A little Christmas Gift: “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary”, a short western story

This story was included in the Five Star’s 2019 anthology “Contention and Other Frontier Stories” and I was proud to be included with some well-known wonderful authors. Hope you enjoy it.

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

Kansas, 1876

If they came back tonight, I’d kill them both.

I brushed the hair off my face, dirt mingling with the blood from my cut lip, and stood up. The front door to the cabin hung open, but at least they hadn’t burned the place. They hadn’t killed me, either, and that was a mistake they’d come to regret. It had been dusk and I was cleaning up after dinner, the sun like a big sunny-side up egg, low enough it was sinking into the prairie.

Ray went to the barn to check on the horses when I heard the shots, then the laughter, which near froze me on the spot. I peered out the window and saw two men, both still on their horses, and then Ray, on the ground beside the open barn door, unmoving, a crimson flower blooming on his white shirt and spreading beneath him. I grabbed his Colt from the holster where it hung beside the door and crouched beside the stove.

“Little Missus, we come by for some dessert,” said the first one, ducking his head as he came through the door, while his friend, a bit shorter, followed close behind. “We was thinking some pie?”

“Jesus, Seth, you kill me,” said the short one. “Pie. Huh.” He fingered his mustache and peered around. It was a small cabin and it wouldn’t take them long to see me. I shot the big one but he’d turned at the last minute and the bullet winged him, rather than hitting his heart. He screamed like a gutted pig anyway.

Before I could get off another shot, the other man hit me in the face and the Colt clattered to the floor, with me right beside it. He moved quicker than I could’ve believed and picked up the Colt, pointing it at my head.

“Get your bitch ass outside.”

I had little choice, and while Seth banged around inside, smashing things and presumably bandaging up his arm, his friend hit me enough to keep me down before he unbuckled his pants. By that time, I couldn’t move much except my eyes, but that was enough to see Ray’s eyes, only a few feet away, were open too but never going to shut again. I could feel the grit and little pebbles in the grass embedding themselves in my back as the man shoved into me again and again.

“Ruben, you ever going to get finished?”

The short man grunted and stood up, hauling up his pants. “Your turn.” He kicked me hard in the side. “A little payback.”

“My damn arm’s hurtin’ too bad to worry about that,” Seth said. “Let’s just get those horses and get out of here.” He held up the tin box I’d hidden under the mattress. “What I got here and what’s in there,” he jerked his head towards the barn, “is worth more’n her.”

Bastards. I watched as they stepped over Ray on their way into the barn. The two horses we’d saved so long for were inside, the mare and stallion that we’d bought to start our quarter-horse ranch. We’d brought them back from Dodge City two days ago. All I could figure is they must’ve seen us at the auction there and followed us back here, thinking we’d be easy pickings.

I crawled closer to Ray and took his hand, still warm. The men came out of the barn, leading the two horses they’d tied with rope halters, and turned towards their own mounts.

“What you want to do with her?” the one called Seth said.

The shorter one gave me a glance. “Shoot her, I guess. She wasn’t much of a lay.” He got on his horse.

Seth pulled out his pistol but a snarling blur of black fur barreled into him, jaws locking on his wrist and knocking the gun from his hand. The dogs and their constant companion, the wild colt I’d tamed, had been out on their evening ramble. Susie, always faster than the other two, had arrived first, but we all heard more barking and the thunder of hoofbeats approaching fast.

Seth was screaming again, Susie pulling him down, when Ruben shot her.

“Goddamnit, Seth,” Ruben yelled, “get on your horse, more’s comin’.”

Seth kicked the dog, picked up his gun, and vaulted into the saddle, turning back to fire a final shot at me. The bullet tore through the grass inches from my head but I couldn’t move. The last thing I remember was their hoofbeats as they galloped away, towing their bounty. It was full dark when I came to, the quiet broken only by the sound of whimpering, both mine and a dog’s.

*****

Dawn was breaking, pale streams of rose and gold tearing through the curtain of night. Poe whined and scratched softly at the dirt I’d just tamped down over the grave. I patted his head and sat down, dropping the shovel. I’d chosen a spot on the hill behind the cabin, under the only big tree we had. I’d buried Ray and Susie in the same grave. I didn’t think either of them would mind and he’d appreciate the company, sort of like those Egyptian kings that got put in a tomb with their pets and food for the journey into the afterlife. Some preacher might not like it, but then I didn’t much care for their interpretations of what God might like anyway, and there was no time for that.

“Safe journey, my love.”

I picked up the shovel. Poe and the colt, the three of us the only mourners, made our way down the hill. At the cabin, I stripped off my clothes and threw them in the fireplace, watching as the dying embers razed the pain and hurt from the cotton. I scrubbed head to toe, trying to do the same for myself. I put on an old pair of Ray’s pants and one of his shirts, braiding my long hair into a single plait. Pulling on my boots and cinching up the pants with a leather belt to which I added Ray’s Bowie knife, I headed to the barn.

Rather than building a bigger house yet, we’d made a magnificent barn, at least by Kansas standards. The idea was to breed the best quarter horses and riding stock in the state, and the two stolen horses were the beginning of that dream. Our four other horses were still inside, nickering softly as I came in. I opened the stall doors and sent them into the pasture, then filled their water troughs and tossed out enough alfalfa and hay for a few days and left the door open to the corral. The colt I’d ride myself. He was a tricky little devil, but with a sure step and a stamina that the others would never match, and we worked well together.

I threw extra feed to the chickens and the two pigs. They’d all get along fine until I got back. That I wouldn’t get back was not a thought I was willing to entertain.

In the tack room, I opened the wooden box disguised to look like a bench on the back wall. Ray had thought of the barn like a fort, much more defensible than the cabin. Here we kept the Sharps rifle Ray had used as a buffalo hunter, wrapped in oilcloth, and I knew he’d cleaned it just a week before. The walnut stock gleamed near as bright as the barrel. It wasn’t a practical weapon around the ranch, but like the barn, a last line of defense. Kansas had its share of outlaws, both white and Indian, and showing off a Sharps over the mantel was an invitation to trouble. A box of .50 calibers sat beside it and the .22 pistol I’d carried back in the day when I was a whore in Dodge City, just in case of an over-enthusiastic customer. Both weapons triggered memories we’d rather forget and storing them in the barn had helped with that. I’ve never been ashamed of my past, because that’s how Ray and I met. I hadn’t been in the game long, and he was just a kid, too, hunting buffalo. Neither of those professions were particularly palatable, but we’d both done what we had to. Both of us hard luck orphans, when we found each other, we found family we’d never had. We threw in together and never looked back.

I stuffed the .22 in my boot and the box of bullets into one of the saddlebags, filling the other one with hardtack, biscuits, water, and a flask of whiskey. I whistled for the colt who seemed happy to be saddled, at least for the moment. Poe danced about beside the colt, sure he was going as well, and he was right. Poe and Susie were orphan half-wolf cubs, near death when I found them. Ray had laughed and hugged me, saying, “Mary, you take in any stray you can find, just like you did with me.” Now, at close to 150 pounds, Poe was the gentlest, smartest, and most loyal dog I’ve ever known, just like his poor sister. I didn’t bother to pack food for him, as there wasn’t a rabbit born Poe couldn’t have for dinner.

One look was all I allowed myself, the sun rising behind the little cabin, lighting the worn timbers, and glistening on the dew of the grass. I sought solace in the only way I could and I was going to find it.

*****

They’d gone south, by their tracks, which even I could see and Poe had no trouble scenting. They were probably headed for Oklahoma, not back to Dodge, thirty miles east and full of people who knew those horses had just been sold to us. They’d had a long head start and it was likely I wouldn’t find them today, even though I could travel faster. They were sloppy, the tracks ranging to and fro, as though the stolen horses knew they were being taken away from a safe haven and sought to turn homewards.

Even though it was only May, by noon the sun was burning through my hat and my hair was soaked with sweat. I stopped and chewed on some jerky underneath some cottonwoods and let the colt have a long drink from the creek. Poe wandered a bit, but when I got back in the saddle, he trotted up, ready to go. I loved that dog, and I’d loved Susie, too, like the children I didn’t have. I couldn’t allow myself to feel anguish over Ray or her, because I needed that hard ball of hatred that had centered in my chest to be my guiding star. Any other emotion would only slow me down or stop me from doing what I had to do. I thought of Hamlet, which Ray and I had just finished reading, Shakespeare being our only book, one I’d bought for a dollar from a peddler in Dodge. We’d had a Bible, but found Shakespeare to be a better guide to the human condition and truly the ways of the world and the things that could happen to people. “Revenge should know no bounds” was the line that kept repeating itself in my head, and a mantra that I now had set my course upon. Although it wasn’t simple revenge I was after. It was justice I sought.

By sunset, still having seen no sign of Seth, Ruben, or my horses, I decided to stop for a while, even though the colt was showing little signs of fatigue and was sure-footed even in the dark. I’d sleep for a time and perhaps go on in the night, catching them when they least expected it.

When I woke, the sun was already up and both Poe and the colt, hobbled but anxious, were bent over me. I’d been exhausted, by physical exertion and grief, both of which had taken their toll. I comforted them both, splashed water on my face, breakfasted on a hard biscuit and a swig of water, and we started on. So far, I hadn’t seen another human soul, only the hawks and ravens and an occasional coyote. Hopefully that would change soon, but there were only two humans I wanted to see and I hoped no one else would get in my way, from stray Indians that could kill me to settlers that would slow me down.

The day passed without either of those events and I decided to stop early. I hobbled the colt and didn’t bother to light a fire, falling asleep as soon as my head rested against the saddle I used as a pillow, Poe beside me, warm and snoring softly. This time when I woke, it was full dark and I saddled the colt and headed south, hoping to see some signs of a campfire in the darkness of the prairie night. This was my wish, as I didn’t want to come upon them during the day, which would be much to my disadvantage.

An hour later, Poe barked softly and I peered across the rolling hills, the nearly full moon giving me good access further ahead. A half mile away, near a rising knoll of rock outcroppings, there was the glow of a campfire. We crept closer, slow silent going, the horse, the dog, and I, and stopped on the rock-strewn hill above.

The horses were hobbled, four of them, including the two I sought, off to the side, while my two adversaries sat in front of the fire, passing a whiskey bottle back and forth. While conventional niceties dictated a dawn attack, I didn’t see any reason for niceties of any sort and no reason to get any closer. Besides, the firelight illuminated them just as well for my purposes. I took the Sharps from where I’d tied it to my saddle, set it atop a good-sized rock to use as a mount, and loaded a bullet. Ray had taught me well, hours of practice shooting the rifle just in case I’d ever have need to. He’d finally pronounced me proficient enough and now I hoped he’d been right.

Their voices carried in the still, clear night.

“We can sell these beauties for enough to set us up for months, Seth. I told you the minute I saw those two farmers walk away we were in clover, didn’t I?”

“Yeah, you were right, as usual,” Seth said. “But you ain’t the one with an arm tore up by some monster dog and a bullet from that bitch, Ruben. I need more than a half share, since I’m the one took the hurt gettin’ it.”

Ruben took a drink from the bottle. “Don’t make no difference. Thing is, it was my idea. I just took you along for the ride. You hadn’t shot the guy right off, we coulda killed them both in bed.”

I sighted the Sharps on the middle of Seth’s chest, took a deep breath, and pulled the trigger. He went down hard, the shot echoing off the rocks like a thunderclap. My shoulder felt like I’d been kicked by a horse but I reloaded and stared down at the campfire. Ruben had vanished, like a snake that crawls under a rock, and that was worrisome. Still, I hadn’t expected he’d sit there and be the next target. The easy part was over.

They couldn’t have known where the shot came from, but after a few minutes I got uneasy. There was no movement in the camp below but Ruben wasn’t going to wait to get picked off. He could be anywhere and the back of my neck prickled. The urge to sneak down there, finish things, and get my horses was offset by plain sense. I’d have to wait until dawn and I couldn’t do it exposed up here. I scrabbled backwards along with Poe. Taking the colt’s reins, we made our way further down to the flat, taking cover in some rocks and brush. Poe would tell me if Ruben was nearby. Lord, I was tired. Killing’s a weary business.

I surely was not expecting the shot when it came, buzzing just over my head. I flattened myself onto Poe’s back, his deep growls resonating through both of us, and the colt had wisely skittered away. Pale light filtered through heavy clouds and I looked around frantically, not raising my head, but I couldn’t see Ruben.

“Stay.” I wasn’t going to lose anyone else I loved. I took off my hat and Poe stared at me but didn’t move. I crawled on my belly behind the biggest of the rocks to get some cover with a better vantage point, the Sharps clutched in my hand.

Another bullet cracked off the rock near my head. Where the hell was he? I ducked down and then I saw him, perched not far from where I’d been last night. It was way too close.

“Hey!” I yelled. “I just want my horses. Leave ’em and we’ll call it a draw.”

“Well, well. Little Missus.” He laughed. “Seth always had bad aim. I don’t.” His next shot sailed over my head. I should’ve killed this one first. He was a little smarter.

“What’d you shoot poor old Seth with anyway, a buffalo gun? Half that boy was gone. I’d like to have that Sharps, Missus. Maybe we can make a trade. ’Cause, by the time you miss me once, before you can reload, I’ll have you and your gun anyway.”

“What kind of trade?”

“How about I let you leave, and you give me the rifle? The horses don’t figure anymore, girl. You shot my partner, after all. I call it a good deal.”

I waited for a minute before I answered, my voice trembly. “All right then, mister. Deal.” I put the Sharps down in front of the rocks and retreated behind them. Poe remained motionless and I patted him on the head.

He came down the hill, a grin on his face, holding Ray’s Colt at his hip. “Come on out, honey, and we can shake on it.”

So I did. I shot him in the face with the .22 and watched as his blood leaked into the stony ground and until his heels stopped beating a rhythm to go with it. He wasn’t smart enough.

I left them both where they lay. Neither of them warranted my efforts at a burial, decent or otherwise, and I doubted anyone would miss them. Things can happen to people out here. I shooed off their horses and took my two. We were home the next night, all five of us, all safe in our respective beds. I take care of what’s mine.

*****

Late summer, the prairie grass turned golden and the sunsets were something special. I sat beside Ray’s grave on the hill behind the cabin, Poe’s head on my lap, watching my horses in the pasture below. The mare was pregnant, and I’d had two stud offers already for my stallion. Word got around. I lay down on the soft grass and put my hand on my stomach. The baby kicked for the first time and I smiled. Ray had always wanted a boy.

Kathleen Morris, 2019

 

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