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Apr/May 2010 spotlight

Black Night Ranch

by Roy Giles


"Sheep are born to die," James Carl said, pointing his syringe at Billy. "They think that's their purpose. We want their wool. They want to die. The trick is to make the stupid son-of-a-bitches think you want them dead." He vaccinated with authority, tossing sheep aside like wool blankets when he finished with each one.

"They'll spite you that way and live. Don't baby them. Make them think you're stabbing them to death."

James Carl and Billy had hanging around their necks clear bags of sheep dope with long rubber hoses attached to needles big as framing nails. The sheep were packed tight into the twenty-foot pen, squirming and crawling over one another like maggots. Every time James Carl tossed one, the whole bunch erupted into isolated geysers of sheep. Billy kept losing his balance in the melee, exasperating the beasts. It was the uncertainty of it. Falling. They couldn't stand it. An old ewe leapt at Billy's head, dragging the needle in his hand with her. The chisel end of the needle carved a deep line in Billy's cheek. The ewe's front hooves clawed his back as she made her way over.

"Fucking sheep!"

"Don't baby them," James Carl said, tossing two animals at once. He was in a hurry. A group of Mexican shearers were due at his ranch by noon, and he wanted to be ready for them.

Billy had been looking forward to the shearing ever since waking up. All through breakfast James Carl had talked about it. He said they could shear a sheep in less than two minutes, and if they brought the young one called Miguel with them, then Billy would really get to see fast.

"And quit that cussing. Your parents didn't let you, and I ain't either," James Carl said.

Billy climbed out of the pen.

"Where you going? I see three unmarked backs."

Though it was more of a bad scratch than a cut, Billy touched a finger to his cheek and tongued it from the inside. He didn't know much about sheep. Before Bird Creek Bridge gave way three months earlier, taking Billy's parents forever with it, his family had run a few cows, but never sheep. He'd gotten the job and moved in with his father's old friend, James Carl, mostly because the rancher was lonely, but the official reason was that Billy knew Spanish. Or rather, he was supposed to know Spanish. James Carl owned the only sheep ranch in Hughes County, Oklahoma, and every spring he hired Mexicans out of South Texas to shear his sheep. Lonely as he'd been the ten years since his wife left, he frustrated himself into great depressions when he couldn't communicate with the only company he ever had. He'd said that very thing to Billy the day of the funeral. Billy's dad, who'd been proud of how well Billy did in school, had bragged about his son being so smart in one language that he took up another one. That had impressed James Carl. But while Billy recognized words when he saw them on paper, and he did well in class, in truth he understood little spoken Spanish. Nonetheless, Billy was fresh out of high school and fresh out of parents, and James Carl took him in.

"Don't worry about the cut. Them's antibiotics," James Carl said. He caught up with the last three sheep and had them stuck and marked before Billy could get back across the fence. "Just get the gate."

James Carl was a big man. Notoriously big. He was so big that when people saw him for the first time, they'd say out loud, "Goddamn, that is a big man." When he walked, his steps were so far apart, his gait looked like slow motion to Billy. His fists were as wide as Billy's head, and he could lift four sheep at once when their wool was thick. And since Dog, the only sheep dog on the Black Night Ranch, couldn't herd, protect, or do anything else that a sheep dog was supposed to do, that's how they often had to move them. By hand, five at a time. Billy's one to James Carl's four. It took a long time to move the animals like that, but usually, even if Dog was around, he spent more time scattering the sheep than anything else. Billy wasn't crazy about Dog because sometimes when James Carl left the front door of the house open, Dog would nose his way into bed with Billy. Billy slept heavy and never noticed until he either woke up with the mutt or else itching from the dirty black hairs, cockleburs, or ticks the animal left behind. Even thinking of Dog made Billy itchy.

Billy opened the gate at the end of the pen furthest from James Carl. To the sheep the opening must have looked like an entrance to hell because the front lines facing the gate were impenetrable. They weren't going. James Carl kicked and pushed from his end, but the gray mass absorbed him like a pond takes a pebble. Finally, letting out a series of spooky high-pitched yelps, the big man grabbed a lamb and threw him over the top of the horde. It was a half-eared lamb they called Sonny, who had only been on the ground a little over a month.

James Carl, who called every dog he ever owned Dog, named all his sheep. Few had simple names like Sonny did. Most were called things like That Bitch Ewe Who Almost Killed Me, The Lamb Who Got Tangled in the Fence That Time, or Billy's favorite, The Ram with One Nut. Sonny was named after James Carl's father, Sonny, who, a few years before he died, had gotten half an ear kicked off by an emu. Sonny landed beyond the open gate and ran. The rest of the sheep, looking at one another for reassurance and apparently not finding it, dug in after him, emptying the pen into the pasture where the rest waited to be sheared.

After rounding up all but a few dozen stragglers hiding somewhere on the rancher's three-thousand acres, they were ready for the Mexicans, so James Carl told Billy to start plowing the upper three-hundred and twenty acres, the 320 for short, and that he would call him when their company arrived.

Billy had barely climbed in the Big R Versatile tractor when he spotted six or seven wild dogs working the tree line to the north. They were a long way away, but he knew they were dogs because dogs don't hunch up all timid-like and prance the way coyotes do. Dogs are worse than coyotes. Braver. Smarter, too, which made them bad news for sheep. These looked especially menacing to Billy because they resembled a slow moving snake the way they slithered in and out of the timber. About a thousand yards east and upwind of the dogs were a group of thirteen sheep, five ewes and their lambs.

Billy picked up the CB handset and radioed back to James Carl, who was supposed to be preparing a barbecue pit by the shearing barn.

"Found the stragglers. We got dogs on them," Billy said, but he realized that from where the shearing barn was, he was right in the line of fire. In a hurry he added, "The dogs are behind me." He made a hard right turn so the dogs would progress past him.

Five minutes after radioing and hearing no response from James Carl, Billy saw a ewe go down. She kicked her back legs high in the air before falling. Over the noise of the tractor, he hadn't heard a rifle report, but he'd often seen deer kick the same way. It meant the ewe was likely heart-shot. It also meant James Carl mistook his sheep for dogs. While Billy fumbled for the CB, he saw another ewe collapse, and he dropped the handset. A lamb then spun to the ground. The dogs were about two-hundred yards from the sheep when the lead dog broke and ran for them, the rest of the pack following. The sheep stood looking in the wrong direction until Billy honked his horn. As the sheep turned toward the tractor, they caught sight of the dogs and fled into the timber out of Billy's sight. When the dogs were nearly at the spot where the sheep disappeared, the sheep re-emerged and ran straight at the dogs. All but one.

A lamb separated from the group and ran flat out across the newly plowed field toward the tractor. When it got close enough, Billy saw one of its ears was half gone, which was strange because Sonny was supposed to be with the others they'd rounded up that morning. At first it looked like he was headed back to the pasture he'd escaped from and was going to cross in front of the tractor, but instead the lamb cut hard just short of the Versatile and took cover under it. Versatiles like the Big R were enormous, and though they swiveled in the middle, such tractors couldn't be maneuvered like the tiny Fords and Farmalls Billy was used to operating. The tires alone were taller than he was, and there were eight of those. As fast as Sonny was running, the big tractor must have looked parked. Billy heard and felt nothing, but he knew he got the lamb because it never came out the other side. He shut the tractor off and climbed out, mindful of James Carl's position at the barn. With Sonny coming at him like he had, Billy had lost track of the other sheep.

Shots echoed off the timberline from the north. Billy couldn't see anything that James Carl might be shooting at by that time. He also couldn't find Sonny.

"Break down?" James Carl asked over the CB. Billy climbed back into the cab to answer him.

"Ran over Sonny."

"Anything salvageable?"

"Can't find him."

"Quit plowing and go gather up what woolies you can find."

"How come you shot those sheep?" Billy asked.

"What sheep?"

"Those sheep up there I radioed about." Billy waited long for a response.

"My goddamn eyes. Who'd I kill?"

"Not sure, but three."

"Shit. All right. Just get the dead."

Billy drove the Versatile a quarter-mile across the field and parked on the timberline where he last saw the dogs. He loaded the three sheep that James Carl had killed, pulling them on top of the plow. He found some old, rusty barbed wire rolled up and looped over a fence post and used it to tie them to the frame. He had expected to find one or two more dead, or at least some evidence that a couple had been killed by the dogs, but instead, he found seven strung out along a short path on Wewoka Creek, which was the east border of the property. He couldn't believe the waste. Two went unaccounted for. He assumed they had been killed and carried off, but the fact the dogs had killed seven and let them lay was odd. And then there was Sonny, plowed under somewhere on the lower half of the 320. Billy drove the tractor and sheep to the shearing barn. James Carl looked over the dead.

"Ten? Damn. Just three were mine? I shot eight times."

"Just the three."

"The Ewe I Hate and One Eye ran with this group."

"Yeah, but I didn't find them," Billy said.

"Did a headcount. They ain't with the rest. Why'd Sonny split off from the others?" James Carl asked. Billy didn't know. He also didn't know why James Carl would ask him. He knew Billy didn't know anything about sheep. "Sheep don't split up. Don't make sense. Why'd those dogs kill so many?" Billy didn't know that either. From the recent lack of ticks in his bed, and the fact that he hadn't seen Dog around, Billy thought he'd been missing a couple of days, but he wasn't willing to mention it without something concrete to say about it.

"Instinct never failed an animal so much as a damn sheep. Untie my three. I'll skin them and hang them in the smokehouse. Take the rest to the bone yard in the pecan orchard. How's your eyes? You see good?"

Billy told him his eyes were fine, but that he was only a fair shot with an open sights.

"Can't be any worse than me. I reckon you better start carrying the rifle, at least until I get a scope for it."

Billy had only been working with James Carl the three months since his parents died, and already he was used to seeing sheep do things that made no sense. He was used to seeing them get killed. They ran into barbed wire fences, off cliffs, into slow moving dirt road traffic, and other such nonsense on a regular basis. Apparently he and his boss could add running under tractors and straight at dogs to the list of stupid things sheep do.

"Maybe Sonny was retarded," James Carl said with serious wonder. "Get back to plowing. I'm going go find the hole he slipped through. I'll yell at you when the Mexicans get here." It was his last word on the subject of Sonny.

Billy didn't say anything, but he didn't think Sonny was retarded. For one thing, the lamb had been the only one to find the hole in the fence, which Billy thought was smart. And had he not run under the Versatile, splitting off from the rest of the sheep would have proven a wise move. Billy considered it a huge oversight on the part of James Carl for him to think a lamb running from dogs pointed to low intelligence.

Sweating, Billy climbed back into the Versatile. It had been a dry year. A drought if you listened to farmers. Farmers couldn't be trusted when it came to weather, though. They'll tell you it's either too wet to get the wheat up or too dry for it to grow. Billy had never met a farmer yet who had a good year where weather was concerned. But it was dry that morning, that's for sure. The wind had blown all during the night before and dried the ground to a powder by daylight.

Dust puffed in through the cracks of the cab. Billy tied a bandana around his nose. Soon it was too soaked with snot to be of use. He took the bandana off and leaned over the gear shifts. Eyes squinting and nose dripping like hydraulic fluid, he thought about James Carl. He had never known a tougher man. For years he'd heard his father talk about the James Carl Henry who could lift Hemi blocks without a cherry picker and who stepped over gates instead of opening them.

When Billy was six, he and his father were fishing a roadside pond when he first saw James Carl. At that time the man wore a thick black beard. He was looking for Billy's father in order to trade him a beefalo for a .223 Remington rifle. Billy saw him step out of his Chevy one-ton and walk toward them.

Billy said, "Daddy, there's a really big man coming."

"What do you think that man wants?" Billy's father asked, casting his line.

"I don't know. He looks mad."

"Think we ought to run or fight it out?"

"I think we ought to run."

After that Billy found it fascinating to hear all the stories about the big man. James Carl once took on a band of Hell's Angels sixty miles away in Lehigh, Oklahoma, back when being a Hell's Angel had nothing to do with parades or charities. Back when all outlaw motorcycle gangs called themselves Hell's Angels. Outside the only bar in Lehigh, for fun he kicked one of their bikes to the ground. After a short chase down unfamiliar dirt roads, he wound up taking twenty-three stabs in a wheat field. Billy had heard his father tell the story many times.

Shortly after being hired on, and in a rare moment of courage, Billy had asked his boss about the stabbing. The courage to raise the question resulted from James Carl having burned the palms of both his hands when Billy had mistakenly tried to open the hood on the feed truck he was driving. What Billy had thought was steam rolling from under the hood, James Carl had realized was actually smoke. He had knocked the boy out of the way and burned himself instead. He had talked Billy through how to bandage his hands for him, and in the moment, though Billy had felt responsible for getting his boss burned, he'd also felt a kind of safety and trust in doctoring the man's burns. In feeling that sense of safety, Billy asked about Lehigh. James Carl said it was the prettiest stand of wheat he ever saw. He claimed it's what saved him. Said the wheat sang to him and kept him from bleeding out. Billy didn't much buy it, but he wouldn't have been the one to disagree. Two of those stabs were to James Carl's neck, and not pocket knife stabs either. All his scars were at least an inch wide. Those bikers had used big knives.

Starting to doze into his daydream, the CB cracked. "Wake up, goddamn it."

Billy hit the brakes and looked up. He had been veering off into a cut in the timber toward the creek. James Carl must have seen him and figured he had gone to sleep.

"I'm awake."

"The Mexicans are here. Park the tractor and come on."

 

James Carl did the introductions. "Billy, these are the Mexicans. Mexicans, this is Billy. Tell them how many head we got and ask them how long's it going to take. Not that I care. I just like to know. I'll go get some ice for the water cooler." James Carl carried the water can to the house.

Billy wiped his nose on his shirt sleeve. Words passed back and forth through his head, but he was afraid to say them. He knew that once spoken, he'd be expected to make sense of the words that would come back at him. He pretended to spot something important on the ground, bent to pick up a rock, and stuffed it in his pocket. He wiped his nose again. A square-faced man stepped forward and handed Billy a red bandana. Billy took it but didn't know what to do with it. The man motioned to his face like wiping his nose and Billy got it. Even though Billy already had a bandana, he nodded a "thank you" to the man and blew his nose into it. It smelled of lemons. The Mexican pulled a blue bandana from his pocket to show him he had another and motioned for Billy to keep the one he'd handed him. Billy nodded again but said nothing.

A boy about fifteen, Billy guessed, stepped out from behind the others. The boy looked toward the sheep gathered out in the pasture.

"Looks like two-thousand. He thinks you speak Spanish, huh?" the boy said to Billy.

"I can read it."

"Tell him we will do it in one day and one half."

"Okay," Billy said.

The boy leaned in close and whispered, "Drink whiskey?"

The sound of James Carl closing the house door straightened the boys. The rancher returned with a five-gallon orange water can filled and ready. He took Billy aside. "What'd Miguel say?"

"That was Miguel?"

"I've been gone ten minutes, and ya'll didn't so much as introduce yourself?"

"No."

James Carl got loud. "Did you talk sheep at all or what? Pimples and jacking off?"

"He said it would take the rest of today and half of tomorrow."

"Twenty-three hundred head? Seven Mexicans? You misheard."

"No."

James Carl thought about it. "I guess that boy's got faster."

The Mexicans rigged up, tested their shears, and donned their chaps, but mostly they waited for sheep. James Carl and Billy ended their conversation and herded in the animals from the pasture through hog panel corrals they'd rigged up for that purpose. After getting ahead of the shearers by five-hundred head, James Carl sat in lawn chair in the shade of an elm growing beside the shearing barn. He opened an ice chest full of beer and watched.

The shed was set up with ten shearing stalls, which were just plywood cubicles with eight-foot tall burlap bags hanging in wooden racks in the corner of each one. Each stall was six feet wide and had a back and two sides. The front was open to the outside. Billy helped Miguel's little brother stuff the bags with shorn wool, and when each bag was full, James Carl left his beer and hoisted the little boy into the sacks so he could tamp the wool down. Billy noted the little boy was wide between the eyes, and though he wasn't clumsy, it appeared he never really looked at anything. Like he looked past everything. He was a pleasant boy, though, and stayed steady.

Billy's hands, already soft from handling the wool every day, turned yellowish-brown and grew foul from the stink of it. He wiped his hands on his pants but couldn't rid himself of its stickiness.

"Lanolin," James Carl said from the shade. "Wool's got lanolin in it. Give up, you ain't getting it off. Look at your boots." Billy's boots glistened in the rich grease. "They won't be leaking for a while."

"It's like ear wax," Billy said.

"Quit stuffing a minute. Watch that boy shear."

Billy had been working so hard to keep up that he hadn't been able to watch the shearing like he'd meant to. Miguel kicked a sheep loose two-to-one faster than the next fastest. James Carl timed him.

"Goddamn." He showed the stopwatch to Billy.

"It looked fast. Was it fast?"

"The record is about twenty seconds slower than his average. That one was twenty-seven seconds." James Carl timed again. "Twenty-nine seconds. Look how he hardly nicks them."

Miguel was beautiful. The sheep, quiet, docile in his hands, trusted the boy. Where the other men occasionally had to struggle to get the sheep positioned just right, Miguel molded them between his legs exactly the way he wanted the first time. He never repositioned until he was ready to turn them to his shears, and he never grabbed an animal that went rank in his hands, not even the moody rams.

At the day's end, two-thousand one-hundred and nine sheep were sheared. Nine-hundred and seventy-two were Miguel's alone. With less than two-hundred sheep to go, the Mexicans were antsy to finish, but James Carl refused to string lights in the shed. Instead, he built a great fire in the pit he'd dug earlier. A white man fire, he called it. He spit a gimp yearling and feasted them on mutton and beer. When everyone had their bellies full and their heads buzzing, he ordered Billy to get two cots from out of the shed behind the house.

"Me and you are going to sleep outside with them tonight," he said.

Billy fetched the two cots and started setting them up beside the fire. The Mexicans looked uneasy about it. It was clear they didn't know if the cots were for them or for James Carl and Billy.

"Explain it to them, Billy. They look scared."

"Explain what?"

"I don't want them thinking we don't trust them. Just tell them we feel like sleeping under the stars tonight. The fat one plays guitar. I might get my fiddle. Tell him I'm better than last year." Billy waited for his boss to walk away liked he had before, but the big man waited to see what was said.

"Well?" James Carl asked.

Billy looked for Miguel but didn't see him. Finally, he said, "They're shy, and only Miguel will talk to me."

"They've been chattering all day. They ain't looked shy to me."

"But Miguel—"

"Billy," James Carl said, raising his voice, "if the next word out of your mouth ain't some Mexican gibberish I can't understand, then I don't want to hear another word."

"Dormir?" Billy said.

"Good, but look at them when you're talking. They're the Spanish speakers, now ain't they?"

Billy turned to the group of Mexicans, who had grown silent as James Carl's voice had risen. Miguel walked up. Billy searched the boy's face. Finally he said, "Dormir. Quere dormir."

Miguel nodded to him. "We will, too, then."

"I'm a dirty bastard," James Carl said, looking at Billy. "I had me a feeling about this." He walked off toward the house. "Put the cots up."

Watching his boss walk away, Billy thought he should say something. Anything. Explain himself somehow. He wanted to tell him how he would try to learn how to speak it and how he knows how to read it, but what came out was, "But my parents—"

James Carl turned back. "What? What about your parents?"

Billy couldn't finish his thought because he didn't have any idea what he had planned to say. It just came out. Embarrassed, he lowered his eyes and stared at the ground.

"I won't put up with a boy who'll run his parents down, particularly when they ain't here to defend themselves. Is that what you intended to do? Tell me it's their fault you lied to me?"

Billy said nothing.

"What then?"

"I don't know," Billy said.

"Well, I don't, either. But I know what trust is. Do you?"

When Billy couldn't answer, James Carl walked away.

"You better sleep out here tonight," Miguel said.

"Yeah," Billy said, but he didn't move until his boss was fully out of sight. "Why did you speak English? You got me caught."

"Already caught. I just made it hurry," Miguel said. He spoke to his family in Spanish, which Billy couldn't understand, but when the square-faced one went to the back of their truck and retrieved a blanket for him, he figured out what had been said.

Billy wrapped the blanket around him and pulled a lawn chair close to the warm pit of embers. He sat wondering if he'd be fired, but more than anything, he was just sorry he'd disappointed the man. He'd disappointed people before. So far as he could tell, it was as much his purpose to disappoint as it was the sheep's apparent desire to die. The way James Carl looked at him when he realized he'd been lied to, Billy had seen before. He'd seen it when he let the bottom burn completely out of his mother's favorite bean pot that had been handed down three generations. He'd seen it in his father when he stumbled in one night drunk and bloody from falling. And he'd seen it in his grandmother when he'd doubted God. But he'd never seen it like it was in James Carl. It felt as different to him as the difference between killing a mouse and a horse. The bigger they are, the more it hurts. There is something in the weight of it. The size. The space a thing takes up in the world. He fell asleep in the chair feeling he had scarred a big piece of the world. A really big piece.

 

Billy woke, scratching the back of his neck. Miguel's little brother, springing from behind him, giggled and tossed a tuft of wool in Billy's lap. From his cot Miguel shushed him, then pulled a bottle of whiskey from his sleeping bag and offered it to Billy. Billy shook his head "no," but looking at the people sleeping around him and back at the house to see if lights were on, he eased out of his creaking chair and signaled Miguel to follow him.

Billy led Miguel and Miguel's wide-eyed little brother a half mile to the Versatile at the lower edge of the 320. They crawled under the tractor, built a tiny pit fire, and sat in a circle around it.

"How do you shear so fast?" Billy asked.

"Faster I shear, faster I finish," Miguel said passing the whiskey. Miguel's brother reached for the bottle but was passed over. "No."

"He's quiet. What's his name?" Billy asked.

"He has no name."

"I got a name. It is Carlos," the boy said.

"It is not Carlos," Miguel said.

"It is Claudio."

"Stop lying. It is not Claudio either."

"It is Pedro."

"Why did you have to ask his name?" Miguel asked.

"I know my name," the boy said, getting agitated. "My name is Jesus. It is Justo. It is Ramiro. It is—"

"Si. I am sorry. It is Justo," Miguel said.

"Ramiro."

"I know. Ramiro."

"It is Ramiro."

"I heard you," Miguel said.

"It is."

Billy interrupted, "I'm Billy."

"Yes!"

"Yes, what?" Billy asked.

"We both have names."

"Oh." Billy opened his mouth to ask how old the little boy was, but thought better of it. He guessed him to be about nine or ten. That was close enough.

The little boy stretched out on the ground and fell asleep. Miguel slumped against a tire, drunk. Billy drained the bottle, stood up too fast, and banged his head on the tractor.

"Fuck!"

The little boy stirred but didn't wake. Miguel looked long at his brother. "The same voices," he said. "Day and night. Same voices all the time. I am tired listening to sheep. To shears. My hands shake all the time. It is like I am shearing when I am not shearing. I am tired listening to him talking nonsense all the time. It would be worth dying if I never had to hear sheep or shears or him or Mexicans and Americans trying to understand the other."

"Yeah," Billy said.

"You will not be fired, I think," Miguel said.

"Maybe."

"You can learn my language by next year when we come. I did not speak English last year. My brother did not. Tell him that."

"Why would he even need me to speak Spanish if you speak English? He doesn't need me."

"He will. I will not be back," Miguel said. "I am hungry."

"I am hungry, too," Miguel's brother said, waking to the suggestion.

"Too bad one of those stupid sheep hasn't walked by and dropped dead. I bet I could cook mutton better than James Carl," Billy said.

Miguel perked up. "Want to go kill one?" He pulled a cheap looking survival knife from his boot. "It is sharp. Feel," Miguel said handing Billy the knife. It was sharp. He handed it back. Miguel crawled out from under the tractor. His brother sat looking hopeful. "There are too many here. He would never miss one. I say we get one of the woolly ones still in the wood corrals. Easier." He crawled up on the Versatile to get a better look. "I think it is too far for him to hear." Miguel jumped down from the tractor and slid under it to put out the fire.

Billy didn't want to kill any sheep. He'd seen enough dead for one day, but he felt like doing something brave. He felt like taking up a greater space in the world, like James Carl. Billy helped fill in the pit, leaving no visible evidence there had been a fire. He remembered to bury the bottle.

Miguel led the way but hesitated at the timberline. "I get lost in trees," he said. Billy took over and led the boys straight through to the other side where it opened up into another field not yet plowed. Across the field lay the wooden corrals. Miguel out front, they sneaked the last quarter-mile. At the corrals, Miguel's brother put his hand through and let a lamb lick his fingers. He giggled.

"Stay on this side," Miguel said to his brother. Grinning at Billy, Miguel took the knife from his boot and bit down on it.

Climbing over the corral fence, Billy missed a step and fell into the sheep, frightening them. Bleating, the sheep scattered and ran in futile circles around the boys. Miguel took the knife out of his mouth to laugh at Billy lying in the dirt, put it back, and began the chase. Miguel lunged at one, missed, chased another, and missed again. Billy faired about the same, each boy running in drunken circles, laughing and falling, until Billy gave out and crossed the fence. He sat panting in the grass with Miguel's brother, who rocked patiently. Billy heard the gate jangle. Miguel approached carrying a tiny lamb. It looked dead, drooping in his arms. Miguel spit the knife onto the ground. The lamb raised its head, curled comfortably into his arms, and fell asleep.

"I can not do it," Miguel said. "He jumped in my arms like I was to save him. They all ran. He jumped."

Billy, feeling big, picked up the knife. "You can't baby sheep." He tested the knife's edge, wiped it off on his pant leg, and raised the lamb's sleepy head, exposing its neck. He gripped the knife hard, felt for the best spot to cut, and looked up at Miguel. Miguel took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and turned away. Billy lowered the lamb's head. He could see there was more to it than Miguel not wanting to be the one holding the knife. He could see the boy didn't want it killed at all.

"Let's put him back," Billy said, tossing the knife in the grass.

Miguel relaxed his shoulders and stared up at the sky, his hands slipping to loosely hold the lamb. Seeing the look on Miguel's face, Billy, too, felt a sense of relief. In his periphery, Billy saw Miguel's little brother pick up the knife, but he was too slow to prevent the little boy from slitting the lamb's throat. Miguel dropped to the ground with the lamb and tried to stop the flow, but it was a good cut. The lamb was mostly dead.

"Why did you do that?" Miguel pleaded.

"Huh?"

"I said why did you do that? We were going to put it back. I have it all over me. What are we going to do with it? Shit. Shit." Miguel turned to Billy. "Do something."

The little boy put his hand on Miguel's shoulder. "We eat? I am hungry. We eat now?"

Miguel cried, leaning over the lamb.

"We could throw it in the creek," Billy said. Wewoka Creek was only a couple hundred yards away.

"Throw it in a creek? There is blood all over." Miguel stood and walked away from them into the dark. Billy, hearing Miguel's crying intensify, ducked his head and stared at the ground like he always did when he was nervous. He noticed blood had splashed his boot. It beaded up in red half-moons that with a shake rolled to the ground.

Miguel reappeared, calm. He pointed a finger at his brother. "His name is Cordaro." The boy started to correct, but Miguel leapt onto him, pinned him to the ground, and knocked the knife from his hand. "Cállate el osico! I want to hear nothing from you. Hear? Nada!" Miguel's brother looked vacant, as if focusing on some curious point far beyond his brother. Miguel crawled off of him and went to Billy. He started to cry again but stifled it. He picked the lamb up from the ground and held it like a dead baby. "Which way?"

Billy led him to the creek. It was full of spring rain. Miguel waded chest deep and released the lamb. Watching it float downstream, he washed away the blood, then washed his brother. Billy, sitting on the bank sobering up, caught movement downstream. In the moonlight, he saw Dog slip through the cattails on the opposite side of the creek. He was after the lamb. Billy stood.

"Get," Billy yelled. Dog looked up and saw him but appeared unconcerned.

"Que?" Miguel asked, pulling his brother close.

Dog stretched his neck out into the water, nipped at and missed the lamb. He hunkered his haunches. Billy knew he was going to leap. He ran down the bank toward Dog, throwing anything he could grab as he closed the gap between them. Dog was brave, but he wasn't stupid. He abandoned the creek and disappeared into the cattails. Billy slowed when he saw him leave. He waded in and pulled the lamb from the water. Dripping at the river's edge, he saw Miguel staring at him.

"A dog was going to get him," Billy said.

"It is dead."

"Yeah."

Billy heard the familiar diesel cams of the Versatile hammer to a start. Though it was a half mile away, it was clearly the big tractor. When lights washed the tops of the creek willows, he knew James Carl was coming. He saw that Miguel knew it, too.

"Put it back in the water," Miguel said.

Billy laid the lamb in soft grass and walked the incline up and out of the creek to get a better look. The tractor was almost to the corrals. They hadn't bothered to kick dirt over the blood. Miguel and his brother joined Billy.

"He will know," Miguel said. Billy nodded. "Tell him that dog did it. Tell him we chased but too late." In the headlights, Billy saw James Carl standing at the corrals. "Tell him it was the dog," Miguel said again. Billy descended the slope to where he'd laid the lamb. He gathered it in his arms and climbed the rise, stopping beside Miguel. "You will tell him it was the dog?" Miguel asked.

Billy stood looking into the lights now heading his direction. "Stay in the creek bottom. Walk up it until you get to a fence. It goes right across the creek. Follow the fence back to the barn."

"You will say it was the dog?" Miguel asked.

Billy shook his head.

"It will be bad," Miguel said.

Billy nodded that it would, and carried the lamb into the lights of the Versatile.

 

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