Image by Mat Reding


by Christopher M. Drew

The father is inside the pasture, leaning back against the gate. The son approaches and stands beside him. There is a fence between them.

In the distance, cattlemen drive the herd across the plain. The father pulls a cigarette from his shirt pocket and tucks it behind an ear. A brown-spotted Appaloosa dips its nose into the long grass beside him.

The son lifts the peak of his baseball cap and rests his elbows on the rail. A bridle path leads through the pasture and forks out to the river on one side and a coppice of trees on the other. Beyond the river, green hills give way to a barren plain stretching out to a range of hazy blue mountains.

After all this time, nothing has changed.

Propped against the fence post is a shotgun, cleaned and oiled. The father takes the cigarette from his ear, holds it between his fingers, then puts it back into his shirt pocket. He coughs, spits.

Behind them is the ranch house. The son’s convertible is parked on one side and the father’s run-down truck is on the other. A black and white Border Collie bounds over the porch and races toward the son. The dog jumps into his arms, yapping.

“Hey there, Gyp,” he says. “I’ve missed you too, girl.”

She licks his face and wags her tail. At the sound of a sharp whistle, she twists out of his grasp and lays at the father’s feet.

The father slides his shotgun into the saddle. He unties the halter from the rail, lifts his foot into a stirrup, and hoists himself up. He whistles again and Gyp bolts away, nose to the ground.

The son keeps pace along the trail, following the horse into the cool prairie grass. As they climb the gentle slope, the grass bends in the breeze and rises again.

Overhead, lightning flashes in the clouds. Gyp yelps and darts between the Appaloosa’s feet. The horse rears up and the father pitches backwards. He grips the saddle horn with one hand and unfastens his bull whip with the other. He closes his fist around the stock and brings the whip down square between the horse’s ears. The horse nickers and steps sideways, shaking its head.

Gyp lies flat, whining. The father snaps his whip and the dog zigzags away through the tall grass.

When they reach the coppice, the father dismounts. He throws the halter over a low branch and secures it. Then he leans against the horse’s flank, lifts his hat, and wipes his face. He is sweating. His breathing slows and shadows deepen in his cheeks. He gropes in his pocket for the cigarette, rolls the filter on his tongue, and holds it in his mouth.

Across the pasture, the cattlemen steer the herd through the stream. A bull turns at the water’s edge and gallops away. With a shout, one of the drovers unhooks his lasso and chases after it.

The father covers his mouth and coughs. He lifts the shotgun from its scabbard and pats the horse, leaving a dark, wet stain on the horse’s hide.

The father’s shadow stretches out toward the son as they follow the path into the trees. They cross a bridge over a shallow creek, where the clear water carries fallen branches into a wide, still pool.

Over the bridge is a steep bank covered with bone-dry tree roots. The father rests halfway up the bank and stoops over, coughing. He trips and crawls up the slope on his hands and knees.

The son slows his pace and crests the ridge. Through the trees, he hears a scream. The father spits and wipes his mouth before moving away. His eyes are yellow and one lid droops down.

He leads the son through a tangle of thorns bordering a small clearing. In the middle of the clearing, beneath the drooping limbs of a golden hackberry tree, the father crouches beside a heifer, his hand pressed to her swollen belly.

The cow squeals and bucks. Then she stands, turns, and lies down again. Her tail whips through the air and strings of mucus hang from her udders.

The father steps back and folds his arms.

“This one’s on you,” he says.

“That’s all you’ve got to say to me?” says the son.

The father shrugs. “What else is there?” he says.

The heifer moans.

“You expect me to take care of this?” says the son.

“What’s the matter,” says the father, “you forget already?”

“How could I forget? How could I ever forget?”

The son kneels beside the heifer, removes his jacket, and rolls his shirt sleeves. He places both hands palm-flat on the cow’s side as the muscles contract. Beneath the tail, a water bag pushes out.

“You bring any soap?” says the son.

The father shakes his head. “You’ve more to worry about than keeping her clean,” he says.

The son looks again at the empty water bag.

“She’s breech?”

The father slips a knife out of his boot and throws the blade into the ground.

“You’ll be needing that,” he says.

“You want her to die?” says the son.

The shotgun hangs open in the crook of the father’s arm. He jams a slug into the chamber and snaps it shut.

“She’s dead already,” he says. “But what’s inside her ain’t.”

“I didn’t want this,” says the son.

The father coughs and dark blood spatters through his grey whiskers.

“Wantin’ ain’t got nothin’ to do with it,” he says.

The son picks up the knife and slices through the water bag. Clear fluid spills out. He pushes his hand inside the cow and slides his arm in up to the elbow. He touches the calf’s tail and the heifer squeals.

“Easy, girl,” he says. “Easy.”

Shoulder-deep inside the cow, he runs his fingers along the calf’s hind legs. “You need to call the doc,” he says. “Now.”

“No time,” says the father. He takes the cigarette from his mouth and holds it between his fingers. He gestures to the knife. “Like I said, you’ll be needing that.”

The son pulls his arm out of the heifer and picks up the knife.

“It didn’t have to be this way,” he says.

The father laughs, wheezes. “No,” he says. “But this is what we got.” He shifts his gun. The cow writhes on the ground.

The son presses the blade into the cow’s side and slices a vertical incision. He reaches inside the abdomen and finds the body of the calf. The heifer’s eyes roll back as he cuts through the uterus. Blood and water gushes out in a widening pool beneath the cow. The blood spreads between the son’s feet and out toward the father.

The son finds the calf’s legs and pulls. He falls backwards and the limp body slips out onto the ground. The son has blood on his trousers and shirt and his hands are covered with blood.

The father leans against the trunk of an oak, his gun beside him. He runs the cigarette along his tongue. His hand trembles as he flicks open a lighter, strikes the flint, and snaps the lid shut, extinguishing the flame.

The son wipes his forehead, his eyes. He tugs a handful of grass and twists the long stalks back and forth through the calf’s nose.

“Water,” he says.

The father nods toward the creek.

“You’re just going to stand there?” says the son.

“This is on you.”

The son stumbles down the slope and jumps into the creek. He fills his shoes with water and climbs back up the rise. The roots dig into his stocking feet.

He pours water into the calf’s ears and over its face. Then he splashes the last of the water over the cow’s head and tips it into her mouth.

The son wedges his shoulder against the slippery calf and turns the animal onto its front. He taps the calf’s stomach and tickles its nose with the grass.

The calf kicks out and fluid spills from its mouth. “Easy,” he says. “Breathe.”

He drags the calf over to the mother and squeezes an udder into its open mouth. The cow lifts her head and lays it down again. He cuts the umbilical cord and leans against the cow as the newborn calf suckles the fresh milk. He puts a hand on the mother’s forehead and strokes her face.

The father sits down against the tree. He holds the shotgun across his lap. The cow groans and the blood slows.

There is a rustle from the bushes and Gyp appears. She sits down, panting. The father stows the cigarette under his hat and holds the gun.

As the calf drinks, the cow watches, her chestnut eye bloodshot and wide.

The father throws the gun on the ground.

“Now finish it,” he says.

Warm blood covers the son’s hands. The calf stops feeding, curls into its mother, and falls asleep.

The son picks up the gun. He looks at the mother and then at the father. Out toward the pasture, he hears the remnants of the herd pass by. Dust rises over the treetops and fills the purple sky. There is thunder above him and thunder beneath his feet.

“Finish it,” says the father.

The cow twitches and its front leg rests over the calf. The gun is heavy in the son’s hand. “No,” he says.

He drops the gun and leaves the clearing.

“Finish it!” the father calls after him.

The son scrubs his arms and face in the shallow creek. Blood washes under the bridge and into the pool on the other side.

He follows the path out of the coppice. When he reaches the pasture, a single gunshot sounds and a flock of starlings bursts from the trees.

Above him, the cloud breaks and the sun flares. He raises an arm to shield his eyes. When the cloud gathers again, he sees a stray bull limping towards him. The bull stumbles and stands again, a rope caught between its legs. The other end of the rope is tight around its horns.

The son bends down and moves slowly around the bull, arms outstretched. His white shirt is wet with blood and his face is streaked with tears.

He untangles the rope and loops it around his hand. With his other hand, he runs his fingers over the tense body. He steps back as the bull recoils, then inches forward again. The bull faces him and grunts. It scrapes a hoof through the  earth.

The son loosens the knot and unhooks the rope from around the bull’s horns. He backs away, crouching low to the ground.

The grass shivers and Gyp jumps through the air. She growls at the bull, head down.

“Gyp!” says the son. “Stand!”

Startled, the bull snorts and lumbers away across the pasture.

Gyp turns, her pink tongue wet and loose. She yaps and skitters in circles as the father staggers out from between the trees. His shirt is torn and his hat is gone. He carries the calf in his arms.

The father stands the calf in front of the son and holds it there. His rough hands grip the lean body while the calf finds its balance. He drops to his knees and strokes the soft hair still slick with blood.

In the distance, the bull crosses the stream and heads over the plain into the mountains.

The calf squirms and stamps the ground, but the father tightens his grip, digging his fingers into the calf’s small bones.

The son kneels before the father and takes his hands.

“Let go,” he says.

“Let go.”

First published by TSS Publishing, Chapbook Series No. 6, December 2018