The Homesman

Excerpt

S.E. 2, Section 10, Township 8, Range 4E.
The Homesman           In late summer Line told him she was two months along.  Another mouth to feed. And besides, she said, forty-three was too old. She said it would be a melon-head or all crippled up or have a harelip because God must be angry with them because look what had already happened this year.

         
In the spring they lost all but one cow and her calf to blackleg.
          At that time also Virgil, their only son, sixteen, a real go-ahead boy, up and ran away to scratch for fool’s gold in California. 
          Hail in July flattened their wheat, and in August, as the corn was heading out, two weeks of winds right out of Hell burned up so much of it that come fall they snapped their pitiful small ears and shelled them by hand rather than bothering them to the mill. Twenty acres of wheat gone and thirty of corn. Cash crops. God made the weather, Vester said.
          It was March now, and Line went on reciting their woes like a child a poem, and he heard her out because she seldom spoke these days and maybe it would help whatever ailed her. 
          Then, before the first snow, when they knew it would be nip and tuck to feed themselves through the winter, they sent Loney, their eldest girl, fourteen miles away to drudge for a family far better off. For a third of a bed and keep, the poor child.
          Then one of their oxen got the warbles, worms under the skin. You could cut open the swelling and douse the worms with coal oil to kill them if you had any coal oil. Let be, the worms would suck the very soul out of the ox, Line was sure, and come spring, yoked up, it would fall down dead in the field, the poor creature.
          Then this winter of damnation. How had they sinned? It was so cold they were out of wood and corncobs by the end of January and had to heat and cook with hay cats. Twice when it must have been forty below they brought the two pigs into the house for the night to save them from freezing, but another night they failed to and a pack of wolves ate them down to the bones. The blizzards were so fierce you were blind three feet from the door. They had to run a taut rope from the door to the stable and a second rope from there to the outhouse or lose their way. Reverend Dowd stopped by in January during a short thaw, and likewise Mary Bee came from her claim in February to bring them food; but except for these two, the circuit rider and their nearest neighbor, the family had set eyes on no other human in five months. The school-church was snowed in, no one ever hollered greeting, and they ached for the sweet sound of a bow put  to a fiddle. Father, mother, and the three girls shivered and were sickly and drank from the same dipper. 
          And now a baby, Line concluded.
          Vester was forty-four. He put a hand on her belly and said a baby was not his fault. A man had his needs, he said, and the Almighty had provided woman for those needs.
          She pushed his hand away.
          Ever since she told him last summer she was two months along he had watched her change. She would go hours speechless.  Some days in clear weather he would come in from the field to meet her outdoors standing staring over the prairie as though there were something to see. She slept restless. She was cranky. She picked at her plate. She had headaches. Proud of her hair once, black once, cut and washed and brushed like clockwork, she let it grow long and gray and dirty. The girls said some days she would sweep the house out three times, letting in the cold, but other days he would enter to find her hindside on a chair throwing her eyes around. She fretted him.  He studied her and was minded of warbles. A worm under her skin, inside her, was sucking out the strong, cheerful, loving wife she had been, and there was no coal for that. A worm? The baby?
          Vester and Theoline Belknap lay beside each other in bed on the hay tick, listening. It was night in early March, and that afternoon the wind had switched to blow warm from the south, warm enough to let the fire go out in the stove after supper. It was raining heavy.  The sod and hay and pole and dirt roof of a sod house wouldn’t turn much water. Small streams of muddy water poured down into the four buckets they had placed before retiring. Rain was a tussle between sleep and mud. Unless the buckets were emptied out the door often, in the morning the dirt floor was a bog. They listened. Far off, the coyotes yapped. Nearby, on the other side of the quilt behind them, hung up to partition a third of the house for a back bedroom, one of the girls spoke in her sleep. There were three girls left at home after they had to send Loney away. Junia was eight, Aggie six, and Vernelle four. The house was built of sod blocks three feet long and a foot wide, turned up out of virgin prairie sod by a breaking plow behind the oxen and laid side by side to form a wall three feet thick.  Measured on the inside the house was eighteen feet long and fifteen wide. It had one wooden door on rope hinges which would not close tight and one  glass window, framed, through which they couldn’t see because it was so wavery. Behind the quilt was the girls’ bed and before it was what they called the “front room,” where they all lived.  At meals they sat around a sawhorse table, father and mother in the two chairs nearest the stove, one girl on a cracker box, and two girls on the side of their parents’ bed. Line’s other furnishings were few.  She had two shelves pegged into the sod wall for cutlery, cooking utensils, and dishpan, and a small, cloth-fronted cupboard for salt and saleratus and rye coffee and such. Finally there was the trunk she had brought when they came out west three years ago containing her valuables: a hat she had never worn, a dress of real silk she was saving for her daughters’ weddings, a Bible, daguerreotypes of her dear mother and father back in Kentucky, in Heaven now, a tortoise-shell comb, her sewing basket, a looking glass into which she couldn’t bear to look, letters from home, her wedding ring, and the seven dollars she had earned sewing for Mary Bee.
          “When’re you due?” he asked. She moved, trying to make herself comfortable. She was big and the hay tick was lumpy. “Two weeks,” she said.
          They lay in the dark listening to the buckets and the warm wind blow over the world. By and by Vester said he had made up his mind. This was the third thaw, and this being March he believed it would hold. They had her seven dollars to their name. They must have food or go hungry, seed for a crop or go broke. He said he intended to ride to Loup early in the morning and sign a chattel mortgage at the bank, take the money and buy food, order and pay
in advance for seed, pick up their mail at the store, and be home by dark or thereabouts. She lay silent for a spell, worrying about a chattel mortgage he reckoned, the homesteader’s plague, and he
was dozing off when she spoke, suddenly, rousing him.
          “You leave me and the baby’ll come.”
          “Line, I have to go.”
          “It’ll be cursed.”
          Come daylight Vester got up and dressed and went to the stable to feed the stock and saddle his horse. Line got up and dressed and started a fire in the stove and went to the outhouse.
On return she emptied the buckets and waked the girls and standing in mud made corn dodgers. All she had left was cornmeal, which she mixed with water until it was too thick to run, then fried. She made extra, enough for herself and the girls later. Vester came in and she used the last of her sorghum molasses on his dodgers and the last
of her coffee, which was rye parched brown, for two cups for him. He guaranteed again he’d be home by dark. Loup was sixteen miles north and east of their claim. He tried to kiss her on the cheek, but she turned her face from him.
          After she fed the girls she put them to twisting hay cats and piling them against the wall. They brought in hay, prairie grass, from the stack under the snow outside and twisted it tight into rolls a foot long. Hay burned hot but fast, and the stove needed steady tending. 
          Midmorning the wind veered around from south to north and blew biting cold. 
          In the afternoon it commenced to snow. Then she knew Vester wouldn’t be home before morning and she would have the baby. It was snowing too hard to risk sending Junia the two miles to fetch Mary Bee for help. She would have to help herself, however she could. God made the weather, Vester said.
          Just before dark she went to the stable and fed the oxen and cow and calf. She laid a hand on the flank of the ox with warbles, right on a swelling, and was sure she could feel the worm move.  Then she returned to the house, bringing with her two picket ropes.
          She sent the girls to use the outhouse. While they were gone she tied a rope to each of the bedposts at the foot of the bed. 
          When the girls were back she gave them a cold dodger apiece and told them to get into bed with their clothes on and to stay there and not come past the quilt, into the front room, no matter what.
          It was pitch dark now. She lit a candle. In the trunk she found her thin gold wedding ring, dropped it in water, and set it on the stove to boil. On the bed she placed scissors, thread, and the dishpan where they would be handy.
          She took the pan from the stove, let the water cool a bit, drank it from the pan, and replaced her wedding band in the trunk.  Since she was a girl she’d heard that wedding-ring tea would comfort a body and ease your labor pains.
          She stuffed the stove with twists, pulled the cracker box next to the bed, set the candle on it, took off her boots and trousers and feedsack drawers, settled herself in bed with both pillows at her back, closed eyes, and waited.
          She heard the girls whispering.
          In an hour or so she felt squeezings inside, and presently her water broke, wetting the bed. In a few minutes the labor pains commenced. They went on a good hour, she reckoned, coming closer and closer together. She tried not to make a sound, but soon the pain was so fierce she groaned and cried out so loud that the girls, scared to death themselves, began to cry like choir of cats.           The fire in the stove died. The house was cold, but she was wringingwet with sweat.
          Suddenly the pain was steady, and she knew her time had come. She sat up and threw the covers aside and raised her knees and drew her wampus, the long hickory shirt worn over trousers, up
to her breasts. Reaching, she took hold of the two ropes tied to the bedposts, one in each hand, and pulled on them as she pushed with her lower parts, pulling and pushing and screaming now and her girls screaming.
          The baby presented itself head-first.
          She let go of the ropes and freed herself of it and saw that it was perfect and a girl.
          She lifted it by its slippery legs and shook it until it began to cry.
          She laid it between her legs and ran a forefinger around inside of its mouth to rid it of mucus and to make sure its tongue was straight forward, not back, so it would not strangle. Finding scissors and thread, she tied the umbilical cord and cut it. Then she wiped the tiny thing off tenderly with bedding, nestled it beside her, placed the dishpan between her legs, and fell back against the pillows, dead tired.
          The girls were silent now, but she thought she could almost hear hearts beating behind the quilt.
          In another minute or two she received the afterbirth in the dishpan, but she continued to bleed, so she rubbed her abdomen to staunch the flow.
          As soon as she was strong enough, she got out of bed and
by the light of a candle took the baby up and cradled it in her arms.  Wearing only shirt and wampus, she crossed the muddy floor and went outdoors. It was still deep dark, but it had stopped snowing
and there was no need to find her way by the ropes.
          She went barefoot by the path to the outhouse, opened the door, stepped inside, and pushed the naked baby down the hole head-first.
          Vester Belknap reached home before noon. He saw blood on the snow. He dismounted directly, left the horse, and entered the house.
          Theoline Belknap lay in bed throwing her eyes around the room.  He saw blood on the bed and the guttered candle and the bloody dishpan tipped over on the floor. There was no sign of the girls.
          “Line, what’s happened?” he asked.
          At the sound of his voice, the girls behind the quilt began to bawl.
          “Pa! Oh, Pa!” they bawled.
          “What’s the matter?” he cried at them.
          “She had the baby!”
          “Where is it?” he cried. He looked at his wife. “Line, where’s the baby?”
          “Tha,” she said.
          He stared at her. “Where’s it at!” he demanded.
          “Tha,” she said. “Tha, tha, tha, tha, tha, tha, tha, tha.”
          On a thought he roared at the quilt.  “Junia, did she leave the house?”
          “Yesss!”
          “Christ Lord!” he cried, and rushed outdoors. 
          It was as though a great grave had been opened and light, blinding light, let in. From a sky of blue the sun blessed what was below. The body of the plains, cold, silent, white, vast, was laid bare at last. Men and women and children, long buried there by winter, came out of the dirt like creatures to see what the months of darkness, storm, and death had done to one another. Some despaired. Some thought of spring. Some gave thanks to God.
          His representative, the Reverend Alfred Dowd, rode out on his nag in the early morning. A ragged woolen muffler was wound round his neck and nose and ears and tied on top to hold his hat on. For food and shelter he depended on his flock. For the wages of sin and the IOU’s of salvation, for marrying and burying and carrying the news, they depended on him. Alfred Dowd was a circuit rider.  Methodist by denomination, he had six appointments, or churches, or what passed for churches, on his circuit; and if the weather was fair enough and the trails passable enough, and if he rode hard enough and preached fast enough three times every Sunday, he could bring the Word to each congregation every two weeks. Given these if’s, Dowd did. Between the fire and brimstone he attempted also to visit every family in his charge once or twice a season, breakfasting at one place, dining at a second, supping and sleeping at a third. It was a matter of speculation which covered the more miles on the back of a horse, the minister or the doctor. Dowd was generally acknowledged the winner, but he had the lighter load, the Good Book and a change of socks, while the doctor, Jessup by name, was slowed by a black bag, a whiskey bottle, and an ability to sleep in the saddle which permitted his mount to poke. Dowd was probably the more useful to his people, too.  He sat up with the sick. He advised the troubled.  He consoled the bereaved. He restored to harmony the discord between husband and wife. He bucked up couples close to foreclosure. “There’s more in the man than there is in the land,” he would say to them. He was not too holy to roll up his sleeves when needed, and pitch in with a fork or an ax or a plow. He had been known to wash dishes. His cash income last year had been twenty-eight dollars, but as he sowed he reaped a harvest of chickens, hogs, calves, eggs, garden truck, and wood for his stove. He had two small children and a wife twenty years younger and worshipful. His only expletive was “Bosh.” He was respected for long rides and esteemed for short prayers and sermons. He stepped lively. He was welcome everywhere. Alfred Dowd was beloved.
          It was custom in the Territory to ride up and wait some rods before a sod house until someone came out and you were recognized before you rode near and dismounted. On this faultless March day Vester Belknap burst out of his house to meet the minister, trying simultaneously to run and haul on his coat.
          “Oh, Revern’, Reveren’, you ain’t come a minute too soon!”
          Down couldn’t tell whether the man’s eyes watered with sun or tears.
          “It’s Line! She’s gone crazy on me!”
          “Come now.”
          “Day before yestiddy! I come home from Loup an’ she’d had the baby an’ killed it!”
          Dowd was dismounting. “You can’t mean it.”
          “She did so! Crazier’n a bedbug!”
          “Calm yourself, Vester,” said Dowd, boots on the snow. “Tell me.”
          The homesteader was built like a barrel, and it was as though the bung had been pulled. A horrified Alfred Down listened, untying and unwinding  his muffler to bare his face, feeling the palms of his hands perspire. Belknap finished. “Her own babe, her own babe. Kin you b’lieve it?”
          The minister shook his head, then asked, irrelevantly, “What have you done with the child?”
          “Put ‘er in the stable, high up. Wolves. She’ll keep till I kin get in the ground.”
          “We must have a service.”
          “If you say so.”
          “In the meantime our concern must be for your poor wife.”  Dowd glanced at the house and saw in the wavery window what seemed to be the faces of three young girls peering at him. “I’ll go
in and see her.”
          “Oh, no.” Belknap set his belly between them. “Nope, I don’t want no one t’see ‘er. Not like she is.”
          “Are you ashamed of her?”
          The man colored. He knew what he wanted to say, and on the other hand, what he should say. “Course, I’m not! She’s my wife!” he cried. Line wasn’t herself, though, not by a long shot, he insisted.  When she talked you couldn’t make sense of it, just noises. He had to feed her by hand, like a baby, or she’d starve. He had to carry her to the outhouse and pull up her clothes and set her down or she’d bust her bladder. “Does that sound like a wife?” he demanded, convinced he had made his case. “Is that like a human bein’ atall?  You tell me, Reveren’!”
          Dowd nodded. “I understand. Still, someone had better see her. Let me pass, Vester.” He smiled. “Remember, when I go in, the Lord goes with me.”
          Belknap stared at him for a moment, then subsided and moved, and the minister stepped lively for the door, removing his hat.
          He was inside the house only for a short while, and when he came out he walked slowly, almost unsteadily to his nag, hat in hand, and laid his forehead against the animal’s neck and closed his eyes. He thought of his own wife. When he raised his head, squinting into the sun, Belknap was nowhere to be seen. Just as he was about to call, Vester emerged from the outhouse, buckling his trousers, and came to him.
          “Let us pray,” Dowd said.
          They bowed heads.
          “Dear Lord, restore this woman to Thy grace. And comfort her husband in his time of trial. We ask Thee in the name of all those afflicted in mind and spirit, and those who love them. Amen.”
          The minister put on his hat. “Vester, I am truly sorry,” he said.
          Vester was vindicated. “Told you so, Reveren’. But sorry don’t help. What in hell--I mean, what’ll I do? I cain’t live like this. She cain’t cook or clean or nothin’. She’s no use to anyone, leastwise herself.”
          Dowd was rewinding his muffler. “I’ve been thinking. It may not be good for the girls to be with her long. Why can’t you send them over to Mary Bee’s? She’ll take them in.”
          “Oh, no.” Belknap was stubborn as before. “I won’t be alone with ‘er. Gives me the shakes. Think some more.”
          The minister sighed. “Well, what did you intend to do?”
          “Me? What kin I do? I figgered you’d come by or I’d get word to you someways.”
          Dowd sighed again. He tied the muffler on top. He asked where Theoline hailed from originally, and Belknap replied from Kentucky, little town in a hollow called Slade’s Dell, same place he did, and she still had folks there, sister and a brother.
          “That’s where she must go, then,” said Dowd.
          “How?”
          Dowd said they’d have to have a homesman. He’d heard of two other wives in the same pitiful state, one up northeast of Loup named Petzke, and one over east, a Mrs. Svendsen, which, with Theoline, made three, the same number as last year. “We can manage it soon, I predict.” He squinted at the sky. “This day is a sign. We’ll have spring before we know it.” He took up his reins. If
he had hoped for dinner at the Belknap place, he had hoped in vain.     “I will pray for her, Vester.”
          “Pray for me, Reveren’. She’s past it.”
          Dowd frowned. “You’ll hear from me in a week or so.”
          Belknap frowned. “I better. I cain’t put up with this for long.”
          The minister hopped on his nag and looked over a world glazed a pure, almost a divine, white. “This winter,” he said through his muffler, as though to himself. “Oh, this damnable winter.”
          Belknap shoved hands into coat pockets and snuffled. “Why’d she do it, Dowd?” he pleaded, pulling a long and sorrowful face.  “You’re a parson. Why in hell’d she do this t’me?”
          Alfred Dowd rode away from him. 

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