Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Guest Writer: Jamie Hogan

The Rumor of Oregon

The young man rode the sun down as the darkness bled up in the east. Finally over a rise and Fort Laramie bustled and smoked in the shallow valley below him, the first thing that had made him smile in two weeks.

He walked Trooper through the teepees swarming the grey and brown adobe walls of the outpost, a nod to the men folk and a side-step or two to keep from tripping over the running children. The women cast no eyes his way, busy with sewing and younger ones and the salty cooking whose smell overtook him with the zeal of a lover long missed. It was good to be amongst people again.

A tall and gangly guard directed one of the Indians to take Trooper to the corral, and he watched the faithful old roan led away, head low, the endless days on the plains weighing as heavy on the horse as on himself. Rest, old man. You earned it. The sun’s last efforts rolled in from the west and over the walls to spill a lonely and worn light into the courtyard of the fort. The guard led him across it, to a small room containing a desk, two chairs, a window to the west, and one equally tall but slightly thicker officer who instructed him to “Have a seat and state your business.”

The words ricocheted against the rough walls, back and forth and above and below and through him. Business? He had only a destination. The coal-haired officer held him in a needlessly hard gaze. Dust floated in the air between them, lit orange and yellow by the setting sun, weightless meandering stars. He determined to keep this as simple as he could. “I’m taking the Oregon Trail up to The Dalles.”

“And what is your business there?”

“No business. I got family there.”

“Where do you hail from?”

“Scott’s Bluff.”

The low brooding hills to the west were finishing the sun and the shadows reached long and thin across the earthen floor to climb the walls, as if feeling for a crease by which to escape. A snap and the flare of a match, and candlelight burned them away. “And what’s possessing you to leave there?”

The young man looked out the window, staring through the horizon and over the gentle bend of the earth and into the black forever. “The dysentery kilt my mom and dad and little brother. I ain’t got nothing there no more.”

*

The Indian girl had been bathing in the shallows of the Sweetwater River, the water sparkling on her cinnamon skin and dripping from her black hair and rippling around her like laughter. He had sat Trooper and watched her hands, how they roamed and tickled and sang over her glistening surfaces, busy yet delicate tempests. Sun-thrown diamonds bobbed by her and disappeared and resurfaced and conspired with her nakedness to hypnotize him.

Now he and Trooper skimming the surface of this golden tumbling ocean called the Wyoming Territory, losing ground to their pursuer with every mile, tatters of the surreal events in the river streaming out behind them. The girl’s surprising beckoning, and his even more shocking obedience. Her slick breasts, cold and then warm and urgent as they pressed into his chest and the hungry hands that he watched wander her skin now gliding across his own. The scream of the Indian man who found them and her lust instantly morphing to feigned panic, splashing and flailing and slapping and wailing underneath him. The realization that she was faking being raped – well – and scrambling out of the water and onto Trooper. Barely reaching the next rise before the Indian blasted across the river on his own mount, shrieking like a damned soul and riding like the ground was on fire. His horse was young and strong and Trooper was neither, and minute-by-minute the Indian reeled them in.

The first few arrows whispered past to lodge in the ground ahead of him. He heard his father ask what he was thinking, saw his mother’s face covered in a dark veneer of shame, heard his brother yelling at him to ride harder and faster and he wanted to say that he was sorry. That he knew it was stupid but that he was cripplingly lonely and that those people he was supposed to find in the Oregon Territory might as well be ghosts. That he just wanted to touch somebody.

Pain, iceblue and pure, ripping through his right shoulder as an arrow found its mark. His cry arced into the dispassionate, limitless blue overhead. When the sky had swallowed the sound, he pulled back on Trooper’s reigns and waited for the Indian.

They measured one another, one proud and calm and the other hollow and hopeless, the only sound the whistling of the thin high plains air through the horses’ flared nostrils. The young man dismounted and walked a few steps away from Trooper, the starved prairie grasses crackling under his boots. “Do it. Whatever you’re gonna do, get it done so I can see my folks.”

The Indian didn’t understand the words but took their meaning perfectly. He was on the ground and advancing with a glinting silver blade when the sound of hooves rumbled over them low and determined. Another rider, advancing on them at a desperate speed, from the direction they’d come. The Indian squinted at this apparition bearing down on them, shimmering in the waves of heat that might just as well have been pounded out of the ground by the drumming hooves, then sheathed his knife and stood waiting.

The new rider was also Indian, but older, perhaps twice the age of his attacker, and by the time he arrived the fire in the young man’s shoulder was cooling toward numbness. The older Indian pranced his horse sideways the final few yards, remained mounted, and glared at the younger Indian. When he spoke, in that strange halting language that sounded to the young man like the voice was sliding down a washboard, the words were hot and irritated. The younger Indian protested once, was silenced by an even stronger, choppier barrage, and fell silent. He shot the young man a look every bit as piercing as the arrow quivering in his shoulder, then mounted up and put his horse in a hard eastward gallop, riding angry.

The older Indian turned his attention to the young man, sweating and pale and pitiful under the taut sky and vengeful sun. He breathed deep and heavy, shook his head and began to dismount. By the time his feet found the ground the young man had collapsed face first, raising a thin cloud of dust in the air before Trooper.

*

The fire twisted and chuckled in the night. Shadows and stars and the timeless breathing of horses as the Indian pulled something from a stick and reached it wordlessly toward the young man. He took it, nodding and allowing an “Mmmm” at his first taste of rabbit. His shoulder throbbed terribly where they removed the arrow, but the Indian had smiled at the wound after cleaning it, and had applied a poultice.

The Indian augmented his tortured English with drawings in the dirt and eventually wisdom took shape for the young man. The girl was his salacious daughter, who had become fond of using indiscriminant sex as rebellion against him. His tempestuous son hadn’t enough years to realize that killing an innocent white man was like pruning a healthy plant. Cut one stem, and three replace it. Dead white men bring nothing save more white men. There were reasons good enough for killing white men, he said, but one look into his daughters eyes told him the young man had not earned killing today. The young man responded with a tale of cholera and of slow and wasting death and the hollowing of his soul and the rumor of Oregon.

There was an easy silence for a while, the two of them looking into the fire as if it might hold stories that needed telling, glowing orange sparks hissing skyward in vain attempts to join their white brethren in the deep nothing overhead. When it seemed right, the Indian reached into a pouch and produced a necklace of stones and what appeared to be wolf’s teeth. He rose and walked over to where the young man lay, placing it around his neck.

“Protect,” he said, “safe.”

The young man fingered the teeth interspersed with the stones. “Thank you.”

*

Trooper pressed on through the soft morning, upward into the hills. The Indian had been gone when the young man woke. The necklace rested heavy and comforting against his chest. Feeling its weight and the new day crawling up the sky behind him, he wondered if the Oregon Territory would be as green and sincere as it had been in his dreams.

© Jamie Hogan 2010

Jamie Hogan is a husband, father, and aspiring novelist who manages to hold down a Training and Quality position to pay for the necessities. He lives in central NC, and occasionally throws random thoughts out on his blog at the Six Sentences Social Network.

10 comments:

  1. Totally wonderful. Has the qualities of stories I read as a child, a clarity of language, of justice, and the quality of writing I have learnt to appreciate as an adult - beautiful in its ability to create images and events. Thank you Jamie Hogan, aspiring novelist - I will look to read anything and everything you write

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  2. a sense of McCarthy here Jamie- tight descriptive language- enjoyed!

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  3. As Paul said, Well done Jamie. A true wordsmith.

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  4. Jaimie, I got a kick out you of using a poltice. Something we don't hear about these days. My grandmother used to fry my chest and back with them.

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  5. I took some time with this piece and read it three times since I got the message from Brown that you were up here. For me, reading your work is more about the journey than the destination. I pause at certain words or phrases just for the enjoyment. Someone else might think this is a small thing, but "The fire twisted and chuckled in the night" was a high point for me. I have sat by many campfires in my life and experienced a real moment of recognition when I read that, and a warmth. Lovely work.

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  6. I like the way this one shaped up, amigo. I feel kind of like tagging along with this guy to Oregon. Cheers!

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  7. There were so many word gems sprinkled in this very engaging read, Jamie. "The low brooding hills to the west were finishing the sun and the shadows reached long and thin across the earthen floor to climb the walls, as if feeling for a crease by which to escape" was likely my favorite. However, your profound "he just wanted to touch somebody" put a small knot in my throat. I found this to be rich and well-rounded.

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  8. Jamie,

    You have captured the essential of this wild existence in your relentless descriptions of the air, the sky, the earth, the light dazzling off the water.

    You have captured the deep ache and the itch and the recognition that lives separately in the human heart.

    Beautiful. Haunting. Hopeful. I do hope you are working on a novel - it has all the right elements.

    Aloha,
    Jenny (6S)

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  9. Jamie is a poet with license to roam. He can write about a tornado and make you feel comfortable sitting near its vortex. He is one of the two writers I have recently become acquainted with who does the natural world to a tee. Fortunately for MuDJoB's readers, both have appeared on this site.

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  10. I don't know how I missed this at the time, but I did. I remember being very busy with my own work back then. No excuse. This is nearly two years old now, and I can say with some degree of confidence that your writing skills have improved, which is saying a lot considering the quality of this piece. It's one thing to have a vocabulary full of words, and quite another to know how to arrange them in a picture frame like this. This piece remains as unweathered evidence of your burgeoning talent back then. And today, it still grows.

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