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The spring had stayed wet through the front part of June, and now, in this heat at the end of the month, the firs have shrugged their mustard-yellow pollen in a day, staining the air as a ground fog would, luteous, and in the late and slanting light seeming to glow from within. She extended her arms over her head, walking forward, the horse following.

At dusk they were out on the open foothills, winding down through the cows and calves scattered and grazing in the cooler air. And far below them-along the creek, arranged among the old homestead cottonwoods-the house, the barn and outbuildings.

She breathed in deeply, contentedly, pressing her tongue against the roof of her mouth to better taste the perfumed air flavored by fertility, by promise, by this country she has lived in for the best half of her life.


AT NIGHTFALL Einar was dozing in a porch chair when the cow elk in the timber above the pastures started barking like a mob of ill-mannered dogs, and the surprise of it roused him so thoroughly he tried to stand right up and his balance crumbled and he sat back blinking. He felt weakened, unnaturally insubstantial, and wondered if he was coming down with something, maybe the flu, and then it occurred to him that he hadn’t spoken aloud since breakfast, and that in past spells of frailness conversation had acted as a palliative. He tried to think of a rousing declaration but nothing came to mind, so he simply muttered, “Not ready yet,” and that proved enough to get him to his feet. This wasn’t anything. It wasn’t like when he’d woken up in the garden with Griff kneeling at his side and for a time couldn’t remember his full name, or which rows he’d seeded, feeling tired enough to fall back asleep right there on the warm earth. This wasn’t like that at all.

He came in the house and stood at the kitchen counter. When he thought of it he ate a dozen soda crackers, staring out the open window above the sink, the landscape gray and indistinct, as most of the world was for him now, the barn standing at the farthest reach of his sight, merely a black cube in this darkening scene. He stopped chewing for a moment to listen and no longer heard the elk, so he supposed they were bedded down for the night.

After two glasses of tap water he felt reassuringly just hungry and found the new jar of peanut butter Griff had placed directly under the bulb in the refrigerator so he could spot it straightaway. He stood with the door propped open against his hip, enjoying the cool draft and eating from the jar with a tablespoon. They both preferred her cooking, and he expected the crackers and peanut butter would help him hold up until she got home and could start their supper.

He went back out on the porch to wait for her. The evening had progressed enough that he couldn’t distinguish the barn at all, or any of the outbuildings, just the greater dark of the earth rising into the slate-colored sky, shouldering the last of the light upward into the brightening stars. Some time ago she’d made him promise not to turn on the yardlight unless they had visitors, so on these summer evenings they could sit by themselves and watch the stars ripen above them like some crop of incandescent fruit, and that’s what he was thinking when he heard the suck of Royal’s hooves in the irrigated alfalfa of the lower pasture. He was considering how much she’d altered his life in the past ten years, and then there was the drumming of the horses circling in the corrals, nickering, excited, as they always are for any sort of reunion.

He listened to Royal roll, once, twice, three times on the raised hardpack at the center of the main corral, finally standing, shaking, and then all of them crowding into the barn, the noise of their hooves booming on the worn boards, striking out a rustic tune as if from the box of some good and primitive instrument, and then the orderly rhythm of the girl pouring their separate measures of grain in the feed boxes, the settled and contented chorus of their feeding. He could feel every part of it in his hands, in his shoulders, and when he swallowed there was the taste of oats and horses.

Sitting with his better ear cocked forward, he imagined her pausing in the barn’s doorway, hands on her hips, coaxing the stiffness from her back. When his eyes had been better he enjoyed watching her work through her chores, concentrating on each task as it came up before her. She’d adopted many of his mannerisms, his attention to detail, and he’d taken his time over the years to teach her what he knew for sure: how to move among the horses, the operation of the combine, the swather, the baler, the front bucket on the tractor and the backhoe attachment that’s gotten more use than he thought it would when he bought it at auction. To the best of his ability he’s taught her when to be wary and when to be bold among the bulls, where the constellations set on the horizon, the indifference of the seasons and of God. But he’s never demanded that she become devoted to his manner of living; that’s just how it’s turned out, as though it was an inevitable aspect passed down from him to his son, Griffin, and so on to her. And he doesn’t regard the imperatives of blood as anything for which a man can take much credit.

After supper she stacked the dishes in the sink, and when he lit a cigarette she brought him the glass ashtray from the cupboard over the refrigerator.

“I don’t know how you can smoke just one and not want another.” She reached forward with a wadded-up paper napkin, brushing a crumb from the gray-and-white stubble on his chin.

“I wish I enjoyed it more.” He scooted his chair back enough to cross one leg over the other, biting down on the filter and adjusting his glasses so he wouldn’t miss the ashtray. “I feel like I’m letting him down.”

There was the rich smell of ground coffee, the fading odors of their meal, the peppery scent of tobacco. She was leaning into the counter watching the blue smoke rise into the still room, her weight over her left hip, her arms gone slack-a posture she affects when she’s worn down and the day’s not yet done. It’s how a horse stands, resting, and how, as a young girl, she’d been standing in Mitch’s cabin half listening as the doctor told him that nothing else he had would outlast his lungs, that his kidney would most likely be what quit him first. Mitch winked at her, working his shoulders back against the pillows to get himself more upright in bed. “This here,” he gestured toward the doctor, “is a blessing.” And then: “Lucky Strikes is what I like. Maybe next time Einar gets to town.”

She brought two cups of coffee to the table and sat across from her grandfather, pulling the cigarette from between his fingers. She took a drag, then another, and handed it back. His eyes appeared yellowed and outsized behind the thick lenses of his glasses.

“The fence is down on the south side of Owl Creek.” She sipped her coffee.

“Down bad?”

“I’ll get Paul and McEban to help.” She picked at the cuff of his shirtsleeve, and tapped his wrist and stood up from her chair. “You’re missing a button there.”

She rummaged around in the tool drawer in the kitchen, and when she sat back down she had a packet of needles and a spool of thread and a spare button. He stubbed the cigarette out and folded his glasses into his shirt pocket, keeping his elbow tucked to his ribs.

“You ready?” she asked, and when he didn’t look at her she asked again. He seemed older to her now, more diminished than he had even nine months ago. She puffed her cheeks and blew out, waiting. “I’m sorry you can’t take care of your own fencing. I’m sorrier than you are.”

She dragged her chair around, waiting until he was done pouting to lift his arm away and settle it on her knees. “At least we’ll be fencing more grass than we need.” She spoke with her head down over the mending, and when he didn’t respond she bit off the thread above where she’d knotted it and replaced the needles and thread back in the drawer, then started the water in the sink.

“Your mother called this afternoon.” He was fingering his new button, testing it.