ALL THE NEWS THAT FITS
WORK IN PROGRESS
For the first time putting my short stories up here for everyone to read.
By G.L. Rix
Dahlia Grimes wished she’d come out here on her horse. Her truck had lost traction several times just in the last several miles plowing its way through the ice-cold mud that used to be the town of Scotland’s major state highway. She’d had to climb out and muck the putrid-smelling clay from her tires just to get her vehicle safely out of the danger zone. Her horse was more surefooted than her pickup. And a lot better company. And didn’t make that mysterious chugga-chugga noise her truck had just acquired.
As she stood staring into the dark, she forgot her muddy hands and rubbed her cheeks. Mud had crept under her fingernails too. She literally felt soiled. Briefly she wondered if this was what a hundred-dollar mud bath smelled like. Felt like. Decided if she’d made it thirty-five years without a mud bath or a massage or any other of the girly stuff she saw on TV, it clearly wasn’t her thing. Her forte was the backwoods stuff.
Dahlia knew swiftly-running water by its sound. She was almost on top of the flood overflow caused by the ice melting upstream in North Dakota. She took a cautious step back. She was here to find cattle, not die trying. She slipped, caught herself, slipped again.
While the newscasts hadn’t called this the flood of the century just yet, she expected to hear it before the week was out. Living close to the big rivers in South Dakota had always been a risk. Looked like from now on it was going to be a sure path to financial ruin, if not death. Dahlia couldn’t see squat, but pictured what the reporters had shown yesterday. Homes half-submerged, dead cattle floating like logjams until they ran into a high enough mudbank, crying women.
Rivers gorged from the ice melt from the north had crept stealthily out of their normal boundaries to inundate whole towns. She felt for those people who’d lost their homes and such. But what was bad for the farmers and ranchers was opportunity for the human vultures. Like her.
Like most professional thieves, Dahlia combed the social sites on the internet for likely prospects. This time she’d found what she wanted on the local newscast. They’d done a sob story about the abandoned cattle left behind on hummocks of dry land totally surrounded by the filthy water washing down from the north, and she’d seen her evening’s work. At least three head of cattle clung precariously to life among those invisible trees beyond the blue-roofed white barn at her back. All she had to do was wade out and coax them through the icy water to safety.
Then get them back to where she’d corralled all the rest. At a damned Walmart of all places!
Dahlia smirked. No way would Miss Prissy Pants Sheriff Mable Pillsbury check at the Walmart construction site so early with all she had on her plate with the flooding. All Dahlia needed to do was coax the cattle out to her truck. Like the Pied Piper. Then drive them to the Walmart.
A drop of rain hit the cattle rustler’s nose as she contemplated her swim, or to be more precise, her wade. By the time it made its way to her mouth it tasted of snot. She rubbed it away, transferring even more mud to her face, ignoring that too. Already she’d noted the strength of the current. With her high-powered flashlight she’ seen something big float past. She couldn’t make out what it was. Following it with her gaze had brought dizziness in its wake. Dahlia impatiently brushed more rain drops off her nose, accidently knocking her cowboy hat off her head and down to the ground. When she bent to retrieve it, she overbalanced and toppled into her truck hood.
With her head nearly scraping the rank-smelling slush, Dahlia heard the plaintive meow of a cat. It sounded like a baby crying. She screwed her eyes shut in a silent prayer and held her breath against the rank stench coming up from the ground. Please, not another helpless animal stuck in a ruined tree on barely three feet of solid earth! She was used to bossing cattle around. Cats and dogs were a different problem.
Dahlia stilled her shivering shoulders and concentrated. She still felt slivers of ice pelting her exposed skin. There was a sinister susurrating hiss coming from the water still invisible to her. The rain was getting harder. She felt it sting her lips, but it didn’t make a sound. It tasted of ice. From somewhere out in the dark came the plaintive, mooing of a cow. Then the sudden screech of a cat. High pitched. Aggressively full throated. Maybe it had just died. She decided to forget about it.
She had to do what she’d come to do before the search parties came back out with the dawn.
Dahlia shrugged a couple of long coils of rope onto her shoulders. The fibers felt cool to the touch. She nodded appreciation, then took in her surroundings. The bed of her truck was closest to the flood spillover by plan. She expertly knotted the end of one rope to the dripping trailer hitch and swung the other end around her no-longer-svelte waist. Growling low under her breath, Dahlia realized she was using too much of the rope on herself. But it couldn’t be helped if she expected to go out in the treacherous water and have any chance of returning.
Once more into the breach!
Dahlia loved that quote. Shakespeare or something.
Dahlia yelled when she first jumped from the bank into the flood, knowing her feet were going to get knocked out from under her and she was going to swallow a lot of muck. And she was right. She was lucky that the tree barreling straight at her hadn’t plowed into her full force. Sputtering shredded leaves and tiny pieces of ice out of her mouth, the cattle rustler aimed her flashlight toward the surviving skeletal trees that dotted the remaining high spots where she’d seen the cows on the television broadcast earlier.
Something else floating downstream caught on her rope. She whipped it up in the air like she was in a jumping rope competition and then slapped it down with a vengeance. It made a comforting whoomph when it hit the water. Dahlia checked the rope snaking back from her body to the truck. She had plenty left. Her huge sigh of relief would have alerted the authorities that she was where she wasn’t supposed to be, had any of them been out. Dahlia was embarrassingly sure she sounded like a bellows. She allowed herself one slight giggle before forcing herself back into seriousness.
When she clambered from the water onto the muddy ground at long last, she spat out even more ice slivers. The expected tinkling sound she expected didn’t happened this time. Her body heat had melted the fragments right away. She hadn’t dressed properly for this. Only a fleece jacket and sturdy jeans. Her gloves had gotten lost earlier in the evening. She needed to hurry.
One of the trees Dahlia grabbed to pull herself up gave way. She let go just in time, and was left with sticky, pine-smelling sap on her hands. The tree was gone down river before she turned around. The hole it left soon refilled. Miracle of miracles, one small rag-tagged cow started blinking its long eyelashes at her from behind a small mountain of brush that the tree had obscured. Woman and cow stared at each other.
After minutes of this, Dahlia decided it obviously wasn’t going anywhere, so she tied it to a branch, then went exploring. She trudged her way from one end of the miniscule islet to the other. No other animals cowered there, at least none big enough for her to see.
For a second Dahlia felt guilty about the placid cow she’d tied up. If something had happened to Dahlia, the cow would die. She shone her flashlight back the way she’d come until she highlighted it. It was just a cow. And still there. One of the ones too stupid or too unlucky this March to make it to safety on its own.
Of course, it was slated to die sooner or later anyhow, to be someone’s steak dinner, or maybe a rug, but still Dahlia felt uneasy.
She stumbled back to the cow she had. It took all her energy to keep her boots on her feet. It might have been quicksand for all the effort it took her to move. The mud gulped her boots down with every step. And she kept getting pelted in the face with bits of ice. But there was her cow, right where she’d left it. Waiting.
She really wanted those other two or three cows she’d seen on TV, though. If she twisted the tail on the one she had, would it cry out and would they respond? And would it be a moo or some other noise?
Dahlia studied the cow in hand, a deep frown settling over her face. She didn’t like the way her mind was going. There was no reason to harm this cow. So why think it? It was chowing contentedly on the downed tree leaves closest to it, a slurping process that made Dahlia nauseous. Several times the cow twisted its head around to give Dahlia another view of its blinking eyelashes. Dahlia wondered if she was in some sort of Chick-Fil-a commercial and didn’t know it.
But then urgent mooing noises came from the next islet over. Her little cow stopped its chewing, but didn’t answer its more desperate kin. Suddenly the mystery cat screamed. There really was a cat out there. Dahlia gauged how much rope it would take her to safely ford to the other clump of land. It should be enough.
But it was the cat frantically swimming through the dark and cold water toward her that caught her attention. She’d accidently bounced the flashlight over the water while stretching out her remaining rope and seen the desperate escape attempt. Who knew that cat could dog paddle? Or that they huffed and puffed with every stroke.
Dahlia had a lifetime’s experience stealing cattle.
She had none with cats.
It wasn’t going to make it if she didn’t help. Her cow turned its doe eyes on her and mooed. Dahlia wondered if she were being judged. And decided she was.
Wading between the two up-thrust mounds of earth still offering stability to shredded trees wasn’t as easy as reaching the first islet. Chunks of unseen detritus kept hitting Dahlia. And the cat had stopped squalling. For a moment she had the uncharitable hope that the pet had drowned already. She could forget this sidebar search and collect the rest of her cows.
Then it found her.
Dahlia didn’t see it as much as feel it grab her by the neck and tangle its claws in her hair. It weighed as much as one of her exercise barbells and smelled like a dead rat. She couldn’t rid herself of that fear. A rat twined around her neck! Grabbing it and trying to shake it off her didn’t work. It clung. It clung to her like a limpet, as if its very life depended on her. Shaking, shivering, emitting tiny, pathetic cries she tried to blank out. She got wet cat fur in her mouth and began spitting it out. Damned cat!
But then it purred. Even over the moving water noises Dahlia heard it purr. Like a small motor. A room fan.
Rats didn’t purr.
Dahlia calmed herself in carefully planned segments. She first removed her hands from the cat. It still hung tightly around her neck, but at least her hands were no longer poised to strangle it. She took three deep breaths, holding each in as long as she could. Then she mindfully contemplated her unfinished business. One cow was better than no cows at all. Dank water swirled around her. Ice chips collected in her hair. She shivered from the cold and had a hard time controlling her fingers.
Yet, Dahlia hadn’t risked her life for just one cow and an unexpected cat. She was in this for the pound, not just the penny.
She had a lot more work before her, battered though she was. It seemed a shame though, to take the cat right back to the nightmare clump of earth it had risked its life to escape.
On the other hand, there were more cows to find. And not a lot of time left to do it.
Too bad the rope she used on the cattle wouldn’t work on the soggy cat. She was going to have to take the cat back to her truck and lock it in the cab. With luck, maybe she could get the little cow back to safety at the same time.
Dahlia barely needed her heavy-duty flashlight to see by then. Dawn was almost upon them. The islets that were so sinister in the dark looked pathetic in the budding light. With the sodden cat still clinging to her neck, untethering the one cow she laid claim to was almost more than she could handle. With the frightened but determined cat strangling her neck, the cow inched away from her, eyes huge, ears rotating in every direction, and mouth open wide in protest. It wasn’t a proper moo. More like a “get away from me” warning. A car horn honk. Water dripped messily off Dahlia’s jacket.
“Kitty won’t hurt you,” Dahlia lied. She fully expected the cat to launch itself at the cow’s head the minute they got close enough. The cow’s body heat alone should have attracted it. It was warmer than she was.
The cow shied violently at the sound of Dahlia’s scratchy voice.
Damn. A cold coming on, maybe pneumonia. And she hadn’t paid her most recent insurance premium.
Once more she tried prying the cat off her throat. It just clung tighter. Purred louder. Dahlia got little purchase from its clumped, wet fur. Then, just to put the cherry on top of the hot fudge sundae, the cat licked her hand with its yucky tongue and meowed. Right into her ear where it gave her the shivers.
How was she going to get both animals across the flooded moat without losing one, or even both of them?
The cool laughter of someone unseen had her jumped around to face them before she could control her movements.
“You need any help, Dahlia?” asked the feminine voice. “I knew I’d find you out here somewhere. Just didn’t expect it to be near the old schoolteacher’s place. I thought you two had a feud going.”
Miss Prissy Pants Sheriff herself glided forward into Dahlia’s flashlight beam. Unlike the cattle rustler, the sheriff had dressed for the weather, even if it was with a couple of Disney World clear plastic slickers featuring Donald Duck she’d cut up and stuck together with safety pins in order to accommodate her girth. Dahlia didn’t understand how the sheriff had snuck up on her. Neither the cat nor the cow had given any warning. She must be really losing her edge. Maybe it was time to stop rustling cows and learn to steal something else.
Mable said she’d been searching for her. But why?
Her suspicion must have shown on her face. The sheriff showed her infamous grin and then laughed at her. It wasn’t ha! ha! laughter, either. It was sarcastic. “Next time you try a stunt like this, keep your damned phone on,” Mable instructed her. “We could have saved you a lot of trouble. I’ve been trying to reach you all night.”
Again, her suspicion must have shone in her face. “Oh, come on!” the sheriff complained. “Set a thief to catch a thief? Surely, you’ve heard that old chestnut.”
Dahlia nodded, thinking the sheriff had it wrong somehow. It didn’t sound quite right.
“Well?” Mable put both her hands on her hips and stared down at her. “I know you’re not stupid enough to be out here rustling cattle from this swamp. And especially not from the schoolteacher’s family. So, are you going to let us help you or not?”
All high and mighty, as if she knew everything Dahlia had done the past five hours. Puffing her chest out. Coughing. As if it was Dahlia’s fault she was out here. That was Miss Prissy Pants for sure. Predictable as a church sermon.
“Help me what?” Dahlia finally asked. Nobody should know what she was really doing out here. It should have seemed so out of character. And she’d been so careful. Her shoulders ached from the weight of that damned cat. Her knees ached from the cold, and her hip felt useless. Frozen, most like. Why would anyone make the logical leap that a convicted cattle rustler wasn’t out in the flood to steal cattle, but rescuing them instead. Especially the very sheriff who had helped jail her the first time.
“Tell you what,” Mable announced. She walked to the left of Dahlia toward the little cow she had tied to the tree. As if she owned the place. “We’ll get this one and the three over there that you left behind, and the cat necklace you have around your neck, we’ll get them back to dry land, and when the general gets here you two can fight it out.”
Dahlia shook her head. Seems she wasn’t the only one crazy enough to think of the general and her stupid collection of toys. If she’d thought she could have driven the damned thing, the general’s WWII relic rusting in front of the VFW the last thirty years would have been her vehicle of choice. The damned thing was a hovercraft tank that would hold three jeeps.
If the cattle didn’t die from fear, they could stuff six of them in it at one time.
But that was a very big if.
Dahlia had seen it in operation only once. The trees it mowed down never recovered. Not even as bare trunks sprouting a baby tendril or two the next spring. And she was left partially deaf for two days just from observing.
It was like a huge vacuum cleaner had been reverse engineered to spit dust out. Complete with sound effects. Dahlia had to brush her teeth three times just to get all the mud out of her mouth. It tasted like farts. She’d read later in the paper that the general herself had to take what was guardedly called a rest cure right afterwards. Knowing the general, that was a euphemism for a drunken spree at her lake cottage just down river.
No. She and the general wouldn’t fight it out. If they insisted on using that monstrosity, then Dahlia would bow out, content with her night’s haul of one cow and the damned cat. Not forgetting the ten or so head that were already destroying the interior of the old Walmart. Dahlia grinned at the thought.
It wasn’t so amusing later in the day when the sheriff arrested her, however.
“Dahlia, Dahlia, Dahlia,” Mable complained in a nasally tone while clipping the cattle rustler’s wrist to the back of a folding chair. Dahlia wondered if she realized she could simply walk away, her and the chair, once the sheriff’s back was turned.
“You need to get in the habit of taking your phone with you, and keeping it on!” Mable lectured her. “We tried all evening to recruit you for the general’s rescue mission. You were the only one she asked for. And now, here you sit. The Walmart’s a damned mess. And the general is still running around on that ghastly machine gathering up strays.”
“How about I go out and help her now?” Dahlia asked.
“Nope. You’ve caused enough trouble.”
Mable pulled another folding chair from the stack by the wall and walked it noisily back to where she’d tethered the cattle rustler. It was like running fingernails across a blackboard. The malicious smirk on her face did nothing to reassure Dahlia. At least she didn’t have that half-drowned cat around her neck. It was curled around her feet instead. Purring loud enough to drown out Mable’s huffs of exasperation.
Dahlia grinned. She’d been in worse spots.
“Okay,” the sheriff announced. “This is what we’re going to do.”
Dahlia picked littering.
“Let me finish!” the sheriff complained. “There’s a five-hundred dollar fine attached to littering. Maybe you want to change your mind.”
“If I plead guilty and pay the fine, do I still have to have to clean up the mess?”
Mable gave her a sour look and didn’t answer. That’s how Dahlia knew she was right. “How about trespassing?” the sheriff asked instead. Seemed she didn’t like Dahlia’s choice.
“Nope,” Dahlia said. “You offered littering. I’ll take littering.”
Her other choice had been willful destruction of government property. Seemed that the Walmart was being repurposed as the county courthouse.
Littering would do just fine, thank you.
Copyright 2019 by Gretchen Rix.
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