Eugene and Otis found her on the eastern side of the range. The night before, they had been celebrating the turn of the new year and century, and they were a little rough.
"Let's make 1900 the best year South Dakota's ever seen," their boss, the owner of the DH Ranch, Edwin DeHOeven, had said, which was just about more words strung together than they'd ever heard him utter. He had given them all a cup of real whiskey, not the tarantula juice they could afford in town. Edwin's sister Lavinia had baked a cake. The alcohol and sugar was still swirling around in their brains and fingers when they rose at four to ride out and get back to work. DeHoeven was a good boss, but the only days off were half day on Christmas and if they were too sick or hurt. If they missed too many days that way they found themselves sent back to town to "live a soft life."
The cattle had eaten everything down to stubble before they were moved to the lower land on the west side of the ranch. A cold dry wind blew down from the east hills, and the two men were bundled thick against it. The wind had been blowing for a month, blowing dust but no rain. Eugene and Otis, two of Edwin DeHoeven's best boys, were looking for cuts in the barbed wire fencing they had strung the past spring, before they had moved the herd. All summer and fall the men of the neighboring ranch, Dementer's Double D, had been cutting the wire, and 16 cows had gone missing. The men had their guns ready laying over the saddle in front of them. They were sharp-eyed. Dementer wasn't above ordering his men to "shoot wild," as they called it. Pretending to be aiming at coyotes, wolves, prairie dogs.
At first the two cowboys thought the woman had tangled in the barbs. She was lying face down in the dirt, without a coat. Otis got down from his horse (slowly, his head ached), and turned her over. Her face was bruised, and dried blood showed from her nose and on her chin where it had come out from a corner of her mouth. Otis looked up at Eugene in a quick sharp way.
"You know who this is?" Otis said in a low voice, as if he didn't want to startle anything. But they both did know, as soon as they had seen her.
"She dead?" Eugene said from his horse. Otis leaned over and put his ear against the woman's face.
"She got a breath. Light, but there." Otis lifted the woman up to Eugene, who sat her slumping in front of him. She was small-framed and thin, more like a child than a grown woman. They were used to Lavinia, nearly as tall as Edwin, taller than most of the boys working the DH. Eugene shifted his eyes across the fence into Dementer's ranch. Otis scratched at his beard.
"You reckon we take her to town or back to the DH?" Otis said.
"We take her to town, we won't get back today. DeHoeven's likely to think we wanted the holiday. Plus, there's no telling which of Dementer's men are in town. I reckon DeHoeven'd want us to take her to the ranch."
Eugene nodded. Both men looked at the woman, as if she was going to tell them what to do.
"What do you think happened?" Otis finally said.
Eugene leaned over and spat tobacco juice into the dirt. "You know goddamn well what happened," he said.
Otis took his hat off and struck it against his leg. "Dementer's likely to burn us out to get her back."
Eugene was already turning his horse. "We'll let DeHoeven decide about that."
They took the woman up to the house. Lavinia came out on the porch as Eugene was handing the woman down to Otis.
"What you got there?" She asked sourly. But the men were used to her and not put off.
"We found her out in the dirt, unconscious," Eugene said. "Just along the east line. She's pretty bad off."
"Figured it had to be something important for you to come in when there's still daylight." Lavinia held the door open and Otis carried the woman in.
"She still alive?" Lavinia asked.
"I don't know for sure," Otis said. "She was when we picked her up."
From behind them, still out on the front porch, Eugene said, "It's Mrs. Dementer."
Lavinia whipped her head around and looked more closely at the woman bundled in Otis' arms. "And you brought her here," she said.
"Well, we—" Otis started, but when Lavinia's eyes shot to his and her brows twitched downward, he shut up. At Lavinia's direction, Otis carried the woman upstairs and to an unused bedroom. He felt badly laying the woman on the clean spread, but he did as he was told. He had never been in the house before, and he grabbed a couple of looks around at the simple wood furniture and framed pictures of scenery.
"I 'spect you boys will be riding back out," Lavinia said, following Otis back down the stairs.
"I 'spect so," Otis replied.
By the time DeHoeven got in for his dinner, which he ate with Lavinia in their dining room as was usual, Lavinia had cleaned the woman up, put her in one of Lavinia's own nightshirts, put her into the bed, cooked the dinners with the help of the Chinaman Su Li, and had the table set and the meal ready for serving to her brother and herself. She had also started up a bone broth for the woman if she woke. They were halfway through the meal before Lavinia spoke.
"Did Otis and Eugene talk to you?" she said.
DeHoeven spooned up his soup and swallowed before answering.
"Didn't talk to anyone," he said.
"They found a woman half dead out on the fence line."
DeHoeven looked up at his sister at the other end of the dining table.
"Our side or his?"
"Ours, I imagine."
They looked at one another a long time.
"It's Clara Dementer," Lavinia said.
DeHoeven stood up suddenly, as if he had heard a rifle shot. "Where's she now?"
"Sit down, Edwin. I got her up in the spare room. She's bad off, but I imagine she'll live."
After a moment, DeHoeven sat down, still looking at Lavinia. Finally, he nodded, and resumed his soup slurping.
"It was the Christian thing to do," Lavinia said, as if DeHoeven had said something, as if he had asked for an explanation or had thanked her. "But you know she'll have to go back, once she heals up."
"We'll see," DeHoeven answered. He started cutting up the meat, shoving it in. He looked tired. He had changed his clothes for dinner and washed up, but he still looked like he had been out all day in the dirt with cattle.
"She made her choices all them years ago. This doesn't change that," Lavinia said.
"We'll see," DeHoeven repeated.
"How's the herd?" Lavinia asked.
"Hungry," DeHoeven said. "That's what happens when it's too damn dry all summer and then winter comes and it's too damn cold too early."
They ate without speaking for several minutes. Lavinia wished she had poured her brother a glass of the cherry wine. She had meant to. It was New Year's Day. She cursed herself for forgetting. Too late now. It was Clara Dementer showing up, threw Lavinia off her stride.
"Word will get out," Lavinia said.
"Let it," DeHoeven answered.
Otis and Eugene told the others that night in the bunkhouse. It was a lot more interesting than the usual stories they had told each other a million times. Only thirteen-year-old Arthur, who was new to the DH, didn't know the history. Like half of them, Arthur had some African in him, but he didn't have parents he knew of and had been living in Minnesota as a kind of slave boy to a dentist's family until he had left in the middle of the night and found the DH. That's the story he told them, and they didn't care how much was true or not. They all enjoyed a good story more than almost anything else.
"When they was all younger," Eugene started, "Both of the men, the boss and Dementer, wanted to marry the lady upstairs whose name was Clara." Eugene said the name with the slight Irish accent he mostly had rid himself of, and the name came out sounding poetic and sentimental to the other men.
"Miss Lavinia was in love with Dementer in them days. But the lady, Clara, decided for Dementer. Both the boss and Miss Lavinia was left in the cold." The men were silent a moment.
"That's a heartbreaking tale," Arthur said, sitting on the edge of his top bunk, dirty-socked feet dangling over. "You think the boss is still sweet on the lady, Clara?" The men laughed and poked at Arthur good naturedly and he blushed.
"Romantic boy, ain't ya?" Eugene said, cuffing Arthur's head.
"Mrs. Dementer made the wrong choice," the one they called Tex said. He was a gnarly-haired dark-skinned African who had been with DeHoeven from the beginning.
"In them days, looked like Dementer was the catch, having his ranch already built up by his daddy and all. The boss didn't have more than a nickel. He was a cowboy much like you, Arthur. Just getting hisself going." Tex spat plug juice into a can and continued, "She's been paying for that bad choice ever since."
To Arthur's puzzled expression, Otis added, "Dementer can't hold his liquor, beats them up something fierce when he's on the drink."
"Them?" Arthur asked.
"Mrs. Dementer got a daughter, Sharron," Eugene said. "She's almost grown now. But Dementer won't let her get into town or anywhere to find a decent husband. He'll probably marry her off to one of his boys."
"She's a pretty one, that daughter," Otis said. The others nodded around. "About your age." He looked up at Arthur. The others started teasing him, saying things like he ought to see about that gal.
"I'm barely hanging on here, I ain't got no money. What do I want a wife for?" Arthur said.
"You'd be the hero, saving her from her father and whatever dreg of a dog he marries her off to," Eugene said.
"One of you all can be the hero," Arthur said. But none of them spoke up, and the conversation ended so they could get some sleep and be ready for work before the sun.
The next morning, Clara Dementer started rousing. Lavinia brought up the bone broth and parsnip tea. Clara's left eye was surrounded by bruises, but she blinked against the swelling and opened them both, clear and as blue as Lavinia remembered.
"You know where you are?" Lavinia asked. Clara nodded, turned her head aside. Tears dripped over onto the white pillowcase.
"I thought I was going to die," Clara said.
"You would have, the boys hadn't of found you before dark."
Clara didn't answer. Lavinia propped her up and fed her the broth and set the tea on the side table. Su Li came in and put fresh plasters on the worst of her wounds. Clara didn't object to any of it. They left her sitting up in bed.
When Lavinia returned in the afternoon, Clara had slumped down in bed again and fallen asleep. Lavinia watched her chest rise and fall, rise and fall. She didn't want to remember Clara's bruised body. Some of the marks looked days or even weeks old. There were red marks too, as if Clara had been tied up.
When Clara started rousing again, Lavinia shook her awake and helped her to a chair.
"I don't believe in coddling," Lavinia said.
"You never did," Clara said.
At dinner, DeHoeven said, "How's she doing?"
"Better," Lavinia answered and nothing more was said.
The next morning, Lavinia helped Clara down the stairs and sat her in a big chair on the wide porch that circled the house, bundling her in blankets they had gotten from the Indians.
"Don't go no further," Lavinia told her, as if she was a child. Clara Dementer nodded.
Lavinia went to town and bought food and supplies. She could have waited another few weeks, but she wanted to hear what was being said.
DeHoeven kept away from them both, coming and going through the kitchen door, working on the range, working with the boys, trying to keep the cattle fed and off the fences. They had another month before snow was expected. It should be raining, but the day was cold and clear, with a wind that came up and blew the soil off the range, towards the Double-D ranch.
"He knows she's here," Lavinia said to DeHoeven that night at dinner. "He's telling folks he's going to send some of the boys to get her back."
"They'll be trespassing," DeHoeven said. "I got a right to shoot them."
"You'll kill people over her?"
Her brother didn't answer. Lavinia pursed her lips. Clara was at the door.
"I'll go back," she said.
DeHoeven's head jerked up. Lavinia turned in her chair, scowling.
"He'll kill you," DeHoeven said. He and Clara looked long and hard at each other. Clara's face was still bruised. Her hair was pulled tight back into a tail. She had on Lavinia's old dress, old coat, old soft shoes. She was thinner than DeHoeven remembered. Lavinia was thin too, they came from that kind of stock, but Lavinia's clothes hung on Clara.
"I told you to stay upstairs. I would bring your dinner," Lavinia said.
"Where did you think you were going?" DeHoeven asked.
"Away," Clara said.
"Away," he repeated. "Away where?"
"Away from fists. Away from boots." Clara sighed. "I thought if I made it into town, I . . . " She turned and left them, walking carefully. It was painful watching her.
DeHoeven glanced at Lavinia and went back to eating.
"She was always a middling, nothing sort of girl," Lavinia said. "Blessed with prettiness and easy tears. She's got neither now." DeHoeven didn't look up.
"She'll let you take care of her, take all the risks, do all the work," Lavinia continued. "She's always been that sort. Part of the reason you always liked her. Part of the reason she thought Frank was the better choice."
DeHoeven continued eating, as if he hadn't heard.
The next day, riding on the east side, Eugene brought his horse up next to DeHoeven's. It only took the two of them to check these fences, but DeHoeven had eight of them out, too many for the job, but they all knew why.
"The boys were wondering how Mrs. Dementer's getting on," Eugene said.
"She's recovering," DeHoeven said.
"That's good to hear."
"Are you going to have trouble for bringing her here?" DeHoeven asked. "Trouble if she stays awhile longer?"
"From the boys?" Eugene said. "No. And they'll back you, whatever happens. They're not going to keep it a secret, though."
"I wouldn't expect them to."
"Me neither," Eugene said.
They heard a whistle. Otis was pointing. Two men on horseback were loping their way to them. DeHoeven and his crew, strung out along the barbed wire fence for two miles, watched them approach. The two men pulled their horses up on the other side of the fence.
"Dementer sent us," one of them said.
"I figured that," DeHoeven answered.
"Send Mrs. Dementer back home," the other man said.
"She's free to leave. I ain't keeping her prisoner."
"Send her back, or we'll take her back," the first man said.
"She's free to leave," DeHoeven repeated. The four of them stared at each other a moment longer, and then the two wheeled their horses and loped off towards the Double D.
Eugene leaned over and spat tobacco juice.
Clara spent her time on the front porch in a rocking chair, watching the far hills. Clouds scattered above but didn't drop rain. A half-feral grey tabby cat limped around the porch but wouldn't let Clara touch her. Lavinia came out with a pot of hot water.
"Coyote tore her up. Took the kittens," Lavinia said, putting the pot on a table next to Clara's chair. They both watched the cat, hunching itself in a blanket, looking miserable and swollen.
"Did you put the blanket down for her?" Clara asked. Lavinia shrugged. "That was kind."
"It's cold out here," Lavinia said, and went back inside the house.
The next morning, Clara watched smoke from her bedroom window. Lavinia came in with clean sheets.
"Fire started on the south range early this morning," Lavinia said. "Edwin and the boys have gone to put it out. That's the only range with any pasture left on it. They was going to put the herd down there just before the snow comes on. You know your husband started the fire, right? You know he wants you back home?"
Clara was silent, watching. Lavinia changed the bed sheets. When she was almost done, Clara turned.
"I'm sorry," Clara said. "I should have helped you."
Lavinia left the room with the sheets wadded in her arms. Clara watched the smoke awhile longer and then watched Lavinia and Su Li hang the sheets on the clothesline.
Clara heard a noise from inside the house. She hadn't seen Edwin return. Lavinia and Su Li were still down below in the yard hanging laundry. Clara's throat tightened. She listened to footsteps and felt frozen. With effort, she jerked herself into action. She dragged herself under the bed and shut her eyes tightly against the inevitable. How many times had she done this in her life? Thousands? Stay still, tremble and wait. It would be over soon, one way or other.
"Mama?" a girl's voice called out. The girl was in the room.
Clara pulled herself out from under the bed.
"Mama!" the girl said, rushing to Clara, then stopping suddenly just before her, noticing Clara's tense face, rigid body. "The men are waiting for us at the fence line. Come with me now. Quick." The girl was nearly grown, but small like her mother, same blue eyes.
"Did you have anything to do with this fire?" Clara said.
"Did you know they were setting it?"
"It was for you . . . we needed something . . . "
"Deceiver," Clara said. "Just like your pa."
"Don't start up, mama. That's what gets you into trouble."
"You're going to get me in trouble? He nearly killed me. That means nothing to you."
"Everything will be fine if you don't start anything. Pa forgives you. Everything will be all right."
Clara didn't answer.
"No, I won't start anything."
Lavinia appeared suddenly at the door. She looked from Clara to the girl. "You Clara's daughter? Sharron, if I remember."
"I came for my mama. Her husband wants her home."
"Does he now?" Lavinia said.
"Go home," Clara said to Sharron.
"Smoke's gone," Lavinia said. "The men will be back soon."
Sharron took Clara's arm. "We've got to hurry."
"You go on home, Sharron" Lavinia said. Clara looked sharply at Lavinia.
"Not without mama."
Clara shook her head, pulled her arm away. Her face was red and trembling with the effort not to cry. Sharron stared at her, eyes narrowing.
"You plan on living here? How does that look?"
Downstairs a door opened and shut. They heard horses outside, shouting men, cattle bellowing.
"The men are back," Lavinia said. "They brought the cows and calves in close. Expecting trouble."
"You can stay here too," Clara said to Sharron, with a quick glance to Lavinia and back. "I'm sure Edwin would let you."
"I wasn't invited," Sharron said, laughing in a harsh quick burst.
"I wasn't either," Clara said. "But he won't turn us out."
Lavinia turned away, looked out the window, chewing at her cheek from the inside.
"I don't want to stay here," Sharron said. "I came for you." She turned to Lavinia. "Tell her to go home."
Lavinia opened her mouth but then closed it again.
"These are good people," Clara said. "We don't have to stay for long. We'll get ourselves together and then leave; find somewhere we can live in peace. I can do it if you go with me, Sharron."
"Lavinia?" Edwin's voice from downstairs.
"You'll start a war," Sharron said. "Pa will not let you go." They heard footsteps coming upstairs.
"I suppose I'm to be held prisoner here," Sharron said.
"Edwin and Lavinia will help us. They won't punish us for my past sins. I know them," Clara said.
"I'll walk you out myself," Lavinia answered. Sharron stared hard at Lavinia, then at Clara.
"We'll go somewhere new, far away," Clara said. "We can start over."
Sharron nodded to Lavinia, and Lavinia turned and left, Sharron following. Clara stood frozen in place, stiff bodied, dry-eyed. She heard Edwin and Lavinia's voices downstairs but could not make out the words. She did not go to the window, did not watch Sharron leave.
Later, Clara sat in the rocker on the porch, rocking gently. She threw a piece of her meat from lunch to the cat, who ate it greedily.
"You do that, she'll never go back to catching mice," Lavinia said. She was sitting in the next chair, mending socks.
"I don't care about her catching mice," Clara said.
"She's no use if she doesn't," Lavinia said.
"She is to me," Clara said. "I don't want her to go back to the barn." Lavinia made a grunting noise. "She'll go back, eventually. She'll come up here begging, and then she'll leave as soon as her stomach's full. No point in getting attached to a cat. They will break your heart, every time. Might as well make friends with a grizzly."
Towards evening three men on horseback rode up to the house. They brought along a fourth horse, saddled but riderless. The cows and calves were still in the near pasture, but the DH men were back out, fixing cut fences, in the last of the twilight, behind work because of the fire.
Lavinia came out to the porch, the way she had when Eugene and Otis had brought Clara. She recognized two of the men as working for Dementer. Arthur was on a horse between them, trussed and gagged, his horse's reins caught up in one of the other men's hands. Arthur had displayed a skill for carpentry that outshone his skill on horseback or with cattle, and so DeHoeven had put him onto repair jobs around the barn.
"We come for Mrs. Dementer," the one holding Arthur's horse said, the years of sun and wind written on his face.
"Hello, Abel. You thinking of kidnapping that boy?" Lavinia said.
"Looks like we already have," Abel answered. Clara appeared behind Lavinia. Both of Dementer's men tipped their hats to her.
"Mrs. Dementer, you know you got to come with us," the other man said. He was soft-cheeked, looked no older than Arthur. Lavinia put her hand out against Clara's skirt, but she pushed past, looking at Arthur, who looked back without moving. His eyes showed like a calf just before being branded, when it wasn't sure what was happening but knowing it was no good.
"Did you volunteer for this, or did Mr. Dementer threaten you?" Clara asked, looking at the soft cheeked man.
"I'm sorry," the soft-cheeked man said.
"Shut up," Abel said. To Clara he added, "Mrs. Dementer, you know it's gotta be this way. You're going back to the Double D. We'll let this here boy go at the property line. Otherwise, we take him with us."
"All right," Clara said quiet but firmly, still looking at Arthur. Lavinia stepped forward, then stopped, her face stiff.
Two shots fired. Arthur's horse jumped sideways. The soft-cheeked man fell first, sliding off his horse into Arthur, pushing the horses around, and then dropping to the ground at their feet. Abel's eyes locked onto Clara's a long moment as he wobbled on his horse, then he too toppled over and fell off his horse.
DeHoeven rode up, rifle still in hand. He cut Arthur's bindings.
"You got some digging to do," DeHoeven said.
"Yes sir," Arthur said, pulling the bandana gag off and then rubbing his wrists where the ropes had cut into the skin.
"And be quick on it," DeHoeven said. "Better put the horses in the barn, out of sight for now. You keep them in water and feed next few days."
"Yes, sir," Arthur repeated. He and DeHoeven draped Abel and the soft-cheeked man over their horses and tied them on. Arthur remounted, grabbed up the reins of the horses, including the riderless one, and rode off, the dead men's arms dangling over the saddles, bouncing against the sides of the horses.
"That your horse?" he asked Clara, pointing his chin at the saddled horse still left.
"You think he'd let me own a horse?" Clara answered in a high voice. After a moment, she added, her voice an octave lower, "It's the one I usually ride." They watched Arthur for a minute, then Clara pushed past Lavinia and went inside. DeHoeven remounted his horse.
"We killing for her now, then?" Lavinia said. DeHoeven looked hard at his sister.
"We aren't," he said. "You got nothing to do with it." He turned his horse, grabbed up the reins of the other horse and rode off at a lope with both horses, stirring up dust.
Later, dinner was silent as usual, but the air was electric with tension. Clara did not join them, telling Lavinia she was not feeling well. Lavinia had Su Li send up a tray of elk stew.
"Everything that happens here happens to all of us," Lavinia finally said. "All of us are in danger now. What happened today isn't the end. It'll keep on getting worse and worse—"
DeHoeven got up suddenly, threw his fork and knife onto the plate with a clatter, and left.
"How's it going to end, then?" Lavinia called after him. "Who's going to get killed next?"
The next morning, Lavinia went up to Clara's room to see why she hadn't come down for breakfast. She tapped on the door, then opened it. The room was empty, as if Clara had never been there. Lavinia looked through the house and out on the porch. She asked Su Li, who hadn't seen her. She went back out to the porch. The feral mother cat was chewing on a fresh mouse.
"I guess you're healed up then," Lavinia said. She watched the cat devour the mouse, then she walked out to the barn. She could see Arthur and DeHoeven talking. They both stopped and looked at her as she approached.
"She's gone," Lavinia said.
"I was just telling the boss, Mrs. Dementer's horse is gone," Arthur said. "I came out at dawn to feed them. She must've left in the middle of the night."
"God dammit," DeHoeven said, looking out across the range as if he thought he would be able to see Clara.
"She made her choice," Lavinia said. "Let her go. It's for the best."
DeHoeven looked at Arthur, then at his sister.
"God dammit," he said again.