Afternoon sunlight was slanting through the pine boughs in the yard for the last moments before the ranch fell behind the shadow of the mountain. It had been a hard day and I leaned against the doorjamb wearily, stealing one moment of rest before returning to the stove and the evening meal. It was on no prosperous spread that my eyes rested. Life had not been easy for me since my husband had been shot seven years back while rep-ing at a neighboring ranch, collecting missing cows that might have gotten mixed in with neighbors' herds. The guilty party had never been found, and I had been barely scraping by these last years, trying to keep my small ranch running with a few hundred head of cattle, the help of a couple loyal old cowboys who had worked for my husband, and my two young children, Quentin and Lola.
As I leaned there in the doorway, a faint swirl of dust rose from between the scrub oak lining the road that approached the ranch. Curious, I watched till I could discern the sound of hoof beats and a dark bay horse broke into view, ridden by the dusty figure of a cowboy. He reined up in front of the door and lifted his hat. "Is your man about, ma'am?" he inquired pleasantly.
I had the moment of confused hesitation that I always still felt when someone asked after my husband. "No, I run this ranch," I answered. "Is there something you need?"
"Work, ma'am," the cowboy grinned. "Might you be looking for an extra hand about the place?"
"I could use one," I acknowledged, "but the pay will be scarce."
The man nodded. "That's fine by me, so long's there's a roof over my head when snow flies and grub in my stomach. If you'll take me on, the deal's done." He held out his hand, a winning smile breaking over his tanned face. "The name's Ross."
I returned the handshake, my weariness momentarily forgotten under the spell of his smile. "Tabitha," I introduced myself in turn, "or Tabby."
At this juncture my children came careening in from the corrals, dirty and obviously hot on the trail of supper. They stopped short when they saw the stranger. "These are my children, Quentin and Lola," I said. "Children, this is Ross, he's going to be our new hand."
Ross shook hands seriously with ten-year-old Quentin and seven-year-old Lola. "A great pleasure to meet you, I'm sure," he said. They both giggled. Ross turned to me again. "Thank you very much for work, ma'am. I'll just take my pony down to the corrals and get him settled in, if you don't mind. Is the wagon out, or will the cook be in the bunkhouse?"
"The wagon's out," I answered. "You can eat with us tonight."
Over a tin plate piled high with baked beans, brisket, and applesauce, Quentin lost his shyness and pestered Ross shamelessly with endless questions. He had not yet learned the range law that one should never inquire about anyone's past, and he wanted to know everything that Ross had ever done and where he had been. Ross answered vaguely, but there was a good-natured twinkle in his gray eyes. I couldn't help but think, as I listened, that it would be nice to have a man around the house again, if only for my son's sake.
Lola soon warmed to Ross as well, and in the next weeks I could see her and Quentin often following Ross around his work, whether it be mending corral fences or raking hay for winter out in the pastureland. I got so used to his presence at the table that when the cowboys rode in to the ranch that fall after the roundup was over and the years' beef sold in town and Ross ate in the bunkhouse with them, the house actually felt lonely. I laughed at myself and tried to ignore the feeling. "Tabby," I told myself, "you're on the verge of wishing to marry again, like you always vowed that you wouldn't. Remember how often you've thought how you'd feel untrue to Es if you did? Yes," I'd counter then, "but for Quentin and Lola . . . "
The situation didn't last long, however, before Quentin took the reins. He went out one evening and came back pulling a protesting Ross by the hand. "It's no fun in the evenings without you," Quentin insisted, slamming the door and standing against it stubbornly. "You have to eat with us."
Ross shot me a sheepish glance. "I don't want to trouble your ma, sonny. She's got enough work to do without cooking for an extra mouth."
"That's all right," I stepped in quickly. "I would love to have you for supper."
Quentin whooped in triumph and Lola hugged Ross around the waist. He patted her dark hair, looking at me over their heads with an expression that made me feel uncomfortable. "Pull up a chair," I invited lightly, turning back to the stove.
After that Ross came to the house at least every Sunday evening, and slowly began to come on days in between as well. I thought that he came merely to please the children, but then he started to drop in when they were out playing after their lessons were finished, having snowball fights in the snow or following rabbit tracks. He would bring a newspaper perhaps, or a saddlery magazine, and sit before the stove with me, talking or just sitting quietly. I loved those times and I realized just how terribly lonely I had been since my husband died. I wasn't, perhaps, quite so old and sensible as I had told myself I was.
Christmas was approaching, and a few days before it came, one of my old-time cowboys rode into town and back to bring me the Christmas package that my family back East always sent me. This year the best thing in it for me was the photograph of my wedding to Es. I had wanted to bring it when we came West, but Es insisted on only bringing the necessities. He hated useless clutter. Now my mother wrote that she had found it again when looking in the attic for her old wedding veil for my younger sister to wear, and she thought that I would like to have it now. I nestled the photograph into the sprigs of evergreen on the shelf and smiled at it, gently caressing my husband's face with my fingertips. My children looked at it indifferently. They didn't remember their father.
Christmas morning was clear and cold, the icicles that hung from the roof glittering in the light from the rising sun. I sat in the rawhide chair, smiling as I watched my children squeal over the molasses candy and pennies in their stockings, and looked forward to the afternoon when Ross would come to have Christmas dinner with us.
He came in calling, "Merry Christmas!" heartily, and swept Lola up to kiss her rosy cheek, while Quentin tugged at his pant leg, wanting to show him his presents. I smiled as I set the roast beef on the table. This was the best Christmas we had had in seven years.
As we ate, I noticed that Ross was repeatedly looking at something behind me. I threw a quick glance over my shoulder and figured that it had to be the photograph that was drawing his attention. For some reason I blushed, realizing that he had no reason to think that it was a photograph of my husband and I, since it had just appeared in my house for the first time. "My mother sent me that. It's my old wedding photograph that she just found again," I explained. He nodded, embarrassed that I had noticed what he kept looking at. "My husband's name was Esmond," I continued, feeling it a relief to talk of him to someone. "We were married back East eleven years ago. It's been seven since he was killed, shot while out 'rep-ing'."
A forkful froze midway to Ross's mouth. "Seven?" he repeated, a peculiar look coming over his face.
"That's how old I am!" Lola interjected proudly. "That's a lot of years to be alive, isn't it?"
Ross and I laughed and the subject was dropped. But as I cleaned the table and the children went back to their stockings, Ross went to the shelf and stood with his back to me, looking closely at the photo. "That was your husband," he said finally, his voice queer.
"Yes," I said, pausing beside him, a tray in my hands. "We were very happy in those four years before the incident. It has been difficult for me, going on without him, raising the children on my own, keeping the ranch running. Your being here has been a nice help, especially for Quentin."
Ross looked at me strangely. He cleared his throat and turned on his heel abruptly. "Well, thank you for dinner, I've . . . got some . . . things to attend to." He pulled on his coat and left before the children had even time to look up from their pennies. I stood there with the tray in my hands, looking after him in surprise, and wondering wretchedly what I had said that had been so wrong. I had hoped for a cozy afternoon conversing around the stove while the children played. But apparently for some unknown reason I had offended Ross.
That was the last time Ross came for supper that winter. Whenever I extended as invitation he had some excuse for why he couldn't, the bogged down cattle needed pulling, or the pasture needed to be dragged so the horses could reach grass. The children had no better success for all their wheedling and pleading. None of us could understand it and all of us missed him. I hadn't realized until then how much I had looked forward to talking with him, and what a vast empty space in my life he had been coming to fill.
So I was surprised, when one day in early spring a few weeks before the roundup started, I glanced up from reading to see Ross coming to the door. "Are the children gone?" he asked, looking around, his hat making nervous circles in his hands, first one way, then the other.
"Yes, they finished their lessons for the day and have gone off to play, enjoying the liberty after being closed in the house all winter," I smiled, putting aside my book and pushing out a chair invitingly with my toe.
Ross sat down and put his hat on the table. "Well, I . . . ." he began, then focused on his hat again for a moment. "I have something to confess," he blurted finally.
"Confess?" I echoed, surprised by a word I had not expected.
"Yes, I've been wrestling with it these last months, and I've concluded that I have to tell you up front and ask your forgiveness. You see, I had a spread in the next county some years ago, when I had my own land for the first time. I'd come to the range and bought me a spread and a little herd with the last of my wages. It wasn't much of a spread, and like most cowboys, I thought it wouldn't hurt to use the long rope a little. Ya know, do some rustlin' and pull in a few strays from the bigger ranches once in awhile, slap my brand on 'em and expand my holdings some. Well, it didn't hurt nobody . . . not at first. Then I started getting bolder, and lassoed in more, seeing that nothing came of it. Then one day the reps from the neighboring ranches rode in. I'd got the critters with the newest worked-over brands hidden away up a canyon, but they was still suspicious and looked over my herd mighty close and critical. It made me feel jumpy, I can tell you, and I was leery of pulling in more for a time, but the thing had taken hold pretty strong by now, and when I come across a good bunch of yearlings browsing in a cottonwood thicket, I couldn't resist the takings. I'd got the second one throwed and was just about to slap my brand on 'er when a rider came around the bush on me. I saw the barrel of a gun and the leather thong of a rep, and I didn't stop to think. I made a fast draw and fired quick as lightning. Soon as I'd seen what I'd done, I was scared and didn't think. I lit out of the area and left my place to my partner, telling him my mother was dying and needed me, and I've only just came back. By the photograph on your shelf, Tabby, that man I shot was your husband."
A shock, cold as ice, had gone through me, and I was shaking violently all over. I sprang to my feet. I couldn't find my voice for a moment, but then it came, bitter, hoarse, hateful. "You!" I choked. "You did this? Leave! Leave at once and never let me see you again!" I turned and made a blind dash for the door, stumbling over my chair and knocking it over with a clatter. I rushed through the yard and up the barren slope of the mountain to the lonely grave there, half buried among the rocks and dry grass. I collapsed on the frozen ground, panting for breath and trembling, wild sobs raking my body. Through the anger, the hurt, the hatred, came a scorching reproach on myself. How could I have been learning to love my husband's murderer? How could the man who had caused all our suffering and pain have been the one who had been able, these past months, to take that suffering and pain away? That was over for good, I vowed silently, as the wind off the mountain tore at my threadbare dress and stung in my tear-filled eyes. Let the man so much as try to speak to me ever again, and I would report him to the sheriff and watch gladly at his gallows! The moment I thought it, I felt sick. After all, he had been kind, and Quentin and Lola . . . conflicting emotions wrenched my heart as I knelt there on my husband's grave in the cold, spring wind. I hated Ross, and yet . . . . I loved him.
My solitude was broken by the appearance of Quentin, furious, flushed, wildly indignant. "Why did you tell Ross to leave?" he screamed at me. "You can't do that! It would be horrible without him, just horrible! I hate you! If you don't let him stay, I'm going with him!"
"Quentin," I snapped, "I can't let him stay. He was the man who shot your father."
"I don't care!" Quentin shouted. "You can't make him leave!" He stormed away down the slope, and I was left, my heart twisting in pain. My son, my own son, didn't care who had killed his father. He didn't remember him, but he knew and loved Ross. My mind felt blank from confusion. I couldn't think coherently, all I wanted was to find a hole somewhere and pull it in behind me.
Sometime later Quentin appeared again beside me, as I sat on the cold ground, staring vacantly into space. "I went after Ross," Quentin told me stubbornly. "He told me to ask you if he stayed away from the house and kept away from you, if you would let him stay and try to make up to you the wrong he did. Please, mama," he added, his slight boyish face tipped up pleadingly. I could see that he was close to tears. "Please say that he can stay, please."
I felt my heart breaking at his wistful face. How could I send away the man who had loved my son and been like a father to him? Ross wouldn't hurt my children, and if he really would try to make up to me what he had done . . . maybe my children could have a chance in life, maybe I could afford to send them to school, to give them something to start out in life with, give them a life beyond scraping by with barely enough. A tear rolled down Quentin's nose. I looked away, and I heard my own voice say brokenly, "Tell him to stay."
Quentin gave a gleeful shout and started off down the mountain with a leap. I could hear him calling, "Ross! Ross!" His voice was full of happy relief.
I could not feel the same. I couldn't see Es's gravestone through my stinging tears. "What else could I have done?" I whispered into the silence. "But, oh, Es, how will I endure?"
At first it was very difficult, despite Ross's efforts to stay out of my way. He went out for the spring roundup and was gone for several weeks, but strangely I did not find those weeks any easier. I felt as if all my energy and willpower had dissolved into the atmosphere. I dragged around doing the necessary chores, and as soon as I could, I'd drop into a chair and stare into space for hours at a time. Nights were no better; bad dreams haunted me, and the loneliness was crushing in the hours I would lie awake, thinking thoughts that led nowhere. Summer came, and Quentin and Lola spent many happy days following Ross around, going riding with him on their little ponies, or chatting gaily with him while perching on the corral fence. Brooding in the house, I felt sometimes as if I hated even my own children. They didn't care about their father, they were just mad at me for refusing to let Ross come to the house anymore. Even Lola, who I had expected to be afraid of Ross once she heard what he had done, just rolled her little eyes at me and went her merry way. I felt abandoned by the whole world. All I wanted was to either pay Ross back for all the pain he had caused me or to lie down and die myself. Something had to change, but for a while, nothing did. Only gradually, so gradually that at first I didn't notice, as the months went by I got used to seeing Ross around the ranch and could watch from the window as he played with the children without the stifling feeling of anger and hatred overpowering me. Only a bitter resentment and an aching feeling of loneliness and confusion came now.
Finally one night I had a dream that set me on the path to reconciliation. In it I seemed to be watching Es branding calves in some hidden gulley—alert, watching, casting a wary eye on the ridges above. I knew somehow that they were not our calves, and I remembered once Es admitting to me, when I had commented on how fast our herd was growing, that he had used the long rope a little—"not much, Tabby, but a little, just a little." As I watched, a rider appeared up the washout, a strangely familiar rider with a black moustache and gray eyes. Es turned, his hand going to his belt. A shot cracked, echoing over the still landscape. The rider slumped, slipping from his horse into the sand, and suddenly I knew who it was . . . it was Ross.
I jerked awake in the darkness. My heart was pounding. My dream was right, I realized. If Es had been in Ross's place . . . if the roles were reversed . . . I would have forgiven Es. Without a question I would have forgiven Es. There, safe, hidden in the dark with only the sounds of my children's soft breathing and an occasional yelp of a coyote from the night outside, I admitted to myself for the first time that I wanted to forgive Ross. If only for my own sake I wanted to forgive Ross. I knew it wouldn't be easy, but at least I knew that I needed to try.
To the rest of the world, nothing had changed, but inside myself everything had. I was no longer succumbing to and being overpowered by my anger. I was battling it, and even merely the battle gave me energy. I didn't sit looking off into space anymore. I sat reading my Bible. Over and over I read, "I tell you, forgive not your brother seven times, but seventy times seven times." I said that to myself everyday as I went about my work, cleaning the house, kneading bread, or hanging out laundry. But I still couldn't do it, and I finally realized that it was impossible for such forgiveness to come by my will only, so I prayed, every night I prayed, for God to grant me His forgiveness of Ross. I thought it would never come, but one day, when the leaves on the aspens were unbroken gold and the first snow lay dusted on the mountain peaks, I knew I was ready.
All morning I kept my eye on the window as I made the beds, cut the vegetables for the day's stew and sliced sides of beef to dry for jerky. In the afternoon Quentin and Lola got out their ponies and left for a ride in the beautiful golden woods, and I seized my chance. I took off my smudged apron, smoothed my hair, and went out to look for Ross. I tried to ignore my clammy palms and dry mouth as I approached the corrals. I prayed silently for God to help me, repeating desperately, "Seventy times seven," to myself as I walked.
Ross was just freeing a snorting mustang from the snubbing post as I came up to the fence. He glanced up and saw me, quickly sent the horse shying out the gate into the pasture, picked up the saddle and headed for the barn. I had to try twice before I managed to get the word out, "Ross!" He looked back at me. I waited, fighting to calm the pounding of my heart and the urge to turn away and run. Slowly Ross let the saddle down into the dust and came walking across the corral toward me. There was apprehension in his gray eyes, and a wistfully hopeful look that he was trying to squash. That look did something to me, and the words came easier than I had expected.
"Ross," I said breathlessly, looking up at him over the corral fence between us, "I need to tell you . . . I forgive you."
There was a long silence. Ross's lips trembled against his will and he blinked away a sudden mist of tears. I had to look away. His voice was low and choked when finally he said, "Tabby, you can't know what it means to me to hear you say it. I thank you."
"It hasn't been easy," I confessed. "My hatred and anger were destroying me. I still have some way to go before I can . . . forget. But I realized that my husband probably would have done the same as you if he had been in your place. He used his long rope and was quick on his trigger too, and I realized that it was unfair to hold something against you that I wouldn't have held against him. I can't forget, but I'm trying to forgive, I'm trying to let go."
"I understand," Ross said quietly. "Such a thing as I've done can't be forgotten, but to know that you don't completely despise me is enough, much more than I thought could ever be."
"More than I thought could be either. But, it's so, and . . . .the children would love to see you at supper," I managed, though I confess it took some effort to say.
Quentin and Lola stopped short, their hands full of quivering yellow aspen leaves, when they saw Ross sitting waiting for them at the dinner table. Then they let out something between a shout and a sob, flinging themselves across the room to pounce on him joyously. I caught his eye over their heads and smiled weakly. "Seventy times seven," I thought to myself once again, turning back to the stove. After all, it was possible, and how light I felt with the load of hatred and anger gone from me! And, deep down where I refused to look, I was glad to have Ross back.
That winter was the happiest time I had ever known, or dared to hope could ever come again, since Es had died. Laughter echoed in the little ranch house under its load of snow and icicles on the long, dark evenings, and delightful snowball fights were battled out under the pines in the yard. Ross came nearly every day, and the children and I anticipated his visits. The loneliness was gone, that horrible pressing loneliness that had haunted me for so long that I had forgotten what it was like to live without it. And so soon that I could scarcely believe the months had gone, the snow was melting in the valley and the chokecherries were blooming around the corrals. It was almost time for the spring branding.
I had just been thinking how empty it would be when Ross left for the roundup, when I looked up to see him standing in the doorway, my two children on either side, looking solemn and earnest. Quentin spoke first, "We've been talking, mama, and Lola and I decided that we think Ross would make a good father for us . . . you know, for good . . . don't you agree?"
I stood up, baffled by the surprise of his sudden question. "Oh," I said, and blushed. I couldn't look at Ross. "What does he think?" I asked Quentin.
"Oh, he thinks so too. And he's awful kind and fun, and he makes us laugh," Lola answered for her brother, clutching Ross's hand desperately, her big brown eyes pleading with me.
I gave a nervous laugh. Seventy times seven, I thought. Does that equal this much forgiveness? To marry your husband's murderer? Is such a thing possible?
"He's the best man there ever was," Quentin threw out emphatically.
I looked at him silently, then up at Ross. Ross stepped forward and took my hands. "Tabby," he said quietly, his gray eyes searching my face, "I know this would take a lot from you, maybe more than is possible. But if you could, if you think maybe you could . . . "
I looked down. My mind was scrambling, a blush slowly crawling up my neck and into my face. What should I say? Good heavens, was ever a woman before me in such a terribly awkward situation as this? What should I say? Then I heard myself answer through the turmoil in my thoughts before I could think too hard and scare myself by logical reasoning. "Maybe," I whispered, "it wouldn't take so very much as you think."
The children screamed with joyful relief and jumped on Ross and me, bouncing on our feet and clutching at our sleeves, trying to get up high enough to hug us. Ross bent down and gave them each a tight hug as they clutched him around his neck until he could hardly free himself. I felt tears prickling at the back of my eyes watching them. Could this be happening, or was I dreaming? Surely I was dreaming. "Oh, mama, thank you, thank you!" Quentin cried, gleefully locking his arms around my waist and trying to crush me in his exuberance. Lola buried her face in my skirt.
I looked up at Ross, and for some reason I felt foolish, vastly foolish. He stepped closer, until the children were squeezed between us, and put his arms around me. "Tabby," he said against my hair, "thank you." I leaned my head into his shoulder and found that I was crying. I had thought that I would never feel this loved again. I forgot that he was Ross who had killed my husband. I forgot that he was Ross whom I had forgiven. I only knew that he was Ross. Ross whom I loved. I had at last found the product of seventy times seven—it equaled love, vast, crazy Love.