Hard Mercy – Chapter 3

The fellow leads the way at a brisk pace. I nearly have to trot my horse just to keep up. When we are far enough from the cowboys that the laughter is starting to fade into the distance, he finally slows down. He casts a quick glance back towards the corral, then says in a near whisper, “Listen, about those other guys…”

“Let me guess,” I interrupt. “Y’all are all close friends?”

His head snaps up with a look of horror, but then he catches my grin and smiles back. He has light blue eyes that don’t seem to go with his curly black hair.

“I didn’t figure y’all for friends,” I say. “Don’t worry about it.”

“I wandered up, just like you,” he says. “I didn’t want you thinking I approved of what they were doing.”

“Like I said, don’t worry about it,” I tell him. “My name’s Joseph, by the way.” I extend my hand, and he takes it gratefully.

“Glad to meet you. I’m Ben.”

“I’ve got a brother named Benjamin,” I say.

“It’s actually short for Benedictus. My mother always thought it sounded nice when they would sing that at the mission church. You know, Benedictus qui venit nomine Domini,” he sings softly. “It means, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

“I’ve never heard it,” I say, “but you sure have a nice voice.”

He seems a little shy at my compliment and looks away. “I’ve been singing at the mission as long as I can remember,” he says quietly.

“My sister’s planning to marry my friend Caleb at that mission church. Maybe you could sing at their wedding?”

He glances back up. “Really?”

“Why not?”

“I’d like that,” he says, nodding slowly. We come to a stop in front of a clapboard building. “Here’s the apothecary,” he says, gesturing toward a huge sign out front that reads German Apothecary.

German Apothecary? What does that mean?” I ask.

“How should I know?” he shrugs. “My family’s all French.”

He gives a wave and heads across the street. I prop my rifle against the wall and step inside the shop.

A man wearing leather pants that stop at his knees is sweeping the floor in front of the counter. He pauses long enough to watch me come in, then returns to his work. I eye his tall white socks and square-toed shoes as I ask, “Why does your sign say German Apothecary instead of just Apothecary?”

“Vy?” he says, stopping short his sweeping. He peers at me over the top of his spectacles, his thick white beard bristling on his ruddy face. “Vy?” he repeats more loudly, slamming his fist on the counter. “Because German is best. Dat is vy. German is best music. German is best art. German is best everyting. But is especially best apothecary!”

He looks as though he might strike me with the broom when a stunningly beautiful woman appears from the back of the store, her dark wavy hair tied back with a red bandana. “The Germans only know what they’ve learned from the gypsies,” she tells him with a toss of her head that sets large hoop earrings swinging on either side of her long neck.

“Ignore her,” he says to me before answering, “I’m speaking to a customer, Evangeline.”

“It sounds to me like you are shouting at him. I could hear you ranting out in the storeroom, so I came in to make sure you don’t hit him with your broom, like you did our last customer.”

We both glance at the broom, which he is holding in a white-knuckled grip. He quickly leans it against the counter and wipes his hands on his apron.

“You vant, I should change de sign to Gypsy Apothecary?” he asks her with obvious sarcasm.

“At least that would be more accurate,” she answers, aiming a broad smile at me before she turns on her heel and disappears into the back again.

“Does she work for you?” I ask.

“She? Vork for me? Ha! I vork for her!” he says, pointing to where she had just been standing.

“She’s your boss?”

“Is even vorse,” he laughs. “She is my vife.”

“But she seems so…” I hesitate, but it’s too late.

“Young?” he asks, finishing my sentence.

“Yes,” I admit sheepishly.

“Is only old gypsy trick. Without, her hair vud be vite as mine. I sell more hair elixirs and face creams denn anyting else. For medicine, no one haff money. For beauty tricks, everyone find money.”

“Maybe you should change the sign,” I say with a smile.

“Maybe,” he says thoughtfully. He takes the broom and resumes sweeping. “So, vat may I do for you today?”

“I have a friend who’s been shot.”

“He should see a doctor.”

“I was the told that your only doctor was busy treating fever at a ranch south of town today, but that you might be able to help me.”

“Ranch south of town? Is no ranch. Is only a lot of savages living in shacks, but is ver you’ll find our good doctor most days. He only comes into town long enough to see a few patients and to haff me to mix up some new concoction he’s invented, denn he disappears again.”

“What’s he doing?”

“Is furthering science, is vat he tells me.”

“Can you help me, then?”

“Your friend? How bad is it?”

“Not too bad, now that the bleeding has stopped. It was only his shoulder, but I don’t want it to get infected.”

“I haff a paste to prevent infection, but is expensive. It has silver in it, is vy it vorks so vell. Also vy it costs so much. You haff money?”

“No, sir,” I say, embarrassed. I’d never had any money of my own. My parents didn’t have much either.

“See? For medicine, no one haff money.”

“My friend Caleb, the one who was shot, he may have some money.”

“Denn is best you talk to your friend.”

“I’ll do that,” I tell him, “then I’ll come right back.”

I head outside, stopping long enough to grab my rifle from its resting place by the door. I have a strange feeling that I’ve taken too long. Something isn’t right. Overcome with panic, I begin to run. I don’t bother getting my horse. I somehow know that I need to get back to Ellie and Caleb as quickly as possible.

As I get closer to the corral, my worst fears are realized. There’s a cowboy on either side of my sister. One is holding onto the horse’s bridle, so Ellie can’t go forward. The other is reaching for her leg. Both have their backs to me. I raise my rifle to my shoulder and shout, “Don’t you touch her!”

Both fellows turn to face me as I close the remaining distance. My rifle is pointed at the one who was reaching for Ellie. It’s the cowboy who was riding the horse earlier.

“There’s a third one,” Ellie says with an unnatural calm. “He’s got his boot on Caleb’s chest.”

I keep my rifle trained on the bronco rider, but ease my way over so I can see the one who’s pinning Caleb down.

“Get your boot off my friend,” I tell him. He slowly sets his foot down, eyeing me carefully the whole time.

“Now. You fellows let my sister and our friend pass. If any of you moves a muscle, I’ll put a hole in you the size of the Grand Canyon.”

“Those are mighty big words for such a young kid,” says the cowboy holding the bridle.

“It doesn’t matter if I’m six or sixteen, as long as I’ve got this gun in my hands,” I answer.

“Do you even know who you’re pointing that gun at?” he asks.

“Does it matter?”

“It matters when it’s Rex Kilroy, the fastest and meanest gun in these parts.”

“Well, I guess I picked the right one to aim at then. I won’t even bother with you other fellows. If anyone moves, Rex here catches it.”

“I-I th-th-think he’s b-b-bluffing,” says the cowboy in the back.

“I think, you’re right, Jack,” says Rex with a smile. “What about you, Lester? You think he’s bluffing?”

“I’m certain he is,” says Lester and he lets go of the bridle, his hand falling to his side right next to his holster.

“Lester is trying to get you killed, Rex,” I say as I tighten my grip on the rifle and slowly close my finger over the trigger. “All three of you put your hands in the air, now.”

At first they are slow to comply, glancing at each other. Then they all three put their hands high in the air, and I start to relax my finger.

That’s when I hear the pistol being cocked behind me as Ellie shouts, “Look out, Joseph!”

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