Late in the afternoon Kurt Schaffer rides on his roan gelding up to his uncle Pleasant's feedstore, only to find that the old man has already left for the hospital in Johnson City, to visit his sick wife. Kurt doesn't much care for filling in at the feedstore. The public life of a merchant doesn't appeal to him. He prefers the solitary existence of working cattle on his father's ranch, or the excitement of playing football on the weekends. Working at the store means that he can become locked into pointless conversations; he's at the mercy of any son of a bitch with six bits for a bag of Ripsnorter sweetfeed.
The feedstore is only a mile or so away from the abandoned courthouse in Blanco. The county seat moved to Johnson City years ago. The year is 1954 and the Blanco River is dry. All of Texas is four years into a drought that has caused everything that was once green to turn brown, curl up, and blow away. The only vegetation that remains consists of a few mesquite trees, honey locust, and oceans of short cactus. Kurt will be a sophomore at Texas A&M before rain falls on his home again. That same year the Aggies will win their first Southwest Conference championship in fifteen years. But right now Kurt is beginning his last year of high school, and the Aggies are perennial losers. Even so, he has heard rumors that things are about to change for A&M. The newspaper reported last week that the new head coach, Paul "Bear" Bryant, is determined to institute an extreme brand of spartan military discipline.
Nine days ago Bryant drove his new team deep into the desert, to a place called Junction, where the team has been housed in abandoned military barracks. The players practice all day in a field of sand and clay drawn off in chalk lines, and they tackle one another atop jagged rocks and prickly pears. Denied water for hours at a time, the team continues to run and block and tackle no matter what. The boys carry on with sprained knees, dislocated shoulders, broken noses, broken ribs. According to the newspaper, hardly a man among them is still whole.
A syndicated columnist uses words like "bone-crushing" and "inhumane." He describes the players as "bloody" and "mangled" and compares them to soldiers on the Bataan Death March or to concentration-camp victims. Two days ago one of the players, Drake Goetze, a center from Paris, fell out with heatstroke and almost died of a heart attack. Pushed beyond their endurance, other members of the team have simply fled, sneaking out of the ovenlike Quonset huts in the middle of the night in order to hitchhike away. Every day the reporter gives an update on the gruesome situation and publishes a list of names—the quitters. Originally a hundred and eleven players, the team has been reduced to around forty, and still the practice continues. Kurt vows to himself that next year, when his time comes to ride out into the desert, his name will not be printed in such a list. By the time he finishes next year's training camp under this new slave-driving coach, his daddy's ranch will have gone under, and maybe his uncle's feedstore, too. His aunt April will probably be dead, and his family may well have moved away from their home in Blanco County forever. At any rate Kurt will not quit, because he will have nothing to go back to.
T-Willy, Uncle Pleas's World War I buddy, walks out from the shadowy doorway onto the porch of the feedstore as Kurt ties his horse to one of the support beams. "Kurt, where in the heck have you been? Pleas was expecting you an hour ago."
Kurt isn't in the mood to be talked down to, especially by the likes of T-Willy. Kurt has spent the entire morning riding fence, and he's tired and disgusted. He goes about the business of unsaddling the roan without so much as a hello. Kurt needs help, but he won't ask for it. The horse stepped on his left hand a few days ago, and the last three fingers are broken and taped together, the nails black and split. Kurt has always been a little suspicious of T-Willy, partly because the old man's a half-breed: part German, part Mexican. But mostly Kurt dislikes T-Willy because he's never seen the old man do a hard day's work. He just sits here in the feedstore with the fans on him, drinking whiskey, smoking cigarettes, and playing checkers with Pleas, living off the skinny tit of a soldier's pension. Instead of asking for the old man's aid, Kurt grips the saddle horn tightly with his thumb and forefinger and manages to drag the saddle down off the horse's back without dropping it.
"You know I'm too down in my back to load up anybody's truck. I don't even know how to open up that cash register in there."
"Everybody pays with credit anyway," Kurt says. "Has anybody been in today?"
"Not since Pleas left."
"Well, then, it hasn't been a problem, now has it?"
"You worried Pleas. That's the damn problem. He doesn't need any more of that."
Kurt lays the saddle on the railing of the porch and then drapes a froth-soaked blanket matted with horsehair next to it. A saddle-shaped sweat outline on the gelding's back is already beginning to evaporate in the sun. Next Kurt takes his father's .45 caliber cavalry revolver out of his jeans and places it in the saddlebag in exchange for a pick, which he will use to clean the rocks and dung out of the horse's hooves. Every morning for the past two years Kurt has risen well before sunrise, put on his work clothes and a baseball cap, saddled up the roan, and ridden five or ten miles around the perimeter of his daddy's property. He carries the .45 in order to put water-starved cattle out of their misery. He has killed dozens since the beginning of the long, cruel summer—so many that he has begun to think of himself as the ranch's executioner, a kind of resident Angel of Death bringing peace to all the wretched animals the land will not support. And the job is getting to him.
Last week was the worst. Riding across the northeast corner of the ranch, Kurt spotted a pack of turkey buzzards wheeling in the cloudless morning light. He figured they were circling more dead cattle. But as he came closer, he could see that the head of one of his daddy's prostrate Herefords was still moving; the animal was beating itself senseless in the dust. Kurt kicked the gelding and charged up to a gruesome sight: unwilling to wait for death, the buzzards had just picked out the Hereford's eyes. Two or three of the birds bobbled with the strewn sticky nerves; the others tapped their beaks into the hollow sockets of the Hereford's skull. Kurt unloaded the pistol, killing one buzzard on the ground and two others in midair before the reports chased the rest out of range.
"Take off, you sons a bitches!" Kurt screamed, pointing the empty gun up in the air. Then he got off the horse and looked down at the savaged remains of the cow. It was all he could do to keep from vomiting. The cow stared blindly at him out of one of the upturned holes in her skull. The other side of her face she rubbed violently on the ground, her black tongue caking with dust. Kurt cursed himself for continuing to shoot after the buzzards were out of range. He had to reload in order to put the tortured Hereford out of her misery.