Chapter Thirteen—Sert Oldham Gets Religion

     It was noted, earlier in this tale, that Silver Creek had two schoolhouses, one on each end of town. Missy taught the younger grades, 1 through 6, at the school on the western side of town. She enjoyed her job very much, and was more than happy to get back to work. As the week of the trial progressed, she began to feel better; the tension of the past couple of weeks began to dissipate. By Friday afternoon, it was almost gone.
     Tillman wants to take me to dinner tomorrow night. I guess I’ll go. Grandma has been doing pretty good the past two days, I hope that continues. I like Tillman. He’s such a gentleman…then a pang went through her. Every time the word “gentleman” crossed her mind, so did the word “man.” And that reminded her of Thomas Monroe. Is that his real name? Is he that killer Felix Hargrave? I can’t believe that he is, he’s just not that way…Of course, to Missy, neither was Sert Oldham. She sighed. I guess I’ll never know for sure who he is…he came into my life for 10 days and then left. I hardly knew him…then why do I feel like I do?…but Tillman is a good man, maybe I can learn to love him…
     Friday afternoon, 3 PM, arrived. That was when school let out. Because she had the little ones, the mothers were always there to pick up their children. Occasionally, if a mom was ill, Missy would take a child home, but on this day, all the mothers were there. When that happened, Missy would stay a little while after everyone left and clean up the classroom and prepare for the next day. She usually arrived home no later than 4:30.
     With a smile, Missy stood at the door of the schoolhouse and waved good-bye to all the children. “Bye, Miss Jacobs. I love you…” Nearly every child said that and it always touched Missy’s heart and usually brought a tear to her eye. She'd call back, “Bye. Be good. Obey your mother and father. I love you, too.” The parents loved Missy as much as the children did.
     It was a lovely day, the first week of October. The wind was blowing a little too hard and the leaves on the trees were turning from green to yellow and brown. But the sun was out and it wasn’t too cold. When the last child disappeared from her view, Missy turned and re-entered the school building.
     And her blood went cold.
     “Hi, little Missy. Glad to see me?” Sert Oldham was smiling, his big, happy grin.
     Missy was stunned. “Mr…Mr. Sert. You…shouldn’t be here.”
     “Oh, but I come to take you to Californy. You promised to go with me, you know.”
     Missy grimaced. “No. No, I didn’t. I told you I can’t go. And I don’t want to. Don’t you understand? I have a life here. I can’t leave my grandmother. You know that.”
     “Oh, but you’ll have a new life in Californy. You’ll have a man t’ cook for and he’ll take care o’ you…” And Oldham threw a short, vicious left uppercut. It clipped Missy on the chin. She grunted as her head snapped back, and she fell to the floor. This time, she was unconscious.
     Satisfied, Oldham said to Missy’s inert form, “You stay right there, honey. I’ll be right back.” He saw Missy’s purse at the front of the room and went to pick it up. There was also a small leather bag next to it. Oldham investigated and found a riding skirt and boots. He took those as well. Then, going back over to Missy, he leaned down, picked her up, and hoisted her over his shoulder. He had left his horses in the woods behind the schoolhouse, so he exited the way he had come—through the back door. He located his horses—he had taken Fern Withers’ horse after he had killed him. He draped Missy’s body over one of them, mounted the other, and rode off.
     Whistling. Happy as a clam.
     And he didn’t ride too far, either…

     I sauntered into Silver Creek fifteen minutes later. I had one goal in mind—to see Missy before Thimblebutt Slopeater picked her up for the night and eloped with her. I knew where the schoolhouse was, so I went directly there. It was a typical white-framed building, maybe 20 yards long by 10 wide. I was never very good at guessing measurements. But you get the idea.
     When I rode up, I didn’t see anybody, but the front door was open. I figured Missy was inside. I almost lost my nerve. I didn’t want to embarrass her or make her uncomfortable, especially if Nosepicker was there. But I got off my horse and walked up the steps and into the schoolhouse.
     There was a small, narrow foyer with coat hooks and such and then the schoolroom proper just beyond. I didn’t immediately see Missy and when I went into the schoolroom, she wasn’t hiding in a corner. There were two doors in the back, one on each side of the room. The door on the left was open and I could tell that it led outside, though from a back room. The door on the right was closed; I figured it was probably some kind of storeroom for school materials. She might be in there, or out back.
     I checked the right side door; sure enough there was a storeroom behind it. No Missy. “She must be in the other room or outside,” I muttered to myself. So I went into the other room; it had some maps, charts, and other such items for classroom use. Missy wasn’t in there either. So I went out the back door, which was on the left side wall to see if I could locate her.
     I walked all around the building but didn’t see her. I could tell she wasn’t in either of the privies. I stopped at the back door and frowned. I realized it was possible that she could have walked one of the children home, but I didn’t think she’d leave both school doors open. In fact, I knew she wouldn’t. So where was she? I felt sure there was an innocent explanation, but my Felix Hargrave-outlaw brain began to consider more sinister possibilities.
     I stood and looked around; the school yard was mostly worn down by the kids playing, though there was some grass here and there, especially along the edges of the property. The building itself was nestled in a clearing and surrounded on three sides by forest, though pretty thin on the east side (where I was standing) because the town was very close. I studied the ground for tracks and immediately saw some boot prints—prints that were larger than the average 3rd grader, if you pardon my understatement. In other words, a man had been here, and recently. I knew tracks well enough to know that these were recent. In fact, I had stepped on a couple of them when I had left the building. The boot size was a little bigger than mine, but it was every bit as fresh; it couldn’t have been more than an hour old. I saw other tracks around as well; small ones that were clearly children, and a larger, thinner shoe print that was obviously female and obviously Missy’s. I walked around the yard a little, but saw no more of the male tracks. Indeed, I noticed that his tracks led from—and to—the back door of the building. And the tracks leading from the building were just a shade bit deeper than the prints leading to the building. As if he might have been carrying something as he walked away from the building….
     Something like a woman…
     I followed the boot prints. They led, not surprisingly, into the forest. Within 15 feet, I found some horse droppings. And from two horses. I wasn’t a little bit concerned now, I was a whole lot concerned. After a few moments studying the shoe prints of the horses, I knew I had seen some of them before. I whistled for Horse, my “get here on the double” whistle. He did, and I didn’t waste a moment.
     Missy had been kidnapped—again--by Sert Oldham.

     I had seen the tracks of the two horses Oldham had used; we had carried him on one of them on the way back to Silver Creek the first time and Missy had ridden the other. I had noticed the tracks. I don’t know why I did, I just did. Something in my past…I made a wry face…probably trying to avoid lawmen…Regardless, he was riding one of those two horses; the other hoof prints I didn’t recognize, but that didn’t matter. It was Oldham, and he’d gotten a second horse from somewhere. It wasn’t hard for me to follow Oldham and Missy, especially once they got onto the road. He wasn’t traveling a main road, and chances are they wouldn’t run into any traffic. I shuddered to think what Oldham might do if they did. I could also tell that he had put Missy on his second horse; if they had been riding double, the sign would have indicated that.
     I was no more than an hour behind them, and I sped up just a little, hoping to catch them that night. I looked at the sky. It was clear, but at that time of year, it would be dark by 6. That was less than two hours away, and the tracks would, obviously, be harder to see.
     If he’s beating Missy again, then I don’t care what she says, I’m going fill him so full of lead that he won’t need to be buried, he’ll just sink into the earth all my himself…
     I wasn’t really concerned about him beating her again, though. I don’t think she’d let him.
     Which meant she’d let him do something else. I’d kill him for that, too.

     Sert Oldham definitely had in mind what Monroe thought he’d have in mind. Don’t want to have to whup up on her again, though; I hope it don’t come to that…But if’n I have to work on her a bit to get her to mind me and not think nothin’ ‘bout escapin’…well, I’ll do what I got to do…because she’s goin’ to Californy with me.
     One way or another…

     Missy woke up a few minutes after they had left the schoolhouse. It took her a few moments to figure out what was happening. It didn’t take long, however, to figure out she was draped over the saddle of a horse. Then she remembered Sert. He’d hit her again, and she had passed out. Now they were headed…to Californy…All that flashed through her mind in less than five seconds.
     She tried to get up, but it was hard, so she called out, “Mr. Sert, can I sit up?”
     “Are you awake, little Missy?”
     “Yes.” Missy thought that fairly obvious.
     Sert chuckled. He stopped the horses, went over to Missy and lifted her off the saddle and onto the ground. She wobbled a little from the blood rushing down from her head, but she stayed on her feet--with Sert’s help, since he still had hold of her.
     “Mr. Sert,” Missy pleaded, “please take me back. You know this isn’t right. I need to be home with my grandmother.”
     “Aw, now, little Missy, yore grandma’s got lots a friends to look after her and I ain’t got nobody. Californy is a nice place. You’ll get used to it, you’ll see. Lookee,” he continued, reaching into the saddlebag, “I brung yore ridin’ dress and purse. You can change into the riding skirt if’n you want to, and if’n you promise you won’t run off.”
     Missy, resigned, nodded. “I promise.” She took the riding skirt, and went behind some trees. Nobody knows I’m gone…but when I don’t come home, grandma will get worried, and report it…if she’s in her right mind…she may not even know I’m gone for a day or two…Oh, I’ve got to get back to her…Missy looked around, and thought about running, but I promised I wouldn’t. I’ll have to go with him and try to find a chance to escape…A tear came to her eye…There’ll be no Thomas this time…I wish he would come, but I know he’s a long way from here by now….

     Actually, I was less than a half hour from her…

     But Oldham picked up the pace a little bit once he and Missy started off again. “I know a really good place to stop and eat up the trail aways,” he said. “It’s right by a stream and has good water. I want to get there before dark. We’ll pause for awhile, then keep on goin’. I want to get as far away from Silver Creek as possible t’night in case somebody comes lookin’ fer us. That prolly won’t happen till tomorrow, and we’ll be too far ahead of ‘em by then.”
     That wasn’t encouraging news to Missy.
     About a half hour later, they came to a level area right next to a stream, with a number of trees bordering. It was almost dark now, and the silhouette of a granite peak loomed above the clearing. The scene would have been lovely under normal circumstances.
     “Let’s stop here fer awhile, rest the horses, eat. And get better acquainted,” Oldham said with a smile.
     Missy glanced at him sharply at the “get better acquainted” comment. She had a distinct feeling she knew what that meant.
     Missy wasn’t hungry, and Oldham didn’t have much to eat anyway. Just some biscuits, jerky, and coffee. As the sun went down, it was getting colder, so the coffee tasted good. Oldham talked a lot about what they would do in “Californy;” Missy hardly said a word. After they finished eating, Missy walked to the stream and washed out the coffee pot. When she returned to the camp, Sert was waiting for her, and inexperienced as she was, she could read the look in his eyes.
     “Little Missy, how’s about you and me gettin’ to know each other better? A lot better. It’ll make the trip so much nicer…”
     Missy closed her eyes and grimaced. Then, looking at him, she said, “Mr. Sert, I’ll go with you to California, and I’ll do what you ask now, but you have to promise me some things first.”
     “What’s that, honey child?”
     “You have to promise that you won’t be a bad man any more. And you have to promise that you won’t hurt anyone again, that you’ll never rob a bank. And you have to promise me that, when we get to California, you’ll find an honest job, doing honest labor, and that you won’t cheat or defraud anybody ever again.”
     Sert was smiling. How innocent she is…I’d almost do all of that for her…"Ok, little Missy. If that’s what you want.” And he approached her.
     She stood still, starting to tremble. “You have to promise me. I know you won’t break your word to me. I just know you won’t.” Missy was having a hard time holding back tears.
     “I promise,” Sert said. “I really do. No more bad man, no more bank robberies, no more hurtin’ people, and I’ll get a good job. We’ll do ever’thin’ together and we’ll do it real good. Now let’s get to know each other better, whacha say?”
     Missy didn’t believe him. She wanted to, but she just…couldn’t believe him. But, she closed her eyes, and nodded her head. She continued to stand still, resigned to her fate. She felt Sert’s hands on her blouse, undoing the top button… I just hope he doesn’t hurt me…I’m sorry, Grandma…I let you down…I won’t be there for you…Oh, Thomas, where are you?…where are you?…where are you?…

     Oh, about 50 feet away….

     I had gained about 15 minutes when Oldham had stopped to let Missy change clothes. I stopped for a moment where they stopped, because I noticed that they had stopped. I didn’t take the time to try to decipher what had happened there because I saw the hoof prints continue on ahead. And since the prints were farther apart now, I knew Oldham had speeded up a bit. So I did, too. My fear, again, was losing them in the dark. Hopefully, he would stay on the road and stop before long.
     Which he did. I saw their small fire about 50 yards before I came upon their campsite. I dismounted and very carefully and quietly sneaked up to the camp. I saw them just as Oldham touched Missy’s blouse. I stepped out into the open, my gun in my hand.
     “All right, Oldham, that’s as far as you go…”

     Missy opened her eyes and looked when she heard Thomas’s voice. Her eyes got as big as saucers and her breath was literally taken away from her. I don’t…I don’t believe it…it can’t be…Oh, Thomas…you came…you came…you came!…

     Oldham wasn’t quite so happy to see Monroe. He growled. “You’ve meddled for the las’ time, mister….” And he went for his gun….

     “Don’t do it, Oldham!” I said…but I didn’t shoot. Instantaneous flashes seared through my brain. Why don’t I shoot?…I did last time…Why am I giving him a chance?…because… because…THAT’S WHAT LAWMEN DO!…
     And right then, I knew what every reader of this story has known for a long time…
     I knew who I was….

     Oldham drew his gun. “NO!” Missy shouted, and tried to stop him from shooting. He pushed her away and fired….

     Missy had knocked Sert a little off balance so his shot went wild. I wasn’t going to give him a second chance….

     But Missy intervened again. “Don’t, Thomas!” She dove in front of Oldham just as I pulled the trigger.
     The bullet—which would have gone straight into Sert Oldham’s heart—went into Missy Jacobs’ chest instead.
     She grunted, was knocked back against Oldham…and slid to the ground….
     And she lay there unmoving.

     Missy was thrilled to see Thomas, but she heard what Sert said and saw him go for his gun. She shouted, “NO!” and reached for him, but he pushed her and fired his gun. She had managed to grab onto his arm when he shoved her, and she saw Thomas line up his gun to fire at Sert. She yelled at him and dove in front of Sert. The bullet hit her and a searing pain lanced through her. Oh, Thomas…I…I’m so…sorry…sorry….. sorry…..Then things went from gray to black…..

     Sert Oldham and I both stared at Missy, stunned. I acted first. “Drop the gun, Oldham. Now. Or I’ll shoot again.”
     He acted like he didn’t hear me. He just stood there, looking down at Missy. “She…she jumped in front of me,” he muttered. “She…saved my life.” He looked at me, a dumbfounded expression on his face. “Did you…did you see what she did? I was gonna…I was gonna…to her…but she…she jumped in front of me…”
     I didn’t wait to listen to all his blubbering. I ran over, knocked the gun from his hand, and knelt down beside Missy. I rolled her onto her back and grimaced. The bullet hit the right side of her chest, just above her breast. I felt for a pulse. Faint, but there.
     “Is she…?” Oldham started.
     “She’s alive, but just barely,” I replied. I pointed at the coffee pot. “Get me some water, Oldham. Heat it up, now.”
     He just stood there. I looked up at him, angry. “Now, man! Hurry!”
     He moved—in a hurry. He grabbed the pot and ran to the stream, which was less than 20 yards away. I whistled my “on the double” whistle and Horse was there in a few seconds. I ran to him, took a clean towel and shirt from my saddlebag, along with some ointment and my water canteen, and rushed back to Missy. By that time, Oldham had the coffee pot on the fire, heating up.
     Being as careful as I could. I ripped Missy’s blouse and exposed the area where the bullet had entered. “Can you get it out?” Oldham asked me.
     “I’m going to try,” I said. I poured some of the water from the canteen on the wound to wash away the blood. It looked pretty nasty. I took my knife out of its sheath and set it in the fire to sterilize it. Then ripped the towel and my spare shirt into strips.
     “You done this before?” Oldham asked me.
     ”Yes, plenty of times,” I replied. “She’s unconscious now, Oldham, but she’s liable to wake up when I try to get that bullet out. You’ll need to hold her down.”
     “You gotta save her, man, you got to.” The look on his face was agonized. “She saved my life.”
     “Yeah, I know,” I replied. “Do you have any whiskey in your bags?”
     “Yeah. I’ll get it.”
     He did and brought it over. Missy was breathing, but unevenly and hard. I took the knife and poured some of the whiskey on it to help sterilize it. Then I poured some of the whiskey on Missy’s wound. She groaned and twisted, but I don’t think she woke up. “Get ready to hold her, just in case.” Oldham nodded.
     I took a deep breath and started digging. Missy cried out, and opened her eyes. She looked at me, as innocent as a lamb, as if saying, “why are you hurting me?” She cried out again and again and Oldham held her tightly as I continued to try to find the bullet. Finally—and thankfully—she passed out.
     “Did she die?” Oldham asked me.
     “No,” I said. I found the bullet and slowly was able to get it out of her. I took the whiskey bottle and poured some more of it on the wound. “Hand me that pot of water,” I said to him.
     He did and I poured some of the water, which was now very hot, onto one of the towel strips and cleansed the wound some more. Then, some of the ointment. With all that done, I wrapped the wound as well as I could with some of the clean strips of my shirt and tied it down as best I could. I exhaled audibly.
     “Is she…is she going to live?” Oldham asked.
     I stood up and started walking towards the stream to clean up. “I don’t know, Oldham. She’s in the Lord’s hands now. I’m almost sure the bullet didn’t strike anything vital, but if it gets infected, there’s nothing I can do about it.”
     I cleaned the blood off my knife and hands and went back over to Missy. Oldham was trying to make her as comfortable as possible, putting his coat under her head. “Don’t move her,” I said. “Get your blanket, we need to keep her warm.”
     He nodded, still seemingly in shock.
     I knelt back down next to her and felt her face. I shook my head, concerned. “She’s developing a fever,” I told Oldham, when he came back. I handed him some of the towel strips. “Here. Soak these in water. We’ll try to keep her head cool, but I want her to sweat that fever out, if possible.”
     Again, he just nodded, took the cloths I handed him, and walked over to the stream. I put the blanket on Missy. He was back in a couple of minutes.
     Missy was getting more feverish by the minute. She moaned and tossed her head back and forth, but didn’t wake up. I put one of the cool cloths on her forehead, and wiped some of the moisture from her face with another one.
     “Who are you?” Oldham asked me. “Is your name really Thomas Monroe?”
     “No,” I said. “I’m Thomas Foster, United States Deputy Marshal.”
     He started and stared at me. “I thought I ki—I mean, I…” He went silent.
     I glanced up at him. “You want to tell me about it?”
     He wouldn’t look at me. “Well, there was this feller lyin’ in the road…”
     I stopped. “He had blood on his forehead and looked like he was hurt.”
     He glared at me. “Yeah. How did you know?”
     “Because I fell for his gambit. He bopped me on the head with his pistol and gave me amnesia. I didn’t even know who I was until right before you fired at me a little while ago.”
     The outlaw started at me. “Well, I’ll be…” Then he half-chuckled and reached into his shirt pocket. “I reckon this is yours then.” He tossed me a badge. Then, from his back pocket, my wallet.
     “Yeah. Those are mine,” I replied, picking them up. I narrowed my eyes at him. “What did you do with the fellow in the road?”
     He looked away. “Uh…he, uh…won’t be doin’ that again fer awhile.”
     “Will he ever do it again?”
     He wouldn’t look at me. “No.”
     I just shook my head. “How many is that now, Sert?”
     “Too many, Marshal. And I know it.” He paused and sighed. “I thought he was you. I wanted your brother because he’s the one who arrested me. When I found out he was dead, I was going to kill you instead.” He lowered his head and shook it. “Too many, Marshal Foster, way too many.”
     I glanced at him. If I didn’t know better, I’d almost believe he meant it.
     Then he looked at me. “You gotta take me in, don’t ya, Marshal.”
     Before I could speak, Missy did. “No…no…no, Thomas…don’t…he…doesn’t… under…stand…” Agony was written all over her face, but from the pain of the bullet wound or from concern about Sert, I didn’t know which. “He…promised…promised… that he…be good…no more bad…he promised…he will…..I know he will….he promised…… he……. pro……missssed……” And she drifted off again.
     I glanced at Oldham. He was looking down at Missy, with a tender expression on his face. “She’s an angel, ain’t she, Marshal. An angel o’ mercy.”
     “I think she’s as close to one as you or I will probably ever see, Sert.”
     Sert nodded his head. “Don’t let her die Marshal. Don’t let her die.”
     “I’ll do all I can. But I’m not a doctor.”
     He just nodded his head again, then ran a hand over his face and sighed. “Why does an angel care so much about a devil, Marshal?”
     “I reckon that’s why she’s an angel, Sert.” And I wiped more sweat off Missy’s face. She was hot, very hot, the fever getting worse. At least it seemed so to me. I handed Oldham the cloths. “More cold water on these, please.”
     He took them and went to the stream. He was back shortly, and handed them to me without a word. Then he walked away. I watched him for a moment; he disappeared into the trees. I put a cold cloth on Missy’s forehead, and kept wiping her face with the others.
     Then I stopped and cocked an ear. I had heard something—like someone talking. It came from where Oldham had gone. I got up and walked over in that direction. In the moonlight, I could see the big man down on his knees, his hands locked together in front of him, and he was looking up to the sky.
     “Lord,” he said, “you know I ain’t never been nuthin’ but a bad man all my life. I never done nobody no good at all, robbin’, stealin’, killin’. I’m just an ornery skunk an’ we both know it. Hell ain’t even bad enough fer the likes o’ me. An’ I know you got no cause to listen to me, you bein’ righteous and holy and all them big words the preachers use. But please, if’n ye would, listen to me jes’ this onct. That girl…Missy…she’s one of yours, I know she is. You sent her down here to try an’ he’p no goods like me…she ain’t never done nuthin’ but good her whole life. She’s the only one who’s ever been kind to me, ever said anything nice to me, ever cared a thang about me, ever believed in me…an’ now she’s got a bullet in her that ought to be in me…she was a’tryin’ to save my life, Lord, me, a good fer nuthin’ sidewinder, but she was tryin’ to save my life…I reckon I know you’d probably rather her be up there with you where she belongs…but we human folks, we really need some angels like her down here…please don’t take her back to ye yet, ok?…I promise ye, Lord, I promise ye, that if’n you’ll let her stay down here…I promise ye what I promised her…that I’ll be good from now on…I won’t never hurt nobody agin….I’ll…I’ll go straight….I’ll get me a good job, I’ll start goin’ to church an’ listenin’ to the preacher real good and doin’ what he says…just please…please don’t take little Missy away from us….please……”
     And then I saw Sert Oldham curl up and cry like a baby.

     Sert and I stayed by Missy’s side all night long, though he started nodding off after a few hours. He and I didn’t talk much; he’d ask me occasionally how she was doing, if I thought she would live, etc. I’d say something like, “Well, as long as she’s breathing there’s hope.” And she was breathing. Not easily. And she tossed her head back and forth, moaning and whimpering for hours. The edges of her hair were wet with the perspiration from the fever, but I tried to wipe the sweat off, though I wanted her to do so, hoping to get any impurities from the bullet out of her body. Hour after hour she hung in there, but about 3 AM in the morning, she went silent and stopped moving.
     Sert looked at me. “Is she…?”
     She was still breathing, but her pulse was weak. And the fever hadn’t broken. “She’s alive, Sert. That’s all I can tell you.”
     I must have drifted off to sleep, too, because it was getting light when I felt a hand touch my arm. I started, then looked down. It was Missy. “Thomas,” she said softly, and had a smile on her face. “You…came…for me…”
     I reached down and felt of her forehead, and said a silent prayer of thanks. The fever had broken. Her voice had apparently woken Sert up, too, because he was looking at me, an anxious expression on his face.
     I nodded. “The fever’s gone. She’ll make it.”
     And he cast his gaze heavenward and said, “Thankee, Lord, thankee.”
     I held Missy’s hand—I was among the lucky ones. Then I leaned down and kissed her tenderly on the lips—one of the real lucky ones. She smiled again and said, “Thank you.”
     "Are you thirsty?” I asked her, and she nodded. Sert got a cup and went to the stream to fetch some cold, clear water. Missy liked that; she drank the whole cup. Then sighed. Her eyes shifted around, looking at everything she could see above her. There was a tree right at the edge of the camp with a couple of big limbs hanging over her—us. It was light enough now to see. She just stared at those tree limbs for several minutes. “Trees are beautiful, aren’t they…

     Missy, of course, had almost no idea about the events that happened after she had taken the bullet intended for Sert Oldham. She had a recollection of more pain, a pain greater than she had ever experienced in her life; she opened her eyes and saw Thomas kneeling over her with a very grim expression on his face—and she felt the pain again. Intense, burning, almost unbearable. She cried out again and again, wanting him to stop hurting her…Thomas…why are you hurting me?…why?…why?…why?…Mercifully, she fell unconscious….
     And remembered nothing till she woke up. She opened her eyes, and saw that the dawn was breaking. She took inventory of herself and tried to remember what had happened. The events of the night before came back to her mind, and the pain in her chest was full indication that she had been hit with a bullet. She had a vague—very vague—recollection of seeing Thomas kneeling over her…the pain…he was removing the bullet…he saved my life…Then she turned her head, and saw him sitting next to her, his head bobbing, asleep. She smiled at him, touched him, and said his name…he kissed her and she forgot about all the pain she had…she drank the water offered to her. It tasted so good, so cool…then she lay back and stared up at the tree limbs…she heard a bird chirping, saw the clear, blue sky beyond the tree…God created such a beautiful world…so beautiful…she laughed when she saw a little squirrel bounding along the limb…I’ve never watched nature very much before…I’m going to do that from now on…….

     When Missy laughed, I looked up and saw the squirrel running along the tree branch. I didn’t think it was so funny, but it delighted Missy and that delighted me. “How are you feeling?” I asked her.
     She looked back at me. “I’m…ok. My chest…hurts. Did you…get the bullet…out?”
     “Yes. You had a fever all night, but it’s broken. You’re going to be fine.”
     “Thank you,” she said.
     I motioned towards Sert. “Sert’s still here.”
     She turned her head and looked at him and smiled. “I’m glad to see that you are all right, too,” she said.
     “I was a-prayin’ fer ye, little Missy. Not that the good Lord would listen t’ me.”
     She was still smiling. “I’m sure he heard you, Sert. Thank you for your prayers.”
     I could see tears well up in the big man’s eyes again, but he held them back.
     Missy looked back at me. “You aren’t going to…take Sert to jail, are you? He promised me…he’d never do any bad any more. I know he won’t. You’ll give him a chance, won’t you?”
     I fixed my gaze on Sert Oldham. There could hardly be a more wicked man on earth than he. How many innocent people had he killed—ruthlessly? What he did to Missy…and what he was going to do to her…how many other women had he done that to? Just a few days ago he killed that poor fellow in the road, though I had a little trouble feeling sorry for that thief. But still…cold-blooded murder…I sighed and shook my head.
     “California, huh, Oldham,” I said.
     "Well, yeah, Marshal…that was my intention.”
     “Ever been there before?”
     “Have you ever done anything besides…have you ever done any honest work?”
     “I did punch cows fer awhile. I think I kin do that. Or I kin work in th’ mines.” He gave me a wry grin. “I broke a lot o’ rocks in prison.”
     I grunted.
     “Let him go, please, Thomas,” Missy pleaded. “He’s not…all bad. There’s good in him…he promised me…he won’t go back on his word, I know he won’t.” She looked so pitiful in pleading for him.
     I wasn’t so sure that Oldham would keep his word. A man that would do all he had done wouldn’t hesitate to lie; he probably had a million times before. Lying is easy. But how could I deny Missy’s request? I looked at Sert. “California, Oldham. And I promise you, that if I ever hear of you breaking the law again, I’ll come after you. And I’ll find you. And I’ll bury you. Do you understand that?”
     He grinned. “Yeah, I unnerstand, Marshal. But I’ll go straight. I will. I promised little Missy here that I would, an’ I promised th’ Lord, too. I won’t never hurt nobody agin.”
     I wanted to believe him. I stood up, and he did, too. “Go,” I said. “And don’t ever let me see you again.”
     “You won’t, Marshal, I promise.” Then, I couldn’t help but laugh when he shouted, “Yippee! Californy, here I come!” And he headed for his horse.
     I said to him, “Sert.”
     He looked back.
     “One horse. I need the other one for Missy.” He nodded. “But take the best one,” I told him.
     “Thanks, Marshal,” and he loaded up his gear.
     Then a thought. “Sert.”
     And again, he looked at me.
     “You got any money?”
     “Well, t’ tell the truth…”
     I took out my wallet. I still had all of that $1,500 reward money, plus a few hundred I had saved up from before, that Fern Withers hadn’t found. I counted out $250 and handed it to Sert. I smiled at him. “I don’t want you having to rob anybody before you get to California.”
     He hesitated to take the money, but he did. “I’ll pay ye back, Marshal, I will. I’ll send you the money some day, I promise I will. And I wouldn’t have robbed nobody on the way, even if’n I didn’t have a single meal.”
     “You don’t have to pay me back. Well, I want one thing in return.”
     “What’s that?”
     “Stay straight.” I held out my hand. He took it. Our eyes met. No more words were necessary. We nodded at each other. He turned, mounted his horse, and with a final wave and glance at Missy, he rode off. He never looked back.
     I sighed, took off my hat, and rubbed my hand through my hair, wondering if I had done the right thing in turning a vicious murderer loose. But then, I looked back at Missy. She might have converted him. If anybody could, it was her.
     I walked back to her and kneeled down again. She was asleep, an angelic smile on her face. I leaned down and kissed her forehead.
     Then, realizing how utterly exhausted I was, I laid down next to her and almost immediately fell asleep myself.