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The orchardist, p.4
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       The Orchardist, p.4

           Amanda Coplin
 

  From the window he watched her retreat across the grass, pausing to lower her face into the food. The other girl met her and seized the heaping plate. They sunk to their knees in the grass and ate as they had before.

  Oh, I wouldn’t do that, said Caroline Middey.

  She and Talmadge sat on her front porch again, this time eating brisket and steamed carrots and greens in broth. Talmadge wiped his mouth with a blue-checked napkin. He should not have spoken. But he could not help himself. Even if her response was not what he wanted to hear, he needed her advice. He had told her, once they had begun the meal, that he was going to visit Michaelson on the Okanogan.

  If you were able to catch them, said Caroline Middey suddenly, reverting to an earlier conversation about the girls, I could have a look at them. I could have a look at them, and see what kind of shape they’re in. Could you do that?

  He thought for a moment. But why was he considering it?

  No, he said. After a moment: You can come out there and see if they’ll come to you. You’re a woman; it might be different. But there is to be no—catching—

  She said nothing to this, was thinking.

  You go up there and see this fellow, she said, nodding. All right. But you best bring a gun. She brought a forkful of brisket and put it into her mouth, chewed.

  He was still. He had already thought of that. The rifle was in the wagon, underneath a canvas bag in the back. But he did not want to tell her he had already thought of this, because he did not want her to think that he too expected to find an adversary. He was disgusted that that had been his first reaction. He said, without inflection: I brought it. But I won’t need it.

  Caroline Middey raised her eyebrows. Again she stabbed a forkful of meat.

  Never know what you might need, she said, and brought the meat to her mouth, ate it.

  It was not a negligible distance he would have to travel—seventy miles, more or less, as the crow flies—and he considered how he would do it. Finally he chose to leave his mule with Caroline Middey, who then drove him in her wagon to Wenatchee. He boarded a steamboat heading north, into the highlands. It was a Tuesday, just before dawn; not many people boarded with him.

  Up the Columbia, the water splashing steadily against the hull; past Orondo and Entiat, the orchards along the benches materializing in the dawn. Chelan Falls, where morning broke. The sun glinting on the water. He crossed to the other side of the boat, looked out over the country. East of there was the place he hunted in the fall: a place of long flat fields and sweeping rock quarries, weak, haunted sunlight. The animals moving suddenly in that landscape—strong, beautiful, unexpected forms.

  He arrived in Okanogan late afternoon. He found a place to eat, and then a boardinghouse, where, despite the hour—the sun had not yet set—he fell immediately asleep.

  The next morning he inquired at the general store where he could find James Michaelson. The storekeeper, an elderly man with whom Talmadge had just had a pleasant conversation about the weather and the season, set his jaw. Looked past Talmadge, out the window. Said, after a moment, stiffly: We aren’t party to any of that. When Talmadge said, What do you mean? the man turned his head farther away and said he didn’t know any James Michaelson. And was that it, he said, or did Talmadge have any other business at the store?

  Talmadge received more or less the same answer at the feed and supply store. And then he questioned an ironmonger working in an open stall at the end of the street, who regarded him briefly before telling him the Michaelson outfit was north of there, on the Salmon Creek just beyond Ruby City. You get to Conconully, said the man, you’ve gone too far. He fixed Talmadge in one long compassionless stare before bending again to his work.

  Talmadge rode a mule out of Okanogan—Are you sure you don’t want a horse? You want a horse, don’t you? the man at the stables had asked, incredulous. No, a mule suits me fine, said Talmadge—and into the hot, dull country of the Okanogan highlands. His saddlebag packed with sandwiches and water, his rifle slung across his back.

  An hour outside Okanogan he entered a town where the buildings were ramshackle and squat and looked as if they had weathered a thousand storms but would not survive another. Was this Ruby City? Or had he somehow ridden past that place and come too far north, to Conconully? He didn’t think he had ridden far enough to have reached Conconully. A dog ambled around the corner of a building and halted when it saw Talmadge and the mule, and backed up a little ways and began to snarl. Talmadge slowed the mule, leaned forward and touched the mule’s neck. A child came around the side of the building the way the dog had come and drew close to the dog and squatted down and put his arms around the dog’s neck. The dog struggled and whined as the child spoke into its ear. The dog gave one long creaking moan and then remained still as the child stood and gazed at Talmadge. He was a gaunt boy, with brown eyes that seemed too large for his skull.

  Morning, said Talmadge. He straightened up in the saddle. The mule sidestepped, chewed the bit, stomped. Talmadge said: I’m looking for the Michaelson place.

  The boy stared at him. It seemed he would not move at all, but then he turned slightly and lifted his arm and pointed to a stand of evergreens in the distance.

  Talmadge peered at where the boy pointed. He thanked him and was about to leave when he noticed the boy still staring at him, as if he had something to say.

  Talmadge waited.

  The boy came forward. The dog rocked on its tailbone and scratched frantically behind its ear. The boy stopped next to the mule and stood looking up at Talmadge until Talmadge said, What?

  The boy said: Usually they give me something for it.

  Talmadge gazed at him for a moment and then reached into his pocket and pinched out a penny and leaned down and put it into the boy’s outstretched palm. The boy glanced at the penny and then turned and walked back to the corner from which he had appeared. The dog followed him.

  Talmadge waited, looking in the direction the boy had gone. There was no other sound, no movement in the town. He looked at the trees—the evergreens—the boy had indicated. He knew enough to turn around and go home. But still he hesitated. Eventually, he urged the mule forward.

  As soon as he entered the clearing from the trees, a boy separated from a gambrel-roofed barn in the distance and drew toward him. As he neared, Talmadge saw that this boy was lean, pale, and red-haired, and walked with his elbows held slightly out. Talmadge saw the strong jaw and hardness around the eyes. He was about fifteen years old, Talmadge guessed.

  Your mule, mister.

  Talmadge sat the mule a moment, taking in the land and the situation of the house and barn. The house was maybe fifty yards away. No smoke came from the chimney. The barn was farther away, set back in the expansive field. One portion of the barn was charred and had collapsed in on itself. Swallows flew intermittently in and out of the collapsed portion.

  Talmadge got down off the mule.

  Somebody tried to burn it down, said the boy. A couple of good-for-nothing girls.

  What?

  The barn.

  Talmadge handed him the reins. He adjusted the strap that held the rifle—hooded in canvas—on his back. I’m here for Michaelson.

  The boy nodded toward the house. Hey, he said, when Talmadge turned away.

  Talmadge turned back to him.

  Your gun, said the boy.

  Talmadge again touched the strap across his chest, reflexively. But he did not remove it from his body.

  The boy finally raised his eyebrows. Suit yourself, he said. But he won’t like it.

  The house was a blend of pulpwood and spruce timber and was poorly built. The porch groaned nauseously beneath him. Two lanterns hung on hooks on either side of the door, the glass oily with soot. The door was open but screened. He could see inside the house, into a room like a parlor and then beyond that into another room, the kitchen, maybe, with a
window of smudged light. He hesitated and then rapped twice on the doorframe. From the bowels of the house there was movement, and Talmadge drew himself up and listened. There was someone clearing his throat and muffled steps and then a man appeared behind the screen. He was tall—a whole head taller than Talmadge, who was just over six feet—with a large head, dun-colored pate, a wide mouth, large, stone-colored, heavy-lidded eyes. Talmadge was struck with the possibility that the man was blind: he aimed his stare, heavy, over Talmadge’s shoulder. And he moved very slowly: shuffled. But then he met Talmadge’s eyes, and there was recognition there. The man could see him. Talmadge looked at him and then looked away. Gripped—again, reflexively—the leather strap at his shoulder. The man watched Talmadge without blinking—but he had taken in the rifle, Talmadge felt—and opened the screen door while simultaneously rolling up the cuffs of his worn white shirt. Come in, he said. An uninterested murmur.

  Talmadge stepped inside.

  The screen door thwapped shut.

  The man absently splayed his hand to indicate the wealth of seating—several sofas covered in crushed velvet, musty smelling, and three chairs in the same velvet in different colors—emerald, ruby, mustard. Have a seat, said the man, and scratched the back of his head—again the uninterested tone—and sat down on the edge of the emerald chair. Talmadge sat opposite him, lifting the rifle over his head and laying it across his lap. Michaelson leaned forward and opened a cigar box on the low table and lifted his eyes in Talmadge’s general direction—an offering—but Talmadge raised his hand to decline. The man took a cigar for himself and lit it and took one puff and remained sitting still in his chair. He stared at the floor—worn, scratched pine boards—and seemed to fade into a stupor; he pressed his lips together as if recalling a former agitation.

  And then he seemed to come out from whatever spell he was under.

  No one offered to relieve you of your weaponry, I see, he said.

  Talmadge didn’t answer. Was the man sick? he thought. Had Talmadge just woken him from a nap? And another thing that was bothering Talmadge: he could not locate the man’s age. He had sensed, when the man first appeared behind the screen, that he was in his forties—a muscular, hard, but graceful body, and a wide but also lean, weary face. As he smoked, he seemed to age: was he near Talmadge’s age? Beyond it? Talmadge was dismayed that he could not tell. The man seemed a chameleon.

  Doing some hunting? Michaelson said, without inflection.

  Talmadge hesitated. Yes. He cleared his throat. I’ve been south of here but—thought I’d see what’s north. Good hunting here, I’ve heard—

  While Talmadge was speaking, Michaelson’s eyes had traveled, bored, to the corner of the room. When Talmadge fell silent, Michaelson turned his head to him but did not meet his eyes. Lifted his eyebrows. The girls are sleeping, he said. You’ll have to wait. Unless, he said, you want me to wake someone up. His gaze traveled to the opposite corner of the room. You understand, he said.

  Talmadge understood he was referring to money. By this time he understood much. He listened to the sounds of the house, aware now that it was filled with girls. He thought of the two girls in the orchard and looked up to see Michaelson watching him now hard, frowning. Talmadge couldn’t decide if it was Talmadge—his person or visage—of which Michaelson disapproved, or if he was thinking of something else and had just let his gaze rest there, on Talmadge’s chest. There was a faint wheezing as Michaelson puffed on his cigar.

  Where are you from?

  He, Talmadge, must be very careful now, he thought. He looked to the window.

  Oregon.

  Michaelson smoked and continued to look at his chest. His frown increased by a degree.

  Long way from home. You a mining inspector? He smoked. Or a bounty hunter? They send you to hunt me? You going to shoot me?

  There was a silence as Talmadge, baffled, decided how to answer.

  He stood. I have to be going.

  Michaelson did not look up at him.

  I was looking for another Michaelson, said Talmadge. Looks like I got the wrong place, here.

  Michaelson brought the cigar up to his lips. I’m the only Michaelson around here, and everybody knows it.

  The floorboards whined softly. Talmadge turned to see a child in the doorway between parlor and kitchen. She was small, maybe nine years old, with limp black hair and black eyes. A child’s pouting mouth, stained red. She rubbed her eyes. She was wearing a man’s cotton undershirt and nothing else. Pa, she said. A gentle croak.

  He lifted his chin in assent, and the girl trod lightly to him, climbed onto his knee. He put one arm around her waist—casually—and with the other brought the cigar again to his lips. Scowled at the floor. And then he leaned forward and crushed the cigar on a saucer on the nearest table and cleared his throat. Again he addressed the corner of the room: Two dollars, he said. For twenty minutes. He paused. This is Mary Elizabeth.

  Talmadge looked away. I have to be going, he said.

  I’ll clean her up, put her dress on. It won’t take long. If she’s up the others will be up, he said again, more to himself than to Talmadge. With the heel of one hand he rubbed his eye and stretched his legs. The girl slid off him, scampered away through the doorway from which she had come. You can have your pick, said Michaelson. What do you like?

  But Talmadge had stepped outside onto the porch and down into the stunning light. He walked quickly across the clearing, his eyes on the mule standing in the stippled shade beside the barn. It took him a long time to reach his destination. His foolishness overwhelmed him. The boy scrambled up from where he had been sitting with his back against the barn wall and hurried to unfasten the reins from the post. That was fast, he said to Talmadge, grinning.

  In Okanogan he stopped again at the general store. The old man working behind the counter, recognizing him, stuck out his jaw.

  That man Michaelson, said Talmadge. What’s he about?

  The man looked askance at him. He had picked up a rag, had begun wiping the counter.

  You went up there, didn’t you? he said after a minute. You know what he’s about.

  Something wrong with him? said Talmadge. He sick?

  The man snorted. Glanced at Talmadge, to see if he was serious. When he saw Talmadge’s question was in earnest, he said: He’s hibernating now, I suppose.

  Hibernating?

  The man snorted again. The man is a fiend. Goes through rages more than any person I’ve encountered in my life. Ups and downs. Some mental sickness, I suppose. And then he’s into that stuff—that opium. When he’s in the stuff you don’t hear from him for a while. But then he comes to town and wreaks all kind of trouble. Don’t know why they don’t permanently jail him. His newest thing, the man said, as if suddenly remembering it, is chasing girls—I think it’s two—who ran off from the place earlier this year. He’s frothing at the mouth to find them. I hope they’re long gone by now, said the man, looking out the window to the street. Hate to know what he’d do if he found them. Man’s not in his right mind.

  Didn’t seem to be frothing when I saw him, said Talmadge, after a silence.

  That’s because he’s hibernating, said the man. Any time he has that stuff—that opium—he stays up there and eats it. Or whatever he does. Smokes it, I don’t know. Waits for one of his men to bring him more. Woe the man who comes empty-handed. He’ll eat it until he runs out of money. Harmless as a puppy until then, I suppose. Though I don’t know. The man is a menace. The man glanced at Talmadge again. Why’d you go up there? he said. If you pardon my asking. You don’t seem the type.

  Talmadge considered carefully how to answer.

  I thought it was a different kind of place, he said.

  When he arrived back at the orchard, a day and a half later, the two plates were stacked neatly on the porch. He made eggs. He left the steaming plates on the porch steps and walked past t
he girls, who had crossed the grass toward him, down to the creek and washed his face. Had the girls come by steamboat? he wondered. Or, as he increasingly believed, had they come by foot, through hard country and forest?

  The girls had finished eating by the time he passed the cabin again and the plates were stacked as before. They sat at the mouth of the apricot orchard, waiting.

  He spent the morning deciding what to do. The image of Michaelson at times rising to harass him. Early afternoon he loaded down the mule with supplies and led him out of the barn and across the grass. Crossed the creek. A moment later he heard the splashing of their crossing behind him. He walked slowly so they would not fall too far behind. He led the mule into the outer apple orchard, into the canyon. Up the short incline where the path veered away into a band of aspen. The ground was hardened ash and clay and covered with a dull confetti of mulch. He slowed, gauging their stride, and kept on.

 
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