In His Own Bed
Walter woke up to the first scant rays of light, barely visible as they skittered through the boards covering the paneless window in the front wall of his little cabin. He felt more rested and vigorous than he had in several months, and the brisk air around him gave him hope that this was the day he’d been waiting for. He pulled his lean body out from under the rough wool blanket that had become his nightly companion and ambled toward the door. The tired hinges yawned as he pulled the handle inward to reveal the tell-tale bluewhite glow of the snowy South Dakota dawn outside. Indeed, this was going to be an eventful day, and, tonight, he’d finally sleep in his own bed.
Reaching his arms toward the stars that still sparkled above, and filling his lungs with a great, lingering breath, Walter felt the familiar warmth of morning blood and knew it was about time to get to work. There were a few swigs of coffee, a handful of biscuit, and a hunk of meat left over from the previous night’s meal, and these would suit him just fine. After throwing a fresh log on the fire and heating up the lot, he was filling his belly and going through his mental checklist one more time. As the last gulp of the bitter coffee scorched its way down his throat, Walter began pulling on his overalls and world-weary boots. Grabbing a thick flannel shirt from the hook by the door and the tidy little stack of envelopes from the table, Walter headed out to face his day.
For all of his 70 years, Walter’s body and soul had been nourished by the land, and he’d done his best to repay that debt. As a young boy in Indiana, he’d helped his father cut down swaths of thick forest and bust up the stumps and clods of earth that remained so they could grow their corn. When he had the chance to stake his claim in Buffalo Gap and help push the frontier as a young man, he had come west with nothing at all, save the love and trust of his sweet bride, Ora. He promised her a better life, and, by God, he had delivered
They poured their beings into the ranch and grew it to more than 1000 acres of fine grassland feeding better than 300 head of cattle. They had worked hard, sure, but they had lived free and had answered to no one but themselves and, later, to their son Owen. Their love and nurturing had helped the youngster grow into a strapping lad, but Walter always made sure that Owen had books to read and his own place to study.
Eventually, the ranch had paid for Owen to set off on his own adventures, heading first to college in Minneapolis and then to Fargo to set up his law practice. It had been nearly 15 years now since the boy left home, and he’d only been back to visit two times. Still, Walter begrudged his son nothing and was, in fact, exceedingly proud of his only child. As the old man mounted his horse and trotted off the ranch toward the post office in town, he thought of how Owen would be relieved when he read the letter. Walter was glad for that.
As his horse trotted down the lane between the two big pastures nearest his cabin, Walter saw the familiar site of Herman’s sturdy calico mare standing tethered to the fence post under the old oak tree that welcomed him home. Pulling up alongside, Walter dismounted and took the second letter from his shirt pocket and scuffled up beside Sioux. He always thought that to be a clever name for a female horse, even though he’d never found Herman to be an especially clever man. Still, the farmhand was a loyal man and his work ethic nearly matched Walter’s own. The two men also shared a love of the land and the independence that it afforded. Rubbing the horse’s long mane now with his left hand, Walter slid the envelope under Sioux’s saddle with his right and gave her a final pat before hopping back on Clyde.
Herman wouldn’t find the note until he unsaddled his mare for the night, and that would be just time enough.
For the rest of the afternoon, Walter busied himself with the chores of any normal day on the ranch: cleaning the big barn, moving logs to the house for firewood in the looming winter, and, finally, gathering some beans and meat for his evening meal. These he cooked in the little pot that hung in the hearth and then gathered his blanket from the worn floorboards and hung it over the back of a plain chair. He would have no further use for his makeshift sleeping quarters, because, after all, he was going to lie in his own bed tonight.
When the slanting sun finally fell to the horizon, as if pulled by the gravity of his plans, Walter cracked open his cabin door and took in the wintry world that the day had grown. He saw Herman and Sioux trotting unevenly down the lane, staggering through what must have been more than a foot of new snow. Walter could hardly contain his joy and tasted brine as hot rivers of tears began to flow over his cheeks.
Removing his boots and flannel shirt, Walter stepped out into the white powder and pulled the door shut behind him. The snow seemed to warm his soul even as it reddened his feet, and his shivers were greeted by more tears, more joyous sobs. With each step he took, another of his life’s memories came back to him, and Ora colored them all. They had created a beautiful paradise and shared a storybook love.
When Ora fell ill at the beginning of summer, Doc Staver told Walter that her kidneys were failing and that there wasn’t much to be done. The oppressive heat made things worse, though, and if she could make it through the hot months, then she might be alright. Walter promised his bride that, if she could hold on, everything would be fine come winter.
Now, as he took these final few steps, he knew that he would make good on his word to Ora, once again. He had put the affairs of the farm in good order: Herman would take over the ranch and give a little bit of the left over money to Owen. The boy would soon know about the arrangement back at home and would come to take care of whatever business dealings were leftover.
Walter also knew that he was about to put matters right between Ora and him again, too, and his tears were flowing freely. He knelt by her simple gravestone and pulled from his overall pocket a bright red rose, the last one of the season from Ora’s beloved bush under the cabin window.
“It’s winter, darling. I love you.”
And then Walter turned to the gaping hole that lay next to his wife’s grave and peered into his destiny. The big, open wooden box that he’d worked so painstakingly to build over these last few months was barely visible through his freezing tears and the thick blanket of snow that covered its depths. But he knew it was there, and he stepped into the pit, landing with a thud.
Walter could not bring himself to sleep in his wife’s death bed, and so he had spent his nights roaming a foreign landscape of nightmares and insomnia.
Now, he lay back into his frozen fate. Now, finally, he was sleeping in his own bed.
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