2011 Fiction Winner: Early Water

Brad Rhoda was born and raised in Michigan and then left with no hard feelings. He now lives and writes in Fort Collins, Colorado, because it is there that he found answers to questions. For the past eight years, he has worked on a farm that uses an agricultural context to help bring healing and health to men struggling with addiction and homelessness. He believes that the reconciliation of farming and conservation will dictate the future direction of the arid West, and much of his work is driven by the hope in that possibility and efforts to expand upon that conversation. He is grateful to live with his wife, daughter, and their good fat dog.

Early Water

(Download a pdf version here: Early_Water)

Boring through the darkness of the high country, the headlights of a small sports car descended the steep eastern side of the mountain. Above but distant, the wide blue face of the moon gaped down and exposed the outlines of the Medicine Bow Range. 

The little car barely missed the scarred guardrails as it kicked up dust off the road’s shoulder that no man would see settle. Yet the car continued on, undeterred and eager, rarely displaying the loud red burst of its brake lights.

When the altitude finally leveled out after the long descent, the car abruptly slowed and pulled to the side of the road. After a moment’s pause, the dome light clicked on and the passenger door opened with a sharp squeal. A young man fell out of the car on to the gravel, cursing. “Get out!” barked a high-pitched, male voice from inside the car. A small, red back pack followed the passenger’s exit and rested in a heap beside him. The man in the dirt screamed something back in the direction of the sports car but it had already fled, its door flapping until the new velocity forced it shut. He was alone.

Rising from the ground, the man’s first few steps were taken on unsteady legs. He tipped backward and his foot found a round rock that slipped out of its shallow bed, sending him tumbling down the abrupt slope of a dry canal that paralleled the road. He landed on his back. Taking deep, full breaths, the man stared up at the dark shoulders of the canal that hovered over him to his left and to his right. Flat stones resting in the bed of the canal reflected the moonlight and glowed like white coins. No cars, no buzzing of power lines, no humming of lights. He pulled out a bottle from his backpack and took a long drink, holding the burn in his throat before exhaling again. The wind was waking up, but it could only be seen in the shaking of the trees high above him, out over the rim of the dry canal that protected him from feeling any of it. He thought he could hear moving water close by.

He stood with a grunt and shouldered his backpack. Tired and drunk, he picked up the bottle and began to walk down the canal. His tennis shoes crunched the dry bright stones. He did not know the time or the place, but at least he was warm, for now.

The young man soon came to a concrete bridge that spanned the ditch, resting at head level. He didn’t want to walk anymore, especially since he didn’t know where he was going, and the vodka was either wearing off or kicking in. Ducking his head under the bridge, he said, “Hello?” as if entering a stranger’s house. His greeting was met by a subtle whispering as a cloud of swallows swept passed the man, too drunk to be startled, hardly noticing the delicate brush of a wing against his cheek.

He took off his backpack and dropped it underneath the bridge. He leaned down and let his body fall, inching his way further beneath the bridge, his head on the pack. His back settled among the stones and he raised his feet up on to a thin, smooth log. Shrouded in the black shadow of the bridge, he looked out into the shining night and saw the mountains towering high above him, deep blue and purple. He smiled and unscrewed the bottle one last time. Two long pulls and the bottle was empty. It dropped beside his body without shattering. He tucked his hands under his armpits and shivered. He closed his eyes.

Cary pulled his truck off the road and killed the engine. It was early morning, an hour he hadn’t greeted in over half a year. The sun had not yet crested above the mountains and a cool blue glow radiated from behind their black silhouettes that seemed to envelop the light of the dimming stars. The sharp cold of spring had departed and had been replaced with a warm wind, a wind delivering moods and whispers that made the tops of the evergreens buckle and the bellies of the willows rattle. Below him, the river was running wide and fast and unusually muddy for early May. It had been a good, wet winter. Snow had fallen casually but consistently on the foothills and the high country snow pack, measured just a month before up around Cameron Pass, was deep enough to relieve the concern of yet another drought year in eastern Colorado.

Cary reached down by the stick shift and grabbed his dented Stanley thermos. He hooked his finger around its handle and let it dangle as he slid out of the truck. An unlit cigarette stuck out of his mouth and hung limp. Carefully but deliberately he stepped through a gate that he unlocked with a key from his keychain and walked down a nearly invisible path toward the river. A gray feathered bird, brilliantly camouflaged against the rocks on the far shore, bounced into a shallow pool by the river’s edge and then popped back up on to the rocks. Cary squeaked in his throat and took out a small notepad from his back pocket. After flipping through a few pages, he wrote the words “American Dipper” and put the pad and pencil back into his pocket. “Haven’t seen you in a few years,” he said aloud. “Wish I hadn’t forgotten my camera.”

The river was running fast. Too fast for this time of year, Cary thought. It was this type of early runoff that tricked the out-of-staters and the enthusiastic college kids and the drunken mustached dads and the teenaged girls who desperately wanted a tan more than anything in the world. The river, always enticing, baited them into seeing the brilliant shimmer instead of the danger, not showing what it held just beneath its roiling surface, the boulders and the severed tree trunks and the holes and God knows what else. It was this kind of water that uncorked and dislodged bodies that had been submerged for months. Dogs, cows, deer, people. In the 27 years Cary had worked for the Northern Colorado Irrigation District he had discovered the bodies of exactly twelve people, all of them long dead, stinking and swollen, some white and some purple and some both. They were mostly teenagers that in death didn’t resemble anything close to teenagers, as in war, he imagined. It was this kind of early water that brought those dead things out of their limbo and into the reckoning light.

Using another one of his many keys, Cary unlocked the deadbolt to the small white concrete building that sat just upstream from the diversion structure. The door scraped the floor as it opened and the room smelled musty and old. When Cary flicked on the light a fat mouse fled into the corner and watched him with round, black eyes. “How’d you’d get in here, now?” he said. Walking over toward the mouse, Cary slipped his boot behind it, and using the inside of his foot, swept it tumbling out the door. It bounced away and slipped underneath a bed of dark, wet leaves.

On the desk was a blue spiral notebook, a telephone plugged in to the back wall, some old books, and an unopened box of black ink pens. There was no chair and no computer. Spider webs darkened the corners of the room and sagged, heavy with gnats and houseflies. Squinting over the desk, Cary opened his thermos and poured a cup of coffee into the thermos lid. He blew softly into the lid and took a slow, loud sip. As he drank, he read through the last few pages of the notebook, written in his own handwriting, and rolled his damp cigarette to the other side of his mouth. Lowering his face closer to the page, he placed his finger on one of the more recent entries. He grunted and with his pen drew a horizontal line across the page, dividing it in half. Underneath the line he wrote the date and time, glancing at his watch to make sure he wasn’t mistaken.

From inside the little concrete room, the river sounded like a machine blowing through the canyon. Its deep growl and hum bounced off the walls and made the air feel heavy and thick. Cary polished off his first cup of coffee and took the cigarette out of his mouth for a moment. There was no trash can, so he tucked the soggy cigarette in his front shirt pocket and then fetched a fresh one from the pack in his other pocket. He didn’t light this one either. The coffee tasted different when it wasn’t spiked with smoke.

The sun surfaced over the mountains to the east as Cary, having done his brief business, closed the steel door behind him and locked the padlock. He took a quick piss out of the gathering wind on the side of the station. As he finished and zipped up his pants, he noticed a good sized fish near the shoreline lagging beneath the shadow of a fallen cottonwood. Hovering a few inches above the rocky bottom, it looked like a wet sock fluttering in the invisible current. Probably a brown trout, which had years ago been stocked in the river and had been responsible for decimating the rainbow populations. Of course, the rainbows weren’t native to Colorado either, so what the hell could you do. Both species were foreigners when you got right down to it. One just had more fight in it.

The head gates of the diversion structure hadn’t been turned since the middle of the previous August so Cary brought his mallet. Standing over the river, he felt its violent energy resonate up through the heels of his muck boots and he understood how the pioneers could get it into their brains to create power from moving water. One hundred and fifty years ago, before Colorado was even a state, the old boys with their long beards and sunken eyes had cut these canals and ditches with horse-drawn plows and shovels, and here he was using the same ideas and the same waterways and running the same water to the same towns using the same system that existed since the Civil War. It made Cary proud, when he thought about it, to view himself as a link in that long chain of trailblazers, to be a part of that history, to be a part of something. Sometimes it drove him crazy thinking about those boys digging these canals without tractors or backhoes or GPS systems. As if to rub it in, most of them did the work smoking pipes, if the fuzzy black and white pictures told the truth. And here he was, just over fifty, driving his 12 mpg Dodge Ram up the narrow canyon road and trying like hell to stop smoking cigarettes because his wife Emily asked him to quit as a birthday gift.

The first gate didn’t turn with his initial efforts so Cary gave it three sharp smacks with his mallet. He bent at his knees and held his breath, puffing out his cheeks, turning the valve counter clockwise using both his hands. This time, it gave. Beneath him, the body of the river departed from its natural course and poured through the opening he had created into the dry canal. With the initial pressure unleashed, the valve turned more easily and he began to spin it until the square hole was wide open. He moved a few feet down to the next two gates and followed the same procedure until all three were running wide open, shooting thousands of gallons per second of the river away from the canyon walls and into the wide canal that was destined for the arid farmlands of eastern Colorado, over a hundred miles from where he stood in rubber boots with an unlit cigarette in his mouth and breath stinking like coffee and toothpaste.

Overhead, hummingbirds hovered and whirled a few feet above the surface of the river. Rosy red throats and black tails. Their wings sang a high-pitched song that harmonized with the river’s steady rolling bass. Cary wondered where they slept all night, or if they slept at all, and what they looked like while sleeping. A hummingbird sleeping: One thing he had never seen in all his mornings up in the canyon. Opening again his pocket notebook, he wrote “Broad Tailed Hummingbird.”

Cary stood a while by the gates of the dam and poured himself another cup of coffee as he watched the water rush away from itself. The canal was filling quickly, and the water was running hard and swift and free, just as he had expected. Someone had spray painted a word on the far cliff wall that he couldn’t interpret, not knowing if it was in a different language or if it was even a word to begin with. Why a person would want to slap paint on a mountain didn’t make much sense to him, but there were a lot of things that didn’t make much sense to him, and the list of those things seemed to grow every day that he grew older. He tossed the dregs of his coffee in to the river and screwed the lid back on to his thermos.

A green bottle by the side of the road caught his eye and bothered him. He picked it up and tossed it in the bed of his pickup next to the other pieces of odd debris he had accumulated on similar rounds: gnarled tangles of orange baling twine, plastic shopping bags, random articles of lost or discarded clothing. The bottle brought to mind beer, which brought to mind cigarettes, which brought to mind his vow to Emily, which brought to mind the unlit cigarette in his mouth. He pocketed it and brought out a fresh one. No more smoking. Son of a bitch, no more smoking.

The truck shuddered and started. He pulled out slowly as the gravel popped beneath the tires and he took one last look at the water pouring out of the river and into the canal. All of it heading eastward, toward thirsty farmers who were probably the only ones who cared that he was doing his job. He drove slowly for a few minutes, watching the early water rise up the canal walls, spreading itself wherever it could find room. After a few miles, the truck rumbled over a cattle guard and Cary emerged from the canyon. Before him lay the valley he had called his home for most of his life, a valley that had claimed him well before he met Emily. The towering irrigation pivots, ready for a season’s work of creeping across thousand acre pastures and hayfields, reminded him once again that his valley did not come by its color quite honestly. But he had long ago made his peace with that dishonesty, the dishonesty of his home country.

At a bend that steered the canal northward and away from the road, Cary stopped his truck and waited. It would still be a while before the water arrived this far down its course. Closing his eyes seemed to make sense. He folded his hands in his lap and raised two fingers at a car heading up the canyon with a kayak strapped to the roof. He was more tired than usual. “Goodnight, young lady,” he said to a curled photograph taped to the dashboard ashtray, an old picture of him and Emily atop Pikes Peak. The cigarette soon dropped from his open mouth and landed on his belly, but he didn’t notice. His head slumped back against the seatbelt and he snored through his nose.

The water had slithered up to the young man slowly as the sky brightened, sneaking around and then underneath his motionless body, until it gathered enough momentum and volume to lift him up and shove him awake. In his drunkenness, he didn’t feel the cold and the power of the current until he was submerged, confused and shocked and sick and scared and blind. Sprawling, directionless, without beacon toward up or down, the man felt the weight of the water anchoring him and tugging at his clothes, pushing him forward and down. His cheekbone hit against something hard. He heard his voice yell out, muffled in his ears, smothered by the water. It didn’t sound like himself. He inhaled, choked, gagged. Then a terrible and honest moment of loud, pleading panic, with vibrations in his ears and temples and a metallic taste between his teeth. As if instinctual, he flexed his legs straight out from his body and they hit solid earth. The abrupt contact ceased his trajectory and spun him around. He raised his hands over his head and touched more muddy earth. He scissored his legs again and suddenly found himself lodged against the side of the canal, his head and shoulders above the water.

He crawled up the short but steep earthen wall and sat down, his head in his hands and his elbows on his knees. He didn’t notice how cold he was. His breath came with effort and he had to coax his air in and out with deep, quick coughs. The water beneath him ran smoothly, not seeming to pay him any mind, not seeming to acknowledge that it had moments before tried to kill him. The man touched his sore cheek with a cupped hand and looked at his fingers that were now bloodied on the tips. Leaning over, he vomited a frothy foam onto the ground. He wiped his mouth and nose with the sleeve of his soaked shirt.

He looked up the ditch and down. He did not see his backpack. Everything that he owned was in that little pack: two pair of underwear, a sweater, some old papers wrapped in a rubber band, a stocking cap, a toothbrush, a few yards of rope, a pair of sunglasses, a pair of pornos, a loaf of white bread, a plastic bottle, and a long, heavy knife. Everything else was tucked in his socks, worn on his back, and drunk the night before.

The man fell down as soon as he tried to stand up, still dizzy and drunk. The road behind him was silent and empty. He was in no shape to ask for a ride, even if he did find the luck to flag down a driver heading out of the canyon at this hour, whatever the hour might be. His fingers scratched the fine dirt that bordered the ditch, stroking it like the fur of a cat. He took off his waterlogged tennis shoes and they made a sucking sound as they popped off his feet. Loose coins jangled in his socks, weighed down and pendulous at the toes. A hummingbird squeaked over the man’s head, startling him. “Shit,” he said, bending his neck. The hummingbird zipped into the willow seedlings on the opposite side of the ditch as the man watched and wondered. Beneath the tiny willows, snagged in some scrub brush that had collected between the rip rap that lined the canal, he noticed something bobbing gently up and down in the current. A color and a shape that didn’t match the river’s edge.

His backpack.

The abrasive rasp of his own breathing woke Cary up. With the cuff of his jacket he wiped a thin wad of drool from the corner of his mouth and then patted his front pocket, petting his pack of cigarettes, a habitual response that now didn’t have much climax to it. Looking over the hood of his truck, he saw that the water was moving rapidly, almost impatiently. It had risen more than he had expected, a result of a nap that was longer than expected, but it looked good; it looked right.

Something shined against the bottom corner of his right eye, and that eye followed the source of the shine to a knife that was resting flat against the thigh of a young man sitting beside him in the passenger seat looking straight ahead at the same water Cary was just evaluating. The surprise caused Cary’s knee to jump up against the bottom of the steering wheel and his jacket back scuffed against the door away from the stranger. The thermos rolled off the seat and rattled against the stick shift.

“Hup!” he hollered, too shocked to elaborate much further.

The young man turned away from the water and met Cary’s eyes. “About time you woke up,” he said. “I got to go. Come on.”

Cary didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know what time it was or how far his water had flowed or how it was possible that he hadn’t heard the passenger door open and shut or what Emily would say if she knew about the man next to him and that foot-long knife sitting on his thigh.

“Now,” said the young man, firmly and with authority, looking at Cary again. The seat was darkened and wet around the man’s hips. He appeared to be about twenty five, maybe thirty, with a week old beard. Dirty dark hair, dirty old jeans and flannel shirt, all soaking wet. Smelled like shit and booze, like a man who hadn’t had a shower in a month or more. A chunk of wax the color of stale cheddar cheese rested on a tuft of white hair that jutted out of his ear. A red backpack sitting on the floorboard. And that knife, shivering on the young man’s thigh looking like it had a job to do.

“Go?” said Cary, a little short on breath. “Go where? I’ve got work to tend to.”

The young man looked back toward the moving water, subtly rising and widening in the canal. “East of here. Start the truck, old man. Let’s go. No more talking.”

“Son, I’ve got to keep an eye on this water here,” said Cary. “I can’t let it out of my sight. I got people depending on this water. Depending on me.”

“You can keep your eye on all the water you want after you’re rid of me,” said the stranger. “I mean it. Let’s go. No more talking.” His hand, rough-knuckled and hairy, caressed the knife handle as if it were a lucky rabbit’s foot.

Cary didn’t say anything more. He patted his pocket again and felt the pack of cigarettes against his breast; they couldn’t do anything for him. His stomach made a loud grinding noise that filled the cab, a result of too much coffee, not enough breakfast, and the man fondling a knife on the other side of a stack of papers and spiral notebooks. Cary started the truck as the man beside him flipped down the visor to shade his eyes from the sun, now fully exposed and hanging over the flat, golden horizon.

The truck soon parted with both the river and the canal. The young man looked out the window as the country slipped past. A white two story farm house with a round brick silo behind it stood to the south. An enormous silver irrigation pivot rested over a rolling field of alfalfa that was already greening up. There was no sign of any livestock or any farmers, only stillness and quiet. The young man looked like he wanted to say something, maybe even ask something, but he didn’t. The stands of ponderosa pine that filled the entire face of the passenger side mirror gave way to sparse shrubbery and bare rock the color of mature rust. They were out of the shadow of the mountains and their white serrated peaks, now driving through smooth topped hogbacks and the occasional odd green of irrigated fields that stretched until they tucked under the chins of the red rock faces.

A hawk, motionless, perched on top of a telephone pole, its beak and eyes pointed slightly downward. Cary couldn’t tell if it was a red-tailed hawk or a rough-shinned or a Swainson’s–the spring plumage on hawks had always confused and frustrated him–so he didn’t bother getting out his notebook to record the sighting. He reached into his front pocket and slipped out a cigarette. He didn’t light it. The young man in the passenger seat heard him fumbling with the pack of cigarettes and watched him, his hand not rising from the knife on his thigh. Cary looked back at him, both hands on the steering wheel, the unlit cigarette splitting his lips.

“You plan on putting some fire to that thing?” the young man said.

“Oh, we’re talking now,” said Cary. “Didn’t know if that was allowed or not. No, I don’t plan on putting fire to this smoke because I just quit today, wife’s request. Read somewhere it’s easier to quit if you keep an unlit smoke in your mouth. After a while, you drop the unfired smoke and you’re done.”

The young man shook his head and looked back out the window of the truck. He raised a leg up and adjusted himself at the waist, twisting his chest, and scratched his beard.

“Pull over.”

Cary looked at the young man, not taking his foot off the gas.

“Now, dammit, pull over.”

The young man began rolling down the window, his arm pumping hard. Cold air rushed into the cab and pinched Cary’s shoulders together. Cary braked and pulled the truck off to the shoulder of the road. A moment before the truck came to a halt the young man vomited out the window, not entirely missing the side of the truck. Cary sat silently while the man, leaning away from him, coughed and choked and spit, the bottoms of his muddy tennis shoes squirming against the floor. The young man’s hand still clenched the knife pressed to his thigh, his free hand pushing against the glove box. Cary noticed a wedding band around his finger.

Bending down, Cary reached between his legs. He could have taken the thermos up soundlessly, waited a moment for the young man to face him again, and with one quick motion rammed the metal base of it against the young man’s forehead, shattering his skull. He could have pulled the young man back by the shirt collar and squeezed his throat between his hands, using his thumbs to pinch the Adam’s apple, cutting off his oxygen. He could have leaned over against the young man and in the same motion unlatched the door, and swung his foot over the console and kicked him out on to the side of the road and gunned it, leaving the stranger in a pile of gravel and puke. He could have.

When the young man pulled himself back in, Cary offered him a red rag that he had grabbed from beneath his seat. He accepted it wordlessly and wiped his eyes and nose and mouth. A thin tendril of white snot stretched from his nose to the rag, a shiny wet rope that didn’t snap even when he pulled it away from his face. He balled up the rag and dropped it on his backpack by his feet. Cary watched him as he pinched his nose together with his fingers, shoving his thumb up one of his nostrils and then the other, afterwards examining the thumb as if assessing a chipped nail. The bruise on his cheek glared a deep red.

“All right?” said Cary.

“Yes. Let’s just go.”

Cary edged the old truck back onto the road and remembered that his headlights were still on. He clicked them off. The road felt its way through the flattening country, between layered tables of sandstone that angled upwards to the west, pointing to faraway mountain peaks. The man released his grip on the knife and tucked his body into the corner of the seat, his deflated eyes still straight ahead but not as alert as earlier. The window had been left open a crack and the air that whistled in was already warming.

“Take a right up here,” said the young man.

Cary nodded his head, slowing the truck, and turned onto an unpaved road that ran through Owl Canyon. The sides of the road were lined with thin mounds of dirt and sand, evidence that it had recently been graded. Despite this, the road was still extremely bumpy, raising the volume in the cab of the truck. The thermos rolled around under Cary’s seat and the stack of papers that rested between him and his passenger slid and fanned out.

“You want to tell me where I’m going?” said Cary.

“No,” said the young man, his grip tightening around the knife.

“Well, come on now,” said Cary. “I wasn’t kidding you earlier when I told you about being on the clock. I’ve got to keep an eye on that water or I’m in a whole lot of trouble, not to mention a boatload of my neighbors up around here.” Silence. “Now I don’t know what you plan to do with that knife of yours there or why you’re even holding it or why you think you need it because I’d be happy to give you a ride anyway but I’ve got to keep this water under control or it’ll run all over these roads and into these houses and the farmers won’t see a drop and then we’re in a heap of hell.”

The young man kept his grip on the knife and looked out the window as if Cary hadn’t spoken. A herd of pronghorns some fifty strong lagged around a meadow that rested between a pair of low lying hills. Their colors flickered in the sunlight, the whites and the tans blinking on and off. The young man turned his head with some effort to stare. He didn’t know what they were.

“See this ditch running down here,” Cary continued, “this ditch needs to be full by three o’ clock this afternoon. I’ve got to divert it back around where we came from, back that way.”

The young man watched the pronghorns until, moving as one body like a host of sparrows, they ducked out of sight, their speckled hides blending into the backdrop of mountain sage and rabbit brush. Facing forward again, he said, “Where does the water go?”

Cary took his foot off the gas without knowing it. “Where does it go? What do you mean?”

“I mean, why do you have water in these ditches here? Where is it all going?”

Cary took his wet cigarette out of his mouth and replaced it with a dry one from his shirt pocket. He looked at the young man and pursed his eyes. “Where are you from, son?”

“Not here,” he said, looking out and away again, searching.

“East?”

The young man’s grip on the knife slackened. He nodded.

Cary rubbed his chin and scratched it. “You don’t even know then,” said Cary. “These are irrigation ditches running through here. This water runs from the river to farms and reservoirs and such so we can water the crops out here. Can’t grow anything without water, and it’s in pretty short supply out here on the plains. Something I’m sure you boys don‘t have to worry about in your parts, wherever that is.”

The young man lightly placed his palm onto his cheek. His hand had blood on it when he removed it from his face. He said something under his breath and then reached down for Cary’s soiled kerchief that he then pressed against the wound. He shook his head. “This water is going on crops?”

Cary nodded. “Got to get them up somehow.” He looked at the knife on the young man’s leg. “How about putting that knife away now that we’re talking like human beings?”

For the first time since the beginning of the ride, the young man looked at Cary. Bloodshot eyes, waterlogged, if that’s possible, distant and detached. “I never know when I might need it. She’s fine just where she is.”

Perched on a split rail fence beside the road, a yellow breasted bird craned its neck towards the sky and chuckled joyfully as the truck rumbled by. Cary heard the song through the open passenger window. “Western Meadowlark,” he said. The young man looked out the window but missed it, the notes of the bird’s song wavering and fading through the truck’s dust. Cary reached for the pad in his back pocket but then thought better of it. He’d see a meadowlark again.

“So the water from that river back there is the same water that runs up these ditches out here?” said the young man.

“You bet. And this is nothing. Some of the ditches run clear out to Greeley and Windsor and keep on rolling out until you think they’ll sprinkle Kansas.”

The young man seemed to be thinking, trying to wrap his head around something. “My God,” he said, smiling for the first time. “Seems like a lot of work just to grow some crops.”

“Well, like I said, it’s my job and it’s a pretty serious job around these parts,” said Cary. “If you were from around here you’d know what I’m talking about and there’s a good deal of bad about to go down if I don’t get back to the canal and level some of this out.”

“All for crops,” said the young man, as if Cary hadn’t said a word. “That’s crazy. This is crazy.” He let out a little laugh.

“Nothing crazy about it,” said Cary. “Crops need water. Hardly any water out on the plains. So we bring water to the crops. Can’t think of anything simpler, really.”

The young man removed the rag from his cheek and dropped it on the floor again. “I’ll tell you what’d be simpler,” he said. “Don’t grow any damn crops out here.” He smirked and laid the knife on the seat between his leg and the door furthest from Cary.

“Easy for you to say,” said Cary. He looked up at the crooked, dirty red ridge of sandstone that had been chiseled by the LeRange Mining Company into sharp shapes that resembled brittle bottom teeth. Another clear day.

In the rearview mirror, Cary noticed a white jeep coming up fast from behind him on the dirt road. The jeep rode up close to the rear of the truck, tailgated for a moment, and then roared past, nearly clipping Cary’s mirror. A thick smog of dust covered the windshield and Cary, blinded, pushed the brake pedal softly, slowing the truck but not stopping.

“Keep going,” said the young man.

“I’m going to keep going,” said Cary, irritated at the young man’s tone. “But I’m not going to keep going if I can’t see what’s in front of me. I’m not stupid.” He took his wet cigarette out of his mouth and once again replaced it with a dry one. He was getting low.

As the dust dissipated, Cary picked up the speed a bit and carefully followed the flat curves that twisted through the ancient canyon. “Idiots,” he said. “Probably drunk or something. Drunk or young. Or female. All three, most likely.”

The topic seemed to arouse the young man. “What do you have in that thermos there?” he said, looking at Cary’s feet.

“Coffee,” he said. “Still warm probably. Snort?”

The young man looked out his window again and shook his head, disappointed. They rounded a bend and suddenly Cary slammed on the brakes, knocking the young man forward against the glove box despite Cary’s effort of holding him back with an outstretched right arm. The young man yelled. The truck stopped, bucked, and then stopped again.

The jeep that had passed them only a mile or so back was spun around backwards and faced the truck, motionless, a large dent on the corner of the grill. One of the headlights was smashed out. Pinkish dust was settling around it. The middle of the road was carved with a deep gouge the shape of a question mark, tracing the route of the jeep’s skid. Behind the jeep standing off to the side of the road was a small herd of about a dozen cows, Angus, munching on weeds, lingering as if bored and watching the jeep with lazy eyes. About fifteen feet away from the jeep, a thin calf lay sprawled in the middle of the road, a misplaced black lump of hair. Its stomach was rising and falling in awkward, spastic motions. A rear leg pumped against the air. Its neck jumped once, twice, and then settled against the surface of the road. A few of the older cows bellowed and watched casually as the calf smothered itself against the red dirt. Cary jumped out of the truck, not thinking of his passenger or his passenger’s knife.

The first thing he noticed was the gap in the barbed wire fence. Both strands were down, and it looked like at least two t-posts were bent at the base. The pasture, if one could call it that, looked thin on the other side of the severed fence line. It looked to Cary like the cows probably just wanted some green stuff, the weeds, that framed the sides of the road and busted down the fence to get to it. Nothing new out here, he thought. But still no good.

The young man was still in the truck and Cary started in the direction of the jeep, idling and still, its tinted windshield and windows hiding the occupants. As Cary neared, the jeep suddenly revved, spun its wheels, and launched past him, barely missing his arm as he waved it as if in surrender. He fell, the high whine of the jeep’s motor trailing off up Owl Canyon. Through the dust he tried to read the numbers on the rear plate but could only make out that it was from Colorado. His pack of cigarettes had fallen out of his shirt and lay flattened in front of him. He picked it up and put it back in his pocket. He didn’t get up for a moment, resting his elbow on his knee and looking at the apathetic cows beside the road, still ripping up the tall weeds and munching them without regard for the action.

The young man crept out of the truck and kneeled down next to Cary. “You all right?”

Cary pulled in a deep breath and let it out. “I have to take care of my water, son,” he said. The injured calf lay just up the road and began to make high bleating sounds from deep within its throat. Its bowels suddenly loosened and thin yellow shit spread over its tail that sat flat and still against the road.

Cary took a look at the calf and then at the young man and back to the calf. “Give me that knife of yours,” he said.

The young man looked down at Cary, still sitting and gathering his breath. The cows were huge and he could hear them chewing from where he stood. The wind was picking up, slipping through the canyon, and blew the young man’s hair into his eyes. He brushed it back behind his ear and it flopped down again. “Give me that knife of yours,” Cary repeated, squinting, his tone deepened with a new gravity. The man walked wordlessly back to the truck, reached into the cab through the open window, and brought out his knife. His feet dragged across the surface of the road and scratched dust up into the air, blown away quickly by the gathering wind. He came up close to Cary and Cary bent his head down as he approached, exposing the nape of his neck, wrinkled and red and weathered. The thin young man craned over him and covered him with his shadow. Cary was about to say something but he didn’t. Instead, he reached up to the young man, no longer squinting, his eyes clear and serious. The young man placed the knife into his open hand, handle first.

Cary rose from the road and his knees made a popping noise when his legs straightened. Without looking at the young man, he scraped the blade of the knife against his calloused thumb. The sound reminded him of scaling bass when he was a boy. He walked toward the calf, its eyes rolled back and bared white and its tongue rolled out and resting on the red dirt road. Its swollen stomach was still leaping irregularly. The young man stepped back a bit and touched the purple wound on his cheek as if just now remembering it was there.

With one hand, Cary cradled the neck of the calf and raised its head up off the road. Sand stuck around its lips and snout and crusted over one of its eyes. The calf offered no resistance and stopped crying as Cary whispered something close to its ear. He then pulled the calf’s chin up against his chest and with his other hand ran the blade across its throat in one quick stroke. He hoisted its chin up higher as the knife sliced through its neck until its head dangled loosely against his shoulder. Black blood spilled onto the road and splashed against Cary’s shirt front, spreading out like wine on a napkin. The calf gave a final kick with its hind leg and lay still.

Cary rose and looked up at the position of the sun, the lifeless calf at his feet. He slapped both sides of the glistening blade against his pant leg and handed it back to the young man, who had moved away and stood leaning against the truck, its engine still running. “You can give me a hand with this or not,” said Cary, returning to the dead calf. The young man didn’t move. “Suit yourself,” said Cary, taking hold of the calf’s rear legs. With some effort and noise through his nose, Cary dragged the calf out of the road and into the ditch, its head hanging by its fur and nothing more. A few of the grazing cows looked up briefly at the carcass and then continued feeding. Cary’s cheek puffed out as he looked up at the sun again.

“I have to go,” said Cary, breathing heavily, covered in dark blood. “That water is going to be out of control if I don’t get on it right this minute. I hate to leave you here in the middle of nowhere and you’re welcome to come with me if you want but I’m not heading your way anymore and I probably won’t do you much good to speak of because I’m heading back from where we started.”

The young man’s back popped off the side of the truck. Turning around, he reached again inside the truck and grabbed his red backpack. Without speaking, he slipped the knife into the backpack and zipped it up tight. Nodding his head at Cary, the young man hoisted the pack onto his shoulders and grunted as if the load was heavier than it really was. He turned from Cary, crossed in front of the truck, and climbed carefully down the side of the dry ditch beside the road. From where he was standing in the road, Cary had to raise his chin to see the top of the young man’s head as it bobbed up and down in rhythm with his footsteps, following the contours of the ditch, heading east.

In the bed of the pickup there was a small spool of baling wire and four sealed five-gallon buckets fastened with bungee cords against the back of the cab. He tucked the spool of wire into his coat pocket. Then he loosened the cord and hoisted one of the buckets over the side of the pickup. With both hands, he hauled the bucket up to the opposite side of the road by the fence break and stepped over the barbed wire that lay about a foot off the ground. “Hey cow! Hey cow!” he said, shaking the bucket on the old pasture. “Come ‘ere, cow, come ‘ere!” He pried the lid off the bucket with his fingertips and dipped it to the ground, revealing chopped corn that he spread evenly in a short furrow. Whether it was the man’s voice or the shaking sound of the bucket or the sight of the yellow corn, the cows one by one approached Cary, stepping over the crushed fence line and sinking their heavy hooves into the soil. After the first couple of cows stuffed their noses into the fine corn, the rest of the herd stomped across the downed wire and joined the feast.

“That’s it,” said Cary. “That’s it.” He emptied the rest of the bucket’s contents on to the bare field and then crossed back over the fence, careful not to snag the cuffs of his jeans. He took hold of one of the bent t-posts and pulled it toward him, straightening the curve. Barehanded, he grabbed the uppermost strand of wire and wrapped it around the post with baling wire, clipping it with pliers. He gave the wire a few tugs to test its strength and, satisfied that it would hold, put the spool back in his pocket. As he crossed the blood-blotched road one more time, he picked up the shattered headlight and lens from the white jeep and tossed it in the bed of his truck along with the empty bucket.

The sun was moving quickly now. Cary shifted the truck into drive and turned around, taking one last look at the cows gorging behind the mended fence. The passenger seat was still wet from where the young man had sat. He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a broken cigarette, his last one. Tobacco spilled out of the elbow where the cigarette had snapped, but he put it in his mouth anyway. In the rearview mirror that hung over the photograph of him and his wife, he could still see the young man heading east with his red pack bobbing up and down on his back. He had already covered quite a distance.

About Mark Bailey

Mark is Co-Publisher at Torrey House Press, LLC, a book publisher of Western literature and the environment. Before founding Torrey House with his wife, Kirsten Allen, he was a partner wtih Wasatch Advisors, Inc., an investment management firm headquartered in Salt Lake City. A sixth generation Utahn, Mark grew up in Florida and California. Upon his return to Utah in 1974 to attend the University of Utah, Mark rediscovered his passion and “gene” for the West. Mark raised a daughter and son on the ski slopes of the Wasatch Mountains and in the red rocks of southern Utah. A private pilot, amateur astro-photographer, and avid reader, Mark and his wife, Kirsten Allen, live in Salt Lake City and in Torrey, Utah
This entry was posted in writing contests and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s