Souls In The WindJeremy Mark Lane / Western
Souls in the Wind
An excerpt from While I’m Still Myself
JEREMY MARK LANE
Copyright 2011 Jeremy Lane
Souls in the Wind
James Briscoe stood looking out the window of his study. He often came upstairs in the midmorning and poured himself two fingers of whiskey. It wasn’t an honorable practice to be drinking this early in the day—he knew that—yet he found it relaxing. It was his time to think.
On this particular morning he watched as Polly Ann, the daughter of Smoke Jackson, his most reliable and highest-paid farmhand, walked out of the barn, where his son was tinkering with an old wagon. Normally he wouldn’t have given it a second thought, except that James had witnessed several suspicious things of late and was watching with a careful eye.
A man has a way of knowing when something is different within his own universe, and the shy conversations, quick smiles, and fleeting glances between his son and the young girl had perked his attention. He felt no need to forbid his son to speak with Polly, or anyone else for that matter. It was the girl’s beauty that worried him, and her color, which caused a different kind of apprehension.
Something caught his eye as he took a sip from the glass. Along the eastern edge of the cornfield ran a tree line, with a solitary tree one hundred yards to the west. Under the tree were two horses, both riders dismounted, and a third man, who looked to be on his knees. Briscoe set his whiskey on the window ledge and hurried down the stairs, out the door, and into the barn. He pulled his horse from the first pen and mounted with no saddle.
“Where you goin’, Pop?” his son asked as he rode by, his horse agitated at the quick mount. Briscoe knew it wasn’t any of his hands; he could recognize his men from five hundred yards just by the way they stood. He rode at a gallop down into the field and followed the eastern tree line toward the men and horses. A black man, no doubt the one on his knees before, was now standing with his hands tied behind his back. Briscoe approached and spotted the white of a noose around his neck. “Mornin’, Mr. Briscoe,” said one of the other men. He knew the voice right away. It was Hank Aldridge, the overzealous young sheriff of Wichita Falls.
Aldridge was a skinny pencil of a man who’d once chased someone from Wichita Falls to Denton for stealing two tomatoes from a widow’s garden. The sheriff tracked him to a saloon there, bound and gagged the man, and dragged him terrified to the local jail. Upon hearing the man’s infraction, the local lawman agreed to jail the vegetable thief but informed Hank that he would be incarcerated as well for disturbing a local business over such a small matter. The young sheriff left humiliated, and the story traveled back to Wichita Falls quicker than his worn-out horse. He was a laughing stock among most in his town, and James Briscoe was among those with little respect for the man.
“What the hell’s goin’ on here, Hank?” Briscoe asked as he hopped down from his horse.
“Now, Mr. Briscoe, I asked you before to call me ‘Sheriff’,” Aldridge replied, looking up from under the brim of his hat.
“All right, Sheriff, what the hell’s goin’ on here and what are you doin’ on my land?”
Aldridge spit and wiped his mouth with the back of his shirtsleeve. “This boy was caught with a white woman. Lady said he come on strong. She couldn’t fend him off.”
“And I guess you believe that too, don’t you?” Briscoe said with a smirk.
“It’s grounds for a lynchin’, and you know it, James,” the sheriff replied.
“Yeah, I know that. Another thing I know is that—” They were suddenly interrupted by an unnatural sound. Briscoe turned to find the black man dangling from the noose, the rope flung over the tree and tight around the deputy’s saddle horn. The deputy held his horse steady while the black man gagged, twitched, then hung lifelessly. Briscoe watched the man die then looked down at the ground and tightened the hat on his head. He turned to the sheriff. Briscoe was a large man, well over six foot, with broad shoulders and a muscular frame. He walked slowly, until his nose nearly touched the sheriff’s.
“Have your man turn loose of that rope,” he said sternly. Aldridge watched him through squinted eyes. He gave his deputy a nod, and the black man crumpled to the ground.
“Now get off my land, and if I ever catch you on my property again, I’ll shoot ya.”
“Doubt you’d shoot a lawman,” replied Aldridge.
“That’s true. You ain’t one.”
The sheriff turned slowly, walked to his horse, and mounted. He rode off in silence with his deputy following behind. Briscoe watched them until they were out of sight then mounted his horse and rode toward home without looking at the body. He looked up to find Jordy several paces away from the barn. He was standing in between two rows of corn and must have witnessed the whole episode. Standing a hundred feet behind him, next to the barn, was Smoke Jackson. James was aggravated that either had seen the hanging. He rode up to Jordy and stopped his horse.
“What are you gonna do, Pop?” the boy asked.
“Dig that man a grave,” Briscoe replied, looking behind him.
“You want me to help?”
“No, son, I don’t,”
Briscoe tied his horse and found Smoke had already brought two shovels.
“Take the rest of the day off, Smoke,” he said.
“Let me help ya dig, Mr. Briscoe,” Smoke replied.
“No need. Spend the day with your family,” he said in a tone that offered no option for rebuttal. Smoke gave a slight nod and walked away. James once again mounted his horse, more gently this time, and allowed the animal to turn a full circle. He watched as Smoke put an arm around his wife and guided her into their small house, then looked over to find Jordy and Polly Ann in an awkward conversation, both looking at the ground rather than each other. He turned his horse and trotted off, intent on providing the stranger in his field a proper grave.
The happenings of the night are most often dependent upon the previous day, and because of this, some nights are not made for sleeping. James Briscoe was a firm believer in rest because he was a firm believer in work, so sitting in the dark of his study well after nightfall caused him to feel something like guilt.
He was unsure exactly what was unsettling him. The stranger was not the first man who had died before his eyes, though Briscoe knew in his heart that the hanging had been needless; Aldridge was far too incompetent to serve anything resembling justice. His mind kept drifting back to Jordy and the young girl, the sum of everything he had seen over the previous weeks, and their melancholy conversation after the terrible event. He wondered what his son had said to her in such a moment, if he had spoken as a boy or a man.
As if on cue, Briscoe caught sight of a white cotton dress swaying in the night breeze, moving away from the Jackson house and into the field. A strong moon allowed him to watch as she made her way into the cornfield, alone and at a quick pace, before disappearing into the shadows of the night. He did not move from his seat, as he did not desire to desecrate what he suspected might be happening, so he did not witness as the young girl spoke whispers of sorrow to the fresh, raised dirt, and as she placed a flower at the head of the grave under the solitary tree. These things he did not witness, though he knew them just the same.
Despite the late night, Briscoe woke just after sunup, dressed, and walked outside. He enjoyed being the first one out, though he rarely did any work this early. He mostly enjoyed the quiet—the sound of the wind shuffling the grass in the field and the rustling of the trees. He stood in the open air and took in the sounds around him. He thought about the day’s work. It was a good feeling to know those he loved were still asleep.
The slam of a screen door shattered the quiet morning, and he turned to see Smoke crossing the yard with a hurried walk. As he drew near, Briscoe noticed a ghastly look on his face. “Mornin’ Smoke,” he said loudly.
“Mistuh Briscoe,” replied Smoke. “Mistuh Briscoe.”
“It’s Polly,” he said with a faltering voice. “She’s gone.”
“Gone? Gone where?”
“See fuh yourself, suh,” Smoke replied, and offered a folded letter.
His heart nearly stopped as he read the words Polly had written. He stared at the paper long after he had finished reading it, trying to formulate a response, trying to absorb the situation. He had little concern about Jordy’s ability to make it on his own. He was a strong, intelligent boy. It was different for Smoke. Having an attractive young black girl out on the plains was another matter.
He glanced over to Jordy’s window.
“Guess you didn’t check his room this mornin’, Mistuh Briscoe,” Smoke said.
“Nah. Rarely do. Figure I’ll let him sleep while he can.”
The screen door sounded again, and Briscoe looked over to see Smoke’s wife on the porch, her hand covering her mouth to stifle the sobs.
“Go calm your wife. I’ll go and see if the boy left a letter. Then we’ll talk about what we’re gonna do.” He put a hand on Smoke’s shoulder and made for the house.
He opened the