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Authors: Glendon Swarthout

The Homesman (22 page)

BOOK: The Homesman
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He almost passed one by in the middle of the morning. It edged a grove of willow trees and was a sorry sight. Two crotched stakes supported a ridge-pole over which was drawn a big sagging square of sail-cloth pegged out on four sides to form a poor kind of tent, with a flap door for light. There would unlikely be Army here, or any customer by choice.

Briggs climbed down and stretched a cramp out of a leg and opened his cowcoat to have easy access to his belt and walked on in through the flap door. The tent was as cloudy inside as the weather was out. Two seedy men, one long as a ladder, one as sawed-off as a stool, both skinny, both big-eared, brothers maybe, or cousins, sat on a plank over sawhorses. They had a proprietorial air.

“How do,” they said.

Briggs nodded, and while they took inventory of him, he took it of their establishment. They had not invested much capital. He observed two barrels of whiskey up on cordwood, a table with a few canned goods, a glass jar of pickles that made his mouth water, and an open barrel beside it that apparently contained salt hog.

“Where from?” asked Ladder.

“North and west.”

“Where to?” asked Stool.

“Kanesville.”

“What for?”

“To cross. Where's Hebron?”

“Ioway?”

“That's it.”

“Well, on the far bank.”

“I know that.”

“Mile downriver from the Bellevue crossing.”

“What you freightin'?” asked Ladder.

“Goods.”

Stool got up and went to the door.

“Kanesville, y'say,” Ladder said to Briggs, scratching an ear. “Well, hold yer horses.”

“Mules. Why?”

“River's up southa here. Y'can't cross.”

“Yes, I can.”

“Cheese Creek? Not this high, y'can't.”

“Which is it?” asked Briggs. “A creek or a river?”

“Dry it's a creek. Rains it's a river.”

Stool was staring out the door. “Ain't never seen a rig like that. What is it?”

“Frame wagon.”

“Frame wagon? Mind if I look 'er over?”

“I mind.”

Ladder elongated himself off the plank. “What can we do for you, Mister?”

“That salt hog.” Briggs indicated. “How much?”

“Dollar a pound.”

“A dollar?”

“They got some cheaper over t'Tolliver's.”

“Where's that?”

“Other side the creek.”

Briggs scowled. “I'll have three pounds.”

Ladder got a small meal sack and began to paw meat from the barrel with his bare hands. Briggs missed Stool, strode to the door, and found that individual standing on tiptoe gaping into a wagon window. He swung round to Ladder.

“I told him to stay shy of that wagon. Get him in here.”

Ladder finished pawing and tied the sack. “He's my cousin. He's set in his ways.”

Briggs stepped to one of the whiskey barrels and drew the bowie knife from its sheath. Swinging side-arm, he stabbed the barrel like a belly, then stepped around, drove the blade into the other side up to the guard, and withdrew. Whiskey peed from both holes. Ladder looked as though he'd been stabbed instead of the barrel.

“Whud you do that for?” he cried in anguish. He swiped up some rags and made for the barrel.

“Hold your horses,” said Briggs calmly, waggling the knife at him. “You can plug the barrel when you get 'im.”

Ladder reached the door in two steps. “Jesus Christ, Cousin, get back here!” he bellowed. “He's a knifer!”

Stool jumped a foot in the air and came on a three-legged tear into the tent.

“Goods my pud!” he yelped at Ladder, who was on his knees plugging the near split. “He's got him four wimmen in there!”

Briggs turned sideways so neither of the cousins could see, fished in his inside pocket for the greenbacks, sorted out three singles, returned the wad, and laid them on the table.

“Wimmen!” yelped Stool.

“Shut up y'dumb sonofabitch and plug t'other hole!” Ladder hollered at him.

Stool jumped for the barrel. Briggs took off the top of the jar, speared himself a big pickle with his bowie, had a bite, liked it, sheathed his knife, picked up his meat, and walked out the flap door with the pickle between his teeth like a cigar. The commercial cousins hollered after him.

“Pay up! Pickle's a dime!”

•   •   •

Briggs belched. The pickle had given him gas. The money-grubbing bastards had been right, all right. Cheese Creek was a river now, roiled and swollen with rains and runoff and close to ten rods across by his reckoning. That afternoon he had driven the wagon down into its bottom, which was timbered with hackberry and green ash trees, and studied the river, deciding whether to try a ford here or look for a better. There was only one way to find out for sure. He climbed down, took off all his clothing, emptied the water keg lashed to the rear step, plugged it again, and, lugging it, stepped down to the water and nakedly, cautiously, inched into the river and headed for the far side, feeling forward with each foot for bushes or tree limbs or boulders. The water was cold as hell. Briggs had never learned to swim. Even in the Dragoons he stayed aboard his mount in the water, and since then used ferries. He kept a tight hold on the keg, and it was well he did for halfway across, in water up to his armpits, he ran smack out of bottom, there was nothing underfoot. He had come onto a deep hole. With his left arm he hugged the keg for dear life and with his right flailed at the stream, and by this crude means found bottom eventually and waded at length to the far bank. Here he stood the keg on its end and sat down on it, shivering and puffing like a good fellow.

Down in this timber, the day was more murky than ever. The trees dripped. Off to the far north, thunder rumbled.

Briggs cogitated. If he unloaded, women and all, could he float an old frame wagon over the hole? How would the mules behave? If he managed the float, and swam the mules back, could he trust the women to stay up on them crossing? Mightn't they have a fright and fall off? And suppose he got them over on the animals, what about the rest of the load? Grub box and bedrolls and so forth? He had to do something. He was damned if he'd sit here fishing for crackers and waiting on the Cheese. After today, there was only one day left of his deal. Of course, if the wagon sank and they drowned like a litter of cats, no deal.

With the aid of the keg he splashed back across the stream, then dried himself with a blanket, dressed, saddled his roan, and looked into a wagon window. There they sat, bless their hearts.

He rode down the riverbank east, winding among the trees in search of a more likely ford. He hadn't gone a hundred yards before he came into a clearing from which every tree had been cut, and in the center of it, a split-log shed which stumped him till he rode near enough to see the wooden rollers and an evaporator under roof. These identified the rig at once: this was a molasses mill, abandoned. Someone had given up on it despite ample wood for fuel and running water to keep the utensils clean. Sugar was dear lately, and the processing of molasses from sorghum had become a robust business in the Territory. The mills were simple contraptions. One man fed the sorghum between two rollers geared to turn by horse or mule power; the rollers pressed out the juice, which ran down an incline trough into the evaporator. The latter was a large pan with high wooden sides and an iron bottom in which the juice was boiled to syrup. A one-horse mill, Briggs understood, would press twenty to thirty gallons of sweetener every hour.

He stared at the pan. It was about five feet long and a hair over two wide. He snapped his fingers. Swinging down from the saddle, in three minutes flat he was mounted again and towing the molasses pan by a rope out of the shed, through the trees, and back to the bank of the Cheese by the wagon.

He got the women out and seated them in a row on the bank. He unloaded everything, from top to interior to underseat. For added buoyancy, he lashed the empty water keg in its place at the rear. Then he stripped again. The women paid his anatomy no more mind than they would have a frog in a well. Up on his roan, gelding tied to the wagon, he led the mules into the river. When they ran out of footing they swam, and Briggs talked to them and encouraged them and the frame wagon floated and the mariner mules traversed the hole and found bottom and walked out of the water with their load as though they forded rivers every Sunday in the week. Briggs looked across.

“No!” he yelled.

On the far side his four cases were wading into the water, following him like good little girls.

“Oh, my God, no!” he yelled.

They'd drown. They were crazy. They'd never let him go. He'd never be shet of them.

“Go back!”

He was off his mount and lunging toward the hole and thrashing river over it before he remembered he couldn't swim.

Arms wide he swept them onto the bank and sat down and worked his gills for a while like a fish out of water. It occurred to him he was naked as a jaybird again, and it made no never mind.

After a time he stood the women around the trunk of a big green ash and tied them to it with rope, which he wound round and round. He chopped down a sapling, trimmed it of branches, and fashioned himself a ten-foot pole. He then made two round trips to the far side of the Cheese in the molasses pan, propelling and navigating himself with the pole. On the first he carried across the grub box, bedrolls, and tools; on the second, Shaver's saddle and the underseat gear and the green sewing bag. Now he had everything over the river but the women.

Briggs rested. He was tuckered. The day darkened. The thunder ceased, but a breeze blew down the river bottom and tossed tree branches and caused small rains.

He began with Sours, thinking she would be the least trouble, seating her in front of him in the pan, and they made the crossing easily. But on the return, he looked over his shoulder.

“No!” he yelled. “Goddammit, go back!”

It was his fault, he'd forgotten. They'd stay as close to him as a flea a dog. Sours was in water up to her waist, following him, nearing the hole. He dropped the pole, jumped out of the pan, splashed water till he reached her, and arm about her waist guided her to the bank from which she'd come. He opened the rear doors of the box. What he ached to do was give her such a crack on the rump she'd practically fly inside. Instead, he assisted her up the step like a gentleman, then slammed the doors, bolted them, and turned to the stream. His pole was gone. Turning end for end in the current, the molasses pan disappeared around a bend. He trotted after it, waded out, tangled one leg in a submerged bush, untangled it, caught the pan, pulled it near shore and down the bank back to the wagon. Here, using the ax, he made another pole and set out again.

He untied Petzke from the tree and ferried her across without a snag, and stuck her in the wagon box with Sours, then did the same with Svendsen. He watched Svendsen closely, though, until he had her locked in the box. That left Belknap, the last.

But he was too tired and too cold. He was turning blue, and he shook with chills. He wrapped himself in a blanket and was immediately doubled up with coughing, hawking, spitting—the catarrh. This whole stunt, he decided, blowing his nose with a finger, was too much for any one man. If she'd been there, Cuddy, she could have handled one side of the river, him the other, and they'd have pulled it off slick as a whistle. And how, afterward, would she herself have crossed the Cheese? Simple. She'd have walked on the water.

He dropped the blanket and pushed off in the pan for the far side. Once there, he let Belknap loose of the tree, sat her down in the pan, coiled the rope, and pushed off again. Suddenly, over the deep hole, so suddenly he couldn't prevent her, the woman leaped up and stepped out with such force and cussedness that she tipped the pan over and Briggs with it.

He swallowed water and churned with arms and legs and got a grab on her, whereupon she flung arms around him and together they sank like a stone. Going down into dark he recalled what Cuddy had once said about Belknap: that she had to stay insane, for if she ever got sane, for even a minute, she would realize she had killed her baby and would try to kill herself. She was trying to drown the both of them now, no doubt about it, which enraged Briggs. Kill herself if she wanted, but leave him be. He hit bottom with his feet and crouched and used his legs like springs to shoot up through the water to the surface, carrying her with him, but couldn't prize himself from her embrace and went down a second time with her dead weight, lungs like full bladders. Again when he hit bottom he sprang up, wrestling her with him, and on sucking in sweet air got free enough of her to let fly with his right fist to her jaw. He knocked her unconscious. Theoline Belknap went limp, and Briggs reached and seized her by the hair and with the dregs of his strength splashed her and himself off the hole and found bottom and horsed her to the bank by the wagon and fell on his face beside her in the mud trying to breathe and, scared because he had come so close to death, crying like a boy.

•   •   •

That night he fed his passengers half the salt hog and half the dodgers, and in the morning the other half. That ran them entirely out of food, which was all right with Briggs because this was his third and last day wet-nursing. They had to be nigh on to the Missouri by now. Wagon trains heading west were thick as flies, having bunched up to cross the river at Kanesville, then spread out on this side as they entered the Territory. He avoided them like the plague. One was a long line of six-mule rigs freighting goods, so near he could almost hear the crack of whips and the oaths of the whackers. Another, consisting of only four covered schooners, had a big herd of cattle for a hindrance, and children, trudging along with sticks, for drovers. Indians, he figured, would run off half that herd in a week. He saw men on foot pushing carts, a swarm of them, Mormons probably, on their weary way to Salt Lake. It looked to him like the whole U.S.A. was playing pilgrim. Well, when he left the women tonight they wouldn't starve. He'd bed them down near the main trail and slip away and be in Kanesville by morning.

BOOK: The Homesman
10.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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