To avoid the prospect of a bloody feud, Cade leaves his home at the tender age of 16, with nothing but the wise words of his preacher father and a used Spencer .54. Though he always remembers his father’s words, it is the old Spencer—and his natural-born talent for using it—that comes to save, and shape, his life.
His travels lead him to the town of Walker, Kansas, where he aims to settle down and start a family. But he has only traded one feud for another. When vengeful cowards invade his home, Cade doesn’t turn the other cheek. He wields his old Spencer like the wrath of God.
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Bringing down the thunder . . .
Jim looked at Tom and said, “You better get your horse and just ride on out of here. You don’t want to buy in on this.”
Tom smiled. “Reckon I wouldn’t get far. Maybe as far as the horse before you’d put a bullet in me.”
Roy smiled lazily. “Now, why would we want to do that?”
“Witnesses,” Tom said. “You wouldn’t want to leave one behind now, would you?”
“What makes you think we would be afraid of witnesses?”
“Like I said, you don’t have badges,” Tom answered.
“Damnit! This here’s my badge!” Jim shouted, and reached for his pistol.
Tom tilted the Spencer forward, the barrel slapping into the palm of his hand as he pressed the trigger. The heavy bullet slammed into Jim, knocking him off his horse. Tom slipped to the side, levering another cartridge into the Spencer. For a second, he thought he was too late . . .
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For I will pass through the land of Egypt this night,
and will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt,
both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt
I will execute judgment . . .
And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair . . .
We must remember that even God has need of
an avenging angel who wields a mighty sword
and has his seat at God’s left hand.
THOMAS Cade lolled lazily on the cool grass bank of Plum Creek, watching the bobber on his fishing line move gently in a tiny circle in the slow current. The sun was warm on his shoulders and chest, and the Indian summer scent from the changing leaves of the oak and ash trees in the Tennessee hills left him feeling sleepy. Dimly, he could hear the contented grunts of pigs as they rooted through the mud in their pens on the other side of the Osage orange grove that his father, the Reverend Micah Cade, had planted to act as a windbreak when the blizzards came into the hills. The pens and corral where the milch cow and Hampshire pigs were kept were the same soft silver-gray color of weathered wood as the cabin—like all the other cabins in the hills where they lived a short distance from his father’s Church of the Navarene. The planks of the cabin were twelve inches wide, grooved and pinned, and overlapped each so chinking had not been necessary. The roof had cedar shingles and was set at a single pitch for the rain to sluice down. From a distance, when the sun was full upon it, it shimmered like a translucent gray pearl.
He grimaced as he recognized his father’s voice, then sighed, and pulled in his fishing line, wrapping it carefully around the cane pole. He stripped the worm he was using as bait from the hook and tucked the hook under two turnings of the line.
There was an edge to his father’s voice now, but still Tom didn’t hurry as he made his way back to the grove and slipped through the Osage orange trees.
His father stood on the porch of the cabin, his hands on his hips, white patriarchal beard bristling in the noon sun. He had dressed all in black, with the exception of the white Wesley collar he affected although he did not believe in the teachings of John Wesley. His blue eyes narrowed as he watched his son amble slowly across the clearing to the bottom of the steps.
Tom planted the cane pole by his bare feet and looked up at his father. “Yes, Pa?” he asked.
His father shook his head. “Thomas, didn’t I tell you to keep an eye on the cow?”
Tom glanced at the empty corral next to the springhouse filled with black widows and hornets. The gate stood wide open, the shuttle bar nudged back far enough to slip from its lodging. He sighed and nodded. “Yes, Pa, you did. But I told Matthew to watch her for an hour or two.”
Micah studied his son, tall and gangly, with large bones that promised the man to come. His blue eyes seemed to bore into the back of people’s minds and read their thoughts there. His hair, the color of a raven’s wing, was long and shaggy, and a shock of it continually fell down over his forehead.
Sixteen years old, Micah thought. The bloom of my seed. The one upon whom I hung such high hopes. Micah took a deep breath and let it out slowly, resisting the impulse to lash out at his son. Those days were numbered now, and he could tell from the resentment that built up within his son’s eyes that many more tongue-lashings would not be tolerated.
“Thomas,” he said quietly. “The job of watching the cow was one given to you to do, not for you to give to Matthew. That was your responsibility and you shoveled it off on another. Remember the parable of the faithful and unfaithful servant.”
“Yes, Pa,” Tom said dutifully, but his father was lost in his own thoughts.
“That parable illustrates that the servant teaches not only that you must be faithful to your master, but with that faithfulness comes additional and greater responsibility. You must accept responsibility and not pass it off on your brother or anyone else.”
Tom’s blue eyes looked like agates set in a wooden face as he listened. Inside, he burned with a resentment born from past lectures when his father would rebuke him for being different from his brothers, Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
“You are the oldest son,” Micah continued. “And the others look to you to see what you will do.”
“Yes, Pa. I’ll just go get that cow now,” Tom said. He turned to go.
“I’m not finished,” Micah said quietly.
Tom turned back, the muscles at the corners of his jaws working angrily. Micah started to speak, then changed his mind.
“You’d better check out Mr. Johnson’s cornfield first,” he said resignedly. He felt defeated at such moments. “Remember what Mr. Johnson said he’d do the next time he found our cow in the cornfield.”
“She does have a liking for sweet corn,” Tom said.
“Her liking is not a concern of mine,” Micah said. “That cow has a mind of her own and it’s going to get her in trouble someday. Some people are like that too.”
“Meaning me?” Tom said. His eyes had turned darker as he felt anger bubbling close to the surface.
“A wise man learns from everything around him,” Micah said. “You go find that cow now and bring her home. We’ll talk more about this later. After you have read Matthew 24:45-51 and Luke 12:41-46.”
“Yes, Pa,” Tom said resentfully. Always, these talks ended with assignments to read the Scriptures or the works of dead poets his father was fond of quoting as if they too were gospel, as if he wanted to make the son the image of the father and his father before him, Grandpa Jonas Cade, who wore the same type of black suit with Wesley collar as his offspring and preached the same narrow tracks of fire and brimstone and the saving of only a handful of God’s creatures who were deserving of His grace.
Tom leaned the cane pole against the side of the house and walked down the narrow lane to the dirt road leading past the church. He trudged along it, feet kicking up tiny puffs of dust that hung in the air and made him cough until he felt trapped deep in dust. He pulled the frayed and broken straw hat off his head and squinted up at the sun high in the sky, a bright orange ball. He glanced down at his patched overalls and the thin linen shirt that was missing a button at the collar, which he closed with a pin whenever a lady came calling on his father. Since the death of his mother two years this coming Christmas, there’d been no one to sew buttons on shirts except himself and his father.
A rattlesnake announced a warning as Tom passed, and for a moment, Tom was tempted to go back and hunt him down in the tall bluegrass beside the road. The last one he’d found had gone a good five feet, and he’d sold the skin to Al Perkins, who owned the general store in Bundren Gap, for a dollar. Perkins added the amount to the account that Tom kept at the store, where he sold the muskrat and raccoon skins from his traps in the woods. By his reckoning, he had nearly enough to buy the used Spencer .54 that Perkins had taken in trade for performing his undertaker’s duties on a traveler who had been killed in a knife fight in the shanty behind the sawmill on Plum Creek, where the Steppins brothers sold their moonshine that had such a bite to it that it could knock the eyes out of a rooster.
Bundren Gap was a four-building town that consisted of Perkins’s Store, Watson’s Saddlery, Tull’s Tavern, and Doc Henry’s place that doubled as a surgery, but pickings were slim for Doc Henry as old Widow Wilson, who lived up on Raventop, had been midwifing for more years than anyone around knew. Her potions, backed by a healthy jolt of the Steppinses’ first-run-through corn mash, had more respect than the medicine provided by Doc Henry’s apothecary skills.
“Good for stomachee and rheum-tis-me and general choler,” Widow Wilson would announce, and if a soothing seeker needed a potion for something else, she cheerfully added to the list of ailments that could be cured by one of her tiny black bottles.
The rattler buzzed again, but Tom moved regretfully on down the road, watching his shadow grow long on the road as he followed it west toward the Johnson place. Maybe on the way back from rescuing the milch cow the rattler would still be there, lazing around in the cool grass from the heat.
Tom reached the edge of the Johnson field, and could see where the cow had managed to knock a railing off and step over it into the corn. For a moment, he thought about trying to take the cow out of the corn without Johnson knowing about it, but if his pa found out he’d collected the cow without admitting to the damage in the field, another parable would be forthcoming. He wasn’t really certain how many parables there were, but by his reckoning, he’d had at least a hundred over the years, and that wasn’t counting the books on philosophy that his pa insisted he read as well.
Tom walked on down to the lane leading up to the Johnson cabin. Johnson’s oldest girl, Eula, was sitting on an old wicker rocker on the front porch, running a brush through her long yellow hair. When she saw Tom approaching, she raised her hand and drew it down her hair, arranging it to fall in large curls over her melon breasts. Tom always felt nervous around her as when he looked at her, her eyes seemed to become secretively all-knowing, and he was pretty certain that eternal grace and salvation were not upon her—at least at that moment.
He stopped at the foot of the steps leading to the porch and touched the brim of his hat.
“Afternoon, Miss Eula,” he said. “Your pa around?”