Fiction

Change of Title

Hap Nielsen pulled his pickup off the rural highway onto a dirt road that angled off into trees, and parked it out of sight of headlights. He and the others lifted the body from the truck’s bed and threw it on the dirt. The four teenagers took turns kicking and clubbing its bloodied overalls, sweatshirt, and boots.

Hap shrugged. “He looks dead enough to me.”

The other three dragged the slack body to the highway, the lifeless head bouncing against the trail. As they lay the corpse face up in the road, Hap settled atop a large boulder and checked his gun. Loaded.

A chorus of summer crickets surrounded them as they tensed in the shadows. Suddenly, the highway turned to daylight. With a loud boomp boomp, a car mangled the torso and screeched to a halt. The body, now crumpled on the asphalt, was lit red by taillights. The car roared away.

“Shit!” said one boy. “Hit and run!”

“Hang on!” said Hap. “Here comes another one.”

Again the body was brightly lit, but this car swerved to miss it. Doors were flung open. Soon, gasps of horror turned to cries of panic under a hail of rocks.

“What the hell?” It was old man Crawley, shielding his head as he knelt next to the body. “Dammit! This is a dummy!”

The beam of a flashlight bobbed toward them. As the boys blinked, Hap aimed his gun at the bright, bouncing light. He fired. The light stopped, and a rough voice cursed. The light advanced again. Hap fired twice more.

“They got a paintball gun!” yelled Crawley. “Sonsa bitches!” The light faded, retreated. A door slammed, and the car sped away into the dark.

Half an hour later, the sound of a third vehicle broke the crickets’ song. The boys readied themselves. Tires screeched, doors opened, lights again moved toward the lifeless lump on the road. The world flashed bright red and blue.

“It’s the cops!” Hap pressed himself as close as he could to the rock. His heart pounded hard enough that he worried it could be heard. His ears burned. Bright flashlight beams played over the boulders as red and blue washed the landscape. Hap held his breath. Suddenly, he was blinded.

“Gotcha!”

“Who is it?”

Hap recognized the sheriff’s voice.

“The Nielsen kid,” said the man pinning Hap’s arms behind his back.

“Cuff him.”

Unable to shield his eyes with his hands, Hap closed them against the sheriff’s strong light. Suddenly, he was on the ground, unable to breathe. His right side felt as if a nail had been pounded into it. The sheriff holstered his baton, and the deputy yanked Hap, still doubled over, to his feet.

“Dammit, Hap, you know better’n this. You coulda killed somebody. If I was your father, you’d get more of a whuppin’ than I just gave you.”

Hnnnnn,” Hap groaned.

“Throwing bodies in the road? Pelting people with stones? What if you hit one of them in the face?”

“Uhhh. Hnnnn.”

“Lock him up.”

 

Early the next morning, Roald Nielsen said little to anyone as he waited at the jail. Later, he drove Hap in silence past Montana ranchlands browned from the hot summer. Along their long dirt driveway their border collies, Cyrus and Aggie, raced the car and barked.

“Your folks won’t be back for another week, son. I was gettin’ ready fer the backcountry when the sheriff called. You’re in my custody now, so saddle up.”

Atlas, jet black and 17 hands tall, and Chico, 15 hands and spotted gray, with a dark mane, glistened with sweat as they trudged up the mountain trail, rocking as they carefully placed each hoof. Indian paintbrush and bitterroot peeked through the patchy green of the forest floor. The dogs ran ahead, then dashed back. The trail turned from soft dirt to hard granite, and the horses’ hooves clattered as they climbed. Below the small summit, a raging stream echoed through a canyon; their mounts snorted in relief at the downward trail.

They tied the horses to a tree by a quiet bend in the stream. Hap gathered wood, brushed and fed Atlas and Chico, then pitched the tents as Roald cooked a pot of beans. They ate in silence.

“You’re pissed at me,” Hap said.

“Disappointed’s more like it. You’re doin’ what teenagers do, but given how much you care for animals, I thought you’d be kinder to people. You did damage, Hap. Worse, you risked lives.”

The horses whinnied; Hap and the dogs looked their way. Yellow firelight cut through the inky night.

“Hap, you know your folks have been fighting.”

“I know.” He chewed his beans. “I guess I’m part of the reason.”

“I doubt it’s you. They haven’t been happy together for a long time now. They’re in Billings seein’ a lawyer. They’re gettin’ a divorce.”

The fire popped and threw sparks at their feet. Hap watched as the angry embers burned and died. An owl’s screech echoed through the tight canyon. The dogs crept closer to the tents, and Hap pulled his collar close.

His grandfather stared into the flames. “I know it’s hard, son, but we need to talk about the ranch. Your Oma and me built it together, and before she passed I gave ’er my word I’d keep it in the family long as I could. Our dream was that someday your children would take care of the land, as we have.

“Your folks’ situation makes things tough. Oma and me, we owned the property together, but now she’s gone it falls to me, and I’ve divided it equally between you and your dad. In my will. It’s what she would have wanted. Someday it’ll be just you and your dad to manage things.”

“And you.”

“Hap.” He looked up at his grandson for the first time, but said nothing for a while. “You know I’ve been in and out of the hospital. They thought it was gone, but I got some bad news a few weeks ago. It’s back, with a vengeance. There’s not a lot can be done at this stage. Might be years. Maybe months. Nobody knows.”

“What?” Tears burned his eyes. “Jesus, Opa.”

“I know, son. A lotta bad news in one night.”

Hap stood, and now their eyes locked for what seemed an eternity. Finally, Hap looked away. The rocks by the stream were wet with evening mist, and he zipped up his coat. As he stroked Aggie’s head and scratched her ears, he watched the water caress the rocks. He could hear his grandfather stoking the fire, and knew Cyrus would be close at hand; the black stream brightened with the flickering light, and on his clothes the smell of smoke was strong. He thought back to snowy nights, winter pounding against his bedroom window, the slap of the willow against the house, his stuffed bear held close. Strong dreams often woke him then, and it was his Opa who’d read to him. Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and Charles Lindbergh’s The Spirit of St. Louis were his favorites, and soon the nightmares would become dreams of adventures.

“Hap, I don’t expect to be going anywhere fer a long time. Us Nielsens are made of tougher stock than that. But it’s time you got hold of yourself and started acting like a man.”

The stars had vanished an hour before. The aspens bent in the wind, and a light rain began to fall. As Cyrus nestled under Hap’s feet, Aggie nudged him for more attention.

“Once I’m gone, you and your dad will have a lot of decisions to make. The ranch ain’t makin’ much money anymore, there’s a lot of debt, and your dad might have to borrow more. Money’s part of the reason your folks fight. A lot of our neighbors are in the same boat, and are selling to the folks who’re gobbling up Montana.”

“Who’s gobbling up Montana?”

“Some are just rich city folks lookin’ for large tracts of land, raisin’ property values higher than ordinary folks can afford.” He shook his head, almost dismissively. “Others are after what’s in the ground. Big oil companies have made me offers, but I always turn ’em down. They’re like this thing that’s eating me up—little by little, they destroy the land that’s fed our family for generations.”

The wind died. The mist coalesced into large drops that carried down cold from above. Fall was coming, and with it, the snows that would transform the forest colors.

“Hap, yer headin’ off to school soon. It’s different out there. With the taste of city life still fresh, coming back to mountains, horses, and alfalfa—well, it might not matter to you. But it’s important to me—and yer Oma—to make sure you appreciate what you got for what it is. The fields that feed our critters, the streams they drink from, the clean morning air, the night sky so black you can read yer watch by the stars, a place where Aggie and Cyrus can chase squirrels, forests we can hunt in—all that you and me take for granted when we walk out the front door—it could be gone in no time. I’m scared, Hap. I’m scared that someday, all that will be more valuable than gold or money, and we won’t have it anymore.”

 

Roald Nielsen died that winter. Five years later, toward the end of summer, his son, Hap’s father, also passed. No one saw that coming.

Even as they lowered his dad’s casket into the ground, Hap had Atlas packed and waiting. He hugged his mother, and said goodbye to his father for the last time. That night, he sat with Cyrus by the stream—Aggie had died the summer before, bitten by a rattler. Hap had buried him over there, under the big aspen. Now he listened to it and the younger aspens singing in the wind, a few early yellow leaves falling at his feet. He slept under the stars. Cyrus shared his bedroll, the collie’s head gently rising and falling on Hap’s chest. At first light, he packed for home.

When fall came, early one evening he pulled his truck off the highway and parked behind a familiar outcrop. As he climbed to the top of the highest boulder, he remembered the screech of tires, the thrill of lying in wait for old man Crawley, then ambushing him with paintballs. And what followed. On the way back, as he rounded the last curve before the ranch, red sun filled the truck’s interior. That evening he stoked the fire with applewood, felled after disease had killed orchards in neighboring Fromberg, two years ago.

His early-morning coffee was strong, cowboy style—just the way his grandpa had taught him to make it, boiled in a blue, white-speckled pot of enameled steel, and carefully poured to leave the grounds behind. Cyrus barked at the crunch of driveway gravel under tires, and Hap invited inside Bill and Andy, from the bank. They were cowboys, both in fresh-pressed jeans. Bill wore a flannel shirt and boots, Andy a white button-down shirt and bolo tie. On their truck’s dash he could see two curve-brimmed Dakotas, white crowns perfectly indented. They apologized that things had come to this, but the bank’s papers were ready for his signature. Hap offered coffee, and they drank it while talking of better times in the Valley. Bill, the shorter one, spoke of the ranch north of Forsyth that he’d lost in the drought of 2012. He talked of the year before, when he’d cut a thousand round hay bales and cattle prices were still holding steady. And how the next year, and for two years after that, his south Montana pastures were so parched the grass never greened up enough to conceal the swather marks from the previous year’s hay cutting. His weaning calves had little forage to transition to, and their drought-stressed mothers desperately needed a break to fatten up for winter. Bill had weaned them off and shipped them five weeks earlier than usual, but cattle prices had continued to fall. He said ranchers could draw a line more than 400 miles across southern Montana, from Dillon to Ekalaka, to mark where the drought was bad. Half the state. Many had to sell their properties and get city jobs.

Andy cleared his throat and started to tell his own sad story, but Hap had had enough. Time to get this over with. He cleaned up, and they walked down to the stream together.

The sun was still struggling to melt the white that covered the yellow leaves along the path, and they hunched to keep warm. Near the stream, a weeping willow erupted in a flurry of meadowlark wings, obscuring the sky with yellow and brown. Cyrus barked at a scolding squirrel. Hap led them to a bend in the creek and motioned to a bench he and his grandfather had built on Hap’s fourteenth birthday. To the west was a fallen tree he remembered dragging across the stream—the only bridge across the spring runoff.

“I understand we’re all doing what we gotta do,” he said. “Like you, I haven’t much choice but to give up my land. I’m not angry, but I’m troubled.”

He knelt down, filled his cupped hands with clear, cold water, and drank. They talked by the stream till evening’s chill weighed on them. Bill spoke of his children’s tears when they had to move in the middle of the school year; how he and his wife, Eileen, had stood strong, unwilling to go deeper in debt; of making a clean start in the north of Montana; of saying goodbye to their animals; and of friends they now visited only by phone. Andy just kept nodding, looking down.

Hap gazed toward a far tree, where the hulking silhouettes of perched turkey vultures were black against the sunset. “Bill. Andy. I don’t know.” He stopped. They waited. He rolled his shoulders and stood up straighter. “I don’t know what stories we’re gonna tell our children, and their children, when they know about these lands only from books and pictures and what we can tell them. That ain’t enough. It ain’t enough to let them know—I mean, really know—what the grass smells like with an early frost on it. Or what the wind sounds like when it blows through the Doug firs.

“I know we—both of you, me—we’re only doing what we have to do to meet our obligations. I get that. But what does it leave us with? Stories? Memories? TV documentaries? Pictures of . . .” He waved his arm at everything around them. “Of this? All this?”

He didn’t say anything for a while. Neither did the bankers. “Is that a legacy? Is that enough? You can’t live on pictures.”

They stood there, watching the water. When it got cold enough, Hap turned and headed back to the house. The cowboys followed, their eyes on the ground.