Beyond Bronson Hill
BEYOND BRONSON HILL
ON THOSE WINTRY NIGHTS, Ms. Abigail Parker wasn’t sure exactly when the day ended, and the evening began.
If they had a clock in their home, she’d know better when to fix supper for herself and her father. There was one in her Pa’s office, but with temperatures twelve degrees below, she had no intention of venturing out into the snow. Using the time-honoured tradition of nightfall as an indication just didn’t work, especially in the winter months of eighteen ninety-four.
She tended to the house’s upkeeping that morning and in the afternoon, with an axe, reduced a scuffed chifforobe to firewood in a few swings. From it, they’d have more than enough to sustain themselves for the rest of winter. They couldn’t afford too many luxuries. When her father returned from church, the parishioner of the small township of Bronson, he had clearly gone down with a bout of flu. He would again in the epidemic of nineteen ought nineteen and that would be the death of him. But that evening, Abigail fixed him some oxtail soup and crusty bread for supper and when he’d eaten that, the old man carried himself up the stairs and gotten into bed.
After a half hour of reading, William Morris’ The Well at the World’s End, she went out into the kitchen and tended to the dishes. Using a dishcloth, she dried the soup bowls. Gazing through the windowpanes, she looked over Bronson. There wasn’t much to be seen. At the bottom of the hill, there was some small specks of light and the occasional fit of laughter could be heard. She’d lived there most of her life and knew, someday, she’d leave this wretched town and head for pastures anew, somewhere way out East where nobody knew her.
When Abigail’s mother died she was a little girl, and her Pa, for better or worse, decided to move them from Arkansas to New Mexico. The journey was perilous and her father, an avid gambler, drinker, discovered God en-route. He built a church with the little money he had left and a small shack for himself and his motherless daughter. Back then, Bronson was a quiet town, without a saloon and the clientele places like that attracted. That’s why, standing in her nightgown, dishcloth in hand, gazing through the window, she wasn’t exactly scared to death at the outline of somebody on their property.
At once she moved into the dining room, looking at the cross hanging on the wall. On tiptoe, she took a rifle from the wall rack and slotted two rounds of shot into a Repeater. Abigail reached into the glass cabinet and came out with an oil lamp. She went back into the kitchen for some matches. The perp’s still there, if I leave him to his business he might just go away, she wondered. Instead, after a moment’s deliberation, she put on a pair of boots with attached snow skis and padded out after him.
Her nightgown was visible under the fur coat.
The stranger, who appeared to be a man, had his back to her. A pipe in the corner of his mouth trailed threadlike smoke over his shoulder. It flickered from side to side in the wind. He wore a top hat with a dark suit, the jacket reaching below the knee. The blistering cold didn’t seem to faze him though. He’s probably quite drunk, she said to herself. She might have to shoot him in the back. Her steps grew longer and slower, determined to get the jump on him when he said:
‘Ms. Parker,’ tipping his hat.
She cleared her throat. ‘You’re on our property mister, I’d appreciate it if you left the way you came.’
‘Excuse me,’ he said. ‘I’m just admiring the view. Bronson’s mighty pretty from up here, wouldn’t you say?’
‘Sure, ‘til you get up close.’
He laughed at that. ‘I’m not drunk Ms. Parker.’
His head turned so he could glimpse her, over his right shoulder. He was well into his forties and gave off a gentlemanly air, but tough. He wore a neatly trimmed handlebar moustache and a knowing look in his eyes. They were a cold greyish-blue. The forehead was wrinkled, his skin matched the colour of the bow on his hat. Abigail was close enough to see him, hell! she was close enough to blow that moustache of his clean off. At this distance she was a surgeon with a rifle.
‘Mister, I don’t know who you are, and I don’t know what you want, but please leave us. My Pa is sick, and I don’t want to be leaving him longer than need be.’
‘I know him. I know you, too. You probably don’t remember me though. I’ve met you a few times. I was there the day Billy the Kid and his gang had that shoot out in town. They shot and killed the Wayne girl. Her brain was plastered on a wall. It took them a whole two days to scrub it off…’
‘I remember, mister.’ she said. ‘I don’t remember seeing you there though.’
‘Why would you? Nobody else does,’ he said, removed his hat – a box of matches on his head – and went about relighting his expensive-looking pipe. The man appeared to have depressed himself by the mere mention of the event. That pipe of his reminded her of the one her Pa had years ago. He’d lost it.
‘Hailee was my friend, only…’
‘Eight-years-old at the time. I know, tragic. Her mother turned to drink after that. The father beat her and ate a shotgun cartridge when he found out his wife was servicing men in that saloon down there. Tell me, does she still?’ he asked.
‘It’s not exactly my place to say, mister.’
‘Quite, it’s just she hasn’t checked in on me in quite some time. I was curious is all.’
At that moment, Abigail became aware of the spot they were now standing in. On the cusp of the hill, looking down at Bronson, was a picket fence. It was only a foot high and not much taller. She’d helped her father erect it. In warmer climates, wild dogs and coyotes would climb the hill and dig down into the graves for shade. The fence helped keep them out. The newest grave, where they always tried to dig, the corner spot where the north and east fence met, belonged to Hailee. Abigail shifted uncomfortably.
‘You a relative of hers?’ she finally asked.
He looked down at the grave. ‘Nome,’
Abigail lowered the rifle and took a step closer, still cautious. ‘Might I trouble you for your name, sir? My Pa probably knows where you live. If I tell him, maybe he can fix you a safe ride home?’
‘Oh,’ he smiled. ‘He does, everyone does.’
Cutting her off: ‘The sheriff. Elias. What do you think of him… in general?’
‘Sheriff Thompson? He’s a good man.’
The right strand of moustache curled up and tickled his nose when he smiled. It was a smile that Abigail wasn’t used to, conspiratorial. The wind stopped blowing. In turn, the raucous laughter below picked up. Outlines of drunks spilled out through the double doors into the road. Probably a fight, Abigail thought. A card game ended badly. Well, for somebody that is. The man became interested in the town once again. Abigail had a feeling he wasn’t from round here.
‘Don’t kid a kidder,’ he smiled, huffing smoke through his nostrils like one of the dragons she’d read of in many of her stories.
‘Yes Abigail?’ he said, distracted.
‘Is there anything I can do?’
‘Nome. It’s too late for Bronson now. New York’s nice by the way, Boston’s nicer. Irish right?’
Abigail looked around for an answer but didn’t come back with one.
‘Right, either then,’ he said. ‘It’s pretty, this place… Beautiful even, maybe… but only at a distance.’
The moustache frowned. Abigail looked up into the pitch darkness of the sky and raindrops fell on her face. The drunks outside the saloon hurried back inside and the heavens opened. She hitched the fur coat up over her head. They were starting to melt the snow underfoot. Great puddles started to form around the gravestones. Enough now, she thought.
‘Mister,’ she pulled back the hammer and squared the rifle. ‘I need you to leave.’
‘I’m afraid I can’t Abigail.’
‘Do you mean us harm?’ she said.
‘Unintentionally. Your father tried his utmost, but still not enough.’
It was now raining cats and dogs.
‘I’m not asking I’m telling. Please leave us be.’
He turned his attentions to her. ‘I will when I’m done here.’
‘Mister… if you intend to hurt us, I’m afraid I’ll have to shoot you.’
He looked the young woman square in the eye. That look from before glistened in his. ‘I wouldn’t do…’
She closed her eyes and fired. The whip and crack of the rifle shot echoed up the hill and was lost somewhere over the cliff face some miles out West. The tone of finality in its impression was lost upon them. Her eyes opened to see him still standing there, unscathed.
He resumed. ‘I wouldn’t do that if I was you. You have one shot in life. I’d make it count if I was you.’
She pulled the lever down, ejecting the spent casing and brought it back up. Abigail muttered a soundless please to the man. He was scaring her. He shook his head and stepped closer, arms at his sides.
The shot caught him unawares. A bemused smirk stretched across his cruel lips. He toppled backwards onto Hailee’s grave. Dragging himself up, he propped up against the cross on her gravestone, sitting uncomfortably. He removed the hat from his head, using it as a spittoon for the blood in his mouth. He struggled with his pocket handkerchief. Abigail reached into it and wiped his mouth for him. He looked grateful.
Rushing footfalls sank in the ground behind her. Abigail spun the rifle round and found her father in her sights. She clicked the trigger once more and threw the gun long. He rushed over to her, still in his bedclothes. He kicked the rifle away and stood over the strange man bleeding out on the floor. Pa recognised him. He muttered a prayer. He had the most sinister look a man could have in his eye. With it, he found the parishioner of Bronson before sagging back into the dirt, dead.
Pa turned to look at his daughter, her face was a white oval in the pouring rain.
‘What happened?’ he asked.
‘Look…’ Abigail said.
At the bottom of the hill, the pools of rainwater had become streams and without fuss or protest from the folk below, the town’s lights went out one-by-one and soon, it was plunged into total darkness.
New York’s nice, she thought.