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THEY WERE THREE MILES WEST OF TOWN WHEN the sun broke through. The wind tore the clouds to rags, the sun lit the rags on fire and in fiery trails they streamed across a sky that opened like a bruised and tender heart. A few pellets of snow still drifted down and where the wind scoured the asphalt there was black ice and in every dip and swale lay drifts of snow. The big Cadillac sliced through the drifts and soared over the treacherous ice. Now and again they caught up to battered jalopies tiptoeing along the road on tires that were tall and thin and bald as a buzzard, the drivers gritting their teeth as they held on to the wide steering wheels, fighting to keep an ancient Model T or a battered Studebaker from skidding into the barrow pit. Emaline knew most of these people. She hid her face in her hands when Eli swung out to pass and hoped they wouldn’t see her, knowing what they would say. Why, aint that Emaline Hughes settin in that Caddy, pretty as you please? Nothin more than a waitress at the diner, she is, ridin in a automobile like that. The Cadillac rattled the doors of the jalopies as it passed, blinding their drivers with a plume of powdery snow.
The heater began to warm her feet and she untied her scarf, shook the snow out of it and felt her half-frozen hands burn as they thawed. They had lingered for an hour at Velma’s grave, standing too long in the snow and the raw wind, caught in a web of blood relation and antique sin. Emaline wept into the collar of Eli’s sheepskin jacket, then stepped away and closed her back to him, angry with herself for letting him see how she felt inside, like a glass pitcher dropped on a marble floor. She had heard her mother’s voice as plain as if she were right there beside them. Don’t stand in the corner and bawl for buttermilk. At last Eli drew a deep breath, straightened his big gray Stetson and led the way back to the car. He held the door open for her and she stepped into the car, feeling like a sad little princess in the motion pictures. He swept the snow off the windshield with the sleeve of his jacket, started the engine and eased the big car down the hill toward town. At the junction of Route 26, he turned right and gave it the gas and the car took off like an arrow shot from a bow.
In a pasture north of the highway, a band of horses wheeled to gallop along the fence line. Their coats were heavy with winter and powdered with snow. A big roan stallion led with his mane and tail flying in the wind, his neck stretched out, his great hooves cutting a path through the drifts. Emaline wanted to straddle his broad back and ride with her cheek pressed to his arched neck and the scent of horse in her nostrils, her fingers tangled in his mane, the icy wind freezing the tears on her eyelashes so that she rode blind, trusting the great roan stallion and the snow and sky and the wild and bitter wind.
She stared out at the weathered barns, the tall silos, the barbed-wire fences. Where the powdery snow had blown away, the remnants of the sugar beet harvest lay in the frozen earth. In November, they had tramped the empty beet fields for miles around, Velma with Emaline and Bobby, dragging gunnysacks over the frozen ground, risking broken ankles to search for beets to feed the pigs. Velma had laughed about it, saying that you knew you were poor when you couldn’t even afford to buy feed for the hogs. Now it was barely the end of January and Velma was dead.
Eli drove fifteen miles without saying a word. At Morrill he found the Stegall turnoff without needing directions and he had to slow down where the snow had drifted over the narrow gravel road. At last he spoke. “That was right kind of you to come along with me, Emaline.”
“Don’t mention it. She was my mother.”
“Yes, she was. And quite a mother you had.”
“It’s nice that you finally figured that out.”
“I never thought different. Not a day in my life.”
“You didn’t act like it.”
“Well, what a man feels and what he is able to do aint always the same thing.”
“They should be.”
“Maybe they should. There is no way I could feel worse, honey, I know that. I wanted to get down here while she was still alive and I just never made it. You always think you’re goin to have more time than you do, then it slips away and you’re left holdin nothin at all.”
Emaline stared out the window, not wanting to say more than she already had.
“You aren’t goin to cut me any slack, are you?”
“I guess not.”
“I don’t blame you. I’d probably feel the same in your place, growin up the way you did.”
“You mean getting bundled off to an orphanage because Mama was in the sanatorium with her consumption and you wouldn’t take us in?”
Eli winced. She could see that stung him. Well, let it. Her right arm was bent and broken, crippled for life by a heavy pot of boiling soup that had fallen on her as she scrubbed a kitchen floor in the orphanage. All because Eli had turned Velma out of the house for breaking the First Commandment that he laid down for his daughters. Thou shalt not fornicate with the hired hands. Emaline thought she might forgive him someday, but that day was a long way off.
1He tried one more time. “I came as soon as I found out she was real sick.”
“It was too late.”
“I know that, honey. A doggone bellhop at the hotel in Evanston mislaid the telegram. If I knew she was that sick, I would have been here a week ago.”
He started to say more and thought better of it. He could see how it would look to this young woman. He had always thought he was doing the right thing, setting an example for his other children. That was not the way she would see it. He found the Lindquist farm without help, drove the quarter mile along the lane, stopped at the small white farmhouse down in a swale surrounded by tall elm and pine and cottonwood trees. He tipped his hat.
“If you don’t mind, you might tell Bobby that he’s more than welcome to come up to Wyoming, spend the summer on the ranch. Might do him good to be with his brother for a while.”
“It would do him good. Tell him yourself. He’s out back doing chores. He’s old enough to make up his mind whether he wants to come or not.” She reached up and touched him with her fingertips, like a blind woman trying to learn his face.
Eli thought she was about to say more, but she turned and opened the door, climbed out, did not look back. He watched her walk into the house, her back straight as an arrow. Closed to him, like a book in a language he couldn’t read. She looked like his mother, Cora. The same black hair, the same dark, penetrating eyes, the same high cheekbones. Not much Indian blood in her, but it came through. If she was like Cora, she was stubborn as a Missouri mule. He wanted to call her back, to say something that would make her see him in a different light. But what, you old fool? What are you going to say? Not a damned thing that is going to make a whit of difference to her.
He felt a sudden fatigue, the all-night drive catching up to him, the shock at the hospital when he learned that the daughter he had come to visit was already dead and buried. The trip to the cemetery, standing in the snow with Emaline next to Velma’s grave. It had all taken its toll. He opened the door of the Cadillac, fighting the heaviness in his limbs, followed the sound of the axe from out back of the farmhouse, beyond a barn that wasn’t much bigger than a shed. He heard hogs snorting around inside and a bleat or two that might have been sheep or goats, he couldn’t tell which. When he got to the edge of the barn, he saw the boy. He wasn’t chopping wood. The stock tank was frozen over.
He was going at it for all he was worth, swinging a double-bladed axe that was almost as big as he was, bringing it down on the ice so hard that he jumped a little with each swing. Eli stood by the corner of the barn to watch. Bobby was maybe twelve years old, about the age of Eli’s youngest boy, Leo. Only about two-thirds Leo’s size. Blue eyes and a lock or two of blond hair sticking out from under his cap. A slender, small-boned kid, but he didn’t lack for grit. He wasn’t going to give in to that ice, no matter how thick it was. Eli didn’t see a bit of himself in the boy, except maybe his determination. Bobby must have taken after his father, Ora Watson, deceased. Stepfather to Emaline and Ben, father to Bobby. Damned fool got drunk, drove himself off the side of a mountain up on Little Goose Creek, the way Eli heard it. Burned up, along with his truck. Helluva thing, when a man had children to raise.
Eli waited until the boy came up for air, then stepped up to say hello. Bobby had an easy smile. “Howdy, mister. If you’re lookin for the Lindquists, Jim and Lee went to the sale barn. Ought to be back any minute now.”
“Howdy yourself. No, it’s you I’m lookin for. Name is Eli Paint, son. I’m your grandpa.”
The boy peeled off his glove and stuck out a hand. “Bobby Watson, sir. Pleased to meet you.”
Real nice manners. That would be Velma.
“I took your sister up to see your mama’s grave, son. I only found out this morning that Velma had passed on. It’s a terrible hard blow for you and Ben and Emaline, to lose your ma when you’re so young. I’m just as sorry as I can be for all three of you, I wanted to say that.”
Bobby bit his lip, looked down at his toes. “Thank you, sir. Sure was a awful shock. Seemed like she was doin fine, like she could go on and on. Then she took sick again with the tuberculosis. We thought she’d pull through, because she always had before, but then she was gone. I can’t hardly get used to it, tell you the truth.”
The boy looked pale. He had dark circles under his eyes, like he hadn’t been sleeping much. Eli put a hand on his shoulder. “Can’t nobody get used to a thing like this. Damned shame, is what it is. But you’re goin at it right, doin your chores. When you come to the worst times in your life, hard work always helps. Harder the better. That way, you’re too wore out at night to lay awake and stew over things.”
Bobby nodded. “Yessir. Jim Lindquist told me the same thing.”
“Well, your stepdad is a wise man, then. There aint no cure but time for what you feel in your gut, but there’s things that can make it a little better and things that make it worse. Looks like you found yourself a heckuva job, bustin through that ice.”
“Yep. I broke it out once already this mornin, but it’s so darned cold it froze up again, and the livestock has to drink.”
Eli took the axe, waited for Bobby to step back before he began swinging it in long steady strokes, making the ice chips fly, biting deep into the foot-thick layer of ice with each swing, putting the power of his legs and back and shoulders and wrists into it. When Eli had chopped the ice into sections, he reached into the tank barehanded, heaved a dozen heavy blocks of ice out of the frigid water. Three thirsty milk cows, a team of heavy draft horses, and an old, swaybacked saddle horse shuffled up to drink. He set the axe down, rubbed his hands dry.
“Son, I was just about your age when my twin brother Ezra and me, we lost our ma. Cora, her name was. She went out to help a neighbor, got caught in a spring blizzard and froze to death. It was me and Ezra that found her, along with the husband of the woman she went to help. Our daddy, that’s your great-grandfather, was off haulin freight to the big mining outfits in the Black Hills. It was better than a week before he got the telegram sayin she had passed on. By that time she was in the ground. Pa died too, three years after Ma. He got kicked by a mule and never got over it. After that, we was on our own. It was a hard thing for us, same as this is a hard thing for you and Ben and Emaline. Aint nothin easy about it. Only way me and Ez got through it, we stuck together. You got Emaline here, she has you, you both have Ben up in Wyoming. You have your old granddad too, if you need me. When school lets out, if those big strapping Swedes can run this place by themselves, you come on up to Wyoming for the summer. Help Ben and Ezra with them Appaloosa horses. If they don’t have enough work, I can find plenty more. I spoke to Emaline. She said it would be good for you, but I believe she’s goin to leave it to you to decide what you want to do.”
“That would be fun, to go up to Wyoming for a while, Grandpa. Jim and Lee, they’re real fine fellas, but they don’t hardly talk none at all except to each other, then they talk Swedish. Me and Emaline, we’re goin to move into town in a week or so, cause she has to go back to work at the diner. I’m going to start at the high school in Scottsbluff next fall.”
“I imagine you’ll have more chances to play ball in town too. Ben says you’re a heckuva ballplayer.”
“I’d play ball every day if I could. I want to be like Pepper Martin.”
“The St. Louis Cardinals are your team, I expect?”
“Can you run? You got to run to play the outfield.”
“I’m real quick.”
“And you got to be tough to play ball.”
“Me and Luke Johns, we play burnout.”
“What is burnout, anyhow?”
“You stand about thirty feet apart with no gloves. Then you zing it as hard you can. The other guy has to catch every throw bare hand. First one to cry uncle, he’s the loser.”
“Do you ever cry uncle?”
“Never. My hands get all swole up, but it’s Luke who gives up every time, and he’s fifteen years old and six foot tall.”
Eli grinned a little at that. He reached out and squeezed the kid’s shoulder. “I got to hit the trail, son. I aim to make it home to the 8T8 tonight. It’s a long drive and I didn’t get a wink of sleep last night. Drove all night to get here and then found out I was too late.”
“I’m sorry, Grandpa.”
“Taint a bit of your fault. But thanks just the same.”
Bobby trailed him back to the Cadillac. “If you mean it about this summer, I’ll come up to see you.”
“You do that. We’ll turn you into a top hand, find a horse you can ride for the summer—long as you take care of it.”
The boy smiled again. Eli felt his spirits lift a little. There was always some good a man could do somewhere. He squeezed the kid’s shoulder again, hard this time, looking away so that Bobby wouldn’t see him tearing up. Then he said good-bye, got behind the wheel, turned the Cadillac around, headed down the lane. He stopped at the edge of the county road, fighting the urge to try one more time with Emaline. Then he pulled out onto the gravel, bound for Wyoming.
© 2010 Jack Todd