Short story entry in August's What a Character! Contest
"Come on, Pal. It's time for us to get a-movin'." Old Watkins hitched the old Palomino to the old wagon. Pallie, at twenty-five, was slow but compliant. He might complain a little, shake his head and snort; but he always did what the old man expected him to. A new day was about to dawn behind them, and the wagon was pointed due west in the early morning light, in the direction of Throckmorton County. It used to be Indian territory, the site of a short-lived Comanche reservation; but that was twenty-five years ago now, and all the recent settlers were either white or brown - Anglos mostly, with an occasional Tejano. Old Watkins was dreading this day: a twenty-mile drive, a little unpleasant business, then the drive back to the homestead with whatever passengers and cargo the business made necessary. He didn't figure to be back home before dark; it was going to be a long day, and the return trip figured to be none too enjoyable.
Right then his wife came out onto the porch carrying a wicker basket covered by a cloth. His dinner was in it: fried chicken, biscuits, corn on the cob, and a little fried okra - okrie to the two of them. "Now you don't let her sweet talk you, Thomas Watkins. She's bound to be comin' back here with you. You don't come back without her, you hear?"
"Yes ma'am, I hear. But I caint make no promises. That old girl got a will of her own. I reckon I'll do my best."
"Your best better be good enough. She caint be stayin' out there by herself. There's still wild Injuns roamin' around out in them parts."
"Oh, you know that ain't true, Edith. Comanches have been gone since before Ben growed up and left us. There ain't nothin' to worry 'bout from Injuns. They've already done all the harm they can ever do to her. She needs to come back, but it ain't 'coz of no Injuns." The old man was now seated in the wagon and held the reins in his hands.
"Just get her back here," the old woman said.
"Yes'm," he replied and lowered his head, after which he made a clicking sound with his tongue and the roof of his mouth and shook the reins. "Hyaah, Pal." The old horse lumbered off in the direction of the North Fork of the Brazos, due west from the Watkins' homestead in Young County.
It was going to be a nice day for travelling. In early October the summer heat had abated in North Texas. It would still be warm in the afternoon, but by then he'd be at his sister Pauline's place. This early morning was actually a bit nippy, a breath of Autumn in the air, and Thomas had his coat on. By the time the sun was high in the sky, he'd surely want to shed that garment.
Injuns! There ain't no Comanches 'round here no more. All the tribes is peaceful. Why, ain't nobody seen a wolf or a bear or a lion for goin' on fifteen year. All Pauline's got to worry about now is rattlesnakes and scorpions. And rats - that's probably what she's been shootin' at. Injuns!
The news had come back to them from Pauline's neighbors that they often heard shooting out at her place. They'd check up on her, and she'd say that everything was alright, but she didn't seem right. Then the next day there'd be gunshots again. And not just one or two - more like fifteen or twenty. There would never be any deer or rabbits or pheasants that she'd shot lying around, and she'd never been a hunter anyway. They kept checking on her, and it seemed like she was getting crazier and crazier. The old woman had been widowed for two years, and she had lived out there by herself since her husband, John Travis, had died. Thomas and Edith had urged her to come stay with them back then, but she wouldn't hear of it. Her husband, only son, and her infant daughter were buried in a little family plot that she could look out at from her kitchen window. She could sit on the porch and rock while her old hound, Red, snoozed and she stared at the stones. She had her family right there in front of her. She had Red; she had chickens, and she had an old cow to milk that she called Mooly. This is where her family had homesteaded, lived, and died; and this was where she intended to be when she went to her reward.
Thomas had almost given up on Pauline. He hadn't seen her in a year, and he did not feel right about it, but he had no idea what to do. She was his older sister, and she had helped to raise him after their mother had died back in Missouri, sixty years ago. They had been early settlers of North Texas in the 1840's after their father died in Missouri and she had married John Travis - just him and Pauline and Big John at first. He met Edith at a revival meeting in 1845; he was already thirty years old, but so was she. Comanches really were a threat back then, but not now, not in 1885.
The journey proceeded as planned. The day was dry and sunny, and old Watkins' mind was at ease most of the way. When they reached the North Fork at noon, he decided it was a good time to stop for dinner, so he unhitched Pallie and let him graze and drink from the river, which was little more than a trickle of a stream at this time of the year. It would be easy to cross, and that put the old man's mind even more at rest.
Pallie had been a beautiful, lustrous, golden-brown horse with a long white tail and lovely white mane when he was in his prime. Now he was showing his age, the hair was not so bright as it had been, and the former sheen was gone from his trunk. Nor was Thomas quite the strong, handsome man he had been when he bought the palomino colt - his hair was thin and his skin wrinkled. His movements were slower than before and even his words were used more sparingly, as though every expense of breath were costly. Hence Pallie was Pal now.
After the meal, he hitched Pallie up and crossed the stream, and they started west again. Now he couldn't avoid thinking about what he was going to say to Pauline. They were less than an hour away from her farm house. He so hoped he would find her still possessed of her right mind. It would break his heart if she truly was mad now. Thomas Watkins, you've been scared of this day. You've been running from it like a coward. Even Pallie seemed to move more slowly as the farm house came into view. As they came closer, from a couple hundred yards or so, he could see through the brush - the scrub oaks and mesquites - that Pauline was sitting on the porch rocking. She seemed to be looking directly at them.
Thomas drove up to the porch, intending to unhitch his horse and tie him to the rail. Pauline never took her eyes off him as he approached. She was an impressive woman. Almost seventy-five now, but still tall, erect and strong. She had been beautiful in her youth, even though she was as hard-looking, as most frontier women were. Her hand never shook, and she continued to knit without looking at her work. Her stern expression never changed, and she spoke before Thomas had a chance to get out of the wagon.
"I knowed you'd be coming for me Thomas Watkins. I'm surprised it took you so long. I expect you was scared of what you'd find. I can't say as I blame you for it. Folks think I've lost my mind. There's my boy right there, John Travis Jr. He lies beneath that stone, 1844 to 1859. He died protecting me from a Comanche. He had went out to the road with his rifle when he seen the varmint a-comin', and the Injun shot him down before any words was said. I seen what happened from this porch, and I went in and got his poppa's shotgun. Big John had went into town to the market that day. I sneaked up on that Injun, and I kilt him from right behind that there Mesquite tree just as he was bent over and takin' my baby's gun right out of his hand. I didn't tell y'all 'bout this. We always told you that Big John had kilt the Injun. But it weren't him; it was me."
Thomas was speechless. He dropped the reins and started to descend from his perch in the wagon, looking down at the ground and wondering what to say.
"You don't need to get out, Tommy. I'm gonna come along. I been shootin' that Injun ten or twelve times ever day. I shoot him down, then I weep over my baby girl and my young Johnny. Then the neighbors come by and axe me what's goin' on. There's a spot right next to Big John just for me, but I don't have to spend the rest of my days here with these memories. I'll be joinin' 'em soon enough. I want you to put a little fence up for me around that little graveyard there. Would you do that for me, Tommy? Some other day."
He nodded his head and looked directly into the eyes of his big sister, who was now smiling warmly at him.
"You've always been so good with your hands. But you ain't much good with words. I reckon none of us Watkins was until Ben. I ain't got no chickens no more. I've et 'em all. I sold the cow; and now that old Red up and died Tuesday last, there ain't nothin' to keep me here. All I've gots a few clothes to load, and we can be on our way. I'm gonna leave the furniture here. Maybe we can let the place out. The rats can have the food that's in the pantry. Hell, they're gettin' to look pretty scrawny these days. I'm even startin' to feel sorry for 'em."
Pauline threw some clothes in the back of the wagon and mounted the seat beside her younger brother. Thomas pulled on the reins to turn his old pal around and point him in the direction of Young County. He shook them and yelled "Hyaah, Pal," and the old horse started slowly off.
"I got a little fried chicken and a little okrie left over from the dinner that Edith packed me. I reckon we can stop at that shady spot on the North Fork and have a bite. Remember where we used to go for Sunday picnics, you, me, Edith, Ben, Big John, and Johnny? Long time ago."
"Of course, I remember. How could I forget? So, Ben made a lawyer, did he? And he got a bunch of children of his own now. What was their names again?" Pauline knew their names, but she wanted to let Thomas say them.
"Why, I believe there's Jenny - she's the oldest; she's nine. Then Benjamin junior; he's six. Katherine is three, and Zenobia is two - three girls and a boy. They live in Austin. He's working for the guvner." Thomas beamed with pride.
"And he made a lawyer, did he? I expect he'll be another Sam Houston. I always knowed we Watkins was smart."
Thomas smiled at his sister. "We're makin' better time than I reckoned we would. We'll be home before the sun goes down, and I expect Edith will be happy to make us a good supper. And she'll be tickled pink to see you."
Word Count: 1998