On his rickety legs, the calf started toward her, just as Sean yelled, “Get out of there!” from what sounded like far away. But the horses seemed closer now: heavy hooves pounding soft grass. The white, crescent moon–shaped markings on the calf’s face made her think of rings and rain and the rodeo in ruin.

     “You’re a good boy, aren’t you?” she murmured. “Gonna grow up to be a prize Holloway bull.”

     The animal was less than ten feet away. He picked up his pace, small rump swaying, tail swishing to-and-fro. Then he raised his pink nose and gave her a friendly bleat.

     Hazel wondered why it sounded like someone was running in the dirt. “That’s a good—”

     “Get back!” a man’s voice boomed. “Keep away from it!”

     Thunder cracked and the calf’s face exploded, showering her in bits of blood and hide. For a stark moment Hazel thought she’d been shot too and toppled backward. Grabbing hold of the rough fence rail to keep from falling, she felt her palm fill with slivers.

     “Hold your fire, Clark!” the man shouted. “That was the most asinine, half-cocked move! You’re damn lucky you didn’t shoot her.”

     Hazel’s eyes were locked on the calf, crumpled on his side before her, silent and still. Blood erupted from the hole where moments ago there had been one large brown eye. Through a second hole in his skull, brain protruded.

     She felt panic and vomit and tears all rising at the same time and heard that sound again of shoes slapping dirt right before Sean grabbed her up and away from the fence. Then she was running back down the road so fast her body got ahead of her feet for one long scary moment and she nearly tumbled to the ground.

     Tanner and Patience were already tearing off on the red Kawasaki, with Patience tucked behind Tanner, screeching like a mouse clutched in the talons of an owl.

     Heart hammering, Hazel clambered over the cattle gate after Sean, swinging her legs over the metal bar and landing next to their Yamahas in an explosion of dirt.

     Three ranch hands on horseback were bearing down on them fast.

     Fear fought with relief when Hazel realized it was her Uncle Pard leading the charge. Then she saw the fury steaming off him and fear won that battle.

     After reining his horse to face Kenny Clark and Old Pete Hammond who followed, Pard held up his hand and yelled, “I’ll handle this.” As soon as they turned their horses to head back, he rode up to Hazel and Sean where they stood panting and sweating on the other side of the cattle gate.

     Pard Holloway was a big man rendered even larger astride his horse, pointing down at them with a finger that seemed huge. “You will not breathe a word of this. Not. A. Word. Understood?”

     “What’s wrong with your herd?” Hazel asked. Despite her ragged breath, she sounded calmer than she felt. “Why did Kenny shoot that calf?”

     “That’s not your concern, Hazel.” Her uncle started pointing again. “And I will not allow you or anybody else to trespass on my property and interfere with my business. Matter of fact, trespassing is a punishable offense. Go ask your father.” He reached into his back pocket, retrieved a blue bandanna, and flung it to her. “And clean yourself up before you catch something.”

     She let the bandanna flutter to the dirt. Her father always warned her to steer clear of his brother-in-law’s ranch; now here she was: spattered in bits of baby bull, her hand full of splinters, sick to her stomach after witnessing animal murder. When she realized calf blood was trickling down her bare arms, a whimper escaped her.

     She forced herself to swallow hard and stand up straight. “Something?” she echoed her uncle. “If you don’t know what’s wrong, why are you killing them?”

     “All right, listen up!” Pard shouted with such force that Hazel, Sean, and the horse all started. “That calf was sick and we couldn’t chance it spreading to the rest of the herd.” He pushed up his hat to reveal eyes the same greenish-brown as hers, hair the same shade of reddish-blond—as if neither of them were willing to commit to any one particular hue. Then he narrowed his familiar eyes. “And I will not allow news of this to spread, either.”

     Hazel glanced at her blood-spattered arms before grimacing at him. “People will find out.”

     “I’ll be damned if I’ll let that happen. You know why?” He gestured at the sky; the answer so obvious, surely it was written there. “If we lose our reputation, we lose everything. Not just my ranch, but this whole damn town. Right now I’ve got this under control, but you two have to promise me you’ll all keep your mouths shut.”

     “Whatever.” Sean shrugged before he kick-started his motorcycle to life. “We’re outta here.”

     Hazel nibbled at her bottom lip, distraught over the animal remains stuck to the front of her shirt. Looking back at her uncle, she raised her voice to be heard over the bike’s engine: “It’s not safe to eat the beef, is it?”

     “Dammit, Hazel!” Pard threw up one massive arm. “Repeat that and I promise you I’ll dig up that mess between Sean Adair here and Hawkin Rhone.

     Hazel and Sean swapped haunted glances.

     “Going on five years now, I believe,” Pard continued, leaning down toward them with his forearm against Blackjack’s mane. The horse looked smug, Hazel thought, showing them his yellow teeth and breathing hot foul air in their faces.

     Pard added, “That whole sorry business was never actually settled up. Was it?”

     When Hazel looked at Sean again, his mouth moved but nothing came out.

     A burning sensation crept across her scalp, and she caught herself chewing her lip—a habit she had fought hard to break ever since that day at Three Fools Creek when she witnessed Hawkin Rhone bite clear through his own tongue.

     She stomped up to the gate and yanked the horse by the bit. Blackjack’s head snapped back into her uncle’s chest, the animal’s frightened eyes rolling her direction. “You do that,” she yelled, “and I’ll tell everyone in Winslow—everyone down in the whole valley—that your beef is poison!”

     Pard pushed her back a couple of feet with the bottom of his boot against her shoulder. “Don’t force me to tell Zachary Rhone what really happened. Or about how your father lied. Because you know, sheriffs can lose their badges over a helluva lot less.” Pard glanced at Sean before he drew closer to Hazel and whispered in a conspiratorial tone, “Not to mention what might happen to your friend, here. How’s a boyfriend in prison sound?”

     Feeling herself begin to shake, Hazel shoved her hands into the pockets of her shorts and turned her back on her uncle, stupefied that he was threatening them. “Who cares about your cows and your shit-filled ranch anyway,” she said, instantly aware of how weak that had sounded. She climbed on her own motorcycle and kicked and kicked the starter until the engine finally sparked.

     “Good,” Pard shouted while Blackjack reared from the buzz of both engines. “We’ve got a deal. You stay out of my business and I’ll stay out of yours.”

     Instead of heading back the way they had come earlier from Ruby Creek, Hazel and Sean blasted the opposite direction up Loop-Loop Road toward town. After a minute of riding flat out, they were forced down into the ditch in order to get around a white truck parked across the road.

     It wasn’t until they had skidded around the west gate that Hazel stole a glance over her shoulder.

     Her stomach sank.

     From that higher vantage point, she could see that there were more than a mere half dozen. Strewn across the pasture like passengers from a plane crash, at least fifty head of Holloway cattle lay dead.

 

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© 2011 S Elizabeth Voss - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

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