"Do you love mom?" Calvin asked.
In the darkness, Harlen saw his son pull his coat tight and hold his woolen cap against the last gasps of winter. Calvin's bare hand flinched as he touched the soggy hat. He had forgotten his gloves.
"What?" Harlen's gruff voice was as gentle as he could manage for his son. They had been walking in silence for some time and the question had come unexpectedly.
"Well, I just mean you guys fight a lot."
"Hmm." Harlen raised his light to see his son, all of thirteen, and on his first pre-dawn patrol, yet still a questioning child. He removed his gloves and slapped them against Calvin's chest. "Do you know what love is, boy?"
"Of course," Calvin began, with all the confidence of youth, "it's like, you like things . . . more . . . " Confidence fading.
The wind died down. Calvin took the damp gloves from his father and put them on. He held his hands out to see his fingers not quite reach the tips of the gloves.
Harlen gave a slight chuckle. He tucked the two copper pipes under his arm and slipped his hands in his pockets. "Yeah it all seems simple until you start talking. Think about it like this. Love means you want something to do well, to prosper. You want what's best for the person more than you want what's best for you."
The father and son continued to follow their black and white collie mix, Sunday, down the path along the perimeter of their small pasture. Each year, as the seasons changed, the coyotes, in search of an easy meal, would press closer to the homesteads surrounding the Carter Copper Mines, such as Harlen's. Harlen had walked this path countless times, and hoped to pass the chore on to Calvin.
"There's got to be more to it than that, dad."
"Yeah a lot of people try to add more, but that just overcomplicates it. Now, there's more to being with someone than just loving them. You have to be nice and show respect. But none of that is love. Love is important but so are all the other things."
"Why do you fight then?"
"Some things need fought about." Harlen said it too quickly and didn't like the answer as soon as it came out. He waited, hoping for another question so he could redeem himself, but none came.
Father and son continued. Every part of Harlen's body, except for his mouth and mind, tensed and curled, as if they were poised to scream the exact words that needed said, but they withheld whatever insight they might have had and he remained silent.
"Am I gonna tend the herd all my life?" It wasn't the question he'd hoped for, but Harlen turned it over nonetheless, searching for the best answer.
"What else would you do?" That probably wasn't right either.
"I heard the Baxters are looking for help! Helping the deliveries in. I could learn to shoot from them, over the summer, you know. Carol Anne says—"
"They ain't no good. I agree they do a fine service but—but I don't know if that would be the safest thing for you."
"Aww safe? We're out here looking for coyotes. Sunday won't do much good and what if we see a pack right now? You ain't even got a gun."
"Coyotes ain't a danger. Not really. The Baxters deal with—you don't need to be a part of their kind of work. It's no place for a kid." Harlen had been trying to reconcile his description of love with the reality of his actions over the years, and so he'd missed the yearning in his son's voice. It was all so clear a moment too late.
Calvin hung his head.
"I'm not saying you can never work for them, but not every path is going to be good for you. For now, let's keep the herd alive. Let the miners have more than bread and potatoes next winter. Maybe pay some debts, too." The matter was closed; a door slammed too hard for the fragile spirit of the boy.
"How's that Carol Anne?" Harlen tossed it out, praying it was enough.
Sunday stopped, gave a growl, then bolted into the trees. Calvin, still silent, took a step to follow but was stopped by Harlen's firm grip. Too firm. "Wait, grab the poles and hit them together. We'll drive them off easy enough." The words came out too stern.
Calvin did as he was told. Clang, clang. Clang, clang, clang. Then faster again.
Less than a minute, though Harlen knew Calvin must have thought it was five. Maybe an hour.
But as would happen every time, Sunday came bounding back. "The beasts just look for easy meals. We scare them off and they go eat rabbits or birds. They're cowards, though. Scavengers, so long as they aren't too desperate."
Calvin didn't say much for the rest of the walk. Of course not, Harlen told himself, I crushed his dream before he could say it, made him feel dumb. The boy's never gonna understand what I'm trying to do.
The sun crept higher, painting the clouds purple and orange as the two neared their house, coming to the end of the routine patrol around the pasture. Harlen watched the morning come in silence, unable to broach any subject. As they approached the front steps of their house, Harlen started to order his son to the chicken coop, but stopped himself before the words came out. "Head inside. Dry off. Get some tea, or something warm."
Calvin skulked away, reaching the second step before Harlen called after him, "Hey. The gloves."
Calvin turned around and held them out, his eyes stayed on the ground.
Harlen took them. "You'll be alright."
For the next hour, Harlen went about the routine work of the morning. Through years of repetition, he'd worn each chore down to a series of simple, mindless tasks, allowing him time to think. Too much time, he told himself as he began the work. But by the end of the hour, his thoughts were lighter and less precise; more a general feeling that things were alright.
Finally, he set the goats to pasture and whistled for Sunday to head off with them. The sky had turned a perfect pale blue in the clear morning. All the clouds and rain of the night seemed never to have touched the land.
Harlen stepped into his house, still wearing his boots.
"Oh, you're tracking mud in. I just swept!" His wife huffed. She stood from the table and grabbed a broom. Harlen. Still by the door, removed his boots.
Love you. He kept the words in. It didn't seem like the right time.
About midday, Harlen readied his knife to slit and drain a worrisome abscess on the cheek of one of his goats. Sunday's barking alerted him from the front of the house. Harlen freed the goat, job unfinished, sat the knife aside, and headed in the back door to cut through the kitchen and front sitting room. He stepped softly, trying not to track too much mud.
The cause of Sunday's barking gave a solid knock at the front door as Harlen reached for the knob. Jennifer came out from the bedroom as Harlen opened it.
A young, stern-faced woman in a black dress and short yellow curls tucked under a black felt hat, stood on the porch, flanked by two larger, far dirtier men with pistols tucked into fine leather holsters on their waist. A third man stood with their horses on the path near the edge of the tree line. Jennifer ducked back into the room, seeming to know what they'd come for.
Harlen knew as well. "Yeah. Come in, then."
The woman, Mary Elizabeth Carter, whose maiden name was Baxter before marrying the much older president of the Carter Copper Mines, sat first at Harlen's kitchen table. One of her men stood behind her while the other walked around to lean on the back door. Harlen took his seat across from Mary.
"It has been six months." Mary spoke with a calm tone, yet she entirely lacked even the slightest trace of feminine softness. In the handful of meetings he'd suffered through over the years, Harlen had felt that the conversations had been a mere presentation of facts and not at all a discussion with a real person.
"It's coming up on it."
Mary Elizabeth adjusted slightly in her seat and folded her hands in front of her. "The agreement will end in eight days. Our company was not paid in full last season. And you have failed to make the agreed upon payments over the subsequent months. Our decision has been made."
"Well, I missed two, yes. It's been . . . it's been . . . " Harlen let his words fade. He had no facts to present and anything else, he knew, would be pointless.
"Tuesday, the eighth, you are expected to be out of this house and off this land."
Harlen hung his head. His pride collapsed, but not fully. He raised his head and did his best to imitate Mary's cold tone. "What of the herd?"
"Sell them at the market. Or take them with you. We've an agreement for beef from Texas cattle drive is already on the way. Your goats are of no interest to us." She slid her chair back and stood before Harlen could respond. She could have stayed in the chair forever. Harlen had no more facts to present.
Mary walked to the door. Her two dirty friends followed. Harlen stopped in the doorway, watched them swing atop their horses and ride away. Sunday did not give chase or bark. The dog sat by the footpath and stared at Harlen, seeming to have the same question he asked himself. What now?
Harlen turned inside, Jennifer once again stood by the bedroom, also staring at him. Tears welled in her eyes.
I love you. It still didn't seem like the right time.
Calvin ran from his room on the opposite side of the house into the arms of his mother.
He's above her shoulders now.
"I love you, mom."
"Love you too, baby." They disappeared into the room. Harlen turned to the dog outside, his own tears beginning to well. He sat on the top step of the porch and let them fall. Sunday bounded off with the goats.
The next morning brought a heavy rain. Harlen didn't wake Calvin for the patrol. He needed the solitude; he needed to think.
True thoughts didn't come, though, only feelings. He felt the pain of the conversation with Jennifer the previous night, the weight of the long silences and the sting of her thinly veiled disappointment. He felt his life slipping away, and wondered what grasp he ever truly had on it.
With the morning chores complete, Harlen headed for town to arrange the sales. He knew Mary would have already informed Darryl or Hannah at the market and his part would be simple: agree and sign.
Having sold the horses to cover the few payments he managed to make toward the land, Harlen began the four mile walk to the town of Carter. About half way, the dirt path combined with a wider, more rocky trail hardly fit for hooves or human feet. He walked along the smoother grass to the side until he reached the town.
As expected, Hannah met him at the door of the market's office, "Come on in, Harlen. Darryl's got the paperwork ready." Her words seemed steeped in pity, which somehow made it all worse.
Darryl, looking every bit of his seventy-and-a-half-decades, stood behind the counter, papers laid out in front of him, with the same face as his older sister. "Hey, bud."
Harlen stepped to the counter, in no hurry. He picked up the pen, not raising his eyes from the papers, though he couldn't focus to read them. "Nothing worth reading, anyway." He didn't mean to let the words out.
"Yeah, it's a tough spot. How's the family taking it?"
Harlen shrugged, unable to form the words.
"Life's full of rough spots like this, though. You and your family will be alright. You know that?"
Harlen sighed, he knew he had to agree, he searched for words that wouldn't be too painful. "I suppose. Just a setback is all. We'll make it one day. We'll get there." Then he added, the words seeming to say themselves, "I don't know what we're going to do."
"Well, that ain't it, is it?" Darryl stood up straight, seeming to be filled with a more vigorous, youthful spirit. He took a few steps down toward the end of the counter, then turned to face Harlen. "Nobody really makes it anywhere, do they? Not really. I suppose. Yeah, you're a father. A husband." He came closer and leaned in. "My wife and kids are all long gone. I look back and think of them sometimes, you know that? I'm telling you, boy, there ain't no finish line to all this. No grand victory. No big winners. Don't miss out on what you already got."
Harlen left as quickly as he could. The walk home seemed almost too short. He stopped at the split in the road. As far as he could see, that rocky path stretched off into some distant future, lifted and fell along the sides of hills, disappeared down into valleys, then rose again. Harlen wondered what lay at its end. He turned down the small dirt path toward his home.
Jennifer sat at the table, head in hands, and stood as Harlen burst through the door. He wrapped his arms around his wife, pressed her against him.
She slid her arms around his neck.
"I love you."