Mary had been back for three days. Matthew let her stay away for a week. It was a rough week to be away from the peace of the farm. Every day had been sunny and just warm enough to work outside without getting exhausted. In town, families headed to the mercantile to stock up on winter supplies like flour or tools. It made the street dusty and noisy, and Mary had longed to walk in the fields and sit at the lake away from the busyness. Heaven knows what Matthew ate in that time, or what trouble he found, but Mary had put her foot down and wasn’t going to feel sorry just because he’s so stubborn. She was glad to be back, though. Besides needing to can the carrots and green beans, she worried about him. When he came to see her at the boarding house it was obvious he made an effort to put her at ease. He had shaved, knocked the mud off his boots, and wore a shirt she’d recently ironed. As ever, he barely explained himself, only saying he was ready to have her come back because he knew what he had to do.
But nothing had seemed to change. Matthew still stayed out all day. He would say hello each morning, or maybe add a small request. The cows were fed and the wood got stacked while she went about her tasks.
Today, though, was bound to be different. It had dawned cloudy, as other days, but rapidly worsened with whipping winds and driving rain halfway through the morning. It was the first time Matthew had been in the house, with her, for any stretch of time since she’d known him.
He sat in the chair next to the fire, watching the flames consume the logs. He hadn’t spoken a word since he came in. Finally, both needing a break and sensing Matthew’s tense mood, Mary sat in the chair opposite him. She knew it must have been Sarah’s, that sitting there would cause him to react in some way. She also knew she had left it up to Matthew to decide what to do about his wife, but since his plan would invariably have consequences for her, she needed to find out what that was.
He didn’t immediately look at her. Only when Mary began to settle into staring at the fire as well did he turn his head and look at her arm resting in her lap.
“Death is a part of farming. Livestock dies. Crops die. Dogs die. Even family. I’ve lost people before, when I was young. All of my grandparents over the years. My older sister of influenza. But she shouldn’t have.” Matthew paused to slow his breathing which had quickened when he spoke of her. “That day was a lot like today. The biggest difference was that it started out sunny. It was springtime. It was springtime just last year. I had calves to worry about, to find them where their mothers dropped them out in a field and see that they survived birthing. Sarah had been cooped up over the winter and was ready to spend time outside. She said she wanted to go see the cherry tree’s blossoms and feel the sun on her face.”
He paused again, remembering. His lips pressed together and out a bit, wrinkling his chin with the effort.
“The storm came up suddenly. I hadn’t noticed the clouds until there was no light left. The winds pushed me around as I led the newest calf from the field into the barn. It wasn’t until after the rain began pounding on the roof that I remembered Sarah had taken her horse to the tree. I hoped she would have been back already, so I checked the cabin first. When she wasn’t inside I hoped maybe she went to see Saul. I saddled up and rode out to see him. He only said he saw her ride out in the morning, but he didn’t see her come back. He thought she might have taken the back trail to come see me or the long way around before heading home. Both of us knew at the same time that she was still out there. He grabbed his jacket and rode with me back to the barn for another horse. I headed toward the tree and he headed to the back trail.”
Mary was glad to have her handkerchief in her pocket. She took it out and pressed it to her nose. She wasn’t going to be as successful in holding back the tears as Matthew was right now.
“I had the hardest time getting out there. All the trails turned straight to mud. Some low spots flooded and I had to go slowly around them, looking for solid footing, hoping all the while I’d see her doing the same on her way back. I did see her. I almost didn’t. She shouldn’t have been there. It was her dress, really, that I saw. The skirt of it, flapping around in the wind. It was so odd. I’d never seen the ground move like that and I had to stare at it a long time before I realized it wasn’t the ground or the mud at all. I heard her horse whinny nearby. When I saw him, he was covered in mud up to his chest. He stood a few paces away from the trail, letting the rain rinse him off and waiting for his rider. He didn’t know where she was. He just knew he was alone.
“I jumped down and ran over to her skirt, reached down and felt her legs. They weren’t moving on their own, but as I squeezed I could feel the bones slide past each other and Sarah groaned something terrible. I found her head, covered in mud and tried to lift it. She only groaned.
“’Sarah!’ I yelled. Her eyes were closed. I wanted her to talk to me. ‘Sarah, can you talk? Can you hear me?’ I was so happy when her eyes fluttered open and looked up at me. I thought she fell the wrong way, that I could carry her home and help her heal. Then she said, ‘Matthew, he didn’t know. He didn’t know where I was. It wasn’t his fault. He got stuck in the mud. I got off to pull him out. He struggled so much. When he broke free I couldn’t get out of the way. He didn’t know…’”
Mary gasped aloud. “Oh, Matthew…” was all she could manage.
Matthew continued, “She only screamed when I tried to move her, so I stopped trying. I just told her it was alright, that everything would be alright, that I’d take her home and we’d be together. She only said one thing after that, over and over, ‘Promise you won’t leave, promise we’ll be together. Promise me…’ I just laid her head in my lap. I held her hand and just sat with her there in the rain. I couldn’t even pick her up and hug her until she was already gone, couldn’t even give her a goodbye kiss.”
“That’s why she stayed.”
“I promised her. I meant it. When Saul found us, it was too late for him to help. He sat there with me for I don’t know how long, holding her other hand. Sometime or other one of us got up, I don’t know who was first, but I got her horse and Saul held him while I lifted her over the saddle. We all walked back together.”
“It was a good promise, Matthew. You said the right thing.” Mary began to reach out to him, to rest her hand on his in comfort, to let him know it was good that he finally told the story.
He pulled his hand back and looked angrily at her. After a few seconds he relaxed. “I’m sorry for that… I can keep my promise, though not how I thought. I thought I’d die myself, work myself to death or get sick. Then I could lie next to her. But that hasn’t happened. Sarah’s waiting. I have to let her know I haven’t forgotten.”