A Novel of Sarah Agnes Prine and the Arizona Territories, 1906
By Nancy E. Turner
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2005 Nancy E. Turner
All rights reserved.
April 24, 1906
I used the rifle to part branches as I ran. All I heard for a time was the rhythm of my boots scuffing gravel. My horse was standing where I'd left him, his reins held by my niece Mary Pearl, who'd been out checking stock with me since dawn. I knew not to ride a horse into that commotion. I thought I heard her hollering "Aunt Sarah?" but I didn't quit running toward the sound that had stopped us. As I tore through brush, an ironwood tree clutched at my clothes; thorns ripped my skirt. The troubled bellow of a cow was accompanied by a pitiful, higher-pitched bawling. Along with that, a pack of coyotes yipped.
I cleared the rise. The mother cow whirled around at that second, hooked a coyote on one horn, and threw it high over her back. They were half-hidden by a thicket of greasewood and cholla — in a clear place just wide enough for the pack of killers to trap the mother and baby. The calf had blood running down its legs and it whimpered. The mother cow dashed and whirled, fending off another and another coyote, as others circled behind her and nipped at her baby.
I tried to yell, but I had no wind left. My throat was parched as old rope. I slung the rifle to my shoulder and picked off two coyotes. The crippled one had made it back into the path of the cow. As she tried to fight the coyote, it bit into her ankle, and she dragged it, its body clinging to her foot like a rag, before she got it loose. Fierce as she was, the coyotes knew their game was to outlast her, and while the mother cow thrashed, three more closed in on the calf. I ran again, this time finding my voice, shouting the whole way. Mary Pearl told me later that what I was hollering would not be fit talk for her mother's parlor, but I don't remember it.
I pulled up the rifle again, chambering a shell as I did. With a shot, I dropped another coyote in his tracks, and he squirmed when he fell, but he didn't get up. The little calf dropped to its knees and then lay on its side. I could see then that the mother cow was torn in the milk bag. Streaky red liquid oozed from her wound. She stomped and shook that animal off her ankle as I shot another. When one coyote remained, he turned tail and lit out into the brush, gone like a drop of water in this hot desert. Well, I started to move toward the calf; then the panicked cow decided to come after me. She put her head low and scuffed at the dust. I took up part of my skirt and flapped it at her, waving my hat in the other hand, and she backed up, mooing, looking for danger from all around. The poor old girl was bleeding from the nose, too. I whistled and Mary Pearl came riding in my direction, leading my horse. Two baldhead buzzards looped in the sky overhead.
The calf made a human-sounding wail. I knelt at its side. Poor baby was not two months into this hard world. I picked his little head up and laid it in my lap, coddling him as if he were a child. He'd been bitten all around the gut and his sack was torn clear off. By the time the cow started back my way, I saw the calf's eyes sink and knew he was dead. The cow bandied her head and groaned. Mary Pearl tossed a rope around her neck and tied it off to the horse's saddle, then backed the horse, pulling that mother cow around. The coyotes had been at her worse than I'd been able to see before. I'd figured I could doctor up the milk bag — I'd done as much before. Not this one, though — flesh hung from her leg and long blue veins dangled from her neck on the left side. Mary Pearl went to my horse, and from the saddle, she slung another rope over the cow's horns. She picketed the two horses so the cow was held between them.
The cow thrashed, limping on her mangled hoof and ankle, and shook the second lariat from its loose hold on her horns. Mary Pearl backed her horse more to keep the line taut while the animal jerked against it. In midstride, the cow collapsed, breathing hard through a spew of blood and sand and slobber. Mary Pearl rode closer, easing the tension on the rope. She said, "Aunt Sarah? Has she given in?"
I wiped my face with my sleeve and hung my head. Shock and fear had done what the coyotes couldn't. I've known cattle to outlast amazing things. Some don't. Maybe their hearts burst. Lord knows I've felt that way, watching my own child die. The old girl pitched in the dirt and bellowed, but she didn't get up. I said, "Ride on back to the house. Take my horse. I want to walk. I'll bring your rope by and by."
I reckon Mary Pearl knew better than to fuss with me right then, for she did as I said without her usual commotion. I walked around the cow, talking to her, my voice soft and low. "You fought 'em off, didn't you, old girl? Don't you go giving up now. You'll have another baby round the bend." Suddenly struggling to her feet, the cow made another threatening stance, lunged toward me, but then fell into the dirt, banging her great head against a rock outcrop. She moaned: a pitiful, suffering noise. It is a hard step for me — always somewhat of a surprise — to stop hoping and accept that there is no hope for an animal but a slow, agonizing death. My foreman shrugs and says it's part of ranching, but I hurt for my animals. I lifted the rifle and in my mind drew an X on her skull, midpoint between both eyes and the base of both horns. It isn't kind to do it poorly.
The shot was loud in my ears, echoing as the cow slumped and went quiet. Then I sat between my dead cow and her dead calf, right there in the scrabble and brush, pulled up my knees, and cried. These last three years have seemed like an eternity of drought and poor harvest and dying animals. My boys are off at school, and to tell the truth, it's cheaper to send them to town, where they can pick up work, than to feed them here. I need money and I need rain. Both of them in good order and flowing over.
After a while, I coiled Mary Pearl's rope and hung it over my shoulder. The rifle was heavy. My feet hurt. I beat the dust off my old hat, put it on my head, and started walking. I shook my head and didn't look back. The buzzards and the coyotes would have their day after all.
April 25, 1906
I knew soon as I spotted the riders and put names to them they were up to no good. I laid into the rug draped across my front porch rail with an iron beater, watching two men amble toward the house. Both were carrying good-size packs tied behind their saddles. It was early afternoon, and I had plenty of chores tallied to this day already. No sense waiting on a couple of slowpokes. I kept on whipping that rug, and let them get as close as the gate before I looked up and showed I'd seen them coming. "Charlie? Gilbert?" I called. "You two know what day it is?"
"Yes, ma'am, Mama," they said together. Charlie is twenty-one. Gilbert is but nineteen. My sons weren't due back from school for three weeks.
"Don't you let me hear you've failed out. I'll turn you out, to boot." I feared I knew the truth before they said it.
Charlie spoke first. "No, Mama. We haven't failed, either one of us. We just — well, we changed our minds."
I hit that rug two more licks. I said, "Oh, you did?" Charlie had been taking studies in engineering and mining. Gilbert was going to be a doctor.
He said, "Yes, ma'am."
"Both of you — together — changed your minds like they were one? What did you change them to?" Felt like my eyeteeth had just come loose. There is a perfectly fine university right there in Tucson for them to use. A library full of books, some of which I put there myself, is just waiting for them to discover and love and enjoy it. And here they come like roosting pigeons. I shook all over, so mad I couldn't speak.
Charlie stepped off his horse, holding his reins as if he was fixing to get back on.
Gilbert was still on his horse. He, too, was debating whether just to keep riding. He finally said, "Well, Mama, you don't know what it's like."
"I know what hard work is like. You have a privilege not many get — to use your minds instead of your backs — and you turn away from it, like ... like it was tedious."
Charlie scratched the animal's head between the ears and said, "We want to be ranchers. Like you and Grampa. We aren't cut out for that place."
I found myself fussing at his back. "How will you know what you are cut out for if you don't try? Charlie, you were only a year and this term from finishing. This ranch will be here when you are done. Mount up and get back there. Tell your teachers you're sorry for being knotheads, and make up your work."
"It isn't that easy," Charlie said, finally turning around to face me. He held the saddle in both hands. "I missed the final examination in geology today. I'd have to do the whole term again anyway. They just make it so hard on you, you can't get above water. Besides, all the science professor talks about is diamond mines in Africa. I've turned enough rocks here to make a mountain, and there sure aren't diamonds under 'em. School's a waste of time when there's plenty of work to do here."
I said, "You two seemed to have time enough for plenty of other shenanigans. I heard about the armless saguaro some hooligans planted right in front of the main stairs. Looks like a blessed giant finger stuck in the ground — in front of a university. It doesn't take a scholar to figure who might have been part of that."
Gilbert finally dismounted, turned his face toward his saddle. He was barely hiding a grin, but still scared to look me in the eye. I said, "I reckon there's some reason you're tagging along."
"I — well, I reckoned I'd think it over awhile. Doctors hardly make enough money to keep a pot of beans on the stove. I'd rather do something that puts some jingle in my pockets. Why, a vanilla drummer makes as much as a doctor, and he doesn't have to study chemistry or cut open cadavers." He eyed that rug beater in my hands as he smiled.
All my life, I've ached for the chance to sit in a real schoolroom, but I never got the privilege. I set myself to lay into them, but I'd as soon argue with the daylight. They'd already done what they meant to do. Maybe I never went to school, but I reckon I'm smart enough to know when I'm licked. Licked for now maybe, but not finished with this fight. So I said, "How are your cousins?" Savannah and Albert's twin girls and second son — Rachel, Rebeccah, and Joshua — the ones these two were supposed to be sharing my house in town with. The ones who'd stayed in school. "You say hello to your aunt and uncle as you rode in?" My brother and his wife and family lived just a scant mile up the road from me.
I could see the boys let their shoulders down. They knew they'd won this go-round. Gilbert took the pack off his horse and began loosening the saddle's cinch strap. At the same time, both of them said, "Fine. They're all just fine," mumbling something or other about Rachel's cooking.
"And what's cadavers?" I said.
Gilbert said, "Dead folks. Pickled dead folks. After the second one, well —"
I headed toward the house, saying over my shoulder, "Well, if you hadn't got the stomach for that, you hadn't. Come on in, and I'll feed you. Put those animals in the west corral. Pillbox just foaled, and I don't want you in the barn, upsetting her."
Even from the porch, I could see in their eyes that they were smiling, although they knew better than to look smart in front of me. One thing I know is that you can't let up on boys. Just because they're big as a man, you give them any slack, and they'll run sidelong into trouble. I'm about fed up with these two, I thought. Reckon I'll make them some lunches, and then figure what to do with them. Might as well invite Albert and Savannah and the rest for supper tonight, let them know the two renegades are back. Sorry rascals.
There's a single cloud in the sky. It looks pretty sickly, and I doubt it will prove its mettle. We as much as missed the spring rains. Maybe the summer's wet weather will come early, and get some grass growing before we go broke buying feed for cattle that already look like walking beef jerky.
My sons were still tending their horses when Ezra and Zachary, Albert's youngest boys, came along. They had a cord of some sort stretched tight between them and they trotted in circles around each other. They were each toting a slate and a book under one arm. Their bare feet stirred up dust as they came.
"Aunt Sarah," Ezra called, "watch us. Watch! Planetary motion." They whirled up the road, and Ezra howled as if he were the wind; then he jerked the string hard and tugged his little brother forward.
I laughed. Ezra and Zachary are my last two students, and I don't aim to short them on their readiness for the university.
As they got to the house, Zack was running with all his might. They both stopped at my front steps. Zack put his hands on his knees to catch his breath. He gasped, "You sorry old buzzard, Ezra. I told you to slow down. I'm played clear out."
I called through the kitchen window, "Both of you come on in. Ezra, you'll have to do your recitation first, so Zack can have enough wind to say his piece." Ezra moaned and followed Zack to the parlor, where they dropped to the floor and fanned themselves with their slates. I said, "Your cousins are home from town. We're all going to eat first, and then you can do your lessons."
Ezra said, "Can we go see 'em? May we? I mean."
I said, "Nope. Just cool off in here. They'll be in directly."
Almost the minute I'd said it, Charlie and Gilbert came at a near run to the house and flung wide the door.
Charlie said, "Mama, are you sick?"
My sons' faces bore childlike expressions of fear. Ezra and Zack cheered and howled at the sight of them, mindless of their cousins' worried looks. I had to raise my voice to be heard over the commotion. "Nothing of the kind," I said.
Charlie said, "When we put the saddles away, we saw old Mr. Sparky had been moved. Went to see what he was sitting on."
Mr. Sparky was what I reckon you'd call a toy. A scarecrow, topped off with a skull the boys had been given when the army shut down Fort Lowell and folks turned it into a marketplace. The telegrapher used to keep an old human skull in the office with glass eyeballs plugged into the eye holes and the snaggletoothed chinbone spring-wired to the ticker line. When a message came in, that jaw would ratchet up and down and the eyes would roll in their sockets. Indians would come for miles around just to set and wait for a message, then hoot and roll with laughter at the thing. After Jack died, some of the men at the fort sort of kept an eye on my boys when we were in town, and one of them rode clear out here to see if Charlie wanted Sparky when they left. I'd laughed and told him it wasn't like a puppy, but Charlie was happy, and later he and Gilbert took some clothes they'd both outgrown and stuffed Mr. Sparky a body.
Halloweens, Sparky keeps guard duty at the outhouse for us, which saves it being turned over like most of the other privies around. Other times, he appears now and then, just for the fun of it. Once, I got up on a Christmas morning to find what looked like a saddle tramp snoozing under a sombrero in a rocking chair on the front porch, his boots sticking from under an old blanket. About the time I guessed the old cuss was dead and started to use a stick to lift the sombrero, one of Sparky's glass eyeballs fell out and rolled across the porch. Gilbert and Charlie were laughing so hard at the corner of the house, they fell clear into the dirt. That was three years ago. Now he just collects spiders in the barn.
I said, "Grampa Chess put that hat on his head. I got tired of seeing those eyeballs glaring at me in the dark."
Charlie said, "Mama, Sparky's a-sitting on a headstone with your name on it. What does it mean?"
I stood in the doorway and folded my arms. "Not a blessed thing," I said. "I just had a hankering one day and bought it. Had my name carved, says just what I want."
Gil slapped his gloves against his leg. "What in blazes do you want it to say?"
I said, "Don't swear; the little boys are here. Come take a look, and I'll show you." I headed for the barn.
Gilbert took my arm, hurrying beside me. "Mama, if there's something we ought to know, if there's something wrong, you've got to tell us." Ezra and Zack followed us, and Charlie held the door aside, frowning. I do see his father's face when he does that.
In the barn, I moved Sparky, then went to pulling down some bales of fence wire where he'd been resting his feet. I passed them to each of the boys until I got down to the tarpaulin on the stone. "There's nothing wrong except my hardheadedness," I said. Although I'll be forty-three on my next birthday, I feel eighteen and spry, and I work sun to sun without a stop. "Don't know how you managed to find it. I hid it back here so you two won't have to mind it when the time comes." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Sarah's Quilt by Nancy E. Turner. Copyright © 2005 Nancy E. Turner. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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