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Bent Creek

by Nancy Ames

Lydia opened her coat and leaned forward to pour the last
of the coffee out of the thermos. Then she clasped the warm
cup in both hands, took a sip, and said, "I guess most of the
trouble in the world is caused by people who pretend to be decent.
But what I can`t understand is how they learned to fake it so good."

The frost on a few of the windowpanes was beginning to melt and
it was getting dark outside. Danny took another hunk of the fragrant
pine out of the wood-box and shoved it into the blazing stove. He
replaced the stove-lid with a loud clatter and laughed.

Then he turned to face his sister and said, "You spent most of your
life showing them how to fake it, seems to me. Just think how many
losers you coaxed along thinking some day they`ll be good and they
don`t ever do nothing but get worse!" He pulled on his leather gloves
and continued, "I got to go feed and water them horses. You feed that
fire, okay?"

She spoke in a tired voice. "Sure, Danny. But I`ll be damned if I`m
gonna take the whole blame for this. Things just happened, that`s all.
I haven`t even had a chance to think yet, for Pete`s sake!"

The boy said, "That`s because he wants it that way. Jeez, but you`re
green." He patted her shoulder and went to the door. Before opening
it, he stopped and added, "Nobody`s laying all the blame on you anyway.
Not by a long shot. I won`t be too long."

He stepped quickly outside into the darkness and the swirling snowflakes.
For a brief moment, the flickering yellow light of the lantern he was
carrying lit up the high wall of mountain beside the cabin. Then the
door shut and she was alone. She sat down on the hard bench and listened
to the wind that was howling through the tall pines that leaned in over
the roof. They had been lucky to make it up the steep trail before the
blizzard hit, so she wasn`t too seriously concerned about pursuit.

The two of them had come all the way up here to the old Bent Creek cabin
to discuss the problem of her latest husband away from the busy ranch.
Frank would be back from boozing in town any day now and Danny was right.
It had to stop before everything was wrecked.

And anyhow, Frank Henshaw hadn`t much cared about where she was or what
she might be doing since about a month after they were married, late last
spring. He seemed to consider that his brief and perfunctory attentions
to her were the equivalent of working for wages, the wages being her half
of the McCallum Ranch. Being nice to her must have been a tremendous
effort for him, she supposed.

Nowadays, when he was home, Frank loudly bullied everyone, caroused long
into the night, with whoever he could drag out from town, and then slept
late into the afternoon, snoring like thunder. The housekeeper, cook, and
ranch-hands couldn`t sleep or work properly. The livestock needed attention
from dawn to dusk and weren`t getting nearly enough of it. To top it all
off, and even though Frank was more than happy to spend the profits, the
sight of other people working seemed to infuriate him. He was becoming
horribly abusive with the animals too.

Lydia sighed and added more wood to the fire. Then she carefully poured
the last of the water from the canteen into the ancient black kettle. They
would have to chop a hole in the frozen creek tomorrow morning. Everything
was still very ice-bound up here on the mountain-side above the ranch.

The pack-sacks had been dropped from the exhausted horses outside the door,
so she went out into the snowstorm again to get them and saw Danny`s lantern
already coming back from the barn. Lately she felt that he was turning into
such a reliable, sensible person and she was nothing but a fool. Lydia hadn`t
understood yet that he was getting tired of being the sensible one all the

Their parents had pioneered the ranch during hard times and prospered. Ross
and Janet McCallum had loved people and animals, the big airy spaces of the
high country, long days full of hard work and the freedom of their lives. They
always had a bunk-house full of good men, mostly old friends from the war years,
although they seldom mentioned that terrible time. There wasn`t much left of
their old neighbourhoods back east when they came back home, so they had all
decided to come out here and start fresh.

Level ground was scarce in the high mountain-ranges, where nothing much grew
without human effort. The rocky desert had to be irrigated and fertilized for
a long time before it could grow anything better than cactus and sagebrush. It
was a hard but satisfying life and the brother and sister had never known a
seriously unhappy moment until the day their parents went over the edge on a
neighbour`s switch-back driveway. They were together in the old pick-up when
the old road-bed suddenly crumbled away from beneath their tires. They had
bounced off a lot of rocks on their way down to the river.

In a way, Lydia had been hit the hardest by the tragedy, just because her
mother had been practically her only female companion, whereas Danny had a
dozen ready-made uncles in the bunk-house. Also she was older, by almost three
years, and had naturally thought first of comforting him, the sad little guy.
And the end result was that it wasn`t very long before she became absurdly
vulnerable to the type of young man who saw her as a prize to be won. She had
actually married two of them and they both went bad real quick.

The first one, the baby-faced Sammy Porter, merely took off with the town`s
prettiest waitress and their joint bank account. Young Danny had been furious
at the time, but he was much too embarrassed to interfere in his sister`s love
life. Until now. Sammy had gone to San Francisco and divorced Lydia from there.

Lydia exerted herself and dragged the heavy pack-sacks inside the cabin. Then
she walked stiffly across the room to the stove and held her hands out over the
heat. When they were warm she used them to cover her face.

It was an unwritten law in the mountains that no one ever walked away from a
cabin unless the wood-box was full and the kindling was laid in the stove, ready
to light. Kids grew up hearing long, drawn-out stories of lost travellers and
sudden storms and the last match. And she sure had appreciated that tradition
tonight. They had raced the snow and wind and darkness up the terribly difficult
trail, four nearly vertical miles of it plus a blind detour around a recent
rock-fall. Lydia had been shivering with, cold, exhaustion, and nervous strain
when Danny finally lit a match and almost miraculously created fire.

The stove`s heat was beginning to reach as far as the table now, so Lydia started
to set out the chicken, ham sandwiches, potato salad and cookies that old Annie
had insisted on packing up for them before they left the ranch. It was all ice-
cold but Danny wouldn`t care.

Her brother pulled on the latch-string that raised the heavy wooden bar inside
the door and came inside, momentarily filling the doorway. He hung his lantern
on its hook and brushed snow and loose hay off his coat before hanging it on a
wall-peg. Danny was already very big and still growing, and he scarcely noticed
physical hardships. Emotional problems, however, could actually make him sweat.

This mossy old cabin guarded the source of Bent Creek, which was life itself to
the ranch that was spread out on the big flats below. Up here winter was still
raging, but at home, more than two thousand feet lower down, spring was swiftly
arriving. Very soon it would be time to start the planting and a good many of
the horses and cattle were getting ready to drop their offspring. It was looking
like a bonus year, actually, if only Frank didn`t do anything to ruin it. But he
would for sure, Danny thought as he sat down at the table, frowning and grim.

His sister walked over to the little window and stood there looking into the
shiny black reflection. In it she could see Danny`s serious young face where
he sat under the lamp. His wide shoulders were hunched up defensively and there
was a tight little frown between his dark eyebrows.

She took a deep breath, turned around, and asked huskily, "Danny, do you remember
where you stashed the cigarettes? I could sure use a drink too. Still got the
shivers, I guess."

He stood up, unconscious of how much he towered over her, and mumbled, "Get over
here next to the fire then."

He went and searched through the saddle-bags. When he came back to her he held
two smoking cigarettes in his lips and a mickey of Jack Daniel`s in one hand.
Lydia said, "Cool. Thanks," smiling indulgently at his grown-up pretensions. But
then she eagerly grabbed the bottle and one of the smokes, swallowed a large
mouthful and took a deep drag on the cigarette. She put the bottle down on the
table and felt the trembling in her stomach move down into her legs.

She forgot and left the cigarette burning in the dirty old ashtray when she walked
slowly and deliberately over to the ancient sofa. There was a long wooden box in
front of it which was used by the men when they came up here on hunting trips, as
a combination foot-rest and coffee table. She lifted the lid of the box, which
contained an assortment of extra blankets, and spread them out one by one on the
couch. Then she went back to the table for another swallow of the whiskey. The
trembling in her legs was getting worse.

Weaknesses of the body were a total mystery to her brother, so she was attempting
to treat herself for shock. A chill shivered up through her spine. She wasn`t at
all tempted by the food Danny was so obviously enjoying.

It had been over between herself and Frank before it even started, she knew, but
she had been clinging all along to a fragile but stubborn hope. How could it all
go wrong for her all over again, the same mistake twice? And Frank was getting so
mean! She was starting to be uncomfortably aware that thanks to her real trouble
with real danger in it was hanging over them all.

Wearily, Lydia walked back to the couch and got herself in between the heavy
blankets. When she was feeling a bit warmer she began to weep helplessly, with
great gulping sobs.

Danny tossed a roll of toilet-paper onto the couch for her and reached for another
chicken leg.


Posted on 01/20/2019
Copyright © 2019 Nancy Ames

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