Table of Contents
Other Works by Ron Carlson
News of the World
Plan B for the Middle Class
The Hotel Eden
At the Jim Bridger
A Kind of Flying: Selected Stories
Betrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald
For Young Readers
The Speed of Light
This is a work of fiction. No events or persons are real. Some of the place names, mountains, and fish are real, but I have moved them around in writing the story. Also I’ve made the fish a little bigger than they actually are. This is hope at work, an elemental feature of storytelling.
I wish to thank Roger Day who showed me his marked copy of Finis Mitchell’s fine book,
Wind River Trails,
and then the mountains themselves. A note: if I was going to go into the Wind Rivers today, I would use the Bears Ears trailhead and I would go before September 10.
I wrote this book in October at Ucross and I am grateful to the Ucross Foundation, especially Sharon Dynak and all of the staff. My thanks also to my friend Michelle Latiolais.
Published by the Penguin Group, Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.
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First published in 2009 by Viking Penguin,
a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Copyright © Ron Carlson, 2009
All rights reserved
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING IN PUBLICATION DATA
The signal : a novel / Ron Carlson.
eISBN : 978-1-101-05242-6
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He drove the smooth winding two-track up through the high aspen grove and crossed the open meadow to the edge of the pines at the Cold Creek trailhead and parked his father’s old blue Chevrolet pickup by the ruined sign in the September twilight. He had been right: there were no other vehicles. There had been no fresh tire tracks on the ten-mile ascent from the old highway except for the set of duals that had come almost halfway and turned around. That would have been Bluebride’s horse trailer seeing to his cattle the week before. Mack had seen two dozen head scattered in the low sage all along the way. He got out of the truck and reached back for the coffee he’d picked up at the Crowheart general store an hour ago; it was cold. He walked back and opened the tailgate and sat, finally lifting his eyes to look east across the tiers of Wyoming spread beneath him in the vast echelons of brown and gray. It was dark here against the forest, but light gathered across the planet and he could see the golden horizon at a hundred and fifty miles. He wanted to see headlights, but there were none. He wanted to see headlights bumping up the old road to meet him here, at the appointed hour.
He could tell that it had already snowed once, sometime last week, but there was no sign of it now, no patches in the deep shade, no mud in the tracks, but the country was blonder, the grasses still standing but bleached once, paler, as if slapped by the first weather of the season. Mack sipped the cold coffee thick with cream and looked for her car. She would come or she wouldn’t come, and he would still have his mission. He said it aloud. “She’ll come or she won’t, but you’re still going in.”
He stood down and retrieved the brown fleece vest she’d given him five years ago, and he moved to the toolbox and got out his stove and set it up on the tailgate and filled his old pan half full of water and put it on the blue ring of flame. He pulled his pack off the front seat and knelt in the grass against the wall of trees and set up his old two-man, a blue and gray throwback twenty years old; he’d replaced many of the wands twice, but the zippers still worked. He threw his pad and sleeping bag into the tent and then laid the little raggy carpet sample on the ground at the entry. He’d been barefoot on it a hundred times in the mountains. Some things you carried in because they made sense. It was dark working there, but again behind the truck the light of the world fell on his shoulders. To the north he could see one corner of the highway so far below and those cars now had their lights on. He checked his pack for the electronics that Yarnell had given him: the military BlackBerry; he had it in foil in a small Velveeta box. He double-checked all his side pockets and then he unrolled his fishing vest and checked the nine pockets in it for all his fishing gear. He repacked and clipped his rod segments along the back, and then laid it all on the front seat. He was ready.
He took his bonus cooler, the old green metal Coleman from their dating days and knelt and pushed it under the truck behind the cab. They always did it, left a cooler full of goodies for the day out. He could hear the water roiling on his stove now and he walked back there and put in a finger loop of angel hair and then another. If she doesn’t come, I’ll eat double and sleep like a bear. He walked off and pissed in the open meadow and lit one of his cheap wood-tipped cigarillos with his father’s lighter, a Zippo that had been around the world twice in the old man’s pocket on troop-ships. Mack was not scared. He had been uneasy and worried and scared and empty and sort of ruined, and he knew this, but now he had his ways of doing one thing and then the next and it kept the ruin off him. If she left Jackson by four, she’d be along in a while. If she hadn’t left Jackson; well then.
She’d come down to the county jail a month ago where there wasn’t a visiting room, and Zeff Minatas had brought him out to the coffee room and let them talk for twenty minutes. He could not look at her and after a full minute she said softly, “Well.”
It took him three attempts to break through the whisper and say, “You bet. Now I’m in the ashes.” Each tear cost him, but he could not with his breath prevent them. He hadn’t been in a room with her all year and now the quiet in his heart burned again.
“You’re going to climb out of this.”
“Somehow,” he said. He was talking straight down, to the table.
“You look rough,” she said. “You lost some weight.”
“Yeah, well. I’m about broke down actually.” That was all he could master and he sat still.
Zeff came in and set out two Styrofoam cups and filled each from his own Stanley thermos, steaming coffee. “There’s cream already in there,” he pointed.
When he capped the thermos and stepped out, Vonnie said, “Am I worried?”
Her voice cracked him, every word. He could shake his head and he did.
“Yes,” she said. “I am. Look, Mack. You’ll be all right. Things will get better.”
“Disgrace,” he said.
“I am a disgrace,” he said.
Now she read him accurately. “You been this low?”
He could not speak.
“When you get out Wednesday, can you get yourself together? What do you need for gear? Do you have a ride?”
Her solicitous questions broke over him. He could hold steady against his own withering self-regard, but he could not hold against her sympathy. When she put her hand on his wrist, the shock ran through him.
“Chester will come get me.”
“He’s a good friend,” she said. “Go fishing for a week. This will pass.”
“No can do.”
Then she leaned toward him and spoke against the top of his head. “Mack, don’t let this beat you. You’re a good man inside.”
Now the tears tripled dripping onto the shirtsleeve of his jail shirt.
She pushed his coffee until the cup touched his interleaved hands. “Here,” she said, “drink this. Remember your coffee policy.” It was an old bit of theirs, but he could not respond.
“Meet me,” she said. “You can do that, right? We’ll make our last trip next month. Meet me, and we’ll fish Clark Lake for the last time.”
Somehow air came into his chest with that and he said quietly, “Deal.” He looked up into her face, the seriousness and the concern. He opened his hand and closed it around the little white cup. “I will be there. Cold Creek trailhead.”
He’d been here ten times; this was the tenth time. Every year on the same day, the Ides of September, nine fifteen. The promise had been made that first time and they’d kept it nine times.
We’ll do this every year.
They weren’t married the first time, and then they had been married eight times, and now they weren’t married again. As far as he knew. The lawyer letters, five of them, were filed unopened in a cubby of his father’s rolltop in the bunkhouse where Mack lived on the home place south of Woodrow, golden envelopes with return addresses pretty as wedding invitations.
He felt better tonight, strong for some reason, but he’d been getting better since walking out of jail twenty days ago. It could have been so much worse. He’d been running in low-rent behavior for almost a year, scrambling for money, crossing the line when it worked for him, drinking too much because it didn’t matter and the company he kept drank. He had trouble with the mortgage at the ranch, and he’d driven cars to Cheyenne and Rock Springs more than once not asking what was in the trunk, just taking the thousand bucks and walking away. He’d been an idiot and he’d rusted like an old post when the weather turned. Now he shook his head at it in dark wonder. It was like the old song. He once was lost and now he was found, though there wasn’t much left. He knew this trip was the right thing and he’d even gotten well enough to call her and let her off the hook. Last week he’d left a message saying it was okay if she couldn’t make it and that he appreciated the help. He knew where there were some fish. He didn’t want the sympathy vote, didn’t need it, but, he told her, he was going fishing at the appointed hour.
He’d met Vonnie when they were both seventeen, and he didn’t like her immediately, because it was his personal policy to dislike all the people who came to the ranch, the families from Grosse Pointe and Greenwich and Manhattan and Princeton and from the ten other platinum republics in their beautiful flannel shirts and new Levi’s. He treated them well and saw to their safety around the horses, and he taught them what he could about the ranch and securing knots and fire safety and the birds and the snakes and the occasional bears. He took them to Big Springs and Rocktree trailheads, but he didn’t bring them here. He envied their gear, their bright boots, their gorgeous bone pocketknives, but he never stole one. He was quiet and known as being quiet and it was not an act; he had learned that it was the way he kept any power at all. After his mother died of the cancer and his father and the ranch manager, Sawyer Day, saw the money story, they had started taking ten weeks of guests in the summers. They needed the money. They hired a great cook, a woman named Amarantha out of Logan, Utah, and she laid a table like he had never seen. For that time the ranch paid its bills. The reputation of Box Creek grew, and they were booked steady all those years: twenty-four people every week, and Mack grew up with them from when he was ten, answering the same questions about horseshoes and hay and can I feed this horse an apple without him biting me. A horse on a dude ranch eats a lot of apples. Vonnie’s family came out from Chapel Hill where her mother was a professor of political science, and he gave her the same horse every year, Rusty, a benevolent roan who was golden once a day if the sun was right. Vonnie was a strong athlete and played soccer in college, but Mack avoided her (as he did all the guests) easily. Many weeks the guests had romances with the other guests, intrigues afoot, and Mack had plenty of work grooming horses when the day ended while everyone showered in the big house and in the two cottages and then lined up for Amarantha’s astounding buffet.