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.”