Birdsong strikes up and musters in the first soft press of dawn. Starlings, sparrows, magpies, meadowlarks, blackbirds. There is the flush and shuffle of feathers. Throat tunings. The hollowing chitter of beaks. Bursts of flight. Wrens, flycatchers, cowbirds, crows. Complaint. Exultation. They work the meadow grass, the cottonwoods along the creek, the open barnloft, alive in tilting sweeps of hand-size shadows. The raptors float silently a thousand feet above, turning, spiraling atop the early-morning thermals, hunting the edge of the ebbing night.
A downdraft masses cool and heavy against the escarpment of the Front Range and totters and slides from the warming sky. It thrums against the sides of the stocktank, the outbuildings, the house; ripples the surface of the pond below the barn. It swings the pasture grasses east, lifts the boughs of a Douglas fir beside the house, scatters in bursts of cottonwood and aspen leaf. It smells of dew, juniper, sage, pine, horseshit, and stone. It chills McEban's exposed shoulders, his arms; pricks him away from sleep. He turns in his bed. He drifts. He is, for this brief moment, without memory, without longing. Simply one of God's naked creatures, accepting of the seasons.
The wasp-yellow curtains quake at the window, reflect as light beige. The bedroom furniture stands in subdued angles of gray and darker grays. Gretchen's dress, cornflower blue, draped over the ladder-back of an oak chair, catches in a predawn shade of snow-shadow. Her plain cotton bra and panties lie wadded on the seat of the chair, dull as weathered vertebra.
McEban doubles a pillow under the side of his head and relaxes into it, and hooks the hem of the sheet with a forefinger, and draws it gently back from her. He feels the flash of her body's heat against his own and lies blinking in the half-light, remembering that he has known this woman all of her life. Forty years and change, he thinks. He remembers they were children together, and that he loved her when she was a girl, and later, and that he loves her now.
He looks into a corner of the room, at their reflections caught in the freestanding mirror. There is the curve of her spine, lambent; flawless as a small burl of cumulus. She flexes and turns, and her reflection turns onto its back, its legs and arms splayed, settling. McEban looks away from the mirror. He looks again at the woman beside him.
Her arms are sun-stained to her shoulders, and her legs to her knees, and her face flecked with freckles. The rest of her runs milky, gone translucent in places, and at those places puzzled faintly with bluish veins-at her throat, the sides of her breasts, the smooth slope of flesh that draws low across her hips into the nappy wedge of auburn hair.
She moans lowly and moves her head from side to side and her long hair pools to the sides of her neck, spills across her shoulders, across the pillow, across the sheet, appears artesian. He cups a palmful of the hair to his nose and inhales. He has prayed to have this woman in his arms, and feels full of the power of his prayers. Her hair smells sweet as blood.
He is afraid to look again into the mirror. He is afraid of what he might see. It is his belief that his family's ghosts watch and record his transgressions. He imagines them as judgmental, with notebooks-as scouts for a prudish God. And then he thinks of Bennett. He thinks of the three of them-Gretchen and Bennett, and himself.
He thinks that Bennett does not believe in an afterlife, in witnesses, doesn't give a shit for the quick or the dead. He thinks he has never heard Bennett speak of his dreams. He has, in fact, heard the man state aloud that dreams are for the unfocused. He knows Bennett's trust lies in a world he can kick. A world that kicks back. And Bennett is his best friend, and Gretchen is Bennett's wife. He thinks there is no way for that not to be a blow. In the real world, for a focused man.
He looks again at Gretchen, to the woman who is his best friend's wife, lying here, beside him, in this house where he was a boy.
He'd heard her park in the drive and recognized the sound of the truck and did not believe it. He'd wondered if he was dreaming. It was after midnight, and there was just a paring of moon, Venus unclouded and lamping, fallen to the west of the moon, fallen down the vault of blue-black sky.
He heard her in the hallway, recognized her steps, heard her undressing at the foot of his bed, the sound of her breath, and still did not believe it. Even when she was beside him in his bed he did not trust the scent of her, the feel of her skin against his own.
"Who is this?" he asked.
"I don't believe you," he said. "This is just a dream."
She pressed herself harder against the length of him. She kissed him. She cupped his hand over her breast. "Does this feel like a dream?"
"Yes," he said. "It feels like my dream."
He reaches out in the soft morning light and rests his hand gently on her abdomen. Just his hand. The hand rises and falls. She fidgets slightly against its weight. Her eyes flick under their lids. Her lips part as if to speak.
He remembers her younger. Before the gray got a start in her hair. Before gravity pulled half a lifetime of living through her flesh. He can't help himself. She bends her left leg at its knee and settles the foot against the inside of her right calf, her thighs opening, and he remembers her at seventeen, in his arms. He feels the weight of wanting her all the time between. Twenty-three years, he thinks. The bulk of his life.
He remembers her standing in a falling light, spring light, unsteady on her bare feet. He remembers her kneeling on the uneven ground. She knelt on a blanket. He remembers her raking her hands back through her thick hair, drawing it into a ponytail. There was the sound of the creek. There was a hatch of mayflies. The air was gauzy with pollen and insect wings, the sun halved by the horizon, nearly set. Her breasts rose with her arms, cast cups of shadow, and her red hair ignited. That is what the slant of sunlight did in her red hair. He wondered that her hands did not burn.
He concentrates on their breathing, and the effort allows him a sense of fragile union. He concentrates on his breath, and hers, and doesn't wonder if he is wrong in the world. He doesn't worry that the walls are shelved with the eyes of the curious and judgmental dead. He feels boyish, sweet-natured, innocent, even lucky. That is the way he's feeling when she comes awake.
She smiles and looks at his hand, where it rests on her belly. She lifts his hand and turns it and kisses its palm. She swings her legs over the side of the bed and sits. She shakes her head, and her hair lifts and falls at her shoulders. She still holds his hand.
"Did you sleep?" she asks.
She turns to see him nodding and smiles again. "I didn't plan this."
He stares at her.
"Honestly," she says.
"I wish you had."
"But I didn't. It just happened."
The sun breaks the horizon and slaps the room alive and stark. The reds, greens, blues, yellows throb. She stands in the glaring light, and he reaches out to her. He looks up the length of his mottled arm, to the soiled fingers, the broken nails, the stubble of worn hairs spiking the lengths of the fingers. He means to ask some question, something hopeful, but his mind is struck blank by a plain and primitive gratitude.
He pulls in his arm and bends his knees. He rolls against his hip and sits on the opposite side of the bed.
Insect chorus spikes through the morning birdsong, and he knows the nightchill has settled in the trees along the creek, in the ditches, and, thinly, where the ground falls low.
He watches her stand from the bed and step her long legs into her underpants, hook her bra at her waist, turn it, shrug into its cool lace, run her thumbs under its straps. She drops her dress over her head and pulls it away from her belly and hips, and it settles and hangs in the morning light. She takes up her canvas bookbag from the back of the chair and ducks through its single strap and adjusts the strap between her breasts.
He knows the bookbag holds field guides for flowers, birds, trees. At least one novel. No doubt two, perhaps three, books of poetry. And Milton. She doesn't go out of the house without Milton.
Woody yips and bounces on his front legs, and they look at him. He blocks the bedroom doorway and is anxious for his day's labor. His tongue lolls from his muzzle, his brindled body bleeding out of definition in the still-dark hallway.
Gretchen squats at the dog's head and rubs his shoulders, works the length of his ribs. His eyes go soft with pleasure. He forgets he is ugly and common and owned to work cows.
"I love you," she says. Her hands are deep in the dog's ruff, and she muscles him back and forth over his shoulders, and he mouths at her wrists.
"I love you more," McEban says. He has not stood from the edge of the bed.
She looks over her shoulder. "It's not a contest," she says.
"It feels like it is."
She stands away from the dog. She leans into the doorjamb. "You love me more than I love you, or more than Bennett loves me?"
"Both," he says. He knows he is capable of saying anything. He knows a prayer has been answered and a vacancy made in his desires. He has no control over what may be sucked into the void.
"You remember what it was like before?" he asks.
"The time before last night. When we were kids."
"That was a lifetime ago," she says.
"It doesn't seem that way to me."
She adjusts the bookbag against her hip.
"I remember the light," he says. He looks up at her.
She squares herself in the doorway. She doesn't look away. "I can't remember whether it was day or night. Not even the time of year." She still doesn't look away. She means to hold him there, in front of her, without the escape of memory.
He nods and looks down to where his hands cap his knees. "You want me to pick you up for the auction?" he asks.
"Yes, I do."
"I thought you might've changed your mind."
"How would Bennett get home?" she asks. "If I changed my mind?"
She turns away and he hears her in the shaded hallway and the dog's toenails on the floorboards at her heels. He hears the screendoor slam, and the dog barking once from the kitchen, and then again.
He walks to the window and squints into the glare. He watches her drive across the plank bridge, the boards thumping against their loose spikes. He watches her on the dirt section road, the rise of the red talc behind her. The wind has hushed, and the dust swells to the roadside and powders the borrow ditches rusty.
"It was the first of June," he says. "It was the very last part of the day."
. . . . .
He sat at the kitchen table with his mother and grandmother. His heels were hooked on the front rung of his chair, and his knees pressed against the underside of the table. He was eight. It was 1968. He does not remember that they spoke. There was the tinny clink of silverware. The burble of the electric coffeepot on the counter. He was waiting for the day to happen to him. He was working his way to the bottom of a bowl of creamed wheat.
He heard his father in the hallway and looked up from his breakfast and smiled at the man. His father was in a hurry. He didn't smile back. He moved to them, and passed without so much as a nod. He held a pistol at his side, low against his thigh. He kicked through the screendoor and marched to the center of the yard and stopped. He gripped the gun in both hands. He raised it slightly away from his waist and took a deep breath and emptied all six chambers into the ground between his feet. Boom, boom, boom. Boom, boom, boom. Just like that.
The boy's mother and grandmother winced at each round's report but did not move from the table. They put down their silverware and stared into their plates. The world stood quieter than it had. For a single long moment he could remember no sound at all.
He unhooked his heels and slid from the chair and stood at the screendoor.
The red-and-white Hereford cows along the fence had bolted away into the irrigated pasture. Sprays of hoofstruck water rose and hung in the air about them. They bunched at the pasture's north corner, milling, their calves bawling and nuzzling their mothers' bags. A row of red-winged blackbirds lifted from an electrical line and flapped in the air, then settled farther downwind in a stand of cottonwood.
"Your father cannot tolerate crabgrass," his mother said.
He looked over his shoulder to his mother. He still stood at the screendoor. She began to giggle and couldn't stop.
His grandmother scowled and pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. "Crabgrass?" she asked.
"Gardening," his mother said. She had stopped laughing. She stood and carried her dishes to the sink, and pressed her fingers to her temples and turned. Her pupils had come large in her eyes. "Migraine," she announced. She could as well have said, "Sunrise."
His grandmother snorted and took up her spoon and scraped at the rind of her truck-ripened grapefruit. They heard the back door open and close and his mother settle into her chair on the back porch.
"My ancient ass," his grandmother whispered, but she wasn't trying to be quiet.
It was as though there had been an argument, and now the argument was done.
His father stood on the lawn. He stared at the ground. He was dressed in his single suit. A wool serge, dark blue, the trousers worn pale at the knees and seat, the jacket at the elbows. The suit had been McEban's grandfather's. It had come with the ranch. Handed down like work and debt and weather. He'd seen his father wear the thing to funerals, and weddings, and on these occasional acts of emotional disobedience.
His father took a step toward the barn, shook his head, and thrust the pistol into the waistband of his trousers. He blinked into the cloudless sky and turned and looked back at the house.
McEban stepped away from the screen to let him in and the man poured a mug of coffee and leaned against the counter and sipped the coffee. His hat was tipped back from his face. The face appeared drawn. It was unshaven. The belly of his shirt bunched above the pistol's wooden grip.
"You about done with your breakfast?" he asked.
"Yes, sir," McEban told him.
"You get all the way done I'll want your help. We need to move those bulls in with the cows."
"He's helping me today," his grandmother said.
His father turned and stared plainly at her.
"For how long?" he asked.
"For as long as I need him," she said. "There's a garden to put up. And I bought flats of fruit at the IGA. They'll spoil."
His father nodded and sucked at his teeth.
"I better get out of these clothes," he said.
He paused by her as he passed. He kissed the top of her head, and when he was out of the room the old woman said, "He gets his good manners from your grandfather."
She crimped the halved grapefruit rind in her fist, held it above her upturned face, squeezed the last of its sour juice into her open mouth.
She gripped the sides of her chair and stepped it back from the table. Right side, left side, right, hefting and releasing separately the weight of each considerable buttock. She stacked their breakfast dishes and carried them to the sink. McEban stood by his chair. His bladder ached and his ears rang.
"You learn anything useful this morning?" she asked.
He looked up at her, pinched his nose, and blew hard to clear his ears. "I learned to stay out of the yard when Dad's dressed up."
His grandmother smiled and then began to chuckle. The sleeves of her housecoat were pushed past her elbows. Her forearms and hands were shiny with dishwater. Her cheeks were flushed.
"That suit's going to fit you someday, too," she said.
. . . . .
McEban's bad foot throbs and his gut rumbles, and he thinks he might suffer the shits. He feels hungry, but not ready for his breakfast.
He bends at the kitchen sink and sucks water from his cupped hands and straightens and stretches both arms above his head. The water runs back along his forearms, and there is the soft staccato pop of the cartilage in his shoulders and lower back. His shirt hangs open, unsnapped, and he grips at the slight roll of fat that rides over a kidney, and fingers the glazed line of scar tissue that loops high across the hip.
He works his thumb against the fingerpads of a hand and counts. Eight broken ribs. A split pelvis, twice. Both knees shot. Five teeth knocked out. A broken collarbone. Right wrist. Left arm. An ankle. A clubbed foot. He doesn't count the stitches. He knows he's taken enough stitches to make a quilt.
He tries to remember any single horse wreck, and only one comes clear. He can recall a tractor wreck, and a goring. He remembers the half-blind bull that got him down in the loading ramp, and he remembers that his father turned the bull into hamburger. The revenge of carnivores, he thinks.
He runs his tongue against the capped teeth at the front of his mouth and thinks about replacement parts. "Jesus Christ," he says aloud. He looks down at the dog. "It's no goddamn wonder I live alone. I'm either working or in intensive care."
He turns on the radio over the sink and leans into the counter and listens to the ag report, and then the local birthday and anniversary club, and when he turns the radio off imagines he hears footsteps in the hallway. He looks into it and there is no one, and he knows that he wants someone there. Or on the porch. Flushing a toilet. Coughing. An old woman would do, he thinks. A boy would do nicely. He thinks of the sound of a boy in the house, and he thinks of the half-dozen women he's dated in the last twenty years. He thinks that none of them was Gretchen.
He pictures the women standing together, grouped for a photograph. Phyllis, Gwen, and Rachel he puts to the front. They are short, stout women, their hips and thighs stuccoed with cellulite. Arlene, Dolly, and Joyce stand behind them. Thinner, quick-tempered. Arlene has pale, thyroid-enlarged eyes. All six present themselves hunched, their shoulders dropped down and over their breasts. "Heart-shrunken," he says aloud, but thinks they could have given him children. Any one of them. He looks down at Woody. "What about that?" he asks, and the dog cocks his head. "We're probably both too old to start now," he says, but knows he is only making conversation with a neutered dog.
He spreads honey and peanut butter on separate slices of white bread and presses them into a sandwich. He carries the sandwich to the mudroom and sits on a plank bench. He bites into the bread to free his hands and pulls on a pair of calf-high irrigation boots over his leather workboots. He stares out at the brown and overgrown square of front yard and reminds himself, as he does each morning, to buy a length of garden hose and a sprinkler when he's next in town. He stands and lets Woody out through the screen and steps back into the kitchen and takes the receiver from the wallphone. He dials Wyoming Information.
When the operator comes on he asks for the number of the Holiday Inn in Cody, and while the number is ringing he sits at the kitchen table.
"Holiday Inn," a voice answers. It is a young woman's voice.
"Bennett Reilly," he says, but he can hardly hear himself say the name.
"Excuse me, sir?"
He clears his throat. He lays his breakfast sandwich on the table. "Mr. Bennett Reilly," he repeats. Louder this time.
He listens to the buzz on the line, the patter of the receptionist's fingers on her keyboard.
"There is no Mr. Reilly," she says.
McEban spells out the name. First name and last. "He's a real-estate broker," he says. "He's there for a convention. You have a convention of real-estate brokers, don't you?"
"Would you have another look?"
"There's nothing under Reilly."
He thumbs his sandwich open and pats it shut. "Try Alan Patrick," he says.
"They work together. Alan drove them over."
"There's a Mr. Patrick," she tells him. "I'll put you through."
He listens to the phone ring and looks at the wall clock, and it reads 6:12, and Bennett comes on the line after four rings and coughs and sucks at a noseful of snot and says, "Excuse me," and blows his nose, and then, "Hello," and then again, "Hello."
McEban listens to each word and after a pause realizes he's holding his breath.
"You're a prick, whoever you are," Bennett says, and the line goes dead, and McEban stands and hangs up the receiver and leans against the wall and stares into the grayed mesh of the screen.
When the dog whines he steps through the mudroom, swings the door open, hears it slap at his back. He stands unsteadily in the yard.
A gust of water-cooled breeze bursts up from the stockpond, and he leans forward and rests his palms against his thighs and inhales deeply through his nose. His gut fills and paunches with the damp morning air. He exhales the breath in a guttural cough, snapping his belly up tight. Air in, air out. Ten rounds of breath and he has completed nine months, and now one day, of this ritual huffing. Nine months and two days without a cigarette. He straightens, breathes evenly, totters forward a step. His eyes water. His skull feels brittle, nearly weightless.
Woody strikes out across the drive, snuffling in arcs, and McEban follows. They work through the yarrow, paintbrush, and sage and top a low rise opposite the house. The sun is hard and new. It deepens the red in the iron soil under their feet.
It is on this hill, in this red soil, that the bones of his family lie: the bodies of his father, his brother, his grandmother and his grandfather. He looks down at his hands. He flexes his hands. He thinks of his family's hands. He's been told he has his father's hands. The hands of Jock McEban. He sees his father standing behind those hands. A big man, sledge-muscled, blond and watery-eyed. A man of duty. A man who put his shoulder against the life God gave him and went to work. A man who should not have looked up from his work.
McEban turns and sits back against his father's marker and stretches his legs out straight. He flicks a woodtick from his thigh. He raises his hands before his face. The hands are long-fingered, thick, yellowed in callus, cracked, and now sunstruck. Hands meant for the land, he thinks, for animals. A waste on women, no doubt, short or tall.
He drops his right hand to the smallest stone marker. He traces the name chiseled there. He doesn't have to look. Bailey McEban is the name his fingers read. He closes his eyes and searches for some memory of his brother. His twin. They must have looked alike, but there are no photographs, and now he is all that's left. He thinks of Bailey; of the infant boy found dead at just fourteen months. He wonders if he was there, in the crib beside his brother, perhaps asleep when the body was found. He has never thought to ask.
He wonders about his brother's voice. He cocks his head. He listens. He believes his brother has told him something he cannot remember. He pictures Bailey's round mouth forming its first soft words. Perhaps his brother's ghost means to say it again, he thinks. Aloud. He listens harder.
The Bighorns rise beyond the ranch to the west. Their palisades of limestone and granite shimmer, opalescent in the dawn, reflective as thousand-foot stands of pearled glare. The mountains entire-rolling north and south-shouldered into patches of apple-jade meadow, their expanse come morning-bright, descending in waves of green pine, green fir, green aspen, gone to tar and emerald in the deep collapse of their separate drainages. Owl Creek to the south. Trail Creek farther south. Cabin Creek just north. And behind the ranch, the north and south forks of Horse Creek.
He shifts against his father's tombstone and wishes he'd thought to bring his grandfather's binoculars. They hang from a peg in the mudroom and weigh nearly as much as a hand sledge, but they bring the mountains up close in hazy circles.
McEban likes to scan the high meadows for the copper-colored smudges he knows to be his Hereford cows and calves grazing down their summer pasture. They are the evidence of his family's history. Red meat. Animals. New calves sprung from the semen of bulls that are themselves the big, rust-and-white-splotched children of bulls McEban's father had raised.
This is my place in the world, he thinks. Horse Creek. The hay meadows that it irrigates. Two sections of deeded wildgrass and sage and rock. Forest Service grazing leases. Timber and stone drawn up and fashioned into homestead, barn, springhouse: the dozen buildings it's taken for a family to winter and summer against the Wyoming sun, the seasonal choirs of wind.
He drops his head back and blinks into the blue wash of sky. He tries to imagine himself a different man. It is a game he played against the long days of his boyhood. As a boy he could imagine himself anywhere. McEban of Paris, London, Lima. McEban of the Outback, the pampas. But now the game serves to remind him that Wyoming is the only place he truly knows, that Wyoming is the place he didn't leave.
He rights his head and stares into the morning lightscape. He searches for the souls of his father, and grandfather, and brother, ready for work. He feels their hands held out to him. It is their grip that holds him steady on this land. That's what he thinks. He thinks there is a duty to the land, and he thinks he has not had a son, and that the land will lie naked at his passing. He wonders if a wife could have made a difference. He wonders about the difference Gretchen would have made.
He turns and presses the heels of his hands onto the top of his father's stone. He reads the name from the marker. Reads aloud, "John McEban." He looks at his grandfather's and grandmother's markers and reads aloud their names as well. "Angus and Cleva."
He looks to the east. There are pads of cloud, their edges windtorn to scallop, a handful of them thrown up before the sun. They blossom orange, purple, trail skirts of scarlet-a raft of lilies caught at the shore of sky.
. . . . .
The Romans feared us," his grandmother said. "Feared us like they feared their deaths."
He leaned into the sink skinning carrots and beets, trimming broccoli heads, snapping the ends from beans, shelling peas. His grandmother stood at the stove, over the tubs of boiling water, and lifted the jars from the tubs with tongs and stood them to cool. The countertops were lined with pint jars, quart jars; the condensation dripped from the walls.
The window sashes were propped open, but there was no breeze in the late-August heat.
"We are Picts," she announced. The pride shone on her face.
She turned to him, plump and sweat-soaked in her housecoat and apron.
"In the night our men stripped naked and rolled in the ashes of their fires," she said. She turned and bent at her waist. She held the steaming tongs in her hand. "They took up bits of charcoal," she said, "and drew pictures of the killing they'd do. They drew the pictures on their naked bodies."
His grandmother gripped the tongs more tightly and traced the outlines of the dead and dying Romans against her belly and her breasts.
"And they made the pictures of our gods," she added, and made those tracings too.
She filled the jars with blanched beans and beets and broccoli and peas, with scalded tomatoes, and screwed the lids down to seat. The lids popped, snug against their rubber gaskets, and his head swam in the heat.
"Are you faint, boyo?" his grandmother asked.
He nodded and she took him by a shoulder and steered him into a chair.
"Our women, too," she said. "Naked. Naked as the day they were born. They fought naked with their men. They died at their men's sides."
She stood in front of him and flapped her apron to cool his face and laughed, and when she laughed her body ran heavier with sweat. Her gray hair came undone from where she'd gathered it at the back of her head, and it hung about her shoulders, and matted to her forehead and at her temples.
"The women whose time it was to bleed smeared the blood on their bellies and on their thighs." She leaned into him. She gripped her breasts and her voice rose. "Imagine it, boyo," she said. "We ran naked in the night. In the forests. We howled. We threw ourselves against the Romans' wall. That's who you are. That's the blood that's come up strong in your head."
She held her face close to his. She whispered, "Do you know what happened then?"
He shook his head. She smiled and straightened.
"The Romans pissed down their legs and ran like children." She pressed her hands to her hips. "That's what happened then."
She walked to the living room and returned with the framed photograph of her wedding day and held it beside her face, the photograph facing out. The picture glass flashed cool and began to cloud in the steam.
"This was a day," she said.
She pulled a wooden chair in front of his and sat with the photograph in her lap. She leaned back and pursed her lips, and they listened to the pots boil on the stove.
"Two years after this photograph was made your grandfather and I were on Ellis Island. 1917," she said, "and both of us only twenty-two. We brought a trunk of clothes, a Bible, a bar of soap, a box of buttons, our burrs, and this picture wrapped in a woolen vest. Think of it, boyo."
She propped the picture against the bulge of her gut. Her wet thumbs worked along the frame-edge.
"It was ungodly hot in the receiving hall," his grandmother said, "and we stunk from the weeks of passage, but we were in love and we kept our eyes sharp. We stood on line. I stood behind the man, and he reached behind and took my hand. We never stepped away."
She leaned forward, the wedding picture still in her lap.
"Your grandfather was an even-spoken man. Even then. He didn't say what he didn't mean. When we got to the front of the line, I stepped to his side. He told the immigration officer that we were from a farm east of Coldstream. Southwest of Edinburgh. That our farm was sold. He told the man that we had some savings. He said we'd save more. He said we'd come for a new life. He told the man we were moving west. He told it all twice. I heard it both times."
His grandmother righted herself in the chair and turned the photograph and pressed it to her heart. She closed her eyes.
"We told them all we'd come to take up this new country. We told them our arms were young and our backs were strong. We told them we'd hold America to our hearts."
She opened her eyes and looked to her sides and lowered her voice.
"We didn't tell them we'd kill them," she said. "Kill every last mother's son of them if we were turned away."
She stood all at once and steadied herself against the chair and walked the wedding photo back to the mantel in the living room, and returned. She stood the chair under the table.
"Get up," she said. "We've had our rest."
He got up and leaned into the double sink and took up a paring knife and cut the stalks and leaves to length for the compost bin.
"When did Ansel come?" he asked.
"Later," she said. "Almost thirty years. 1947. It was after the second war and your father was just old enough to be of use."
He nodded and scooped the rootcrop peelings out of the sink basin and sacked them.
She spooned whole plums from their flats and eased them into the boiling water and set a timer to know when they were blanched.
"Ansel hitchhiked down from Red Lodge, Montana," she said. "He carried his saddle and a GI duffel. He said his health was good and he was single. He said he planned for both to stay that way."
She ladled the plums into quart jars and poured boiling water and sugared syrup and a dose of Fruit-Fresh in after them and seated the lids.
"He claimed he'd killed enough perfectly good folks in the war to lose the right to raise any of his own. He told your grandfather he wasn't the type of man to require a vacation. He said two Saturday nights in town each month would get him by. He said he sipped his whiskey and only laid down with unmarried women."
His grandmother stood back from the stove.
"Can you imagine?" she asked. "That rail-thin boy stood there in front of your grandfather and made those claims for all the world to hear?"
"What did my grandfather say?"
"He said he guessed we'd find out whether the man was accurate, or just dull."
"Am I related?"
"To Ansel?" she asked.
"By work you are," she said. "It's the next step down from blood."
. . . . .
McEban comes off the ridge at an angle that brings him to the corner of the corrals. A barrel-chested bay, a roan, and a paint circle at the rails and nicker. The paint is belly-pinched and anxious. The barn, posts, poles, and sage cast hollows of purple-black shadow to the west. The barn-shadow cuts a clean edge through the corrals, and the bay stops in the shadow's border, halved light and dark, and stands spraddle-legged. He balances on the toes of his back hooves and pisses onto the manure-caked earth. The earth is nightcool and the kidney-warm piss steams. The smell of it rises sharply in the air.
He bends and slides between two poles and straightens and reaches the bay as the horse steps forward from its toilet. He grips a fist of mane at the horse's withers and catches what spring he can from his left leg and swings up and sits the big gelding. The bloodred horse steps forward and stands and steps again. McEban feels the familiar spread in his hips. The warmth of the animal rises into his trunk and holds there, in his body, like some accustomed odor. He slides his heels along its ribs, and the horse walks into the barn, and McEban ducks along its neck. He rides the horse into a stall, and when it noses at the feedbox he slides to his feet.
The roan and the paint enter the barn and nicker and bob their heads, and step, one after the other along the walkway, and stand in their stalls, stamping in anticipation. Their hoofstrikes on the barnboards rise against the loft and gather there and drop.
He pours half a coffee-can of grain into their separate feedboxes. The bay lips McEban's shoulder and yawns its yellow teeth bare and noses into the oats.
He returns to the corrals and fills the castiron bathtub he uses for a watering trough and squeezes between the south-facing rails. He wades through the barnweed grown along the side of the building, and when a thistle pricks his thigh he hops into the air, backpedaling into the dirt yard at the front of the barn. He'd been thinking about snakes.
He skirts the stockpond below the barn and walks the edge of the near alfalfa field and steps up on the concrete bulwark of the first big headgate. He sits on the wheel-valve and squints into the acreage directly east. The weather has been right this summer-hot early, the nights warm-and he and Ansel had taken a second-cutting from this pasture before the end of August. Both cuttings are stacked in a paling block at the fence corner where the land is slightly risen, standing dry, away from the sweep of irrigation.
It has frosted hard for two nights but now warmed, and they will irrigate until it starts to freeze regularly and then run a dozen horses and some breed cows in from the sage and wildgrass hills, and put them on this overgreened land. There is this pasture and the one below it, and the one farther down, on both sides of the creek.
When the pastures are eaten short, and winter-blanched, and drifted with snow, they'll feed the hay and some feedstore cake until the grazeland starts back green in May and they can begin the cycle of their farming once again.
McEban hears a door slam and turns to the sound and watches Ansel stand out on his cabin's porch. The cabin is two hundred yards down the creek. It is the original homestead and is tucked to the back of a stand of old-growth cottonwood. Its corners are dovetailed and snug, and its sides weathered gray as the cottonwoods' bark, in places gone white as Ansel's hair. The tops of the big trees are all trained prairiewise, curved eastward by a hundred years of pruning winds.
McEban wishes he could have seen the building of the thing. He wishes he could conjure the homesteader, Barhaug, at work with his broadax and slick and adz. Hear the sounds of the mules skidding the lengths of lodgepole in. But when he thinks of the cabin it is only Ansel he imagines.
He tries to remember any part of his life without Ansel and cannot, and now the old man is what's left. Just him and the old man.
. . . . .
On the third Wednesday of every month Ansel walks up to the big house and sits on a kitchen chair with a dish towel safety-pinned at his neck. McEban clips his ivory-white hair back to an inch-long bristle, leveled flat on the top. The old man leaves a dollar bill on the counter when they're done. McEban cuts his hair for twelve dollars a year.
When he drives to town for groceries Ansel rides with him, and when they're in the store the old man pushes a separate cart. He puts his tobacco, and sardines, and Tabasco in the cart. A loaf of rye bread, a Western Horseman magazine, or a Time, a tin of psyllium husk powder, and on holidays they stop at a liquor store for a bottle of schnapps. Ansel won't put the groceries or the booze on the ranch account, and McEban doesn't argue with him. If the old man couldn't buy his haircut and a few groceries he wouldn't care to draw his pay, and if he didn't work for money he would believe himself done.
McEban prays that the old man is a long way from done, but has recently imagined him dead; sees him in daydreams held upright by his shovel, or a strand of wire, or the squeeze chute, in a stall, sometimes leaning against a patient horse. McEban doesn't know what he will do then-when he discovers the old man dead.
He watches Ansel shoulder a dozen canvas irrigation dams, three at a time, away from where they stand rolled against his porchrail. He tilts them down into the bed of his truck. He throws a shovel on top of the dams and idles the two-track that runs the south side of the pasture and stops at the headgate and steps out of the truck. He draws a cloth sack of tobacco and cigarette papers from a shirt pocket and rolls a smoke. "Can I make you one?" he asks.
"I quit," McEban tells him.
Ansel nods and strikes a wooden match with his thumbnail. He lights the cigarette and spits a flake of tobacco from his tongue.
"Just allowing for backslide," he says. He leans against the fender, smoking, looking east. "I thought maybe you might've broke down and done something else last night you're going to regret."
McEban stands from the wheel-valve, and his shadow stands with him, and holds steady at his back. "What is it you think you know about what kind of night I had?"
The morning has come still, and the smoke rises and curls from under Ansel's hatbrim and slides into the open air above the hat's crown. He doesn't turn. "If you want your company to stay a secret," he says, "tell her to turn off her headlights when she drives past my place. I haven't lost my eyesight." He hooks a bootheel up against the tire's tread and looks back at McEban. "Or my imagination, either."
McEban turns full against the sun. "I'll tell her about the headlights," he says. "If it looks like it might happen again I'll tell her."
Ansel squints up through the smoke. "I thought it'd be better if I said something. I didn't want you to worry about what I knew."
"I wasn't worried."
"And you don't have to worry about what I might say."
"I'm not worried about that either."
Ansel shifts against the fender and turns away. "I'd be worried," he says.
He stubs his cigarette in the wheelwell and pulls his irrigation boots from behind the truckseat and steps them on. He shoulders his shovel. "Let's get this water spread," he says. "I've got other things I want to do today."
McEban opens the wheel-valve, and the water turns into the top ditch, pollen-thick, twisting out of the gate in a stained froth, and then smoothly luteous. Woody chases along the ditchbank, biting at the wet swell, barking, sitting to sneeze and snarl, snapping his muzzle in delight.
Ansel shovels his first dam tight where it seeps and works back along the ditch and levels the bank with his shovel. He brings the flood out evenly over the field. McEban carries two dams to the ditch below and drops them where they'll be needed. On these pastures, under this sun, these two men have spent their lives spreading water. They don't wonder what must be done next.
A flash of metal catches, turning in the sun, and McEban looks to Ansel's cabin and watches the sheriff's four-wheel drive nose in at the porch and park.
He hears Ansel walking toward him, the old man's feet sticking in the spread of water-darkened earth. Ansel stops by McEban's side and spits.
The sheriff is far enough away to present just a turd-size lump of county-brown uniform. He stands beside his outfit. They watch him reach back through its window and bring out his Stetson and seat it on his head.
Ansel stabs his shovel into the ditchbank. "Until I see the man I always forget what a fat bastard he is. Why do you suppose that is?"
"You still shooting out our neighbors' yardlights?"
"Course I am." Ansel snorts and turns toward his truck. The spread of water sends up a glare around him. "They aren't my neighbors."
"Their land borders ours."
"It didn't five years ago."
Ansel turns and squints toward McEban. "Then the ranchette-owning, mercury-light-installing sons of bitches ought to get used to it changing from day to night."
"You want me to walk down there with you?"
"I want you to creep up behind him and slap him on the ear with your spade, but you won't."
"You think about what it might be like to spend time in jail?"
"Probably no more than you."
"I'm not shooting out anyone's lights."
"And I'm not sleeping with my neighbor's wife."
Ansel turns with his eyes wide for emphasis and steps into the truck's cab with his boots shining wet. He idles toward the cabin and stops the truck and leans out its window.
"There aren't supposed to be lights at night," he yells, and after just a moment of thought, his head and shoulders still thrust out the window, "It bothers the goddamn wildlife."
McEban waves to the fat sheriff and the man waves back. He sets his dams and walks a hundred yards along the ditch toward the house. He bends through the fencewires and weaves into a windbreak of cottonwood, Russian olive, brush willow, and caragana. He skirts the olives, careful of their thorns, stomps down a stand of thistle, and squats at the northernmost end of the windbreak, looking back at the house.
Woody digs and snaps at a sage gnarl, and McEban hooks his armpits over his kneecaps and settles his butt against his boot tops. He searches the porch for movement. He wonders what it would be like to see Gretchen on the porch, sipping her morning coffee, tucked up safely in the throw of mild shadow.
. . . . .
When his grandmother had the store-bought fruit canned and the kitchen cleaned and they'd had a sandwich, she told him she was done with him.
"Go find your father," she said. "He might still want your help with those bulls."
It was just early afternoon, and he walked to the corrals and couldn't find the man. He walked up to the cemetery rise and shaded his eyes and couldn't see him in the pastures along the creek.
He circled the house and stood at the screened back porch and peered in at his mother in her rocker where she napped.
When the stepboards creaked she opened her eyes.
"Who's there?" she asked.
"It's me," he said.
"It's just the headpain," she said. "If you mean to walk there, take your boots off."
He stepped into the yard and pulled his boots off and tiptoed up through the screendoor and eased it shut and sat down cross-legged at her feet.
"Did you take your medicine?" he asked.
"For all the good it does," she said. "My mind just feels smeared." She blinked at him. "Maybe a glass of cool water would help."
He went into the house and came back with the water and stood by her while she drank. She handed him the glass when she was done.
"How bad is it?" he asked.
"How bad have you ever been hurt?"
"In the head?"
"This spring," he told her, "at branding time. When I got kicked by the all-red cow." He shifted in his stocking feet. "When the cow kicked me between my legs."
"That's how bad," his mother whispered. "If the Lord packed my skull tight with boy testicles and had it kicked by a mother cow. That's how bad."
He nodded in appreciation and sat on a bench and hunched over where he sat and felt his mother's pain low, and spreading, in his body.
When her rocker settled away from its creak and stood quiet, he watched her while she slept. She slept with her eyes open, and when he stood and took up his boots her eyes followed him. He could see his reflection, wholly, in the dark mirrors of his mother's eyes.
. . . . .
Woody growls and McEban turns to the sound and finds a bull snake come out of the coolness of the windbreak for the early-morning sun.
"Sit," he says, and the dog sits and they eye the snake.
It lies motionless, shining yellow and brown, wrist-thick at its center, four feet in length, its unlidded eyes reflecting man, dog, horizon, and the white islands of cloud that have come loose against the dome of sky. It tastes the air and the dog whines, and the black forked tongue quivers.
"Stop now," says McEban and Woody swallows his whine, and McEban lifts himself away from the ache in his legs.
The bull snake raises the front foot of itself up stiffly and exhales the air of its single lung in one long rush of guttural threat. It is an unsnakelike sound, and the dog steps back and looks at McEban and sits again, but nervously.
"Isn't that something," says McEban.
An ancient sense of unease pricks across his shoulders, his neck, at the base of his skull. The snake sucks full of air and issues the same rasping threat. There is no hissing. It is the sound a large lizard might make. McEban looks along the snake's body, searching for legs, some vestigial reminder of legs. There is only the smooth overlap of scales.
"Enough of this shit," he says and stands completely and kicks a spray of dirt and gravel at the thing.
The snake coils in bends of slender muscle and turns and ropes away, flashing in the overgrowth of damp grasses. McEban sits again, his legs stretched before him. He shakes the tension from his trunk. Woody sits against him, leaning along his ribs, nuzzling at his armpit. A pair of ravens glide in low over the windbreak and circle, cawing. It is a lonesome and piercing and familiar sound. McEban drops his head back to watch. Above the pair, high on the morning thermals, a mob of half a thousand ravens lift and joust, swirling in the air. At this distance they look to be just chips of obsidian against the sun. McEban wonders if it is God who's littered the sky. He imagines a god squatted at work in his heavens, knapping black bolts of lightning from a bedrock of volcanic glass. He imagines his god to have workingman's hands.
He loops an arm over Woody's shoulders and shuts his eyes and thinks of the refuse God must make in his industry, and it is his father's voice he hears.
"B. McEban," Jock would shout into the air. "Come here, lad. My world needs you." And louder, "B. McEban."
. . . . .
In the dream he sits naked on a plain wooden chair. He breathes evenly. His breath enters, spreads, bubbles in his blood. There is moonlight in the room and the ambers and shadows that it brings. The windows stand open and the night is warm and deep and green, and it has rained but the rain has quit and the sky is clear. He can hear the collect and release of water through the open windows. It falls from the palms of leaves, to broader palms of leaves, pooling on the night-dark ground.
She stands before him. She knows desire is what has brought him to her room. She smiles and begins to turn. And then faster, and there is the sound of her turning in the air.
Her arms and legs lift and fall away as she spins, head back, hair black, as thickened with the night as a dark shuck of succulent. The hair falls to her waist and arcs and slaps at her back, at her shoulders, and her body rotates, glistening brown and terra-cotta in the moonlight. Sweat drips from her knees, breasts, elbows, fingertips, and soaks the smooth board floor.
He hears the horses outside stamping in their sleep. Dark horses. Bay, sorrel, black-brown, gray horses. Horses with hides as pale as his own.
From The Fruit of Stone by Mark Spragg © August 2002, Riverhead Books. Used by permission.