Mary McHenry was the prettiest girl in Cottonwood county, and the richest, too. Her daddy, Jeb McHenry, owned a big parcel of prime land along the Gordarosa River, two miles outside the town of Gordarosa, on the western edge of the Rocky Mountains, and there he ran the biggest herds of cattle and the finest flocks of sheep in those parts. He owned land in town, too, and when the railroad came to Gordarosa back before the turn of the last century he built houses and shops and lumber yards and all manner of things meant to suck the dollars from the outsiders who came there looking to get rich off coal. He was a mean businessman, was Jeb McHenry. Everything he turned his hand to prospered, and if his methods were a little slick, well, folks didn’t blame him much. He dressed so fine when he came to church of a Sunday, and the sight of his pretty daughter perched up there on the buggy next to him was enough to make folks forgive and forget an awful lot. Besides, Mary was an only child. Everything Jeb had would be hers one day. So it was best to stay on Jeb’s good side, especially if you were a young man looking for a wife. Lots of hot tempers cooled right off when the topic of Mary McHenry’s dowry got introduced.
Not that Mary seemed much interested in marriage, herself. She seemed perfectly content to keep house for her daddy—they had a big white house down by the river—and pick flowers, and ride the horses, and play with the new calves and lambs when they appeared in the spring. Sure, when the fellows came calling on Saturday afternoons, that being considered the appropriate time for such things, she pinned up her brown hair and put on a store-bought dress, buttoned up her shoes and met them in the parlor with a smile in her hazel eyes. She served them lemonade in summer and tea in winter, and cakes that she had mixed with her own white hands. But she never favoured one above another, and if any tried to get her alone or whisper something more than friendship in her ear, she just laughed and told him that he did run on so.
Nobody in town knew it, but Mary’s disinterest in marriage was a subject of contention between her and her daddy. Jeb was a sturdy, strong man, capable of spending long hours in the saddle when it was time to drive the cattle up to the high country for the summer grazing. But he was getting on in years, and he wanted to see his daughter settled before he got too old to look after his own affairs. Jeb wasn’t any too fond of the town boys who kept coming around, though. For a preference he’d have fixed Mary up with one of his ranch hands. He had two in mind, both steady, reliable fellows who knew the ranch business and loved the land. But Mary would look at neither of them, any more than she’d give serious consideration to the boys from town.
The fact was, Mary had pretty high standards for any man who wanted to be her husband, and none of the ones she knew met her specifications. It wasn’t enough to know how to ride, rope a steer, and castrate a calf, all of which her daddy’s candidates could do quite handily. And it wasn’t enough to wear nice clothes and show pretty ways, and make witty talk in the parlor, as the town boys did. Mary wanted her man to be able to do both. And more: she wanted a man who had seen something of the world, not just a country bumpkin, as she put it. Her daddy had sent her to boarding school in the city—a waste of money, some called it, but then, Jeb had the money to waste—and along with learning deportment and diction and all the things proper for a girl of her station, Mary had developed a taste for things life in the country just couldn’t provide. She read poetry and plays—not just modern poetry, but Homer and Virgil, and not just fashionable plays, but Shakespeare and other high-brow stuff that no one in Cottonwood county had any interest in at all. It was hardly of any use to a girl destined to running a ranch and raising a passel of children, but there it was. Not being a fool, Mary knew it would be a long time before any culture, as she called it, found its way to Gordarosa, if it ever did.
“But,” she said, “I’m damned….”
“Watch your language, young lady.” Part of the reason Jeb had sent her to school in the first place was to break her of some of the bad habits she’d picked up growing up on a ranch, surrounded by nothing but men. It hadn’t worked particularly well.
“I’m damned,” she repeated, “if I’ll spend the rest of my life with a man incapable of discussing anything more significant than Reverend Morrison’s last sermon or speculating on anything more compelling than when the cherries will be ripe for picking or which bull to use for stud this year.”
“Mary McHenry, you hold your tongue.”
“I grew up on a ranch, Papa. I can’t claim not to know what I know about where calves come from.” Which was no more than true, but Jeb didn’t like hearing it. He had an idea that proper ladies didn’t speak of such things. And of course they didn’t, leastways not when there were any men folk around to hear.
Well, Jeb just sighed. He’d sent Mary to school to become a lady, and here she was a tomboy still, and a bluestocking besides. He supposed he should be grateful she wasn’t parading around in bloomers and agitating for the vote. If his daughter did that, Jeb just knew he could never hold his head up in town again.
So Mary passed nineteen still single, and twenty, and was coming up hard on twenty-one, and people began to think that she just might end up an old maid. And of course that made them think she might be a bit queer in the head, her having so many choices and all; what she’d told her daddy wasn’t common knowledge, you remember. Gradually the boys stopped calling of a Saturday, and when Mary didn’t seem to mind, they thought she was queerer still. The ranch hands stayed, and for a while talk was that Mary’d chosen one of them after all. But then a shearer who was passing through happened to mention that those hands had begun taking their meals in the bunkhouse, instead of with the family as they had been wont to do. And after that, one of those hands, Hector was his name, got engaged to Elsie O’Donnell over in Scotch Flats. So everyone knew that all Jeb McHenry’s plans had come to nothing.
Things being what they are in a small town—meaning that not much goes on and gossip is the main form of entertainment—folks might have gone on speculating about Mary’s unmarried state for quite some time. But then two things happened to drive the McHenrys right from everyone’s mind. First off, the United States Army, which was stationed thirty miles away at Fort Triangle, where the Gordarosa River met the Hermana before winding off down through Spanish Gorge, announced that it had finally succeeded in driving the last Utes out of Cottonwood county. This was not, in itself, cause for discussion—mostly because there hadn’t been a Ute in Gordarosa for twenty years, so what difference did it make? No, what got folks talking was the story that some big medicine man had cursed the whole Gordarosa valley on his way out, declaring that no white man would prosper there for a hundred years. Well, no one really put much store in Indian curses. Everyone could see that white men were already prospering, and nothing seemed about to change that. Just to be sure, though, everyone stepped up attendance at church, and Reverend Morrison assured them that they were fulfilling the will of God by driving out the heathens, and they all felt safer after that.
But then the other thing happened. A girl from Murtaw set out one day to visit her grandmother on the other side of Poison Ridge, and she was never seen again. A posse was sent to look for her, and they found the tracks of her horse leading into the sage. But before much more than a mile the trail just stopped, and no trace of the girl was ever found.
Well, that land outside Murtaw was wild and desolate. Except after a heavy rain, nothing much grew there at all, and most of that was only snakeweed and rabbitbrush. There was no water and little shade: nothing but adobe hills as far as the eye could see, criss-crossed with hidden gullies and limestone caves, and all sprinkled with alkali dust like someone had ripped open a bag of flour and let the wind carry it off. The only road was the one leading to Triangle, and once you left that it was easy to get lost. Everyone guessed that the girl had tried to take a shortcut and fallen into a ditch, and by the time the coyotes and the vultures were through with her there wasn’t much left to find. She should have known better than to leave the trail, and she should never have gone alone.
So the incident was put down to the hazards of frontier life, and everyone pretty much forgot about it until six months later, when it happened again. Then folks got mighty unsettled. They began to whisper about that Indian curse, and wonder if the disappearances might be part of it. A delegation was sent to Fort Triangle to ask was it certain that all the Indians were gone? Or might there be some band that had escaped and was hiding out in the badlands, preying on the unwary? But the captain at the fort said no, that was impossible, and he wouldn’t send so much as one trooper to check things out.
About that time, a stranger showed up in Gordarosa.
Well, all right: he wasn’t that much of a stranger. He was the schoolmaster over in Murtaw, but he’d been in those parts for less than a year, and he’d never yet come to Gordarosa, so that made him stranger enough. He was a city boy, too; the folks in Murtaw had hired him in all the way from Salt Lake City, as a way of competing with the Gordarosans, whose schoolmarm had come from Boston. The general consensus was that Gordarosa won that round, Boston being so much farther away, and in the East to boot, but the folks in Murtaw still gave themselves airs because their teacher was a man, not some dried up old spinster who, like as not, only taught because no man would have her. Eventually, though, the schoolmarm married Gordarosa’s postmaster and she kept right on teaching. So everyone had a good laugh about that.
The point is, though, that everyone knew all about Murtaw’s schoolmaster. But Murtaw being ten miles away—and in those days that was a long ride—very few people in Gordarosa had ever seen him, and none of them had actually spoken to him. So it was a bit of a shock when, one Sunday in May, he turned up in Reverend Morrison’s church.
He came in late, just as the sermon was beginning, and made his way down the aisle to the very front pew, and I’m sorry to have to say that even though he sat there quiet as can be with his eyes fixed on the pulpit, and even though the sermon was a good one, nobody paid very much attention to the reverend after that. This schoolmaster, you see, was an uncommonly fine young man. He was tall and lean, with craggy features that crinkled up when he smiled—which he did once or twice when the reverend made some particularly astute point. His eyes were blue and twinkling; his skin was brown—not too brown, mind you, but just brown enough that you knew this was a man who wouldn’t be afraid to fix a fencepost or see to his own stock, a man who was good for more than reading books all day. And his hair, which was crisp and wavy, was a most unusual shade of dark red, almost like a fox’s pelt, except at the very top of his head, where it was brushed with gold from going about in the sun without a hat. Well, right away all the unmarried girls—and some of the married ones too, to be honest—were whispering behind their hands wondering who this charming fellow might be. And when the answer came back from someone in the rear pew, who had been to Murtaw with her daddy and actually laid eyes on him before, all the girls wished in their hearts that they were young enough still to be in school, and in Murtaw, at that.
Yessir, those girls, may God forgive them, all spent the whole of the sermon mooning after the schoolmaster. All, that is, except for Mary McHenry, and she was sitting in the front pew, too, with only her daddy between.
When the service was over, all the girls hurried out and gathered on the lawn, clucking and poking at each other like chickens after feed, vying for the best view of the church door to see what would happen when the schoolmaster came out and whether any of their daddies would invite him home to dinner. What happened was, the schoolmaster went right up to Reverend Morrison and complimented him on his sermon.
“You came far enough to hear it,” the reverend said, pumping the stranger’s hand gratefully, because he knew that no one else had been listening. And it was clear that he was acquainted with the schoolmaster.
“Well, a man who would be wise must never stop learning, even if it means getting up before dawn to seek out views other than the ones he would usually hear,” replied the schoolmaster, and all the girls tittered to hear him speak so scholarly, almost as if he were a reverend, himself.
Just then the McHenrys came up to pay their regards to Reverend Morrison. And after they had, the reverend turned to the schoolmaster and said, “Jeb McHenry, allow me to introduce the Murtaw schoolmaster, Rory Todd.”
Jeb took Mr. Todd’s hand and gave it a shake, kinda gruff, like he was wishing he could be excused and get off back home to his Sunday dinner. But the reverend was looking at him, and he knew his manners, so Jeb pulled Mary forward by the elbow and said:
“A pleasure, Mr. Todd. Let me present my daughter, Miss McHenry.”
Mary McHenry held out her hand all in its little white kid glove, and what did Mr. Todd do but bend over and kiss it, right there on the church steps. It was a scandal. The girls on the lawn all gasped, and Jeb looked about to spit nails, and even the reverend frowned. But Mr. Todd just straightened up and said:
“Miss McHenry, I’m charmed.” And then he added something about how she was like a summer day, but prettier, except it was all in rhyme. And Mary McHenry actually blushed and pressed her hand to her heart, as if something had struck her there.
“Daddy,” she said, “Mr. Todd has come a long way to hear our reverend’s sermon, and he has a long way to go home. Surely it would not be charitable to send him off without a meal to sustain him.” And she actually fluttered her eyelashes at Mr. Todd, as no decent woman should do to a man she’s just met.
Well, first Jeb looked as if he’d rather punch the schoolmaster in the jaw than invite him to dinner, and never mind being charitable. But then his face changed. Folks who were there said you could see the wheels turning in his head, just like they did when he was considering some business deal. He looked at Mr. Todd, and he looked at his daughter, and then he smiled.
“Of course we’d be pleased if you’d come take dinner with us,” he said.
As you might expect, Mr. Todd said he’d be right grateful for the hospitality. He offered Mary his arm, and she took it, and he escorted her down the church steps and into the McHenry’s buggy. Then he untied his horse from the hitching post out front, jumped up in the saddle light as you please, and rode away to the McHenrys’ house. And everyone said that he rode as if he’d been born riding, and if they noticed it, you can be sure that Mary did, him keeping right close to her side of the buggy and all.
The next Sunday, all the girls were got up in their finest dresses, the ones they usually kept for the big dance at the fall roundup, but Mr. Todd didn’t appear. The Sunday after that he did, and he sat right next to Mary McHenry in the front pew, and after church he went to the McHenrys’ for dinner. The Sunday after that, he came in on time, and he sat in the center of the church, and he talked to George Gilchrist, the shopkeeper, about the price of a new stove. And Gilchrist asked Mr. Todd to dinner, and Mr. Todd said yes. For a whole week after that, Betty Gilchrist went around red as a beet and she couldn’t put two words together, because every time she opened her mouth, she giggled. Then Mr. Todd was absent for almost a month, and all the girls were so blue you’d have thought someone near and dear had died. But when he did come back it wasn’t much better, because he was back sitting with Mary McHenry and going to the McHenrys’ for dinner. And he never looked at another girl. But that didn’t keep them from looking at him.
Around about that time, the Gordarosa fellows began to get a little tired of Mr. Rory Todd. So they decided to play a joke on him—nothing harmful, mind, just a little something to show the girls that he wasn’t all that much. In those days, Jeb McHenry always gave a big party in the late spring, and of course Mr. Todd had been invited. It was called a “Branding Party,” that being a term that could be used in mixed company. For while it did involve branding all the new stock, the main event was castrating the new calves, which involved a lot of sweat and dirt and off-colour jokes that the ladies weren’t supposed to hear, but of course they did. Everyone in town came, and most of the fellows helped, and there was a big cookout where the featured course was the unnecessary parts that had just been cut off the calves. Being from the city, Mr. Todd wasn’t expected to know this. The fellows told him it was a big formal affair with dancing to a string quartet hired in from Denver. And when he showed up in his fanciest suit, with his boots all shined and lace on his sleeves, they all had a good laugh.
Mr. Todd took it like a gentleman. When he saw what was what, he smiled his crinkly smile and laughed along with them. Then he whipped off his coat and rolled up his sleeves and got in with the calves, whooping and hollering with the rest of them, and darned if he didn’t rope and pin those calves like he’d been born to it. When his fine shirt got all muddy and torn he whipped it off, too, and the ladies would have been shocked if they hadn’t been so busy admiring the muscles in his chest. And far from being disgusted at the bill of fare, he ate more calf fries than anyone and declared it a treat.
So the joke backfired, because after that all the girls were more in love with Mr. Todd than ever, especially when word got round that his people owned a big spread outside Salt Lake City and he’d grown up riding herd just like regular folks.
Jeb McHenry was just as pleased as pleased could be, because it seemed that here was a man who could satisfy his daughter, after all. Before long, Mr. Todd was a regular guest over at the McHenry place, and not just on Sundays. By the time summer set in, he and Mary were walking out. You could see them strolling down Main Street arm in arm, with their heads together, talking away as if there was no one else in the world. Word was that they took long rides over McHenry’s lands, just the two of them. That had some tongues wagging, you may be sure. But no one could rightly say that he’d seen Mr. Todd do anything improper, or that he’d heard him utter a single word that couldn’t be said before the whole congregation. In fact, those who made it kind of a point to overhear Todd and Mary—and there were a few; really, they just wanted to protect the girl—said that what the two talked about made no sense at all. Once they had a long conversation about some new breed of horse no one had heard of—the Trojan breed, it was. Another time they had a heated argument, right in the street, about whether or not some fellow by the name of Hamlet was really mad or not. No one knew who that was. Some speculated it was one of Todd’s people and that Jeb would send Todd off once he heard of it, but that never happened. The argument made the other girls hopeful all over again, and the next Sunday at church every eye was keen to see if there was any hint of coldness between them. Of course there wasn’t. And at the Fourth of July picnic, Jeb McHenry got up on the rostrum after all the speeches were over and announced that his daughter, Mary, had lately become engaged to Mr. Rory Todd, schoolmaster, of Murtaw, Colorado. The wedding would be in the fall, and everyone was invited.
That was mighty quick work for those days, mind. For a couple that had just met in May to have all their courting done by July and then get hitched in October, well, it made folks think of all those rides the two of them had taken all alone. No one said anything, though. Everyone was all smiles and congratulations—except maybe some of the girls who had been mooning over Mr. Todd—and if a word was spoke it was to say that Jeb must surely be in a hurry to get Mary married off before she changed her mind, after it looking so long like she wouldn’t have anyone at all. But you can be sure some small-minded people would be counting the months until the first baby appeared. As it turns out, that never came to anything. But saying so puts me ahead of my story, so I’d better go back and put everything in its place, just as it happened.
Now we come to the part of the tale that nobody ever rightly knew except Mary McHenry, herself. She never spoke of it except that once, and then she left a lot of it out. You may wonder how I know it, and I’ll tell you: my own granddaddy was a hired hand down at the McHenrys’ place. He saw a lot and guessed more, and when the truth finally did come out he put two and two together. Still, he never told what he knew until a few years ago, when there was no one left anymore who could be hurt by the telling. And now that he’s gone I don’t feel bad about passing the story on.
For a while after the announcement, things went on pretty much as they had done before, excepting, of course, that everyone at the McHenry place was all in a flurry getting ready for the wedding. Jeb didn’t want any barn wedding for his only daughter. He wanted a big affair like you might see in the city, with white tablecloths and hothouse flowers and a store-bought cake, and he drove everyone in town about crazy ordering this and demanding that, and saying, “That’s not good enough for my girl.” Rory Todd wasn’t too keen on the uproar. He told anyone who would listen that he’d be happy to take Mary in her shift, and word got around that he’d even pressed her to elope and save them all a world of trouble. Mary didn’t care much, herself; she’d found her man, and one way or another they’d be married and it was all the same to her whether she did it in church in a white silk dress or before the Justice in Triangle wearing her old farm clothes. But she had her daddy to consider, and as he set such a store by doing things proper, she was willing to go along.
The one thing she wanted, though, was to have Mr. Todd’s family in attendance. She was an only child, as you might remember, and her mama had been dead for many a year. Her only family to speak of was a maiden aunt over in Murtaw, who only visited once a year at Christmas, as she and Jeb didn’t get along. So it’s understandable that Mary was a trifle envious of the farm folk, who usually came to town with seven or eight little ones in tow. The one thing money couldn’t buy her was a big family of her own. But now she was to be married and she’d take her husband’s, thank you very much.
Well Mr. Todd hemmed and Mr. Todd hawed, and finally he admitted that he and his people really weren’t all that close ever since he and his brother had argued about the ranch, which was what sent Todd to teaching school in the first place. And Mary said that a wedding was just the time to forgive and forget, and wouldn’t he at least write and let them know? Todd said that Salt Lake City was a long way off and maybe they wouldn’t want to make the trip. And Mary declared that there was plenty of time before October to get letters there and back—he could even telegraph and her daddy would pay for it, if cost was a problem. And surely at least his mother would want to come see her boy married. And so on.
The argument carried them through July and into August before Todd flatly put his foot down and said he wasn’t going to write his family, and that was that. Mary cried and took on, but he wouldn’t budge. Folks kind of wondered if there wasn’t some deeper problem with Todd’s family, that he was so set against them meeting his new bride, and they waited again for Jeb to call the whole thing off. The wiser ones said there were always some details to be hashed out between a man and a woman at such times, and better they did it before the wedding than after, when there was no going back. And the single girls got all moony-eyed again and declared that they had plenty of family and didn’t need any more, and in view of Mr. Todd’s many fine qualities they were perfectly willing to overlook a little thing like that, if Mary was going to get all particular.
Reverend Morrison had a quiet word in Jeb’s ear about the whole affair, after which Jeb took his daughter aside and gave her a stern talking to. He’d been patient with all her whims, he said, and he’d waited long enough for a son-in-law and he wasn’t about to lose this one. So she’d better make up her mind to the situation. Mary said of course she would; it was just a disappointment. And Jeb said he wanted things to be perfect for her big day as much as she did, but things were only perfect in heaven and not in this sad world. The upshot of all this was that the next time Mr. Todd came calling, Mary apologized very sweetly for having given him trouble and promised not to speak of it again. And he begged her to think nothing of it.
Along about mid-September, though, Mary started to look awfully pale. As the wedding day got closer and closer, she looked paler and paler. The small-minded people in town exchanged knowing glances behind her back when she passed them in the street; they were still counting, you see. The kinder ones said that every bride gets cold feet at one time or another, and tried their best to be especially nice and encouraging. But Mary wouldn’t tell a soul what was troubling her.
The fact was, Mary McHenry had a sneaky streak. She never was right in her mind about Mr. Todd’s family, and being of a willful nature she decided to go ahead and write to them herself. She composed a lovely letter introducing herself and apologizing for agreeing to marry Mr. Todd without their blessing, and wrapped it all up with one of the wedding invitations her daddy had had made on embossed linen paper with curlicues in gold ink. She didn’t know the address and couldn’t ask, but she figured if she sent it to Todd Ranch, Outside Salt Lake City, Utah Territory, it would get where it was going, all right. She waited weeks for a reply, and when one finally came it shocked her down to the bone. For that letter came back, just as she had sent it, except that on the front of the envelope in red ink someone had written the words: “Addressee Unknown.”
Mary didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t go to her daddy, because she’d promised him to leave well enough alone. Still less could she confront Mr. Todd. She told herself that there was some perfectly reasonable explanation, but however often she repeated that to herself she couldn’t quite believe it. Finally, she decided that she’d try to get something out of her fiancé without letting on exactly what she was doing. So the next time he came calling, she put on her prettiest dress and met him on the front porch with a smile, and when they were settled in the parlor she said:
“You know, Rory,”—they were on first-name terms by that time—“you’ve come to visit me at my house so many times, but I’ve never once been to yours.” Because she figured he might have some information about his family at his house, pictures or whatnot, and if she could distract him she might be able to get her hands on it.
“That wouldn’t be right, Mary. A nice girl like you visiting a bachelor in his own house with no chaperone. After we’re married we’ll go there together and you can help me sort through my things.” He smiled his crinkly smile.
“I needn’t be unchaperoned. I could bring my aunt.” It would make things harder, but maybe the aunt could handle the distraction part while Mary did the looking.
“It’s no place for women.” His blue eyes crinkled up even farther. “Why this sudden interest in my house, my sweet?”
“Well, Rory Todd, I don’t even know where you live! Seems to me that’s a mite strange, us being so close and all.”
“Is that it? Is that it, really? Well, Mary darling, I live up in the badlands behind Poison Ridge.”
“Isn’t that a little far from your school?”
“I like my privacy,” he said, and snapped his mouth shut, and she knew she’d get no more out of him. It wasn’t enough to satisfy Mary McHenry. She decided right then that somehow, come hell or high water, she had to get up to that house and have a look around.
Summer turned into fall, and, almost overnight, fall turned back into a beautiful Indian summer. The wedding was getting closer, and still Mary hadn’t seen her chance. Then one day, ten days before The Day, Mr. Todd came to say that he had some business to take care of up Triangle way and he’d be gone for at least a week but not to worry, because sure as the sun comes up every morning he’d be back in time to make Mary his wife. A few days after that, Mary told her daddy that the wedding preparations were fretting her so that she’d like to get away for just a bit. If he could manage on his own, she’d go to Murtaw to stay with her aunt, where she could think quietly about the big change that was coming in her life. Well, Mary did look so pale and nervous that Jeb allowed that the change would probably do her good. He hitched up the wagon and drove her to Murtaw himself, and left her on her aunt’s doorstep, knowing that she couldn’t possibly come to any harm.
For two days Mary stayed quietly indoors just as she’d said she would do, reading her Bible and working at her knitting, and only poking her nose out of doors to feed the chickens or milk the cow. But the third day she got up very early, and dressed in dark clothes with a shawl over her hair. In the kitchen she made up a packet of leftover biscuits and in the yard she filled a jug from the pump. She walked down to the livery stable and hired a horse, and by the time the sun was properly up she was riding out of town, headed for the badlands behind Poison Ridge.
The sun was hot and the ground was dry, and the sagebrush was all covered with dust like some girlhood memento that your granny stored in the attic and then forgot. Mary had been hoping to find some trail or wagon track that would take her to Todd’s house, but there was nary a one to be seen, not even a rutted place where his horse was accustomed to pass. She wondered if he’d lied about where he lived, and that made her feel foolish. Then she wondered if he really existed at all, or if he was just a figment she’d conjured up out of her own dreams, and that made her feel more foolish still. But the thing that made her feel the most foolish of all was seeing how big the badlands were, and how empty, and wondering what in the world she’d been thinking to come out there all on her own, looking for something that could be anywhere and no way to tell where it was. So she decided to go back to town and ask for directions, which she hadn’t wanted to do, as she didn’t want word to get around what she was about.
But just as she was reining her horse around, something darted out from beneath a stand of sagebrush, right in front of the horse’s feet. The horse shied, and the horse reared, and though she had been riding since she was a wee thing too small for a saddle, Mary found herself thrown down smack in the dust. And before she could catch her breath, the horse turned tail and ran off back towards town, leaving Mary in the badlands all alone.
Well, Mary wasn’t too upset about that. She knew that as soon as the horse turned up with its saddle empty, folks would be out looking for her. All she had to do was stay put. But then something happened that just about scared her right out of her skin. She was picking herself up and brushing herself off, when something spoke to her from out of the sagebrush.
“What are you doing out here?” it said.
Mary gave a little scream. “Who…who are you?”
Out from the sagebrush hopped a big lean jackrabbit the colour of adobe dust, with four white feet and a tiny tuft of a white cotton tail. He sat down, plop! in front of Mary, leaned over and scratched one long ear with one big hind foot. Then he sat up and folded his front paws against his chest and gazed at her inquiringly, his head to one side.
“What are you doing out here?” he asked again
“Did you scare my horse?” Mary shot back.
“Not on purpose. What are you doing out here?”
Mary thought about telling him to mind his own business, but she’d been brought up to have nice manners and she didn’t want to be rude, even to a jackrabbit.
“I’m looking for my fiancé’s house.”
“And who’s your fiancé?”
“Rory Todd, the schoolmaster.”
“Ah. That one,” said the rabbit. “The Dark Man.”
“He’s not either dark! He’s as white as me.”
“White in his skin, dark in his soul.” The rabbit wagged his ears. “Many a time he’s gone by here and many a one’s gone with him, but always he comes back alone.”
Mary didn’t know what this meant, and truth was, she didn’t want to know. The rabbit’s words made her feel all funny inside, as if she’d swallowed a live frog.
“So you know him?” Mary asked.
“And can you tell me where he lives?”
“I can. But it would be better if you turned around and went home, for you won’t like what you find there.” The rabbit pointed off to the west with one white paw. “Follow the white road. That will take you to his house.”
“There isn’t any….” Mary began. But then she looked where the rabbit was pointing and saw a long path made of white alkali dust, all shimmering in the sun like it had fallen from the stars. And the path led off through the badlands and behind a ridge, and then it disappeared.
Now Mary had to make up her mind right quick. She knew it wouldn’t be the wisest thing, wandering around the badlands on foot without even a bottle of water to sustain her. She’d been carrying her provisions in her saddlebags, you see, and they were gone with the horse. On the other hand, she was beginning to have serious reservations about Mr. Todd. She didn’t want to marry him without some reassurance, and it looked as though this would be her only chance to get any at all. She thought about it one way, and she thought about it another, and finally she nodded to herself and set her feet on the path.
“Thank you,” she said to the rabbit, turning around. But the rabbit had vanished.
The sun was hot and the ground was dry; the sagebrush was dusty and the sky was bright, clear blue like the brand new fresh satin hair ribbon your mama keeps in her vanity drawer and only lets you wear on Sundays. Mary walked up the white alkali path until her shoes were caked with white alkali dust, wishing with all her heart that she hadn’t lost her horse with the biscuits and jug in its saddlebag; she thought she’d give all her daddy’s money for just the littlest drink of water. She thought, too, about what the rabbit had said, calling Rory Todd the “Dark Man” and claiming she wouldn’t like what she found when she got to his house. She wondered if she might better turn around. But the wedding was only a few days away, and if Todd had some deep secret, she wanted to find out about it while there was still time to call things off. Not that she thought it would come to that, of course. She thought at most she’d discover he had some trouble in his past that he was ashamed to speak of, and if she knew what it was she could, in time, bring him around to seeing that it wasn’t such a big matter, after all. She did love him, you see. Still, she didn’t like the idea of there being that kind of secret between them, and her beginning their life together all unprepared for the day when it would surely come out.
So she walked on, up over a ridge and down into a gully, and up the next ridge until her feet were so sore she just had to sit down on a rock by the side of the path and sit a spell. And while she was sitting there, she gazed on up the path, and while she was gazing, her eyes lit on something moving in the distance, where the white path hit the blue sky. The something got closer, and then it got closer still, just as if it were coming up the path to meet her. And before long, Mary saw that the something was a big, shaggy coyote, trotting up the path in a determined way, like a missionary keen on spreading the Word. Its tongue was lolling out of its mouth and its tail was wagging to and fro in time with its steps. When it saw Mary, its yellow eyes fixed on her with a wily kind of gleam, and it sped up a little. That did give Mary a turn, but when the coyote got closer, it slowed again and then it sat down in the path at a considerate distance, as if to assure her it meant her no harm.
“I don’t suppose,” it said, “you have any water?”
Mary shook her head. “No, I don’t. I’m sorry.”
“No matter.” The coyote shook itself, and cleared its throat with a low sort of rumbling sound, and gazed into the space just above Mary’s head like it was trying to remember something. Then it settled its eyes on Mary’s face, and cleared its throat again and said:
“What are you doing here, pretty maiden?” And it showed its sharp, white teeth.
After the rabbit, Mary wasn’t at all surprised that the coyote should ask. It occurred to her that the creatures that lived in the badlands probably didn’t see many strangers, so of course they’d be curious as to the business of any who happened by. And her being the stranger and trespassing, as it were, on the creatures’ land, it was only right that she explain herself. Besides, the rabbit had been quite neighbourly and helped her along.
“I’m looking for my fiancé’s house,” she told the coyote.
“And who is your fiancé?”
“Rory Todd, the schoolmaster.”
“Ah,” said the coyote. “The Dark Man. Many a time he’s come by here, and many a one’s gone with him. But nary a one has returned.”
Mary still didn’t like the sound of that. She swallowed, and the alkali dust in her mouth was sour.
“Am I still on the right road?”
“That you are. But it would be better if you turned around and went home, for you won’t like what you find there.”
But Mary’s mind was made up. She thanked the coyote, and set her feet back on the path and went on. And when she turned around, the coyote had vanished.
The sun was hot and the ground was dry; the sage was dusty and the sky was blue, and the air was so clear it seemed you could look right through it and all the way up into Heaven, like when you go to draw water and the water is so clean and fresh you can look right down into the bottom of the well. Mary followed the white alkali path up a ridge and down into a gully, and up the next ridge and into the gully after that. And there the path turned and led her into a thick stand of piñon and juniper that grew where the water collected at the bottom of the gully after a rain. The trees were all gnarled and bent over like little old men, and she didn’t like to go among them. But go she did, though the branches clutched at her on every side as if trying to keep her from walking on. The wind rustled through the pine needles, sounding exactly like an eerie voice whispering in her ear, “Turn aside, turn aside,” but she kept to the path, and eventually the trees thinned and she found herself in a clearing. And in the very center of the clearing there stood a little one-room cabin. And Mary walked up to the cabin and laid her hand on the door.
“What are you doing here?” asked a voice from above her head.
Mary looked up, and there on the ledge above the door was a huge old wolf spider. Her black, hairy body was the size of Mary’s two thumbs put together, and her black, hairy legs ended in claws, and she had eight turquoise eyes ranged all around her head. And at the sight of her, Mary thought she had better be on her best behavior. So she curtsied.
“If it please you, ma’am,” she said, “I’m here to visit my fiancé, Rory Todd, the schoolmaster.”
The spider reared back and waved her two frontmost legs in the air. “It doesn’t please me,” she said, “and it won’t please you, either. And anyway, he’s not home.”
“Well, I know that,” said Mary. “That’s why I’ve come.”
The spider gave Mary a long considering look from all of her eight eyes. “I see. Well, you’d best go on in, then. But you won’t like what you find here.”
“So I’ve heard,” said Mary, and she pushed her way through the door.
At first, though, Mary didn’t see anything in that place to get upset about. It was a cabin like any other cabin. There was a sink with a pump on one wall and a bedstead on another. In one corner stood several barrels containing salt pork, flour and beans. In the very middle of the single room was a plank table with log rounds set around it for stools.
Then it struck Mary that the place had no windows; the only light came in through the open door. There were no pictures on the walls, or even any pegs for clothing. The strangest thing was, there were no books. She thought surely a schoolmaster, and one so erudite as Mr. Todd, would have loads of books in the place where he lived, even if he had nothing else. And she thought she must have made some mistake. She was downright uncomfortable, thinking she’d walked right into a stranger’s house, abandoned though it seemed. So she turned around to leave, but before she could get through the door, two things happened.
First, her eye fell on the plank table, and she noticed that underneath it the dirt floor was all stained and black, as if a great deal of some dark liquid had been spilled there and sunk into the ground.
And at the same time, the spider came running along the wall, waving her front legs and shouting, “It’s too late to run! Quick, hide behind the barrels! He’s coming!”
The spider sounded so frantic that Mary didn’t think to ask questions or disagree. Quick as a rabbit, she leapt behind the barrels and crouched down, pulling her skirts in tight so nothing of her might be seen. But there was a gap between the barrels where she could look out.
“Whatever you see, don’t make a sound or it’s all up with you,” cautioned the spider, who had come to perch on the barrels above Mary’s head.
In the door came Mr. Todd. He was dressed in dungarees and a work shirt, and he had a black bandanna wound around his head, hiding all the foxy hair, but she knew him. And he wasn’t alone. He was dragging a girl by the wrist, and the girl was half dead with fright, and much too weak to struggle against him. He took that girl and laid her across the table, and he took a flask from his back pocket and poured something down her throat. Well, Mary’s first thought was that he had found the poor soul lost in the badlands and had brought her here to revive her. And she nearly called out, but the spider saw what was in her mind and silenced her. Far from reviving, the girl slumped down into a swoon. But that wasn’t the horrible thing. For when she was still, Mr. Todd took a big knife out of a sheath on his hip and cut her clothes off. Then he cut that girl to pieces like a butcher jointing a steer, except that Mr. Todd took his time about it and seemed to relish the work as no butcher rightly did. And the girl’s blood dripped down through the table and right into the dirt floor beneath, and Mary knew where that black stain had come from.
Mary wanted badly to run, but she couldn’t run. She wanted to scream, but she couldn’t do that, either. She balled a handful of her skirt up in her fist and she shoved that fist as far as she could into her mouth to keep any sound at all from escaping her, because she knew if Mr. Todd found her there she’d end up on that table just like the other poor girl.
Now that girl had a gold ring on her finger that Mr. Todd wanted as a trophy, just like hunters want to keep the antlers when they’ve brought down a big buck deer. He pulled that ring and he tugged that ring, but he couldn’t get it off. Mary almost giggled, because she couldn’t help thinking, terrible as it was, that if he had some soap about the place he could use it to make the girl’s finger slick and get the ring off that way, and she crammed her fist so far down her throat to stop that awful giggle coming out that she nearly choked. Finally, Mr. Todd took his big knife and he cut the finger right off the girl’s dead hand. But he was so angry and frustrated by that point that he used too much force, and he lost his grip, and the finger flew through the air towards the barrels and landed, plop! in Mary’s lap.
Mr. Todd said a word Mary had never heard him say, and he came around the table towards the barrels to reach down behind them and retrieve his prize. And Mary about fainted dead away.
But the spider reared up and waved her front legs at Mr. Todd. “Here now,” she said, “what do you want with that old finger? You let it be. You’ll have fingers enough and rings to spare when you bring your new bride home. And you better get cleaned up or you’ll be late for your own wedding.”
“I reckon you’re right,” Mr. Todd drawled. He turned away from the barrels and gathered up the remains of the girl and carried them out of the cabin. Then he came back and drew some water and scrubbed the table until it was as clean as a bone. But he couldn’t do anything about the stain on the floor.
All that time, Mary stayed crouched behind the barrels with the spider watching over her, waiting for Mr. Todd to finish up and go away. But he didn’t go away. Halfway through scrubbing the table, he started pulling at the flask from his back pocket. His face got very calm and his eyes got very dreamy, and Mary figured that flask must have laudanum in it, or something like it. She figured Mr. Todd must be pretty accustomed to it, as one swallow had done for the girl, but he just kept drinking it as if it were sarsaparilla soda pop. But at last he began to yawn, and when he’d finished his work he lay down on the bed. And when he started to snore, the spider said:
“You can go now, but be quiet as a mouse.”
Mary got up from the corner and crept across the floor. Her heart was thumping so loud in her chest she was sure it would wake Mr. Todd, but he slept on. So Mary tiptoed out the door and on through the clearing. When she hit the trees, she started to run, and she didn’t stop running until she ran right up onto her aunt’s porch back in Murtaw, which fortunately didn’t seem so far away on the return trip. The next day, her daddy came in the wagon to take her back home, and Mary went. And in her pocket, all wrapped up in a clean, white handkerchief, she had that poor dead girl’s finger, with the ring still on it.
That was Friday. Saturday passed without incident. Mary did keep to her room without coming out, or speaking to anyone, or even sitting down to dinner with her father. But the house was full of extra people making ready for the wedding, so no one found it the least bit irregular that Mary should want a little quiet.
Sunday dawned just as bright and clear a day as anyone could hope for. There’d been a nip of frost in the night, but it burned off by nine o’clock or so, and everyone allowed as how the weather was a true blessing on the event, and better than was expected for the end of October. By ten, the church was crowded. It was a pretty sight: all hung with silk streamers and with so many flowers crowded in every niche that you might have thought you were in a hothouse, and the scent of those flowers was so strong that more than one person got dizzy and had to step out for air. At ten-thirty, Reverend Morrison came out in the blue robe he kept for special occasions, with the gold stole that the Ladies’ Altar Guild had embroidered for him, and the regular service began. It was a short one. Jeb had tried to talk him out of it altogether; he didn’t want anything to detract from his daughter’s wedding. But Reverend Morrison held firm. A Sunday wedding was fine by him, he said, but he wasn’t about to let it get in the way of God’s True Work. So the hymns were sung, and the sermon was preached, and the collection plate went around just as usual, but no one was paying much attention because they were all waiting for the main event. And at eleven-fifteen the side door to the church opened up and in came Mr. Todd, accompanied by Jeb McHenry’s two ranch hands, who were acting as groomsmen, Todd having no family in town. The organ swelled with the strains of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, and every head turned toward the back of the church to see Mary McHenry coming down the aisle on her father’s arm. He walked her to the altar and passed her over to Mr. Todd; Reverend Morrison stepped up to meet them, and finally everybody got to hear the words they’d been waiting to hear ever since the Fourth of July:
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here this day in the sight of God, to join this man and this woman in Holy Matrimony….”
They were a lovely couple to look at. Rory Todd stood straight and tall in his new black suit. His crisp russet hair curled over his ears in a way that brought tears to all the girls’ eyes, his handsome face was crinkled up even more than usual with excitement, and his teeth gleamed so white every time he gave a response that the reflection off them was just about blinding. Mary was in a white silk dress with a pearl-studded bodice and a long train; she was carrying a bouquet of white lilies and pink roses, and there were more rosebuds braided into her hair. And when Reverend Morrison pronounced the couple man and wife, and Mr. Todd lifted her veil to give her a kiss, her face was just as flushed and glowing as any bride’s should be. It almost made up for the fact that, as the ring was slipped on her finger, she shook all over and somehow, just as Todd was bending to kiss her, she stumbled and turned her head, so that the kiss landed on her cheek, instead of on her lips as it should have. But only the people in the very front rows noticed those things, in any case. Those were the same people who remembered afterward that Mary wore a little white silk bag at her waist, which she kept fingering all through the service as if there were some good luck charm inside. It did strike some as odd. But if a bride wanted some special keepsake by her at such a time, who was anyone to question it?
The service ended and everyone hurried out of the church to see Mr. and Mrs. Rory Todd into the shiny black buggy, drawn by two shiny black three-year-olds that Jeb McHenry had rigged up all special for the occasion with a red leather harness and red plumes on the horses’ headstalls, and ribbons on the driver’s whip. Everyone stood there and cheered while the buggy drove off. Then they all piled into their own wagons and set off down the road to the McHenrys’ place, where the wedding banquet was being held.
That was some banquet, let me tell you. Besides a whole roast steer and a whole roast sheep, there were breads and rolls, pickles and preserves, pies and cakes and every manner of sweet thing that the town ladies had brought along, just in case Jeb had forgotten anything. There was coffee and tea and wine to drink, with cider and milk provided for the little ones. Long tables were set up at the edge of the cherry orchard at the back of the house, and every table was covered with a clean white cloth and loaded with flowers. The plates were white china, and the settings were polished silver and all the glasses, even the ones from which the littlest drank their milk, were real crystal. Mr. and Mrs. Todd sat at the head of the longest table under the biggest cherry tree, and no one balked at bringing them the best tidbits and serving them, just as if they had been a king and queen.
But Mary didn’t eat much. She just pushed the food around on her plate, all the while fingering that little silk bag at her waist. Her face turned pale, and flushed, and turned pale again, until some folks began to wonder if that glow that they’d seen during the wedding wasn’t, in fact, a fever coming on. Other folks thought that maybe it was the wedding night had her nervous, and that made the ones who had been counting the months change their minds about what she and Todd had been up to on those long rides. Finally she got so unsettled and fidgety that Todd took notice. He turned towards her and took her hand in his and said:
“What is it, sweetheart? You seem unwell.”
Well, everyone expected Mary to say that it was merely the excitement of the day that had her flustered, or maybe that the beef didn’t agree with her. So her answer made everyone sit up and take notice, and lean across the table to hear more.
“I had a bad dream, and I just can’t get it out of my mind.”
Todd raised an eyebrow. You could tell he just thought it a woman’s fancy and didn’t much like her making a fuss at their wedding party over such a little thing. But instead of telling her to forget about it and enjoy the party, as some men would have done, he patted her hand and smiled.
“Well, why don’t you tell me about it? Keeping that kind of thing to yourself just makes it seem worse, but when you tell someone you can see it’s a little thing, after all.”
Mary took a deep breath. For a minute it looked as though she might smile and say it was nothing to trouble him with, much less the whole wedding party. But then she began:
“I dreamed I was riding through the badlands. A jackrabbit ran out from under a bush, and my horse shied and threw me and ran away. I was all alone. Then the jackrabbit asked me what I was doing there, and I told him I was going to visit my fiancé. ‘Ah, the Dark Man,’ the jackrabbit said. ‘Many a time has he gone by here and many a one’s been with him, but he always returns alone.’”
At that, Mr. Todd sat up and let go of Mary’s hand.
“What is it?” Mary asked. “As you said, it’s only a dream. Well, the jackrabbit pointed me the way to go. ‘But,’ he said, ‘it would be better for you to turn around and go home, for you won’t like what you find there.’”
Mr. Todd got a little pale.
“Darling, it’s only a dream,” Mary said again. “I walked a long way, and I got so tired I had to sit down. While I was sitting there, a coyote came up and asked me what I was doing, and I told him I was going to visit my fiancé. ‘Ah, the Dark Man,’ said the coyote. ‘Many a time he’s come by here, and many a one’s been with him. But nary a one’s returned.’ And it pointed me the way to go, ‘But,’ the coyote said, ‘it would be better for you to turn around and go home, for you won’t like what you find there.’”
Her voice was very quiet, and everyone at the table leaned farther in to hear. But Jeb McHenry and the two ranch hands, who had been sitting about midway down, got up out of their chairs. And Mr. Todd got very pale, indeed.
“It’s only a dream,” Mary assured him. And she took his hand and patted it as he had patted hers, and she didn’t let go. “I walked and walked until I came to a gully where piñon and juniper grew, and my way led straight through the trees. The wind through the branches sounded like a voice saying, ‘Turn aside, turn aside,’ but I kept on going. The trees ended and I saw a clearing with a little one-room cabin in it. Sitting on the door ledge was a big wolf spider. She asked me what I was doing there and I told her. She said, ‘Go in, but you won’t like what you find in there.’ So I went inside.”
Jeb and the ranch hands began slowly to move towards the head of the table. And Mr. Todd moved in his chair as if he was thinking about getting up, but Mary had his hand and would not let go.
“It’s a dream, my love,” she said. “There was nothing in the cabin but a sink and a bed, some barrels in the corner and a plank table. The dirt floor under the table was all stained and black, like something had spilled there and soaked into the floor. I thought I had come to the wrong place and was about to leave, but the spider came running in and told me it was too late. She had me hide behind the barrels and draw in all my skirts so I couldn’t be seen, but there was a gap between the barrels where I could see out. And what do you think I saw?”
Mr. Todd shook his head, as if to say he couldn’t guess. He ran a finger around the inside of his collar, and, in fact, his face had gone from pale to red, as if he were having difficulty breathing. By this time, the ranch hands were standing right behind his chair.
“My fiancé came in, and he had a girl with him. Do remember, this is just something I dreamed. I’m sure you can see why it upset me. He laid the girl on the plank table and made her drink from a flask he took from his back pocket. She swooned, and when she was still,
\he took a knife from his hip and cut her to pieces, just like a butcher jointing a steer.”
Mr. Todd tried to get up, then, but one of the ranch hands laid a hand on his shoulder and shoved him back into his chair.
“That girl had a gold ring on her finger, and my fiancé wanted it. He tugged and tugged, but the ring wouldn’t come off. It’s a horrible dream, isn’t it? Finally he took his knife and cut the finger off. The finger flew across the room and landed behind the barrels, right in my lap. My fiancé came to look for it, but the spider drove him off, saying that he’d have rings enough and fingers to spare when he brought his new bride home. And my fiancé said he reckoned the spider was right. He cleaned up the cabin, and while he cleaned he drank from the flask, and at last he lay down on the bed and went to sleep, and I was able to get away. And I brought the finger with me, and here it is!”
And Mary opened up the little white silk bag that hung by her side and drew out the finger with the gold ring still on it, and laid it right in the center of the china plate from which Mr. Todd had been eating.
At the sight of that finger, Mr. Todd did get up. He vaulted out of his chair and clean across the end of the table, and he took off running for the orchard like a fox with the hounds after him, looking for a bolt hole. He didn’t get far, though, before he ran smack into the father of the bride, who was waiting just at the place where the trees began to get thick. I don’t know if I mentioned it before, but Jeb McHenry was an uncommonly big man. He stood six-foot four and broad as one of his own bulls, and his arms really were like tree trunks from roping steers and wrestling calves. He wrapped those arms around Mr. Todd’s middle and gave a squeeze. And Mr. Todd turned grey and passed right out.
It turns out, you see, that Mary had talked to someone the night before the wedding. Around about midnight she’d crept to her daddy’s room and told him the whole story, and what she planned to do, and said he should be ready. Jeb didn’t like it, that she meant to go through with the wedding and confront Todd after, but neither of them could see a way around it. And besides, it wouldn’t matter for long. But Jeb didn’t hold any fondness in his heart for a fellow that had done the things Mr. Todd had done and maybe planned the same for Mary, too.
By that point, every man who’d been sitting at the table and had heard Mary’s story was on his feet, too. They looked at Mary, and Mary looked down at the finger. Then they looked at the ranch hands, and the ranch hands nodded. And then the whole lot of them folded up their napkins and put them on their plates, and walked nice and easy over to where Jeb McHenry was standing with his arms wrapped around Mr. Todd. Jeb gave Mr. Todd a shake, just enough to rouse him a little. When he could stand on his own feet, the men walked Mr. Todd off into the deepest part of the cherry orchard. And one of those men had a rope.
Justice could be swift in those days. And lest you think those wedding guests did wrong, and maybe should have marched Mr. Todd off to the sheriff and sworn a statement against him, and waited for everything to be done proper, let me tell you that the Cottonwood County Sheriff was one of the guests. And so was the judge. And those that were there said afterward that Mr. Todd did get a trial, of a sort.
Mary McHenry went up to her room and put off her white dress and put on a black one, and she never did wear any other colour as long as she lived. Sometimes doing the right thing is sadder than doing the wrong one. She really did love him, you see.
So that’s the story of how Mary McHenry was wedded and widowed all in the same day. She never married again, though she lived to be one hundred and three. When Jeb passed away in 1904, Mary inherited everything. She sold off the town property, but she ran the ranch right up until she died. Then it went to a distant cousin on her mother’s side, who had no interest in ranching. He split the ranch into thirty- and forty-acre parcels, and those got split still smaller as time went by, and now the McHenry land is mostly covered in big houses owned by people from San Diego and Santa Fe. But the cherry orchard is still there, and the big tree under which Mary told her story is still there, too. It doesn’t fruit anymore. But they say that if you go there during the night at the end of October, and if you sit there real quiet, you can still hear Mary McHenry crying.