A farmer and his son battle against a storm to protect their home. [Revision, Oct. 2015]
|There is an old adage: Be careful what you wish for.
Though he’d never heard it before, George Hildebrand was becoming all too familiar with its meaning as he stood on his front porch. The cold mist of the rain licked his face. Five days ago the sensation was pleasant. Five days ago the torrent was a blessing.
Prior to the showers, it had been months since the last rainfall. Wyoming was known for its dry seasons, but even his hardy crop of sugar beets struggled when the irrigation ditches collected only dust. That was before. Now his beets were drowning and he could do nothing but watch.
“You ready, boy?” he spoke gruffly, unmoving. His eyes, as gray as the heavens, surveyed his drowning domain. The cigarette pursed between his lips struggled to hold its light.
“Yeah, Pop. I’m ready.” His son, Douglas, just turned fifteen a few weeks ago. It wasn’t much of a celebration, only a loaf of his mother’s sweet corn bread with a single candle in the middle. That was as special as things got out here. There was always work to be done on a dying ranch. Douglas never complained. Harsh times make a boy grow up fast.
George adjusted his hat, lifted an axe with a puff of smoke, and stepped out into the downpour. The faint ember at the end of his cigarette swiftly surrendered in the face of such a challenge. With a sigh, he spat it out.
Douglas followed slowly with a shovel resting over his shoulder. The thirsty soil had taken in all it could and was rejecting the rest. Water gathered in growing puddles. The ankle deep mud threatened to keep their boots as they trudged out to the truck.
It was a 1939 Ford, beaten half to hell but it still worked like an ox. Doug couldn’t remember what color it was when his father purchased it before the war. He’d only ever known it as a rusted hunk of metal driven by an engine that roared like a lion with a hairball and a smoking habit worse than his father’s.
Without another word, they dropped their tools into the back and climbed into the cab. The drive was slow. Deep muck provided little traction but the old truck powered through, smelling of gasoline and cigarettes the whole way. The heavy rain was too much for the windshield wipers to sweep away with any great success, but George could tour his property blindfolded and never once be lost. They stopped a few miles away from their small, wooden homestead that sat at the base of Heart Mountain.
George sighed. The muted applause against the roof gave way to a full ovation when he opened the door. His leather duster lost its ability to hold back the rain long ago and he was already soaked to the bone. He rounded the steaming hood and simply stared, with waterfalls cascading off his shoulders, at the empty field that should have contained his other livelihood, cattle.
“Where’d they go?” Douglas stepped out next to his father. His voice was barely a whisper against the torrent.
A quarter mile up the road, they found the answer. The herd simply knocked over the fence. With the soil growing more and more inundated with water, it had little strength to support anything. Impotent posts and twisted barbed wire were pressed into the drowning earth as if sentenced to death for their failure. The trampled mud was mostly washed away, but the hoof tracks that remained lead up a gentle incline that curved away from the house and up into the mountains.
“To higher ground.” Water ran off the brim of George’s hat in infinite sheets tracing every subtle move of his head. “They won’t get far. The ridge drops off a mile or so back. We’ll get ‘em later. Let’s get to work.”
Building a fence is a relatively simple task under normal conditions. In a ceaseless deluge, it’s nearly impossible. The soil was giving way and the fence posts were losing their support faster than they could repair the damage from the fleeing herd. Digging in the sludge was almost as futile as trying to get a post to stand upright in it. With every shovel full, the muck seemed to resent their efforts all the more.
Their muscles burned. The cold rain poured. Slowly, post by post, the fence was rebuilt. It took several hours, but they piled up enough mud to support the posts for the moment. George looked up to the sky. Not a hint of blue as far as the eye could see, only swirling gray clouds and rain.
The wind carried the faint chime of the dinner bell, barely audible over the raucous downpour. Caked in deep brown earth the consistency of over watered cement, the two Hildebrand men returned to the truck and headed for home. George didn’t thank his son for his hard work. He didn’t pat him on the back for a job well done. He didn’t say a word. A half smile spoke volumes. It was more than enough for Douglas.
Home was becoming less of a sanctuary with each passing day. Water seeped in through cracks in the ceiling. It pressed its way past weary window sills. It swelled up between floor boards and gathered in defiant puddles underfoot. Scattered throughout the old dwelling were various buckets, drinking glasses, and stew pots to contain the never ending flow. The men stripped off their muddy clothes before entering. George’s wife, Rose, didn’t have much to work with, but she still kept as tidy a house as she could. After a change of clothes, the whole family was gathered around the dinner table.
“The radio says there’ve been mudslides reported all over the mountain,” she commented, serving Douglas some lightly seasoned boiled potatoes. The boy looked up at her with a warm smile. Rose was a strong woman. Being the wife of a rancher, she needed to be. Despite her rougher hands and lean features, she was very beautiful in her son’s eyes. Though, he never heard his father speak his opinion of her one way or the other. “They’re advising everyone to leave.”
“We’re not going anywhere.” George took in a piece of beef, cut swiftly with a single slash of his knife. “It can’t rain much longer.” The steak balled up in his cheek as he spoke like a wad of tobacco. His fork lined up the next slice.
Douglas knew better than to speak against his father and wisely held his tongue. Once George Hildebrand made a decision, the debate was over. Instead, he focused on his meal while trying to shiver the chill off his bones.
“It’s been almost a week, George. It hasn’t let up for more than two hours that whole time.”
“I’m not leaving, Rosie.” His eyes were strong, his voice quiet. He’d always been determined, but she’d noticed a change in him since he returned from the war. There was a part of him that never came back from Europe. It died there, buried in muddy trenches under gray skies with the souls of his brothers. Nothing more was said for the rest of their dinner.
An hour passed. George rested silently in his usual chair peering, as if viewing it at great distance, into the lit fireplace. He puffed away at his cigarette while the flame clawed futilely at the brick flume with curling, orange fingers. Rose could only wonder what terrible memories were surfacing in his mind. He was a warrior with no war. Despite the love of his family, it left him so very alone.
“Douglas,” he called, pulling himself to his feet.
The boy poked his head up from the issue of Detective Comics his mother bought him, with some protest, on their last drive into town. On the cover, Batman, having removed his cape and cowl, throws it into a fire while the Boy Wonder looks on in dismay. “Yes, Pop?”
“Grab your coat. We’re collecting the cattle.”
Douglas did as he was told.
“You’re going now?” Rose swapped out a full pot with an empty bowl. “You both have barely dried off. Can’t it wait until the morning? The rain may have stopped by then.”
“The herd will be farther away by morning. We can catch them at the top of the ridge if we go now.” He grabbed the keys and tossed them to his son. “Start the truck, boy.”
Douglas kissed his mother on the cheek. “Don’t worry, Ma. We’ll be back in a few hours.” He stepped out the door, pausing a moment to fasten the top button on his coat and pull down his hat.
“Why are you doing this?” she asked her husband before he stepped out into the weather again.
He slipped on his duster, still heavy from all the water it held. “This is our home, Rosie. A man’s not worth much if he doesn’t do all he can to protect it.”
She held onto his hat. He reached for it but she refused to release it until he came close enough for a kiss. The tension in his body relaxed for a second, lost in the moment. The distant boom of thunder brought him back. He brushed her golden hair away from her face, attempted to express his love for her, and—failing that—turned to leave carrying more weight than his duster could boast.
If George held onto any hope the situation would soon improve, it began to slip away as soon as the lightning started. The rain fell harder and it seemed that all of heaven was against him. The old truck, that mangy Detroit lion, roared as he kept the accelerator pinned to the floor panel. In the deep slop on the trail up the mountain, the wheels weren’t getting any traction. Still, ever the soldier, George powered forward.
About three quarters of a mile up, the soggy road leveled off and the tired truck had an easier time traversing the mountain. Though the sky erupted in a fiery tantrum, the two Hildebrand men were silent. George was more comfortable with the quiet than his son, who hadn’t yet discovered there was little comfort in words.
It became easier to see through the windshield as they entered the forest farther up. The trees did a decent job of deflecting the rain, but were still struggling with the sheer volume of it all. The earth was crumbling underfoot.
“Look at that!” Douglas pointed directly ahead.
“My word,” George gasped. His gaze drifted slowly upward. It was still difficult to see through the fogging glass, but he knew his eyes weren’t deceiving him. The trees were moving. Like an army marching downhill, their roots were losing their hold in the weakening soil. Many of them were slowly sliding down the mountain. Almost miraculously, none of them toppled over, but George knew that wouldn’t last long. They were running out of time.
He gave the accelerator a little nudge. Still, it took them nearly twenty minutes to drive a route that usually took no more than ten. As they rounded the last curve, George’s mood lifted the moment he saw the ghostly figures of his cattle in the meadow ahead. His levity was short lived. He and his boy sprung from the truck to find the herd bogged down in knee deep mud. Their panicked bellows were loud enough to overpower the wailing rain.
“No,” George spoke breathlessly, bracing himself against the hood. He could do little more than stare as the gears in his head skipped in their attempt to carry the weight of this revelation. Acceptance was an impossible load to bear.
“What do we do now, Pa?” Douglas asked the question that was on his father’s mind. There was no way they would be able to move the herd through that sludge. A wave of anxiety from his gut crashed against his larynx at his father’s inaction. “Pa?”
“Let’s…” his voice trailed as he tried to gather his thoughts. Lost. All was lost. He couldn’t believe he’d come all this way to watch his livelihood swallowed up. No. He wouldn’t allow it. “Let’s try to rope ‘em. Pull on ‘em a little with the truck. Maybe we can free some.”
“The mud’s too deep. They’ll never budge. All we’d do is break their necks.”
“You have any better ideas, boy?” The thunder clapped as if to echo George’s anger. He could detect the sound of defeat in Douglas’ voice. The rain had beaten his son. It wouldn’t defeat him.
“I think we should do what Ma wanted,” Douglas raised his voice, speaking firmly. He was a respectful son, but enough was enough. “You saw the trees. I think we should pack up what we can and get outta here before the mountain comes down on us!”
“I’m not leaving!” George struck his son across the face with the back of his hand. Douglas spun around, falling into the mud. “This is my home, damn it! Mine! I took three bullets defending it from the Nazis! I’m not gonna let some damned rain take it from me!” His voice, though filled with anger, was laced with the sad realization his son was correct.
Douglas looked up at George, massaging his sore jaw. Already, four circular marks were tracing the rosy path of his father’s knuckles across his cheek. Even now, he could do nothing but love the prideful fool that was George Hildebrand. Though the deluge concealed it almost perfectly, Douglas could tell his father was crying. Everything he’d built his life upon was being washed away.
Then, Douglas noticed movement. At first he thought it was a trick of the light through the ceaseless shower. A mound of earth appeared to be creeping up slowly behind his father. His eyes narrowed in bewilderment. Then, he saw the familiar flick of the tail.
“Pa, look out!” Douglas tried to rise, but was too late. The mud-caked cougar leaped as if spat from the depths of a volcano, but didn’t account for its extra weight. It fell short and struck George in the back, knocking him to the soggy ground. Digging its claws into George’s thighs, it let out a roar as sharp as a crack of lightning.
George cried out, rolling onto his back. The hungry cat pulled itself closer to his throat. He struck at it wherever he could, but the mountain lion was a born predator. It was used to prey fighting back and dug its claws in deeper.
“Doug!” he fought to keep the cat’s teeth away from his jugular. Its fur was coated in thick, slippery mud. He could barely keep hold of it. “Get my rifle!” His son was off in a flash, tripping over himself in his haste.
Despite the troublesome warmth spreading through his limbs, George managed to wonder why the cat decided to strike in the first place. It was drawn here by the cattle’s dying pleas, no doubt. Desperation guided by hunger will drive even the most cautious lion to dangerous measures. Steer are tough to take down, even when they can’t run away, but a defenseless human was always an easy kill.
George spat in the cat’s face, an act of defiance when it drove its claws into his ribs. The rain he couldn’t beat, but this feline would get a run for its money before he let it take him. His fierce gaze met the fiery stare of the hungry feline and he let out a roar of his own.
Then, with a flash of light and a thunderous boom, the fight was over. The cat fell limp onto George, its skull blown wide open on one side. He looked up at his son, who stood unmoving in the same stance he took just before pulling the trigger. He’d gone hunting with his father many times, but he’d never taken a life to save another before. It was a difficult sensation to grasp, like winning and losing at the same time.
George heaved the carcass aside and went to his boy, holding his hand over the bleeding cuts on his chest. “Thank you, son,” he said, gently taking the rifle. With a mournful glance back at his doomed herd, he added, “Let’s go home.”
Going down the mountain was only slightly easier than going up. Gravity was on their side, but the mountain wasn’t letting them go so easily. The deep mud grasped at the tires, desperate to claim more victims of the deluge.
“Pa!” Douglas pointed to an ash tree silhouetted in the rain advancing to cut them off.
“Shit!” George slammed on the brakes. In a wake of black loam, the rusty Ford slid to a reluctant stop.
The soil along the road was giving way, pulling the tree along for the ride. It wasn’t alone. The whole forest, an army of slender ghosts in the mist, was moving to surround them. The ash slid down the incline, riding the fluid dirt until it hit the embankment. Slowly at first, the tree tilted. Its roots clung desperately to maintain its anchor, but even wooden fingers weren’t strong enough to hold it upright. The ash tumbled to the ground in front of the vehicle. Carried by its momentum, it slid for a foot or two more before settling into the mud, effectively blocking their path.
The Hildebrand men sat in stunned silence. Only the sound of the tired engine and the ceaseless beating of rain against metal let them know they’d narrowly avoided tragedy. Thunder boomed in the distance and echoed through the mountain.
George grabbed his axe and stepped out. “Unpack the chains, Doug. We’ve got to haul this outta our way.” His blade striking wood punctuated his request.
George hacked at the fallen ash for forty five minutes before the top broke away and dropped further down the mountain. Every tree it struck along the way shuddered a little. The earth was nearing its breaking point. George wasn’t far from his. Streaks of red stained the water flowing off his clothes. His efforts only widened the wounds in his chest. With burning muscles and heavy limbs, he trudged over to help his son fasten the chain to the largest branch they could find.
“Do you think it’ll be strong enough?” Douglas asked of the limb his father selected. It was sturdy in appearance, but the tree had subsided deeper into the mud and clay.
“It’ll be strong enough.” He squinted to find a link in the chain to place the towing hook for a tight fit. What little light there was available though the dense cloud cover was growing fainter as night approached. Even with the truck’s headlights, the rain was too dense to see very far. With the ground beneath them shifting every moment, George was quickly growing unfamiliar with his own land.
The truth was beginning to eat its way into George’s head. They were running out of time. The sky had declared war and they were lost soldiers in enemy territory. Then, he thought of Normandy. If a rain of Nazi bullets couldn’t stop him, he sure as hell wasn’t going to let a little water get the best of him. He found a link and tugged on it for good measure.
“Stand on the other side of the tree,” he told Douglas. “When I start pullin’, you push on this end.” He pointed to where he’d worked it with the axe. “We’ll guide it to the side of the road. Do you think you can handle that, son?”
“I can handle it, Pop.” Rain poured in sheets off the back of his hat like a miniature waterfall. He climbed through the branches that survived the fall to the far side.
One corner of George’s mouth curled upward. “Good man.” Pulling himself into the old Ford, he shifted into reverse and pressed the accelerator. Before the war, he would have prayed to God for this to work. Now, he wasn’t so sure anyone was even paying attention.
Globs of muck spat though the air like buckshot as the spinning tires fought to find any traction. Douglas tried to push the submerging log, but his feet kept slipping out from beneath him. The rusty workhorse slid from side to side, reacting to the slightest movements of the wheel. George shifted gears and revved the engine harder. Now it was raining mud as well.
Finding something to grab onto, the truck jerked backwards. The chain went taut with a discordant twang. Wet earth was stubborn, however. It didn’t want to give up its new prize. The old Ford roared, threatening to start a mudslide itself. The mountain shuddered at the sound.
“Come on!” George muttered, shifting gears again. The truck only moved left to right and back again. “Damn it, come on!” Another shifting of gears and he pressed the pedal to the floor. Rain turned to steam when it struck the hood. The thick sludge finally gave way.
Douglas did as he was told as best he could. The truck pulled and he guided the log to the side of the road, slipping and stumbling as he worked. George smiled. It was working. They were getting through.
Weakened by their work and the ceaseless deluge, the dirt road beneath the ash crumbled apart. The log tumbled over the edge. Douglas, his sleeve caught on a splintered branch, followed.
“No!” George cried, leaping out into the cold rain. The punctures in his legs and chest sharply relayed their displeasure at the sudden movement throughout his body. He ignored them and slid blindly down the embankment.
“Doug! Douglas can you hear me?!” Lightning and thunder drowned George’s cries in a sea of noise. “Douglas!”
He found his boy. There was blood. Douglas had been dragged about fifteen feet down the muddy slope. Pressed into the dirt, the log rolled over him at least once before releasing him. It came to rest a dozen yards farther down the mountainside. His arm was twisted an unnatural angle. His nose was broken. Scratches and mud covered him from head to toe. The sight of him knotted George’s insides.
“Son, can you hear me?” George gently pushed the hair and soil out of his boy’s eyes. “Answer me, Doug.”
Douglas didn’t speak. He could swear he could see the stars glimmering beyond the clouds. His eyes darted to his father and he mustered a smile, thankful the rain hid his tears. He would hate for his father to see him cry.
“Don’t worry. I’ll get you home, son. I’ll get you home.” George gently cleaned the mud away from Douglas’ face, thankful the rain concealed his tears. No boy should ever see his father cry.
Ever so carefully, George slid his arms beneath Douglas and freed him from the earth. Trudging up the soggy embankment was harder than sliding down. Every step threatened to give way and send them both tumbling back down. George, ever the soldier, moved ever forward.
Rose cried out when George carried their broken son into the house. With a quick brush of her arm, she cleared off the dining room table. Crystal drinking glasses, her few luxurious possessions, shattered upon the wooden floor. George laid Douglas onto the table with a wince.
“What happened?” she asked, almost frantic. She began to strip away Douglas’ tattered clothing, remaining cautious of his broken arm.
“I was a damn fool,” George admitted, holding closed the wound in his chest while caressing Douglas’ forehead with his free hand. “I should have listened to you—to the both of you.”
“George, he needs a doctor,” she spoke with urgency, feeling at least one broken rib in the boy’s chest. Her eyes caught the bloody rips in her husband’s clothes. “You both do.”
“I’ll be fine.” He stood. “Pack up whatever you think we’ll need. We’re leaving as soon as I get the truck ready.” Without another word, George stepped outside.
Thunder crashed like an approaching blitzkrieg. This was war, only he’d been fighting for the wrong side. His pride was a weak shelter. His home was a lost cause. It had been from the moment the sky began its assault. Sadly, it had taken his son’s accident to show him where his allegiance truly lied.
George threw a tarp over the truck bed and positioned it like a tent. Once he was sure it was secure, he lined the bed with as many blankets as he could find, careful to keep them from getting too wet in the rain. Once that was complete, Rose passed him their supplies all hastily wrapped in tablecloths.
Then came their most precious cargo. To keep him as still as possible, George and his wife carried Douglas out on the kitchen table before sliding him into the truck. Rose climbed in alongside her son. George tossed the table aside on his way to the driver’s seat.
A tremendous rumbling overtook the roar of the rain. It wasn’t thunder. The mountain finally had its fill. It wasn’t thirsty any more. Looking up the incline, George saw the trees beginning their final assault. Ashes and pines, cottonwoods and oaks—all charged en masse as the ground beneath their roots finally succumbed to the sky’s will.
Through the side mirror of his old Ford, George watched the mudslide envelope his home while they drove away. The humble dwelling buckled under the immense weight like a house of cards in a gentle breeze. Everything he’d ever built was swallowed up in an instant.
“How’s he doing?” George asked his wife through the open window at the back of the cab. He didn’t break his eyes away from the brief flashes of the road he could glimpse between passes of the windshield wipers.
“I don’t know,” she answered with a quiver in her voice. She worked to stop the blood streaming from the boy’s crooked nose. “He’s breathing shallow and I can’t get him to talk. Please hurry, George.”
The sky had declared war. When you’re at war with the sky, it helps to know which side you’re on. George almost lost everything he cherished fighting for the wrong ally. He wouldn’t make that mistake again. This time, the sky was going to understand what it’s truly like to be at war with George Hildebrand. He’d survived Nazi bullets. He’d be damned if he let a little rain stop him. The rusty lion roared at his urging.
“I’ll get him there in time, Rosie. I promise.”