Horses, a junior high teacher told rossie's class, were an ancient symbol of friendship. "Horses are the amiable creature." This was the spring Rossie became preoccupied with an incessant, secret urge to jack off that disturbed and frightened him. At his mother's kitchen table, as she weeded in her backyard garden, he sat nicking his left index finger over and over with her sharp cutlery and tried to ease his nerves by imagining the selfless companionability of old horses nuzzling at one another. It was a way to think the world was easy to live in. Training horses to ride and to pull chariots, he read in his mother's Encyclopedia Britannica
, was vital to the power of a civilization called Assyria. "Power," his mother said, wrinkling her nose. "Imagine. Your father would say it was the freedom to ride off."
When Rossie turned fifteen—gangling and black-haired and shaving every morning at the insistence of his father—he gave up on Reno Public High School and drifted off to sit on high-board fences at the Western Pacific stockyards. He helped out with the gates as men jammed and cursed the bawling cattle until a whiskery man named Fritzy Brewster gave him a chance horseback. "Kid," he said, "a sensible boy don't work in the dirt. That's for farmers. A sensible boy stays on his horse." Up on a bay gelding Rossie jostled steers and heifers into chutes as Brewster uncapped a beer, sat on a fence, and watched.
Rossie's mother, Katrina, when she discovered he hadn't been to school since March, sat him down at the worktable in her clean, tile-floored kitchen. "What is it you most like about shit?" she asked.
Rossie went defiantly blank-eyed, and she shook her head.
"I wonder," she said, "if your father is going to let you do as you please."
Nito Benasco supervised casino gambling at the elegant new Riverside, George Wingfield's modern gambling and resort hotel on the banks of the Truckee River, just a five-minute walk north on Virginia Street from the Washoe County Court House. Women waiting out their weeks in residence before divorce paraded the hotel lobby in spangled cowgirl outfits, heading out for rides with buckaroos. Divorcees at the Riverside, Katrina said, were fools who loved dressing up in gowns, to sip at martinis and watch roulette. Women with college degrees brought books in their suitcases and were likely to stay in a house like hers, where they could be at home with other civilized creatures.
"So," Nito said, when Katrina told him about the stockyards. "What's wrong with school? A man with no education is dead in the brain."
"Algebra," Rossie said. "X equals b
. They teach you to be nobody."
"You think the stockyards is somebody?"
This, Rossie knew, was a moment to be faced carefully. Nito dressed in dark suits and spent his hours standing back, watching the cards and the roll of the dice and ivory balls spinning on the wheels. He would say a quiet thing to a white-shirted dealer, then smile as he went over to the drunk at a blackjack table, or the loud fellow from Pennsylvania or Idaho who was running out of money. "We don't worry," Nito would say, "do we?" his eyes shining and his accurate hands riffling the cards as if he loved them or suspected irregularity. "Making trouble. That would be a shame. We're a luxury liner, on the banks of the Truckee." This was his joke. The game never stops, not even for trouble. It's always here.
"I read books." Rossie drifted through summer evenings on his mother's screened-in veranda above the Truckee, deep in Zane Grey and the Charlie Russell book about life on the Montana frontier. He read the books the women had brought and left behind, The Cossacks and Youth
by Count Leo Tolstoy and Giants in the Earth
by a Norwegian whose name he couldn't pronounce, and My Ántonia
by Willa Cather.
"Who kissed the girl? That's what those books are about," Nito said. "You need to know real things. That's what school is for. But you don't like school." He smiled softly, like he had discovered a cure. "You should be with experts. We'll fix you up." He made calls on the telephone, and three days later Rossie had a job as wrango boy on the Neversweat, one of the vast Nevada empire ranches, on the Horse Fork of the Humboldt River beyond Winnemucca. Nito bought Rossie a classical Hamley saddle made in Pendleton—a secondhand rig with worn bucking rolls and a high cantle—and he drove Rossie northeast across Great Basin deserts in his immaculate black Chevrolet. Clouds were massing in hammerheads above the lava-strewn Bloody Run Mountains. Sweeps of thin rain would evaporate over the alkaline playa of the Black Rock Desert before reaching the ground. Past Winnemucca, the macadam turned to graded gravel, and alkaline dust drifted behind them in a rooster tail. Nito slapped the palm of his right hand on the dark velvet seat cushion and laughed at the print it left in the white dust. "She'll clean up."
Out front of the Neversweat bunkhouse, they unloaded the Hamley saddle and a snaffle-bit bridle bought the evening before in a Virginia Street pawnshop, then Rossie's clothes and bedding: a Hudson Bay blanket, flannel sheets, a pillow without a case, denim shirts, wool socks and long-johns, and old pairs of Levi's. Rossie's shaving gear and a bar of Lava soap, two towels, and wash cloths were rolled up and strapped together inside a canvas tarp with the bedding.
Nito eyed Rossie as if estimating a distance, then shook his hand for the first time ever. "You're where you want to be," he said. "You are going to be lonely. But it cures."
Nito had come from Bilbao, Spain's largest seaport, a Basque city on the northern coast. His parents had died of influenza in 1905, when he was twenty. Nito's eyes shined whenever he told this story to the women who stayed in Katrina's house.
"My father's dream was that I should be a dealer in Biarritz, over in France with the rich. A Gypsy named Caro was teaching me cards. Caro taught me tricks. But there was no chance in Biarritz. I would be a servant. Caro told me go to America, so I sat in New York rooms and practiced cards all night and learned this language and here I am." Nito would look around to the women awaiting divorce. Loneliness, he would say, cures.
"This might be your road," he said to Rossie as twilight came over northern Nevada and the Neversweat. "But you can come home. You are always our family. Your mother and I will also be lonely."
"You think I'm going to quit?"
"This might not be the right thing. You'll know."
The Bone-Handled Knife
Standing beside his gear, rossie benasco began to see the terms of his new life as his father drove away. He was alone. In his soul he was quaking.
There was nothing to do but commence moving in. As he dropped his bedroll onto a World War I military cot in a bunkhouse room nearest to the bullpen with its barrel stove, Mattie Flynn showed herself. Got up in a shirt buttoned at the cuff and shit-heeled boots, red hair stuffed under her sweat-rimmed hat, this Mattie was not some momma's sweetheart. Freckled and windburned, she was a horseback girl, her long-fingered hands scabbed and callused. "You don't sleep there," she said.
"Good as any. They're all of them empty."
"They been gone eight days," she said. "That's where Francis Church sleeps. He's worked here twenty-three years and he sleeps there. You better get your junk out of there. You get the last room down the hall." When he was stowed away, she told him to come and eat. "There's nobody here but me and Rudy. He's cooking. The rest of them are gone to the desert."
Old Rudy limped around and fried Rossie a patch of steak and two eggs. Mattie watched while Rossie went at the food.
"She's going to eat you alive, boy," Rudy said. "She's done telling me what to do. It's your turn."
Mattie showed him the room above the kitchen where her father, Slivers Flynn, lived when he wasn't on the desert with the cowhands. Rossie opened a clasp knife with a white bone handle, copper rivets, and a long, thin blade so often sharpened it was fragile like a razor and sharp enough to shave hair off his forearm. Mattie said it was a knife with history. Slivers had put it up to save. "That knife," she said. "It's retired. He says that knife has done its work. He packed it for eleven years."
It had been atop a chest of drawers, out where anybody could see, beside a deck of playing cards still in the cellophane. When Mattie looked away, Rossie slid it into his pocket and she was on him so quick he wondered if this was some test he'd failed. "I don't lie. He knows it," she said. "He's going to know you stole that knife. Your ass is done for around here unless you give it to me, and I put it back."
Rossie fished the knife from his pocket, and she laid it beside the playing cards.
"I knew you was going to steal it," she said. "I'd steal it if I was you. I got a secret on you. If you knew one on me we could cut our fingers and mix blood if we wanted to. But we don't. This is our first secret."
Mattie's mother had died on a summer afternoon when she was eleven. Houseflies and yellow jackets, she told Rossie, walked the window sills in the rooms where they lived, upstairs in the whitewashed cookhouse. The pains of cancer drove her mother to fold Mattie in her bony arms and curl up in her bed and howl. "I don't remember," Mattie said. "I don't want to hear another thing about it."
Even a boy so short on experience as Rossie gave her credit for not being able to bear recalling her mother's bedsores or that howling in the afternoon. We all got to deal with dying someday, Rossie told himself. It was the thing he'd known since he was a boy studying stars in their configurations beyond the moon. Some distant day, he already knew, he would face great trouble in himself, trying to escape the thought that he was only another creature running for cover and never getting there.
Slivers and his hired hands had raised Mattie. "She's a horseback kid," Slivers would say, turning his eyes down to his hands, thumbs together like they were at war against one another, "ever since I went single." Mattie dressed like a cow-camp tramp rather than some girl, riding the greasewood deserts twenty miles out to the South Fork of the Owyhee and never showing she was tired or even thirsty. There was not much horse work she couldn't handle, nor talk she hadn't heard as she tended a branding fire or drove a feed-wagon team in the overcast light of winter. Mattie was willing to stare the devil in the eye, and Rossie dogged after her on a Roman-nosed bay named Snip as she galloped along willow-lined alleyways between sloughs. "You got a man's saddle," she said, "but you're horseback like a schoolboy."
After the desert branding crew came back, she'd chide him at the dinner table. "Look at him eat that spinach," she'd say, that sort of thing—until one time Slivers shut her up.
"You ought to watch your mouth," he said. "Rossie is going to get tired of acting like a kid. He's going to kick your ass. I'll be thinking it's good work."
"The big old man," Mattie said, and she gathered her dish of rhubarb pie, and went to finish eating out on the side porch and away from everyone.
But then she'd ask Rossie about Reno, what it was like to try kissing girls in movie theaters, if some of the girls went for it and kissed back. Did Rossie go downtown and watch his father deal cards to the rich men? She would tilt her head, trying not to make fun of him, as if she really wanted to know what it was like.
When he was home for a visit, Rossie's mother watched him finish up a load of breakfast pancakes and fried eggs in her immaculate kitchen. "Are you just being stubborn? Your father and I thought the desert would cure you. We thought you'd come home."
"Feeling fine," he said, licking the syrup off his fork, smiling at her, lying a little, a boy sometimes sick for his mother and this talk.
"Well, then you can help me in the garden. Buckaroos help their mothers in the garden."
On a summer morning in 1933, in the shade of willows beside Hill Camp Springs, Mattie bit at her lip, took the back of his neck in one of her strong hands, and leaned in and kissed him. Rossie didn't keep his hands to himself, and she didn't stop him. There was not a thing to it in the beginning but the fucking. They'd gone vacant-eyed and luminous. The lean, cigar-smoking woman who cooked for the haying crew took to asking Mattie about her "lovey-dovey," and though Mattie acted like she might spear the cook with her fork while the hay-hands smirked, she told Rossie she didn't care what anybody thought. "Why should we give a shit? You and me, we don't know no better. We're kids." She wanted to tell her father, the king-of-the-mountain cowman at the Neversweat, that they were in love.
A champion of the world, one of those legends, Slivers Flynn was thick in his chest and narrow-hipped, with a long spade chin, high cheekbones, and huge, quiet hands. The men who worked for him, as they put away beer by the case on the porch of the North Fork Cafe on Sunday afternoons, talked about Slivers and balance and how he "rode them bang-tailed horses like they was rocking chairs." He had won the 1911 saddle bronc contest in Madison Square Garden, but by 1918, home from the war in France, Slivers had quit thinking about the rodeo and instead gentled horses around northern Nevada on contract. "Sweet horses," he would say, "and damned few people. That's the deal. I got out of their war in one piece but I'll run for the mountains if they try sending me again." When the summer branding started in 1921, he was put in charge of hiring and firing at the Neversweat. Nobody in their right mind would defy him and not expect consequences, but Slivers Flynn was as honest as God. Why shouldn't he be the boss?From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Willow Field by William Kittredge. Copyright © 2006 by William Kittredge. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.