Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Chapter 3


      The Beatton River ran muddy-red at the bottom of the steep coulee. It was flanked on one side by a sloughed off cliff, and on the other by a lush hayfield gone feral. Gypsy inhaled deeply and let the sound of the water flood through her, as she and Bonney broke from the trees into the meadow. The white cotton of Jacob’s shirt stuck to her skin. She tugged it with one hand, fanning her chest in billows. Soon the air would be crisp, but for now it was heavy and oppressive with heat.

      The scent of smoke drifted lazily through the stillness, the grey wisp of its tail spiralling up into the sky from across the river where Beauregard Plait lived. Judging by the pattern of the smoke it wasn’t a big fire, but after he’d nearly set the whole of the North Peace ablaze burning off his fields that past spring, any fire was cause to be nervous. It crossed her mind that she should ride over to check on him, but she was feeling selfish and agitated. All she wanted was to enjoy a little whiskey in solitude. “Not today boy,” she said, sliding her body from the saddle.

      The tall bay cocked his head to the side and the gesture made her feel guilty.

      “I know what you’re thinking.” She pulled the brown paper package from the saddle bag, “You’re right. But about now, I could go a million years without ever talking to another person again, even Mr. Plait.”

      She screwed the lid off the bottle of Crown Royal, the smell of the amber liquid hitting her nostrils with a zing that quickened her heart with anticipation. She tipped it to her lips and emptied a swill of it into her mouth. Swishing it between her teeth she savoured it before gulping it down her throat. A mild burn sank through her, swelling her tongue and filling her head with a fog, a sweet numbness that made her feel right again. “Nothing like the first drink of the day.” She held the bottle out in salute. Uninterested, Bonney wandered off to feed on the tall grass.

      A rock skittered and skipped down the bank, on the far side. Its echo cracked through the air each time it impacted against the slope. Gypsy turned her head just in time to catch a bull elk scampering over the top of the cliff. She had an urge to follow it to wherever it was that elk disappeared.

      She left Bonney to graze and picked her way down the path from the flat to the shore. The air near the water was cooler. She slumped against a rock and emptied more of the whiskey into her gullet. The harsh warmth of it was gone now and so was the tingling satisfaction.

      She pulled off her hat, closed her eyes and lifted her chin, allowing the sun to illuminate the pink of her eyelids. It was rare that she could find these moments of quiet, when there was no one to want anything from her, and she didn’t have to constantly calculate just how she should posture in relation to anyone. Melting into the rock she felt calm, unmoving, without change. It felt good to let her soul drain into the heart of something simple and solid like a river rock. Her breaths slowed and she tried to grasp a sense of inner peace.

     Electronic beeping pierced the air offensively, breaking the cadence of the river and the breeze. “Fuck,” she said opening her eyes and reaching into her pocket. How was it that she could get reception down here? If she’d known that she would have shut her damn phone off. “What?” she huffed, expecting to hear Jacob’s voice on the other end.

      “Did I catch you at a bad time?”

      “Oh, no, Rick. Sorry, I thought you were someone else.” She bent forward and shook her head. Her agent. Shit. He was catching her at a bad time.

      “Ready to go back to work, hun? I could use you in Calgary next week.”

      “Well, I’m actually up in Fort St John right now.”

      “Really?” His tone turned slick. “Do you know that I love you? Sweetie, you have just made my day. The Condill had a no show with the rookie I sent. When can you get there?”

      She weighed it in her mind. “I can’t today. I’m sort of busy.” She was none too enthusiastic about working with Cherry Hills.

      “Tonight?”

      “I’ll still be busy.”

      “Oh, come on. Please. Can’t you just cancel whatever it is that you’re doing?”

      A little stage time and a break from Jacob wasn’t really a bad idea. “I’ll call Paula tomorrow morning and find out when my first show is.”

      “Great. Now, how ’bout Calgary? They’ve been asking for their favourite cowgirl.”

      She wanted to say yes, but she wasn’t sure she was ready to leave. Sure she was. She was more than ready to get the heck out of Dodge. Having a home again had been nice, though. Her head was a storm. Was she ready to move back into a hockey bag? “I’m entered in the rodeo in Fort Nelson this weekend.”

      “I’ll tell them you’ll be late.”

      Calgary. The idea of it was growing on her. To sink back into the anonymity of a city would be divine, but there was no way she’d be in shape for that circuit by next week, not if she rodeoed that weekend. The clubs in Calgary were pretty strict about taking everything off, and that meant her chaps. Bruised thighs looked a million times worse under stage lights. No amount of derma blend could hide the kind of beating a bronc rider took between the legs.

      “You still there? Is that a yes?”

     She could hear the cheap sympathies in her head. ‘Hey baby, how ’bout getting rid of that loser and giving a real man a chance.’ Like she had some boyfriend somewhere beating her. Ha. She could only wish for a boyfriend. Or ‘I like chicks who like it rough.’ Because being a stripper precluded her from having any other life story. “I’ll be ready to work in the next week or two, OK?”

      “OK. But, if you change your mind... Anyway, make sure you call Paula.”

      “I will.”

      She slammed the phone shut. There didn’t seem to be a place on the planet she could go that was far enough away. She looked at the nasty little device in her hand. Screw it. She flung the phone through the air and watched the battery split from the back as it collided with the far shore.

      Things weren’t going to work out here. They never worked out anywhere. She could go to the ends of the earth, but if she stayed in one place long enough, sooner or later two things would happen: 1. the redheaded cowboy would do a ghost waltz across the rickety floor of her life, and 2. she’d make a mess of whatever good she had going there.

      There wasn’t a lot to look forward to in going back on the road, but the open road itself— the actual travelling down the highway, the long stretch of farms and blocks of gas stations on the number 2 between Edmonton and Calgary, or further south through the desolation leading to the bare ass of Lethbridge, or northwest from Grande Prairie through the rolling coulees to Fort St John, further on to the lonely stretch of big trucks and the skeletal parts of rigs on-the-move up and down the Alaska Highway. Or east across the prairies to Winnipeg where the wind could carry you away, and up through the deep northern bowels of the boreal forest to the point where the end of the world just might swallow you whole before you ever hit Thompson. Rig hands and loggers, truckers and miners, cowboys and bikers, students and pensioners, Mennonites and bachelors. Town after town after town. Week after week. Face after face lonely with winter, or enthusiastic and thirsty with sun. Flocks of transients migrating to wherever the money was. She moved for the same reason they moved: for promise— promise of a bigger pocket of natural gas, or a longer vein of ore, more work, higher wages — a better tomorrow. Her better tomorrow was out there, somewhere. That was what she had to believe. But the truth was, she’d really wanted it to be here.

      It was tiresome spending day in and day out on a stage, every flaw accentuated by the glare of hot lights. It could wear a person down. She was through with being treated like shit by guys she wouldn’t let buy her a drink if she was a normal girl in a normal bar. She was through with being promised the moon and the stars by men who didn’t know her real name, or care to even ask it?

      So, maybe she could have been more, should have aspired for more, but by her reckoning, it still beat the heck out of being tied down in domestic hell. There was no husband in her life who would inevitably cheat on her; no sitting at home to scrub the skid marks out of his underwear while he did. No stretched out flesh and sagging boobs. No hashing things out of a miserable mess and losing herself in the process.

      She scraped the purple label from the glass bottle with a broken thumb nail. What would she tell Jacob? He needed her to run the place while he guided another group of fat Germans up in the mountains. She took another drink. Whatever. Let him get Cherry Hills to do it.

      She swallowed another mouthful of whiskey. She could worry about it all later. Right now she had to worry about getting her cell phone back. She narrowed her eyes and tried to pick out the place where it landed, but her vision was blurry and the sun had shifted casting a shadow straight down onto the far shore.

      She unbuttoned her shirt and peeled it from her tanned freckled skin, then let it fall carelessly on the rocks. She kicked off her boots, pried open the belt buckle that had cost her more than she ever wanted to sacrifice, and unzipped her jeans. It would have made more sense to walk the quarter mile to the ford just up the river, but it was a hot day and the swim seemed like a good idea.

      Cold stabbed through her body sending her toes recoiling into the arch of her foot. The sting of the water was sobering. She plunged another foot under the surface and groped for a foothold on the smooth river rocks. Tottering forward, she braced herself with her already numb right foot, heading straight for a venture into pure stupidity.

      With the logic of whiskey working against her, she bent to all fours and tried to crawl a few steps, until the river was too deep and she could no longer hold her face above the water. She rose cautiously to an upright position. “You’re a dancer. You can cartwheel in stilettos after six hours of hard core drinking. I’m sure you can cross a creek,” she told herself, as she carefully navigated her way through the slick invisible river bottom.

      The muddy sand of the far shore squished between her toes, the feel of it a memory from childhood. What exactly from childhood she couldn’t now recall, but if she could think straight she’d wrap her mind around it. Scanning the shore, she searched for her phone. She found it lying beside a large flat red rock. She lunged clumsily for it, but caught her ankle on some beaver bramble that sent her fumbling through the air. Her left knee broke her fall. “Damn it!”

      “Why’d I get so mad like that?” she thought, as she sat on the flat rock, cradling her banged up joint. “Look where it got me. No wonder Jacob thinks I’m still a kid.”

      She pulled the elastic out of her hair, gathering the wet wheat coloured strands in her fingers, then rewound the band around the shaft at the nape of her neck. Bonney let out a snort, and she turned her attention back to the meadow side. The bottle taunted her from a distance. It was three quarters empty and waiting to pass her lips. “Now why didn’t I think to bring that with me?

      “Well girl,” she said to herself snatching up the phone, “we better get off our sorry behind and head back.”

      This time the icy cut of the water felt soothing. It numbed the ache in her knee and the mild throb in her foot from when Bonney had stood on it. The cool water had given her an ounce of clarity and she found navigating her way back to be less awkward.

      She emerged on the shore, shivering as the sun bathed over her naked body, and dropped the phone in one of her boots. Bonney was still snorting and pawing with agitation. Stepping up to the meadow she could see a coil of discarded orange bailer twine wrapped around his front hoof. “Ah boy, don’t worry. I got it.” She reached out soothe him by rubbing his nose, at the same time he tossed his head into the air. Stars burst from her skull, as his snout threw her backward. She felt like someone had just hit her in the face with a baseball bat. She stumbled back and steadied herself on a tree. “It’s OK boy,” she said more to reassure herself than him. “Stay still.” She approached slowly trying to calm him with her voice. “Steady boy.” She caught the twine in her hand and gave it a yank, as the bay stepped from it. “There you go, boy.”

      Cupping her hand over her injured eye, she staggered down to the beach toward her things and dropped heavily into the sand. She downed the remnants of the whiskey, shaking the last few drops into her mouth, and then clamped her lips between her teeth to keep the liquid from coming back up.

      The vessels beneath her face exploded with agony. The world went askew. It was hard to focus on even the pain. She laid her head in the sand and let her eyes slide closed.

...And floated off to somewhere far away.

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