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The Prairie Around Us

Updated: Apr 24

After a three-year hiatus from fiction writing competitions, I gave NYC Midnight's "Short Story Challenge" another try in 2024. I had a great experience with the "250-word Microfiction Challenge" at the end of 2023 (and produced one of my favorite pieces, "Is There Life on Mars?"), and allowed that enthusiasm to carry me into the new year. In Round 1 of this competition, writers have one week to write a 2,500-word story based on randomly assigned prompts.

My prompt for this story was Historical Fiction (genre) / Broken-Down (theme/concept) / A Hunter (character).

 


The Prairie Around Us

There’s an awful commotion going on in the henhouse; I can hear the chickens squawking across the yard from inside the cabin. I figure Levi has run afoul of the rooster again, but then I notice him here at my elbow. “Didn’t I tell you to go get the eggs?” I exclaim, startled and now distressed for my birds.

            “Yes ma’am, but I’m not goin’ out there now while they’re fussin’!” His eyes go wide like saucers. “What if it’s a coyote?”

            “Then put more wood on that fire so we can cook him properly,” I say. Thomas’s shotgun hangs by the cabin door, clean and loaded. I grab the gun and stride across the dirt yard, steeling myself for the carnage I expect to see inside the coop. Instead, I see my poulettes walking around the chicken pen, loud but unharmed. Something else scuffles inside the henhouse, so I nose the shotgun ahead of me through the doorway and have a look at the critter. It’s much larger than a coyote…better dressed, too. The shotgun muzzle touches the intruder’s neck. “Put those eggs down and show me your hands,” I command the vagrant, “or else I’ll blow you to Kingdom Come.”

            The man does as he’s told – handles the eggs very gently, too. As he turns around, I see a face that could be an older version of my Levi: sandy hair above large, bright eyes surrounded by freckles. This young man is covered in dirt, straw, and chicken manure, and his stubbled jaw has not seen a razor in days. I move my gun away from his head but keep it aimed at his ribs.

            “I’m gonna back out of here,” I say, “and you’re gonna follow with those hands above your head.” The vagrant awkwardly shuffles out of the henhouse, bent at the waist with his arms raised up, palms out toward me. “Latch the door,” I direct. He does as he’s told and secures the coop. We stand about ten feet apart, watching each other, waiting to see who will break the stalemate. Since I’m impatient by nature, I don’t wait long. “You go on and get back to where you came from, before I change my mind about filling you with buckshot.”

            “Didn’t mean no harm, ma’am,” he calls back. “Just needed a quick rest ‘fore I moved on.” He looks me in the eye as he continues, “If you have any food you’re willing to spare, I’d be mighty grateful for it.”

            “Look around – what makes you think I can afford to spare anything on the likes of you?” I ask, gesturing to the prairie all around us.

            “You’re right. Sorry to trouble you and your family, ma’am.” He hangs his head like a scolded dog and walks off. I watch him until he gets to the edge of my property before I lower the gun and return to my cabin.

            Levi is waiting for me on the porch. “Who was that, Mama?”

            “A scoundrel who thought he could help himself to our eggs,” I reply, wiping my sweaty palms on my apron. I can’t tell if my hands are shaking from the confrontation or from the notion that the man may have a posse of accomplices waiting out there in the wilderness.

            “Couldn’t he have just one or two eggs? The chickens will lay more,” my boy says. He cranes his neck to gawk at the retreating figure. “You’re gonna let him die out there?”

            “He won’t die,” I argue, still thinking of that posse. “And if he does, it serves him right for stealing.”

            “That’s not in the Bible, Mama.”

            “Yes it is – ‘for the wages of sin is death.’”

            “But he didn’t actually take any eggs. So, he shouldn’t have to die.”

            I bite my tongue, unable to argue with Levi’s wisdom. He’s smart – clearly takes after me, because Thomas was never that bright. I storm off the porch and call the vagrant back to the house. The shotgun is still firmly in my grasp as the young man walks up to the threshold and peers hesitantly into the cabin.

            “Sit by the fire and don’t touch anythin’,” I instruct him. To Levi, I say, “Get outside and do your chores. Come straight in if you see anyone else.”

            “What’s his name?” my boy asks in his worst whisper.

            “It doesn’t matter – get outside.”

            “My name’s Stephen,” the stranger says. Levi grins and starts to respond, but I shove him out the door before he says anything else.

            “Don’t talk to my boy,” I snap. Stephen lowers his head, wearing that hangdog expression again. I dump black coffee dregs into a tin cup and hand that over alongside a johnnycake. “There. Get your strength up and then get on your way.”

            “Really appreciate this, ma’am,” the young man says. “It’s been a long walk.”

            “Well, you got an even longer walk ahead. Don’t have room to board thieves here.”

            “I understand. Won’t darken your door too much longer; I’ll be gone by the time your husband comes home.”

            I bark out a derisive laugh. “My husband won’t be back any time soon, so just plan to get off my land before I lose my patience with you.”

            Stephen falls quiet. I can see him inspecting the interior of my home, reevaluating his first impression of this homestead, possibly pinpointing items that could fetch a pretty penny or two. He chews, swallows, and then asks, “How long have you and your boy been alone out here?”

            For some reason, I decide to answer him. “Seven years. My husband wanted to rush to California, be one of those forty-niners; I had to stay here, since Levi was just a baby. I guess Thomas didn’t have much luck out west, or else he’d’ve come home by how or sent for us to join him.”

            “I’m sorry for your loss, ma’am,” offers Stephen.

            “Nothin’ to be sorry for,” I reply. “My boy and I are just fine without him. We have everything we need here; if we need more than we have, there are always wagon trains passin’ through.” The young man nods and drains his cup. I give him a stern look as I add, “It’s a much harder life when I have to keep an eye out for thieves in my chicken coop.”

            “I’m truly sorry,” Stephen says. “I weren’t tryin’ to hurt nobody.”

            “What brought you all the way out here anyway? Closest settlement is twenty miles away,” I ask. He heaves a sigh and slumps forward, kneading his neck with both hands as he hangs his head.

            “Got mixed up with some cattle rustlers,” he admits. “Simon Fisher promised I’d get a big cut of the money once we sold ’em. But he and his son split in the middle of the night and left me behind.”

            “More thievery.” I shake my head. “How old are you?”

            “Seventeen.”

            “You had a whole life ahead of you! What a waste. You realize you’ve probably got vigilantes out lookin’ to claim a bounty on you and your crew?”

            Stephen’s face goes pale under the dirt, and in that moment he looks more like a boy than a man. I wonder where his mother is, and if she has any idea of the path her son chose to secure his fortune. Just the thought of my sweet Levi taking up a life of crime breaks my heart and brings tears to my eyes. I take the man’s empty cup to the washbasin just so he won’t see me swipe at my eyelashes.

            Before we say anything else, Levi runs back into the cabin. His legs are spattered with runny yellow yolk. “Mama, someone’s comin’!” he shouts, quickly depositing his basket of intact eggs.

            I dart a glance over to Stephen. “Friends of yours?” I ask.

            “Or bounty hunters,” he mutters, still pale. My hand flies to my mouth, damming a stream of curses. I can’t have my son caught in the middle of a shootout; I’m also not interested in getting arrested for harboring a fugitive.

            “You gotta get out of here,” I say to Stephen. “Levi, how many horses did you see?”

            “Just one!”

            I cross to the cabin’s single window and throw open the shutters. “Climb out here and get as far away from this house as you can,” I order Stephen. “Don’t look back, and don’t come back.”

            The rustler obliges. He pauses on the windowsill, one leg on each side, and turns back to repeat, “I’m sorry for all this trouble, ma’am.” Then he’s gone, running for the weathered, broken-down wagon that marks the western edge of the property.

            The mysterious rider approaches from the southeast, keeping his bay mount’s pace at a leisurely walk. Both horse and rider are coated in dust. I instruct Levi to stay inside as I come out to the porch to meet the man. “Afternoon, ma’am,” he calls, dismounting and doffing his hat. “Am I speakin’ to the lady of the house?”

            “Yessir,” I reply, “you’re on Turner land at the moment.”

            “Well, Mrs. Turner, my name is Saul Church. I’m a law man based out of Fort Caspar, and I’ve been hired to track down some stolen livestock. You or your boy seen anything strange around here in the last few days?” He waves at Levi, who’s peering out from behind me.

            “Can’t say we have.” I fold my arms to hide the nervous tremors in my hands. “No cattle ‘round here – just my chickens and my goats.”

            “Hm.” The man runs a hand over his dark hair before replacing his hat, then asks, “You know anyone named Fisher – Simon or Nathaniel Fisher? How about Stephen Walker?”

            My face struggles to maintain its neutral expression. “Can’t say I do.”

            “I see.” Church strokes his beard as he surveys the yard, the house, and the prairie beyond. Light glints off the pistols holstered on his belt. Then he asks if he can come inside to get a drink and a break from the sun. The look in his eye makes me uneasy, but I consent and lead the way into the cabin. The vigilante ruffles Levi’s hair as he passes, and my throat burns with a repressed scream as I watch him handle my boy. To my relief, Levi slips past the imposing man and onto the porch, out of harm’s way for now. I dutifully bring a ladle of boiled water to church; he gulps it down, signs with contentment, and wipes droplets from his mustache. Then the door closes.

            “Now Mrs. Turner…” The ladle clatters to the floor as Church advances on me. “I’m not usually one to accuse a woman of lying’, but I suspect you’re not bein’ fully honest with me right now.”

            The shotgun is back on its hook by the door; Church and his pistols stand between me, my protection, and my exit. “I don’t know what you mean, Mr. Church,” I reply evenly, my voice calm despite my growing panic. “But I do know that it’s time for you to leave my home.”

            His spurs jingle with each menacing step. “I didn’t say which livestock had been stolen,” he growls. “Coulda been hogs, coulda been horses… But you already knew it was cattle.”

            Damn it. He’s right – I was careless. I’ve probably implicated myself with that slip of the tongue.

            “So maybe you’re acquainted with Mr. Fisher, Master Fisher, or Master Walker,” the bounty hunter continues. “Maybe you’re even in on their scheme.” His hand lashes out and closes on my wrist, tight as a vice. “Is that what’s goin’ on, Mrs. Turner?”

            “Let me go!” I shriek, struggling against his grip with all my might.

            “No chance, woman. I was promised twenty-five cents per head of cattle if I bring in a rustler. You’re either gonna lead me to those pigeon-livered bastards, or you’re comin’ with me to the fort so I can get paid.”

            I drop to the floor like a ragdoll, digging my heels into the planks to resist him. Sharp pains lace my scalp when his other hand twists and yanks my hair. I scream my head off, even though it’s useless – there’s no one to help me. Please, Lord, don’t let Levi see his mother die…

            Splinters fly as the door bursts open. Stephen Walker jumps on Church’s back, wrapping both arms around the bigger man’s neck, and drags him backward. Church’s fingers loosen enough that I can scramble out of his reach. The two men stumble outside in a tangle of limbs. Next thing I know, Church is on his back in the dirt with Stephen on top of him. There’s a rock in his fist. Stephen’s hand swings down over and over, speckled more with blood each time he lifts it overhead. After many sickening thuds, the vigilante’s boots stop twitching and fall slack.

            Stephen turns to me, face drawn, eyes bulging. “Are you alright?” he asks hoarsely.

            “Is he…” I can’t bring myself to utter the word.

            “’Fraid so.”

            Levi runs to me, tears and snot streaming down his face, and latches onto my skirts like a burr. All I can do is hold him close as I watch the man out in the yard. He stares down at the motionless body between his feet, then looks at the sticky red rock as if noticing it for the first time. His arm cocks back, and that stone flies in a tight arc over the busted wagon and lands somewhere out in the prairie.

            “You have to get him away from here,” I croak. “He’s not my burden to bear, nor mine to bury.”

            “I know.” Stephen walks stiffly over to Church’s horse and leads it back to the patch of ground where its former master lies. With great effort, he hoists the bounty hunter’s body onto the saddle and then mounts the animal himself. “Simon told me about a place where the natives hunt buffalo by chasing them off cliffs – called it Hell’s Half Acre,” he tells me. “I might be able to make it by tomorrow – it’s just over twenty miles from here. I can dump him there.”

            “I don’t care,” I say. “Go now, and don’t you ever show your face here again.”

            Stephen nods. “I truly appreciate everything you did for me, Mrs. Turner,” he says somberly. “You too, Levi.” With nothing more to say, the rustler nudges the horse into a trot and rides away with his gristly cargo.

            Levi and I walk into the yard, still clinging to each other. We kick dust over the dark splotches that stain the ground, covering any reminder of the violence that took place near our home. Then we go inside to boil more water and wash any remaining sin off our hands. We pray for rain to come and wash the blood off that sticky rock, hoping that a downpour will cleanse the land around us.

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