Marie sat alone. Finishing her evening meal she relaxed on her veranda, gazing at the sun—a rim of orange over darkening hills. Her two little girls, a toddler and a three year old, had just been fed and put to bed. Like their mother they were slender with an abundance of curly brown hair. Duke, her large guard dog, rested on his mat inside the door as Marie spoke quietly to him. ‘Jack should be coming home any day now, Duke. We all miss him so much since he left to go droving. If only two years of drought hadn’t finished us off, he’d be here now. Sometimes I worry about staying alone in this place, no-one else closer to us than the nearest station, a day’s walk from here. Soon it will be getting dark.’
Marie always enjoyed the lingering warmth of the early evening, the peace of her surroundings and the sound of birds singing before they settled for the night. As she sat near her door enjoying Duke’s company, the dog suddenly grew restless. He became tense and his ears pricked up. Marie saw nothing to excite him so she quieted Duke with a ‘Shh now,’ and an upraised hand. Only a moment later did she see the moving shadow of a man coming around the corner of the slab hut. Quickly she rose to face him at the door.
‘I’m hungry. Have you got a feed for a traveller?’ The stranger was filthy and had the strong smell of unwashed clothes about him. ‘He must have been living rough on the roads for a long time,’ she thought. His beard and matted hair looked unkempt, but his eyes worried her most – so hard and cruel. Before he could cross the threshold Marie raised her voice.
‘Don’t come in! Sit on the bottom step and I’ll bring something out to you.’ She waited until he sat down, never taking her eyes off the stranger. Quickly she filled Jack’s bowl from the cooking pot, picked up a spoon and carried it to him. He looked over the cottage, watching her with cold, shifty eyes as he gulped down his meal. Then he set the bowl down without thanks or an offer to hand it back.
‘Looks like there’s no man about the place so I’ve decided to spend the night here.’ He challenged her with a smirk on his face as he stood up. Marie ducked quickly back inside, whistled to Duke and picked up a heavy wooden club next to the front door. Holding Duke’s collar she tugged it twice as she faced the stranger. Right on cue, Duke snarled and bared his teeth as Marie raised the club.
‘Get out now before I set the dog on you. And don’t you come back here!’ Duke began to bark savagely. The stranger turned and moved quickly away from the cottage. Then he called out to her, ‘I’m not finished here yet.’ Marie closed and barred the door. Trembling she sat down inside with Duke. He placed his head on her lap as she put her arms around him. ‘Good dog. Whatever would I do without you, my big, strong Duke?’
‘I’m sitting up tonight and I want you to stay inside with me. That man might come back later and try to ambush us.’ Duke took his place on the mat as Marie went to the mantle. A shotgun lay along its top. Jack left the gun with her and she knew how to use it. Marie loaded two cartridges, placing her chair in full view of the door with the shotgun on the floor before her. ‘Duke, I’m not a straight shot over a distance, but up close I never miss. If he does come back and tries to get inside, I’ll wait until I see him first, then I’ll pull the trigger. I’m taking no chances as I must protect the girls.’ As darkness was now upon them, Marie lit a tall candle. Then she and Duke settled down for the night.
Hours passed as she dozed fitfully on and off. Twice she got up to check on her daughters, then came back to sit upright in her chair again. Just after midnight Duke suddenly jerked up, fully alert, his ears raised. Marie also awoke quickly. There it was, the sound of footsteps moving slowly and deliberately on the pathway. Her body grew tense as the footsteps drew closer to the corner of the slab hut. A full moon shone brightly outside so Mary could just make out a dark shape as it passed by a thin open chink in the log walls. ‘It must be the stranger coming back again. He could have a weapon, Duke,’ she whispered. Marie picked up the shot gun, her finger on the trigger, the barrel cradled in her left hand. Tensely she waited as the footsteps moved nearer and approached the cottage door. ‘Steady, Duke. Don’t move until I signal.’
Just then a familiar voice called out, ‘Marie, it’s me, Jack! I’ve been walking all day. Unbar the door and let me in.’
‘Jack, I’m coming!’ Rushing toward the door with Duke barking for joy at her heels, Marie’s arms enfolded him and drew him across the threshold. Relief engulfed her as she cried out, ‘Thank heaven you’re home safely with us at last.’ Only when he held her close to him again, did she feel safe enough to break into a flood of tears.
© Mary Mageau
I hope you enjoyed this short story. I’ll be offline for several weeks and my next post will arrive on June 19th.