The man she saw walking along the road was wearing a straw hat. Ina had been sixteen for more than half a year. Cold wind on her birthday seemed never to have stopped but just warmed and warmed until now it was hot, same wind, just hot. The bluebonnets were long gone to seed -- seed that might lie dormant for a decade or more before a winter of perfect moisture brought another bluebonnet April to transform Cross Timbers. A mud hole, the town was called by many. It was a low wooden windbreak among scrubby mesquites and prickly pears on the vast plain. But the town became a rambling low raft on the blue ocean of wildflowers for a brief week or two in April. Some years, the bluebonnets overwhelmed. Those years, for those days, the town could be a welcome sight to frontier-hardened travelers, leather-faced from hard histories, over-satiated with the gentle sweet smell and soft blue beauty of the flowers. Get me back to the dirt and dust where I belong, and let there be whisky.
Jim Devry was trying to forget his name. He had not yet thought of a good new one -- had thought of several but could not keep any of them in mind -- and he felt that when the right one came to him, he would remember it. He had used 'John' in Rising Star, was there yesterday, just passing through, ate lunch with a family under a tree in front of their house, told them he was John. But John was too common sounding. Somebody might question it because of that. He was thinking of Edward, wondering if he wouldn't confuse it with Edgar, as he walked the dusty road, long from Rising Star, and saw the first building that marked the next town. He figured it to be Cross Timbers. Here, he'd been told by the man, Samuel, in Rising Star, he would find the red shed. He would need only to ask someone in the town, someone in a store or on the street.
Devry had no money for tobacco or whisky, but he did have the appetite for both. He planned to find this red shed and see what could be done. He had little to trade -- nothing he would give up for whisky or tobacco -- just a good knife which he kept folded in his pocket and found useful every day. He thought about the knife every time he felt the need for something it might swap for, but he held onto the knife, denying himself other goods, or using the knife in ways other than barter for acquiring his wants. It would, for example, take an ear of corn off the stalk in a quick and easy stroke. It would cut through a rope that might be holding a barn door shut, and sometimes a locked door would yield to the thin blade slipping into or behind the mechanism in some way. A sack of potatoes had yielded yesterday, the rough burlap giving up to the sharp blade of Devry's knife. And on occasion, opening the knife in the presence of persons of certain types -- very young, or female, or old and weak -- prompted generosity when he requested it.
Devry walked into town on the shady side of the street, the late morning sun already unpleasant on the skin. Looking around for someone of whom he might ask directions, he stopped in front of Watson's Feed and Seed and leaned on a hitching post. He wished to ask someone who would not remember his asking, someone busy with other things, who would answer him and hurry on. But there was no one visible at the moment, and he was thinking he might need to ask whoever he saw first.
It was Watson. He came out the front door, having spotted the dusty traveler leaning there. "Howdy do," Watson said to Devry's back.
Devry turned around, his blue eyes sparkling, an instant smile on his weather-darkened face. "Howdy," Devry said.
"Passing through?" Watson inquired, withholding a smile pending further information.
"Yes sir," Devry said. "Making my way on to Abilene for work."
"Looking for the red shed?"
Devry's face twitched, the smile distorted as the thought passed through his mind, This man knows me, knows where I've come from, knows what I'm about.
"The red shed," Devry echoed. "What is that exactly?"
"A place to buy whisky and tobacco at a bargain price."
"I would be interested in that," Devry said, and Watson gave him the directions to the place.
Ina saw him coming up the road, went out behind the house and told her father, "A tramp coming for whisky."
He left the feed trough he was repairing and walked to the front. He continued on out the road to meet Devry. "Howdy do," Ina's father said.
"Howdy," Devry said, stopping when the two men were ten feet apart. "I was looking for the red shed."
"You looking for whisky or tobacco or both?"
Sizing up the farmer, finding him large, strong-looking, only middle-aged, Devry answered, "I'd have to trade you in services, sir. I'm on my way to Abilene to work in the stock yards, and have no ready cash for luxuries."
Ina's father gestured toward a stand of mesquites and live oaks, and Devry followed him. The red shed soon came into sight. "I won't take unfair advantage of you, young man," Ina's father said. "If you have two hours and don't mind working up a little sweat, I can provide you with an evening's worth of personal, manly pleasure. More than you will require if you are not an overly indulgent individual."
"My needs are modest," Devry replied, and that -- that use of the word "modest" in an appropriate context -- established the rapport that Ina's father, though not a rambler himself, cherished, when it happened with the breed of men who came and went through Cross Timbers.
The shed was well guarded by dogs. Until he saw the two German Shepherds and a third dog, a cur, black, head large, out of proportion to the body, he had held out hope for avoiding the two hours of work. But now he was in it. He took off his shirt and, using a grubbing hoe, pulled up three substantial mesquites over the next two hours.
A man who liked to carry his own jar and his own rough cut weed, rather than pay town prices, could get a fair deal at the red shed. Ina's father handed Devry a bucket of cool water with the dipper, a neat package of chaw that would last a conservative user not one evening but a few days, and a pint Mason jar of corn whisky.
"Fair?" Ina's father said.
Devry held out his hand and smiled. "I'll speak well of you in Abilene."
As they shook hands, Devry noticed the pretty young woman standing in the shade of the house watching them. He averted his eyes.
"I dislike the barbed wire that has tied down the country," Ina's father offered. He wanted to hear his customer agree, see him smile. When the first fences made of barbed wire were stretched up in the prairie around Cross Plains, he noted the progress with unspoken disdain, feeling disillusionment after having believed that his pocket of central Texas was immune to the scourge that had tamed the West. Although he himself was no cattleman, he saw himself as a westerner, an independent-thinking Texan in the proudest, most obstinate and chauvinistic tradition. When at last the barbed wire fences ran along the very backyards of the Cross Timbers residences, Ina's father felt that the frontier days were gone and decided his sense of pioneer pride was misplaced. No, no, not misplaced, he hoped to hear from the men who came for whisky and tobacco. He told them he began thinking and talking about moving to a big town -- someplace like Brownwood.
Standing close to the house, Ina strained to hear her father say the word "Brownwood." He did talk about moving to Brownwood, and this excited Ina and became the basis for many of her fantasies.
Whenever Ina stood on the raw wooden planks of the porch that surrounded the entire house, and leaned against one of the milled timbers that held up the porch roof, she might glance up and spot dirt dauber nests in the rafters, or reach with her red rough hand to the small of her back and push, push away some of the ache there after a morning of chores. But she might as often just lean there and gaze out at the flat horizon, her pretty chin thrust, the strong jaw carrying forth the pouting line of her supple frown, the fine nose light and tan like her hair. She might gaze and sigh, and sigh again, staring until her crystalline blue eyes dried in the Texas heat, and demanded to be closed for long moments, a mere blink far insufficient to moisten them. And when she closed them, there on the front part of the porch, it was against the flat horizon and the west line of the oat field, and the second curve of the rutted road out to the "highway" -- itself a rutted dirt road -- and the rocky pasture where she remembered the goats had trodden when she was a very young girl.
The problem had become the horses, the studs, two of them that Ina's father kept and from which he derived some income. To him, breeding them was just a business, and he had never given a thought as to whether Ina could or could not see the action, did or did not watch. She had watched. She had seen it often. She was watching now, from the porch. She saw the mare, a pretty roan this time, captured in a narrow corral, wedged tight between two high plank fences, and Ina's father leading the stud horse to her. The mare, disturbed as they always were, seemed to Ina to be thinking this is very unromantic, being held in place like this so that big horse can mount me and impregnate me. Why, I don't even know his name. The mare bucked, but her owner and a hired man climbed the fence from the outside and tried to calm her.
Ina's father was inside the corral and led his horse with skill, urging him to the mare. The first time the stud mounted her, she started, bucked, and moved her rear to the side in the tiny space she had. The stud stumbled, appeared to lose interest. Ina's father led him away, took him on a short walk to calm him. This always happened, but then the stud would turn back and approach the mare again, and with increased determination. Back to the mare, he mounted her again, this time with his huge penis extended. When it touched the mare, she let go with a stream of bright yellow urine that shot in random directions, hit the stud's underside and his leg and made a lush sound as it drilled into the loamy ground. Ina had seen mares do this before. The men laughed at something one of them said, but they went about their business and soon the horses mated.
It became a problem for Ina. She had been a good daughter, a good helper, hard worker. Every night she went to bed exhausted. But she began dreaming about the horses. Their mating excited her in some mysterious way, and in her dreams, sometimes the mare became her, and she would awaken and feel herself hot and moist. She had such a vivid picture of the stud's huge appendage that sometimes she could not get the picture out of her mind -- not just in the middle of the night when she awakened from a dream, but even during the day. She tried to work even harder and faster, but sometimes found herself daydreaming and forgetting what she was about. At these times she would check herself, and she began to realize that her daydreams were about her nocturnal dreams. Eventually it began to seem that the dreams, both day and night, never stopped, and when she lay down at night, her exhaustion was still not enough to release her into sleep. On her own, through her own devices and experiments, she learned to bring the necessary release with her hand at her ripening vulva.
One morning she arrived in the kitchen at 5:30, dressed and ready to start her chores. As usual, her mother was already there and had water almost at a boil. Ina felt rested and at peace. She stepped outside the door and breathed the dark air, checking the feel of the weather, looking east to see if dawn was yet marking the horizon. She stepped back inside and her mother, standing at the hearth, peering into the heated water in the pot, said "What did you do last night?"
Though her mother rarely made conversation, Ina thought back to the previous evening, looking for an answer. There was nothing about it that was any different from the thousand evenings that had come before it. Remembering the socks she had darned for her father, one last chore before retiring, she passed a few moments, and then those few moments seemed to grow long, and there was time to wonder why her mother had asked this question. And then, just as she thought about her private pleasuring in bed the night before, it seemed that too much time was passing and the water had come to a full boil.
"Nothing," Ina said, and her mother sniffed.
Ina would remember 1921 because after the bluebonnets came and went, the street was paved for the first time down the center of town and her mother took her to see it, not just when it was new, but as often as she could find an excuse throughout the summer. The asphalt smelled so good and alien and modern, the long days grew dry and hot, the asphalt melted and ran into gutters in slow rivulets, the grasshoppers abounded (the big Mexican ones that spit tobacco juice), Ina's shoes, too small anyway, came apart and revealed her toes, and she had her first period. At sixteen, Ina knew little about menstruation except to expect it. Her mother had once asked Ina about "growing pains," but could not explain what she meant by it. Ina sensed her mother's concern that the delay may have been because Ina was so thin for her substantial height. But she had said almost nothing to Ina about it, and when Ina felt and, lifting her long skirt, saw blood, she was little inclined to say anything at all to her mother or anyone else. She took measures against the flow herself -- measures she invented and, in later months, refined.
Having finished with the menses for the third or fourth time, she lay at dusk at the base of a haystack, exhausted from her day of tending the chickens, shelling, cooking, cleaning, and preparing the large basins for killing which was to commence in a few days. She held a small pumpkin she had cut loose for baking, letting its weight settle into the folds of her skirt at her lap. Knowing she wouldn’t sleep, she nevertheless closed her eyes and felt the warm zephyrs on her cheeks and the backs of her hands, tiny beads of sweat there evaporating clean. The air whispered warm and liquid as the broth in the potato soup that had been her dinner at eleven that morning, warm and liquid yet dry, and sweeter than the broth, smelling of stubble fields and murdered underbrush piled along the edges of those fields, and the sandy earth and all that crawled into it. She caressed the pumpkin, thankful that her schooling, up through eighth grade, had been long finished before she'd had her first period.
There had been a school, a college, in the town of Belle Plain, only nine miles away. The walls still stood, but it was in ruins now. Ina had seen the magnificent multi-storied sandstone building, its tall arched windows, the roof with its four gables flanked by two massive sandstone chimneys, and above all this, the bell tower defying the flat horizon from a distance of miles down the road.
But now the whole town of Belle Plain was abandoned, had been a ghost town for two decades and more, and there was no college nor any other reason to go there. She had glimpsed the empty building once, when she was fourteen, because the road past Belle Plain led to Brownwood, twenty miles on, to where the whole family had made a celebratory trip to acquire an electric pump.
The pump had failed after one year of straining to bring up water from the hundred and fifty foot deep well. Ina’s father had made the trip back to Brownwood, with the pump, to have it repaired. He'd ridden with the mayor of Cross Timbers in the automobile, had waited in Brownwood for two days and two nights while the mayor finished his business, and returned with the repaired pump. Milton Bledsoe, the seventeen-year-old son and apprentice of Brownwood’s only electrician, had made the repair.
A few years later Ina, approaching age twenty, would meet Milton Bledsoe at Hemphill-Fain Co., The Store for All the People, in Brownwood for reasons unrelated to pumps or electricity.
Ina had seen one wedding. A man in Cross Timbers had gone away for a few weeks and returned in his buckboard with a young woman sitting beside him. He unhitched the team in front of Watson’s Feed & Seed, led the horses a hundred feet down the street and tied them in front of the first house past the business district. Ina happened to be standing across the street from Watson’s, on the shaded boardwalk in front of Luther’s Hardware. She watched the lazy street scene, waiting for her mother to complete the purchase of a butcher knife. She saw the man from Watson’s (Mr. Watson himself) come out of his store and wait for the man to return from tying his horses. Watson did not speak to the woman, but he nodded and spoke to the man when he returned and climbed back into the buckboard. It was his climbing back in with no team attached that struck Ina as strange and made her remember the scene in detail.
The street was unpaved at that time, but shopkeepers with shovels and push brooms kept it smooth in dry weather. The smell of horse dung was pervasive and ignored. Flies were common. On that day the sky was a vivid blue, white clouds with no promise floated slowly, unnoticed but by the dutiful young girl in apprenticeship to her mother. She also gazed across the prairie of mesquite, the fresh green of the pinnate leaves blue-graying to slate in the distance. Hearing the rich splash of wastewater hitting the packed clay sidewalk across the street, she turned in time to see a man pushing through the Dutch doors of the saloon, a tin bucket swinging from his hand. A white dog ran to the new wetness, sniffed it exuberantly, stopped, and walked away.
Gazing after the retreating dog, Ina let her eyes fall upon the corner of the stucco and brick building she had noticed on one of her previous trips downtown. She knew the building to be the jail. And just beyond the jail, she could see the large oak tree from which a man had once been hanged for stealing a horse.
Watson went back into the Feed & Seed just as Ina’s mother stepped out onto the boardwalk. Ina turned, ready to follow, but her mother stopped and looked across the street.
“Watch, Ina,” she said, and Ina saw her smiling. So Ina watched as Watson came back out of the Feed and Seed with a black book in his hands. He stood in front of the buckboard and read from the Bible (out of Ina’s earshot) as the man and the young woman sat and listened, quite still except for an occasional nod of their heads. Soon, Watson closed the Bible and reached up and shook the man’s hand and nodded and smiled at the woman, whose face Ina never saw, not even from the side, as she was wearing a wide-brimmed sunbonnet. Watson went back into the Feed and Seed, the man climbed off the buckboard and was walking toward the team of horses when Ina’s mother hurried her along toward home, telling her on the way what they had witnessed. Ina was mystified by one thing. Why was her mother smiling about it?