To Bury the Dead
Randall Strong was still awake.
He had spent most of the evening considering the gal in suit pants. She had made him think thoughts simultaneously uncomfortable and pleasant. Mostly, he just pictured her in the pinstriped pants and black boots, black suspenders and white men’s button-down shirt, the shapely black vest with red paisley, the black ribbon bow tie, and her lips painted pink like a saloon gal’s. He pictured her tipping her black hat, as she had to the storekeeper, and he pictured her carrying her rifle, swinging her free arm with authority. He pictured her womanly walk, the points of her hips asserting themselves, slowing her forward motion somewhat and calling attention to the curve of the pinstripes. He pictured her standing still, as she did to let a small carriage pass by. She had the authority of a prostitute, or a lawman. She was like no woman Strong had ever seen.
Aside from those thoughts, which he variously indulged and suppressed as insomnia set in, she made him think of a favorite widowed aunt, who dressed in slacks to work around the farm, finding “a house dress right comfortable for work in the house, trousers right comfortable for work on the farm, and a regular dress ridiculous for anything practical.” He remembered once, as a child, asking why she had never married again. He did not think of her as old. “Randy,” she said. “I married a good man. It was a good marriage, and it was a lot of work. He gave me a good boy, and a farm free of debt. I’m not of a mind to work that hard or try my luck again.” Putting it all together now, a widow woman, plowing and gardening and putting up the horses and bit of livestock each night alone—well, wearing trousers made perfect sense. There must be perfect sense for this woman, as well.
And her hips, in pinstripes, were a powerful argument for trousers on any woman.
And so Dolph interrupted nothing but deep thought and pleasant discomfort, pounding on the loose door to beat all hell. It came open with a bang, despite the latch and the lock.
“Hell of a town, hell of a town!” He had a bottle in one hand and a woman’s handkerchief in the other. “Still plenty of time to get out there, friend!”
“I’m done. Could you not find a room?”
Dolph tossed off his heavy coat and looked at Strong critically.
“You did some decent investigation today the few right people gave you information, the few wrong people don’t know a dang thing, and the majority didn’t notice you at all. And I didn’t have to do a lick of work but get drunk.”
“Happy to oblige.” Strong, wearing an old-fashioned nightshirt, sat up on the edge of the bed—an abandoned Union field cot that had been thinly restuffed with corn shucks.
“You sure as hell can’t pick a room,” Dolph said, sitting down too closely.
Strong did not cede his space, afraid he might end up sleeping in the broken chair in the corner. Dolph started to work off his boots, first leaning against him, then away from him, and then backwards, with his stocky legs in the air and his hard gut in his way. He held on to the kerchief throughout, and stopped to take an occasional swill from his bottle. He was having a hell of a time.
“Could use a hand here, partner,” he finally said.
Strong, somewhat struck by the casual use of the word, which neither had spoken to this point, did not move.
Dolph sat up, suddenly less drunk, if not exactly sober.
“I know it’s a step up from pal or friend, but I think it’s time you faced the fact that you have a partner, partner. Less’n you want things to change so you go it alone again.”
The word “change” hung in the air.
Strong held each palm to a temple, his mother’s mannerism when she was exasperated. A long minute went by.
At last, Strong stood up and straddled Dolph’s legs backwards. He took off one boot, with some force, and the next, with much greater effort. As the boot came off, Strong fell forward, dropping the boot and quickly catching himself on his hands, lest he plant his face into the floor. Dolph smacked him on his upraised rump and cried “Yee-hah, partner!”
Strong was winding to swing before he even turned, but Sterling dove flat on the bed and took the wall, leaving Strong off-balance and hopping on his good foot, humiliated and confused.
“I could kill you,” Strong grumbled.
“But you won’t.”
Standing on the little bit of filthy floor, looking at the bit of shelf left on the cot and the broken chair, and considering the effort and perhaps permanency if he were to dress and ride off at this moment, Strong was stumped. He sat down on the edge of the cot and stared into the dark.
Before long, Dolph was asleep, snoring his irregular, troublesome snore, occasionally gasping for air, and the woman’s kerchief still in hand.
Within the hour, Strong laid down, at first on top of the single moth-eaten blanket, but, shivering, finally crawling underneath. He could feel Dolph’s chest hairs poking at and through his nightshirt. He lay as still and stiff as possible, willing Dolph not to move, but in vain. Dolph’s arm came over top of his shoulders, and he tucked his bearded chin under Strong’s ear with a warm, wet, drunken grunt. Just as Strong thought he could stand it no more, Dolph wedged his other arm underneath him and wrapped both arms around him and pulled him close, still nuzzling and grunting, like some wild baby animal seaking the teat.
The woman’s kerchief was a welcome distraction. It smelled like clean things—grapefruit, grass, cedar shavings—and was still in Dolph’s hand, close enough to tickle Strong’s chin. It was white, with polka dots that swam before his eyes. Strong tried to touch it, to bring it closer, but Dolph held tight and muttered drunkenly, “Nuh-uh. Mine.”
Strong surrendered to the circumstances, closing his eyes against the setting full moon in the window, and thought of his widowed aunt who would not marry again and the woman in pin-striped trousers, and the word partner. Shortly before dawn, he fell asleep.
~ Greta L. Ode ~