Published onThursday, July 7, 2011
By Diana Wagman
Vernon Whitman stood on top of the big rock and took off his battered Stetson, the better to feel the breeze in his hair. He spread his arms. The cottonwood trees were in their full green glory. Bright, early morning sun glittered in the leaves. Wild flowers burst like yellow fireworks across the plain. In the distance the monoliths of red stone stood guard, marking the boundary of his territory. It was the second week of June and the country was as beautiful as it would ever be and he was the master of all he could see. He was alone and beholden to no one, equipped with enough food and gear to make his life on the trail easy. He clambered down into the cool, moist canyon where he kept his bedroll, the rock walls still holding on to their winter chill.
The only thing he was missing was his horse. Dottie was a pinto, brown and white, with a star shaped blaze between her shiny eyes. She'd been stolen from him and he aimed to get her back and soon. There was an empty, loose feeling where she belonged, as if his boots had no place to go without her stirrups. He had just sat down to drink another cup of coffee and contemplate his best course of action when a ways away he heard the muffled sound of men. His well-trained ears heard the voices getting closer, whispering to each other in a language he did not understand. Vernon snuck up over the walls of his adopted cave and lay flat on the rock, prone but ready. A small band of three young Indians came into view. Their soft-soled shoes made no noise in the dust, but they kept talking and one of them, a tall fellow with a shaved head and beads hanging from his ears, laughed high and loud. The others hushed him nervously. They were all grinning. Vernon knew they were up to no good. A hunting party would not be so noisy—'unless they were hunting something more sinister than breakfast.
He could have let them go on about their business, but Vernon had a bad feeling. There were many things that he let pass him by. He might be master of this particular universe, but he was not interested in the couple he came across down in the hollow pretending the spring weeds were their marital bed. Or the more than one man and even a woman who chose to relieve themselves behind a tree or a rock. Or the woman who came and let her two pet cats go into the woods and then turned and ran from them. The abandoned kitties were not his problem. The human waste did not bother him, although he was careful to dig a hole and cover his own droppings. The couple was mostly amusing until the girl's shrill finishing left him with an awkward feeling in his gut. These Indians were different and he knew he had to follow them.
The leader had a knife and Vernon suspected the others were also armed with knives tucked into their buckskin pants under their woven shirts. The sun was rising quickly and where the trees gave way the yellow light pooled on the path as if spilling from the sky. Way up ahead, he saw a figure moving quickly in his direction. A girl. She was running toward him, passing from shade into light, shade to light, again and again. Her light brown hair had come loose out of her bun and streamed behind her. She had a little smile on her flushed pretty face, he saw she was moving for the joy of it, not away from anything or toward anything else, but just because it felt so good to run.
The Indians had seen her too. They got quiet. They slipped into the shadows and hid. Vernon hurried forward, past them, beyond the bend in the trail that would dump her right into their ambush. He waited, then reached out and grabbed her as she went past, one hand over her mouth to keep her from screaming, his other hand taking hold of both her small wrists as she flailed. He pulled her behind a rock.
"Shh," he whispered. "I'm not gonna hurt you."
Her eyes were wide and frightened and a rich, dark brown like Dottie's. He smiled at her and nodded.
"I mean it," he said. "I'm protecting you. Look."
He showed her through the trees where the Indians had come forward on the path, puzzled that she was not there. The leader threw his knife in a tree out of anger or frustration. Vernon felt the girl's sharp gasp beneath his palm. He could fight these Indians and win, but he was all for avoiding a fight if he could. It wasn't cowardice, just good common sense. Where there were three Indians, there were probably more and killing these would just bring down the wrath of the rest.
The leader collected his knife and all of them trotted back down the path in the direction they had come. Looking for another victim, Vernon supposed, but heck, it wasn't his job to keep the whole countryside safe. He let go of the girl.
"Did you have to grab me?" She leapt to her feet and away from him. "You scared me to death."
"Better than what those Indians had in mind."
"Indians." She looked him up and down with her hands on her hips.
Vernon felt his own cheeks redden. He was embarrassed to be caught in the clothes he had slept in; his chambray shirt and worn jeans were not the cleanest. This girl made him aware it had been awhile since he'd had a bath. He straightened his hat on his head and nodded. "Look like Cherokee to me. Did you see that one with the shaved head?"
"I didn't rightly recognize their particular dialect, but—'"
"You mean, Spanish?"
It hadn't sounded like Spanish to him. This girl didn't know the first thing about Indians. She was mad at him for saving her and now she was frowning at him.
"So where was a girl like you running to?" he asked her. "So early of a morning. What were you thinking?"
"What's wrong with exercising?"
"Nothing, I reckon—'if you're prepared for the consequences."
She shrugged. She was pretty, damn near the prettiest girl he'd seen in a long time, but he couldn't tell if her mind was mixed up or if she was just a pure innocent soul.
He took his hat off and circled it in his hands, then he looked at her again. "You could at least say thank you."
"Thank you," she said. "You're right. I'm sorry. Thank you."
She looked past him down the path. He saw her itching, ready to get going. Vernon hadn't spoken to a person, much less a woman, in a long, long time. So long he couldn't remember back that far.
"Cup of coffee?" he asked. "I got my fire going."
She was startled at his request. He knew he'd been bold, but he didn't want to let her go, not yet.
"I can't," she said.
"Your folks expecting you?"
"I have a job. I have to get to work."
"Oh. Okay then." The disappointment came in like a cloud in front of his eyes. Then he thought, if she had a job it meant she wasn't married.
"What do you—'" he started to ask her what she did, but she interrupted him.
"How do you live?" she asked. "Do you have any money?"
"I don't think that's any of your business."
Just like a woman, to want him working in a bank, holed up in some building somewhere. Most of them only cared if a man had a good job and a regular paycheck. He was sorry to think she was like that too. She reached down into her small white shoe and pulled out a bill. Five dollars it looked like. She handed it to him. Her hand was little and the skin looked rough, dry. Wherever she worked, she used those hands. Maybe she did laundry for people. She bit her nails too, he could see that.
It was his turn to step away from her. "No. No, thank you kindly. I got some pesos stashed away." He did not take money from women.
"Can I bring you some food later? A sandwich?"
"You inviting me for supper?"
"I thought I'd bring you lunch."
"Well," he said. "That'd be right nice."
"Good." She turned to go. Her hair was messy but shiny against her pale neck, strands of blonde and red and brown all mixed together. She wore some kind of tight leg coverings and not much else.
"You shouldn't go around these woods half-dressed," he said.
She laughed and her teeth were white and straight and just the right size in her little mouth. "How will I find you?"
"How about we meet up right here? I got some chores to do this morning."
He nodded. "Want me to walk you home?"
"I'm fine. There are plenty of people out now."
He hadn't noticed before, but at her mention he was aware they were practically surrounded. Two men were trotting toward them. A woman looked him up and down as she walked past pushing her baby in a carriage. There were a couple of young people drinking coffee sitting on a rock down aways. The sage had gotten positively full of folks. He hunched his shoulders as he turned away. The times were changing. He needed to go further, deeper into the brush, the rocks, the canyons. Far away.
"Bye," she called, but he was too preoccupied to do more than raise his hand. The noise was louder. He'd been hearing it more often lately, a rushing sound, a woosh, a roar almost like thunder but lower and constant. The vibration in his ears woke him up at night. It was just over there, just out of sight, but when he came over the hill expecting a waterfall or at least a river flowing by, there was just more of the same dust and leaves and rocks and trees. Where was this grumbling coming from? It was like a train that never stopped.
Vernon knew from experience that things were not always what they appeared to be. That had been the story of his life: the father who acted happy and said nice things to him in public but shook his head when they were alone. Who always told him what he saw was wrong. Always wrong. His father, who acted happy to return, but who did not love him-did not even like him. Hated him, in fact, and had arranged for rustlers to steal Dottie. He knew it. He had recognized one of the outlaws, a big man dressed in white and black. He'd seen his father speaking to him at the house one day right before Vernon left.
For a time Vernon had been with some other horseless cowboys. They had camped together, traveled the range together, but they were not truthful men. He caught one of them taking money from his saddlebag. They said they'd help him get Dottie back, but when he outlined his plan they refused to cooperate. He took off on his own after that and he did not miss them.
He had gone north and west the day before searching for the man in black and white who had taken Dottie. Today he was aiming to cover south and west. It was slow- going, but he was being thorough. He assumed she was hidden in a herd somewhere, or locked in a barn out of sight. He hoped she hadn't been sold off to a tribe of Indians or some rancher heading out to the Wyoming Territory.
He drank the dregs of his coffee and put out the fire. He hid his bedroll and supplies back under the rocks. He rearranged things so it wouldn't look like he was camping there at all. He knew his father was looking for him, but he also knew he was good at staying hid. He headed out toward town, toward his father's house, but he had to go this way. He had no choice.
Anyway, it was hard to stay worried on such a fine day when he had met such a pretty young woman. He grinned all alone in the sunlight. And then he laughed. He would pick some of those wild flowers for her and get back to camp early to tidy up. His path led him along the edge of the cottonwood trees. He saw more evidence of man here, refuse and forgotten items of clothing, plenty of footprints. He walked slower now, more carefully, trying to be as silent as one of them Indians. Town was just beyond that row of bushes. He knew Dottie was nearby. He could feel the warmth of her hide on the inside of his legs, hear the creak of the saddle just like he was riding her. His hands curled around the reins in his mind.
"There!" a man shouted. "There he is!"
The man in black and white and two others came crashing through the trees. Being as they were inferior horsemen, they were on foot and Vernon turned and ran. If he could get above them, he could kill them all. His hand went to his holster. Where was his pistol? What had happened to it? Those bastards must've stolen it with Dottie, confused his mind so he thought he still had it. He could outrun 'em. He knew the sage better than anyone. The man in black and white was tending toward fat. Already Vernon could hear him breathing hard, huffing and puffing, in and out. In and out.
"Whitman! Stop!" the man struggled to cry out.
Vernon laughed as he climbed the hill above him. "You come and get me!" He kept climbing and laughing. This was easy. He would leave them in his dust.
"You can't live out here all alone."
That was his father's voice. Vernon stopped. He looked back. His father was silhouetted against the sun, Monument Valley towering behind him. Vernon's gut twisted. The rushing sound, the roar got louder. Instead of simply sending his henchmen, his dad had come to find him.
"Return my horse to me," Vernon hollered. "That's all I ask."
"If you'll come over here, I will."
Vernon hesitated. The men and his father had stopped too, the man in black and white leaning against a tree getting his breath. They were waiting for him down at the bottom of the hill.
"Where's my horse?" he called.
"Come down. Come down and see."
He knew that old ruse. He looked out the other way. The sage went on and on. His home. His kingdom. Right here, right at his feet there were flowers as yellow as the sunshine. He reached down and picked a handful for her, for the girl. He would just go back to camp. He would look for Dottie tomorrow. He started away forgetting his father was there. Forgetting the man in black and white. He was thinking about the girl and her smile and wondering if he could make her laugh. If he went back now, he might have time to clean up some in the pond. There was always someone at the pond that would stare at him as he washed his face and his hair, sometimes his feet, but he couldn't help that. He wanted to look nice for her. He was hungry, and he hoped she would bring something good for lunch. The hardtack and dried meat he ate every day was getting tiring.
He stumbled once on the top of the hill, then he squared his hat and kept going.
"Whit!" His father's nickname for him. "For Christ's sake, look around!"
Vernon turned. His father. He might probably never see him again.
"Look," his father said. "Out there. What is that?"
His father pointed out above the trees. The red rocks wavered, for a moment they became gray and menacing.
Something giant lumbered past, rolling through the trees.
A caravan of wagons and coaches. Where were all the horses? His father was a powerful man. The sunshine went flat, the sky got heavy, the clouds seemed like they were falling all around him. Perhaps it wasn't spring yet. Maybe winter would stay on a while. He shivered. His jacket was back at camp.
"I didn't do nothing to you," Vernon called down to his dad. "I know you don't like me. So just let me be. Give me back my horse and let me be."
He had dropped his guard. It was his own damn fault when the man in black and white jumped him from behind. Vernon hadn't wanted it to come to this, but he punched the man hard and felt his nose crack. The others were on him then and they were fighting hard for their friend. The grass was wet. The slick soles of his boots could not find purchase. As the men brought him down, sat on his arms and legs and kept him flat on his back, he opened his eyes and saw a bird above him. It crossed the sky, high, high, high. It sparkled for one moment, almost silver. It was so beautiful his eyes teared up. Vernon watched it until it went out of sight and he nodded farewell. His father came up then and knelt beside him.
"The west is over, Daddy," Vernon said. "We been run off."
They dragged him down the hill and out of the sage into town. The man in black and white was bloody. He gave Vernon a sharp elbow to his ear as he loaded him into the back of a waiting police car.
"Don't hurt him," came his father's voice.
One yellow flower was still clutched in his hand. Vernon let it drop onto the dirty floor mat. Whatever did he have that for?
Diana Wagman has had three novels published and short stories in LA Noir, Black Clock, and Electric Literature. She also writes occasionally for the Los Angeles Times.