Western Short Story
Our place sits at the head of the valley where the trail divides, running down to Brown’s Flats on one side and to Cavila and the stage line on the other. It’s the first water for miles in either direction, so most everyone travelling this way stops here. Most we know, and some are strangers passing through never to be heard of again. And some are strangers we do hear of again. One man who had supper at our table we heard of four days later—dead of a sheriff’s bullet while trying to steal cattle from a ranch a few miles up in the foothills.
Pa gives everyone the same welcome, for you can’t rightly ask the business of every stranger who waters his horse at your trough—nor pick and choose who you invite in to share supper by what you think of their looks. We share our water and we mind our own business; that’s the way it is in this part of the country.
It was a hot afternoon in mid-August and supper was just about on the table when I heard horses outside. I heard men’s voices, and heard Pa giving the usual answer about how many miles to Cavila, and then inviting them to sit down to supper along with us. They came inside with him in a minute, three of them, and Ma pushed our plates down the table to make room and laid three more places.
I could tell Pa knew from the start, like the rest of us did, that these were the ones you didn’t ask questions. They looked like any other cowboys, but they didn’t volunteer anything about themselves or where they were bound, and one of them kept an eye the whole time on the open kitchen door, which he could see from where he was sitting. And they’d left a fourth man outside to see to the horses, and he didn’t come in all the time they were eating.
When we were about done, one of them pushed his cleared plate away and got up—the tallest one who seemed to be the leader—and said to another of them, “Tell the kid to come in here and get something to eat before we leave.”
I was clearing the table when the fourth one pushed open the door and came in. He was younger than the others, not more than twenty or twenty-one. I looked up from the table and met his face full—and something gave a surge and a thud in my ears, and my hands holding the stack of plates felt like they didn’t belong to me. His eyes only met mine for a half-second before they dropped and he turned his head aside. He sat down at the place left for him at the table, and I turned and went out to the kitchen.
Ma wasn’t there, and I put the plates down and leaned against the wall. My heart was pounding and my tongue was like flannel, and I didn’t know whether it was more shock or anger or disappointment.
I’d spent all that June and July visiting my cousins on their ranch twenty miles away. Carl McCutcheon was working on the Roberts spread just beyond theirs—he was one of the boys who always rode over Sunday nights to sit on the veranda steps and talk and laugh with us girls. He’d teased me, and danced with me at Aunt Jane’s birthday picnic and the Fourth of July barbecue, and tried to coax me into kissing him—only he always laughed when he said it, in such a way that I could never figure out if he really meant it or was only trying to get a rise out of me.
When I came home, I made up my mind that if he’d meant anything by any of it, he’d come up to our place before long. I hadn’t said anything to Ma and Pa; I thought it would be kind of fun to see how they looked when a fellow showed up to call on me, and I could pretend to put on airs a bit, and have a nice little laugh over it with Ma afterwards. But three weeks went by, and Carl never came.
And now I wished he hadn’t come at all.
I made myself go back in that front room—I wouldn’t have him think I was hiding. I told myself I wasn’t going to pay any attention to him, but all the time I was clearing that table I kept looking at him, trying to catch his eye, trying to see if there’d be any shame in it, or if he just didn’t care at all. But he never looked up from the table. When he finished his coffee he got up and went out without even speaking to Pa; he looked like he wanted to be gone in a hurry. The two men that were left thanked Pa for the meal and the water, and then they went out, and in a minute all of them had mounted their horses and started down the Cavila trail.
Pa came out in the kitchen while Ma and I were washing the dishes, and Ma gave him a kind of questioning glance that he answered with a nod. “Don’t know where they’re bound for, but I’ll wager it’s for no good,” he said.
“Well, what can you do?” said Ma, which was what she always said.
“Too bad about some of these kids,” said Pa absently. “They go bad out of not much more than lazy devilment at first. They just get outlaw fever…get tired of eating dust for forty a month and think there’s a more exciting way to get it.” He added, “All you can hope is that they learn to see things straight before much damage gets done.”
I had my back to him, and my lower lip was between my teeth. Ma murmured agreement, and then Pa went out to join Pete and do the evening chores.
I was no good for anything the rest of that night. I broke a plate, I spilled part of a bucket of milk, I caught my dress on a nail, and fumbled and dropped everything I touched and was snappy with anyone who spoke to me. Ma said at last, “What’s wrong with you, Millie? Don’t you feel well?”
“It’s nothing,” I said, smearing the palm of my hand into my eyes. “It’s just the heat. I’m going to go to bed.”
I went to my room and sat on the edge of the bed. My cheeks and throat were hot, but my hands felt icy in spite of the heavily warm night, and there was an ugly leaden feeling in my stomach. Part of me was fiercely glad that I hadn’t let Carl McCutcheon tease me into kissing him, but some other, rebellious part of me wished unreasonably that I had, because it was never going to happen now.
I undressed for bed and lay down in the dark. After Ma and Pa and Pete had gone to bed and the house had long been quiet, I was still awake. A cow lowed down in the corral, and there was the shrill yap of a coyote far in the distance—both sounds tore at my nerves. I thrashed around and tried to get comfortable and kicked my burning bare feet out from under the covers. I felt like I was sick of a fever. I’d never felt sicker in my life.
Outlaw fever, Pa had said. Well, that’s what I had, only in a different way. And there wasn’t any cure…except to hope that maybe one day, if I tried not to think about him too much, the sick burning in the pit of my stomach would go away.
The next day was even hotter, and my eyes were heavy from the hours I’d laid awake during the night. In the afternoon Pa hitched up the team for him and Ma to drive over and call on the Johnsons. Any other time I’d have gone with them, but today I didn’t want to—I said I’d stay home and set the bread to rise, and so Pete went with them instead and I was left alone.
I kneaded the bread dough and covered it and put it to rise, and then I drifted restlessly through the house, from room to room. Finally I couldn’t stand being cooped up in there any longer, and decided I’d ride up the canyon where it was shady. I went to my room and changed into my riding-skirt and blouse, and I’d just finished when I heard horses clattering loud and reckless up the trail.
I snagged the last button of my blouse on my hair and pushed my bedroom door open. There were men shouting in front of the house, calling each other every name they could think of—some that I knew and a few I didn’t. Before I could get to the front door it flew open and two of the men from yesterday stalked in—the red-haired one and the one with the low forehead. The first was stooped under the heavy weight of something—someone—slung across his shoulder—I caught a glimpse of a dangling arm in a blue-checked sleeve and had just time to realize it was Carl before the man dumped him in a heap on the floor, his head and boots hitting the floorboards with loud thuds. I dropped down on my knees beside him. I’m afraid I wasn’t thinking anything at all just then, except that it was Carl and he was hurt. His eyes were closed and he was breathing kind of heavy, and his hand was limp when I picked it up. But I couldn’t see any kind of wound.
“What happened?” I cried, but the other two didn’t pay me any mind. They’d gone back to blistering each other in language a little modified for my sake. I was too wild to hear much of it, but the main thing seemed to be that the one with the low forehead was blaming the other for talking him into something that was supposed to have been splendid but had turned out the opposite. They turned to head out the door.
“Darn you all, come back here and help me!” I yelled after them. “I can’t lift him! Help me get him up on the bed.”
I don’t know if it was because they were in the habit of being yelled at just then, or if even outlaws will do things to oblige a girl sometimes, but they turned and came back, looking pretty sour. They picked Carl up by the shoulders and legs and carried him in and put him on Pete’s bed, not too gently. I sat down on the edge of the bed and tried again to see where he was hurt. “Wait a minute!” I said as they were leaving again. “Won’t you just tell me what’s wrong with him? What happened?”
The one with the low forehead just growled and kept on his way out, but the red-haired one turned around. There was something about the way he held his mouth that seemed to say he could see the funny side of things.
“You want to know what happened?” he said. “All right. Four of us had a pressing appointment—along the stage road. At an hour when it ought to’ve been much too late to send in regrets, the kid had a change of mind and said he didn’t want to attend after all. A person named Ned who’d arranged the party took it most unkindly—it needed four of us, the way he’d planned it. They argued back and forth some, but the kid wouldn’t give way—and when he turned around to his horse, Ned chunked him behind the ear with the loaded end of his quirt and he went down like a struck ox. Well, that deprived us of our Number Four man just as effective, and you might say it was the breaking of the fellowship. Ned went one way and we another. That bellowing owl outside was sore at me for wanting to dump the kid here with folks on our way back. Unfortunately I’ve got to follow him, because he happens to be my brother. So if you don’t mind, I’ll be going now.”
I didn’t mind. What I had a mind to do as soon as he was gone was to try laughing and crying over Carl all at once, but all I could manage were a few choky squeaks that Ma would probably have said were hysterical. And then I guess I got pretty foolish, and did things like cradling his head against my knee, and stroking his brown hair back from his forehead and brushing the dust from his face, and generally giving myself away much more than I’d have done if he’d been able to hear me. I got a wet cloth and put it on his head, and another against the lump behind his ear, and in a little while he opened his eyes.
When he’d realized where he was, he turned his head to look up at me for a few seconds. Then he turned it back again, wincing a little like it hurt, and closed his eyes.
He said, “Millie, I guess I’ve been a darn fool.”
“I guess you have,” I said. I wasn’t about to let him off easy, even though what I wanted most to do right then was the thing he’d always asked for.
Well, when Pa and Ma and Pete got home, and Pa came inside and found us, Carl was still lying on Pete’s bed looking and feeling pretty sick, and I was still sitting by him keeping a wet cloth on his head. Pa took it all pretty calmly, considering. I never thought of it till now, but he’s often got that something about his mouth like the red-haired outlaw had. When he’d heard everything, all he said to Carl was, pretty gravely, “I’m glad you made up your mind so soon.”
Carl stayed on with us a couple of days, until he could get up and sit a horse without feeling like his head belonged to somebody else. The day he left, I managed to drift out to the barn and stand watching while he saddled his horse.
“Are you going back to Roberts’?” I said.
“No reason why not,” he said. He pretended to fiddle with his horse’s headstall for a minute, and then looked sidelong at me. “Would your folks mind if I came up here again?”
I said, looking carefully at the ground and not at him, “Why didn’t you come before…after I went home?”
“I meant to, Millie, honest. And then I got thinking about myself, and reasoning…I’m only a forty-a-month man. I thought maybe, if I had some cattle of my own—”
“You could have thought of a better way of getting them!” I blurted.
“I know,” said Carl, and he had the sense to turn red.
He kicked a rock away through the dirt. “I don’t know what got into me. I kept on thinking about it, and it was just dull as tombs down there after you went home…I was sick of punching somebody else’s cows. Then I got to hanging around with that Ned Bentley, and he started throwing out hints about the cash-boxes on the Cavila stage line…and I started listening to him. I must have been out of my head.”
“Mmm-hmm,” I said.
Carl finished tightening his saddle cinch, and then he turned and looked at me. “If I was to come back…would you mind, Millie?”
I ought to have said something very pretty and dignified right there, but all I could manage was to shake my head and try not to look idiotic when I smiled.
The glad look that flashed across his face just about turned my heart upside-down. He gathered up the reins and put his hand on his horse’s withers, and threw a glance over his shoulder toward the house. Then he looked at me, and the old teasing was in his eyes again. “How about kissing me good-bye?”
This time I had the advantage, because I’d been planning what I was going to say to that since first thing that morning.
“If you promise you’ll behave yourself from now on,” I said, “then—maybe—next time!”