In Atlas Sam’s tent saloon outside Camp Stambaugh, Herman told his friends about the wife. “I swear it happened almost overnight, her puttin’ up these picture frames all over the place—over the sink, over the fireplace, two or three on the bedroom wall.”
Herman never saw so many picture frames in his life, and he hadn’t mentioned most of them.
“She’s got one strung up in the privy,” he said.
Sam just nodded a bushy head over the problem. His silence urged Herman on.
“Got a couple factory made pieces,” Herman said, “but most of ‘em she made by hand out of sticks and grass. Got more frames than pictures.
“She even put one frame around a patch in the sod wall. She says it looks like the profile of her dead sister, the way she remembers her sitting at church.”
“What’s it look like to you?” said Sam.
“I don’t think her sister’s whiskers were that long.”
Sam chuckled, then let it go. Herman took a long drink from his tin cup.
“The other night she put a by-God picture frame around the tea kettle,” he said. “Just set it up around the kettle sayin’ it shows off the candle light better.”
“Just an empty frame?” said Sam.
Herman nodded. “Just an empty frame. Tell you the truth, I’m a little bit afraid to sit still, scared she’s gonna put one around me one of these days.”
Herman didn’t tell Sam what else Hester said—that come summer she was going to start making her own drawings. On store bought paper. She’d already been to Atlantic City and talked to Glen Burris at his telegraph, sent away for a big fat roll of “fine bleached pulp,” not bothering to tell Herman what “fine bleached pulp” was going to cost. He knew anything with the word fine in it was going to cost a dang sight more than a sheep man could regular afford.
He tried not to chew on it.
Herman figured the long Wyoming winter had made Hester a little loopy. He hoped the hot summer winds would blow up a cure. In the meanwhile, he spent most of his time playing pitch with Sam and Willy Three-Eyes.
By the first of June, Hester was sketching on the backs of flour sacks with charcoal and ash from the stove while she waited for her mail order paper.
“I drove that dang freight back and forth from the train to South Pass City for seven years,” Herman told his friends the night he got back from the rail station, “started in the fall of ’68 and every day dreaming of my own spread. And here I am ten years later, got some land to my name, a herd of my own, and that Hester’s got me going back and forth to the train station so often, I’m feeling like an old teamster again.”
The railroad station at Point of Rocks was a long ride to the south.
Sam looked over Herman’s shoddy outfit. “How old is that horse?” he said.
Herman ignored him.
“What’cha got in there?” said Willy, gripping the side rail with stubby, split fingers and standing on tiptoe to peer over the edge of the wagon.
“None of your business,” said Herman, but his friend had seen the wood frames and the roll of butter colored paper.
“Guess you picked all that up for Hester,” said Willy, combing out his gray beard.
“The world was a lot better place before the idea of mail order,” said Herman. He was in a philosophical mood. “Glen Burris tells me everything can be delivered right to your door. Well, I told him what I think.”
“What’d you tell him?” said Willy.
“I think folks don’t hardly have to work for it. Just order it up and there it is in front of ‘em.”
Willy nodded grimly. “What good is it if you don’t work for it?”
“Every day I dreamed of my own spread,” said Herman.
“Lots of men ‘round the Sweetwater dreamed,” said Sam, muttering under his breath. Herman figured his friend didn’t want to offend Willy.
“I never had the itch like that,” said Herman. “Never worried about gold.” Then he gave Willy a sympathetic look. The old-timer had been at the gold mines since ’69 and, other than dust and a stray nugget here or there, he’d yet to find a blessed thing.
Herman’s luck had gone the other way. He won his sod house ranch in a card game in ’75, livestock included.
“I wanted to build something with my own hands,” said Herman. “Have a wife.”
He courted Hester for ten days. When her sister married George Burris, Herman suggested they take advantage of the church already being rented and tie the knot themselves.
Hester said she had nothing better to do. Six weeks later, her sister passed away. Hester never talked about it.
“I hoped Hester and me might have a family by now,” said Herman.
Three years gone and Herman had a dozen more sheep, the picture frames, and twenty-odd charcoal drawings of his dead in-law.
“I just don’t understand her,” said Herman. “Last night she put a frame around some shadows on the floor and just kept givin’ them the bug-eye. Like she wasn’t happy with ‘em being the way they was.”
Inside the tent, each of the men had a drink and agreed the old girl was inscrutable.
In August, Herman found some money rolled up with a piece of twine in Hester’s basket. That night when he asked her about it, Hester wouldn’t say a word. When he told Willy Three-Eyes, the old prospector gave it to him straight.
“It was my own Emma that give it to her,” he said. “Payment for one of them drawings she made. Emma’s got it hanging up right beside the door,” said Willy. “Not sure what it’s supposed to be, but Emma sure enough thinks it’s pretty.”
Atlas Sam shook his head and poured fresh libations. “I never heard of somebody selling a drawing before.”
Herman waved him off. “They do it all the time,” he said. “If you’re any good at all you make a living at it.” He took his drink in one swallow, put the glass down too hard. “In France, or wherever.” Again he waved his hand back and forth, swatting away the details.
“Ain’t important,” said Willy.
Herman pulled a bag of fresh tobacco from his pocket and built a smoke.
“They’re pulling out the last of the cavalry men next week,” said Sam.
What they’d known all summer was finally coming to pass. With the gold mining business a bust and the Indians tamed, Camp Stambaugh was shutting down.
“Who needs ‘em?” said Willy.
“It’s vanity is what it is,” said Herman.
“What?” said Willy.
“Hester’s drawing. It’s all vanity.”
“All is vanity,” said Sam. “What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun?”
“Huh?” said Herman.
“It’s from the Good Book,” said Sam. “Ecclesiastes.”
“I never took you for much of a Bible thumper,” said Herman.
“He’s practicing,” said Willy. “Sam’s got his eye on the Reverend Dawson’s daughter.”
“That’s not so,” said Sam, folding his big mitts together on the table. “I happen to enjoy reading the scriptures. Did you know Ecclesiastes means teacher in American?”
Herman spit in his hand and doused his quirly there.
He felt glum.
Everything in the basin was changing.
A few days later Hester sold another picture. This time it was a full color painting for a soldier’s wife. Herman decided it was pure sentiment on the customer’s part, a souvenir from the lonely frontier outpost. Herman imagined that once she got back east, the woman would stash the thing away in an attic for her great-grandchildren to dispose of.
When winter came for good in early November, the friends moved their drinking from the tent to Sam’s one room shack. “Cold as it is, Hester sits outside and draws pictures of the mountains,” said Herman after his last hand of cards. “Sometimes she leaves the ranch. Says she’s following the sunlight. Last week she took the horse and wagon and left for the whole day.”
“Maybe she’ll run out of paper,” said Willy.
“Nope. She put in a new order with Glen Burris last week,” said Herman. “More of everything. Charcoal pencils. Cakes of hard paint. She’s got her own money.”
“She’s seeing a lot of young Burris,” said Sam.
“What of it? Him operating the telegraph and being her brother-in-law after all,” said Herman.
“Ex-brother-in-law, you mean,” said Sam. “Seeing as the sister’s dead.”
“God rest her,” Willy added.
“I was talking about Hester’s drawing,” said Herman.
“Are they any good?” said Sam.
Herman noticed Sam downed two shots of rye for every one he swallowed.
“What do you mean?” said Herman.
“I mean do you think Hester’s drawings are any good?” said Sam, his voice rising. “Have you taken the time to look at them? You’d think she must be pretty good after all these months of practice.”
“You’re in a temper,” said Herman. “And you don’t even have a wife to send you around the bend.”
Willy whispered the news. “He ain’t getting one either. The preacher’s daughter done eloped with a Laramie man.”
“I just think you ought to quit complaining over her,” said Sam. “You ain’t never done nothing to deserve her.”
Herman slid his chair back. “Here, now,” he said.
“No, I mean it,” said Sam. “All you do is complain about her while she does your cookin’ and cleaning and washing up and still has time to create all this wonderful beauty—“
“Sam?” said Willy.
“And you who gambled and lied and got lucky—“
“Sam,” said Herman.
“Why you ain’t accomplished half what she has,” said Sam.
Then Herman saw the small framed rectangle hanging just beside Sam’s bed.
For just a minute, he recognized what it was: the Oregon Buttes, their thick shadows and lush ochers as seen through Hester’s eye, their sweeping façade cast in eternal autumn by her practiced hand.
A second later, it looked more or less like a kitchen accident.
“I’ve got to be going,” said Herman.
He hoped by slamming the door on his way out, the painting would fall.
But he didn’t think it did.
A few days later, Herman borrowed Willy’s horse and, at a good distance, followed Hester through the ramshackle storefronts of Atlantic City, then farther, back around to the edge of their own ranch, where the Willow Creek flowed under a thin crust of snow.
Herman still couldn’t quite grip what was going on in the woman’s head. He hoped by watching her, he would begin to understand how to live with it.
How to stop it.
When he came around a wall of granite to an empty, frosted grassland, he stomped his feet. He’d lost her. Turning toward home, he came across one of his own shepherds.
The Basque’s name was Ibarra, and his dog sat beside the wagon tongue without barking. Herman didn’t speak Ibarra’s language, but a lot of the sheep men developed a crude sign language with the herders, and since the topic of conversation usually had only to do with the sheep, they got so they understood each other fairly well.
Herman poked his head into Ibarra’s wagon, putting some real authority into his voice.
“You seen my wife?”
As it was, Ibarra had no idea what Herman was talking about.
Helplessly, he shook his head.
But Herman wasn’t looking at the shepherd.
Pinned to the canvas wagon cover, three scraps of paper fluttered in the wind. Again, Herman saw his wife’s hand on display. Here was Willow Creek in bold, vibrant strokes. There was the granite pyramid he’d just passed, its component stones rendered with looping spirals, its foundation held in place with heavy shadows.
Herman blinked, and the pictures stayed steady and more clear than the tintypes they used to display at the camp.
“Where is she?” he said again. But then he remembered what day it was in the week, so he turned and rode away before there was any chance of an answer.
Herman’s thoughts were headed in a terrible direction.
He stopped at his soddy long enough to pick up some water, provisions for his horse. And a gun.
Then he rode for Point of Rocks.
He rode through the night, stopping only long enough to rest his horse.
It didn’t matter.
When he got there, the train was a smudge of brown and white on the horizon.
Herman stood beside Willy’s horse at the edge of the station and watched it go. Shading his eyes, he let a finger drop and the train disappeared. He lifted his finger, and the train reappeared. Funny how something that appeared so small could, in reality, be so big.
Perspective was hard for Herman to figure.
He crossed the board walk and stepped into the office. Glen Burris wasn’t there.
“Figured you might be along,” said a heavy man at the desk. He stood up and shook hands with Herman. “I’m new here. Name is Tanner.”
“How do you know me?” said Herman, his eyes darting around the room.
Owl Creek mountain sat on the desk in a braided grass frame.
“Mr. Burris described you. Told me to expect you,” said Tanner.
An unnamed procession of hills dappled with umber and green hung on the wall in a frame of lashed aspen twigs.
“The lady asked me to give you this,” said Tanner, handing over an envelope.
Herman stared hard at the string tie. He opened it with trembling fingers and pulled out Hester’s masterpiece.
It was the inside of the soddy.
Hester had captured it all in precise detail. The woodstove, the fire, the picture frames. Sure enough, she had the tea kettle just right.
The open room they shared, and the life they didn’t.
For the first time, Herman openly admired his wife’s work.
“Look at the detail there in that chair,” he told Tanner, pointing at the paper. “Look at how real that tea kettle looks, framed just so.”
That Hester was some kind of artist.
Well, that’s what she was all right. “She’s an artist,” he said.
Herman held the drawing at arms’ length and smiled even as tears came down his cheeks.
He couldn’t help but notice that the room in the drawing was empty.
Like it would be when he got home.
Like it would always be.