Western Short Story - The Blacksmith
She heard his footsteps on the front porch, and checked the table one more time. All was in order for his noon meal, and she met him at the door with a smile.
“Hello Dear. Did you have a good morning?”
She had originally been attracted to him because he was so big, and she was so tiny. Even as an adult, she was still under five feet tall, and weighed less than one hundred pounds. As a tiny child, she had endured constant bullying in school from larger children, so she welcomed his great size and strength as her protector. He had been apprenticed to the blacksmith in their town, and now he had a flourishing shop of his own.
He seated himself at the table, and she hovered at his side. She had served him a thick roast beef sandwich on fresh homemade bread, just the way he liked it, with a glass of buttermilk cooled in the well. The table cloth was fresh off the line, and had the mysterious, clean smell of sunlight. The silverware was clean and highly polished, again, just as he liked it.
The sudden blow came from the back of his massive hand, and she felt herself slammed to the floor and into the oven doors of the woodstove. She quickly put her hand to her bleeding mouth to stifle her cries. He did not like it when she cried out. They had been driven out of too many towns by neighbors who grew tired of hearing her screams. One brave man had challenged her husband, and he had died from a beating for his troubles.
“How many times have I told you, I don’t like crumbs on my plate? There was a damned crumb again! Can’t you do anything right?”
He kicked her in the side of her thigh, and she screamed in pain, the sound escaping her hand, despite her attempts to silence herself. That enraged him even more, and he kicked her again, carefully aiming at the same, tender spot. She screamed again, and he grabbed by the throat of her dress, lifting her off her feet. He slammed his fist into her jaw, and she lapsed into unconsciousness.
They lived on the edge of town, a spot carefully chosen for lack of close neighbors. The only house close enough to hear much was occupied by Darby Gooden, an old, retired sailor, who was spending his remaining days seated on his front porch, quietly whittling. He seemed oblivious to the goings on across the street.
When she regained consciousness, he was gone, so she stumbled to the basin and began washing off the blood. He didn’t like soiled clothing or blood on the floor. He also didn’t like it when she was bruised and cut, but there was nothing she could do about that.
She changed clothes and put her bloody ones in the wash tub to soak. Then she began to assemble what she needed to bake a fresh loaf of bread. He didn’t like to eat off the same loaf twice. He wanted a fresh loaf at each meal.
While the bread was rising, she took her broom to the front porch. He always tracked in dust from the street when he came home, and he didn’t like dust on the front porch. As she swept, she was aware that she was being silently watched by old Darby Gooden. He never spoke, and seemed to understand that any contact with anyone other than her husband would result in swift retaliation. So he simply watched from under his worn old hat.
Darby Gooden was bone thin, and he ate little. The doctor said he probably had an ulcer, which would account for his stomach pains. He had suffered from it since his sailing days, portside in Haiti. Only the partial loaves of fresh bread he found hidden now and then out by his front gate did not bother his stomach.
He marveled at the bravery of the tortured woman across the street. If her husband ever caught her giving him that bread, he would almost certainly beat her to death. Or perhaps that was her plan. Death might be preferable to the miserable life she was leading. He watched her carefully sweep the front porch and then step back inside the house. He picked up his knife, and resumed whittling.
For the next week, she succeeded in pleasing him, or perhaps he was just waiting for her swollen upper lip to resume its pretty shape. He seemed to enjoy destroying fine and beautiful things. He once made her stand and watch, as piece by piece, he smashed the fine china she had inherited from her grandmother. When he discovered that she had befriended a small flock of birds by scattering bread crumbs near the big oak, he tore up a loaf of bread and spread the crumbs himself. When the birds swooped down and began eating, he blasted them with both barrels of his shotgun, killing several.
Now he stood before her holding one of his shirts, and she knew the look on his face all too well. On one of the breast pockets was a small wrinkle she had missed while ironing, so she know what was coming. She put her hand over her mouth to stifle the scream, and he hit her in the stomach. The ugly sound that escaped her hand was a combination of a gasp and a piercing scream. Downtown, people turned and stared at the two lone houses at the far end of main street. Nearby, someone began using a hammer.
He reached down to pick her up and suddenly grunted. She looked up at his distorted face, and saw his jaw drop. His eyes widened and his mouth worked silently as he grasped at his chest with both hands, clawing and digging in pain. His face paled and his eyes slowly rolled up as he sagged to the floor.
For an hour, she sat and watched her husband in shock, knowing that he was dead, but not quite believing it. Then she heard a quiet knock on the door and answered it. It was the doctor, and he said he was responding to a note left on his door. His eyes went to the body lying on the floor, and he brushed by her.
A week after the funeral, she baked two loaves of fresh bread, and then, for the first time, openly walked across the street and up to the old man seated on his porch.
“I would like you to have a fresh baked loaf of bread, Mister Gooden, and a whole one at that.”
Darby Gooden rose and doffed his hat.
“I thank you, and I’m pleased to finally make your acquaintance, Ma’am. I’m right sorry that you’ve lost your husband.”
She lifted her small chin in defiance. “Don’t be , Mister Gooden. He was an evil brute, and if he had not died, he would have surely killed me, and probably sooner rather than later.”
He studied her for a long moment, and then, with a slow nod, seemed to make up his mind about something. He reached down beside his chair, and picked up a small box.
“I reckon you should have this, then. It’s my way of paying you back for all that bread you left by my gate. That was a brave and kindly thing you did for a stranger.”
It was later that evening, and after she had poured herself a cup of tea before she finally sat down and slid the top off the box. Inside, was the skillfully whittled figure of a blacksmith, complete with a tiny leather apron. She instantly recognized the heavy features as that of her own late husband, down to the color of the red checked shirt he habitually wore.
In the middle of the figure's chest was a blacksmith's cut square nail, and she knew from the unique shape and style that it was one of the thousands of nails her husband had forged himself. The nail had been driven clear through, and the back of the figure was splintered where it exited.
She walked to the front door and opened it, stepping out onto the porch. Somewhere in town, a piano played, a drunk was singing off key, and someone was laughing out loud. Across the dark street, Darby Gooden was sitting quietly on his own porch under the warm light of a kerosene lantern. He looked up, tipped his hat to her, and went back to his whittling.