Word Count: 1100
I have never believed in happy endings.
He tells me it is because I have not known enough love in my life. How do I tell him it is because I have known too much? Too much love, too much grief, too much sorrow at knowing my love was not enough to make a difference.
I am riding home in a vast sea of pines, at the roughest edge of the world, a few miles from home. The trees grow straight here; they rise straight to the sky. Sunlit dust rises in front of me, kicked up by my horse’s hooves. I am riding fast. When he brought me here, I could get lost riding a couple miles from the ranch house. Now I believe I could find my way back on the darkest night of winter. Every road leads me back to home.
I spur on my sweet palomino, a gift he gave me when Joseph was born. Since then, I have given my dear husband many opportunities to regret his generosity. He is a spirited horse, and he suits me just fine. I feel the power in his stride, hear the outblow of his breath, as I spur him to a faster gallop. I slip forward in the saddle as we jolt downhill through the woods.
He hates it when I ride fast. He warns that someday I will fall and break my neck. And such a pretty little neck, he tells me, pulling me close, kissing the back of it, when he thinks the boys aren’t looking.
He is the finest man I have ever known.
The irony of it makes me laugh out loud. Who would have ever believed that Marie D’Marigny would live in a house filled with good men? Even if they’re not all men yet, they will be soon enough.
In my mind, I can see Adam following his father back to the house, at the end of the day. He matches his father’s stride perfectly. A serious boy, Adam disappears in a book, whenever he has a chance. Whenever he thinks his father isn’t looking. Ben calls all that reading the mark of an unsound mind. I hush my husband and tell Adam never to mind. The world of books is the great Ponderosa’s most formidable competition. I tell him that the Ponderosa will still be here waiting when he returns from back east. He shouldn’t blame his father for feeling jealous. A father never likes to see his firstborn following dreams that do not match his own.
I spur on my horse and feel the power of the gelding moving me faster forward, faster than I have any right to go. I’ve loved this horse, loved the thrill of the places he takes me. Even now, we race through pine forests, scarred with ravines. My horse knows every dip in the road, every boulder strewn across our path that might cause us to fall. It has taken time but finally, I know this land as well.
When I first arrived, the little one – Hoss – took great pleasure in being my escort in the wilderness, teaching me what I needed to know about the wide-open spaces. How we would laugh if anyone called him the little one now! At ten years old, he is much bigger than the other boys throughout the territory. Yet that boy has taught me a thing or two about size and what really matters. He has introduced me to the first inhabitants of the forest – the black bear and the Douglas squirrel and so many others, I can’t possibly remember their names. Hoss has taught me all the things these creatures have in common, despite the differences in size. Industriousness, love for their young, a sense of humor… In New Orleans, I never would have dreamed of such a world. I couldn’t have imagined it, even if I had the inclination to try.
So many things I never would have known had I stayed in New Orleans. I would never have known the smell of pine and cedar that lingers in the air in the coolness of night. I would not have known the pleasure of a fast Indian pony who knows how to find every advantage on difficult ground. I would never have known that the romance of wide-open spaces could tug at the soul of the most hard-hearted woman. I would never have known the love of a good man.
I continue to ride. I start over the level stretch that leads to home, leaping over fallen timber. How he hates it when I ride through the trees! So afraid that a branch will snag me or that my horse will trip in the undergrowth. If he only knew the joy I took in it, I can’t believe he would ever deny it to me. Knowing that my boys are waiting at home spurs me forward. It makes me ride faster than I would have ever dared had I been returning to a lonely house.
I allow myself to picture my little one’s face in front of me. People say he is a beautiful boy. Give him time, they tell me, he will be breaking hearts before you know it. How do I tell them that he is already breaking mine? His face holds the memory of all that I have lost and somehow makes it right again. I have been told it is a sin to love a child so much. It is bad luck, an omen, they say. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, they tell me at church, and I do, for giving me Joseph Francis Cartwright. For giving me each one of them. For giving me this second chance at a life that almost makes me believe in happy endings.
I pick up the pace to a hard gallop. I am reaching the final stretch that leads to the ranch house. I know he will be waiting on the porch and will frown at me for riding in like the devil is after me. I am breathless and dizzy at the pace we are setting, and I laugh out loud at it. I am riding fast. The wind is warm and gentle against my face. The trees stretch upward like feathers against the sunset. I am almost there. I can see the smoke from the fireplace, rising over the tips of the pines.
I will be home before they even know I am gone.