PEOPLE OF THE FLINT HILLS, AN ANECDOTAL ECONOMIC HISTORY OF THE REGION
I live in the rock-bottomed heart of the Kansas Flint Hills, the most heartbreaking expanse of bluestem prairie in the world, pastures that stretch to a child’s notion of infinity, protein-rich grass jitterbugging thigh-deep in the random whirls of a freshening wind. Above this ranch bends a sky that can’t stop itself from deepening, from expanding, from by turns lowering and brightening with colors that come from heaven’s waiting room. And not a single, solitary intrusion of the twenty-first century in sight.
These hills encourage the best in all of us: humility, contentment, resolve, a quiet focus far beyond the self. They bring a welcome sort of separation. A good lonesome.
The people who live here have learned the demands of distance. The citizens of the smallest towns, the ranchers and farmers of the Flint Hills have learned self-reliance because the nearest grocery store lies thirty miles away, the closest pediatrician practices seventy miles away, the last picture show closed fifteen years ago. And because the nearest neighbor lives but three miles away, the people of the Flint Hills have learned the value of shared everything, labor most of all.
For all of their rugged independence, the families of the Flint Hills are facing new economic threats these days, gone now the easy choices to live where their great-grandparents lived, to care for cattle horseback on ranches handed down, generation after generation looking to live their lives way out in the open. The great-great-great-grandchildren of Kansas homesteaders must find these days other ways to make a living. So off they go into such jobs as they can find in the city or to some cottage industry — saddle-making, agritourism, leatherwork, haying, carpentry, firewood delivered to a suburban rack — or on into geographically distant work where the skills of the cowman – observation, persistence, determination, and raw muscle on the one hand and welding, construction, and mechanics on the other – command a livable wage.
This great wide country cannot escape economic realities generated not just by the irresistible forces of supply and demand but, just as much, by a government gone all out of control in its regulation of the air we breathe, the water we drink. These days all of us in rural America must live by rules made almost entirely by bureaucrats who haven’t a clue to the mysteries of lives predicated on both self-reliance and concern for one’s neighbor. The fools who write this nation’s laws today know not “neighbor” as a noun. They cannot possibly understand the implications of the word as a verb.
These are stories of people descended from women and men of grit and bone, of steeled resolve, living in the wrap and the immediacy of these cloudless distances, in places where you need no compass to find your way home,
When you can see forever, you can always find a place to make a stand.
The gene pool runs, maybe, 15,000 years deep, cold and relentless in its demands for quick, evolutionarily aggressive adaptation. Some of them, Utah’s Sulphur Spring herd for example, have been called “zoological treasures,” linked directly to the primitive Iberian strain of the species.
Look at them.
Some with zebra piano-key legs. Some with triple dorsal stripes. Others with barred chests. Look again, and see perhaps the only domesticated animal on earth with the will and the wherewithal to revert to snot-blowing, dirt-pounding, blood-toothed, hard-hard-hooved wildness.
And damned if they didn’t.
Left behind as the Spaniards completed their imagined conquest, as the Commanche dwindled off toward disappearance, as the distant silver mines played out, as the Buffalo Soldiers rode back to Leavenworth, these horses ran farther into the mountains, deeper into the deserts of the American West. A while more later, more than a million of them were drafted into combat duty in World War I. Tens of thousands more became chicken feed and dog treats. And in the choke and gasp of the Great Depression stories circulated in small Western towns of horses weighted with old tires to make pickings easier for the rendering trucks after hot rods had run the animals to exhaustion. For a long, desperate time these creatures seemed to be following the buffalo off a killer cliff of their own untamed choosing.
First released in the seventeenth century to roam the high meadows, to reproduce along the ridges where always always a sentry stood, these horses made their wild way across western North America for five centuries before the United States government decided to again get involved. The Wild Horse Annie Act of 1959 came first, and it must be said that this landmark legislation, as with the laws that followed, took hold in footing way more emotional than economic. As word of the wild horses’ fight for survival spread across the nation, America’s schoolchildren and their mothers put pen to paper. Deluged with outrage printed in pencil on Big Chief tablets in the largest letter-writing campaign on a non-war issue in U.S. history, Congress passed in a unanimous vote the Wild Free-Roaming Horse Act of 1971, asserting that “wild horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people, and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene.”
The law is the law, and the legislation had established with no roaming room for argument wild horses “legal right to live on public lands, as the act suggested, “without harassment,” although it must be said that anyone attempting to harass one of these chestnut mares a first time will most certainly not be bothering her again.
Ask Craig Miller of rural Cassoday, Kansas.
Tall, thick and lean at the same time in the mold of men who have done physical labor their entire lives, Craig describes being “launched” by a goofy one who decided that a short ride in Craig’s trailer was not really what he had in mind after all. With a dozen or so of his gelded brothers already safely aboard, this horse turned and kicked with NFL ferocity just as Craig was shutting the trailer gate. Suddenly twenty feet south, Craig shook himself to run and jump and roll from the mayhem he just knew was headed his way. But, you know, that horse was already past, some speed and some movement learned from Nevada lightning at play in a cowboy’s spinning nightmare.
Craig rides the 777 Ranch where, as of February, 2007, 4,487 wild horses roamed relatively free. The Bureau of Land Management sends veterinarians as needed, and Craig’s work consists of receiving the newcomers and allotting the pastures and planning the movements and, most of all, feeding the horses through a Kansas winter.
Some of the locals question the wisdom of seven thousand acres of good grass and bunches of taxpayer money given over to a dead-end breed. But everyone likes soft-spoken, easy-to-grin Craig Miller. They admire his cowboy skills, his quiet integrity, his patience in the face of a life-changing change of responsibilities, the cattle gone in lieu of these helicoptered, starved-out, dry-mouthed, buckshot old nags.
And their fierce refusal to, like the lifestyle they would replace, die quietly.
Wayne Bailey was born a cowboy, and as such he is probably entitled to name his notion of the cowboy’s principal skill. Wayne says it’s “looking around.” He believes that the best cowboys are always observing, almost never asking dumb questions. And when he does wonder why, the born cowboy accepts both the inevitability and the deep, sweet irony implicit in the fundamental question, “What else would I do?
Wayne has ready answers for the two practical questions the locals most often ask him.
One, the open-cockpit airplane was indeed a necessary cowboy business expense, a useful and highly efficient means of looking around.
Two, he has already enjoyed and lost the one great horse every born cowboy should be entitled to.
The horse, Rascal, proved to be the equine equivalent of everything Wayne Bailey himself wanted to be: ready to work cattle all week and more than ready to haze steers on Saturday night. Rascal gave Wayne seven good years, and then a twisted gut battled first the veterinarian in Eureka, Kansas and then the learned surgeons at Kansas State University in Manhattan, because not less than everything would be attempted in saving this horse’s life.
When it didn’t, Wayne cried like a just-weaned calf.
As most certainly he did not when his sternum was extended an inch or so from the inside out, the product of a teenaged encounter with a cheap saddle horn. His nose now is quite a little bit more mashed and wayward than the nose he was born with. He has learned to throw a loop with both hands somewhat late in life, after a gray mare beat his right side half to death in the quiet stall on a Sunday afternoon, earlier in which he had won yet another buckle at a ranch rode forty miles down the road.
Marcia Stout married Wayne Bailey on November 23, 1968, one week to the day after his return from service as a combat engineer in Vietnam, “the first place I’d ever been that didn’t have a rodeo,” he says. “There was no courtship,” she says. Theirs a marriage of shared respect earned in the competitions of county fairs, in the sun and dust of patterned horse races: the poles, the barrels, the “rescue race” with a junior-high Wayne waiting behind a barrel and horseback Marcia reeling by, her husband-to-be swinging on behind for a full-out sprint to the finish line. “There was very little love back then,” she says again. “We wanted to kill each other.” The murder spree ended in that near-fifty-years-gone November.
And the really hard work began.
The eventual lovebirds were born into old Flint Hills ranching families, the unspoken rules of the Cowboy Way bred five generations deep, life-lessons learned in choir practice Wednesday evenings at the Presbyterian Church in Cottonwood Falls, in watching banger cows leaving the ranch with that hateful “B” brand, going immediately to slaughter. “Profit” a strange and foul-mouthed word in this line of work. Marcia following her dad everywhere back then, Elmore Stout at ninety-two years of age still in charge of TS Herefords and Quarter Horses, Bazaar, Kansas, the ranch begun by Marcia’s grandfather, A.E. Titus, M.D., an old-timey doc who in the course of hundreds of horse-and-buggy miles delivered maybe five thousand babies hereabouts. Marcia’s brother Stanley off to Kansas State University and the start of a regionally legendary auctioneering career, and one last bit of instruction from Elmore: “You make damned sure we can understand every word you say.”
It has been this way from the “I do’s” on.
The wedding dance done, Marcia and Wayne moved into a ten-foot-by-fifty-foot trailer house, took to riding pastures Derwood Bailey, Wayne’s dad, handed down to his son and the son’s new wife the care of pastures that thirty years before Jess, his own dad, had given him to ride. The payment for six months of watching over some thousands of steers came in October, a single check the newlyweds’ ostensible income for the entire year, and Bailey household budgeting was suddenly a long-term deal. And so Wayne off to the oilfields, roughnecking through the winter, a little extra money to carry Marcia and him to spring and the cattle coming again. Wayne dug basements. They took in yearlings in the cold months. They built fence, did daywork where they could find it. “This country will teach you versatility,” she says. The Baileys hung one, guaranteed the counts and cared for the cattle as if they were their own, and they tried to build the acreages entrusted to them. And Bailey taught kids to rodeo, just as Derwood had taught him.
Mike Wiggins, old Albert’s kid, remembers four nights of practice and two nights of competition in the high-school years, he and dozen other young cowboys back then spending golden hours at the arena Wayne built south of the house, down along the road. “One night we didn’t want to quit, and we lined our pickups along the side of the arena, and we bulldogged in the headlights,” Mike remembers.
Marcia Bailey of Greenwood County, Kansas then, straight out of a gene pool valuing intuition and persistence and no-questions reliability and always-on skills of observation, the key tools of the cowgirl. Naturally, the neighbors took notice. One, whose ranch lies a few miles south of Wayne and Marcia’s spread, says, “If I needed help in catching a wild one, if I needed a good count on a bunch of cattle strung all over a couple of sections, I’d call Marcia Bailey first.” Marcia still on the ranch, doing a strong man’s work, dehorning, calving heifers, holding a hundred newborns on a given day down for the cutting.
In time, the young couple started Bailey Construction. No finish carpenters here, no painters, Bailey Construction interested itself in horsepower, in large loads delivered at high speed, in movement at once explosive, accurate, and purposeful. (Some neighbors have referred for years to the entire Bailey operation as “The Power Ranch.”) And Marcia in time operating every piece of equipment in the yard, but one truck – usually the only street-legal vehicle in the fleet – always referred to as “Marcia’s dump truck,” the ten-speed, tandem-axle International in which she hauled both Buck and Wes as babies from a Chase County quarry the seventy miles one-way to job sites in Wichita, her toddler sons wrapped in blankets in the cab of a truck loading river gravel at four o’clock in the morning, way before the cows had to be fed.
When the hauling, the cowboying, the roughnecking paid enough for gas, they went down the road, did Marcia and Wayne, rodeoing throughout the first fifteen years of their marriage, he up in the bulldogging, she hazing for him. Marcia riding those barrels like unto cash for groceries. “I can’t say that we ever made much money from our rodeoing,” he admits, “but when I won, we ate steak.”
The circuit gone old, the family times packaged in memory books of her own making, Marcia Bailey thinks of the cowboy Elmore. “I grew up in his shadow,” she says again of the cussed-tough old man, the patriarch’s strength all hers now. Her boys grown, at work on their own ranches, Buck having bought his grandparents’ ancestral Matfield Green place, Wes eight miles north of Durham, Kansas on some old Stout ground, Wes rodeoing still – in the family manner – winning saddle-bronc in last winter’s incarnation of the invitation-only, big-arena “Barebacks, Broncs, and Bulls” competition, Wes free to travel to Eugene or Peoria as the schedule demands because Rachell (Mrs. Wes Bailey), in the way of Marcia Stout-Bailey and her mother Doris and grandmother Jessie, is looking after the cattle back in Kansas. A rodeoman may have to make Cheyenne, but sometimes he does so only because a ranch woman is bucket-feeding calves five hundred miles away in a wind-driven barn unaccustomed to a crowd’s approving roar.
A ranch woman named Marcia, alone a hundred miles from nowhere for sixty or seventy days in just the hardest coming of the winter, starting at daybreak, checking fluid levels in the feedtruck, loading the daily ration of hay and cubes for two hundred cows spread over three pastures, heading out in the January gloom to chop ice eight inches thick on south-siberian ponds, the bale-strings frozen in grassed-up glue. And Marcia with the window rolled down and looking, looking for the sickies, trying to catch the problems early, the ancient cowboy wisdom taking hold, “If you look twice at a calf, there’s a reason to worry.” Marcia listening again, hearing Elmore whisper across the years “That cough doesn’t sound quite right.”
Marcia Bailey has fed cattle by herself for the past eight winters because her husband has a way with large diesel engines and their manual controls. Even in high school (Matfield Green, Kansas ‘65, graduating class of four) Wayne was already manhandling bulldozers, the old D7 Cables, building dams, clearing brush, cleaning feedlots, developing an affinity for heavy machinery that has taken him to William’s Lake, British Columbia, later to Labrador City, Newfoundland, finally to Salt Lake City, Utah. To make budgetary ends meet, since 1998 Marcia’s husband has disappeared each autumn, off to maintain and repair impossibly massive mining equipment.
Amid sensitivities a watchmaker might want, Wayne Bailey and his friends raise a three-hundred-thousand-pound shovel, raise it on patented jacks invented by a cowboy mechanic, raise the shovel so that its operating table might be milled to tolerances of eight-onethousandths of an inch. Specialized work, obviously, requiring specialized tools and know-how accumulated over several lifetimes spent around heavy machinery. And the paychecks match the job description, good money at no time available back in rural, hard-frozen Kansas.
Buck Bailey’s great-great granddad – Colonel George Washington Bailey – came to these hills just after the Civil War, famous in these parts for telling a neighbor who was stitching up a deep, ugly cut in this foot, “Put another stitch there, Albert,” he said, pointing to an uncut spot of skin. “It’ll look better if you even things out.” Born out of such random toughness, Buck has lost two-thirds of the acreage three-quarters of a century in his family’s care, and what’s a cowboy to do without the grass on which to run his herd. And so he goes with father and his neighbors to Nova Scotia, to British Columbia, to Arizona and Utah, wherever the mining industry finds itself in need of an oil change. Buck’s mom maintains the homeplace and waits for her men to find their way back home.
But guess what?
After a fifteen-year hiatus, Bailey Construction is up and running at six thousand rpm once more. Marcia operates now with a new hip, a replacement that took her out of the saddle for most of last summer, not an especially happy time, but one which she bore with typical good humor, “I had more time to sew.” Wayne’s bull-dogging has left him with reaching shoulders mushed up and sore, a day at the controls of a grappled front-loader full of not much but pain and achievement. But at least he’s underfoot, the winter just past looking to be for the first year in memory a connubial proposition on the Power Ranch.
And so here they go again. Cutting trees this time around. Grubbing out hedge eighty-some years in the hardening. Ripping through the red cedar like so much overtall grass. Hoping to make the nut, five hundred dollars a day, that waits winters in the mines up north. Hoping to stay home next fall, to cut trees in the slack, to be there feeding cows come February with Marcia, no need to go back to fourteen-hour days in places where the sun shines, maybe, eight. Not on a good day, back home, Elmore gone now to the tall grass and easy water – no more sixty-mile trips to check on Dad – and a few hours in the basement with some cowhide.
Marcia Bailey makes purses.
She makes pillows and table runners and covers for photo albums. She weaves a delicate tapestry – a cowgirl slides smiling away horseback – against chap leather with white stitching and silver studs. An ostrich insert struts all around crinkled calf leather accented with conchos and a horsehair tassel. White brindle tucks next to red calfhide basted all about with red diamond sparklies and a black fringe. Marcia Bailey makes purses for a couple of reasons. One, her handiwork creates a welcome supplemental income to her family’s well-being. Two, the contemporary products of her mind, eye, and hand hearken back to the wellsprings of her cowgirl creativity. That pillow there, this picture frame right here… well, they’re just Bazaar, Kansas 4H projects that don’t ever have to end.
Make no mistake. The trees cut, the leathercrafts made and sold, they matter. They matter in enduring economic terms because the grass is going. Insidiously. Whole sections disappearing with not ten minutes’ warning, pastures the Baileys and the Stouts have managed for seventy years and more, pastures that Derwood and Elmore, as young men, cared for, land now lost to an urban, intergenerational predilection for a fast buck.
The plane is now longer a part of Bailey ranch life. Wayne relinquished it after some very productive years of livestock flight operations but, truth be known, after several cowboys’ lifetimes of looking around. Wayne flew one last mission, a water-balloon raid on a neighbor replacing a roof, engine off, Bailey on a glide path, silent just above the twenty-mph stall speed, ready to bomb with both hands. He came over Main Street in Eureka once with a cockpit full of water-swollen plastic in that J-3 Cub, a plane he used to check pastures that two cowboys couldn’t ride in two days, a plane he crash-landed the first day he flew it, in front of a half-dozen Mexican jet pilots who had brought their owners in for a registered Brangus sale south of town. Wayne stepped from the Cub, its fuselage vertical a hundred feet from the runway, and he bowed and he waved his hat to the sprinting, laughing jet jocks. Some of them wanted to buy what was left of that J-3, a plane capable of sustaining a wildman berserk in his first attempt at leaving this earth.
At the time the salvaged airplane was not for sale. Unlike old Rascal, a good airplane can be rebuilt.
And so Wayne’s wife, Buck’s and Wes’ mom, she sits with a good and true friend making simple objects of grace and beauty, their handiwork salable and happening in big-city stores in numbers that only the real deal can deliver. With any luck at all, come Christmas, Buck’s dad will be right there too, sewing the heavier leathers next to a wife of almost fifty years, likely both of them remembering.
Remembering calves dragged and pregnant heifers helped along and grieving neighbors brought some brisket, thinking back to Jess and Jessie, to Derwood and Doris and the golden-throated Stanley. Knowing that the grass around here grows good amid some sympathy and some homegrown science. Thinking how it has come round to this: to the certain assumption between two horseback cowpeople that every last little heartache, every unexceptional joy of two lives well-lived has led right here.
To downtown Thrall, Kansas.
For almost thirty years I have lived among cowboys, men whose one and only desire in this life is to ride the range, men who cry like lovestruck girls at the death of a good horse and stand dry-eyed in the rain of a best friend’s funeral, men whose acceptance I sought, whose approval might come my way if I kept dumb questions to a minimum and never, not once pretended to know more than I did.
Annie’s family made it all possible, the Cowboy Way bred four generations deep in them, my 110-pound blonde wife a top hand for sure, doing things right, shortcuts of any sort anathema to her strict and certain conscience. Work-brittle, afraid of not much beyond rattlers in the springtime, soothing of hurts human and otherwise, she loped through my life on the ranch with the moral authority of the born cowgirl she was.
They say each of us carries the cells that will eventually be the death of us. I walk around this morning nurturing the murderous exponents of my own undoing. Maybe cancer really does lie in the arroyos of all human metabolism. Maybe it menaces a kindergarten sweetheart on a Western Auto tricycle as surely as it does her eighty-year-old grandfather, the sun-loving Copenhagen addict who bought the trike on his pension from the uranium mine. For Annie the killer came with insidious intent, with a viciousness that began to seem like special treatment. Three times we believed she had wrestled this rare cancer to a draw, had fought off its want for her cervix. Told at diagnosis that the cancer typically appears in women twice her age, as one of the lesser of their medical problems, I knew that surely her silent strength, the purity of her thoughts, her will to see our teen-aged daughter in a wedding dress would bring her through, no matter what the medical odds-makers might say.
And so she began the haul, surgery first, in the ruined hours of an endless Saturday she lay in the laying open of her frontside, the navel and down thereabouts. But the killer tissue was taken and some lymph nodes too, and I shot off my fat mouth. “Annie Brown beat cancer,” I said, blind from denial in a deal jinxed from the get-go.
Annie was a creature of autumn. Born on the last day of August, she turned to harvest, to nurturing, to warming a winter place. Frugal, tight-fisted with our money, she understood the value of things. She bought the best clothing, on sale, took care of it, and wore it with the easy verve that won my heart away. We’d agree each fall that it would be Thanksgiving before we turned on the furnace. Any cold snaps beforehand, well, we had sweaters and the fireplace and chili and early bedtimes. A friend stopped in Target once, watching Annie touch and snoop in the housewares aisle, and he knew too. “She’s nesting,” he said.
A thoughtful, inventive giver of gifts, she loved her themes. One Christmas, all her gifts – from the gaiters to the wool shirt to the guitar picks in my stocking – were red. We traded anniversaries. One September 17 would be Annie’s responsibility, the next would be mine. She took me flyfishing in Montana and New Mexico, the latter a resort owned by the Apaches, people after her own heart.
She gave me this horse on our tenth wedding anniversary. Jumpy, stumble-footed, by her own admission not a handsome horse, Annie Brown decided that Clyde would be my mount. He bit Mike Collinge’s horse square on the ass, without provocation, our first time out with the locals. Walked right up and, before any sort of howdy-do, chomped down on that horse’s beam. And someone asked, “Ain’t that the Clyde horse?” And then, “Too bad about those little girls.” Quicksilver fast, he had run barrels until his accidents with those young women became too much for his owners to bear, speed not much when kids are being flung toward rodeo dirt.
With me, he tripped, but he did not tip over. He stumbled, again and again, but never did he fall. Until that Sunday afternoon when all hell headed east and old Clyde jumped out from under me. And off we were going in pursuit of the breaking heifers. Past Harold Garner, venerable University of Missouri professor in equine studies of the more esoteric sort. Past good old Norman Geiger. And so down we went, this horse and I, as a direct result of his fuel-dragster speed, his intuitive notion that we should be there rather than here. The hole in the terrace too big even for a far surer horse to miss, his tonnage rolled over me, the saddle horn missing by an inch the bone at my left knee, ribs broken and a shoulder torn, a concussion unknown but underway.
He jumped back erect, standing there, waiting for me to come along. He stood, and he waited. And I climbed back on, as the unspoken dictum said, and the burn ensued and my ribs could not support the weight of my head and shoulders. I drooped in the saddle, and Mike Seeley, Annie’s brother, took me in his pickup back up the hill where she waited to help and to heal one more time.
Twice the disease came back, each recurrence mysterious and unprecedented to the gynecological oncologists who treated her, even to those at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where a Bulgarian physician of soft and earnest voice asked what he might do for her. “Please prolong my life,” she said, and he gave back some clinical horrors with not much hope. So Annie came home to die.
We had already brought the goals closer, had shortened the landmarks of our hope. No longer thinking of a daughter’s bridal gown. No more graduation from college. Not even from high-school now.
On this certain day, we had gone to town for a trim of her hair, growing back a bit after the cessation of the chemo that had failed to save her. On the Lake Road she told me to buy a new truck immediately, so that “people won’t talk about you whooping all our money away after I’m gone.” We passed the funeral home, and she said, “Let’s stop and pick out a casket for me.”
When I protested, she said, “But surely you’ve thought about my dying.”
“I was thinking about Hilltop.”
“Oh, I’d like that.”
Hilltop, last used in 1949, a hateful woman buried at the cemetery’s northernmost edge, her casketed feet facing away from the neighbors whom she despised in life and wanted little to do with in death. Hilltop, bluestemmed burial for soldiers from the Grand Army of the Republic and for clustered babies, taken in the diphtheria epidemic of 1911, the disease finding its way ranch to ranch in this remote hill country, abetting the deaths in childbirth, often mother and stillborn baby taken within hours of each other’s passing. Hilltop Cemetery, where Leonard Booth told me that South Janesville Township policy required the purchase of four plots minimum, and “John, that’ll be $28.” Hilltop, five miles as the crow flies from the house she had designed over ten years of reading Southern Living magazine
She died at three-thirty on a Monday morning, her life spilling out in a little blood at the nose and mouth, in a release of the bowel obstruction that had tortured her since Friday.I sat in the chair next to our bed of nineteen years and watched her slip away.
Father Leo Kerschen, who loved her from first sight, sang Home on the Range from the pulpit. The funeral procession stretched for nine miles, some cars just leaving Sacred Heart Church back in town, as the first vehicles parked in the pastures adjacent to Hilltop, Suzie Hawthorne’s horses stampeding along the way, never having seen such a sight.
Oh, she would have liked that.
She cried, to my knowledge, three times in the years the cancer worked its worst. Her tears came unwelcome at diagnosis, then again at the doctors’ recommendation of hospice. And finally, a week before she died, I walked into the house from feeding the cattle to find her shaking on the couch. Her dry mouth puckered, Annie’s eyes red in the hurt of the disease’s gnaw, she said to me, “I can’t remember how many cows we have.”
“I can’t remember,” and she cried some more.
Little saint. Little love of mine.
She lay there gloried, bald and white, her love for this sweet old world consumed in the altogether of trying to draw another breath, a stand-off of minute-to-minute proportions. I brought our cows up to the house pasture, so that she might see them from our bed, their calves running and bucking across our grass, its billion swallowed hoofbeats echoing in her tiny, silent ears.
And just like that there they went, those black babies and my Annie, riding off with all the answers, hard, into the wind.