The Cow Graveyard*
The road was made of pale dust and potholes with a pitiful trace of gravel covering. It was so dry that Matthew could see the little cloud of dust Justin's tennis shoes raised as he ran, carrying the rifle. Matthew watched him from the edge of the dirt parking lot of an old aluminum shed by the road. The shed was a makeshift headquarters for Matthew's father's farm, which meant that people used it to drink in and socialize, among other things. His father was inside with Justin's father, doing just that. The door to the shed was closed, and showed no signs of opening any time soon, but Matthew still worried.
"What if we get caught?" Matthew called out. Justin crossed the road towards the barn, and didn't answer. “Hey, come back!”
“Come on.” Justin waved for him to follow.
“We‘ll get in trouble. I knew I shouldn’t have told you that gun was there, I knew you'd get me in trouble.”
“You sound like my sister.”
Matthew broke into a run and caught up to Justin at the gate in front of the barn.
“He’s gonna notice it’s gone,” Matthew panted.
Justin climbed up the gate and straddled it, looking down at Matthew. “He’s too busy bull shitting to notice if he was on fire, come on.” He hopped down the other side, into the barnyard.
“If he sees it’s gone, he’s gonna whoop both of us,” Matthew said. Justin spun around.
“Hell, ain’t nobody gonna whoop me, I’m eleven years old.” He stared Matthew down through the gate. When Matthew hesitated, he added. "Whenever you come over to my place, I let you play with my stuff, don't I?"
"Next time you come over, I'll let you shoot my shotgun."
Matthew's eyes went nervously back to his father's truck in the parking lot, then to the door of the shed.
"You can borrow it. For the weekend."
Matthew eyed him. "Really?"
"Yeah. I might have to stay the night at your place or something, for my dad, but you can borrow it all weekend. And I'll even give you ten shells."
"Hell yeah. Ten."
Matthew climbed slowly up the gate. "Can't get any traction in these boots," he said. He swung one foot over the top, looking down at Justin’s smiling face before hopping down with an “Oomph.”
The barnyard was like a battlefield, years of cows' hooves stomping through its mud had turned it into a barren wasteland full of holes that nothing could grow in. The boys made slow progress through it, and were soon panting and muddy.
They rested for a moment on the firmer ground inside the barn. Then Justin darted forward, and Matthew followed.
"Don't you have anything cool around here to shoot?" Justin asked.
“Just cows. But don't shoot them. One time,” Matthew said, “I was watching my dad and my uncle round up cows for their vaccinations, and they had these long gloves,” Justin stopped at the edge of the barn and turned as Matthew continued. “And my uncle Shug put one on. And it went all the way to his elbow,” Matthew mimicked the motion, running his palm across his arm, “and then he stuck his hand up this cow’s butt.”
“Damn,” Justin said, laughing. “That’s sick.”
“Yeah, my uncle is a weird guy. He calls his truck Darla.”
“Why does he do that?”
“I don’t know, he says it’s because he spends more time with his truck than he does his wife, so he calls it Darla.”
“That’s fucking stupid.” There was a barbed wire fence behind the barn. Justin ran to it and stuck one foot clumsily on a strand of wire and tested his weight on it.
“Like this,” Matthew said. He pulled one strand of barbed wire up to make a space for Justin to climb through. Justin bent over and stepped through, carefully tucking the gun under the wire. “Hold it for me,“ Matthew said, stepping through.
They followed a narrow dirt trail worn into the grass by cattle. It led across a couple of acres of pasture to a pecan tree. The tree had grown around a rusted barbed wire fence, which stuck out awkwardly. The boys could hear a cow braying somewhere ahead of them.
“My sister always tries to pet the cows,“ Matthew said. “She sneaks up on them, but they always run away.“
“That’s because your sister stinks.“
They shimmied through the fence, and stepped out onto a levee that dropped off to a stock pond. The pecan tree's limbs stretched over the bluish green water of the pond.
“Maybe he'll think one of the customers stole it," Matthew said. "The gun."
Justin didn't answer. Across the pond, they could see waterspouts shooting up into the air and falling back into the pond with a continuous hard slapping sound.
“What are those?” Justin asked.
“Oxygenators. They put air in the water so the fish can breathe.”
“Fish don’t breathe, they’re underwater, dumb ass.” Justin raised the rifle, aimed at a small dark mass floating near the shore, and fired. The gun broke the silence of the pond. Matthew looked around nervously.
“Turtle,” Justin yelled, “I got him too.” Matthew saw a dark shape floating in a pool of blood. “Snapper.” He handed the gun to Matthew and ran up the side of the levee to the oak tree, retrieved a stick, then ran back down to Matthew. He carefully stepped to the edge of the water, and poked the stick behind the turtle.
"Stick it in its mouth," Matthew said. "It's got a trigger in its mouth, if you touch it, it'll bite down."
"I know." Justin poked the stick in the turtle's mouth and let out a little cry when its jaws clamped down on the stick. He pulled the dead thing onto the bank. “Big one too,” he said. He poked the turtle with his foot.
“Wow,” Matthew said, studying it. Justin took the rifle back from him. For a second, Matthew realized he could've taken it back to his father, but that moment was gone.
"Stinks here. What’s back here?” Justin said, edging along the bank.
“Nothing,” Matthew said. “We’d have to climb another fence, but on the other side of the pond, there’s a wild blueberry bush, if the birds haven’t eaten them all.”
“I’m tired of climbing fences,” Justin said. “What’s up there?” He said, pointing toward a hill to their right.
“Nothing, just the Johnson place after a while.”
Justin broke into a run in the direction of the Johnson's place. “But they’re good blueberries,“ Matthew called, then ran after him.
The boys jogged up a steep hill. From the top they could see across a valley which spread between them littered with bones. A thorn tree squatted near one end of the valley. It was barely taller than Matthew was. There were tufts of cattle hair hanging from some of the thorns where cattle had scratched themselves against the tree.
"Devil’s Walking Stick," Matthew said. "Look." He pointed the hair out to Justin.
"They do it on purpose. Like a back-scratcher."
Justin looked at him. “How’d all the bones get here?”
“My dad drags them here when they‘ve died and laid out so long they rotted, but I think some of them come here anyway, when they get sick. It's a graveyard”
Justin looked at the bones, spread across the valley floor like branches of a fallen tree, “Bet that’s what stinks.” Justin raised the rifle to his shoulder, aimed at a skull lying at the bottom of the hill and fired. Matthew winced. Justin started down the hill, into the graveyard, then turned back with a, “Come on.” Matthew followed quietly.
They couldn’t feel the wind down in the valley.
“Stink’s worse down here,” Justin said.
Matthew went down on one knee in front of the skull. “Bull,“ he muttered. His eyes traced the remains of its blunt horns.
“Fuck!” Justin yelled.
Matthew looked up and saw Justin on the other side of the thorn tree, staring at something. He broke into a run. As he passed the tree, he brushed against one of its thorns. He let out a, “Hey!” And dodged away from it. Justin was looking at a cow. It was lying on its side with its back against the bottom of a hill. It was watching Justin and let out a pitiful moan as it saw Matthew.
“What’s wrong with it?” Justin asked.
“Don’t know.” The cow thrashed its head wildly and mooed again. There was a thick line of mucus hanging from one of its nostrils. “Maybe it’s got a cold.” The cow propped itself up on its front legs and struggled to stand, but its back legs appeared useless.
Matthew approached the cow and saw that the grass around its rear was stained with blood. Two tiny legs stuck out from its backside. Matthew stared at it. “Oh my God.”
Matthew pulled his eyes away from the cow. He studied the grass on the hill above it. Then looked back towards the way they’d come. “It must’ve,” the cow interrupted him with a plaintive moan. He glanced back at it, then quickly turned away. “It must be trying to...give birth. Sometimes calves get stuck and it can kill the mother.” They listened quietly as the cow struggled to stand. “Man, the blood,” Matthew said. “We have to do something.” He looked at the cow. Its wild eyes locked into his. “We have to get my dad. He can pull the calf. He’ll get the tractor and save it.”
“It's fucking dead,” Justin said quietly.
“Yeah, but the cow.”
“It's fucking dead too, it just don’t know it yet.” Justin was studying the cow.
“Well, Dad will know what to do.”
Justin looked at him. “It’s done for, man, only one thing to do for it.”
Matthew studied him. The cow moaned again. Matthew shuddered. “But, my dad will get mad.”
“No, he won’t, look at it.”
Matthew turned towards the cow. It was panting and had curled its front legs under it to lie on the ground again. Justin walked towards it. The cow’s eyes went from Matthew to Justin.
“Wait,” Matthew said.
Matthew looked at him.
Justin raised the rifle. The cow mewled, flaring its nostrils and batting its head from side to side.
“Get up close to it,” Matthew said. “Make sure you don’t miss.“
“I won’t miss. I can get a perfect score on Duck Hunt."
“Get right up on it.” Justin stepped forward.
“Damn it stinks.” Justin raised the rifle to the cow’s head. The cow screamed and tried to drag itself away again. Its tail was swabbing a trail of blood from side to side. It let out another scream, and dragged itself a few inches forward.
“Try to do it with one shot, you’re too far away.”
“Shut up!“ Justin screamed. He turned away from the cow and glared at Matthew, letting the barrel of the rifle touch the grass. “Stop telling me what to do, you don’t know anything, you‘re just a stupid fucking redneck.”
“You’re dragging the gun on the ground.”
The cow screamed again and Justin flinched, still staring at Matthew, then he threw the gun down and walked back towards the thorn tree. “It’s your stupid cow,” he said.
“I’ll do it, then,“ Matthew picked up the rifle. He walked up to the cow. She turned her head away from him, reached her front hooves out, dug them into the ground and tried to drag herself away.
“Shush, ” he said. He reached towards her to brush her cheek. The cow jerked away. Matthew lifted his hand and cooed, then tried to caress her cheek again. “Hush now, Girl, everything’s going to be all right.” The cow stared at him out of one wild eye. He raised the rifle to her ear, angling down. The cow batted at the rifle with her head. Matthew jerked the rifle away, then aimed again. His eyes moved from the cow’s ear to the one wild eye. He cocked the hammer. “Shush,” he said and squeezed the trigger. The shot echoed through the valley. The cow’s head dropped to the ground with a thud. Matthew stared at it. He carefully bent down to the cow’s nostrils. He held his hand in front of them, and felt nothing. He straightened up, turned, and took two steps towards the back of the cow, stepping over its legs. The calf didn't move. He turned to Justin. The boy was staring at the dead cow with a look like he'd just been slapped. It was almost funny. Matthew shouldered the rifle and walked past him, back the way they’d come, past the thorn tree and up the hill. After a moment, Justin followed.
* * *
*Originally appeared in Natural Bridge