Western Short Story
One Winter Morning
Scott Harris

Western Short Story

Ken James woke reluctantly, which was unusual for him because he usually enjoyed mornings. But he was still feeling sick. He knew it was 4:30 in the morning because he woke up at 4:30 in the morning almost every day of his life. He had an alarm clock on his nightstand, a gift he’d received from a client a few months ago, and he set it every day for 5:00, just in case he slept past 4:30. But, unless he forgot to turn it off when he awoke, which happened on occasion and always startled his wife, it had never gone off, not even once.

This morning, as he had done far too many times in the past few months, he also woke up uncomfortably, with his wife’s pet dog lying next to him—a sixty-pound barricade named Buck stretched out in the middle of the bed, strategically located between him and his wife, Charlotte. For Ken, dogs had always been working animals, usually sleeping outside, though occasionally one would win him over and earn the right to sleep in the house, especially when they started to get old and had trouble staying warm on cold winter nights. But never in his life, until now, had Ken allowed a dog in his bed.

That all changed when Buck lost his left front leg to a mountain lion, which Ken was able to shoot, and kill, before it could finish killing Buck. Rather than put the dog down, which is what Ken had been raised to believe you do with a working dog that can no longer work, Charlotte insisted they try and save him. Nurse him back to health, so they would have a healthy three-legged dog to take care of. Ken didn’t think working part of every day to save a three-legged dog was the best use of time, but Charlotte rarely asked for anything and saving Buck was important to her. So, they did. Ken’s son, Tom, pitched in too, so it wasn’t too much work for any of them, and they were all happy when it became clear after a couple of weeks that Buck was going to live.

During Buck’s recovery, and Ken shouldn’t have been surprised, Charlotte insisted that he stay in the house. At first, he slept on some old blankets in front of the fireplace, and so he soon became a part of their everyday lives, there when they went to bed at night and still there when they woke up in the morning. Ken was always the first to see Buck in the morning, and he had to admit there was something about coming down the hallway to a furiously wagging tail and what would have to be called a smile that made for a pleasant way to start the day.

Buck was even more excited when Tom came in in the morning because Tom always tossed him a mountain lion steak. Tom thought somehow it was only fair, even though Ken explained to him the mountain lion had done nothing wrong—it was just doing what came naturally and trying to survive, just like Buck was, just like they were.

But eventually—and Ken, in the way of most husbands, really didn’t understand how or why—Buck moved from the main room to the bedroom, and not on the floor on a blanket, but actually sharing his bed. And, on far too many mornings, it also meant that while Buck was missing one front leg, the other one was planted strongly and firmly in Ken’s back. Ken noticed it was always his back, never his wife’s.

This morning, Ken quietly worked his way out of bed, turning off the alarm and trying not to cough so he wouldn’t wake Charlotte, who always said that the last hour after Ken first woke up was her best hour of sleep. Buck scooted over to soak up the warmth left behind, and Ken watched with just a little envy. Charlotte gave a little moan and rolled over, but didn’t wake, and Ken started getting dressed so he could go out and do his morning chores. As he dressed, Ken thought about his father. He’d passed a few years earlier, and Ken missed him, but he laughed quietly to himself at the thought of trying to explain to his father, who would have been more likely to sleep in a barn than he would have been to allow a dog in his home, why there was a three-legged dog sleeping in his son’s bed.

Ken was still sick, probably with a cold, and had spent all day Saturday and yesterday, Sunday, in bed. He had missed church, which he hated to do ever since Reverend Matt had moved into town and opened the Dry Springs Church of the Resurrection. Matt’s Sunday sermons had become something Ken, and pretty much everyone in town, looked forward to. He enjoyed Matt’s views of religion and God, a little irreverent, though still respectful. Matt was certainly not the frightening fire and brimstone of the pastors of his youth—the type of pastors who convinced you that pretty much anything you did was going to have you winding up in hell, and so you didn’t do anything, right up until you figured, if the pastors were right, you were doomed to hell anyway, so you might as well have some fun on the way. Ken didn’t think that’s what they intended, but that’s the way it worked out for young Ken and his friends.

Staying in bed also meant his wife and Tom had to do all of his chores for the past two days, and Ken felt strongly that a man should do his own chores—in part, simply because he should, and in part because it was the best way to teach his son to do his. And since Ken had never spent three consecutive days in bed before, he was going to make sure today wasn’t the first time.

Unlike his father, thirteen-year-old Tom didn’t wake naturally at 4:30 in the morning. As a matter of fact, if it had been left up to Tom, he would wake up much closer to 7:00 each day. And he’d always thought the cows, and even the chickens, would get used to waking up later too, given the opportunity. But Ken didn’t see it Tom’s way and was unwilling to test the theory. Ken did, however, make one concession, and didn’t wake his son first thing. Most mornings, after getting dressed, Ken would slip quietly into the kitchen, nurse last night’s coals back into a fire and make a fresh pot of coffee. He would pour himself a cup, step out on the back porch no matter how cold it was and stare into the fading night. This morning was particularly cold, though it wasn’t snowing. Looking at the water trough they kept in the back, he could see ice had formed over the top of it during the night. He walked over and, using the axe he kept for cutting firewood, broke through the ice to the water below. None of the animals were up yet, but they would want water when they were.

He could see his breath and feel the chill cut right through even his heavy coat. He was grateful for the gloves and reached up and pulled his hat as low on his head as he could. The coffee tasted especially good on a morning like this, and as much as he enjoyed the warmth of a summer morning, there was something exhilarating about standing out here in the early morning. He enjoyed the darkness, broken only by the stars, and was comforted by the fact that his family was safe and asleep and by the relative silence as it seemed like whatever animals were awake were staying quiet and clear of his backyard. He felt he had the world to himself. As a man who enjoyed being comfortable and wasn’t burdened with huge expectations and dreams, mornings like this one were a very fair reward for trying to be a good man.

He loved his wife and son, but these few minutes were often the only ones he spent truly alone all day long and he looked forward to them. He enjoyed staring at the stars, listening to the coyotes off in the distance howling their secret messages, the owls saying goodnight as they hoped for one last rabbit before returning to their burrow for the day, and the very first hint of light starting to come in from the east. Some mornings, it seemed to Ken that he could feel the change in light before he could actually see it, and this was one of those mornings. Because he knew his day at the office was not going to be busy and he also knew Tom wouldn’t object, Ken decided to treat himself to another cup of coffee and a few more minutes of quiet.

When the second cup was finished, about the time his biggest rooster loudly notified the world that he was awake and in charge, Ken stepped back into the house and roused Tom, who voiced the same complaints he did every morning, starting by strongly declaring that it couldn’t possibly already be 5:00 in the morning. Ken let him know that it was actually 5:30, which seemed to make Tom feel a little better, and so, without too much trouble, Tom quit his complaining, slowly got dressed and followed his dad out to the kitchen. Ken, who only minutes ago watched as his coat lost a battle with the cold, cautioned his son to dress for a very cold morning. Tom was grateful his dad had the fire going and, as he had done since he turned thirteen, enjoyed the half cup of coffee—with just a bit of milk—his dad allowed him each morning. He enjoyed the fact that he and his dad had a shared secret that his mom didn’t know about as much as he enjoyed the coffee. Ken never let on to Tom that his mother, while not fully approving of her son drinking coffee at this age, was fully aware that he did—as she was with just about everything that happened in her home.

Ken gently woke Charlotte, received a small kiss on the cheek for his efforts and followed Tom out to the barn. Ken and Tom traded chores every day, and today it was Tom’s turn to milk the four cows while Ken took care of the rest of the chores: mucking out the stalls; picking up the eggs; and feeding the chickens, horses, dogs and cows. Ken found eleven fresh eggs this morning, an average day. As usual, the chickens loudly proclaimed their displeasure with him taking their eggs, but they always quickly forgave him when he threw them a little corn.

On cold mornings, like this one, Tom preferred to do the milking. He was pretty bundled up against the cold, and it was easier to sit in one place than to walk around and do all of the other chores. They were usually done by 6:00, but because of Ken’s second cup of coffee and the late start, it was closer to 6:30 by the time they finished. The sun was almost completely up by the time they walked out of the barn, but it didn’t feel to Tom like it had warmed up at all, and he pulled his coat tighter against the cold.

Tom headed straight back to the house, watching the chickens, who had quickly polished off the corn, peck away at the early morning bugs. But Ken, as he did almost every morning, took a walk around the barn and the house, just to make sure everything was OK, that nothing had happened during the night. It was a comforting part of his morning ritual, and he always felt better knowing that the day had started with the animals being taken care of and that the house and barn were in good shape. He noted that one of the handrails on the front porch had worked its way loose and made a mental note to tighten it up when he got home from work this afternoon. Normally, he would have taken care of it right away, hating to put things off, but they already were a bit behind because of the second cup of coffee. It looked like the wood was still good and a couple of nails should brace it up just fine, at least until he got around to tearing the small porch down completely and building the new, larger porch that Charlotte wanted. That was a spring or summer job, so for now, a quick repair was all it needed.

Ken opened the front door—he’d never felt a need to lock the doors—and he could smell this morning’s breakfast before he took his first step back into the house. Charlotte had always been an excellent cook, another thing for Ken to be grateful for, but even so, he was still feeling a little sick and didn’t feel much like eating. He sat down and watched Tom, who was starting to eat almost as much as Charlotte and Ken combined, wolf down three eggs, a few slices of bacon and a couple of biscuits—slathered with butter—and wash it all down with two large glasses of milk. While Tom was slow to wake and even slower to start having morning conversations—often their time together in the barn would pass without a word being said—Charlotte usually woke with plenty to say, and this morning was no exception. Ken remembered to tell them both about the railing so neither of them would lean against it and fall before he had a chance to fix it.

Ken enjoyed the sound of his wife’s voice, the cadence and rhythm as she moved easily around the kitchen, working away at her morning chores, which always started in the kitchen. Ken was never really sure if she was talking to him, Tom or herself, and she had a great ability to uphold both sides of the conversation. As much as he loved to listen to his wife, Ken knew he didn’t always pay attention to the details she was sharing, which often left her a little frustrated when he returned home from town, maybe having failed to stop by Hattie’s and give a message to Nerissa, or having forgotten to pick up whatever it was she had asked for from Ray Hinton’s general store. This morning, he did catch that she needed supplies, and he made a mental note to pick up the salt and beans they were running low on.

Tom finished breakfast, and he and Ken both finished washing up and changing out of their barn clothes at about the same time. As they started to leave for the day, Tom kissed his mom goodbye, though Ken wondered how much longer that would last, since it was clear Tom was starting to notice a couple of the pretty young girls at school. Ken, because of his cold, didn’t kiss his wife, but told her he loved her, and he and Tom started the short walk to town. Ken knew if he had turned around, he would have seen Buck hopping into the kitchen, where Charlotte would shower him with hugs and then give him all of the scraps from breakfast, scraps that used to go to the chickens and come back as eggs, but no more.

He knew while he was gone at work for the day, Charlotte would take care of their home. Over the years, it had become their way that Ken, and now Tom, were responsible for what happened outside of the home: the barn, the animals, the home and barn repairs, and everything else involved in running a small dairy farm. But when it came to what went on inside of the home, that was all Charlotte. The decorations throughout the house reflected Charlotte’s tastes. And while Ken liked what she did, it really wouldn’t have mattered. She kept their home spotless, and she was a good and enthusiastic cook. Ken knew it made her happy when he and Tom ate heartily, and as good as almost every meal was, that was easy to do. A couple of times a week, she would walk a large midday meal to his office, and on the days she didn’t, Ken usually went over to Hattie’s restaurant for a bite and some conversation.

Ken had always loved Dry Springs, even more so since the school, Willy’s Elementary School, was built. He and Charlotte had tried their best to teach Tom, especially to read and write, but the long days of working in town and running the small farm didn’t always leave time or energy enough for lessons. Now, with Sophie doing a great job as the town teacher, he could see how quickly Tom was picking up the lessons and that even though he complained about the homework—and being locked up in a small room six hours a day—he liked learning, he liked Miss Sophie and he liked spending time with the other kids.

Ken was enjoying the walk and was having a nice conversation with Tom, who was now, finally, fully awake. That conversation lasted until the moment Tom saw his best friend Huck. With a quick goodbye, Tom was racing off to catch up with Huck, the boys sharing punches in the arm the way boys do to say hello. And Ken, after giving an unseen wave, watched the boys until they were out of sight, smiled to himself, turned around and headed over to his small office. Not for the first time, and not because he was unhappy with his life, Ken thought about what it would be like, and longed once again, to be thirteen years old.

There really wasn’t much work for an attorney in a town the size of Dry Springs, but as the only attorney in town, Ken handled all that there was, and he and Charlotte made the rest of the money they needed by selling milk, butter and cheese from their four dairy cows, five until the wolves got one last month.

After taking care of the small amount of paperwork he had to do today, Ken rolled his very comfortable brown leather chair out to the front porch of his office. Dry Springs was small enough to only have the one street, as of yet unnamed, so if you sat out front long enough, you eventually saw just about everyone in town.

Outside of an appointment with the town banker later this afternoon, Ken found himself with very little, maybe even nothing, to do. He settled into his chair with a glass of water and let the comfort of the soft leather and the small warmth of the winter sun begin to work their magic on his minor aches and pains. His office shielded him from the wind, and he watched the Dry Springs morning unfold before him.

Mrs. McClaskey came by with all four of her children and three of her nieces and nephews. The McClaskey family was the biggest in town, and the kids were good kids, but they were loud and not much for settling down. Ken was sure they were Sophie’s biggest challenge at the school. At precisely 8:00, Lanny Thurman, Thurm, opened the Dry Springs Bank & Trust, after yelling over and confirming their afternoon meeting.

He watched Ray open the general store and waved hello, making a mental note to stop by later for the salt and beans Charlotte asked him to pick up. There was no movement at the Dusty Rose, but Will rarely started much before noon, since he was up so late most nights. Ken looked over at the church. Sometimes Matt would start early, but today wasn’t one of those days.

Ken looked down at the book he brought out to read, Great Expectations, written by a British author, Charles Dickens. Ken was enjoying the book, learning about London, sometimes wondering if he would ever visit Europe, and following the adventures of the orphan, Pip. He was a slow reader, but then again, he wasn’t in a hurry. He looked back up when he heard footsteps approaching. It was his friend, and town sheriff, Brock Clemons.

Brock was heading down to Hattie’s for a late breakfast and asked if Ken wanted to join him. Ken, still not hungry but welcoming an opportunity to catch up with Brock and enjoy his third cup of coffee of the day, agreed to go. He set the water glass down and pulled the front door closed, no more inclined to lock it than he was his front door at home.

As they walked toward the restaurant, Ken asked Brock how Sophie and Huck were doing, telling him again what a great job Sophie was doing with the kids and how Tom and Huck had raced off toward school like they were being chased by a mountain lion, though he suspected it had more to do with the young girls than a hunger for math or science.

He pulled the door to Hattie’s open for Brock and noticed right away another couple of friends at the counter. As Brock grabbed them a table and the door closed behind him, Ken thought to himself, just briefly, “This has been a pretty good morning.”