The Consequences of Being Endangered

Submitted into Contest #160 in response to: Set your story during a drought.... view prompt

19 comments

American Drama Sad

Not a whisper of a cloud could be seen in the big beautiful unforgiving blue of the towering and relentless clear open sky. The ground was so hard and dry, it felt like concrete underneath my feet. My attempts at scraping up some dust with the toe of my boot were unsuccessful and only managed to produce a few crumbs of dirt. My skin felt just as dry and taut under the heat of the sun as I stood in the once lush pasture of my land. My long sleeve shirt, jeans, and hat protected me from the intense burning of the sun while simultaneously reminding me how thirsty I was inside and out without a possibility of relief. My long hair pulled into a tight ponytail to relieve myself from the heavy carpet feeling it gave if left to hang down the back of my neck.

I had to squint my eyes from the glare of the sun on the land as I peered out into the distance at the consequences of recent short-sighted actions taken by people put in charge of things they had no knowledge or experience of. The carcasses of cattle lying where they fell from dehydration and lack of food and water were intended to be raised for food resources for the community and beyond but instead became nourishment for insects, coyotes, and scavenger birds. It was painful to see. Not only was I witness to the many preventable deaths on my farm, I was still witnessing and experiencing the continuing cycle of death all around me like a bad dream I could never awaken from.

We knew the drought was coming. We spoke about it openly at community meetings and the farmer’s co-op. Most of us had our own wells and had managed in prior dry years by cutting back and being creative with our water usage.

But this…this time was different. By now, many local farmers had expanded by adding crops to their land requiring a steady flow of irrigation. A few years back, a deal had been made to encourage the farmers expansion by offering the farmers water from the reservoir for the additional need of water in exchange for the supply of produce to the community and beyond. The farmers were hesitant at first as the cost of expansion into a whole new industry was significant no matter how noble the effect it had on your neighbor’s dinner table.

The reservoir sent a team to talk to us, to convince us, we would be working as a team for the greater good. They promised us water and resources to help with the expansion. It sounded a little too easy from my perspective, but after much assurance, most of my neighboring farmers agreed to it. I wasn’t opposed to the change necessarily, but for reasons unknown to me at the time, I went with my gut feeling and decided not to expand my farm and remained a cattle rancher maintaining my own grain and hay fields to feed my stock.

Last winter’s rain and snow fall had been unremarkable which took a toll on the water levels within the reservoir as well as the veins of water underneath the surface of our farmlands we tapped into for our daily supply of water for our households and farms. Spring came early with hotter than usual temperatures and thunder and lightening storms bringing sporadic rainfall which did little to relieve the need of mother cow’s needing to produce milk for the insatiable thirst of their growing calves. The water troughs became a greater need when the pasture springs failed to produce enough clean water above the sludge line which was overrun with mosquitos and flies.

When the notice came in the mail about an upcoming meeting with the reservoir team regarding the water supply and how they were addressing it, I knew there would much more to the story than they would let on but no one saw or even imagined the impact of what was coming and now the effects of those decisions were irreversible.

The reservoir team explained they had to regretfully reduce the amount of irrigation water promised to farmers in light of a recent study and finding of a small fish which was becoming endangered due to the release of water from the reservoir. In order to the protect the fish from extinction, the reservoir had to stop the flow of water out of the reservoir for a yet undetermined amount of time in order for a research team to conduct a follow up study of the fish and alternative ways to not only protect the fish but maintain the agreement with the farmers.

When pressed, the reservoir team acknowledged they knew the fish was an inhabitant of the reservoir; however, the original study had not drawn any alarming conclusions prior to the agreement and it wasn’t known the fish would be in danger until the first year of irrigation had been completed. When the farmers asked if the team had thought of a back up plan in the event of recent developments, the team responded with answers alluding to lack of information provided by their environmental consultants as well as water table and well studies of the area stating water from the reservoir was supplemental at best and that farmers should be able to rely on their own wells for irrigation.

It was blow to the farmers who had over-extended themselves, not only financially with new equipment and laborers for the new crops; but mentally and physically as well due to the increase stress of taking care of employees, learning to grow new crops, and taking care of their own families. We vowed to band together as a farming community and do whatever we had to do to help each other out. But it wouldn’t be enough.

Once the reservoir team shut off the water supply, farmers did the best they could learning dry farming methods for their crops; however, cattle and people needed fresh water to survive. Some wells began to dry up faster than others and those with access to larger water veins trucked water to smaller farms. Resentment built up among the farmers who didn’t receive the help as they watched their livelihood diminish before their eyes. All their hard work vanishing and there was nothing they could do to save it.

Some farmers tried to harvest their crops early but couldn’t find buyers while others burned their crop fields so they wouldn’t have to watch them turn brown, dry up, and stick out of the ground as a daily reminder of their failures.

Those of us with cattle were hit the hardest. A cow can drink 10 to 20 gallons of water a day during the warm seasons some of which can come from eating pasture grass and drinking from small ponds or springs. With the lack of water coming from the reservoir and the lack of rainfall last winter, the grass was dying off and the springs and small ponds were at lower-than -normal levels.

My fields of straw hay were drying too fast and a decision was made to cut it early, bale it, and store it for later. Somewhere in the process, a spark from a blade on a rock or heat from the tractor caused an area of straw to begin to smolder. As the late evening winds picked up, the smoldering pile of straw became a full-fledged field fire. We did the best we could to put out the initial spot of where the blaze started but the more we fought, the more the winds blew the smoke and fire right toward us. We were losing ranch hands to coughing fits and smoke inhalation while the fire got bigger with the steady stream of dry straw and wind as fuel. We realized the water were using to fight the fire was water we wouldn’t have for the cattle. We pulled back and watched the fields burn through the night standing guard near the buildings to protect them from fire damage. It took three days for the fires to consume the 150 acres of straw fields and finally die out.

It was gut-wrenching. I had grain in the silo and straw bales from last season in the barn but it wouldn’t be enough to carry us until the next season could be planted, grown, and harvested. We would have to ration what was left of the food supply until we could figure out another solution.

I did my best to monitor the release of water into the troughs so I could gauge how long the water would last but it wasn’t long before our calves started to drop off due to the lack of their mother’s milk. The milk was drying up so we had to start using baby formula mixed with water and bottle feeding each calf. With fifty new calves on the farm, by the time we finished feeding the last one, it was time to start all over again. We were feeding calves around the clock. It wasn’t long before exhaustion set in. We spent so much time on feeding the calves, we neglected to see what was happening to the cattle out on the pastures. They were falling out of dehydration and never getting back up. After a week of feeding calves and losing 6 cows, we had to make a tough decision.

We were tired, cranky, and resentful of the position we had put ourselves in. We trusted the reservoir team and it backfired. We were going to lose everything we worked for.  

I managed to sell off ten head of cattle to a commercial slaughter house; although, at a reduced price since they learned of our situation and knew I was backed into a corner. They could only take the ten they said because there were other cattle ranchers in similar situations and they were “trying to help as many as they could”. Buying them at market value would’ve been nice but beggars can’t be choosers.

We processed five head of cattle ourselves which filled the capacity of our on-site refrigeration storage units. I still had 300 head of cattle and fifty calves to take care of and my options were becoming fewer and fewer as the days went by.

I reached out to some ranchers I knew in a neighboring state who said they could take some off my hands and who I knew would take good care of them. I was relieved to have found some of the cattle new homes but the reality of the decision hadn’t set in until I saw the line of cattle transport trucks coming down the road of our ranch. It took most of the day to round up 100 head of cattle and herd them into transports. I stood next to each truck and gave each cow a pat and pet and said good luck as they loaded up. These cows were part of my life and I wanted them to know how important they were to me.

Once those cows were gone, it lightened the strain on the water supply enough to keep the cows healthy and the calves growing but it wouldn’t last for long. Other ranchers felt the strain differently and took matters in a different direction. Some sold whatever they could, gave away what people would take, packed the rest, and moved on abandoning land with farmhouses, barns, equipment, and sometimes animals. There were buyers for these farms and ranches but not by people capable of working the land. One old codger, Jeb, and his wife, Mary, decided the best way out of the situation was to take their own lives and leave their farm and life insurance money to their kids who had left the family farm decades ago to live and work in the city.

Everyone I knew was praying for a miracle. For rainfall. But it never came. It ended up being one of the warmest and driest summers in recent years. We were losing people, cattle, and livelihoods left and right and it was getting scarier and scarier for those of us left behind. Would we fall to the same fate? When do we cut and run? When do say no more when that moment has already passed and we’re hanging on with everything we know? How much more can I ask of my family, friends, neighbors, and workers?

Not only was the water dwindling in the well, the money was dwindling in my bank accounts. I couldn’t afford to keep the ranch hands and had to let them go. Some of them had been with me for ten years, lived on the ranch with us, and had kids who had become family to us. I couldn’t ask them to stay on knowing I couldn’t pay them and, with the water running out, provide them with food and shelter. The despair I felt not knowing what would come of them and their future was almost more than I could bear. They understood the gravity of the situation and we vowed to keep in touch the best we could. They would let us know when and where they settled but I knew deep down I would probably never hear from them again.

Not long after most of the ranch hands left, my sons and I were out herding cattle when we stumbled upon a pack of coyotes feeding off one of our cows on the back side of a rolling pasture. The coyotes were hell bent on protecting their food source and showed us by growling and baring their teeth while hovering over the beef carcass. We knew the cow was beyond saving and were getting ready to turn back when my oldest, Derek, saw the calf belonging to the dead cow emerge from a small ravine. The mother and calf must have been looking for a water source when they were over taken by the coyote pack. The calf must have been able to run off and hide while the mother sacrificed herself to the coyotes. When the calf mooed for its mother, it alerted one of the coyotes who looked it its direction.

Derek took off in the direction of the calf on his horse at the same time the coyote began his sprint toward the calf.  The calf stood frozen not knowing what to do as both the horse and coyote approached at rapid speed. My son yelling and snapping a whip toward the coyote to keep him at bay and away from the calf. My younger son, Matthew, approached on his horse and lassoed the young calf with his rope to bring the calf toward him. The coyote finally relented and ran back toward the cow carcass. The young calf mooed in mourning as we led it back to the barn.

We knew were going to have to round up the rest of the cattle and fence them in to keep them safe from predators looking for food and water but between the drought induced dehydration and the coyotes picking them off, it was going to be a losing battle. We were slowly giving up. My wife took our youngest two kids with her to stay with family where they would get plenty of love, attention, and proper food and water. They didn’t understand what was happening with the animals and had begun having nightmares after the fire consumed our crops. My wife thought it was best. I agreed but I missed my wife and the strength she gave me just being my side. It was going to be up to me and our sons to get us out of this and we were failing.

My ranch was down to fifty head of cattle and ten calves. As night began to fall with a sky of red and orange signaling another hot day was going to be upon us, I saw to the east another patch of clouds heading our way. They were darker and moving fast. I stood there watching. Afraid to get my hopes up that this could be the rain we’ve been praying for. We’ve seen dark clouds before which passed over us without releasing a drop. I couldn’t stand the disappoint again.

I turned and walked toward the house. As I made it past the barn, I heard our phone ring. After a few rings, I heard Derek answer the phone. After I took the first couple of steps onto the porch, I paused staring frozen at the front door unsure of the news my son was about to share.

He bounded out through the door almost crashing into me. “It’s raining at old Jeb and Mary’s place! Dad! It’s raining!” he shouted and then hugged me with all his might. As we held each other, I felt my son’s excitement turn to sobs of relief. My stoic teenage son who had kept a strong and brave face throughout this ordeal finally broke and showed his true feelings of anguish and despair over the loss we and our community had weathered over the last 18 months.

It broke my heart for him as I hugged him even tighter only letting go when my younger son emerged from the barn running toward us.

“It’s coming this way! The rain is coming!” Matthew shouted as we met him in the yard between. We hugged and looked up into the sky whooping and hollering as the first of many raindrops began to fall. 

August 25, 2022 19:56

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19 comments

Amanda Lieser
04:27 Sep 09, 2022

Hi Jeannette! This was one of those stories that made me examine my loved ones under a new lease. My dear friend is the daughter of a dairy farmer here in Greeley, CO and while I know her family looks at weather differently than mine, this story painted a whole new picture. I loved how this was a stream of consciousness. And as it picks up, I heard more and more of the Hollywood cowboy’s speech in my ear. I loved this piece. Nice job!

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01:15 Sep 10, 2022

Thank you so much! It really is different for them. So much hinges on things coming together in ways I hadn't really thought of before. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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Graham Kinross
06:18 Sep 02, 2022

I wanted to know what Derek looked like earlier but I could see where things were. I know it’s a difficult balancing act to bring it all together. I’m always told by others to start with the action, show don’t tell and it’s usually best to give information through dialogue.

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15:54 Sep 07, 2022

You're exactly right. I've heard that too, to start in the middle of something. I forget most of the writing rules once I start a story or script. With stories, I struggle with including too much dialogue because then it feels like I'm resorting back to a play writing format, if that makes sense. I know I've done it here before where it's all just dialogue but I'm trying to learn to write more narrative. Ack! I'm still learning this short story business :) Thanks for the feedback!

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Graham Kinross
21:34 Sep 07, 2022

It’s just about practice. We’re all learning here. Sometimes I write what I’m aiming for at the start of the story to make sure I keep it in mind. You could write ‘start with action, mix dialogue and descriptions’ and it might help because you would be staring at it the whole time until you’d written a lot.

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01:12 Sep 10, 2022

I'm curious to know what you think of this week's entry. It's all over the place!

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Graham Kinross
02:06 Sep 10, 2022

Your latest entry or the new prompts? I haven't read either yet.

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14:27 Sep 10, 2022

Mine haha. I wrote it at the very last minute and it shows.

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14:27 Sep 10, 2022

Mine haha. I wrote it at the very last minute and it shows.

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Rama Shaar
03:44 Sep 02, 2022

Hey Jeannette, I'm a teacher and I'm used to giving praise + constructive feedback (which you asked for). I think you're very good at setting the scene, describing the situations and developing suspense which is vital. However, I think you waited too long to do any characterization. I read the vast majority of the story thinking it was written from the point of view of a middle-aged woman for some reason. Only at the bery end, did we get description of Derek and begin to get to know and feel for the family. The end, however, was great! I ho...

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15:50 Sep 07, 2022

Thanks! Yeah, you're probably right about waiting too long. Being a middle aged woman myself probably came through without my knowing in the writing. Good to know! I should have made her a widow or something. Thanks for the feedback and reading my story :)

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Megan Franzen
00:19 Sep 02, 2022

I really loved the ending of this piece! So uplifting and refreshing. You have mastering the art of description, for sure. Great story!

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15:46 Sep 07, 2022

Thank you so much for reading and commenting! I'm glad you enjoyed it!

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Aeris Walker
15:30 Aug 30, 2022

I was completely immersed in these poor folks’ world. You did a good job writing this in such a way that people who don’t know much about farming practices/ranch life still felt the tragedy behind each new loss. Well done :)

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02:54 Aug 31, 2022

Thank you so much!

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S. E. Mary
02:55 Aug 29, 2022

Your story will be on my mind for days and not only because Matthew is the name of my fiancé

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15:20 Aug 29, 2022

Thank you so much for reading and commenting! After reading your story, your comments mean a lot :)

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