Authors: Carolyn Brown
He found her sitting under a pecan tree in the shade, studying the cows grazing near a farm pond. Some were wading out into the muck surrounding the water that was evaporating too fast in the sun’s blistering heat. Some were chomping at the green grass, and some were lying down chewing their cud as contentedly as if there were no steaming heat waves rising from the water.
He stopped and dismounted like he was getting off a horse.
“Any changes?” he asked.
“No, and you didn’t have to come check on me.”
“I’m not. I wanted to take one more look. We’ll round them up tomorrow and get Randy and Kendall to hose them down.”
“You sure you don’t want to hire a hairdresser to come braid ribbons into their tails?” she asked sarcastically.
He gritted his teeth. “Stop fighting me on every issue. Big spenders like pretty stock. Hose the mud off and those cows will bring another hundred a head. Multiply that by…”
“OK, OK!” she said. “It’s just different than what Aunt Maud did. I wasn’t prepared to do it any different, and then you come along with all these ideas.”
“I want this to work, Sophie. I want to live here, to make it a going concern. If washing down the barn and the cattle make us more money, then that’s what we’ll do.”
She shut her notebook. “Truce then, until after the sale. When we add up the profits and compare them to last year’s, we’ll see if it was all worthwhile.”
She stuck out her hand.
He reached across and shook.
Neither was prepared for the shocking tingles that glued their boots to the ground.
Sophie put a Sammy Kershaw CD in the player and picked up a romance book she’d checked out the last time she went to the library. She and Elijah had eaten soup from cans: she’d had gumbo, and he’d had some kind of beef stew. She’d sliced some Italian bread and toasted it with pepper jack cheese under the broiler, and opened a jar of peaches that she and Aunt Maud had canned the spring before.
After the jolt that had passed between them when they shook hands, neither had had much to say. They’d eaten, cleaned up their dishes, and Elijah mumbled something about a shower. She’d kicked off her boots, put on the music, and intended to read, but the words all blurred together as Sammy sang “Don’t Go Near the Water.”
“Too late,” she mumbled. “I done went near the water and I can’t swim.”
What are you fussin’ about?
Aunt Maud’s voice argued so close to her ear that she turned quickly to make sure the old girl hadn’t resurrected and came to visit. No one was in the bedroom with her, but Aunt Maud continued.
You can swim just fine, girl. Now why are you hiding in your room? Ain’t Elijah good company?
“Listen to the song, Aunt Maud. Sammy is singing that he didn’t go near the water, but he got his feet wet. That’s the way I feel. I don’t like Elijah, but I got jealous when he looked at the delivery girl, and when we shook hands, something jarred loose in my heart that I buried so deep it wasn’t ever supposed to surface.”
All she got was a soft chuckle and a soft breeze across her face in answer.
“I’m crazy!” she muttered. “I’m talkin’ to the dead and imaginin’ ghosts. See what a man in my house has done to me? Those boys in the white jackets and the unmarked van are going to appear in the front yard if I don’t get it together.”
The ringtone on her cell phone jerked her back to the present. She rolled to the other side of the bed and fetched it from the nightstand.
“Hello. I’m glad you called. I’m going crazy,” Sophie said.
“You’re about to go more crazy. Has anyone called you?” Kate asked.
Goose bumps as big as a herd of Angus bulls popped up on Sophie’s arms. “What?”
“There’s a wildfire to the southeast of you. I just heard about it. It’s headed right for your ranch, lady. I’m surprised you hadn’t heard already,” Kate said.
Someone started beating on the front door so hard that the glass rattled. “Someone is here. I bet Gus heard and he’s here. Thanks.”
“Call if you need help,” Kate said.
Sophie shoved her feet down in her boots and ran down the hallway toward the door. She slung it open to see Gus and three of the hired hands wearing worried expressions and motioned them inside. Before they were in the house, Elijah
was in the room, smelling like soap and Stetson aftershave and wearing cotton pajama bottoms with a black T-shirt stretched across his broad chest.
“We’ll get the cows up in the pens close to the barn,” Gus said.
“What’s happening?” Elijah asked.
“Wildfire. Started down southeast of us. It’s bypassed Baird, but it’s eating up farm land, and this wind is blowing it toward the ranch,” Gus said.
“Firebreaks,” Sophie said.
Elijah had to stop himself from tearing off his pajamas right there in the foyer. He headed down the hall and yelled over his shoulder, “I’ll get dressed, and we’ll plow firebreaks if you all can gather in the stock. Start in the south and herd them north toward the two barns. We’ve got pens ready for the sale. Put as many as you can in the pens.”
“And the yard should hold at least thirty head so fill it up too,” Sophie said. “I’ll take the older tractor. I’m used to it, and I’ll start a firebreak along the south fence line. You come in behind me, and we’ll make it double-wide. Next year we’re putting in metal posts if I have to finance them out of my personal account.”
“I been tellin’ Miz Maud that for years. One of these days the fires are going to burn up every one of them old wood posts,” Gus said on his way out the door. “Frankie, you and Kendall go get on them four-wheelers. I’ll drive my truck, and Randy can take the old work truck. I just hope we don’t run too many pounds off them right here at sale time.”
“Better to be ten pounds skinnier than burned right out there in the field,” Sophie said as she took off in a dead run toward the barn. She quickly backed the tractor up to a wide
plow, hooked it up, and took off for the southernmost field as fast as she could make the old girl go. The sun was a big old orange ball off to the west, but the southern wind carried the smell of smoke, and where there was smoke there would be fire right behind it. The breeze was scalding hot, but, in spite of it, cold chills danced down her spine. Was she about to lose the ranch right there at sale time? What would happen to the cattle? What if she lost a barn?
So many questions and not one dang answer.
Elijah wasn’t far behind her, and they lowered their plows at the same time. She kept the front tires as close to the barbed wire fence as possible. He came along on her left, doubling the size of the firebreak. Even if it burned the posts and the fence fell, maybe the freshly plowed dirt would bring it to a halt. If the wind would just stop blowing, the firebreak would work for sure.
“Too many ifs,” she mumbled and stole a glance over her shoulder. Elijah was doing a fine job, and with any luck the two of them would keep the fire from destroying their ranch.
“Our ranch,” she said aloud. “Not mine, but ours. Sounds strange, Aunt Maud.”
Dry, hot weather and brown pasture grass made perfect conditions for a Texas wildfire, and Aunt Maud had told her stories that would uncurl her red hair, but this was her first experience with one. The smoke snuck into the tractor cab through the air vents and made her cough, but she kept plowing, checking her rearview mirror frequently to make sure Elijah was still back there. They were almost to the end of the section line when she saw black smoke billowing across the rolling hills, red and yellow blazes as tall as a two-story house right behind the smoke. She stopped the tractor and
watched as it surrounded the neighbor’s oil-storage tank and gained even more momentum when the tank exploded in a loud roar.
Elijah caught up to her and hopped out of his tractor, slung open her door, and shouted above the constant noise of fire eating whatever lay in its pathway. “It’s going to break and spread around us. I’m going back to the east to plow one width against the ranch line on that side. You take the west. Did you bring your phone in case you get into trouble?”
She shook her head. “Just go. If I get into trouble, I’ll run.”
Heat like she’d never felt before blasted through the open door along with smoke so dense that she could hardly breathe. Elijah nodded and slammed the door shut. She turned the corner and the setting sunrays lit up the hills giving the blazes life. They looked like graceful dancers vying for center stage as they danced across the hills, coming closer and closer to their ranch. She could see Gus and the guys herding scared cattle toward the house and barns, and could imagine cows bawling at calves and testy old bulls refusing to budge.
She squared up with the fence line, dropped the plow again, and started plowing. Smoke completely obliterated what was left of the sunset in her rear view. Hopefully, she and Elijah could keep it from jumping the fence and burning down their ranch.
She gunned the motor of the old tractor, promised it a week’s rest if it didn’t stop on her right there in the middle of the fire, and turned off the air conditioner. She could sweat, but she couldn’t inhale smoke and keep driving. A fly buzzed around her head and she swatted at it.
“Suck in smoke and die. I don’t have time to mess with you,” she said.
It spiraled down to the seat beside her, wiggled a few times, and expired right there in the cab.
“I’ll be danged! I didn’t realize how powerful my words were. OK, Elijah, plow like the wind and meet me in front of the house.” She giggled.
You are giddy. Slow down and hold the steering wheel tighter. You let that blasted fire ruin the ranch, and I’ll haunt you forever.
Aunt Maud’s voice was back in her head.
“You already do,” Sophie said aloud.
Before Aunt Maud could argue further, Sophie came out of the smoke, and the flames were so close to the tractor that they looked like they were coming right inside. They were so tall that she didn’t think there was any way the firebreak would stop them, but miraculously the wind died down. The blaze stood still, not knowing where to go or what to do with no direction. It reminded Sophie of dancers with no music, milling about on the hardwood floor, wondering what to do next.
Then she heard the whirring noise of helicopter blades, and an enormous amount of water fell from the sky, some splashing on her tractor windows as it killed the flames right there, leaving charred posts and red-hot barbed wire where the huge bucket of water was dumped. The flames that didn’t get squashed whipped up like a second-string football team during the last quarter of a shutout, tried to get enough momentum to jump the section line road when they hit it, but it was too much for them. The mission was over, and the ranch was still standing. No cattle were lost; not a single one with even a burn mark on it. The land lay like a green oasis in the middle of blackened fields with a few hot spots that continued to shoot up a single blaze every few minutes.
The fire had stomped its way across thousands of acres, but when the wind ceased, it didn’t have the energy to jump the firebreak and continue its journey.
Elijah and Sophie parked their tractors at the same time and bailed out, each searching for the other one through the smoky distance. He waved when he saw her, and she held up a hand.
He covered the pasture in a few long, easy strides, thinking that the gray fog in front of him and her eyes were the same color. When he was only a few feet from her, their gazes locked and time stood still.
Not the smoke.
The last of the setting sun, barely an orange sliver at the end of blackened fields, didn’t even sink lower.
“We did it,” she said softly.
“Yes, we did,” he said.
Gus yelled as he came toward them, breaking the moment. “We got them all inside pens. They ain’t too happy, but I’d leave them right there until tomorrow. News said we might get rain. That’d settle the smell and the hot spots.”
Elijah was disappointed. He’d wanted another few minutes alone with her. For a second, he’d wondered if the sparks from when their hands touched that afternoon had set the fire to burning in the first place. There’d sure been enough to blister his fingertips and make him want to draw her to his chest, maybe even see if those lips were as sweet as they looked.
“Sounds like they don’t like their close quarters.” Sophie giggled.
The sound of bawling cows was music to Elijah’s ears, easing the tension from his tired arms and chest. He hadn’t
realized how uptight he’d been until that moment. He chuckled and it turned into laughter, which quickly changed to a full-fledged guffaw with Sophie laughing right along with him.
“It’s not that funny,” Gus said.
“No, it’s not, but I’m so tickled that they’re all alive that it made me giggle.” Sophie wiped her eyes.
“You look like a coon with all that dirt and smoke on you,” Elijah said.
“Well, you don’t look any better,” she said.
“Bawling cows are not funny!” Gus said.
Sophie patted him on the shoulder. “I know, Gus. It’s just that laughter takes the bite out of the nerves. I was scared to death those flames were going to crawl right up in the tractor with me. I could feel the heat on the passenger’s side of the tractor. When it all settles, I bet the paint is blistered bad. And then the wind died down, and the fire stopped right there at the fence. The barbed wire was red-hot, and the fence posts are black but still standing. I want you to put at least three men on the permanent payroll after the sale. We are going to redo the whole fence around the ranch with metal posts. If we’d been gone to another cattle sale or off to Walmart, this whole place would have been gone when we got back. We were lucky once but…”