One Proud Mourning

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One Proud Mourning

The sod house had two rooms and a dirt floor.  Its roof, also made of sod, was worn and needed patching.  In the main room was the kitchen and a square wooden table with two chairs.  Along the walls were other objects, neatly stacked or hung, to help keep the home insulated.

John Nolan sat alone at the table.  He pushed forward on his chair, picked up a fork and knife.  An unlit lamp rested by his plate; a box of white light streamed through the house’s only window.

Behind his chair, Lydia Nolan held a warm loaf of bread in a towel. She placed it on the table, then latched closed the sheet iron stove.  The smell of baked wheat filled the dampened room and slowly crawled out to where the dog was barking.

“Doesn’t sound like air,” Lydia said to her husband of seven years.  She wiped her hands on the front of her apron and inched closer to the window for a peek outside.  The bright Kansas sun, by now a fiery orange, seemed powerless against her apple green eyes; she gazed openly at the vast empty plains that rippled for miles unprotected.

John Nolan didn’t look up from his morning meal; he continued working his knife around the egg, careful not to slash or puncture any part of the membrane.  He was a superstitious man and a broken yolk would mean he’d be in for a long day. An unbroken one, he needn’t be reminded, might at best give him a beggar’s chance.

Lydia turned from the open window and sat down in the empty chair.  Respectfully she watched her husband make small cuts with a steady hand.  For a moment the barking had stopped and all that could be heard was the knife scraping about the plate.  An inescapable silence soon overtook the room.  At her husband dropping his fork for a sip of coffee, Lydia leaned forward to make a gamble of her own.  She moistened her cracked lips and said, “You seen much of Curdy lately?”

John Nolan, holding the cup over his plate, wasn’t sure what his wife wanted to hear.  Anybody with half a brain knew she didn’t care for their 92-year-old neighbor.  But, of late, he’d noticed her on the lookout for trouble, how in a strange way she needed the sight of danger in order to feel safe.  Especially over the last three months, it seemed, fears of the Southern Cheyenne were growing faster in her than any baby could.

He set down the cup, tried clearing his throat.  “A parley’s been arranged.  Army wants to put an end to all this.  Nobody’s raiding nobody for the time being.”

Parley?  Who’s got you believing that nonsense?  If it’s Curdy, you best ask him something for me – What good comes from talking peace when neither side trusts the other?”

Before her husband could answer, Lydia glanced down at his plate.  Somehow the tip of the resting knife had pierced and puddled the yolk.  The foreboding sight pulled her from the chair to a broomstick leaning against the far wall.  She bowed her head, un-balled her fists, then wrapped her fingers around the handle.

“That’s the problem these days,” she said with her back turned.  “We got us no friends no more.  That old codger’s got us mixed up into more trouble than we can manage.  If it weren’t for his deed and him standing at death’s door, I’d be calling you crazy for helping him out.”

The fervor in her voice was genuine, but as always, her reckoning proved futile.  None of what she said was ever worth arguing.  John Nolan sliced off a piece of bread and stuffed it in his mouth.  He gulped down the rest of his lukewarm coffee, then scooted back his chair.  Outside, the dog had gone back to barking, and this time the wheat farmer decided to go check for himself.

She was a mangy mutt they’d found during their journey westward.  Lydia had named her Catherine, after a younger sister who had died of scurvy the previous spring.  John Nolan had never met the girl, but nonetheless had trouble accepting the honor of which she’d been bestowed, for in his eyes any dog who was ugly, blind, and hard of hearing, couldn’t be worth a damn.

“Quiet down, girl,” he now said when he stepped outside.  For a moment the striking change from dark to light kept his eyes pointed at the no-good dog.  Dust and dry wind pressed against her matted blonde coat as she directed her strained bark toward the sweeping parcel of wheat that encroached the house.   

Lydia stood in the doorway.  “Gonna get yourself killed standing out in the open like that.  Those savages could be ten feet in front of you and you wouldn’t have the faintest.”

“Ain’t nobody out here,” John Nolan said.  All the same he went on scanning the open fields.   He stepped forward, blocked the sun with his hand. The yellow strands of grass, whipping in clumps with each dry swirl of wind, showed no other change in color or movement.  From what little he could see, the crazy old bitch appeared to be barking at ghosts.

“What about them?”  Lydia then lifted her finger to a hummock along the horizon.  “A couple of stragglers out there on the rise.”

“Stragglers?”  John Nolan squinted to where she was pointing.  His eyes had never been as good as hers.

“Two of them,” she said.  “Maybe three.”

John Nolan nudged the dog with the toe of his boot and she let out a startled yelp.  She broke from her locked stance and darted for a shaded spot behind the woodpile.

Lydia folded both arms across her chest and stepped clear of her husband’s path.  He went inside to their bedroom, then came back out with his old Union hat and Henry rifle.

“They didn’t look like longhorns,” she said as she followed him to the corral behind the house.  “Just a couple of bald-faced yearlings who’ve broken clear of Curdy’s herd.”

“Bald-faced, eh?”  Even John Nolan knew the limitations of her hawk-like eyes.  He hopped the fence, pulled the saddle off the top rail, then walked over to the fifteen-year-old brownie standing alone in the corner.

John Nolan swung the thirty-pound saddle across the horse’s back.  The tired-looking mare shook her mane and gnashed her crusted teeth.  Her black marble eyes widened at the familiar cinch tightening across her belly.

“Go about your business,” John Nolan said to his wife.  He dropped down in the saddle and side-stepped the horse toward the main gate.  “No sense in working yourself up over things that aren’t there.  Ain’t good for you, ain’t good for nobody.” He gave a slight nod to her mid-section.  “This one I aim to keep.”

He said no more.  The wheat farmer guided his horse through the open gate and around to the other side of the house.  From there he kicked once at the flanks, directing the old charger from a walk into a lope, then with a soft lash across her right shoulder, brought the warhorse to a full stride.  Rays from the sun bore down on them like a shower of bullets and yet somehow, just like Chantilly, she dodged them, her rich brown coat bulging unscathed as they tore across the golden plains. Brought forth in John Nolan’s mind was the hazy image of her emerging intact but unstoppable from a thick cloud of gunfire, their dead Union general slumped forward in the saddle with blood dripping off his stirrups.  It would be under the shade of a lone sycamore, three miles from the battlefield, where the thirty-year-old enlisted volunteer would swear to take her away from the fighting and the bloodshed.  And while he had since made good on his promise, she was now running like she had then – as if that feeling of death on her back could never be shaken.

A coyote sprang from the high grass in front of them.  Fifty more yards had a number of jackrabbits darting past.  Nine, ten, eleven in all he counted, clearly spooked but running in the same direction as the coyote, away from John Nolan and against the wind.

What were they running from?  What were they scared of?  Up ahead, the two brown cows, he could now see, were standing alone atop the rise.  Lydia had been right – they weren’t longhorns but a pair of bald-faced yearlings that had strayed far from the neighboring herd.

This was an odd occurrence for a rancher like Curdy.  Usually he was so good about keeping his herd clear of the bordering wheat field.  His two cows, each with a mouthful of grass, glanced up as John Nolan lifted his right hand and pulled to a quick stop.  Watching him watch them, they chewed and munched and ruminated.

John Nolan got down and roped each cow by the neck.  Then he walked them with his horse down the back-part of the rise, through the bluestem and drying thistle, toward Curdy’s land on the opposite side of the shallow ravine.  He stepped across the dry-wash, over the flint rock and limestone, along the way having to fight the dragging hooves of both stubborn cows.  Occasionally he would get turned around whenever one cow would stop and the other would reverse directions.  They tussled and squirmed through a row of hackberries and up a gradual slope clumped with buckbrush and purple clover.

A faint but unmistakable smell soon lifted over the prairie’s sweetness, and once at the top of the rise John Nolan caught glimpse of the black curl of smoke spreading through the air.  Though the fire was small, he could tell by its proximity to Curdy’s house that it was unintended and on the cusp of raging.  The flat pasture, ideal for a grazing herd, was full of bunchgrass rich in nutrients and easy to burn.

The wheat farmer kicked hard his heels and the old charger pushed forward; she dug her front hooves into the ground and dragged the tethered cows down the grassy slope.  At the bottom they broke into a jog and the bemoaned cattle cries quickly died away.  Together, they hurried past Curdy’s house in the direction of the billowing smoke.

Curdy was there along with his oxen and plow.  He had tilled a weak circle around the fire and was now attacking the flames with a woolen blanket.

“Sin to Moses! Dash, Dash!”  His voice, hoarse from the heat and smoke, could barely be heard over the trampling blaze. His white beard and forehead were smeared with soot and the backside of his cotton nightshirt was drenched in sweat.  He stretched his bare feet away from the fire-line and fought the holy terror with repeated slaps of the heavy fabric, each attempt proving more feeble than the last.

John Nolan swung off the horse and pulled his rifle from the buckskin scabbard.  Without request for Curdy’s approval he shoved forward the shortened barrel and fired a round-nosed bullet through the nearest cow’s head.  The dead cow crashed to the ground, the rope grew taught, and the horse made two steps back.

Curdy turned at the sound of the gun blast and scurried over to his pair of oxen.  He shouldered the plow’s harness and, lifting the blade above the soil, prodded the stubborn beasts closer to the fire.  By the time he got them in position, John Nolan had already shot dead the second cow and was knotting both carcasses to the middle of the rope.  Then he dallied one end to his saddle horn and told Curdy to do the same to the plow’s steel arm.  Once both ends of the rope were secure and the dead cows were lined in place, John Nolan split their swollen bellies with an eight-inch Bowie knife.

The rancid stench of burning flesh mixed with the smoke and traveled through the air; it reminded John Nolan of the hospital tents inside City Point and of the piles upon piles of human waste and amputated limbs sitting sun-baked and drawing in the mosquitoes, the infectious diseases – and the cowardice.  The similarities between the two smells tightened his stomach like a vice, for not only had it restored in him the nightmarish images he had long since buried, but it suggested that the smells associable with all slaughters are the same and offer no distinction between man and beast.

The flames died down more and more with each pass, and soon they were small enough for John Nolan to snuff out with his boots and the blanket.  Curdy, meanwhile, stood off to the side and retched.

“Texas cowpunchers,” the old man said when he finished, a string of drool hanging off his chin.  “Finally got their wits about them – gone and done this on purpose, no two ways about it!  Easier to kill a bastard than scare him off his land.”

“Settle down,” John Nolan replied.  “What good is it for them to kill you now?  They got their route, they got their rail. Nothing’s standing in their way from here to Chicago, not even your property.”

“Maybe so, but every cattleman needs his pride.  Trust me, you get beat once and it hangs on your reputation.”

John Nolan had his eyes clamped shut and aimed at the sun.  Next he shook his head, kicked at the charred earth, and blinked out at the empty pasture surrounding them.

“Lord knows,” he then said.  “Whoever done this ain’t here now.  No sense in complaining about what’s over and done with.”

The wheat farmer got back in the saddle, tipped his hat, then took the same route home from which he came.  He walked his horse through the clumps of purple clover and buckbrush, down to the dry wash at the bottom of the shallow ravine.  There he spotted a lizard sunning himself on a piece of limestone, and giant grasshoppers, blister beetles, and monarch butterflies bouncing in the shade.  Slowly he crossed over the loose shale and up the grassy slope.

He took his time through the wheat field.  He reached down and let his hand drift over the spiked golden strands.  Thoughts of the upcoming harvest seemed to help clear his head.  He could feel the Kansas sun beat down on his neck and back, but for whatever reason, he didn’t let it bother him.

The sod house he had built was how he had left it, with the front window open and the dog standing in the doorway. John Nolan dropped down from the saddle and was in the process of leading the horse to the corral in back, when he noticed that the dog was busy licking the yolk off his breakfast plate.  The wheat farmer let go of the horse and reached for his rifle.  Its brass frame felt hot in his hand as he walked over to the house’s only entrance.  He stopped outside the door, kicked the plate out from under the dog’s tongue.  The spooked mutt cowered down and scrambled back to the woodpile.

The main room was in shambles.  The wooden table and chairs had been overturned and flipped upside-down.  The objects along the wall, once neatly stacked or hung, lay scattered across the dirt floor.

John Nolan checked the other room where the two of them slept and found it empty and ransacked also.  He turned to the sheet iron stove and, with the tip of the gun barrel, unlatched the door and swung it open.  What he was looking for he had no idea.

He crossed the room and righted both chairs.  He flipped over the wooden table, then positioned the unlit lamp back on top.  The leftover bread he picked up off the floor and returned to the table.  Nearby he found the towel it had been wrapped in, but so far, not the knife.

Outside, meanwhile, old Catherine had gone back to barking.  Her strained voice got John Nolan thinking about how one day he would have to go and shoot the dog.  But not now, he told himself – “Sometime later.”  He sat down at the table and tore off a chunk of bread.