About the Book

About the Author

Also by Thomas Savage


Title Page


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14


The History of Vintage


About the Author

Thomas Savage was born on 25 April 1915 in Salt Lake City, Utah, to a large sheep-ranching family. His parents divorced when he was two years old, and on his mother’s remarriage Savage moved with her to Montana. He studied at the University of Montana and worked as a ranch hand for several years, but when an article he wrote on horse-breaking was published in Coronet magazine in 1937, Savage enrolled at Colby College in Maine to study English. He went on to have a variety of jobs, including welder, insurance man and plumber as well as teaching English at Brandeis and Vassar. His first novel, The Pass, was published in 1944 and he went on to write twelve more, including The Power of the Dog. He was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 1980. Thomas Savage died in Virginia on 25 July 2003, aged eighty-eight.

About the Book

Phil and George are brothers, more than partners, joint owners of the biggest ranch in their Montana valley.

Phil is the bright one, George the plodder. Phil is tall and angular; George is stocky and silent. Phil is a brilliant chess player, a voracious reader, an eloquent storyteller; George learns slowly, and devotes himself to the business.

Phil is a vicious sadist, with a seething contempt for weakness to match his thirst for dominance; George has a gentle, loving soul. They sleep in the room they shared as boys, and so it has been for forty years.

When George unexpectedly marries a young widow and brings her to live at the ranch, Phil begins an relentless campaign to destroy his brother’s new wife. But he reckons without an unlikely protector.

From its visceral first paragraph to its devastating twist of an ending, The Power of the Dog will hold you in its grip.



The Pass
Lona Hanson
A Bargain with God
Trust in Chariots
The Liar
Daddy’s Girl
A Strange God
Midnight Line
The Sheep Queen
Her Side of It
For Mary, with Love
The Corner of Rife and Pacific


For my wife

Deliver my soul from the sword
My darling from the power of the dog.

– Psalms


Phil always did the castrating; first he sliced off the cup of the scrotum and tossed it aside; next he forced down first one and then the other testicle, slit the rainbow membrane that enclosed it, tore it out, and tossed it into the fire where the branding irons glowed. There was surprisingly little blood. In a few moments the testicles exploded like huge popcorn. Some men, it was said, ate them with a little salt and pepper. ‘Mountain oysters,’ Phil called them with that sly grin of his, and suggested to young ranch hands that if they were fooling around with the girls they’d do well to eat them, themselves.

Phil’s brother George, who did the roping, blushed at the suggestion, especially since it was made before the hired men. George was a stocky, humorless, decent man, and Phil liked to get his goat. Lord, how Phil did like to get people’s goats!

No one wore gloves for such delicate jobs as castrating, but they wore gloves for almost all other jobs to protect their hands against rope burns, splinters, cuts, blisters. They wore gloves roping, fencing, branding, pitching hay out to cattle, even simply riding, running horses or trailing cattle. All of them, that is, except Phil. He ignored blisters, cuts and splinters and scorned those who wore gloves to protect themselves. His hands were dry, powerful, lean.

The ranch hands and cowboys wore horsehide gloves ordered out of the catalogues of Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward — Sears and Sawbuck and Monkey Ward, as Phil named those houses. After work or on Sundays when the bunkhouse was steamy with the water for washing clothes or shaving, fragrant with the odor of bay rum on those about to go into town, they would struggle with their order blanks, hunched over like huge children, biting the end of the pencil, frowning at their crabbed handwriting, puzzling over the shipping weight and the location of their postal zone. Often they gave up the struggle, sighed and turned the job over to one more familiar with writing and numbers, some one among them who had got as far as high school, one who sometimes wrote letters for them to fathers and mothers and remembered sisters.

But how marvelous to get the order into the mails, how delicious and terrible to wait for the parcel from Seattle or Portland that might include with the new gloves, new shoes for town, phonograph records, a musical instrument to charm away the loneliness of winter evenings when the winds howled like wolves down from the mountain peaks.

Our very best guitar. Play Spanish-style music and chords. Wide ebony fingerboard, fine resonant fan-ribbed natural spruce top, rosewood sides and back, genuine horn bindings. This is a real Beauty.

Waiting for their order to get to the post office fifteen miles down the road, they read again and again such descriptions, reliving the filling out of the order blank, honing their anticipation. Genuine horn bindings!

‘Well, you fellows looking over the old Wish Book?’ Phil would ask, standing by the stove and stamping the snow off his feet. He would look out into the room, spraddle-legged, his bare hands clasped behind him. Over the years a few of the young men tried to imitate his habit of going barehanded, maybe seeking his approving smile or nod, but their imitations went unnoticed and at last they took up their gloves again. ‘Looking over the old Wish Book?’

‘Sure thing, Phil,’ they’d say, proud to call him by his first name, but closing the catalogue under cover of conversation that he might not see them lusting after the pert women who modeled corsets and underwear. How they admired his detachment! Half-owner of the biggest ranch in the valley, he could afford any damned thing he wanted, any automobile, Lozier or Pierce-Arrow, say, but he desired no car. His brother George had once expressed a wish to buy a Pierce, and Phil had said, ‘Want to look like some Jew?’ And that was the end of it. No, Phil didn’t drive. His saddle, hanging by a stirrup from a peg in the big long log barn, was a good twenty years old; his spurs were of good plain steel — no fancy silver inlays, not such spurs as crowded the dreams of others; he wore plain shoes instead of boots, scorned the trimmings and trappings of the cowboy, although in his younger days he was as good a rider as any of them, a better roper than George. With all his money and family, he was just folks, dressed like any hired hand in overalls and blue chambray shirt; three times a year George drove him into Herndon for a haircut; he sat in the front seat of the old Reo stiff as an Indian in his stiff town suit, his imperious nose hawklike under the slate-gray fedora, his jaw jutting. So he sat in Whitey Judd’s barber chair, his long, thin, weathered hands motionless on the cool arms of the chair while his accumulated hair fell in piles to the white-tiled floor around him.

A drummer, a natty dresser with a flashing stickpin, had once chuckled and questioned Whitey.

‘Wouldn’t laugh, if I was you, mister,’ Whitey remarked. ‘He could buy and sell you fifty times over, or anybody else in the valley except his brother. I’m proud to have him sit in my chair, mighty proud.’ Snip, snip, snip. ‘Him and his brother are partners.’

Just so they were, and more than partners, more than brothers. They rode together at roundup time, talked together as if they’d met for the first time, talked of the old days in high school and at a California university where George, as a matter of fact, had flunked out the same year that Phil was graduated. Phil recalled tricks he’d played on other students, friends they’d had — high jinks. Phil had been the bright one, George the plodder.

It was something of a joint decision when they sold their steers each fall or bought a Morgan stud to improve the saddle stock. Each year Phil looked forward to hunting in October when the willows along the creeks had turned a rusty red and the haze from distant forest fires hung like veils over the mountain peaks. You saw the two of them with their packhorses riding across the flats toward the mountains, Phil with his stubby carbine, or with his thirty-caliber. It was not unusual to see such a relationship between brothers, Phil tall and angular, staring with his day-blue eyes into the distance, then at the ground close by; George stocky and imperturbable, jogging along on a stocky and imperturbable bay horse. They made wagers — who would sight and shoot the first elk? How Phil did relish a meal of elk liver! At night they made camp below timberline and sat cross-legged before the fire talking of the old days and of plans for a new barn that never materialized because that would mean tearing down the old one; they unrolled their beds side by side and together listened in the dark to the song of a tiny stream, no wider than a man’s stride, the very source of the Missouri River. They slept, and woke to find hoarfrost.

So it had been for years, Phil now just forty. So too they slept in the room they had as boys, in the very brass beds, rattling around now in the big log house since those Phil referred to as the Old Folks had taken off to spend their autumn years in a suite of rooms in the best hotel in Salt Lake City. There the Old Gent dabbled in the stock market and the Old Lady played mah-jongg and dressed for dinner as she always had. Closed off, the Old Folks’ bedroom gathered dust kicked up by the automobiles — more and more of them every day — that putt-putted up the road out front. In that room the air grew stale, the Old Lady’s geraniums died, the black marble clock stopped.

The brothers kept Mrs Lewis, the cook, who lived in a cabin out back, and she found time to clean the house after a fashion, complaining at every movement of the broom. Gone now was the girl, last of a series, who had waited table and slept upstairs in a tiny room. Her presence might have looked strange in a bachelor establishment, but still the brothers comported themselves with almost shocking modesty as if women still stalked the house. George bathed once a week, entering the bathroom fully clothed, locking the door behind him; silently he bathed, with small splashing and no song; fully clothed he emerged, but followed by the telltale steam. Phil never used the tub, for he did not like it known he bathed. Instead, he bathed once a month in a deep hole in the creek known only to George and to him and, once, one other. He looked around before he went there, should there be prying eyes, and he dried himself in the sun, for carrying a towel would have cried out his purpose. In the fall and spring he had sometimes to break a crust of ice. In the winter months he didn’t bathe. Never had the brothers appeared naked before each other; before they undressed at night they snapped off the electric lights — the first in the valley.

Nowadays they ate their breakfast with the hired men in the back dining room, but took their dinner and supper as before in the front dining room off white linen, and the tools they used were sterling. It is not easy or desirable to slough off old habits, or to forget who you are, a Burbank with the best connections in Boston, back East in Massachusetts.

It sometimes worried Phil that George got a far-off look, rocking in his chair, for George’s eyes would suddenly stare out across to the mountain called Old Tom thirty miles away and twelve thousand feet, a beloved mountain, and George would rock and rock and rock, looking across the flat.

‘What’s the matter, old-timer?’ Phil would ask. ‘Old mind wandering again?’

‘What’s that?’

‘I say, your mind wandering again?’

‘No, no.’ George would slowly cross his heavy legs.

‘How about a little cribbage?’ They had kept careful score over the years.

To Phil, George’s trouble was that he didn’t engage his mind. George was no great reader, like Phil. To George, the Saturday Evening Post was the limit; like a child, George was moved by stories of animals and nature. Phil read Asia, Mentor, Scientific American and books of travel and philosophy the fancy relatives back East sent by the dozen at Christmastime. His was a keen, sharp, inquiring mind — an engaged mind — that confounded cattle-buyers and salesmen who supposed that one who dressed as Phil dressed, who talked as Phil talked, must be simple and illiterate, one with such hair and such hands. But his habits and appearance required strangers to alter their conception of an aristocrat to one who can afford to be himself.

George had no hobbies, no lively interests. Phil worked in wood. He constructed the derricks that stacked the wild hay — timothy, redtop and clover — hewing out the huge beams with adze and plane. With those clever naked hands he carved those tiny chairs no higher than an inch in Sheraton or the style of Adam; his fingers moved like spiders’ legs, paused briefly sometimes as if to think, for Phil’s fingers had a private intelligence lodged, perhaps, in their padded tips. Seldom did his knife slip, and if it did, he scorned the iodine or Phenol-Sodique, two of the few medicines in the house, for as a family the Burbanks did not believe in medicine. His little wounds healed rapidly once he had wiped them with the blue bandanna he stuffed in a rear pocket.

Some who knew Phil said, ‘What a waste!’ For ranching was no demanding or challenging occupation, once you had the ranch, and required brawn but little brain. Phil, people marveled, might have been anything — doctor, teacher, artisan, artist. He had shot, skinned and stuffed a lynx with skill that would have abashed a taxidermist. Easily he solved the mathematical puzzles in the Scientific American; his pencil flew. From the pages of the encyclopedia he taught himself chess, and often passed an hour solving the problems in the Boston Evening Transcript that arrived two weeks late. At the forge in the blacksmith shop he designed and hammered out intricate pieces of ornamental iron, firedogs, pokers shaped like swords and tridents; he wished he could have shared his gifts with George, who never caught fire, seldom even smoked, so to speak, who looked forward no longer even to the trips he made to Herndon in the Reo for the bank directors’ meetings and lunch later at the Sugar Bowl Cafe.

‘How about teaching you chess, Fatso?’ Phil once asked, looking ahead to evenings before the fireplace. The name Fatso got George’s goat.

‘No, I don’t think so, Phil.’

‘Why not, Fatso? Think it’d be a little tough for you?’

‘I never was much of a one for games.’

‘You used to play cribbage. Pinochle, sometimes?’

‘That’s right, I did, didn’t I?’ And George would pick up the Saturday Evening Post and lose himself in some cheap fantasy.

Phil was a whistler, and a good one, his tone accurate as a flute’s; he would whistle a merry tune and go into the bedroom and get out his banjo and pick away at ‘Red Wing’ or ‘Hot Time in the Old Town.’ He had taught himself to play and it was fine to see those fingers leaping on the strings. Once it was not unusual, when he played, for George to pad quietly into the room and lie on the other brass bed and listen. But not lately.

Lately after a tune or two, Phil would get up from the edge of the bed where he sat playing, stand straight, put away the banjo and walk the path through the rustling ryegrass to the bunkhouse.

‘Well, fellows,’ he would say, blinking his eyes against the white glare of the gas lamp.

Once one of the hired hands always rose to give him a chair, some cast-off chair from the Big House.

‘Hey — don’t bother,’ Phil always said, but someone always did bother — and fruitlessly, for Phil would accept neither chair nor gift from anybody. His visitations interrupted some discussion of whores, politics, horses or love and caused a silence that lasted until the clunk! of a length of firewood shifting in the stove emphasized that silence, and some man, terrified of silence, felt bound to speak.

‘What you think of this Coolidge?’ a man might ask, for eventually the Transcript found its way to the bunkhouse where it was used as waste and tinder, but only incidentally to read.

Then Phil would frown and roll a perfect cigarette with one hand. He knew the value of the pointed silence. ‘Well, I’ll say one thing for him.’ Lighting the cigarette. ‘He’s got the gumption to keep his trap shut.’ And Phil would laugh, and there would be a halting conversation, perhaps of Coolidge. Then maybe one of the younger fellows, hoping to flatter, would ask advice about ordering a saddle. Did Phil think a center-fire or a three-quarter rig the better? Was the Visalia saddle all it was cracked up to be?

At last Phil would look a little wistful. ‘Well, I guess you fellows must want to roll in.’

‘Oh, hell no, Phil.’ And there would follow more talk, perhaps of the work the next day, the overhauling of the mowing machines if the time was spring, the whereabouts of a bunch of wild horses, or Phil might tell an anecdote of Bronco Henry, that best of riders, that best of cowboys, who had taught Phil the art of braiding rawhide. Recently, having finished telling the fellows a story, Phil looked suddenly out the window over the top of the whispering ryegrass to the lighted bedroom window of the Big House. As he watched, the window went suddenly dark. George had not waited up!

‘Well, fellows,’ he said with a sad grin, ‘got to hit the hay.’

When he had gone, one of the new loudmouthed young cowhands spoke right up. ‘Hey — he’s sort of a lonely cuss, ain’t he? Like about what we was saying before he come in, do you guess anybody ever loved him? Or maybe he ever loved anybody?’ The oldest man in the bunkhouse stared at the young fellow. What the young fellow had said was unsuitable, even ugly. What had love to do with Phil? The oldest man in the bunkhouse reached down and patted the head of a little brown bitch that slept close. ‘I wouldn’t want to be saying nothing about him and love. And if I was you, I wouldn’t call him a cuss. It don’t show respect.’

‘Well, hell,’ the young fellow said, blushing.

‘You got to learn to show respect. You got an awful lot to learn about love.’

In the fall the brothers with their hired hands trailed a thousand head of steers twenty-five miles down the road to the stockyards in the tiny settlement of Beech. Unless the weather was miserable, the rain beating out of the north, the sleet cutting the face or the cold hindering the circulation of the blood, the event had something of the quality of an outing, or picnic; the young fellows thought of the lunches Mrs Lewis the cook had put up to be eaten at noon when the shadows hid under the sagebrush; they thought of the saloon across the highway from the yards and of the rooms over the saloon where the whores lived.

When the sun rose red and the frost fled from the surface of the short, dry grass, the herd was already lined out over the length of a half mile; caught under the bewitching spell of the dark and that holy quality of the dawn that turns men in upon themselves, the cowhands were silent and the brothers were silent, listening to the step-step-step of the cattle and the crackling sound of sagebrush crushed under cloven hoofs; squeak-squeak-squeak of saddle leather and the ringing of German silver bit chains. The new sun rising above the eastern hills showed a world so vast and hostile to individual hope that the young cowhands clung to memories of home, kitchen stoves, mothers’ voices, the cloakroom at school and the cries of children let out at recess. Raising their chins, they fixed their eyes now on an abandoned log shack, opened to the weather, where stray horses in summer sought a little shade, where years before a man like them had failed; where the road wandered near a barbed wire fence, a rusty sign peppered with bullet holes urged them to chew a brand of tobacco that no longer existed; ahead, hunched over the pommel of his saddle, rode the oldest man in the bunkhouse, gray, lined of face, one who like them must have once dreamed of a little place, a few acres, a homestead, a few cattle, a green meadow, a woman to be a wife; God knew, maybe a child.

Then the sun loomed higher out of the hills and the new warmth nourished their hopes and they talked, laughed, joked; their plans would materialize; when they got to be old like that fellow up there hunched over his saddle, they would have a little place. They would have their money; they would make plans. In the meantime the nose of their horse was pointed toward the stockyards, to the saloon, to the women upstairs.

The brothers, too, had been silent in the darkness, known to each other only by their shapes, the lean one and the stocky one — by their shapes and the long familiar squeak of the other’s saddle. So, thought Phil comfortably, they had always been silent at the beginning of a drive, thoughts turned inward upon the past, and the silence now told him that the past had not changed, not changed much. Yes, he did resent the stage, the dark green Stearns-Knight that nowadays blatted its way headlong through the herd of cattle — much too fast, if you asked Phil. Once the driver had dared sound his horn, and the noise had so frightened the cattle that Phil rode right over to the creeping car and, towering up there on his sorrel horse, he gave the driver a good piece of his mind. You should have seen the passengers in the back seat make themselves small!

‘God damn scissorbills,’ he growled. ‘George, did you hear that son of a bitch honk his horn. Dear good Jesus, they don’t give a good hot damn how much weight they run off your stock. Like to see every damn car blowed up.’

But George, loyal to the Reo (as he was loyal to all he owned), looked ahead over the backs of the cattle. ‘Hell,’ he said. ‘Oh hell, Phil, man’s got to go with the times.’

‘The times!’ Phil said, and spit. Ten years before there was a proper stage with a real man there on the box, handling the reins, fine four-horse rig. ‘What was the driver’s name, Fatso?’ Phil asked George. He seldom forgot a name, but here was a way to launch into the new morning’s conversation.

‘Harmon,’ George said.

‘By God, you’re right.’ That got them back into the past, to when they were kids, got them back to where they could reminisce about Bronco Henry, back to the time of the last stinking Indians before the government got onto itself for a change and shipped them off to the reservation. Phil recalled to this day the swaybacked old horses the Indians rode away on, the rickety old buggies the old Indians piled themselves into. All one week the Indians had straggled past the ranchhouse on their way down to the reservation in southern Idaho, stirring up the dust and making the ranch dogs bark. Only the chief was not with them, that shifty old character. He had died.

Phil liked to recall to George the many times while trailing cattle down that his sharp eyes had fixed on Indian arrowheads which he picked up and added to his remarkable collection. He couldn’t recall that George had ever found an arrowhead. Phil grinned to himself. How could he? For George always looked straight ahead, as he did now, over the dusty backs of the cattle.

Now exactly, Phil wondered, where should he begin the day’s conversation? So special a day, this day. Should he begin with Bronco Henry? Or with an incident of last year — the car, trying to get through the river of cattle, that ran off the side into a ditch? Two women and a man, all in knickerbockers, damnedest thing you ever saw, and then there they gauped at the car tipped almost on its side, them just looking. Phil had been glad that George was in the lead of the herd, for George would have hooked onto the car with his rope and pulled them out, and they wouldn’t have learned their lesson.

Or begin this morning with the most important fact, that this was the twenty-fifth year they had been together driving cattle? Twenty-five years! How proud they had felt that time, and how old! To Phil there was some kind of stuff in the fact that they made the first round trip in the nice round year of nineteen hundred, nineteen hundred and naught. Jesus! Jesus! Bronco Henry wasn’t older then than he and George were now — not much older, to tell the truth, than the young fellows with them today, dressed up in their fancy duds. They didn’t know who the hell they were any more, the young fellows — cowhands or moving picture people. Phil had never seen a moving picture and by God never would, but these young fellows had magazines about the moving pictures in the bunkhouse, and a fellow name of W.S. Hart had got to be sort of their God. Look how they creased their hats now, look at the silk bandannas they knotted around their necks, and the fancy chaps! He’d heard that one of them had sent away for made-to-order boots with fancy inlays — spent a month’s pay on some damn thing to put on his feet. And then wondered why they ended up on the county! Well, Phil mused, there you were. The more ignorant people were, the more they felt they had to decorate their backs.

George had sort of moseyed over to the right, and now Phil moved diagonally through the plodding cattle, humming soothingly so they wouldn’t get their dander up. ‘Well, Georgie boy,’ he grinned, ‘I guess this is it.’

For brothers, they rode differently, sat so differently on their saddle horses, the one slouching easily, the reins loose in his naked hands; the other straight, rigid in the saddle, gut pulled in, looking straight ahead. ‘It?’ George asked, turning his head. ‘What’s it, Phil?’

‘What’s it? What’s it, Fatso boy? Today is twenty-five years. Nineteen hundred and nothing. Nineteen naught, naught. Recall that?’

‘Fact is, I forgot,’ George said.

Now, how could he have forgot, Phil wondered. What had he thought about all year? ‘Twenty-five years. Sort of makes it sort of a silver anniversary, or whatever,’ Phil said, ‘don’t it?’ In jocular or angry moods, Phil used bad grammer to point up his words.

‘Long time ago,’ George remarked.

‘Well,’ Phil said, ‘not too God damned long.’ He had not mentioned the matter to emphasize how long it had been since they were kids. Phil himself didn’t feel a year older than when he was twelve and George ten — only one hell of a lot smarter. ‘But I’ll tell you one thing, George, we had some great old times.’

‘I guess we did at that.’ George reached in his shirt pocket for his Bull Durham sack; he looped both reins around the saddle horn, removed his gloves and rolled a cigarette; he rolled a thick, funnel-shaped cigarette.

Phil looked at it and snorted. Damned if he was going to carry the whole burden of the anniversary conversation. What ailed George? Gut hurting him? Swell fellow to camp with this fall! Been funny all summer. ‘Say, Fatso,’ he remarked. ‘You never did learn to roll a smoke with one hand.’ And with that, Phil rode abruptly through the herd to talk to the young fellows, moving his lips as he prepared to tell them of how Bronco Henry, sick with fever, had made one of the prettiest rides a fellow ever saw — at age forty-eight. God damn it — sometimes he longed to tell the whole story. One reason he hated booze, he was afraid of it, afraid of what he might tell.

Now a small gray bird whirred out of the brush. Phil’s sorrel shied and stumbled. Phil felt a sudden fury, and anguish like nausea. ‘God damned old fool!’ he cried, yanking up the sorrel’s head, giving him a good sharp jab with the spurs. Twenty-five years since he’d ridden side by side with Bronco Henry.

Now the sun was high, the shadows shortened, the hours ahead were hot and long. Yes, and so were the years long, Phil thought, and the shadows they cast.

If the wind was right and your nose was keen, you might smell the stockyards at Beech long before you saw them; they lay close to the river that was almost dry this time of year, shrunk away from its banks and so placid the surface reflected the arching and empty sky, sometimes the magpies that flapped across, searching out carrion, gophers and rabbits dead of tularemia or a calf dead and bloated with what they called blackleg in that country. Yes, if the wind was right and your nose was keen you got the odor of water and of the sulfur-and-alkali stink of the sluggish creek that there at the yards met the river and polluted it.

If the sun was right and your eyes sharp, you sometimes saw the settlement first appear as a mirage floating just above the horizon, the yards, the stockcars spotted at the chutes, the two false-fronted saloons with rooms upstairs, the shabby white school with the short bell tower — all surrounded by sagebrush and a bare spot where the boys played ball and the girls skipped rope. Across from that bare spot was the building called The Inn, and behind it rose a bare hill on whose slopes thin wild horses grazed, the perpetual wind worrying their tangled manes and tails. Summer and winter that wind howled, shrieking down the slope of the hill over the graveyard at the base where rusty barbed wire and rotting posts kept stray animals from trampling the graves and toppling the fruit jars that often held flowers — Johnny-jump-ups in spring, Indian paintbrush later, but only the recent dead could be certain of flowers. Flowers wilted suddenly in that sun and their message was ephemeral, and quickly the stems festered in the fruit jars.

He was a clever one who thought to decorate one recent grave with paper flowers, and over them to turn a fruit jar upside down, against the rain.

Hearts always beat a little faster in Beech when word got around that someone had seen dust rising off the flat, that a bunch of cattle were being trailed in by a bunch of free-spending cowhands; in the two saloons the bartenders looked to the level of the rotgut in the bottles behind the bar and set out the real whiskey, down from Canada, for those with the wherewithal — the ranchers who liked to make big gestures.

‘I’m telling you,’ a bartender said to a drummer who had blown in the night before on the train from Salt Lake City. ‘Stay off the highway and don’t go gawking at the cattle when they trail in, or you’ll like to spook them and they’ll have trouble gettin’ ’em in the yards. Coupla years ago they shot right over the head of a fellow gawkin’ around spookin’ the cattle. Christ, you should a seen him run for cover, coattails a-flappin’!’

‘Sounds like the Wild West,’ the drummer said sarcastically. He had meant to sell small electric light plants to the saloons, to the school and to the hotel called The Inn, but had no takers.

‘Hell, it is the Wild West,’ the bartender said. ‘Far as I know, the only electric lights in the valley are up to the Burbank ranch. The rest of us use lamps.’

‘The Burbank ranch,’ the drummer said, and looked at the girlie calendar behind the bar. You could see her garter.

‘It’s their outfit coming in this afternoon. Thousand head. Eight, ten cowhands. And the brothers. Take my advice and stay inside and don’t cause a stampede. What’ll it be, Dolly?’ he asked a blonde. ‘My, but you smell pretty.’

‘Thanks,’ she said. ‘Florida water it is, and my drink is gin as you right well know.’

‘The Burbank outfit’s on the way in.’

‘I seen them from the upstairs,’ Dolly said. ‘And oh how I dread it.’

‘Well, you got your friend now to help out.’

‘Lot a good she is. She’s sick.’

‘Hey? She got the same thing old Alma had, remember?’

‘T.B.? Oh, hell no. She’s got her usual flowers.’

Hearts beat a little faster, too, in the only dining room in town at the small hotel called The Inn. The dining room was ready and the beds upstairs. The register at the desk was open to a clean new page and beside it, smelling of cedar wood, was a fresh-sharpened pencil.


The wind was never idle in Beech summer or winter, nor was the windmill atop the shed behind The Inn. The ratchet and chain to pull the fin that dragged the face of the mill out of the wind-stream had broken long before the Gordons moved there. Winter and summer it turned, the shaft attached to the excentric purposelessly moving slowly up and down, doing no work, attached to nothing, squeaking, squeaking so painfully that sleep was difficult for the infrequent transients trapped in the town. Shortly after the Gordons moved there, Johnny Gordon the husband had tried to stop the thing, following a sharp complaint; he got a shaky ladder up against the shed, climbed up and tried to figure it all out. A sudden mean shift of wind turned the flying blades against him, tore his coat and cut his shoulder. He left it alone, after that.

‘We never should’ve moved here in the first place,’ he often told Rose, his wife, and when he told her she would look at him with her great eyes, begging him not to say it again, but saying nothing with her mouth. She was all eyes, that young woman.

Still, it was not only her eyes that had attracted him to her in the first place, in Chicago where he was finishing his internship at a desperate little hospital, mostly colored and charity patients. To escape the pain and the filth and squalor he largely lived with, he began to go in a few nights a week to a moving picture palace. Oh, he thought, if he could meet up with a girl with the warmth and tenderness and fortitude of Miss Mary Pickford, whose smile and whose eyes melted the human heart, her dimples, her glance! Once, a little drunk, he confessed his dream to two young doctors who hooted at him. ‘You talk too much,’ they advised him. But still he clutched his dream close, embroidered it, so that now in its fruition it included a vine-covered cottage and a white picket fence.

And imagine! He sat one night down front near the piano whose bright tunes and thumping base explained and underlined the flickering drama before him. He was lost in his dream for a few moments after the lights came up. The young woman at the piano touched her hat, fussed at her hair, and fussing with it, turned. Imagine! She had been sitting there not ten feet from him, sitting there every time he’d been there. They stared at each other, and he smiled.

He did not suggest that she come to his room; she didn’t look that kind, although his friends would have asked her right off, the ones who hooted at him.

‘She could always say no,’ they might have told him.

He didn’t want it like that. And his hunch was right. Imagine asking a girl to your room who Sundays played the piano in a church.

He said right off he was a doctor, hoping to impress her, to establish himself. ‘There’s a carnival by the lake,’ he offered. ‘They say it’s swell. You like carnivals?’

‘Just one of my favorite things!’

‘Say,’ Johnny asked. ‘What’s your favorite thing?’

‘Flowers,’ she said.


‘That wasn’t a hint. But you asked me.’

Her father certainly looked him over, even after he said he was a doctor. ‘We won’t be late, sir.’ Her father gave him a look and took his newspaper into another room.

‘Well, Mr Gordon,’ her mother remarked.

‘Doctor Gordon, Ma’am.’

‘… our only child. You understand how it is. Someday you may feel the same.’

‘Bet your boots I will.’ Breathless, he watched Rose pin the violets he’d brought to her coat; he’d never seen such affection in fingers.

Her mother sighed. ‘She’s always loved flowers. When she was a little girl, she was always touching people’s flowers.’

He’d say one thing for her — she was a game one! Game for all the rides, the roller coaster, and my, your stomach just left you, and the big pendulum you got into that swung and then went clean around. ‘Oh,’ she said, thrown against him, and he could smell the violets. ‘I’ll say one thing,’ she said when she caught her breath. ‘For a fellow who says he hasn’t got so much confidence, you have an awful lot to go on these terrible things!’

‘Oh, say, I’ve got plenty when you’re around.’

But she would not go into the tents where freaks were shown, and he only suggested it to see how she felt about freaks. He hated it for freaks, especially when they smiled.

Not, then, into the tent of freaks, but rather to hear a young man with a pointed beard sing songs from a new operetta; thus it was that Johnny and Rose emerged humming tunes from The Red Mill. Rose was not wearing the pretty little hat he first admired, decorated, he thought, with flowers. She wore instead a scarf tied round her head, sort of gypsylike.

‘It’s a bandeau,’ she told him, and stood back for him to get a good look at it. ‘You like it?’

‘It looks peachy to me,’ he said.

‘I got it out of a magazine,’ she said. ‘It’s what Mrs Vanderbilt wears.’

‘Oh, hey — I bet it looks better on you than on Mrs Vanderbilt,’ he said.

‘I’d hardly say that.’

‘I would,’ he said soberly. He remembered from somewhere a picture of Mrs Vanderbilt walking toward a Rolls-Royce touring car, and do you believe it, Rose did indeed look a little like Mrs Vanderbilt, but a Mrs Vanderbilt the merest breath would blow away. ‘You know, you do look like Mrs Vanderbilt?’


He laughed. ‘Yes, and you think so, too.’

‘Now you know my little secret.’ That little band around her head was her badge.

‘You tell ’em, I stutter!’ he said. That’s what they all said then. And Johnny laughed.

But when a few nights later she agreed to marry him, her eyes shining and her lips parted slightly like one who knows she is about to be kissed, tears suddenly sprung into his eyes; he felt his life, whatever that might be, was in-complete without her, and he was afraid. Afraid for her, or for himself? He couldn’t tell.

‘All I can say to you, young man,’ her father remarked, ‘is always be good to her.’

‘I assure you, sir, I always shall,’ Johnny said.

‘The first time you called,’ her father said, frowning, ‘you were a little under the influence.’

‘You’re a perceptive man, sir,’ Johnny said. ‘I admit to that charge. I took a drink to give me confidence.’

‘Liquor is a poor thing.’

‘It’s just a medicine, sir,’ Johnny said, ‘if you use it right.’

He was not asked to remain at the hospital when his internship was up; he knew he would not be asked, and yet he was disappointed; but the fact might have pointed up to him his tenuous connection with reality. He felt that if he had met Rose earlier, and put his shoulder to the wheel, as he phrased it, he would have been asked to remain. Why, until he met Rose, he had just gone through the motions, so to speak, or so it seemed to the director.

‘But I’ll say one thing for you, John,’ said the director, and looked across the skull he kept on his desk. ‘I have eyes and I have ears, and I know you’re probably one of the most naturally kind young fellows I’ve ever known.’

‘Kind?’ Johnny asked. ‘Kind? I never noticed, sir, that I was kind.’

‘Maybe not,’ the director said, smoking his pipe as Johnny wished he could smoke one — with authority. ‘That’s why I said naturally kind. It proceeds, these new psychiatrist fellows tell me, from a certain sensitivity. And —’

‘And what, sir?’

‘We sometimes have to control sensitivity. Can be dangerous. Not sure it’s a trait especially valuable to a doctor. Shame, but there it is.’

‘Then what should I do, sir, about getting a job?’

‘Some small town, John. Some small town, till you get on your feet.’

It embarrassed him to be called John. He didn’t feel like John. He felt like Johnny, and maybe that was his trouble, for who trusts the Johnnys of the world, they who skip through life laughing and crying, but always skipping.

He found the small town. This was it — Beech. This town of which he so often said, ‘We never should have moved here in the first place.’ And then Rose would look at him.

It had seemed so possible as a place where a young doctor not so sure of himself might settle and make a living. It was on the railroad. He had put Rose up in the hotel in Herndon, the county seat, twenty-five miles north, while he inquired around Beech, and everybody seemed enthusiastic about having a doctor.

‘Not for twenty-five years,’ they told him in the saloon.

‘That’s a long time,’ Johnny said.

Oh, they told him of the dryland farmers off behind the hill that slipped down to the town, and about the big ranches to the west. They told of talk that a spur of the Northern Pacific might come through and meet the Union Pacific. Beech at the junction was bound to grow, they said. Not months before, they said, surveyors had been working with their instruments, and what a fine bunch of young men they were!

Caught up in the enthusiasm generated in the saloon, Johnny bought another round of drinks for his new friends, and they all toasted a future so vast it left him breathless, vast as the land outside. And what about living quarters for him and his wife?

He had a wife? Now, that was a good thing.

He brought out her picture.

Well, he was fortunate indeed. ‘Strikes me,’ the bartender said, ‘you might take a look at the old hotel. The Inn, used to be called.’

A small hotel of six small identical rooms on the second floor, each with an iron bed, washstand, closet and neat coiled rope beside each window in case of fire. The Inn had been abandoned long enough to have got the reputation among the schoolchildren of being haunted; they had seen lights, they had seen faces at the windows. One of the bolder among them had shied a stone through an upper window, and told how he heard a kind of scream. Especially when the moonlight fell against the weathered brown clapboards, brightened the windows and picked out the bleached white deer horns over the sign that said the inn — especially then it seemed haunted.

But in the sunlight it looked solid and innocent enough; the windmill that stuck up out of the roof of the shed behind lent the place a practical air, and it seemed to Johnny that until he had established his practice, they might run the place as an inn again — have two strings to their bow. Impractical, was he?

The bank in Herndon owned the property, and he came almost at once to terms with the fellow there. The legacy of the aunt who had wanted him to study medicine covered the initial payment and bought him the secondhand Ford motorcar he’d need for his rounds. Enough remained to furnish an office in one of the rooms on the second floor. A clever metal chair collapsed into an examination table; a human skeleton grinned in a glass case.

Now he was doing the last necessary thing. ‘Come on over here and look, Rose,’ he said. Smiling, he watched her rise from her knees beside the building where she planted California poppies — one of the few flowers, they said, that thrived in the cranky, sour soil. He still held in his hand the spade he’d used to dig a hole for the post and top-piece, a kind of gibbet that displayed the sign he’d planed and sanded and painted and attached to the top-piece by four eye screws so that it swung free.


‘My, but there’s so much wind here,’ she said, watching the sign swing, ‘but I hardly hear it now. Oh yes, that does look nice.’

‘You get used to the wind,’ he said, ‘after a while.’ Then they went back inside and set to, cleaning up. Lysol and plenty of good hot soap and water put to flight old ghosts.

His son he delivered himself. He himself took his blessed son from the mother’s womb, and together they erred in attaching to the child the faintly epicene name of Peter because it had belonged to Rose’s father, and that burly man had become Pete.

Johnny thought he had never seen a lovelier sight than his wife lying in the bed, nursing the child; he waited on her, sat beside her and read to her from Byron, enchanted by the wonder and beauty of birth. How everybody congratulated him, and how straight he sat at the wheel of the Ford motorcar, grinning and handing out cigars. Once having caught sight of his own face in a mirror, he continued to stare at himself, thinking. He thought how it was that whenever she looked up from whatever it was she was doing, she always smiled. He wondered if anybody had ever noticed that before.

The poppies bloomed, withered and died; the winter wind screamed down from the distant mountains, and then again the ground was bare of snow, the poppies pushed up and bloomed again, withered and died. Although they did not speak of it to each other, the Gordons were disturbed that the blond little boy was late in walking and late in talking, and when at last he walked — and that was a day! — he walked with a stiff, mechanical gait that depended little on the use of the knee, a gait that hinted that walking was a painfully acquired skill and not a human instinct. And when at last he talked, the boy astounded them by speaking with a faint lisp in measured, adult cadences that assured them he was advanced and not retarded in spite of his slightly enlarged forehead, his wide, innocent eyes, and a disquieting habit of seeming to listen to the distance. At four he was able to read.