The Hired Man, a new excerpt

Junk Car

Near Denio, Nevada

Today’s piece is a new excerpt from The Hired Man, a novel in progress…. 

     In 1946 Charlotte Mulroney was nineteen and bestowed with what his father had called “An impeccable conformation.”  Del was twenty two and home from the war, a wounded veteran of the Pacific campaign in a new hat and denim trousers.  His hip had not yet healed from the steel he took on Peleliu and so he walked with a cane and he woke in his bedroom dripping with nightsweats and shouting, frightening his parents, and still other times he dropped to the ground at loud noises.  The long sliding squeal of brakes.  A backfire.  But when he limped into the bank that first morning, his footfalls and cane strikes an anapest echoing in the cavernous lobby of the First Sierra Savings and Loan, and he saw her working behind the wrought iron bars of the 19th century teller’s cage, her generous smile and the red wool sweater drawn across her chest, he knew that he would marry her with the same conviction that had told him he would survive the war, that he would heal from the wounds carried home from it, and that he would make his life horseback on the great American desert.

     They had nothing in common.  Her father ran a mercantile and she had always lived in town and what interest she showed in him initially might have been sympathy for his limp but it wasn’t sympathy he was after.  She did not encourage his visits but still he found reasons to leave the ranch and he would make the long drive into town in his father’s Studebaker flatbed and if he had no money to deposit he would make a withdrawal instead.  He would wait in her line even if the other tellers were open and when he finally reached the counter his hands would shake like a man with palsy.  He knew that she noticed him shaking when he signed for his money and he was embarrassed but he also knew that all men fear and what finally distinguishes them is how they behave in spite of it.  So he would shake in front of her and talk himself through it and his transactions went on like that through the spring until finally she surprised him.

     “Aren’t you going to ask me to the circus?” she said.

     He hadn’t known there was a circus.

     “I’m tired of waiting on you,” she said.

     It was a traveling show from Oregon and they had built their camp and pitched their candy-striped canvas tents in an onion field outside of town, and though the weather had been clear all week on the day he took her it was raining and the field had flooded and turned into a maddening slick.  They parked on the paved road at the edge of the field and they were the only car present and they sat inside with the wipers banging back and forth and the engine running and looking out at the rain and the field and the tents and they could see the elephants standing on straw beds behind the rows of transport trucks and they looked happy to be out in it.

     “It’s liable to leak pretty good in that tent,” Del said.

     “I don’t care.”

     “Probably stinks too.”

     “That’s why they have clowns, she said.  So you’ll forget about it.”

     Del looked at her.

     “I’m going in,” she said.

     They sat on a section of old wooden bleacher in front of the one ring and the tent leaked at the seams and great sheets of water cascaded inside and the low end of the tent was flooded three inches or more.  They bought a bag of peanuts roasted in the shell and it was dark inside where they sat huddled together and because the rain had kept the crowds away they had the circus almost to themselves.  “You see,” she said, “This isn’t bad.”  And it wasn’t.  They watched the circus from their front row seat and they saw trick riders on whitewashed horses riding laps around the sandbagged ring and they laughed at the antics of a clown who exploded himself in a miniature wooden car and they watched the rain soaked elephants balance on their hind legs to blast a trumpet and Del was drawn into their eyes and did not like what he saw in them.  They saw a tiger jumping through rings of fire and when the lions came out from behind a black curtain they were wretched and mangy and the portrait of defeat and that is when she took his hand for the first time and held it firmly in her own.

     They sat through the show despite the chill that settled on them and when it was over the ringmaster himself walked over to them in jodphurs and tails and muddy boots and his top hat was soaked through to his scalp and he removed it and shook their hands with a formal bow and thanked them sincerely.  If he was not a gypsy then he had the discerning eyes of a gypsy and he directed the weight of his thanks to Charlotte.

     There was a clown waiting at the mouth of the tent and as Del led Charlotte out into the rain he raised an umbrella without any fabric between the spines and trailed along beside them.  Del still walked with a cane against his injuries and so they splashed across the onion field until they came to the road where the car was parked and still the clown followed, his gigantic shoes fouled with mud and his makeup beginning to streak, his presence there a mute and awkward omen, and Del watched in the rearview as they drove away, leaving the clown standing in the road with the naked spines of his umbrella held up against the sky, crying in antic pantomime for the weather, or for their departure, or for some sad story as yet untold.

     He courted her through the summer months and he called her Bonnie and she called him Clyde and they would drive together through the desert roads too fast in his father’s truck and they would stop at the end of some dirt trail and shoot tin cans with a Nambu pistol he’d taken from a Japanese officer and they made cheap picnics in the rocks and invented great capers they would pull together.  In their talks they robbed banks in Reno and Carson City and they bought new cars with the money and made their way east, stashing money in desert ghost towns such as Botwick and Swansea, before crossing through into Utah and Colorado and eventually turning north.  They dreamed of a cabin hideout in Ten Sleep, Wyoming, because she loved the sound of it, and they would winter there until the spring when they could break out of the deep snow and rain anew.  They were famous fugitives by then and their parents were stolid but ashamed and so they would write long letters begging forgiveness on stationary pilfered from swank hotels.  It was fun for them to talk this way and it was a secret life they shared and when their dates were over Del would drive her home, Charlotte snug beside him on the seat and them rolling slowly through the desert, the windows down for those summer evenings when the air is warm and the tempered light draws the subtle color from the hard land and the smell of the sage is most pungent.

     Del had gone to work for his father in the failing enterprise, what work he could do with his wounds still mending, and when they finished shipping cattle in the fall he announced his intention to marry.  It was cold outside and they had just finished their dinner and the first snows were coming down from the north and they had built a fire in the wood stove and the house was tight and warm.  His father smoked a pipe and after a meal he would sit at the head of the table tamping tobacco in the bowl and when he was ready to smoke he would drag his chair to the front door and crack it to clear the air.

     “I’m going to town in the morning,” Del said.

     His father was losing the ranch and it was the thing they all knew and nobody discussed.  Del thought it was because he could not shake whatever he’d left behind in Missouri, as though he carried the ancient sins of a border state etched into him and there was a resigned and indignant laziness in him and it was also true he preferred a life of martyrdom.  He’d taken to whisky and the habit showed up in reflexive crudity.  he smoked his pipe and blew the bluish air through the crack in the door and said, “Well, after all that running around you done I hope you at least took her for a test drive.”

     Del had thought to box his father’s ears just then but his mother raised her hand from the table and closed her eyes in a patient but suffering plea for peace and Del did not say another word.  In the morning he broke ice in the horse troughs with a sledgehammer and fed out the penitent cows and then took his father’s truck without asking.

     When he made the highway it was sheeted with black ice and so he drove slowly through the empty miles, rehearsing to himself and watching great chevrons of snow geese rafting southward overhead.  It took him an hour to make town and when he finally arrived he rolled up across the street from the bank and killed the motor.  He took deep breaths to settle himself but he could feel his heartbeat in his ears.  He stared at the front doors of the bank for a full five minutes, as if expecting her to dash out with her arms open.  He reached into his pocket then pulled out an old blue handkerchief and tied it up over his nose in the manner of a Hollywood bank robber.  He checked his visage in the rearview mirror for the appropriate level of menace and then pulled his hat brim tight over his eyes.  He stepped out into the street.  It was still early but the bank was open and there were people about their business despite the chill and they eyed him curiously as he crossed the street.  He took one stop onto the sidewalk and lost his footing on the ice, falling awkwardly onto his side where he lay tangled in the duster.  “Goddammit,” he said, flailing against the duster and struggling to right himself.  He rolled to his stomach and then stood up straight and brushed the rocksalt from his clothes.  He tested his hip and then took a deep breath and walked up the stairs and through the tall oak doors into the bank where the raw winter light was pouring in through cathedral windows and splashing across the walls and the customers and employees alike watched him in puzzlement as he strode up to Charlotte’s cage.  She had her back turned and had not yet seen him.  He stood looking through to her and he could feel the room watching him as he pulled a folded envelope from his pocket and slid it carefully under the bars like a demand note.  And if he was shaking no one could see it under the soiled duster and he watched her as she finally turned and took notice of him standing there and was startled.  She flinched and eyed him warily and perhaps aghast and then she took up the envelope from the marble counter and slowly opened it.  He watched.  He could feel the bodies crowding in behind him as though to tackle him hard to the floor and he felt mildly faint as she drew out the note and read the proposal he had written there, and when she’d read it through she raised both hands high above her head as though in fact surrendering, the little note fluttering to the ground like a feather at her side, and then she smiled through the iron bars and arced one eyebrow in a gesture of enduring and intense conviction and said quietly and perfectly, “Yes.”


Dinner With Steve

Scan 6

Rick and Steve, Sib’s Mountain Bar, St. Thomas, USVI

I don’t know why it should be that late last night, while I was riding with T.E. Lawrence into the fires of Damascus, and only shortly after he had discovered the horrors of “The Turkish Hospital,” that I would have occasion to reminisce about dining with my father.  It might have been his devotion to all things Lawrence, and memories of a rainy afternoon in San Francisco where we sat together in a dilapidated, smelly, theater watching Peter O’Toole flog his camel into the redoubts of Aqaba.  More precisely, it was the dinner afterward, at a poorly lit, under-attended, and handsomely formal Italian restaurant where he assured me that everyone, up to and including the waiter, was a La Cosa Nostra hit man.  To an impressionable mind, his storytelling was inclusive and engaging, and as I poured into a chicken alfredo, my head stuffed with images of Michael Corleone gunning down Captain McCluskey and that worm Solozzo, I was convinced that at any minute we might be interrupted by gunfire, overturned tables, and spilled spaghetti.  What fun.

It is important to track this back, to build the narrative on precise points.  It isn’t just dinner with Steve that I am trying to deconstruct, after all, but something of myself, unraveling the entire sweater by pulling on this one thread.  It’s an impossible feat, I realize, but by taking something apart we often learn more about how it was built.  So.  Imagine a sweltering summer day in Burbank, California, heat wave mirages rising from the asphalt, and a Bob’s Big Boy, circa 1977.  I might have been six, so the precise human complexities that triggered this event are mysterious, but I do recall with crystal clarity my father announcing:  “Alright, kids, are you ready to have some fun?”  After ushering us out of the booth, which happened to be just under the fabulous and gigantic smiling Big Boy outside, Steve, with aplomb, poured all three of our very big milkshakes out over the table.  Not entirely satisfied with the mess, he dribbled some fries over the top.  Stepping back to admire that work, but still not entirely pleased, he squirted some ketchup into the mix and then dumped the remainder of our trays on top of the soup.  Wasn’t that great? he asked loudly, looking around with a slightly mischievous wink and decidedly NOT seeking general approval, then took us by the hands and led us out of the restaurant, past the Big Boy, and into the steaming world.  I have held that image in my mind for nearly forty years:  giant milkshakes slopping over the edge of the table like molten, malted, sludge.  I was much too young then to understand, or appreciate, that Dinner With Steve was going to become a lifelong adventure.

When my parents divorced–the marriage itself lasting approximately eight minutes–Steve became, and remained almost until his death, a dedicated bachelor.  Because he was also a professional pilot, and not least because he sincerely despised any domestic chore whatsoever, the mere thought of which turned him into a wiggling bowl of jello, Steve dined out for almost every meal in his adult life, and thereby became the terror of restaurants, good and bad, across North America, and very likely in Europe, South America, and Asia.  Once, in Korea, my colleagues and I were refused service at a series of restaurants in the industrial dump of Pohang by virtue of being U.S. Marines–the managers bracing themselves in the threshold while women with cleavers shrieked in the background.  My colleagues were naturally insulted and upset, but I was quite resigned to the terror I noted in the proprieters’ eyes–sympathetic even, by virtue of having already had this experience while trying to dine in America with my dad.

Steve, who was capable of enormous and overwhelming passions, also thought of himself as a kind of civilianized Great Santini.  At the very least, he had a Santiniesque approach to life, uncompromising, unapologetic, full-throttle, and thrill seeking.  He was incapable of playing cribbage with his devoted parents, but he could perform a Split S or an Immelman Turn in a Pitts Special, par-excellence.  He could not mow his lawn, but he could skydive, scuba dive, earn a type-rating in an L-39 , or ride his Harley to Sturgis.  He could pilot a garden-ketch in a Beaufort 9, or land a Boeing 777 in  raging crosswinds at night, but he could not wash dishes.  In descending order, he loved his kids, he loved to fly, and he loved to dine.  It was the uncompromising, unapologetic, full-throttle, part of him that could turn a simple crab salad at a restaurant in Pago Pago, Samoa, into a perfectly projected, center-stage, dissertation on the unacceptable nature of “This plate full of assholes and eyeballs staring at me.”  And there was a cafe in Boulogne, France, where he denounced the pate as a “very poor Gallic interpretation of a duck turd.”  These gems, always delivered, like Whitman, as a barbaric yawp across the rooftops of the world, have stayed with me.

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Where It All Started

It wasn’t merely the ever-present, nerve damaging potential for an embarrassing display from Steve, but often the guest list itself that turned a simple meal into an event.  At table there might be, at any one time, and sometimes together, a Vegas show dancer, a daytime television actor, an actual Reno mafioso, a World War 2 German U-boat engineer, a strange multimillionaire who lived in a series of flood-damaged cars and dated only “Sees Candy Women,” a movie stuntman, a disgraced diplomat, a celebrity hairdresser, or a Navy SEAL commander.  And pilots.  Always pilots.  Test pilots, airline pilots, Korean War combat aces, anyone who had ever touched the throttle in a B-17, glider pilots, hot air balloon pilots, and even radio-control pilots.  Assemblies of this nature soon commandeer the full attention of a restaurant, particularly at happy hour, and an objective observer would locate Steve in the center of it all, holding court, simultaneously laughing, yelling well-timed profanities, flirting with waitresses, and objecting to the temperature of his enchilada.  But even without an audience of friends and acquaintances, Steve found ways to become the center of every patron’s dining event.  If the table wobbled it became an Olympic steeplechase contest to find an acceptable arrangement.  If someone was smoking a cigarette, four blocks away, he would proclaim to the entire dining room that there was, in fact, a crematorium next door to the restaurant, and the smoke they were smelling was actually ash from Aunt Gertrude’s sad reduction in the oven.  And so it went.  Always.

Dining was also a convenient substitute for religious inculcation.  When we lived in Texas, Steve, ever-mindful of his standing as a single father in the community, would haul my sister and I away on Sunday mornings, a staged event, timed to coincide with the neighbors leaving dutifully for church.  But our church was a Chinese restaurant in Arlington, where we discussed Steve’s particularly spacious and accommodating beliefs over Mongolian Beef and Sweet and Sour Pork.  Thanksgiving was often a Mexican restaurant, Christmas the Tick Tock in North Hollywood, with sticky rolls to go.  Once, after a rude service at the landmark Liberty Belle Saloon in Reno, and the requisite, and always high-profile “storming out,” Steve called in a holiday reservation for a party of 30.  He followed up by calling repeatedly to inform the staff that the party was running late, until nobody showed at all.  Vengeance is mine, sayeth Steve.  Of course, this behavior was not limited to restaurants and eateries.  He related to me once his fondness for issuing “stack calls,” wherein he would journey deep into the hallowed stacks of a library, find a niche, and begin to deliver a series of very loud, very disturbing, ape-like soundings from the bowels of scholarship.  When we saw the movie Full Metal Jacket, he jumped out his seat while the credits rolled, ran to the front of the theater and began yelling and gyrating like a deranged veteran, or a simple madman.  If you didn’t know him, you wouldn’t know it was neither.  Today, he would have been arrested.  I could go on:  there were the M-80’s he dropped in the toilet of a restaurant in Hawaii, returning to our table to wait out the inevitable warooomph in the plumbing, the night he ordered the entire dessert cart at the Savoy in London, so that my sister and I could sample every example of custard ever made, an embarrassing dustup at a Michelin rated restaurant in Boston when he demanded to know how anyone in the free world could afford the menu, his anti-imperial display at Tres Hombres in Reno, when he stood with a margarita (on the rocks, no salt), tapped his glass with a knife, and enjoined the dining room to participate in a heartfelt salute and declaration of loyalty to Pancho Villa.

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Pancho Villa

Some of this, or maybe all of it, was mere showmanship, I think, a certain delight at dominating center stage, no matter how embarrassing the spectacle.  I should emphasize that he was not malicious.  A showman yes, a thoughtless jerk, sometimes, but he never wanted to hurt anyone.  He was enjoying life on his own terms, as he understood it, and as he measured himself against the absurdities he understood perfectly.  I think he was largely unaware of the embarrassment his outbursts sometimes caused, and in any case was unaffected by whatever trepidation or humiliation might be assumed by those in his company.  Life was too big for a merely emotional response to his flamboyance.  That was his defense, and he came by it honestly and naturally.  Whether it was his parents, those models of Greatest Generation dignity, his children, the endless parade of girlfriends, or just friends, he was a live and dangerous wire to carry around in public.  And I think there was a reason.  I’ll tell it even as it hurts, because I know my own culpability, because fathers and sons disagree, and sometimes fight, and precious time is lost while they sandbag their own ridiculous positions, even as the war is already over:  I think he was a kind of genius, and I think he was intensely lonely.

What’s critical, as I drill into the past, is to remind myself that there was good natured joy in the things he touched, and the proselytization of his passions.  If he took a shine to Ford 9N tractors, which might last for weeks, the world would know about it, and it was easy to earn a dismissal, an impatient wave of the hand, if one failed to enlist in the cause.  He wanted loyal partners in his obsessions and, much like Lawrence, he could not suffer fools or mere dilettantes who lacked his passion, his fixations and his visions.  There is another word for this, which is megalomania, but I reject its application to Steve as I continue to expunge and harden myself to the trite and altruistic declarations of our decidedly milquetoast culture.  As embarrassing and aggravating as he sometimes was, I have learned that we must suffer the eccentricities of genius if we are to know anything about our species, to measure ourselves against the pervasive weaknesses of our time.  Where once I suffered, cringing as he carried an undercooked plate of food through the batwing doors into the kitchen, and endured the time-freezing argument that ensued, I now pound my chest and celebrate a life that simply refused to be treated normally. My father was a friend and confidant of Jackie Cochranand her tycoon husband Floyd Odlum, accomplished Americans both.  He was often a guest at their C-O Ranch in Indio, California, and he once bequeathed to me the sum total of knowledge he received from them:  Do not settle for less.  Ever.  And I think we can learn something from that, and maybe, by taking it to heart, we can do something, however small, about improving the mind-numbing and safety-orange conditions that pervade our daily lives.  I say this passionately, yet mindful of the potential for excess, and still a bit jealous that it was my sister, and not me, who sat at Eisenhower’s desk on the C-O, while Floyd paddled around the gigantic pool on an inflatable raft, answering an array of deckside telephones.        

This deconstruction is as necessary as it is endless.  I tug on the merest thread and the sweater just gets bigger, and bigger.  But these days, when I think of Dining with Steve, I think less of the embarrassing and outrageous sagas, and more of our last meal together (if only I had known), when he flew my wife and me to Catalina, greasing a perfect approach to the oddly sloping and disconcerting airfield at KAVX, Avalon, on Catalina.  We took the shuttle down to Avalon proper, Steve holding forth about the genius of Harry Flashman, his own burgeoning obsession with Teddy Roosevelt’s adventures in the Amazon, and we strolled the harbor, where he waxed about the landmark Catalina Casino, reminiscing about the perfection of the parquet floors of the ballroom, where Glen Miller once played, and his own cracks at perfecting the jitterbug when he once danced the night away in a rented tuxedo.  He was in the mind of Jack Nicholson then, as we walked and the waves slapped against the boats on the dock, and hauling up scenes from The Shining as we enjoyed the stroll.  And when we were seated at a crabshack for lunch he braced the waiter in a perfect Nicholson impression:  Hi Lloyd, he said, A little slow tonight, isn’t it?  I think it was that trip, then, and that dining experience, strangely uneventful, where I learned that my father loved to dance.  And that, dear friends, I would give anything I have, or ever will have, to have seen.  Even once.

The Hired Man, An Excerpt

Remuda Horses at Fish Creek

Remuda Horses, Fish Creek Ranch, Eureka, Nevada

Today’s offering is an excerpt from The Hired Man, a novel in progress.

     When he was a boy and a bull slipped the fall gather they would grain the mules.  Twice a day Del would whistle them up from the bottom pasture and grain them with barley and corn rolled in sweet molasses.  He would grain them until they were fat and imbecilic with want.  Until they would knock the rails out of a lodgepole corral to get after a man shaking sand in a metal bucket.  And then one evening his father would come up from the old stone house in the cottonwoods, hatless in the dusk, hair mussed with fatigue, and stand with his boot up on the bottom rail and his hands sheathed to the top knuckles in his back pockets.  He would watch the mules for minutes on end without a word and then finally cock his head to Del and speak.  Alright, he would say, his voice electric in the silicate air.

     Next morning, before dawn, his father would come into his room and wake him by reaching under the quilt and squeezing his big toe.  Del would rise then and dress in the cold room cut with moonlight, buttoning his shirt with sleepy fingers and listening to his father out in the kitchen, his boots scuffing the floor, the coffeepot striking the wood stove.  They would eat together in the buttered light of an oil lamp, the stove ticking, the windows fogged and the world outside motionless and cold and without depth, as if the house were suspended.  Sixty years on Del could see that world in detail, and there were times now when he awoke in the night confused, hauled away by the steady undertow of years and he would lay awake, wading against the current of memory until his room once again took shape out of the darkness.  Dresser and mirror.  Nightstand and lamp.  His own scarred and pale flesh between the sheets.

     With the moon up over the desert his father would lead them out of the yard on his favorite stud, a buckskin mesteno born to the chaparral.  A horse that would not quit.  Del would ride behind him leading the mules on a nameless gelding roped out of the cavvy in the dark.  They would ride east then out of the shallow canyon where they lived and up onto the dry benchlands, stars vanishing like bulbs shot out of a carnival pinwheel, the sky brightening by degrees from nightblue to copper and the hills glowing molten orange until the sun was up and they were a tiny caravan in the expanse.  And not a word passed between them.

     They would ride to water, seep springs trickling from cliffside rocks, and cut for sign in widening circles until they struck a trail, cloven hooves leading away into the brush.  They would stop then and water the horses and Del would jerk down the loaded burlap feedbags tied up behind his saddle and hang one each on the mules.  His father would lead the stud to water and then drop slack in the latigo to let him blow and he would walk around the horse, checking his feet, and then lean against his rump and take a measure of the desert.  Listen, he would say, pointing with his chin, and Del would stop with the mules and strain to hear over their snuffling in the feedbags, his own horse rolling the cricket in his bit.

     No.  It’s down lower, his father would say, meaning the ground beneath their feet.  Listen.

    And Del, directed, would close his eyes and strain until he heard it.  Until he thought he heard it.  It was the sound of the light itself, perhaps, of the sunbaked boulders in the dirt, and the dead sage rotting in the foxtails.  A steady thrumming in the dust.

     Ain’t that the devil? his father would say, meaning the heat, or the light, or the desert itself, winking as he spoke.  Mischief there.  And Del understood later that there was more in it than merely heat or light or space, or silence displaced, but that it was a narcotic binding him for a lifetime to the brushy reaches, the roadless countries, a music drawing him horseback ever-after into the offing.  Years later, during the war, he would hear a sinister cousin to it in the night jungles of the Pacific, at Bougainville, where the darkness extinguished reason and men went mad and in the animal rage and cold terror of combat he would kill men with rifles, and grenades, and a shovel.

     With the mules grained and the horses watered they would track the bull into the desert.  Del could manage the nuance of a rawhide reata better than his father and his talent was a balance between them.  They rode as partners then and on the far western rim of the world the Sierras held snow at the peaks.  In those days they worked without dogs and they would ride along the ridges, panning the narrow box canyons and the steep draws choked with buckbrush, knowing the bull was buried in some brushy harbor, what the old vaqueros called a querencia, a safe harbor, seething in the heat and the biting flies.

     When they found the bull they would hobble the mules out in the sage and make a study of the field.  The smart bulls would lay up in ambush and so they would tease him out by throwing rocks or making quick passes horseback, hollering and whistling and slapping their ropes against their thighs, or even shooting into the duff with his father’s single-action revolver, the pistol shots popping flat in the thin air.  And when the bull finally broke he was like a freight train jumping track, boring a tunnel through the brush, apocalypse and havoc in his wake, and they would punch a loop in their ropes on the gallop and haze him out onto the flats and ride him down, head and heels, his father on the head and when the rope settled around the bull’s neck he would jerk out the slack and take his turns around the saddle horn and lead the bull off quartering and bawling and bucking through the brush.  Del spurring up on his heels then, a single scoop in a churning dust storm and the reata singing like wire in the wind and then stacking on his dallies as his horse bellied down and the rawhide still paying out through his palm and the hot fat burning off the braids until he had a puff of smoke jumping from the saddlehorn.  The bull bellowing like a thing on fire and thrashing in the sage and they would back their horses off, stretching the animal off balance until he fell sidelong into the greasewood and saltbush, his tongue lolling and frothy and caked with dirt and chaff and his eyes rolling like giant marbles swirled in a canning jar.  The horses lathered and keen.  They would choke the bull then, bleeding the fight out of his body, the bull struggling through fury for his breath, all hatred and discontent, his flanks laboring like a squeezebox.  They would sit their horses while the lesson took hold, watching the Orejano between them, the sky overhead a thin blue dome without streak or blemish and alkaline dust settling on their clothes like talc.

     With a nod from his father they would tie their ropes off to the saddlehorn, and Del would dismount and walk back for the mules.  He would lead them up on the bull and with his father beside him they would yoke all three together with long cotton lines half-hitched at the neck.  They would reclaim their own ropes from the bull and then remount and coil them up again and turn their horses homeward, Del reining the gelding short to flash a feedbag at the mules and thus sparking an animal riot, the mules dragging the bull up out of the sage in a wild tantrum of bone and muscle, of irascible wills, a cartoon brawl traveling three directions at once.  They would sit their horses to see that their knots held in the yawing violence and then turn homeward again, leaving the mules and the bull behind on the desert in a tangled and bruising calamity of competing desires.

     He remembers the home place as it had been, the barn and buildings silvered with age, teetering on the edge of that inveterate poverty they’d brought with them from Missouri, the yard enclosed by a stacked rail fence, dragonflies up from the willows and the sound of water running over rocks in the creek beyond the willows.  The horses curried and fed and turned out, chores finished, the barn door closed for the night.  He can see his mother, her blonde hair braided and stacked in a frazzled and unwashed bun, setting the table outside in the shade of an old cottonwood, her high cheekbones and slavic blue eyes pinched at the temple like almonds.  And he can see himself sitting in the cool grass, legs outstretched and crossed at the ankles, boots and socks peeled off, his feet linen white against the green, his father sipping wine in a chair carried out from the kitchen, a warm breeze chasing the leaves, fried chicken and mashed potatoes, meatbees in the applebutter.

     At their dinners then, Del cradling his food cross-legged in the grass, waving off gnats, his mother in her own chair balancing a plate on her knees, when his father would look up and stop chewing and then smile with his mouth full and grease on his lips, stabbing the air with a half-eaten chicken leg, pointing.  And they would look up to see the mules wending down from the rimrock and into the tall pasture grass, a procession awash in the evening light, the mules bug-eyed with triumph, the bull bringing up the rear like so much baggage, sulking and miserable.  The mules would lead their chattel up through the meadow and pass through the gate and step in after their reward, a bunk full of grain, the bull left to stand at the end of his ruined cotton tethers, bloody, debased, and bereft.