet on me since we were children.

But Lord knows I don’t have time for sweetness. Not when the train robbers who shot Daddy already have a three day head start on the trail heading back east.

I’m spending so much time picturing Jess across from me with Mama’s rifle pointed at his chest while he tells me what I need to know, sweet as you please, that I almost miss when he actually walks into the kitchen through the back door. We never used to lock that door when Mama was alive. I won’t be here long enough to worry too hard about protecting what’s mine. Not when I know Daddy won’t be walking through that door any time soon.

“Christ, Cora,” Jess exclaims when he spots me in the dark kitchen. “You could scare a soul half to death sitting in wait like that.”

He pulls out a chair and I raise my rifle onto the table as he sits. “Don’t you go dying of fright on me just yet, Jess. Not before you tell me what I need to know.”

I can tell he wants to jump up. Maybe run to Sherriff Pomeroy to tell him the town’s got a hysterical orphan on their hands. But then Jess sees the steady hold I have on the rifle and the coldness that’s settled around my eyes—I’ve seen it myself looking in the mirror Mama kept on her dresser. There’s not a thing there to suggest I won’t shoot Jess where he stands.

“This trigger is getting a might slippery Jess. It sure would make things easier if you started talking,” I say evenly.

“Cora, I don’t know what you think you’re going to accomplish but I don’t know a damn thing you need to know.” He doesn’t bother to apologize for his language. But then we never did stand on ceremony like that. Not with each other. Not until I had to point a rifle at him to make sure I get the truth.

The sun is beating through the windows and I can feel the sweat trickling down my back. Mama and Daddy always loved Arizona. Said there was nothing quite like a sunset out west. Lord, I dreamed of going back east and seeing the ocean Mama grew up next to all the way in Maine. Never thought I’d be planning to head east without either of them. But first I need to know where to go.

“I know as well as you that isn’t true,” I say calmly. I rest the rifle more steady on the table so I can lean forward and look Jess in the eye. “We both know you were on that train Jess. Daddy told your pa he’d keep an eye on you. You had to see what happened.”

“Cora, I can’t tell you what you need to know.”

“I don’t remember saying you had a choice.”

Jess shakes his head so violently it sets his curly hair bouncing. “Nothing doing. You might think you know what you’re doing but your parents wouldn’t want this. Not for you. Not ever.”

I clench my teeth so hard I’m surprised they don’t snap off right in my mouth. “Daddy was shot when the train was robbed and the men who did it have a three day head start. Mama’s gone and has been for five years. There is nothing here for me.” I stop abruptly when I hear the way my voice cracks. I can’t cry anymore. I have no time for it. I ignore the hurt look Jess gives me as I continue, “But if you tell me what you saw, maybe I can follow the men back east and make sure they’re taken in.”

“You and what army, Cora? Those men are outlaws. Your mother’s hand-me-down rifle isn’t going to anything against them. Even the sheriff couldn’t mount a posse. What makes you think you can do what they wouldn’t even try?”

“I guess I don’t have anything left to lose.”

“Cora—”

“No!” I cut him off as I point the gun squarely at him. “I will not have you protect me. I don’t care what history we have or what you think you might owe my parents. I will do this. It’ll go faster with your information but I’ll do it either way. And if you don’t start talking, I will shoot you.”

Jess stares at me for a long, long moment. In the silence I wonder if this is what it feels like when a bone breaks. I think it must be.

“There were eight of them. The Pinkertons on the train shot three in the chaos just before your father was shot down. Six rode off but one was favoring his right side. They were heading east. I heard one of them mention Independence. That’s all I know.”

I return the rifle to my side of the table before I stand. “I thank you for that.” I walk away from the table. I still have a mess of things to prepare before I can set off.

I don’t realize Jess is walking toward me instead of out the door until I feel his hand on my shoulder.

“Cora, please. I’m asking you not to do this. Let the law handle things.”

I turn to face him. “You said yourself that the law isn’t going to do a thing to get justice for Daddy.”

“Your parents wouldn’t want you to do this,” he tries.

“They aren’t here to stop me,” I say as I step away from him.

“I am.”

I look at Jess. He’s asked me to marry him before. Last Christmas and just last week on my nineteenth birthday. He’s told people before that he was sweet on me. But I said no. Both times. Mama didn’t raise me to want to tie myself down. Daddy didn’t teach me to put my own life second to any man’s. Even one like Jess.

“You can’t stop me either. And if you try I will never forgive you.”

Jess looks real wistful as he says, “I could come with you, Cora. I could help.”

“We both know that isn’t true.” Not when Jess has three sisters and an entire farm to tend for his ailing father.

Jess nods. “It never would have been enough, would it?” he asks as he turns to the door.

“What’s that?”

“I always thought eventually you’d want to settle and maybe your eyes would turn my way. That never was going to happen though, was it?”

“Everything’s different now, Jess. I can’t rightly say.”

He nods, real thoughtful like he gets sometimes. Especially when I tell him no. “I suppose we both always knew how out story would end.”

I pick up Mama’s rifle and add it to the saddlebag I started packing last night when I decided this was the only road I could take.

“I suppose we did,” I say as I turn my back to him. I don’t stay in the kitchen to hear the finality of the door closing between us.

 

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