There was to be company for supper, and Mama needed her to mind the baby.
Ruth hitched Samuel to her hip, and scooped a bucket to fetch water from the neighbor’s well. With the drought this summer, theirs was mud and stone. When Mama was all hot and bothered, and muttering to her Lord, it was best to move like lightning.
“Mercy, Sammy. You smell like an outhouse.”
He slobbered over a toothless grin, while the chickens scattered at her stride.
Ruth scrunched her nose at the foulness staining her apron, but didn’t stop. All of his diapers—and two-year-old Peter’s—were drying on the line. Everything had fallen one step behind since Mama started taking in sewing work, on account of Father losing his job as a—
Well, no one ever bothered to properly explain what it was he did.
But whatever it had been, he had come home dark as thunderclouds. In want of that sharp sludge in the jugs Mama took to kicking from time to time.
Ruth tripped down the rutted road, humming “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” for Sammy. Mama didn’t approve of the Irish on account of their being the Whores of Babble-on, but Father sang the tune on those evenings when his cheeks were flush and his heart wide. Mama seemed to forget God altogether then.
Passing by the pasture gate, Ruth paused. It was open again.
“Houdini!” she hissed, spotting the black mare in the road ahead. “You naughty—”
She started toward her favorite horse, when she heard the sound. Something low, and snuffling. Something to strangle her song.
Her eyes twisted toward the old barn. A cold wind clutched her neck, though the day was fine.
“Hush, Sammy,” she said, though the boy was strangely docile.
Ruth approached the barn, swinging her bucket. Still wanting to believe in that blue, blue sky.
Through a gap in the grey siding, she saw her father, sitting on a stool. An empty jug lay on its side.
Tears streamed down his cheeks.
His lips smiled hugely about Grandpa’s Burnside carbine rifle.
Hands choked the muzzle.
Toe on the trigger.
She dropped her bucket, and shielded Sammy’s head against a thin shoulder.
Her father’s wild eyes turned, and bulged. The toe slipped.
“Get outta here, Ruthie,” he sobbed, spitting out the cold iron. Rising, he listed to the side.
She stared at the dark weapon in his hand.
“Din’t you hear, girl?" he slurred, charging toward her, spittle spraying. "I said, get.”
Even remembering to close the pasture gate behind her.
And when she heard that rifle fire, something like Mama’s Holy Ghost passed through her small body, when she saw that big, sweet horse drop to its side.