By D.M. McGowan
The horse and rider came through the deep cut in the hills, following the trail of the yearling steers. It wasn't a difficult task, the cloven hooves having left a well-marked path in the late-season, crystallized snow. The tracker slowed, partly to try to hear any sounds the cattle might be making, and partly because each step took them farther from the safety of home. It didn't help that night was closing in fast.
The rider wore an old pair of coveralls, the cuffs of which were turned up and held in place by the mukluk laces tied around them. The coat was of heavy, brown wool that had become dark and shiny over the years. The outfit was topped off by an old, round-top hat, the brim of which had long since given up any resistance to the yearly attacks of sun and wind. Under the hat a bandana was tied around under the jaw to protect the ears, for although the sun had been warm, the breeze had been crisp and had turned to chilling cold with the coming dark. The barrel of a '73 Winchester carbine was nestled in the crook of an elbow, a homemade rawhide sling hanging under it. There was no saddle on the horse, but rather an old wool blanket folded to make a riding pad. From any distance it was impossible to tell that the rider was not a teenage boy but a woman.
She felt her horse, Ben, stop in mid stride and grunt. Almost at the same instant she heard the shot. Ben began to shudder and she jumped to her right - toward the closest cover - landing on a wall of young, frozen willow branches.
Looking back through the willows she saw Ben fall, breathe leaving him in an explosion. As he fell the blanket slid from his back and fell near the willows. She reached out and drew it toward her then rolled on through the willows to land in the icy snow.
She heard voices just close enough to be understood in the crisp evening air.
"Dang it, Rolley, yuh done killed him! I come t' hep with a few cows. Didn' plan on no killin'."
"Shut up," a second voice responded.
Janet looked for a way out. Back down the draw a few young poplar had formed the beginnings of a grove which would probably not survive the next heavy spring run-off. Up hill from these young trees stood a few spruce.
With the willows screening her from her attackers she walked slowly to the poplars, trying not to make any noise in the wet snow. When she reached the first sapling she swung the rifle over her shoulder by the leather strap then stuffed the folded blanket between stock and makeshift sling. She shinnied a few feet up the limbless trunk then looked over her shoulder to see if she might be visible from where she had heard the voices. Reassured, she climbed a few more feet until the young tree began to bend. Reaching out with one hand she grasped the limb of the next tree and drew it toward her. Going from tree to tree in this manner she came to the edge of the grove and slid back to the ground fifty feet from where she started. It wouldn't hide her trail forever, but it should - with the help of dark - give her a good lead.
She paused before turning up the slope, attempting to hear something more from her ambushers. Hearing nothing she started up toward the spruce trees. Near the top of the slope she stopped again and listened. By then it was fully dark.
"Ain't nobody here," the first voice observed. "Yuh done killed a horse."
"I told you t' shut up!" the second voice responded.
Janet Kingsley continued over the ridge and into the next gully. This wash was much less steep than the one she had just left and, with the bottom filled with brush, she stayed on the slope and turned to her right, heading back down toward the ranch.
She had gone only a short distance when her heart rate began to slow and she began to think. She wondered what the rustlers would do. It wouldn't be difficult for them to figure out that she would want to go back home. Would they ride down the trail and attempt to cut her off?
It would be easy, she decided, for them to outdistance her and wait for her where the draws all met and came out of the hills. In the dark she could easily blunder into them. That is, if they managed to shut up as ordered.
She decided it would be best to wait for daylight. The temperature was close to freezing, but her long coat and blanket should keep her warm enough to survive. The slight southwest wind still blew and the sky was overcast so perhaps the temperature would not drop too much during the night. Spring had been a long drawn-out affair, though pleasant and not too cold, and it was long past time for warmer weather.
She saw a large dark shape uphill to her right and approached it. It was a big spruce, its branches sweeping the snow. She crawled under and next to the trunk. The needles under the tree were dry, and the tree itself protected her from the wind.
Returning to the snow she took some in her mouth, sucking on it while she washed her face and hands. Removing the bandana from around her ears she used it to dry her self, then crawled back into her haven. She leaned the rifle against a limb close to hand, wrapped herself in the blanket, and leaned back against the trunk.
She worried about the rustlers, as anyone should worry about people who would shoot someone from ambush. But she worried also about her mother and son, Mark, waiting at the ranch house for her return. Neither of them knew that rustlers were involved, but they knew it was dangerous for anyone alone in the mountains, particularly during questionable weather conditions. Mark was only three and needed his mother around, and Janet's mother was not comfortable in anything but a city.
Margaret Lawrence had been raised in New Westminster. Her husband, Janet's father, had been Area Supervisor for the Transcontinental Railroad, and later the Canadian Pacific Railway. Margaret had been used to social events, shopping when she felt like it, and being in a financial position to feel like it often.
Janet, on the other hand, had found the life boring. When her father was transferred to Calgary, she could not have been happier.
At the age of sixteen, Janet was forced by her mother to go to one of Calgary's social gatherings. Not only did Janet not like such events, but she knew she would have to listen to her mother complain about how it was not "up to proper standards" and would "never be tolerated on the coast." But her mother insisted that she was now a young woman and it was time for her to make her place in social circles.
It was at that social that she met her knight in shining armor. It did not matter that his armor was a pair of freshly washed work jeans and an old suit jacket, or that his helmet was a wide-brimmed, high-crowned hat - not new but freshly brushed. It also didn't matter that none of his horses were white chargers. She had seen her dream and its name was Mathew Kingsley.
Matt and Janet had been married almost a year when her father died. On their small ranch northwest of Red Deer they didn't get the news in time to make the funeral, but they did go down to Calgary.
Learning that Janet was pregnant, Margaret insisted on returning to the ranch to help with the birth. Actually, it was the only course open for her since she could not afford to live in the city. During his life she had lived to the fullest extent of her husband’s income. Now that he was gone she could not afford even the essentials, and would rather run and hide than allow her friends to see her predicament.
Matt was pleased to accept his mother-in-law's offer. He had helped in the delivery of countless calves and foals, but was more than concerned about the arrival of his own offspring. True, Janet could spend a few weeks at neighbors twelve miles east, but what if something unexpected should happen?
Janet was not pleased with the arrangement. She had reluctantly followed her mother's directions for life in the past, did not want to hear any more of them, and certainly wouldn't follow them again. She also knew that with no place to go, her mother would be with them for far longer than it would take to have the child.
Mark was now three, and Margaret was still part of the Slash K.
"Janet, dear, I don't know why you insist on wearing men's clothing. It will give Markus an improper perception of how things should be." It was one of Margaret's favorite topics. She sat in the rocking chair doing needlepoint while Mark spun a small top on the floor.
"Because it's impractical to feed cattle in a dress, particularly in the winter time," Janet responded calmly and with little thought as she ate her soup. She had responded the same way to the same subject a thousand times.
"Well, I don't see why your husband isn't here to feed those filthy animals. That is a man's job, after all. Besides, Markus needs his father."
Janet sighed. "Matt isn't here because we are trying to make a life for ourselves. He's trapping."
"I still don't understand why he can't trap closer to home," Margaret continued with her usual line.
"Because someone else had this area already and we can't afford to buy it. Besides, Matt would still have to go up in the mountains and he wouldn't be home much anyway." Janet stopped a spoonful of soup half way to her mouth. Why did she continue to repeat the same things over and over? Her mother had been there the autumn Matt first rode away and for every trapping season since.
"If you need money, why not sell some of those beasts out there," Margaret advised. Janet was sorry she had paused, giving her mother an opening. "I mean, if you can't make any money from them, why have them?"
"We borrowed money to buy them and we have to pay that off before we can make any money from them," Janet responded, her anger rising. "You see, Mother, unlike some people, Matt and I pay our debts. And we don't spend money we don't have." She dropped her spoon in the bowl and stood.
Going to the door she sat on the bench and donned her mukluks. Now, in addition to frustration, she also felt guilty for having made such a remark to her mother.
"Janet, you've not finished your lunch," Margaret noticed, with more than a little disapproval.
"I have two more cows that still haven't calved," Janet responded. "I'll finish later." At the same time she thought, "Why do I feel guilty? I can't even insult her!"
"I would have thought it was warm enough for them to look after themselves," Margaret noted. "Your lunch will be cold. Besides, I would think a mother would want to spend more time with her son than with a group of cows."
"That was what I planned when I came in," Janet said. "And it's a herd of cows, not a group." She pointed across the room at her son who appeared to be paying no attention to the usual prattling of the two women. "And that is Mark. Not Markus, just Mark." Actually the boy's name was Markham - after his paternal grandfather - but that was another argument Janet didn't want to start with her mother.
Intent on the spinning top, his back to his grandmother, Mark almost allowed a smile to slip out.
One of the cows had already dropped its calf and the other was about to. Before going in for lunch, Janet had put fresh straw in what she called her 'baby pen', so she only needed to gently herd the cow and new calf into it.
The second cow stood with its back arched, tail raised, and a far-away look in her eyes. Janet expected it would not be too much longer, but was slightly fearful of expecting too much. From sixty cows she had sixty-one calves - two sets of twins - with nothing more serious than some frostbite to two sets of young ears. Things had gone especially well so far and she didn't want to jinx anything on this last calf.
After several minutes the cow relieved herself. She looked around at Janet then walked over near the horse corral, lay down and began to chew her cud. Margaret would have been impressed by the string of verbal abuse her daughter aimed at the cow – but not favorably.
Janet had no desire to return to the house, and another argument with her mother, so she decided to take a turn around the small pasture holding the twenty yearling steers. Perhaps by the time she had checked the fence the tardy cow would be ready to begin a birthing.
The small pasture was empty! The wire gate lay flat beside the trail of hoof prints in the mud. For different reasons Janet and her husband shared a dream of future independence. It was a dream she could see and touch every day in the small herd of steers. Now the dream – and the herd – had evaporated.
Immediately, Janet blamed herself. She had brought a wagonload of hay to them that morning on the still frozen ground and must have left the gate open when she left. As she hurried back to the buildings, she tried to remember the events surrounding her leaving the yearling pasture and going through the gate.
At the barn she put a bridle on Ben. He was fifteen years old, a horse Mat had raised, trained, and brought with him from his father's D-bar-K. He was the easiest to handle of the four horses Janet had available to her – an important consideration, since she did not have a saddle. At fifteen hundred pounds he was also the smallest of the four and the easiest for a twenty-year-old, one-hundred-and-twenty-pound woman to mount and sit on.
As she turned to leave the barn, Janet thought about how unpredictable the spring weather could be and grabbed a saddle blanket - an old wool blanket folded into a square - and put it on Ben. She certainly didn't need anything to improve the comfort of Ben's wide back, but if the weather should turn, the blanket might help to keep her warm until she could make it home.
At the house she told her mother that she would be gone looking for the steers. Her mother was flabbergasted.
"You can't leave us here by ourselves!"
Janet sighed. "I won't be gone long, Mother. There's nothing out there for them to eat yet, so I'm sure they won't go far."
"Well, if there is nothing for them to eat, leave them alone and they will come home. It's just irresponsible to leave a little baby - your baby - and an old woman by themselves in this wilderness."
"We need every one of those steers, Mother. They mean money to pay off our loan. You have been spoiling my baby quite well with me on the place. I'm sure you can continue just as well by yourself for a few hours." Janet reached behind the door and picked up the Winchester. From the shelf above it she took a box of shells and dumped a few in her hand which she dropped in the pocket of her father's old coat.
"Well! That certainly doesn't sound like gratitude! And why do you need to take that awful gun."
"Because it would not be very bright to go off by myself in this country without one. And you certainly won't use it." Janet leaned down and kissed her son. "Try not to take Grandma too seriously, Mark." She stood and turned to the door. "Bye, you two."
As she followed the trail of the yearlings, Janet thought once more about leaving their pasture that morning. She was sure she had closed the gate, but perhaps she was remembering one of the many other mornings when she had done exactly the same job. If she had not put so much of her attention into recreating the earlier events, or in condemning herself for her stupidity, she may have paid closer attention to the trail.
When she had been on the trail for more than an hour, she began to look closer at the tracks. The steers were still moving in a bunch, but should have been wandering, some of them heading back to the ranch where they had been receiving regular feed through the winter.
It was then that she saw the tracks of a horse. And then more. At least two, and possibly three or four horses. The steers were not wandering because they were being driven. They had not gone through a gate she had left open. They had been stolen.
She brought Ben to an abrupt halt and looked around. She was already well up into the hills and the sun had disappeared. As she thought about how she should proceed she buttoned her coat. For her to follow and return wandering steers was one thing. To follow rustlers was something else again, and not something she believed she could handle.
There was no reason for the rustlers to go west and north as they had been traveling. They would want to sell the animals, and there was nothing in the direction they were traveling except higher and higher mountains. Therefore, they would have to turn north toward the Yellowhead Trail and the new railroad, or perhaps turn back east and toward one of the larger settlements.
Janet decided to follow a little longer and find out which direction they would turn. Matt would be home from his trap line soon and perhaps he could discover where the animals had been sold if Janet could tell him the best places to look. They needed those steers. She urged Ben forward, but now they traveled much slower.
Something pulled at Janet and she came awake with a start. A stiff, dead branch caught her hat as she moved, knocking it from her head.
"Well Billy-be-damn if it ain't a woman," a strange, but at the same time familiar voice said.
Janet looked up to see a scrawny little man with bulging eyes and a scraggly beard grinning toothlessly at her as he held up the spruce branches. Behind him she could see that a new day had arrived and, looking into her den stood a square, better-dressed but equally dirty man holding her rifle. It was their pulling the rifle from her arms that had awakened her.
The second man turned his gaze off to the side and spit tobacco juice. "Better come have a look at this, Gabe." He turned back to smile at Janet as a third man rode his horse over and leaned down to look at her. This third man's clothes were also dirty, but it appeared he had both shaved and washed in the not too distant past.
The second man gestured with Janet's rifle. "Might as well come on out o' there, little lady. Reckon you'll find it a sight more comfor'ble over t' camp."
Janet rolled out from under the spruce on her knees but quickly stood and replaced her hat.
"What cha figure we should do, Rolley?" the thin man asked.
"Squeak, you ask too many dumb questions. You he'p the little lady back to camp. Gabe an' I'll foller yuh."
"This horse will ride double," Gabe said. "It will be better if she rides with me." Without waiting for a response he reached down and grabbed Janet's upper arms.
She was almost in the saddle before she thought to resist. Before she could do very much, however, Gabe grabbed her wrists and imprisoned them in his right hand.
"It is better to ride with me than walk with them," he said softly.
Janet stopped and looked around into his face. He did not smirk, nor was there the fire of lust in his eyes as she had seen in Rolley's gaze. She looked to the faces of the two men still standing by the tree and settled down.
Gabe slid back over the cantle allowing her to sit in the saddle, then urged his horse along the side of the hill, angling south, back toward the draw where Ben had been shot. While the other two men caught their horses and mounted, they gained several yards on them.
Gabe glanced over his shoulder, and then said, "Ma'am, you are in much trouble. I would not bother a lady, but they are not the same. Squeak is stupid, but not a killer. Rolley is a very bad man. He will shoot me – and perhaps you – with very little reason."
Janet looked over her shoulder at him. "Are you not one of them?"
Gabe nodded. "I am a cow thief. I have done many things to live. I do not murder. Or bother women."
"I am glad to hear you have such high morals," Janet said sarcastically.
"You do not show much gratitude."
"So far you've given me a ride," Janet noted. "I haven't seen you refuse to take your turn with me yet."
"That is true," was all Gabe was able to manage before the others came within earshot.
They stopped talking, but the other two, not realizing how well their voices carried continued.
"Whatcha figure she's doin’ here, Rolley," Squeak asked in his whiney voice.
"You sure are some dumb, Squeak," Rolley responded. "Ain't no woman's gonna foller a bunch a cows. I 'spect she's runnin' from sumpin’. Pro'ly lookin' fer a good man to look after her."
"Well, I could look after her. She could ride with us."
There was a short pause, then Rolley spit and said, "Shut the hell up."
Janet almost smiled. Perhaps there was a way.
The fire was still burning, though down to a few coals when they rode up to the rustler’s camp. Gabe picked her up by the waist, leaned over and set her on the ground. "I'll see to the horses," he said.
Rolley and Squeak dismounted and handed him their reins. Gabe rode off into the brush.
"Why, you must be real hungry, Ma'am," Squeak said. "We was just about to make up some bannock an' we got some deer left that Gabe shot. You just set over there on that log an' I'll whip it up." He was all nervous gestures and toothless grin.
Inwardly, Janet shuddered over the filth of the man, but she smiled back and said, "That would be very nice."
"Squeak, go an' sit down an' shut up," Rolley said gruffly. "You're makin' a fool o' yerself. This little filly's gonna be our cook from now on."
Sulking, Squeak dropped down onto the opposite end of the log from where Rolley stood.
From behind the brush where he was tying the horses, Gabe called, "Is it wise to have a stranger cook your food until you know something about that person?"
As he leaned her rifle against a log, Rolley stared at Janet, his eyes on fire. "Yeah, it is. I know all I need to know about this little lady." He reached down and untied a canvas wrapped bundle laying at the edge of the clearing and removed a bottle. "Except her name. What's yer name, little lady?" He pulled the cork from the bottle and took a long pull from the neck.
"Janet," she responded then stopped and thought about the Slash K brand on the steers. "Janet Lawrence," she continued, reverting to her maiden name. She looked up to see Gabe emerge from the brush behind Rolley. The nod he directed toward her seemed to confirm that she had done the right thing. Did that mean he knew she was from the ranch they had raided?
"Well, that's good, Jan honey," Rolley said, taking a seat on the log next to where he had leaned Janet's rifle. "We got us a grub-stake back up the draw here." He gestured over his shoulder with his thumb. "Spect yuh can hear 'em bawlin' and carryin' on."
"They're raising a fuss because they are becoming hungry," Gabe commented as he dropped to his haunches beside the fire. "We should be moving them away from here today and to a market." He poured himself a cup of coffee from the thick brew that had been simmering by the fire all morning then rose and stood off to one side of the camp.
Rolley shrugged as he finished another sip of rum. "No hurry. They can't get out of here without goin' by us. 'Sides, we need to spend some time today changin' that Slash K to a Rafter B." He leered at Janet. "Couldn't ask fer better company."
As she worked around the fire preparing a breakfast, Janet considered the appearance of each of her captors in hopes that it would supply some indication of their weaknesses and the treatment she could expect from each of them.
Squeak, for instance, did not demonstrate by his appearance that he cared about anything. On his feet he wore mukluks which appeared to be stuffed with something to improve warmth. Over these he had tied an outer layer of thicker leather to extend the life of his footwear, but it was all a soggy mess. His pants, also wet past the knees, were of homespun wool, perhaps made for a child since they were too short for Squeak despite his size. One leg had been torn and repaired with a long loop stitch of string. He wore no shirt, displaying the dirty red of his long underwear under an old and poorly patched wool coat that may have started life as military wear. One pocket of this coat hung low from what Janet thought might be a small pistol. On his head he wore a beaver fur cap with the ear lugs tied over the top. His greasy brown-and-gray hair hung to his shoulders.
"Yuh see, little lady, there's a war gettin' under way over t' Europe," Rolley explained. "Ain't no better way fer a fella to make his self a killin' than a good war." He giggled at his own wit, took a good pull from the bottle and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
Rolley was much better dressed but equally as dirty as Squeak. He wore well-oiled and well-used, flat-heeled, lace-up miner's boots. His trousers were of homespun wool, but of more recent make than Squeak's and protected by heavy leather chaps. His coat was of sheepskin, the matted and greasy wool turned in against a dark blue shield-style cotton shirt, and his hat was a dented and torn derby. It appeared that he sometimes shaved all but his upper lip, but had not done so for at least a week. Blonde hair just covering his ears may well have been hacked off with a knife. A holster was slung round his hips and held a pistol which appeared similar to her husbands .44-40 Colt. His boots, holster and pistol showed evidence of special care not evident in the rest of his appearance.
"Spread a few dollars 'round in the right places," Rolley continued, "an' a man can come out of a war with a mighty fine nest egg." He gestured over his shoulder toward the sound of the steers. "Them critters back there is the beginnin' of a kingdom. Pretty little thing like you plays her cards right, yuh might be a part o' that kingdom."
Gabe wore a dented and stained, but still serviceable Stetson over collar length black hair which may have been washed in the past few days. He was usually clean–shaven, but appeared to have avoided his razor for the past day or two. His plaid wool shirt was still relatively clean and covered by a Hudson's Bay blanket coat that showed signs of bunkhouse repair of some talent. His boots were of the high-heeled riders variety, well cared for but in need of replacement. What she had first thought were fringed buckskin leggings proved instead to be pants. Behind his belt she could see the handle of a pistol that appeared to be of the same size as Rolley's Colt but of a different make.
Janet's inventory of her camp-mates supplied little comfort. Only Gabe appeared to care about himself or life, and he had made it obvious that he would or could do little to help. However he had expressed some sympathy for her position. Would he interfere on behalf of his riding partners?
As she worked around the fire, Janet passed several times within reach of her rifle. As he sipped from the bottle and blathered on, Rolley watched her movements and grinned. Finally, after one of her passes, he placed the bottle down, lifted the rifle and levered the chamber open. Upon inspecting it he cursed, closed the bolt and set the weapon down again. It was only then that Janet realized she had not loaded the weapon. The cartridges she had taken from the house still rested in her coat pocket.
From the corner of her eye Janet saw Rolley leering at her again. "Yessiree, I can see where this empire buildin' could be a right comfor'ble experience," he observed.
When she had the strips of bannock dough wrapped around sticks and propped over the fire, she began to slice slabs of meat from the venison haunch hanging from a limb on the edge of camp. As she was doing this, Squeak rose and went to the pack from which he drew another bottle of the dark, Hudson's Bay Trade Rum. Rolley continued to sip on his, but Squeak took the top quarter of his fresh bottle in one long drink.
When the meal was finished roasting, Janet said nothing but took one of the bannock-wrapped sticks, another holding a slice of meat, and moved away from the fire. She hunkered down across the fire from Rolley and Squeak.
"I take it we can all dig in?" Rolley said, carefully leaning his bottle against the log before rising and moving to the fire. Before he could get a portion of the meal for himself, Gabe took his portion and returned to where he had been standing, back from the fire and to Janet's right.
Squeak refused to move even after Rolley returned to his seat with his meal. He continued to sulk and pull at the rum bottle, now only half full.
As she ate, Janet took an unguarded moment to remove two of the rifle shells from her coat pocket, holding them in the palm of her hand with her thumb. Her meal finished, Janet returned to the fire, took up one of the cups sitting there and rinsed it out with some of the thick coffee. As she sat the pot back near the bed of coals she allowed the two shells to drop from her hand into the fire.
Rising, Janet moved over to stand near her rifle but facing Squeak. "Are you going to drink all of that, or can I have a cup of it?" she asked with a smile.
Behind her, Gabe turned and stepped into the trees toward the horses.
Looking up at her, Squeak smiled back then passed her the bottle.
With the cup in her right hand and bottle in her left, Janet began to pour rum. When the first shell exploded she dropped the cup and grabbed the barrel of her rifle. Swinging the rifle up and behind she spun with her entire body.
The first explosion had thrown small coals on Rolley. When the second cartridge went off he jumped back and right into Janet's rifle. The top edge of the stock struck his skull just under the brim of his hat.
Janet noted that Gabe was no longer in the clearing as she turned back and brought the bottle down on the top of Squeak's head.
Dropping down behind the log she began to feed shells into the rifle. Her frantic fingers were having difficulty holding the cartridges. The normally easy task of loading the Winchester had suddenly become difficult. When she had the first one inserted she levered it into the breech before filling the magazine.
A quick glance showed that she had done serious damage to Rolley. He lay near the fire, his sleeve beginning to smolder, but did not move. Squeak, on the other hand was only stunned, rocking back and forth on his knees, moaning and holding his head.
With the muzzle of the cocked weapon still pointing toward Squeak, she continued loading. She found that her chest was heaving and she couldn't get her breath. The pounding in her ears was not stampeding cattle but the sound of her own heartbeat.
Gabe called from behind the screen of trees. "You have done well, Janet. I suggest you take Rolley's horse. It is the better of the three, and his rigging is much better than Squeak's. From the way you hit him I doubt he will need the animal anytime soon. Besides, it was he who shot your horse."
Squeak flopped over on his side, still moaning and talking to himself.
"The pack horse is broken down" Gabe continued, "and anyway, it would be best if you left as soon as possible. For myself I will now mount and ride away. I ask that you not shoot me in the back."
Janet stayed down behind the log, her breath now coming in short hard gasps, and the rifle muzzle still in the general direction of Squeak. Occasionally she glanced behind her to see if Rolley's smoldering sleeve had burst into flame, and to ensure that Gabe was not coming up behind her. To her right and behind Squeek she heard a horse break through the brush. She only watched as Gabe rode around the camp on the far side of the draw.
When the sound of the hoof beats satisfied her that Gabe was really leaving, she stood and stepped over to Squeak. Resting the rifle muzzle behind his ear she reached down and removed a small pistol from his pocket and put it in her own. His rifle she took up and threw into the brush on the opposite side of the clearing to avoid frightening the unfamiliar horses. Stepping back and over Rolley, she grasped the collar of his coat and dragged him away from the fire. She considered rolling him over to get at his Colt but worried that he might come to. She thought a lot more of just getting out of there
Janet was not long in leaving the draw. She ignored the too-long stirrup leathers and swung into Rolley's saddle. The steers were hungry and more than ready to return to where they knew there would be hay. Once Janet had rode in behind them they took off at a trot down the trail, some of them running through the camp and over the two rustlers. She hesitated only long enough to retrieve the bridle from the cold body of Ben before swinging back in the saddle and pushing on down the hill.
A half-hour later she stopped to fit the saddle to her shorter legs. The steers showed no inclination to veer from the trail home. As she shortened the stirrup leathers she noticed her heart rate and breathing had begun to slow their frantic pace.
"Now I'll have to listen to Mother go on and on about how I left her alone for a whole two days," she said to the horse as she pulled the lacing free. "Then she'll make Matt feel awful by telling him it's his fault that I was almost murdered over a few filthy animals." She finished on one stirrup and moved around to the other. "Then Matt won't ever want to leave the place again."
She was finishing up before she continued. "Which might not be all bad, at least I wouldn't have to listen to Mother's drivel all by myself."
She remounted and continued, liking the feel of what she was already coming to think of as her saddle. It was also a fine, smooth-gaited horse.
"That's not really fair," she continued. "It's not fair to make Matt have to put up with any of Mother's prattle when I can protect him from it. It's not fair to expect that she would be hard on him over this. She probably won't say a thing about it to him, thereby making me feel guilty because he doesn't know how much danger I was in, and because I have kept something from him."
The steers were beginning to tire and wander, looking to fill their stomachs with the old grass that was showing now in more places than were covered by snow. She drew her mount in a little and began pushing the yearlings along the trail.
"Yes, that would be more like Mother. Then she would think she had a new power and control over me."
She had also lost Ben, Matt's one remaining tie to his childhood. She knew that the sight of Ben had brought back many pleasant memories for her husband.
"And I don't want Matt to feel he's tied to us. He should be able to leave, but want to stay.
"Besides, for the next few years at least, we need that trapping money. Otherwise we'll never have our own life."
She looked at her mount and rigging with a critical eye. True, she had lost one of the light team but she now had an excellent saddle horse. She also had a fine saddle and bridle, an extra rifle and a pistol.
Holding her own rifle and the reins in one hand she slid Rolley's rifle from the scabbard far enough to identify it. It appeared to be similar to her Winchester '73, though both the lever and breech looked slightly different. It also had a saddle ring and appeared - though she didn't remove it all the way - to be shorter. She did remove it far enough to see the 44WCF stamped into the round barrel, making it the same caliber as her own octagonal barreled '73.
Next she removed the pistol from her pocket and studied it. The barrel was perhaps three inches long and, though the stamping was worn, she could make out "S & W" along the left side. She fiddled with what appeared to be a catch ahead of the hammer and finally tipped the barrel and cylinder down to reveal the bases of five cartridges all stamped ".32 S & W."
Closing the pistol again she placed it back in her pocket. "Well, I suppose, if we don't have the trapping money I could always rob somebody. I'm certainly armed to the teeth and well mounted."
After she had turned the steers back into their pasture and ensured the gate was shut, Janet rode toward the barn. On the other side of the house she could see another rider trailing a pack horse piled high with fur. Matt was home.
She met him by the house and they swung down together. As they embraced, Mark and Margaret came running from the house.
When the greetings had been completed, Matt turned back to his wife, holding his son in his arms and a twinkle in his eye. "You bin makin' a habit out o' feedin' the cows with a rifle. Must be hard to get the hay down the barrel."
Janet looked down at the Winchester in her hands then back to her husband. His eyes had gone beyond her to the strange horse and saddle and the twinkle had turned to puzzlement.
Janet stepped closer and put one hand on his shoulder. "Matt, I have some bad news. Ben died."
Later that summer, Joshua Casey's brother, Gabriel, rode up to a group in central Montana as they branded the latest batch of calves.
Joshua was busy with a knife when the horse came up, but it wasn't long before he realized someone was sitting on a horse and not roping, or doing anything else to help with the work. Finished his latest cutting, he swung his attention around to the rider and saw his brother. The hair was very long and ten years had put some creases in the face, but it was definitely his brother.
He stood, the pocket knife down at his side, and nodded. "Afternoon, Gabe."
Gabe nodded in return. "Josh." He removed his hat and wiped his forehead with his sleeve. "Looks like you picked a hot one." He swung from the saddle.
"That we did," Josh acknowledged.
"Well, I'm not much with a rope, but I'm a crackerjack with a knife and a branding iron."
"We could use the help," Josh responded, turned the knife around and passed it to his brother. "You gonna be home for awhile?"
Gabe nodded, and then gazed off to the north. "Reckon I'll stay if you'll have me. I get out there I run the risk of gettin' into somethin' I won't be proud of."
After roundup that fall, Matt Kingsley went hunting for a few days. He trailed a moose back up into a draw where he shot it in a small clearing. In that same clearing he found what was left of a skeleton lying next to the remains of an old fire. There was a small, round hole, perhaps from a bullet on the right side of the skull and much of the left side was missing. The remains of what might have been a shirt and pants were also there. There was no sign of boots, belt, coat or hat.
With only an axe to work with it was difficult, but he managed to cover the bones and cloth in a shallow grave. During the fifty-eight years they were together, until her death in 1969, he never told Janet what he had found.
“Marriages are made in heaven,” said Rose to Mrs. Lydia Carpenter, as they sat eating breakfast one nippy morning.
“And how old are you, Rose?”
“Why? I’m 20 of course.”
“Yes and of marriageable age,” said Lydia Carpenter. “I should introduce you to some eligible bachelors.”
Rose blushed crimson at that. Lydia Carpenter smiled as they both looked out at this grey morning.
“Do you care for more tea?” Rose asked.
“Yes, please if you don’t mind putting that kettle to the boil.”
Rose pushed her chair and got up. Shawl hanging from the back of her chair, her long pink frock swayed as her narrow waist bowed like a branch of tender cherry blossom. Her full bosom taut behind the well fitted dress. She walked luxuriously to the fire place to find the kettle hanging from a curved dowel. Taking it to the tap, she filled it up and brought it back to the fire-place; looking at the crackling fire beneath, a gentle smile spread over her lips. Mrs. Carpenter picked up her crochet knitting, laying on the white table cloth.
“Well, what do you say?”
“I don’t know,” Rose said shyly.
“While marriage is important so is love. Love is all the more, I’d say.”
“I have never been in love. I wouldn’t know,” Rose said.
“Tell me Rose, how do you feel about that boy, what’s his name? Yes. Mark?”
“Which Mark? The one you met at the flower show, last winter?”
“Yes, that’s the one. Hasn’t he offered to take you out?”
“Yes, he did so. But I refused.”
The water boiled in the crackling fire in the mean time. The glass windows fogged up through which she couldn’t see much. Warm by the fire, just looking at the window pane gave her the shivers. Rose picked up her shawl from the back of the chair and wrapped it about her. She hung the kettle on the curve of the metal hook over the fire-place and waited for the water to boil before bringing it to the tea table. She poured the water into a pot of tea leaves. As the tea brewed in the teapot, she sat down on her chair, receptively.
“Now tell me Mama. Are you and Daddy in a real hurry to get rid of me or something?” Lydia laughed as her matronly pot belly jiggled under layers of dressy frills.
“How on earth did that get into your head? Not for a moment. However, we would very much like you to find love too, you know.”
“In matters of the heart, patience is a virtue. Don’t you think, Mama?”
“In matters of the heart, spontaneity is a virtue, I would say. The way we fell madly in love.”
“ Thank God. If you and Dad hadn’t picked me, I would still be rotting in that orphanage. Strange that my real parents never attempted to find me.”
“Maybe they did. The orphanage being what it is, I’m not surprised that they didn’t find you. You can look for them now. Surely, you remember something from the past.”
“Vaguely, I do remember a farm and my toys, a doll in particular.”
“Yeah. Look, we would be going to Toowoomba this evening. Care to come along?”
“Yes, it is a bit of a ride from here but,” she poured some tea into her cup and Lydia’s absentmindedly.
“We’ll take an early bus. Now tell me about Mark.”
“What about him?”
“Your relationship with him.”
“It didn’t work out.”
“A hopeless romantic?”
“No, not even that.”
“Then what is it?”
After some times, she dropped the bomb.
“I think he’s gay. He’s just kidding himself.”
“Oh really? What a loser? Not to worry, dear. Your knight will come along.”
Through the fog, she suddenly viewed a faint glint of light from a lantern. The light drew closer and closer until a shadow appeared.
“There’s someone at the door,” she said.
“Who could that be? Unless it’s Peter from Badgerys’ Creek.”
“Who’s Peter?” Rose asked.
“Peter? Oh, he’s the guy who’s trying to cut a deal with your dad. They met at the Farmer’s market last year.”
“Should we let him in?”
And then there was a faint knock on the door
“Yes, yes. It’s so cold … so dreary…”
Rose got up from her chair and tripped over the basket of crochet on the floor as she walked towards the door. A few anxious knocks and then they stopped. Rose pulled herself up slovenly and continued. She swung open the door and saw a man standing.
“Hi,” Rose said.
“Hi, is your dad here?”
“No, he isn’t but you are most welcome to come in.”
“Don’t let him stand outside Rose, please close the door. The cold draft is getting in,” said a disgruntled Mrs. Carpenter.
“Hello, Mrs. Carpenter, I can’t stay, please tell your husband that I was here with the deal,” he said loudly from the door-steps.
“Okay, I will, Peter. How has old Brown been since he got back from the hospital?” she screamed.
“Really good. He wants to honour this deal from last year’s Hog’s Market.”
“Yeah, I’ll tell Mr. Carpenter. It was nice of you to come out, Peter,” said Mrs. Carpenter.
“Nice to see you too.”
He looked at Rose. Rose raised her palm slightly to say bye when she added impulsively.
“I’m Rose by the way,”
“And I’m Peter. Peter Baxter. Nice to meet you, Rose.”
“Yeah, same here,” she smiled.
“I’ll be on my way then!”
Saying so, he turned around and left. The light from the lantern showed him the way down the foggy pathway. Rose kept her steady gaze as the stranger melted in the haze. Mrs. Carpenter looked at Rose after Peter left and noted a sudden change in Rose’s demeanour. She looked really flushed which highlighted her delicate cheek bones. Lydia, eyed Rose around the room as she walked to and fro.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes, yes, I’m fine,” Rose said.
“What seems to be the matter?”
“You may fool yourself sometimes, but not always.”
“What do you mean? Oh, I’m tired. I need a nap.”
Rose left her in a hurry as she almost ran to her bedroom. Inside the privacy of her room, she closed her eyes and kept thinking of the man, she had just met. He continued to appear and reappear in her mind for no reason. This was irritating her. Love at first sight? But how can that be? Questions, one too many, raged clueless. If it were love, then what? What of it? What was next? Somehow she just knew that it wasn’t. However, she felt strange. Rose lay down tentatively on her bed and scribbled nonsense on the foggy window. Her arms dangled lazily by the bed. It felt there was no strength left in them. And then an idea struck. ‘Let’s meet him,’ she decided at a spur of the moment. Her lower belly ached excitedly at the thought. She breathed in and out a few times to calm herself down. That night she ate no dinner, and certainly didn’t accompany her parents to Toowoomba, but fretted all night walking the corridors of her mind. When she did fall asleep at night, she dreamt of a life of luxury and freedom. In the morning, she felt decidedly relieved in her decision that she must meet this Peter.
Next morning her adopted parents were downstairs at the breakfast table. As she came down the stairs, they looked at her somewhat concerned. She missed dinner last night. That was somehow more of a concern to them, than her present state of mind. Because her emotional upheavals didn’t show up on her face.
“Are you okay?” Lydia asked.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” Rose answered curtly.
“Well, you didn’t come downstairs for dinner! I went to call you and knocked on your door a few times, no answer.”
“I must have fallen asleep. I’ve had trouble sleeping a few nights, now.”
“Oh, what on earth for?”
Her parents kept quiet and gestured her to sit with them at the table.
“Will you have something to eat now?” asked Mr. Carpenter.
“Yeah, I’ll have a toast.”
She took a toast, off the toast rack and laid butter and jam heavily on it. Mrs. Carpenter sighed thinking if she was feeling unwell.
“There’s something I want to tell you.”
Both her parents looked at her.
“I would like to get to know Peter a bit better.”
“Which one?” Mr. Carpenter asked. “You went out with so many, I’ve lost count.”
“That’s part of the problem, isn’t it?”
“What is?” asked her father, concerned.
“What about it?”
“I have relationship problems. I get bored as soon as I get to know them a bit better. However, I am willing to give Peter a try.”
“Which one though?”
“The one that came yesterday in the fog.”
“She means Peter Baxter,” supplied Lydia.
“Oh, I see. He’s a good bloke over at the old Brown’s farm.”
“Where is this old Brown’s farm?”
“Not in Queensland but, in NSW. They come here every year for the market.”
Rose kept quite. She had an inkling suddenly remembering her orphanage in NSW.
“I’m going to accept Brown’s offer and I am meeting him today. Care to come along? asked Mr. Carpenter”
“This very minute! Go get dressed, while I get the UTE started.”
Having said this, Mr. Carpenter got up from the chair. Rose got up too leaving Lydia slightly bemused.
“I hope this works out for you,” Lydia murmured.
“So do I. So do I,” said Rose exasperatedly and ran up the stairs in two breathless pace to get dressed.
Mr. Carpenter waited for her in his UTE when she appeared. She wore a pair of riding boots jeans and a leather jacket. Looking elegant, the emerald in her eyes glittered. She quickly entered and sat snugly next to him on the passenger seat. He looked at her and she shot back one of her fetching smiles. He drove the UTE around and hit the road. The last time she did that - smiled like that; she had Steve wrapped around her little finger until he proved to be a real bore. All he did, was spend time with his horses, not even a horse whisperer, but just an average guy with mediocre ambition. Five summers away, they were once lying together on a hay stack. Exchanging sultry kisses, that afternoon, out of the blue, he asked her to marry him.
“Marry you? Just like that?” she had yelled trying to break lose from his embrace.
“Why? Am I so despicable?”
“I didn’t say that now, did I?”
“Then why won’t you be my wife? I have a hundred acres. We could have as many as five children? Bake heaps of bread and Shepard’s pie?”
“And wash your clothes, clean your dishes. Be an ideal farmer’s wife?”
“What’s wrong with all that? I thought you loved me!”
“I do. But I won’t make a typical wife. You see that, don’t you?”
“I think you would make an excellent wife.”
And then Rose started to imagine a life of drudgery. Growing fat, and old and loud with Steve as each day passed. No! No, bloody way! That was not the life she wanted. Two days later she broke up with him.
With Peter Procter from the neighbouring farm, she had another relationship until she realised that Peter spoke softly with a slight lisp. It took her several weeks to finally decide that she couldn’t live with this lisp. What did she want in the end? Even she was at a loss to find? Clearly, there was a problem. With all her lovers, she wilfully declined every advances they made towards making love to her. Kissing was where she always drew the line. Frustrated lovers called her a tease. But in her mind she knew exactly what she wanted. That inevitably caused disaster and relationships ended in bittersweet encounters. She might not have made slept with any of these men, but that didn’t make her a Penelope either; she set out to have as many as ten, but betrothed to none. Her lovers, nevertheless, loved her just the same. It was her spirited personality that they fell victim to; so much so that they were prepared to trade anything off in exchange. She knew that and exploited it to her advantage. She made them buy her the most exquisite gifts of diamonds, emeralds and sapphires. The worldly things that she found absolutely fascinating. They sold cows, pigs and horses to bankruptcy to buy these gifts for her. Compunction didn’t hold her back from accepting them. What moved her most were compliments lavished upon her. With an attention span of a fly, she listened for a moment and then forgot all about them in a day or two.
Once though, she felt a tinge of pity for the baby-faced Robert. They had met at a ball. When the party was at full swing and everybody was drowning in dance and beer, Robert came around and asked her hand for the next dance. Oh! He was such a baby, she thought. Fresh out of nappies. His red lips had never been marked with a kiss. His un-blotched cheeks were a bowl of smooth Jello. He stood there before her, with a virgin smile upon his dribbling lips, and an extended arm. She considered him for a while before taking his hand. It was just a dance and that would be the end of it. There wasn’t even a semblance of manliness about him. He looked like a mere boy, fresh out of school.
“How old’re you?” she asked once they were on the dance floor.
“Oh, no need to be unduly alarmed. You could pass for 15 quite easily.”
“Ha ha ha.”
“Rest assure, I’m not in high-school.”
“What do you do?”
“I am a student of philosophy.”
“Over at UQ.”
The dance had ended. Hot and flushed, they walked out of the sweat-smelling, crowd-filled room into the balmy breeze. They stood next to each other. Robert looked at her closely. In the glint of the moonlight, her opal-shaped eyes shimmered like the deep emerald seas. Brighter than the green goblins and the fairy nymphs of the woodlands, her green pupils twinkled when she laughed. He held them under an unveiled gaze of mesmerised awe.
“You know, I have been looking at you across the room for a long time thinking how to ask you for a dance”
“You did? And now that you’ve asked. Are you pleased?”
“Yes, care to go out with me?”
Men fascinated her as much as they disgusted her afterwards in a love-hate feeling. But she liked him. She liked his innocence.
“Sure, I live with my parents over at the Carpenter’s farm.
He looked at her face, her full breasts and her naturally seductive lips. She parted them to indicate what she wanted. Then his came down gradually and met hers until her lips started to twitch.
“Is this your first kiss?”
“Am I your first date?”
“What about you?” he asked and then regretted straightaway.
She laughed and said candidly.
“Oh, no, no. There had been many. One too many, I’m afraid.”
“I don’t mind. I like you.”
Robert was enchanted. Her words rang like waterfall in his ears. Her delicate profile made her look vulnerable. Like Leda the swan, she sailed unaware plump with love juices. But he had other plans. He did not want to tarnish this ravishing beauty just yet. He wanted her love to be mellowed first and then wait for the right time. In the mean time courtship ensued. They sat at the park holding hands and kissing occasionally. Sometimes he talked and she listened. He talked about existentialism, platonic relationships and she listened until one day she decided to get out of it, as this relationship was going no where. Robert was devastated when she told him that she was no longer interested in him. However, she suppressed the real reason that she had only played him by ensnaring in her net. She was becoming bored already. Robert was such a bore. Many days had passed at a stretch when all Robert did was sit beside her and look into the profound green of her eyes. He compared them to cosmic lights and indulged her. She enjoyed his company sometimes, even enlightened at times, but not for long.
At grade 12, she stopped going to school. At least, she knew what she didn’t like and was not prepared to put up with it. Nights, however, were the loneliest of all times. This was when she didn’t get a blink of sleep until the early hours of the morning. She moved through the corridors like an apparition, a creature of the night.
“Wake up, princess, we’re nearly there.”
“What in Badgerys Creek, already?”
“Yep, did you sleep well?”
“I didn’t sleep at all?”
And then the main door of the farm house flung open. Old Brown walked through followed by Peter Baxter. The surroundings did nothing to stir Rose. She remembered nothing. They got out of the UTE when the dog also came around and sniffed Rose’s feet and barked. One look at the dog, and she moved forward to shake hands with farmer Brown.
“Hello, I’m Rose. Rose Carpenter.”
“Nice to meet you Rose. I gather you already know Peter?”
“We met briefly,” she smiled.
Farmer Brown did not have the faintest idea of what was going on. But he felt odd. An indescribable feeling crept in. Mr. Carpenter came forward and shook hands with him which brought him back.
“Let’s all go inside,” farmer Brown said at last.
As they set out to go inside, Rose saw the fence at the far end and felt a little tug in her heart; the same spot where Emma had found her first talking to the voices. There were sudden flashes and that was all. Now that she had transformed into this beautiful confident woman, she paid less or no attention to those memories. Once they were in the living room, Rose looked around, not particularly interested in anything but, something did catch her eye and stayed. When farmer Brown was clearing her room a few days before Peter’s arrival, he had kept only one of her toys, her doll as memorabilia and had placed it on a corner table by the window. A typical farmer’s house otherwise, Rose looked at the doll and in a flash suddenly saw it walking. She blinked and quickly turned her gaze towards Peter who had been eyeing her up for a while now. Rose too eyed him but warily. They smiled. Her mind wasn’t on business but all along to check Peter out. However, she felt a strange distraction which was not out of volition.
“Would you like to look around?” Peter suggested.
“Yeah, sure why not?” she agreed.
Peter took her upstairs to her own room, once, but now it is his, a room which had undergone a massive makeover. Rose entered. This stark and dismal set-up was upsetting.
“Can we go outside, please? Such a glorious day, doesn’t seem right to be wasted indoors.”
“Oh, yes absolutely! I just thought, I would show you around starting with this house, while they talk business. This house which has given me so much!”
“Like what?” she asked as they exited through the kitchen door and saw old Brown wink.
“I don’t know if I should spill out the beans just yet.”
“Please do, I wish to find out more about you.”
“Well, there’s not much to say. It’s quite a simple life, I’ve led,” he swallowed. “You see, I grew up in an orphanage not too far from here.”
“Ah huh, I’m listening.”
“Just when I thought I had enough of the orphanage, I decided to leave it. I saw this farm, first thing on the day I earned my freedom and approached farmer Brown for work. He not only gave me work but gave me a life.”
“Interesting story! My story is similar. I was in an orphanage too, for about three or four years, perhaps the same one.”
“You mentioned your name was Rose?”
“Yes, farmer Brown lost his little girl, whose name was also Rose,” he frowned. “The Carpenters are your adopted parents, aren’t they?”
“Yes, but just like your farmer Brown, they too have given me a beautiful life. They lost a daughter to small pox. They adopted me to replace her. But I was loved just the same. I never felt like an outsider. On the contrary, I’m angry with my own parents who never even attempted to find me.”
“Yeah, I can sympathise with that.”
Rose thought she had struck friendship with Peter, a relationship vastly different from all the others. It was pleasant to be able to have a plain conversation without any emotions of fleeting romance.
“We need to find out if we both went to the same orphanage,” Peter insisted thoughtfully.
Nevertheless, when Rose looked at Peter’s ponderous look, she resisted just the temptation of falling in love. It was all going very well so far. She didn’t want to ruin it by rushing into it. By far, she found Peter the most eligible of all her suitors. Before the conversation ended, Mr. Carpenter and old Brown came out of the house and stood a few feet away from them. Rose realised it was time to go. She gave Peter a cursory glance and mumbled that she was interested in what he had to say, so could they meet up one day perhaps at her place in Maleny Mountains, Queensland? That was okayed by Peter. She ran back to her daddy, Mr. Carpenter, while Brown kept watching her between a deep bushy frown. She reminded him of his own Rosie who would be just about the same age by now, if she lived. However, Rose’s body was never found, so Brown kept hoping that Rosie was still alive; a hope that never diminished. They said good byes and hopped back on to their UTE.
Brown had plunged into mortal blindness. It never occurred to him even once that little Rosie could be in the orphanage. Indeed, the orphanage was an epitome of a ‘rabbit proof fence,’ where all strays were held up. Like a company, it earned money from the government for keeping streets clean of urchins and then putting them up for adoption.
The business deal was a success. There was going to be many deals like this in the future too but what bleak chances did these profits hold for farmer Brown? Nothing excited him much lately, apart from what he saw today when he saw young Rose, Rose Carpenter. This provoked gushing memories not only of little Rosie, but also of wife Emma, who left him rashly so many winters ago.
Peter's Short Story~
Are you in or are you out?
So you think it was easy? You think it was? Well, I'm here to tell you it wasn't. Here you have a village of young boys and girls, enjoying life in Sicily, running and playing; Mom and Pop making a life on the farm growing crops and making fine wine, then whoosh, everyone is gone. The next thing you know you are in a city the size of Sicily with enormous buildings stuck together with windows only in the front and back. There isn't a field on which to play for miles and miles, if anywhere. Other kids in your situation play in the streets, dodging cars and masses of people going in every which way. You can't leave the neighborhood because you don't know where you are or where you might go, so you are just there, trying to understand your new world. Easy...? Going on is what is called the Depression. Hell, the depression was there when the kids landed. No one had any money and very few knew how to get any, so you simply endured, day after day, in the streets of the Ghetto of New York City - a sadness as bad as any the mind could conger up. Now, an opportunity comes your way. Some big guy reaches into his pocket and pulls out a handful of coins and offers them to you. Is this guy crazy, or something? Of course you extend your hand and accept...you would have to be out of your mind to refuse. Is that the end of the story? It's just the beginning, because that money wasn't free. All you had to do was deliver something from where you were to where you were told to go...that's all, or was it? Sadly this seemingly kind act was the beginning of the life of crime dictated by the corrupt organized crime family, incorporating just about every form of government, and you were becoming a small part of it, for now. As time marched on, you were given more money and assignments more risky. Risky? What did that mean? All you did was deliver something from one point to another, but little did you know how significant that delivery would be, that is, until it was too late for you to escape the grasp of crime family, you were in and you didn't even know it. As the days go on, so will the rest of this story, but that's all for now,
by MANGALAM SHIVA.
Rains were pouring steadily through thick dark clouds. Rain drops were falling down on to the roof of the red colored building from the leaves of the trees. The building had a grand look situated inside a forest far away from the bustling city of Pune in Maharshtra. The site was chosen deliberately and carefully for the complex where Senior Citizens could live and die in peace without suffering any noise, traffic or crowd pollution. This complex had access on two sides with smooth cement roads to the highway which ran twenty miles away. The organizers had desired to provide a safe abode for elders who were not wanted by their sons and daughters due to their need for privacy and independence. It was not a charitable arrangement but a paid for facility where all the basic amenities are provided for the senior citizens who can breathe and eat freely without any tensions and arguments from their sons and daughters in law.
Many sons and daughters were working in foreign countries like USA, UK and Australia etc. They had settled with their families in these countries for years. Since the parents could not adjust themselves with the alien environments and with their sons and their wives, the seniors were admitted in Senior Citizen Homes like this facility where the parents can live comfortably in known familiar situations. Some parents paid from their pension incomes and others got financial supports from their children in meeting the expenses involved in the homes.
The staff was very well trained to be polite and kind with all the residents. The management took great care in providing all the facilities to them. The chief matron visited each one of them in their rooms periodically to ensure that they had no problems. The resident Doctors took regular rounds to assure the senior citizens about their welfare.
The two entrances for Senior Paradise are fully guarded by security personnel round the clock to safe guard the complex. It was noon time and the elders had completed their lunch, some in the common mess and others in their rooms. A few of the elderly males and females were sitting in the veranda and watching the scenes outside. It was getting colder due to the rains and they had shawls covering them. Their ages varied from 70 upwards. The residents enjoyed the peaceful atmosphere of this place. The food was only vegetarian which was easily digestible by seniors.
The complex was well thought of facility with in- house medical team, library and gym, swimming pool with life guards, indoor games, prayer hall and hygienically maintained kitchen. They had tie ups with nearby hospitals for major treatments.
Three elders were being pushed in wheel chairs by assistants from the canteen to their rooms as they were unable to walk. We can see a few senior males and females slowly walking on the veranda and exchanging their views on the food they ate. Four wardens were closely watching everyone to ensure that no one faces any problems in the complex.
Grandma Lakshmi was reclining on an easy chair with her legs on a wooden rest with a soft pillow on it, inside her room. She was facing the window and enjoying the scenes outside. She was happy to see the rains and the drops falling from the trees. She tried to remember how many monsoon seasons she had experienced in her life. She lost track of the numbers as her memory was not quite strong. But she felt elated to feel the coolness of the rains and to look at the green leaves on the trees. She had completed her lunch inside her room served by the maid Priya whom she liked very much. Priya was very kind and patient with her. She always had a smiling face even if Lakshmi threw tantrums at times. Grandma Lakshmi insisted on eating herself with her own hand and never allowed Priya to feed her. She has to maintain her pride and independence after all. Her food intake was very limited with a small bowl of cooked rice mixed with curd and a glass of warm porridge. She will have a few pieces of cut fruits in the evening. There will be a glass of warm porridge in the night with some medicines prescribed by the doctor.
She was very frail, with no flesh on her body. She just existed on her skeletal bones. But she was fairly sharp in her senses as she could see and hear even at her advanced age. With support she could walk slowly inside the room. She watched a few classical music programs in the TV provided in the room. She was not interested in watching soap operas like some other inmates do in their rooms. In the evenings the friends from the nearby rooms will give company to Lakshmi and share their grievances. Lakshmi will usually listen and give some soothing advices to them. She liked watching cricket games in the TV. Her husband had taught her about this game and she was fascinated to watch matches played by the Indian team. She knew about many prominent Indian cricketers right from Nawab of Pataudi, Sunil Gavaskar, all the spin bowlers like Prasanna, Bedi, Venkatraghavan, Chandrasekar, and Kapil Dev to the present day cricketers like Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguli, Laxman, Dhoni, Kohli and many others. When the matches were telecast she will explain the nuances of the game to Priya.
Grandma Lakshmi started thinking about the events of last week. Her younger son Jayesh had come to the complex three days ago and talked to the Manager for taking Lakshmi to their house in Mumbai for two days. She did not ask for the reason and Jayesh merely asked about her health. He wanted to surprise his mother about the purpose of his taking her to his house. When she reached home she found lots of her relatives greeting her. She lay down on the bed as she was tired of the car ride from Senior Paradise to Jayesh’s house.
She got up early in the morning as there was lot of noise in the house. In any case she slept for 3 to 4 hours only in the nights. Jayesh asked her to take bath in warm water. She was given a new saree to wear. After a cup of hot coffee she relaxed in an easy chair. She saw three Pundits getting ready for some Puja in the house. They touched the feet of Lakshmi and asked for her blessings. Jayesh informed her that Lakshmi is completing her 100th birthday and they are performing Homam to celebrate the event. Lakshmi was happy to observe the Homam rituals after long many years. The smoke emanating from the Homa Kund was very fragrant with aroma of medicinal herbs. Though the smoke was affecting the eyes, yet Lakshmi enjoyed the proceedings of the Puja.
Homa, a Hindu Ritual where one uses Fire to purify self and for the grant of one’s wishes is an important one. The Homa also called Havan, is mainly intended to purify the Mind and spirit. Homa is of two types. Yaaga is performed with a specific purpose in mind. Yagnya is performed because it has to be performed as a Duty and no results are intended. In a Homa, Fire, Agni is invoked and oblations are made to the Deities in the Fire.
She found that some seven or eight girls and boys came near her and wished “Congratulations Grandma for completing Century.” She could not understand what they were saying. “What are you all telling me?”
“Grandma, you have completed 100 years and we pray for your continued strong batting for many more years. We seek your blessings”. She laughed and hugged her grand- daughters and great grand-daughters and younger boys one by one. Tears were flowing from Lakshmi’s eyes. She could not control her emotions. It was wonderful to see all the children of her sons and their daughters at this home. It sank slowly in her mind that she has lived in this world for 100 years and has seen many wonderful events and many tragedies in her life.
Her sons Venkat and Jayesh along with their wives knelt before her and sought her blessings. Then all the members of the younger generation of the family and the near and far relatives knelt before her for her blessings. In Hindu tradition, it is a great honor to get blessed by a person completing 100 years of life. After the Puja people started eating their lunch. Suddenly some young girls rushed to her competing with each other to feed their Grandma. There was a bowl with cooked rice mixed with Rasam. Each one wanted to feed Lakshmi with a spoon. She asked them to feed her one by one so that all will be happy. They gave her a small cup of sweet porridge to complete her lunch. She hugged each of the girls and got great satisfaction. She relaxed on the easy chair as all the others went to the dining hall for their lunch. Lakshmi closed her eyes started reminiscing about her past life.
It was raining steadily and the ten year girl Lakshmi tried to catch the rain drops. “Lakshmi, don’t get wet in the rain, you will catch cold”. Her mother was shouting at her. Lakshmi dried herself and started playing with her friends in the veranda. Her father was resting on the easy chair. She heard her mother telling “Lakshmi is getting to be a big girl. We should start looking for some boy for marriage.” In that era, boys and girls were married off at very early ages as per old traditions.
Her father who is a teacher in the local school told her mother “Look, Lakshmi should study well and complete her SSLC (11th standard of olden days). Girls should be reasonably educated so that they gain confidence and can stand on their own legs later. Marriage can wait for another five years. We will not talk about this till then.” Lakshmi was studying in class V. In those days there were no Nursery, Pre KG or KG classes. Children were directly admitted in Class 1 when they reached five years. She was studying in the same school where her father was teaching. She was a bright student good in Mathematics, Sciences and other subjects.
After school time, she helped her mother in the kitchen and in other household works. She had a few friends in the neighboring houses and had a great fun with them. She passed her SSLC examination with high marks in 1931.
Rajender staying nearby used to come to their house with his mother. He studied under Lakshmi’s father who had high regards for Rajender. After passing his SSLC, he joined a private bank as an accounts clerk, in Bombay. Lakshmi’s parents liked Rajender and talked to his parents for his marriage with Lakshmi. They consulted their family astrologer regarding the matching of their horoscopes. As the astrologer approved the alliance, their wedding was conducted within two months.
Her mother advised Lakshmi “Dear, you are now going to your new house. You will have to adjust with Rajender, his parents, his brother and sister. Even if you find any differences of opinion with anybody, you must smile and be patient. We have taught you many morals which will come handy to you in adapting to the new surroundings. We wish you all the best in your married life,” With tears in her eyes, Lakshmi bade farewell to her parents.
They came to their house in Matunga, Bombay. Lakshmi found everything strange here after living in a small town in the south. She learnt the systems in this house and became friendly with all. Rajender took her to many important places in and around Bombay on Sundays.
Lakshmi was feeling sad as she felt lonely. Rajender, passed away three years ago at the age of 80 years suddenly due to heart attack leaving her alone. Since then she was staying with her sons in turn. Venkat her elder son was staying in Delhi with his wife Meena. Lakshmi spent six months with him and came to live with Jayesh and Geetha in Bombay for six months. Her sons also were getting older. Venkat had retired from his services and was Sixty years. Lakshmi and Rajender stayed in a separate house in Pune till Rajender was alive. They sold the house and Lakshmi started staying with her sons after his death. She never felt comfortable with her daughters in law in all these years. But her life was becoming miserable since she had to depend on them now.
Jayesh was still in service and he shifted to Bombay when he got a higher post. His wife Geetha treated Lakshmi as her enemy for no reason. Luckily Lakshmi did not transfer the money she had in her account after selling their apartment though there was some pressure from her sons and their wives. She was getting a good amount as pension in her name after the death of Rajender. She started thinking about her future. She patiently listened to all the direct and indirect taunts from Geetha and Meena. They considered Lakshmi as a liability. They had a grouse on her that she was not giving her savings to them. Lakshmi made it a point to give a major part of her pension amount every month to her sons when she stayed with them.
Jayesh came near her and said “Amma, I want to tell you something. I am also getting older and our two daughters are getting ready for marriage. As Geetha and I will be very busy in finalizing the marriage proposals for the girls, we will not be able to devote any time to you. I have consulted Venkat who also feels that he and Meena are having lots of health problems. They too are finding it difficult to look after you when you are with them. We have decided to admit you in a Senior Citizens Facility near Pune. This is a famous organization which looks after the seniors very well. We feel bad about this idea but we are helpless. We will pay the admission and deposit amounts. The monthly expenses can be taken care of from the pension amount in your bank account.” Lakshmi was shocked to hear the proposal but she kept quiet. There was no point in arguing with her son when they have already decided that she was not wanted in their homes. She agreed to be enrolled in this facility.
Her granddaughters and grandsons argued with her sons about this nasty idea. All of them loved Lakshmi at all times. They had grown up in the loving care of their grandmother. But their parents prevailed over them. Lakshmi moved to Senior Paradise within a few days. She has been living here since twenty years. She attended the marriages of her granddaughters and grandsons in these years and returned to the facility after one or two days. She regretted that she had become an unwanted person. But she never cried even once. Rajender had drilled in her mind that she should be brave at all times and never cry under any circumstance.
Their first child was born and he was named Venkat. They adored their child giving all attention and love to him. The child was very puny in the earlier years. He had wheezing problem particularly in the monsoon and winter seasons. Bombay had very severe winters and heavy rains for at least three months in those years. Lakshmi and Rajender kept vigil day and night. There were no good doctors in that era and the child was treated by a family doctor. They were scared whether their child will survive at all. They could not bear the sight of wheezing breathes from the child in the nights. The doctor had asked them to give a small dose of medicinal brandy to get over the cold climate. Getting any type of brandy in those years was very difficult unlike now. Rajender somehow arranged to get some for treatment through the network of his friends. The first three years were difficult for Venkat. Luckily he survived and started gaining some body resistance and immunity. Rajender joined in Reserve Bank of India which was started in that year by the British as an officer.
Jayesh was born in 1940 and they were delighted to have a second son. Rajender studied for his internal Bank examinations and got promotions to higher positions. They were transferred to different cities in RBI limits. Finally as the children grew he got a permanent posting in Bombay as Chief Accounts Officer.
Rajender was becoming weaker but had no major ailments. He continued with his walks in the mornings and evenings. She kept herself busy with visits to the nearby temples. They remembered their earlier years by looking at the photo albums. When they saw their young children in the photos, they could not control their tears.
Lakshmi had made hot coffee for both of them in the morning. She waited for Rajender to wake up. He normally got up at 5.30 a.m. daily. After washing his face and brushing his teeth, he will sit on the easy chair to enjoy his morning coffee. It was already 6.00 a.m. and he had not come out from the bed room. She went inside to wake him up. There was no response from him. She felt his pulses and found none. His body was cold. She rang up their family doctor who inspected and confirmed that Rajender had passed away due to massive heart attack five hours ago. She cried silently and asked the doctor to inform her sons on phone. She took the hands of Rajender and kissed them. Her great friend and mentor has passed away. She was worried about her future. He was a pillar of strength for her. She had learnt several practical things from her husband in all these years since their marriage. She was an ignorant, simple small town girl when she married. Rajender molded her since then. He taught her to speak, read and write English. She learnt many lessons from him to be bold, to be independent; to be sincere at all times, to face the problems in life courageously and other practical tips.
When she was about 45 years, he taught her banking formalities right from the role of banks, how to fill pay-in slips, how to remit cash or check, in the account, how to withdraw cash from the account etc. This gave her confidence in the later years.
After Rajender passed away, Venkat and Jayesh discussed with their wives and convinced Lakshmi to wind up the apartment and stay with them. She stayed for six months with Venkat and with Jayesh for next six months. They persuaded her to sell the apartment as the real estate prices were high then and there was no point of keeping it closed. The money was deposited in her fixed deposit account as insisted by her. They were disappointed that she did not give the amount to them. She decided to abide by the advice given by Rajender in this regard and gave a part of the pension amount every month to her sons with whom she stayed.
Lakshmi could not get along with her daughters in law. When she realized that they did not like her advices and guidelines she decided to keep quiet and spent her time with her granddaughters Shruti, Tulsi, Jaya and Aditi and grandsons Varun, Arjun and Rahul. They all loved her immensely.
As time went along, situation worsened as her sons’ wives found some faults with her and entered into arguments with her. Her sons naturally took their sides and she was isolated in their houses. When Jayesh gave the suggestion that she will be shifted to Senior Paradise Lakshmi accepted immediately. Since 1995 she was staying here reconciling to her destiny. In the initial period she could not sleep in the nights thinking about her sons and the way they treated her. But as advised by Rajender, she controlled her tears. Whenever she felt anger in her heart about the ungratefulness of her sons, she immediately admonished herself and pardoned them for their ignorance. This was the case with almost all the senior citizens living in Senior Paradise. So her case was not unique. They shared their sorrows among themselves and consoled each other. They made up their sorrows by diverting the minds by taking part in indoor games like chess, carom board, by music and other activities. The bitterness in their minds evaporated slowly.
The boys were growing. Rajender taught them in the evenings after they returned from the school. In those days there was no extra tuition system. She coached them in Maths and moral lessons. Rajender took care of English and other subjects. Though she had passed SSLC, she was weak in English as she had studied in her mother language, Tamil.
Rajender started coaching her too in English which she learnt along with Jayesh from alphabets. He insisted that she should learn reading, speaking and writing English. It took her four years to be comfortable in the language.
There were many hardships and problems in their life. Rajender’s salary was just enough to maintain the family. His parents were aging and needed to be looked after health wise. He took loan from his provident fund to get his two sisters married and the installments were deducted from his monthly salary towards the repayment of the loan. The boys were growing and their needs also grew. They curtailed their desires and devoted efforts in educating their sons. They decided that their sons should become Graduates and get good jobs.
There is no need to elaborate the hardships they underwent as they considered it was their duty and responsibility to take care of their children.
Rajender and Lakshmi travelled to many places in the country after his retirement. They went to many famous temples and visited important tourist places in India. He got a good amount as pension which was comfortable for their separate living. They had bought a small apartment in Pune with his savings and retirement funds. They went to meet Jayesh and his family once a month and spent a few hours with their grandchildren. Rajender had repeatedly told Lakshmi. “When I am not in this world, you should not depend on our sons as they have their own families and priorities. You should not be a burden for them. Keep the pension amount in your bank account. If for any reasons you have to sell this apartment keep the funds in a fixed deposit amount in your name. I will arrange for making two separate WILLS one for me and the other for you. The funds will be transferred to our sons only after your death. I am telling all these for your protection.”
She realized in the later years that his words have come true now. Her sons and their wives were greedy and pestered her for the money she had saved in the bank. Her parents and Rajender’s parents passed away within a period of two years.
Rajender maintained his health and mind very nicely through daily exercises, walking, strict diet norms and reading habits. She too learnt and practiced some of the exercises from him. He never had any major illnesses apart from seasonal colds, fevers and age related tiredness.
Their sons graduated in Science. Venkat joined in a private firm as Sales representative. Five years later, Jayesh got a job in a Central Government office. They got married to girls from good families from Madras when they attained the age of 25 years. Venkat got some promotions in his career and was transferred to Delhi. Jayesh got a transfer to Madras after a few promotions. Rajender and lakshmi were alone in Bombay in the spacious Railway Quarters. When the children were with them, the house was bustling with music, their voices and laughter. There was absolute silence after they left them. Rajender kept her busy by coaching about banks, cricket games, chess, carom games etc. They had some arguments at times over the affairs of their sons. But they used to convince each other by logical reasoning. It seemed silly to her now thinking about such quarrels.
They visited their sons in Delhi and Madras every year for two weeks at each place. The few days they spent with grandsons and granddaughters were memorable. The children were very much attached with Rajender and Lakshmi.
As Rajender was retiring in another year they decided to purchase an apartment in Pune. They were staying in Bank Quarters which had to be vacated within six months from retirement. He had planned one year before and booked an apartment in a housing complex in the suburbs of Pune. Once the building was ready they shifted to their new apartment. Their sons had come while they shifted to the new place.
After retirement Rajender kept himself preoccupied with reading, writing stories and shopping with Lakshmi. They made new friends and life proceeded peacefully. Their sons came for visiting them with their families once a year and spent a few days with them.
Venkat called on phone in the night. “Amma, Meena will have the delivery in another 6 weeks. Can you come and help us? I know Daddy will be busy with his work and he cannot come. He will have to manage himself for at least 4 months when you are here. Talk to Daddy and let me know the date so that I can book your train ticket from Bombay to Delhi.” Lakshmi talked to Rajender who assured that he will manage cooking etc., in her absence. When he is tired he will take dinner in the nearby restaurants.” She went to Delhi knowing that Rajender will find it difficult to look after himself for 4 months in her in her absence.
The baby was delivered in good health. Things were fine for the first month. Problems with Meena started slowly as she found some faults with Lakshmi leading to arguments at times. The stage reached when Venkat decided to send his mother back to Bombay in just three months.
This process replicated every time when her grand children came into this world. Her services were needed in the initial period at delivery time. Once the children grew and stabilized she was sent back earlier than planned. Lakshmi did not mind this cruel treatment but took it as her duty to her grandchildren. Her sons and their wives showed their selfishness in the harsh treatment to Lakshmi.
“Grandma, are you sleeping? Come to the bedroom and lie down.” Aditi, her granddaughter took Lakshmi to the bedroom for resting. She has been rewinding her life in the last two hours.
Jayesh took her to Senior Paradise two days after the ceremony. All her grand and great grand sons and daughters bid farewell to her. They all cried and felt very sad that Lakshmi has to leave them and to live in seclusion.
After coming inside her room, she started wondering how long she has to live more. On many nights she had asked herself when death will come to her. What more she has to achieve in this world? How long she will be a burden to the Bank as they are paying her pension even after so many years of Rajender’s death. The world will be over crowded if all the seniors decide to stay even beyond their normal ages.
Anyway, she enjoyed two days with her sons, their wives and with all the grand and great grand children. What more she can ask in her life? She had prayed to God many times to end her life. She has no complaints against her sons. So far she were alive, she will give solace to her friends in this facility and will share her experience and knowledge with them. She watched outside. The steady drizzling of rain and the chirping of the birds while flying from one tree to another brought smile in her face. She closed her eyes contentedly.
Priya came to wake her up after two hours as dinner time was nearing. “Grandma, please wake up. We will go to the toilet and you can have your dinner.” There was no response from Lakshmi. Priya touched her shoulders and found that her hands were limp. She found that there was no pulse in her wrists. Her body has become cold. Priya ran to the administrative office and brought the Chief Matron who was in charge. They realized that Grandma has passed away in her sleep. They found dried streaks of tears from her eyes. Whether the tears were from happiness or from sorrow, only Lakshmi would have known before she had signed off.
They called for the doctor who also confirmed that she has breathed her last, two hours ago. Jayesh was informed about her demise. Lakshmi got what she desired, after becoming a CENTURIAN.