Home Stories The Fence Mender by TC Carner

The Fence Mender by TC Carner


After a major crash in his truck, a war-traumatised cowboy contemplates his mortality.

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The truck was careening out of control.

No place to go but over the cliff now.

He knew it, and in the same moment knew that he couldn’t do a damned thing about it.

What was at the bottom of that cliff? he wondered almost casually.

Time stretched and the vision through the windshield slowed to a creep – like one of those slow-motion nature films where the jackrabbit’s trying to outrun the coyote, he thought amusedly.

Oh well. He’d ride ‘er down to whatever awaited him at the bottom; ride ‘er just like an old ringy bull bolting outta the chutes.

Who the hell knows, he thought. Might even get up, dust my hat off, and walk away – just like old Wile E. Coyote did it in Looney Tunes!

What the hell was at the bottom of that blasted cliff, anyway! A mental block stood, both legs firmly planted, between him and any recollection.

Just about then, a fence jumped up in front of the rocketing pickup truck.

It was an old fence. Repaired many times over the years.

But it had been built the way his granddaddy had been taught, by his granddaddy, to build a fence: the right way, with railroad ties sunk 5 full feet in caliche for corner posts, braced front and back, and stretchers every 50 yards constructed of treated 8x8s cross braced with 4x4s, all held tight by diagonally-twisted heavy gage steel wire that sung in the hot winds of the Arizona summer.

A fence like that would hold a tonne of angry bull charging full tilt.

There followed a helluva thunderous roar, punctuated by the protracted scream of stretching, then popping wire, snapping posts, twisting steel, and shattering glass, as the truck ripped into the web.

…But she held.

By the time it’d all come to its booming conclusion, and silence reigned once again out on the dusk-lit high-desert plain, the old pickup wasn’t much to look at. Nor was the fence.

“Damn, Boy! How’d you earn this kinda luck!” The chances of missing every damned one of the hundreds of towering saguaros between here and the road, any one of which would have killed him… well, simply boggled his mind as he crawled out through the broken side window, nearly falling over the cliff’s edge in the process.

The view staggered him, his legs turning watery as he collapsed with his head lying over the edge. He cracked open his eyes and stared down a sheer 500-foot granite wall, ending in a tiny ribbon of river at the bottom snaking its way down a deeply-carved gorge.

The most beautiful sight he’d ever seen, he thought – that sparkling little river down there.

In fact, he didn’t have any plans, right then, to move from that spot – ever.

He soberly thanked God for his surreal reprieve, and just laid there, watching the tiny river twisting and turning off into the distance.

By the time he awoke, a big, toothy-yellow moon was hanging low in the western sky, casting its shimmering smile widely across the deserted land.

He felt warm.

Nothing had changed as far as he could tell – other than the moon – and he gazed again at the little ribbon of water below, bouncing the moonbeams off its ripples and onto the surrounding rocks.

He shifted slightly and was immediately rewarded with a sharp pain running down his left leg.
“Damn! Broke something after all. Must not a’ noticed it when I was all excited.” Talking to no one.

Ah well. She’d heal. Not like it was the first time something of his had snapped, remembering the county rodeo and four broken ribs the old roan bronc had left him with a couple of years back… after damned near stomping a hole in the middle of him. It’d been worth the weeks of suffering afterwards, though, just to hear that 8-second buzzer’s blast with him still straddling the saddle!

Then there was the busted right femur and concussion that the bald-face Brahma bull had kindly contributed to his medical chart. What a nasty piece of work that four-legged critter was! He’d never forget the surprised look in the monster’s bulging eyes, snorting snot and bellowing like a wounded freight train. Hah! He just couldn’t believe a cowboy could stay on ’em for the full ride!

Well. He’d ridden that bastard down to the dirt, too!

He looked at the remains of his old pickup, now, and chuckled sadly.

“You’ve been a good partner all these years, old friend. And I’m really sorry ’bout how this all ended up for ya. But, damn my soul if I coulda done a thing about that old cow standing smack dab in the middle of the road. You know I sure woulda if there’d been another way out of it.”

“S’pose I coulda mowed her down…” pausing and rubbing his chin pensively… “but who knew this’d happen – me tryin’ to miss her, and all? And, besides, she’d sure as hell of made a big mess a’ you, no doubt about it, if I’d a’ plowed her.”

The pain was starting to claw its way up his leg, now, and feeling something was not-quite-right in his guts, he figured that he’d better make a move soon.

A shadow passed in front of the moon – a big old Hoot Owl looking for a meal, no doubt, he thought, a coyote yipping somewhere off over the hills back to the West.

What a rapturous night! Strange word, that; one he’d often heard as a kid on Sunday mornings sitting in the pews of the little country Baptist Church.

He felt the cozy warmth of life rushing over him as a deep voice from nowhere said:

“So. You came out of that little scrape pretty well, Son.”

“Yup. Suppose so. I just got luck… HEY! Who the hell said that?” adrenaline flooding his bloodstream compliments of twitchy, recently traumatized adrenal glands.

He didn’t doubt that he’d heard it… It was more a matter of who’d said it; his mind now grinding on that one.

He noticed a tiny fire flickering off to his left. Wonder how that got started?

He tensed for a couple of long seconds thinking that it might be gasoline dripping from the old pickup’s tank – another adrenalin squirt, quickly followed by dismissal, given the unlikelihood of the possibility.

“Damned glad someone found me out here,” he said with genuine relief, thinking his unseen visitor had followed the direction of the black skid marks he’d no doubt left on the road where he’d abruptly exited, avoiding the cow.

“Yes. You probably thought you were a lost soul out here on the edge of the world, eh Son?” rumbled the deep voice, resonant with humour.

He now could make out the figure sitting on a rock opposite the fire, its light dancing across a silver-bearded man wearing denim overalls patched at the knees. A silver-and-turquoise bolo, in the shape of a bear paw, hung round his neck catching the fire’s flickering in a strange sort of way.

“How’s about you come on over here, friend, and help me out with makin’ a crutch so’s I can hobble outta here under my own power? I’d be mighty appreciative, I surely would.”

“Certainly. Always happy to assist a man in need. Just thought we might talk a bit before getting in any big hurries.”

“I’m sorry mister, but this pain is starting to shift into high gear… not sure I’d be very good jaw-boning company about right now.”

Instantly his own pain began to ebb, accompanied by a sense of euphoric bliss sweeping over him. The moon’s light took on a palpable warmth that elevated his spirit to celestial heights.

“Whoa doggies! That’s some pretty powerful mojo you’re packing there, stranger! Don’t know rightly how you done that, but muchos gracias, friend. Reminds me of the morphia they gave me in the jungle when I got shot up by them damned Gooks over there.”

“Yes. Know what you mean,” the old man offered. Those fellows may have been feeling about the same way as you were, though, eh? Did you happen to shoot up any of them?”

“Oh yeh. We shot ’em like fish in a barrel – women, kids, grandmas – the lot of ’em,” the young cowboy said in a nearly inaudible, sad whisper.

“And how do you feel about that, as you look back on it now?” enquired the mellifluous voice, growing noticeably softer now.

“Hell. I dunno, mister… They was all trying to kill us, they were. Even the kids would come up and drop a live grenade in your lap if’n you weren’t real careful. Sort of them or us, kinda thing, ya know?”

“Yes. I can understand that. But would you have followed Hitler’s orders to kill those children and their mothers in the death camps if you’d served in that war?”

“Why, a’ course NOT! What d’ya think I am, anyway? Some kinda monster or somethin’?”

The cowboy’s mind started turning this over – slowly, honestly – and a spark of painful realization flared deep in his brain.

“…I’ve always wondered about… well, one kid, though – a little girl, now that you bring it up. Gives me bad dreams pretty regular-like. Couldn’t ‘a been more’n 6 years old, and hiding in a shack out back a’ their hut when our platoon came through one afternoon. Her granny had a knife, and Billy shot her right quick, but that little girl… she didn’t pose no harm to us… not a lick… with those big, brown frightened eyes…

“But the guys… well the Sarge, he said to finish it…

“I couldn’t do it… So he did.

“Well… always wonder about that beautiful little girl…What she mighta been doing if… well, if things had a’ turned out just a bit different that day…”

Her face flashed, unbidden, in front of his eyes, as real as that day years back in the rice paddy, and he began to softly weep.

“I couldn’t a’ saved her if’n I’d wanted to… The boys were numb. Seen far too much dyin’. We’d all lost our way, I s’pose.

I know that I’m responsible, even if I didn’t pull the trigger. Just like those Nazi boys who turned the gas valves. They were just followin’ orders – I know. And so was we. But that don’t make it right, now does it, mister? S’pose I’ve accepted responsibility for her. Judgement Day book’ll tell the whole story.

“Ya see, I was always the kid that didn’t get my deer during huntin’ season. Not because I didn’t have the chance – always had plenty of opportunities – but I just didn’t enjoy killin’!

“Then, there I was, toting an M16, part of a gigantic murdering machine…” sobbing openly now.

“I’ve apologized to her since, a million times over,” he mumbled through streaming tears.

“I know, Son. I know. And so does she,” sighed the old man.

“Fact is, I wouldn’t be lying here right now if it hadn’t been for her. See, that old cow out there standing in the road… I saw her big brown eyes, and, well… I just couldn’t mow her down – just couldn’t do it!”

The old man smiled a sad, knowing smile.

“I thought I’d better drop by and find out a bit more about you, Son. It just didn’t add up.

“I refuse to accept anyone into my realm without complete, unmistakable evidence of their true character. But, then again, by the same token, I can’t stand by and let a divine miscarriage of justice occur, either.

“I work my backside off mending this damnable fence,” pointing ruefully at the mass of tangled wires, broken posts and uprooted tumble weeds enmeshing the wrecked truck, “just so there aren’t any such mistakes made.

“…And I’m always pleased, in the end, that I do – mend the fence, that is,” his smile brightening visibly.

“I’ll tell you now, what’s really happening, Son.

“You see that river you’ve been staring at down there? That’s the River Styx. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? It separates this world from the underworld.

“You’re dying, Son, and I needed to know whether you belonged with me… or my overzealous brother.

“I know now, and I wish you eternal peace and tranquility. Vaya con Dios, My Son.”

The young cowboy felt the elation of limitless freedom infusing his soul – total escape from all sadness and anxiety – experiencing, now, a strange, but pleasant sense of floating… upward… toward the big, yellow, rapturous moon.


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