fiction from my head
Tuesday, May 10, 1892
Edith drove the newly purchased team, the long traces in both hands. She knew good horseflesh and this wasn’t it, but they were said to be reliable and in the wildness of this land that was the important thing. The road ended five miles before the ranch house, but this is how roads came to be in Montana. You drove your wagon over the prairie, over the tufts of grass, the rocks, spine jerked one way then the other like a poor country carnival ride. If you were true about your driving, your repeated passing would eventually create a two-track trail that was all the road you could expect.
To get to the ranch from their old place, they had to cross the Yellowstone River. It was not a forgiving waterway. It was sandy and flat and a thousand feet wide and always in a deep rush out of the falls three hundred miles south. On the surface it was usually placid, but underneath a swift monster lay in wait. Swimming a horse or cow across without benefit of a shallow ford was so tempting to fate that almost no one ventured it, and of course, a wagon couldn’t be easily forded. When they arrived at the riverbank they could see the flat barge of the ferry on the other side with no operator in sight.
Without a word, Ewan took a seat on the ground, his back against a wagon wheel, and pulled from his pocket the sketchbook and pencil he kept there. They had been glad for the half-hour interruption of their journey used in climbing the hoodoo of rock for a look at the huge nest they’d spied there. The golden eagle spread its wings and cawed at them in warning while the fledglings topped and tumbled over each other like water over rocks. Ewan would have been happy to stay all day observing them, ornithologist that he was, but they had to get on. He began to fill in the feathering on the sketch he’d made.
He was a gentleman of the outdoors. He could spend eye-exhausting hours in study and weeks on hunting trips, sleeping in a cold tent, eating around a fire, undaunted by rain or snow, and yet the complications of putting up the evening’s camp tent would make him cranky and exhausted. He had a lifelong fragile constitution and had been raised as the son of a Scottish estate, both led him to expect certain courtesies even when there was no one to provide them. They had been married a year and this was how it was.
He looked up from his notebook. “Hobble,” he said, though she didn’t need told.
She unhitched the horses and for each looped a cotton rope around the pastern of one dusty leg, twisting it short, and tying it around the other, letting them wander away to graze.
“It’s not too tight, is it?” Ewan called. “We don’t want it to rub.”
“It’s fine.” She washed her hands in the water, wiping them dry across her skirt.
She too had been raised in a manor house far from here, and she had taken to this land and its requirements with a gusto that surprised even her. If Ewan wanted the land to provide, she preferred that it liberate. Here there was nothing to trap and contain her, hardly anyone to care what she said or did or wore or thought.
Across the river, she could see a figure rejoin the ferry and soon start it on its slow traverse. Edith stayed watchful for signs of potential difficulty. There was a line across the river to which the ferry was tethered and which was used by the ferryman like the lead on a horse, using the rudder wheel to point the barge downstream and then nose it back up the line on the other side. Sometimes it acted like an old saddle horse, sometimes a wild mustang. Today, it was a half broke bronco – at the end of its tether but not bucking too much.
When the ferry finally arrived, Edith had the horses back in their traces.
Two dollars for the ferry. She untied the cow and lead it aboard, tying it to the rail, then she and Ewan each took one bridle in hand and walking backward worked to coax the horses and wagon onto the shifting deck. The ferryman watched from the shore until they was successful. He took a flask from his back pocket and took a nip without offering it around. He seemed too gaunt to be doing such work.
As steady as they might be otherwise, the horses didn’t care for the wetness and tipping and swaying of the deck. They neighed and pranced in fright as the ferry swung with the flow and rocked with the choppy waves. “Keep on, “Ewan called. “Hold their heads.” It took every bit of their strength to keep the horses from backing the overloaded wagon into the boards and all the while Ewan muttered breathily to them, ho, ho; it’s all right. The ferryman’s flask rose and settled in his back pocket with each tug at the rudder like a mouse unsure it wanted to risk escape.
The disagreeable sand of the far bank sank the horses to their fetlocks, the wagon wheels to their rims, and Edith to her ankles. But they were across, and this ranch, unlike the last, was on the same side of the Yellowstone as the town, though a ten-mile ride away. A town was essential as a place to get coffee, sugar, flour, along with Edith’s trust checks, and letters from home. There would be fewer Yellowstone crossings from then on.
They had not seen the house or the land before they bought it, but they’d been living at a rented ranch in a house made of stacked sod since they’d arrived and were sure to find it better. It was reported to have a wood floor.
Upon first sighting, it seemed more a shed than a house, something left behind as worthless when the house moved away. It was a rectangle of bare hand-sawn boards three and sometimes four inches thick with more planks and layers of tar paper for a roof. There was an odd assortment of windows, with those on the back looking onto a dirt bank, and a porch that stretched crookedly across the front. Neglected fruit trees slumped along one side, and 500 yards away was the low flow of a small stream, only two jumps across, which was the reason they’d bought the place. Water was precious there in this land of high prairie hills lumped up everywhere like rocks under a carpet. Thousands of acres lay between one source of water and the next. There was no sense trying to ranch anything at all without your own source. This ranch was also blessed with a spring at the nearest rise, and an opencast of exposed coal mere mile away in the crusted castles of Badlands clay and sandstone.
The door to the house wouldn’t open because the top hinge had torn from the dry jamb and the heavy slab had tipped its full weight onto the porch boards and couldn’t be budged. Ewan went around the back and climbed in a broken window but not before he stopped to watch a bird almost too high in the air to be visible. He called to Edith, “shrike, Lanius excubitor.” Men who were struck dumb by the beauty of birds were not common in this territory, and not a practical thing to own, but he was skinny to her bulk and got in easily as a weasel, tipping in head first, legs sliding after. He was still on the floor when she heard, “Mother of God.” She waited. A breeze came suddenly and shook the hair of the cottonwoods by the river. She lifted her sunburned face to it, but after one lick the wind shyly fled. “There’s furniture,” she heard him say.
Ewan couldn’t budge the door from the inside either, not even with his demands for her to push harder from her side or all the fine Scottish cursing he threw at it, so he set a straight-backed chair outside the window for her to climb up and one on the inside for her to climb down.
The long room had a plank floor and walls and was divided by peeled support poles midway. Cones of harsh light from the windows fell on the floor. One end held the kitchen−a four lid cookstove, a crude corner cupboard, a high work table with bark on the legs and butcher block top, and a rickety dry sink. There was a table for eating, its stained and tattered oilcloth still set with a dust enrobed tin bowl and a twisted fork. They owned so little of their own; every stick of it was welcome.
At the other end, there was a coal stove for heat. Light came in around the exiting vent pipe, as would rain, as would snow. Ewan would have to go up and seal it. There were three rocking chairs, a waist-high dresser, and a small deal table. Beyond that was a room big enough for a bed and a washstand. This room had a window both front and back making for a chilly cross breeze. No telling how the fine four-poster had gotten there and where it had started its life. Nowhere near the newly-minted state of Montana that was certain, but it was welcome and could be got up with some sack curtains to warm their rest in the winter cold. “Not much to look at I’m afraid, little Eddie,” said Ewan. He was standing in front of the coal stove, his fingers extended toward its imaginary warmth.
“It’ll do,” she said. They smiled at each other, relieved.
“I’ll see to some water. You get on with the wagon.”
She climbed back out the window and unhitched. She led first the cows and then the team to the low-slung barn where she removed their trappings and turned them loose in the stalls. There was some old hay in the mow and she climbed up, inspected it for mold, sniffed it, and, deciding it was still good enough, used her bare hands to tear some away and toss it down. The beasts snuffled in an ungrateful way at it before lipping it up and settling into chewing.
A dog came and stood in the barn doorway, watching her. He looked like some descendent of a long-haired sheepdog, black and white and curious. Coo, coo, she called to it, ticking her tongue and trying to entice. The dog stood, cocked its head, seemed about to come forward, but another one came up behind it, larger, a brindled grey, its breed undetectable, and stood staring at her coldly. These new humans come to replace the last ones. The little dog looked back at the other, and the two turned and walked away.
When she left the barn, she paused a moment to look for the dogs. Not seeing them, she raised her head to the unobstructed blue of the sky and then to turn slowly and take in the flat little valley that held the house and barn. Small, soft hills rose all around, protecting the house from the fierce prairie wind, making the farmyard seem set in the interior court of a sandcastle with its battlements worn smooth by the waves. In one direction, those waves gave way to the overhanging breakers of the Badlands. In the other, it ran still and smooth, a mix of grasses and a million different plants that flowered or prickled or gave berries and medicines.
She could see Ewan carrying two buckets of water back from the river for the horses. He would need to make two trips for them and another for the house. With his walrus mustache, in his tweed waistcoat and jacket, shirt and tie, he was a Scottish landowner out for a stroll. He’d be in Scotland still, on his ancestral acres if they weren’t soon to be lost thanks to the disastrous career of a weak-willed grandfather. There was nothing he could have done about it even if he’d wanted, but he’d rather a book than an axe, rather the sight of a bird on the wing than tenants to worry over.
He stopped suddenly, setting the buckets down and crouching in the grass to touch something. The grey dog up and shied away but didn’t go far, wary and watching. Ewan took something from his pocket, likely some jerky he had there, held it out. The dog came forward, snatched it, dropped it, giving Ewan time to attack its ears and neck with scratching and rubbing. The dog stood chewing. When Ewan stood again, he looked to her. He was grinning, pointing at the dog, and she waved her arm to show her shared delight.
She managed to extract a straw broom from the wagon bed and swept the crooked gallery before she unloaded the wagon’s contents and stacked it on the dry boards there. Ewan stood on the bed and handed things down for her to carry. When they finally reached the heavy canvas bag with their tools in it, she took out what she needed and climbed back into the house while Ewan kept on. She removed the remaining hinge to free the door and set it out so it extended off the front edge of the porch. The collie came to lay in the shade of the wagon. It kept its eye on her as she got to work resetting the old hinge on an undamaged portion of it, then chiseling a matching portion on the jamb. It wasn’t a job she knew how to do, but she didn’t mind wrapping her common sense around such things. She could see how it had been done.
The job wasn’t perfect, there was more gap at the top edge than the bottom, but it swung freely and latched securely and that’s what mattered.
Ewan returned from collecting drinking water from the trickle of the spring though she hadn’t noticed he’d gone. She committed one of the buckets of river water to removing the half-inch of dust and cobwebs that covered everything—standing first on a chair to wipe the top of the corner cabinets and working her way down. Ewan went off again to find wood for the fires. She heard him whistle as he went, hoping for one of the dogs. She didn’t need his help pulling the old mattress outside; it was only corn husks and not too heavy. When he came back, she got him to help bring in theirs stuffed with raw wool with its overwhelming lanolin smell like axle grease. She brought in the tied bundle of bedding and made up the bed with sheets and both a homespun blanket and a down one, her wedding present from Ewan’s mother. She brought in her violin and set it carefully on the bit of shelf near the bed where it just fit. She carried in their thickly cushioned club chair and set it near the stove where Ewan was fiddling with setting the dampers. His eyes lit at the sight of it, and he sat there with his pipe while she went out to milk the cow that, because of the hard miles journey, wouldn’t cooperate, shifting, and stamping, and giving little.
For dinner, they could have fresh cream over some of the beans she’d put up last fall if she could get to it amongst their things. Perhaps they’d celebrate with some of the corned beef too if she could extract the barrel.
The men they’d paid to bring their few cattle, dogs, saddle horses, and remaining belongings over from the old ranch wouldn’t arrive for two days, but there was plenty to do before then. First thing, she’d have to see that the sad leanto of a spring house was readied for the hard use they’d give it.
In the evening, they put two rockers on the gallery as the sun was bluing into dusk and talked over what needed doing: wagon loads of coal dug and hauled from the Badlands, the barn was starting to lounge to the south like a slattern in an alley and needed propping, a clothesline should be rigged, and she’d need to get started on a vegetable garden if she was going to take advantage of the fullness of the short summer—breaking open the land for the seed, praying for rain. The corral had folded in upon itself, leaving only a ring of rotten boards, but it could wait.
They gave the dogs their names. Coo for the collie and Teague for the grey. Satisfied they fell silent. The sky came orange, turning the grass the same, everything aglow. Only the buildings and the rocks seemed to hide their secrets within their grey shells.
Edith studied Ewan as he rocked and puffed his pipe, the smoke wafting off like steam behind a train. He was a small man, handsome in his way, and even when angry his eyes were kind. Feeling her watching him, he turned his head, nodded. “All right there, Eddie?” he asked. “You ken we did fine?”
“We did,” she said.
She had her strength and a use for it and no one who would want to tell her otherwise, and that gave her a sense of peace as the sun tiptoed behind the folds of the low hills tucking the poppy glow away with it. He hooked two of her fingers with two of his. They sat like that, setting their rocking to the same pace. A flock of whooping cranes came to rest along the river, their sounds like the squawk of seagulls in Sussex she’d heard every summer of her youth. “Grus Canadensis,” said Ewan. “Tallest bird in North America. They’ll make fine neighbors.”