THE FENCE by George Gurney
“C’mon lazy bones, outta the bed, they’s work to be done.”
Tommy groaned and rolled to sit on the edge of the sagging cot. From the lack of sleep and the total darkness enveloping the room, it felt like midnight. A faint orange glow came from the stove in the middle of the bunkhouse as one of the men opened it and stirred the coals.
Tommy shoved his legs into cold trousers. Socks still on his feet, he jammed them down the freezing confines of his boots and staggered after his companions, already heading out the door.
The short, chubby one climbed up on a wagon and clucked the team into motion as a gray smudge streaked low in the eastern sky. The tall, skinny one handed Tommy the reins to a bony sorrel. He gained the saddle with some difficulty and reined the horse around to follow the pair. The morning was cold, and silent, but for the creak of the wagon wheels, and the soft clomp of horses hooves in the long grass.
Tommy remembered the bottle of rye whiskey in his jacket. He pulled it out, drew the cork with his teeth, and holding that in one hand, took a long slug. It burned all the way down, and he gasped a breath. The warmth from the liquor spread through him and dissolved the cob-webs he felt in his brain. The bottle back in his pocket, he began thinking. No breakfast or coffee, the horse already hitched to the wagon - why were they out here in the dark of a morning, freezing their rear-ends off?
A couple more pulls on the rye over the next hour brought Tommy to the point of not caring. The sun had come up and seemed to battle with the black clouds as to which would rule the day. Finally coming to the end of some fence, the chubby one pulled the wagon to a halt, clambered into the back, and began throwing cedar posts out onto the ground. The tall one had dismounted and hobbled his horse. He walked toward Tommy, “C’mon down and hobble thet bag-o-bones, and git yerself onto the workin’ end of thet post-hole digger.”
Tommy had used one before and hated that back-breaking experience. Within an hour, the rye whisky came sweating from his pores, drenching his face. His back ached, his arms felt about to drop off, and his stomach had sent up a growling complaint of its emptiness.
When Tommy felt about to drop, the tall one called out, “Take a break and git some water.”
He staggered to the wagon and took a long drink from the canteen on the seat. The Chubby one handed him a couple strips of jerky, which he ravenously began to chew. Shuffling around to the back of the wagon, Tommy pulled himself up and sat, chewing on the tough meat.
The two men didn’t talk as they leaned against the last post they had planted, chewing on their jerky and gazing off across the rolling land.
Tommy looked around. No sign of cattle anywhere, and the fence line ran back over the undulating hills until it disappeared from view in the waving grass.
The sun had apparently conspired with the dark clouds and spent the rest of the day playing hide-and-go-seek. First burning hot on his back, then behind heavy cloud, the cold wind made his hands and face ache from the cold.
The three traded off digging post holes, planting the posts, and stringing the barbed wire throughout the day. Only when the sun buried itself in dark thunder clouds off to the west, did they stop and head back to the ranch. Tommy felt like every bone and muscle in his body had been beaten with clubs.
Normally one to look forward to a filling dinner of steak and potatoes and dried apple pie, Tommy only lurched unsteadily into the bunkhouse. He threw down his hat and collapsed onto the bed, fully clothed and, within the space of a couple of breaths, was soundly dead to the world.
# # #
The sound of Mexican trumpets and Mariachi guitars brought Tommy to confused wakefulness. He rolled over on the bed and sat up. His body was one big ache, and his head pounded like a drum. As he brought his brain into focus, he could hear the music again. In the dim light of the bunkhouse, he could see the other two men sleeping soundly.
Creeping to the door, he opened it carefully and stepped out into the night’s chill. Looking toward the main house, Tommy could see light blazing from all the windows, figures silhouetted behind drawn curtains, and hear the sibilant strains of lively ranchero music. He stood transfixed.
He tried to remember how long he’d been here. Did he ever see anyone at the main house? How long had he been building fence with the two silent bunkhouse companions? He recalled that he had come to think of them as Lank and Chubb, since no names had ever been offered.
As he began to shiver from the cold, he shook his head in confusion and went back inside. Removing his boots, he wrapped the blanket around himself and lay back on the bed. As questions rolled around in his mind, the music stopped and he went back to sleep.
The days went by in a blur of dreary sameness - up before dawn, out across the grassy plain to the end of the fence line, stringing barb-wire on the cedar posts. The line, yet to be finished, seemed to stretch on forever. Infrequent stops for water and jerky under a sky that daily seemed to fight with the sun for predominance. Black, heavy clouds that threatened a rain that never came. Once, he thought he saw a flash of lightning off to the north, followed by a deep rumbling like the sound of a thousand cattle stampeding across the sky. He shuddered, and threw himself at the post-hole digger with a vengeance.
Each day Lank would un-hobble the grazing horses, and they would begin the long trek back to the ranch. No talking, and Tommy felt the full-bodied ache of a hard days labor.
Each day he would return to the bunkhouse, drink deeply from the water jug, shuck his boots and collapse into a deep sleep until the ranchero music would awaken him in the middle of the night. Then he would be drawn to the bunkhouse door to stand in awe and confusion, gazing over at the brightly lit house and the happy music from within.
This night he decided to investigate. Returning to his bunk, he pulled on his boots, stuffed his hat down on his head, and walked across to the house. The music grew louder as he approached. He could feel warmth emanating from the apparent joy coming from inside. Grasping the knob on the kitchen door, he pushed in.
Cold, dark silence greeted him. No lights, no music. Only cold and dust-filled emptiness lay before him. A wan moon revealed an empty house, long since abandoned. Gray dust covered the few pieces of furniture that remained. An ominous chill enveloped Tommy as he backed out. Pulling the door shut, he half expected the light and music to return. It did not.
As he stumbled back to the bunkhouse, he became aware that all the aches and pains in his body were gone. No feeling of anything at all.
As Tommy opened the door, he saw Lank and Chubb sitting next to the stove. They looked up as he entered, different expressions on their faces than what he had become accustomed to.
Lank said, “Wal, old son, I reckon now you know where you are.”