Little Joe squinted against the dust laden wind and counted cows, again. Dang, he hated counting past twenty. He could never keep track of whether it was the first or second time he was working through his fingers and toes.
“C’mon, get y’er butt in gear,” Hank yelled and galloped off on his horse; raising a new cloud of dust and making Little Joe lose count, again. He gave up and kicked his horse into a rough gallop. It felt like three legs were galloping and one was trotting. He clenched his teeth and held on. He could only imagine the reaction of the others if he fell off his horse.
Hank pulled up by a big man on a big horse – the Boss. Mex and Hezekiah were already there with their bandanas pulled up over their faces. Little Joe yanked his horse to a stop and tried to fix the rag that was supposed to keep the dust out of his lungs. He coughed and spat before he recalled that his bandana was over his mouth. Hank rolled his eyes.
“You must treat your horse better,” the Boss said. He frowned at Little Joe. “That horse may save your life someday, but only if it likes you.”
“Yes’r” Little Joe said. He figured if it came to him or the horse, the horse would let him die in an instant. He didn’t say anything. Hank said the Boss didn’t like back-chat and this was Little Joe’s first cattle drive.
“We’re late starting this year,” the Boss said, “So you’ll be taking the herd through the Gulch by Devil’s Butte. That will cut at least two days off the drive. With this drought, there isn’t much water for the herd in any case. Make sure you let them drink at any chance you get.”
“Devil’s Butte?” Mex said, “but what about…”
“I don’t want to hear any superstitious talk,” the Boss said, “I’m paying your wages and you’ll go where I tell you to go.”
Hank didn’t look happy, but then Little Joe couldn’t remember Hank ever looking happy, ‘cept maybe that one time after he come out of that cat house, though Little Joe didn’t recall seeing any cats.
The Boss rode away and Hank glared at Little Joe.
“Let’s get this drive goin’,” Hank said, “Mex, you’re on lead. Hez, you take the right, I’ll take left and Little Joe will chase stragglers. Make sure your guns are loaded and stay sharp. I heard there’s rustlers about.”
“Hank, you didn’t give me no bullets,” Little Joe said.
“I don’t want you shooting me in the foot agin,” Hank said, “or worse shooting one of the cows. Just wave your gun around and try not to fall off your horse.”
“I don’t like going through the Gulch,” Mex said and crossed himself, “Why can’t we just take our usual route by the Cottonwood?”
“Two reasons,” Hank said, “because the Boss said so, and because I said so.”
“But the Devil…”
“Shut it, Mex,” Hank said, “I don’t want you scaring the kid.”
Mex looked like he was going to argue some more, but he just spat and rode off yelling at the cows. He remembered to pull his bandana down before spitting too.
Hez rode away to go round the herd.
“Where did you get that bandana?” Hank said to Little Joe, “It looks like it come off your sister’s dress.”
“Well, she said she didn’t need it no more,” Little Joe said. Hank looked like he wanted to hit him, so Little Joe turned his horse and headed to the back of the herd. He tried spitting like Mex, but still couldn’t get it right.
They pushed the herd out of the corral and up the hill toward the Gulch. Little Joe didn’t much like the sound of Devil’s Butte, but nobody asked him. The cows stayed pretty close to the herd so the only thing that Little Joe really had to deal with was the dust and the smell.
They stopped the night and blocked the herd into a small canyon beside Devil’s Butte. The setting sun made the shadows sharp and threatening. The path up to the Gulch looked even worse than the one they had just ridden. Little Joe walked around the campfire trying to work the cramps out of his butt.
“Don’t worry,” Mex said, “the beans’ll work that out for you.”
“Jus’ don’ sit upwind of da fire,” Hez said.
“Or downwind of Hez,” Mex said and threw a clump of clay at Hez. The clump disintegrated and at least half went into the beans. Neither of the others noticed. All Little Joe could see was their eyes and teeth. The trail dust made all of them the same almost black colour.
“Sit down and rest,” Hank said as he rode up. “You’ll be taking the first watch tonight.” He spat expertly into the fire.
The beans tasted like clay, but at least they filled his belly. It was full on night and the moon made shadows that were even more threatening than the setting sun. Little Joe sat on his horse and stared at the herd. He tried counting them again, but he kept coming up with different numbers. He was surrounded by the soft breath of sleeping cattle and the loud snores of the three men behind him.
Hank had begrudgingly given him one bullet.
“Don’t be shootin’ any cows,” he said, “You put a bullet in one of the Boss’s cows he’ll string you up as quick as any rustler.”
It watched from the middle of the herd. None of the beasts touched him, but neither did they shy away. It was one of them. They ate grass, but its appetite was different. The men joked and farted until one by one they fell asleep. All but the one on horseback. That one sat playing with his gun and looking back at the fire. It began to move through the herd toward its prey.
Little Joe tried to blink away the spots in his eyes. He counted the cows again. Then he saw the one with the horns. It had a kind of negative glow to it, like a candle that sucked in light instead of spreading it. It had a funny smell too, like the calf they’d found in the spring that was mostly eaten by the vultures.
The horse under him shifted nervously, then shied. Little Joe fell to the ground and his gun went off. The bullet blew through his horse’s head and the animal fell dead on top of him. Hank was going to kill him for sure. Little Joe tried to squirm out from under the dead horse, but he was trapped. He thought maybe his leg was busted. Then he stopped worrying about his leg. That strange cow was standing over him, it leaned its head down and breathed on Little Joe. Instead of the grassy smell of most cows, this one reeked of dead flesh. It opened its mouth and Little Joe saw that it had fangs. He only had time for one last thought before it crushed his skull and sucked his brains out.
He chose to regret that he’d never learn to spit.
The shot woke Hank and he jumped to straight to his feet. Then he had to bend down to pick up his gun that was under the saddle he used as a pillow. So Hank didn’t actually see the Devil Cow eat his cousin’s brain. What he saw was the biggest, nastiest looking cow he ever laid eyes on staring at him over the body of a horse with black liquid drooling from its mouth.
Mex and Hez must have woke as quick as he did because he heard Mex swearing in Mexican and English with some Latin prayers tossed in as garnish. Hank looked over to see Mex trying to load his gun with shaking hands. Hez wasn’t shaking. He pointed his gun at the cow and emptied all six shots into the beast. The cow didn’t bawl in pain though. It roared and bounded away up the rocks to the far end of the canyon.
“That’s the Devil Cow,” Mex said when he stopped swearing. “It’s the Devil’s own beast and it eats the brains of its victims before dragging their souls down to Hell.”
“Why it wan’ to go eatin’ Little Joe’s brains?” Hez said, “It ain’t like there was much there. The beast’ll be starvin’.”
Hank wanted to smack the man for speaking against his dead cousin, but he couldn’t get his hand to put his gun back in his holster, ‘sides he’d been thinking pretty much the same thing. Dang, he was going to have to wear a suit to the kid’s funeral. If the kid wasn’t already dead, Hank would’ve killed him himself.
“If the critter eats,” Hank said, “It can die. Load up your guns and we’ll stand watch. I’ll watch the cattle. Mex you and Hez watch behind us. Keep yer back to the fire so you can see proper.
They loaded up their rifles and filled their pockets with extra bullets. Now that he held a rifle, Hank was able to put his gun in the holster. He pulled the kid’s gun belt off him and put it on too. He felt better with two loaded guns and a loaded rifle. No Devil Cow was going to get the best of him.
The smell was the first thing he noticed. It was as if the kid were already rotting. Hank stole a glance to check on the kid and swore when he noticed the kid was gone. He turned right around to try to see him. The Devil Cow came out of the herd just as Hank spotted his cousin sitting on a rock. The kid looked pretty good for someone missing half his head. Hank heard something and spun in time to shoot the Devil Cow with his rifle. The bullet knocked a fair sized steak off the beast, but it didn’t seem to notice. Hank was about halfway through emptying his revolvers into the Devil Cow when he felt the bullet burn through his back, his heart and out his chest.
He didn’t have any time for final thoughts before the Cow ate his brain.
It revelled in the fear of its prey. The bullets were a minor annoyance. Its flesh was only something it put on to feed.
Mex didn’t know if he filled his pants before or after he shot Hank in the back. The odour floated up from his soggy drawers as he emptied his gun into the Devil Cow. He tried to pray to Mary the Mother of God for help as he fumbled his bullets into his gun, but he couldn’t remember the words. The Ave Maria came out half prayer, half curse. He shouted both at the Devil Cow as it walked through the campfire to bare its fangs and eat his soul.
The last one was gone. The Devil cow didn’t care. Contained in the mind of one of its victims was the vision of a town waiting the arrival of the herd. The mind remembered the smell of the slaughter house and the rumbling fear of the cattle. It sounded like a wonderful place.
The Boss looked at the still twitching body of Hezekiah on the scaffold. He didn’t believe a word of the man’s ravings about Devil Cows and the walking dead. It was obvious he was in league with rustlers and everyone knew the penalty for rustling. As he turned to go talk to the bank about the small matter of the money he owed on his missing cattle he saw Hank, Mex and Little Joe riding in. They looked terrible, but they were pushing his cattle ahead of them. He wouldn’t need to beg at the bank after all.
“You’re late,” he said to his cowboys when they pulled up. “The slaughter is just about finished.”
“No,” Little Joe said, “It’s just beginning.” He leaned over and broke open the Boss’s head with his gun and scooped out the brains. His horse trampled the corpse into the dust as it bared its fangs and trotted eagerly into town.
It led its herd to the slaughter and it was glorious. Such fear, such pain! The Devil Cow drank it all in, but it was all too short. The last human fell beneath the hooves of the cattle. The Devil Cow pulled away from its minions and left them rotting along with its prey.
Clouds covered the sun and rain began to splatter onto red mud as one sleek cow meandered up into the hills. It seemed to absorb what little light there was until it faded and blended with the night.