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Mud Puppies

Mud Puppies

fiction by Paul Hunter of Seattle, WA

After Muncie died things were slow getting back to normal — and normal itself seemed to change. Within a couple years a drought snuck up when I wasn’t looking, that stretched on and on, five years in all, that seemed worse than anything I’d seen. Not that we didn’t have dry spells when we were kids. We’d get what mama liked to call a little “homemade weather.” Thin patches of rain all broken up and scattered around. Sometimes she’d call it a “tester,” as in “God’s just testing us,” point up at high puffy clouds that might slow just long enough to squeeze out a few drops, to settle the dust in the road. Great round drops that would splat and each raise a miniature cloud, that would streak down our dusty faces, leave a faint shiny track like a snail. But that would be it, no real rain for the deep baked-in cracks in the dirt, for the pale and rattling cornstalks, the grass that had no green and no life left.

But this time it got worse. Calves, their heads hung low, bawling in any shade they could find, water troughs with dead birds floating in them, that would swoop and hover trying to catch a drink, fall in and drown. Got so we’d toss a dead tree branch in each of the metal troughs that watered stock, so a swallow or swift might climb out and dry off enough to save itself. We fed all the grain, beans and corn we had, all the hay too, then bought hay at triple the price till there was none to be had at any price for five states around.

Finally that crick that ran down through the big pasture, that we’d taken to calling Little Trickle, dried up to where the banks gave just enough shade for a couple damp spots in the bed, that held a few horned toads and lizards set to blink at whatever came. By the third summer even our one deep well tasted muddy. Finally there was nothin’ for it but to thin the herd, down to the runt, the stunted nubbin. Along in there I had to lay off the two cowboys I’d had forever, Reynaldo and Clyde, with nothing much left for ’em to do, nor what-for to pay ’em with. I told them they could stay for free in the bunkhouse, and share in the garden we’d always planted and watered, but would have to fend for themselves otherwise till things looked up. We even rigged shade for some of the garden on top of the deer fence to grow berries and greens under, and mulched with rotten straw bedding from the barn knee-deep in spots to hold the moisture.

That was when every trick got tried, to save any hope that still held on in good breeding stock. I’d found a young doe dead in the far pasture, that had a mouthful of cactus spines stuck so tight she’d starved to death. So the next night I went out with a lantern and cut a wagonload of that same cactus, then singed all the stickers off next morning with a blowtorch, careful not to miss a one. I hacked it all up with a machete to feed the heifers, those few of the best I had left. The cattle actually ate it, though it was a feed the skinny horses still wouldn’t touch. That was when ranchers and farmers started going out after dark, mowing and baling the median and shoulders along the freeways. It was a desperate move, but everybody knew by now it was that or nothin’. The state troopers and deputy sheriffs showed up, but just waved the traffic around us, let us be and said hardly a word.

Along in there one morning I was sitting in the open mouth of the barn, cleaning and oiling the saddle I hadn’t used in months, with only those two good mares left, studying some mud daubers huddled around a splash of water under the nearby well spigot. I’d always liked these skinny black wasps that seemed a little sleepy but deliberate, tickin’ and twitchin’ like each held a little windup clock. They were mostly loners always busy and quiet, never offered to sting me or bother anything. But this morning they seemed a little fired up, in more of a hurry to mix the mud and get to layin’ their eggs and catchin’ a spider or moth to wall in with the baby-to-be. Most of these little mamas were carryin’ balls of mud up under the eaves of the barn overhead, building their parallel tubes in the joints where the roof planks met the wall. They usually did good work, and I was admiring how they did it, but soon saw they had mostly quit, and were back down checking the spigot. The puddle was drying up. The air was so hot and dry the mud would crumble and crack before they could even smooth it out. And what could they do about that? Some predator might find a crack and get in. Their eggs might cook and never hatch. So I set the saddle aside, went over and ran the spigot enough to make ’em a serious puddle six feet across, and wired an old umbrella up over it. Which stopped me and them mud daubers mopin’ a minute, and got us back to some work we were good at.

For a while there I wasn’t sure that any of it would come back. But I’d bought some grass seed and wildflower seed just in case, maybe to have something to do the day after the rains come back, or just something to feed the birds in case they never did. In my heart I just got down in the dirt with the rest of ’em, figured we’d just take our chances.

One night rockin’ on the porch the answer came to me that I should plant some trees. I had plenty of land with nothin’ much growing on it. So I got out the books to see what might do best, then bought a notebook and got a list going. Every late winter for those five years I’d buy a couple or three of some kind of tree that could stand the heat, and made any sense. I hung out at the nursery the next town over, and picked the folks’ brains clean down to their shoulders. I figured to need some shade along the crick, so planted three black locust trees deep around the couple places that were still damp, and put up an eight foot fence around each clump of trees, so the cattle and deer couldn’t eat ’em to nothing before they got tall enough to be out of reach and could fend for themselves.

Over time rockin’, sittin’ quiet on the porch I came up with a little plan. The first note I wrote in that spiral notebook after trees was cisterns. Each was written at the top of a page, that gathered my thinking beneath it. Something to catch the runoff from the barn and house, a couple big concrete boxes underground where the rain could be stored, and wouldn’t evaporate. I knew it meant a lot of work, since most old houses and barns in the country didn’t have gutters. But now we needed to save every drop. I had to get a couple tall ladders, and plywood for forms.

Then I wrote crops, and on the next page greenhouse. There might be things we could grow that didn’t take so much water, that weren’t so easily beaten down by the sun. Something even picky horses might still eat. Like oats and winter wheat. I started to see we’d have to make use of whatever shade we had till there were trees.

Then, when everyone had about given up twice over, out of what looked like a clear blue sky the rains came. And when the rains came they came hard — it rained a year’s worth in a couple weeks. As with most of the cowhands around here, that first day I just stood out in the rain whoopin’ and hollerin’ and got soaked to the skin. Renaldo and Clyde came out of the bunkhouse to laugh with me or at me, I didn’t care, and we cut a little buck and wing skippin’ around in the puddles. Before I got back in the house, my old everyday boots had about fell apart. But I wasn’t likely to forget, and got busy storing up what I could, and preparing for the next dry spell that might come any minute.

The rains and storms didn’t just ease in either, they slam-banged and knocked everything flat, and when they left, they had soaked everyone and everything. The roofs of barns and houses and gas stations and churches and feed stores all leaked — all their shingles seem to have split and shrunk. The hardware store in town had to set out every brand-new bucket they had to catch all the leaks.

So it took a while to mop up. But after a few weeks it was like the drought had never been. A five-year drought that had mostly been a stretch of nothin’ but weeds. In the flinty, cracked hardpan no crops would take, none at all, no matter how fine we harrowed it. Got so we never made a move if there was any wind atall, that would just lift up and blow off what was left of the good dirt.

While I was taking stock, wondering where to begin and what was my next move, out of the blue my dad called. We didn’t see each other much anymore but for his birthday, Thanksgiving and Christmas. But he needed to run into the city for a doctor’s appointment, and he wondered if I’d care to drive, then go to the racetrack with him. It was something we’d done when I was a kid, and had always had a good time — but I hadn’t been to the track since I got home from Vietnam. His plan was we’d drive up the day before, stay at a motel, and have us a good dinner somewhere. His appointment was next morning, and he’d checked, and the racetrack opened at one. I figured he wanted a chance to talk with nobody else around.

Over lunch at a little barbecue place Dad asked Did you ever think it would get this bad? I said What do you mean exactly? He said You know, the heat, the drought, the brush fires, and the rest. I figured we probably wouldn’t have much to talk about, since he already knew what I thought of his oil deal, and the oil business itself — the fossil fuels and fracking and the rest, that had finished off his big ranch as a paying enterprise. But he’d wanted me to come along not just to play chauffeur. And the old man finally opened up about always doing what his father, my grandfather, wanted. And when it came down to the oil, he’d known it was just how money talked tough to old age, nothing else. And now, with the old man gone to his reward just after Muncie did, he was asking what I thought. I told him I thought we were really in for it. This climate change was worldwide, and might make it hard to raise cows, or do much of anything else with summers all sun and no rain, with range fires on the loose. It was gonna take a lot more than luck to get through, and no mistake.

He took it different than he ever had before, more level an’ quiet. He didn’t just jump in with both feet like he used to, mocking and badgering to shut me up like he always had. He asked What do you figure to do, and I told him a little about my plans, to dig some cisterns, hang some gutters, plant some trees. Maybe put up a greenhouse, try to grow some different things. I went on and on with all the stuff in that notebook I’d been lookin’ for and plannin’ on. Like always he was lookin’ hard at me, but for once sat still and listened.

When we got to the track Dad was still kinda worked up, but not sayin’ much. The sky had gotten dark, like it was fixin’ to bust a good ‘un. Then in the first race of the day, with the horses halfway around the track on the far stretch, it cut loose, rumblin’ and flashin’ a couple good licks, then the sky opened up and down it came. And all at once we were both laughing. A lot of horses at the track look fancy and fussy, in all their colors and rigs. Jockeys dressed head to foot in silks. But here all at once they were what as a kid I’d called mud puppies. All the same color, hard to read their numbers or tell the jockeys’ colors, everything a brown movie that went by in a flash in the home stretch — their ears back, noses out, necks stretched, eager and running wide open. Happy mud puppies.

Some horses like to run in the rain and the mud, some are mudders, and some aren’t. A rain changes all the odds on everything. Some are set for it and run strong in the mud, and some don’t. But these all looked happy, whether first or last. We hadn’t even bet on this first race, because we were still fighting the drought, a million miles off in our heads. But then we bought a Racing Form, and for the rest of the day bet all mudders. And the best ones mostly won, as we knew they would. And on the drive back to the motel, after a long silence Dad called me a mudder, a good ol’ mud puppy, and if I would just keep runnin’ said he was bettin’ on me.