Bill ambled slowly out the front path that led to the roadway. He stood for a moment looking first to the East then Westward. Usually when he began one of his trips he’d sat and mulled over the direction he wanted to take, people he might want to see but above all he left knowing his purpose for the journey. Today, however, he’d planned to rest, allowing Nadine to care for him as her nurturing nature caused her to care for everyone in her house. Lou had abruptly changed the plan.
Bill was an expert at maintaining a bluff and he never dreamed one of his sons would ever call that bluff. When Lou stood up to him and accused him of neglecting his family, something in the boy’s eyes told Bill it was time to walk away from this particular game.
As he walked, he thought. In fact, his head was spinning as it rarely did.
When the urge to move on called him away from his home or his work, no one ever asked him to stay. Well, no one except Nadine, and she never begged. In fact as he thought over the past twenty years of his life, he wondered if he was ever really wanted anywhere. He couldn’t help but think of Ann, she had always wanted him with her.
Ann, you took everything when you died.
Bill shook his head – he couldn’t start talking to himself much less his dead wife. Yet somehow he couldn’t stop his mind as it rolled through memories and imagined what might have been had Ann survived the birth of their first son. Oh he couldn’t blame Jimmy, he never had blamed him. Ann was sick with the consumption before she had him, probably even before she conceived him. Looking back on it, Bill could see that she didn’t have as much energy as before. She seemed to barely get over one cold before she took another one, and they always seemed to settle in her chest leaving her coughing for weeks. Ann dismissed it, saying that her family all had weak lungs and colds just ran that way with them. Bill was young and so in love with his wife that he would have believed a green sky was perfectly normal if she said it and gave him that tender, sweet smile.
Ann, you always wanted me at home with you. I remember driving hogs to Kentucky and you practically begging me to stay. I wonder now if you knew you were dying and you didn’t want to be alone. But you weren’t alone my dear – in the end I sat and held your hand until you drew your last breath. It seems like that was my last breath of life too ‘cause there’s been no joy in anything since then.
As though Ann, or some spirit, spoke in his ear Bill questioned, Why couldn’t you find any happiness with Nadine? She took you and your two children when she was young and beautiful. She surely had many beaus to choose from.
Bill stopped and looked back toward the long, dilapidated house where he’d left his wife and four of their children. He was too far away to see the house; he could just make out the tops of the trees that surrounded it. He stood there watching, as though he might see Nadine, as though she would still be that beautiful young woman.
Then his mind turned to Mercy. She was so different from Nadine. Mercy was so small, when her father handed her to Bill, he’d thought she was only a child.
Well, she was practically a child. Just sixteen I think.
Bill had never really regretted accepting Mercy from her father. After all, he’d made the bet fair and square. And Mercy had worked hard to serve Bill as her husband, but somehow Bill always knew that it was to honor her father and not him. Still there had never been any real joy in their marriage, nothing like he’d shared with Ann.
Again, the voice in his head challenged him, How could that marriage have anything that your marriage to Ann had – Mercy didn’t even know you when she married you, much less did she love you. Does she love you now?
Bill pondered that question for a moment and remembered the look in her eyes as he said goodbye to her just a few weeks ago. Then he realized, far from loving him, she didn’t even respect him. Why is that? He pondered.
He reasoned with himself that he made good money. In fact, every venture he’d undertaken in the past few years had been profitable with some being extremely profitably. He tapped his pocket, reassured by the roll of bills he felt there. His fingers registered the fine weave of his pants and as he looked down at them he noted the gleam of soft leather boots that had been polished just yesterday by a boy at the general store.
Simultaneously, his mind flashed visions of both Nadine in her faded cotton dress and Mercy in a shift made of worn homespun cloth. He shrugged his shoulders, wondering what these women had to do with how well he was dressed. Surely they realized how much he had paid for the clothes. Well of course they know, haven’t you cautioned them time and again to use care when they are washing them? You’ve told them these clothes can’t be treated like the other rags they scrub out.
Bill walked and walked, his thoughts driving him onward heedless of the direction. The sun slipped toward the western horizon but he did not notice. The day faded to dusk, his eye adjusted and he kept walking.
Bill talked himself out of worrying about Lou’s unspoken threats. In fact, he began to ask himself why he hadn’t ridden one of the horses. He dismissed the questions of whether his families missed him or wanted him around. In fact, he began to wonder if this would be a good time to sell the farm.
Even before he saw the decimated herd of swine, he’d realized that this farm was not bringing the joy he thought he’d find. It was nothing like the farms he tended in his youth when he’d been overfilled with joy. No, it would be best to try to sell it and turn a profit. The boys had the fields looking good and with the addition of the barn Jerry had built he could command a much better price that what he paid.
When he finally came to his decision, the hour had grown quite late and the road very dark. He stopped to figure out where he was but he was surrounded by dense woodland. He couldn’t remember when he’d last past a farm and looking behind he could see no sign of a lamp in a window. Trying to think back on what he’d seen earlier in the day, he realized that he was headed toward Monterey and this must be the big woods. How long had he been in this woodland? He wouldn’t come out of it before he reached the edge of town. Now he must decide whether to keep tripping along the road or make himself as comfortable as possible at base of a tree for the night.
He looked around, the evening was warm, muggy even. He’d certainly spent nights out in worse conditions. No, he had a plan now and he would continue on his way into Monterey. He would make it there before the drinking house closed and he might even be able to do some business before the morning.