Western Short Story
Her mother had always called a new moon, “God’s fingernail”, and Annie herself loved a night sky, especially the spectacular night sky seen from her cabin high on the Mogollon Rim.
Tim had been gone for nearly a year now, and she held out no hope that he would ever return. He was a good humored sort, and handsome enough, but not cut out to be a husband and father. Tim loved a good time, and he loved the saloon life, but he cared little for hard work. He had left promising to find a job in Show Low, and that was the last time she had seen him. Davy was almost three now, and did not seem to remember his father.
The land, outbuildings, and cabin were hers, left to her by her father. She managed to scrape by on her egg money and the sale of an occasional hog. Al Halsey had promised to brand and sell her cattle come spring, along with his own, She had good neighbors.
Annie Winslow checked on her sleeping son, and then took her tea out on the dark porch. The cabin was on a high bench, overlooking a heavily wooded valley that sloped off to the south and west for twenty some miles. The sliver of new moon reflected off the low, silvery mist blanketing the valley floor, far below. Overhead were the late fall constellations, and the breathtaking beauty of millions of stars, highly visible at her altitude. For a long time, she marveled at the beauty of her surroundings, and then she rose to go to bed. As she turned to the door, something caught her eye, and she turned back.
At first she saw nothing, but then she caught the faint flicker of a distant campfire on the far side of the valley. She wondered if he was as alone and empty as she felt tonight. Finally, she shrugged and went off to bed.
In the morning, she fed Davy, and sat him down to read. He was only three, but she had already taught him the alphabet, and he could read simple words, and an old New England Primer her father had, so she laboriously printed out children’s stories of her own making, and he delighted in reading them because he was the main character.
She gathered the morning eggs, and slopped the hogs, before returning to check on Davy. As she approached the cabin, she was startled to see a piece of rolled paper tied to a bush in front of the porch. She looked all around, but there was no one.
She opened it and found a simple poem:
I know you wait
Lost and alone
Perhaps some day
I shall call you my own
Until then, I shall watch over you.
There was no signature and it was an unknown hand. Tim could barely write his own name, and he was never romantic anyway. She read it again, and then placed the paper in her dresser drawer, and left to check on Davy.
That night, she again took her tea out to the dark porch, and again marveled at the beauty of the night sky. The arc of the new moon was already larger, and she basked in its shimmering silver glow. She read the scrap of paper again, and found the words of the poem to be comforting, because it promised that she would be looked after. Just the same, she was little uneasy. What if he was not a good man? And what about Tim? She was, after all, a married woman.
She glanced at the slope on the far side of the valley, This time, there was no campfire to be seen. Finally, she went to bed, but sleep did not come easily, as she pondered on who might have written the note. At last, she drifted off.
For a week, there was nothing else, and she had about decided that it was a rather cruel prank, when she walked out on the porch one morning to find a lovely bouquet of red roses, tied up with a red ribbon. There was no note.
Two weeks later, she saw the glow of another campfire, but in a different spot. Probably just a traveler, she thought to herself. There was a trail over there that led down the Rim to the town of Payson. The next morning, there was another note.
A lonely heart
And empty arms
Long to hold
Your lovely charms
She smiled. His simple verse was a combination of sweet, and awkward…almost boyish. She folded the note and placed it with the other. The next morning, there was a tin box on the porch containing some beautiful red ribbons, and some stick candy for Davy.
That night, she sat on the porch wrapped in a blanket. There was a chill in the air, and the late afternoon clouds had a promise of snow. She had wood to last until after New Years, but she needed more. She would talk to Mister Baker about hiring someone to deliver. The next morning, she gathered more eggs and dressed Davy for the long walk to Baker’s store.
The path led them through groves of towering pines that whispered of their passing. Davy’s small legs churned to catch up with his mother as he stopped often to examine one new marvel after another.
Annie carried the basket of eggs in one hand and her Winchester in the other. There was a large black bear in the area, and although he had not attacked anyone, he had menaced the Cook family in their wagon. She waited for Davy to catch up and smiled at his excitement. In his hands was one of the large beetles common to the area. She made him put it down, and they walked on.
There were two wagons and one riding horse at the rail when she arrived at Baker’s store. She recognized the horse as belonging to Sheriff Dan Peters, a rather plain but steady man. He had checked on her now and then, since Tim had disappeared, and she appreciated his concern. He tipped his hat to her as she entered the cool darkness of the store. Harvey Baker nodded to her as he tended to his customers. Then he looked toward the bowl of stick candy and down at Davy, who was staring wide-eyed at it. He smiled, and nodded at Annie, winking, so she took one out and handed it to Davy.
An hour later, they were on their way back. She had made a deal with Harvey Baker for a cured ham and a side of bacon in exchange for a hog she was feeding out. He also threw in one sack each of flour and sugar, and some coffee, all to be delivered in the morning. She also made a deal with Ralph Dugger to deliver three cords of stacked wood for his choice of a beef.
The empty basket was a blessing to her aching arm, and they were approaching the cabin when she heard a small voice filled with alarm.
She turned as Davy hid behind her skirts. Less than fifty feet away was a huge black bear, and he was watching them intently. She jacked a shell into the chamber, and began to slowly back away. The bear snuffled at their tail, and then rose to his full height on his rear legs. He was enormous, and a chill went down her back. She could see he was a male, and that his left front paw was deformed. He went back down on all fours and slowly began stalking her. Suddenly, he roared and charged so quickly that the distance between them was cut in half before she could bring the rifle to her shoulder and fire.
She was certain that she hit him, but he kept on coming. Frantically, she jacked another shell into the chamber and fired again. Off to her right, she heard the tremendous roar of a large rifle, and the bear went to his knees, his momentum skidding him to within a few feet of her before finally coming to a halt. His eyes stared up at her and his jaws snapped a few times as he huffed his life away. Then his eyes were staring at nothing and he breathed no more. He was dead.
Her face was white with shock and her shaking legs were collapsing as strong arms went around her shoulders and beneath her knees, swooping her up. She saw the face of Sheriff Dan Peters, just before she fainted dead away. Somehow, he looked quite handsome in a way she had not noticed before.
“Good thing I was coming this way. You hit him both times, but it took my big fifty caliber to stop him.”
She had regained consciousness in her bed, and now Dan towered over her. He had gone back to check on the bear.
“We’ll skin him out and butcher him. There's a lot of meat there, and a good pelt. Harvey will pay you for the meat. Lots of folks like a good bear roast. Tastes like pork. Makes good sausage too.”
“Pay me? You’re the one who killed him, Sheriff.”
“No Ma’am. You killed him. I just stopped him. Both of your shots went right to his heart. That was some shooting on your part, and I’m right proud to say that. And please, call me Dan.”
She made some coffee and poured him a cup.
“I’m lucky that you happened along Sher…Dan. He was still alive enough to have killed one or both of us.”
The sheriff looked uncomfortable. “Well, actually, I had business with you, Mrs.Winslow, and a sad business at that. I received a letter concerning your husband Tim.”
She nodded. “He’s dead, isn’t he? And it would please me if you would address me as Annie. It seems fitting after you saved me and Davy”
He nodded. “Well, it seems he was playing cards in Denver when someone accused another player of cheating. For some reason unknown to anyone, Tim sided with the accused and ended up getting himself killed.”
Annie nodded again. “That was Tim’s way. He was a good-hearted sort, but foolish, very foolish. He always sided with the one he considered the underdog., so it comes as no surprise to me that he died needlessly.”
She patted the sheriff’s arm. “Don’t trouble yourself over being the bearer of bad news, Dan. I had assumed that Tim somehow met his fate and would not return. I shed my tears months ago.”
She walked him to his horse, and stood by as he mounted. Something hanging out of his saddlebag caught her eye, and she stepped closer. It was the end of a roll of red ribbon, and she pulled out a foot or two. He saw what she was doing and his face reddened.
“So it was you all along.”
He looked uncomfortable. “I’m no hand with women, Annie, so I usually pay them no mind. But you were alone, and a woman needs her pretty things now and then, so I brought them when I could. I meant no harm.”
She watched him for a moment, her hazel eyes searching his as her long black hair blew gently in the breeze.
“An hour ago, you informed me that I am a widow, Dan Peters, and now you have also informed me that you are my secret admirer. What am I to make of that? Are you now going to back out? Are you going to leave me alone again, or will you honor your commitment?”
His mouth dropped open, and he stared at her. “Commitment? Back out?”
He took off his hat and scratched his head. “I never figured you’d want me to come a-courting, Annie. I just wanted to bring you a little happiness. But if you’re willing, I’d be honored. I surely would.”
She smiled up at him. “Yes Dan, I want you to come courting…some more. I like the way you court.
Folks talked some when Annie married the Sheriff scarcely two weeks after learning she was a widow, but Annie paid them no mind. Dan proved to be a hard worker, a good husband, and the romantic lover Tim had never been. One evening as an exhausted Dan was drifting off to sleep, Annie whispered to him that she would love to have him write her some poetry.
He replied sleepily. “I can do most things, Annie, but I never could write a word of poetry. The words just never came to me. I’m sorry dear.”
After he began to snore, Annie quietly made herself a cup of tea and took it out on the porch. The night was chilly, so she pulled her shawl around her. For a few moments, she did not notice the small tube of rolled up paper pushed between the floor board cracks.
Your heart is full
So I must go
But ne'er forget
I loved you so
She looked across the valley at the far slope and saw the dim flicker of a lonely campfire. She gave it a small wave, knowing that it was an empty gesture, and went back to bed with her sleeping husband, tossing the note into the wood stove as she passed by.