Two Years Later
This new world seemed to be made of grass and nothing else. When Ned walked outside the grass brushed at his legs knee-high and insects flew up around him. He heard grasshoppers chittering and birds everywhere and the sky reached as high as the birds could sing. There were no sheer cliffs to channel and echo the noises on the land.
Julie said that the prairie was like a circle, like standing on a great dinner plate where the sun rose at one edge and set at the other in a blazing of light. But to Ned, when the wind was blowing and the creek rushing in the bluffs, it felt like the whole world was made of straight lines all going the same way. There was nothing but the two houses and the stable to take the wind and deflect it, and that only made a small blustering sound in the great whole.
Three hundred and twenty acres all around where Ned stood was his and Ben’s, and it was all soft, gentle swells and good grass rich with life. There was hardly a day Ben didn’t come back with some flesh or fowl shot out on the range. They had built their houses unconventionally, perhaps, but sensibly, as two half houses joined together across the line between their claims. There was a door between them, and the stable was only ten yards away out back. One wall of the corral was the stable, and one wall was the house, and Ned could walk out to the stable straight through the corral with no fear of losing his way. Even Ben had been glad of that arrangement the first time a blizzard overtook the land and he could go see to the horses in the blinding snow with no chance of wandering into the open prairie and missing the stable.
Today was a day for walking back and forth across the trodden-bare ground out front of the house and for checking on the horses more often than was necessary, and for walking out into the long grass and pulling the seedheads through his fingers restlessly and letting the seeds loose to the wind. From inside the house Ned sometimes heard a low moan, and sometimes heard Jane’s voice speaking softly and firmly, and once he heard Julie crying out something that sounded like a curse.
At that he turned back to the door and made to go inside, but Ben caught hold of his arm and steered him away.
‘Come on, Ned,’ he said. ‘Women-folk don’t want men in there at a time like this. Let Jane look after her just like she looked after Jane when she had our Bessie.’
Ned’s ear was turned to the house, but he followed Ben’s hand. Ben was carrying the year-old Bessie in his arm. Bewildered and uncomprehending of what was happening inside, she had cried and wailed and tugged at his and Ben’s legs and finally fallen asleep against Ben’s chest.
‘Ben, you think I can manage a baby?’ he asked nervously. ‘I mean, my own baby.’
Ben laughed shortly. ‘Too late for that now, Ned. Besides, the baby’s for Julie to manage, and you’ve done real good with Bessie. Sometimes I think she loves her Uncle Ned as much as she loves her ma and pa.’
Ned smiled, reaching to adjust his hat as the wind blew up under the brim. After travelling for weeks in a wagon up through the wide states, and living here in the wagon while Ben built the house and he helped as he could, and building up a new herd of cattle, and learning the ways of this new place and new land, he felt ten years older, in some ways, instead of just two. In other ways he felt as if he had been reborn, free of every lingering fear that was attached to being Johnny Tallon’s brother. No one here had even heard of Johnny Tallon.
‘Well, I guess we ain’t going out to check the herd today,’ Ben said after a space of silence. ‘Not with Bessie asleep like this. Otherwise I’d take you out there and set your mind on other things.’
‘I don’t want to set my mind on other things,’ Ned said, his ear turned toward the house again. ‘The herd’ll be fine for one day.’
‘Well, then – how about you chop some of that wood we hauled up from the creek yesterday?’ Ben asked.
Ned turned to him, grinning suddenly. ‘Ben, I reckon you’re more nervous than I am,’ he realized. ‘You just ain’t saying so.’
Ben laughed quietly. ‘I reckon maybe I am,’ he said. ‘Ned, you remember when we were holed up in Navajo Canyon waiting to see who’d get us first, the Indians or the Parker Gang?’
‘I ain’t likely to forget that,’ Ned said, thinking of the cold of the air and the spreading silence and the knowledge that somewhere were men that wanted to kill him.
‘Well, the feeling I had then ain’t a patch on this,’ Ben admitted. ‘Waiting for a birth when there ain’t nothing you can do in the world to help. I’d rather be sitting in the canyon waiting for Indians – except there ain’t no canyons here and there ain’t no Indians no more, neither. So I guess we’ll have to stay here and wait for that baby, instead.’
‘I guess you won’t need to wait no longer,’ Jane said from the door.
Ned spun. He made for the door, confident of the smooth, hard earth under his feet. He didn’t know who to think of first, Julie, or that small anonymous person that had been born from her. Jane caught at his arm as he reached her.
‘Slow down, Ned,’ she said to him firmly. ‘Things might have been moved around inside and the last thing Julie needs is you going head over heels and breaking a bone. Here, let me take you. No, Ben – you can stay outside,’ she added quickly as Ben made to follow. ‘She’s in no state to be seen by you.’
‘Where is she?’ Ned asked. He could smell blood and sweat. It smelt like there had been a calving inside the house. ‘Julie?’
‘She’s just fine,’ Jane said, leading him across the floor. He could tell by his path that things had been moved. ‘They’re both just fine.’
‘Julie?’ he asked again. The curtain that separated bedroom from living room brushed against his face and then he heard noises – the smallest, strangest noises of a life that was no more than a few minutes old.
‘I’m here, Ned,’ Julie said in a voice that was full of tiredness and contentment.
He reached out blindly and her hand caught his, her fingers damp with sweat and weak around his.
‘Julie,’ he said, bending down toward her and reaching a hand out to her head. Her hair was damp with sweat, pushed back from her face and tied with a ribbon. He could feel by her cheek that she was smiling.
‘Here, Ned, there’s a chair,’ Jane told him, pushing it behind him, and he sat down.
‘Is it a boy, Julie?’ he asked, reaching out toward that small mewling noise. His hand touched Julie’s bare flesh and he thought maybe she was naked. A flush rose to his cheeks at the thought of them being together like that in front of Jane. Then Julie said, ‘Yeah, Ned, it’s a boy. It’s our boy.’
She took his hand again and guided it, and his fingers lighted on a blanket wrapped tight and firm around something small. He slipped his fingers underneath to feel soft, damp flesh that felt like the unfurling of a new leaf. He could feel the rapid flutter of a tiny heart in there, and soft, quick breaths. The last time he had felt that life had been as strong, determined movements under the taut tent of Julie’s skin.
‘It’s our son?’ he asked stupidly. ‘This is our son?’
‘Yeah,’ Julie said, and he could hear exhaustion in her voice.
‘Has he got hair?’ he asked, slipping his hand up to the head to feel a thin skim of damp and dirtied hair. ‘What color is it, Julie? What color are his eyes?’
‘Blonde, like yours – kinda hay colored,’ Julie said. ‘His eyes are blue, just like yours. And he’s big, Ned. He’s going to be a big boy.’
Ned almost laughed. How could this tiny bundle of flesh whose whole back fitted under his palm be described as big?
‘Ma said I was born six foot tall and kept growing from there,’ he said. ‘Maybe it runs in the family. Can I hold him, Julie?’
‘Sure,’ she said. ‘He’s your son, Ned.’
She lifted her arm, but Ned could feel that she was trembling with tiredness. He reached out, running his hands over the tightly wrapped bundle, remembering all the hours of holding Ben and Jane’s Bessie in the early months. He had become something of a nursemaid in that time, when Jane was still confined and Julie was busy doing the housework for two houses.
‘I can get him,’ he said, lifting the baby away from her breast. He held it snug in his arms, touching his fingers lightly to its face, feeling soft rounded cheeks, a nose that was hardly a nose at all, and petal-soft lips that moved against his finger and tried to tease it into the mouth. He looked for the hands and touched a damp palm, and fingers that were smaller than seemed possible curled around his.
‘I want to call him Johnny,’ he said. ‘Can we call him John, Julie?’
‘It’s a good name,’ Julie said. ‘We can call him that.’
‘I thought, with what Johnny was – ’
‘Whatever Johnny was, he gave himself up to save you,’ Julie said, a firmness steadying the fatigue in her voice. ‘It’s a good name. I’m proud for our boy to have it. He can be John Edward. And soon as we have another boy, we can call him Charlie. They’ll be good, strong boys, and we’ll be proud of them.’
Ned knew he was grinning stupidly, but he did not care. There was only Julie and Jane to see it, and this small bundle of life in his arms that did not even know what a smile was yet. He held it against him, feeling it with his chest and the lengths of his arms, caught by the sudden knowledge that he would do anything to defend this small life from the world around it.
‘Let me take him for a minute, Ned,’ Jane said, laying her hand on his shoulder. ‘I’ll take him out to Ben. It’s warm enough outside. You have some time with Julie alone.’
Ned could somehow sense the anxiety in Julie. He felt it himself. He felt like he never wanted to be parted from such a tiny, helpless thing. But he nodded, and Julie did not argue. He let Jane take the child and as she passed through the curtain he turned back to Julie and reached a hand out to her face again.
‘I’m real proud of you, Julie,’ he said, stroking his fingers along her forehead and cheek, trying to smooth the tiredness out of her.
‘Ned,’ she murmured, as if she did not know what else to say. Her hand caught his and stilled it. ‘Ned Tallon, are you crying?’
Ned grinning, touching his free hand to his cheek. ‘I guess maybe I am,’ he said, feeling the evidence of tears on his skin. ‘I reckon I don’t know if I’m coming or going. I can’t be as tired as you, but I could sleep for a week on the one hand and ride for a week on the other – I’m so plumb confused.’
‘Go on outside,’ Julie said to him, squeezing her hand on his with all the strength she could muster. ‘Go on out to Ben and tell Jane to bring the baby back in. I need to learn to feed him and I need to get tidied up. You go on out with Ben and ride for a week if you need to – I’ll be here when you come back.’
Ned smiled and bent forward, tracing her face with his hand and then kissing her lips with gentle firmness.
‘I’ll be back long before a week’s gone,’ he promised. ‘I’ll be back before sunset.’
He went through the curtain and picked his way carefully through the disarranged house to the door. He could hear the weak, shrill sound of crying from out there, and as he opened the door it got louder.
‘Well, he’s sure got lungs in that chest,’ Ben said as Ned came out. He clapped a hand on Ned’s arm. ‘Congratulations, Ned. That’s a fine boy you’ve got there.’
‘I know,’ Ned said, his face split with a grin. ‘Jane, Julie asked me to send you back in. Ben, is Bessie awake?’
‘Yeah, your Johnny saw to that,’ Ben laughed.
‘Then we can go check the herd. I mean, Julie told me to go.’
‘Come on then, Ned,’ Ben said, setting Bessie down on the ground. ‘You go with your ma,’ he said, but Ned knew that Bessie would need no prompting to toddle after her mother and catch hold of her skirts. ‘Let’s go saddle up.’
Doggone had walked all the way from Arizona to Minnesota, and he was still the same staid, obedient horse that he had always been. He still walked up to Ned in the corral and twined his neck about him and nuzzled at his hands, and still obeyed the slightest nudge from Ned’s knees or twitch from the reins. Ned still felt as if he were free when he was sitting on Doggone’s back.
This grassland was endless. The thousands of stalks of grass made a swishing sound against the horses’ legs as they galloped, and Ned held his face up to the wind and whooped for joy. He and Ben had given up any pretence of checking the cattle almost as soon as they had mounted their horses. All Ned wanted to do was gallop. He could feel the low sun burning against the side of his face as he rode and hear birds flying up in surprise at the sudden pounding hooves through their grassland home. The air was warm and clear in his lungs, with no dust mixed in. There was nothing but the scent of flowers and hay all around him.
Finally he reined Doggone in and slowed to a walk, and as the wind of riding dropped the scent of the warm grass rose around him.
‘I thought I’d miss the canyons some,’ he said as Ben came alongside. ‘But I don’t. It was all in my memory anyway. It’s not like you can touch one of them towering cliffs. But this place – I ain’t never seen it, but I can taste it in my mouth and hear it all around me. It’s a land of milk and honey, Ben. I don’t think anything could go wrong here.’
Ben laughed. ‘I reckon there’s more to smell and to hear than there is to see anyway,’ he said. ‘It ain’t nothing but grass whichever way you look. Just grass and sky rising up and coming down to meet each other at the edges. You’re right, Ned. This is good land. We’re already doing well enough here, and I reckon we’re going to do better still. Now Jane and me have got our Bessie, and you’ve got that baby back there, and the herd’s growing every year.’
Ned grinned. He turned the horse toward home and kicked his heels lightly against its flanks. The sun was behind him now, burning hotly onto his back, pressing through his shirt and warming his skin. The world felt soft and warm, like a mother holding him. He could hear Ben at his side, and somewhere in the distance the cattle were lowing softly. In the distance were the two little houses joined together, and inside were Julie and Jane, and Bessie and that small, new baby that would unfold to become a person that he would be glad to know. Life was good, and Ned was glad to be in it.