Nate arrives in Mathilda in late August. The harvest is in full swing and farmers are too busy to think about the school or the schoolmaster they hired to come all the way from Boston. Apparently Schwetje's wife doesn't want him in the house in town after all. They tell him he'll have to board with Brad Colbert out on his farm, since Brad has built a house and it's grand enough for a Harvard man. One of Brad's hired men, Ray Person, shows up the next evening to collect Nate and all his things. He drives Nate six miles out of town to Brad's farm, the corn fields almost silent in the heat, no rustling in the wind. Everything is yellow and dusty, the hum of insects is deafening, and Nate would be a little scared if it weren't for the fact that Ray just keeps talking as he drives the buggy with one hand, the horse ambling slowly like it wants to prolong the trip so that it won't have to go back to work.
Nate finds out that Brad is respected and maybe a little feared by his men, that he's a bachelor, that he's a Swede.
"Colbert isn't a Swedish name," Nate says.
"He wa'n't born with that name," Ray says, but he doesn't elaborate. Nate doesn't ask any more questions.
They get to the house after dark. There's a man standing at the porch, silhouetted against the dim light from the kerosene lamps behind him. He looks like a giant, like he's seven feet tall, and he's young, younger than Nate thought he would be, blond hair looking almost white in the darkness. He doesn't say much, just grunts a greeting and shoulders Nate's trunk to take it into the house. They put Nate in a bedroom upstairs, sparsely furnished but clean. There's a cot in the corner and the windows face east.
Nate can hardly sleep that first night because of a strange, tight excitement in his chest that he's never felt before.
No one really has time for Nate during those first few weeks. The wheat and hay have been harvested but the corn harvest will continue on into late November, maybe even December, Ray says. Brad and all his men – Ray, "Poke" Espera, Jim Trombley, Anthony Jacks, whom everyone calls either Tony or Manimal, the latter for no discernible reason, and Evan Stafford – are out at sunup every morning and don't come back until sundown. Sometimes they spend the night in the field, because Brad's farm is vast. They've got Walt Hasser to do the housework because he's sick and has to stay off the field.
Walt has a pale face, lips that are almost grey, and he's quiet, smiles a lot. Nate finds out quickly that Walt likes to read. He has a battered copy of Longfellow's Evangeline that apparently Brad bought for him off a tinker who came through town about a year ago. Otherwise he reads the Bible, and the Song of Solomon is his favorite.
He laughs at Nate and his city ways. Nate doesn't even know how to work their strange, enormous water pump. Walt shows Nate how to boil water, how to kill and clean a chicken, all the strange uses corn cobs can be put to. In return, Nate reads to Walt from the books he brought with him while Walt does housework.
Several times Walt has one of his spells. The first time it happens because Walt laughs at something Nate said. He starts coughing, but Nate doesn't think anything of it until Walt stumbles back and knocks a pitcher off the table. Nate stands up in alarm. Walt's eyes are watering, his coughs going sharp and horrible, like there's something in his chest trying to claw its way out. Nate has no idea what to do, but Walt waves him off, taking great wheezing breaths between the coughs that make him sound like he's drowning.
Nate is ready to run out to get Ray or someone to fetch a doctor, but Walt, after inhaling sharply a few times, tips his head back and croaks, "No," at him, very clearly. So they wait it out there in the stifling kitchen. Nate wets a towel for Walt, and he sits quietly, his eyes shut, trying to keep his coughs down. Supper that night is a bit of cheese, some apples, and corn mash. Walt makes Nate promise not to tell, but Nate thinks the men know when they see what they're to eat that night. Ray is uncharacteristically silent, watching Walt like a hawk. Brad watches Walt too, but he doesn't say anything, just makes Jim and Evan clear up the kitchen afterward. Poke goes out to smoke his pipe, Tony disappears somewhere with a cask and a grin that showcases the space between his teeth, and Nate follows Brad out onto the verandah.
"Is this the first time since you've been here?" Brad says abruptly.
Nate is startled; Brad hasn't started any conversations before. "Yes," he replies, knowing exactly what Brad is referring to.
"Walt's got no one," Brad says, staring out over the cornfields, which are grey in the moonlight. He rests his hands on the porch railing. "Mattis wouldn't keep him after he got sick. Doc Bryan is good but he don't know what to do for Walt, and he's almost fifteen miles away. He thinks Walt needs to be taken to see one of them city doctors, maybe put in a sanatorium."
"They might be able to make him more comfortable, but they cannot guarantee recovery. I had a cousin who died in a sanatorium," Nate says.
Brad's hands clench, though his voice remains impassive. "I don't know what to do for him."
Nate wants to reach out and put a hand to Brad's shoulder, to comfort him. But this is the first real conversation they've had, and he doesn't know Brad. Or does he? Sometimes he catches Brad watching him, and when their eyes meet Nate feels like he'd trust Brad Colbert with his life, though he knows next to nothing about him.
"My cousin did everything the most expensive doctors told her to do," Nate says instead. "That didn't change anything. I think it's right that Walt should be here, at least for now, where he has people to look after him, but he can still feel useful. The air is good here, too. Much better than any city."
Brad turns to look at Nate, and Nate gets that feeling again, but this time it's even stranger, like Brad is trusting him, too, putting his faith in Nate's words. It's a little bit frightening, to suddenly know that his words hold so much weight with someone, and especially with a man like Brad.
"I'm glad he's got you here for company now," Brad says.
He turns back to the cornfields and doesn't say anything more. The silence isn't empty, though; it's full of words that Nate has to stop himself from speaking, but he holds them all in, wondering how long he'll be able to keep them to himself.
They raise the new schoolhouse on the second weekend in September. Nate's gotten to know a few of the people in town at church on Sundays. Brad, Walt and Nate are the only ones to attend; the other men stay at the house, and Brad doesn't seem to care. It had been a bit of a battle to round up the lumber to build the school, since Schwetje and Mattis said it was needed for a new manse. Rev. Sixta stepped in and barked that there weren't nothing wrong with the old one, and Brad stood by, mostly silent, speaking only to remind Schwetje that Brad had donated nearly half the money for that lumber for a schoolhouse, not a manse. Nate saw the way Schwetje and Mattis glowered at him. It hasn't escaped Nate that Brad is not popular in town. The success of his farm would be one thing if he were willing to take part in their church socials and town meetings and going around to spy on their neighbors to report back to Schwetje and Mattis on everyone's business. Nate is beginning to suspect that he'd been shunted off to Brad's in the hope that he would report back on Brad's doings, and the failure of this plot was turning Schwetje and Mattis against him, making them suspicious.
There are two girls who appear to be sweet on Brad, to the chagrin of their fathers. They try to talk to him after church every Sunday, but Brad always finds a way to excuse himself with a tip of his hat and politely walk away. It is strange, Nate thinks, that Brad doesn't seem to be looking to get himself a wife and make that big house of his a real home. But as Nate himself had made avoiding women an art form back in Boston, he sympathizes and admires Brad's straightforward technique.
They gather as many men from the town as they can, and Nate watches as the schoolhouse goes up in a matter of hours. He tries to help, but knows next to nothing about carpentry, though he's been studying pamphlets and diagrams he brought with him. He's told Brad he wants all the large windows on the south side to minimize shadows and glare on the desks, but those were his only specifications. They would use oiled paper in the windows until the glass they'd ordered arrived all the way from New York.
That evening, as Brad and his men are packing up the tools and supplies they brought in the cart, Nate walks into the schoolhouse, running his fingers over the wood and breathing in the smell of it. There's still a lot of work to be done on the inside, but he'll figure it out. His very own school. He stands there in the dim light, the sunset shining through the still-open windows, and smiles, not noticing Brad in the doorway until Brad says his name.
Nate turns, and Brad is staring at him. Though his mouth his stern, there's something about his face that makes Nate think he's smiling.
"Do you like your new schoolhouse?" Brad says.
"Yes. I like it very much."
Then Brad really does smile, and Nate feels like he's been socked in the chest. But he doesn't say anything, just follows Brad out to the cart. The other men ride in the back, and Nate sits on the box with Brad. They sing songs all the way back to the farm.
Nate walks to the schoolhouse every morning to work on things. Brad left him a few tools and the leftover lumber, and they've installed the stove from the old sod schoolhouse, so Nate sets in trying to build and affix the benches and desks. It's hard work; he gets advice and directions from Brad, but Brad can't help him; there's too much work to do on the farm. So he does the best he can with the advice and the diagrams and pamphlets. Though the evenings are starting to cool off, the days are still very warm, and Nate has to shed his jacket and shirt, getting sweaty with the effort of moving things, sawing planks, nailing boards together, sanding things down.
He doesn't have much to show for his first day of work, the bench he'd tried to make looking lop-sided and slipshod despite all his measurements and careful calculations. His arms ache from the unaccustomed movements and he's filthy. Walt had made him a dinner to bring in a pail, but he'd lost track of time and hadn't eaten it, and now he's hungry and grumpy.
That night Brad asks him how he's progressing.
"Fine," Nate says curtly.
Brad says nothing, just watches him, and that makes Nate even madder, because he knows Brad can see straight through him to his frustration at his own lack of skill.
He marches the six miles back to the schoolhouse the next morning with grim determination. Though the families in town don't seem to be in any hurry to start school because everyone is busy with their crops, he knows that come winter, when there isn't as much work to be done and the children are underfoot, they will wonder why their schoolhouse isn't ready yet.
He works hard all morning, ignoring the children who come to stare at him curiously over the sills of the open windows and through the doorway. He's struggling with sanding a plank down when he senses yet another presence behind him in the doorway. Sighing, he turns, expecting another one of his prospective pupils to be eyeing him with suspicion and something like contempt at his incompetence, but it's Brad, his golden hair gleaming like a halo in the sunlight streaming through the doorway. Nate tries not to think of Brad as a ministering angel. But he looks like one, strong and beautiful and benevolent as he smiles down at Nate, who is sitting on the floor, his shirt soaked through with sweat and dust and dirt on his face, his soft hands bruised and bleeding.
"Let me help you," Brad says, coming forward, his hat held in one of his hands.
Nate stands up, and suddenly Brad is before him, so close Nate could reach out and put his hand on Brad's chest. Brad is looking down at him, his eyes soft, and Nate can't believe this is the same unsmiling giant he saw watching him from the verandah that first night.
"I thought you were trying to clear forty acres before sundown," Nate says, trying not to sound as unsteady as he feels.
"I left Poke in charge," Brad says, still just watching Nate, and Nate doesn't know if it's the heat or Brad's gaze but he feels flushed all over, knowing he does not have to do this alone.
"I'm trying to make these benches," Nate says. Brad's gaze finally breaks away, and he regards the sad, lopsided little bench that Nate completed the night before.
"Sure," Brad says, and he picks up a nail, drives it into the wall with a quick tap of a hammer, and hangs his hat there. Then he rolls up his sleeves and picks up a saw.
He shows Nate how to build a bench, and how to affix boards to the pins in the walls to serve as desks. Then, after they complete one, Brad bends over Nate and puts his hand over Nate's to show him how to sand in long, smooth strokes instead of small circular ones. Brad's hands are enormous. Nate has long fingers but Brad's hand, dry and callused and huge, envelops Nate's hand completely and he feels a sudden stab of something in him that makes him panic.
He snatches his hand away and stands up abruptly, backing away.
"I...I think I've got the idea," Nate says, and it's like Brad's eyes are pinning him there, suddenly dark and hard.
"So do it, then," he says roughly, and stands. Again Nate is struck by his height and the way he seems to be filling up the small one-room schoolhouse. Like Apollo, Nate thinks ridiculously, feverishly, Brad all golden strength and beauty, radiant and angry before him.
Then Brad turns and goes outside, and Nate shakes himself mentally. He's never been that afraid of anybody, and especially not of someone he knew was not dangerous.
But maybe it isn't fear, maybe it's something else. That's what Nate is really afraid of.
Brad shows up at around midday every day after that, but he does not come near Nate and does not speak to him other than to answer questions or give him directions. Soon Nate is painting pitch on the desks and benches to finish them. Schewtje and Mattis come by with Rev. Sixta one day, and they've got Schwetje's hired man, Griego, with them. When Brad sees them in the doorway, he sets his tools down and straightens, crossing his arms over his chest.
"Well, Nate," Schwetje says, "will school be starting soon?"
"As soon as the slates and readers I ordered arrive," Nate replies.
"Brad here helping you out, eh?" Mattis says, eyeing Brad.
Brad doesn't answer, his face stony.
"You're lucky, Nate," Mattis continues. "Brad don't usually help nobody."
"He has been immensely helpful," Nate says. "More than helpful. You would have no schoolhouse without him. At least not one fit for students."
"Makes a body wonder why he's taken such an interest," Mattis says, rubbing his chin.
"I take an interest when there's something worth taking an interest in," Brad says impassively, and he smiles at them all, just the corner of his mouth turning up.
"Did you know, Mr. Fick," says Griego, the first words he's ever spoken to Nate, "that the last schoolmaster we had left four years ago because two of our boys took him out back and beat him for giving them lines to write?"
Nate is surprised by how angry this cheap intimidation tactic makes him.
"Was one of those boys you, Griego?" Brad asks.
Griego's smirk vanishes and the set of his jaw starts to look ugly.
"Anyone tries anything like that with Nate, I'll bring my boys out and we'll give 'em a whipping they won't forget," Brad says.
Nate is surprised at the readiness with which Brad issues such a threat, and hastily reins in his own temper. "Surely it will never come to that."
"Sure's it wont," Rev. Sixta barks in the same voice with which he delivers sermons on hellfire and damnation. "There's folks here's would appoint theyselves the law."
"You all'd best be glad there ain't no law 'round these parts," Brad says. "Else I would've had you run off your land long ago."
"There ain't no call to be getting so excited," Mattis says blandly. "No one means Nate here any harm, do they?" When no one answers, he clears his throat. "Good work on the school." He directs this at Nate and not Brad. "I'm sure I'll get word when the shipment comes in, and then we'll see about gettin' started."
"Thank you," Nate says stiffly. "Good day, gentlemen."
They leave, and the schoolhouse is silent again, the late afternoon sun slanting in through the windows and making everything glow orange.
"We'd best be getting home," Brad says finally, after they've avoided each other's eyes for a while.
"Brad," Nate says.
"It won't come to that, will it?"
Brad's gaze is piercing, again, and sometimes Nate wonders if there will come a day when he won't be strong enough to hold it.
"I ain't gonna let them drive us out of town," he says.
Nate doesn't quite know when he became a part of Brad's unorthodox family, but he is sure that he is included in the us Brad is referring to, and suddenly the rest doesn't matter. They walk back to the farmhouse in silence, but Nate is content just to be stepping in sync with Brad, matching his long stride and walking beside him.
The next evening Brad goes into town for supplies with Poke and Tony, and Ray and Walt are in the kitchen playing cards. Nate asks them why things are the way they are between Brad and the rest of the townspeople.
"Brad was foreman for the family that used to own part of this land," Walt began. "When old man Bush died his wife wanted to move away. She hated it here, she was real young and came out from back east somewhere. So she sold the land to Brad cheap to get away faster and took her kids and left."
Ray takes up the story from there. "I worked on this farm since I was sixteen. Brad kept me on 'cause I had nowhere to go, but he turned most of them other guys out and made a lot of folks mad. He got himself kind of a reputation around here."
"I see," Nate says.
"People is just jealous. Everyone either wants Brad's land or wants to work for him. They all wanna find out how he done so good for himself. He's real smart," Ray says proudly. "But he don't suffer no fools."
"I am glad the importance of education and learning falls under the umbrella of his tolerance," Nate says.
Ray throws his cards down and leans forward in his chair. "Brad thinks it's real important. He just didn't set no store in Schwetje knowing how to hire a good school teacher. He didn't say nothing but I could tell he was surprised when he saw you that first night."
"I haven't proven myself yet," Nate says, though he has to admit that the knowledge of Brad's instant approval of him makes him happy.
Walt smiles at him reassuringly. "You'll probably be fine, bein' an outsider and all. Folks will forgive you for not knowing any better than to throw your lot in with Brad."
"But they're the ones who shunted me off to board here with him unexpectedly. No offence meant to any of you, of course. This is much nicer than anything I was led to expect."
Ray laughs. "There ain't exactly a lot of logic behind the way people feel about Brad."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Nate says.
"No need to be sorry. We make do," Walt said.
Ray rolls his eyes a little bit, but he's still smiling.
The mornings are crisp and cool before Nate's shipment arrives, along with the windows. Two crates of slates and books come on the train, and he and Ray make the long ride to the depot in Brad's cart to pick them up. Ray helps him with the crates and the unpacking of them. School will begin the next week. He is to have about fourteen students. Maybe more, come winter. When they're done making the final arrangements, the sun is setting yet again, and Nate looks out the window at the plains stretching before him.
"'While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day, and touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue,'"† he recites.
"It sure is different talking to someone educated for a change," Ray says, tossing a primer he'd been flipping through aside. "Was that a poem?"
"Keats," Nate replies.
"Hey, can I ask you a personal question?"
"Why are you here?"
Nate turns to look at Ray, who is regarding him with something like suspicion.
"I mean," Ray continues, "I can tell from your fancy clothes and fancy things and fancy way of talking that you don't need the money, and I'm sure whatever Schwetje and them's paying for this ain't much anyway. Schwetje told Brad before you came that we was getting a Harvard-educated schoolmaster who'd traveled the world. You running away from something? Somebody? You gonna talk poems to dirty kids who can't afford shoes? What's in it for you?"
Nate smiles a little tightly. "Why does anyone come out west? I guess I'm looking for something. Maybe something better than what I've known."
"What could be better'n your book learning and Boston tea parties and having society ladies like in them newspapers all flutterin' around you at parties every night? I think about it, sometimes, what it'd be like to be with a girl all soft and powdered and sweet and not smelling like a barnyard animal."
"I wanted to do something," Nate says. "Something that mattered. I want to use that book learning, as you say, for something, bring it out here where it might do some good. There's so much that goes to waste, where I come from. I've got so I look at a girl like you describe and feel like there's nothing to discover about her. Isn't that wrong?"
Ray whistles. "Jesus, I could discover it a hundred thousand times and never get tired of it."
Nate laughs. "Yes, well, that's not exactly what I mean."
"I know," Ray says, suddenly grave, and he's staring at Nate, his big brown eyes looking uncharacteristically sad. "It's a hard life out here. People are the same the world over. I ain't read many books but I do know that."
Nate doesn't know quite how to respond, and he takes a moment to choose his words carefully. "I'm here to learn as much as to teach," he says.
Ray nods and jumps up from the desk he's sitting on, the rare moment of gravity over.
School starts and Ray's prediction is true; most of the children arrive with no shoes and only a wormy piece of fruit in their dinner pails. They are all very young, the ones who are too young to be of much use on the farm. Only a few know their letters, and most are too in awe of the new schoolmaster to recite. Nate is kind to them, however, and soon their natural exuberance emerges. Nate takes them on walks to study the local flora and fauna and reads Emerson and Thoreau aloud by the banks of the creek, though it is but a tiny trickle this late in the season. For the most part they stare at him blankly, but then they are minding him, their attention focused, so he doesn't count it as a waste.
Schwetje and Rev. Sixta come by to observe his lessons one day, and afterward they stay to conference with Nate briefly.
"I'm not sure as I hold with all the talk of fairy tales and magic," Rev. Sixta says.
"The Odyssey is hardly a mere fairy tale," Nate says, wiping down the blackboard.
"Just makes sure they learns their lines and 'rithmetic," Rev. Sixta says, picking up a reader. "And can recite the catechism."
"Of course," Nate says.
"You might be wonderin' why we called you out here," Schwetje says, and Nate turns, setting the cloth down.
"I am," he says. "Pray enlighten me."
Schwetje's eyes dart to the window. "We're growing, Nate. Our town is growing, but life is still hard out here. Those of us who were born in these plains know what it was like to turn nothing into something. We've all worked real hard. But you don't got any idea what it's like to know that people can come in and take what you worked for. The only people who ever come out to Mathilda now are people like Brad Colbert who are just waiting to snatch up everything we've built up, taking it from right under our noses. It's real hard to get people out here, new people, who will see things our way. Heck, it's hard to get people to come here at all. We needed to get you out here, help us learn all them things these outsiders know that makes it possible for them to come in and take advantage. So." Schwetje turns back to Nate and smiles, simple and slow. "Just help us do that, alright?"
Nate is silent, not really knowing how to answer this speech. Then they're all startled by the crack of thunder.
Rev. Sixta hurries to the door. "Looks like we's finally gettin' some rain, praise be."
"You'd best hurry home," Schwetje says to Nate, donning his hat. "If it starts to rain you'll be soaked through." In a flash he's gone.
"Thank you for the helpful tip," Nate mutters, and gathers up his things. After a few more loud cracks of thunder, the sky darkens in earnest. There is no gradual increase in raindrops; it is a sudden onslaught. Nate is worried about his books getting wet more than his clothes, so he decides to wait a while before starting back, hoping the rain will let up soon. He composes a letter to his mother in his head, and gets hung up on describing Brad. After he realizes he has spent nearly three-quarters of an hour trying to decide whether Brad's eyes are blue or grey, he shakes himself and stands up. The rain shows no sign of letting up, but there is no hail, at least, and the lightning has stopped, so he decides to brave the walk, leaving his books behind. He locks up the schoolhouse and has taken no more than ten steps at most before he is completely soaked.
It has been hot enough that the rain feels good, actually, though of course his mother would admonish him and tell him he would catch his death. The dusty roads are now muddy, large puddles forming, and Nate's shoes are soon soaked through too. Nate feels like laughing, water dripping down like a waterfall from the brim of his hat, the air humid and yet cool. His dinner pail fills up with water too many times to count.
By the time the house comes into view, the rain has let up somewhat, but the sky is even darker. He enters from the back door, which is open, probably to let some air move through the house.
Nate is about to walk into the kitchen, but he stops short in the doorway, because Brad is there, and he's peeling his wet shirt off over his head, his suspenders hanging around his hips, a puddle of water at his feet on the floor. There is a strange and elaborate painting on Brad's back, crude but colorful, and Nate is mesmerized by it. He feels his cheeks flush, not knowing whether to back away and hope Brad hasn't heard him or walk in and pretend to be unaffected. Before he can make up his mind, Brad turns and sees Nate in the doorway.
He smiles at Nate, and Nate's heart is thumping wildly in his chest.
"You caught in the rain too?" he says, sounding amused, and Nate doesn't know where to look, feeling like he's been knocked stupid. Brad's neck and arms are tanned, but his torso is very pale.
"Yes," he says tightly.
"Want to take your things off so they can dry over the stove?"
Nate doesn't really know how to refuse without sounding strange. He doesn't know what this thing is that Brad has awakened in him, but it coils in his stomach now, making him hyper-aware of everything, the air, the rivulets of water dripping down his face and neck that make him shiver.
Brad crosses over. "You're shivering," he says. "Here, before you make yourself sick."
He reaches out for the buttons on Nate's shirt, which is clinging to his chest. Nate hastily brings his own hands up and backs away, turning around to undo the buttons and compose himself. He shrugs it off, and when he turns around Brad is looking out the window, hands gripping the window frame tightly.
Nate drapes his shirt over the line just above the stove. "I'll just go up and find some dry clothes," he says unnecessarily. Brad doesn't respond, so Nate leaves, wondering if he gave himself away, if something in Nate's shaking hands revealed everything to Brad, and he feels a little sick, assuring himself that there is no way Brad could know if Nate did not say anything, and making a thousand wild promises to himself that he will never ever breathe a word of it to anyone.
Nate wakes a few mornings later to the sound of gunshots and dogs barking, and then the whooping laughter of Jim and Evan. He hasn't really had a chance to get to know them, since they often camp out in the fields and only come back to dump cartloads of corn before heading back out. Brad rides out to check up on them occasionally but for the most part they are left to their own devices. They must have come back sometime in the night.
He gets up and pushes his shutters open just in time to see Brad come storming out of the barn, fury in his face, and pull Jim Trombley up by his shirt collar and say something inaudible to him, right in his face. Then he lets Jim go with a jerk, glares at Evan, and pushes past them to the house.
When Nate goes down to breakfast, he finds Brad silently and methodically cleaning a shotgun at the table, a furrow between his eyebrows. Ray is at the table, too, and Walt gives Nate an apologetic look as he silently sets a plate of beans and toast down before him.
"What was the commotion I heard this morning?" Nate asks. Ray grimaces and raises his hand to his forehead, as if he's saluting Nate for his bravery in broaching the subject.
Brad looks up at Nate briefly, but he goes back to cleaning the gun, and for a few moments Nate thinks his question will be ignored, but Brad finally speaks. "McGraw likes to breed dogs, only he don't train 'em right."
"McGraw," Nate repeats, trying to place a face to the name. "That must be Sally's father."
"Yeah, he's married to Mattis' oldest daughter," Ray adds helpfully.
"Trouble is, they get into henhouses and dig up people's gardens and they bite children. And Trombley keeps trying to shoot 'em."
"Is that a bad thing?" Nate asks.
"No," Brad says baldly. "Not if that was all there was too it. But those fuckers in town are just waiting for an excuse to bring a mob out here and call me out on something, and you can bet the death of one of McGraw's mongrels on my land would be more than enough for him to go crying to Schwetje and Mattis."
"What could they do to you?"
"They may be stupid but I bet they can be real creative," Ray says through a mouthful of beans. As usual, more food seems to have found its way down his chin than into his mouth. "I don't think we really wanna find out."
"Maybe I could have a talk with them. Pay a call on this McGraw," Nate offers.
"Don't involve yourself," Brad says shortly, and he snaps the barrel back in place, laying the gun on the table. "C'mon, Ray, time to head out."
Ray ruffles Walt's hair on his way out behind Brad, and Walt looks after him fondly.
"The more I hear about this situation, the worse it sounds," Nate says. "I want to help but I'm afraid I'll make things worse."
Walt sighs, picking at his food as he always does. "I think Brad thought he was far enough out that he would be left in peace," he says. "But it's hard for him, when he sees things that ain't fair and can't fix them. I think something must have happened to him when he was young. It's like he's tryin' to atone for something. He stays here like he wants to fight 'em, but I don't know why he would. We'd all follow him wherever he went. Well, I would if I could."
Nate looks up from his plate, surprised. Walt hardly ever makes reference to his illness.
"Brad is so good to me, I mean he looks after all of us. He's like our dad. It's easy to forget that he ain't much older'n any of us. And he don't owe any of us anything, but he helps us anyway. He helps me. Sometimes I hate knowing that he'd never leave me behind, because I know that I'm holding him here."
Walt spears a bean with his fork and then drops it, and it makes a clattering sound. He looks up at Nate. "When I tell him that, he says I think too much of myself. But I know it's true. He'd be gone in a second if it weren't for me. I hate that."
Nate doesn't know what to say that wouldn't sound trite. "Don't hate it," was all he could think of. "Be comforted by it. Most people's blood relations wouldn't do as much." Nate thinks of his own family, his absent father, his socialite mother, officious and apathetic uncles and aunts and cousins. "I would think he does it because you deserve someone looking after you. Everyone does. Anyway, you can't be sure that there aren't a hundred other reasons Brad wants to stay. He seems to love his work."
"I'm afraid of what will happen to me if he goes, and I'm afraid of what will happen if he stays. You ain't seen the worst of it yet. People's been nicer since you came. They're afraid of what an outsider will think. But it's bad. And no one will let me talk about it, any of it, not even Ray. He just tells me to shut up, that everything will be alright."
Nate reaches over to put his hand over Walt's wrist. It feels thin under his hand, bony and frail. "Well, I won't tell you that," he says. "But I will say that no one can predict the future, and every man is in charge of his own life. Brad wouldn't stay if he didn't want to, if he didn't think it was worth it."
"Will you stay?" Walt asks abruptly.
Nate withdraws his hand and resumes eating his breakfast. "That will depend largely on whether the good people of this town approve of my teaching methods," he says.
"Even if they don't," Walt insists. "Promise you'll stay. Please."
It's surprising, the vehemence in his voice. "Why?" Nate asks.
"Because," Walt says. "Brad needs you. He takes care of all of us, but he needs help. He needs you."
Nate feels himself flush. Again. He wants to ask Walt what he means, why he would say such a thing, how it is possible that Brad needs anyone. Brad barely even speaks to Nate, and certainly never asks him for help. But he can't bring himself to ask, the words too embarrassing, too revealing.
"Promise," Walt repeats.
"I'll stay as long as I'm welcome," Nate says, because there's something about Brad that has roped him in and secured Nate's unswerving loyalty, just as he's done with these other men who cling to him.
Walt smiles at him, and Nate hopes that what Walt has said about Brad is true, because Nate will never leave now, not if he can help it. It's not the house or the farm or Mathilda that he's binding himself to, though. Somehow he thinks Walt knows this.
Weeks pass, and it gets cold. Brad and the men work even harder because the days are getting considerably shorter, and they often don't return until long after dark. Walt has several bad spells that result in being laid up for three or four days at a time. Ray and Evan step in to help with the house chores, and Nate does what he can in the morning before school and in the evening after he returns. But Walt won't hear of staying in bed longer than he needs to, and both times he is up again soon, his breathing labored but steady.
It is a cold Saturday morning early in November when Trombley thinks he sees a dog lurking in the grass. He shoots at it, and is surprised when he hears the pained cry of a woman and not a dog. Brad is out in the south field with Poke and Evan and Ray, and Nate and Tony and Walt are still at the breakfast table.
They run out, and Tony turns a bit green when he sees the woman lying in the grass, blood spilling from her leg, her stomach very noticeably distended.
"Oh, fuck," he moans. "Oh fuck. Fuck," he repeats over and over.
Nate bends over her quickly, feeling for her pulse. "Someone ride for a doctor," he snaps. "We've got to get her inside and try to staunch the bleeding."
"The nearest doctor is a good fifteen miles from here," Trombley says, regarding the scene impassively. "You think she'll make the ride worth it?"
"You, you ride for the doctor," Nate says, keeping a hold on his temper.
Trombley blinks at him slowly for a few moments.
"Now!" Nate barks, and finally Trombley moves toward the barn to saddle a horse.
The girl is very young. She has dirty blond hair, a dirty face, and dirty clothes. Her eyelids flicker, and she moans a little bit.
"Tony, can you lift her and take her into the house?"
Tony is still cursing and seems to be having a hard time bringing himself to touch her.
Walt arrives on the scene. "Fuck, Manimal," he says.
"Do you all know this woman?" Nate asks.
Walt grimaces. "She's—fuck, what have you done to her, Tony?"
"I didn't do nothing! I didn't know she was—fuck, look at her, God damn."
The truth hits Nate far too late. "Is that baby yours, Tony?"
Tony looks like he's about to cry.
"Get it together," Nate says firmly. "She can't lie here, it's too cold. I wonder that she was out here lurking in the grass in the first place. Was she waiting for you?"
"No! I mean, I didn't—I didn't know," Tony says. "Fuckin'—hell," he says again, and leans down to scoop her up in his arms with surprising gentleness. Still, she cries out, and faints soon after being hoisted up.
They go in the house and Nate directs Tony to put her in his room, since it's the only one besides Brad's that isn't being shared.
Walt boils some water and he and Nate try to remove her dress, Tony pacing in front of the doorway and wringing his hands. They soak the towels in the water to dab at the wound, which is bleeding enough to make a mess, but not so much that Nate thinks it will be life-threatening.
"What was Trombley doing with that gun after Brad's told him not to shoot at McGraw's dogs a thousand times?" Nate asks, the question mostly rhetorical.
"I din' know she was gonna have a baby," Tony moans. "Fuck, we was just having fun. I hadn't even seen her in months. I don't know what she was doing here. Her parents—"
"Yes?" Nate prods, turning to glare at him.
"She must've run away," Tony says lamely.
"So she does, in fact, have parents," Nate says. "And presumably they would want to know where she is."
"Hell, I don't know," Tony says. "I mean, yeah, she got parents. But they didn't want her givin' me the time of day."
"Can you blame them?" Nate says coldly.
"Brad's gonna kill me," Tony moans again. And then he turns and punches his fist at the wall so hard that the bureau on the other side of the room rattles.
"Is that what you're worried about? What Brad will think? She's been shot! Brad is going to be the least of your problems if it turns out that Trombley has killed her and her baby, and all because she came here looking for you, because you didn't do the honorable thing."
"I know, I know," Tony says, and he sinks down on the floor, back against the wall, cradling his injured hand, which is bleeding at the knuckles. "I fucked up."
"What's her name?" Nate asks.
"Lilley," he says. "Lilley Lutz."
"Should we inform them?"
"They probably kicked her out. They have too many mouths to feed as it is, they won't want another. Shit, what am I gonna do?"
Nate ties a cloth around the towel Walt is holding against the wound to stop the bleeding. "You're going to sit here and watch her, for now, until Trombley brings the doctor back. If she wakes up, try to get her to drink some water. Don't do anything stupid, and don't make Walt here do all the work."
"What if they ain't in time?"
"Then you're going to take her to her folks and admit your fault in all this like a man. I've got to go to school; there are children waiting for me. I can't believe she was lurking in the cornfield. Christ," Nate says, and he gets up, wiping his hand on another towel. There's blood on his shirt, so he changes it swiftly, hoping his students won't notice the stain on his dark trousers.
The school day feels interminable, but finally it is time to dismiss the children, and Nate locks up the schoolhouse quickly, running most of the way back to the house.
Jim and the doctor still have not come, and Nate can smell blood and other unpleasantness the minute he walks in. The skin around the wound is inflamed. She feels feverish, and Tony is dabbing at her forehead with a wet washcloth.
"She's in and out," Tony says, distressed, "and she keeps complaining that her stomach hurts real bad. I think the baby might be coming. There was blood down there but it was hard to tell—and this water—I hope they come back soon."
"Do you think he actually rode to get the doctor?" Nate asks Walt in a low voice.
"Yeah," Walt says, "but Doc Bryan is the only doctor for miles and miles. He's hard to track down, and some emergencies is more dire than others. Jim'll find him as fast as he can. He don't always seem to know right from wrong but he's usually pretty good at following orders if you tell him real firm, like you did."
Finally, at around six o'clock, they hear the sound of a gig pulling up. Nate hurries downstairs, and the man who descends from the gig looks stern, but very capable. He's got a mustache and an imposing frown, but he sticks out his hand in greeting.
"Mr. Fick, I presume," he says, and Nate shakes his hand.
"Dr. Bryan. Thank you for coming. She's upstairs."
Dr. Bryan stops on the threshold to take in the scene, and he shakes his head at Tony before setting his bag down and rolling up his sleeves.
"I need to examine the wound, and I'm going to try to stitch it up, but I'll need help holding her down. Which of you is willing?"
Tony still looks green and scared, and Walt looks reluctant, so Nate steps forward. "I can help if necessary."
"Okay. The rest of you clear out, but boil these in hot water and then bring me clean water and towels."
Walt and Tony go downstairs, and Dr. Bryan grimaces and unwraps the makeshift bandage they'd rolled around her thigh. The hole is clearly visible, blood oozing out sluggishly.
Her head moves slightly and her eyelids flutter.
"Good, she's awake," Dr. Bryan says. "I'm going to administer some laudanum, but even that won't dull her senses completely. I'm going to have to make sure there isn't anything still left in there."
"Right," Nate says, swallowing hard.
Walt comes back with the water and the cleaned instruments, and Nate watches as Dr. Bryan cleans the wound and administers the laudanum. Then he directs Nate to hold her still, and he sets in, digging in with his forceps to root around. She jerks and screams a little and then her eyes roll back in her head, but Dr. Bryan directs Nate not to let go. She doesn't wake up anymore, however, and soon he's done.
"How far along is she?" Dr. Bryan asks after he's stitched up the wound and is rolling a bandage around it.
"I don't know. I didn't know of her existence until this morning when Jim shot her."
"She looks to be nearly at term," Dr. Bryan says grimly. "Send Tony in here."
Nate goes to fetch Tony and sits down at the table in the kitchen as Tony climbs the stairs warily.
"Are Brad and the others due back tonight?" Nate asks Walt.
"Yeah," Walt says.
They sit and wait, Walt preparing something for supper and Nate scrubbing at the blood-stained shirts and Lilley's filthy dress. He's just hanging them to dry on the line above the stove when he hears raucous singing that signifies the return of Brad and the others. Jim is nowhere to be found, of course, probably out hiding in the barn with the animals.
Nate looks out the window and sees them pull up. Brad leaps down from the box and is unhitching the wagon when Poke points to the doctor's gig. Brad's head whips around and he immediately runs toward the house.
The door crashes open and Brad thunders in, eyes darting around immediately to Walt.
"Walt," he says, his voice cracking. "You—you're alright," he says, then shifts his gaze to Nate. "Why is the doctor's gig here?"
Nate and Walt exchange a glance, unsure how to respond, and then Ray and Poke and Evan rush in, all wide-eyed and waiting for the story.
"A girl was in the yard," Walt begins reluctantly. "Turns out she was Tony's girl, and she—" He gestures at his stomach, making a kind of circular motion. "He didn't know, Brad," he says, almost pleadingly. "Anyway, she was here, only we didn't know, and—and Trombley thought she was a dog sneakin' around in the grass, and he—he fired a shot at her and hit her in the leg."
"Jim—shot—a woman—a pregnant woman—on—my—land?" Brad said, very slowly, with dangerous calm.
"Hell," Poke said. "Didn't I tell you he was a crazy motherfucker?"
"Holy shit," Ray says, and Evan whistles. Then they all start talking at once, a cacophony of voices, but Nate is silent, and Brad is too, his eyes hard as agates and his cheek moving like he's clenching his teeth.
They're all interrupted by a scream from above, and everyone raises their eyes to the ceiling as if they can all see through it.
"Where is Trombley?" Brad asks quietly.
Nate knows Brad well enough by now to know that he is furious despite the calm tenor of his voice.
"Haven't seen him since he brought Doc Bryan," Walt says.
Brad turns wordlessly to pick up the shotgun sitting by the door on his way out.
Nate hurries to follow him out onto the back porch.
"Brad," Nate says urgently, but Brad doesn't turn, just strides purposefully toward the barn. "Brad. Brad!" He reaches for Brad's shoulder and turns him around.
Brad's eyes are snapping with his anger, and Nate can see how it's barely contained, as if he had only been holding it in for the sake of the other boys, and now, out in the open, with only Nate as witness, it is breaking free.
"What are you going to do?" Nate says.
"I'm gonna find Trombley and I'm gonna scare the shit out of him. I'll shoot his leg off if I have to."
"You can't do that," Nate says firmly.
"I can and I will," Brad says, but he doesn't move, his body tense as a bow string, as if daring Nate to try to stop him.
"He's just a boy, Brad," Nate says quietly.
"Yeah, and he's shot a girl, and now the whole town will be after us, and then what?"
"Shooting Jim's leg off isn't going to change any of that."
Brad throws the gun aside and turns to lean against the fence, his head hanging between his shoulders.
Nate goes forward to stand beside Brad, not getting too close, but wanting very badly to put a hand to his shoulder again and let it linger this time. It's cold enough that he can see every forceful breath Brad huffs out.
"He'll come back," Nate says. "And then you decide what to say to him. You could tell him he needs to leave, or you could give him another chance."
"It's my fault," Brad says.
"Brad," Nate says, trying to keep the impatience out of his voice.
"No, it's— I stir all of them up by saying things I shouldn't say. About Schwetje and Mattis and McGraw and all of them. Trombley's just shooting at the dogs because he thinks that's the kind of revenge we should be taking on them." He turns to look at Nate. "You're right, Nate. He is just a boy. They all are, except Poke. And I shouldn't be giving them stupid ideas about fairness and justice, because there ain't no such thing in the world, and any time anyone tries to bring it about, things usually go to shit and everything turns out wrong."
It might be the most tragic speech Nate's ever heard anyone utter. "That's not true," Nate says. "There's justice in the world. There's justice here, if we only knew how to bring it about. The world is so much bigger than this place. Than Mathilda. Someday you'll see."
Brad shakes his head. "The world," he says, and smiles ruefully. "I know more about it than you think, Nate. Do you know what I think about all the time?"
Nate shakes his head, suddenly feeling breathless. Brad has never confided anything this personal before, and Nate knows they must be on some kind of precipice, these confidences of Brad's the gentle force that will tip them over the edge to plunge into something unknown.
"I think about the ocean," Brad says. "That's all I remember of my father, my real father, standing on the deck of the boat we came on, looking at the waves breaking against the hull. The water was black. And I was sure I would fall in and be swallowed up, if he hadn't been holding me so tight."
His hands clench around the wooden fencepost. "They all died, my dad and my mom and my brothers and sister, they all died of a typhoid outbreak weeks after we got here. They left Sweden because of how bad things were there, how unfair, and they get here and..." He clears his throat. "I don't have anything of theirs, not even my name. Just that memory of the sea.
"So you're right," he says, and he turns to face Nate again. "The world is bigger than this place. But it ain't fair, no matter where you go or what you do."
"I'm sorry," Nate says, feeling foolish.
"Don't be, it ain't your fault. Here, let me show you something."
They walk around to the front door so as to bypass the kitchen, and Brad leads Nate up the stairs and down the hall to his own bedroom, which Nate has never set foot in. Brad goes to the corner and picks up a large rectangular object wrapped in brown paper. He unties the string and removes the paper, and Nate realizes that it is a painting, the frame ornate and looking completely out of place in this spare room.
Brad props it against the wall and stands back, watching as Nate comes forward to peruse it more closely. It's a dark painting, depicting a boat being tossed by the waves in weak light obscured by forbidding clouds.
"It ain't an original. Mrs. Bush left it for me before she went back to New York, because I used to stare at it when I was called in to collect my wages from her."
"Who painted the original?"
"Some guy named Turner."
Nate keeps staring at it, and the longer he looks at it the more he gets the uncanny feeling that he is looking straight into Brad's heart. It's lonely, shadowed, the boat helpless amidst the force of the sky from above and the water below.
"It's beautiful," he says. "I think—I think I see why you don't have it up in the parlor." He turns to watch Brad looking at it.
Brad nods, and then replaces the paper over the painting, tying the string loosely and resting it carefully against the wall where it had been before.
They go downstairs again and wait with the other men for Trombley to come back, or for someone to come down and tell them what is happening, the silence punctured by occasional screams and sobbing from upstairs. They pass a flask around, but Nate refuses. Brad doesn't, but he seems to have a hollow leg, no amount of partaking from it slurring his speech or otherwise affecting him. Ray falls asleep with his head on the table, Evan takes out his harmonica, and Poke carves at a block of wood with his knife.
"We should try to get some sleep," Walt says finally. "You boys have to be up and out in five hours. It's almost one."
Nate realizes with a jolt that he has nowhere to sleep, since his room has been converted to a surgery.
"You'll have to share mine," Brad says, watching him. "If the idea don't offend you."
Nate swallows. "Of course not. If there are some blankets I could spread on the floor—"
"Don't be stupid," Brad says. "The bed's big enough. I built it myself, I oughtta know."
Everything about the idea of sleeping with Brad in a bed that Brad built makes Nate incredibly nervous, but he nods.
It's practical; sleeping on the floor is cold and uncomfortable. So it shouldn't be strange, and none of the other men think anything of it, used to sleeping next to each other out in the open, in tents, in haystacks to keep warm. With anyone else, Nate wouldn't think anything of it either. But Brad has changed everything for him, so much that Nate is starting to wonder if he ever knew himself. He follows Brad up to the bedroom.
"When I finished building this big house, I didn't ever think I'd be able to fill all these rooms," Brad says, setting the lamp down on a shelf and beginning to unbutton his shirt.
"So why'd you build it?"
"I thought I was building it for my own family. This was going to be the bed for my wife."
Nate stares at Brad, frowning.
Brad looks around and sees Nate staring, so he smiles easily. "You wondering what happened?"
"I don't want to pry."
"She worked for Mrs. Bush, and I was a hired man. I used to walk her home from church and town meetings, and she was sweet on me, or she seemed to be. When Mrs. Bush offered to sell me the place real cheap I asked her to marry me. She said yes. We tore down the old house and started building the new one, and she told me she was happy. But there was another hired man. We were friends. She ran off with him to California about a week before I finished the house."
Nate doesn't know what to say, so he just watches Brad, whose smile never wavers.
"Don't need to look like that," Brad says. "I wouldn't have given her what she wanted. She wanted more than a just a house from her husband, I think."
"She would've had you, too," Nate says.
Brad shakes his head and turns his back to Nate, his broad shoulders slumped forward. "No. She saw how it would be; she was always smarter than me. Did the right thing."
"But you were in love with her," Nate says, though it's more like a question than a protest.
"No, I don't think I was. I was still...I don't know."
Brad turns to smile at Nate again. "Waiting for something, I guess."
Nate can't tear his eyes away from Brad's gaze, feels paralyzed by it, like a small animal caught in a cobra's stare, and yet he feels no fear.
"Waiting for what?" Nate says, though he thinks maybe he knows, but he wants to hear Brad say it, he wants it so badly.
Brad moves toward him, and Nate can see, even in the dim lamplight, that maybe the drink has affected him after all. His eyes are bright, something unleashed in them, and Nate's breath starts to come faster. He licks his lips.
"Brad," he says. He feels his back press up against the wall, and yet Brad keeps moving forward. "Brad," he says again, a little desperate—for Brad to come closer or move away? He doesn't know, and he hopes Brad will make the decision for him, because—
"Do you know what you walked into, Nate?" Brad says, his voice very low, and he's so close that Nate has to tilt his head back so far to look up at him.
"No," Nate whispers.
Suddenly Brad looks sad, his eyes going soft, so soft.
Then he moves away, and it takes Nate a moment to realize that Brad is gone, across the room already. "We should get some sleep," Brad says. He climbs into the bed and turns his back to Nate. Nate sheds his trousers and shirt and gets in, turning his back to Brad, too, but he's more awake than he's ever been in his life, and he knows he won't sleep at all that night, and not just because of the moans and screams coming from down the hall.
A few hours later Nate is staring into the grey light coming through the window when he hears something that sounds like a baby crying. He sits up and turns to shake Brad awake.
"Brad, wake up," he says, the material of Brad's undershirt bunching up under his hands, but Nate can still feel the warmth of Brad's arm under his hand, and he removes it.
"What?" Brad says, turning around to look at Nate over his shoulder. "What is it?"
"I heard something like a baby crying. Do you think—?"
Brad turns back and sighs once, then pushes himself up so that he's sitting up. It's cold enough in the room that their breath mists, so they hurry to pull their clothes on and make their way down the hall to Nate's room.
The smell is even worse than it was before, humid and rank, and there is blood everywhere on the bed, and the girl, Lilley, looks like she's dead, her skin grey and her eyes closed, her hair matted and damp.
Dr. Bryan's face is haggard, and he's wiping his hands off with a piece of torn cloth. Tony is holding a small bundle. He looks up when Brad and Nate enter.
"It's a girl," he says, and he looks like he's been crying. He stands up. "God Almighty, I ain't never seen anything as bad as what I seen in the last few hours."
"Is she alive?" Brad asks, gesturing toward the bed.
"Yes," Dr. Bryan says. "I can't make any guarantees, though. She lost a lot of blood. The labor kept ripping that bullet hole right back open, and she was in shock. The laudanum affected the baby, too, and slowed things. I don't know if she'll make it. She can't feed the baby. The state of her makes me think she hasn't eaten well or regularly in a long time."
Tony holds out the baby to Brad like an offering. Brad makes no move to take it.
"I gotta go milk the goat," Tony says. "There ain't nothing else we can feed her."
Still Brad doesn't relent, staring hard at Tony.
"Please, Brad," Tony says desperately, and Nate knows he isn't just asking Brad to hold the baby.
Finally Brad looks down at the bundle in Tony's arms. He reaches over and pulls the sheet back from the baby's face. It is still mewling weakly, its body all wrinkled and scrawny and red and ugly, head misshapen and eyes closed.
Tony holds it out to Brad again, and Brad grimaces a little, but he takes it, holding it awkwardly, one hand under its head and one hand under its bottom.
Nate looks over to the doctor, but he is asleep in the chair next to the bed. Nate takes a quilt out of the closet and drapes it over him and they go downstairs.
Walt is up already, stroking the fire in the stove, and Ray soon comes in, blowing on his fingers. "Evan and me's got the feeding done since Tony couldn't do it," he says. And then he looks up at Brad and whistles. "Holy shit," he says, and laughs. "Never thought I'd see the fucking day."
"Quiet, Ray," Brad says. "Don't use words like that in front of the baby."
Nate stifles a smile.
Walt turns around and stands up, moving toward Brad to peer over the sheet and look at the baby.
"You wanna hold it for a while?" Brad asks.
Walt smiles and nods, sitting down in a chair and holding out his arms.
Brad hands the baby over, and Walt cradles it much more naturally than Brad did, letting it rest in the crook of his arm and touching its cheek with the tip of his finger. Ray comes forward to lean over Walt's shoulder and look down at it.
"Kinda scrawny, ain't it?"
"It's a girl," Nate informs him.
"I wonder what they'll name her," Walt says.
"I think they should name her Concertina," Ray says.
Walt glares up at him impatiently. "You messed-up hick, do you even know what a concertina is?"
"No," Ray says. "I just like the sound of it. We could call her Tina for short."
"Shut up, I think she looks more like a Naomi."
They bicker about her name for a while, and then Tony comes in with a pail of milk.
"How we gonna feed it to her?" he asks, setting the pail down on the table.
"Use a clean cloth, dip it in the milk and let her suck on it," Walt says. Then he hands the baby to Ray. "Here, I'll get one." He disappears to rummage around in the bag of rags they keep in the linen closet.
"Tony," Brad says. "I'm not gonna let you dump off the care of this baby on Walt. He tries to do too much as it is."
"I know that, Brad."
"How you gonna support a wife and a kid? You gonna be a hired man your whole life?"
"Shit, Brad, I don't know. I hadn't planned on thinkin' about any of this so soon."
Brad stands up, straightening his belt and then letting his hands fall to his sides. "You'd best start thinking about it. Stop blowing all the wages I pay you on liquor and tobacco. Start going to church. And maybe if you save up enough I'll let you buy that southwest corner section for a real good price."
Tony looks up at Brad briefly, then nods his head and stares back down at his hands again. "Thanks, Brad."
Brad goes outside, and Ray starts singing the baby songs. It cries even louder, but soon Walt comes back with a clean strip of cloth and they settle in to feed and coo over it.
By the time Nate comes home from school that afternoon, the doctor's gig is gone, Tony is asleep in the chair next to Lilley's bed, Walt is scrubbing the kitchen floor, and the other men are out in the field.
"Did Trombley ever show his face?" Nate asks Walt.
"Yeah," Walt says, wiping at his forehead with his sleeve. "Brad told him if he ever so much as looked at that shotgun again, he'd be turned out. His wages are gonna go toward paying the doctor's fee. And he's to sleep in the barn until he can show that he's civilized enough to be among people again."
"Won't he freeze out there?"
"Nah. You never slept in a haystack before?"
Nate shakes his head. "Can't say that I have."
"It's warm. Probably better'n sharing that room with Evan and Manimal. Manimal snores awful loud."
Lilley's fever breaks four days later, and soon she is on the mend. She comes downstairs for the first time on the day of the first snow they get, and she sits down in a chair at the table. Walt puts the baby in her arms.
Since Nate's only experience of her has been when she is delirious with fever or dead to the world, he is surprised to see how animated she is, even when still weak and sore.
"It shore does a body good to be sittin' upright in a chair and, 'stead of lyin' on my back in bed. I'm done with lyin' on my back, I suppose lyin' on my back was what got me into trouble in the first place, ain't it?" She laughs, a tiny tinkling sound, and her eyes are bright, darting around the kitchen to take everything in. "Everythin' is so fine here. Them big windows, gosh, I allus wished my pa and ma had a place with big windows, but we was never what you would call wealthy. I used to say that I wanted a house made out'a nothin' but glass, a glass house like in them stories, though I s'pose that means anybody passin' by could see in, but of course if I could afford a glass house I'd have me some real pretty lace curtains, too, and I'd pull those over but they'd still let the light in. But I guess you know all about glass and lace and fancy things, seein' as how you're from Boston?" she asks.
"Well, I am from Boston, but—"
"My sister Minnie must be in your class, she's about seven years old, I think, and she got blue eyes and blond hair just like me, you know her?"
"No, there's no one by that name—"
"I guess Pa hasn't changed his mind 'bout girls and schoolin'. I can't wait 'til little Amy here is old enough to go to school and learn all them big words and how to read, I ain't never learned, my pa says a girl don't need to know those things. He didn' even want us in church, but Ma insisted so we went. I could never read the Bible but I knew all the hymns by heart. I love to sing."
She looks down at the baby, her voice softer. "I guess I can't show my face in church now, since I'm livin' in sin. Do you think God will forgive me? Or forgive Amy, at least?" She turns beseeching eyes on Nate.
"There is a Psalm," Nate says. "'As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.'"†
She beams at him, her eyes watering a little, and clutches her baby closer. "Thank you," she says. "That is a comfort. Even if Tony wanted to marry me I'm not at all shore Rev. Sixta would marry us. I daren't go back home, either, 'cause they'll—" She bites her lip.
"They'll what?" Nate prods.
She shakes her head. "I shouldn't say. I don't know what they'd do. They don't care what happens to me and they don't have any idea where I am and I hope it stays that way."
Nate knows it's only a matter of time before Rev. Sixta or someone else from the town comes by on pretence of paying a social call. Soon they'll find out, and it will get back to the girl's parents that she is living in a house full of unmarried men. But there's nothing to be done; she has nowhere to go, and anyway, she belongs with Tony. Brad speaks of riding to the next town over come spring and seeing if the minister there will marry them. The child hasn't even been baptized, but poor Lilley is the only one who seems to be worried about that.
Tony is sleeping with her in what used to be Nate's room upstairs. Nate moves everything of his into Brad's room, and they sleep with their backs to each other every night. Nate gets used to the rhythm of Brad's breathing, takes comfort in it when he can't sleep, and sometimes hates it so much, hates how much it makes him want things he can't even name. But there is also the more mundane comfort of another warm body as the nights get colder and colder.
There's a final rush to get the last of the corn picked, and by now much of the remainder is withered and rotting from frost and rain, but they rush to sort out the good ones and get it packed and hauled off. The horse traders will come through in spring and Brad wants two more cart horses. They'll butcher a pig in January, and Brad wants to build a fence along the road leading up to the house. They have more mouths to feed, and Nate knows Brad wants to set aside money for doctor's fees, in case Walt's condition worsens. Then there is the tax, and Brad is careful with all of his bookkeeping. Nate likes to watch his fingers holding his pen, enjoying the novelty of Brad's hands with ink stains on them. Nate's own hands are getting rougher and stronger, and he is proud of them.
Soon it gets cold enough that the ground is too hard to work, and the men have nothing to do but sit indoors all day, antsy and irritable and shouting at each other. Poke gives long sermons about his life philosophies, which always rile Evan and Jim, and they argue loudly and fruitlessly. Sometimes fistfights break out between Jim and Ray, and Brad does nothing to stop them, letting them knock over furniture and crash into the walls. Nate is glad to escape to school most days. The walk is excruciating in the cold and invigorating all at once.
He gets a few more lectures from Rev. Sixta and Schwetje about the inappropriate subject matter that he's teaching; apparently some parents have complained about the profane and perverse nature of some of Nate's lesson materials.
"I will not apologize for exposing these children to the beauty and richness of our literary traditions," Nate says calmly. "I am giving them a taste of the world."
Poke leaves soon to visit his family, and everyone assures Nate that he will be back when it's time to start the planting. Brad starts spending long hours in the barn around mid-December, and two days before Christmas he emerges with a small two-person sleigh.
"Come out for a sleigh ride, Nate," he calls, waving Nate over. Nate throws on his coat, hat, scarf and gloves and they're off.
Brad is silent as he drives, but the silence is peaceful, the snow muffling everything, white stretching out for miles and miles around them.
"You alright?" Brad asks.
"Yes," Nate answers as he gazes out at the landscape, feeling completely content in the moment. It's like they are the only two people in the world.
"I thought I could use this to drive you to school and back," Brad says.
Nate looks over at Brad, who is still staring straight ahead.
"I'd like that," he says, and can barely contain his happiness at the thought of so much time spent alone with Brad, sitting side by side, so close their sides are touching under the heavy horsehair blanket Brad has tucked around them.
On Christmas Eve, all of them but Tony, Lilley and the baby go into town for the service. A few people greet Nate, and some of the girls make eyes at Brad and Evan, but for the most part they are ignored, everyone giving them cold looks and a wide berth.
The next day, Lilley helps Walt and Ray cook a Christmas dinner. They have a ham, goose, and mince pies, and after dinner they sit around the fireplace in the parlor and pop corn and eat shriveled apples from the cellar. Lilley forgives Jim for shooting her when they're all sleepy and full and warm, and he is allowed to come back into the house to sleep.
After New Year's Day school begins again, and several older girls and boys join the class. There are two brawny boys, Ben and Jacob, who are still in grade two despite being nearly seventeen years old, and they torment the younger children and say rude things to Nate, but Brad is always there watching them at the end of the day. Sometimes he even comes at midday to bring Nate his dinner and eat with him, the children all staring at him and cowering away, though he never speaks to them.
"Things must be really unbearable at home if you're driving out here three times a day," Nate says, though he's always glad to see Brad.
"I get cabin fever," Brad says, but he's smiling.
Nate is almost dreading spring, since it means that he won't have anyone to tell funny stories to on his way home, won't have anyone to give him pithy yet sound advice about handling the troubling behavior, won't have anyone to sit silently by his side. He doesn't know when or how he came to need Brad so much, because Brad hardly says anything. But just his presence is such a comfort to Nate, and the way he looks at Nate makes Nate feel like he is speaking a silent language that only Nate can understand.
On a morning in late January a blizzard moves in quickly while Nate is at school. A few parents arrive to collect their children, and Nate allows a few of the older children whose homes are in town to run home before the snow gets too heavy, but many of them live too far away to make it. The snow piles higher and higher outside, and Nate experiences a moment of panic when he realizes that they are probably not going to be able to leave the school that day. Luckily there is plenty of coal in the bucket, though more than a few feet away from the stove it is uncomfortably cold. He hopes the children who left found their way home in time.
He has the remaining children come forward and huddle around the stove. They play games and Nate persuades them not to eat everything in their dinner pails, since they might be stuck here for a few days.
The snow soon covers the windows, and it's impossible to tell time by the light coming through the window. Several of the children start to cry, and all of them are restless and hungry and not warm enough. Nate boils some water out of the stone crock by the door, which has a thin layer of ice on top. They each take a few sips of hot water and then huddle together on the floor in front of the stove to sleep.
Nate takes each of them outside when they need to urinate so that they don't wander too far, using the shovel to dig a path and then pointing it in the direction of the door so that they won't miss it and go the wrong way when they go back in. Each time it gets harder to go out, the cold biting into their bones so quickly that their teeth don't even have time to chatter. Soon they don't bother, pissing into jars they'd used to study tadpoles in, and Nate dumps it out the windows into the snow.
It is still snowing the next day, though it's barely possible to tell day from night because the clouds are so thick and the snow piling so high. They recite poems and sing songs and eat a little more out of their dinner pails, but most of them have run out of food. Nate gives his food to the younger ones. They are now mostly listless and quiet, bundled up in all their clothes, faces grey and wan. Nate's own fingers are grey with cold, he can see, and toward the end of the second day he begins to feel too weak to stand, but they continue drinking water boiled on the stove, which helps a little.
On the afternoon of the third day, Nate hears a faint scratching, and perks up. He goes to the door, which hasn't been opened in a while, and pulls it open. Snow spills into the doorway, but even better is the sound of a shovel digging them out. Excited, he rouses the children who have fallen asleep and has them listen for their deliverance.
Of course it is Brad, Brad with a scarf tied around his face against the cold, his eyes under the brim of his hat so worried that Nate almost runs into his arms.
He's brought them some food, but the children need it more, so Nate doesn't eat any. They decide to wait to see if other parents will arrive to collect their children. After four hours of waiting, there are just two left, and the sky is beginning to darken.
"We'll have to take these two home first," Brad says.
They bundle up in the sleigh. The clouds are dispersing but the temperature is dropping, and everything is icy. "Don't fall asleep," Brad warns the children.
The horse struggles, and several times they have to get out to push snow out of the way of the blades. When they're sitting, Nate catches himself drifting off. The children are silent. When he catches one of them asleep, he shakes them both and gets out of the sleigh with both of them to walk next to it for a while. It takes them nearly three hours to reach the children's homes. After they've dropped them off, one with his widowed mother, who thanks them profusely, and a girl at a tiny sod house, her parents looking almost disappointed to see her, Nate is weak and tired and his hands, feet nose and ears are completely numb.
"You still with me?" Brad says, looking down at Nate, and Nate nods. Every second feels interminable; the snow has obscured landmarks and the darkness is settling in around them. Nate doesn't know how Brad knows the way. He thought he was too cold to shiver, but his body starts shaking almost uncontrollably. Brad puts his arm around Nate and rubs his shoulder vigorously, but it isn't enough. Nate wants to apologize, but he hasn't eaten in two days and he doesn't remember what it feels like not to be freezing to death.
Nate thinks he did doze off by the time they pull up to the house. Brad lifts him up in his arms and is shouting something, and the next thing he knows he's being sat down by the stove. At first he can't even feel the heat. Brad takes Nate's shoes and gloves off and rubs his hands gently, and as the feeling begins to return it burns, hot and painful, and Nate grits his teeth and watches the way they redden, like they're on fire inside. He doesn't think he'll ever be warm again, but Walt brings him a bowl of soup, and after he's taken a few sips Brad lifts him up and takes him upstairs to the bedroom. There's a hot brick in the bed already, and Brad strips Nate's cold, wet clothes off for him. Nate is too delirious from his ordeal to be self-conscious, and Brad is very business-like, pulling a nightshirt over his head quickly. Then he gets Nate under the blankets and climbs in behind him, and Nate's eyes close with the feeling of Brad's heat wrapped all around him, and finally he begins to warm up.
Nate wakes up the next morning with Brad still spooned behind him, his arm draped loosely around Nate's waist. Nate tries to keep his breathing steady. He can feel the way Brad's chest expands to press lightly against Nate's back, the soft push of Brad's breath against Nate's neck. Nate's eyes almost water with how much he wants this every morning, and not just because he almost froze to death.
He can feel the moment when Brad wakes. His arm flexes a little bit, and Nate's heart is beating fast, though he tries not to move, doesn't want Brad to know he's awake. Brad shifts his head slightly, almost imperceptibly, but then Nate realizes that he isn't moving to get away, he's moving to get his head even closer, like he wants to push his face into the back of Nate's neck, and in that instant, Nate is sure, he's certain, and it's like the most triumphant victory and the most devastating loss all at once, to know that he has Brad, he has him, but that he's given himself over completely, too, to the wanting of Brad. The feeling lasts for one glorious instant of certainty, and Nate feels himself flush all over; before he can stop himself he shivers.
Instantly Brad stiffens, then removes his arm and rolls slightly away.
"You warm enough?" he rumbles, his voice scratchy.
Nate is still reeling from Brad's sudden withdrawal, barely able to mourn the loss of his newfound knowledge before it is gone completely from his memory, because he is certain no longer. He panics, trying to get it back, to draw that feeling back to him, is so preoccupied with this that he forgets to find the words to answer Brad's question, too.
The silence draws out—for one second? five? a hundred?—and then Brad is moving even farther away, up out of bed and across the room, misinterpreting Nate's reluctance to speak.
He pulls on his trousers and a thick wool shirt, and Nate shuts his eyes, bringing his arms up to shield his face from Brad's view.
"I'll have someone bring you up some food," Brad says distantly, and then he's gone.
"Come back," Nate whispers, but the only answer comes from the lonely wail of the wind on the prairie.
From then on Brad is careful to get into bed long after Nate does, in the hope that Nate is asleep, and to be out of bed before Nate wakes. Nate is hardly ever asleep when either of these events occur, but he lets Brad think he is.
Four days later, the baby, Amy, begins to sicken. She was never strong and had put on almost no weight, her cries always weak and watery, never developing into the lusty wails of a healthy infant. Lilley does almost nothing but rock her, and try to feed her, but she has begun to refuse the goat's milk and everything else they try to dribble into her tiny mouth.
Frantic with worry that her child would die an unbaptized bastard, Lilley cries and begs Tony to go for the minister. He staunchly refuses for two days, and everyone in the house takes a different position on letting it be known that Lilley is living with them, and has a baby, no less. But when, on the third day, the baby stops crying completely and just lies, still and white, in the makeshift basket they use as a cradle, he nods and says he will go.
Rev. Sixta is almost purple with moral outrage by the time he arrives with Tony, spitting and gesticulating about hellfire and the wages of sin. As he walks by Nate in the hall, he stops, glaring at him.
"You," he shouts, drops of spit hitting Nate in the face. Though he is short enough to have to look up at Nate, he is still fearsome. "Allowing this to happen under your nose. I expected better of you. And to think you're s'posed to be teachin' the impressionable young minds of our community the difference 'twixt right and wrong."
Nevertheless, he performs three quick ceremonies, first to marry Tony and Lilley, next to baptize the baby, and then last rites. He does all three with an air of disgust, and reserves his most vitriolic ranting for Brad and Nate, who are the only two to witness it. Lilley cries during all of it, and after Tony leaves to take Rev. Sixta back to town, she lays the baby down on her bed and curls up around it, clutching it close to her body.
It's dead by morning, and Tony and Brad have to go out and dig a hole in the icy ground deep enough to bury it. Nate catches Walt crying in the kitchen, turned toward a corner, his face in his hands.
School resumes with the improvement in the weather, though suddenly there are far fewer children in attendance. Nate wonders if it has to do with Rev. Sixta having given the town a report on the moral depravity of the schoolmaster. Brad is still driving Nate to school, but Nate is silent now, too, unhappily aware of the fact that Brad seems to be holding something in check—anger, maybe, or maybe something far more dangerous. His face is always forbidding, and he is tense enough that Nate does not want to risk riling him further.
Nate decides he can't stand the tense drives much longer, and when they arrive home one day, Nate informs Brad that he no longer needs driven; he'll start walking again.
Brad says nothing, doesn't acknowledge that he heard, doesn't even look at Nate. But the drives are indeed over, and Nate resumes walking to school and back every day.
A few weeks later, they all go to town for the monthly trip to the General Store for supplies and to check for post. Lilley stays behind, since she has lain in bed every day since the death of her baby, listless and weepy.
When they return, they find her hysterical, and several giant rocks thrown through the parlor windows, shattered glass everywhere on the floor.
"Motherfucker," Ray says, whistling.
"They've never gone this far before, right?" Evan asks, though he knows the answer. "Goddamn."
"Who did it?" Brad demands, looking furious.
She's almost hyperventilating, her hands shaking as she wrings them nervously. "They yelled filthy things at me, called me names, oh, I was so scared, I thought they were gonna—gonna—"
"Who?" Brad repeated, looking as if he wants to shake her.
"I—don't—know," she sobs, cowering away from Brad.
"She's upset," Nate says, trying to draw Brad's attention away from her.
Brad swings around to glare at Nate. "I can see that," he says witheringly.
"Well, shouting at her is not going to solve anything," Nate says.
Brad makes a wordless noise of frustration and goes to the window, looking out on the land. Nate takes his handkerchief out of his pocket and wordlessly hands it to Lilley, who buries her face in it.
Brad turns, suddenly. "Fine," he says. "I'm going to take Tony and Ray and Evan into town and we'll find out who did this."
Evan, Ray and Walt are cleaning up the glass and trying to figure out how to cover the window, and Tony is still stabling the horses. Jim is just sitting at the table, cracking walnuts and watching the proceedings impassively.
"Brad, you don't even know it was people from town. They could've been bandits, roamers, anyone."
Brad looks at Nate almost pityingly. "You think that, Nate, if you want."
Nate reins in his temper with difficulty. "Even if it is someone from town," he snaps, "what are you going to do? Give them a beating? You don't think that will just bring them back, and maybe with more of their friends?"
"What are we supposed to do, just lie back and take it?" Trombley says, grinning a little as if he's enjoying this. "Fuck no."
Trombley's perspective and input on the situation seem to have the opposite effect on Brad that he intended, because he sighs heavily and puts his hand up to his eyes. When he drops his hand he looks at Nate. "You're right. We've just gotta make sure someone's always here."
"You gonna let me pick up that shotgun again if I need to?" Trombley says, still smirking.
"Only if and when I say," Brad says grimly, and then he goes outside.
Schwetje and Mattis decide to close the school.
"We can't have a schoolteacher who condones the kind of sinful behavior that has transpired in this here house," Mattis says. He and Schwetje are sitting in chairs in the parlor in Brad's house, Griego hovering behind them as if he came along to be their bodyguard. "As Rev. Sixta so rightly says, we don't want our children's minds desecrated with perversions. Such things might be acceptable in your fancy old world halls of learnin', but we won't have you bringin' Sodom and Gomorrah here."
Nate is angry at himself, because he's stunned, but he knows he shouldn't have been.
"Sodom and Gomorrah," he repeats incredulously.
"We don't want to know what all goes on here," Schwetje says, almost nervously. "But we're going to ask that you keep it out of our school."
"What exactly are you implying?" Nate says, his back straight.
Schwetje sighs, as if he's sorry it has come to this. "We've heard a lot of strange stories about Brad Colbert from folks as knew him before he come here. We was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But he ain't proved anything wrong. We sent you out here to live with him thinkin' you would be a good influence, bring some civility and morality to this house. But he's sucked you in like has all the rest of his boys. It's thanks to you, actually, that we finally can be sure of the truth about him."
Nate is so furious he can barely see straight. He can feel himself trembling with anger, at their baseless accusations, at the unfairness of it, at the smug way they are handing down judgment, delivering their speeches as if they'd planned them all along, before Nate even came to Mathilda.
"Get out," Nate says. "I have nothing more to say to you and no reason to defend myself or Brad and his men in the face of such ridiculous accusations."
"Facts is facts," Mattis says, standing and putting on his hat. Schwetje follows. "You'd best be careful, Nate. Folks haven't really taken kindly to you, and you haven't done yourself any favors in town by taking sides."
Nate forces himself not to jump up and throttle Mattis with his bare hands. "Is that a threat?" he asks instead, raising an eyebrow.
"Just tell Brad to think long and hard about what he's doin' here. And whether or not he might be better off somewhere else. Oh, and if he's thinkin' of sellin', tell him I can make him a good offer," Mattis says, still smiling.
"You can see yourself out," Nate says coldly.
They shrug and walk out. Nate has never felt so powerless.
"Are you going to leave?" Walt says from the doorway a few moments later. Nate is still staring straight ahead, his jaw clenched and his mind working furiously, trying to figure out what to do. He looks over at Walt, whose eyes are sad and open, unprotected.
"I don't know," Nate says.
"You promised," Walt says, a bit desperately. "I knew this would happen, I knew they'd find a reason to make you leave, just because you're a good person."
"I don't want to leave," Nate says. "But there's nothing for me to do here. I would be a dead weight for Brad."
"No," Walt says. "He leans on you more than you know."
Nate shakes his head. "Walt, he barely speaks to me. I contribute nothing but the paltry room and board I pay, and I don't think it's money that Brad needs." He needs the hand of God, the balance of Justice, the power of Truth, all those lofty things that Nate, in his woeful mortal coil, could never provide.
"You're the only one he ain't carrying on his shoulders," Walt says.
"I'm afraid that's not true; I am most definitely a burden."
"Just a while longer," Walt insists. "Wait a little bit. You'll see."
Nate looks down at his clenched hands. "I just want to help. That's all I ever wanted, when I came out here."
"You have," Walt says, and Nate wishes he could believe him.
Brad has almost no reaction to the news. His eyes flicker a little bit, but otherwise he just blinks at Nate. "You going, then?"
Walt and Ray look up from where they are huddled together by the stove, sorting through a sack of beans.
"If it is an inconvenience for me to stay," Nate says, a trifle stiffly, thinking of the space he is taking up in Brad's bed.
"You know it ain't," Brad says stonily.
Nate curbs his temper. "No, Brad, I don't know that, actually."
Evan and Jim stop their arguing over their dinners.
Brad stares at Nate. "Well, what do you want me to say, Nate?"
Nate groans. "Say how you feel, for once in your life."
He immediately regrets the words. Brad looks like Nate has just slapped him.
Nate remembers the night Brad showed him the painting, his most prized possession. He never knew so clearly what a person was thinking as he did that night.
"I'm sorry," Nate says. "Of course you don't owe that to anyone." Oh, he's making it worse, and he wants to bite his tongue out.
Brad leaves the kitchen. They all hear a door slam a few seconds later, and the kitchen is silent for a long time afterward.
They stop going to church after that, and only go into town for supplies, speaking to no one. The shopkeeper is rude to them but accepts their money, of course, and some of the men in town shout insults at them as they ride through.
A few days later, a man arrives at the house. Nate is in the parlor writing letters, one to a former professor, one to the superintendant of the neighboring district, and one to his lawyer in Boston. He is the only one to hear the knock at the door.
"You must be the schoolteacher," the man says, taking off his hat. He's a little older than Nate, his face kind, but he looks a little beaten down.
"Not anymore," Nate says dryly. "How can I help you?"
The man regards him curiously, then clears his throat. "I'm lookin' for Brad, he around?"
Nate ushers him into the parlor, thinking of having him sit down while he goes to find Brad, but the man eyes the chairs with an air of embarrassment, as if he thinks they are too fine for him to sit in. Nate is about to reassure him when Walt comes running in.
"Pappy!" he says happily, and rushes at the man to grasp his hand and clap an arm around his shoulder. "I thought I heard your voice! I'm so happy you're here, Brad is gonna shit himself."
Pappy laughs and glances at Nate almost apologetically.
"Why're you here, old man?" Walt asks, and he's grinning up at Pappy adoringly.
Pappy pats Walt's back paternally. "Ran into Poke," he says. "Poke's wife is expectin'. He's real happy, but it means he probably ain't gonna be able to come back this year. Sent me instead."
Walt beams at him. "Glad to have you. You met Nate, I guess?"
"Poke said the schoolmaster was boardin' with you all."
"Nathaniel Fick, meet Pappy. Well, his name is Larry Patrick, but we all call him Pappy."
"Nice to meet you," Nate says, shaking Pappy's hand.
"Likewise," Pappy says, his smile making his mustache move like a caterpillar on his upper lip.
They go into the kitchen, and Walt gravely fills Pappy in on things that have transpired since Poke left.
"I think it's gonna get worse. I just got a feeling," Walt says. Then he gets up. "I'm gonna go down to the cellar and see if there's anything special to celebrate you comin' back to us," he says, and smiles, leaving the room.
"He looks sicker'n he did last time I saw him," Pappy says bluntly.
Nate shakes his head. "He works too hard and worries too much. Refuses bed rest outright."
"I think he's afraid of being thought of as useless," Pappy says.
"Brad thinks it's good for him to be up and about. It keeps him strong, and he's more cheerful when he's up than the days when he's confined to his bed."
"He's afraid of goin' to a real doctor," Pappy says. "Brad wanted to take him, was thinkin' about takin' him and Ray to Chicago, or maybe farther, to find someone who could help him. Walt didn't want to. I think it's frustratin' to Brad, 'cause he's a man of action, and when he can't fix things he gets real angry with himself."
"I thought, when I first got here, that Walt was right to tell Brad not to think about leaving. But now I'm not so sure." Nate had thought that Brad and all his men were bound together because of the land, their place. Coming, as Nate did, from a family that was not really a family, and the uncivilized civility of the city, he had thought, romantically, that there was something real about this land that tied them all together in some tangible, identifiable way, something comforting and safe that could offer much more to all of them than anything else in the world, and could help Walt more than any expensive doctors and sanatoriums. But he knows now that it is not the land; it is Brad and the way he cares for them, the way he deserves their unswerving loyalty, their hard work for him, and their faith in him, and his willingness to do everything in his power to help them and keep them safe.
"I know Schwetje and McGraw. They's got things skewed in their heads. Mattis is more subtle but that makes him more dangerous. Sixta's got his heart in the right place despite all his blusterin' and yellin', but they pay him and he can't really do nothing to influence the people in town in any way that goes against what the other three want. If things in town is gettin' worse I think it might be the best thing for Brad to sell this land and make a new start somewhere else."
Walt comes back, then, and he's followed by Ray and Evan, who whoop with delight at the sight of Pappy. Nate retires to finish his letters, leaving them to their joyful reunion.
Brad builds his fences as the snow melts. Lilley teaches Nate, Walt, Ray and Evan how to sew more than buttonholes, and they mend the shirts and trousers that have been torn and frayed. Soon it is time for the plowing to begin as the ground softens and dries up, and the men spend all day in the field. It's exhausting work, even with the plow horses.
One day they come into the barn to find that the horses, the two cows, the goat, and the pigs are all sick, and all the fowl but one chicken are dead. Brad sends Tony, Evan, Jim and Ray out to continue the plowing without the horses, but he and Pappy stay to try to nurse the sick animals. Nate knows nothing about animals and cannot help, but he does what Brad and Pappy tell him to do, and when they start dying off he helps to dig holes to bury them in.
Brad wields his shovel with silent fury. This time he did not even propose going into town to try to punish whoever poisoned all his animals, but Nate could see that the impotence was infuriating him, and the horror of watching his favorite horse die before his eyes was excruciating.
"They won't get the better of us," is all he says when Ray complains loudly about the backbreaking work of plowing the fields by hand, and Trombley keeps boasting he can shoot anyone right between the eyes from two hundred yards away.
"That's impossible," Evan says flatly.
"You wanna bet?" Trombley says. "Just give me a chance to prove it!"
He's never had a chance to prove it, but Nate is afraid he may, soon, because Brad's patience is wearing thin, and though his men are all polite and upstanding, for the most part, despite their colorful language, there is a hard ferocity in all of them, probably the result of difficult childhoods, that seems to have been incited. All are eager for retaliation, and Brad is the only thing holding them in check.
They lose all but one of the horses and the lone chicken. It will be months before the horse traders come through, and without the plow horses they will not be able to farm as much land as before.
Lilley, who has been getting steadily stranger since the death of her baby, starts to say that she is going to leave on her own if Tony does not arrange for them to leave together. She starts at every sound and refuses to be left alone in a room, so Tony spends most of his time sitting with her. She gets thinner and thinner and less chatty; all she talks about is wanting to leave this place and the curse that must be on it. She runs away twice, but never very far, and Tony always brings her back, exhausted and whimpering, in his arms.
Finally he decides to leave, strike out on his own. He tells Brad that he can't afford to buy the land that Brad was going to set aside for him, and thinks maybe they'll try their luck in California. He says he can't stand sitting around doing nothing while the people of the town sabotage Brad's farm. Brad pays him his wages and donates his wagon, their one remaining horse, and some supplies, and they set out in early May, hoping to reach California by October.
"You think she'll make it?" Ray asks skeptically as they all watch the wagon disappear down the road.
"Nah, she'll be dead before they get through Nebraska," Jim says, chewing on a blade of grass.
Nate moves his things back into the bedroom that Lilley and Tony vacated. Brad had started sleeping in the barn weeks ago, and after Walt has a particularly bad spell Brad orders him to move up to his bedroom instead of sharing the small room downstairs with Ray and Pappy. Walt is unhappy with this but he follows Brad's orders. Several times Nate catches Ray sneaking out of Walt's room in the morning.
"He sleeps easier with me there," Ray explains, unembarrassed. "I just don't know if Brad would like it."
"Your secret's safe," Nate promises, though he doubts there is anything that goes on in the house that Brad is unaware of.
Things are still unbearably tense between Nate and Brad. Long gone are the easy conversations they used to have. Nate begins to doubt they ever had them; maybe they were all a figment of his imagination, so remote do the memories seem. Brad is a solid fortress. He blocks out anyone's attempts to draw him into conversation, though Nate suspects that Pappy is sometimes successful, when they're alone. Sometimes he catches Brad looking at him, the look in his eyes making Nate want to reach out to him with everything he's got, but Brad's gaze always slides away slowly, which makes Nate doubt what he saw. Most of the time he is sure of nothing, when it comes to Brad, but then sometimes he is sure of everything, can see how it could be, if Brad would only let his guard down, and if only Nate had the courage to face him head on, to ask Brad for everything he is sure Brad wants to give him, and to accept it without thinking of anything else.
Fortunately, three weeks later, the horse traders come through, much earlier than expected, and Brad buys four, trading much of their grain supply in addition to the money. The first opportunity they get, Brad, Nate, Ray, Evan and Jim take the cart into town for supplies. The planting is finished and the men are exhausted. Brad drives, Nate beside him in front, and the other three ride behind.
Jim disappears the moment they arrive in town, like he always does. The main street is mostly deserted. Nate checks for mail at the post office and takes a walk past his beautiful brand new school house, empty and locked up, no new teacher found yet. He also walks a little ways down the road leading out of town, thinking of taking Brad by the hand and dragging him away to board a train for New York, and then sailing on a ship to a faraway land where none of the ugliness of Mathilda could touch them.
When he gets back to the store, Jim is back, and they load up the cart and make for home around five o'clock, having spent no more than an hour and a half in town. When the house comes into view, Jim points at it and says, "Why's there smoke comin' out of that window?"
Before he's even done saying the words Brad is already unhitching one of the horses. "Ray, do the other," he barks, and then he's up on one of them, galloping toward the house. Ray scrambles to follow, and Nate, Jim and Evan run as hard as they can after them.
It's the downstairs that's on fire, the two front rooms and the hallway. Pappy is lying on the ground a few yards from the house, his foot a mangled and bloody mess, and Walt is a few feet away, wheezing and gasping.
"They shot my foot before I could scare 'em off," Pappy says, grimacing through what must be horrific pain. "Walt was upstairs and they nailed his door shut, stole a bunch of stuff and set fire to the front before takin' off in a wagon just a few minutes ago. I couldn't put out the fire all lame like this, had to crawl upstairs to get Walt out, he was coughin' pretty bad, and now he can barely breathe at all."
"Evan, ride for the doctor," Brad shouts as he runs into the burning house.
They put the fire out by running buckets of water in and beating it back with burlap sacks, but most of the front of the house, including Nate's room, is ruined, everything that wasn't touched by the fire in shambles. Broken glass litters the floor, furniture is splintered, and many things are missing. Nate's shoulders ache and he's inhaled lots of smoke; they are all sooty and sweating and coughing, but Brad's face is like stone. Nate's eyes are watering, but he's not sure if it's from the smoke or from looking at Brad's face.
The smoke has done Walt no good; when Nate comes back out front, Walt is awake, but wheezing more loudly and painfully than ever before, on his back in the dirt, his body arching up with the effort of expanding and contracting his chest. Brad takes one look at Walt and turns to Pappy.
"You recognize any of them?" he asks.
"No," he says, white-faced with pain. "They weren't no one I'd seen in town afore. I think they were outsiders, maybe. They talked like they'd been sent by someone. And they left in a wagon."
"The painting," Nate says involuntarily, and Brad's eyes snap up to meet his.
"It doesn't matter," he says, and Nate wants to cry, for some reason.
"You sit tight," Brad says to Pappy grimly. "I'm going after these motherfuckers. Ray, Jim, saddle the horses."
"How are you going to go after them? You have no idea where they went! They'll be miles away by now," Nate says, panicking a little at the idea of Brad going off and leaving them alone.
"See this?" Brad says, and he points to a pair of tracks leading out to the road. "Those are wagon tracks, but you can see the tread on this right rear wheel is different. Looks like they were holding an axle in place with some wire. Makes it easy to follow."
Nate stares at the tracks, barely able to discern the abnormality Brad is talking about. "What are you going to do if you find them?" he asks slowly.
Brad doesn't answer, but the hardness in his eyes fills Nate with dread, and he can only stare after Brad as he barks orders at Jim and Ray and mounts his horse. Ray kneels beside Walt for a moment, clasping his hand and saying something inaudible.
"Ray!" Brad says harshly, and Ray stands, dropping Walt's hand. Jim is sitting on his horse, chewing something and smiling as if he's finally come into some good luck. Ray mounts his horse and then they're off. They've each got a shotgun strapped to their backs, and Nate feels his own jaw clench.
Nate turns to go kneel at Walt's side. Walt's eyes are watering and his chest sounds worse to Nate than it ever has. The desperation on Walt's face as he fights for every breath is so unadulterated that it's as if nothing of Walt exists anymore, his entire being submitted to his illness. Nate has never felt so close to death as he does now, looking down at Walt, and his own powerlessness in the face of it is terrifying.
He's furious at Brad, suddenly, for leaving them like this, Pappy white around the mouth from the pain and Walt nearly erased by his suffering. He doesn't know what to do, how to help either of them.
"Have him sit up," Pappy says, "maybe get a hay bale so he can lean up against it."
Nate runs to fetch one. He props Walt up, but Walt is still agitated and frantic at his inability to get enough air.
"Walt," Nate pleads quietly. "Try to calm down, it might help. The doctor will be here soon." That's not true and Nate is sure Walt knows it, but Walt closes his eyes and nods anyway.
By the time Evan returns with Dr. Bryan, Nate has cleaned up the kitchen, which is relatively undamaged, and set Walt up in a makeshift cot by the window, where he can breathe air untainted by smoke but is close enough to the stove to keep warm. His breathing is the only sound in the room, and Pappy's face is grey with the dull throbbing in his foot; Nate had had to cut his boot off and though Pappy had made no sound through the whole ordeal, he has made no sound since it was over, either, and just sits on the floor, back against the wall, waiting for help to come.
Dr. Bryan arrives in the gig and examines Pappy's foot, concluding that he needs to take Pappy to a surgery, maybe as far as Des Moines, if he doesn't want to lose it. Pappy is dosed with laudanum and Nate and Evan hoist him up, looping his arms around their shoulders, and get him downstairs and into the doctor's gig, propping his foot up under a few kitchen rags.
"Am I gonna lose that foot?" Pappy says, his eyes hazy and his head lolling on the seatback.
"No," Nate says, as firmly as he can. "You're to be taken to a hospital."
"Can't afford no hospital," Pappy slurs. "Gotta get word to m'wife—"
"We'll write to her. Don't worry. The bill will be taken care of. You'll be walking in no time at all."
"The Doc wouldn't look me in the eye. Brad'll think—"
Nate leans over, resting his hand on the rail next to Pappy's head. "Listen to me. Don't worry about Brad or anything but getting better. You're in good hands."
Pappy closes his eyes.
Dr. Bryan descends the steps and pulls Nate away from the gig.
"I've spoken to Walt. He needs to be taken to a sanatorium; we all know that I can't give him the care he needs here."
Nate looks out at the field beyond the doctor's shoulder. Dawn is creeping out over the plains; spring had arrived, everything is tranquil and quiet. It seems strange to Nate that things have gone so spectacularly wrong.
"What did he say he wants?"
"He wants to stay, of course, but he said he would do whatever Brad thought best."
"Well, Brad isn't here," Nate says bitterly.
He's surprised when Dr. Bryan puts a hand to his shoulder briefly. "I'm sorry for your troubles," he says.
Nate turns to stare at him for a moment, and Dr. Bryan drops his hand, transferring his medical bag from the other hand.
"I can write to inquire about a place for him. In the meantime, all I can tell you to do for him is to make sure he rests and doesn't stop eating. He's very ill, Nate."
Nate nods. "Send me the bill for Pappy; I'll give you a draft on my bank."
Dr. Bryan shakes his hand and drives off, Pappy in tow.
Evan watches the gig disappear down the road, and Nate turns back to the house.
At about three the next afternoon, Brad and Ray come back, Jim's horse tied to Brad's saddle. Nate sees them through the kitchen window and throws down the rag he's scrubbing, lye soap making his hands burn a little. Walt opens his eyes and looks over at Nate, holding his gaze intensely for a moment before the door opens.
Ray comes in looking dirty and exhausted, his knuckles bloody and his mouth bracketed like he wants to cry, if only he had the energy. He staggers over to Walt and kneels down at his cot, putting his head down on the blanket. "Walt," he says, his voice muffled, and Walt raises his hand slowly, like it weighs too much, and rests it heavily atop Ray's head, his fingers weaving into Ray's hair.
Nate has to look away, and Brad is standing in the doorway looking like he was carved from marble, a bullwhip folded up in one hand. He tosses it onto the table and takes his hat off, sitting down and leaning back, looking at Nate.
Nate doesn't say anything, just stares at him.
"It was Jim that told 'em we were in town," Brad says finally.
There is nothing in Brad's face that evinces any hint of the sense of betrayal he must feel. Nate himself is shocked; even accounting for all of Trombley's faults, Nate hadn't thought him capable of this.
"Where," he says, his mouth suddenly dry, "where is he now?"
Ray raises his head. "We tracked 'em all the way to Lytton. They saw us and started tryin' to run, but Trombley got right up beside 'em and shot the driver right 'tween the eyes. The other guy with him started yelling, asking what the hell Trombley thought he was doing. It was obvious they wasn't expecting him to turn on 'em. That little shit ain't on no one's side but his own, and he was havin' a real good time, whooping and yelling like he'd been waitin' all his life to kill someone. Well then two other guys jump out of the back of the wagon and they got rifles, the horses was tryin' to bolt 'cause they was spooked as hell and Trombley shoots one of them, too."
"We killed them all," Brad says tonelessly.
"Trombley?" Nate raps out.
"No," Brad says. "I got him off my horse and told him never to show his face here again. Left him with the bodies."
Walt's breathing gets louder, suddenly, and Nate looks over to see the distress on his face, the way his chest is heaving.
"Can I speak to you outside?" Nate says to Brad, trying to hold onto his temper.
Brad regards him for a moment, then pushes up out of his seat and puts his hat back on. Nate follows him out the door and into the yard.
"What were you thinking?" Nate says, not knowing a better way to start, but so angry that his voice is shaking. Brad doesn't turn around, just keeps walking deliberately in the direction of the barn.
"Trombley is gone. Pappy is gone. Tony is gone. And you've just killed how many men?"
"Had to make a decision," Brad says, pulling down a few tools and rolling them up in a sack.
"What kind of decision was that? Now is not the time to be leaving on missions of revenge. You went into that blind, Brad, you had no idea about Trombley. That kid is crazy with bloodlust! He's been itching to do something like that for months now and you led him right into it. And then you just leave him there?"
Brad doesn't answer, just finishes rolling up the sack and reaches for a rope.
"He's got you deep in it now, and you couldn't hold on to your temper for just a little longer—"
Suddenly Brad turns around. "How much longer was I supposed to just take it?" he says harshly. "I made a decision. I knew what was likely to happen. It's my fault, yeah, I knew what he'd do if I took him to hunt those lowlifes down, but you know what? I wanted to kill them. I wanted to eat their goddamn hearts right out of their chests."
"They're not even the ones who are really responsible for all this!" Nate shouts. "You know that! It's Schwetje and Mattis who are after you, turning the town against you and trying to drive you out. These men were probably paid to do this, and Trombley too, maybe he was under orders to kill them anyway so none of it could be traced back to those two. But it looks like you're as hell-bent on bringing yourself down as they are. God knows we're miles from any civilized people but you know they can call the law up at their own whim, and now you've committed murder and played right into their hands."
"Dammit, Nate, what was I supposed to do?"
Brad's eyes are snapping with anger and he's holding a scythe. Nate's mind is in such turmoil that he has crazy, unbidden thoughts, sees Brad as some violent Norse god bent on vengeance, the world bending before his wrath.
"Do you even know how sick Walt is? He might only have weeks—"
"You don't think I know that?" Brad roars.
The wind rustles the grass outside the barn, and Nate feels very alone.
"Walt and Ray are all I've got and I can't do a thing to help them," Brad continues. "And these motherfuckers come to me, to my land, to my home, and try to have Walt killed and Pappy lamed. They try to burn my house down, and you expect me to not do a thing about it?"
"Was this the right thing, Brad? Is this going to stop them? And now you don't have Trombley under your eye. You don't know what he'll do, half your men are gone and I'm virtually useless—"
"Yeah," Brad says, that single word dropping heavily between them. "Another person I have to worry about, another person I can't keep safe. Every time you take one of your little walks into town I have to worry that they're gonna beat you like they did that last schoolmaster. Every time you're left alone here now I gotta worry that they're gonna come and do something to you, too, and then I'll have a dead school teacher on my hands on top of everything else."
It's the truth, but it still hurts Nate deeply that Brad views him as such a burden now.
Brad turns away from Nate. "You should never have come here, Nate."
The hurt gouges everything out of Nate, eats everything away so that he feels like he's empty, hollow.
"Yes," he says finally, watching Brad's back. "You're right."
He leaves Brad in the barn. As he rounds the corner to make his way back to the house he encounters Evan, who is looking uneasy.
"Ain't never heard the Ice Man lose his temper like that before," he says.
Nate shakes his head and keeps walking.
"Are you leaving?" Evan calls after him.
Nate turns back to look at him, the way he's holding his cap in his two hands, fingers moving restlessly over the brim of it. Evan's shirt is torn and looks too thin, blowing in the wind a little.
"I don't know," Nate says.
He goes back to the house. Walt is watching him, his eyes already looking close to dead, and Ray still has his forehead resting on the cot next to him.
Nate remembers the conversation he had with Walt, and the promise he made to stay. No matter how much Brad resents his presence here, he knows he can't leave Walt and Ray and Brad alone. For all Brad's stoicism and physical strength, they're defenseless. Nate doesn't know how anything he could do will help them, but there is something in the way Brad is holding onto this, something in the way he seems unable to stop fighting even at the risk of losing it all, that makes Nate think there is still some secret to be unlocked about Brad that will be the key to saving him.
The next morning Brad sends Evan away with some money, a letter of reference and a few tins of beans. As he turns to leave Evan has that look on his face of a boy trying not to cry, but relieved that he isn't allowed to. "Maybe I'll find Tony 'n' Lil," he says.
"You do that. Make sure Lilley's still alive and Manimal ain't drunk off his ass and face-down in a ditch somewhere," Brad says.
"Fuck you," Ray says to Evan. "Runnin' away like a goddamned coward."
"Ray," Brad says.
"Goodbye, Walt," Evan says, and Walt smiles a little through his wheezing breaths.
Evan nods at Nate and leaves, the sound of his footsteps fading. Nate turns back to the stove, where he's trying to cook corn mash.
"He was an orphan and a shrimp. I caught him stealing in the cellar one day," Brad says. "He sure was scrawny."
"Still is," Ray muttered bitterly. "You'll never see him again. None of us won't see no one again."
"You're free to leave, Raymond." Brad says impassively.
"For fuck's sake, Brad," Ray groans, "what is your plan here?"
"I'm gonna work my land," Brad says. "And we're gonna help Walt get better."
"Oh, that's your great strategy? Help Walt get better. Fuckin' fantastic. How, exactly? And how you gonna work that land with no hired men?"
"With my own two hands. And yours, if you don't leave."
"Jesus Christ," Ray says, his thin face and black eyes contorted with frustration and rage.
"I'll help," Nate says.
Brad doesn't even look over at him. "Gonna ruin those soft white hands of yours doing farm work?"
Nate looks down at his hands. They're rough by now, calloused and scarred.
"You worry about my hands if you want, Brad," Nate says coldly. "Just another on your long list of worries."
Ray looks up and flicks his eyes back and forth between them, but the conversation stops there, and Nate goes out with Brad and Ray to the field that day.
They have to give up on three-quarters of the land because they don't have enough men to work it. Nate knows it kills Brad to see it go to waste, but it's better that they work closer to the house, anyway, because they can't be too far from Walt. They take turns staying with him when he is feeling particularly bad, but that falls mostly to Nate, who has also taken on most of the housework. They've closed off the damaged parts of the house, however, and have no time to repair them. They cannot go into Mathilda anymore; Brad goes on his own nearly thirty miles each way to the next town over to get them supplies, a trip that takes at least two days. Ray teaches Nate how to use a rifle effectively and makes him practice reloading it.
Nate and Brad barely speak. Brad is harsh with his directions and critical of Nate's work, but is working so hard himself that Nate cannot resent him for it. It's brutal and exhausting, and every night Nate's bones ache and he never gets enough sleep; his head barely hits the pillow before Brad is calling them up again before dawn. Brad is a workhorse and never seems to tire. Nate never sees him sleep or rest except to take his meals. Ray develops dark circles under his eyes and loses much of his spirit, never venturing crude jokes or indulging in long monologues about outlandish plans and ideas to make them all rich. He works doggedly and sleeps on a bedroll on the floor next to Walt's cot. Nate and Brad share the room off the kitchen formerly occupied by the other men. Sometimes he has just enough time before he falls asleep to remember the last time the two of them were sharing a room. That time feels so far away now, and Nate sometimes wonders whether he imagined all of it.
Walt doesn't get better but he doesn't seem to get any worse, either. He is very frail, too weak even to hold a spoon for very long, his face drained of all color most days and unnaturally flushed on others. Nate has to wash out bloody rags frequently, and Walt barely has any appetite.
Brad has forbidden any of them from going up the stairs because of the fire damage, but one day when Brad is out Nate decides to brave it anyway to see if any of his books remain. There is soot everywhere but the damage doesn't seem as bad as they had feared, and the floor is stable, at least. There is debris scattered all over, though, and it takes Nate a few moments to realize that much of it is the remains of his books, the covers torn off, the pages ripped up and charred. He bends down to pick up a few scattered pages, blackened and crinkled, mostly unreadable. After shuffling through them, he picks up a relatively undamaged pamphlet and recognizes it immediately. There are a few others that are almost wholly intact underneath the other rubble, and Nate collects them to bring downstairs to Walt.
When Brad returns, he eyes the charred paper scattered around the kitchen table and glares at Nate.
"You been upstairs?"
"Yes," Nate says.
"Damn it, Nate, I can't watch you every second," Brad says scathingly, and he sweeps the pages off the table. They scatter, the charred bits flaking off and creating a small black cloud of dust.
Walt starts wheezing harder almost immediately, and Ray stands up abruptly from his chair, knocking it over backwards.
"What on earth is wrong with you?" Nate says to Brad, hurrying forward to help Walt sit up and bend forward.
Brad turns and storms out of the kitchen, slamming the door behind him and making the house rattle with it.
Walt begins a violent coughing fit, and Nate hopes it will be a short one; sometimes they start and don't stop until Walt is blue in the face and they all think each gasping breath will be his last. There is only a little bit of blood this time. As Nate helps Walt wipe his mouth he can feel how badly Walt is shaking.
"He's scared," Walt croaks, looking up at Nate like he's pleading with him. "Don't leave." He grips Nate's sleeve with surprising strength.
Ray picks up his chair and sits down in it, but he drops his head into his hands.
Nate clenches his jaw and turns to pick up the scattered papers. He flips through one and stops, recognizing it immediately. "How appropriate," he mutters.
"Read it out loud," Walt whispers, leaning back and folding his hands over his stomach.
Nate looks up at him and then back down at the paper, trying to find his voice. "'All mankind is of one author and is one volume,'" he reads. "'When one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.'"†
"Fuck, shut up," Ray says, and gets up quickly, making his way to the door and stumbling outside.
"You believe that?" Walt says.
"What?" Nate says, turning away, mostly to hide his face from Walt, who is dying, and not one of them can do a thing about it.
"What you read."
Nate stares down at the words sightlessly. "I think it was written by a man who wanted to know and to be known. We're all alone if we don't have that."
"And heaven is all of us layin' open to one another, just like that."
"We can have that here, too, if we let ourselves," Nate says.
"We don't, though, do we? We have to wait for God to do it for us."
Nate looks out the window at the sun setting. "It's not easy, feeling helpless. You'd think it would be, since feeling helpless means doing nothing." He works his jaw. "And even worse is knowing that you can help but you aren't being allowed to."
"Brad don't lay himself open to no one," Walt says.
Nate doesn't know how to answer that, so he says nothing.
The work gets easier as Nate gets stronger, but he knows that he could be the strongest man in the world and never get through the impenetrable fortress Brad has built around himself. Brad never smiles or laughs and hardly even speaks. Watching the glacial pace of Walt's battle with death takes its toll on all of them, but they never speak of it in front of Walt, a circumstance that does not prevent Walt from evincing terrible and unjustified remorse about his condition that makes everything a thousand times more devastating. Their nerves are all in shreds; they've found dead animals on the porch, heard gunshots in the night and even had to put out another small fire in the field that they all know was started deliberately and maliciously.
Every time Nate even broaches the subject of changing anything, Brad shuts Nate down quickly by telling him he's free to leave if he wishes. Ray doesn't say much of anything and it is perhaps his quietness more than anything else that makes Nate so uneasy about the path they're all on, committed to some bleak ending and unable to see a way out.
Nate contemplates leaving by himself a thousand times. He's sick of the taste of corn and beans and has involuntary, mouthwatering dreams about his mother's insipid but undeniably delicious dinner parties, what it's like to cut into a succulent piece of veal, the feel of pastry melting in his mouth, the cool slide of ice cream down his throat. Even the trite conversation of his mother's society friends and the pompous, tired, cynical wit of his own friends begin to seem preferable through the generous tint of his memory, when every day he faces the depressing, tense silence of mealtime with three other men broken in their various ways. Something is holding him there, however; perhaps, Nate thinks, it is only all the things unspoken, vague possibilities and mirages of what could have been had everything not gone so spectacularly wrong. But that had all been set in motion long before Nate arrived, and he can't shake the feeling that there was a reason he had been sent here, even if that reason was only rescuing Brad and Walt and Ray from the claustrophobic clutches of this land, deceptive in its open vastness.
The weather gets hotter and hotter; Nate's skin turns golden brown from working under the sun. He tears the sleeves off of several shirts to make them cooler, but sheds them altogether when he sees Brad and Ray doing the same. Sometimes he catches Brad watching him, and the ferocity in his face makes Nate tremble. But when Nate straightens and wipes the sweat from his forehead, staring back at Brad and breathing hard, Brad just turns back to his work, his jaw clenched and body taut.
And still Walt hangs on as if he's waiting for something. The sound of his coughing becomes a comfort rather than something to dread, simply because it means he is still fighting death in terms they can all understand; it's when Walt's eyes begin to look vacant and he stares unseeingly at the wall, still and quiet, that they panic. This happens more often after Dr. Bryan makes another visit in mid-June to check on Walt and leave another small glass vial of laudanum. He also decides to bleed him, and Walt lies in his cot like one dead for days afterward, barely moving, the pale grey of his face beginning to look waxy.
Nate braves going into town for his post in July. There's a letter dated in April from the family lawyer informing him that the transition of his father's assets that was to happen on his twenty-fifth birthday has been successfully completed, and hinting strongly that it would be wise of Nate to return to Boston to oversee the business now that he has full control of it. He has also, as Nate requested, enclosed a list of several of the sanatoriums recommended by the family physician, one in Massachusetts, one in upstate New York, and one in Switzerland. "Passage overseas could be arranged at short notice," he writes. "I have already requested a place on the waiting lists of all three. If it is not too late and you wish to proceed, let me know as soon as you are able."
Nate folds the letter up quickly, putting it in his pocket, but when he turns around to start walking home he is confronted with Mattis' smiling face.
"It's been a while, Nate. Didn't know you were still hanging around."
"Didn't you?" Nate says. "Someone seems very concerned with keeping abreast of the happenings in Brad's home."
"That right? Well, now. Perhaps they's just being neighborly."
"That must be it," Nate says dryly. "If you'll excuse me." He brushes past Mattis, but is stopped by his voice.
"You talk to them boys," Mattis says. "My offer's only gonna get lower. Way I hear it, if the crop don't come in this year, Colbert's finished, and I'll have the bank in here and getting that piece of land out from under him so fast he won't know what hit him. I suggest you let him know there ain't nothing he can do about it."
Brad had told no one about the financial pressure he was under, though Nate should have guessed. No wonder they weren't trying to repair the house. The truth was that Nate was not accustomed to thinking about money very much at all and, when he did, had equated the Spartan lifestyle of late with preventative measures rather than those made of necessity.
Nate goes back to the post office and writes a reply to his lawyer. He makes it home quickly enough that Brad doesn't realize that he's been gone. And of course he tells Brad nothing about Mattis' threats.
He does, however, take the next opportunity that offers itself of speaking to Ray when Brad is out of earshot about Brad's financial situation.
"What d'you wanna know?" Ray says. They haven't had rain in a long time, and everything is dryer than it should be. They're both exhausted and miserable; the well is getting low and they've been rationing water.
"Is he...in dire financial straits?"
Ray wipes at his forehead and rests his hands on his hips. "Fuck, I don't know. This place weren't managed well before he came on and I heard tell that the old man left a lot of IOUs behind when he died. I think we was just starting to do alright when he had the house built back when he thought he was gettin' hitched. But in the last few years Mattis and Schwetje have made it near impossible for Brad to sell his crop. He has to pay extra to get his crop to distributors who want to sell cheap. He's also supporting most all of our families. But he must be having trouble if he's lettin' people go like this. No one wants to leave Brad, he takes care of his own."
"You two gonna stand there gossiping like a couple of girls?" Brad calls from across the field.
Ray sighs and goes back to work.
The heat only gets worse, and the air has a strange dryness. They get many thunderstorms but hardly any rain, not nearly enough to keep the crop as healthy as it should be, and everything begins to dry up far too early, stunted and desiccated. Everything is dusty and brown and hot to the touch. Brad has them dig giant trenches around the fields to clear a circumference around them so that if lightning should strike and a fire starts it won't spread too far. It's brutal work and Nate feels like he's broken at the end of every day.
After that's done they spend as much time as they can sitting still out of the sun. Walt suffers more than any of them; Brad carries him outside because it's cooler in the shade of the barn than shut up in the house. Sometimes they even take him to sit in the cellar. It soon becomes a choice between keeping the animals watered and using water for washing up. Nate comes across Brad and Ray helping each other shave their hair off; he asks them to do the same for him so his head won't get so uncomfortably hot when he wears his hat. Ray says he's going to go ask Walt if he wants his hair shorn, and he leaves Brad holding the blade in his hands.
"Come here," Brad says roughly, gesturing at the stool. Nate does, unbuttoning his shirt to pull his collar away from his neck.
Brad takes up the scissors first. He runs one hand through Nate's hair carefully, and Nate has to stop himself from closing his eyes. Brad cuts his hair short, his fingertips pressing gently against Nate's neck and scalp to hold his head steady, and sometimes Nate imagines that they linger a little bit on his skin, but of course he can't be sure. Brad is so careful with the blade when he begins the shave, and Nate's senses are suddenly all heightened, which always seems to be the effect when Brad gets close. He can hear the hum of insects, the crinkling movement of drying corn stalks, the scrape of the blade on his own head, even the soft push of Brad's breath. His hands are so steady, but Nate feels like he's going to melt into the ground. All too soon Brad is done. He wipes at Nate's head with a rag, and then his hand rests for just a moment at the place where Nate's shoulder and neck meet. Then he takes it away, and Nate can tell even in the way he turns to take the supplies back into the house that this rare reprieve from his usual terse, taciturn behavior of late is over.
A traveling photographer named Wright comes to town a few days later. He pulls up in front of the house with his heavy camera and equipment in a small gig and asks if they want their photograph taken for ten dollars and room and board for the night.
"Ten dollars is a lot of money," Brad says.
"I'll pay it," Nate says.
Brad glares at him.
"Best ten dollars you'll ever spend," Mr. Wright says. "This photograph will last your whole life."
"Let's do it!" Ray says, slapping Nate on the back and coming forward to help the photographer unload his equipment. They spend a long time setting up, and Nate tells Brad to shave and gets Walt dressed.
They bring two stools out in front of the house. Walt and Ray are to sit on them, and Brad and Nate stand behind them. They have to stand still for a long time for the exposure; it is fortunate that the sun is so bright and that their sweatiness won't be visible once the photograph is developed.
Walt is tired from this small exertion and Brad is silent and stony, but Ray and Nate enjoy Mr. Wright's stories and conversation and he leaves them the next morning with a clear photograph. Walt looks almost healthy in the picture, since the pallid greyness of his face does not distinguish him from the complexions of the three others. Brad is giant and forbidding, the brim of his hat shadowing his eyes, and Ray looks mischievous. Nate is glad they captured this moment in time. Despite all the things that have happened, he has a feeling this is a time in his life he will always want to remember.
The next time Nate is able to sneak away to check his mail he is not accosted at all; the whole town has been brought to a halt by the eerie stillness of the drought. The streets are nearly empty.
The letter he'd been waiting for has arrived, and he takes a brief moment to pen yet another reply before starting home again.
When he gets back to the house Brad is sitting on the back porch cleaning his rifle. He looks up at Nate and the piercing coldness of his stare fills Nate with dread. Nothing about his sojourn has been easy, but Brad has been so inscrutable and remote of late that Nate is almost afraid of him. He waffles between being afraid of him and being angry with him.
"You told me you were coming back to rest," Brad said, looking up at Nate darkly. "And I find out from Walt that you jaunted off to town."
"I didn't jaunt. I had to check my mail," Nate says shortly, moving quickly toward the door.
Brad is too quick for him, however; he stands in one smooth movement, blocking Nate's way, looming over him.
"Brad. I want to go inside. I have something I need to discuss with Walt."
"If you're going to stay here, Nate, I need to know where you are all the time."
Nate purses his mouth, trying to keep a hold on his temper. "You may not be interested in doing anything to change this situation, Brad, but I am, and I'm damn well going to do it whether I have your permission or not."
Nate can see Brad pale with anger under his dark tan.
"I working my fucking ass off, Nate," Brad hisses. "This is all I know how to do. I have nothing in the world but this land and this farm, but I'm doing the only thing I can, and you have the nerve to tell me I'm not interested in doing anything to change this situation?"
Nate flinches a little bit, angry with himself, now, for letting his temper get away with him. "This is why I was sent here, Brad, it must be. So that I can help you. I've got the money. Let me send Walt to a sanatorium where he can get the help he needs. Then I can loan you the money to hire the men you need to keep the farm productive and the bank at bay and you can turn things around here. I'll make sure you can visit Walt when you want to, and I'll go back to Boston and be out of your life."
Brad stares at him incredulously for a moment, then gives an abbreviated laugh of derision. "You think you can just buy me off like that? Take away everything that's ever meant anything to me, throw money at everything and expect it all to come out right? Walt's gonna die in that place, that fancified death factory parading as a holiday spot. They can't do a thing for him, don't think I don't know that."
Nate wants to shake him. "So obviously you are content to stand by and do nothing! Is that it?" he cries. "I'm trying to help you, it's the only thing I can think of to do, and meanwhile you're sitting here on your land that's becoming more worthless by the day and turning into something that I don't even recognize. You're holding on to something in that head of yours but it isn't what's best for you or Ray or Walt, it's just some stubborn righteousness. You're fighting people who will obviously stoop to the lowest, most despicable ends to achieve their goals, and for what? Just to maintain some illusion of control? Look what they've done to you, they've turned you into a murderer, you think that puts you in control of anything? You're not a murderer, Brad, I know this, and yet you've killed how many men—"
"I live with that," Brad shouts. "You don't have to."
"But I do, Brad," Nate says coldly. "We all do."
Brad scoffs. "You were raised in a different world, with your money and your rich house, everything soft and easy, and you don't like what you see when you have to come down here and see what's happening on the ground, where people have to do awful things to scheme and grasp and hold onto what they need in life."
"Yeah? And what is that? Do you really think it's best for Walt to waste away here and for you to sleep with your rifle and work all of us to death for a principle?"
Brad stares at Nate for a moment and Nate thinks maybe he can see hurt in his eyes. It cuts him to the quick, but before he can say anything Brad turns abruptly and goes into the kitchen, where Ray is trying to repair his boot with a hammer and some tacks and Walt is watching him listlessly. Nate follows, leaving the door open, because the night is warm and Nate likes to be able to watch the fireflies.
"Ray, Walt," Brad says. "Nate has something he wants to say."
With that generous introduction Brad shuts his mouth and crosses his arms.
"Alright," Nate says slowly, silently cursing Brad's abruptness. "Well, I've just had a letter from my lawyer in Boston, and he writes that he's been able to secure you a room in a hospital in Massachusetts, Walt, where you would receive the care you need to fight this. They have some excellent success rates. The best one is in Switzerland but we don't have much time. You could start at the one in Massachusetts and if your condition improves enough to travel we could take you to Switzerland. I've all the arrangements in place should you choose to go. I want to help you, and this is, I believe, the best way I could, maybe the best way anyone could. I just wish we could have done this sooner. What do you think?"
Walt blinks at him for a few seconds and then turns his eyes to Brad.
Brad is silent at first, but Walt just keeps looking at him as if asking for his blessing. Finally Brad clears his throat. "I think you should go, Walt. It's the best chance you've got," he says with obvious difficulty. "I want you here, but I can't keep you here in good conscience knowing that there's a chance you could get better."
"Would I go by myself?" Walt says. His eyes are nearly always watering, but now they look particularly sad.
"No," Nate says. "Ray could accompany you. I can write ahead to make sure there is someone to meet you at the station in Boston and convey you to the sanatorium. I will follow as soon as matters are settled here."
"What matters?" Ray says.
"Matters that don't concern you," Brad says.
Ray sets his jaw but does not press the issue.
Nate continues. "You would like it there, I've seen it. They have beautiful gardens and glass buildings you can sit in during the day. You can have visitors at any time and Ray could even stay with you. It would just be temporary, until you can get better. Brad will even go visit you."
Again Walt looks to Brad as if to verify this, and Brad nods, though his mouth is tight.
"How do we know this'll actually make him better?" Ray says.
"We don't," Nate says, "but I think it's better that he get away from here, with the way things are."
"We could hear you fighting about it, you know," Ray says.
"Then you heard what Nate had to say and why it makes sense," Brad says shortly.
"Why is he suddenly in charge?" Ray says. "He ain't even been here a whole year yet. What, he spends a few days in the field with us and suddenly he's running our lives? I—"
"Ray," Brad says sharply. "Look, I don't want you and Walt to leave. That's the last thing I want, and as angry as I am about everything that's happened in the last year—and I am angry, Ray, I am so angry—Nate is the one good thing that has happened to us. You said it yourself just a few weeks ago."
"Now, I'm asking you, I'm asking you both to go to this fancy hospital that only people like Nate can afford, because it'll give Walt a chance that he won't get here. You've trusted me this far and I'm asking you to trust me now, because I trust Nate."
Nate can't quite believe what he's hearing. Brad isn't looking at him, just has his eyes steady on Walt, like he's encouraging him. It's a strange effect; Nate can see almost the exact moment when both Walt and Ray accept Brad's leadership and give in to their trust in him.
"When do we go?" Ray says.
"As soon as possible," Nate says. "We can start for the train station tomorrow. Let's help you get packed now."
There isn't much of anything to pack; Walt has three shirts, his Bible, and a comb. Ray doesn't have much more. They go to sleep early and start out for the station in the middle of the night so that they can do most of the travelling before the sun comes up.
Walt is mostly silent on the drive, propped up as he is on a quilt behind the seat. Ray drives and Brad sits up on the box with him, and Nate sits in back with Walt.
"Am I gonna see you and Brad again?" Walt asks quietly, after they've driven a few hours. Nate can tell from the way Brad's back tenses slightly that he's heard, though Walt has next to no voice by now.
"Of course you will," Nate says. "You'll be safe at the hospital and under the care of some of the best doctors in the country. Maybe even the world. And if you do well maybe I can take you to Europe and they'll make you good as new."
"I just want to get better," Walt says, and Nate can see even in the dark that he's crying.
"You will," Nate says.
Up on the box he sees Brad put a hand to Ray's shoulder for a moment, gripping it tightly as if holding him in place. When he lets go, he turns his head partway and looks back at Nate out of the corner of his eye, and Nate tries not to imagine that he's thinking about what he will do to Nate if it turns out he was all wrong about everything and this separation was all for nothing.
The sun comes up and the ride seems endless. Nate has to get down and walk a few times, unable to stand the stifling stillness of sitting in the bed of the wagon. Walt lies down and they drape the blanket over the sides of the cart to shade him.
Finally, nearly twelve hours later, they arrive at the train station. Nate sends a telegram to his lawyer and buys Walt and Ray their tickets while he waits for a reply. The next train to Des Moines leaves at ten o'clock the next morning, so they arrange to spend the night in a boarding house. They eat a meager meal served by the matron, who has a pinched mouth and seems to resent them deeply for bringing a consumptive boy into her home, though she cannot say no to the money. None of them are able to muster much appetite.
Brad disappears shortly after dinner and Nate and Ray help Walt to the room, which they will share, Walt and Ray in the bed and Brad and Nate on a trundle bed that pulls out from under the big one. Ray stands at the window, silently looking out at the empty, dusty street and frowning. Walt sleeps, and Nate goes downstairs to write letters making arrangements for getting the money together to loan Brad, for Walt and Ray's arrival, and for his own return to Boston, which he cannot but feel will be imminent.
After that is finished he goes to the room and tells Walt and Ray all about what will happen once they get to Boston, trying to assuage Walt's fear and Ray's obvious reluctance.
At nearly eleven o'clock that night Brad returns, hauling a crate of what looks like wine up into the room.
"What's all that?" Nate asks, sitting up from where he's lying in the trundle bed. Walt and Ray blink over at Brad in the darkness.
"Traded one of the horses for it," Brad says, dropping the crate in the corner and taking his hat off.
"You traded a horse for a case of wine?"
"It's a fuckin' drought, Nate. It's not as if we'll be needing the horse on the farm anyway, is it, with all the boys gone?"
"Are you drunk?"
Brad laughs. "No, Nate, I'm not drunk. Hell, I wish I was."
"You know spirits are not permitted in this house, she was very clear—"
"Yeah, what's she gonna do about it? I wasn't exactly fighting my way through a crowd waiting for the pleasure of letting one of her beautiful rooms when I came in the door just now."
"But the horse—"
"One less animal to keep watered," Brad says tersely. "And trust me, we're gonna need this wine if we don't get some more rain soon."
"Give me one of those," Ray says, climbing out of the bed.
Brad takes one out of the case and tosses it at Ray, who catches it and pops the cork, taking a swig.
"Don't let 'em catch you with that on the train," Brad says.
Ray rolls it up in one of his shirts and stuffs it into the burlap sack that they're using for luggage.
Nate lies down again and turns his back to the room so that he's facing the wall. He's worried about a lot of things - about Walt, about what it will be like with Brad when it's just the two of them and these crates of wine, Brad simmering with resentment and anger at the whole world, Nate included. And he's worried about what it will mean to say goodbye to Brad when the time comes. Despite the awful way things have been lately, it will be even worse to be separated from Brad, to know he's alive in the world and yet so far away.
The air in the room is stifling even with the windows open. He can hear the soft rustle of clothing as Brad takes his shirt off, and soon he's flopping down on the bed behind Nate, causing it to shift. The mattress is old and there's a dip in the middle; Nate involuntarily rolls right to the center, his shoulder and side flush against Brad's.
They both lie there silently, Nate too scared of drawing attention to their situation to move and Brad as inscrutable as ever. Nate is painfully aware of Brad's every breath, the slow, steady movement of his chest, and he can smell alcohol on Brad.
The minutes tick by, and Brad's breathing is so steady that Nate begins to think he's asleep. It is uncannily light in the room because of the moonlight coming through the window. Nate turns his head as carefully as he can and looks over at Brad. Brad has his eyes closed and does, indeed, look to be asleep. Nate takes the opportunity to study him close up, his eyes sweeping over Brad's profile. His skin is pale, almost blue in the moonlight, like marble. Nate's gaze shifts up to his hairline, and that's when he notices that he can see the tiny throb of Brad's pulse beating quickly at his temple.
Nate jerks back involuntarily, realizing that Brad is awake and probably aware of Nate turning to study him. Brad does not stir at Nate's sudden movement, further evidence that he wasn't asleep, just keeping still, a pretence for Nate's benefit while his heart raced. Nate quickly turns around again, trying to still the beating of his own heart.
Everyone wakes up unrested and volatile; Brad and Ray get into a shouting argument over who forgot to wind the small clock in the room and Walt is completely silent. The morning is sticky and hot and still and moving at all is abhorrent, but they all drag themselves to the station, Walt leaning heavily on Brad and Ray.
When it is nearly time to board the train, Ray takes Nate's arm and drags him a bit away from the bench where Brad and Walt are sitting.
"You'll come get us as soon as you can?" he says, with the air of a skeptic who will doubt any answer Nate gives him.
"Yes," Nate says. "There are just some things about the farm I need to work out with Brad first."
"I'll be okay, but you can't forget about Walt. I know it's easy and all, thinkin' you wanna help him, but if you go back to your rich life in Boston you can't just have your lawyer send a check to the hospital and forget about Walt. He ain't got much time left."
"What makes you think I would forget about him?"
"You been cut off from the world here at Brad's. I just know, it's different when you get back with your old friends and old ways."
"I won't forget about either of you. I'll be back soon, I just need to help Brad settle things down here a little."
Ray grimaces and scuffs at the dirt under his shoe.
"Listen. I...maybe you already know, maybe I shouldn't say if you don't. Maybe it was clear as day to you when you first came here. But there's more reasons than just his worries about the farm that Brad is the way he is. Most folks have heard even though they don't know if it's true or not. The ones who work for Brad may've heard and don't care 'cause they got things in their own past that they don't want told or they know the world ain't a fair place."
"Maybe Brad doesn't want this talked about—"
"I think you should know, it might give you a better understanding of why he is the way he is and why he's stubbornly holding onto that piece of land like they're gonna have to rake his bones away to get him to leave it. He shoulda left a long time ago, back when all this trouble started. Ain't nothin' been easy since the story spread after he bought the farm. Someone passing through town recognized Brad from when he was a kid and that's when folks started talkin' behind his back."
Nate knows he should probably stop Ray, that this is something he shouldn't know if Brad has not told him, but he can't quite bring himself to say anything, because he wants to know everything about Brad, is so deeply in love with him that he's greedy for any little bit to do with Brad, whether true or untrue, real or made-up, exaggerated or downplayed.
"You probably know he was adopted," Ray says, "by a family that'd been out here a while. Brad's real parents were Swedish immigrants, I think his name when he was young was Alexander. But the whole family 'cept Brad died in a typhoid outbreak only a few weeks after they got here. Brad was old enough to know bad luck and what it would mean for him, but he was taken in by this family. They'd had a boy named Brad who died and they wanted to replace him, or so the story goes, but of course they just ended up hating him for not being their boy. So they treated him like just another hand around the place, 'cept he didn't have to be hired; he was cheap 'cause he was adopted. They was real hard on him and I think he was beaten and pushed around a lot. It weren't a real family for him."
These kinds of stories are not uncommon, Nate knows, but still it is difficult to think of Brad living this life.
"When he was about thirteen they threw him out with nothing, no money, no references, nothing. He had nowhere to go and from what I heard everyone wondered why. But the story soon got out, probably because their daughter told. They had another son who was real close to Brad, they was always sleepin' together and Brad was always doin' this boy's work for him. He was kind of a sickly child, 's what they say, but he clung to Brad something fierce. And what I heard is..." Ray's voice trails off.
"What?" Nate prompts, though he thinks maybe he already knows. "What did you hear?"
"They say old Mr. Colbert found the two of them getting a little too close, if you know what I mean. The boy blamed Brad and Brad didn't say a word, though they cut his back open with a bullwhip and threw him in a ditch out in the middle of nowhere."
"And people still tell this story," Nate says.
"Yeah. I think the root of the problem in Mathilda is that they're afraid of this, they think he's bringin' some evil to their town, some real biblical Sodom and Gomorrah shit, and Brad don't ever do nothing to help himself in their eyes. People bring up the fiancée who left him as proof, and Brad's too proud to ever even acknowledge he knows this is what people think about him or to defend himself when people spit at him and try to hurt him because of it."
Ray takes hold of both of Nate's lapels, fisting them tightly. "I been thinkin' about this, I thought long and hard on the drive over here and last night, when none of us could sleep. Me and Brad and Walt, all we've got is each other, the other guys come and go but the three of us have been family for a long time now. But Brad's always been in charge of us, he's always had to take care of us and it's like he's our dad more than anything. And because he feels that responsibility for us that makes it impossible to help him. He won't lean on no one 'cause everyone's leaning on him. And then Walt gets so sick and it's made everything even worse. But then you came and we could all see Brad looked up to you. And I see now why I gotta go with Walt, why we have to leave Brad at least for a while, because we weren't doing any good here anyway, being such a burden on him. Now, I don't know what he's trying to prove by staying here, but he's got you and you're going to see it through, right?"
Nate feels his eyes watering slightly. He nods.
Ray shakes Nate emphatically, just once, still gripping Nate's lapels. "You need to either help him erase this from their memories so it don't color everything he does, or you need to help him let go of whatever he's trying so hard to hold on to and get him the fuck out of here."
He lets go and steps back, almost glaring at Nate before turning and walking back to where Brad is sitting with Walt on the bench. Walt is leaning on Brad with his eyes closed, pale as a sheet despite the heat.
They help Walt onto the train and then it's time to say goodbye. Nate gives them his card for introductions and Brad gives them money. Walt looks up at him blankly.
"Don't worry. Got it for that horse," Brad says. Then he leans down, his hand resting lightly on Walt's shoulder, and says something quietly next to Walt's ear that no one else can hear. Walt nods and looks down at his hands.
Ray just looks at Brad, his brown eyes infinitely sad, and then takes his seat. Brad walks off the train quickly.
"Good luck," Nate says. "I'll be there as soon as I am able. Maybe with Brad in tow."
Walt looks up. "If I don't see you again—"
"You will," Nate says automatically.
"But if I don't," Walt says with surprising vehemence. "I want to thank you for everything you've done and are still trying to do."
"You're welcome," Nate says. "I only wish it were in my power to do more."
The conductor calls the all aboard, so Nate shakes both their hands and leaves the train. Brad is standing in the shadows of the depot with his arms folded, his face shuttered. Nate stands next to him and they watch the train depart. A few other people watch it go, waving and calling goodbyes, but Brad and Nate are silent.
When the train can no longer be seen Brad turns to leave, Nate following, not knowing what to say or do. They water the horse and start out for home, neither of them speaking, though the silence is as taut as a bow string. Or, Nate reflects, maybe that is just his imagination, because he now has so much to mull over after Ray's revelations at the train depot.
The heat is worse today than it was yesterday, and they have to stop in the shade of one of the scarce trees along the road to wait out the worst of the sun toward late afternoon. Everything is dry, yellow, dusty. Nate leans back against the trunk of the tree and closes his eyes, trying to swallow though his throat is dry, while Brad unhitches the horse to bring it under the shade, too. It's foaming at its sides, glistening with sweat and heaving.
The minutes tick by; even the insects are silent.
"What did Ray tell you?" Brad says abruptly.
Nate opens his eyes.
Brad is standing with his back to Nate, looking out over the plains that stretch endlessly in every direction.
"He told me a little bit about your childhood," Nate says, choosing his words carefully. "And he wanted to make sure that there was something I could do to change the situation here."
"And that's loaning the money to keep me from losing the farm, is that it?"
The harshness in Brad's voice makes Nate want to moan his frustration aloud, some long wail of supplication meant to show Brad how much it pains Nate to see him suffer, to know this terrible history of his, to know that all of Brad's stubbornness stems from having felt helpless all his life to have any control over his destiny. But even though he knows Brad might understand, might truly listen to the words he's saying, what Ray told Nate only convinces Nate more that Brad would never allow himself to accept what Nate wants to give him most of all. Nate knows now that, barring some apocalyptic circumstance, whatever it is that exists between the two of them, no matter how close they get to it, the world they inhabit and the circumstances of both of their lives will ensure that it is unattainable in this lifetime.
Nate wants to blame Brad for it, for refusing to rise above the unfairness of a past that has followed him despite his attempts to make something of himself, but that, too, is unfair, and Nate won't be on the other side, trying to pull Brad in yet another direction. All he can offer is his financial support, but it appears Brad is going to make this difficult, too, and Nate wants to get on his knees before Brad and beg him to let Nate make life a little easier in this one small way.
"Brad," Nate says finally, "I'd take care of all of it if you'd let me. I'd pay for every loss and want nothing for it but that you be left in peace to do what you want. Even if..." Even if what you want has nothing to do with me, Nate wants to say, but he stops himself because that would bring everything that Brad seems determined not to acknowledge out in the open.
"I've never had to ask anyone for help," Brad says. "Not since my parents died and help did me more harm than good."
"We'll make the arrangements," Nate says, "and then I'll leave for Boston and you can be sure that no further harm will come to you from my help."
"If that's how you want it," Brad says.
"It's not how I want it," Nate says harshly. "It's how you want it, it's what circumstances dictate, is it not?"
Brad doesn't answer, which is what Nate has come to expect by now, a fact that doesn't make it any less frustrating.
When the sun starts to set they hitch the horse up again and start down the road.
Nate dozes off after dark a few times, ending up with his cheek on Brad's shoulder. Brad rouses him gently when they get back to the house, which is dark and empty, of course, and they fall onto their cots in exhaustion as soon as they can.
When he wakes up Nate thinks it's dawn because of the light on the wall coming through the window of the room they're sleeping in, but it's a strange, dim, flickering orange light, and in an instant Nate knows something is terribly wrong. He stumbles up out of the cot and to the window, and he can see huge flames licking up at the black sky from the corn fields. Acres and acres are ablaze already, the dryness having made the fire catch quickly, and the smell of smoke is heavy in the air.
He turns around and sees Brad sleeping, still dead to the world and to this new calamity. Nate puts a hand to his shoulder, pressing it lightly for a moment, and Brad shifts a little, making a small noise. Nate's heart is beating fast out of fear and panic about the fire and terror at the prospect of Brad having to face yet another terrible blow to everything he has worked so hard for. There is no way they will be able to salvage the crop now, and Brad will be even worse off. Nate remembers wishing for some apocalyptic event that would force Brad to let go of everything, but now that it has happened he wishes it hadn't, afraid of what it will do to Brad.
"Brad," Nate says, his voice cracking, and shakes him. "Brad, wake up, please—"
Brad's eyes blink open and he looks up at Nate, still confused, and the look in his eyes makes Nate's eyes water.
"Brad, there's a fire—the fields—everything's burning," Nate says, feeling like something is choking him.
Brad's face hardens with frightening quickness, and he sits up. They both fell into bed with their shoes still on. Brad pulls his suspenders up over his shoulders and strides out toward the door, Nate hurrying after him.
The smoke is thick enough and the air still enough that it's difficult to breathe. The only thing to be thankful for is that there is hardly any wind, and what little wind there is seems to be blowing the fire away from the house and barn. The fields are dry and withered enough that the burn is quick and won't get too hot. Brad makes his way toward the edge of the field, which is already charred and barren, and just watches as the fire voraciously leaps across hundreds of acres, the stillness of his silhouette against the flames making Nate's eyes burn more than the smoke.
"Should we try to chase it? Let the others know?" Nate croaks over the crackle and roar.
"Don't bother," says a new voice, and they both turn around to see Trombley smiling and sitting Brad's horse, holding a rifle. "They all know, they was all in on it. They've been planning something like this for a while, only they was too scared to go through with it. But I wasn't." He chews the grass between his teeth and smirks out at the fire as if delighted by it. "Ain't nothing personal, Brad, and it never was. Hope you know that. "
He urges the horse toward the road but turns around abruptly.
"Oh, and I let all your animals out. Seems they weren't too keen on sticking around to watch the blaze."
Brad doesn't say a word. He'd turned around shortly after Trombley made his presence known and didn't dignify Trombley's speech with any response whatsoever.
Nate is almost afraid to look at Brad's face but he wants to very badly, so he comes forward.
"Brad," he says.
Brad doesn't move; maybe he hasn't heard Nate, but Nate sees wetness on his cheek, a streak through the dirt. Before he can stop himself, Nate reaches out to touch it.
The moment he makes contact Brad turns his head and catches Nate's wrist in a strong grip. Nate can see the fire reflected in Brad's eyes; he's terrifying, again, some horrific pain in his face—defeat, perhaps, or scorching anger, something so strong that it is impossible to conceal, even for Brad.
"There's nothing we can do," Brad says, like this is something he has tried to keep from saying his whole life and can't hold in anymore.
"I'm so sorry," Nate says. Brad is still gripping his wrist, so tight that the blood flow is cut off from his hand.
Brad draws him closer, Nate stumbling over the few steps between them, and Brad catches him around the waist with his other hand. The roar from the fire dims in Nate's ears to be replaced by the roaring in his own ears; he stares up at Brad, both of them on that brink they've been on before, and Nate has one wild moment to wonder whether Brad is going to jump, this time, before Brad bends down quickly and kisses Nate.
It's different from any other kiss he's ever experienced. Brad is fierce, and Nate feels his insides turn to liquid as Brad's arms crush him close. Brad is huge, his body wrapping around Nate's and lifting him up off the ground so they can reach each other. His hands are everywhere, sure and strong, and Nate hears himself make horrible, shameful noises when he feels Brad's hand reaching down the back of his thigh to bring them flush against each other. Everything around them is hot, but nothing burns like Brad's mouth on him, on his lips, the line of his jaw, his neck, everywhere Brad can reach. Nate has his own hands fisted in Brad's shirtfront. They're both sweaty and covered in dirt but there's something about rubbing it all off on each other that is the most intimate thing Nate has ever done. Why now, he wants to ask, why next to your burning crop? But Nate thinks he knows the answer, and all he can do is give Brad everything he wants, to let Brad have his way for once, because it is what Nate has wanted for so long now too.
Brad breaks away and buries his face in Nate's neck, and Nate can feel the wetness of Brad's tears, can feel the way Brad's chest is heaving. Nate wraps his arms around Brad's shoulders and runs his hand over the short blond fuzz on Brad's head, hair that has just started growing back. He feels silly and useless, trying to soothe Brad like a child, but Brad just holds on tightly and breathes against Nate's neck, his trembling slowly subsiding.
The fire is farther away by now and dawn is breaking, the sky turning grey over the charred ground directly before them. Nate can see the fire checked at some of the barriers they dug.
Brad raises his head and they look out at the damage together.
"I'm so tired," Brad says.
Nate turns back to look up at him, eyes going over every inch of his beautiful, tired face, and cups his cheek in one hand.
"It will be alright," Nate says. "What you lost—"
"I've got you," Brad says possessively, nearly growling the words, "I've got you now, and that's all that matters. Nothing I've done matters until now, starting from now, with you."
He scoops Nate up in his arms and carries him back to the ruins of his house, dropping him down on Brad's cot in the little room they've been sharing and falling down into the tiny space with him.
"I've lost everything," Brad says, leaning over Nate, "but you, you I'll hold onto forever. You're trapped, Nate, I'm never letting you go."
"No," Nate moans, "don't ever let me go."
They both smell like smoke, but it doesn't matter; they cling to each other anyway, Nate tucked up under Brad's chin, and fall asleep together, the fire dying outside, everything tying Brad to this place going up in the billowing black smoke.
Brad is still asleep when Nate wakes. It must be late afternoon; the air is heavy and humid but cooler, and Nate thinks he can hear thunder in the distance. As quietly as he can he raises himself up so he can see out the kitchen window through the door of the room. There's smoke rising from a few places but mostly the fire has burnt itself out, held in check by the ditches Brad was so determined to keep clear around his land. They'd dug them around 60-acre blocks, so Nate thinks Trombley must have gone to each field to set fire to them all, ending with the ones closest to the house.
There's still smoke in the sky, or maybe, Nate hopes, they're real clouds.
He lies back down, head pillowed on one of his hands, and watches Brad sleep. Brad is sprawled on his stomach, head turned to the side like he'd fallen asleep watching Nate. Nate reaches over and runs a finger lightly over Brad's forehead. Brad flinches a little but doesn't wake up, and Nate withdraws his hand.
"Brad," Nate whispers, soft enough that he won't wake Brad, but out loud, because he wants some part of Brad to hear this, even if he is not aware of it.
"I wondered for so long why I was here. My family thought I was just running away from my responsibilities. I told them I needed to get away for a while, to find something that would allow me to take over my father's work and start living the life I was trained to live. And I wondered what good I could do for you, why fate had conspired to bring me here, to your house, to be confronted with all the terrible things you are facing, all the cruelty and unfairness, the unkindness of people, the small-minded hatred they bear for those who think or act differently. I hated that I was just a burden to you."
He touches Brad's eyebrow as gently as he can, marveling at the pale downward tilt of it, so low over his eyes, the way it serves to make Brad look so forbidding when he chooses, but so harmless and innocent now.
"But you did need my help. I had something I could give you, I just had to find out what that was. And it wasn't money, like I thought for a long time. You taught me to care about things and to fight for them, to be tenacious and own up to responsibilities. I came for you to give me that, but I also came to free you from being crushed under all of that, to help you let go of taking responsibility for all the evil things that happen in the world. I want you to let yourself lean on me, to let me be the one you look to if you feel alone, to show you how we can try to be happy. I think I can see the way, even if we have to rely on your strength to carry us through. Do you understand? I hope you do."
Brad's hand is resting in the space between them, and Nate covers it with his own hand, their fingers entwining. Brad stirs at that, his eyes blinking open, and Nate imagines he can see their whole history in Brad's eyes as he stares at Nate, smiling slightly and curling his fingers to hold on.
Nate can't help it; he leans over and bites at the cleft in Brad's chin, something he's wanted to do for months and months. He can feel Brad's skin stretch under his teeth as Brad smiles, laughs, even, a low rumble in his chest. Nate reaches down to unbutton Brad's shirt, his fingers trembling slightly, but Brad waits patiently, never taking his eyes off Nate's face.
When Nate gets the buttons open he presses his hand to Brad's sternum, feeling the lean hardness under the soft bronze of his skin.
Brad sits up to pull his shirt off, then reaches over to yank Nate's open, buttons flying, but Nate doesn't care. Brad rolls over on top of him and Nate can barely think. Brad's mouth is all over, and he works his way down Nate's chest, licking and biting and sucking so that Nate doesn't know whether to laugh or moan. His stomach caves when Brad rests his cheek against it, rubbing his face against the skin there like it's comforting to him.
Nate is so hard he thinks he might embarrass himself, and Brad makes it infinitely worse when he mouths Nate through the fabric of his trousers. Nate is shocked; he's never done anything like this in his life but it feels good enough that he doesn't care where Brad learned to do that.
"Brad," he moans, looking down, and Brad looks up, resting his chin on Nate's hip.
"What do you want, Nate?" Brad asks, running his hand along Nate's flank.
Nate thinks for a moment. "I want you here close to me," he says finally, and Brad smiles, hoisting himself up so that he's lying beside Nate, head propped up on one arm.
"And what else do you want?"
"I...want you to touch me," Nate says, fighting embarrassment, but the hungry look on Brad's face makes him brave.
"Like this?" Brad whispers, and his hand moves down into Nate's trousers.
Nate reaches down to undo them and pull them aside, and Brad leans down to kiss the side of Nate's head as he starts stroking Nate, slow and sure and deliberate.
Nate hisses and turns his face into Brad's. Their breath mingles and Nate's heart-rate climbs with each movement of Brad's hand.
"Brad," Nate says.
"You're all mine, ain't you?" Brad says, his speech lapsing and his own breath quickening. "God, Nate, you're here with me, after everything, I got you right here."
"Please, Brad," Nate says getting desperate, trying not to arch up off the cot but wanting to push his hips into Brad's fist and let go.
"Come on, Nate, I wanna see, I wanna see you—"
"Brad!" Nate cries just before he loses his mind completely, Brad's lips pressed to his temple and his other arm around his shoulders, like Brad is catching up all of Nate's pleasure and hoarding it between them, keeping it safe.
No sooner does Nate go limp then Brad reaches down to undo his own trousers. He rolls over onto Nate and pushes up against him. Nate is so blissed out that he can barely move, but he raises his knees and cradles Brad's hips between his thighs. Brad supports his weight on his forearms and lets his head hang down, rocking his hips against Nate in tight little thrusts, his huge frame rocking the small cot. When he comes he groans loudly, and Nate catches up Brad's pleasure, too, holds it all close to him. When Brad collapses on top of him Nate reaches around to run his fingertips over Brad's back, over the painting he knows by memory, now, from having stared at his shirtless body in the fields so often. And he feels what the painting was meant to conceal—thick, raised welts, scars from childhood beatings.
Brad doesn't jerk away, just lets Nate feel him and learn him, their bodies slowly stilling. Nate feels strangely cool after having come, and everything is just right, perfect even, though they are lying in a half-wrecked house next to burning fields.
"Will you take me to Boston so I can see the ocean again?" Brad says.
"Yes," Nate says. "I'll take you anywhere. We'll get Ray and Walt and sail across the ocean, go to Europe, see the Alps. Walt will recover and we can start again, you can help me reorganize the family business if you like. Or we can go somewhere all new."
They continue making plans like children plotting an adventure. When they get hungry Nate scrounges for food in the pantry while Brad goes down to the cellar. By dusk they're eating carrots and beans in the shade of the porch, clouds gathering dark and heavy on the horizon.
"I smell rain," Brad says.
Nate smiles. He doesn't know if it's really coming or not, but he is content to believe, with Brad, that it will.