I like to think of myself as a good, honest man. I try my best to be honorable. But sometimes I forget myself. And sometimes circumstances conspire to hand me golden opportunities, ones that I could not possibly pass up. Then I find myself paying the price.
That was what happened with Catherine.
Catherine was the most gorgeous woman I had met in my entire life. She was tall and slim, with long, wispy golden hair. She had the deep brown eyes of a baby deer, and her features looked as though they had been drawn by an artist. She was every man's dream.
But she was his. We all knew it. She and Bill, they were made for each other. True, the rest of us boys did carry our torches for her, and when our paths crossed we typically didn't bother to hide it, but we knew where to draw the line. We would smile at her, and tell her how pretty she looked that day, and she'd smile back – oh, what a smile she had! – and tell us that we didn't look too shabby ourselves. But that was as much as passed between us.
I can remember some of the good times we had. We all used to get together some nights and play cards over at Bill's place. Usually we didn't let girls play, but Catherine, she was one stubborn lady. Finally, after months of her watching and cajoling and wheedling, Bill broke down and told her she could play one hand. Just one. We all went easy on her. We figured we ought to be nice to her. After all, she was a girl in the boys' game. We shouldn't have been so nice. She cleaned house on us.
After that, she got to play cards with us, no questions asked. And we didn't go easy. Not that that ever stopped her from beating us. If I close my eyes, I can still see her sitting at the table next to Bill, both of them wearing identical poker faces. They were a match made in heaven. We all knew it. There was nobody else for either of them. She was his, and that was the way it was.
At least until the war.
The war didn't really reach our town. It was a hurricane with its eye far to the east of us. Far enough that all we got from it was a breeze. Only a few of the boys wanted to go off to war. Bill was one of them. I was one of the ones who stayed behind. My father didn't want me to get myself killed in a war that wasn't gonna change anything for us. I didn't say it, but I agreed with him. It really was nothing to do with us. At least, it seemed that way.
* * *
On October 14th, 1862, Bill and Tommy and Jake all rode off into the sunrise to join the war. I can still remember Catherine standing on that hill, framed by the rising sun, her hair shimmering around her head like a halo, sadly waving goodbye.
Three months later, we got the bad news. There had been a skirmish in a town about fifty miles east. Tommy and Jake were both dead. No one found Bill. But we knew. He wasn't coming back.
* * *
It was four months after the bad news had come that John Carpenter showed up on the doorstep. He looked anxious. He was holding his wide-brimmed straw farmer's hat in front of him. Mrs. Brown just stared at him for a moment.
"Come on in." She opened the door wider. John nodded courteously and stepped inside. She shut the door as he hung the hat on the coat rack that stood in the hall.
She ushered him into the sitting room. "Please, do sit down." He settled himself on the edge of the sofa. "I'll go get Henry," she told him, turning to leave.
"It's James I need to talk to, Mrs. Brown."
She turned back to him. "James?" He nodded. "What's he done?"
"He hasn't done anythin', Ma'am. I just want to talk to him 'bout somethin'. That's all."
Mrs. Brown nodded. "I'll go fetch him. I'll only be a minute." She turned and strolled out the door of the sitting room, then more swiftly out the door and across the yard. "James!"
* * *
I looked up from the fence I was fixing when I heard the front door shut. Mama was coming across the front yard. Beside me, Pa looked up. "James!"
I straightened. "Yes, Ma?"
"Mr. Carpenter's inside. He wants to see you. Don't keep him waitin', now."
I looked over at Pa. He was smiling, and I couldn't quite work out why. Then I set down my hammer and jogged across the yard to the door. I opened it and stepped inside. There was a hat on the coat rack – Mr. Carpenter's old straw one. You'd see him walking through town with it all through the summer.
I wiped my face off on my sleeve before I went into the sitting room. I knew I hadn't gotten all the dirt off, but there wasn't much I could do about that.
He was sitting on the edge of the sofa. He must've heard me come in, because he was watching me. I went and sat down across from him in the white wicker chair. He smiled at me. "Hi son."
"Hello, sir," I said cordially. Mr. Carpenter had told me in the past that I didn't need to be so formal, but I was brought up to be respectful to my elders, and I could never bring myself to call him John.
He leaned forward and watched me intently. I wished I'd been able to get more of the dirt off my face. "Son, I've been thinkin' a lot about this, since we got word that Bill was killed. There's somethin' I've been meanin' to ask you."
I got a sense of where this was going. I wanted to say something, but I stayed still and quiet. I didn't want to look a fool for guessing wrong.
"My girl, James, she needs a man to look after her. She's almost twenty now, about time she settled down. I was gonna wait 'til after the war, but…" He stopped. "Well, I don't see anymore reason to.
"You're a good boy, James. You've always been honest, and hard-workin', and I know you're the right one to be sayin' this to right now."
My heart leaped. But then I felt a wave of guilt crash over me. I had a chance at one of the things I'd always wanted, but I felt like I was taking advantage of another man's death to get it. It was almost like this would be a disrespect to his memory. "Have you talked to Catherine about this yet, sir?" I asked.
He nodded. "'Course I did. She's fine with it. Said she understands."
I nodded slowly.
"James, will you marry my Catherine?"
"Yes, sir. Yes, sir, I will."
* * *
The wedding was set for that fall. Pa and John – he insisted that I call him John, now that we were gonna be related – helped me raise a little house. And Willy, from the next town over, he helped too, with hauling the lumber, since one of our oxen was lame that season. By the time the leaves were falling it was finished. It wasn't very big, but it was built well, and it would last. "It ain't much to look at," Pa said, "but it'll keep the heat in and the rain out, and that's what counts."
I'll never forget our wedding day if I live a hundred years. It was a beautiful, beautiful day. We exchanged vows between two big apple trees. They were dressed in their golden-brown autumn clothes, just perfect for a wedding.
And then, of course, there was Catherine.
She was prettier that day than ever I had seen her. She was wearing a long, simple white dress, with a little stitching around the hems and the collar. The dress on some other girl wouldn't have been much to look at, but it made her look absolutely gorgeous. She didn't have a veil, but her hair was loose around her face, catching the sun, and she looked like an angel just come down from Heaven. I couldn't take my eyes off her.
I got a little jittery when we exchanged our vows. It hadn't really hit home 'til then, what we were doing. I only started getting nervous just then. But when I looked into those brown eyes, I decided that taking care of her 'til death parted us wasn't such a bad price to pay to be with this lovely woman for the rest of my life.
* * *
The first night in the little house was a combination of strange and wonderful. I was so used to the big house that I felt lost, but at the same time it was peaceful, being somewhere that I knew I'd call home, with the only sound being Catherine's quiet breathing in the bed beside me.
I didn't sleep well that night. It wasn't that I couldn't, but that I wouldn't. I just laid awake, watching Catherine in the dark, hearing the quiet whisper of her breathing and the peaceful contentment on her face in the moonlight. I had never dreamed that I would marry a woman so beautiful, so simply amazing. But I had. It was a dream I never even knew I had, come true in as perfect a way as ever there was.
* * *
The war had been finished for a month by the time we got word. Neither Catherine nor I spared much of a thought for it. She was pregnant with our first child, and I wasn't disposed to thinking of much else, and neither was she. We were happy that the war was finished. Not necessarily that the North had won, but that it was done with. We just wanted somewhere safe for our baby to grow up.
Catherine, much to my dismay, insisted on doing all the same things she always had. So when I decided one afternoon to go out for a drink and a game of cards at the tavern in town, she decided to accompany me, and nothing I said would convince her to change her mind. So I harnessed Lucky, and off we went to town.
The tavern was dim and smoky, as usual. I went up to the bar to get a drink, then looked around for Catherine. She, of course, had found what promised to be a lively card game. I walked over and sat down beside her. "Deal us in," I told the man holding the deck. He grinned and nodded, knowing that, woman though she was, my Catherine could play with the best of us.
The door slamming open startled us all into looking up. What we saw, though, startled us even more.
There was a man standing there. He was tall and lean, with wild, shaggy dark hair. His clothes looked as though they had seen better days, and there were two pistols on his belt. We could only guess he'd been in the war.
"Hi, sonny," the bartender said. "You new 'round these parts?"
The man shook his head. "Have you all forgotten me?"
We all stared at him. We knew that voice, even though it had been a long, long time since we'd last heard it.
Catherine was the first to react. "Bill!" She jumped out of her chair and raced to the door. Before he could even brace himself she'd hugged him. "We thought you were dead!" She pulled away, conscious of the people watching her. "I thought you were dead, Bill." She looked back at me. I was still just sitting there, a look of pure shock on my face.
Bill looked her up and down. His eyes narrowed when he reached her swollen belly. "So, you're married, are you?" She nodded. "Who to?" His eyes went from one person to the next, daring each and every one to step forward and lay claim to the action.
I finally gathered my courage and stood up. "To me." I felt like my voice was shaking. I hoped it wasn't. I didn't want to sound like a kid. "She married me."
He left the doorway and stalked over to me. As he came closer, I could see how battle-hardened his face had become. And how tired. He stopped just in front of me and poked one finger into my chest, hard. "I went off to war, like a man, and my girl gets married to some pathetic excuse for a little boy?" Even in the dim light, I could see the rage in his eyes.
"Bill, don't!" Catherine ran up behind him. "You don't understand! Everyone thought you were dead!" There were tears sparkling in the corners of her eyes. "We thought you were gone!"
"But I'm not!" Quick as a snake, he had one of the pistols out of its holster and pointed at my head. "And this bastard has taken the one thing I could count on away from me! The one thing that's kept me going for three long years, and what do I come back to?" His hand shook, and his knuckles were white from his grip on the pistol. "You'll pay for this."
"Wait, Bill, at least settle it gentlemanly like." I opened my eyes and looked over at Old Benny. He was sitting at a table at the other side of the tavern, his cigar hanging out of the side of his mouth, his eagle eyes switched from the card game we'd been playing to me and Bill. "No man should die without a chance to defend himself."
Bill lowered his gun. "Fine." He yanked the second pistol out of its holster and shoved it at me. "We'll settle this like gentlemen."
I knew what we were going to do. When I was younger, Old Benny himself had told me stories about things like this. I'd just never expected that I would be one of the people in those stories.
I looked over at Catherine. She looked torn, then came over and hugged me. "Good luck, Jimmy," she said. I could tell she was crying. I wrapped one arm around her, not wanting to go near her with the gun. "I love you," she said.
I pulled away and kissed her on the forehead. "You go on and stand over there, Cathy. This…this'll be over soon, one way or the other." She nodded, tears running down her cheeks, and went over to stand by the wall.
Benny had come over between me and Bill. "Now both of you, take ten steps away from each other." I turned my back to them and took ten careful strides, trying to walk straight and not shake too much. I heard Bill's heavy footsteps for a few seconds, then they stopped. Then I heard Benny back up against the wall. "On the count of three."
Blood was roaring in my ears. "One." My hands were sweating as I adjusted my grip on the gun. "Two."
He never reached three. There was a massive explosion of gunfire. When I heard it, I jumped and accidentally set off the gun I was holding. The bullet thudded into the wall in front of me. I hadn't realized how tense I was until then.
I turned when I heard the scream. Catherine was kneeling next to a body lying on the ground. It was Bill. For a moment I couldn't move. Then, mechanically, I walked over and looked down at him. He was crumpled where he must have been standing, his gun on the floor beside him. There was a pool of blood on the floor under his head, flowing from a jagged hole under his jaw.
After a moment, Catherine stood up. She looked at him for a moment longer, then wrapped her arms around me and buried her face in my chest, sobbing.
I looked at Bill for a moment longer, then bowed my head. I felt a hot tear drip down my face into Catherine's hair.
Who it was for, I do not know.