2nd Place – August 2020

Respecting A Woman

by Gary Christenson

“No, please don’t!” My mother pleaded with my stepfather, Ralph. He stood a foot taller than her and weighed twice as much. Tears streaked her pale face as she shuffled backward until the kitchen wall blocked her escape.
Running out the front door of our West Texas farmhouse, I bounded down the steps. Several dull thuds and a scream pierced the afternoon stillness. My mother whimpered and sounded like a kitten with a wounded paw.
I ran past our broken-down fence to a distant tree in the pasture. It provided shade for cattle and stood tall and strong. I sobbed under it, blaming Ralph for everything wrong in our world. He beat my mother, made her cry, and hit me.
My small hands covered my eyes so I could pretend I was safe. Then Blake entered my life.
I heard footsteps. “What’s the trouble, little fellow?”  He towered over me.
His robust face had deep lines from sun exposure. He looked kind and wore a huge white hat. A red bandana circled his neck. His blue western shirt, dirty jeans, pointed toe boots and calloused hands convinced me he was a cowboy. His sudden appearance could have frightened me, but like the tree, he made me feel safe and protected. I gasped between sobs, “Nothing.”
“That’s a lot of crying for nothing wrong. What’s your name and what’s troubling you.” His voice was gentle. I wanted to explain about my mean stepdad hurting my mother, but she had warned me never to mention the beatings.
“Nothing’s wrong. I’m just crying.” I had trouble speaking the words. “I’m Timothy and I’m eight.”
“My name’s Blake. See that horse. That’s Blackie, and she’s mine. We ride those fields, manage cattle, and keep the fences repaired. You want to come with me?”
I did, but my mother’s words ran through my head. Don’t trust strangers and never tell them nothing.
“I can’t. I ought to go home.”
“Suit yourself. We’ll ride another day. I hope you fix what’s ailing you. See you later, partner.”
I liked that he called me partner. Blake walked back to Blackie, stuck his foot in a stirrup, grabbed the saddle horn and mounted his horse in one effortless motion.
He rode away. I went home listening for screams before I entered the house. My stomach was so queasy I vomited on the fence.
I hated my stepdad when he drank and found excuses to get angry. My mother limps because he kicked her years ago, so she can’t run from him.
Mom explained to me we had no choices and couldn’t leave. She’d dismiss his violence by saying, “It’s not so bad. Now eat and go play.”
Her black eyes and bruises healed, and she would hum, pretending to be happy. She wanted me to respect my stepdad, but I glared at her and clamped my jaw. Mom told me, “Someday you’ll understand.” I didn’t want to understand and ran to my room.
Several weeks later, Ralph drank too much and screamed at us for over an hour. “You’re both worthless. I ought to throw you out on your butts.” My mom and I huddled in a corner and waited for him to pass out.
He woke the next morning, complained of a terrible headache and yelled, “Woman, fix me coffee or I’ll teach you a lesson.” My stomach tightened into a knot.
My mom mumbled something, and he yelled, “Don’t backtalk me.” He slapped her hard. She fell against the kitchen table and crashed to the floor. Blood oozed from a gash in her forehead. He turned toward me, raised one enormous fist, and shouted, “Don’t move or I’ll mash your face.”
I froze in fear. He yelled at my mom, “Get up! You ain’t hurt. A little blood ain’t no big deal.”
My mom raised her head. Dull black marbles stared at me from her eye sockets. She tried to stand, fell to one knee, struggled upright, and teetered from side to side. Mom struggled to face him. “Beat on me, but don’t hurt my son.”
A nasty grin crossed Ralph’s face. “Maybe I’ll discipline him. He needs to learn respect.”
I backed out the front door while he hovered over my mom, reaching for his belt. He lunged for me, but I ran to the tree where I sobbed for a long time because he had hurt Mom. Blake appeared while I cried.
“Little fellow, you’re crying again.” Blake kneeled to my level and said, “What’s wrong.”
I choked out, “My stepdad is an ugly, mean person. He beats my poor mother and I’m not big enough to stop it.”
“Well now, that don’t seem right. A real man don’t hurt a woman. He protects her.”
Blake offered his hand and said, “Come on little fellow, let’s get you home.” We walked to his horse. He lifted me into the saddle and swung his leg over Blackie’s back.
He pointed toward our tiny house in the distance. “You live over there?”
“Yes. But my stepdad is cranky. You better drop me and head out.”
Blake’s voice was firm. “I can handle him.”
I hung on tight and worried as we rode home. When we got there Blake said, “You stay with Blackie. I’ll check on your mother.”
He clinched his fists, marched to the house, banged on the door and yelled, “Open up! I want to talk to this boy’s mother and his stepdad.”
Nobody confronted my stepdad. He stood tall, punched people, and everyone avoided him. I expected violence and spilled blood. The front door opened, and Ralph glared at him.
Blake said, “I hear your wife needs medical attention. Did you beat her.”
“You’re messing in things that ain’t your business. Get your butt out of here before I kick it hard.”
“I’m not going anywhere until I talk to the boy’s mother.” He paused and stared at Ralph. “You think you can settle this man to man?”
Ralph turned red. His face twisted into a violent mask of hatred. His eyes flashed anger. “I’m gonna teach you a lesson you won’t never forget.”
He charged out of the house and Blake backed into the yard. They fought, but it didn’t last long. Blake had quick hands and powerful shoulders. He smashed Ralph in the face and gut with a dozen punches, knocking him to the ground several times. When he couldn’t get to his feet, Blake told me, “You see to your mom. I have things to discuss with your stepdad.”
I went inside, smiling for the first time in months. Mom lay on the kitchen floor, weeping. Her eyes opened wide when she saw me bounce into the room.
A while later I helped my mom struggle outside to the porch. Bruises covered her face and arms and she limped worse than usual. Blood oozed from several cuts. Blake told us, “I explained to this sorry excuse for a man the proper way to respect a woman. I’ll check on you in a week. If I see even one more bruise, Ralph and I will chat about abusing women. He won’t like what happens next.” Blake poked him in the chest with one stubby finger and asked, “You understand what that means, don’t you?”
My stepdad mumbled, looking pathetic. “Yes.”
I had never seen him lose a fight, but against Blake, he had no chance. I bit my cheeks to hide my delight.
***
Ralph died from a diseased liver before my seventeenth birthday, but he never again beat on my mother.
Blake and I became good friends. He was a proper father to me for forty years.
I buried him today.

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