Autor's Note: nspired by Bob Dylan's "Shelter from the Storm". Lyrics at end of story.
Given who and what I am, there are few places under the sky where I truly belong. Strike that, there is one place and it's not so much that I belong there as it is that no one there really belongs anywhere so when we're together, it feels like belonging. And I guess that's not true of all of them. Cody could almost pass for normal. I don't even know what he's doing there most of the time. If Kid had a name, or if he'd share the one I'm sure he must have with anyone, he could do reasonably well almost anywhere. Hickok, well, I don't know if there's much you can do about a man's basic nature and his is to push every living thing as far from himself as possible. He could fit in other places, I guess, but I think he chooses not to. Lou's a girl so I guess the only places a poor orphan girl might fit are places she doesn't want to be and I can't blame her in the slightest. As for Ike and for me, there really isn't anywhere. I suppose there are circuses roaming around that might take a bald-headed mute but that's no life and that's still not belonging, that's making a living off of not belonging. And no one wants me. I'm too white to be red and too red to be white; just too something for everyone and not enough of anything to anyone. That's the way it was before I signed on with Russell, Majors and Waddell anyway. No one at the office seemed to care I was half-breed and fewer cared when I set foot at Emma's the first day. Teaspoon saw I could be useful and I think it's the first time anyone thought that about me. A man likes to be of use. Emma looks at me the same as she looks at the rest; like we each could be her own child. I don't think she's quite that old to have our motley bunch but that's of no mind to her. There were times my mother was tender like that to me. She could have gotten rid of me but she loved me enough not to. But as I got older, I think I looked too much like my father and it frightened her. If I could have done something about carrying the face of her worst nightmare, I would have.
In a lot of ways, my father is my worst nightmare also. If he'd forced himself on a white woman, at least I'd fit in the white man's world. I'd probably be as angry and hair-triggered as Jimmy but I wouldn't be straddling this line not allowed to spend too much time on either side.
These are things I think about as I ride. I don't think and ponder these things to feel sorry for myself but to try to understand better. At least I had the one place to be. I know I'm not the only half-breed in the world and I can only hope the others out there can find folks as caring and quick to come to their defenses as I have. I know I don't show it but I somehow feel they know my gratitude. I hope so anyway.
Really, now that I ponder it a bit, there are two places I belong: Emma's and nowhere. I don't mean that as it might sound. By nowhere I mean, away from all people. When it is just me riding or tracking or just being and there's no one else around; I belong there. The trees, the sky, the breeze and even the horse, don't care what color my skin is or who my father was or how I came to be. That's a good feeling. But sometimes it's nice not to be alone too and that's why I am always so grateful for Emma's. As long as I pull my weight, no one there cares about those things either.
It's funny though, when I'm at Emma's I often find myself wanting to be nowhere and when I'm nowhere, I start thinking of how far I am from…home. I guess it is home. I don't think that was ever more than an abstract notion to me before. I'd heard the word but I know I didn't know what it meant and I'd never really had one before. Funny how something can seem so strange and foreign a concept but you just know it when you see it. And it's not about the place either, it's the people there. They make it home. The place is just buildings on land and not all that special.
Like I said, I think about things like this as I ride. Well, things like this and the things around me. I was riding for home one day, still quite a ways out and I was starting to smell rain in the air. It wasn't there yet and the clouds had yet to form but the air gets an earthy smell and a different energy to it when it's fixing to get ready to storm. The change came sudden and I knew it was probably going to be a pretty good storm for as quickly as the air changed; how drastically it changed. I stopped pondering my existence and started looking for a place to wait it out, a cave or dense cluster of trees or something.
About that same time, I heard hooves coming up behind me and voices talking about how interesting it was that an Indian was riding along all alone and dressed in white man's clothes and riding a saddled horse. There were three voices I heard but I could make out the hooves of at least five horses. There was no more looking for shelter and no more pondering where I did or did not fit in the world. And there would be no talking my way out of this. I didn't figure to have much luck fighting my way out either so I did the only thing I could do. I kicked at the horse and pushed him as fast as he could go. I heard shots and one lucky one grazed at my arm. It wasn't bad and didn't hurt much but I knew I'd have to get farther and faster if my luck was to hold. I had no idea what they wanted of me but I knew I did not want to find out.
I heard the rumble of thunder as the clouds had seemed to form from nothing over my head. Lightning crashed into a cluster of trees to the right of me and I heard the men chasing me slow and then stop and then turn back. They hadn't known the storm was coming at all. I had but the knowing turned out to be of no use for there I was riding through the pelting rain, thunder and lightning without any idea of where to take shelter. My one consolation was they were going to get as wet as I was getting home. I smiled at that thought and set to looking for a place where I might be safe from the lightning and maybe even dry off a bit.
I looked up ahead and was just about to direct the horse into a stand of trees when I saw buildings. I know buildings mean people and probably that I wasn't welcome but something drew me and I thought perhaps I could ride the storm out in the barn without being noticed. I rode on.
When I arrived at the small homestead, I went straight to the barn. I needed to tend my horse who was slightly spooked from the thunder and lightning. I had seen to him and was about to sit myself down in a pile of straw to wait things out when I saw the shadow stretching from the doorway. I thought for sure it was the end of the safe harbor that I'd found. I looked up to see who the shadow belonged to and found a woman standing there holding a coat over her head to protect herself from the torrential fall of rain. I didn't look on her long as my eyes dropped to the ground, a sign I wasn't planning on doing her any harm. I spoke to her and told her I just wanted to spend the storm in the barn and not be any trouble. I saw her shake her head and thought at first that she meant for me to leave but then she spoke.
"Come in," she said.
I walked over to her and she didn't shrink away or flinch at my proximity. I had such a height advantage on her that she couldn't hold the coat over my head so she handed it to me to hold over the two of us as we made our way to the house.
Entering the house, I tried to take in my surroundings from the doorway. There wasn't much to the small home; basically just a room. There was a table and chairs, a cooking area and a bed. It was warm and dry and that was really all that mattered to me at that moment. It was certainly more than I had dared hope for. She didn't speak but tugged at my jacket and I pulled from her startled and misinterpreting her actions. She smiled and gestured to the fire.
"To dry," she said and I understood. I removed my coat and stood there dripping inside her door. She touched my shirt and I knew she meant for me to remove it as well. In truth I was soaked to the bone and probably needed to undress and get all of my clothes dry. She turned away from me and returned from a chest next to the bed holding a blanket out to me. I understood and was grateful to her.
Pushing my boots off with my toes I removed my clothes down to my long johns and it was then she noticed the bit of blood on my arm. It wasn't bleeding anymore and wasn't bad but she insisted on cleaning the small wound and then kissed atop the cloth she covered it with. She wrapped the blanket around my shoulders and tucked me into a chair in front of the fire. I thanked her and told her my name.
She gestured to herself and said, "Monica."
There was a hint of an accent that I couldn't place and had never heard before and I started to realize she possibly didn't speak English all that well. I will never understand why she took the chance she did. My skin color aside, a woman living alone would be best to run any man she doesn't know right off her land. I've thought on Monica a lot since then and have never quite figured out why she took me in. Perhaps she was just so lonely for another human to share her space for a time that she was willing to take any chance for it. I don't know and I think I never will but I've never been so grateful for anything. I knew on any other day I'd be lucky for a barn with a dripping roof and here I was in front of a crackling fire snug and warm.
In time she pushed a cup of coffee into my hands. I thanked her and she smiled. She sat down in another chair and I got to take my first good look at this woman whose hospitality I was enjoying. She had long dark brown hair pulled into a simple tail at her neck. It flowed freely from there to well past her waist. Her dark eyes, set in her pleasingly rounded face were deep as a star filled sky and I felt a danger of getting lost in them. She smiled again and the beauty of that smile struck me. She was pretty alright but there was a light within her that brightened with her smile. Genuine kindness shone through her and transcended words. There is a special beauty that a kind soul possesses and that was her beauty. I looked away and found color rising to my cheeks. It felt wrong to stare at her but if I raised my eyes again, I knew that's what I would do.
We sat a while in silence but it wasn't uncomfortable. It was settled and warm and I half figured I'd end up asleep in that chair. After a while, she rose from her chair and moved into her kitchen, or what passed for it anyway. I guessed she was preparing dinner. I would have gone to help but my clothes were still at a state beyond damp and it seemed improper to walk around dressed as I was.
Monica seemed not to be put out at cooking alone. A comforting tune came from her, mostly hummed but occasionally there were words I didn't understand. It was a slow tune but not melancholy. There was love and hope within its lilting melody. Looking into the fire, listening to that lovely song and smelling the beginnings of the meal she was preparing seemed about as near to paradise as anything I could imagine. A man could certainly get used to this.
I can't say how much time had passed before I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked up and right into those eyes that invited me to explore their depths. Those eyes sparkled with her smile and I looked away to avoid her seeing me blush. She gestured to the table.
"You eat now," she said softly.
I moved to the table still keeping the blanket around me; at least around my lower half to spare her the embarrassment of eating with a nearly naked man. I'm not ashamed of my body and I grew at least part of my life in a world where the human body was not a cause of shame or anything to cause offense. But I knew she hadn't lived in that culture and I surely didn't want to reward her kindness by causing her discomfort. Nor did I want to send any sort of message that I would attempt to take liberties or make assumptions of her motives. She was showing me far too great a kindness for that.
Supper was stew. It was heavy on vegetables and light on meat but it was hot and hearty and there was plenty of it. There were herbs in it I wasn't familiar with; certainly nothing Emma used in her cooking. But they were pleasing and I told her so. She smiled at the compliment.
The settled easy sort of silence fell upon us as we finished the meal. More than once, I caught her watching me eat and smiling. That made me smile. No matter where a woman was from, her culture, her background, I haven't met the one yet that didn't take pleasure in watching a man eat and a special satisfaction in having prepared the food he ate.
Monica pulled me back to the chair by the fire after the meal was finished. A full belly and a warm fire can surely lull a man to sleep. I could hear the rain starting to ease and it had been a while since I had heard thunder. I said as much and indicated I should move along and not trouble her further. I soon felt her hands on my shoulders as she had come up behind me. Her words were soft and tender.
"It is night," she said, "You stay."
Another time or place and I might have insisted on not taking advantage of her hospitality further. I might have at least gotten dressed and slept in the barn. But I was so content there by that fire that I didn't raise a single objection.
In time I heard her ready for bed. I kept my focus on the flames in order to not embarrass her while she undressed. I heard her steps coming toward me and I tensed not knowing what she thought I might expect of her.
"Come to bed," she said simply and I looked to see her gesturing at her bed.
I wasn't sure if she was giving up her comfort for me or what exactly but I shook my head and told her I could sleep in the chair.
She shook her head and said, "Softer there."
I sighed and got up from the chair and walked to the bed. I crawled in and turned my face to the wall to try to signal that this wasn't some means to the end that many men might want to take it to. And it's not that I didn't want to. I was turned away from her as much because of the knowledge that if I looked into those bottomless eyes one more time while beneath the blankets with their owner, I would want things it wasn't right to want of her and I'd act on those wants as well.
I felt the mattress shift next to me as she crawled under the blankets and I felt her warm body close to mine and her arms wind around me. She held my head close to her bosom and stroked my hair tenderly. My whole being was in conflict. It was soothing and comforting but also oddly arousing and I surely didn't need for her to know that. I stayed still not trusting to move; not trusting where I might move or where my hands might roam.
I felt tears fall into my hair and I wasn't sure why she was crying but somehow I was certain that it was not because of me. Or if it was, it was because of a memory I might have stirred. I relaxed and allowed her to continue holding me stroking and kissing my hair. She found solace in comforting me and I needed the comfort. This wasn't the comfort a mother gave. It was nothing like what Emma offered. This was the comfort a woman could give a man and it felt so good to have the usual complications set aside for a time. Indian and white women alike would bring shame on themselves by being with me or showing me this kind of tenderness. There was nothing untoward in this care she showed me but I could feel the emotions behind it. I would not be the one to turn toward her and take the interaction beyond this simple comfort she offered.
I wanted to, please make no mistake, I am just a man and I was in bed with a beautiful woman who was showing me tenderness the likes of which I was unaccustomed. I closed my eyes and just let the love she gave so freely wash over me. Its purity nearly brought tears to my eyes. She turned my face to her and I had to shift to my back to look her in the face. It was dark in the house but there was enough moonlight to see her cheeks shift from her smile and her eyes glistening. There was nothing to hold me back anymore and I pressed my lips to hers. I touched only her face and pulled away to see if I had just sealed my fate to sleep in the barn but she placed her hand on the back of my head and pulled my lips back to hers.
It is not important to this story to describe in detail what happened next. It's not anyone's business but hers and mine. It was beautiful though. There was a raw emotion from her and a vulnerability that laid bare all of my pain and desperate need for love. We fell asleep sated and happy in the way that deeply lonely people can be when they are taken briefly from their loneliness. I held her tight to me, her head on my chest; her breath warm against me while the soft fall of rain beat a steady and comforting rhythm on the roof.
She woke before me the next morning and began breakfast. I woke to the smell of coffee and eggs and the sound of that sweet melody from the day before. I wasn't sure how she would behave to me but she gave me that sweet, lovely smile when she saw me sitting up in the bed. She motioned to the foot of the bed where I saw my clothes dry and neatly folded. I dressed and went to where she was flipping eggs over in a skillet. I slid my arms around her from behind and felt her relax against me. I kissed her head still detecting my own smell mingled with hers there.
Once breakfast was finished, it was time to go. The storm had yielded to a particularly beautiful day. The sun was not yet very high but the sky was blue and the only clouds in sight were mere wisps. I was nearly disappointed to see the beauty of the new day as there was no longer anything to keep me with Monica.
I went to ready my horse for the rest of the trip to Emma's. I was starting to lead him out of the barn when I saw her. There was no sadness in her eyes and she shed no tears. She gave me that smile that could melt the iciest of winters and the sadness I was feeling dissipated. Without words she reminded me that when two people can find comfort and even a little love, even if it was only briefly, that it was nothing to be mourned. It was to be celebrated.
I pressed my lips to hers and let that kiss tell her of the things I could not get to words. I let it speak of the life we might have had under different circumstances, of the love I felt. I separated from her and mounted my horse. I looked back once or twice to see her standing there waving. I rode on and was back home before nightfall.
The rain will always make me think of Monica, of her sweet smile, of her endless eyes drawing me into them. She gave me shelter for one night but her kindness gave me shelter from all of the storms I'd ever face.
"Shelter from the Storm" by Bob Dylan
I was in another lifetime one of toil and blood
And if I pass this way again you can rest assured
Not a word was spoke between us there was little risk involved
I was burned out from exhaustion buried in the hail
Suddenly I turned around and she was standing there
Now there's a wall between us something there's been lost
Well the deputy walks on hard nails and the preacher rides a mount
In a little hilltop village they gambled for my clothes
Well I'm living in a foreign country but I'm bound to cross the line