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Pieces to a Quilt


by Mari Sandoz


The Lang Eighty contained not even a shirttail patch of level ground. Most of it was a deep gullied cup of gravel and crumbling sandstone, sloping abruptly into a dark pool. Now and then a glimpse of a summer cloud lay on the still surface but its whiteness only accentuated the dark reflections from the tenfoot bank of volcanic ash just above the water line. Even the cressgrown spring didn't bubble but welled up with slow complaint of green water under ice.


Back from the pool, under a solid nose of stone, squatted Lang's old shack weathered to the gray of ashes. A silent little creek slipped past the sagging doorstep and out between sheer sandstone bluffs toward the hay flats north, as though eager to escape the deep pool, the stark canyon walls, and the shack, empty since the man who built it hanged himself there with a silk muffler.


At least it was assumed he hanged himself. Sarah Reimer, schooled in patience with her slowwitted son, asked no questions when he brought home a square of figured silk with a corner cut off. He washed it and ironed it and made blocks for his crazy quilt. It was all right. Somebody was always giving him old silk pieces.


A week later, when the mail carrier mentioned that Lang's newspapers were piling up at the box, Rusty flung his clumsy hands about in a frenzy at the slowness of his tongue.


"111 forgot to tell. Lang died."


The father and two neighbors went over and found that it was so. Lang had died, of hanging, probably with the muffler, as Rusty tried to explain. He had seen the man and, fancying the pretty silk, cut him down. It was August. The sheriff came out that night.


They took Lang outside, burned a little plug tobacco on a stove lid, and looked around, but there wasn't anything, no papers, no letters, not even a trunk, only the name of a New York tailor in his coat, which didn't mean anything. Lang's hands had been small and soft, never touched work. Just another hideout.


Although Lang had lived in the canyon five years, not even the neighborly Jacob Reimer knew anything about him except that he was graying, never got farther from his place than the mailbox, and always seemed to have money for the groceries the mailcarrier brought out. None of his neighbors had seen him more than once or twice, unless it was Rusty.


"That halfwit ought to be looked after," a suspicious newcomer suggested.


"Aw, Rusty wouldn't hurt a fly," the sheriff defended. "His father's a damned good neighbor; too good to get ahead."


And there it was.


A week after the writeup of the Sad End, as the local paper called it, a woman, a young one, came to the county seat with the clipping. She made a fuss because Lang was already buried. No, she had no idea who he was.


A few days later Sarah Reimer spoke to her husband over Rusty's empty chair.


"He took his quilt blocks away this moming and then came back for that old revolver. I haven't seen anything of him since."


Jacob brushed his thinning hair back decently and looked with friendly blue eyes upon his wife's uneasiness.


"I will see to it," he said.


After supper he went out to smoke his pipe and wait for his son. On the way through Sarah's flowers he picked a golden calendula for the bib of his washbleached overalls, as Rusty often did. Then he leaned both tired elbows over the garden gate and looked off into the sunset, into the evening haze over the meandering creek and its soft green clumps of willow. Perhaps he should straighten the bed as he had helped his neighbors do long ago; cut out the willows. But a stream laid out by compass, hurrying away between weedgrown ridges of dirt and sod tom from their place in the earthno, he preferred the first yellowgreen of spring creeping shyly into the willow clumps, long grass dipping into the little stream in midsummer, thin sharp knives of anchor ice around the backwater in the fall.


Sometimes he could not forget the drouth and hail, or that his wife had once been ambitious to have a big house too, and a broad red barn, but she never complained. She had been as ready as he to spend the butter money for those five little Meyers last week. She even sewed all night so they could have dresses to wear to the funeral of their father who started home with too much Short Grass moon aboard and drove off into a canyon. Jacob was glad about the dresses. There should always be something nice to remember about funerals.


By the time his pipe was cold a black speck broke from the bluffs toward the Lang eighty, followed by a grotesque shadow down the long, sungilded slope. It was loseph, Rusty, as the neighbors called him, on fleabitten, stiffkneed old Sarry. On her back lurched the top the sunsensitive Rusty made of two forged raketeeth fastened to the broken cantle of his old saddle, with canvas across them. Bobbing up and down like a jockey in his short stirrups, canvas flopping and rods rattling, Rusty rode towards his home.


When he saw his father waiting between the hollyhocks, his flat face softened into a broad, shorttoothed grin and his eyes flecked with yellow glints. After the old mare was fed and curried he picked up the sack of water cress he brought his mother and walked beside lacob to the house, the silence of good feeling between them.


Once or twice the father looked past the lamp to his son's thick mat of coarse sorrel curls, his heavy shoulders stooped over the clumsy fingers. It seemed foolish to ask Joseph what he had been doing. Never in his twenty years had his father ever known him to harm a living thing. Even after a day of fasting he was eating very slowly because this unrea" sortable procedure seemed to please his mother. Because Jacob saw this he was a little ashamed and hid behind talk of his work. Tomorrow he would help the Johnsons, and the next day Ivan Vach.


Rusty went to bed unquestioned.


Not until a year later did the community discover the cave that Lang had dug in the bluffs overlooking his shack and the canyon. The opening was concealed behind a big sandstone boulder with just enough space to slip in at one side. He even had a little fireplace opening into a gully.


Rusty had evidently found it long before. At least that seemed to be where he took his quilt blocks and later the phonograph his father bought at a sale for a quarter, with a stack of French and German records nobody wanted thrown in. Rusty liked them. He pulled out the carved wood front of the machine so he could get his head closer to the sound and kept it going. When his mother's impatience became too evident, he shambled out into the yard with the phonograph in a gunny sack. That was how the cave was discovered. A visiting geologist examining the bank of volcanic ash heard a scratchy but unmistakable rendition of the Jewel Song from Gounod's Faust drift thinly down to him. He followed the sound. As his shadow struck the mouth of the cave Rusty sprang up, swinging an old revolver like a club.


"III thought you was him," was all the explanation he would give. The geologist catalogued Rusty at a glance and dismissed the incident. But he was pleased when the youth took him into a deeply washed draw where a ledge of rock with bones on it lay exposed. In return he sent Rusty two records by the mail man, a Tyrolean yodel and a laughing Chaliapin. Rusty liked the yodel best.


News of the cave spread. Lang had been hiding out. But when nobody could produce any details, the sightseers soon tired of his cave. Rusty went back to it now, but openly, begging cookies from his mother or potatoes and eggs to roast in the fireplace so he wouldn't have to come home at noon. Several times tough fellows from town came out with bottles. They tried to get him to do things fit only for pigs. When he wouldn't, they wanted him to drink Short Grass moon with them, but it burned his mouth and choked him and that seemed reason enough to refuse it. So he sat away from them, watching under his bushy brows as from behind sandstone boulders. Their kind laughed at him away from the cave. They could go.


When they kept coming back he got a skunk carcass from old Amos, who trapped a little. After they went away the last time he scooped the contaminated sand down the slope, carried in clean dirt, and built a smudge of twisted mint from the creek bank in the fireplace. When the cave was sweet again he listened to the yodel and tried to forget the black mist of things that had been said and done.


After that nobody came to the cave to bother him and from the earliest spring winds until the narrow tongues of grass along the creek were the autumn brown of young beaver, Rusty's old mare, Sarry, spent many days picketed above the bluffs. When the July noon heat made Rusty's head ache, he spent hours on the crazy quilt, arranging and rearranging the blocks a hundred times before he sewed them, taking joy in the feel and the color, although all dark, shiny things were red to him. He never went near the Lang shack, even before people said it was haunted.


Once several squirts from the community brought a Hallowe'en fruit jar of white dynamite. They went home pretty well scratched up and muddy, as though their departure had been a hasty one. After that Rusty had the canyon to himself, he and the cat, Bidge.


That was his own name for her, as the cat was his own. His mother, tired of the constant mewing of hungry kittens underfoot, told Rusty to take the old gray and white tabby out and drown her.


"Bobbut she don't like water. She swim out," he argued, trying very hard to manage his tongue well for his mother.


"Of course," Sarah Reimer agreed. "Get the old clothesline hanging on the post and tie a rock to her neck."


Rusty scratched his head, exposing his short teeth in a doubtful smile.


"Please do as I tell you."


Rusty got his equipment on old Sarry, and with Bidge mewing across the saddle before him, the clothesline snaking along behind him like an Indian's picket rope, he disappeared toward Lang canyon. The mother watched him out of sight and then resumed to her chuming.


The next moming the cat was crying outside the screen door.


"I just knew it would be like that. Now take her out and tie a rock to her tight so she won't come back. Maybe I had better do it myself."


Rusty pulled at the lobe of his ear and grunted. The cat didn't retum. After that he tied her up in a web of clothesline in the cave every time he left.


In coinplowing time Rusty usually helped. Wearing a watersoaked red handkerchief under his rush hat, the comers flopping about his face, he wielded a hoe against the weeds in the rows. He didn't like it and when the heat dances shimmered before his eyes and the sweat trickled down his broad shoulder blades, he loitered along, wondering if he was certain enough which were sunflowers and which com. But only until his father came by with the walking cultivator, his round shoulders furry with dust, his homy hands reaching out to pull the weeds the shovels missed. Then Rusty's head felt better. He could tell the difference between weeds and com quite clearly, and after supper he could have music.


One evening as he plodded down towards his cave, the window in the Lang shack suddenly glowed as from a lamp. Rusty looked toward the moon, standing big and full on the horizon, but it was not that, for the canyon was a deep cup of shadow.


He wanted music but he couldn't have drunks in his cave, so he sprawled out on a sandy cliff, the cat across his chest, and looked into the face of the moon. It had dark spots like black canyons. Perhaps throwing pebbles at the shack might scare them away down there. But it was too much bother, after hoeing.


Sometime after the moon rose high enough to light the sandstone bluffs to a bluewhite, Rusty realized there was a splashing in the little pond. He dumped the cat away and, sneaking down the gully, squatted on a knee of rock overlooking the water. A girl swam the moongilded pond as smoothly as an otter, then turned and, flailing her white arms upon the water, made a crystal and silver showering all about her. At the far side she climbed out upon a bit of rock, her wet body gleaming like pale silk. Folding her palms together she cut the air and water, disappearing as completely into the still pond as though she had never been. Rusty hugged his knees and watched her come up, shake moonlit drops and weeds flying from her streaming hair, and stretch out upon a bit of sand, breathing in soft little gasps almost lost under the mournful complaint of the spring.


Suddenly far up the slope the deserted cat mewed and came bounding to Rusty, arching her back against him. The girl heard but she did not retreat from the watching figure hunched dark on the rock.


"Who are youspying on me?"


When there was no answer, she picked up something, a dark garment that shimmered like the moon on black water, slipped it about her and approached the youth with the green eyes of the cat beside him.


"Who are you and what do you want here?"


Still Rusty gave her no answer, staring instead at the lounging robe tied with a long, loose bow.


"Pppretty ribbon, red ribbon," he said, as though to himself, reaching out a finger for an end.


"Oh," The girl was relieved. Then she smiled coyly, running the end through her fingers. "Do you like it?"


"Pppretty," he said again, rubbing his thick hands together.


"Have you a knife? I'll give you one."


But he had no knife, as his shaking head indicated, and so she deftly twisted one tie about her to hold the robe and ripped the other off. Rusty took the ribbon from her hand, making a little sucking noise between his teeth.


"Ill show you my quilt"


"Quilt, did you say quilt?"


His head waggled up and down as he stroked his rough thumb over the silk.


The girl snapped a casual finger at the cat and asked if they lived near. Rusty pointed off towards the north. The woman nodded a little and strolled away to the shack. A long time after she was gone the two plodded up the steep incline. "Pretty ribbon, red ribbon," he told the cat, speaking easily enough now that there was no one but Bidge.


After he had been in bed an hour, his mind a vague pattern of moonlight on the dark robe of a girl, he remembered that he still had his shoes and pants on. Growling like a dog disturbed at his rest, he pulled them off. At last he slept.


After that he watched the woman almost as much as he listened to the phonograph. A few times he perched on the bank outside her doorstep, delighted with the sheen of her dress, the play of her spiked heels. At first she moved in a cloud of annoyance, perhaps even of fear, but later she got so she waved to him, tried to dawdle away a little time talking. One evening she approached very close to him with a letter.


"Will you take this to the post office and tell no one where you got it?" she asked.


Rusty shook his head, remembering a blur of faces there that laughed at him.


"The mailbox then?"


Yes, he could do that, bobbing his head vigorously in delight. When she tried to give him a quarter he growled and made a grab at her dress.


"Ssscraps! "


Scraps? What did he want with them? Didn't he get enough to eat?


Scraps! He insisted upon scraps, fingering the material of her skirt. When she still did not understand he brought a canvasrolled bundle from his cave and spread his crazy quilt over her lap, clinging to a corner all the while.


"Pppretty," he said.


"Gorgeous!"


Rusty regarded the strange word dubiously, turning it over in his mind as he might a stick of chewing gum from a stranger, afraid it was a joke.


"But I didn't make the dress. There are no scraps," the girl said, and dragged him back to the matter of the mailbox. He rushed off and was back in half an hour, motionless, watching her swim from the knee of rock, now and then rubbing fat blue sparks from the cat.


But the idyllic isolation of Lang's canyon couldn't last. A woman, particularly a strange young woman living in the shack where the man had hanged himself, was a welcome diversion, even in the busy haying season. When the first investigator reported that she was slim as a movie actress and had hair like a brass washboard, there was an epidemic of grouse hunting over that way. Women with straying men suddenly developed a taste for water cress. But the shack door remained closed to all of them. At the post office and at sales there were conjectures. Perhaps a constable might go over to find out who she was. Still, as no heirs ever appeared for the place, there wasn't much to do. The mail carrier admit' ted that he brought her out, left groceries for her every week at Lang's old box. She got no mail and gave him no name.


Then somebody saw Rusty sitting on a hump of rock, watching the house, the gray and white cat at his side.


"I'll talk to him," Jacob Reimer told his wife and she had to be content.


After supper Rusty seemed eager to escape but his father motioned him to stay. "Want to help me catch sparrows tonight?"


Rusty's short upper lip drew back in a grin. He liked catching spar' rows if his father held the lantem and let him run along the stringers and reach into the nests and nooks until his pockets were full. But it was only a game, for he could never bear to see the little birds killed, and after counting them, stroking the quivering backs, feeling the pounding of their little hearts against his palm, he let them go, one after another, until all were lost in the darkness. Then he liked to lie back in the hay, his arms under his head, while his father talked of his own boyhood, and his three brothers.


"B'b~brothers," Rusty would say, almost as though his impediment of speech were all that made him different. "Brothers fine."


Then his father always looked away into the darkness. There could never be any others, but Jacob was thankful. Almost he had lost every' thingthe son and the mother.


"Bedtime, son," he would say, very gently. But tonight there was more. "You aren't bothering the woman on the Lang place?" he asked.


Rusty moved his head in the hay. "Ssshe give me ribbon, red rib' bon," he said after a time.


Then it was good. And now to bed.


The next evening a dark cloud leaned out of the west and sent low rumbles of thunder before it as Rusty started old Sarry towards the Lang eighty. The mother looked after him.


"It is good, " the father said. "She gave him a ribbonred, he calls it."


The mother was not entirely satisfied. "What does she want here such a woman?"


Her husband looked up from his paper. "It cannot mean anything to us and to Joseph."


At the cave Bidge, neglected for two days, her pan of water almost dry, rubbed against Rusty with loud purrs. He pulled her ears and stretched out on the sand to watch the woman. She came from the spring with a pail, stopped, looked all about as she always did lately, and then disappeared into the house to make the window full of light.


In the west the thunder cloud was sending a long arm around behind them and the lightning brightened. A car roared along the mail road. Rusty looked for the shafts of light against the clouds as it climbed Peeler's hill, but there were none.


Just when he hrst saw the man creeping through the dusk towards the shack Rusty could not tell. It was as though he clotted from the gloom across the creek, taking form as he circled the house. He sneaked to the window, then to the door, as a cat stalks a bird. Silently Rusty slipped down a draw and flattened himself against the shack.


Inside there was a little cry, not loud, but like that of a young badger he caught once. There were words, quick, fending ones from the wom' an, slow, hard ones like stones dropping into deep water from the man. A stirring in his mind troubled Rusty, a memory almost tangible. Then he had it. It was the ~rutn. And after he left, Lang had been dead.


Rusty's lips curled back from his teeth. He threw a handful of sand over head and loped up the steep incline to the cave. Gripping the old revolver by the barrel like a club of stone he charged down the slope. From the window he saw the woman was not yet hanging. She had the table between them, but the man clutched her wrist and ran a taunting hand up her arm while she flinched like a wild horse that would paw a man down when the moment came.


In the doorway Rusty blinked once from the glare of light, took aim and brought the gun down upon the bald spot at the man's crown. He swayed, halffuming, and slumped into the shadow of the table.


"Well," the woman said with a little laugh as she rubbed her wrist. "You killed him. Now we better get him out, bury him."


Rusty looked from her to the floor, his eyes blurring. He wiped at them with thick fingers. They cleared a little and, dropping the revolver with a clatter, he vanished into the darkness. At his heels ran a faint patter of rain.


For a moment the woman hesitated, but when the man stirred, groaned, she grasped the revolver and with flat lips she brought the butt down into his temple. It gave like icecrusted mud.


Before she could straighten up, Rusty was back with the clothesline. Not looking at her at all he dragged the man away to the pond, tied him close to a big rock, and rolled both into the water. There was a deep plunk but the lap of the far ripples was lost in the increasing patter of rain.


Rusty wiped the sweat from his face and, trying to remember something, went back into the shack. Before his approaching bulk the woman once more took refuge behind the table. Rusty stopped in the doorway, eyes blinking and searching the floor.


"Ggggive me the shooter, " he demanded, his voice suddenly harsh.


For a moment she faced him, then slowly she laid the gun on the table. Rusty took it, wiped the skin and blood from the butt on his overalls, and went through the door.


"Wherewhere are you going?" she asked, in new fear.


But the doorway was empty.


In the cave Rusty sat on a rock for a long time, his hand making rhythmic poppings of sparks from the back of Bidge. Now and then sheet lightning set the hunched figure into bright relief against the deep blackness behind him. The rain quickened.


Somewhere west a car started up; the lights cut the clouds in a half circle. As the roar died away Rusty had a queer prickling of fear along his arms. Once more he plunged down the slope to the shack. The lamp burned in an empty room. The woman was gone; everything was gone except the dark robe, folded on the table, as though for someone. Rusty lifted it. The folds swept downward, gleaming lik~ moonlight on dark water.


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