Thanks to everyone who sent messages of empathy over last week’s post. With your help, it gets easier each year.
Let’s try some more short fiction this week. Can’t rightly call it flash fiction because it exceeds 1,000 words, and that appears to be the upper limit for that genre. Anyway, here it comes.
The big wolf slipping through the trees a hundred feet to my right unsettled me. I wasn’t worried about the beast, but he spooked my horse. A wolf’s howl – real or dreamt – punctuating the same dream three nights in a row had started me on this trip. I considered shooting the thing, but Ma’am’s got Ojibway blood, and she looked on wolves as medicine animals.
My sir had wanted me to wait until after planting before taking off for Waususa ten miles to the west. And I’d agreed, until those vague, formless dreams about Tillie, each punctuated by the call of a wolf, riled me up.
Matilda Thorgensen was my best friend until her widowed pa pulled up stakes for Waususa. The day she left a year ago this coming April had been magical. We’d snuck off to say goodbye, and until casting eyes on her exposed bosom, I hadn’t known I lusted after her. I entered that pine grove an eighteen-year-old boy and left it a man. Then, after that magnificent awakening, she was gone.
Other than claiming I was mopey and likely needed a tonic, Sir was blind to my discovery. Ma’am saw right through me. She might even suspect I’d had a taste of the carnal.
So I set off for Waususa before a proper spring arrived. Heavy, dark clouds pressed the sky down on me. The air smelled like rain. Trees struggling to bud dripped water. Mushy ground made the going slow. Old Red, our riding horse, splashed through springs and brooks – all running high from snow melt – without any trouble, but Beaver Creek looked more like a river. With my heart down in my boots, I stared at the tumbling water. I’d have to turn back.
Suddenly, Red jumped sideways, almost dumping me. I got him under control and saw the timber wolf had snuck up on us. I made threatening noises, but he kept coming. So I let the horse retreat down the bank.
The lobo halted in his tracks when I came to a spot where the creek fractured into three shallow branches the horse could wade without dumping us both. Fifty yards on down the trail, I saw the wolf was still with me.
I started looking for Tillie as soon as I reached Waususa late that afternoon. People mostly avoided me, but someone finally steered me to a burned down house. Neighbors turned shy, so I ended up on Main Street in front of the Silver Spur. The saloon was too wild and noisy, but that’s where the people were, except for God-fearing folk home having supper. I went to every table in the honky-tonk asking about Tillie and her pa without learning nothing.
Just as I gave up, I came up on a woman like I’d never seen before but heard about all my life. Little bitty skirt. Bare legs showing through black stockings made like a fishnet. I’d never seen a woman’s legs before, except for Tillie’s that one time. Naked shoulders. Bad women, my ma’am called them without explaining. But I knew. They drank whiskey with men and did other things with them, too. Remembering I’d done that same act with Tillie last spring put a blush on my face.
She rested a small hand with fingernails painted bright red on a sprung hip. “Hello, handsome. Buy a lady a drink?”
“Excuse me, ma’am, but I don’t have any money.”
“I hear you asking after Tillie Thorgensen?”
It felt like I turned redder. “Yes, ‘um.”
“Your name ain’t Luke, is it?”
I glanced up. Her eyes were blue. Like Tillie’s. “Yes, ‘um. Luke Streller.”
“Tell you what, Luke. You mosey on out the door over there and meet me round back.”
“Ummm, I don’t have any money—”
I’d heard about bawdy laughs but didn’t know what they were. I figured I was hearing one right now.
“Honey, I might take a cutie like you on for free, but that ain’t it. Go on now.”
My face musta face matched her fingernails as I scooted for the door. But as I walked the shadows between the saloon and the building next door, I went squirrely. What if she set one of the big bouncers on me? The alley at the rear of the saloon was even darker. I paused and wrestled with my doubts.
I made her out beneath a stairway leading up to the second floor. A lace shawl covered her shoulders. That red dress splashed with shiny spangles looked black in the night. The alleyway smelled like cat piss as I approached her.
“Tillie talked about you. That’s how I knew it was you,” she said.
“Where is she? Her house is all burned down. What happened?”
“They think Old Man Thurgensen fell asleep while he was smoking one of his cigars. He’d been drinking a lot ever since the baby came.”
I thought she’d hit me in the head with a club. I got swoony. “Baby? What baby?”
“My baby?” my mouth asked without any help from me. Hell, we’d only done it once. A fellow couldn’t make a baby on the first try, could he?
“A little boy. She named him Lucas, after you.”
“Where are they?” My voice sounded like I was at the bottom of a well.
“Oh, honey, Tillie and her daddy died in the fire.”
She might as well have slugged me in the belly. My legs went wobbly. I think I woulda fallen over if she hadn’t reached out and grabbed my arm. Some sort of God-awful sound came outta me.
“Why wouldn’t anybody tell me?” I managed to ask.
“The whole town treated them awful. You know, her without no husband, and all. But the baby’s alive. Tillie threw him out a little window at the back, but she couldn’t get through it herself.”
“Where … where is he?”
She led me down the dark, rank alley to the back door of a small house. She knocked once and entered with me right behind her. A fleshy black woman with short, graying hair rose from a chair with a small bundle in her arms.
“Mazie, this here’s Luke. Big Luke.”
“Yes’um, Miss Lupe. Pleased to meet you, sir.”
“Is that ….”
“That’s Little Luke. Your son,” Lupe said.
I don’t remember reaching for him, but somehow he was in my arms staring up at me through Tillie’s eyes. He was littler than I thought a human could ever be. When I pulled him up for a closer look, his tiny fist grabbed my lower lip … and yanked my heart right out of my chest.
As I set out for home with Little Luke in my arms, I was a believer. Wolves were medicine animals … at least this one was. And I had to let him see I’d got his message.
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Next week: Time will tell!
New posts are published at 6:00 a.m. each Thursday.