Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
The four young people stood inside the ranch cabin’s newly whitewashed walls and looked at each other uncertainly.
“What will you do?” Andrew asked. His sister Alma frowned at him, but Kathy only shook her carefully braided blond head, white handkerchief to her blue eyes.
William went to the window. A line of Taos Pueblo riders moved steadily toward the cabin through the gap from the southern part of the valley. “Here they come,” he said. He turned to his sister. “You gave your word.”
Kathy nodded, then shook her head. “Not precisely,” she whispered.
“I beg your pardon?”
Kathy lifted her head. “I didn’t say that I would marry Peter,” she said. “I didn’t say those precise words. But I’m sure that’s what he understood me to say.”
William’s jaw tightened under his reddish-blond beard. “And you didn’t disabuse him of that notion, either.”
She shook her head and turned away, to the only other woman in the room. “Oh, Alma, what am I going to do?”
The dark-haired, deeply tanned, and sturdy Alma put her arms around her pale thin blond friend. “You should follow your heart,” she said, feeling the inadequacy of her words.
Kathy shook her head against Alma’s shoulder. “I don’t know,” she sobbed. “I’m so afraid.”
Andrew was at the window now. “You’ll need to decide pretty quickly,” he said. “They’re almost here.”
But by the time the Taos Pueblo party rode into the dirt and gravel yard, Kathy had disappeared out the cabin’s back door. William and Andrew moved outside to provide an initial greeting and deal with the animals. Alma took a deep breath and faced the doorway, her square brown face anxious. She tucked an unruly curl behind her right ear.
Peter entered first, his dark face bright as an expectant schoolboy’s. He wore a blue and white checked shirt and pants so new they still had fold creases across the thighs. He took one look at Alma’s face and his expression fell. He moved to the far wall and faced it quietly, dark head bowed. Several children followed him inside and Alma scooped up a three-year-old boy she’d never seen before. “Where’d you get those big gray eyes?” she asked him. He giggled and she held him to her chest as she faced Peter’s father, Oscar, as he came through the doorway, dressed in traditional Taos garb, long hair tucked into a bun at the nape of his neck.
“Who is this little man?” she asked. “I haven’t met him before.”
Oscar’s eyes swept around the whitewashed room and came to rest on his son, face to the wall. “He’s my wife’s nephew’s child,” he answered. “The one who married the half-French girl.” He turned to the two men who had followed him in and shook his head slightly. The men turned back to the yard, shutting the door behind them. Oscar glanced at Peter, then Alma. “And where is my son’s Katarina?”
Alma’s eyes dropped and she set the little boy on the floor. He looked up at the two adults uncertainly, then he and the other children moved to the door.
Oscar let them out, then turned back to Alma. “Is there a problem?” His voice was mild enough, but there was an edge to it, as if he already knew the answer to his question.
“There has been a misunderstanding,” Alma said.
Peter made a muffled sound and turned to face them, slim body tense. “There has been no misunderstanding.” He looked at his father. “I have built us a house. Katarina may have misunderstood, but I did not.”
Oscar’s jaws tightened. “It is because we are Pueblan.”
Alma shook her head and spread her hands, palms up. “It is just a misunderstanding. Perhaps some confusion of languages.”
“There has been no confusion,” Peter said stiffly.
“Come, my son,” Oscar said. “We will not waste our words on this matter.”
“I am so sorry,” Alma said helplessly.
Oscar nodded slightly, acknowledging her words as he turned away. Peter, on the other hand, scowled into her face before he followed his father from the cabin and its mocking white walls.
Alma stood in the center of the room for a long time, eyes closed against the windowed sunlight, grieving for the pain in Peter’s face, the controlled anger in Oscar’s. The man had been her father’s good friend. Would he ever forgive her for her part in this? In the yard, men’s voices muttered and horse hooves stirred the gravelly dirt. A child asked a plaintive question, then the group from the Pueblo was gone.
Alma slipped out the back to look for Kathy and found her hunched on a small boulder on the hillside, staring south at the receding horses, her face wet with tears. “Oh, Alma, what have I done?” she asked plaintively. “I have hurt him so much.”
“It’s better to hurt him now than to live a lifetime of misery together,” Alma said stoutly.
Kathy shook her head. “It would not have been a complete misery.”
“I told him there had been a misunderstanding.”
Kathy nodded, her eyes still focused on the horses moving steadily toward the lower Moreno Valley, where they would cross Palo Flechado Pass and move west down the Rio Fernando valley, then north through the village of Don Fernando de Taos to the pueblo. “Misunderstanding is certainly the appropriate word,” she said ruefully.
Alma looked away, studying the creek bed below and the cattle in the rich grass beside it. It was fine ranch land, this upper section of the Moreno Valley. Richer in some ways than the land she and her brother ranched in the lower part of the valley. The Taos Valley was well enough. It certainly had beautiful pasture land. But it was dryer there, and hotter in summer. It wasn’t the Moreno, with its green, high-mountain beauty, narrow meandering streams, and cool summer breezes. If she were Kathy, it would be hard indeed to leave such a place.
But then Kathy took a deep, ragged breath. “I have misunderstood my own heart,” she said. “And angered and insulted Peter’s family. Oscar is a proud man and his wife is even prouder. She dislikes me because I am not Pueblan. Now she will have even more reason to object to me.” She turned to her friend, tears welling again. “Oh, Alma, what have I done? They will never forgive me for this!”
Three weeks later Kathy paid an unexpected visit to the lower valley. Alma was in the bare yard of the cabin she shared with her brother on the hillside overlooking the head of the Cimarron Canyon, but for once she was paying no attention to the scenic valley before her. Instead, she was carefully following the directions of the old curandera Guadalupita Otero, learning to make soap from yucca roots.
As they did every summer, the Taos folk healer and her son’s family had camped at the eastern end of Six Mile Creek, southwest of Alma and Andrew’s cabin, to graze their sheep and goats and take in the cool mountain air. Alma had happened upon Guadalupita on a nearby hillside, struggling to carry a large basket of yucca roots. As they carried the basket between them down the hillside, the old woman had explained that she would make soap from the roots and Alma had asked to be taught the process. Now they were carefully chopping the peeled and slippery chunks and mixing them into a pot of water simmering over a fire in the yard.
When Kathy arrived, they took a break inside, out of the sun, and Alma used a bit of precious sugar to sweeten the wild mint tea she’d brewed that morning. “I haven’t had time to chill it in the stream,” she apologized.
“It is better for you warm,” Guadalupita said.
Kathy nodded absently. She sipped her tea and looked at the floor.
“How is everything up at the ranch?” Alma asked. She looked more closely at her friend and the pensive tilt of her blond head. “Are you well?”
Kathy looked up and glanced from Alma to the old lady, then to Alma again.
“Claramente, this is a private matter, ” Guadalupita said. She set down her cup and pushed herself to her feet. “We can finish the soap another day.” She turned to Alma. “Finish adding the amole to the water and then...”
“Please stay, señora,” Kathy said. She leaned forward and looked into the old woman’s face. “I may need your assistance. Certainly I need your advice.” She dropped her eyes. “If you would be so kind as to give it.”
Guadalupita peered into the younger woman’s face and then sat down again.
Alma frowned anxiously. “Kathy, what is it?”
Kathy took a deep, ragged breath. “I sent word to Peter that I am with child.” She glanced up, then at the floor. “He is a good man. He will have to marry me now.”
Alma’s hand went to her mouth. “Oh Kathy,” she said. “Are you certain?”
Kathy looked up. A grim little smile passed over her pale face. “I’m certain that I sent him the message.”
Alma shook her head. “I don’t understand.”
“After my foolishness last month, it’s the only possible way to obtain his parents’ agreement.” Kathy turned her head, avoiding her friend’s eyes. “And it will be true soon enough after we’re married.”
“Then you’re not actually....”
“It’s the only way I could think of.”
“But surely they’ll know that you aren’t actually....”
Kathy shook her head. “It’s too soon to tell without an physical examination.” She turned to Guadalupita. “I am not Catholic. The priest is almost certain to ask for confirmation from a curandera.”
“This Peter is the Taos joven? Oscar Lujan’s younger son?” Guadalupita asked. “I think his mother will ask, if the priest does not. I have heard that she is very angry that you rejected her precious hijo.”
“I was a fool.” Kathy dropped her head. “I know that now.” She looked up, her eyes pleading. “Señora Otero, would you confirm it for me?”
“And if you do not become pregnant immediately after el casamiento?”
“I will say that I lost the child.”
Guadalupita clicked her tongue and shook her head.
“And what about Peter?” Alma asked. “Will he believe you?”
Kathy smiled and her cheeks reddened. “He will know it is not true. We have never— I wouldn’t let him—” She looked down at her hands, then at Alma, calmer now. “If he responds with a message acknowledging the child, I will know he has forgiven my foolishness. If he sends a message rejecting it, or if he doesn’t respond, then I will try—” She bit her lip. “I will try to forget him,” she whispered. She covered her face with her hands. “And I will never forgive myself,” she sobbed.
“Oh, Kathy.” Alma knelt beside Kathy’s chair and put an arm around her friend’s shoulders. “Are you certain this is the only way?”
Kathy took her hands from her face. “I can think of no other.” She lifted her chin. “I don’t know whether or not I have done the right thing, but that is what I have done. I won’t go back now.”
Guadalupita chuckled. “Verdad you are a child no longer, I think.” She looked out the window for a long moment, then turned to the girl and gave a sharp little nod. “I will help you.”
“Oh, señora,” Kathy said. “I don’t know how to thank you.”
“You would perjure yourself?” Alma blurted, eyes dark with surprise.
The old lady compressed her lips. “I will help you.” The girls stared at her determined eyes and knew that it was not for Kathy that she was doing this thing. But the look in Guadalupita’s face did not invite questioning. “But for now, we will make soap,” the curandera said firmly.
As she made her slow way back to her family’s campsite that afternoon, Guadalupita pondered her decision. It had been made on the spur of the moment, but it felt inevitable. Sixty-some years ago her mother had lain with a young Apache man. She herself was the result of that summer romance. But her abuela, her mother’s mother, was one who clung fiercely to the purity of her Spanish blood. She had rejected any possibility of marriage between the young people and badgered her daughter into a rapid casamiento with a pure-blooded widower who had three young sons, a temper, and a penchant for Taos Lightning. It was of no importance that he was a drunk and a wife beater: the unborn child would be baptized with a Spanish lineage.
Guadalupita hadn’t known her true origins until she herself was married and her mother was dying. Always she had wondered why her father and abuela disliked her so much. It had been a relief to discover that she was not related to the hombre who had caused her and her mamá so much pain.
She knew Peter’s mother, of her pride in her Pueblo blood lines. Guadalupita shook her head. She would not stand by while another young woman lost her güiso, her sweetheart, as a result of such foolishness. There would be pain enough in the day-to-day living of their love, with a mother-in-law always looking to find fault.
The old curandera stopped to rest, eyes contemplating the green-black mountains that lined the western side of the valley. Below the opposite slopes lay the Taos Pueblo. Guadalupita shook her head and smiled, recalling the look in the blond girl’s face as she’d said “That is what I have done. I won’t go back now.” She was a strong one, that Katarina. Stronger than she knew.
The old woman turned and began walking again. As for perjuring herself: Hah! She was not afraid of the priests. She had ceased listening to them seven years before, on that January morning in the American year 1847 when so many had died in the Taos revolt, including her own esposo. Those who inveigh against a thing and then are horrified when their listeners take action against the thing execrated deserve no respect. They do not speak for el Dios. Guadalupita’s chin jerked defiantly upward, unconsciously mimicking the movement of Kathy’s face three hours before.