This is the thirty-second part of a fiction serial, in 980 words.
When we got home, it was almost dark. Susan sobbed and cried, but Mary was strangely quiet. She said she already knew Walter was dead, just felt it inside. “He died bad. I don’t want to see, but I know he died bad”. She brought an embroidered blanket and some kind of necklace from her cabin. “Wrap him in this, put the necklace inside. I will use it to recognise him when we meet again”. Using some oil lamps for light, me and Henry dug a grave behind their cabin, close to the edge of the woods. Henry rolled Walter’s body up in the blanket, and put the necklace inside before the last fold. By the time we had filled in the dirt, it was late.
But none of us could eat any dinner.
The next day at sunrise, I was woken up by Mary singing some strange song. I went to the window, and watched her. She was wearing a long dress made from buckskin, and moccasins on her feet. Kneeling down beside the grave, holding her hands up to the sky, and singing that same song over and over. Susan came to the window beside me. “My ma is singing Walter’s spirit to the hunting grounds, Phin. She might be there all day”.
I asked daddy if I should go and report what had happened to the Marshal. He shurgged. “What are you gonna say, Phin? Some riders who you don’t know took Walter in the night. The next day we found him killed hanging from a tree. Who is the Marshal gonna arrest for that? One less negro in the world aint gonna bother him none”. I knew he was right of course, but it didn’t make me any less angry.
After that day, Mary stopped cooking and washing for daddy and Henry. She was civil enough, but wouldn’t go inside their cabin again. Susan was happy to take over, but she was worried about her ma. “I don’t think she will ever forgive your daddy, Phin. She’s sure that you and Walter could have caught up with the men and stopped what happened. Don’t reckon I will ever shake her on it”. Little Sophia was too young to understand, but when she went looking for Walter, it made Susan cry. I painted some stones white, and arranged them around the grave. Daddy sat at his bench and carved a wooden marker with Walter’s name on it, and I fixed it into the ground. But Mary never looked at any of it.
Three days later, Mary came to the house to talk to me. “Phin, you married my girl, so you’re like a son to me. I want you do you me a favour. I need a horse, and things for travelling. I will be leaving here to find my people. I want to go back to the Osage. You folks have been real kind to me, but there’s no life for me in this white man’s world. I will walk if I have to, but I reckon you owe me something for my time here, and leaving my girl behind as your wife”. I assured her that she could have anything she wanted. I didn’t try to talk her out of leaving. She was her own woman, and I knew better than to talk down to her. I went into town, leaving her with Susan and Sophia, as I knew that would be a long farewell.
I got her a gentle bay mare, a saddle, and one of the new Winchester repeating rifles. She would need something to protect her on the trail. Then there was a cooking pot, water bottle, and tinder box, as well as a rain-slick for travelling in bad weather. Plus new saddlebags to keep it all in. Then I gave her some money, to add to what she and Walter had saved from their share. She left the same afternoon, barely nodding goodbye to my daddy and Henry, who were watching from out front of the cabin. Susan cried all that night, and then she never cried about it again.
Life had to get back to something like normal. Henry and me started back at work, and Susan managed the crops and animals as best as she could. Daddy did what he was able, in between working on the small projects at his bench. But the rage inside about what had happened to Walter never went away.
On the first day the leaves were falling, two riders appeared just before we were due to eat dinner. I walked out to see who they were, carrying my pistol. It was the smiling cowboy from before, and the second one was the man with the fancy black hat that I had spoken to during the search for Walter. They got off their horses and walked in my direction, the smiling man holding up his hands. He looked around, then placed a quizzical look on his face, still smiling. “You seem to be short one big buck, Fuller. Did he up and run off? They are likely to do that, y’know”.
The fifty caliber bullet hit him on the side of his neck, and went straight through. He dropped to his knees, his mouth opening and closing like a stranded fish. Black hat started to reach for a forty-five in his belt, thought better of it, and turned to run. But Henry was already there, and fired both barrels of the shotgun straight into his gut, flinging him back a full six feet. Daddy had shot the smiling man with the Hawken, the long barrel resting on the edge of the window. Henry had run around behind them at the same time, to be ready.
I looked down at the smiling cowboy. The big bullet had almost taken his head clean off.