Roland made the mistake of looking back.
The hills spread in waves below him, silvery brown as the wind smoothed the grass blades, like someone running a hand over velvet. Beyond that, in the valley, stretched the fields, green rectangles, even and predictable. In between, he could just make out the tops of the trees where he knew his uncle’s house and barns sat.
It was Monday, with the sun hanging a little past midday. He gripped the reigns and nipped the horse in the sides to get him going again. The horse lurched forward. Roland had to dig in with his knees to stay in the saddle.
But his mind kept humming with all the things he was missing, all the things he’d never see again.
On Monday afternoons, Grandma hung the washing on the back line, letting the wind ripple it dry. The boys napped in the barn hay, the kittens curled up at their necks. And Claris, she’d be drying the dishes from lunch, having done all the washing up herself. When she was done, she’d head out back to help Grandma hang the shirts.
There was such a routine, nobody’d notice for awhile that the black horse was gone. Nobody’d expect it to be. The womenfolk and the children would think Roland was out in the field with Uncle Hue, as he usually was. Uncle Hue thought he was in the house taming a burning fever with sleep and a warm blanket. Nobody’d miss him for awhile. Not until the supper bell rang, and by then, Roland planned on being long gone. On the other side of these hills, at least. Maybe as far as Patterson if he was lucky.
But he’d looked back. Now, even though the horse kept moving in the right direction, his mind rocked back to the house with the rhythm of the horse beneath him, where Claris stacked the last dish in the cupboard, where she wrung out the cloth in a pail of water to wipe down the long, wood table. As she leaned over to reach the table center, she glanced up, just like she’d done a hundred times before, and looked Roland in the eye.
It was all imagination, of course, because Roland was sitting astride a horse, riding over the hills, and Claris was in the kitchen, five miles back, but to Roland, those eyes were real. They scourged him, the pale brightness of them harassed him, made him turn in the saddle and pull the reigns up sharp, trying to catch one more glimpse of the tops of those familiar trees.
But Hue’d been clear. “You’re her cousin, Roland,” he’d said just two nights past, when the two men were finishing up with the horses and Roland had dared to speak. “In these parts folks don’t act like that. You go find another nice girl, somebody who’s not in the family.”
He’d meant it kindly. Smiled, patted Roland’s shoulder, and kept walking, right out of the barn and back to the house. That should’ve told Roland the conversation was over, Hue’s way of saying he’d forget it'd ever happened.
But Roland couldn’t forget.
Hue might as well have plucked his soul right out of his chest and flayed it open with the knife he kept eternally in a leather holder attached to his belt.
Roland left money for the horse on top of his pillow. His Pa taught him better than to steal. Even though Hue was a good-hearted man and would’ve given him the horse if he’d asked for it – part of his pay, probably – Roland couldn’t stomach the thought of taking off with anything as valuable as Canyon. He’d left a good price for the horse, a better price than Hue was likely to get at market. And he’d left a note, explaining himself, why he couldn’t stay around anymore. Yes, he’d mentioned Claris by name. His one last act of bravery, he thought, before he hid his face forever.
The only part he’d lied about, besides the fever, was where he was going. Told them he was heading north to Spokane, when really he was heading a different direction, maybe eventually to Walla Walla, or somewhere else. Portland, Oregon had a nice sound to it.
He didn’t want them finding him, dragging him back. His father’d try to tell him he owed his uncle work. All his kin were good talkers. And they kept the family tight, didn’t like anybody wandering off on their own business. They’d use his grandma as bait, or Roland’s own mother with her stiff, knobby fingers that couldn’t sew a lick anymore. They’d tell him he was breaking his family’s heart; he had to stay close, redeem himself.
Claris. Those eyes, the color of a ripe wheat field. He couldn’t watch her walk down the aisle some day with some good-natured farmer. Couldn’t stick around for that. Better to leave now, cut clean.
He reached the top of the ridge, reigned Canyon in, turned his head to see the valley spread out, prettier than any of his grandma’s quilts. The trees around the house were little pillows of green, tucked into a fold of blond hills. Those trees didn’t hold him anymore. Something else called him, something bigger, wider. He slapped Canyon’s neck affectionately, wiped a sleeve across his own brow, and turned away from the valley forever.
Thanks to Roland, who gave me the inspirational words for this week: love, loss and redemption. For those of you new to the blog, I write an original, short story every week as a challenge to myself. I'm hoping to have 52 stories by the end of the year. I'm a little behind after taking a month off to concentrate on a rewrite of my novel, so I'm going to write two stories a week until I'm caught up. Phew! If you'd like to leave some inspirational words for a future story, click here. Thanks again, Roland! Great, and challenging, words.