Buffalo, some yet kicking and bawling into death, others still as boulders, soughed the plain. A cadre of skinners laid open hides, steam curling into the freezing air. The skinners were burly men; browned from weather and dirt, and fast. I, Edward Turrentine Bayard III, was picket, pallid, and slow. I sat on my heels shivering beside a mountain of a buffalo, keeping low to escape sharp wind blowing over the hump. Blood and hair matted my hands, arms, and coat.
Two months earlier I’d been in Connecticut, boarding the train. Plum blossoms framed my mother as she waved a handkerchief bidding me goodbye. She was my only relative, my grandmother having died three months before and my father dead when I was seven.
So it was my physician, Dr. Bateman, who lifted me onto the train west. I was to be treated in a small private sanatorium promising miracle cures for the lungs.
The only miracles I suffered, however, were the transformation of the sanatorium into a rickety outpost on the Nebraska plain. The doctor who sent the advertisement was a scoundrel with a printing press.
The greatest miracle was that the West had not yet killed me. Nebraska, being good for cold the way the south side of houses was good for lilacs, was yet covered in icy mud. After seventeen years avoiding dust and drafts like poison gas, I was now ever chilled, never clean, and with no choice but to push on. I picked up my knife, the sizable blade honed to wicked sharpness, and began the divorce of hide from meat.
Tilfert Slade stood at my elbow. Overseer of the hide production, he’d taken on my western education to please my landlady, Avelina, whom he was courting. He was a huge man with tree trunk limbs and woolly hair that crested the neck and cuffs of his grimy shirt onto his face and over his knuckles, but he was elegant as silk at work. He sailed his blade between muscle and hide, sliding the steel from the tail, around each leg to the brawny neck, discharging hide from head, then turning to sheet his knife across the next beast in line.
The pay was twenty-five cents a hide, but for every quarter I earned, twenty cents went to boots, to biscuits, to liniment. Today I’d torn my pants from crotch to knee. Resolving to work faster, I rowed my knife through the hide. When I began the southern descent around the horn to the leg, however, I punctured the entrails, loosing a belch of stink. I flung back retching, to the delight of Tilfert, who was entertained by emetics. I didn’t stint on his pleasure. Whereas life in civilization was scented and borne in pretty containers, in the West it oozed, poured from orifices, wriggled, stunk, and I was indisposed to it.
“Ned.” Tilfert wiped his eyes delicately with his hairy paw. “You’re somethin’.”
I nodded and took up the knife again. “I could do with neither seeing nor smelling another buffalo as long as I live.”
Tilfert squinted. “Shaggies everywhere. Sometimes a man can’t see grass for the skins. That don’t just disappear.”
He slapped my back, nudged me over. He put out a hand for my knife, took the buff’s ears, cut around the neck, and finished my course around the legs. I noosed the neck hide with a rope gathered around the pommel of Tilfert’s saddle. Tilfert clicked his tongue and the horse strained forward, peeling the buffalo’s skin from the fatty corpse. Tilfert asked, “What would you eat, if there wasn’t buffalo?”
I imagined we’d starve. The meal I’d lost was buffalo tongue fried in tallow. We ate buffalo hump for breakfast, boiled rib for supper. Biscuits were buttered with marrow pushed out of the buffalo’s hip bone. As variety: the clod pieces cut from the shoulder; buffalo liver, eaten raw and sprinkled with gall; or steaks, which, when seared over a buffalo chip fire, required no pepper.
“How about a chicken?” I thought of my old cook and the roasted capon she lovingly prepared with spring potatoes and parsley.
Tilfert was insulted. A buffalo disciple, he admired the animals as if he’d invented them himself. “Buffalo shit bigger’n a chicken, Ned.” The horse took another pull, the hide gave way from the carcass with a pop, and I retrieved the rope and left the hide for the pegger. Tilfert adjusted his coat, the curly buffalo hair on the shoulders seamless to the pelt on his head. “Can’t wear a chicken, neither.”
I slogged to the next animal apprehensively. They sometimes flinched with the first poke of knife. Tilfert followed.
“Buffalo feed you. Buffalo wood to burn.” He put a foot on the haunch of the buffalo I’d knelt beside and leaned on his knee. “Ran out of water’n came so near to dyin’ a thirst, I cut my mule’s ears for the blood. Killed a buffalo, punched a hole in the stomach. They carry extra water like a camel. Comes out jelly but good ’nuff.”
Disappointed in my lack of affect, Tilfert added, “Caught in a blizzard? Clean out the gut and crawl in, they’re a goddamn dugout!”
I glanced at his expectant face and though my stomach roiled, agreed. “Room and board. What more can you ask?”
“That’s it, Ned. What more?”
I began the rip from the neck.
“You hear from your people?”
The last time I’d heard from Mother was on that Connecticut station platform two months ago. It was not like her. Though she was a timid woman, she was devoted to me, even indulging me in many ways my formidable grandmother disapproved of, once gathering bones from the kitchen so that I, in my bed, could assemble an entire chicken skeleton for my studies.
Sawing desperately through hide and ligament, I gasped, “Nothing. Note from my tutor, Brill, but he’s teaching in Pittsburgh now.”
When I left Connecticut, Brill, as much friend as tutor and only four years my senior, handed me “The Prairie Prince” from the Post and told me I was on my way to great things. This, though my vision blurred and I could barely speak through my labored breathing. Now his letters and my father’s watch were the only things that reminded me of who I had once been, if not who I was.
Tilfert shook his head. “Shame. Usually it’s the fella goin’ west that lets go.”
I put my weight on the knife, but my arms trembled, my breathing was ragged.
Tilfert, embarrassed at my puniness, looked away, gauging the trajectory of the afternoon. The skinners were getting fractious; tempers often failed an hour from supper and it took no little peacekeeping to conserve his crew’s numbers. “I don’t think you got the finish of this one in you, Ned. Why don’t you head back?”
Quitting was a fine idea, though I could hardly sit a pony and my sense of direction was as laughable as my taxidermy. But Tilfert gave me a leg up onto the nag that toted pegs, who knew the way back like a homing pigeon. Tilfert slapped her haunches, and the mare and I began the plod to the fort.
It wasn’t as far as it could’ve been, and the horse was warm under me. I clutched my ripped pant closed against the wind and relaxed into the horse’s rolling gait, closing my eyes with few qualms. If it took any skill on my part to get home, we were lost anyway.
After some time I roused when the horse stopped altogether. I opened my eyes and saw what I initially took for fever: a woman. She sat not sidesaddle but astride a palomino, holding a hand to her brow as if she were a man surveying a piece of property. There was nothing else of a man about her. She was small, maybe five feet tall, with dark curls lifting her hat, and wore a red dress that was too fine both for riding and for the newly minted state of Nebraska, appearing of another texture and pigment than the dun life of leftover winter.
She asked, “Are you alive?”
Tongue-tied, I nodded.
I found a thin voice. “The horse knows the way.”
She smiled and danced her horse toward mine. “Lill Martine.”
I shook her hand with mired fingers. “Edward Turrentine Bayard the Third.”
She inclined her head. “My, my.” Wheeling her horse, she looked me over once more and called, “Good day!”
My nose was dripping, my toes numb, but when Lill passed I felt a rush of warmth.
As I had extended winter by my ride on the train, Lill pulled spring behind her. A warm breeze sighed, combed branches free of dead leaves, stirred grass to tender, sap to rise. The blood returned to my extremities. Agog, I watched her spark diminish across the plain. I roused the horse into a turn and followed as though Persephone herself were fleeing the world.
The horse quickened into a brain-thumping trot, pegs rattled from the paniers as I shouted, “Miss Martine!” biting my tongue half through. Nebraska bumped up and down around me. I spit blood and fell farther behind by the jog. Lill Martine disappeared; my horse lathered; my privates screamed. Still I hung on, kicking the mare into motion, racing across a world that grew nothing taller than a stunted cedar, sagebrush, or prickly pear. Yet the land rolled like folds of fabric. Lill Martine could be a half mile away, she could be five, and not only did I not know her location, I would not have know my own. If I’d realized, I certainly would have panicked.
A resident of Nebraska for just under two months, I’d already seen how many ways the prairie could do harm to a man. A horse could fall on him, a sudden blizzard take away his toes, fingers, his sensibilities, his life. There were rattlesnakes, rabid skunks, bad water, no water, and starvation threatening at every turn. The Pawnee were generally accepting of the whites, but the Sioux were not and I feared earning a nickname like Noseless (and earless) Joe Means at their hand.
The horse had better sense than I, however, and, having turned from one destination, circled to the other. Rising from one of those soft folds, hopeful I would espy my fugitive spring, I, instead, found myself back in the cold company of skinners as though I hadn’t traveled at all. I wondered if Lill and my flight toward her had been a dream, but Tilfert ran to me from the wagon, horror on his face.
“Ned, goddamn, what’s happened to you?” My shirt was spattered with blood. He helped me off the horse.
I hesitated for only a moment, spoke through my thickened tongue. “Raddlesnake. Damned horse panicked.”
I reclined in the wagon on a bed of buffalo hides, barely registering the fleas jumping my ship, as we returned to the low ranges of barracks, officers’ bungalows, and stables of and around Fort McPherson. McPherson was a ragtag place, serving not only as a military post but also as a locus of free enterprise. Drovers stopped along their routes. Pioneers passed through toward free land. Tourists rode in on the train to take a look at all the West at the end of the line, before racing back to tell their stories of shoot-outs and wolves. All these passing citizens had great needs, if varying amounts of money, to trade with McPherson’s entrepreneurial residents for lodging, tobacco, whiskey, bread, entertainment, or, perhaps, a new pair of trousers.
My thoughts paused not on my need for trousers, however, but on the beautiful Lill Martine. I reexamined each word she spoke, cringed over what she must have thought of me. What had that “my, my” meant? It was possible she didn’t believe that I was Edward Turrentine Bayard the Third.
No one had questioned my identity when I arrived at the fort in linen trousers with a trunk of useless shoes and ascots, fleeting sweets and plasters, and a pocketful of money. Yet my cash and cookies were soon gone, and with a whiff of imposter about me, the solicitude the officers at the fort had shown evaporated. The men addressed me as My Lord Turpentine. My syphilitic landlady put me out of the closet I’d rented, claiming she wouldn’t risk a lunger in her house any longer. If it weren’t for Avelina, I suppose I might have frozen to death.
A rawboned woman with a face mottled in freckles the color of her Irish red hair, Avelina had a house on the river side of the fort she’d built herself, digging into the swell of earth for part of it and fashioning the rest from logs she’d driven her team a good distance to cut and haul. She was a phenomenon of energy: robustly sweeping the dust that rose from the continual drilling of soldiers on hardpan, hoeing a garden three men would not manage, lifting a barrel of flour onto a buckboard with a coarse groan, or splitting enough wood for a week’s baking in an hour. She could turn the wringer all washday without effort, her flat backside shifting like bellows boards beneath her skirt. When introduced, Avelina had pinched my arm and stated, “Eat. Wimmin like rat better’n mouse.”
I wondered what Tilfert saw in Avelina. Though corpulent and rough, he was high-toned in comparison. I decided the draw was Avelina’s agreeable house and palatable meals, for the fellow who ran the squalid mess hall served bread green with saleratus and docked with flies, poisonously greasy doughnuts, and charred buffalo. These meals told on the men with damaging effect until, like arsenic, they built up a tolerance. Tilfert put so much away at one sitting that one disastrous supper could have been his undoing, even with his rock-ribbed constitution.
Avelina also had an uncanny ear for rumor and—through similarly gifted friends cast like seed corn throughout the forty-one states and the Wyoming and New Mexico territories—she always had information to trade. Gossip was an art form at Fort McPherson, as assiduously practiced and deeply appreciated as any piano ’tude in a New York drawing room. And so, on my return, it was Avelina who told me about the beautiful Lill Martine.
Known in Georgia as Lyllith Hays, she had been affianced to a surgeon of some repute. Lill’s family, fallen on hard times, had brokered their future on the marriage. When informed the man was affianced to another in Louisiana, Lyllith rode to her fiancé’s house and, from astounding distance, shot the surgeon through his cheating heart.
The Hays family fled law, rumor, a flood of debt and took a new name. They headed west, where Lill might avoid the noose by dint of distance and discretion. For in the West, prostitutes might become innkeepers and an Irish brawler turn cattle baron. Negroes magicked their indenture to freedom. Though there was the murmur of gossip to live out, it was understood here, the past was nobody’s business. Lyllith the murderess expired, giving birth to Lill Martine, pioneer. And so the ruined rose from the flames. What this meant for My Lord Turpentine, I wasn’t sure, except the journey between pan and fire went both ways.
From the other side of the curtain Avelina hung for privacy, I heard Tilfert burst into the house. He shouted, “Woman!” Avelina shrieked and cackled. There was a thump and a crash. The two of them would be wrestling and bussing their exuberant welcome, titans testing their strength.
Tilfert roared with laughter; Avelina threatened his life and called him sweetness. I remained moused in my corner until it was decided. Then we sat for dinner.