April 25, 1906
I knew soon as I spotted the riders and put names to them they were up to no good. I laid into the rug draped across my front porch rail with an iron beater, watching two men amble toward the house. Both were carrying good-size packs tied behind their saddles. It was early afternoon, and I had plenty of chores tallied to this day already. No sense waiting on a couple of slowpokes. I kept on whipping that rug, and let them get as close as the gate before I looked up and showed I’d seen them coming. “Charlie? Gilbert?” I called. “You two know what day it is?”
“Yes, ma’am, Mama,” they said together. Charlie is twenty-one. Gilbert is but nineteen. My sons weren’t due back from school for three weeks.
“Don’t you let me hear you’ve failed out. I’ll turn you out, to boot.” I feared I knew the truth before they said it.
Charlie spoke first. “No, Mama. We haven’t failed, either one of us. We just—well, we changed our minds.”
I hit that rug two more licks. I said, “Oh, you did?” Charlie had been taking studies in engineering and mining. Gilbert was going to be a doctor.
He said, “Yes, ma’am.”
“Both of you—together—changed your minds like they were one? What did you change them to?” Felt like my eyeteeth had just come loose. There is a perfectly fine university right there in Tucson for them to use. A library full of books, some of which I put there myself, is just waiting for them to discover and love and enjoy it. And here they come like roosting pigeons. I shook all over, so mad I couldn’t speak.
Charlie stepped off his horse, holding his reins as if he was fixing to get back on.
Gilbert was still on his horse. He, too, was debating whether just to keep riding. He finally said, “Well, Mama, you don’t know what it’s like.”
“I know what hard work is like. You have a privilege not many get—to use your minds instead of your backs—and you turn away from it, like … like it was tedious.”
Charlie scratched the animal’s head between the ears and said, “We want to be ranchers. Like you and Grampa. We aren’t cut out for that place.”
I found myself fussing at his back. “How will you know what you are cut out for if you don’t try? Charlie, you were only a year and this term from finishing. This ranch will be here when you are done. Mount up and get back there. Tell your teachers you’re sorry for being knotheads, and make up your work.”
“It isn’t that easy,” Charlie said, finally turning around to face me. He held the saddle in both hands. “I missed the final examination in geology today. I’d have to do the whole term again anyway. They just make it so hard on you, you can’t get above water. Besides, all the science professor talks about is diamond mines in Africa. I’ve turned enough rocks here to make a mountain, and there sure aren’t diamonds under ’em. School’s a waste of time when there’s plenty of work to do here.”
I said, “You two seemed to have time enough for plenty of other shenanigans. I heard about the armless saguaro some hooligans planted right in front of the main stairs. Looks like a blessed giant finger stuck in the ground—in front of a university. It doesn’t take a scholar to figure who might have been part of that.”
Gilbert finally dismounted, turned his face toward his saddle. He was barely hiding a grin, but still scared to look me in the eye. I said, “I reckon there’s some reason you’re tagging along.”
“I—well, I reckoned I’d think it over awhile. Doctors hardly make enough money to keep a pot of beans on the stove. I’d rather do something that puts some jingle in my pockets. Why, a vanilla drummer makes as much as a doctor, and he doesn’t have to study chemistry or cut open cadavers.” He eyed that rug beater in my hands as he smiled.
All my life, I’ve ached for the chance to sit in a real schoolroom, but I never got the privilege. I set myself to lay into them, but I’d as soon argue with the daylight. They’d already done what they meant to do. Maybe I never went to school, but I reckon I’m smart enough to know when I’m licked. Licked for now maybe, but not finished with this fight. So I said, “How are your cousins?” Savannah and Albert’s twin girls and second son—Rachel, Rebeccah, and Joshua—the ones these two were supposed to be sharing my house in town with. The ones who’d stayed in school. “You say hello to your aunt and uncle as you rode in?” My brother and his wife and family lived just a scant mile up the road from me.
I could see the boys let their shoulders down. They knew they’d won this go-round. Gilbert took the pack off his horse and began loosening the saddle’s cinch strap. At the same time, both of them said, “Fine. They’re all just fine,” mumbling something or other about Rachel’s cooking.
“And what’s cadavers?” I said.
Gilbert said, “Dead folks. Pickled dead folks. After the second one, well—”
I headed toward the house, saying over my shoulder, “Well, if you hadn’t got the stomach for that, you hadn’t. Come on in, and I’ll feed you. Put those animals in the west corral. Pillbox just foaled, and I don’t want you in the barn, upsetting her.”
Even from the porch, I could see in their eyes that they were smiling, although they knew better than to look smart in front of me. One thing I know is that you can’t let up on boys. Just because they’re big as a man, you give them any slack, and they’ll run sidelong into trouble. I’m about fed up with these two, I thought. Reckon I’ll make them some lunches, and then figure what to do with them. Might as well invite Albert and Savannah and the rest for supper tonight, let them know the two renegades are back. Sorry rascals.
There’s a single cloud in the sky. It looks pretty sickly, and I doubt it will prove its mettle. We as much as missed the spring rains. Maybe the summer’s wet weather will come early, and get some grass growing before we go broke buying feed for cattle that already look like walking beef jerky.
My sons were still tending their horses when Ezra and Zachary, Albert’s youngest boys, came along. They had a cord of some sort stretched tight between them and they trotted in circles around each other. They were each toting a slate and a book under one arm. Their bare feet stirred up dust as they came.
“Aunt Sarah,” Ezra called, “watch us. Watch! Planetary motion.” They whirled up the road, and Ezra howled as if he were the wind; then he jerked the string hard and tugged his little brother forward.
I laughed. Ezra and Zachary are my last two students, and I don’t aim to short them on their readiness for the university.
As they got to the house, Zack was running with all his might. They both stopped at my front steps. Zack put his hands on his knees to catch his breath. He gasped, “You sorry old buzzard, Ezra. I told you to slow down. I’m played clear out.”
I called through the kitchen window, “Both of you come on in. Ezra, you’ll have to do your recitation first, so Zack can have enough wind to say his piece.” Ezra moaned and followed Zack to the parlor, where they dropped to the floor and fanned themselves with their slates. I said, “Your cousins are home from town. We’re all going to eat first, and then you can do your lessons.”
Ezra said, “Can we go see ’em? May we? I mean.”
I said, “Nope. Just cool off in here. They’ll be in directly.”
Almost the minute I’d said it, Charlie and Gilbert came at a near run to the house and flung wide the door.
Charlie said, “Mama, are you sick?”
My sons’ faces bore childlike expressions of fear. Ezra and Zack cheered and howled at the sight of them, mindless of their cousins’ worried looks. I had to raise my voice to be heard over the commotion. “Nothing of the kind,” I said.
Charlie said, “When we put the saddles away, we saw old Mr. Sparky had been moved. Went to see what he was sitting on.”
Mr. Sparky was what I reckon you’d call a toy. A scarecrow, topped off with a skull the boys had been given when the army shut down Fort Lowell and folks turned it into a marketplace. The telegrapher used to keep an old human skull in the office with glass eyeballs plugged into the eye holes and the snaggletoothed chinbone spring-wired to the ticker line. When a message came in, that jaw would ratchet up and down and the eyes would roll in their sockets. Indians would come for miles around just to set and wait for a message, then hoot and roll with laughter at the thing. After Jack died, some of the men at the fort sort of kept an eye on my boys when we were in town, and one of them rode clear out here to see if Charlie wanted Sparky when they left. I’d laughed and told him it wasn’t like a puppy, but Charlie was happy, and later he and Gilbert took some clothes they’d both outgrown and stuffed Mr. Sparky a body.
Halloweens, Sparky keeps guard duty at the outhouse for us, which saves it being turned over like most of the other privies around. Other times, he appears now and then, just for the fun of it. Once, I got up on a Christmas morning to find what looked like a saddle tramp snoozing under a sombrero in a rocking chair on the front porch, his boots sticking from under an old blanket. About the time I guessed the old cuss was dead and started to use a stick to lift the sombrero, one of Sparky’s glass eyeballs fell out and rolled across the porch. Gilbert and Charlie were laughing so hard at the corner of the house, they fell clear into the dirt. That was three years ago. Now he just collects spiders in the barn.
I said, “Grampa Chess put that hat on his head. I got tired of seeing those eyeballs glaring at me in the dark.”
Charlie said, “Mama, Sparky’s a-sitting on a headstone with your name on it. What does it mean?”
I stood in the doorway and folded my arms. “Not a blessed thing,” I said. “I just had a hankering one day and bought it. Had my name carved, says just what I want.”
Gil slapped his gloves against his leg. “What in blazes do you want it to say?”
I said, “Don’t swear; the little boys are here. Come take a look, and I’ll show you.” I headed for the barn.
Gilbert took my arm, hurrying beside me. “Mama, if there’s something we ought to know, if there’s something wrong, you’ve got to tell us.” Ezra and Zack followed us, and Charlie held the door aside, frowning. I do see his father’s face when he does that.
In the barn, I moved Sparky, then went to pulling down some bales of fence wire where he’d been resting his feet. I passed them to each of the boys until I got down to the tarpaulin on the stone. “There’s nothing wrong except my hardheadedness,” I said. Although I’ll be forty-three on my next birthday, I feel eighteen and spry, and I work sun to sun without a stop. “Don’t know how you managed to find it. I hid it back here so you two won’t have to mind it when the time comes.”
“Mama,” Charlie said, shaking his head, “that’s the blamed awfulest thing I ever have heard of.” That boy loses all track of his grammar when he’s excited.
Gil said, “It’s bad luck or something. If you’re not old or sick, could bring on some kind of early passing.”
I smiled at the earnestness of his expression. “Not likely, boys. The only thing I’ve come down with was a scalded hand last Christmas. I pondered a long time about what I wanted it to say.” I was holding the tarp so they couldn’t see the whole thing. The stone matched the color and shape of their papa’s on the hill. It will look fine next to his. My stone says “Here lies Sarah Agnes Prine Elliot, mother, rancher, and a pretty good shot.” Suits me.
Charlie made a face at Gilbert. “You sure you’re not sick?”
Gilbert was starting to grin. He said, “Dang, Mama. You’ll probably be dead three days before you quit working long enough to notice. Let’s see ’er.”
Charlie smiled. He said, “I know just what it needs: ‘Shake the dust off your boots and look busy, Lord, there she comes.’”
“Rascals,” I said, and pulled back the tarp. “See there? All you have to do is put on the date and prop it next to your pa’s.”
Gilbert poked Charlie in the arm. Charlie said, “This is vexation, Mama. Why, that had to cost a pretty penny, all those letters, and should have gone against the grain of a woman who’s got a five-dollar gold piece with marks from her milk teeth bit into it.”
I could tell him a thing or two, since every gold eagle he’s ever seen has been one I’ve earned with my two hands. I said, “I’ve got lessons to teach. You boys stack those spools of wire back up before you wash and come in the house.”
“We’ll set your sentry back on duty, too,” Charlie said.
I left my sons and started for the house, with Ezra and Zachary following behind me like ducklings, heading for the only schooling they’re going to get, living this far from town. My father-in-law, their grandpa Chess, came to the house for lunch, and when Gil and Charlie got in from brushing down their horses, we had a fine reunion around the kitchen table. It always has done my heart good to watch folks eat, especially my kin.
I set our noon meal in front of the boys and their cousins, enjoying the familiar sounds that filled my kitchen. They made a ring of men, plus me. Chess, Charlie, being nearly a head taller than Gilbert, who sat next to him, and Ezra, who’s just starting to get stringy, followed by little old Zack, just eight years old. Chess was as happy to see the boys as if they’d only been on some long errand. He kept pushing food at them, telling them to stock up and get the town dust out of their veins so they could breathe better and work harder.
Gilbert said to Chess, although I figured it was for me to hear, “Well, Grampa, that’s the whole idea. Charlie and me need to be—”
I said, “Charlie and I.” And while I’m hearing them argue the reasons for letting out of school, I keep remembering their father went through military college when he was their age, all on his own. That was gumption.
Gilbert kept talking without missing a word: “—and I need to be here to help out with the ranch when Mama gets too old. It isn’t going to run itself.”
Charlie grins and says, “We only have until Mama’s next birthday. She’ll be middle-aged and put out to pasture. She knows it herself, spending cash on that stone there, like it was just around the corner of being needed. Must be getting older by the minute.”
“Middle-aged, my hind foot,” I said. “Wasn’t I flanking every fourth calf last year? By the time I’m too old to run this place, you two will be doddering around on canes, and riding nothing but a rocking chair. Why, I haven’t even got a gray hair! I’m not old. Not by a long shot. I’ll see you two graduated from that university yet.”
Charlie smiled. Ornery cuss. I can hire hands to do their work, but I’m not paying hands to take their grades for them. Even before they went, they’d look down at me and we’d square off until one or the other of them cuts a grin, and pretty soon we’d all be laughing at the three of us. It never let up the mad I felt at them, but it put it on a back shelf, as if it was out of my reach for a while.
Gilbert had the gall to say if I was so set on more learning in this family, I should go myself and see what they were up against. I told him to go cut a switch and I’d wear out his britches, and then he’d see what they were up against, but he just grinned. Charlie and Gil and their grandpa took off to get a better look at Pillbox’s new foal, which I’d saddled with the name Elliot’s Hunter.
While my boys were in the barn, I corralled Ezra and Zack, and summertime school commenced. Savannah and I don’t let up on the children the way town schools do. We have school every day of the year except Sunday, unless it’s roundup or harvest or Christmas. Of course, like today, sometimes our school lasts only two hours.
We went around the side where shade hits in the afternoon, and I sat on the rope swing while they used firewood blocks for a perch. I heard their recitations and Ezra did some long division. Zack said his times tables. I listened, but I wished a breath of wind would stir. We were sweating, just sitting in the shade. Both of them had some Latin verbs, which I think no boy is too young to do, and then I read to them another page from Modern Celestial Theories: A Study of the Planetary System. It took a while to decipher it, but we got it boiled down to a few ideas they could understand. I do fancy a well-rounded education.
Then I sent them to play, after explaining that the planets don’t swirl around each other, that one of them had to be the sun, and the other one had to do all the circling. Zachary always makes me think of a child born old, for I saw him cogitating just a moment before he said, straight-faced as a judge, “I’ll be the sun, Ezra. That’s the boringest part.” So he’d fixed Ezra after all, and his older brother would have to run rings around him for the game of rotating planets to continue.
I shooed them like critters and headed for the house. “Scoot,” I said. “School’s out, and I’ve got work to do.” I pulled my flour crock from its corner on the kitchen worktable and then tried to figure how many pies I should make for supper. I could see the four boys in the yard. Gilbert had a lariat and tossed it, lassoing Zachary, cutting short Zack’s game of being the sun. Ezra leaned over, hands on his knees, catching his breath.
Watching them through the window glass, Chess said to me, “Sarah, you know I don’t like to interfere with your raising the boys.”
I nodded slowly. Don’t know how a man can be part of a family and not interfere somehow. At least he was usually spare with his advice unless asked. I said, “What’s on your mind?”
“It’s time you cut ’em loose. That’s all.”
“You saying my apron strings are too tight?”
“That. I’m saying you could talk to them until you was choked. They’re men. They got to make up their own minds, or it’ll go bad on you. I recommend you to let ’em have their own reins. Make less work for yourself in the bargain.”
“They aren’t done growing yet.”
Chess picked at a thread on his shirt. He does that when he’s thinking. His head has a slight tremor, though his eyes are clear and keen. “B’lieve I disagree.”
“I want them to get educated.” I scooped a lump of dough onto the table and went to rolling it out.
“They will. In time. No sense wearing yourself out on it.”
“How did you get Jack to go to school?”
“Didn’t. He just up and went.”
“So you’re telling me to let them be?”
He smiled. “I’m telling you that you work like two men. I suggest you get two men to lighten your load a mite. It’s soon enough they’ll be ‘up and went,’ on their own. Some girl’ll come along and wink her eye, and that’ll be the end of it.”
“April and Morris are living in Tucson. Maybe I’ll move to town, too, and go to tea parties and concerts and let you men run this ranch.”
Chess said, “We’d take the job for you.”
I said, “What in the world will make them appreciate what I’m trying to do for them?”
“I don’t have time,” I said. “I’m too old.”
After they were satisfied with seeing the colt, Zack and Ezra were sent home with the invitation for supper in their minds, cookies in one hand, McGuffey’s Readers in the other. My boys unpacked their duds and the books they brought home while I made up beds for them on the sleeping porch. Then they went with their grandpa to ride south and see how the land had fared with the drought.
We’ve been three years of the sparsest rainfall in anyone’s recollection. Last year was better, but still dry. We used to run over five hundred head on sixty sections of open range, and now the land’s so beat-up, it won’t keep four hundred on the same acreage. When Chess decided to live here permanently, he bought up some leases on another forty sections and I opened my stock to the grasslands, but then you’ve got rustlers and loss from natural devices, and it still doesn’t pay. Only one around still making good is Rudolfo Maldonado. His land is lower and has more natural water tanks. He can keep fifteen to twenty head on a section down there. Sometimes I envy him his land. It’s some of the best around, and while my place is drying out, his is just beginning to show the drought’s effect.
When I went to the bedrooms to open windows to get a breeze blowing through the house, I saw the stack of newly unpacked books on Charlie’s shelf, next to others with dust on the tops. I picked up the closest one to me and held it for a minute, feeling the narrow pressed lines on the front edge, the ponderous weight of it, staring at the ominous title, Geophysical Nomenclature of the Earth’s Surface. I opened the book. A little stub of paper made the pages fall open at the place where Charlie had been reading.
Faint pencil lines underscored some words in the first paragraph—Mount Etna, Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Kilauea. In the side margin was a note in Charlie’s hand, “Xm tomorrow, remember Boltzmann Con., PV = Nk(B)T,” some note beyond my knowing. In the bottom margin he had written in pencil a note I understood at a glance—a single word with a whole story in it. “Esperanza.” After the girl’s name was a little question mark.
I slapped the book shut. It felt like I’d been prying in his private letters or something. I never meant to do that. It was just a schoolbook. With a really good notion there, in writing, of why he was having a hard time studying. Well, I suppose all that remains now is to wait until he decides to tell us about this girl. Thinking about who she might be gave way to wondering who Boltzmann is, and what those other little letters were about. Real schooling. How anybody could walk away from finding out what all that means is just beyond me. I could eat it like sweet pudding.
I put the book amongst the others stacked there on the shelf, and went to the kitchen to get started with supper. While I cooked, I drifted to town in my mind, picturing myself sitting in class with other girls. Picturing someone named Esperanza across the room, now and then glancing up to see if Charlie was looking her way. Then I pictured the teacher talking about rocks and soils and streams and such, and how to know what was under the earth, whether it was coal or quicksilver you were standing over. I forgot all about my boy and just smiled, thinking I was listening to some mighty fine talk about things I’ll likely never get to learn.
My sons and their grandpa came back in a couple of hours. They talked about how scorched the land seemed. If it doesn’t come rain soon, there won’t be any need of hired hands at all, including the ones I’ve already got.
I said, “You boys get any work done?” and set a plate of fried pies on the seat of an empty chair and motioned to them. They were made from scraps left from the baked ones I’d made for supper. I put out cups for drinking water.
Charlie took one and said, “Sent Flores with five bales of hay up to the fence lines near each tank.”
“Spotted a herd of antelope up at Majo Vistoso. They were drinking the springwater,” Gilbert said.
Chess said, “Didn’t think anything could live on that water.”
We all stayed quiet for a bit, thinking about how desperate a wild animal would be to drink hot water so loaded with minerals it wouldn’t boil. The pie plate was empty. A fly buzzed over the crumbs, and I waved my hand over it.
Chess said to me, “Sarah, you’ve said nary a word. What’s on your mind?”
“Where’s Kilimanjaro?” is all I said. Charlie turned about six shades of red, but he didn’t say a word. “I come across that word recently,” I said. “Is that Japón?”
“Africa,” Charlie said. “And it’s not Mexican. You say the J in Japan.”
I said, “I see you learned at least a thing or two.”
“Mama, don’t start in on me.”
Gilbert was looking first at one of us, then the other. He said, “Want us to ride up and get mail today? We can be back by suppertime.”
“Albert and Savannah will be here for supper,” I said.
Chess said, “Pass me that water jug there, Charlie, and one of those cups. Sarah has a right to lay into you if she wants to. You two have disappointed her mightily.” Well, at that, we all three stared at Chess like he’d grown a horseshoe out his forehead. Never once in all the years since Jack died has he stood up for my wanting the boys to go to college. Usually, he won’t speak a word on the subject. Charlie and Gilbert both winced. It appears their grandpa’s disapproval hit a lot closer to the bone than their mother’s.
I took up the empty plate and said, “Bring the mail, and don’t dawdle. Your aunt and uncle are wanting to see you boys again. They reckoned you’d need cheering up, being so sad about missing out on college and all. Buck up. I’m not fussing at you anymore. I’d been thinking of hiring. I figure I’ve paid your tuition, and you owe me each a good six months, working that money off.”
Gilbert made a face and popped the last half of the fried pie in his mouth. Those boys know I don’t really ever stay mad at them. He gulped and said, “Charlie, old man, we are now indentured servants. Maybe when the six months are up, la doña de estancia will hire us on regular.” He went for his hat, hanging by the door, and thumped his brother on the shoulder as he passed.
Well, before too long, I had a houseful of folks: my mother, who goes by Granny, my oldest brother, Albert, Savannah, his wife, and their children living at home. There’s Clover, done with his school and come to mind the farm, Esther, Mary Pearl, Ezra, and Zachary.
Almost all my folks that I know of are here. The only ones not close by being my younger brother, Harland, and Melissa and their children and, of course, my brother Ernest, who hasn’t been heard from since the war in Cuba. We all talk about him like he’s just been misplaced like a hat or something, but inside I know he’s gone to his reward. After that slatternly gal Felicity left him, he wrote me regular, at least once a month, even during the campaign in Cuba. He sent me a picture of himself putting shoes on the horse ridden by General Theodore Roosevelt. Don’t know if we’ll ever know what happened to him. I know if Ernest was still living, he’d write. For Mama’s sake, I say he’s going to write any day now. She has me read his old letters to her now and then.
Mama has her own little house, the first one we homesteaded in, just two rooms, but it suits her, she says. She’s never quite been the same since my papa died years ago, and sometimes her mind slips a little and she seems to be someplace else in her head. It comes and goes, though, and just when I think she is clear crazy, she up and surprises me with something fine she sews or some clever thing she says.
My brother Albert and his sweet wife, Savannah, have nearly finished raising their eight children in their rambling rock-and-siding place a mile up from mine. They have a pecan farm, in which I have a small interest. They expect a meager crop this year, as there has been too little rain, barely a few drops since Thanksgiving last.
Chess lives with me and my two boys, and has since my husband, Jack, died. Chess was Jack’s papa, and he’s tried to take the place of a papa in the lives of my boys and me. Seems he’s tried to take the place of both a ranch hand and my personal tormentor, too, since his son died. My Jack was about the orneriest man to fork himself over a horse, and I miss him every second of my life.
Jack is in the graveyard there on the hill, under the jacaranda tree, next to our little Suzy, who took scarlet fever before she was three. My other two boys are buried in town, too little to have even a marker over their heads. Here in the graveyard are some soldiers who fought the Chiricahua chief Ulzana and his men right here where the round corral is now. Yonder is Mr. Raalle, our neighbor homesteader when we first came here years ago, put there by those same Indians. Harland’s wife, Melissa, was Mr. Raalle’s daughter. Next to Mr. Raalle is my first husband, Jimmy, who died—after being thrown from a horse—with another woman’s name on his lips. And lastly, many pet dogs and cats, baby birds, and lizards that my sons felt needed a funeral.
My mama teases me about the crowded conditions under that jacaranda tree, and where she will lie when her time comes, saying she’d rather be next to the lizards than a strange man, particularly a soldier, as you know what kind of stuff they are. “Well,” I tell her, “Jack was a soldier, and you always set a store by him, so I’ll save a place for myself next to Jack, and you can have a spot next to me.” She seems satisfied with this, and asks me every few days if I’m still saving a place for her. Lordy, you’d think it was the supper table. If I take after my mama, it’ll be forty or fifty years before I need a spot for my eternal rest, and the place could get downright crowded by then. Reckon that’s why I’m planning ahead, too.
Everyone stayed late as “society ne’er-do-wells,” as Savannah put it—near nine o’clock. Then Albert and Savannah’s family walked home, toting kerosene lanterns. Between us, we have enough lanterns to start a business, what with the rut we’ve worn over the years between their house and mine. When we finally put out our last lamp, it was good to hear Gil and Charlie talking past the rhythm of Grampa Chess’s snoring. I drifted to sleep listening to them chatter about people they knew from town.
Out on the porch, every three feet or so along the wall, a nail is tied with a piece of cord long enough to reach to the far side of the porch. The cords are for hanging wash when it rains—if it ever does again—and putting up a sheet for privacy if you have company overnight. That night, I awoke just pure-D hot. I got up and found one of the cords, searching blind in the dark for the eyebolt at the other side turned into the wood. I draped the sheet from my bed across the cord so I could sleep without cover. Sackcloth hung by the screens between the posts, and a pitcher of water stood on a little bench. I drizzled water on the burlap, then took a handful and cooled my face and neck, pushing it into my hair, too. I lay back on the bed behind my wall of sheeting and fanned myself with my nightgown. The porch would get cool as the sackcloth started to dry.
Nights like this, I used to make Jack get up and douse the curtains with water. If we were lucky, the boys would be sound asleep, just like tonight. I think about that now and again. I reckon it’s sinful, but I do. Once a person has been married, it isn’t likely they’ll forget the touch of a man’s hands.
With the boys home, I feel happier and busier than I have in many a day. Chess said I’d been missing someone to peck at. I told him to stop his pecking at me, and I’d mind my own. I’ve got two hired hands, Flores and Shorty, so we have four men working, including Charlie and Gil. Funny how when I think of them working, Charlie and Gilbert are men who will tote a man’s load any day of the week. When I think of them off on their own in school, or making eyes at some sweetheart, they barely seem like overlarge boys. Not a lick of sense about it all.
Chess spends a lot of time doing fancy leatherwork. He makes the finest carved work saddles I’ve ever seen, and he has taken to shaping silver tabs and buttons on, too. He sold one last year for $450 to some traveling dude. He uses our best hides and has gone to lengths to get them tanned at Ronstadt’s Livery so they’ll be just right for a nice saddle. It’s a good thing for Chess to do, now that he’s not able to see far enough away to help with the ranch very much.
My foreman, Mason Sherrill, is an old man, too. He was past fifty when he came here to help me before the boys were born. Trouble is, he’s over eighty now, all but blind, and he forgets so much, things are showing their rust. Still, an old person isn’t the same as a worn-out shoe. They don’t just get tossed on the heap. What with the retired hands, horses, and old dogs, then new puppies, chicks, kittens, and colts, well, it’s a long day’s work for the middle-aged ones of us—Savannah, Albert, and myself—who do the most of it. I have to admit with all the work needs doing, it’s a pure relief to have Charlie and Gil here. It takes up some of the work without much more than adding two plates to the supper table.
About a week after my boys came home, I saw a skunk nearly the size of a dog headed for the barn. Nip and Shiner started barking, but they were whining, too, smart enough not to go toward it. I hurried back to the house and fetched my rifle. I took a good aim and let fire, and the polecat dropped in its tracks. Everyone came running to see what the ruckus was, but no one had to get too close to figure it out. Chess hollered to Charlie to get an old board to scoop the thing on and carry it off away from the place. Reckon it wasn’t as bad as taking a test in school.
Naturally, after all that, Pillbox wouldn’t let me near her baby. I named her Pillbox because she seems all fair and gentle outside, but she has got some kind of bitter stuff inside. Won’t be ridden unless she takes the notion, and every time someone drops a saddle on her, she goes off on a dead run for glory. I leaned on the gate to the stall, hoping she’d settle enough so I could see the colt again. Pillbox isn’t as fair a ride as her mama was. Her dam was my favorite horse, name of Rose. Rose is taking her ease in the east pasture. She gave me seven beautiful foals, and six of them we still have. I have expectations for this new generation. There he was, at last. It made me smile, watching his bright eyes take in his world. He sure is a pretty thing, like the best of every horse I’ve ever seen rolled into one, and all trimmed and neat, with little hooves lighting on the dust like he could almost dance. To get Hunter, I had put Pillbox with Maldonado’s El Rey. I just hope Hunter has his good looks, and Pillbox’s sturdy qualities, too.
Rudolfo Maldonado bought himself two Arabian stallions two years ago. One of them died suddenly, and we don’t know why. That one was about the prettiest thing I’ve seen on hooves. The surviving one, he named El Rey, which means “the King,” or “God,” depending on how it’s used. El Rey is tougher than a mule, but he’s not got much cow sense, so I’m hoping Pillbox’s good quarter horse blood will make a fine colt with some of both traits. Most things that survive here are heavy and rugged, growing thorns, or wearing hopsack-and-barbwire longhandles.
Rudolfo and I swap studs when one or the other of us has some new horse we’d like to try in the line. That man has been my friend since we came to this place, more than twenty years ago. His brother wanted to marry me after Jimmy died. If he hadn’t been so much younger than I was—two years—I probably would have taken him up on it. Rudolfo himself makes mentions of the same nature, now that his wife, Celia, has passed away. Mostly, I pretend that he’s just teasing and will come to his senses at length.
Gilbert says he wants to try hand-raising Hunter and training him. Reckon that’d be a worthwhile thing for a boy to do. I told him I’d think on it until Hunter was a few months old, if he’d promise to think about school, and I’d not nag him if he’d do the same, and we’ll see what we come to at the end of that time. He agreed to it.
Later that morning, I worked the pump handle in my kitchen, and nothing happened. That pump was old, and more times than not needed priming. I found half a cup of water I’d been meaning to drink. With that in the top of the pump, I worked it again. After a bit, water gurgled in the pipe and ran into a tin pan I meant to carry to the dogs. I didn’t like the smell of it, though, and looked closely at the pan. It happens now and then. Something will stir the well water in some way I can neither imagine nor discover. It will taste off for a day or two, and then it will come back fine. I’ve read that there is a whole system of underground rivers and oceans just like on top, but that is a stretch for my mind. All I can picture is the stream here close by, lined with cottonwoods, and I cannot imagine one underground, without trees and blue sky overhead. It makes me wonder about old folk stories of lands under this one with people and everything. I set the pan on the porch and whistled for Nip and Shiner.
Well, I had eggs to gather, and I had just finished that when Mary Pearl, who is seventeen and Savannah’s youngest girl, came with some of their morning’s milking. I knew I’d have to hurry and get it turned to butter and worked into a cake before it ruined in this heat. I’m glad not to have a milk cow myself, as they are a lot of trouble, and we are happy with just a bit of buttermilk now and then for a cake. I’ll be making some sweets to take to Savannah’s for supper tonight. We are having supper with them.
That afternoon, soon as I could, I hurried over to Savannah’s kitchen. She said she was feeling a little better since being down the day before. I took her some liver for supper, along with steaks. The girls hate the liver, but it is a sure cure for the tiredness that seems to tax us all at times. They made up about four kinds of vegetables and a peach cobbler. I made some bread pudding, too, with nice rich cream sauce to give Savannah some strength in her blood.
We girls were all gathered in the kitchen and I was just telling Savannah she ought to put up her feet and let me set the table, when Mary Pearl said in a really loud voice, “Mama, didn’t Mr. Maldonado come by here this morning looking for Aunt Sarah?”
Savannah said, “Mary Pearl, just let it be and don’t meddle.”
“What’d he want?” I asked. “Rudolfo knows where I live.”
Mary Pearl cut her eyes at the ceiling, hummed, and then said, “Oh, I don’t know.”
“Mary Pearl, hush that,” Savannah said. “You are gossiping.”
“Don’t you ever want to marry again, Aunt Sarah?” Mary Pearl asked.
“Mary Pearl!” her mother scolded. “That is far too personal a thing to ask your elders. Sarah, he just brought us a newspaper and asked after you. Simple manners.”
Waving her mother’s worries away with my hand, I said, to Mary Pearl, “That’s why I’ve got all that dust collected under my bed. Planning to ask the Lord to fix me up a new man.”
Savannah and Albert have a boy, Clover, who is older than my Charlie. He finished his studies and came back to work the farm with them. Clove has put together a steam motor that will run a belt through part of the pecan house; it’ll make harvest time much less work. He’s a quiet man, and reminds me a lot of my brother, his papa, Albert.
My boys and Chess were there before the coffee was made. Those three would cross many a hill for a peach cobbler. They and Clove built a toy for Ezra and Zack, just a board on a log that they could balance and play on, and while we made supper, they had contests to see who could stay on longer. Then Clove said he was going to teach Ezra to walk a barrel. They went and fetched an empty one from the barn, and Clove held Ezra’s hands. He walked back and forth on the barrel while Zachary cheered and clapped.
They were all having a bushel of fun, and Savannah rested on the porch and watched them. Their daughter Esther, two years older than Mary Pearl, sat near Savannah with some sewing. Mary Pearl was in the house with me, and she had just handed me a large bowl full of potatoes when we heard Savannah calling, “Look there!”
The girls and I rushed to the door in time to see a whirlwind bigger than our house lumbering up the road. It moved as if a great hand pushed it toward us, weaving back and forth like a drunk man, slowing, carrying dust and bushes and snips of leaves and bits of paper. Well, the boys reckoned it was great fun, and raced off toward it. All five of them, Clove, Ez, and Zack, then Charlie and Gilbert, ran headlong into the whirlwind.
Albert said, “It’s coming toward the house.”
Esther asked, “Is it a tornado, Papa? Will it sweep us away?”
“No,” he said. “Hold your hats, though.”
I’d seen many a duster lifting sand off the desert here, sometimes counting five or six at a time when the heat was bad like this. Still, I’d never seen one this size. A terrible premonition filled me that my boys would be swept away in it, along with Savannah’s boys, too. There they went, running straight into the whirlwind. I said, “Come on out of there, you fellows. I just washed all those clothes you’re wearing,” but I said it softly, and no one seemed to hear me, not even Mary Pearl, who was standing next to me.
Savannah asked, “Is the wash in off the line?” No one answered.
The boys disappeared into the dust devil. Here it came, slowly gaining on the house and swallowing whole all our boys. It seemed to stop, and for just a moment, I could see all five of them. Then, like a mammoth creature interrupted on its path by something it found to eat, it started again, coming for the rest of us.
Albert and Savannah and the girls and I all took cover in the house. Now and then, we saw one of the boys come through the wall of dust or linger behind it as it turned toward the pecan barn. I declare it seemed as if it was thinking which way it wanted to go next. Then it came directly toward us again, leaving the boys standing in the yard. It swept over the house, rattling the windows, and spraying dirt against them. For a few seconds, the sky outside the windows was brown and cottony, then blue again. Quick as that, it was gone, as if it had only come to break itself apart on their house.
We stepped onto the front porch, and saw the biggest mess I’ve ever seen in my life. The entire porch, chairs, plants, and rug, every square inch, was peppered with rabbit dung. It wedged into every little crevice around the windowsills and the floorboards. Little brown balls of dark hail had come out of the cloud of dirt, descending on us thicker than nuts on a cake. Savannah rushed to her chair, where she’d dropped her apron while hurrying to the house. “Look at this,” she said, tipping it up. The pockets overflowed and poured out piles of rabbit drops. They hit the floor, bouncing like marbles dropped from a bag.
Zachary’s voice came to us, shouting, “I rode the wind! I rode the plumbusted wind!” He spun, arms outstretched, then ran toward the porch in sweeping circles, his face skyward, eyes closed. “Mama, Mama! Clove and Charlie held my hands, and it pulled me up like a sure-nuff paper kite. It held me up like a bird. Like a eagle! I rode the wind like a sure-nuff eagle. Damnation!”
Until his last word, we’d all been smiling, sharing his fun. Savannah and Albert turned and stared at him as if he’d been a wolf come for the chickens. Very softly, Savannah said, “Albert. The strap is in the pantry.”
“Zachary Taylor Prine,” Albert said with such sadness in his voice that I knew Zack would never guess how it pained his father, “go to the barn and wait.” He slipped into the house, gone after the old piece of a saddle cinch that served as the binding to the seat of education in their home.
Zack’s face bore his confusion. He clapped his hands over his mouth, stunned at what he’d let fly in the midst of his joy. Tears spurted from his eyes, clear of his hands and face, and hit the rabbit pellet–coated ground. “It was a accident, Papa. I didn’t mean it, Mama.”
“Still,” Savannah said, “we had that talk just two days ago, and you knew the next foul word from your mouth would bring this. A boy who cannot bridle his own tongue will have nothing but the poorest life imaginable. Take thyself to the barn, Zachary.”
“Thyself?” he said.
“Go,” she said, and turned away from him.
Poor little old Zack started bawling out loud, suffering his mother’s so gentle rebuff more than he would ever feel Albert’s strapping. For Savannah to have addressed one of her sons in this way, saying “thyself” instead of “yourself,” was the ultimate in rejection. It removed him from the family circle, made him a stranger. Only family members were “you” and “yours.” It dampened all our spirits to see him trod off to his punishment, shoulders heaving, feet scuffing the dust around him so that he left a cloud behind him. Anyone who knew their family knew Zack had already gotten the worst of it, and that if they laid even one switch, it would be drawn back, its purpose more for effect than for a welting.
“Savannah,” I said, “I’ll sweep this porch for you.”
She already had the broom in her hands, but she held it toward me. Tears were in her eyes. She whispered, “He’s got to learn.”
I took the broom and began pushing the brown hail from the doorway and off the porch. “He does,” I said. It wasn’t like Savannah to buckle up over disciplining one of her children. Still, she’d been poorly lately, and he was the baby.
We heard a faint snap and a loud wail. Savannah put a hand to her face and went into the house. I heard Esther calling out, “Mama, Mama? What’s the matter?”
By the time I got the porch clear of the cottontail manure, Albert came from the barn, Zack at his side. The two were talking. Zack’s face, now subdued, was red and streaked with clean lines through the grime left from the whirlwind. I watched them stop by the corral fence and pump clean water at the trough. Zack washed his hands and face, then his whole head. Albert stood over him, working the pump handle at a gentle speed so the water came evenly. I heard Albert say, “Ears, too.”
“Yes, sir,” Zachary replied.
Then Zack pumped water, and Albert did the same washing up. There was some little thing in that act—something beyond the forgiveness, something greater and nameless—that my sons would never know. My boys have lived so long without a father. I can only hope they have some memories of their own papa. Some cord that can’t be cut by the hardness of life or worn away by the soil on his grave. I felt hot. There was a burning behind my eyes, a hard place forming in my throat, and I leaned on the broom with my cheek.
Chess came out the door just then and said, “Miss Savannah has supper on the table, and me and the boys are about to lose our foothold in heaven over having to wait for Albert to say the blessing. Land o’ living, what’s ailing you?”
“Dirt in my eyes.”
“Dirt, eh?” Chess held the door wide for me, and he shook his head as I passed him.
I propped the broom against the wall and sniffed back my tears before I went in. I said right out, “You all save a pullie bone for Zachary.”
When Zack entered the room, everyone cheered him.
Charlie said, “We carved you the best, buddy. Beaks and feet—all you can eat.”
“Zachary,” Savannah said, “you may ask the Lord’s blessings on this meal.”
Listening to his tiny voice in prayer, a kind of ache came into my chest, one that didn’t leave me all during supper. I forgave my sons for not caring about the education I wanted for them. I forgave them, too, for not thinking of the future, not seeing it the way I did. How could they know? No more sense about life than little gray Hunter bumping his mama’s belly. I forgave them for busting with energy and thinking they’d already figured out all about things. While Savannah and Albert surely were thinking about Zachary, I was thinking of my own boys. We were plum overflowing with forgiveness at that table.
They piled up plates with chicken, pan-fried steaks, and liver, which were passed around with potatoes bought fresh last week from a wagon out of Phoenix, gravy, vegetables, salad, and Mary Pearl’s best biscuits. The first one went to Zachary’s place.
Finally, Clover said, “Tell us what it felt like, Zack. Did it feel like jumping on the bed? Well, swallow that bite, and then talk. Tell us what it was like to fly.”