This story is a part of Bill’s latest book- Bourbon Nuggets – to be released soon.
Written by Bill Clarke
Pa had told me the store was operational. When I arrived the next morning chaos reigned. I was grateful for Cynthia’s ability to kick in and go to work, hard work, at that. She stepped up better than most men I’d worked with, and stayed at it longer.
The store manager was little more than a drunken fish out of water, unable to tally or organize. The two helpers on the line didn’t either one speak English. Cynthia ordered an inventory of the site, and I rounded up three men from the boardwalk who needed work. They could count, and write names of items on a page. That’s what we needed.
Cynthia organized behind the counter and did an overall inventory of the store’s soft goods and food.
“These canned goods probably came from someone here in Helena, don’t you think?” I asked, surveying the shelves of meat and vegetables still available for sale.
“There are no labels. No dates. The only indication those are still of any value at all is the fact that the lids haven’t popped yet.” Cynthia acknowledged.
Su Ling brought in sandwiches and made coffee when she arrived with lunch. She stood near Cynthia, shaking her head back and forth, “Mr. China not like.”
She said finally, picking up a pad and paper to help with the inventory.
She spent most of the afternoon, and by dark fall we were all too tired to continue.
“Let’s shut it down and come back tomorrow,” Cynthia suggested. “We’ll have a new day, a fresh start, and we can maybe open back up for business the next day?”
“Ling prepare dinner. Come.” Su Ling gathered up coats and led us back to the house.
Ling offered us a meal of chicken, rice, and vegetables when we arrived home. His cooking skills only could be topped by my sister, who had learned hers from my mother. Preparing chicken with honey had never been my favorite concoction, but Ling made it taste good.
Cynthia took time to change out of cold damp clothing before we ate the evening meal, but she was ready to climb the stairs for sleep by the time we were done.
I thought about penning a message for China, but decided I was way too tired. It didn’t take long for me to decide which one would be the better option. I
went to bed.
Life in Montana wasn’t really the posh, easy living I’d expected it to be. It was hard work supervising the store, managing the cattle, and living in the cold climate.
Cynthia took to it like a fish to water. Me, not so much. I really hated it. I hated the chilled weather. I hated the work. I really hated the brutal attitudes of men gone years without a woman, and more than anything else, I hated that those men looked at my wife in that threatening way. She belonged to me.
Cynthia focused on the store, success with sales, and finding ways to meet the needs of miners and ranchers. She stepped up the food supply with canned and dried meats, baked breads, and beans hauled in on the train.
Su Ling spent hours each day at the store, while Ling kept our home in order.
By summer, I was done.
When Woody arrived with cattle, I was ready to ride.
“What about us?” Cynthia asked as I carried the saddle to the livery.
“We’re still us. You’re busy with the store, and I have cattle to run. I’ll be back in two weeks.” She shrugged as if she knew better than me, but I kept saddling the horse. Ling had prepared my bundle and I stepped into the saddle before I’d kissed her good-bye.
I leaned off the horse to hug her and kiss her. She nearly dragged me to the ground. But my gentle kick moved us further away. She held on and seconds later, she was on my lap.
Tears filled her eyes as she held on, telling me good-bye over and over, without saying a word.
I promised, “I’ll be back.”
Riding cattle, you lose track of time. Days rush by. Storms come and go. Cattle sell. They stink. They eat. The influx of action makes you forget what you left behind.
I was sitting in a hot tub in some lean-to in Kansas when I remembered, “I promised I’d be home in two weeks. Did you say it’s August?”
The filly scrubbing my back asked, “Where’s home?”
“Helena Montana. And I’m going there right now.” I stood up, dried off, and dressed while she watched. She had something else in mind, but I was headed for home.
Three days out from the herd, I looked back at Kansas and kept riding north. The black hills shadowed ahead of me and I turned west to ride along the Wyoming trails.
I don’t remember seeing a single soul for most of that trip. Meals were jack rabbit, fried over a campfire. Berries found along the way kept me moving. And the last night out, I killed a snake to grill on the rocks. I can’t say I ate much of that snake, I wasn’t hungry. I was tired. I was hurtin’ for my woman.
And I was feeling like the worst kind of man on the planet…
Sometime after midnight I looked up at the Big Dipper and promised Orion that I was never going to leave her again. Ever.
I stood at the door and watched her move. Waiting on a customer with one hand in the small of her back, the swell at her waistline too obvious not to notice. I watched. I waited.
He took his purchases in a burlap bag and carried them out over his shoulder. Su Ling patted her shoulder and told her to go sit in the back.
I figure this was as good a time as any to let her know I was home. We met at the end of the counter. I hugged her. She hugged me back. But moments later, I realized she’d gone limp, and I was holding her up.
“Put her on cot.” Su Ling pointed to a small cot in the back room, “I get Doctor.”