Jefferson Cobb is the meanest man on the planet, people say. Or at least that’s their best guess. When a man’s built the way the blacksmith is, better not to find out for sure what his personality’s like, folks reckon. He’s six foot three, brawny, with a grip that can break your hand. When he walks into the bar in Shey after delivering an order of horseshoes and spinning-wheel parts, the noise flattens out. He takes his seat and waits for a girl to come by. The one who does is kinda pretty, pert nose, long black hair braided up, taller than average. She’s calling an order over her shoulder as she approaches him. She turns to face him and he’s lost forever, pulled in by the softness of her big brown eyes.
Sasha’s not having an easy time of it, and Jefferson rides like the wind to fetch the doctor from his office in Shey. He’s little more than a boy, and he blanches when Jeff demands help for his wife and firstborn. When they enter, Sasha is crying and sweating, hands clutching her belly. She knows something is wrong, and she prays the doctor can fix it. Her prayers are not answered. The doctor makes the wrong cut, and her eyes close in grief.
The second baby is lost in a late and bloody miscarriage. When she gets pregnant for the third time, Sasha seeks out a midwife. The woman listens to what the doctor did and shakes her head. She gives Sasha some herbs and promises to ease her delivery. The baby’s a week past its due date, and Jefferson’s away delivering goods to a buyer down the river, when Sasha feels the pain begin. The midwife, sleeping in the next room, hears her cries. When Jeff comes home his wife is looking at him over their son’s head, her eyes luminous. “Jayne,” she tells him exhaustedly and sinks into sleep, her baby clutched to her breast.
She’s certain her child is extraordinary, if only for the way his little face lights up whenever she or Jeff is near. He crows with laughter when she cuddles him or when Jeff throws and catches him. He’s four when he begins to follow Jeff to the smithy, seven when he gets his first gun. He’s eight years old when he’s able to hunt well enough to put supper on the table every night. He’s twelve when his world changes.
Sasha looks at her son proudly as he stirs the stew. Only twelve and nearly as tall as Jeff, with the promise of his father’s build already there in his slim height. She pulls out the pile of mending and has to light some candles to thread her needle. By the time she finishes the shirts, the stew is ready for extra spices, but Jefferson still hasn’t come home. She sends Jayne to the forge and nearly upsets the stew when he runs back in, terror written clear across his face. Jeff is lying unconscious in the field, halfway between his workshop and his home; together, she and Jayne manage to pull him into the house. The doctor they bring in from Cho says something’s eating Jeff from the inside, and there’s nothing he can do.
The next three years are tough. Jeff is too strong to slip easily out of life, too weak to beat back the sickness inside. Most days, he can’t even see her, just the pain. He can’t work, can’t hardly move, and she tends to him while she makes suppers to sell to the men who work along the river. And Jayne is the one on whom she depends, to find enough game to cook, to keep an arm around her as she cries, to give up on schooling and be the man of the house.
She wakes one morning to find her husband and son gone. She rushes out to the porch Jefferson built the year they were married and sees Jayne carrying his father back from the outhouse. He’s taller than his father now, and as broad across the shoulders as Jeff once was. He looks older than fifteen. She stands out of the way to let them in the front door and pulls Jayne aside when he’s set his father gently down. “The Mayday festival’s comin’. Men down the river sent word they’d pay extra for deer instead of rabbit stew,” she tells him.
He nods dubiously. “Take longer,” he points out; “gotta go deep in the woods for deer.”
“It’s fine,” she responds, gesturing to the large basket of mayflowers she’d gathered last night as Jayne fed his father, “they want wreaths for their sweethearts too. That’ll take me most all day.” He nods, stoops to kiss her cheek, and shoulders his gun; she watches him walk out into the sunlight. It’s the day her world will be torn apart.
He’s in the woods, setting his sights on a buck. He’s already bagged a few rabbits, but this is the prize he’s after. He hears a shot and a cry, and the buck is lost, bounding through the woods, white tail up in alarm. He traces the sound and sees a man with a pistol examining the man he’s just killed. “Hey!” Jayne calls, and the killer flees. There’s no point chasing after him now, when he’s got work to do. He kills two deer and brings them home.
He’s gutting the first when the sheriff approaches, the murderer at his side. “That’s the man who killed Seth!” the killer declaims, pointing a clean hand at Jayne, up to his elbows in blood.
And suddenly there is fear, freezing him and slowing him down, so that he can’t answer the sheriff’s questions, only say, “No, it were him,” over and over again. Sasha comes out of the house at the commotion in time to hear him say, “All I killed was these deer. And them rabbits,” in a voice about to break with panic. He’s looking at her, pleading with his eyes, but nothing she says keeps the sheriff from putting the heavy manacles Jeff made long ago around Jayne’s wrists and leading him off to jail.
They tell him he’ll have to spend the night there with the sheriff keeping an eye on him. He can’t figure out what to say in response, so he says nothing. In the morning the sheriff leaves and his deputy takes over. He’s a mean little man, full of the authority the star on his hat gives him. When Sasha comes in at a run, he takes his time looking her over. “He killed a man in cold blood,” he declares, grinning insolently at her.
“No!” she protests. “He din’t even know that man! He’s just a boy!”
He sneers, “Biggest ‘boy’ I ever seen. He’s full-grown. Legal,” he says, drawing out the last word as he pantomimes a noose with his hands.
She blanches. “Wuh de tyen ah! He’s only fifteen,” she cries; “look, I brought his birth-papers.” She draws them out of her blouse and hands them to him, keeping her eyes on him and not on her baby boy; she needs to stay strong.
The deputy looks at the papers but his eyes don’t move, and she realizes he can’t read. He throws the papers on the desk. “Not good enough. But could be I could convince the sheriff to let your boy go,” he says, and she knows what he’s asking for. She bows her head like a lamb for the slaughter and tries not to flinch as his hand reaches for her.
“No!” Jayne screams from the cell, yelling so loud and for so long the noise reaches the bar next door where the sheriff is nursing his drink. The deputy can’t shut him up from the other side of the bars, and he’s not about to get into the cell with anybody Jayne’s size.
As the sheriff storms in, Sasha scoops the birth-papers off the desk. She reaches into the cell and draws Jayne forward, holding his gaze. When the sheriff grabs her arm, she shows him the proof of her son’s age. It’s not enough to clear him, but it’s enough to get him out of jail; no one wants to hang a fifteen-year-old boy.
Back home, he stays inside with his father, but it is Sasha who must face the people of Roxiticus, who spit on her, throw stones, and whisper that the food she’s selling must be poisoned. There is no sign of it stopping. Three nights later, he leaves. He kisses her cheek just before he goes. She thinks it’s part of her dream and brushes her hand across her face.
“wuh de tyen ah” “dear god in heaven”
Continue: Part 4/21