Now and then I see interesting posts on the subreddit /r/WritingPrompts. Today I saw one that was too good to pass up: After he ruined your relationship, you finally come face to face with Cotton Eye Joe. I knew I could have fun with this one. I posted on the thread, but I’m crossposting it here, just because.
He came in to Sawmill Bend like a plague, only none of us saw him for what he was then. All smiles he was, buy you a beer soon as look at you and glad to lend a hand around town with what things needed done. But I remember when I were a kid, five or six maybe, on the farm before my folks came out west to start over: swarm o’ locusts, big as mice and in a cloud thick as tar, devourin’ everything they saw and leavin’ nothin’ but dead land. Joe was them locusts dressed up as a man, handsome and tall and clean with those dewy white eyes that even some menfolk came to question the’selves, but it’s the women he fancied, more’s the pity.
That were last spring, and come summer Shalene would’ve been my wife. Ain’t no woman on earth like Shalene, least for me anyway. Knew her since her folks came to town nigh ten years ago now, and we talked and we fished and we climbed trees (when we could find ’em) and we talked some more. Kind to her core, pretty as a sunrise on snow, and I loved her like no man ever loved no woman. An’ she loved me back just the same. Then came Cotton Eye Joe.
Nobody knows where he came from, Joe, but at first he were welcome. Kind of a carpenter and a tinker both, he said he was lookin’ for work and Lord knows our town had plenty then. The mill needed fixin’, so did half the farms, an’ everyone was too busy to get it all done the’selves. He settled in for a spell, but ’tweren’t long after that the rumors started. Hanna Frick, the one ‘at never married even though she were twenty-nine, she up and rode off one day with no explanation. We all thought that were odd. But then Maisey Jones, she broke off her courtship with Henry Adams a week later, and the next week she were gone herself.
It went on like that: Betty Peyton, Laura Smalls, Tillie Barber—and she were married, mind you—but no one ever suspected Joe o’ nothin’. He was like our rock in a hard time. All them girls runnin’ off, no reason, like they was ashamed o’ some’in. Joe played cards with us almost every night, smokin’ and bullshittin’ with a million stories in his back pocket. Then came Shalene.
One day came when I called on Shalene at home, but her pa said she were leavin’ too. Now you gotta know, Burt’s a man who could talk a fish into livin’ in a desert, just to try it out for a spell, till it dried up none the wiser, yet he couldn’t get through to his daughter for nothin’ to make her stay. I went to see her and she were packin’ a bag, packin’ everything like she weren’t never comin’ back. I asked her what was wrong and she wouldn’t say. Wouldn’t look me in the eye, neither. That cut deep, yessir, ’cause ever since I known her Shalene could talk to me about anything. That day she up and left like all the others.
We lost two more after her, but I hardly noticed, I were so torn up. I din’t know what got into her, but it weren’t some’in inside her or I woulda known. Somethin’, someone, musta got to her. Well it weren’t long after we got a clue. George at the mill went into Splitwater for supplies, when young Toby showed up not knowin’ he were gone, to ask him some’in. Well Toby hears sounds from the house, and bein’ a boy of that age he’s curious, course, so he goes in closer an’ finds Joe pokin’ George’s wife Annie. He gave a shout, an’ Joe heard it. Annie ran off that afternoon before anyone could get word to George. An’ Joe, well, he knew his poker buddies weren’t no idjuts ‘at couldn’t put two and two together.
Joe rode away one minute ahead of the mob, more’n two score men: fathers, brothers, husbands, an’ men who woulda been husbands if not for him, each of us with a diff’rent idea how to hurt him back for what he done. We never found out where he went. Some gave up and went back to their lives, but I ain’t nothin’ without Shalene. I were determined then and there to get her back, ’cause ’tain’t her fault the devil himself charmed her into sin. And if I could, I’d get a piece o’ that damned Joe.
Ten months passed. I found a few other towns where he’d been. Knew ’em as soon as I rode in: misery and wreck, even years after. One fella told me if it hadn’t been for Cotton Eye Joe, he’d been married a long time ago; seven years now, he reckoned. Folks here and there told me the same story. The longer I hunted, the more I got to know his twisted mind. That was how I fin’ly caught up to him in a Carson City saloon.
You know what? All them evenin’s we spent playin cards, talkin’ stories, and that sumbitch din’t even know me. Plum forgot like I was nothin’. Like Shalene was nothin’. I saw him at the bar and chatted him up like I was a drifter like hisself. All that time lookin’ for him I picked up some tricks. I could make up stories like him now, good as his. He bought me a drink then I bought him one, back and forth we went, till I told him about an old mining camp I found on the way into town and some abandoned tools that was still in good shape. That got his int’rest, yessir, ’cause all last spring he kept talkin’ ’bout how his were startin’ to wear.
It was still light when we rode out to the desert. I weren’t lyin’ about the mine. The old camp and the shaft were there, all right, but weren’t no tools with ’em. Afore Joe figured it out, I aimed my revolver straight at his black heart. When he saw I had him he dropped his belt, nice and slow.
“Earn your mercy, Joe,” I says.
“I don’t understand,” he says right back. “If you want my money you can take it.”
“‘Tain’t money brought me here. Just last year you was actin’ like my best friend up in Sawmill Bend.”
He squinted in the sun. “Ned?”
“Shalene left like all the others. You knew and you said nothin’, to save your own skin. But you sure flapped that tongue of yours ’bout everythin’ else. Now you’ll flap it for me. I wanna know where Shalene went.” Joe shook his head, like he had a bug in his ear. “Long brown hair. Blue eyes like jewels. She wore a red ribbon most days. Sweetest girl in the whole country.”
I din’t think that would help, but he jerked when I said ribbon. “I don’t know where she rode off to. She didn’t say.”
“Then you best think. Din’t ya ever talk to her, Joe, with those pretty words o’ yours? Maybe she was nothin’ to you, but she’s my everythin’. So I say agin: Earn your mercy.”
He shook like an ol’ dry bush just then. “Ned, I’m sorry. I never forced her.”
“No, I reckon you din’t. You din’t have to.”
“Please,” he says. He turned those eyes on me, and so help me I almost felt sorry for the man. If I hadn’t lost everythin’, I mighta let him go right then and there. Then I remembered Shalene’s face, and made him see that I remembered. Then he found his memory hisself. “I told her about a time I was out east in St. Louis. She hadn’t never seen a big city. Told her all about the buildin’s and the riverboats.”
That was the hope I needed. Shalene was a smart woman, clever, good at sewin’ and cookin’ and hard work. She could make her way in a city with honest work. I knew I could find her there. If only she knew I ain’t mad at her, she’s still all my heart, maybe things can be right between us like they were before.
Joe earned his mercy. When it was done I threw his body down a mineshaft. Took his horse and his tools to another town to sell, and found he had a good deal of money saved up too. Enough to start a new life. In his saddlebag I found his trophies. Shalene’s red ribbon was there, with the fringe around like I remembered.
The Good Lord set His hand against murder, but when my time comes I’ll plead my case: Cotton Eye Joe weren’t no man. He was a prairie fire, a force o’ nature. A coyote can’t help bein’ what it is, but when he pokes his head where he oughtn’t, a man puts him down. Many’s the life Joe woulda ruined yet if I hadn’t found him. Now whenever I meet another man he crossed, an’ that man asks me where he went, I’ll tell him right out: Cotton Eye Joe came from the fires o’ Hell, and he went home again—’cause I sent him there.