Excerpted from One for the Blackbird, One for the Crow with permission of
Lake Union Publishing. Copyright © 2019 by Olivia Hawker. All rights reserved.
AFTER HE TOOK HIMSELF OFF TO JAIL
I was leading the cows to the milking shed when my pa shot Mr. Webber. It was the end of the season for blackberries, and the fence beside the shed was thick with vines my ma had planted years before. The evening air smelled of berries, rich and sweet in the way that makes you close your eyes when you breathe in the scent. You can’t help but do it; the smell takes ahold of you and calls to your heart, and it makes you think of all the good things that have passed and all the good things yet to come, so you close your eyes and shut out everything else that’s real, everything that’s drab or sorrowful, all the things that hurt you like the thorns. That’s what I was doing when I heard the shot—standing with one hand on the gate and my eyes closed, thinking about those berries and how, after milking was done, I’d pick a whole basketful and share them with my brothers and baby sister, sweet and good with cream on top, the cream still warm from the cows.
But the moment the shot cracked the air, I opened my eyes and my hand. The pail of grain fell, and the cows pushed me aside to lip up what was spilled. I knew right then that something terrible had happened, something that would change us all forever. And I knew it was my fault—at least some—for I’d be the one who told me pa that the calf was missing, and he’d gone off to search for it. If I’d never told him, if I’d gone to find that calf myself, it would have been me who seen what no one else should have seen, and I would have left it all alone. Never said a word, just drifted off like a ghost through the dusk, with no one any wiser.
But instead, it was Pa who found them, under the poplars by the river, and now Substance Webber is dead.
I can’t say just how I knew it was trouble when I heard that shot. Pa fired his Henry rifle all the time, at coyotes and eagles who came for our stock, and at bears to shoo them away from the places where my brothers and sisters played. Maybe I heard a sound in the rifle’s voice. Maybe it was like a shout of pain torn from my father’s throat, worse than the time his horse slipped and fell on him, and his leg was broken in two places. Maybe it was just because my ma had been missing all evening, and I finally wised up enough to think it strange. She slipped off toward the river once she saw that all her children were fed and the shores were underway. It was a think she’d done for days now, but until the rifle sounded, I’d never thought twice about it. I was big enough to care for the little ones without being told.
As soon as I knew deep down in my heart that something had gone awry, I slapped the cows on their backsides to hurry them into the pen, and then I ran to the house, where the little ones were putting on their nightdresses. I said, everybody into the bedroom, and don’t coe out till I say so. They complained, because they always do, but they did as I told them. They always do that, too. I wanted them shut safely away when the trouble came up from the riverside to our little gray house. I didn’t want them to see the look on our pa’s face when he returned.
When Pa came back through the twilight, he was paler than a bad-omen moon. He walked with a stagger, like he was struck by some illness, and his eyes seemed to see nothing that lay before him—only what lay behind, what had caused him to raise his rifle and pull the trigger before he could think any better. He held the gun as if it was a foreign thing, and too distasteful to bear, one-handed by its stick with the muzzle dragging through the tall grass. Behind him came my mother, hair unbound and weeping into her hands.
I went outside to meet them both. I was scared all at once for them—afraid one of them should fall, like they were fragile, breakable things. The sight of me brought Pa from his daze. He stared at my face for a long time, and it was hard not to look away, for I’d never seen such agony in him before, and I knew right then that he was only a man, and mortal. No girl likes to realize that her father will die someday. Much less does she like to know that grief could be enough to kill him.
Beulah, he said, I done something wrong. I said, I know it, Pa.
He nodded. Pa never questioned this way I have—the knowing that comes to me from the movement of the wind or the scent of blackberries, or the sound of a gunshot by the river.
He said, I got to go now, over to the Webber’s place, and tell that what all happened. And then I got to ride to town and turn myself over to the sheriff. It’s the only righteous thing to be done.
My mother wailed at that and staggered toward him, but Pa stepped back. He held up his free hand, a wall between them. It only made Ma weep more piteously.
I said, I’ll saddle Tiger for you, and he answered, No not Tiger. He’s a fast horse. I can’t say how long I’ll be gone, Little Mite, and you may have need of a fast horse, by and by. You’ll need the saddle, too. I don’t know if the sheriff will return my horse to my farm and my family. I’ve never done this before. Could be a man forfeits his right to his horse when he…when he does what I just done. Put a bridle on Meg; I’ll take her to town bareback.
I still liked to hear him call me Little Mite, even though I was thirteen and not little anymore. And I had never felt older or steadier that I did in that moment, when I stepped away from my parents to pull the old, slow mare from her paddock and ready her so she could carry off Pa to his fate. My mother was still weeping, her cries loud and long like the peal of a bell.
The pain in her voice was heavy to bear. I would have cried, too, if I’d had the lee, for I already felt the badness of it all, the distance between my mother and father opening wider like a crack in the earth. You’ll fall into that cold, damp darkness if you aren’t careful where to set your feet.
But there was work to be done, and no time for crying. Not if we hoped to get by without Pa.
In time, my mother stopped weeping and huddled on the doorstep. In the first silver creeping of moonlight, she looked smaller and frailer than she ever had before. She hugged her body and rocked as if it was a baby she held in her arms, not herself—and she stared at my father, hungry, desperate for one look from him, one word. He gave neither.
I handed Meg’s reins to my pa, and he passed the gun to me. You how to use the rifle, he said.
I nodded. I wasn’t handy with a gun—I never had needed to be—but it was simple enough.
That much I knew.
He said, I’ll send word, soon as I’m able. It’s up to you to think of something to tell the little ones, something they’ll understand.
I said, Is there anything you want me to tell Ma?
He stood listening to the crickets in the long grass. He wrapped Meg’s reins around his fist and tightened it till his knuckles blanched white. Then he took a deep breath, savoring the smell of his homestead and the coolness of a soft Wyoming night. He closed his eyes and stood like that for a long while. When he opened his eyes again, Pa said, In time, I’ll want you to tell your ma how sorry I am, and that I love her still. But that time ain’t come yet. Not yet.
I watched him ride away down the rutted path through our pasture, east toward the Webber farm. When night’s gray shadows hid him from view, I turned my back on Pa and face the house, and my mother wilting on the steps.
I went to her and unwrapped her hands from around her thin body, and pulled her to her feet, where she swayed. We didn’t speak, for I knew she had no words yet, and wouldn’t for days to come. That’s the way with Ma. Whenever a sorrow or a fear comes along to put a crack in her heart, she goes quiet—the only time she ever does. I knew she would say nothing while she was shrouded in grief and remorse, just as I knew that after he took himself to jail, my pa would send word and forgive her.
But until forgiveness came, I had to run the farm on my own. There was no one else who could do it. I wasn’t afraid. I haven’t found anything yet in this life that’s worth being afraid of.
Through unexpected characters and vivid prose, Olivia Hawker explores the varied
landscape of the human spirit. Olivia’s interest in genealogy often informs her writing:
her two novels, The Ragged Edge of Night and One for the Blackbird, One for the Crow,
are based on true stories found within her own family tree. She lives in the San Juan
Islands of Washington State, where she homesteads at Longlight, a one-acre microfarm
dedicated to sustainable permaculture practices. For more information, visit
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