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first indication that Solomon and Hannah Pliskin’s trip back to Panacea from
Tucson wasn’t going to be worry-free was the sight of a shotgun-wielding
stranger who came into view as their wagon rounded a bend in the road. As he
spotted them, he raised his weapon; to Solomon, it appeared as if someone had
tied together two rain barrels and aimed them at him, so large did the shotgun
it right there, folks,” commanded a rough voice that came from behind them.
“We don’t mean you harm. But we will take that load in your wagon off your
known throughout the Arizona Territory as Secondhand Sol, forced a smile onto
his face as he tugged on the rains to halt Jezebel, his ancient mule.
only cargo is the Torah, a holy book that gives instructions to guide Jews
through life,” he said, turning to face the stranger. “It is valuable only
to us. We have nothing of value to others except an old wagon and an even
older mule,” he explained.
guess we’ll just have to take a look at what you’re carrying,” said the
mounted man behind him. A broad-brimmed hat shaded his eyes; all Solomon could
see of his face was a jutting rough-hewn jaw stubbled with beard. The man’s
large hands with their scarred knuckles, draped across his saddle pommel,
looked capable of dealing an appalling amount of violence.
you’re thinking off putting up a fight or trying to skedaddle, just know who
you’re dealing with -- Lamar Wainwright.”
recognized the name from the wanted dodgers that decorated the walls of
Marshal Verdell Hubbard’s office in Panacea. “You’re a highwayman, a
rustler and … worse,” he said.
as good as description as ever I’ve heard. That moody cuss upfront with the
shotgun is Dwight Tolliver. An even more disagreeable hombre, Concho, will be
joining us just as soon as he makes sure no one is following,” said the
fearsome-looking stranger, his rasping voice assaulting their ears.
you’re lying, mister. It was Concho who saw you load something big and shiny
into the back of that wagon when he spotted you in Tucson. Said it looked an
awful lot like silver. And silver is something we could use. Times are hard
all over, seems like.”
husband does not lie to you, or to anybody,” said Hannah, finding her voice
after the initial shock of the armed man’s appearance. “We have borrowed a
Torah scroll so that we may take part in a religious observance called Simchat
Torah, which means ‘rejoicing with the Torah.’
did not tell them that the occasion celebrated the completion of the annual
cycle of reading the Torah. Congregants carried it around the temple seven
times, singing and dancing, in observance of a happy day.
we in Panacea have no temple yet and no Torah, either. We meet in a social
hall that we rent for such occasions. So the Jews of Tucson, they lend us one
of their Torah scrolls.”
Pliskins had gone to Tucson to take custody of the Torah scroll because
Solomon was the lay leader of the Jews of Panacea, now that they had a minyan,
a group of ten Jewish males, and because Hannah was the founder of the Panacea
Jewish Benevolent Society.
do this important thing together,” said Solomon. “It might have been sent
by stage, but it is more personal that we do this important deed ourselves.”
He reached out and clutched Hannah’s hand as he spoke.
so?” Wainwright leaped off his horse onto the wagon bed and kicked the box
that held the Torah onto the ground. “So what’s this?”
opened the box and held up a large keter,
or crown, one of the pair of decorations that adorned the Torah’s scroll
handles. The ornate sterling silver ornaments shone in the desert sun.
this? And this?” He held forth the silver breastplate, or tass,
and the yad, or pointer, used to
trace the lines of the text when reading it to avoid smudging the lines with
do not measure the wealth of the Torah scroll by its adornments, but by the
meaning and wonder of its holy words,” answered Solomon.
ignored him, stripping off the silver items and stuffing them into a canvas
bag attached to his saddle.
rider approached. Solomon could see the cruel smile etched on his swarthy
features. “That’d be Concho,” said Wainwright. “Half Indian, half
Mexican, and all mean.”
see?” asked Concho, so named because the hatband on his sombrero was
festooned with medallions. “I told you they had silver.”
made it sound like they had a whole box of it,” complained Wainwright. “We
melt this down, we might be able to get some eating money to last a couple of
weeks or so, and maybe buy some ammo. That’s it.”
we sell her,” sneered Concho, knocking off Hannah’s bonnet to get a better
look at her face and then grabbing her by the arm. “Maybe she’s not so
young anymore, but she’s not half bad looking.”
go of Hannah’s hand, Solomon grazed the outlaw’s jaw with a weak right
cross that could have been timed with a sundial. Concho laughed and cuffed him
backward, knocking him off the wagon seat and onto the road, where he lay
stunned. Concho grabbed at Hannah again.
her be, Concho.”
outlaw obeyed his boss, but made it plain he did not care for the order.
you have the silver that you came for. Leave us now and let us keep the
Torah,” pleaded Solomon through his bloody lips. He struggled to sit up,
clutching his ribs.
me get this straight. You say that we can keep the silver, but you want us to
give you back that scroll thing. You think it is worth more than the
silver,” said Wainwright.
“Yes,” answered Hannah.
“And we do not just think
it is more valuable than silver – we believe it with our hearts, our minds,
and our souls. It is the air we breathe as Jews,” she said.
“If they say it’s more valuable than silver, they got stuff hidden
in it. Gold, maybe, or paper banknotes,” said Concho. “Their kind always
has lots of money.” He slid a Bowie knife out of his serape and advanced
toward the Torah.
“No!” screamed Hannah, jumping off the wagon and standing in front
of the scrolls, shielding them with her body. Eyes shut, she braced herself,
arms against her side.
“I gotta cut through you to get to it, not a problem, muchacha.
Selling you to the highest bidder would be my first choice, but if you insist
…” He leered, brandishing the blade in front of her.
“It is worth more than my life,” said Hannah through gritted teeth.
“Mine, too,” said Solomon, pushing himself off the ground,
stumbling over to her and standing by her side. He tried not to flinch at the
sight of the knife.
arm encircled Hannah’s waist as he looked into her eyes. He nodded as he
squeezed her tighter; she lowered her eyes in acknowledgement of his unspoken
declaration of love and sacrifice. Then together they looked up and faced
Concho, armed with nothing but their faith and love.
began chanting Solomon, in a clear and proud voice that did not break in the
face of peril. “Adonai Eloheinu
Adonai echad.” [Hear, Israel,
the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.]
Joining him in the most important prayer in all of Judaism, Hannah
added: “Barukh sheim k’vod malkhuto
l’olam va’ed.” [Blessed be the name of His Glorious kingdom forever
Concho, baring his teeth like a coyote closing in on a rabbit, raised
his Bowie knife and stepped forward.
Impressed by the sight, Wainwright yelled, “Concho! Step aside and
let them Jews have their holy words, or whatever they call it.”
“Huh?” Concho snapped his head around, knife still poised to
“You’re many things, but deaf isn’t one of them, amigo
mio,” said Wainwright, slipping the leather thong off the hammer of his
holstered Colt, and keeping his palm an inch away from it.
heard me. Let them have it, or maybe I let you have it. I’m still the boss
of this outfit, and what I say goes. Unless you want to be the boss, and there
ain’t but one way to get that job. You up to it, Concho? Loser gets left to
rot right here on the road. Never a smart thing to bring a knife to a
“Even you wouldn’t shoot a man in the back, jefe.”
“Yeah, but a man
wouldn’t be waving his pig sticker at a lady now, would he? Or at her
bearded, balding runt of a husband who’s about half his size. That’d make
him an animal, and shooting an animal any which way, back or front, wouldn’t
matter that much.” Wainwright punctuated the statement by drawing his Colt
and cocking the hammer.
forget about making us white slavers. I don’t hold with such actions. Any
man taking orders from me molests a woman, he answers to Judge Colt.”
Concho stiffened and then stowed his knife. He backed away from the
Pliskins and the Torah, hands held high.
The boss he says you can go and take that thing with you. So go. Vayan
con Dios.” Sarcasm dripped from his words like blood from a knife wound.
“They can take their wagon and mule, too. The wagon would just slow
us down and that mule ain’t fit for nothing but buzzard bait,” said
Wainwright. “We got the silver,
such as it is, and that’ll have to do. Next time you go to town to spot us
some easy pickings, do a better job of it.”
Concho stalked off, muttering curses in Spanish.
“Dwight, make sure that Concho keeps his distance from our guests.”
“You hear a loud noise, that’ll be him dying,” answered the
bandit, smiling as he covered Concho with the muzzles of his 10-gauge shotgun.
The sight of those big barrels acted like a cool compress on Concho’s hot
Wainwright mounted his horse and waited until Solomon and Hannah had
repacked the Torah scrolls with trembling hands and packed them on their
wagon. Solomon retrieved his bowler, dusting it off, while Hannah readjusted
the brim of her bonnet.
“You’re going to tell the law about this, but it’ll take a while
for you to reach Panacea and even longer for a posse to mount up. If that mule
moved any quicker, I’d probably shoot it and strand you here,” said the
doffed his hat and waved it to them in a salute. “Adios, folks. Sorry to
have disturbed you. You’ve got brass, and I do admire that. That Concho is a
scamp and one of these days I’ll probably have to shoot him full of lead.
But not today. Tomorrow I’m not so sure of, but he gets to draw air for the
Wainwright rode off, he spoke over his shoulder: “If you’re on speaking
terms with whatever God you worship, I’d appreciate you putting in a good
word for me on account of saving your lives.”
it was you who put us in danger in the first place,” sputtered Solomon,
wiping his mouth with a handkerchief.
nudged her husband with a hard elbow, silencing him. “We
will,” she called back to Wainwright, forcing herself to smile.
let him see you cry, she thought. Wait until he disappears over that rise
before you break down in tears.
waved and headed down the road with his men.
the longest time, the couple said nothing, grateful to still be alive.
my brave husband, who could not dent even a pillow with a punch, he tries to
box with an outlaw twice his size,” she said; her smile erased any sting the
words might have carried.
“Brave? I was never so scared in all of my life. Me, the bearded,
balding runt of a husband, at that,” said Solomon, making a face as he
recalled the less-than-flattering description supplied by Wainwright.
“And I was never so proud of you,” she said.
about my wife, a woman who cannot stand the sight of blood, even in the
kitchen, who defies a bandit and his knife?” he countered.
“He wouldn’t have cut me. It would have ruined the merchandise,”
said Hannah with mock seriousness.
“Such a team we make,” laughed Solomon.
“Yes, a team, my husband. A team that knows the importance of
standing its ground in the face of danger because of the courage that our
faith gives us. Today we protected a Torah because of all the times its laws
have protected us.
“Our love protected us, too,” Hannah added, her voice barely above
a whisper. She leaned into him, burying her face in his shoulder where at last
she felt safe enough to cry for a long time.
So, arm in arm, they drove back to Panacea where once again there would
be a happy time of rejoicing -- even if marred by the theft of the Tucson
Torah’s decorations and the fact that they would have to raise money to
replace them. Solomon would report the crime not only to Marshal Hubbard but
also to his friend Arizona Ranger Eli Weiss, who would have a special
incentive to track down Wainwright and his saddle mates.
“All in all, a small price to pay for this remembrance of its
importance to our lives,” said Solomon. “Amein.”