A Short Story by Terri Harrington
“Ma’am, this sure is good stew.” Jonathan looked up from his bowl long enough to give his compliments to the woman in the tattered dress.
The woman smiled—her front teeth were black. “Oh, go on now. It’s hearty and fills the belly is all.”
He stopped eating to look around the small cabin, bare of furniture but for the table he sat at with six chairs, all occupied by who he assumed were members of the same family. He set his eyes on his food and grimaced as he was not used to such sights as these. The three small children appeared to have not been bathed in quite some time. They wore gray shirts and nothing else, while the old woman in the corner wore an old thread-bare dress that might once have been blue. She, too, was unkempt with her white hair in tangles. The large man who sat in the chair by the door had been the one who he had met in the front yard. He had offered Jonathan a place to stay and some supper. He wore overalls fastened with one strap, while the other hung down his back. His white shirt was stained with brown streaks, and he had a lazy eye which desperately fought to stay on Jonathan, along with his good eye.
“You say you hail from the City of Kansas, Missouri. Everyone is smart and rich there, huh?” This question came from the large man. He somehow managed to make it sound confrontational.
Jonathan felt anger emanating from this person and he was careful in his reply.
“I would not say everyone is smart there and rich, no. They are simply people, like everyone else, I suppose.” The man grunted something Jonathan could not understand, so he simply smiled and continued eating.
The woman crossed the small room and whispered something unintelligible into the big man’s ear. He grunted and went out the front door, letting the cold December wind invade the cabin. The fire in the fireplace, where the pot of stew hung, roared in protest but quickly settled down once the door was closed.
The woman took her chair and smiled at Jonathan, for Christ’s sake, did she have to smile that black grin so widely? “I told Samuel to put your horse in the barn and make sure it had plenty of hay and fresh water. There’s blankets in the barn and a pillow for your head, of course.”
“I sure appreciate your hospitality. I imagine you and your husband are busy folks. It has been a mighty long and cold ride across the Kansas territory’s prairie and warm meal is a Godsend.”
“Oh, it ain’t nothin’ at all,” she replied. “Husband? No, son. Samuel’s my eldest. By the way, I’m Hannah.”
“My, yes. I did not even ask your name. Please accept my apologies, Ma’am, I mean Hannah. I do not like to repeat myself but are you certain my brother did not stop here? A boy, not quite fifteen yet, blonde-haired, tall as a corn stalk?” Jonathan felt confused as he was certain Charles had come this way. His younger brother spoke of riding the Kansas territory to find a ranch that would take him on as a cowhand, and this was the one road he had mentioned he would take.
Hannah put her finger under her chin, squeezed her eyes tightly shut, and shook her head. “No, I can’t say I has. If he came this way, he woulda wanted to water his horse, most certainly. I’d have made him dinner, too.”
One of the children—she looked to be the youngest, spoke up. “But Mama, Charles was here,” he exclaimed.
The woman was quick. She jumped up from her chair and was on the girl in a flash, hitting her with closed fists. The little girl took the beating silently, as if it were part of her daily routine. Jonathan looked down at the dirt floor. It probably was a daily occurrence.
Before he could react to this news of Charles, the door opened and Samuel walked in and immediately scowled at Hannah, as she scurried back to her seat. He once again sat by the door, the chair protesting with a loud groan from this weight. Once again, he stared at Jonathan.
Samuel leaned forward. “You like the stew, huh?” he asked. “Tender meat, ain’t it?”
Jonathan nodded his head and looked to Hannah for an explanation for the child’s words.
“Samuel, you hush now,” Hannah whispered. She turned to Jonathan, her cheeks flushed, and pointed at the little girl who had received the beating. “Now she don’t know what she’s sayin’. Why wouldn’t I tell you he was here if he had come by?”
Jonathan’s apprehension grew. The woman’s speech, once warm, was now harsh and argumentative. She looked at the old woman in the corner who sat wordlessly, eyes on Jonathan, drool dripping from her mouth. Hannah glared at her.
“Charles, right? That was your brother’s name?” asked Samuel. “Seems like a fancy boy’s name if you ask me.”
“Well, I would not say fancy,” Jonathan said, his words measured. Samuel speech was openly hostile and he was much larger than himself. He found himself sweating as the meat from the stew stuck in his throat. “I am from a plain family, such as yourselves, and just want to get my brother back home. My mother is terribly upset since he ran away.”
Without warning, the old crone in the corner cackled and rocked back and forth as she pointed her bony finger at Jonathan. Startled, he dropped his spoonful of stew onto the table. Before he could apologize, one of the children swooped in and grabbed up the bits of meat with a dirty hand. He shoved the pieces into his mouth while the other children complained of being hungry, too.
“You children hush,” admonished Hannah. “There’s still stew left for later.”
Jonathan faked a yawn. “Well, I think I will turn in now.”
“You didn’t finish your stew,” Hannah said. She looked at him with squinty eyes, as she stood, fists at her side. “Food’s scarce.” She frowned. “Eat,” she commanded.
Jonathan once again sat. The children looked to Hannah and was startled to see each child smiling slyly. “I apologize.” He recovered his spoon and commenced eating, even though he was no longer hungry.
“You know,” Samuel said, “now that I think about it, might be we did see your brother. Scrawny thing, right?”
Now the children’s eyes were on Samuel, lips slightly curled, eyes alight with an anticipation Jonathan dreaded.
Jonathan stood. His heart beat wildly against his chest and tears waited at the corners of his eyes. Confused and afraid, he shouted, “I do not know what game you people play, but I beg you to tell me.”
Hannah slapped an open palm down on the old table. “Don’t you go yellin’ in my house,” she warned. “Sit back down and eat your supper.”
Samuel stood and stepped behind Jonathan, laying his thick, burly hands on his shoulders. Jonathan could feel the power in those hands. He looked toward the door and wondered how many steps it would take to reach it. That thought quickly diminished as Samuel pressed down on him, forcing him into his seat. Samuel took Jonathan’s spoon, filled it from the bowl, and put it in front of Jonathan’s mouth. “Eat. Your. Stew.”
“Yes,” Hannah said, “just eat and we’ll tell you of your brother.”
With shaking hands, Jonathan took the spoon from Samuel’s hand and put the cold stew into his mouth, retching on something small and hard with the meat and broth. He reached into his mouth and fished out a tooth, a small incisor. “What in Christ’s name is this?” he yelled.
“Now, don’t you recognize your own kin’s tooth, you idiot?” Samuel said, a smile on that crude, ugly face.
Jonathan dropped the spoon and made for the door. Samuel’s hands pulled him back and he wrestled Jonathan to the ground. With one foot on the young traveler’s back, Samuel looked to Hannah. “Well, Maw, should I just take him out to the barn and do him, or snap his neck and be done with it.”
Hannah laughed gleefully. “Oh, either way, son. We’re gonna eat good for at least two weeks. He’s got much more meat on his bones than his brother!”