Chilton Williamson, Jr.
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Excerpt from
The Last Westerner
A Book by Chilton Williamson, Jr.


".He fares well who obeys the commands of love, and whatever he does is pardonable, but he is the coward who does not dare." -- Chretien de Troyes, Lancelot

 

BOOK ONE

JODY

1.

My father had beautiful manners, and his father before him. I don't believe either of them cared for people very much, but they both adored women. For them women were the whole world and the promise of it, men being hardly more than rivals in love to be challenged and defeated. Romantic love, I suppose, was the only kind of love they ever knew, or even recognized. So far as they were concerned, men were the second sex and women superior and infinitely fascinating creatures worthy of an entire lifetime devoted to pleasing them. When my father was still a very young man a male acquaintance, attempting to console him for the fickleness of a woman, counseled him to relax and "play the game." My father's reply to this advice was that love isn't a game to be played, it's simply the most important thing there is.

Personally, I never hoped for anything more in life than a good wife to please, and to please me, and a son to raise up to be a good man, the way a good man should. It could be I haven't a lot to offer a woman. Women nowadays love intensity in a man and after that expressiveness; the strong silent type belongs to history and Grade B Westerns from the Fifties. My Southern heritage gave me intensity enough, while my Western upbringing covered it over and disguised it with reticence and that dry, I guess laconic manner that used to drive women wild. My second wife called me a stick the night before she left me, and I still have trouble forgetting that.

Lydia was an Eastern lady. East and West don't lie well together, according to a saying out here. She came out from L.A. to Montana with her first husband, who she met in California after moving West from New York City. He was a movie man, a producer, and she was a failed actress after only three years in Hollywood. They had plenty of money and their friends were people like Whoopi Goldberg, Elizabeth Ashley, and a writer fellow named Tom McGuane. I liked Tom; he bred the best cutting horses in the country and was a hell of a hand when it came to working them, too. The others I did not like so much. I went to work as ranch foreman for her husband with not a lot to do besides watching his bison herd spread brucellosis around the neighboring cattle ranches. In addition to growing bison they made movies too; one time they put me in one. I played Buffalo Bill Cody, growing out my hair behind and a chin beard in front to look the part. The movie was never released; in fact it wasn't even finished, but I kept the beard and the longish hair after Lydia's husband died suddenly of a heart attack and I became, after a not exactly appropriate interval, the proprietor of a beautiful wife, six sections of land, and three-hundred-fifty-six head of buffalo. It is just possible that nobody really falls in love again after the age of forty but everybody has to believe in love, especially me, and so I did. It seemed as if at my age I was getting a final chance. The marriage went along all right, as marriages go these days, for a couple of years and then Lydia met a talkative young screenwriter with no money and I became a stick. I moved down to Wyoming where I spent another couple of years working as a range detective, and when I got tired of having potshots taken at me by rustlers and poachers from Salt Lake City I went on the road in a three-quarter-ton Ford pickup with a camper set in the bed.

I had been traveling for a year and a half when I met Jody James, and although I was only fifty-one years old the world I had been born into a short half-century before had already ceased to exist. Our meeting occurred at a horse show in Moab, Utah on the afternoon of a late winter day in the February thaw with a chinook blowing up from the Gulf of California a thousand miles away. The wind lifted the horses' tails as they waited to enter the arena and I put my hand on my hat in time.She accepted the movement as a greeting and put her horse forward several steps.

"Do I know you?"

" No ma'am. Not as I can recall."

"I know I've seen that hair and goatee somewhere."

I did not say anything. Mounted, she looked tall and willowy, with a supple long waist I could have spanned with my hands. And wanted to.

"Are you showing?"

"No."

"I could see you know horses from the way you watched Cortez set his feet. Will you have a drink with me when this next class is over?"

"This is Mormon country."

"You aren't Mormon are you?"

"No."

"I have a bottle of Johnny Walker Black under the bunk bed in the trailer. I'll see you back here in half an hour then."

She placed second in a class of fourteen entrants. The horse was a stallion, light bay, strong looking but not tall, with a strange paddling gait that seemed to throw his front feet to the side, tortoisewise. We had a drink in the changing room up front of the horse trailer and a couple more before supper at the restaurant in Moab. The restaurant was the former home of the first wildcatter to make a big strike back in the Fifties. Supported by stilts, it hung on the side of a steep hill above the town. I helped her out of her coat, drew the chair back from the table, and pushed it in again when she was seated.

"You do have such nice manners," Jody James said.

Seated at table against the plateglass window we drank whiskey and soda while the slickrock cliffs flared in hues of glowing rose and pink and subsided in folds of purple shadow. She was a tallish hardlimbed cowgirl with high cheekbones, sea-green eyes, and straw-colored hair cut off at the shoulderblades and sun-split in the ends. She had what was left of a good tan, which stopped approximately where her shirt-collar and cuffs did. Her teeth were white and small and her expression demure but knowing, a thing I find irresistable in a woman. I complimented her on the stallion, who she had paid a lot of money for in Phoenix last summer. He was a Peruvian Paso with a gait that appeared from the ground to have the smooth action of a jackhammer but was, she insisted, actually quite level and floating.

"You can take him for a spin if you like," Jody offered. "Nobody but me and the trainer has ever ridden him."

We ate a green salad and beefsteaks with home fried potatoes while sharing a bottle of California red wine.

"What a gorgeous sunset," Jody said. "It looks like the end of the world. Don't you get lonely wandering about with your house on your back, like a turtle?"

"It's better than having no house at all."

"Haven't you ever been married?"

"Years ago."

"What happened?"

"The same thing that happens with every divorce. A world died. That's all."

"You sound bitter. Are you?"

"No," I said. "I'm not bitter."

The waiter brought two heated cognacs and we drank them with coffee for dessert. When we had finished I brought the truck around to the front of the restaurant and got out to hold the passenger door. In town the shadowed bungalows crouched under the bare hanging branches of the cottonwoods and the brushy Navajo willows. The glare of the passing arc lights lit the near hemisphere of her face for seconds at a time before letting it relapse into shadow in the darkness between the light poles.

"Are you always so communicative with women?" Jody James asked.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be unfriendly."

"You're not unfriendly."

"It's been a long time. That's all."

She directed me across Spanish Valley to the house where she was staying over, one of those modular homes they ship in slices like the two halves of a cake and glue together again on location. There was a light on beside the door and a ristra hanging above it.

"Ristras up here in Moab? And Christmas was months ago."

"Ristras are a matter of the heart, not of geography. You can have ristras anywhere you want them, anytime."

"What about mistletoe?"

"So far as I know," Jody said, "I don't have a drop of Spanish blood in my veins, but I'm terribly responsive to ristras."

We shared our first kiss under a cluster of dried red chili peppers rustling on a warm wind out of Mexico and then I drove back into town and across the Colorado River. I found a jeep trail winding into the deeper canyons and followed it for a mile or so before parking the truck in a salt cedar thicket. A thousand feet in the sky the pudding shaped Navajo sandstone glowed pale against the stars in the moonlight. I climbed up in the camper, got under the woolen blanket on the bunk bed, and lay there, thinking. After a while, listening to the early tree frogs croaking in the cottonwoods beside the creek, I fell asleep.

2.

I can be gabby as a politician at a Chamber of Commerce banquet if I don't have to talk about myself. Look around you, if you can bear it, and see what is happening in the world. I don't understand it all myself, but I feel more than I understand, and I know that at the heart of it is the relationship between men and women. Everywhere you look there is a huge sadness and even suffering, especially among people who do not know that they are sad and suffering. Everywhere people are lonely and alone, and those who are most alone are those who cannot understand that they are lonely. Everywhere they are confused, and their confusion tells them they have nothing to be confused about. They are unhappy with themselves, and with each other. Love has grown hateful as hate is elevated to a form of love. Chivalry is considered oppression, and valor something that earns you five million bucks a year working for the Denver Broncos. God is still love if you want Him to be, I guess, but there isn't any question that love has been made God. The great cities are growing back into wilderness, and the wilderness is being bulldozed and paved for multimillion-dollar playgrounds for the wealthy and suburban lots and highways for everyone else. Even nature has been thrown out of balance to produce blizzards in July and drought in winter time. The only good I can see in all this is that I'm not a young man anymore, though young enough still to please Jody James--in the short run, anyway. And even that's good enough.

Only a little snow fell in southeastern Utah that year and most of that little melted out of the mountains by the second week in April except for the colls high on the northern aspects of the tallest peaks. The melted snow soaked into the talus slopes until it found the solid rock and ran downhill beneath the scree to the edge of the rockfall where it burst in waterspouts into the streambeds carved out of the tundra among sparse stunted trees. Sluicing through ravines shaded by the tall pines the water reached the aspen forests and spread itself in shallow torrents, washing the thin soil from around the roots and suckers and tearing out whole colonies of the tender trees. Below the aspen the flood recovered its channels as it entered the pinon and juniper covered foothills, undercutting banks and engorging toppled masses of red clay and sand until the water thickened at last to a flow of liquid mud, meandering across sagebrush flats toward the canyon of the Colorado and dropping by a series of tepid falls until at last it poured itself out into the great river. And so the house and power boaters on Lake Powell, the water skiers and striped bass fisherman, had enough water to play in, for one more summer at least.

Even before the drought what we had instead of winter in the Southwest meant that when spring arrived it left you with a feeling of not having earned it, although I didn't know this--having been raised on a cattle ranch in the Animas Valley of the New Mexico bootheel where my grandfather, Charles Jamieson Ryder, knew George Scarborough, Pat Garrett, and met John Wesley Hardin and John Henry Selden on occasion--until I had lived up north for some time. There are exceptions, like the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northern New Mexico and the San Francisco Mountains above Flagstaff, Arizona. Still, the Southwest, as a general rule, doesn't have a winter, only an eerie monotony of weather and temperature rising gradually from midwinter into late spring by which time, like the frog in the saucepan, you're cooked without having been made aware of the fact, if you haven't already been worn to a toothpick by the sandstorms.

You would have said to look at it that the Bar Nun Ranch belonged to a Hollywood movie star. The house was a two-storey timber and stucco affair with a skylight in the pitched roof, a portal running on three sides, and a flagstone patio behind. The lawns extended as far as the apple orchard between the house and the creek, and the bunkhouse off by itself beneath the aged cottonwoods. Beyond the bunkhouse were the barns, the stables, the horse corrals, and a riding arena surrounded by a low stucco wall, white-painted and sweeping up to make an enclosing frame for the heavy wooden entrance gate. The blue mountains went straight up behind the house, which faced across the green valley to the sheer vermilion cliffs falling fifteen hundred feet. Herds of Angus and Brangus cattle grazed in the valley and now, in spring, flocks of boattailed grackels settled on the freshly turned alfalfa fields. Fifteen years before Jody and her husband, the late Mr. James, purchased the spread from the oldtimer who had been born on it and, for a half-century or more, ran a few poor head of cattle while hauling logs from the mountains in winter time. For nearly ten years they lived in a two-room cabin built from the unsold logs while the two of them, working alone, reclaimed the surrounding fields from the salinity produced by the old man's lousy irrigation practices. It took them a year and a half to build the new house which was completed ten months before Mr. James was killed when the horse he was breaking fell over backwards with him. By now the Bar Nun had become the most prosperous and financially sound outfit in southeastern Utah, and every millionaire tourist from California had advised the James's answering machine that he had fallen in love with the property at first sight and must have it, adding that money was no obstacle for him at all. In the more than two years since her husband's death Jody had been hanging on with the help of Dago O'Grady, a dour Irishman and professional cowboy who had worked as the Bar Nun's foreman for eighteen months before the accident, and an octogenarian sheepherder called Whitey who wore his beard as far down as his waist. Dago won his nickname by sticking a shiv between the ribs of the man the prosecution claimed was trying to move in on Dago's girlfriend; I never learned what his real name was. A black Irishman, short and stocky, with the temperament of a rattlesnake or a little man with a big gun, he made a competent foreman, getting seriously drunk only three or four times a year in a calculated and deliberate manner, the way some people visit spas or go on religious retreats. When I asked Jody why Dago didn't care for me she said it was a remark I had made about Brangus cows, which you couldn't give me for an April Fool's Day present. I had been living on the Bar Nun for a week when I backed the pickup into a shed, drained the water pipes and the tank in the camper, unscrewed the gas lines, slid the unit from the truck bed, and left it resting on two-by-fours on the packed dirt floor with only the mice and the snakes for company.

We were up before daybreak and on the way to the barns while the sun was still trying to get above the headwall and the canyon lay submerged in a substantial twilight that was more like water than air. In the light of a naked sixty-watt bulb we threw down hay bales from the loft, cut the string with my pocketknife, and stuck the separate flakes under the long faces of the horses waiting in their box stalls along the cement runway. Jody helped Whitey nurse the bum lambs while I carried away the carcasses of the ones that had died during the night and fed the dogs, the half-feral ones hanging back and watching with slit yellow eyes as I set the food out in iron pans. We looked at the calves in the calf pens, and then I made Jody show me the fainting goats. The goats lived in a shed of their own at a distance from the barns, away from surprises. They stood close together watching us approach and when I yelled BOOOOO! three or four would keel over in terror and lie unconscious on the ground for several minutes before they woke up screaming with fright, while the rest milled and bleated. The fainting goats were always the best part of early morning. After visiting with them we returned to the house for breakfast, which we had on the patio with our backs to the climbing sun. We ate a light meal, scrambled eggs with green chili, toast and jam, some kind of fresh fruit, and black coffee with a shot of whiskey. Before we could finish eating the slickrock cliffs turned glaring red above the house, radiating a dry heat across the valley.

We were in the saddle until early afternoon when we had lunch and a short siesta before doing paperwork and making phone calls. Jody, who was feuding with the government men in Monticello, did the calling while I reviewed the books with a pocket calculator. It was more or less like trying to catch a bank examiner out in a trivial error. In those several months I uncovered only two or three mistakes, one of which turned out on closer inspection to be my own. We ate supper at six, washed up the dishes, did the evening chores, and sat on the patio in the evening cool to drink whiskey and listen to the purple vetch growing in the meadow while the sun went down behind the Henry Mountains a hundred miles away, the bullbats dived at our heads, and the early mosquitoes whined. Some evenings I would bring out the old nickle-plated harmonica and play the old Irish songs and ballads--"The Harp That Once on Tara's Halls," "The Green Isle of Erin," and "Kathleen Mavourneen," which Jody liked the best.

"It's such a sad song," she said. "But what does it mean?"

"No one knows that I ever heard of. My thinking is an Irish politician has been summoned to London expecting to be put in the Tower and maybe have his head cut off. He is up early and goes to look at his wife who is sleeping still in a fourposter bed in her separate room--grateful for her peace of mind but hurt because she hasn't awakened early to tell him goodbye. 'It may be for years, and it may be forever,' he says."

"It's the saddest song I think I ever heard. It makes me want to cry whenever you play it."

"If you wish, I'll work on playing and singing it for you at the same time."

For two months we didn't go into town at all and we were hardly ever out of one another's company. Jody gave me her Stephen King novels to read and I taught her to backbraid rope. Finally she cut my hair and insisted that I shave my beard after I had allowed both to start growing back.

"You look just exactly like Buffalo Bill," she complained. "In his later years."

"Is that bad? Lydia liked it."

"You've given me one more good reason why I don't."

"I actually look more like my namesake, the Confederate cavalry officer."

"I didn't even know who Jeb Stuart was until you told me. And why would the two of you men want to look like environmentalists, anyway?"

We were in love, Jody with the wild infatuation of her lingering youth, me in my cautious middle-aged way that comes from having learned--too late, perhaps--that love always exacts patience and hard work in addition to gratitude and contentment. If it sounds like a dull life, then probably both of us should have been watching television instead.

The early heat brought the snakes out of hibernation and into the shubbery and the flower beds. We were always coming across them on the patio and coiled against the supporting posts of the portal. On a rare morning when Jody was sleeping in I discovered an old rattler, over five feet long and as big around as my thigh at the middle, dozing under a chaise longue when I came outside to drink a cup of coffee. I kicked the chair and he oiled slowly from beneath it, testing with his tongue ahead of himself and swaying his dusty head from side to side. A garden rake stood against the house wall. I went for it and hazed him gently across the warming flagstone.

"Get along now," I told the snake. "I don't want you making unnecessary trouble in this place. It's a good life here and I won't stand for anything to mess it up."

His yellow eyes glinted as he went in sinuous curves toward the grass.

"Keep going" I said, "and for as long as you behave yourself and don't come around here making mischief I won't hurt you. You can take that as a promise. You understand?"

He slipped off the edge of the patio and into the long grass beyond the fence and I returned the rake to its place against the wall. I saw him several times again that spring, never on the patio or anywhere very close to the house.

In the weeks before we took the cattle up to the hills Dago O'Grady spent much of his time on a bench above the side canyon south of the ranch, dragging together the skeletons of the pinon and juniper trees he and Jody had chained two years before and firing them in piles. After two years the boughs, turned a reddish brown, were volatile as kerosene. Several days out of the week the thick blue smoke rose in nearly straight columns into a sky of a deeper blue, paling through shades of gray before thinning away in the glare of the spring sun overhead. Each day around noon the columns tilted suddenly, bulged, and toppled to the east as the afternoon winds hit them, then diminished sharply when Dago damped the fires. On an afternoon in the second week the columns instead of dying back continued rolling higher and thicker in separating coils that flattened finally to lay a pall of smoke over the bench, a lake of smoke extending almost to the base of the mountains. Jody stepped out of the house to view the smoke from the back yard. Then she tried paging Dago on the cell phone. "Damn it," she exclaimed, "I've told him a hundred times to carry the phone with him when he leaves the truck. You can bet he's packing iron though. Would you drive up there, Jeb, and tell him to damp those fires immediately? If the forest gestapo were to see that they'd snatch my burn permit, pronto."

I eased the truck through her flock of prize bantam chickens, taking care not to flatten any of them, and across the ford south of the house. The water still ran high and fast in the creek, rising into the wheel wells and soaking the brakes. I drove slow for a mile in the sandy road while I pumped them dry. The canyon floor, stretching wide at the mouth, was green with the new spring grasses and the freshened prickly pear. Desert flowers bloomed between the spaced sage bushes: Indian paintbrush, purple gentian, something egg-yellow and sticky looking, too common to have a name. The road followed in the dry wash a few miles before climbing out and switchbacking through sandstone rubble up to the bench. Ahead a couple of miles still Dago's inferno continued to send billows of smoke against the mountain front. I stepped on the accelerator pedal and ran a golden eagle off the carcass of a yearling deer it had been feeding on. In the towing mirror I watched as he climbed out over the abyss of the canyon, circled back, and lighted on the carcass again.

Dago O'Grady sat at a distance from his truck on a red jerry can, observing the nearest fire. He raised his hand as if to wave as I drove up and pulled his hatbrim over his eyes. I set the parking brake and climbed out of the truck.

"Morning, Dago."

"Afternoon."

"Jody tried calling you on the cell phone."

"Forgot it, I guess, this mornin when I was leavin the house."

The flames were bent nearly parallel with the ground and overhead the smoke was thick with sparks.

"I've been asked to request you to damp the fires down. Wind's up," I added, in case he hadn't noticed.

"Don't she know we're puttin cows up here in less'n a week?

"I would assume she does. They're her cows."

He rose suddenly and stood scowling at the fire.

"Hell," O'Grady said contemptuously, "there ain't no danger in it."

"If you had the cell phone with you, you could call and discuss it with her."

O'Grady lifted the jerry can and held it a little forward as he stared longingly into the fire. "They's another extinguisher in back of the truck," he said finally.

We damped the fires and cleared the ground surrounding them of duff and twigs. I brought my canteen from the pickup and offered it to him.

"Water?"

O'Grady gave the canteen a suspicious look before accepting it and taking a long drink. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve and handed it back.

"I need to be getting back," I said.

"To where? Wyomin?"

"Home," I told him.

His eyes burned holes in the back of my head as I walked to the truck. The man resented me--more accurately, he resented my presence on the Bar Nun Ranch--and I hadn't been able yet to figure why, not that I cared a tart's last trick. I steered a tight circle around a boulder and into the single-track without looking back. The eagle flew up from the dead deer beside the road and the lake of smoke, pushed by the wind, had started to spread around the mountain. No one patrolling out here for the Bureau of Land Management or the Forest Service could miss seeing it.

3.

The heat came too soon again in early May. The creek dried up except for a trickle meandering between pools of water, the snow vanished from the mountains, and on the desert the surface water disappeared except in the most protected places. The sun, rising well north of the mountains, poured itself into the canyon each morning, flooding it with a terrific heat.

We were at the barns before five now to finish the chores in the cool dawn and in bed an hour past sunset, taking with us a bottle of chilled wine and two glasses. The coolness came quickly after the sun was down and we would lie in bed with the swamp cooler shut off and the casement windows pushed out, drinking wine and listening to the sounds of crickets in the flower beds, the tree frogs in the cottonwoods along the dried-up creek, and the coyotes having hysterics in the foothills. We would talk for a while, going over the day and enjoying the wine until it was no longer cold, and then put out the lights and enjoy one another beneath the single sheet. Afterward we slept close and well until just before first light, when I went to the kitchen to start the coffee pot and Jody showered. Being friends in addition to the other thing we had got beyond the ecstasy and settled down to being happy -- not the sort of happiness that makes you fear an unexpected diagnisis of cancer but happiness of the serene kind, the kind that comes from a sense of the wholeness, the absolute rightness, of it all. The monsoon season was more than a month off still and the weather, in spite of the heat, continued perfect. Except for the drought we had no worries, and no bad thoughts at all to think.

Jody worked the show horse three-quarters of an hour daily in the walled arena beside the house. Cortez knew nothing about cows and gave every sign of not wanting to know anything. Jody said Peruvian pasos and Pasos finos were becoming very popular in the Southwestern United States; she was considering establishing a bloodline of her own and realizing a profit on it. When I failed to light up like a Christmas angel at the idea she took me down to the stables for a test drive. The rotating shoulder blades and the forelegs paddling sideways were, if anything, more disconcerting from the saddle than when viewed from the ground, but she had been right about the smoothgaitedness. The comparison with the land tortoise miffed her at first but it also amused her, and pretty soon she was using it herself to the point where Tortuga became the horse's nickname, outside of his hearing. Not, it seemed to me, that he gave a damn. I accompanied them when she showed. By the Fourth of July the three of us had traveled some thousands of miles together into Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico, sharing, Jody and I, the bunk bed in the horse trailer and later, when we became tired of sleeping on top of each other, renting a motel room while Tortuga boarded at a local stables. Dago O'Grady in our absence, with the help of seasonal Navajos hired from Tohatchi, New Mexico, on the reservation, kept the home fires burning. Though Jody insisted that Dago was entirely responsible, after two or three days away from the Bar Nun she seemed eager to be getting home again, and I was usually ready myself. When you've spent as many years of your life wandering as I have, just being on the road doesn't seem like a world cruise anymore.

There are no holidays in the ranching business and almost no vacations either. Some days you find ways to enjoy the work a little more than other days, and always you're on the lookout for the opportunity to put business together with pleasure. On a morning before or after Memorial Day Jody packed a picnic dinner and a magnum bottle of red wine and we drove into the mountains to supply Whitey up in sheep camp and have a look at the cattle ponds. I drove slowly in the dirt track, stopping now and then to allow Jody to glass for stragglers and measure the height of the grasses after the cattle had been through. The Bar Nun's grazing lease out here went until July first, but she was already worrying the cows might have to come off well before then on account of the drought.

Sheep camp was in a park among aspen, above the black timber. In the high country the white trunks surmounted by trembling green leaves rose straight into the blue sky from a carpet of arrowleaf balsam flowering yellow on the moist purple ground. The musky odor of balsam mixed with the rank one of the sheep milling through the trees and across the park, tended by the dogs. Whitey's old horse, under saddle and with the bridle and reins hanging from the saddlehorn, stood tied off to the hay wagon. It turned to look over its shoulder at the truck grinding uphill in the steep trail, and then away. Blue smoke trailed from the wired chimney in the roof of the herder's wagon. I stopped a few feet from the wagon and Jody and I began taking boxes of canned goods from the truckbed. The horse, showing a renewed interest in the supply operation, looked around again and nickered. Everything was unloaded on the ground in front of the wagon when the wagon door opened and Whitey peered out. He had on antique chaps over torn blue jeans and his beard showed very white against the front of his purple shirt.

"Hello Whitey."

"'Lo."

"You didn't hear us drive up?"

He cupped a hand behind one ear.

"What?"

He held a blackened pipe between his teeth and, in the other hand, a book.

"Where do you want these supplies to go?"

Whitey took the hand away from his ear.

"Bring em on in here."

"Okay, boss," I told him.

He stood away from the door while we carried the boxes in. There wasn't room enough in the wagon for everything we had brought. We set the rest of the supplies in the balsam plants underneath the wagon and covered them with a tarpaulin to keep the rain from getting in, if there ever was any rain.

"How are you, Whitey?"

"Okay."

"Getting lonely for you up here yet?"

"Nope."

"What are you reading?"

"Book about me."

Twenty years ago when he was still on the rodeo circuit a journalist from Denver had interviewed him for a book he was writing called The Last Cowboys. When the book was eventually published the author sent Whitey a copy inscribed with his signature and a page notation to look up. All that had been saved from the one-hour interview was a paragraph where Whitey, expressing contempt for animal rights activists back East, proposed that they be traded to the ayatollah for the American hostages in Iran. Jacketless and rainspotted, its pages dog-eared, thumb-worn, and already yellowing, the book was the sole worldly possession, beyond his horse, his rifle, and the cracked and stiffened chaps, the old man showed any attachment to.

"Is that the only book you ever read in your life, Whitey?"

"I don't remember."

He took his finger from the pages and laid the book carefully on top of the bunk bed.

Whitey gave us what was left of the coffee he had been keeping warm on the wood stove. The coffee was mostly grounds, strong enough to tan leather and tasting like sheep dip. Obviously he was hoping we would keep company with him a while, but Jody was impatient to investigate the cattle ponds. As we were going he took a bundle of pelts tied up with rawhide from under the bed and handed them to her.

"The bounty on coyotes isn't much these days, Whitey."

"Hold onto em til it goes up again then."

Jody accepted the pelts with a sick expression and we went outside and got in the truck. Whitey stood watching from the wagon door as we drove off down the mountain. The pelts between us on the seat smelled terrible.

"What's he bother skinning out the damn coyotes for?" I asked.

"They're supposed to be his whiskey money next fall."

"If he makes a fair trade the whiskey's going to be pretty terrible."

It was midafternoon when we reached the ponds, bulldozed depressions half filled with stale red water impounded behind earthen cofferdams. The ponds were dug in a series of connecting parks among juniper forests overlooked by turrets and spires of purple sandstone eroded to fantastical shapes. Dusty and hot from driving at ten miles an hour with the windows down, we spent the rest of the afternoon checking the dams. Jody's face and her bare throat were rimed with salt from the evaporated perspiration.

"They should hold through next spring at the very least, don't you think?"

"They better."

"Unless we have an unusually wet winter this year."

"It isn't going to be a wet winter."

"How do you know?"

"The yellowjackets are building their nests close to the ground this year."

"Last year they built them high up and we still didn't get any snow to speak of."

"Ask the weather man then."

"I will not. They're all environmentalist stooges."

"Environmentalist" was the worst thing Jody could think to say about a person. Having a fairly wide green streak myself I prefer to keep to the center of the road, but it's no good trying to argue it with ranchers. Loving someone is being able to hold your tongue about the one thing in a hundred you disagree on. A lot of folks don't seem up to it, though.

Six miles ahead a trail branching from the main track went west across the meadow toward a ragged line of trees. Beyond the meadow the forest pressed close against the trail on both sides. The trees grew thickly but so low you could look above them to the horizon where the sun was descending through shades of purple, gold, and copper. Pine boughs dragged on the truck doors and Jody drew her elbow in through the window. The trees thinned and then we were beyond the forest, riding on caprock that ended abruptly end thirty yards ahead. I stopped the truck and looked at her.

"Follow along the rim and I'll tell you when to stop."

She called halt at a stricken pine tree leaning from a fracture in the rimrock and we got out and unloaded the picnic boxes.

"I must look a mess, Jody said.

"Yes ma'am. You do."

"You're no Beau Brummel yourself. We need to wash up before we eat."

"We can't wash. I didn't bring the water barrel."

"We don't need the water barrel. Come on. I'm going to show you something."

"What are you going to show me?"

"Something you'll like. Don't sound so apprehensive."

"I'm not apprehensive. I just don't like to be surprised."

Jody led me to the cliff edge and pointed.

"Look down there."

The cliff formed the headwall of a narrow box canyon arranged in levels of opposing terraces with box elder, scrub oak, and ponderosa pine growing close against the sheer rock walls. The canyon, cutting raggedly west, became lost in the maze of red and purple slickrock, swales and domes of yellow and white sandstone, and the wilderness of wild forms carved from the level plateau stretching along the horizon.

"Where?"

"Down there--a little to the right of that bush. See it?"

"I don't see anything."

"It doesn't show very well from up here. You can see better from the ledge."

"What ledge?"

"The one just below us."

"You're going to climb down there?"

"I am," she said, "and you are too."

A game trail several inches wide, scored with the tracks of deer and small rodents, descended ahead of us, a scratch on the cliff face.

"You go ahead," Jody suggested, "and I'll follow you."

Carefully setting one boot ahead of the other I started down, clutching at small bushes and rock outcrops.

"You're off the trail!" Jody called when I had descended fifty or sixty feet.

I looked up thoughtlessly, out and down--and after that I didn't look again but held my eyes on the faint, almost illusory trace beneath my shuffling boots. Jody was behind me somewhere, dainty and surefooted as a desert pig. Love can be downhill work sometimes, especially in cowboy boots. The polished leather soles slid and slipped on the loose gravel. I caught hold of a bush growing from a fissure above my head and swung outward like a window cleaner hanging from a skyscraper as my feet searched to recover the firm ground.

"Jeb!" Jody cried, "be careful!"

I had a sickening view of treetops revolving slowly on the canyon floor a thousand feet below before I found the trail again and let go the bush, which snapped back with a cracking sound.

"Go on," Jody urged. "Just a few more yards and you'll be there."

She caught up on the edge of the tinaja. Vaulted by the sweating rock and holding water to a depth of about two feet it was a natural bath tub sunk in the floor of a shallow cave. Jody pushed forward from behind, unfastening her jeans at the waist and beginning to unbutton her blouse. She shucked her clothes on the stone floor and sat on the edge of the basin with her white legs in the water.

"It's delicious," she said, and slipped all the way in.

 

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