By the glow of the headlights, Reney counted again. A calf was gone. A bawling cow trotting ruts into the fence line confirmed Reney’s count. She shoved her work gloves into the back pocket of a pair of Wes’s greasy coveralls. She’d slipped them on over her underwear and a Dairy Queen polo, and now static electricity popped as she climbed into the idling diesel to get the shotgun.
With new babies dropping by the day, neither the feral hogs nor the coyotes would be far off. The hogs had pretty much planted a flag and declared the rooted-up land around the river their own,
and the coyotes had grown brazen in the drought, killing two neighbor dogs and countless goats down the road. Still, she didn’t think it was hogs or coyotes. Her mule, Rosalee, was gone, too.
Shotgun cradled in the crook of her arm, Reney whistled, squinting toward the pale sliver of sunrise, hoping to see her mule’s big ears come bobbing over the hill. Wes’s sweet but useless stock dog, Rowdy Rotty, munched on a dried piece of cow shit.
Even Wes held a small appreciation for the mule, now that he’d heard stories of mules protecting cattle from predators and seen for himself how Rosalee kicked the shit out of a neighbor dog that had gotten too close to his calves. The calves, he’d said time and again, were the only thing keeping them off the dole. Reney had been working toward a degree for years, but it didn’t take a degree to see that Wes was full of shit. She did the paperwork in the evenings and wrote the checks to the feedstore and the vet. The cattle did little more than break even. But the money left in a steady trickle and came in chunks, and Wes, for all his tenderness, had become a man fond of a big chunk of money, or at least the appearance of such.
When Rosalee didn’t come after a few sharp whistles, Reney killed the truck’s chugging idle and left the shotgun barrel to the floorboard. She took out the cattle prod and lead shank and started walking the fence. “Where are they, girl?” Reney said to the dog, who gave her quick lick. Reney hung wide around the momma cow in her manic vigil, all swinging udders and mournful cries, and nearly lost her boots in the mud suck crossing what was supposed to be the creek.
Most every spring the river devoured huge chunks of sandy loam. Scrub oaks crashed into the water like imploded high-rises. One good thing to come of the drought—they wouldn’t lose any more worthless land to the river. But less rain meant more feed bills—their leased thirty acres were grazed to the root—and that meant more beery moping out of Wes.
Reney balanced on the second row of barbed wire and whistled again. Nothing. Their part-time neighbors from the Metroplex had forty acres of bramble and bluestem that sat empty except for a couple of deer feeders and the dirt-bike trails Wes had bladed into the land for free. A whole day’s work, wear and tear on their sputtering Farmall, not to mention the cost of fuel, for two cases of beer and some good old-fashioned Dallas backslapping. She scanned the empty field and climbed over.
The first time Rosalee took a calf, Reney had been scrubbing green scum from a water trough when the mule’s slow, purposeful movement caught her eye. Reney stopped what she was doing and smiled at the silly creature, who made her way over to a baby calf napping in the sun. Suddenly, Rosalee snorted two times in the direction of the grazing momma cow. Before the cow could get over there, head lowered and bellowing, Rosalee took the calf into her mouth by the nape of the neck. Then Rosalee turned and ran across the pasture, baby calf a clenched ball. Reney never would have believed it if she hadn’t seen it.
Rosalee jumped the creek, calf swinging like an off-kilter metronome and beginning to low. By the time Reney got across, Rosalee had reached the northeast corner of the pasture, calf tucked against the barbed-wire fence. Rosalee’s ears sagged. She made strange whimpering sounds and licked curlicues into the calf, starting at the head and slowly working her way down its small body. She kicked her hind legs at anything dumb enough to close in, even Reney.
It took Reney all morning to coax Rosalee away from the calf. She had to call in to work and sweet-talk Jack to keep him from cutting her shift. Luckily, Wes had been on his two-week hitch, and she’d mentioned the story only in passing when he got home, laughing about the calf accepting its fate as half donkey and trying to nurse. Wes didn’t see the humor. Though he’d not even been able to bring himself to dock his rottweiler’s tail, he promised that if the mule ever tried the stunt again he’d shoot her himself and sell her for dog food. Reney had hoped that, like so many other things with Wes, was bluster.
It struck her this morning that she’d rather lose a calf to the petty violence of coyotes than deal with Wes. She wiped her face with a rough sleeve.
“Fuck,” she muttered. She checked her watch again and saw that if she was going to make it to work at all, she had to go. “A mule,” she said, cutting into the morning chorus of whip-poor-wills, “my glorious goddamn kingdom for a mule.”
Behind her, the momma cow cried billows of steam into the air. The poor beast had quit running the fence and was instead staring after Reney with dumb, worried eyes. “I know,” Reney said. “I’m sorry.” She hurried toward the back of the property, where a few scrub oaks crowded a rocky outcropping. With each step, the bluestem crackled beneath her. Wes’s sagging coveralls, dampened from what little dew the March morning left, tripped her up. In her front pocket, she still had an apple she’d taken from the bowl on the counter for Rosalee’s morning treat. She took another look at her watch. After one last whistle, she threw the apple as far as she could and headed back home.
“I’m late, Wes.” Reney opened the mini-blinds and hit the alarm clock, silencing two idiot disc jockeys midguffaw. She remembered their catchphrase—“Big bucks, no whammies!”—from a game show she had watched with Pitch’s mom, Nina, after her mom had first married Pitch and moved them to Texas. As a girl, she’d kept one eye on Oklahoma—the wooded hills and late-night church services she’d left behind, her great-grandmother. As she got older, with the help of MTV and books, she kept her mind on anywhere but Bonita, never for a minute imagining she’d stay and, like her mom, be responsible for holding together a household that, most days, she’d just as soon burn.
She looked one more time out the trailer window before dropping the coveralls and sliding into her work pants. She sat in the crook of Wes’s body and pushed his hair back. He was still as handsome as he had been when they met at a party, her in Dr. Martens and flannel, trying too hard to not fit in, and him in standard-issue Wranglers. How quick he’d been to fling the snuff from his lip when she made a crack about it. Now, a can of Copenhagen and a spit cup sat on the bedside table, and she was late for work at the Dairy Queen, worried about a mule. She jostled him.
Wes rolled onto his back and stretched his arms and legs as long and stiff as they’d go. Turning back into her, he wrapped her up and pulled her toward him. He untucked her shirt, buried his face in her back, and rubbed his chin against her. His goatee was long and he’d not shaved around it in a week, making him look like a billy goat with his big brown eyes. He made gnawing sounds up her ribs, across to her breasts, said, “Big bust, no whammies.”
“Get up. Unless you want to be without the truck,” she said, pulling away. “I’ve got to go to work.”
“Morning to you, too.”
Wes didn’t notice the momma cow’s bawls when he stomped down the metal stairs. He bent to scratch Rowdy’s ears and kiss her head. Then he licked his thumb and wiped at a spot on the truck’s door before climbing in. Reney already sat in the passenger seat.
“Why didn’t you leave it running?” he asked. “Told you it’s hard on the engine.”
Reney waited until they’d turned onto the highway. “Are you going to fix the back fence today? Something’s going to get cut up out there.”
“Got to go over some stuff with Sammy at the Iron.”
The Branding Iron cost twice as much as the DQ, though its food came in twice weekly on the same Sysco truck. Reney had graduated with Sammy Boyd, and she wasn’t a fan. Wes never had been either.
But since he’d lost his job, Wes had taken to putting on his good boots and sitting at Sammy’s table as weekday mornings stretched into afternoons. Sammy’s grandpa’s grandpa, or whoever, had made a fortune in oil way back, and, like his father, Sammy had been set up with cattle and hundreds of acres of his own as a teenager. He carried himself accordingly.
She’d made the mistake of walking over one day when she got off early, and there was Wes, kicked back in his chair picking his teeth, hoping some of Sammy’s cowman shine would rub off on him. Reney endured Sammy’s ribbing when she ordered her tea unsweet and felt her face burn at Wes’s talk about his “ranch,” how he was planning to double the herd in the next year. Sammy egged him on, inviting Wes to talk smart. Wes, who’d never felt comfortable on a horse, even mentioned getting a couple of cutting horses before Reney excused herself to study in the truck.
On the ride to work, she counted one dead possum, two coyotes, and a hog wearing a blue scarf hung, by hunters or ranchers or drunk kids, over barbed wire. The land beyond the fences turned colors as they passed winter wheat and geometric coastal patches dotted with cattle. The drought hadn’t passed over the wealthy or the spoiled, though the Sammy Boyds of the world never seemed thirsty regardless. If you had enough land to rotate your cattle instead of overgrazing a scrub thirty acres to China, you could feed less, and beef prices go up in a drought, so everybody who doesn’t need a dime makes three. Wes had grown up with less than nothing and somehow thought there must be magic in cattle. She’d never wanted to know a thing about cattle but soon saw that, like Pitch’s horses, the cow business was more gamble than business.
When Wes came home after whatever happened on his last Wyoming hitch, he took his garbage bag of greasers from the back of the truck and put them in the fire barrel. Reney stopped short when she came onto the porch to greet him. “We can’t afford new clothes, Wes.”
“They can take their ‘oil-field trash’ and stick it up their asses,” he said. From then on, it was all cows. He wouldn’t hear of trying to get on with another outfit. The picture was clear for him. He just needed a few more cows and a little more land and a woman with a better uterus.
“Rosalee’s gone,” she said.
“She take a calf?”
Reney stared out the window.
Wes shifted his cap, pulled the brim lower.
“I told you I’d shoot her.”
“I don’t know why you want a goddamn mule in the first place.”
“We’ve been over it, Wes.”
“She’s taking food from our mouths when she fucks with my calves.” As they approached the stoplight, he shifted down, softened. “Shit. It ain’t always going to be like this, Reney.”
A glass gallon jar at Reney’s feet knocked into the door. The day before, she’d bought half a tank of fuel for Wes’s truck with the tips she’d been saving. It didn’t matter how many shifts Reney picked up or how often she emptied her jar—he acted as if it were his calves that kept the bank at bay.
Wes turned into the Dairy Queen and pulled up to the side door. Reney took her backpack and stepped down. She paused before she turned toward work.
“Don’t kill my mule.”
“I know, Jack. I’m sorry,” Reney said.
Her boss raised a palm toward the clock.
“Hi, Liza Blue,” she hollered across the room. An old lady facing away from Reney in a red booth raised her hand without turning. “Morning, Ferrell,” she said to Pitch’s daddy. The old cowboy came over and made a big show of taking a red bandanna out of his back pocket and wiping the tobacco juice off his lips before he kissed her cheek. Then he winked at the cigar-store Indian and went back to his talking.
“I think Rosalee took a calf, ” Reney said, tying an apron around her waist.
“Again?” Jack asked.
Reney was already banging old grounds into the trash, licking her fingers for a new filter, popping open a fresh bag of coffee.
“Listen,” Jack whispered. He looked around at the bored-looking teens working the counter, high school–aged kids who for one reason or another weren’t in school. He folded his flap of hair over his bald spot and pushed up his brown plastic glasses. “I know you’ve got things going on, but you’re the manager now. Can’t Wes help out in the mornings?”
Reney stopped her wiping and turned to him.
“I’ve got class tonight, but I’ll come in early tomorrow if it helps.”
“The kids. They talk, you know.”
She’d heard them whispering about what she made, which wasn’t much more than them, she’d be happy to tell them if they asked. She didn’t think Jack encouraged the talk exactly, but she figured he probably didn’t discourage it either.
“I appreciate you being flexible,” Reney said, her voice sharp. “And I’m sorry, Jack, but I understand you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”
Reney looked over her shoulder to where a kid at the register lolled his head back and yawned. It wasn’t many years back that she was one of those bored high schoolers, but it may as well have been a lifetime. She didn’t say that she got three times as much done as most of the employees when she was there. She didn’t have to.
“Well, when you get things lined out for lunch, come on to the office so we can go over the schedule.”
The schedule for the next three weeks was set. And she knew that when she got back there, he’d have an unsweetened ice tea with lemon waiting and he’d ask her about her classes and she would lose track of time talking about her instructors and the reading and she would become embarrassed when she realized how much she was enjoying their talk. Last week he’d given her a nice leather-bound day planner with a matching journal and heavy pen.
“Think the schedule’s good until somebody calls in to say it isn’t.”
Jack frowned. “I was thinking we could look at payroll again, this time in relation to quarterly sales.”
Jack’s polyester slacks hung off his hips and his short-sleeved dress shirt always had spots of coffee or worse. She wasn’t sure why he was so intent on their meetings. She wanted to think he was a little like Pitch—that is to say, a little like a father—if Pitch showed up when he said he would, stammered more, and didn’t have brown, leathered skin from days spent on the back of a horse.