Rough Stock(STAR VALLEY Book One)By: Dahlia West
(STAR VALLEY Book One)
Seth Barlow tugged his jacket collar up a little higher to shield him from the biting wind and hoped no one else had to die.
It was March 1st, but there was still heavy snow on the ground. Seth’s horse, Choctaw, struggled for decent footing on hard-packed snow, a constant reminder of January’s blizzard. Seth was last in their short trail line, as befitted his position as the middle child. Funny how the Barlows always seemed to order themselves that way, without thinking—oldest to youngest. Walker and Austin were ahead of him. Court and Sawyer, his two younger brothers, would have been behind him, but they were taking the long way around, over the eastern plain, looking for the rest of the herd.
High up on the mountains ahead of them, dead trees, charred from old forest fires, littered the ground. There was a cycle here, normally, one of constant death and renewal, but harsh weather over the last five years, freezing winters followed by long droughts, had locked Wyoming—and Snake River Ranch—into a persistent, unescapable cycle of death upon death, with no renewal in sight. The order of things had been upset. The natural balance destroyed. The cycle arrested.
Seth would never say it aloud, never tempt God in that way (even though Seth was still raw at Him, over Mom, over Dad) but he honestly felt that they were due for some luck, for the wheel to finally turn and start things going their way for a change.
They were coming upon the Snake River, which, true to its name, snaked its way through the valleys and plains and carved a path through the Grand Teton Mountains that loomed above them. The spring runoff was severe, churning up white froth as the frigid water rushed past. Small ice floes still held fast at the water’s edges, refusing to melt even in the full sun. This year’s bad winter had charged in like a buffalo and even now refused to leave.
They had to cross. They all knew it. Seth prayed that no one took a plunge now.
Walker and Austin were ahead, with Walker—as always—taking the lead. He was older than Austin, by a whole three minutes, and Walker never seemed to let Austin—or any of them—forget it. They were twins only in that they’d once shared a womb. Beyond that they seemed to have little in common. They didn’t even look alike, not identical anyway. They had the same trademark Barlow-dark features, brown eyes and hair, skin a deep-golden tan even in winter, owing to their half-vaquero heritage. But where Walker was calm, deliberate, self-controlled, Austin forged ahead, having calculated the same risks, and usually deciding to take the plunge anyway.
At the river’s edge, Seth waited silently, taking note of the high water. “Is it going to snow?” he asked Austin quietly after nudging Choctaw closer to his older brothers.
Walker looked away. He hated bad news.
Austin raised his face to the sky then looked at Seth. “No,” he said firmly.
Seth might have worried it was a lie, told just to make them feel better, but the relief in his older brother’s voice was practically palpable. It was over. Thank God. No more storms; no more deaths. And hopefully no accidents as they were about to cross the Snake. The tension in the entire group faded just a bit. They couldn’t survive another blow, probably not even a dusting at this point.
Austin volunteered to go first, to set the line, no surprise there. It wasn’t that he was reckless really, or a fool, at least Seth didn’t think so, but Wyoming was a wild land, their part of it anyway, a land of extremes, and Austin had seemed to internalize that somehow.
Secretly, Seth thought Austin was more in tune with the land than any of them, better able to understand it and thus predict its moods. Back in October, Austin had said they were in for yet another hard winter. Everyone believed him, though at the time they couldn’t have guessed how hard. Their herd had already been culled to practically nothing these days, barely enough head with enough meat on their bones to keep the lights on even before that last storm.
The Barlows had had enough. They had been dragged to the brink. Their way of life was in danger of evaporating before their eyes. For over a hundred years, Barlows had owned this land, worked it, lived in harmony with it, even despite its frequent discordant notes. Theirs was one of the last large open-range spreads in Wyoming. Losing the land was unthinkable. They’d worked too hard, suffered too much, poured too much of their own blood into the earth to let it slip through their fingers now.