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Authors: John Williams

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BOOK: Butcher's Crossing
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Andrews cleared his throat. When he spoke, his voice sounded strange and hollow to himself: “Did you ever go back there?”

Miller shook his head. “I never went back. I knew it would keep. A man couldn’t find it unless he knew where it was, or unless he stumbled on it accidental like I did; and that ain’t very likely.”

“Ten years,” Andrews said. “Why haven’t you gone back?”

Miller shrugged. “Things ain’t been right for it. One year Charley was laid up with the fever, another year I was promised to something else, another I didn’t have a stake. Mainly I haven’t been able to get together the right kind of party.”

“What kind do you need?” Andrews asked.

Miller did not look at him. “The kind that’ll let it be my hunt. They ain’t many places like this left, and I never wanted any of the other hunters along.”

Andrews felt an obscure excitement growing within him. “How many men would it take for a party like this?”

“That would depend,” Miller said, “on who was getting it up. Five, six, seven men in most parties. Myself, on this hunt, I’d keep it small. One hunter would be enough, because he’d have all the time he needed to make his kill; he could keep the buffalo in the valley all the time he needs. A couple of skinners and a camp man. Four men ought to be able to do the job about right. And the fewer the men, the bigger the take will be.”

Andrews did not speak. On the edge of his sight, Francine moved forward and put her elbows on the table. Charley Hoge took a deep, sharp breath, and coughed gently. After a long while, Andrews said:

“Could you get up a party this late in the year?”

Miller nodded, and looked over Andrews’s head. “Could be done, I suppose.”

There was a silence. Andrews said: “How much money would it take?”

Miller’s eyes lowered and met Andrews’s; he smiled slightly. “Are you just talking, son, or have you got yourself interested in something?”

“I’ve got myself interested,” Andrews said. “How much money would it take?”

“Well, now,” Miller said. “I hadn’t thought serious about going out this year.” He drummed his heavy pale fingers on the table top. “But I suppose I could think about it, now.”

Charley Hoge coughed again, and added an inch of whisky to his half-filled glass.

“My stake’s pretty low,” Miller said. “Whoever came in would have to put up just about all the money.”

“How much?” Andrews said.

“And even so,” Miller continued, “he’d have to understand that it would still be my hunt. He’d have to understand that.”

“Yes,” Andrews said. “How much would it take?”

“How much money you got, son?” Miller asked gently.

“A little over fourteen hundred dollars,” Andrews said.

“You’d want to go along, of course.”

Andrews hesitated. Then he nodded.

“To work, I mean. To help with the skinning.”

Andrews nodded again.

“It would still be my hunt, you understand,” Miller said.

Andrews said: “I understand.”

“Well, it might be arranged,” Miller said, “if you wanted to put up the money for the team and provisions.”

“What would we need?” Andrews asked.

“We’d need a wagon and a team,” Miller said slowly. “Most often the team is mules, but a mule needs grain. A team of oxen could live off the land, going and coming, and they pull a heavy enough load. They’re slow, but we wouldn’t be in a great hurry. You got a horse?”

“No,” Andrews said.

“We’d need a horse for you, and maybe for the skinner, whoever he is. You shoot a gun?”

“Do you mean a—pistol?”

Miller smiled tightly. “No man in his right mind has any use for them little things,” he said, “unless he wants to get killed. I mean a rifle.”

“No,” Andrews said.

“We ought to get you a small rifle. I’ll need powder and lead—say a ton of lead and five hundred pounds of powder. If we don’t use it all, we can get refunds. In the mountains, we can live off the land, but we have to have food going and coming back. Couple of sacks of flour, ten pounds of coffee, twenty of sugar, couple pounds of salt, a few sides of bacon, twenty pounds of beans. We’ll need some kettles and a few tools. A little grain for the horses. I’d say five or six hundred dollars would do it easy.”

“That’s nearly half of all the money I have,” Andrews said.

Miller shrugged. “It’s a lot of money. But you stand to make a lot more. With a good wagon, we ought to be able to load in close to a thousand skins. They should bring us near twenty-five hundred dollars. If there’s a big kill, we can let some of the hides winter over and go back in the spring and get them. I’ll take 60 per cent and you get 40; I’m taking a bit more than usual, but it’s my hunt, and besides I take care of Charley here. You’ll take care of the other skinner. When we get back, you should be able to sell the team and wagon for about what you paid for it; so you’ll make out all right.”

“I ain’t going,” Charley Hoge said. “That’s a country of the devil.”

Miller said pleasantly, “Charley lost that hand up in the Rockies; he ain’t liked the country since.”

“Hell fire and ice,” Charley Hoge said. “It ain’t for human man.”

“Tell Mr. Andrews about losing your hand, Charley,” Miller said.

Charley Hoge grinned through his short, grizzled beard. He put the stump of his hand on the table and inched it toward Andrews as he spoke. “Miller and I was hunting and trapping early one winter in Colorado. We was up on a little rise just before the mountains when a blizzard come up. Miller and I got separated, and I slipped on a rock and hit my head and got knocked clean out of my senses. Don’t know how long I laid there. When I come to, the blizzard was still blowing, and I could hear Miller calling.”

“I’d been looking for Charley nearly four hours,” Miller said.

“I must’ve knocked a glove off when I fell,” Charley Hoge continued, “because my hand was bare and it was froze stiff. But it wasn’t cold. It just kind of tingled. I yelled at Miller, and he come over, and he found us a shelter back in some rocks; they was even some dry logs, and we was able to keep a fire going. I looked at that hand, and it was blue, a real bright blue. I never seen anything like it. And then it got warmed up, and then it started to hurt; I couldn’t tell whether it hurt like ice or whether it hurt like fire; and then it turned red, like a piece of fancy cloth. We was there two, three days, and the blizzard didn’t let up. Then it turned blue again, almost black.”

“It got to stinking,” Miller said, “so I knew it had to come off.”

Charley Hoge laughed with a wheezing, cracking voice. “He kept telling me it had to come off, but I wouldn’t listen to him. We argued almost half a day about it, until he finally wore me down. He never would of talked me into it if I hadn’t got so tired. Finally I just laid back and told him to cut away.”

“My God,” Andrews said, his voice barely a whisper.

“It wasn’t as bad as you might think,” he said. “By that time the hurt was so bad I could just barely feel the knife. And when he hit bone, I passed out, and it wasn’t bad at all then.”

“Charley got careless,” Miller said. “He shouldn’t have slipped on that rock. He ain’t been careless since, have you, Charley?”

He laughed. “I been mighty careful since then.”

“So you see,” Miller said, “why Charley don’t like the Colorado country.”

“My God, yes!” Andrews said.

“But he’ll go with us,” Miller continued. “With only one hand, he’s a better camp man than most.”

“No,” Charley Hoge said. “I ain’t going. Not this time.”

“It’ll be all right,” Miller said. “This time of year, it’s almost warm up there; there won’t be no snow till November.” He looked at Andrews. “He’ll go; all we’ll need is a skinner. We’ll need a good one, because he’ll have to break you in.”

“All right,” Andrews said. “When will we be leaving?”

“We should hit the mountains about the middle of September; it’ll be cool up there then, and the hides should be about right. We should leave here in about two weeks. Then a couple of weeks to get there, a week or ten days on the kill, and a couple of weeks back.”

Andrews nodded. “What about the team and the supplies?”

“I’ll go into Ellsworth for those,” Miller said. “I know a man there who has a sound wagon, and there should be oxen for sale; I’ll pick up the supplies there, too, because they’ll be cheaper. I should be back in four, five days.”

“You’ll make all the arrangements,” Andrews said.

“Yes. You leave it all to me. I’ll get you a good horse and a varmint rifle. And I’ll get us a skinner.”

“Do you want the money now?” Andrews asked.

The corners of Miller’s mouth tightened in a close smile. “You don’t lose any time making up your mind, do you, Mr. Andrews?”

“No, sir,” Andrews said.

“Francine,” Miller said, “we all ought to have another drink on this. Bring us all some more whisky—and bring yourself some too.”

Francine looked for a moment at Miller, then at Andrews; her eyes stayed upon Andrews as she rose and went away from the table.

“We can have a drink on it,” Miller said, “and then you can give me the money. That will close it.”

Andrews nodded. He looked at Charley Hoge, and beyond him; he was drowsy with the heat and with the warm effects of the whisky he had drunk; in his mind were fragments of Miller’s talk about the mountain country to which they were going, and those fragments glittered and turned and fell softly in accidental and strange patterns. Like the loose stained bits of glass in a kaleidoscope, they augmented themselves with their turning and found light from irrelevant and accidental sources.

Francine returned with another bottle and placed it in the center of the table; no one spoke. Miller lifted his glass, poised it for a moment where the light from a lantern struck it with a reddish-amber glow. The others silently raised their glasses and drank, not putting the glasses down until they were empty. Andrews’s eyes watered at the burning in his throat; through the moisture he saw Francine’s face shimmering palely before him. Her own eyes were upon him, and she was smiling slightly. He blinked and looked at Miller.

“You got the money with you?” Miller asked.

Andrews nodded. He opened a lower button of his shirt and withdrew from his money belt a sheaf of bills. He counted six hundred dollars upon the scarred table and returned the other bills to his belt.

“And that’s all there is to it,” Miller said. “I’ll ride into Ellsworth tomorrow and pick up what we need and be back in less than a week.” He shuffled through the bills, selected one, and held it out to Charley Hoge. “Here. This will keep you while I’m gone.”

“What?” Charley Hoge asked, his voice dazed. “Ain’t I coming with you?”

“I’ll be busy,” Miller said. “This will take care of you for a week.”

Charley Hoge nodded slowly, and then whipped the bill out of Miller’s hand, crushed it, and thrust it into his shirt pocket.

Andrews pushed his chair back from the table and arose; his limbs felt stiff and reluctant to move. “I believe I’ll turn in, if there’s nothing else we need to talk about.”

Miller shook his head. “Nothing that can’t wait. I’ll be pulling out early in the morning, so I won’t see you till I get back. But Charley’ll be around.”

“Good night,” Andrews said. Charley Hoge grunted and looked at him somberly.

“Good night, ma’am,” Andrews said to Francine, and bowed slightly, awkwardly, from the shoulders.

“Good night, Mr. Andrews,” Francine said. “Good luck.”

Andrews turned from them and walked across the long room. It was nearly deserted, and the pools of light on the rough-planked floor and the hewn tables seemed sharper, and the shadows about those pools deeper and more dense than they had been earlier. He walked through the saloon and out onto the street.

The glow from the blacksmith shop had all but disappeared, and the lanterns hung on the poles in front of the livery stable had burned down so that only rims of yellow light spread from the bottoms of glass bulbs; the few horses that remained tethered in front of the saloon were still, their heads slumped down nearly between their legs. The sound of Andrews’s boots upon the board walk was loud and echoing; he went into the street and walked across to his hotel.

IV

For the first few days after Miller left Butcher’s Crossing for Ellsworth, Andrews spent much of his time in his hotel room; he lay on the thin mattress of his narrow bed and gazed at the bare walls, the roughly planked floor, the flat low ceiling. He thought of his father’s house on Clarendon Street near Beacon and the river Charles. Though he had left there with his portion of an uncle’s bequest less than a month before, he felt that the house, in which he had been born and in which he had lived his youth, was very distant in time; he could summon only the dimmest image of the tall elms that surrounded the house, and of the house itself. He remembered more clearly the great dim parlor and the sofa covered with dark red velvet upon which he had lain on summer afternoons, his cheek brushed by the heavy pile, his eyes following, until they were confounded, the intricately entwined floral design carved upon the walnut frame of the sofa. As if it were important, he strained his memory; beside the sofa there had been a large lamp with a round milk-white base encircled by a chain of painted roses, and beyond that, on the wall, neatly framed, was a series of water colors done by a forgotten aunt during her Grand Tour. But the image would not stay with him. Unreal, it thinned like blown fog; and Andrews came back to himself in a raw bare room in a crudely built frame hotel in Butcher’s Crossing.

From that room he could see nearly all the town; when he discovered that he could take the gauze-covered frame out of the window, he spent many hours sitting there, his arms folded on the lower frame of the window opening, his chin resting on one forearm, gazing out upon the town. His gaze alternated between the town itself, which seemed to move in a sluggish erratic rhythm like the pulse of some brute existence, and the surrounding country. Always, when his gaze lifted from the town, it went westward toward the river, and beyond. In the clean early morning light, the horizon was a crisp line above which was the blue and cloudless sky; looking at the horizon, sharply defined and with a quality of absoluteness, he thought of the times when, as a boy, he had stood on the rocky coast of Massachusetts Bay, and looked eastward across the gray Atlantic until his mind was choked and dizzied at the immensity he gazed upon. Older now, he looked upon another immensity in another horizon; but his mind was filled with some of the wonder he had known as a child. As if it were an intimation of some knowledge he had long ago lost, he thought now of those early explorers who had set out upon another waste, salt and wide. He remembered hearing of the superstition that told them they would come to a sharp brink, and sail over it, to fall forever from the world in space and darkness. The legends had not kept them back, he knew; but he wondered how often, in their lonely sailing, they had intimations of depthless plunge, and how often they were repeated in their dreams. Looking at the horizon, he could see the line waver in the rising heat of the day; by late afternoon, with the rising winds, the line became indistinct, merged with the sky, and to the west was a vague country whose limits and extents were undefined. And as night came upon the land, creeping from the brightness sunk like a coal in the western haze, the little town that held him seemed to contract as the dark expanded; and he had, at moments, when his eye lost a point of reference, a sensation like falling, as the sailors must have had in their dreams in their deepest fears. But a light would flicker on the street below him, or a match would flare, or a door would open to let lantern light gleam on a passing boot; and he would again discover himself sitting before an open window in his hotel room, his muscles aching from inactivity and strain. Then he would let himself drop upon his bed and sleep in another darkness that was more familiar and more safe.

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