Red said he was still ranching.
“Bullshit,” I told him. Honestly, it had never occurred to me that there could still be cows around. I sure as hell would have killed any one I got my hands on. There was nothing to feed them, and a cow won’t give milk for long on grass this dry.
Red laughed and reeled in. “Come on,” he said.
I was pretty close to hating the guy. But I still followed him. It was something in the way his clothes, old and torn like mine, were patched so neatly. His fingernails weren’t dirty. And he stank, but not like me, not like piss and booze and anger. He smelled like earth, clean and sharp, a hit of rare and uncut powder that went right to the head. It was like he hadn’t given up. And back then, I didn’t know anyone else like that. So maybe he knew something I didn’t. He gave me back my lizard and I ate it when he had his back turned.
Red took me to one of the bigger lakeside backwaters, a place I’d never been. It had the reputation of housing people who’d already been criminals before the fires. The town was like anywhere else. Ruined, dirty, folding in on itself with an air of isolation and hostility. We came into a square where the statues had all been toppled out of a rage that was no longer revolutionary, but ordinary, expected.
And there was a cow. It was sleek black, healthy and fat, and it looked so strange, snorting gently in the dusty square where everybody gawping around the beast was chalked up to their eyebrows with dead earth and half starved, that I would have been less surprised to see a polar bear.
“Jesus Christ,” I said. I think it was the first time I ever spoke those words with real reverence.
“That’s my ride.”
There were people all around the square. I could hear a baby sucking indignantly at a milkless breast. While the cow stood there practically bursting at the udder.
And it didn’t make sense that people who’d kill each other over half a bottle of ibuprofen would be able to find a measure of restraint, confronted with a bounty like this.
“This here’s Jessica,” he said, patting the cow on the flank. With anyone else, it would’ve been touching to be introduced, to hear the beast called her. With Red, I mostly got the sense that he didn’t see too much of a difference between women and cattle.
Everybody was watching Jessica. Their hands were in their pockets, front right. We kept our knives there for the same reason people used to place dinner knives on the right. That was what we reached for first. Red was grinning around at everybody like he was about to start pitching a timeshare in hell.
“Nobody’s taken her,” I said.
“No sir,” Red poked around in his molars with his tongue. “Ya wanna know why?” He leaned in close and dug his finger into my chest. “Whaddaya know about how the Medievals liked to settle their scores?”
“Red, are you about to tell me you got a herd of cattle and a Catherine Wheel?”
Red jabbed me in the sternum. “Any wheel is a Catherine wheel in the right hands, kid.” He laughed. “Naw. They had a special way of dealin’ with guys who stayed tight-lipped at trial.” He held out a hand, palm up. “They’d lay him down on a board like this, see? With another board on top.” Red slapped his other hand down. “And then they’d start layin’ down rocks. Couple hundred pounds, see if he’d talk. No? What about another couple hundred? His bones are crushed. His organs are poppin’ like grapes. Couple hundred more and he’s a goner. Not a pretty way to go.
“Only time a calf ever went missin’, my men brought the two guys who’d done it back to the ranch. And I told ‘em, you talk and you can go. ‘Course, they wouldn’t. Knew well enough that if they told us where to find it, off we’d go and break up the family barbeque. Can’t blame ‘em. Number Two saw how it went for Number One. He was shakin’ and slobberin’ when we put him down on the board. Had his eyes closed, prayin’ and prayin’. When he finally opened ‘em, we were gone.”
“You let him go.”
“He came back here and gave the others the lay of the land. Haven’t had a lick of trouble since. It was a shame about Number One. He never did come around to the idea that he was dyin’ for peace.”
Outlaws take clean shots. Giving another man an easy death is a good way to get one for yourself when the time comes. But I could see Red was free of that way of thinking. He was sure he wasn’t gonna go out that way. He was gonna be the last man in the world to die peacefully in bed. And I wanted a dose of that.
So when he asked me to come up and drive trucks for him, I said okay. He gave me landmarks to follow, a laundry list of childhood memories I could look forward to seeing the stumps of.
“You bothered much by death?” Red was straddling the poor animal’s back. Anyone else would have looked stupid mounted up on a cow, but Red looked right at home.
“Don’t see how I could be anymore. Why do you ask?”
He licked his lips and watched me for a minute. “My last driver never came around to the road kill. He couldn’t handle hittin’ animals.”
“Free lunch,” I laughed. “I was a drug addict most of my life, Red. I’ve seen plenty of shit sicker than a dead deer.”
Red nodded. “Some folks get blisters. Others get calluses.”
Kim Carson Bodie is an American journalist living on unceded Whadjuk Noongar Boodja land. She has worked a lot of odd jobs and lived a lot of odd places. This is her creative debut. You can find Kim on Instagram @all.is.gravy and she recommends you donate to buglife if you don't want to end up like the characters in this story.