THE OLD MAN
Old Man Clanton had had a bad winter. But now the sun was out and he was content. In the fine spring weather he liked to lounge in his wicker rocking-chair on the gallery of his house with a stoneware jug to keep him company. Every morning the old greaser woman would sprinkle water on the muslin curtains he’d strung across the front of the gallery and she’d hang an olla full of cold water from a hook in the ceiling and then tie back two panels of the curtains so he could see all the way up-valley.
From there he commanded a view of the whole drainage of the upper San Pedro and he could toast himself in the healing light and thaw the frost in his bone-ends and gaze off drowsily across the great spaces into Old Mex. He could soak his insides in the smoky warmth of the whiskey, which was Redtop rye, the best, it cost twenty-five cents the shot in the settlements but had come to him for the price of one shell from his Creedmor rifle, last spring on the wagon-road between St. David and Tucson. He kept the kegs under canvas in a cool corner of the stable. It had been necessary to burn the wagon and bury what was left - a damn lot of work, he remembered that.
These May mornings gleamed and simmered, the shadows of the clouds slid over the distances, he felt the searching heat of the sun and yet the breeze had a bracing tang. The old greaser woman said it was going to be an año bueno. Already the springs were freshening, the water was running clear and deep in the acequias, the orchard-trees were putting out the first tender little leaves, the grass in the bottoms was standing knee-deep. When the wind went through the grass the whole pasture flushed from lime-green to gold, the grass would roll and pitch like the waters of the bay he'd seen at San Francisco when the rain-squalls roused them.
He rocked in the sun, the comforting weight of the jug nestled in his lap, his knotted hands curled in repose around the neck of it. The dark odor of the whiskey issued from the mouth of the jug and fumed tartly around him in the hot light. Even his sleepiest look could cover twenty miles in any direction. He could travel his eye easily up the river along the uneven joint it made between the two down-slanted plates of valley all the way into Sonora. A lazy glance took in the San Josés, more than a day's ride south, the Mules on the east, and the Huachucas on the west, ten miles off but seeming so near he felt tempted to reach out and trace his fingers along their pleats and wrinkles, their mantling of black-green piñon and juniper, their tops streaked with snow.
But he hadn't chosen to build his house on its hilltop above Fritz's Spring just so he could take his ease on the gallery and admire the prospect. The Chiricahua—the Cherry-Cows to him—had been out when he'd come into the district from down on the Gila, and with ‘Paches on the loose, a-body wanted high ground and a lot of distance roundabout, with good long lines of sight. Another needful thing was thick walls, in case you had to fort up. The walls of the Old Man's house were nearly two foot through and riddled with peep-holes and gun ports in the shapes of crosses so you could shoot four ways.
The place was built low to the ground and had a flat roof covered with earth planted thick with barley to retard fire. Of its four rooms only the middle one had windows, and they were heavily shuttered, unpaned, barred with iron. There wasn't any patio wall enclosing the space where the well-house stood between the ell and the main range, because the Old Man had learned during the Tonto outbreaks on his farmstead down near Camp Thomas that a hostile could get into the angle of that kind of wall and you couldn't make any sort of a clear shot at the son of a bitch without coming outside yourself. Unlike the house at Clantonville, this one was sound that way. The broncho hadn't been whelped that could get into the Old Man's house. One time a pack of them tried, and they'd come to grief over it. He'd lived through all the ‘Pache business, the troubles with Del-Shay and Chuntz along the Tonto Rim, the Pi-hon-se-ne business, the Geronimo raid. He'd killed every kind of ‘Pache there was - Cherry-Cow, Nedhni, Warm Springs, Gileño. There wasn't any sort of a red nigger he hadn't shot and scalped and even skinned out on occasion.
The winter had been hard, though. It had left him feeling bad. He'd lost track himself, but Billy his youngest had told him he was sixty-four years of age, which didn't seem old atall; yet somehow he seemed oddly enfeebled by the bad time he'd had. Ailments afflicted him. Sometimes he pissed blood, his gut-gas had a fruity stink, his breath smelt all the time like rot. Worse, his thoughts would fly away from him like bats fluttering out of a cave of an evening. He couldn't keep a notion in his head long enough to speak it out. He'd grown forgetful in some ways but in others could recapture memories long since lost. He remembered the reds best.
He remembered when they hit the place that first time. He stood them off, him and his three boys yet living, Phin and Ike and Billy, and the two hired men. They killed several bucks but only three fell in open ground where the others couldn't pack the carcasses off. Afterwards he scalped those three and made the scalps into fly whisks and nailed their ears to the lintel of the front door. He made a warbag out of the scrotum off one of them. After that the Cherry-Cows left the Clantons alone. You'd see their dust along the far edge of the valley sometimes, or a file of them riding upriver through the cottonwoods, or their smoke messages lifting off the hills; and now and again they'd kill a steer for spite. But they'd learned it didn't pay to stir up Newman Haynes Clanton and his tribe. Of course that hadn't stopped him. Some of the greaser officers were still paying a scalp bounty, so he and the boys would uncouple every red nigger they'd come across, and carry the hair Below. To his disgust the boys would help him kill the squaws but not the papooses. He had to do that by himself. He was diligent about it. Nits make lice, as the fellow said. If there was a thorn bush handy, he'd pitch them into that.
While these agreeable visions blew by, he snuggled his jug with his outsized hands and rocked slowly in the wicker chair. Once he'd been a large-framed man but now he was withered down to bone and corded sinew and twisted, rubbery veins that visibly beat their blue pulse beneath the flesh. But the skin itself looked tight and hard like the leather shrunk onto a saddle tree. He was tanned all over to the color of terra-cotta, and not even the sickly winter had paled him. He had a high-domed head fringed with once-sandy hair nearly gone white, and heavily-shelving cheekbones, and a long hairless upper lip beneath a fleshy, blunt-ended nose, and he wore a scraggly beard cut off straight across. His eyes were pale blue in repose but sometimes would darken and go hunting shrewdly along the gallery.
Occasionally he could think of the names of the ones that were seeking to do him ill, but more often he could only visualize their faces. When he did that, he liked to imagine the faces distended and turning purplish-black from the squeeze of the hemp like the Sydney Ducks he'd watched get hung in San Francisco, jerked up with their faces swelled out like to bust and their eyes popping, their tongues out, and them kicking and plunging in midair, messing their britches. Rope had a certain sound whipping tight over a crossbar with the weight of a man pitching at the noose. He savored that, the hard sing of hanging rope.
When he recovered from the bad time he'd had, maybe he would string up the plotters that surrounded him now. Or he might just take their heads, take them clean off. He'd done that with ‘Pache as well as scalp them. He'd taken heads and kept them on the corral-wall back of his place at Clantonville. Dark, thick-nosed heads leaning this way or that according to how short you cut the neck-bone, some still wearing the single flat line of warpaint and the eyes mostly staring till the flies and ants and then the maggots got into them. He hadn't much minded the stench because the live reds could smell it on the wind too and know it for what it was, and know who'd set it loose. He could remember that uneven row of heads going gamy in the sun, turning a waxy black and commencing to mortify, and the fetor of them, that good sweet smell.
He felt alone. He frowned and gnawed his lip and grieved. Tears rose in his eyes. He was thinking of Alonzo Peter, his next-to-youngest boy, who'd bob his head a certain way when you said his name and cause his ropy forelock of yellow hair to drop over one eye, giving him the shaggy, whimsical look of a mustang colt. Those bastards from St. Johns called themselves a citizens' committee to justify the murder they'd done, chasing poor Alonzo Peter into a jacal and then tearing through the roof to shoot him from above. That boy's life counted for more than any number of horses he and his Springerville pards might have taken in. How much more precious was a bright violet eye, a laugh, the bob of a head, a life allowed to extend itself full measure to carry on the line, than were a bunch of range scrubs, plow-horses and saddle stock, or a pack of greasers and hypocrite stranglers concealing their crimes by appointing themselves a citizens' committee.
At first he'd pledged to take his boys and ride up past the White Mountains and kill every last mother's son of that St. Johns crowd of lynchers. But Nancy Rose, wife to John Wesley his eldest, had come to him pleading to forgo such a bloody notion, for fear it might provoke a feud and get John Wesley killed, leaving her a widow with two younguns to feed. So Alonzo Peter went unavenged because the Old Man took pity on his daughter-in-law and his grandchildren.
But he knew Alonzo Peter couldn't rest on account of it. Sometimes he could hear him stirring and moaning of a night by the corral. Sometimes in broad daylight he saw him sitting on the gallery in a rawhide-bottomed chair with his golden head in his hands, sobbing in his misery and calling to him, poppa, poppa, poppa. But John Wesley lived on. And now John Wesley and Nancy Rose and the younguns had gone on to California to work a farm in Inyo County, and these days the hacienda on the hill above Fritz's Spring cried out for the grandchildren, for wee Willy and winsome little Mary Jane; but above all it cried out for John Wesley, whose rightful place was here. A father plagued by ailments, to whom the years had been unkind, needed his firstborn by him to manage affairs and ready himself to take up those affairs once the father laid his burden down. That is what the Old Man argued to himself. But secretly he knew a thing he couldn't consciously admit. Alonzo Peter's aggrieved shade was accusing him. He'd chosen to spare John Wesley the risk of avenging Alonzo Peter's murder, and in a way he'd traded Alonzo Peter's eternal rest for the safety of John Wesley and his family. But now he'd lost them both - Alonzo Peter mobbed by vigilantes and John Wesley selfishly turning aside to nourish his own desires.
Life was bitter. The Old Man rocked while the tears spilled over and ran down his face into the roots of his beard. He was thinking now too of his wife Mariah, dead these fourteen years, worn out with bearing him seven live children and three dead ones and broken down from farming so many hardscrabble tracts from Missouri to Texas to Arizona. And his girls Mary Elsie and Esther, married and long ago gone away. He'd rarely heard a word from either of them, though Mary Elsie lived with her husband Slinkard no farther off than Blue Creek. That seemed a poor recompense for a man who'd raised them motherless and given them every care in his power. He rocked and wept on the gallery while the breeze stirred the damp curtains. He was alone in the whole of the universe except for Phin, that was a sassing, long-headed layabout, and Ike, that was as dumb as a rack of cordwood, and Billy, that was a Judas.
He was bereft and he'd had a hard winter and he was in failing health and yes, his wits were dimming, he knew it. His own sons were betraying him because of that, because he was addled. He had to admit as much. He was guilty of confusion. There were slits in the world through which he could look back in time. When he did that, everything was different but then everything also seemed the same. What had happened in the past was still happening. Alonzo Peter was being buried in a carpentered pine casket with tongue-and-groove joints and mitered corners and a beveled top; John Wesley was driving away slowly down the hill on his way to California for good and little Willy was running behind, darting this way and that, rolling a hoop Ike had made for him out of an iron buggy-tire and steering it with an old mule-shoe, and little Mary Jane's face was peering back up the slope toward him, captured in the puckered oval of the wagon-hood like a flower framed on a wall.
Billy Clanton leaned down from his saddle and unfastened the rawhide loop that held shut the gate in the adobe fence bounding the house, then swung the gate aside with a shove of his boot. Behind him, his oldest brother Phin stood in his stirrups and peered up the lane and declared, "Well, there he sets, taking the sun." They could see him rocking on the gallery while the breeze made the white cotton curtains ripple and billow around him. Ike remarked, "I spy that jug of his, there in his lap. He'll be drunk."
"When ain't he been?" Billy snapped. He clucked to his horse and moved through the gate. The two McLaurys followed him in. Ike and Phin stayed put. Their mounts stretched their heads over the wall and worked their nostrils as they smelled the live water in the acequias. Ike's claybank uttered a thirsty groan.
Frank McLaury checked his horse and twisted around in the leather. "Maybe it would be easier on you boys if he was flat of his back and foaming at the mouth and raving," he declared in a bitter tone, glaring at the two with his hard brown eyes.
Ike's face turned purple, but it was Phin who answered, "You're mighty God-damned free with your mouth."
"It was you boys pulled me into this," Frank shot back. "I reckon that entitles me." But Tom put out a hand and stilled his brother; Tom had spent half his life quieting Frank down and had never got tired of it, though Frank resented his every mediation as if it were the first and most outrageous. Frank swore and shrugged Tom's touch away.
Billy was holding the gate open. All he had to do was jerk his head and say, "Fuck you, come on." People paid heed when Billy spoke. Ike and Phin walked their mounts through, but as Ike rode past Frank he leaned out and dropped a big gob of spit on the crupper of Frank's lineback dun. "The day I'm afraid of you, or that old bastard, or any other silly son of a bitch, is the day you can suck my ass," he said.
Frank laughed his scorn and made greedy sucking noises with his mouth. They all started up the rutted lane with Billy in the lead on the big roan gelding he'd spirited away last December from a ranchero down by Janos in Chihuahua. Red was flouncing his tail and dancing as they approached the hacienda. He was the best-spirited saddle mount Billy had ever forked.
Billy was eighteen but so robust he looked twenty-five. He had his daddy's long, pouted upper lip and broad mouth, sandy hair and light brown eyes that looked out from under plump lids. But he had his dead mama's rounded cheeks. He was powerfully built and bigger than either of his brothers and normally wore a wrathful expression that made it seem as if he was always on the verge of an outburst of temper. Of all the boys he most resembled what his daddy had been at his age, but he didn't know this and the Old Man had forgotten it. Billy believed himself to be the brains of the family, especially since his daddy had taken sick in the winter. And he was in actual fact very nearly as smart as he thought.
So he knew the size of his problem. He'd been to Tucson and a cousin of Enrique Paz had seen him there, coming out of Sheriff Shibell's office arm-in-arm with Curly Bill Brocius. This cousin of Enrique Paz had returned to Fritz's Springs to tell Enrique Paz what he'd seen, and Enrique Paz, who was a vaquero on the Clanton spread, had told Billy's daddy. Just this morning in the bar of the American Hotel in Charleston, Enrique Paz had boasted to Billy that he'd passed on to the Old Man the news that Billy had been with Brocius and Shibell in Tucson. Billy supposed it was what he got for fucking the sister of Enrique Paz and getting her in the family way. But he'd had forbearance enough not to kill Enrique Paz for talebearing against a white man, and had only kicked hell out of him while Ike and Phin held him down in the back yard of the hotel.
He understood there would be difficulties now. That was why, this noon, he and his brothers had ridden down to the Babocamari where the McLaurys and their man Patterson kept sheep and cows, to recruit Frank and Tom to help them manage the Old Man when the matter of the Tucson trip came up. The Old Man favored the McLaurys because till now they'd taken his part in the dispute over Brocius. But that was before the Old Man got poorly, and now Frank and Tom were regretfully coming around. All of them were of the same mind today about what had to be done, though of course the McLaurys hated it.
It didn’t trouble Billy at all. But then Billy was different. Billy didn't have much feeling for people, the way the McLaurys did for the Old Man. Billy had those feelings for horses. He loved his racing mare and he loved Red, but he didn't care all that much for his daddy or his brothers. A horse needed a certain amount of looking after; give it that and it would do anything in the world you asked, run till it dropped and died, if you wanted. The mortal didn't live who'd do that for you. There sure wasn't much Billy could think of that his daddy had ever done for him except give him hell and lots of lickings. So while he rode up toward the house and watched his daddy rocking on the gallery among the blowing curtains he felt no pity for him and certainly no remorse for what he himself had done. What he felt was impatience, an anxious desire to get the thing over with. That, and a welling-up of affection for Red as the gelding pranced and jinked and chop-stepped his way up the lane and into the dooryard, flourishing his tail like a battle-standard. "Are you awake?" Billy sung out to his daddy as they drew rein.
The Old Man's eyes followed him as he dismounted and let his reins drop and seated himself on the coping of the well, but the Old Man didn't speak an answer. Nor did he as much as blink when Tom and Frank got down and said their greetings. Ike swung off and went up to the edge of the gallery and leaned close. "Cat got your tongue, Daddy?"
Phin gave a snort of contempt. "Cat's got his God-damned brain." Phin fished a nearly empty bottle out of his saddle pocket, uncorked it and took a long pull, his adam's apple running up and down his long neck. Phin had a drinker's raw complexion and a pocky nose netted with purple veins. He drained the bottle and then took it by the neck and hurled it against the house near where Ike was standing.
Ike flinched away from the flying glass. “You God-damned asshole, you might’ve cut me.”
Phin climbed down off his horse. "Why'nt you do something about it?" he taunted. He grinned and showed the rotted stumps of his teeth.
Instead Ike sat down on the edge of the gallery and the McLaurys squatted on their heels in the yard. Phin stood swaying next to the young cottonwood that shaded the front of the house. Still the Old Man didn't move or speak. He just kept on watching Billy, who roosted on the well-coping and watched him levelly back. Hornets buzzed under the awning of the gallery.
Ike squinted guardedly at his daddy. Of the five Clanton boys that had lived to grow up, he was the only one—other than the departed Alonzo Peter—who actually had feelings for the Old Man. But the world being pernicious as it was, the Old Man detested Ike and wished it had been Ike instead of Alonzo Peter that St. John's mob had made off with. Ike was a redhead and spotted all over with big orange freckles. He had an over-earnest and too-confiding way about him that put most people off. He came at you with too wide a grin and stood too close, so when he spoke, little beads of his spit would pepper your face. And all the time he talked, his eyes would be fixed on a point near the top of your forehead, annoyingly just above your own line of sight, and no matter how you tried, you'd never get him to look you straight in the face. Naturally this left an impression of jobbery and deceit, but his manner was so clumsy that you were more inclined to dismiss him for a fool than resent whatever sluice game he meant to steer you into. He had an undeserved reputation for preferring brag to fight, probably because he talked so much that it was easy to write him off for a windjammer. But Ike could back up his noise and could hurt a man plenty; he'd have picked a fuss out of Phin just now if Phin hadn't been full; it was no fun beating the shit out of a drunk man. None of this made any difference to his daddy, who believed all the worst stories about Ike and none of the few good ones.
As far as any of them could tell, the Old Man still cherished some affection for Tom and Frank, so it was up to the McLaurys to break trail for Billy. That was the plan, anyhow. But just now Tom seemed too powerfully engaged in digging up the yard with the handle of his quirt to take the matter up, and Frank looked to be altogether enraptured by his Star of Virginia cable-twist chaw. So Billy had to cast the loop himself after all. He sighed, darted a reproachful look at the McLaurys, and spoke up. "If you're feeling fit, Daddy, us boys've got a proposition to put to you, and it ain't anything that God-damned greaser has likely told you, neither."
The Old Man watched him. "What greaser’s that?" He was pretending not to know. Billy could tell from the look in his eye that for the moment the veil had lifted off his daddy's mind and just now he was as clear-headed and dangerous as he'd ever been.
"You know the one I mean."
The Old Man shook his head. "You can't trust any son of a bitch greaser."
"Still, he talked to you."
"Paz. That greaser."
The Old Man hoisted his jug and took a swallow, splashing some of the whiskey down his beard. "Don't need no God-damned greaser to tell me any God-damned thing atall. Nor you neither. I know what passes. You boys shit in Tucson, I smell it right here on this gallery afore it goes cold."
At last Tom found the gumption to speak, though he still didn't look up from the hole he was digging. "Ain't nothing to smell, N.H. Billy here’s looking after your best interests."
The Old Man never even favored Tom with so much as a glance. "I've warmed a viper in my bosom," he declared, "just like King Saul of old."
"'T'ain't so, N.H.," Tom said sadly.
By the cottonwood, Phin laughed, making a scraping noise such as the blade of a dull scythe makes on a grindstone. "Sure, it's so. You've got us dead to rights, Pap. Got the goods on all of us, you do. Hell, what's the use of lying about it? Shit-fire, we're caught." He raised his hands in mock surrender. "I don't know about the rest of these boys, but I'm throwing in my God-damned cards."
The others ignored him. The Old Man went ahead and answered Tom. "Then I reckon this'n here"—his head dipped Billy's way—"didn't go down to Tucson last week with Brocius and the two of them hump up together and shit in Charlie Shibell's pot."
Billy was quick to admit it. "I was in Tucson. I was with Curly and we talked to Charlie." He made sure the Old Man saw he wasn't ashamed and wasn't afraid either.
Now the Old Man looked shrewdly not at Billy but at Tom. "Told you. Told you I smelt shit." Tom got up and strolled off across the yard, kicking his boots in the grass, dragging his quirt after him. He sat down next to Billy on the well-coping with his back to the gallery. Tom was a mild soul and disliked it when friends fell out, and it was doubly hard on him to go against the Old Man, on account of having respected him so.
"There was nothing wrong in it, Daddy," Billy insisted.
"Treachery's what it was," Phin cried out. He laughed again, making that same scraping sound. "He's got us by the balls, boys. He’s a-squeezing. Don’t it smart? Hurts like hell, don’t it? Does me. Best own up to it and take our licks. I know how God-damned full of repentance I am. I surely hope the loony old son of a bitch will forgive me." He lay down full-length in the grass and tipped his hat over his face.
"The wrong in it," the Old Man answered Billy, "is that Brocius means to cut me out. Take my place."
"He ain't against you," Billy shot back. "He ain't fixing to take your place. He ain't stealing from you nor even talking against you to Charlie."
The Old Man stilled his rocker and gave Billy a look that was oddly calm. "Suppose you tell me what he did say then, so's we'll have the straight of it."
Billy answered right back. "He said to Charlie just what he's damn-well said to you. There's riches down the river Tombstone-way that you don't pay no heed to. He does. He wants some of that. But you're the chief of these parts and he needs a say-so to come in. He's come to you and asked. Come respectful and talking plain. But you've turned him flat down.
"Curly feels you ain't been reasonable with him. If you wanted the goods yourself, it'd be different. If you want them, then you ought to take them. But if you don't want them, then why not let another party in, that does? He figures you're a cowman anyhow, not inclined to such a business. If you're content to run cows, then he thinks you ought to run cows, and Godspeed to you. He'll help you with the cows just as he's always done, both sides of the Line, if you still want it. But he covets a share of them goods."
"What does Charlie say when Brocius tells him such a tale?"
"Charlie says what I say. He says it makes sense."
"Charlie's played the turncoat on me." There was a quailing note of self-pity in the Old Man's voice. He searched savagely around him, at Ike who was gazing regretfully at the spot of grass between his boots, at Frank still hunkering in the yard and Tom perched on the edge of the well with his back to him, at Phin sprawled drunk on the ground under the cottonwood, and at Billy.
"He ain't turned coat," Billy told him. "It's the same as always with you, and with the Ring in Tucson. They'll look out for you like they've always done. You ain't lost a God-damned thing."
"If I ain't lost nothing," the Old Man burst out, "then tell me what I've gained."
"Curly'll give you value for the goods he takes."
"How much value?"
"A tenth part."
All of a sudden tears of rage were standing in the Old Man's eyes. "I always figured you'd look out for me," he said to Billy. Then he broke off, trembling in the rocker, his big hands twitching around the neck of the stoneware jug. Once more the veil began to descend. "The others was never any God-damned good. I knowed this'n would sell me out for a double handful of tittie"—he nodded toward Ike, who frowned and blushed lobster red—"and that'n yonder"—turning to where Phin lay in the grass—"with his lazy, pussel-gutted, grinning, falling-down-drunk-half-the-time ways, I knowed he'd sell me out." Phin lifted his hat off his face and waved it in airy acknowledgement of his failings.
"And John Wesley,” the Old Man went on, “that didn't have the skin to take up his rightful duty like a firstborn ought, he's skedaddled and left me at the mercy of scavengers, and me in my dotage." He fixed once more on Billy and the tears spilled over and ran down into his beard-roots. "But you. I never thought you'd go behind my back."
Billy's temper was rising. "And why in hell not? You never gave me no more favor than the others. You've treated us all like cow-manure. Yet us boys is Clantons, same as you. We count for something, no matter if it pleases you or not. John Wesley ain't never coming back.” He leaned fiercely at the Old Man. “And by God, Pete ain't coming back neither." He used the name with a spurt of joy at the thought of how much it would wound his daddy, and sure enough, he saw it make him flinch. "Everything you gave them two was wasted,” he went on with a savage delight. “What you've got now is just me and Phin and Ike, and we've earned our due and by Jesus Christ it's high time we took things in hand."
He stopped while Tom, next to him, sorrowfully hung his head. Under the awning, the hornets buzzed and whirred. Frank's two greyhounds that had delayed at the Spring to frolic in the shallows now came trotting up the lane sopping wet and smeared with mud and settled in the grass to either side of Frank to lie panting noisily in the heat.
And now Frank finally did what he'd come along to do. Nobody but the Old Man and his own brother and his pack of hounds had ever much cared for him, for he was a banty rooster with pushy ways made worse by his pompous airs. But somehow he’d always gentled down whenever the Old Man was by him. He'd told Billy once that the Old Man put him in mind of his grandpap on his mama's side, whom he'd favored back in Iowa and who’d died when Frank was just a sprout. Now the look he slanted up at the Old Man was full of pain. "It's best, N.H.," was all he said, and all he needed to say. The expression on his face told the rest. After he'd said it, he cut his eyes aside and squatted there between the panting hounds, working his chaw and staring off past the house and across the valley toward the mountains.
The Old Man regarded Frank mistily but seemed unable to say anything in reply. He was still looking at Frank when Tom stood up by the well and declared, "It's a fine thing, N.H., to have earned one's ease, and set back and enjoy the honor and respect of them around you, after so much toil."
But the Old Man wasn’t listening any more. He was warming in the fine sunlight, had been warming in it all day long, here between the damp curtains on the gallery. He'd begun to think this was important. Maybe it was more important than the dark, cold thing they were talking about, whatever it was, the thing that had felt like winter again in his bones. Maybe this warming was the most important thing there was. To get warm, to soak up the sunlight. There was a deep glow inside him, feeding on the heat of the whiskey and answering to the warmth of the sun. As long as he could feel that glow, he knew that the good weather would heal him. When the time came, he would be riding again. He would be whole. He would go Below for the cows, upriver into Old Mex. He would kill the greasers. He would kill the Cherry-Cows. He would take their heads. It was not over. It would never be over.