The reason I chose that title is because James is a Territory Man. He's in a big damn hurry and scared of course, but the way he works is also to maintain his own integrity in the desert. That way, he's able to win just by sticking it out longer, making fewer mistakes. But this is much more of a test.
Going out to the writers out there--(hello, The Bug and C.L.)--the desert man I know who's coming back from vacation (hello, Captain)--Bob and Momma Fargo, who are dealing with environment all the time--to Slamdunk and BobKat for the missing persons work--and to anyone who enjoys it. And I hope you do.
They've stopped for the night--this chapter is told from the stepson's point of view.
I hear him drink out of the jar. My stomach growls again, loud and long.
“Careful now. We’ll want that jar.”
I feel for the jar in the dark. The tomatoes taste just fine. I use my knife to get them out.
“Annie’s good cooking.”
I cough. It’s the last of Ma’s canning, then. I set them down.
“Finish ‘em,” he says. “That’s what we have.” Something hits my leg. “Plus some of that floodwater rabbit.”
It takes me a minute. But he’s waiting, and he’s right. I pick them back up. He starts talking, low as always.
“When a man comes back from a job like this, he generally says he had the most doubt right before the fast time. But that’s only the story he makes afterward, against people congratulating on him, or telling him how he should have done different.” Pa clears his throat. “But if he remembered true, he’d know he lived in doubt for the whole job. Do you live to be a hundred, Noah, doubt only grows in life. But you get used to it. You learn to work with it heavy on you. I’m more used to it than you are.”
He doesn’t know where they are. That’s what he’s saying. But I knew that.
“Noah,” he growls. “Pay attention.”
“You’re struggling. Just quit.”
I draw in air. “Doubt grows, and you get used to it.”
“Uh-huh. You’ve already made a good start on growing it and getting used to it. You take care of what’s yours, responsible most of the time. But a responsible man is rarely certain what’s altogether best, or if he can do what’s required. He has to choose, and he might be wrong.”
“Yes, sir.” He’s telling me he decided wrong. We should have gone west—
“So. You’ve been right patient, like I said.” Pa’s boot scrapes against rock. “Seagraves will get the message out, that’ll stave off some kinds of trouble we might have afterwards. Or maybe make the difference if we can’t. But we’re getting close to rapidity.”
Close to rapidity.
The jar starts sliding out of my hands. I grab it. “That scout told you something.”
“He had knowledge of this range. I found a stick with blue thread tied on it, two blue threads, not too far from where we are. It might be Annie’s sign for the second camp.”
“Lord.” I take a huge breath. “That’s good. That’s the best yet.”
“So now tell me how much doubt you lost,” Pa says. “Maybe you think I didn’t miscalculate now, but we’re still behind. Next all your what-ifs will come to roost. When we find out which one it is for sure, you’ll start on the if-onlies. Then you’ll sorry me, or expect I’ll sorry you. And maybe I will at that.” He waits. “Nope, that doubt didn’t go down any.”
Lord. He pegged me exactly.
“We’ll find them,” Pa says, after a long quiet. “The chance for disappointment is the same as it was before, Noah. Maybe you’ll never see them alive again. Maybe they’ll be bandbox fresh. But doubt doesn’t leave you, either way. You just handle it, same as you have been. You’ve kept your mind on getting through. So remember you can, and that you have.”
Sometimes I wonder why he doesn’t say these things earlier. But there’s no point in asking that. Pa’s more or less always on desert time.
There are tomatoes left. I eat them, then set the jar to the side. “What’s another way to grow doubt? Other than being responsible.”
“If you were in that band of snakes, you’d have doubts I reckon.”
We’re coming after them. They should have doubts.
“When men have doubts, they fight themselves and each other. We have. They take measures against threat. We’ve done that too.” I hear him pop his knee. “Question is, what fights they had and what measures they took. That refines what you do in fast time.”