Vern Harmon’s pipe had been carved from blood-red soapstone by a Missouri River Mandan. To Beth it was a menacing totem. When spring squabbled with winter on the Cumberland Plateau she’d wait for the siren winds. It was then that her husband would take the pipe from its beaded case. He’d just sit quietly and study the pipe, his eyes distant and vacant.
Her restless sleep had been disturbed last night when he’d slipped from the Skinners Creek cabin. Loons called mournfully, and soon the wind had brought her the wild odor of his hoarded kinnickinnick tobacco. She’d stared up into the darkness as the winds whispered darkly that they’d come for him yet again, and that this time they’d not be denied.
In the morning, Beth stepped from the cabin and strode towards the creek for water. A tall, full-bodied woman, the bend of her leg and spring of knee revealed a step accustomed to the faint paths of rough valley and rocky slope. She was a hill woman. She might stumble on Mt. Pleasant’s boardwalk, yet she could unerringly follow the trails of her mountain home, or step along briskly with Vern on a hunt in the Kentucky hills. Large hazel eyes softened a determined line of mouth.
The crippled old hound that had followed Vern home from Mt. Pleasant watched her passage with a flicker of watery eyes. It snuffled at an early fly near its nose then went back to sleep. Black and white speckled chickens cackled and flapped down from saplings where dark-green spring buds swelled. Freshness rich with a moist scent of verdant newness had settled along the creek. Young ducks quarreled in the deep eddy downstream where fat trout would laze in slow green depths through summer. Tethered in tall grass along the creek, two bays perked their ears forward and nickered hopefully at her.
The bright morning should have brought happiness and contentment, but instead she felt threatened. The wind came with a fitful rush. It tugged at her hair, taunting and mocking.
She knelt at the creek and plunged the bucket into its iciness, then rose, lifting the heavy pail easily. A figure stood in the path.
“Cain McToon!” she gasped. “You surely gave me a start.”
He’d simply materialized, as though swept up from some secret place by the wind and dropped over the valley to float silently down like a brown and withered autumn leaf. The wind, its task completed, swirled happily around him.
For a long moment he just stood there, silent and grey-bearded. He leaned casually on a long rifle propped butt down. Smoky eyes studied her from beneath flaring eyebrows. A chill fluttered up her spine. Then he turned without a word and walked off towards the cabin.
Vern stood in the doorway. A broad smile of welcome for the old trapper creased the lines of his weathered face. He reached to take the bucket from Beth and stood aside to let McToon enter.
“Well I’ll be dogged, Cain. For sure you’re a sight. Spring must be close to stir you out of hibernation.”
McToon nimbly dodged a playful kick aimed at his rump. “Ain’t so sure about that, Harmon. This chile felt right poorly crossin’ your freezin’ creek just now. Or else I just ain’t thawed out from them beaver ponds we used to wade.”
The deep voice was edged with a muted raspiness that put an edge on Beth’s nerves. She managed a smile, though, and pushed back errant strands of hair while setting a steaming mug of coffee in front of him. “This’ll take the chill off,” she said. “You’ll stay to breakfast won’t you?”
He looked up at her, a cold light in his eyes. She felt it seek out and find the hidden worry and resentment his presence brought. A thin smile touched the corners of his mouth. “Obliged,” he said.
Beth busied herself at the big stone fireplace, determined not to let the old man make what had already begun as a bad day even worse. Bacon sizzled and spat next to a half-dozen sputtering eggs in a smoke-blackened skillet.
“Now, ain’t this here prime fixin’s?” Vern asked McToon and leaned back in his chair. “This here’s the way to live, Cain. . .roof over your head, dry floor for your feet of a mornin’, good woman fussin’ over a hot meal. Better’n wet snow down your back, the coffee made from week-old leavin’s and punier than some pilgrim’s shootin’ eye. Pemmican froze so hard a body can’t even chop it with a hatchet. . .moccasins half gone, and what’s left wet clean through and lookin’ to be a sorry supper that night.”
McToon slurped his coffee and looked around the rough-hewn room with scant regard. “Well now, reckon what you say’s right enough, least for some.”
“Know it for certain,” Vern said. “Took me ten years out there before I saw the best of havin’ a wife and a settled home.”
McToon’s eyes steadied on Vern. “Well, this chile’s had his fill of your civ’lization. I come close to starvin’ this winter for some true meat.” His eyes narrowed. “I’m up for headin’ back.”
Beth cracked a sudden stillness with another egg, then carefully picked white bits of shell from the skillet. Outside, the wind exulted.
Vern slowly lowered his coffee mug. “For the mountains? You’re headin’ back to the mountains?”
“New mountains, hoss,” McToon answered. “I run into ole Bob Grant over to Lexington the other day. You recollect Bob don’t you. . .spent a season with him and some others up on the Siskidee? Well, he tole me about these here mountains down south of our ole stompin’ grounds. . .over in southwest of Santa Fe, says Bob. Good trappin’, says he, up on some river called the Gilly or Heely or some such with a Mex name.”
Neither of them noticed her quietly set plates on the table. Careful not to make a sound that would intrude on these moments filled with peril, she took her place. She fought an urge to look at Vern, afraid to see again the distant look that in the past glazed his eyes when he thought she wasn’t looking.
“New country. . ,” he whispered to himself, then seemed to shake the thought away. A hollow laugh rumbled in his chest. He cast a furtive look at her and reached over to lift a hand from her lap. He squeezed it in his rough paw. “Them days is gone and done for good, Cain. . . gone and done I say. You and me saw the beaver go, even from way up in the back country. Buffalo’s goin’ now, and who’d a thought that would ever be? People movin’ out there by the wagon load, like they owned it all. Injuns pullin’ out, or just givin’ up all together, except for a few of the old fighters, the Bad Hearts.
“Always some feller around to say it ain’t so. Your new country will be the same too, Cain, someday after it’s been tamed. We both saw it all comin’ three seasons ago when we come back here to the States. The old days is gone, hoss. . .or quick dyin’ out.”
McToon snorted. His tone sharpened. “They can’t ruin the whole country, Harmon. . .not the whole blasted and total-for-all country.” He slapped the scrubbed table. A fork clattered to the floor. After a quiet moment, McToon said, “I’ll be needin’ the Hawkens worked over.” He nodded at the rifle he’d leaned in a corner. “Take care of it for me?”
“You betcha, pard. Gunsmith I was in the mountains, and can still turn a bore with the best of ‘em.”
After eating, they went out. She heard the whoosh-sah-whoosh of the bellows heating Vern’s forge. Hammer rang on steel and a file rasped. What was McToon saying, now that he had Vern alone?
She felt so helpless and alone now. For the first time in her life she was pitted against a rival that had dug itself into another soul.
As the sun touched shadowed hills westward she heated water in a porcelain basin and sat it outside along with a slab of lye soap. Soon she’d hear him washing for supper. His voice would be pleasant and deep in tuneless humming, then sputtering as he rinsed his face. Then he’d step into the cabin and look around with pride.
He’d built it himself while they lived in a lean to. It had been good to lie down at night on fragrant cedar boughs with the wet, rich smell of clean earth all around. It was even better after the cabin was finished. Often, when she first awoke on some cold morning, she’d sift slowing through memories of their life together, sampling the best and most cherished. Then, with a squeal and a rush, she’d hurl herself at his broad back as he bent to the morning fire and bite through his man-smell of sun and linseed and old work sweat, dust and leather, exulting with his laughter at the new day to be shared.
Steps at the door interrupted her reveries. She turned to greet him with a smile. It froze in place when she saw McToon. Vern followed him in.
“I twisted Cain’s arm to stay the night,” he said and sniffed the air. “What’s for supper, darlin’?”
She forced a smile. “Ain’t much, but you’re welcome of course, Cain.”
McToon glanced at her and a subtle expression flickered across his face, a vague blend of scorn and satisfaction. Anger, sudden and hot, spoke words in her ear that she must not speak.
McToon scraped a chair up to the table. “I hear tell them ‘Paches out where I’m headin’ is some true whoopin’ hoss Injuns,” he said. “A man would need a good pardner to watch the back trail.” He swabbed a crust of thick bread around in his gravy, then leaned closer to Vern.
“’Member the prairie, Vern?” he asked. “Far as a body could see the grass was. . . belly up to a tall mule, wavin’ and whisperin’ soft-like in the wind.” His bony fingers moved as though casting a spell. Vern’s eyes narrowed as McToon continued. “And the wind always a-soughin’ gentle like. Or maybe a-howlin’ and a-screechin’ with the first cold of winter comin’ down from the north. What was it the Injuns called winter?” He cocked his head and squinted at Vern.
“Ghost face,” Vern answered distantly, eyes now narrowed and shadowed.
“That’s it, hoss. Ghost face. And do you ‘member how alone a body felt out there on that big open? Made no difference who you was with, you just kind of went to lookin in on yourself to maybe find some grain of comfort to guard against all that emptiness.”
The old trapper crooned on. “And them mountains, Vern. . .oh, them mountains. ‘Member, hoss? The Lakotahs called ‘em the Backbone of the World, and they’s that for sure, runnin’ ‘cross them plains like the spine of some giant just a-waitin’ to come alive. Made a man step kind of quiet and careful sometimes. ‘Member that high park up on the Yellerstone we found, just you and me? Deer and elk and bear, even some buffalo. And beaver! Lord, didn’t we make ‘em come though! And the buffalo down on the Laramie Plains in the fall? Measured ‘em by the mile. ‘Member how we’d all sit ‘round a good fire of an evenin’, cold and dryin’ out after wadin’ the ponds all day? Course we kept the fire low,” he chuckled, “cause of the damned Blackfeet.”
Beth watched as Vern touched his leg where an arrow had found its mark long ago. Even she felt the touch of McToon’s spell.
“We’d maybe have ourselves some hump meat a-simmerin’ and sputterin’ in all that lonesomeness,” he droned on. “It was like we hadn’t a single care in the whole world. And we didn’t, neither! Even the nations got to be a part of it all, like the grizzlies and mountain cats.”
She was suddenly on her feet, McToon’s mood broken by her chair rattling backwards to the floor. “Damn your eyes to hell,” she shouted at McToon, her hands clenched into white-knuckled fists, voice edged with some cold menace. “I won’t stand for you tryin’. . . tryin’ to—“
“Beth, darlin’,” Vern stammered, eyes wide.
“Don’t you see what he’s tryin’ to do? Don’t you even care?” Her voice trembled, her eyes blazed, and she took a step towards McToon and snapped at him. “What right do you have tryin’ to steal my man away? Get out of my house and don’t never come back!”
Vern touched her shoulder lightly. “This is my house, too,” he said. “And Cain’s a friend.”
“No need for that, ol’ hoss,” McToon muttered. He rose slowly, took up his rifle, and padded from the cabin.
Later that night, while she lay motionless, Vern rose silently from their tense bed. She heard him rustling in the fireplace for an ember, then lay awake in the empty darkness and smelled the aroma of the Indian pipe. Loons called mournfully in the night as she recalled the spell of McToon’s words. For the first time she’d gotten a glimpse of that far away world Vern had loved, still loved surely, but how much?
Hours of tossing and turning brought no sleep. Finally she rose and picked her way through the dark cabin. He was gone from the bench outside. Even the smell of the pipe had drifted off into the night.
First light brought him back, along with a slow drizzle of cold rain.
“Mornin’,” she said.
“Mornin’,” he responded stiffly.
For the rest of the day they suffered while the foolish pride that wouldn’t let them talk burned itself out. By evening some of the tension had eased enough for her to sit next to him at the table with her head on his shoulder.
“You really miss the mountains, don’t you?”
“Now, Beth,” he scolded lightly.
She wouldn’t let herself nag and pester him, nor try to force from him words she longed to hear, that his love was stronger than his wanderlust. She sat quietly as he took her face in his hands.
“Have I ever said a word about goin’ back?” he asked. “A body’d be a fool to give you up, along with all we’ve built here. Choice land. . .plenty of smithin’ for me. . .and give it up for cold, heat, starvin, dyin’ of thirst, hunted and ambushed by Injuns? And all for what? Once a year gettin’ together with a pack of half-wild, evil-smellin’ renegades for a hoo-rah, then back out to freeze, starve and hide another year through?” He gathered a shuddering breath. “Ha! Not for this hoss, and thank you kindly ma’am.”
He’d pulled off his boots and she noticed a hole in the toe of one sock. She went to her darning basket while a thought flowered in her mind. Damp wood popped in the fireplace. While her needle and thimble clicked she nurtured the thought, turned it one way and another with careful scrutiny.
Vern put more wood on the fire. “Did I tell you that ol’ man Ellis is movin’ out to the Oregon country? Said he was plumb fed up with how fenced in it’s getting’ around here. Imagine. . .an ol’ bird like that wantin’ to pick up and start fresh somewheres else.”
“Sounds like lots of folks is headin’ west don’t it?” she asked.
“Well, I suppose there ain’t no need talkin’ ‘bout it,” he answered.
Carefully, slowly, needing time to think, she put the needle and yarn into the basket.
“Vern. . .dearest Vern,” she began. “I’ve never for one second tried to hold you to this place. Have I?”
“Easy enough for some folks to just pick up and leave. . .like Cain.” She could tell that he was more thinking out loud than responding to her. “I just can’t go traipsin’ off again like I ain’t got no ties.”
“Vern, I won’t be a stone around my husband’s neck,” she persisted.
“A body just can’t pick up and go, leavin’ his woman to fend for herself,” he insisted.
She reached out and turned his face to hers. “You can’t. . . we can’t go on this way.” Hot tears welled. “I’d a hundred times over rather lose you than see you gutted like this.”
His eyes focused steady and sharp on her. “But I love you, Beth”
A breathless puff of vagrant wind chugged down the chimney with the smell of wild growing things in its voice. It came again, stronger now, shuffling restlessly under the eaves with some declaration. A flight of wild geese winged overhead, the whistle of their wings distant, then lost in the night.
Beth listened closely.
Vern went to stand in the doorway, head bent, shoulders sagging. She went to him and his arms came around her. How much a part of him the smell of wood smoke and clean open air was.
“You never badgered me, Beth darlin’, but you stopped me just the same.” His voice was husky now. “Three years ago I woke up one mornin’ on the Popo Agee and felt somethin’ was missin’. It was peculiar, ‘cause ‘til then I’d never wanted anything more than I had.” He brushed hair back from her forehead. “But somethin’ was just missin’.” He sighed deeply. “Then I found you.” He held her at arms length. “But this thing in me ain’t never goin’ to let up naggin’, Beth, and I just don’t know what to do.”
She leaned back in his arms, tilted her head to one side, and smiled up at him.
Skinner’s Creek chuckled over polished stones, and the baby ducks gabbled in their deep pool. Tracks of a wagon went away from the clearing, pointed westward into the forest. No one was there to hear the last call of a loon in morning’s first light.
Even the wind had gone elsewhere.