At Hattie’s

Hattie Pruitt has begun to worry, and that worries her a little. Before the turning she’d been a dreadful fretter. Why, she’d lie awake all night sometimes, anxious about the silliest things. Afterward, nothing seemed to bother her anymore. Now she just lays down her head and drops right off, easy as you please. Easy as pie. Easy as falling off a log.

Not that the dreams aren’t sometimes very odd. They are, but to tell the truth, she can’t remember the details of a single one of them the next morning and she doesn’t really care to. Dreams are just vapor. Why bother with them?

Thinking of it now, though, sparks memory of a dream… when? Months ago. Six? Not more, surely. Maybe.

A dreadful little creature had its needle-pointed head stabbed onto the muscle of her upper arm. She remembers her sense of revulsion, seeing it in the dream.

Yes, that one was peculiar. The next morning her arm was sore to the touch and to use it but, of course, she had to use it anyway. By the time she thought to worry about it, though, the soreness was fading.

It seemed an odd thing then, but not a problem she had to sort out. She laughed when she told Newt about it. He didn’t laugh.

What worries her today is Newt’s real late getting home and she’s gotten one of her feelings.

Newt had set out with Jamie Mallory in Jamie’s big buckboard over a week ago bound for Las Vegas, a wide spot on the Santa Fe Trail two days northwest. They’d loaded up with all sorts of tradeables, planning to meet up with as many as they could of the cavallards passing through on the Trail constant these days. An unbroken stream in both directions, they are. So Jamie Mallory says.

Some of the items they took with them were made by Remert in his shop: specialized tools and creative little gadgets, and toys, even. Hattie can’t imagine where he comes up with such ideas. They also took along some of the quilts and clothing the womenfolk had made together.

Not to seem prideful, as a good bit of the work was Hattie’s own, but their wovens and needlework are as fine as any she’s seen anywhere and she’s lived in Chicago. She knows right enough what ‘fine’ ought to look like.

She can’t remember who, but someone suggested they take along a small keg of the good water with them too. That seemed to spark some heated debate, as such represents a precious lot of the stuff; it comes up from the Well so slowly.

The idea was advanced that it might help promote some new blood in the town, or at the least, fresh consumables. There was one strident objection.

Doody, battered beaver hat perched atop his dome like a badge of office, had rapped his gavel a couple times on the counsel table, the long, wide, lacquered one, and told Silas to take a seat and quit wasting the counsel’s time being frivolous. Then he led a short meeting about how much good water might be allowable. Hattie remembers it wasn’t much. A canning jar full, no more. Most everyone seemed satisfied they’d been heard, at least.

Doody, of course, would have been elected mayor long ago if anyone gave such notions even passing consideration anymore, which they didn’t. He’d long since assumed the responsibility for maintaining an orderly forum whenever decisions affecting the well-being of the community required deliberation. These meetings always seemed to take place within his establishment anyway. He has furniture.

Thing is, Newt and Jamie should’ve been back by now if nothing’s gone wrong and here’s this awful dust storm blown up. Hattie realizes she isn’t actually worried about Newt. No, Newt can take care of himself. What concerns her most is that something has shifted.

She’s not sure when it happened, but she’s realized it. Trouble’s coming, bad trouble with this battering windstorm as its harbinger. Whatever it is, she doesn’t want to face it alone.

With naught to do but wait, Hattie leans an elbow on the chair arm and lays her chin in her fist. No doubt she could conjure some busy work, but sometimes it’s beneficial to just be with oneself and, honestly, she doesn’t much care to do anything right now but listen to the driven sand scour the town clean. It’s enough to just be and see what comes of that.

 She brushes her cheek, stretching the skin, so supple and soft, like when she was young. In most regards, she feels like she did when she was young. Where are the small wrinkles that had begun to develop around her lips and eyes before she and Newt came to be here?

The good water cannot fully overcome the consequences of weather and time; this she’s been told. But damned if it don’t appear to hold them off at a solicitous distance for a good spell. She’s seen what it has done for those who’ve been here longer. And what it hasn’t done.

Perhaps if there was more of it… but nothing’s likely to come of such speculation.

Her other hand combs absently back through what was once a handsome tumble of dark, shoulder-length hair. An uncommon streak of pure white appeared there some time after her and Newt set up housekeeping in this place, a filament at first just left of center. Now her tresses on the entire left side are like strands of snow. It all feels the same, but even now when she sees herself in a looking glass, the effect is disconcerting.

Fingers trailing now from the ends of her hair, she holds both hands out in front of bright gray eyes and examines them front and back, as though they were unfamiliar. Long, nimble fingers. The capable hands of an accomplished pianist. She used to be quite good—gifted, someone once said of her—but that was in, literally, another life. She wonders if these fingers could yet find their way through the scherzo of Bach’s Partita Number Three. Humming the melody to the wind outside, she tickles the air with delicate butterfly strokes.

The thread of the moment unravels and her hands flutter down, trailing across the bodice of her simple dress, once again surprised at how little surplus material seems to be there, and down over her flat belly to hips and legs. If memory serves, they had once been considered quite shapely, now leaner and stronger than she remembers them.

The two realities are superimposed as a fresh wave of blowing sand pelts against door and shutters and, in the moment of comparison, she is vexed by her inability to remember with any clarity how she and her Newt came to be here.

It doesn’t matter, of course, because she can no longer imaging herself being anywhere else than this improbable little hamlet with its majestic surroundings. Also, the secret treasure at its heart, the tiny, tranquil spring seeping its priceless enchantment into a deep, secret basin.

Something clatters discourteously across the roof and Hattie looks to the low ceiling, not with concern, but with appreciation for Newt’s carpentry. Like most of the houses in town, the Pruitts built theirs out of solid beams and good clapboard hauled down from the town of Pueblo a number of years ago. It’s double-walled, pitch sealed, and filled in between with something like sawdust that Remert provided. It’s insulated against the cold and snow of winter and resistant to rain and wind, too, like what’s just now sandblasting the already weathered exterior.

Inside, by the yellow light of a single lamp, Hattie sits in the rocker chair Newt made for her, listening, smelling the traces of dust in the air, waiting. A knock at the door jolts her. Not Newt, surely; he wouldn’t knock.

Before she can raise herself from the chair, the door opens outward with difficulty against the gale and Doody lets himself inside followed by a lanky fellow with a load over his shoulder. Doody hauls the door shut behind them.

“Sorry about calling so late and unannounced, Hattie,” he says.

The room’s not large and only a couple steps bring her close enough to get a good look at both of them in the lamplight.

“Deuteronomy, I think this is the first time I’ve seen you out ‘n’ about without your hat,” she says by way of greeting.

“Wasn’t about to let that,” Doody gestures toward the bluster and debris chattering against the outer walls, “take my bonnet and throw it out into the Miles. No, ma’am, that just wouldn’t do.”

He reaches a brown hand to his forehead, tips an imaginary chapeau to the woman, and continues, “This pilgrim here just blew in on the wind and needs a place to stay the night. I recall you’ve got an extra room Newt built for your momma, God rest her, and thought maybe you wouldn’t mind puttin’ him up in it.” He gives her a grin and a wink. “He says he can pay.”

Hattie looks the fellow up and down. He’s got manners enough to remove his hat, she notices, and he’s got an interesting face; not handsome, Lord no, but pleasing in a hard-edged sort of way. Looks strong, unmistakable Indian features and, equally unmistakable, reddish stubble growing out of his face. There’s a combination not often seen, safe to say. Pretty eyes, too, like new grass.

Something in those eyes is troubling.

“You got a name, mister?”

“He can’t hear you,” Doody says. “Says he had an accident a few days back. Deaf.”

“He’s hurtin’, too,” Hattie says. “Hurtin’ bad.”

“He don’t show it.”

“I can see it in his eyes.” She lifts a hand to the side of his head, touches him with her fingertips, then draws her hand back. “Oh, my…”

Jonas senses the same vague oddness about this woman that he felt from those back at the leathery man’s place, but there’s no threat in it and the woman seems kindly enough. Seems, too, she’s got a bit of a knowing herself. Or maybe the pain inside his head has become so strong it’s begun to leak out and anybody can feel it that comes close enough.

“Ma’am, I’m real sorry ta be a bother to ya…” he begins and the woman silences him with two fingers held to his lips.

Hattie takes his arm and leads him to Newt’s chair, pressing him into it with a deliberation that says she’s taken charge now and he might just as well accept the fact.

She gives Deuteronomy a wan smile as he gathers up Jonas’s gear with a grunt. She points to a doorway giving onto a small room where there’s just enough space to pile Jonas’s things near the foot of a thick feather-tick mattress set up on a wooden pallet.

Hattie fills a glass from a demijohn on a low counter with cupboard above, cluttered shelves below, and a good pitch-sealed wooden basin on top. Newt’s handiwork. She catches Doody’s raised eyebrow as she turns back to her guest with the glass in hand. She hands it to Jonas and says o Doody, “He’s in awful misery. Can’t you see it?”

“Nope. You’re the sensitive one.”

“Sit with us for a bit, won’t you? I’ll need some help with him presently.”

Doody lowers himself onto a straight-back chair by the table and affords Hattie his full attention. “I can’t think of any place better to be just now.”

It smells all right, Jonas thinks to himself. What were you expecting anyway? Yet it feels cool in his mouth and the flavor of it is… what’s that word? He heard it roll off his father’s tongue on occasion. Never thought he’d ever have occasion to use it himself before now, but this wave of liquid sliding down his throat tastes just so extraordinary, so clean and right, it almost makes him weep.

Exquisite. That’s the word.

A rush of delicious well-being washes over him as sudden as it is profound. He takes another long swallow, and another, savoring both the incomparable flavor and the wondrous flood of contentment spreading through him all the way to his fingertips and toes.

Years ago, he stood in the surf of the Pacific Ocean allowing the swells to crest and break over him. Each time he would surface and, shivering, stutter out, “Thank you, Grandmother!” And when he fell back onto the beach at last, the chilly morning air seemed comfortable by comparison to her embrace.

This feels very much the same. Except this wave rolling over and through him is a warm one. Like being lifted on breeze. Like a mother’s caress.

He can feel his muscles relaxing and the agonizing pressure of the screaming silence between his ears begins to melt away.

The little room commences to swim in a lazy way and Jonas can’t help but smile at the way it makes the woman’s face waver. She smiles back at him. Tears roll down his cheeks.

Doody watches, nodding as the familiar scene plays out. The fellow’s hard features show first surprise, then soften to assume a look of calm wonder and obvious pleasure. His knotted brow grows smooth even as the smile forms on his lips and the drifter whispers, “Thank you, Grandmother.”

Unexpected laughter bursts from him, startling Hattie and she jumps, recovering in time to snatch the glass as it slips from the man’s limp fingers.

He slumps forward. Without being asked, Doody rises to help Hattie lift the fellow out of the chair and carry him into the adjoining room, laying him out on the mattress there.

“I’ll finish tendin’ to him later,” Hattie says in a hushed voice, closing the door on Jonas’s slumber as quietly as the dry hinges will allow.

“No reason to act the church mouse, Hattie. You couldn’t wake that fellow now with a steam whistle and a cannon right there in the room with him.”

Hattie’s head lifts up, eyes to the ceiling. “D’ you hear that?”

Doody stops shuffling and cocks his head to the side, listening. “Wind’s died.”

“You know,” she says, “I think that’s about the worst I seen since Newt and me came here.”

“I’ve seen worse,” Doody begins, and then looks puzzled. “That’s funny. Darned if I can remember when, but I know I have.”

“Some memories seem to slip away in the turning. Others…” Hattie remembers who she’s talking to and she laughs. “Guess I don’t have to be tellin’ you any of that now, do I?”

Doody lays a kindly hand on the woman’s shoulder. “I’ve been here a good while. Got its advantages, it does, and I can afford to let a couple irrelevant memories slide now ‘n’ again. Seems a fair trade.”

“What about the ones that aren’t irrelevant?”

He turns toward the door, fixing to leave. “They all are.”

“I could make some tea if you’d like to stay and talk a bit,” Hattie says. She knows she sounds plaintive. At least the wind had been a kind of company. If Doody goes now, it’s going to be too quiet with nothing to do but think.

“Thank you, Hattie. That shit-for-brains, Maylon, took exception to the pilgrim’s looks earlier and made a bit of a mess over’t my place. I better get on back and clean up. Maybe when your man gets back, I’ll take you up on that tea and we’ll hear about his adventure.”

“He shoulda been back by now.”

“He an’ Mallory are hunkered down under cover. I expect they’ll be along come morning.”

“You sound like you know.”

“Surprised you don’t.

“Wait, you said Maylon took exception to this fellow over at your place. What happened?”

Doody points to the closed door of the adjoining room with his chin. “Gave Maylon what for.”

“You’re pullin’ my leg.”

“Am not.”

“Way I hear it, only ones ever got the best of that mean sonofabitch, ‘scuse my French, is the Cosgrove pair.” She smothers a little shiver. “One at a time at that, and I’m told Punkin whipped him the worst before it got broke up.”

“Woman, I’d a thought the same until tonight. Maylon threatened him with that mule-skinner’s knife he’s so proud of. The wayfarer there put him on the ground sniveling like a little girl.” Doody’s chuckling now. “You should’a seen it.”

“Lordy, I wish I had,” Hattie says, and the thought makes her chuckle a little too. It’s short-lived, as laughs and smiles often are in these parts, and she shakes her head in renewed disgust. “Maylon’s a belligerent, quarrelsome bully an’ no mistake. I don’t trust him at my back even a little bit. I’d like to think he may be of use to us some day.”

“You’re too generous, Hattie. By my reckoning, he’s a complete catastrophe desperately in search of someplace to occur. Should’ve harvested him when he was still a pup and been done with hm.”

Doody opens the door and pauses on the threshold before stepping out into the eerie quiet. “Maybe you’re right, though. He may have some use one day… long as it doesn’t require any common sense or good will.”

“Good night, Deuteronomy.”

“Thank you, and a peaceful night to you, Missus Pruitt.”

The simple ritual of civilized folk parting company carried out by individuals that are no longer quite human is not so much play-acting as holding on to the remembrance of what they once were in the face of an altered existence for which there are no clear rules, no prior experience from which to draw conclusions, or direction.

Closing the door on the deserted street and Doody’s retreating back, Hattie looks in on her guest. Motionless in the doorway of the little room, contemplating the man unconscious there, of one thing she is sure. She felt trouble coming on the wind earlier.

Well, here it is.



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