Hell's Bottom,Colorado: Storiesby Laura Pritchett, Laura Prichett
Winner of the Milkweek National Fiction Prize, in this collection of linked short stories, Laura Pritchett balances gritty material with genuine warmth and understanding of character. Hell’s Bottom is more than a ranch. Home to Renny, one of those women who prefers “a little Hell swirled with their Heaven,” and her husband, Ben, who’s &ldquo… See more details below
Winner of the Milkweek National Fiction Prize, in this collection of linked short stories, Laura Pritchett balances gritty material with genuine warmth and understanding of character. Hell’s Bottom is more than a ranch. Home to Renny, one of those women who prefers “a little Hell swirled with their Heaven,” and her husband, Ben, who’s “gotten used to smoothing over Renny’s excesses,” the ranch has been the site of births and deaths of both cattle and children, as well as moments of amazing harmony and clear vision. A day of haying turns violent in “A New Name Each Day,” while in “Rattlesnake Fire,” Ben and his estranged sister must decide whether to put aside their differences to save families trapped by a forest fire. In Pritchett’s masterful hands, the western landscape becomes a zone of familial crisis and, sometimes, transcendence.
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RENNY STANDS IN THE gravel driveway between the house and barn, her hands jammed into the pockets of a blood-splattered jacket. From there, she has a good view of the county road that runs parallel to the snow-covered foothills behind it, and she sees, at last, her husband's blue truck barreling down it toward the ranch.
The snow swirls around her in cyclones and drafts, crisscrossing in front of her eyes. She has to blink hard in order to see the outline of gray mountains, another ridge of foothills below, and the square blue block that contains Ben. When the truck takes the ranch's turnoff and heads toward her, she begins to take the pink plastic curlers from her hair. She tilts her head as she does so, and runs her fingers through the intended curls, through the segments of hair now wet with snow. She drops each curler into the pocket of her jacket before removing the next, all the time watching the truck approaching through the white flurry.
As Ben steps out of it, she wipes her dirty sleeve across her face before he can see her tears. "You're never around when I need you," she says as he approaches. "If I remember right, we're still running this place together."
He brushes past her, toward the barn. "Chains?"
"By the cow."
Sparrows gust out above their heads as they walk through the barn door. She watches Ben scan the shelves, his eyes adjusting to the dimness.
"Where's the plastic gloves?"
"Damnit, Renny." But it is a quiet statement, more resignation than anger.
"Here," she says apologetically. She grabs a bottle of iodine from a shelf littered with cans full of horseshoe nails and screws, bottles of leaking ointments and medicines, piles of orange baling twine. She pours half the bottle over Ben's hands and arms, up to the elbow where he's rolled up his sleeves. He rubs the iodine in his hands like soap, tries to push the liquid under his fingernails before it seeps away and dribbles onto the cement floor. The iodine turns his hands a dull orange, the same color as her own.
This is the color, Renny thinks, of her daughter's fingernails the day she died. Rachel's nails were painted a burnt orange with drops of white polish on top of each nail to create a flower. The extravagance of those fingernails makes her crazy even now. The whole night makes her crazy. Stupid Rachel, peeling her truck into the driveway, running into the farmhouse, only to be followed, moments later, by Ray. Ben was the only one who had any sense. He got his shotgun, he pinned Ray. And Rachel, feeling safe, perhaps, or humiliated or furious or brave, had said, "You will never see me again. You will never have me." Which gave Ray just enough strength to break free, pull out his pistol, and shoot her. Shot by the husband she finally had sense to leave, Rachel was buried with small white flowers on her orange fingernails.
Ray has been sending letters of apology from the Cañon City Prison. Renny, for reasons she has not yet clarified with herself, posts these letters on the corkboard in the grocery store, alongside the notices for free barn cats and hay for sale. Maybe she hopes they serve as an invitation, one to everyone in town. To stop by and talk about this thing that is crushing her.
Even Ben would do, if he'd ever stop just to talk. She'd ask him in for coffee, and maybe she'd tell him what she's been meaning to. Ben, she would say, I know what everyone thinks. That we've been pulled apart, cut into pieces, and that I blame you. But I don't fault you for a thing. You can be slow to act and slow to stand up for anything, but not on that particular night. I saw you shoot above Ray's head to distract him, throw down the gun and tackle him. My God, how you tried. It would have been enough, had Rachel not spouted off. And this orneriness, this ability to fling out words was something I nurtured. Because Rachel was the only child like me. I wanted to see a part of me alive in someone else. Tough and mouthy and even a little mean. No, I don't blame you. I blame Ray. I blame the police, who took their sweet time in getting here. And a little part blames me.
Then, perhaps, he would hold her.
Ben strides out the barn's back door, which opens into the corral. "Tell me, please, that you've called Andrews."
"Hours ago, that idiot," Renny says, coming up behind him. Then, more quietly, "He may be avoiding me. I complained about the last bill so much."
Ben stops so he can look into her eyes and sighs quietly. She raises her eyebrows and shrugs, but he stares at her a moment longer. "Lord almighty, Renny," he says, turning away at last. "You damn well know better than to mess with the vet."
What he sees when he lets himself through the old wooden gate makes him wince. The cow is lying in the trampled, dirty snow, her belly towering into the air. A coarse rope halter crosses her nose but is tied to nothing, its end coiled near her face. The cow's breath rattles, a shaky humpf every time the air escapes her nostrils. Her eyes are blank and dark as she strains with a push. When she relaxes, she closes themlong, sweet eyelashes that make her look young despite her years.
"Hey, Mama," he mumbles as he reaches down and scratches the cow's ears, then runs his hand down her neck, over her bulging stomach, across her rump, down her legs. He wants her to know he's there, behind her, so that she's not surprised when he reaches inside her. He lifts her tail, hopes to see what he shoulda tiny yellow hoof or two poking out. But there is nothing except for a small stream of blood. Kneeling in the snow, he slides his hand inside her.
He feels the plunge into warmth; tight muscles close around his forearm. His fingers reach out and touch the slick coat of the unborn calf, soft and warm, and his hand glides along the animal. Instead of a nose or a hoof, his fingers close around something slender, and he follows it down until he knows it's the tail. He yanks on it, hoping to get a response, but there is no movement.
He pushes in farther, until his arm is in past the elbow, going lower, deeper, feeling for a hoof. He's done it a hundred times before, turned a calf around inside a mother. But this calf is enormous; he cannot find a good hold, and when he does find a hind leg and pulls it, the calf doesn't move.
Ben pulls his arm out, away from the warmth. His wrist feels the sudden release from the cow's tight muscles, and his hand throbs as his blood resumes its normal flow.
As he steps back from the cow, he considers what hands are capable of. All they need is a little blood to flow through, and that's enough to pull a trigger, write a letter, post one up, take one down. He doesn't make special trips to the store, but each time he's there, he takes down the letters that Renny tacks up. He hates the feel of glances at his back, the attention his actions attract. But he's gotten used to smoothing over Renny's excesses, which is what removing these letters is all about.
He's got a stack of them now, crammed inside a notebook that's sitting in his truck. Ray writes that he's sorry, sorry because he really did love their daughter. It was a funny kind of love, he admits, funny because it made him crazy. He's sorry that the craziness is all the family thinks existed; more often than not, he writes, they held each other, made each other laugh. He assures them that good times did exist, and he describes them in detail. Rachel and her children shared their dreams with Ray and Ray shared his dreams with them, and they were nearly there, to the place where their dreams would have come together.
It all sounds, to Ben, like his own marriage in the early years. Enough energy came from Renny to make them both crazy. Each had hit the other, and it's a good thing, he thinks now, that he never thought of a gun. He was about to break, one night, a night he just might have aimed the barrel and felt the trigger beneath his finger. Instead, his hands had curled up in fury. He managed to strike the kitchen table instead of his wife, and he managed to walk out of the house instead of toward her. That night he slept in a hotel. When he woke to the silence and rolled over in the clean sheets and regarded the simple room, he came to a conclusion: he would fight no more, even if it meant that in the end, he would lose.
He's not yet sure if he has. Now that he has moved away, the solitude and peace he encounters feel more like an upset, an unexpected win. Victory. But some gains are illusions, and he knows he might come tumbling down and find himself the loser. There are the nights, after all, that he misses her crazy banter, her misplaced energies. Though she could be cruel, her love was ferocious, and maybe he misses that most of all.
Renny and Ben are both staring at the cow, although they know that she won't offer a solution. The snowflakes are huge and circling as they fall on her red hide. A crow squawks, and then there is near silence, quiet falling snow and the sounds of breathing. The cow shifts slightly, pushes, then sucks in breath and moans.
As if in answer, there's a crunching of tires on snow. Renny begins to pull out the remaining curlers from her hair as she listens to an engine idle and then stop. "Over here," she yells as soon as she's sure the vet has stepped from his truck. In a moment she sees Dr. Andrews trudge toward them, ducking his head against the snow. He is thin and tall; even the tan coveralls don't fill him out. As he climbs up and over the fence, his green eyes flick to Renny and he nods at her, then he looks at Ben.
"Thanks for coming," Ben says.
"About time," Renny says. "She's been in labor for God knows how long."
"Huge calf, turned backwards."
"It's dead." Renny jams her hands into her pockets. "Would have lived if you'd got here sooner."
"Cow's a tame one, Dr. Andrews," Ben says, as if to offer the only good news he can. "She's worn out. She won't give you any trouble."
"What a hell of a way to feed protein to the world." Renny raises her eyes skyward and shrugs, directing her confusion toward the heavens.
"All your cows are tame, Ben," Dr. Andrews says, slapping Ben's shoulder as he walks past him. "Get up, Mama." He picks up the rope halter and pulls. Ben pushes the cow's rump and Renny prods her gently with her boot. The cow rocks and then heaves herself up. Her head hangs down and she moans as she flicks her tail.
Andrews ties her up to a corral post and pulls on thin plastic gloves as he walks to the cow's rear end. "Let's see what we have here," he mumbles, gliding his hand inside her. He closes his eyes and tilts his head toward the cow, as if listening for an answer.
Renny looks beyond him, to the rim of fields, an expanse of grass half covered with white. Bumps of yucca and sagebrush rise above the snow on the foothills that lie between their fields and the blue peaks beyond. Hell's Bottom Ranch. They bought it the year they were married. Fell in love with each other and with this section of land below the Front Range at the same time.
Ben used to joke that it was named for the place from whence Renny came. No, no, Renny would say, it's where I'm going. You better believe it, is what he'd say back. Their daughters learned this dialogue and would chime in, filling in one line or another. An old joke, but Renny liked to believe there was a little truth in it, too. She wanted to be the type of person who was a little hell swirled in with heaven. A little ornery to keep everyone on edge, intriguing enough to keep them around.
The truth is this: she and Ben had bought the ranch after the river flooded. Branches and debris were strewn everywhere along the bank. Walking along, they'd found a wallet, a cow's skull, a beat-up canoe, old fence posts, rusted barbed wire.
"Looks like the bottom of hell," she'd said to Ben, meaning that this land, protected with low foothills and a slow mountain river, was close to paradise.
"Hell's Bottom it is, then," he'd said. "Our heaven."
It's been a little of both. She's closer to hell now than she's ever been. A daughter dead, a calf that doesn't move, a husband who doesn't love her anymore. Heaven or hell? She rests her forehead on the cow's silky neck and repeats the question over and over. Either way, it's got her soul.
"Yep, dead," Andrews says, nodding to Ben. "We'll do a fetotomy, I guess. I'll need your help."
Ben watches Andrews head for his truck and then looks past him, toward the mountains, and thinks he might see, circling above the river, the bald eagle that's been hanging around. He wants to say something to Renny about it, and also about the young fox he saw yesterday and how it yapped at hima strange sound, more of a raspy bleat than a bark. He'd like to tell her that he lets the dogs sleep with him on the bed, so that there's some weight and warmth beside him. He would like to ask her if she does the same thing, and if she responds with a yes, he'd like to make a joke about how the dogs' situation, at least, has improved since their separation. He clears his throat and faces Renny, who is staring in the direction of the river with some thought that has stilled her. She is blanketed in light snow, a dusting of white that has settled on her hair and jacket. She shakes herself and rubs at her nose with a hand he's sure is cold. She turns toward him, but looks past his eyes at Andrews, and so he, too, turns and faces the vet, who is returning from his truck with a black vinyl bag.
From it Andrews takes a long wire strung between two metal handles. Looping the wire in a circle in his palm, he closes his fingers over it, and pushes his fist, with the wire folded inside, into the cow. He rubs the cow's hind legs with his left hand as he works inside her with his right and hums a long conversation to her. "You'll feel better soon, mama mama mama sweet mama girl, bet you're hurting but it's almost over, sweet old mama."
Andrews brings his hand back out, holding the two handles. "I've got it looped around the hindquarter. You help me saw." He hands one handle to Ben. "Pull up and to the side, there."
"Sorry about this mama," says Ben. "You've been trying your hardest here."
As each man alternates pulling, there's a whir of the wire as it's pulled back and forth across the calf. The cow strains with this feeling of something moving inside her, and her ears flick backwards at this new sound coming from her rear end.
"I bet Danny Black has a calf you can graft on," Andrews says after a moment. "He just lost a cow."
"We'll give him a call." Ben uses his free hand to wipe the sweat forming on his forehead. He feels sick. In all his years of ranching, he's only had to do this twice before, and each time it makes him want to quit the business altogether. He feels the tension of the line as it meets the bone of the unborn calf's leg, and he grits his teeth.
"Just about there," Andrews says. They saw for a moment longer and then Andrews indicates to stop. He reaches inside the cow and pulls. Ben steps back as the calf's hindquarter, severed from the groin to the point at the tail, slushes out in a waterfall of blood and thumps on the ground. The cow tries to turn, but the halter keeps her head in place, and Renny is there anyway, scratching her ears and blocking her view.
Renny has forced herself to watch, not to let her eyes wander even for a moment, not to let the wince inside her escape. Now she considers Andrews, watches as he closes his eyes and sticks the fetotome back inside the cow and feels for another place to fit the razor wire. His face is hard in a way she finds beautiful; his skin is tough and wrinkled, and gray stubble flecks his low cheeks and square chin. His forehead is wet, and a bead of sweat sinks down, causing his eyelids to blink rapidly over his green eyes.
She looks at Ben. His face is so familiar that she doesn't really see it at first. But she squints and concentrates. His hair is dotted with more white, she sees, and he's cut himself shaving just below the jawline. His eyes look soft and calm, as they usually do, calm despite the fact he hates what he's doing. She knows he's cringing inside, but even after all these years together, she can't see a sign of it anywhere.
"Just get through this, Mama," she says into the cow's ear as she scratches it. "I know just how you feel. Carolyn was easy. But that Rachel. I thought she was ripping me apart. The plight of mothers, I tell you."
It was Rachel, Renny recalls, who first suggested that Renny and Ben live apart. Carolyn agreed. Renny and Ben didn't have the momentum or cause enough for a divorce, their daughters counseled, but maybe, just maybe, they'd be happier apart. They began to devise plans, point out various spots where a new house could be built on the ranch. They admired various views. They talked about digging a well and running electric lines out, about the division of responsibilities. And all at once, last summer, it became real.
Ben called some old friends and disappeared with them to the back of the property, and soon a small log house stood at the end of the north forty. A few contractors, a little hassle, but surprisingly easy. Renny could have the old rambling house, Ben said, with its piles of junk, with the visitors driving into the front yard. What Ben wanted was some quiet, some remoteness.
The horses are back there now. She can barely see them huddled together, right in front of the small dark square that is her husband's home. The colt is trotting wildly around the group, throwing his head in the air. He suddenly bunches to a halt and kicks his hind legs up and out. She remembers what it's like to feel that way, the buzz of energy in her chest, in her throat. How she would shudder with the force of it, which was too much to control, her thoughts and laughter and love shooting off in every direction. She can recall the sensation perfectly. Her throat aches with its absence. Where once a joy swirled she feels a cavern, and though she does not know how to right herself, she is sure she has faltered, and how sorry she is for that. How incomplete she is now.
Ben decides to dump the pieces of this calf beyond his cabin, near the gully. He'll throw the head and hindquarters and body into the brush. The dogs won't dig through the mass of sticks to get to the calf; and besides, the body will be frozen to the ground soon, then covered by snow. By the time everything melts, the calf will have decayed. It's amazing, he thinks, how a lifelaughter, arguments, little arms reaching out for him to carry her to bedhow everything ends up as clean bones. As far as he can tell, there's nothing more.
He looks up to find Renny watching him. Her head is tilted, her face softboth of which are unusual enough to startle him. "I'm going to get Danny Black's calf," she says, lifting her chin, straightening out. "Before the snow starts to stick on the roads."
Ben nods and looks away. But once she's turned, he looks back up to watch her go, his eyes following the one pink curler she's left in the back of her hair.
"Would have been a bull calf," Andrews says as the other hind leg slips out of the cow and thuds down in the snow. "I bet a hundred pounder. She may be able to push the rest out. That big butt was the problem. Give us a push, Mama."
A waterfall of blood and yellow fluid comes with her strain. She relaxes and shifts her weight, then tenses. The rest of the calf slithers from her in a pool of membranes and blood and flops to the ground. A blue tongue hangs from the side of a small mouth, eyes open in a dead stare. Guts and the spinal cord protrude from the back part of the calf, and steam rises from them as blood seeps down and pools out into the snow. Immediately the cow tries to turn and thrashes wildly when she cannot break free of her halter.
"Whoa mama, good mama. You saved us a lot of work by pushing it out." Andrews gently tugs on the membranes hanging filmy-clear from the back of the cow. "I'll give her a few sulfur pellets for immediate infections and then give her a shot of penicillin. I'll leave a bottle and syringe. Keep her up here for a few days and watch her."
"I don't want to lose her," Ben says, running his hand down her rump. "She's a good mama."
"She looks like it," Andrews says from where he's kneeling, putting the coiled razor wire back into his bag.
"She would have protected this calf with her own life if she had the chance."
"Yes, I know." Andrews is standing now, ready to go.
"Leave the antibiotic in the barn, if you don't mind," Ben says, and then, winking, adds, "but if you want to get paid, you better leave the bill in my truck."
"Will do." Andrews smiles and then turns, with a wave, toward the barn.
Ben waits until he hears the truck start up before bending over to grab a piece of the calf in each hand. As he drags the parts toward a bench near the barn where he can sit and skin them, he considers how close this calf came to livingonly a few degrees of circumstance. He's learned this much, how so much of life is the precarious moment, the sudden event, the surprise that spikes out of an ordinary day. How the restthe bulk of lifeis necessary to absorb these little bits. Absorb them and heal and wonder at.
They've been through the plains and the spikes of life together, Renny and he. It seems they're still circling and connecting where they can, to do what they must, on the ordinary days such as this.
By the time Ben is done skinning the pieces, Renny has returned with a sickly looking calf. She struggles under the weight of it as she carries it through the barn and into the corral. She kneels down in the snow and holds it against her as Ben rubs the hide over the calf's head. With orange baling twine, they tie the largest pieces of hide onto the shivering animal.
Once the cow is untied, she turns to sniff the calf, her nose running across the pieces of her own calf's skin. Then she moves to where the blood has soaked into the ground, and her nose hovers there, twitching. She considers the calf for a moment, sniffs it again, regards it suspiciously. It steps toward her and lets out a meek bawl. She moves forward then, slides her tongue over the calf's face and ears, and stands still as it teeters toward her bag of milk and sucks.
Renny and Ben smile, catch the other doing so, and turn toward each other, still smiling.
"At least," Renny says quietly, "we can still do that."
Ben nods, then holds out his hand toward the barn, an invitation for her to walk with him. They move together to the bench where the remains of the calf are piled, covered with a thin layer of snow. Ben picks up the trunk of the calf by the head and starts for the truck. Renny follows, a hind quarter in each hand. They throw the pieces of calf into the bed of the pickup, then turn to face each other.
"Wait," Ben says, though Renny hasn't moved. He wipes his bloody, orange-tinged hands on his jeans, inspects them, and reaches behind Renny. Gently, with the tips of his fingers, he takes the lone curler from her hair. She receives it with a good-natured scowl, starts to say something, then stops. He sees in her shrug what she intended him to, that she has no words that can begin to close this space. He nods his understanding and offers a sad smile in return. They turn, then, she toward the old farmhouse and he toward the truck, each ducking into the circling snow.
Excerpted from HELL'S BOTTOM, COLORADO by Laura Pritchett. Copyright © 2001 by Laura Pritchett. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved.
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