So far as we know, no modern poet has written of the Flint Hills, which is surprising since they are perfectly attuned to his lyre. In their physical characteristics they reflect want and despair. A line of low-flung hills stretching from the Osage Nation on the south to the Kaw River on the north, they present a pinched and frowning face to those who gaze on them. Their verbiage is scant. jagged rocks rise everywhere to their surface.
The Flint Hills never laugh. In the early spring when the sparse grass first turns to green upon them, they smile saltily and sardonically. But as spring turns to summer, they grow sullen again and hopeless.
Death is no stranger to them.
JAY E. HOUSE
Philadelphia Public Ledger (1931)
Ethan Brown was in love with the Flint Hills. His father had been a railroad man, not a rancher, but you would have thought he had been born into a dynasty of men connected to this land, the way he loved it. He loved it the way certain peoples love their homeland, with a spiritual dimension, like the Jews love Jerusalem and the Irish their Emerald Isle. He had never loved a woman quite like this, but that was about to change.
He was, at this very moment, ruminating on the idea of marriage as he sat in the passenger seat of the sheriff's car, staring gloomily at the bloodied, mangled carcass of a calf lying in the headlights in the middle of the road. Ethan's long, muscular legs were thrust under the dashboard and his hat brushed the roof every time he turned his head, but Clay's car was a lot warmer than Ethan's truck, which took forever to heat up. Ethan poured a cup of coffee from a scratched metal thermos his father had carried on the Santa Fe line on cold October nights like this, and passed it to the sheriff.
They looked over the dashboard at the calf; there was nowhere else to look.
"I had to shoot her. She was still breathin, said Clay apologetically.
"You did the right thing."
"I don't like to put down other men's animals, but she was sufferin'."
Ethan tried to shake his head, but his hat caught. "Nobody's gonna blame you. Tom'll be grateful to you."
"I sure appreciate your comin' out here in the middle of the night. I can't leave this mess out here. just beggin' for another accident."
"The guy wasn't hurt?"
"Naw. He was a little shook up, but he had a big four-wheeler, comin' back from a huntin' trip. just a little fender damage."
She was a small calf, but it took the two men some mighty effort to heave her stiff carcass into the back of Ethan's truck. Then Clay picked up his markers and flares, and the two men headed home along the county road that wound through the prairie.
As Ethan drove along, his eyes fell on the bright pink hair clip on the dashboard. He had taken it out of Katie Anne's hair the night before, when she had climbed on top of him. He remembered the way her hair had looked when it fell around her face, the way it smelled, the way it curled softly over her naked shoulders. He began thinking about her again and forgot about the dead animal in the bed of the truck behind him.
As he turned off on the road toward the Mackey ranch, Ethan noticed the sky was beginning to lighten. He had hoped he would be able to go back to bed, to draw his long, tired body up next to Katie Anne's, but there wouldn't be time now. He might as well stir up some eggs and make another pot of coffee because as soon as day broke he would have to be out on the range, looking for the downed fence. There was no way of telling where the calf had gotten loose; there were thousands of miles of fence. Thousands of miles.
Ethan Brown had met Katherine Anne Mackey when his father was dying of cancer, which was also the year he turned forty. Katie Anne was twenty-seven - old enough to keep him interested and young enough to keep him entertained. She was the kind of girl Ethan had always avoided when he was younger; she was certainly nothing like Paula, his first wife. Katie Anne got rowdy, told dirty jokes, and wore sexy underwear. She lived in the guest house on her father's ranch, a beautiful limestone structure with wood-burning fireplaces built against the south slope of one of the highest hills in western Chase County. Tom Mackey, her father, was a fifth-generation rancher whose ancestors had been among the first to raise cattle in the Flint Hills. Tom owned about half the Flint Hills, give or take a few hundred thousand acres, and, rumor had it, about half the state of Oklahoma, and he knew everything there was to know about cattle ranching.
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