Seth led the horse into the barn and let it drink from the trough before pitching some hay under its nose. He gave it a quick rubdown, more a lick and a promise than proper care of a tired animal, but the human was also a tired animal. Plowing twenty acres of someone else’s hard land twelve miles distant in heat and humidity he had never even had nightmares about – but would from now on – was more than a middle-aged man could stand for too long. Seth had stood it for longer than that because it had to be done.
He walked toward his house. He didn’t smell supper being made, but it was too hot to eat, anyway, and he was too tired to care; he just wanted to lie down. But he forgot his exhaustion as soon as he walked through the back door into the kitchen. He stood perfectly still for a moment and took in the situation.
His wife, Margaret, sat at a chair pulled away from the kitchen table. She held his rifle in a white-knuckle grip, her right hand clutching the weapon just behind the trigger, and stared at nothing. Her expression seemed to Seth to be caught between misery and anger. Some of her hair had worked loose from her bun, as though she had shaken her head violently; the humidity had plastered it down at strange angles.
“Margaret?” he said softly. She did not respond. He tried again a little louder and she realized he was in the room with her. She looked even more miserable now.
“I wanted to shoot him, Seth,” she said, trying to justify herself in his eyes. All Seth’s eyes could see was that his wife was on the brink of madness. “I wanted to shoot him, honest to God I did. I would have. I’d’ve protected me and mine. But I couldn’t, could I? Given the circumstances? I wanted to so badly I could taste it. I still want to. But given the circumstances I just didn’t see how I could.” She drew a ragged breath. “I wasn’t just being weak, was I, Seth?”
“I’ve never met a woman stronger than you, Margaret,” he said honestly. “I’m sure you’ve done the right thing, especially given the circumstances.” Seth’s concern remained with the gun; the circumstances could wait. He took a tentative step toward her. “So … since you’re not going to shoot him, maybe you could let me have the gun. I could clean it and get it ready in case things change and we end up shooting him, after all.”
Margaret stared at him, trying to understand. Then she looked down and saw that she held his rifle.
“I’d’ve used it, Seth, and maybe I’d’ve ended up on the gallows and burning in hell for it, but I’d have done it, if I could have!” She held the rifle out a little and shook it at Seth for emphasis. He nodded his understanding and appreciation of her dilemma, whatever it was. “You know I take care of my family!”
“Like no other, Margaret,” he soothed. He also knew that his wife was a better shot than he was. The night they heard the coyote in the hen house, Margaret was first out the door and, half asleep and by the light of a three-quarter moon, put a bullet through the coyote’s left eye.
“I was too late,” she said, and a tear ran down her cheek from each eye. “I don’t know where I failed, and I don’t know how I didn’t see it coming. I’d’ve still shot him, but the circumstances just don’t allow, now.”
“No,” he agreed, “they don’t. That must be getting awfully heavy, Margaret. Won’t you let me take it?”
Margaret shook her head, but not at Seth’s request. “I have failed. I’ve failed you and I’ve failed our poor Ruth. I just didn’t see it coming. I don’t know how, but I didn’t.”
“You’re not the Lord, to see all of life before it happens,” he reminded her a little sternly. “You don’t blame me for all that corn we lost because I couldn’t see those hailstorms were going to flatten it. Do you?”
Margaret’s expression softened to one more recognizable. “No, of course not.”
“We just have to do our best and take our trials as they come, don’t you think?”
Margaret nodded and whispered, “Yes.” She was silent for a long moment. “You’re going to have to take this from me, Seth. I can’t let go of it.”
Seth closed the distance and gently pried the gun from his wife’s fingers. He checked it and saw one of the shells was missing. He set the rifle in a far corner and then sat in a chair in front of Margaret. He took one of her hands in his and began to massage it.
“You didn’t shoot him?”
“I shot near him. Once. Just to let him know how I felt about the situation.”
“Okay.” He worked on her hand in silence and pondered what he knew so far. He didn’t like at all where his imagination was taking him. He put Margaret’s hand in her lap and took the other one. “So what, exactly, did I miss around here today?”
The words dropped out of her mouth, dull and heavy and hard. “Ruth has run off with Bradford Pickering. They’re going to marry on account of her being pregnant.”
Seth bowed his head, squeezed his eyes shut, and willed himself to remain quiet, not to give in to the urge to yell. His beautiful, beloved baby girl, barely grown up, in the arms of that slick-talking shyster with his outsized bow-and-string tie to match his outsized pride. He had done any number of good men out of their land on a dozen pretexts. Seth’s treasured only child had first played the whore for that oily wretch and now she would be his wife and the mother of his child.
“No,” he whispered at last. “You couldn’t have shot him, given the circumstances. You couldn’t kill the baby’s father.” He paused again to try to bottle up his rage and his grief. “When you shot near him,” he asked, almost conversationally, “how close did you come?”
Margaret tipped her chin at something resting next to the coffee pot on the table. Seth picked it up. It was most of a man’s tie; part of the big bow that sat over the throat was missing, but the bulk of the tie was there.
“Not really,” Margaret said. “I was going for the brim of his hat.”
Seth smiled, and soon they were both laughing until they fell sobbing into each other’s arms.