THE BOY WHO DIDN’T WANT TO BE KISSED

“Get away! I don’t WANT to be kissed!” Tom shouted. Then he opened his eyes and stared into the bulging eye of his horse, who had been nuzzling him awake. “Oh.” The horse’s stiff whiskers tickled his face and he pushed the nose away.

He couldn’t remember why he had been asleep. It wasn’t morning. He wasn’t in the habit of taking naps. His horse was was not saddled or bridled. There was tall grass under him and he could hear a creek nearby. His head hurt. When he put up his hand to investigate, there was a mess, and when he brought his hand back into his line of sight, it was bright red. Then a torrent of water hit him in the face.

When, sputtering, he opened his eyes again there was a female in pigtails and straw hat looking at him. Too close. Maybe she wanted to kiss him! He yelped and tried to scramble, but his limbs were strangely slow. “Hold still,” she scolded. “You got a head wound. I’m trying to see whether the pupils of your eyes are the same size.” She screwed up her face quizzically, squinting while she considered. “Well, I guess so. But you still might have had a concussion. You were out so long even your horse was worried.”

“My horse worries too much.”

“But why weren’t you riding your regular horse?”

He couldn’t figure out what she meant. So he ignored the question. “How bad is my head?”

“Take a look.” She had a small circular mirror, the kind traded to Indians.

“You’re so vain you carry a mirror?” He was defensive, a little scared of mirrors. He had almost no experience with them, having grown up in menfolk places that kept no mirrors because they neither cut nor combed their hair or beards. (Well, he wouldn’t if he ever managed to grow a beard.) They lived in a cabin and bathed rarely. Why do it, if you didn’t have to?

“No, silly! It’s for signaling. I send Morse code to my friends with it. Why can’t you remember that?”

“Your friend is named Morse?”

She laughed “You’re still pretty confused.”

He scowled, which made his head wound hurt, so he accepted the mirror. It was disconcerting to look into his own eyes but he paused a moment before he managed to get it to reflect his front hair. “Looks like a bullet graze.”

“That’s what I think, too, especially since it made a hole in your hat. Luckily it was only in the brim so it would still hold water. My straw hat is useless for that.” She put his holed and soaked hat on his chest. “Why would anyone shoot at you? You’re hardly a rustler.”

How would she know? Things didn’t make sense. “I don’t get any of this.”

“Let’s go back to town. I put your saddle over there.” Nicely tipped up on the front to keep from curling the square skirts.

But what town? He didn’t know anything about any town. He was only passing through this part of the world, coming down onto the flats from the foothills cabin where he and his dad had always lived. Not that he wanted to be here, but after his pa was killed he’d gotten lonesome. You could call it that. And he didn’t want to talk about it. He didn’t even want to think about it. But when the girl mounted, he saddled and followed.

When they entered the little town with its one main street, church at one end, courthouse at the other, and a dozen businesses ranged between, the people they passed smiled and greeted the two of them as though they knew them, but they kept using the wrong name: Don instead of Tom. At first he thought he might not be hearing properly. One smart aleck called, “Hey, when did you stop combing your hair?”

“Never started,” he growled truthfully. The girl laughed as though it were a joke. They rode to a parallel street and pulled up outside a picket fence where there was an actual hitching post in addition to the fence. Pretty fancy.

A recently ridden horse was tied there, one foot patiently tipped up as it waited. “There’s your horse!” the girl said. A porch across the front of the painted house held chairs. One of them was occupied by a boy his age, who rose to his feet in astonishment.

“Why. . . ” the boy exclaimed. “How is this possible?” In a moment he added, “You look just like ME !”

The girl was equally stunned, staring from one boy to the other. Tom was thoroughly irritated. What in blazes was going on, anyway? He was getting tired of all these jokes. Seeing his confusion, the girl took his hand and towed him up onto the porch and into the house where the front hall contained a full-length mirror. The other boy followed and there they were, same all over except for clothes and grooming. Both their mouths hung open, both their eyes were wide.

The girl recovered first. “This is very lucky. Don, we know your clothes will fit so go get a set of clean clothes for Tom. It’s easy to tell you apart now. We’ll see what a washup will do. Then we’ll only be able to tell which is which by the sticking plaster I’m going to put on your wound.”

Don did not want to go get clothes for an unexpected duplicate of himself. Tom did not want to put on any clothes he hadn’t owned for long enough to get used to them. But this young woman had a lot of force to her personality. They did what she said, except that Tom refused to hand over his clothes for washing. When Tom met the parents, the two boys were indeed identical except for haircuts. Daphne’s mother, Amelia, did not kiss Tom, but she was obviously having to fight so hard to keep from doing it that the effect was more powerful than an actual kiss. She was actually holding her hands locked together behind her back. Mr. Torrance showed little emotion. That was his style. He enjoyed playing poker. And chess. Checkers were too easy.

Fortunately, the first thing was supper, where Don demonstrated proper manners and Tom was totally boggled by the strange food and implements. The parents seemed to know more about all this than they were telling. They kept exchanging glances. There was half as much meat as Tom was used to and it had a lot of bland fat on it. He appreciated the pie.

After supper, on the porch, Mr. Torrance offered cigars and Tom, thanking him but refusing, went out to fetch his pipe from his saddlebags so he could check on his horse, Tulip. He loved Tulip and it was mutual. “Whuh, huh, huh,” she whickered before plunging her nose back into the manger. She wasn’t named for any domestic yard flower, but for the wild lavender “prairie tulips” some called crocus and others nicknamed “kitten ears.” They covered the hillsides in spring. Domestic or not, Tulip was enjoying this bounty. Tom rolled his familiar clothes in his saddle blanket. He had a feeling one of those women might steal them and wash them against his wishes.

While the women were doing kitchen things, the men sat smoking in silence. The twins said nothing, Don because he knew that Mr. Torrance would tell nothing until he had thought it over and Tom because he had been taught to hold his tongue. When the women came out, Mr. Torrance was ready to speak.

“It’s like this,” finally said the older man. “You were born identical twins. Your first names are the ones your mother gave you before she died, but you’ve been raised by different people. Don, you came to us and Tom, here, went with his real father. I’d have liked to have talked to him a bit before he died, but it appears he did a good job of raising you, Tom. That’s really about all there is to it.” There were wreaths of smoke overhead but no one was talking. They were all thinking hard.

How could identical twins have different fathers? They must have had the same mother. Of course, twins would be a lot to handle so, in a way, Tom could see why they had been split up. But why had a mountain trapper taken on single parenthood? On the other hand, lots of solitary people raised small animals as pets and isn’t a human child a small animal? “My pa said my mother died in childbirth,” he blurted.

“Oh, yes. That’s true.” Amelia said. And then something else under her breath that he didn’t catch.

“What was she like?”

“Oh,” Amelia arranged her skirt across her knees. “She was quite a lot like me.”

“Tom,” interrupted Mr. Torrance, “You can stay with us now — if you want to. Don can share his room.” Daphne was grinning. Don was not.

Tom was not able to sleep. Across the room in the other bed Don’s resentful back was turned to him. He had far too much to think about. He still had not really accepted his pa’s death. It was so abrupt and unexpected, and yet his pa had said to him a week or so earlier, “If anything happens to me, go find Parnassas McClure.” He wished he’d thought to ask the Torrances whether they knew Parnassas McClure.

In the middle of the night Tom rose silently, stole a loaf of bread, put on his own clothes, and took off on Tulip, feeling as though he were taking his life back from a terrible kidnapping incident. In his mind the bullet that grazed his head was part of a confusing nightmare he could not figure out, so he mostly ignored it. But now he HAD to think about his pa’s death. And then his ma’s death.

He found a place where Tulip had grass and, while the sun came up in the distance, lay down to chew on the loaf of bread and sort through what he knew. He was a horizontal thinker, reclining his body and laying out the facts in his mind. On that deadly morning his pa had opened the front door to go out for water and, after a gunshot, abruptly had fallen over — flat on his back — as though he’d tripped on the threshold, though if that were the cause of falling, he’d have gone frontwards rather than being knocked backwards. Then slowly the blood had spread from under him until it looked as though he were lying on a freeform red Hudson’s Bay trade blanket.

Tom was not in doubt that his pa was dead. He and Pa were hunters. Their safety depended on recognizing dead when they saw it. Who would hunt his pa? He simply sat down on the floor just outside the pool of blood, silently, and stared until the sun was straight overhead. Then he carefully undressed his pa and washed him. He found a note in the shirt pocket, soaked in blood, so he could barely figure out what it said: “Find Parnassas McClure.”

There was a grizzly hide they had Indian-tanned but couldn’t quite bring themselves to sell. He laid his father on it with the fur side inside, and sewed him in as tight as he could with the big three-edge buckskin needle. Then he went out and dug a hole. When his father was buried, he and Tulip left. He’d only taken food and ammunition. There wasn’t much more in the cabin anyway. They were subsistence hunters who had built the cabin and made almost everything. It wasn’t fancy but everything in it was part of them. Their time and energy made each object into something useful and therefore cherished. Tom paid no attention to money.

Now, lying in the grass adding things up — the sun finally high enough not to be in his eyes — it occurred to him that he ought to have checked their hidey-hole. It was a place in one of the log rafters that had a big knothole. Behind that knot was a hollowed-out space big enough to hide things. Hard to find unless you knew where to look.

No money had been in there — that was in a buckskin bag they kept in the bottom of the bed under the covers, so their feet touched it reassuringly in the night. That small bag was in his pocket now. There wasn’t a lot. Sugar and gunpowder money was about all. What possible motive for a killing could there be? They rarely even saw other people, much less riled them. Then the gunshot that had creased his own head. And Daphne.

*********

Back in town, reactions to Tom’s departure were mixed. Daphne thought about it most, but then she knew the most about what was really happening, or thought she did. Over the years she’d overheard scraps, which meeting Tom had formed into a pattern like a quilt design. She knew there was something dangerous and forbidden about the deaths of Tom’s parents. She knew that Tom’s mother had been her own mother’s sister and that something about that had caused her death, but she knew nothing about the death of Tom’s father except that Mr. Torrance seemed relieved when it happened. Like something was over. She was pretty sure Don knew nothing. But Don had a secret life he didn’t share. He had some dubious friends and sometimes she thought they had corrupted him.

In the back of the parlor clock was a hidden compartment where she knew her mother kept things. She didn’t often trespass, but this seemed like the right time to do some investigating. She found a few photos was all, but they were interesting. One was her mother holding identical twin boys, nearly infants. Another was two beautiful young girls in white dresses, sitting side-by-side on two identical chairs that had been carried out onto the sunlit lawn. The girls were also identical. She could not tell which one was her mother. She had not known that her mother was a twin. So was it her mother holding the boys? She scrutinized her evidence closely. There was also an image of a man she had never seen before. Curiosity and wanting to figure it out made her forget scruples and slide the photos into her apron pocket.

She was thinking about the cabin where Tom and his dad had lived. He had explained where it was.

**********

Tom got back to the cabin without incident. The front door was standing open and the place was ransacked. It had probably happened as soon as he left and he thought at first it was animals, since their footprints were in the spilled flour. Then he saw human footprints. He stood alongside them and saw that the feet were the same size as his own. But the trespasser seemed not to have lingered and neither Tulip nor himself could detect anyone around now.

He went to the knothole hiding place and drew out only a few papers. One was a birth certificate for twin boys — mother’s name Cecilia — and one was a marriage certificate. The groom’s name was his father’s. The bride’s name was Cecilia. One of the witnesses was named Amelia Torrance and the other was named Parnassas McClure. He felt in his pocket for the folded bit of paper he’d found on his pa but it was glued together with his pa’s blood. Still, he could see the name clearly in his mind’s eye.

The straw-stuffed mattresses had been slashed and strewn, but he piled them together and lay down to think, holding the certificates in case new writing might magically appear — something that would explain things. Soon he was snoring. Good thing he’d already turned Tulip into the corral. The hay that had been in the top of the small barn had been pitched out and scattered so the horse had to lip it off the ground.

Someone had really put their mind to searching. Were these certificates what they were looking for? Why? He slept. When he dreamt that some woman — so familiar — was kissing him, he jerked and muttered, but didn’t wake even when a horse approached.

A step on the porch woke him. A form in the open door. It was female. Daphne. No sooner did she get inside than she began straightening up, while he stared at her without saying anything. Soon she had him sitting at the table with coffee and beans, plus the last of the purloined bread. She put her stolen photos on the table between them. “We’ve got to get a handle on this,” she declared. “I think you may be my brother.”

Surprised, Tom cried out when he picked up the photo of the man. “This is certainly my father! A lot younger, of course.”

After supper, on the porch in the dwindling golden light of sunset while Tom puffed his pipe, Daphne let her talk ramble on typical female subjects. “I’m a little disappointed that you might be my brother. It’s not the same to kiss a brother as it would be to kiss someone you liked pretty well but weren’t related to. On the other hand, you might merely be my cousin — maybe kissing cousin.”

“What does THAT mean?” demanded Tom, distracted by looking at the photos.

“Oh, cousins close enough to kiss!” she explained and leaned over to kiss him on the ear. It was nicer than a horse kiss.

That night he rolled out his soogan on the floor, too tired to notice whether mice ran over him. Daphne slept on the reconstituted mattress on the bed, extra fat because it held the straw from both previous stuffings. “This place would be pretty nice if it had curtains and a tablecloth,” she was muttering as she fell asleep.

In the morning they were back on the porch, nursing coffee, when a light flashed in Daphne’s eyes. Bright, gone, bright, gone. . .

Tom was startled. “What the heck was that?”

Daphne was also surprised. “Heliograph signals. It’s Don — I recognize his style — but why doesn’t he just come on up here? How did he know where I was anyway? He must have followed me.” Flash, dark, dark, flash. Then she looked even more surprised, then angry.

“What? What? Tell me what he’s saying.”

“He has no right! He’s telling me to go home, right now, and to leave you behind. The jealous beast! He’s my brother, not my master.” Then she caught herself. “Maybe he’s only my cousin.”

“L-E-A-V- N-O-W- D-A-N-J-ER.”

A spring wagon was traveling on the road, still a ways off, coming fast enough to raise a lot of dust. A bullet from somewhere nearby zinged past them and plunked into the side of the cabin. They scuttled into the cabin where Tom scrambled for his rifle. Side-by-side, they cautiously peeked over the sill of the front window. Now Don stepped out into the open, rifle to shoulder, carefully aiming as he walked towards the cabin. Maybe he thought Tom had no gun.

He thought wrong.

But when Tom pulled the trigger, there was only a snap. No bullets. Don knew he had the gun, but he also knew it wasn’t loaded. He’d had access to it at the Torrances. He was close now.

The spring wagon came tearing around the last stand of aspen, rocking up on its wheels like a boat in whitewater. Mr. Torrance was driving. Amelia had a handgun, a big pistol. Using both hands, rocking as they hurtled too close to miss, she emptied it into Don. No one there could understand what had happened, particularly Don, who was dead and had no need to understand anything again. The women began to scream and wail. Amelia threw the gun into the bed of the spring wagon and leapt down to cradle Don. Daphne ran to hold them both at once.

*********

“You and Don were born right here in this cabin,” said Amelia. “I really am your mother, the both of you boys.” Tom didn’t know where to look but Daphne’s gaze was riveted. Being told about your own birth didn’t bear much thinking about. Especially when it was your mother doing the telling. Mr. Torrance was out in the yard, loading Don’s blanket-wrapped body into the back of the spring wagon.

“Don was blue when he came into the world. He’d been suffocated on the way and he never was quite right. He SEEMED all right, but he wasn’t.” She took Tom’s hand. “I blamed your father, who was the only midwife I had. I blamed him for getting me with child in the first place and then not managing the birth properly. I took you twins and ran away to my sister, Cecelia, who was married to Mr. Torrance. She was pregnant with you, Daphne.”

Daphne gasped. “You’re not my mother?”

“You came prematurely and I delivered you. Cecilia died. I was sorry for blaming your father then. I worked so hard to keep you alive, it does seem to me as though I gave birth to you.” She sighed, out of tears. “I just took her place. I was still nursing. There was no town then, we were just on a farm and no one really knew us yet, so it solved a lot of problems. Parnassas McClure knew, but he approved.”

Tom pounded his fists on the two certificates and several photos laid on the table. “Except that you were still married to my father!”

She nodded. “And then one day he found us and demanded his sons. He threatened to turn us in for bigamy unless he got his sons. I agreed to give him you, arguing that Don would always need a little protection and guidance. He saw the sense in that.”

Now she began to weep and even to wail. “I must have let slip where this cabin was and that he was a twin. He was an eavesdropper. I failed to protect him. I gave that boy life! But I had to take it back! It was my right and my duty.” Daphne embraced the woman who was her aunt, but still felt like her mother, and rocked her.

The little procession back to town was a slow and sorrowful one. Mr. Torrance took care of things. Amelia/Cecilia went to bed, her face taut and pale with grief.

Escaping the house, Daphne and Tom perched in the hay window of the barn, watching the horses pull hay out of the rack below their feet, a mouthful at a time. “Who is Parnassus McClure?” asked Tom, remembering.

“How can you think of legal things at a time like this? He’s the judge. You’re not in trouble, you know. Even my — um — aunt will get off since Don was trying to kill us.”

Mr. Torrance came to pour water into the horse trough. He never said much, but what he said counted. He looked up at them. “Parnassas McClure is holding the deed to this place and your dad’s cabin until you come of age. Your pa was the only one of us who had money. He’s the one bought this place. He put it in the names of you three children. Kept the wedding and birth certificates to prove he had the right. Don just didn’t want to share — he wanted more than his third.” Stiffly, he walked back around the corner, his galvanized bucket clanging a bit.

The setting sun painted the faces of the youngsters bright red. There was a fire somewhere making a lot of smoke. Tom looked at Daphne. “Would you mind if we traded bedrooms? I don’t want to feel I’m displacing my twin. Even though I am. I didn’t much like being a twin.”

“You remember when we rode up to the house and he was so surprised? It wasn’t because you looked just like him. It was because he thought he’d killed you.”

“He DID kill my pa. His pa, too, come to that. I loved my pa. Did Don love anyone at all?”

“I think he sort of loved me, but in a bad way.” They were quiet for a bit. The birds were making evensong.

Tom speculated, “Which bond is stronger, do you suppose? The one between mother and son or the one between twins? I guess we have to say mothers and sons, even when they don’t know the son.” They swung their feet while they pondered. They were really quite young.

“What about lovers?” More silence.

“That kissing I dreamt about must have been my mother kissing me goodbye.” More silence. “I sure do miss my pa.”

“I’ll share mine. He’s a pretty good one. But you’ve got my mother!”

“I never had a mom. Guess I’ll let her kiss me.”

“And from now on you can kiss her hello every morning! ”

They held hands. But that was all. It was plenty.

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