Chapter 30: Good Neighbors
"If you wasn't my brother, I'd have done shot you, showing up like this, at this hour!" Bill spat through the crack in the door, lowering his rifle.
"If I wasn't your brother, I wouldn't be here at this hour," David replied, pulling Susan closer to him, the wind threatening to cut straight through them.
"She just got the other one to sleep. We was just about to do likewise but then here you show up, banging on the damn door in the dead of night."
David pursed his lips, then said, "You do realize it's cold here?", gesturing at Susan.
Bill frowned as he stepped back and pulled the door open. "You oughtta know better than to have your wife and baby out in this."
The old farm house's floorboards creaked as they crossed the threshold and hurried to shut the door behind them. "Bill?" Betty whispered from down the hall. "Is everything alright?"
"Yeah, it's just David and Susan."
"What on earth are you kids doing out at this hour?" she asked as she padded into the front room, pulling her housecoat tighter around her.
"Half shift," said David.
Susan looked nervously at her brother-in-law, still standing there in his long underwear, holding his gun at his side, and at his very tired wife beside him. Long months of sleep deprivation had earned them both a look of madness that showed through most strongly when the hope of rest was so close at hand. Now that hope was lost and it was her fault. She quickly busied herself with unwrapping herself and Kody from the quilt before she had to make eye contact with either of them.
Bill shook his head. "Boy, I oughtta wear you out for having them out on a night like this."
David stared at his feet, arms crossed. "I didn't come for a lecture. I came because I need your help," he said, raising his eyes to meet his older brother's.
"Is there somewhere I can put Kody to sleep?" Susan interjected, eager to do anything to avoid hearing the details of the night's events retold.
"Of course," said Betty. "Just put him in bed with the twins."
Susan nodded and walked slowly down the hall. She could hear them whispering behind her and she tried hard not to hear, but occasionally she still made out words: "sister" and "traveler" and "gun", to name a few. When she reached the little bedroom at the end of the hall, she tiptoed in and lingered by the door for a few minutes to give David time to explain. She walked over to the window and looked outside at Ralph, still sitting in the wagon. He'd mumbled something about having rather battle the cold than fight to tie George Washington up again. The man was more stubborn than his mule.
Susan crept toward the rough, hand-built wooden crib in which David, Bill, and an unknown number of their relatives had slumbered. After standing over the old bed a few minutes watching the little girl and boy sleep, she gingerly placed her little angel in it with his cousins. As she drew her arm back, she was startled by the sound of the front door shutting and whacked her elbow on the rail. A sharp pain shot up her arm as she gritted her teeth to keep from speaking the words that came to mind.
To her horror, one of the babies started babbling. Please no, she thought, holding her breath. Please just go back to sleep. Not one more thing. The next thing she knew, a pair of brown eyes popped open and gazed up at her. Susan hung he her head. Of course. One more thing. His little face contorted into a grimace and he shoved a hand in his mouth, and she scooped him up before he could start crying and wake the other two. "Come on, Jack, you little devil. Let's get you to your mama."
Hastening into the living room, she found the adults had already disbanded. She wandered into the kitchen where, thankfully, she found Betty sitting at the table, her head in her hands. Hearing Jack's little whimpers, she looked up and smiled weakly at Susan.
"I'm so sorry," said Susan. "I woke him up."
Betty shook her head as she took him from Susan's arms. "Nah, honey, I doubt it was anything you did. They're both cutting dang teeth." She stuck her finger in the fussy baby's mouth and massaged his gums. "Would you wet me a clean dishcloth, please?"
Susan obliged and Betty placed the cloth in Jack's little hands; it went straight to his mouth and he was quiet as he sucked the cool water from the fabric. Betty let out a long, tired sigh. "We'd just gotten to where they both slept at about the same times. Then this teething business happened."
Susan frowned as she sat down across the table from Betty. She was exhausted, though she hadn't done anything strenuous that she could recall. Her heart ached and her mind was even more tired than Betty looked. And there was that gnawing feeling that originated in her gut and seemed to creep out and seep into everything from her tense shoulders right down to her frozen toes. As she stared down at her fidgeting hands, she felt Betty's knowing eyes on her.
"You gonna be alright?"
Susan jerked her head back up. "Oh...Yeah. Yeah, I think so," she lied.
Betty nodded as though she believed her and the two women sat quietly while baby Jack slobbered contentedly on the dishcloth. Bill came into the kitchen, having thrown on a pair of dirty overalls, a coat, boots, and that felt fedora he only ever seemed to wear when the sun was very bright or it was very cold out. He reached up and grabbed a lantern from atop the Hoosier cabinet, lit it, then turned to acknowledge Susan and Betty before going out the backdoor.
A moment later, he whistled, and they heard the mule and wagon make their way around to the back of the house and across the yard. Betty and Susan stood and went over to the window, and Jack started whining. "Shh, now. See Daddy out there? Look, Jack. See Daddy?" said Betty, pointing at the fluttering glow of the lantern. Jack's big eyes fixed on the light, mesmerized by its every move, and he was quiet again.
Bill held his hat to his head with one hand and the lantern high in the other as he walked toward the hog pen, lighting the way for the wagon. In the lamplight, Susan could barely make out the shapes of the dozens of hogs approaching the fence. Ralph pulled on the reins as George Washington attempted to pass the pen completely, and then she heard the old mule's snort of disapproval as he came to an unwilling halt. Ralph gave Bill the reins and climbed out of the wagon, while David remained crouched in the back.
The wind shrieked and howled, blowing the mens' coats and pants about in such a way that, from the kitchen window, it looked like they were being battered by unseen assailants. The same screaming wind carried the unattractive squeals and snorts of the hogs across the yard to Susan's ears; she could see the multitude of huge, ugly creatures pushing against the fence, and for some reason, they made her sick to her stomach.
Ralph went around to the back of the wagon and David removed the wool blanket, which was promptly snatched up by the wind and blown across the yard. Susan narrowed her eyes, that morbid curiosity flaring up in her, as she strained to catch a glimpse of the body. When they lifted the shell of the Stranger from the back of the wagon, Ralph's cap shared the fate of the blanket, finally coming to rest in a tree just outside the kitchen window.
Then, they tossed the body over the fence and into the hog pen. Susan's breath caught in her throat. She turned her back to the window just as the throng of hungry swine descended upon the Stranger. Her breathing was fast and heavy when she turned frantically to her sister-in-law. "Betty, you believe me, don't you?" she choked. "I didn't mean to do it! You have to believe me."
Betty considered her a moment. In her arms, Jack suddenly began giggling and waving the dishcloth around. "Oh, honey, of course I believe you," she finally replied. "And that's the difference between you and me."
Susan furrowed her brow. "How do you mean?"
Betty turned her gaze back to the scene at the hog pen. "I woulda meant to do it."
The Priest paced the hall of the empty boarding house, as he'd been doing for what he guessed was several hours. His only companion was the ticking from the grandfather clock at the end of the hall, though he hadn't looked at it to check the time.
Why weren't they out doing foolhardy things and getting themselves hurt, such that they would need what they liked to call "doctoring"? This was New Year's Day, after all! He was here, awake, ready to provide medical attention to his community at the drop of a hat. Did they not appreciate that?
He needed something, anything, to occupy his mind besides what was already there. Taking care of the sick and injured would do that for him. It seemed like a fair enough trade, medical care for peace of mind. He could make them feel better and they would make him feel better, even if only temporarily.
Suddenly, he stopped in his tracks, realizing he'd been longing for misfortune to befall the innocent people of the town. He said a quick prayer, asking for forgiveness for his selfishness. He had done a lot of praying this night, but he decided this would be the last for a while; he'd run out of things to say and he didn't seem to be receiving any of the answers he was looking for, either.
If he wasn't going to pray, he supposed, he may as well try to get some sleep, though he doubted his mind would ever quiet enough to allow it. He realized the house was too cold to try to sleep anyway, as he'd seen his breath when he whispered that last prayer. Walking into the parlor, he found that he'd let the fire burn down to just a few orange embers. He tossed a good sized log into the large fireplace and stirred the flame before retiring to his room.
The Priest sat down on his bed and his eyes went straight to the nightstand, to the scribbled picture of the flower he'd been given in what now seemed like a lifetime ago. He supposed it had been about an hour now since he'd heard an automobile; not many people in the town had one, so he was quite sure it had been his neighbors leaving for, where had they said, Cincinnati? Columbus? No, Cleveland. It was Cleveland they had said. He looked at the drawing for a few moments, thinking. Then he stood up and walked out of his room, back out into the hall.
He started up the stairs with his hand in his pocket, running the smooth beads of the rosary between his fingers, not in prayer, but for the comfort the familiar act brought him. When he made it to the top, he approached the first door on the right and hesitated before opening it. When he did, he was shocked by the orderliness of the room. The bed wasn't made, but otherwise, everything seemed to be put away. Usually when one of these traveling miners left, it took him hours to get the room ready for the next boarder.
The Priest crossed the small room and looked in the chest of drawers, but there were no clothes, no personal effects. He turned and noticed a suitcase sitting in the floor at the foot of the bed. Picking it up, he placed it on the bed and was about to open the latch when he decided against it. Again, he picked up the suitcase and carried it out of the room. He shut the door and walked back downstairs and into the parlor.
Setting the suitcase down in front of the hearth, the Priest stared into the dancing flames. Then he picked it up for the last time and threw it into the fire, stepped back, and watched it burn.