I heard my horse scream and could tell she was running full speed around her pen. It took some help from a friend who was visiting for us to be able to catch her and hold her. It was when we finally had her by the head that we realized that the screams were coming from a fire-engulfed two-story house just over from ours on the cross street. We knew the man and his parents well. Death had never frightened me, but that night dying became a terrifying reality.
Only years after the fact did I think about what she might have told her dad about how she came to be pregnant. All I knew for sure was that no marriage took place and the baby boy had been adopted by her aunt. Gossip in small towns is similar to what happens when a rancher keeps the breeding bull one season too many—everyone is related to someone on one side or the other of the herd. So many people knew something but hardly everything, but what was unknown was great fuel for the gossip fire.
I met her for the first time that summer. She came down to stay with her grandmother and brought her horse with her. We rode some together and then she stopped riding up to our place, so when I saw her up the street talking to a neighbor and one of the kids who was a bit younger than me, I asked her when she would be available to go riding again.
“Oh, I guess I won’t be riding for several months now. I am going to have B’s baby.”
I asked her if she were kidding, and she told me what she planned to name the baby and that she would soon be Mrs. Looking over at the man who was supposed to be the other half of this conversation, I saw a man who wanted to run or duck or something. He just backed against the wall where he was standing and slowly shook his head. I reminded her that he already had a son by that name; he was, in fact, the father of two sons already. Why would he want another baby?
The younger man who was leaning against the rail of the carport laughed and said, “Well, not every baby is planned or every marriage either. I will be married soon, and the baby is already on the way.”
Shock was still within my abilities, and I asked that young man who was the mother and intended and learned that incubation was taking place merely another block away in the other direction. Yes, the heifers were running wild that year and the fences were down in every pasture in the county.
It takes time for babies to come into the world, and it takes time for families to accept the idea that their precious children can very quickly become a source of either pride or embarrassment. In those years, a child born out of wedlock was definitely an embarrassment; and sometimes a quick or quiet marriage was plenty of reason for gossip—whether or not a child precipitated the event.
She left town soon after, or at least her horse was not in the corral by her grandmother’s place. Of course, her dad could have taken the horse back to her hometown. I never knew for sure and didn’t ask her grandmother. Sometimes it is just better not to ask questions if the answers might embarrass old friends. And her grandmother was, in fact, an old friend of mine. Years later, with tears in her eyes, the old woman told me that her son could not come to see her there in our town. That was the day I realized that the two men who suddenly left town after the fire were friends of her son. And it was later still that I wondered what the young woman had told her dad.
The adoptive mother is gone now; the grandmother long in her grave, but a certain sound in the wind, or a glance up the street when I go back for a visit are reminders of that night. The younger man died on a curve when his brakes gave way. It could have been just a simple accident, but his child never knew him as a father. And the girl left town with her family—probably before the gossips could talk about her. But the other death—that one was premeditated and horrific. And that man/child would know by now that it was murder. Whether his adoptive mother told him the ‘who and why’ can only be guessed. And whether his birth mother told her dad that she was raped or seduced doesn’t really matter now. It is not only men who are oversexed and under-principled.