Until the Cows Come Home
Sheriff Daniels poured Arbuckle’s into a tin cup and handed it to Mason Davis. The man’s hand shook, sloshing hot coffee onto his knuckles. He made no complaint, however, as he sat in a chair. Daniels rested his hand on his revolver and perched on the corner of his desk.
“Anna’s gone, ya say?” the Sheriff said.
“Yes, sir, gone. Like the others afore her.”
“Now, Mason, I’m still not sure all yer wives are sneaking off.”
Mason set the cup on Daniels’ desk.
“If I was killin’ ‘em, Sheriff, why’d I come here? Not like I couldn’t skedaddle without a soul knowing.”
“Sure, ya could, but then ya’d be leaving yer plunder behind. Ain’t yer style and we both know it. How many wives ya had now, Mason? Three? Four?”
“Anna be my third.”
Daniels nodded and clapped Mason on the shoulder.
“Ain’t natural for a man yer age to have had three wives, Mason. I’m stumped, really, why these men keep marrying their daughters to ya.”
“I’m a likable fella, Sheriff.”
“Yeah, yer likable all right, with land and livestock, a heap of which ya bought after yer first wife disappeared. Naturally, Beth didn’t get on missing until after her father passed and left her all that money. Funny, too, she left it all in the bank for ya, right as a trivet. What woman leaves and takes one single cow with her?”
“Seems ya shot them same bullets when Beth shinned out, Sheriff. They was blanks then and they blanks now.”
“Or just misfires,” Daniels smiled. “Every time ya come up with a missin’ wife, I’m gonna pull my trigger. Soon enough, I’ll hit a live round. Let’s get a wiggle on, Mason. I got to look around yer place. Ya know that.”
“’Course, Sheriff. Whatever ya say.”
Daniels rose and went to the rack in the corner. He pulled down his hat, a faded black bowler, and stuck it on his head. They’d be riding in the sun most of the morning and the last thing he wanted was red, painful skin for the next week.
Mason’s ranch was just beyond the county line, which meant Mason’s problems weren’t Sheriff Daniels’ responsibility, but damned if the four-flusher didn’t keep marrying girls from his county. Daniels had played poker with John, Beth’s father, until his death, and the man had never liked Mason.
“He ain’t someone to ride the river with,” the old man used to say. “Roostered, more often than not, and played out. Ain’t no granger, just a deadbeat, but Beth says she loves him and will till the cows come home.”
“Ah, shut yer bazoo and play a card, will ya?” Old Willy would always say. They’d all laugh and the game would continue.
Daniels didn’t think much of it at the time. He didn’t believe in love himself, and all that namby-pamby talk made his chest hurt. Once his wife had given him two boys, he’d divorced her and taken up with whores for his needs. Still, he’d heard it wasn’t uncommon for a father to dislike the man sticking it to his daughter, didn’t matter if the man was ace-high or not. The peculiarity of fatherhood was that you were expected to marry off yer girls, but destined to dislike every option available. To that end, Daniels was happy he only had sons to deal with.
Once Beth disappeared, his gut reminded him of John’s insults. The old man had been shrewd, and while never rich, he never wanted for anything. His wife died during childbirth with Beth, and he neither married again nor had any bastards. Once he passed, all his lands and money went to Beth, and when she was gone, Mason. Using his wife’s family fortune, Mason invested in cattle, and lured his second wife, Mary, to him. She’d been an ugly, fat woman, and Mason demanded three quarters of her father’s herd as dowry. Mason being Mary’s only suitor, her father complied. She’d gone missing less than a year later.
And now Anna had vamoosed as well.
They approached the hill that shielded Mason’s ranch from the long, flat range he used to feed his livestock. The grass, matted from hooves, was chewed down to stubble and covered in shit. The horse’s tails swatted the flies away as they picked a safe passage over the terrain.
“Where’s yer herd?” Daniels asked as they rode over the crest.
The ranch spread out below him. The house, situated to the north, faced southeast, back towards the county. The barns and cattle pens were south and west of the house, covering dozens of acres. Mason’s cattle should be there, in those pens, but they were empty. The earthy smell of dung saturated Daniels’ nose and he sneezed.
“They should be here,” Mason replied. “Unless that mudsill Parker took ‘em.”
“He’s been yer man since yer first wedding. He ain’t got no cause to take ‘em. And where would he take ‘em? Yer in a valley and the big hills are less than a mile in all directions but the one we came from. We’d have seen him.”
Mason spurred his horse forward and raced down the hill. Having no other choice, Daniels followed, and pulled his mount alongside the first pen’s fence. Ahead of Daniels, near the next pen, Mason’s horse pranced and pulled away, snorting hot air.
“Horse is nervous,” Daniels commented. As they approached the pen, his horse whinnied and jerked its head away, pointing them back toward the county. He patted its thick neck, soothing, and whispered, “Not just yet.”
They tied their horses to the hitch near the front of the house. The stairs squeaked as they ascended and Mason led them into the foyer where they found Parker bound with leather strips to a chair, his mouth and eyes open, but quite dead.
“Is there a wound somewhere? I don’t see no blood, so I reckon there ain’t one,” Daniels said.
“I’m not a doctor—”
Mason stopped talking, interrupted by the mooing of a cow.
Daniels spun and stalked onto the porch. A single cow stood at the bottom of the stairs. A leather collar, with a single golden bell, circled its brutish neck. It stared at him with impassive eyes and mooed again.
Why didn’t I hear the bell?
The door opened and the cow’s attention turned to Mason.
“It cain’t be,” Mason gasped. “That there is Beth’s cow. The one she took with her. It cain’t be here.”
“Why’s that? Maybe she’s come back. Beth!” Daniels cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled Beth’s name again.
The cow put a hoof on the steps, and then another. It mooed and Mason screamed. He ran into the house and the cow snorted, as if amused, and charged. Its forehead connected with Daniels’ midsection. The air rushed out, left him gasping, and his feet left the air. A twist of its neck sent him sprawling to the side. He landed hard, his revolver went spinning away. The cow never slowed as it charged through the half open door.
Daniels patted his body, searching for a gore wound, and finding none remembered it was a cow, not a bull. Inside the house, Mason screamed and a shotgun boomed. Daniels retrieved his gun and headed into the house. The sitting room, just to the right of the foyer, had been destroyed. The cow had trampled the furniture, reducing most of it to kindling. The shotgun went off again, toward the rear, and Daniels hurried that way, finding the dining room and the kitchen in similar disarray. The back door hung off its hinges and Mason’s babbling voice leaked in from the outside.
“Yer dead!” Mason screamed. “Dead!”
Daniels rushed the back door, unsure what he’d find outside, but he wasn’t prepared for what he did see.
The cow had Mason by the ankle and slowly pulled him toward the hills in the distance. Mason’s hand fumbled with his shotgun, loading in two shells. He locked the barrels in place and fired both into the cow. The beast kept moving as the bark of a tree behind it disintegrated.
Daniels moved forward and fired his six shots, each of them striking somewhere beyond the animal. He reloaded and holstered his gun, seeing as how they weren’t any use. He stood, staring, both frightened and fascinated.
“Sheriff! Help me! Don’t let her take me!”
Daniels caught up to Mason and grabbed the man’s hand. Daniels dug his heels in.
“It’s her,” Mason panted. “It’s her. She’s the cow.”
Daniels said nothing; he pulled harder and Mason screamed again.
“My arm! It hurts! Let go!”
Daniels released Mason and went after the cow instead. He latched his arms around its neck and yanked. The cow’s muscles were steel, unmoving, and he grabbed the mouth next, trying to pry the teeth away from Mason’s ankle. The jaw moved and Daniels hollered, triumphant, until he realized the play. His hand slipped forward and the cow bit down, taking two fingers of Daniels’ left hand off at the knuckles. He screamed and fell backward, holding his hand up above his heart, unable to stop the blood from fountaining out over his hand. Daniels tore a strip of his shirt and wrapped the fingers, watching helplessly as the cow dragged Mason another fifty yards. It stopped and turned in a circle, dragging the screaming Mason with it.
“Not here! Oh God, not here!”
The cow stopped and its rear legs, then torso, sank into the earth, disappearing from sight. Its head soon followed and with it, Mason’s leg. Mason kept screaming as the cow pulled him down, down, down. The shotgun stood on end, a silent grave marker, until the last of Mason’s fingers were gone, and then the gun fell over, raising a small, insignificant dust cloud.
The following day Daniels brought two deputies, armed with shotguns and shovels, and the doctor back to Mason’s house. He led them to the patch of dirt where Mason had disappeared and told his men to dig.
“Make it wide enough for a cow,” he said.
They gave him queer looks, but he didn’t care.
Hours later, the remains appeared.
A cow’s skull, with tatters of flesh still clinging to pocked, greyish bone. The deputies took care, clearing the dirt around the body. Daniels hunkered down at the edge of the pit, the sun searing him from the west. He covered his eyes and pointed with his uninjured hand.
“There. Between the cow’s ribs. What’s that?”
A deputy dug around the area and groaned.
“It’s a hand, Sheriff.”
The doctor lowered himself into the hole and examined the find.
“It’s female,” he said. “Here, Jack.”
The doctor tossed a small object upward and Daniels snagged it out of the air. He blew on it, clearing away dirt, and rolled it over in his fingers. It was a gold band, a wedding band, if there ever was one. Daniels wet the end of his thumb and rubbed it clean. He read the inscription on the inside: To My Beth.
Daniels turned the ring in his fingers, watching his men dig, curious as to what they’d find down in the earth with Beth and her cow. Maybe they’d find love, powerful strong, ready to rise up and tear apart another house, another life. Maybe they’d find Mary and Anna, or Mason down there, but Daniels doubted it. With love, things went missing never to be found again, and that was just the way of it. Daniels stared into the deep, dark hole full of love, and knew why he’d never wanted no part of it, then or now.