Monday, January 20, 2020

Pulling, fiction by R.D. Sullivan

It was a day where Cal could smell the heat coming before the sun even rose, the promise of temperatures high enough to kill a person just a scent now on the pre-dawn breeze. Never one to sleep late to begin with, the first whiff had driven him from bed early enough that he had to light a lamp to dress by. Sheep out in the west lands needed moving closer to the home place, harried as they had been by some unknown predator. From the smell of the air, they were like as not to drop dead on the trail if he dallied.

Besides, he stood a chance of making it out early enough to catch sight of whatever had been picking off the lambs and blowing it straight to hell.

He drank yesterday’s coffee and chewed a strip of dried beef. The dark felt right for fresh, hot coffee and porridge, taken on the front porch to watch the sun rise, but with the air the way it was, he figured he could settle for less today. Even his big palomino stallion Branson thought it was too early, and he wondered if the horse would have found it a coffee and porch sort of hour as well. As it was the beast nickered softly and shook off whatever passes for sleep in a horse, one long shiver from snout to tail.

He fed the horse well before saddling it. Branson would be doing all the hard work after all and it’d be cruel to ask it from a beast with an empty stomach.

Washington would have to fend for himself. There weren’t much to spare and that dog would eat anything, so he didn’t figure he owed it more than a soup bone now and again.

Together the trio rode into the hills just as sunlight broke over the valley and drove what little existed of the cool morning breeze into its grave. All around them swelled the kind of loud silence that he loved. The pleasure of it wasn’t lost on him, despite the first beads of sweat down his spine. Above Branson’s breathing, above the clip of hooves on the buried rocks, the crisp snap of pine needles and twigs underfoot and the creak of saddle leather, lay the rest of the world. The birds chattered in the trees and the air seemed to rustle as the deer fled between the towering, pockmarked sandstone pillars which filled the hills.

Washington trotted ahead and Cal paid him no mind, up until the dog stopped suddenly and growled. Branson hesitated, and Cal felt as though all his blood drained into his boots.

It was likely nothing--the dog growled at the damn trees anytime they dared move--but he pulled the rifle free anyway. He slid from Branson’s back,stepping quietly onto the soft, dry dirt. The dog continued to growl as the man made his way in a big arch around the trees that blocked his view, hoping to spot whatever had Washington on edge before it caught scent of him.

The dog stepped forward, growls falling away to occasional chesty rumbles, twitchy black nose pushed as far forward as possible to safely sniff whatever it was.

A pair of well-worn and dusty leather boots came into view about the time Washington’s body relaxed, comfortable enough with whomever to step towards them.

“Morning, friend,” Cal called. He kept the rifle up and pointed to the side, ready to bring to bear if this stranger meant him harm, but the boots didn’t move. Then they did, one toe wiggling back and forth erratically as Washington began rolling in the person’s lap, neck pressed against the legs as he wiggled back and forth.

“Well, hell.”

Washington looked up at his voice, full of the pleasure dogs experience from meaty bones and rotten smells. His dog, who hated other people enough that the man had taken to locking him in the stables on the rare occasion he had company, was happily rolling in this person’s lap.

“Git,” he said to the dog, who ignored him for the glorious bounty of scent he’d found, until Cal added more gravel and meanness to his voice. “Washington, git!” Head hung, the dog slunk away, staying well out of striking range, and put his nose to finding something else to roll in.

He didn’t know if it would have been better or worse to find a stranger out here, but it wasn’t a stranger he’d found, it was a neighbor. This was Teddy Williams, a cattle rancher and sometimes late-night card companion that Cal had found the bottom of a bottle with more than once.

“Well, hell,” he said again, crouched in front of the body. The flannel shirt had long ago dried stiff, the brown of old blood like a bib down its front. It hadn’t all been spilled here, for trails of it ran from the two holes—one through Teddy’s neck, one through his cheekbone—down and under his head. He bore a halo of pine needles, sticks and blood-muddied dirt.

The body was in too good of shape to have been dragged a long ways, but Teddy hadn’t been shot here. Somebody had pulled him to this rock and propped him up, which seemed as odd a thing to do as murdering somebody in the first place.

The right side of the body had been gone at by something, likely the same thing that had been helping itself to his lambs. Unbidden, the thought came that this body, this murdered man, like as not had kept a few of his sheep alive, giving the predator something else to fill its belly with at night, and he shooed the notion away as quick as it’d come. It was unkind and cruel, even for the note of truth it rang.

The sun threatened to simmer him in his own clothes and he wished he could smell the sweetness of the grasses and slow creek around the home place, instead of the body’s putrefaction. To the west, farther in the hills, were his sheep, badly in need of better grazing and better protection. Town was a good few hours ride south then back again with Sheriff Gardner, a ride that would leave both him and Branson close to heat stroke.

And to the north a solid forty-five minutes lived this man’s wife, forevermore the Widow Williams.

With a foot in the stirrup he whistled for Washington, and the three turned north.

II

Annie Williams didn’t answer the door of she and Teddy’s house when Cal knocked, and the garden was likewise empty and quiet. He could have been hustling his sheep towards the lowlands and the time lost was lamentable if he couldn’t find her. He felt he’d at least done the right thing in coming to tell her first. Tomorrow he’d fetch the sheriff from town and together they’d stop by again.

The dark thought occurred to him that it was possible Annie had yet to be discovered amongst the sandstone too, body gone at by scavengers after falling victim to whatever hell Teddy had called down upon them both. It wouldn’t do to dwell on such a thing. Dead or alive, it wasn’t his concern until it was.

He had Branson half-pulled around to climb into the saddle when he heard a cow lowing in distress, and a woman’s sweet, soothing voice. He hadn’t thought to check the barn but when he moved around the house there she was, standing behind a fat black heifer trapped in the chute. Her auburn hair was sweat-matted to her face and she wore Teddy’s leather apron over her pale blue skirt, the sleeves of her white blouse rolled up and her round face red with exertion.

Cal quickly tossed Branson’s reins over the top rail and climbed in to help. He took one end of the rope from Annie’s hands and together they pulled, the coarse fibers biting into their palms. Two tiny hooves appeared from inside the cow, held taut by the pull of the rope.

“On three,” Annie said, and counted. Cal pointedly kept his eyes on the calf, instead of on the mottled green and purple bruise that painted her cheek and the two black eyes that winced as she wound the rope against a likewise bruised wrist.

They used the chute posts for leverage and yanked together, rewarded with the slime-covered calf head, all the way up to the ears. It slowly slid out until it snagged again.

“We’re to the hips,” he said.

Sweat dripped from her face as she nodded. “Again on three.” With a sucking sound the calf fell to the straw below the cow. Both he and Annie dropped with it, her pulling the sac from its head while he shook its legs, prompting the blood to flow and the lungs to take over. When it started pulling air they moved it to the corral on more fresh straw, tossed some hay in next to it, and let the cow free of the chute.

“Late for calving,” he said as they watched the heifer nuzzle and lick her new calf in between bites of alfalfa.

“Anderson’s bull got into my heifers. I’ve got a whole dozen ready to drop now.”

“That big brahma he’s got? Cream-colored with the black nose?”

“That’s the one.”

“Maybe you’ll get your own nice bull out of the lot, then.”

“That’s the hope. If they’re going to calve in July I might as well get something useful from it. Breakfast?”

“I’ve got sheep to move. I just came by to talk with you about Teddy.”

Her jaw flexed at the name, making the bruises on her face ripple. “It’s too hot to move sheep and I owe you for the help. You can put your horse in the next paddock, or in the barn. I’ll get washed up and get to frying.”

She didn’t make eye contact as she said it, just watched the heifer a moment, and swung towards the house.

Cal started unsaddling Branson but guilt made him pause and drop his forehead against the pommel. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen Annie roughed up, but that didn’t change the fact that there was a murdered man up in the hills. To sit at her table and bring up such a dark matter over a shared meal seemed beyond the pale. But she wasn’t wrong—it was too hot to move the sheep by now and with her already disappeared into the house, he’d missed his chance to protest.

So he finished loosening the saddle. After throwing it over the fence and turning Branson out, he washed blood from his arms and hands as best he could, though his shirt had to be what it was. She had bacon going inside and fresh coffee heating. Or old coffee. Didn’t matter much to him if it was just reheated, hot would be nice.

“There hasn’t been time to make bread, with the calving.”

“All right.”

“Go out to the coop and grab some eggs, would you?”

He came back with eight and she threw all but two on the griddle just as the bacon came off.

“Something still pestering your sheep?” she asked when they finally sat down.

“Lost two lambs just last week.”

“We ought to organize a party to hunt down whatever’s out there. It won’t stop with your lambs.”

“We ought to,” he agreed. “About Teddy…” he started, but she cut him off before he could say more.

“You moving them out through the old Kendell place, by the sandstone?” she asked.

He noticed she didn’t look up when she asked. He also noticed how tenderly she chewed with her bruised jaw, and the dark lines encircling both wrists. When he didn’t answer she glanced up, caught him looking, and looked back just as hard with both black-and-green-rimmed eyes.

Cal was starting to get the impression she knew exactly why he was there, though he himself was starting to have doubts.

If it had been him, the law would have considered it self-defense. The sheriff would see it differently when it came to a wife.

Cal made a decision.

“Ayup,” he said. “Though I might bring them down through Reynold’s canyon now. More water. If this heat holds, they’ll need it on the way.”

She held his eye another moment and he could see her thinking on what he’d just said, what he’d really said, hiding behind the words he’d used. Satisfied, she went back to her breakfast.

She came out drying dishwater from her hands on a towel as he threw the saddle back on Branson, Washington busy licking at the birthing mess in the chute.

“Big calf,” he said. “No wonder you had to pull it.”

“Came from a big bull. Might be more like that.”

He nodded and slipped the bit between Branson’s teeth. “Once my sheep are settled by the creek I’ll come stay in the barn, if you think you might have to pull more.”

“I’d be awful indebted.” She opened the gate as he mounted and walked the horse out. “What…” She took a moment, swallowing as she refastened the gate. “What was it you wanted to see Teddy about?”

“Oh not much. Got a bit of woodwork I need done but it’s more for pastime than necessity. I reckon it’ll wait.”

She nodded, one hand patting Branson’s neck.

“You mind if I cut through your south lands? I can’t move them ewes but I should at least get an eye on the flock, see how they’re faring.”

“Of course,” she said. “I guess I’ll see you for calving then.”

“I guess you will.”

III

After a time Cal stopped yelling at Washington and let the dog have its fun. The way he leapt and bit and barked at the body of Teddy Williams made Cal sick to think about, so he decided not to think about it. Occasionally the dog would stop and roll in whatever scent Teddy left in the dirt and rocks and though Washington didn’t know it yet, he was getting thrown into the creek later, which was as close to washing the beast as the man could stomach, considering.

Branson was sweaty long before the rope around the body’s feet had been tied to the saddle horn but he didn’t hesitate or slow, just leaned into the hill and pulled steadily onward. The man walked in front, loose hold on the reins, not looking back. It reminded him of pulling the calf, that rope tied around its feet as well, pulling a life into this world by force much the same as this one had been forced out of it by two well-placed bullets.

At the top of the ridge he looped Branson’s reins over a low pine branch and aimed enough of a boot at Washington that the dog took off without needing to be struck, happier to find a new stink to roll in than to tempt the anger of its master. Once the rope was off Teddy’s legs, he pulled him the rest of the way to the rim and rolled him off the side. He wished he could have missed hearing the body strike first the cliff face, then the rock-strewn forest floor below, but he couldn’t change the fact that he did.

Branson shied from him and he knew then he didn’t smell much better than Washington did, and that he’d be in the creek along with the dog and a bar of hard soap. Despite the messy business of the day he looked forward to the bath, given how his shirt had soaked through and the brim of his hat long since stopped absorbing sweat. He’d like as not coax the horse into the water as well to get the foam and sweat from its hide.

Then a full dinner, for all three of them. Tomorrow they’d start early again, get the sheep settled, and settle in themselves for a hot July of calving at the Widow Williams’ place.

R.D. Sullivan is a writer of fiction, comedy and letters to the editor. She lives in Northern California with her family and two solidly mediocre dogs, where she runs a subcontracting business. Her work has been featured at Fireside Fiction Magazine, Shotgun Honey, Killing Malmon and the Murder-A-Go-Go’s anthology. She is also proud and ashamed of her novella, Hotties and Bazingas and the Murder Cult Murders. You can track her down on twitter @RDSullyWrites or over at govneh.com.

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