Liz Betz
The Last Hurrah of Shenandoah Tait

For years the longhorn skull had been mounted high on the overhead pole that stretched between the two gateposts. The words Wobby and Ranch that had been painted freehand in white paint on a more hopeful day, were badly faded. The ranch house sat shyly at the end of the lane way.

Today parked in front was a stranger's car and inside the house that stranger, a young woman was bent over some papers on the kitchen table. The older woman, Shenandoah Tait, who lived in the ranch house brought coffee and a plate of brownies to the table and joined the study of pamphlets and contracts. Their concentration was enough that they didn't notice the men entering the house.

"What the hell is going on?" Ross's voice startled Shenandoah and the stranger. Shenandoah jumped to her feet, as a boxer might at the sound of the bell, and swung towards to the doorway. Behind her husband Ross was an unexpected escort. That, of all people, Kerry Williams would be the person brining Ross home, disoriented Shenandoah.

"Ross wrapped the truck around a fence post up the road a bit." Kerry said as a way of explaining himself. " I talked him into coming with me. I hope I've done the right thing, Shenandoah. He doesn't seem to be hurt. "

Shenandoah wasn't surprised at Ross's mishap, it was far less than she had feared, but Kerry's presence had her flustered. She assured Kerry that he was probably correct and at the same time tried to make up her mind what she should do with Ross. Maybe he had been hurt and needed a doctor. He would need to be kept calm. The nurse would know if he should be sedated, Shenandoah thought, once more cursing the faint-hearted assistance that she had to deal with. Ross had broke free earlier and the nurse had quit, insulted and promising never to return.

Shenandoah stared for a moment at Ross, many years ago, her handsome groom. Age, drink, and the self-abuse that is disguised as breaking horses had carved him into a repulsive figure. Shenandoah's fingernails scraped across her skull until her hands reached her gray braid. Then she tugged on the braid until it hurt. Little wisps of hair sprung free and caressed her cheek until she rudely brushed them aside.

Shenandoah addressed Kerry. "Help me get him to his room."

Ross growled and twisted away from their guiding hands."Let go of me." Ross backed up to the counter and looked around the room then fastened his eyes on Shenandoah. A force of anger within him found its' voice. "You're selling out! Damn you, who do you think you are? This is a f f f family ranch. Jerrica Rose is going to have this ranch."

Shenandoah shushed at Ross, ineffectively trying to calm him, like a toddler's mother tries to prevent a tantrum. A pain had gripped Shenandoah's heart when Ross spoke Jerrica Rose's name. Their daughter had run away, and who could blame her, her father this belligerent uncaring drunk. It was more than a young girl should have to deal with. And Ross didn't have the slightest idea why the stranger, a nursing home administrator, was really there. It didn't bother him the burden he was, or that Shenandoah had to carry all the weight of the ranch since he no longer could work.

Behind Shenandoah came a scrape of a chair as the young woman hastily grabbed her papers and made ready to leave. Her face was pinched and frightened. Didn't anyone stand strong anymore? Shenandoah thought. How could she manage the home, if she couldn't take a little bad mouth from Ross? Ross, unaware as he might be, snorted in contempt as he saw the young woman going.

"Get going, bitch! There will be no sale today!" Ross swayed and only the counter steadied him for both hands were busy. Before Shenandoah realized his intention, he opened his fly and pulled his penis into view. "Here's what I think of you." He said as he tried to thrust his hips forward but only managed to trip onto the floor.

"Watch him." Shenandoah tersely told Kerry as she dialed the police. The hospital would have to deal with him, call it observation after crashing the truck, call it whatever they wanted to. Police, ambulance, Shenandoah was handing Ross over, today. They'd have to find a bed, today. Her lips were held tight against any other option.

Kerry helped the attendants lift Ross when the ambulance arrived to take Ross away. Shenandoah watched from her seat. Her hands had clenched onto the chair's seat until they cramped. Then she massaged them rhythmically. After looking at Shenandoah, Kerry went to the cupboard and silently poured whisky into two tumblers. He placed one in front of Shenandoah. Shenandoah looked at it for a moment than took a long sip.

Then Kerry sat in the chair that Shenandoah remembered they used to joke was Kerry's, because he always sat there. The last time he had been here, Ross and him had almost come to blows. Kerry had just discovered that Ross had slept with his wife, Sandra.

Kerry must be putting aside a lot of hate to be decent to Ross, today. But as Kerry helped himself to a brownie he only mildly suggested.

"Picked a pretty good day, didn't I?" Shenandoah shook her head, still wound up over dealing with Ross, she was not able to rise to Kerry's seemingly casual level.

"I see you haven't changed." She told Kerry.

"Ross is a handful, I see." Kerry took a sip of his drink. "No wonder you're selling the ranch. But why don't I have the job?" Kerry ran a very successful auction business and if Shenandoah were to sell she might consider going to him. But really with their past history that wouldn't be an easy thing to do.

Shenandoah tightened up. Old friend or not, he wasn't going to hear from her what her plans for Ross were. "Ross is on the wrong track, altogether."

"Okay. I'm not pushing for business today." Kerry took another drink and tapped his fingers on the table top. "I've always thought that auctions and funerals have a lot in common." Kerry said. "Both are where you tally up a lifetime, both are where you remember the past and decide what it was worth." He raised his glass in a mock salute, "To the long life of Wobby Ranch," before downing most of his drink. "It would be a pity to see it in someone else's name, anyway."

Shenandoah bristled. She'd always thought that pity was one rank mean poison and that self pity was worst. Shenandoah had lived through her hard times because she wouldn't allow herself room for pity. That's where Kerry was wrong.

She raised her glass to sip again. Her drink was stiff but tasted to her like something she deserved.

"I heard from Sandra yesterday." Kerry said. Shenandoah was startled by Kerry's mention of his ex-wife.

Then past Kerry's form, through the kitchen window, Shenandoah saw a calf, no, several calves. They were headed down the driveway. Shenandoah gave a hoot and scurried to put on boots and a jacket. Kerry was right behind her. Outside Kerry jumped into his truck, while Shenandoah hot-footed it. They both aimed to get in front of the animals. The calves scattered, tails in the air, but were turned back before they were out on the main road. Within minutes the calves were back behind the first barnyard gate, beside the garage and Shenandoah was double latching it shut. Kerry turned off his truck and stepped out. Both followed the calves down the alleyway into their pen and closed that gate too. Shenandoah mustn't have fastened the gate securely. Well no wonder, the morning events were upsetting.

Shenandoah had been feeding the cattle in the corrals that ran parallel with the driveway when she had glanced up to see the blue form of a truck heading not in from the main road, but away from the house. It was not the expected nursing home administrator's vehicle but her old half-ton swerving down the driveway.

"Damn it, Ross is loose. And he's got a hold of the keys!" Shenandoah grimly wondered how he had managed to wriggle out of his safety harness, how he had gotten outside. This morning Ross's resistance had been strong, no cajoling, no reasoning had worked. Through clenched teeth Shenandoah had hissed a warning that he'd be restrained all day if he didn't behave himself. And Ross had only settled when she raised her fist. Settled as a ploy, Shenandoah realized now. Waiting for the nurse to arrive and his chance to bolt.

Her truck, with Ross behind the wheel, struck and glanced off the gatepost before jumping the rise onto the main road. The gatepost wavered and began to lean which strained at the overhead pole and tugged at the other vertical pole. In slow motion, the first pole toppled and lay on the ground. The other two poles, still joined made a v-shape like the outline of a tee-pee. The longhorn skull was still fastened but now tilted one empty eye socket to the clouds as the other seemed to be watching the vanishing truck.

Although Shenandoah's stomach lurched at her husband's actions, it was nothing new. What was new was the unbidden wish that this time Ross would manage to kill himself. Ross had a way of always turning up, grinning away at whatever mischief he thought he was getting away with. She wasn't going after him, she decided, pushing down a fear of what she might do if she caught up with him. Ross would resist, and ignore her attempts to get him home. However he still listened to the police and sometimes his male neighbors could handle him. Ross was a menace, brain-injury or not, he had to be controlled. They've been lucky so far. Nobody had been hurt while Ross was on the loose. Often the neighbors just repaired any damages and kept quiet. Rural tolerance.

Through tear-smarting eyes, Shenandoah noted the almost comical tilt of the longhorn skull. What the hell was she supposed to do? Finish the chores, she told herself, phone the police, if the nurse hadn't already. Deal with it, Ross can't be handled, really he has to be put in an institution. She'd tried to manage, hadn't she? The front-end loader opened to drop the cut feed into the calves' feeder. Shenandoah drove the tractor back through the gate. She'd come back and finish up; at least one calf was going to need treating. The bustling nurse was stomping across the yard and met the tractor with coat and temper unbuttoned. She informed Shenandoah that she had phoned the police. Then with barely contained disgust she added, "You better get that gate out of my way and don't expect me to ever come out here again. I won't have it, I simply won't have it." Shenandoah sighed; the nurse was no more wearing a halo than any of the others had been.

Shenandoah closed the tractor cab door to journey down the driveway. She used the grapple forks on the front-end loader to move the poles away, as the overhead pole complete with skull tore away from the last remaining gatepost. The nurse's van scrambled past the working tractor, onto the main road and was gone. Shenandoah drove back down the driveway and deposited the poles and skull beside the garage. On the ground like it was, the skull reminded Shenandoah uneasily of the warnings for a poisoned watering hole in the desert. She felt a little like those desert travelers herself; the nurse visits had been her oasis, but Ross had spoiled that.

The gate wasn't the only thing that hadn't been attended too correctly this morning, Shenandoah realized. She had left the horse saddled too, after treating the calf. She glanced at Kerry who was looking at the captured calves as they wandered back to their feed bunks. He surprisingly had aged very little. But there was a certain grayness to him that Shenandoah didn't remember. Well, neither of them were young anymore.

"While I'm here, I should unsaddle the horse." Shenandoah told him as she walked towards the working corral. Kerry swung into stride beside her and opened the barn door. Inside the barn, Shenandoah worked to free the cinch and lift the saddle off the horse, Kerry took it and put the leather and silver studded beauty back onto its' stand. The horse quivered gratefully and whinnied.

"This is Jerrica Rose's saddle, isn't it?" Kerry asked. Shenandoah acknowledged that it was and then waved her hand around the tack room. "There's a lot of her here."

Kerry was bringing out a cigarette and he extended the open pack to Shenandoah. She took one, even though she had quit smoking a long time ago.

"Been some tough times." She said as she drew the cigarette smoke deep into her memories. Slowly she recited, "Jerrica Rose. Ross and all the shit he's caused." She glanced at Kerry as she added, "Sandra."

The two stood silent in the semi light of the barn; the smell of tack and hay and manure blending together with the flavor of their cigarettes. Shenandoah spat on a plank and butted her half-finished cigarette in the bubbly bit of moisture. " Sandra was my best friend, I've missed her more than you could imagine. Where is she now?"

"Vancouver. She phoned to send a message to you." Kerry paused and swallowed. "I guess there is no easy way to say this. She thought she saw Jerrica Rose. Downtown. She was …..hooking."

Shenandoah's heart leapt. Shenandoah had believed that Jerrica Rose; her pretty little daughter would inherit the ranch. A year ago, coming up on the 10th of December, Jerrica Rose had runaway. Not long ago, the police had told her that unless Jerrica Rose contacted her, she’d likely never know anything of her. But that with the dental records on file they’d be able to identify her body, if she turned up that way.

It was a poor sorry world where freshness and youth were commodities used up quickly, like a match flaring up to burn the fingers that held it too long. The police were convinced that Jerrica Rose had hit the streets. Sex trade worker. Runaways often ended up there. The matter-of-fact words lead into dry statistics about who lasted on the streets. Not many.

It hurt in a way that Shenandoah had not imagined possible. That Jerrica was now thought of as hopeless, expected to show up dead. It was a raw burn hurt, a turn yourself inside out, what could I have done different kind of hurt. But Jerrica Rose had been seen, that was wonderful! But awful too, Shenandoah realized, for Vancouver was one of the places that she had peppered with Come Home posters, sent to shelters, and hospitals and police stations and newspapers. She might be there but Jerrica Rose wasn't looking to come back to her.

"Sandra wanted you to know that if she can help in any way…." Kerry voice trailed off. "That goes for me to, you know. You've been through enough, way more than you ever brought on yourself."

"I don't know about that. Seems like there's been something rotten about me. I've been able to keep animals alive, but people have been soured and floundered by my caring for them." Shenandoah wasn't about to have Kerry's words undo her although they threatened to. She flung a square bale of hay, unnecessarily, over beside the pens. Then grabbed another. Kerry was about to do the same but Shenandoah stopped him.

"That's enough, for now." She said. Enough bales was one thing but enough dangling false hope, enough sorry about your life, enough hard time memories too, Shenandoah thought. They left the barn behind. Kerry opened his truck door and offered Shenandoah a ride to the house.

"No, thanks. I better make sure the calves have water." Kerry nodded and the diesel motor rumbled alive. Just as he began to back up, Shenandoah waved him to stop. "Would you take this?" She pointed to the longhorn skull. "You could put it in your auction barn."

Kerry hesitated. "Please, Kerry, I can't stand to look at it any longer!" So Kerry and Shenandoah wrestled with the rusty nut on the bolt that was drilled through the pole and the skull. Eventually it came loose, and Kerry swung the massive head into the box of his truck. The curved horns on the bleached skull stretched from one wheel well to another. The empty eye sockets gazed into the early winter sky.

Kerry's truck drove down the lane way, no longer distinguished by gateposts or longhorn skull markers. There was no brave sign declaring it to be Wobby Ranch. It looks like anyone's place now, Shenandoah thought. It looks like it did before her and Ross came. Their work, their sorrows had left no mark.

She straightened her shoulders, turned back towards the corrals where the calves waited. The last calf crop of Wobby Ranch, she realized suddenly. Without Jerrica Rose there would be no ranch. Shenandoah could only hope, that without the ranch, her daughter might let her back into her life. Into the crisp air, Shenandoah spoke her daughter's name, like a battle cry. "Jerrica Rose."

Liz Betz lives near Vermilion, Alberta with her husband where they work in hay fields and pastures. Her fictional short stories have appeared in Green's Magazine, a 2003 anthology from Smoky Peace Press and on-line at Regina Weese.


HomeFictionPoetry Non-FictionContributor Bios

© 2003 Plum Ruby Review. All rights reserved.