Once to Die
William Everett Spencer swung the ax. Steel split cedar and the log toppled in halves from the stump.
His breath frosted as he tugged free the blade. Despite the dawn’s chill he stood in his shirtsleeves, a watch chain draping his waistcoat and a clerical collar wrapping his neck. He peeled off a leather glove and combed his fingers through his hair.
Sweat dampened the linen clinging to his ribs. He rested the ax against a heap of hewn timber, reached for the clay jug at his feet and lifted it to his lips.
Frigid spring water iced his throat. Shivers rattled his chest. He wiped his mouth, drew a breath scented with cedar and let his gaze wander up the hillside.
Evergreens veiled in mist climbed into a sky of brightening gray.
The shout pulled his attention down the slope. Two boys in baggy flannel waded through knee-high grass rising toward the forest. “Pastor Will, we got the rope swing off’n the big tree.”
“Leave it on the porch,” he said, “then come load this cordwood into the wagon.”
The boys retreated to the parsonage at the base of the rise, slingshots wagging in their pockets. The cottage’s clapboard walls gleamed white beneath a roof of redwood shingles.
Oaks shrouded the nearby chapel. The sanctuary’s empty belfry speared through the trees. Beyond the grove stretched the lumbered canyon of Grass Flats.
William guzzled another icy mouthful and nestled the jug beside his boot. He pulled on his glove and placed another log on the stump.
Hooves hammered the town’s thoroughfare. A pair of harnessed stallions thundered past the textile supply. In the steeds’ wake lurched a carriage of lacquered burgundy and black, its wheels spewing frost. Atop the driver’s bench bounced a liveried coachman thrashing whip and reins.
Sheriff Lowry swayed at the coachman’s side, clutching his battered hat to his head.
At the parsonage the carriage skidded to a stop. Lowry leapt to the roadway and queried the boys. They pointed up the slope. The lawman bounded toward the forest, his unfastened frock coat flapping across his back and his Colt revolver whacking his hip. Both boys scurried after him.
William fought a tremor in his chest. He hefted his ax and struck a blow that cleft the log in two.
“Good morning, sheriff,” he said, stripping off his glove and extending his hand.
Lowry slapped a tin star into William’s palm. “Put this on and come with me.”
William scowled at the star. “Sheriff, we already discussed this.”
“Won’t be no shooting this time.”
Both boys stood openmouthed at the sheriff’s back.
William rolled the star between his fingers. His gaze drifted to the coachman watching from the carriage. The coachman’s cloak was lined with satin, his tunic embroidered with gold from cuff to elbow.
William lowered his chin to his chest. He blew a beleaguered sigh and pinned the star to his vest. “You boys load this cordwood.”
“Yes, sir, Pastor Will. You want us to cart it over to Widow Handley’s? We can fetch my pa’s horse from the livery.”
“I should be back before then.”
“We fixing to deliver it pirate-like?”
William eyed the wooden swords thrust into the boys’ rope belts. He forced a smile. “Exactly. She mustn’t suspect a thing. Caleb, you’re captain until I return.”
“Can we plant a pirate flag, like last time?” Caleb said.
“’May we plant…’”
“James’s been practicing, Pastor Will. He can make one real good.”
James tugged a square of frayed fabric from his pocket. “There’s wild berries aplenty down by the creek I can use for dye. And looky here. My ma made me a eye patch.”
William perused the proffered items. “Very well, men, stow that treasure in the longboat and get started on that flag.”
“Aye aye, captain.” The boys snapped to attention and knuckled their foreheads.
William returned their salute. He scooped his frock coat and parson’s hat from the wagon bed and trailed Sheriff Lowry down the slope.
“Leave that ax alone,” he called over his shoulder.
Caleb yelled after him. “Don’t you worry none, Pastor Will. We’ll be ready to cast off soon as you’re aboard.”
* * *
In silence the boys watched the minister clamber into the carriage with the sheriff. A crack of the coachman’s whip jolted the stallions back toward the town.
Caleb gripped the sword hilt jutting from his belt. “James, can you fetch your pa’s horse?”
“You heard the sheriff. Won’t be no shooting.”
Caleb gnawed his lip. “So why he come looking for Pastor Will?”
The boys eyed the abandoned ax, and the cloven cordwood littering the earth.
They glanced at one another, and bolted for the livery.