Late that night lying in his bunk in the dark he heard the kitchen door close and heard the screendoor close after it. He lay there. Then he sat and swung his feet to the floor and got his boots and his jeans and pulled them on and put on his hat and walked out. The moon was almost full and it was cold and late and no smoke rose from the kitchen chimney. Mr Johnson was sitting on the back stoop in his duckingcoat smoking a cigarette. He looked up at John Grady and nodded. John Grady sat on the stoop beside him. What are you doin out here without your hat? he said.
I dont know.
You all right?
Yeah. I'm all right. Sometimes you miss bein outside at night. You want a cigarette?
Could you not sleep either?
No sir. I guess not.
How's them new horses?
I think he done all right.
Them was some boogerish colts I seen penned up in the corral.
I think he's goin to sell off some of them.
Horsetradin, the old man said. He shook his head. He smoked.
Did you used to break horses, Mr Johnson?
Some. Mostly just what was required. I was never a twister in any sense of the word. I got hurt once pretty bad. You can get spooked and not know it. Just little things. You dont hardly even know it.
But you like to ride.
I do. Margaret could outride me two to one though. As good a woman with a horse as I ever saw. Way bettern me. Hard thing for a man to admit but it's the truth.
You worked for the Matadors didnt you?
Yep. I did.
How was that?
Hard work. That's how it was.
I guess that aint changed.
Oh it probably has. Some. I was never in love with the cattle business. It's just the only one I ever knew.
Can I ask you somethin? said John Grady.
How old were you when you got married?
I was never married. Never found anybody that'd have me.
He looked at John Grady.
Margaret was my brother's girl. Him and his wife both was carried off in the influenza epidemic in nineteen and eighteen.
I didnt know that.
She never really knowed her parents. She was just a baby. Well, five. Where's your coat at?
I'm all right.
I was in Fort Collins Colorado at the time. They sent for me. I shipped my horses and come back on the train with em. Dont catch cold out here now.
No sir. I wont. I aint cold.
I had ever motivation in the world but I never could find one I thought would suit Margaret.
Wife. One wife. We finally just give it up. Probably a mistake. I dont know. Socorro pretty much raised her. She spoke better spanish than Socorro did. It's just awful hard. It liked to of killed Socorro. She still aint right. I dont expect she ever will be.
We tried ever way in the world to spoil her rotten but it didnt take. I dont know why she turned out the way she did. It's just a miracle I guess you could say. I dont take no credit for it, I'll tell you that.
Look yonder. The old man nodded toward the moon.
You cant see em now. Wait a minute. No. They're gone.
What was it?
Birds flyin across the moon. Geese maybe. I dont know.
I didnt see em. Which way were they headed?
Upcountry. Probably headed for that marsh country on the river up around Belen.
I used to love to ride of a night.
I did too.
You'll see things on the desert at night that you cant understand. Your horse will see things. He'll see things that will spook him of course but then he'll see things that dont spook him but still you know he seen somethin.
What sort of things?
I dont know.
You mean like ghosts or somethin?
No. I dont know what. You just knows he sees em. They're out there.
Not just some class of varmint?
Not somethin that will booger him?
No. It's more like somethin he knows about.
But you dont.
But you dont. Yes.
The old man smoked. He watched the moon. No further birds flew. After a while he said: I aint talkin about spooks. It's more like just the way things are. If you only knew it.
We was up on the Platte River out of Ogallala one night and I was bedded down in my soogan out away from the camp. It was a moonlit night just about like tonight. Cold. Spring of the year. I woke up and I guess I'd heard em in my sleep and it was just this big whisperin sound all over and it was geese just by the thousands headed up the river. They passed for the better part of a hour. They blacked out the moon. I thought the herd would get up off the grounds but they didnt. I got up and walked out and stood watchin em and some of the other young waddies in the outfit they had got up too and we was all standin out there in our longjohns watchin. It was just this whisperin sound. They was up high and it wasnt loud or nothin and I wouldnt of thought about somethin like that a wakin us wore out as we was. I had a nighthorse in my string named Boozer and old Boozer he come to me. I reckon he thought the herd'd get up too but they didnt. And they was a snuffy bunch, too.
Did you ever have a stampede?
Yes. We was drivin to Abilene in eighteen and eighty-five. I wasnt much more than a button. And we had got into it with a rep from one of the outfits and he followed us to where we crossed the Red River at Doane's store into Indian Territory. He knew we'd have a harder time gettin our stock back there and we did but we caught the old boy and it was him for you could still smell the coaloil on him. He come by in the night and set a cat on fire and thowed it onto the herd. I mean slung it. Walter Devereaux was comin in off the middle watch and he heard it and looked back. Said it looked like a comet goin out through there and just a squallin. Lord didnt they come up from there. It took us three days to shape that herd back and whenever we left out of there we was still missin forty some odd head lost or crippled or stole and two horses.
What happened to the boy?
That threw the cat.
Oh. Best I remember he didnt make out too well.
I guess not.
People will do anything.
Yessir. They will.
You live long enough you'll see it.
Yessir. I have.
Mr Johnson didnt answer. He flipped the butt of his cigarette out across the yard in a slow red arc.
Aint nothin to burn out there. I remember when you could have grassfires in this country.
I didnt mean I'd seen everthing, John Grady said.
I know you didnt.
I just meant I'd seen things I'd as soon not of.
I know it. There's hard lessons in this world.
What's the hardest?
I dont know. Maybe it's just that when things are gone they're gone. They aint comin back.
They sat. After a while the old man said: The day after my fiftieth birthday in March of nineteen and seventeen I rode into the old headquarters at the Wilde well and there was six dead wolves hangin on the fence. I rode along the fence and ran my hand along em. I looked at their eyes. A government trapper had brought em in the night before. They'd been killed with poison baits. Strychnine. Whatever. Up in the Sacramentos. A week later he brought in four more. I aint heard a wolf in this country since. I suppose that's a good thing. They can be hell on stock. But I guess I was always what you might call superstitious. I know I damn sure wasnt religious. And it had always seemed to me that somethin can live and die but that the kind of thing that they were was always there. I didnt know you could poison that. I aint heard a wolf howl in thirty odd years. I dont know where you'd go to hear one. There may not be any such a place.
When he walked back through the barn Billy was standing in the doorway.
Has he gone back to bed?
What was he doin up?
He said he couldnt sleep. What were you?
Same thing. You?
Somethin in the air I reckon.
I dont know.
What was he talkin about?
What did he say?
I guess he said cattle could tell the difference between a flight of geese and a cat on fire.
Maybe you dont need to be hangin around him so much.
You might be right.
You all seem to have a lot in common.
He aint crazy, Billy.
Maybe. But I dont know as you'd be the first one I'd come to for an opinion about it.
I'm goin to bed.
Cities of the Plain
- paperback: 292 pages
- Publisher: Vintage International
- ISBN-10: 0679747192
- ISBN-13: 9780679747192