When the wood grew scarce, Roland directed Matt to a rotted poplar and Matt felled it while Roland watched. The work was the kind Matt favored, muscle and bone, and if you did it properly, you shook thinking altogether and considered only the next blow. When the tree creaked and finally dropped, showering the yard with bark and limbs, he limbed it and cut the trunk into rounds then put diesel to branches and boughs and perched on a fence rail to watch the wood catch and light. The tree burned into the twilight, and Roland sat next to him, content, too, to watch it. Matt was cold and part of him hankered for another chore, but a bigger part was satisfied to sit and gaze at the coals that had started to glisten.
Roland said, “I’ll stir a meal up.”
Matt nodded and returned to the dying embers, seeing in them faces and objects of all kinds. He looked up occasionally to the white smoke that climbed the bruised sky. It occupied him until Roland brought plates of warmed pork and gravy. They each sat on the ground and took their meals. After, Roland offered him a cigarette and they smoked. What the man was thinking Matt had no inkling. Perhaps he was happy because he wasn’t thinking, just seeing. He seemed, like his son, to be a man comfortable. Smiling didn’t come so natural to most.
“Nothing like a fire,” Roland said.
“Not everyone enjoys such simplicities.”
“Not everyone’s been cold,” Matt said.
Roland set out three wool blankets and Matt was grateful for them once he returned to the barn, whose walls were constructed to keep predators out and stock and fodder in; weather wasn’t a consideration. Matt stocked the stove with enough wood he worried he’d throttled the flue and was still required to curl himself around the furnace mouth with the dog in the crook between. Even the skittish cats risked cover for light and warmth. The cold required him to rotate position every few minutes like a cook might turn a hog on a spit.
“You awake?” Jarms offered Matt a bottle. Matt’s eyes were open, so the question didn’t require an answer. Matt shoved the bottle with his hand, but it remained and he finally opened it and drank. It was ice cold and full of fresh grape juice.
“The old man buys this from the grocer and keeps it under some rocks up in Rebel Flat Creek.” Jarms rubbed his hands together and put them toward the stove.
“You still live out there in the weather?”
“I’ve not been in a house to live since I don’t remember,” Matt told him. “I doubt I’d take to it.”
“It’s a big place.”
“It don’t belong to me,” Matt said.
Jarms lit a cigarette and smoked a minute.
“All you’re going to do is sleep in a room for Christ’s sake. You don’t need a deed for that.”
“Deed isn’t the point.”
Jarms inhaled and Matt drank more of the juice. The dog burrowed under his arm for warmth.
“You are a stubborn bastard,” Jarms said.
“I imagine so.” Matt shifted to allow the dog more purchase.
“Old man was ranting about all the work you got to today without freezing solid,” Jarms said. “I wish I liked work better, because he favors it so much,” Jarms said. “It’d be dishonest to pretend, though.”
“Work’s dishonest?” Matt asked.
Jarms shook his head. “Pretending.”
“You pretending to like that girl the other night?” Only on the last few, coldest nights had Jarms left off the scraggly waif. Otherwise, they locked plumbing steady as stink follows scat.
“You seen that, eh?” Jarms laughed. “That’s honest work.”
“You think I’m fibbing?”
“That girl, she working, too?”
“Making rent for her whole family. They’re squatting in the old house, the other side of the ranch. I sent a steer home with her, too.”
Matt let that sit. Hard times might mean a girl giving herself up for a roof and meals.
“Sounds like her work.”
“That work doesn’t get done by one.”
“If it’s work it does.”
“I ain’t talking about fucking,” Jarms said. “That’s a damned sin.”
“What was I watching, then?”
“You was watching the bible. Fucking’s only supposed to be allowed for one thing, making a baby,” Jarms said.
“You’re lying.” Matt said.
“That last for sure. Some of the other, too, but I can’t pick it clean.”
Jarms shook his head. Jarms being born had busted Roland from his mother, Jarms told him, then his growing up left him without a child to boot. It was all he could think to do to square himself with his father. The girl would get a thousand dollars and Roland would get the child.
“As for the rest, I can’t tell lie from truth. I can only say I ain’t making it up.”
Matt finished the juice and rolled the bottle across the dirt toward Jarms, who ignored it. “How come he didn’t have more than you if he likes babies so much.”
“Did,” Jarms told him. “I was all that lived. He was a good father, too. I got watered and fed and cared for like I was in a garden. I just grew funny, I guess. He don’t have much use for me.”
“He likes you fine,” Matt said.
“Nope. He loves me. That’s not the same thing.”
“He enjoys your company. I can see that.”
Jarms sat for a moment. He permitted the idea to settle upon him. It was strange to Matt that Jarms spent so much time talking, when silence was what suited him best.
“I’ll tell you something,” Jarms said. “I envy them other babies. They never hurt him except when they died and that’s easy to forgive.” Jarms was right. The living sooner than later disappointed you. He waited for Jarms to speak, but Jarms was in no hurry. Matt had come across more than a few who took to conversation as keenly as Jarms did, and some that stuck to quiet as much as himself. They were all one kind or another, though. The quiet ones found means to mute talk or simply avoided words altogether and the people who made them. Talkers had the same tactics though opposing ends. They either hammered silence with jabber, or left it for noise. There were some in between, of course, but Jarms was not one of them. A man betwixt both was neither, and couldn’t carry words or quiet with any comfort. Jarms was able to manage both.
“When my father and brother died,” Matt said, “it was cold.”
“Colder than this?”
“Colder than I’d ever been.”
“I didn’t know you lost them.”
“I was only fourteen or so.”
“Maybe reason to try inside a house.”
“Or reason not to,” Matt said.
“You miss them?” Jarms asked.
“I don’t recall their looks,” he said. It seemed to Matt a poor answer.
The first day of February, the weather turned. The temperature remained at freezing but was no longer a danger, just inconvenient. Jarms returned to his project with the girl. Roland, cooped up for a month, demanded a respite from the house and some work with the cattle. Matt accompanied him for the task, but Roland’s horse missed a step in a dry creek and rolled up on him. Roland’s femur cracked louder than a gunshot. The horse screamed and danced, its forelock, too, broken and dangling. Roland ordered Matt to do for it before tending him. Matt ended the horse with his pistol. The animal wheezed twice, shuddered and expired. Roland had clamped his lip between his teeth and it bled, purpling his mouth. Matt sliced open his trousers. Roland’s knee was catawampus, cap facing the sky, even though Roland lay tipped on his side.
“Am I bleeding?”
Swelling had doubled the knee’s size faster than bone or gristle breaking. “Inside,” Matt said.
Matt lugged Roland to his horse, shocked how little he weighed. Roland nodded north toward a horse doctor a creek away. Matt’s horse tried to maintain a level lope, but each step sucked breath from Roland, and after a mile, moans. They both agreed a gallop would abridge the misery, but, reaching the horse doctor, he had gone quiet. Matt worried he’d died.
The doctor loaded laudanum into Roland until he slipped off. The man twisted the leg and aligned the bones then fashioned a splint and cast the apparatus with tape and plaster. He fingered Roland’s pulse and pulled open an eye and pressed the stethoscope to his chest, looked at his watch, and did it again.
“You like work?” he asked Matt.
“I can pull my share.”
“Good,” the doctor said. “Because he’s done with it.”
“I seen men mend after worse.”
The doctor gazed at Roland, who dozed still with the narcotic. “When the older ones get bunged up, I check them thoroughly. It’s the only time I see most unless I’m pronouncing for the county.” He tapped Roland’s chest. “His heart’s congested.”
“He never mentioned nothing.”
The doctor said, “He isn’t the mentioning type, is he?”
The doctor fished through his cabinet for some pills. “This isn’t a cure,” he said. “All it’ll do is keep off his dying if he takes one in time.”
“You don’t have nothing else better.”
“This is it. Period,” the doctor said. “He’s got a son and a hired man. That ought to be plenty. Tell the boy to start eating honestly.”
On the porch at the house, Matt boosted a bed frame with shortened two-by-fours. He strapped plyboard under the head and mounted a pulleyed come-along on the porch ceiling to raise the whole thing so Roland could watch the ranch’s business.
When he woke, Matt handed him the nitroglycerine.
“The doctor said if your chest aches take one of these.”
“A long way from my leg,” Roland said.
“The other thing’s wronger than your leg,” Matt told him.
“Something a man’s not likely to, is it?”
Matt warmed a ham portion in a pan. Roland’s hands shook with the painkiller. He couldn’t direct the silverware from the plate to his mouth. Finally, Matt loaded a fork to feed him. Roland glared at him and knocked the fork to the floor; he resorted to his hands, chewing a ham end and collecting gravy with bread slices.
Jarms returned in the middle of their meal.
“What in hell happened?”
“We were tending the cattle,” Matt said. “His horse fell on him.”
“I thought the cattle was your job,” Jarms said.
Roland set his dinner plate down. “We were working,” he said. “You got no say in work.”
Matt loaded Jarms a plate and one for himself. They ate in silence, then played some hands of cribbage until the old man began to doze. The night was mild, but Jarms collected a pair of heavy blankets and put them over Roland.
“He’s dying,” Matt told him
“It don’t take a mean lie to get me to apologize,” Jarms said.
“I’m not lying.”
“He’ll limp is all.”
“His heart’s filling. The doctor found it when he checked the other.”
Jarms squinted like his head ached. He tapped his father’s arm with two fingers. The old man’s eyes fluttered.
“If he doesn’t require those blankets, you can roll them off when I leave.” He stood for a minute. “If he gets cold, though, leave them.”
“I don’t want him chilling.”
“Me neither,” Matt said.
“Well, we’re agreed, then,” Jarms said.
Matt listened to the man’s chest rattle and considered it against his own breathing. He wondered at the motor that living was, fueled more by will than food or drink. Thirty-two days Roland remained on his back, then reclined, then hobbled. Gimpy and afoot, he pined for horseback until Matt allowed it. Saddled and aboard his mount, Maynard, he rode directly to the thin creek they called Rebel Flat. Halting at the tree, Roland hobbled the horse and cripped to the bank. He’d sweated through his shirt collar, though it was still morning. Matt watched him stroke the names and dates carved into the tree and unscabbard his buck knife and freshen them. The effort exhausted him. The doctor knew more than horses. Roland was not long for this world.
BRUCE HOLBERT grew up on the Columbia River in the shadow of the Grand Coulee and his great-grandfather was an Indian scout and among the first settlers of the Grand Coulee. He currently teaches high-risk “school resistant” students at Mt Spokane High School in Mead, Washington. Holbert is the author of the novels Lonesome Animals and The Hour of Lead and a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in many publications, including The Iowa Review, Hotel Amerika, Other Voices, The Antioch Review, The Spokesman Review, The West Wind Review, Cairn and RiverLit. For more information, visit:www.bruceholbertbooks.com.
Adapted from The Hour of Lead, by Bruce Holbert, Copyright © 2014 by Bruce Holbert. With the permission of the publisher, Counterpoint Press.