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Snow, Ashes

ISSUE:  Summer 2001

Hobbs returned to the unheated room in the machine shed sometime in January. It was long after dark, wind blowing in from the north and west, so Fremont Adams did not hear him come. The dogs yipped their high-ground warnings, however, nudging Adams to rise from his chair by the stove, put on his sheepskin coat, his hat, grab at his shotgun. The gun was a boastful habit, and he knew it. He lived too far from good water to worry about lions. He no longer kept enough stock to interest serious coyotes. Few creatures cared to visit his place.

He checked the barn and the horses. The two younger dogs joined him from their rag pallets under the porch, both of them more interested in the stew beef scent of his pant legs than whatever intrusion or fantasy had set them off. When he circled behind the barn to patrol the locked fuel tanks, he realized what he was up against. The third dog, a hipworn collie-cross he called Rain, was standing near the machine shed, tail stiff, ears up. It was a thing he did only for Hobbs, this naked hope for an invitation. Adams looked over each shoulder into the black aisles of his ranchyard for the blunt, stalled nose of a truck, though he didn’t know why. Hobbs never came with a truck or anything that could rightly be called a possession. He came with the clothes on his back and, in some ways, with less than that.

Adams felt the shotgun in his hand as he crossed toward the shed. He would greet Hobbs, make sure he had blankets. Invite him to breakfast. He tried to remember what was stored in the small room that was located behind the tractors and the ditcher and the swather. A canvas cot, he was nearly sure about that. Maybe some buckets of sealer compound. He found he couldn’t bring the exact litter of the room to mind.

Yet when he got to where Rain had set up his silent courtship, Adams knew he would not welcome Hobbs. He would not knock on the skewed yellow door that had once hung in his parents’ bedroom, would not cough up the syllables of recognition, wouldn’t even breathe. He and Hobbs would do as they always had, the two of them. See what they saw when they saw it. Acknowledgment was not part of the debt they managed between them.

He made his way back to the unlit porch. Rain remained on watch, knowing his patience would eventually be rewarded, if not on this cold night, then on another just like it. He would be allowed to share Hobbs’s cot. For the dog, it was enough. Adams did not wonder at the animal’s devotion to a man it had not seen in a long while. He knew Rain was a fool, though he’d trained him to be better. He stripped off his stiffened coat and hat, placed the gun hard on its rack. This was not the time to brood upon what a man owed another man, what any creature believed it was worth. Such thoughts belonged to morning. Certain of that, Adams carefully banked the stove fire, worked his aching feet free of his boots, and settled into his chair, open-eyed, until the earliest moment he could call dawn.

The phone rang before he boiled up his first cup of coffee. It would be Buren. It was always Buren. The only blessing was the fact that 40 miles of phone line spared him the candied smells of his brother’s bourbon and hair oil.

“You’re slow.” The voice was loud, raised by leaping vowels. “Usually shut me up after two, three rings.”

No answer. Adams knew it was best not to dignify most of Buren’s remarks with a reply.

“If I thought you cared, I’d believe you were out moving hay or rebuilding one of your monumental engines, not able to hear the damn phone.”

“It’s five in the morning, Buren.”

“Yes, yes, a sunrise not to be missed. But I know you haven’t been sleeping. We share that curse, you’ll remember.”

“I’ve got a woman here.”

The voice wheezed with pleasure for several breaths before it regained its bullying poise. “No, you have not. I know every female from here to Rock Springs. Not one of them lacks that much self-respect, drunk or sober. But the joke is a good one. I admire a good joke.”

Adams poured his coffee, sloshing it hot across the knuckles of his left hand. The dogs, except Rain, were scrabbling hard at the door, wanting in out of the cold. They’d heard the less forbidding notes of his voice.

“I called about some books. You’ll come to town in a day or two?”


“Thought you might bring me a treat. Not that I don’t want to come out, but your road and my Buick. . . .”

“Are pieces of shit. Tell me what you need. I’ll get them to you sometime.”

Buren was a retired lawyer who’d returned to Baggs, Wyoming after years of political appointment in Cheyenne. He’d partly renovated a 19th-century house that had once been a brothel, once a home to Presbyterian missionaries and their dry biscuits. He despised the hardpan ranch he’d grown up on—or so he claimed—but he thrived on its reputation, especially those threads of reputation which so tightly cocooned his younger brother. He was forever raiding the small, leatherbound library assembled by their grandparents—the ledgers, the receipts, the boxed diaries kept by the young women of the family before they married. He claimed to be writing a book, though he refused to say what the book was about. Adams suspected Buren was merely doing all he could to keep his school-marmish mind in balance. Drink and redecoration would not be enough.

“I would like the blue volumes on the second high shelf. To the left of the door. Both of them.”

He always did it that way, described the books by color and location as if Adams could not read the titles stamped on the sun-flaked spines as well as he could. Adams was about to hang up, his tolerance for insult reached, when he recalled what he should tell his brother.

“Hobbs is back. Haven’t seen him yet, but he’s here.”

There was a rare moment of silence, one Adams knew he should cherish, before Buren launched his response. “Her grief moves hitherward like an angry sea.”

Adams resisted the obvious question. Sipped his coffee.

“Medea,” Buren purred. “One of the plays you brought to me last month. A Greek tragedy in which Hobbs might gladly take a part if he were a vengeful man, which I know you believe he is not. Still, one thinks of Charlotte.” He paused as if he expected Adams to fill the chasms around that name. Adams did not oblige. “How long since last time? Five years? You’ll take care of him, I suppose. Since it appears he hasn’t cast you off.”

Adams closed his eyes as his ears filled with a battery roar he had not heard in a long time. Howitzers, hurling thunder at the black rock of Korea. “I’ve never known C.D. Hobbs to cast off much of anything. He was always the other way, a hanger-on, from our time as boys. Your time, too.” He felt then what he hadn’t felt during the night, a sheath of responsibility that so girdled him it made his words taste heated in his mouth. “I’ll give him work, Buren, if he’s able. And I’ll keep him clear of you and your piss-ant sensitivities.” With that, he hung up. Listened a moment for the dogs who seemed to have abandoned him for the daylight that was levering itself over Bell Butte and the calicoed roofs of his ranch.

Hobbs was changed. There was still the tremor in his left hand and the frightening devotion of his gaze when engaged in a mechanical task. There was the stalklike remnant of the ear. But there was also a soft pad above and below his belt buckle, a pillowed shape that looked more like a stash of clean underwear or hoarded dollar bills than the swell of a body. Somehow, age had drawn whatever was still malleable in Hobbs toward the place below his ribs and heart. His face was familiar—Adams would have known him anywhere—yet it was not the same. Younger around the blue filament eyes, if that was possible in a man who’d worked ranches and oil rigs every moment he’d had his health. And the mouth, always too wide and froglike, seemed shut so tight it was lipless. He had never talked much, not since they’d gone overseas in 1950. These days he had less to say than nothing.

There were also no signs of recrimination, no aftershocks of memory or hard feeling Adams could detect, though he searched for them. Hobbs did not ask about Charlotte or Buren or anyone from their substantial past together except some school teachers and a highway department employee whose job they had once pretended to envy. Adams thought Hobbs’s aunt still lived across the border in Craig, Colorado, though he somehow knew Hobbs had not been to see her. All the man seemed to want was shelter, and the familiar horse collar of work. Add on the arthritic affection of Rain and he saw how Hobbs might grid out the calendar pages of a life.

The extra cooking was easy enough to manage—Adams made the meals, Hobbs cleaned up after, putting pots in cupboards where they didn’t belong just as he always had. The chores went faster, and though it was deep winter, a season bleak enough to scour Adams’s most modest plans, they were able to overhaul the smaller John Deere without much trouble. It was a task Adams had postponed for months because he could not lift the engine block alone and, as Buren constantly reminded him, he could no longer afford to hire help. With Hobbs, he’d be able to repair his machinery, they could fence, reset the check dams in the meadows, do all that men should do to prepare. Still, Adams could see a time down the road when the useful maintenance would be finished. Hobbs had already asked when the ewes would arrive, how many there would be. Adams put him off, not yet able to share the diminishment of his days with this man, this friend of a kind, who was already so diminished.

He hadn’t confessed to Hobbs, for instance, that he no longer served as head man for the water conservation district. When Hobbs requested they ride First Mesa ditch as they had so many times before, he asked without words, heating up the truck one morning after the horses were fed and the eggs scraped off the plates from the 1964 World’s Fair. Adams went along. He still had his gate keys, for God’s sake. What would an explanation of his forced retirement change? Hobbs didn’t seem to get much these days which made Adams wonder about hospitals and medication, whether they were still part of Hobbs’s explanations of himself, the ones he’d never uttered. But Hobbs hadn’t asked for recent history. He’d asked to ride the damn irrigation ditch. So they did.

The district had completed renovations of First Mesa since Hobbs’ last stint in the valley. He was clearly pleased by what he saw, pushing his salted black cap above his shaved hairline in admiration of the unchoked plumes and weirs. The fallen cottonwoods had been dragged clear and cut up for firewood. Several tons of rip-rap had been dumped in the curves of the ditch to reduce summer erosion when the water was high. They’d never had the money, the two of them; they’d had only their manpower, a tandem gift as scavengers, to keep the water flowing. But these were better days. Adams, seated in the slowly rolling pickup, watched Hobbs leap onto the wing of the slidegate at Dutch Joe Draw, the sky bird empty above him, and he thought how Hobbs had jury-rigged the previous gate through thankless years of low pay and drought. They were to have been engineers, gone to college, flung up dams in Arizona or Egypt, not spent their dusk hours cleaning tumbleweed and beaver bone from sorry ditches carrying water to sorrier fields.

It hadn’t happened that way.

Hobbs spread his spindly legs and gripped the hand wheel that opened the sluice, elbows at the level of his reddened ears. There was nothing below the guillotine gate but ice and defeated leaves, yet the motion pincered Adams in a memory he wasn’t sure he could trust. C.D. Hobbs at 15 or 16, child of a mother with no gumption, a father never mentioned, forging the foaming snow melt on Savery Creek, a bum lamb in his soaked arms, elbows just that high. The fast water festooning him like lace. But was it a lamb he carried or a piece of camping equipment they’d forgotten during a fool’s errand fishing trip to the other side? Adams couldn’t remember, and he damned himself, upright in the idling Ford, feet paining him as they always did in winter, for not being able to reconstruct Hobbs’s one sure moment among the brave.

He interrupted Hobbs as creator, saw the ingredients and mismatch, and came to believe later that what he witnessed was the sum total of understanding he deserved. Hobbs had reorganized the rear of the machine shed into a workshop that was better than the one they’d had during their best days on the ditches and the ranch. He hung lights, tiered the orphaned tools, wired up additional 120 volt outlets. He’d even gotten the old space heater working, though it looked to Adams like he neglected to take the heater into his room at night.

Adams had just pastured the horses, a broom-tailed pair he kept only as companions for one another, when he heard the tenor whine of the grinder, thought Hobbs must be shaping a new linch pin for the swather. So he yanked a gap in the shed’s roll doors and tried to adjust to the boxcar light. He could see Hobbs in goggles, the smudge of his high-and-tight haircut dark on his skull. Hobbs making sparks.

Adams edged along a section of wall hung with busted shearing blades and a prideless collection of coyote skins and pheasant fans, came up on Hobbs’s shoulder in a way only Rain, who was splayed on a folded tarp, noticed. Hobbs wasn’t grinding a pin. Something else was gaining shape under his gloved hands. The air smelled of heat and ore and maybe the stale breath of Hobbs’s personal exhortations. Adams stepped back from the bright arc of concentration, saw where Hobbs had set up a pair of vise grips on the workbench and clamped something large and intricate between them.

An open-ended badger trap was what it looked like, or a queer, slotted basket. Adams wasn’t sure. Some therapeutic foolishness maybe, though he had never known Hobbs to play at a task when he wasn’t in a hospital. The thing looked like it was supposed to be pretty, which it was not. He leaned closer. The right angle joints were soldered smooth; the interior surface was an assembled starburst of aluminum scrap, chrome and glass. For a noisy moment he was reminded of his sister Charlotte, how she had wanted Hobbs settled on the ranch in just this way, indulgently, pacifically, believing that time and freedom and the tilted axis she called love could heal him. She’d been wrong. There’d been no healing. Yet Hobbs was here— when she was not—and he had his freedom.

Hobbs killed the grinder. He pulled his goggles and gave Adams a blue-eyed look of such predictable sanity that it was as if the two of them had traded places. His Carhartts glittered with hot filings. He said Hello, Fremont, actually said the words, before he went to the far end of the workbench and nipped something between the greasy fingers of his glove. He handed it to Adams. Not done, he said, and then he waited.

Adams entertained a pitiful thought about Christmas ornaments, for the thing he was given was silvery and frail, cookie-cutter size with just that kind of cheap holiday profile. Then it came to him and his squinting eyes all at once—the fur-trimmed parka, the careless angle of the shoulder-slung carbine, the abusive hole of the mouth. Sergeant Hollis Robitaille, Easy Company, 7th Marines. Etched, incised, in posture. Adams swallowed an immediate burning in his throat.

He gave Hobbs a pained, abandoned smile, a reaction that was honest if it was not much else. He returned the figure. Robitaille in effigy was defensible after all these years, maybe even desirable. But he had only to survey the structure between the vise grips—it looked more cagelike to him now—to know Hobbs was not finished with his rogue’s gallery, not by a longshot.

He wasn’t. Over the next week he fashioned a Navy doctor from the hospital in Hungnam and a stunned portrait of PFC Gerald Brewer, which he crumpled underfoot, though not with the volatile frustration Adams found himself expecting. There was also a prone figure of Adams himself, belly down with his light machine gun. There was an arm-waving, shit-stomping wildcatter Hobbs had drilled oil with south of Wamsutter in the 1960’s. There were several sheep. Adams did not ask Hobbs why he was doing what he was doing, and he did not fail to drop by the shed every evening after the horses were settled. Not even when Hobbs showed him, with a skittish fear of failure in his wrists, a freshly snipped tin blank he somehow knew would come to represent his lost sister Charlotte.

“I should have known,” said Buren.

“It’s not like he’s calling me out, or showing how he might crack. He’s just making these . . .things.” Adams felt compelled to contradict his brother, though he’d been the one to phone and lay out the situation, if that’s what it was.

Life to me were misery. . . .”

“You do me no damn good with your quotes, thank you. Not that you can do me much good anyhow. I just thought you ought to know. I’m thinking of calling Charlotte.”

“That, my brother, would be a mistake. C. D. Hobbs should remember her as he remembers her, which, from what you tell me, is a memory quite striking in its passion. Perhaps he’ll be content to create her likeness over and over again, in the tradition of the spurned and the betrayed. That’s what I’ll hope, for your sake.”

“You’re not free on this one, Buren. You done things, too.” Adams couldn’t believe how unshuttered the whole Hobbs thing made him. Times past he’d never say a word about others’ deeds or cast a single line of blame.

“Yes, I have.” Adams listened for the lilt of regret in his brother’s voice, didn’t hear it. “I’m right on this, nonetheless. Hobbs has returned to our ranch to die. There are several reasons for him to do so, not the least of which is he has no other home. You say he looks as healthy as a steer. Maybe so. But he has died twice over in his life, as you no doubt recall. He’s a man of peculiar symmetries. I will pray to the best of my Episcopalian ability that he does not take you with him when he chooses to go.”

The next evening Hobbs drove the truck to the far end of the pasture on Dry Cow Creek. A change of routine, but Adams had no taste of the ferment inside Hobbs’s head, so he guessed most of Hobbs’s motives remained equivalent to his own. Which meant Hobbs had gone to eyeball the dwindled ditches or aslant fences, the happenstance things a man does to seal himself to fallow land. He had taken the dog, Rain.

Adams went to the shed, as usual. Drawn to watch over Hobbs’s shrunken, flat-eyed cast of characters as they seemed to watch over him.

Hobbs was unruffled when he returned, casual in the unsnapping of his caramel coat. He might have been relieved to find Adams hunched over in the half light. They had much to say to each other, men who had learned the brutal weightlessness of words in the worthless foxholes of Chosin. But relief wasn’t a feeling either of them trusted.

“Going along good, looks like.” Adams spoke from the powdered seat of the grinder as Rain crept to his tarpaulin.

Hobbs misdirected Adams’s words on purpose, the first sign things wouldn’t go well. “Pasture needs a lot a work. Seeding. Fence. Healthy deer, though.”

Adams counted in his mind the number of times C. D. Hobbs had borne the authority he bore that moment beneath the black cowl of the shed. There weren’t many. But how did you ask a man what he meant by trimming out people as paper dolls? He’d studied the Robitaille, the ever larger, hip-chucking versions of Charlotte, the ewes and lambs, weak-chinned doctors. He’d surveyed his own likeness with its unjammed gun, the oil patch roughnecks with nail-scratched grins Hobbs seemed to both love and hate. They leaned against the back wall of their small stage, they dangled from loops of twine, they gathered in unbalanced groups near the tin snips.

“Fremont,” Hobbs said, his voice knotting under the red silk scarf around his neck, “you seen it all.”

And he had, hadn’t he? The rock ice hell of Hill 1282. The lowing calf love for Charlotte they had all used for their own purposes. The infernal prank he and Buren had played to keep themselves untainted by Hobbs’s besotted craziness, a thing done to drive his oldest friend from under his skin and away. Yet the man returned. And now this. Grooved, silver-scaled puppets without a puppeteer. Or a story to tell that might satisfy.

“I’m about where I’m at,” Hobbs continued. “Thought it through day and night, without the doctors now, 40 some years since you and me signed up in Cheyenne, all years of knowing and not knowing at the same time, when my head was mixed up and not so.” He moved close to his shanty crèche, pointed almost happily, his head cocked ninety degrees like a proud father above a crib. “You know ‘em all, that helps me. But maybe not this.” He reached into the welded pipe rafters and freed a misshapen silhouette from its noose, slipped it to Adams.

He had failed Hobbs 40 some years ago, and since. “Napalm,” he croaked, staring at the clotted figure that lay across his palm. “Captain called in the wrong coordinates for the ridge. He didn’t. . .”

“Naw,” Hobbs said, suddenly, horribly laughing. “This guy ain’t from Brewer’s fried squad, though I remember that. A mistake like only a man can make. This guy, well, he ain’t even from what you call our world. But he was at Yudam-ni. I know it was a messed-up time. I know there are some things you can’t say, but I’m thinking you might have seen him upon me on that hill and never told. To be nice.”

Adams felt a dangerous numbness spread through his chest, a numbness he knew from experience would reduce Hobbs to a putty he could store on a low, unimportant shelf. “I didn’t see Chinese soon enough, that’s what I didn’t see.”

“I recall the Chinese,” Hobbs said calmly. “He was there, too, though. Or it. I hadn’t quite got it all worked out. Boy or woman or what. I never saw no wings. Or a spaceship. Fellow I roomed with on the ward at Evanston said there had to be a spaceship.”

Adams sat ham-handed.

“I understand the purpose for the most part.” He was solemn, searching Adams’s blinking eyes for an equal solemnity. “He’ll come for me here, like he did last time when you were right beside me. He needs to make his mark. We all got ways of doing so. We all got something we want. You’ve always finished things, and I want to be a man more out of that herd if the chance is given. There won’t be no spring ewes. I figured that. And you’re off the irrigating. So I done all this—” and he upraised his arms like a conductor above his workbench and the dog and the stilled, cold tractors, “—to get us ready.”

The muddied flank of 1282. Easy Company, 7th Marines. Adams’s squad in the center, ass out, ignorant of what the Chinese had done to Fox/7 earlier in the day. Robitaille taunting Hobbs during dig-in, because he could see Hobbs going under and it made him rage, the absence of hatred and glue in Hobbs. Adams got to keep Hobbs close, as assistant gunner, that was the only bone the sergeant would throw. Robitaille laughed. They were cut bait, anyway. As nightfall blinded them, Adams whispered to Hobbs about the weather, how Wyoming boys shit on this Korean cold, they were used to worse, Hobbs grinning with his raw, split lips, joking about pussy frostbite while he pulled the snotty icicles from his mustache and ate them.

They heard the footsteps first, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds, grinding the snow crust to powder. Then the officer singing cadence in missionary English, clear in the sub-zero air and dark. “Nobody lives forever. You die!” Adams could hear Hobbs rattle. The jitters, the shivers, the pukes—they all had them, but he could somehow feel his buddy in full shatter. “No-bo-dy-live-you-die.” As the first illumination rounds went up, backlighting the enormous human warp and weft that was about to blanket them, Adams eased the gun stock over and clamped his fingers across Hobbs’s mewling mouth. They couldn’t afford a sound.

Then. Trip flares, bugles, cursing, the Chinese whistle shrieks that were like blue flames in his ears. Adams took the gun back and locked himself onto it until he saw Hobbs fishflopping toward the evaporating perimeter. There were mustard coats everywhere. He snatched Hobbs back into the hole, punched him with his numb, mittenless hands so that pain might halt his plunge. No go. Hobbs’s lips chewed air. He set up a crossfire with Lander’s heavy gun until Lander took a grenade. Stolz down. The lieutenant down. Mortar shells shoveling the Chinks into piles. Robitaille crawled forward dragging one leg and spit into Hobbs’s useless ragdoll face, took his ammunition. Then he ordered Adams to stay put, do what it took to save the gun. He’d find a replacement to wrangle Adams’s ammo belts if there were any left alive.

He did what he did. Pulled trigger at shadows and ghosts and waited for the satchel charge that would blossom his guts like poppies on the combed ridge of ice. Until the gun jammed.

It was as though he resurrected C. D. Hobbs next to him, upright, the one guy in the company who could make a firing pin out of anything stiffer than a bootlace. And Hobbs was there, his face a yammering mess Adams couldn’t begin to map. But his pockets, his pockets. Hobbs slavered, No Nobody forever while he conjured a spare unbent pin. Gone no gone no gone.

Adams couldn’t hear those words, of course. He realized that later. So it was all done with what? Knuckles and thumb pads? Eyes too dilated with fear to blink? Hell if he knew. The gun got fixed, he knew that. Hobbs removed the trigger housing, did the deed. While he said things to Hobbs, things torn and begged from him out of desperation and a boyhood life that was all that would ever give their disposable bodies a name. He made a declaration. Not gone yet, you’re with me. Crazy Hobbs, coward Marine, gave him what he needed before he collapsed once more beneath the concussed, hammer blow night. When the white phosphorus shell spun for them, Adams thought only to dive, to go to ground. He owed himself some central thing, that was sustenance and rule. He covered his body with Hobbs’s and found his darkness. It was snapped-off Robitaille who pried them up after Able/5 bellied forward in relief. Robitaille who sent Adams and a new assistant to Lander’s blownout hole to hold down the puny flank while he forced Hobbs to the rear at the point of a hot bayonet. The corpsman thought Hobbs, who’d been blanched and seared half hairless, had gone blind. Adams only saw him once more before he was coptered south to Hungnam, leaving Adams and 3000 others trapped in the lockjaw of Chosin.

He would sew it up with Hobbs. He told himself that every year for more than 20 years as he gave Hobbs a cot, jobs when he had them. Then his younger sister Charlotte, who’d tried a bit of college, married her way to California and back, declared she was in love with C.D. and needed her family to step lightly around that smolder. She was in her 30’s by then, a smoker, brooder, a person devoted to quarreling as sport. And the ranch was one third hers, by damn. She’d taken to living in her porcelain blue bedroom, dragging Hobbs up there to hump him during perfectly good daylight hours. The anger Adams usually stored up for the Forest Service and the BLM swung its barrel toward Charlotte. She reminded him of the married skirts he’d raised and his own cold failure to start a family. She called Buren worse names. And maybe it was Buren who’d seen how to chisel the keystone loose. Hobbs was like a strong-backed child, he said, a practical idiot they had some basic responsibility for. Marriage would be an injustice to him, especially marriage to Charlotte who was already munching through her appetite for ranch life like a locust. She’d kill him, said Buren in his lawyer-cut pants from Cheyenne. Adams didn’t think so. He didn’t think the moans and giggles from that blue room, or the staggering naked haunches he had to endure at breakfast, would kill anyone, not even him. But he’d become sick of Hobbs and the good and bad that continually befell him. He wanted a sorting out. So he agreed to a diversion.

It didn’t take much. He wired the charges below the old dike, left Buren to do the lead-in, and when Buren got Hobbs out on the seep of Muddy Creek that ran near the house, he let her blow, just another bit of dynamite ranch business to get water going where it needed to be, pretty as you please. Except he’d known what the explosion would do to Hobbs. Mortar fire, it was just like it, or close enough, a spout of dirt and sound around the creek bend from where Buren was delivering his lessons on love and money. Hobbs didn’t fold right away. Not until he saw Adams race over the berm in his clay-smeared coveralls. Adams in a false charge. Then he vomited and halfway dug out an eyeball he claimed was burning into the hideaway of his brain. They trussed him still, despite his shrieks about needing a start or a finish, needing to know, and they took him to the Salt Lake VA where he stayed for more than nine months.

Charlotte packed and hitched her way back west on the interstate, swearing she didn’t need more than her spread legs and poison memories to end her life right then. Certainly didn’t need her brothers. She renounced her claims to both Hobbs and the ranch, and though she’d come back as close as Denver, where she worked in a frame shop, they rarely heard from her.

Reconciliation—with anyone or much of anything—was not in Adams’s storehouse from that day on. He had a task of a life with his sheep until the market collapsed. His job as conservation officer kept his jaw firm, then that, too, was gone. He saw Hobbs every few years for a day or so, the time it took to sleep, eat, find a new direction on the compass. But it had been a while. When he boomeranged back this time, and stayed, it seemed the right complication, not necessarily haunted. Not unless Adams made it that way.

It looked like the truck had high-centered. He could see its winking flanks in the dry wash on the south face of Bell Butte. Not a mile from the house. He glassed the scene with binoculars, not seeing Hobbs but spotting Rain looking dead-whipped in the pinched shadow of the truck. There was an uncolored glint near the crown of the butte. Maybe he was being glassed, too. He wondered why Hobbs would take a chance on the snow drifts and stobbed-off sage up there. Day dreamer. The way things were now it took two men to do the job of one. He had to ask himself if that was what he had planned.

He started off with the John Deere, but abandoned it at the first fence line. If Hobbs needed a tow, he’d come back for the tractor. It seemed easier, somehow—though slower—to hoof it straight across the prairie and up the hill. He pulled down the flaps of his hunting cap, checked pockets for keys and knife blades he wouldn’t need. The dogs followed in a squall of lunges and casts. They preferred him when they believed he had work. They fell away, nonetheless, as he picked a difficult route through greasewood and wind-glossed snow. To them, loyalty was a matter of distance.

The shadows he broke with his boots clawed longer and bluer toward the east. The rasp of his movement and his own breath reminded him, as he did not need to be reminded, of the doomed hills above Chosin. Fewer than 30 men from Easy/7 crawled off that winter ground under their own power, he among them. When he crossed the barren ruts of the old Overland Trail, a stretch of stagecoach-carved mud the feds kept bothering him about, wanting him to preserve it, no scars on the scars of history, he stopped again to look for his truck. He couldn’t see it. He was on the low point of his own land. Wondered if Hobbs was just piddling around up there collecting windburn and sunsets.

He didn’t have to glance back over his shoulder to know how he felt about all that was behind him. The ranch was salvageable, as they forever were. He and Hobbs could lay some drain tile in Dry Cow pasture, contract to sell hay, and the current word on merinos was good, select rams and ewes. A little breeding stock wouldn’t be hard to handle, especially with the loan he planned to extract from Buren. His plans weren’t big, but they never had been. They were the result of a body which kept waking up alive and the need—or, hell, call it a desire because that’s what it most resembled in its dark of the night insistence—to manage C.D. Hobbs the way he might have managed all imaginable extensions of himself.

Maybe he could hint to Hobbs that there was a future.

He passed the kiltered docking pen. The collapsed bowel of Bell Butte ditch. His feet, as they always did, gave way to the dead Korean cold.

Hobbs was not at the truck. Adams called for him and got nothing, not even Rain. They were fooling him then, both of them, and he didn’t have time for it. The truck keys were in the ignition like they ought to be. He used boards from the truck bed and an impatient dance on the clutch to spin free. Found one of his Number Two shovels amid the winter claws of sage, its blade bearded with yellowy mud. Hobbs had tried something it looked like, he just hadn’t tried hard enough.

He wasn’t about to let any of it—not the ranch nor the demons between them—become a game. So he rolled the truck down the way he’d come, thinking he’d use the two-track on the far side of the butte to get home. Hobbs could meet his own curfew without tires or a heater. He drove carefully, the way he had when his ewes were dropping loose-skinned lambs and anticipation was a thing to be cultivated. He was nearly passed Bell Butte Well #3, one of the wrecked sites that had gone dry on him as a young man, nothing left but rust-sutured tanks and a weak memory offence, when Hobbs was alongside him, thumb out.

Startled was what he was. Hobbs had gotten inside his peripheral vision, not an easy thing to do on that woman broad jut of hill where everything but the occasional gnarl of juniper was gopher beige in color. And that thumb. He’d seen Hobbs jaunty only once, he’d swear it, and that had been short-lived, staged as it was for a gnashing, heated-boiled NCO at Camp Pendleton. The NCO had been badly whipsawed on Guadalcanal. Hobbs’ joke gesture had been a scraggly bouquet of fear. Offered.

Adams mashed the clutch, reached over and opened the passenger door while the truck was still rolling.

“Sony about the hang up, Fremont. Whyn’t you stop? I want you to see something.” Hobbs said the words smiling and dip-shouldered. Looked at the chromed door handle of the truck like it was a thing unique, exquisite to the eye of an engineer, but he didn’t touch it.

He knew right then they were on a new supply route, though he felt no curiosity—none—about this knowledge. It was the lay of the land. The wind was flat in their faces and on the pitted windshield of the truck. The binoculars around Hobbs’ neck took on a happy sway. He left the truck running, a joke of his own, intimating that he—or they—would be back in one short minute. Or two.

He’d climbed Bell Butte too many times as a boy, they all had. Despite the warnings about rattlers, false tales of child-eating lions, false tales of Sioux warriors and good, unbroken spearheads—so many false tales. He wondered when the hunchback of limestone and burled light had gone ugly on him. Was it when Charlotte was old enough to follow them, him and Buren and grin-fostered C.D. Hobbs, ruining what they called their separate fun when all she’d ever breached was their being separate? Was it when he shot his fifth—and final—eagle off the hill’s shit-frosted brink, illegally of course, but the damned thing had been taking lambs, and the recoil gave him no satisfaction because he could see the cull pile of his ranch from up there, jacklit by the lofted spring sun, looking more cored out than he felt? He couldn’t say. The butte had left him as so many things had, everything but Hobbs and memory, the unstaunched seasonal flow of water. And that was all right. It made him like every old man he’d ever known.

“You looking to earn us a new fortune in oil?” Hobbs had led him onto the rodent-tunneled edge of the well pad. Adams felt it was his duty to provide some chorus.

“Nuh-uh. Done with that. Though being up here brings smells back, don’t it, smells of time gone by. I was good on a rig when I was left alone.” Hobbs tugged at his camouflage cap, a freebie from the hardware store in Rawlins though its bill was already skeined with grease, maybe graphite. He looked large in his lined caramel coat, the wool plaid shirt Adams had jettisoned from his own sparse closet. His eyes were whitened, sealed over by an inner distraction. “I was good on my good days.”

Adams nodded.

“I hear some of them talking in town about the arthritis or the bad heart or cancer. Stomach. How is it we never talk like that?”

Adams torqued up the first part of a shrug, then thought better of it. “Not because we’re different. We’re not. We just hadn’t got to it yet.”

“Think we will?”

“Maybe,” he said.

He understood then what had been laid out, what he had been called on to perceive since that had forever been his role, he the scout, Hobbs the one who bore the consequences. It was a balance he’d never tried to change. The well’s sheet metal pump shed was intact. He could see the tire treads, footprints, and deep drag marks now that he was looking for them. He knew what was in the shed. An old Briggs & Stratton generator that Hobbs would have repaired, then cross-wired to power not the pump but a waxy packet of dynamite, or maybe something more subtle. It didn’t matter. He slit his eyes against the cold gusts coming from the west. The sun had deserted the theater. The clouds were short-keeled and dark.

“I remember plinking gophers up here,” Hobbs said. “Or near here. I guess you remember. You were always the best shot.”

“Buren the worst.”

“Well, sure.” Hobbs levered a wet laugh from his wool-clad chest. “Buren always the worst.”

Adams nodded.

“You can come, you know.” Hobbs defused his eyes for the first time, glanced at Adams then air-dropped his stare to a steel-toed boot. “That’s the way I have it in my mind, understand? Not like anybody told me, not like a sleepy dream or a preacher, none of that. But the way it should be. Seems right after all this wandering time. Maybe it’s not.”

“I can’t say.” Adams felt something restore itself in his voice, in the sweaty pulse at his neck. It came, and was quickly gone.

“No matter. This ain’t never been about the two of us squawking.” Hobbs turned, blinked into the striations of evening and wind, walked in his slow, pronating way toward the shed. It sounded like he said one last thing to Adams, for him, but Adams couldn’t be sure of the words. Wouldn’t be sure. Step back. Damn you. Your turn. He stayed exactly where he was. Saw the hinges on the shed door glitter like hung decorations. Saw Rain come from nowhere to follow Hobbs’ heels with his grayed muzzle, a fine dog. Waited to see if the destruction was as yet his to share.


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