~ Dixon Hearne ~
A story from Dixon Hearne's latest book, Native Voices, Native Lands.
Winds rise up from the western hills, whooshing and arrogant as they cut raw paths through knolls and canyons heading eastward toward the sand hills, where white cranes bivouacked like weather vanes through the hot summer. For days they have blown, chafing the land and leaching top soils, carrying them away to points unknown, stiffening life in their wake and bringing settlers to their knees in prayer for even brief respite.
Cullen lugs an armful of logs from the snow-capped piling on the south side of the small cabin—taking note that the stack is half depleted. There will not be enough to carry them for more than a fortnight; he will need another haul from Chadron. Not since he was a boy in Ireland had he encountered such cruelty at the hands of nature. But the children must be warm and fed and assured. There is no time for self-doubt, self-loathing for the present predicament. He must outwit the cold hand that grasps the land, squeezing life from its inhabitants, conditions that had left him cold and distant.
“Tomorrow, I go to Chadron. Fort Robinson,” Cullen announces to his young wife, Ashling. “The trading post. There I will find help and supplies . . . an able man for hire.”
“You cannot ride alone, Cullen,” Ashling replies. “Against the wind and snows? The horse will not make it,” she pleads. “You must ask Raiff to ride with you.”
Pride rushes up the back of Cullen’s throat, almost expectorated as words of scorn. He will not involve another man in his difficulties—a man with a wife and four children, struggles of his own. The matter hangs oppressively, ridding the air of conciliation. Their four eyes focus intensely on the pine knots’ sizzle and pop from the hearth, drawing an eventual measure of tension from the room.
“I will need five day’s rations—dried beef and biscuits. That’s all.” The last words settle the matter definitively; damnable pride prevails.
A gray dawning stirs up winds that abated during the bitter night, and now sweeping fine white torrents of snow before them. The horse skitters and scoffs, too long on the prairie not to sense danger. “Hold on, boy. Hold,” Cullen coddles his skeptical partner. “You’ll be back home in nine days, boy. Hay in your belly and away from the winds.”
A pall falls over the household. He hugs Luke and Maggie, pats their curly blond heads and seals good-bye with the promise of a safe return. Ashling smiles the smile of parental duty, clasping tiny hands with her own reassurance. She lingers at the threshold, studying the image of man and horse cantering forth like a centaur, fading into gray, then white, then nothingness. “Nine days,” Ashling mutters, shutting the elements from her door, settling into the reality of Cullen’s decision, reaching deep for strength through the sleepless, howling night.
Days and nights draw slowly on. Ashling struggles to maintain optimism. She wrings her hands and curses her husband beneath her breath for his insufferable pride, his refusal to ask Raiff Clancey to go with him. She imagines him stiff and half-buried in a snow bank somewhere he will not be discovered until the spring thaw. But the children must never sense her grave concern.
Winds howl relentlessly through the dark days and nights. Before daybreak on the sixth morning, Ashling is awakened by a knocking at the heavy wooden door. She struggles to suppress her fear as she approaches—no one calls in blizzard conditions. It must be someone lost, she reasons. Stranded in the storm. Her heart leaps momentarily with the thought that Cullen has returned, but her hope is cut short by a strange voice from the other side.
“I need help,” the voice repeats, loudly at first then fading. “I’m lost. I need help,” the man calls again, sending hackles of flight up her nape, her cautious eyes upon her children. “I mean no harm. I’m lost.” The voice is swallowed up by desperation, too cold, too tired to call again.
The door creaks and the hearth’s shimmer falls upon the face of a young man who leans heavily, more dead than alive. He stumbles over the threshold, tumbling headlong into a heap on the plank wood floor. The entire length of his tall body is coated in an icy patina, his cheeks and hands pallid, wax-like. Quickly, the woman hooks his half-frozen horse to the hemp lifeline that leads from cabin to barn where her own horse and two cows are feeding on hay.
Luke and Maggie gawk and point as Ashling struggles to scrape the ice from the man’s clothing, but to no avail. It must be removed and the man’s body warmed. For whatever reason, the matter needs no explaining to the Luke and Maggie. They understand cold and wet and sickness—it is enough explanation for them. They help their mother make a pallet of quilts on the floor, while she strings a cotton sheet across the room for privacy. The man on the floor does not know he is in the world as she sets about undressing his body, patting his arms and face and back to wake the blood. His clothes, wet and foul from days of wear are removed, but his feet are too frozen in the boot to remove immediately.
Ashling had seen only her brothers unclothed before her marriage, but her modesty is not compromised by the task she’d been given. She boils water and wipes the body in long, even strokes, followed by a regimen of drying and patting until color begins to surface—first his neck and face, and finally his limbs. He lies at rest before the hearth through the entire day.
By early evening, as the winds knock loudly at the door again, the man stirs. Panning the room, eyeing the children—then Ashling—he points toward the door. “Coyotes,” he whispers. “Hungry. Spooked my horse.”
Ashling flinches. Once again her hackles rise on point. The man was left stranded, attacked by starved coyotes, something they had never encountered before. Anxiety races through her veins at the thought of Cullen trudging through snow banks with rabid creatures at his heel. But by early evening, the cabin falls quiet again and the stranger drifts back into heavy sleep.
The weight of worry and a week of fitful, sleepless nights take their toll. Come morning, Ashling rouses from her half-sleep to the children’s eager bidding. There, standing before her, is the man she has resurrected from the brink of an icy death—covered only by a cotton sheet and dark stubbly beard.
“The children here told me what you did, ma’am,” the man says, flashing a crooked grin at Maggie and Luke. He opens his mouth again to speak but hesitates. “I’m deeply obliged. Grateful, I’d say. Name’s Ethan Swale, ma’am.” There is sincerity and appreciation in his voice, Ashling can sense that. But there is something else she cannot name, something in the shadows of his fine eyes, the turn of his head as he speaks. The feeling nags her as she pulls together a meal of eggs and beans and salt pork.
“Where were you headed, Mr. Swale?” Ashling finally inquires, “When you were attacked and nearly lost your horse?”
“North Platte, ma’am,” the man replies. To join a ranching outfit heading out for Omaha,”
“A long way from here …five hundred miles at least to Omaha. Got family there?”
“No ma’am, not no more.” He stops abruptly and studies his cup of coffee, visibly uneasy. “Please don’t be asking me personal things, ma’am,” he says. “You got no right.”
Conversation dies there for the rest of the morning, as the man locates and refits himself with the clothes Ashling had hand-washed with lye soap and dried by the fire. By mid-afternoon, the children have engaged the stranger in guessing games and storytelling. He is a competent tale spinner: gunfights, street brawls, and animal stories that delight and bring smiles to tiny faces pining for their papa. He even brings a wistful smile to Ashling’s troubled face. An air of normalcy settles upon the cabin and lingers through the evening and following day, easing fears that now hang vaguely in the woman’s mind.
With the gradual regaining of his strength, the man earns his keep tending the animals and clearing heavy snowpack from the roofs. Then one evening, after the children have drifted into peaceful sleep, he announces: “I must be leaving soon, ma’am.” His eyes shine in the dim light. “I don’t have words to tell you what I truly feel—you not turning me away from your door.”
“It was the right thing to do, Mr. Swale. I had no choice.” Once again the woman senses something strange and compelling in the man’s restless eyes, something deep and private. “I can offer you some rye whiskey, Mr. Swale, if you like,” she replies, pushing back her brilliant auburn hair. “To warm your soul.”
“I’d be mighty obliged,” he says, eyes narrowing shyly. “But only if you join me. I don’t drink alone.”
“My three brothers taught me how to sip hard whiskey without getting sick,” the woman smiles, filling two cups with Irish rye. “I only drink on special occasions, but I think I’ve earned a swallow.”
“Indeed you have, ma’am,” he says, raising the cup. “Seems to me we’re both stranded souls just now. A whim of nature I suppose.”
“And poorly tethered to hopes and longing.”
“I reckon. But I don’t dwell on disappointment,” he says. “Or regret. I make the best I can of a thing and let it go at that.”
Conversation flows at length then fades as the man sinks into his pallet, leaving Ashling lost once more to her troubles. She remembers her life back in Ohio, her family. She recalls the promises Cullen had made and the hard trip west to the edge of the plains, where she has endured three rigorous winters and summer blight. But retreat, however wise, is no option for Cullen—adversity no more stubborn than he. Vexatious and unyielding pride holds their fate, her dreams now languishing like the sickened land around them.
In the quiet firelight, she studies the stranger before her, the long, masculine lines of his body as it rises and falls in slow, even rhythm, his handsome face, arms almost reaching it seems—and the thick shock of sable hair tousled and swept across his forehead, stirring heady visions as the whiskey courses her tired veins.
She too is soon overtaken by spirit-laced, deep repose. Sometime in the night she becomes aware that Cullen has returned and crept into bed beside her. She stirs to the heat of his body, his breath upon her, strong arms quietly reaching in the dark, drawing her close, sealing the union more deeply somehow, more fully, satisfying desire until their conjoined bodies collapse and drift cloud-like into other heady dreams, all fear at last released.
Morning arrives in groggy confusion. Ashling wakes to find herself alone in bed, her covers disheveled from a night of fitful dreaming—dreams so real, so vivid she sees them replaying in her mind—warm, tender embraces, bodies conjoined, two souls made one. She wishes it to never end.
Ethan Swale moves quietly, methodically, preparing to take his leave. He does not speak until he is spoken to. Ashling and the children busy themselves in the kitchen area preparing a meal of biscuits and strong ham, the last hot meal he will probably have for some time.
“I’ve cooked extra, Mr. Swale,” Ashling says at length. “Something to take with you.” There is an odd sadness in her voice, somehow different from when her husband prepared to leave. It has been nine long days. Cullen’s return in the night was but a lonely woman’s imagining. And yet it remains so very real, so physical she feels the aftereffects still radiating through her being.
“The wind has died some,” the man says, eyes cutting slowly in her direction. “And the snow has let up.”
The four gather round the small wooden table for a last meal before he sets out. Ashling finds herself studying the man’s face again, his eyes. They have not changed. The shadows and secrets remain. But she is overcome with feelings that she knows him now in deep and private places. More than just a passing stranger, a mere acquaintance alone in the world. And the feeling haunts her long after he has trudged out the door into the rising winds, and his tall, handsome image is swallowed by the elements, leaving no more than a shared knowing.