Authors: Lizzy Charles
I stand up. Fooling around is fun, but I don’t play with people’s dreams and I’m much too close to his heart.
“Well, rein it in, cowboy. That’s out of the question now.”
“Did you not just hear yourself? I’m not messing with those dreams of yours.”
He joins me and we walk out to the barn. “But that doesn’t mean we’ll never have
.” He nudges me and I raise my eyebrow. “Who knows? Maybe you’ll be the girl in my bed on my wedding night.”
Oh God. He’s frickin’ delirious.
“Not happening. I’m not getting married, remember?” I untie Baby from the post. “Saddle up, cowboy. You need to get home. The heat’s gone to your head.”
He flashes a crooked smile as he mounts Baby. “You never know.”
“Oh trust me. I know.” I roll my eyes and pat Baby on the bum.
It’s time for that cowboy and his crazy dreams to go home.
That so isn’t happening with us.
This is the saddest
thing I’ve ever seen. I move back, so my toes don’t brush against his brown coat. I stand with Dad in front of the calf, dead from dehydration. There’s a desperate plea from the heifer, which Todd’s driven away. Devastation hangs over the calf’s small curled form.
“We need rain,” Dad says solemnly, looking at the sky.
“But it was the milk, Dad.”
Pulling on his work gloves, he bends down to lift the calf’s body. “If there’s not enough water, the mother can’t produce milk.” He carries it like a child. I help hold its legs so they don’t flop around. A painful moo follows us as Dad swings open the gate, bringing the calf with him. He lies the little guy down on the tarp. “Come on, let’s go find out what happened to the water. You drive.”
“I can’t guarantee it'll be a smooth one.”
“I don’t care. Driving, I can fix. But the ranch?” he answers the question in another world.
We climb into my truck and I fumble with the mirrors before starting it. Dad rests his head against the passenger seat, eyes closed, while I try to time the clutch with my shifting. We jerk a bit, but I avoid a stall. He cracks a grin but doesn’t open his eyes or correct me. I transition into second and then third gear as we lurch down the road, making the gears grind a little. “Where am I driving?”
“To the left. Then turn right at the broken fence, three roads down.” He rubs his forehead, stress lines stretch from his eyes to his temples.
I concentrate on the road, not daring to go over forty.
“I can’t find a solution to the drought that won’t ruin the ranch,” he says softly, now watching the pasture pass out the window. “If I sell off extra cattle, there won’t be enough to sustain us through the next year. If I sell land, I’m down pasture, which decreases the number of cattle I can manage. My only option is selling the ranch, where I’d break even or come out a bit ahead, financially.”
My throat dries. I don’t know what to say. “I’m sorry,” is all I manage. Mom’s business is always booming. I’m a good encourager, not a problem solver. “There’s got to be a way,” I offer. I want to smack my head. I’m so bad at this. Talk about the most unhelpful comment ever.
“Unfortunately, there may not be, Autumn.”
“Well, even if you sell the ranch, you’ll still be okay, right?”
He turns, resting his hand on the console between us. “It’s not about me. I employee twenty workers—that’s twenty families without an income if I go under. Todd’s depended on this ranch for nineteen years. And Colt? He’s eighteen and helping to support his Mom and brother off this land.” He cracks his knuckles. “No, I can’t do that to anyone. You’re right, Bug. There’s got to be another way.”
Bug? The old nickname is like an emotional brick crushing my chest. I haven’t heard that for ages. I take a deep breath to keep the tingling growing in my nose to a minimum. This isn’t the time to cry over our broken relationship. Finally, a cracked and fallen fence appears around the bend. I shift down to make the turn.
I drive down the dusty road until he motions for me to stop. We hop out and head out into the dead grass. A snake slithers past and I’m thankful for the work boots. Cattle swat flies and gather near a pile of winter feed Dad must be using to tide them over until rain comes and grass can grow.
We peer into the watering trough. It’s completely dry. A crack zigzags along its bottom. Dad swears as he investigates the wall of the trough, pointing out a large dent.
“One of them rammed it, just enough to crack the sucker. Damn.” He repositions his baseball cap then pulls out his cell to call Todd, stepping away to make his way back to the truck.
A small steer wanders up and peers into the empty bin.
“Sorry, fella,” I say as I rub his shoulder.
When Dad returns, he’s holding water bottles from his emergency stash. “Here.” He tosses one over. “Find the calves. Give them what you can. The cows’ll be fine, but the calves need to hydrate now. It’s not milk, but it’ll help.”
We both enter the herd, and the cows don’t move. They’re too hot and thirsty to care. I bend down to a little brown calf with a small white diamond and two spots on his shoulder who’s curled up on the ground. I put a dab of water on my wrist and he licks it away. Once his tongue is out licking, I pour some water directly in. His eyes brighten a bit and he army crawls towards the water bottle for more.
“How did the calf get all the way to the corral from out here?”
“The heifer was desperately searching for water, and the baby followed. The trip, dehydration, and probably malnutrition killed it.”
His words make me feel hollow. All this happened last night while I was sleeping with water at my bedside. I allow one tear to wet my cheek then take a deep breath before I wipe it away. There’s nothing that can be done but continue with these calves. I slide to the next one and the previous calf whines for more. “There’s more coming, fella, I promise.” I fill four other calves’ mouths. They move more with each drop, but none have the energy yet to get off the ground. Not in this heat.
Todd pulls up in the watering truck, my old blue plastic kiddie pool strapped on top. Another item Dad’s kept to torture his soul. How does he live like this? I spent hours pretending to scuba dive in that thing, looking for the fish printed on the plastic lining. Wow. A baby cow just died and I’m thinking of how much I missed playing in a pool? What’s wrong with me?
“It’ll work until we can get into town to buy something sturdier,” Todd shouts as he unwraps the twine that holds it to the roof. Dad helps him settle the pool on the ground and they open the truck’s tap to fill it with water.
The cattle move the moment the water splashes against plastic. Mooing follows as they herd toward the pool. Well, all but the mothers and their calves do.
“Do you have a bucket?” I shout. Todd points to the back of the truck. I grab it, filling it and bringing it back to the group of heifers. They step forward, battling for a sip. It’s eerie to be this close to them. I was taught to keep a safe distance. Dad joins me with another bucket. Both pails get licked dry.
The clank of Colt’s rusting truck announces his arrival. He approaches us carrying three backpacks, then tosses one to Dad. He unzips it, then smiles. “Excellent, Colt. Why didn’t I immediately think of this?”
He hands me a backpack as well. I eagerly look inside. What’s so wonderful that could actually make Dad smile? Ah… Brilliant. Bottles of milk with long rubber nipples.
“The milk is from the gas station,” he says.
“Hell, it’ll work.” Dad says as he props a bottle up with his knee for a calf while he holds one for another. “We’ll pick up the unpasteurized stuff or powered stuff when we can. But for now, this’ll do. I should’ve been more prepared. I just kept hoping…” He trails off, muttering to himself.
I lean down and offer that first brown spotted calf the bottle. He bites at it, trying to get the milk out. “He doesn’t get it.”
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Colt says.
The nibbles at the nipple more and I realize he’s spraying it into his mouth. He shoots some up his nostril and sneezes all over me. A wad of goo lands on my jeans. Gross. I hold the bottle steady though, the denim will survive, but this guy? He needs me. A full minute passes before the calf figures out how to drink properly from the bottle. He downs the milk in the next two minutes.
“That’s a good sign,” Dad says. “If they’re too dehydrated, they would barely take any.”
Dad lifts one from the ground and tries to get it standing. The calf wobbles on all fours. He takes a few steps, but then gives up, curling up back on the ground.
“We have to take them,” he says.
“We need to wean them from their mom’s early. They’re not going to make it on their own.”
My heart plunges through my toes. There’s no sound worse than the calves and cows mangled moos during separation. It’s the only ranch noise I haven’t been able to shut out over the years.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. It’d happen in a month anyways. This’ll give them a fighting chance. If they stay out here, they’ll die.”
The calf looks up at me with huge doe eyes. Well then, I’m adopting this one. Colt’s studying me as I wrap my arms around the little brown fella. He probably thinks I’m weak, but I don’t care.
“Autumn,” Dad kneels next to me. “Todd and I need to load the calves into your truck bed. Do you mind driving with Colt to check the other water troughs?” he asks me in a lowered voice.
It's impossible not to notice how Colt pretends to exam a black calf behind its ears.
I sigh. The thought of being stuck in a truck with Colt for the afternoon sucks, but it’s better than watching the calves separate. I’d love to get far enough away where I don’t have to hear their desperate calls to one another. “No problem, Dad.”
“Yup. We’re cool being friends.” I catch Colt smile as he runs his hands down the calf’s back.
“Great,” he looks back at Colt. “Check the troughs. Then prep some stalls in the barn for the calves.”
“Got it, boss.” Colt says, rising with a cocky grin. I roll my eyes and join him.
“And Colt?" Dad points at his chest. "Behave.”
“Yes sir.” Colt’s lips flatten from their curve. I slide into the passenger seat of the watering truck, noting that Colt follows at a safe distance with Dad’s eyes still on him.
“What, don’t you want to drive?” Colt snickers.
“I’m not that bad anymore.”
“Oh?” The truck engine purrs to life. I wait for him to follow-up with a snarkier remark, but he doesn’t. He simply smiles, adjusting the air-conditioning to blow in our face while he drives down the hill. I tap the armrest. I can’t believe he’s not saying anything after our chat in the barn. He pays more attention to the radio, nodding along to some hokey country ballad, then me. There’s no way he doesn’t feel the tension right now. He’s got to be trying to distract me with this awful tune or something.
Too bad for him, it’s not working.
“So yesterday was interesting,” I prod.
“You’ve been thinking about it, huh?”
“About marrying me,” he says with a smug grin.
My mouth dangles. “No, Colt. Quite the opposite.”
“Come on. Admit it. You have.”
“It never crossed my mind.” This is a complete lie, but he wouldn’t like the truth. I spent the whole night wondering what life would be like married after high school and living in the middle of nowhere Oklahoma. There'd be a baby on my hip and a bonnet on my head. I’ll do anything to keep that from happening to me.
Colt chuckles and my heart flies into frenzy. I hold my wrist, feeling my pulse rushing under my skin. Why does this guy, against all reason, have this power over me? I take a sip of water. I’ve got to calm down. He’s only a guy who laughed. No big deal.
“You’re telling me you never even considered my proposal?” he asks.
The water sprays from my mouth, splashing against the console and the windshield. “I’m sorry… that was a proposal?”
“Well, if that’s all you’ve got, I’m confident your dream of finding a wife won’t come true.”
Colt throttles the truck up a hill with a quick laugh. “We’ll see,” is all he says.
How can he be so calm about this? He’s kidding, right?
He’s got to be kidding.
That couldn’t have been my first, sober proposal. Jerk! He stole the moment from me... not like I was ever looking forward to that moment anyway; it’s simply the principal of the thing. A proposal should be thought out, gentle, and absolutely not directed at a sixteen year old.
“Tell me,” he says. “What’s up with you and your Dad?”
“You said you doubt he cares yesterday?”
“Oh, it’s nothing,” I say as a pick at a fray in my jeans.
“A statement like that doesn’t sound like nothing. You can’t really think that, can you?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“Try me." He stops the truck and turns off the ignition. I wring my hands as we climb out and walk together toward the trough. He seems sincere. I don’t know why, but I want to tell him. The thing is, no one else has offered to listen to what’s going on with me here, and I desperately need to spill.