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Sam squinted against the sun at the distant dust trail raked up by the SUV on its way up to the Big House. The buffaloes jostled round the feed troughs and chewed, oblivious to their owner’s first visit in ten months. Sam waited. Mr Cockburn didn’t come out here unless he had to which was just fine by Sam. The more he kept out of his boss’s way, the longer he’d have a job.
Cockburn came by later while Sam was chopping firewood. Cockburn doffed his hat as if he were waiting for an appointment with the town pastor and then removed it altogether as if he were talking to his mother. He pulled out a wad of paper from his back pocket and held it out.
‘Don’t pick up your mail often, son?’
Sam took it without a glance and dropped the stack of handwritten envelopes onto the bench.
‘Never,’ he replied and waited for him to say why he was here. The fact it was Cockburn’s house was no explanation and they both knew it. He twisted his hat round and round by the brim, licking his lips and clearing his throat.
‘Nice work on those fences alright,’ he said finally.
‘Be back to the beginnin’ soon enough,’ Sam said. It wasn’t a complaint. A fence that took a year to repair meant another year’s work to the man that did it well.
‘You ain’t never think to take a holiday?’
‘And go where?’ A holiday meant being back out in the real world, a place even people like Cockburn travelled to get away from. Sam’s escape was his reality and he wasn’t going back. Chasing women in the city didn’t pay in the end; he wasn’t sure it ever had.
Mr Cockburn wiped the sweat from the back of his neck. The damp patches on his shirt drew together like shapes in an atlas. His skin was already turning ruddy in the May sun. Otherwise he had the perpetual indoor tan of a man that made money while other people did the work.
‘I’ve brought Carole up for a spell. Some trouble at school.’ Mr Cockburn’s eyes flicked up, blinked rapidly, and then shifted back to the hat occupying his hands. ‘Not much trouble out here for a young girl.’ He hiccoughed the laugh he attempted.
Sam pulled his T-shirt back on. It clung to his sweaty muscles and stretched over his biceps but there wasn’t much he could do about that. There never had been. Men tended towards being uncomfortable around him. Half the time they couldn’t have said why, even to themselves, as if the observation revealed an intention that called for a hasty explanation. Women, though, they noticed him directly. They’d make eyes and lean in, find some reason to hold him in conversation. Not that Sam had ever minded about that. Invitations followed suggestions, the brush of a breast here, the linger of a hand there. Sam turned women on but never down.
It was when they stayed afterwards that the trouble started, the gentle pressure of their bodies weighted by their uninvited love, invitations leaden with pleas. When he stopped returning the smiles, the chatter, the calls, there was a worse kind of trouble and it was time to pack up and move on. Out here there was no temptation, nothing to leave after.
‘Some o’ them fence posts on North Ridge are rotten through. Noticed it the other day,’ Sam replied. ‘Wouldn’t keep a rabbit in, nevermind a buffalo.’
The two men looked towards the northern end of the property even though the fences were barely visible from where they stood. You couldn’t see the Cockburn’s house from there at all. And no-one bored and rebellious, gazing out of her bedroom window could see all that way either.
‘Yep, buffalo are apt to wander off. And they stick together. You know how the Injuns used to catch ’em?’
‘One of ’em’d dress up in a buffalo skin. Wave his fine ass in front of a female, a curious one. And she’d sniff around and he’d run. They always chose a young man, o’ course, a fast one, a strong one I’d say too. And she’d chase him right up to a cliff. ‘Cept he’d hide at the last minute and she and all the other dumb beasts following her’d go crashing over the edge, breaking their legs and such.’
He risked eye contact, briefly, under the cover of his story. ‘And what d’ya think happened to the young Injun?’
‘I guess he’d done his part.’
‘Felt he was the hero of the tribe then, didn’t he? Don’t suppose the mangled up buffalo saw it that way.’
‘Mebbe these buffalos aren’t the curious type,’ Sam said.
‘It’s in their natures to be curious. Fortunat’ly, there’s no more Injuns. You keep right on them fences, Sam. That’s what I’m payin’ ye for.’
Cockburn returned his hat to his baked head and strode back to the SUV. He’d left the engine running and the air con puffed out to reclaim him. Sand and gravel spat up as the jeep raced off.
Three days later than he’d expected and a million years sooner than he’d hoped, Carole came riding around on her daddy’s horse. She was smoking. Another bad habit to add to the ones that had got her sent away to that uptight English school in the first place. Sam wondered if it was what had got her sent back. He noted the automatic curiosity and chased it around his mind until it got tired and had nowhere to go. She was all caramel curls and white teeth, curved thighs and cursed luck. He was staring. She stared straight back, not yet afraid enough of where curiosity led. Somehow it was easier to turn his whole body than to shift his eyes.
When he turned round, she was gone as if she’d been a mirage caused by the heat and the long, dry months.
The patch of coarse grass and claw shaped trees to the back of Sam’s cabin, was about the only place on the whole, scorched 50,000 acres that offered any shade. For a girl as pale as Carole after the sunless jail of England, it was the only place she wanted to peel off her dress. And as Sam worked, she invited the burning glare onto her skin. Sam drove the axe into a log and left it, wedged in the splintered wood.
He didn’t watch as she applied sun lotion from her calves, into the small of her knees and up to her soft inner thighs. He looked away when a glob of white liquid pooled in her belly button on its journey across her stomach. Carole’s fingers swept and stroked and cream melted into her shoulders and arms, unobserved. When she untied the knot at the back of her bikini and let it fall, he was as unaware of her pink nipples as he was of his own heavy breathing and hardening thirst.
He’d taken two steps towards her before he realised what his feet were doing. Her eyes were half closed against the sun, but she saw. Sam wondered how the instinct that ensured survival of the species could be so at odds with a person’s instinct for their own? He forced his feet back the two paces, hefted the axe from the wood and split the log wide in one clean stroke. Up and down, up, down. He controlled this alternate pulse until it took over, silencing his own.
By the time the sun went down, there was enough firewood to last all winter and Carole had left. He hadn’t even seen her go. She’d have been eaten alive if she’d stayed out there at dusk. Sun lotion was scant protection against things that bit and sucked with their poison filled tongues.
Sam sat on the porch and suffered the mosquitoes. At least when they were feeding they didn’t whine. It was the buzzing and fuss he couldn’t stand. The tears and the begging, the cuts on their arms and the threats. They reached a point where they tricked themselves over the edge.
The next day Sam headed way up to the North Ridge in the dented pick-up that he used to get around the ranch. Just as he’d predicted, the first post crumbled and partly collapsed under his boot, rotten through. There was no way the fencing would withstand another summer. He ground some of the fragile wood into dust. He could get rid of all this old wood today if he worked hard enough at it.
The nails that held the crosspieces came away easily but it needed more effort to dig down into the powdery, Mars-like soil to the base of the post. It took his whole weight to heave the upright from side to side and coax the earth into loosening its grip. Then he pounded the new post into place and hammered the crosspiece back up. The pile of disintegrating posts grew as the day passed in a steady rhythm of discard and replace. A line of strong, new posts lined up like soldiers, ready to face whatever was coming.
The knock came that evening, soft but inevitable. He sighed and heaved himself up from the cot. The springs creaked back to fooling the observer that the bed was flat. A damp triangle marked the sheets.
Carole’s pout was as practised as her oiling routine. Her skin glistened and her hair hung down one shoulder, curling just above the breast her bikini almost covered. She leaned one hip against the doorframe and the shadow of a woman fell across the porch. His shadow slid up against hers and, as he held the door open, his shadow arm snaked around her neck. Her skin would still be warm from the sun.
He looked beyond her to his workbench. His discarded tools had been out in the sun all day while he was up at the Ridge. They’d have cooled off by now but, this afternoon, they’d have been hot enough to burn the skin right off you and light a fire with your bones.
‘Need a glass of water, Carole?’
Her wide eyes and the lower lip caught between her teeth told him he’d guessed her line.
‘Tell me I’ve got a nice place? Ask me if it don’t get lonely at times?’
Carole shrugged and played with the ends of her hair. It was the first uncalculated gesture he’d seen her make. She looked up at him, a teenager again, spoiling for an argument. ‘Well don’t it?’
‘Why don’t you like me?’ She was getting younger every time she opened her pretty mouth.
Sam shot his hand out, hooked the waist band of her cut off shorts and yanked her to him. The tube of sun lotion in her pocket dropped to the floor. She had to put her hands on his chest to stop herself falling face first into him.
‘You think I’m gonna’ whisper sweet things, kiss you over on that bed, lie with you and share things I never told no-one? That I’ll be gentle with you and tell you you’re beautiful?’
Her eyes filled with tears and she arched her back to get away, succeeding only in pressing their groins harder together in a parody of the Twilight scene she’d probably played out in her head.
‘You think your daddy’s gonna care the difference if I fuck you raw or gaze into your eyes and read you poetry while we make love?’ He twisted the last two words and spat them out level with her eyes with enough force to spill the hovering tears.
‘S-sorry,’ she whispered, her fear louder than the word.
‘Seein’ as you’re on a break from school, take this as a lesson. Can you feel how much I want to fuck you, Carole? Huh?’ He allowed himself a slight pressure, a movement from so many unforgotten nights. ‘You feel that, right? Do you think it has any connection whatsoever with liking you?’
She shook her head and squeezed her eyes shut against the truth. ‘I’m sorry. Let me go, please. I’m sorry.’
‘Let you?…I’m fuckin’ praying that you’ll go. For your sakes as much as mine.’
He released her waistband, now streaked reddish brown from the dirt under his nails. She staggered backwards, half fell and righted herself in the doorway before scrambling down the path and away towards the safety of her daddy’s house.
He stooped to retrieve the fallen sun lotion. If she was cleverer than she looked, she’d get over it, he thought. Better this upset than following an illusion off a cliff.