Summary: Caught in a mudslide, Little Joe’s survival might just depend on a lacy handkerchief.
Written for the 2018 Ponderosa Paddlewheel Poker Tournament. TOURNAMENT WINNER (TIE)
The card “suits” were:
Anatomy (body parts)
What Women Want
Things Found in a Saddlebag
Rated: K+ 1,675 words
It’s funny the things you can find to think about when you don’t want to face the things you need to think about, when what you really need to think about scares you so much you would do anything to be able to pretend it isn’t real.
I’m thinking about dancing. I imagine myself twirling around the floor with a pretty gal. She’s got blond hair, blue eyes, and the kind of smile that wipes clean all the bad in the world, the kind of smile that rights every wrong and can almost make me forget I’m in the middle of the worst day of my life.
As much as I love to think about her, I can’t afford to. I don’t dare forget what’s real. Truth is, I’m a long way from any dance floor. I wish I could forget I’m stuck to the side of a mountain. I’m no closer to the bottom than I am to the top, and I’ve got nothing to cling to but the thick plaster of mud and sticks that brought me here. I’ve got my fingers dug in so deep my nails are probably ripped to shreds. I’m sure the red I’m seeing mixed in with the mud is my own blood. But I’m too dang scared to feel any pain.
It could almost be funny. There’s not much in this world that frightens me enough to back down or back away, or to wish myself onto a dance floor where I can be rescued by a blond, blue-eyed angel. But clinging to the side of a mountain rather than standing safe and sound at the bottom, or even on top of it, that’s something that scares the heck out of me. And the possibility that I could get buried alive? Well, that scares me so bad I made my whole family promise they would put a bell in my grave whenever the time comes, just in case it’s not really my time at all and the doc makes a horrible mistake in saying I’m dead.
Yep. I’m afraid of heights and I’m afraid of getting buried alive. Those are the two things in this world that can give me nightmares in broad daylight. And here I am facing both at the same time. If I ever get out of this mess, I sure hope I can laugh about it. But I’m not laughing now.
I almost laughed when I reached into Adam’s saddlebag and pulled out a lacy handkerchief instead of the ammunition he’d sent me to get, even thinking how that dang puma must be laughing at us plodding through the mud behind it and wasting bullets as it scampers away. I might have laughed at that handkerchief, but I didn’t get the chance. I’d barely had enough time to notice the initials ‘ALJ’ sewn in fancy script when the ledge above me collapsed. A wall of mud knocked me off my feet and carried me down the mountain along with it and every stick, stone, and rock it could grab along the way. I wasn’t even close to the edge when that wall hit me; I would never have agreed to set up camp on the rim of a cliff, and Adam would never have suggested it. But the force was so strong it didn’t matter.
I sure am glad Adam took the horses to the stream before that ledge came down. If he hadn’t, the horses would have been lost, and Adam wouldn’t have fared much better than me. Not even Hoss would have been able to hold his ground against that wall.
I got pushed and pulled along like I was a twig in a river at flood. But this was worse than any river. The way that mud started clogging my nose and getting into my mouth, I was sure I was gonna drown in it. Even after I stopped slipping and sliding and rolling down, I wasn’t sure I’d ever get a chance to fill my lungs with anything but mud. It took a lot of coughing and blowing before I could pull in enough air to clear my fuzzy thinking. And then what’s the first thing I think about? A lacy handkerchief and the woman behind the initials ‘ALJ.’
Annabel Johansson, maybe. I don’t think I ever heard anyone mention her middle name. She’s about Adam’s age. But I don’t remember noticing her noticing him. Or ALJ could be Angelique Jolicoeur. She’s a high society type with a nose that’s as sharp as her tongue. Somehow, I can’t picture her carrying lace; or if she did, it would have a razor edge to it. It’s easier to think it might be someone new in town, like a blond, blue-eyed angel.
I feel myself slipping again. It ain’t no good me thinking about anything other than this dang mountain. I need to concentrate on climbing.
But…I’m not as far down as I was. Huh. Must’ve made more headway than I thought possible. Maybe thinking about that angel ain’t such a bad thing. Maybe if I keep thinking about dancing . . . maybe I stand a chance. Maybe if I just keep trying, keep digging in and pulling myself higher than all this mud keeps pushing me down . . . . Maybe, just maybe . . . .
There I go slipping again. I’m so dang tired, and the top is still so far overhead. Maybe I should just let go. Let the mud take me. Maybe it’ll be so fast I won’t even know I’m getting buried alive in a mountain of mud or falling to the rocks below.
Is that music? That angel’s reaching out her hand, inviting me to take her for another spin around the floor. Her smile looks like a sunrise. I can’t help but reach for her. Why does she keep backing away? I keep reaching, keep getting closer and closer, but I can’t get close enough. I can’t quite catch her fingers.
“Come on, Joe!”
I’m trying. Really, I am.
“Just a little further.”
Adam? Is that you? I’m sorry I danced with your girl. But I had to, don’t you see? She’s an angel.
I’m holding her now. Or maybe she’s holding me. My arms are so tired and my fingers are so stiff I don’t think I could hold a feather. But I feel strong hands wrapped in mine and pulling me higher. And now, strong arms are enfolding me.
I blink the mud out of my eyes. Blond hair turns black; blue eyes turn brown. I see my brother smiling at me.
How the heck did he get me out of all that mud and back to level ground? I guess it doesn’t matter, as long as he’s got me. I’m safe. I’m not gonna get buried alive today, and I ain’t gonna become a mangled mess at the bottom of the mountain.
Maybe the angel helped.
“You did good, Joe. Real good. You almost made it all the way back up here without any help. And I thought you were more afraid of heights than me!” Adam’s laugh sounds anxious. It’s a worried sort of laugh, the kind that comes from nervous energy. It’s not at all like the laugh I would’ve had over that handkerchief if I’d had the chance.
“Who is she?”
“What?” Look at the way he’s looking at me as he sets me down on the ground. I bet he thinks I hit my head. Maybe I did. I might as well have; I think I hit just about everything else on the way down. Whatever I hit or didn’t hit, that puzzled look of his makes me want to laugh again.
Laughing seems like too much effort; but at least I can still get some words out. “Who’s ALJ?”
“Lacy handkerchief. In your saddlebag.”
I see it then, confusion shifting into understanding. Adam’s jaw tightens. His lips go thin. “Abigail.” He lets out a big old frustrated sigh. “That woman doesn’t know how to take no for answer. She just won’t let go.”
Part of me feels sick to my stomach to think of Miss Abigail Jones as my blond, blue-eyed angel. But another part of me is content to admit my old school teacher never would let me get away with quitting. And if she’s responsible for not letting go today, then I’ve got an awful lot to thank her for.
I reckon I did hit my head. And by tomorrow I’m probably gonna feel like I got run over by a herd of wild mustangs. But right now I’m covered from my hair to my boots in mud and lying on the ground looking up at my brother, who’s about half as muddy as I am, and I can’t help but see the humor in it all. I can even imagine Miss Abigail Jones standing over Adam’s shoulder and pinching the blackened, muddy remains of her lacy handkerchief between finger and thumb in disgust.
It may be a good thing that handkerchief is lost somewhere in all that mud; but if it weren’t, I reckon I wouldn’t mind handing it back to her, mud and all, and telling her the story of how it may just have saved my life.
From somewhere deep inside me, I feel a laugh bubbling out. Adam’s got that puzzled look again, but only for a second or two. Now the worry is easing out of him. I can even see the start of a grin.
I wonder if he’ll still be grinning after I tell him how glad I am that Miss Abigail Jones slipped him her lacy handkerchief.
The Poker words/phrases dealt to me were:
Fear of being buried alive
Fear of heights
Other Stories by this Author
- He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother (by freyakendra)
- The Fire Inside (by freyakendra)
- The Razor’s Edge [aka A Close Shave] (by freyakendra)
- The Grizzly and God’s Hands (by freyakendra)
- The Decklin Principle (by freyakendra)