When it stopped raining for good, he started carrying a gun. She didn’t understand.

“Why do you need to take that thing?”

“Rattlers,” he said, tipping his hat to her as if they were in a goddamn movie, and rode off.

But there had always been rattlers. He had not always carried a gun, in the holster he had made himself. He had not always carried a folding shovel behind his saddle.

He could make anything with his hands—repair a stirrup, mend a saddle blanket, set her gasping in the night, so loud she pressed her face into the pillow so as not to wake the baby. Though that had dried up along with the land. She didn’t like to think of the gun—cold, black, heavy—in those hands.

The baby was whimpering—how long had she been awake? Chrissie went to get her—she was soaked—the sheets were soaked. More laundry. But at least the wet was still warm, and at least she still wet—so she was getting enough milk. Chrissie picked her up, set her on the changing table. The little cracks in the plastic pad were widening, but she couldn’t replace it. The baby, Matilda after her grandmother, had learned to flip over and then to sit up, so Chrissie kept one hand on her while she reached for a diaper, a sleeper, a sweater. It was getting chilly. What would they do when it froze?

She put the baby down in the playpen so she could start stew. The meat would take all day to soften up. Matilda wailed, then stopped abruptly, watching the ribbons of light come through the blinds. Of light there was plenty.

The beef in the stew had disintegrated to ropy shreds when he came home, well past Matilda’s bedtime, the fall evening having closed to dark long ago. He started to unload the gun, then asked “baby asleep?” When she nodded, he hung the holster up on a hook.

“Dinner?” she said, chilly.

“Sure.” She reheated the cornbread in a frying pan with a little bacon grease. He smelled like whiskey, sharp and sweet, and he sat in his own dusk, staring at his hands. There was blood on his right shirt sleeve.

“What did you do to yourself?” Barb wire, she thought, but the sleeve wasn’t torn.


She watched him eat the stew in silence, trying not to twist her hands in her lap.

“How are things?” she asked, finally.

He shrugged. His neck had reddened, even in the thin November sun, and his shoulders stayed hunched halfway to his ears.

She counted to 30, 100, 500, and then got up to put the stew away.

“We’re out of everything,” she said, looking in the fridge. “We need milk.”

He grunted something that might have been yes.

The next day he put on a dress shirt she had ironed while the baby napped, and took the truck to town. Chrissie had almost given up speaking, except to the baby; she said only “Please remember milk. We’ve got to have milk.”

Her own milk seemed thinner, more blue than white—she tried to remember to eat, but food stuck in her throat and the water tasted more and more like stone as the level in the well dropped. Usually when she went up to run the pump,  she could see the sun glinting off the surface, would splash herself pulling up a bucket for a drink, but now she could count the seconds a stone took to fall in, and she had to ask Clay to add a length of rope to the bucket. Soon they would have to shut down the pipes ahead of the freeze and she would have to carry water, the baby and water, down the rocky path from the well to the house, then heat water on the stove for diapers. They couldn’t afford to buy water.  Nor formula: so she couldn’t let her milk dry up.

He came back from town with a freezer in the back of his truck, a grim smile set on his face.

“What’s that?” she said. “We can’t afford that.”

“Can’t afford not,” he said, and rolled it off the track down a ragged ramp, heaving it into the corner of the barn.

“How did you pay for it?

“Credit at Central Commercial. Vultures at the bank say if they start giving second loans to every rancher in the county, they’ll dry right up. But Central has feed, too. We’ll need it.”

This being the longest sentence Clay had said in some weeks, Chrissie held her breath. But as he seemed disinclined to say more, she said, “How will we pay it back?”

“Cross that bridge,” he said.

She went down to the barn and looked into the freezer, square and blank as death.

“We’ll need to put a lock on it when Mattie learns to walk,” she said to his back as he sat at the table.

“Yep,” he said. He had changed his shirt and was eating some cold stew.

“I would have heated that for you.”

“It’s ok.”

“Where are you off to now?”

“Still trying to move the cattle down.”  They had a winter pasture where it didn’t snow, though “pasture” was hardly the word for the cracked land, speckled with creosote and cactus, just a few tufts of grass along the rim of the sand wash. Nothing grew deep; a layer of caliche under the top soil kept what rain there was from soaking in. Still, in a good year, cattle could winter here. But now, with the drought—now they would have to ship those that could walk as far as the corral by the highway.

Clay had maybe waited too long to move the cattle—but there had been a little water in the mountain pastures, none in the desert.

“Can’t you get help?”

“Can’t pay.”

“Bill Logsdon would come. You’ve done enough for him.”

“I’m only finding two, three at a time, all day long. If they can walk, only takes just me to herd ‘em on down.”

“If they can’t?”

Clay just looked at her. From the bedroom, Matilda started to wail.

“Could you get her for a sec? I was just going to the garden.”

He nodded, and Chrissie took the pan of rinse water from the dishes outside, trying not to spill any on the stone steps. She poured a cupful on each carrot plant, still waving hopeful lacy fronds in the breeze, and promised the squash she’d be back. Maybe she could blanch the carrots and freeze them, so they wouldn’t have to buy so many vegetables in the winter. The squash would hold outside till it froze, then inside for a couple of months.

Later that afternoon, while Mattie drowsed, she risked a shallow bath. She plugged the empty tub, kneeling on the cold porcelain, and washed her hair under the tap with a thimbleful of Dr. Bronner’s–she hated the mint smell, with its false cheer, but it didn’t hurt the plants and the garden was still dry. A little soap got in her eyes, and for the rest of the night, they were so dry she felt as though she had been crying.

Clay came home on time, still silent but a little less rigid. When she asked him how the cattle were, he said, “the same.” She had made shepherd’s pie from the stew, burying it in mashed potatoes. Worrying about her milk, she was trying Maddie on a little solid food and the mashed potatoes would do. Maybe she could mash squash and freeze it, so they wouldn’t have to buy that baby food in jars.

After dinner, she washed the dishes in just a couple of inches of water, still feeling guilty about the bath. If she had run the well down, silt would discolor the water for days, and she would have to drain the water heater to wash diapers.

Clay had untangled Mattie from her high chair and was waltzing her stiffly around the living room, humming “The Streets of Laredo.” When he handed her to Crissie, his eyes were narrow, perhaps wet. “I just want to do right by her,” he said. “I just want to do right.”

That night, she wore her summer nightgown to bed, and when Clay turned away from her as usual, she rubbed his clenched shoulders.

“Please, honey,” she said.

“We can’t,” he mumbled into the pillow.

“I’m safe,” she said.

“Nothing is safe,” he said.

When Clay rode home the next day, he went straight to the barn, coming up to the house an hour later. He must have washed in the horse trough; his chest was bare and his boots splashed with water.

“Where’s your shirt,” she said. “I’ll wash it.”

“Soaking,” he said. “I’ll wash it in town,” he said. “We can’t spare the water.”

“Can we spare the money?” she said.

“More money than water. Pack up them diapers, too.”

“You don’t have to do that—we could come with you if you’re driving.”

“Won’t kill a man to wash some diapers.”

In the morning she sent him off with the diapers in a pail, bundles of sheets like the round segments of a snowman, two pairs of his levis in a pillow case. “Wash everything on hot,” she said. “It needs it.”

Once the sound of his truck died down, she wound a long shawl she had made around her chest and shoulders and tucked the baby into it against her chest, knotting the ends around her waist. She walked into the barn quietly, as if someone were watching, and peeked in the freezer. It was layered half-full with steaks and roasts, awkwardly wrapped in wax paper, even a liver in a plastic bag.

The next night he came home at sunset but stayed down at the barn until long after the moon rose, casting a cold eye on the barnyard. She waited up, shivering, a sweater over her nightgown. He came in and sat down at the table across from her.

“Are we to eat our own, then?” she said, finally.

“You’d rather they died for nothing?”

“You can’t save them?”

“Christine I have been carrying calves across my saddle to water and when I get them there, they can’t stand up to drink. I have poured water from my own canteen into their mouths and they are too played out even to swallow. I can’t save anything.”

She put her hand on his hand, running her thumb along his blood-rimmed cuticles. Her mouth was dry. They sat, as if frozen, listening to the wind.