The Lonely Rancher
by L. L. Rigsbee
    “Nearly fifty years,” he muttered under his breath. Fifty good years. But now he spent his evenings alone – slept alone. Sara slept permanently under the protective arms of an oak tree. The stone that marked her grave said only, “A wonderful wife and mother.” She was more than that. In the months since her death, Burke had plenty of time to reflect on the things he should have done for her – given her. Surely there must have been times when she wanted things, yet she had never asked for anything for herself. Her sewing skills had kept all eight of their children in clothes. The cellar was still full of jars of fruit, vegetables and berries. Yes, she was so much more than a wonderful wife and mother. Now there was no one to tell about the new beaver family that moved in down by the lake, or contemplate the contents of a persimmon seed. Did a spoon or a fork mean a bad winter?
    He crossed the silent room, pausing only briefly at the high-backed rocking chair. He poured some bitter coffee into his morning coffee cup and dropped into the leather hide chair. Leaning his head back, he closed his eyes. How could a man get so tired from setting on the porch? Time was, he’d get up with the sun and finish up by lantern light. But he might as well face it. At 70, he was a dried up old man worth nothing to any one – least of all himself.
Somewhere in his self-pity he fell asleep.


    Some time later he woke to a banging on the door. He struggled out of the chair. “I’m coming,” he growled. On the floor beside his chair lay his broken coffee cup. It hadn’t even awakened him.
    The invader was still pounding on the door frantically when he reached it. He jerked it open and snarled. 
    “What do you want in such a dad-blamed hurry? I don’t ….” His voice failed him when he saw the young man standing in the doorway. Eyes wide with fear, yet expression determined. He couldn’t have been more than eight years old. “What’s wrong,” he asked in a softer tone.
     “My mom needs help!” The boy said in a voice that was almost hysterical. “Can you help her? Are you a doctor?”
    “Doctor? Where did you get that idea? What’s the matter with your mother?”
    “She’s havin’ a baby!”
    “A baby! I don’t know anything about birthing babies. There’s a doctor in Bear Crossing,” he said as he squinted at the covered wagon outside. “It’s only a few miles north of here.”
    The boy looked at the wagon doubtfully. “I don’t know, sir. She’s hurtin’ real bad.”
    “Well, let’s go talk to her.”
    Burke heard the woman moaning before they reached the wagon. The sound washed unpleasant memories over him like a tidal wave. Poor Sara.
    A young girl knelt over the woman holding a large oil lamp. “It’s alright Mom,” the girl comforted in a soft voice. “We’re at a ranch house and someone is here to help.”
    “Where’s your pa?” Burk asked.
    The boy and girl looked at each other sadly before the girl finally spoke. “He got killed a few days ago. He shot an Elk and thought it was dead, but….” she looked as if she were going to cry.
    “It was just laying there,” the boy continued for her. “Dad even poked it with his gun and it didn’t move. Then he started walking around it and the Elk just got up. He started after Dad, pokin’ him with those big horns. He threw Dad in the air and took off runnin’. I tried to stop the blood, but I didn’t know what to do.”
    Burke laid a hand on the boy’s shoulder. What a thing for a boy to witness – and now this. “Do you think we can get your Mom into the house?”
    At his words, the woman tried to set up.
    “Are you a doctor?” she asked. Her blond hair was falling out of the bun and the curls at the side of her face were wet with perspiration. Her face was pale and dripping. Even so, she was a handsome woman.
    “No, I’m not a doctor, but there’s a doctor a few miles north of here. Lets get you inside and I’ll send someone for the doctor.”
    “I will go sir.” Jose spoke from behind them. “I just come in from herd. I get doctor for lady – mucho pronto!” With that he turned and ran to his horse. Gouging it with his spurs and yelping, he left the yard at a gallop.
    With the help of the woman and kids, they finally got her to the house and into one of the beds. The kids hung over her, watching with wide eyes. They shouldn’t see this.
    “Where you heading?” Burke said, as much to distract their attention as interest.
    They gave him a blank stare. Finally the boy spoke. “We don’t know. Ain’t nobody to go back to in Arkansas and we don’t know where Dad was goin’. We just been travelin’ – looking for a likely spot.”
    A likely spot? Likely to freeze in that wagon this winter – especially with the little one coming on. He placed a lamp on the table and sighed. “Well, I guess this is about as likely a place as you’ll find. Go down the hall there and you’ll find two more rooms. They’re little, but you’ll have more room than in that wagon. Go get your stuff and put it in the rooms. You can find blankets and such in the foot locker.
    The kids stared at him. “We wasn’t hintin’ sir, the girl said softly. You asked and….”
    Burke waved a hand. “Go on. Git your stuff.”
    They looked at their mother for permission and she nodded her head. After they left, she looked at him and spoke for the first time.
     “Thank you, mister. We’ll be on our way as soon as I can travel. I’m obliged for all your help. It means a lot to all of us, especially Sara and John.”
    Burke tried to swallow the lump in his throat. “Sara?” He asked dumbly.
    The woman managed a weak smile. “She’s only ten, but she can help around the kitchen until I’m on my feet.”
    Burke pulled up a chair.
    “My wife’s name was Sara. I lost her almost a year ago.”
    “I’m sorry.” The woman grabbed two bars on the headboard and pulled. Her face contorted in pain as she moaned. As the contraction eased up, she panted. “That doctor better hurry. Almost immediately she gripped the bars again. This time she cried out.
    Burke shut the door and moved the lamp closer. He had delivered their last child when the doctor was out of town, but that was many years ago. The baby was coming, with or without his help. He washed his hands in the basin and dried them with a clean towel. Rolling his sleeves up, he grabbed another towel and headed for the bed.

    The cry of a newborn child was no different at 70 than 20. Burke stood over the woman, holding the tiny infant in the towel. “He needs to be cleaned up some,” he said to the woman, “but he’ll do.”
    The door opened and old Doc. Winthrop walked in with the two kids behind him. “Looks like I’m a little late,” he said with a grin. “Like riding a horse, isn’t it? You never forget how.”
    Burke grinned for the first time in nearly a year. “I reckon it’s the mother who didn’t forget how. I didn’t do anything but catch him.” He handed the infant to the doctor. “Here, earn your fee,” he concluded and headed for the door. “You kids get to bed. Your ma is fine. You can talk to her in the morning. She needs some rest now.”
    It was no surprise when they obeyed without comment. They must be exhausted as well. It would be a night in the chair for him, but it wouldn’t be the first. He picked up the pieces of the coffee cup and put them in the kitchen. He pumped water into the sink and washed his hands as he had countless times through the years. He glanced around the kitchen. It would be full of people tomorrow. If only Sara were here. She’d love this. He smiled to himself. Who was he fooling? He was going to love it too. In spite of his exhaustion and the late hour, he felt rejuvenated. Maybe they’d stay a long time. 

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    The sun kissed the hills goodnight and left a candle glowing for a while. The foliage glowed orange and red with the diminished light. A flock of geese fanned off the lake, spreading out into chevron flight as they climbed on their trip south.
    From the chair on the ranch porch, the evening looked and felt near perfect. It was one of those nights that would have made him feel perfectly content almost a year ago.
    Clay Burke jerked his feet off the rail, letting the front legs of the chair hit the porch with a thump that echoed against the barn. His boot heels slapped against the worn gray boards as he rose stiffly from the chair.
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