".He fares well who obeys the commands of love, and
whatever he does is pardonable, but he is the coward who does not
dare." -- Chretien de Troyes, Lancelot
My father had beautiful manners, and his father
before him. I don't believe either of them cared for people very much,
but they both adored women. For them women were the whole world and
the promise of it, men being hardly more than rivals in love to be
challenged and defeated. Romantic love, I suppose, was the only kind
of love they ever knew, or even recognized. So far as they were
concerned, men were the second sex and women superior and infinitely
fascinating creatures worthy of an entire lifetime devoted to pleasing
them. When my father was still a very young man a male acquaintance,
attempting to console him for the fickleness of a woman, counseled him
to relax and "play the game." My father's reply to this advice was
that love isn't a game to be played, it's simply the most important
thing there is.
Personally, I never hoped for anything more in life
than a good wife to please, and to please me, and a son to raise up to
be a good man, the way a good man should. It could be I haven't a lot
to offer a woman. Women nowadays love intensity in a man and after
that expressiveness; the strong silent type belongs to history and
Grade B Westerns from the Fifties. My Southern heritage gave me
intensity enough, while my Western upbringing covered it over and
disguised it with reticence and that dry, I guess laconic manner that
used to drive women wild. My second wife called me a stick the night
before she left me, and I still have trouble forgetting that.
Lydia was an Eastern lady. East and West don't lie
well together, according to a saying out here. She came out from L.A.
to Montana with her first husband, who she met in California after
moving West from New York City. He was a movie man, a producer, and
she was a failed actress after only three years in Hollywood. They had
plenty of money and their friends were people like Whoopi Goldberg,
Elizabeth Ashley, and a writer fellow named Tom McGuane. I liked Tom;
he bred the best cutting horses in the country and was a hell of a
hand when it came to working them, too. The others I did not like so
much. I went to work as ranch foreman for her husband with not a lot
to do besides watching his bison herd spread brucellosis around the
neighboring cattle ranches. In addition to growing bison they made
movies too; one time they put me in one. I played Buffalo Bill Cody,
growing out my hair behind and a chin beard in front to look the part.
The movie was never released; in fact it wasn't even finished, but I
kept the beard and the longish hair after Lydia's husband died
suddenly of a heart attack and I became, after a not exactly
appropriate interval, the proprietor of a beautiful wife, six sections
of land, and three-hundred-fifty-six head of buffalo. It is just
possible that nobody really falls in love again after the age of forty
but everybody has to believe in love, especially me, and so I did. It
seemed as if at my age I was getting a final chance. The marriage went
along all right, as marriages go these days, for a couple of years and
then Lydia met a talkative young screenwriter with no money and I
became a stick. I moved down to Wyoming where I spent another couple
of years working as a range detective, and when I got tired of having
potshots taken at me by rustlers and poachers from Salt Lake City I
went on the road in a three-quarter-ton Ford pickup with a camper set
in the bed.
I had been traveling for a year and a half when I
met Jody James, and although I was only fifty-one years old the world I
had been born into a short half-century before had already ceased to
exist. Our meeting occurred at a horse show in Moab, Utah on the
afternoon of a late winter day in the February thaw with a chinook
blowing up from the Gulf of California a thousand miles away. The wind
lifted the horses' tails as they waited to enter the arena and I put
my hand on my hat in time.She accepted the movement as a greeting and
put her horse forward several steps.
"Do I know you?"
" No ma'am. Not as I can recall."
"I know I've seen that hair and goatee somewhere."
I did not say anything. Mounted, she looked tall
and willowy, with a supple long waist I could have spanned with my
hands. And wanted to.
"Are you showing?"
"I could see you know horses from the way you
watched Cortez set his feet. Will you have a drink with me when this
next class is over?"
"This is Mormon country."
"You aren't Mormon are you?"
"I have a bottle of Johnny Walker Black under the
bunk bed in the trailer. I'll see you back here in half an hour then."
She placed second in a class of fourteen entrants.
The horse was a stallion, light bay, strong looking but not tall, with
a strange paddling gait that seemed to throw his front feet to the
side, tortoisewise. We had a drink in the changing room up front of
the horse trailer and a couple more before supper at the restaurant in
Moab. The restaurant was the former home of the first wildcatter to
make a big strike back in the Fifties. Supported by stilts, it hung on
the side of a steep hill above the town. I helped her out of her coat,
drew the chair back from the table, and pushed it in again when she
"You do have such nice manners," Jody James said.
Seated at table against the plateglass window we
drank whiskey and soda while the slickrock cliffs flared in hues of
glowing rose and pink and subsided in folds of purple shadow. She was
a tallish hardlimbed cowgirl with high cheekbones, sea-green eyes, and
straw-colored hair cut off at the shoulderblades and sun-split in the
ends. She had what was left of a good tan, which stopped approximately
where her shirt-collar and cuffs did. Her teeth were white and small
and her expression demure but knowing, a thing I find irresistable in
a woman. I complimented her on the stallion, who she had paid a lot of
money for in Phoenix last summer. He was a Peruvian Paso with a gait
that appeared from the ground to have the smooth action of a
jackhammer but was, she insisted, actually quite level and floating.
"You can take him for a spin if you like," Jody
offered. "Nobody but me and the trainer has ever ridden him."
We ate a green salad and beefsteaks with home fried
potatoes while sharing a bottle of California red wine.
"What a gorgeous sunset," Jody said. "It looks like
the end of the world. Don't you get lonely wandering about with your
house on your back, like a turtle?"
"It's better than having no house at all."
"Haven't you ever been married?"
"The same thing that happens with every divorce. A
world died. That's all."
"You sound bitter. Are you?"
"No," I said. "I'm not bitter."
The waiter brought two heated cognacs and we drank
them with coffee for dessert. When we had finished I brought the truck
around to the front of the restaurant and got out to hold the
passenger door. In town the shadowed bungalows crouched under the bare
hanging branches of the cottonwoods and the brushy Navajo willows. The
glare of the passing arc lights lit the near hemisphere of her face
for seconds at a time before letting it relapse into shadow in the
darkness between the light poles.
"Are you always so communicative with women?" Jody
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be unfriendly."
"You're not unfriendly."
"It's been a long time. That's all."
She directed me across Spanish Valley to the house
where she was staying over, one of those modular homes they ship in
slices like the two halves of a cake and glue together again on
location. There was a light on beside the door and a ristra hanging
"Ristras up here in Moab? And Christmas was months ago."
"Ristras are a matter of the heart, not of
geography. You can have ristras anywhere you want them, anytime."
"What about mistletoe?"
"So far as I know," Jody said, "I don't have a drop
of Spanish blood in my veins, but I'm terribly responsive to ristras."
We shared our first kiss under a cluster of dried
red chili peppers rustling on a warm wind out of Mexico and then I
drove back into town and across the Colorado River. I found a jeep
trail winding into the deeper canyons and followed it for a mile or so
before parking the truck in a salt cedar thicket. A thousand feet in
the sky the pudding shaped Navajo sandstone glowed pale against the
stars in the moonlight. I climbed up in the camper, got under the
woolen blanket on the bunk bed, and lay there, thinking. After a
while, listening to the early tree frogs croaking in the cottonwoods
beside the creek, I fell asleep.
I can be gabby as a politician at a Chamber of
Commerce banquet if I don't have to talk about myself. Look around
you, if you can bear it, and see what is happening in the world. I
don't understand it all myself, but I feel more than I understand, and
I know that at the heart of it is the relationship between men and
women. Everywhere you look there is a huge sadness and even suffering,
especially among people who do not know that they are sad and
suffering. Everywhere people are lonely and alone, and those who are
most alone are those who cannot understand that they are lonely.
Everywhere they are confused, and their confusion tells them they have
nothing to be confused about. They are unhappy with themselves, and
with each other. Love has grown hateful as hate is elevated to a form
of love. Chivalry is considered oppression, and valor something that
earns you five million bucks a year working for the Denver Broncos.
God is still love if you want Him to be, I guess, but there isn't any
question that love has been made God. The great cities are growing
back into wilderness, and the wilderness is being bulldozed and paved
for multimillion-dollar playgrounds for the wealthy and suburban lots
and highways for everyone else. Even nature has been thrown out of
balance to produce blizzards in July and drought in winter time. The
only good I can see in all this is that I'm not a young man anymore,
though young enough still to please Jody James--in the short run,
anyway. And even that's good enough.
Only a little snow fell in southeastern Utah that
year and most of that little melted out of the mountains by the second
week in April except for the colls high on the northern aspects of the
tallest peaks. The melted snow soaked into the talus slopes until it
found the solid rock and ran downhill beneath the scree to the edge of
the rockfall where it burst in waterspouts into the streambeds carved
out of the tundra among sparse stunted trees. Sluicing through ravines
shaded by the tall pines the water reached the aspen forests and
spread itself in shallow torrents, washing the thin soil from around
the roots and suckers and tearing out whole colonies of the tender
trees. Below the aspen the flood recovered its channels as it entered
the pinon and juniper covered foothills, undercutting banks and
engorging toppled masses of red clay and sand until the water
thickened at last to a flow of liquid mud, meandering across sagebrush
flats toward the canyon of the Colorado and dropping by a series of
tepid falls until at last it poured itself out into the great river.
And so the house and power boaters on Lake Powell, the water skiers
and striped bass fisherman, had enough water to play in, for one more
summer at least.
Even before the drought what we had instead of
winter in the Southwest meant that when spring arrived it left you
with a feeling of not having earned it, although I didn't know
this--having been raised on a cattle ranch in the Animas Valley of the
New Mexico bootheel where my grandfather, Charles Jamieson Ryder, knew
George Scarborough, Pat Garrett, and met John Wesley Hardin and John
Henry Selden on occasion--until I had lived up north for some time.
There are exceptions, like the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northern
New Mexico and the San Francisco Mountains above Flagstaff, Arizona.
Still, the Southwest, as a general rule, doesn't have a winter, only
an eerie monotony of weather and temperature rising gradually from
midwinter into late spring by which time, like the frog in the
saucepan, you're cooked without having been made aware of the fact, if
you haven't already been worn to a toothpick by the sandstorms.
You would have said to look at it that the Bar Nun
Ranch belonged to a Hollywood movie star. The house was a two-storey
timber and stucco affair with a skylight in the pitched roof, a portal
running on three sides, and a flagstone patio behind. The lawns
extended as far as the apple orchard between the house and the creek,
and the bunkhouse off by itself beneath the aged cottonwoods. Beyond
the bunkhouse were the barns, the stables, the horse corrals, and a
riding arena surrounded by a low stucco wall, white-painted and
sweeping up to make an enclosing frame for the heavy wooden entrance
gate. The blue mountains went straight up behind the house, which
faced across the green valley to the sheer vermilion cliffs falling
fifteen hundred feet. Herds of Angus and Brangus cattle grazed in the
valley and now, in spring, flocks of boattailed grackels settled on
the freshly turned alfalfa fields. Fifteen years before Jody and her
husband, the late Mr. James, purchased the spread from the oldtimer
who had been born on it and, for a half-century or more, ran a few
poor head of cattle while hauling logs from the mountains in winter
time. For nearly ten years they lived in a two-room cabin built from
the unsold logs while the two of them, working alone, reclaimed the
surrounding fields from the salinity produced by the old man's lousy
irrigation practices. It took them a year and a half to build the new
house which was completed ten months before Mr. James was killed when
the horse he was breaking fell over backwards with him. By now the Bar
Nun had become the most prosperous and financially sound outfit in
southeastern Utah, and every millionaire tourist from California had
advised the James's answering machine that he had fallen in love with
the property at first sight and must have it, adding that money was no
obstacle for him at all. In the more than two years since her
husband's death Jody had been hanging on with the help of Dago
O'Grady, a dour Irishman and professional cowboy who had worked as the
Bar Nun's foreman for eighteen months before the accident, and an
octogenarian sheepherder called Whitey who wore his beard as far down
as his waist. Dago won his nickname by sticking a shiv between the
ribs of the man the prosecution claimed was trying to move in on
Dago's girlfriend; I never learned what his real name was. A black
Irishman, short and stocky, with the temperament of a rattlesnake or a
little man with a big gun, he made a competent foreman, getting
seriously drunk only three or four times a year in a calculated and
deliberate manner, the way some people visit spas or go on religious
retreats. When I asked Jody why Dago didn't care for me she said it
was a remark I had made about Brangus cows, which you couldn't give me
for an April Fool's Day present. I had been living on the Bar Nun for
a week when I backed the pickup into a shed, drained the water pipes
and the tank in the camper, unscrewed the gas lines, slid the unit
from the truck bed, and left it resting on two-by-fours on the packed
dirt floor with only the mice and the snakes for company.
We were up before daybreak and on the way to the
barns while the sun was still trying to get above the headwall and the
canyon lay submerged in a substantial twilight that was more like
water than air. In the light of a naked sixty-watt bulb we threw down
hay bales from the loft, cut the string with my pocketknife, and stuck
the separate flakes under the long faces of the horses waiting in
their box stalls along the cement runway. Jody helped Whitey nurse the
bum lambs while I carried away the carcasses of the ones that had died
during the night and fed the dogs, the half-feral ones hanging back
and watching with slit yellow eyes as I set the food out in iron pans.
We looked at the calves in the calf pens, and then I made Jody show me
the fainting goats. The goats lived in a shed of their own at a
distance from the barns, away from surprises. They stood close
together watching us approach and when I yelled BOOOOO! three or four
would keel over in terror and lie unconscious on the ground for
several minutes before they woke up screaming with fright, while the
rest milled and bleated. The fainting goats were always the best part
of early morning. After visiting with them we returned to the house
for breakfast, which we had on the patio with our backs to the
climbing sun. We ate a light meal, scrambled eggs with green chili,
toast and jam, some kind of fresh fruit, and black coffee with a shot
of whiskey. Before we could finish eating the slickrock cliffs turned
glaring red above the house, radiating a dry heat across the valley.
We were in the saddle until early afternoon when we
had lunch and a short siesta before doing paperwork and making phone
calls. Jody, who was feuding with the government men in Monticello,
did the calling while I reviewed the books with a pocket calculator.
It was more or less like trying to catch a bank examiner out in a
trivial error. In those several months I uncovered only two or three
mistakes, one of which turned out on closer inspection to be my own.
We ate supper at six, washed up the dishes, did the evening chores,
and sat on the patio in the evening cool to drink whiskey and listen
to the purple vetch growing in the meadow while the sun went down
behind the Henry Mountains a hundred miles away, the bullbats dived at
our heads, and the early mosquitoes whined. Some evenings I would
bring out the old nickle-plated harmonica and play the old Irish songs
and ballads--"The Harp That Once on Tara's Halls," "The Green Isle of
Erin," and "Kathleen Mavourneen," which Jody liked the best.
"It's such a sad song," she said. "But what does it
"No one knows that I ever heard of. My thinking is
an Irish politician has been summoned to London expecting to be put in
the Tower and maybe have his head cut off. He is up early and goes to
look at his wife who is sleeping still in a fourposter bed in her
separate room--grateful for her peace of mind but hurt because she
hasn't awakened early to tell him goodbye. 'It may be for years, and
it may be forever,' he says."
"It's the saddest song I think I ever heard. It
makes me want to cry whenever you play it."
"If you wish, I'll work on playing and singing it
for you at the same time."
For two months we didn't go into town at all and we
were hardly ever out of one another's company. Jody gave me her
Stephen King novels to read and I taught her to backbraid rope.
Finally she cut my hair and insisted that I shave my beard after I had
allowed both to start growing back.
"You look just exactly like Buffalo Bill," she
complained. "In his later years."
"Is that bad? Lydia liked it."
"You've given me one more good reason why I don't."
"I actually look more like my namesake, the
Confederate cavalry officer."
"I didn't even know who Jeb Stuart was until you
told me. And why would the two of you men want to look like
We were in love, Jody with the wild infatuation of
her lingering youth, me in my cautious middle-aged way that comes from
having learned--too late, perhaps--that love always exacts patience
and hard work in addition to gratitude and contentment. If it sounds
like a dull life, then probably both of us should have been watching
The early heat brought the snakes out of
hibernation and into the shubbery and the flower beds. We were always
coming across them on the patio and coiled against the supporting
posts of the portal. On a rare morning when Jody was sleeping in I
discovered an old rattler, over five feet long and as big around as my
thigh at the middle, dozing under a chaise longue when I came outside
to drink a cup of coffee. I kicked the chair and he oiled slowly from
beneath it, testing with his tongue ahead of himself and swaying his
dusty head from side to side. A garden rake stood against the house
wall. I went for it and hazed him gently across the warming flagstone.
"Get along now," I told the snake. "I don't want
you making unnecessary trouble in this place. It's a good life here
and I won't stand for anything to mess it up."
His yellow eyes glinted as he went in sinuous
curves toward the grass.
"Keep going" I said, "and for as long as you behave
yourself and don't come around here making mischief I won't hurt you.
You can take that as a promise. You understand?"
He slipped off the edge of the patio and into the
long grass beyond the fence and I returned the rake to its place
against the wall. I saw him several times again that spring, never on
the patio or anywhere very close to the house.
In the weeks before we took the cattle up to the
hills Dago O'Grady spent much of his time on a bench above the side
canyon south of the ranch, dragging together the skeletons of the
pinon and juniper trees he and Jody had chained two years before and
firing them in piles. After two years the boughs, turned a reddish
brown, were volatile as kerosene. Several days out of the week the
thick blue smoke rose in nearly straight columns into a sky of a
deeper blue, paling through shades of gray before thinning away in the
glare of the spring sun overhead. Each day around noon the columns
tilted suddenly, bulged, and toppled to the east as the afternoon
winds hit them, then diminished sharply when Dago damped the fires. On
an afternoon in the second week the columns instead of dying back
continued rolling higher and thicker in separating coils that
flattened finally to lay a pall of smoke over the bench, a lake of
smoke extending almost to the base of the mountains. Jody stepped out
of the house to view the smoke from the back yard. Then she tried
paging Dago on the cell phone. "Damn it," she exclaimed, "I've told
him a hundred times to carry the phone with him when he leaves the
truck. You can bet he's packing iron though. Would you drive up there,
Jeb, and tell him to damp those fires immediately? If the forest
gestapo were to see that they'd snatch my burn permit, pronto."
I eased the truck through her flock of prize bantam
chickens, taking care not to flatten any of them, and across the ford
south of the house. The water still ran high and fast in the creek,
rising into the wheel wells and soaking the brakes. I drove slow for a
mile in the sandy road while I pumped them dry. The canyon floor,
stretching wide at the mouth, was green with the new spring grasses
and the freshened prickly pear. Desert flowers bloomed between the
spaced sage bushes: Indian paintbrush, purple gentian, something
egg-yellow and sticky looking, too common to have a name. The road
followed in the dry wash a few miles before climbing out and
switchbacking through sandstone rubble up to the bench. Ahead a couple
of miles still Dago's inferno continued to send billows of smoke
against the mountain front. I stepped on the accelerator pedal and ran
a golden eagle off the carcass of a yearling deer it had been feeding
on. In the towing mirror I watched as he climbed out over the abyss of
the canyon, circled back, and lighted on the carcass again.
Dago O'Grady sat at a distance from his truck on a
red jerry can, observing the nearest fire. He raised his hand as if to
wave as I drove up and pulled his hatbrim over his eyes. I set the
parking brake and climbed out of the truck.
"Jody tried calling you on the cell phone."
"Forgot it, I guess, this mornin when I was leavin
The flames were bent nearly parallel with the
ground and overhead the smoke was thick with sparks.
"I've been asked to request you to damp the fires
down. Wind's up," I added, in case he hadn't noticed.
"Don't she know we're puttin cows up here in less'n
"I would assume she does. They're her cows."
He rose suddenly and stood scowling at the fire.
"Hell," O'Grady said contemptuously, "there ain't
no danger in it."
"If you had the cell phone with you, you could call
and discuss it with her."
O'Grady lifted the jerry can and held it a little
forward as he stared longingly into the fire. "They's another extinguisher in back of the truck," he said finally.
We damped the fires and cleared the ground
surrounding them of duff and twigs. I brought my canteen from the
pickup and offered it to him.
O'Grady gave the canteen a suspicious look before
accepting it and taking a long drink. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve
and handed it back.
"I need to be getting back," I said.
"To where? Wyomin?"
"Home," I told him.
His eyes burned holes in the back of my head as I
walked to the truck. The man resented me--more accurately, he resented
my presence on the Bar Nun Ranch--and I hadn't been able yet to figure
why, not that I cared a tart's last trick. I steered a tight circle
around a boulder and into the single-track without looking back. The
eagle flew up from the dead deer beside the road and the lake of
smoke, pushed by the wind, had started to spread around the mountain.
No one patrolling out here for the Bureau of Land Management or the
Forest Service could miss seeing it.
The heat came too soon again in early May. The
creek dried up except for a trickle meandering between pools of water,
the snow vanished from the mountains, and on the desert the surface
water disappeared except in the most protected places. The sun, rising
well north of the mountains, poured itself into the canyon each
morning, flooding it with a terrific heat.
We were at the barns before five now to finish
the chores in the cool dawn and in bed an hour past sunset, taking
with us a bottle of chilled wine and two glasses. The coolness came
quickly after the sun was down and we would lie in bed with the swamp
cooler shut off and the casement windows pushed out, drinking wine and
listening to the sounds of crickets in the flower beds, the tree frogs
in the cottonwoods along the dried-up creek, and the coyotes having
hysterics in the foothills. We would talk for a while, going over the
day and enjoying the wine until it was no longer cold, and then put
out the lights and enjoy one another beneath the single sheet.
Afterward we slept close and well until just before first light, when
I went to the kitchen to start the coffee pot and Jody showered. Being
friends in addition to the other thing we had got beyond the ecstasy
and settled down to being happy -- not the sort of happiness that
makes you fear an unexpected diagnisis of cancer but happiness of the
serene kind, the kind that comes from a sense of the wholeness, the
absolute rightness, of it all. The monsoon season was more than a
month off still and the weather, in spite of the heat, continued
perfect. Except for the drought we had no worries, and no bad thoughts
at all to think.
Jody worked the show horse three-quarters of an
hour daily in the walled arena beside the house. Cortez knew nothing
about cows and gave every sign of not wanting to know anything. Jody
said Peruvian pasos and Pasos finos were becoming very popular in the
Southwestern United States; she was considering establishing a
bloodline of her own and realizing a profit on it. When I failed to
light up like a Christmas angel at the idea she took me down to the
stables for a test drive. The rotating shoulder blades and the
forelegs paddling sideways were, if anything, more disconcerting from
the saddle than when viewed from the ground, but she had been right
about the smoothgaitedness. The comparison with the land tortoise
miffed her at first but it also amused her, and pretty soon she was
using it herself to the point where Tortuga became the horse's
nickname, outside of his hearing. Not, it seemed to me, that he gave a
damn. I accompanied them when she showed. By the Fourth of July the
three of us had traveled some thousands of miles together into
Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico, sharing, Jody and I, the bunk bed
in the horse trailer and later, when we became tired of sleeping on
top of each other, renting a motel room while Tortuga boarded at a
local stables. Dago O'Grady in our absence, with the help of seasonal
Navajos hired from Tohatchi, New Mexico, on the reservation, kept the
home fires burning. Though Jody insisted that Dago was entirely
responsible, after two or three days away from the Bar Nun she seemed
eager to be getting home again, and I was usually ready myself. When
you've spent as many years of your life wandering as I have, just
being on the road doesn't seem like a world cruise anymore.
There are no holidays in the ranching business and
almost no vacations either. Some days you find ways to enjoy the work
a little more than other days, and always you're on the lookout for
the opportunity to put business together with pleasure. On a morning
before or after Memorial Day Jody packed a picnic dinner and a magnum
bottle of red wine and we drove into the mountains to supply Whitey up
in sheep camp and have a look at the cattle ponds. I drove slowly in
the dirt track, stopping now and then to allow Jody to glass for
stragglers and measure the height of the grasses after the cattle had
been through. The Bar Nun's grazing lease out here went until July
first, but she was already worrying the cows might have to come off
well before then on account of the drought.
Sheep camp was in a park among aspen, above the
black timber. In the high country the white trunks surmounted by
trembling green leaves rose straight into the blue sky from a carpet
of arrowleaf balsam flowering yellow on the moist purple ground. The
musky odor of balsam mixed with the rank one of the sheep milling
through the trees and across the park, tended by the dogs. Whitey's
old horse, under saddle and with the bridle and reins hanging from the
saddlehorn, stood tied off to the hay wagon. It turned to look over
its shoulder at the truck grinding uphill in the steep trail, and then
away. Blue smoke trailed from the wired chimney in the roof of the
herder's wagon. I stopped a few feet from the wagon and Jody and I
began taking boxes of canned goods from the truckbed. The horse,
showing a renewed interest in the supply operation, looked around
again and nickered. Everything was unloaded on the ground in front of
the wagon when the wagon door opened and Whitey peered out. He had on
antique chaps over torn blue jeans and his beard showed very white
against the front of his purple shirt.
"You didn't hear us drive up?"
He cupped a hand behind one ear.
He held a blackened pipe between his teeth and, in
the other hand, a book.
"Where do you want these supplies to go?"
Whitey took the hand away from his ear.
"Bring em on in here."
"Okay, boss," I told him.
He stood away from the door while we carried the
boxes in. There wasn't room enough in the wagon for everything we had
brought. We set the rest of the supplies in the balsam plants
underneath the wagon and covered them with a tarpaulin to keep the
rain from getting in, if there ever was any rain.
"How are you, Whitey?"
"Getting lonely for you up here yet?"
"What are you reading?"
"Book about me."
Twenty years ago when he was still on the rodeo
circuit a journalist from Denver had interviewed him for a book he was
writing called The Last Cowboys. When the book was eventually
published the author sent Whitey a copy inscribed with his signature
and a page notation to look up. All that had been saved from the
one-hour interview was a paragraph where Whitey, expressing contempt
for animal rights activists back East, proposed that they be traded to
the ayatollah for the American hostages in Iran. Jacketless and
rainspotted, its pages dog-eared, thumb-worn, and already yellowing,
the book was the sole worldly possession, beyond his horse, his rifle,
and the cracked and stiffened chaps, the old man showed any attachment
"Is that the only book you ever read in your life,
"I don't remember."
He took his finger from the pages and laid the book
carefully on top of the bunk bed.
Whitey gave us what was left of the coffee he had
been keeping warm on the wood stove. The coffee was mostly grounds,
strong enough to tan leather and tasting like sheep dip. Obviously he
was hoping we would keep company with him a while, but Jody was
impatient to investigate the cattle ponds. As we were going he took a
bundle of pelts tied up with rawhide from under the bed and handed
them to her.
"The bounty on coyotes isn't much these days,
"Hold onto em til it goes up again then."
Jody accepted the pelts with a sick expression and
we went outside and got in the truck. Whitey stood watching from the
wagon door as we drove off down the mountain. The pelts between us on
the seat smelled terrible.
"What's he bother skinning out the damn coyotes
for?" I asked.
"They're supposed to be his whiskey money next
"If he makes a fair trade the whiskey's going to be
It was midafternoon when we reached the ponds,
bulldozed depressions half filled with stale red water impounded
behind earthen cofferdams. The ponds were dug in a series of
connecting parks among juniper forests overlooked by turrets and
spires of purple sandstone eroded to fantastical shapes. Dusty and hot
from driving at ten miles an hour with the windows down, we spent the
rest of the afternoon checking the dams. Jody's face and her bare
throat were rimed with salt from the evaporated perspiration.
"They should hold through next spring at the very
least, don't you think?"
"Unless we have an unusually wet winter this year."
"It isn't going to be a wet winter."
"How do you know?"
"The yellowjackets are building their nests close
to the ground this year."
"Last year they built them high up and we still
didn't get any snow to speak of."
"Ask the weather man then."
"I will not. They're all environmentalist stooges."
"Environmentalist" was the worst thing Jody could
think to say about a person. Having a fairly wide green streak myself
I prefer to keep to the center of the road, but it's no good trying to
argue it with ranchers. Loving someone is being able to hold your
tongue about the one thing in a hundred you disagree on. A lot of
folks don't seem up to it, though.
Six miles ahead a trail branching from the main
track went west across the meadow toward a ragged line of trees.
Beyond the meadow the forest pressed close against the trail on both
sides. The trees grew thickly but so low you could look above them to
the horizon where the sun was descending through shades of purple,
gold, and copper. Pine boughs dragged on the truck doors and Jody drew
her elbow in through the window. The trees thinned and then we were
beyond the forest, riding on caprock that ended abruptly end thirty
yards ahead. I stopped the truck and looked at her.
"Follow along the rim and I'll tell you when to
She called halt at a stricken pine tree leaning
from a fracture in the rimrock and we got out and unloaded the picnic
"I must look a mess, Jody said.
"Yes ma'am. You do."
"You're no Beau Brummel yourself. We need to wash
up before we eat."
"We can't wash. I didn't bring the water barrel."
"We don't need the water barrel. Come on. I'm going
to show you something."
"What are you going to show me?"
"Something you'll like. Don't sound so
"I'm not apprehensive. I just don't like to be
Jody led me to the cliff edge and pointed.
"Look down there."
The cliff formed the headwall of a narrow box
canyon arranged in levels of opposing terraces with box elder, scrub
oak, and ponderosa pine growing close against the sheer rock walls.
The canyon, cutting raggedly west, became lost in the maze of red and
purple slickrock, swales and domes of yellow and white sandstone, and
the wilderness of wild forms carved from the level plateau stretching
along the horizon.
"Down there--a little to the right of that bush.
"I don't see anything."
"It doesn't show very well from up here. You can
see better from the ledge."
"The one just below us."
"You're going to climb down there?"
"I am," she said, "and you are too."
A game trail several inches wide, scored with the
tracks of deer and small rodents, descended ahead of us, a scratch on
the cliff face.
"You go ahead," Jody suggested, "and I'll follow
Carefully setting one boot ahead of the other I
started down, clutching at small bushes and rock outcrops.
"You're off the trail!" Jody called when I had
descended fifty or sixty feet.
I looked up thoughtlessly, out and down--and after
that I didn't look again but held my eyes on the faint, almost
illusory trace beneath my shuffling boots. Jody was behind me
somewhere, dainty and surefooted as a desert pig. Love can be downhill
work sometimes, especially in cowboy boots. The polished leather soles
slid and slipped on the loose gravel. I caught hold of a bush growing
from a fissure above my head and swung outward like a window cleaner
hanging from a skyscraper as my feet searched to recover the firm
"Jeb!" Jody cried, "be careful!"
I had a sickening view of treetops revolving slowly
on the canyon floor a thousand feet below before I found the trail
again and let go the bush, which snapped back with a cracking sound.
"Go on," Jody urged. "Just a few more yards and
you'll be there."
She caught up on the edge of the tinaja. Vaulted by
the sweating rock and holding water to a depth of about two feet it
was a natural bath tub sunk in the floor of a shallow cave. Jody
pushed forward from behind, unfastening her jeans at the waist and
beginning to unbutton her blouse. She shucked her clothes on the stone
floor and sat on the edge of the basin with her white legs in the
"It's delicious," she said, and slipped all the way