Western Short Story
The horses’ iron-shod hooves clopped hollowly on the frozen road, a long track beaten by the passing of homesteaders’ wagons and curving slightly with the undulations of the land. Through the cloud of white that rose from her own lips Charlotte Brooke watched the jets of steam billow from the horses’ nostrils as their heads nodded rhythmically with their trot. Wrapped warmly in coat and hood, gloves and scarf, she was not really cold, except for the tingle of her cheeks above the scarf that covered her mouth and nose. The bricks at her feet still held some warmth, and the bundle in her arms helped too. Charlotte peeped beneath the blankets again to make sure Hetty’s velvety cheeks were no more than healthily pink in the cold, and adjusted the outer folds so little more than her button nose and small rosy mouth were exposed to the frosty air. She shifted her position on the wagon seat a little and tried to take a different hold on the big bundle; her right arm beneath it was getting tired—Hetty was growing so big.
Jonas glanced over at her. “All right?”
Charlotte nodded and smiled a little, forgetting that it was mostly hidden by the knitted scarf that swathed her face. Somehow they had said very little since leaving the Caplans’. Charlotte could not help feeling it was wrong, though she could not find it in her to break the silence. It did not seem right that she should have even the slightest unsettled feeling on this ride, when only a few months ago she had been convinced that everything she possessed today was barred from her forever.
If Harry had lived, no doubt they would have married and made the best of it. Perhaps they would not have been the happiest couple in the world, but they would have had a decently satisfactory life. But a bad horse had put an end to any chance of Harry’s fulfilling his responsibilities seven months before Hetty was born, and Charlotte had a row to hoe alone.
Weeks, months of illness, tears, and prayers, and then she had slowly emerged from the long dark tunnel of trial and into a state of calm acceptance, with a baby daughter to care for, knowing that providing for Hetty and making the best of her situation were to be her life’s work. And the best had seemed better than she felt she deserved in many ways. Lucky that her aunt was not the kind of woman to turn her out of the house; lucky that her aunt’s sister needed a hired girl so badly that she was willing to take one with a six-months-old child to care for—giving Charlotte the chance to begin life over fifty miles from everyone who knew her. And it was there that Jonas Brooke first saw her; and three months later he had asked her to marry him.
Charlotte’s eyes stole briefly to Jonas’ face, in profile between the brim of his hat and the turned-up collar of his overcoat as he gazed ahead along the frozen road, allowing her to take this look unobserved. It was not until she had known him for a while that she had begun to regain a few tiny shreds of her self-respect, uncurling like tiny pale-green blades of grass from a burned-over prairie. As far as most people were concerned—including herself—Jonas Brooke would have been within his rights to make his proposal without any preliminary, knowing that a woman in her position would hardly refuse. Instead he had courted her as steadily and conventionally as if she had been any woman with the world at her feet and every right of choice her own. Deep down she could not help being grateful to him for what that had done for her. But at the same time, she felt it would have been easier if Jonas had been as rational as she, and simply said to her, “I need a wife, and I think you’ll make a good one; will you marry me?”
For rational was all she could be now—Charlotte was very certain of that. Once in her life she had known the experience of strong emotions, had known what it was to thrill, to be eager and passionate and vitally alive; but that was all in the past and it wouldn’t happen again. She had folded all that up and laid it away like an old garment, and found she could go on living and breathing and being content without it. She could think of Harry now without resentment, and without the sharp pain she would have felt had she not been able to see in hindsight how unutterably foolish she had been. It was all past. And now she had Hetty, a joyous dimpled bundle of laughter and peaches and cream with silken wisps of her own chestnut hair—Hetty, whom she could never regret—and a hard-won portion of common sense, and that was enough. The rest she could live without.
Still when Jonas Brooke asked her to marry him she had said yes without hesitation. She knew he was a good man, and would make a good husband. He was one of those rare people whose quiet, essential integrity flowed out from every word and action so you trusted them without question—Charlotte saw that in the way others reacted to him, even aside from their dealings with each other. When she had watched him holding Hetty asleep on his shoulder one evening, Hetty’s baby mouth drooping in the abandon of slumber and her fat dimpled little hand curled up against him, his face turned a little toward her so that his chin rested against her forehead and the arm that held her seemed to encircle her in a protective way, it had stirred in Charlotte the strongest feeling she had had about the whole thing. After all, that was the most important thing: Hetty would be safe, Hetty would be provided for; Hetty would not be disparaged or cast aside.
The vast, pale, clear wintry Dakota sky was so enormous it dwarfed even the far-spreading prairie, huge as that landscape was. They had driven that morning to the nearest justice of the peace, ten miles distant, stopping on the way back to collect Hetty from the Caplans’ before going on to Jonas’ homestead claim on a section further west. Here and there on the horizon Charlotte could see tiny shapes that were claim shanties, visible from here and to each other though really miles apart, and wondered which was their destination. She wanted to ask, but something held her voice in her throat. Perhaps that was better. Better not to break the long silence only to let it fall again after. So she sat quietly holding the baby and listening to the music of jingling harness until Jonas raised his hand and pointed to the buildings of a homestead situated on a flat stretch of land still some distance away, and said, “That’s it.”
“Tar-papered like the rest of them for now,” he said, “but I plan on getting it sided before snow flies. As soon as I can haul the lumber.”
Charlotte caught a note in his voice that had not been there when he had talked to her about the house before. Not obtrusive, perhaps even restrained, but there: the pride—though that almost was not the right word, for it was something deeper and cleaner than most associations with the word “pride”—of a man looking on something he has built with his own hands, with the woman he is bringing home to it beside him. Charlotte looked toward him, and he smiled back at her, as natural and easy as everything between them had become, but she glimpsed something of that deeper satisfaction in his eyes.
She tightened her arms about the baby’s bundle again. The bricks beneath her feet had nearly lost their warmth now.
It was mid-afternoon when the wagon stopped opposite the door of the house, and Jonas twisted the reins around the handbrake and jumped down. He came around to take the bundle that was Hetty from Charlotte, then freed a hand to help her climb down over the wheel. “I’ll take her,” said Charlotte a touch breathlessly, extending her arms rather quickly for a reason she could not quite define, unless it was that she wanted to hold on a little longer to the familiarity of having the warmth and weight of the baby to occupy her arms and her mind.
“All right. Go ahead if you like; I’ll bring your trunk in.”
The house had begun as a slant-roofed claim shanty, but was a complete house now with two rooms and a peaked roof and a small lean-to for firewood off the back. Charlotte stepped over the threshold into the room that had been the original half shanty. It was plain but neat and clean like many a frontier bachelor dwelling—a small cookstove, table and chairs, some shelves made of packing-cases that held dishes and canned goods nailed up along the walls, and plain faded calico curtains at the windows. There was a door to the lean-to and a door to the bedroom.
Jonas came in behind her carrying her trunk, the small, battered, second-hand thing that her own clothes and the baby’s things hardly filled more than halfway, and took it into the bedroom. Charlotte stood still in the middle of the front room looking about her, though she had already mastered every object in view; and turned to face him when he came out of the other room.
“I’d like to have done something better about curtains and rugs and such,” he said, “but I figured you’d like to choose them yourself. And could do better at it.”
Charlotte laughed a little, and hoped the constricted feeling in her throat did not give it an odd sound. She was tongue-tied still.
Jonas stood looking down at her for a moment, and then he lifted a hand and lightly touched the tassel of the baby’s knitted hood that dangled over Charlotte’s arm. He said, “I’ll go put up the horses. I won’t be more than a few minutes.”
Charlotte watched him go, and close the door behind him, and waited till she had a glimpse of him leading the team past the window, toward the small stable that stood twenty or thirty yards from the house. She thought he seemed quieter than usual today…not as jubilant as you would expect of a man on his wedding day. But of course this was different…She wondered if he was having second thoughts.
He knows how you feel, or how you don’t feel, she told herself. He made his choice with his eyes open.
Hetty was sleeping soundly in her arms, seemingly heavier that way. Charlotte carried her into the bedroom and put her down in the middle of the bed, still in her cocoon of blankets, and untied the strings of her little hood from beneath her chin. She straightened up and untwisted her own scarf and looked around the room. Jonas had built the second half of the house on after Charlotte accepted his proposal, and the clean, raw smell of new lumber still hung faintly in it. There was nothing in the bedroom but the bedstead and her trunk against the wall opposite the foot of it, beneath a row of hooks for hanging clothes. Charlotte took off her wraps and hung up her coat, and draped her hood and scarf over it, once more trying to concentrate her mind on the physical actions of her hands. She had not felt this sense of nervousness, almost panic, when she had accepted Jonas’ proposal or when they had stood together before the justice of the peace. It was only as she stood here in his house that she knew what it was she feared.
The trouble was, she knew Jonas cared for her—Heaven only knew why. Had she made another dreadful mistake in speaking those wedding vows, knowing what a bland and tepid thing she had to give in return? She could respect him, she could esteem him, she could be a faithful and dutiful wife to him; but if she could never return that deeper feeling, would not their life together always be shaded with disappointment, with unfulfillment and regret?
The dreariness of her thoughts seemed to have changed even the lighting of the afternoon to grayness. Mechanically Charlotte went into the other room and unscrewed the glass chimney of the oil lamp to light it. As she held the match to the wick the room around her suddenly grew dark in earnest with incredible swiftness, and the next instant the whole house quivered at the slam of a force that sounded like a freight train. Charlotte clattered the lamp chimney in place and secured it and turned to the window, and saw blank whiteness. A November blizzard, striking out of a clear sky with the swiftness of an icy rattlesnake, wrapping the homestead in a blinding whirl of driven snow. The raging wind ripped at the tar-paper on the outside of the walls, but despite a few creaks and rattles the squarely-built little house stood firm.
Charlotte strained her eyes through the windowpane, but saw nothing but whipping, swirling snow. The stable had vanished as if it did not exist. Jonas would be trapped there until the blizzard ended, for it was impossible to navigate even the short distance between house and stable in this kind of storm. You couldn’t take more than a few steps without being driven off course by the wind, changing direction without even knowing it; and if you missed the building you were aiming for could become hopelessly lost on the open prairie. The only safe way was to rig a long rope between house and stable—Dakota clothesline, they called it—to cling to in order to get back and forth to do the barn chores in a blizzard. Charlotte did not remember seeing one across the yard.
She glanced through the bedroom door to see that Hetty was still sleeping, then went to bring some firewood from the lean-to and started a fire in the stove. The temperature in the house, unheated at their arrival, had already dropped further with the deadly cold of the blizzard swirling around it. Then she went to stand at the window again and stared out into the storm. There was nothing much to see. Nothing to do now but to wait, and presently to make a hot supper and some coffee, and hope the blizzard died down before too many hours passed.
A moment or two passed before Charlotte began to feel a creeping uneasiness. Something was wrong—something nagging, whining persistently in a subconscious corner of her mind told her that something was not as it should be. She took a slow but restless turn around the room and looked from one white-blanketed window and the next, trying to quiet the feeling. She and Hetty were safe here with plenty of fuel to keep the house warm, and Jonas was safe enough waiting out the storm in the stable with the horses—
The splinter of unease broke the surface and crystallized sharply into thought. Was it likely there was no rope in the stable long enough to reach the house? Dakota homesteaders were more foresighted than that. She felt sure that if Jonas had the means of making the trip safely, he would attempt it: he wouldn’t leave her to wait out a blizzard alone with the baby on her first night at the homestead.
Her glance swept the room—there was no clock. How long since the storm had descended? More than five minutes, surely, she had been alone in the darkened lamplit room with the wind howling steadily outside. If it took him five or six minutes to put up the team—and he should have been nearly finished with that when the storm hit—hadn’t enough time passed for him to have made it to the house by now? Allow a minute or so to secure the “clothesline” to the stable, and a little extra time for slow going fighting against the storm…Charlotte still felt he ought to have made it by now.
She dragged the table over to the front window and set the oil lamp close to the panes. It might not shine far through the thick snow but even a faint glow might help as a guide. The light reflecting brightly back from the glass made outside seem darker, more threatening. Charlotte stared over the lamp chimney into the ominous whirl of snow. There had to have been a rope in the stable. Jonas was no fool to dare a blizzard without one. Unless…unless he had left the stable a moment before the storm hit…unless it had caught him halfway to the house.
Charlotte left the window, walked the floor to the other end of the room and came back. Twenty feet, ten feet from the house, even—she had seen how thick the curtain of snow was. Blinded by it, pushed sideways by the wind at each step, he could miss the corner of the house by inches, and beyond it was nothing but miles of open blizzard-scoured prairie—nowhere to turn, nothing to do but fight till exhaustion, and flounder at last to a deathly still rest beneath the drifts of soft snow.
And she would be on her own again.
She would lose him.
Charlotte’s hand went to her throat as if she felt the suffocation of the deadly snowdrifts. With sickening vividness she seemed to see him struggle and die; and with sudden simultaneous thrill and horror she realized that it was not the security, not the shelter she cared for, it was him—his face, his eyes, his voice, his smile, a hundred things she suddenly knew of a certainty she could not bear to lose without a greater wrench of grief than any she had yet known.
He had been wiser than she knew. He had won her without her knowing it.
Charlotte put her hands to her burning cheeks. “Oh God, oh God,” she whispered, her voice cracking into painful nothingness. With no direction she walked about the room. Was she powerless? Was there nothing she could do but wait, and listen to the blizzard that might be tearing her life to shreds as it penned her here a hostage in the house? It was death and madness to venture outside the door—unless—
She spun round and opened the door by the cookstove and went through into the lean-to. There was scattered sawdust on the floor, and in the corner beyond the neatly stacked stove wood lay some tools, and—yes—what she thought her mind had registered when she was in here before—a coil of rope. Charlotte swept it up and lugged it into the front room and cast it on the floor near the front door. It looked long enough.
Hetty was still sleeping peacefully when she leaned over the bed. Softly so as not to wake her, Charlotte tucked the blankets more closely around her and put the pillows from the bed on either side so she would not roll off it if she were to wake. She bent and touched her lips to Hetty’s soft round cheek. Then she put on her wraps again. She muffled her face tightly up to the eyes with her scarf, but left off her gloves to keep her hands free until she had tied one end of the rope securely to the inside knob of the front door, and the other end around her waist. She gathered up the coil of rope over her left arm and opened the door.
The force of the wind was even stronger than she expected; it flung her back against the doorjamb, sending a jarring pain through her banged shoulder. Half blinded, squinting against the snow that stung her eyes, she staggeringly regained her balance and jammed the door shut with the rope underneath it. She leaned against the door for a second to gather strength, then faced in the direction she judged the stable to be and bent forward into the storm.
The wind seemed to come from every direction at once, battering her, shoving at her till she stumbled, yet holding her up if she leaned against it. The driving snow stung the exposed part of her face like a million tiny needles, and the scarf that covered her mouth and nose was already so thick with clinging snowflakes that she felt stifled. The snow was already ankle-deep, getting into the tops of her boots; her skirts twisted around her ankles and hampered her like lead weights. She could see no more than a foot or two in any direction—nothing but walls of whizzing, driven white.
The heavy coil of rope on her left arm weighed her down and threw her off balance, and once almost spun her all the way around when a particularly brutal gust struck her from the opposite direction. Charlotte tripped and nearly fell; a loop of rope had escaped from the coil and had got under her feet. She dropped the rope in the snow and plunged on, keeping a grip on the end tied to her waist. The blizzard raged round her, now throwing a choking featherbed of white in her face, now trying to throw her down like a huge invisible hand shoving her from behind.
She swayed to a stop, bracing her feet, trying to get her bearings. Should she have reached the stable by now? What if the winds had blown her off course? For a second she considered trying to correct it and head in the direction the strongest gusts seemed to have pushed her away from—but common sense told her she could go even further astray trying to change direction when she could trust none of her senses. She made up her mind to go on to the end of the rope, then follow it back to the house and try again.
The howl of the blizzard was merciless, terrifying, but she beat against it desperately. Her petticoats were full of snow, her stockings icy and chafing; her feet were blocks of ice, hurting faintly. She tried to scream her husband’s name into the storm, but the snow-crusted scarf over her mouth stifled the sound and the wind drove it back down into her lungs. Once she stumbled and the whiteness seemed to spin completely around her, so for one panicked second she thought she might go down and be swallowed by the snow, unable to get up. But she was still on her feet, the rope that anchored her to home around her waist, still going forward, blindly searching.
So completely did the blizzard swallow up sight and sound that she never saw anything until the second a man’s form materialized from the white whirl and she ran against him with a shock that forced all remaining breath from her body in a sobbing gasp. She would have fallen if Jonas had not caught her and held on.
“What are you doing?” he shouted at her, the wind ripping the words away so she could barely hear them. Charlotte scraped the icy scarf down from her mouth with a clumsy hand, trying to be able to make herself heard. The icy air pierced her lungs like a knife, but still for a minute it seemed easier to speak and breathe with his shoulders blocking the wind.
“I came…to look…the rope,” were the words she tried to force out, but she could not be sure she had actually made any sound. She fumbled for the dragging rope, twisted in the snowy folds of her coat, and pulled it into view.
He understood as soon as he saw. He leaned closer so Charlotte could just hear what he shouted: “Hold on to me! I’ll take it!”
He pulled in the slack of the rope, turning them both to face the way it trailed, and Charlotte struggled to make her frozen scarf partly cover her face again. She held tightly to his arm as he followed the rope hand over hand, step by step through snow that already covered any trail Charlotte had made. The blizzard still rushed at them from all points of the compass, blinding, twisting, disorienting; but the rope was there. Charlotte kept her head bent—her strength was nearly exhausted, her knees ready to give way under her. But she held on until at last a faint yellow glow that was the lighted window showed through the white, and the wall of the house loomed up in front of them seeming larger and more solid than it had before. Jonas got the door open and put her inside first, then pulled it shut with a crash behind him.
Charlotte stumbled forward and caught at the edge of the table to keep her feet. In the sudden absence of the wind and the comparative quiet with the noise of the storm muffled by four walls she felt dizzy and half deaf. Behind her Jonas leaned back heavily against the door for a few seconds, breathing hard. Then he came over and put his arm around her, his support still practically all that held her up, and unknotted the rope around her waist and let it fall to the floor. Charlotte’s face lifted a little toward his, her snowy hood sliding back from her hair, her eyes wide and bright and unfocused—for half a second he stared down into her face and then abruptly he took her by the shoulders and kissed her. Her lips were so numb with cold that at first she could hardly feel it…and then the warmth flooded through her from head to toe, to the tips of the gloved fingers that clutched the front of her husband’s coat; and with it something else that welled up from the throb of her heart, a thrill of knowing and feeling and being intensely alive that she had thought she would never feel again.
For a long moment they leaned against one another, trying to catch the breath that had been torn from them by the storm. At length, it was Jonas who first found his voice. “What made you go out?”
“I started thinking,” said Charlotte. “I thought—you must have had a rope in the stable. You’d been gone so long—I started to worry you’d been caught in the open.”
“Well, God bless you for it,” said Jonas. “I was about ten paces out from the stable when it hit. I couldn’t see more than a foot in any direction. I figured it was safest to go back, but when I didn’t strike anything after a few minutes, I knew I’d missed the stable. I was trying to retrace my steps when I ran into you. If I hadn’t—I don’t know what chance I would’ve had.”
There was another few seconds’ silence. Then Jonas lifted his head a little and made as if to loosen his embrace, but unexpectedly Charlotte put her arms around him and held tightly for a moment, her face half hidden against his chest. She said in a small, muffled voice: “Everything I said this morning, I meant…even if I didn’t know it then.”
Jonas started to say, “This morning—” with a puzzled note and then halted in realization. He wrapped his arms around her again and bent his head over hers, a catch in his voice. “Charlotte, Charlotte…”
She lifted her head and his mouth found hers again, and her arm went round his neck, through the half-melted snow that sparkled on the shoulders of his coat. The storm blew on around the house unheeded; for a long time they did not even hear it.
A stirring sound and a soft sleepy cry from the bedroom signaled that Hetty had awakened. Charlotte roused herself to turn towards the sound, but lingered for a second with a little sigh, her head resting against Jonas’ shoulder.
“All right?” he said softly.
“Yes. More all right than I’ve ever been.”