Over on the Dry Side

All that spring I was scared. Why Pa ever took a notion to stop on that old Chantry place I never did know. Maybe it was because he was just tired and wishful of stopping someplace . . . anyplace.

There'd been a dead man on the steps by the door when we drove up. He'd been a long time dead, and nobody around to bury him, and I was scared.

The cabin was strong. It was built mighty solid like whoever had shaped it up and put it together had planned to stay. That was before the Indians come.

There was nobody inside and the place was all tore up . . . of course. It had been vacant for weeks, prob'ly. Maybe even months. That man had been dead a long time.

There wasn't much left but torn skin, dried out like old leather, and bones. His clothes was some tore up and all bloody.

Pa, he stood there looking down at him a long time. "Don't seem logical," he said, at last.

"What's that, Pa?"

"Indians most usually take a body's clothes. They ain't taken nothin' from him."

"His pockets is inside out."

"I was seein' that, boy. It do make a body think." He turned. "Boy, you run out to the wagon an' git my shovel. We got a buryin' to see to."

He stepped around the body and pushed wide the cabin door. The door had been half-open, and Pa looked in like he feared what he might see, but like I said, there wasn't nothin' to fear.

When I come in later I saw just what he saw. A bed with two sides nailed to the outside wall, a table, two chairs . . . all mighty well made by a man with lovin' hands for wood.

Pa always said you could tell a man who loved wood by the way things were fitted and dressed, nothing halfway, but smooth and nicely done. Pa couldn't do that sort of work himself, but he had admiration for it, and it made me feel like working at it until I was good. If fine work impressed Pa so much there must be something to it.

We taken that dead man out to the hill back of the house and we dug us a grave. When we'd dug it down, we laid that body in a blanket, covered it around him sweet an' neat, and then we lowered him easy into the ground and Pa said a few words from the Book.

We filled in the grave an' Pa said, "Come tomorrow we'll make him a marker."

"How'll you know what to say? We ain't sure who he is."

"No, we ain't. But they do call this the Chantry place, so I reckon his name must be that." Pa stopped there, leaning on his shovel, like.

"What'll we do now, Pa? It's late to be startin' on."

"This here'd it, son. This place here. We ain't goin' no further. You know, son, I ain't been much of a success in my time. Fire burned me out back to home, and we lost everything. In Missouri the grasshoppers et it all up, and in Kansas it was hail. But you know, I never was much hand at pickin' land.

"Your grandpap, now he knowed land. He could look at what growed there, and he knew. Ever' piece of land I picked was poor. Sure, we lost out to grasshoppers, hail and the like, but those places never would have made it no way.

"Now this here . . . some other man picked this. I heard talk of Chantrys and they were knowing folk. The man who built this house, he was a knowing man. He had a craft. So I reckon maybe he picked himself a right good piece of land.

"So this here is it. We just ain't a-goin' no further."

We cleaned out the cabin. We mopped an' we dusted like a couple of women, but she was spic an' span when we finished.

The shed and the stable were solid-built, and there were good tools in the shed, leaning just like that dead man must have left them.

Right close to the house was a spring, not more'n thirty feet away. Good cold water, too. Never tasted no better.

There was a fieldstone wall around that spring, maybe eight, ten foot back from it, so a body could get water and go back to the cabin, leaving himself open to fire only in front. Even that was partly protected by a swell of the ground.

Cabin had a good field all around, and a corral joined the house to the barn. The horses had been run off, and whatever other stock he might have had, but we pulled our wagon close and we unloaded.

Not that I liked it much. Fact was, I didn't like it at all. Ever' time we stepped out of that cabin we stepped over where that dead man had lain. I never liked that.

Pa said, "Pay it no mind, son. That man would admire to see folks usin' what he built. No man with a craft builds to throw away. He builds to use, and to last, and it would be a shameful thing to leave it die here, all alone."

"Ain't no neighbors, Pa."

"We don't need neighbors right now. We need time an' hard work. If this here land's rich as I think, neighbors will come. Only when they do they'll find a fair piece of it staked out an' marked for we `uns."

"Maybe those Indians will come back."

He just looked at me. "Boy, your pa ain't as smart as some, but I'm smart enough to know that Indians take the clothes off a dead man because they need `em."

"His clothes wasn't taken," I said, wanting to argue with him.

"You bet. His clothes wasn't taken, but somethin' else was. You notice his pockets, boy?"

"They were inside out."

"They surely were."

"You mean, it wasn't Indians?"

"Seen no moccasin tracks, boy. But I seen boot tracks a-plenty. Those who killed that man weren't Indians. They was white men."

We were eatin' supper when Pa said that, and it give me a chill. If it wasn't no Indian, then we were in trouble, ` cause a man can tell an Indian. He can spot him right off. But a bad white man? How you goin' to tell until he's bad?

I said as much. Pa, he just looked at me and said, "Boy, you see strangers around, you come tell me, you hear? But you see `em first an' when you do you get clean out of sight."

We measured out four sections of land . . . four square miles of it, field, forest, meadow, and stream.

We had seed corn and some vegetable seeds. We planted forty acres to corn, and of an acre we made a vegetable garden. One reason we taken that corner because there was berries in it.

But I never did forget that dead man.

The stranger, when he came was alone. He was one man riding.

He was a slim, tall man with a lean, dark face and high cheekbones. He wore a black store-bought suit and a bandanna tied over his head like in the old pirate pictures. He had polished black boots, almighty dusty, and a fine black horse with a white and pink nose.

He stopped afar off, and that was when I first seen him. He stood in his saddle and shaded his eyes at us, seeing me first and then Pa, who was working with a hoe in the cornfield.

"Pa?" I said, just loud enough.

"All right, boy. I seen him."

Pa had his rifle in a scabbard set next to a bush close by. I seen him start to usin' his hoe over that-away, but this man on the black horse came right along, an' when I looked again I seen he was leading a spare . . . a packhorse. I guess it had been hidden behind him before, and I'd missed seeing it.

He come on toward the house settin' easy in the saddle, and then I seen he carried a rifle in a scabbard, too. Close to his hand. From under his coat I could see the tip end of a holster.

Pa wasn't far from the house but he moved over to stand where his rifle was, and he waited there. The man rode up, and called out, "Is it all right to get a drink? We've come far and we're almighty thirsty."

Pa taken up his rifle and walked toward the house, leaving the hoe where the rifle had been. "He'p yourself," Pa said. "It's a dusty road you've traveled."

The man's features relaxed a little, almost like he was going to smile, only I thought he didn't smile very much, by the look of him. "Yes, it is. Most of my roads are dusty, it seems like." He glanced around. "Is this the Chantry place?"

"They call it that."

"Are you Chantry?"

"No, I'm not. We found the place deserted. Found a dead man on the doorstep. We buried the man, and moved in. Seemed too fine a place to lay idle."

Pa paused a moment, and then he said, "Even if the land weren't so good, I'd have hesitated to go on. That man Chantry, if he was the one built this place, had a feelin' for good work. I just couldn't bear to see it left run down."

The man looked at Pa a long minute. "I like that," he said then, "I think Chantry would want you here."

He drank from our gourd dipper. The water was cold an' sweet. We both knew how welcome that kind of water was to a long-ridin' man.

Pa taken to him. I seen that right off. There was somethin' lonely and standoffish about that man, yet here was warmth in `im, too. Like he had a lot of friendship in him that hadn't been used.

"Might's well stay the night," Pa said. "It's a fur piece to anywhere from here. Beyond, there's the wild country."

"Well," the man hesitated. "My horses could stand the rest. Thank you, and we will."

"You he'p him, boy," Pa said. "I'll start some bacon in the pan."

We went to the stable. I always liked that stable. In the hottest weather it was always shadowy and cool. The walls was thick, the roof was high, and there was a loft in one end for the hay we'd mow come autumn time. I like the smell of fresh-mowed hay, of horses and harness, saddles and such.

We took the rig from his riding horse and then from the buckskin packhorse. Then he commenced to work on his horses. He taken out a currycomb and he done a good job, first one, and then the other.

"Been here long, son?"

"Got here early spring. We put in a crop soon as we cleaned up."

"Cleaned up? Was the place a mess?"

Nossir. It was in mighty good shape, `cept dusty and all. Course, it was tore up a mite inside by them men searchin'."

"Searching?"

"Them men that killed him. They tore things up like they was huntin' for somethin'." I paused, not sure how much I should say. "Pa don't think it was Indians."

"No?"

"That dead man . . . his clothes wasn't took, and his pockets was turned inside out. Pa says Indians would take his clothes . . . an' maybe burned the place."

"Your pa is right." He paused, his hands resting on the horses back. "I like your pa, son. He seems like a right-thinking man. And I think he's correct. Chantry would have wanted a man like him on the place."

Then he taken his saddlebags and rifle, an' we walked to the house with the smell of wood smoke and bacon frying. The floor inside was clean-swept and mopped. He glanced about, and I could see approval in his eyes. Pa saw it too.

The food was good, and Pa always made a good cup of coffee. I knew that from what folks said, for Pa never let me have coffee `cept a couple times on mighty cold mornin's.

"Too bad about that dead man," the stranger suddenly said. "Anybody know who he was?"

"I ain't been to town but once't and never talked to nobody `bout it more'n to just report I'd found a body and buried it. I guess nobody knew Chantry well, or much about his place.

"There ain't no sheriff. Just a marshall, and he pays no mind to nothin' outside the town. I `spect the dead man was the Chantry the place was named for, but I got no way of knowin'. There was nothin' in his pockets."

"Nothing inside the house either?"

"Only books. A lot of them books, thirty or forty."

"Was there anything else of his?"

"In that desk yonder. There's papers and things. They was scattered all over when we come in the place. Dust over the papers. Some blood."

Pa paused. "Y'know, mister, I never said this even to my son, but I b'lieve there was somebody here with Chantry. Somebody who either went away with whoever come and killed him. Or who was taken away or maybe left before his killer come."

The stranger looked at Pa. "You are an observing man."

Pa shrugged his thin shoulders and refilled the stranger's cup. "See that alcove yonder? With the bed in it? Well, there was another bed in t'other room, and that alcove had a curtain before it.

"The curtain was tore down when we come, but it ain't likely there'd be a curtain lest there was a woman in the house. I figger that woman either run away or was took away, and if she run away I figger she'd come back to bury her man."

"So the mystery deepens," the stranger smiled, showing even white teeth under his black mustache. "You've done some thinking."

"I have. Either they come to rob him of what he had, and robbed him, or they come lookin'. For something else."

"Now if they came lookin' for something else and didn't find it, they'll be comin' back." Pa glanced at me. "I think the boy's been thinkin' of that, and it worries him."

"It is a thing to consider," the stranger said. "I think your son is wise."

"It ain't only them," I burst out of a sudden. "It's her!"

"Her?" The stranger looked at me.

"That girl . . . that . . . woman! If she comes back, this place is hers. All Pa's work'll be for nothin'."

"If she returns," the stranger replied, "I think she would be pleased that her friend had been buried and the place cared for. I should believe she would be very grateful, indeed.

"I cannot presume to speak for her, but do you stay on without fear and, if she returns, you will find you have lost nothing and perhaps gained much."

"They didn't get her," I said then. "She got away."

Pa looked at me, surprised. The stranger stopped with his fork halfway to his mouth. Slowly, he lowered it. "How can you that?"

"I seen tracks out back. They were old tracks, but a body could read `em. Somebody came up, ridin' easy . . . cantering. Of a sudden that horse was pulled up awful sharp, his hoofs dug n an' he reared, then that horse turned in his own tracks and took off like lightnin' for the hills."

"Did you see any other tracks?"

"Yessir. They taken out after her. There was two, three of `em . . . maybe four. But she had a good horse an' a good lead."

"They still might have caught her."

"They never done it. She got into them hills, and she knowed them hills like her own hands. She . . ."

"How d'you know that?" Pa said.

"The way she taken to them hills, no stoppin', no hesitation' like. She rode right into them hills and she got to the little valley yonder an' when she got there she drove a bunch of cattle--"

"What cattle?" Pa said. "I ain't seen no cattle!"

"There's cattle," I insisted. "She drove `em up and then she started `em back the way they come, wiping out her trail. Then she went into soft sand where she wouldn't leave no tracks."

"Still, they might have found her."

"Nossir, they didn't. They followed her into them hills, but they lost her trail under the hoofs of them cattle, like she figured they would. They hunted a long time, then they come back."

"Are those tracks still there?"

"Nossir. There ain't no tracks of any kind. On'y rains before that was soft and gentle, not enough to wipe out good tracks."

"Doby," Pa never called me by name an awful lot, so he was almight serious, "Doby, why didn't you ever tell me?"

I could feel my neck gettin' red. "Pa, you was so set on this place. You takin' to it like no other an' all. An' me, I liked it, too. I was afeared if you knowed you might pull out an' leave. You might just give up an we'd be ridin' the wagon agin, goin' nowhere much. I want to stay, Pa. I want to stay right here. I want to see our work come to somethin', an' I want a place I know is home."

"Stay on." the stranger said. "I think I can safely say it will be all right."

"But how?" Pa asked. "How can anybody?"

"I can," the stranger said, "I can say it. My name is Chantry. The dead man you buried was my brother."

Well, we just looked at him. Pa was surprised, and maybe I was too, a little. I'd had a funny feelin' all along, only mostly I was afraid he was one of them..

"Even so," Pa said, "What about his daughter? An' wife or whoever she was? Don't she have first claim?"

"That's just it," Chantry said quietly, "my brother was a widower, with neither wife nor child. He was a lot older than me. If there was a woman, then I have no idea who she was or what she was doing here."