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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

A Near Miss

Two days after I found John at Kelson’s Ledges, his innards hanging out like a gutted pig, the horde swarmed.

I was still in shock when his sister descended on the house, her husband and children in tow, packing the four-room house so tight that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to breathe much past the morning.

Then his mother came. An aunt arrived just as I thought that was the last of them. They cried, handkerchiefs in hand, and bemoaned the fact that their brother, son, and nephew had been murdered.

His mother wailed. “Who could do it? Everybody loved him.” Her name was Lucinda and she was a big barrel of a woman with an attitude to match.

I wanted to kick them right straight out of the house but I couldn’t get myself to do it. I understood their grief.

The sister paced back and forth, Bible in hand, but it was the aunt who was coarse. Her eyes were chips of ice, frozen and cold. She jabbed a finger at me. “It’s only been two days. You’ve already gone and buried him. Why couldn’t you wait for a proper burial?”

I didn’t answer any of their questions; there was no point. How could I tell them that their brother, son, and nephew had been but a blood-red husk of himself after he’d been eviscerated and left to die? The image of his tubular intestines dripping from the beaks of carrion still stalked me. Why would I want the same for them?

They continued to bicker over what I did and didn’t bury John in. Funny, no one once mentioned how I would get by, being John’s widow, with a ranch to run, and 10,000 head of cattle to care for.

The rocking chair groaned when I sat in it. I figured I had a lot of work to do now that John was gone but I just couldn’t get my feet to move. My legs felt as heavy as my heart.

Neighbors and friends stopped by with condolences. A lawyer came but he wasn’t mine. I could smell him as soon as he set foot in the house. Blackstrap. The cheapest alcohol around.

“Well, Ms. McLachlan,” he said, “Looks like the ranch is yours now.” He sniffed loudly. “Guess you’ll be itching to sell. You’ll make a nice home for yourself with the profit from this land and cattle.” He pulled out papers and a steel-nibbed pen, and pushed them toward me.

I had a strange feeling, like my insides were tightening, and it surprised me because I hadn’t felt much of anything since I’d buried John. It hadn’t even crossed my mind to sell the place even though part of me knew how hard it would be to run the ranch, especially since I was still learning the business.  I looked down at my hands, which were raw and cracked open. They weren’t a lady’s hands. I fingered the papers. “Who’s looking to buy?”

“A businessman who-”

“What’s his name?”

“Mr. Cole. He’s the gentleman-”

“I know who Clarence Cole is.” My hands clenched and I suddenly felt on fire inside. “He frequents the saloon downtown. Likes the prostitutes on Murray Ave.”

“That’s nothing but innuendo, ma’am.”

“I ain’t done talking yet.” I glared at the lawyer. “Seems to me, Clarence got himself in a duel last week and shot that young newspaper man from back East.”

The lawyer cleared his throat, sniffed again. “Now, you can’t blame that on Clarence.  That boy didn’t know the rules around here, like when to stop running your mouth and when to walk away from a fight you can’t win. Listen,” he leaned forward, “there’s no reason to stay here now that your husband has passed. Think of the life you can have in Tucson. You can’t run this ranch yourself, being a woman and all.”

I felt my face flush with anger and I tried to calm myself as a pious woman should but thought better of it being that I never was all that pious.  “I’d run it just like a man would, I presume. At least better than a drunkard like Clarence Cole.”

I got so angry sitting there looking at the lawyer in his fancy duds that I up and left him sitting there in the sitting room.

I ended up in the kitchen where Lucinda was fussing over a pot on the stove, but the lawyer followed me and stood so close that I could smell the stench of his words.

“Clarence is the only one who can pay you what you’re due for your property. You don’t sell to him, you don’t sell to no one.”

“Well, that’s fine since I ain’t selling.”

“He’ll come for you if you don’t sell.”

My hand moved to the knife in my pocket. “It ain’t right to anger a lady and that’s just what you’re doing. The thing is, I ain’t selling to nobody, ‘specially no murderer. Clarence Cole shot that newspaper man from New York and that was murder fair and square. Now get outta here before I do something that ain’t becoming of a lady.”

He stepped toward the door but paused at the threshold. “There ain’t no proof that Mr. Cole killed that newspaper man.”

I almost laughed at that. “Except for a handful of witnesses.”

“The sheriff checked out his alibi. Mr. Cole was with his ailing mother all night.”

I wasn’t quite sure what an alibi was but I knew a fib when I heard one. “His mother would say anything for a dollar.”

“I’m just looking out for you, is all. He ain’t gonna take no for an answer.”

The truth was, I did know it. Clarence Cole had always wanted our land, our cattle. He’d started a feud months ago, underselling us, spreading rumors about our stock even though we were an honest ranch just looking to make good on some cattle. Talk had it he’d taken to drink and he was one helluva mean drunk. I didn’t doubt that he could kill me and even my in-laws, but I couldn’t sell to that man. “Well you tell Mr. Cole that if he wants my land, he’s gonna have to take it.”

I heard Lucinda gasp, and the lawyer stared at me but I guess he could see the resolve in the set of my jaw because he left without another word.

Lucinda turned on me. “What have you got yourself into now?” she asked, like I was a kid caught stealing from the pantry when she was the one getting into my affairs and my home and my kitchen. “It’s not worth it, Anna. You’re selling this place and living with us.” By “us” she meant herself and every other in-law. I didn’t think that was a good arrangement.

I was wishing John was there to help me make the decision to sell or not, but it was made for me when I looked out the window and saw his headstone under the acacia tree. I knew I would never leave him, not even his grave. He’d been a reckless sort of a man, always dashing into danger, but he’d been full of life, and he’d been kind, and gentle, and had crawled into the dark crevices of my heart.

“I’m staying here. I got a ranch to run.” This was said with more gumption then I felt. Seems the fight went out of me. That was happening a lot lately.

I spent that night restless. My bed was lonely even though my mother-in-law, aunt, and two nieces were sharing it with me.

I woke before dawn, thinking I heard something, and sure enough the dogs were barking. I threw on yesterday’s clothes, grabbed my shotgun, and moved to the backdoor. It creaked a little when I opened it and I thought for sure Clarence would be there with his gun sighted on me but I couldn’t see real well in the dark and I figured that if I couldn’t see, neither could he.

The voice out front was loud, authoritative.  “Open up there, Ms. McLachlan. I got something to say to you.”

I scurried around to the front. Peering out from behind the curtain, I could see Clarence standing on the porch with his lawyer at his side.

The shotgun felt solid in my hands. “Awful early to be making a house call, Clarence Cole,” I shouted.

“This here is business,” he said. “Come on out and talk.” That was when I realized he was slurring his words. The bloke is drunk.

“I don’t think so. You got something to say, you say it from there.”

“Ms. McLachlan, this conversation is better had face-to-face. Now come on out. I won’t hurt you.”

He reached out and jiggled the handle. My hands were perspiring.

Now it was the lawyer’s turn. “We just want to have a friendly chit-chat. We ain’t even armed.” They both held up their hands.

The rising sun was casting a light across the valley and I could see the dust swirling in the barren landscape but it was Clarence that I was interested in. I took a closer look at him. I didn’t see no guns but there was something clasped to Clarence’s belt. I gasped. A bowie knife. The blade had to be at least ten inches long and it was surely long enough to rip up a man’s bowels like John’s had been when I’d found him. I was suddenly sure as night follows day that this man had killed John to get our land.

I wasn’t perspiring any more. Throwing the door open, I aimed my shotgun at the sorry coot standing in front of me.

His look was one of shock and confusion but I didn’t care. I was filled with such terrible hate toward this man who’d murdered my husband that I wanted to hurt him as much as he’d hurt me. I was like a snake springing for a ripe old bite of something good.

“You’re a murderer, Clarence Cole,” I shouted.

Someone grabbed my shoulders from behind as I fired.

I can’t really explain what happened next because the next thing I knew, I was laying on the hard ground with nothing but sky above me. I didn’t feel no pain so I figured I got knocked over by whoever was preventing me from killing Clarence.

The sky was blistering and a mass of people hovered, sinister, above me. I was a cow, dead as dirt, and they were carrion staring, watching, eyeing me out of the corners of those unnatural eyes to ascertain if I was dead or if they would have to pull the succulent flesh from my bones alive. Makes sense then, that those faces looked familiar.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” My aunt was in her nightclothes. Her lips were pinched together in a very disapproving fashion.

I opened my mouth but nothing came out. There was yelling from somewhere over to my right. “She shot at me. I can’t believe it.” I could see what I presumed to be Clarence’s legs pacing back and forth beyond the crowd of in-laws that stared down at me.

“I come to ask her for her hand in marriage and she shoots at me!”

Words spewed from my mouth then. “Are you crazy? Why would I marry you, Clarence Cole? Why you’re nothing but a -“

“now Anna,” my sister-in-law interrupted, “let’s get you on inside before Mr. Cole decides to call on the Sheriff. Now you go on,” she nodded toward Clarence and the lawyer. “You two get outta here.”

She pulled me up in one swift motion and helped me to the house. The aunt’s voice followed after me. “What’s wrong with you? I ain’t ever seen a woman as batty as you.”

Lucinda was in her element the entire day, fussing and hovering and bickering.

“Anna,” she said, “I know you’re real set on staying here at the ranch but I just don’t see how. There’s too much work for one person. If you’re so intent on living here, I think you should remarry.”

I tried to stifle my curse because my sister-in-law walked into the room, my youngest niece in tow. They sat in a chair together.

“There’s Andrew, the merchant at Smith’s and Sons. He ain’t all that good looking but he’d make a fine husband. And there’s that banker, Levi. I know he’s a little on the older side but you’d have a good, secure future in front of you.”

I was at a loss with what she was saying. “My husband, your son, just passed three days ago.”

Lucinda ignored me. “And Clarence, well, he might reconsider if you had a mind about it and apologized to him for shooting at him like that.”

I stood up so quick the rocking chair I was sitting in slammed into the wall behind me. “Clarence Cole doesn’t want to marry me. He just wants my land. Besides, he murdered John.”

Lucinda snorted.

I continued, “It’s convenient, ain’t it, that John was murdered right as Clarence was trying to get our land? And that John was found at Kelson’s Ledges on the border of our property and his? And then,” my voice rose, “Mr. Cole has the nerve to step onto my land with a bowie knife slapped on his hip which very well could’ve caused the same kind of damage that was done to my John.”

My niece’s eyes were as large as china dishes. She’d probably never seen so much fuss from a woman before.

“Just because a man has a knife doesn’t mean that he’s a murderer. If you think like that, any man in these parts could be a suspect.” Lucinda reached for my niece’s hand. Her voice was sweet as molasses as she drew the little girl towards the kitchen. “Let’s go get some hot chocolate.”

But I got a good audience out of my sister-in-law. “You really think it was him?”

“Swear on that good ol’ Bible of yours you like to carry around.”

She seemed to think about that for a minute. “Well, it ain’t right to kill a man, especially a good man like John. But mama’s right, Anna. Sometimes a woman’s got to do what a woman’s supposed to do.”

“And what’s a woman supposed to do when her husband’s been murdered and her life’s been threatened?”

“Be controlled. Discreet. Let the men do all the brawling and just accept the fact that we women were meant to take the modest route, even when angry and ready to fight.” She stood up and patted my shoulder. “It’ll be alright. Just think on what I said.”

So I did. I thought about it far into the night while my nieces’ elbows poked at my ribs, and their little feet kicked at my shins, and Lucinda’s snores answered my aunt’s louder ones.

It was an awful thing to feel scared and angry and dead inside all at the same time but I knew that if I didn’t do something soon that Clarence would either take my house and everything I owned, or kill me, my cow hands, and my in-laws. Maybe I didn’t care so much about him killing me but I didn’t think the others deserved to die even if I didn’t always get along with them.

My in-laws seemed determined that I should remarry;  be more discreet and modest like other women. Maybe they were right. Maybe I’d gone about all of this the wrong way.

They wouldn’t ever get off my back unless I agreed to marry.

The next day, I announced my plans to marry Clarence Cole if he’d still have me. Out of the three single men left in the area who weren’t elderly coots, he was the only one who knew how to run cattle and the only one who made sense to marry besides the fact that he was a wicked drunk and murderer.


Since I had no family besides my in-laws, my aunt’s husband rode out to Clarence’s property to apologize for me and arrange everything. He came back with news that I was to be married in two days.

I let Lucinda plan everything. I didn’t really care one way or the other what happened at the wedding although I did get a little sad when she pulled out my wedding dress from my first marriage.

“It’s still good as new.”

laurenLauren B. Fawcett has a Master of Science degree in Education. A rather indecisive person with varied interests, she enjoys writing in multiple genres, including Fantasy, Western, Historical, and Science Fiction. Previous works have appeared in The Lorelei Signal, Mystic Signals, and Mused-The Bella Online Literary Journal. She resides in rural Pennsylvania with her husband, Patrick, and a cat with ninja-like moves.

“Should be.” I grunted. “It’s only six months old.”

I spent some time at John’s grave the night before I was to be married. It was a solemn thing and I didn’t feel much like reveling. I went to bed tired but unable to sleep.

Knowing that my in-laws could sleep through an earthquake like the one that’d shaken California, I dressed quietly and snuck outside. After saddling my horse, I rode her northeast, taking care that her tracks didn’t show.

I found myself at Kelson’s Ledges, crouching silently behind a tree, staring down at the unsuspecting bloke who’d murdered my husband. It’d been a hot day and he was sleeping out on the porch, probably to get some relief from the heat. He was alone. It was just us and the birds and maybe God was watching, too, but Clarence hadn’t any notion I was there.

There was some grief in knowing that I’d gotten my in-laws hopes up that I was to marry but I’d never really planned on going through with it. After all, agreeing to do something and doing something were completely different.

I aimed the revolver at Clarence’s head, thinking that maybe my sister-in-law was right this one time, that maybe it was good to follow etiquette every now and then and do what any respectable woman would do by staying controlled and discreet; it was much harder to get caught. And then I pulled the trigger.