Jon Roxton was born lucky. That's what he came to tell himself. In truth he was born a bastard in a cabin in a thunderstorm in Decatur in Georgia in 1834, when the town was little more than shacks and shanties thrown around the nexus of a few muddy Indian trails. The birth, which killed his mother after sixteen tortuous hours, was not particularly auspicious. Neither was the childhood that followed. At ten Jon Roxton was stripping felled birches and pines with a half-axe in the Midway Woods for three cents an hour. At twelve he was sawing down cedars for six. At fifteen he was apprenticed to a wheelwright in Atlanta and a year later he beat the wheelwright senseless with an adz and fled northwest with the shop's small tin lockbox.
The lockbox had sixty-one dollars in it, which was more money than Jon had seen in his short life. He hitched a ride on a wagon to Dunwoody and spent twenty-five dollars on a raw-boned mare, four on a new cotton shirt and some britches, and two more on a steel scaling knife. He rode the horse for two weeks all the way to the Mississippi before it dropped dead. There he spent his last four dollars for a berth on a ferry upriver. Two nights later, as the ferry drifted past Hannibal, Missouri, he snuck into the wheelhouse while the rest of the boat was sleeping and killed two crewmen with the scaling knife. He slipped into the shoals with another lockbox.
In Hannibal he bought some dry clothes and another horse, a chestnut gelding. He also bought a Colt Walker revolver, and the clerk showed him how to prime each individual cylinder with powder before loading the bullets. Then he went to a saloon and got drunk and shot a man over a five-dollar hand of poker. He'd never fired a gun before, but the pistol was still loaded from when he'd bought it and the motions had come so easily that it felt as if he'd been doing it all his life. He tried to flee on the gelding but in the dark the horse went over a levee and broke both front legs, throwing him into the river's shoals, where he passed out. He got up the next morning without a scratch and put the horse down, but a posse caught up to him on the road to St. Louis and took him back to Hannibal for trial.
The shot man had gone for his pistol too, though not so quick as Jon had, so the judge gave him two years. To Jon it was fair enough. He spent a week on a stone bed in the Marion County jail. On the eighth day a storm hit. The deputies locked him in his cell and locked the jailhouse and went to hide in their cellars. The jail was timber on top and mortared rock below, and halfway through the night a falling cedar shattered the roof. Jon Roxton climbed out into the hell of the storm and figured he was born lucky.
The livery was locked, but the roar of the storm was loud enough that Jon could smash the cast iron to pieces with a big rock without too much noise. The horses were screaming and thrashing in their stalls at the wind and thunder, but Jon saddled a piebald stallion with no trouble. He rode for St. Louis all night as the freezing rain churned the earth to sinking slurry. By the time the sun bloomed overhead he was aching and shivering and lost. He'd got all turned around in the dark, and his tracks had washed away so he couldn't tell if he was going forwards or back. He fainted in the saddle around noon and collapsed in a field of overgrown tobacco.
He woke afterwards in fits and starts, but only for a few hours at a time and only to choke down bowls of lukewarm oatmeal or brackish wellwater before slipping back into delirium. When he awoke properly he found himself in a handsome bed in a plantation house. The slave nurse who'd been watching him went to tell the planter. The planter told Jon he'd been insensate with fever for the better part of a week. Another hour in the field might have been his last. He was lucky to be alive. Jon Roxton said he was born lucky.
Jon asked about where he was. The plantation was about two days ride from Hannibal, though the planter hadn't gone to town in over two decades. He lived alone, unless you counted the slave cook and the slave nurse and the slave valet who all lived in the cellar, which he didn't. His only son had died of a bayonet through the skull at Contreras three years ago, and was buried out back with the planter's wife. The planter stopped planting after that, and sold most of his slaves.
He asked what a boy as young as Jon was doing out here all by himself with such a fine horse, and Jon said that he'd been riding to St. Louis with his father but they got separated during the storm. The old man said Jon could rest at the plantation until he got his strength back. Said he'd take him down to St. Louis. Jon's father was probably waiting there, sicker with worry than Jon was with fever. There was no worse feeling in the world than losing a son. Jon smiled and agreed and thanked him for the care.
He was still weak that night, but he snuck down to the kitchens and found himself an iron blade. The deputies in Hannibal had taken his scaling knife. He cut the planter's throat in his bed and went down to the cellars and took the blade to the slave valet until he showed him the drawer in the study where the planter kept his money. He ate some bread and salt pork from the kitchens and bundled up a change of clothes from the attics and found his horse in the plantation's small barn and set out.
He didn't stop anywhere for too long until he got to Jackson County, the very edge of the state, where Missouri bled into the unorganized territories of the west. He'd resolved to treat this horse more gently than the others, but he still rode it so hard and rough that it sprained an ankle fording a creek and he had to put it down. The planter's money was gone by then, spent mostly on food and spirits and new clothes. He spent the next four days and nights walking west and south, raiding food from homesteads in the dark and sleeping amid the woods and brush.
It was a dark day and heavy with fog when Jon heard the steps of a horse from up the road. He hid behind a basswood until it appeared. It was a fine animal, a palomino Saddlebred, tall for its breed at seventeen hands and strong, muscles shoving past one another as they rippled through golden skin. The rider's clothes were a bright mismatch of badly dyed and patched wools and cottons, and they didn't seem near as expensive as the horse. Jon tucked the big iron knife in his britches behind his back and called out.
The rider was going pretty fast, but he turned swiftly at the noise and trained a pistol on Jon. Jon raised his hands and said he didn't want any trouble. Just some directions. He was new to Jackson County. The rider lowered his gun a little and asked what he wanted.
Jon asked the rider if he'd come from Wormwood, which was up the road a ways, Jon had heard. The rider seemed to think this over for a while and finally answered that he'd rode through a town about a mile back but didn't know what it was called and hadn't stopped long enough to ask. Jon said it was probably Wormwood, and the rider agreed. Jon asked if the mounted man had any tobacco, and he answered that he didn't, and Jon said that was a shame and thanked him and went up to shake the stranger's hand.
The rider was pretty high in the air, but Jon was tall for his age and long-limbed. As the rider leaned down to take the proffered hand Jon stabbed him twice in the neck. The stranger tried to get a shot off, but Jon wrestled at the pistol with his right hand while he struck with the left. A bullet went into the dirt, and the horse bucked and shrieked and tried to bolt, but Jon wrenched the pistol away and threw it out into the brush and grabbed the reins and held on tight and stabbed until the rider collapsed from his saddle.
Jon's clothes, a nice grey wool vest and white linen undershirt and light blue pair of britches he'd stolen a few days ago, were soaked with sweat and dirt and now rich red blood. He stripped bare and stripped the stranger bare and put on the dead man's mismatched attire. They had some blood on them too, but with the haphazard patches of bright fabrics it was difficult to tell where the spilled humors stopped and the rest began. They fit well enough. He wiped his knife on the dead man's blue handkerchief and looked around for the discarded pistol, but he couldn't find it among the shrubs.
Jon set off on the beautiful palomino for where the dead man said Wormwood was. He looked through the saddlebags and found that they were packed full of fat silver dollars – Columbia seated with her shield on the front, an eagle rampant on the obverse. Two hundred at least. The late rider was a kindred nomad. That, and the silver, made Jon smile. He buried his left hand and let the metal slide over his skin. He liked the way it felt. He whistled as he rode, a light chirpy tune that he'd whistled to himself in Midway as he stripped the limbs from fallen trees. He resolved to buy another pistol when he got to Wormwood.
He thought of the minuscule and remarkable aberrations of fortune. Each lacking any particular purpose besides its own circumstance, yes, but when perceived as a whole they offered the only route to this last twist of fate. Another hour spent dying in the tobacco field, another day spent rotting in the Marion County jailhouse, another fitful night spent aboard the ferry as it drifted up the Mississippi, another year spent laboring for pennies in the wheelwright's workshop, another minute's delay or haste at any point between Decatur and the road to Wormwood and the dead rider would not be dead. He and his golden horse and his fat coins would have slipped away into the ether, like they'd never existed, and Jon would have walked into town with naught but the clothes on his back and the knife in his britches.
He pulled a dollar from the bags and flipped it in the air and admired the way Lady Liberty's silver shield shone even in the fog. Jon Roxton knew then, beyond any doubt, that he was born lucky.
Hiram Coburn was not born lucky. Nor did he tell himself or others that he was. His father was a bricklayer and his mother was a seamstress. At nineteen he lost a leg to grapeshot at Fort St. Philip, at thirty-eight a wife to yellow fever in Plaquemines Parish, and at fifty-one two sons to the bloody flux at Veracruz. After Mrs. Coburn died he moved his boys from Louisiana to Wormwood to start up a hardware concern, hoping to capitalize on the settlers and planters coming in after the Mormons left, but the business died young and so he made a living at carpentry. It was exhausting work, and thankless, and in the end it wasn't enough to put his sons in school in the east like he wanted, even with his veteran's pension. They joined the army instead, and wasted to nothing in sickbeds on a bright Mexican beach.
Coburn had seen combat against the British a lifetime ago, and moreover owned a very fine rifle, so the settlers in Wormwood elected him sheriff in '45. He hadn't wanted the job, since it was just more to do, but there was no one else for it. Mostly he dealt with property disputes, or cattle thefts, or drunken fights. Those were the good times.
A Choctaw drifter from the western territories raped a settler's daughter once, and Coburn deputized six men and rode the Indian down and hanged him from an elm tree. The next night two settlers murdered an Osage girl out in the backcountry in retribution, and tied her naked corpse to a mule and paraded it through town. Coburn hanged them too. The night after that one of the hanged men's brothers stabbed him twice in the gut with a pitchfork, and though Coburn killed the man back with his rifle he was a long time convalescing. Even now, a year later, he still found blood in his spit. The limp received at nineteen was so pronounced by age and injury that he could only walk unaided for a few minutes at a time.
Hiram Coburn was not a man much used to seeing luck in his life, save bad. It was thus a strange feeling he felt as the rustler rode back into town. Jim O'Leary, the dead homesteader, had been well liked, and the town was jawing for blood. Coburn was deputizing a posse of fifteen armed and eager settlers in the main street when their quarry appeared out of the fog and shouted a cheerful greeting. At the sound and sight of him Coburn twisted the length of rope in his hands.
The rustler had been wearing a shred of blue cloth over the bottom of his face when he'd shot Jim through the throat and fled right past Coburn's porch on the dying man's horse with the dying man's money. The sheriff hadn't got much more than a glance at his retreating flanks, but there was no mistaking the garish clothes or poor Jim's prized palomino. The thief was pretty young, Coburn saw now, not more than sixteen or so.
But what surprised the sheriff and his new deputies, more even than the killer's age or the simple fact of his return, was how damn pleased with himself he looked as he sat astride their dead friend's horse.