Western Short Story
Widow's Garb
Tom Sheehan


Western Short Story

Within the week her husband, Roger Bentley, was killed by a horse thief, who also died in the encounter, BethAnne Bentley was heard to say, rather loudly even for the busy general store, “There’s two ways to beat trouble; shoot it dead or hang it on the line and whip the hell out of it, and I ain’t too particular about how and who’s bothering me and my baby girl.” The pause she let get a foothold was another attention getter; “I have plenty of room for body disposals.”

That last part was her acceptance of the code of the land: kill a man, bury him, or what she believed the code should be in most circumstances.

But the whole show was as much a message to one and all, as much as a warning that her widowhood was not open range for suitors or what anybody wanted to call them. She could well have said, and believed every word, “The drunkards and bar bums and the slackers in this world are what I despise as a woman and as a mother when I look at what my daughter might come into, and myself also, by false intrigue and plain gamesmanship. I mean what I say when I say, ’Don’t mess with me.’”

She had an idea how the scene would spread to all those who evoked an interest in the newest widow thereabouts. The tag that said “Widow” was like a packaging note for loose interpretation or what a man might make of it. There had been too many odd and disturbing stories about local widows over the years and she wanted no part of such frivolity, not the first hello, nor the aggressive and wide-open approach sure to follow.

Perhaps that scene was the reason that brought Judge Whelton Douglas Donahue, largest land owner in the territory, to visit the widow. He came riding high and upright in the saddle, distinguished and handsome for a man in his mid seventies who had amassed added lands to his domain at every chance, until his spread was as big as some territories. “He didn’t cheat on anybody,” it was said of him, “but he did take opportunity for the longest ride few of us can imagine.” That grasp on the land spread as far as a man could ride in a couple of days or thereabouts,

The judge stepped down from the saddle much as a youngster, saying as his introduction, “My Lily sends her warmest regards to you and your daughter.” It was well-known to BethAnne and most folks that his fifty plus years of marriage to Lily had never soured for a single minute and made him the envy of most men and the dream that many women had for their own men. As he approached her, he looked around the small ranch, the small barn, the conditions of all the pieces of the property as though his internal measurer was at work.

“BethAnne, he said, “I respect the hell out of you and Roger was as fine a man as I ever met. Never took a thing from me he hadn’t earned, but I’m saying it out straight, you need a man around here and I’m no matchmaker but I have a couple of damned good men who could help you run things around here, like keeping some weak-kneed and woeful hunters out of your hair and off your porch.” She noticed he hadn’t even smiled at his own dictate, which she had let slide to the back of her mind.

“You’re right on all counts, Judge,” BethAnne retorted. “Roger was a man, all the way to the dust. It’s a damned shame JaniceLu didn’t get to sit on her father’s lap. I am not too proud to accept goodness, and I’m glad you dropped by with some of it. Come on in for coffee and meet my daughter.”

Back at his huge spread, the one-time high law in the territory talked to his wife of 52 years about his message to BethAnne Bentley, “I’m counting on you for your support in this manner, Lily. You know some sides of things I might not see. I’m looking for just one man out of all our crew, and we have some good ones, to say the least. But this one’s got to be damned special too.”

“Douglas,” she said, having long shorn the name Whelton from the kitchen and the bedroom, “You are a sweetheart, and your gesture is perfect for BethAnne and her child. I will take some time on this matter. There’s one choice that leaps to me, but I want to make sure.” Her hand was on his shoulder and the gesture was understood both ways that there would be more coming on the subject.

Lily Bentley spent several days on the porch of the large ranch house, watching ranch hands at work, saw them come and go in their duties, saw them at relaxation when needed. She took no notes but charted every observation in some women’s order of separation and connection, personalities, general manners, considerations.

She arrived right back at her original choice. “Douglas, one out of the bunch most likely is going to be missed hereabouts, by both you and me. Bridge Sanders is the one we send to BethAnne, both of us send him. He’s perfect for the task. If I had a son, and I’m dreadfully sorry we don’t have one, he’d fit the bill, hands down.”

The judge wanted to say how he felt, about being without a son, but knew it was the wrong time, the sad look on his wife’s face impossible to match. He said, “The Judge wanted to say, “My choice also right from inception,” but knew Lily didn’t need it: she had decided and that was it.

A week later, without any ado in the meantime, a rider came along the road toward BethAnne Bentley holding her daughter in her arms, the sun shaded from burning down on them by a porch roof Roger Bentley had erected for this very purpose. BethAnne gloried in the shade, in sudden memories of Roger at work, talking little, getting much done that was extra work, both of them realized. She could almost count how many times she had brought him a drink of water, arrange a small break, say hello, release him as he itched to continue the labor.

She recognized the rider from the L-Bar-J as Bridge Sanders and a whole scenario raced through her mind: the judge and his wife in discussion, the advance to the young man, the promises made, his acceptance, his departure from the bunk house, parting from friends, pards, past days in the saddle hours on end. He was a good man, at late twenties she guessed, 30 at most, on for the long ride. She blushed at first thought, shrugged it off, drew her daughter closer, her best part warmer than ever on a sudden lurch of emotions. Roger would be pleased, she agreed with herself.

“Are you it? You the one they picked? I couldn’t be happier. Roger spoke well of you, liked your style. JaniceLu will get to love you, Bridge Sanders. She really will.”

“I’m the one the judge picked to help you, though I’d bet it was miss Lily that had the last word, like I’m out on loan.” The smile broke across his face and warmed BethAnne who felt the flush of an unknown joy rise in her frame, even as the sole love of her life nestled in her arms.

The possible interpretations on words clambered in her mind, the words left unsaid, the questions that arose, the clutter of possible replies, of intentions. She was invigorated. He was a handsome young man, but like a pony sent to do a stallion’s task. She decided on the spot that her meek acceptance was not enough for the occasion. She said, “We’ll have to make arrangements.”

Bridge did not ask what kind of arrangements but insisted that he make a place in the barn for his room, even after BethAnne said, “There’s a room in the house you can have as your bedroom, Bridge.”

She heard herself saying his name again and it was soft and touchable, even as he replied, “It is only right, Ma’am, that I keep to the barn. It is proper and right.”

“You better start calling me BethAnne instead of Ma’am, and I’m not about to walk out there and bring your breakfast.”

“Oh, I’d come here for breakfast, that’s for sure, Ma’am.”

She cocked her head and said, “We’ll try things for a while.”

So, they did, but she caught him in his work looking at her and he caught her looking at him. And soon enough there were messages without words and words without messages.

Then, one night a noisy rider came in asking for help in the darkness, and it was one of the L-Bar-J riders with a broken arm and woozy in the saddle. He saw Bridge Sanders come from the barn, putting a shirt on, and BethAnne from the house and it sank curiously into his mind.

In a hurry the small wagon was loaded and the seemingly estranged couple with a child and the injured rider were on the way to the L-Bar-J ranch to get help, give the man comfort, and therefore to tell the judge and Lily what living arrangements were obvious to him at the Bentley spread, BethAnne’s place.

BethAnne was sure, a few times thereafter, that two riders off in the distance on a few occasions were the judge and his wife checking long-range on the situation, checking to get a long-distance view of things as they might be, little perhaps to see but a lot to hope for.

BethAnne kept thinking that Bridge surely must be somewhat of an adopted son sent out into the world on a mission and they liked to keep tabs on him. She imagined what Lily might feel like with no child of her own, but she had to do the best for what she might have claimed as her own. “It’s got to be tough on her,” she muttered to the wind.

She didn’t tell Bridge about the sightings and supposed him to be too busy to notice much, except that he kept noticing her.

It began to seep into her system, at first as a cantankerous ache in her stomach, then as a twist in her emotional controls as want and need and the dreamed of emotions began to crowd her daily thought, and all her midnight rushes of those same needs and wants. The lone solace was her daughter’s needs.

In spite of all the ranges of emotions, there were few outward changes: Bridge kept working and kept looking at her any chance he could, so that she, now and then, dipped and flipped her way in a coquettish manner. An enjoyment filled, the dreams, the good dreams, coming back for a visit.

JaniceLu was in a deep sleep, the moon was visiting through one window, a breath of warm air circulated about her, and the visions took over her mind and body, all of them coming at once. She scooped her child from the crib, and with a hurry and a determination she left the house and went to the barn,

She placed JaniceLu on a mound of hay as soft as her crib, and slipped into the bed with Bridge, who had inhaled her first breath on entry, and said to him, “You won’t come to my bed, so I bring my bed here.”

She was in his arms in a flash and the night swallowed them completely.

In the morning they drove the wagon to the L-Bar-J and told the judge they wanted to get married. Lily was the maid of honor as her husband married the young couple, her heart near bursting with joy and the judge gave them gifts of 500 acres of prime land, 50 heads of cattle, and a small remuda of horses.

The couple rode home as Mr. and Mrs. Bridge Sanders, and their daughter, JanieLu.