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Published on Monday, May 5, 2014

The Stranger

By Callie Smith

 

The cough set in a week or so back. I expected it to shift, as it usually did, but it only got worse. So did the fever. I'd never been sick a day in my life... not 'til today, anyways.

It was a bad day even before the cow got out, but now I figured things couldn't get much worse. Though the cold wind gusted and my hot eyes burned, I knew I must find her and fetch her back. Ornery as that heifer was, she was a good part of my living.

I used up most of the afternoon finding her; the rest, I spent dragging her back to the barn.

Stupid animal. By the time I reached the claim, the night was pitch dark and bone cold. I locked her inside the rickety fence, feeling ready to drop. This work had never made me so tired before.

But tired or not, the cow and the chickens had to be fed, and there was only me to do it. As I worked, icy gusts cut through the chinks in the barn, through my thin coat and dress, making my crawling skin both cold and hot at the same time. On top of that, frozen rain now pelted the tin roof. I'd never known this side of El Paso could see so bad a winter.

Another coughing fit took me over, making my throat feel raw enough to bleed and my legs feel rubbery enough to buckle. Don't ask me why they didn't.

I stumbled to the corn crib, grabbed a few ears. My numb fingers barely managed to throw the corn to the waiting chickens. As I watched the hens rip the kernels free, I knew they'd just as soon peck my eyes out if I dropped here, and they got hungry. Those were chickens for you.

They knew what it took to stay alive. So did I.

The cow lowed, and I tossed her a few ears as well, though I knew corn wasn't what she really needed. She need milking. But she'd have to wait, because I was too played out to relieve her. Her own fault, if you ask me.

Although I'd fed the stock, I couldn't stomach a thing, myself. Just as well, since I had next to nothing to prepare. Taking a shallow breath, I traded the barn's measly shelter for the pelting sleet outside, running for the door. It was only twenty paces from the barn to the tiny one-room squatter's shack I called home, but when I reached the door, my side complained like I'd run a mile.

I picked up a faggot and some heart pine strips from the wood pile. The coals in my fireplace were probably ashes now, and I'd have to restart the fire in a cold house. My sigh rattled as I pulled the door string. Hurrying, so as not to let in even more cold air, I stumbled inside and slammed the door behind me. This small task left me fighting to breathe. I held the latch to steady myself before turning around.

What I saw made me freeze. Freeze more, that is.

The shack should have been dark and cold as death, but it wasn't. The oil lamp lit the room, outlining the bare table, the barer cupboard, and the wood stove. The stove glowed with heat, and before the stove, a man stood.

Though his striped clothes were ragged and filthy, I could still tell where he came from; both the sight and the smell of him made me recoil. The scent of sweat, grime, and who knows what else didn't mix well with the stove's smoke. His stubbled face was gaunt, and cut in more than one place. As he stepped back, looking startled, a broken chain clinked at his right ankle.

My presence of mind returned before my breath did. I glanced at the door sill, only to see that the shotgun had been taken down. He saw my look, and gestured to the dark corner beside him. I barely saw the barrel's faint gleam, thanks to the flickering oil lamp on the table. In a voice less deep that I would have expected, he said, "Figured I'd do better having the shootin' iron closer to me than it is to the door."

Trying not to tremble, I dropped the pine strips and brandished the firewood.

He held up a hand, saying quickly. "I mean no harm, ma'am. Swear I didn't think anybody were coming here tonight."

I could see where he'd think that. After all, the barn and shack were all but empty. Not much food, and the gun hadn't been cleaned in ages. This could have been a hunter's shack, only used once in a while.

But it wasn't. It was my home...my measly home.

I gasped, "My husband'll be back soon. You don't... want to be here when he comes."

He grinned, briefly. But brief as it was, it made me realize he wasn't much older than myself.

"Went on a trip, did he?"

"Just for the day. He'll be back any minute now."

"I'd have liked to borrow some clean clothes, but I couldn't find any clothes in here but..." He stopped himself, then cleared his throat.

I glared at him.

He seemed to get his bearings again, and said, "Shame your husband took all his things with him."

"Yes." I tried to get my bearings too. Not easy to do when you're scared sick...and sick for real. "We...we don't have much. All he's got is the clothes on his back."

"Ain't got much money, eh?"

"No. Nothing."

"Not even enough for spare clothes."

I shook my head. "No."

"Not even enough for a wedding ring."

I clutched the wood tighter, too late to hide my bare ring finger. I rasped, "What do you want?"

"A warm fire." He sat down on the rough wood floor, back against the wall. The chain clanked again as he crossed his feet. "And maybe some sleep. I ain't slept right for days, ma'am, and I'm liable to go cross-eyed 'less I get some proper shut-eye. All I want is to wait out this night."

Still holding the make-shift club, I slipped from the door and stumbled to the bed. He watched me the whole time, brow knit, his grin long gone.

As I sank onto the sand-hard mattress, he said, "You don't look too good. You ailin'?"

I shivered - from cold, fear, or fever, I couldn't say. All I could say was that if the ailing and the winter didn't finish me, the strange man might. I couldn't let on how weak I was. "No. And it's none of your business, anyhow." As if to punish my lie, another coughing fit shook me.

When I'd coughed myself out, he crossed his arms, saying, "I see."

I swallowed the pain in my throat and held my firewood tighter. "I can take care of myself."

Eying that piece of wood, he shrugged. "Hey, I didn't say you couldn't."

Silence followed, but for the sleet beating the roof. He sat there, inspecting his dirty fingernails. I waited. Once or twice I shut my eyes; though it was hard to open them once they were shut, I kept watch over the stranger.

I don't know why I jumped when he spoke up again.

"You know," he said, "this setup chocks the wheels a little. How'm I supposed to sleep with you sittin' there, lookin' ready to bash my head in?"

"How am I to know you won't do worse to me?"

He frowned. "Oh."

Another silence. I looked longingly at the cupboard, where I kept a carving knife. I would have felt a lot better holding that, instead of a piece of wood, but there was no way I could get to the table without him stopping me.

Still frowning, he spoke again. "If you're so careful, what's a young thing like you doin' out here on your own?"

I thought a moment. Although my fiction about a husband didn't fool him, I decided to continue it. I'd long since learned to keep my fists up, and not let on when I'm beaten. The parents I barely knew, and the orphan home they'd left me at, had taught me that lesson. Taught me that I couldn't depend on people. In the end, people always betrayed you; better not to give them the chance. I snapped, "I didn't say I was on my own."

"You didn't need to." He sounded a little rueful. "You ain't got food in this house to keep one person alive - let alone two."

"I'm sure you've already helped yourself."

"Can't say I didn't... all you had were some dried apples, anyhow. But that's better eatin' that where I come from." The man's face grew darker than the shadowy room. The expression didn't seem to fit him well, but he kept it on as he said, "I killed a man, is how I got put on the chain gang."

"That supposed to put me at my ease?"

He glared at me. "It weren't murder. He'd have done the same for me if I hadn't done for him first. But it's hard to make a court see things the way they are, sometimes. I got ten years in the mines...ten years. And I ain't getting' sent back."

He waited, as if he expected me to comment. I asked, "Why're you telling me this?"

"Just wanted you to know, is all." He shook his head, looking at the floor. "I guess workin' in a hole in the ground does things to you. Makes you want at least one person to...not think too bad of you."

His bitter look hit me hard, because it was familiar to me. I'd worn it when the orphanage matron made me scrub the stairs twice, because she blamed me for speaking out of turn. It hadn't been me, but she wouldn't believe that. The memory made my head ache more than it did already, which was the last thing I needed. My skull felt made of lead. Trying to clear the hoarseness from my throat, I said, "Then put some distance between you and it. Leave. I'm not hindering you."

Without losing the bitterness, he laughed a little. "First thing come sun-up. I aim to be over the border by this time tomorrow."

I didn't answer. What good would it do? He was dead set on staying where he sat; all I could do was weather the night, keep watch...even though I felt like keeping my eyes open much longer would kill me.

The man sighed again, then leaned his head against the wall. He shut his eyes, but the constant twitching of his ragged boots told me he meant to stay awake too.

As silence settled over us, I figured I might as well get set for a long night. I hauled myself to my bed's far end, and leaning against the rough plank wall, I pulled my blankets around my shoulders. The wood, my only weapon, I laid beside me. I needed to be ready.

My eyes stung, desert dry. I blinked, trying to moisten them, but this didn't help much. I blinked again, and this time it took a long try to open them again. They felt heavy as my head, as my chest, as my arms and legs. I felt so weighed down, I could barely think straight. But as I struggled to keep my eyes open, I kept thinking one thing. Don't sleep, don't let on that you're down. Don't sleep...

Darkness and fear took me over, and for one short minute I knew I'd drifted. But knowing I'd drifted did no good. I couldn't swim back, I'd drifted too far.

I don't know why I dreamed of my mama, for I hadn't done so in years. But I saw her face clear as day, thin and anxious as she told me to "wait right here, Violet, and I'll come back." I watched her leave me standing on the orphan home steps. Little child that I was, I waited for her to come back. I waited, until the long years wore my hopes away. "Wait right here," I heard her say again.

I tried to speak to her, but I had a brick for a tongue. All I managed to say was, "Don't leave me."

Her face grew troubled, and she said, "Got to. But just hang on, ma'am." The voice didn't sound like hers at all, but like a man's, and I think I whimpered like a baby. Then she left me. Just like always.

I don't know how long I rolled and burned in my fever. Seemed like ages. I saw no more faces, heard no more voices but my own, murmuring my mama's name. Don't know why she was so heavy on my mind. Made no sense that I should care for her - she'd done so little for me.

 

*         *        *

 

A coolness put out the fire on my forehead, and I opened my eyes. A man in a gray beard and black coat leaned over me. He swabbed my head with a cloth and crooned to me like I was a spooky horse he was trying to soothe. "That's right, gal. That's right."

I tried to speak, to ask who on earth he was, but my throat rebelled. I felt as wrung out as a dry dishcloth.

He was shaking his head at me. "Save your strength, gal, and let me do the talking. And, here. Drink this."

He lifted my head, and tipped a ladle of broth to my mouth. When I'd downed the whole ladle, he let me sink back. Then he said, "You're probably wondering who in tarnation I am. 'spect you ain't met me, since you scarcely ever come to town. But you sold cheese to my missus, recollect? I'm Doc Peters. I've been here since last night."

Last night. Only then did I remember last night, the stranger, the sleet. Morning sun now lit the window. The sleet had gone, and all was quiet outside. Looking around me, I saw that the man from the chain gang was gone. Now I had a new stranger in the house. I'd sure had a lot of visitors lately.

Doc Peters kept talking, sturdy and cheerful, "You had a pretty close shave, gal. Good thing I got the message 'bout you, else you'd be too far gone by now."

I whispered, "Message?" I had sent no message to anyone, let alone this man I'd never met.

"Save your strength, and don't talk, gal. I was gone from my house most of last night, and when I got back, there was this note saying you was ailing. Funny way to go 'bout things, leaving notes instead of talkin' face to face. But I figure whoever left it didn't have time to hang around, to tell me in person."

My mind chased its tale like a mad dog. Who would leave a message about me? Who knew I was ill...?

Doc Peters broke into my wanderings, "You ought to stay with me and my wife 'til you're well. Missus is a fine cook." He glanced dubiously at my bare cupboard. "She'd fatten you up good."

"Thanks. I'm fine here."

"Don't go talkin, gal. Now, as I was sayin' it ain't safe you should be here all alone. You know, there was a convict from the chain gang runnin' loose last night."

Convict from the chain gang. The puzzle pieces suddenly came together, and when I saw the whole picture, I gasped.

He put on his soothing voice again. "Don't fret, don't fret. That feller got nabbed a little before dawn. He was skulking just outside town."

"What? The...the man from the chain gang...?"

"Don't go talkin,' gal. Yep. He's been took back to where his kind belong." He paused to think, then added, "Funny. You woulda figured he'd go clear t'other way, close as we are to the border. I wouldn't have figured he'd stop around town, where everybody's seen his poster."

"Yeah..." I murmured. "I wouldn't have either."

"But, ya know, maybe he couldn't think straight. I've heard working in a hole in the ground does things to a feller."

I shut my eyes, remembering.

"Now." Doc Peters sounded even more cheerful than before. "Be a good girl and come stay with me and the missus. I've heard you don't cotton to strangers, but you oughta give folks a try. Sometimes they might surprise ya."

Still with my eyes shut, I nodded. He was right.

THE END

 

At twenty-three, Callie Smith is a freelance artist who has sold both fine art and commissioned work for the past five years. If you'd like to view more of her artwork, feel free to visit her website or on wordpress.

 

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