Sam was not a kind man. Except to his dog. He loved that dog.
But he never patted its head. He didn’t believe in it.
Sam liked to be alone. He had five books he read over and over. He had plenty of dried beans and some meat he smoked. He had can goods he bought in the fall. He was a good hunter not that there was game left around here like when he was a boy.
He believed in God. But he didn’t pray. He talked to his dead wife instead. It was fine. He talked more to her now than when she was alive. She couldn’t talk back.
He wasn’t happy. But he was content. And that was a fair second to it. Maybe better.
‘Cause he wasn’t sad either. But some days, after the sun set and darkness came, and he made a fire and sat there and studied that lick, those nights when he wasn’t content enough to sleep, he felt it then, like a thorn worked under the skin.
He knew to endure it. He knew it passed some if he didn’t look it in the eye and waited for the sun to stick its head up over the ridge.
He could get lonely. Dog and all, belly full, five books and still…he wished she was there to rattle the pans or warm her side of the bed and maybe his. He came out of the war; she was what he came home to. Time got them under its thumb, and only he came out on the other side.
Did he want her back? No. She was in a better place than he could give her.
But nights like these when he couldn’t surrender and let the dreams come…just maybe…for a while…her.
He wasn’t proud of his hands. Or his shoulders or back. But he used to be. He used to work in the sun and put his shirt over the fence, and she would come out and gather that shirt and shake it out, and he’d say, “Leave it alone,” to cover his pride.
And she would hang his shirt straight so it would be dry he guessed. She would look at him and maybe that night, maybe then he would turn to her and if he hadn’t made her too mad about so many things…she would open up.
She would put her lips against his, and he would put his hand in the hair she kept pinned, and he’d set it free and maybe she’d remember how they’d been that time…that first time.
They had the boy, and he made something of himself in the city.
They had the girl, and she sent him a nice card last December. Well, Christmas.
When she was small and got those earaches…he would hold her then. And she would sag against him like a filled sack. She won him then…daddy, she said.
But he was hurt when she left them.
Now, he wasn’t anything. Oh, he smiled when she wrote. But he didn’t know her in past years. Just that little sack of softness. He knew her like that.
His hands, some nights he looked at them and forgot the time. They were skinned over thick like something came from an animal, and he wondered…if what they said about that conversation a man would have with God…he didn’t plan to say a thing. He wasn’t going to heaven. That time the ax slipped, he didn’t beg. He doctored his leg and carried on. He was no hypocrite.
He was forty-eight-years-old. At least. Well, he knew for sure. He counted out from the war. Made it farther than his old man. Ten years more.
He counted from the time they had lowered her in the ground. Seven years gone. This was the first time he’d figured it out. She wasn’t a likable woman. She locked every one of his sins inside her.
But she had some good qualities.
The place had echoes–sounds of the past trapped in the corners. He didn’t look anymore. He didn’t believe in ghosts.
She hadn’t believed in him when she passed. He saw that go, that day. She came to him in the barn, sound of her voice as strange as if she’d rang a bell there. She called him stubborn, and she said he’d lost her a long time ago, and she said he hadn’t even noticed.
But she was wrong. He’d noticed.
He lived around the house, outside of it, in the barn mostly and in the woods. Him and that dog Sadie. But he was always home at night. He’d steal himself to come to the bed. And she would toss and shake the mattress. And when she didn’t anymore, he knew it was over then. Her trying.
He did not loosen her hair. He did not turn to her for she was closed and locked and he’d lost that key…somewhere.
She did not like the dog. She did not take to Sadie. He was the one to gather the scraps and see they made it to her plate and not to the chickens out there.
And when she lay down that woman, and he said what’s wrong, and she would not answer, and he pulled the chair to her bed, she looked at him and took his hand and squeezed it.
“Should I go for the doc?” he’d asked, and she would not be swayed. He thought she was forgiving him, but that’s not it at all.
She passed his sins back to him then. And come morning she did not wake.
He did not use his voice but for the dog. But mostly, it understood. Maybe he’d go a week before he made a sound. And then it might be a sneeze or a bird call.
He liked sunshine on the leaves. He favored it gray. He welcomed a snow that all but buried him in the tomb. He had those books, and he had time.
He knew how it looked and smelled, and it wasn’t what he saw but what he felt that morning. Someone had been around.
He didn’t mean in the yard. He meant on the mountain. Something was different; That’s all.
He pissed, and he washed, and he pulled his suspenders over his shirt. He moved the shoulders he was no longer proud of; he stretched his spine to carry his load. His hat was the last thing. His coat with the belt pulled tight. Then his rifle.
Sadie went ahead, and he started on the path.
He was out some, not far for him when he saw that smoke. It’s that the wind had carried to him, through the cracks in his walls. Last he went in here he buried that old timer laid in the bed like Pharaoh. He didn’t tell his wife, but she washed all his clothes so he must of carried it on him, that smell.
Well, he didn’t like it. Folks close like this. He watched some and chewed inside his cheek. Door opened then. He’d not seen another for some time. This one wore pants but it’s hair streamed down, and the shirt showed the poke. He meant to look away. But he was not able.
He stood there a while, and she did too, on the stoop. Her head was turned his way, and she was still. Could she see him? Maybe the dog. He hadn’t told her to be still.
He was still looking when she went in. She came back out with a rifle. He was still standing when she aimed it his way. Still standing when she shot it and leaves rustled off to the left.
She was looking now. “Who are you?” she called.
In his opinion, she should have asked that first.
Sam had seen enough. This interloping woman was a fool. He’d like to tell her to get off of this place, but the place would fix her. First time she got a rat in the house or the chimney caught fire, first time that January wind wailed, or she got hungry….
He stomped on home.
But truth to tell, it undid him. Seeing a woman. On this place. He thought of Ava.
He went to her grave. He stood there looking at that cruel cross stuck there. It listed right. He knew better than to straighten it. It was like that cause she carried it through life. It was him.
He looked at his boots planted there on the soil. She was four feet down in the rock. The ground was sunken here. He was standing on her. He tried to say her name, but his voice had dried up, so he moved his lips and…nothing.
He remembered the first time he said her name, so many years ago. “Would you go with me Ava?” he’d said.
“I will,” she’d said.
He should have kissed her, but his hands were deep in his pockets, and he’d been walking backward, and he stumbled, and she laughed.
It had always been difficult.
He didn’t know what to say to her now. He cleared his throat. “I…I don’t believe in regrets,” he about whispered.
He cleared his throat again. It was too big. Too…late.
Oh, he remembered…so many things.
She came after him with the rake about a year after he’d come home from the war. Looked like she wanted to run him through.
She told him he was scaring the boy. And she carried the second.
She said he had to choose. Them or the shine.
He’d packed it up then. Locked the shed. He never went in there. Not all those years.
After she died, he looked at it. One day he broke the lock and went in. That took a year, the going in.
Another year after that he cleaned everything. He set it up fine and left it -alone.
Then those potatoes made good around July, and he made a mash.
Well, that came natural for him. He’d made his first batch at ten. Didn’t drain off the first drip and drank enough his Pa found him face down and drooling. His mother said he’d go blind, but he never did. He got awful sick and shit his britches. Served him right, Ma said. He learned things hard when he was young. And sometimes after.
He left Ava’s grave and went to check on his still. Just knowing this woman was around, no telling who else. Sam put the stick in the lock he’d carved and placed on the door. He had to use the back of his ax to tamp that stick in solid. It would keep out the varmints, the ones on four legs anyway.
Time hung on him then. He turned into bed early, and that meant soon as he ate those beans he’d made on Thursday. This was Sunday he believed, but it’s possible he was running by his own calendar. Last time he spoke to someone he was three days off.
He got in the bed, and his back eased, and he rubbed her quilt between his thumb and finger, and he heard Sadie turn twice on the rug and drop.
He rolled onto his side. There it was, her empty spot. He hadn’t thought about it in a while. He used to stare at the back of her head, at that rounded line. He felt sorry for her. He did. But he’d stayed true to her. He suffered with her. Sometimes for her. Once or twice because of her.
Sadie got on her feet. She growled. He rolled over and stared at the door and got his pistol in his hand.
That’s when the banging started.
On the ride, well he didn’t take the truck cause he was working on it, he generally was, so he took the wagon.
Now once she got her duds on, he’d made her sit in the back so she wouldn’t talk. Problem with the back was she got thrown around, and here she was expecting a child. So after some time, he said, “Move on up here.”
She scrambled up and right off tried to talk, and he held up his hand and gave her a look made some men think again.
He clicked to the mules and sat slumped that way.
“This is better,” she said, and he looked at her cause short of tying her mouth shut she wasn’t capable of controlling herself apparently.
They jostled along, and she bumped into his arm. “Sorry,” she said.
He looked at her again, but things kept showing in his mind, that scene she’d set back on the place.
Next time she bumped him he said, “Stay off me!”
“I am trying,” she said.
Thank God they were at Foley’s old cabin. He could put her in there, not that she’d stay, but he could put her there and go for Pedro, drag his ass up here and let him haul her off the mountain.
“Can we stop?” She started the ‘pleases,’ again. She had things there to collect it seemed.
He stopped, and he was glad of it, glad to have her off his arm for one.
“Hurry up,” he said mean.
She jumped off and straightened her clothes and walked quickly to the cabin. She looked back at him before she tried to go in, and he’d hammered that peg himself, and he watched her struggle for a few minutes, and she asked once for help or started to, but he just looked at her.
Eventually, she got the door open and went in. He nearly smiled. To himself.
Then he remembered Foley’s rifle and how she’d fired it at him.
He climbed quickly from the wagon’s seat and picked his course. By the time she came out of the house with that gun on her shoulder, he stood beside the door.
Just as she noticed he wasn’t where she thought he was so she could murder him, he grabbed hold of her and tried to pull that gun from her hands.
She hung on like an Arkansas wildcat.
He slapped her then, and she kicked him, and he pried that weapon from her, but not before she shot it and it went off by his ear.
After that, he didn’t see her as anything but something needed killed. He punched her so hard she fell like a sack of beans. Knocked her out.
He went to the wagon then to get some rope.
As he got that in his hands, he turned to go back to her.
Next he knew his face exploded.
First thing he was aware of was the heat. It was hot. “Ava,” he called. “Ava.”
“I’m right here,” she said.
Oh God, Ava was in hell with him.
Next, someone was grabbing at his hands.
He tried to sit up, but strong arms pushed him down, held him there and adjusted whatever it was over his eyes.
He grabbed at that and pulled it off so he could see, but he couldn’t open his eyes much, and the pain between them…Lord.
But it was her.
He sat up then, knocked her on her backside.
“Calm yourself,” she yelled.
“Where’s Ava?” he said for he’d thought himself in hell.
But this was Foleys. He could see it. She had a fire going, and she was in those britches still, some type of petticoat top and the side of her face blown up.
“You’re not Ava,” he yelled, and the pain in his face was fierce.
“I am!” she yelled getting on her feet. “I am Ava!”
He got on his feet and his head pained so sharply he stumbled. She rushed him, but he pulled away. “Don’t you touch me.”
“I’m sorry. You wouldn’t listen!” she said.
Oh, she was crazy.
He was looking for his gun. The one he stuck in his belt was gone. His rifle was in the wagon. He looked around for Foley’s shooter.
“You have to lay down. You’re hurt,” she said.
He was going to bind and gag her for the trip down. Or kill her.
“My name is Ava Peabody,” she said.
“You telling me your name is Ava?” he said holding his bloody brow. “Why’d…why’d….” he said, dropping to the bed.
What he meant to say was, “Why’d the Lord do me that way twice?”
He’d had him one Ava. He’d tried, and he’d kept the vow. Dug the earth himself.
But this…another Ava?
“You’re a liar,” he said, and he went for her.
Damn if she didn’t have his pistol in the breadbox. His rifle he found on the porch. He stood in the yard holding his weapons and she came out finally, coughing like one gassed. She dropped on the ground, her hair bedraggled. She cried like a baby, and he made sure that fire was contained. Foley had it clear around the building, and the foundation was stone. Once that roof caved, and it took no time at all, it was one neat pile. Those logs making up the walls would burn for a while, probably last longer than the fire. Foley’s would be a blackened shell.
She had long since shut her yapper and took to sniffing and sitting quiet in that petticoat top and her britches. She held clothes, but she did not put them on as if it was too much trouble. She could suit herself. Long as she stayed quiet, he cared not.
Took all he had to get on the wagon seat, but hell if he’d fall again with her looking. He got those mules turned and headed for home and when she seemed to snap to and got up and tried to hitch on over the side he drew his pistol. “Don’t make me,” he said, for he already planned to blame her for what happened come judgment day.
She looked up at him, one foot on the side of the bed. Her eyes…very big…and crazy. She was demented is what he meant.
She worked to pull her foot off, and she dropped and backed off. She held her duds and picked up some kind of a bag and Foley’s rifle. He had no idea if she’d shoot him in the back, but reason on him like it was now he figured she’d had that one chance to fire, and she’d used it that first day. Yesterday in fact.
She looked at him then, and he saw it all in those eyes. She dropped the gun and took off running for the trees. The road was not the most direct way to his farm. That was through the woods, and now she knew the way.
“Son of a bitch,” he said as he slapped those reigns on Springtime’s back and he yelled out to Knuckles. He hoped this Other would like being hog-tied in the barn while he made her a cage cause that was his resolution as he drove those mules.
Much as he knew that piece of pitted out road, much as his mules knew it too, he traveled it stupidly and made poor time. His feathers, if he had them, were ruffled. She best not burn his cabin for she’d reach it before he did with this miserable team and this god-forsaken set of wheels. His head…he could barely keep it up it throbbed so, and he was no baby about injury, but she’d smashed him good.
He drove with his eyes closed and the mules plodded and stopped to graze and he got on them then, came to that is, and said, “Get on.”
He got close and smelled no smoke, but he fairly expected her to waylay him any minute. Yet she did not and he pulled up to his usual spot, Sadie barked and whined a hello, and he slowly got down and got his weapons though he felt ready to drop. He reached the porch, barely raised his leg for the step, and she opened his door and stood there.
She was a lunatic. It was all he could do to get a good look at her. Her arms were scratched from her run through the woods in her petticoat.
She closed his door then, and he went to the barrel set there for times like this when he settled on the porch.
Next, he knew he was drowning. He sputtered and coughed and opened his eyes and his head hurt.
There she was over him.
“Ava?” he said, for it was Ava come back.
But then it wasn’t Ava at all…it was that other…Ava. She held the bucket, and she’d doused him.
“I thought you were dead!” she said.
He planned to rise up and grab her good and throw her off the porch. In truth, he made it part way up and fell back to the floor, and she said, “Let me help you.”
And he said, “Don’t.”
And they were looking at one another, and she had on a gown, and he knew that the one thing he hadn’t burned and how did she get her hands on it? But there she was in Ava’s gown, that blue flannel. “Take it off!” he growled. Now he was on his feet, and she was backing off making for the door but he caught it in his hand, and she kept going and he heard the rip, flannel in his hand, but she went in and he got a flash before she rounded the door and oh no, he had his foot in there before she could shut it and he pushed hard, and she flew into the table, and he went for her, and she tried to back off and he got his hands around her throat, and that gown was nearly ripped off and leave it to her he saw a breast, and he’d seen them before, then why…why….
His Ava, not this demon…but the first…he’d given her this gown and she took it and one time after she let him raise it and he had, and seen her.
But this one…this one…his one hand came off her neck, and she held still–breathing. And his hand went to her breast, full and strange and warm, and her heart beneath, strong…he looked at her then, saw her swallow her fear and her eyes…big eyes.
He came to himself and let her go. He backed off.
Then he went out.
Two days he lived in the barn. She tried to bring him a plate of his own beans. She tried to talk, and he gave her such a look she went to the house but not before he threw that plate of beans after her.
He hated to waste food. Hated it. But hungry as he was for beans he wouldn’t put a one in his mouth.
He would not take her so called kindness when she was stealing from him.
He needed to heal. So he tended the animals, and he rested in the hay. It was warm enough. He was a man so deep in his thoughts he must be still to let them roll.
And roll they did, one over the other. Seemed every thought he had ended in her flesh. Not his dear Ava’s flesh, but in this other Ava’s flesh. Seeing her that second time, that breast of hers, it got some kind of hold in him. More than the first even. Seeing that…round…dark pink…that blush and feeling that fullness. Warm and alive and heart beating deep in.
He hated her and wanted her.
He kept the anger down those two days of healing. He figured a time apart from her would be good. What he’d do is go for Pedro and bring him up here at gunpoint to take this Ava back. After he beat the living shit from him.
That was a reasonable plan and he, Sam, not Pedro, was a reasonable man. Anyone could tell a person that. He was reasonable.
So he and Sadie walked to the house, and his head didn’t hurt so much now. First off there was no smoke coming from the chimney. Now why wasn’t he gleeful over that?
He got on the porch and stood at the door in a knot about whether to knock or plunge in. If she was in there, and he put his ear on the door confirming to himself she was not, but if she were maybe lying down, he knew she could be bare as a baby again, and that image hit him the way those kind of things could. She best be up and dressed, yes sir.
So he planned to take his chances but he made Sadie stay on the porch, and that one whined some and lay down.
In the cabin it was quiet. It was clean. Everything…touched. The bed was made nice, smooth like Ava…his wife would have done.
She had done washing even…in the tubs in the lean-to, and hung his drawers and shirt and unpacked his canned goods and everything lined up with order. On the table, she had left money. Two dollars. There was a note on the paper he had bought with intention to write his daughter. But he never had. This Ava, however, had a fine hand with her letters, he wouldn’t argue that. He snatched that paper right up.
“Mister Sam,” he mumbled, then cleared his throat and read louder in his stilted flat way, “Mister Sam. I have taken off in the dead of night, so I won’t trouble you. I know there are bear, having seen that horrible one on my way to your cabin, also at night as I’d been lost when I finally smelled the smoke from your fire and managed to be delivered on your doorstep. But all that aside I’ve decided to put myself in God’s hands yet again and go back down the mountain. I have a good stout stick I took from your back-porch. It will be with Pedro and I should you come to claim it for I have no wish to steal from you as you accused me when you threw your dinner at me.”
He scoffed here as he had not said that aloud, but thought it only. Right?
He crumpled that letter and took it to the cold hearth and poked up the ash and threw on kindling and went to throw that letter in but it was stuck to his hand. Seemed so. He pulled a chair and sat hard, elbows on knees and bent over that letter he uncurled it and read it again quiet, then once more aloud.
“Well that’s no…good,” he said digging his hand through his hair. She could be dead now. Caught in the woods by something.
He wouldn’t care, but the baby. What kind of man would let a baby die that way?
What people didn’t know about him, he could fill a river with that information. Biggest thing no one had ever figured out was once he set out to do something, he’d do it to fault. To ruination even. He’d just do it and keep on doing it.
Ava, his gone to glory wife, knew that some. She knew he was a wicked man with that difficulty just stated. But this other Ava, this new one had no idea what he was about. She was a very disturbed woman.
So he rode his paint name of Jimico down the graded road. And Sadie was searching the woods.
There was a story on the name Jimico. It had to do with Jericho. His boy didn’t want to name this horse Jericho lest they shorten it to Jerry.
Sam told him Jericho had nothing to do with Jerry. But his boy liked Jim for a handle and wanted that, but his girl said, “How about Jimico then?” And it stuck.
He nearly smiled now. He nearly did thinking of those two young. Then he felt sad, and that was more familiar. Well, he got mad too, thinking of the trouble this Ava put him through, all her clownery. Sure made a bad decision to come up a mountain where she didn’t know anybody and no one wanted her.
He thought like this: Folks just can’t knock on people’s doors and expect to become one of the family, now can they? Blood is powerful. You are born in or brought in. You don’t just show up and run the show.
In between all that pontificating he thought of her skin. She shouldn’t have advertised herself. Deeply disturbed. But brother. She was….
Just then Sadie started to bark, but he could not see her as she was off in the woods lining the road. He urged Jimico in there to follow that howl for this meant she had found something.
Sadie ran back to fetch them along. Sam dismounted cause he knew this Ava enough to want his feet solid on the ground for what was coming. He carried his rifle, and his heart hammered.
They got over a ridge, and he saw the fix then. It was a man half-sitting, half-lying and he waved at Sam. It was Posey. Didn’t go to war. Some call him Rosey-Posey, but not Sam. He didn’t say his name as a rule.
“Twisted my leg,” he called out.
Sam walked cautious.
“God is smiling on me,” Posey said big grin.
Sam watched his hands as he got up on that good leg. He had a pistol stuck in his pants. A knife hanging from his belt.
“You see a woman?” Sam said ignoring the fact this one wasn’t allowed on this land.
Posey didn’t answer, but that grin went away.
“Where she at?” Sam said.
Posey chewed his fat lip. Easy to see he was thinking of going for his gun.
“Where’s she at!” Sam said forceful raising his weapon.
“Now…,” Posey said, hand coming toward Sam.
Sam charged up and Posey fumbled for his gun, but the butt of Sam’s rifle in his middle took him over.
Sam disarmed Posey before that one was done pissing himself.
“She…she….” Posey had that stutter. Sam backhanded him across the face, and he went down on one knee and cried like a baby. Sam knocked him on his back, butt of his rifle on Posey’s chest. “Cccccccc….” Posey choked on that c.
Didn’t matter. Posey’s brother Cory had her.
Sam flipped his rifle around. He pressed the barrel over Posey’s heart. “Where’d he take her?”
“He…wasn’t fair. I saw her first. I ssssss….”
Sam shot, Posey stilled.
She wasn’t meant for either of them.
He went for his horse.
Some might judge Sam harsh for Posey’s execution. Sam wasn’t given to regrets. Not even with his dear wife, Ava. He could not say he’d done his best, but he did all he wanted to do when it came to her, and it wasn’t much or enough, he admitted that. Regret might come some over his children but still, loving anything was a crap-shoot–never knew how it would turn-out once those dice were tossed.
Hate just seemed more definite. Put a gun to a man’s heart and pull the trigger and you could count on the ender.
And he didn’t hate Posey especially, not until a few hours back when he killed him. Then he decided he hated him after all for he had put his hands on that other Ava and now Corey had her. Well, he hated that. Some said to love the man even if you hated his sin, but in Sam’s experience, you’d as easy separate a man from the snake in his britches as from his sin.
Well, he was thinking all of this while he dropped Posey’s body into that cave. He was trailing Corey, and that cave was on the way. Sometimes it seemed like God was helping him out but he knew it was probably more apt to be the devil.
Sam hit the base of his mountain not long after. He sent Sadie home, and she took it badly. But he’d catch up to Corey in the valley between his mountain, Blue Stack, and Corey’s home, Old Balder.
Corey would take that Ava there where his Pa Dulcet was law and king.
Unless he died first, and that was entirely possible if things worked out.
There was a long feud between Balder and Blue, and surely as the war between states had birthed it, the Great War had put it to sleep. It just went like that, but Sam was raised on the stories, and he’d seen things, his uncles and his pa, things buried for judgment day.
He knew Old Balder, but not like Blue Stack. Balder was bigger, and there were places so dense a rabbit couldn’t fit through the trees. That’s why the Valley would be the best place to come on them.
Posey and Corey came on Blue, broad daylight…and took. Foley, if he’d lived, would have driven them off, but Sam was like his uncles, more cut and dried in his decision.
He would punish Corey for coming on his mountain. And…taking other Ava. Or anything…a bunny even.
That last was a lie. It meant more that they took Ava. She was human and pregnant and able to work.
He was lying to himself.
Go on and try to violate that Hellcat, he thought. Go on and try to force yourself on her.
Then he felt sick. Rage did that to him.
If Corey tried to hurt that other and Sam was lucky enough to catch him, he’d remove that weapon between Corey’s legs and make him eat it before he killed him.
That did calm him some. What he’d do.
Cause forcing women, or that other…Ava…was an act of war.
In war, Sam just fought hellaciously.
In love…and he loved Blue; that’s all. And Sadie. But in love…it would make him worse.
Sam knew he was closing in. They were on foot. He saw that. He was at the highpoint of the Valley, and he saw them. Her…his heart sped up, skipped a beat or turned backward. That Corey had her out front, and he trudged behind, rifle nose to the ground. She looked tired.
“Perk up girl,” he said low and though she was way down a piece her head lifted, and she turned and looked up like he’d yelled in her ear. Well, he was looking across that valley at her and seemed she was looking at him. He imagined her glad to see him.
It ran both ways.
Then Corey looked too. Well, Sam wasn’t trying to hide his approach. Corey wouldn’t expect he, Sam, had ownership of that Ava. But he would fight. Corey had something he wanted in her, so much he left his own brother to die as it turned.
Corey took a shot, and Jimico stepped some and stood. Sam threw his leg over, and Jimico dropped same time, nearly on him. Another shot spit up ground nearby.
Sam dropped to his knees and felt madly over his animal for the wound. Jimico was shot through the heart.
Third shot whizzed past Sam’s ear.
The woman was calling to him, waving with her hands, and Corey was taking aim, and she got on Corey, and he knocked her off, and she yelled out. “Run!”
She did not know him.
Sam took shelter, and Corey got off two more shots and grabbed that other Ava and started to run. Sam was up and running too. He slid some as he made his way downhill and soon he was on the uneven grass. Ava had fallen, and Corey dragged her up, but she was fighting him. Sam kept closing in and Corey got off a wild shot, and Sam kept coming.
He did not fire for worry of hitting that Hellcat that was all over his target. Finally, Corey had her on the ground, and she was the one to get up first. Corey was yelling, and she had that rifle, and she fired into Corey, and that one cried out.
Sam was running. “Ava!” he called out. He had no idea why but it had come from him.
Well she looked at Sam, then at Corey, and she lifted that rifle to fire again, but she had it pointed at Sam.
“Far enough!” she cried out like doom, and he slowed down like he was playing Mother May I?
“It’s me,” he said, or meant to say, but he’d not said anything.
That rifle did not purposefully waver. It did waver some, but Sam figured she was probably wore out.
“Stay put,” she told him. Then she turned that weapon on Corey. But Corey had his pistol out, didn’t she see that? Sam shot Corey through the top of his head. It was that or go for his hands holding the raised gun, and that just didn’t seem substantial enough.
She turned to Sam and held that rifle on him still. “He was mine to kill!” she yelled.
“Go on, then,” he said. He pointed with his rifle at Corey. Now that one couldn’t get much more dead than dead…and he was…dead…but if she had a need to shoot him again there was no harm at all.
“I told you to stay put!” she yelled, tears rolling now.
“I did,” he said. Or thought he said. Mostly he was just looking at her. She had a dark stain on her britches where her legs met. Did she know?
“He hurt you?” he did say that, loud and clear.
“He tried!” She was holding the gun on Corey now, biting her lip and sniffling. She shot, and Sam jumped a little cause he did since the war.
She shot Corey three more times.
Sam took another step toward her, and she was lowering the gun and her head. He got close and pulled that weapon from her hands. She looked at him and wiped her hand under her nose. He got his bandanna from around his neck and gave it to her and she put her face in it.
“I thought you’d have a horse at least,” she said from in there.
He looked back where Jimico lay. Well he did have.
“He violate you in anyway?” he said.
She looked at him like he was the dumb beast. “You got another name for any of this?”
Well he wasn’t going to have this talk. “Get up on the ridge,” he said.
There was a body laying out for the relatives to find. Granted they could be watching now, or could have heard the shots.
“Move now,” he said and it was not friendly. Most things he said sounded like he was mad even when he was not. But truth to tell he had no memory of not being mad so that probably explained it.
Ava sat by Jimico and cried. Then she sniffed and stood. He didn’t mention the stain on her clothes that meant blood and worry. He figured she had enough trouble. He only wished he had his truck. That it was running is what he meant. He’d get her out of here quick, take her to town and get help.
“What happened to his horses?” he asked her. More than likely Corey and Posey rode to Blue. He’d seen that on the trail.
She looked tired as shit. A long strand of her hair ran into the corner of her mouth, dirt streaked her cheeks, there was a bruise there too, possibly from him and that hit he’d done before. And her clothes were dirty, but she didn’t seem to have the strength to care. “He said their horses were tied nearby. He wouldn’t bring a horse on your mountain. He said you’d steal them.” She about spat that last at him.
That was bullshit. He’d never stolen a horse in his life. He’d acquire them is all. For toll. Them coming on Blue was affrontery. Trespassing. If it was just that, he’d of taken their animals and beaten those two low-lives and sent them back to Balder with the rest of the Cheetahs. That’s all. But then they had to take her on top of it and now they were gnashing their teeth in the fiery place and she had no call to take his head off for it.
Folks chose their own damn road.
She had no reply. She weaved some, and he saw the faint coming. As if he didn’t have enough trouble. He got to her in time and she went limp and Sam lowered her down.
He looked at that blood. It was no good like that. Her face, he smoothed her hair back and was looking. Touching her. He realized he was smoothing that hair too much. He needed to stop. She was a fine looking woman. He hadn’t seen it at first, he admitted that. The poor thing. She had blue shadows under her eyes and that bruise was a shiner.
“Stop looking at me,” she said. Her eyes were open.
She was a vixen, that’s all.
He gestured toward the stain and she sat up and looked. She looked at him and some color that wasn’t from getting clocked came into her pale face.
“Well don’t gawk!” she said. She tried to get on her feet, same time pushing he should give her space. They both ended up standing, but she was weaving like a sailor and he steadied her and she allowed it, looking at the blood again.
“I am mortified,” she said firmly as if he was to blame.
“The baby…,” he said.
“What? Oh….” She pulled away from him. “No.”
“No?” Sam said.
“There’s no baby?” he said in that way of his.
“I said no.”
She lied about that? That was a wicked lie.
“May I…?” she held the bandanna up and he was confused, then he wasn’t. She wanted to use his bandanna cause she was flowing. His bandanna? God Almighty.
“Go on,” he growled taking off.
“Where are you…?” she called.
“Stay put!” he spat over his shoulder. He wouldn’t dare look back. No telling what she was up to for all the world to see.
He had horses to find.
“I was desperate!” she called. “Why couldn’t you have let me stay. If you weren’t such a pig-headed…horrible man!”
He stepped more lively then. If anyone was lurking…they could have her.
The feud was long dead and now he’d brought it to life. This woman was nothing but trouble, this Ava. He put that Corey on the horse and the other he shared with her. He should send her off now, send her to town, but he never said, “You’re going back,” and she never asked about it. She was too tired, wore out, beat up. He felt it in her, all of it. He didn’t trust her for shit, no he did not, but her so close, it wasn’t unbearable. God he was lonely. And now this trouble. She should not be here. She had to go. Then why oh why was he taking her along toward home?
He just was.
So they led that body in and he finally dumped it where he’d put Posey.
He pulled her off that horse and she nearly forgot to fight him. She got in a swing once she hit ground. Landed on her feet and swung at him. He’d had gnats moved more air. He dodged it easy and got a hold on her. “Behave,” he ordered.
He squeezed her some. Then he let her go and stepped back and she stumbled away from him enough to turn.
“I shall not let you have me now,” she said all indignant.
He nearly said, “What the hell?” but he was glad his words got hung-up in there sometimes. He was glad now.
He sent the horses on then. They would walk home.
“What…,” she said. “You’re the meanest man…well just like those others!”
They couldn’t be caught with those horses. Not now. Damn if he’d explain it to her.
“Use your mind,” he finally said. She shut up then and stumbled along behind him.
After a time they found her belongings, what she had when she’d been accosted. He carried her bag cause she was barely hanging on.
Finally she sat, hands in her lap. He looked back soon as he heard her stop.
“Get up,” he said.
She kept looking at the ground and shook her head.
“Suit yourself,” he said and he took off walking. Now here’s the difference in him, and he didn’t like it, but this is the truth. He kept walking. Well he never did stop. But he wanted to. That whole long way he wanted to go back for her. Time he got home and Sadie came running and licked his hand, he wished he’d brought her along. Coming on real night now and her scared and exhausted. He wouldn’t wish it on a dog. Not his dog.
So once the stock was seen to, he fiddled with that truck and gave up. Then he got on Knuckles and rode out and tired, sore and worn out as he was, it was nearly what love was like he figured. At least it was extremely neighborly. He could live with that.
Sadie found that other, came running for him and led him into the brush. It was pitch but there was a moon gave some wash he could see by. The woman was crouched in those weeds and he could feel her nerves the way he felt it in an animal, or a man more than once. He felt that before she recognized him or even Sadie.
She was crouched in a ball. She was frantic.
“Don’t touch me,” she said, worry in her strained-pitch.
He reached for her and she shied away, moved back on her hands and kicked at him. “No,” she said. “Let me stay here. Let me die here.”
Well she’d lost that last thread of a mind it seemed. He was sorry and he wasn’t. He hadn’t brought her up here.
He was tired. He moved in and got her by the arm and she fought him some but she was weak and he dragged her into the clear. He left her on the ground, got on his horse and reached for her. He had to lean and grab her arm near the place it met her body and he yanked her up and over the horse, letting her hang there then like she was dead as Corey.
She did not fight but she cried some. He put off thinking on it. He was saving her life, that’s all. He nearly slapped her rump a couple times hoping to shut her up. Pitiful to see her given up like this.
They got back to the place finally and he got her off him and he lowered her and she didn’t help much so he ended up pretty much dropping her on the ground. She lay there and he got down then and took care of the horse. She hadn’t moved time he got back and he was in no mood to drag her. But he got her under the arms and dragged her onto the porch anyway. He thought of leaving her there cause she didn’t move, just did this cry. He opened the door and dragged her inside enough to let her lay on the floor there. He barred the door, kept Sadie out to watch the place, and he would do that now. He fell on the bed and that’s all he knew.
Until the rooster crowed. That meant he slept hard and late. He was coming out of some kind of dream with screaming and yelling and he’d been running. Fighting.
He was sore and he rolled and his hand rubbed over his face. Sometimes life crowded in while he slept and he had to push it back so he could get up.
He remembered her, then all of it and he looked over there and she was on the floor where he’d dumped her the night before.
He looked at her for a minute, took her in some. Shock.She was…something. Well she grew on you. Not on him, but on a person interested in her, she might. What in the hell was he going to do with her? She was a mess and he figured she had to be bloody on top of it. And she was addled in her mind. He hoped she didn’t wake up cause he wasn’t putting up with her raving.
But then it speared him, what if she was dead? She hadn’t moved, had she? He shot right up then. Gol-durn she couldn’t die on him! He wasn’t looking for that. He got up, stiff and sore and went over to her and rolled her on her back.
She moaned and he thought aw hell. She’s alive. Her eyes opened, and she frowned and put a hand to her head. She looked at him, seeming confused as hell, staring at him bent over her. Her eyes were swollen, well that one was still bruised. Her lips were dry. She was thirsty. Well she knew where the water was.
He went back to bed but he looked over at her two more times and she’d stayed on her back with her arms crossed over her face.
Then he turned away and tried to sleep. But he heard every move she made, he thought he heard her breathe, until he breathed with her, or for her. No, he didn’t like thinking like that. He cleared his throat and rocked a bit, punching his pillow and it fitting under his head like a damn rock. He startled when he felt her touch his shoulder.
She stood there. She was a mess. Ghostly or something…not right. She fell on him then, a dead faint. He pushed her off and his arms touched her britches. All that blood. She’d foul Ava’s quilt is what.
So he pushed her onto the floor again. Not just pushed, he lowered her. Then he got up and he got the tub and he cursed while he did it cause she was so much trouble. He filled it with water and Sadie was at the door whining and he let her in and fed her and continued to pump water and fill the tub and then he looked at her lying there again and he went to her and wiped his hands on his pants and he picked up her foot and started on her shoe and got it undone and pulled off, and the sock.
Then he did the other and there was all the blood on her pants. He might just set her in the tub that way, pants and all to try and get it all clean at once. But hell he’d already seen her so she wanted to play modest, he saw through that.
He got her coat off and her belt undone and undid the buttons on her pants and started to pull and she came to and he had them peeling down her legs and Lord she was a mess and she kicked out and he tried not see all he was seeing.
“Get ’em off!” he yelled.
She was ranting and raving how he was lowdown and she’d kill him first, and he yelled over, “You stink like an animal!” and he might of said something about the bath.
“Get in it!” he yelled. And he said he was going out and if she locked him out again he’d bust in and kill her.
He didn’t want to say all that but he went out and slammed the door and sat on the barrel on the porch there and Sadie tried to lick him and he pushed her off and she laid down looking at him like he was the one crazy.
And he might be. Well he was hungry and cold. He was tired and his head throbbed. He was mad. So mad he was grinding his teeth. He got up and went back inside and that woman screamed cause she was trying to get in that cold tub of water and she wasn’t wearing a stitch.
“Get out!” she yelled and some words she shouldn’t know, cursing him on top of it.
He ignored her, went to his bed and got in and under Ava’s blanket and back to her but she went on some more and he yelled, “I don’t want to see it again!”
He put Ava’s pillow over his head like before just to show he wanted no part of looking at her.
He waited and finally heard her get the rest the way in that tub.
His heart was hammering. What the hell was wrong with him? He took a deep breath and let it out quiet. Soon as he did his heart took off again. He wasn’t too clean himself. He was fixing to get cleaner the day she showed up, but then she started all the trouble and he never got to it like he planned, not real good soaking like she got to do now.
He felt that stiffening below. Was she the cause? Well what else? He thought he’d gone dead down there. And now…resurrection. Well it was the birds and the bees, that’s all. He must be some kind of desperate to get hardened over some woman….
He had a naked woman in his cabin. In this cabin. And she had offered herself.
Course now she’d taken it back but…would it be so bad?
She was twelve feet off. Twelve steps. She would be clean and slick from the water. She was soft and round and beautiful. She was a beautiful woman.
He could barely stand her, but it had been years since he’d felt a woman. What if this could be a day when he felt a woman again?
He wouldn’t ask, he’d just hold up the blanket. She’d figure it out eager as she’d seemed to get to it that first day.
He slowly rolled onto his back.
She was awfully quiet. He tried to move his eyes to see what she was doing, but he had to move his head a little too so he did that really slowly.
She’d gotten in that tub, her back to him. She was in there, her bare back. Her head on her knees. Her hair was the mess it had been when she got in. When he’d seen it brushed though he had liked it.
“You awake in that tub?” he said stern. To show concern.
She lifted her head. “I’m so hungry,” she said with that low-tone back. She sounded weak and her teeth were chattering. She might have been crying again. That didn’t mean she’d be friendly.
Well he’d saved her life. Twice or three times possibly. More even. He hoped she felt some gratitude.
He was also about starved. Now he had reason to get out of the bed. He would cook. Unless she stopped him. He’d just be there. And maybe she’d let him have a go and it could be more friendly until Pedro showed.
Sam forgot to eat his hash cause he got stuck watching other Ava. She made noise when she chewed. She moaned.
“Slow down,” he said stern.
She glanced at him but just kept eating. “Can’t,” she said finally.
It was just potatoes, a little venison and gravy. He made them that way.
He knew she had that stomach lost food easy. He’d had that stomach in the war sometimes. And on the ship over, he’d been sick the whole time.
He remembered to eat too. He was hungry, but he knew how to be hungry. She held the plate in front of her face. She was licking it clean.
He stood and grabbed the plate from her, but she held on tight and he had to forcefully pull it from her hands. God sakes she was a backside pain.
He gave her a look then he went to the stove and filled her plate again. Then he went to the table and all but threw it in front of her and she flinched and sat there staring at it.
He sat slowly and picked up his fork. She was just staring, and then he saw tears dripping off her chin. What now?
He tried to ignore her and commenced shoveling his own food. But she sniffed and he looked up to see her running the heel of her hand under her nose.
He did ignore her then and scraped his plate and got another and he didn’t look at her but he was mad.
Difficult. Women were trouble. This one trouble…doubled.
“You gonna waste that?” he finally said case she missed his disgust.
She was holding her fork just staring at the grub. Then him. Her bottom lip pumped a few times.
“Say it,” he demanded. He wasn’t going to sit here for the sorrowful Ava Peabody show.
“Th…thank-you,” she said.
“For what?” he said, surprised.
She looked down like she had to think about it.
He waved his hand she should forget this line of talk. He was already sorry he’d opened it up.
“For everything,” she said, those big wet eyes on him.
Ain’t like he gave anything willingly. Forcing him to put up with her, rescue her, then thanking him seemed as senseless as riding a mule backwards holding its tail like its mane and wondering why it was shitting on your hands!
“Just don’t talk,” he said hoping to erase any notion he wanted to be buddies.
So he finished his food and she was picking on hers, quiet and pitiful.
He didn’t want her getting the idea he liked her cause he did not. But if she wanted to get in the bed, well one thing might lead to another. Yes she was tired and bleeding but he didn’t mind and as he remembered, people slept better after they mingled things. And long as she didn’t snivel all night he might take a chance on her under Ava’s quilt.
Course now he had work to do so he set about washing up and shaving. She wanted to look well he wasn’t going shy about it. It was his home and she invaded so pay her dues is how he thought about it.
But she stayed busy, working the knots out of her hair. Course she had not ate all her food but she did cover her plate like she planned to go back to it.
So he finished prettying up and then he went to smooth out the bed and on closer look, it was foul. How long since he’d changed it out? Well…it had ripened and gone past. He took off the bedclothes and figured he’d do some washing. He’d welcome the work cause he was all wired.
Yep he’d get that bed passable and she’d not be able to resist. Then he’d see what was behind her big talk.
Sam did wash that bedding, then he went back in the house and while she was sleeping he gathered some of his duds and took them out for a wash too cause it had been a while when he thought back.
And of course he noticed that other was not sleeping in the bed. He was not ready to give her that until night.
And she was not sleeping on his table…or his floor. But she did sleep in one of two chairs near the stove. The one that had been his dear wife’s. It was not fit for sleeping unless you were a female, then you might find it passable. But he never sat in that chair. He had, on occasion, spoken to that chair as if Ava was sitting there…his original Ava that is for as already stated, he did speak to her now she was dead. But there was this living Ava, hands in her lap and head to the side and mouth open in sleep. Her hair, nearly jet black, was brushed now and shining like sable.
Well inside he was jittery. Restless. That’s when he took her pile of clothes and stuck them in that tub she’d soaked in. Right in her water he stuck everything. He wasn’t going to wash it for her, but she saw it there she could use the soft soap and scrub them herself.
And touching her stuff, made his hands tingle. It was pretty good to feel that and also very alarming. It seemed to be happening without his will. And a man always wanted to keep ahold of his will or he could get carried away. The will, as he’d thought it out, was the thing to keep tethered. Once that was in check, or in chains, then other things had to obey. Things like anger, and even the desire to be happy. And his will was pretty much checked, but now it was leaking out or he’d sprung a hole and he was feeling things he had to get a bead on. He could have her…if she’d have him still…but he had to be in charge of it. Right now…he wasn’t sure what was firing through him but he must keep it contained.
So after he walked some, then he worked in the barn most of the day and long about dinner time he went in and he’d left the stove going and she hadn’t come out but to use the outhouse. That’s what Sadie said anyway and yes that dog could communicate.
So he had two eggs in his pocket from his best hens that laid most the winter. He kicked his boots against the stoop to knock off muck. He had a ham under his arm, and parsnips in his hand so he did not grab more wood. He grit his teeth and went in and she was near the floor struggling with the bottom drawer in his bureau. Other words she was looking through his personals.
Well they could not get a thing settled between them. He kicked the door closed behind him and dumped his loot on the table, anger building in him.
“I…it’s not what you think,” she said getting on her feet. She wore this giddup…some kind of skirt that buttoned over her small…stomach area, but showed the shape of her. He stared at those buttons and her hands went there self-consciously. She’d awakened it in him, the long asleep dinosaur of lust. But now he could tie her up and throw her in the attic, or atop the rafters and let her yell it out he was that mad.
“I was looking for some old…something to use for rags.” Her eyes got big when she lied. He’d figured that out already. Or when she was naked. That one time and then again getting in the tub.
“Stay out of my stuff,” Sam said. He had that quality in his words. Ava used to say there was no love in his voice except with the girl, but that’s not true, he loved the boy too, but he knew he had to be a man someday.
He turned from her and took off his coat and hung it on the peg. He went to the stove and fed that.
She was still standing where he’d caught her red handed nosing around, maybe stealing from him.
Then he saw it peeking out from under the bureau. One of his papers, and he knew what it was.
She looked where he was looking and saw it too and got down there and pulled it out, talking to beat the band.
He went quickly to her and stopped. They were close and he heard her swallow nothing but fear, but she kept that chin up even with shame in her eyes. “I’m sorry…I didn’t mean….”
It got quiet then and he reached and without taking his eyes off hers he snatched that honorable discharge right out of her hand.
“You were in the army,” she said.
He ignored that and bent to the drawer and pulled it. Inside was the papers that meant some life had happened here, once. Ava’s and his birth certificates. The children had taken theirs. But his marriage paper. Ava’s certificate of death. Deeds and bills of sale and this…his honorable discharge.
“Edward C. Samuels,” she said low then while he was bent to stacking those papers neat again. Why his whole story was in this one drawer. Some photos too. But her saying his name out like that. He shoved that drawer and stood, and they were still close like before.
She had eyes deep as that cave he put those bodies into. But there was life in hers. Deep life. And maybe trouble. She was afraid right now. But he wouldn’t touch her. Not in the way she feared. She had some size to her nose but it went okay. More than. Her mouth was…very full. Even with the bruises, she was comely.
Sadie howled outside and he came back to himself. He cleared his throat. “Just Sam. That’s all I’m called,” he said.
He made the vegetables and two thick slices of ham. He kept his mind on the cooking and just felt the rest. Frustration is what, but his will was solid over it and he kept to himself he did not look at that Ava.
She had her new-washed duds flopped over everything. The floor was damp in places. Well she spread out now didn’t she. And she asked if he could haul her dirty water outside. Well he was not her hired boy, no sir. So he did make his supper and he brought it to table and she got two plates and she had his plate, one he’d ate on for seven years, but he didn’t say it. And she gave him Ava’s plate, his dear departed Ava’s. Well he did not use it generally. It stayed in the cupboard as a rule. But now it was in his hand, like a warning he best not forget her. Add to that he couldn’t sit at table with this other’s britches over the back of his chair. And he’d no wish to get her questions, prying into every corner of his business so he served himself from the big pot and took that plate to his chair by the stove. He hunkered over it and burned his mouth on that first mouthful it was so hot. Well damn that was no time for her to talk but she was talking anyway.
He got that hot as hell bite down, and it burned all the way to his stomach. Lord, God he nearly threw his plate, history and all. But his will again, holding him solid. He didn’t even grunt.
What she said was something like, “Doesn’t it bother you at all that those men are…that you…that…we…?”
“You ever shut that yapper?” he said.
There were the big eyes.
He took to shoveling again. It did not burn so much now. He wasn’t falling for that face.
“You left me,” she said.
He left off shoveling and looked at her while he chewed. She was serious. He may have left her but he came back. She had it better when she thanked him. Though he hadn’t liked that either as he recalled.
“I should-a,” he said, meaning he should have left her. For good.
“Oh I see,” she said.
“See what?” he said.
She nodded, her plate, well his plate still empty in her hand. “You hate me,” she declared.
He wasn’t touching that. She could draw her own mind on things. But it rankled him. Damn it made him red. All he’d done for her and she would lay their difficulties on him?
“I don’t give you a thought!” he declared right back at her. He turned his chair so he didn’t have to look at her. He went on eating and he felt her stare. He paid her no mind but he grew madder still. All he’d done and it wasn’t enough. He needed her gone soon as the sun rose. He’d get her out of here and she’d be a memory then, just a bad dream.
He finished up and he covered the food. She had not taken any, but sat at the table, her shirt thrown on the floor in a wet mess. She had her arms folded there and her head atop them, her face hidden. Was he supposed to be sorry for her? He never cottoned to another’s self-pity.
His stomach churned with frustration. Here he was going to offer her a spot in his bed. Not now. She could sit up all night and freeze, the ungrateful spoiled brat.
He made a show of undressing down to his long johns. They were fairly clean as he’d spruced up some. And in his day he was called handsome. It was still there he figured. He made up the bed then, all clean and what a waste it was.
But oh no on her. She was not putting a toe under Ava’s quilt.
“Mr. Sam?” she said then. “If we are to share this house…if we are to kill together…and live together…might we share that bed?”
He looked at her, really stared at her, one corner of the blanket lifted in his hand as he was nearly in that bed, so close to it….
He got on in then. He rolled some, his back to her. He did not look at her, but oh he felt her eyes on him. It was silent. So silent and the old clock is all that was hearable. That and the rush of blood in his ears.
Then he heard her chair scoot back, heard her pick up that shirt and smooth it back over the chair, heard her turn down the lamp and walk to the bed and around to the far side, to his wife’s side.
He closed his eyes on it. He held his breath.
The cover moved and the bed dipped some and he smelled the soap and the cover pulled some and she sighed as she lay. She had not undressed. But she had pluck getting in here where he could so easily…kill her.
She shifted around a little. “Thank you, Mr. Sam,” she whispered, a catch in her voice.
He let the air ease from his lungs and it seemed like his whole body felt her warmth. And a million thoughts at once, and no thought at all but this…Ava’s side of the bed had come alive.
He opened his eyes just a slit, and there it was, that curved line. Her back was to him, her hair spilling. He wasn’t prepared for the big feeling that hit. It was like…like she was back. Only…this wasn’t her…the one bearing all his faults and sins. This woman was new. And his chart was pretty well clean. She was…more. And…less. But…real. Of a sudden his breath caught and came in loud and shaky and tears washed his dry, shriveled eyes.
She turned quick and looked at him. “Mr. Sam,” she said like he was the most pitiful thing in the world. “You’re crying,” she said softly, that low note there.
He raised up then, studying her. Her face was healing. He saw that. Her color was deep, dark and soulful eyes and lips so full and damn if they didn’t look red. She had the prettiest teeth. He licked his lips.
“Are you crying?” she said again, stuck on that theme.
“No,” he said, then he moved on her and he ran his fingers over those full lips of hers and they were soft.
He drew his hand back and maybe she didn’t have so many words now. “Wha…what’d you do that for?”
He stared some more. She had small ears and a point to her chin. Her face was heart-shaped, he thought. He’d heard that but never seen it he was aware of.
He lay back then and rolled away from her. He stared into the room but he did not see it. He was overwhelmed with feelings. All at once.
He’d had no love. And it had been enough, the chores, the mountain, hunting his supper, reading the same five books.
And he was full up of it.
Something touched Sam and he awoke with such a start he ended up on the floor. There she came right after, her face swollen from sleep, well not swollen like he’d seen some faces. Dead ones in the war. She’d followed him to the edge and was looking over, her hand on his knee. No, this wasn’t death.
“What’s the matter?” she said.
She used his knee for leverage and got up quick and hurried to the window.
He stared. It’s all he could do.
Her hair was streaming, nearly to her waist. She put a knee on the window seat as she peered out and the bottom of her foot, well her feet weren’t so big without the boots. There was a sweetness seeing that foot. A kindness was briefly inspired in him.
And he remembered holding Ava’s foot once, removing her shoe when she was getting ready to birth. “Ava,” he’d said as a pain hit her.
He meant to tell her…thank you. Or that he loved her. He’d meant to say it. But she’d pulled away.
He wanted to be soft with his wife…a few times. He got there like a shore he got thrust upon before the tide and the coldness took him back…out to sea. The space between them, he didn’t know how to dwell with her. But after the war, he had stayed as if…his body could make up for it. He worked for her…for them. He worked harder than any other man. But the gap…grew.
And now…this other’s feet were bare. Her ankles…could he touch that….it shouldn’t be taken for granted…another to touch. A foot to rub against. Where did the time go? Was he here? Was this real?
“No one is out there,” she turned quick to report.
His eyes shot up to her face and he had to press hard to listen. She was talking, she spoke. It was something…like music maybe, low note…music.
“…let Sadie in?” she asked.
He nodded. He’d meant to let Sadie in but then he wanted her to watch for cheetahs. The sun was up, though the light was gray. He’d slept late…relaxed…let his finger off the trigger…breathed from his belly…and he dreamed and climbed this mountain in his sleep…and he wasn’t alone…he pulled Ava along…his wife. And she wasn’t happy with him…thought they’d fall from the precipice. And she did fall and her voice called to him all the way down. “Sam,” she’d said. And he nearly jumped after, but a hand on him. Like this other had done for real when she went to the window. She was holding him there. And he did not fall. He did not want to.
Sadie came in and that’s what got Sam off the floor, her idea she might lick his nose since he was on her level.
It was cold in here. Breath came out of his open mouth. He shut that now.
The other was checking her duds and whisking them off chairs. Would he like what? An omelet? She asked that.
They were not fancy around here. Just plain eggs is what he liked.
“The water stretches the eggs,” she explained. He wanted to show her, wanted her to know. He had a plan and she got still maybe he would show her how he did it here. How he lived.
He stalked past her to tend that fire but he had to go around her tub and Sadie was taking a drink and he said, “Get out of there.”
And the other repeated that on the omelet.
“No,” he said over his shoulder while he got the kindling.
“I’ll empty this tub and fill it for you. Surely you could ease some of that bruising with a good soak,” she said.
He was kneeling there, before the fire that wasn’t.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” she said.
He went on then and built that fire quick and one layer atop another he had that stove roaring in no time.
Well she was nosing in his supplies. Saying his canned hash looked disgusting. Obviously she was never in the army. He’d gone back to eating that and it was an acquired taste that suited him fine. He got on his feet and went to her and took that can of hash from her and put it on the shelf lined with yellowed newspaper. He grabbed the bag of oats and put those in her arms like a crying baby almost. “That’s what we eat,” he said final.
“Oh,” she said.
“And I take that hash, well look here,” he said, going for the same can he just put in there. Well he showed her how he opened both ends and pushed the hash through and it came out same shape as the can, but he just pushed an inch out at a time and used one end of the can for a knife. “You can slice it just like that in the pan and fry it up,” he said and it was words squishing out like that loaf, like he was pressed or squeezed into making a speech.
There he was holding that can and he set it on the board and they were looking at each other again. And he touched that bruise around her eye and she flinched away.
His hand smelled like that hash. He wiped it on his long johns. “That hurt?” he said.
“No,” she said, “I….”
He wanted to make sure the socket around her eye was intact. “Well I’m not going to kill you.”
“I know,” she said. “But…how you handled those men…and you burned that cabin…I thought you might kill me a…,” and she did a big swallow, “couple of times.”
Second time she said that about him nearly killing her. He wanted her dead, she would be. She didn’t know him at all.
“You curl up in bed with someone wants to kill you?” he said. He was proud of that point. She had no answer for that.
He went for that tub and started to pull it toward the door.
“You’re sloshing it on the floor,” she said, like he didn’t know.
He stopped and it slopped onto the legs of his long johns and it was cold as ice. “What are you doing here?”
“Don’t lie to me,” he said.
Again, just like he thought, no words.
“Someone looking for you?” he said.
She tucked her chin on that. “No,” she said. “He brought me part-way. I swear he did. I walked the rest.” Then she looked at him. “I came to that cabin. I thought it was so neglected.” Back to studying the floor.
“That why you tried to kill me when I showed?”
“I thought…they said there were bad people.”
“Who said that?”
“Um…the ah…the ones you…killed.” She stared at him.
“Mr. Foley…he…he fathered me.”
“Say again?” Sam leaned his butt on the closed door.
“Horance Foley was my…he fathered me. And he wrote. The one…that Posey…he was on the train. The train I took here. Why he knew Horance…and I was so relieved.
“Then when the train stopped in town we were encouraged to eat dinner at the tavern…which I did at Posey’s…insistence. And I was already needing to get shod of him. But Corey was there. I didn’t like him at all and they wanted to bring me up but Pedro overheard and intervened. He warned me on them and he stood up to them and said he’d take me up.
“I didn’t think his truck would make it. We hit a wash in the road and he said in a couple of miles I’d come to Horance’s cabin. It didn’t seem to be complicated and I felt so good, better than…well he told me the mountains were beautiful and…I never felt so alive upon seeing them and that’s the truth.”
“Oh, that the only truth here?”
“No. I’m telling you the truth Mr. Sam. When I got to that cabin…and I wasn’t sure if it was his cabin, but it had to be. He was gone and I was so worn out and frightened I kept that rifle with me and wondered what I was going to do if those others showed. Pedro told me about you, that you were mean but fair and I didn’t know where you were or if…you were dead too, being old like he said.
“By the time you showed…I…I thought you were one of those others. I was beside myself with fear. And you didn’t call out…so sneaky. It was…just a warning shot.”
“Foley had no heirs,” Sam said. That is why the mountain went to him. Not on paper, but by rights. He meant to file sometime soon as he reported the death. Then he lost Ava and he kept forgetting to handle his business.
“You’re a liar,” Sam said. “Foley’s been gone ten years.”
“I received that letter when I was nineteen. I could show it to you but you burned the cabin and…my letter,” she said.
“This don’t stack up,” he said straightening up.
“I know I’ve brought you trouble,” she said, her talk going into that third gear and the words pouring.
“Nothing but,” he added loudly to shut her up. No way he was getting jumped. No sir.
“I mean no harm, Mr. Sam. I just want to be here, that’s all. Living by myself in Mr. Foley’s cabin…I wasn’t as good at that as I’d hoped. But that’s because this place is new and I saw that bear…and I am very wary of bears. I won’t cause you any more trouble, I promise. I’ll help out. Please.”
“Foley had no heirs,” Sam said through his teeth.
“Well…he had me. An indiscretion, my mother called it. She would not elaborate no matter how many times I asked. So I tucked his letter…and him away.”
“Why’d you come here?” he said forceful.
“I told you. To meet him.”
“You’re a liar,” he growled.
He made his way to her and he grabbed her arms. She was threatening everything and she was lying. He wanted to trust her. He knew that now, close up to her, hated her and…he was open to her, some, he’d felt it inside. And all along this was some kind of lark she was riding…he’d killed for her. He’d been willing to tuck her behind him and fight whoever he had to. Didn’t she know it or see it? He knew it now. Saw what a fool he was. She came into his house and betrayed him.
“My mother died,” she said.
He watched her some. She had something in the corner of her right eye, the colored part, just didn’t look truthful.
He left off putting his hands on her.
“How old are you?” he said.
“Nearly the same age as my daughter!” he said.
“But I am not your daughter,” she said back. And it was heated. “I am Mr. Foley’s daughter.”
His lips were moving. Sealed and silent. But moving while his mind raged. Finally he said, “It don’t mean nothing. Like your mother said. And you’re a liar.”
He opened the door and pulled that tub out then. He dumped the water then he made water of his own, right off the porch. He would put on no airs for the likes of her. Not for anyone. This was trouble. She…was trouble.
Question was, what was he going to do about it?
Sam figured she couldn’t have come for her part in the mountain since she claimed not to know Foley was dead. So she didn’t come for her part in the mountain.
Reason told him that. When he calmed down he knew.
But Pedro knew about Foley and he brought her up anyway. He already figured that one was having a joke. And Corey and Posey…they knew Foley was gone. They meant to take her, that’s all.
He figured those two would come once they heard he was shining again. Showed their hand when they took her. But it split them right up, she did. Since the war, he didn’t trifle with that old feud. That’s why he killed so quickly. He didn’t trifle.
He had plenty of work like always. She stayed away from him and that was wise. He went in come dinner time and she had fixed it. She’d laid out food, too much, but it was agreeable. She was cleaning the place, and it gave her an idea she was in charge. But she was not in charge. And he wasn’t going to worry about it. He didn’t budge on things unless he wanted to and he rarely wanted to.
So it was warm inside and that was fine, but moving things around like she’d done–that did not fly. She had switched the chairs before the fire and he didn’t take to that.
She had her hair up and one of Ava’s dresses on. A sweater over that. “You can sit right here,” she said, like he didn’t know his place head of that table.
He kept quiet and took off coat and hat and smoothed his hair and went there. She had fried the hash which he usually had for breakfast and not dinner but he didn’t say.
Well he sat at table and it was some like when she’d lain next to him and he took it in.
She sat to his right. Where Ava had, his wife he meant, for it was handy to the stove. And the girl sat to his left in those days and the boy across from him. And they would eat and most times it was quiet. He would watch Ava and know her mood. It didn’t change. Not all those years.
But now…this other. And she said, do you want to say grace? And he went ahead and dug into his food.
And he saw her bow her head, corner of his eye he saw that. And she was a mix, is what he thought. Offering herself to him as well as God it seemed. His wife…she made a choice. God took her for it. That’s what he figured. She’d wanted to die…for years.
But this one straddled a fence. She was no saint.
He wanted to ask, Why’d you offer yourself that way?
It’s what he couldn’t get from his mind.
But he didn’t ask. He ate. And God…he was starved. For everything.
Sam finished his hash. She asked if he wanted more then took his plate and filled his coffee and he grabbed her wrist. Looked at her and she held that pot. “What you playing at?” he said.
She pulled some and he didn’t let go and she set that pot on the table and he knew it would burn cause she’d taken it off the fire, off that burner.
“I’m not playing,” she said.
“You come here…you didn’t come for him.” He let go of her then. “So say your prayers,” he said.
She picked up that pot, took it to the stove and once it was set she turned to him. “I have a right to pray,” she said hotly. “Much as anyone, I do.”
“Pray if you want to, but this is my mountain.”
“I don’t want your mountain,” she said. “I never came here to take your mountain,” she said, like his wife might have. Like he was not capable of understanding much.
He scoffed. Made a show of it and he was not given to histrionics. But he poured it on, scooting his chair from the table. All she’d done is take. That’s what he wanted her to know.
“I’m trying to….” she wiped under her eye, but he did not see tears. “I’m trying to show you…I’ll work long as I can.”
“Long as you can,” he repeated. And he was not given to repeating either.
She looked dead at him. “Yes. Long as I can I’ll work. Until the Lord takes me…I’ll give you whatever you need. I was sent here to do that. I know that now. Knew it when you killed him. When you…saved me. I knew then…my time is in God’s hands.”
“I ain’t asked you for a thing,” he said, to clarify. “And…who sent you?” Now that unnerved him.
“You don’t believe in destiny Mr. Sam?”
He didn’t answer. Hell he didn’t know.
“Oh. I see. A realist. A blind realist. Alright then. I have enough faith for the two of us.”
“You’re scared of everything,” he said. He’d faced war, Ava. He’d faced his children leaving him. But this woman…she scared him.
“You want me,” she said. “It’s in your eyes. You watch me. You are desperate to be…touched. You lie, Mr. Sam. Mostly to yourself. You’re mad because I make you see it.
“You didn’t kill those men for any other reason…than me.”
He stared hard at her. God she was a witch.
“You ain’t right in your mind,” he said. Oh he said it mean.
“It’s the only thing I am right in, Mr. Sam. I am right in my mind. And maybe…my spirit. Yes…at long last. Right in my spirit. But…I have never known…. Not like some. Like you. I have never made peace with this life, Mr. Sam. But I saw these mountains. And I knew. I walked that first day, and I could barely feel the miles. I’m…coming back to myself. Here. I’m here. You have reminded me…I am alive.”
“Don’t say anymore,” he said.
“It’s okay if you don’t know. I’m here to show you, that’s all.”
“Show me what?” he said.
She moved closer. So close he saw that freckle at the bow of her lip. He saw the slightly crooked bottom tooth. He saw those shadows under her eyes. He saw how pale she was beneath the darker skin. He saw that widow’s peak and how thick her lashes were, how straight her brow. He saw that freckle was a little mole and she had a place center of her chin looked like God poked his finger there. He saw her nostrils flare. Her bottom lip tremble. He heard a catch in her breathing and beneath his hands which were on her arms now, he felt the drumbeat of her heart, he felt the rush of her blood, he felt her fear, he felt her crazy and something so fragile it was cracked and ready to go. And he stood up but he did not let go of her. He was taller. Stronger. And he kept looking at her and she fixed her eyes on his and he saw how dry her lips were.
“Ava,” he whispered. “Ava?”
Was it her? He didn’t know. He’d been alone a long time and maybe he was cracked and gone and didn’t know it until now.
“I don’t want you,” he said fierce and he squeezed her arms in his hands.
He saw her swallow, heard her swallow.
“Please,” she said so low in her throat. “Please.”
He was shaking his head. He pulled her up and close.
“What’s wrong with you?” he said. He said it terrible.
“Please,” she said again.
He took her across the floor and forced her to sit on the bed and somehow he got on his knees and he worked his way close as he could, between her knees. “All you do is take,” he said and he gave her a shake…something…something was breaking apart in him. He felt wild and terrible. He felt rage.
“I’m not here to take,” she said, louder this time. Now there were tears coming.
“I don’t want you,” he said. “I don’t want you.”
She tried to pull away, push at his arms and he pulled her closer, so close. He breathed, heard his own breathing, heard her breathing.
“You’re hurting…it hurts,” she said.
He let go then, sat back on his heels and she rubbed at her arms and gulped.
He looked away. There was the cupboard, the stove. What was he doing? He was here.
A hand on his face. He closed his eyes and she tuned his face her way. Her hand against his whiskers. His heart picked up and his head hurt and all because of that hand on his face, her hand. His chest was so tight he couldn’t pull a breath. He grabbed her wrist and lowered her arm to her lap. He held her there.
She pulled away from him and his hands went to the bed, either side of her to balance himself and he went to his knees. She put both hands on his face this time and he kept his eyes closed and he felt her hands on him that way and his jaw was clenched, his teeth, top against bottom ready to grind down.
Her hands went through his hair. Then again. The breath burst from him, but he didn’t open his eyes. If he looked at her….
“Love me…Sam. Please…love me,” and she pressed her lips against his and his eyes opened and she was close and her arms went around his neck and she came off the bed and he stayed still and the room swung and swayed and he held like game sensing the danger…he did not move.
Slowly she moved her head back, her dry lips pulled away and he was facing her then, not looking off, not blinking.
“I ain’t…,” he had to clear his throat. “I ain’t a back and forth man,” he said.
She nodded. “I know,” she said.
“I’m too old,” he said.
“I…I understand,” she said.
“There’s no…love in me,” he said.
“Oh Sam,” she whispered. Her hand came back and he caught it and held it.
“I’m telling you,” he said firmly.
“I asked…to love you. That’s all,” she said.
“You got a husband somewhere?”
“What are you running from?”
“Nothing,” she said.
He watched her and he saw that lie. He saw it.
“You got a family?”
“Not anymore,” she said and her voice choked.
“Someone looking?” he said.
“No. No one cares,” she said.
He wanted to believe it. He wished he could. But none of it mattered. Not really.
“I married one woman. You should wait for that. For marriage,” he said.
“I’m done waiting, Mr. Sam. I am not waiting…anymore.”
“What are you asking?”
“I will be what you need.”
“You mean…like we’re married?”
“Yes. I mean that.”
“You see one? I don’t.”
He stood then, bones cracking. “Shitfire,” he said. Mind’s eye he saw her for the millionth time, all that silky skin, that offering.
“You some kind of whore?” he said. “What do you want?”
“I told you….”
“From me. Money! Pay!” he snapped.
She stood too. She pushed him some. He didn’t budge.
He grabbed her instead, nose to nose he held her. Then it changed in him. It changed and he put his lips against hers and she met him and grabbed him round the neck and he held her against him and his arms were around her and he kissed her. And he kissed her.
That evening he did not hasten. After chores he cleaned up. He combed his hair with water. He shaved.
He was methodical and he avoided any true thought on what he prepared for by telling himself he was getting ready for bed the same way he got ready when Ava lived. His wife Ava, that is. Man shared a bed with a woman there were rules.
Last thing he did was take his knife and pare his toenails. That was it then. He put on his britches without his long johns and went in the cold, crossed the yard, barechested and reasonable.
Earlier they had eaten supper and she had talked some, but mostly they ate quiet. He was not inclined to say more than he’d already spouted at dinner when she let loose with her wants and all. He had kissed her and far as he was concerned that sealed the deal.
Some things were ruined by continual chatter. He didn’t want to ruin this carefully balanced decision to behave married with no marriage. This was lower behavior in the eyes of some. As a rule, he believed in folks marrying but he had no stomach for it and she wasn’t inclined.
Oh he was not at peace with it, but he could act on things he was not at peace with. Mostly he reasoned and her sharing herself with him, he saw it. He knew it was coming. She wasn’t the only one had secrets. He knew that day she showed herself to him they would go this way.
He got inside and she had done dishes and they were stacked neat and she was in the bed, the blanket pulled to her chin. He hoped she was bare. Was she? Saints alive. She was not like any Ava he had known before her. Course he meant his wife.
Well he undid his britches and told her she best look away, but she did not avert her eyes for more than one moment. So he dropped them then and he was ready and she looked away and he knew she blushed. Well he figured she should.
He got under the covers and the bed not too wide, he bumped her and felt the flannel. Other times flew through his mind, times with his dear one who barely tolerated him and his rutting. She’d called it that.
But this one, she turned to him and put her arms around him and she kissed him and he kissed her back, her mouth sweet and warm and the thing inside quaked, not the pulling cause he was a man, but something inside that made a sound in the room and he thought that sound came from the house, from it’s spine running the roof line, each shingle straightening to hold it in, but no, that sound was him.
It had been years and her fervor was pressing into him. Well he had not been kissed like this. He had not kissed like this. He thought she’d say stop, but she met him and gave to him and he was the taker. That was the truth Sam knew. He was the taker.
Breasts. God breasts against him. He took one in his hand. She was fuller than…his wife. God she was…God Almighty….
He heard himself panting. “Slow…slow down,” he said aloud.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“No,” he said. He didn’t mean her. He talked to himself.
“No?” she pulled back.
He laughed some, more like a sob but he’d meant to laugh. Well, this laugh was under the sorrow trying to lift, this light heart pushing up, straining under the load of his whole life.
She lay on the pillow now and her lips were plump from his fumbling kisses and he touched her there. God, he was sorry. She was the most lovely thing. Why had he been so hard on her? Well he was a grindstone as a rule. Foley had said that once. Or maybe Ava. Well he might of said it himself and just assigned it to another as he was capable of that. But somewhere he got that message about himself. His love was a grindstone and it wasn’t love at all it was punishment.
He moved his hand enough to know she didn’t wear anything under this gown. He pulled it open down the front for it was made that way and he was patient now, patient like a saint. He couldn’t spill in her cause that made children and God knows he couldn’t do that again, he was no good at it, not the making of them but the raising of them, he’d given them to Ava like a peace offering, like the one thing he made right to staunch some of the wrong. Some of the hemorrhage he’d caused.
But this other…oh God there it was, an aisle of soft skin leading right to the place between, that soft fur. He had not had but his wife. Even in war. He was not driven to take a woman for fear of dying. He always planned to live. He knew he was meant to live. And suffer. And make others suffer. He figured that out young.
He was a man…made a vow. Once took he lived it. He lived it and he didn’t turn left or right but he went hellacious in it, need be. He raised hell, he went quiet and cold and he did his duty oh God. He did his time.
He turned away from her then, threw an arm over his eyes. He wasn’t out to make it harder than it need be. “I got no love in me,” he said once more.
He felt her move, that bed dip and groan and her warm leg over and just her on him then and she moved and he did pull his arm away and there she was, looking at him, hair streaming over her breasts and her righting things that were coming back to life in him.
“I got love in me,” she said. “I got love in me….”
Sam felt the closeness in the barn, the animals and sounds of spreading hay, that crackle of sun-dried grass scattered in the stalls, the humid warmth of a cartload of muck, and the cold and crunch of snow beneath the cart’s wheel as he dumped the load on the pile.
He looked up at the wide span of gliding wings as a hawk searched his dinner and he thought of that train ride back in ’17. They went by rail, cross country to New York before they shipped them out. Folks, whole families stood at the stations, someone holding the Stars and Bars, all along the way, Americans waving them on, proud of them, all of them their mothers, their fathers and kin. All of them united under that banner of blood and purity. And under the sky.
They were young. They were soldiers, going to war. For them, both God and country, salvation and damnation, they were on that glory train. And she asked him about destiny? He’d drank that water. Once he did.
Proud back then. Oh God. Scared as shit and ready to burst with hubris.
It was the first chapter, like his life got going, like everything that came before was wind-up for the pitch.
He felt a part of something big. No, not just the war…but humankind. He saw the country, flat and rolling, he saw it green and rich and poor and lovely. He saw towns and he saw himself having a place in it, a uniform and a cause.
Now here it was again. And him with no ideals left. Oh he’d been still for years, treading time and slowly being swallowed no matter how hard he pumped.
Back in ’17, truth was he wanted away. From Ava. He wanted the adventure and to be a man. He wanted to see the world and be good at something. So he spent that time crossing the ocean in the sick room mostly. He got to England and it was the hospital for a couple of weeks. Then he got better and he put on that heavy pack and crossed over to France and found his outfit. They came over together and he wasn’t about to let them down. They were glad to see him and he had his back slapped so many times his shoulders hurt.
The chapters of his life were piling behind him. A long life was built one day at a time, one moment like this, when cold air burned his nose and his eyes studied the quick pile of ghosts falling out of the sky to land on this mountain, like mist…like life. His life.
Behind him, the house. It had stood there how long, hiding him in its skirts. He had not loved it, or noticed it since it was built and Ava’s brother Caufield came up. Well they were young and worked for a month, hammers ringing. And after the war Sam came home but Caufield fell there in the arms of a foreign mother. He got buried in soil his ancestors had left until it called him back to die. When he, Sam, hit that American shore again he went to his knees and touched that warm earth. This was his Canaan.
And now this other. Ava. He felt her need as he felt her body, as he knew that. A heart that got the best of her and night before when he had her, he brought her release but she got anxious. She called it that. “I’ll be alright in a minute,” she said.
Finally she slept and he held her. He held a woman. This other. She fit in his arms. She did not complain that his arm was too thick and hurt her neck, or that he gave off stifling warmth, or that his breath tickled her ear, or that it was too close the way he held her, or too much.
But he saw her struggle and he did not penetrate her like man to wife. She was too spent to take him and he’d kept his wits and knew. She wanted him, all of him. She insisted he enter her and finish. But he did not rut on command.
Did she not know he was content to hold her? She had given everything to him. At any time he could have released, but he held himself. For years.
So now, this morning after, he went inside, a load of wood in his arms, two eggs in his pocket. She stood at the stove, looked at him over her shoulder and smiled. He felt that smile in the pit of his stomach. “Are you better?” he said going to the wood box.
She took a pot off the stove. He smelled the scorch.
“I can’t make oatmeal,” she said scraping some onto a plate. “I can save the top. Maybe.”
He went there, holding a laugh. “Give it to me,” he said. She let him take the pot but she wouldn’t look at him. He bumped her with his elbow but still she wouldn’t look.
Alright. She wanted to think it the end of the world so be it. He took the pan outside and scraped it into Sadie’s dish and that one was sniffing it curiously as he went back in.
He took the pan to the sink and put soda over the black. She was making the bed. He went there and took her by the arm and she tried to keep smoothing the quilt. “Ava,” he said. “You won’t look at me this morning?”
She pushed back her hair and looked. She had been crying.
“What?” he whispered pulling her to him, his arms around her. Could he say at this moment he dropped into himself, he fit himself, inside, like an auger turned and finally fitting the pit in his heart? That’s what it was now, to hold her.
She was silent for a spell. All the days he wished to plug her chatter and now he’d give a new dollar to hear her music.
“I…I fail you,” she finally said.
His hand smoothed the hair from her face. He pulled back and led them to sit on the bed. He moved her hair behind her shoulders. He traced a line around her neck and down the center of her chest. She wore the gown and it was too thin for the cold that crept in the house.
Tender. He was being tender. He knew this. He had known it with his wife…at first. And then his children. There were times.
But now, it rushed him, a tender man inside him. He was this. It floored him that he’d stood silent for so long.
He moved her onto his lap. She did not resist but was eager it seemed, to be close to him. He would have to be more careful to wash his hands. But he did wash up first thing that morning. Washed her from his hands, and he did not want to.
“It’s just a pan of oats,” he said. Even to himself he said that for it was waste. He did not mind.
“Not just that…,” she said, the big eyes.
“Sh-sh,” he said smoothing her hair.
“We’ll try again,” she said pulling away, standing. She gathered her gown at the hem and lifted it to her waist. She was bare and he…well he could look nowhere else.
“Ava…,” he swallowed, “girl….”
“Get your trousers off,” she said like she was in a hurry.
He stood slow but his hands were already undoing his belt. Her waist was so small and her hips so round and that patch of hair and her thighs…in this room…this…room.
He did not rut on command. Leastways…not before.
Sam took hold of her hair and leaned over kissing her soft sweet lips. The craving…for love…woke up howling. He moved his lips to her ear, the side of her neck, the flutter at the base of her throat, across her chest, her breasts…his mouth and raw need taking over. She was warm and silk and something desperate and it was a go and a yes, in her, in him.
He might have said, “Darling.” He heard that and more, pouring out of him as he kissed every part of her, him a quiet lover from what he knew, but now the dam cracked and crumbling and these words. Oh God her skin, alive and he positioned her beneath him and he appreciated…worshipped. Beauty. Astounding. Perfect and his eyes burned and he wiped quickly at tears.
She couldn’t catch her breath. Up high, some couldn’t with the change in altitude, but she hadn’t shown this struggle before. She seemed strong enough.
But when they tried to join, she got to panting every time and they couldn’t get it done.
Way Sam was seeing things—she got worked up, but not the way he’d hoped. This was something different. “Your lungs okay?” he asked cause a man went through the war thought on lungs. Oh yes he did.
“I’m fine,” she said trying again to align them, to get it done.
Not like this. And he didn’t believe her. Girl couldn’t breathe right. He put his hand over her heart. “Going like a bird flapping against the windowpane,” he said. He righted her chemise and moved off of her, laid flat and looked at the rafters. But he’d taken her hand. He held that.
“I just feel…maybe I’m too eager,” she said, and she was breathless.
They were each turned to look at the other. He held her hand tightly and just now reminded himself to lighten the hold. What he wanted to say, well he could squeeze any part of her while he said it and not know. “You well?”
She didn’t answer right off, didn’t hold his gaze but stared at his mouth as if those words sat on his lips like skin needing bitten off.
He sat up, swung his legs to the floor but he looked back at her and she looked at the rafters now. Anywhere but at him.
He was shocked first. Then angry. And it took no time between the two.
He got up. Naked and not a care about it. He sat at the table and stared at the fire burning there. She had a jar on the table holding willow sticks. He threw that against the hearth and it crashed loud. He was mad at her, he was mad at the broken, snapped stick called life, the twisted world where love was a lure, pain, a bin of coal one reached into to pull up an onion…or a snake. God…the silt under his feet was sifting and he felt that water rising to his chin and over his lips and the dip over his lip.
She was breathless…and he would be soon. He’d drown sitting at the table in his skin…with a heart gone to stone…long time ago.
She moved to sit on the bed…Ava. He didn’t look, but he knew the sounds. He knew most of what she did cause he’d given himself…and before, it’s how he was with his wife, keeping her corner of his eye, side of his head, in the margins of the road, but he didn’t move without knowing where she was, his wife, his wife Ava, and she was the other now, a shadow that moved to the back of his mind.
This one, this woman here…oh she took. She took. But suddenly…she was thee Ava…the only one. The sun had lit her…lit her bright…so bright he could hardly look.
It was a wonder she’d gotten so deep in him so quick. It was dangerous and terrible way he was feeling. He didn’t plan to care, didn’t want to. But truth of it…she had become the point. She’d become the fulcrum on which he balanced…hope.
For briefly he thought of her not being here…and he could not put her in this earth. The mountain could not swallow her whole. It would chew her first, into bits fit for swallowing, and he would not sit for it. He would not see her ground…down.
He’d burn it down first…this house he’d hammered into a life that could withstand the fate of his kind…but was nothing more than a cracker against it. He would burn it down…like Foley’s. Like those brothers. He would be unleashed then and this world would feel the scorch and wound. If she were to go down.
“You come up here,” he said, “to see that old man. Something wrong with you.” He held it in, this storm that made him hang there, made him hear the space between her breaths, and he studied her sitting side of the bed, cover over her bare lap, and her head hanging, her long hair hiding her face. There was no hiding now, not from him. There were her legs bare and naked, all the way up to the warm wet, but she hid her eyes, her look, her guilt.
He wanted it all, the truth.
“Answer me!” he yelled, though he had not put it in a question just a desperate…line. Direct as a shot. Aimed that way to kill both of them.
“Sometimes…I had a fever. It left me given to these spells. I get breathless.”
“You didn’t show it when they took you. You were strong enough then,” he said. But then, she wasn’t at the end when he’d had to drag her. When he left her.
“I don’t know why,” she said. “I don’t. But it was real…and I wanted to fight. I wanted to kill him.”
He got up then and went to her. He’d fix this, fix her. It’s why she’d come to him. It might be why he drew that first breath when his daddy slapped his back. It might make sense of it.
He pulled her hair away from her face and held it against the back of her neck and he lifted her chin and she sat straight.
He put his hand on her chest, his big rough hand that held no miracles at all splayed there.
“You came to me,” he said.
“You’re angry,” she whispered.
“It’s not all I am,” he said.
“I know,” she said. “I know that.” Her hand rested against the rough on his cheek.
“Breathe with me, Ava. For me,” he said.
She nodded, her mouth open, her eyes counting his slow breaths as she matched him.
After a spell he moved further onto the bed, bringing her with him, his back against the wall and her back against him, his hand on her chest and he breathed and his heart moved into hers and he felt hers fragile and open, and he penetrated the beat and shudder and over some time he slowed hers and smoothed it straight and the singular rhythm smoothed out and he held her and they rode this current of blood that flowed so silently and deep and bound them. And they floated on this bed, they lifted above the cabin, the mountain became a hill, distant and below as they soared so high and lifted up…as one.
It was cold. Sam raised the collar on his coat and it folded in against his neck. Sadie was quiet beside him, but he took his time perusing the yard and the woods beyond. The color had faded quickly from the trees, those black gums had shed their leaves like sad little stories, yesteryears and days gone by and testimonies of the many who slept beneath the earth…in graves and caves….
Those cedars, well they would grow anywhere, but even they took on a pale color now and those pines sloping down, down were washed gray.
He listened for movement but heard nothing beyond the scurry of chipmunks and a thousand pings as the first drops of rain landed on that thick crunchy bed—and he knew all the stories, years of them. Well, it was modern times now, two years past the second big war, but he had not changed. Not until this Ava. It was spring inside him, and first time he was not in harmony with this place bent on winter.
It was no longer its own world here. Not since the government came and bought the land, forced folks off didn’t want to sell.
But most sold out. When they offered that government money—it was manna from heaven and those buried in this ground, those generations…well they couldn’t squabble being dead.
The loggers fought. But the government won. And having been owned by them for two years when he went in the army, Sam wanted nothing to do with them, nothing from them. So as it went, he had outlasted most—the Cherokee, the old timers, the greedy and the hopeful and the visionary do-gooders. God put a man in a place. This was his, this pile of solid.
He was a simple man. But even a simple man was stinking with troubles.
What he knew–he’d held Ava the night through and she had calmed, she had brought the strong out of him, the thing inside that could calm…and he had breathed and she had followed.
Rain picked up. Rat a tat. He thought of France and the smells there, the sea a gray twist in the air…like the river was here. The way that foreign dirt drank American blood like a thirsty dog. But he’d made it back…to this fight.
She had a deep fear in her, this Ava. She was brave or reckless. He couldn’t tell. Love took something…what was, all of it, and it went through like water. Love was work. Love…took guts. And time. All a man had and most of what he didn’t. Love was big need, big hope. Big hurt. But he didn’t know. He didn’t know anything. He felt it. When he saw her…touched her…when he thought of her now. Oh…he loved like hell when he did. And he’d thought it was over…just in memory…for his children and the way he could ache sometimes. But now it was here…it was pain in his stomach and joy kicking up in his chest. It was true and it went along him, his veins, like music, twanging. Banging.
Not much was level in these hills and it did something to the way he thought about things, set them at a pitch. He could see more, that’s all.
His dead wife got past loving him. His children couldn’t stay. There was something more coming his way.
He got more than many did. Some died trying to get born. Some died soon after. He had a million ways to look at his good fortune. He really did.
But he was not given to a show. He was never given to that. He just kept going. Quietly, unless crossed.
And those brothers had crossed him.
And he would pay for loving. He would always pay.
Ava. Oh, Ava.
Inside, in the cabin, she was at the stove. She turned and smiled at him over her shoulder, cheeks flushed and soft and a woman. He had fired her too. He took a deep breath and it was not lonely.
“Come in,” she said, and he closed the door. She turned to him and he went to her, his big hands sliding around her and he pulled her in and her against him, fitting so right. His heart came together and he stroked over her long, soft hair and he told himself to slow down. Slow down.
“What is it?” she said.
“It’s nothing,” he said.
But it was everything…the leaves…one life to another, one war to another, one Ava to this other Ava, this one now that was his it seemed.
The first to come looking for his dead sons would be Dulcet. He wouldn’t do the justice.
That would come later.
Sam was eager to share with her. Book said to feed her. To care for her. It was what a man wanted…if he had heart. It was his only virtue.
He knew how to use the goods he bought and the goods he raised. He knew how to take bounty and turn it into the loaves and fishes so it was enough and more than enough. Beans went further with onions and carrots and potatoes and he dug those all year, but add some biscuit and ham or cornbread or hoecake and add some kraut from the barrel and it went on and on, oh and applesauce with everything. Well there was nothing better and he wanted nothing better.
She was art. She was revelation. She was humble when she felt pale. She was afraid inside but she was alive for all of it.
What was Foley like? She wanted to know that.
“He wasn’t like anything,” Sam said. “He was like himself. He watched birds.” Mostly sipped from a jar and fell asleep in the woods. “Couldn’t set a trap,” for shit, and that was fact.
Sam didn’t say Foley would have died without the help Pedro gave him trucking his food up here. Pedro stole from him though to make up for it.
She accepted what he said. Smiled at him, her elbows on the table, hands gathered under her chin.
She’d no idea what a smile meant. Love got in him deep. He felt it drill down. No telling why or how it picked that moment to break the rock….
He knew then…anything. He would do anything. For Ava Peabody.
So he mixed sugar into the snow and a little whiskey and they ate that quick in front of the fire and he told her how it was growing up. She had questions, but she listened mostly.
“I’m not afraid with you,” she said.
“You don’t need to be,” he said, cause inside…he’d laid it down.
They came in two trucks, came slow, and stopped at that place where the road washed out, that place hollowed out where the river rose from two sides and joined itself every spring. Put a man’s hopes of driving clear to the cabin up there with having Marlene Dietrich to supper.
So they piled out, and Dulcet looked back and the boys unloaded. Everyone had been anxious to come. Days of searching, weeks now, and Corey and Posey had not been found. The dogs were uncaged and them eager to run, set to whining and beating their tails for the chase.
As for the men, they were mixed–eager to take Sam down—but fearing him, too. His doings were legend around here. They figured he’d give them a run. It was always Sam took Corey and Pose. They knew, them the judge and jury.
Before Pedro died so easy in the chair where he’d breathed last, they knew he’d taken that woman up. Ava Peabody, she was called, and she was important. Least to her husband she was, him and the three he’d brought with him, fine boots and rifles kept.
New feud met old feud now. And these old ones never really went away. Even after years, three wars in fact, yes they endured, flaring up sometimes. Three generations of fighters, these men who served and came home and kept fighting. That’s mostly what he knew. This here proved it. And Posey, Corey, they were his blood. More-so than Sam. He buried Ava, there were no ties after that. Well he’d loved her and Sam took her off, from under his nose he won Ava and Dulcet’s heart got tore then and he lived with half. Had a good wife as it turned out, dumb and weepy, but she give him the boys and now they were gone for good.
He’d been fixing to kill Sam. Way before his boys, before word came he was cooking again. He and Pedro got to running their goods…well it wasn’t like the old days. These were modern times and things around here were organized, meaning you paid up. His boys had come to settle that, to kill Sam and take that woman. It was only fair. Ava Samuels should have been their ma and the business left round here was his. Anyone shined they paid to him. But not Sam. No.
And now this man’s wife and these fellas with him. Well Edward Samuels…his luck run out, that’s what.
And he did spit while he thought this, made a vow, Dulcet did. He would kill Sam himself, before these others. On sight. He would kill. That would be for Corey and Posey. He and the boys would take care of these strangers too. And he’d have him that woman, that other Ava brought here. And she would bear the brunt of it. She would serve him all the days of her life until he’d had his fill.
But Dulcet did not fill as a rule. Things around him more wore out.
The sun was coming up, they rode straight through, days through, until they shed their coats and the windows came down in that old truck. She fell asleep, her head bouncing on his arm, her hair blowing across her face, more than once touching his cheek like a truth…the truth. He loved her. And this is what you did. When you loved. You got that old truck running cause you had someplace to go now, no place to go, but the world unfolded and you went to search, to find. Because you had a reason. Because you loved.
Now she called to him, her in shadow the sun had risen so bright. She knelt close to the water like a child. Like his daughter might. His daughter he hoped to see. And soon. His boy.
Seagulls…he’d missed that sound. Didn’t know before he’d ever cared to hear it once more with the violent slam of the waves, the push and pull and the air, the salt in the air, and the damp in his hair and on his beard. Light here was different, saturated with shine that pierced.
Sam wiped at a tear and he waved back to Ava. First thing she and Sadie had run into the ocean. So had he. Boots on. Damn fool he was came to her. He laughed some now. She was going to build a sand castle, she said.
It was a wide feeling. He wanted nothing from the children. Just to see them, let them tell him. He never thought leaving it behind, his life. History. All that deep…even in the war it held him. It always held him. The trees sentinel each side of him as he’d driven away in the dark. The ghosts. The dead ones. The ones coming. He’d driven away, not to a war, not to fight.
But to live. To love Ava. He felt light come in him. And yes there was fear. But there was hope.
“Come on,” Ava said. “Sam.”
He stood and Sadie ran to him and he bent to run his hand along her head, her neck. Then he dusted his hands and went to Ava.
*Hope you enjoyed Sam and Ava’s story. If you would like to hear more about my upcoming work, please leave me your email in the comments section. Or check out my Author Page: amazon.com/author/dianemunier
Other works by Diane Munier: Post Civil War, MY WOUNDED SOLDIER series: the sixties, DARNAY ROAD and FINDING MY THUNDER: Present day, ME AND MOM FALL FOR SPENCER, LEAPING, and LOOK HOW YOU TURNED OUT. Don’t forget to comment your email so I can let you know about upcoming works!