You asked me to write about Miss Hamilton- who is she, where does she come from, and the like. She’s the prettiest girl I ever knew. She’s gentle and kind, a heart worth more than gold, a spirit free and high. I could go on and on.
What you meant to ask but didn’t was this: what are my intentions toward her? You see, I haven’t lost so much of my education as to not be able to read between the lines. Any boy who has a school marm for a mother ought to be able to retain his letters and grammar. And you’d be proud of me: I’ve taught many of my fellow cow-punchers how to write a complete sentence. But you can’t do anything with their talking.
As to your unexpressed question, I don’t know really what to say. Maybe the best would be to explain everything from the beginning and let you see for yourself what I saw.
The first time I saw her was about a year ago now. Oddly enough it was in a saloon. I had just gotten off duty and went in to clear the dust from my throat. Don’t worry, I only had one beer. I had been there hardly five minutes when she walked in. She was wearing a dark blue dress and straw brimmed bonnet. Someone whistled and she blushed all red and glanced down at her feet. For a second I thought she would leave without accomplishing what she came to do. But she raised her head and walked boldly to the proprietor.
“Excuse me, sir,” she whispered. The room had become so still I could hear her plainly down at my end. “Excuse me, sir, do you know where Mr. Boyd is? I was told he was here, but I don’t see him.”
One of the saloon girls leaned over- I’m not sure if she meant to be gentle or cruel. “He’s busy upstairs, deary.”
“Oh,” she murmured and blinked a few times. She has long lashes and light brown eyes that tell you when she’s thinking, when she’s amused, when she’s sad, or when she’s somber. They are some of the most powerful eyes I’ve ever seen: they can make you examine your soul just by the amount of innocence staring out at you. But she said, “Would you show me please?”
The saloon girl nodded and led the way silently upstairs. We all remained unnaturally quiet, as if somehow we could become privy to the goings on. I’m not sure how long they were up there, but eventually she came downstairs- her bonnet was hanging down her back by it’s ties, revealing her brown hair- with the drunken Boyd leaning heavily on her and Pete the Gambler following.
It was easy to see that Pete in his Eastern cut suit and expensive floral vest was highly uncomfortably. He started several times to ask something, but always shut his mouth again quick. He gave me the impression of a snapping turtle, especially since his face is kind of shaped that way when he frowns. But apparently desperation is stronger than decorum: “Um, miss,” he stammered.
Setting Boyd in a chair, she asked, “Did he forget something?”
Pete clasped and unclasped his hands repeatedly. “No,no!,” he blurted. But he continued standing there twisting about in his strange, awkward way. He’s just like a worm on a hook: you can’t ever get him to stand still and just tell you plain. He wiggles around and sidesteps everything. “No,” he repeated quietly, “he did not exactly… quite… leave anything. No.”
She blinked her soft brown eyes at him. “But he did forget something?”
Pete gave his weaselly smile. “Only a trifle. Really it’s such a small thing.” He laughed nervously.
“Oh,” and she turned to go.
The look of desperation that suddenly consumed the gambler’s face showed how little of a man he was. “But since you mention it!” When she looked at him, he had once again regained his miserly grin. I could see he was sweating bad, it trickled down his temples. He was too shifty a character to not ask, and too decent a character to discuss money with a lady. But in the end it was his base side that won. “Fifteen dollars,” he gasped.
Silently, she dug in her purse. I was quite surprised when she pulled out a wedding band. “I don’t have cash, but perhaps you will accept this instead.”
Pete stood there opening and closing his mouth again. He was completely bowled over. That ring was easily worth four times his price. “Just so, just so,” he managed.
She wasted no more time and quickly left.
I could not understand. Wedding rings are sometimes passed down from mother to daughter. How could she bear to part with it? But I have heard stories of cowboys leaving their horses or guns or saddles in payment rather than ride with the dishonor of debt. I redeemed the ring from the gambler- but he set the price at $20.
I followed her out, uncertain how to return the item without hurting her feelings. Boyd was trying to climb into the wagon of supplies. “Come on, Uncle. That’s it,” she whispered huskily.
That’s when I knew she was the orphaned niece Boyd always talked about so proudly. She had been raised not far from our homestead in Missouri- so close in fact it’s a wonder we didn’t know her family. But her folks had been killed by a tornado. For a few years she had lived down here in Texas with Boyd before he sent her to school back in New England somewhere. Just about everyone knew her life story. I had always imagined her as some prissy with frills. But looking at her then I saw just how wrong I had been. She is calm and steady.
Once Boyd was laying down next to the sacks of flour and beans, she leaned against the wooden buckboard for just a moment, and a husky sigh escaped her. Straightening she brushed her eyes and climbed into the driver’s seat. I could tell she was still crying, so I walked over to her after untying my horse.“Miss,” I said, “you’re not exactly in the best emotion for driving. Let me take you and Boyd home.”
She didn’t answer, but just burst into sobs. She hid her face in the crook of her elbow, her hands still holding the reins. So I tied my mare to the wagon, climbed up and took the team in hand. She composed herself quickly. “I’m alright, really.”
I dared not glance at her. “Yes, ma’am.” That little gold orb was burning in my pocket.
There was a slight pause. “I can drive. You don’t have to go out of your way.”
We were nearing the edge of town. “It’s only three miles, ma’am.” I didn’t realize how my presence must have unnerved her. Fresh from the East, she was nearly panicking about her reputation and safety. I must smile even now to think of it: here is a dusty and nameless cowboy still wearing his six-shooter driving her out of town with her intoxicated uncle unable to protect her and people staring. But I have a good reputation. I don’t think anyone was concerned. And her uncle was in the back and visible for all the world- even if he did snore the entire way.
“Boyd is mighty proud of you,” I began. “He talks of you all the time.”
She said nothing. I ventured a sidelong glance. She was red all over and yet pale. Embarrassment had brought the blood to her cheeks, but her lips showed her exhaustion and anxiety. I felt sorry for her, like I felt sorry for the first deer I shot.
“Just about everybody was dying to meet you, ma’am. They were mighty disappointed you were laid up Sunday. You’d be surprised the number of rustlers that showed up just to see you. Most don’t come but once a year.”
Now, don’t read this next line sarcastically. She said it genuinely, humbly. “I’m sorry to have disappointed them- especially after such pains.” There it was, that supreme innocence staring out at me. I felt a slender strength in her. No, that is incorrect. I felt a great strength that was too large for her, that was hindered in its expression and made slender by her frame. And I have seen it many times in her most honest moments. She is always honest, but there are times when she is more honest than she needs to be, when she pulls back a veil from inside and lets you see some little piece of her heart and soul. Those moments are sacred to me. They do not happen often, and when they do happen you feel transported outside time. But the curtain is dropped back unceremoniously by her quick laugh. And you are left dazed trying to swim back to normal banter.
Looks like I left my narrative anyway! It’s so hard to express what one feels and sees in a person when the experience is what is really needed. But I’ll try.
I could not reply to her apology. I was struck by the first of those sacred moments. And she was weary from the saloon experience. So we drove in silence most of the way. Soon we were at the Rocking J Ranch where Boyd was foreman. I told you about the Rocking J, didn’t I? It’s not the most prosperous outfit, but all the hands who work there would rather remain than go and receive higher wages. There’s an odd camaraderie that surpasses anything I’ve known. It’s like they were all sprung from the same mother. I know men become attached and here especially they are loyal to the death, but somehow the Rocking J outfit is unusually so. They are fierce in their love of that particular land. Boyd himself is like that when he’s not drunk. My friend Frank Langley says its the Scottish in him. And as the boss man I assume he’s the spirit behind it all.
As we approached I was brought from my reverie by her asking, “Do you work here?”
“No, ma’am. I work farther north at Lazy Creek.”
“I’m much obliged to you, sir, for coming all this way and helping me so. I am not used to driving a team yet. But I’m afraid you will have a long ride home.”
I looked at her shrewdly. Her proper language was beginning to put me on edge just a mite. I found myself correcting my own pronunciation- just like you always tried to get me to do. “Things are bigger in Texas, ma’am, even our yard stick. It’s only a short jog for me to get home.”
She laughed a little. “Things are bigger in Texas!” she agreed.
Her comment about not knowing the team had just about made me certain, but I wanted to be certain. I didn’t want to return that ring just yet, especially if that wasn’t why she was upset. “What were you doing in town?” I asked off-hand.
I felt her freeze like a deer does when you suddenly come upon it. Even the tone of her voice changed. “I drove in with Uncle Charlie for supplies.”
Just as I had figured, Boyd had come in for the usual monthly supplies and like usual did not stay around for the things to be loaded. He found a better time at the saloon. Oh, he would have made it home safe enough in another four or five hours. It usually took him a full day. “How long were you waiting at the store?”
“I’m not sure,” she murmured as she turned her head away.
I sighed. Just as I had thought. She had been lonely and scared and her uncle was no where to be found for who knew how many hours. If I had known then what I know now I probably would have given Boyd a drubbing. But that’s for later.
I was startled by her sudden sobs. “I’m sorry,” she gasped. “I was so afraid!” She tried hard to stop, wiping her face. “Everything is so different here.” And she began a monologue about the differences between here and Pennsylvania.
But I was not listening. I couldn’t help but think how irrational and emotional women were. You’ve always told me otherwise, Ma, but her actions only seemed to confirm it. But there was much I did not know about at the time which has changed my notion.
That was the last I saw of her for a while. I couldn’t get her out of my mind though. And when Betsy Peterson was having her birthday party some weeks later, I was delighted she came. I couldn’t have explained it to you at the time- I even surprised myself!
I wanted to be the first to ask her to dance, but I also didn’t want to seem fresh. So I waited and danced with one or two other girls. I noticed several men asked her, and she danced with them all. She’s a great dancer. I’ve never met anyone who can follow a lead like she can. But anyway, I got around to asking her and she said yes. It was a waltz we danced, and I can say now that I am mighty grateful to you, Ma, for teaching me so well.
I asked her if she had had more practice with horses. And don’t you know she went plumb red? Her cheeks were already rosy with dancing, and now her whole face was absolutely scarlet. I just had to smile.
“I had not thought you’d remember that,” she murmured.
“Why, miss,” I replied, “when a cow-poke like me gets the chance to talk with a pretty gal, he’s not likely to forget much.”
I never would have thought it was possible to make a girl more red! That blush made me feel strong and silly. I still don’t know why. But she explained yes, she had been riding several times and believed she was becoming acquainted with horses just fine. Her language was always sophisticated in the beginning. I wish I could remember the exact phrase- it nearly made me laugh in her face.
I offered to take her for a ride someday. She just smiled and said, “If you want to.” There was something unsatisfactory about the answer. I didn’t realize it till much later.
As the dance ended I escorted her to the wall. She asked me about my home, and was delightfully surprised about my being a Missourian. We talked a little about Missouri and the beautiful Ozark mountains. Then I asked her about her schooling. Again I felt her close herself. She answered tersely that she had studied the trivium and quadrivium- which lost me. But I was more surprised by her reaction. I asked, “Did you like your school?”
She smiled slowly, sweetly and mournfully all at once. “Yes, I did.”
She blushed down at her feet. “After I graduated I became a teacher there. The experience… exhausted me.”
Sensing she did not want to discuss further her past, I asked, “Why’d you come to Texas?”
She laughed. “Uncle Charlie is my only family. Where else would I go?”
We chatted a little more, but cowboys are not about to let a pretty girl talk to another cowboy- especially at a dance. She was whisked away by Langley. It was several dances later before I had her again. And I was pleased it was the last dance.
And on my next day off, I found myself heading toward Rocking J rather than into town. I have come to love that ride over the queer land. It’s nothing like Missouri. There are hills, but somehow the hills seem flat. Everything is flat. The flatness swallows all the other landforms, and the sky is overpoweringly grand. The blue stretches forever and there is nothing to break it’s dominance. About half the time there are clouds that are nothing like home. Where all you see in Missouri is one small section, here you see a whole army of thunderheads sailing in. You can see for miles. And the grass is so plain and sparse that all you want to notice is the sky. But you have to look down to earth, because cacti are everywhere. They grow big as trees too. The first time I saw one I just stared at it for a full minute. It was all twisted and lobed till I thought it must be deformed. But they all grow like that. It’s hard to tell what is the main plant or if there is one. Each section grows like a parasite out of another. And yet there is something oddly beautiful about it: a delicate fragility that is ferociously guarded by long spines. It’s a strange plant.
Now don’t get me wrong. There are trees here. They grow pretty tall too, but they are fewer than at home and so strange. They grow straight for a space, and then branch out like a bush and spread an enormous canopy. And the heavy branches reach down to the ground and rest there till they have the energy to reach for the sun again. They’re like a natural tent. They’re used as such too, by both man and beast. Anytime there’s a lost steer, find the nearest tree and that’s where they’ll be swishing their tales at the flies. Sometimes it doesn’t look like anything is there, and you think the leaves are too sparse to hide anything. But that’s when you’re surprised. Somehow those leaves hide things better than the Ozark underbrush. I don’t understand how the dense shrubs and thorns of Missouri reveal what the scanty Texan trees conceal. I guess it just goes to prove that things really are better in Texas.
There’s one tree in particular that I cannot forget. It’s at the top of a hill that you don’t realize is a hill. You’re just riding along and all the sudden you notice you’re having to lean forward just a bit. And at the top is this great, big old tree. And you want to just stare at it because it is so strange. People say it was hit by lightening and that’s why it is as it is. From the ground it forks right in two, growing slanted upwards. There are no branches that grow on the flat inside. It looks like it should by dying, but it’s been growing since before white men came to this area. And just as you come abreast of the tree you see the other side of the hill, the steeper side. Down a ways is Rocking J ranch house. The house looks like any farm house: practical, square, porch all away around, two storied, painted yellow. But the family keeps it conspicuously well furnished. Not far from it is the foreman’s house- much smaller, but same style. Only Boyd has much simpler decorations: a gun over the fireplace, another over the door, an antler that serves as his coat rack, a rough plank table and several chairs, and a hammock strung up on the porch. Most of the time when Boyd’s not working, he’s in his hammock. And as I rode up that particular day, he was there smoking a pipe.
“Howdy,” he drawled. “What’s new?”
Dismounting I replied, “Nutin’ much. How ’bout here?” I carelessly looped my reins over the hitching rack.
“Oh, same ol’, same ol’,” he puffed. “Whatcha want?”
“Is Miss Hamilton in?” I became very aware of the little gold ring in my shirt pocket. It was my intention to return it that day.
Boyd smiled. “Funny how all you cowpolks straighten up your language when ya mention ma niece.”
Trying to hide my jealousy, I took off my hat and beat some of the dust from my legs. “Many of ’em?”
Boyd chuckled. “A few. ‘Spectin’ more, though.”
I could hear someone approaching, and I knew it was a girl because of the short stride. “Uncle Charlie, I can’t find-” She came around the corner and stopped suddenly when she saw me. “Oh, I’m sorry.” She turned to leave.
“Cate, this gen’leman came ta see you.” Boyd emptied his pipe.
“How do you do?” she asked with a small smile.
For a minute I thought I’d never be able to answer. She was dressed plainly: a dark brown skirt and white blouse, both protected by a yellow gingham apron. Her hair was twisted up into a bun at the back of her head. She had clearly been working, because her lovely brown hair was mussed slightly and her apron was smeared with something dark. Her cheeks were all rosy, which caused her eyes to shine brightly. She really is not extraordinarily beautiful, but sometimes I see her like I saw her then, and she takes my breathe away she’s so beautiful. “Hello. I came to collect that ride, ma’am.”
She laughed. I could tell that she was nervous. She was trying to think of how to excuse herself and not be rude. But to my delight Boyd cut in, “Good. Get going. I’ve had enough of dusting and sweeping for one day. Go enjoy yourself.”
She blushed then. But she obediently went inside. She came back having put aside her apron and changed her dainty shoes for riding boots. I had already saddled another horse- Boyd told me which was her favorite. I helped her up and we rode toward town along the road.
At first we road in silence. I couldn’t help but think about how she seemed to have no opinion of her own: Boyd had to tell her to go. That’s why her answer at the dance had been so disappointing: she had said, “If you want,” not, “I’d like that.”
“How long have you been here in Texas?” she asked.
I shrugged. “Maybe five years. I can’t honestly recall.”
“Have you ever thought of going back to Missouri?”
I had to laugh now. “No, ma’am!”
I waved my hand toward the horizon. “Because of all this.”
“But don’t you have family there?”
“Yes, ma’am.” And I told her about you and everyone else. She listened with interest and asked many questions. Before I knew it I was telling her about how we had grown up and stories from childhood. But I didn’t want to ride away without learning anything about her. “Did you have any siblings?”
“No, I had only mother and father.”
“I can’t imagine not having my sisters. Although I thought many a time growin’ up just how nice it’d be!”
She laughed. “Many of the girls at school said similar things. But I think no one really wants to be alone. As Aristotle said, man is a social animal.”
At the time I had no idea who Aristotle was- although she’s taught me now. But I didn’t want to be headed off from finding out about her. I’ve learned she’s very good at steering the conversation away from herself. “You lived here in Texas for a spell, didn’t you?”
“Yes, after the accident I stayed with Uncle Charlie.”
“I’m sorry about your folks.” I couldn’t stand her sad smile: it was so patient and seemed to half reveal the burden she carried. “Was Boyd your mother’s brother?”
“It’s so strange hearing him called Boyd. He’s always been Uncle Charlie to me. Actually, he was my father’s half-brother. Uncle Charlie’s mother died young and grandfather remarried. Uncle Charlie always kept his mother’s maiden name. But he loved my father very much. And one would hardly have guessed they were at all related. They were so very different. Father was calm and sophisticated. Uncle Charlie is never afraid of expressing himself loudly and clearly. Well, you know Uncle Charlie. But they both had such kindness and compassion.” She stopped talking suddenly.
Again there was a greatness about her that filled me with awe. It was as if by telling me about her father she had opened her own soul and revealed her own compassion and kindness. And yet I also could see the same strength and loyalty that existed in Boyd.
But she cut short my thoughts with her quick laughter. “Did Uncle Charlie ever tell you of the time when he broke the piano?”
She laughed again. “It’s one of my favorites! He was with his teacher at his lesson-”
“Boyd plays piano?” I had to cut in. To look at the man you’d never guess he had ever seen something as sophisticated as a piano.
“Oh, yes! He used to be very good at it. But he was sitting at the piano learning his lesson. Halfway through his favorite piece, Miss Sally reprimanded him for not playing with enough grace. Uncle Charlie was so furious- because he thought he played it better than anyone. He was so furious that he just jumped up slammed the piano shut. There was a horrendous noise and a dreadful twang. Three of the strings had snapped.”
I laughed. And it was like a door had been opened. Conversation flowed fast and free. We talked about music, books, school, politics, religion, and just about everything else. You’d love her, Ma.
Of course, it became a regular ride every twelfth day- when I was off. But somehow I never found a good way of returning that ring. So it became my little companion on the ranch and the long trail rides: a little token of her for the hard days. And I always told myself, this time I’ll return it. But when I rode up that hill past the lightning tree, I simply told her, “I’ve come to collect that ride, ma’am.” And the ring stayed in my pocket.
One day- I think in November, just when the weather is cooling off- she absolutely delighted me. I had ridden up to find her waiting on the porch for me. She was smiling all over and there was a glitter in her eyes. “It’s winter today!” she sang out. From the inside of my great big coat I observed her unbuttoned red sweater and her rosy cheeks. Her hair was tugged about by each gust, but it made her seem so much lovelier. I remember her tucking one strand almost constantly behind her ear.
“I wish the cold had the same effect on me,” I smiled back. “The man who marries you should carry you off to the North, so you can always be this pretty.”
She blushed and laughed a little nervously. “If it’s too cold, we could sit inside.”
“Whatever you want,” I replied. I didn’t particularly like the wind, but I sure wanted to be with her.
“Oh good!” she exclaimed. “I’d love to ride! I want to go to that creek you showed me. I bet there are water fowl there.”
Her words warmed my heart like nothing else. Not only did she want to ride with me, but she wanted to go somewhere I found dear. But more than that, she had expressed her wishes. She wanted! I had the sudden urge to take her in my arms and spin her around and kiss her. I don’t know what she would have done, so I didn’t. But, boy! I wanted to, something fierce.
When we arrived at the little stream-bed, there were no birds. But that did not dim her enthusiasm for winter. With a sudden passion, she started reciting, “As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow/ Surprised I was by sudden heat, which made my heart to glow…” and all the rest of Burning Babe. As I listened to the Christ Child’s lament, I couldn’t help comparing Miss Hamilton to him. Both had an inexpressible passion and love- it just spilled out and engulfed whomever was nearest. And yet Christ laments not having people want his love, while I felt Miss Hamilton was afraid to give people her love. Yes, they were the same, and yet not.
At the end she blushed. “I’m sorry. It just seemed like it needed to be said here.”
“It was beautiful.”
The ride back we talked about our favorite poems. She lent me books after that, from poetry to philosophy, science to art, anything and everything. And I loved it all. I would read and then we would talk. She had so much to say, could see so much. Often she would start to explain my confusion, and end up granting me this world picture that was so beautiful and awesome. I’d never be able to repeat it with the same mastery as she.
Several months passed like this. Spring had come, and there was going to be an Easter Dance. Boyd had, in his own way, gently asked me to escort his niece: “Ya better not let some broncho-buster beat you to askin’ Cate. There’s sev’ral round ’bout, ya know.” And when I did ask Miss Hamilton, I about fell over when she replied, “I’d like that.”
Early in the afternoon on April 23, I rode over to Rocking J. When I got to the Forked Tree, I couldn’t contain myself. I let out a “whoop” and galloped down the hill. I pulled up short at the foreman’s porch and promptly went red. Boyd was sitting there in his hammock like usual. He smiled at me and drawled, “For a bit I thought the Apaches were comin’.” He looked very handsome in his gray suit, and yet out of place in it too. It wasn’t like I never saw him in a suit before: he always wore one to church, and he went every Sunday- same as me. But there was something that said it didn’t fit him quite, either the twinkle in his eye or the gleam in his smile. A suit was just too ordinary for Boyd. Really he is just one of those men who are larger than life itself. I had the sneaking suspicion that if I had been an Indian on the warpath he would have met me the same way: calmly smoking and with a smile.
“Is Miss Hamilton well?”
Boyd chuckled. But then he became suddenly serious. “I wanna’ thank ya. Your friendship has greatly helped Cate out of … of a difficulty.”
I recognized the same greatness and sacredness as I did with Miss Hamilton. “My honor, sir.”
I don’t know how to explain it, Ma. In that moment there was a bond made, a bond of respect, of man to man. I knew then that whatever would happen, Boyd had placed me in a different ring of camaraderie. It was like I had become one of the Rocking J boys.
The door opened and Miss Hamilton came out. “Cate, you look lovely,” Boyd said as he put out his pipe and stood up. I was speechless. Her hair was down- the first time I had seen it loose. It curled ever so slightly and hung so gracefully. It was pinned back with a little silver comb. Her dress was a soft pink with deeper pink roses scattered all over. The color made her eyes more intense. And all about her there was an aura. I can’t explain! She is just the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.
“Thank you, Uncle Charlie. Good evening,” she said turning to me.
“Evenin’,” was all I could manage.
“Well, let’s get goin’,” Boyd said. But he smiled, clearly amused at something.
When we arrived at the party I was keenly aware amidst all the gay noise and music of many eyes watching me. I knew at least three cowboys there had tried to escort Miss Hamilton. Langley had come in one day very upset because someone had “weaseled his way in” and thrown off his courting. I didn’t tell him at the time who the fellow was. Just before the first dance, he came up to me. “Evenin’,” he said casually. His smile said he was both annoyed and amused.
I smiled, “Evenin’.”
“Miss Cate,” he bowed slightly and walked away.
“What was that about?” Miss Hamilton asked.
“I’ll tell ya later,” Boyd chuckled.
But the music had started and I asked for the honor of the first dance. And she replied, “Why of course!” This time we danced a polka. She was so light and danced so well and laughed so much. I was intoxicated. Nothing made me more proud than knowing everyone could see I had the prettiest gal in the whole house! I couldn’t help thinking that no one could guess just how much her soul augmented her natural adornments.
When the music ended I escorted her to the side. “Thank you so much! I can’t tell you enough how much I value your friendship,” she gushed.
I looked down at her brilliant brown eyes under their long lashes near her rosy red cheeks. “If only you knew how precious it is to me.” There was so much I wanted to tell her in that moment and yet there were no words to truly express it. I wanted to tell her how strong she was, how beautiful, how gracious, how inspiring, how gentle, how radiant- especially tonight.
That was when he first came. “Catherine,” he said quietly. He was a tall man, incredibly handsome and refined. He had black hair and blue eyes, a strong chiseled face. His shoulders were square under his gray suit jacket, and his hands were large and heavily veined. A gun belt hung from his hips throwing away the business man appearance.
Miss Hamilton gasped and turned deathly pale. “What are you doing here?” she whispered. I looked at her face and couldn’t understand the fear I saw there.
He smiled. “No hello? No pleased to see you?” He took her hand and kissed it. I was keenly jealous in that instant.
Boyd came over just then. “What do you want, Malcolm?” he said gruffly as he stepped between his niece and the man. It was his way of politely telling the stranger to go away.
The sphere of tense silence was growing rapidly around us. Soon the whole room would be listening. The stranger seemed to take a delight in the attention. He became more charming and kind. “I just want to talk with my wife.”
There was a muffled exclamation from the room. I couldn’t take it in at first. But when it hit me, it hit hard. I looked at the little girl next to me with something between horror and betrayal. She was trembling and deathly pale. I felt sorry for her then.
“Get out,” Boyd whispered fiercely. Whenever he whispered it was from intense anger.
To my surprise the stranger bowed, “I’m sorry, Catherine.” He left without another word.
Boyd took his niece’s arm and led her outside. I followed wanting to help and wanting to demand an explanation. Miss Hamilton was crying and Boyd was helping her up into the wagon. “It’s alright. He won’t come near you again, if I can help it. And besides, he’ll have to go soon enough. School starts in a week or two.” But he whipped around drawing his gun. “Who’s there?”
“Boyd, it’s me,” I said. Seeing the six-shooter return to its holster, I pursued my purpose, “I don’t understand. Who was he?”
I can’t write you what he said, Ma. Boyd was angry and said some pretty powerful words. The gist of it was that the stranger was not worth the air he breathed. Then he climbed up and drove off in a hurry.
The next day the whole town was whispering about how she wasn’t actually a miss. Who would have thought she had been married? What was the point of hiding? Something scandalous must have happened, and wouldn’t that be a delicious bit of news to discover? It made me sick- partially because I wanted to know and partially because I detested the way they squawked about her. And the whole time I still had that little wedding band that had been hers.
But I couldn’t take it any more. So I rode over. I asked to speak with Boyd’s niece. After a while she came to the foyer. She was incredibly sick looking. “Can I help you, sir?”
That “sir” hurt: she had started calling me by my name months ago. “Yes, ma’am. I came to collect that ride.”
She smiled wanly. “Perhaps another day. But thank you.”
“How about a walk, ma’am?” I surprised myself with my boldness. “Walking is good exercise.”
She laughed quietly. “Perhaps a short one.”
We walked around the corral making small talk about the weather, the horses, the lack of rain, and again about the weather. We were silent for a little while leaning over the corral gate. And I broached the subject as gently as I knew how. “What’s your real name, ma’am?”
She sighed. “Jenkins.”
“Mrs. Jenkins,” I murmured.
“Please don’t!” she cried. “Call me Cate, call me Hamilton, call me girl, call me bitch. Anything but that!” She turned to go.
But I wasn’t done yet. I grabbed her arm and she flinched defensively. I let go and she stared up at me. I couldn’t believe it: she was cowering. “What happened? What did he do to you? He hit you!”
“Then why did you flinch?”
She began to cry softly. “He never hit me. He… he… Oh, I can’t explain!”
“You must!” I don’t know where the words came from, but they flew out my mouth before I knew what happened. “You can’t keep it like this. Time and again I’ve felt you lock something up and turn away. I thought it was your marriage, but that’s not all, is it? What did he do? Tell me!”
She stammered, her eyes looking anywhere but at me. It was the first time I saw her at a loss for words. But suddenly she blurted, “You’ll think I’m crazy!”
I couldn’t take it any longer. There was so much fear in her. I don’t remember when I did it exactly, but I know I was holding her hands very gently. “Tell me,” I whispered.
“He had been very kind to me at school. When I graduated, he protected me from harm. Often he would say something that only father had said to me. I thought it was so clear! I married him. I don’t even know how it happened, the change. We would quarrel, and he’d leave the house for the day. I never knew where he went or what happened. Then he refused to talk to me about religion. Next, we couldn’t talk about his students. Soon there was nothing to talk about. And things would go missing. He said I had done it, but I knew I hadn’t! I’m not that disorganized. And he would say he had told me something when I was fairly certain I had not heard it before. I was beginning to believe I was loosing my mind. So I started writing things in a diary. Anything and everything that could be written I wrote. And that’s when I knew I was not insane. He was doing it all! I don’t know why. Then he became more aggressive. He would stand over me and fuss at me. I was so afraid. I didn’t know what to do. But I knew I couldn’t stay. So I told Uncle Charlie I was coming to stay, to hide. And I snuck out the house while he was at work. When I arrived here, Uncle Charlie told me to go by an alias as protection. Much good that it did.”
“I don’t see,” I mumbled.
“I know. No one does. No one can believe he was ever harsh or manipulative. He’s too charming and kind. People love him instantly. But that’s what he does. He’s totally different behind closed doors! You’ve got to believe me!” She burst into tears. “You’ve got to believe me!” she sobbed over and over again.
I didn’t know what else to do, so I tapped her shoulder. She had been right: I did not understand. Why had she run away and not confronted Jenkins? It was too bewildering.
When she had calmed down I took her back to the house and apologized for having taxed her so. Then I rode into town dazed. I went to the saloon- I don’t know why. But he was there, her husband Malcolm Jenkins. I didn’t see him at first, or I would have left right away. He came over to me.
“You were there at the party, weren’t you?” he asked.
I stiffened. “Yes.”
“Can you tell me how she is?” He looked so concerned, so gentle. I was baffled.
Before I answered, I asked for a beer. “Pretty shook up. Mind telling me why?”
“It’s that Boyd’s fault,” he said angrily. “He was against our marriage from the beginning. He’s filled her head with all sorts of ideas. He convinced her I was abusive.” Then he swore. “Sure I was wild in my youth. Who isn’t? But I never hurt her. I saved her from that teacher who wanted to use her. That man was the kind of person Boyd’s warnings are meant for. But not me. I love her!”
I was even more confused now. The pieces weren’t fitting together. Her reaction to his name was so strong and visceral- she’d rather be called a bitch than Jenkins. And yet he was so sincere. Perhaps Boyd had turned her away from him. Perhaps Boyd was the one who had hit her- he wasn’t known for his meekness. But Boyd had been gentle enough towards her the night of the party. And violent too, pulling his gun.
“If you ask me,” the stranger continued. “I think Boyd is the abuser. He needs someone to make him feel like a man. He’s never been married right? Why? Women don’t like being pushed around. So he never found one. But then an accident happens and he has a little niece all the sudden. He feels powerful. Then someone threatens to take her away from him. So he starts lying, and the little niece can’t distinguish his abuse from what she sees as paternal care. So she listens. Nothing else explains why she left me.” He looked down at his whiskey. “We were happy.”
I thought about the Rocking J outfit and their strange loyalty. I thought about Boyd’s monthly revel days and where he can be found. I thought about her fear and how she never left the ranch now. And I thought about this man’s sorrow. It did seem to fit together somehow. I couldn’t properly be jealous now: he was her husband. “Boyd thinks you’ll be leaving soon.”
He laughed. “Because I’m a school teacher, I must go teach school. Well, I resigned when she ran away. I had to find her.” He swallowed the last of his drink. Then he added fiercely, “And I’ll not leave without her!”
I put my money on the counter. The little gold wedding band came out with it. I remember looking at it in surprise. “I think this is yours,” I said as I placed it next to him. Then I walked away.
I was busy the next several days and did not make it into town. I don’t know if I volunteered or if I was just unlucky and was volun-told. Probably some mixture of both is what happened. I wanted to and yet did not want to see Miss Hamilton, Mrs. Jenkins. But she was not mine. In returning that ring it was as if I had given up any right to see her. I wanted to help her, but was lost as to how. If I could just ride in and rope something, it would have been done. You know me: I’ll act like a bull and run right into something rather than thinking first. And for once I couldn’t see what I should plow into.
However, I did hear some of the town gossip from my peers. Malcolm Jenkins was such a kind man. Miss Hamilton must be an atrocious ingrate. Word was she had run away from him on an assumption of infidelity which was completely ungrounded. And he loved her so much as to try and make amends- why he hadn’t even done anything! It pains me to write such things, knowing what I know. Jenkins told these lies- and they are lies- to turn the town to his side, to make it impossible for her to show her face. But I didn’t piece that together till later.
I was musing on all of this early one morning before anyone else was up. I had walked away from the bunk house towards the pasture land. The early morning fog from the river hung delicately over the land, much lighter than usual so that the strange plants were seen for some distance pointing straight up like specters. The black night sky was just beginning to lighten with dawn- that strange blue that is also gold.
None of it quite made sense to me. I knew Boyd pretty well; he just didn’t seem an abuser as that Jenkins had suggested. And Miss Hamilton had been genuinely afraid. But he was her husband. Why would she hide that? Either something had happened or she really was bordering insanity. Yet in all my conversations with her I had never had the impression that she was crazy. No, she was only timid and unsure and rather passive. And yet I had seen her strong and confident too.
Then I heard a sound behind me: it was a small sound, like a deer in the forest. I got down low next to a shrub and waited. Whatever it was, it was in the little gully not 15 feet from me. I caught a brief glimpse of it. Then it scrambled up the side to stand on the edge. It was Miss Hamilton. She was in her night clothes and her hair was all pulled out from her braid. She was so pale and she trembled. She looked like she had been out all night. I was so shocked I couldn’t move.
When she saw the buildings, she started to cry. She started to run toward the house, tripping somewhat as she went. I started after her. But before I was anywhere near her, Jenkins rode up on a bay. I stopped uncertain. And I’m glad I stopped.
Jenkins jumped off his horse and shook her. “What are you doing?” His voice was harsh and angry.
“Let me go! Let me go!” But she was too small to really struggle against him.
Then he struck her. He raised his hand and hit her right across the face. She put a hand to her cheek and stared at him for a little, surprised. I thought about how she said he had never hit her.
“Listen to me,” he threatened with an expletive. “You’re coming back with me to Pennsylvania and you’re going to be my wife. And if you ever get this silly notion in your head again, I’ll kill you.”
“No,” and she began to struggle again. “You killed Uncle Charlie.”
“And who can prove it?” he sneered. I tell you, Ma, he gave me the chills. He had always been so proper in town, and here he was a monster. All his handsome features were so distorted and hideous. And he continued cruelly, “It’s my word against yours. And they already think you’re daft. It won’t be hard to make them see you’re crazy. And you are crazy. You’ve been going insane since we married.”
“No! No! Lies! Lies!” Miss Hamilton was crying in earnest now.
“I’m the only one who can love you,” he said gently as he held her face. “Don’t you realize that? Let me take care of you.” It was like he was transformed.
“You killed him,” she whimpered as she pulled away from him.
“You imagined it. Nothing of the kind happened. You woke up and ran away from Boyd, just like you ran away from me. Why even now, he’s looking for you. It’s your crazed mind playing tricks on you.”
She paused, sobbing a little.
“Let’s get away now. No one will care. We can run away and be happy.”
I couldn’t stand it any longer. He was lying to her, driving her crazy. I knew she was going to give in and go with him. And for the first time I saw the real picture. I rushed forward. He turned to face me. And I tackled him. We went down on the ground, rolling and punching and kicking. I don’t know how long we fought. But I wanted to beat him to a pulp. The next thing I knew, we had been pulled apart. Miss Hamilton had gone and woken the other cowboys. And my foreman was yelling at me to stop. So I stopped.
“How’d this start?” Jake bellowed.
Malcolm Jenkins was dusting off his shirt, standing perfectly calm even with his black eye. He shrugged. “He just attacked me. I was here trying to find my wife who had disappeared last night. And he just charged at me for no reason.”
My ire was up, and I couldn’t take his lying. I tried to go at him again, but my fellows held me back. “He killed Boyd!”
Jake looked at me. There was a tense silence. Boyd had been mighty popular with the boys. They eyed Jenkins suspiciously. Jake looked from me to Jenkins. “You saw it?”
“Miss Hamilton did.”
“And she told you?”
“In a way. They were arguing about it and I heard.”
There was an awkward pause and no one did anything but look from one to another.
Jenkins sighed. “I was hoping I didn’t have to say this. Catherine has been slowly loosing her mind. I noticed it first after we were married. She couldn’t remember where she had placed her sewing. We found it locked up in her room. Little things like that continued to happen. It came and went, depending on the weather or what she ate- I didn’t know for sure. Then she ran away. I knew the only family she had was Boyd, so I came down here to find her. I don’t know what she told the old man, but he never spoke civilly to me. Last night I tried to get him to understand. But she was in one of her moods. She took my gun from my saddle and shot Boyd.”
There was silence. No one knew what to say. It sounded so plausible. Even I began to doubt myself.
“I chased after her. She ran all night. I only just found her. Before the fight.” He looked at me reproachfully. Somehow he had made it all my fault.
I knew my face was red with anger. “Then why did you tell her it was your word against hers?”
“What?” Jake had me tell my side. So I did. The air was charged ready for a spark. But no one knew what should be the spark. Both sides seemed honest enough. “I guess,” Jake began, “the only thing to do is ask Mrs. Jenkins. After all she’s the third party.”
We all walked to the house. But the rancher’s wife was adamant that we could not see Miss Hamilton. “The poor child is feverish. I’ve put her to bed and no one will see her till the doctor comes.”
So the only other thing to do was to check on Boyd. Several of us mounted up. At the Rocking J, everyone was in a fit. Several of the men almost attacked Jenkins on sight. “He’s the one,” they shouted. But their friends held them back.
Jake quickly took charge. “Where’s Boyd?”
“With the doctor, no thanks to him.”
“Thought you’d done him in, city slicker!”
“You’re a rank coward!”
And several other less appropriate names were used. I had several in my own mind.
But Jake isn’t one to let chaos roam. “Quit it. Do any of you know for sure he shot Boyd? Did any of you see it?”
“No, but he was there last night. Who else woulda done it?”
“How about Mrs. Jenkins?” Jake asked.
At that the Rocking J boys nearly fell on Jake. Their sense of righteousness was white hot. Someone called, with a few expletives, “Come down here and fight.”
“Why are you so sure? Tell me!”
The men all started shouting answers simultaneously. “Good” and “beautiful” and “kind” were heard multiple times. “Ask him,” someone said, pointing a finger at me. “He spends more time with her than anyone else. Would she do it?”
My throat was tight. All I could do was shake my head. I didn’t want to believe it, I couldn’t! And yet I had no proof.
Jake looked at me long and hard. “Do you think she’s crazy?”
“No,” I whispered. But Jake didn’t hear me with the uproar that once again surrounded us. I knew Jake would be honest and just- I had experienced it enough.
At that moment the sheriff walked up. “That’s enough. Jenkins, you’re coming with me. Boyd just regained consciousness and told us who done it.”
And that was it. Jenkins was sentenced to life in prison for attempted murder of the first degree. But he never lived out his sentence. He escaped and tried to get at Miss Hamilton again, but this time Boyd shot first- and Boyd never misses his mark.
Miss Hamilton lives with Boyd still. She’s started teaching school here. The children adore her. And several of the cow punchers do too. But I can say I’m the only visitor who Boyd smiles at.
So, as to your question asked without words: what are my intentions toward Miss Hamilton? I scarcely know myself. But if you see any meaning between the lines, do tell me. There’s nothing like a mother to show you the workings of your heart.
I love you, Ma. Tell Bessy and Mary their brother sends his love. Enclosed is part of my time-share.