Ink dries like scabs on his fingertips, sticky on the wheel of his Dodge pickup. He shifts it like a Mustang, winding out the clutch with each gear until the engine screams the next octave. His elation accelerates with the pickup until both are moving too fast for the gravel road. But he knows there’s still time to turn around and make the agent tear up the contract. Just like you, Blake, he can hear the agent say, always figured you’d change your mind, keep the old ranch after all.
He buries that thought as the crusty tires kick up a cloud of brown dirt, spinning mosquitoes, and chaff. His father’s land, the family homestead the old snake left for Blake to work when he retired to the city, though he kept most of the profits. He knew Blake would keep feeding them all—cows and family. Now his father’s gone and so is the ranch, sold for the down payment on a patch of Arizona desert with new irrigation and fresh soil, ideal for growing cotton. No more cows.
Blake senses his parents watching him leave. Their ghost eyes peer from their chairs under the juniper trees planted by their grandparents. He hears them now the way he heard them throughout his childhood, when they repeated the family history as if they were chanting a litany: that first year on the prairie, the limestone hewn for fences, rebuilding on higher ground after the spring flood, sickly cattle like dogs with long legs. He remembers his mother’s hands clasping his ankles, teaching him to swim in the stream, the same water the cows drank and fouled. She reaches for him now as he slows for the left turn toward the highway, pausing to capture one last look at the place, coasting to a stop. He rests his foot on the brake and waits for the dust to settle. Her appeals always worked before.
But as much as his mother cared for him, the ranch felt like his real mother, as if it had carried his fetus wrapped in roots and gullies and pushed him out dry, ready for work. His father treated him like a hired hand—best way to learn your chores and manners, he said. Blake’s mother dodged her husband like a tenant until she left, the last buffer between the man’s fist and the boy’s skull until he grew too big to wallop.
He thought he escaped with the Navy, but now he knows better. Pulling away should be easy—just release the brake and play the clutch, a minor operation like birthing a calf. He recalls that day he subbed for the dead medic on his ship near Midway, how the doctor tied off veins, saying they’d grow back. Blood finds a way. True enough. The doc would say selling the ranch was just another suture.
And his father would say the well pump needs a new gasket before winter. Blake stomps the gas pedal in his pickup before the blood has a chance to clot. With a jerk, the transmission clunks and stalls. Not again. He scans the old house in the distance, imagining his mother’s faded sunflower curtains and the water pipe outside her kitchen window. He pulls his eyes away and restarts the engine, easing the truck into low gear and accelerating onto the highway. Time he worried about himself, his own land.