The night was high and cold and Catherine Stone could see her breath like her own ghost come out to greet her. She remembered her husband Arnold out on the porch on nights like this, leaning against one of the posts and sending out great blue spheres of smoke from his pipe. She would stand behind him with a toddy steaming in her hand. But they hadn't had whiskey since the War of Secession began, since before he left to join it.
She held her arms in the dark and watched the quiet prairie. The frogs asleep in the winter. The black ribbon of distant lake under a sky near blue with the light of the quarter moon, the surrounding stars washed out by an opalescent ring around the semicircle of bone. She studied that ring a long while.
Since Arnold had gone, she'd not been farther than her own porch. Two months standing in her doorway listening to the insects call in the daytime, the frogs warn of other creatures in the night. Her first time out the door to her top step, one distant barn owl had screamed in the marsh and she screamed in answer and gripped the porch post a-trembling. But she came out again the next night, and every night after even in the rain. To the top step but no further. She stayed put.
She'd taken to carrying in her apron pockets some of the items Arnold had left her. His pocket watch, his tobacco pouch and pipe, his folding knife, things he'd insisted on leaving behind because he'd only lose them on the march. And a pocket model Colt, his keepsake from the Mexican-American War, the gun heavy in a sugarsack she wore tied by a crossbody sash so it bounced against her hip as she walked.
On this night, she stood on the top step determined, watching that ring about the moon. What had the moon done to deserve such a halo, she wondered. She said so aloud. She watched it in silence for several cold moments then realized she was awaiting an answer.
She reached into an apron pocket and withdrew Arnold's pipe and tobacco, filled the bowl and tamped it with her thumb. She pulled a matchbox and popped a match and lit the pipe, puffing it just enough to get it going so it would smell like Arnold was with her, then holding the stem in her teeth. Smoke drifting before her like the death of a campfire's last coal.
Then she stepped down from the porch. One stair at a time, the second stair whining against a rusted nail.
The war was at its worst and the fighting was nearest, but so far she'd only ever watched the cannonlight play against the twilit clouds on the horizon. It had seemed almost celebratory, and she allowed herself to pretend the war had ended and her husband would soon be home. Though whenever she heard men's voices in the distance, she put her hand in her sugarsack to grip the pistol. On such nights she hardly slept, kept waking from a dream that she'd shot her husband in the chest as he walked through the door.
This night, too, she heard a ruckus in the prairie, northeast, some man crying his last on this earth. She unwrapped her hands from her arms and felt the gun through the sack on her hip, put her fist into it and knuckled the steel, caressed the wood grip. She puffed the pipe in her teeth.
Then she heard a rustle behind her house, a shift in the grass and snorts from her pigs and a groan from her cow, and she tugged on the Colt but the hammer caught on the sack and by the time she got the pistol free she saw the gray shape of a dog dash around the house and across the yard, jump between rails in the fence and carry on into the dark.
Well hell, Catherine Stone said around the pipe—then she snatched the pipe from her lips and covered her mouth, shocked at herself for using such language aloud. Her fingers with the pipe in them were still at her mouth when she heard the voice behind her and she screamed.
I thought you were a man, the man's voice said, and when she'd screamed and turned her pistol on him he added, I'm sorry to have startled you. Just I've not seen no woman who smoked before.
Her barrel aimed at a shadow until the man stepped into the moonlight, his pale hat brim casting a veil on his face but his hands held up in surrender, though one thumb still pinned a bright knife against his palm. The gray of his Confederate uniform near white in the moonlight.
I've got nothing for you, she said. Her words made shapes before her in the cold of the night.
I ain't after you, ma'am. To tell it true, I was after that dog. Is it yours?
It is not. We had a dog but it followed my husband. She stopped herself before she said more, but she could see from his approach that she'd said it already. Stay there, she called, don't come closer. And he stopped. Lowered his knife and sheathed it, and with his other hand removed his hat, his dark hair flat against his head, the ends winging from his neckline at the back. He had a round jawline shadowed in stubble and a heavy nose. She thought he might smile at her but he didn't.
I mean you no mischief, he said. Though if I may say it, you're lucky it was me and not some Yankee who come upon you. Ought not admit to strange men in the night that you're out here all alone.
I'm not alone, she said. There are other women near to me, they visit regular.
There you go again, the man said as he re-donned his hat, he eyes gone under the brim. And all them women alone, too. You know how to handle that there pistol?
She looked at the pistol in her hand and put her other fist around it, the pipe cocked sideways in her fingers still. She wriggled them to drop the pipe in the grass, then she used both thumbs to haul back the hammer and she aimed at the man.
All right then, he said. He tilted his head back to look skyward, his face illumined again, and she thought again that he might be grinning but again he wasn't. Sure is a fine moon this night. Makes a body want to holler at the beauty of it. He lowered his head and looked at her from within the shadow of his brim. A fortunate moon, all that light for you to see me by.
They regarded each other. The man kept his arms loose by his side; Catherine Stone kept her pistol steady before her.
A thin cloud scudded over the moon and the light dimmed but only a moment and then it was gone. Out in the prairie to the east a yip and a soft howl, that dog somewhere near the lake by now.
Catherine Stone said, You want that dog, you best get after it. She sidewalked toward her house and as she went he rounded the yard, the two of them drawing a circle with the Colt barrel as the compass spike. When she reached her porch she put one foot behind her and mounted the bottom step. He finished still facing her, the fence and the prairie behind him.
Go on, she said. Git. But he stayed a moment, staring at her. She waved the pistol as she might wave a stick at a dog. Go on.
Ma'am, he said. I'll offer you two pieces of advice. Get some company. Wolves don't attack a herd, they pick off the outliers. Get you a herd. And that gun you carry? Don't draw it lest you're ready to fire. Otherwise it's just an invitation for someone else to fire first.
She looked at his hands but they still hung by his side, the knife at his belt within reach but sheathed. He backed away then. He turned at the fence. She opened her mouth to direct him to the gate but then she closed her lips again. Watched him put a boot on the bottom rail and haul himself over.
She would write to her aunt Cornelia that very night, and in the morning she would pay a visit to Sarah Hopely and Rose Pryor. Invite them all to move in with her. Others too, if they'd a mind. She would gather her women around her. She stepped forward off the porch stairs and into the cold grass. She could see the thin smoke of her husband's pipe drifting up from the yard where she'd dropped it. And beyond the fence the shape of the man, faint but still out there under the moon, that wide ring of light bright above his hat.
She aimed the pistol at his shape in the dark and she fired.