He heard the boy whisper a question and McEban stand out of his chair, spitting over the railing. “I don’t know,” he said, “I guess you could go in the house or just down there off the end of the porch if you can’t wait.”
Einar watched the boy wriggling away from them, working at his zipper. “When I was a young fella,” he said, trying to make it come out as simply informational, “I used to have to hook it under that railing not to piss in my eyes.” That was how J. L. Manz had told it, with just a hint of regret in his voice. “Now I’m left with laying it across the top rail so I don’t piss on my shoes.”
The boy tried out a laugh but wasn’t completely sure what had been funny, looking at McEban for a clue. He was standing knock-kneed, hunched over his belt buckle.
“Just go on,” McEban said. “We can talk about it later.” And then, to Einar, “I don’t suppose I’ll have to explain gravity to him ever again.”
Paul led the bay through the corrals and Griff fell in beside him. Against their silence, the resonant bass of the creek, the ascending notes of a single meadowlark and the soft, fleshy chitter of the cottonwoods kept lively in the morning downdraft. She thought to reach out to take his hand but wouldn’t, and that set up an itch, a slight but specific panic like wanting a cigarette and not having one. It was a feeling she liked.
Royal stood ahead of them, saddled and tied to a rail where the corrals met the corner of the barn, nickering at their approach. Leaning against the side of the barn were two wooden posts, a length of four-by-four-inch lumber for a cross brace, a bundle of steel posts and, tucked beneath them, two box panniers with a packcover and lashrope laid across the top.
She’d been out at dawn, packing the panniers with a half-used spool of barbed wire, sacks of staples and clips, a come-along, the Swede saw, spikes, a hammer and chisel, fencing pliers and a driver for the steel posts. She’d stood quietly picturing where the fence was down and exactly what would be required to mend it. Then she’d repacked each pannier, padding all the loose tools with burlap sacking, hefting first one and then the other to balance their weights.
Now she held the packhorse while Paul lifted the panniers up on each side of the animal, adjusting their straps over the bucks to level them.
“It’ll be a light load.” These were the first words he’d spoken to her.
She heard Kenneth giggle from the porch and wondered which man had made him laugh. Hearing Einar laugh too, she thought she should have people over more often.
“Is your sister home?”
“Should be next week.” He was balancing the posts on top of the panniers, positioning them where they belonged, making sure they wouldn’t rub against the horse’s shoulders. “You can drop that leadrope,” he said. “He’s not going anywhere.”
The gelding stood solidly. He didn’t even shy when they shook the packcover over the posts and it bellied in the wind before they could tuck it behind the sides of the panniers.
“She bought a color printer in Denver,” he said. “Had it UPSed up to the ranch.” He was uncoiling the lashrope. “So she can print up diplomas for the white women who take her classes.” He stood back from the horse. “I’m not tall enough to tie a hitch over all this.”
She went into the granary and returned with a five-gallon bucket, turning it up by the horse’s side, and he threw the lashrope over and stepped onto the bucket. He steadied himself against the pannier, looking down at her. “She had Kenneth help her think up fake Indian names like Lightning Flower, or Crystal Walker, or whatever she thought might get her a tip on top of tuition.”
Griff handed the cinch back under the horse’s belly, taking up the slack, slinging the pannier on the offside, and taking the slack again. She held tight while he finished the hitch, and when he stepped down from the bucket they backed away to appreciate their work.
“Doesn’t that look exactly like a load of shit,” he said.
“You want to do it over?”
“I don’t know how I would. I guess it’ll look better after we get those posts off and set.” He led the bay in a circle, walking backward to see how the pack rode. “Rita says everybody wants to be Indian if they’re not. You all set?”
She brought Royal around and they led the horses back through the corrals, stopped at the gate and watched as Kenneth jumped down from the porch, racing to the Russian olive by the corner of the house. He was ducking and feinting, keeping his left arm extended, reaching over his shoulder with his right hand, bringing it forward as though plucking some invisible harp.
“What’s he doing?” she said.
“Killing Orcs. McEban bought him the boxed set of those Middle Earth movies. They’ve watched them six or seven times.”
The boy started to make arrow sounds, the sounds of arrows striking Orcs.
“You think this’ll take us all day?” he asked.
“Are you still mad?”
They were sitting back against the wheel fender now, waiting for McEban to notice and say his good-byes.
“No, I’m okay.”
He was kicking a boot heel back into the divot he’d made in the soft ground in front of the tire. It was something he used to do as a kid, ten years ago when Rita had moved them in with McEban.
“I know RISD isn’t the only art school in the country,” she said. “If I thought I could go back to school I’d find something in Chicago.”
“It’s too nice a day to fight about this.”
“Or you could stay.”
“It’d make McEban happy.”
He stepped a boot up against the tire, tightening his spur leather on that one and then the other. “I like it in Chicago.”
“Because the grass is greener?” She couldn’t keep the taunt out of her voice.
“Sometimes the grass is greener.”
He turned toward her, leaning into the truck’s sidewall. “Greener’s being able to go out for a beer and not have the rest of the bar waiting for Tonto to get drunk and piss his pants, or pull a knife and go to scalping, and you know goddamn well that’s how it can feel for me here.”
“You got us all ready?” McEban called, coming down off the porch.
“Just waiting on you,” Paul called back.
“You’re right,” she said. “It’s too nice a day.”
She stepped to the packhorse while he pulled his chaps from where he’d draped them across the seat of his saddle. He belted them and bent to buckle the leg straps.
“I love you,” she said, watching Kenneth fall in behind McEban, covering his back against attack, Einar standing there at the railing looking on. She knew all he could see were the shapes of them, the movement.
“I know you do.” He stepped up onto his horse.
They worked in pairs, McEban and Kenneth, she and Paul, repairing the small defects in the fences running west up through the foothills, tightening, splicing, hammering in new staples where they were needed. By late morning they’d gained the bench to the south of Owl Creek, where the elk had crowded up out of the steep drainage, and for the next two hours they all worked together replacing the corner brace and restretching the wire.
Kenneth sliced his palm with the wood chisel and McEban bandaged it with his bandanna and the boy paraded the bloody hand like a gift. They were sweated out and hot, all of them, and the day remained faultless, a dozen swollen white clouds to break up the blue, the wind steady enough to keep the flies down.
“How we doing?” McEban asked. He took a plastic Pepsi bottle filled with water from a saddlebag, drinking half and then passing it over to Kenneth.
“The top two wires are down for about a hundred yards just half a mile west of here,” she told him. “And the corner brace is rotted out.”
“That’s all of it.”