A sad romance.
"A dull, gray day like this needs something to liven it up," Martha said as she touched a match to the ready-laid kindling in the fireplace. "Any day that starts out with Uncle Josiah reading aloud the obituary page at the breakfast table is definitely in dire need of cheering up."
"The "Old'Un" feels the weight of his years." Jos sighed with mock gloom and then added seriously, "So many of my contemporaries are gone, I sometimes feel left behind."
"For a purpose, my dear, " I chided him. "You remember what your Aunt Em always said: 'It must be I've something left to do before I'm called.' And you have me to take care of, you know."
"And Rama." Jos laughed as the big cat jumped onto his knees for a nap. Then, after a pause during which the fire took hold and flared brightly through the heap of dry logs which Martha fed it, he added, "Do you remember Jim Cole? Tall man, shoulders broad as a barn door and the longest, blackest hair and beard a man ever grew?"
"Of course I remember Jim Cole," I replied, surprised at the track my husband's thoughts had taken. "My lands, women would cross the street when they saw him coming, he looked so fierce. His eyes were black as his beard and burned like coals of fire. He was more than half mad, wasn't he, living all alone way back on the hill off the Three Mile Road? But what ever made you think of him?"
Martha, sensing a forth-coming story, settled herself with her knitting and I laid aside the letter I'd been writing to join the two of them at the fireside. Jim Cole had been a mystery to me years ago when he walked the streets of our town and I had not dreamed Jos knew any more about the man than I did so I was interested and curious to hear his tale.
"Well," Jos continued, staring into the flames, "Jim was born and raised on that old farm. He was always strange, good scholar but no hand to make friends or join in with shenanigans. Funny thing, no one ever teased him, just left him alone. Course he was big even as a child so I guess the other children knew he'd pound the living daylights out of them if they deviled him. He was always nice to the girls though, in an uninterested way. Just because his Ma had taught him to take care of women-folk, I guess. He never seemed interested in any special girl, treated them all as though they were helpless lambs or something.
"He always came to church even after his Ma died. He was past school age by then so that's how he saw the new school teacher. She was the littlest thing, about five foot tall with what you'd call 'masses of blonde curls', Katy, and eyes like blue cornflowers and sparkling with laughter. After Jim saw her he took to coming to spelling bees and taffy pulls, church suppers, any place he might expect to see her. It wasn't long before she was looking for him, too. The girl couldn't help being attracted to Jim for he was a handsome young man."
Jos stared absently into space for a moment while Martha and I waited eagerly but unwilling to disturb him lest he not finish the story. Finally I asked: "What was her name, Jos, and what happened?"
"Hum? Her name? Why, 'twas Merry. America Polk really but she was called Merry. Jim finally got up nerve to take her home from some doings or other and after that he called on her regular and brought her to what ever goings-on there was. One night they went to the preacher's house and got married. Then went to live on the farm way back there in those God-forsaken hills and weren't seen much except for church on Sundays and when they'd come to town on a Saturday every couple of months for supplies.
"They seemed happy enough, what anyone saw of them. Merry was bright as a cricket and Jim smiled a lot though he didn't have any more to say for himself than usual. Come Fall, Jim took to shopping alone. Some of the women saw him buying birdseye and flannel and such and decided Merry was expecting so she didn't dare make the hard trip in Jim's old buggy. He had a beautiful pair of bays, high spirited and frisky as kittens, both of them in foal to 'Bijah Wells big bay stallion. Jim had winter shoes put on them and told the blacksmith how he planned to raise the expected colts maybe for racers if they were as fast as their dams or maybe they'd be a good matched pair he could sell to the city folks for carriage hourses.
"Uncle Joe and I were working our sugarbush the next time I saw Jim. He came riding one of those mares through the woods as though the Old Scratch himself was after him. His eyes were red and wild and he hadn't even saddled the horse. 'Mr Eldred, would you please bring your wife to Merry? She's took bad and it's too soon. I can't help her no more and there's no time to find the Doc.' he says. Uncle Joe sent me after Aunt Em and he climbed up behind Jim and went back to the farm with him.
"When we got to the farm, Uncle Joe met us at the door. Aunt Em hurried into the bedroom off the kitchen but I could tell by my uncle's face that it was too late. Poor, pretty little Merry died trying to give Jim a son and the baby died with her. Aunt Em did what was needful while Uncle Joe and I rode to tell the neighbors. We built a fire over the place Jim picked to bury them and kept it going all that day and night so we could dig the grave.
"Jim hardly said a word all the time folks were there. Preacher came and as many of Merry's friends as could and there was a nice service in spite of the cold. Jim disappeared while folks were eating afterward. Somebody said, 'Where's Jim?' and the talking stopped just in time for us to hear two shots. The women screamed and started crying again and us men ran for the barn. There lay those two beautiful bay mares still carrying their unborn foals and Jim just stood there staring at them.
" 'Got no need for them now. No need for nothing. Get you all gone. I thank you but get you gone.' he said in a hollow voice, and we filed out of the barn in silence. No one was about to argue with an grief-stricken man who'd just shot his two prize mares. The women set up the food for him and fixed the fire to burn as long as possible, and we all left.
"Uncle Joe and I went over two, three times in the next few days but Jim wouldn't open the door. We could see his footprints in the snow where he'd gone to get water from the well, and there was a thin plume of smoke from the chimney so we knew he was keeping the fire going but we couldn't make him come out or talk to us.
"Then we had a big storm, could hardly get to the barn to tend our animals and when it cleared we saw smoke coming from over the hill towards Jim's place. Couldn't take horses out, the snow was too deep, so we put on snowshoes and started walking. When we got to the farm the whole thing was in ruins, house, barns, everything burned to the ground but there were snowshoe tracks leading off into the hills.
"We followed for a while but had to turn back to get home before dark. There was an old log cabin back up in the woods, Uncle Joe said, and we figured that'us where Jim had gone. And thats where he was and where he stayed for the rest of his life. Quiet and queer, blaming himself for Merry's death because his son was too big for her to bear."
Martha and I both sniffed and wiped away a tear. So long ago and still such a sad story. Even Josiah blinked away some hint of emotion and stroked Rama gently as tho to comfort the long ago hurt.
Melodramatic, perhaps, but Jim Cole's solution to his problem was one he could live with and his neighbors accepted it. I hope he found some contentment and satisfaction in the life he led even thought he did appear a bit deranged to those of us who did not know his story. How I wish I had known so I could have smiled and spoken to him instead of avoiding him in mistrust. I guess it just proves the old Indian proverb, "Never judge a man until you walk for a moon in his moccasins."