I CONSIDER YOU as I lay bleeding. The bullet passed through my chest beneath the collar bone, clean, but must have nicked something on the way because a little crook of bone is jutting out the exit wound and I can’t help myself from touching it with the tip of my finger. It doesn’t hurt to touch it, but there is a definite tingle when I do, like maybe I’ve tickled a nerve. I keep reaching for it, my arm bent at the elbow in front of me, fingers over my shoulder, like a man with a back itch.
I close my eyes tight so as not to get brain-sick looking at the aspen leaves against the blue sky. They’re at it again, doing that trick and turning to gold, shimmering. The last time I stared at them my eyes rolled back in my head and I dropped to the ground and twitched for what seemed like days but when I came to, the sun hadn’t moved but a tick so I guess it was only a minute or two that passed.
It happened another time when you’d laid the six spoons on the table by the kerosene lantern. The light shot off the silver right into my eyes and I fell to the floor. When I came around I was looking at one of the bees wax candles you made and sold at the Mercantile. It was wrapped in a page from a gazette, which is how you did it, and I read a story from the recent news, my head on the floor, about a farmer named Oliver Dearborn who had fallen asleep in a rocking chair in his front yard when a twister came across his field and picked him up into its swirl, chair and all, and set him down three miles away in a friend’s vegetable garden. He was still in the chair, gripping the arms and fully awake. His friend was said to have been surprised to see him there.
I took to reading your wrapped candles at the table and enjoyed how a story just got tucked under another as the paper wound around to meet itself. That’s sort of how things go, one thing replaced by another before the first has a chance of completion–so much going on in this life it’s hard to keep up, or remember how things happen sometimes, events rounding a corner and disappearing.
Clay Pruitt couldn’t remember what happened one night when he was blind drunk, but I was there and saw it. He’d passed out standing up, his head pressed against the side of an ore wagon, near a rear wheel, and the driver didn’t see him and released the brake and giddy-upped the horses. The wagon was full and it rolled over Pruitt’s foot and made a pool of mush in his boot, but he was too far drunk to feel a thing or wake up. Me and Arne Feller picked him up and put him on a board in front of the barbershop. In the morning he stood up to just fall right down again. When asked by Bob Right, the barber, what was going on, Pruitt said that he had the worst hangover he’d ever had, one that made his foot feel swampy.
A passing cloud cast a shadow over your face when Pruitt came by the cabin a month later with Ray Lightfeather to thank me for pulling him out of the road. He limped badly but could hobble around pretty good with a cane. We went deer hunting that day and Pruitt brought down a doe as well as any man with a full complement of toes could. We returned to the cabin late afternoon and dressed the deer. Pruitt was a fine hand with a knife. We wrapped the salted meat in skins and Pruitt and Ray rode off with their share after drinking coffee that you brought out to us. When they’d mounted the ridge you turned to me and said:
“ I don’t like that man Pruitt. There is something hidden and undesirable about him.”
“Aw, he’s alright. Drinks too much, maybe. He’s having a rough patch with the foot all busted up. He came all the way out here to thank me, didn’t he, and shared his meat?” I took my pipe and filled the bowl, struck a match off the underside of the table.
“Come on now, you’re a suspicious little thing, aint’ you?” The tobacco glowed in the pipe as I drew on it.
“Go out on the porch with that stinker,” you said, trying to sound peeved, but your smile peeked through the hard set of your mouth and I grinned and went to sit beneath a sky that was going dark. Stars were showing. A dog barked. I blew smoke at the rising red moon as a low fog snaked through the trees.
I don’t know how long I was out there but the moon had shifted some when you called me to come in for supper. I stood and tapped the pipe against the bottom of my boot. It was then I noticed the shape of a rider on horseback, glowing in the moonlit fog, just at the bottom of the ridge. I blinked to make sure the vision was real, but when I saw the muzzle flash and felt the burn in my chest, there was no longer any doubt. I fell where I’d been standing and he galloped full speed up onto the porch. Before a new darkness took me I heard your cry.
“But why? Why?” And then as your screams died away his words were the last thing I heard that night.
“Because he left me like a dog in front of the barber shop. Like a dog.”
* * *
The smell wakes me; the odor of roasted meat and burned wood and hair. A fine white powder covers what I see nearby and I think it snow. Have I slept into winter? But as I turn I see what is left of the cabin – smoldering – and realize the powder is ash. I call for you but remember the screams from the night and know in that instant that you will not answer, and you will not be smiling at me or shooing me out to the porch or bringing a plate of beans to the table. The pain in my shoulder dwindles and fades as another ache takes me like a storm.
I consider you as I lay bleeding. I avoid the spangle of aspen leaves but my is eye is caught by a sparkle in the ruins. It is your locket, the one you wore even to bed, the one with a picture of Jesus inside it. It is misshapen from the heat, the two halves fused, the hinge useless as the icon within. I wonder if the face of God is black as your bones. I stare at the glint of sun dancing on the surface of your charm until my eyes roll back in my head and my arms and legs begin to twitch and I am gone.