NOTE: This short story was written by a friend who teaches at Eastern Wyoming College, in Torrington, WY. It originally appeared in New Trails, ed. John Jakes and Martin H. Greenberg (NY: Doubleday, 1994). It has been reprinted in One Foot in the Stirrup, a collection of western short stories by John D. Nesbitt, copyright 1995.
SPRING COMES TO THE WIDOW
By John D. Nesbitt
Sam Fontaine was riding south when he found the death camp. The breeze was blowing north from a small stand of junipers, and he caught his first whiff nearly a quarter of a mile away.
He had ridden north all spring and summer, eating dust and fighting flies, to deliver a trail herd in Montana. When the boss paid them off, Sam bought his favorite horse out of the remuda before the string was sold. Rather than go on a spree with the boys, Sam turned the good horse Sandy straight back south and rode alone, a season’s wages in his pocket, a lightness in his heart, and a song on his lips.
The lightness and the song ended when he smelled death. It was never a good smell, but if a fellow saw what it was before he smelled it, things went a little easier. When the smell came first, the thing to do was to give it a wide flank, come at it upwind, and get the story before moving on.
He was nearly even with the trees when he heard a cry, the small cry of a small thing, like a lamb, but it wasn’t a lamb. It was a baby. He touched his spurs to Sandy and got to the trees on a lope.
Four buzzards lifted from the camp as Sandy settled to a halt and Sam slid from the saddle, fighting the heaves that pounded in his stomach. He yanked on the reins to keep the horse from backstepping, and then he looked at the camp.
It was a camp of Mexican folk who had come to the end of their luck. Two oxen slumped dead in the harness of a wooden-wheeled cart. Next to a mounded grave with a wooden cross lay the body of a man with its mouth open. Sam looked away. The baby’s cry came again from the off side of the cart, where the last of the morning shade still lingered. Tugging on the reins, he stepped around the end of the cart. There was a young woman sitting blank-eyed against the wheel, rocking the baby vacantly. She didn’t seem to have the strength or the focus to care for the baby beyond that automatic movement.
Sam knelt by the woman. “¿Qué pasó?” he asked. What happened?
She licked her lips. “Muertos. Todos muertos.” Dead. All dead.
Sam nodded. “Sí. Hombre muerto. Vacas muerto. Qué pasó?” Yes. Dead man. Dead cows. What happened?
The woman rolled her eyes. “Agua.” Water.
“¿Quiere agua?” You want water?
“No. No agua. Agua mala.” No. No water. Bad water.
“¿Quiere agua? ¿Agua buena, fresca?” Do you want water? Good water? Fresh?
The woman nodded. Sam unslung one of his canteens and held it to her lips. She drank and nodded again. “Gracias.”
He dribbled a little water on the baby’s mouth, but the baby just sputtered and coughed and cried. Sam settled onto his heels, still squatting, and asked again what had happened.
The woman spoke rapidly in a voice somewhere between crying and heavy sighing, a voice full of agony and sadness, a voice that seemed far too old for a young mother. From her rambling, Sam pieced together the story. They had all drunk from a poisoned spring, all but the baby. Her husband and son had died first, and then her brother-in-law, who presumably had lived long enough to bury the other two in a common grave. The woman seemed certain that she, too, was going to die.
Sam offered her more water and she took it, but it oozed out of her mouth and down her chin, sprinkling a few drops on the baby. She moved her mouth as if trying to speak, but no words came. Relaxing her hold on the baby to let it lie on her lap, she closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the hub of the wheel. She was on the way out, he could see that. He patted her hand and said the only thing he could think of, “Vaya con Dios.” God be with you. The hand fluttered, and that was it.
In less than an hour, Sam had buried the brother-in-law, cut loose the oxen, and, with Sandy straining, dragged the dead animals a hundred yards distant. All the while, the baby cried. When Sam returned to the cart, where he had stretched the woman out in the shade, the baby had crawled onto the mother’s abdomen and was kneading at the dead left breast. That was the hardest moment, and it stayed with him through the burying, the mumbled words to God and the dead mother, and the long ride through daylight and darkness until he reached the town of Socorro.
La señora Ramos ground the dry oatmeal to a finer grain in her stone metate before cooking it for the baby. Fontaine sat at the table by candlelight, rolling a cigarette and then smoking it as the woman did her work. When the gruel was cooked she set it aside to cool, then went about the task of changing the baby’s diaper. Sam looked away, studying a crucifix that seemed to move on the wall as the candle flickered.
La señora Ramos spoke good English. “I cannot keep this baby, you know, not forever,” she said as she spooned mush into the infant. She looked at Sam, and he nodded. “When I was younger and my house was full of children, I never counted them. Everybody’s children went to everybody’s house. What was one more? I had eight myself. And four dead ones.” She crossed herself. Then she resumed feeding the baby. “But my children are gone now, to their own families, and I am an old widow. I have to wash clothes and clean houses. The time is past for me.” She shook her head and then smiled as she looked into the baby’s eyes.
Sam took out the makings and rolled another cigarette. He lit it with the candle and blew out a cloud of smoke. “What do you think we should do? Could we ask around and maybe find a home for it?”
She shrugged. “We could.”
“You don’t seem to like that idea.”
“There are two problems. A family might take the baby in a sense of obligation. Or a family could get jealous who did not get the baby.”
“Uh-huh.” Fontaine ashed his cigarette in his palm and rubbed the ashes into his pant leg. “You must have another idea.”
She raised her eyebrows. “We could offer the baby through the Church.”
“What’s the problem there?”
“There is a couple, the Reyes, who have money but no children.”
“And you wouldn’t want them to get the baby.”
“I would not prefer it.”
Sam looked at the ceiling and then back at the woman. He shook his head. “What do we do, then?”
“You could keep the baby. You found the baby and saved its life. It would not be wrong. Perhaps it is God’s gift to you.”
Sam nodded. The thought of keeping it had occurred to him as he had cradled the baby in his right arm on the long ride into Socorro. “I can think on it,” he said. “But I don’t know how I could take care of it. I’ve got to work, too.”
La señora Ramos had apparently been doing some thinking herself. “Get yourself a young widow,” she said.
* * * * *
Having told the señora he would think on it, and having gotten her to agree to keep the baby for a week, Sam rode to Albuquerque with no more definite plan than to study on it.
Always before, when he had thought about marriage, Sam Fontaine had imagined a blue-eyed girl with light-colored hair, an innocent, untouched girl who, through his guidance, would step into adult life. There would be marriage and then children.
Now, life presented a different possible order. He had a child if he wanted it. The memory of the baby pushing against the dead mother’s breast, together with the memory of it squirming against his own body as he cradled it on horseback, gave rise to a strong feeling he could not brush aside. Yes, he had a child if he wanted it, and he could find a marriage to match.
There was plenty to study in Albuquerque. He saw the blue-eyed girls, apparently untouched, and he saw their dark-eyed, dark-haired counterparts. He saw young mothers with their children, older mothers with older children, women without children but with the look of motherhood about them. As he studied, the girls moved him less and less, while the women interested him more and more. He did not covet these women, but in the mature presence of a woman who had had a child, there was a definite power or pull.
It was absurd to think of shopping for a woman as a man might look for a cow pony or a draft horse, but he did need to form a clear idea of what he was looking for. The señora, in her practical wisdom, had started him thinking that way. A young widow would not be rushed from girlhood into motherhood. She would have matured some, and she might already have a child or two. At any rate she would have her own baggage, as Sam would have his. There would be an equality of sorts. And a young widow, Sam thought for the first time, with a widening smile, would be fit to have more. That would be a nice mix, he thought—mine, hers, and ours.
The young widow began to take on a definite image. She was a woman, not a girl—a young mother with one or possibly two at her side. She had dark eyes, dark hair, and skin the color of dark honey. Working backwards, from child to marriage, had defined that for him—the baby should be raised in the language and customs of its original mother.
* * * * *
“Señora,” he said, as he laid his hat on the table, “I have decided to keep the baby.” Then he winked. “But I have one question.”
“Is it a boy or a girl?”
La señora Ramos smiled. “He’s a little boy. And we don’t know his name, or whether he’s been baptized, or—”
“Hold on,” Sam interjected. “I’ve got to find the young widow first, and then we’ll take care of the rest.”
When he had sketched out the lines of his recent thinking, the señora nodded in agreement. “Well, we can look around,” she said. “I know of one woman, in my town of Palomar.”
“Down on the border?”
“Yes.” At Sam’s hesitation she added, “You could go take a look. You don’t have to take the first one you see.”
“It’s a start,” he said. Then, thinking, he asked, “What’s the word for widow?”
“Will she be dressed in black?”
“I think he has more than one year dead.”
“How do you say `What does that mean?’”
“You’ll need that one. ¿Qué quiere decir?”
He practiced it a few times.
“And how do you say `It doesn’t matter’?”
“No le hace.”
“That’s close. What doesn’t matter?”
”Whether it was a boy or a girl. And there’ll be other things.” He thought for another minute and then said, “I think I’d feel funny ridin’ down there and knockin’ on her door.”
“It would be her father’s door. She lives at his house.”
“All the more reason. Hmmm. Does she have children?”
“I think she has one girl.”
“Do you think you could get her to come here for a visit? Do you know her that well?”
“I barely know her, but I know her family. I can try.”
The young widow María and the niña Ramona came to Socorro for a stay. Mother and daughter were dark, darker than the niño (who still went by the name of Niño) or his late mother, darker than the dark honey of Sam’s imagination. Not that the darkness mattered—no le hace—but he had to adjust the qualifications he had projected. He admired the woman’s fine features and shapely body, but more than that, he felt readily comfortable with her presence. She seemed to take a liking to him—probably would not have come if she had not been prepared to.
María was twenty-one and Sam was twenty-eight. Ramona was three and Niño was not yet a year old, the women agreed. María took a mother’s interest in Niño, and Sam was instantly fond of Ramona, who, in turn, took a liking to both Sam and Sandy, as well as a natural interest in the baby. It looked to Sam as if everything was going to fit together.
After a month of round-robin acquaintance, Sam asked María to marry him, and she said “Sí.”
They did not marry in the church or from her father’s house, but with the justice of the peace in Socorro. Theirs was not a boisterous celebration, and María seemed pleased. That night, when she took him to her, she said, “Te quiero mucho, Sem.”
He repeated the pledge in English. “I love you, María.”
In the morning sunlight he sat on the edge of the bed and held her at arm’s length, standing before him, his hands on her hips. It was a beautiful being he had joined himself with, this even-toned, full-bodied woman who in her presence meant togetherness and family. That was where it began, for them, the fitting together of a family, and now they could fill in with the daily confidences and agreements that had already begun to develop. He pulled her towards him and kissed her on the stomach. “My wife. Mi mujer.”
She held his head against her, the fingers of her left hand in his hair, the palm of her right hand against his cheek. “Mi hombre.”
As the cool weather set in, Sam looked around for work to help them through the winter. There wasn’t much work, but he did find two horses to break and train for pleasure riding. He spent the afternoons at that, and so he brought in a few dollars in November.
One evening la señora Ramos came to visit. After the preliminaries she made it clear she had come with a purpose. She spoke in the pattern she had developed for speaking with María and Sam: first in Spanish, then backing up to repeat or clarify in English, as Sam’s expressions made the need clear. And so she launched into this evening’s business.
This was a beautiful thing, this life and this love between two people, the joining of a family, a full life for them all, a life of pride for Ramona and Roberto (as Niño had come to be called). Everybody could see it. But you know how people can be. Some people can have everything yet wish to have something that belonged to someone else. There was no need to tell names, but there was a couple in the town who thought that perhaps not enough care had been taken to discover Roberto’s true family. These people thought perhaps Roberto’s future had been determined too quickly, perhaps the matter needed reconsideration.
These people had spoken with the priest and with the judge, and it was hoped by this couple that Roberto might be placed with a family who had no interest in the matter, until a satisfactory inquiry could be made. It was thought that if Roberto proved to be indeed without a family, then he could be eligible for legal adoption, with lawyers and the court and all of that.
Sam and María sat side by side in their chairs, their hand grip growing tighter. But Roberto has a family, María said.
Yes, and nobody can deny that. But his place is not secure. It is clear that there are some people who want a baby enough to take it.
Sam and María looked at each other. He said, in broken Spanish, this is not a good town for us. There is not much work. I don’t like to run, but this is not a good town for us.
I think you are right, resumed la señora Ramos. You do not have relatives here, or a business. You are my friends, and I do not like to see my friends leave, especially at my age, but I agree with you.
Sam took María’s hand in both of his. We could go south, he said.
She shook her head, not violently, but to show there was no strain in that direction.
We could go north. To a place I saw on the cow trip. It is cold there, very cold in the winter.
At what distance does it lie? asked María.
In good weather, three weeks. In bad weather, who knows? Maybe not until spring.
Three weeks in good weather, said la señora Ramos. That seems to me to be a good place.
Sam looked at María. It is a good place, she said, even if it should be cold. What is it called?
Wyoming. On the other side of Colorado. Much wind and very cold. Nobody wants to go there. A good place.
They all laughed. It was seeming easier already.
* * * * *
Every night on the trip north, when they were bedded down in the wagon, María cried. Sometimes they made love when the children were asleep and sometimes they didn’t, but every night she cried. Sam held her and hugged her and patted her, brushed the damp strands of hair from her face and kissed her. He came to understand that it was the distance from home, growing longer each day, that weighed on her. Even though her family seemed agreeable to letting her go from the very first, and even though she showed no strong desire to make a home near them, the separation was being felt sharply.
Sam wondered if it was anything else. Your friends?
No. My father and my mother.
No. Just my parents.
Your brothers and your sisters?
Yes, them, too.
Sam took a skate on thin ice. Your dead husband?
No, no. My father and my mother.
“Te quiero mucho, María.” I love you very much, María.
“Te quiero, Sem. Para siempre.” I love you, Sam. Forever.
They rested a week in Denver and another four days in Cheyenne. It was an open winter so far, as folks said in Cheyenne. Trails were open north; trains were running east and west. There was plenty of time yet to get snowed in, but it was an open winter so far.
In mid-January the Fontaines filed on a quarter section of land, rolling plains country a few miles off the Platte. They rented a small house in town, a drafty clapboard shack that had been vacated by a Texas family who went back south for the weather. Sam and María patched cracks, kept a fire going in the sheet-iron stove, and waited for the thaw.
The family lived on deer meat all that winter. María, who was raised on tough beef, took to it fine, as did the children. Sam liked all food.
Will we be able to grow chiles here?
I think so. The summers are hot. They grow wheat. And I’ve seen apple trees.
This is good meat, but I will want to cook it with chiles.
We’ll see. I think we can grow chiles.
María did not cry every night now, just once in a while. Things had come together again. For a while it had seemed as if they were four people, from different places, not living in any of them, speaking a mish-mash. Now it was seeming to flow together again, the ebb and flow of their common life, the melting of boundaries, the mingling of selves, the overflow and overlap of words. Sam could look back and hope that the worst was behind them, strung out in the cold trek north, left on the frozen plains, part of the wasteland between the place they left and the place they came to.
* * * * *
Spring came on slowly, starting in late March with the first green shoots of grass in the snowmelt, then freezing up solid again before the gradual teasing of warmer weather. In early May they took the wagon to their parcel, to camp out and get a view of things.
They set camp at a clump of chokecherry trees, where two draws came together. Sam and María spread a canvas for the children and then went to look at the greening branches.
A close look at the branches startled him. The branches were bristling with the furry green tips of leaves, and the smooth bark was freckled with white dots. The trees seemed to be bursting with life, eager for the new season.
“Una fruta,” he said. A fruit.
“Sí. No muy dulce. Chica.” Yes. Not very sweet. Small. He pressed his left thumbnail against the tip of the little finger. “Así de grande.” This big.
She nodded. “Está bueno.” That’s good.
They walked, hand in hand, to a rise in the ground where they could see their land slope away to the north.
“¿Te gusta?” he asked. Do you like it? It was important that she like the place.
“Sí, me gusta.” Yes, I like it.
“¿Te gusta casa aquí?” You like the house here? He pointed down at the place where he thought to build a house.
Still, that night, she cried again, after they made love in the wagon.
Maybe it’s the wagon, he thought.
In the morning she was sick, and when she returned from beyond the chokecherry trees, he looked up from the fire he was fanning with his hat. “¿Estás enferma?” Are you sick?
She took his hand, and he stood up.
“¿Qué pasa?” What’s going on?
She looked at the wagon, where the children still slept. “Estoy embarazada.”
He looked at her questioningly. “¿Qué quiere decir?” What does that mean?
She placed his hand on her stomach. “Niño. Voy a tener un niño.” Child. I’m going to have a child.
Sam looked at his wife through watery eyes. “¿Niño?” Then his joy faded as he saw she was crying. “¿Qué pasa?”
“I sorry,” she said. “I lie.”
Her speaking in English alarmed him. She was confessing a lie and was coming over half-way to tell him. “Lie? ¿Mentira? ¿No niño?”
“Sí, niño,” she said, smiling through her tears.
“¿Qué mentira?” What lie?
She looked downward. “Yo no era viuda.” I wasn’t a widow.
“¿No viuda, tú?” No widow, you?
“No, no viuda.” No, no widow.
“¿No esposo, no hombre? ¿No hombre muerto?” No husband, no man? No dead man?
“No, no esposo. Nunca.” No, no husband. Never.
Sam smiled at her and kissed her on the forehead. He knelt and kissed her on the stomach, then stood up and held her hands as he looked her in the eyes. “No le hace. No importa.” It doesn’t matter. It’s not important.
“¿Está bien?” It’s all right?
“Sí. Tú eres mi mujer. Te quiero.” Yes. You are my wife. I love you.
“Yo te quiero a ti, Sem. Para siempre. ¿Está bien, yo no viuda?” I love you, Sam. Forever. It’s all right, I’m no widow?
“Está bien.” It’s all right. He loosened his right hand and made a triangular, circular motion to take in her, the baby that would be, and himself. Then he made a wider motion to take in themselves and the two children sleeping in the wagon. “Familia.”
John D. Nesbitt lives in the plains country of Wyoming, where he teaches English and Spanish at Eastern Wyoming College. A prolific writer of traditional western novels and short stories, contemporary fiction, mystery fiction, and retro/noir fiction, his articles, reviews, fiction, and poetry have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. He has had about thirty books published, including short story collections and novels as well as textbooks for his courses. John has won many awards for his work, including two awards from the Wyoming State Historical Society (for fiction), two awards from Wyoming Writers for encouragement of other writers and service to the organization, two Wyoming Arts Council literary fellowships (one for fiction, one for non-fiction), a Western Writers of America Spur finalist award for his western novel Raven Springs, and the Spur award itself for his noir short story, “At the End of the Orchard” and for his western novels Trouble at the Redstone and Stranger in Thunder Basin. His most recent western novel, Gather My Horses, was published in June 2011. John’s website is www.johndnesbitt.com