“Thanks for coming Cliff,” Walter said as they both climbed into the pickup, the dog nestling at Cliff’s feet.
Cliff nodded, but did not reply. The day was hot and the truck, which had been sitting out in the sun, was hotter and his back was already damp with sweat. He rolled down the window and rested his arm gingerly against the scalding hot metal. The dog looked up grinning at him, in spite of the uncomfortable position it had contorted itself into.
Walter rolled down his own window and started the truck, humming to himself as he did. The radio, as always was tuned to 770, the talk radio station from Edmonton. In afternoon’s, which it was now, Rutherford was on. Cliff found him insufferable. Walter did too, but he enjoyed listening to him. Enjoyed disagreeing and getting annoyed and laughing at how wrong he was.
Walter headed out to the road and turned north, the dust from the gravel leaving a broad wake behind them. It had been a dry year, the pastures were already more brown than green, and the green of the fields was fast turning to yellow. Harvest would be only a couple of weeks away, or sooner, if the warm weather held. It would be a poor one as well—there had been little rain that spring and none in the summer. Walter said it was as bad as he had seen it, as bad as when he was a kid in the thirties.
“I just don’t feel comfortable heading up to the pastures by myself anymore,” Walter said, as if the silence of the last minutes had not happened. “Not as young as I used to be. Of course, before I would’ve taken Jane.”
Cliff opened his mouth but did not reply. He didn’t know quite what to say, didn’t have the words. Jane had been Walter’s wife for over fifty five years. She had died the summer before, a summer as hot and dry as this one.
Clliff didn’t have to say anything though. Walter kept talking, as he drove down the road at an ambling pace.
“That calf is probably dead, but we have to go see if we can find it. Might’ve just gotten separated from its mother. I remember we had a heifer, got her head stuck between the branches of a tree and couldn’t figure out how to get out. Almost died before we found her.”
Cliff nodded. He had heard the story before, as he had heard so many of his grandfather’s stories. In spite of the open windows on the truck, it still felt stultifying. Or perhaps it was just the same old conversations, the same old trips down the same old roads. That fall he would be off to university. He was counting the days until he would be free of this tedium. Life felt as though it were happening somewhere else, while he chased after presumably dead calves in pastures somewhere off in the middle of nowhere.
It was a half hour drive up to the pasture. Once there they made their interminable away across its three sections, scouting for the lost calf. Walter insisted on heading to every low-lying spot where a few trees had sprouted up. The cattle would often gather in them during the heat of the summer, or in the spring when their might still be water lying in them. Now all them were empty, the cattle clustered near the center of the pasture where a slough and a dugout provided their water.
When they had gone through the copses of trees on the south side of the pasture, they proceeded through the herd to check and see if the missing calf had reappeared. Walter concentrated on the various calves, while Cliff stared off at the vast horizon and the cloudless sky, listening to the buzzing insects and chirping birds.
“I don’t see him,” Walter said when the truck had made its way through the last of the herd.
“Me either,” Cliff said, straight faced.
Walter turned the truck north and they went through the rest of the pasture. There was no sign anywhere of the missing calf, not even any bones whitening in the sun. “It might have gotten out through the fence somewhere and not been able to get back,” Walter mused.
Cliff nodded, though he wasn’t really listening anymore, his mind already on what he could do once they got home. The calf was gone and there didn’t seem any point belaboring the issue. It wasn’t as though they could solve the mystery of its disappearance, unless its body showed up somewhere.
“Maybe it ended up in with MacTierney’s cattle,” Walter continued, oblivious of Cliff’s sudden restlessness. “They’ll let us know if they see him though.”
As they drove out of the pasture, they passed by an oil well that had recently been capped. Walter stopped the truck to look over the fence the workers had put up around the well, making sure it was in good shape. “Now,” Walter said, with a shake of his head. “What do you suppose the chances are one of those boys had a rifle and decided to get himself some steak while he was up here?”
Cliff shrugged. “Maybe.”
“Maybe,” Walter said, nodding. “Maybe.”
They returned home, Walter whistling to himself and Cliff watching the dust pooling behind them in the side mirror. Neither of them spoke until they were almost back to the yard.
“So you’re off to school next month,” Walter said.
“Yeah,” Cliff said.
“Getting excited? Got everything ready?”
“I guess so,” Cliff said, answering both questions or neither.
“Well, I hope you enjoy it. It’s good to get out and see the world while you can,” Walter said, looking across the cab of the truck at his grandson.
They were within sight of the farm by then. On the one side of the road was the yard, with Walter’s house and Cliff’s home, where he lived with his parents. On the other side was the house Walter had grown up in, where his parents had first settled. It was dilapidated, windows broken and paint peeling, leaning slightly to the side, and looking as though a stiff wind might send it toppling.
Walter nodded at the place, his expression thoughtful. “I didn’t go very far in life,” he said. “Just across the road.”
In A Flash: read a new story every Thursday…
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