Again, the Saturday morning chores and already deep into that winter. February. The first since the boys’ mother left them for good.

For good, that was a funny way to think it, thought the younger boy.

They kept to the winding path, heads tucked into upturned collars. Wind lacerating the stubble field, violent and raw. The wool was folded double over their ears and still the wind roared in them, a merciless, isolating thing that made the younger boy feel as though they were the only two people in the world.

Which wasn’t true. Father was finishing the milking.

That was the confusing thing, the younger boy thought. There always being two truths. The one that was true and the one that he couldn’t help feeling was also true.

Grainy ice crusted the hard-packed snow. The younger boy tried skating the flat parts, but the grit roughed the soles of his pullovers. He tried again, more forcefully, and caught himself on a tractor rut. He landed on his chest, and the syringe, kept warm in his inner coat pocket, poked at his ribs.

In the muscle or under the skin? It’s important, father had said, had made him repeat it, but the younger boy had forgotten which. It was too cold to think well. If father hadn’t made him repeat it, he could’ve asked his older brother.

The younger boy dusted himself off, expecting his older brother to mock him, then turned to see why he hadn’t. His older brother paid no mind, and there in the distance the younger boy saw the house on the hill, the house their mother no longer lived in. She had made him and his older brother a promise before she left, it was the last thing she’d said to them. She promised she would never do anything that would hurt the farm.


They’d made a promise, too, the boys and their father, an unspoken one. Or so it seemed to the younger boy. Though he wondered if he wasn’t lying to himself. Whenever he put serious thought to it, things became painfully unclear.

The promise was made shortly after mother left for good, days after in fact. They were corralling the fresh cows, still pasture-wild and half-feral, from the holding pen into milk parlor and had gotten the last one, a rank, red-speckled Holstein, into the narrow chute, but she refused to cross the threshold, wouldn’t enter the noise and light of the parlor no matter how much father twisted her tail, no matter how hard the boys smacked her flanks or drove their boney shoulders into the backs of her thighs.

She was sickly, hadn’t let go of her afterbirth. The rotting placenta hung from the split in her saggy vulva like a wrung towel. Its death smell was awful, and the younger boy smacked her harder for knowing that stink would be on him the rest of the day. Then an odd thing happened. The speckle reared up and tossed her big red head over her shoulder, wedging it against the wall side of the chute. Her neck bent at a terrible angle, half her weight now pressing upon it, and bending worse still as they continued to push and twist and beat. The younger boy feared her neck would be broken if they didn’t stop. He was certain that father and his older brother saw this same as him.

They didn’t stop, though. None of them did.

Her front half kept twisting up and up, then over her hind half in a brutal, unnatural way that caused her hind half to skid, as if the one part of her was ruthlessly dragging this other. Cow spines weren’t meant to do that, the younger boy thought, and later he’d wonder if he’d mistaken what he’d seen. He could’ve. It’d happened fast, that final turn, and he and his brother had had to scramble to avoid being smashed.

Only father hadn’t given up.

One moment father was pushing the twisted tail into her rump, and the next the red- speckle had crushed his husky body in the narrow chute’s corner, where there didn’t seem to be any room for it, then she’d burst past the boys, raced across manure-slick concrete, and wildly crashed headfirst into the holding pen gate.

Father’s body lay motionless in the cold, wet slop. Both boys were badly scared then. The younger boy was sure of this. He was certain that he’d heard fear in his older brother’s voice when he crouched close to father’s face and asked, “You okay?”

“Yeah,” father groaned in a voice half above a breath. He was badly hurt, and his denying it made the younger boy more afraid.

But this seemed to have had the opposite effect on his older brother. The fear the younger boy had heard in his brother’s voice was replaced by something, the younger brother didn’t know what.

“Then get up, Pussy,” his older brother said. “We’ve got work to do.”

The cruelty! It made father laugh. He tried not to. His laughter broken with pain-filled whimpers. He couldn’t help himself.

And that’s where it began, what the younger boy had come to think of as their unspoken promise. They started repeating it to each other all the time. When an arm smashed against the milking stanchion by cow’s kick, when a bad spill was taken, when fever sweats soaked the sheets. “You okay?” And the pained one had to say they were. They had to. To admit hurt seemed like a betrayal somehow. “Then get up, Pussy. We got work to do.”

The younger boy didn’t like saying pussy and left it out, but he repeated the other parts all the same.

Their hurt was obvious and constant, which made lying about it feel, at least to the younger boy, like they were making light of things, and different than the posturing they did in public, which always made him feel worse, and drove him to want to hear the promise repeated again.

Like the day they were stretching new barbwire along the south pasture. The cut had looked like a surface wound at first, but that must have been a trick of the blood.

All three of them had watched the skinny arm passing under the sharp barbs, round after round. Faster, then faster still. They knew they should’ve chained the catch-pulley above the barbwire. Below it was dangerous. Father had even said so. Right after they’d threaded the barbwire through the catch and started turning the crank, he’d said, “Don’t be stupid.” Which only made the younger boy speed up. And even after the cut, before its searing pain registered, it had seemed to him that the arm belonged to someone else.


At the end of stubble field, the boys passed through a gap they’d cut in the wire fence to drive the big tractors through, one wide enough for the disc-chisel and cultimulcher. Snow had gathered into a large drift where the coiled fence roll lay, one nearly half the boys’ height, and his older brother shoved him into it, then ran ahead to the barn.


The barn’s sliding door wouldn’t open. Ice plugged the narrow channel that the bottom of the door was to slide through. The boys gripped the door’s edge, counted to three. They were jolted, violently, immediately. The door jammed cockeyed in the track from the impact. They fought it back into place then counted again. Their fingers burnt with cold inside their gloves. They could’ve walked around to the south end of the barn and climbed the bull panel wired across the open bay. They could’ve squeezed through the opening they’d forced from the first two pulls. They did neither. They counted to three. Again, the door jammed cockeyed, again the struggle to square it. They sweat under their layers and the cold found the sweat. The younger boy counted three with his older brother. The door’s wheels yipped in their track like a stepped-on dog. They counted three. Counted, again.


There were no lights in the old barn, and the blue morning that came through the open south bay only made it harder to see in the dark north end. The younger boy waited for his eyes to adjust. He heard the heifer, her sick, harried breath. Then he saw the glistening eye, her shape, a thing darker than the barn’s darkness, its head hung low. She was bad sick, worse than the day before. He didn’t think the shot would do her much good.

The other yearlings were trapped in the smaller pen on the west side of the manger, the warmer part of the barn. The water they slopped from the fountain seeped down into the barn’s lower east side which stayed wet no matter how much straw the boys spread over it, and the wet spread itself all the way down the east pen’s long run. They’d set up a second gate, so that the sick heifer couldn’t touch noses with the other yearlings. Father had told them to use that gate to trap her, wedge her between it and the manger, father had said, then give her the shot.

The older brother took off his sock cap and stuffed it into his coat pocket. The younger brother could see better now. Steam twisted from his older brother’s head as he draped his coat over the gate’s top rung. Convection was the term he’d learned in science class, but conviction was the word that came to him. He knew it wasn’t right, but he couldn’t get itsorted.

“I’m going to rodeo her,” his older brother said.

They’d seen it on television. A thickly built, Stetson-clad cowboy leaping from his galloping horse onto the neck of a well-horned, thundering steer, then twisting its head by the horns so sharply that the body followed.

The younger boy didn’t see how that would work here. His older brother was on foot. And, emaciated as she was, the heifer still weighed better than four hundred pounds. He and his older brother combined didn’t weigh half that. Plus, they’d lopped all the nubby, jelly-like horns off the yearlings last April when vaccinating the herd.

A snot rope hung thick and sliver from the heifer’s right nostril. Moisture seeped from her big dark eye onto crusted old wet that widened in a triangle down the side of her head. She had the fever shivers, and her ears hung sick and droopy.

Was that how he planned to twist her head? Those droopy ears? “You just bring her down the wall,” his brother said.


The heifer broke into gallop, clearly not well, yet easily dashed past them all the same, as if the muck didn’t suck her hooves like it did their boots, and all the way to the pen’s south end where they trapped her in the corner.

Here the bitter wind whispered promises of an opening to her through the tongue and groove siding, this sweet marriage that the old builders knew well, and her head ferociously crashed against the boards. The younger boy snatched her tail and twisted it over her back, pressing himself into her to keep her trapped. The pungent tang of scours that had hardened in her fur made him nauseous. His older brother was wrapping his arms around the heifer’s neck when her head shot up, and the thick chevron crown of her skull caught him under the chin. The younger boy’s hands released the tail at the sight of the head’s violent jerk, and the heifer escaped, running back to the dark north end.

A drop of blood dotted the front of his older brother’s sweatshirt. He refused to remove his hands from his mouth and let the younger boy see.

“You okay?”

“Fuck you,” his older brother said.

But the younger boy hadn’t meant it like that. He didn’t know what to say, didn’t have the words, and the desire to speak was relentless.


In the dark north end, the heifer swayed back and forth on shaky legs, her panting rhythmic and mechanical, as if possessed by this, the very last of her momentum. The younger boy looked at her for a moment. Fevered breath plumed before her. Something was wrong about it. She stood in the wet muck near the fountain. Wasn’t a dry place for her to lie down. She needed water and warmth.

He pushed her down the wall, slowly this time, the heifer leaning her weight against the siding. His older brother timed it right, came from the right angle, and that’s where right ended, as far as the younger boy could tell. His older brother locked his arms about her neck, dropped his rear to the floor, and dug his heels in, but the sick heifer, what was left of her, drug his older brother down the length of the barn, his body flopping alongside hers, banging against beam and stud before colliding with the mow ladder in a terrible thump. Still, he held to her, and kept his hold as the galloping hooves caught then pulled his body under, tripping her, and down she went, rodeoed.


The younger boy did not ask his older brother if he was okay. The heifer was too weak to get up. He feared that she wasn’t breathing, then the hollow ribs jumped with a whooping cough that sounded like her lungs were full of wet.

He felt inside his coat for the syringe. In the muscle or under the skin?


The next morning, the heifer was dead.

The boys tried pulling her out of the barn with baler twine they’d slip-knotted around her neck.

“On three.”

The twine cinched too painfully upon their hands. His older brother spat on her head. They went back to the dairy, got the truck and the longest log chain from the pole barn. The young boy wrapped the chain about her neck. They’d killed her, he thought as he hooked the chain. His older brother had wanted to rodeo the sick heifer. There was nothing personal about it, he told himself, and felt a sudden coldness cross the back of his own neck, and as he tried to understand what was frightening him, the truck pulled forward and the slack drew from the log chain and the dead heifer began to slide.

He saw this and tried surfing her at first, but he lacked the balance, so he sat on her stomach, which hadn’t bloated yet. It held him nicely, this gut-suspension seat, cupping him between ribs and hip pins. Warmth remained in her body. He felt it through his jeans and long johns. She must have died not long before they’d arrived, the younger boy thought as her warmth spread through him.

His older brother didn’t stop for him to shut the gate but sped out of the barn lot and into the stubble field. The younger boy held the twine knotted about the heifer’s neck like reins. His left foot pressed against her chevron crown, his right foot against her forelegs, and he discovered that he could steer her, in a hydrostatic sort of way, not very much, but enough to gain the control he needed as they swung into the first turn, skating across the ice-crusted snow, flattening the grave-like corn stumps that poked through. A glug of exhaust burped out the truck’s tail pipe, as his older brother shifted into the straightaway.

They were zipping across the field now, roaring toward the house on the hill. The truck’s tires tore apart the smaller drifts, throwing up a powder haze and ice grains that roughed his face.

No one saw them. No witness but the pale winter eye, huddled close to the horizon and painfully bright, its light reflecting on the field’s icy surface as if it were an aluminum sea, seeing the younger boy whipped hard into turn two, the heifer-sled plowing through the deep drifts near the dairy’s grain bins. He’d barely steadied himself before being lashed once more into turn three, slinging dangerously toward the drifts behind the north calf shed where summer weeds had grown tall in and around the heavy earth-turning implements, the disc-chisel and culrtimulcher nearly invisible under the snow. The heifer-sled shattered the pale, dead weeds into chaffy bits that he blinked from his eyes, blinked away, and saw the empty feed sack lift from the truck’s bed. His right hand shot up to catch it, but that big paper bag sailed just beyond his reach and caught in the dead burdock.

He wanted that bag.

“Turn!” He shouted and his older brother gave the truck a mean turn, smashing accelerator to floor, back wheels whirling a circular skid that sent the younger boy spiraling deeper into the weeded drift, the gloved hand grazed the brown paper this time, and he burst into rapturous laughter.

“Faster!” He cried. “Faster!”

Neither noticed the iodine-like stain widening in the shallow rut as they made that final turn. There was only the increased speed of it, the chain’s grievous moan against the clevis’s bow. The younger boy pulled at the reins, working himself up onto his knees so that he might reach further. He was flying it felt like, jetting atop aluminum light at the end of the tight-tight chain, as if he’d somehow gotten beyond the unspeakable hurt and life’s dark promises.


Barney T. Haney