‘What’s that you’re reading about, boy?’ he asks. There is something dangerous about his look. ‘Trials and tribulations?’
‘It’s just a book I borrowed from Louie. I’m not far yet,’ I say.
‘I read some when you was in the house, pretty heavy stuff.’
‘Oh.’ I wonder if he had found any of the sex scenes. Louie had marked a bunch of pages, and I’m shitting a brick thinking about how easy it would have been for him to turn to one.
He keeps looking down at me with that look in his eye, like he knows something big about me, or about the world, and isn’t going to shake loose ‘til he shows me what it is. I just sit there picking at clover in the grass hoping he’ll forget I’m there. Finally, he shakes his head and mutters something to himself, and tips back his hat, softening. He looks out on the land miles past the barn and scratches his greying head.
‘Goin’ down the way later. Need to work that grullo horse Blankenship left. You get your act together, you can come.’
I nod and shove the thick book under my arm before running into the house. I cut through the dining room and into the kitchen to get a drink of milk, and Gramma and Uncle Ralph are inside shootin’ the shit about some dump plans coming down their way, none too happy.
‘And with all them toxins and whatnot goin’ down into the water, who knows what’ll end up in our well? And you know old Sam Grey isn’t going to like it much, and he’s got money.’ Gramma gives Ralph a little wink, like she knows how it’s all gonna work out.
‘I don’t reckon money comes into it much though, Mom. They ain’t said –’
‘How d’ya figure that? Them rich bigwigs from King Country are always getting into things.’
I look in the refrigerator and sigh. ‘Gramma.’
‘Do you have two per cent milk? I don’t like the red milk.’
‘The red cap.’
‘That’s the good milk, sweetheart.’ She walks over from where she’d been leaning on the countertop and gives me a wet kiss on the cheek. ‘We don’t like ours watered down.’
‘Okay.’ I wipe my cheek to get rid of the slobber there and her eyebrows come together.
‘Don’t wipe my kiss off!’
‘I’m not, Gramma. I’m rubbing it in.’
‘Alright, honey. That’s ok then.’
Uncle Ralph laughs and slaps me on the back as I walk back out of the kitchen empty-handed. He follows me into the dining room and stands looking out of the big window. I stand next to him, glancing up at his face on my left before quickly looking back out at the yard in front and the dusty landscape that lies beyond it.
The yard is fenced and symmetrical, and there is a cement path down the middle that leads to some steps at the very edge of it, stopped by a metal gate. The steps cut steeply down through the terraced layer and end up far below, at the long drive that sweeps straight between the two pastures. The pasture on the right is empty right now, and the other holds the black stud, BJ. At the end, where the drive meets the gravel road, I can see the barn and the old outbuildings, where I’ve spent these summer weeks under the hot sun feeding the horses, the old donkey, Walter, and gathering eggs from the chickens. Gramma and Grampa used to have pigs they named after me and my sisters, but they’d probably eaten them a while back.
I look past the barn and out at the bluffs and coulees. There will be coyotes out there, and groundchucks. Badgers, probably, and other things I don’t even know about. The whole place, far as I can see, looks dry. Tall brown and yellow-rust grasses are everywhere, and sagebrush and mustard plants. Those mustard plants will dry up around this time of summer and let go of the ground, and tumble around solo or in big group operations until they get caught on something or end up clumped together in one of those coulees, trapped between bluffs. They always taught us in school about the Missoula floods, and how the Scablands were made, but I can never imagine a flood big enough to scrape out such a crazy looking place as this – big boulders left stranded in the middle of nothing, hills topped with rock, lakes in the middle of the driest places I’ve ever seen.
‘Your grampa’s goin’ out there later, you know.’ Uncle Ralph looks down at me and smiles.
‘I know, he said I could go with him.’
His smile stutters a little. ‘Do what he says when you’re out there, ok?’
‘I will.’ I wonder what’s wrong with him, if maybe he’s mad at me for going with Grampa when I usually go out with him.
I don’t know how far away I am from the house, but it feels a fair distance. I’m on Jalapeño, Charmagne’s gelding, and he’s on Blankenship’s grullo mare. We’d come through about ten gates and had passed through the last of Little Lakes a while back.
‘Coming up on White Sands, pard,’ he says. He leans in his saddle and takes out his Copenhagen Snus. ‘How you liking that little cutting horse?’
‘I like him fine. He’s one of my favourites.’
‘Well, good.’ He has the lid off now, and he hooks a dip and sticks it in his bottom lip before closing the lid and standing in the stirrups to position the can in the worn place in the back pocket of his Wranglers. ‘When we get up here, you’d better not let him roll over you. They’re apt to do that.’
I nod. ‘I know.’
The rippling hills give way to a steep wash with white sand on the near side. Grampa goes first, edging the grullo mare down the loose dirt and crumbling rock, and into the sand below, crossing the dry creek bed. I follow on Jalapeño, giving his flanks a nudge with my heels. I give him his head, loosening the reins, and he puts his muzzle to the ground, slowly stepping with stiff forelegs down the shifting dirt. When he steps into the sand, he stops and blows, little rivulets of sand grains running down the slope away from his breath. Before I realise it, he is dropping, and I just have time to lift my leg away from the slope as he leans onto it, and then I am standing, boots sinking into the sand, his body underneath me.
‘Get outta there, goddamn it, get off ‘eem! He’ll roll on you!’
I stand frozen there, wondering whether I should give the gelding a kick to right him, or stop straddling him and step off into the sand. Grampa’s hollering is just flustering me, and I can’t get my head straight from the panic. Eventually, I step off and stand at a distance while Jalapeño rolls, his cinch loosening, the saddle dropping low around his belly. When he finishes, he lurches upright and jerks his reigns free of my hand and takes off down the creek bed.
I look over at Grampa and smile. ‘I’m okay,’ I say. ‘Sorry.’
He silently rides the grullo over to me and looks down, and all I can see of his face is the black shadow that looms in front of the orange sun overhead. ‘Wipe that smile off your face or I’ll beat it off. I’ll give you something to smile about – go fetch that horse.’