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Spencer Davis, his wife, Elizabeth, and their sons, Luke, Whitney, and Lonny, work with horses and with their hands. They spend long relentless days cutting summer hay and feeding it to their cattle through fierce Wyoming winters. The family bears witness to the cycle of life, bringing foals into the world and deciding when to let a favored mare pass on to the next. As Luke grows older, falls in love, and begins to assert his independence, Spencer strives to impart the wisdom of this way of life to his headstrong son, whatever the cost. In this wonderful work of fiction, Joe Henry explores the complex relationship between a father and his sons, whose deep connections to one another, to the land, and to the creatures that inhabit it give meaning to their lives. Moving, powerful, and beautifully rendered, Lime Creek brings readers into the lives of this unforgettable family and into a world that, though often harsh, is lit by flashes of spectacular grace.
She came on the train with her folks, Spencer says. For the waters. For the mineral hot springs in that part of the state. Her daddy suffered from the lumbago and in those days it was thought to be a cure. And too, the journey would be another facet of her education before she went back to one of those eastern girls’ colleges. She was nineteen years old. Course I was young too, twenty, and fixing to go back to school myself. Which was my book learning, but I still knew the horses better than anything else.
And that summer I was breaking and starting the roughstock on a great big spread at the foot of the Wind Rivers while my own folks were still busy with their hay back home, which was maybe sixty or seventy miles to the north. And you know I druther be bucking broncs than haybales any day that the sun comes up. I been able to talk sense to animals, especially the horses, since I was a boy. And in the early evenings when her folks’d retire before dinner, Elizabeth’d come out by herself and watch me working the unbroke creatures in the big corral.
The red disk of the sun is setting directly in my eyes whenever I look up from this lovely two-year-old bay colt that I’m working. And every so often he’ll snort and tense and prepare to throw me away from him, with my left hand smoothing down his neck and my right arm resting over his withers. I keep talking to him rubbing softly up and down the bridge of his nose and he snorts again but still doesn’t jump away because by then he already knows that he likes the sound of my voice.
And who knows how long I stand there like that, with my hands on him and speaking softly and all the while watching his eye and his ears. Which go from wanting to lie back and get away from me to coming forward again so he can hear what I’ve got to say. His brow lifts up real nervous-like and he snorts again with his eye big and showing all its white, and then for whatever reason he glances at me one more time and looks away like he’s finally figured out that I’m not gonna be a danger to him and so maybe he can ease down enough inside his fear to allow how good my touch feels too.
It’s full-on dusk and I’m still talking to him, rubbing the corners of his mouth as I position myself where he can look into my eyes whenever he wants to. But by now I can see that he’s decided that he can trust me. I always carry this length of braided rawhide that my granddad’d given me when I was a boy, and I take it out and let him smell it and taste it too as I slowly move it past his teeth. And then I make one turn with it around the back of his lower jaw, Indian-fashion.
I rub his back down from his shoulder, talking all the while and leaning against the barrel of his body with more and more pressure until he’s actually supporting my full weight. He walks ahead a few steps with some concern, because by now I’m pretty much hanging off him with my arms across his back. He stops and I leave my right arm over him holding both sides of the rawhide rein snubbed up in my left hand, and without altering the calm reassurance of what I’ve been telling him I slide up and onto his back.
He locks his knees and starts to hump up his spine and his ears begin to come back and then go forward again. He snorts and kind of bounces once or twice stiff-legged like that and then just relaxes and walks me over to the fence. Where Elizabeth is perched up on the top railing watching us with this funny expression on her face. Not hard but not smiling either. In a green sweater. I’ll never forget that green . . . a green coat-sweater. Isn’t that foolish after all these years?
Back across the dark, the clashing of the iron triangle calls everyone to come and eat, the hands at one long table and the foreman and his family and the guests of the ranch at another. Elizabeth walks a pace or two ahead of me as I come up behind her coiling my piece of rawhide. She turns when I get alongside and says, They always seem to trust you, don’t they? And I say, Ma’m? And she says, The horses. They trust you because you don’t try to trick them, do you?
It’s too dark to see her eyes and I say, No’m, I just put myself in their place until we both seem to understand what the other’s thinking. Well I think they’re lucky, she says. And I say, Ma’m? And she says, The horses. I just think they’re lucky. And as we approach the wide veranda I mumble mostly to myself I guess, Well I reckon I probably am too.
We don’t really get to talk again for their stay is at an end the following morning and they’re bound back east. And in a few days I’m headed home myself and then back to school too. In Cambridge. In Massachusetts of all places. And as they say, the die seems to’ve already been cast without me understanding or even being aware of the wheels that’d been set in motion a long time before I looked up like that squinting into the setting sun and probably smelling not unlike the dust and rank horsehide of my then present occupation. For I’ll soon be taking my own train ride. In the same direction too. And I remember my father and me leaving a little after three in the morning for Cheyenne, where the railhead’s at.
My last night home, my ma comes in while I’m still packing and sits on my bed watching me choosing from the stack of clean clothes she’s brought that’re all folded perfectly like a pile of books, but soft and warm from her ironing. And without looking up, as I’m arranging everything in my case the way I want it, I say, You know I met a very lovely girl down at the Y-Cross Ranch. And I think I’m gonna marry her.
And when the words come out in the open like that so they can’t be taken back, with my ma setting on the corner of my bed for a witness, it shocked me even more than her. And scared me too I have to say, because I hadn’t had the time or maybe just the courage to dwell on it. But to tell the truth, when I heard those words myself spoken right out loud, it was as if I was just repeating what had already been signed and sealed and delivered even though I hadn’t stopped to wonder if Elizabeth had gotten the same message too. Like as if it was already a settled and complete thing although it hadn’t hardly even begun yet. Ma, I says, I met this beautiful girl and I’m gonna marry her.
South Station in Boston early Sunday afternoons, and then back again from Connecticut on the last train north every Sunday night. All through the winter, with me in my old hat and even older sheepskin coat that was permanently soiled from years of working and feeding animals in it. And seeing that I probably wasn’t to be deterred by obstacles of distance or weather, her folks weren’t all that happy with me as a prospective suitor for their younger daughter. A student in good standing at one of the world’s great learning institutions, I was still by their lights an interloper in a cowboy hat who walked bowlegged in strange boots and talked like he came from a foreign country. Which Wyoming surely was, even though they had had a recent taste of it, compared to the neat and familiar coastline of their Puritan forebears where they had lived all their lives beside the constant ocean. With Boston to the north and east and New York City to the south and west.
Well February roars in and New England or at least that part of it is being battered by what they call an old-fashioned nor’easter. Gale-force winds and nearly two feet of snow that close down just about everything from New York to Boston. Excepting of course the trains, which are still running although on a greatly reduced schedule.
Elizabeth says they’re midway through their dinner, each of them at least a little preoccupied with the wild sounds of the storm that if anything seems to have gotten worse, and Mr. Putnam glances down the table at his two daughters and says to Mrs. Putnam, Well the hearth-fire will be a welcome place on a night like this. Carrots please, dear. And Elizabeth says that something makes her turn and look around. And her mother says, It’s just the oak limb against the roof, dear. And excusing herself, Elizabeth rises and hurries toward the front entrance where whatever it is seems to knock once again.
And standing there all crusted with snow, she yanks me into the foyer with the wind blowing the snow in too and then shoves the door closed behind me. She doesn’t say anything while she wipes the snow from my face and helps me unbutton my coat. For it’s at least a three-mile walk from the train station, and I never have gotten into the habit of wearing gloves I guess. And she says, Don’t you have any sense at all?
And I say, Ma’m? And then, You mean this little perturbation of wind and weather? Why this is the first time since I left home that it seemed that maybe I really could almost get used to your climate here. And like Pa always said, if horse-sense’d help a jackass be a mule, well nary a man could do any better.
She’s standing there trying to keep from shaking her head, with her mouth set and that look in her eyes that is not quite scolding at me just yet. And I say, And besides, I wanted you to marry me. And something in her eyes changes while she tugs on either side of my open coat with her fists against my chest and my back against the door and the snow just beginning to melt onto her arms. And I say, Will you? And she looks into my eyes and just barely tips her head, but nowhere near to actually nodding it. And whispers, Yes.
And I just remember saying, Well then, with the doorknob still in one hand and my hat in the other. And without thinking, or perhaps a bit stunned too along with everything else, I open and close the door behind me lurching down the stairs and back out into the night. And with the wind driving the snow under my open coat and my hat still clutched in my hand as I lumber off into the darkness, I wonder what in God’s name had I just done.
I shared rooms with Geoffrey Stuart Coolidge III, and he lends me his old Plymouth, pressing the keys into my hand and telling me that I don’t have to take a train to my own damn wedding. This is early in the spring, in April, and there’re already buds in the trees. And I remember thinking how back home there’s still at least another good month of winter to go. April the tenth.
I leave Cambridge early in the morning with my plan already in hand. For the day before, as I’m studying Coolidge’s roadmap, I notice the name a little ways north of New York City. And the symbolism of it or irony or whatever somehow beckons me because I really had no idea where we should do this thing. Elizabeth is watching for me out the window, and as I pull up in front of the house she comes down the walk with a little overnight bag and a coat over her arm. And wearing that same green sweater. Which made me glad when I saw it. Because it helped me forget some of my own nervousness as I recalled her setting up on that corral rail in the last of the twilight when I’d gotten that two-year-old colt gentled and tentatively under control.
As planned, neither of her folks nor her sister were home, and so we were off and headed for western skies. She gets in and hugs me around my neck, tipping my hat off and into the back seat where she’d placed her things. Coolidge had made me wear one of his fine suits, with a necktie and vest, but still permitting me my boots and hat. So at least I’d have something I was used to and familiar with to fall back on in case the realization of what was about to take place started me to doubting either myself or my prospects.
But Elizabeth is just plain excited, with her arm through mine and pressed up beside me as I drive on. With both of my hands gripping the steering-wheel like it was a life-preserver. And watching straight ahead. And hoping to God that we’re doing the right thing. Even though I knew all the way back in September when I said it to my ma that we were.
We pass a signpost directing travel toward New York City and go off on a different road. Elizabeth asks me if I know where I’m going and I say, I think so. And she says, Where? And I say, Valhalla. Real serious-like, as if it were the standard and expected destination for anyone bound on such a mission as ours. And she says, Valhalla? And I say, Yes’m, Valhalla New York. For this is probably the single most foolhardy if not to say risky undertaking of my young life. Even considering all the other unpredictable and untamed animals I’ve ever been associated with. And Valhalla I read somewhere is where they take the dead heroes.
We arrive early in the afternoon and I remember thinking again how mild it was. For I just naturally compared all weather in its season and all fixtures of geography wherever I happened to be to what it would be like if I were back home. Anyway, we drive on to where someone directed us to the town hall. We go into the information office and the woman there sends us over to the revenue office. The clerk doesn’t look up from his desk until I say, Excuse me, I’d like to buy a license. And he says, What kind? Dog, fishing or marriage? For he sold them all. And I say, No, marriage.
And then I ask him where I can find a justice of the peace. And he says, There’s only one. And he’s the presiding judge at the trial. He’s the justice of the peace too. And it’s this address. He writes something on a slip of paper and hands it to me and says, It’s walking distance. And as we leave and proceed toward the main entrance he calls after us, Good luck.
It was one of those big county co-op stores that seem to have a little of everything. Burlap sacks of feed and seed and shelves of hardware and paint. And along one side, utensils and brushes and brooms and shovels. And then more shelves of canned goods amongst bins of nails and tools and probably whatever else you could think of too. But for the most part, the floor had been cleared and then rearranged with parallel rows of folding-chairs. Like in a theatre, with an aisle down the middle. And it looked like the whole town sitting there.
We were holding each other’s hand as we stepped inside and everyone turns around to see what had just come through the door. Because apparently the trial was just then right at the height of its emotional intensity. And the judge, a little man with a bald head and a modest mustache and spectacles, looks up at us from the table where he’s sitting way down front and says, Whatta you want? Some truckdriver had accidentally killed a woman in the wintertime and he was on trial for causing her death.
We’re standing there with our backs against the door like a couple of greenhorns. Young and obviously uninitiated still in the rigors and snares and burdens of it all. And Elizabeth squeezes my hand and presses into me as I look down this blank sea of grim faces all turned about and staring at us. And the little man, who’s obviously in charge, leans over his hands and peers over the top of his spectacles and with a trace more of impatience and sternness too he says once again, What do you want?
And I remember thinking how the smell of linseed oil and turpentine is the same everywhere. From that place where I’m standing and where I’ve never been before, all the way back to home. And maybe a little too loudly when it comes out I answer, We wanna get married!
And once again in almost perfect unison, the faces all turn back around to the front. Their questioning and perhaps disapproving frowns transforming instantly, and however reluctantly, to the unmistakable beginnings of smiles for which they’d had no reason during all the prior proceedings. The judge nods his head one time and says, Okay. And then drawing back from the table and standing he says almost gently, Come down here young people.
We walk down the center aisle through all those strangers, still holding hands. There’s sawdust on the floor and what looks like a spill of flour and the definite smell of brine from where two great wooden barrels sit behind the judge’s table. And I think I can also smell that dry sharp taste of fresh cheese, for along with everything else I’m also powerful hungry.
And somehow the moment has overtaken both of us so we each know right there and then that we are absolutely and unquestionably where we are meant to be. With all our nameless neighbors in their crowded pews. And with the judge, who we found out later was really a furniture salesman, waiting for us with his open hands raised and held out before him like a kindly shepherd of the flock ready to send us off in the right direction. And with the blessings of all who are assembled.
For something has transformed the congregation too. One moment, and for three hours previous, at a murder trial. With one of their own accused and aggrieved along with the victim’s bereaved family. And with the opening and closing of a door, and the entrance and procession of two very young and somewhat abashed strangers who have appeared inexplicably in their midst and for some reason that is only their own, unexpectedly they have now also become witnesses at a wedding. Thrusting them instantaneously from the dull somber consideration of death to the happy acknowledgment of the unlimited potential of life. From despair unto hopefulness. Like the passing of angels.
Elizabeth presses up against me as we proceed down the aisle, but before we reach him the judge leans forward and says something to someone on either side of the front row. And so the prosecuting attorney stands up beside me as my best man, while the defense attorney rises and stands beside Elizabeth as her full-bearded maid of honor.
The judge instructs each of us in turn. And then digging into my pants-pocket and finding only keys, I experience a moment of real panic that disappears when I find what I’m looking for on my other side. And I give it to him, and then he gives it back to me. And as I turn to Elizabeth, she turns too, and I slide the silver ring onto her finger and continue to hold her hand in mine to steady it, both my hand and hers.
The judge speaks again as we face him. And then turning back to one another we embrace and kiss. And that whole courtroom of strangers, including accused and accuser, still probably more than a little stunned at their unexpected change of perspective, suddenly erupts in a din of applause and cheers as now-wedded and still holding hands we flee back up the aisle and out that same door through which we had first entered.