Western Short Story - Sweet Nellie Larson
Sweet Nellie Larson
Frank Damon topped Baker Hill and reined in for a moment. Below him lay the town of his youth, and his destination. He had been gone for fifteen years, and as he sat there, he once again questioned the wisdom of his return. It served no good purpose, he told himself, but he dismissed that argument immediately. He was here now, and he intended to have some old questions answered. From where he rested, he could see Main street, and rising behind the mercantile was the tall, white steeple of the Baptist Church.
Seventeen years ago, old Jeb Larson, owner of the big J-L, had hired him on as ramrod, and before long, Jeb’s daughter Nellie Larson started seeking him out on one excuse or another. She was beautiful, sure enough, but after Todd Bailey and Billy Wilson had lost their lives courting her, she had gained a reputation as a lovely but deadly black widow, so he kept her at arm’s length. Besides, he knew that Jack Macy, his best friend and foreman at the Flying W, had eyes for Miss Nellie Larson.
Then one day, Nellie told Jack politely that she had no interest in him and confessed that she was in love with Frank Damon. Jack talked to Frank about it, and Frank’s interest in Nellie grew despite his misgivings. A month later, she made sure Frank knew which box supper was hers at a social, and he bid on it to win. They found a quiet table, and she spun her web.
The courtship lasted a year, and Jack Macy graciously stepped aside, a fact that seemed to bother Nellie for a time, but later, she seemed to forget all about it. Finally, Frank asked for Nellie’s hand in marriage, and her father agreed. There was even talk from Jeb Larson about making Frank a full partner in the ranch after the wedding, and Nellie beamed, but there was always a feeling in Frank that something was amiss; something just out of his grasp. He shrugged it off as jitters and the courtship continued.
Frank asked Jack Macy to be his best man, and after a moment’s hesitation, he accepted.
The wedding was scheduled for June, but one day in April, Nellie shocked Frank with the demand that they move the wedding up, all the way up to the following Saturday.
“Why put it off, Frank? Why wait? What’s the point?”
She smiled at him and stroked his hair.
“I don’t want to wait any longer for you, darling. I want to start our life together right away. Is there a reason why you want to wait until June? Don’t you want me right away?”
She pouted in a playful, pretty way, and Frank relented. He could think of no good reason why they should wait other than making it possible for distant relatives to attend, but that wasn’t a sure thing anyway. He grinned at her and nodded.
“Oh, all right Nellie. Next Saturday it is!”
The Baptist church was packed with town folk and outlying ranchers. This was the wedding they had all been waiting for and no one wanted to miss it. Frank waited at the altar with a nervous Jack Macy, and Preacher Martin. Suddenly the lady at the piano began playing the bridal processional and Frank looked up to see Nellie coming down the aisle in her white gown. She was beautiful, and his heart swelled. She looked at him, and as their eyes met, he once again had the feeling that something was not right, but it quickly passed.
She stood at his side and he smiled down at her, but she did not smile back. The preacher began the ceremony, and Frank listened intently, not wanting to make a mistake. Then the preacher asked the usual question of those in attendance.
“And if anyone knows of any reason why these two should not be married let him speak now or forever hold his peace.”
Just as the preacher was ready to resume the ceremony, Frank heard a soft voice on his right. It was Jack Macy.
“I know a reason.”
Frank turned to him in astonishment, and Jack’s face reddened.
“I’m sorry Frank, but I can’t allow this. Nellie is two months with child, and it’s my child.”
As Frank watched in astonishment, Jack stepped in front of him and took Nellie’s hand. Together, they walked down the aisle, past a stunned crowd and out the door of the church. Nellie glanced hopefully back at Frank as if to see if he was going to do anything, and when he did not, she sniffed and held her head high as they climbed into Jack’s waiting buggy.
Frank heard later that they drove to Santa Fe, where they were married by a circuit judge. Frank rode out to the J-L and collected his pay from a furious Jeb Larson.
“I apologize for my daughter’s actions, Frank. She grew up without benefit of a mother, and I’m afraid that I’ve indulged her.”
He chewed on his moustache thoughtfully.
“You may be better off to be rid of her, my boy. I’ve long suspected that she might like having men fight over her.”
Frank rode to Denver where his ranch experience got him a job with a cattle buyer. On the buyer’s advice, he invested in a mine venture, and it paid off handsomely. He read law and attended a law school, eventually becoming a lawyer and joining a prestigious Denver firm. He continued to invest, and accumulated a small fortune. He met many eligible young ladies, but he shied away from any serious courtships. Then one day, he decided to face the past that troubled him. He decided to return and confront Jack Macy and Nellie.
Fifteen years was a long time to be away, and no one looked familiar. He was trying to enjoy his breakfast at the Bon Ton restaurant, but the enormously fat female cook was continually screeching at her waitresses. Finally, he pushed back his half eaten eggs in disgust and left. He walked down the street to the mercantile, but again saw no one he knew. Finally, he entered the Brass Nickel saloon and ordered a beer.
He was sipping his brew when a thin, stooped, tired-looking man stopped by his table and stared at him. It took him a moment to realize the man was Jack Macy.
“Ain’t you Frank Damon?”
Frank was two inches taller and twenty pounds of hard muscle heavier than the last time Jack had seen him, and he also had a flowing moustache. He nodded and motioned Jack to a chair. For a long moment, neither said anything.
“I wondered if you’d ever come back, Frank. I owe you an apology. What I did to my friend was unforgivable, but Nellie came on to me, and I was weak. In the end, I couldn’t let you be fooled into thinking that you had fathered that child after marriage, so I spoke up. I’m sorry.”
Frank nodded, and then he was astonished to see tears welling up in the eyes of his old friend. All the time he had been harboring anger, Jack had been feeling the pain of great regret for what he had done. Suddenly, he felt as if a great weight had been lifted, and he extended his hand to Jack, who hesitated and then took it.
“Have you seen Nellie, Frank? I won’t care if you want to.”
“No, I haven’t seen her, and I suppose I won’t need to now. It was you I wanted to see, I suppose. I have no plans to ride out to the ranch anyway.”
“Oh she ain’t at the ranch no more. Her pa ran her off after we married, and then he cut her out of the will. She lives here in town now. She’s the cook at the Bon Ton.”
Jack looked down at his hands.
“She put on a mite of weight after having the children. You may not know her.”
Frank nodded and stood. Once again, he offered his hand and Jack took it.
“If you ever get up to Denver, Jack, look me up. Just ask around.”
Half an hour later, Frank Damon was headed out of town, a solemn look on his face. As he approached the edge of town, a small smile began to play at the corners of his mouth, quickly spreading into a wide grin. Then he began to chuckle.
For months afterward, the town folks wondered at the stranger who was seen leaving town, doubled over in his saddle and roaring with laughter.
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