1st Place
2019 Rope and Wire Western Short Story Contest

Western Short Story

In the Smile of God

Eowyn Peterson

  Did his mother ever guess what a man he would be? Even as a child did he look as I saw him that Sunday afternoon, sitting on the boardwalk by the hitching rail, mouth cocked in constant appreciation of a joke only he could see, elbows resting lazily on his knees. 

        But I outrun myself, you can’t care about what his mother thought about anything until you know the place, and the happening and most importantly, the man.

      It was a cool green verdant Sunday morning with just enough mist to lull the new meadow to richer green, but not to hide the westward mountains. Mother, wrapped in a large apron to protect her Sunday best, was at the cooking range, when I came in with the morning eggs from the hen house.

      My father coming in from the barn clapped my mother right around the waist and gave her a great smacking kiss straight on the mouth.

      She pulled back, dipping her chin at me, but it couldn’t hide her blush: “Not in front of Lee, Matt.”

      Married to my father a year, and she still worried about spooning in front of me; like I’d never seen it before. I knew why of course she was young and she didn’t want me hurt for my mother’s sake, she needn’t have worried I was old enough to be glad that father was laughing again.
      He laughed now, pulling back his chair from the table to dig into the plate of potatoes and eggs Mother set before him.

      “It feels like the whole world’s been brushed by the hand of God, the smallest steer couldn’t help but grow fat on that grass out there; I think I’ll be hiring on another hand for the branding.”

      “I’m glad we can, dear,” Mother said.

      “I’ll ride into town tomorrow, and see about finding one.”

      Funny how my father always asked her advice about things considering how much she knew about ranching, why I’d been about the business longer than she and she was full twice my age of twelve; it was what a man did for his wife though, so I couldn’t be offended.

      Several buckboards were already pulled up at the church rail, when my father nosed the heads of our team to the end of it. Across the street several horses stood tied before the closed shop doors across the street.

      Father glanced their way as he lifted Mother down over the wheel. “See some strange brands there, maybe I won’t have to make that ride in tomorrow.”

      Shaking out her pretty silk skirts Mother gave as pretty a little shake with her head, “For shame, thinking of business right before church.”

    “All right, my darling,” Father smiled and offered her his arm. 

    I think that was my mother’s proudest moment of the week; walking into church on my father’s arm as I fell into my place on his other side. Never did her face shine so serenely beautiful under the feathered bonnet I had first seen her in, as it did under the modest church going one she had now. It was a pride, so innocently founded in the happiness that dimpled her cheeks, and shone in every move she made, that it had no thought of arrogance. And my father? Stealing a glance at him as we knelt along the pew, attitude of prayer hiding the piercing blue of his eyes; he loved his family, too, it shown in the square shoulders often so weary from the work he did for us, the gray streaking his hair above his ears.

      I was not among the last of the stream of children to walk respectfully to the church doors to burst forth like a cyclone while our parents lingered behind on the porch or under the oak tree beside the church to talk. 

    Now for my Sunday ritual; a cat who lived in the shed behind the saloon had had a family and it was now time for me to check their weekly progress. 

      That’s when I saw him.

      He sat on the edge of the boardwalk across the street, directly in my path.    From what I could see he had a nice face, rather the sort I would have liked in an older brother. Had he been in the back of the church with the other young cowboys who hadn’t been gone so long from home as to forget their mother’s teachings? I couldn’t remember.    In any case he didn’t look exactly like a dangerous gunslinger, so I figured I’d go anyway. 

      I made it across the street and was sidling past on the other side of the alley, when I caught

his eye, and then I knew by his smile that he’d been watching me the whole time. 

      “Morning, miss,” he said tipping his head at me. He had a laconic drawl that seemed vaguely familiar and only added to the niceness of his face. “Hope I’m not in your way.”

      I felt my face turn tomato red, I must have looked like a prairie chicken avoiding a hawk: “There’s a cat, back there, who had kittens, I try to keep an eye on them, but I can only do it on Sundays.”

      “They’re lucky,” he said. “You don’t live in town then?”

      “My father’s a rancher,” I pointed with one hand, “He’s right there, talking to the man in the dark suit and bowler hat.”

        “Seems like an upright fellow,” he said absently and then sat gazing thoughtfully into the churchyard as I spoke, and he seemed disinclined to say any more and I was about to slip away when he said,

      “And that lady in the blue silk, is she your mother?”

      I followed his gaze. There were half a dozen couples in the churchyard and Father and Mother weren’t standing together now, had he been in church after all? 

      “Yes, but she isn’t exactly my mother, she my step-mother,” I said and then felt silly for adding such an odd detail.

      “I guessed it,” he said, but his face and voice said something else; he hadn’t guessed, he’d known it.

      He stood up towering over me with the loosely carried, wiry built strength of the rider: “Your father hiring any hands?”

      The congregation was dispersing by now and my father and mother stood by our wagon.    Father, eyes crinkling with laughter, had just finished saying something to Mother. She had one hand on his shoulder and eyes sparkling in answer to his, skirt held daintily up in the other hand  as she stepped over the wheel,  when she turned and saw us. 

      Dread or joy I couldn’t tell which erased the sparkle from her eyes and her foot seemed to have tangled in her skirt for she gripped my father’s shoulder and would have fallen, but for his quickly steadying hand on her waist.

      His head turned to follow her gaze, but I didn’t see his face because I was staring up at the cowboy’s and there was no doubt of his sentiments; for one moment his face shown with pure pleasure before it was masked again in the laconic ease it had worn hitherto. 

      “Afternoon,” Father said extending his hand. “Anything I can do for you?” Casual, friendly, his manner was exactly that of any other time, it was almost as if my mother’s reaction had never been. I squinted up at her again, and you would have thought she had listened to her husband talk with a hundred nameless cowboys and that this was just another in the number; I sighed, the mystery of grown-ups would never cease to amaze me.

      “Your daughter mentioned that you were hiring hands?”

      Father answered in the affirmative, and I knew he was hired.

      I’d guessed his horse right, a glorious chestnut with a great blaze down his face. He followed us out to the ranch trotting half-a-length behind us; I gave him more than a few side long glances, his riding was as splendid as his horse.

      “You should see his riding, Father,” I said. He smiled back in answer: “He carried himself like one.”

      “And Father is never wrong, he could tell you almost anything about someone just by looking at them,” I added for Mother’s benefit. She stirred slightly as if she had been frozen and her hand nestled deeper where she had placed it closely wrapped in the curve of Father’s arm. 

    “Yes. Lee how were the kittens?”

    I twisted my mouth, I felt decidedly flattened, “I never saw them, the cowboy got in my way, hey, what is his name anyway?” 

      “Chris Lane,” Mother answered absently, and she couldn’t have been quicker with the answer if it had been her own. 

      So she’d been listening closer than it had appeared I thought, but my father hadn’t been doing the same now apparently, for his eyes were fastened on the bending of the sage bordered road.

      The moment the team pulled up in front of our ranch house, I followed Mother into the house to shed my Sunday ruffles as soon as possible. When I appeared once more decently dressed in my work clothes, I noticed the door of my father and mother’s room tight shut. Sunday dinner being readied before we went to church Mother would often come out and put away the team with Father and me, dawdling about to enjoy the refreshing movement and sweet scent of the two great pine trees in the yard between the house and barn, something told me she wouldn’t be out today. 

      The team was out in the corral, and Father was nowhere to be seen. Chris was balanced on the top rail of the corral, boot heels hooked on the rail below looking over the meadows that swept away to turn amid the twisting of the cottonwood and willow lined river before sweeping up to meet the mountains twenty-miles away. 

    “Fine country,” he said.

      “Montana, God’s country,” I replied promptly and I think he could tell I was quoting because his eyes glimmered with an extra dose of humor. “Have you been in it long?”

      He shook his head: “Texas, Arizona territory, Colorado, that’s more my country, but whoever says that is definitely no liar.”

    I came up to swing onto the rail near him, and he turned to face me, extending his hand:

    “I don’t think we’ve properly met, I’m Chris.”

      “I’m Lee,” I said. “Where’d my father go?” 

      “He said he had some business.”

      “Reading,” I explained, “He didn’t use to do it, but he calls it his Sunday work now.”

      “He didn’t use to read?”

      “Oh he knew how to read of course,” I laughed, “but my Mother’s father was a preacher and she didn’t really approve of reading ordinary books on Sunday.”

    The acutely listening look was back in his face again, and I reddened again.

    “I-I shouldn’t really be gossiping to a stranger, but somehow…”

    “I just feel like family,” he finished for me.

      I flung out my hands: “That’s silly though, we only met an hour ago.”

      “Not so strange,” he said. 

    I must have looked at him oddly, because he slightly shook his head, “Sometimes it just happens that way.” 

    “But you do have some real family don’t you?"   

    “The one I have is rather taken up with others at the moment,” he said.

    He seemed more amused about that fact than anything, but it still bothered me. 

    “The preacher always says at the end of service, that the Lord’s smiling down on you, so you’ve always got that, and now anyway you’ve got us, too.” 

      He launched himself off the rail and then turned to smile wryly at me. “Well, I’m not so sure about the first, but I thank you for the second,” he said, and I had the feeling he thought the joke had only deepened.

      It was the strangest Sunday dinner of my life; Mother and I did the final preparations of laying the checked cloth and dishes in place in utter silence; she pretended to eat and be interested in the conversation of the men, only to plead a headache and disappear with the serving of the apple pie. 

    Chris and Father helped me wash up and then we went to finish chores. Leaving Chris settling his things in the tack shed where we had an extra bed. Father and I crossed the yard hand in hand. The clouds were fading away into the east the sun fell in a wash of lavender and pink behind the mountains, just over the highest peak pricked the first shine of stars, it would be a glorious night. 

    “Father,” I said, “is Mother all right?” 

    He only gave a squeeze to my hand, and said: “Sleep tight, Lee-girl.” He hadn’t called me that since I’d been practically a baby, and it did nothing to reassure me now.

        I hadn’t meant to listen, I swear I didn’t, but I’d opened my window to the breeze and Mother and Father must have done the same, I couldn’t have heard their voices more clearly if they had meant for me to hear them. I was laying on the quilt, a book open in front of me, bare feet waving to and fro in the air above me when I began to hear.

      Mother was crying, slow heart-wrenching sobs, and Father was speaking,

      “Darling, I’ve been patient with you, you can’t say I’ve not been that; I’ve waited, asking nothing, but now you’ve got to tell me.” 

      “There’s nothing of importance to tell, Matt.”

      “Oh come, Ann,” I gathered that he’d turned impatiently to the window because his voice came clear as a bell, “I don’t presume to know everything about woman, but I’ve had some experience with them, and you can’t think I haven’t seen what you’ve been going through today.”

      “You have already given me far more than I deserve.”

      “Deserve? What do you think you’ve done for me? I would do anything for you and Lee, Ann. You know that.”

      A rustle of skirts and I guessed she’d gone to stand beside him. When she spoke her voice was rich with tears, “And knowing that is exactly why I cannot tell you this.”

    His voice snapped like a whip, “For better or for worse, isn’t that what we both said?”

    A silence that burned; the sound of my father’s boots upon the floor, the slam of the doors and then emptiness, my father had gone. 

      Never had I heard my father so passionate about anything, never had I heard Ann cry. I lay back on my pillow, trying to focus my eyes on the dim warped pattern of the wood ceiling, this situation took deep thinking, I would have to be calm.

    It was a moment later that I heard another voice, and it brought me up like a shot. It was Chris’s drawl, low and hurried outside Mother’s window.

  “Beatrix, I’ve got to talk with you.”

    “Chris, not now, not tonight.”

    “You’ve been crying, come out now, you look like to faint.” 

    My word, she must be climbing out the window; my heart pounded like a snow-swelled creek. I slithered to my window and inched high enough to see out. In the rich wash of full moonlight I could see them walking toward the barn, Chris, with his head close to Mother’s bowed one as they went. 

      I didn’t have time to think, I climbed from the window and, following my mother’s lead, slipped out. They were standing together in the deep shadow of the barn wall. Chris had his arm around her shoulders, and Mother was crying into his.

      Hidden in darkness, I knelt close to the corner, “Oh, Chris how I’ve longed to see you.”

      “Two years – when I’d heard some rancher had swept you off your feet, I was about ready to go crazy, it’s mighty lucky for him that it did take me a year to find you.”

      Mother gave a whispered sob of a laugh: “And then what a sorry welcome I gave you.”

      “Never mind that. I know what a spot I’ve put you in, but then, when have I done anything else.”

      I clapped my hand to my head, it couldn’t get any worse; Father had to be found.

      “But now to see you so proud and happy, he’s done good by you hasn’t he? A brother couldn’t ask for more.”

      “He’s nothing, but pure goodness, Chris, such hardworking kindness and love, and Lee is the sweetest chum.”

      Heaven to Betsey! I felt like to faint myself; no wonder something about Chris was familiar, and poor Father ranging about somewhere with a breaking heart, if only he could hear Mother now. There was more for me to hear myself now though, so I stilled my beating thoughts.

      “I wasn’t the only one looking for you, Beatrix, Chuck Horton hasn’t forgotten you either; he came into Cheyenne right after to me, and we crossed trails more than once in the past year. And he’s not more than a days’ ride behind me now.”

        “What can be done? If I tell Matt he will insist we go to the sheriff. It will destroy him, he is well-respected, a leader in town and if - when they find out - Horton will kill him. Oh Chris I must leave now, before morning.”

      “And that won’t destroy him? Be reasonable nothing will fell him like that. No Beatrix, find some reason to get your husband out of here early tomorrow morning, Horton will come, I’ll be here, and Matt will be never the wiser.”

      A shadow lengthened between the moon and me, I looked up to see Father, standing with his face like stone. I inched to my feet, but I don’t think he would have noticed me if I’d shouted. 

    He stepped out into the broad moonlight, and hearing the fire in his voice, I could imagine how his eyes blazed, “If you can find a reason not to answer my questions now, it better be a mighty good one. While you’re about it cowboy, I’d thank you to step away from my wife.”

      Chris and Mother having stepped forward, they were all free of the shadow now. The moonlight, shining on the polished handle of Chris’ revolver, catching in Mother’s tears falling unheeded by her. 

      “Matt,“ she extended her hands pleadingly to him. Before she could breathe another word the fall of horse hooves sounded in the yard, and all three players spun to meet it.

        A mounted rider, swarthy bulk in the pure blue light of night, “Miss Beatrix,” he said, “we’re reunited at last.”

      I don’t know who had moved first, but Father had Mother behind him now. Only a moment and Chris was between them and the rider, eyes clear and wary, half-crouched, hand hovering over his gun.

      “Chuck, you’ll never touch my sister again.”

      “Is that so?” Chuck sneered and went for his gun. I could have told him not to even try. The moonlight snapped silver on Chris’ gun and I threw my arms in front of my face at the sudden double  blaze of fire and thunder in the night.

      When I took away my arms I saw the saddle of the horse empty. Mother was crying into Father’s shoulder, and he stood with his arms so close around her, he looked like he was never going to let her go again. His head bent close over hers’. Chris’ stood slightly apart, gun arm slack, the hand of his other over a place on his shoulder through which something seeped dark and thick. 

      I got rather shakily to my feet. This was no time to disturb Mother and Father, so I crossed rather unsteadily to Chris. He looked up as I came, and pulling me close, dropped his unhurt arm across my shoulders.

      “You must have someone smiling on you up there after all,” I said. 

      “I reckon maybe I do,” he said and for the first time since I’d met him in the street, there wasn’t a trace of laughter on his face.