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.
Nervous, the horse turned its hindquarters away from Kurt as he snatched up the reins. Kurt stuck the gun in his jeans so that he could fiddle around in the saddlebag while the horse's backside continued to drift away from him. Kurt jerked down hard on the reins to stop the horse from moving; the bit clenched against the roan's jaw, scaring him still. The horse laid his ears flat back on his head and shivered. It seemed to take forever for Kurt to find the box of shells. When he finally did, he let go of the reins, drew the gun, and fumbled with the pin that released the revolver's chamber. He dropped both the gun and the box of shells, and the bullets spilled out on the ground. Kurt fell to his knees and lurched for the revolver with his right hand. The ammunition rolled between the fetlocks of the roan. Without thinking, Kurt extended his hand, and the nervous roan stepped backward in retreat. The horse's front hoof landed squarely on Kurt's fingers. For a hellish moment the hand was simply stuck under the horse, and there was nothing Kurt could do to move it. The horse could have easily reared up and trampled him to death or turned and kicked Kurt in the head with one of his powerful back legs. All Kurt could do was stare at his crushed hand pinned to the ground, and think to himself, Oh, my God. She is still alive. She is still alive.
Kurt replays the bloody scene with the buzzards over and over in his brain as he lifts up one leg of the roan and scrapes debris out of the V-shaped groove in its hoof.
"Goddamn," T-Willy says, trying to start up the conversation again. "I do believe this drought is rougher than the one in the thirties. If it don't rain soon, every rancher from Austin to New Mexico will be broke."
"You reckon?" Kurt asks, rolling his eyes. Now that he is here to keep an eye on the store, he wishes the old man would go away. Kurt knows as well as anyone what's going to happen to the ranchers from Austin to New Mexico. It will only be a matter of months before his own daddy goes under, and when enough people like Kurt's daddy go broke, his uncle's feedstore will go broke, and the banks will take everything.
The day Kurt shot the Hereford, he returned home from his morning ride to eat breakfast. Instead of eating, he poured himself a cup of coffee and went outside on the front porch to drink it. His father rose from the kitchen table, where he had been picking at a mixture of eggs and hog brains, and followed. Kurt had already wrapped his fingers in a blue bandana.
"What happened to your hand, boy?"
Kurt hesitated only a moment before he told his father the story of the buzzards' monstrous attack. He almost cried when he came to the part about having to wait on the roan to release his hand. "It was stupid. Plain old stupid."
"I want you to know something, Kurt," his father said. "Something no one else knows yet. When you move off to College Station in the fall, I'm selling everything but the goats." Kurt's father seized his shoulder so hard that the boy almost dropped his coffee cup. "You're old enough to be on your own now, Kurt. Don't screw up your scholarship, son, because from here on out you're going to have to be responsible for yourself." His father lowered his gaze. "I'm sorry, I had to say that."
Kurt keeps his back to T-Willy as he grooms the gelding. He doesn't need a shiftless old man to tell him about hard times. "Why don't you try giving your mouth a rest for a little while," he says.
"Kurt, I'll swan," T-Willy says, scratching his curly gray head in wonder. "You are the aggravatinest thing I ever run across." He sits down in a rocking chair. "I hope somebody pops that fresh mouth of yours for you when you go off to school next year." The old man starts rolling a cigarette. It's not a pretty sight. First he takes his teeth out and sets them in his lap. After he has rolled up the tobacco, his wormy tongue peeks out of its toothless cave to seal the paper.
Kurt hates the idea of getting old. He runs his left hand up the buttons of his chambray work shirt and scratches his stomach, which is flat and hard, though a little black pit of fear rests under the muscles. His only physical imperfection is a scar under his left eye, a white star puncture wound, a memento from Kurt's childhood when he fell off a Shetland pony and landed facefirst onto a barbed wire fence. His coordination is better now; he has power and agility.
Kurt is tough and mean, but a bit of a runt. Because he works so hard on the ranch, he can't keep weight on. At 165 pounds, he is really too light to play college ball; A&M was one of the few major universities that offered him a scholarship. Jess Neely, at Rice, made him an offer, but the ties and jackets that Rice students have to wear to class are expensive. A military institute, Texas A&M provides uniforms. But if the news reports from Junction are true, Kurt will most likely get bounced around pretty good when his turn comes to practice in the desert, and he wonders if he has made the wrong decision. He will never have the luxury of backing down from a fight, or even the chance to rise casually from a pile-up. He must never allow himself to dog it, not even a little, when running the gassers or playing bull-in-the-ring. Kurt must positively shine with hustle and aggression if he hopes to win a position; otherwise, he will find himself riding the pine in the fall, and will maybe lose the chance to renew the scholarship.
"You have to act like a banty rooster." This is what his father, who is fond of cockfighting and boxing metaphors, tells him. "Half the size but twice as mean. That's you, Kurt." Sometimes before a tough game Kurt likes to hop himself up on white cross and bennies, cheap trucker speed that makes his brain itch and his teeth ache, but the pills keep him immune to fatigue or pain. Now he is so tired from working on the ranch that he wishes he had something with a little pep to keep him going. Then Kurt remembers that T-Willy usually carries more-soothing medicine.
"T-Willy, you got your bottle on you?"
T-Willy looks sideways, like he's thinking about holding a grudge, but then he grins, reaches into his overalls, and hands the kid the bottle. "Take it easy on that stuff."
Kurt takes a mighty swig from the bottle. It doesn't taste like whiskey—more like sweet wine—but it's still hot and strong like liquor. "Damn, what is this?" he says.
"They call it peach beer. It's brandy made with peach peels. My cousin sent it to me from Georgia. Ain't it smooth?"
Kurt grunts and takes another slug.
"Here, you best hand that back. Here comes your uncle. He'll have my hide if he knows I'm getting you drunk."
Kurt hands the bottle back as he spies a green Ford speeding toward the feedstore from Johnson City. But it's going much too fast to be Kurt's uncle, a cautious driver who rarely gets above 50 mph. As the truck comes closer to the store, Kurt can see that it is similar to his uncle's but much newer; even through all the dust the chrome trim glimmers. T-Willy finishes his cigarette and replaces his teeth.
The truck pulls into the drive, runs right up next to the roan, and parks. Right off Kurt is sore with the driver, who doesn't think enough of his horse to park a few yards away. If the roan weren't gelded, it might have gotten nervous and reared up and possibly fallen over and hurt itself. More likely, it would have kicked the shit out of the shiny new truck and split a hoof. But the roan is tired too, so it simply pulls back on its halter and gives a shivering nicker. Kurt doesn't recognize the driver, which means he must be from pretty far off. When he steps out, Kurt sees that he's a big man, well over six feet tall and thick in the middle. He has a red moustache, and he's wearing an expensive Stetson, and a denim work shirt that is altogether too clean. A little blonde girl in pigtails, no more than seven and wearing brown overalls, jumps out of the passenger seat. The wind shifts, and even before the stranger has slammed the door of his truck, Kurt can smell that they have brought something with them, something that has been in the sun too long.
T-Willy, delighted to see the little girl, hunkers down in his chair and says, "Hey there, cowgirl, who you got there with you?"
"My daddy," she says, with an adult seriousness. Then she moves behind her father, so that she is difficult to see.
The man with the red moustache gives T-Willy an apologetic look and then turns to Kurt. "Pleas ain't here, is he?"
"Nope." Kurt shakes his head. "He's in Johnson City."
The stranger looks disappointed. "Would you mind coming over here and looking at something for me?"
Kurt and T-Willy exchange looks; then Kurt nods and walks to the back of the truck. The man lowers the tailgate, frowning. On top of a bed of canvas fertilizer sacks lies a newborn Red Angus bull, no more than a day or two old, and by the looks of it, the calf has spent a considerable amount of that time suffering out in the heat. It hasn't been licked clean. Dried afterbirth has crusted around its eyes and nostrils; its hide is matted with dried blood. Its nose is dull and pink. Already flies are gathering around the calf, lighting near its eyes and in the folds of its nostrils and on the umbilical cord. It is so tiny that it looks more like an orphaned fawn than a calf. The bull breathes slowly, dehydrated, too weak to even lift its head.
The little girl climbs on top of the back wheel and stands on tiptoes so that she can peer over into the bed and get a closer look. She smiles at Kurt. "His name is Chester."
The father turns to Kurt. "I can't figure why his momma don't want him. I guess it just happens that way sometimes."
"Lack of water," T-Willy offers. "It does things to their head. Makes cows plumb crazy. Or it might have been her first one and she didn't know what to do with it. That happens too."
"Look, my cousin's the cattleman, but he left town this morning. I just found this little fellow laying out near some brush not far from the house. I don't really know what to do with him. Somebody told me you can buy powdered milk here. Is that true?"
Kurt nods and walks up onto the porch and through the dark doorway of the store. He is almost bowled over by the rich smell of corn, oats, and molasses. He moves past stacks of crushed hay and cracked-corn feed, past the protein pellets and a pyramid of red salt blocks, all the way to the back of the store, where a few fifty-pound bags of powdered milk are stacked atop one another. Kurt selects one marked "Milk Starter"; it contains colostrum, the first milk a cow gives after birth, a thin, yellowish fluid full of minerals. Other bags are marked "Milk Replacer"—the hindmilk, the white milk.
Both the milk starter and the milk replacer are old. Since the drought most people don't bother trying to save an individual calf. Kurt shoulders the sack of colostrum and grabs a liter milk bottle off the shelf. The milk bottle is equipped with a long, vulgar-looking three-inch nipple that resembles a little boy's penis, pink and stiff. While Kurt is working in the back, he can barely make out the conversation T-Willy is having with the little girl's father. The man's name is something or other Dougan or Cougan, and he is an oilman, an executive, from Houston. But his relations live here in Blanco County. Walking back toward the doorway Kurt clearly hears the oilman say, "My cousin Bill wants me to buy in on his ranch, so I came to check the place out."
Kurt finds himself wishing that his father had some rich relatives, but his relatives are no different from himself, third- or fourth-generation Krauts, here from the time when Texas was still a part of Mexico.
Before Kurt can get back outside, T-Willy starts running his mouth about Aunt April, gossiping about her diabetic stroke, her blindness, how in all likelihood the doctors will have to amputate her legs, things he shouldn't speak about with strangers—with anyone. When Kurt gets out the door, he interrupts the conversation. "Here you go," he says, throwing the powdered milk onto the tailgate and setting the milk bottle on top of it.
"Mr. Cougan here is thinking about buying into Bill Worley's operation," T-Willy says. "They're cousins."
"Is that so?" Kurt says, not really asking. "You want me to show you how this works?"
"I'd appreciate that." Cougan tips his hat, cowboy style.
The little girl, still standing on the Ford's back tire, starts bouncing up and down, rocking the bed of the truck. She's so excited that Kurt can't help smirking. The poor girl must have lived all her life in the city.
Kurt pulls the drawstring on the powdered-milk sack and then steps up into the truck, seizes the tiny bull by the ears, and drags him to the tailgate. Cougan's daughter jumps off her tire and runs to the back of the truck so that she can watch what is about to take place. Kurt unscrews the nipple on the giant baby bottle and scoops about a cup of formula into the thick glass.
"What happened to your fingers?" Cougan's daughter is staring at the mess attached to his left hand.
"Damn, Katharine, that ain't polite."
For the first time all day Kurt laughs. "That's okay. She's just curious." But Kurt is unwilling to tell the real story behind his broken fingers, so he says, "Playing football."
"Football?" Cougan's eyes brighten. "You Kurt Schaffer?"
"You gonna be a redshirt Aggie next year?"
"Shoot, boy, I hope you're ready for one tough season. I hear that Bryant fellow works his players into the ground. He did it at Kentucky, too. That's why the Aggies got him. But from the way people talk, shit, he'll be lucky if he don't end up killing somebody. I read in the newspaper he's run off all but thirty-six men. You know, that boy from Paris is still in the hospital. If Bryant don't take those boys home soon, he won't have enough players left to field a team."
"Can we feed Chester now?" Katharine asks, impatient.
Kurt hands the milk bottle with the yellow powder in it to Katharine. "There's a bathroom inside the store. Go past the cash register, past the horse tack and harness, and turn right. Can you fill this up with hot water for me?"
Katharine says she can.
"Run the tap till it gets real hot, okay?" Kurt turns to Cougan. "Do you still have that newspaper on you?"
Cougan retrieves the local paper from the truck cab and hands it to Kurt. Kurt turns to the sports section and scans the headlines until he finds "REPORT FROM JUNCTION," by Allen Wier. The article recounts yet another hellish practice, a day full of blood and sand. At one point Wier describes a confrontation between Bryant and the father of Drake Goetze, the heatstroke victim from Paris. Goetze's parents had come to collect their son from the Junction infirmary. Because of his weak heart, they have demanded that Goetze never play another down of football. The article ends with a brief interview with the coach, in which Bryant's only comment on the matter is "If a boy is a quitter, I want to find out about it now, not in the fourth quarter." Then comes the list of four new names. Goetze's is among them, and this makes Kurt angry. If the boy had died on the practice field, would the papers have called him a quitter then, too? Kurt lowers the paper and looks at the bloody, flop-eared calf shivering in the sun, drawing flies.
He picks up the long pink nipple and pinches the tip. A tiny hole opens up through the thick rubber. "Those bastards at whatever factory makes these things should be shot. You leave it like this and the poor calf just winds up sucking air. Hey, T-Willy, you got your pocket knife on you?"
"Toss it here."
Kurt catches the knife with his right hand and flicks open the blade. Cougan watches him curiously as Kurt slashes a little X into the top of the nipple and then inserts the tip of the blade into the tiny hole, coring it out. When Katharine returns, Kurt takes the bottle away from her, caps it, and shakes vigorously. Sitting down next to the calf, he grabs it by the neck and allows some of the colostrum to dribble onto the calf's tongue. Blackish placenta smears across the young man's shirt as he slips the nipple into the calf's mouth. The calf gags and regurgitates the milk into Kurt's lap. Soaked, Kurt smells like a mixture of chalk and eggs. He curses.
"You think he's too far gone?" Cougan asks.
"Nope. He just don't know how to suck yet. He'll get a taste for it in a second."
Kurt dribbles more of the milk into the calf's mouth. Instead of trying to make the calf nurse the bottle, he massages its throat, forcing it to swallow. He does this three times, and after the third attempt the calf gives a guttural cough as the milk slides down. Kurt puts the little bull in a headlock in order to keep its head elevated, and this time the calf offers a blind attack on the nipple, eventually sucking the milk.
When Kurt was a kid, before powdered milk and baby bottles were made for livestock, if a momma cow ever abandoned her calf, Kurt's grandfather would milk another cow, mix that milk with a raw egg, and use a kitchen funnel to pour the enriched liquid into a drenching bottle. A drenching bottle looked like a wine bottle but had a much longer neck. The old man would have Kurt tie a rope around the calf's neck and throw it over a rafter in order to elevate the calf's head. Then Kurt's grandfather would stick the long glass neck of the drenching bottle into the calf's mouth and down its throat, forcing it to swallow the thick milk.
It makes Kurt feel good to think about the days when his grandfather was still around, and everything was glistening and green as far as the eye could see. Kurt hugs the nursing calf in the headlock for quite a while. The little bull rubs its body up against the boy as he daydreams. Eventually the calf finds strength enough to bob its head a little, as if it were punching its mother's udder.
Kurt grins and pulls the bottle away. Katharine looks on in amazement. "Can I feed him?" she asks.
"Sure." Kurt nods, and asks her father to put her up on the tailgate. Kurt hands her the bottle. She stands on the tailgate, holding the bottle outward. Milk drips near her feet as Kurt picks up the calf and holds its face to the streaming nipple. Kurt starts to tell the little girl to tilt the bottle up high, so that the calf won't have any problem swallowing. Then he feels something move through the fingers on his good hand. He looks down to find several translucent worms, less than a quarter of an inch long, working their way through the caked-up corner of the calf's right eye. Kurt pulls the calf away from the nipple, flips it on its side, and brushes its eyes clean just in time to spot more mag-gots boiling up from the pink sores behind the eyelashes.
"What's the matter?" Cougan asks.
"Man, your bull here's got the screwworms." Even when things were green, screwworms had been a problem for newborns. Screwworms are the larvae of blue-bellied blowflies, which lay their eggs in the wounded flesh of living animals. Kurt knows that some of the worms have probably already burrowed deep into the calf's body, and soon they will screw themselves into its vital organs and suck the life right out of it. In fact, with worms already on the calf's head, the maggots will most likely screw themselves into its brain and drive it completely mad before they exit back through its eyes. Kurt has never seen flies blow into the eyes before, although he has heard that they can blow inside the nose. Usually the flies lay their eggs in the navel of a newborn. This can be easily treated, by mixing kerosene and lard into a balm and applying it to the stomach. The kerosene kills the worms while the lard holds the chemical solution in place. But Kurt quickly realizes that putting kerosene on the sores around the calf's eyes will blind it.
"Look, uh, Mr. Cougan." Kurt weighs his words carefully, not wanting to upset the little girl. "You best leave Chester here with me. It'll probably be better if I take care of him myself."
"But, Daddy, you promised—you promised I could take care of him," the girl begs. "We need to take Chester back to Uncle Bill's with us. Please."
Cougan's eyes dart back and forth between Kurt and his daughter. "Actually, son, she's right. It ain't my calf to leave. It's my cousin's. He'll know what to do with him."
T-Willy attempts to intercede in Kurt's behalf. "I don't think you understand what the boy here is saying. That calf is in a lot of pain. It ain't going to get much better."
Cougan's eyes are fixed on Katharine, who is on the verge of tears.
Kurt lays the calf's head down on the tailgate to rest. "I'm telling you he's done for," he says. "There ain't no sense in dragging it out."
That does it. Katharine's face goes down into her hands, and she sobs.
Cougan puts his arm around her and cuts Kurt an evil look. "Well, son, why don't you let me be the judge of that." Then he whispers down to his daughter, "It's all right, honey. We'll take Chester home to Uncle Bill." Cougan cuddles the little girl, gently pressing her face into the swell of his broad stomach.
Kurt glances at the calf. The poor creature is shaking in pain, unable even to lick the yellow regurgitated milk off its nose. Kurt turns back to the rich oilman and his weeping daughter, her tears the only stain on his crisp, clean shirt. "Why, you silly son of a bitch."
Katharine stops crying. T-Willy winces. Cougan's expression of paternal sympathy shatters. "Katharine, get in the truck," he says. She knows better than to argue. She slowly climbs down off the tailgate and lets herself into the Ford. Cougan waits until she has closed the door. "Now, why don't you get off my truck, you little shit."
Kurt knows that as soon as he steps off the tailgate the oilman will swing at him. So he moves back and bounds in an athletic flash over the right side of the truck, hoping the roan won't decide to kick him as he flies through the air. The horse nickers and pulls back against its halter, as it did when Cougan drove up.
Already Cougan is stalking around the opposite side of the truck, fists balled for action, "Look, son, I'm going to show you not to cuss me in front of my girl." T-Willy puts a hand on Cougan's shoulders in an effort to calm him, but Cougan bats it down, knocking the thin old man to the ground. This gives Kurt just the time he needs to make it to the saddlebag and draw the .45. Cougan's eyes go flat with fear and hate as the boy turns the gun on him. For just a moment Kurt prays that the man will keep coming. He would love to shoot Cougan in his fat gut, watch all that good food and smugness spill onto the dirt. How much different could it be from easing the dumb suffering of a steer mad for water or a fevered calf with worms itching through its brain? He has done it dozens of times—the quick flick of the hammer, and then the mark of the dime-size hole, and then a little peace for everyone. All the past there ever was, all the future there is ever going to be, meet at this place and fold into a single moment—the pulling of the trigger. Kurt is exhilarated by the fact that he suddenly has the power to change his life, and he keeps the gun leveled as he tries to figure out if he should.
Jail, Kurt thinks, might even be a relief: no hellish football camps out in the desert, no land auctions to witness. No winners, no losers, just a small, dark cell with plenty of cool water to drink. But then Kurt's mind turns back to the ugly turkey buzzards blinding the Hereford, picking and picking their way through life. The murderous moment slips away from him.
Apparently Cougan has also surmised that Kurt isn't going to shoot him. He continues to advance. Cougan's face is puffy and red with hate, and Kurt wonders if he will still go to jail if he doesn't shoot but the oilman dies of a heart attack. Kurt decides to bluff. He cocks the hammer and yells something he heard in a roadhouse once, when one of his friends wanted to scare a big Yankee from Cleveland out of a fight. "Mr. Cougan, I'm just a little old country boy. But I'll clue you, I'm mean as hell." As soon as the words leave his mouth they seem stupid and frail, the threat of a hick, and Cougan is coming on as if he has heard nothing at all.
Kurt can think of only one thing to do. He swings the gun away from Cougan and points it toward the child in the truck.
"No!" Cougan cries. He stops long enough to look at his daughter. Katharine's face is pressed in horror against the window of the Ford. She doesn't have sense enough to duck under the dash. Instead she screams, "Daddy, Daddy!"
"No, please." The sight of his frightened daughter takes all the fight out of Cougan. He backs down, slides his body along the hood of the truck, and slowly makes a retreat to the other side. Kurt follows him halfway, keeping the gun pointed at the little girl until he backs up the porch steps. T-Willy has managed to get inside the feedstore and is peering out the dark window.
Cougan opens the door of the Ford. "This ain't over," he says. "I'll kill you for this." Kurt points the gun back toward the oilman and keeps it on him in case he has a pistol of his own under the seat of the truck or in the glove compartment. But Kurt is pretty sure that Cougan won't risk any shooting with his daughter next to him in the cab. Cougan pushes his little girl down in her seat and peels out in reverse, his ruddy face receding into a cloud of dust. But he floods the engine, and the truck stalls. Kurt raises the .45 again.
After two or three tries Cougan manages to turn the engine over. He shifts into first and floors the accelerator. The Ford lurches forward, violently flinging the little bull off the tailgate and onto the ground. The bottle shatters. The calf is too weak to cry out and lands in the dirt with a thud, as if it were already dead. When he sees this, rage wells up in Kurt all over again, and he is tempted to try to shoot out the truck's tires. But a little voice inside his head tells him to leave well enough alone. T-Willy comes back on to the porch, and they watch together as the green Ford disappears, a line of powdered milk running all the way to the highway.
"Kurt, I'm afraid you're out of your damn mind," T-Willy says, as he shrugs at Kurt and starts walking toward the calf. It lies lifeless, like a blown-out tire next to the road.
"You reckon?" Kurt asks, swinging the cocked gun in the direction of the old man. T-Willy puts up his hands. They stay that way for a second or two, and then Kurt unloads four rounds, not into the old man but into the calf—two in the belly, two in the skull. As he lowers the gun, Kurt feels a wave of regret wash over him. He is sorry that he pointed the gun at his uncle's friend, and thinking about pointing the gun at the little girl makes him feel sick at his cowardice. He even feels sorry he had to kill the calf with the screwworms twisting in its eyes, but mostly Kurt feels sorry for himself, because he knows that for all his trouble, his life hasn't changed a bit, and in the morning he will have to get up out of bed and put on his work clothes and saddle the roan, and the whole thing will start over again.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.