Prose: Nels Hanson
Will and Chance
“A falling leaf can spook a deer that’s spooks a herd. Silent things can spread,” Charles Two Hats told me, on the mountain above the green lake.
“Until they make a waterfall, then a flood. Until everyone knows the Child’s word and he wakes.”
A year ago, when I stopped at my father’s Oregon ranch—before I ever made Montana and met Emma Little Bear and then Charles Two Hats in the Lakeview County Jail, before I ever heard of the Sleeping Child—I was lucky but didn’t know it, not even when the two dogs chased our truck and Tug spoke their names as he watched them in the mirror.
When we’d driven in the Australian shepherd and Queensland blue heeler had barked and run over and then recognized me when I’d shouted, “Willy! Chance!” and they’d followed happily at our boots when Tug and I crossed the dry lawn and knocked at the door.
“Who the hell is it?”
It was my dad’s voice, from somewhere back in the house.
“It’s Bill, Dad!”
“The door’s open,” he called.
Tug and I left the eager dogs and went in past the hat rack with its stained gray Stetson and a black dress hat with a satin band.
We waited in the living room with the bear and deer and antelope heads on the wall and my great-grandfather’s Sharps rifle above the stone fireplace. My father’s leather recliner sat in front of the dark TV, a TV Guide open on the seat.
My dad looked gray and frail. Wearing beaded moccasin slippers and Levis and a short-sleeved, snap-button shirt, he came out of the kitchen holding a beer. I hadn’t seen him in a year.
He smiled, then stopped, seeing Tug.
“Oh, you got a friend. Let me get another Bud.” He started to turn around.
“That’s okay, Dad. I don’t need one.”
My dad squinted up at Tug, then handed him the can.
“Here you go.”
“Thanks,” Tug said. “I can use that.” He pulled the tab, tilted the can toward my father in a modified toast, and took a long drink.
My father looked at Tug’s ponytail.
“Dad, this is Tug. We’re on our way to Montana.”
My dad lifted his eyebrows.
“Got a job,” I said. “In a sawmill. Tug’s brother-in-law’s the boss.”
“You know you got a job here, anytime you want it.”
“I thought you had the ranch rented out.”
“I do. But that don’t matter. Jess’ll put you on.”
“What’s wrong with Jess?” My dad stared at me.
“That’s what I say.” He turned back toward the kitchen.
He walked in a shuffle and I remembered him galloping his paint horse full out, swinging his lariat and throwing the long oval, then leaping down as Buck stopped on a dime and my father ran to knock the calf over and bind its legs. He’d had one horse after Buck.
Once, when Blake Smalley, a big hired hand from town, went nuts and began breaking the windows out of the hay truck with a crowbar, my father walked up to him and tapped him on the shoulder. Blake whirled around, swinging. Ducking the bar, my dad hit Blake in the chin and knocked him out, then told me to fetch a ladle of water.
In my memory, my father was legendary, eternally youthful, strong and sure and unencumbered by doubt, ready at a moment’s notice to size up any situation and seize the perfect angle of approach, the way he’d cut off a steer heading toward a thicket of snakes.
It was not just his eyes and bone and sinew that had aged when I saw him now but the West itself that had suddenly grown old. Together, like a matched pair that pulled an empty wagon, his time and his life were moving in stride away from the world and he was biding the hours that fell like cottonwood leaves.
“Come sit down. I got chili on.”
“We can’t stay long. Just stopped to say hello.”
“Have some chili,” he said over his shoulder. “It’s all laid out.”
“You hungry, Tug?”
Tug lifted his beer.
“I’m always hungry.”
We went into the kitchen.
“Sure. Sit down at the table,” my dad said.
The sink was full of dirty dishes. A plastic garbage can brimmed with beer cans and wet coffee grounds. The wood drainboards looked buttery.
A big cast iron pot steamed on the back of the gas stove.
I watched my father’s hands shake as he took the three bowls from the cupboard. From a drawer he got out three spoons and set them on the counter. The spoons looked dull with unrinsed soap, or grease.
“It’s ready,” my dad said, stirring the pot with a ladle.
I got up and went to the stove.
“Here, you sit down. I’ll get it.”
I served the chili, setting the bowls on the table.
“I got crackers,” my father said. He started to get up.
“Sit still, Dad. I’ll get ’em.”
I opened one cupboard and saw cans of soup and corn and tuna and salmon. I opened the next door and pulled out wrapped crackers from among boxes of Wheaties and Corn Chex. There were four new bags of off-brand potato chips.
I unwrapped a stack of soda crackers and put them on a plate.
“You want anything else to drink, Dad? You want some milk?”
“No,” he said, lifting his spoon. “Beer’s fine.”
“I’ll stay with the Bud.”
“That’s right,” my dad said, nodding at Tug. “Beer and chili go together. Just like ham and eggs.”
I sat down, then handed them each a paper towel. I wiped my spoon with a towel. Tug wiped his spoon.
My dad took a spoonful of chili.
“How is it?” he asked.
“Good,” Tug said.
“It’s venison chili.”
“You been hunting?” I said.
“Naw,” my dad said. He shook his head. He closed his eyes. “Jess give it to me.”
“How’s he doing?” I asked.
My father looked down at his bowl. I lifted my spoon.
The chili was spicy, partly hiding the musky, wild taste of the deer meat. And something else that tasted flat, both bitter and sweet.
“Middling. He skates by, pays the rent.”
My dad looked at me.
“You know, I told your mother, if you hadn’t gone to school, you could’ve run this place. Now it’s all tied up.”
He glanced at Tug.
“How’s Mom?” I said.
My father stirred his chili like a can of paint.
“Okay. About the same.”
“She in town?”
“Yeah. Card game.”
“You got a nice place here,” Tug said.
My father looked up.
We ate without speaking.
“I haven’t heard from you for a while,” my father said finally.
“I’ve been working.”
“That’s what I told your mother.”
“In Mussel Bay. On a salmon boat. I got laid off.”
“Where’d you say you were going?”
“That’s what I thought. Pretty country. How come?”
“Got a job. Tug here set it up.”
“Well, that’s good.”
My dad looked up from the chili.
“Can you stay a while and visit?”
“No, we got to head out.”
“I got all this chili.” He glanced toward the black pot on the stove.
“We start work Tuesday morning,” I said.
“Well—” My father chewed. “Your mom’ll be sorry she missed you. I was telling her the other day, about that gal you were married to—”
“Jenny. For some reason I thought her name was Holly.”
“That was her sister.”
“That’s right. They were sisters. I’ll have to tell your mother.”
I’d seen Jenny that morning, for the first time in six years, when she’d stopped in Mussel Bay to pick up the lost dishes Holly had given us for our wedding.
She said Holly had died two years ago, of cancer, her fiancé sitting by her hospital bed.
My father lifted his beer, then shook it.
“Get me another one, would you, Bill?”
“Why not?” He raised an eyebrow, bringing his napkin to his mouth.
He’d eaten about a third of his bowl.
“I let that chili cook all night.”
“It’s good,” Tug said.
“It’s got sage in it. I picked it myself. Just washed off the quail. Twice as good as in the store. And chili peppers, onions. And olives, I had an extra can. Eat all you want. It cooked all night.”
I handed Tug another beer.
“We’ve got to go soon,” I said. “Let me do these dishes.”
“Oh, leave ’em. I’ll get around to it. You guys want some ice cream?”
My father started to get up.
“I got some in the freezer.”
“We’re fine,” I said.
My dad hesitated, half out of his chair.
“The fights are on TV. You want to watch ’em?”
“We need to go,” I said.
“Well, that’s right. You drive at night, you’re liable to hit a deer.”
Tug stared at his chili. I took his bowl and mine and got up.
I started to scrape the leftovers into the garbage basket under the sink.
“No, the dogs’ll eat it,” my dad said.
I put the bowls back on the counter.
“That’s right. Just leave them sit.”
Tug drank in long gulps as my father got to his feet.
“Thanks for stopping in.”
“Thanks for lunch, Dad,” I said.
“Thanks,” Tug said, setting down the beer. “That hit the spot.”
“There’s more,” my dad said.
“Oh no.” Tug touched his stomach. “I’m full.”
“I’m going to use your bathroom,” I said.
“You know where it is.”
I went back into the living room, then down the hall.
The bathroom looked clean enough. I figured my mother must be in and out. Except for a crumpled towel on the floor it was all right.
I came out and glanced at my parents’ room.
It was neat and tidy, the pink glassware lamps with ruffled shades on either night table, a mirror and my mother’s perfume and cosmetics set out on the low dresser. A silver frame held my fourth-grade school picture. I went down the hall to my room.
The single bed with blue sheets and a plaid spread was unmade. Change and a pocketknife, my dad’s wallet, truck keys, and a plastic bottle of Gelusel on its side lay scattered on the desk, across pink and yellow bills and receipts and a tattered black and white snapshot of me and Tommy, the peacock with spread feathers. Scuffed, overturned boots and a pile of dirty clothes filled a corner.
My .22 Winchester pump rifle with the hammer rested on the pine rack I’d made in shop. Uncle Ernie had given me the gun for Christmas with a carton of five hundred long rifle cartridges when I was 12.
The sun-bleached felt banner of the Oregon State Ducks still hung on the paneled wall, along with a plaque of the high school baseball team, my ears looking too big below my high-clipped hair.
I stood next to Jeff Flint, the first baseman, who joined the Marines and was killed at a jungle airstrip in Viet Nam two days before he was supposed to come home. He had a friendly, space-toothed grin. No boy in Grassdale ever got braces. Soon he’d be dead more years than he’d lived.
Out the dusty window I saw the high curved mesa and the three spires I’d dreamed about the night before. The sandstone pillars stood up tall and red and menacing.
For high school geometry I’d sighted the tallest tower from the barnyard through a cardboard tube mounted on a stick with a level and a protractor to measure the angle, then driven the pickup to the mesa, checking the speedometer at four-tenths and a third.
With a t-square I’d drawn a triangle to scale and figured Crucifixion Rock was 162 feet.
I went back into the living room.
“It picked up a cow and was walking away with it, on its hind legs, like it was strolling down the sidewalk—”
Tug nodded as my father pointed to the stuffed bear’s head next to the fireplace.
“Well, I guess I’m ready,” I said.
“I was just telling your friend here—” My father stopped, searching for the name.
“Tug,” I said.
“I was telling Tug about the time that bear carried off the heifer, like a sack of groceries. Remember that?”
“Weird,” Tug said.
“I hit him with the 30.30 and the heifer ran off like a bat out of hell. She had a few scratches, that was all.”
“Huh,” Tug said.
“You haven’t heard from Uncle Ernie, have you?” I asked.
“Naw, not in a while.”
“He still in Washington?”
My dad nodded.
“He’s a big wheel, you know. Always asks about you, what you’re doing. How you are.”
He looked at the bear.
“The last time he wanted your number but I couldn’t find it.”
“What business?” I asked.
“I can’t remember. I think he said something about a lake.” My dad frowned. “That was a couple of months ago.”
“Well, tell him hello if you hear from him,” I said with irritation. “I’ll send you my new number and address when I know it. Write it down by the phone.”
As I said it, I knew my father wouldn’t remember. He didn’t remember Jenny’s name. He’d thought I’d been married to Holly.
But I was wrong, I didn’t know about the single yellow leaf that spooks the deer—
I thank my father now for remembering, though the lake he had forgotten wasn’t in Montana but Lake Chelan in Washington state, where my uncle had bought a motel he wanted me to run.
My uncle sent my money, to go a semester at the college in Kootenay where the mill was, and the hotel teacher sent me up to the big hotel on the lake, to the fancy Lakeview Inn, to be a weekend intern.
Because of my father I met Emma Little Bear and later Charles Two Hats.
From a boat’s inverted periscope I looked down deep through Sleeping Child Lake, to an abandoned sandstone city where Emma was sure her lost son had gone, where the next morning Emma’s silver bracelet flickered and went out before I could reach her.
“Sleep deeply until you wake,” the prayer goes, the one I learned in jail, when I was held as a witness. “When both worlds grow closer—”
What I found in the green Montana waters was both loss and gain—Charles said that in this world they’re the two edges of an arrowhead. They angle and meet in one razor point that aims straight like a compass, to the wound that hides the target.
Emma’s brother came to the jail and said she didn’t have a child, that her ex-husband had cut her once and she couldn’t have kids and Charles said it was the Sleeping Child Emma was looking for.
Two days later, when we were released we climbed the mountain above the lake, to the Old Ground, and wore ashes and danced around the fire as we sang the death song, to lead Emma to the Sleeping Child’s village by the river, where he has the bad dreams and can’t wake.
Last night, a year later, I woke up from a nightmare about Emma, in the White Horse Motel in Williams, Arizona. I saw her drifting among the domes and pavilions of the underwater city, the antler Sleeping Child carving at her neck and bracelet on her wrist.
Joyce asked what was wrong and in a rush I told Joyce that I’d learned pain can water the heart and the heart can grow from pain, that all of us together have a chance at heaven, but even the dead know sadness and what bad we do in this world is a nightmare in theirs, and Joyce understood—
She’s a good person, with a little boy named Charlie. She’s Tug’s sister and was married to Ray, the manager at the mill, before Ray got his secretary pregnant. We’re going to live together, on Wyatt Carlson’s appaloosa ranch, where I have the steady job as a farrier.
Tug and I started toward the door.
“I’ll tell your mother you stopped by.”
“Nice to meet you,” Tug said.
My dad stared up at Tug’s long hair and then his earring.
“The girls like that, do they?”
“They seem to.”
I thought of Dixie, the exotic dancer, standing nearly naked in front of the Gill Net in Mussel Bay, Tug holding her arm as he talked to the cop and Roper from the Blue Fin lay in the back of the squad car.
My dad touched his ear, then stroked his thin gray hair.
“Well, maybe I ought to let it grow. See what happens.”
“See you, Dad.” I put out my hand and we shook.
He touched me on the shoulder.
“So long, son. Take care. You come any time.”
“So long,” Tug said.
We went out the door. The dogs were lying on the step.
“Chance and Willy look happy.”
“They’re sidekicks,” my dad said. “They run all over.”
The dogs got up and I patted Willy’s raised muzzle.
“Drive careful now. There’s a lot of drunks on the road.”
The dogs followed us to the truck. Chance wanted to jump up on my hip, he knew me now.
“See you, dogs,” I said.
I looked at my dad’s dented pickup, hoped he’d wrecked it on the ranch, backing into something, and not on the highway.
Tug and I got into the truck and waved at my dad standing on the step in his moccasins. It was the first time I’d ever seen him outside without a hat.
We started back down the dirt road with the dogs barking and racing after us.
“A great lunch and sparkling conversation,” Tug said. “I hope I don’t get sick.”
“It’s always the same.”
“Will and Chance—”
Tug watched the dogs in the side mirror.
“That’s it in a nutshell, ain’t it, bro?”
“What’s that?” I said.
“What you want,” Tug said, “and what you get.”
“I guess so,” I said and drove on past Jess’ cows and dry rangeland—toward Emma Little Bear and Charles Two Hats, to Montana and green Sleeping Child Lake where the Child’s single word was waiting for me.