OUT WEST : NUMBER TEN
It was one of those things that make people wonder at times whether such events come about by happenstance or design. One coincidence affecting the same pair of people in the same place at the same time may be regarded as just part of life’s rich pattern, but two occurrences of that kind in quick succession might be interpreted as fate. The first arose when the toss of a coin decided that a horseman would ride one way rather than another at a particular moment.
Will Grant could perhaps have been best described as one of those pieces of flotsam that drifted around the West. For twenty years he had moved from place to place and job to job, making enough money in one location to press on to wherever appealed to him as the next port of call. There he would do enough work to set himself up for a little more wandering. He’d tried his hand at a variety of occupations and had acquitted himself well in all of them. He was capable of almost any kind of labour. A wiry five-foot-ten frame made him physically agile enough for whatever came up, and he was well equipped for any thinking that might be required.
Born and raised in Missouri, Will had left home at seventeen. His parents owned a store and had hoped that their only child would take over the business in due course. They were doomed to disappointment, for Will had wanted to see something of the world. This divergence of views led to an uncomfortable domestic position which young Grant resolved by starting out on his travels. He wrote home from time to time but had never been back there and didn’t intend to unless a parental death induced him to do so. Occasionally, when he was in one place long enough to get mail, he received a letter from his mother. The last time had been eight months ago and both she and his dad had been well.
For some time Will had been thinking about his future. In two decades of peregrination, he had seen a great deal of the land around and to the west of the continental divide, but he was well aware that he would sooner or later face the choice of either settling down somewhere or probably becoming an old vagrant. The second possibility wasn’t attractive. Maybe thirty-seven was the right age for a man to stop roaming. A permanent home had advantages.
On an overcast day late in July, Will was riding through Montana, heading for Idaho, when he lobbed up a silver dollar as a way of establishing whether he would go east around the hill ahead of him or climb it and see what kind of view that would offer. Following the coin’s decision, he ascended fifty-odd feet. The vista was not much different from that at ground level. Around the isolated rise, the land was flat for miles in every direction.
Ten minutes of leisurely riding brought Will almost to the end of the hill, which fell away gently to the arid-looking plain. Just as he was about to descend, he noticed, off to the west, what seemed like a homestead. That should mean water for horse and rider. Will negotiated the slope and headed for the two buildings – a cabin and a barn. He’d noticed from the hill that someone was working outside and as he got closer he saw that it was a woman. She was trying to set a fence post and seemed to be having quite a tussle with it. Intent upon what she was doing, she didn’t hear her visitor’s approach until he was almost upon her. She turned and looked up. “Do you want something?” she said.
Will sensed a wary, defensive attitude on the woman’s part. He tipped his hat. “Afternoon, ma’am,” he replied. “I was hoping to get a drink for my horse and myself, but if you don’t mind my saying so, you appear to have a tough job to do there. Mind if I give you a hand?”
The woman wiped her brow. “I guess I could use it,” she said. “Help yourself to the water over there first.”
The immediate outcome of the encounter was that Will wound up planting not one but three fence posts. The woman worked alongside him and as the afternoon progressed they exchanged information about their respective backgrounds. Her name was Myra Hawkins and she was a widow, two years older than Will. She had a son aged thirteen. The family had moved from New England, lured by the promise of the Homestead Act.
The couple had proved up as required for ownership, though the work had been hard. Myra explained that they would have been far better off if they had taken land further west but they hadn’t known that until it was too late, so they’d done their best in trying circumstances. Barely a year after they had assumed title the husband, Jim, had died of a heart attack. That had come out of the blue, as neither of them had known that he had a weakness of any kind.
Myra had been battling on for two years. It seemed clear to Will that she was the indomitable type, as she mentioned that most of the other homesteaders who had taken land nearby had become dispirited and either moved to some other part of the West, or gone back to where they had come from. Only a few had qualified to own their places and of that handful the majority had finally left the area.
There was no talk of any monetary compensation for Will’s efforts – he wouldn’t have accepted that anyway – but he was invited to partake in the evening meal. Even though Myra had been working hard for some time before her visitor’s arrival and had stayed with him throughout his four-hour stint, she got on with the cooking, not pausing for even a minute’s rest.
After the meal, Will was about to ride off when Myra suggested that he stay the night. There was room in the small barn. The offer was accepted with gratitude. The only jarring note since Will’s arrival was the surly attitude of the boy, Josh, who turned up just in time to eat. His mother was obliged to speak sharply to him about his manners, the rebuke causing him to retire to his tiny lean-to bedroom. Myra apologised to her guest, who dismissed the matter with a grin and the observation that he remembered how he and his friends had behaved when they were the same age as her son.
The following morning, Will’s leave-taking was postponed again, this time ostensibly because of rain. However, the truth was that, with Josh having gone to school, neither Myra nor her visitor was anxious to part company. They had breakfast together and as they ate, Will mentioned that he had noticed gaps in the barn’s wooden roof and some rot in several of its wall panels. When Myra said that she simply couldn’t get around to everything in a timely manner, Will volunteered to do what he could.
Repairing the barn took much longer than had at first seemed likely – or perhaps Will tackled the work in a more leisurely way than he’d initially intended. Four days later he pronounced the structure as sound as he could make it. While toiling over that job, he’d seen a few other things that needed attention. He offered to deal with them and for nearly three weeks in all he turned his hand to a variety of tasks he’d never tried before, while Myra fed him. Young Josh remained sullen and Will tried to ignore him.
There was so much to do around the place that Will wondered how Myra had coped alone. She was of slightly above average height for a woman and sturdily built, but it was astonishing that she hadn’t been overwhelmed by the physical demands placed upon her. Yet she never complained, though she did admit that the results didn’t justify the effort. Still, there appeared to be nothing else for her to do but struggle on. She seldom laughed, which wasn’t surprising as she had little to be joyful about. Ah well, that wasn’t really any of Will’s business, was it?
One morning, three weeks after Will’s arrival, Myra went out to call him in for breakfast and found him saddling his horse. She was disappointed but concealed the fact. “Leaving us, Will?” she asked, keeping her tone casual.
“Yes, Myra. I figure it’s about time to get across the mountains while that’s still possible.”
Conversation over the meal was somewhat stilted for a while, then Will went into full flow, explaining that he’d tried various occupations. Among other things, he’d worked as a copper miner, lumberjack, sawmill hand, stevedore, security guard and freight wagon driver. The truth was, he finally admitted, that in all the positions he’d filled, there had been a definite end to the day’s labours. He was accustomed to having evenings to himself for recreation and spending what he’d earned. Homesteading seemed to be different. There was no end to the chores and no money to be made. Then, in this part of the country, there was the possibility of cabin fever in the long winters.
Though Will’s analysis made dismal listening for Myra, she had to agree with it. The settler’s lot was all too often a thankless one. There was no sense in labouring the point and seemingly nothing more to be said. Shortly after eating, the two parted company with a few banal words, each sensing that something more might have come from the other but neither supplying it.
Ten days after Will Grant left the homestead, Myra Hawkins was standing by the stove, chopping vegetables. The weather was unseasonably cool, perhaps a portent of the bone-chilling months to come, but the door was open, admitting a fresh breeze. Myra was dwelling on her drab life, in which the only notable events seemed to be emergencies of one kind or another. Like some other boys of his age, her son was becoming unmanageable and was of little use around the place.
Sunk in her morose musings, Myra was surprised when the light from the doorway was suddenly blocked. She looked up to see a man standing there. That was puzzling, as she had heard nothing of his approach. He was of about average height, heavily built and had several days’ growth of black stubble. A gun was holstered at his right thigh. His face broke into an unpleasant grin that revealed yellow teeth. “Well, well,” he said. “A little lady all alone.”
The man’s demeanour sent a tremor of alarm through Myra, but she tried to keep her presence of mind. “I’m not alone,” she replied. “My husband will be back soon.”
That brought a chuckle from the man. “Woman of your age should know it’s wrong to tell lies,” he said. “I been camping out on that ridge yonder for two days an’ I know for a fact that you don’t have a man here. There’s just you an’ the boy, an’ he won’t be home for a while.”
Myra was now well and truly frightened. “What do you want?” she snapped.
“Well now, I have quite a few wants, an’ you’re goin’ to satisfy a couple of ‘em. First you’d better get that grub cookin’, then you can go back yonder” – he waved at the bedroom door – “an’ we’ll have a little entertainment.”
“I’ll give you a meal but you can forget the second thing,” Myra answered.
The man’s attitude changed to downright menace. “You’ll do as I say,” he growled, “an’ you’ll jump to it, right now. I’ve a mighty persuasive argument here.” He patted his handgun and started to move towards Myra but had hardly lifted a foot when an arm snaked around the door frame and a revolver butt slammed down on his head. He crumpled to the floor and there, standing behind him, was Will Grant.
Amazement and relief swept through Myra. “Will,” she cried. “Thank goodness you came, and just in time. But why?”
“Just a minute, Myra. I’ll take this bird’s gun and tie him up. When he comes to I’ll take him into town and hand him over to the marshal. He’s probably wanted for something but even if he isn’t, I’d say that threatening conduct toward a lady should make him a mite unpopular.”
With Myra watching in stunned silence, Will dragged the fallen man outside and, using the fellow’s trouser belt and bandana, bound him hand and foot. That done, Myra’s rescuer came back into the house. “I guess I’ll have to tell it the wrong way round,” he said. “First, I was coming back anyway. I happened to see this man a good distance ahead of me, then I realised he was making for your place. I kept an eye on him and got suspicious when he tethered his horse behind your shelter trees. If he’d come with good intentions, he’d have ridden right up to the door. When I saw him pussyfooting along, I was sure he wanted to get to you before you had a chance to grab your rifle, so I slipped off my boots and tiptoed up. It’s handy that the trees are north of the house and your door faces south. I was on him before he knew it.”
Myra’s mind was still reeling but she sensed there was more to come. “I can’t tell you how glad I am to see you, Will. You said you were returning here. You must have had a reason. What is it?”
Will shuffled his feet awkwardly. “Well, I’ve been pondering on various things in the last few days. Taking stock, you might say. It seems to me that there’s more to life than making money and spending it, like I’ve been doing. They say a rolling stone gathers no moss. Then it dawned on me that you have harvest coming up and might be hard pressed.”
“You’re right about that. It’s very strenuous.”
Will’s thoughts moved on. “When I saw that fellow creeping up, I was struck by two coincidences. One was the fact that I arrived here in the first place, considering what I’d been dwelling on for a while. The other was that I turned up again, at the right moment, just like last time.” By now he was looking distinctly sheepish.
Myra’s intuition told her what Will was trying to say and that he was having trouble getting it out. She decided it was time to prompt him. “Are you thinking what I think you’re thinking?”
He looked even more embarrassed than before, but managed a broad grin. “I think I’m thinking what you think I’m thinking.” He took a short, hesitant step forward.
Myra took a longer, firmer stride his way, putting them three feet apart. They looked at one another in silence for a moment, then a radiant smile lit up Myra’s face.
“Welcome home, Will.”
“Glad to be back, Myra.”
* * *