Western Short Story
Hello the house!” he called out as he turned off the road, walking into the farm yard, his loaded mule in tow. “Hello, anybody ta home?” He yelled again.
“What do you want?” a woman’s voice called thru a crack in the door.
“Mrs. Pettigrew at the Tavern said I should talk to you.”
“Kinda hard to yell about it. He moved to stand in front of the cabin door. Mrs. Pettigrew says you need a crop put in, so’s to pay off yore bank note. I come to do that fer yuh.”
“I kain’t pay yuh fer that. Go away,” she yells back.
“No never mind about pay. I need pay in another kind,” He states loudly.
“I ain’t THAT kind of Woman. You git on down the road,” she yells back and slipping the double barrels of her shotgun out the door.
“No Ma’am, I expect you’re not. I need help getting some learning. Been alone most my life. Ignorant ain’t no way to get ahead in life. Mrs. Pettigrew says you got education and manners. Mind if I get some water?”
There is a long pause as she considered what I said. “Okay, you draw up water fer yerselfs and yore mule then tie up on the end of the porch. You just might have an interesting tale and I have the time for a good yarn.”
So I drew up buckets of well water and poured the watering trough full for Sampson my mule. The last bucket, I dipped out a long drink. Then soaked my handkerchief and wiped the dust off my face and neck. Wet slicked my hair down before I replaced my floppy brimmed hat.
I tied Sampson to the rail in the shade, leaned my flint lock rifle against the house corner and squatted just off the end of the porch.
The Widow stepped out her door and foot-pushed the end of the bench to the center of the porch. She tugged her shawl tight around her shoulders. She sat holding the shotgun across her knee. We measured each other with a long look.
She is a tall thin woman with brown hair showing around the edge of her bonnet. Kain’t guess her age as I ain’t got much experience around women. Dressed in a washed out flower print house dress and apron. Standing in polished black high top shoes.
“Why you are almost a grown man. What are you, Sixteen or so?”
“Seventeen, Ma’am. I ken keep up with the men at working.”
My appearance is a stick figure topped with light brown hair. I’ve out grown my canvas pants and homespun shirt so that cuffs ride high on my ankles and wrists. I got my dad’s heavy coat on. It’s too large but I cinch it up with my knife belt. Got my powder horn and bullet bag slung acrost my chest. I stand over six feet in my scuffed-up brogans. Not the most impressive vision. Sampson’s carrying my bedding, my few clothes, my fry pan and pot, and a few odds and ends.
“My dad pinned the moniker of John Paul Jones Morris on me. He admired the Naval Captain of that name. I go by John.” I introduced myself. “Dad and I lived on a 60-acre side-hill farm way up high on a no-name crick on the middle fork of the Kentucky River. Dad died a short while back so I sold out to the neighbor and come down the trace”.
“Met with the Judge, in our village, as I left, he told me I needed learning to get ahead. He advised that I should ask along my way to Lou-a-vill town fer a steamboat job for an educated widow woman needing help. Maybe, she would teach me readin’, writin, and reckonin’ in return for farmin’ work.”
“I give the men at the taverns a great laugh when I ask about widow’s. I’ve learned to quietly ask the village women for information. Out of four towns, you are the first widow that seem to fit that description,” winding up my story.
I stand and turn looking over the fields. “Looks to be about 25 acres you got here needin’ plowin’. Good soil by the looks of it. I ken do that, help you with gardening, and fix up things whilst waiting to harvest it,” I commented. Yuh got seed enough?”
“My husband, Albert, May he Rest in Peace, set aside seed last fall for planting afore he died of pneumonia.”
“You might teach me in the evenings. I ken fix me a place to sleep in the stable. I won’t be no bother fer yuh except fer meal time and studyin’. I ken pay some fer my meals.”
With a deep breath, “John Morris, tell you what. Let me think on what you say whilst I get supper. You look over the place and see if you can figure out if’n there’s enough here to get a crop in. We’ll talk about it over supper.”
I found more than enough seed to cover the acreage. A day would be needed to put the harness and plow in shape. All the tools are there. Mrs. Slocum had to sell her horse to settle her debt at the general store. She has to walk to town or hitch a ride in a neighbor’s wagon to shop. Sampson will do all the plow work and pull her wagon to town now and then.
Over that first supper, we talked about the possibilities and arrangements for teaching. We decided to use supper time for teaching. She had two slates, one fer things to memorize and the other for doing sums or practicing writing. It’ll be sweat my body all day and sweat my brain in the evenings. I caught on fairly quick to addition and got thru the Twelves alright. Once I got take-away understood, I could go both ways in a flash. Then came multiplication and division. Took me most of a week to work out the reasoning and then it wuz easy. Mrs. Slocum set me to doing bigger problems and double checking my answers.
Reading was a slow start with copying out words. Once I understood that some letters had several different sounds, sounding out words became easier. Then I begin to sound out simple sentences. Sampson was sure I’d lost my mind as I recited numbers or words at his butt whilst I wrestled the plow behind him.
Plowing the old field was not too bad, but breaking new ground was rough work. With Sampson straining and me rocking the plow, we got another five acres broke out. We, Sampson and I, plowed and sowed in five acre blocks to give Sampson a day’s rest between blocks while I sowed. Also hoping I ken scythe in the same order as it won’t ripen all at once.
Our first trip to town was for extra supplies and garden seed. Mrs. Slocum stopped in the bank to leave word that she was putting in a crop to pay off the mortgage.
After our second trip for supplies, the banker got wind of my existence. I was chopping weeds in the garden as he turned his buggy into the yard. “Howdy, Mr. Weatherford,” I called out as I left the garden patch. “What can we do for you?”
He stood in his buggy looking around a couple of seconds before stepping down. “Mrs. Slocum home?” he inquired, nodding at the cabin.
“Yes Sir, She’ll step out directly.” I answered.
“You got all this work done in three months?” He waved around, appraising me and wondering.
“Yes, Sir, I got… I have nothing better to do between sun up and sun down, but to work.” I grin. “Still somethings need fixin’ and winter fire wood to cut. But most things are in order till harvest time.”
“Ah, Mr. Weatherford, welcome. Would you like to come sit in the shade? Would you like coffee or tea?” Mrs. Slocum invites from the porch.
“Good to see you looking well, Mrs. Slocum. Coffee would most appreciated, Thank You,” He starts for the cabin. “With your permission, Ma’am, can this young man join us?”
“Wash up, John and come have a cup of coffee with us,” she invites.
“Yes ma’am,” I answer as I move off to the wash stand.
I came up the steps to take the mug, Mrs. Slocum holds out to me. I lean on the pillar at the top of the steps behind her.
Mr. Weatherford clears his throat, “Thanks John, for being here. You have done a sight of work around here. And that makes my visit today all the easier as I have less worry about the Mortgage note being paid.
“Mrs. Slocum, I have a second reason to come out today, not just the Banker checking on my investment. I did not want to appear to pressure you with the mortgage in danger of default. Also, I have not wanted to visit and intrude on your grief.”
He drew in a deep breath as he made ready to commit himself, “My purpose here today is to ask if I may call upon you socially? You and Albert made a fine couple. And it is a pity he died. He was a good man and would have gone far. You are an educated woman, a beautiful woman, and well mannered. May I call upon you?”
There is a long silence as they looked at each other as if searching the other’s soul and intentions. I saw Mrs. Slocum’s slight nod as if satisfied. Mr. Weatherford relaxed slightly.
“Yes, you may, Mr. Weatherford,” she smiled. “I’ll not be coy and pretend to be flattered at an important man’s interest. Frankly, I will enjoy the fellowship and conversation. What say, we set the afternoon of the third Sunday of the month for you to check on your investment and stay for supper with us. John will be our chaperone and maybe, just maybe, the gossip will not become too nasty. Once the mortgage is paid, and if you are still interested, we can discuss other social activities.”
“That will be most satisfactory,” Mr. Weatherford said with relief. He begins to stand to take his leave.
“Sit, Mr. Weatherford?” Mrs. Slocum asked. “I should explain our situation here and might you take supper with us?” He relaxed and nodded.
“It’ll only be stew with biscuits and jam as I haven’t time to cook fancy. It does seem to agree with John, though. He’s grown some and put on weight since starting here,” She smiled at me.
“John showed up here offering to put in a crop for me if I would teach him to read and reckon. That is our bargain. He has a quick mind and making good progress. We start on fractions next week and reading Proverbs in his Bible. He’s got 30 acres of wheat in, put in a garden for me, made what repairs he can and built me a chicken coop. I think I got the best of our bargain.”
I add quickly, “We have this friendly running argument; what I am doing for Mrs. Slocum will last a year. What I am learning will last my life time.” I grin, “I think I have the better of our bargain. Best kind of bargain to be had, when both come away thinking they have the best of it.”
“That’s the truth of it. Banking is not as easy to satisfy borrowers. Show me your work, John, while Mrs. Slocum prepares supper.”