Friday July 9, 2010
Hazel Winslow quickened her pace up the hill, each anxious step churning up dirt. A shadow’s length ahead of her, Patience Mathers braced her back against the NO TRESPASSING sign and raised a hand to cover her mouth, revulsion spoiling her flawless features.
“What’s wrong?” Hazel asked, her heart batting away at her chest like a bird caught in the house.
Patience let her hand fall from her face. “They’re dead,” she said.
“Who’s dead?” Hazel crested the rise and saw for herself—and her mouth flooded with thin saliva. Dusk washed the hundred-acre pasture an agreeable orange. Tall weeds spun sparks of sunlight. The sky hung heavy with the sinking sun. It’d be pretty, Hazel thought, if it weren’t for all those dead cows. Half a dozen corpses littered the pasture: bloated bellies crushing grass, legs jutting out at odd angles, black masses of flies feasting.
“What the hell?” Sean Adair said.
Hazel jumped at her boyfriend’s voice behind her. She spun to face him, and they gaped at each other in astonishment. The dying light created a halo around Sean’s long brown hair, and he looked sun-kissed and sturdy, as if the mountain air agreed with him.
Paler and lankier, as though he lacked some vital nutrient, Hazel’s cousin Tanner Holloway skidded to a stop next to Sean and made a grave face at her. “Uncle Pard is screwed.”
Hazel gestured at the carnage with a sweep of her arm. “You said they were sick, Tanner. Not—”
“Sicker than we thought.” Tanner smirked. “Apparently.”
“This is bad.” Patience sank to her haunches on the dirt road and clasped her hands together as if praying that she, too, would not suddenly be struck swollen and dead.
There was no breeze, yet Hazel could sense the stench of death. Scanning the pasture, she whispered, “What happened to them?”
Tanner flipped straight blond surfer hair out of his face. “Mad cow disease.”
“No way.” Hazel flashed on the steak and eggs she’d eaten during the mid-morning lull in her shift at Rose’s Country Crock.
“No way,” Sean said. Hazel had served him a cheeseburger for lunch.
Patience rose to her feet and swung toward Hazel, her beautiful dark eyes seeking reassurance from her best friend. “Mad cow?” she said.
“Okay, they don’t know yet,” Tanner admitted. “Doc Simmons was out poking and prodding the poor dumb beasts all morning. Now Uncle Pard’s waiting for the vet to come back with test results. But I do know one thing.” His pale blue eyes brightened. “They are damn worried—and that was before any beef went belly up.”
Feeling hot and grimy, Hazel gathered up her long hair and knotted it into a sloppy, strawberry blond bun. Fanning the back of her neck with one hand, she scrutinized her cousin, uncertain if she trusted him. They were all seventeen, but unlike Patience and Sean, Tanner Holloway was something new. Two weeks ago he’d been shipped up to their uncle’s ranch for the summer to straighten out and fly right. And experience had taught Hazel that the Holloway side of her family kept secrets like thieves hoard plunder. Certainly her mother had, and took nothing but secrets with her when she left. Hazel turned from Tanner, unhappy to be reminded that her mother hadn’t chosen to take her along either.
Silently she counted cattle carcasses: three nut-brown cows huddled in the shade of the aspens; a steer felled before the bridge spanning the creek, his enormous head dunked halfway underwater. But fifty feet away near the split-rail fence surrounding the pasture, a red cow stood chewing her cud—alive and kicking and flicking her switch. And close by, a calf romped around in a patch of clover. Hazel started toward the animals, curious why they seemed okay when the others were clearly not.
Sean grabbed her by the hand. “Don’t go near them. You don’t know what’s wrong.”
“You’re the one who wanted to come here, remember?” she snapped and writhed free. But as soon as she recognized the hurt in his amber-colored eyes, a familiar remorse struck. She smiled in a way intended to say, Sorry. “I won’t get too close. Promise.”
She pulled away from him and headed for the pasture. As she approached the fence in a cloud of dust bothered up by her black Converse, she flapped the front of her baby blue t-shirt to get some air circulating against her skin. By late afternoon the sun had swallowed the entire Pacific Northwest mountainside; now it was digesting it. Blowing out her breath, she waved a hand in front of her face to fend off the swarm of gnats that were losing their tiny minds to the heat.
“You’re an idiot, Winslow,” Tanner yelled.
“Hazel, come back!” Patience sounded alarmed.
Yet when Hazel glanced over her shoulder, she found all three crossing the road toward her, Patience wide eyed and Sean grimacing as though he had a bad taste in his mouth.
At the fence, Hazel noticed that the red cow’s hind legs were trembling. Suddenly both legs buckled.
“Whoa!” Hazel cried and leapt onto the lower fence rail. Out of instinct, she reached for the cow, arm outstretched, and her fingertips skimmed stiff hide as the animal dropped to the grass. The long-lashed creature emitted a pitiful moo, struggling to rise on legs that refused to cooperate.
Coming up behind Hazel, Sean wrapped his arm around her waist. “That’s not too close?” He pulled her off the fence and plopped her indelicately on the ground. “Let’s go.”
“Wait, Sean,” she said. But by the time she turned around, he was already headed back toward their motorcycles, his head bowed in a way that tugged at her heart.
“You shouldn’t have touched it.” Tanner sounded like he was enjoying himself. “It’s probably contagious.”
Hazel frowned. “Cow sicknesses don’t spread to people that way.” But as she watched the animal struggle, she began to feel less certain. She glanced sidelong at Tanner. “Do they?”
He scoffed. “Guess you’ll find out.”
The calf that had been playing in the clover tottered up, nudged the cow’s neck with his nose, and gave a sad bleat. Then he scampered deeper into the pasture, not slowing until he put fifteen feet between them as if he, too, were suddenly worried about contagion.
“This is bad,” Patience repeated. Between strands of long black hair hanging in her white face, she eyed the animals with obvious gloom. “And that ring around the moon last night meant it’s sure to rain soon.” She flung back her head to search the sky. “I hope our rodeo isn’t ruined.”
Hazel couldn’t care less about the rodeo, but she did feel sorry for the animals—and realized this meant serious trouble for their uncle. She squinted at Tanner. “What did Doc Simmons say?”
Tanner shrugged. “Only that they might’ve gotten into something they shouldn’t have.” He knocked Hazel’s forearm with his elbow. “Think it’ll be half-priced rib eyes at the Crock tonight?”
Ignoring him, Hazel crouched and held her hand between the fence rails toward the calf. “Hey, buddy,” she said softly.
The reddish-brown calf stared at her for a moment before opening his mouth to say, “Blat.”
She realized then that the calf wasn’t right either. His muzzle was coated in something sticky-looking and the tips of his ears looked flaky and sore. At the sound of horses clomping across the wood bridge, the animal gave a frightened toss of his furry head.
“Later.” Tanner was already walking away.
“Wait for me.” Patience scrambled after him.
The calf studied Hazel with huge wet eyes. A tuft of red hair stuck up on top of his head as if he’d just woken from a long nap.
“It’s all right, little guy,” she said. “Come here.”
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