Old and Country Tale

SHIRLEY W. SCHOONOVER’S stories have appeared in NEW CAMPUS WRITING II, TRANSATLANTIC REVIEW, and in the 1962 O. HENRY PRIZE STORIES. Her first novel, MOUNTAIN OF WINTER, will be published by Coward-McCann sometime next year.

HE HAD run away. Not so much run as walked, he thought, but it came to the same thing. However you did it, you went away from a place. He had taken the team to the north forty to finish the plowing, and all at once it had come to him that this was as good a time as any to go. Close after sunup it was, and she wouldn’t be coming to check on him until noon. He had looked over his shoulder just in case, but the hill was empty of her; so he removed the bridles and hung them on the hames of the harness. “Let you have all you want without the bit in your way,” he said to the horses. “She’ll be coming soon enough to bring you back.” The horses had begun to graze placidly, undisturbed by this change. He touched them once on their necks and then walked away.

He crossed the barbed-wire fence and left the Davidson property, always keeping to where the sun had burned off the morning mist in case she came early and looked to track him. He kept his eyes down to watch the grass spring up undamaged behind him. A lark flew up against the sky and, seeing no harm in him, returned to her nest. He went on until he reached the highway, where he stopped to look both ways — no cars in sight. He stepped across the pavement and walked along the bottom of the man-deep ditch. He’d hear cars this way and be out of sight. Five hours until noon, five hours of fast walking; then he’d have to find a place to rest until night. She’d have found the horses and, along with her parents and brothers, would be looking for him. He held no bitterness about that; only he wouldn’t be brought back.

He was sweating from his pace and looked to where the sun stood now. Nearly noon, and figure four miles an hour, he had come something like twenty miles since morning. Time to find a roost till night comes, he thought; and after a scrutiny of the highway he left the protection of the ditch to duck under another fence. Cornfield’s good cover, least till somebody comes to start the harvest. Stepping carefully between the rows of corn, he put several yards between himself and the highway. He picked three ears of corn and sat down to munch them raw. Sweet and milky, they satisfied the hunger and thirst that had grown inside him. Now that the belly mumbling had hushed he lay full length on the ground. He could hear the passing cars; and if anyone wanted to start taking this corn, well, he’d hear that too, and be gone before they noticed him. He lay his forehead on an arm and let the afternoon grow hot and moist.

A beetle worked its way out of the tumulus. He watched it as it climbed down the bottom of the runnel between the rows of corn. He blew at it to see if it would notice him. The beetle squared around and stood motionless. “Aren’t you going to clack your mandibles at me?” he asked the beetle, and then remembered where he was. Like a kid you are, he told himself sternly. Can’t keep a thing in your head any longer than a kid would. You, hiding in a cornfield so she can’t find you, and then you go talking to beetles. All she’d have to do is walk quiet down the road, and she’d hear you. Aggravated, he put his head down again. After a moment he looked up. But the beetle was gone.

Late in the afternoon the tree frogs began calling for rain, and he knew it had gone past five o’clock. Whee-whee-ee, the tree frogs cried; and the sky hung heavy on the tops of the hills. Higher up the scale came the wheedling of the locusts, declaring frost within six weeks and their own end. He sat up, listening to the frogs and the locusts, and believed them, because once in a while they were right and they believed so hard themselves.

When the sun had gone down he got up and ate some more corn. Then he slipped from the cornfield down into the ditch to walk all night. He stopped twice for a cigarette and to relieve himself, but these stops were timed so that he could tell the hour by the stars. Orion had swung around to point northeast when he heard a car coming slowly along the highway. He pinched the cigarette out and lay down in the damp grass.

A band of light cleared the top of the ditch and illuminated the prickle-edged fence and the first rows of corn. He closed his eyes and ducked his face between his arms. The car went down the road without pausing. Spotlight on now, he thought, I’d forgotten that. He stood up carefully, watching the spotlight poke gently at the roadside. Well, he predicted, they’ll come back the other side and look that over too. And tomorrow, early, they’ll be like ants. I’d better make it over the Platte tonight, and then it’s just one more night and I’m in Colorado. He walked quickly, watching the highway ahead and the ground beneath to keep from stumbling.

First it was just a fence to be crossed and a property line. Then a highway and now a river. Tomorrow a state line. How many lines will I have to cross before I’ve gone far enough? You’ll not look long nor far, will you, Siiri? You’ll give up soon and let me be wherever I land.

He saw the car coming back, beam touching the other side of the highway. He watched his wife driving past. Her father was with her. He could hear them talking above the car’s monotone. Then they were gone.

NORTH PLATTE. He skirted the town, heading for the river. The town slept beside the river and along the highway. Some grain elevators stood tall and spare against the sword of Orion. He walked over the bridge and saw a truck stand ahead. He waited until a truck pulled in; then he followed the trucker inside and sat at the counter. “Hot beef,” he ordered. “Coffee and berry pie.”

The waitress yawned and look the trucker’s order too.

“This state got anything besides tornadoes and heat?” the trucker asked as the waitress served their coffee.

“Cold. We’ve got cold in the winter,” Asher said.

“ That I know, friend. Mean cold and wind.” The trucker wiped his forehead and drank his coffee.

“Paper says rain,” the waitress said, and laid their plates on the counter.

“Well, so did the tree frogs yesterday. Or was it still today?” Asher licked the gravy off his fork and took a stab at the pie.

The waitress stood in front of him. “That’s ninety-five cents,” she said, staring at him.

“I’ve got it.” Asher handed her a dollar bill. “Keep the change.”

She said. “Aw, I wanted to make sure you had the money. More coffee?”

“No. No, thanks.” He drank the last of the coffee and wiped his mouth. He went out of the truck stand, hearing their chuckling. “Tree frogs,” the waitress said.

He had gone a few yards down the highway when the trucker called, “Hey, you, want a lift?”

Asher went back, nodding his head.

“You going anywhere special, or will Denver do?” The trucker pointed at the large semi that dwarfed him.

“Colorado?” Asher asked.

“That’s right. Unless there’s a Denver in some other state.”

“Fine. Thanks.” Asher watched the trucker swing up into the truck cab. Then he went to the other side and climbed the ladder. He sat in the cab and jiggled his feet as the trucker made the diesel engine snarl and howl beneath them.

“You in any hurry, or will it be all right if we get there sometime around noon?”

“No. No hurry.” Asher settled back and watched the truck make its way through the night. He stared out the window and thought, Siiri, you’d never think of this, that I’m going out and away in plain sight. With red and yellow lights to catch your attention. And enough noise to rattle your teeth. He smothered a laugh behind his hand and watched Nebraska surge by.

“Where you going, Harmless?” the trucker yelled.

“Colorado. Mountains,” Asher yelled back. The trucker said something Asher couldn’t hear, so he yelled, “I’m running away from my wife.”

The trucker looked at him and slapped his knee. “Harmless, you are a screw! Let me know if you get away with it.” He added, seriously, “No kids left behind?”

“No. No kids. She never wanted any. She didn’t like carrying on like that.”

The trucker grunted understanding. Then he yelled, “What was it you said about tree frogs and rain?”

“Oh. Well, tree frogs call for rain. And sometimes it rains. They sing whee-ee-ee, and if they sing long enough, it rains for them.”

“Where’d you learn that?”

“Books. Stories. Locusts can tell weather too. They know it’ll freeze in six weeks.”

The trucker shook his head and made silent laughter. He kept Asher talking until the sun had come to ten o’clock in the sky. The trucker said, “Now, Harmless, do you really want to go on to Denver? Or don’t you think it would be better if I let you off somewhere on the road? You can work, can’t you?”

“Oh, yeah. I work good and hard. You have a fine idea about letting me off before Denver. I couldn’t work in a town. Where d’you think I should get out?”

“There’s a dirt road somewhere up ahead,” the trucker said. “It goes off to some burgs. But mostly it’s ranch and farm country here. You want to take the chance of just finding work?”

“I never had to look for it before. It always came to hand natural. Seems like it was always following me around,”

“See, here’s the road I mean. Now, I come this way once a month. I don’t mean to give advice, but if things don’t work out, you come sit here and wait for me.”

Asher nodded, trying to think of some good thing to say. But the words had gone dry in his mouth. So he only nodded again.

“Not that you need any help. Hell, Harmless, I act like you weren’t a man. Here’s a card with my name and address. You know how to write?”

Asher nodded and took the card.

“Well, you send me a postcard sometime. Let me know how you make out.” He stuck out his hand, and Asher seized it. “Good luck.”

Asher opened the cab door and climbed down. He stood back from the truck and waved. The trucker throttled the motor furiously and moved down the highway, blaring the horn in farewell.

HOW had it been with him, to make him run? He had been born and raised in a Swedish settlement in the Sandhills of Nebraska. He had been a slow baby to walk and talk. He had grown into a strong-bodied boy with wheat-colored eyes and pale, no-color hair; and he helped his father around the farm, but he was missing something inside. Not brains, for he learned how to read and write. Slowly. He learned everything slowly. And he had to be reminded of what to do next, even urged. In school he did all right if you kept at him. “Dodo,” the other children called him; and he didn’t resent it, if he even noticed it, for he was always that pale husk of a child who lingered at the edge of your attention.

No, it wasn’t that he was short on brains, they said. There’s a saying that goes: When it came time to hand out the brains, you stood behind the door and didn’t get any. Well, Asher had got his share of brains. It was something else he had missed, standing behind that door when the others were out grabbing. His brain was good — look at the time he had remembered how to spell “Tyrannosaurus rex” in the science test. And he could talk, but the talk came like the spilling of grain from a sack, in bursts of fullness that were shut off in mid-sentence as if someone had closed the sack abruptly and there was more talk inside. So it wasn’t brains Asher was missing. It was something else, and the lack made him a cripple.

He went through the eighth grade in that way, then quit school to stay home and work the farm with his father. He spent the next years working the fields, coming home at night to milk the cows and eat supper, listening to his father talk, reading the books his mother kept in the glass-doored cabinet: Indian lore, a book about nature with colored pictures, Greek mythology, and a book about the stars and how to tell fortunes by them. Asher’s mother had been a schoolteacher before she married, and she had kept her favorite books. She was Finnish and, according to the Swedes, a little weird, for she could tell fortunes, even the weather, by the stars and with cards. She died when Asher was fifteen, but she had left so much of herself in the books that Asher didn’t feel the loss.

The Davidson farm was across the road from Asher’s. They had made their farm grow and spread by means that Asher’s father envied. Old Man Davidson had three sons and a daughter, Siiri, and all of them worked like demons on the acres of corn, winter wheat, and sorghum. Asher’s father would watch from his farm as the combines went over the tilting hills across the road; he envied the Davidsons, and yet there was something that made him tighten his fence lines.

“That’s a big farm,” he would say to Asher. “Gonna be the biggest in the state.”

His tone made Asher come to attention for once. “Isn’t it good to have a big farm, Pa?”

“Well, if you ask it like that. Yeah.”

Asher waited.

“Who owns that place?” Asher’s father asked.

“They all do. Don’t they, Pa?”

“That’s how it looks on paper. I mean, who really owns it? Never hear about the boys except as Davidson’s boys. And they’re all married.” Seeing Asher’s blank face he went on. “I mean, that’s a big place. You listen to me now, boy. No place is big enough if you ain’t your own man. When I go, you start to think for yourself.” He meant to go on, but Asher was lost again, so he put it off until another day.

When Asher was eighteen his father died, and he was left with the mortgage-hounded farm. The crops fell off because Asher would start the day’s work and then subside in the rhythm of the heat waves on a hill, or he would plow late and the crop would freeze before it ripened. The farm lost money until Asher awakened to himself. He had one good year. That year he plowed early and got the crops in on time. Summer went well, and he would make back some of what he had lost.

Siiri Davidson was five years older than Asher. She would come to borrow Asher’s Angus bull when a cow was in season, and she came to borrow mower blades. One night she came for no reason that Asher could see, perhaps just to visit. They went out to look at the tasseling corn, and the locusts sang their green and silver song. Asher could see the locust’s vibrating bodies, the silver strutted wings that trembled with the sound. Siiri wore a dress that night, and her hair was short and soft like dandelions that have dried. She leaned on him; she was soft and full in front. She leaned on him, and it made him ache and hot. He said, “You’re too nice, Siiri.” But she leaned harder, and there was an open space between her legs that smelled strong and good. She kissed him, and her tongue was like a kitten’s, soft and rough, tasting of milk. She let him kiss her, and she put her tongue deeper into his mouth, let him touch her breasts. She said, “Marry me.” And he said, “Yes.” Then she put him inside her like you put money into a purse.

They were married the next week. Because Asher was still a minor, Mr. Davidson let him sign the mortgage over to the Davidson name; it was to protect Asher from losing the farm, he said. Asher went to live with Siiri at her father’s house. Living at the Davidsons’ was different from his own home. They all sat down to table, but only after the Old Man had sat down first, and they got up at his signal. That was what Asher noticed first: the Old Man gave little signals. And life ran according to those little signals: a knife laid across his plate meant that they could leave the table; the Old Man’s coughing in the morning meant that they could come down for breakfast. He would talk to them at supper, and you knew when he wanted you to listen, for he would lean in your direction, not looking at you, merely leaning his head and eating through his words.

But those were the small things. There were things that Asher missed: his books, time to read them, and time just to — Asher didn’t know what he wanted to do with his time, for now there was no time to spare; it was all used up. Time with Siiri was scarce, and it was only at night. They shared a room and a bed, nothing else, for she turned away from him and shamed him when he would press against her body. “No, please,” she said, her back straight like a board across the bed. Once he had come against her buttocks and made her nightgown wet. She had been sick all night, even though she changed into a clean gown. And she hated it so that he couldn’t get any feeling for her again. They hadn’t spoken of it between themselves or to anyone else; there was only the look Siiri gave him, cold and passionless.

WHEN he worked in the fields someone would appear on the hill to watch him. Some days it would be Siiri, and she would watch, never waving or calling to him, just watching him with her cold eyes, then going back to the house. It was that way in the barn, too; he would look up from milking and find one of them at his elbow, never speaking. And they traded looks about him with one another, shutting him out of the circle of their family and their talk. He mooned to himself more and more, unable to find a chink in the Davidsons for himself; never alone, yet lonely.

The supper table, cleared of the dishes, was the Davidsons’ gathering place. Old Man Davidson would sit down at the head of the table, and one by one the rest of the family would take their places. The Old Man would outline in his dragging, heavy and light Swedish accent the long-range plans for the Davidsons. These plans were simply, Be something. Even Siiri was part of it. Be something. The farm was what they would be, and it had to be a bigger farm so they could be more and more something. “Men need to be something in our family,” the Old Man said. “You work hard and put more into the farm, that’s the way.”

Once Siiri said, “I want to be something, too, Pa.”

The Old Man leaned toward her. “Ah, now. You’re a woman. Women ain’t got no place in it, except to help.”

“I could be something on my own, though,” Siiri said. “When I was little —” She hesitated.

“Eh. Yeah, we know when you were little. That’s done now, and I ain’t going to hear about it anymore.”

Siiri looked so worn down, sitting there with all the family covering their mouths at her, that Asher stuck his hand out to touch her. But she moved away from him and frowned.

When Siiri had been a young girl she had heard, or thought she heard, voices in the silent fields. She had gone out many days to bring the cows home; and several times in the cottonwood grove she had heard the trees echo the stillness, or were they voices? Once she had fainted in the heat; it had been a dark space in the blue day. It had been something from God, she was sure; but she told no one, keeping it as her private ecstasy. Then, when she was fourteen, she had found traces of blood where there had never been blood before. Now confident that she was chosen by God, she had gone to her parents, “I’m a child of God,” she said, breathless and almost out of her senses.

“Oh. Now,” her mother said.

“I am. I know. I heard voices in the fields, and now God gave me a sign.” She told them where the blood was, expecting them to be awed, and that they would agree with her.

“Nay. You talk to her, Mama,” said the Old Man. “The lilleh flicka is thinking wrong. You set her right.” He went outside, frowning and embarrassed.

“Siiri, that blood. That’s a sign, all right, but not what you think. It’s only a sign that you’re a woman now. You can have babies now.”

“No, I don’t want babies. I want to be special for God.”

“Well, we all want to be special. But you ain’t. Not that way. You be a good farm wife. That’s good enough.”

“But Pa wants me to be something. Like he wants the boys.”

“Ah, Siiri. That’s just for the boys. Women can’t be that. You do best to marry someone who has a good farm.”

Siiri looked stubborn, but her mother refused to listen to her. From then on they watched her and talked to her. “We all work the farm and make it grow, that’s the best way to be something.” She listened, of course, for it was said often. And she gradually believed them. But within herself she waited for that sign, and made her life a preparation for the sign. She married Asher because it was her father’s wish, and she did it to please him, knowing that the marriage didn’t mar her or her preparation.

Siiri had no feelings for Asher, unless they were mild scorn, for how could any real man let his farm be taken from him so easily? And he needed to be watched or he would moon away the day over a rabbit’s nest instead of plowing. She had tried to pray with him, but he disappointed her by humming in the middle of a prayer, or by talking to her. Once he had pushed himself on her in a carnal way, and it disgusted her; but that’s what men were, animals.

Asher had lived at the Davidsons’ for over five years; they were good to him in some ways, like they bought his clothes in town and brought them home to him. But it was the watching on the hill and the grinding down on him that made him think of running away. He might have stayed, even with the grinding, but that spring the Old Man had taken over the farm next to Asher’s and had pulled the fence down to make one long rich cornfield where Asher’s father had always grown sorghum. And the Old Man hadn’t asked Asher what he thought about the fence. It was merely torn down. Asher had said, “How can anyone tell that’s my farm?”

The Old Man answered, “Was your farm. Ain’t now. Our farm. Who d’you think paid the taxes this year? You?”

Asher subsided, for he had forgotten the taxes. For that matter, he had forgotten the mortgage too. The farm was no longer his. When you looked at it that way, nothing was his anymore. He ran off the next morning.

ASHER walked along the gravel, admiring the pole fence that edged it, and walked to the open gate. He stopped to look around and to wait for the ranch dogs that came yiping, plume-tailed, to meet him. He held out his open hands to let them come close and sniff at him; when they were sure of him, they relented their assumed ferocity.

The house stood some fifty yards back from the road, and now a woman came out of the doorway to stand on the porch, shading her eyes with one hand to see who had stirred the dogs so. She yelled something Asher couldn’t understand, and he went nearer. “Ma’am,” he called.

But she was only calling the dogs by name. “ Tobe, Sam, you quit that!”

“Oh, they don’t mean any harm, ma’am. Dogs just like to come up and visit, like folks, sometimes.”

“I guess they do.” She laughed. “Come along there, you looking for somebody?”

“I was wondering if you had any work I could do?”

She smiled cautiously. “You hungry?”

“No, ma’am. Not yet, anyway. I’m looking for a steady job. Farm work.”

“Oh. Well, you’d have to talk to my husband. He’ll be coming for lunch pretty soon. Sit down on the porch.”

Asher sat down on the top step, inside the overhanging eaves. “Nice cool porch you have.”

“My husband built the house. He did a good job. Farm work, you say. Let me see your hands.”

Asher held out his hands, palms up, and questioned her with his eyes.

“Well, I see you’ve done some hard work in your life. I always look at a man’s hands,” she explained. “You’d be surprised at how many youngboys come here for farm work, saying they’d done it before. I look at their hands, and they’re soft. No, a farming man has hard hands. Callouses and old scars.”

From somewhere behind the house came the jingling and creaking of harness and horses’ hooves thudding.

“Well, there he is now. You come in and wash.”

Asher had washed his face and hands, smoothed back his hair, and sat down at the table when her husband came in.

“He’s here to find work, Jamey,” the woman said.

“Ah. You saw the ad in the newspaper?”

“No.” Asher stood, and they shook hands. “Name’s Asher,” he said.

“Waller. Jamey Waller.” Waller motioned Asher to sit down again, and they served themselves from the dishes Mrs. Waller brought to the table. “You good at farm work?”

“I was raised on a farm. Done it all my life.”

“You intend to stay on permanent?”

“Yeah,” Asher smiled. “I like farming.”

“You ride?”

Asher was confused for a moment. Did he mean ride here from Nebraska, or ride horses? “I can ride. Not so good, maybe, but I can ride.”

“I need someone who can ride good enough to help me with the stock. They’re up in the summer pasture now. Come fall we’ll have to bring them down. Not so many to herd, but they’ll be a little woolly when we go up to get them.”

Asher looked at Waller.

“I mean beef cattle, not sheep,” Waller explained.

“Oh, yeah. I never worked sheep, that’s all.”

Waller glanced at his wife, and something passed between them. Asher could see the question and the understanding that came and went in their eyes. Waller looked at Asher. “How much do you want for pay?”

“I don’t know. Never worked for money before.” Asher turned hot and red at the disbelief in Waller’s eyes.

“Well, you’d get your meals here. We got room upstairs or in the tack house, whichever you wanted.”

Asher grinned. “I’d like the tack house.”

“Well, a man’s got to have some time to himself, I always say. And you wouldn’t be under our feet that way.” Waller grunted and drank some more coffee. “Saturday nights off. You don’t drink much, do you?”

“No. Not much.”

“That’s good. Last man we had out here drank like prohibition was coming back. I drink some. All I want is that you don’t make an ass out of yourself and can’t work. Let me pay you seventyfive a month until fall. Then we’ll settle it for good.”

“That’s fine.”

Waller finished eating and sat back with a cigarette. “You come from Nebraska?”

Asher nodded, unwilling to say anything about Siiri or the farm.

“You got a family there?”

Asher shut his mouth in a determined line, not looking at Waller. There was a short silence.

“Ah-hum,” Waller cleared his throat. “You aren’t in any trouble that I should worry about?”

“No. You don’t have to worry about me.” Asher met Waller’s eyes and then looked at the floor.

So Asher was set to work, that first afternoon, doing small chores around the barnyard. Waller went back to the field with the team of horses.

That night, after supper, Asher settled himself into the tack house. The Wallers had provided sheets and blankets and a change of clothes for him. He made the iron bed up and went to lie down early. He turned the light out and left the door open so he could see outside and watch the road. “Siiri, you won’t come this far looking, will you?” he asked softly. But he watched the road until he fell asleep.

WALLER took Asher out with him the next day to the hayfields, and they finished the mowing. Then they raked the hay and hauled it to the various hay barns. They did the milking and other chores, clearing up the barnyard, making ready for the winter ahead. And Waller would leave Asher to do chores alone without coming to watch him work.

Saturday nights they went into town together for some drinking; and, as Waller said, he did drink some. A few times Asher would have to load Waller into the box of the truck and carry him home, holding his head under the barn pump while Mrs. Waller stood by with black coffee and aspirin. Then Waller would go into the house and fall asleep.

Sunday mornings were quiet. Asher would do the milking alone while Waller slowly recuperated from the trip to town. At second breakfast, Waller would come downstairs, mumbling about his head, “My God, my eyes feel like red-hot coals. And they’re burning chunks out of my skull. I got up so I wouldn’t set the bed on fire.”

“You need a sauna, A good hot sauna on Saturday night before you go into town, and you won’t be sick the next day,” Asher said.

“Sauna?”

“Yeah, like the Finns have. A steam bath. Makes your blood go better. Carries the poison out of you faster,” Asher explained.

“I don’t know. Just the three of us. Would it cost much?”

“No. I could build it myself from old lumber. Pa built one, and I helped him. When it’s done you could have friends over. Missus could visit with them, and we go to town later.”

Waller and his wife made their eyes talk again, then both smiled at Asher. “Damned good idea. You could build it?”

“Yeah. Not much money. I’ll do all the work.”

Sunday mornings Waller and his wife would go to church, leaving Asher alone on the ranch. These were the best times for Asher. Time of his own; and he used it to please himself by reading, or lying down in the grass and listening to the chickens as they sang in their dust baths, or he could just listen to his own blood running in and out of his heart.

This Sunday Mrs. Waller brought a small box home from the church. After dinner she opened it and showed Asher the Apache tears. “Aren’t they pretty?” she asked, taking a silver chain from the box. The dusky, dark, clear stones were suspended from the chain; they were oval, tearshaped, and reflected the light softly. “I love holding them,” Mrs. Waller said.

“What are they?” Asher hung back from touching them, they had such a fragile look.

“Apache tears, they’re called. They’re stones.” Mrs. Waller laid them on Asher’s palm. “They said that these are the tears shed by the Apache maidens for their dead warriors.”

Asher held the stones gently, turning his head from side to side. Something, he thought, so good. He lost all his words, even in his head, and only looked at the stones.

Mrs. Waller went on, smiling at him. “They’re found in the mountains. My uncle polished them and made them into this bracelet.” She took the chain and laid it next to her skin. “Don’t they make my skin pretty?” The stones fell along her arm, bringing out the candle color of her flesh.

Waller grumbled at them, not cross, but reminding them of his presence. “Taking on like kids over that bracelet, you two. You going to build us a sauna, Asher?”

“Yeah, if you want. It wouldn’t take long, working nights at it. I’ll start the foundation tomorrow,”

THEY decided where they wanted the bathhouse, and by working evenings, they finished it just before the fall frosts started. The first Saturday night after it was finished they had a small party for themselves. Asher heated the sauna during the day, building the heat slowly in the cast-iron stove, so that the rocks over the stove would be evenly heated. He carried water into the steam room to heat in a large steel barrel, and he brought cold water for the rinsing. The steam room was small, with benches that went up the wall like bleachers of a ball field.

Waller and his wife went in first, undressing in the outer room and going into the steam room. Mrs. Waller sat on the wooden bench gingerly, for the wood was hot. Waller mixed a bucket of hot and cold water for her; he threw cold water on the stones and made copious amounts of steam. They sat and perspired like horses, washing themselves and finally rinsing with cold water.

When they came out, dressed, Asher asked them how they liked it.

“Fine. Damn fine, Asher,” Waller said, clapping him on the shoulder. “You go in next.”

Waller and his wife could hear Asher singing in the sauna as they sat on the front porch o the house. “Man’s a good worker,” Waller said, “even if he is on the dumb side.”

“You shouldn’t talk like that. He’s done a lot for us.”

“Well, I know. And I don’t hold it against him.” Waller took out a bottle of Old Crow and set it on the floor beside him. “Going to have a snort right now. See if that sauna works.”

“I wonder about him sometimes. He never said anything about his home.”

“I know how he got here. Came on a truck.”

“How’d you find out? He didn’t tell you.”

“Hah, a trucker told me last week. He picked him up in Nebraska and gave him a lift here. Called him ‘Harmless.’ Said he’d run away from his wife.”

“Oh.” Mrs. Waller was shocked. Now she worried. “Was he in trouble?”

“Guess not. Trucker said no one had posted any bills.”

“What kind of man would run away from his wife?”

“What kind of wife would make a man run away, I want to know.” Waller took a second snort.

“He must’ve loved her sometime,” Mrs. Waller said.

“Women.” Waller sighed. “I figured it out. Loving’s a lot like dying; you know you’re bound to do it, but that don’t mean you’re going to like it. No. Nor even enjoy it.” They sat quietly for some minutes, chewing that like a cud.

Mrs. Waller said, “You know, I got him a present. I thought I should because of the sauna and all. Now I wonder if I should give it to him.”

“That’s a daft thing to do. Give a hired hand a present. And because he did some extra work. You start that, and they’ll all expect presents. Not to mention money.” Waller wiped his mouth. “What difference does it make if he ran away from his wife? You can still give him the present. What’d you get?”

“Well, after what you told me, it doesn’t seem right.”

“Oh, hell. Takes a woman to think of right and wrong.” Waller sat still. “Listen to those locusts yell. Damn few left anymore, what with the frost we had last night.” He turned his head. “Hey, Asher !” he called.

“Yeah?” Asher answered.

“You in there for the night?”

“No, I’m coming right now.” And Asher came out to join them on the porch.

“Damned good sauna you built.” Waller offered him the bottle.

Asher took a small drink. “That’s strong. I better not drink much.”

“How will we find out if the sauna works? Can’t tell if I’m not good and soused. Come on, keep up with me.”

Asher took another drink and returned the bottle to Waller.

“Oh, Asher. I got something for you.” Mrs. Waller handed a small white box to him.

Waller took another swig of the Old Crow and grinned in the dark.

Asher made his eyes open wider; he was sleepy, and the liquor had made his upper lip numb. He opened the box slowly, feeling hot and miserable. “I didn’t need any present.”

Mrs. Waller smiled and kneaded her hands together. “They aren’t put on a chain or anything. I didn’t know what you’d use them for, but I saw how you liked my Apache tears.”

Asher stared at the five small stones and then at Mrs. Waller.

“You get the notions, don’t you?” Waller asked. “What’ll he do with them?”

“Oh, no. I like them fine, Mrs. Waller. Fine.” Asher spoke hastily. “I thank you very much. You both been so fine to me.”

Waller shoved the bottle at him. “Have a drink, Asher. That’s something a man can always use.”

Asher took a large drink this time and sat down on the porch step to look at the stones, turning them under the dark sky to see how they held even this dim light. He wouldn’t do anything with the stones, he thought, only let them be like they were.

Waller was beginning to feel good. He let a long draft of the liquor pour down his gullet, then said, “Here, Harmless. Have another.”

Asher ducked his head, then looked hard at Waller.

“Oh, don’t get riled up. I met that trucker that gave you a ride. Nice guy. Said to say hello to you.”

Asher put the stones into their box and tucked the box into his shirt pocket. He took a long pull at the bottle to start his blood going. Would he have to run again?

Waller said, “I don’t much care, you see, but it sounds funny for a man to run out on his wife.”

Asher scrambled off the porch. It wasn’t far enough, he thought; if Waller knows, then she’ll find me. He looked up at the night sky; this was such a good place here, he thought. “I won’t go back.”

“Who said you had to go back? I didn’t.”

“You talked to Siiri?”

“No. I don’t know any Siiri. That your wife?”

“Yes.”

“Not much of a man if you can’t handle your wife.”

“Your wife, maybe,” Asher said resentfully. “You go out in the field. Where’s your wife? In the house. She never comes to see if you’re plowing right.”

“Hell, no. She doesn’t know that much about plowing.”

“Her father doesn’t have the title to your place. He doesn’t keep track of your money and your time.”

“No. By God, I’d kick him off the place if he tried.” Waller was astonished. “How’d he get title to your farm?”

“When we got married, I was underage. He took it over to keep it from going to the bank.”

“You never got it back?”

“No. And Siiri, she didn’t want me the way your wife does you.” Asher paused. “You know. She prayed a lot.”

“She was your wife, wasn’t she? You should have done it anyway.”

Asher sighed. “Well, she hated me so much I lost the feeling.”

“Huh. Sounds like she was crazy.”

“Her pa made her that way. He wanted to own a lot of land. He had his sons to help farm it, and their wives. And kids all over. The Old Man let them live how they wanted as long as they were on the farm.”

“What was he? A Communist?”

“I don’t know what church they went to. They never went to any. Only Siiri, and she had a look in her eye sometimes—” Asher let the sentence trail off.

“You sure were dumb, getting tied up that way.”

“Yeah. I know I’m dumb about things.”

“So you ran away.”

Asher nodded.

“Well, be easy about it. I won’t talk. Want another drink?”

“No. Thanks. I guess I’ve had enough.”

“Well, I don’t feel up to any more, either.”

Yawning, Mrs. Waller murmured, “Good night,” and went into the house.

The two men sat on the porch together, without talking. Waller shook his head and pondered the dumbness of his hired hand. Asher took the Apache tears and rubbed them with his handkerchief. After a while Waller hoisted himself up and went to bed, slamming the screen door softly against the night air. He went upstairs and crawled into the warm bed. His wife moved to make room for him, and he ran a hand under her nightgown. Her skin bunched into goose bumps, but she came to him under the blankets. Then she prodded him with her elbow.

“What was that you said out there?” she asked.

“Huh? What’d I say?” Waller weaseled himself closer; now the two of them were bound within the nightgown.

“You said you didn’t enjoy love,” she accused mildly, but she wasn’t responding to him.

“Oh, honeybunch,” Waller said, and pressed himself to her.

“No, you quit that leeching around until you tell me what you meant. You don’t enjoy love, you can just quit being miserable in my bed.” She stuck both elbows in his chest and knotted her knees hard against him.

Waller cursed himself and said, “Oh, I said loving’s like dying. Bound to happen, but it’s no guarantee you’re going to enjoy it. I didn’t mean you and me. I was thinking about old Asher down there. He never enjoyed any loving.”

She was appeased. “You didn’t mean me?”

“No. You’re the best in the world.” Waller settled himself on his back.

They lay snug and warm in bed for a few minutes; then Mrs. Waller said, “Well, aren’t you coming over here?”

“Mhm. I kinda got out of the mood.”

She whispered, “You come over here, and I’ll get you in the mood.”

Waller jounced over to her side of the bed, yelling, “Whoopee! I’m coming!”

Out on the porch, Asher sat and looked at his Apache tears until the chickens began their earlymorning crooning. He had heard Waller whoop once, and smiled to himself. This is a nice place to be, he thought.

WINTER came. The mountains at the west let snow and more snow fall until they were entirely covered, and the snow crept even to the ranch. Waller and Asher went up after the stock, returning in a few days with the bunched cattle.

Mrs. Waller came out to meet them at the feed yards. “Much snow up there?” she called.

“Enough. It was time we got there. The lakes are frozen good, even the one on our near forty. Had to chop holes to water the cattle. Won’t hold any weight, though.”

Asher limped over to them, leading his horse.

“What happened to your foot?”

“He fell off Blackie. Wasn’t watching where he was going and got knocked off.” Waller grumbled, “ That wasn’t enough, Blackie had to walk on him. You want to tie it up? I think a bone’s broken in there.”

“It don’t hurt so much, only when I walk on it.” Asher grinned at her, but his face was set in new lines.

“I’ll tie it up. Heals faster that way.” Mrs. Waller walked to the house with him and made him sit on a chair in the kitchen.

Asher pulled off his boot and held out the foot. “It smells bad, I think,” he apologized.

“No matter. Waller smells like a dead skunk some nights.” She washed his foot in the enamel basin and tied a white cloth around it up to the ankle. “There, if it doesn’t feel better in a few days, you go into town for the doctor.”

“Mrs. Waller, you’re so nice.”

“Oh.” She laughed nervously. “You go on. You don’t talk that way to married women.” She blushed and emptied the basin. “Now, you sit there and eat some supper.”

The next day came bright and cold. It was dead winter now, and the steam of their breath froze in crystals that hung in midair. Waller did most of the chores, allowing Asher only to feed the chickens and to putter in the barn. Asher’s foot pained him badly, and by noon he was faint.

Waller and Asher went back to the house for lunch, pulling their boots off on the porch, and Waller opened the door to let Asher go inside first.

As Asher came into the kitchen he saw a stranger sitting at the table. Not a stranger, he thought. “Siiri,” he said, and knew he hadn’t run far enough.

“I’ll be go to hell,” whispered Waller, and stuck his arm under Asher’s elbow.

“She came to get Asher,” Mrs. Waller said, not certain how she felt about it, “She wants him to come home with her.”

Siiri sat at the table; she wore a man’s black jacket and a pair of heavy denim pants. She was pale, slender, with very short, ash-colored hair. She wore no makeup; her face was clean and barren of expression. She looked only at Asher, holding him almost by the force of her eyes. “You hurt your foot,” she said. Her voice was surprisingly soft but flat.

“He had a fall,” Waller said, shortly.

“I prayed for you, Asher,” Siiri said, ignoring Waller.

Waller snorted and came to stand between them.

“Never mind,” Mrs. Waller said. “We’ll let them talk alone.” She prodded Waller out of the kitchen and up the stairs.

“You don’t know what she’s like,” Waller crabbed. “And he’s so damned dumb she’ll tie him up again. Praying!”

“She can’t be so bad. She started to pray when we came out of the kitchen. She seems to be a real good woman.”

Waller threw up his hands and sat down on the top step. He thought, No, if he’s been easy here, this is where he should stay. I don’t give a damn if he polishes those stones all day long.

In the kitchen, Siiri had finished praying. “You have to come home now. It isn’t right to leave your wife. That’s one of God’s laws.”

Asher was silent; he had no words, no thoughts even, only the emptiness. “How did you find me?” he managed to ask.

“It was God’s wiil. And the girl at the truck stand remembered you. Tree frogs.” Siiri smiled. “God’s will,” she repeated.

“I don’t hear God telling me to go back.”

“You’ll have to come back. Pa and Arn are coming to get you.”

She had spoken so calmly, as if it were all beyond his changing, that Asher felt his blood drain away and panic splintered his chest. He sat warily and watched her as she resumed praying. Then he stood up and tiptoed out of the kitchen; she’d not notice him for the time she was lost in her own distance. He went out of the house and off the front porch. He saw a car coming down the road. He ran around the corner of the house to the barn; no time now even to pick up his boots, so he ran sock-footed. His foot pained him sharply, and he knew it wouldn’t carry his weight long. Hiding here at the Wallers’ was futile; or anywhere along the road, for they’d find him. If he hid anywhere away from shelter, he would freeze before morning. Where could he go? His mind blurred with the agony from his foot and the panic in his chest. Nowhere was far enough.

He hobbled across the barnyard and over the fence to the pasture. The cottonwood tree stood at one edge of the clearing, not far from the frozen lake. He sat down under the cottonwood tree, stretching out his crippled foot. I’ll sit here and rest a minute, he thought. He took out the Apache tears and started polishing them.

Siiri was still praying, eyes closed, at the kitchen table when Waller burst through the door.

“Where’s Asher?” he demanded.

Siiri opened her eyes. “Why, I don’t know. I suppose he went to get his things. He’s going back with me.” She spoke soothingly.

“Did he say he was going back?”

“No. I didn’t see him go out. But he’ll come back with me.”

“Well, I say he ain’t going back.” Waller snarled, “You just go back without him.”

“How foolish you are. He belongs to us.”

“The hell he does. He stays here. Or anyplace he wants to be.” Waller glanced out the window. “That your car in my yard?”

“I suppose so. Pa and Arn came to help me.”

“The hell they did.” Rage filled Waller as he ran out the door, shoving against the two men who stood on the porch.

“Where’re you going?” Mrs. Waller called.

“The tack house. I got to find Asher and tell him he can stay here.” Waller ran to the tack house, but Asher wasn’t there and hadn’t been there. Waller ran to the barn and searched through the stalls, mangers, and the haymow. He ran out of the barn and was met by Mrs. Waller and the three Davidsons. “Get out of my way,” he snarled at Siiri, and ran to the sauna.

“Not in here,” he yelled, sweating hard. He looked at the Davidsons. “See this? He built it for us.” He looked around the farmyard as if to conjure Asher up out of the air. He swore and ran to the pasture fence. The others followed at his heels, running over the pasture, calling and stopping to listen.

“Shut up a minute,” Waller commanded, and they were all silent. “Look for tracks. No, stay still and let me look.” He went before them, crossing and recrossing the snow cover. Then he held up a hand and followed the pattern of Asher’s footprints. He stopped under the cottonwood. “He came here,” he said.

“Well, where is he?” Old Man Davidson asked.

Waller grunted and moved off ahead of them; the footprints made a dark blurring to the lake. Waller stood at the edge of the lake, staring out toward the center. The tracks went on, straight out. Damn fool, Waller thought, you can’t make it on that ice. He said, “He’s out there.”