Willy does not trust the stranger who rides by and asks for breakfast on July 5, 1901. His distrust is justified, and the seven-year-old acts to protect his mother.
Comes a Stranger
Backlighted by the rising sun, a wavering speck on the horizon vanished and reappeared, riding the dips and crests of the land, somewhat larger with each reappearance, until it took the shape of a horseman riding cross country, veering from the crow’s flight only to jog around a rock outcropping or a fence corner, coming straight on as if he rode to a purpose, unlike a cowhand looking for work and stopping at this ranch and that until someone hired him on.
Willy shooed the milk cow into pasture, and carried the pail of milk toward the house, the weight of it bending him to one side. He had to change hands three times before he arrived at the kitchen door and could set the pail down for Ma to lug up the steps and into the kitchen. “Ma?” he called through the open doorway. “Ma, rider comin’. He ain’t usin’ the road, neither.” Taking the dipper off the hook, he helped himself to a drink of warm, creamy milk.
Lou came out and stood on the top step. “Don’t drop your g’s, young man, and don’t say ain’t. You know how to speak properly.”
The Milk River ran eastward here, then swung north in its Big Bend, before it curved south again and flowed on to the Missouri. Here the prairie broke into small hills, and the house stood on a gentle rise that overlooked the river with its tangle of cottonwood trees along the banks. The south side of the house – a four-room cabin built of cottonwood logs – gave them a view of the river, and from the east side, where she looked now, she saw the unending prairie, vast as an ocean, and dry except for where the river ran. Shading her eyes to look, she made out a shape that danced against the sun, vanished, and materialized a little larger, but she couldn’t tell yet just what it might be. The boy’s eyes were better than hers. If he said it was a rider, then it was. “He won’t be by here for a while yet,” she said, “if he’s coming here at all.” She carried the pail of milk up the two steps and into the house, lifted it onto the counter. “I hope he doesn’t stop. We have too much to do today, after yesterday.” As she spoke, she fitted a clean piece of muslin over the pail, tied a string around the rim. Celebrating the Fourth of July – imagine, the country was 125 years old – had been great fun, but now there was double the work to do.
Willy said, “He’s no cowhand.”
“How can you tell, that far away?” Smiling, she ruffled her son’s hair; already the top of his head was waist high on her.
He ducked away. “He just ain’t” – an upward, sideways glance at her disapproval – “isn’t. He’s not taking the road.”
“See? You can speak properly when you put your mind to it. Maybe he’s taking a shortcut on his way someplace and he’s in a hurry to get there.” She set the milk pail on the plank floor. “Put this in the ice house and then you can set up the washtub.”
“Aw, Ma.” He shrugged, but picked it up. As he carried it away, the fluffy leaves of small purloined carrots waved from a torn back pocket in his faded overalls.
“Don’t you shrug at me,” she called after him, but the carrots put a smile in her voice. They needed thinning anyway.
Coming back from the ice house, Willy stopped to feed the carrots to Poles, standing cock-hipped in the corral, whisking his tail over his back. The horse reached his long bony head between the rails of the fence and plucked the carrots off Willy’s palm with his upper lip. “Dainty critter, ain’tcha?” Willy scratched between Poles’s eyes. “Just like a parson’s wife sipping tea. You like having a day off, don’tcha? Well, I don’t. I’d rather we were out with the others, even if it was mending fence.” He lingered, petting the horse, as long as he dared, and then, figuring she was about to call him, he ambled to the house, scuffing his bare toes through the dew-wet grass.
Lou was in the dining room, wiping the round oak table, whose four lion-paw feet radiated out from a thick central pedestal. She gestured toward the piece of broken plaster of Paris that sat in the middle of it. “Put that in your room, Willy. A dining table is no place for a piece of rubble.”
“Oh, Ma, can’t it stay there a couple more days? Just think! A real train robbery!”
A small boy’s excitement and yearning shimmered in his voice, as if he’d been closer to the Wagner hold-up than the next day and four miles. That robbery had been a real hold-up, after all, not just the kind of thing he read about in dime novels, with their lurid yellow covers and illustrations of handsome, daring gunmen. “All right,” she said. “You can leave it there today, but tomorrow put it in your room or I’ll throw it out. And put up the wash tub, if you please,” she called after him as he skipped away. “We’ve no time to waste.”
While he dragged out the sawhorses and set the galvanized tub on them, Lou finished washing the breakfast dishes. Willy came in, and without her asking, took up a dish towel.
“Ma? When I get done, can I go fishing?” He stretched up to put a plate in the cupboard.
Not long ago he’d climbed onto the stool to reach that shelf, and his overalls had no cuffs any more, but the hems, that she’d let down once already, stopped above his ankle bones. Her baby, growing fast.
“If you promise to catch that big catfish and bring it in for dinner.”
“I’ll do it!” His smile lifted his cheeks and almost hid his eyes, and William for an instant peeked out at her.
Hiding sudden tears, Lou bent to check the firebox under the stove burners. Oh, William, you should see your boy now. He’s another you, with some of me. Why aren’t you here to help me raise him? How could a puny cough kill a strong man? He never even got to hold his baby.
“What all do we have to do today?”
Lou heard the anxiety in Willy’s voice. Knowing she’d piled an extra wash on top of the regular baking, he wanted her reassurance that the day wouldn’t dissolve into endless chores before he could wet his line. Pouring herself a third cup of coffee, Lou leaned against the wash stand, the sun already warm on her back. “The laundry isn’t much, but what with the Fourth, we wore all our Sunday clothes this week.” She reached out her foot and tapped the laundry bin. She thought the clothes stirred, but it must have been her imagination, because she hadn’t touched the bin hard enough to jostle them. “I need you to help haul more water, and weed the garden.” As his mouth drooped and the beginnings of rebellion began in his eyes, she smiled at him. “You may thin out the carrots and give them to Poles.”
“I can? Thanks, Ma! I’ll start right now!”
“Wait a minute, you haven’t finished wiping the dishes yet.”
He was done almost before she knew, and running out the door, a boy who would much rather be outside than in, no matter what the weather. Lou called after him, “Stay in earshot!”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said over his shoulder. “I’ll be in the garden!”
Her older son had brought in two buckets of water before he left to ride fence with her brother. Lou lifted them onto the stove, one at a time and using both hands. She took the forked stick from its hook and shifted them so they stood over the burners. While the water heated, she rummaged in a drawer for measuring cups, and brought them out with the sifter. When the water neared boiling, she would call Willy in to start filling the other two buckets.
As she reached onto a high shelf for the big mixing bowl, the sun rose high enough to lay her shadow against the wall. Already the morning was warm; it would be another hot –
A shadow – of a man’s shoulders, head, hat – crossed the wall in front of her, merged with her own, and moved on. She saved the bowl from dropping with a quick stoop, a sharp gasp of breath, and a dizziness that vanished as soon as felt.
From outside, came a man’s voice: “Halloo the house! Mind if I water my horse?”
Lou spun around to look out the door.
He sat his horse directly in front of the steps so that he could look in by leaning forward a bit over his gloved hands resting on the saddle horn. His voice held an echo of somewhere other than Montana. Pennsylvania, maybe. His hat brim shaded the upper part of his face, but below the strong mustache that shielded his mouth, sunlight picked out a dimple in his chin. A long linen duster protected his clothes down to his boots, but pale dust lay on his hat and grayed the boots. A handsome man on a good-looking dark bay horse, but the horse’s hair lay swirled in small dusty ridges that told of riding the animal hard and letting it dry without brushing it. A prickle at the base of her neck: Willy was right. This was no cowboy looking for work. He was in too much of a hurry even to brush his horse.
Willy stood wide-legged, alert as a bird dog on point, at the man’s left and slightly behind the cinch, where the man could not see him.
“Help yourself. The river is at the front of the house, in the trees. My son can show you the path through the cottonwoods.” The man could not see the boy shake his head, but she gave Willy what her older son called her patented look, and he said, “Sure, Mister. This way.”
The rider smiled. “Thank you, Ma’am.” He cleared his throat. “I’d be grateful for a bite, too, if it’s no trouble.”
She could not refuse. In this sparse country, hospitality was law. Regret for her postponed chores fought the obligation, though she spoke in almost a welcoming sort of voice that ignored Willy’s head shaking so hard as to throw his forelock over his eyes. “Come in when you’ve taken care of the horse, then.”
“Thank you.” The wide smile revealed a crooked eye tooth, but deepened the dimple.
“Willy, when you’ve shown him where to water the horse, bring eggs and bacon and butter from the ice house,” she told him, and when he shook his head at her, she added, “Please,” in her no-nonsense voice, so that he scuffed his feet toward the river as the man dismounted.
Something about the man, maybe the easy manner of swinging his right leg over the saddle’s high cantle, a man at home in his skin, made Lou tuck a few wayward strands of dark hair into their pins. Her delayed chores, her plans for the day, sank beneath the task of cooking this chance traveler’s breakfast. She shoved the water buckets off the burners with the forked stick, heedless that some water splashed over and bounced, hissing, on the stove top. A polite, well-spoken man, she thought as she collected utensils for cooking and dishes for him to eat from. She decided against one of the good plates because he might read more into that than she intended.
His smile had deepened the dimple in his chin.
When she nudged the dirty clothes bin aside with her foot to so he wouldn’t have to walk around it, something moved under the clothes, and she made a mental note to investigate when the rider had gone. If that cat liked had hidden another half-killed mouse … . On top of everything else, she did not want to have to soak blood out of their good clothes.
Willy sidled up to her with the eggs and bacon and butter as she laid the skillet on the front burner. “I showed him how to get to the river, but I don’t like him, Ma,” he whispered.
“Why ever not? He seems pleasant enough.” She went to work slicing strips off the chunk of bacon. Part of her watched how thick she sliced two strips, while another part recalled how much she and Willy hated to hear the pig’s screams when her brother killed it. She held the knife back from carving off a third strip. The bacon would last longer that way.
“He don’t treat his horse good.”
The child meant, she knew, riding it hard enough to lather it up and then not brushing it out. A grievous sin, where taking care of livestock came first, with a person’s own comfort last. Especially to Willy, who loved animals. “We don’t know his circumstances.”
“He’s in an awful hurry.” Willy leaned back on his heels and curled his toes.
From outside came the snap of cloth being shaken out, like a flag in a breeze or washing blowing on the line, a whap-whap as the man beat off the dust of travel.
“He’ll be gone soon.” Lou lifted the piece of the side. “Here, take this back to the ice house.”
They met at the doorway, and the man offered to take the bacon back for him, but Willy mumbled, “I can do it.” Over his shoulder, “I’ll be right back.”
The man tapped on the door frame, and Lou tossed a casual invitation to come in over her shoulder. She bent to reach into a bottom shelf of the hutch, and straightened to find him so close behind her that she nearly bumped into him.
“Excuse me, Ma’am.” His voice was quiet, and his mouth curved in a pleasant smile, and his blue eyes were a sky she could sail into.
Definitely no cowboy. The long duster had hidden his clothes; he wore a gray wool business suit, complete with a vest. Confused now, eddies of feeling swirled about in her mind and dimpled the smooth surface of her thoughts: What would cause a man to ride for miles in good clothes? Ride so hard that he lathered his horse? If they owned a suit, most men would carry it in a saddlebag, and ride in denims. He stood so close she could feel his warmth, smell him. He had a good smell.
The sound of Willy’s feet pelted up the path.
“Mind if I wash my hands?” The wash stand was just behind him.
Lou could only nod. The towel was well used and would go into the laundry today, but he might read something into her getting him a clean one. Or Willy might.
The man dipped water into the basin. As Willy bounded over the threshold, he said, “Your boy told me I could let my horse graze on the riverbank.”
Lou laid strips of bacon in the skillet. “Yes, that’s fine.” She knew she sounded short, but she was a trifle breathless.
Willy climbed on a stool by the hutch and wound his feet in the rungs, his back straight, his hands gripping the edges of the stool.
Lou poured water into the flour and began to mix it before she realized she had forgotten to sift the flour. All the time she listened to the sounds behind her. The man hung his hat on a peg driven between logs in the wall.
“Why don’tcha take your coat off, Mister?” asked Willy. “Be a shame to muss it up.”
“I’ll be careful.”
In between the cooking, Lou watched him from the corners of her eyes. He washed and dried his hands and face, smoothed out his mustache, combed his hair at the mirror, tugged his vest straight, shot his cuffs. Now and then their eyes met in the mirror, and Lou’s face reddened. She hoped he would think it was from the heat.
“It’s beautiful here.” He was looking out the window, his hands in his trouser pockets, and Lou envisioned the same view: the grassy bank sloping toward the cottonwoods, gleams of sunlight on the water surface, and the vast prairie he had come from. “I feel like I can see forever.”
“Thank you.” She was as pleased with the compliment as if he’d commented on her appearance. Her earlobes tingled, and she was conscious that she wore her oldest dress, a thin cotton washed from navy to light blue and patched under the arms.
Willy said, “It’s even better in the dining room.”
She forked out the bacon slices, laid them aside on brown paper, and cracked an egg into the skillet. The shell pierced the yolk, mixed yellow and clear together. Drat! She had wanted to make three eggs sunny side up, the way her brother and the boys liked them. She wasn’t about to cook an extra egg for a passing stranger, though.
“Where do you empty your slops, Ma’am?” He poured the dirty water into the slop pail.
Over her shoulder, Lou answered him. “Outside. Willy can show you.” The boy jumped down from the stool and led the way. She heard the pump’s rhythmic rasp and clunk, the man’s voice asking a question, the child’s answer, the man’s response. She could not catch the words, though the exchange sounded friendly enough. When they came in, the man had filled the two empty buckets with clean water and carried them in, while Willy brought in the rinsed slop pail.
“Thank you.” Lou served up the breakfast onto a plate. Three eggs, a stack of golden brown flapjacks, and crisp bacon. Her own butter. A breakfast fit for a king, if she did say so herself.
“No trouble at all, Ma’am. It’s the least I can do.”
“Dining room’s through there.” Lou tilted her head in that direction, and Willy led the way.
Though Lou called it the dining room, it was more than that. It functioned as sitting room and gathering place for the family on long winter evenings. The man stopped in the doorway to look around, and she felt that in a glance he had taken in everything about it – bookcase, davenport, her rocking chair and mending basket in the group around the pot-bellied stove. On the back wall, between the doors to her room and the room that Willy shared with his uncle and older brother, they had driven pegs for the guns, the .45-90 on top, then a .45-70, a .30-30, a twelve-gauge shotgun, Willy’s .22, a .45 Colt revolver in a holster on a cartridge belt, and a pearl-handled .32.
The man studied the guns for a second or two, then took his place, and Lou heard a sharp inhaling of his breath as the view took hold of him.
She had built the cabin with two windows side by side, to make one big window, and the man sat where he could look down to the river, and over the cottonwoods to the prairie. The same as from the kitchen window, but far more.
He whistled a long soft note. “You’re right about the view, young fella. It is better in here.”
He watched the view as if enjoying it were the chief thing on his mind, but Lou noted that he could also keep an eye on his horse, that grazed with its bridle on, trailing the reins through the long grass. It had been trained as a cow horse, then, to ground tie. If the man had loosened the cinch, Lou could not see it. The thought came to her mind that the horse was ready for a quick departure. If it noticed anything, its head would come up and its behavior would warn the man. Behind the cantle, bulging saddle bags told Lou that his journey would be a long one. On horseback, across country, in a business suit. It didn’t make sense.
“Something peaceful about a horse cropping grass on a sunny day,” he said.
“Yes, there is.” She set the plate down before him and went back for the coffee pot and a red enamelware mug. He would have to make do with leftover breakfast coffee.
As she was coming back, Willy said, “You don’t care much for your horse, Mister.”
Lou caught her breath. Children step in where angels fear to tread. Willy’s soft spot for animals was taking him where an adult would not go, for this was not a man to look kindly on an accusation, even from a child, and swift on that thought came the question: How had she come to sense that about the man, to be so sure that he would not be questioned about his doings, even brushing his horse?
Yet when the man spoke, he sounded merely amused. “I’m a land speculator, and I’m in a hurry to cash in on a good deal in southern Idaho.”
“That ain’t so much of a hurry you can’t brush your horse.”
“Willy.” Lou set the mug before the man, filled the mug, and placed the pot on a trivet, its handle pointed toward him. “Don’t badger the man.” She folded the cloth she had wrapped around the handle and laid it by the pot.
“It’s all right.” He pointed his fork at Willy, who leaned against one of the chairs by the cold stove. “It does you credit that you care about my horse. I’m in a hurry because I stand to lose a good deal of money if I’m not at the rendezvous in time.”
Something made Lou forget herself. “Rendezvous?”
“Meeting. I meant to say meeting.”
“Of course.” Behind his shoulder, Lou laid her finger to her lips, and Willy was silent.
“Eggs sunny side up. Just the way I like them.” He twisted around to smile up at her, and she restrained herself from wiping her palms on her apron. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” His smile set up a fluttery feeling in her midriff. She hoped it would go away before he noticed she was behaving like a giddy hen.
“Join me, Ma’am?”
“Thank you. But I really shouldn’t. I have a prodigious amount of work to do today.”
Then he smiled at her, and the dimple deepened, and something friendly, no, downright admiring, shone in his eyes, and Lou went back to the kitchen to fetch her coffee cup. “I guess another cup wouldn’t hurt anything.” He was certainly a talkative man, she told herself, accustomed as she was to cowboys who were short of words around women. They would eat without speaking, and leave, trailing their bashful gratitude behind. Taking up the forked stick, she edged the two water buckets onto the burners. She hoped he’d be gone before the water boiled, so she could start the laundry, but first, she would really have to look for that mouse.
It had been years since she put her feet under a table with a man who wasn’t her son or her brother. She poured coffee for herself and sat with her back to the window. Willy came to stand at her knees, between her and the stranger. Lou thought of ordering the boy to go weed the garden, but she knew he would not go without a fuss.
Willy walked his index and middle fingers upward. “If you’re in such a hurry, why don’t you take the train?”
The man laughed. “Because trains get robbed, and I’ve no mind to contribute to some train robber’s bank account.” He smiled, and his eyes gleamed with an inner amusement, as if he enjoyed a private joke.
“Someone robbed –,” Willy began.
“Is your husband anywhere about?” the man asked at the same time, over the rim of his cup.
Not trusting her voice, Lou shook her head to rid herself of the lost feeling that came over her when someone asked about William.
“Pa died before I was born.” Willy leaned against her knees. “My big brother and my uncle are here, though.”
“Good. Homesteading is too rough for a woman alone.”
“Ma ain’t alone,” Willy said. “I’m here.”
“Willy’s a good help.” Lou brushed her fingers at the hair hanging over his collar. More than an inch too long. She’d have to cut it before Sunday.
“I can see that.”
That smile, and something insinuating in his intense gaze set Lou to rattling on. “The Homestead Act allows women to own land in our own names, so I filed on this section myself. My brother filed on the adjacent section, and we have a desert claim besides that adjoins his land. No water on it.”
“You’ll have quite a property when you’ve proved up on it.”
“Yes, nearly three whole sections. Over a thousand acres.”
After that there was silence, punctuated by the tink and scrape of cutlery. He pointed his fork at the chunk of broken plaster. “What’s that?”
“I got it off that train yesterday,” Willy said. “The one that got robbed.”
A smile curled the corners of the man’s mouth. “I heard about that.”
“Yeah, the Wild Bunch held up the train at Wagner day before yesterday, and the safe was anchored in the plaster, but the robbers blew it to smithereens and got all that money.”
“Is that so?” Something in his eyes flicked out at them, just for a fraction of a second, that struck cold at Lou’s spine and caused her to look into the coffee cooling in her cup.
“Sure is.” Willy piped in his high child’s voice. “We went into Malta yesterday, and the train stood on a siding, and I got this piece of plaster out of the baggage car. You should’ve seen that car, Mister, it was all mangled. They’ve sent for the Pinkertons, too.”
Lou tried to control her breathing and steady her heartbeat. He had lied. She was sure of it. He was not hurrying to cash in on a business deal. He was running away. The man must not know she had guessed, she must find an excuse to get Willy out of the room, but his eyes had that hardness of someone expecting trouble and her mind had locked. “Have the Pinkertons been here yet?” he asked.
“Nope,” Willy said. “But they’ll get them robbers sooner or later.”
Over the rim of the coffee cup the corners of the man’s eyes crinkled. “Yes, the Pinkertons generally get their man, but it’s a mighty big country.” He leaned forward to pour more coffee, made as if to pour hers, too, seemed surprised that her cup was still full.
“They’re brave men, too.” Willy pressed back hard against her knees for less than a second. Then he marched the few steps to the back wall, to the guns lying on their pegs, took down his rifle, pointed the muzzle at the ceiling, and pumped a shell into the chamber. He held it, let the muzzle drift downward, into the ready firing position his uncle, who had fought the Spanish in the Philippines, had taught him.
At the sound of the shell entering the chamber, the man held his fork with the bite of flapjacks before his open mouth. Then he set the fork on the plate and twisted around to watch Willy.
Lou gasped. “Willy! You know better than to fool with guns in the house!” Perspiration started in her armpits and on her temples, and trickled down her ribs and into the hair in front of her ears, and she knew the man must see it staining her dress, and her face felt hot, and he must see that, too. Or even hear the pounding as of surf in her ears, that she had only heard when William died and she knew she was irrevocably alone.
The boy ignored her. He watched the man, who chewed his bite of flapjacks and eyed Willy as if this child were something new in his experience. Willy stood with his feet apart, legs braced, and on his face such a man’s determination that Lou knew her little son would shoot this man if given cause, and she sat helpless as the man because she did not know what to do.
“Yes, they are. They have to be, to go after those robbers.” The rhythm of his chewing went on as before, but his body held a new awareness, though the smile again lifted the corners of his mustache, and his eyes were bright with secret laughter for which Lou could not begin to guess the reason.
“I wouldn’t be scared, either.” Willy squared his shoulders, and Lou, unable to talk or even move, her mouth dry as the dust on the man’s boots, knew that he had something important to say and tried to will him silently not to say it. He came back to her, stood in front of her knees. The man reached out for the coffee pot with a questioning look at her. Thinking he wanted her to pour him a cup, she put out her hand at the same time, and their fingers brushed together. She snatched back her hand as if burned, and again that smile came, that liquefied her bones.
“I believe you,” the man said, poured coffee and set the pot on the trivet.
Willy said, “I can shoot the eye out of a jackrabbit at forty feet.”
“That’s mighty good shooting.” He drained his coffee and set down the cup. He had cleaned his plate, after all. “That was a delicious breakfast, Ma’am, but I’d best be on my way.” He rose to his feet, and she stood up, too, Willy between them, his small hands firm on the rifle, stock and breech. “I’m glad to have met you, young man.” He smiled at Lou. “You’re lucky to have such a good son.”
Lou agreed with a nod and a smile, and was about to say how well she knew that, when the man looked straight into Lou’s eyes, and she caught her breath because she glimpsed something else, a loneliness so deep she had never imagined in another human being, and her hands sought Willy’s shoulders and held onto them to give her some ballast in the world.
“Yes, Ma’am, you are indeed fortunate.” And she did not imagine that his voice was unsteady. The next instant, he was again the pleasant breakfast guest. “I sure do thank you, Ma’am, and your son. For the hospitality.”
Lou and Willy followed him through the kitchen, where he picked up his hat. And though she had no reason, Lou went with him, to the horse. Willy followed, still with the rifle ready, though not cocked. The man put on his duster, tightened the cinch a notch or two. Just before he put his left foot into the stirrup, the horse stepped forward so that it was between Willy and the two of them. The man took her hand, turned it up and kissed her palm. Folding her fingers over the kiss, he whispered, “Remember me.”
Swinging himself into the saddle, he touched his hat brim to her. “Maybe I’ll be back this way someday.”
She closed her hand around the kiss as if she would keep it, and rested her fist on the horse’s shoulder, on the sweat-stiffened hairs. “I doubt it.” She couldn’t let him go like that, so she added, “I won’t forget.”
He looked around at the log house, the clothesline strung at the side, the corral and the barn, the river and the cottonwoods lavish with their shade. “I won’t forget, either.” He gathered the reins and touched his hat to her, and as the horse walked forward, he said to Willy, “You’re doing a good job looking after your mama. Keep up the good work.”
He turned his face forward, nudged the horse ahead. As he passed, he nodded to her, and his eyes, already set for the long road, were hard as granite, the bedrock of a lost soul.
She went into the house and started her delayed chores. Willy unloaded his rifle and put it back on its pegs. While he helped her, he chattered to her about the stranger, “What won’t you forget, Ma?”
“His visit, whoever he is.”
“I won’t forget, either.” He rubbed his bare toes in a patch of sunshine. “Do you think we’ll ever find out?”
“Hard to tell.” She had another thing to say, that led her to put her hands on his shoulders and bend down to his level. “Why on earth did you get your rifle down?”
“Because when he went to pour coffee, I saw a shoulder holster under his coat.”
“Oh, dear God. That’s why he wouldn’t take his coat off.”
The water in the buckets steamed, and small bubbles rose to the surface. Lou wrapped rags around the handle and poured the water into the washtub, shaved soap flakes into the water, stood the scrubbing board in it.
Until she reached into the laundry bin, she had forgotten the mouse.
The rattler buzzed.
Lou screamed and yanked back her hand, just in time. The snake slid out from under the clothes and coiled itself on the kitchen floor to strike, its tongue flicking around to sense its target. She grabbed the long forked stick and pinned the snake’s upraised head to the floor. Its body thrashed, the rattles buzzing as if to fill the kitchen with its frantic hatred. Willy dashed into the dining room, grabbed the plaster chunk, and beat in the snake’s head.
When the head was a pulp and the body was still, he ran into her arms, and wept, a child after all, and Lou shed a few tears into his corn silk hair.
The snake was over five feet long and had eleven rattles, which Lou cut off and gave to Willy, but she wouldn’t let him put the plaster on the table again. That night, after putting Willy to bed, she was feeling unsteady yet when she wrote to her sister Josephine in St. Louis. She did not mention the stranger, but she told how Willy had killed a rattler in the kitchen. What could she say, even to Jo, about the man? “A stranger stopped for breakfast” sounded too banal, and “Today I met a man” sounded too schoolgirlish? Jo would have questions, and wonder why a chance encounter, never to be repeated, could vibrate along the strings of her heart. And after all, how could she describe the picture of him she carried in her soul when he said, “Don’t forget me”?
A few weeks later came a thick letter with a newspaper clipping, on which Jo had written, “Some excitement out your way.” The clipping told of the hold-up and had a studio photograph of five men, taken recently, by the look of it. Three men sat in the front row, and two others stood behind them. The stranger was seated at the far left.
Harry Longabaugh, the Sundance Kid.
She let Willy show the clipping around until the novelty of the story wore off. When the paper was nearly in shreds and the photo was so smeared and faded as to be unrecognizable, Willy threw it away. Lou had a few regrets about that until she realized that she didn’t need it to remember him, because the photographer had not grasped the way the sun caught the dimple in his chin, or his fluid motion when dismounting from a horse.
Author’s note: Willy was my father, who not only told the story many times, but also wrote a complete account of the Sundance Kid’s visit, from which this story is taken. At seven years old in 1901, he did, indeed, mistrust the stranger, see the shoulder holster, and take down his .22 rifle. No one in our family has ever forgotten.