ONE  DAY  AT  14

 

(The Day Cort Met Herod)

 

 

By Jo Anzalone

 

(Starting at the very beginning of the NanoCorp saga, in If It Were Not So,

I've built this back-story for Cort, how he was raised by his grandmother,

and how on the day of her death, he met Herod. This is referred to all through

the saga, especially in "If" and in My Heart in Stone, Montana Crosswinds,

and Too Quick to Die.  Then in 2008 I started writing "The Heart of God",

which also takes up at the very end of The Quick and the Dead and also makes

reference to Cort's being 14 when he met Herod.  So I've finally decided to tell

the complete story of that day....a day when Cort was 14.

 

 

He had that slightly gangly look to him, a teen who's reached nearly his full height

while his body retained  that slender  leanness of the young.   He was handsome,

devastatingly handsome in a way that was only enhanced by his complete and

absolute unselfawareness of it. 

 

Elizabeth looked at him over the top of her glasses as he scarfed down a plate full

of eggs, warm bread and jam, and a big glass of milk.  "Bottomless pit," she laughed.

 

He returned her smile, his own large, spreading across his face, green eyes twinkling,

an inner smile lighting them up grandly.  "Growin' boy," he replied, shoveling in

another large chunk of bread.

 

Indeed, he'd grown much since he first came into her care when he was not quite

two.  His father and Mary Eileen, his mother, had both been killed in a wagon

accident.  Her face darkened momentarily remembering the evening she'd gotten

the news. Adam, her son.  Cort was turning out with a striking resemblance to

his father.  Ah, well.  She straightened a fold of apron on her lap.

 

"I love you, Cortland Wells," she said softly. She said it a lot, being a firm believer

that if you loved somebody you should tell them often, tell them while they were

around to hear it.

 

Cort grinned again. "I love you, too, Granny Peaches."

 

It was an old inside joke between the two of them. At three his face had borne a

roundish, peachy look and she had taken to calling him 'Peaches.' She had come

with her husband, Jonathan, from Georgia to this dry place in the West, but she

remembered peaches...always she remembered peaches, though she never tasted

another after they settled here.  So it was natural for her to call little Cort what

she did.  "Come to Granny, Peaches," she'd say, holding out her arms. He'd run

into them, gurgling, "I love you Granny Peaches."  He thought she was saying,

"Come to Granny Peaches."  So the name had transferred back to her.

 

Jonathan had died the year before Cort was born and she seriously thought of

going back to Georgia. But Adam and Mary Eileen had a place not more than

two hour's buckboard ride away.  He'd asked her to come stay with them, but

she kind of just figured she'd try and keep her own little farm going. Adam sent

over a ranch hand or two as often as he could to help her with the heavier chores.

 

This bit of land was the only home Cort remembered, she the only person who'd

ever cared for him.  For him, she simply was the land, was home.  She was always

there, had always been there. That's the way life was.  Strong, solid, dependable.

And very, very full of love.

 

His eyes glanced at the old worn shawl draped over the back of her chair. It, too,

had simply always been there. His grandfather had given it to her and after he

died, she'd sit in the evenings by the fireplace, the shawl wrapped about her

shoulders as a misty echo of his embrace. When he was very young, he'd sit in

her lap there in the rocker, his cheek buried in the light pink shawl, listening

to the beat of her heart, the crackle of burning logs, the rhythmic creak of a

board as she rocked.

 

She told him stories of her girlhood in Georgia, of peach orchards spreading as

far as the eye could see over the rolling upcountry hills.  He couldn't even

imagine such a sight, not really.  A single cottonwood grew on the farm, out

back of the barn.  It was fairly large, slanted a bit to one side because of the

winds out of the desert, and he'd climbed up into its branches every day of his

life that he could remember. Not so much anymore, though. He was getting too

old for such things. And now that he'd taken over most of the heavy chores,

there simply wasn't time.  Now and then after he'd closed the barn door for

the evening, he'd still make his way up to his favorite perch, watching silently

as the sun set, spreading red and gold across the distant horizon. Sometimes

his grandmother would walk out, standing under the tree, and they'd watch

together in companionable silence.

 

One last long drink of milk and he pushed back his chair. "Gotta go! Matilda's

probably 'bout to explode."  Matilda was their milk cow, an aging Guernsey

with one horn half broken off.  He leaned over, kissing the top of her head as he

passed. "Love you."

 

Then he was out the door and she watched him as he hurried toward the barn.

"I love you, too, my Cort," she breathed. "More'n anything."

 

She cleaned up the dishes, set bread to rise, churned the cream and scooped the

soft white butter into a flower mold she'd brought from Georgia. Checking her

supply of oatmeal, she set about making a batch of cookies.  Cort loved fresh

out of the oven cookies. 

 

His fingers, brown and strong, moved with a practiced rhythm on Matilda's

teats, warm milk streaming down into the galvanized bucket.  His forehead

rested against her right flank in that way milkers have of keeping a cow calm.

He liked milking. It was a simple chore and allowed him time to think. He and

his grandmother had been reading a book about Greece last night. She'd been

a teacher back east in her early years and when they'd headed west, had brought

what books she could with her. There was no school within miles of their place

and so she herself taught Cort in the evenings when all the work of the day was

done.  He probably had more learning than the kids who did get to go to school.

 

He fed the chickens, took care of the mule, and was hoeing the vegetable garden

when his grandmother approached, a bundle wrapped in a cloth napkin in her

hands.  "Brought you some cookies," she said. "Figured breakfast wore off a

while back."

 

Propping the hoe against his leg, he opened the napkin, stuffing two whole

cookies in his mouth at once.  Shaking her head, she chuckled at the sight, then

turned to go back to the house. "Oh, when you finish the garden, would you

move those sacks of grain in the barn?  Miles unloaded them way too near the

door."

 

"Sure," he said, his mouth full. "I'll get to it."

 

"This morning if you can. They're just right there, callin' out to the field mice."

 

He nodded, handing her back the napkin, stuffing the one remaining cookie in

his pocket.

 

He went back to his hoeing, carefully chopping around the teepee-shaped towers

of pole beans.  Back when he'd fit, he'd hide inside the green-leafed towers and

she would come looking for him, knowing perfectly well where he was, but acting

as though she didn't. She'd call his name over and over and he'd huddle there until

he'd start giggling.  She'd be all surprised and he'd rush out crying "Here I am!"

So he smiled as he hoed. Everything in this place held some memory entwined with

his life and hers.

 

Walking back to the barn, he wiped the sweat from his forehead with a forearm,

squinting at the pile of grain sacks.  What he really wanted to do was go fishing

at the small river about a mile away.  If he came home with a nice catch for dinner,

maybe that'd make up for not moving the sacks yet? He could always get to them

later, couldn't he?

 

He looked back at the house. She'd be busy right now with the laundry. He'd have

time to get to the river and back before she'd even notice. Yeah. That would work.

He stepped around the stack of long planks he was going to use to repair the loft,

and lifted his fishing pole out of the nook where it was kept. Fish for dinner. Sounded

good to him.  As he left the barn, he patted the sack nearest the door. "Don't go

away," he said. "I'll tend to you when I can."

 

Elizabeth was standing at the sink and happened to look up through the small

window just in time to catch sight of Cort's lanky form striding off in the general

direction of the river, fishing pole over his shoulder.  Her eyes then moved toward

the open barn door. The burlap sacks were still there and a rat sat just outside,

sizing them up. She sighed, dried her hands, and left the house.

 

The sacks were heavy, maybe 60, 70 pounds each, but she was still strong for her

age and grabbed one by its eared corners and dragged it further into the barn.

She'd just gone for the second sack when something white-hot with pain gripped

her leg.  Her long tan skirt had been hiked up a bit through her belt to keep it

out of her way, leaving her lower legs in their cotton stockings exposed.

 

A sharp cry escaped her lips and she staggered backwards, crashing against the

pole where the mule's harness hung. She and harness fell together and she lay

there clutching at her leg, her eyes wide as she watched the biggest rattler she'd

ever seen wriggle back into the dark shadows behind the grain sacks.

 

Cort had just passed the cottonwood when he heard her cry out. Dropping his

pole he sprinted toward the barn. Why was she in the barn?  He ran around it,

almost skidding to a stop in the wide doorway. She had fallen. Somehow she had

fallen and the harness was tangled around her. 

 

"Are you all right? What were you doing with the harness?" He fell to his knees

beside her, pulling away leather straps.

 

"Not harness," she gasped, still clutching her leg.  She nodded toward the grain

sacks.  "Rattler. Big one."

 

His eyes widened. Oh...God! "Let me see!"  He tore her stocking above the wound.

Two clear puncture marks marred her leg, large and deep.

 

"Cut it," she said through clenched teeth. "You're going to have to cut it."

 

Mouth open, he tipped his head sharply upwards. Oh, God, oh, God. He knew she

was right.  His hand found his pocket knife. It had been his Grandfather's and he

carried it with him always.  Looking at the small blade, he closed his eyes a moment,

then holding his breath made two cuts across the bite and tried to suck out the venom.

 

He paused, her blood on his lips, looking at her face. She was nearly white and he

touched her cheek.  "Please," he begged, "please be all right."

 

She managed the barest smile. "I...I'm trying."  Her heart had begun to race and she

was feeling terribly dizzy.  Oh, Lord, she thought, I think I may be too old for this.

She looked up at Cort, seeing desperation in his eyes.  Cort.  Her precious Cort. She

couldn't leave him.

 

"C...cold," she murmured. He sat completely down, pulling her across his lap, cradling

her in his arms. 

 

"You'll be all right," he said more to himself than her. "You've got to be all right."

 

"I know," she whispered. "Cort?"

 

"What?"

 

"I love you. I...I'll always love you."  Then her eyes closed and she was suddenly

heavy in his arms. 

 

He sat there unmoving, almost not breathing. He knew. Oh, God...he knew. But he

did not wish to know.  Perhaps if he could stop thinking? Perhaps then this horror

would not be true?  Was there some way, any way, he could will it not to be so?

 

He tried. With everything inside him he tried.  But still she lay, silent and heavy

across his lap.  He closed his eyes, tears beginning to well, to make their tracking

way down his cheeks, dripping onto her face.  Then he began to rock with her, back

and forth, as she had rocked with him by the fireplace.  His breathing became mere

heaving gasps until his throat thickened so much even those had to force their way

up and out.  He was strangely aware of his heart.  Something cold and dark seemed

to be clamping around it, squeezing the life out of it.

 

Then he remembered his fishing pole. Oh, God! This was his fault, his doing! If he'd

moved the sacks as she'd asked, she'd still be ok. "I'm sorry," he began to murmur

over and over as he rocked. "Oh, God...I'm sorry, I'm so sorry!"

 

Finally, after a long while, he stood and gathered her into his arms, walking slowly

back to the small house and laying her gently on her bed.  She'd said she was cold

so he got her shawl, wrapping it carefully, tenderly about her shoulders. Her white

hair was mussed, long strands pulled out of the large bun at the nape of her neck, so

he picked up her brush from the side table and tried to brush it back a bit. He wasn't

very good at it, but he sat there, trying as though it were the most important thing

in the world.  For him...in that moment...it was.

 

He worked at it a long time and then his head turned and as he looked out the window

a hard look came into his eyes and he rose and walked with deliberate steps to the

barn.  His hoe leaned against the wall where he'd left it earlier.  He looked at it, and

mouth set tightly, began to roll up his sleeves.  Moving to the grain sacks he began to

toss them, one after the other, to the side, not caring where or how they landed. Finally,

at last, he uncovered the snake.  It had already coiled, its head lifted, mouth agape,

tail rattling its warning.

 

Reaching back, his hands curved around the worn handle of the hoe, its wood smooth,

almost satin-like, where his fingers had curled over the years. The rattler lunged for

him and he side-stepped, bringing the hoe down just behind its head.  The snake

convulsed for a while, writhing across the floor planking, its form highlighted by

a dust-moted sunbeam.  He watched it, his mouth squared in hatred, then chopped at

it again.  He couldn't stop. He swung the hoe over and over and over, sweat flying off

his face, mingling with his tears. He chopped it and chopped it until it was nothing

more than small scattered pieces of bloody meat.  Then his knees buckled under him

and he sat hard on the floor, burying his face in his hands, his shoulders shaking with

sobs.

 

When he had quieted at last, he turned his head, staring at the pile of planks that lay

nearby.  Squaring his shoulders, he got to his feet, hauling several of the long boards

outside to the saw horses he used when he needed to cut something big.  Grimly, he

lay the first of the planks across them and picked up the large hand saw.  When he

had what he thought would be a sufficient amount, he opened a metal box, withdrawing

a hammer and a tin can filled with nails.

 

For over an hour the day rang with the sound of his hammering as he fashioned a rude

coffin for his grandmother.  His teeth were sunk into his lower lip the entire time. He

was terribly thirsty but didn't stop to drink and, grabbing the shovel, headed next for

the cottonwood tree.  His grandmother loved that tree as much as he did. "It's the

only one we've got," she'd say, "so we need to treasure it."

 

Silently, grimly he began to dig in the shade of its branches.  He wasn't sure how deep

he needed to go, but it had to be big enough to hold the box he'd made.  He broke

through roots, and his shovel at one point clanged so hard against a buried rock that

it vibrated up through his shoulders.  He was so hot, so thirsty at one point that he

felt dizzy and sat for a moment on the side of the hole, his feet dangling down into it.

 

 

When he was done, he dragged the coffin to the tree. It was very heavy, made of the

thick floor planking, and he left its lid behind near the saw.  He settled it with some

difficulty into the hole, scraping the skin off several knuckles in the process.  Then he

stood and looked down at it.  It looked like some horrid mouth, waiting to swallow

his grandmother.  He hated it.

 

Turning his back on it, he went again toward the house, stopping briefly by the pump

to let water gush over his head.  Flipping his hair back with a sharp motion of his

head, he walked inside.  She was lying exactly as he'd left her.  Of course she was.

He squatted beside the bed, taking her left hand in both of his, resting his cheek atop

them.  How could he do this? How could he actually put her in that hole? Physical

pains ran through him at the thought. 

 

"I'm sorry," he murmured, then he gathered her up in his arms and carried her

around the barn to the tree.  He didn't want to let go of her, didn't want to put her

in the box.  She didn't belong in a box.  He wished it had been, at least, in a peach

orchard. Maybe that would be better?  He had some idea of a peach orchard as

the nearest thing on earth to heaven.  That was how her words, her descriptions,

had always made it seem.  In spring.  Yes, spring would be best, when their haze

of blossoms turned the world to pink.  Not brown.  Everything here was brown.

 

A huge shudder took him as he leaned down, placing her as gently as he could

in the box.  It was a long reach and he winced as the backs of her shoes thudded

against the planking. How terribly out of place she looked.  He arranged her

shawl carefully and folded her hands, his own giving them one last, lingering touch. 

If only he had peach blossoms to scatter in the box with her.  It wasn't right, not

right at all, that he should send her off with nothing beautiful, nothing...special. 

 

Then he remembered the cookie still in his pocket.  He fished it out. One side

had crumbled just a bit, but it was still mostly together.  He lifted it to his lips,

kissed it almost reverently as though it were Communion host.  It was the last

cookie, the last she'd ever make.  That, indeed, made it special. He leaned down

again, placing it in her hands.

 

He went and fetched the coffin lid, letting it sit for a while on the ground opposite

the mound of dirt.  Putting it on would mean he'd never see her again.  He

couldn't wrap his mind around that concept, so he just stood there under the

tree, staring down at her, trying to sear some mental image he could take with

him.  A fly landed on his cheek but he didn't move to brush it away. Moving

would take some act of will he wasn't ready for.  Breathing, that was about all

he could manage and even that...hurt. He could feel jagged pieces in his chest

rubbing against one another with each breath and figured it was just what

was left of his heart. No matter. The entire world had shifted on its axis since

he got up this morning.

 

He whispered the words of the 23rd Psalm, for her sake, not his.  There

needed to be some word, some prayer.  It was only right.  The words seemed

to crumble, dry and flaky in his mouth.  "Surely goodness and mercy shall

follow me all the days of my life...."  He couldn't finish. He just couldn't.

 

He went around to the head of the grave and knelt, wanting to kiss her good-

bye, but the edge of the hole where he leaned his weight on his palm started

to cave in.  He couldn't reach her cheek.  He couldn't reach her. Never again.

No, that couldn't be.  He lay down and stretched his arm out, running his

fingertips along her cheek.  "I love you," he said, then got to his feet.

 

His eyes went all flat and hard and he slid the coffin lid in place then began

shoveling on dirt as fast as he could.   When he was done there was a mound

that looked somehow vulnerable to him, so he went to the vegetable garden

and began pulling up the border stones, trudging back and forth with them

until her grave had become a cairn. 

 

Then quietly, deliberately he opened the door to the chicken coop, turned

the mule and Matilda loose, went into the house and removed his rifle from

its rack over the fireplace.  He gathered a box of cartridges and left, the

door behind him still open.

 

He walked for maybe two hours straight out into the dry scrub until he came

to an area of rocky ledges where he knew the rattlesnakes liked to hide out.

Perching on a flat boulder, he waited, then one by one he shot their heads

off. 

 

So intent was he that he didn't hear the rider approach behind him, the man

in the saddle reining in, sitting there, watching him.

 

"Damn fine shooting," the man said, breaking the silence. "Damn fine."

 

Cort closed his eyes.  All he wanted was to be alone. He ignored the man, took

aim, and blasted the head off a rattler quite some distance away.

 

The man dismounted, came and sat beside Cort.

 

"You got some reason you're doing that, son?"

 

"Yeah," was all Cort said.

 

"Don't like rattlers?"

 

"Not much."

 

"You live around here?"

 

Cort's eyes flickered back toward the farm.  "No."

 

"You got some place you're going?"

 

Cort shrugged, getting off another shot.

 

"How'd you like to be able to do that with a Colt .45 in 1/10 of a second?

 

Cort rested his rifle across his legs, looking directly at the man for the first time.

"And who might you be?"

 

The man tipped back his hat, grinned, and said, "Herod, John Herod."

 

 

 

ON TO RATTLER

 

BACK TO LIBRISCROWE

 

INDEX OF ALL THE NANOCORP CORT STORIES RELATED TO THIS ONE

 

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