L. H. Rhodes
Copyright 2010 by L. H. Rhodes
Margaret MacKenzie slumped in the saddle, a wide brimmed Mexican hat shading her face. She stroked the black mare’s sweaty neck and watched as the horse stretched down to pull at the brown grass.
The drought was near the end of its eleventh month and the last water hole had shrunk to a patch of mud at the bottom of a cracked bowl. Scattered clumps of dying grass reached desperately into the dry soil for moisture that was no longer there. Margaret squinted across the once fertile prairie and sighed deeply.
She leaned back, lifted her hat, and in a continuing motion wiped her arm across her forehead. She mopped the inside of her hat with her neckerchief and for just an instant the sweat-dampened leather headband felt cool against her scalp as she pulled the hat back on.
After the first two cloudless months she had been sure the rain would come any day. It hadn’t. She had lost several head from her small herd before she could find someone to move them northeast across the border into western Missouri where the springs were still running.
It would have been different if Fergus were still alive. He always seemed to know the right thing to do. In the two years since he had been gone, Margaret had struggled alone.
She stroked the black mare’s neck again and the horse whimpered quietly. High in the brilliant sky a buzzard circled in an ever-tightening spiral and finally came to rest near a motionless dark shape.
Margaret clucked softly, tugged the reins, and the mare raised her head. They turned toward home.
The sun, low in the early evening sky, glared through the parlor window as Margaret stoked her old iron cook stove. The rabbit was a bit scrawny, but with some boiled potatoes and a pot of greens from the root cellar, it would be adequate. Fortunately Fergus had dug the well deep and a foot of water still covered the bottom. She brought up the greens and two big potatoes and put a pan of water on the stove.
The small clapboard house sat next to a grove of live oak trees, four miles southwest of Lawrenceville, Kansas. The parlor was the largest room and was her favorite place, although it seemed she spent most of her time in the kitchen. The sitting room had been Fergus’ and sometimes Margaret thought she could still smell the faint odor of his after-supper cigar. The only outbuildings were a privvy and a small barn for the horses inside the corral.
Through the kitchen window she could see her black mare and Fergus’sorrel, the last two horses. When they had come west four years ago, right after the Civil War, there had been five horses in the corral, and now even the sorrel would have to go. Not that selling him would do more than buy salt and feed. She blinked rapidly and her lips tightened. There was no way she could save her house and her land. The mortgage was overdue. Long overdue. For the past six months it had hovered over her head like that vulture over the dying jackrabbit out there.
Arthur Hammond had stalled it off, but three days ago when Lester Davis, owner of the bank, found out what his teller was doing, he fired Arthur and foreclosed. Margaret hadn’t wanted Arthur to cover for her, and now he had lost his job because of it. Fergus and Arthur had been friends and the fact that Arthur had done it for Fergus as well as for her didn’t ease her guilt.
Lester Davis would have Sheriff Ed Wilson with him tonight, just to keep everything legal, and when she couldn’t come up with the money Sheriff Wilson would have no choice but to evict her. Two cardboard satchels sat open by the back door. She had begun to pack her belongings into them and only a few things remained to be added.
Margaret turned away from the window. She rolled the rabbit in cornmeal, shook some salt onto it, and set it aside. The water in the pot began to boil and she added the potatoes. A sudden sound brought her around sharply.
One... no, two horses came up to the front of the house. Margaret heard one rider dismount and walk to the door. She glanced at the sun through the parlor window. It was too early for the banker and the sheriff. Who the devil would be way out here? Knuckles rapped on the door. She picked up Fergus’ forty-four and slid it under her apron.
The man was young; she judged him to be no more than twenty-five. He hadn’t shaved for several days. The man on horseback was about the same size, and he had the same general look. Margaret thought they might be family. They were both sweaty and dirty from the dusty trail and the one at the door, at least, needed a tub of hot, soapy water.
The bearded man took off his hat and said, “Evening, Ma’am. Would you have a bite for a couple of trail bums? We’ll work for it and be obliged.”
Margaret looked him over. He had light brown hair and a mustache that might be the same color after he washed his face. His dark eyes looked straight at her. The other man had not dismounted but she could see the same dark eyes.
She had no money and they could see that, so they weren’t here to rob her, and at her age they would have no interest in the fact that she was a woman. She smiled, finally, and said, “Ain’t got a lot, but you’re welcome to share. Bring in some wood for the cook stove and you can wash up in back.”
The man smiled and said, “We’ll be beholdin,’ Ma’am.” He turned, waved to his companion and went down the three porch steps.
“There’s some feed in the corral and water in the well,” Margaret called after him. “They’re both precious. Use what you need and no more.” She closed the door and went back to the root cellar.
By the time the two men came in the back door with the firewood, and went out again to wash up and see to their mounts, she had added four more potatoes and three more handfuls of greens. Biscuits would take too long, but she had a few slices left from yesterday’s loaf of bread. It would have to do.
The aroma of the rabbit frying in the skillet filled the house. Margaret scooped the potatoes and greens onto three plates and put them on the table. Minutes later the two men came back into the kitchen and threw their saddlebags in the corner. She cut up the rabbit and the three of them sat down.
It was obvious they were hungry and Margaret didn’t interrupt with conversation. They ate quickly and the only sounds were their forks against their plates.
“Fine grub, Ma’am,” the second man said. It was the first time he had spoken and his soft voice surprised her.
“I should have told you. I’m Margaret MacKenzie,” she said. “Please call me Peggy. Been a long time since I had this many at my table.”
They grinned. The first man said, “You done yourself proud, Peggy MacKenzie. Long time since we et better.” He looked around the room and his eyes fell on the two suitcases. “You goin’ somewhere, Peggy?” he asked.
She lowered her eyes for a moment, then said, “Yes. I’ll be leaving in a couple of days.”
“Some. But I’ll be all right.” She blinked back tears. “I hate it that I’ve let Fergus down. He was my husband.” She wiped her eyes with her apron and tried to smile. “Don’t want to burden you boys with none of my problems.”
“Way you treated us, it ain’t no burden, Ma’am,” the second man said. “Why don’t you tell us about it.”
Margaret took a deep breath and looked at them. Suddenly she felt the need to talk, maybe because they were complete strangers and wouldn’t judge her. When she started to speak, everything came pouring out...Fergus’ two year fight with skin cancer, the toll of trying to work the herd alone, and finally the drought which had been the final blow. The tears came again when she told them about Arthur trying to help her save the property, and about Lester Davis coming with the Sheriff to evict her.
The two men listened in silence. When she finished the first man said, “How much is the mortgage?”
Margaret managed a smile. “Might as well be all the money in the world.” She wiped her face again.
“How much, Peggy?” the second man asked. She raised her eyes, swallowed hard and said, “Six hundred and seventy-five dollars.” Her chin quivered and she bit her lip.
The two men looked at one another for several moments, then the first man nodded almost imperceptibly. His partner got up, went to the corner and picked up one of the saddlebags. He came back, dropped it on the table and sat down again.
Margaret watched, wondering what they were doing. The bearded man unbuckled the strap and opened the saddlebag. He took out a leather wallet, opened it and removed a wad of bills. He slowly counted out six hundred and seventy-five dollars and pushed the pile across the table to Margaret. She stared at the money.
“What are you doing? I can’t take this.”
The man smiled. “Sure you can. We’re just repaying a lady’s kindness to a couple of strangers.” He pushed the money closer to her. “It ain’t no hardship on us. We got plenty. Take it, Peggy.”
Slowly she closed her fingers around the bills. The tears came again, but she smiled. “You boys must be God’s angels. Ain’t no other answer.”
They laughed, slid their chairs back and got up.
“You make them fellers give you the mortgage papers, and you get a receipt for your money, you hear?” the bearded man said. “Don’t want them comin’ back later and sayin’ you never paid.”
Margaret nodded. “You ain’t leavin, are you?”
“Yeah. We got a long way to go. Horses are rested, fed and watered, thanks to you, so we’ll be on our way.” He took her hand. “You’re a fine lady, Margaret MacKenzie, remind me of my own mother. You take care now.”
The second man patted her shoulder and kissed her on the forehead as they went out the back door. A few minutes later she heard them ride away.
Margaret sat for a long time, staring at the money in her hand. It was truly a miracle. She wiped her cheek again and waited for Lester Davis and Sheriff Wilson.
Dark clouds began to form, rolling up high in the sky as the Sheriff and the banker rode back to Lawrenceville.
“Where you reckon she got the money, Lester?” the Sheriff asked.
“I don’t know, Ed, but I’m not unhappy about it. I didn’t really want to take Margaret’s property, but business is business and our depositors expect me not to coddle anyone.”
“What do you think she’ll do?”
“If she’s smart, she’ll try to sell off her herd and her land before things get worse. She might even get most of her money back, if she’s lucky.”
Sheriff Wilson looked at the starless sky and laughed. “It looks like the drought is about to break, and if I know Margaret, she’ll be in to see you tomorrow about another loan on her property so she can restock.”
As he spoke the first drops of rain fell on them. Lester Davis turned up his collar. “You’re probably right, Sheriff. God knows she’s as tough as they come.”
The rain fell harder and a flash of lightning lit up the trail. Thunder rolled as they passed through a grove of cottonwoods, and then another flash filtered through the trees. The rain rattled overhead on the canopy of leaves.
Suddenly two riders darted out in front of them, guns drawn and neckerchiefs hiding their faces. The man in front fired once into the air and shouted, “That’s far enough, boys. Throw down your guns.”
Sheriff Wilson swore and dropped his Colt to the ground. Davis waved his hands in the air. “Don’t shoot! I don’t carry a gun.”
The second masked rider spurred his horse over to Davis. “I’ll have those saddlebags.” Davis started to protest, looked at the Sheriff, and changed his mind. He untied the saddlebags and handed them to the masked bandit.
“That’s bein’ smart,” the second man said. “Now you fellers ride on outta here.”
It was nearly dawn when the two riders crossed the border and made camp along the Missouri river. The bearded man opened the banker’s saddlebag, took out the roll of bills and counted them. Six Hundred and Seventy-five dollars.
“All there, Jesse?” the other man asked.
The bearded man tossed the empty saddlebags away. “Yeah, Frank,” he said. “It’s all here.” He looked at his brother and they both grinned.
I am a senior citizen who has been writing
since the early eighties. Mostly short stories in a variety of genre;
although I have a novel length story working. Also, I have created
the small Midwestern town of Milton Falls, circa 1930s, populated by
a variety of citizens, including Sheriff Hickerson Cheek and
his three deputies, two full-time and one part-time. A half-dozen or
more stories at this point, recounting the detection of perpetrators
of various crimes, from murder to theft.
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in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)
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