By John Marble
John Marble is an old client and a good friend of mine. He has written articles for several agricultural magazines and is currently on staff at On Pasture, https://onpasture.com. A 1974 graduate of Sweet Home High School, John holds a Bachelors’s degree, and he does most of his writing late at night after the cows go to sleep. Like most of my stories, this story is based on real people and actual events, with only a little fiction added to help the story along.
Like many of my stories, John has many truths and lessons buried in the narrative of this story. Most will remain buried, even to the analysis of the most learned English Professor, who knows nothing of cows and horses and the people who care for them.
* * *
Steve woke up slowly, no alarm clock, no crying baby. His eyelids fluttered a few times, then he rolled over to find the barely gray light filtering through the bedroom window. He reached out, tapping lightly on the blankets on her side of the bed.
“Ah, shit. She’s up at Belknap, jackassin’ around with those gal-pals of hers. Safe and sound, I guess. But somebody’s gotta run this outfit. Huh.”
He swung his feet over the edge of the bed, grabbed his heavy winter robe, and slipped it on over his long-Johns. His feet found the wool-lined slippers, and he tramped down the hallway, through the tiny living room, and into the kitchen. He turned the big knob on the stove’s face and pushed the igniter button, then listened for the small whoomph as the oven came to life. He opened the oven door, turned the controller knob too high, and held his bare hands over the blue flames.
Next, he padded down the hallway and poked his head into the baby’s room, and listened to her sleep noises for a bit. Nodding, he went to the kitchen to make coffee. As he filled the pitcher with coffee water, he looked out the window above the kitchen sink, watching as the dawn light began to sift across the valley.
“Damn, good deal. Just a touch of new snow. Not enough to need plowing. Not enough for them to call me in.”
Looking down the hallway, he spoke quietly into the dimly lit room,
“Good news, baby girl. Just you and me, all quiet out there. Be warm in here soon, don’t you worry. That little stove, she’s percolatin’ now, be warm in a minute. You just sleep. We’ll have some Cream of Wheat, go out and take on the world.”
He stood staring out the window, listening to the coffee pot burbling on the sideboard. When the pot was half full, he slipped it from the coffee maker, poured a mug full, and then walked the few paces back to the living room. He settled into his lounger and dragged an old quilt across his lap.
“Damn, it’s cold in here.”
* * *
“Honey, I just checked the propane tank, and there’s not much left. Down to ten percent or so. Better get those boys up here and have it filled.”
“Yeah, I know. I called ‘em, but you know how it is. We’re on COD with them, and they won’t come all the way up here for less than a hundred gallons. Shoot, that’s over three hundred dollars, and we can’t make it. Things are really tight this month.”
“Yeah, well, we can’t keep that tin box warm with the electric heater. We need that propane oven to make enough heat to at least warm up the kitchen and living room.”
“Well, what the hell do you want me to do, Steve? There’s an almost full bottle in the barbeque and a full spare in the shed. When the big tank’s empty, we can just use those, I guess.”
Steve stared at her for a few seconds, then walked out of the barn and down the driveway toward the house, trudging through ankle-deep snow the entire way.
“Things are tight this month. Huh. I put in 14 hours of overtime in the last two weeks. Wonder where the hell that money goes. Those bastards at the County got my number, seems like. It’s always ‘Oh Steve, if you want a few more hours, you can run the plow up toward Emigrant Pass. Completely up to you.’ Thing is, they know I gotta take the hours, ‘cause they know I need the money. Hells bells, we always need the money. And no matter what, it don’t seem to get us anywhere. Here we are, livin’ in a little piece of crap single-wide wobbly box in the middle of nowhere. I guess we should be happy to have a place in the country, but I notice her uncle doesn’t seem to give us any slack when it comes to the rent. No sir, full bore.”
* * *
Steve was jolted awake by Lorna calling out from her bedroom.
“Mommy! Mommy! I have to pee!”
“Well now, honey, mommy’s not here, so you just get out of bed and run to the bathroom.”
“But it’s cold!”
“Yeah, well, it’s toasty warm out here. I’ve got the heater going. So you just run in there real quick and then come get under the quilt with me.”
“Well, honey, she up at the hot springs with aunty Patty and aunty Jill. They’re stayin’ up there for the whole weekend. So it’s just you and me, kiddo. Now, do you need me to drag you to the bathroom by your heels? Or do you want me to come with you and help you do your business?”
“No! I don’t need help.”
He heard her bare feet hit the floor and listened as she ran to the far end of the trailer and closed the bathroom door behind her. In a few minutes, she was running back toward him. He lifted up the edge of the quilt, and she landed on his lap. He snuggled the blanket around her and gave her a big squeeze.
“How long is mommy gone for?”
“Just a little bit. She’ll be home tomorrow night. Meantime, it’s just you and me, Princess.”
“Why do you call me that?”
“Well, don’t you want to be a Princess, just like your mother?”
“Maybe, but now, I’m just cold.”
“Well, how about this. I’ll bring you some clothes and your snowsuit, and you just wrassle around under that blanket until you got ‘em all on, and you’ll be warm, and we’ll have breakfast. OK?”
Steve moved to the kitchen and pulled a two-quart saucepan from the lower cupboard. He filled it half full of water and set it on the back burner. Next, he laid a few strips of bacon in the cast iron skillet and flicked both burners on.
“Good thing there’s only three of us livin’ here. Damn stove top’s always full. ‘course, doesn’t make it any easier tryin’ to cook and havin’ the damn oven door open all the time. Heatin’ this place with a cookstove, huh, wonder what my mom would say about that? Well, hell, mom, don’t fret about that. We’ll be out of propane soon, and then what? Burn the furniture, I guess. If we had a wood stove, that is.”
* * *
Steve looked down at his little daughter standing as near to the open oven door as she could, a tiny little Michelin man in her bright blue snowsuit. She held a small white ceramic bowl in her bare hands. He reached down and took the bowl, then filled it half full of creamy mush cereal.
“Want your bacon right on top?”
“OK then, here we go.”
Steve walked to the card table and set her breakfast down. Then he returned to the stove and filled his bowl, laying two strips of bacon on top.
“How come you get two, and I only get one?”
“Because I weigh more than you. See? Just like the horses. That big black one, Buck, he gets more hay than that buckskin colt, right? ‘Cause he’s bigger, right?”
“Yeah, but I like bacon.”
“Well, how about this. We go do chores, and if you want, we can have bacon for lunch, OK?”
* * *
After breakfast, Steve put on his insulated Carhart coveralls and Dutchman hat. He pulled on his rubber pack boots and stamped his feet a few times before lacing them up. As he stomped, he could feel the entire trailer shake.
“Damn, what a shit-box this place is. The whole thing’s made out of two-by-twos and linoleum. Hardly a speck of insulation. Sure be good to find a place with a dang wood stove. Maybe we could stick one in the living room, just poke the stovepipe out through the wall. Maybe this spring.”
Her stocking hat and mittens were hanging from the tines of a whitened deer antler that was screwed to the wall near the door. He let her put the hat on herself, then held the mitts up one at a time and let her wiggle her hands into place. Lastly, he added a scarf, wrapping it twice around her tiny neck.
“OK, looking good. Ready to do chores?”
She nodded, and they stepped out into the brilliance of a white-crusted scene that stretched from their driveway all the way across the valley. As Steve trudged toward the barn, Lorna skipped ahead, running in short bursts, then stopping to examine fresh tracks in the snow.
“Look, Dad! Dog tracks!”
“Well, coyote, more likely, sis.”
“What’s he doin’ here, right by the house?”
“Well, I don’t know exactly. Might be lookin’ for that old tom cat that lives in the barn. I suppose he’d stay away if we still had Rex. Old Rex, he wasn’t too fond of coyotes. Do you remember Rex, Honey?”
“Oh, Daddy! I miss Rex. Why don’t we get another dog? Please? Can we?”
“Well, maybe we can someday. Of course, we wouldn’t call him Rex, right? I mean, especially if it was a girl dog, right?”
“Jeez, Daddy, you’re so silly. If we get a girl dog, we’d call her Rita, and maybe she would have puppies.”
“Well, now, that would be just too much fun.”
“What the hell am I talkin’ about. Can’t hardly even feed my own family, and here we are talkin’ about a dog. Somethin’ got to change around here, and pretty damn quick. I’m supposed to get a raise this spring, but I bet it won’t be more than a dollar, and that’s not enough to make much difference. All those ads for long-haul trucking jobs, hell, they talk about fifty, sixty grand a year, but you wind up driving six days a week, sleepin’ in the cab, and washin’ your clothes at some truck stop on Sundays. Hell of a life. No Audrey, no Lorna.“
Steve pulled the metal latch-pin from the wood frame and slid the heavy barn door open. As he did, the horses all whinnied, and he could see them shaking their heads back and forth, flapping their big lips and barring their teeth.
“Well, good morning, girls,” he said softly.
“Daddy, they’re not all girls. Only those three red ones, and you know it. So, you have to say good morning, boys too!”
“Well, all right then, good morning to the boys, too. How’s that?”
“Now, feed first, then muck stalls, then water. That way, they don’t care if you are in the stall with them. I stay out here and pet everyone on the nose. Everyone except Trigger, he bites. I just talk to him. OK?”
“Well, yes, ma’am, I’ll get right to it.”
Steve grabbed the handle of the barn cart and steered it over toward the pile of alfalfa bales. He took a few steps back and began counting the big three-string bales.
“Huh, only thirteen left. ‘bout enough for three, maybe four days. Wonder what the plan is after that. Christ, seven horses seem like plenty. Damn things eat us out of house and home. Wonder if she can get some feed from her old man? It’d kinda make sense. I know he’s got a whole barn full of hay, and he only keeps those two mules. Shoot, at least those nags are good for packin’ out an elk. These horses? Too pretty to do any real work.”
Steve loaded three bales onto the cart and began forking pads of hay into each box-stall feeder. When that was done, he took the wheelbarrow to the outside pens and used the manure fork to gather up a few piles of dung from each pen, then dumped it on the big pile behind the barn. As he worked, he listened to Lorna talking quietly to each horse, asking them questions and telling them how pretty they were. He pushed the empty wheelbarrow back inside and stood silently, just watching her as she moved from door to door, letting each horse sniff her hand.
“That’s a happy girl there and a lucky one, I guess. Lives in a freezin’ cold piece of shit trailer but gets to play with horses every day. Maybe it’s not so bad. Just wish I could see how we’re makin’ progress. Truck needs tires. Horse trailer too. Well, shoot.”
“What do you say, Honey? Everybody happy?”
“Oh, yes, everybody’s very happy. Old Danny is holding his foot funny again, but not too bad. Mommy says the shoer will be coming to fix him pretty soon, and then he’ll be fine.”
“Well, that’s good. Want to go for a walk, maybe go look for elk?”
Lorna’s voice took a bit of a harsh tone,
“Oh, shoot. You’re right. I forgot.”
Steve walked to the far end of the barn and picked up the hose, hearing the skin of ice crackling as he walked toward the hydrant. He swung the lever and listened to the water shooting through the length of the hose. When it reached the open end of the hose, he doubled the hose over against itself, stopping the water, then walked to the first box stall and began filling water troughs, one by one.
“Damn frost-free faucet, kind of a miracle.”
Steve thought about his childhood when watering livestock meant trudging down to the creek each morning with a too-big ax and chopping holes in the ice so the animals could reach the water. And now, here he was, standing in the barn, out of the wind, filling tanks with a hose.
“Yep, kind of a miracle.”
“Oh, shoot. You’re right.”
* * *
After lunch, Steve settled into his lounger, leaned back, and held the quilt up to make space for Lorna. She settled her head against his chest and was asleep in no time. While she snored softly, he rested his hand on her back and felt the breath going in and out of her little body. He thought of his own childhood again, his own spent doing chores, yes, but mostly playing, and the evenings in the big stone house at Grandpa’s ranch. The fireplace was always roaring, his father bringing in huge logs from the porch and throwing them on the fire, sparks flying up the chimney.
* * *
As Steve began to wake up, his eyes focused on the living room wall next to the hallway, the wall he likes to call the Cowgirl Shrine. It didn’t take too long before Audrey made it clear that she didn’t like that title very much, so he kept that nickname to himself. Still, every time he walked through the house, he couldn’t help but glance at the display as he passed by.
“That damn Cowgirl Shrine. Be a good place to hang a nice set of mule deer antlers. Damn, that was a hell of a buck. Guess he’ll have to hang in the old milk shed for now. Huh.”
Steve began at floor level, noting how the stirrups of that black and white parade saddle barely touched the worn-out carpet. The silver detail, the immaculate binding strings, the oversized bucking swells, all of it just too damn fancy. Just above the saddle was a striking set of Kelly-green dress chaps, folded out flat against the wall, cursive lettering announcing Queen Audrey, in script starting at the beltline and running downward with a silver concho between each letter. And then the photos and silver plates and hardwood plaques, the ribbons, and the framed newspaper articles. Across the top of the entire display was a banner that fairly shouted Miss Rodeo Idaho. Off to the side was a cover from Rodeo Magazine that showed Audrey in profile. Dressed for a rodeo entrance-ride, her ass poking out the backside of those green chaps, shiny and slick in skin-tight Wranglers.
“Jesus H. Christ. She did look pretty damn good in that outfit. Hard to miss, that’s for sure.”
* * *
Honey, I’ve been saving for this trip, a dollar here and a dollar there. It’s just me and the girls, no hanky-panky. It’s sort of a little retreat. We’ll soak and take saunas and work out too. I really want to get back into those size tens. Wouldn’t you like that too? Besides, it’s just two days. You can take the whole weekend off, hang out with Lorna, play Daddy. Shoot, maybe order a pizza. I’ll leave the checkbook here in case anything comes up.
“It’s just two days. What could come up? Just me and the kid here havin’ fun, right?”
“Well, I don’t know. But you never know, right? But really, it’s gonna be fun for both of us, don’t you think?”
* * *
The next morning it was just the same: Get the oven going, make the coffee, get Lorna up, dressed, and fed, then feed the horses. Steve got to thinking that the routine was really pretty nice, getting to listen to the horses grinding away at their hay. Watching the steam coming from their nostrils, then eavesdropping on Lorna while she scolded one horse, complimented another, and made up little songs for the rest.
“Man, nice, quiet, sunny morning. It smells good outside. Even forking up horse turds, it’s just damn nice out. Maybe we should change places, me just staying home with Lorna, Audrey going to work. Be funny if I quit the road department and she started at the Assessors’ office or maybe clerking at the little Justice Court.”
Steve slid the barn door closed and leaned back against the heavy door frame. He looked out across the valley and daydreamed about being home all day, every day, just playing with Lorna and messing around on the ranch. As he thought about that, he watched the traffic drifting along on the asphalt State road that skirted around the far side of the valley. He was surprised to see a stake-bed truck turn off the highway and take the gravel road that cut across the valley and looped along the edge of the foothills. Aside from their little ranch, there were only three other houses on that road, and none of them had a truck like that. As the truck drew closer, he began to make out details. The truck was bright red and had some writing painted on the door. The cargo was a stack of brilliant green alfalfa bales, big three-stringers, stacked six high, tied down with wide yellow poly straps. The truck began to slow at the bottom of the driveway, then turned and began grinding its way up toward the homestead. When it reached the barnyard, the driver whipped the wheel and lined up as if to back into the barn, and he performed that maneuver as if he’d done it a hundred times before.
Steve glanced over at Lorna, then called her over to stand beside him. He held her close against him, the back of her head resting on his belt buckle. When the truck came to a stop a few feet from the barn, Steve leaned down and said,
“Now, you just stay right here, OK?”
“OK, daddy. But you have to open the door for him.”
“That’s OK, Honey. But I have to talk to him first, all right?”
Steve walked casually up to the driver’s side of the cab and leaned his shoulder against the door, keeping his face turned away from Lorna.
“Can I help you?”
“Yup. Hay delivery for Audrey. She told me she might be gone. You must be Steve. Seems like we should have met by now. I’m Matt.”
With that, the driver held out his hand, and Steve grabbed it, and they shook for a good few seconds.
“Well, Matt, that’s some damn fine-looking alfalfa. So green I can’t hardly stand to look at it.”
“Well, I like to think we grow the best hay around. Our place is over on Butter Creek. That country gets pretty hot in the summer, so hay just dries quicker, I guess. Makes it hold onto the color pretty good.”
“Boy, howdy, I’d say so. What’s this stuff run a ton?”
“Well, in the big bales it’s usually around two-twenty-five. But these small bales, man, they’re just so less machine-efficient, it works out to fourteen bucks a bale, so two-eighty a ton. But that includes delivery.”
“Let’s see, you’ve got about, what, sixty bales on here? So you need a check for, uh, eight hundred or so?”
“Well, actually, the stack “Well, actually, the load is twelve deep and six high, so, seventy-two bales. And at fourteen bucks, that makes it, ummm, a thousand and eight. Audrey said you’d have a check.”
Steve nodded his head a few times, then looked up toward Matt’s grinning face. He laid his gloved hand on Matt’s forearm and patted it a few times.
“Well, Matt, I appreciate you comin’ all the way out here, but I gotta tell you, we’re not puttin’ one bale of hay in this barn today.”
“But I don’t understand. She just called me on Friday, said the haystack was getting’ low, and could I come out Monday or Tuesday. I told her I was booked all week and that Sunday was the only day I could get away. She said fine.”
“Yup, I bet she did, and I appreciate your efforts here. But Matt, there are nine-hundred reasons that you’re not dropping this hay off today. I’d like you to consider how much “Yup, I bet she did, and I appreciate your efforts here. But Matt, there’s a thousand reasons that you’re not dropping this hay off today, and I’d like you to consider how much trouble you’re saving yourself, ‘cause if I write you a check for a thousand bucks, it’s just gonna bounce all the way from here to Butter Creek and back, and that’s no good for anybody. See what I mean?”
Matt stared at Steve for a few seconds, then nodded his head.
“Well, all right then, I guess. Pretty nice day for a drive, anyway.”
“Yup. Just take it easy on your way down the hill. That driveway’s steeper than she looks. Always a bit of ice under the snow.”
* * *
Steve opened a can of tomato soup, poured it into the saucepan, added a can of water, and stirred it around. Next, he placed thin slices of yellow cheese onto bread and dropped them onto the hot butter in the cast iron pan. Lorna was under the old quilt, snuggled down in his chair with only the top of her head showing.
“Lunch ‘ll be done in just a minute, babe.”
There was no response. Steve walked quietly across the room, leaned down, and listened to her breathing for a few seconds. Satisfied, he went back to the stove and shut off both burners.
Steve made his way quietly out of the kitchen, glancing at the Cowgirl Shrine as he entered the hallway. He shook his head silently, then walked down the hallway and into the bedroom. The top blanket on the bed was the down comforter his mother had given them as a wedding gift. He grabbed the quilting on the edge and gave it a good shake, laying the blanket out flat on the bed. Next, he opened the closet door and reached to the back wall. The first gun he found was his old 30-06. He laid the rifle on the edge of the blanket and rolled it over twice, cocooning it in a double layer of fabric and feathers. Next came the shotgun and finally the long-barreled .22, each one getting the same treatment. He carried the guns out through the back door, then used one hand to pop open the back window of the canopy and drop the tailgate on the old Ford. He looked around the truck bed for the cleanest spot and slowly slid the first load in. On his next trip to the bedroom, he pulled an olive green duffle bag from under the bed, walked to the dresser, and began stuffing it with clothes. He pulled a sleeping bag from the top shelf of the closet and tossed it on the bed. Next came a pile of coats and a few pairs of shoes from the closet. Looking around the room, Steve thought for a moment. About how life could be reduced to such a small pile of belongings.
“Not so much to look at, not really.”
With two more trips to the truck, his bedroom was packed up. Next, he went to the back porch and gathered his cold-weather gear, the same duds he put on every day. When that was packed, he went back to the kitchen and turned the burners back on low, giving the soup a quick stir. While the food was warming up, he took a quick look around the tiny living/dining room, finding not one thing he wanted to take. He pushed the pile of mail and magazines to the far end of the kitchen card table, in the process scooping up the brown plastic cover of the checkbook. He opened the register and flipped through the pages, finding a long list of check detail entries, but no dollar amounts at all. He slipped the checkbook into his breast pocket, then set out two plates and two sets of silverware.
“OK, sunshine. Time for lunch.”
“Is it warm yet?”
“Yup, warm as it’s gonna get. Now, you just sit up here, and I’ll bring it over to the table. It’s your favorite, red and yellow lunch, I guess ‘cause you’re the Princess.”
“But Daddy, I don’t want to be the Princess. I want to be the Queen, right?”
“Yeah, well, I guess somebody’s gotta be the Queen.”
“Aren’t you eating, Daddy?”
“Oh, I guess I already ate. So, while you were sleeping, your grandma called, and she wants us to come for a little visit. Won’t that be nice? We’ll just drive up there and stay for a while.”
“What about feeding the horses?”
“Oh, they’ll be fine. Your mom will be home tonight, and she’ll feed ‘em tomorrow. Now, you just eat your lunch, and I’ll go pack up some clothes and stuff for you. I’ve gotta get that old truck warmed up, too. That way, it’ll be nice and toasty for the drive. Nice and warm, OK?”
Lorna nodded, then smiled.
“I like warm.”
“OK then, you sit here and eat while it’s warm. I’ll pack your stuff for you.”
Steve walked down the hall and ducked into Lorna’s room. He circled the room, going counter-clockwise, picking up everything on the floor: toys, shoes, books, stuffed animals. All of these he tossed into the middle of the bed. Next, he went to the closet, thinking about what she liked to wear best. Dresses? Sweaters…what else? In the end, he took a swipe across the entire length of the curtain rod, gathering up every piece of clothing that was on a hanger. On the closet floor was a small backpack, which he carried to the little dresser. He grabbed handfuls of panties and socks and stuffed them into the backpack. Finally, he reached across the bed and drew the four corners of the bed spread together into a ragged knot
“Gotta be good enough.”
He poked his head into the hallway and looked toward the kitchen. Lorna was still sitting at the table, her tiny elbows splayed out, nibbling away at her sandwich. Steve stepped quietly into the hallway, holding the bundle against his belly, and walked out the back door toward the truck.
* * *
While the truck idled, Steve stood in the driveway and turned a slow circle, taking inventory.
“Huh. Not much to show for seven years of work.”
He walked to the old cinderblock shed and retrieved a set of antlers, setting them in the bed of the truck. He looked up toward the barn, then back to the wind-blasted aluminum skin of the trailer house. Finally, he went to the front door, walked to the kitchen, and turned the big knob on the face of the stove, listening as the oven made a small ‘woof’ and blinked off. During one last look around the room, he found Lorna standing by the open door.
“Ready to go, Daddy?”
“Yup. Ready to go.”
Photo by Roberto Quezada-Dardon on Unsplash