Robert Ellis clenched his fists to keep them warm. Even through his thick leather mittens, ("choppers," his father had called them,) his fingers burned. He held the long hay hook tighter in his left hand, cold iron in an ice cold world, flipping bails onto the home-made wagon. Beyond the haystack, past snow drifts and deepening layers of frozen manure the cattle paced for lack of anything better to do. Wind sang through the page wire enclosure, lonely beyond caring. Ellis was fifty-three years old and doubted if he would ever see summer come again.
The aging Massey-Ferguson lurched outward, chained tires tall as a short man, spitting and churning for purchase over the hard packed snow. Away from the haystack Ellis drove, starving animals biting frantically at the load, stealing mouthfuls of dried grass, tugging whole bales loose to hang precarious from the back of the wagon. All hipbones and ribs, the hungry cattle bellowed in the cold dawn, crying for more food than could be spared. Ellis saw a dark shape in front of him, still and lifeless. He stopped long enough to verify what he already knew. Another calf had died in the night, frozen to death, probably before it had ever been fully born.
He shook his head, shrugging deeper into his heavy coat. He had run the field twice in the night, shivering in the starless dark, and had still missed the birth by enough margin to lose the calf. He let the tractor drive itself while he climbed on the wagon, spreading the bales in miserly flakes.
Light appeared over the horizon.
Single light, moving closer, headlight cutting saber swaths through the falling snow. A snowmobile pulled alongside, navigating carefully over the hard garden of icy manure clumps. The engine buzzed and coughed, dying away. A man in coveralls and nylon parka stepped off, boot clad feet sinking into the spongy white.
"How are you, Robert?"
"Cold," Ellis answered.
"Tell me about it." The man walked towards the tractor, stomping his feet to bring circulation back to his stiffened legs. "I'm so goddamned tired of snow." The words hung around his face in clouds of frozen breath. "I'm going to Dillon today, if the truck'll start. Need anything from town?"
"OK. Besides everything, what else do you need?"
The tractor idled, noisy pops, as Ellis stepped down. A blast of wind tore past, white pain whistling. "Tell the truth, Charley, there's about a hundred things I need, but I can't pay the prices they're asking."
Charley shrugged, a mountainous gesture in his heavy clothes. "Give me your list. Last I heard, prices were dropping again. Nobody around to buy what's left."
The emaciated cattle fought for position, butting and shoving one another out of the way. The few calves that had somehow managed to survive stood at the edge of the hungry mob, ears frozen to stubs, feet tucked together like they were standing on a postage stamp.
"Poor son of a bitches," Ellis said, tired and grim.
"At least you got some left to feed." Charley Kline stared at the cattle, eyes sunken and red above a frost bitten nose. "I shot the last of mine yesterday."
The lump in Ellis's stomach tightened. "Damn."
Kline shrugged. "Couldn't just watch the poor bastards starve to death. You're lucky. You got hay."
"Some's better than nothing. Guess you were smarter than the rest of us."
"Just stingier." Ellis replied. He looked skyward at the dull globe climbing sullenly above the snow locked foothills. Clouds hid the sun, clouds blocked the peaks. Clouds choked the world slowly to death. "Looks like the sun might be a little brighter this week."
The man in the parka laughed. "You said that last week. That damn meteor dust looks just as thick as the day it hit."
An uneven grin lay beneath Ellis's icicle-hung mustache. "Wishful thinking...sky's got to clear sometime."
Kline was quiet a moment. "Darlene and me are pulling out next week, soon as we can finalize things with the bank and the IRS."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"Not much choice." The sound of cattle chewing lifted above the staccato rumble of the tractor. "Why don't you and JoAnn come with us. It'd be easier if we all head south together."
"No," Ellis answered slow, "I think we'll stick it out a while longer."
Kline nodded his bundled head. "Figured you probably would. Look, Robert, I need you to do me a favor." He paused, "Buck and Lindy are up at the barn. I got enough hay to hold 'em a few weeks. I know I should have shot them when I put the cows down, but I couldn't." Tears were welling in the broken man's eyes. "I just couldn't. I broke both of them from colts. I hate to ask this..."
Ellis nodded yes to the unasked question. "I'll take care of it before they starve."
"Thanks. Pretty chickenshit of me, I guess."
"Nah, just human." A cresting wave of snow drove across the field. "Charley, I really think you're jumping the gun. Things can't be any better down south. All you're going to find is more people than they got food." Ellis smiled grim, "At least up here we got all the beef we'll ever need, even if it is frozen."
"You might be right." Kline admitted, "But it don't matter. Darlene's had enough. Me too ...I wish to hell that rock had landed on top of us instead of Greenland. At least it would have been over in a couple of seconds instead of starving for months." He crawled back on his snowmobile, hand-pulled the noisy machine to life. "I'll stop by for your list before I head to town."
"See you then," Ellis watched the machine disappear into the gray nothingness. He crawled back on the Fergusson, heading the tractor towards home. He was cold, cold in the heart, cold to the bone. He tried not remembering tomorrow would be the first day of June.
JoAnn Ellis tended the fire. It was all the heat they had. The fuel oil had been gone for three months, siphoned into the tractor tank. The electricity had been down since November, not long after news of the disaster swept across a shocked planet. A brief flirtation with its return in mid-December made it all the more bitter when the power grids collapsed two days before Christmas, never to return. The meteor that pounded western Greenland back into the Atlantic had rocked humankind to its bedrock as well.
The door swung open, shut with a slam. The tired blue-heeler dog sleeping under the kitchen table did little more than wag his bobbed tail at Robert's return.
"I'm in here, Robert."
She didn't want to ask how things sat in the field.
"Lost another one," Ellis kicked his boots off, shrugging out of his coveralls at the same time, leaving a trail of ice crusted outer-wear behind like a ship's wake. He stopped to pet the dog, shuffling through the kitchen into the crowded living room, backing as close as he dared to the softly wuffing stove.
"I talked to Charley. They're leaving."
She nodded. "I heard."
Ellis shook his head. "Ain't it great. No power, but we still have to put up with telephones."
"Well," she poured a steaming cup from a black enameled coffee pot boiling on top of the stove, "I'm just glad something still works."
He took the cup, gratefully sipping the warm liquid. The brew was brown, thin, faint traces of coffee mixed with bitter parched grain. "I wonder if there's any real coffee left in Dillon?"
She smiled past her own cup,"I wonder if there's any left in the whole world."
A brief reprieve came the last week of June, warm winds pushed and compressed by a distant storm-front scoured the high valleys, melting snow from the fields, leaving a cold morass of mud and dirty water bursting out of ice-choked streams. The animals, elk, horses, cattle and deer attacked the limp brown grass, matted remnant from the summer before, as if it were the first green shoots of spring.
The thaw was short lived. By the fourth of July another blizzard had shoved past leaving the low ground bare while piling drifts deep against anything daring to stand against it.
"I talked to Sara Novitch yesterday," JoAnn said, absently chewing a dried apricot. "She said the Chinese landed troops in Vancouver and Seattle."
Ellis looked up from the book he was rereading. It had been a long time since he had a newspaper to read at breakfast, and he would have killed for one now. "Where in the hell did she get that?"
JoAnn shrugged. "I don't know. Her sister's boy has one of those crank-up radios. Maybe he heard it over the short-wave."
"That's one of the stupidest things I've ever heard. There aren't any Chinese attacking." He chuckled, "Canadians maybe, but no Chinese."
"I promised her I'd send over some canned food. We've got plenty. I thought we could spare a few cans." She waited a moment. "I hope you don't mind. She's slipping pretty bad from the way she sounded."
"Why would I mind?"
Something banged against the door. Ellis rose, let the dog in, wincing at the cool air rushing through the door. Another snowfall last night, two inches of thick wetness dripping off every roof. Somewhere above the barn's roof the sun was climbing unseen into the July sky.
"I thought I'd walk down to her house after lunch and take her the food." JoAnn Ellis said without enthusiasm.
"No. I'll take it. I've got to saddle a horse this afternoon anyhow." Ellis sighed."I've got to do something with Charley's horses."
"Oh." Her voice was as soft and sad as the wind outside. "I was afraid of that."
He pulled on his boots, the felts inside wet from yesterday and the day before and the day before that. "I think I'll lead them back here. They might as well be in the pasture with ours."
Her face brightened. "I think that's a good idea."
He pulled on his coat, left hand snagging on the ripped lining in the sleeve. "It's still just a matter of time, Jo."
She said nothing. No need to. She knew how right he was.
The ground Ellis rode over was soft, icy water squishing with every footfall the old gelding made. After a mile Robert dismounted, leading the starving horse, letting him conserve what strength was left inside his bony frame. The hay was long gone, the grass from the year before a pale substitute.
"Guess I can walk as easy as you can, Cork."
A breeze was rising, warm wind chasing snow into puddles, leaving thin sheets of ice above the all pervasive mud. Now and then the gravel of the roadbed peeked through, rutted and soft. Even if there had been fuel left, a car still couldn't have driven over the treacherous roadbed. He led the horse the two long miles to Sara Novitch's house, leaving the heavy sack of canned goods with a minimum of conversation. He left, walking slowly up the lane to Charley Kline's abandoned ranch.
Empty house, empty fields, gates closed against nothing. The stink of rotting carcass carried above the wet uproar of melting snow. Ellis had made the trip at least three times a week since the Klines had left, feeding the pair of horses the dwindling pile of moldy hay inside the barn.
"I'm getting as crazy as Charley was," Ellis mumbled, fumbling with the halter, slipping it over the nose of a thin quarterhorse. He led the two geldings home, while Charley Kline's spoiled old mare plodded patiently behind, unfettered.
Ellis turned them loose inside his pasture, letting them forage with the hungry cattle. His other horses made feeble attempts to chase the newcomers away, furtive bites little more than show. They were hungry, too.
The rain lasted two weeks. Swollen streams, coffee-brown water bursting out of their banks, cutting new channels in fields that should have been burdened with swaying carpets of ripe hay. Tiny patches of growth shown through the clipped stubble, pale, lifeless green, hoping for the sun. JoAnn Ellis wandered around her yard, picking up gnawed pieces of dead calves the dog had dragged in. She stared at the worn out frying pan she used to water the foolish old heeler, noticing a thick, dark layer of grit collecting at the bottom.
"Robert? Where is this dirt coming from?"
Ellis dropped the fence stretcher and roll of wire he had spent the afternoon using, and looked inside the dog dish. "It's coming down with the rain. It's everywhere."
"Does that mean the dust cloud is breaking up?" She sounded hopeful.
He shrugged. "Maybe." He noticed how gray her hair had become. "I think maybe it does."
That night the rain fell in sheets, fat droplets breaking over the roof like gunfire, waterfalls spilling off eaves, overflowing down rain gutters. The next day was the same. The day after, the deluge stopped abruptly as it had begun. Dawn arrived sullen, cool breeze pushing a thick layer of fog that lasted until two o'clock in the afternoon. Neither could have predicted what lay above.
High overhead, drifting like a ship on a leaden sea, was a thin sliver of blue. Robert Ellis stared silently upwards. At his foot was a small green clump crowned by the most beautiful yellow flower he had ever seen.
"Never thought I'd be happy to see a dandelion."
The next morning, the ground was covered once again in white.
"Jo, what's the date?"
She hadn't bothered to dress, the first time in his memory he had seen her after daybreak in a bathrobe. She was broken. So was he.
"The third of August."
Robert stared out the window, glaring at the blanket of cold. The snow was already melting, but what did it matter? Time had run out. He pulled on his boots, slipped into his jacket and left the house, marching across the field, feet leaving long, scraping tracks in the bone white snow. He walked with grim purpose, sweating, his breath coming ragged. Walked until he came to the Forest Service boundary at the edge of his land. There was grass beyond, sour clumps too course even for the last of the scattered elk herds to eat. He threw open the barb-wire gate, letting it fall to the ground.
"To hell with it all." He shouted, raging until all emotion was gone. Let his cattle fend for themselves. He'd done all he could for them. Now it was up to a laughing God to provide. He stormed home, passing the staggering herd along the way.
Without a word to his wife, Ellis went to the bedroom closet, pulled out his saddle rifle. The old 30-30 felt strong in his hands. A full box of shells hid on the floor behind a pair of scuffed riding boots. He slipped the bullets into the pocket of his faded canvas jacket and went back outside.
The horses were in the corral. He had been graining them in the mornings, doling out half a coffee can apiece from a sack of rolled oats Sara Novitch had given him a month ago. He took the last of the grain, carrying the mouse-chewed gunny sack by its bundled throat, dumping it into pans, letting the animals eat their fill. Water ran off the steep barn roof, the snow at his feet becoming slush while he waited for the horses to finish. When they were done, he took out the heavy box of hollow points and started jacking shells into the carbine, clattering as they slid past the spring loaded door-plate.
Robert Ellis stepped to the middle of the muddy pen, hands ungloved and sweating. He ran the rifle's lever through, jacking a shell into the chamber, a harsh click shattering the morning. He raised the 30-30 to his shoulder, whistled to get the horses attention.
"I'm sorry, fella." A wet sheen clouded his eyes, the sights shimmering and blurred. Cork stared at him, head high, eyes still bright. His index finger curled around the cold, dark trigger. He took a deep breath, demanding his shaking arm to steady itself. He aimed squarely at Cork's forehead, chestnut mane filling the buckhorn sights.
Something touched him on the cheek. Something warm and formless. He lowered the rifle, the hammer still cocked and ready, and looked up. The clouds had broken. Not completely, not by a long shot. But there was blue showing. Not a single lonely patch, but great tearing rifts in the lightening clouds. Sunlight lanced through in long slanting rays, kissing the dormant earth.
Somewhere in the distance a blackbird trilled.
He eased the carbine's hammer down, and moved across the pen, feet sinking in ankle deep manure, and threw the gate wide. Cork led the other horses out, trotting happily into the muddy pasture beyond. Ellis stepped through the gate, walked briskly to the house. He went inside, dirty boots and all, and took his wife in his arms, holding her fiercely. Small rivulets of horse crap ran off his feet, puddling on her well scrubbed kitchen floor. Neither said a word, arms locked tight around the other, happy beyond words.