“Plainsmother (Stillness)”

Spring 2016 – Vol. 5
by Josh Patrick Sheridan

 

Katherine had the baby on her hip, watching lightning over the back field. There had been no rain yet, like she’d hoped, but eventually it would come and with it life and with life another year of hard life. Each time the thunder popped she tossed the baby gently in the air and shouted, “Hooray! Hooray!” until the dribbling girl began to laugh. It was in this way that Katherine’s mother had taught her to not be afraid of the prairie and it was in this way that Katherine intended to do the same for Anna Lee.

The girls went inside to set the table when the storm was close enough to smell scorched earth. There would be three new men out tonight, business acquaintances of Merrill’s, passing through on their way to Denver. Merrill was intending to go with them in the morning and Katherine had allowed it, told him she and the baby would be alright alone, on the condition that he stock the pantry before he left. He had been in town to do so when the men arrived early, carrying their duffels on their backs and leading their horses to the fence.

She was used to visitors. Merrill’s work in ranching brought plenty of rough men their way; Katherine was expected to entertain, to feed, to translate on the occasion that they got too drunk and could no longer come to understandings. She leaned in the doorway and watched the three new men tie up. Two of them were younger—not kids, but not far off—and the other was probably their father, with a short gray beard and handsome ruffled hair that stuck up when he tipped his hat.

“Evenin,” he called up. “That roof of yours is fixin to get tested, ma’am.” He wrapped his horse’s leathers tightly around a post and dusted his hands on his jeans. 

“Come through worse,” Katherine said. She glanced upward and for no reason in particular she smiled at him. “Supper’s on, but I’m afraid the coffee is lacking. Merrill should be back with it whenever he sees fit.” 

The three men chuckled. They tilted their heads downward in the exact same way and each of them kicked lazily at the dirt with the toe of his boot, though one of them, the youngest-looking, did so on a delay, as though he’d needed reminding.

“We passed him on our way in,” the older one said. “Other side of the road, down by Hiram’s store. He yelled over, said he’d be in directly.” 

“I assume you understood that to mean anytime between here and tomorrow morning,” she said.

The men came to the bottom step of the porch and looked over the building, each wearing his own look of satisfaction. The younger ones—brothers, Katherine was sure of it—put their hands on their hips and looked on Anna Lee as though they’d both just noticed she was there, made silly faces, and the baby tucked her head between Katherine’s breasts. 

“I only met Merrill on an occasion or two,” the older man said, “but now that you mention it, I believe he arrived late to our first handshake.” He stuck his dusty hand in Katherine’s direction and she took it. “Pleasure you haven’t seen fit to do the same.”

He introduced himself as Jim, and the two boys, Jimmy and Roland, as his sons. They were from western Kansas and were working a tip that the scales would be running tight at a cattle auction. They were headed west with the intention of buying as near to a thousand head as they could get. 

Katherine scoffed playfully when she heard the number. “What do you intend to do with a thousand cows?” she said.

“We gon get our pay,” the boy Roland, the youngest one, said, and it was then, in hearing the difference between the way his father spoke and the way he did, that Katherine realized Roland was an idiot. 

“That’s good, that’s good,” she said. “Well, you boys come in and get you a bowl.”

 

At the table, Jimmy and Roland acted as brothers do. They slapped at each other’s hands and laughed with their chins tucked against their chests; their father seemed either not to notice their misbehaving or not to care. When Katherine set bowls of soup in front of them Roland slurped at it greedily, his spoon like a shovel, but Jimmy sat up straight and became a gentleman again. Katherine sat with Anna Lee on her lap and no bowl in front of her. She faced Jim, intending to talk with him about the trip, but kept most of her attention on Roland. The boy had food in his wispy beard and a grin on his face as though somebody was rubbing his back, but his manner wasn’t disgusting to her. She tried to imagine how thrilling it would be to suddenly not care how she looked in good company. She wondered, too, if Roland was still thrilled by it.

“Ride out’s two days,” Jim was saying, “probably a four-day ride back with the drive. Merrill said he talked to you about giving a hand back out to Kansas?”

She turned away from the boys when she realized Jim had asked her a question. “Oh, right, right. It’s fine.”

“It may be nine, ten days before I can promise him back,” Jim said.

“Why not make it an even dozen?” Katherine said.

By the time Merrill came the rain fell hard and steady. Jim had sent the boys out to move the horses to the barn, to feed and blanket them, and when they came back in their denim was black against their skin and their hair was plastered against their temples. Roland had run in first; he seemed shaken by the lightning storm.

Merrill stepped out of his boots and hung up his hat. “Ho, ho there,” he said, charging toward the table. “How the hell are you fellows holding up?” He brushed past Katherine and the baby and leaned over the empty spot in front of her to shake hands, vigorously, with Jim. Anna Lee lifted her eyes to watch him pass over, like a thunder cloud.

“You got some coffee?” Katherine said.

“Oh, sure,” Merrill said. “It’s in the barrow. Just leave it. Nobody wants coffee, anyway. These gentlemen need a taste of my rye.”

“I thought coffee would be nice,” Katherine said.

“No, no. These gentlemen need a taste of my rye.” Merrill smiled and laughed and met each of the men at the eye; at the same time, raindrops rolled down his forehead and over his cheeks and he looked like he was weeping.

“Well, whatever you think,” Katherine said. She hoisted Anna Lee onto her hip and went to set out glasses. 

Of course she knew that Jim was looking at her. Instinctively, she knew it. There had been a time, before Anna Lee, before Merrill, back in Lincoln, when it happened often—older men on street corners, boys hanging out windows. Even now, there were few men whose doggish looks found hindrance in the fact that she was married, but the fact of what that marriage had done to her body—to her hands and breasts and face—made them turn away quicker than they once would have. Jim was somehow holding up easy conversation with Merrill and stealing looks at Katherine’s back side at the same time. The fact that Merrill was none the wiser came as no particular shock to her. That she still had something to offer anyone was shock enough.

Katherine dipped her pinky finger into a glass of whiskey and wiped it on Anna Lee’s lip. The girl probed it, quickly, with her tongue, and her face crinkled and her eyes shut tight. When she opened them she looked at Katherine with confusion, as though the woman holding her was no longer familiar. It was in this way that Katherine’s mother had turned her away from drink, and it was in this way that Katherine intended to do the same for Anna Lee.

 

The rain slowed and the night came on quickly, like a box dropped over the house. They sat in the kitchen, Merrill and Jim and Jimmy, who’d grown bored with his brother, talking of things that Katherine knew and cared little about: calf crops, the salvage price of a retired bull, how good the rain would be for the struggling alfalfa. Roland, in the rocking chair, was content to poke at the fire; he was likely used to being left out of conversations. Katherine wondered if he understood his lessened importance in the world. 

The men, with the exception of Roland, had gotten drunk. Jim was daring longer glances at her from across the table, but with whiskey on his breath and a stale pallor—a hard day’s ride and likely a night on a stable floor the evening prior—he was no longer a dashing cowman, no longer a hard-working father teaching his boys their keep, but more of a discombobulated lecher, glassy-eyed and with a thin white film on his lips. 

Anna Lee had fallen asleep in Katherine’s lap, her legs and arms splayed across her mother’s thighs as though she’d suffered a bad fall. Her mouth puckered and released, puckered and released. It never ceased to amaze Katherine how little attention Merrill had come to pay his daughter; she had become Katherine’s best friend, her companion, frequently the best conversationalist in the house despite her lack of language. Anna Lee said what she knew with her face and lately she seemed to know a lot. 

“I could use a little lady like that’n at my place,” Jim said, leaning back in his creaky chair. He glanced over his shoulder toward Roland, still jabbing the coals with his stick. “Cain’t get no work outta the one I got. Seems I’m running at a two-mouth deficit anyways.”

“Ha, ha,” Merrill said, and Katherine thought Jesus, what a coward, and Merrill said, “which of them two do you favor?”

Katherine stopped rocking the baby.

“Christ, Merrill, that’s your fancy whiskey talkin,” said Jim. “I didn’t mean a word of it.” But he looked at Katherine with his tongue in his cheek.

“Name your deal,” Merrill said, and set his whiskey glass upside-down on the table.

“Merrill—” Jim said.

“Name your deal,” Merrill said.

“Ma’am,” Jim said, his eyes set on Katherine, “ma’am, I surely don’t—”

Merrill slammed his fist on the table, shaking their empty glasses and startling the baby, who raised her arms to her face without waking. 

“Name your fucking deal,” he said. “You been staring at her since you set down. Go on and get what you want, now.”

The four of them sat for a minute, the joke having turned quickly serious, the air in the room heavy and swirling. Jimmy stared at his father, awaiting a lesson he’d yet to learn, and Jim stared at Katherine, hoping perhaps for a reprieve, for her to laugh or punch Merrill lightly on the shoulder, snap him out of it. But he could see Merrill was no longer kidding, that he didn’t intend to sell his wife or child but rather to challenge another man’s idea of their worth.

“I don’t want your women,” Jim said finally. “Christ, I was only kidding.”

The fire popped then, like a gunshot, and Roland, who’d been half-asleep in the rocking chair, let out a cry so forceful that he choked himself on his own voice. Katherine rose with the baby on her hip while the drunken men turned slowly to see what the idiot boy’s problem was. Roland’s hands fluttered across his lap, his piercing, grating scream rising in volume and temper, and Katherine rushed over to him, licked her fingertips, and picked a coal from his lap barehanded and tossed it back into the fire. 

Anna Lee, awake now, watched wide-eyed as Katherine sucked her own fingers, and Katherine showed her where they were pink, and Anna Lee smiled, broad and satisfied. Katherine rejoined the table, her fingertips in her mouth, bouncing the baby on her leg. 

“Boys better get some rest,” she said. “Hard ride to Bird City.”

The men sat quietly for a minute, looked at Katherine, looked down at their shoes. 

“Yup, that’s a fact,” Jim said at last. He picked his hat up from the table and brushed his seat with it. “We appreciate the stew. Come on, Jimmy. Roland, let’s bed out.”

When they were gone, headed to the barn for the night, she and Merrill sat across from each other. 

“It’s a hard ride to Bird City,” she said.

“I had to know what kind of men they were,” Merrill said.

“And did you learn something?”

“They ain’t nothing to be afraid of.”

The lamp wick had grown short and its light dim and golden, shining on the edges of the glasses that had been tossed across the table and glowing in the raindrops on the windows. Alone then in her kitchen, Katherine let herself cry, her confidence still shaken, the pain in her hand piercing and warm. She bounced the baby on her knee and licked her fingertips furiously. It was in this way that Katherine’s mother had taught her to be still, and it was in this way that Katherine intended to do the same for Anna Lee.