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.
“Sounds good, Jack,” she said, and sniffed a tub of lemons before tossing them in the trash. She swirled tea dregs in the big metal urn, carrying it to the sink to clean.
She’d gotten to work too late to catch Pitch, who flew in sideways most mornings for a bacon biscuit and a Dr Pepper. If he’d been there, he would have ribbed her about Rosalee, saying the mule needed a dentist after all the sugar cubes. Reney figured Pitch was a little proud of how she’d taken to the mule, glad it’d given her something to care for after she and Wes got news another baby was lost and there’d be no more.
That’s what she had told them, anyway. In truth, having kids with Wes was the one thing she had decided to have some say on. She might have married him, and she might still love him, but she wasn’t going to bring a baby into all of it. She’d let Pitch pass the news to her mom.
She didn’t care what anybody said or what they, in their infinite armchair wisdom, decided was the reason for her devotion to Rosalee. Her life after high school had become work and Wes, Wes and work. Her friends had gone to college for good or were busy starting families. Her mom was her mom. Right as Reney was stubborn. The mule was the one thing that was Reney’s alone. There wasn’t a place in their cramped trailer she could call her own. The cattle were Wes’s, though it was she who scattered the cubes and broke the ice on the cold mornings because he figured she was up anyway, and never stopped to refigure that now that he was home, he should get up and do it himself. The truck she drove some, but was never once made to feel it was part hers. Even her closet was shared, and the coveralls she wore were his. Let them think what they would. She loved Rosalee, and what small joy she got out of harnessing her up and giving kiddie rides during rodeo season was hers to keep as far as she was concerned.
Pitch had been beside himself when his mare came up in foal that year. The only thing male and ungelded on the place had been Reney’s mom’s donkey, the only animal her mom had ever let herself get attached to. The little bastard must have jumped the fence, Pitch said, had his way with the mare, and jumped back over before anybody but the mare knew the difference. So it was, a hybrid molly was born, a barren beast of burden Pitch pretended he’d as soon spit at as see. He acted upset that his beloved quarter horse had wasted a year of her foal-bearing life on something as ugly, unprofitable, and slant-assed as a mule. In truth, he was a sucker for babies of any sort, but Reney’s mom insisted they couldn’t take on another mouth to feed. Pitch had probably called Reney the minute her mom’s truck got out of the driveway. He usually did.
To Reney, the molly was irresistible from the get-go, all antenna ears and wobbly legs. Frying-pan eyes. She had said she would take her before Wes had time to swallow his coffee and get out a complaint. She loaded the little thing into the truck wrapped in one of Nina’s quilts and made Wes stop at the feedstore for a forty-pound bag of powdered formula.
“I don’t have time to play nursemaid to your mom’s mule, Reney. Your mom damn sure wouldn’t do it for me,” Wes said.
“Nobody’s asking you to,” Reney said, climbing back into the truck with a rubber-nippled bottle tucked under each arm. The molly’s eyelids fluttered as she nursed on Wes’s finger. Her ears sagged in an upside-down V until Wes pulled his finger back and wiped the slobber on his pants.
“You know the cost of hay.”
“I’m not asking, Wes.” She leaned over and changed the radio to an eighties station playing a Prince block.
He put the truck in reverse, and neither of them talked on the way home. When they got there, Wes went into the house, leaving Reney to haul Rosalee and the formula to the barn.
For all Wes’s softness, he carried a mean right punch. Reney had experienced it only twice. They were kids the first time. Their relationship had started as most did around there: in the boozy bench seat of a pickup, proceeding to homecoming, oversize mums pinned to a girl who thought she didn’t care about such rituals. It should have ended in a screaming match at a riverside blowout, with Reney moving on to UT Austin in the fall and Wes off to the oil field and a younger girl who would make him babies that fit, just barely, in the palm of his callused hand and grew to fetch beer from the fridge and follow in his footsteps until, if all went right, the kid took a jagged turn and decided to read some books.
It didn’t end there. Wes bloodied her nose that night at the river. She was a senior and he was three years removed from school. She was able to cover the bruising with makeup. She didn’t talk to him for almost a month, certain that they were finished and she was off to school soon anyway. She couldn’t remember what happened first—the Pell grant falling through or her taking him back. He’d sat in the DQ parking lot while she worked, leaving notes under the windshield of her beat-up Ford Ranger, pages upon pages filled with his sweet, crooked letters and misspelled words. She refused to look his way, unlocked her truck, and drove away. He even talked to her mom, coming nearly clean, and getting run off their property with a shotgun in the process. Her mom, whose nonunion factory job bumped her pay just enough to disqualify Reney from the Pell, forbade Reney from seeing him, swore she’d kill him. If it wasn’t the heartfelt letters that brought them back together, her mom’s mandate must have. Soon they were hand in hand, more in love than ever, and Reney had plans to work for a year and save money to pay for UT on her own the next fall.
The next time is not important except to know that it came, and she was pregnant again, though they did not know it. Wes did not have anything to do with her losing the babies. It was her own misshapen insides that did that. But after the punch and the second lost baby, one that had lodged herself in the wrong place and nearly took Reney with her, Reney’d had enough.
Wes had just left for Wyoming, full of tears and apologies that he would never touch Wild Turkey again and begging her to go back to school if that was what she wanted but to please, just please not leave, because he couldn’t live without her and he was a sorry piece of shit that loved her more than life.
She didn’t leave, and this time she couldn’t say why not. When she started bleeding, she could have gotten word to Wes, but she didn’t. She told old Dr. Mac to take care of it for good, close it all off. “You’re young,” he said. “There is still a chance that you can carry a healthy baby full term. No guarantees, but no guarantees you won’t. Don’t you want to wait and talk to Wes or your mother?”
“No. I don’t want you to, either,” she said, and turned to stare at the giraffes and elephants on the wallpaper. They’d been busy that day and stuck her in a kid’s room. Dr. Mac set his flabby jaw as he scribbled something on his clipboard. He didn’t say anything else until she woke from the procedure. She always wondered whether his wife knew, and if she did, who else did, but when she told Wes they’d lost another one and that Mac had said it wasn’t likely there would be any more to lose, he’d kissed her head, held her, told her they’d keep trying when she was ready.
Of course Reney had dreams. Often she dreamed of her mother. They’d always joked about growing old together, since her mom had been a kid herself when she had Reney. Occasionally her dreams included Wes, a different Wes. A Wes who didn’t bite his nails and throw them on the carpet or long for magic cattle. She could talk to this Wes about her literature classes and the jokes the instructor made. She could tell him about the headache of filling out a schedule made up of burnouts and half-wits, and he would do more than say, “Cocksuckers ought to pay you more.” They packed picnic baskets and laid their heads on the same blanket under the stars without saying a word. Dream Wes loved her for more than who he thought she was in high school, a pretty possession, a Cherokee princess, a wild girl in the good classes, scary from behind the three-point line and sneaky on defense. Of course he had a job. But he didn’t have to be rich. That wasn’t what she was after. If it had been, maybe she could have figured out how to bring herself to touch sweet, sad Jack, who probably wasn’t rich either, but didn’t have to worry about his light bill or how he would fill his sensible-man’s car with gas. In Reney’s dreams, she donned a backpack and trekked through forests and airports alike. She carried candy in her pocket for the children she came across. There was rain. Her mother spoke to her and didn’t have to build trucks day after day in a factory that might as well have been an oven. At night, Reney didn’t have to close the bedroom door to read over the sound of the television. She hadn’t given her heart to a mule.
Reney had already changed shirts to get rid of the grease stench and rebraided her hair, but Wes still hadn’t called and asked her to make him a Frisco burger, with double meat and extra cheese, or a strawberry cheesecake Blizzard. She tried to get ahead in her reading, but couldn’t stop checking the window. She was watching what had to be the tenth black diesel pickup turn into the drive-through when Jack passed by her table carrying a load of towels.
“Do you mind if I use the office phone again?” Reney asked.
“Wes?” Jack said.
“He’s probably just running late.”
“I have to go to Gainesville anyway,” Jack said. “I’d be happy to take you to class and pick you up after I run my errands.”
“Would it be too much trouble to take me home instead?” Reney asked. “I’ve got to check on Rosalee.” She thought a minute. “I might be able to make my late class.”
“I can go to Gainesville anytime,” Jack said.
They passed through town not saying much. When the speed limit increased to seventy-five, Jack kept pulling to the shoulder of the two-lane road to let cars pass. He twice took a deep breath as if he were going to say something.
“There’s something I’ve been meaning to say to you, Reney,” he said finally.
“I’m real proud of you.”
Reney kept her eyes on the road, clasped her hands around the tattered brown backpack in her lap.
“I just mean you sticking with your classes all this time. That’s really something. You’re really something.”
“I don’t mean that in a bad way. Not that.” Jack let a tanker truck pass. The wind nearly blew the LeSabre off the road. “Not that I haven’t imagined something else, but Reney, you deserve better. You deserve better than all of this.”
“Thank you, Jack.” Reney had steeled herself to let him down easy. He was a kind man. He had been good to her. She felt a little embarrassed when she saw she wasn’t going to have to let him down at all.
“Please, just . . . I’ve been putting a little money back here and there. You know I don’t have anybody to spend it on, and a man can only sponsor so many baseball teams.” Jack sighed. “I want you to know that if you ever might find yourself in a situation where you need some money. Maybe you want to get closer to school. Really dedicate time to that. Work less, try to knock this thing out? Well. There wouldn’t be any strings attached, is what I’m saying. I can help.” He smiled at Reney. “I want to help you. As a mentor or maybe a friend. As somebody who might like to know how far your dreams and your mind and your work take you.”
“Get closer to school?” Reney said, trying to understand. She realized that her next thought, stupidly, was, What about Rosalee?
She thought she was long past crying over her place in life. It was a place she had made as a girl, and then as a young woman in a wave of stubbornness, and now in near indifference. She hadn’t seen community college as a means to an end. She hadn’t stopped long enough to consider the end. Motions upon motions, feed the animals, bang the coffee grounds, read the books, fall into bed. Just as she felt her tears would surely spill over and drown them both where they sat in the leather seats of Jack’s beige LeSabre on Highway 52, closer to Oklahoma than Austin, almost to the windy patch of home where she’d breathed in so much cow shit and bone-dry dust that it seemed her insides couldn’t be made up of anything else, they passed a faded billboard: BONITA, IT’S NOT TOO LATE TO TURN BACK, Y’ALL! Reney cackled.
“I understand this must seem inappropriate,” Jack said.
“No,” Reney said. She’d embarrassed him. “It’s the stupid sign. I’m sorry. It’s been a day.” They rode for a while before Reney spoke again. “Why would you do this, Jack?”
“Fair question.” He drummed his thumbs on the steering wheel, took a big breath. “All I can say is you’re strong and bright and you work hard. Of course you’re beautiful.” He raised a hand, and Reney thought he might put it on her knee, but he dropped it onto the gearshift. “I just want more for you, is all. And it’s not too late.”
Reney watched as a dust devil moved across a fallow pasture. It crossed the road in front of them and moved over a wheat patch so dry the devil grew darker before sucking itself back up into the sky.
“I’ve been working in the restaurant since I was twelve, you know. I hated my dad for forcing the business on me, but when his heart quit, I was more than ready to run a business. I’ll be retiring before long. I’m going to need a GM, somebody good. I’ve been thinking about what I could offer you to make it worth your while. I know I wouldn’t have to worry about a thing.” Jack looked over to her and tried to smile.
She knew she was supposed to feel something, excitement, nervousness, relief. She felt nothing. She wished she could say something, but Jack rescued her.
“This morning, see. I was running the numbers again, and then you came in troubled the way you were. I just. It breaks my heart to think of you here. I know the money would tie you to this place. I understand how that works.”
“This is my road, Jack.”
The blinker was the only sound until the tires bumped over the cattle guard. Reney noticed the rusted-out stock trailer hooked onto Wes’s truck. Jack eased in next to it and killed the engine.
“I mean it. The offer is good, Reney. Both of them, I suppose. Think about what you want to do.”
When Reney saw Wes emerge from the barn, she pushed her backpack tightly to her stomach, as if it could hold her together. He had a Coors Light in his hand, and she could see from his walk he’d had a few. He was limping and filthy. She had probably hated him for some time. Real quick, she leaned over to Jack, pressed her cheek to his and squeezed.
“Thank you, Jack. I don’t know what to say.” She pulled him tighter. “You’ve been good to me.”
Reney pushed her shoulder into the door to open it against the wind. She was surprised to see Wes standing over her. When she let go of the door, Wes caught it and leaned into the car.
“Hi, Wes,” Jack said. “Some kind of wind out there.” He started the engine.
“Why don’t you stick around? See the ranch.” He popped the thin aluminum of his beer can with his thumb. “Give us your businessman’s eye?”
Jack managed a laugh, smoothed his tie.
“Won’t take long.” Wes let the wind slam the car door.
“Wes,” Reney said.
“You don’t want to share your nice little moment with me?”
Behind them, Jack cracked the car door, and eased a foot onto the gravel.
“He offered me a promotion, Wes. I was thanking him.”
“You fix your hair for him? Put on lipstick?”
Jack stood on the other side of the car now, watching.
“Fancy car. Le-Sabre,” Wes said. “That French or Spanish?”
“French,” Jack said, smiling weakly.
“For what? ‘I got a stiffy, but my tie covers it.’ ” Wes started toward Jack.
“Wes, don’t,” Reney said.
“I think it means ‘the saber,’ ” Jack said quietly.
“Are you being smart with me?” Wes said.
Reney mouthed “go” over Wes’s shoulder, and Jack lurched for his door. Wes sneered but didn’t go after him. Once in the car, Jack quickly locked the door.
“Are you okay?” he yelled through the cracked window.
“Just leave!” Reney shouted.
“About time you give her a raise. She runs the fucking place,” Wes growled. He kicked in the front fender as Jack fumbled with the gearshift.
As Jack reversed up the drive Reney grabbed Wes by the arm. He threw her off him, and everything stopped for a moment.
She’d hit the driveway cheek first. She sat up working her jaw. Reney saw Jack stopped at the end of the driveway, squinting into his cellular phone. He pressed it to his ear. She wondered whether she could make it to the car, but Wes started after Jack first. Jack, with one last look at Reney, sped away, spraying gravel on them both. Wes picked up a rock and flung it. He watched it bounce across the highway. Then he saw Reney on the ground.
“You ain’t hurt, are you?” he said, not really asking a question. He squatted over her and tried to pick a speck of gravel from her face.
Reney spit grit and blood as she stood. Wes was waiting. He needed her to tell him it was okay again.
“We had one job between us, Wes. Jack’s going to make me GM, but I guess you took care of that.”
“One job?” Wes said. He looked hurt. “Your mule’s in the barn,” he said, and limped toward the doorway.
Reney thought about leaving, just taking off without another word. There was the truck. She had her keys. She looked around. Her backpack lay in the dirt nearby. What did she need from the house? Nothing she would miss. She could do this now, this thing her mother had never quite pulled off. But of course Reney couldn’t just leave. She’d never been smart or strong or brave enough to just leave.
When she walked into the dark barn, it took a moment to see Rosalee tied up in front of the one good stall. Reney noticed that Rowdy was lying much too close to Rosalee.
“There’s my girl,” Reney said. The mule raised her nose and tried to make her always strange half-horse, half-donkey bray, but it sounded like wind blowing through a hole in a piece of tin. As Reney’s eyes adjusted, she saw that the mule was bleeding from her hocks. She knelt to look closer but recoiled. Wes appeared above her.
“She’s chewed through to the bone, Wes. What happened?”
“I went out to work on the fence and look for the calf. When I found them, there was a coyote with its head kicked in lying next to what was left of the calf. Another one was good as dead. Three or four kept circling until I shot one of them.”
Reney walked to Rosalee’s head. The mule rubbed her halter on Reney’s shoulder. Reney gasped when she saw that one of her ears was a bloody stump. Usually the mule kept working the halter until she got it slipped off. This time, she left her head resting on Reney.
“They got her nose and up under her jaw, too,” Wes said.
“I’m so sorry, girl.” Reney leaned into the mule’s neck.
“Vet’s on his way,” Wes said. He pulled a pint bottle from his back pocket and drank. “He said if she’s already taken two calves, she won’t ever be broke of it. But I don’t even care about that.”
He tried to stroke Reney’s hair, but she jerked away.
“Today after I dropped you off, I went on home, and I thought about you and me the whole way. I went out to fix the fence and find your mule. She kicked me in the thigh trying to keep me away from a dead calf. Took me an hour to drag her off it and get her in the trailer. But I called the vet to get her taken care of. All for you, Reney.”
Rosalee began to pull against the rope, and the iron frame of the barn groaned.
“Then I see you hugging on him?” Wes began to cry. “We was going to make better of ourselves. I’ve about got Sammy talked into leasing me a hundred acres real cheap. He’s going to sell me a good bunch of calves. This year was our year, Reney.”
He kicked the stall door. The frame rattled the tin from one end of the barn to the other. Rosalee pulled harder against the rope.
“Easy, girl. Come on, now,” Reney said. She stroked the mule’s shoulder. The wound in Rosalee’s neck had started bleeding badly again. Blood streamed down her chest and both legs onto the floor, pooling in the dust.
“Tell me you ain’t fucking him, Reney.”
“When did you find her, Wes?”
“I don’t know.”
Reney steadily moved her hands over the mule’s bloody flesh, calming her. “How long have you left her here like this?”
“I couldn’t do it, Reney. I tried. The vet was tied up, but he’ll be here soon.” He tossed the bottle aside and started for the door.
Finally, Rosalee filled her belly with air and sighed. Reney rubbed the soft middle of the ear that curled forward at the tip.
“I’ll let all this go,” Wes said, appearing in the doorway again, a silhouette with a shotgun for an arm. “We’ll work it out. I don’t want you to serve another man his coffee for the rest of your days.”
Reney patted the mule one more time and straightened. She heard nothing except her own footsteps on the hard dirt floor.
“Give me the gun, Wes.” She put her hand on the small of his back.
“I’m sorry, Reney.” He handed her the gun butt first, crumpling at the waist onto her.
“I know, Wes,” she said, and it was true—she believed that he felt bad. He always felt bad, but right then, the smell of his whiskey breath mixed with the blood and hay and shit was choking her.
The sound of the shot moved across the barn in waves, and the frame shook like it might fall in on them. Rosalee’s legs folded up under her like she was resting, but her head, held tight to the barn by the rope, pointed toward the roof.
Reney walked out past Wes, whose face had gone slack. She found her backpack and climbed up into the big diesel, placing the shotgun next to the gearshift. She drove away slowly, carefully, checking her mirrors as the trailer rattled over the cattle guard.
At the highway, she passed the vet and, not far behind, a deputy who didn’t seem to be in any particular hurry. She checked her watch. Pulling the trailer, she felt the truck’s power. She pushed the engine until it howled before shifting up. This is what the truck was made for, to haul a load, to work. She thought about swinging by her mom and Pitch’s, but she passed seventy-five with ease, then eighty, eighty-five, and ninety into town as she hit the green light. She drove on past the Branding Iron, where some form of Bonita royalty was surely holding court, and didn’t slow at the DQ with its grease stink, blue-hairs, and benevolent cowards. On the other side of town, she found the limits of the truck, settled into a steady cruise just shy of flying. When she ran out of gas, she shouldered her backpack and walked.