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The purple moccasin.


A young runaway sets out to find Jesse James but soon discovers hidden romance by the side of the open road.

Once upon a time there was a boy who had run away from home, and he said that he was going up into northern Missouri to find Jesse James.

The runaway traveled all day on unfamiliar roads, and his legs grew powerful weary; but still he kept on traveling, because he was in anger with his pappy. The bunting birds sang constantly, and I reckon they were surprised to see him loping down the rocky twists and turns that led into valleys he had never walked before.

It seemed as if the devil himself was pursuing, and nagging, and saying, "Hasten up, bubby. You've got a long ways to go, and you don't want Jesse James to be vanished when you get there."

And at sunset the boy came to a secret place beside a brown river. It was cool there, and you could smell the sweet marsh that neighbored the stream. A hot day's journey had brought that boy nigh the point where he was ready to fling himself down and cry his heart empty and dry. I have knowledge how he was feeling, for I was that boy.

I sat me down on an old log bridge across the stream; I let my sore feet swing close to the water, and I put my little bundle of possessions beside me. I wondered if my sisters were crying because I hadn't come back to take supper at home.

And then, the next moment, I was standing square erect--shaking and scairt as any cat--for the sound of a shotgun going off takes an exhausted person by surprise.

Over in those woods I had just passed was where the shot came from. And now I could hear voices--a clear, high-pitched voice, and one that was deeper, but more threatening. I legged it across the bridge, because I was plumb certain that the Pinkerton men had sighted me, and that somehow they had got wind of my intentions about Jesse James.

But by the time I got to the far shore, my curious nature had come alive; I couldn't have stirred another step until I saw just what was in those woods, and who had fired the shotgun, and who was roaring like the bull of Bashan.

Then they came out of the brush, moving mighty quick. The first was a little girl, and she went through the rails of that old fence like a garter snake. The second was a man--a tall one--with a shabby coat flapping about his thighs. He'd lost his hat sure enough, for his hair shone white and silvery in the dusk. He crossed the fence, but more dignified than the little girl; at first I thought he was toting a rifle along with him, but in the next moment, even through the gloom, I could see that it was only a spade. And a broken-handled one, at that.

There were firearms abroad, though; I hadn't mistrusted my ears. The bushes began to wave, and a strong-built man stepped into the open space behind the fence. He carried his weapon so that the muzzle was aimed threateningly at those two figures in the road. I scrooched low, but I was mighty near all eyes and ears.

"This is the second offense," said the man with the gun. "I don't need to warn you, mister, that the third offense will prove fatal."

The white-haired gentleman standing in the road kind of pulled himself together and straightened his coattails. "My friend," he said, "your boast is hollow unless you improve your marksmanship."

"The goodness of my aim hain't never been questioned," replied he who held the shotgun. "That time I fired into a buttonball tree, so as not to orphan this kid of yourn."

"Orphan or not," the older man told him, kind of loftily, "she'll acquit herself skillfully in the world. But I insist that you listen to reason, my good sir! I have only one purpose in visiting your property, and--."

The armed man swung back into the bushes. "Good enough purpose, too, I'll be bound!" he yelled over his shoulder. "You want that gold and you want that silverware. But if there's any digging to be done on this property, I reckon I'll hoist the shovel myself!" And then, before there could be a reply, he had gone crackling through the bushes.

I heard that tall bareheaded man say distinctly, "Flower of my life, I shall yet lift the purple moccasin from alien soil!" The little girl laughed with a terrified voice. Then the two of them came towards me, and they were halfway across the bridge before they saw the kind of lump I made, squatting there in the twilight.

He pulled up right smart, and the girl with him. They eyed me for a spell, and I managed to stand erect, though my knees were palsied. "Another wayfarer is present," cried the old man. "Kitty-cat, do you think he intends to dispute our crossing?"

The little girl made a few steps forward and peered at me. The sunset was far distant beyond that valley and the trees that rimmed it, but I swear it was reflected in the mane of hair that dressed her head, and I'll think about her every time I see embers glowing in the night.

"Why, Daddy," she yelped, "he's just a little boy!"

I was jealous of my age, and didn't admire to be called a little boy. "Howdy," I said, but my voice did sound mighty piping.

He came closer, until he could look into my face. "My son," he said, "you seem to be unhappy about something."

"No," I whispered, "it's just that I've been traveling."

"Where from?"

An idea snapped into my head, quick as lightning. "Arkansas," I told him.

"Arkansas," repeated the stranger. He took note of my bare feet and the bundle in my hand, and he kind of chuckled. "My young friend, I assume from your demeanor and from the state of your attire that you are a wanderer drifting abroad like the tumbleweed blown from its native heath."

Well, I was flabbergasted by his speech, because folks didn't talk that way in our neighborhood. But I did manage to mumble out something about how I was going to attach myself to Jesse James, and Cole Younger, too, as soon as he got out of Stillwater.

"Ah," said this man, "Jesse James indeed! A ruthless man, no doubt, and given to incursions and forays."

"Mister," I said, "he robs banks and trains, and he don't give a hoot about Pinkerton men."

The little girl said, kind of pert, "I bet, little boy, he'd eat you up in one bite, if you came nigh to him."

"`Near,' Kitty-cat," cried the tall man. "The word is `near.' I resent your adoption of the colloquial phrase." He kept fondling that handle-broken spade, with the dusk growing thicker at every breath. He seemed powerful old, to have a daughter smaller than me.

The girl called "Kitty-cat" or "Flower of my life," as the case may be, came real close and poked her finger at my chest. "Boy," she said, "how old are you?"

"Mighty nigh onto 13," said I, kind of fuming, "and I'm no little boy, neither."

"Oh," said Kitty-cat, "you're scarcely older than I, because I'm just 12 myself!... Daddy, I guess he's the dirtiest boy I've ever seen."

The old man shook his head at her, and his long locks danced about his ears. "Impolite, Flora Katherine--highly impolite. Your own appearance is scarcely impeccable."

"Boy," she demanded to know, "what's your name?"

"Jesse," I said, "same as Jesse James. And I've got a weapon too. It's a pepperbox revolver that my Uncle Andrew gave me last year, and I've got it right here in this bundle." And then I added, in proud manner, "I'll show it to you, if you want me to."

"No," she said, "I don't like guns. That old man Travis just fired off his shotgun to scare us. And I was scared, and I bet you'd be scared too."

"I wager I wouldn't," I said. We glared at each other, though the gloom was getting so thick you could cut it with a knife.

All this time her father had been dreaming to himself--sighing, and saying over and over again, "Alien soil. Alien soil." But now he shook his head and clucked like a hen coming off her nest, and he poked his finger at me. "Jesse," he said, "fellow traveler of the unfriendly byways, have you broken bread of late?"

Though folks didn't talk that way in our neck of the woods, my father used to read aloud out of books; I wasn't the ignorant little hillbilly that I looked to be. "Mister," I said, "I reckon I could eat a polecat."

"Inedible," he cried. "Absolutely inedible! Carnivorous mammal, Mephitis mephitica--wholly unfit for food. But, to return to my invitation, our stores are ample for our simple needs. I can sup very eagerly myself, despite my disappointment," and then he went to mumbling, uttering again that strange remark about the purple moccasin.

He led the way along the road past the bridge, and the little girl and I scampered after him. A kind of cavern opened up beside us, and it was a lane leading down to a forgotten ford by the brookside. The man went ahead, tall and straight and dreamy, with his silvery hair shaking in a little breeze that had sprung up with the falling of night.

But now it was dark in that tunnel through the trees, and I stumbled in all directions. Next thing I knew, Flora Katherine had reached out her hand; she pulled me along, because she knew the way over these roots and boulders, and it was kind of comforting to have her holding on to me. I thought of my sisters Melissa and Algy, and I kept blinking my eyes.

When I had blinked the wetness out of them, I could see a fire burning low, as if it hadn't been tended for an hour or two. There was a wagon with a canvas top, like movers rode in when they passed our house, but smaller; and there was an old white horse that nickered his head off when he heard us.

They had camped here for days and days. The grass was all tromped down, and there was a scattering of little things underfoot, and there was a tent set up beside the wagon. Not far away, the river chattered among its rocks and told a good and comforting message about the black bass and the little nibbling suckers that lived there.

"Kitty-cat," said the man, "do you put that skillet on the coals. And possibly our young visitor can fetch some wood from the pile. Unless I am gravely mistaken, a reluctant visitor or two may be quivering on our line."

So he vanished towards the river, and I went smelling around for wood. As for Flora Kitty-cat, she spread herself high, wide, and handsome around that clearing. She scooped the coals together and set the frying pan level and true; next minute she had dropped in some bacon. And after that, she was getting out a sack of fodder and shaking some loose for the old white horse, though anybody could see that he was fat as a pig already. And she called him Linnaeus, which was a mighty strange name for a horse.

"Why do you call him Linnaeus?" I demanded to know.

"Because that's his name."

"It's a crazy variety of name, if you ask me," I told her.

Kitty-cat said, "Well, I didn't ask you," and went right on feeding him.

"At home," I made bold to say, "a horse critter is named Dobbin or Maud or Betsy or Bill, or some decent-sounding name."

She snapped at me, "At home--where's that?" and I came close to saying "Rosy Ridge." But I thought twice, and gulped out "Arkansas."

"Linnaeus was a great man," she said. "He defined genera and species. He deserves to have a horse named after him."

I tell you, she made me boil, because I didn't admire having any girl fling that variety of language at me. But I swallowed my pride and went on building one side of the fire, while the bacon stewed and smoked and frizzled on the other side. Next moment we heard a kind of yell, which I reckoned was happiness, from the direction of the river. It was plumb certain that we wouldn't have to content ourselves with side meat.

"What's his name?" I asked.


"Your pappy."

"He's Doctor Samuel Sickles, Mister Jesse, and I'll thank you very much not to push those coals into the bacon."

Well, I got the coals out, but burned my fingers doing it. And I wanted to know whether he doctored horses or people, for those were the only two kinds of doctors that I knew anything about; no other kind had ever come a-visiting us.

"He's a doctor of science," she chirped, "and I guess that's what I'll be, too, when I grow up. You're very clumsy, boy. Will you please get your legs out of the way, so that I can put this corn pone to get hot?"

Her manner was driving me wild; but Doctor Samuel Sickles came back, and he had two catfish, not big enough to be coarse and strong, but big enough to be worth eating. And that supper which we ate--there was a jar of pickles to go with it, and some apples, and peach preserves that had never been stewed over that fire--was something to remember. I reckon I'll remember it until I give up the ghost, no matter how tart and ornery Flora Katherine acted.

There are strange miseries that enter the heads and hearts of older folks, which young'uns know nothing about. Doctor Samuel Sickles was now besieged by an ailment of that kind. For he did not eat sufficient to keep him alive. Soon he was silent and melancholy, over by his side of the fire; and the little girl undertook to nurse him; and she offered him the finest morsels of catfish and pone and pickles, but he didn't pay heed. He hunched down lower and lower, with the points of his shoulders going up against his ears, and every now and then his voice would exclaim in sadness or contempt.

"What ails him, anyway?" I managed to whisper to Kitty-cat, when she gave me my last slab of fish.

"He's feeling bad about the purple moccasin."

"Can't he make one for his own self?" I wanted to know.

She looked reproving, and she told me that God had made this purple moccasin, and it was the only one in the world, so far as she knew.

I asked, "Is it a snake?"

"Oh, no!" she said, shivering. "I don't like snakes a bit. But this is beautiful."

By this time she was talking as loud as you please. Still, Doctor Sickles gave us no attention. He looked moody as a ghost that couldn't get back to its tomb, and when he stood up, he walked right into the frying pan, and he had no swear word to utter about it. The fire was low again, so it was hard to make out the figure of this old man, once he had wandered away from the embers. Though I could follow the red glow on his gleaming hair; and I saw him go to the tail of the wagon; and then, from somewhere, he had drug out a tin lamp and a watering pot.

He lighted the lamp and clumb up over the tailboard. For a while we could watch his tall shape shadowing around inside the canvas--all lit up, like a big black spook, by the lamp glow. He was doing strange things inside that wagon, and I reckoned I'd die of curiosity.

"Is your pap going to bed?" I asked Kitty-cat.

"We don't sleep there," she said. "He's just seeing after things."

"People always sleep in wagons," I told her, for plenty of movers had gone by our house, bound for Texas and the Indian country, and I knew their habits when I was just a little shaver.

But this Flora Katherine Sickles was as sharp as her name, and she told me to be more polite. She said that she wasn't allowed to sleep in the wagon, nor did Doctor Sickles allow himself to do it, and there wasn't room for them, anyway.

We were fussing and fuming at each other again, and our angriness got the better of us both, and then we didn't talk again for a long time.

I sat there cross-legged by the fire, and thought how many miles away my home was lying, and how badly I had been mistreated. And finally I was feeling lonesome and bereft, and I couldn't see the fire at all because my eyes were so blurry. Then, just when the spasms were rising and I thought they'd slay me in my throat, I felt a hard little hand take hold of mine, and there was Kitty-cat kneeling down beside me.

In the low firelight, her hair seemed too wonderful to adorn any living head, and it overcame my breath. For she did look like a kind of angel--although one that had been running loose in the woods, and tearing her dress when she did it.

"Jesse," she said, "you seem to be feeling miserable. I feel sorry for you."

I contrived to tell her that she didn't need to, and that pretty soon I'd go on looking for Jesse James.

"I'll bet you ran away from home," she murmured. But I said it wasn't none of her business if I had.

She asked, "Haven't you got a mother or a sister?"

I told her that I had two sisters and a mighty handsome mother, but that my father had been meaner than Satan, and he had whipped me out, though it was only the third time in my life I had ever been licked. He whipped me because I hit the red cow with a wagon spoke; and he said it wasn't her fault that the milk pail was upset, though I reckoned it was.

"I won't stay around home to be whipped on account of red cows," I cried to Flora Katherine. "And they're all going to feel mighty discontented if I get caught by the Pinkerton men, and get shut up in Stillwater Penitentiary."

But all this time she was looking at me, and her eyes, that had seemed like the eyes of a deer when first I saw her, and like the eyes of an angry tom-cat sometime later, were now pitying and motherly; and I let her hang onto my hand as much as she liked, and I wondered what it would feel like to kiss a girl who wasn't your younger sister.

"You can't go wandering off after Jesse James tonight," she said. "Daddy wouldn't let you. You might get caught by robbers, or something."

"No, I wouldn't," I said. "I'd shoot them quick as scat," and I forgot my sadness in opening up my bundle, to show her the pepperbox revolver that Uncle Andrew had given me.

"Why," said Flora Katherine, "it's all rusty! You couldn't shoot robbers."

I was on the point of telling her that someday I'd get that revolver fixed up, and have caps and cartridges for it, when Doctor Samuel Sickles came back to the fire and kicked some ends of charred logs onto the coals.

The flames shot up immediately, and then we could see his face, grave and furrowed and imposing in the red light, and his thin mane of hair curling around his neck.

"Kitty-cat," he said, "Torrey and Gray make no mention whatsoever of the purple moccasin." He had a thick book in his hands, but it didn't look like any Bible I ever saw.

"The ecologists do not suspect its existence," the old man continued, ruffling the pages with his hand. "They list many others, but none resembles it." He closed the book with a bang and went back to the wagon and put the book inside. He blew out the tin lamp, too, which he had left standing on the tailboard with little betty-millers flittering around it. Then he returned to us, and I was standing up by this time, for I had never seen such goings-on in all my born days.
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Title Annotation:short story
Author:Kantor, MacKinlay
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Mar 1, 1990
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