Hannah is out behind her general store, struggling to hang her laundry. Nightgowns and blouses tug against her, hoping for escape; sheets swallow her whole. She pegs and repegs until she’s done, stepping back, breathing deep, bending to snag her basket. Weary now, she raises her head, turns her face to the road. A horseman watches in the distance, motionless as a sturdy tree, something rare in the Scablands.
She lives in the sweeping wheatfields of eastern Washington, a place of endless horizons and empty hollows where wind whips through grain with the fluid hands of many harpists, music soft and fine, a hymn to the skies, in a land once scarred by ice and flood.
She stands still as water deep underground, dammed by rocks and hard packed dirt. Her heart hammers. She knows it’s him. This moment under this glaze of sun seems to last for years, remembered fingers stroking her back, her breast, the past’s soft Missouri soil releasing its earthy smell. She could never forget the slant of John Brant’s head, the set of his shoulders, the way he sits a horse.
His bay paws the dirt. He’s coming. She backs away quickly, stumbling around the basket, leaving a pillowcase half-hung as she scurries up the stairs and into her home above the store. She locks the door. Shoves a chair beneath the knob. Stands in her parlor, trying not to shake, trying not to cry. Breathing slowly in and out, she calms enough to move to the window, to pull aside the curtain, to stare through pebbled glass.
He’s no longer on the road. She cannot see him, but he will come. She wills her heart to sheath itself, to gather courage against the storm she knows he’ll bring. Him, a roiling funnel to snatch her up, pull her apart, let her down hard.
Time stills and she doesn’t move, waiting for the snicker of his horse, the scrape of his boot on the bottom step.
She pivots from the window when she hears his heavy tread. What to do? Hide under the bed? Climb out the window and run, fall into the wheat, sniff warm dry dirt, lay still, play dead.
When the knock comes, she tiptoes to the door, leans against it as if she could keep him out. As if he couldn’t bust in. As if she had any kind of power.
“Hannah, let me in.” His voice, soft, caressing, broken, begging. “Please.”
She tries not to listen. Doesn’t answer.
“Hannah. Don’t do this. I need to see you.”
“I don’t want to see you.”
There is a pause, then he says, “I’m leaving the country. Mexico.”
“Are you in some kind of trouble?” She presses her ear against the door.
When he speaks it’s as if there is no barrier between them, as if he’s standing next to her.
“I have this opportunity,” he says. “A good one, and I won’t be coming back. I thought, maybe, you and I — ”
She closes her eyes. He’s always had this way about him, his voice, how it touches her like a caress. Her ears grow hot with remembering. When they were kids, she tagged along behind him and her brother, her brother shooing her away, and John always insisting they take her along. He made her feel special.
“Ten minutes, Hannah, ain’t too much to ask.”
She wipes snot from her nose. Tightens her lips.
He whispers through the door. “You never let me tell you how sorry I was. Am.”
“You did tell me. It didn’t change anything.”
“I want to see you. I wanna meet your daughter.”
“How-how do you know about her?”
“Please, Hannah, let me in.”
Biting her lip, she glances around her tiny parlor, the settee her husband bought from the preacher whose wife ran home to Boston, the curtains she taught Elizabeth how to sew, the family photograph of the three of them, taken before Henry died.
Her daughter will soon be home from school. John Brant needs to be gone by then. Her hand trembling, Hannah moves the chair, turns the key in the keyhole, opens the door.
He steps in, tall and lean, smelling of sweat and dust, holding his hat in his hands, his eyes on her face. “You look just the same, just like I thought you would.”
She turns away. Grabbing the back of the rocking chair, she stands behind it, won’t look him in the eye, says, “Don’t start lying until you sit down. I’ll get you some water.”
She flees to the kitchen, stares at her shaking hands until she calms enough to grab an empty glass and fill it from the pump. The water, taking its time, suddenly gushes, splashing over her hand. She hastily wipes it on her apron.
“Who’s down in the store if you’re out doing your laundry?” he calls from the parlor.
He knows it’s her store. Is that what he’s up to, he needs money? A job?
When she returns to the parlor, he’s still standing.
She says, “It’s been a long time since Henry and I left Missouri, and here you are, showing up out of nowhere, knowing where I live, and that I have a daughter.”
“You’re the postmistress, too.”
They stare at each other. He says, “Sorry about your husband’s passing.”
“Where’d you hear all this?” She finally remembers the glass and shoves it toward him, unwilling to feel his fingers. When he takes it, she crosses her arms, her hands damp and cold.
“All the towns up and down the trail,” he says. “Folks know who’s who and where’s what.”
“You rode here from Missouri?”
“No. Been doing a little mining over to Butte. Been all around the goldfields. Even went to Venezuela for a while.”
“So, what do you want from me?”
“What makes you think I want anything?”
“You showed up.”
He throws his hat onto the settee and plops down in the rocker, puts his glass on the floor, some of it spilling onto the carpet. “Well, to be honest, I wanted to see you. Hannah, I — ”
“I told you I never wanted to see you again.”
“That wasn’t my fault. You know as well as I do, your brother had a mind of his own.”
“And you should’ve told that boy — Sam was just a boy — to go home to his mama.”
“You can’t make a strong-headed person do something he don’t want to do.”
“Then let me ask you again. Why are you here?”
“You know the way we left it, you not letting me explain nothing, and Hannah, I can see why you didn’t want anything to do with me, but I always regretted we didn’t talk. At least talked. Then you went and married that old Henry Landon — ”
“Henry was a good man.” Her voice comes out thick.
“I ain’t blaming you for marrying him. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m just saying we ended without talking. Will you sit down, Hannah, please?”
“I prefer standing.”
“Well, I’m sorry about Sam, let me get that out there, right now. It was an accident.”
“You call stealing a horse an accident? Was it Sam’s idea to do such a thing?”
“He didn’t say ‘no.’”
She snatches his hat from the settee and flings it across the floor, then sits, leans toward him. “How can you say that, knowing how he looked up to you? Sam would’ve followed you to hell and gone.”
“I didn’t know that old man would chase us with a shotgun. It was my fault, I admit that, but I never thought you’d go and marry someone else.” He stares down at the rug. “What I wanna know. What I came to find out, is — ”
His voice trails off. Both become quiet, listening to the wind rattle the windows.
“What did you come all this way to find out, John Brant?” Hannah finally asks.
He looks up. Says, “Is your daughter mine?”
She blinks, hesitates long enough to breathe in and out before she meets his gaze. “No, she’s Henry’s.”
His chin comes up, anger slipping into his eyes. She doesn’t look away, says, “So there’s no reason to stay.”
Outside, someone climbs the stairs. The tread is weighty and deliberate, so Hannah knows it isn’t her daughter.
She gets up and opens the door just wide enough to see Marshall Talbert, not sure why she won’t let the lawman see John Brant. Old habits die hard, she thinks, all the scrapes he and her brother got into.
“Mrs. Landon.” The Marshall removes his hat. “Everything okay here?”
“Yes. Fine. You need something from the store, Marshall?”
“No thanks. It’s just Rolf Gerzweiler says he saw a stranger come up here. Thought I’d better make sure you’re okay.”
“It’s an old friend from Missouri just stopping by.”
“So, everything’s fine?”
“It is. Thank you for checking. Makes me proud of our little town that we take such good care of each other.”
“That we do, Mrs. Landon. You have yourself a good afternoon.”
She shuts the door and listens until the Marshall is gone, then turns to John Brant. He isn’t in the room. She walks into the kitchen, startled when he steps away from the wall, hat on his head, gripping his Colt.
Her eyes flash with anger, her voice ice. “You afraid of the law? You haven’t changed. I want you out of my house now.”
He holsters his gun, holds up his hands, says, “I don’t want to cause you no trouble, Hannah.”
“Let me explain.”
“No. Leave. Right now, or I’ll call the Marshall back.”
He stares at her. She glares back. They stand for a long minute, then he strides out of the kitchen toward to the front door, opens it, and stops, startling Hannah by saying, “Oh! Hey, you must be … You look just like your mama back home in Missouri.”
Hannah sighs. Her thirteen-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, stands on the landing.
“You’re a friend of Mama’s from Missouri?”
“Mr. Brant’s just leaving.” Hannah nudges him onto the landing, reaching out for her daughter’s sleeve. “Step out of his way so he can do that.”
“But Mama, I never met anyone who knew you when you were young.”
“Thank you, Mr. Brant.” She pulls her daughter into the parlor. Closes the door. Listens until she no longer hears him on the stairs.
“Mama, that was rude.”
“I don’t wanna talk about it.”
“Who is he? Why is he here?”
“Didn’t you promise Mrs. Brown a skirt for her Louisa sometime this week?”
“I just got the hem to do.”
“Then you better get to it.”
“But Mama, who is that man?”
“You heard me.” She watches her daughter plop onto the settee, flip open her sewing basket, and yank out a folded piece of calico, her face pink with anger.
The next morning, Hannah wakes with John Brant on her mind, how he pushed his way in, how he played on their history, how he asked about Elizabeth. But now he’s gone. He’s got his answer. The only one she could give him. She gets up and, glancing out her window, she sees her laundry still on the line, some scattered across the ground. She swears, not something she normally does, and hurries to dress and gather the stiffened clothes.
Back inside, she shakes off the cold, makes the coffee, and rolls out the dough for a vinegar pie. Another thing she is grateful to Henry for, her oven. Between her baked goods, Elizabeth’s clever needle, and the store, they manage.
Elizabeth, still in her nightgown, walks into the kitchen. “Mama, who was that man?”
“Never mind him. He’s gone and he’s nothing to us.”
“But what did he do to make you so angry? Did you always hate him?”
Hannah lets out breath. “I don’t hate him.”
“You act like it. Doesn’t seem very Christian.”
“We grew up together, but he always got himself in trouble for fighting or stealing or worse.”
“I never met anyone who knew you and Papa when you were my age, and you never talk about it.”
Hannah fills their bowls with oatmeal. “I’ve told you what it was like to grow up in Missouri.”
“You never told me about him.”
“Hurry up and eat. I need you downstairs today. You know how busy Saturdays are. Did you finish the hem on that skirt for Louisa?”
The store is filled with farm families and townfolk, the hubbub wearing on Hannah by early afternoon, her voice raw from talking, a headache settling behind her eyes. Elizabeth unfolds a length of the soft plaid cotton from India for Lainie Carter while her mother totes up Mrs. Carter’s purchases.
A short while later, Marshall Lot Talbert puts a bag of coffee beans on the counter, a sack of Bull Durham, and rolling papers. “You have a nice visit with your friend yesterday? He came out from Missouri?”
“He was a friend of my brother from a long time ago.”
“Always nice to see folks from home, isn’t it?”
Hannah mutters. “That’s so.”
“Saw him in the saloon last night. He took a room there. Said he was leaving this morning. You haven’t seen him today, have you?”
She looks up. “No.”
“What’s wrong, Marshall?”
“Nothing you need to worry about. I gotta telegram about a bank robbery in Spokane is all.”
“Really?” She studies his face. “They’re not headed this way, are they?”
“Not that I know of.”
“I’ll take you at your word.” She collects the coins he’s spread in front of her. “Lucky, we don’t have a bank here to rob. Now, can I interest you in the last piece of vinegar pie?”
Later that afternoon, Hannah lets herself think about John Brant, think about the bank robbery. Begins to worry.
When things quiet down, Elizabeth asks if she can sit on the porch with Rolf Gerzweiler.
“Why?” Hannah looks up in surprise.
“It’s not like that, Mama. We’re friends. We’re just gonna talk. I’ve been working all day.”
“All right, I guess, but I need you to straighten and sweep after we close.” She watches her daughter thread her way through the narrow aisle, remembering the knoll, the Mississippi River gleaming with sunlight, and John Brant’s hand on her belly. She shakes her head. Hopes he’s long gone.
The bell on the door jingles as Elizabeth goes out.
After church the next day, Hannah returns to the store to do paperwork. Elizabeth races upstairs to read Jane Eyre, a book Hannah purchased from a peddler. Maybe that book is giving that girl too many ideas, thinks Hannah. When did she start noticing Rolf?
She’s blotting a ledger page when Elizabeth, her face red with tears, storms in the back door of the store, hollering, “Is it true?”
“What? What’s true?” Hannah hurries from behind the counter, reaches out to Elizabeth. The girl flinches.
“You know what’s wrong. You should’ve told me.”
Hannah grabs her hand and pulls her over to the potbelly stove, sits her in one of the chairs. “Told you what?” Thinking not John Brant, please, not John Brant. He’s gone. He left yesterday!
“You lied to me, Mama, how could you do that? I have a right to know.”
“I’ve never lied to you, sweetheart.”
“But you did. That man who came upstairs — ”
“You mean John Brant?”
“Yes, him. He says he’s … my father.”
Hannah straightens her back. “When did you see him? I thought he left town.”
“Just now. I — I met him. Rolf gave me a note yesterday.”
“You mean Rolf. You met Rolf?”
“No! I met John Brant at the stables just now and he said, he said …”
“He’s wrong, Elizabeth. Your papa was your papa, and don’t you ever doubt that.”
Hannah struggles to control her anger, anger at daughter, yes, but a hot blistering anger at John Brant.
“But he said — ”
“I don’t care. He’s a liar. He’s always been a liar.”
“But he says he loved you, still loves you.”
“He doesn’t even know me, Elizabeth.”
“But he says you were going to marry him.”
“That’s not true. I married your father. I loved your father.”
“But he said you lied to me because you blame him for your brother’s death.”
“Elizabeth, your papa is your father. Not John Brant,” she says harshly, and the girl’s eyes well again, her nose reddens.
“I loved my papa. I still love him.”
“I know you do.” Hannah stands up and leans down to hug her daughter.
They hold each other, one sitting, the other standing awkwardly for a long moment, then Elizabeth asks, “Why would he — why would John Brant tell me something like that?”
“Because I married your papa, and not him. That’s his nature. He tries to make things the way he wants them, not the way they are. I didn’t tell you the whole story about my brother or him because I never thought you’d need to know, but I’ll tell you now. Back home, we all lived close together in company houses. You remember my papa worked in an iron mine?”
“Sam and I were less than a year apart, Irish twins, and John Brant was a little older than me. We spent a lot of time together.”
“And you fell in love with him.”
“Is that what he said? It wasn’t love. It was infatuation. I was young. What did I know?”
“So, what happened to Sam?”
Hannah tells the story of how John Brant wanted to “borrow” a horse from the old man who grew cabbages at the bottom of the valley so they could ride over to a real town and play some cards, win a few jackpots, maybe get some whiskey. John Brant could talk Sam into anything, but the old man caught them in the act and fired his shotgun, hitting Sam in the back. Hannah shudders at the memory of her brother’s riddled body.
Time after time, she’d pleaded with John Brant not to involve Sam in his escapades, but he’d just say, “Nothing’s gonna happen.” Then it did. She couldn’t forgive him then. Wouldn’t forgive him now. Especially now.
Elizabeth, who’d kept her head bowed during the telling, stands to put her arms around her mother. Hannah feels the girl’s tears on her own damp cheek.
“He’s not your father, Elizabeth. He’s not.”
As the two sit down to breakfast the next day, Hannah asks Elizabeth to stay home from school and help her in the store. “We need to take a thorough inventory so we can send off an order to San Francisco.”
“But Mama, we don’t do that until summer.”
“It’s almost summer now.”
“But — ”
“We’ve had a good couple of months and we’re almost out of coffee and flour and we need more fabric. I’m thinking about you making up a couple new dresses to show the women what you can do.”
She feels Elizabeth’s doubting eyes on her but wants her daughter safely with her until she’s positive John Brant is gone.
They are counting the tinned goods when Marshall Talbert strides into the store.
He removes his big hat, rotates it by the brim in front of him. Nervous. “Miz Landon, Elizabeth.”
“I baked this morning. Still fresh, Marshall,” offers Hannah.
“Thank you, ma’am, but I come to tell you I’ve arrested your friend John Brant.”
“He’s not my — ”
The Marshall glances at Elizabeth, clears his throat. “Murder, ma’am, that bank robbery in Spokane. A clerk was shot dead, and I’m sorry to say, a pregnant woman, and I’m taking Brant over to Spokane. He’s been identified as the culprit.”
Elizabeth’s face drains white.
“When?” asks Hannah.
“As soon as a couple men show up to go with me. You wanna see him?”
Hannah shook her head. “No.”
“A pregnant woman, Elizabeth, didn’t you hear the Marshall?”
“You don’t know he’s guilty. What about a trial?” Elizabeth says.
Hannah steadies herself. “Thank you for stopping by, Marshall, but John Brant has nothing to do with us.”
He nods and heads for the door. Elizabeth turns to follow him. Hannah grabs her arm.
“Mama, you’re hurting me.”
“Marshall, thank you again. I’d like you to make sure my daughter can’t see Mr. Brant.” She doesn’t let go of Elizabeth.
The lawman looks from one to the other, puts his hat on, and walks out the door.
“We’re going to finish this inventory,” says Hannah.
The girl’s lips tremble. “I don’t understand you, Mama. You’ve always been the kindest person I know.”
“I’m not being unkind. My sympathy is for the people he killed, as should be yours.” Hannah picks up her inventory tally, the careful list of products still on the shelves blurring together. She must stay calm, get through this for Elizabeth’s sake. How could John Brant have made such an impression on her in such a short time? But she, herself, having roamed the hills and valleys of Iron County with him as a girl, of all people, understood.
It is around one o’clock when Hannah hears the horses trotting down Main Street. Elizabeth’s chin lifts, and she marches through the front door onto the boardwalk. Hannah doesn’t move. Through the curtains, she makes out the brown shapes of horses, the Marshall’s men forming a tight knot around John Brant.
Hannah steps closer to the glass. Elizabeth stands outside with her arms wrapping the support pole. John Brant glances at the store. The girl waves. His hands tied to the saddle horn, he dips his head, a woeful smile on his lips. Hannah tries to summon all the anger she has, but finds it gone.
Elizabeth stays outside for a long time, long after the dust kicked up by the horses settles back onto the street, and Hannah lets her. There is nothing more to say.
As they go through their days, Hannah and Elizabeth don’t talk much, but the tension between them lessens. Hannah doesn’t understand why her daughter has so much sympathy for John Brant, a man she barely knows. Yes, he said he was her father, but she herself has insisted he’s not. Why won’t the girl believe her?
One Saturday morning, when Hannah runs up the stairs to ask Elizabeth to help in the store, she catches her daughter in front of the small mirror that hangs in the parlor, holding the photograph of the three of them, studying her face, then glancing down at the picture. Hannah knows the girl is comparing herself to Henry, but she pretends she hasn’t noticed.
Time passes with no word about what is going on in Spokane — was John Brant still awaiting trial in jail? Would they hang him? She hesitates to ask the Marshall. She tries to bury her memories, yet they come to her at the oddest moments. John Brant, her brother, and her, the three of them riding cows in a far-off Missouri meadow. Swimming in the Mississippi. Square-dancing at a church social. John Brant kissing her behind a barn door.
Elizabeth talks less, but never argues, does her chores. “Yes ma’am, no ma’am” is about all the girl will say, solemnly going about her chores. She spends any free time in her room and after school with Rolf on the bench in front of the store.
Hannah knows she should sit down with her daughter, get her to understand the need to be careful with Rolf, but she doesn’t because Elizabeth will bring up John Brant, and she isn’t ready to talk about him. The genial camaraderie between mother and daughter is gone.
Then one day, near closing, Hannah hears Elizabeth talking to someone at the front of the store. Curious, she strides toward the door.
It’s the Marshall. He looks over. “Mrs. Landon, I came to speak with you about John Brant. Can we sit down?”
“Why don’t I lock up and we can go upstairs?”
Elizabeth straightens. “Me too.”
Hannah says, “Of course.”
They settle in the parlor, mother and daughter on the settee and the Marshall perched on the edge of the rocker.
“Mrs. Landon, I know you said John Brant means nothing to you, and I understand that, but still, he was a friend of yours from Missouri, so I feel I must tell you that he’s been tried and convicted of first-degree murder, and the judge has sentenced him to death by hanging.”
Elizabeth gasps. Hannah slips an arm around her daughter, whispers, “He killed three people.”
Elizabeth asks. “When is it? The — ”
“I’m going,” says the girl.
“No, you’re not.” Hannah stares at her daughter.
“If you won’t take me, Rolf will.”
In the cold morning air, Hannah and Elizabeth load a wagon with food and a satchel of clothing. The borrowed horse snorts and stomps a hoof.
They will spend a couple nights in Spokane, do some business, and go to the hanging. They roll through the wheat as if on a golden sea, not speaking to each other, until they reach the edge of the scablands.
“It’s so strange,” says Elizabeth.
“What’s so strange?”
“How the land changes. Why is this part of Washington so different?”
Hannah glances back at the fields behind them, the road ahead leading them into a scarred landscape dotted with rocky buttes and braided channels.
She stops the horse so they can stare out at the desolate landscape. “I don’t know. Things happen to land and to people. And we must accept that.”
A noisy crowd, chatting, laughing, drinking, some with picnic baskets hanging from elbows surround the scaffolding. Hannah thinks, People show up to hangings as if they were entertainments, like revivals and carnivals. She doesn’t understand it. She doesn’t want to witness the death of anyone, not after seeing her brother’s body, after Henry’s death in her arms. Enough. But today she had to come. Because it is John Brant who will die.
Elizabeth steps close, slips her hand into her mother’s, and squeezes.
People shout and holler when the Spokane sheriff and deputies escort John Brant from a large brick building and up the steps of the scaffold, centering him beneath a noose hanging above the trapdoor.
The crowd surges forward, straining to see the condemned man. Elizabeth and Hannah push through until they have a clear view, standing shoulder to shoulder.
John Brant’s expression is one of defiance. He scans the throng until his eyes meet Hannah’s. His face lightens into a smile. He nods at Elizabeth.
Hannah begins to shake, clasps her daughter’s hand.
“We don’t have to stay,” whispers Hannah. “You don’t need to watch this.”
“I do. We’re the only people here who know him, and you have good memories of him, Mama. I know that, even if you won’t admit it.”
So, they stand side by side, both very still, their fingers tightly laced together.
A preacher places his hand on the prisoner’s shoulder and the two men pray together. Once they finish, the sheriff steps up to the prisoner and places a black hood over his head, then arranges the noose. He moves away to stand to the side. Surveys the quieting throng.
The sheriff raises his hand, gives the signal to drop open the trapdoor. There is the clatter of wood hitting wood, and John Brant falls through, the rope around his neck stops his plunge. He sways. Hannah watches in horror as his legs kick out and jerk again. Spectators gasp.
His neck is not broken. He’s still alive.
Elizabeth gasps, “Mama,” and Hannah, blind with tears, shoves her way forward, ducking under the platform where she wraps her arms around John Brant’s legs and uses her weight to pull him, to end the agony.
Then there is only silence.
Hannah, eyes closed, tears staining cheeks, holds on until Elizabeth slips under the platform and gently puts her arms around her mother.
“Mama,” she says. “You can let go now.”
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