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|About Paul Dueweke||Priona||Lamb of God||Rocking Horse West|
"I don't get it, Dad. Why don't you just move into the new house? You said the downstairs is done. And it's right next door. And besides, it's sure better than the dump you're in."
"Yeah." I nod and bite my lip. "I guess." I look out the window toward the west. There's Rocking Horse West, we call it. My great-grandfather called the old ranch house Rocking Horse when he built it. I guess it's not much of a place. But it's where I was born. Both my boys were born in hospitals. Maybe that's the problem. I catch a glint of the early morning sun off an upstairs window I just installed in West last week. "I want to finish the upstairs bathroom. You know how Jan said --"
"Yeah, I know. But --"
"How many times we have to go over this?" Ral says. "Jan and I can't live there. It just takes too long to get to civilization. Even your mailbox is a hundred miles away."
"It's only seventy-three miles."
"I've been gone from Rocking Horse for thirty years. I just can't go back to that isolation."
"Maybe you'll change your mind when the kids --"
"Jody and Sam are in college. Why do you keep …"
A long pause follows. Then Ral continues.
"It's just not in our plans, Dad," he says. "None of ours. I know how you always dreamed of one of your boys taking over the ranch, but I stopped being a cowboy a long time back."
"That's the whole thing, Ral. You don't have to be a cowboy. Rocking Horse West is for you when you retire. You can live here for practically nothing and --"
"Dad! Listen to me. Why do you keep this up?"
I stare at the giant ponderosa pine snag a quarter mile away, partway up Lee's Hill. The picnic table I built for Betty is pretty well rotted now. And a couple of falling branches did it in a year ago. But we used to have our lunch under that tree so often and just look back at the ranch house and know that this piece of New Mexico was ours. And we were just a link in the chain of Swifts that would go on forever at the Rocking Horse.
"You're a three hour drive from Jack's Mule's Corner. And that's not even a town. Milk and mail. That's it. And what if -- . Can you hold on a minute, Dad? I've got another call."
My eyes shift to the floor, then to my cowboy boots. This is the pair I bought for Ral when he graduated from high school. They're better than any I ever bought for myself. Still in good shape three heels later. I start coughing and manage to put the receiver back on the phone as I convulse through one of my coughing fits.
Ral won't call back. I sit down on the arm of my chair and take deep breaths until I'm back to normal.
He's right. He and Jan won't ever live here. But maybe Jody or Sam. They like this place. Maybe after they finish college. Maybe. And Jan told me once she'd even consider retiring here. Even though Ral says no. I take a Marlboro flip-top box from my Levis jacket. It's so hard to get my fingers to work right this early in the morning. Damn. A brand new box. My teeth get the cellophane started. I finally get a mangled cigarette out and cradle it between my teeth. The first bluetip lights easily, but the head breaks off. I stand up, stomp it out on the linoleum, and strike another. That first puff feels good. Better than usual. I reach for my hat on the peg by the door. That's Ral's, too.
The frost on the grass and rocks is steaming in the sun. I better check the wire around the watering trough. Those elk can bust through about anything. Where are the lions now that we need them? My dad and his dad pretty much cleaned them out a long time ago. Now the place is overrun with elk. Hardly enough grass left over for the cattle.
I walk past the corral. Got to fix that gate before roundup. I check to see how long the bolts are. Probably don't have any the right size. Then I see the shadow. It sneaks up behind me, but not really sneaking. I feel the breath on my neck.
"George, you bite me again, and I'll kick your ass again." I don't even turn around. George gets my drift. He just wants to make sure I don't forget. It's time for my mash, is what he's saying. I see the shadow of his breath rising like the steam off the gate, but heavier. Then I look over his whole shadow.
"Damn freeloader. Getting too fat. Got to ride you more, I guess. My fault for spending so much time on that house."
I turn around just as George snorts.
"Where were you when the elk needed scaring away? Chicken horse. At least Bigger was good for something. Helped out at roundup, too. Had a real instinct for herding. Best dog I ever had. You probably don't even remember her. You sorry excuse for horseflesh."
I look right into George's eye. "You probably don't even see what's going on here, do you."
I pat him on the neck. My hand lingers and rubs his neck, then combs through his mane. He blinks and looks at me. "I'm dying," I say to that eye. "And you're dying. Are you too stupid to figure that out? Maybe not. You probably understand that about yourself. What you haven't figured out is that our home is dying, too. Wonder if you care."
He steps closer and presses me against the fence. I lean my shoulder into him and push him away.
"But I've still got seniority. Outlived your mother and your grandmother. Just my luck I'll probably outlive you, too."
A shadow rushes past us and I look up. A vulture, two vultures, fly over. I follow as they soar low then up and around the new house, then over the hill.
"If you'll get the hell out of the way, I got work to do."
I walk toward Rocking Horse West.
* * *
"Well, Cat, it's six-thirty. Past quitting time for most folks. What do you think of this tile job? Lot better this time, isn't it. Better to rip the mistakes out than live with bumpy tiles for a hundred years. Don't you think?"
Cat doesn't reply. She just lays in a ball and sticks her black nose deeper into her white furry belly. I flick a piece of dried grout off my finger. It lands on her back. She opens one eye as I pick it off her fur. It's probably starting to get cold out as I scrape the grouting off the mortarboard. But here in West, it's nice and warm. On my way downstairs, I stop on the third step and test it with my weight.
"Got to fix that squeak tomorrow. Thought I fixed it a week ago."
The sun is going down as I walk toward Rocking Horse, the real one. I stop and look back at West silhouetted against an orange sky. Maybe next summer, Jan and Ral will be ready to move in. Ral has changed his mind about so many things. Switched majors three times in college. Or maybe one of the kids will decide to live here, maybe just for the summer. Then they'd want to do it every summer, until they graduate anyway.
I notice Cat walk softly down the steps from the porch and walk toward me.
"Maybe you'd like to live there, Cat. I can get you a deal. It's available."
She walks very slowly toward me, stopping every few steps to lick something. I watch her, then get tired of the game. The walk home isn't very long, but I get winded. It surprised me a couple years ago when I first noticed it. It doesn't surprise me anymore. But I still notice it. Every time.
I throw a couple two by ten rafter tail scraps into the stove on top of the kindling. October evenings can get pretty chilly at eight thousand feet. It's the only heat in this old house. The new one's got a propane furnace and a trombe wall facing the south. Jess got me interested in solar heating back when he was in college. Sure would have never thought of it myself.
George is standing at attention just outside the gate. The gate's always open, but he only comes in the yard when the elk get too close. He didn't used to be like that. Now he's afraid of everything. Maybe I'll be like that when I'm his age. Maybe I'm already his age. What was the rule Grandpa told me? Multiply their age by four? That makes him older than me. Why does he always like to stand in that same spot, even when it's right in the smoke from the chimney? Like now. Something weird about that horse. Scary even. With the fire just starting to catch on to the big pieces, the smoke is still pretty dark. There he is, standing right in the thickest part of the smoke.
A loose pack of Marlboros is laying on the windowsill. Last one in the pack. I turn around and hold it in the blaze until it looks lit, then bring it to my lips. Dumb horse. I snort at myself for thinking that.
Then I hear a thud behind me, a small crash. "Cat!" I yell without turning around. "Get the hell off that table!"
I walk through the kitchen and the front mudroom into the dining room. These rooms are all along the outside of the original log house my great grandfather built. But even in this new section, the linoleum floors are worn out. The 150-year-old log walls on one side of the rooms look out of place on the inside of the house. At least that's what Ral told me when he came home from college that first summer. He knew everything that year. And from then on.
They were the exterior of the original log cabin that Grandpa and Dad added on to over the years. Never thought about it before Ral said that. They were just walls to me. Now they're "exterior walls on the interior of the house." College talk.
But that's my fault. I'm the one told him to go to college. What was I thinking of? That's how I lost him. College. He was never the same after that. Never fit in here once he got educated. Jess was three years younger than Ral. He got attached to the other world in high school. But even though he felt the tug of the city much earlier than Ral, he never lost sight of who he was. A rancher's son. He knew what that meant in a way Ral completely lost during college. Maybe Ral never had it at all. Maybe I just expected it, so I saw it. Amazing how two boys can be so different.
Cat is sitting on that little painted table in the corner, looking out her window. The same picture is knocked over as usual. The glass broke a long time ago. I've got four pictures on that table, but she knocks over just that one, even when I rearrange them. She knows which one to knock over. I don't blame her though. I just set it back up. Part of me wants to forget everything in that picture. But who am I kidding? I cherish that picture. I hold it right in front of Cat, sort of teasing her. She, of course, just ignores it. But I can't.
This is the picture the big fight was about. 1969. Jess was in high school, a sophomore. You know how sophomores are. I guess this picture was bugging him for a long time, and then he just let loose that time when Dad was sort of bragging about what a good lion hunter he used to be — back when there were lions. The picture was taken in 1957. It shows Dad and me and we've got four-year-old Jess sitting on top of a lion Dad had just shot. It took twelve years for Jess to get up the courage or whatever was going on in him. But when Dad picked up that picture that day in 1969 and started in about lion hunting in the old days, Jess had to take him on.
"Who do you think you are? Some kind of Raja or something?"
And he said it with the kind of hate that youngsters use to test their strength. And put real miles between them and the past. Dad and I stopped cold and just looked at our little Jess. Our high school sophomore Jess. That pause must have told Jess we were weak, we were the past.
"Riding around on your horses with a pack of hounds doing your dirty work. Treeing a cougar, a mother, with little kittens. Probably waiting for supper. You ever think about that?"
Tears were coming now. Man tears. He snatched the picture out of his grandpa's hand. He wiped a tear off it as he stared into the past — and maybe saw the future. I just swallowed hard. Couldn't take my eyes off my boy. Dad started to say something. I touched his arm and he stopped.
"Why'd you put me on top of her? Why'd you want to make a little kid part of this …"
"We … Guess I didn't think," I said. "Didn't think --"
"That's the whole problem, Dad! They're almost extinct! And you're proud of that?"
He turned toward the window because he knew tears were showing. He held the photo in front of him and just stared out the window. He couldn't hide the sniffle.
I looked at my dad. He was plenty steamed. I motioned for him to leave the room.
"If that was my boy, I wouldn't take that crap from him."
My eyes pleaded with Dad to leave. It was a good thing my mother was dead by then or she'd have had a lot more to say about it than Dad.
"You coddle that boy too damn much. My father would've ripped my ass if I talked like that." Dad turned toward the door, shaking his head. "Probably going to try to reason with him, aren't you."
I stepped aside so Dad could use the door. It was the only way out of this room. Jess was trapped. I knew he'd bolt if I gave him half a chance. When Dad was finally gone, I stepped back into the doorway. I knew Jess. At least I thought I did. But this was a new Jess. No, he really wasn't new at all. This really didn't surprise me like it would have if Ral had done the same thing. I wondered what else I didn't know about my youngest boy.
I hold that same picture in my hands now, in that same room. Then I notice a bead of water on the glass. I brush it off, probably the same way Jess did. I've thought about that day so many times over the years. I've asked myself why I didn't get mad at Jess like Dad did. Like I was taught to. Jess was disrespectful and hateful to two higher levels of the Swift hierarchy. But I listened to him. Heard his cry. I never thought those thoughts of his. And yet, it sounded like me speaking. Almost. Jess had that effect on me a lot. How could we be so different — and not?