Word Count: 2000
They all took several steps forward, stunned by what they done. It had been an accident, plain and simple; none of them had expected Widow Jenkins to come outside while they were shoveling snow from the roof. If only that large icicle, along with an avalanche, hadn’t chosen to head straight for the ground the exact moment the widow came out to check on their progress, she’d still be alive and kicking.
Pa had sent them out to shovel the snow away from Mrs. Jenkins’ house and off the roof, chop extra wood, and place some extra bales of hay in the barn for her milk cow and plow horse. He certainly didn’t intend for them to get into a snowball fight or to pile up the snow in one place to have it come down on top of her.
Adam had left Hoss and Joe on the roof while he unloaded the hay in the barn. He expected his younger brothers to do their task, not turn it into horseplay. When he’d heard Widow Jenkins’ scream, he’d come rushing from the barn to see snow cascading from the roof as a solid waterfall. He’d run to the house while Hoss and Joe climbed down from the ladder and they’d all waited a few seconds in hope that she’d tunnel her way out. When no movement was forthcoming, they’d dug through the pile of snow with their bare hands until they discovered a hand clenched like a claw. All three of them exchanged a look of dread before finishing the job.
Once uncovered, she didn’t look all that bad. There was a cut on her cheek but, thanks to the cold, it wasn’t bleeding. Adam felt for a pulse and hoped it was the lack of warmth in his hand that made it impossible to find one. After briefly warming his hand in an armpit, he tried again but couldn’t feel anything to indicate she was still among the living. “She’s dead,” he said with a melancholy look in his eyes.
“Are you sure?” asked Hoss.
“You’re more than welcome to check,” said Adam.
Hoss blushed a bright crimson as he laid a cheek against the old woman’s chest, but he didn’t hear the thump of a beating heart. “Looks like Miz Jenkins is a goner.”
“Let me see,” insisted Joe. He pulled a small mirror from his coat pocket and held it under her nose.
“Why are you carrying a mirror?” asked Hoss.
“I can’t risk being turned down for dances by ladies who don’t like hat hair,” Joe answered.
Adam just rolled his eyes in response.
After about a minute, all three noticed that there wasn’t any fog on the mirror’s surface. The three exchanged a look tinged with grief as they realized that she was really dead. How would they ever be able to explain this?
“We’d best load her up in the wagon and take her into town,” said Adam.
“Are you crazy? We’ll get thrown into jail!” said Joe.
“It was an accident! We didn’t mean it!” insisted Hoss. He’d heard stories about jail food and wasn’t anxious to find out if there was any truth in them.
“We can’t just bury her and walk away,” reminded Adam.
“You’re right, the ground’s too hard,” said Joe.
Adam rolled his eyes and shook his head. “No. Pa knows we were out here, which means that it won’t take long for anyone to put two and two together and realize that we were the last people to see her alive. Since she hasn’t been robbed, Roy would know that she didn’t die from foul play.”
“So we should take a few things and maybe bury them in the yard or hide them in the barn?” asked Hoss, trying to think up a way to save their bacon.
Adam slowly inhaled a deep breath of cold air and tried to count to ten; he only made it to five before he began coughing. “We should just load her in the wagon and take her to the undertaker’s. Each of us will contribute for the cost of a grave plot in town.”
“Her husband’s buried in town,” said Joe. “She didn’t care for him that much when he was above ground so I don’t think she’d want to spend eternity next to him.”
“Maybe we can request a plot someplace else in the cemetery. Besides, we can’t just leave her here under a pile of snow,” said Adam in an exasperated tone of voice.
The three continued to squat by the body, unsure of what course of action they should take. Burying her on her property would make the most sense, but the ground wouldn’t thaw out for several months; until then, they couldn’t just leave her in the barn or in her house. Taking her into town might raise a whole bunch of questions, especially since Widow Jenkins was known throughout the territory as a woman that grizzly bears feared; it wasn’t likely that anyone would believe that she’d died of fright as the snow buried her.
Adam stood as quickly as his frozen legs would allow and said, “I’m going to get the wagon. You two stay here.”
“It ain’t like she’s going to go anywhere,” said Hoss as a helpful reminder.
Joe and Hoss couldn’t make out what Adam was mumbling as he headed for the barn. They both pulled her stiff body from the snow and then Hoss went inside for a blanket.
“What are you doing?” asked Joe.
“Locking the door so no one will steal her things.”
“She’s dead. I don’t think she’s going to notice.”
“Well, it can’t hurt nothing,” said Hoss as he placed the key in the pocket of her apron.
“What’d you do that for?” asked Joe.
“Well, if one of us has the key, folks might think we had something to do with her dying.”
Joe’s eyes widened in disbelief. “We already killed her,” he said in a loud whisper. “Do you want people to think we bushwhacked her?”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” said Hoss. He dashed back up the steps, unlocked the door, and took the key inside. Coming back out, he asked, “Should I leave the door open or closed?”
“Does it matter?” asked Joe.
“Closed then,” said Hoss as he shut it.
Adam was pulling up the wagon as his brothers got Widow Jenkins situated on the blanket. All three of them got her maneuvered into the bed of the vehicle before taking one last look.
“We should probably cover her up,” said Adam.
“She’s dead, said Joe, “it’s not as if she’s going to notice that it’s cold.”
“Adam’s right,” said Hoss. “The least we could do is to show her some respect.” With that, Hoss dashed back into the house and grabbed an afghan that was draped over the back of a chair. Returning to the wagon, he clambered into the back, shook the afghan, and looked away as he let it drop on the widow’s body. A quick glance showed that it mostly covered her, which was probably good enough.
Adam removed his hat and bobbed his head a few times in respect before climbing up into the seat. “One of you will have to ride in back. With her.”
“That’s not fair!” said Hoss and Joe at the same time.
“Look—there’s only enough room for two of us on the seat. I got up here first, so I get to drive.”
Hoss and Joe exchanged looks of revulsion—neither one wanted to ride to town with a corpse.
“We don’t have all day,” Adam said as he adjusted the collar of his coat to keep his neck warm.
“Are you sure . . .?” Joe began before getting cut off with a glare from Adam.
“Well, I’m older so you should have to ride in back,” said Hoss.
“That’s not a fair way to decide,” countered Joe. “I should get to ride in front because I rode in back on the way out here.”
A glint of silver caught Joe’s eye and a coin landed near his feet. “What’s this for?”
“Call it, toss it, and then we can be on our way,” said Adam irritably.
“Maybe there is enough room on the seat for both of us,” said Hoss as diplomatically as he could. “There’s only one way to find out,” he added.
Hoss clambered up onto the seat and scooted over until his hip rested against Adam’s. He smiled weakly as his older brother shot him a glare.
Joe shot a quick glance in the wagon bed and then nimbly leapt onto the wheel hub and then onto the seat. As he started to sit, the cold metal of the seat arm poked him in the posterior. “Scoot over,” he told Hoss.
“I can’t scoot no more,” Hoss protested.
“Sure you can,” countered Joe.
“No . . . he . . . can’t,” said Adam through clenched teeth as Joe tried to force himself between Hoss and the steel arm.
“How about I sit in the middle?” Joe asked Hoss.
Hoss narrowed his eyes in thought for a few seconds and then agreed. A complicated dance ensued with Hoss and Joe trading places as the wagon rocked. Hoss finally sat down and Joe squeezed between his brothers, earning him glares from both of them; fortunately for Joe, he was oblivious to his brothers’ discomfort.
“There. All better,” announced Joe as he soaked up the warmth provided by his elders. “What are we waiting for?” he asked.
Adam flicked the reins and the horses began the trek into town.
The brothers rode in silence, the only sounds were the creaking springs and the snow crunching underneath the wheels. Fortunately, the sun was shining in a beautiful blue sky, bringing a tiny bit of warmth to the wintry world.
“How much longer?” asked Hoss, as he tried to wriggle for a fraction of comfort between the confines of his younger brother and the seat rest.
“At least another hour,” said Adam, absorbed with keeping the team on what passed for the road.
All three fidgeted as they tried to make the best of their cramped situation. And all three tried to come up with an explanation that wouldn’t result in a murder charge.
“Stop it,” said Joe with a glare at Hoss.
“You stop it,” answered Hoss with a glower.
“Both of you stop whatever it is,” ordered Adam. If they didn’t think he’d stop this wagon and make one of them walk, they were very mistaken.
“You stop it right now, Joe, or I’ll . . .,” said Hoss.
“You’ll what?” asked Joe, both hands clasped tightly in his lap.
Hoss narrowed his eyes in suspicion at his sneaky younger brother before facing forward again. There was another tug on his coat and he frowned in exasperation. Another tug caused him to look at Joe, whose hands were in his lap. If it wasn’t Joe, and certainly wasn’t Adam, who . . . .
Hoss slowly turned his head and his eyes widened in terror at the sight of Widow Jenkins blinking, an arm outstretched to tug his coat. It wasn’t possible! All three of them had checked and she’d been dead as a doornail before they’d loaded her up. If he hadn’t been jammed between Joe and the seat rest, he would’ve jumped out of the wagon and run all the way to Virginia City. He wanted to scream for Adam to stop the wagon, but no sound, not even a squeak, would come out of his mouth. His lips moved as if he was chewing the words he was holding back.