Fenceline and Other Stories

Fenceline and Other Stories

by Jeremy Sayers

ISBN: 9781483413082

Publisher Lulu Publishing Services

Published in Literature & Fiction/Contemporary, Literature & Fiction

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Book Description

This collection of short stories draws on true-life adventures. In the title story, "Fenceline," young Henry Jenkins discovers life on the frontier, and learns more about living with people, and depending on himself, than he imagined possible. A counter story line is the life of a blacksmith from a small Scottish village. Introduced in "Primrose," Robb Parker must learn to build a new life after he loses his young wife and children. What they discover depicts the simple utility of determination in a beautiful, harsh, sometimes magical world.

Sample Chapter


“Kinda scrawny, ain’t ya?” The foreman leaned against a rail. When the kid

didn’t answer, he fired again. “I seen chicken hawks with more meat on ‘em than you. How old’er you anyway?”

“Eighteen.” The kid stretched his neck.

Scratching his back against the fence like a bear, the foreman said, “Umm hmm. You sure you can count, son? Look more like fifteen to me.”

Henry stood his ground, looked the foreman in the eye. “You want somebody to tend your fence, or somebody to teach arithmetic?” The tone of voice made the kid’s horse toss its head. He let the rein go taut one time then pulled the nose down, scratching at the animal’s jaw to calm him.

Pointing at the old bay, the foreman said, “Can you ride?”

Without touching a stirrup the kid swung up in the saddle, gave a whistle through his teeth and tore off at a gallop that would have seemed impossible from that horse. He hugged the fenceline for about a hundred yards, turned back in a cloud of orange dust and thundered toward the foreman again. Still fifty yards out he slowed to a lope, turned the horse so the fence was at their backs, cantered him out through a figure-eight, switching lead in mid-stride, and to the fence again. Then he barreled back down the line, dust boiling up behind like smoke from a freight train, slowing to a fancy high-stepping trot a few horse lengths away from where the foreman still leaned against the rails, the horse jigging sideways in a cross-legged dance step an instant before the man would have had to break and run or clamber up the fence.

The kid pulled the old bay to a smart stop. His eyes were blazing. “And I ain’t fifteen neither,” he declared, glaring down at the foreman.

“Well, son,” the foreman laughed, catching his breath, “remind me not to ask you if you can wrastle, ‘less I have a black bear with me.”

“Yes sir,” the rider conceded. He still throned the saddle. “Tomorrow soon enough to start?”

“Hell, start now, son. Dinner’ll be on the table time you get Methuselah there unsaddled and rubbed down.”

An even two dozen men ranged around a pair long tables. Already eating, most of them stopped, raised their heads when the new hand came in. He spotted the foreman, an empty chair beside him. Sauntering up to the table, the kid pulled off his hat. Brim pointed at the plate he asked, “That my place?”

“Don’t see nobody else setting there do ya?” The foreman grinned.

He scraped the chair out, hung his hat on back and sat down. A slab of beef swam in steaming gravy on the plate. He felt almost dizzy. Before he could reach for the fork the foreman held his hand out across the corner of the table. “Tom Short.”

The kid shook the proffered hand. “Henry Jenkins.”

He got the fork and knife in his grip. First bite in his mouth, he almost swallowed it whole when Tom Short bellowed, “Fellers, this here is Henry Jones. New fence rider.”

Around the wad in his mouth, Henry said, “Jenkins,” but his voice was muffled. He worked his jaw. The foreman looked confused. Munching a few more times, Henry worked the wad down. “Henry Jenkins,” he repeated. “Not Jones. Jenkins.”

The foreman gaped at him, then a corner of his mouth pulled up, and he bellowed out again, “It’s Jenkins, boys. Henry Jenkins.”

“Knew a fellow called Scat Jenkins out in Montana. Any kin a’ yers?”

Henry turned to his right. One intense brown eye scrutinized him, its partner stared unfocused at the wall. Scat? He pictured himself trailing out of the dairy barn behind his father, still early morning, Dad raking his boot soles on the iron jack by the carriage house door. Always scrape the scat off your boots, son. Don’t want folks in Pittsburgh thinking your some kind of bumpkin. Was the fellow trying to get his goat?

“Scat?” Henry repeated.

“Yep. He was a scout, but fellers called ‘im Scat ‘cause he tracked by by following its scat. Either that er they was just to lazy to say scout, I reckon. ”

Trying not to commit, Henry said, “Huh.”

“Kin a’ yer’s?”

Henry ticked a shoulder. “Could be.”

“Could maybe be yer granddaddy’s older brother.” Across the table a middle

aged fellow in a checked shirt grinned, leaned on the table, fork in mid-motion. “Hell Jake,” he winked at Henry, “Scat Jenkins was older’n Moses when you knowed ‘im. And that was near forty year ago.”

Jake studied his plate. “Wasn’t neither.” He looked up, the wall-eye bulging. “More like twenty.”

“Jake, yer boots is older’n twenty years old.”

“Well, I had these boots on last time I seen Scat. So there ya go.” Jake contemplated his supper for an instant, sliced off a neat little square of beef, and socked it in his mouth.

Uncomfortable with conversation, Henry looked at his plate too. Beef. Cows are cows, only these kind are easier to work; never have to milk ‘em. So why feel out of place? Likely not half a dozen of these men could milk a cow. Never mind getting the big cans into the icehouse. And the way most of them sat a horse, like they were about half asleep. Why, in Pennsylvania no one with an ounce of self respect would slouch in the saddle like that. Besides, riding fence wasn’t like riding herd. The point was to just keep the cows from wandering off too far, didn’t have to rope ‘em, or drive ‘em. Just drive nails to keep loose fence wire in place. Why would anyone want to wash twenty udders twice a day, and put up with chapped knuckles, and mucking out stalls, and forking hay, when you could just be out away from people, and ride, and see something new every morning?

By the time a coffee pot was put on the table Henry could hardly sit still. He hadn’t come all this way to wait around with a bunch of hired hands talking about twenty year old boots, and fellows with names like Scat.

When the whole thing was over it would be nice to have that roll of bills in his pocket. Right now, though, all he wanted was to get away from these talkers. You ain’t gettin’ paid to talk, your gettin’ paid to work. That’s what Dad always told jabber-jawed day laborers--Pete Johnson leaning on his hay fork, telling Bible stories to a bunch of good fresh heifers like he was their Sunday school teacher. Or Delroy Clinton idling around with a milk can top in his hand, telling some never-ending tale about the little cows in Ireland, and how the barns were made of stone, and they kept the milk in clay pots; how there were frogs in the spring house where they put the pots to stay cool and one day a frog up and jumps in one of the pots, only nobody sees it until this old woman buys some milk. She has a cupful, and when she’s done, there’s this old frog sitting in the bottom of her cup. She blinks at it a few times, and while her eyes are closed it jumps out, and when she opens ‘em again, she says Faith lads, I don’t know what you been feedin’ dem cows, but if it can make de milk as strong as dat, never mind runnin’ it tru de udder, I’ll pay yous for it full strength. Then Delroy would always laugh and repeat the last part a few times, he liked hearing it so much. And in the meantime everybody else has all the cans loaded in the cart to go to the icehouse, and there’s Delroy, with one can still not lidded.

The fellow across from Henry, in the checkered shirt, was still ribbing old wall- eyed Jake. Something about the way his blanket smelled. “And that feller’s got to sit by ya. No wonder he ain’t got no stomach fer ‘is food. Why if I was any closer to ya I’d be looking at my boot soles.”

Not two seconds later Henry felt an odor creeping into his head, somewhere between tobacco spit and unwashed socks.

“Ain’t nobody makin’ you sit there, Charlie.” Jake’s voice was almost a growl. He hunched over the plate, cup trembling in his hand. “Yer dadgum mouth ruint more meals than a dozen skunks, anyways.” A loud slurp punctuated the statement.

Charlie was grinning, caught Henry’s eye when he looked up. “Yer lucky yer a- ridin fence, Hank. Ain’t got ta put up with this ‘un here,” index finger stabbing the air. “Only good thing is, he keeps cyotes away, ‘cause they’re skeered a buffaloes, and when they get a whiff a’ Jake, they think there’s a whole herd of ‘em hidin behind the cows.”

The bunkhouse was more of the same. But Henry took an empty cot across the room from Charlie and Jake. Their voices started to ring distantly in his ears almost as soon as he lay down. He never remembered the light going out.

In the morning, sunup just bluing the uncurtained window, he woke to near silence. Only a soft wheezing whisper of human breath from other bunks disturbed perfection. Then somewhere outside a bird’s voice rose in a long clear whistling note, followed by an undulating chitter. Silence. And the long whistle again. Before the pizzicato, the whistle was echoed from an unseen point, and another, and another. In his mind’s eye Henry saw the small bodies, shaped like air, white and brown, bobbing on a twig green and dewy, stretching their necks to shape the sounds. He could have left his own body, could have left the world, all but for that instant, the color and sound.

The next instant a phlegmatic rasping vibrated through his bones: a sudden snore turned to choking. Then someone was coughing. Across the room wall-eyed Jake hunched up on his mattress, heaving his blanket aside, squirming until his feet hung down. Another cough and a wet missile plinked into a coffee can beside his bed. Henry glared, fixed a suddenly heavy-lidded gaze on the mismatched socks dangling from the ends of pale legs. A big toe poked through the sock that had once been red. The brown one, a bulkier knit, hung loose all around the foot. Henry felt eyes on him, shifted his stare to meet them.

“Must be mornin,” Jake rasped.

“Sounds like.” Henry tried not to let disgust register in his voice. He would still have to sit next to Jake at breakfast.

Before noon he was happy again. Alone in the corral with Old Sammy, voices of the other hired hands at his back, distant, he went over the list in his head: fence tool, two pair of gloves, staples, the fold-up shovel . . . clove-hitching leather ties to the cantle rings. Big saddle bags. He had a mackinaw in there and a stocking cap, a hatchet, smoked bacon, and a .44 pistol nobody knew he’d brought with him. Better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it. Dad had a saying like that for everything. But he was usually right, too. Sunshiny shower won’t last half-an-hour. A fool and his money are soon parted. No foot, no horse. Henry tugged gently at the belly girth one more time, looked down at his shadow spreading not two feet from his leg; ten-thirty, quarter-til-eleven.

Footsteps in the dusty pen. “ ‘Bout ready there, son?” He jumped at the booming voice behind him, though he knew an instant before that someone was there.

“Reckon so, Mr. Short.” He turned, squinted one eye against autumn sun.

“Well, three days you oughta be at the line shack, ‘less the fence’s got real bad. Had some rain up there, week or so back. Shack’s provisioned good, though. Good spring up there.”

“Yes sir.” Henry pinched his hat crown, tipped the brim down to shade his eye.

Tom Short gazed out across the open country. Henry followed the line of his sight. Grassland rose into steppe, up and up, until green seemed to give way to gray.

“Gets cold up there. Got a coat?”

“Yes sir.”

Tom Short nodded. “Well, it’s only three day’s ride, more or less. Ain’t the end of the earth. Need help, you come on back here.” “Yessir, Mr. Short.”

The foreman slipped both hands into his pants’ pockets, and nodded. Henry toed his stirrup, swung up. “ ‘Preciate the work, Mr. Short.” “Well . . .” Tom Short hunched his shoulders.

Henry clicked his tongue, squeezed Old Sammy with his heels.

Henry eased Sammy to a halt, eyed the steep grade ahead of them. Rocky, some loose dirt. Dry though. He leaned forward a little, closer to Sammy’s ear, whispered, “Watch your step, buddy.”

It was a perfect jewel of a day. Bright sky, high and blue and clear. All the grass still green, yellow aspens quaking in the breeze. Impossible to be more alive. And just miles and miles of fence, posts and wire. Didn’t even seem like a boundary, something marking this side and that side, the allowed, and the unknown. More like a safe line, really. Just pure wilderness without it. The fence gave everything purpose, focus. It was the reason to be there.

They crested a rise. Water trickled down through a deep cut of rock. When it stormed, though, it was plain to see this place would become a torrent. Loamy silt nested all among the low pale stones, except where the ever running trickle had washed it away.

Henry’s eye followed the wash, the stony gash through green. Twenty feet down the hillside, where the fenceline ran along the bottom, wire, posts, silt and saplings snarled in a pile. The ground around was still wet, two days, maybe less since the rain.

Then he saw it. Muddy, black and brown, twisted in the mess of wire, a cow lay belly down. But no flies. She wasn’t dead! Too steep to ride down to her, he swung his leg over-cantle and stepped onto the ground, trailing Sammy close to his shoulder as quick as he could go.

Cutters in the saddle bag. It wasn’t so bad, he could get her out. Already fumbling for the long metal handles, he stopped a few feet behind the cow. His heart went flat. He gazed up, pleaded silently at the high blue sky. Sloshed out on the wet ground right behind her, (how had he not seen it?) a calf, still in the birth sack. He gripped the metal cutter handles tighter in his fist, raised them, looked at the tool’s head. But he couldn’t move. Cut the wire? Get the cow free? His eyes fixed on the calf, clear sack tight over it’s body, over it’s face. Red, painfully delicate, the umbilical stretched from cow to calf. Under the clear bag the calf’s open eye rolled a little, taking in the broad bright sky. Small creamy pink hoofs kicked, dream like.

Henry’s heart pounded. He felt like his boots were nailed to the earth. Next thing he knew, he was on his knees, thumb and forefinger tearing at the sticky sack where it clung skintight over palm size nostrils. The fence tool was gone. He had a pocket knife in his hand. A blue tongue was oozing between the calf’s lips. He tore, felt soft, bristly nose against his thumb. He tore, saw the clear skin over the other nostril suck in. Finger in the cold mouth, he raked along the tongue, pulled out a clear glob. Eye pinched tight, the calf hacked, wheezed, hacked again, sucked in a big breath and its tongue was pink.

Henry’s hand scrubbed along the bony spine, still sack covered, felt his own breath coming quick and shallow. The umbilical was shading purple. He scrubbed at the back. “You’re on your own, little ‘un. Breathe.”

One quick slice of the blade and his pocket knife had the cord in two, a soggy rip of a cut. Then blood. Lots of blood, so warm. He hadn’t noticed his hands were cold. It gushed, gushed, each time the cow’s heart beat. Henry rolled the end of the sticky cord, pinched it hard in his fist. “Don’t,” he told the cow. “She’s out. You’re supposed to stop.” He loosened his grip on the cord. Blood pulsed out, splattered his face, drenched his hand. He squeezed harder. “No!” he pleaded, fixing on the cow’s dark eye. She tried to roll her head, but tangled in the wire, she couldn’t. He felt the cord swell in his grip.

“Think about your baby,” he tried to reason. He was scanning around for the fence tool.

Again he said, “Think about your . . .” looking at the calf, its tongue blue, its bright eye still. Henry felt his hands shaking. “Where’s the goddamn . . .” Frantically he scanned the ground. Right under his knee. . . He grabbed the fence tool, squeezed the umbilical in the plier jaws, stuffed the handles under his shin. Then he was rubbing the calf, scrubbing at its back, at its ribs, its jaw, with his palms. Its tongue worked a little.

“Come on, buddy. Come on.” Was it ten minutes? Twenty Minutes? The fat blue tongue was starting to dry. Henry held his chilled, damp hand over the calf’s upturned nostril, willed a breath against his palm. Willed a breath for a long time. He moved his hand to the sticky chest. The dark globe of bright calf eye stared up, at him, at the sky, at God maybe; maybe saw a million years of little dead calf souls gambolling around overhead, skimming above the grass they would never touch.

Henry was looking up, let his gaze wander, slide down the sky to distant ridges. Yellow leaves vibrated, long clouds stretched away. Across the valley, Henry’s eye lighted on a shape, coyote, or a young wolf maybe, lifting it’s nose to the slight breeze, a scent of new death. Scowling, Henry pronounced in a low voice, “Not today, you bastard.”

When he finally cut the cow free, she just lay there. Henry hefted the dead calf, lugged it up and laid it near her nose. “You had it, Bossie. Just bad luck is all. But you done good, you had ‘er just right. She’ll be back next year. You can run with her then.” He leaned close, his face near the cow’s eye, close to the dead calf’s nose. He wanted to make a deal, wanted the promise to be true. Thumb rubbing gentle between the cow’s eyes he whispered, “She’ll come back next year.”

By the time he had the calf buried and the cow on her feet, fence posts reset and the wire stretched and nailed, the sun was a hand’s breadth above the horizon. Still the afterbirth to come. Too bad they didn’t have a bucket handy, he could milk her, let her drink it; she needed the little extra. Henry thought about a fire, looked at Sammy grazing fetlock deep in shiny grass. A good horse. A hard first day.


Excerpted from "Fenceline and Other Stories" by Jeremy Sayers. Copyright © 2014 by Jeremy Sayers. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Author Profile

Jeremy Sayers

Jeremy Sayers

Jeremy Sayers has been writing for several decades. His stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines. Now, some of the best of those stories are available in a collection called Fenceline and Other Stories.

View full Profile of Jeremy Sayers

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