Jed Curry tossed another forkful of hay in to the stable. He grasped the pitchfork with both hands and leaned on it, admiring the pile with the satisfaction of a hard day’s work done. He rarely paused to muse; he had always been more of a doer, and hard work kept memories at bay. The blue eyes turned upwards, gazing at the rafters. The well-ordered barn and the nickering of the contented horses reflected his mood. Life was good.
He was a free man. Free to put his past behind him, free to put down roots, free to build a home. He finally the ranch he’d dreamed of all his life, and a growing family. He smiled in spite of himself at the memory of young Timothy being scolded for pilfering a cooling biscuit. How many times had he been caught doing that when he was a nipper?
Every now and again he found himself marveling at the realization that he was happy. Mostly he was too busy to become a hayseed philosopher, but every now and again he would find an oasis of peace where his mind would reflect on the life he’d had and how far he’d come. Man, a lot had happened; most of it, good, some of it great, and a little bit of it spectacular. Maybe he should write it down sometime? A lot of fellas were doin’ that now and they were makin’ some money. A married man could always do with some money. A face flashed across his mind’s eye, blue eyes contorted with pain as the man hit the dust. No, it hadn’t all been good. Maybe the memoirs weren’t such a good idea after all.
The velvet touch of a slinky, sinuous body wound around his feet, the erect tail flicking over his shins. He looked down at the pale-brown tabby with a smile. “Hey there, Toffee. How ya doin’?”
She replied with a long, slow, blink and throaty ‘murr’ before scampering over to the door. She stopped and looked back at him. When he didn’t move she trotted back and stood staring up at him. “Murr.”
He frowned. Toffee was the least sociable of the barn cats and this wasn’t like her. “Yah hungry? Ain’t there any rats left for you? Maybe we’ll have a few scraps for you up at the house.” He propped his pitchfork up in the corner and patted his thigh. “Come on, girl. Come.”
He strode past her and closed the door behind him. He turned on the path up to the house and raised his lantern. She was now meowing loudly with her feet planted firmly; this cat wasn’t for going anywhere and was making a darned racket. “What d’ya want, Toffee?”
She turned and walked over to the bushes, her upright tail shaking from side to side. The gleaming green eyes fixed on him again. “Mowww!”
His brow creased. “You want me to look in there? What ya got? A mouse? A rat, maybe?” He walked over, the cat now running back and forth between the human and her object of interest. He put down his lamp parted the branches with a gloved hand and his heart sank. “Oh, Ginger. What happened to you? Is this what you were tryin’ to tell me, Toffee? Your sister is hurt? ”
The rays from the lamp cast dappled shadows through the foliage and the light beamed from the chartreuse eyes blinking back at him. Jed reached out a tentative hand and stroked the bloodied fur of the orange cat lying in concealment. It panted and puffed in shock and pain. There was no way of knowing how long she had lain there but the twisted back legs were testament to some terrible accident. “Aw, Ginger. What happened to you? Was it a cart? Did a horse kick you?” His brows furrowed as he gently felt around the injury, provoking growls and yips from the animal. His voice drifted in a low, calm murmur. “I’m sorry, Ginger. It’s real bad,” he dropped to a hoarse whisper as the realization sunk in just how bad.
He carefully withdrew his hand from the wound and softly stroked the matted fur around Ginger’s head. “I’m real sorry, old girl. So very, very sorry. There ain’t much I can do for you.” The verdant eyes caught the light as they peered up at her human. “Why’d you hide like that? Why didn’t you come and get help before you bled out like this, huh?” He stared into the wide, questioning eyes, tickling Ginger under the chin ever so tenderly. “You’re purring? Aw, my little one? You know I’m gonna help you, don’t you.” The amazing eyes shone like emeralds as they caught the light and fixed on the only help available. There was no doubt about the message they were communicating; make it stop. Make all this end.
The tiny beast allowed her lids to droop as the fragmented breath tore at his heart in little ragged pants. “Yup, you and me. We both know it. I’ll help.” He toyed with her chin once more, watching the light dim before him. “I know… I’ll help you.”
Maggie jumped at the shot which ripped through the night air. A gaggle of concerned children thrust their heads over the edge of their sleeping area in the rafters and chattered excitedly. “Wassat?” “Mommy? Where’s daddy?”
“Get back into bed. Don’t make me come up there,” she waved them away with one hand as the other reached for the rifle by the door. “I mean it, bed!”
She opened the door but paused to glower up at tousled head creeping back over the edge. “Timothy! I said bed.”
She watched him dart back into the bedroom and strode out onto the porch with her weapon ready for anything. “Jed? Are you there Jed?”
A bubble of golden light punctured the blackness as her husband rounded the edge of the house. “Jed!? I heard a shot. What happened?”
He climbed wearily into up beside her and hung the lantern on a hook. “Ginger. She was hurt real bad. He whole back end was smashed…” he glanced at her before staring down at the floor. “There was nothin’ else I could do.”
Her blue eyes melted with compassion. “You did the right thing. It was kindest.” She reached out and stroked his arm. “You wouldn’t have done it if it wasn’t for the best. How bad was she? What happened?”
Jed slumped into a chair and rubbed his face with both hands. “Who knows? You know what cats do when they’re injured. They run off to hide. She’s been like that for a long time; there was nothin’ else to do.”
“It was a mercy, my love. You did the right thing.”
He stood abruptly, shrugging off her gentle touch. “I gotta go bury the body.”
She nodded. “Sure. Let me help, I’ll bring the lamp.”
“No,” he barked, seizing an axe. “I’ll do this alone.”
“What are you going to do with that? You need a shovel.”
“I’ve gotta work. There’s wood to be chopped.”
Maggie’s porcelain brow wrinkled. “It’s bed time. You need to rest. You’ve had a full day.”
Jed swung around, fire and ice in his eyes. “Rest? How can I rest after that?”
“But you’ve put down animals before. What’s different about this? It’s sad, yes, but you seem so…so…angry?”
“Sure I’m angry,” his taught shoulders rose and fell with his breath.
“But why?” She shook her head in confusion and grabbed his hand. “I can see why you’d be sad, heartsick even; but angry? We don’t even know what hurt her.”
His hard fist closed around her wrist. “I’ve killed, Maggie. You don’t know what that does to a man. I’ve watched the light go out of their eyes, but I never had to shot anyone I knew for seven years and who purred with two broken legs.” He dropped his hand and stared into his wife’s eyes. “I reckon a man’s got a right to be angry about a thing like that. Real angry.”
Maggie watched her husband strike out into the darkness the way he’d come. He was a complicated man who worked his feelings into oblivion rather than work through them. Those heartfelt words were as near to a speech as he ever got. She opened the door and peered about. The house was silent; it looked like her tired brood had heeded her orders and gone to sleep.
She quietly closed the door and reached for the lantern. Her husband had to work off his hot blood, but he had a partner and there was no need for him to do that alone. The least she could do was light his way.
Na sir 's na seachainn an cath - Neither seek nor shun the fight Old Scottish proverb