Branded a Saint

Michael Chipman

Mary was terrified. Her children, Rufus and Timothy, whimpered and clutched her legs, pulling her dress in front of them. This bound her to the ground while the pack of angry workers pressed around her, each looking fully like the mutts they were. Their ears were torn in places, with both pointy and long eared males milling about. The town they were in was a mining town, one of the last out on the frontier. The two giant dogs closest to her hadn’t bathed in a while, and their clothing was grimy from the mine. Some of the others were tossing her scant belongings out on the street, cursing in front of her children. Thankfully, there was only a bit of food and one change of clothes for each of them, as she couldn’t pull much more. The last mob had stolen what little money she had saved.

The others in the caravan had fled, pulling their carts behind them, when the mob had descended. Mary’s cart axle had snapped and now treacherously held them in this town. The town was supposed to have been a place for resupply and a day’s rest before heading further out, but it had been a rout.

She and her fellow religious pilgrims were used to being mocked. Theirs was a peculiar belief-one advocating peace and brotherhood. All they wanted was a home where they could believe and practice their beliefs. Her husband had been killed a year back when they had been driven out of the of the last town they had lived in. Mary herself had been assaulted more than once, surviving with a firm belief that she was doing the True Master’s work. Each time that they had been attacked, she had been able to shelter her two children. Now that seemed hopeless as a dirty miner bared his teeth at her in a snarl. She fell into the Submissive Stance instantly, tucking her tail in with her chin down and shrinking while spreading her arms to block the view of the children. It was out of habit now, since most males wouldn’t harm someone who wasn’t a threat.

A sudden hush fell on the crowd. Mary raised her head from the Submissive Stance to look at her cart, where most of the yelling had come from. An older male was standing there, looking back at the miners. No one uttered a word. Mary glanced back at the faces of her attackers and was surprised to see remorse on some faces. There were even a few tails tucked.

This old timer was simply dressed in old but clean clothes. He had no insignia of power or influence, but he still held the gaze of all. He had a sad smile on his face, but most noticeable was a large S that had been seared onto his left cheek and temple. It was obvious, and her eyes were drawn to it.

When he spoke, it was with a soft voice. “My friends,” he said. He gazed at the members of the mob with familiarity. “I heard your noise and have come to help.”

The smelliest mutt near Mary bellowed out, “Leave us, James! This pilgrim is of no concern to you.”

James turned a warm smile toward the speaker. “Thomas, I see you there. How is your leg today?”

Smelly Thomas glanced down at his legs, shuffled his feet, and paused before replying, “It is well healed, James.” Everyone stared at him as he shifted his weight uncomfortably.

shifted his weight uncomfortably. “Friends, I see that this traveler’s cart has broken. I think she can use our help.” The branded man smiled at the others. “I see you have started without me and have begun removing her belongings so this axle can be fixed.”

Someone coughed, but the crowd didn’t otherwise reply. James turned and observed the children. “Hi, little ones,” he said pleasantly. “My name is James, and I am here to help you.”

“You always help, James,” said someone in the crowd. “I don’t think you can not help.”

James smiled but didn’t look at the speaker. Instead, he focused on Mary’s two boys and rummaged in his pocket. “I don’t have much,” he began, “but I do have these.” He held out two peppermint sticks, one for each of them.

He hunkered down and managed to look up at Mary, who had unconsciously raised up her head. “If it is ok with your mama, you can have them.”

Mary glanced at the now-quiet mob and rested her hands on the heads of her boys. She ruffled their fur soothingly. She smiled back at James and said, “Boys, you may have the candy. What do you say when someone gives you something nice?”

Two timid hands reached out and slowly took the peppermints. “Thank you, mister,” came their soft replies. They buried their faces in Mary’s skirts once again, peppermints clutched in their fists.

James rose with a soft groan, his age belying his soft face. Mary guessed that he was close to fifteen by the gray in his fur. His voice didn’t have the shake of old age, but the stoop of years of labor made him appear shorter than the other males here. Most dogs in the frontier didn’t live to see ten years of age. He stood, hands on waist, surveying the cart.

“Thomas,” he said suddenly, as though he could see the stinky man behind him starting to slink away, “Thomas, I need your help.”

Thomas stopped and stood up straight, but his eyes darted between Mary and the rest of the mob. “What do you need from me?”

“I will need an axle pole from your machine shop. I can pay you later tonight when we get done.” James didn’t even look around. Thomas hung his head and left without a complaint.

“Samson and …” here James glanced over his shoulder at the crowd, “Magnus. Yes, please, you two. Will you please assist me in organizing the mistress’s belongings? Some of it has fallen on the ground, and we wouldn’t want it to get dirty now, would we?”

Mary could see that the two men James had called out were the main culprits in looting her cart. Magnus still had her other skirt in his hands. The skirts and blouses were her mother’s and were the style from ten years ago. Mary had carefully mended them and embroidered the edges each night by the campfire. They were the last things she had from her mother. Magnus and Samson hunched in shame at being singled out, but they shuffled forward and began gently picking her sons’ clothing off the street. The trousers were heavily mended and threadbare, but they were all they had.

“Now, I feel bad that this happened in our town,” James said. He turned to face the rest of the attackers. His smile was gone, and his tail drooped. He truly looked sorrowful. It was a sudden change, but his face then lit up brightly as the others murmured their regrets.

“I feel sorry to the tune of a whole dollar!” he said.

He swept his patched cap off of his head, dug into a pocket, and pulled out a silver dollar. It was the wage of an entire day’s worth of work. He held it up, looked at it thoughtfully, and then placed it gently inside the cap. “What do you feel, gentlemen?” He held the hat out expectantly.

There was no murmuring as hands dug into pockets, and silver dollars were placed gently into the raggedy cap. One youth had tears in his eyes as he placed his coin inside. He hurriedly wiped them away, and stared at the ground at Mary’s feet.

“I am truly sorry, ma’am,” he said. “My mama raised me better, and I am ashamed of my actions.”

James laid a calloused, well worked hand on the young dog’s shoulder. “Frederick, you are doing it right. We all need to listen to our mamas more often.”

Without thinking, Mary said, “My brother’s name is Frederick.” It made the youth step back, but he looked up at her before ducking his head again in shame. About that time, Stinky Thomas reappeared with an axle on his shoulder.

“Now that the shaft is here,” James announced, turning back to the others, “let’s help this young miss out and fix her cart.” Mary felt a small thrill at being called young. At six, she was neither young nor old.

It didn’t take but fifteen minutes before the axle was replaced and their belongings were back in the cart. Axle grease, something Mary hadn’t been able to afford, was squished up around the edges, and a can was strapped to the sideboard. Someone had even leather-wrapped the pulling handles. Two of them brought over feather pillows. “For the boys, ma’am,” said one briskly. A bag of rice, and another of flour, now sat in the back where her empty sacks had been.

Another older dog showed her a cloth bag with solid, winter coats inside. “They’re for you and your boys, miss,” he said. “My kids long ago outgrew them, and my daughter has moved away with her family. You will need these up in those mountains.” He touched his cap in an odd salute and placed the bag in the cart.

James, too, gave her a small coin bag, filled with the silver dollars. He sighed as he considered the gift. “We are sorry, young mother. Please forgive us. And when you can, please pray for us.” Tears were in his eyes.

He squatted down once again, looking at Mary’s boys. “Listen to your mama,” he said. “She will tell you what is right and wrong. And if, someday, you find yourself doing wrong, it isn’t too late to turn around.”

Two sets of wide eyes, framing sticky mouths smelling of peppermint, stared back at him. “Why do you have that “S”, mister?” asked Rufus, the bold one. Timothy just stared at the blazoned scar. Mary gasped, mouth open and tail tucked in surprise, ashamed at the audacity of her children.

James took a breath, searching the young face. The other dogs, who had hung back, stepped in to hear. “I would like to know, too,” said one of them.

“Well,” James began awkwardly, still hunched over to be at the boy’s height, but turning to face everyone. “Many years ago, my friend and I thought it would be fun to steal some sheep. My mama had warned me not to steal, but we didn’t think. We were caught, and the village leaders thought to make an example of us. My friend and I were branded as sheep thieves. The “S” is there so all can see what horrible creatures we were. We found it hard to get by as no one would hire us, and we were severely beaten any chance that came up. My friend left to go to a distant land, but the shame always followed. He couldn’t live with it, and I heard that shortly thereafter, he threw himself off a cliff into the sea.

“I stayed here, trying my hardest to pay back for my crime.” James paused to think, and then exhaled resolutely. “I can’t hide my crime, but I can help others. I have tried to be as kind as possible to all around me, so that they won’t have to pay the same price I did. Everyday, I pray for forgiveness and try to help out where I can.”

“I thought the “S” stood for Saint!’” Rufus said. The men behind nodded, murmuring in agreement.

James froze, staring at Rufus. A quiet sob escaped as he gave the little boy a hug before turning and heading back into town. Everyone watched him in silence. Finally, the one named Frederick turned to her.

“If you go now, I believe you can find your group just around that hill there. If you follow that creek up through the canyon, there is an easy way over the pass.” He shook his head and considered the cart once more. “I recommend you and yours stay in the valley on the other side. It will snow, and any further up into the mountains you go, you will get trapped.”

Thomas, who still smelled but seemed somehow different, spoke up. “On the north side of the valley is a hot spring and some caves. You can find shelter there. We can come check on you if we know where you are. I doubt your companions have any more than you did. We owe you that, at least.”

She thanked the townsfolk for their generosity. With the goodbyes of the crowd ringing in her still disbelieving ears, Mary departed with a light heart and a heavy load. Never would she forget James, the power of his kind words, and the “S” he wore for Saint.