Another week passed before the nameless man eased his body from the bed and hobbled into the empty kitchen. He peered out the window, greeted by mounds of glistening snow. He spied a cane leaning against the wall by the door and decided he'd venture outside, get acquainted with the property surrounding the rustic cabin.
Stepping onto a rickety porch, the barn came into his line of vision. He had a feeling he'd find his host inside.
Ignatius smiled when he walked through the open barn door. "Well, I'll be damned. You're up and about."
"If I stay in bed much longer, I'll turn into a witless cabbage."
Ignatius offered a smile and continued grooming the hind quarters of a horse. "This is Boaz." He pointed to a mare in the next stall. 'And that would be Nell."
During the last week, Ignatius had ventured into his room at night and expounded on the habits and quirks of the beasts. The man held a vast amount of knowledge in that area. Knowing nothing about his past or the incident that caused his wounds, conversation between them had been benign and banal.
"I'm done with my chores here." Ignatius placed the comb on a ledge. "How about some breakfast?"
"I'm a mite hungry."
"Come on; it's warming on the stove."
He grabbed a hot cup of coffee from Ignatius and inched his way to a chair before the hearth. Minutes later, Ignatius handed him a plate of food—eggs, thick slabs of bacon and biscuits—and settled into a chair across from him.
Ignatius stretched his long legs out before him and stabbed a strip of bacon with his fork. "I've been thinking...you should have a name."
"I have one; just can't remember what it is."
"What do you want me to call you, son?"
He stared at the dark liquid in his cup. "Doesn't much matter I guess."
"Here's your chance to choose a name you've always fancied, until we find out your real name, mind you."
"Think that will ever happen?"
"Yes, I do. Someone will recognize you, or maybe you'll remember your name one day."
"You pick one. My name is the least of my worries."
Ignatius took a sip of coffee and studied him over the rim. "How about Amigo; it means friend?"
He wrinkled his nose.
"Compadre, then? The Spanish word for friend."
"How about a real name, a civilized one—Benjamin or Matthew?"
"Biblical names?" Ignatius shook his head. "They don't match your face."
"Oh, the name has to do justice to my looks. Well...how about No One then?"
"Call you No One?" He arched his neck back. "What kind of a name is that?" A lengthy pause ensued before he spoke again. "How about Son, just plain Son? Does that name rub you wrong?"
"Fine with me." He blew air through his lips, wasn't comfortable talking about his unknown past. "As long as it's not Sonny."
Ignatius grinned and gave a firm nod. "Son it is."
Anxious to change the subject, Son looked up. "Why are you living out here alone? Don't you have a family?"
He turned toward the fire; his eyes fixed on the amber flames. "Did at one time."
Son pressed him for an answer. "Might as well spill your guts, can't be that bad."
"Oh, the tale is foul. Don't know what you'll think once I tell ya."
Son leaned forward in the rocker. "What is it, man? Spit it out."
"Before I came here, we lived in Virginia City, Montana." Ignatius crossed his ankles but kept his sight on the fire.
"My wife, Maria, our daughter Jade and me."
"You were married then?"
Ignatius nodded and released a wistful sigh. "To a half-blood Cherokee. I loved that woman. Her ma was one hundred percent Cherokee, her pa a white trapper. Maria never knew the man; he ran off before she saw her first summer. When her ma died, the tribe raised her, but it was a hard life. At fifteen, Maria headed for the nearest town, Virginia City, and took work as a washerwoman at one of the brothels."
"That's where you met her?"
Another nod. "I frequented Belle's, didn't bed down with the women if that's what you're thinking."
"I'm not thinking anything at this point, I'm listening."
"I'll admit to raising a little hell there, late-night poker games, too much whiskey. Helped pass the long winter months."
Son rolled his eyes. "I'm not judging; just want to know what happened to your wife."
"I took a shine to Maria right off, felt sorry for the girl, toiling sunup to sundown. Them whores didn't pay her, but Belle offered her a roof and two meals a day for her work. One night, I stopped in for a drink and I see her in the hallway. She had a helluva shiner under her left eye. I asked the barkeep what happened to her, and he said, 'Guess Dolly didn't think her fancies were clean enough.' That didn't set right with me. I got up from the stool, walked over to Maria and lifted her chin with my finger. "You want to remain living in this hole? She shook her head. "Get your things, you're coming with me."
"As simple as that?"
"Yup. By the time I paid for my drink and walked through the door, Maria stood next to Boaz with a bundle tucked under her arm." Ignatius' eyes misted over. "Five years later she was dead."
Son's head snapped up. "Dead? What happened to her?"
A cloud of pain and anger flitted through his friend's eyes. "At seventeen, she bore my child, a daughter we named Jade cuz of her round black eyes." Ignatius paused. "She must be about seven now. Anyway, we kept to ourselves, lived off the land, had a good life."
Jesus, would the man ever tell him how Maria died?
"Evil lurks in the hearts of men, not all, but some. Reckon you learned that for yourself. The evil in Virginia City went by the name of Billy Sheets, the son of a wealthy rancher. He rode roughshod over a handful of miscreants; not one with a lick of sense. But when Billy gave an order, they were happy to see it done. The kid's list of run-ins with the law was longer than my granny's nightgown, but his pa paid his way out of every scrape. Billy never learned right from wrong. Reckon with the right father, the kid might have lived to see his twenty-fifth birthday."
"He died too?"
"Yup. I killed him."
Son's muscles tensed. What did he know of Ignatius? Not much, other than the man had saved his life. Some would have looked the other way, left him to die on the banks of the river. But Ignatius took in a complete stranger, brought him back from the dead.
"I told you this was a foul tale, complicated too. There was a lot of gold up for grabs in Virginia City. The local politicians knew whoever ended up with the gold would win the war."
"I seem to remember something about a war in the back of my mind."
"The Civil War. Brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor and there ain't a better example of that than Virginia City. At one time, the town was part of Idaho Territory, so the town's loyalties are divided—half Rebel sympathizers, half pro-Confederacy." Ignatius looked over his coffee cup. "You getting a picture of the inner workings of the town?"
"Gold was the source of the problem. The Union governed Virginia City, spent all their time trying to hang on to the gold. The vigilantes did everything they could to keep the government from getting their hands on it."
"Vigilante as in Billy Sheets?"
Ignatius nodded. "They don't fight with sabers and rifles in that town; they favor knives and the hangman's noose. The outlaw bands don't ask questions before stringing you up. They suspect you're a Union sympathizer, you're a dead man." He closed his eyes for a moment. "Or a dead woman."
"What? Are you telling me Billy Sheets killed Maria?"
Ignatius reached for the flask of whiskey beside him and poured a liberal amount into his cup. "And died for his evil doings. Hell, Maria had no stake in the war, wasn't partial to the Union or the Confederacy. Some misguided fool started a rumor; said I took the part of the government."
Son felt his brow wrinkle. "Did you?"
"Hell, no. Fifty years old, why would I stick my nose in a war I could do nothing about?"
"Are you going to tell me what happened to Maria or do I have to wait until morning before you get to it?"
"Youngsters are so impatient." Ignatius drew a deep breath. "I haven't talked about her death since the day it happened, but...I left the cabin that afternoon to check on a mare about to foal. Found the beast a mile from home, but she didn't bring forth her colt until almost sunset. I saw smoke rising in the distance halfway home, knew it wasn't chimney smoke. Fell to my knees when I arrived. Nothing left of the cabin but ashes, and no sight of Maria or the child."
Son's leg cramped in unison with the muscles in his gut. He rose from the rocker and paced a small area behind it. "They torched the house?"
"Right down to the ground. I couldn't enter until morning so I plunked down and stared at the embers all night. Thought I'd find the girl and Maria in the blackened ruins. Nothing, not even a fragment of their bones. I tore through the woods, calling out for them."
"Get to the end. Did you find them in the forest?"
Ignatius looked up; his eyes cloudy with tears. "Found Maria hanging from an oak not far from the house. Choking on bile, I fell to my knees. Nothing else seemed out of place. Sunshine streamed through the branches of the pines, the birds sang as always, and there was my Maria, swinging from a noose in the gentle breeze. I spied something on the ground and crawled over to it—a spur from Billy Sheets' boot."
Son's stomach churned with pity for his friend, the only one he had in the world. "What happened next?"
"I cut her down and returned to the barn for a blanket. Then I placed her between the branches of a cottonwood and pointed her east so she could watch the sun rise."
"And the girl?"
"No sign of her until I finished with her ma. I heard the scrub brush rustle behind me and twisted around. Jade's face and arms were covered with scratches. I figure Maria hid her first and kept on running. The girl clung to my leg and whispered his name, 'Billy.'
Son returned to the rocker once he'd worked the leg cramp loose. "You left Montana without the girl?"
"I dropped her off with a neighbor, Bertha Herrick, said I'd be back one day to claim her. First, I had some nasty business to take care of and if I lived through it, knew I'd be running for a long time. Found Billy and his murdering band in the saloon. I walked up to the bar, ordered a drink and tossed it down. When I crooked around to face him, the kid's chest reminded me of rooster's at dawn.
His sidekicks snaked up next to him, their fingers twitching near their holsters. I let them draw first and then rounds of bullets whistled through the air. Thinking about Maria, I fired and kept on firing. When the smoke cleared, three men lay dead on the floor, their necks and chests oozing blood.
His pupils dilated, his skin whiter than diamonds, the barkeep said, "Ignatius, you better get out of town fast. When Billy's pa finds out you killed his son, you're a dead man."
"Did you leave Virginia City then?"
"Look, I'm not a coward, but I had to think of the girl...Jade. Didn't want her to see more violence; wanted her to have a decent life with a good, Christian woman. Maria would have wanted that. I walked out of that bar without looking back, mounted Boaz and rode from town. Knew what direction I headed, but didn't know my destination. I kept riding until I couldn't sit the horse anymore, did my best to put the memory of Maria hanging from that tree from my mind. Ended up here."
"Why didn't you go to the sheriff, tell him what happened?"
"Are you crazy, Son? Maria was a breed, the sheriff or the Union army wouldn't have done anything. Bet your whiskers, I'd be hanging from a tree right now next to her." Ignatius came to his feet. "Now you've heard the whole sordid tale and I'm tuckered out from reliving it. Going to call it a night."
"Ignatius, I'm sorry, so sorry for your loss and for asking you to recall the past. I don't know what to think."
"Think this: No man should run when trouble comes looking for him. But when a child is involved, the youngster's welfare comes first. If I'd have stayed Jade would be an orphan now and I couldn't allow that to happen."
"She might as well be an orphan; her mother is dead, her father missing from her life."
Ignatius rubbed his chin as if deep in thought. "I'm going back to claim her one day when things settle down. You can count on that."
Son sat in front of the fire for a long time after his friend went to bed. He didn't know if he could sleep after hearing Ignatius' tale of woe. There had to be a way to reunite Ignatius with his daughter. He rose from the rocker and meandered toward his room. Perhaps by morning he'd come up with an idea.