Western Short Story
The Widow Woman, Lila Etheridge
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

She was big and boisterous and when she fired her rifle at horse thieves, trying to scoop up her half-dozen horses, there was no shaking or reservation about her. One man was shot in the leg, right where she aimed, and he was carried off by his comrades; they would not bother her again, she was sure; saying aloud, “Once injured, twice cautious. It’ll keep their attention. I’ll be damned if it won’t.” Lila loved terse statements that carried a message.

The word on the escapade ran the route of her hometown, Carterville, Texas, a few miles away, and it burst with laughter in the lone saloon, The Hog’s Head, with a free-hand drawing of a fat hog above the door.

Lila said in conversation, ““Well, now, they already got a pretty keen idea of what it’s like tackling old Lila, like waking up a sleeping devil with a sheet of ice. Ain’t two ways about me; shoot and be done with it.” The consensus was universally accepted by the lot of them., but Lila wasn’t done with the saloon. She walked in a few days later, addressed them loudly, saying, “I don’t think them boys will come back, but if they do, I’ll shoot to kill.”

With that said, she fired a shot over the heads of the bar customers, and knocked a glass memento to smithereens, most of the customers scattering to avoid getting killed, even accidentally.

One drinker was heard to say, “I wonder what it was like, being married to her. Old Hank must have said goodbye a half dozen times and couldn’t get far enough away to be rid of her until a new horse threw him onto a fence pole sharp as a working knife, dead aim and dead gone. Far as she ever let him go.” He paused, then added, “See how she swung that rifle like it was a candle stick, but long and lean and mean. ‘Don’t fool with me,’ it says, ‘or it’s the last page of the argument.’”

It was a whole year later, almost to the day, when the gang tried again. Lila had seen a distant rider checking out her place, like what time she’d go into her cabin for the night, light up a candle, throw her meek shadow past a window. She was adamant that they wouldn’t catch her again, but figured they were planning to try it. Starting then, with those warnings, she waited until she snipped out the candle, before she slipped out of the cabin and began to sleep in the barn, room galore for her. Good old Hank had built it spacious enough for the herd of horses he expected to have. Fat chance of him making it that far.

She heard them coming again, saw them coming in shadows, and killed two of them, to stay put in place until morning when the sheriff was summoned, telling the sheriff, “They didn’t grunt and groan very long, those boys, and don’t you dare bury them on my place.” She was dead serious about that incursion on her property, burial so final when contemplated, by herself, thoughtful, recall at work.

Beyond her ranch, those gents were buried, with little crosses of wood stuck in the earth, their time passing too. Lila noted the frailty of these sites, like memory getting stretched past any lifetime realities; soon, they’d be fallen too, to the wind, an animal, erosion of grip, the last clutch at Earth falling short too. Soon, she forgot them entirely, life moving on for her, but not them.

Hank’s place, good old Hank, the only site now and then she referred to as re-immortalized, re-celebrated, with a new cross pushed home into earth on special intervals, stark dates of related events, birth, first broken horse, broken leg, the likes by the numbers.

But the days passed, life moved on, peace settled on the land, war came of a sudden, and Lila found a new cause; the country could not be split up, could not be made into parts. She stood adamant at that, and posted a sign saying, “Join the Union. Enlist here. We’ll tell the Army you want to join the ranks; they’ll find you.”

She was proud of her stand, proud of her sign, proud of her country, come what threatened it.

When the sign was first shot full of holes, with her standing right below it., Lila shot back, in spades, wounding several men with a shotgun, demanding the Union army to protect the sign and her person. “Some folks hereabouts,” sputtered anytime there were listeners, “some folks back off or back down from voicing their deepest feelings, and I abhor such a stance. That’s coward’s work, and I don’t care who knows it. The country has to be united, forever united. I will give my life for it, if need be forthcoming. I would breathe my last breath for it, so be ready for me and this trusty gun. It will be in he ramparts until that last breath escapes me, some of you certainly going with me, down the deep drain, clawing back at Earth on the way down. I, too, will say to the bitter end.”

At that moment, she fired the rifle again, at nothing, it seemed, but someone someplace felt the shot wing past, “Lila making her stand,” echoed a statement on the same ramparts, a woman at words, her fist squared and ready for punching, her finger taut on the rifle trigger, her dress moving in the slightest breeze as the flag itself moved, throwing shadow and threat into the fray.

When Lila Etheridge fell, Earth calling her down, her husband’s arms re=opened, re-blessed, the Earth stood still for an eternal moment and then whisked them off, the pair of them again together, her cause the cause of thousands of deaths, the Union stayed put in place, her spirit assembled with other spirits so destined, the ranks from here to forever filled with like believers, like heroes, the banner waved its continuing wave across the land far and wide, ocean to ocean, like a woman’s will of purpose, beauty on parade at last.