Note: Story originally appeared in 2004 at the Distinctive Fiction site as part of the Muse City series. This is a revised version, with some errors corrected and a change in timeframe, from shortly after the Civil War to the Great Depression.
He was a muscular man, broad in the shoulders, with calves and upper arms resembling nothing less than tree trunks. The sweat glistened on his olive skin as he lay bricks, slathered mortar and then added another layer of brick.
Martha watched him from her spot in the window, admiring this carpenter play the part of mason half a mile away. Their daughter was soon to marry, and her husband would play a valuable role on the farm. No, make that present tense -- Maxwell had spent time hanging around here since he was tall enough to leave his parents' house.
Martha dressed, then walked down into the kitchen and pulled a plastic drinking glass down from the counter. One came in every can of oats, and they did the job just as well as fragile crystal, Jesse said. She reckoned they did, at that.
Martha stepped out onto the front porch and set the glass down on a window sill. She turned a crank handle near the well a few times, finally pulling up a bucket of cold water. She dipped Jesse’s glass into the bucket and handed it to him as he walked up.
"Good morning, love," he said, kissing her warmly.
"Good morning to you," she said.
They sat and talked a few minutes about the wedding, and they watched as the sun finished rising over the trees to the east, watched the lawn turn hazy as the rays of light lifted the night's dew from the ground and started it back on its journey to another place.
Ruth had her father's graceful looks and her mother’s hard head. Everyone who met her, who met her parents, agreed upon this within five minutes. At the moment, she was haggling with a seamstress in town -- who was also her best friend and her soon-to-be bridesmaid.
"You told me this dress would cost ten dollars, not fifteen," she said, lips pursed.
"Well, the alterations..." Hannah said.
"Can I help it if the Lord provided?" Ruth asked. She'd been the first girl at the one-room school to blossom into young womanhood, and she'd done it as she did everything else: In abundance, quickly, without looking back. At 15 years old, she already had the bosom of a 20-year-old and then some.
In a city, she wouldn't be marrying for a few more years; in a city, she'd still be in school. But this was Appalachia, this was farm country, and marriage and motherhood came early to the girls.
"Can you pay twelve?" Hannah asked, exasperated.
"I can pay fifteen," Ruth said quickly, "but it's not right I should have to do so."
"OK, I can take twelve," Hannah said.
"You're a peach," Ruth said. The two girls giggled and embraced.
"Do you have time for lunch?" Hannah asked.
Ruth looked at the grandfather clock that leaned against the store wall. "I may have time," she said. "Maxwell and I are to meet with Rabbi Goldman at two."
he general store had a small lunch counter, and it was toward there that the two best friends made their way from Anna Linkletter's dress shop. The Appalachian heat was rising to 80 degrees, quite hot for April.
They passed wagons, horses tied to a hitching post outside the store, and a blind black man named Jacob Rainwaters who played the guitar and sang for his life's wages. Ruth dropped a nickel into his hat, and he said, "Five cents from the bride to be," with a nearly toothless smile.
"Will you sing at my wedding?" Ruth asked.
"I don't know any happy songs," the ancient man said. "It wouldn't be right."
"So learn some," Ruth said.
The same conversation for six months now, and she'd been giving him a nickel whenever she had one since she was five years old. Her father said it was only right to help those poorer than oneself.
Lots of poverty in this town; the only person who could afford a truck was the mine boss. Even the police car and fire truck were donated by the mining company.
"You've given him enough money over these years to buy three dresses," Hannah said with a bit of distaste. Ruth had observed that although her family seemed to handle Ruth's family well, their general preference was for lighter folks such as themselves, mostly the Christians. Not that she'd ever call her on it; it would create a scene for no good reason.
Henry had started drinking early today, as he'd done every day since the war ended for him. He'd lost an eye, had a foot mangled, and suffered pain that would keep him bent double without the alcohol.
His employer, the innkeeper Jenkins, had sent him on another of the endless stream of errands that he devised to keep the boy out of sight for the travelers' comfort. The market collapse had given many a new set of worries; no need reminding them of that war in Europe
or the rumors of another one coming.
Three of Henry's brothers had died in the war. The loudmouth runt of the bunch had made an officer through some dumb luck, and was sending checks home to his Ma -- another way of showing off, Henry reckoned.
The young gimp squinted as he saw the two girls stroll down the street laughing. The movement of their hips, of the tall girl's bosom, was hypnotic.
If only they weren't laughing at him. That one girl, in particular -- Ruth -- she was marrying Maxwell, who'd come back from that damned war without a scratch. That's probably why the little bitch was laughing at him.
Henry took another drag on his flask and watched them pass him by.
Jesse heard the plate shatter inside his kitchen from a quarter of a mile away. He heard Martha's sobbing, heard Maxwell swearing, and he started sprinting back to the house.
The sight of the sheriff's car outside the house dropped him to his knees for a moment. He picked himself up, and resumed his run.
"You've got to let me in there," Jesse told the sheriff. He'd known Slade since the lawman was a boy sitting in his father's chair in this same jailhouse, and he'd helped both men organize plenty of search parties over the years.
"I can't," Slade said, shaking his head. "If something happens to him before he has his trial -- Jesse, you're one of the best men I know, but things are what they are."
"I'm Jewish and the church doors don't open without his ma first inside," Jesse said with a nod. "Yeah. I've done this dance a time or two before. I just want to see if he’ll tell me where she is."
Slade patted the man's shoulder awkwardly. "Oh, believe you me, the boys are doing their damnedest to find that out even as we speak."
A scream -- muffled by a leather belt between teeth -- cut through the air. "This isn't right, Slade."
"Yeah, I know," Slade said. "It should be you and Maxwell asking him the questions."
The sheriff backed his way to the door, opened it behind him, then stepped inside and shut the door. Jesse heard the lock click, and muttered to himself, "That's not what I meant, and I thought you'd know better."
Hannah, Henry had taken with a couple of blows to the head. He'd left the rock lying next to her body, strands of copper hair and gray brain tissue stuck to it by blood dried a sickly black.
uth, he'd taken off somewhere. She'd fought him, Slade could tell -- the man's nightmare of a face was marked by fresh scratches. His balls had been swollen black from a kick or some other fresh injury even before the deputies had stripped him down and brought out the brand.
"I reckon you figured you could just off a couple of Jew girls and everyone would look the other way," Slade said, holding the man's jaw in his hand. It slacked down funny, not quite hinged to his skull as it should have been, and Slade neither knew nor cared if that was a war injury or a more recent development.
Henry was strung up by his arms, his feet 18 inches or so off the ground. Whatever had happened to his head over there in the trenches made him stronger than a team of ox when he was mad, so that treatment almost made sense.
"You went off and did your duty," Slade said. "Ain't no shame in coming back a mess from that; you still one of the lucky ones who walked away at all. But you don't get a free ride on murder -- not if they're Jewish, not even if they was black. And 'specially not when I'm friends with one girl's daddy."
Henry blubbered something incomprehensible. Slade let go of his jaw.
"You care to repeat that?" the sheriff asked. "Or do I get that girl's daddy in here to circumcise you?"
"In the well, behind the inn," Henry spat out. A bubble of blood burst on his lower lip, and a large drop of it splattered onto the ground below where he hang by his arms.
"Fix this mess up," Slade said to his deputies. He looked back at Henry, disgust clear on his face. "You should've done everyone a favor and died over there in Germany
He gave the boy a punch to the gut, the only blow of his own in this whole incident, then turned and left the room.
Angus, the dwarf who ran the smithy shop, shimmied down the rope into the well. Again, Slade had to hold Henry back from going down there himself. "You'll break your fool neck, and then what will Martha do?" the sheriff asked.
Five minutes passed, then the rope jerked twice. Slade, Jesse, and the other men pulled on the rope, and after a few minutes the dwarf was back up, with the girl's body tied to the end of the rope.
Her skin was blue from the cold underground. Her hair was soaked, her upper body naked, her lips split open and her eyes bruised. Her skirt was stained red about her private parts.
Several women started sobbing; one of them fainted. Slade took off his vest and covered the girl's torso. Jesse turned and walked away, back toward the jail. No one stopped him.
"OK, I don't understand a damn bit of this," Slade asked as he sat in Jesse and Martha's living room. "You're asking us not to hang that boy when the jury convicts him -- note I say 'when,' not 'if.' He confessed to it all."
"And I know how diligent your boys were in getting that confession," Jesse said.
"One girl dead, another missing -- yeah, we got rough," Slade said with a nod. "For all we knew, she might have been alive. If we'd done more..."
"If you'd done more, he would have died and you wouldn't have known where she was until someone's well downstream turned deadly in a few days," Jesse said.
Martha, in the kitchen, dropped her plastic glass, and they heard her footsteps pound up the stairs to their bedroom.
"I never was good with words," Jesse said finally. "But killing that boy is just going to put his ma through the same pain we're feeling. Worse, because she'll see it coming and have no way of stopping it. She's only got the one other boy left, and he's off east playing soldier."
"I don't think the Linkletters are going to see it the same way, Jesse," Slade said. "Or Maxwell. And that war didn't turn him into a mad dog killer, neither."
"Good people can disagree," Jesse said. "How do you think most wars get started?"
The sheriff shook his head. "You should've been a rabbi, Jesse."
"I'd rather get my hands dirty and build things than preach," Jesse said. He looked up at the ceiling, then back at his friend. "I should go check on her."
"You do that," Slade said. "I'll let myself out."
The two men rose from the wooden chairs, shook hands, and then parted.
Slade sat at his desk, listening to the damn snoring from the cell. He walked over to the bars and banged his wooden baton against the bars. "Turn the hell over, Henry," he said sternly.
The man had been lying on his back; he turned on his side to sleep facing the desk. The sheriff marveled again at how quickly the man's injuries from the day of the killings were healing.
Come the trial, Martha was present every day. Jesse was out in the field harvesting the crops with Maxwell and his younger brothers. Their mother’s precarious health had spiraled downward to its tragic but inevitable conclusion after Ruth's death, and the four orphaned boys all lived together now in the new house Jesse had built for Maxwell and Ruth.
The town's only lawyer, Hiram Walker, was acting as Henry's attorney. He slept through most of the testimony, and his closing statement was simple: "The war addled his brain."
A panel of twelve men found the man guilty in ten minutes, and a firing squad carried out the sentence immediately afterward -- normally, it would've been a hanging, but in respect to his military service and his mother's losses, the sheriff agreed to go along with that foolishness.
Darkness melted away to a dull light, and Henry felt a tremendous pressure weighing down upon his chest. He struggled to move, but couldn't. But then he saw a light building, and felt hands grip him. He felt himself rise, then felt himself slam into something with tremendous force.
"Where -- what -- who?" the young man stuttered.
Jesse looked down at the boy lying beside the freshly unearthed grave.
'Take a look down at yourself, boy," he said sternly.
Henry looked down at his chest and saw the wound in his chest where he'd been shot. Blood gurgled out of it, and he blacked out.
Henry awoke again, and saw Jesse standing over him again. "What's happening to me?" the boy asked. Before the carpenter could answer, the killer felt his heart burst again, saw the blood spill from his chest, and the darkness took him again.
When Henry awoke again, he was lying back in the pine box. He struggled to rise, but Jesse easily pushed him back inside. "I healed you, but it's not a precise thing,' he said. "I hope you're stuck here 'til the end of the world."
Henry saw that the carpenter had taken his shirt off. He saw the jagged scar that ran along the left side of the man’s chest, as if someone had stabbed him in the ribcage. He noticed the scars in the palm of the hand that held him down, and noticed that as Jesse wept, both wounds were bleeding.
"What did you tell me about not using your abilities anymore?" Martha asked as she stared at Jesse across the breakfast table. He hadn't touched the pancakes or the eggs, but he'd eaten his and her beef sausage.
"This was a special case," he said. "It was too late to help Hannah."
"What about turning the other cheek?" she asked.
"If it had just been Ruth, I might've done so," he replied. "But I never said what to do when they hit you a second time."
Maxwell and his brothers waved goodbye to Jesse and Martha as they loaded the last of their goods -- the ones they were taking, at any rate -- into the wagon. "The town won't be the same without you," the eldest boy said, hugging them both.
They were two days' ride out of town before they opened the large chest at the very back of the wagon.
"I don't see why we couldn’t stay," Ruth said with a pout, rising up from inside the box.
"We've both told you what ended up happening the last time people found out your father's secret," Martha said.
"People change," Ruth said. "You should know that most of all, Mother."
"That's true," Jesse said. "You never wash my feet anymore."
"You're lucky I don't make you cook the Seder for tonight," she said.
The carpenter kissed his wife, embraced his daughter, and continued guiding the horses along the trail to another town, another life, another set of names.