By Mike Bonifas - Quitaque, Texas, USA - 15 May 2016
Agnes lifts a skein of yarn from the basket. The fiber floats in her palm as light as a child’s hand. Outside, the sheep call to be fed. It’s Saturday morning and a candle flickers before a statue of the Blessed Mother. At the statue’s base, Mary’s feet surf the globe on the back of a green serpent. Last week, Agnes found a snake skin -- thin as a Bible page -- beneath her bed. So far, she’s not encountered the rattler that shed it. She checks the bottom of the basket and returns the skein.
Saturday prayers are dedicated to Mary and the parish prayer list lies open on the floor. Agnes slows the treadle. The bobbin coasts to a stop and she locks the wheel. It’s her custom to offer personal intentions last. And the most difficult petition -- for Raymond -- last of all.
God damn Raymond.
That’s the prayer she wants to offer. So she asks Mary to intercede for him instead. With shaking hands, Agnes removes a new skein from the bobbin and carries it to the kitchen to wash. The water warms her hands and, for a moment, the tremors subside. She’ll manage the trip, she tells herself. Three hours to Amarillo. Three hours back. But first, the sheep need to be fed and the pickup needs gas. She grabs a red bandana off the back of a chair.
The door swings opens on a barn as humble as Bethlehem’s stable and, for Agnes, nearly as holy. The ewes bleat and sniff for grain. Nostrils shine with mucus. Anxious mothers, they stomp their legs in warning when Agnes hikes her dress and climbs into the lambing pens. “Come now, you know me. I’m your shepherdess.”
She loves the word shepherdess.
In the far corner, a young ewe nuzzles a pair of newborn twins. Agnes milks colostrum from the leathery udder and tubes the yellow warmness down each lamb’s throat. She fills the water buckets. At the workbench, the yellowed face of a fly-speckled clock. Seven-forty. She considers returning to the trailer to change out of her work clothes. Instead, she lingers at the far pen. At her feet, the newborns nurse, tails shaking with delight.
Half an hour later, Agnes fills the pickup at a gas station in Findley. At Estelline, she turns west on Highway 86 toward Silverton and the Palo Duro Canyon. This route adds a half-hour to the trip but today’s work of mercy requires a dose of spiritual solace. When she moved from Illinois to Texas two years ago -- Raymond needed help -- she borrowed a book from his shelf, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes. She now loves the word solace as much as shepherdess. And Texas canyons more than the fertile Midwest.
Rugged beauty befits a ragged soul.
This morning, the descent into the Palo Duro unfurls colors that stream across arroyos like banners in some tectonic battle. Boulders balance on ledges. Gypsum thunderbolts flash across Permian rock. Hues of red soak the cliffs. Like the warmth of Christ’s own blood on torn skin. If time allowed, she’d stop the truck and stand at the side of the road. To worship. To offer reparation.
“How are the sheep?”
A bruise yellows her brother’s cheek. Agnes is distracted by the contusion’s delicate shading.
“The sheep?” he repeats. When she doesn’t reply, he takes her by the elbow and leads her across the room crowded with inmates and visitors. Her eyes move to his jowl, his stringy neck.
“The sheep are fine,” she finally manages to say.
Raymond directs her toward a bench on the far side of the hall. They shuffle past a family. The aisle is narrow and Raymond trips. He teeters toward a young boy, his arm swiping the child’s chest.
A massive man jumps to his feet, grabs Raymond and shoves him against a post. Agnes wobbles. A female guard catches her. Another guard locks the boy’s father in a tight grip. Raymond lies on the floor.
“I’ll kill that pedo!”
The room erupts. The female guard rushes Agnes to the far side of the hall.
“Stay here. And stay low!”
Legs weak, Agnes lowers herself to a bench. Across the room, inmates shout, pump the air with their fists. Reinforcements arrive. The enraged father is hustled out of the room and his family escorted to the sally port. When quiet returns, Raymond crawls his way to the bench. Agnes helps him up. For several minutes they both lean against the block wall. She hears the rasp in his breathing.
“You okay, Raymond?”
Guards stroll the room, their faces rigid, eyes alert. They nod at the visitors. Across the aisle from Agnes and Raymond, an inmate and his woman sit close to each other. The woman stares at Raymond, her fingers drum the skull tattooed on the man’s arm.
“So, how are the sheep?”
Agnes turns. “Your ear’s bleeding.”
“I’m their fun.” Raymond fishes a hand in his pocket. “I need a favor.” Agnes spies a yellow note. “Get this to the bishop.”
“No.” She scoots away.
“He won’t answer my letters.”
“I said, no!”
“If given a chance, I can redeem myself.”
“Talk to the chaplain.”
She stands up. “Guard?”
The guard who rescued her from the fight stands at the end of the aisle. “Ready to go, ma’am?”
She hates the prison. And right now she hates her brother. She squeezes through a jumble of knees and feet and the stink of human sweat. The guard leads her to the sally port. At the door, Agnes smiles a bit when she notes the name stitched above the guard’s pocket -- Gabriel.
Sunlight glints off a truck descending the far side of the canyon, sparking the air like the glance of an angel. Gabriel? She smiles again. Stranded for an hour next to the hood of her truck, in a place with no phone signal, Agnes murmurs a prayer of thanks as the vehicle approaches, slows then pulls to a stop, its engine rumbling like rapids in a river.
The tinted window lowers, smooth and silent, and Agnes peers inside the dark-upholstered sanctuary. Her heart sinks. It is a man named Bauer. Diesel fumes rise up from the undercarriage and she fights an impulse to flee.
Bauer squints up the road, his voice as rigid as his neck. “Need help?”
The window rises and the truck rolls ahead to the roadside berm. A flatbed with a diamond plate tool box, it settles itself in the ditch like a bull in tall grass. Agnes wonders if diocesan money paid for the rig.
Bauer steps out of the cab and strolls to her pickup, leans across the fender and peers beneath the hood.
“So what’s the problem?”
“There was a grinding sound.” Agnes watches him with wary hope. “Then the truck lost power.”
Bauer checks the oil level and battery connections. For a moment, the concern on his face appears genuine. Then she remembers his brooding anger at the trial.
The victims -- all minors -- were not identified in the press, yet everyone in town knew their names. And not just their names: their ages, their parents, their friends. They also claimed to know what actions took place. Where and when the offenses occurred. Within a week, the patrons at beauty salons and the farmers’ co-op inflated the number of victims to seventeen. Then twenty. Accusations sprouted thick as thistles. Her brother was blamed for everything from the organist’s alcoholism to the summer drought. In the end, rumors dissipated in the echo of the judge’s gavel. Three boys were abused and a sentence of twenty years was handed down.
One of the boys was Bauer’s son.
Heading back from Western Equipment, Lane Bauer recognizes the pickup at the base of the canyon, a junk Silverado once owned by Jimmy Castro. Its hood propped up like the leg of a grasshopper, the paint mottled by the sun. At the fender, an old woman. Her hair flutters in the wind like the cape of a witch on a broomstick. The sight makes him slam the steering wheel with the base of his hand.
He’d rather hit a deer than help the priest’s sister.
Lane takes his time negotiating the curves down the escarpment. He glances in the mirror in hope of spotting another vehicle behind him. The road is empty, so he stops. The woman pulls back her hair. He lowers the windows. She inches forward, wary as a badger.
A stab of sympathy. She’s old. Helpless. So he checks beneath her hood, then climbs in the cab of the stranded pickup and turns the ignition. The engine hums smoothly. When he puts it in gear, metal clangs beneath his feet. He shoves it in neutral and turns off the key.
“When was the last time you checked the oil in the transfer case?”
He climbs out of the cab and crawls beneath the chassis. Oil drips on his arm and the transfer case is hot to the touch. He scoots back into the sunlight.
“The transfer gear is shot.”
“How much will one cost?”
He stands up. “A new one? Plenty.” He wipes the oil on his jeans. “A guy in my shop rebuilds them.”
Bauer walks to the front of the woman’s pickup, wondering how he’ll tow it out of the canyon. If there’s no front hitch, he’ll have to use a chain and he doubts if the woman could commandeer the truck back to Findley.
“Can you get me home?”
Lane squats to inspect a rusted hitch on the home-made bumper. “You’re in luck. I got a tow bar.” He eyes the canyon’s rim in the distance. Then realizes he and the woman will share the two-hour ride back to Findley. He walks to his truck.
“My name’s Agnes.”
On the ascent out of the canyon, neither one speaks. He notes the tremor in her hand resting on the armrest between them.
“New truck?” she asks.
Lane glances out the window to his left. His truck’s shadow glides across the grass like a charging bull, the pickup trails like a frightened calf.
“What a beautiful truck.” She folds her hands. Then adds in a rush. “I’ll pay you for your trouble, Mr. Bauer.”
“Name’s Lane.” He drums his fingers on the wheel. Throughout the trial, the woman sat slump-shouldered next to the molester. Occasionally, she’d place her hand on his arm. Lane remembers the gesture and his gut cramps. They drive along in silence. She traces a finger along the edge of a plastic fish adhered to the dashboard.
“I visited my brother today.”
She wipes dust from the dorsal curve. “You attend church?”
“Your wife used to be a cantor at Sacred Heart.”
“And Joe Scott?” She folds her hands again, as though praying. “He lives with his mother, now?”
“That’s eight hours away.”
“Tell me about it.”
Lane slows the truck and pulls to the side of the road. His hands are shaking. “I need to check something.” He steps out of the cab and sprints to the back of the flatbed. He kneels on the gravel and rubs his face with his hands. The calluses scrape the stubble on his chin. He wants to yell. Instead, he pounds his fist on the tow bar. Why? Why didn’t he insist?
Before the divorce, he and Tasha argued. A lot. Joe Scott liked cutting grass at the rectory. He was saving up for a guitar. Tasha admired her pastor. “He’s kind to him,” she’d say. Then, one day the boy came home with sunburned shoulders.
“Why’d you take your shirt off?”
The kid shrugs.
“I asked you a question.”
The boy opens the refrigerator and removes a carton of milk.
He shrugs again. Sets the milk on the table.
“Look at me.”
The lips tremble and he starts to cry.
Findley’s water tower rises in the distance. Agnes feels the downshift as Lane turns onto County Road 33, a dirt lane, rutted and sandy. She pulls down the visor and glances at Bauer’s profile. Stout neck. Military hair-cut. Sunlight coppers his face and she thinks about soldiers and honor.
He pulls into the farmyard, a frown furrows his brow. “Did someone check on your sheep today?”
“No.” Agnes collects her thoughts and gathers her purse, relieved to be home. “One ewe gave birth to twins this morning. I’ll need to check on her and the lambs.”
“You got fresh tracks in your yard.”
Agnes gazes across the yard to the barn. The door hangs open at a broken angle, the upper hinge ripped from the tin siding. A cold stab constricts her chest. She climbs down from the cab and hurries to the barn. Inside, on the back wall, light streams through a spray of shotgun holes. On the stable floor, ewes lie strewn like dolls, all legs and crooked necks.
Agnes claps her hand to her mouth, the breaths short and quick. “No!” The hot word moistens her palm. She clambers across the bunk. Stumbles in the manure.
The ewes. Every one. Stone eyes. Cold ears. Blossoms of blood on shorn wool. The stable, its sacred silence, sliced in metallic light.
Lane lifts Agnes to her feet and leads her outside. Her hand pinches his wrist like the claw of a sparrow. Her lips move without sound and he realizes she is praying. He looks away. Clouds have gathered and sunlight cuts across the decrepit trailer and fence-line brush. Dry grass crinkles beneath their feet and Lane squints against the sharp angles of the sorry place.
Sheriff Stevens arrives at dusk. He asks Agnes perfunctory questions. At the barn, his deputy assembles a pair of halogen spotlights. Stevens scribbles a few notes then steps inside the barn. The deputy takes the opportunity to text, smiling as he does so. When the sheriff comes out, Lane asks if he’s going to take moldings of the tire tracks.
“Maybe.” The sheriff inspects the broken hinge. “Let’s take a look.”
Lane follows him to the edge of the yard where Steven kneels to examine tread pattern pressed into the caliche.
Lane studies the sheriff’s face. “High school kids?’
“You’ll be paying them a visit?”
Stevens sucks in a breath and stands up. “In time.”
“When will we know who did it?”
Steven adjusts his hat. “Everybody already knows.”
“And no one cares?”
“About the size of it.”
They return to the barn. Agnes and the deputy wait at the door. Each cradles a live lamb in their arms.
“The twins!” Agnes beams. “They hid beneath the manger.”
The sheriff ignores the news. “You get some prints, Josh?”
“A few smudges.”
The deputy passes the lamb in his arms to Lane. “I’ll get these halogens packed up.” He starts coiling the electrical cord. The sheriff takes a final glance at the barn. “We’ll be in touch, Ms. Jannick.” He grabs one of the lights and walks to the cruiser. The deputy follows, and soon the hum of tires fade in the distance.
“These babies need milk.”
Lane follows Agnes to the trailer where she hands him the second lamb as she unlocks the door. He sits in the rocker, the lambs listless in his lap. Agnes gathers towels and makes a bed for the newborns in the bathtub.
“They need a bottle every four hours.” She sets a bowl of milk in the microwave. “They’ll sleep inside the trailer.” She rifles a drawer and finds a rubber nipple. “I’m not going back to that barn. Not tonight.”
Lane pulls up a chair. “I’ll take the late shift.”
Agnes checks the hole in the nipple. “I don’t recall extending an invitation.”
“If I leave, you won’t have a vehicle.”
“I have a shot gun.”
“Now you got two.”
Agnes carries the lambs to the bathroom. Lane follows and positions them between his knees while they nurse. They bob their noses like pistons on an engine, their wool warm as a manifold.
When the lambs are fed and bedded in the tub, Lane grabs a newspaper and heads for the couch. He drifts to sleep then rises for the two o’clock feeding. Agnes takes the six o’clock. At seven, he wakes to a candle flickering in the kitchen. Agnes sits in a rocker near the stove, a rosary drooping from her hand.
“Hope I didn’t wake you.” She pockets the beads. “Are you hungry?”
Lane swings his legs off the couch and stares out the window. In his periphery, his gun leans against the doorframe. “You hear anything last night?”
“Just coyotes. And foul words when you stubbed your toe.” She smiles. “I got cold cereal. Wish I could offer more.” Lane rubs his eyes.
After breakfast, he walks to his truck and calls Ross Tillman.
“Need your backhoe.”
“Saw it in your lot yesterday.”
“Too bad. Frank Miller needs it.”
Lane leans on the hood. “I got a pile of dead sheep out here.”
“Not my problem.”
“They’re starting to stink.”
“Sorry about your luck.”
“Ross?” Lane straightens up. “I hauled your ass out of Pinky’s Bar last weekend and saved you a busted face.” He kicks mud from the tire. “I need your backhoe. Today.”
“I’m not getting involved.” He pauses. “And why, of all people, are you?”
“Hell if I know.” Lane straightens up and turns toward the barn. “It’s a twisted mess out here. Sheriff said it was high school kids.”
“Just a prank, Lane.”
“They killed the whole flock.”
“You hear that?”
“Miller’s pulling up. Gotta go.”
“You lie like a snake.”
“Tell that woman to go back where she came from.”
The words are sharp and they prompt a new angle of thought. Lane tests his hunch. “Your son, Craig? He helped with this?”
Silence. The wind stirs. Lane turns up his collar.
“Heard the ag teacher brag about Craig’s steer,” Lane prods. “Be a shame if it got disqualified from the stock show next month.”
“That priest messed with your boy, Bauer.”
Lane imagines the sneer on Tillman’s face and, for a moment, stares at his own reflection in the windshield. “I’d say he’s paying for his crimes, Ross. And right now I need a backhoe because someone’s got to bury these sheep that your son and his buddies killed.” Sand grits his neck.
“You there, Ross?”
He hears Tillman’s breath and it sounds hot.
“I’ll pick up the backhoe in an hour. Don’t short me on fuel.” He shoves the phone in his pocket and heads back to the trailer.
Inside, the twin lambs prance about the kitchen. Agnes catches one as it skirts the table. She pats the head and runs her thumb across the velvety nose. “I named this one Lazarus.”
“And the other one?”
Lane gulps the cold coffee in his cup and heads for the door. “I’m pulling your truck to my shop.” He grabs his gun. Agnes’ face turns serious and she gives a slight nod. “When I get back, I’ll take care of things in the barn.”
The wind tugs at Agnes’ dress. A blue tarp undulates above a barren patch of ground in front of the barn, its floating surface as nervous as a snapping flag. Agnes weights the edges with rocks then enters the barn. Soon, she carries out the lambs one by one. Twelve of them. Mouths open, bodies rigid. Wool matted with dried blood. After the stable is cleared of lambs, she loops baler wire to the back legs of the oldest ewe, the one called Maggie, and tries to drag the weight of her to the door. The burden too heavy, Agnes lowers the legs to the ground and walks to the back of the dark stable. She peers through the holes of light the gunshots tore in the siding. The ripped tin opens on the same vista as her kitchen window. An endless plain of grass. As far as the east is from the west, she whispers, less a prayer than a complaint, so far does God remove the sins of his people.
An hour later, Agnes is wiping cobwebs from the clock above the work bench when Lane returns with the backhoe and enters the barn. She nods toward the ewe whose cuffed legs point toward the door.
“Her name was Maggie.”
Lane pulls a pair of gloves and drags the sheep from the stable. Light slides across his shoulders as he backs through the door. Maggie’s wool combs the dust in a flowery swirl. Agnes draws a set of pliers from her apron pocket and fastens grips to the remaining ewes. Her thoughts flicker like flames in a chapel. Lane returns for the last ewe. She follows him outside.
“Where do you want the hole dug?”
Agnes glances across the pasture. “Grass grows thin in the southwest corner.”
Lane walks to the backhoe and climbs to the platform. The motor coughs a billow of smoke as the bucket jerks upward. He turns the machine toward the pasture. Agnes watches the machine make its way through strands of grass, she then turns to the mound of lambs. She pulls the tarp across the heap of them and binds the bundle with twine.
The shade of the barn cools her face. In the distance, she hears the sound of the backhoe scraping the earth. When Lane returns to the yard, he lowers the front bucket and eases the implement forward to scoop up the lambs. Agnes kneels, propping her hands against the bundle. The bucket tilts upward. The canvas scrapes her skin.
“Can I ride with you?”
Lane’s cap shadows his face. She notes his hesitation before he stands and extends his hand. On the platform, she squeezes between him and the fender. His clothes smell of oil and labor. The backhoe rumbles across the yard. In the pasture, clumps of bluestem toss the backhoe like a johnboat in a current. Agnes grips the fender, then his shoulder.
“Why are you doing this?,” she shouts above the engine’s growl.
The machine lurches. The steering wheel whips to the left.
That’s a good question. A damn good question. He doesn’t answer her. It’s rude to pretend she’s not there, but he doesn’t like her sitting next to him. That place belongs to his son, the only person he wants close. Joe Scott. His boy. And he wishes to hell his boy had a different life. A solid home. Lots of friends. Hell, a part of him wishes Joe Scott had been with the kids who slaughtered the flock.
Lane grips the wheel and stares ahead.
The boy hates Houston. Can’t wait to get to Findley for the weekend visitations. Hunting. Fishing. Anything. So long as he’s with his dad. He sweeps the shop without being asked and peppers the mechanics with questions: That camshaft? What model number? This engine needs torque? How much? He watches NASCAR. Cheers for the Texas Rangers. Shouts. Pumps the air. Flings his cap when the Cowboys fumble.
Just don’t ask him to leave the house. No, sir! Night comes and the boy retreats to his room like he’s sick. Joe Scott? What’s up? The boy ignores him. Want pizza? No answer. You hear from your buddy, Craig? The boy slams the door.
The backhoe rocks across the pasture but, in his mind, Lane is gunning the four-wheeler, Joe Scott scrunched behind him, laughing and shouting, the both of them scouting for wild hogs….
Agnes and Lane continue to jostle to the corner of the pasture. At the edge of the grave, Lane stops the backhoe and raises the bucket. Agnes stands on the platform and peers into the hole. Lane moves a level, the bucket tilts. The blue bundle slides from the scoop and the twine unravels. Lambs tumble from the tarp like doves from the sky.
When they near the barn, Lane slows the throttle and the backhoe wobbles to a stop. He waits until he feels her stare. “I’m a father.” He keeps his eye on the barn. “My boy looks up to me.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“It’s why I’m helping you.” He reaches for the throttle.
Inside the barn, Lane sweeps the mangers and folds up the lambing pens. At noon, he inspects some gates splintered by gunshot and sets them aside for repair. Later, seated at her table, he asks Agnes if she intends to move back to Illinois.
“I’ll be okay here.” Her knife clicks on the plate.
“People are mean.”
“I know.” Agnes hands him a bowl of rice.
“You need to go east.”
“I’m all Raymond’s got.”
“He’s not worth it.” He unfolds a paper towel. “Got ketchup?”
She gets up and opens the refrigerator. “I agree. He’s not worth it.”
She returns. He takes the red bottle from her hand.
“Then what’s the point?” he asks.
“He’s helpless. That’s the point.” She reaches for the tea. “All of heaven turns on that point.”
They eat in silence. After a while, he looks up. “You can pray in Peoria.”
“Your son in Houston.” She fills his glass and sits back in her chair. She looks him in the eye for the first time since they sat down together. “Can he hunt and fish in Houston?”
A teenage boy knocks on Agnes’ door. It is a Saturday morning and she has just started her rosary.
She studies the face. Then the cap. Houston Astros.
He grins. “I used to sing at church.” Motor oil stains his jeans. “Dad sent me over. Said to replace the tin.”
Agnes glances at the truck in the yard. “Who’s with you?”
The boy grins. “A friend.”
She walks with him to the barn and opens the padlock. Two lambs squeeze their heads through the slats of a gate in hope of milk.
“Start on the east side,” she says.
“Yes, ma’am.” He takes in the damage. “Shouldn’t take more than a couple hours.”
“Craig,” he yells toward the truck, “bring the hacksaw.”
Agnes walks back to the trailer. The boy rummaging the toolbox nods as she walks by. Back inside, during the fifth mystery, she hears the sound of hammers. The tapping, like birdsong, pierces the light.