He arrived after the harvest, a bedraggled, half-starved figure of a man. But something about the way he held himself told of a time when a fire burned in those now hollow eyes.
He took off his hat. "Ma'am," he said, without looking Maisie in the eye, "I'd be grateful for any kind of work you might have. I'm not proud."
"These are hard times," said Maisie, eyeing him warily.
"All I need is a square meal a day, ma'am. I can sleep out in the barn, or even under the stars. Nothing I'm not used to."
Maisie scoffed. "You'll be singing a different tune when the blizzards come." She nodded curtly toward a run-down shed. "You can sleep out in the old smithy. In return, you can help me with the varmints and the weaving."
"Yes, ma'am," he said. "Much obliged."
He was true to his word, keeping to himself in the disused smithy and diligently carrying out every chore that needed doing.
At first she brought him his meals in the shed but after a few days she appeared at the door with no bowl in hand. He looked at her, questioning.
"Might as well come in the house," she said. "I don't want to come trudging out here with a full bowl of stew every day."
The house had seemed a respectable size from the outside but once he entered, he could see that so much of it had fallen into disrepair that the living area was no bigger than his smithy's shed.
"It's been hard times," she said, noticing his glance.
"Yes, ma'am," he said. They ate without speaking, but he could sense her sizing him up, asking without asking what he was made of, what kind of man sat before her, in the remains of her house. She had the look of someone that life had taught to trust no man.
"One meal a day isn't enough for anyone," she scoffed as he scraped up the last of the stew. "I'm not the kind to put a stranger to work only to starve him."
And from then on, he came to the house thrice a day for meals. They still rarely spoke but one day she asked, casually, almost as an afterthought, "So you were in the war?"
He hesitated, spoon halfway to his mouth. "In a way, you could say we all were."
She laughed bitterly. "I reckon you could."
He put the spoon back down, and not meeting her eyes, said, "Ma'am, respectfully, I... I'd like to leave the past in the past."
This time she was the one that looked away. "Wise enough. If only it were so easy."
He returned to the stew.
"What do I call you by, anyway?" She saw him hesitate and said, "Any name will do."
He thought for a moment and said, "I've always wanted to be a Jed."
"Jed it is," said Maisie. "The name's Maisie," she said, nodding, "but you can keep calling me ma'am."
"Yes, ma'am," said Jed, with the faintest hint of a smile.
The days went on and grew shorter and shorter. They still spoke little but she began to notice things. The scars on his hands. The way he startled at the sound of metal clashing on metal.
He noticed the faraway look she got when she would look toward the smithy sometimes. The empty picture frames on the ground in one of the disused rooms. Eyes that had once been filled with light and laughter.
She appeared again at the door of the shed one day, and he looked up, surprised. She had not visited since he had begun eating at the house. He waited for her to speak.
Finally she said, "This used to be my husband's smithy."
"Reckon I'd like to fire it up again."
He coughed. "Ma'am, I'm no smith... I..."
She waved his protests aside. "I know that, you damn fool. I worked with him. I can get things going. I just haven't had time with having to try to get by on my lonesome. Now that you're here to share the load..."
Jed nodded. "Yes, ma'am," he said. "Don't s'pose you could teach me while you're at it?"
"S'pose I could," she said, with the first genuine smile he'd seen.
The days shortened and then began to grow long again. She taught him the ways of the blacksmith. Slowly, here and there, she began to suspect he knew more than he let on.
"Well, ma'am," he said, when she finally confronted him, "you've got me there. I've done a lot of things in the war and I do know my way around a forge. I've also tried my hand at carpentry and leatherwork. Whatever we needed at the time. But only as much as needed for fixin' and makin' things to do our main job, which was the killin'."
She nodded. "I figured."
"But if it's all the same, I think I like making plows a lot more," said Jed.
"Well, then you're in luck."
Spring soon rolled around, and with it, trouble. It was nearly planting time when the man in black showed up at the door.
"Good afternoon, ma'am," he said with a smile as Maisie watched him warily.
"I don't want no trouble," she said, looking from him to the dangerously armed men standing a short distance behind him.
"Well, I don't want any, either," said the man. "I'm just looking for an old friend."
"Who do I have the pleasure of speaking with?" asked Maisie gruffly.
He bowed ostentatiously. "They call me the Encino Kid. Perhaps my fame precedes me. Perhaps not." He laughed. "I suppose I'm really more of a local celebrity."
"I don't reckon I'd know any friend of yours," said Maisie.
"Ah, but I have it on good authority that he headed this way."
"He mighta headed right on through."
"I'm told he made a stop here," said the Kid, "and he's been a great helper here on old Theo Jespersen's farm."
"You keep that name out of your mouth," said Maisie between gritted teeth.
Like a flash of lightning, the Kid had drawn his sword and held the tip to Maisie's throat. "I'll say what I like," he said.
"Who are you looking for?" called a voice from behind the house.
Jed had come out of the smithy and was walking slowly towards them.
"Ah," said the Kid, "I do believe there's my old friend."
"I don't think we've met," said Jed.
"No, not in person," said the Kid, "but don't think I haven't heard of the Swordsman of Monterey."
"What makes you think I'm him?" asked Jed.
The Encino Kid laughed. "I've tracked you all the way here from Bakersfield. You're not as slippery as you think."
"What do you want with him, anyway?" said Jed.
"Gentlemen?" said Maisie, looking meaningfully at the sword held to her throat.
"If your friend is willing to entertain a proposition I have," said the Kid, "I'd be perfectly happy to put Blue Lightning back in its sheath."
He looked back at Jed and did not see Maisie roll her eyes.
Jed said, "I'll entertain any proposition you like but I can't claim to being this Swordsman you're after."
As quickly as he had drawn it, the Kid sheathed his sword.
"It's a simple proposition, Swordsman," he said, "I want you to forge me a sword."
"He isn't this Swordsman you're looking for," said Maisie. "I'm the one's been teaching him to blacksmith. He had a bit of the basics before he came round but, if he'll excuse me for saying so, he's hardly any kind of master."
"And if you'll excuse me for saying so," said the Kid with a grin, "it ain't hard to fool a woman if you set your mind to it."
"Get off my land," growled Maisie.
The Kid's grin hardened. "You see that smoke over yonder? That's Ralston's farm. Or it used to be. Until he decided he didn't want to tell me which way your friend went. My boys are happy to do it again."
"Stop," said Jed. "I'll make your sword." Maisie looked at him, really seeing him for the first time in a long time. He wasn't the same hunched, skin-and-bones vagabond that had arrived at the farm at the start of winter. He stood tall and proud, his eyes no longer burning furiously with the fire of his youth, but smoldering quietly like coals. She realized she was glimpsing the man he once was.
The Encino Kid grinned once more. "That's more like it."
"I'll need an ingot of pure firesteel and three days."
The Kid snapped his fingers and one of his men came forward with a linen-wrapped bundle. "There's your steel," he said. "Henry and Bart will keep an eye on you to make sure you don't run off. They'll send word to me in town when you're done."
He turned to his men. "You see, boys," he said, "it's all about the power. You don't have to know nothin' about swords as long as you can scare the people that do into doing what you want."
He waved mockingly at Jed. "Folks waste their lives workin' hard, learnin' how to do this and that, and all you have to do is hold a sword to their throat to get all of it."
Maisie stepped forward, fist clenched, but Jed held up a hand and she paused.
The Kid laughed. "He knows the deal." He turned to his men. "Boys, let's go tear up that saloon." With a raucous cheer, they were off.
Three days and three nights Jed toiled at the forge. Maisie thought about running, but they'd built up so much, and besides, this farm was all she had left of Theo. And the men the Kid had stationed there were remorseless sentinels, ever watching.
Finally Jed emerged from the forge, holding a magnificent sword glowing with faint flames that danced up and down the blade.
"Fetch one of the lackeys," he said to Maisie. "It's ready."
The Encino Kid arrived once more with his entourage, all looking somewhat the worse for wear after three days in town.
"You have what I wanted, Swordsman?"
"I have your sword," said Jed evenly, presenting him with the firesteel blade.
"It's incredible," said the Kid, marveling at it from all angles. "The craftsmanship. The mastery."
Finally he turned to Maisie, holding the sword to her throat once more. "Consider yourself lucky, ma'am. Not many have mouthed off to the Encino Kid and lived."
He sheathed the sword and turned to his men. "Let's git." As they prepared to ride off, he looked back at Jed and winked. "You did such a good job, I might be back for another favor sometime." And with that, they were gone.
Maisie and Jed watched the horizon a long time, even after the men had disappeared.
"Did you get a good look at the sword?" asked Jed, glancing at Maisie.
"No," said Maisie brutally. "I couldn't stand to look at it."
"Oh," said Jed, sounding hurt.
"It was men like him that killed my husband. Other men like him that did this to my home when I went to them for help. And he'll use that wonderful sword you gave him to keep doing it."
Jed said nothing. After a moment, she returned to the house, and he returned to the shed. They continued as they had been, but meal times were quiet once more.
Some time later, Finn, the merchant's errand boy stopped by on his usual rounds, more excited than usual. "I don't reckon you heard about the Encino Kid?"
Jed and Maisie looked at each other.
"What's he done now?" asked Maisie with dread.
"Nothin', he's dead," said Finn. "They said his blade just fell clean off the hilt in the middle of a fight. The other guy just ran him right through. No one's ever seen anything like it! Must have been a real piece of crap. Anyway, thanks for the stuff, I gotta go to the MacQueens'."
He disappeared in an energetic cloud of dust and Maisie turned to Jed.
"You're not the Swordsman," she said.
"Never said I was."