This story is by Judy Blackburn and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Lacy waited patiently. She would wait for Gage forever, or so she thought. They were supposed to meet at the dance hall. Saturday nights were great for dancing. Everyone showed up to swing their best girl around on the wooden floor to the music of the local band.
Lacy and Gage liked to dance. It was here, where they met a few months back. An instant attraction for both of them. He’d just hired on at a ranch as a ranch hand and visited the establishment his first Saturday in the area. He asked her to dance, said her hair caught his attention first thing, the way it bounced and cascaded down to her waist as she twirled around the dance floor. She didn’t wear it in a bun as most ladies did, but let it fall in its natural state. Lacy found herself caught up in his good looks and charm and accepted his invitation.
Tonight, combs and a pink ribbon swept her hair back. The deep pink dress with lace and puffed sleeves showed off her slim figure. She wore a long duster coat to protect the dress as she rode her horse into town. Lacy tied her duster to the saddle before she went in. If Gage was there, she wanted him to see her in all her finery.
She looked among the horses tied at the hitching rails but did not see his Appaloosa. She waited a few more minutes, and he still didn’t show. This wasn’t the first time he’d kept her waiting. A couple of weeks ago, he’d asked her out for dinner but then was an hour late. His excuse was his horse had a stone bruise, and he had trouble finding another horse to ride. She’d let it slide, but wondered because there were plenty of horses on the ranch. Another time was similar. They were becoming more frequent.
Lacy tied her horse at the railing and walked into the smokey dance hall. Maybe he’d ridden a different horse and was already inside waiting for her. A few people waved and said hi. She nodded and asked for Gage, but none had seen him.
Lacy’s heart crumbled. She went back outside. A light rain sprinkled, touching her face and bare arms with little droplets, making her shiver. She untied her duster and put it on and buried her face in her horse’s mane.
As she petted the horse and spoke to him softly, she ran her hand over the scar of the wire cut the horse had suffered. Lacy’s gift of knowing her herbs and helping injured animals was well known around the area. People brought their wounded and sick pets to her, including horses and cows. For the most part, she sent them all back home, sound.
Lacy looked around at the dirt streets, barely visible with the dim lantern lights from the dance hall. The hair on her neck crinkled. Someone was watching her. A movement in the trees by the back of the building sent a frigid chill down her back. The movement became a man walking, leading a horse.
“Oh, Gage. There you are.” The rush of relief was like a warm quilt in a snowstorm. And there he stood with that grin melting her heart. His tall figure and broad shoulders always took her breath away. He opened his arms, and she ran to him. He picked her up and planted a kiss. His lateness was forgotten. The chill from a moment ago was all warmth.
“Let’s get out of this rain. Do you want to go in for the dance?”
She shook her head and mounted her horse. “I don’t feel much like dancing anymore.”
The two rode to Lacy’s house. Gage and Lacy sat on her porch swing. The rain lulled them as they swung back and forth.
“Lacy, I have to go.”
“Oh, okay. Have an early day tomorrow?”
Gage took his arm away from where it rested lightly on her shoulders. “You don’t understand. I mean, I have to leave, go. I’ve quit the job and moving on.”
“Where? Why?” Somehow Lacy knew this was coming. In their brief relationship, she had fallen for Gage deeply, but she had sensed a reserve in him. The hurt numbed her. She stared at the rain as if it would tell her what to say, what to feel.
“It’s been great here with you, but it’s time for me to pull up stakes.”
Lacy sat up. “I don’t understand. I thought we had something lasting. What did I do wrong? What about your job?” Her voice sounded tinny, whiny. This was not her. Not the woman who confidently cured animals of their hurts. This hurt tore deep.
Gage stood. “It’s not you. It’s me. I thought maybe it would last too. You did nothing wrong. I’m the wrong one. Or maybe not wrong… it’s just an itch. I need to see what’s beyond that horizon. I can pick up a job anywhere when needed. Can you understand?” He sat straight, anxious.
Lacy stood staring at him. She shook her head and waved her hands in the air. “I don’t know…”
He got up and took a step off the porch, looking up at her. “Do you have anything to say? What are you feeling?”
Lacy wiped tears that were making their way down her cheeks. “I don’t know,” she said again. A hint of her confidence returned. “I love you, Gage. I don’t want you to leave, but I don’t want you to stay and be unhappy, either. You’ve been my happiness these past months, something I was thinking would never happen to me. I wanted to make you happy, for always.”
Gage nodded. “I’m sorry, Lacy. Those are pretty words and I wish I could make the dreams come true. I’ll be back one day. I love ya, ya know. But don’t waste your life.” With that, he grabbed the reins and vaulted onto his horse. He was gone into the shadows of the evening before Lacy could think.
The days that followed were the same. Dreary. All Lacy could hope was that Gage would keep the promise of his last words, the ones about coming back. Every day, she looked to the horizon for any glimpse of a horse and rider coming through the shimmering light. She held on to that hope even when people in town shook their heads and told her she was a fool.
By the time the letter arrived, Lacy was sure the town folk were right—she was a fool. The letter was from Gage and for a moment Lacy’s heart swirled to the heavens. She read and re-read every word. He told of adventures on the sea traveling to foreign countries. He ended with, “Thinking about you. See ya soon, sweetie.” But never mentioned when “soon” would be.
Lacy didn’t waste time shedding any more tears. Instead, she smiled. The letter was pleasant but it was just words, lost promises. She tucked the letter away and forgot about it. The words faded. And she went on with her life. The animals needed her. She learned more about the healing herbs. No more letters arrived.
Occasionally Lacy scanned the horizons, but it was in passing, an old memory that became harder to bring to mind.
Lacy trudged to the door of her barn. The heavy water bucket she’d just filled from the well sloshed water on the hard dirt. The animals she cared for needed water. She set the bucket down for a minute and took a breath. Her wrinkled hand wiped the sweat from her brow and pushed the now gray hair that still swayed to her waist, away from her face.
An owl she’d found lying on the ground under the tree had a broken wing. He was all healed now, and she intended to send him on his way this evening.
Before she entered the barn, an old thought made her turn to the horizon. All it did was shimmer. With a slight smile on her lips, she went in the door. The first thing she did was bring the owl out of his makeshift cage and the two went back outside.
“You’re free, fella.” The bird looked to the twilight sky, spread his wings, and lifted off her hand. Lacy watched the bird flap its wings, soar, and fly out of sight. Her heart thrilled knowing it to be free, happy, and eager for life like she was.