She raised her summer-sky blue eyes to look out the window above the zinc sink over the sun-burnt grama grass waving in tufts of honey, gold and white, over the prairie before the shale hills marking the beginning of the Dakota Badlands. Here and there, clumps of dark-green soapweed dotted the pale blonde prairie. She lifted the cup of coffee, sipping, looking down the long, gentle slope to where tall cottonwoods stood on the banks of the creek and shook their golden leaves with the slightest breeze. Giant bur-reed and narrow-leaved cattails, the downy spikes once used by Indian women to line diapers for their babies, clumped at one point where the creek washed back from the bank.
A small Indian village once stood there, but the United States cavalry had ridden through the village a hundred years ago, killing everyone—man, woman, and child. After a rain, she would walk the banks, looking for whatever might have been uncovered: arrowheads, pot shards, a rusted cartridge, a stone axehead. Once, she found a fetish carved from sandstone, but she did not know what it signified. Sometimes when the rain came hard and washed rivulets down the banks, bleached white bones would appear, the bones of those Indians. She would carefully gather them and carry them to the lightning-struck cottonwood that grew on the hill above the stock tank where she buried them deep with a spade in a line down away from the tree. Sometimes, she would go up to that tree and sit beneath it on the grass and close her eyes and imagine ancient voices whispering to her on the wind coming through the branches. But no rains had come for a long time, now, and she knew if she walked the banks, she would find only dry shale that would crumble in her fingers if she picked it up.
She sighed and smoothed her black hair with its iron-gray streaks back from her high forehead covered with a faint network of wrinkles. Her head began to throb and she gently rubbed her temples, hoping she could ease the throbbing away before it worked its way into a blinding headache. Overhead, she heard her father-in-law’s boots kicking along the hard wooden floor before he walked into the kitchen and sighed again, turning away from the window.
“Mornin’, Kate,” Tom Morgan said, yawning as he entered, tucking the tail of his blue denim workshirt into faded jeans fitted low and loose over his narrow hips. A worn brass buckle held an ancient brown belt around his waist. He lifted a chipped cup, its faded DAYS OF ’76 legend barely readable, from a hook beneath the cupboards and filled it with coffee from the pot on the stove. He cautiously sipped, then grimaced as the coffee scalded his tongue.
“Hot,” he complained.
“Twenty years,” she said.
“Huh?” he asked, trying another cautious sip.
She sighed. “For nearly twenty years, now, you been doing that.”
“Doing what?” he asked, frowning.
“Burning yourself with the coffee. A dog only sticks his nose into a fire once, but you been doing it every day for nearly twenty years.”
“Maybe,” he grunted, miffed. He blew on his coffee before taking another cautious sip. He looked fondly at the fine lines etched in his daughter-in-law’s face, noting the square shoulders and deep breasts. She wore a plain blue denim workshirt, the tails tucked into faded jeans pulled down over scuffed brown boots. Her hands were large and square, the nails cut short. Her nose was bold and her gray-streaked black hair had been pulled back and rolled into a tight bun at the base of her neck.
A handsome woman, he thought. Not beautiful, maybe, like those in town, but store-bought beauty ain’t worth a damn anyway. Not one of those hanging around Myrtle’s Beauty Shop could even saddle a horse let alone ride it out to check the stock. Or throw a calf and hold it for branding, for that matter. Yes, Henry could have done worse.
She stirred and pulled herself away from the window, and turned to face him. He smiled into her startling blue eyes. Her full lips tilted in a brief smile, then she moved to the cupboard and set out a box of cornflakes and two bowls. He moved to the refrigerator and took a pitcher of orange juice and milk from it, hipping the door shut, and brought them to the table.
They heard the clang of the triangle down at the cookhouse as Cookie called their foreman, Seth Williams, and two hands, Sam and Joe, to breakfast. Kate poured the cornflakes into the bowl and reached for the bowl of sugar from the ledge above the table. Old Tom glanced at the white plastic clock on the wall above the refrigerator and clicked on the radio on the ledge. Paul Harvey was just finishing the “Rest of the Story” and the farm and ranch news would be next. He hooked a chair with the toe of his boot and pulled it out from the table as Kate brought the pot of coffee from the stove and placed it on a trivet on the table and sat opposite him.
“Think I’ll ride over to the west pasture and check on the cattle there,” he said. He picked up his mug of coffee and blew across it before cautiously sipping. “I ain’t too sold on mixing the breeds. I spent a lot of time building up a pure-bred reputation. Don’t know why that ain’t good enough for you.”
She shrugged. “Wasn’t my idea. You forgot that Bill had decided to break the herd apart when you turned the ranch over to him. His idea, his herd.”
“Yeah, but that don’t make it right,” Tom grumbled.
“You going to take Dog?”
He grunted. “No. He left last night for White River. Be gone two, maybe three days. A Sun Dance is scheduled down there.”
She smiled fondly at him, noticing for the hundredth-some time the gnarled fingers and rope-scarred hands, the heavy lines grooved into his tanned face as if by a bailing hook. His bushy eyebrows stood out like barbed wire over his hooded, sun-bleached gray eyes the color of a blue norther. His white hair was neatly combed straight back and she could smell the faint rose scent of the lotion he used to keep it plastered in place. His shirt had been buttoned full against the sagging flesh of his throat. The tin of Union Leader tobacco bulged one of the button-down pockets of his denim workshirt.
She sighed silently and allowed her mind to drift back to when his son, Bill, had brought her home from Pierre after a long train ride from the state university in Vermillion. She had been excited, then, and apprehensive at meeting Bill’s father who had been too busy with spring roundup and branding at the time to come to their wedding in Yankton. Not, she reflected, that there had been much of a wedding. A justice of the peace had presided with just one other couple present as witnesses. But she could sense that Bill had been disappointed when his father had not made the effort to come to the wedding.
I suppose it was your fault. Or, at least partly your fault getting pregnant. Starting from scratch like that is hard on a young couple. Damn hard. But you have to give him credit; he’s never mentioned his disappointment to you. And when Timmy was born, well, that seemed to make things all right. I wonder if it would have been different if you hadn’t miscarried the first child.
And then, unbidden, her mind slipped to Bill’s brother, Henry, and she felt her face grow warm, remembering his square jaw, his blue eyes and how they seemed to bore to the back of her brain and read her thoughts there and how excited she had felt and she saw that excitement mirrored in his eyes—
Stop it! This is not the way to begin the day! Those times are past and should remain in the past. You have Timmy. I wonder if Bill would have stayed home if Timmy had been a girl? No, he wanted to go where his brother had gone. Two brothers have never been that close. And then, there was the romanticism of the war. But what about Henry? Why didn’t he come home?
He spoke, but it took a second for the words to break through her thoughts. She blinked and looked at him. “What?”
“You gonna dream like that you might stay in bed a little longer,” he said grumpily.
“Then who would make the coffee for you to burn your lips on?” she asked.
“I can make coffee. I had been doing it for years ever since—” He let his voice trail off and Kate nodded, patiently waiting for him to continue. Nearly thirty years had passed since his wife had died from cancer, and he still could not mention her name without a catch in his throat.
“Anyway, as I was saying,” he grumbled, “I gotta check the west stock. And there’s a section of fence and a couple of posts could stand replacement up there.”
“Better take along Timmy to help you. Wire’s a two-man job,” she said. Then, remembering her daydream, she added acidly. “Of course, if you hadn’t glorified the war, we would have both Henry and Bill here and things would be a lot smoother.”
His faced reddened as he puffed out his cheeks and exhaled loudly. “I didn’t—”
“Of course, you did,” she interrupted angrily. It was an old argument between them, yet she still couldn’t put it to rest. “I remember how many times you told them the Morgans had always done their duty for their country. Your father went to World War One while your grandfather stayed at home and took care of the place. Of course,” she added, feeling the spite building up within her, “his father didn’t have a place to tend while he went off with Sherman on the great Georgia raid, right? And you, well, somehow you always managed to make Anzio sound like a great glory while your father stayed at home. And of course, you were willing to do the same when Vietnam came around for Henry and Bill.” She blinked back angry tears that sparkled in her eyes. He looked away. “The ranch wasn’t good enough for them by the time you had finished with it. There was a magic monotony, then, between the prairie and the sky and they couldn’t bear the criticism that they heard in your voice behind your stories of war. The daily task of chores could not compete with the romanticism of war that you spun with your stories.”
“I didn’t tell them to go,” he said defensively.
“Of course you did, you old fool,” she said, suddenly weary with the argument. “Your stories did that.” She glanced toward the window over the sink. “The earth here hasn’t the bewitching breath of the Far East. Going to bed at night, knowing you have to get up in the morning and take care of stock, string wire, or work on old windmills isn’t the same as the dark mysteries of the imagination.” She paused, thinking. “I guess it’s because they didn’t know fear.”
She finished her cereal and rose, waiting patiently while he scraped the sugar from the bottom of the bowl and licked it from his spoon before handing the bowl to her. A tiny grin twitched her full lips. He might be one of the roughest ranchers around, but he still had a sweet tooth.
She carried the bowls to the sink and rinsed them, stacking them neatly on the drainer. She glanced out the window again. The leaves of the cottonwoods down by the stock tank were changing to gold. Across the yard, the bunkhouse door stood open, and she could see the men readying themselves for work. She frowned.
“Think we’ll have enough time to finish haying before first snow?” she asked.
The old man shrugged. “You do what you can. That’s the way it is, nothing more. You try to fight for more than what the prairie’s willing to give you and you’ll get nothing. But as for haying”—he rubbed his hand across his lips—“I don’t know. Ain’t much more out there to warrant cutting and wasting fuel sweeping and stacking. Certainly not enough to run the bailer. This damn drought’s pretty much stumped the growing season.”
She shook her head. “Gotta put up as much as we can. It’ll be expensive trying to buy feed for the stock through the winter.”
“Can’t put up what you ain’t got,” he said. He drained his coffee cup and leaned back, the chair creaking under his weight. “The prairie’s like a cantankerous woman; you gotta treat her right and respect the way she is or she’ll make sure you regret it later.”
He rose and stamped his feet to settle them in his boots before crossing to her by the sink. He paused and kissed her forehead, startling her.
“What’s that for?” she asked, drawing back, her hand instinctively touching her forehead.
“Been a while since we’ve been in town,” he said. “Let’s go to Ithaca and take in the Saturday night dance.”
“What dance?” she asked.
“The square dance,” he said patiently. “Saw in the Capital City Journal that the American Legion’ having one to raise money for the new school. Blue and Dolly will be there. Should be fun.”
She laughed. “You old coot. You know that if we go in you’ll settle yourself down in front of the courthouse with the other old coots, and I’ll sit in the hall with Mary Seiberts and Widow Terry and pretend that my husband’s outside between sets nipping at the jug. No thanks.”
“Well, you think about it,” he said. “Do you good to get away for a bit. I’ll even buy you an ice cream cone at Bob Steiner’s Emporium, if you like.”
He stepped out into the porch and took his weather-stained Stetson from its hook by the door, and slipped it on. The right brim curled higher and bore a grease stain from being handled so much. He lifted down the old .308 Winchester from the rack beside the door, and slipped the clip from it, checking the loads. He slipped it back in, seating it with a hard slap.
“What about Timmy?” Kate asked as he opened the door. “You going to take him? Or you want him to go over to the south pasture with Seth and the boys?”
“I suppose I’d better take him or else I’ll have to listen to your complaining all evening when I get back. Better get him up,” he grumbled. “I want to drop down to Bad River and check on the windmill there. One of the boys said he thought the pump leathers were shot. I’ll come back through before heading over to the west pasture and pick him up.”
“No, you wait for him,” she said as he stepped through the door. “We don’t need you climbing a windmill today, either. Besides, he has to learn what it is to stay at home. I don’t want him to become like his father and uncle. Or you.” He muttered a reply she couldn’t hear as he slammed the door behind him.
She turned, walking resolutely to the hallway. Slowly she climbed the stairs, the boards creaking under her feet as they slid across the worn boards, her hand resting lightly upon the well-rubbed banister. She breathed deeply, smelling the light lemon still clinging to the polished oak.
She walked down the short hall to the room at the end and knocked lightly, waited for a moment, then turned the knob and walked in. Her nose wrinkled at the stale, night smell. She crossed the room and opened the curtains, sliding the window up. A fresh breeze blew in, carrying a scent of sunburned grass with it. She breathed deeply, then looked over her shoulder at the bed. A bare arm stretched out from a pile of blankets and hung over the side of the bed.
“Timmy,” she called. A grumble rolled up from beneath the blankets. “Timmy, get up.”
“Go ’way,” he mumbled. The arm disappeared back under the blankets.
She reached out and swiftly yanked the blankets back. White, naked skin shone briefly as he sat up and yanked the blankets back, exclaiming, “Ma! I’m naked!”
“I’ve seen you that way before,” she said dryly.
“Yeah, but things are different now,” he said surly, holding the blankets tightly to his chin. She reached for them again. “Mom!”
“Are you getting up?”
“You have five minutes,” she said sternly, heading for the door. “Your grandfather said he was going down to Bad River to check the windmill, but I don’t want him climbing that tower alone, so get a move on.”
“He’s climbed that tower a hundred times,” Timmy answered sullenly.
“Well, he isn’t climbing it today; you are. He’ll think he’s taking you along to keep you out of mischief.” She shut the door behind her, cutting off his retort. She waited until she heard his bare feet strike the floor, then smiled and returned to the kitchen.
It took him fifteen minutes. She looked up from the sink as he entered the kitchen, his hair still gleaming damply from its quick combing. A touch of shaving soap still showed behind one ear. He wore faded blue jeans sensibly cinched at his slim waist by a common brown belt, the cuffs pulled down over scuffed and scarred brown boots. A blue denim workshirt, a carbon copy of his grandfather’s, fitted loosely across his slim chest. He crossed to the toast she’d made and picked up two slices as he continued toward the door.
“Don’t forget your wire gloves! Tom’s going out west to check those heifers and fix some fence after he looks at the windmill!” she called.
“Okay, okay!” he said. He paused at the door to pull his hat from its peg and to take a pair of scarred, yellow leather gloves from a shelf. He waved as he edged around the door.
She watched as he ran toward the old washed-out blue Ford pickup parked next to the machine shop, then sighed and turned back to the sink. Absently, she reached up and fumbled at the dial on the radio on a shelf beside the window, her fingers automatically switching the dial to FM and Public Radio. The strains of a Bach concerto echoed through the house.
Copyright © 2001 by Randy Lee Eickhoff