“…Keith Richards cutting his hair in 1967 influenced rock and roll as much as Link Ray slicing his speakers up to get that distortion, I ain’t kidding you.”….Billy was in a talkative mood. I was busy staring at a colt out the window, dark bay with a broad white face, his mother staying close by, watching protectively. The air felt so good, and cold and clean. Dark grey skies cast shadows on the thick grass of the hills surrounding the campground. I smiled over, grabbed my tea, and asked to borrow his old military monocular, a brass small German made tchotchke in a leather case that I coveted. I was going to go find some mountain bighorn sheep, see where the herd of wild horses was running to, perhaps get a glimpse of the buffalo, standing cold and lonesome, alone, dotting the landscape. I had these black heavy hiking boots, which I rarely took off, and were good enough to handle a hike, but really didn’t have good enough a jacket for the cold late April weather, instead I pulled his spare leather on over my moth-bitten blue fleece. The cold stung my skin, and I had lost my gloves, but it was just too new, too beautiful to sit by the campfire and watch from a distance.
My errant protector decided that he had to shield me from buffalo and bears and herds of mustang, the kids had already started to put out the fire, so we could leave it, and were wrapping up against the chill North Dakotan wind. The boy, kicking at the dust, walking next to me, arm round his stepdad, talking to him about Catfish Hunter and the chances of the Cubs winning another World Series in consecutive years, the girl zooming ahead, stumbling over rabbit holes and gopher burrows, throwing herself towards wild horses, and buffalo head-on, laughing, free, sprite-like, tumbling, me chasing after, trying to pull her back, away, hissing warnings about wild animals and respecting surroundings, and eventually corralling her, holding her thin bony hand in mine, whispering to her about not scaring away the wildlife, putting my head on her shoulder, calming her, matching her panicked breathing to my own, like I had done all those years before when she was a premature newborn, beaten out of my womb by her own father. I loved her. I loved her more than life itself.
A gaggle of wild turkey waddled past clucking and complaining, dropping feathers and baulking at human presence, a single gopher poked his head out of a hole, and other campers dotted the trail, here and there, their dogs going crazy for the new smells and sights. I never wanted to leave, and I always want to leave. I always want to move on. I am always moving on. I pictured a house on the hill, overlooking the river, saw myself in it and drifted off for a while, in a pleasant daydream. “I know what you are thinking, Paltry,” said Billy. “Summer is harsh, hotter than you can imagine out here, no shade, little rain, a dust bowl for the most part. Winter is brutal, this is as good as the weather gets out here. People tried to make North Dakota work since they settled here, it’s not a good place to farm, it eats people up, kiddo.” He started to tell me stories of Teddy Roosevelt homesteading this particular piece of land, and failing to make it work, a sorry tale of death and hunger and loss. “There is recreation of his Maltese Cross Cabin, near the entrance, darling, would you like to stop there?” His great concession to tourism, to my curiosity, an offering. I agreed. We never did stop.
We crept up, six foot away from a beautiful palomino with a white blonde mane, who was pawing at the ground nervously, my boys lagging behind laughing about something Antony Rizzo had done in some game the year before, comparing two-seamer grips, and carelessly tossing the baseball between them, Billy with his dad’s old brown softball mitt, the boy with his cheap black kid’s infielder’s glove, sending the ball hurtling up to the icy skies, and down, with a satisfying snap of ball against glove. I held the brass monocular in my hand, offering to show the kids, my Peter Pan Billy, and my own two, a lone bighorn sheep, standing wooly and distant the other side of the Little Missouri River. Buffalo moved a little too close, me backing up my own oblivious herd, vaguely resenting Billy his careless abandon, wanting to not always be on the alert, to not always be the responsible one. No such luck. Not ever.
The herd started to trot, then canter, zooming past us, a stallion, white and wall-eyed, stayed still, waiting for the rest of the herd to pass him, nostrils flared. I immediately named him Bowie, one blue, one brown eye, improbable pearly mane, and a touch too thin. We let them pass, and followed them to the banks of the river, running to see them cross, they disappeared, backed up by Bowie, and forded the Little Missouri in a thunder of hooves and foam, accelerating up the opposite bank, while we stood gaping at the wonder of it all. I gaped for so long that turning round, after looking through the monocular, at the herd disappearing over the hill, I fell over a tree stump, and lay on the ground winded and hurt. A car drove by, with a large golden retriever sticking his head out the back window. The dog appeared concerned. No one else had noticed, and I was too winded to make a sound. Eventually the kids noticed and ran towards me shouting, “Ma! Ma! Uncle Billy, Ma’s hurt!” This was not the first injury to my damned left leg, and not gonna be the last. I had hit it on a sharp small cut off trunk, slicing through my jeans, blood pouring out onto the dirt and gravel, but worse, it felt like I had done something really quite awful. I couldn’t speak. Billy ambled over, told me to get up, I shook my head, still not able to breathe thanks to hitting the ground so hard, and he looked at me exasperated, and started to rub my leg, telling me he would find some ice from a patch on the ground, to put on it, and I’d be just fine. He was distinctly unconcerned, and unimpressed. To be frank, I think it hurt more than the injury. I refused the dirty ice from a nearby patch, grabbed onto one of the kids, and hauled myself up, now crying pathetically.
Back in the RV, inspecting the damage, Billy showed up with a bottle of rubbing alcohol, and a torn up pillowcase. “Deep breath, it might sting a bit.” Asshole. I found a tube of antibiotic cream, fixed myself up as best as I could and tried to walk. It really didn’t feel right. Girl brought me a cup of tea and an apple. The boy, sat nearby patting my hand and offering hugs. I pulled myself together. “It’s alright, guys, no need to worry, just a bit of a cut.” My shin was swelling alarmingly and I thought in different circumstances I might even take myself to a hospital, me who dislikes doctors and clinics.
So that was that. The kids got the fire going again, borrowing egg carton pieces and scraps of paper to get it going in the damp, one of them bought be a toasted marshmallow on a sharpened stick, the other busied themselves with a kettle. Billy eventually asked how I was and offered to rub my leg better, and went back to playing me Link Ray songs. He always said, when pushed, that he didn’t want to panic me, or make things worse. Invariably he would always make things worse by his lack of care or appropriate reaction, whilst demanding being cared for continually. The stroke made him almost emotionally disabled in his inability to perform empathy, something that I struggled to get used to. He was never like this in years previous, and it saddened me to see him so changed. They don’t tell you just how much a stroke will change someone, when you leave the hospital, just glad to see your loved one alive and breathing.
I sat by the fire, nursing my leg, reassuring everyone that I would be fine, seeing the eyes of the animals kept at bay by the fire, in the dark and the cold. One orange shining eye seemed to tell me, ‘you are not quite as alright as you are pretending you are, are you, Paltry, you are not quite as alright as you tell everyone you are.’ Orange eyes in the dark aside, this was exactly how I felt, whether being regarded by a deer or not. I was not quite alright. I was worried about the girl and her outlandish behavior accelerating rapidly, I was worried about Billy and his strange demeanor after the stroke, I was worried about the boy, and was concerned that I had managed to hurt my already bum leg further, the pins and needles and pain in my foot increasing minute on minute. People needed me to be alright, people needed me to be fit. People needed me to look after them, as inadequate as that may be. I sent the boy off for the spare walking stick, and pulled myself up and to bed, dragging reluctant children inside, leaving Billy staring at the fire.