Western Short Story
The heated air bloomed from Mary Belle’s lungs and hung there in a cloud, like a mask upon her face. The chill air bit at the exposed portions of her skin. She caught the scent of cold sod, of dead weeds, of other vegetable matter past season, and other scents just out of the range of her memory. It seemed to her that everything in her world had suddenly engaged death in a weak, feeble struggle. She couldn’t reclaim the scents, even though she knew they were familiar.
Mary Belle, clad in a dress of faded cotton, nearly
colorless, covered by a man’s heavy denim work coat, bent to pick
up wood chips. Time and hard work had bent and twisted her body. The
coat, lined in coarse cotton felt warm on these cold days. She wore,
as well, a pair of man’s brogans that fit too snugly, along with a
pair of thick brown hose. The hose reached to just below her bony
worn knees. The mask of her breath stood in front of her face in a
lazy cloud that moved only by the force of each of her succeeding
exhalations, for it was a calm, late afternoon.
Mary gathered wood chips that had fallen close by the woodblock upon which she had just split tomorrow’s supply of firewood. The chips were to kindle the heating stove in the front room, and for the kitchen range. She also needed to replenish her wood box.
But the chips were first.
Mary was the local herb doctor, and many of her neighbors had stood at her door in past times to engage her medical assistance, as was the case now.
Mr. Pennybaker lay in her bed in her front room at this moment, dying. Because of his age and condition, Mary allowed Mr. Pennybaker and his wife to stay with her until he either recovered or died. The latter would be her guess. For the man was severely ill and close to death. His wife sat with the dying old man to allow Mary to finish her evening chores.
Mary rarely sat in judgment of others. However, she couldn’t help herself in old Mr. Pennybaker’s case. Marvin Pennybaker had lazed about his entire life. Never did he help his wife with the chores. He balked, even when it came time to slop their hogs. Mr. Pennybaker had relied on his boys to do all the work on his rocky hillside farm until they left home. All the old man did with his life was sit with his fiddle beneath his chin. A lie lingered all day long upon his lips in patient wait for someone to stop by and listen. He nipped from a jug on occasion as well.
As dusk gathered, a slight breeze lifted. Mary heard bottles tinkle softly together, hung from a bush next to the yard gate. Mrs. Pennybaker had hung the bottles upon the bush as protection against evil spirits that constantly roamed the hills searching for departed souls.
Mary filled her bucket, stood upright, and shuffled toward the cabin. She gained the steps and saw that one of her shoes had come untied. She set her bucket on the deck of the porch, sat down atop the uppermost step, and retied the string.
She arose, took up her load, and caught a sudden glimpse of movement off down the fence-line. She turned her head to look, and there in the orchard, stood a man beneath one of the ancient, twisted apple trees, dark in silhouette. The man leaned casually against the tree, one foot at rest against its trunk like a dark board cutout figure.
The sun gave off little warmth as the rays fell closer to the ridgeline atop Black Mountain. Long thin, slender waves of sun lanced down through the orchard to the hog pen. She heard a husky grunt, an occasional squeal, down that way. The hogs expected Mary to arrive soon with the slop bucket. She stood still, watched, and waited for the man in silhouette to move again.
By and by, the man dropped his foot from the tree. He turned slowly and walked deeper into the orchard. The hogs squealed louder and with little control. Shadows fell tall and thin from every dead weed stalk, fencepost, bush, far and away toward the east. But none showed in front of the dark man as he strode away.
Her breath caught in her chest. It clung to her lungs
for a time, but finally, she released it in a long-protracted sigh,
which sounded similar to the whistle of a teapot at make on top of a
cookstove—fainter, though, far away, intensely forsaken.
“Well, Marvin Pennybaker, it’s plain now, you won’t
live to see another sunrise.”
The bottles on the bush by the gate struck up sadly, and
she realized Mrs. Pennybaker’s bottle tree had failed in its
Mary shoved on inside the cabin. The room felt stuffy,
nearly too warm after the outside chill. Her cabin had three small
rooms. Long ago, she abandoned her bedroom. These days she took her
nighttime naps in the rocker beside the heating stove in the front
room. Long gone were the times of peace when she slept the night
through. Nowadays she jerked awake far too often and too easily.
In addition to her bedroom and front room, a small
kitchen set at the east end of the cabin. It contained a cooking
range, shelves for utensils, and cupboards in which she stored
Her herb space stood in one corner of the kitchen. Here
she dried herbs and prepared them, medicinal, and edible alike. The
scents of the herbs mingled with those of cooking and dominated the
entire house and gave it what she thought of as its soul.
Mary Belle nodded to the old, emaciated woman who once had been a competitor for her husband’s hand, and she feared still held animosity for her. She sat upon a straight-backed chair, alongside the large bed in which Mr. Pennybaker slept. Even though she had existed far past what folks considered a lifetime, Anne Pennybaker was a few years younger than Mary Belle.
Mary crossed the room and set her bucket of chips
against the far wall, alongside the wood box, directly behind the
cast iron woodstove.
“How’s the mister doing now, Missus Pennybaker?”
Mrs. Pennybaker raised an empty tin can to her lumpy,
deformed lips, stretched grossly from a lifetime of snuff addiction,
and dribbled tobacco juice into it. “Fair, Missus, Belle, thank
Mrs. Pennybaker wore her bonnet, inside and out,
nighttime and daytime, unwilling to reveal that the brown and
lustrous hair of her youth was now gray. Many called her vain. “He’s
restin’ really good.”
“Fine,” said Mary Belle. She spoke with as much
enthusiasm as was possible of the premonition she had witnessed
earlier. She was much too aware of what lay in store for the old man,
and Mrs. Pennnybaker. “Well, I still got wood to carry in. I got
the feedin’ to do as well. After supper, I ‘spect we can sit
awhile and talk till Mister Pennybaker wakes. We’ll feed him then …
if he’ll take anything.”
She crossed back to the door.
Mrs. Pennybaker shifted her weight. The chair squeaked like mice. “I might start supper, Missus Belle. If it won’t be ‘ary insult … me bein’ in your kitchen.”
“That would be dear of you,” Mary said and left the
Missus Pennybaker slouched off into the kitchen to start supper. She fixed the milk-gravy a dish she never ate but knew that Mary Belle loved it. As she was adding the grease to the milk, she produced from an apron pocket a small pinch of a particular herb she knew of. She added it to the gravy mixture.
She chuckled as she stirred it in with the milk and grease. “It might taste a bit off, but if she notices it, she’ll not even mention it. She’s much too gentle of nature.”
At last, the wood box stood there filled to the top.
Mary crossed into the kitchen. She took up a bucket that held scraps
from breakfast, dinner, last night’s supper, and a portion of
spoiled milk. She saw the gravy mixture standing on the safe counter,
waiting until the biscuits were made before Missus Pennybaker
finished preparing it. The old visiting cook, stood at the safe and
busily floured the breadboard to roll out biscuit dough. Mary left
her there, crossed back through the living room, and shut the door
softly behind her so as not to wake the old man.
At the barn, she mixed into her bucket of scraps several
large scoops of coarse dry feed, referred to locally as ships-stuff
that she kept dry and safe from rodents inside a large metal barrel.
She stirred the slop with a flat board until the mixture grew smooth
with no lumps to annoy her sight. She picked up a keen hickory switch
by the doorway, hobbled to the hog pen, and switched her way into the
midst of the half-dozen screaming hogs. Quickly she emptied the slop
into the feed trough then left the pen.
She headed for the cabin slowly, tired from her work,
but satisfied and warm in her weariness.
Behind her, the hogs ceased screaming and concentrated
all their energy and senses to satisfying their hunger. It often felt
to her that such hunger would drive them mad.
Her mind wandered in thoughts of her childhood, of her
mother and father. Her father, Ewing Rushing, earned part of his
livelihood hacking ties, which he floated down the Stream River to
Lyons Beach, and sold them to the railroad.
Her mother accompanied Ewing Rushing into the hardwood
jungle to work the timber. They took Mary along. Often after a day in
the timber, she joined her mother in search of the medicinal herbs
used to heal.
Mary learned them all from her mother, slippery elm,
sumac, water hemlock, sweet flag, willow herb, golden-seal,
sassafras, gold thread, Indian poke, bloodroot as well as ginseng.
Many women in the area were wise to herbs, but none was wiser than
Her mother taught her to use them. She discovered
jewelweed was for the affliction of poison ivy. That alum and honey
worked well for a sore throat. She used mullein root as a cough
syrup. To combat frostbite, she learned to wrap boiled onions in a
cloth pad and apply it to the afflicted skin.
There were times when a family had a houseful of
children and wanted no more. She used pennyroyal on this occasion,
although certain folks frowned on it. Tea, from the bark of wild
cherry, offered relief from measles.
She locked them safely away in her memory, and over time
had become an icon of mercy in the area.
Mary waddled across the stage of the porch, reached for the doorknob, and turned her head so fast she nearly rammed her face into the doorframe. In the orchard—the orchard where her husband lay buried, where one day, she too, would rest—until she saw him again. The dark man strode toward the east, still without a shadow, even though enough light remained that one should be present.
Twice on the same day conveyed a true sign. This was new and cut clear to the center of her soul and couldn’t be overlooked. Old Mr. Pennybaker would die, and soon.
Of late Mary dreaded night deaths. She disliked the
inconvenience, the chill, and difficulty to force her old bones to
work properly. But death, she knew, attended no time clock, no
season, but struck when it felt like it with complete arrogance,
accountable to none, respectful to none. Death held hate and disgust
for those who waited and prayed for daylight.
After supper, the two old women moved back into the
front room to wait for Mr. Pennybaker to awaken. Mrs. Pennybaker took
her seat at the head of the old man’s bed. Gently she smoothed the
hair away from his forehead, bent close, and spoke to him to wake
Mary Belle stood by the stove and rolled a cigarette. She saw by the way she touched him that Anne truly loved Mr. Pennybaker, even though he was not her firsts choice. He was flawed. It would be tragic if she lost her mate. But she would survive. Anne Pennybaker was a tough old woman like all those on the high ridges and in the deep ditches of Ozora County.
She finished rolling her cigarette, placed it between
her lips, scratched a match and lit up. She had been unable to find a
young girl to train. She wanted to pass on her knowledge of “granny
doctoring” to someone. It seemed to her that all a young girl
thought of these days was getting married, and striking out for town,
Lyons Beach, Harroldsville, and as far away as Triumphant Springs,
forty-five miles to the west. She feared after she died no one would
be left to tend to the people.
“You ’spect he’ll make it, Missus Belle? I can’t
even rouse him now.”
Mary shook the flame from her match then dropped the
matchstick into the ashcan. Mrs. Pennybaker’s voice sounded like
that of a heartbroken child, a mother viewing her dead infant at rest
forever in its tiny casket.
The thought chilled her. But through the years, she’d
found there was no way to ease pain such as this. Nothing good came
from a lie. A lie was crueler than the truth. Even so, she felt
tempted. Tempted each time.
“I fear not, Missus Pennybaker. I’m sorry. I’m
thinking he’ll not live out the night.”
Mrs. Pennybaker raised her eyes to her, and in defiance,
said, “How can you be so stony cold sure?”
Mary Belle rocked in her squeaky chair as she smoked. “I
had a premonition, ma’am.”
Mrs. Pennybaker sat resolutely. “I’ve heard it said
omens are sometimes proved false. I’m bettin’ you’ve heard the
“Yes, I have. I’ve also seen them proved false.”
“Then how can you say with all certainty my mister
won’t live through the night?”
The old herbalist inhaled deeply and allowed cigarette
smoke to escape along with her words, “Missus Pennybaker, I not
only had one premonition … but two.”
Anne Pennybaker fell back on her chair, its rungs
squeaked in their sockets, loose from the dry heat of the cabin. She
moaned weakly once, sad and put upon then sat up straight. Her eyes
pleaded with Mary Belle.
“I ain’t never seen or heard tell of a body makin’
a liar of two premonitions … not on the same day, Missus
Anne Pennybaker sagged forward. She attempted a rally,
but at last, she gave in to her grief. She bent nearly double upon
her chair and gave full vent in loud wails to her sorrow.
Mary bowed toward the ashcan, shoved the tip of her
cigarette beneath the ashes, rose and crossed over to the old woman.
She rubbed her thin hands over the frail bony old back, and softly
cooed to her. She did so despite the mistrust she often felt for
Mrs. Pennybaker was one of those women who just
continued to shrink nearly visibly day by day. Even now, she weighed
less than a sack of mill feed, Mary allowed. One day she would just
dry up, mingle with the milkweed down, and blow away on the poorest
“You’ll feel better for cryin’, ma’am.”
Abruptly, the distressed old woman reared up rigidly in
her chair, and as if someone had offered her charity. She said, “I’m
sorry, Missus Belle. I was just actin’ like a child.”
Mary Belle’s cunning hands continued to rub Anne
Pennybaker’s back. “We’re all of us children, ma’am. Time
just slips past us. It goes by so sly we hardly notice. Then one day,
we look down and see that our body has been fickle. Age springs out
at us and we get swooped up old. Afterward, there’s only one place
left to go.”
Marvin Pennybaker grumbled in a state of unrest on the
bed. Mrs. Pennybaker stroked his head again. “He’s restin’
hard. Bless his ol’ heart, anyhow.”
Full darkness set in abruptly.
Mary lit the lamp atop a small round table of walnut
made by Johnny Belle as a gift to her. She settled back again on her
rocking chair, took up paper and tobacco and rolled a cigarette. She
was mindful that Mrs. Pennybaker would be alone now in her ridge-top
If the Lord were merciful, and oftentimes he was, she would not be alone long. Mr. Pennybaker, while lazy and underhanded, nevertheless, offered her relief from loneliness. She lit her cigarette, dropped the matchstick in the ashcan, and leaned back.
The clock ticked softly. The log walls absorbed most of
the sound, which prevented it from growing obnoxious.
“Be nice if Imogene or Sarah would come down from
Triumphant Springs to stay awhile with you. Till you’re used to
The vain old woman tugged at her bonnet to set it
aright. “Yes, but both of them have their own families to tend.
Wouldn’t be proper if one of them up and fled home just to come to
sit with me. It would be nice, though. Sure would.”
Mary dragged on her cigarette. “You know, ma’am, sometimes it’s a chore. Who would ever think dyin’ could be such a hard job?”
She heard Mrs. Pennybaker chuckle, sitting in the dim
light by the side of the bed, and she joined in.
Anne Pennybaker likely felt safety in the poor light.
Mary saw her frown as she watched her smoking. She knew that women in the area looked down on her for smoking cigarettes.
“Why is it you took to cigarettes, ma’am, instead of
usin’ a dip now and then like most women do?”
“I don’t know, Missus Pennybaker. They’re both
nasty, useless habits, unfit for women nor men. I just never did take
to snuff is all.”
“You recall how long Johnny Belle’s been gone,
“Fifteen years this comin’ April. And it ain’t a
minute goes by what I don’t miss him.” Mrs. Pennybaker often
brought up the subject of her dead husband and who had been her
suitor before Mrs. Belle. She knew what was behind it, but she had
never cautioned her to go easy.
The glow of the coal-oil lamp was peaceful to look at. The small talk of the wood fire pleased her.
Mrs. Pennybaker spat into her peach can. “Well, at
least your man picked a good time of year to die. If there is such a
thing. April’s a soft month.”
Both women laughed again. Laughter was good for Mrs.
Pennybaker, Mary figured.
It fell quiet in the room, save for the noise of the
stove, the tick-tock of the wall clock.
By and by, Mary said, “I’m thankful I had me a
wonderful husband to share my life, and he with a generous hand and
kind. Thank God, I didn’t face the drudgery some women suffer.
Lord, but I’ve seen cruelty again’ women in my time.”
She managed to catch herself at the point when she was
about to explain how much better her Johnny was than was Anne’s
Marvin. It had been close.
The old cabin and all within meant security and
contentment. Mary had learned to survive the drab loneliness of
living without her husband in the safety of her cabin. The talk of
the fire, the shift of the stove wood, the waft of the lamp’s flame
shuttled her off to sleep at night. These days she slept little. What
sleep she did get though she considered a precious gift.
She extended her thin old legs to the fire. She felt the
good heat enter her flesh clear to her brittle bones and shuddered
with pleasure. She sighed in peace. Her eyes followed the rope of
cigarette smoke to the ceiling.
The memory of the dark man returned. So did the strange,
bothersome scent she had detected while picking up wood chips, even
though she should have recognized it as the odor of dying plant
She found her voice, “I recall the time when I carried
water to the mules. Made so many trips I lost count. When I’d
finally filled the water trough, the mules put their noses deep into
the cold water to drink it all. Later I went back to the spring and
fetched Johnny a nice cold drink.
“It was so hot that year, and he worked so at the
plow. He got overcome by the heat. It turned the skin beneath his
eyes white as graveyard lilies. I thought sure he’d perish. He just
wouldn’t rest. Finally, I persuaded him he was goin’ to kill the
mules, and this turned him—”
Mrs. Pennybaker broke in on what was becoming a
monologue, “Men sometimes get a thing in they heads then grow
“Well, that showed him how foolish he was actin’.
So, he took him and the mules to the shade. They rested until two
hours before dark, and then finished up. Wasn’t that big a field,
but it was our corn-grow and was important. I was proud I persuaded
him to rest. That man was one to work far too hard. Wouldn’t rest
himself but he did the mules. That Johnny Belle, though, he was a
good man. I recall our weddin’ day—”
Again Mrs. Pennybaker broke in, saying, “I recall
goin’ to the dance with my folks. I was there, for sure.”
“They threw us a fine shivaree that night,” Mary
Belle continued, nearly lost in her thoughts as she spoke them aloud.
Presently, she heard Mrs. Pennybaker snoring. But in the mood to
remember her past, she continued to talk as if Mrs. Pennybaker were
still awake “This blessed ol’ cabin was new then. So were the
furnishings. The bed, table, chairs. Even the grand cookin’ range,
fresh off the train at Lyons Beach, carted home by wagon.”
She paused and glanced at Mrs. Pennybaker, asleep with
her chin at rest on her chest. “Just look at them two. Sleepin’
like babies,” she muttered. “That scent that plagued my mind—I
know now what it was, and if I was able, I’d kick myself for
overlookin’ it. Happens at every turnin’, the way the earth gives
off its scent pushin’ one season out and makin’ way for the
Another thought fired her mind. “I remember, many
years ago, when I first started doctorin’, I attended this old
woman, Hayes, was her name. She stood at death’s door, just rappin’
away at it. Somehow, she survived. Later on, she told me the
strangest story. She claimed she had been in this long dark tunnel,
rushin’ along faster and faster. Even felt the sides as she hurtled
“She told me that after a long time inside the tunnel, it blacker’n a moonless night, she saw a speck of light so far ahead, she scarce could see it. Then after a time, it increased in size and brilliance. At last, the light grew so great, it consumed her—the way she put it—and it became so brilliant it nearly put out her sight. Suddenly all the horrid pain she had suffered just fell away then vanished.
“The poor ol’ soul said she heard heavenly voices so
pure and musical that tears gushed from her eyes in a stream. That
old woman claimed she’d been in Heaven … but got turned back for
another chance. She told me it was a Glory. A Glory.
“Missus Hayes had always been a cantankerous old soul,
stingy and illiberal as Satan. She had been dyin’ of cancer …
wasn’t nothing I did saved her. But something sure did. That
experience changed her whole outlook. She became a kindly soul and
spent the rest of her life in good health, doin’ good deeds and
enjoyin’ ever’ minute that remained to her.
“Me, I don’t know if what she told me was true. I
don’t think people go off to heaven and just get kicked back to
earth. I figure it more of a chore than that to gain Paradise.
“I’ve given it a lot of thought since then. What
happened was Missus Hayes had simply been relivin’ her birth.
That’s what I believe.
“Now I ’spect it’s ’bout time Mr. Pennybaker was leavin’ us. Wonder if he’ll pass through a dark tunnel. I doubt he’ll be kicked back though. When he goes, it’ll be for good, I figure. Won’t be no second chance for him.”
Mary Belle exhaled, too tired now to consider more.
She said, “If I wasn’t so tired, I’d roll up a
smoke. Too tired, though. Forget it….”
Far past their morning feeding time, the hogs set up a loud wail and constant racket. This woke old Mr. Pennybaker. He bolted upright in bed, threw off the covers, slid to the side, and cast about for his overalls. He felt rested now and energized as never before.
“Anne,” he called out, then reached over to her chair and shook her awake.
“Where’s my overalls?”
Anne Pennybaker sat up straight and looked about from
fearful, confused eyes.
“My overalls, Missus Pennybaker,” said the
disheveled old man. He looked as if his body couldn’t contain the
extravagance of his energy. “It’s away up in the day. Them hogs
ain’t been fed. I’ll have to feed ’em, I ’spect, before they
root up the wire, and take to the woods. Just listen to that
“And the blame fire’s nearly out. You stir it up
while I go feed them hogs.”
Mrs. Pennybaker appeared greatly addled. She yawned then got to her feet. Her fragile bones cracked and popped like dry sticks breaking.
“But Mister Pennybaker … where’s Missus Belle?”
The mister by now had located his overalls. He worked hard as he tried to climb into them, fumble-handed from his haste, his surplus energy.
“I don’t know, ma’am. But I do know if somebody
don’t feed them hog-creatures there’ll soon be hell to pay. I
don’t know’ bout you, but I’m fresh out of currency.”
“But Marvin, Missus Belle had herself a vision. She claimed you’d not live out the night. How is it you’re up and around, and so quick to do somebody else’s chores when you never even do your own?”
Anne Pennybaker’s mind spun away from her now like a
castaway newspaper in a whirlwind.
The old man hopped spryly afoot, one foot in his
trousers, the other out. He reached the stove and stopped so abruptly
it seemed he’d narrowly missed stepping on a copperhead snake. For
at his feet, Mary Belle lay sprawled out facedown.
“Egadfrey! Looky here, Missus Pennybaker. Is it ‘ary
wonder them hogs is screamin’ to be fed?”
Mrs. Pennybaker crept with great reluctance to the stove
and peered over and down onto the prone and soulless shell of the old
In time she said, “Well, bless her good old heart,
The old man drew on his overalls. He was exceptionally
quick and spry for one just back from the dead. He pulled his shoes
He got to his feet, and on his way to the door, donned
his jumper. “I got somethin’ to tell you, Missus Pennybaker when
I get back from feedin’ the hogs. I had me the most curious dream
you ever heard tell of.”
“Well, what was it about, Mister Pennybaker?”
“Just you stir up that fire now, please ma’am. I’ll
tell you later.”
He swung open the door, and the tumultuous racket from
the hog pen flared uncommonly loud for the short time it remained
open then fell back again to a more normal pitch when Marvin banged
Mrs. Pennybaker dropped a hand into her apron pocket and
fetched out a can of snuff. She stuffed an enormous pinch inside her
lower lip. “We’ll get you up off that floor, ma’am … soon as
the mister returns.”
She rebuilt the fire. By and by, it chuffed away with a good healthy flame. She rose and stared down in disbelief at Mary Belle.
“Well, Missus Belle, I do think you was right about one of your predictions—somebody did die last night. Sure ‘nough.” She snickered then feeling satisfied.
stood in deep thought then said, “It took me a right good long
spell, ma’am, but I did it. I finally collected my revenge. Mr.
Belle was mine first.”
She sighed as if she had spent the entire night at work instead of sleeping. After a time, she got to her feet and headed for the kitchen. Breakfast time was on them.