The Man Alone and I
I was sitting at my desk, still stranded in the Oregon Country, when someone came to knock at my door frame. It was late. I was burning lamplight to stare brick-stupid at my notebook, to pretend I was writing something of use. But a blank page wasn’t of any use to a reader, and disregard the frauds who’ll tell you that it’s somehow of any use to a writer. It’s of no use to a writer who can’t think of something to write.
They knocked again on my door frame, and in a voice full of sullen hostility I answered, “What?” I can’t imagine they thought me awake at that hour of the night, unless someone saw the lamp burning through my window.
“Are you decent?” It was Lizzie, Tull’s second wife. I recognized her voice, her heft and insolent pride and confidence of carriage through the rice paper.
“You going to come in and check?” The blank page and late hour had gone and put me in a bad mood, but then, Elizabeth Tull could put me in a bad mood with a doctoral dissertation under my arm and a bright clear picnic lunch.
“Clem wants to see you,” she said, pretty flatly and not interested in me giving her a hard time.
I leaned back in my chair and dug around for something smug to say, but she wouldn’t let me. “Boy, get out of that bed before I light a fire under it.”
I picked up my eyeglasses and slung them over my ears. “Gee, Lizzie,” I said. “Don’t I deserve my day of rest?” I closed the notebook heavily and my pencils rattled on the creaking wood. “Isn’t it Sunday?” Begone ye damned gremlins, begone you detestable bondage of the mind.
“Boy,” she began, but didn’t continue. I sat in apprehension, half at my desk, half-cocked to get up and put on a coat. Outside, at my screen, I heard muttering. “Then you talk to him,” she said, annoyed, but not loud enough for it to fully traverse the thick pitchy darkness of my attic room.
Someone — I presumed Lizzie — thumped down the stairs in percussive annoyance, and a few seconds later there was a much lighter rapping on my door frame. I heard Lizzie’s footsteps receding in the hall below me. “Yeah?” I called.
“Are you awake?” The voice was younger and lighter, and not half as bold as Lizzie’s, with its outcropping of terse attitude. But I was hired help, and she was the successor matriarch, so things were pretty clear there. “Parker?” she asked very quickly. It was Ruth, Tull’s eldest, half-Japanese from his first wife, who I’d only seen in a photograph in the dining room. Ruth and I rolled in the hay when nobody was looking, and I’d hug her like a puppy just come in from the rain. I expect she figured me for a husband, excepting I wasn’t intending to stick around in Oregon to get myself a wife, and I didn’t figure her one to want to go back down to Santa Clara and leave her family behind.
“You’ve caught me in the middle of a dream,” I said. She didn’t say anything back. “You’ve caught me sleepwalking.”
“Daddy wants to see you,” she said through the rice paper, and her voice was tremulous, and I wondered for a moment if he hadn’t somehow figured I was in with his daughter, though if he had, I figured, he’d probably just kill me quick and be done with it; decapitate me with that katana of his hanging in the parlor under his Winchester.
“Why?” I asked her.
Her voice quavered. Aw, she was a delicate girl, real Classical and virginal in her mode and mannerisms. Plus, she took after some hidden genes in her daddy, and she had all the fairness of a debutante with the fine-boned grace of her mother. “You’d better go see him.”
“Well,” I said, annoyed, and trying not to be flippant with the girl. “I’d better go see him.” I stood up to put some decent clothes on and heard the wood groan as she leaned against it. “You coming in?”
She slid open the screen. She was wearing red gingham that it sort of looked like she’d thrown on over her nightshirt. She was barefoot and her hair was wild, and she was really lovely, though the dark framed her like a chiaroscuro painting — or maybe because of it, her skin which was really pretty pale beneath her field tan so bright against the shadowed attic. She stood in the doorway clutching onto the placket of her shirt like it she couldn’t trust its buttons.
I gathered her up into my arms and felt good with her against me, since it’s not like I got to hold her altogether that often, busy and crowded as this place was. She let her hands go from her breast and wrapped them around my hips, holding on to me through my undershirt. She had a chill on her face and body.
“What’s the matter, amor?” I asked. Spanish would get her every time, seeing as all they spoke in Oregon was Japanese and plain American English.
“You better go see daddy,” she said, shivering, and when I let her go she went and sat on my bed, back against the wall, one leg crossed under the other. She played with the ends of her hair in her lap. I threw on brogans and a three-button shirt and then pulled on a flannel against the pine tree night and its hand-in-hand chill.
“Did I wake you?” she asked as I was lacing up my shoes. It was characteristic: Something goes bump in the dark and Clemson Tull is waiting for me past midnight, and she was worried about my rest and health.
“Naw,” I said. “Naw. I was working.” I crossed to my empty notebook and took the lantern from its surface. The light pitched in the room, and it threw full and bright against her, and she was lit in its roundish glow on my bedroll like a figure in a cameo.
“Were you getting a lot done?” she asked, and looked at my desk, with its messy stacks of notebooks and reference books and mismatched papers. My suitcase sat under it all, deflated by my stay in Oregon, only transient in name. That was like her, too. Her sweetheart was an important postgraduate from California, in case you were asking, an intellectual anthropologist, and it tickled her ever so much that I should come up to this nowhere corner of the abandoned Oregon Country to write about her and her family and her folks and land.
“Course,” I lied, and gave her a big moon-pie smile. She wasn’t the sort for me to explain these writerly distinctions to, these widgets and grommets. If it gave her pleasure to call me sweetheart and call me Washington Irving, that I’d stay on here in Kirikabu, send off to Santa Clara for my things, and we’d be these cultured czars of the piney land — God bless her. God bless her. “Close your eyes, amor,” I told her, and though my Spanish was bad she had no way of knowing, and it was like maple to her.
Tull hollered to me when I came out onto the porch. He was standing in the grass and darkness away from the house, a little humanish shape lit by a lantern held at waist height. I closed the shoji screen behind me and went to go join him.
He didn’t talk to me, just grunted when I got to him and we walked out into the night, coursing through his property, through the cleared parts, and then into the pines, out until I gathered we were somewhere along the edge. He had his Colt tucked into the big hip pocket of his lumber jacket, and a lantern in one hand. He flexed his jaw like a ruminant, and I saw him kind of look around like he was searching in the black spaces between the trees. And then, when he saw it, I figured, he kind of cocked his head like he’d just been slapped, and he led me a few feet away until we were standing the two of us over a dead body.
It was thrown flat to the ground, one arm up and one arm down, sort of like a cactus you might see if you went far east of Santa Clara like we did once or twice to study Indians in undergraduate. It had been a white fellow, with hair that was light but dirty, and some freckles or grime splattered on the pale skin. It was wearing a sheepskin jacket and dungarees, and a pair of brogans more or less like mine, and except for the face whose dead eye was obvious and glassy, and the two big blooming daubs of blood across its back, you could hardly tell it was a corpse. It was an it — that part was very important, was that, having not seen altogether that many corpses in my time (though more than a few like I said when I studied the Indians in Nevada, what with burial customs and all), I, without thinking, decided that a corpse wasn’t a person any more than beef was a cow.
Deciding that was easy enough, unconscious and all, but I wasn’t any less shocked. I looked for a while with Tull, staring at the body, sort of caught off guard by the sudden appearance of this personlike thing, laying out in the pinewoods at two or three in the morning with the sky black as tar. After a while I turned to look at Tull and asked him, “Did you do this?”
“Yup,” said Tull, and moved his tongue around in his mouth like it was cud, it being characteristic of him.
“OK,” I said, and rattled things around in my head. The bridge of my eyeglasses felt very tight and I wanted to take them off and pinch my nose. But I didn’t, not in front of my landlord and employer and prospective father-in-law, whose easy attitude toward death, heretofore only understood secondhand, was now so neatly on display like men’s suits in the display window of a Mitsukoshi. “How?”
“’Chiro doesn’t do watch on Saturday nights,” he said curtly, which I understood well enough. Junichiro, the other logger and farmhand, did night watches Monday and Wednesday. I did them Tuesday and Thursday, and Tull did them Friday and Saturday. Sundays we sort of made a party of it and would walk around with growlers and tobacco. So Junichiro was at home in town where he would be on Saturdays, and that was fine, but it still didn’t really come to explain how there was this dead body out on the edges of the pines. I said as much.
Tull grunted not unsympathetic to my concerns. “I caught him coming on through the trees.”
“And you killed him?” I asked.
“Yup,” he said, sure of it.
“What if he was just some drunk jerk?” I asked.
Tull grunted at that too, ’cause he’d sort of thought of everything. He adjusted his grip on the lantern and leaned forward to turn the corpse over with his toe. The body flopped in the brush, and I saw first the bullet wounds in his chest, then the double-cocked sawn-off under him, half-sticky with blood and coated with dead leaves and little clods of dirt.
“Aw,” I said. “OK.” He grunted in response.
Come Monday we were on the road just after dawn. Junichiro met us about two miles in. He had his own horse, and Tull and I rode in the wagon. I took the reins and he sort of propped his feet up on the board and watched the light coming up through the trees. We all said our ohayous and then Junichiro fell into place with the wagon. Day before, Junichiro came up to the house with his wife and kid, and after Sunday dinner we told him about the body — or I told him, and Tull sort of corroborated everything I said with a nod here or there and the utterance, “Yup.” After that we burned it and did our rounds, and didn’t catch anything but maybe cold.
Still, on the road into town, I couldn’t exactly help but wonder if maybe I wouldn’t stick around too long in the Oregon Country any more, seeing as I’d been away from California for a long time — at least, that’s how I figured then, because apocalypses are easy to imagine, but things falling apart, little things, well, can’t a man on earth do that with cool comfort. Not for nothing, but we’d strapped up that morning. We’d loaded the wagon with timber and fur, and then Tull had his Colt and I had me a LeMat tucked into the inside flap of my lumber coat, uncocked but yeah, fully loaded with even a shotshell in the chin gun.
Junichiro was a quiet fellow but I figured him for good company, in spite of all that. He had a little dusting of beard on his face the way a lot of these Oregon-born colonists tended to have, when most of the older folks come into the territory from Japan were baldfaced. Then there weren’t a whole lot of old folks around, especially not out here in the backcountry, but there were a handful come in originally on the Omikami and her sister ships. He had a little house in the sticks, with a few dozen acres of wood that were his own, but he’d been working for Tull for as long as I had, and longer obviously. He had a wife named Keiko, and a daughter named Chie, who were nice enough, but generally quieter than Tull’s clan, it being the Japanese way and all.
Furthermore, he had the not unpleasant habit of asking me intellectual questions, and though he was a colony-born fellow, I gathered that his parents kept him literate, God bless them, and he knew the sorts of things about Japan and Japanese that you might expect a fellow to know. So in this particular case, on the road to New Otaru, we were talking about the Indians in Nevada, and how I’d studied them for a few months in my undergraduate years. There were not so many Indians in the Oregon Country any more, seeing as the ones with any sense had moved to Canada, so they were sort of alien to a Japanman. I got the feeling he had a hard time wrapping his head around how there could be so many of one sort of person in a place at one time, that’s the Indians, and then — there be gone. Because even when the Japanese come over from the Home Islands on the Omikami, even when they planted the Rising Sun Flag on Cape Lookout, staked out a piece of our bright continent for themselves, the Indians were pretty much gone from the Oregon Country. I suppose white folks had chased them all off, in years from when you called the Rump State the United States of America and were proud of it instead of puckish.
“Do you have interest in the Indians of Oregon?” he asked me. His body, lean and casual on horseback, nodded back and forth with his mare’s steady pacing.
“Interest,” I said. “Interest, sure. But I’d have to go on up to Canada for that. I don’t know when I’m gonna get up there.”
Junichiro shrugged. He was wearing a shearling jacket and had this old beat-up Boss of the Plains hat I never saw him do work without, the color of clabber on his head. The jacket was heavy on his body, and made him look thickset as one of the sumo wrestlers he’d told me about, queer custom as it was. “When you finish your book about us,” he said, and I thought that was characteristic, a bit off-putting, because, hell, my research was pointedly not about the Tulls, or Junichiro, or any of the people I’d met in Oregon. It simply wasn’t how capital-A Anthropology worked. But these folks couldn’t or I think didn’t want to wrap their heads around that, because in their heads a little bit after they got done being raw with me, I think I excited them— college-educated California man, university man. And I was fit to cut lumber and kill beavers with the rest of them, maybe not the best of them, but at this point, how much was Oregon a frontier, really, and how much was it just sort of half-abandoned by any effort other than a million or so trappers and lumberjacks all aiming to get by, and the leftovers of a colony the last bank Panic went and left behind?
I was gonna respond, but someone down the road called out, “Howdy,” to us. I turned from Junichiro to look through the thick Pacific air. There was an urbane-looking fellow in a gray-blue suit with kempt whiskers a little ways away from us. I glanced at Tull. He was looking ahead at the fellow, rolling his jaw around. He gave a little tilt of the head that I interpreted as a nod.
“Ho, fella,” I called out to him, and slowed the mules. I took a second, better, look, and made out some other figures thumping in the morning mist. I wasn’t necessarily ready to call them goons, but was, I thought, sharp enough to assume in good faith that they were with the dandy in one capacity or another.
The fellow approached us at a trot, and I saw he did indeed have two Oregonian-looking dudes with him, wearing dungarees and knit caps. One was sort of heavy with a strawberry beard, and had mean dumb eyes like a pig, and the other one had short-cropped dark hair on his face, and one heavy eyebrow. They were riding mules and yeah, pretty clearly they were carrying guns. OK.
“You wanna ask your sweethearts to put away their pistols, there?” I asked the dandy, and stopped our mules.
The fellow reined in his horse, this lovely gray dappled mare with a low bashful-looking mane. He was wearing a nice felt bowler that made him look a sight more lantern-jawed than I think he actually was. “I ain’t a slave-driver,” said the fellow, and offered me a smile made sharper by his shaped whiskers. “They can do what they want.”
“OK,” I said, trying to be a lad. “Then maybe you could get out of our way, what with us having errands to run and all.”
“What have you got in that bed?” he asked me, ignoring me.
I sighed and sort of tried to look unamused. “We got timber and we got pelts.”
“Timber and pelts,” he repeated. “Y’all ain’t got any turpentine in there, huh?”
Next to me, Tull sucked his teeth loudly. I felt any remaining speck of humor in me go out with a flat thunderclap. I’d sort of figured that these fellows would be from the Conference, sort of how I figured that the body Tull had shown me Saturday night was as well. The Conference had been after Tull’s land for three or four months now, lowballing him, putting the pressure on here and there. They’d let a little cattle, what little there was, into his woods to muck about and make things generally unpleasant. They’d trap in his pinewoods, on his land, and force us to chase them off and sometimes they’d get away cleanly, with pelts that were rightly his. But most of all they’d buffalo us over the God-damned turpentine.
“Listen, fella,” I began.
“Mr. Tull, good morning,” said the fellow, and touched his derby with two fingers. His eyes were smiling. “Have you given our offer any more thought?”
Tull looked him over evenly. “Your bosses figure me for a flake, I reckon,” he said, pretty uninterested. “I don’t know how many times I’m gonna’ have to say no to you people before I start getting mean-spirited about it.”
“You’re sitting on a hundred-odd acres of good, turpentine-producing pinewoods there, Mr. Tull,” said the fellow, as though he didn’t know it.
“Shoot,” murmured Tull, surprised as a chef who burned himself on a chuffing stove.
“And we’ve been pretty clear,” he continued, and made a face as though it gave him great pains to break things down so politely, “how interested we are in your woods.”
“We’ve been pretty clear too,” I boiled up, but Tull sort of patted me on my ribs with the back of his hand, and I felt him rapping at the cylinder of my LeMat. I figured that for a deliberate action.
“You could even keep the house,” said the fellow, and smiled coldly.
“I intend to keep the house,” Tull said. “Kusanagi Akira sold that house and a ‘hundred-odd acres’ of that pinewood to my father so he could go back to Honshu, and my father gave it to me, and if you think you’re the first Rump State carpetbagger to try to buy it off a Tull, you ain’t, and I’m gonna’ tell you something real flat, Mister —”
“Tweed,” offered the fellow.
“I don’t care what your name is, mister,” said Tull with a bit of sand in his voice. “Mister Graveler Conference is what I was gonna call you before you so rudely interrupted me — Mister Graveler Conference. I’m gonna be real clear and even with you: If you come on my land, I’m gonna kill you, and if you send someone on my land, I’m gonna kill them like I killed your boy Saturday night.”
“Evar,” said Tweed with an easy smile. “Did you give him a Christian burial?”
“Parker and I burned him with some garbage we were fixin’ to get rid of anyways.”
Tweed just smiled like he’d heard a good joke, and with one hand he tugged at his whiskers while the other held his reins. He patted the pommel of his saddle. “I’ve got 5,000 hansatsu in my saddlebag here,” he began.
“If you say another word to me,” Tull said very evenly, “I will spit on you.”
“And I —”
Tull patted my toe with the sole of his right brogan, and I saw him peel back his lips and shoot a jet of brown spit through his teeth at Tweed. It looked like a pound or so, a thick heavy gout of chaw-dark saliva splattering on the lapel of his coat and waistcoat. At the same time, I put my hand in my jacket and took out my LeMat and cocked the hammer with my thumb.
Tweed’s mouth dropped open and I saw him unbuckle his saddlebag to reach for something, and probably not a handkerchief. “I wouldn’t,” said Tull, and though I hadn’t seen him do it, he had his Colt in his hand with his thumb on the hammer, braced against his knee.
Beside me, Junichiro had two greasy black Peacemakers in his hands, wrist crossed over wrist, one barrel trained on each of Tweed’s goons. His thumbs, flat and thin, were poised over the hammers, and his face was even and inscrutable beneath the curling brim of his hat. I watched him very gently run his tongue over his bottom lip, moistening it.
“OK,” I said, and I couldn’t help but smile a bit at this slick but definitely not college-educated geek with his dumb derby and ruined lapels. He was probably fixing to pull a Derringer out of his saddlebag, and I was hot under the collar for thumbing the lever and putting a shotshell through the leather and money, and his leg if convenient. Just enough to scare him and spook his horse.
“OK,” he murmured, less to me and more to himself, and his whiskers barely hid the sneer of his upper lip. “We’ll get out of your way,” he said, and I could watch his heart swelling and bursting inside his chest, and yeah, I knew it was killing him to be so polite without condescension.
“You’d better,” I said, and felt really confident with a gun in my hand, even if it wasn’t entirely mine.
We went on toward town, and after a little while we put our guns away, gently nosing the hammers forward. It’s not like I was upset I didn’t get to shoot it off, not really, but I wonder if maybe it wouldn’t have been better to get the drop on them there, if maybe we ought to have just made like back-stabbing bushwhackers and killed them all without any real indication, and if we’d done so, how things might have gone better and I’d be writing this at my desk in Tull’s attic, stranded, but not altogether upset about it, in the Oregon Country.
When we got back from New Otaru, the sun was settling comfortably behind the pinewoods. Rebecca was standing on the porch in bare feet, tall and thin as a beanpole for a girlish 9 years of age. She had Lizzie’s hair and skin, heavy dark with healthy clay, with but a pinch of Tull’s youthful pallor mixed in. Now that was all buried under his farmer’s tan, skin rubbed raw by the thumb of the sun. When she saw us coming up the road she sort of scratched her ankle with the sole of one foot, then turned and hollered into the house that we were back.
In the little barn, Junichiro hitched his horse and I jumped down and flipped the tailgate, but Tull stopped me. “Naw, leave the wagon packed with that stuff,” he told me, and sort of patted his vest where he kept his money.
“OK,” I said, and we went back into the house. Dinner went by quick. It wasn’t a Sunday anymore and I think we were telling ourselves we felt raw about not getting to get more done because of having to go into town, in place of what I think had us churning our guts. There was a salt smell in the dining room, that’s how I read it. I could smell sodium tang and I felt on edge, my teeth as scurvy as gunsights. My pistol hung in my coat on the back of my chair. I hadn’t given it back to Tull yet because he hadn’t asked, and furthermore, I liked having it by my side like some yokel in a black Stetson might come walking through and I’d have to ventilate him, or more accurately a wispy little dandy in a bowler hat…
We drank coffee after dinner, and Tull sort of steepled his fingers on his belly and said, “Yup,” and then a moment later elaborated his confirmation, saying, “I think I’m gonna’ have me a chew. Lizzie?”
She sat at the other end of the table, closest to the open shoji screens leading into the kitchen. She raised her eyebrows at him. “If you don’t mind me having my pipe,” she said, which was sort of characteristic of her, that kind of challenge. He grunted, and they got up and left after she directed Rebecca and Leona to clear the table.
Junichiro picked at his teeth with his fingernail, not looking at anything in particular. He was now the boss sort of, but I felt authoritative given I was a man, college-educated in fact, and he was checked out or so it seemed. So I cleared my throat and set my fists on the table. “I’m going to have a look out at the pinewoods,” I decided, and I looked around. The younger girls were clearing the table and didn’t pay me much mind. Ruth was nursing her coffee. I looked at her. “Ruth will you give me a hand with that?”
“Alright,” she said, but didn’t make a motion to get up. She kept on staring into her coffee like she was a medicine woman divining grounds.
I rubbed my jaw and then got up and put on my jacket and the gun banged against my ribs.
She and I walked out from the back porch to look at the trees ostensibly. In Japan, houses didn’t really have porches I don’t think, but it was something the colonists had sort of picked up from the locals. It certainly threw off the nice lines of the curving pagoda roof. I didn’t lay a hand on her and we stood out there under the darkening sky watching nothing in particular, my hands on my hips, her hands crossed in front of her skirt.
After a while she asked me, “What’s going on?”
I thought about how to answer that, felt sensibilities punching at each other like the big Mexicans that would box for 5-peso bets in Yerba Buena. Then I said, “Some fellows from the Graveler Conference tried to get your daddy to sell this land today.”
“OK,” she said. “But before that?”
“What are you talking about?” I asked, feeling irritable.
“Saturday night,” she said. “When I had to go wake you up.”
“You didn’t wake me up,” I corrected her. “I was already awake.” She inhaled beside me. “Your daddy killed a man that the Graveler Conference sent onto the property.”
“Sent to do what?” she asked. I didn’t answer because I didn’t know what to say, honestly. “Parker?”
“I don’t know,” I snapped, and wanted to tell her to quit bothering me. All I did was work on the God-damned property. You could read that in the way that he took Lizzie out on to the porch to strategize and not me or Junichiro. “He had a gun, girl,” I said mean-spiritedly. “You’re smart.”
“What did he say?”
“Not much, I expect —”
“Seeing as he’s dead and all.”
“Damn it, Parker,” and the words sounded rough coming off her tongue, but I think it was just because I’d never heard her cuss before. “Are we going to have to leave?” she asked, but I don’t think she was asking me. She’d figured out that she wasn’t going to get answers out of me, not about these sorts of things she figured mattered. Was she asking God? Did she believe in Him? Not likely, seeing as she was her father’s daughter and I don’t think Tull had a religious bone in his body. The little girls took after Lizzie’s Gullah faith, hard and proud and fiercely independent, but Ruth was too much a woman now to borrow from— let’s be straight — a usurper.
After a few minutes I tried to offer some clarity. “You know, in New Edo —”
“Parker, god damn it,” but it was god with a little “g.”
Instead I heard footsteps behind me in the grass. I looked over my shoulder, whiskers on my chin prickling against the collar of my jacket. Lizzie was approaching with her pipe clamped between her teeth, puffing against the smoke or the exertion, I don’t know. She stopped a few footsteps away and plucked the stem from her mouth, teeth white against her dusky skin. “Tull wants to see you, boy,” she said to me, and cocked her head at the sweeping gables of the house.
He was on the other side of the house, the front porch, leaning against a stair post. He had chaw heavy in his cheek, working it over, and his jacket was pulled back so the handle of his Colt was showing like a curve of docked horn.
“Tull?” I asked him, and was very conscious of my LeMat.
“Everything you own you can fit back in your suitcase?” he asked me.
“Yessir,” I said, hesitatingly. “Sir?”
“OK, Parker,” he said to me. “You ever killed a man?”
“Naw,” I said, and had to lean against the other post.
“How much you think I can get for the katana hanging in the parlor?”
I pressed the heels of my hands hard against my eyes. I felt maybe like I was going insane.
“4,000 hansatsu,” said Junichiro, and I looked back to see him standing with his thumbs hooked in his suspenders. He was wearing his Boss of the Plains hat. “If you wait to find the right buyer.”
“How long?” asked Tull.
“It could take months.”
Tull spit through his teeth into the grass. “I think some folks might come and try to take this place from us.”
“I think so, too,” I said, trying to be helpful.
He side-eyed me. “Tonight.” He chewed his tobacco. “And I’m wondering if we shouldn’t just burn these woods to the ground so they don’t get a cinder.” We didn’t say anything, and instead just looked at him. “But I’m not looking to get y’all killed, and I figure that’s what would happen if I spat too hard in their face.” He turned to Junichiro. “Go home,” he said to him.
Junichiro stared at him for a long while, impassive, thumbs in his suspenders. At the end of the day he wasn’t a warrior, and wasn’t bound to any code of bushido, and what made him a man, I think, was his duty to his family and how he kept to it, and that’s why he lowered his hat over his eyes and walked off the porch. He paused next to Tull and said something to him in Japanese that I didn’t understand, and Tull didn’t look at him or say anything back, and I watched the dirty crown of his hat bobbing until the air got too dark and I couldn’t see him anymore.
Then he turned to me. “You’re gonna help me pack the wagon,” he told me.
“Okay,” I said. “We’re leaving?”
“You’re leavin’,” he corrected me. “I’m gonna’ wait for them to show up and I’m gonna keep my promise to ’em.”
I blinked at him. “You’re gonna leave the girls behind?”
“Dammit, boy,” he said, and he pushed me hard on the shoulder so I stumbled. “I ain’t intending to die in this pinewoods. Did I say I was gonna die? I said I was intendin’ to kill. Have a lick of faith in me, will ya?” He shook his head, and turned and spit again. Then turned back. “I want you to drive the wagon again, and I want you to drive ’em into New Otaru, and then if the money’ll stretch, I want you to drive ’em to New Edo. And then you can take a thousand hansatsu and go back to California, if you like.”
“You’re giving me the money?”
“No, Parker,” he said very, very flatly. “I’m giving Lizzie the money, but I ain’t gonna make my wife drive the wagon, and we been fair to ya and I’m asking you to do a few more days of work for me whether I’m there or not, OK?”
“I don’t know,” I mumbled, “I don’t know if I’m ready to take care of ’em.”
“I know you’re not,” he said, and I couldn’t make out his face, it was getting so dark. “And I know you ain’t planning to make a wife of Ruth either, which is why I’m saying you can go where you like afterwards, but I ain’t got anyone else to ask, and you got to do this for me first.”
I was quiet for a while. I didn’t like what he said about me because it felt like he didn’t deserve to be so incisive after saying as few words to me as he had these past few months. I didn’t like him telling me right now he knew about Ruth and me, like it didn’t bother him or he didn’t care that I was with her or he didn’t care I didn’t have the notion to marry her. I hated it. I hated that he had this notion that I was going to cut and run so he was going to hold the thousand from me until I got the girls to New Edo.
Then I balled up my fists. I was very, very conscious of the gun by my ribs. “OK, old man,” I said. “But when you meet us halfway up the road I expect you to drive your own God-damned wagon.”
When I came out of the barn I thought there was maybe ball lightning or some kind of yokai glowing on the edge of the property. In a line, like lanterns on a fence, I saw maybe 15 or 20 bobbing blots of hot light out by the main road. I called Tull to come see and when he did he shouldered past me and went into the house without saying a word. I hitched up the mule team and brought the wagon out to the front of the house. I could make out, now the figures of men on mule and horseback, with pinewood torches and lanterns and in all, about 15 or 20 of those flaming orange bright lights across the lip of the front pinewoods.
I took out my gun and laid it in my lap, and I watched as the girls came out of the house. Lizzie was sort of in front, because she was bundling along her two youngest, Leona and Rebecca, who looked sleepy and confused against the night. Lizzie herself just seemed flat and preoccupied, face as inexpressive as the moon itself, maybe even less so, because the brightness had sort of gone out of her skin and she was dull as hard-baked adobe. Behind her, Ruth and Hana looked a little more cowed, a little more resigned. It was like they’d gotten through the shock and were now slouching under its weight. One by one, Lizzie loaded her little girls into the back of the wagon, then Hana helped her in. She hung a lantern on the peg by my seat.
“Ruth,” Lizzie said softly. “Go sit in front.” She did. She walked around and I reached across the bench and pulled her up. She held something long and thin in one hand, and when she settled her skirt across the bench she laid it in her lap, clutching it tightly with both hands. I realized after a minute that it was the katana from the parlor, and a moment after that I realized that I didn’t know where exactly it’d come from. It seemed like the kind of thing Kusanagi Akira might have wanted to take back to the Home Islands, but then, maybe it wasn’t his. Or maybe it was, and it was a parting gift to one Holden Tull, who was graciously taking the desolate pinewoods off his hands for more than it was worth.
“Ruth,” I said to her, but instead she looked across me at the slouching front porch of the house. It was deep and shadowed like a gouged-out wound in your thigh flesh, an odd mix of boondocks pragmatism and Japanese idealism.
“Daddy,” she murmured.
I turned. Tull was standing on the porch, chewing slowly. He had the handle of his Colt turned out and I saw that he’d taken down the Winchester too and was holding it in one hand, its muzzle pointed at the ceiling. He looked at me, then looked us all over like we were property and he was supervising us. Then he turned his head and his face went into the darkness and I heard but didn’t see him spit into the grass. When I realized he wasn’t going to say anything to us I looked away from him and whipped the reins and set the mules to turn and go up the track toward the chain of fire at the edge of the pinewoods.
Next to me, Ruth clutched the katana in its scabbard, lacquered wood the color of deep-black plums, burning in long strokes with the light from the torches. We drove up the path, quiet, just the sound of the wheels and the reins and the mules’ hooves against tamped-down dirt.
I saw that fellow on horseback in his gray suit, though he had a piece of yellowish sackcloth over his head with black blots where the eyes were, and so no derby on his head. I wanted to see if the tobacco stain was on his lapels, like it would make me feel sort of better about this running instead of standing with Tull on that porch with two pistols and a Stetson like a cowpuncher, but the light was sour and I couldn’t see anything but the gun in his hand, held tangled up with the reins.
As we drove by I propped up the LeMat on my knee and pointed it at his stomach. “God damn you,” I told him, and I felt so impotent in that moment, like there was nothing but wax in my chambers, and no trigger for me to pull. I thought I heard him laugh and then he gave a tilt of his bagged head, bloated with sackcloth, and some of the horsemen parted off the road to let us pass through. But they didn’t say anything to us, and he didn’t say anything back, and after a bit I lowered the gun flush with my thigh and kept driving.
And drove into the dark, I drove out into the dark. The six of us drove down the road and the sky was black and starless, and I couldn’t make out the pinewoods as much more than black stripes soft through the night, and I kept driving until my fists couldn’t clench any tighter on the reins and then I shook my head and pulled and drove us off to the shoulder, to the grass at the edge of the road where the pinewoods had been interrupted.
“What are you doing?” Ruth asked me, and I turned around and didn’t answer her. I held the pistol in one hand and the reins in the other and I looked past Lizzie and her daughters and the night to the hard black head of the road, back to the flat unkind wall that the house was behind, and I waited for Tull. I waited for him to come walking up the road, or on a mule, or maybe on horseback, because in that moment I couldn’t remember if there were more animals in the barn or just the two-mule train, I felt so wrapped up and hot like a little kid. I waited to hear his footsteps or the clip-clop of a horse, I waited there on the road in the night with his family and mine for him to come and take the reins out of my hand and together we could go on to wherever the future would take us.