Return, p.1Allison Merritt
Copyright 2011 Alice R. Cummings
“There it is.”
A voice, rusty from lack of use broke the long silence. Only his companion, a tired, swayback gray gelding and a frightened jackrabbit hiding in the weeds heard his statement.
From his perch on the gelding’s back, the cowboy gazed down at the patch of dirt he had once called home. Uneasiness filled him as he studied the abandoned land. Coming home was the thing he had both dreaded and desired for years.
The pair walked on, oblivious to everything except the sight of the old homestead, partly obscured by a heavy mist. The rider coughed—a harsh sound that shattered the stillness around them. The horse merely flicked an ear. The man had only been given ‘til the end of the year to live, but it seemed that death hovered a little closer every day.
The cowboy stopped his horse on top of a ridge overlooking the valley. His eyes saw the ramshackle buildings, the quiet, overgrown fields. In his mind, there was music and laughter, friends and plenty of food, the rewards of a good harvest.
He’d run away when he was seventeen, looking for something more. He’d been a foolish boy, hell bent on proving that he was a man. He remembered that night like it was yesterday. The angry words that passed between him and his father, the hasty good-bye he’d given his mother, the tear-streaked face of his first love.
Now in his old age, he wished he’d stayed. If he had, maybe he would be healthy, married, have some children to look after him and farm the land. But it was too late for ‘what-ifs’. Too late for anything but the chance of dying here--the place where he’d been happiest. There would be no marker to bear his name, nothing here to remember him by. His was a life that hadn’t been as fruitful as it should have. There was no one to blame but himself. He wondered if coming home now could make everything right. He’d meant to come back sooner, but there was always another excuse that kept him from away from home. A single tear rolled down his leathery face when he thought about the wasted time.
The horse snorted as if sensing the man’s sad thoughts. Coming back to himself, the cowboy urged the horse into the valley. It was difficult for him not to admire the land, so ripe with tall grass and splashes of color from blossoming wild flowers against the steel gray of the sky.
The horse and rider didn’t stop until they reached the very bottom of the dale. The old cowboy dismounted and began to unload his meager possessions. First, he laid his rifle down with care. It wouldn’t matter now if the gunpowder got wet, but the rifle had seen him through a lot of trouble. The stock was scarred from battles and travels throughout the west. It had saved his life on more than one occasion.
He deposited his bedroll on the ground and a battered canteen followed. The last to go were the saddle and horse blanket. He could not remember the saddle ever weighing as much as it seemed to now. His gear had made his livelihood, but the weakness in his chest had overtaken his body. The worn rig toppled to the ground. He righted the saddle, because he would not feel right leaving it in a heap.
As the man moved to take the bridle off of the horse, the horse shook itself out. The action brought a smile to the tough old face, easing the pain of knowing he wasn‘t the same man who had left this land.
The cowboy did not intend to picket the gelding, because he did not plan to ride anymore. Instead, he turned it loose, but the horse did not go far. It stayed close by maybe not fully understanding it was free. The cowboy didn’t shoo the horse away. He let his faithful friend remain by his side. It was good to have company. He fixed his evening meal, some dried beef, along with a can of peaches he had been saving, and a pot of coffee.
The weary cowboy sat on a fallen log at the edge of the woods where he had played as a boy. The old cabin was only a few steps away, looking as decrepit and haggard as he felt. The roof had long since collapsed, the door hung off its hinges and a tattered bit of cloth from one of its broken windows fluttered feebly in the breeze. He imagined his mother gazing out that window, her faced lined with worry, waiting for his return. He could almost see his father at the plow, hands bloodied from hours of pushing the blades through the soil with no one to help him. The life the cowboy had chosen was no easier than the one his father had led. He rubbed the calluses on his hands, formed by years of dallying a rope. His pride had kept him from returning and making a life here.
There were a lot of memories in this place. They had haunted him something fierce the last few months-since he had gone to the local sawbones and learned the news that he wouldn’t live much longer. At first, he’d refused to believe it. He was not a young man, but he was not so old that death should be knocking at his door already. Denial set in and he continued to play nursemaid to a herd of cattle. Barely a month afterward he’d been on a round up when he was hit with the spasms of coughing. As he gasped for air, he thought I’m dying. The truth hit home that day.
He woke up each morning and it was always the first thing on his mind. If he was very, very lucky and the Maker held stubborn, worn-out cowboys in His favor, the man might see his loved ones again. For the last couple of weeks his greatest concern had been getting back to his home place in time. He wanted to leave this world in the same location where he’d come into it.
Bittersweet memories flooded his mind. He remembered waking up early to the sound of his mama’s rooster and the smell of frying bacon. He’d spent lazy afternoons catching fish in the creek that was just yonder. A smile spread across the weathered face as he recalled his first kiss behind the barn. That sweet, young girl whose name he’d never forgotten.
“Katie,” he whispered to the wind.
Her named drifted away like the years had. How she had begged him not to go, to wait until his anger died down before he made any rash decisions. He could hardly believe what a stubborn, proud boy he had been. It seemed like a memory that belonged to someone else.
He closed his eyes, conjuring a picture of her; petite and fair-skinned. The plait she wore her long, silky, brown hair in and how it hung over her slender shoulder. Most of all, the way her blue eyes had sparkled with delight when he told her he loved her for the first time. The sudden ache in his chest had nothing to do with the disease that was ravaging his body. How he must have broken her heart when he rode away that night.
The horse whickered, a soft sound that interrupted the man‘s thoughts. It came closer for a whiff of the cowboy’s dinner. When it saw he had nothing it wanted, it didn’t move away. Instead it stood close, as if it too felt the loneliness of the place. The land seemed fairly haunted by ghosts of lingering memories.
At last, the cowboy spoke to it. “You’ve been a real good partner. You’ve always been there when I needed you. You have the heart of a warrior and you’re braver than most men I’ve ever known. Should’ve been a poet, eh, son?” the cowboy said, chuckling at his words. The horse edged closer.
The man began to cough again and the horse’s ears twitched.
When he got a hold on the spasms, he said, “I didn’t wanna die like this. I always figgered I’d be an old man in my bed when I passed or in a fight or most likely trampled by a herd. I wasted my life. I was a fool.”
The big mouse-gray gelding stared at the cowboy with soft brown eyes. Eyes that had seen everything life had to offer a horse. It was not a particularly handsome creature; it had a Roman nose and multiple scars that crisscrossed its flesh from close calls with horns. But the gelding never stopped amazing the weary cowboy. Through dust storms, stampedes, hail and drought the horse pushed on, giving everything its master asked and more. Having such a sentinel preside over his death was an honor he didn’t deserve.
For a long while neither man nor creature moved. The rain began again, coming down hard and cold. The horse stood quietly and never turned a hair.
Most men in his profession dreaded the weather. He liked it, even if he did cough more in the dampness. The rain smelled pure and sweet, bringing new life, whereas his was running out. The scent of it reminded him of her. There was nothing more comforting to him than imagining Katie was close. He didn’t know if she still lived nearby or if she’d gone away with some other young fellow to live out dreams not unlike the ones they had made. Maybe she had crossed the river Jordan long ago. Whatever had happened, he hoped she had been happy, that her thoughts hadn‘t lingered on him long.
A short time later, the cowboy unrolled his blankets and laid down. He didn’t bother to remove his boots. Placing his sweat-stained and battered felt hat over his face, he closed his eyes. Memories ran through his mind until he settled on one: the time he had carved his initials along with Katie‘s on the oak tree outside his window and promised her forever. She’d kissed him with her soft, sweet mouth.
The cowboy’s wheezing breath cut through the sound of the rain as he drifted off to sleep, feeling as though Katie was at his side. In his restless state, he was sure her long fingers smoothed back his hair. She whispered his name and said that she loved him.
The ever patient horse stood by and watched the forest. The rain slacked off. Mist covered the land creeping in on cat’s feet. The horse watched a doe and a long-legged fawn come into the clearing. The doe sniffed the air, her tail flicking back and forth, as she considered the scene before her. The horse whoofed loudly and frightened the two animals away. He whinnied after them.
The cowboy awoke much later and saw the rain was gone and the mist was easing away. The clouds had parted and now stars were shining brighter than he could ever recall seeing them. The moon was a huge, luminescent eye in the night. The horse looked over at his master, shifting his weight.
“You still lookin’ after my sorry hide, old son?” the cowboy asked.
The horse blinked at him and sighed. The man placed his hat back over his face and drew his last breath. His final thought was of his Katie and the pledge of love between them.
The horse drowsed until the sun made an appearance in the east. He walked over to the man and pushed the hat off of his face, giving the cowboy a nudge. The gelding whinnied as if to say, “Wake up, it’s a new day and we have a lot of traveling to do!”
After a few moments, the horse understood the man, the only human who had been kind to him, was gone.
The morning became hot and the horse began to graze. He gazed toward the creek and glanced back at the cowboy. Thirst overcame the training that usually kept him in one place.
Turning in the direction of the water, and feeling friskier than he had in some time, the horse took off at a trot, kicking up his heels as the sunshine warmed his coat. He tossed his head, pretending to shy at a butterfly drifting on the breeze.
The horse knew he was free, that he and the cowboy would no longer ride across mountains or plains. His days of herding the noisy, wild cattle were gone. He was unconcerned about anything except getting his fill of the sweet, tall grass. He whinnied noisily, just for the sheer pleasure of hearing the sound.
In the distance, there was an answering call.
About The Author:
Allison writes contemporary, historical and steampunk romances. She lives in the Ozark Mountains with her husband. When she’s not reading or writing a new story, she hikes in national parks and conservation areas. Return received second in the Missouri Literary Festival Award for Short Fiction in 2009 under the title For Everything A Time.
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