Route 41 isn’t much, just a straight seventy-mile ribbon of road from the state line towns of Newport, Washington and Old Town, Idaho to Post Falls, Washington. It passes, mostly, through farmland – pleasant, unspectacular country. The farms aren’t large; almost everyone who owns one has a second income of some sort. The people who live along it generally work hard, go to church, and keep to themselves.
Sometime in the fall of 1989, Henry, who had just turned sixty-seven and lived at Mile 19, got thrown from his pay loader on a job building an outlet mall west of Post Falls and had to take six weeks of workmen’s comp. During that period, he re-oiled all the farm equipment, replaced the carburetor on the combine, rearranged some shelves in the barn, and still had time on his hands. So, one day, he got some of the iron fencing he’d taken down when they bought the place just after the war and fiddled with it using an arc welder. He’d done well in metal shop during high school, but hadn’t done much with the skills he’d gained there afterwards. Several weeks later, about the same time as his wife was putting the finishing touches on an afghan she’d been knitting, Henry stepped aside to admire the small iron sculpture he’d fashioned of two horses bucking at one another.
He was pleased with it, but waited until a cold afternoon in February to mount it on the arbor over the front gate. He painted a plank white, fitted into the open space on the arbor’s flat top, and secured the sculpture to the plank. As he was finishing, snow began falling in large, crazy flakes. For the remainder of that gray, snow-filled winter, the sculpture went largely unacknowledged. With spring’s nicer weather, some people travelling north to Route 2 or south to the interstate noticed it. But, no one, aside from his wife, said anything to Henry about it.
Rudy lived at Mile 63 on Route 41. He raised wiener pigs, wheat, some turf grass, and drove the grader for the road crew out of Priest River, Idaho. His wife kept a big vegetable garden on the side of the house and sold produce from it from July to September at a roadside stand. One of their sons served as a sergeant at the induction depot in Paris Island, South Carolina. Their other son had finished his G.E.D. after dropping out of Newport High School; he lived at home, bagged groceries part time, and helped Rudy around the farm.
A big ice storm hit the area in early December of 1991 that lasted most of a week. During that time, Rudy made the careful drive into Post Falls to a store that had Christmas decorations on sale. His slow pace allowed him time to regard the iron horses over Henry’s gate for the first time. He was struck by them, so stopped his pick-up truck along the shoulder and leaned forward for a better look. After a few minutes, he stepped outside the heater-filled warmth of the cab to inspect the sculpture more closely. He stood in plain sight, a sixty-four-year-old man in black-framed glasses, a John Deere cap pushed back on his head, a plaid shirt full of snap-pearl buttons straining at his waist, smiling and nodding in the wan morning light. His breath escaped him in short clouds against the cold. Not a single person saw him.
After Christmas, when both boys were still home, Rudy began his own black iron sculpture of horses pulling hay wagons. He’d enjoyed welding when he was in the service, but since then, had only done it out of necessity on the farm. His sculpture’s design and knee-high dimensions were much the same as those he’d seen at Mile 19. Rudy hurried to finish so that the boys could help him mount it on two tamarack pilings over his wife’s vegetable garden before the elder son returned to South Carolina. Tucked back there, a person had to be looking for it to notice it from the road. In fact, no one ever commented on it to Rudy until May when someone from his church asked what the contraption was on the pillars by the side of his house.
Almost a year and a half went by until Henry noticed Rudy’s sculpture. He was alone and on his way to an Eagle Lodge bar-b-que in Newport. He pulled to the side of the road to study the twisted black iron perched high over the garden. The house, he noted, was neatly kept – green with white shutters and a front porch with a standing glider. He frowned, studying the handiwork. “Even if it’s a copy-cat,” he whispered to himself, “it’s well done.” He felt the tops of his ears growing warm.
Several more years passed. During that time, Henry’s only daughter moved with her husband to South America where he’d been transferred as a geologist for an oil company. Henry’s wife joined a book club that met at the Spirit Lake library; she told Henry that its focus was mysteries, when, in fact, it concerned itself almost exclusively with romances. Henry’s hip began to bother him. He retired from his construction job on his seventieth birthday and hired out almost entirely for the rye harvest that year. He even had a new man, a Greek who came up from Oaksdale, drive the combine. Henry was both pleased and chagrined that his profit increased without his being meaningfully involved in the harvest himself.
Over that same period of time, Rudy’s eldest son left the army after his second tour and opened an auto parts store in a suburb of Charlotte, North Carolina. He lived with his lover, who’d also served in his company, and who ran his own upholstery cleaning business. Rudy’s younger son took over more and more of the farm’s responsibilities; they put a trailer for him to live in back by the irrigation ditch next to the milking shed. Rudy’s wife published a mimeographed cookbook through their church about the canning of different types of vegetables, and she also assumed the assistant coordinator responsibilities for the pie baking contest at the county fair in Cheney.
Henry became ill in the late summer of 1995, just as most of the fields along Route 41 were being burnt off. He went to bed after a supper of hash and new beets complaining of excess gas. Sometime during the night, with the charcoal smell of the fields everywhere in the air, he passed away. His wife didn’t discover that he was gone until the next morning when he didn’t answer her call for breakfast and she went upstairs to shake him awake.
The funeral was delayed several days so their daughter could make the long trip home from South America. During that time, Henry’s wife ordered a black dress for herself and a grey suit for him on special delivery from a catalogue. They both arrived the morning of the service.
Rudy read about Henry’s passing in the Spokesman Review along with announcements about other deaths and births. He found no special significance in Henry’s death except to note that he’d lived south on Route 41. He read with more interest about the fires in the Selkirk Range. It was the hottest part of the summer, and the fires had begun, as they often did, in the dry timber along the Canadian border of Idaho and Montana. Fortunately, there had been only small winds at that point, so the blazes had been limited to isolated spots that could be contained by plane or helicopter drops. Still, they could use a good rain. None was in sight.
The funeral was a small affair. Afterwards, a few attendees came by the house for sandwiches, pound cake, and coffee. People stood around talking quietly on the back porch or under the shade of the two maple trees between the house and barn. Henry’s daughter found herself standing under one of those trees with an older man named Leo who’d been a bowling partner of her father’s. They were looking out across Route 41 where the burnt fields ran towards the smoke draping the tops of the mountains in the distance.
Leo pointed to the wrought iron sculpture over the arbor and asked, “When did your dad make that thing?”
Henry’s daughter looked at it and shrugged. “Ten, fifteen years ago. I’m not sure.”
Leo nodded and took a sip from his steaming Styrofoam cup. “Fellow up towards Newport built himself one of those, too. Nice guy. Name of Roy or Ron, I think. I went by to look at a pig he was selling not too long back, but it was a little on the scrawny side. We got to talking. He bowled like your dad, too. Bowled up to Newport, though.”
A big logging truck rumbled by going south, and a thin cloud of dust rose slowly over them from the road. They lowered their heads until it had passed. When she lifted her head, Henry’s daughter saw that Leo was looking again at the sculpture, and she followed his gaze.
“Don’t suppose there are too many folks shared an interest in making those,” he said.
Henry’s daughter shook her head. “I guess not.”
“Shame they never met,” Leo said. “Oh, well. That’s quite an undertaking, though. Both those horses standing up like that. Very life-like.”
“It took him a while,” she said. “I do remember that.”
After the funeral, Henry’s wife leased the land to their neighbor and sold the livestock at auction. She made financial arrangements with their lawyer in Post Falls. There wasn’t too much to it, really; Henry had left affairs in good order. She adjusted to being alone. For the most part, she stayed inside with the drapes pulled. She began a project that took up much of her time organizing old photographs into albums arranged chronologically. Under each picture, she included a date and brief comment. For example: “Fall, 1954 – G’s first birthday," “April, 1961 – new red tractor," “Fall, 1989 – black horses mounted.” In this way, she felt she was constructing something of a family history, something lasting about which she felt proud.
Life went along for Rudy and his family, too. There were no major changes except for a young woman from Chatteroy that his son went out with for a while, but that only lasted six months. His son planted a little more acreage in turf grass. The two of them repainted the milking shed. He and his wife splurged and bought a portable swamp cooler for the house that they could roll from room to room. Except to help his son now and then on the farm, Rudy all but retired himself.
With more time on his hands, whenever he drove south on Route 41, Rudy slowed down to look at Henry’s sculpture. Often, he stopped altogether on the shoulder, as he had the first time, to study it. He did that one crisp, breezy, late fall morning. He looked first at the silent house with its covered windows and wind chimes tinkling from a porch eave; he’d never seen anyone go in or out of the house. He turned his attention next to the sculpture. Having made one himself, he admired its detail and symmetry; he understood and appreciated the craftsmanship involved. To him, it was a quite remarkable work of art. His was, after all, the only other like it along that road about which he was aware. He conceded that he’d never actively looked for another, so there might have been one. Seventy miles is a fair distance, so there may even have been several. He thought to himself: who knows? Any number of unexpected commonalities were possible along a stretch of road like that.
William Cass has had a little over a hundred short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines and anthologies such as december, Briar Cliff Review, and Conium Review. Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a Pushcart nomination, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. He lives in San Diego, California.