they never get tired
Under a tall cottonwood with fluttering yellow leaves, a woman in a long skirt bent and dipped a red shirt in the creek.
Upstream three black-haired children stood naked in the shallow water. The smallest pointed at our truck as they watched us enter the Cottonwood Reservation.
We drove a gravel street 100 yards long with power poles along one side.
A few houses had plywood or aluminum siding and a newer pickup parked in front. The rest were peeling gray plank, some tacked with tarpaper and linoleum. Yellowed gauze curtains hung at the windows, the unpainted doors were sun-bleached and cracked. We passed a cinderblock building:
No grass or bushes grew in the dirt yards bordered by chicken-wire fences with willow posts worn smooth as driftwood. Cars missing hoods and doors sat on concrete blocks.
Outhouses stood beside propane tanks near a pig or goat in a board pen, a chicken coop, tires, a broken stove. Drying clothes hung from lines between leaning cross arms.
A palomino flicked its head in a square corral of willow poles.
At a white house faded pink, men with ponytails wore boots and Levis and sat in kitchen chairs, drinking beer. They watched us go by and didn’t wave.
“You used to live here?” I asked.
“Until two years ago.”
A young mother in a white shift stared at us from her stoop, above the heads of two children in diapers who scratched with spoons at the hard-packed earth.
A scarecrow dangled flashing foil plates where an old man hoed late corn.
Wes stopped at a cabin of peeling logs. The dry bark stood up like flaking skin. The caulking had fallen away from between some of the logs. I wondered if the cracks would get plugged before winter came.
“I’ll see if anyone’s home.”
Wes got out and went up the dirt path. He knocked on the door.
I turned to look again at Joe White Horse and saw a small boy had come up to the truck window.
He had thick black hair with streaks of red where the sun hit it and brown eyes and a broad smooth face. I smiled and he stepped back, looking toward the bed of the truck. He spun around and glanced over his shoulder as he ran off.
I heard something I couldn’t make out.
Wes and a shirtless longhaired teenager had come out of the cabin. The boy nodded with his head down, following barefoot as Wes spoke in Indian and moved to the truck.
Wes lowered the tailgate and climbed up onto the bed past the fishing rods. He bent low, saying something to Joe White Horse, then stepped back and jumped to the ground. He held the end of the blanket and slowly slid Joe down the bed.
Wes reached behind Joe and raised him up and the boy leaned forward and supported Joe’s raw knees.
Carefully they lifted the old man out and carried him toward the cabin. Joe White Horse moved one hand up toward his chest and grasped the Sleeping Child on the rawhide cord.
In a minute Wes came back out. He reached into the truck bed to fold the wool blanket, then picked up his coat White Horse had used as a pillow and raised the tailgate. He got in and set the blanket and coat on the seat between us.
“He all right?”
“They’ll fix him up.”
“You sure? We can take him to Kootenay.”
“He’ll be fine.”
Wes started the engine.
“You care if I stop to see my mom?”
“No,” I said. “We can fish another day.”
“No,” Wes said. “We’re going.”
Wes drove past more shacks without paint, bare dirt in the yards, then stopped at a house with green wood siding, a roof with new brown asphalt shingles, and blue curtains tied back at the window. A garden grew in front behind a white picket fence.
“I’ll wait for you,” I said.
“Come on, Chief. You’re going.”
I got out and followed him up a concrete walk past the little vegetable garden.
Wes knocked and turned the knob and entered.
I waited a second, then stepped inside when I heard a woman’s voice.
A short woman with gray hair in a green-checked cotton dress hugged Wes. Her head came to the middle of his chest.
Across the waxed linoleum floor stood a new Sears cook stove and a small white refrigerator. Next to the sink and drainboard was a stacked washer and dryer with round windows. There was a wood table with a sugar bowl, salt and pepper shakers, and two pine chairs, and beyond it a closed door.
At the other end of the room a cloth recliner sat on an oval rag rug in front of a fan. On a console TV a pinto stallion and a rider in an eagle-feather headdress galloped at full speed. A bolt-action rifle hung on the green wall, beside a shelf that held a yellow box of 30.06 ammo, rabbit-fur gloves, and a flashlight.
And a big figure of the Sleeping Child.
The statue carved out of soapstone stood two feet high. At first I hadn’t seen it, its green blended with the plaster.
His large eyes were gently closed in his peaceful child-Buddha’s face. The line of the blanket came right under his chin. The sharp tip of the basket rose like a monk’s hood.
“This is Bill Ryder,” Wes said.
“You’re Wes’ friend. You work at the sawmill.”
I took her outstretched hand. When she didn’t take it away I held it.
“That’s good,” she said, looking up into my eyes. She smiled.
She turned to Wes and spoke in Indian.
“I’m doing fine, Mom.”
“Mothers always worry,” she said to me.
Again she looked into my face. She didn’t blink and her eyes seemed as brown and innocent as a deer’s.
I turned my head.
“You have the Sleeping Child,” I said.
“You know him?” I felt her hand tighten.
“I have one.”
I put my other hand in my pocket and held out my palm.
“A boy in Idaho gave it to me,” I said.
She stared at the elk-antler child, then back at me.
“Do you know what it is?” she asked.
“Sort of,” I said.
She slipped her hand from mine, gripping my wrist.
“Do you know the Child?”
She stared into my eyes.
“Do you believe it?”
“Yes,” I said. I didn’t know what to say.
“Do you know the prayer?”
She waited, watching me.
“I don’t know it,” I said.
She took a breath and closed her eyes.
“Sleep deeply until you wake, when both worlds become one.”
“I believe it,” she said.
“We’re going fishing, Mom,” Wes said. “We brought Joe White Horse home.”
She turned, looking up at Wes.
“Joe White Horse?”
“He was on the road again. We saw him before he could get hit.”
“Someday he won’t make it home,” she told Wes. “Someday someone won’t find him
until it’s too late – ”
“Well, so far so good,” Wes said, grinning.
“Yes. He’s been taken care of. He’s a lucky man.”
I remembered the Sleeping Child dangling from White Horse’s neck.
“You think the trout are getting hungry?” Wes said.
“You going to go?” his mother asked. She let go of my arm.
“Fishing, Mom. Bill and me.”
“Isn’t the season over, Wes?”
“Not that I heard of.”
Wes winked at me.
“You want coffee?”
“No thanks,” Wes said. “We’ve got some stuff.”
“Don’t drink too much, Wes – ”
“We won’t. I’ll see you soon.”
Wes leaned over, putting an arm around her. She looked tiny, like Wes’ child.
“Yes. I hope so.”
“Nice to meet you, Mrs. Blackdeer,” I said.
“Remember the Child, Bill.”
Again her brown eyes looked into mine.
“Tell Wes about him.”
I followed Wes out to the pickup, past the patch of beans and okra and potatoes and what looked like beets or turnips.
We got in and Wes’ mother waved from the step as Wes backed up and turned around. I waved to her as she stood in her green gingham dress.
We started back the way we’d come and a boy ran from a yard, the boy who’d stepped to the truck and seen Joe White Horse lying in the bed.
He kept even with my window for a while, racing us, looking straight ahead, before he fell back and stood watching from the middle of the street.
“You think the mill is so bad?”
“No,” I said. I saw White Horse’s peeling cabin. “I don’t.”
We passed the scarecrow and the man hoeing corn, the black-haired babies with the spoons, the pink house and the circle of grim drinkers, and the lone palomino in the square corral.
A spotted dog crossed the street and a red and green rooster crowed and flapped its wings from the roof of a blue Chevy without wheels.
“Job Corps,” Wes said at the cinderblock building. “You believe it?”
The cottonwood leaves and bronze grass beyond the last house were a relief.
Down the hill the woman in the white skirt lifted a white sheet from the creek. A naked girl stood on the bank, calling something and waving an arm to the two wading children.
“It’s not a good place. No one should have to live like that.”
“My mom’s house is all right.”
“It’s nice.” I figured Wes had furnished and maybe built it.
“You know how old my mom is?”
Wes waited and I shook my head.
“Fifty-four. She got married at 14.”
“Is your dad still alive?”
“He was older. He smoked too much.”
“You have brothers and sisters?”
“I got a sister in Great Falls and a brother in Red Lodge. I don’t see them much. When they left they didn’t come back.”
We went past the big reservation sign dotted with bullet holes and over the cattle guard, then down and up the long swale to the paved road.
“You ready to go fishing?”
“I guess.” I didn’t care about it now.
“Sure you are,” Wes said. “They’re waiting for us.”
We drove another four or five miles of rolling grassland without coming to a side road and again I saw Joe White Horse on all fours, dragging his bloody knees, the carved antler papoose hanging from his neck.
“What did your mother mean, if I believed? About the Sleeping Child?”
“It’s something the old folks believe.” Wes looked out his window. “About Sleeping Child Lake,” he said.
“What about it?”
The lake was two hours north and supposed to be very deep and the color of turquoise.
I’d heard a man talking at lunch at the mill, holding out his arms to show the size of the steelhead he’d caught.
“I don’t know. Sometimes people go to the lake. They don’t come back.”
“Where do they go?”
“My mother knows about it.”
“But she never told you?”
“It’s old folks’ stuff.”
“You know, superstition, wives’ tales. Hocus-pocus. Look there – ” Wes pointed.
Just above the power line a golden eagle beat its wings, dangling a shining rattler from its talons.
The snake writhed, its scales glinting and making a sudden diamond pattern. Its white fangs and rattle almost touched in a circle when it thrashed its tail.
“They bite their tails and roll like a wheel,” Roy Wells, a Cherokee cowboy at the ranch, had told me once.
“It’s good luck,” Wes said.
“Yeah?” I thought I’d seen the snake’s black eye.
“It means where we fish you won’t get bit.”
I watched the eagle and the snake that suddenly swung limp like a ribbon.
“They only bite out-of-staters.”
“That all right.” I touched my pants pocket. “I’ve got my Sleeping Child.”
“I’ll put you in the back of the truck,” Wes said. “I’ll start an ambulance service.”
“You need a siren.”
“I’ll play a tape of the mayor’s wife. Like a duck call. My mom was wrong. The season’s just starting.”
I let the joke about Wes’ latest conquest go and watched the country start to change to higher hills and a few stony buttes. Ten miles up the road we left the pavement and followed a dirt road that went along a ridge, above a stream lined with turning aspen, then around a steep hill with sparse grass, red rock and a mesa on top.
Wes stopped the truck.
“Better late than never.”
He reached for the keys.
“Where we going?”
He pointed toward the rock hill.
“We got to go up there.”
“They hide in the rocks.”
We got out and lifted our pole cases and creels from the truck. Wes put the strap of an Army surplus bag over his other shoulder.
I followed him up the hill through the dry grass to the long rocky slope. Boulders had broken off the mesa and rolled down, leaving a trail of scree. Some of the red rock was small, loose like gravel. It was deep and slippery and I leaned forward and put out my hand.
The last part we had to climb big four-foot solid steps, pulling up with our hands and then swinging our legs and standing up. It was like a ziggurat.
At the top the rock wasn’t crumbly but flat and polished, like a stone dancing floor.
I walked back and forth, looking down at the red and black swirls like veins in marble. I knelt down and touched the surface smooth as sanded wood, remembering Tug and the furniture shop in Oregon.
I ran my palm across the even stone, then traced a crescent, greenish-black striation with a finger and had a strange feeling. I thought I’d climbed Crucifixion Rock beyond my window at my father’s ranch, scaled its sheer wall. If I stared up I’d see the sandstone pillars, the Three Kings.
Wes strode across the mesa to the edge. I walked over and looked but I couldn’t see the stream. The rock went down in red stair steps a yard high and wide.
“Easy does it,” Wes said.
He sat down and let himself onto a ledge, then another.
I followed him, at each step sitting and swinging my feet as I held my rod case in the air.
On the fourth ledge I saw the stream.
It was almost straight down, maybe 80 feet where it cut right into the rock. Low-bent yellow aspen grew along both banks.
Wes walked along the narrow ledge, then stepped down and cut back on another until it ended and the grassy hill started again. Turning sideways, digging in his boots, Wes moved about 20 feet down the hillside to a cliff.
Ten yards below, pure quick water ran down the stone channel shaped like a chute.
At the banks the water was deep. By the gold aspen boughs it looked shady and cool, where trout might wait.
“You fish from up here,” Wes said. “You can drop a fly down and let it float. I got a can of worms.”
“I’m going to use a fly,” I said. “Drop it down under those branches.”
“That’s what my dad used to do. I like to use worms, sink it to the bottom.”
We rigged up our poles. Wes took a Prince Albert tobacco can from the pack and a six-pack of beer and a thick cord. His creel was on his shoulder. I got out my fly case.
“Where you going?”
“I’m going to drink a beer, eat these worms and hang myself – ”
I looked up and Wes was smiling.
“See you, Chief. I’ll walk up a ways, where there’s a deep place.”
I watched him go, one boot high, one low, as he balanced along the grass slope.
I tied a red fly on the end of my leader. I dropped it down and let it float under a leafy aspen branch hanging just above the stream.
My fly caught the current and I lifted it up, then moved the rod toward the bank and let the fly dance along the rock wall until it hit the water just beyond the branch.
It floated, then caught a swirl and drifted back.
Right away a fish struck and I pulled back on the rod, trying to get him out from the branch before he could jump.
He flashed back and forth across the narrow channel. The rod bent way down, I didn’t take line or give any but watched him dart for one wall and then the other, then go deep and shoot back up with the red fly in his mouth.
The trout shone blue and gold and green in sudden bursts and I remembered the yellow fish in the Blue Fin’s net off Mussel Bay.
I’d grabbed Roper’s wrist when he’d raised the gaff and Webb had fired me; that night I’d met Tug at Paul’s lab-apartment where the yellow fish swam in the big aquarium and Tug said he’d been laid off too, he’d get me on at his brother-in-law’s sawmill in Kootenay.
The tropical fish was the reason I’d come to Montana, stood on this red cliff holding the reel from spinning.
After a minute the trout began to slow. It tried to swim up current, then turned and put its gill fins out and stayed steady, resting. It looked long and wide and I could see the black outlines of its red and blue and gold spots.
I cranked the reel and it raced for the opposite wall one more time, stopping short as the taut line pulled at the hook and I reeled it up the sheer wall above the trees, watching it leap through the air.
It was a rainbow over 20 inches long. It felt icy. I unhooked it and started to hit its head against a rock outcropping and set it into my creel.
I saw its black-green eye and speckled jaw and tossed the fish out at the middle of the stream, watching it tumble and hit with a splash and its tail flicker once and disappear.
I looked across the hill where Wes had walked but I didn’t see his pole or the top of his head.
I dropped the fly back into the water, but the current took it out away from the bank. I started to lift it up, to get it under the aspen branch, when another trout struck, a smaller one, and I reeled it sparkling up the rock wall.
The stream was like a children’s wishing well at a fair, where you lower your hook and down in the dark someone pins on a trinket and tugs at the line.
I caught three more fish, one after the other, then cleaned them, dropping the innards in the dry grass. I didn’t want to take any more. I had an idea I could take all I wanted but I had enough to eat.
I sat looking at the stream move between the vertical, polished red walls, past the white-barked trees that somehow had taken root along the stony bank, and lay back in the grass in the sun.
“Do you know the Child?” Wes’ mother had asked. “Do you believe it?”
“Yes,” I’d said.
“I believe it,” she said.
“It’s good luck, Captain,” the Indian boy said outside the crossroads store by the Cinnamon River in Idaho. “Big medicine.”
He’d made me take the elk carving, after I’d given him $10 for him and his aunt.
“We’re thirsty – ”
“I don’t know,” Wes had said. “Sometimes people go to the lake. They don’t come back – ”
I felt something tap my shoulder and was sure it was the hook of Roper’s gaff.
I watched the yellow fish with purple stripes turn in the Blue Fin’s net, the rows of diamond scales like midnight jade and bullion, lost Aztec treasure from a sunken galleon’s hold.
“The treasure is alive.”
The yellow fish spoke, opening its red mouth trying to breathe as its sides went into spasms, changing a dozen flashing colors –
Then the fish was Joe White Horse –
“I bet it’s got black meat,” Roper said.
The sharp gaff touched my arm and I opened my eyes.
Wes held out an egg sandwich.
I heard the creek rushing down the stone bed.
“You hungry? You didn’t eat your fish.”
My face felt sunburned.
“Naw,” I said. “I’m going to take them home.”
“Pretty good fishing, huh?”
“It’s like a fish farm,” I said. “You get some?”
“I always get fish here. I got eight.”
I sat up and took the sandwich.
“You need some firewater.”
Wes handed me a beer from the six-pack he’d lowered into the stream.
“You look like a redskin.”
I was thirsty and the beer was cold, oaty and metallic.
“I fell asleep in the sun.”
“You were dreaming.”
Wes tossed me the bag of potato chips.
“I didn’t pay you for the food,” I said.
“It’s all right. You can buy me 10 beers at Custer’s, next week after work.”
I’d forgotten about the mill. The village had made me forget, and the rock channel had made me forget about the village. I’d dreamed of the Blue Fin, then Joe White Horse.
“You want to fish anymore?”
“No, I got enough,” I said. “What about you?”
“I got plenty.”
We finished our sandwiches and each had another beer, then undid our poles and climbed out, standing and sitting until we got to the smooth top like a red ballroom floor.
We did the same going down the four-foot steps.
Crossing the loose rock was like skating down a sand dune.
I leaned back, digging my heels and sliding 30 feet.
“That’s a climb,” I said as I put my rod in the truck bed. I was sweaty and tired.
“That’s why there’s fish. Too much work for the sportsmen.”
“Too much for me.”
“You’re not a sportsman.”
“You’re like my mom and Joe White Horse. They never get tired.”
“Naw.” Wes tapped my arm. “You’ve got the Sleeping Child.”
We got in with our creels and each drank a last beer as we drove back to the highway. Soon we passed the gravel road to the reservation, then the place we’d found Joe White Horse following the white line, crawling home, the white Sleeping Child swinging at his neck.
I touched my pocket but the carved antler was still there, it hadn’t fallen out as I’d slept.
We crossed the bridge and the stream with reeds where the man and two boys had fished with red and white floats.
We curved through the yellow-brown hills turning brighter, past the gold ranch houses and barns each with a locust tree as the sun fell toward the ridge above Hundred Ox Pass, until we climbed the last low rise and went over the interstate and down into Kootenay.
The Elgin Hotel was red in the lowering light. The movie marquee had come on, bars of neon lit to attract the Saturday night crowd. The mill’s volcano stack looked rosy.
“You want to stop at Custer’s?”
I wondered if Wes wanted to pick up a date.
That’s where he’d met the mayor’s wife and the other women whose husbands went hunting and fishing. Wes called them “sportsmen.”
“I need to get the fish in the icebox,” I said. “You go ahead. I can walk to the Elgin.”
“No,” Wes said, “I’ll drop you off.”
In the twilight we passed Custer’s leaded-glass window with the blue and gold 7th Cavalry banner and the passing feathered arrow, and then the other bars and the sad hotels, the shoe and jewelry stores, Norbert’s and the chic women’s shop, the black granite bank on the corner.
Wes turned on the Stockmen’s Cafe’s side street that went along the Clark Fork of the Columbia River. He pulled to the curb.
I lifted my creel and got out and took my rod from the bed where White Horse had lain on the blanket. I’d watched him through the back window as Wes drove to the reservation, the white Sleeping Child shining on his chest.
I stepped around the truck.
“Thanks for everything,” I said. “That was quite a day.”
“Now you’re a member of the Alien Nation.”
“I’ll see you Monday, Wes.”
“Monday, Chief. We’ll go again. Another place, to get the big ones.”
“We’ll go to Sleeping Child Lake and won’t come back.”
Wes put the truck into gear.
“Don’t get tired now,” Wes said. “Like me – ”
“Remember the Child,” Mrs. Blackdeer said. “Tell Wes about him.”
“Easy does it,” I said and tapped my pants pocket.
“You’ll put a spell on me. A hex.”
Wes grinned and drove off and I turned to climb the granite stairs of the hotel, past the neons that flashed green and blue and I saw that the feature had changed, now the marquee’s tall red letters spelled “True Confessions.”
Again I saw the yellow fish gleam in the Blue Fin’s net.
“Sleep deeply until you wake,” I whispered, “when both worlds become one,” as I headed up the stairs with the trout.
nels hanson has worked as a farmer, teacher, and contract
writer/editor. He graduated from UC Santa Cruz and the University of Montana and his fiction received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award. His stories have appeared in Antioch Review, Texas Review, Black Warrior Review, Southeast Review, Long Story, Short Story, Starry Night Review, and other journals. He lives with his wife, Vicki, on the Central Coast of California.