By the time I stepped outside, the leaves were on fire. Life in Texas has changed me from the woman I once was. Clearing brush involves eliminating leaves, so Mike burns them late every spring, when seasonal rain means the fire won't spread. This year he's off chasing someone on ranger business, so our nine-years-old son, Cecil, must take the part of a man.
"You're doing wonderfully, Cece." He grins at the complement. With school out for the summer, we are both at loose ends, though I am still weeping for a daughter, little Gloria, who died in February from chickenpox. Gloria's hair was the same orange-yellow color of the fire lapping at the leaves. Just three and the Lord took her from me. In ten years of marriage, I have borne five children and now lost two. I do not know if I can bear another. My greatest wish is to safeguard my remaining offspring.
We busy ourselves feeding piles of dead brush into the carefully positioned blaze. Tumbleweeds, pine needles, and oak leaves fill our arms as we carry them from heaps to their doom. The pine lends a sweet tang to the otherwise ghastly smoke. I shudder at the thought of wildfire. Just last week, a homestead burned down in the next county and three children died with their parents. Mike believes it arson and is investigating. I remain here, with fear etching into my bones. Acquaintances back east would laugh. They have municipal fire departments with modern pump tanks to ensure flames do not spread ruinously. I might point to the example of Chicago just fifteen years ago, but they would wave that off as irrelevant to them.
We are well started when Felicia, nearly eight, comes out to announce lunch is ready. Already sweating heavily, Cece and I are both ready for a respite. She's standing on the porch when a man rides up. Nothing remarkable about him save his fine horse; a bay gelding whose gait and build promise plenty of bottom. His garb is rumpled and just going to threadbare. He sports a week's growth of beard, and his sombrero once had a ring of tassels but only a handful remain. If not for the fine steed, he would seem another saddle tramp; a lonely man looking for work. Even the pistol at his side could be called standard, for rattlers are common and even I carry a lady's gun with snake-shot as a defense against them. More proof I am not the woman I once was, despite still fitting into the dresses I brought with me.
"If you are seeking permanent work, you must wait until the foreman speaks with you."
"No, ma'am. Just passin' through."
"If you wish to lend a hand with the burning, I can easily provide supper."
"I got a burnin' and I reckon you kin help me with 'er."
His crudity does not pass unnoticed, but I would spare Cece the pain of seeing what this ruffian is certain to attempt. Cecil has other plans. "My paw's Mike Carson. You git on or he'll come after you like hounds on coon trail."
"You are well advised. My son speaks truly." He looks set to pull his pistol. I will not watch my children slain. "Would you care for some picnic? Let me get my change-purse and we can take something for a private luncheon. Perhaps even pack a dessert."
A just one, were I to have the choice. I turn before he can react. Felicia runs inside, ready to slam the door the moment I am beside her. I hear him grumble, then shout, but I am inside and Felicia shuts the door. We throw a heavy bar across it, preventing him entering, though the windows are all open. Texas is beastly hot, even in May. "Felicia, get your little brother and go out the back way."
In a sane part of the world, I would have constables ready to stop this man. Instead, I must try to do it myself. The man yells, "Missy, you best git out her double quick lest I burn that nice house down arount your ears."
Hazarding a glance outside, Cecil is already gone. His father taught him to move like a Comanche, so this intruder can no longer threaten him. There remains a single option, one so foreign to my upbringing none would give it credence who knew me before; the gun case. Not a shotgun, the kick might spoil my aim and the spread is not enough for wildly inaccurate shooting. The best choice, a reliable Winchester. Fifteen rounds, hastily loaded while crouched behind the divan. Fifteen chances to kill or maim. Fifteen bullets to protect my little dears.
Smoke assails my nostrils. The cad did it. He set fire to our lovely home. The Winchester leads my march to the front door. Sliding the bar while keeping one hand on the gun. What would Melisande think, were we to gossip about my activities today? Loose brush is strewn along the porch. More fool this man. We wet it thoroughly from the pump ere we begin burning. It smolders, but does not ignite. The man has another load of leaves, ready to dump it on the existing flame.
"Drop that load and raise your hands."
"Yer yellah. You'd never fire." The way he says fire brings images to mind. Images of a badly burned couple. The Winchester barks, but the round passes by him without striking. A moment later, Cecil lashes out with a stone from his slingshot. It strikes the brute squarely in his back. I lever in another round and prepare to shoot again, with him caught in a crossfire between me and Cecil. I cannot allow him to bring that pistol to bear on my son.
Firing another round at him, produces a second miss. He drops his load of brush to whip out his revolver. It snags on the holster just as Cecil strikes him with another stone. He manages to fire it into his own leg. Blood spurts and he falls to the ground, his pistol now ignored. His haste repaid to his loss- Mike has often regaled me with how patience works best in a gunfight. I lever one more round into my rifle, then advance to within ten feet. "I may be a poor shot, but I've a dozen more rounds. Do you think all shall fail to find a mark?"
"Nolan Jefferson, put your hands up." Mike has returned early. No doubt remains who shall emerge victorious, for Mike holds a coachgun ready for use. The short barrel assures a big spread, at this range it means a pattern the size of a dinner plate. With that attended, I lift the hem of my skirt, a scandalous action, then proceed to kick the debris off my porch. Work boots. No northern lady wears them. However, when planning to burn rubbish, no other choice can be made.
A pair of Mike's deputies take the man away. Mike, always a gentleman says, "You done enough holdin' that feller 'til I got here. I'll git this done. You feed the young'uns supper."
"Who was that man?"
"Feller name of Nolan Jefferson. Burned down the McMurty homestead over in San Saba county. I chased him all the way back here." Mike clears the porch with easy efficiency, while young Cecil rushes to aid his personal hero. "An arsonist. Doc says mebbe he got a hankering to set fires."
I decide to get in the last word. "One might call it a burning desire."