He seemed to come out of nowhere — a tall scarecrow of a man with sandy colored hair that cascaded
wildly from underneath an old, weather-beaten Stetson hat, studded with silver Conchos.
A huge nose drew attention to his face, which was so homely only a mother could see any beauty in it at
all. Slate gray eyes set deep behind the nose gave the impression of kindness. They belied the toughness
of the holstered Colt .45 thronged down on each leg.
Although he was mounted on an ancient gray mule, he was dressed completely in black and looked like a gunfighter.
In one saddlebag he carried an old Bible wrapped tightly in oilskin to protect it from the weather, a large cross and a box of shells for the Colt Peacemakers.
His black hat pulled low over his bushy eyebrows. This called attention to the homely face beneath it.
He spoke as he drew near the gathering. I knew immediately that this was no ordinary run of the mill man. “Evening, brothers. Nice weather we're having. Kinda hot, but the Lord wanted this pilgrim to enjoy the noonday sun, I guess. Where do you reckon a man could find a decent, home-cooked meal this time of day in your fair city?”
Being almost overwhelmed by the volume of deep bass in his voice, all I could manage was a puny little
squeaky answer. “Just down the street, mister. My Ma is the best cook in this country. Shucks, she can
make an old boot taste like steak … if you close your eyes, that is. Well, almost anyway. You can bed down
in our barn, too, as long as you don't burn it down.”
His smile would have charmed the socks right off me, if I'd had any on, and he spoke slowly in a kind of soft western drawl. “Thank ye, son, but I just as soon sleep out yonder in the hills. The sky will be my blanket, and the stars will keep me company. The Lord will be my guide and protector, if ever I need one. If you will point me toward this heavenly food you so highly recommend, I will take my fill and be on my journey.”
Feeling real good about the way things were going; I introduced my friends one by one.
“This is Billy Jenkins on my right, Ted Bailey there in the middle and Samuel Taylor with the cowlick and buck teeth. I'm Chadwick Tudball, but everybody just calls me Tud.”
He smiled real big. His homely face lit up and his eyes seemed to take on a glow. “Well Tud, I'm real proud to make your acquaintance. Maybe you and your friends could find a little hay for my ole mule Moses, so he can fill up that hollow spot he's got from all them days on the trail.”
He looked at the scrawny old mule with genuine affection in his eyes. “He don't look like much, boys, but this ol’ mule can run so fast I have to keep a tight rein on him,” he boasted. “If I didn't hold him back, his feet would kick up a storm, and bad weather would follow us everywhere we go. Whenever I'm hungry, he's so ugly he can just look at a rabbit real mean, and it'll roll over and die. I'll have to caution him not to look at you boys too mean. We wouldn't want anything to happen to one of you boys, would we?”
I could tell he was putting us on by the hint of laughter in his voice, so I decided to fall in there with him right off, “You better keep that mouse away from our cat, mister. Tiny weighs 80 pounds. He's so fast he can climb a tree, crap, and then run down, dig a hole, and cover it up before it even hits the ground.”
He gave a deep belly laugh. With tears glistening in his eyes, he looked me up one side and down the other. “Tiny must be some cat, son. That cat sounds like he could almost put a saddle on my mule and break him to ride in no time.”
He took off his hat and ran his fingers through his unkempt curls. “Your ma's cooking must be agreeing with him. We better get some of that grub for myself, and some hay for Moses In my most businesslike voice I said, “We've told you who we are, mister. Do you mind telling us your name — if you ain't a murderer, or something, that is.”
A hard glint covered his eyes, and I wished I'd chosen a better way to word it. But he soon realized that I was only joking. Once again, he smiled. “The name’s Pickett, Tud. Jeremiah Pickett. My friends call me Jake, and I hope we can be the best of friends. I'm just a lowly servant of the Lord, Tud, looking for a friend to Jesus.”
My heart almost stopped. I thought I'd heard wrong, “You ain't the Jake Pickett, are you? The gunfighter who's killed twenty seven men. You're not what I reckoned a gunfighter would look like at all.”
He reached into his saddlebag and brought out a bundle wrapped in oilskin. As he unwrapped it, I realized he was holding an old Bible in his hands like it was precious china.
“It's true, Tud. I am that Jake Pickett, as you say. But now I fight my battles with this old book, and — of course — the Lord's help. I'm trying to leave all that behind me. This Bible is now my weapon of war.
“No man has ever died by my hand, except face to face in a fair fight,” he said.
I asked probably the last question he wanted to hear from anybody, “What about those men you killed, Jake? And why are you still wearing those guns? That don't look too much like any preacher I ever saw. Wearing guns, I mean.”
The hurt was all over his face. I wished I could call back my words as soon as they were spoken but they had already been said.
He looked at me in a way that I realize now was full of sorrow. His voice trembled slightly. “That's exactly right, Tud. But without my guns, everywhere I go, someone would be there waiting to kill me. “The Lord has forgiven me but sometimes man is not so forgiving. Now, I try to use my guns on the side of right.”
His contagious smile returned. “Let's go find that grub. My stomach thinks my throat has been cut.”