I shot papa square in the heart but he didn’t die. That damn bible he carried with him saved his life. I was considerable lucky that papa had his axe at hand, and that he kept it sharp. I picked it up. It was a heavy thing, so I swung with all my might and put it right through his head. Seein’ his brains made me throw up. I moved away so it wouldn’t get on papa. That would be disrespectful.
Papa was a big man. I couldn’t bury him like that, so I started choppin’ off his arms and legs with the axe. I was down to the right leg when Sheriff Culverson showed up. Wouldn’t you know it, he came to arrest papa for stealin’ a couple of old lady Renner’s chickens. Papa didn’t have to worry about that now. Hell, he didn’t have to worry about the drought or where his next bottle’d come from, either. I reckon I did him a favor, savin’ him from all that worry.
Sheriff Culverson looked at me and looked at papa. I done threw up again, so the smell was somethin’ turrible in the vicinity. I looked at the sheriff. He was a shakin’ his head and had a sad look on his face. I reckon he didn’t want to take a nineteen-year-old girl to jail. ‘specially me, seein’ as how I was his daughter’s best friend. Maybe he’ll let Cassie visit me in jail.
The jailhouse only had the one cell. That door a clankin’ behind me sounded like what mama would call omnus. I kinda know what that means by the words around it. Corntex, I think they call it. I would know a lot more if papa would’ve let me go to school. He said girls don’t need school. They need to learn how to cook and to clean and to please their man. I’m damn good at cookin’ and cleanin’, but I don’t think I know how to please a man. Papa was a man and he was never pleased.
Oh Lord! Here comes the sheriff and another man. I seen him around. Mr. King. He’s always all duded up and talkin’ fancy and smilin’ and a swingin’ his walkin’ stick around. I sure would like to catch me a man like that. I bet he don’t beat his women. Not much, anyway.
He ain’t smilin’ now. I reckon I’m in a heap of trouble. Welp, papa won’t be slappin’ the tar outta me for my sins this time.
Both men sat across the table from Esther. The sheriff had placed the gun that Esther had shot her dad with, next to the bible that had thwarted Esther’s original plan. The metal gleamed in the harsh light of the room, sitting as silently as the three occupants. The ceiling fan squeaked quietly, not doing a very good job of cooling off the room. The open window allowed the sunlight to stream through, and a soft breeze brought a little relief from the heat, along with the scent of jasmine and dust. The harsh, unforgiving angles that the sun cast in the room matched Esther’s mood.
Esther reached for the wounded bible. She wanted to feel the torn cover and open it up to inspect the damage. The sheriff pulled it towards him and opened it up before sliding it to Esther. The soft sigh of the bible moving across the table sounded like the whisper of broken dreams.
“Notice anything?” The sheriff leaned back and watched Esther closely.
Esther inspected the bible. The bullet had torn through a significant portion of the Old Testament. It had stopped at the Book of Esther.
“Yessir. Esther stopped the bullet, I reckon.”
Mr. King smiled, though he didn’t want to. The sheriff nodded his head and leaned forward.
“Don’t you find that a little odd?”
Esther shook her head.
“That’s your name, young lady,” Mr. King spoke. His rich, resonant voice filled the room. Dust motes danced and the breeze quickened.
The men looked at each other impassively, but both were thinking the same thing. The girl was thickheaded.
Mr. King pointed to Esther’s face.
“Your dad do that?”
Her black eye and a swollen nose did all the testifying for her.
“Yessir. Told me I shoulda caught a man by now, and he warn’t gonna feed no old maid much longer.”
“He been drinkin’?” Sheriff Culverson leaned back, crossing his arms. He already knew the answer.
“Yessir. Mama always says that papa only drinks on days endin’ with a ‘y.’ I reckon that’s true.” Esther played with her hair, twirling it between two fingers. She looked away from the men and gazed outside, lost in her own thoughts.
“So you decided to shoot ‘im.”
“But the bible stopped the bullet.”
Mr. Kind leaned forward and stared at Esther, causing her to blush.
“That was when you decided to take the axe to his head?”
Esther stopped playing with her hair and sat still for a moment before answering.
“I suppose so. Papa woulda kilt me if I didn’t kill him.”
“You feared for your life?” Mr. King continued to stare intently at Esther.
Mr. King abruptly stood up and shook the sheriff’s hand.
“I have all I need.”
He left quickly, so quickly that it startled Esther. She looked at the retreating back and worried that she had offended such a gentleman.
“Am I gonna get the Chair?”
The sheriff stood slowly, as if it hurt him to do so. He closed his eyes for a moment before answering. His voice, when he spoke, was softer than Esther had ever heard it.
“No. You’ll get twenty-five years in the women’s prison in San Antone. Minimum.”
Esther started counting on her fingers.
“You’ll be about forty-four, Esther.”
“Damn. I reckon I’ll be too old to catch a man by that time.”
The sheriff felt his chest tighten just a little at those words.
“And mama? How old’ll she be?”
“How old is she now?”
Esther paused, deep in thought.
“Says she was born in 1901.”
“Then she’ll be about sixty.”
Esther nodded, standing, and smoothing out her skirt.
“Reckon she’ll take me back when I get out?”
The sheriff scratched his forehead and looked at the floor.
“I don’t know, honey. I just don’t know.”
They’re calling us heroes. The newspapers, that is. I suppose we are, but I don’t know that I feel heroic. I do, however, feel a difference in me now that papa’s dead. Liberation would be the word. Papa would have hit me if I had ever used that word in front of him.
Papa had been drinking, of course. And smacking mama around. Cassie and I were hiding out in my room, wondering when it would all stop. At one point, I heard mama scream. That’s when I went out to investigate.
Papa was pointing a gun at mama. I didn’t even think about what to do. I just did it. I stepped in front of mama just as papa shot. The bullet hit my bible. Yes, I carried a bible with me, right over my heart, but only when I was wearing overalls. It was fortunate that I was wearing them at this point.
I staggered backward and fell. The impact of the bullet stunned me. Mama fell as well, trying to hold me up. That’s when Cassie came charging out of the room and started to wrestle with papa, trying to get the gun out of his hand. We heard another shot. Papa took a bullet to the gut. He died two hours later, in a lot of pain.
Cassie stood and fairly sprinted out of the house. She came back a few minutes later with her dad. The sheriff. The look on his face was one that will not soon leave me. Pinched and drawn, with worry written clearly in the eyes.
Mama should have never been home. She was supposed to go to San Antonio to see her sister, but papa beat her so bad the night before that she refused to go. I believe that papa beat her so severely so she wouldn’t go. He was like that.
Cassie shouldn’t have been there either. Her father told her never to go to my house when my papa was around, but Cassie often defied her father. Her father was so relieved that Cassie wasn’t injured or killed that he never punished her. On the contrary, he hugged her tightly and kissed her on the cheek. I had never seen him do that before!
I’m supposed to write a story for the newspapers. The one in San Antonio wants to give me – and Cassie – fifty dollars each for our story. An astounding sum. Some rich people in San Antonio also want to give us full scholarships for college. Imagine! Going to college! It’s in Denton, but that’s even better. Cassie and I can get away from the blight of the Hill Country and experience a different kind of life.
A different kind of life. I’m filled with a substantial happiness, and I wonder when it will leave. Never, I hope.
The real hero is mama, and I’ll make sure the newspapers know that. All those years of insisting that I go to school, even when papa beat her for her sass. He called it that, anyway. It was grit and toughness and love. I’ll call it the stuff that heroism is made of. That has a nice ring to it. And it’s the truth.
All three steps to the elevated porch squeaked under Mr. King’s tread, though the man was not heavy. Like the rest of the porch area, they needed paint; rusted nail heads poked out of the wood, loosened by years of neglect and Hill Country weather. The evening was soon to turn into dusk.
“Just spoke to the judge. Cassie ain’t to be charged. He said she did us all a favor by shootin’ that man.”
Sheriff Culverson didn’t show it, but a wave of relief flooded his body. He relaxed a little and felt his breath coming easier. Mr. King sat down and lit a cigar, offering one to the sheriff. Both men took some time to light their cigars, ensuring that they had a proper draw. This was not a task but a ritual, and it was not to be taken lightly.
The sheriff went inside his house and returned in a few moments, bearing a bottle of whiskey and two small tumblers. Each man filled their glass to the amount desired and sipped. Mr. King grimaced at the first sip, then took a second, larger sip.
“I reckon she did us all a favor, sure, but it was an accident. I’m damn happy the judge was of the same mind,” the sheriff said. He took another sip of whiskey and sat his glass down, concentrating on puffing his cigar and enjoying the news.
“You know, I’m surprised one of those women hadn’t killed the man before. He sure liked to beat his women,” Mr. King said.
“The mama,” the sheriff said. Mr. King turned his head slightly.
“The mama. She made that girl, Esther, get an education. I hear she took a beatin’ or two for her daughter. Damn fine woman, in my opinion.”
Mr. King nodded and smiled. He had already heard the news.
“You went to visit the widow, I hear.”
The sheriff glanced at Mr. King and then quickly glanced away.
“Offer my condolences, in an official capacity.”
The sun had disappeared behind the horizon, bestowing faint light and beautiful colors to the sky. Fireflies came out of hiding, their pinpricks of light giving the large front lawn a magical appearance. As if fairies were in attendance. As if a miracle had been bestowed.
“You were there for two hours, sheriff. That’s a lot of…uh…condoling.”
The sheriff turned and stared at Mr. King, his steely blue eyes narrowing a little. Mr. King laughed and hastened to explain.
“The old biddies in town. You know what they’re like. Most of ‘em had you and the widow makin’ a baby during your visit.”
“Vicious old cats,” the sheriff spat out the words.
“Makes sense, though. You and the widow. Esther and Cassie are best friends. They’d be tickled pink to become sisters, so to speak. And the widow’s a fine, strong woman.”
“You done have us at the altar.”
Mr. King tamped the ashes from his cigar onto the porch and scuffed them with his boots. He poured himself more whiskey and watched the fireflies perform their chaotic, beautiful dance.
“Your wife’s been gone for twelve years. I reckon you grieved enough, sheriff. I figure the widow’s grievin’ was nonexistent. Can’t really miss a man that beats you, can you?”
The sheriff poured himself another three fingers of whiskey and stood at the railing beside Mr. King. He sighed and turned to Mr. King, handing him a dollar bill.
“I’m hirin’ you for a two-minute consultation, Mr. King.”
Mr. King looked at the bill and put it in his breast pocket.
“What’s on your mind, sheriff?”
The sheriff paused for a moment, trying to get the words out of his mouth.
“I heard Esther ‘n Cassie talkin’ one day last year, just before Christmas. Esther was tellin’ her that she wanted to shoot her daddy dead so he’d stop beatin’ her mama. Well, that froze me.”
Mr. King looked at the sheriff, a thoughtful expression creasing his face and pursing his lips.
“I figure she would have done it one day, sheriff. I guess Cassie took care of that, though.”
The sheriff sighed.
“So, why the dollar?”
“We got attorney-client confidentiality now, right?”
Mr. King laughed, nodding his head.
“Yes. Very clever, sheriff. But I wasn’t gonna divulge that little piece of information anyway.”
“I expect a receipt when you get to the office tomorrah.”
“Yes. Of course. Come by after work, sheriff, and I’ll buy us a couple of beers. I seem to have an extra dollar in my pocket.”
The night darkened and the breeze stilled; even the fireflies slowed down. Soon, they were gone, letting the darkness of the night have its way. Both men remained silent. Cigar smoke curled and drifted upwards past the porch lights, disappearing into the blackness.
Mr. King left after finishing his whiskey.
“See you tomorrow, sheriff. And I’ll expect a wedding invitation.”
“I want that receipt, young man.”
The rest of the night passed as it should have. Frogs croaked lazily, crickets chirped, and lights winked out one by one across the countryside. Two young ladies were dreaming of adventures at college, one sheriff was thinking of matrimony, and one widow was contemplating the mysteries of fate and providence.
The bible with a bullet hole in it was, in due time, returned to its rightful owner. The whereabouts of the mangled word of God is currently unknown.