Winter was a rude change from the warmth and bright blues and greens of summer. It rained constantly. It was gray. Nothing dried out. The crudely tanned sheep pelts that served as his mattress began to sweat and smell. Tomás’ clothes were cold and damp when he put them on in the morning. He could see his breath as he dressed. The house never warmed up completely, and he and Ramon huddled in the kitchen around the cookstove and brazier. Strong drafts that came through the walls and windows made the candlelight flicker. Even the flame inside the glass chimney of the kerosene lamp was unsteady, and his eyes soon tired when he tried to study. But the weather was a common denominator—it gave everyone something to complain about. It was a season to suffer through, and the animals didn’t like it any more than they did. Sometimes when he went out in the driving rain to help Ramon bring in the sheep, he would pass Salton and Lobo huddled under a clump of quila, with their rear ends pointing windward. They looked comatose. He wondered if they thought about anything — like sunny days and long green grass. Oddly, colds or the flu were not commonplace at this time of year. Maybe it was because everyone was so isolated. But when misfortune struck, it struck hard.
One afternoon, he and Ramon were drinking mate after a late lunch. It had been raining steadily for forty-eight hours and had only just let up. There was a knock on the door. Ramon got up and opened it. A young boy of about twelve or so stood there, drenched. Ramon ushered him inside. Before the boy could say anything, Ramon had him take off his wet hat and manta and sidle up to the kitchen stove. Tomás brought a stool over so the boy could sit down as Ramon slid the kettle over the firebox. Once the boy had a cup of hot tea in his hands, Ramon asked the purpose of his visit.
The boy was the grandson of a widow who lived a mile up the road. Last night the old trabajador who had worked for the widow for years had a stroke in the little shed where he slept.
He could not move and they could do little for him. The widow had her grandson walk down to the highway very early in the morning—which must have been during some of the heaviest rain—and wait until a trucker came to pick up firewood. The truckers usually made at least one morning trip regardless of the weather. When one arrived, the boy explained the situation and the trucker agreed to return in the afternoon and take the old man to the hospital. The boy was here to ask for Ramon’s help to hitch up their oxcart and to load the man onto it.
Ramon said of course he would help and they would leave as soon the boy finished his tea. Tomás asked if he should come. Ramon hesitated, then nodded. When all three were bundled up, they set off and walked up to the widow’s house. Tomás helped Ramon bring in the oxen and watched him hitch them up to the cart. Ramon made it look so easy—there was not a wasted move.
They folded up a manta de Castilla and placed it on the bed of the cart as a mattress. Then they went to the worker’s shed.
Opening the rickety door, it took a second or two for Tomás’ eyes to adjust to the dim light. Over in a corner was a bed of straw. On top was an old man covered by a manta. His complexion was gray and only his eyes moved. He watched them come over and bend down to pick him up. He looked from one of them to the other, but when he saw Tomás, his eyes froze. He did not take his eyes off Tomás as they carried him over to the cart. They covered him with every other manta the widow owned and put a sheet of plastic on top, tucking the edges underneath. They tried to make him as comfortable as possible, although Tomás didn’t know if that made any difference, because it looked like the man couldn’t feel a thing. He only stared. And he looked awful. Tomás and Ramon walked down with the boy as far as Ramon’s gate, and said goodbye and good luck. The boy thanked them. They watched the boy slowly lead the oxen down the road. It started to rain again. The next day they learned that the old man did not make it to the hospital. He died in the cab of the truck.