The loose board creaked as Ruth stepped out onto the porch. Have to get Cletus to fix that, she reminded herself for the umpteenth time. She touched the back of one hand to her forehead and pulled the cheap cotton of her dress away from her chest with the other. So hot already and not even noon, she was pleased the housework was done. Of course, it was a lot easier with her new daughter-in-law to help. Odell had picked such a fine girl; Mary was pretty and delicate-looking, but she was a farm-girl and bred to hard work.
Cletus, Odell and the hired man were cutting and baling hay, she couldn’t see them but every so often their voices would drift in on the hot August breeze. They would come in for lunch soon and probably eat on the wide, shaded porch. It was too hot in that house even with the windows open and all the box fans running. It wouldn’t be so hot in the house that Odell and Mary were building, on the parcel of land she and Cletus gave them for a wedding present. They were putting in central heat and air, no window units or floor furnaces for them.
“Ruthie,” said Mary, in her deceptively dainty voice, “I brought you some tea.” Iced, of course. They sat down on the flowered cushions she’d made not just to keep legs from frying on the hot metal chairs, but also to hide the rusty patches Cletus hadn’t fixed yet. Mary didn’t sit for long, that child never did. This time she jumped up to hang a load of wash on the line to dry.
Mary pinned the sheets and towels to the line and dreamed about the many, many loads of wash she would hang on the clothesline behind her very own house. Not that she didn’t like Cletus and Ruthie, she did, but she just wanted to set up her own home. She couldn’t wait to hang the curtains she was making and to put the dishes just where she wanted them. They would get a lot of the work done this winter and maybe by this time next year she would be in her own house, perhaps with a baby on the way.
Ruthie was looking forward, too. Not that she didn’t like having Odell and Mary in her home, she did, but she was looking forward to having fewer people underfoot. And the thought of spending some of the hottest afternoons in air conditioning surely did have its appeal, so much the better with grandbabies to hold. It would be easy since their parcel of land, and the new house taking shape on it, was directly across the gravel road that ran in front their property.
“There, those should dry real quick in this heat, then I can hang Odell’s shirts,” the younger woman said, sitting down again. But for now, for a moment, there was nothing else to do. Nothing to wash or scrub, no meals to get, no men to fuss over, no buttons to sew back on, no gardening to do, no dogs to feed. Nothing to do but sit a spell. It was such a rare occurrence in a country wife’s day that they took full advantage.
Sitting on the porch, looking at the house-in-progress or at some point off in the distance, they didn’t notice him at first. The young man walking eastwards on the road spotted them and waved. Ruthie waved back but Mary didn’t; she was still too newly married to be comfortable waving at strange men. He took her wave as the welcome it was and picked his way across the cattle grate. The women took his measure as he walked the long driveway.
Kind people would call him slender, but he was plain scrawny. He wasn’t as tall as Mary first supposed, it was his skinny build that made him seem taller. To Ruthie, he looked the way cows did when they were malnourished and hopped up from her chair and ran to get him Cletus’ lunch. In her mind, Mary compared the young man to Odell and found him wanting. After a life spent cattle farming, Odell was strong and self-assured; he knew who he was and his place in the world. Their guest was little more than bones-his clothes hung awkwardly on his body and his face, well with some weight he might be handsome. But his skin, Mary thought, looked like it was pulled too tight over his high cheekbones and squared jaw, it looked like it hurt. All she said aloud was, “Hi.”
Ruthie returned with a sandwich and tea. “It’s not fancy, but it’s good. I can make Cletus one later.”
He thanked her and ate his sandwich, occasionally closing his eyes and smiling, but not speaking until it was gone. He thanked them for the meal, the first he’d had in two days, and stood to walk on. Ruthie brushed aside his protests and told him to stay in the shade and finish his tea. So he did just that, taking the opportunity to study his hostesses.
One young, one not so young, both dressed in simple cotton dresses. The young one was pretty and friendly, but no more than that. No coy glances, no preening, no stray touch to his arm, no sultry invitation to sin. He could hear a male voice in the distance every so often, and she would smile off that way. The voice of her husband, no doubt. He watched the not so young one; she must have been a beauty once, he could see a ghost of pretty on her worn face. She had seen good years and lean, and never once wavered in her love of her man and her land. That much he could also see in her face. The women seemed so good and true, so steady and strong; their brows had never been troubled with duplicity, only honest worry.
The older woman wore shoes that his grandmother called brogans, but the younger one’s feet were bare and white on the weathered, gray boards. Wisps of hair escaped their braids and clung wetly to Mary’s face and neck; a trickle of sweat made its way down her throat and into undergarments only barely obscured by her dress. He looked away, not wanting to want what he could never have. If only.
If only all the women in his life had been like these two. A futile wish, he knew, but he couldn’t help but wish it. His mother, too young when she had her bastard child, was killed by another woman, over a man of course. His grandmother never let a day pass when she didn’t remind him of his status as burden. After leaving home at 15, he found himself involved with bad woman after bad woman. How different his life would’ve been. To be raised by a woman like the older one and bed down with a woman like the younger one, he would not be the thing he was now.
“I have to get back on the road,” he said, standing quickly.
Ruthie stood when he did, “Wait,” she said. She opened the screen door and retrieved a bag from inside. “Here you go, young man, enough to get you through at least tomorrow. You dropped your pack by the driveway, if you have a canteen you can fill it at the well.”
Which he did. The women waved at him and he waved back. And the killer walked on. Working his way east, leaving what remained of the brightly-painted bad women in his wake. And those good women would never know how close they came to death. Oh, not from him, after meeting Ruthie and Mary, something in the killer broke. It felt like a bad fever breaking in the night, leaving him weakened and sweating, but free of infection. His freedom solidified later that night in a hobo camp.
There was another drifter there like him. Not one of life’s wanderers like the hobos, but another Very Bad Man. The evil that used to live inside the young man must have resonated like a tuning fork as it left him, and this Very Bad Man could feel it. He confided, deliciously, about two women he had been watching for a time and what, in painful detail, he would do to them at first chance. The young man knew that the Very Bad Man meant the two women, his two women, and kept watch.
Later that night, the Very Bad Man crept from camp headed west. The young man followed him and killed him. He wiped the lead pipe clean and stuck it in the other man’s pack, then he found a good-sized rock and laid the man’s head on it. It was possible that the cops would think him responsible for the other killings and close all the cases. But he wouldn’t stick around to find out. It was still possible to disappear into the mountains and live like a hermit and that is what he did.
The next day the sheriff paid the farm a visit. “Seems like a bum died just up the road from here,” he told them. He didn’t tell them about the lead pipe or that the bum seemed to be headed towards their house. No need to scare them.
Ruthie had to see if it was the young man they’d fed the day before; he had seemed troubled and left in a hurry. When she saw the man, she was relieved. She would never know that she had a guardian angel, and that the angel was a killer.