The sunlight streamed through the trees, all but devoid of leaves, with only a few determined stragglers battling the brisk wind. Josiah Jackson pulled his cap off his head and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. Even though it was chilly outside, sweat had plastered his thick, auburn hair to his forehead.
Josiah jerked his head up, surprised by his brother’s voice. “Dang it, Carter. Don’t sneak up on me like that.”
“I wasn’t sneakin’.” At twenty-five, Carter was two years his junior, and looked nothing like his brother. Josiah was tall and lean, red-headed and clean-shaven, but Carter was a head shorter than his brother, built like a linebacker, with dark, almost black hair and a full, thick beard. They looked nothing alike, but they were almost identical in temperament. “What’s wrong?”
“Cow tried to calve last night.” Josiah inclined his head in the general direction of a black heifer with a white patch on her nose, grazing by the fence. “Calf got stuck.”
“You have to pull it out?” Carter leaned against the tractor Josiah had been working on when he had startled him.
Josiah nodded. “It was already dead.”
“Dang it.” Carter shook his head in irritation. “That’s the third calf we’ve lost.”
“You think I don’t know that?” Josiah snapped. “Between the coyotes and bad luck, I’m getting really dang sick of this.”
“You bury it?”
Josiah shook his head, and put his cap back on. “I can’t get the tractor to turn over.”
“I’ll fix it.” Carter reached for the wrench Josiah held in his hand. He was a better mechanic than his brother. “I’ll bury the calf. Where’s it at?”
“Over by the back fence line. By the blackberry bushes.”
Carter nodded. “Mama wants you. She’s in the kitchen.”
As Josiah strode to the house, he rolled his aching shoulders. He loved farming most of the time, but there were parts that he could definitely do without. As he entered his parents’ house, Crocket, his border collie, ran up to him, wagging his tail. “Where’ve you been?” Josiah asked, rubbing his head.
“He’s been under my feet all morning, is where he’s been,” his mother answered from the kitchen.
“I was askin’ Crocket.” Josiah pulled out a chair and sat at the kitchen table. “Why don’t you ever give him a chance to answer?”
“Sorry.” His mother smiled. At fifty-seven, Sue Jackson was still a pretty woman. Her many years of running a farm with her husband, Eddie, had built strength and stamina into her short frame, and her own good cooking had rounded out her edges. The red hair that was the only trait she passed down to Josiah was starting to show a few strands of silver.
“Carter said you wanted me.” Crocket laid his head on his master’s leg, and Josiah scratched him behind his ears, his leg thumping against the hardwood floor.
“You eat breakfast?”
“No.” Josiah shook his head. “I was in a hurry to check on those cows.”
“Any babies yet?”
“Just a dead one.”
Sue sighed as she slid a plate of biscuits and gravy in front of her son. “I’m sorry.”
“That’s life,” Josiah said around a mouthful of breakfast.
“How many more are left?”
“Just two. They should be calving any day now.”
“Hopefully they won’t have any trouble.”
Josiah nodded. “Where’s Dad?”
“He went to the bank. He’ll be back after lunch. He has a doctor’s appointment at eleven.”
“What’s wrong with him?”
“I don’t know. He’s not been feeling well.” Sue pulled out a chair and sat with her son. “I don’t think his blood pressure medicine is working like it should be.”
Josiah nodded, and then asked, “All you wanted was to feed me?”
Sue smiled and nodded. “And to see if you were gonna be here for supper.”
“Not tonight,” Josiah answered without looking up from his plate. “I got plans.”
“What do you mean, ‘again’?” Josiah frowned. “I’m here nearly every dang night. You ain’t sick of me yet?”
“I’ve noticed a pattern.” Sue obviously knew Josiah was being less than forthcoming. “You’ve had plans every Thursday for the last two months.”
“No I haven’t.”
“Yes you have.” His mother’s eyes sparkled with mischief. “I’ve kept track.”
“You should find something better to do with your time.”
“You shouldn’t hide things from your mama.”
“I’m a grown man. I’ll hide whatever I want from my mama.”
“So you are hiding something then?”
“Mmhmm.” Sue was outright grinning now.
Josiah rolled his eyes and spoke to his dog, “She’s losing her mind in her old age, Crocket.”
The dog thumped his tail in reply.
“I’m not losing anything.” Sue stood up. “If you don’t want to tell me you have a girlfriend, I’m not going to drag it out of you.”
“I don’t have a girlfriend.”
“I don’t,” he insisted.
“Then what are you doing every Thursday night if you’re not seeing someone again?”
Josiah bristled at the “again.” He had been single for the last four years, since his long-time girlfriend ended their four year relationship because he wouldn’t ask her to marry him. His mother brought up his singleness every so often, and it was always unwelcome.
Not to be ignored, Sue asked again, “Well? What have you been up to?”
“Nothing.” Josiah stood up quickly, his chair scraping against the floor. “I got work to do. Thanks for breakfast.”
“You’re welcome.” Sue smiled, that annoying twinkle still in her eyes. She was certain she was right about him seeing someone.
Josiah whistled for Crocket, and the dog followed him out the front door. He could see his brother at the far end of the back pasture, using the tractor to dig a hole to bury the calf. After a depressing start to the morning, his mother’s prying had put him in a really bad mood. He pulled a can of Skoal from the back pocket of his jeans and smacked it against his palm a few times. He didn’t know why he didn’t just tell his mother where he went on Thursdays, instead of letting her get her hopes up that he had finally found someone.
As he pinched the tobacco between his thumb and forefinger, Josiah again addressed his dog, “There’s just some things a man likes to keep for himself.”
The dog cocked his head to one side, listening intently.
“Let’s go, Boy.” Josiah patted the side of his leg, and Crocket fell in step with him. “We’ve got work to do.”
Rachel Holbrook writes from her home in Knoxville, TN. She is the author of the syndicated serial, Little River, Volumes 1 & 2. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in Burningword Literary Journal, *82 Review, Ink in Thirds, Akitsu Quarterly, The Avalon Literary Review, The Society of Classical Poets, and various other literary journals. She recently won an Honorable Mention for her short story “A Slow Burn” at the Sigma Tau Delta International English Honor Society’s annual convention. She also received the Springs of Helicon Award for Poetry, awarded by Tennessee Wesleyan University. When she’s not writing, she enjoys going on literal and literary adventures with her husband and six children.