Iowa Writes

JEANNE SHOEMAKER
Sonny Criss


When Sonny, Moe and Colin caught up with the herd, they were grazing on the north section where cottonwood and lone pine provided a few dots of shade. They needed to move the cattle back to the ranch for auction. It had been a long, hot ride and the horses and men were tired. They camped out that night and set off early the next morning. In the afternoon, they took a break by the river, letting the horses and cattle drink and rest a bit. Moe had a nap. Colin produced a meal. Sonny stripped off his shirt and washed in the river.

They mounted up again and headed through a gully. The horses had to walk on the slant. Sonny kept his weight uphill for balance. Red, never happier than when he moved the herd with purpose, tore around nipping at the back legs of stragglers. But he went too far, he took a bite out of a young steer and off it went with Red scooting after it. Sonny let it be a minute, happy to sit. His back was sore from Spider tossing him into the river the day before, and his leg ached from pushing on the downhill stirrup. He wanted to dismount and stretch, but knew he'd be sorer getting back up, so he let the reins hang on Spider's neck, untied his neckerchief, and slopped water on it from his canteen. He swiped at his face and neck and took a swig.

He heard barking, a short yip, yip, yip. Rattler no doubt. Red would keep at it until it struck, jump out of the way, just in time, and grab it by the neck. Then he'd rat-shake the thing until it drooped from his mouth like a thick strand of spaghetti. When Sonny lifted the reins, Spider took off at a gallop. He pulled his .22 from its case.

When Sonny, Moe and Colin caught up with the herd, they were grazing on the north section where cottonwood and lone pine provided a few dots of shade. They needed to move the cattle back to the ranch for auction. It had been a long, hot ride and the horses and men were tired. They camped out that night and set off early the next morning. In the afternoon, they took a break by the river, letting the horses and cattle drink and rest a bit. Moe had a nap. Colin produced a meal. Sonny stripped off his shirt and washed in the river.

They mounted up again and headed through a gully. The horses had to walk on the slant. Sonny kept his weight uphill for balance. Red, never happier than when he moved the herd with purpose, tore around nipping at the back legs of stragglers. But he went too far, he took a bite out of a young steer and off it went with Red scooting after it. Sonny let it be a minute, happy to sit. His back was sore from Spider tossing him into the river the day before, and his leg ached from pushing on the downhill stirrup. He wanted to dismount and stretch, but knew he'd be sorer getting back up, so he let the reins hang on Spider's neck, untied his neckerchief, and slopped water on it from his canteen. He swiped at his face and neck and took a swig.

He heard barking, a short yip, yip, yip. Rattler no doubt. Red would keep at it until it struck, jump out of the way, just in time, and grab it by the neck. Then he'd rat-shake the thing until it drooped from his mouth like a thick strand of spaghetti. When Sonny lifted the reins, Spider took off at a gallop. He pulled his .22 from its case.

The snake struck as Spider came to a sliding stop. Red jumped in an arc as Sonny's leg swung over Spider's back. Sonny'd remember this: how his leg felt, sore from riding on the uneven terrain, how bright it was—he lost his hat in the gallop—how Red sprung up to meet the snake and whipped his muzzle back so it would travel past his mouth. But, the snake moved mid-air, changed its course like a heat-seeking missile, and drove its fangs deep into the dog's cheek. Red shook his head, flung it back and forth, desperate to get the thing off, and the snake's body gyrated in a nasty dance with a two-beat rhythm. Sonny was off Spider and on the ground running, grabbed the snake below its head and squeezed. He had both hands on it, one over the other, and through his buckskin gloves felt the scaled body and its fearsome, Biblical strength. It hardened like a piece of re-bar, then bucked like a horse, used its entire length to build momentum. The second time it bucked it sent a shudder through Sonny's spine, sudden and hard, and then the white, bloodied fangs slipped out of Red's fur and the snake turned its hideous eye and mouth on Sonny.

"Throw it," Moe yelled and Sonny pitched it like a javelin. The snake sailed in the air, snapped its tail around like a bullwhip, and landed with a rubbery thud twenty feet from the dog. Sonny heard Moe crash through the sagebrush and dirt, heard a scuffle as Moe jockeyed around and got ready, then the shot that killed it.

Sonny hauled Red onto his lap. He worked quickly, picking through the fur, looking for puncture marks. The blood formed two small pools but there wasn't much of it. Red licked Sonny's hand like he was sorry, like he'd done something wrong. Sonny squeezed the skin to get the blood to flow but it didn't work.

"Got to get him to the vet's," Sonny said.

Spider hadn't moved through any of it. He stood with his weight on his hind legs, ready to spin and run. Sonny laid Red across the saddle and swung up. He scooped Red and settled him across his thighs, and moved deeper into the saddle. When he lifted the reins, Spider took off in a flying start.

Sonny heard Hondo whinny as they headed back into the gully. He softened his shoulders and belly to absorb the motion, using his forearm as a cushion so Red wouldn't bump against the saddle horn. He stood up in the stirrups, as best he could, to let Spider's back muscles work and stretch. Spider drew his neck out, kept his topline low, found his own path, and lengthened his stride.

It was a half mile or so to the truck. Colin and Moe had been repairing fence posts and the bed of the pick-up was filled with lumber and tools. Sonny was off Spider before they came to a full stop. He laid Red on the ground, then reached up to unbuckle the noseband and throatlatch of the bridle. Spider's head nearly touched the ground, his sides heaved, he was lathered like soap. Sonny undid the cinch, yanked the saddle and saddle pad off in one motion, and left it tilted on the ground. He pushed Red under the lower strands of the barbed wire fence, then wormed his big body through. Red looked at him but didn't move as Sonny laid him on the cracked leather seat and pulled himself into the cab.

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

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JEANNE SHOEMAKER

Jeanne Shoemaker graduated in 2010 from The Iowa Writers' Workshop where she was a Teaching-Writing Fellow. Her writing has appeared in The Iowa Review, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and has been featured on public radio's Weekend America. She grew up in California and Wyoming and now lives in Victoria, British Columbia. She works at a horse rescue sanctuary.

This page was first displayed
on October 19, 2011

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