Did you say you were a friend of Zeke’s? He’s dead, you know. Actually, worse than that. I’ll tell you, but I don’t think your boss will want to put it in his newspaper. Here comes the waiter. You tell him what you want while I collect my thoughts.
We had a small run out of Casper down here to Cheyenne. Only a hundred fifty-three head of cattle. I figured a little over two weeks. It was getting on into October and I wanted to beat Kincaid coming up from Colorado with almost a thousand head, so we took this short cut Zeke had heard about. Swore it would save us five days.
We were ten days out, and had been driving the cattle hard for last two, when we came out of the plains and into an area of low, rolling hills. The cattle were worn to a nub and cranky as all git out. We kept our eyes peeled for water, but the animals smelled it first. Just a little creek. Did us all good. Being as how we had a long ways to go yet, I decided we should stop for a day to let the herd rest.
Can’t tell you exactly where we were. Probably couldn’t lead you there either. Wouldn’t want to. We made camp and I sent three men to get the animals watered and gathered for the night while Snuffy whipped up some grub.
I walked off a ways to have me a smoke and appreciate the Lord’s gift of the great outdoors. Trail boss’s privilege, you know. It was just after sundown and the sky was every color of red you can imagine against a blue that was almost black. The cattle were all down by the creek and the men were either caring to the horses or helping with the fire. It should have set my heart at ease to see my crew so engaged.
But something was wrong. Something in the wind. The animals were restless and the men did not talk and joke much while they worked. I gazed at the fading hills and thought I saw something move far away. Like a thicket of scrub moving in the wind, only there wasn’t any wind. It was a long ways off and it was getting dark fast, so I figured it was probably just my eyes being weary.
We built a fire and had a nice hot dinner, then laid down in our bedrolls to sleep. Didn’t have to post a night man; cattle won’t stray from a water source. It was damn peaceful but I had a hard time getting to sleep. I laid on my back with my eyes open, listening to the cattle and trying to name what it was that was eating at me. There were a lot of shooting stars that night.
Here comes the waiter with your salad. Go on, eat up. I’ll wait for the main course. You just dig on into those greens while I talk.
The next morning I had barely got my bed rolled up when Hank ran into camp yelling that the cattle had been stolen. Well that got everybody stirred up and I was right sore with Hank for causing such a ruckus. I finally got the men to quieten down and we took a count and found out forty-seven head were missing. Mind you, that’s almost a third of the herd.
Those cattle were not stolen. You sleep good out on the range, but you sleep light. Nobody could have stolen the cattle; we would have heard the jingle of a bridle or our horses would have smelled the other horses. In fact, I woke up several times that night and was amazed at how deadly quiet it was.
Near as I can tell those cattle just up and walked away. Sneaked away is more like it. Easy thing, you think, to follow a bunch of stupid cattle out into the rolling scrub land? Harder than you might imagine. At first it was easy, the tracks stayed pretty much together.
And then they stopped.
I mean stopped completely, like they had run into a wall. Just over a rise the dirt and weeds went from trampled down to untouched. You could follow the line with your eye. It was weird.
On a hunch, I sent the men out alone to search for any signs of the missing cattle. I would fire my gun in a half hour and they would come back to report.
The time passed and I shot off my pistol and one by one the men arrived with nothing at all to report. Then Zeke came back. He had found some tracks off to the north.
We followed him out to where he’d found the tracks. You could tell the cattle were confused. The tracks split up and wandered off into the countryside. I had each of the men follow a track.
We gathered in another half hour. The men reported strange things. Sometimes the tracks would stop, then start again some hundred yards away. Jed told about how the track he was following went straight as an arrow for a good quarter mile, then began to go in circles. I myself followed one where it looked like the cow had been dragged for hundreds of yards. And all the tracks led in the same general direction. We followed.
Long about midday we came upon a clearing. It was several hundred feet across and looked like it had been dug up. Not plowed; plowing leaves neat rows. This looked it had been churned. There was a single dead tree out in the middle. The horses wouldn’t come near it.
Tracks came in from all directions and stopped about twenty feet from the edge of the clearing. Not one of us was willing to venture out onto the barren dirt. There was no sign of the missing cattle.
It was late afternoon by the time we got back to camp. I tried to keep spirits up by making sure everybody was busy. We were just about to sit down to dinner when the lookout came into camp and said one of the cattle was heading back.
We rode out to meet it. It was walking funny and had several deep gashes on one side. Zeke dropped the lasso on the its neck and had a loop of rope around the saddle horn when the animal slipped up and bit him on the leg.
Now, cattle don’t bite. You probably already know that. They might nip at you if you try to take their food away, but I have never seen a cow up and bite a person like that one bit Zeke. Bit him hard, too. Took a chunk out of his thigh.
We got Zeke back to camp and Snuffy and I cleaned the wound and got him bandaged up as best we could. He was in a lot of pain, but we got him to lay down on his bedroll. We put several blankets over him and went to look at the animal.
It was tied to a stake and stared at us in a most… unusual way. Like it was sizing us up. When the other cattle would pass by it would try to lick them. Some cattle came right up to the crazy one and let it lick their faces. I ordered the animal tied beyond reach of the herd.
It was a quiet dinner. We watched Zeke slip into a fever. We sat by him all night, keeping his brow cool, talking to him. I cleaned his wound several times that night and it kept oozing out this green stuff that stunk like something from Hell. Zeke spoke in tongues and screamed in terror. He spat up a lot of blood. We did what we could, but to no avail. He died not long after sunrise.
We buried Zeke on a hilltop Buried him deep so the coyotes wouldn’t get him. I said a few words and Jed read a little bit from his Bible and we filled in the grave and put rocks on top.
Again, it was too late to break camp. After dinner I put two men to watch the herd and went to look in on the cow that bit Zeke. It was laying down, breathing heavy. The gashes on its side glowed faintly green and had that stink-from-Hell. I planned to shoot it in the morning and bury the damn thing. Had a hard time sleeping again that night. Bad dreams. I would wake up and hear the others moaning and muttering in their sleep.
In the morning I went to take care of the sick cow. It was gone. It had chewed through its rope and wandered away. Over breakfast I enlisted a couple of the men to help me track it down. Then we saw Hank staring at something. We followed his gaze and there wasn’t a man there whose blood did not freeze.
The hilltop where we had buried Zeke was dug up.
We hurried up to the top of the hill. This was not anything the coyotes did, no matter what the others may tell you.
Nobody had dug up the grave.
Something had dug its way out of Zeke’s grave. And then that something had walked away to the north. The trail was not hard to follow. We knew where it would lead.
The tracks didn’t stop away from the clearing like all the others – they led out into the dirt. The horses caught wind of that churned earth and went crazy. We had to stop damn near a quarter mile away.
I was the only one who would venture onto the barren clearing. The earth felt soft and unstable, like I would sink into it at any moment. I saw a black something and went to it. It was one of Zeke’s boots. I could find no stick, so I tilted it up with my knife and looked inside. There looked to be the remnants of Zeke’s foot in the boot. Big white maggots reared up and hissed at me. All the way back to the horses I felt eyes on me. Gave me the willies.
So we left. What else was there to do? We still had a hundred six head of cattle to get here to Cheyenne and we were three days behind schedule. We had done what we could for Zeke.
We made it here with ninety-eight head. Several had gone mad on the trail and died. Or we shot them. We all agreed to not say a thing about it. Kincaid had beat us here, so we sold what we had at auction for a fair to middlin’ price. Some of restaurants here in town bought several on account of the reasonable prices.
But that first crazy cow – the one that bit Zeke — it’s got me worried. Licked a lot of the other cattle before we took it away. No telling how far that might have gotten around.
So you go ahead and enjoy that steak. I’m going to have the chicken.
Joshua Mertz is the son of a rocket scientist and a word savvy mother. He has had short stories published in Amazing Stories, Aboriginal Science Fiction, New Maps, and three in the award-winning Halloween anthology Harvest Tales and Midnight Revels.