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The orchardist, p.9
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       The Orchardist, p.9

           Amanda Coplin
 

  Michaelson squinted at Talmadge, briefly, and in that moment Talmadge understood that Michaelson did not know who he was, did not remember him. Talmadge found this extraordinary. There was a moment when Michaelson seemed to consider the possibility of their acquaintance, but he dismissed it, quickly.

  Where are my girls? he said. His voice shook with barely contained rage. They in town said you had my girls.

  Talmadge wanted to turn and glance across the field, at the canyon mouth, where the girls had taken the baby earlier, to the far apple orchard. He willed that the girls had found a game that would occupy them, that they would stay there for as long as it took to rid the orchard of the men.

  Michaelson was still staring at him. What was he, Michaelson, capable of? Talmadge again looked at the rifle in the scabbard.

  Where are your manners? said the mean-looking man, suddenly, to Talmadge, and Talmadge looked at him. You have any coffee? Let’s take a load off, boss, he said to Michaelson. I’m thirsty.

  Go down and lie in that creek for all I care, said Michaelson, and spat dramatically to the side. I’m not here for hospitality. Looking again at Talmadge, his eyes bloodshot and unblinking and, Talmadge could not help but note, desperate: Where are my girls?

  Michaelson, who had seemed so heavy and withered and distracted that day on the Okanogan, was now filled with nervous energy. He seemed, suddenly—this entered Talmadge’s mind at once—an ancient adolescent. It was there in his fevered gaze, in his movements as he shifted from one foot to the other. His zeal and worry.

  Talmadge took off his hat, started toward the cabin. He heard the men follow him: Michaelson on foot, and the other two still on their mounts. When Talmadge entered the cabin, he heard the saddle creak of the others dismounting. The men, at least, did not follow him inside. He saw into the girls’ room. A pair of small boots by the bed. He put the kettle on to boil. He went into his own bedroom and opened the closet door, took his rifle from where it leaned in the corner.

  That’s not a good idea, said the mean-looking man, who had come in behind him and stood now in the doorway of his bedroom. Talmadge, after a moment, replaced the rifle in the closet. The man came close behind him and made sure the gun was unloaded, and then closed the closet door.

  Talmadge went out and stood before the stove and waited for the water to boil. Helpless. Every sound was exaggerated: the ticking of the water in the pot, the shuffle of the men’s boots on the wood floor. The red-haired man had also entered the cabin and was reading the spines of the almanacs on the shelf. The mean-looking man bent his knees slightly, studied his image in the mirrorglass hanging on the wall. Took up the pomade tin, opened it, sniffed. Made a face. Went over to Talmadge at the stove, clapped a hand on his shoulder. I like my coffee strong, he said. The red-haired man went into the girls’ room, then came out a minute later. Was holding a pair of underpants. Talmadge felt his body empty of feeling. Talmadge heard the man say, outdoors, to Michaelson: They’re not in there. Their stuff is, though. And then high-pitched, hysterical laughter.

  Talmadge prepared the coffee, took the mugs out onto the porch.

  Here. It was difficult to keep the bitterness from his voice.

  The mean-looking man took a mug, and so did the red-haired man, who thanked Talmadge. But Michaelson stood on the lawn, looking out across the field. There were men working there, the haycatchers Talmadge had employed to cut the rest of the grass. They were four of the horsemen who had stayed behind after the rest of the men had gone.

  Talmadge stood staring at Michaelson’s back. He felt he could read the man’s designs there between his shoulder blades. Again he thought: What was the man capable of?

  I’m willing to buy them, said Talmadge suddenly. I’m willing to buy them from you, is what I’m saying.

  Michaelson turned to him, surprised. Were you talking to me? he said. I know you weren’t talking to me.

  How much? said the mean-looking man, who was chewing something—a tiny seed?—in his back teeth. He leaned and spat.

  Shut up, all of you, said Michaelson. Can’t you see I’m trying to listen? And he turned back to the field. According to the posture of the other men, this behavior of Michaelson’s—vacillating between bully and idiot—was not unusual. The men stood at different spots on the lawn, drinking coffee. The red-haired man wandered into the apricot orchard, and exited a minute later, eating an apricot.

  At that moment two forms in pale dresses came out of the canyon, floating toward them out of the darker mouth.

  God in heaven, said Michaelson. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. And then what sounded to Talmadge like the snapping of his jaws. The mean-looking man placed his coffee mug on the ground and went for his rifle, which was leaning up against the porch. Talmadge had not noticed it before. The mean-looking man addressed the red-haired man, who still ate the apricot: What are you doing? Cut that out.

  The girls slowed in the middle of the field, stopped. The haycatchers worked around them. It was too far away for the girls to see Michaelson clearly; they must’ve seen his horses, and the men, who were also regarding them. One girl turned and retreated back to the canyon mouth, but the other remained a moment before coming forward.

  Michaelson waved frantically. Can she see us? he said to no one in particular. His voice was high, like a child’s. Should we go down there? Is she coming? The mean-looking man scratched the back of his head.

  Talmadge moved down the slope, toward the creek. Foolishness for allowing this to happen. How would the girls ever forgive him?

  Run, he called to the girl, waving his arms. Get back! Get away!

  But the girl—she was halfway across the creek, holding her skirts up out of the water—stood still and watched him. It was as if he were speaking a different language.

  Get away! Michaelson was shouting to him. Jane! Jane! Come here! He was laughing, boyishly. The sound sent a chill up Talmadge’s spine. Look at you! Jane!

  The girl moved past Talmadge and trudged up the hillside. Talmadge, weak with indecision, followed her. Michaelson met her; embraced her. She was like a rag doll in his arms. Jane, he said: part admonition, part sob. Talmadge remained standing several feet behind them, not understanding what was happening, what he should do.

  After a minute Michaelson and the girl separated, and she walked through the yard and then up onto the porch, not looking at any of the men, and went into the cabin.

  Talmadge stared at the grass of the lawn. Tried to make sense of the gestures, the correspondence that had passed between Michaelson and the girl, but failed. What was happening? Michaelson waited off the porch steps, was just shy of wringing his hands in happiness; the mean-looking man seemed more bored than ever, was looking off toward the plum trees; and the red-haired man was nowhere to be seen. And then Talmadge saw him, bending creekside, picking up a river rock, inspecting it.

  And then Jane came onto the porch, and down onto the lawn. Continued through the grass. Passed Michaelson and the mean-looking man, and Talmadge. Michaelson moved after her, surprised, but she held up her hand to him, and he halted.

  I’ll be right back—

  Where—

  I’ll be back—and she was striding across the grass, down the hill. The red-haired man lifted a hand to her in greeting but she did not respond. They watched her cross the creek, traverse the field. Eventually she passed into the canyon.

  The mean-looking man emitted a low, drowsy whistle. He pulled a cigarette out of his pocket, lit it. Smoked. Eventually he came to stand near Talmadge. Watched the canyon mouth.

  That sister, he murmured. That’s who she’s gone to get, I suppose. I would just as soon leave without that one. But Jane—

  Talmadge studied the canyon mouth.

  Jane won’t allow that. The man cleared his throat, and after a moment took out another cigarette.

  Michaelson came to stand near the mean-looking man,
a subservient, doglike expression on his face: questioning. Talmadge was surprised Michaelson didn’t whimper.

  Wait, said the mean-looking man to Michaelson. Then: I say we wait, don’t you? Then, lowering his voice so only Talmadge could hear him: It’s better to do things peaceable-like. Calm. Without the antics. Things go wrong when there are antics. People say they are just girls, how hard could tracking girls be? He smiled faintly. These people have not had the pleasure, he said, to be in our position—

  After a minute the man turned to Talmadge, as if just remembering something.

  And the children? Did they—

  Talmadge did not take his eyes from the field.

  Ah, said the man. After a moment, laughed. Began to say something.

  Aren’t no children, said Talmadge.

  What?

  I said there aren’t no children—

  The man smiled. Oh, I doubt that very much. I doubt that the children have perished. He paused. We’ll see soon enough. A baby can’t stay hidden, can it?

  Talmadge looked at the canyon. It had been more than ten minutes since the girl had gone into the orchard. Maybe they were making an escape, he thought. And then the man said, as if reading his thoughts—

  Shall we? He flicked the cigarette away from him. To Talmadge: Will you escort us? Or are we going by ourselves?

  They walked across the creek, entered the field. Michaelson waved frantically to the haycatchers—but it was unclear whether it was a greeting or a warning. The haycatchers each in their turn glanced at the men; but Talmadge, in his increasing anxiety, did not know how to regard them. There were four of them: strong, capable men though not all of them young; dark-skinned and oily with sweat, naked to their waists. He caught the eye of one man, Clee’s cousin—who was young, in his midtwenties, Talmadge guessed—who stared at him. For a moment the man’s eyes were all Talmadge could see. The man did not pause in his work; but then he looked down, and Talmadge looked at the canyon looming ahead of them; and Talmadge willed his and the men’s strides to lessen, to gain weight. He willed the feet of the girls to fly; he willed them to float through the air.

  Once they entered the canyon mouth, Michaelson skipped ahead, like a demented child.

  How far does this go? said the mean-looking man, nodding to the trees. And then, a minute later: You have a regular empire here—

  Up ahead was a cry of pain—something between a howl and a moan. It was Michaelson.

  Talmadge’s heart thudded in him like an overlarge bird trying to overcome its cage. They turned the corner. Michaelson stood beside a towering oak, his head tilted far back, his mouth open. In the tree hung two bodies. One—Jane’s—hung still; but Della danced in midair, her feet pedaling, her hands at her neck. Talmadge felt at once his body empty, and also felt that he was floating toward them.

  Jesus Christ, said the mean-looking man, who stood next to Talmadge. To the red-haired man, who had gone ahead and gazed up at the girls almost dreamily: What are you doing? Cut them down!

  The man stood at the tree’s base, looking up. Michaelson shifted his weight from foot to foot, and cried up at the bodies.

  How do I— The red-haired man had a soft voice; gestured toward the tree, at a loss.

  The mean-looking man too stood at the base of the tree, but found no way to access the trunk, no foothold. He looked up.

  Jane! he called. Jane! Damn it!

  Talmadge had a scythe in his hand. There was a man beside him, Clee’s cousin. He was saying something to Talmadge, but Talmadge didn’t understand him. The man took the scythe back and climbed the tree—he shimmied up the trunk, grunting, with the scythe over his shoulder—and crawled out onto each limb and hacked at the ropes by which the girls hung. Della came falling first, and Talmadge half caught her—he had positioned himself under her. He collapsed under her weight, the wind knocked out of him. The sun in his eyes. She snuffled and gagged, grasped his shirtfront. It’s all right, he said, holding her. It’s all right.

  Jane was farther up on the tree. When she came down, Michaelson held open his arms beneath her, but he shied at the last moment, covered his face with his hands. Jane fell before him in a heap.

  Talmadge delivered Della to the haycatchers standing by, and went to Jane. Got to his knees. The mean-looking man had not moved, but watched the scene as if observing it from a great distance. Michaelson peeked from between his fingers. Talmadge bent over the body, breathing heavily. He put his ear to her mouth, listened. Waited for breath. There was none, not even a whisper. But for her sake he waited. He sat up finally, gripped her shoulders. He remembered the heat and moisture of the birthing room. The lantern light garish on the walls. Her struggle to give birth to the thing that had grown inside her. Her pain. Her grasping his arms from sheer necessity, because she wanted to live. She had, at that moment, accepted his help. But even then the situation was mean: she did not have a choice.

  Her leg was splayed awkwardly to the side, and he situated it beneath her. Michaelson came forward now, was weeping.

  Talmadge got to his feet.

  Jane! called Della, feebly, hoarsely, from where she sat propped up against a tree.

  The mean-looking man gazed at her as if he didn’t recognize her. A calculating expression on his face.

  That’s enough, said Talmadge, though no one had spoken. Then, gruffly: Are you done here?

  With great effort Michaelson took his hands from his face.

  Talmadge did not know Michaelson was close until he was almost upon him.

  Again Talmadge held a scythe. He must have reached for one, and one was handed to him. Michaelson reached out an arm as if to embrace him. His face ghastly white. Della, who had stood and leaned heavily against the tree, widened her eyes, and looked as if she would scream.

  Talmadge raised the scythe.

  The mean-looking man strode to Michaelson, punched him in the jaw. Michaelson staggered; the man struck him again. Michaelson bent in half, held his face. Was still.

  The mean-looking man, breathing hard, held his fist to his heart, as if nursing it, looked away into the trees. Seemed to think, to blink; and then he appraised Talmadge. His voice shook:

  A little while back there was talk of compensation.

  Talmadge’s heart beat quickly now: from confusion, but also relief. If there was talk of money, there was also talk of a solution; of the men going away. He lowered the scythe blade to the ground.

  Yes, he said. I said that.

  Yes, said the man, nodding. And—he looked at Della, and then away—we’ll take money for her as well. If she interests you. Looking away at the trees again, he sighed deeply. I suppose I could take her back, there’s always a use for her—although, honestly, I don’t think he would want her. Not now. But the children, continued the man after a pause, his voice rising—I will take them off your hands, or you may pay for them, whatever you wish. How many of them are there? Where are they? No, never mind. He shook his head. I heard once that this one might have been carrying two—

  Talmadge did not even begin to argue. Did not see the purpose of it. He leaned on the scythe blade, exhausted.

  You’ll have to come back to the house. I have some money there.

  They moved in one large group back to the cabin: Talmadge still carrying the scythe; Michaelson mute and bent miserably, covering his face with his hands; Della limping, the haycatchers forming a loose ring around her. Jane’s body was strapped onto the back of a horse. Everyone—including the haycatchers—waited in the yard while Talmadge went inside the cabin for the money. When he returned, the mean-looking man met him at the base of the porch steps, and Talmadge peeled the bills from a large roll. He paid for them all: Jane, the infant, Della, and Della’s unborn children. Everyone watched: it was like a ceremony.

  There, said Talmadge, and handed the man the final bill.

  The man folded th
e money and put it in his breast pocket. His mouth puckered with grimness.

  A pleasure, he said.

  Talmadge hesitated. How do I know you’ll stay away?

  The man looked at him.

  I mean, I don’t want him coming back here anymore. Looking for them.

  Michaelson glanced at Talmadge and the mean-looking man, but seemed uncomprehending that they were discussing him.

  The mean-looking man smirked.

  Him? He won’t remember a goddamned thing.

  He remembered before.

  Well, I’ll remind him then. How’s that?

  Talmadge didn’t answer him. It would have to be fine. He would have to be satisfied; there was no other choice.

  Jane was unstrapped from the horse, and Talmadge took her indoors, placed her on the bed she shared with Della. Covered her with the quilt up to her chin. Again he had the sensation—the memory—of her animation, her struggle of the birthing night. And now she lay unmoving. Unable to sense any temperature anymore, any texture on her flesh.

  He covered his face with his hands and stood for a moment before he went outdoors.

  Michaelson and the men mounted their horses and headed slowly toward the upper forest. Before they reached the treeline, Caroline Middey and her mule and wagon came out of the forest before the men entered it, and they passed each other. The mean-looking man tipped his hat to her, and Caroline Middey gave a small nod. When she reached the yard, she dismounted and asked Talmadge, who was waiting for her: Who was that?

  Where is the child? cried Caroline Middey. Oh: where is the child?

  Talmadge returned to the canyon alone. He heard the cries, faint but getting louder as he neared the upper cabin. Still he had to search for her. The girls had placed the child in a shallow basin behind the upper cabin and covered her with leaves and branches. How was it that she had kept there all the afternoon without crying? Or maybe it was that they could not hear her over the other racket. A blessing, he realized now. He crouched down and scooped her up, picked the debris off her, tucked her inside his jacket, near his armpit, his heart, for warmth; carried her down into the canyon and through the orchards, across the field—the haycatchers looking up from the treeline where they had prepared their supper—to the cabin.

 
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