Angels Among Us
Written for the Oct 2014 "Bump In the Night" Challenge
“Who’s out there?” The woman behind the door answered the knock, with a voice that sounded old and frail.
“We’re lookin’ for work, ma’am. Tom, the storekeeper in town, said you and your daughter needed some help 'round here.” Heyes surveyed the neat as a pin barnyard, with its mended fences and whitewashed buildings, and figured maybe Tom had been wrong. The place was small, but obviously well kept.
The door creaked open, just enough for the barrel of a shotgun to poke through. “I‘ll thank ya kindly to be on your way. Tom had no call sendin' ya out here like this.”
“He didn’t mean no harm, ma’am. He figured maybe we could help out, is all. He said you’d been alone for awhile.“ The Kid noticed an enormous pile of freshly chopped logs needing cut and split, but other than that couldn’t see much to do. A chopping block, complete with axes and men’s gloves, sat nearby at the ready.
“We’re doin’ fine, young fella'. We don’t need no strangers comin’ round, and old Tom should'a known better.”
“We don’t want trouble, ma’am. If you don’t have work for us, we’ll be on our way.” The Kid hugged himself, trying to keep warm in the brisk autumn wind.
“It‘s colder than a witches tit,” Heyes muttered quietly under his breath. Looking up at the dark storm clouds building in the sky, he pulled his coat up close around his neck. A whirlwind of fall leaves danced around their feet and blew helter skelter towards the barn. “It’s downright cold, ma’am, and it’s a ways back to town. Could we come in and get warmed up before we head on back? If it’s not too much trouble, that is.”
The door tentatively widened with a loud, grating creak. A young woman, no more than 17 or 18, stepped forward with the shot gun aimed straight at the two men.
“What do you want me to do, Mother?” She flipped her long black hair out of her face and glanced back at the feeble, elderly woman sitting in the rocking chair.
“Step back, child, and let me see ‘em.” Mother stopped rocking and inspected the two drifters. To say they appeared rough around the edges was an understatement. From their unshaven faces and dusty clothes, to their tied down guns, everything about them urged her to send them on their way. But Mother had learned a long time ago not to judge a book by its cover. She carefully studied their faces, trying to measure their intent. Old and tired, she could still see they both had a clear countenance and guileless eyes.
“Well, the good Lord says we ought to be charitable and I reckon now is as good a time as any. Come on in, young'ins. But leave your guns on the bench outside.”
“Yes, ma’am.“ The two young men heard the coo of an infant, as they deposited their gun belts on the bench. The young woman handed the shot gun to Mother as she gave her attention to the babe.
Mother promptly turned the gun back on her visitors. “Close the door, have a seat at the table and warm yourselves. Sissy, put two more places on for supper. I reckon they might as well fill their bellies while they’re here.”
“Yes, Mother." With the babe in a sling on one hip, Sissy began setting the table and fussing over the food.
“Now, Mother, I think you already know you don’t need to keep that shooter pointed on us.” Heyes offered a reassuring smile to the perceptive old lady, while removing his gloves and coat.
The Kid congenially tipped his hat, before hanging it on the rack next to several other men‘s hats. “That’s right, ma’am, we’ll be just as meek as a mouse. You‘ll see.”
“Don’t waste your charms on me, boys. I’m hospitable, but I ain’t no fool. Do you have names?”
“Oh, yes, ma’am. I’m Joshua Smith and this is my cousin, Thaddeus Jones. We’re mighty glad to meet your acquaintance, ma’am. And you too, Sissy. “ Heyes nodded at the young mother who looked at him warily as she continued to stir the pot.
“The babe is my granddaughter. We call her Sammy, after her Pa.” Mother’s face softened as her eyes fondly caressed the child.
“Fine lookin’ baby.” Heyes smiled warmly at the infant. “Speakin’ of her Pa, is he the one that hauled in all that wood out front?“
Sissy shot a quick glance at Mother as she finished serving up the stew. “Sit. I’ll get the biscuits and then Mother can say the prayer.”
Heyes and Kid obediently found their places at the table. Sissy gently laid baby Sammy in her crib and joined them. Mother sat immovable in her rocker, the gun still squarely pointed at her two guests.
Without closing her eyes Mother prayed, “Father God, for the miracle of each days provision we are truly grateful. Amen.”
The Kid took a bite of the fresh venison stew. “Good,” he paused, tasting the savory concoction. “Mighty good.” He smiled at Sissy and took another appreciative bite.
Heyes inspected the room as he ate. Everything was clean, cared for, and in its place. The pantry appeared well stocked and a fresh leg of venison hung by the stove, apparently being readied for roasting. Fresh vegetables, an unusual sight this late in the season, were sitting on the table along the back wall. A tabby kitten lay curled in a ball, sleeping by the fire.
“Looks like Sammy’s Pa is a good shot,“ Heyes addressed the young woman, “or are you the one that brought down that deer?”
“Me?“ Sissy appeared surprised. “Oh no, I can’t…..”
Mother silenced Sissy with a frown and a nod. “You said you were cousins, Joshua? Where’s your family from?”
“Kansas, ma’am. Our folks were farmers.”
Mother caught the almost imperceptible glance the two cousins gave each other, and could tell the subject pained them. The family bond between the two young men was palpable. Much like she and Sissy, they spoke to each other with their eyes.
She gave them a knowing look. “There’s been hard times around these parts too, boys. I reckon you can either stay or leave when trouble comes. It appears you boys left. We stayed.”
The Kid looked at Mother, puzzled. ”Ma’am?”
Mother leaned in closer, studying the deep, sincere brown eyes and the clear, sensitive blue. She had always known the eyes were the windows to the soul, and these boys eyes were no exception.
Her voice became low and soft. “A fella' can get lost along life‘s path, despite his mettle. But you young'ins are finally back on course, now ain‘t that right?”
Their mouths full of stew, and not knowing what to say, the two ex-outlaws just nodded in agreement.
Mother sat back, and after pondering them for a moment, pointedly laid down her gun. “Get a pot a coffee goin’, Sissy. These young'ins are gonna want it with their pie.“
The gesture didn’t go unnoticed; the air instantly cleared, and everyone relaxed.
The Kid took another biscuit. “We understand you don’t need any hired hands, ma’am. But we sure would like to pay you back for such a fine meal.”
“That’s right,” said Heyes. “It’s almost dark and that storm’s closin’ in fast. If you don’t mind lettin’ us bed down in your barn for the night, we’d be glad to split that big pile'a wood in the mornin’.”
“I don’t reckon you’ll need to do that, son. But you’re both welcome to sleep in the barn.”
“Aw, come on now, Mother. You’re feedin’ us and sharin’ your fire. Won’t you let us do somethin’ in return?” Heyes was as persuasive as he was insistent.
The two women smiled as though sharing a secret. Mother finally agreed. “We’ll be thankful to have your help with whatever needs done in the morning, boys.”
"Thank you, ma’am. That’s good enough for us.”
After dinner they moved in closer to the fire and Mother told stories of the old days, while they enjoyed Sissy’s coffee and pie. Sissy discreetly suckled little Sammy as Mother rocked and spun her tales with the kitten on her lap. They learned of Father, who had toiled to settle their homestead, with nothing but a prayer and Mother by his side. The day Brother came riding home, Mother was convinced his guardian angel had brought him back safe from the war. When Sissy was given to them late in life, Mother knew she was a gift from heaven, no other explanation would do. And when Big Sam wed their Sissy, the family was complete, but for their unborn babe. It was a story of hard work and sacrifice, but also of hope and joy. It was the story of family, and the two young men listened to every word. They had a hunger to share in that kind of life, and were sorry to see the evening finally come to an end.
“Thank you for a wonderful meal and a fine evenin‘, ladies, but I think it‘s time we turned in.” Heyes reluctantly stood and put on his coat.
As the Kid reached for his hat, he noticed a row of men’s boots lined up neatly against the wall. “Sounds like you’ve got a mighty fine family, Mother. I guess the men are off huntin’ again. When do you expect them home?”
Mother continued to rock her chair. “Soon enough, child, soon enough. Now go get some shut eye.”
“Thank you, ma’am. See you in the mornin‘.” Heyes tipped his hat, and the two stepped out into the cold, dark night. The creaky door closed noisily behind them.
Sissy turned and looked at her elderly mother questioningly. “I know you’ve got the gift, Mother, but do you really think you should'a let them in? They could'a been up to no good.”
“Not these two. Least ways, not any more.”
“Shhh, child. You know as well as I do what the good book says about entertaining strangers. Angels come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes their wings are tarnished, but they’re angels just the same.”
The storm came in with rolling thunder, and lightening lit up the sky. Hunkered down in the hay, wrapped in the blankets Mother had given them, the partners were thankful to have a roof over their heads.
“I guess old Tom was wrong about the ladies bein’ alone.” Kid restlessly shifted, trying to find a comfortable spot.
“Sure was nice to have a home cooked meal.”
The Kid thought for a moment, and finally asked, “Do you think we’ll ever have a family again, Heyes?”
“I sure wish someday would come.”
“Me too. Now stop yappin’ and go to sleep.”
Their rest was fitful, as they struggled to relax in the midst of the growing storm. The night was riddled with the sounds of thunder claps and driving rain, a crying baby and noisy axes hacking at wood. It morphed into dreams of hissing steam engines, cattle drives, and gunshots. The pounding hooves of relentless posses haunted their repose. They tossed and turned, until the storm subsided, and finally settled into a deep, restful sleep.
Daylight streamed through the slats of the barn walls, and a rooster crowed, rousing the Kid from his slumber.
“You still asleep, Heyes?”
Heyes groaned. “Yeah. Definitely.”
“You better wake up, we slept too long.”
“Come on, Heyes. Get up, I think I smell flapjacks."
When they stepped outside the barn, Mother was standing in the doorway to the house, leaning on a wooden cane.
“Mornin', young'ins. We set aside some breakfast, and there’s a fresh pot'a coffee on the stove.”
“Sounds wonderful, Mother.” Heyes stretched his back and yawned. “Looks like the rest of your family got in last night, and already put in a days work. You should'a told them to leave the wood for us.”
The huge pile of logs had been neatly split, bound into bundles, and stacked. Three freshly shot rabbits were hanging by the door, already skinned and ready to cook. A pile of gourds and a bushel of apples were sitting next to the well, just waiting to be made into pies and applesauce. The livestock had been fed and watered, and Sissy had collected the morning eggs and milked the cow.
As the Kid took a step inside the warm, cozy house, he noticed the creak in the door had been fixed. He looked around, expecting to see the men. “Are they out back, ma’am? We sure would like to meet ‘em.”
Standing at the table, Sissy was putting the finishing touches on a lovely bouquet of fall leaves and wildflowers. With little Sammy on her hip, she smiled at the Kid and stepped outside with the bouquet. Mother followed, hobbling slowly, as Sissy headed around the corner behind the house.
Curious, the partners trailed behind, and turning the corner, saw Sissy walking up the path towards the top of the hill. Kid abruptly stopped in his tracks. Under his breath he whispered to Heyes, "I thought they said the men were off huntin‘.”
Staring, Heyes dropped his voice. “Well, they never exactly said that, now did they.”
A large tree stood at the end of the path, with three markers positioned at its base. The two young men watched as Sissy divided the flowers between the graves and lovingly arranged them with care. They quietly stood for a moment, trying to absorb the meaning of the scene.
Finally, Heyes stepped up to the feeble old woman, and placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. “I’m so sorry, ma’am. What took them?”
“The fever, son. Goin‘ on 6 months ago now.”
Puzzled and concerned, the Kid studied the elderly woman’s face for an answer. “Mother, are you alone out here after all?”
“Alone?“ Pausing, she watched as Sissy continued to fuss over the graves. ”None of us are ever really alone, son.” Looking back at the Kid, she gazed reassuringly into his somber blue eyes. “No, child, we’re not alone.”
"Sweet souls around us watch us still, press nearer to our side; into our thoughts, into our prayers, with gentle helpings glide."
Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Other World
"Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it."
"When angels visit us, we do not hear the rustle of wings, nor feel the feathery touch of the breast of a dove; but we know their presence by the love they create in our hearts."
Mary Baker Eddy, Poems by Mary Baker Eddy
"If I asked for a cup of coffee, someone would search for the double meaning." Mae West