Larry Menlove is a graduate of the University of Utah. His work has been featured in many venues including Sunstone, Weber Studies, Dialogue, Storyglossia, and others. His work has also been recognized in various writing competitions, most recently with first-place in the Utah Arts Council Original Writing Contest. The two characters in this story have been his constant companions, reappearing in many short stories over the course of his writing career. They are complete fabrications of his imagination, but Deke and Ruellen live and breathe and feel. Menlove lives in Spring Lake, Utah, where he is hard at work on a novel. A slightly different version of this story first appeared in Words of Wisdom, 2002.
By Larry Menlove
Ruellen Smith dropped her truck into first and then pushed the clutch back in and stepped on the brake. The old Toyota lurched, its brakes grabbing and letting go, as it rolled to a stop. Bad calipers or a bent rotter, Ruellen hadn’t made up her mind what exactly the problem was yet, and she wasn’t about to take it out to that young Tom Brady, the local hack of a mechanic. The recollection of Tom’s having taken her on a used drive shaft a year ago still stung.
A storm was rolling over the valley to the north behind her, licking the foothills near the canyon, the clouds dragging over the bare scrub oak and dead choke grass, headed for Ruellen and the eighty some odd head of sheep blocking the road in front of her.
They were Bob Crampton’s sheep; she’d passed him a mile back. She knew Bob was moving the flock up to his corral at Sweat Shanty where he could load them and pasture them in the valley for the winter, knew that it was time, knew that Bob was pressing time. Bob was hunched all up atop his chestnut nag, the reins pushed into his groin, his shoulders swinging methodically, smooth, comfortable. He had on a thick wool coat and his cowboy hat. Ruellen hadn’t bothered to wave. She could tell by the looks of him it would have gone unreciprocated—maybe she’d gotten a nod of the kinked brim of his hat, but Ruellen was feeling put out, a feeling that had been growing way back down the road when she first noticed the tiny piles of black dung-stones on the pavement. It kind of made Ruellen smile, none-the-less, the bleats and blahs of so many sheep. They’d raise their stubby heads above the gray wool surface and let loose a vibrating call from their open mouths that held an odd a sort of grin.
Yet there was fear here. The storm must have ratcheted the flock’s normal fear level up a notch or two. And the bumper of Ruellen’s orange truck approaching the backsides of those left on the edge didn’t do much to help the misgivings of those buried deeper inside the flock.
A garland of dry sunflowers lay on the seat beside Ruellen, and she had a pack of butter rum Lifesavers in her coat pocket. The garland was for the headstone of Clark Stillson, and the candy was to remember.
In the summer of ‘53, Ruellen and Clark, two nineteen year-olds with nothing better to do, had spent their days fishing along the banks of Peteetneet Creek. Clark always brought along a couple of packs of butter-rum. Several an early evening, back along the river somewhere in a stand of tall wild grass with the cicadas vibrating all around, the two of them, a little sun-burned and a little tired, swapped candies back and forth with their tongues. Ruellen learned the ache of a young man and the art of preserving one’s purity. Clark died on patrol outside Pusan with a diamond shaped piece of shrapnel in his heart. A quarter-karat, nothing more.
Today was November 30, Clark’s birth date, and the sheep were moving; that much was true. And, on any other day, the truth found in the movement of a flock of sheep along the worn cut of Payson Canyon would have done nothing but please Ruellen. Pleased her good. But on this day she had a long standing commitment threatened by a storm she knew all too well.
Clark Stillson was buried in the Manti Cemetery. Ruellen didn’t particularly enjoy traveling up over the Nebo Loop from Payson and on down into Manti this time of year when who knew if a storm would leave you stuck out there. She should have taken I-15, by way of Nephi and Fountain Green, a much more traveled path, but she’d turned up-canyon and stopped in on Deke Faldergrass earlier that afternoon, which put her that much further along the Loop.
Deke lived by himself some eight miles up Payson Canyon in a house he pretty much put together himself—not counting the small two-room shack portion his father had erected just two decades into the last century. The Faldergrass homestead lay in the pocket of Elk Meadow, back in off the road. There was a long approach on a bumpy dirt road, the old road cut out of the side of the hill along the creek, and it curved up gradual following the slope, sweeping to the north then east and finally back around to the south. Many today might call Deke’s land a compound. A lot of junk lying around, two or three old rusted truck frames, half a dozen refrigerators, a stove or two, and stacks of worn tires. Deke didn’t really collect the stuff; he just never bothered to get rid of anything when its use ran out.
The truth was Ruellen was about the only friend Deke had left. Tends to happen that way when you isolate yourself and are getting up in years. She lived just down canyon and she made it a point to look in on Deke at least once a week or so. She had a soft spot for him. They grew up together and even attended classes in the same one room schoolhouse in Payson. Ruellen was the head of the class; Deke was down around the ankles.
Back in late February of ‘77 Ruellen got snowed in at Deke’s during one of her calls. She stayed on for a week. Cabin fever nearly got them. In the close quarters and confinement the two of them actually talked about marrying, but spring came thawing all that talk, and it flowed downhill with the rest of the runoff.
Deke was behind his house working on the chicken run when Ruellen had come to call at about two that afternoon. She walked around the corner of the house and up the gravel path lined in yellowed rose bushes and tall dead grass. She could hear Deke talking to the chickens. “Yaw, yaw, you keep scratching, Red—make a fine broth stock, old bag a bones,” he said. “Red, how long you been pecking this earth? Not near as long as I been fixing this here fence line a yours, I figure, you old pecker, you.”
When the chickens saw Ruellen they made a fuss and scattered to the backside of the run and into the little hen house. Deke mostly kept White Leghorns and a few Silver-Gray Dorkings, but the bird he was most fond of was a Rhode Island Red rooster named Red. Red was the last to dart into the dark opening of the hen house, his cackling reaching a climax then dying off once out of sight.
“That old cock ever talk back?” Ruellen put her fingers through the chicken wire and smiled at Deke, who was inside the narrow run, twisting thin wire around a break near the ground in the opposite side. His back was to Ruellen and he was kneeling down on one knee in his coveralls.
“Huh?” Deke turned his head and squinted at Ruellen.
She was wearing khaki pants and a cranberry sweater, hiking boots and a canvas jacket with leather collar. “The fox come back?”
“Yeah,” Deke said, “It got one of them whites. I figure fox is the only thing that’d tear a hole like this—either that or bear.” He lifted his cap and rubbed the heel of his hand along his thick scalp line. “But a bear’d do considerable more damage than this, I figure.”
“A bear’d come in for you, is the way I figure it.”
“What you want?” Deke said grunting, twisting the wire with a pair of pliers. He put his shoulders into it making the wire creak and pop.
“I want you to come out of there and fix me a cup of cocoa,” Ruellen said. “Is that too much to ask, seeing how I came all the way up here to Timbuktu?”
“I ain’t making ya drive, am I?” Deke said. “Damn Jap truck, anyways.” Deke couldn’t get over Ruellen owning a Japanese made vehicle, as if Pearl Harbor was bombed just last week. Deke drove his Chevy when he had need.
The sun shone low through the frosted sky and black and white quakies. The chickens started popping out of the henhouse, Red first and then the rest, head up, scratching over the ground, backing up, head down, eyes intent on the moist soil, pecking.
Deke said, “I want to show you something.” He pushed open the chicken run door, scrapping the wood framing over the dirt that was worn dark and smooth like beer-bottle glass. He snapped the latch into place as he shut the hens in behind him. Deke led Ruellen up through the balsams and dry mule ears to a spot about fifty yards from the house. There was fresh dirt piled up around a hole.
“That’s my new water source,” he said, pointing into the hole.
“Deke, what do you need with new water?”
Deke took hold of the shovel that was stuck in the fresh dirt and started digging. “Water there from the spring starting to turn on me.” He tossed his head in the direction of the plumbed spring that had been the sole source of water to the homestead since the beginning.
Ruellen looked long in the direction of the spring. Fallen trees crisscrossed the terrain and dead yellow grass was bowing, arcing toward its beginnings. Ruellen could picture the way it would all look after the snow had melted next April, with the old white grass laying over the logs like a man’s thinning hair pulled over his scalp.
“If you think you’re going to find water there,” Ruellen said, “you’re nuts.” She wandered over to a dead pine on the ground and kicked at the corky orange wood. “What’s wrong with the spring water, anyway?”
“Tastes like death.”
“Well what doesn’t, at your age?”
“There’s a regular river flowing under here.” Deke drove the blade of the shovel into the hard dirt. The blade struck a rock, and a loud ping ricocheted through the trees, dying in the landscape. “There’s so much water it wakes me up at night. You’ll see—I’ll tap it.”
“There’s nothing under there.”
“Ru,” said Deke, “you listen. Sounds like a gushing river, right under your feet. And I’m going to get me some.” He grunted and took another shovel full of dirt from the hole. “I got that other shovel. Why don’t you help me?”
“You goofy old coot,” Ruellen said. “Come make me a cup of that famous cocoa of yours.”
Deke scooped out a few more shovels full, the dirt and rocks rolling off the little mound and rattling into the crinkled parchment dry mule ears. Ruellen looked off through the pines and quaking aspens. She looked at the dead black coneflowers and stinging nettle, already brown and brittle, many of them bent over, like so many broken bones.
Deke lit a burner with a match; the gas erupted in a thick poof, and then settled in with a comfortable burn. Deke poured milk into a pan and sat it on the burner. He started adding the ingredients for his cocoa. Ruellen, up on tippy-toes, looked over his shoulder trying to see what he was adding. “Now don’t be a busy-body, Ru. Go sit yourself down.”
Ruellen went to the sink and poured a glass of water from the faucet. She looked at it in the 60-watt bulb on the ceiling. She tasted it. Swished the water in the glass. Looked at in the light again. “This old water is just fine,” she said. “Tastes better than the stuff back home.”
“Huh? Oh, that water.” Deke went on working at his cocoa. Ruellen reached into the cupboard over the sink and got down two thick mugs. One green, one blue. They were chipped from years of banging around in the dishwater. Ruellen had taken her fare share of turns at the dishes in Deke’s kitchen sink over the years. The green mug was hers. It was a given.
She sat down at the kitchen table—the only real clear spot in the whole house. The old chrome and red vinyl chair creaked and rocked to the side. Deke’s house smelled like an old trunk left in an attic—treasures, heirlooms—the stuff that make up a history.
Deke brought the pan from the stove holding the handle with a ratty hot pad. He filled their mugs without spilling and sat the empty pan back on the stove. Deke sat down opposite of Ruellen. Behind him the living room, through the wide vestibule, was growing shadowy. The fireplace at the end of the room looked like a cave or a den. A catalog of Deke’s findings clung to spaces on the mantel: Three tiny skulls: squirrel, rabbit and raven; sun-blued bottles; a twisted chunk of sagebrush wood; arrowheads; ancient, rusted barbed wire; a Colt revolver; and countless stacks of soda pop caps. The grate was filled and spilling over with ash, white and flaky, that swayed in the draft of the chimney like algae in a creek bed.
“So, what is it this time?” Deke asked. “Are ya gettin’ lonely down there?”
“I’m heading on over to Manti,” said Ruellen. “Got some business.”
“Oh yut, it’s that time again, ain’t it?” Deke sipped loudly from his mug. “Lord-amighty, why don’t you just let that old Stillson be dead?”
“You weren’t even married for hell’s sake. He was more my friend than he was yours. I should be the one takin’ them flowers up there.” Deke took another sip from his mug. “Just a fool habit, that’s all.”
“What if Samantha had died instead of running off with that trucker? Wouldn’t you do something?”
“How in hell should I know,” Deke said.
They were silent, looking over each other’s shoulder at nothing in particular. They held their mugs under their chins with both hands, steam floating around their faces. The coo-coo clock in the front room ticked. Deke’s yellow cat, Doris, walked into the kitchen, trotted straight for Ruellen’s feet and rubbed against her ankles and then laid heavy in the middle of the floor looking up at her, its tail strumming the linoleum.
“Sorry I brought up Samantha.”
“Whatcha sorry for?” said Deke. “That’s my whole point. It’s goin’ on forty years ago. You think I care?” Deke put his mug down on the table. He leaned into the backrest, laced his long fingers behind his head. “There’s what’s here. There’s what’s not.” He paused and breathed in through his teeth, smacking. “Sometimes, what’s gone sucks what’s good from what you got. Soon enough, you got nothing.”
Sparrows were fluttering outside the kitchen window. Doris showed mild interest at the bird’s chirping, rotating her fat head towards the window then back to center. Content.
After a while of quiet sipping and clock ticking Deke said, “Say, I got that there deer roast out a the freeze. I was gonna roast ‘er up. Why doncha stay for dinner? You could do those potatoes.”
“Not tonight, Deke,” she said into the mug, avoiding his eyes.
Outside Deke leaned against his Chevy. The air was still. Deke could feel it. He turned his head and looked to the horizons, South, East then West. He turned around to the North, and he could see the storm coming, the darkness turning the sky cobalt over the western edge of Loafer. He took off his hat and sat it on the hood of the truck, and then he stuck his hand in the watch pocket of his coveralls. He shook his fingers around, an old habit he had from when he used to keep his tobacco and papers in his pocket. He hadn’t smoked in thirty years. He kept a hand roll of toilet paper in there now.
There were always a few moments of silence between Deke and Ruellen when she was preparing to go, and this time was no exception. Ruellen stood in the middle of the rutted drive, halfway between her truck and Deke’s. She looked off to the south and waited.
“Well, Deke,” she said, “I guess I better get going.” She took a step toward the Toyota.
Deke cleared his throat. “You see the storm, doncha?” He took his hand from his pocket and pointed northward, letting his hand fall softly to his side. “It’ll catch ya before the lake.” He pushed against the Chevy with his elbows and stood straight. He picked up his cap, put it on and looked at Ruellen, shoved his hands deep into his pockets, leaned toward the house, and started walking. “I won’t keep ya. Got a new spring head to tap.” He didn’t look back.
Ruellen stood there, and then she turned and twisted her head up towards Loafer. Seventy-one autumns told her Deke was right. And she was irritated that he knew just as well as she that winter was just then skulking along the valley floor towards them. She got in the truck and started down Deke’s rough drive. She looked in the rearview mirror and caught a glimpse of Deke with his pickax over his shoulder going round the corner of one of the out buildings, headed for his river. Ruellen frowned and shifted the Toyota into second and picked up speed rolling around the bend and then out onto the Loop road. The storm was behind her, low slung and thick, a slow but steady mover. She applied a little nervous pressure to the accelerator pedal. Twenty minutes from Deke’s place she had passed Bob Crampton on his horse.
The sheep pushed in on each other, afraid, moving, trying desperately to find a passage through the mass. Just when Ruellen thought she was making headway into the flock it would spill over again in front of her, and there was no place to go. The sheep buffeted her doors, the bumpers, fenders, the wool so soft that the impacts were strangely appealing and familiar. She felt warm and safe there moving slowly with the churning, shabby fleece.
A thick bronzed head with grey eyes the size of plums pushed through above the surface towards Ruellen. The big old dog made its way effortlessly to the front of Ruellen’s truck. Outside of the cab it would have come to her waist. Its ears were knobby and drooped over from the top of its head. Burrs filled its matted coat, and dense morose jowls hung from its closed mouth. They made eye contact. A silence of passing understanding was exchanged, and in the trade Ruellen saw the dog’s years of service. She saw the wisdom of repetition, of knowing the movements and reactions of those for whom one has taken responsibility. The dog turned its head and duty toward the flock. The sheep moved away from the great dog. It was a male. Under its clipped tail a heavy scrotum jostled comfortably back and forth between its muscled hind legs. The dog formed a part in the flock, and the asphalt opened up to Ruellen. She crept the Toyota through the opening, passing the dog. Once again their eyes met reflecting sanction for one’s exodus and the other’s calling.
Ruellen drove on a few hundred feet past the sheep and stopped. She turned the truck around, downhill, facing the storm. The sunflowers had slipped onto the passenger floor. She opened the pack of Life Savers and chewed one up, the butter rum stuck in her teeth. Then she waited, like a rock anchored in a streambed, for the flock to come on and flow around her.