Springtime was an odd mix. Snow so wet it almost ran like water coated the ground, and sunlight warm enough to stoke the fire in Cal’s soul coated the skies. Tiny’s hooves actually sloshed as they made their way through the gray-white blanket, throwing more water everywhere.
Even the calves seemed to be enjoying the change. It was hard not to smile a little watching them frolic in everything that meant winter was finally over. The fence line looked solid, there was still a little hay in the mou… The world was exactly as it should be.
Without anything needing his attention, Cal decided to ride over to town and see what there was to see. It was an uncharacteristic desire, as he usually preferred the solitude of the mountains to the presence of anyone. It was, however, a truly beautiful day.
The warmth seemed to have brought the people of Antelope out of hibernation. It was usually his choice to avoid the church, but Elder Long happened to see him before he could duck off of the street.
“Calvin, I see you’ve survived the winter.”
“More or less, Elder Long.”
“It seems like less, since I haven’t seen you at services with your family. And Calvin, it’s Bishop Long, now.”
“You’re making your way right on up in the world, Bishop.”
“A fact you and that brother of yours might do well to remember.”
Cal jumped down off of his horse so fast muddy slush splashed on the Bishop’s immaculate black trousers. “You might do well to remember he is my brother, Holy Man.”
Long came nose to nose with Cal. “I’ll break you to lead, McMurtrey..”
“Fat chance,” Cal grinned a little. “We both know you couldn’t break a hog to walk to the trough. I believe I’ll plain break you.”
“I ain’t afraid of Bishop Long,” Horace snarled.
“You should be,”Pa said, turning to Cal. “You didn’t help by riling him.”
“It ain’t hard to rile the son of a-“
“Don’t you use that language in this house! You started this fuss, so you can figure out how to end it.” Pa said. “If you land in jail or get us run out of this country, it’ll be your end. Now get on.”
Cal got up from the table and followed Horace out to the barn. He knew his brother would ask him what to do, so he started plotting and planning as soon as the remainder of Pa’s shouting left his ears.
“So?” Horace asked on cue.
“We’re going to need jars and a pot,” Cal said as he picked up his rifle from its customary spot near the door.
“What are you going to use that for?”
Horace rode down what passed for Main Street in the little settlement. It was daylight, on Sunday – not a time he was accustomed to passing by the Saints’ churchhouse.
“Horace McMurtrey, stop.”
Bishop Long may not have been the law – he was a lot more powerful. The jars in his saddlebags gave a few resounding clanks as Horace reined his horse.
“Open your saddle bags, Mr. McMurtrey.” The bishop’s parishioners were gathered in rows behind him, ready to watch their leader lay down the word to this heathen in the street.
“Pull it out, Horace.”
With all of the ceremony of the church service itself, Horace removed the first of the jars for the Bishop’s inspection.
The crowd of churchgoers looked on with whispered questions and murmurs of amazement. Bishop Long, however, stared at the chunky brown liquid in the jar with fury that could have brought it to boil a second time.
“We’d intended this venison stew for the poor in town, but if you know of someone specific in need, we’re here to help, Bishop.”
“I’m sorry, James Henry, but I can’t take your grain.”
“Harold, I’ve been doing business with you since I came to Antelope.”
Harold didn’t meet James Henry’s eyes when he finally looked back up at him. “It’d be my end.”
“I’m only going to ask you this once,” James Henry said as he stepped into the barn. “What did you two do to the bishop?”
“Horace didn’t do anything to start this,” Cal said. “I did.”
James Henry rounded on his son. His voice was quieter and eerily calm. “And what did you do?”
“I told him I was going to break him.”
“Dear God why?”
“He said he was going to come after Horace for what he was doing. I look after my brother, Pa.”
“By going after Bishop Long? You’ve done us all in, Calvin! He will break us.”
“The church doesn’t rule the country, Pa. We’ll be all right.”
“Yes it does! It rules this country! It tells people around here who to do business with, who to shun, and who to follow. And trust me, Calvin, they will follow the church.”
“There’s nothing wrong with following the church, Pa, but Bishop Long don’t need to be leading anyone in spirit or otherwise.”
“And you’re going to stop him?”
Cal nodded. “I am.”
James Henry smiled. Only a little, but it was enough that Cal could see before he turned and left the brothers in the barn.
“We’re going to need parts for another still, Horace.”
“It’s my still that got us into this.”
Cal grinned. “And it’s a still that’s going to get us out of this, too.”
“You’re going to expand the business? I can barely get rid of the shine I have now that Long put the screws to us..”
“That’s why we’re going to expand.”
“Expand? That doesn’t make any sense.”
Cal grinned. “The good Bishop says you have to have faith, Horace.”
Cal closed his eyes in frustration. Someone left the gate open.
Given the fact that Pa, Horace, and himself were the only ones likely to be around the corral, it was obviously likely one of them had done it. However, it wasn’t likely that it was Pa, and Cal knew it wasn’t him, as he knew he’d be the one to have to round up the entire herd that had now escaped their winter pen.
“Shep!” Cal called as he hurried into the barn after his saddle. “Shep!”
His Australian Shepard was never far out of earshot. The dog appeared immediately, and Horace showed up about the time he had mounted up.
“What’s going on, Cal?” He asked casually.
“Just cleaning up another mess, brother,” Cal said as he swung into the saddle. “Shep! Herd!”
Shep shot forward down the obvious path left by the herd, and Cal spurred Tiny to give chase, leaving Horace behind wondering what had happened this time.
“Dammit,” Cal said as he stared at his Pa’s herd in one of Long’s pastures. It was muddy and soft – the cows had already done damage, left a path a blind man could see leading from their homplace, and would do more before he got them out of there.
“Shep! Herd home!”
Tiny shot forward under Carl’s spur, and the herd was headed back toward home with Shep nipping at the hooves of any strays.
“Calvin,” Bishop Long shouted from the other side of the pasture.
Cal’s jaw camped tight as he bit back more foul words. He reined Tiny back toward the Bishop. “My family will make right for the damage, Bishop.”
“There’s only one way this gets right, Cal. Your business needs to stop, and you need to apologize for embarrassing me in front of my church.”
“Crop, money, whatever. We’ll pay what we owe, Bishop. Otherwise, I’ll see you in hell.”
Cal turned Tiny back to the herd.
“He’s not the most welcome in town, Ms. Cooner..”
“Was he ever?”
Cal smiled thinly. “I have his delivery for you.”
Old Lady Cooner stepped back from the door. “You know the rules, Calvin. If I’m going to buy from you, you need to drink with me.”
Cal nodded. He knocked what mud he could off his boots and negotiated his way to the table where he very carefully deposited his saddle bag. He knew the jars were heavy, but he was used to his work bawling, not clinking.
After she had sipped a bit, Ms. Cooner offered, “Martin Long was a brat when he was little, too.”
“You knew him?”
“Why of course I did. He was sweet on me, after all.”
Cal couldn’t tell whether he choked on the shine or the revelation that Old Lady Cooner had once attracted the attention of a man.
“So how did you get loose of that?”
She smiled wistfully. “I found a man, Calvin. A man that was strong, hard working, and very kind. And I loved him.”
“You still miss him.” Cal wasn’t sure whether it was a question or a statement.
“Not when I drink,” Ms. Cooner said as she emptied the jar.
Cal lay in his bed thinking about being lonely. It was obvious Old Lady Cooner had been, although she seemed to have figured out how to deal with it. Horace didn’t seem to care much either way for ladies.
His thoughts became cloudy when he thought a about himself. He didn’t mind that little sashay a woman’s backside made, but he couldn’t see keeping one around for it. Old Lady Cooner might be… Old… But she was interesting to talk to.
A woman with a sashay and a mind.
That was a thought to sleep on…
The water at the base of the falls was frigid. The boys didn’t bathe at the house unless the girls did – it just wasn’t something Pa allowed the water they had to haul to be used for. Cal knew he had to face the stabbing cold of the water, though. The pain from the water was preferable to facing questions from Pa as to what he’d been up to.
This needed to take people by surprise if it was going to work…
He needed to get the cows fed and the horses fed and watered before breakfast. Horace was going up to work his own still, so it was likely Pa would never notice if Cal took a few hours to take care of business on his own.
Besides, Pa had said to end what he’d started.
Cal felt better after breakfast. He was still tired, but at least his eyes were staying open. He didn’t work quickly, but Tiny was ready before he knew it. Once again, he filled his saddle bags with as many Jars of Horace’s shine as would fit and took the saddle. The freezing cold of the early spring night had served his purpose and kept the ground hard, but the warm sun was more than welcome as he rode out toward town.
He thought even more about Martin Long. Even though the good Bishop had started the tussle, Cal had tried to end it. Looking back, maybe he could have tried harder to make amends, but he had tried to be reasonable about the whole thing.
Long just wanted to keep his back up about the whole thing.
The truth was simple.
Once Long had widened the squabble to include Pa, he’d come after the whole family. They had a right to survive here, and by using his influence to stop Harold from trading with them, he’d threatened the whole family – even Ma, Sophie, and Lena.
Cal didn’t believe in threats – only doings.
He’d take care of Long.
Cal glanced about at the crowd of Saints gathered behind Bishop Long. It was just about what Horace had described, except, of course, Pa was standing in their midst this time.
“Open the saddle bags, Calvin,” Long said darkly. “Show me what’s inside.”
Cal did his best to look shocked, but he complied.
“Moonshine, Calvin?” Long asked.
“We’ll sure. I’ve been up at your still just beyond the south pasture all night. I didn’t figure you’d bring it up in front of your people, Bishop, seems how you’ve been telling them it’s Horace that owns the still.”
Long became quiet while his parishioners started chattering like a granary full of mice. Cal didn’t risk a look at Pa – if this unraveled now, it’d be the end of them all. “I’m not proud of the things I’ve done for you, Bishop, but you have my Pa over a barrel. What else can I do?”
Long smirked. “You can show me this still of mine, Calvin. We’ll end this once and for all.”
“If that’s how you want this, Bishop, it’s fine by me. I’d rather be back to ranchin’ anyhow.”
Prayer wasn’t Cal’s friend, but a little one slipped out anyway as he led the way to the clearing just beyond Martin Long’s south pasture. Dressed in their Sunday fines, his flock followed behind, full of nothing better to do and a strong desire to watch a stray get slaughtered.
“Right where you left it, Bishop,” Cal said, gesturing to the makeshift moonshine camp.
Long said nothing.
“I believe you own the ground to the base of the hills, don’t you, Bishop?”
“This isn’t mine,” Long’s eyes showed kindling for fury. “I didn’t do this.”
“I’ll say you did do this, Bishop. Although I tried to talk you out of it,” Cal said as he turned to walk away from him.
The crowd was stunned silent.
It was the best sound Cal had heard since the calves started bawling in the springtime sunlight.
It was never silent.
Maybe it was quieter than the barn, or there might be less bickering than Sophie and Lena provided on most nights, but there was always something to hear out here. Cal almost heard leaves that weren’t even there yet rustling in the wind. Whether it was the thrumming of a grouse or the shuffling of a rockchuck scurrying about, life besides his own was forever making its way in the world.
It made him feel very much alive.
Pa sending him to see Vlad and arrange for the spring pasture was odd. The Koslov river bottom was important to the ranch – it was a good, safe place for the cows to graze and still get to water. The creek only flowed for part of the year and the cattle were too much to haul water for. The whole family was depending on renting the pasture for another year, and hopefully many more.
That’s why Pa usually saw to this himself.
Cal knew it was possible Pa was trying to make him scarce while the business with Martin Long blew over. Rumor had it the Saints were already calling for his end with the leadership of the church. Knowing he had brought it about brought Cal no joy, but it seemed Long would have had it no other way.
Cal had done what he did defending his brother and later his entire family, while Long had made his bed due to beliefs that didn’t seem any more than believable to Cal. He might have been baptized himself, but it didn’t take Cal terrible long to decide that the church wasn’t for him. He knew the people in town called him a Jack Mormon.
Cal gave Tiny a little spur and headed deeper into the trees, remembering many of the times he had been called worse. Cal gave up on that pretty quickly. He wasn’t embarrassed – truth be told, he just didn’t care. He built a camp and fire, saw to Tiny, and still managed to take in the sunset over Antelope bench after he was done.
There were better things in life to worry about.
Cal knew nothing about them, other than there were so many of them they looked like clouds in the sky. Shep was asleep beside him, and Tiny occasionally moved about over in the grass looking for something green in the first flush of early spring growth. Sounds of the river trickled up the canyon, lulling him to sleep as he lay on his thick bedroll.
Fueled by the sparkling stars and the warmth of the spring night air, Cal’s favorite dream swallowed his heart.
Cal glanced at his gold watch, then slid it back into his pocket. The weight of the timepiece against his leg was comforting, reminding him of the day Pa had passed it on to him. The clothes, on the other hand weren’t comfortable at all, but one had to dress when going to town and meeting the train.
It was the way of things.
He heard the train before he saw it. A train almost seemed like an antiquated way to travel, but not everyone had a car.
Besides… It wouldn’t be right for a lady to be out on the road on her own.One thing was sure – she had been gone too long.
He was glad she was coming home to him.
Cal watched a bald eagle ride the breeze circling the river while he sipped his coffee. The warmth of it reached all the way to his fingers, and the coffee wasn’t bad either. Farther East, the bands of color had left the sky as the sun cleared the mountains just across the river.
The pieces wouldn’t fall together in his mind. The ranch, a lady like the one in his dreams - trouble the likes of Bishop Long… Something he loved, someone he wanted to love, and someone that could take it all away…
It was an odd feeling, knowing that he could never go home and be as happy as a lark and empty as a bucket with a hole all at the same time.
He wondered if that was how Pa felt, and didn’t suppose it was so. Pa had never been a rancher – not really.
Not like he was.
“I was surprised when you wanted to come with me, Vlad.”
The big Russian man smiled. “I can not fix the fence, but I can ride the horse. Out of two, one is not bad, da?”
Cal nodded. “It looks like the winter treated you all right.”
“An Idaho winter is very much like the Russian summer.”
“I love it up here, Vlad, I really do. I think winter here might be a little too much solitude even for me.”
“Tell me of your family, Calvin. How is your sister Lena?”
“I thought there was something on between you two.”
Cal wasn’t sure, but he thought Vlad was blushing. “She is a beautiful woman, your sister.”
“She’s my sister,” Cal mumbled.
“Can a woman not be both?”
Both men rumbled with laughter.
“The pasture looks good, Vlad. The fence is fine. Can we rent the pasture for another year?”
“It was never in question, Calvin. So, you say you saved your herd from the hellcat?”
“Wildcat. He’ll never eat another calf, anyways.”
“You chased him off?”
“He’s hanging on the wall above my bed,” Calvin chuckled.
“Are you killing all of your enemies? Should I be worried about this Martin Long you speak of?”
“I like to think I don’t fight any longer than the other guy forces me to,” Cal said.
“That does not say no.”
Cal nodded. “I suppose it doesn’t. I reckon a person needs to have the chance to make up for a wrong decision. The cat couldn’t learn from attacking the herd.”
“But Martin Long can?”
“I guess we’ll find out,” Cal said.
“I have never seen a hellcat before.”
“Wildcat,” Cal corrected gently. “Come and visit sometime, Vlad. We’d be glad to have you.”
“I will do that, Calvin. Even a writer becomes lonely sometimes.”
“You have no face.”
Cal leaned back in his chair. Three queens, an ace, and a jack looked back up at him in the flickering firelight. “I have a face, it just doesn’t say anything.”
“A game this irritating is truly American.”
Cal slipped two of the queens and the ace out of his hand and returned them to the pile, face down. “We can be a little difficult sometimes.”
Vlad’s look was far from hopeful as he laid his cards on the table. A pair of ‘threes’ looked back at the two men.
Cal grinned. “My broken straight says you won, Vlad.”
Vlad’s laughter was full and boisterous. Cal didn’t realize it, but it wasn’t because he had won – Vlad laughed because he believed he had finally made Calvin McMurtrey smile. To him it seemed to be a victory much harder fought than winning a hand of cards against the man.
The morning air was still chilly. Bacon, flapjacks, and coffee left their memory of warmth in Calvin’s insides – the Russian was a hell of a cook.
Cal extended his hand. “I want to say thank you for your hospitality, Vlad. I hate to leave.”
The Russian wrapped him in a bear hug. “Then stay."
“I’m sorry Vlad, I have responsibilities with my family,” Cal said once he could breathe again. “But you should come and visit.”
“Soon, my friend. Soon,” Vlad said as he clasped Cal’s outstretched hand.
Cal turned and mounted Tiny. “Maybe you can work on your cards.”
“Maybe you can work on having a face!” Vlad roared.
“Take care,” Cal said as he spurred Tiny back to the West. He hated to leave Vlad behind, but life wasn’t always about doing what you wanted.
He had to work on building a life of his own.
“I’m not a rancher, Calvin – we both know that. I won’t be gone forever, but there’s work to be done in Utah. It’s work that I understand.”
“What about Ma?”
“It’s no place for a woman, son. You know that. You’ll take care of the women, and you’ll keep Horace out of trouble.” If only for a moment, Pa hesitated. “Won’t you?”
“Yes, Pa. How long will you be gone?”
“Until the work is done. It could be after the ground freezes.”
“You’d be gone all summer?”
Pa nodded. “I might send for your Ma for a visit, but yes.”
Cal stood there for a moment, thinking. As was his way when he didn’t know what to say, he turned away, saying nothing at all.
“Where’d you get money to buy a car?”
“Here and there,” Cal told Horace, not just a little coyly. They both looked out the open door of the barn, watching the early season rain fall.
“What will you do with it?”
“Well, I reckon I’d drive it,” Cal said. “If we need something, we’d go after it. Maybe go places.”
“Can’t you do all that with a horse?”
Cal rested his head against the wall. “They say there’s a road to California now. Los Angeles, Horace. I believe I’d like to see that.”
“You’d fit into California like a sow in a stable, brother. It might fit, but a pig belongs in the pen.”
“I’m no sow.” Cal stood and walked out into the rain to start his chores.
“Well, thanks Johnny. You’ve been no help whatsoever, but I should have guessed that.” I listened to his response before I added, “Yup, you too, Johnny.”
“No strings pulled by justice?” Atsky confirmed once I set my phone down.
“We’re on our own, Deputy.”
“And we’re going to take on seven guys by ourselves?”
“I’ll help,” Maren said from her desk.
I scratched my head. “People are going to die tonight. We’re fixing to decide whether it’ll be us or them, Maren. A happy outcome isn’t a certainty with odds like this.”
“I’ll be happier if I’m there with you. I can do more than answer the phone.”
“All right. Let’s figure out a plan.”
“Chris, you need to play in my room today.”
Mom tried to smile. “Because I told you to, that’s why.”
“No buts, Mister. Dad and I need to know where you are, and that’s where you’ll be. Do you understand me?”
“Go get some toys from your room and take them to mine. On your way.”
I had a few hours before Maren and Scott were supposed to meet me. Sitting alone wondering if I would breathe my last before sunrise wasn’t new to me, but that didn’t make it comfortable. I went over the plan and what I knew about the Peel’s farm over and over in my head.
Seeing it start to rain through the window was a good thing.
It also gave me something to watch until the time came.