Careful What You Ask For At The Ranch Pen

Good short stories get in, leave a few clues, punch the gut, and then get out, like The Lottery written by Shirley Jackson. I wanted to learn how to write them better, so I’ve been participating in Story A Day In May at storyaday.org, where the idea is to write…well, a short story every day in May. I normally write books that might take days…weeks…years to read, so the short story form is a little difficult for me as a literary blabbermouth.

At any rate, one day this past week the story prompt was your character can have anything in the world he/she wants. Naturally, I thought about rain and wrote a story. I managed to get it cleaned up and posted over there, but since I didn’t have time to write a blog post, too, y’all are getting it here, as well.


Careful What You Ask For

In one-hundred-degree July–the fifth year of drought–the farmer still had faith everything would turn out okay. He looked across the pickup cab at his wife.

“I know this was another bad harvest, Natalie, but if the Good Lord sends some rain, we’ll still be okay. Prices are high and with just a little break, we can pay off the notes at the bank later this year.” Paul had to shout over the convection-oven wind howling through the opened windows. The truck’s air conditioning had given out the summer before and too many other things had needed the fix-it money first.

Paul and Natalie had just moved the cow herd to another scorched pasture and Natalie was red-faced and sweating. Her hair, beginning to show grey, whipped around her face. She gave Paul a weary-eyed look that made him cringe inside. Then she just looked out the window.

In the sixth year, Natalie glanced across the pickup cab. The air conditioner still hadn’t been fixed. She was drying up like a piece of leather left in the sun and she hadn’t smiled in a long time.

“We’ve been married twenty-eight years, Paul,” Natalie said. “I never thought I’d be worrying about spending fifteen dollars at the drive-in to celebrate.”

Paul died a little inside but reached across the seat to hold her hand, as hard, brown, and calloused as his. “We’re one day closer to a rain, Natalie. When we get it, we’ll go on that cruise.”

Natalie gave Paul a hopeless look. She pulled away her hand and silently finished her fries—the only limp things in the sun-fried landscape.

Harvest was almost non-existent the seventh year. The banker called.

“Paul, you and Natalie can either mortgage your entire operation…house, land, equipment, cattle…or we’ll have to foreclose. You’ll need to keep y’all’s life insurance policies up-to-date, too, in case one, or…God forbid…both of you dies. You don’t want to leave anybody, including your kids, holding the bag on this massive debt, now do you?”

The next day at the bank, the banker smiled like a fat tomcat licking cream from its whiskers. Natalie, brown and thin as a rail, grimly leaned forward to scratch her name on the mortgage papers with Paul’s. Natalie’s hair straggled from her hair clip, almost completely grey.

In the pickup later, Paul couldn’t look at her. “This loan will give us some breathin’ room until it rains, Natalie. We’re gonna be okay.”

The searing wind howled through the cab…the only reply.

The eighth year of the drought, Natalie didn’t seem to care about much of anything. She didn’t work the fields or the cattle with him anymore. Most of the cows had been sold to meet the note after harvest. The oven-baked ground was too hard to plow, so Paul cut weeds in the fields and baled them for the remaining cattle to eat. Some of the ranchers and farmers had started burning spines off the cactus for feed, but Paul and Natalie weren’t that hard up, yet. A few soaking rains would heal their problems.

Year nine, Natalie sometimes stood on the porch, scanning the blast-furnace landscape, her eyes deep in the squint lines of her pinched face. Once in a while, she stepped into the yard to poke a long stick into a crack in the ground to see how far it would go.

During the tenth summer, Natalie looked at Paul across the old pickup cab. Her hair whipped in the blistering wind. White now. “Paul,” she said evenly, “I’m leaving.”

“No, Natalie.” Paul made a desperate grab for her hand, like bones covered in brown leather. “You can’t. Just wait. We’ll go on that cruise. Please. I’ll do anything.”

Natalie shook her head. “I need him and I’ve wanted to go with him for a long time.”

That night Paul prayed to God. “Please, just send the rain. Get me out of this hole so I can take care of her needs.”

By morning, the heavens had opened. Rain poured down in sheets. The water soaked into the earth through the deep cracks, the huge ant mounds on the bare ground, and prairie dog tunnels. Almost overnight, grass sprang from the iron ground. Miraculously, fat covered the cattle’s ribs once more. The temperature moderated.

The pickup didn’t need air conditioning on the way to Natalie’s funeral.


As always, thanks so much for reading. God bless all y’all and enjoy David Wesley singing How Deep The Father’s Love For Us.

6 thoughts on “Careful What You Ask For At The Ranch Pen

  1. If you ask me, Danni, you have already mastered the short story! Wow, this story had some great imagery: bones covered with brown leather, and all of the sere weather references.

    You really made the characters live!

    I didn’t see that ending coming.

    Brava!

  2. Great short story! The last 4 paragraphs are really grabbing. I think I’ll go get a drink of water now…

  3. Glad you posted it here, too. Natalie’s growing coldness to Paul had me, as a husband, squirming in my seat hoping the rain might come soon. Reminds me of one of my favorite books, To A God Unknown, which deals with faith and a drought on a ranch in California in the 1800’s.

    • Thank you for visiting, Ryan. 😊 I haven’t read To a God Unknown and will have to check it out. I’m sure all us farmer types have faced similar situations if we’ve lived long enough

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