Paw Jenkins still made some money ranging and bounty hunting on Merokee Plains, but of late he had slowed down and was more into stealing horses and skinning anything unfortunate enough to have fur. This gave him more time to think of Bolo and Mellie, the children he kept on his cabin by Thirsty Gulch. The cabin was all crooked logs that leaned over the ravine just like Paw Jenkins leaned over Mellie and Bolo after a night of gin-guzzling to say:
“Don’t you all cry and moan. That’s how the wolves know to get you.”
Paw Jenkins had a beard thick as a forest, mountainous shoulders, and a bear’s gut, but his children were both thin, stick-like kids. Looked nothing like each other, otherwise: Mellie had perpetually frightened blue eyes and hair like dried-out corn silk; Bolo was a brown kid with far-seeing eyes, and although sometimes Paw Jenkins said he was Mellie’s brother, other times he said the boy was just a half-breed he’d saved from a massacre in Missimee. Out of kindness.
Paw Jenkins had tried to teach Bolo how to hunt and fend for himself but the boy had been deemed worthless with a shotgun. His aim was always a little off, far-seeing eyes or not. Cottontails scampered away happily, quail fled before him mockingly. Bolo was always close to almost hitting something but the most he’d done is that one time he nicked a deer’s antler. Early on Paw Jenkins would box Bolo’s ears for wasting bullets, but in time that made the boy half-deaf and therefore worse at hunting, so eventually Paw just concentrated on Mellie.
Mellie was a better shot. She didn’t start exceptional: at seven years old she dislocated a shoulder from the recoil. A frail child at first, but she toughened up quick, and one thing Paw Jenkins really appreciated was that, unlike Bolo, Mellie wasn’t too sentimental about worthless birds and little critters.
Mellie did have one failure in her character, at least in Paw Jenkins’ reckoning, and that is that she took to caring for a ghostly little white goat that she called Silly Billy. She would braid its beard and indulge in all sort of foolishness with the goat, telling it stories and singing to it.
“You treat that goat better than you treat your Paw, Mellie,” the man admonished her once at the breakfast table, over stew and boiled potatoes. “You think that goat is going to watch out for you two as good as I do?”
“Of course not, Paw,” Mellie said. “He’s just funny. Silly Billy is my friend.” She put down her wooden spoon and smiled at him, all appeasing. Bolo stared at them silently and rolled the potatoes in his bowl.
“He’s funny? He’s a friend? He’s a goat. He’s a dumb, mean clump of meat that makes cheese. You think the world is a place full of funny friendly animals, Mellie? There are no funny friendly animals. They’re all dumb and mean. Goats. Wildcats. Bears. Wolves. I ain’t excepting humans. You think people are funny? You think people are friendly? That’s the biggest lie in this whole world. Your funniest friend will twist your neck for a dirty dime any old day. Dumb and mean. I ain’t excepting anyone.”
“Aw, Paw,” Mellie said. “But what about me? I’m not dumb or mean!”
The man shook his head with sadness: “You don’t even know that you’re dumb, that’s how dumb you two are. But it’s true that you are not mean yet, and that’s because I have been soft on you. I have been soft on you because I’m dumb. See how that works?”
Mellie kept on with her foolish grin: “Aw, Paw, you’re not dumb! You’re the smartest man in the world, much smarter than Bolo! And yes, sometimes you can be mean to Bolo, but you’ve never been mean to me. So that proves you’re wrong!”
Paw Jenkins contemplated that. He looked over at Bolo, who seemed immersed in the study of his stew. Paw exhaled and, after much sober reflection, he reached out toward Mellie’s little arm with his massive paw and trapped the tender flesh above her elbow and pinched and squeezed and twisted while the girl’s blue eyes went into a panic. “Don’t you ever tell your own Paw he’s wrong,” he said before releasing her.
Less than an hour later and Mellie had a bruise as big and colorful as an Easter Egg in her arm. Girl couldn’t have lifted so much as a water pail. She slipped out of the cabin while Paw napped the morning away in his cot. She went to tell her shock and pain into Silly Billy’s white ears.
It was easy to find the goat because it was bucking and rearing right outside on the front yard, kicking up clods of dirt as if it fancied it was a bull in rage. Bolo was making cautious circles around the animal.”Poor Silly Billy caught a bad spirit,” the boy said. “I’ll go tell Paw.”
“NO!” Mellie leapt before him, fresh tears on her face. “Not Paw. Paw is resting. I can think of a cure by myself. Elderberry water! That cures fevers!”
Bolo narrowed his far-seeing eyes. “You are just sulking because Paw never gave you any lickings before. Now you know what I know every day of my life. I’ll go get help.”
The boy ran into the cabin while Mellie tried to soothe the goat with a song of her own desperate invention: “Silly Billy, don’t you fret…You’ll feel better soon, I bet…Mama Mellie loves her pet…Silly Billy, don’t you…”
“Singing and foolery won’t help a sick buck.” Paw Jenkins was standing behind Mellie, displeased. “Move aside.” He grabbed the goat by its twisted horns and forced the animal into stillness. Right away he saw the blistered flaring muzzle, the tongue poking swollen, the globs of bloody snot staining the goat’s beard.
Bolo said: “Is it a bad spirit, Paw?”
“What spirits, Bolo? Do you see any spirits? There are no spirits, this is a dumb sick buck that drank some foul water and now has to be slaughtered before he passes the illness on to the herd. Go get my shotgun.”
Bolo hesitated: “Mellie said maybe elderberries could help.”
“Did I ask about Mellie’s opinion or did I ask you to get my shotgun? You’re not that deaf yet.” He shoved the boy toward the cabin, and turned to the girl who was quaking almost as bad as the goat. “Elderberries? Are you stupid enough to think this old goat is going to heal? It is weak, it is broken, it is worthless. When something is weak, broken and worthless, it gets killed. You haven’t learned that yet but your Paw can’t keep on acting so kind, because then it is YOU who will grow weak and broken and worthless.”
Bolo emerged from the cabin, and as soon as Mellie saw her brother lugging the shotgun, she began to wail in earnest:
“Please, no, Paw!” She clung to her father’s trousers like an impertinent flea. “Don’t kill Silly Billy!”
“I’m not going to,” Paw Jenkins said while snatching the shotgun from Bolo and pushing it into Mellie’s arms. “You named the animal. It’s yours to kill.”
“What?” Mellie shook under the weapon’s weight. “No, Paw, please. I can’t.”
“I won’t hear crying or moaning. Lift that barrel, aim for the goat’s head, and pull the trigger.”
Mellie was a meek girl most of the time, but that morning she disobeyed. There was crying and moaning and she would not take her shot; Silly Billy bleated with her, a continuous suffering noise. Paw Jenkins could hardly believe their infernal, intolerable symphony. “Mellie. Kill. The. Goat. Now.”
Bolo stepped closer: “Oh, Paw, don’t make her, she’s already scared. Just let the goat go away. It’s just a meaty clump of goat, like you said.”
“Stay out of it, Bolo.”
Bolo persisted: “At least let me do it for her, Paw. Mellie is a dumb girl. You said! Girls aren’t for killing, boys are. And she doesn’t want to.”
“She has to even if she doesn’t want to. She has to BECAUSE she doesn’t want to. And you,” the man’s laughter came out bitter, louder than the goat’s bleats. “You want to be a boy now? You who whimper when quail die? You want to make your Paw proud? Too late. Let your sister be the boy today.”
Bolo said: “But… She can’t even lift the gun, her arm is still sore. From how you pinched her.”
That was too much back talk for Paw Jenkins and he didn’t bother with more reply that a fast punch that left the boy rolling on the dirt and dust and whimpering. Paw turned to his terrified daughter: “Is that true, Mellie? Your arm still hurts from that little love squeeze I gave you?”
She blubbered: “Yes, Paw. A little.”
He knelt beside her: “Let Paw have a look at it. Oh, that does look like a big old bruise. That’s part of growing up in this place, you know. The bigger we get, the bigger we get bruised.” Then he pressed with his thumb on the bruise and Mellie howled. “I’m going to poke a hole right through your little arm unless you kill that goat right now.”
So Mellie nodded emphatically, lifted the shaking shotgun, and closed her blue, wet, frightened eyes as she shot Silly Billy dead.
No more bleating, no more crying, no more whimpering. The echo of the shot died out and there was a peaceful sort of silence that descended over the front yard. Mellie passed the smoking weapon to Paw. He patted down her blonde hair as gently as he could. Bolo pulled himself up from the dirt and walked to Paw. The man gathered the children close unto him and said gently: “Do you understand why I do these things, children? It’s because this land can be quite unforgiving.”
(End of Part 1. To Be continued.)