I decided that we should hive off from the valley. I had hardly been uphill before and so many were eager to teach me. We loaded a ketch with our guns and some cases of ale. We thought about wearing epaulets, but then we looked around at all the tow hair and decided just to forward march. It was three of them in the ketch’s back—Willard, Willard and Josiah—and the two of us in the front, the girl and me. I figured we would ride until we had used up less than half our rations.
We headed out of town toward the bigger-cotton canyons and let the hills get livid as they do in any direction once you are above the valley and onto some of the narrowest trails I know. There was nothing to say but sing the hymns of Christiansen and bear with how they reminded us of the provisions we had left behind. There were surely things we could have put into the ketch before leaving. We had no lightning sticks, but then we had no bows. Nor did we care for their use. We had no whiskey, but we had plenty of ale, and the girl had worn an apron with a pouch of Tobago and so smoking wouldn’t cause us tantrums for a while. We rode with half the bonnet down and we could already begin to sense the smells of the town less powerful and harder to scent above the needles drying beneath the pines. The wheel rolled and ticked and groaned.
There hadn’t swarmed so much snow this season and it was possible for the girl to pick out sashes of white across the cuts of the mountains and ask questions of the order that is prompted by night skies. I set my stare upon Clayton’s wheel, but soon I fell under its spell and stopped counting, stopped worrying about roads or meters or distances completely. We hadn’t any of us watched it twist for several bends. Willard had been a sheriff in his previous dispensation. At the bends he would tell me to slow down, and that’s when I would scourge down hard, throwing Willard, and Josiah and the other Willard too, into the back of the ketch. Though I could never throw the girl. And it was a horse of such power that was pulling us. After doing this I would break at a stem of the trail and each of us would drink some ale. This made the ride seem a leisure, and it caused me to waste more day in freighting us to our destination. When we were down to half our rations I turned us out of the rut of the trail and woke up the others in the party in the back by firing a ball three times. Or I tried to wake them. When I saw they weren’t listening I broke another bottle of ale and began to circle our ketch, cursing its hubs and rims. I climbed back into my seat and rode three ticks of Clayton’s wheel.
I woke up next to the girl. She was sleeping so my head was in her lap and both my legs were tingling. She smelled like jingle bells. I looked up at her and both of us got out of the ketch to have a look around. The moon was just going down and the sun was about an hour away from making the others in the party start to bother. We took a trek about a half a mile into the woods and I began pressing her lips like she was an unbeliever. She put a finger down my trousers and I started pressing her until her apron was untied and her wrap had fallen to one side. We did this for almost an hour despite the cold and then we thought we heard the canvas on the ketch begin to flag open and closed. It was lonely quiet, and we had not sinned that far. Wait, she said to me. But I kept urging to get her on the ground, though once we swore we heard the blaring of a horn and the firing of some shot. With time, I didn’t feel so disorderly anymore and we chose to walk back to the ketch.
Willard and Willard were discoursing about who was going to hunt what and what each one of them had shot on some prior expedition. They spoke of clustered wings and God’s garden primeval. Willard said he had been slaying deer since he had lived in Lancaster and that there was not one gathered there among us who had ever brought down a deer as winged and primeval as the stag he once shot between the eyes. He spread his arms as wide as saving grace while communicating this, and gave us the stare of something winged and primeval perched to be killed with a pistol. We laughed aloud and so did Willard until the girl burst one of the ales in the face of this high mystery. Willard thought this not so droll. It made him stop praying and chase after the girl while still he wasn’t convinced we had gotten a clear vision of just how blank a stare he was aiming to recreate.
Willard caught the girl and tried to force her to take the rest of the ale. But she was unflustered by brandished knives and pistols, and tossed back ale after ale already as she pleased. Willard counseled the girl about the wantonness of profligacy, that it wasn’t so much the seed you squandered which was the sin, but the crook of furrow you dug. How it rippled through the rest of the field. God damn you for lazy, he said to her. Not thinking before you unbutton your tongue or step free of the robes of the priesthood. We each drank another ale, including the girl, and sat there soaking for a moment in his parable. Willard could speak riches.
Later when it was plainly day we went back to the ketch and checked our arms. They were guns big enough to resist anything to near us. I sang some hymns and we put shells in our chambers and our pockets. Then we filled our packs with ale. We didn’t fret the ketch, and split into two groups as we walked into the distance. We arranged to gather at the ketch at the close of the day.
The girl and I were equals, though I would always hold the keys. The two of us headed what looked to be west. There was somewhere up there sun, and it was what the two of us were walking away from. The Willards and Josiah must have gone east, because we looked over our shoulders just before entering the trees and did not see them. Either they would be fine or they would not, and we kept walking until we sat down on some mossy rocks.
Again I pressed her lips. This time the girl was more willing to do it and I pressed her a little harder. It began to be unpardonable for us now in our underwear, but it was cold out and removing our things would be an ordeal. I had never advanced the girl like this before. Once I had taken down my trousers with her in a blouse which allowed one breast to fall under the light. But that was when there were others gathered in the ketch, and all of us had been drinking whiskey, so it hadn’t signified so powerfully to me or the girl either. But this day it was different because we had been drinking only ales. It had a different feeling for me when I darkened my hand under her wrap, and it must have had a different feeling for the girl when she closed her hand over me. I bore witness to the cold. We spent the day enjoined atop of our garments and stretched out on the side of the hill. I wasn’t able to burst, but neither was the girl, and so neither one of us felt left far behind. We each had another ale from out of our packs, and this made us feel relieved. We put our coats on once more and set the remainder of our garments atop a rock, thinking perhaps they would dry and not be so cold when we put them on.
We had worn short furs and so it was tolerable for us to walk around with only these coats on. We didn’t believe anyone would come upon us because neither of us had seen even a deer since we were barely out of the town. We didn’t believe there were any deer in this area in the least. But it was Independence itself to walk around naked in the daylight. We kept heading west. Once or twice we lay atop of our coats again. Fall was getting colder. We had been walking uphill and it was later in the day. This time I burst and then I bent a finger to make the girl burst beneath me. We climbed atop a rock and looked down on how far away it must have been to where we had left the ketch unattended. We talked of walking off in some other direction and tried to do it, until we began to feel we were lost and achill with the sun no longer hindmost in the sky. We figured we had hatched a bad idea and began to walk back to where we left our garments. We had a hard time trying to find just where those things might have been, and my finger was beginning to burn. I began to blame everything on the girl. This made her suddenly angry and she dropped to roll a Tobago. I informed her this was not the time, not this far from the ketch, but I was not so full of spirit by this time and sank down on a rock with her to drink an ale and try hard not to sneeze.
I told her I was ill. She didn’t tell me anything. I walked off several yards—I don’t know why—to vent myself, and when I had returned I could not find the girl. I walked here and there and then began to call out. She did not answer me and I was sneezing and shaking in other ways. I called as if for water. My voice failed me, and still she would not yield. I was as irate as I had been with a girl in years, as perturbed—but differently—as that day in the ketch with her wrap. I called out to the girl one last time and still there was nothing for me to hear, so I left her to freeze to death. After a time of stumbling around I found my way back to where my trousers lay drying on the rock. I had folded them up neatly, aiming to educate the girl. But this was a failing on my part, because they had not dried properly. The girl’s things were on the rock beside my own. Her skirt had been laid out straight and looked more inviting than my trousers. I decided to put her things on me as best as I could manage to squeeze. I took my notes and coins from my pocket and fit them into her skirt, and I made my way back down the trail.
When I got back to the ketch the rest of our company was there, Josiah and the two Willards. Each was drinking ale and standing over the carcass of an animal with antlers they said they had found before it died. None of us had brought a genuine hunting knife, and after dragging it back to the ketch, they stood about the animal for hours, looking down and taking sips and telling stories about how much meat they had eaten in one week. Soon they got to asking about the girl’s things on me and what had happened to my own clothes. They did not ask for her.
I got down on my knees before the deer, and could see where an arrow had made an entrance into the neck. The body was surrounded by boots and heels. Trailing out behind the haunches was a flow of blood beginning to congeal. It mixed with the snow so that it was hard not to think of a pudding. I followed the trail back with my glance to the woods from where the animal had been dragged. The trail grew thicker and thinner depending on the narrowness of the path, and mixed with the three sets of footprints until the differences became one flavor. In that direction the woods were very thick because of the closeness of the spruce trees clumped together and jutting their heaviest branches up against one another. Each tree seemed limp to me and buttressed up by the weight of the others’ snowfall. It was a single thing. The deer was the largest, deadest heap to which I had ever been so near. It would have stood shoulder to shoulder with me. Its flank was a canoe. The mouth of it was open blue and a burst of blood eased out into the evening. I took more ale and touched the hair. The musk snuggled deep into my fingers, and no snow would drive it out.
The others had dragged the deer here using knots I was unable to untie even though I had rigged stages I would never ride. I got up and we walked until we found a lake that couldn’t be seen from the trailside. We smoked Tobagos beneath the eaves of a solitary boathouse until our eyes felt drier than our mouths. We talked about the deer lying there with its eye open, and wondered if there was reason in trying to keep it. I recalled how as a child I had black and glossy lashes, like a lady of the stage, until I burned them off with candle and a shaving mirror. This got a howl. I could not open my eyes for days. Looking over the boathouse we could see how no one had closed it for the winter, just nailed the door down tighter than an eyelid. We had ceased to feel blameless some time ago and thought about walking back to the ketch to see one more time to see about the deer. Off in the distance on the far rim of the lake birds were skimming and then taking air. Someone had started a fire. I could see some white in the sky and bits of dust and blood spotting the guard hairs on my arm. The lake was quilted with a cluster of boats in which no one was fishing. They had probably been untied some time ago and had escaped out into the center of the water. Not one of them was touching another and they lay in a lazy configuration. Yet I smelled a fire.
By then it did seem like a good idea to Josiah and the Willards to have another look after the girl before we rode back to the city. I did not argue, though I was cold and uncomfortable in the clothes that I was wearing and would rather have gotten into the ketch where I could have sat there with a blanket on me.
Josiah found one in the ketch and persuaded me to wrap it around myself while I helped to look for the girl. By then we were running out of ale. The blanket was snug and they could see this. I had little alibi for not helping them. I made few excuses.
We all headed up the hill and called after the girl, repeating a slew of witticisms. She didn’t answer to any of these and we became irritated. We fired shots into the air, thinking she would listen to these. We continued shooting until I was sure we were at the rock where the girl and I had burst. I told them the whole story. And I remained convinced by the prints in the ground that this was where we had been. If the girl were to be waiting for us anywhere, this would be the place. We fired shots in various directions other than the sky at that time, hoping to bring her out of the trees. But this didn’t raise a thing. The others asked me if I was sure this was the rock, because none of my clothes were there and neither was the girl. I got down on my hands and knees and crawled around until I found a stocking which was not mine and did not look a man’s. We took this hint with us and walked back to the ketch.
When we drew within hollering distance of the ketch we could hear the horse whimper several times. We ran toward the ketch, and as we did we saw the horse and rider charge upon us. We couldn’t see the girl upon it, but there was no other possibility I recognized. She turned the horse about as we began to scatter. None of us were trodden down, but the girl did trample the deer. With her riding into the distance we shouted and shouldered the guns none of us had fired in earnest the entire journey. The dearest thing I owned was that horse and already its hooves were dimming into the dimness. I fired till I was appeased. Willard walked over and handed me another shell, which I loaded and shot head into the deer. It stared up at us, deader than Ezra. We passed the final ale between us and then Willard grabbed the antlers and looked me in the eye. He said something about the Nipponese, but I knew the eye to be an Indianmedicine thing. There was one for both of us. I wiped the knife and finished off the ale. I was no heathen. But I rendered this ordeal. And then I warmed my hands on Clayton’s wooden wheel.