Cal kicked at soil so dry that it almost kicked back. It was only natural to look up and West, hoping to see more clouds in the sky than the past forty-three days or so had provided. He wasn’t rewarded with much more than a stringy white feather drifting by on the other side of the river. The wheat on the ridge was already gone – the rest of the field wouldn’t be far behind it at this rate.
The creek was dry, and the cows were bawling. Something needed to happen. They couldn’t haul water forever. “You ready?”
“Would’ve been five minutes ago, if you’d done more than standing there looking around,” Horace snapped back.
“I was thinking,” Cal said as he walked toward the wagon. Even the horses looked sorry in the building heat.
Horace climbed up and settled himself before he picked up the reins. Cal didn’t mind – it gave him more time to think. “There’s nothing we can do about the drought, Cal. No use in worrying about it.”
Not unkindly, Cal told his brother, “I reckon that’s how we’re different, Horace. I worry about what needs worrying about, and you worry about what you can change.”
“No use in worrying over what you can’t.”
“We should have sold down the herd this spring,” Cal said.
“I say it here and it comes out over there,” Horace mumbled.
“Pa told me to keep track of things until he came back, Horace. I’d just as soon not seem him disappointed by what he found when he got here.”
“Pa’s always angry about something,” Horace said. He snapped he reins, and the horses responded by swishing their tails and little else.
One bucket at a time.
It was the easiest way to get water out of the river and into the wagon. It would have been a joke, if it would have been funny.
But it wasn’t.
It was a hell of a lot of work.
It was also the only way to get water to drink, and for the animals. Never mind the laundry – Lena and Sophie could ride down here themselves and see to it. They could take a bath, while they were at it.
“You boys would be better off with a pump! Or better still, movin’ close to the river! It ain’t so bad down here!”
Cal rolled his eyes. For a hermit, Beard Winters didn’t seem to be afraid of striking up a conversation.
“Hello, Beard!” Horace shouted from the top of the wagon. Cal held the bucket uncomfortably while his brother succumbed to his fascination with the legendary man.
“And what’re you doing stealing my good water?” Beard poled his raft closer to the bank. The river was so low, he almost could have walked from stone to stone and not gotten his feet wet, but his aversion to water was second only to his general dislike of people.
“My arm’s getting longer, Horace!” Cal snapped.
Horace took the bucket without taking his eyes off of their visitor. Working blindly, three quarters of it ended up on Calvin instead of in the tank.
“Seeing any grizzly up on the flat, Horace? Streams dryin’ up seems to be forcing them to the river for a drink, and the rest of my fish.”
“You’ll be safe from bear with that smell of yours!” Horace nearly fell off of the wagon laughing.
“I ain’t wasting what little water we got left on no bathin’.” Beard snapped.
Never would have guessed…Cal thought wryly.
Cal and Horace rolled into the yard at a gallop. “I’ll take care of the horses! You go help the girls close up the house.”
Horace handed over the reins and jumped off of the wagon without it completely stopping.
Cal snapped the reins once, hurrying Spots across the yard toward the barn. The wind was already whipping the dust off of the cultivated desert his family now called a wheat field, and the skies themselves seemed to be turning the color of tar. Conversely, it felt like it was getting even hotter.
It was going to be a bad storm.
He had Spots free of the harness and in the stall in a heartbeat. Gathering Star and Tiny was harder – the storm had already stirred them up plenty. Hail was pelting him before he had the door closed, and rain was coming down like a cow peeing on a flat rock when he ran back out the front to help Horace bring the girls’ laundry in off of the line.
With his arms full of the last load, Cal turned around and watched the rivers of rainwater running through the middle of the yard and remembered the day Pa had told him that Idaho was a land of extremes - drought and flood, freeze or fry, feast or famine. Today had seen the last of the drought and the start of the flood.
He just hoped the damage to the field didn’t bring them the start of a famine, too. He handed off the bundle of soaked clothing to Sophie and turned back to the cabin door.
“Where are you going? Even a chicken knows to come in out of the rain, Cal!”
“The horses aren’t going to brush themselves, Soph. There’s work to be done.”
The storm liked to tear the barn down. Cal stood in the doorway, watching hail fall in sheets while chain lightning broke the sky in blinding flashes. Thunder sounded harsh and quick – the storm was almost on top of them.
He’d known it would be harsh when it came. It had been so hot and dry, he knew it had to break completely in the other direction. Maybe things would get back to normal now.
Thunder followed lightning so close it nearly blinded Cal.
If there was anything left when the storm ended…
Spots rared in his stall.
“Calm him down!” Cal snapped at his confused brother. Horace didn’t seem to have the slightest idea what to do.
Cal walked toward the panicking animal with a hand out and started a mellow song.
Roll-ing across the prairie
Grow-ing so green in the sun.
Stand-ing taller than grasses
They’re tumbling all around.
He sang until the storm ended and the horses settled. He was in no hurry to go back outside, as he knew the storm had caused more destruction than he cared to see. Hopeless wasn’t exactly the right feeling, but thinking about tomorrow made him uneasy.
That wasn’t something he was accustomed to.
If Pa was here, he’d ask him what to do. Even if he wrote, by the time he heard back it would be well past time to have finished doing. The end of it was that Pa had left him to mind the family.
It was up to him to make sure it all came out for the best.
It was worse than Cal would have thought. Worse than he would have imagined, really. Part of the barn’s roof was lying at his feet, the cows had gotten upset and tipped the trough, what there had been of the wheat field was laid to waste, and more than a few pieces of laundry that had escaped the hurried attempt to grab it off of the line were scattered around the yard.
The rain had turned gentle as Cal wandered through the yard, his feet splashing mud and muck as he paid no attention to the puddles and small streams of runoff that were already carrying it downhill to the creek.
It was harder to think about going inside, facing his brother and sister and the fact that things had gone completely to hell than it was to keep walking. So, walk he did. He didn’t wave, nod, or talk to any of the few people he saw. He followed the bridge across the freshly refilled creek, passed the last trail into Antelope, and made it halfway to the river to the west before he came across his only friend.
“Get torn up much?” Ernest asked.
“Finished the wheat off, took a piece off of the barn, and cost the girls another trip to the river to do laundry. You?”
“Spooked that crazy old mare. She went through the fence when the lightning blew the tree beside the house apart.”
Ernest shook his head. “Too much rain for that.”
“You want help with Polly?”
Ernest nodded. “More than I want to wander around on my own looking for the old nag.”
Cal walked back into the yard in a far better mood than when he’d left.
It didn’t last long…
Only Horace was visible in the yard, and he was perched on an overturned bucket next to the bar drinking from a jar. The girls weren’t anywhere to be seen – they hadn’t even opened up the shutters on the cabin yet.
“Get out here, now, dammit!” Cal shouted. He closed the distance between him and Horace quickly, kicking the bucket out from under him. When his brother struggled to his feet to fight, he popped him in the chest, knocking him into the mud more by surprise than sheer force.
Spinning back toward the cabin, he shouted at his sisters, “I’ll do the same for you, if you don’t set about putting this place back together! Ma and Pa won’t be coming home to find their place a wreck, do you hear me?”
“And what are we to be doing, dear brother,” Lena said with hands on her hips.
“Open the windows! Sweep the porch! Pick the eggs and feed the chickens! Go pick berries on the way to do the wash, but don’t you be sitting down when there’s work to be done,” Calvin snapped.
“You’ll only hit me once, Calvin Lewis McMurtrey,” Lena snarled as she turned back toward the cabin.
“If I don’t see you going to work, I’ll be doing it soon,” he shot back. Horace had made his way closer. “You check the coop and make sure the coyotes stay out. I’ll check the horses and ride the pasture fence. See about the barn after the chickens.”
Cal was only certain of one thing – a mess had been made and no one would clean it up for them.
Cal was more or less satisfied when he stepped inside the cabin. Candles and the fire in the stove provided what light there was on the moonless night. He hung his hat on the antler of the elk mounted to the wall before he stepped into the kitchen.
“He is.” Sophie said.
“Lena?” Cal asked.
“She’s gone, Calvin.”
“Where did she go, Sophie?”
“I don’t know, Calvin.”
“Don’t you lie to me!”
“Gonna threaten to hit me, too?” She rounded on him. “You touch me, and I swear by the prophet himself I will kill you in your sleep, Calvin Lewis McMurtrey.”
Cal took a step back and put up his hands defensively. “I just need to know that she’s safe.”
“If you were worried about keeping us safe, you shouldn’t have threatened us, Calvin. You know how soft she is.”
“l needed you to work, Soph. We’ll starve this winter if we don’t get this place back together.”
“Telling stories won’t scare me any more than your bellyaching. You think everything has to be a certain way because you got left in charge. It’s your problem, not ours. Just because you’re afraid of Pa doesn’t mean we are.”
“That what your Saints teaching you?” Cal snapped.
Sophie slapped her brother as hard as she could. “Don’t you dare talk my religion down just because you don’t believe.”
Their eyes locked in a battle of wills neither intended to lose.
“Where did she go?” Cal asked evenly.
“I’ve no idea, brother, but you can go straight to hell,” Sophie snarled as she strode across the cabin to what had been the girls’ loft.
She realized with a start that it was now hers.
Cal rode out just before sunup. It wasn’t cold – there wasn’t even a hint of dew. He also hadn’t seen a hint of sleep. He knew the trail so well, a battle had been fought and very nearly lost inside of him to not take off last night. As big as the reward of finding his sister Lena might have been, it wasn’t worth the possible tangle with a mountain lion or bear. He figured she’d gotten to Vlad’s last night – only he would have been caught out in the dark.
He thought about what he’d say to her and came up drier than Antelope Creek. In truth, he wanted to turn around and go home, but he knew there’d be hell paid if Pa knew he let Lena run off without at least trying to stop her. He also didn’t want to tangle with Vlad. The bottom land they rented from the Russian was important summer pasture for their herd, particularly in the middle of the drought this summer had brought them.
Lena knew what was expected of her as a wife, and she’d given it the spurs as she rode toward it.
She’d never been happy at home.
Cal just hoped she’d be happy in the new life she’d chosen.
It wasn’t long before his mind wandered back to feeding the herd, which meant feeding them all. Ernest had promised to help him, and he’d never wondered if his friend would be there for him. It was easy to believe that everything was going to work out somehow, it was hard to see how it was going to actually happen.
Cal spurred Tiny.
One problem at a time…
It was just after sundown when Cal rode back into the yard. Vlad was gone, and so was his sister – it didn’t take a lot to figure out they’d run off together. They’d both show up sooner or later, once there was nothing he could do to stop them from getting hitched.
Cal led Tiny to the barn and found Ernest brushing Spots out.
“What’re you up to?” He asked his friend.
“Well, after this rain, I thought we’d best get you some wheat growing to pasture. Didn’t seem best to wait. It won’t make, and the cattle’ll have to paw for it, but it’ll feed ’em better than nothing. Might be pretty good, ‘specially if the snow’s light.”
“Where’d you come up with the seed?” Cal asked. “We needed the crop for seed.”
Ernest smiled a little. “You in a position to worry about that?”
“Pry not,” Cal admitted. “I also pay my way.”
“Unless you figure we won’t be friends for a spell, I see you having a chance to crack even. We’ll get by.”
Cal nodded and shook his friend’s hand. “Thank you, Ernest.”
“Find your sister?”
Cal shook his head. “I found out where she is, or, at least, what she’s doing.”
“She a Russian now?”
“I don’t think that’s exactly how it works when she marries one, but, yeah, I ‘spect she’s with Vlad.”
“What you going to do about that?” Ernest asked hesitantly.
“I believe I’ll drink to the new couple. Horace’ll have a jar around here somewhere.” Cal smiled. “Join me?”
Ernest answered with a broad smile.
Cal held the letter in his hands and a hundred emotions in his heart. Pa was coming home, and bringing Ma with him, which was good. The place was more or less back together again, which wasn’t bad. Lena had been gone long enough that-
He glanced up when he heard the telltale sound of a team coming around the corner from Antelope. He stood up and walked to the center of the yard, just in time to see it coming around the turn on the trail up country. It was still distant, but he could see he didn’t recognize it, and it was on the gentle turn into the yard, not the trail after all.
He knew who it was when he saw the slim form on the right side of the wagon.
Vlad reined the horses near the front of the cabin. “We are here for Lena’s things.”
“I wouldn’t expect a Dowry, but come on, let’s get about it,” Cal said as he trudged forward. “Christmas is coming.”
Shep appeared just long enough to growl most satisfactorily.
“Not this time, Shep,” Calvin said. “Let’s be men about this.”
The big collie heeled but kept more than a close eye on the big Russian, leaving absolutely no question as to his feelings for the man.
Sophie, on the other hand, greeted her sister with all of the squealing and carrying-on that one would have expected, and Cal would have done without. The men worked in quiet, only needing to follow Lena’s pointed commands as she indicated the parts of her life she was taking with her. Her hope chest, dresser, and a few bags were all she was after.
Cal knew it was still too much for Vlad to safely move on his own, so, in the end, he saddled Tiny without a word a rode out of the yard behind them.
What else was there to do?
The stars, Tiny’s saddle blanket, and a crackling fire made for a far more hospitable night than Vlad…and Lena’s cabin would have been. He laid under his stars, the ones that he loved, and realized he would soon be looking up to see something else.
What…he had no idea. Where…he had a little better idea.
The only thing he knew for sure was that he was leaving Antelope.
Working for Old Lady Cooner once in a while, sacking feed for Harold Johnson – it had all added up over time. He had enough for a used car and a trip. He hoped the trip would bring an adventure, and, with a little luck, more money, too.
There was a way to get there besides the railroad. Other than Utah and Nevada, he had no idea what was between here and there. Honestly, he had no idea what was there, but that seemed like one of the best reasons there was to go. He’d heard there was a trail, more or less ready for a car.
Of course, he’d never driven a car before, so…the hell did he know?
Somehow, he took comfort in not knowing.
He spent more than a little time thinking about Tiny, Shep, and Horace. They were the things he worried about, because they couldn’t take care of themselves. Maybe it wasn’t right to put his brother in the same place as his dog, but, if you knew him, it was.
Besides…Pa had left him and gone off.
Fair was fair.
Cal looked the smooth blue metal skin of the coupe over and nodded. He’d thought about this plenty – there was no use in thinking any more.
It was only money.
For a bit, a car became all about handing paper back and forth - Bill of Sale, registration, and, of course, more than a few dollars of cash. Once that was done, paper turned into two matching keys dangling from a split metal ring with a leather fob.
He popped the clutch the first time he tried to take off, stalling the engine and his confidence right along with it. Second, third, and fourth thoughts rolled through his head before he started the car, eased off of the clutch, and made his way out of Idaho Falls and back to Antelope.
Sophie looked at the car with contempt. “So, you run our sister off, and then you run away yourself, before Pa finds out?”
“Lena was going to Vlad whether Pa, me, or anyone else had anything to say about it, Soph.”
“Why do you want to leave? Are we really so bad?”
Cal’s smile was sad. “I don’t want to go anywhere, Soph.”
“Then why are you doing this?”
“I can’t know if I’m all I can be without seeing what else is out there.”
“Why can’t just being Cal McMurtrey be enough?”
He shrugged. “It may be. I just need to find that out.”
Cal knew his sister was walking away confused. The truth was, he was confused, too. That’s exactly what he had to straighten out.
The only thing he knew, for absolute certain, was that he couldn’t get right here on Antelope.
Cal thought about Pa when he passed the falls and drove farther than he had ever been. He knew he’d see him again one day, but he wasn’t completely sure where or when. The only thing he knew was Pocatello was ahead. From there, it was on to Salt Lake City, and then across the desert to San Francisco.
Los Angeles might have Hollywood, but San Francisco had ships, and he knew he’d like to see that.
Steel floating on water.
He knew it was the same as a pail floating in the creek, but people didn’t work and live inside of a pail. There might even be work in the port. Pa had said it was a hard life, but…hard work had never bothered him before.
Sophie, on the other hand, bothered him very much. Cal had seen his ma cry – there was nothing new in that. Watching his sister run away in tears was another thing entirely. She was a constant.
She was the only person he knew that was harder than he was.
Leaving Ernest and her behind was his biggest regret with this.
They were his best friends…
He turned his imagination back to the fields he’d heard were being cleared. Huge swaths of land, growing apples, oranges, nuts and vegetables. Those same fields needed water, which meant work moving dirt.
He’d never tried it himself, but he’d heard Pa tell enough tales that he figured he could handle a slip scraper and team just fine.
One thing was sure – he’d find his way through this, and maybe he’d figure out who he was supposed to be along the way.