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Momma Bones

a short story by Carolyn Leigh

[Desert Bird: 5k]

Momma Bones slipped the safety off the rifle and fired. "Got that one didn't I, Willis? Not bad for an old lady, huh? Now turn left up ahead and I'll show you where the old head frame for the Lucky Lady was. Got myself a target set up there, too. Let's me get a little practice in the mornings."

Willis turned past the shaft with its still quivering target and headed towards the left fork. He looked sideways at her. She reminded him of an old red-tailed hawk, still stealing chickens. Her gray hair was braided up above quick golden eyes. If she missed much it wasn't the fault of her eyes, but of her bones that insisted on getting old and arthritic before the rest of her.

"You all seen Jillann recently?" she inquired, knowing that of course he'd seen her daughter, since he'd come up through Tie Town.

"Yeah, stopped by on my way up here."

Momma Bones shifted the rifle on her lap. "She's fine?"

"Uh, huh."

And still stupid over you, Momma Bones thought. Well, Willis was a hard working, good looking man with those deep brown eyes and that cowlick of dark hair falling over his forehead. With his sister's little orphan boy, Pliny, maybe they satisfied Jillann's mothering instincts, even if Willis never would get around to marrying her. How her oldest daughter had turned out so, well, so basically conventional, was beyond her. Convention had never had any percentage for her. She preferred mines and Vegas.

Pliny clung to the flat bed of the truck, chewing on the deer jerky she'd given him.

"Deer season's not on, is it?," Willis commented when they arrived.

She just laughed and handed Pliny some of the jerky. "Saves me a trip or two to the store."

They waited a bit while she finished putting together a target. "This one's that bastard Roy Jenkins." She held up the big bellied shape. "Gonna hang him up at the entrance to the old number two shaft."

Probably would like to hang him for real if she could, Willis had thought in amusement. Jillann told him once how her mother used to practice target shooting in their back yard at Tie Town until they passed an ordinance against it and she got arrested. He could just imagine her husband, Ed Jones, ever the patient small town lawyer, down at the county courthouse trying to straighten things out.

One of the stories Willis heard when he came to Tie Town was how Jones, just a couple of weeks before he died, had signed over a twenty year lease on the Lucky Lady to Jenkins and the mining company he represented. He did it without telling his wife. Now Momma Bones had found an unclaimed sliver between three of the old patented claims. Once the claim was filed she'd give Jenkins hell for sure when he tried to lease it from her.

Actually she'd probably have to wait a spell, Willis calculated. Nothing big was happening in this part of the country, all the money seemed to be going overseas. Not much money left for venture capital on small stuff, especially on local properties like the Lucky Lady, but the price of gold was up again, so maybe. Who could tell?

He glanced back at Pliny. The boy was hanging on fine, his blond cowlick blowing up like a little pony's forelock in the wind. Momma Bones handed him back some more of her jerky through the window and the three of them chewed in silence as the pickup bounced on up the road.

"Where are you heading after here?" Momma Bones asked that evening as Willis sat whittling out a willow whistle for Pliny.

"Guess first we'll be getting back to town and file that claim for you. I'm thinking of staying around this fall. Pliny's gotta start school somewhere."

He handed the whistle towards Pliny, but the boy had fallen asleep, curled up against the pile of odds and ends on the porch. Willis blew one soft note, but Pliny didn't stir. "Guess he's all tuckered out. I better put him down." He got up and carried the sleeping boy inside.

Momma Bones sat and turned a willow shaving in her fingers. Maybe Jillann was gonna manage to tie that man down after all, but she wouldn't take any bets on it herself. If Jillann was so set on being a housewife she ought to have enough sense to fall in love with men who wanted to be husbands or who thought they needed wives --- lawyer types and such. Like her own husband, God rest and pester his soul. Signing that goddamn lease with Jenkins, probably thinking it would bring her down out of the hills and home where he'd always hoped she'd stay; it'd just made her mad.

She sighed and glared at the willow curl. Ed had no more sense than Jillann. Marrying a woman he'd met in a courtroom fight over her uncle's mining claims. She couldn't help breaking his heart. It'd either been his or hers. Too literally that was true. She would have died or gone crazy down there in Tie Town and he seemed to have given up and died, when after thirty years, it was finally clear nothing he could do would bring her back down out of the mountains for good.

The night wind started to slip down the canyon. It stirred her back to the present. With an effort she got up, wondering if the summer storms were coming on; her bones felt the impending damp before she could see any clouds. She and Willis still had to draft up a map from the survey notes and she was working on another map of the Lodestar Vein, trying to puzzle it out.

Willis had lit the lantern. "Cleaned up the glass a bit for you," he said.

She grinned. "Now how do you know I don't like it smoked up? Adds atmosphere."

"Guess my eyes aren't as sharp as yours."

"Hm-m-m, probably not. You wear yours out staring after all the pretty girls."

He looked up from the field notes. He wondered if she minded that he and Pliny stayed with Jillann in her house when they were in town. He almost started to explain that they were never there more than a few days at a time when he came in from the field, but thought the better of it. He decided, as he glanced over at her again, that if she wanted him to know how she felt, she'd tell him up front.

She didn't say anything, merely grinned again at him, sat down and started filling out the claim forms, but she was thinking that he was handy to have around and probably saved her some money by fixing things up around the house when he stayed with Jillann.

Next evening, after Willis and Pliny headed back to town, she discovered that she'd forgotten to unload the sample bags out of Willis's truck. Not a real necessity at the moment, she thought, but the weather was pretty and maybe a drive down to town would be nice. She could check on Jillann and the house, and see if Jejean had by any chance mailed one of them a letter. She wondered if Jejean's singing was going okay. They probably wouldn't know until the girl was either famous or broke.

The sun was just squeezing out beneath the edge of the rain clouds when she pulled into town late the next afternoon. She'd driven into an early summer storm as she came south and it'd slowed her down a bit. The newly asphalted street gleamed darkly, rainbowed in the puddles of oil left by the pickups parked in domino rows all along the street. Not many people were out today, the ranches and the rigs slowed down by the sudden drench of rain.

Neither Willis nor Jillann were at the house. Jillann had kept it neat as always except for the dining room table where she left her mother's maps and jigsaw puzzle untouched.

Momma Bones stood there for moment, pushing a few more pieces of the puzzle into place, as she considered how it was a funny thing for her to like, but then again, a puzzle was a question with a solution, not like the forever intriguing, but ultimately unknowable puzzles of her mines. I suppose when I can't go out in the field anymore I can just sit here and do these, she thought, then I'll probably want some grandchildren to help me. Pliny and Willis had worked on this one with her one Sunday afternoon, but Jillann never touched it. Jillann never had liked fooling around with puzzles.

Maybe I'd best check at the courthouse, she thought. Make sure Willis got the claim filed and that the clerk hadn't stuck it back on some pile that wouldn't get processed for months. She'd need to have Willis get the book and page number before they could finish filing with the BLM.

Whole system's a damn mess, she thought later as she kicked the corner of the courthouse door open. The door had stuck whenever it rained for the last thirty years. You'd think they could have planed off the edge by now. But no, they were spending her money sticking in a fancy computer system that no one in Tie Town was trained to really operate. So the system was always down. It was down so often that the beleaguered secretaries had several nicely lettered signs that they could stick out: THE COMPUTER IS TEMPORARILY DOWN. THANK YOU FOR YOUR PATIENCE. SERVICE SHOULD RESUME SHORTLY.

She knew before she saw the signs that the computer was down because there were about a dozen people pacing and smoking in the outside hallway. She deliberated a moment, wondering if she had the patience to wait or not.

"Hey, Beulah!"

She winced. No one called her that if they wanted to be on her good side. Even Mrs. Jones was better than Beulah. Once, a long time ago, someone coming up to the mine had unwisely called, "Hey, Beulah, baby, come on out here, girl." She came out of the shaft with her rifle and ordered him off of her claims.

"Overreacted a bit don't you think?" Ed had said. "I think he was planning to invest some money up there with you."

"He was drunk. Men aren't thinking about investing venture money when they call you baby and girl," she replied angrily. "We weren't even introduced. Don't send any of your rich good old boys up there again. I don't even like it when you call me Beulah. I just tolerate it 'cause we're married."

She knew exactly who was calling her Beulah this time. At least it meant that she wouldn't have to wait to find out if Willis had filed the claim. Obviously he had. Already the courthouse gossip had passed the information on to Roy Jenkins and here he was hustling down to check it out.

"Afternoon, Roy," she said. "How's the mining business these days?"

"Oh, coming along, coming along."

"That's nice."

"Hm-m-m, yes. Hear Willis was up helping you at the Lucky Lady this week."

You're about as subtle as a skunk, she thought. "Yeah, I borrowed him from Jillann for a piece. Always something needs doing at an old mine."

"Well, I'm glad you're tending to our mutual interests, Beulah. Soon's the price of gold stabilizes a bit more, we'll probably be starting to move up there. Your husband did a real smart thing, giving that lease to us."

She looked at him in disgust. You conniving coward, she thought. He had on one of those pastel polyester suits, probably had it twenty years, with a wide yellow tie. "Nice tie, Roy. Mrs. Jenkins give that one to you?"

"Nah, got it on sale from Jillann over at the men's store. You like it?"

"Yeah, but they should of tied it so it went down your back."

It took a while for that to sink down in and by the time it had she'd already gone out the door, chuckling. She didn't need to see the look on his face; she'd seen it before elsewhere.

She drove back over to the house, but it was still empty except for the cat. She fed the cat and scratched its ears. "It's early, but maybe they're over having a beer," she said to the cat.

Her joints were stiff from the drive, so she decided she'd better make herself walk over to Clancy's Bar even in the damp. Getting old was a nuisance, but then being young hadn't been so easy either, she thought. She was smarter and tougher now, maybe that's just how things balanced out. She would become a philosopher when she couldn't go up in the mountains any longer. Sit around at Clancy's and pester all the young ones with her ideas. She laughed grimly at that, then shifted her concentration to walking over to the bar.

Clancy waved when she came in and gave her a warning nod towards Jillann. Jillann was curled up over in the corner booth, her long brown hair swung like a curtain over her face.

"Kind of early to be drinking," Momma Bones remarked as she slid in opposite her daughter. "Unless you've just lost your last friend."

"I guess....," Jillann stopped and Momma Bones realized she was crying, or more accurately, trying not to.

"Aw, honey," she hesitated. She was terrible at this kind of thing. "What's the matter?"

"He got a motel room; that's what."

"Who?"

"Willis."

"I didn't reckon he knew motels existed," she said with a dry chuckle.

"It's not funny."

"You all have a fight? You never fight." Partly, she thought, because you always let him go his own way.

"He went and got a housekeeping unit out at the motel."

"Oh." The local motel stayed in business by renting the kitchen units like apartments to drillers and so forth. So Willis wasn't going to sit down at her house this fall when Pliny started school after all. She actually thought the better of him for that, but Jillann must have really been counting on him moving in. More than she'd guessed. Jillann had put on a don't-care face these last years. It'd been hard to tell.

"Well, honey, it's not like you're not gonna be seeing him. Seems you're better off this way, maybe. Won't have to pick up after him and so forth."

"I thought you would think that," Jillann said angrily between tears. "You never picked up a thing for Daddy in your life."

Momma Bones sat calculating whether the remark was worth arguing about or not. It'd probably make Jillann feel better to yell at her, but she wasn't the one who'd checked into a motel. Maybe she should though; it might be calmer than her own house.

She hated things like this. Now Ed would've done fine. He would've told Jillann how everything would be all right; just give Willis some more time and so on--- and he'd have believed it, too.

Whereas she knew better. She liked Willis, but, "I reckon he's not a man for windy weather, Jillann."

"What?"

"I mean, he's never gonna stand in one place. It's not his way. Now your daddy, he tied his whole life around standing solid in one place. You ought to go look for someone like him. Willis, well, Willis is more like me. Like," she struggled for something, "your daddy had a string on my kite, but a kite's no good on the ground."

"But I don't nag about his going off."

"Ed hardly nagged at me either, but I knew. Every time I was here, I could just feel the weight of his hoping. Made me leave sooner than I might of otherwise."

"Well, he was right. You should have stayed home. Why didn't you stay here? We...."

Clancy slid the pitcher down between them like a peace offering. "On the house, Momma Bones. Good to see you back in town. How's things up in the hills?"

"Nice and quiet," she said.

Jillann had turned to looking out the window. Studying as though there was a solution out in the street somewhere if she looked hard enough.

Life was queer, Momma Bones thought, as she filled their glasses. She'd never cared if she got a husband and kids and they'd come to her almost without her noticing. She couldn't even say she cared about making a mint on the Lucky Lady or any of her other prospects. It was the looking, the trying to figure out how that vein of ore was trending, or trying to get someone to sign a lease over to her, that intrigued her. Kept her going back again and again, even when her bones hurt or even when her children cried. Once she'd thought she should have been a man; now she didn't care, but Jillann did, obviously. It was just that Jillann had these set ideas about the order of things. Ed had given his daughters as much attention as any mother; she hadn't been gone any more than most of the fathers in town. It seemed to her that it should have come out the same.

"So what are you gonna do?" she said to Jillann, knowing it was the wrong thing to say even as it was coming out of her mouth. Jillann didn't want to do any thing; she wanted sympathy.

"Don't see there's much I can do."

"No."

"You're a lot of help."

"How's the house?"

"Roof's leaking back in the second bedroom."

"Hire someone to fix it. I'll give you a check."

"I was gonna get Willis to fix it."

"That's okay, too."

"Nothing's okay."

"Just because I'm your mother, Jillann, that's no excuse to be difficult."

"Just because you're my mother, more or less, doesn't mean you can lecture me either."

"I can't do a thing about Willis. What do you want me to do? Invite him home for tea and cookies?"

"You never made anyone cookies."

"You're right. You shouldn't put such great store in things like cookies. All you're likely to get left with is crumbs."

"Better than grubbing around in some old gold mine."

"I happen to like grubbing in old gold mines. You ought to find something you like to do."

"I want to get married and have kids."

"Maybe that'll happen and maybe it won't. See, whether I get rich or not, I like grubbing around in old mines. Whether you get married or not, you hate the looking and waiting. You've got everything depending on what someone else might do." She shook her head.

"I'm not gonna end up a lonely old lady."

"Like me, you mean, but I'm not lonely. Anyway, odds are most married women end up alone in the end as far as husbands go. Either they die off or they run off."

"You didn't give a damn when Daddy died."

If you want the truth, Momma Bones thought, I was so mad at him over that lease, I almost felt it served him right at the time. Signing away one of my life's works. I'd trusted him with those claims. Never occurred to him to come up and help me instead of being the martyred husband down in town. Invited for Sunday supper by benevolent little ladies waiting for me to fall down some mine shaft so they could marry a nice widowed lawyer. "Well, we hadn't seen each other much. I tried getting him to come up in the mountains sometimes."

"I bet. Maybe you needed help staking claims."

"There's always evenings, you know."

"He used to read us stories in the evenings. That's one thing I like about Willis, he reads Pliny stories."

"And carves him whistles. He's good for Pliny, maybe not for you."

"You never say the right things," Jillann said, getting up "Why couldn't you just tell me it'll be all right?"

"Something could come right, but...," she stopped.

Jillann pulled on her poncho and stalked out the door.

"Jillann's a bit upset there," Clancy said, coming over.

"Trying to fight with me over men," Momma Bones said with a sigh, "and one of them's not even alive. Bring me a brandy, Clancy. This beer's too chill for an old lady on a rainy day."

She'd walk home in a bit, she thought. Drink the brandy first to warm her insides up. Jillann would have settled down and they'd patch things up for now, but it wouldn't solve anything, she knew. She wished she could give Jillann her own love of questions. Questions were dependable; there were always plenty of them around. They were the infinite little jigsaw puzzle pieces of life.

The second drink worked its way down around her bones. She'd better get going, she thought, before she got sleepy and curled up in the booth like an old cat. She paid Clancy for the brandies and walked slowly back out into the drizzling rain towards home.

See also: Dust

Dedicated to the great memories of two good friends: Martha Simpson Eastlake and James E. Sharp. Thanks again.


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