A solitary oil lamp sat in the center of the table in the drafty old cabin. Its flame flickered from the gale force winds that whistled through the cracks in the walls. The sounds were deafening.
Annie Randolph stared at the logs stacked next to the fireplace and worried about running out if the temperature continued its downward plunge. If she was going to make a trip to the woodshed, she'd better do it now while there was still some semblance of daylight outside. Sunset was only minutes away. She emptied the canvas sack of the few logs that were left in it, wrapped herself in a blanket and headed out. A strong gust of wind nearly knocked her off her feet as she tried to pull the door closed behind her.
Snow was beginning to fall, and Annie figured she'd have to make several trips in order to have enough wood to last her through the night. The frozen ground, combined with the strong wind, made walking difficult. A couple of gusts were powerful enough that Annie lost her footing and tumbled head over heels. She got a small reprieve when she finally made it to the shed. The open side of the lean-to faced away from the wind, and she was able to catch her breath. The walk back to the cabin was made a little easier by the additional weight of the firewood, but the flurries were increasing by the second, and visibility was getting worse.
After stacking the wood neatly along the inside cabin wall, Annie moved the rocking chair closer to the fire to warm her frozen toes. She had never been much of a coffee drinker, but she thought that a piping hot cup of joe would work wonders to warm her insides right about now and set a kettle next to the fire.
Annie's stomach growled; it was time to think about dinner. Her choice was easy, yet another bowl of the rabbit stew that she'd been eating for the last three days. Cooking for one was tough. She could rustle up something new, but she hated waste, so she forced herself to eat the same thing every day before it went bad.
* * *
Being alone on the prairie was not what she had in mind when she answered the ad in the Raliegh Tribune for a wife.
The Civil War had wreaked havoc on her hometown. The Union Army had torched every plantation estate, stripped them of their crops, and stolen all of their animals. Her two brothers never returned from the battlefield, and her mother and father perished trying to save their house.
The Homestead Act had made land available in Kansas, where some of the men who settled there placed advertisements for wives in the local papers back east. Annie longed to escape the horrors of the war, and an invitation to move west and create a new life was tempting.
Annie answered an ad from a Mr. Everett Randolph. She was so enchanted by the letter he wrote back that she packed what few belongings she had and caught the next available westbound train out of Raliegh.
When the train arrived at Dodge City, Mr. Randolph met her at the station. They exchanged introductions, and he invited her to share a dinner with him at a local hotel. He was much younger than she expected. She had heard stories that all men who advertised for wives were smelly old geezers. She made the trip anyway, figuring that even if it was true, it would be better than her prospects back home. Annie was pleasantly surprised to find Mr. Randolph clean cut, well dressed and gentlemanly.
What she was not prepared for, was what she found upon her arrival at her new home. The one room rustic cabin of Mr. Randolph was not exactly what she had envisioned. After growing up on one of the largest plantations in Raliegh County, with her very own house servant, she was ill prepared for her new life.
Until Annie and Everett were married by the traveling circuit preacher, Everett slept in the barn with the horses, surrendering his comfy rope bed to Annie.
Being a prairie wife was physically challenging, but Annie surprised herself in how well she adapted to it. Everett wasn't the demanding type, and he was patient beyond words as she learned how to do the household chores, like cooking, that she had never done before. Many times, she would see the pained faces Everett would make as he chewed his meal, but he never complained, and always complimented her on how good it was.
Everett worked the farm by himself. At harvest time, he would pick the crops, bring them in from the fields, and Annie would stock them in the cold cellar. One day she realized that she had forgotten to take Everett something to eat for his midday meal. She walked out to the almost picked-bare field, and she noticed that old Betsy, their plow horse, was standing still. As she got closer, she found Everett face down in the dirt.
The doctor from Dodge City said his best guess was that Everett's heart was probably diseased and just stopped. He hadn't yet reached his fortieth birthday, and Annie was now faced with trying to survive her first winter in Kansas all alone.
* * *
The hurricane force winds made the air feel much colder than the actual temperature. Facing the prospects of a long night, Annie rearranged the furniture by dragging the bed closer to the fire. She dug out every blanket she had from her hope chest and spread them all out on the bed.
Annie scooped out a couple more pieces of stew meat from the pot hanging over the fire. She placed them into her bowl and set it on the floor for Mouser, the kitten she rescued from the barn. After tossing a couple more logs on the fire, she was now ready to snuggle between the blankets for the night. As soon as the meat was devoured, Mouser joined her on the bed and curled up in a tight little ball on the pillow next to her head. The motion of the flames dancing on the oak logs soon lulled them both to sleep.
* * *
Annie awoke in the morning to a cold cabin. She had slept so soundly that she had allowed the fire to burn out. It was cold enough that Mouser had crawled under the covers with her. Thankfully there were still some glowing embers in the fireplace. Annie left the warm confines of her bed and restoked the fire. Within minutes the mighty flames were warming up the cabin once again.
Beams of light were shining through the curtains. Annie pulled them back and peeked outside. The winds had subsided but left huge mounds of drifted snow surrounding the barn. She would have to make her way out there, the horses needed to be fed and watered.
Annie bundled up in her husband's coveralls and heavy winter coat and ventured outside. The glare of the sun reflecting off the new fallen snow was almost blinding, but the movement of something off in the distance got her attention. She could barely make out the shape of a horse and rider. They were coming straight towards her. She was nervous about being alone and ran back into the cabin to retrieve her shotgun. The closer they got, the easier she could see that the rider was slumped over in his saddle.
Annie yelled out to the stranger to stop and not come any closer, but the horse kept coming. She pulled the hammers back, lifted the barrel of the shotgun, and aimed directly at the rider. The horse took about two more steps and the stranger fell off into a pile of snow. Annie walked cautiously over to where he laid and nudged him with the gun. There was no response. She thought to herself that he must be dead.
She knelt down to check for a pulse and found one. It was very weak, and he was cold to the touch. She wasn't sure what to do, but she knew she couldn't just let him die, so she mustered up every ounce of strength she had and dragged his body into the cabin.
Annie struggled to peel the stranger from his frozen outer clothes and get him onto the bed. He looked to be a rather tall man. He wasn't fat, but he didn't look like he had missed too many meals. She took off his gun belt and boots and put them by the door.
One thing was for sure, he hadn't had a bath in a month of Sundays, he smelled worse than a wet dog. She stripped him down to his long johns, covered him with blankets, and threw more logs in the fireplace. She needed to thaw him out.
Her thoughts turned to the poor horse. She had no idea how long that mare had been without food, so she went back outside and put the horse in her barn and gave it some oats and water.
* * *
Three days went by and still no sign of life from her houseguest, except for his snoring. He was so loud that Annie was sure he must be disturbing the horses in the barn.
His stench had become unbearable to the point that Annie felt compelled to do something about it. She got as daring as a woman living alone, with an unknown stranger in her bed, could get. She stripped him naked, washed his clothing and gave him a sponge bath. It was then that she noticed a hole just above his hip. He'd been shot. She hadn't been able to tell the difference between the blood stain and dirt on his clothes. It took several buckets of hot water before he appeared to be halfway human, and her nose could tolerate him.
It was two more days before he opened his eyes. Annie was grateful that he was alive, but more importantly, now he could be on his way, and she could have her bed back. She was tired of trying to sleep in the rocking chair.
Annie stood over him and offered him a sip of water.
"Where am I, and who are you? And what have you done with my clothes? Where's my gun?"
"One question at a time. The first one is mine. What's your name? I'd like to know how to refer to the man in my bed."
"You can call me Bill." He said as he looked around the room and saw that they were alone. "Where's your husband?" He asked as he tried to get out of bed, but he was too weak to move.
Annie helped him lay back down and told him to rest.
"Answer my questions." He demanded.
Annie was hesitant to tell him that Everett had died, so she lied and said that he was out hunting.
Bill told her how he had gotten caught up in the storm and last thing he remembered, was that he was very, very cold.
Annie relayed how he had rode onto her property during the storm and how she dragged him inside, warmed him, and cleaned him up.
"You stripped me naked?"
"Well, I couldn't stand the smell of you. It was either that or throw your sorry ass back outside. Would you have rather froze to death?"
"Where's my clothes?" He grumbled.
"On the footstool. Washed and folded. Now, how about some hot rabbit stew? After a good night's sleep, you should feel better tomorrow, and we'll see about you getting up and getting your strength back."
Bill gladly accepted the stew. He also told her that he knew he'd been shot, but that it had been a while ago and hadn't been near a town to find a doctor to remove the bullet. He begged Annie to do it for him.
"Under one condition." She told him. "I noticed you got a real nice rifle on your saddle. I suppose you know how to use it. You get better and before you leave, you do some hunting for me. I'm a little low on meat, and if I'm going to be feeding you while you recover, I'll be left with even less to get me through."
"I thought you said your husband was out hunting."
"Oh, yeah, about that." She hesitated. "I wasn't exactly telling you the truth. I was afraid to tell you that he passed away a couple of months ago."
"So, you're all alone. Why tell me now?"
"You are too weak to do much, and I have your gun, your horse, and your clothes. I kind of have the upper hand."
"When I get out of this bed, I could kill you."
"Well," she shrugged, "that might not be worse than being out here all alone."
Bill took another bite of stew.
"So, what'ya say? Will you hunt for me?"
"That's all you want?"
"That's all I want. Deal?"
* * *
After a hot meal and a good night's sleep, Bill felt good enough to undergo having the bullet removed from his side. Annie had never done anything like it before, but like everything else in her new life, there was a first time for everything. Luckily the bullet wasn't embedded very deep which made it an easy procedure.
One more day of rest and Bill was feeling enough better to get out of bed and get dressed. Annie laid out his laundered clothes on the table and retrieved his boots from the front door.
Bill sat up and swung his feet to the floor. "How about you turning your back so I can get dressed?"
"Really? You remember me telling you that I bathed you? There ain't nothin' you can show me that I ain't already seen. Get out of my bed. It's time for you to regain your strength and be on your way."
"Okay then." As Bill stood up, he felt a little lightheaded and woozy. After all he had been flat on his back for several days. His knees began to buckle, and he looked as though he was about to keel over, when Annie quickly stepped in front of him. She reached her arms around his back, and interlocked her hands, holding him up. He clung on to her until he had his wits about him again.
"Wow. Sorry." He said apologetically. "It felt like all the blood rushed from my head."
Annie never heard the words he said. Here she was standing in the middle of her cabin with her arms around a buck-naked stranger, it didn't feel right.
"You alright now?" She inquired as she stepped back from him.
"Yeah, I think I'll be fine. Thank you." Bill grabbed the bedpost and steadied himself, momentarily forgetting that he had not gotten dressed yet.
"If you are truly okay, may I suggest that you at least put your pants on?"
* * *
"I'm sorry that you have to eat rabbit stew again," Annie exclaimed as she scraped the bottom of the pot, "but I promise you that this is the end of it."
"Believe me, it's okay. It has been a long time since I've had a hot meal this many days in a row. I'm grateful."
"I know that I've been really anxious for you to leave, but with all the time I've spent taking care of you, there are some chores around here that aren't getting done. Do you think that maybe you're grateful enough to clean the barn out and feed the horses tonight, and maybe do a little hunting in the morning?"
"I think I'm up to it, so I'd be happy to."
* * *
Annie got a good night's sleep in her comfy bed once again. Bill, even though he was regulated to his bed roll on the floor in front of the fireplace, was happy to be able to sleep indoors.
When she awoke, Bill was nowhere to be seen. Instant panic set in until she noticed his bed roll was still on the floor. Annie heard a noise from outside and went to the window to see. The barn door was opening, and out came Bill with his saddled horse and Betsy.
Annie flung open the front door and yelled, "Hey, what are you doing with Betsy?"
"Don't worry, I need her help. I'll be back as soon as I can."
A short time later, she looked out the window again, only to see Bill with Betsy in tow, dragging something. Annie threw her coat on and went out to see Betsy, pulling the biggest deer she had ever laid eyes on, behind her.
"I think we can eat on this for a while, don't you?" Bill said with a proud grin on his face.
Annie nodded with approval, and thought to herself, did he just say we?
* * *
Annie and Bill sat down to a fine venison dinner, complete with roast potatoes and biscuits. It had only been a couple of weeks since Bill arrived, but Annie was becoming very fond of his company, and like her husband, Bill never complained about her cooking. Bill tried his best to repay her by caring for the animals and gathering wood. Annie was very content to staying in the warm cabin and looking after Bill.
"I know that I've been anxious for you to leave ever since you got here, and I'm sure you need to be somewhere else. I still don't know much about you, but I wouldn't mind if you saw your way to staying a while longer. That is, if you want to."
Bill didn't say anything at first, but Annie suspected that if she waited long enough, he'd respond.
"There is nothing about me that would interest you, and I don't stay in any one place very long." There was a long pause. Bill took a deep breath and continued, "However, I must admit that having a warm shelter, a good meal, and fine company, is a very likable combination. Something I haven't experienced in a very long time. So, yes, I'd like to stay, but only until the weather gets better. Then I'm off."
"That's okay." Annie said. "And I promise to get better at cooking."
* * *
The days and nights of the winter passed quickly for Annie. Her fears of being alone vanished with her unexpected housemate to keep her company. She soon realized that Bill was highly intelligent, and more than just another drifter.
To pass the time, Bill taught her how to play card games, how to whittle wood, and how to shoot a rifle. He had read every single book that she possessed and could talk on any topic of her liking. The two of them had long drawn-out conversations about anything and everything and figured that by springtime they would have solved all of the world's problems. One topic of conversation that always seemed to be avoided, was Bill's past. Anytime Annie would question him about it, he would change the subject.
One night after dinner, while enjoying their coffee in front of the fire, out of nowhere Bill started reflecting on his wartime memories, of having coffee surrounding a fire with his comrades after a horrific battle. He told Annie of his fellow soldiers falling all around him from the enemy bullets. How he wondered why he had survived when so many others did not. He got up and walked away from her when he teared up.
The fact that Bill wore a blue Union uniform during the war bothered Annie. Those damn Yankees were the reason she lost her family. But the war was over, and it would do her no good to dwell on the past. Bill had obviously suffered too.
Annie waited a couple of seconds and followed him to the other side of the cabin. She walked up behind him and gave him a big hug. Bill spun around and returned her embrace.
"I'm sorry you have those memories. Maybe it's time to create new ones for you."
"What are you talking about?"
Annie thought carefully before she continued, "Bill, it's been nice having a man around. And I'm starting to care for you. I see no need for you to continue sleeping on the floor. The bed is big enough for two. Would you lay with me?"
"You mean . . . "
"I know it's not appropriate, not being your wife and all, but I would like it if you would say yes."
* * *
Springtime was just around the corner. The snow had all but disappeared and the crocuses were popping up. Daffodils were sure to soon follow. Annie took advantage of the unseasonably warm weather to hang the bedding outside on the clothesline, and to air out the cabin.
"Annie, we need to talk."
Annie was afraid of this day. Bill had told her from the beginning that he would only stay until the weather got better. The current weather was better than it had been since before he arrived.
"I don't want to have this conversation." She could feel her eyes well up.
"Well, we need to. I think that we need to start thinking about buying some seed if we're going to have any crops this year. It'll soon be time to plant."
"But I thought you were going to tell me . . . "
"I changed my mind. If that's all right with you."
Annie threw her arms around him. "Oh, Bill, I love that you're going to stay."
"Okay then. I'll go hitch up the buckboard and we'll go into town. Get yourself ready."
* * *
Bill was loading the buckboard with the items Annie had purchased at the general store when the sound of spurs coming from behind him got increasingly louder.
Suddenly, all was quiet. He could sense someone was close and turned to see who it was. He found himself staring down the barrel of a Colt-45.
"Well, if it ain't Jessie Dalton in the flesh." Said the well-dressed stranger. "I thought it might be you. You know, there is a very large bounty on your head. Now, hand over your side iron. Nice and slow. We're gonna take a little stroll over to the Sheriff's office, and I'm gonna get me that reward money."
Bill did as he was told and slowly pulled up on his pistol. Just as the barrel cleared the holster, he cocked the hammer and jammed it into the stranger's gut.
"Now, who do you think is going to pull the trigger first?" Bill calmly asked him.
"Care to place any bets? Either way, I heard not too many survive a gut shot. So, give me your gun, turn around and walk away and hope I don't shoot you in the back. Oh, by the way, just for the record, you got the wrong guy. My name is Bill. Don't you forget that."
Annie approached the wagon and put more bags in the back. "Who were you talking to Bill, and why'd he call you Jesse?"
"Can't say as I know. He mistook me for someone else. If you're ready, let's go home."
"Home. I sure do like the sounds of that." Annie climbed up onto the buckboard and got herself situated on the seat. Bill followed her, grabbed the reins and yelled to the horse to giddy up.
* * *
The rooster started crowing just as the sun lit up the morning sky. Bill pulled the covers up over their heads.
"Tell that old bird to shut the hell up. I ain't ready to get up."
Annie rubbed her eyes and sat up. "What's that?"
"The goddam rooster. That's what."
"No. I hear horses."
Bill jumped out of bed and strapped his gun belt on over his long-johns and ran to the window. He pulled the curtains back to see three riders approaching the cabin. Two were carrying rifles and one had a shotgun.
"Jesse Dalton. This is the district Marshall. We know you're in there. Come out with your hands in the air."
Sure enough, the big guy in the middle was wearing a badge over his heart. On one side of him was the Sheriff, on the other, the well-dressed stranger from town who snuck up on him.
Annie sprang to Bill's side and looked out the window. "Who are those men, and what do they want?"
"Go back to bed. I'll handle this." Bill pushed Annie away from the window, and she reluctantly got back into bed.
Bill stepped outside and stood face to face with three gun barrels aimed right at him.
"Marshall, you got a case of mistaken identity here. My name's not Jesse Dalton. I suggest that you turn around and be on your way."
"That's not happening, Dalton. Now, drop the gun belt and come along peaceful."
"No, Marshall, I'm not going to do that." Bill slowly undid his hammer loop.
The door of the cabin creaked open. Without turning around, Bill told Annie to get back inside.
"I'm not gonna do that, Bill, or should I say Jesse." She pressed the cold steel of the double barrel shotgun against the back of his neck.
"Now, Marshall," she yelled, "about that reward money. How much did you say that was?"
* * *
"Good evening, Sheriff, I hope you don't mind but I brought you some supper."
"Thank you, Mrs. Randolph. That's very kind of you. Chicken and biscuits, my favorite."
"Please, call me Annie. I brought a little extra for your prisoner too. Do you want me to take it to him while you eat?"
"Do you really want to go back there?"
"Well, he probably doesn't want to see me, but I'd like to say good riddance to him."
"Okay then. Just don't get too close."
"I'll be careful."
Annie walked down the dimly lit hallway to the cellblock. Bill jumped to his feet and pushed his face between the bars.
"I don't want to see you." He growled.
"I brought you some dinner."
"I don't want your god damned cooking."
Annie put her finger to her mouth, "Shh."
"Don't shush me woman." He screamed.
Annie checked to make sure the Sheriff wasn't coming back there.
"Shut up and listen to me. If I hadn't stopped you, you would've ended up dead. I don't know what you done, and I don't rightly care. All I know is that I fell for you, and I'm gonna get you outta here."
"And just how do you plan on doing that?"
"I added a little laudanum in the Sheriff's gravy. He should sleep like a baby tonight. I'm gonna get his keys, unlock your cell, and we are going to casually walk right out of here."
* * *
Bill was antsy with the slowness of the buckboard. The bright light of the full moon made them an easy target, but no one followed.
When they reached the cabin, Bill strapped on his gun belt and threw some scraps of food in a sack.
"What are you doing?" Annie asked.
"This old cabin of yours is the first place they'll look come sunup. If I leave now, I can get a good couple of hours head start on them. Now where's that money."
"I got you out of jail so we could be together."
"I am a wanted man. There will always be somebody looking for me. You'd get in my way. Now give me that money."
Bill violently tore through the cabin searching for the reward money and screamed at Annie to tell him where she put it. She got scared and finally broke down and told him to look in the cupboard by the sink.
"There's only a hundred dollars here. The price on my head was a thousand dollars." Bill pinned Annie against the wall and yelled, "Where's the rest."
"Alright, alright." Annie said as she started to cry. "It's in your saddle bags."
"You'd better not be lying to me." Bill stormed out and headed to the barn.
Annie waited until Bill opened the barn door and was out of sight. She grabbed the shotgun from the mantle above the fireplace and followed him.
She stood a few feet away from the doorway, raised the double-barrel shotgun and pulled the hammers back.
Bill's head snapped around, "Annie, think twice about what you're doing. I could draw my gun and shoot you dead before you could pull that trigger."
"The wanted poster said, 'dead or alive'. You ain't leaving with my money, Jesse Dalton. Toss me the saddle bags."
Bill swung his arm in the direction of his hip, and Annie squeezed the trigger sending a load of buckshot into his gut, doubling him over. He looked up at Annie in total disbelief before collapsing in a heap on the barn floor.
Annie stood and watched the blood gradually pool around his lifeless body while smoke trickled out of the end of the shotgun. She walked over to the spooked mare to retrieve the saddle bags, then causally strolled back to the cabin, mumbling under her breath, "Damn Yankee."
* * *
As the sun rose over the eastern horizon, Annie once again heard the sound of horses charging down the laneway. She peeked between the curtains, and just as Bill said, there was the Sheriff along with several men from town.
A cloud of dust swirled around the horses as they pulled up just short of the cabin. With all of their guns drawn, the Sheriff yelled out, "Jesse Dalton. You're under arrest. You've got three seconds to throw out your gun and show yourself."
Annie swung the door open and yelled back, "Don't shoot", and stepped outside.
"Where's Dalton?" The Sheriff yelled to her.
"He's in the barn waiting for you Sheriff. But you won't need your gun."
"He came here during the night and tried to rob me of my reward money. It seems as though he wasn't as fast with his gun as he thought he was. He'll give you no trouble now."
The Sheriff sent two men from the posse to the barn to retrieve Bill's body.
"I'm sorry Mrs. Randolph for any inconvenience you were caused by Dalton, and I thank you for all your help in capturing him. Of course, the reward money is yours to keep and if there is anything else, please be sure to let me know."
"Well Sheriff, seeing as though he won't be needing it anymore, if you could see your way to leaving me his rifle, I would appreciate that."
"I'll tell you what, I will give you his rifle, if you will make me some more of your chicken and biscuits. That was the best I ever had."
"You have yourself a deal, Sheriff, but are you saying that you actually LIKE my cooking?"
"Mrs. Randolph, you don't know the half of it. Not only was that the best dinner, but I slept like a baby last night. The fact of the matter is, I actually slept too good. Dalton somehow managed to escape right from under my nose."
The Sheriff tipped his hat and turned his horse back towards town. The posse, with Bill's body draped over his horse, followed closely behind.
Annie watched until they were out of sight, then went back inside the cabin. A smile came over her face as she sat down at the table and flipped through a stack of money she had dumped from the saddle bags.