Summary: Even a good friend can become one of the “bad guys” when he lets himself get bedeviled.
Word Count: 2,500
It was Little Joe who answered the door. I always liked Little Joe. Living for him came easy. He worked hard and played hard, but he never had to worry about living at all. There was always supper on the table, always a warm bed to sleep in, a roof over his head. I swore my boy would be raised like Little Joe. His life wouldn’t be like mine was. His living would be easy. But my boy was six feet under already, and still in his momma’s belly. He never even had a chance for living. No chance at all. And when I looked to Little Joe right then, when I saw that grin on his face, when I saw that easy life in his eyes … everything changed. Everything I used to like about him, I came to hate right at that moment.
I don’t remember thinking about drawing my gun. I just drew. My eyes caught sight of that gun at his head, and it was like someone else had put it there. And I eased back that hammer like it was the surest thing I had ever done. It felt so right it never even occurred to me that it could possibly be wrong. It was Adam who stopped me. I don’t remember what he said. Not really. Somehow he convinced me to pull the gun away. But I couldn’t put it down. It felt too right in my hand.
When the barrel was no longer pressed against that boy’s head, I saw some of that easy coming back into Little Joe’s eyes. The gun had made him nervous, but now that it was gone life was getting easy again. That’s why I kicked him. I caught him in the hip with the bottom of my boot, and I could feel that spur ripping through his thigh. It felt almost like gutting a fish. It felt good.
Hoss, he never did like no one using spurs. Said the horses didn’t deserve to have steel blades digging into their hides. But when you got a bedeviled stallion, spurs are about the only thing gonna take the devil out of him. And right then when I kicked Little Joe, when I felt that spur digging into his leg as I pulled my foot away, I knew I had taken the devil out of that black—because that devil had come into me.
With Little Joe sprawled out on the floor like he was, his eyes didn’t have that easy look to them anymore. I guess that’s all I really needed to see. He was angry, I could see that. But he didn’t have his gun on him, and with his leg gutted like that he wouldn’t be able to come at me any other way. So I was able to turn my attention to Adam.
Adam. Now he was a real good friend of mine. He introduced me to my Caroline and stood up at our wedding. It was a sure bet he was gonna be my own Little Joe’s godfather, too. But he didn’t look like that friend anymore. He was standing halfway between me and the stairs, but edging in closer every minute. Friends or not, his obligation was to Little Joe right then, not me. I knew that and I didn’t blame him none for it. If he had to, and if he’d had a gun on him, he would’ve shot me down without a second thought if it meant protecting that easy-life-living little brother of his.
I guess I almost wished he was wearing a gun. My life was over already anyway. Oh, my body kept living alright. But my soul died soon as my Caroline went in the ground. Our spread was all dried up, and without Caroline my heart got all dried up right along with it. There wasn’t much more I could do than go to work for that good friend of mine, that high-living Adam Cartwright, taking his family’s table scraps since I no longer had a table of my own.
He said he was sure I’d get back on my feet. He said I still had plenty of living ahead of me. He even said he’d help anyway he could. He’d say all kinds of things like that, and then he’d turn away, head back into that warm, cozy house of his and close the door behind him.
Sure, Adam’s life hadn’t been as easy as Little Joe’s. But it was easy enough now, I could tell he had no real recollection of the hard times he’d faced with his pa. Oh, he said he remembered, and he told me enough stories to show he remembered. But he didn’t recollect enough to feel the hopelessness of it all deep in his bones like I did. I might have trusted his pa to recollect it all just fine, but not Adam. He’d been too young back then. And he’d had his pa to look out for him. No. His pa back then and me now, we both know what it was like in ways Adam never could. But what was different between his pa and me, was … well, it was Adam. His pa had lost a wife, same as me. But he’d still had a son. And he hadn’t put every bit of his sweat and blood into building a spread that simply refused to be built. So even if his pa’d had bad times, I could see why he’d never got bedeviled.
I guess I wasn’t thinking all that while I was standing there over Joe, my gun in my hand feeling like that was exactly where it belonged, watching Adam coming close as he dared and slow as he needed to. But now I look back on it all, it explains why I got sick to look at him. He was talking at me like he could see I was a bedeviled stallion, like I had no brains in my head and nothing but fire in my eyes. And I hated him for it. I hated him then as much as I hated Little Joe. More, even. If I’d never befriended Adam, I might not even be bedeviled now. It was him got me thinking I could have my own spread. It was him brought my Caroline to me. For all I know, it was him somehow made my land dry up and put that fever into Caroline too. High and mighty Adam Cartwright, who owned the world and thought he could make it do whatever he wanted—like he thought I could put down that gun when it was really the gun that had me, and there wasn’t a damned thing I could do except what it wanted me to do. And right then it wanted me to empty it into Adam Cartwright. I would have, too. Almost did.
Trouble was, I’d underestimated Joe. I don’t rightly know how he did it, but he got the foot of his good leg behind my left ankle, and his other foot to the front. When he pulled his feet together, he unbalanced me enough that Adam could swoop in like the vulture he was. He tried to wrastle with me for the gun. He still didn’t know that gun was as much a part of my hand as all my fingers were. I couldn’t have let go if I’d wanted to.
I don’t know who pulled the trigger though. I don’t suppose it matters none. I only wish the dying came quicker. It’s this slow dying that makes a man think. And thinking can’t change it none. All it does is make you wonder if you could have done anything different. And all that wondering don’t change anything.
I still hate that easy-living Little Joe. And I wish to God I’d never even heard the name Adam Cartwright. But God don’t cotton to wishes from a man like me.
I ain’t afraid of dying. Maybe I should be, on account of the fact Heaven won’t take a man who lets himself get bedeviled. But those angels up yonder don’t know what it’s like to be more afraid of living than dying. So, much as I wish I’d never known Adam, I suppose I can at least thank him for taking that fear away. It’s a sure bet by this time tomorrow, living won’t be a problem for me at all anymore. Soon after that I’ll be sleeping next to Carolyn again. And that suits me just fine.
I’ve heard it said bad things can change a man, turn him into something that don’t have anything at all to do with who he was before. Pa has seen it happen. He told me he’s known men who never really left the battlefield. They just keep fighting—only they ain’t fighting Indians no more; they’re fighting with people who’d been their friends, even family. It’s like they can’t see the difference no more. I reckon that’s what happened to Cal Johnson. Of course, it wasn’t Indians or battles that changed him. It was just life itself.
When I heard that gun go off in the house, I had no way of knowing that’s what happened though.
The sound of that shot about froze the blood in my veins. I ran through that door like nobody’s business. Seeing the way Adam was lowering Cal to the ground, I figured right away it weren’t nothing more than an accident. A bad accident, but still just an accident. Adam kept staring at him—staring and shaking his head like he didn’t want to believe it had happened, or like he didn’t want to believe the truth of what happened. But Joe—that was the worst of it from what I saw. His leg looked half split open and the blood was…. It was bad. Bad enough I didn’t notice the trail of it that went all the way to Cal’s spurs. Not right away. If I had …. Well, I guess maybe I might’ve listened to Joe right off.
As it was, I let Adam deal with Cal and I went to Joe. I was wrapping my belt around his leg to cut off the pressure and try to slow down some of that bleeding when I heard Pa come in. He asked Adam what happened. Adam said he didn’t know. He said it over and over again, and that wasn’t like Adam at all. But before any of us could start to make sense of any of it, Joe spoke up. He told me it wasn’t Cal. He looked right at me and said I had to believe him, that it was the devil or something, but it wasn’t Cal. It was his eyes, Joe told me. He said there was something wrong with Cal’s eyes, like it was the devil himself looking out through those eyes.
I didn’t know what was wrong with Adam, but I had to figure Joe was getting delirious, so I was mighty worried about that wound. But then I heard Cal himself. He said Joe was right. He said it really was the devil. He also said it didn’t matter none, ’cause that devil was going to die right along with him.
Pa told him it was nonsense. He wasn’t gonna die.
Pa didn’t mention the devil though. Not then. It wasn’t until after. After Cal died. After Adam had a few days to try to make sense of things in his own mind. After Joe got his leg stitched back together and was able to make up for some of that blood he’d lost. Even after all that, when we finally sat down to talk about it, to try to figure it out, Joe still said he’d seen the devil in Cal’s eyes. Adam agreed with him. And Pa …. Pa nodded his head, like that was all the explanation he needed.
People can tell you about the times in their lives when they stopped believing in things like fairies and leprechauns. I can tell you, that was the moment in my life when I started believing in the devil, when I started to really believe, without any doubt that the devil could be as real as you and me. I believe it now because I could see Pa believed it then—and because I knew Cal as well as Adam or Joe or anyone else had known him. And I know if a man like Cal can get bedeviled like he did, it can happen to any one of us if we let it. We just have to remember not to let it.
I think we’ll be okay, though. I like to believe if we stick together like we always have, then no matter how bad life gets, ain’t a one of us is gonna sink low enough to let that devil in. I also know if it tries, it’s gonna face one helluva fight.