Out on the prairie the loveliest things can be the most deadly, as a man sometimes finds out too late.
There's nothing so lovely as a flower on the prairie -- set against the harshness of a that bleak, unforgiving landscape. It is like a bit of grace. That was Flora Grace Coronach -- as fair to look at as a flower. She looked like a day lily, bright and lithe. She moved like water in a brook -- cool and laughing. When she spoke to you it was like songbirds come back in the spring. A woman like that should be dressed in velvets and satins and fine laces and have no work harder to do than lifting a teapot. She should be mated to man who has earned the respect of other men.
Seeing Flora in homespun and wed to gaunt, dreary rancher Thomas Gray just seemed wrong. The wrongness of it ate at me like a rat gnawing away at a grain sack. Thomas Gray was near twice Flora's age and for all his years had never made much of a success of his ranch. He "got by" from one year to the next, never seriously in debt and never getting much ahead. His house and outbuildings stood and that was about all that could be said for them. Life for a woman out there would be an endless succession of labor with few pleasures and little time to notice them. Thomas's hands were too work roughened to hold anything as delicate as a flower. His outlook was as streaked with gray as his hair. No one who knew him could ever say they had even heard Thomas Gray laugh. How he got Flora to agree to marry him defied speculation and there was plenty of it when the announcement was made in church.
If the truth had been known, the townspeople of Mason's Landing and thereabouts would have been even more agape. For Flora Grace told me the truth of it.
Looking back to that day a few weeks after her wedding to Thomas when she told me how she came to be his wife I see now that her honesty on that occasion should have made me see how duplicitous at heart she really was. Flora Grace was a beguiling woman however and I only heard and saw what I wanted to.
"It's you I love, Dan White. It has always been you."
Yes, that's what I heard, because that's what I wanted to hear. When she laid her soft, white hands in mine I was so thrilled to the touch I could not see beyond that moment.
The plain facts of the matter are these -- Thomas Gray was not so mediocre of metier as his well worn suits and equally well worn house and outbuildings testified. How she came to find that out Flora Grace never told me, but Thomas had saved most of what he had profited in the good years. Living simply he kept his expenditures low. He was not one to squander his coin on luxuries such as a new shirt when there was wear in an old one, or on new shoes when the old could be resoled, or dinner in a restaurant when beans and salt pork were at hand. With what he had saved, and the interest compounded annually over the many years he had been beneath the notice of his neighbors, Thomas Gray was a rich man.
Flora Grace intended to be a rich widow. With me at her side, she promised, using that hoarded surplus of lucre to make the ranch into a showplace. There would be velvet and satin and fine lace and silver teapots in her life. Instead of poke bonnets she would wear Paris millinery. From the banker's wife on down, all the ladies of Mason's Landing would seek to be in her intimate circle. Her fashions would be copied, her word on any subject repeated like the sayings of an oracle. To some women that little regency of pouring tea to an admiring coterie was the dominion to be most prized. To Flora Grace it seemed her natural sphere.
So she had led Thomas Gray down the path to courting her. A soft look, a shy smile, a hesitant touch and the bachelor began to see himself as a knight suing for his lady's favor. He would gladly have traded his unadorned establishment for a setting fit to enshrine a woman greatly treasured. It is sometimes said that when a man goes most of his life without falling in love and then is overtaken by romance he falls particularly hard. Flora Grace's assurance to Thomas that she would be joyous every day to cook his meals and darn his socks and wear calico and gingham to do so in drove away any doubts he might have sensibly clung to about why she chose him. As I said, she was a beguiling woman.
Myself and Nate Lull had been her other suitors before she became Mrs. Thomas Gray. I suppose I would have accepted my defeat-- but Flora Grace had no intention that I do so. Nor did she intend that Nate give up. An accidental bruise on her face shortly after the wedding was the flint to rekindling the fervor dampened by the sight of her saying vows to another man. Nate began calling at the ranch at times when Thomas was known to be away. At first it must have been to assure himself that Flora Grace was not being ill-treated. In time he remembered what a fascination her lips were. She said on oath to me that nothing more than coffee touched Nate's lips during his visits.
"It's you I love, Dan."
We believe what we want to -- or what someone clever wants us to believe.
Nate was cautious with his visits, and then less so, staying longer, skirting closer and closer to the hour Thomas would come home. Nate didn't know it, but Flora Grace left little signs that someone had been at the ranch. A cup hastily washed and half dried, her hair slightly disarrayed, apron strings half tied, the odor of tobacco, the cushion on Thomas's easy chair ajar -- these became a weight that crushed Thomas's resistance to the idea that he was wed to a light woman. He rode home early one day and saw Nate speeding off like his horse was pursued by demons. Thomas waited until Nate was well away before he went into the house. Flora Grace looked flustered. Suspicious of her virtue now he did not suspect that she intended all along for him to see her in that flustered state.
Casually he asked "Anyone come by today?"
Flora Grace replied "Why no, were you expecting someone to? Is that why you're home early?"
"Flora," her husband said sadly, "I know. I saw Nate Lull ride off. I know he's been coming around."
He might have expected his wife to brazen it out with denials or perhaps ask for forgiveness, but he never could have expected what she did next.
Flora Grace burst into tears and cried out "Thomas, don't do anything, please!" She clutched his sleeve, then through sobs said "Yes, he was here today and before. He said that if I - I didn't go off with him he'd kill you and make it look as if I'd done it!"
In a voice rife with despair she stammered "Oh, Thomas, I've been so afraid! That bruise I told you I'd come by accidental -- Nate did that to me the first time I said no. Today he said he wouldn't stand for me saying no any longer."
As if the notion just came to her Flora Grace eagerly went on "Thomas, let's run away! Sell the ranch! We could start over someplace far from here -- someplace where he couldn't find us!"
She laid that pathetic, hopeful plea before her husband and he saw the sanctity of his home threatened by a marauder.
"He put his hands on you -- in anger?"
One of those soft, white hands went up to her face as if remembering the blow and she nodded, hanging her head.
Thomas Gray did next exactly that thing that his wife knew he would do, had planned he would do. He rode off to find and kill Nate Lull. Flora told me all this, replaying the scene -- tears and all. She could have been on the stage -- another Ellen Terry.
"He'll be hung for it -- I'll deny I ever said Nate had behaved improperly. I'll say that bruise and others not to be shown had come from Thomas's hand. He'll hang and I'll be free -- with all of his money. We'll have to wait a little while for propriety's sake, but you and I can marry and share it all!"
Her lips were next to mine as she invited me deeper into her lair. How soft a woman is! How resistant to the inevitable. Her strength, her will to hold on surprised me. It took much longer to strangle her than I thought it would. I rode after Thomas, nearly laming my horse in the effort, but I was too late. He had found and shot Nate -- in front of witnesses.
Of those witnesses some testified at his trial, some sat on the jury. Whatever anyone thought of his reasons the facts were that Thomas Gray had cut down an unarmed man.
My trial followed immediately upon his. Mason's Landing is not a large place so some of witnesses at Thomas's trial sat on my jury. I offered no defense. Nothing I could have said would have made any difference in the outcome, anyway. Two scaffolds were built and tomorrow morning Thomas Gray will go to his death cursing me as I stand beside him.
As for me, guilty as I am, perhaps I am shriven at least in part by the fact that my silence will spare a good man the forfeit of his dreams of a desert flower.
idea of a
perfect Saturday is one spent watching old westerns on tv, or reading
one while curled up beneath a quilt. She went horseback
once. The horse was not amused.
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