“Mythical, dangerous and deeply unsettling, you’ve not read a cowboy story like this before.”
At dusk he came limping from the ethered shadows. Perhaps the lamplight of the hovel attracted him as it did the insects—the grass flies, beetles, the moths. The man told his wife to stay inside once the stranger came into view. He went out and met the stranger. Collapsing into the grasses, the stranger panted. He asked for water, first saying water, then speaking in a different tongue altogether. The man called back to his wife for a canteen, made a drinking motion.
From the threshold of their abode the woman came, taper burning in a mason jar, canteen with the strap looped in the crook of her arm. She walked carefully, unbalanced, as she wore nothing on her feet and her belly bulged with child.
‘Thank you,’ the stranger said. He drank.
The man studied the stranger sprawled out before him in the grasses. The stranger wore a white shirt unbuttoned, but in good condition otherwise. His trousers were black, made with shiny fabric the man had never seen. He examined the stranger’s shoes and noticed his foot had been crushed. The hide of the boot puckered into the puncture marks. Dried blood crusted off the edges.
‘I saw your light,’ the stranger said. ‘Saw it from a dozen miles away. Seen it for some time now. Came this way hoping for some shelter.’
Shrugging the man said they didnt have much room.
‘Anything would be good. I need to get my foot looked at.’
The man turned to his wife. He continued to stare at her though he spoke to the stranger. ‘She can mend you—she does to me when I get in a bind.’ Then he motioned to her, one hand circulating around the other, then pointed to the stranger’s foot. She nodded.
The hovel barely accommodated three people. Planks of wood taken from the bed of a wagon covered the ground where the man and woman slept. One wall was constructed of stones piled haphazardly and reinforced with clay and swaths of sod. The adjacent wall was scrapped wood braced into place with a wagon yolk. Canvas oil cloth served as the ceiling, held in place by a stretch of rope. A ragged blanket hung as the door.
‘Gonna have to cut the boot off your foot,’ the man said.
Stranger nodded, said he figured so.
The man nodded to his wife and she used a straight razor to saw through the upper of the boot. Twice she nicked the stranger’s leg, but he did not flinch. He studied her movements as a child might.
‘How’d you do it?’ the man asked.
‘Get your foot like you did.’
The woman began pulling away the strips of leather. Scraps of flesh clung to the piecemeal of the boot. The stranger turned his head to look directly at the man when he spoke. ‘Had a horse go bad on me.’
‘Lost the horse, did you?’
The woman cleaned the blade of the razor with the fray of her skirt, sterilizing the metal in the flame of the candle. Without a moment hesitation she cut into the darkened meat of his wound. She sliced out the infected flesh. Still the stranger talked. ‘Beauty of a horse, white like snow. Light in her step too. I could ride up on someone. Theyd never hear me coming.’
The woman wrung hot water from the rags she boiled and began wrapping his foot. Steam rose from where the blood soaked into the still wet cloth.
‘What’d you say you did?’ the man asked.
‘Horse kicked me off. I told you.’
‘No,’ the man said. ‘Your work.’
‘How do you go bout makin a livin?’
‘I dont. How do you go about doing such a thing?’
The woman finished wrapping the foot. Already the fabric hued pink with the stranger’s blood.
‘We scavenge,’ the man said. ‘Live off the land.’
‘I got a piece of land, got some wheat, some beans.’
‘No, no tobacco.’
‘Thats too bad.’
‘Caint say I’m much one for smoking.’
The woman nodded. The foot was dressed.
‘Does she speak?’ the stranger asked.
‘She does—just not in our tongue.’
The stranger smiled at the woman and thanked her.
When he awoke, the man thought the stranger to be an apparition, a dream of some type. Where the stranger slept an hour before now lay vacant. It was dark, still before morning. He went to the flap door of the hovel and looked out. The stranger hobbled through the grass. The man called out and the stranger looked back over his shoulder. A gnarly piece of driftwood fashioned a crutch for the stranger.
The man walked out to the stranger. ‘Just woke,’ he said. ‘Mustve stirred me when you left. Woke up an thought you was a dream.’
The stranger closed his eyes as if meditating on the man’s words, inhaled through his nose. ‘Wasnt sure myself.’ He opened his eyes. ‘Then I woke.’
The man scooted his hat back on his head so it canted at an unnatural angle. He placed his hands on his hips. The stranger laughed. Then the man laughed too. Murky rays of the rising sun broke over the horizon, announcing the coming of the day.
‘Wanted to see the piece of land you told me about,’ the stranger explained. ‘The patch of wheat and beans.’
The man nodded, pointed, said it was down yonder way.
‘Yonder way,’ the stranger repeated.
A few seconds passed with only the two men studying each other, their forms coming into full shape with the gradients of daytime breaking apart the night.
The stranger’s gaze shifted over the man’s shoulder. ‘Your wife is up,’ he said.
And she emerged, swinging open the flap door of the hovel. She wore the rags of a bustier, her full stomach protruding and bare. Both men watched her yawn, stretching her arms over her head. Dark blotches of hair nested in her armpits, their shade matching the tangles that hung down between her breasts.
‘Should I avert my eyes?’ the stranger asked.
The man looked downward, toward the stranger’s unshoed feet. ‘She aint my wife.’ The man looked up to gauge the stranger’s reaction.
‘Shes not yours?’
‘Her nor the youngin.’
The woman looked out over the grasses at the men and she obscured herself, for now she stood naked.
They ate beans and chaff meal ground together and thickened with water from the south-running creek. They drank from canteens.
‘Had some coffee here a piece back,’ the man said. ‘Traded it with a passer-through.’
‘Did. Rationed it a while, but it ran out.’
‘As things do.’
The woman took the men’s plates once nothing remained of their meal and placed them in a kettle.
‘Fine place you have,’ the stranger said.
‘It’s a scavenging way of life.’
‘You told me,’ the stranger said. ‘How’d you get here?’
‘Had a wagon break down. Whole axle gave out, snapped. Still got the mule. Keep him out by the creek.’
‘Saw him,’ the stranger said. ‘Why didnt you try to ride him out of this place?’
‘Figured I’d make it out here on my own.’
The stranger nodded like he understood. The man sucked meal from his teeth.
‘And your woman?’
‘You askin where she come from?’
The stranger’s tongue probed over his teeth, pulling at chaffs of meal lodged there. ‘Yes. Does she have a story?’
‘She was passin through like anyone else.’
‘And she stayed.’
‘They left her behind.’
‘Her people. Got darker skin, dirty skin, they call it. Skin like hers.’
The stranger pinched another glob of meal from the bowl. He ate it.
‘They left her cause she was with child?’
The man gulped from the canteen, swallowed, said yes, thats what happened.
‘This is hard country.’
The man did not know what to make of this statement.
The stranger elaborated. ‘These people all going west, they say they want to start a new life.’ He laughed to himself. The man did likewise, but only to emulate his guest. ‘You could mark their progress with bloodstains. Track where theyre going by listening to them talk in their sleep. Dont know what theyre really heading into.’
The man nodded like he understood. They ate in silence. The woman came and went.
‘Baby’ll come soon enough,’ the stranger said.
‘It’s a hard country.’
On his third day at the hovel, the stranger trapped and caught a rabbit using a snare he rigged up outside what he supposed to be a nesting den. He skinned the animal using a bolt honed down into a shank, cloth wrapped around the end in a handle. The woman dried the meat with what little salt they had and boiled the bones with some turnips from the creek.
The three sat together in the hovel. Outside the heavens clouded over. Wind rustled through the grasses like a thousand voices crying out across time.
They ate in silence.
The woman ladled the broth into cups wrought from stoneware.
Days since the stranger arrived were fruitful enough. The bucket of meal overflowed with seed and chaff. Vegetables dug and scavenged from the land numbered in the dozens. Though the stranger did not disclose the location of the rabbit den, he said he hoped to snare a few more in the days to come.
‘How long you plan on bein?’ the man asked.
The stranger stopped, his cup hovered near his lip. He asked what the man meant before drinking.
The man and woman exchanged glances.
‘We like you well enough.’
‘Yessir. But we—my woman and I—like it out here ourselves.’
‘But this isnt yours.’
Again, the man looked at his woman. She cast her gaze downward at the barren spot on the dirt floor.
‘Well, theres plenty of space for everone. You can get a piece down aways.’
The stranger shook his head. ‘There isnt plenty of space. You live right where a thousand years of people have lived.’
The man set his cup on the ground. ‘Dont rightly see what youre gettin at here.’
‘Getting at?’ the stranger asked. ‘I’m saying the same words people have been saying since this place was a stew of water and sludge and blood.’
‘That right there,’ the man said. ‘Dont rightly know what you mean by all that talk.’
The stranger looked at the woman. ‘Los errantes están condenados. Los quienes se quedan están muertos. Todos—todos se sucumben al fuego y se ahogan del polvo.’
The woman’s hands wrapped over her womb. Her eyes glassed over.
The stranger addressed her smiling and talking softly, kindly.
‘Now what the devil tongue you speakin in?’
The stranger looked at the man. ‘I am a man of medicine. She should be grateful.’
‘You told us you didnt have no profession.’
The stranger seemed to weigh the man’s incredulousness before replying. ‘I was a doctor in the army. I’ll resume my practice next time the men of this country start killing one another. It’s never long.’
A week passed before the man broached the stranger’s departure again. They’d walked out to the creek to feed the mule, water him and check the tethers that kept him bound to the deadened sapling.
‘Wife an I think your foots healed up about right,’ the man said.
The stranger stroked the coarse tuft of the mule’s mane. He used his tongue to make clucking noises at it.
‘You probably already knowed that, being a doctor an all,’ the man said.
‘All the more reason for me to stay.’
The man made certain he looked the stranger in the eyes when he said his wife didnt want him around. The stranger nodded. He looked out across the plains, first west, then east.
‘Hysteria,’ he said.
The man’s brow furrowed. ‘Whats that again?’
‘Hysteria,’ the stranger said again. ‘Hystericus, from hysterikos—from the womb. Condition having to do with your wifes pregnancy. Carrying a baby can make a woman insane.’
‘Shes losin her mind?’
‘For a time,’ the stranger said. ‘Thats why she needs me. Thats why shes scared. She doesnt know what shes thinking.’
The man shook his head. ‘Dont seem like her minds gone.’
‘Takes a doctor to recognize it.’
The man pretended to busy himself with the feedsack and filling the water bucket for the mule. He dropped a few larger stones into the bucket to weight it down, keep the animal from knocking it over.
‘I’d help you make a place of your own,’ the man offered. ‘Still got some parts of the wagon left. Good slope to dig into about a mile north of here.’
The stranger smiled. The suddenness of his elation startled the man, the same as any other beast baring its teeth might. ‘We could share this land,’ he said.
‘Guess we might.’
The stranger made a definitive nod. ‘Be a fine idea. I could be around to help.’
The man tried to match the radiance of the stranger’s smile with his own, but found it to difficult to maintain. ‘Be a good thing I reckon, have a doctor around to birth the baby.’
‘Be hard for her to do it on her own.’
The man reissued his straightforward look. ‘Hows that?’
‘Well, you’ll have to register the baby and her out at the territory seat.’
The man nodded as if he knew what he had just been told.