My buddy lives on a ranch about twenty miles outside the closest town. The family has a few crops on property – walled off corn, soybeans, that kind of stuff. But they mainly heard livestock. Allegedly business is good, and has always been good, but recently they ran into a major problem. Two weeks ago they found a cow in the field with its entrails ripped out of it’s stomach. Last week they found three.
Jeff called the police department and filed a report. He went through all the necessary paperwork with his insurance company to report the loss. It might sound heartless to a lot of people, and perhaps rightfully so, but at a certain point farm animals become no more than property in the eyes of government and insurance scumbags alike. The cops decided the loss seemed sufficient enough to stage a makeshift search in the woods around the family home. They sent in two guys with Dunkin’ Donuts cups. One decided it was probably a wolf, and the other insisted coyote, but both seemed convinced of the fact that the animal had moved on. The officers cited a lack of scat and track evidence and went on their merry little way. But Jeff insisted the animal was still out there. So he called me.
Mind you, I am not an animal expert. I don’t know the first thing about cows, or farming, or ranching. I really didn’t see how I could be of any use to anybody, and I told Jeff as much, but he sounded desperate.
“You can fire a gun,” he huffed over the phone. “Can’t you?”
“Barely,” I told him. “It’s been a while.”
“You have eyes,” he continued. “Right?”
“Good enough for me.”
I hesitated. He noticed.
“You probably won’t even have to use it,” he continued hurriedly. “The gun, I mean. I just want to catch this thing in the act. If you help me watch the fields, we’ll catch it, and then you’ll be two hundred bucks richer. Win win.”
I hesitated again. He laughed.
“C’mon man, please,” he begged. “Plenty of beer in it for you too…”
“Should have led with that.”
“Dead cows didn’t do it for you?”
We went back to joking about college and all our old memories. I liked Jeff. I was never the type of guy to keep up with more than a few close friends from college. I always thought my annoying recluse tendencies pissed off the rest. But Jeff and I stayed in touch. My wife was close with his girlfriend. My family was close with his. Part of me felt like I owed it to him to lend a hand. The other part realized I had nothing other than Netflix and junk food planned for the weekend. And so I got in my car and hit the road an hour later. With the window down, radio blaring, and sunset fading… it felt like the right decision.
I grew up a city boy. After college I moved onto a prototypical city boy’s life. I took a job at a big bank and toiled my days away at a keyboard. I went home to a dark apartment building and woke up when it was just getting light. The point is that I rarely took the time to enjoy the awe inspiring ability of nature. The drive to the farm was beautiful. An utter and serene feeling of immeasurable peace drifted out over the lonely country roads. The stars twinkled and vibrated up above. A warm rain came in over the mountain, and I left the windows down, just because it felt welcoming.
I arrived to the farm a little after midnight. A long and winding driveway led to a paint chipped barn and a house further down the way. Jeff stopped me in the road. He looked good, considering the circumstances, with a fresh new beard, overalls, and a thinning waistline. Farm life seemed to agree with him. He held a beer, a rifle, and an awfully uncomfortable looking picnic chair. When my car rolled because he beckoned me to drop the window.
“My dad’s asleep,” he whispered into my window. “I’ve got a twelver set up by the field.”
I nodded and moved to park my obnoxiously red Honda. Jeff laughed at me. I’ll admit it looked out of place. But I don’t really know what he expected me to do about it.
“Behind the barn,” he pointed helpfully. “Don’t want the big bad wolf to see ya.”
I hit the emergency break in a particularly appealing spot of mud and cow shit. When I got out, I stepped in it, and smeared my pants nearly up to the knees. Jeff covered his mouth to keep from howling like an idiot. He gestured over his head and turned tail towards the field. I groaned and followed him miserably up and over the hill, dripping the whole way..
The sky opened up like a snowglobe the moment we hit the top of the hill. I had to stand there and just marvel at it for a bit. Acres and acres of open grassland reached deep into the forest’s edge. A sea of white moved and stirred lazily. It took me to realize that those were the cows. There had to be a dozen of them, sitting on the ground, minding their own business while fat raindrops smacked their unsuspecting heads.
We kept going down the hill until we found a lonely picnic chair, surrounded by cigarette butts, pushed up against an old oak tree. A case of Miller Lite sat at the ready. I set up my chair beside it and helped myself to the beer.
“What do you think did it?” I asked with an even slurp. “Bears don’t eat farm animals, do they?”
Jeff shook his head and pulled up his chair. He pulled out the smokes. One of the bigger female cows snored loudly. We both got a kick out of that.
“Nope,” he murmured. “Wasn’t a bear.”
I nodded while he blew a cloud of heavenly nicotine my way.
“A wolf then?” I asked. “Has to be, I guess, not that I would fuckin’ know.”
“Could be a wolf.”
“No,” he muttered. “Too small.”
“What did you do with the bodies?”
He looked at me for a minute. I could tell he was judging my capability. I didn’t want to fail the test. Call that a stupid masculine thing.
“I used the bodies for chum.”
I stared blankly back. Jeff laughed.
“To attract the thing,” he said through pursed lip and a cigarette. “You know… like bait?”
“Turn around,” he smiled. “By the barn.”
I turned and soon after fought the urge to vomit. Pushed up against the barn were three gallows like structures. Three rapidly decaying cows hung from long meat hooks. All of the animals eyes were open. Decay, rot, and insects ate away at what remained of them. Bits of bones and guts stuck out from underneath ripped black and white covering. I felt my gag reflex, and I had to turn back, just to keep from vomiting at the sight.
“Jesus, man,” I groaned. “Why?”
“Sorry about that,” Jeff chuckled. “The smell will lure the animal.”
I swallowed the bile in my mouth. Maybe that made sense in some farmer linguistic I didn’t understand. Maybe dead cows made great wolf bait. I salvaged the remainder of my dignity by grabbing another beer from the cooler, plopping back in my chair, and changing the subject.
“So how’s Claudia?”
Jeff’s eyebrows arched. He shifted in his chair awkwardly and pulled out another cigarette. It seemed like I hit a nerve.
“You didn’t hear?” he mumbled. “Split up.”
“No… that’s awful.”
I nodded. I should have known the breakup, I thought, it was probably plastered all over Facebook. I should have been a better friend. I should have reached out and checked in. But I never did.
“Do you remember Senior year?” Jeff asked. “Right before we graduated. You and Claudia went out on a date, right?”
“Barely a date,” I laughed. “She needed someone to talk to. You guys had just broken up for the hundredth time. I was telling her to take you back.”
He nodded and lit another cigarette.
“I always appreciated you doing that,” he muttered. “A true friend.”
“And I appreciate you being here now.”
“Not many people would come out here in the middle of the night like this,” he added. “And you’re really saving my ass.”
“The free beer helped.”
Jeff laughed. I nodded, uncomfortably, unsure of where he was going with this.
“I gotta show you something,” he murmured. “About the wolf.”
He got up and spit out the cigarette. Then he tossed his empty beer into the field. Tendrils of smoke and dribble dripped down his dark beard. He looked worried about something.
I stood and followed Jeff to the barn. The cows mooed their goodbyes just as a fresh wave of rain opened up over the valley. The barn had one of those old fashioned padlocks with a single key entry. Jeff dug into his pockets for a moment trying to find it. I took my time taking in the night.
“When you and Claudia went on that date,” Jeff muttered, still looking for his keys. “Did you fuck her?”
I stared at him blankly. Jeff was one of my closest friends. The fact that he had to even ask me that question made me feel ashamed. And the worst part of all was that he wouldn’t look at me. My only close friend in the world… and he wouldn’t even look at me.
“Are you sure?”
“What the fuck, man, of course I’m sure…”
“She’s been texting a Matt,” he murmured. “I saw her phone.”
“The world’s full of Matt’s,” I snapped. “Wasn’t me.”
“Okay, okay, I’m sorry,” he laughed back with his hands up. “Had to ask.”
Jeff nodded and fumbled a bit more with the keys. Finally he found the one he was looking for and pushed it into the lock. The old barn door creaked unevenly. I stepped through it and into the darkness. Jeff called out behind me.
“Hey,” he shouted. “Do you know the best part about sheep?”
I looked up into the barn to find three human beings hung up on meat hooks. Their stomachs were gored and gutted. Their entrails dripped down like sausage links. All of them were dead, at least I prayed they were dead, because no person should be left alive that way. Their eyes were rotted in the same way as the animals out front. Their skin sagged like old rotting leather left out in the sun.
I wanted to scream. I wanted to fight. But something heavy smacked against my head. And I don’t remember much else after that.
I woke up to the flashing lights of an ambulance. The story came to me in bits and pieces. Some of it is still foggy. I was lucky. I know that much.
A neighbor reported a suspicious red Honda entering the farm around midnight. With the recent animal deaths, and police visits, my car seemed more than a little suspicious. That neighbor also called Jeff’s father three times that day. They had lunch plans a week ago and the old man never showed.
Those lunch plans might have saved my life.
The cops arrived to find me with a meat hook in the fatty part of my thigh. They found Jeff with a bullet in his brain stem. The three victims in the rafters were his father, his wife, and an unidentified male. The detectives think he used the cows as an excuse to lure all of them into the barn. The final victim, Claudia, mercifully passed away shortly before I arrived.
That could have been me.
That should have been me.
Do you know the best thing about sheep?
They’re oh so easy to lead.