When Pill arrived, Charlie cursed him through the cabin door because he didn’t like to be found in bed. He quartered the door open so heat would not quickly escape.
A dark-skinned man held a lamp chest high and shivered. His truck idled in the road at the far side of Sheep Creek.
Nick sent me. He wanted you to know she’s started. He says it’s best to come now.
She in trouble?
It’s not that, Charlie. The truck won’t start in the morning.
Then she’ll weather?
Nick says she will.
Nick can’t know. What’s she say?
I haven’t seen her.
He had not tasted coffee for more than a week and thought Nick would have some made, but he shut the door against this notion.
You tell him I know the way.
He bolted the door and went to the stove, wedged two splits of wood onto the fire. He considered Pill trying to find something more to say and figured too many people lacked the sense not to hunt for words.
Headlights swung over the creek into thick stands of alder and patterned his bed with shadow branches. Engine noise echoed down the canyon.
He slept fitfully and woke cold, surprised to find blankets still across him.
He sat and rubbed ice from the back window then licked the heel of his hand. Peering out, he could not behold those darker lines of fence rails from the whole dark, and he wondered about the time.
Sitting at the edge of the bed, he imagined his breath clouding the darkness and disappearing cold, but he could see none of this.
Reaching beneath the bed, he pinched the corner of a rag draped over a tin basin and plucked it free. He drug the basin to rest on floorboards between his feet and opened his leggings. A line of piss slashed into the vessel and steam billowed around his knees.
He lifted wool corduroys from the headboard and stepped into each leg by jerks and tugs. There were matches in a hip pocket, and he broke the first. The second sparked, and he lifted a lamp from windowsill to flame. The room flared into sight.
He no longer rose at night to feed the fire, as he had done all his life, and there was no one else to notice the creeping cold as it died. But the iron was still warm. He pulled the oven door and set inside a cantle of bread from a basket in the cupboard.
His boots lay under the table, not near the stove, and he riled when he saw them. It would take a half-mile of walking to break them down.
Months ago, Pill let it slip that Inga was with child. He hadn’t seen anyone that summer when he went for mail in Wolf Creek, and Pill stumbled down the steps of the Stockman smiling wide and hollering.
Not every man lives to see his child’s children! This one being first I expect it might come out Charles.
He stood still and looked on Pill as if to steady him.
How do you mean?
Your grandson I mean, if it isn’t a girl.
He removed his hat and stepped back, folding it to wipe his brow. He shaded his face and sighted the speaker squarely.
How many months is she?
Nick didn’t say when he took you to Helena?
He went himself.
I thought you’d gone together with some of them that’s running beef to Marysville.
Not worth the risk. I told him that.
Pill seemed to sober a little. He cocked his hat back on his forehead and looked up the canyon.
Beg your pardon, Charlie. You want to go to see him?
Charlie swore at the suggestion.
I’ll see him if there's something to see.
He turned away and heard Pill call after.
I’ll tell him I run into you.
Pausing at the gate, he pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket. Faded gray with runs in the silk. He doubled it around his neck and slowly tied its short tails in the blue dark.
He cut through the pasture leaving a black trail where his boots spoiled the frost. Cottonwood branches were still and heavy with rime. The hand-hewn faces of the double logs over Sheep Creek were thick with it.
He craned his neck searching for outer features in the void and saw his breath twist against the aphotic walls of the canyon. It would be hours yet before juniper and ponderosa began to thaw at the rim. He tucked his chin to his chest and thought it better to continue and return for lunch than to wait and be fed when he arrived.
The logs were silent when he crossed and did not bow in the center.
They’d had Nick late in life after two stillborn babies. He figured that’s why Nick came early and knew he’d be small his whole life.
But Anna said Nick didn’t work small. At first, the boy did everything he was told, then without being told. In time, there was nothing to say over supper except what could be done with more land or more hands, and Charlie thought this talk unwise.
The road came through the year before Anna’s death, before any sign of illness. He felt the place differently since then. The level cut made the canyon a way to get somewhere and broke the ranch clean apart. But they were made good with state land west of Wolf Creek, and Anna said it was meant this way because Nick needed room to work. She said the deed should be split then and not when they passed on, and he still wondered about that now.
There’s no such thing, he’d told her. There’s only one place.
She threatened to leave him like her first husband. So, he went her way, and she died the next year. It all seemed part of one cruelty.
The temperature had fallen overnight, and the Stockman would be full of hands who’d fled their bunks to sit beside the belly stove. But he did not know the child’s name, and if the question came, there would be an obligation to buy the round.
He thought about his own name and could not think of a soul who used it since he came over, except the postmaster and then only once. The American accent seemed to make too much of it. Johann. He could hear his father’s voice when it came to mind.
It had been Charlie since he’d stepped off the train, or German Charlie by those who did not know him. But word got out after the schoolhouse raising, where he’d broken the handle of a shovel over a Welshman for saying that name just so. His contributions to the VFW had kept the matter shut.
Four miles took time at his age and felt longer on frozen ground. He quickened his pace in the side-to-side haste of unbalanced men.
An inchmeal sun lit the mouth of the canyon where iron-streaked mudstone walls gave way to hills of cured yellow grass. Nick’s two-story home was backed into these hills. Smoke from stove fires in Wolf Creek were visible downstream, but he turned onto a set of wheel tracks that branched from the road and bent toward a dirt apron on the north side of the house.
Three steps to the porch were newly painted. He peered in the window and saw no one, so he went in. A short bench stood by the door, though he did not remove his boots. The smell of coffee was strong, and he strode further into the kitchen. His palms opened over the stove and blood began to course sharply through his fingers.
He heard the creak of stairs beyond the back wall, and Nick appeared in a doorframe.
Pill said you weren’t coming.
Charlie took a cup from a matching pair on the shelf and poured it half full from a blue percolator.
Your mother and I never needed half-breed help.
He blew into the mug and turned. Nick looked like a boy come in from chores but did not speak the same.
We got more heifers now.
He sipped from the cup.
This one ought to be help enough if she keeps him well.
Nick waited some time and did not shift.
He’ll be alright.
Might be. You got a brother and a sister we never knew.
Well, that’s you. We plan on something different.
Nick leaned into the room and pushed a chair flush with the table.
We haven’t been married a year and got one. She doesn’t waste time, I’ll say that for her.
Nick looked up then, and Charlie stared back at a person unfamiliar to him. He spoke softly.
Be glad. Might be less to say later.
He crossed the floor, and Nick nodded as he passed.
He had not climbed stairs in several years and paused on the landing. Heavy frost was gathered at the far window of the room. Inga lay on the bed with eyes closed, and the child lay on her chest, drowsy beneath a sheepskin.
He moved carefully to the bedside. The child’s face was mainly hidden, but the softness of his cheek could be seen, and Charlie forgot himself momentarily.
The front door banged shut, and the child stirred. He opened his jacket and picked a ten-dollar bill from a shirt pocket. He creased the bill and tucked it under the child’s forearm near the crook of the elbow.
Nick won’t have it, Inga said. I suppose you know that.
Her voice was frightfully clear. He startled and stepped away from the bed.
It isn’t for him to have or not.
He began to turn, but her eyes held him.
We’re set to stick now. Winter like this will bring grass. Nick will buy the others out.
Or lose what’s been given.
He spat these words and looked away through the window. He could see Pill with buckets at the ends of his arms lurching across the yard.
Is your hand drawing a wage?
Pill gets room and board. God willing he stays. Calving is likely to kill us.
He believed this country made women different and heard this difference in her voice. He turned again and spoke to her as he turned, so there could be no further exchange.
There’s only so many can live here.
On the stairs, he thought to return for the child’s name. He considered this until he stepped onto the porch, into the cold air.
He could see boot prints pointed opposite his in the chilly hoar of the wheel tracks. Nick had carried news into town. He moved slowly down the path along a row of crab apple trees that Anna had planted many years before. Waxwings picked at the withered fruits, which hung frozen and still. She told him Nick’s place needed color.
The light in the sky was still new. The day would brighten and warm very little.
Gabriel Furshong writes from Helena, Montana, where he lives with his wife, Lauren, and daughter, Eva. His poetry has recently appeared in Crannóg, Cheat River Review, and Into the Void. His chapbook, "Things Not to Be Said," was shortlisted for the Adrift Chapbook Prize in September of 2019. A correspondent at Montana Quarterly, his reporting has appeared in The Nation,Yes! Magazine, and other publications. Essays and commentary have appeared at High Country News, The American Prospect, and Earth Island Journal.