By Blakely, Mike
Forge Books Copyright © 1995 Blakely, Mike
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780812530292
Nothing Caleb knew of could best his pocketknife. It was the first thing he had ever owned that he really wanted. Life and quack doctors had granted him plenty he didn't want: measles, mumps, whooping cough, croup, cramp colic, flux, bilious fever. But when he clutched the double-bladed, bone-handled, tempered-steel pocketknife in his little fist, he felt retribution for all his past ills.
His mother looked into the door of the dugout. "Caleb, come out and get some sun now," she said. "It will make you better."
Better? He had never felt as well in his life. He owned a pocketknife! The boy stepped out of the dugout and watched his mother climb the bank of the creek and disappear over the rim. His house was like a cave, carved into the brink of the dirt bank, its roof of poles and sod level with the vast plains his family had crossed by wagon.
He stood and looked at the mountains before he fol lowed his mother. He didn't t know why they couldn't live in the mountains. It would be fun to slide down them. He reckoned it would take him two days to slide down mountains that tall.
The scramble up the bank winded him a little. He panted and watched his mother carry her water bucket to the flowers she was trying to grow. She looked like a stick figure lost in a dream of dead grass. He preferred to look at the mountains.
Dirt fell into the dugout when the boy jumped on thesod-covered roof. He heard it sprinkle the tabletop inside. He looked over his shoulder to make sure his mother hadn't seen his; she hadn't, so he dropped to the seat of his pants and let his legs dangle over the doorway to his home.
He fished out his knife, warm from his right pocket. The midday sun glinted against the brass endpieces. His father had oiled the hinges, and the folding blades swung easily from their slots in the handle. He chose the long one. He didn't really know why the knife had a short blade--couldn't think of anything he would want to stab that slightly.
From his left pocket he produced a chunk of kindling wood with a square end. He meant to whittle it into a point that looked like one of the mountains across the creek. Maybe he could give it to his mother and prove to her that he could do something besides lie around sick.
The blade sliced easily through the soft pine, and left facets smooth enough to reflect the sun. Caleb turned the blunt stob into a precious gem. He held it at arm's length to check its shape against the mountain. He smiled, then heard the handle of his mother's water bucket rattle behind him.
"Caleb," she said, "don't sit on the roof, you'll shake dirt...."
The boy's every muscle flexed, snapping his little body into the air. His mother was screaming as if she had a panther in her petticoats. He could grab nothing, his hands busy with the paraphernalia of whittling. He bounced on the roof, pitched forward, saw the threshold below, where he would land. Suddenly his head jerked down and his shirt caught him under the chin.
His mother dragged him by the collar, up over the roof edge, and away from the creek bank, screaming. "Ab! Come here! Come here right now!" She pinned Caleb's wrist to the ground and took the pocketknife away.
Caleb's father was plowing a short way down the creek. He left his oxen and came running as the boy rubbed his throat and caught his breath. "Ella? What happened?" he said.
"Where did Caleb get such a knife?" she asked, shaking the bone handle at her husband.
"I gave it to him."
"Did you not think it important to ask his mother first?"
"The boy's six years old, Ella. I think it's time he had a knife. It folds up. It's not dangerous."
"He was sitting on the roof with it!" she screamed. "I caught him by the collar just as he was falling off! He would have cut himself to pieces!"
"Is he all right!"
"No, he's not all right. He's scared half to death."
Caleb tried to speak, but the coughing came instead.
"Oh, now he's shaken something loose," Ella said. "Take him into the hole. I'll get him some water."
The boy's father helped him to his feet and led him by the hand down to the door of the dugout.
"Can I have my pocketknife back?" Caleb wheezed.
His father squatted to his level and pushed his hat back, revealing his untanned forehead, reddened by the sweatband. "Where were you sitting when you were whittling with it?" he asked.
Caleb pointed to the roof of the dugout, above the door. "Up there."
"Is that a safe place to use a knife?"
"No, it sure isn't. I thought you were old enough to have it, boy, but I guess you' not. I'll keep it for you, and you can have it when you learn to use it right. Now go in the house and think about that."
"I said get in there, boy."
Caleb ran into the dark hole in the creek bank. He fell on his pallet, buried his face in his blankets, and cried, coughing between sobs. His mother came in and made him drink some water she had hauled up from the creek, then he was alone again in the dark.
It wasn't fair. Matthew and Pete had owned pocketknives as long as he could remember being their brother. He had seen them carve their names twenty feet up the trunks of trees, standing on limbs no bigger than broom handles. No one had ever taken their knives away. They got to do everything. They got to ride the horse. They got to chase the cows. They went hunting with their father. Caleb never did anything. His mother wouldn't let him until he got better. But he was never going to get better. She wouldn't even let him do that.
He looked under his arm at his view of the mountains, framed by the darkness of his dugout home. Through his tears he gazed at their vast, forested flanks--blue, black, and purple against the pale sky. He rolled over and sat on the dirt floor. He was tired of crying. No one was listening, anyway. Across the creek was a bald hill, and beyond that hill stood the mountains. He had seen Pete and Matthew playing on the hill just a couple of days ago. It hadn't seemed to take them very long to get there. He wondered if he could make it there and back before his mother returned to the dugout to cook supper.
While he was trying to calculate the distance, something unknown caught his eye. It passed over the treeless hill: maybe a wind ripple on the blade tips of the grasses, or the lingering dust from a dying whirlwind. It seemed to spell an invitation on the side of the mountain until his eyes focused, darting everywhere, finding nothing. The long sounds of his name moaned once on the wind, and then were lost. Something up there had called to him. He crawled to the door and peeked out. No one watched. He clawed his way to the brink of the dirt bank and found his mother on her knees, tending her flower garden. His father was plowing behind the oxen. The boy waited until his father reached the end of the turnrow and started plowing away from the dugout. He glanced at his mother again, then slid down the bank on his rear. He planted his heels, sprang to his feet, and hurtled down toward the creek.
At the water's edge he glanced back but still couldn't see either of his parents over the bank. The stepping-stones stood too far apart to suit his stride, so he leapt from one to the other. The water ran shallow but swift around him like a gale in the treetops. At the far shore he slipped and landed on his back in the old water. He floundered for a second, found his footing, splashed to the far bank, and pulled at the clothes plastered cold against his skin.
He collapsed and heaved under the cottonwoods lining the shore opposite his dugout. When he had caught his breath, he scurried uphill, weaving among the trunks. The bald hill above the cottonwoods was like a hump of the prairie that had broken free and crossed the creek. It was covered with the same short brown grass that bristled from the roof of his house. He left the trees behind and trudged up the grassy slope.
Suddenly, the mountains appeared over the bald pate of the hill. Caleb couldn't believe it. They seemed no closer here than from the dugout. The great peaks rose higher as the boy mounted the crest. He knelt and stared with his mouth open. He couldn't count the ridges between his bald hill and the mountains--some growing trees; some bare rock. They meshed and angled toward the peaks.
A bare and narrow trail passed in front of him and snaked into the foothills. He saw its curves passing over the high places. It looked like a very old trail, but it wasn't wide enough for a wagon. It might have been wide enough for two horses walking abreast, but Caleb wasn't sure. He didn't know much about riding horses.
He turned back to the plains. The dream of dead grass had grown larger and all but swallowed his stick-figure parents. Even the oxen looked no bigger than bugs. The furrows his father plowed were mere scratches on the world; the doorway to his house was nothing but a freckle on the face of a giant. Way beyond his parents the boy saw one of his brothers riding the horse around the cows. It was so far away he couldn't even tell which brother it was.
The mountains held for him a far greater appeal. He let the sun and the south wind dry him as he dreamed of riding the trail into the mountains someday when his mother let him get well--some distant day after his father gave him his pocketknife back.
Copyright 1994 by Mike Blakely
Excerpted from Shortgrass Song by Blakely, Mike Copyright © 1995 by Blakely, Mike. Excerpted by permission.
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