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.