During that long ride back from Austin I fell asleep repeatedly. My head lulled back and whenever my eyes drifted open I saw the wide Texas sky filled with stars. Papa was humming softly next to me. The sound of his lone droning tone filled my head with sad music. He’d told me over and over to sleep so I could drive the wagon once he was tired, but odd visions came to my mind when I did. Still, a daughter ought to do her father the courtesy of obeying, especially when the man already has reason to be sour.
As I drifted into dreams, the inky blue sky melted backwards to a hot red sunset. I looked down to see I was in my finest Sunday dress, white flowers in my hands. I recognized them as the little clovers I liked to gather near the Sanford ranch. Someone was calling my name, but the sound was like a whisper in a whirlwind.
I danced through the red sky, casting its orange and rust hues on the dry earth. All around me I could hear shouts of madness, but none of it penetrated my small pocket of calm. The voice was getting louder, and I knew then it was my brother Michael shouting for me. I called back to him, looking around at the dulling sunshine painted air. His hand broke through the red, reaching out to me, but the light of the sunset clung to his skin and slowly dripped free. When he was fully in the light I saw his blank eyes and screamed.
“Wake up Madeline.” Papa was shaking me.
I opened my eyes and sighed at the calm sky and stars. “I’m sorry, Papa.”
“You was yelling in your sleep, girl,” he said gruffly. “Don’t need you letting every critter between here and the border coming to see us. Ol’ Rachel can’t pull the cart any faster.”
I nodded and fought the urge to turn around. Trills of sensation ran up my back and arms, calling me to turn, but I already knew what was there. So I rested my head on Papa’s shoulder and willed my body to sleep once more. Again, the bumpy Texas night ride shifted to the cherry sunset. I stared at the shimmering horizon and saw his form walking towards me. Michael always had a cool strut and keen look to him. Knowing his silhouette was no trouble and I think he liked it that way. From the tilt of his hat to the way his hands rested near his pockets, he was known by any at a glance.
My name was on the wind again and I knew it was Michael calling to me. The high pitched cries through the stone and cactus reached a shrill pitch. Then a crack like thunder shook the land so hard that the red sunset rippled and then spewed forth in a dark river towards me. Night and the stars rode that wave and its texture was thick and sticky. Within the dream I closed my eyes and let the wave crash into me.
I awoke with a gasp to the sound of my father’s sigh. He mumbled something of the softness of women, but there was no malice in his tone. Again, I fought the urge to turn around and look in the back of the wagon. I knew what was there and looking at it would only heighten my discomfort. I was quite certain of that.
“Sorry, Papa,” I murmured, but got only a grunt in response.
The sky was still black and blue, the stars pulsing with all their might. Rachel trotted along happily, unaware that she should be sleeping. She was oddly pliant for a mule.
“Don’t know why ya can’t sleep,” Papa said with a sigh. “Dead can’t do nothing to harm you.”
“It’s just strange dreams.” I shifted uncomfortably, glancing back from the corner of my eye. The soft white of smooth pine in the moonlight was there and I looked away with a snap of my neck.
Papa was looking at me strangely then. The silence held only a moment before he fell into one of his rambling moods. “I suppose I ought not to be mad that you’re dealing poorly with this. It’s my fault after all.”
“Don’t say that, Papa,” I said softly. His hands were loose on the reins and I took them so he could sit comfortably in his thoughts.
With shaky fingers he filled his pipe and lit it. The wind pushed the loops of smoke down past his neck. “Well it was. I should have kept you closer to home. Should have said no when you wanted to start working for old woman Sanford.”
“We needed the money, Papa,” I said firmly. “The soil produced poorly and you know the bank was salivating to come after the farm if we missed even a nickel of our payments.”
“That’s true enough,” he said sadly, “but I knew that boy was no good, knew he’d be watching you and giving you trouble when he could.”
Byron Sanford was a right nasty piece of work from his slimy smile to the way his boots tread lightly everywhere he went. There was a bounce and flow to his gait that always made me uncomfortable. It was not indicative of arrogance, but rather a slouched over, grinning ridiculousness that gave him a perverse air. His looks were otherwise quite pleasant, but could not make up for his horrid demeanor. Like a fine stone house with spiders pouring out the windows, I knew the exterior couldn’t make up for what lurked within.
“None of us knew it would go this way.” Even as the words left my lips I knew that wasn’t true. Michael obviously knew it would happen.
“Your mama must be rolling in her grave seeing how I’ve failed her children,” Papa grumbled. He took another deep drag from his pipe. His eyes were drooping.
Something in the self-pitying tone enraged me. I gave the reins a crack. “Yes I’m sure she would be so displeased that her son was the type of man to lay low scum who molested his sister. I’m sure she’d pitch a fit from here to Arkansas over the husband who tried to protect that same son from the retribution of a spineless worm. Byron Sanford shot my brother in the back and the bastard deserved the bullet you put in his head for it.”
My father’s eyes were wide, watching me with sadness and some trace of disapproval I couldn’t understand. “Woman, I took that boy’s life just the same as he took my son’s.”
“That you hesitated at all is a crime,” I snapped. “You saw him raise the gun and heard the threat on his lips. If you’d fired a moment sooner, Michael would still be alive.”
Regret swam into my belly, but I was too proud to snatch the words back out of the air. Even if I could, it wouldn’t erase the sting I’d given him. Apologies wouldn’t make him forget.
“I am well aware that I killed my own son and defiled my own daughter,” he said in a whisper, “if only because I failed to keep them from that cursed ranch and its godless lot.”
“I’m sorry, Papa,” I mumbled, laying my head against his shoulder again. “There’s no way back out of this mess is there?”
“I’m ‘fraid not, Maddie,” he said softly. “Money buys many things in this life, and personal justice is one of them.”
Fire ran through my veins then. My brother was dead, shot down by a raping bastard with no soul, but it was my father who was to pay the price for vengeance. I knew better than to believe we could outrun the Sanford clan. Their money could catch us no matter where we went, perhaps even if we slipped down into Mexico. I cracked the reins, a bit harder than necessary, clutching them tightly in anger.
“Easy, girl,” my father whispered.
“This is cruel,” I gritted out through clenched teeth. “Why didn’t they just kill us in town?”
“You won’t be dying, Maddie,” my father snapped softly, “Not as long as we go along as agreed.”
“By letting you die,” I hissed. The idea that he would just lay down and die without a fight was reprehensible.
“Yes,” my father snapped. “By letting me die so that you can live and get to Kansas to be with your aunt. We’re lucky they’re civilized enough to not want to kill a woman.”
The reins were so tight in my hand that my knuckles turned white. “I’ll come back and kill them all.”
Father glanced over his shoulder and sighed. “Don’t talk like that. I’m sending a letter with you. The Sanford hired man will make sure you go right into your aunt’s hands along with that letter.”
I could see the farm growing larger with each second and felt panic grip my heart. Papa would watch as I packed a bag. We would stand together by the family plot as the farm hands dug a grave for Michael’s casket and one for Papa’s as well. Together we would place soil on my brother’s coffin and pray that a merciful god had taken him into heaven with open arms. I know silently we’d both be hoping the same would happen for papa. Then papa would be allowed to bring me to the train station, still wearing my best white dress that I planned to don to bury Michael. The hired man would keep a hand on my shoulder, eyes sympathetic, but purpose clear.
Beyond that train my future was a blur. I saw nothing and felt nothing. My father would die with not one soul in the world by his side. They would hang him from the sturdy oak that grew in our back yard, laughing as his legs kicked and twitched. His face would grow blue with death, his tongue limp. The Sanford bastards would ride away from our home, firing their guns in the air. Mister Thomas would cut papa down. I was sure of that. With his supervision papa would be buried, but a few colored friends couldn’t make up for having family to put the soil on your grave.
We pulled into the farm yard and I turned to glare at Buford Sanford who sat astride a lovely young Palomino. He was Byron’s younger brother and smiled at me with tobacco stained teeth. “Put your grin away, scum.”
His smiled vanished and Papa quickly jumped from the wagon, pulling me along. I was in a daze as papa gave instructions for the graves then pushed me to my room. I packed quickly, feeling no sentimental attachment to the things littering my room. It was only when I stepped into Michael’s room that I felt something. The air still smelled like his aftershave and hanging from his bed was a Colt that I quickly snapped up and checked for ammo.
Without a moment’s hesitation I walked out of the house, smiling as I approached Buford with the gun behind my back. He opened his mouth to say something, some snide remark I’m sure, but I didn’t give him the satisfaction of speech. I pulled out the gun, took aim, and shot him right in his shocked face.
Papa and Mister Thomas came running outside.
“Oh girl, what have you done,” my father wailed. “They will kill you too for sure now.”
“It’s better than running from my home and everything I love,” I said flatly. I still felt nothing. There was no tremor in my voice or flesh as I thought there would be. I’d just killed a man, but it felt no different than swatting a fly.
Papa turned to Mister Thomas, putting a thick wallet in the trusted servant’s hands. “Take her to the train station and get her to Karen’s in Topeka. The law there can protect her from the Sanfords at the very least.”
“I won’t go.”
He turned back to me and grabbed my shoulders, shaking me hard. “You’ll go so my death can mean something besides an old man giving up and dying. You’ll go so I can go beg God almighty to forgive you for killing that man in cold blood.”
“My conscience is clean.” There was a tremor in my voice then and I knew my composure was cracking. I felt Papa pull me into his arms and hold me tight before lifting me into the wagon.
“Take her, Thomas,” Papa said softly. “Keep her safe.”
“Yes sir,” Mister Thomas said quietly.
I sat stiffly, watching my father and the farm disappear. The landscape shifted swiftly on the way to the train station and even faster once I was on the train with the world rushing by. I swear to this day I felt the moment my father met the end of the rope they tied for him. The cold coil in my stomach suddenly expanded and snapped loose, rushing blood and pain through me. It hit me as I was stepping off the train in Topeka, throwing me to the ground as I vomited up my dinner.
My father was dead and swinging from the tree I’d spent my childhood climbing. I often dream of that oak tree and stare at the ground watching the shadow swing. By the grace of god I’ll never raise my head in those dreams.