3rd place in our Picture Prompt short story contest goes to Natalee Jensen, and her story, Cowboys and Indians!
Poignant and well-written, this story takes a creative look at a harsh reality.
It was the day he was supposed to come home.
Despite the heat of Georgia, it rained. Obviously it rained; it only ever rains when something goes wrong. That day, back in the muggy heat of August, something was definitely amiss in the atmosphere and the skies released their fury.
Mama had made lemonade, not the cheap powder stuff that we used on a daily basis since we couldn’t afford anything else, but freshly squeezed lemonade. She had placed the delicate glass pitcher on a little wooden table out back along with three tall glasses; one for me, mama, and Danny. Mama even picked a few of her prized wildflowers from our garden out back and put them in a canning jar filled with water.
I dressed up for the occasion, in the usual terms of dressing up. Mama insisted that I wear my Sunday best, but I opted for a loose fitting cowboy outfit complete with western style boots, a black felt hat, a rusty old sheriff’s badge, and a blazing red neck handkerchief. Mama said I looked silly and asked what kind of greeting would it be to Danny if I wasn’t in my nicest and cleanest clothes, which still had a grease spot or two. I told Mama that Danny would understand and went on to explain how we used to run around the yard playing “Cowboys and Indians.” She shook her head and said that I was crazy.
The rain pattered across the back lawn, soaking the table Mama had set up. The rainwater made the lemonade pitcher overflow, spilling and staining the white tablecloth she had laid out The flower petals became heavy with the water jewels and drooped over, sagging and weary looking.
Mama had a heated argument with herself, including her fist in the air and shouting at the rain. She rushed around the linoleum kitchen floor and debated whether or not to go out in the rain. She gave up with herself and muttered, “Sorry, Danny. This was supposed to be one of those days you wouldn’t ever forget. And this dog-blasted rain had to come.” She shook her fist in the air again.
That’s when the phone rang. I was sitting on the steps leading from the kitchen to the second floor and kicking my boots against the wall, smearing little brown stains across the beige colored wall. I heard Mama rush to the phone and say things into the receiver.
After a few minutes, Mama came to find me on the steps. She settled herself beside me and stared at a water stain on the ceiling, her long brown hair falling in spirals down her back.
“He’s not coming back,” she had said, her voice ever so slightly different from her usual cool demeanor. But I knew. I knew that she was trying to hide something, emotions probably. I didn’t believe her.
She repeated herself, saying, “The war took him.”
“Why’d the war want ‘im?” I asked, twirling the toy pistol in my hand.
She simply shrugged. “I don’t know. But he’s not coming back.”
I didn’t believe her. It wasn’t until he showed up in a wooden box that I believed her. It wasn’t until we were putting Danny in the ground that I knew he wasn’t coming back. It wasn’t until Mama cried for three days straight that I believed her.
I went to Danny’s funeral in my cowboy costume. Mama made me change the red neck handkerchief to a black one, telling me that wearing black to funerals was what we were supposed to do. I didn’t understand, being five years old, but I did it anyway.
Mama wore a long black dress that she made herself. It wasn’t anything fancy, like some of the neighbor women wore; those long silk things that made their plump bodies look like walking window curtains. Mama was proud of her dress, and I was too.
People cried a lot during the service. Men in uniforms played “Taps” on their trumpets. An American flag was laid on top of the wooden box that Danny was resting in. Mama looked proud of her son, but in a sad way.
The pastor raised one wrinkly hand in the air and placed the other on the casket and prayed. While everyone’s eyes were closed and their heads were bowed, I took the toy gun from my holster, twirled it around my finger, and pointed the gun at Danny’s box.
I shot him. “Boom, I gotcha!” I whispered. “You’re dead!”
Mama tugged on my shoulder and made me tuck the gun away. I did, not wanting to upset her any more than she already was. No one wants to see their mother cry, especially not a five year old.
After the pastor finished his prayer, I ran. Mama called after me and a few of the older boys started to follow me, but they didn’t follow me to the tree where I fell and cried. Leaning against the tree, I dug the flesh of my finger into the rough tree trunk. A trickle of blood ran
down my finger. Danny always told me to put a tough face on and suck the blood away. So I did, although my tough face ended in a sad grimace.
“Danny?” I whispered into the chilly breeze blowing through the graveyard. Nothing.
“Danny?” I had been practically begging for him to pop out from behind a tree, freshly plucked chicken feathers stuck behind his ears and pounding his hand against his mouth in a shriek.
Then I cried.
Danny was gone forever.
He wasn’t coming back.
He was gone.
Even up ‘till this day, every year on August third, the day we got the phone call, I travel back home to Mama’s house. I make some fresh lemonade and set up three glasses on a white tablecloth clad wooden table in the back lawn. I fix myself up to look like a cowboy and sit on the same worn steps, kicking my boots against the wall. Mama still climbs up the steps and sits next to me, leaning her slender neck back, her dark hair – now streaked with white and gray – brushing the steps, and stares at the growing water stain on the ceiling.
“He’s gone,” she says, tracing circles in the dust beside her.
Now I believe her.
I saw Danny in a wooden casket.
I buried my brother.
And we never got to finish the game of “Cowboys and Indians.”
Natalee Jensen is a fifteen year old girl residing in the beautifully hilly state of Pennsylvania alongside with her parents, younger brother, and kitty cat. She has been homeschooled from her very first day of preschool, and she wouldn’t trade doing schoolwork in her pajamas for the world! She adores reading and would spend most of her time curled up with a book or a notepad and pencil (which has recently been replaced with a laptop). Besides her love for words, Natalee enjoys spending time with her family and friends and watching some pretty adorable kiddos. She also finds enjoyment in knitting and sewing and just generally being creative. Natalee enjoys blessing the world with her combinations of High School Musical, Broadway, and Christmas songs. But, most importantly, Natalee simply enjoys being who she was created to be.
As the third place winner, Natalee will receive a $25 prize, provided by our sponsor, CoastalConservatory.com: Intentional Living for Cultivating the Family Enterprise.