I wrote this in 2017 and then stepped away from it. I might come back to it at some point, but I thought to share it here.
Please note that I have no idea where I was going with this, but I do know it would not have been a romance.
I look forward to your feedback.
Ray had been gone a long time, and Shannon was beginning to think that something might have happened and he might not be coming back.
That was something that could always happen when going on a long journey, Shannon knew that. Once he had made up his mind to do it, Ray had taken his bay gelding, ten dollars in coins, and some food with him for the trip, leaving Shannon with almost thirty dollars buried under the floorboards of their bedroom and a whole side of beef hanging in the cold room he’d built beneath their two room house, as well as a ten-pound sack of flour, a few pounds of salt pork, some sugar, beans, what was left of the potato harvest that should really be tucked away for the next planting, and some canned fruit. Bobby the irascible old mule remained for her use, in the event she needed to make the long ride into town. It would not make for an easy trip, but it would keep her from having to walk the entire fifteen miles in the event of an emergency.
And now, two and a half months had gone by with no word from Ray after a letter received seven weeks earlier, when he had stopped in a town long enough to get a good bath, a hot meal, and any news, before writing her and posting it.
Dearest Shannon (it read):
I apologize for having to leave you like this, but unless I can convince Mr. Gaines to give us more time on the loan, I am afraid that we will lose our land.
I have taken the opportunity to have a good bath. The water was reasonably fresh, and there was the kind of good soap you like that smells like flowers. It made me think of you and smile. Luncheon was a steak topped with fried onions, and a big roasted potato on the side. I think you would have enjoyed it. It was so large that I arranged to have it packaged up so that I might enjoy some of it once my journey resumes. I think you would have laughed.
I know that you pressed me to post a letter to him, instead, but I believe it is important that I face him, man to man, in order that he will understand my seriousness in this matter. Letters can be faceless things, and it is much easier to say No to the scrawl on a page than the earnest face before you. I am certain that the Good Lord is with me in my quest, and that I will have only the most joyous news for you upon my return.
I will write you again with the next town through which I pass. Do not forget to keep an eye on the Cow. I believe she will be Calving soon, and as she had trouble with the last one, I am concerned about this latest.
I hope the Baby is doing well inside you. I should be back before it takes its first breath in the world. Tell it that its Father looks forward to our meeting.
All my love,
He had enclosed a badly pressed posey, likely collected sometime during his ride, inside the folds of the letter, ever the romantic. She kept it together with his letter, not wanting to lose it. Shannon was terrified that it might be the last contact she would ever have from him again.
The baby shifted in her belly, and she put a soothing hand to the disturbed bulge that pushed against her apron.
“Everything’s all right, little one,” she told it. “I’m sure your daddy will be home soon.”
It felt like a lie between her teeth, and it tasted terrible.
Not really all that hungry, she picked at the bread she had baked the previous day, knowing she needed to have something in her belly, but her appetite was not up to it. The baby kicked again, and she was reminded that if she wanted to have a healthy baby, she needed to eat, even if she did not feel like it.
Rising and leaving the stale bread behind, she went to the bedroom and crawled into her bed, pulling the worn, heavy quilt over herself. She had brought Ray’s third best shirt to bed with her, and held it tight, like a talisman. She could still just barely smell his scent on the garment, and the aroma made her ache with longing. Shannon wondered how long it would be before the shirt lost Ray’s scent entirely.
The two big dogs outside began to bark, and for a moment, Shannon’s thoughts swirled around the idea that it was Ray, come home to her, but she realized that Nut and Hy would not have continued to bark for so long if it was someone they knew. Hauling herself out of the big bed, she went to the front door and opened it just a bit, peering out to see what had disturbed the enormous guard dogs.
A dark figure was making its way toward the house on foot, wobbling this way and that, as though just on the verge of falling to the ground, the wobbling waves of heat rising from the arid earth obscuring a clear view of the person’s outline. The dogs kept a bit of a distance between themselves and the figure, but were not attacking it, which confused Shannon. It was obvious it was someone they did not know, so why were they not being more aggressive?
Stepping back inside and closing the door behind her, Shannon grabbed the shotgun from its hook on the wall, made sure it was loaded, and then went outside once again. The figure, which she finally determined to be male, was a hundred feet or so closer, but she could not make out the face from underneath the dusty black hat he wore.
A few steps later, and the man pitched forward onto the parched earth, nose in the dirt. The dogs whined unhappily and sat, glancing at Shannon, who remained in the doorway.
“What am I supposed to do,” she wondered aloud. “I’m all alone here, except for the dogs, and Ray has warned me against the coming of brigands.”
The chirp of insects and the barking of the dogs were the only response she received. It left her feeling a bit disappointed. She stared at the man laying helpless in the dirt and heaved a deep sigh. The dogs looked to her again for a cue, and again received none.
Several minute later, compassion overcame fear, and she stepped outside and into the sunlight, her weapon cradled in her arms. Compassionate, yes. Foolish, no.
As she got closer, she saw that the man still breathed, although just barely. His pale skin was filthy with the dust of his ordeal on foot. There were spurs on his boots, indicating that at one time or other he had had a horse, but at this point that animal was nowhere in sight. Shannon wondered what could have become of it.
He had come in from a direction where the closest settlement was easily 80 miles away. Who knew how long he had been walking before he came across a possible rescue. Shannon knew there was very little water between her land and that 80-mile distant settlement. Even the local native population shunned the area.
Nut, the larger of the two dogs, whined at Shannon, seeming at a loss as to what next step should be taken. His yellow eyes looked unhappy, and it was clear he expected Shannon, as the head of the pack, to decide what to do next. Hy, the smaller and younger dog, did not take his eyes from the crumpled figure on the ground. Going to the well, Shannon pumped some water into a bucket and brought it and the ladle over to her unexpected visitor.
“Mister,” she ventured. “Mister, are you okay?”
There was no reply. She could not tell if he had merely fainted or was unconscious. She squatted down next to his head. Shannon cautiously reached over and removed the hat that continued to obstruct his face. A very young face was revealed with the hat’s removal. His lips were dry and cracked indicating a long time had passed since he had had his last drink of water, and his face was badly blistered and sunburned.
Filling the ladle, Shannon dribbled a small amount of the water between the strangers parched lips. At first, he did not respond, but after a moment he tried to raise one arm to take the ladle from her. Unfortunately for him, he was too weak, and his hand fell back to the ground, his finger scratching ineffectually at the dirt beneath them.
“More,” he rasped, his voice sounding drier than the dust, and Shannon obliged, allowing more water to dribble out of the ladle and into his mouth. She was forced to stop once when he tried to swallow too much at one time and choked, but after that was sorted out, she continued.
A few sips more, and the man passed out from exhaustion. It was clear that he would be unable to walk under his own power at least until he revived, but Shannon had no clue when that might be. Splashing his face with water in an attempt to revive him would be crueler than she had it in her to be.
Shannon wondered if the young man would recover enough to continue their conversation. Looking down at her visitor, Shannon realized she could not simply leave him laying out on the ground, and so, through stubborn determination she took him by the forearms and dragged him to her house, over the threshold, and into the relative shade and coolness within. A year spent living in the middle of nowhere had given her muscles she never knew she could possess, and that was the only reason she was able to get him indoors on her own. Her mother would have been shocked to know she was no longer the dainty young woman she had been when she left the East.
She hoped she was doing the right thing by bringing him inside but abandoning him would have been unchristian of her.
Shannon rolled him onto a crude pallet she set up next to the brick fireplace, deciding that it would be best to have him there, rather than taking up space anywhere else in the main room’s limited space. She let the smaller dog, Hy, into the house and directed him to sit near where the young man lay. There was no sense in inviting more trouble than necessary into her home.
The animal happily obliged, knowing a good thing when he saw it.
Putting a rag-stuffed sack under his head to serve as a pillow and covering him in a second blanket, Shannon left the bucket and ladle within his easy reach and then laid down for a rest. No fool, she engaged the lock bar her husband had installed on the bedroom door to keep herself reasonably safe and secure. Then she slept.
Sometime later, Shannon awoke to the sound of a loud thud. Grabbing the shotgun from where it lay beside her on the bed, she pulled herself out of bed and went to face whatever it was that awaited her in the house’s main room.
Unbolting the door, she opened it and saw that her visitor had attempted to make it to the front door but had collapsed before reaching his goal. His eyes opened, revealing a sky blue expanse therein. They were a startling contrast to the pitch black hair that graced his head. At the moment, they seemed a trifle unfocused.
“Good afternoon,” she said. “Would you like some help getting back to your pallet?”
The head turned in Shannon’s direction, and she saw his eyes fight to regain their focus. A shy smile donned on his face as he realized who spoke.
“Yes, please,” he replied. “Thank you, ma’am.”
He was polite at least. It was a relief that she had not invited a brute into her home.
Taking a moment to fold the blanket so that he could lay atop it, Claire helped the young man to his feet and gently guided him back to his place near the iron stove. After handing him some of the previous day’s bread, Shannon sat down at the simple table in the center of the room, the shotgun resting in her lap.
“Who are you?”
“Michael. Michael Thompson, ma’am,” he replied. He seemed about to say more, but his eyes rolled up into his head and he appeared to pass out once again. Shannon sighed, recognizing that her guest would likely be here for longer than the short term, but at least now she knew his name.
Once convinced he was down for the count, Shannon went down into the cool basement, where she grabbed a likely beef leg bone that still had a few bits of meat still clinging to it. Taking it outside, she took a mallet to it, breaking it into three pieces and a few fragments. She tossed them all into the iron pot that hung in the fireplace, added some water and a little of the precious salt supply, covered things, and left it all to boil. She imagined the young man’s digestive tract would respond better to a good beef broth than solid food in his weakened condition.
After some consideration, she also soaked some bread in a little of the leftover cow’s milk, rendering it into more of a gruel that could be swallowed rather than chewed. Her mother had once done the same for her when she was a child confined to bed with some malady. Now she could only wait for him to awaken. If he awakened.
Shannon tidied the house as she waited, keeping one ear open to any signs of her unwelcome guest’s awakening. If he did not awaken soon, she would be eating the soft pudding she had prepared, herself.
Some hours later, Shannon decided she would wait no longer and sat down on the floor beside the young man and pulled his head into her lap. It was difficult to accomplish, what with her swollen belly but she managed.
He muttered and his eyelids moved a bit, but he did not fight her. Using the tiny bone baby spoon that had been bought for the infant who had died at birth, Shannon gently began to spoon small tastes of the milk pudding into his mouth.
At first he was unresponsive, but soon was opening his mouth to allow further spoonsful of the mixture to be admitted therein. Not long thereafter, his eyes opened once again to reveal the blue of the sky.
“What brought you all the way out here? What happened your horse?” she asked as she placed the last of the bread pudding into his mouth and waited for him to swallow it.
“Snake bit some time ago,” he told her. “Had to shoot it.”
She had not seen a gun when she found him outside, so she wondered what might have become of it.
“You’ve been walking a long time then I reckon,” Shannon suggested.
“I lost track of the days. It got so bad, I’d look for some kind of shelter during the day and walk at night. I must have gotten delirious to think I’d be walking during the day today. I’m glad this place wasn’t a mirage,” he said, closing his eyes. “I seen a lot of those for a long time now.”
“Well, you can rest here for a bit before you go on your way again,” Shannon told. “I’m expecting my husband home soon, and Mr. Barnes would likely not appreciate finding you here.”
Resigning herself to knowing her husband’s return would never occur, she felt a little safer with the lie she told the stranger. The baby kicked her, hard, as though condemning her for that lie.
“I thank you for your hospitality Mrs. Barnes,” was the young man’s earnest reply. “I would not dream of dis-accommodating you for any longer than it takes me to find my feet once again. I do thank you for your current hospitality.”
“It was the right thing to do,” Shannon replied dismissively. “My conscience would not have allowed me to leave you to die out there.”
She would have gone on, but saw that he had fallen asleep once again. It was apparent to her that now that he was in a relatively safe place, his exhaustion was forcing him to rest. Although she did not know how long he would sleep, Shannon decided to make some fresh bread and perhaps a simple stew gleaned from a few of the ingredients in her rather spare larder.
The cow had been quite pleased to be rid of the uncomfortable pressure in her udder, and lay down in the shade offered at the side of the barn. It would not be long before a new calf would limit how much milk Shannon would have available for her use.
Bringing the milk bucket inside and placing a pan atop it to keep anything from falling into it, she let the bucket of warm milk rest so that the cream would rise to the top and she could collect it. Turning the resulting thick cream into butter would help it keep for longer than it would should she allow it to remain in its liquid form.
These were the times when Shannon missed the upbringing she had had in Chicago, Illinois.
The Iceman would come by every day with a new block of ice for the coldbox in her mother’s kitchen, that allowed food to be kept without spoiling so quickly as it did where she now resided. A part of her resented that Ray had talked her into moving so far west, away from the family and friends she had known. She had known when she married him that he had dreams of having his own land; of taming it with his own hands and backbreaking work, and she had been too caught up in the romantic picture he painted with his entreaties to think about how hard such an existence would be.
Shannon wondered if Ray had been able to speak with and reach an arrangement with their mortgage holder before befalling whatever tragedy Fate had had in mind for him. Would there come a time when either he or one of his agents showed up at her door demanding payment or her immediate eviction from the property she had labored so hard to create? Should she abandon it and head for the nearest population center, thus bringing her closer to a midwife who would be able to help her through her impending childbirth? And now she had this stranger laying on her floor, someone who required her attention, and who she could not bring herself to abandon.
All these thoughts ran through her mind as she kneaded her bread dough, prepared vegetables, and cut up a bit of salt pork. Although there were many questions, there were no answers. Her mind remained treacherously silent in that regard.
The stew was nearly ready when the young man’s eyelids began to flutter. Noting this, Shannon pointed to the refreshed bucket of water and indicated the clean rag she had laid down next to it.
“Feel free to wash up,” she told him. “I’m sure you would like to wash the dust from your face.”
“Actually ma’am —,” he said, carefully rose, and stepped outside a few moments later, there was a knock at the door.
“Thank you, ma’am,” the young man said as he reentered, going to the bucket and washing his face and hands. “I reckon I’d be happy to milk that cow of yours. She seems awful uncomfortable right now.”
Shannon suddenly realized that she had not noticed the cow’s distressed lowing, and knew that it was once again time to milk the animal. She grabbed the clean milking bucket from the counter, and gave it into the willing hands of her visitor.
“She likes to try to step into the bucket when you are nearly done,” she told him. “Watch for when she starts to get fidgety. No sense in wasting good food.”
“Yes ma’am. I will ma’am,” he said as he slipped out the door once more to tend to the noisy bovine, Hy following along behind him. Nut, who had remained outside, woofed once but did not put up a ruckus. Shannon wondered what it could be that made the normally suspicious dogs not go mad at a stranger’s proximity.
Ray had carefully encouraged the dogs’ natural suspicion, feeling that was the only way to keep his wife safe when he had to be away. He had left the two largest dogs behind to guard Shannon, and had taken the black and white bitch, Sadie, with him on his journey. Not for the first time, Shannon wondered what had become of that dog.
Sometime later, Michael reentered the house, the nearly over-full milk bucket in one hand, and a collection of hens’ eggs suspended in a bandanna that he gripped in his surprisingly healthy looking teeth. As Shannon had been unable to locate the bantams’ nests after the last big windstorm destroyed their coop, she was grateful that the young man had not only been kind enough to look for them, but had thought of it in the first place. It had been over a week since she had had fresh eggs in the house, and these would make a very welcome addition to her larder.
Without being bid to do so, the young man scrubbed his face and hands and then sat at the small table, looking down at the bowl of stew Shannon laid before him. He did, however, wait until Shannon had seated herself, torn a chunk out of the round loaf of bread, and started eating, before he took his first taste of the relative bounty that had been laid before him.
“This food’s mighty good ma’am,” he commented between bites. “Maybe it’s because I ain’t eaten in so long, but this tastes like something out of Heaven itself!”
Shannon blushed at the unaccustomed compliment. Ray rarely said anything about her cooking. His appreciation for her cooking lay in the way he would devour it all, using his bread crust to soak up any remaining food juices before popping his makeshift sponge into his mouth to follow it all down into his stomach. The good feelings that the young man’s praise brought to her heart, made Shannon realize how much she wanted and needed verbal confirmation of her accomplishments. Perhaps it qualified under the sin of Pride, but it still felt like something she wanted.
“Would you like another bowl of stew?”
“I wouldn’t want to put you out ma’am,” was his reply. Shannon could see the continuing hunger in his eyes, and ignored his dissembling. She rose and carefully brought the iron pot to the table, laying it on the thick pad that lay there for that reason. Then she sat down again.
She heard the young man’s ill-mannered stomach gurgle impatiently. It made her smile.
“Help yourself, Mr. Thompson,” she invited him, laughing. It felt good to laugh again after so long. “Be sure to take some more bread as well. I don’t know what it is you have been eating during your long walk, but I am sure this will be far more helpful for your body than whatever that was.”
Not needing a second invitation, Thompson ladled his bowl high with as much stew as it would hold. Foregoing the spoon for his second helping, he instead used the remains the loaf of bread to shovel the contents of the bowl into his mouth, only stopping every now and then to take a drink of milk from the clay cup above his bowl. Shannon kept the conversation to a minimum, saying things that did not require a response, in order that he might eat with little interruption for replies.
“The cow is due to calve soon,” she noted. “If I have it counted right, it’s due in no more than three weeks’ time. I remember what it was like the last time she calved, and I will have a devil of a time getting her milked on a regular schedule. She gets mean when she has a young one at her heel.”
The young man stopped eating and looked at her, curiosity reflected in his eyes.
“When your husband is at home in the cow has a calf on the ground, I reckon he’s the one who has charge of the milking?”
“I think a milking frame will help you there, Mrs. Barnes,” he suggested. “It will keep her in a confined space and leave you safe as you milk her.”
“What is a milking frame? I don’t believe I ever heard of one before.”
Thompson pursed his lips a moment, then took a sip of his milk before answering her.
“It’s a kind of milking stall, but it makes it so the cow can’t much go one side or the other. There is a feed trough at the head and retention on food while you’re messing around with the bits on the other end. If you like, I’d be happy to build one for you before I take my leave of your kind hospitality.”
“It would be very nice of you, thank you, Mr. Thompson,” she replied gratefully. “Truthfully, I’m beginning to fear that my husband will not return from his journey, and has in fact left this world for the next.”
“I’m mighty sorry to hear that ma’am,” he said. He made as though to cover her hand with his own, seem to think better of it and put it back down in his lap. “Traveling can be a dangerous thing, I sure got my own proof of that now didn’t I?”
Shannon scooped two ladles full of the stew into her own bowl before nodding at Thompson to finish the rest of it himself. She picked at it as she thought about Ray, wondering where he was now and how far he had gotten before he met whatever fate the good Lord had had in mind for him. She felt angry at God for His treachery, and instantly felt guilty for questioning His Plan. Shannon sent out a silent apology for her rudeness and swallowed a spoonful of stew to cover her discomfiture. It had been many months since she had last set foot in a church, and that loss of weekly fellowship and community made her feel even more alone in this remote place.
She was startled when she realized that Thompson had risen from the table and cleared it of his bowl, the empty bread plate, and his mug. He watched each one, laying them atop the sideboard to dry, as there were no clean towels evident to dry them by hand.
“Would you like some more milk, ma’am,” he asked her, stepping over with the ceramic pitcher in his hand. “There’s some left. More than some, I guess.”
Shannon nodded wordlessly, watching as he filled her mug to just short of the brim. She realized she had best get to work on preserving as much of the milk as possible. The cow would not wait on her pleasure.
“You seemed lost in your thoughts, ma’am, and I didn’t want to bother you. I’d be pleased if you would allow me to clean up for you while you rest.”
“No time for rest, Mr. Thompson,” she said. “I have butter and cheese to make before the milk spoils.”
His eyes lit up.
“Butter? I like making butter,” he exclaimed. “My gran would let me make it for her when I was a kid. It always tasted better than the butter my mam bought at the grocer’s. Would you allow me to do that for you?”
“Mr. Thompson, you are still weak. Please don’t overexert yourself on my account!” she protested.
“I’m fine, ma’am. I’ll be happy to make butter for you. I suspect making the cheese is more difficult,” he finished with a sly smirk. It was obvious he would not take “no” for an answer.
“I have a cellar, and that’s where everything is for the butter and cheese. You will have to stoop a bit if you are going to go down there to make butter and cheese,” she advised him. He merely smiled at her.
“I’ve made butter while sitting on my backside, ma’am. It’s not like I don’t have experience doing it,” he said reasonably. “It’s not like you need a churn to make it.”