Henny Comes Home
Jacob built his tumbledown cabin in 1865, on the same mountain that he mined. It was without neighbors, and very quiet. Then Henny came home.
It was sometime after midnight when the horses stormed up, gunshots following, intermixed with the protests of branches and stones. Soon after, the cabin’s door opened and quickly closed, stirring Jacob and his two remaining children.
He came astumble from the loft and lit a lantern, raising it just long enough to see five people inside his home. He recognized his daughter at once.
“Henny?” he got out, then the lantern was gone from him, snuffing out.
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“Shhh, Pa,” Henny said, returning to her company of strange men. “Shhh.”
The boys were up and questioning, but Jacob had no answers. He held them back and repeated his daughter’s name, and she again shushed him. She’d been gone five years, since learning men.
Her friends were mumbling amongst themselves, one of them moaning. In the darkness, Jacob could see muskets and broad shoulders, Henny amongst them and holding something in each hand. One something was the lantern; the other looked similar, but bigger.
Frail light filled the cabin’s east window, the uproar coming with it. The light gleamed through, then shadowed with a man in a hat of some fashion. Just as fast, one of Henny’s company pointed his musket and fired.
A male scream answered, mixed with the glass’s shatter. The screamer fell away, the light with him.
“Henny, what in God’s name …?” Jacob said, when he could again hear, but went ignored. The shooter powdered his musket from a horn and then stuffed in a ball, a living shadow.
“Ya’ll git on out, now!” echoed in from outside, a ghostliness to the voice. “Gotch’ya surrounded, woman!”
Henny bristled, in a way Jacob remembered from before she’d gone off. She sprung to that same window and stuck a pistol through, fire stealing the darkness for one heartbeat moment. Noises rose up from outside, barely heard in the shot’s ringing.
The lantern perked up then, just lighting the floor. It confirmed the woman’s identity, and the roughshod men at wing. All were dirty and armed, one of them supine in a circle of red.
The ghost outside: “Give up, woman! We got fitty men out here!”
Henny hoiked to the window and screamed, “Like hell you do!” She angled the pistol back through, let off a second shot, fell back. She’d never let go of the thing in her other hand, and Jacob could now see it clear: a birdcage caging a severed human head.
“Great God, Henny!” he gasped, not looking from the head, the head. “Great God!” He seemed to be talking to it.
“You jus’ sit back, Pa,” she said with some distraction. “Jus’ sit back, hear?”
Jacob sat back, his young sons also, as though attached.
The bleeding man on the floor was being tended. His hands came away from his stomach to reveal tatters of shirt and flesh, intermixed with reddish coils. The man himself saw this, and moaned louder. “You be okay,” said the man doing the tending. He looked nothing like a doctor. “You be okay, Jean.” Jean lay back and didn’t move.
Hoofbeats shook from just outside, two sets circling the cabin in opposite pattern. Torchlight peeked into the windows and sucked away, shadows leaning from them. Every pass, Jacob wondered how long before those torches found their way inside.
The ghost called again and again: “Give up, woman! Give up, bitch!”
In spite of everything, Jacob studied his daughter. Henny was roosted over the plank floor, her petticoats enormous, sharp little boots pointing out. Dark and beautiful, unaged in all this time. She dual-wielded the ghastly birdcage and the smoking Colt pistol. Her friends were studying her, as well, as if for guidance.
Jacob’s oldest son, Andrew, was the only one not regarding his sister, instead taken with the captive head. “Roger Pit,” he said, smiling knowingly. “Roger Pit, the chief of them outlaws. A thousand dollars for ‘ees head. Said so on the posters in town.” He pointed over his shoulder, presumably to town.
But Henny ignored this, also, along with more threats from outside. “Pa?” she said, and Jacob didn’t at first hear. “Pa?”
He blinked at her. “Yes, Henny?”
“You still got them sticks, Pa?”
“Sticks,” Henny said patiently. “For the mines? The glycerin?”
Jacob had to remember he was a miner. He considered he request, then said, “Henny. Oh, Henny.”
“Need them sticks, Pa.”
“You need’a surrender to the law,” Jacob said, shaking his head with his whole body.
“They ain’t the law,” was all Henny said. She wouldn’t look away.
Jacob sucked his teeth as Henny kept staring him down, her friends also. In lieu of words, he flicked his eyes to the crate in the corner.
“On the count’a five!” said the ghost outside, amidst unkind murmurs and chuffing horses.
Henny seemed not to hear. “The horses still outen the barn?” she asked Jacob, while examining the deadly crate.
Jacob said they were, netting distressed looks from both sons. Billy, the younger, asked what was happening, but no one answered.
The ghost: “One!”
All at once, Henny’s friends went at the dynamite — two, four, eight sticks dispensed. They severed the fuses short, long curls falling like cut hair. Each held their sticks at the ready, except Jean on the floor, who had stopped bleeding and breathing.
Henny was looking commands at her company, nods exchanged and not a word between them. There was a smug confidence to her, Jacob saw, like when she’d said he’d hear her name again someday.
Jacob sent the boys under the bed, then joined them. His head looked out like a gopher, at Henny. She looked back, her face unreadable.
There never was a five. One of Henny’s squad, a dark man in an unexpected sombrero, lit a cigarillo, touched it to the fuses, then plugged it in his mouth and laughed smoke. At this, Jacob slid the rest of the way under the bed. The rest, he heard only: an opening door, shouting, stray gunfire — then explosions, full and huge, nothing like when in the mines.
He looked out, later, and the cabin was empty except for the dead man, Henny again gone away.
In the morning, when the mountainside was again quiet, Jacob found the stables vacated, the horses missing like his renegade daughter. It had always been her way. Jacob couldn’t say what had returned her to him, other than that home is for when there’s nowhere else.
He supposed she’d been right: he would hear her name again, probably more than he’d like.
“Henny,” Jacob said, neutrally, as he had five years prior. “Oh, Henny.”