* * *
The second of March was as cold and windy as any winter day on record in west Texas, and Jesse knew that if
the wind blew any harder or the snow drifted any deeper that the old horse's lungs would burst and their
blood would freeze hard in their veins. Tears ran down the side of his nose and mixed with blood brought by
the wind and ice that tore at his face, and when the saline taste of the tears and blood found the frozen
corners of his mouth he spat into the snow to gauge the bleeding. Winter kills everything but then gives way
to spring before returning to kill again. But that would be to say that winter is tolerant when it is anything
but tolerant. On the contrary, it seemed only too clear that winter's true aim was to kill him and everything
along with him to make room for the new life of spring. Jesse hated this and he hated himself for spurring the
old horse on—a friend that obeyed him blindly, undaunted through wind and the ice of the storm. And
though it had crossed his mind, there was no turning back for the hell he would pay if he didn't see the trip
through. With nostrils flaring and nose outstretched, the old horse lunged forward to clear the snow one last
time before collapsing as if shot with a gun.
When he awakened he felt warm and pleasant—immersed in a sweet musky air only present in a spring morning free of any breeze—a condition rendering earth's fragrances too heavy to rise from the ground. As if everything good in the world was making its presence known again, as if to say winter did not kill after all and had retreated to leave everything that lives and breathes in a safe place again. The sun warmed his face while a blackbird atop a fencepost sang his mid-morning song in perfect pitch. "Purple-geeee, purple-geeee, purple-geeee, purple-geee," the bird sang, "I'm awake, I'm alive, I'm awake, I am alive." With eyes closed tight, Jesse drew a slow deep breath to take in more of the sweet warm air, his thoughts on the bird as he continued his song. "I'm awake, I'm alive, I'm awake, I am fine." It was a moment of bliss, warm and safe and entirely free, free of shame, free of any guilt and absent any feeling that he should be anywhere else, for anyone else.
He realized, now, that he was lying in the open air of a ranch-house porch but the view and the gray walls were unfamiliar. He recognized nothing except the crumpled old boots that sat next to the door and he struggled to recollect one memory at a time until visions of the storm untangled and became clear. Had he been a calf dragged headlong to a branding fire, he might have related somehow to this sudden rush of the storm's images that washed over him—thundering unforgivingly, forcing any feeling of safety and contentedness from his realm. Though he tried, he could not recall a single moment beyond the ice and snow and blood and the fear of not seeing the job through. For a fleeting second he wondered if the blackbird and the smell of spring and the sun on his face were a dream, or if he and his horse had died in the snow—this possibly their afterlife.
Startled by the echo of footsteps striking a hollow wooden floor, he fought to sort out his whereabouts, and who belonged to the sounding approach.
He glanced at his bare white legs and drew up the sheet to cover them just before the rickety door swung open. Through the door bounced a bustling round woman—her face, lively and glowing.
"My goodness, good morning, oh thank the lord, good morning! I was beginning to think you might never wake up. You've been in and out for weeks," she said.
The old woman passed him a ladle pulled from a small tin pail.
"Here, drink this, but just a sip. Oh, sweet Jesus, you must be thirsty."
Jesse sipped from the ladle but kept an eye on the woman as she backed away. She was a sweet looking woman, wide as
she was tall with a scarf wrapped around yellow-grey hair. Her pale dress half covered by a white apron, its edges
frayed and thin. He took another sip, shut his eyes to force the water down, and then coughed to clear his throat.
"Where am I?"
"Well my boy—you're a guest in my house!"
The old woman glanced about the porch with her hands perched high upon her hips, elbows pointing in opposite directions, then let go a sigh.
"Not much, not much at all, I know. But it keeps our old bones out of the cold—me and old-miserable that is."
"How'd I get here?"
"Don't fret about that now. We can talk later, tomorrow maybe, if you're feeling up to it. You just close your eyes and rest. He'll be back soon enough and we both know what that means."
He shifted his weight and sprang up on one elbow to face the old woman.
"You mean the foreman—you don't mean the foreman?"
The woman mumbled beneath her breath and flung open the rickety old door—slamming it behind her to make
a loud crack that sent the blackbird skyward. She seemed crass at that moment and he hoped it wasn't something he said.
The birds stopped singing as they do in late afternoon when the sun grows hot. He felt better now and hauled himself out of the makeshift bed one quivering limb at a time. Suffering to steady himself upright, he walked in quarter-steps to the end of the porch to find his saddle sprawled flat on the floor. His bridle lay coiled over the seat, and on top of the bridle, his saddle blanket sat stiff with the dried sweat of his horse. He gathered it up in both hands and thrust his face into the blanket to find the smell of his horse and sank to the floor on his knees. He knew now that he'd lost him in the snow and he knew too that he had only himself to blame. The old horse trusted him, unconditionally it seemed, and obeyed without hesitation. He had violated that trust and the thought of it drew his stomach up tight in a dry, bristling knot. With the heel of his hands, he pressed his eyelids tight to squeeze off the oncoming tears. He shouldn't have spurred the old horse, shouldn't of pushed him through the storm, but he could not refuse the foreman—a callous user who would've been only too happy to hand his job to the first taker. Had he the chance to do it again, he never would've gambled so reckless. Never should he have gambled a life, the life of his horse, simply to please another man.
* * *
He lay awake thinking of the old horse off and on throughout the night. He killed him no different than if he'd shot him and he knew too that by now the buzzards and coyotes had picked his carcass clean. He stretched the sheet up over his head and cried—the tight veil and darkness beneath somehow deflecting up the weight of the shame now pressing upon him.
He arose the next morning to the hollow sound of footsteps on the wooden floor again, only this time they were heavy and slow—groaning as if made by some lame perpetrator with a mind to creep soundless. He pulled himself to a sitting position and recoiled at the smell of cigar smoke rising up thick alongside the guttural sound of the user's voice barking orders like some cur to the old woman to be finished by nightfall. It was work enough for three people, let alone the old woman. He felt somehow akin to her, somehow sorry for her, and was ashamed too that he had thought her crass the day before. The user walked to the porch—cigar set hard between his yellow teeth like a dog, growling while mouthing a bone.
"You be ready to ride in two, maybe three days tops. You got catchin-up to do boy—it be high time to make good on what you owe. There won't be no more tending your skinny ass and you'll be needin to get square with the woman. I'll ride ya a horse around day after next. You'll be heading west to the Rio Grande and then south to Santa Fe to ride back papers from a deadbeat. Nuther no-account felled back on what he owes." With that, the user shuffled his splayed feet down the plank stairs, struck a match on his spur strap, flared-up his wet cigar, and rolled up heaving in his saddle like some bloated miscreant mounting a burro half his size.
She burst through the door carrying spoons and a bowl of jackrabbit stew between her hands. A loaf of bread was tucked under her chin and, judging by the smell that had overtaken the porch, had just come out of the oven.
"My name is Flossarina Marie, but you can call me Flossie. Let's set a minute. We might talk now he's finally gone."
Hours passed and as the sun began to fade they talked unremarkably while getting to know each other and he thought how pleasing it was to be in the company of the old woman.
But it was the storm, his horse and how he came to be under the care of the old woman that concerned him most. She seemed to be avoiding, perhaps protecting him from some truth that he was too weak to bear.
After a while, Flossie rose up out of her chair, gave her skirt a sharp twist and retied her apron that had stretched out loose.
"You know Jessie, we're two of a kind. A pair of kindhearted souls for everything that lives and breathes in this wonderful world—that's what we are. Ain't no-one can take that away from us either. Don't you forget that. Ain't no one can ever take it away. Not now, not ever."
But it was the dirty shame that came from availing themselves to a charter they knew in their hearts to be wrong that gnawed away at any goodness they might have shared. They knew that, too. Sellouts, you might say, like two faint-hearted hacks of the user.
Flossie pulled her chair up close to Jesse and sat. Sat silent for a moment, squinting.
"Like to know how you wound up here?
"Yes Ma'am, I would."
"Art Johnson from the X-Bar was the young man that found you. And just in the nick of time too. He was
passin through just two days behind the storm on his way to Dallam County to buy supplies when he rode
up on your horse. You was curled up dead-like, next to his belly from what I could gather, protected
from the wind. Guess your horse probably kept you from freezing, truth be known. That good boy Johnson
tied you across his saddle and then led his horse on foot with you hanging over his side the whole way
home—back here I mean. You imagine, Jesse, forty miles afoot? What a wonderful young man, that boy
Johnson! Next day Doc Spence come by and had a look at you—said you was in the grip of a bad
hypothermia with a blackout concussion to boot. Took a pile of army blankets and the better part of a
week fore you quit to shiverin. He set you up on a pint of clear broth twice a day till your blackout
went clear. Thought we was gonna lose you there for a day or two but old Doc wasn't about to give in.
No siree. Came every day for a week all the way from town and he wouldn't take a penny for his trouble
neither. What a good man that Doc Spence—such a beautiful soul that man. Finally we up and moved
you to the porch to let some sun on you. And that's when you started to come to."
Jesse fell silent. How different they were—Flossie from the user, not to mention the user from Art and the Doc. It puzzled Jesse how Flossie, such a caring old woman, could work for the cold-hearted foreman. That he owned a bank that extended terms to landowners only in the most desperate of situations made him out all the worse. If a landowner fell behind, as they most often did in those times, the user would send a rider to claim the deed and evict the owner—the coldest of tasks, and one Jesse knew all too well.
"I'm ashamed Flossie. I can't help but think that I'm the greedy one here—never mind the foreman. I've been seein after him like some gutless bottom sucker for three years and I'm ashamed to admit it. Following him around, too afraid to quit him, too afraid to say no. He's a user. That's all he is, just a no-account user. That I play a role in his affairs at all, the lowest way to make a dollar, one that profits from the sweat and bad luck of others, is sickening, and yet I ride."
"You mustn't confuse your needs with greed."
"Needs! You reckon I oughta be looking after my needs like a parasite? If I were a better man I'd take up work as a carpenter, a farmer, or maybe a store-clerk. Can't be right that I ride aimless through life like a flea on the back of a rabid dog—it can't be. A dog that does nothing but steal, and bite and bark and steal till there's nothing more to steal from folks that ain't got no chance in the first place."
Jesse bowed his head, took a handful of hair in each hand and gave it a pull. He pondered the existence of a flea. Even the lowly flea has a role in the natural order of things. Perhaps he was a flea, a human flea—sucking blood from a failing host, too weak to . . . he stopped. Ridiculous, he reasoned, to reconcile his life to a flea.
"Maybe I am blind, Flossie. Maybe I'm so weak that I can't see, or maybe I'm just plain fencepost stupid. Why do I follow this man so obedient-like, like some sheep? I should've found different work, found a different man to work for—chased other options—made other choices but there was none to be had...."
Flossie rose straight in her chair and turned to Jesse with the stern look of a mother readying herself to school a child.
"You might look a little harder for starters. There's plenty enough to chase after in this life, I can tell you that. We're not as much alike as you might think, Jesse. I live this sort of life not cause I want to. I do what I must. I can live with that too. God knows it, and I know it. But it's different for you. You're young, and you're a man. A man's got choices. Like the stars in the sky, so many opportunities lie ahead for you. Your problem's not finding the perfect option, Jesse, it don't exist. It can't exist. Never did exist. You need to act on what you know to be right. That's what you do. Act on what you know in your heart to be right."
Flossie paused, fixed her eyes to the floor, and took a breath.
"Look, Jesse. Your horse, the foreman, the storm, the choices were there, in front of you, and the choice was always yours to make, the reins have always been in your hands. It's not a matter of someone leading you down the right path. It's a matter of you, and only you. It's a matter of finding your truth. It's a matter of finding the man inside you. The man with the courage to stand straight."
And so she consoled him, comforted him, and seemingly instructed him, imploring him to stand up, the way she put it, like a man worth his salt ought to stand.
She paused again to regard the man sitting still and silent—this young man struggling, still searching.
"Do you feel it now? Can you feel it coming to you now, Jesse? Can you see the truth?"
"Yes, Ma'am. I believe I do."
There was no mistaking the stale cigar smoke when the foreman announced his arrival late the next morning, dragging a tired old horse behind him. He handed Jesse a penciled map to the ranch, a dollar for expenses and as he always did, described the beating he'd take if he didn't return with the deed. The bank would sell the ranch at auction in the fall and it would take two months beforehand to settle legal matters, print the sale posters, and arrange phony bidders, whose job it was to drive up the price to ensure the bank raked-in more than its fair share of profit.
He'd make one last ride. Besides, he owed it to Flossie and wished to repay her for the trouble. The trip would be long but it was a comfort to know that it would be his last. If he rode hard, he judged he'd close the trip out in less than a month. He was instructed to send a telegraph to the foreman's office on the last leg of his journey from a town thirty miles from the old woman's place to allow the foreman time to ride out to meet him. Once there, they would swap the deed for his wages, and that would conclude the trip.
It was late afternoon by the time that he was packed and ready. Though he seldom fired it, he wiped down his single action Colt and placed it inside his saddle bag, within easy reach. Flossie glanced at the long barreled pistol, took Jesse by the sleeve and tugged it softly. The usual gleam in her eyes now darkened, now quiet, now solemn.
"Promise me, Jesse. Use it if there's no other choice."
Any other night, the twinkling lights of Santa Fe in the distance would have seemed beautiful and serene, especially after a hard ride stopping only when too dark to navigate the rocks. But the shimmering lights marked the end of his journey, summoning thoughts of his duty the next day. Anxiety crawled through his bowels like acrid bile as he stepped from his horse to bed down for the last time. Turning away from the old horse, he bent over at the hip, locked his arms out straight, and propped the heel of his hands on both knees. Sagging slowly to find the ground, he rocked back on his boot heels and cried.
The morning ride to the ranch took less than an hour. He approached the house where a young woman stood on the porch. She was beautiful in a way that Flossie might have been beautiful in her younger years, wearing a tattered dress half covered with a white apron, a blue scarf tied loosely about her face. In her hand was a white sheet of paper neatly folded. Two rosy children clutched at her sides as if to hide behind her bustling dress—peering out occasionally for a glimpse of the man who had come to take away the only home they'd ever known. Behind the dress they held hands. The rancher appeared moments later—a tall rugged man with a loose fitting shirt that hung freely on a work-hardened frame. Jesse announced himself and dismounted—his back to the saddle. The rancher said nothing, stood silent. His eyes met Jesse's briefly then he turned to the woman and placed his hand gently upon her arm. He looked into her eyes as though boarding a train. Tipping his chin slowly, he motioned the woman inside. But she did not move.
Jesse studied the rancher's eyes now fixed upon him but they offered no signs—vacant, like two black holes in the snow. His stomach secretly searing with fear left him unable to speak or move. The rancher inched along a half step at a time, down the steps toward him without blinking or breaking his gaze. His face hung slack and expressionless. The stillness of his eyes revealed neither thoughts nor intentions. Jesse eased in a backward direction to find his saddle. His shoulder pressed against the reassuring steel of the Colt still tucked inside the bag. With the quicksilver grace of a gunfighter, the rancher dropped fast to one knee, and with one violent, almost savage motion, plunged his hand deep in his pocket. Jesse, flat footed stood motionless, frozen with the feeling that death would follow, and all in a moment.
The rancher waited, then strained, and rose up slow and difficult with his hand still buried in his pocket. A long minute stretched out thin, then passed. He shifted his gaze to the woman and the two children still silent, still clutching her dress. A dog ran three-legged between them through the dust and one of the children squealed. The rancher's eyes darted the dog's way then fixed ahead. He pulled a thick square of paper from his pocket, and with his arms outstretched walked ahead. It was the deed, faded yellow, and neatly folded.
Jesse felt the weight fall away.
"I've coffee on," said the woman.
He stood leaning into the full face of the sun, his heart pounding like a hammer drum. His face rained out beads of cold sweat then slackened. Were he a fighting man he'd a pulled the gun from his bag and shot a hole through him. He stared, trembling, and shook his head. He surely would have killed him.
"What the hell?" asked Jesse. "I said, what the hell? You had me think you were pulling your gun. For God's sake man, I . . . I mighta killed you. Look!" he said, turning to the woman, "She's holding papers. The deed! I thought she had the God forsaken deed."
"Insurance," said the rancher, "Wasn't no other way."
"You'd of had me kill you? Shoot you?"
Jesse looked down. The three legged dog loped between them again with his awkward gait. The rancher boot flicked dust the dog's way and spat a stream of tobacco through the dust. Jesse stopped to breathe—his mounting fear, uncontrollable just moments before, now replaced by the familiar sense of shame. His thoughts turned to Flossie, the Doc, and Art Johnson and then back to Flossie and then the storm and then back again to Flossie. He straddled a crossroads at this moment, and if he failed to choose, if he failed to break his conscious clear, he would drag the dead weight of shame forever. Was his destiny to live a cruel and despicable existence nature's design? His mind raced frantically for a precedent or some natural rule to prove that his instinct for kindness was true which is to say that to rationalize his actions would be wrong and false.
He reasoned nature's rules to be the only certain truth that could not be challenged for nature is absolute and pure and balanced, absent any notion of greed. But that didn't resolve nature's cruelty. He recalled watching a pair of wolves bring down an injured cow, scared and lost from the herd—teeth gnashing as they tore at her hamstrings, pulling her to the ground. If nature were true, and all things living followed her rules, then the rancher was the injured cow and he some servant of the wolf. Was this nature's intention? He stopped, unnerved by the realization that these thoughts were natural too—the idea of rationalizing such a line of work and reconciling himself to the wolf as though it were somehow part of nature, somehow real, somehow acceptable.
A calm came over him and he let go a laugh that made no sound. With his pencil between his teeth he carefully unfolded the yellow paper that represented all that was sacred in the world to the rancher, and his family. He removed the pencil from his teeth, placed the paper on the side of his saddle and on it he wrote, I, Jesse Grey, received payment in full in the amount of, one thousand six hundred dollars for the debt owed The Herald Bank. He handed it to the rancher who read it to the woman then spun on his heel to face Jesse.
"We ain't charity takers."
"Clyde," said the woman.
Jesse tapped his hat brim the direction of the woman as thunder rumbled in the black clouds that had gathered. However on this day, the thunder wasn't to be followed by rain or lightning or danger of any kind for its wrath had been avoided, leaving in its place a glorious calm where a blackbird perched atop a fencepost sang his mid-morning song in perfect pitch.
Jesse swung his leg high over his saddle, gathered the reins and turned his horse away towards a country where men spoke a language new and fresh and entirely unknown to him, thinking not of the rancher or foreman, or even the cow or the wolf. He had ridden two weeks without stopping—and he had finally buried his horse.