“I never detested anything more in my life,” George Parris admitted, “Than I detested my wife fer the first two years of our marriage.”
Fer jist a moment there, I thought about warning my best friend of more than twenty years to watch his tongue. You don’t speak ill of the dead. Bonnie Parris wasn’t but seven hours in the ground, and here her widower was insulting the dear departed?
But I held my tongue. Bonnie’s three younger half-brothers were gone, along with the rest of the folks who’d shown up for the burying and stayed to mingle over tater salad and baked beans before heading back on over the hill. With only the two of us left on the ranch, there weren’t nobody around to hear him blaspheme.
Let him git it off his chest.
I got up from the table to pour us some more coffee, saying only, “Why is that?”
The big man rubbed his gray-stubbled chin, gathering his thoughts…and let fly.
“She weren’t but thirteen years old when we got hitched back in Virginia. Her Daddy had died in the War, her only brother was a drunken ne’er-do-well, and her Mama was plumb tickled to see her married to a man ten years her senior. Especially a man who owned a working ranch, even if that ranch did run nothing but longhorns and was situated way out West in Kiowa country.”
“You ought to’ve seen little Bonnie back then, Jess. She was still a bit shy of her full growth, but she looked woman enough fer any man even so. Hair to her waist that caught the sun like burnished gold, them sky blue eyes that could see right through a feller, and a backside that looked like two bobcats fighting in the same gunnysack. I first seen her going away, and that was all it took. I was hooked.”
I sat the full cup back down in front of my friend, noting–not for the first time–the pain in his eyes. He’d be alone out here on the GBP now, what with most of the cattle having been sold and no children ever having blessed the Parris marriage. No threat from the Kiowa these days; that was pretty much a thing of the past. Rattlesnakes and bad weather, a flash flood here and there, but nothing to worry a man like George.
The loneliness, though…I begun to think troublesome thoughts. Best to keep him talking fer now.
Which turned out to take no effort, jist a willingness to set and listen. The story was one I’d not heard before, the action taking place nigh on thirty years before I’d left Kansas.
“Men in my day had this idea,” George explained, “That you were better off starting out with a young gal fer a wife, the younger the better. Train ’em up right, before they got all them bad habits. But I’m here to tell ya, that don’t always work so good. Bonnie was the perfect wife to me in most every way a man could want, a hard worker and ready fer romance at the drop of a hat at the end of the day–middle of the day, fer that matter, iffen she could catch you out in the barn while all the hands were busy riding fence or cutting hay.”
He stopped fer a moment, got up from the table, went to look out the window toward the grave marker out there in the little fenced-in ranch cemetery.
“But,” he finally continued, “She had this one bad habit. Anything I could do, she figgered she could do better, and she dang sure let me know it.”
It turned out, as the young rancher, Indian fighter, and veteran of the War Between the States discovered, his tiny teenaged bride was mentally brilliant, a terrible perfectionist, and a compulsive talker. Like most any woman birthed from the time of Eve herself, the girl had kept her counsel until the knot was tied and she had cause to believe she could let fly.
And brother, did she ever let fly.
If she was ailing and her husband fixed breakfast fer the crew so she could rest a bit, he wasn’t cooking the eggs jist exactly the right way. If he was out on the fenceline digging a posthole, she’d show up on her Morgan to wonder why he piled the dirt on the wrong side of the hole. If he saddled up the big bay bronc for a long day’s ride, she’d wonder how come he didn’t take the black gelding.
“At least she didn’t say nothing like that in front of the men,” he shook his head in memory, “But any moment we was alone, she let me have it. If I shaved, I missed a patch. If I didn’t, my beard looked scruffy.”
“She had this way of putting it, she’d say, I usually do it such and such a way, which of course meant, husband, you’re a dumbass and you need to do it my way.”
“I was seriously considering shipping her back to Mama by the time the Kiowa burned us out.”
I’d heard about that, the Indians torching the remote GBP ranch house, bunk house, and barn all three. But never firsthand, jist bar talk. My ears perked up.
“There was twenty of ’em, more or less, madder’n usual about something done to ’em by some other white men. They come after me and mine, and they purty much got us, too. By the time they pulled out, my cartridge belt was empty. One leg was broke, and the other had an arrow in it. Three of my drovers lay dead or dying, and the other two promptly decided to go see what sort of work they could find back East, where you could tell tall tales about Indian fighting without actually having to fight the buggers.”
“And they took Bonnie.”
At first, George admitted, he was sick with worry over his kidnaped wife. Then, once he got his busted leg set properly and the pain was down enough he could think clearly, he begun to hope mebbe they’d keep her. Mebbe turn that critical-tongued female into a white squaw. Her running that mouth of hers shouldn’t bother them none. After all, those people didn’t speak English; they couldn’t know she’d be telling them they straddled their war ponies all wrong. And the Kiowa women would surely beat some shut-up into the paleface girl…wouldn’t they?
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “You hated her that much, George? To want her to suffer with them savages?”
My friend turned to look at me then, and I kind of wished he hadn’t. There was a look in his eye that made me suddenly recall a few stories about the owner of the GBP being a fellow you really didn’t want to cross. What had I said–?
“They ain’t no more savages than you or I be, Jess. We invaded their land. You’d best remember that.”
I swallowed, hard. “I didn’t mean–”
He waved one beefy hand. “Course you didn’t. The thing is, I knew I had to go after her–ain’t no kinda man gonna leave his wife hung up with anybody, no matter who. Trouble was, there wasn’t much I could do about it fer a while. My leg wouldn’t hold my weight, I was some fevered, the other wound with the arrow got infected…Hell, I even come within a whisker of getting rattler-bit into the bargain. There was no way I could go up against the Kiowa single handed, not until I got healed, and that turned out to be a drawn-out, miserable, six month process.”
He’d been lucky at that; the infection would have killed him fer sure, had not distant neighbors seen the smoke and come running. They bundled him into a wagon, hauled him to town, and got him to Doc Shepard. The good doctor had only been in the Territory for a few months, but that was a good thing in itself: His initial stock of medicines, while in short supply, had not been entirely depleted.
Finally, though, George Parris had been healed sufficiently and ready to go on the hunt. Many a white man in those parts would have nothing to do with a woman who’d been handled by Indians, but George didn’t think like that. Besides, enough time had passed; he’d gotten to remembering less and less about her viper’s tongue and more about her good points. He’d rescue her if he could and avenge her if he couldn’t; either way, the Kiowa would know he’d come to return their call.
Except, he never made it out the front gate. He’d saddled old Dan (yes, the black gelding) that morning, filled the saddlebags with spare cartridges and other necessaries for the trail–and stopped suddenly, staring toward the south rise. Three riders a-comin’, and the miniature figure in the middle could only be one person.
“I’ll be–“, he muttered under his breath, pulled his hat down low, checked his .44-40, and leaned casually on the fence like he was watching neighbors come to call.
When Bonnie Parris got close enough, it was obvious she was not much worse for wear. Her man’s clothing–which she’d usually worn, working around the ranch–had a few holes in it, but her sun-gold hair caught the light like always, her blue eyes looked right through her husband like always, and she said,
“If it had been me, I’d have started hunting the Kiowa some time back.”
George explained the rest of it. “Them two warriors held back some, rightfully wary of that rifle hanging in my hand, but more’n that, they looked plumb relieved. The leader of the two finally raised a hand, I done the same, and the pair of ’em rode off at a full gallop like the Devil himself was at their heels.”
It was my turn to rub my chin, thinking hard. “The first thing she said–”
“Yep. Right back after me, nag, nag, nag.”
“And the Kiowa–”
“Took me a bit to piece it all together, Jess, but it turned out my Bonnie, with all her other brilliance, had a gift fer languages. I think she did git beat a bit in the beginning by the Kiowa women, but she learned their lingo. And then she jist talked ’em to death until they give up and give her back to me. Good riddance and all that.”
The light dawned. “You’ve never told a Soul the rest of it, have you? No other white man, I mean.”
“Nope.” Big George Parris stretched, grinned, and I suddenly knew he was going to be okay. “Nary a Soul. What I’ve told you is between you, me, and the gatepost. I trust you to keep the secret till after I’m dead and gone, the secret of why the Kiowa never touched my place again after that one time, not so much as to rustle a beef when they was hungry.”
“They figgered any man who’d put up with a fast-mouthed female like Bonnie Jean Marie Parris was touched in the head. I had to be plumb crazy, and they don’t mess with crazy folks.”
Once he figured that out, my aging friend assured me, he’d quit detesting his wife. Although he did develop one Helluva case of selective hearing over the years.