Hank stood in the mucking mud, cutting calves through iron chutes. Buzz held the calves’ mouths so their mothers wouldn’t hear.
Sleet fell from a gray sky and the men’s faces were red like cherries. Ice frosted the brims of their hats, which were matching: black with a white B stitched above the bill, the line for the B shaped like an arrow pointing down. It was the sign Buzz used to brand his cattle and he’d given the hat to Hank a few days earlier. It was stiff and brightly black on his head.
Hank was gentle with the calves, massaging their balls after injecting the medicine so it’d have time to take effect.
“Too much time,” Buzz said.
Hank ignored him.
When Hank cut, he cut swiftly so there was little blood, though the bottoms of his pants were spattered and he wiped his knife and scalpel on a towel that hung from the belt at his waist.
The edges of the farm couldn’t be seen through the clouds that lowered, the ice that fell. It was a vast farm. Sprawling.
“More land,” Hank thought, “than any man has right to.”
Buzz was not Hank’s father but could have been. Hank’s father died in a small room on the same reservation where he’d been born. His debts were sent in monthly statements to Hank’s house, and Hank worked two jobs to pay them—this for Buzz and another for the county roads department, clearing roads in winter and building them in summer.
“Last one,” said Buzz, leading another into the chute. It was a pale calf with a red face and one red leg, and something about the way it walked reminded Hank of his youngest son—the skinny stretch of legs.
“Kids’re back,” he said.
Buzz didn’t answer and Hank didn’t know if he heard. Buzz’s hearing was bad.
“Plans for the holiday?” Hank yelled.
Buzz shook his head. Buzz had no wife, no kids. No one to claim the vast land when he died. He wanted to leave it, he said, to the Church. Hank raised his eyes from the calf to the fields roiled in mist. He pictured the land cut into squares, sold in parcels by priests with fat hands.
“Just me and Sarah,” Buzz said.
Sarah was a girl he’d met last month, Hank’s age, long hair streaked with silver.
“You gonna marry her?” Hank teased.
Buzz made a face and Hank laughed. At his father’s funeral, the tribal elder led him up the stairs of a tiny church and lay a bell pull in his palm. Eighty-seven times he pulled that bell, once for each year of his father’s life, and the sound echoed from the open-sided belfry to the plains outside, the casino at the edge of them, the buffalo penned nearby.
“Don’t put me in a white man’s grave,” his father had said, and Hank hadn’t, burying him instead in the reservation’s cemetery. He bought plots for himself and his blonde wife, too, though the boys refused. They’d never be laid to rest with him. Hell, they might not even visit.
Sleet turned to snow and flakes softened the ice casing the ground. The men were silent as Hank made the last incisions on each side, pulled the testicles carefully through, broke blood vessels. He wiped his hands on the towel. Buzz led the calf to a dry hut where the others rested.
“Overtime comin’,” said Hank, viewing the sky.
He drove Buzz to the farmhouse in the Kubota. Washed dishes, emptied trash. The house had four rooms and a kitchen. The closets were stuffed with clothes a decade old with price tags still stapled to sleeves. Before he left, Buzz told Hank to grab a box to give to his sons, and Hank held them to the light wondering if they’d fit, if his accountant son in the city had use for them.
Hank had nothing of his own to leave to his sons. The house was double mortgaged. His father’s damned bills. His own.
By the time Hank left to clear roads for his other job, trees groaned in the wind. Grass crunched under an inch of snow. Once, he thought, all this had been his—his people’s. He’d have roamed these plains in this ice with no thought of pensions or roads, both sons at his side. Their hips would sway with the horses; arrows sling their backs. They would have been kings.
“Coming home?” his wife texted.
“Maybe,” he texted back.
“Kids are here,” she reminded.
He would clear the roads close to home first, grab some supper, hug the kids. The rest could wait til after dark. The snow would be thick then, white in the lights of his plow.
Stacy Trautwein Burns’s fiction has appeared (or is forthcoming) at Lost Balloon, New Flash Fiction Review, Jellyfish Review, and Smokelong Quarterly, among others. It has been nominated for Best of the Net and appears in print anthologies from Bath Flash Fiction and Reflex Fiction. Other work has been shortlisted for the Master’s Review anthology prize and given honorable mention by Glimmer Train.