Little Century

A Novel

Anna Keesey

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

THOUGH SHE WOULD NOT HAVE ADMITTED to any fixed expectation, Esther is still confounded by what meets her at the end of her journey. The hands at the Two Forks ranch, it appears, can be called boys or fellows by Pick, or buckaroos by Vincent, but not cowboys, except in fun. They are not boys, anyway. They are laboring men in flannel shirts and leather vests and boots worn down at the heels. They have brown necks and cheeks that look chapped, as if they have employed shingles to scrape away their beards. They may be strong—they must be, if they direct cattle about—but they don’t seem very likely. They are lackadaisical, on Esther’s first morning in the high desert, at the task of fitting boards over the windows of the Two Forks house, which have been shattered by vandals.
“Buckaroos don’t like to do anything excepting to ride and to wrangle,” says Vincent, who helps run the ranch. “They want to act like they never seen a hammer. And of course they’d rather take out after those sheepmen and separate them from their slingshots. It’s a dull job to clean up when you want to hit back. But Pick works them, and they do what he says.”
Last evening, at the end of her four-day journey to Oregon, in the windy winter dusk, she was greeted by destruction. As Vincent drove the wagon into the yard after a cold and dusty trip from the train station, she saw no welcome party arrayed on the steps, but lamps swinging, the yellow beams crossing into and out of the stripes of light coming from the house, and a number of bare-chested men kicking glass with their boots. She held her valise on her lap and hugged it. Disorder? All right. But damage, ill will? Bad neighbors? She had not imagined this when she decided to come west.
And now, despite hours of grateful sleep after the discomfort of the train, the morning seems no more promising. Esther pulls her coat around her and sits down on the bitter iron of a wagon tongue. Before her are miles of gray plain roughened with brush, rising into a blurred olive band of vegetation and other bands of smoke and slate blue too far away to be consequential. And beyond these the three rocky peaks Vincent calls the Sisters array themselves in robes of ice. Esther has never imagined a land so fruitless. Under snow is thin, silky dirt, and under that, rock so rough it catches the leather sole of one’s shoe. It is eerie rock; it has flowed from inside the earth through some unnatural crevice, blackening the landscape like Hades’s chariot. The shrubs are plentiful yet parsimonious, flexible but dry. Here and there, like scarecrows with giant heads, windmills brood over the plain.
Vincent hands her a cup of coffee, and the heat feels good through her gloves. She thanks him and tastes it. Bitter, manly, and scalding, not like tea. “What did you mean just then, about sheepmen?”
“Herders and owners of sheep. Not so many around here as cattle, but there’s some.”
“But why would sheepherders break your windows?”
“Don’t care for a cattleman.”
“Oh.” She’s embarrassed to say she doesn’t understand, but he sees this and comes to her aid.
“Pick leads the way around here in keeping sheep off what’s cattle ground.”
“Do they try to come onto his ranch? Isn’t that trespassing?”
“Well, that land ain’t legally part of Two Forks. Most of this desert around here belongs to the U.S. government. But McKinley don’t give much of a damn, and since cattlemen’s taxes been nursing this town along for years, it’s just fair we get first crack at the open grazing. Last week Pick had the buckaroos mark out some territory by burning what they call deadlines on the trees up there in those hills. Bunch a sheep came up there—local stockman named Brookie Duncan runs ’em—and the buckaroos chased ’em all down, shooting and hollering and scaring the bejesus out of the herder boys. He takes a large pull of coffee, and shakes his head. Maybe it wasn’t that nice. But you give them boys a penny and you’ll be out a dollar.”
And the shepherds responded by breaking the windows. “But why slingshots?” she asks.
“Can’t waste the ammunition to shoot out a window, they’re too poor. And they don’t really want to hurt anybody. I don’t think they do. Well, they’re not likely to get much of a rise out of your cousin. Ferris Pickett’s nothing if he ain’t cool.”
She’s perplexed, a little thrilled, by these doings, but she hopes the sheepherders have vented their annoyance and won’t come back. Pick, her cousin, does seem cool. He will make sure everyone behaves, certainly. His house alone is a testament to his competence and certitude; it is by far the largest place she has ever lived in. Inside, the wallpapers and carpets are scarlet and blue, almost royal, and the furniture is rich and polished. Outside the house is broad and formal, with massive front doors, a dark mansard roof, and bright white paint. Above the veranda runs an abbreviated balcony with an iron railing, like baroque black lace. But for the large metal windmill twirling beside it, this house would look suitable commanding a large lawn with redbuds and lilacs in one of the better areas of Chicago. Even with three of its large windows cracked or shattered, it is impressive, even haughty, as if it has mustered itself out of the dust and then been surprised by the humble neighborhood.
Vincent follows her gaze. “Pick built it a while back, when he was young. Well, younger. He’s thirty now. He wouldn’t go for so much gewgaw anymore, now that he’s grown. Say now—” He gestures east with his bearded chin. “That claim of yours is a pretty property. It sits on a lake, most of the time.”
She pictures a piece of land rising and flying away from its lake like a magic carpet. “Most of the time?”
“It’s a playa lake. It’s not there all year. Comes and goes, so they call it Half-a-Mind. You can water stock all spring at Half-a-Mind, but come August, you’re sure to go begging. There’s a place to stay, though. Miller built a cabin on the claim before he absquatulated.”
“I’ll live there all the time, then? That is—all the time?”
“Now, that depends on what you mean by live. You’re supposed to spend six months of nights there and grow a crop. But the law don’t say you have to eat or keep your clothes there.”
“I don’t think I know how to grow anything. Except marigolds.”
“Oh, I’ll show you. Anyway, you can eat with Pick and me and the boys. You’re only a mile away.”
A mile! And not a cable car anywhere. She ventures, “I saw there weren’t any ladies at breakfast.”
“Hah! Nope.”
“You aren’t married?”
“Me? Nope.”
“Isn’t Pick married?”
“We’re not much good at marrying at Two Forks. Maybe it’s a problem with the well.” He laughs. “No, sir, you’re the first female we’ve convinced to stay with us for long.”
For long? Someone has been and gone, then. But she never imagined that there would be no women on her cousin’s ranch; it had not occurred to her. For most of her life she has known mostly women and girls. Her mother, her school friends and teachers, and her mother’s friends. But there is a town here, somewhere. There will be—well, people.
Pick, tall and soft of footfall, appears behind them, resettling his hat on his fair hair. “You’re ready,” he says to Esther. “Good. We’ll go over to the claim.”
“Better take a sidearm against you got a jumper in the shack,” says Vincent. “Nobody’s been in there since Miller lit out.”
*   *   *
Yesterday, after collecting her at the station up in Peterson, Pick took her to a parlor at a nearby boardinghouse. She was given hard-boiled eggs, toast, and tea, an odd lunch, like something served to lady convicts. While she began, with great self-consciousness, to peel an egg, Pick said, “You’re older than I thought. What are you, nineteen? Twenty?” This observation was neither friendly nor otherwise.
“I’m eighteen.” Had he not read her letters?
“Well, you’re taller than most girls. Maybe that’s it.”
“I was almost always the tallest at school. People asked me to reach for things.”
He nodded.
“And I suppose wearing mourning makes everyone look older.”
“I guess that’s so.”
She tried again. “At the station just now, I wasn’t sure who you were, if you were my cousin or not.”
One of his cheeks rounded and tightened, and he gave a sideways laugh. He had many wrinkles around his eyes, though he was young. “Who did you think I was?”
Having just taken a bite of egg, she put her fingers over her mouth. “You didn’t say.”
“Did you think some other man might be looking for you at Peterson depot on the fifth of January? I’m Ferris Pickett, all right. But I’m called Pick.”
Pick. It sounded like the name of a man who took care of stables or shined shoes. She would learn to use it, though. When in Rome, her mother would have said, raising an eyebrow, unless the Romans are scoundrels. He wore a blue shirt and dark, pointed boots, but his riveted trousers were work beaten. His brow was broad, and pale where his hat shaded it—she had already seen this in men on the train, nut-tanned faces with porcelain brows—and his eyes were light and set far apart under brows that slanted down and outward, suggesting the faintest anxiety. If he had a beard with his golden mustache, he would look a good deal like Ulysses S. Grant.
When her mother died a few months ago, leaving her alone in the world, Esther wrote to this distant cousin on her father’s side who raised livestock near Peterson in the middle of Oregon. As far as she knew, he was the only living person related to her. His letter back to her was brief.
I can’t offer you any work to speak of unless you can wrangle a cow but it’s an up and coming town and maybe you’d like the change. We’ve got plenty of room in the house and plenty outside it.
Since Esther’s home was the rented second floor of an apartment house off Damen Avenue in central Chicago, the only cows she’d ever known were those bawling and stinking behind the barricades at the stockyards, and one particular enemy who had stepped on her foot at a county fair when she was a little girl. But like other eighteen-year-old persons, she was not averse to the sweeping decision or the dramatic gesture, and she had always admired Nelly Bly, the newspaperwoman who had gone around the world in every manner of conveyance. Now that her mother was gone, to go away had for Esther the allure it often does for the terribly hurt. Cow wrangling, certainly, certainly—though if her cousin required her to count pins or skin monkeys, she would have been ready to accept that as well.
Assurances had been offered, of course: whosoever believeth shall never die, and so on. Yet when Esther sat in church with her mother’s friends and associates, she looked not at the jeweled figures in windows lit by the winter sunshine, but at the cracks between the stones of the floor. As she looked, they seemed to grow larger, into nooks and caves that might easily hide her dead: the baby brother who had arrived blue and winded and stayed only four months, the thin papa with the white mustache whose heart slowed, crawled, and could not begin again, and now her mother. The cracks were cold and deep. Couldn’t she slide in there with their poor bodies and be dead? But that afternoon she boarded the streetcar back to the apartment she’d shared with her mother, where some sheets were hastily thrown over the furniture, and took out her mother’s book of addresses and found him.
As she drank her tea, Pick rubbed at his jaw, as though he felt something there under the skin. “And since you seem to have survived the crossing, you must still be Esther. You had a long ride, didn’t you? Did you feel a little dull, cooped up all that time?”
She nodded.
“I guess there wasn’t much for you at home, was there? Not much to stick around for?”
It was true. Her mother was gone. She died one morning in August while Esther read a book and ironed a dress. Flu had weakened her, but she died of a stroke. A stroke, as one would make with a pen. “Your mother must have been very tired,” said the doctor. “Some people are susceptible to events of the brain.” Never again would Esther see her wise brown eyes or the wary smile that lit them, often for nothing, often only because Esther was talking. This glint of sympathy from Pick pushed tears into her eyes, and she had to clamp down on all feeling, as though stuffing an animal into a box. “Oh—well. I did want a change. As you said.”
“You’ve had a hard time. But this is a good country for someone alone. We’re all equal out here, and everyone makes his own luck.” Her mind tried to grasp this. Could luck be made? “No one cares if you’re poor or crippled or an Indian or an orphan. As long as you can do some work and be a decent neighbor, you’ll get ahead. In fact—listen, Esther. I’ve got an idea.”
She put down the egg.
“It has to do with fooling someone who deserves like the devil to be fooled. Maybe you played at pretending not so long ago. You ever try to fool someone?”
“Now and then, I suppose.” Once, at the Lake Michigan shore, she had floated on her stomach and pretended to be drowned. While she floated there, it suddenly came to her what a terrible thing she was doing to her mother. She was relieved when she surfaced, spluttering and paddling, to see that her mother had been not in the least taken in. From the shore she looked at Esther, stretched, and made an elaborate dumb show of yawning.
“Well, down the street is the land office, where people claim homesteads, and in it there sits a little clerk who wants shaking up. He’s drunk on his duties, to speak poetically—I don’t mean actually drunk. But he’s got all the maps and the stamps and the ink he can play with, and he enjoys himself. If we pull the wool over his eyes, we’ll have a good joke to take back with us to Century.”
“That’s our town.”
“Oh—this isn’t our town?”
“We’ve still got a bit to go to reach Century, and then a little more to Two Forks. A couple of hours, it’ll take in the buggy. Shorter if you’re riding. What do you say, Esther?” he asked, smiling. This smile was cheeky, mischievous, though the impression arose from the high placement of his neat, pointed eyeteeth and he may have been unaware of it himself. “Feel like helping out your old cousin?”
He wanted her help to conspire against a bully. Nelly Bly would leap at such a chance. She smiled back. “If I can.”
*   *   *
The land office was empty of people but full of business. It was a high, narrow shop fitted with shelves on each wall, full of official reports and stacks of papers, the highest reached by rolling ladder. Filling the lower shelves were great leather-bound books, much larger than usual, stamped with gold lettering and frilly with the edges of pages. On a table sat a broad map box that, with its stack of drawers and gleaming veneer, would look grand and official if there weren’t sleeping on top of it a fat little dog with protuberant eyelids. The dog’s lips twitched as it dreamed.
“Wilbur, where are you?” called Pick toward the back room.
Behind the curtain there was silence, then a neat, tripping step, like a goat. A shadow clawed at the muslin and then became a clerk who presented himself at the counter. He was towheaded and sulky and had crumbs on his cheek. “Pickett,” he said.
“My cousin would like to file on a homestead. Esther Chambers, Wilbur Grist.”
Mr. Grist stood still for a moment, looking at Pick. Then he reached out and shook hands with Esther.
“I think you know the quarter section she wants,” said Pick.
“I’m not sure I do.”
“Miller’s spot near Half-a-Mind.”
“Is that the one you want?” Mr. Grist asked Esther.
“Well, it’s the only piece left with water on it east of the mountains. As no doubt you know. Miller just gave it up for good a week ago. Of course, he’s been gone some time to Prineville. After he lost those oats, he had to look for work. His wife’s working in the hotel. Not the nicest place for a woman.”
Pick said, “Perhaps Esther will do better. She’s a smart young lady.”
“That I don’t doubt,” said Mr. Grist. He brushed the crumbs from his cheek. “You do know you’ve got to spend six months a year on the place for five years?”
“Five years.”
“Yes. You do know that?”
She didn’t know it. But she tried to look authoritative, undeterred, and she blundered ahead. “Oh, yes.”
“It’s a long time. Longer if you’re young, if you understand me.”
Pick patted Esther’s arm and shrugged. “Well, it’s not as bad as all that. If she gets tired of it, she can turn it back to you, Grist. Or buy it, of course.”
Relief rushed over her, but Mr. Grist was still skeptical, as though determined to disapprove of Pick. “At a dollar and twenty-five cents an acre? What have you got here, Pickett, an heiress?”
“Nothing like. Are you, Esther?”
“No!” She had a bankbook, of course. Perhaps a half year’s worth of money, if she didn’t have to buy her lodging. Her mother’s furniture, hers now, stored in a Chicago warehouse.
“Either way, when you get a deed to some land, then you’ve got something.” Pick’s tone was uninflected.
Mr. Grist went to a rolltop desk and took a ledger from it. The desk was shiny with varnish, and he paused to rub a smudge off the wood with his shirtsleeve. He carried the ledger back to the counter and opened it. “What was your date and place of birth?”
She had rehearsed this part, on the street. “On the twelfth of November, eighteen seventy-eight, in Chicago, Illinois.”
“… Chicago, Illinois,” said Mr. Grist as he wrote.
“She’s an orphan, Wilbur. She doesn’t have proof.”
Mr. Grist laid down his pen. “Pickett.”
“She’ll have to swear.”
“She’s prepared to swear.”
With a sigh Mr. Grist took a Bible off a stack of books and dropped it in front of Esther on the counter. It was black, the leather faintly pebbled, the edges of the translucent pages a powdery red. She put her hand on it. She had never sworn to anything before. There was a little wheezing noise. The dog had woken and was panting, his popped eyes giving him a look of pathetic surprise.
“Twenty-one years of age?” asked Mr. Grist. The dog hacked and slobbered. Mr. Grist put down his pen and went to it. “Tut, Nick. What’s in your throat?”
“I don’t think I can,” Esther said to Pick softly.
“Well, you don’t have to. It’s asking a lot on short acquaintance, I know. But I’ll get you out of it right quick.” He was undemanding, relaxed, even playful. He closed one eye slowly, a parody of a wink, and she smiled.
Mr. Grist was running a finger around the inside of the dog’s mouth, which seemed to calm it. Now he turned back. “He gets a bit choked up on his own hair sometimes. Ready, miss?”
“Yes,” said Esther. She wiped her hand on her coat and placed it on the Bible.
“Speak up?”
She cleared her throat. This was a new place, and a new life. Who knew what risks might be required?
“Twenty-one,” she said.
“Sign here.”
Esther. Chambers.
*   *   *
At the livery stable Pick retrieved Vincent, an old man with a long beard that was crimped as though he’d been sleeping on it. Esther had never seen such a beard, yellow-white, like ancient linens in a forgotten closet. Vincent was pleased to meet Esther, he said, he surely was. Horses were brought out and hitched to a buggy, and Pick helped Esther onto the front seat next to Vincent. He himself rode a saddle horse called Lobo, a large russet animal with a deliberate gait and a bright white star between its eyes. He led the way back to the station, where they claimed Esther’s trunk and valise. When he had remounted his horse, he came alongside Esther, his face thoughtful in the shadow of the hat.
“Now, remember what I said. You can just hold that claim down until I get the jack together to buy it. A couple of months, maybe. That way no one else can sneak it out from under us.” Vincent watched Pick and combed his beard with his hand. “Vince, she took Miller’s claim.”
“I did gather that,” Vincent said, nodding. “Glad she got it.”
In a rush she said, “I want to help.”
“You are helping,” Pick said. “I appreciate it. And I understand it might disturb you a little, not to follow the letter of the law. Nobody really likes it. But out here there’s laws and then there’s laws. This is a strange sort of country. Some think it’s devilish. They say it won’t provide. It won’t provide roses and strawberries, that’s for sure. It’s for independent folk. And if you want to be independent in the high desert, there’re things you’ve got to do.”
“I understand. I do. And thank you for inviting me,” she said. “You didn’t have to.”
“Well, what goes around comes around. And you’re grown, aren’t you?” He cocked his head, eyes amused. “It’s not like adopting a baby in diapers.”

Copyright © 2012 by Anna Keesey