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