I heard the front door burst open and already knew what to expect—Pa was home from the saloon. Ma was already crying, and I could hear the powerful thwack as Pa’s fists struck her. The screams and cries were terrible, almost unbearable. “Why?” Ma screamed. I pressed my ear to my bedroom door to listen closer. Pa mumbled something about a “cheatin’ whore,” and a “good for nothin’ bitch.” Nothing out of the ordinary.
I opened the door and crept into the common room. Ma’s crimson blood stained the floor, and the front of her white dress. She lay in front of the couch in the fetal position as Pa flung powerful kicks at her midsection. His spurs rang loudly with each blow.
“Git away from her,” another voice said sternly. I turned and saw my older brother, Sam, come charging out of his room. Pa looked at Sam and laughed. His eyes were dull and blood from Ma’s broken nose dripped from his knuckles onto the wooden floor. “I won’t let you keep doin’ this to Ma,” Sam said through clenched teeth. “How long is this gonna go on for?”
“Shut up, boy,” Pa snapped. “You have no business interferin’ here. This is between me,” he looked back at Ma, “and your whore mother.” He looked back at Sam and then flicked his eyes over to me. “What are you doin’ here girl?” he asked. He approached me and put a bloody hand on my shoulder. He reeked of whiskey. “You git back to bed now, Sarah, you hear me? Go on, git.”
I looked at Ma. Tears flooded down her cheeks and mixed with the blood on the floor. “Go on Sarah,” she whispered.
Pa’s face twisted with rage and he looked back at her over his shoulder. “You shut your mouth,” he screamed. “You have no place talkin’ with your whore mouth.” He spun me around and patted me on the behind, forcing me to step toward my room. What choice did I have? A fifteen-year-old girl against my drunken Pa? I’d be lying next to Ma, bleeding just as badly.
I stopped in my doorway and glanced back. Sam charged at Pa and wrapped his strong arms around Pa’s waist. He pulled as hard as he could and dragged Pa backward. Pa roared and ripped Sam’s hands from his body, and then picked Sam up by the shoulders and threw him into the kitchen. I winced as I heard the table and chairs scatter across the room, followed by Sam’s groans. Pa looked at me and pointed. “Git in your room, now,” he said darkly.
I stepped inside and slammed the door. I didn’t know what to do. He’d been doing this for so long and I didn’t know how I could make it stop. I couldn’t think of a time when he didn’t come home drunk and swinging. I didn’t even respect the bastard. I had no feelings or emotion toward him.
Ever since I can remember he’d always smelled of whiskey. Ma told Sam and me stories of how she met him at the saloon. She was struggling to survive. They brought the railroad out here to the west, and led everyone right past our little town. Ma relied on Pa to bring home what money he could. After I was born, Pa started using most of what little money he earned at the saloon. Ma learned the hard way that whiskey turned Pa into a raging lunatic. She couldn’t leave him, though. She needed him for the money.
So, now, here we are, dealing with Pa’s anger and rage when he comes home blind drunk. Sam tried when Pa went too far with Ma; but, that never worked. The sound of Pa’s last strike on Ma seemed to hang in the air for a moment. Then Pa grumbled and stormed off to bed.
Now, like every other time, I had to go out and make sure Ma was still alive. Every time I wondered what I would do if I came out and she was dead. I always assumed I would just stare at her for a long while, unsure of what to do.
I opened my door and cautiously entered the common room. I made sure to check the hall leading to Ma and Pa’s room, to make sure Pa had fully retreated to bed. I approached Ma and helped Sam lift her up onto the couch.
Blood poured from Ma’s broken nose, along with several cuts on her cheeks and chin. Both of her eyes were already bruised, and tears streamed down her bloody face. “Ma, we can’t keep doin’ this,” Sam said. His tone and face were stern. He pulled a red handkerchief from his back pocket and gently dabbed her gashes.
“What choice do we have?” Ma asked. “We can’t survive without him.”
“Sure we can, Ma,” Sam answered. “I can git a job. I’m plenty old enough. Or we can run to Mexico.”
“Git a job where?” Ma asked. She winced as the handkerchief touched her wounds. “The railroad took all the jobs from us. And, you know we can’t afford three train tickets.”
“I’ll bet he does it on purpose,” I said. Ma and Sam looked at me as if I were a mute speaking for the first time. “Goes to the saloon, I mean. He spends all that money on whiskey, just to keep us here. I don’t know how much longer I can take it, Ma.”
“Sarah…” Ma began. She paused and looked at me for a moment. “You may be right. But, there’s still nothin’ we can do. I reckon you should run along to bed. Everything will be fine in the mornin’, like always.”
“Until Pa comes home ragin’ drunk again tomorrow night,” I protested. “He’s gonna kill you one of these times, Ma.”
“Git goin’ to bed, Sarah. That’s an order.”
I stared at her, and then looked at Sam. His face was still stern and grave. I could tell he was doing his best to hold back from crying.
“Just do what Ma says,” Sam ordered. A sing tear streaked down his face, and rage built up inside me. Never before had I seen Sam cry. He’d always been the tough older brother. The one who was never phased by anything. He was the strong one, the brave one; the one who could handle anything. But, now Pa had gone too far. Something had to be done. I surely wasn’t gonna sit around any longer while Pa ruined my family. I kissed Ma on the cheek and made my way back to my room. I tasted her blood on my lips, and clenched my hands into fists. I slammed the door behind me and the flaking metal hinges nearly broke off.
As I climbed into bed I could hear Ma and Sam talking about protecting me, and making sure I was safe from Pa. But, Pa had never hit me. Not yet, at least. Why where they so worried about me? They were the ones constantly getting beat.
My eyes closed and I drifted to sleep. Most nights, I would have been haunted by nightmares of Pa chasing after me—liquor bottle in one hand and his shining silver Colt revolver in the other.
The revolver. The beautiful, gleaming six-shooter he kept on his nightstand. The week before he bought it was one of the best weeks of my life. He hadn’t gone to the saloon one day that week so he could save up to buy his prized gun. He almost named it after me, too. Almost. It was that week that I heard the coyotes howl at night, instead of Ma’s screams. I miss the coyotes.
On this night, though, I wasn’t haunted by the nightmare. In fact, I didn’t dream at all. I can only remember darkness. Just an empty, blank night of sleep.
I awoke the next morning to Pa telling Ma she had to go to the general store in the next town and pick up a few things, and to watch out for Big Bill Waterson, the bandit who had been wanted by every lawman in the west. I never heard him apologize. Not once. Although, he never apologized to her any other time, so why should this time be different?
I slid out of bed and walked into the common room. Pa was polishing his revolver while Sam tended to the cattle. Pa looked at me and smiled. “Git dressed,” he said excitedly. I narrowed my eyes at him. “Don’t look at me like that, girl,” he snapped. “I said git dressed, we’re goin’ to the range. Unless you don’t wanna go shootin’?”
I stared at him. Never before had he allowed any of us to go near his revolver. Now he wanted to take us shooting? Maybe this was his apology. Maybe this was his way of saying sorry for all the years of senseless abuse. Surely a day of shooting out on the range would make all of us feel better. “This is your last warnin’, girl.”
I sprinted into my room and frantically put on a pair of brown trousers and a black shirt. Not traditional for a lady; but, I certainly didn’t want to go shooting in a bulky dress. As I walked back into the common room I heard the whinny of a horse from down the road. Ma was back from the general store. Good, that meant we could leave for the range sooner.
I heard the wagon pull up to the front of our ranch house, followed by a loud snap of cracking wood. Pa looked out the window. “Son of a bitch,” he roared. He charged outside and Ma shrieked as he grabbed her by the hair. “What did you do?” he yelled.
“I didn’t do anything,” Ma answered through her tears. She grabbed Pa’s hand and tried to pull it away.
“Liar,” Pa yelled. He breathed heavily and spit shot from his mouth. “We can’t even afford to have this fixed. What are we gonna do now? Huh? How are we gonna fix this?”
“Let her go,” I screamed. Pa looked at me with wide eyes.
“What did you say?” he asked quietly. Sam jumped the cattle corral fence and glared at Pa.
“Let her go, Pa,” he said. Anger was present in his voice.
“Or what? Huh?” Pa answered. “What are you gonna do?” he laughed. “Git back to the cattle, boy.”
I stepped closer to him and reached a hand out. Pa held the revolver to Ma’s forehead and I froze. “Pa, put the gun down,” I said calmly.
“No,” Pa answered. “Your mother has cost me far too much anger and money. She doesn’t do a damn thing but sit at home all day while I make all the money.”
“You mean the money you piss away at the saloon every night?” Sam asked.
“I told you to git back to the cattle,” Pa screamed.
Sam stepped toward Pa, and there was a loud bang. I felt the warmth of Ma’s blood as it sprayed on my face, and watched as Ma fell to the ground. Blood flooded from the wound in her forehead and pooled around her.
I stared at her. Ma’s eyes were wide in a dull, lifeless stare.
“No,” Sam screamed. Tears ran down his face as he charged at Pa.
Pa turned and squeezed the trigger. The bang from the revolver echoed off the distant mountains, and I watched as Sam stopped and clutched his stomach. He raised his hands and stared at the blood that stained them. Pa squeezed the trigger again and Sam fell over backward. The bullet pierced him directly between the eyes and he crashed to the ground.
I flicked my eyes between Ma and Sam. They both stared up at the sky as the crimson blood flowed from their bodies.
Pa looked at me for a moment, and then stepped closer. He put a hand on my shoulder and smiled. I felt a light pressure on my lower stomach and gazed down at it. The blood-covered barrel was pressed against my body. I looked back up at Pa.
“It’s not your fault,” he said.
“I never blamed myself,” I answered calmly.
The smile faded from Pa’s face and twisted into a look of anger. “We both know who’s to blame here,” he said grimly. He looked back at Ma’s body, and then back at me.
I smiled. “Yes we do.” Pa blinked and I snatched the gun from his hand. Before he could move I pressed the barrel against his head and squeezed the trigger. The gun flashed and I looked at Pa’s corpse as it lay at my feet. I knelt down by his head and reached down to close his eyes. No, he didn’t deserve it.
I looked at him a moment longer, and then approached Ma. I closed her eyes and kissed her on the forehead. I tasted the familiar taste of her blood, and knelt next to my brother. I closed his eyes, and kissed his forehead. The taste of his blood was foreign and I wiped it from my lips.
The horse whinnied behind me and I turned around and looked at the magnificent black stallion—Pa’s prized horse. I knew what I had to do now. I had no other options. I ran into my parent’s bedroom and opened the top drawer of Pa’s nightstand. I grabbed the box of revolver rounds and returned out front where I detached the horse from the cart and mounted the beast.
I had to survive on my own now. I had no family left and no idea where fate would take me. But, I was sure there was no way I would let anyone put me down like Pa put Ma down. I fought to save my family, and failed.
I remembered what Pa told Ma earlier. Big Bill Waterson. I had nowhere else to go, so why shouldn’t I try my luck with him? I was already a murderer, so I deserved to run with one. The only proof I would need was the blood on my hands.