By August of 1904, the third summer of the new township, the fields had gone four months without rain. The temperature spiked at dawn, sun sizzled at midday, and by late afternoon, everything—the settlers, the livestock, the ground itself—was thirsty. Come evening, when the heat was finally tolerable, ranchers and their sons walked the corrals looking for animals that had perished of heat exhaustion during the day. The most common victims were sheep. Naturally slow to seek shade, they collapsed in the dust, where their corpses bloated within minutes. Lifting one into a wheelbarrow required several hands and the utmost care—any abrupt moves and the animal would burst, leaking green bile from its mouth and anus. The boys, brushing flies from their faces, wheeled the dead to a side pasture and dumped the loads quickly. Packs of bony coyotes sniffed the remains each night but never partook.
At dusk following one of the hottest days of the drought, W. A. Laidlaw, the man whose name the township bore, lit the kerosene lamp outside his yurt, a simple canvas structure that served as the office for the Clear Water Irrigation Co-op, the first organization of its kind in Oregon. Then he rang a large silver bell and waited for some thirty men throughout the township to pull on their boots and walk, grumbling, to meet him. A tall, lean man with a salty-red mustache, Laidlaw wore a denim jacket, leather chaps, and a black hat no matter the weather, and sweat now beaded his face. The men assembled, eyeing a yellow slip of paper in Laidlaw’s hand and speaking in low voices as the early moon cut the sky like a scythe.
“Gentlemen,” Laidlaw said, holding the paper to the lamplight. “This telegraph has just been wired from Shaniko, and I promise you it cannot wait.”
“Spare us another speech,” said Nathaniel Sutherlin, standing beside his brother, Thomas, at the front of the crowd. It was they who, only days earlier, had led a small but vocal group of men in burning a crude effigy of Laidlaw in the fire pit just outside his office. The message was clear: Bring the railroad, or perish.
“Very well, I’ll be succinct,” Laidlaw said. “You have worked hard, you have sacrificed, and now you can tell your wives and children that Columbia Southern is bringing the future to Laidlaw.”
Nathaniel snatched the notice from Laidlaw’s hand. The men watched him read. “It’s true,” he said, removing his spectacles. “They’re coming.”
The assembly let loose a cheer and Nathaniel passed the slip around. Even those who could only pretend to read nodded in approval. At once, a flurry of questions:
“When exactly can we expect them?” Nathaniel said.
“And our shares?” his brother added. “What will they be worth now?”
“How soon till they need labor?” asked Joseph Walgamuth.
Laidlaw raised his hand to calm the crowd. “Tomorrow we’ll all have business to attend to, I assure you. But tonight,” he said, withdrawing a flask from his pocket, “tonight is for celebration.”
The men whooped and whistled before dispersing to tell their wives. Laidlaw took a long, hot drink and wiped his mustache with the back of his hand. He retreated to his office to gather documents. Soon the air filled with laughter and pistol fire, and men convened at the central corral. Laidlaw closed the flaps to his yurt and returned to his table, where he continued to make preparations until he heard footsteps on the gravel outside.
“Mr. Laidlaw?” Walgamuth’s brittle voice.
Laidlaw went to the door and opened a flap. “Yes, Joseph?”
Walgamuth stood, hat in hand, sweat glistening under the lamp glow. “I know you’re busy, Mr. Laidlaw, but you ought to know, I’ve just got to tell you, I knew all along this would come together.”
“I appreciate that sentiment,” Laidlaw said. “Now why don’t you go ahead and enjoy yourself some more.”
“That I’ll do. Bless you, Mr. Laidlaw.”
Mr. Laidlaw, almost a decade earlier, had traveled by rail from Kansas City to Oregon City, determined to make a fresh start in time for the new century. That winter, his wife had fallen to influenza, and then he alone had remained with their son, just turned twelve. Laidlaw told the boy that if there was a hidden blessing to be found in their loss, it was the chance to make themselves over. A draftsman by trade, Laidlaw had spent all his working days drawing the estates of greater men. Out in Oregon he’d no longer be a bootlicker. What he lacked in capital, he could make up for in vision.
As a youth, Laidlaw had listened rapt to traders’ stories of the great Oregon Trail, the vast prairie, the terrifying mountain peaks, the Indians hunting seemingly endless game, yet as he traversed the continent with his son, the only evidence of those tumultuous journeys was the occasional crooked grave site along the railway, each one a grim reminder that fortune didn’t always favor the bold. His son spent the journey gazing out the window, leaving a nose mark on the glass whenever they passed a new town, and though Laidlaw couldn’t shake the sense that they were arriving late to the parade, he felt satisfied that whatever lay over the next horizon might provide some meager balm for their grief.
That first spring in the Willamette Valley, a clubfooted stockman sold Laidlaw two hundred head of sheep with the assurance that there was still free grazing to be had in the Cascade high country. The high elevation there brought extremes, he allowed—scorching summers, cruel winters, and native fauna, brown and prickly, designed to thrive where moisture was scarce—but there was ample summer grass for the sheep, so long as Laidlaw didn’t encroach on the buckaroos who would shoot to defend their cattle territories. And so with a pair of horses and a blue-eyed Australian shepherd, Laidlaw and his son drove their stock east through Willamette Pass.
It was a hot, dusty summer when they got to the high-desert country, but the animals contented themselves with the bunchgrass on the ridges. Laidlaw and the boy passed their days hunting, fishing, skipping stones across the creeks. At dusk the temperature sank, and in the crackle of the fire he felt the quiet presence of his wife, as if she had been following them the entire distance. She faded in the gray of morning, but Laidlaw began to believe that the worst was behind him.
In mid-October, the first snows fell, shallow enough that the sheep could still seek grass, and always followed by warm Chinook winds to melt the cold away. It had been a fine season. They had lost only twenty-one animals—a dozen to cougars, the rest to cliff sides. There would be profit enough from the wool clipping and butchering to cover the cost of winter grazing when they got back to the wet side of the state. The days grew colder and Laidlaw watched other ranchers begin their return journeys across the pass. He had the notion to sit tight just a couple of more weeks. No sense driving his herd back over any earlier than he had to, not when every dollar saved on winter grazing could be used to buy more stock the following spring. Against the warnings of the other ranchers, he waited.
It was the first of November when Laidlaw and his boy, thirteen by then, struck camp to hurry their herd west through the snow. In years to come, that date would hang over Laidlaw like a specter. If they had turned back a week earlier? Even a day?
Their third night crossing the Cascades, storm clouds wrapped the mountains in a steel cloak. Wind tore away their shelter and fire. By midnight the air had plunged below zero and his boy’s teeth chattered so hard it seemed they might break. Laidlaw scrambled to capture one of his ewes. He slit the animal’s throat and belly. Her steaming insides were their only hope for warmth. But before long the carcass itself was just a frozen mass. The boy had stopped shaking altogether, complaining now that he was too hot, too hot. Laidlaw wrapped the boy in his arms and shielded him from the wailing gusts. “Keep awake,” he told the boy again and again, but there came a moment in the dark when he could no longer feel the boy’s breath, when a terrifying cold rose up inside him, a sensation so powerful that, even years later, Laidlaw could not bring himself to utter the boy’s name.
In the seasons to come, as Laidlaw traveled the state, scouting plots, studying irrigation methods, arranging deals with Portland brokers for claims to the high-desert wastelands, he did so with a dead-eyed determination to carve a settlement into that tough country. His son’s death would not be in vain. His family hadn’t made it, but others would, and they would thrive in a scrubland town bearing the name Laidlaw.
Thus the hand-painted blue and green signs, spread like seeds across the region. At a distance the announcements seemed like curious, colorful flowers growing everywhere one turned: the stagecoach trails from Shaniko to Plainview, Sisters to Oregon City; the riverbanks of the great Metolius; the trading posts along every westward route to the Willamette Valley; even the outhouses of taverns and brothels from the Snake River to the foot of the Cascades.
Each sign made the same promise, carefully lettered:
Exhausted settlers who saw the notices felt a pang of promise that stayed with them along the river to the small yurt where W. A. Laidlaw waited. Laidlaw invited the men and their families inside, offered them water, a hot meal, a place to bed down for the night. When the women and children had gone to sleep, he offered the men whiskey and quail eggs, maps and divining rods, and, finally, a vision of the township: irrigation, railroads, a new age. He showed them crops of all kinds—barley, sweet beets, potatoes, strawberries—illustrated in his own charcoal sketches. Of course nothing in the high desert looked like the sketches yet. But with the right engineering, he promised, the river could be tapped to transform that landscape. Even the railroads knew it, and they were going to swallow up all the land. Laidlaw showed his visitors a map with the Columbia Southern seal, clear as day, in the upper right-hand corner, a red arrow pointing to the Deschutes River nearby. Those shimmering tracks would bring trade, mills, fortunes. There were visitors who called him a dreamer, a fool. But whatever in this life was too precious to lose, Laidlaw had already lost. The regard of strangers meant nothing to him.
For the believers there were agreements and signatures, handshakes and cigars, and by sunrise they had purchased shares in the Clear Water Irrigation Co-op. Each day Laidlaw’s silver bell summoned the men to the irrigation office to review maps, plot channels, and assign tasks. He led teams of men in clearing bitterbrush and juniper, readying the acreage for planting. Coaches rolled in with parts and supplies for constructing pumps and digging wells. A Klamath Indian and his white half brother visited to share the secret of persuading water to flow uphill.
The settlers claimed and worked land of their own, erected simple frame dwellings, temporary structures that would suffice until the boom hit. During the second spring it seemed another wagon settled every week. With more hands, the townsfolk cultivated the volcanic soil, dark and mineral-rich from the explosion of the Cascades centuries earlier. Men hunted deer and elk in the dusty ridges nearby. Boys plucked trout like flecks of silver from the Deschutes River, cold and swift. Girls wandered barefoot in the rocky riverbeds, turning over stones, reaching into the murky swirls for crawfish; they returned home with wet dresses, bloody fingertips, pails brimming with russet creatures ready for the boil.
With time the irrigation channels grew more intricate. Soon professionals began to arrive, entrepreneurs eager to do business. Nathaniel and Thomas Sutherlin, a lawyer and a doctor from Ohio, erected a true office building the second summer. When the building was finished, the brothers spent their evenings on the front steps, Nathaniel perusing thick brown law books while Dr. Sutherlin whittled willow branches absentmindedly, watching the shavings curl at his feet. Michael Clancy spent the Indian summer building a trading post and fishermen’s clubhouse. That fall he could be seen toying with a yo-yo as he waited for customers, and soon all the children of Laidlaw walked the paths with yo-yos spinning from their hands. Andrew Morton, a professor from back East, opened a two-room schoolhouse that doubled as a town hall, where at night the men gathered to drink and to chalk plans on the children’s slates, exhausted from a day’s hard work but fueled by the heat of their own dreams. On certain lonely evenings Laidlaw strolled past the schoolhouse door and lingered momentarily, just to absorb the fermentation, to hear the voices drifting across the settlement long after the sky had filled with fields of stars.
Then trade froze during the bitter winter of 1904. The settlement endured night after night of hard frost, but scarce snowfall left the faces of the Cascades bare, dashing hopes for a wet spring. Early lambs and calves were born steaming in the frigid dark and come sunrise the mothers persisted in licking the stiff, lifeless bodies of their young. Skeletal deer wandered the hills and buttes, desperate for grazing. Dr. Sutherlin killed a buck and strung it for cleaning, and when its organs spilled he pierced the stomach with the tip of his blade and discovered that the animal had been eating its own droppings. Michael Clancy took advantage of the awesome cold to sell every family in Laidlaw thermometers manufactured in Denver, and the men, bored with chopping firewood, argued daily whether the instruments, which lingered stubbornly near zero, could possibly be accurate. At the schoolhouse Professor Morton spent his lessons stoking the woodstove while the children shivered at their desks and practiced arithmetic on their cold tablets. There would be no new chalk until the trails opened. The professor broke sticks of chalk in half and in half again until the chalk was gone, and finally one day he led the children, with their tin buckets, down to the river. He sawed a hole in the frozen current and the children formed a bucket line to flood the central corral. Out walking the settlement later, Laidlaw leaned against the corral fence and watched the youngsters pass their arithmetic hour at play on the makeshift ice rink.
Only one child—the son of Joseph Walgamuth—remained at the schoolhouse, stacking wood for the professor. Young Ethan volunteered his efforts every day. The boy took after his father. Within a season of arriving in the settlement, the elder Walgamuth had constructed an animal hospital, a livestock market, and a feed shack. Of anyone in the township, it was Walgamuth and his son who saw most clearly Laidlaw’s vision for the future.
Laidlaw remembered the bright morning that first spring when Walgamuth’s wagon had rolled to a stop outside the co-op office. Laidlaw had been inside his yurt, shaving. He had splashed soap from his face, rinsed the red whiskers from his razor, and inspected his mustache in a hand mirror. He buttoned his shirt and donned his black hat and stepped out into the mild morning. A short, fragile-looking man stepped off a small wagon and limped toward the door. A woman and a little boy, both blond and freckled, hopped off after him and hitched their brown horses to a post.
“Are you Mr. Laidlaw?” the man asked. The tip of his nose looked badly burnt or bitten.
“Yes, sir, I am,” Laidlaw said, holding open the canvas flap. “Please. Come in. Make yourself at home.” The man nodded at his wife and little boy and the two went to unhitching and brushing the horses. “And your name?” Laidlaw asked the boy.
“Welcome, Ethan.” It had been a long time since anyone had given the boy a haircut and a good scrubbing. On his belt he kept a small knife, and the worn leather sheath made it clear he took every opportunity to use the blade during chores. There was a burning in Laidlaw’s throat and he coughed into his fist. “You take good care of those horses,” he said.
Inside, Laidlaw pointed Walgamuth to a small table in the center of the yurt. He filled two tin cups with whiskey. Laidlaw watched Walgamuth lift the cup with the thumb and ring finger of his right hand. His other fingers were missing at the first knuckle.
“Frost,” Walgamuth said, wiggling his half fingers.
Laidlaw knew well enough about frost. He wondered whether Walgamuth had buried any children on his journeys. A softness in the man’s eyes revealed that, no, he had not. Laidlaw let the man enjoy his whiskey and the pleasant breeze through the open flap.
“We saw signs posted back up the river a ways,” Walgamuth said after a time.
Laidlaw moved the cups and the lantern aside to make space for his charcoal sketches. The man leaned over the table, scrutinizing the illustrations and accompanying diagrams. Laidlaw could tell by the movement of Walgamuth’s eyes that he could not read and so he pointed at the sketches one at a time, explaining the purpose of each plot of land, the irrigation routes, the crop rotations, the plans for a reservoir.
“Columbia Southern is just around the corner,” Laidlaw said, standing. “The whole world is one train track away.” He led Walgamuth outside to see for himself. The boy was still brushing the horses and the animals took long drinks from the water trough. Laidlaw invited Walgamuth’s wife to join them. Blackbirds pecked at a puddle of water at their feet. Laidlaw pointed to the fields in the middle distance, flat and dry. Already that morning a dozen men with shovels and picks stood waist deep in fresh canals, digging. Just one year prior, Laidlaw had spent hours alone in this very spot, sketching the landscape, studying how the contours might make for good plots, how the ridges might be terraced, how channels could navigate the fields like arteries feeding the needy crops. Now as Walgamuth held the sketches and looked over the land, a river of words flowed from Laidlaw’s mouth, filling the dry canals, and as Laidlaw pointed along the horizon it was as if his sketches unfurled across the landscape, and Walgamuth, too, seemed to see the lush fields, the crops tussling in the breeze, acres of prosperity for every man, woman, and child, all the way to the foot of the Cascade Range. Out in the canals the men paused in their digging to gaze back at the new family.
“By the grace of God,” Walgamuth told his wife. “We’ve made it.”
Now, this harsh afternoon, as Laidlaw watched the youngsters skate the icy corral, young Ethan glanced at him from the woodpile behind the schoolhouse and held his eyes a moment before carrying on with his chore.
The first hot days of the impending drought were still weeks away, and nobody, not even Laidlaw with all his vision, had any notion that spring would come rainless and then surrender to a summer of punishing heat, clouds gathering on the horizon, dark but never dark enough, shadows drifting forever east, leaving behind nothing but cracked earth. With no snowmelt to come and no rain, the river would run low—the fishing poor, the flow of irrigation pathetic. Laidlaw Township would dream of heavy clouds that summer but wake each morning to a merciless and vacant sky. The residents kept their eyes upward, to the promise of rainfall, but by the middle of June, blue was the color of pain. The Deschutes had barely the strength to slip through the riverbed stones. With so little water the spring crops failed. Laidlaw rang his bell continuously, it seemed, to call the men to his office to dispense some news, some semblance of hope, but ultimately there was no word yet from Columbia Southern. In August, thirst, desperation.
But that afternoon, as Laidlaw watched young Ethan carry an armload of split wood into the schoolhouse, he could not know the pestilential winter was only the start of his troubles. He straightened his hat and returned to his yurt. At the office table, he examined his sketches, sorted through his contracts, went back to the business of making sure the future knew where and when to arrive.
It was when the Sutherlin brothers gathered the mob to light their effigy that Laidlaw knew his time had expired. Seated on his cot, he had endured the shouted threats as smoke from the burning figure penetrated his canvas walls. No good options occurred to him in the days following. And so that second week of August, the night he had shared his telegraph from Shaniko, the night he had declared that the future was finally on its way, Laidlaw packed his horse with a small bag of essentials, his charcoal sketches, and six pouches of water. As the men of the settlement drank themselves dizzy, Laidlaw poured kerosene throughout the yurt, over the table, over the folders of shareholder records, over the many pages of failed and forged correspondence with Columbia Southern. There were too many papers to carry, not enough time to bury them, not enough water in the river to wash them away. By destroying those documents, Laidlaw felt, he could at least relieve the settlers of the liens on their land, offer them an opportunity to leave this place free and clear. On his way out the door, he struck a match and held its glow to his face briefly before dropping it to the floor.
Laidlaw mounted his horse and flew down the long main road, past the last fences in the settlement, then east. Behind him, sparks leaped, multiplied, gained altitude in the breeze. Before long the roofs of nearby structures ignited. Patches of dry weeds smoked and flared, and fire spread to the hay bales around the central corral. Soon the blaze touched the only real building in town, the Sutherlin office. By then the men were waking their families, shouting, scrambling for buckets and shovels.
Some three miles upriver, Laidlaw brought the horse to a halt. Through the darkness across the fields, orange shapes wavered on rooftops and fences and now in the dusty juniper bushes alongside the road. He’d intended that only his office burn, and for a moment a heavy sickness compelled him to turn back to help extinguish the flames. But in a way, he envied these men their chance to start anew. They hadn’t lost everything. Perhaps now they would wake from his dream and take their wives and sons and daughters over Willamette Pass, settle in a valley where they could again feel rain on their faces. Laidlaw spurred the horse and rode harder, south, along the river trail.
In the settlement the men felt only flames. They bound their necks and mouths with wet handkerchiefs and attacked the blaze with shovelfuls of dirt, and the iron handles branded their palms. Boys fetched half-full pails of water from the thin river, working in teams, water sloshing as they hurried back along the path. Yellow waves flooded the fields and washed over the dry, dusty cheatgrass. Dogs barked frantically. The women and girls released the sheep and goats and horses from the corrals, herded the confused animals down the smoky roads. The moon hung over the tree line all the while.
Laidlaw knew he would be hunted the moment the men had saved their homes. Heat rose from the shadowy dust on the trail as he pushed the horse at a hard gallop along the riverbank. A pair of porcupines wobbled lazily from the brush. The horse reared. Laidlaw clutched the reins. A low-hanging juniper branch smacked his head, gashing his brow, and the horse charged between the two porcupines as Laidlaw’s black hat fell to the ground.
It was another mile upriver before the horse settled and Laidlaw dismounted. His brow was sticky and he splashed water on the throbbing wound. No time to go searching for the hat. He led the animal to the water. Frogs gurgled in the tall grass. The horse bowed, shoved its muzzle between the river stones, and drank. Dust still lingered on the trail behind them. Laidlaw filled his deerskin canteen, took a long gulp, and dipped the canteen again. The horse snorted and stomped impatiently. The moon planted specks like white seeds in the dark current and they trickled over the stony bottom. Laidlaw heard his heart pound over the sound of the moving water. His dream flickered one last time. The river—artery of the settlement; the railroad—shimmering tracks along its banks. He’d wished to reward the township families for everything they’d suffered and lost. But surely they must have known that no man could protect them from the weather.
Coyotes yipped, chasing after something in the trees.
Laidlaw climbed back on his horse, snapped the reins, and forced the animal into the black water. The horse walked delicately, hooves struggling on the jagged bottom. On the opposite bank, Laidlaw rode south once more. Even from this expanse smoke tinged the air. How many men, how many good dogs could the Sutherlins array against him? The horse had already sweated twice. Laidlaw swiped his palm along his brow and smeared a dark patch of blood on his jeans. As the horse loped, he looked back across the river at the trees lining the bank, at their twisted shadows and branches. In the distance, the butte, a giant silhouette. He let the horse dip down for one last long drink and then rode hard up the trail another mile before crossing back again. He crossed twice more, and by then, as the sun peered over the horizon, lighting up the gray bare peaks, the horse was shuddering beneath him.
The dogs had quit barking. With nothing left to do but let the fires run their course, the men rested. The Sutherlin building, once sturdy, had been reduced to a charred skeleton. Ashy pages of textbooks fluttered from the second-story windows like black feathers. The rest of the structures in town had fared no better. The schoolhouse, the tavern, the trading post—all strewn along the road like burnt match sticks.
“No sense fighting for what’s left,” said Nathaniel. “Let’s see how many horses we can round up.”
Throughout the commotion, the men had felt the weight of W. A. Laidlaw’s absence. Thomas Sutherlin had already saddled his horse and sheathed his rifle. Professor Morton and Michael Clancy stood at the schoolhouse, picking through the remains with shovels and pitch forks, the losses clear even in the predawn. Clancy’s wife stood beside him, cradling their newborn twins, who by some miracle had slept through the chaos. The men banded together and found Walgamuth, on his knees outside his decimated home.
“We need your dogs,” Nathaniel told him.
“My rifle. It’s in there,” he said, pointing to the stock of his weapon glowing hot in a coil of cinders.
“We have others,” Thomas said. “Now let’s get moving.”
A tiny strip of pink light edged the horizon. Thomas lit a torch and led the weary men down the river trail as the hounds ran ahead, noses to the ground. A few miles later the dogs circled Laidlaw’s black hat and seized a scent, and the men followed, Thomas’s torch casting gold on the river surface. The horses thundered on the trail. It wasn’t long before the dogs paused, trotting back and forth near the riverbank. The men stopped to water the horses. Already heat rose from the dust, and the Sutherlins, their cheeks still blistering from the fire, cursed it.
“Son of a bitch crossed here,” Nathaniel said.
The dogs’ scent was true, and the men followed them back and forth across the river. It was only when the hounds turned off the river trail completely that Clancy suggested maybe they had gone mad with heat.
“He’s long gone,” Clancy said.
“Unless he’d only have us think he’s gone,” Thomas said. He pointed his torch at the butte, a dark heap in the distance. An owl hooted, a phantom leaping from tree to tree.
“Ain’t a drop of water up there,” Walgamuth said.
“Understand how this man operates,” Professor Morton said. “He wants us to ride past.”
“Professor,” Nathaniel said, “you and Walgamuth and Clancy take the dogs around the butte. Keep them worked up and noisy. My brother and I will ride up the back side and surprise him. When he heads down your way, you boys be waiting.”
“What makes you so sure he’s up there?” Walgamuth said.
“He’s made fools of us once,” Thomas said. “Sure enough, he thinks he can do it again.”
“We’re wasting time with this debate,” the professor said.
The torch hissed as Thomas extinguished it in the river. The professor led his men around the butte, hounds baying through the shadows of the trees. The Sutherlin brothers rode to the trailhead on the opposite side, where in the blue-gray dust they discovered the lingering imprints of horseshoes they were looking for. Even at sunrise their horses worked up a noontime sweat trudging switchbacks up the hill. Halfway up the brothers surveyed the settlement in the distance. Pillars of smoke drifted into the lightening sky. From the other side of the butte came the faint barks of Walgamuth’s hounds.
“Figure he knows what we’re up to?” Thomas said.
“Sure as the devil.”
At the summit the mountains to the west were gray in the rising sun. Laidlaw stood shirtless in the shade of a thick juniper and poured water from his canteen into his hand. He held his palm to the horse’s mouth and let the animal drink. When he saw the Sutherlins approaching, he made no effort to run or reach for his gun.
“I have a peculiar feeling,” said Laidlaw, oddly calm, “that nothing I have to say will be of much interest to you gentlemen.” Thomas drew his revolver and fired at Laidlaw’s kneecap. “Goddamn!” Laidlaw called out, and dropped to the ground. “Goddamn goddamn goddamn!—” Nathaniel struck Laidlaw’s mouth with the butt of his rifle. The brothers went to work binding his arms and legs with a length of rope and together heaved him over his horse.
Once down the butte, they allowed their weary animals a pause for long drinks at the riverbed. Laidlaw groaned.
“Suppose we better call the others,” Nathaniel said.
“They’re going to want some time with him,” his brother said. “Walgamuth, especially.”
“I imagine so.” Nathaniel lifted his rifle and fired three shots into the air. Soon the hounds howled through the trees. When Laidlaw, twisted on his saddle, saw the men approach, his eyes widened and he curled himself into a ball. The men dismounted, hauled Laidlaw to the ground, and went after him with their boots and fists until they needed a drink.
“That’s enough now,” Thomas said. “We bring him back alive.”
Energized from the capture, the party galloped fast toward the settlement. The day grew hotter and Laidlaw coughed dust and blood as the saddle jarred him. They reached the remains of Laidlaw’s yurt and dumped him there in the grit. Men, women, and children alike surrounded the group to watch Laidlaw writhe.
Professor Morton recovered an ashy, silver bell from the cooling embers of the co-op office. “These children ought to get washed up,” he told the crowd. “Not one of you returns until you hear the sound of the bell.” The parents agreed, and begrudgingly the older children led the youngsters away. The settlers circled Laidlaw, their eyes bloodshot, faces soiled and sweaty in the rising heat. Women spat at him and kicked soot. The men dealt blows until they were satisfied or exhausted. Finally the crowd looked to Nathaniel for any guidance the law could provide as to what should happen next.
“It’s a day’s ride before we can get the sheriff out here from Prineville,” he said. “If the sun finishes him by then, so be it.”
Laidlaw was dragged to the far pasture and bound to a juniper
trunk. Once the knots had been cinched, the restless crowd returned, ashen-faced and silent, to the central corral, where the professor grasped the silver bell, took a deep breath, and rang it steadily. The sound echoed through the trees, from which the children, emerging now, had overseen the beating. Together with their mothers and fathers, they trudged wordlessly down to the banks to scrub themselves clean in the water.
The sun moved slowly across the sky. At dusk, the howls of coyotes stirred Laidlaw from his daze. It was as if his body were filled with splinters of glass. He could not be sure if he was burning or freezing. He passed his tongue over cracked lips, and through one swollen eye glimpsed figures across the pasture, sifting still through the smoldering remnants. Above them, clouds assembled into one dark mass, and as he fell unconscious, he dreamed of sudden thunder and the first, fat raindrops thrumming the desert floor.
In the pitch of night Laidlaw woke and peered through bloated eyes at great bulbous flashes of heat lightning, silent on the horizon. Across the pasture came the glare of a lantern, hovering like a ghoul above the dust. He braced himself to be finished off. He called out, a cry for mercy that spilled from his broken mouth as one low moan. The lantern drew closer and in the sickly glow he recognized the boy’s face.
“It’s me, Mr. Laidlaw,” the child told him, and raised a cold canteen to his lips. “Drink.”