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She lunged the horse forward because that was all that was left to them, the slope too sheer to turn him, the shale his hooves struck loose skidding away, wheeling downward. She felt him slip from under her, struggling to regain his feet, the air snapping with the sound of stones colliding, echoes rebounding against the headwall of the cirque. It was the second time he’d come close to falling, and now he stood bunched and quivering, his ears flattened against his skull. They were both breathing hard.
She glanced back over her shoulder. Below her the ridgeline rose up sharp-edged, spangling in the sunlight, seeming to beckon as madness is sometimes said to. The bands of muscle in her back and shoulders burned, and her mouth had gone dry.
She inched higher against the long run of his neck, careful not to unbalance them, whispering “Just this” to urge him forward again. She felt him gather his weight in his hindquarters, heard him groan. He still trembled. “Just this,” she whispered again, and there was the chopping of his iron shoes against the broken rim and they were over all at once, unexpectedly, the horse staggering, standing finally with his legs splayed, his head hung low, braced up against the suck of his own breathing.
She slipped to the ground, tried to walk and couldn’t, then squatted with her arms thrown over her knees. She smelled like the horse: salty, souring, indelicate. Her hands shook when she held them in front of her face. She’d acted like a goddamn tourist bringing them straight up out of the head of Owl Creek, ignoring the game trails. Sweat ran into her eyes, down the beaded course of her spine.
She shaded her eyes, looking southeast over Clear Creek, Crazy Woman Creek, across the Powder River Basin toward the Black Hills, the horizon a hundred miles away, faintly edging the dome of blue sky. This was the secret she’d kept from her East Coast classmates, the exhilaration of this perfect air, filtered clear—as she has believed since childhood—by the rising souls of the dead. In her early teens, she even imagined she could feel the press of them in their passing, those assemblages of spirits retracing the very same watercourses that flow east and west from this divide, much as salmon would climb them, single-minded in their desire for homecoming, lifting themselves toward the advantage of heaven.
She straightened her legs. The insides of her thighs prickled from the chafing of the climb. Her belly hummed and she pressed a hand against her abdomen, turning to check the horse where he stepped carefully through the lichen-covered stones bearing the imprints of Cretaceous fishes. His name is Royal, and except for days like this when they’re at work, she rides him bareback. Always. She trusts him that much. He nickered softly and she watched her reflections in the dark globes of his eyes. She smiled and her reflections smiled, and she thought there’s joy in a horse, laughter in its movement, even at this point of exhaustion. She stood, stomping her legs until they were just shaky.
Her grandfather had asked her only to check the new grasses before they pasture the cattle on these Forest Service leases, but she was concerned—as she has always been—not to disappoint him, not to waste his time with her carelessness. So she and Royal have weaved among the cows where they’ve found them collected in the timbered undergrowth, alert for signs of illness or accident. They’ve walked the fences where they could, and lastly, when the job was done, made this break for the toplands.
She knelt in the soggy cress that bordered a seep and bent to the water and drank. Then she peeled her shirt and bra over her head, splashing the water against her neck, shoulders and breasts, finally sitting back on her heels to stare at a contrail that halved the sky above her.
Her mother had asked, “Are you still stringing that Indian boy along?”
They were seated across from each other in the new café in Ishawooa. Salads, meatless soups, herbal teas. A sandwich board on the sidewalk out front, its legs sandbagged against the wind. It’s their habit to eat together once a week, as testimony that they truly are mother and daughter.
Griff scooted forward on her chair, against the table’s edge. “I get really sick of you pretending to be a racist.”
“Saying he’s an Indian is just a fact.”
“So is his name.”
Her mother cleared her throat. “Are you still fucking Paul Woodenlegs?” Louder this time, a woman turning at another table rearing back to stare through the bottom half of her bifocals.
The blood rose in Griff’s cheeks, her mother nodding conclusively, the gesture women commit in church in lieu of speaking amen.
“When your dad and I were your age,” Jean said, and smiled, unconsciously reaching inside the open throat of her blouse, straightening a bra strap, “it meant something then.”
“I love him.” She knew the statement was heard as excuse, and therefore feeble.
“Love must be different now.”
And there it was, just a hint of the sour, woody smell on her mother’s breath, and Griff wondered when she’d taken her first bourbon this morning.
“Your dad and I never wanted to be apart. Not for a single day.”
“I’m not like you.”
She watched her mother’s hands pick up a menu, holding it open. She hung her own weather-roughened hands out of sight, finding it impossible to admit that when she and Paul are making love it’s the grinding of their bones she hears, the clamor of one animal moving against another. Not always, but often enough to convince her that nothing remains unbroken forever.
“Is he the reason you’re not going back to school?”
“He won’t even be here this fall. He’s finishing graduate school in Chicago.”
“In what?” Jean held up her empty glass, trying to catch the waitress’s attention.
“Didn’t we already have this conversation?”
“Tell me again.”
“Isn’t that something?” Her mother’s eyes remained calm. “Just think of the career opportunities he’ll have for scrubbing bathrooms in some reservation casino.”
“Yeah, Mom, I’m sure that’s what he’s shooting for.”
“I remember that we’ve talked about this now.” She dabbed at her mouth with a napkin, though they hadn’t yet ordered any food. She folded the white linen over the berry-colored smear of lip gloss, leaning forward on her elbows. “You know it’s what drop-outs always say. ‘Just this fall.’ ” She rested her chin on the heel of a hand. “But it always turns out to be for the rest of their lives.”
She spent the afternoon wandering through an acre of chert and obsidian chippings, in places half a foot thick, imagining the ancients squatting here so near the sun, raised above the worst of the summer heat and flies, fashioning their spear points and arrowheads. Twice she scooped up handfuls of the glittering spall, tossing it upward, watching it plume in bursts of refraction as crude fireworks would, then rattle back to earth.
In the late afternoon she found the butt of a broken Clovis point and, later, the skull of a bighorn ram. This she lifted out of the scatter of bones strewn by predators, wind and snowmelt, and carried it to where Royal grazed, securing it behind the cantle with the saddle strings.
She caught up the reins, and led the horse onto a trail that descended through a thick copse of aspen, weaving him down through the slender white trunks and stopping in the last throw of shade. She leaned against his shoulder, staring along the curve of his neck into the evergreens crowded before them.
The spring stayed wet through the front part of June, and now, in this heat at the end of the month, the firs had shrugged their mustard-yellow pollen in a day, staining the air as a ground fog would, luteous, and in the late and slanting light seeming to glow from within. She extended her arms over her head, walking forward, the horse following.
At dusk they were out on the open foothills, winding down through the cows and calves scattered and grazing in the cooler air. And far below them—along the creek, arranged among the old homestead cottonwoods—the house, the barn and outbuildings.
She breathed in deeply, contentedly, pressing her tongue against the roof of her mouth to better taste the perfumed air flavored by fertility, by promise, by this country she has lived in for the best half of her life.