A Short Story on the Website of
the Red Dirt Writers Society

by Beth Stephenson (Apr 2009)

      The vultures circled over the draw, silent and waiting.  Elbert watched them for a moment as he surveyed the storm-ravaged farm, his feet apart and chin thrust forward.  The winter wheat and the soil that it had grown in were washed to the low end of the north field and roof shingles lay scattered on the red dirt like autumn leaves. 

     “Fawn!” he shouted for his wife.  “You best let the washing inside go and get the tarps on the roof before the next round comes.” 

      Fawn came to the back door in a faded housedress. She picked her way over the muddy farmyard as though she wore her Sunday shoes.  “I didn’t hear what you said.”

      “It makes no sense for you to clean the inside of the house when the next storm will get everything wet again with the shingles gone.  Get up on the roof and get the tarps stapled down!”

      She shaded her eyes as she turned toward the house. The naked roof deck gleamed reddish yellow like an April sunbather.

      She swallowed hard.  “I’m afraid of heights.”

      “Then tie yourself to the chimney.  There’s something alive in the draw or the vultures would be landing. If you want to eat this year, I better be able to save a cow or two.” A fat little cloud hid the sun as he strode away.  “Get it done before the rain starts again,” he called without turning. 

      Fawn watched him wading through the mud toward the draw, wearing his rubber boots with coils of rope on both shoulders and his rifle in his hand.  He limped a little and his hair stuck out in unpredictable tufts.  He spit in a puddle as he passed and uttered a word she could predict but would not repeat.

      When he was a hundred yards off, she went to the barn for the tarps.  They would be at the top right corner of the orderly shelves on the east wall.  She found a hammer and a box of nails marked “roofing.”  Her husband had left one fifty-foot length of rope on the shelf.

        Mud sucked at Elbert’s boots as though Mother Nature, gorged on his livelihood would claim his flesh for dessert. He quickened his stride, yanking hard with each step.  At the lip of the draw, he heard the bellowing of more than one cow and a pang of hope made him gasp.  The storm had herded them toward the edge where the sodden soil gave way and dumped them into the flooded creek.  Somehow, they scrambled to the opposite side where they found a ledge just big enough for them. They piped up their bawling when they noticed him like frightened babies. 

      Elbert smiled for the first time in three days. Though there was no way he could bring them up the way they went in, and the fields on both sides of the draw were far to soggy to bring in a tractor, let alone a truck, there was a sort of path from the ledge where the beasts huddled that might serve as a ramp.  He glanced at the vultures overhead.  He would have to work fast.

       Fawn didn’t notice her husband running back from the draw as she stood paralyzed on the top of the ladder, trying to take a step onto the slippery roof.  The roar of the truck’s engine didn’t stir her, nor did the vanishing tailgate as Elbert turned south toward the bridge two miles off.

       Elbert slowed as he approached the plank bridge that spanned the creek as he usually would but he braked completely and got out of the truck.  The planks were parallel to the stream bed and the bank was partly collapsed on the opposite side.  “Ain’t nothin’ easy,” he growled.  It was an hour’s work with the winch on his truck to get the planks up onto the bank on the near side. By looping his rope around a tree, he managed to haul them upstream to a narrower place.  Another hour was gone before he got two to span the creek.  It would never hold a truck, but it would hold a cow.  He set the brake on his truck and set off on foot over the makeshift bridge toward the stranded cattle.  Thunder rumbled in the distance, as though urging him to walk faster.  He broke into a trot and tried to keep his feet on solid footing, but it took him another hour to get to the cows.  At least they were unchanged in position and in no more danger than before.

       Fawn took off her shoes with the slippery soles and let them fall below the ladder.  Thunder growled a warning to hurry and she stepped onto the plywood.  The words of an old hymn welled up in her mind, “Take a little step to Jesus.” She whispered the words as she lifted her second foot onto the roof.  The wood snagged her stockings, but she stepped a little higher, crouching and reaching toward the chimney. 

       Elbert had never been much of roper, even with a proper lasso, but he grinned when the first loop he tossed settled around the neck of the nearest cow.  He looped the rope around a nearby cottonwood tree, braced himself as well as he could and pulled with all his strength.  Though he couldn’t see the animal, it apparently navigated the ramp willingly, for he stepped backward twenty feet to keep the strain on the rope.  At last the head appeared over the lip of the draw. Elbert hurried forward, pulling the rope, hand over hand and grabbed the rope near the beast’s neck.  She stepped placidly onto the solid earth and lumbered away from the draw when he slapped her rump.

      Elbert leaned his elbow on a tree to catch his breath.  It was nigh on to their usual mid-day dinner time, but how was he to get it?  If Fawn would carry it out to him, she might be able to throw something to him.  How did she think a man was supposed to work all day without anything to eat or drink?

       The breeze picked up as Fawn sat on the roof ledge and tried to release the tarp she had tied to her waist.  The claw of the hammer dug into her hip, but the pain was less than her fear of losing her balance.  She moved as though she was underwater with no sudden movements and struggling to breathe.  At last she hammered a roof nail into the corner of the tarp and the wind lifted it like a sail.  She gathered it in and found the opposite corner.  She held the grommet in her teeth and inched backward toward the edge of the roof.  The wind yanked the tarp and slapped her face with it, but she persisted backward.

       Elbert was not so lucky in his later attempts to loop the cattle.  At last he widened the loop and flung it into the group, hoping it would settle tightly on something.  He snared one by the muzzle, but by walking along the ridge with the rope taut, the cow seemed to get the idea and emerged from the gully within a few minutes. 

      By the time all twelve cows stood safely in the mucky field, the sun slanted under the heavy clouds, tingeing them gold on the underside and casting their shadows to the far bank of the gully.   Elbert looped the bell-cow and set off at the briskest pace he could manage.  They must make it to the little bridge before dark, or the fool beasts would end up where they started.

      Happily, the creatures seemed just as eager as he was to keep out of the storm and rumbled along with good speed.  A day of sunshine had dried the earlier path and the better footing allowed faster progress. 

       Fawn tacked the tarp along the ridge as she went, overlapping another tarp and tacking them together.  When she neared the edge, she lifted herself onto the tarp and shoved it behind her.  Slowly she swung her leg over the ridge until she lay flat on her stomach with the tarp under herself.  The hem of her skirt was bunched under her belly, and her bare legs and arms were sunburned.  She didn’t notice.

      By lifting herself on one side and then the other, she smoothed the tarp and tacked the edge to the plywood.  By rotating herself like the hand of a clock, she got the edge tacked low enough that she could reach the remainder with the ladder.  She rotated upright so that she could tack the two tarps down the middle seam. As she held the nail and tried to hit it with the hammer in her prone position, she lost her grip and the hammer scuttled down the roof and hooked in the rain gutter.  Fawn’s tears followed the tool down the tarp.

       Elbert approached the improvised bridge at a run.  The trotting cow made the bell clang.  The cows ran over the bridge single file, without hesitating.  The dusk fell uneasily as the lightning flashed on the horizon.  He led the cows alongside the truck and tied the rope to the side mirror.  Though ravenously hungry, he whistled softly to himself as he puttered up the road with his cattle trotting after him.

      Elbert drove the truck right into the barn.  He stabled the cows and fed and watered them before latching the wide door.  He barely noticed the tightly tacked tarps that covered the farmhouse roof.

      The man frowned as he waited at the dinner table.  Corn bread and beans was his least favorite meal and hardly seemed fitting after working all day without food.  He tried to control his voice, for it irritated him when Fawn cried over a scolding.  “Don’t you think you could try a little harder to please me under the circumstances?”

       She turned to him.  His graying hair stuck out at odd angles and little white crows feet sprouted from the outside corners of his eyes from squinting. His lean cheeks bulged a little when he explored his bad tooth with his tongue.  His muddy elbows had soiled the tablecloth. 

       The hollow patter of rain on the tarps made him lift his eyes toward the ceiling and then Elbert looked at his wife.  She had a purple bruise on her cheek and her chin was skinned.  Her dress was torn, exposing her soft, white shoulder.  Blood matted her front hair.  He leapt up.  “What happened?”

      “I fell,” she said dully.

      He took her shoulders gently in his strong brown hand and led her to sit in a kitchen chair. 

      “I’m so sorry,” he said.  “I never thought,” but his voice caught in his throat and he couldn’t go on.

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