Authors: Glendon Swarthout
“Well, he did. In the stable, and she found him. Anyway, a year later I moved in with her and tried farming her claim. Up and down those damn fields from morning to night. There's prettier sights to look at than the hind end of an ox.”
“One sweet day I just walked away.”
“Oh.” Mary Bee folded hands in her lap, tightly. “Why?”
Briggs scowled. “Because I'm no farmer. I figured we were fair and square. She'd worked me for two years, I got my keep. She was a good cook and kept a clean house.”
“You deserted her.”
“Look at it however you want.”
“Probably she wanted a husband.”
“Yes, she did. And I wouldn't. When I rode away I was sorry, but I never looked back.”
“I see. So you won't marry me.”
“Will you think about it? From here to Hebron? And talk with me about it again?”
“Sure. Talk's cheap.”
There was long silence between them. Beyond the wagon, in the vast dark, the animals moved and snuffled, grazing. Under the wagon, one of the women stirred in her sleep and muttered an unintelligible word or two. It was almost impossible for Mary Bee to comprehend that he had refused her. Proposing to him had not been planned. She had done it on impulse, just as she had slipped out alone into the twilight to play and sing. She didn't know what different tack to take, but she wouldn't give up on him, not yet. She heard a buzzing in her ears.
“I want to say something else,” she said.
“Perhaps you don't realize what a grand thing you're doing, Mr. Briggs. Taking these poor, helpless women home. If you don't, I assure you the good Lord does. And I do. This may be the finest, most generous act of your whole life.”
“May be three hundred dollars.”
“No. It's more than that. You won't admit your own worth. You've made mistakes, I grant, but underneath you're a decent, honestâ”
“Hold on, Cuddy,” he interrupted. “You sure have reformed me. A few weeks back I was a man of low character. Now I'm a decent, honestâ”
“I was wrong.”
“Truth is, you don't know me from Adam.”
“I didn't. I do now.”
“I deserted from the Dragoons.”
Once, the spring she taught subscription school, she had walked after school through a grove of trees and been attacked by a swarm of bees. She ran. They followed and stung her repeatedly on the face and neck before she thought to pull up her skirt and shield her head. Now, at this instant, as she heard the buzzing, she was stung again, sharply, painfully, but inside her head. It was as though her brain had been stung.
“Deserted!” she exclaimed.
“That's right,” said Briggs. “Comp'ny C, First U.S. Fort Kearney. I put in two years, signed up for another hitch, served half of it, and stole a horse and away I went. I'd had a bellyful by then. Sneaked on up to the Territory.”
“Deserted,” she said, thoughtful. “That's why you don't tell your name.”
“Right as rain.”
“And why we took this route. And why you avoid people.”
“Army's got a long arm. They'll look for me as long as I live. They catch me and it's the stockade, hard labor.” He had been sitting. Now he adjusted his black-and-white cowcoat, which he rolled up for a pillow nightly, lay back, and joined hands behind his head. “So I won't settle down. Anyhow, steady goes against my grain.”
She was stung again.
“And you won't marry me.”
He closed his eyes as though to sleep. “Nope. I'm married to myself.”
“I am plain as an old tin pail.”
He would not respond.
“I have a viper in my mouth.”
She was stung again by a bee. Pain spread from one side of her skull to the other, and the savage buzzing in her ears was so loud she couldn't hear herself think.
“You're the second man I've asked to marry me. He said no, too.”
Briggs opened his eyes, then opened them wider. Her big hands were pressed tight against the sides of her head as though she were in pain.
“Then if I was you,” he said, “I'd sure as hell quit asking.”
That started tears, which dribbled down her cheeks. Tears were women's guns, to be shed when no other weapon would work. He couldn't judge what she was up to unless it was to shame him, which she had no cause to.
“Oh, oh,” she whimpered. “How I wish you'd say one kind word to me.”
“Such as what?”
“That I am a good woman. That I've helped you.”
“Fair enough,” he said. “Cuddy, you're a damn good woman and you've helped me.”
With that she let out a groan that sounded like the woman who was burning up with fever, staggered to her feet, and left him. Briggs was powerfully relieved. He burrowed into his blankets. Any day now the river, he thought, any day. She may make it, she may not. She's hollow in the head, all right. No telling what she'll do, one minute to the next. I better bow low to her and do-si-do. I better handle her like a cracked egg, because she's about to bust. Or has already. And I better push those mules.
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He woke and went rigid.
A light rain fell, almost a mist.
She stood beside him, stark naked.
“No,” he said.
“Yes,” she said.
“No,” he said.
Plain-faced she might be, but she had a shapely body. Her skin was pure white, her breasts were large and uplifted, the nipples sharp as arrowheads. She had a flat belly and a belly button deep and dark. Her legs were long and strong-thighed, and the black V of hair above them looked to be firm as a pincushion. Despite himself he felt desire.
“I want to, to lie with you,” she said.
“No,” he said.
“You must,” she said. “I saved your life.”
“No,” he said.
She knelt beside him and put her face beside his so that their cheeks touched. Her long hair tented his head. He did not move. She made no attempt to kiss him. She did not know how to arouse a man, any more than he knew, for the life of him, what to do with her.
“Don't make me beg you,” she murmured.
It griped him hard to be stuck in such a position. Bedding down with a woman out of her mind or almost was about as low as you could go. It might damage her more. On the other hand, it might help get her on an even female keel. Maybe, maybe. Damned if he did, damned if he didn't.
After a time he pushed her away, turned back his blankets, stood, and stripped. She lay down on his bed staring at him, at what she had never before seen. Hair surprised her, how much of it, mats of it, mist wet, on his chest, legs, shoulders. She stared at the member of a man. Distended, straight as though aimed, it looked to her like the barrel of his big repeating pistol, and the hair at its base like the burned black of its grip. Then he came down over her on hands and knees.
“Raise your knees,” he ordered.
She raised them.
“Take me in your hand.”
“Just you remember, Cuddy,” he said hoarsely. “I didn't force you.”
“If I hurt you I can't help it.”
“I didn't ask you, you asked me.”
“Now put me in you.”
“Yes,” she said, and began to tremble throughout her whole body as though with cold and fear and the mist falling.
When, later, it was done, and she went back to her bed on the far side of the wagon, Mary Bee Cuddy knew in her soul that the women were awake, and had seen it, and so had He.
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Briggs fell out of sleep. It was the mules. Every morning they brayed reveille. This morning they had not.
He opened his blankets, stood, and peering into the gray could count two mules by the ears and one horse by the tail, his own, but couldn't locate the freighter's calico she had taken a liking to.
Without pausing to yawn, stretch, cough, spit, or scratch himself, he put on his boots and stepped around the wagon. The women slept. Her blankets were where they should be. She was not.
He climbed up to the wagon seat. Her saddle was gone. She had saddled up the gelding and ridden off somewhere for some damnfool female reason.
He stepped up on the seat itself. The plains were rosy now, and he turned a slow circle searching them, but there was nothing but rose and empty plain and one tree, a dark smudge a mile away to the north and east. He recollected how she had hugged a black walnut tree and talked his ear off about the trees she had doted on back home in York State. Standing all by its lonesome, this one looked to be an old cottonwood.
And just as he studied the tree, the meaning of it kicked Briggs in the pit of the stomach. Years ago he'd had a scrap with an Irishman from back east in the Company C barracks, a big, dumb, drunk recruit who kicked him in the stomach, took the fight out of him, then knocked him cold. For days afterward bile rose up in him sometimes and he was ready to puke, and when it receded left a green, maggoty taste in his mouth. Now the meaning of the tree got the bile going again and made him want to puke over the side of the wagon.
Instead, he hauled down his own saddle, went out and unpicketed his horse, and saddled him and mounted up and started off for the cottonwood tree at a walk. But halfway to the tree he couldn't wait, he needed to get it over with, so booted the roan into a gallop.
There was her horse, Shaver.
Briggs pulled up and left his animal and walked around the tree.
She had done it to herself just the way she had seen it done to him.
She had ridden under a long limb and dismounted. She had slung the coil of rope up over the limb, yanked it into a fork, then walked one end to the tree trunk and looped it around the trunk and tied it. Returning to her horse, she had removed her black melton coat and rabbit hat, taken the free end of the rope, mounted, taken up as much slack in the line as she could, tied the noose, worked it over her head and under her chin, let loose of the free end, and kicked the gelding out from under her. Since she had not had any help, it was not a tidy job. There had been too much slack in the line, so she hung with her boots no more than a foot off the ground, and the free end of the rope dragged. The drop had been too short to break her neck, and she had strangled. In her fits, he recalled, she had always been short of wind, and now that was what she had died of, lack of wind.
She loved trees.
Briggs's instinct was to go cut her down. He pulled his bowie, stepped around, and saw her face. Her face did him in.
The rope had made red marks on her neck. Her cheeks were a bluish color, almost purple. Her eyes were closed. Her viper tongue stuck out an inch or more from her mouth.
Briggs swung away from the sight and fell to his hands and knees, trying to vomit and being unable to. There was nothing in his stomach. He had the dry heaves. He heaved until he thought his guts were ripped. Then he sat back with sweat pouring out of him and his mouth full of maggots.
What got him on his feet again was rage. He faced her and yelled.
“Goddam you, Cuddy!”
He sheathed his knife and waited as though he expected her to answer.
“God didn't care what we did! I tell you! God didn't give a damn!”
But she hung lifeless and blue in the face and stuck out her tongue at him.
“Why, goddammit?” he yelled. “Why?”
When he couldn't get a word out of her, Briggs left her hanging and turned, marched around the cottonwood to his horse, mounted, caught hers, and trailing him, rode on back to the wagon. Here he broke camp. He moved in a deliberate manner. He felt like a trigger being squeezed. He tied horses to the wagon. The women were awake now. He put their boots on and one by one took them out on the prairie to relieve themselves, then stowed and strapped them in the wagon. Washing up and combing hair and breakfast be damned. He rolled beds, loaded and lashed the wagon top, harnessed and hitched the mules, climbed to the seat, got the wagon going, and drove the mile to the cottonwood tree. He stopped by the tree and rousted the women out of the wagon like a schoolmaster with pupils.
“All right now,” Briggs said to them, “see there. See what you've done.”
They looked at him, and at the tree, and at the trailing horses, and at the ground underfoot.
“Goddammit!” he cried. “Look at her! You look at her!”
He took them roughly by the waists and turned them to face the corpse. They looked at the hanging woman with no more and no less interest than they might have a line of laundry. His rage returned and got the better of him.
“See what you've done!” He pointed. “Killed her, that's what! You've killed her!”
They stared at him.
“It hadn't been for you,” he snarled, “Cuddy wouldn't be dead. She wouldn't even be out here God knows where. You hadn't gone cuckoo, she wouldn't have made this trip. It was too much for herâtoo damn far, too many chores, taking care of you night and day.” He shook a finger at them. “If you'd been like a wife should be, strong and steady, she'd be alive and home in her own house and so would you. But no, you went crazy and drove her crazy and killed her. Killed her! Well, what've you got to say?”
He didn't expect them to burst into tears, but they might at least have shown some shame or sympathy instead of standing like a row of fenceposts.
“The hell with you!” he roared. “Not worth a pinch of dried owl shit! Not even human anymore!”
He spat his contempt.
“A fine bunch,” he said, subsiding. “You should be locked up. If we had a bughouse out here, that's where you'd be. And stay there.”
Briggs turned his back on them, went to the corpse, and with one arm around it cut it down with his knife. He laid it on the ground, stepped to the tree trunk, untied the rope, pulled it over the limb, coiled it, slung it on top of the wagon, then got the shovel from the underseat compartment and picked a place farther under the tree for better shelter and began to dig a grave. Recollecting how fussy she had been about the little emigrant girl's grave a few days back, staying behind to rebury the bones and thwart the wolves, he dug this grave a full three feet down; but then, when he rolled her into his buffalo hide, which he had no need of in warmer weather, the hole was deep enough but inches short. She was a long woman. So he cut it inches longer and found it, when he lowered her in again, a perfect fit.