The Herd

Tim Donlan
June 16, 2004

The Herd

The herd moved with a lazy gait down the boulder-strewn hillside, but I had a tough time keeping up. I was leaning back in the saddle, neck craned behind me at an orange sun sinking beneath sharp peaks. We were headed south towards route 70, and I could barely make out the massive highway snaking into the hills.

“Uncle John, when are we gonna eat?” Caleb was stiff in the saddle as his brown gelding skittered down an outcropping.

“Lean back in the saddle son. Put your weight on the stirrups.” I could see his legs strain in loose jeans, but he was tired. Shaggy sandy hair covered his dark eyes, sweat streaking through dust trails on his brow. “It’s not even seven. We’ll get down this ridge and round up the stock.”

My nephew didn’t complain, that was commendable. My sister had married a rich man, and it was my fear Caleb would become a spoiled and weak city dweller like his father.

Denver had grown in the past decade, mainly from the bioharvest stock ranches. Real estate was dirt cheap, the skyline as beautiful as the scenery, and labor was easy to come by. Sure, I’d been ranching all my life, but the payoff had never been this good.

We rounded a cluster of alpine spruce and the trail took a sharp decent. I could barely make out the dull roar of a brook a few hundred feet down the mountain.

With a final glace behind me, Mt. Hayden sliced into the reddening sun, splintering gleaming rays out like a golden prism. But the spruce and pines sucked in the illumination and the rocky trail was shrouded in dusty shadow.

My black mustang Paolo grunted as Caleb rode up beside me. “John, I’ve been doing some thinking.”

I didn’t say anything, just raised my head a notch in his direction.

“Beef prices are probably gonna drop soon. I’ve been checking reports. I think we should sell soon as we get down to the ranch complex.”

I grinned. “Yea, well that don’t mean nothin, considering these cattle ain’t for eating.”

“Yea? What then, bioharvest stuff?”

I shook my head. “Can’t be certain, they keep us in the dark on these things.”

As if to emphasize my point, a muddy brown steer let out a low moan up ahead. The horses would get tired before the cattle, given their reinforced joints and metabolism.

“But its two, three times beef stock prices. Why I switched over, myself. Don’t you worry Caleb, I know you’re hungry. Pasture’s bout an hour ride on down, and its got an electric corral. We hit the switch and you can plop your butt right down ‘side the fire and we’ll get down to grubbin.”

The boy didn’t acknowledge me. He was idly thumbing buttons on a small plastic device. The viewscreen flickered with numbers and words. I would have thought the signal was too weak up here in the hills, but who knows what they can do now. Hell, the cattle have remote sensor ids laced into their thick skulls.

A cry from up ahead lifted me out of my hazy musings. “John!” It was gruff Scrugg, resident old man cowboy of our little company. “Come take a look at this.”

We had moved out of the denser alpines into a wide stretch of grassy decline. The cattle moved along at their own lazy pace, trampling the plant life into a muddy stain. I pressed my heels into Paolo’s ribs, grabbing my hat and turning behind me. “You stick back here son, gonna go check out what old Scrugg wants.”

Paolo kicked up a good amount of dust as we weaved between the herd, splitting them down their ranks. The afternoon was dwindling away and the sun was fully behind the ridge. It would be dark by the time we reached the pasture.

Old Scrugg was off his horse, perpetual grimace on his bearded face. He still wore old style rancher dress, leather boots and denim jeans tighter than hell. The brim of his wide hat draped his blue eyes in shadow. His Colt gleamed dully in the evening air.

“Gunn, I think we got problems with a few of the stock.” He pointed a crooked finger at the herd rambling by. Most of the cows shambled along, heads low and eyes half closed. But I caught his glance at a thick-necked black steer. Its pupils were dilated, eyelids pried open wide. Its legs looked scrawny compared to its bloated gut.

“I’ll pull it over, check it out.” I unlatched my rope from Paolo’s saddle, feeling the fibers course through my calloused palms. With a nudge of my heel, Paolo jumped into a gap in the marching animals, cutting off the sick cow. A deft flick of my wrist and a few hard pulls later, the steer was behind us, in tow.

The old man leaned in close to the beast, hands on his knees. “Look at his eyes, redder than the devil. Legs shakin, nose twitchin.”

“Alright,” I said, flashing my wrist scanner between the horn stubs, reading the sensor tag. “Animal 2378, three years, seven months old, male.” I starred into its troubled face, the bloodshot eyes.

“I don’t think it could be mad cow, was eliminated before these cows were bred. I should probably check the toxicity readout.” I began to reach for the blood sampler in my saddlebag.

“Bah, Gunn, don’t you think I know when I see a sick animal! Don’t need no funny gadgets to tell you that.”

The herd continued to clomp by us as I sampled the cow, letting the vacuum tube needle suck in the dark red arterial blood. With a pop, the container closed off and the gyros went to work, separating the cells and particles through two-dozen filters and sensors.

Toxicity: 0 of 19,358 fatal, 3 trace molecular structures identified.
Metabolism: 129% average Colorado Brown.

“Well looks ok to me,” I grunted, browsing through the trace elements. “Few air pollutants it looks like. Workin hard though, feverish. We’ll be down in the pasture in an hour, should be fine.”

I switched off the device and remounted Paolo. The unfettered steer began to move back into the rest of the herd. Scrugg gave me a long look, then climbed up his Paint. “It’s dying, Gunn, I can see that. Wont last another day.”

I shrugged. Caleb was riding into view, his mouth still set in that gritty frown.

“What was it Uncle John?”

“Ah, nothing, just a tired steer.” Scrugg said nothing.

The sun had disappeared when we rode into the wide open pasture, the cattle grazing and spread before us.

The pasture was twenty acres of tall grasses, wildflowers and low brush, tucked into the elbow of two mighty ridges. Roiling streams and tributaries from up the mountain converged on a deep brook, which formed a natural barrier for the southern end. The other sides contained a half dozen nodes, all hooked into a wireless grid. All I had to do was switch on the transmitter in my saddlebag and the whole perimeter was electrified, at least to the cattle with sensor tags in their skulls.

We moved slowly through the herd, watching the lazy beasts turn aside as we rode into sight. Our path followed the gentle slope down to the campsite in the middle of the pasture. The surprise came when we skirted a small muddy ditch. A cow lay face down in the muck.

“Damn, Scrugg, we lost one.”

“Aye,” the old man acknowledged as he dismounted.

Caleb was leaning over the ditch, staring at the dead steer.

“John, isn’t that the same cow you guys looked at up the trail?”

I held my wrist scanner near the water. Animal 2378. “I’ll be damned. Good eye Caleb.”

“What did I tell you, Gunn!” Scrugg poked a bony finger into my chest.

“What are we gonna do with it, just leave it here?” Caleb asked, prodding the limp tail with his boot.

“Not much we can do,” I said. “Just leave it here for the wolves to eat I guess. Still hungry Caleb? I can heat up some rations.”

Scrugg grimaced. “That damn astronaut food. What do you boys see right here? I see three grilled steaks!” The cowboy slipped his bone handled knife out of his belt case, bending over towards the cow’s flank.

“Wait, do we really wanna go eating that?” Caleb asked. “You guys thought it was pretty sick back there.”

“Well, my blood scanner didn’t show anything toxic. I must have just had a bad heart or something. It can happen, even with all the gene optimizations and tissue buildups.”

“Stop your jibberjabber and help me,” Scrugg barked, pulling back the hind leg to expose the juiciest cuts of meat. His blade sliced deep into the flesh, dark gooey blood seeping out. With a half dozen cuts, the old cowboy yanked out a massive hunk of dripping meat, bone jutting out the backside.

“Caleb, go cut us some strong branches we can use as spits, I’ll get started on the fire,” I said, eyeing Scrugg and his wilderness butchering.

“I’ll be right over, once I cut and drain these some. Thirty minutes you’ll be chowin down on some fine steaks.”

I moved off towards the campsite, Paolo in tow. Not much firewood around, but enough for a small cooking flame. With a final glance behind me, and then up to the steep peaks surrounding us, I began to set up camp.

Caleb boredly dug a loose stick into the fire, stirring up glowing embers. Three spits weighted down with sizzling meat leaned into the fire like fishing rods.

“So Mr. Scrugg, my Dad says that these cattle ranches are a thing of the past and wont be around in a few years. What’re you guys gonna do then?”

Scrugg chuckled. “Hah, boy, you think we’re so easily replaced? What’ll you eat, meat grown in test tubes?”

My nephew shrugged. “I don’t see why not. Seems weird but its what they do for everything else.”

“Actually they tried it for a couple years down in Texas,” I broke in. “Big ol’ vats full of organic soup, machines spinning it into muscle fiber. Companies figured you could eat it, turn it into leather…Hell, even grow medicine and drugs.”

“Texas…” grumbled Scrugg.

“What happened?” Caleb looked up curiously.

“Well, it didn’t turn out that well. The meat was tough and bland, the leather ugly. Drugs were so diluted it wasn’t worth the venture. Of course the Accident ended the operation in ’22 before they could work on redesign.”

Caleb shook his head. “It just seems to me it would be so much easier to do it that way, I’m sure the process could be improved…”

“Son, I wouldn’t’ think much of you if you were grown in a jar,” Scrugg grumbled. “I reckon you wouldn’t taste too good neither.”

Caleb laughed and I grinned.

“The nanodust isn’t so strong up here in the mountains. A good climb puts more meat on the bones then any factory program. Cattle smell, and take up a lot of space. Better to put em up here in the hills then in the cities.”

The meat sizzled on the spits, fresh blood and juice bubbling off into the embers below. Scrugg pulled his bone-handled knife off his belt. He lifted his stick off the fire, cutting off a hefty chunk.

Scrugg licked his lips. “Tasty. Eat up boys.”

Caleb gave me a questioning look, then reached for his steak.

“Ever had fresh beef before, son? Nothing better than eating what you’ve made with your own two hands,” the old cowboy commented, reaching for his flask.

Steak juice dribbled down my chin as I chomped down the delicious bites. A cool autumn breeze was rising off the brook. The flames and embers glowed and radiated a pleasant heat.

The sounds of the night began to appear, haunting moans and screeches of owls, hawks, wolves, cattle. The horses whinnied and stamped a ways off. Past the edge of the brook, between a high ridge and a line of rocky peaks, the lights of Denver glowed.

Old Scrugg finished chewing and pulled out his smudged harmonica. “I tell ya, this things been around.” He slowly exhaled through the piece, letting a breathy tune slowly escape. Solemn and lonesome, it seemed strangely appropriate to match the faint mooing of cattle.

The cowboy set down his musical mouthpiece to momentarily exchange it with another, his flask. A quick swig and a grimace, then he offered it to Caleb. “Washes down the meat real well.”

“He’s got water, Scrugg. You know he’s not old enough…”

Caleb was already gulping down the whisky. He pulled the bottle away, grimacing then smiling.

“Well…” I sighed, taking a swig myself. “When you’re up here with us cowboys.”

Scrugg began to play “Home on the Range”, faintly at first, cradling the harmonica with his free hand.

The lights of the city and the stars seemed to mesh into one, a great maelstrom of illumination. I remembered a forgotten stanza for Scrugg’s melody, and whispered it into the night.

“How often at night when the heavens are bright
With the light from the glittering stars
Have I stood there amazed and asked as I gazed
If their glory exceeds that of ours”

We all went silent as Scrugg held the last note, letting it slip away with the breeze. I tossed a few branches into the fire and it roiled with renewed intensity.

“Scrugg, you always been a rancher?” Caleb broke in.

“Hell no,” the old cowboy exclaimed, harmonica falling to his lap. He paused and smiled reflectively for a minute. “I was what you might call a professional adventurer … a military contractor.”

“He’s seen some crazy shit,” I said between bites of meat. “The rest of the world ain’t as simple and quiet as Denver, Colorado.”

“You ain’t kiddin,” Scrugg agreed. A quick swig from the flask and he coughed. “Back in oh five, I was just gettin started out. Got sent to west Africa to deal with the AIDS mutation. We lost half our crew and I had to get two blood transfusions.

“That damn dark continent is still recovering from our mess. Leave it to us yanks to cause the mother of all fuckups.”

“You mean the nanopolution?” Caleb asked, fingers tearing into the greasy meat. “I read about that last year in history class.”

“Let me tell you boy, books don’t tell the half of it. It wasn’t just about the bodies or the numbers of dead. It wasn’t about honest mistakes, I could accept those with a dose of humility. Straight up incompetence and deliberate dabbling in God’s work – those were the cause of that disaster. Same with Texas.

“Sure we had a few good boys, scientists and engineers you understand. Guys who were in it because of a passion. But not the corporations, hell no. They saw only dollar signs in the cure, and let go a prototype months too soon. Said they’d save hundreds of lives,” he shook his head, another swig of dark whiskey down his throat. “Course they were wrong. Nano’r like virus’s, cept they dont need bodies and cells to multiply. Just need the water and the earth and the wind, then they’re everywhere, no stoppin em.”

I curled my knees into my chest, watching the old cowboy talk. His gray stubble looked blond in the bonfire glow, and every so often, his hidden eyes would reflect the dancing embers.

“My advice to you, son, and you too John. Never go against God’s world. Work with it. Understand it, of course. But never fight it. Learn from it and live in it. Enjoy what’s here, but don’t destroy.”

We starred into the fire, our bellies full, lips still tingling with the taste of grilled steak. The cattle murmured in the field as they grazed, bouncing dim starlight out of their eyes. The brook shimmered on the edge of the horizon.

Denver was an explosion of light. Its shock wave was a cone of luminosity into the heavens, screaming to the moon and stars. The constellations were solemn elders, faint pinpricks watched the new victors of the night sky: planes, satellites, rockets.

Like the dancing ghost of an Indian, the fire pulsed. In the heat I could see faces, mouth of smoldering brand, eyes of emblazoned ember. I could see them laugh. Underneath the world massive giants moved. Fires were their windows to peer out of the ground. These were their faces, staring into me, questioning, accusing.

I breathed as I looked up, glimpsing Caleb. Lost inside his mind, eyes glazed over with fire. His mouth twisted into a smile of recognition.

Scrugg was holding himself, balled up like he was cold. His hat was pulled low, his eyes hidden. But there was subtle flash of moisture on his cheek, single tears. Pulled inside on this chilly September night.

The fire’s warmth spread over my arms and face with an embrace. Like the breath of a woman on my cheeks. Beckoning, the giant faces, stuck under the earth. Enveloping me in their grip, soft as girl’s caress.

The wonderful, beautiful girl, the curve of her hips and breasts, lulling, dancing, pulsing. An angelic face shrouded in straight black silk strands. A royal gown of raven hair, flowing to the floor. Moving, covering her face and chest. Then flowing away and beaming glowing warm light.

It was a splendor inside my head, shimmering, like breaking the surface of a smooth pond.

And the faces appeared again, laughing with their demon eyes. The giants from the underworld. Hideous and alluring, twisting lust into fear and anger. Intoxicated.

Goddammit I was drunk on something. I was tripping down a vermin hole, and damn if I wasn’t poisoned.

I stood up. Maybe I could walk it off.

“Scrugg, that’s whisky right?” I asked, pointing to his flask.

He looked up slowly, eyes wide. “Kentucky sour mash, none of that synthetic trash.” His voice was still gruff but there was a hint of confusion and uncertainty. “And if you’re wonderin, yes I do feel funny.”

“Listen, I’m gonna walk down to the brook, stretch my legs, take a look around.” I moved away from the familiar sphere of firelight, into the long shadows.

The cattle had stopped moving in the darkness, huddled in pods, as though they were deep in conversation. The moon peered from behind blue clouds, revealing a surreal landscape before me. The surrounding peaks stretched vertically into the sky, giants of the earth. Crags and crevices pulsated and slide down the rock face, moving like eyes and horrible fang filled maws. Faces in the stone.

The light of the city twisted into a sickly green aura near the edges, like scum in a stagnant pond. It was a greasy smear along the lines of clouds on the horizon, melting the heavens with acidic splashes. The atom bomb center of the city hub ate into my eyeballs, and for long seconds I could not look away. Between those grinning, laughing peaks, the shining behemoth of Denver digested itself, a glutton for movement, excess and light.

Who were these beings? Were they manifests of the spirits of the past, finally arising from the depths to possess our modern day world? I was out of my mind, spinning, and I knew it was from that damn meat.

Nothing to do but suck it up and go with it.

I stumbled past a patch of blue wildflowers jingling in the breeze, looking hard at the bodies of huddled cattle ahead of me. Two of them were still as statues, but a third was shivering. I moved closer, hunched over and staring.

The steer slowly turned to me in anguish; eyes dilated an inch across, red veins boiling inside. It breathed heavily, barely standing straight. Sick like the other one.

What the hell was going on? Some new disease the blood scanner could not diagnose? Undetected genetic defects in this batch of stock? Damn! If the herd went down I wouldn’t get paid, it was much too far to truck or copter out the bodies from up here.

I stared into the boiling cauldron that was the city. What if these symptoms were the onset of whatever was afflicting the cows? What if Scrugg, Caleb and me were fatally poisoned? No one would know up here till the investors came looking. Or worse, Caleb’s father…

“Pretty sight, isn’t it,” Caleb said, right behind me.

I clenched my jaw. “You startled me, son.” I peered back at the green glowing ball between the ridges. “It is pretty, but you want to know something?” I took a deep breath then exhaled, crossing my arms. “There’s something weird about it, something menacing.”

Caleb cocked his head. “This field is what scares me. The city seems comforting to me. Up here we’re all alone in the dark. And who knows what’s out there? Wolves? Bears? Dying livestock…”

I bit my lip. “About that…I’m not sure what’s going on, but it isn’t good. Scrugg say anything?”

Caleb shook his head. “He’s been quiet, muttering to himself. Uncle John, I don’t know how to tell you this, but I feel weird, like drugs. It was from the meat, wasn’t it. I’m worried. That cow died for a reason.”

I nodded. My head swam and vision blurred. It took all my concentration to keep from stumbling over. My mind was pulsing delirium as I looked out across our pasture. Brown blobs heaved in the near darkness, faintly illuminated by the moon and stars and that damned green glow.

Caleb was staring into my face, his young eyes watering and wide. He swallowed hard and licked his lips. “Uncle…”

I said nothing as a mass of brown twisted and fell like a heavy sand-filled sack. Faintly, like a firefly, I could see the gleam of the dead cow’s eye. Then the dust and the night took the sight away from me.

“Uncle John, where are the horses?” my nephew whispered.

A cool wind began to skim across the surface of the brook, whistling the reeds and brush of the pasture.

It was though my mind was stuck in a loop, watching the haze of the field stretching eternally on, shadowed in the nightmarish green overglow. I could see the mass of the herd, lounging like dumb beasts. They were drugged, death-sentence doomed. Just like me.

Out here in the field breathing in the night air, the mountain air. The polluted air. Caleb breathed deeply, then ran his fingers through his blond shag. “I didn’t know if I should tell you John.” He was fidgety. “My dad told me the other night he had big plans. For the bioharvest stock.”

I glanced over at the kid. His eyes were glaring in the dim light, the damn drugs fizzling his brain. “Said it would be big, really turn around the entertainment…industry. Something about FDA finally approving it. I asked him what he was talking about, cause he was drinking you know. He grabbed me by my shoulders, looked right in my face. That big stupid grin of his.” Caleb shook his head, closing his eyes. “He said I was in good hands. Good hands.”

Hands in his pockets, head down, the boy rocked back and forth on his heels. “I guess he meant you,” he muttered.

Damm the boy, I thought. Damn him and his father and their technological schemes. “Well he went and poisoned us. You see the herd?” I said, raising a weary arm towards the field and the blowing dust. “Its all goin down, son. All these animals are gonna die.”

“And us?” He was looking straight at me, and I could see the green glow swirling in his black eyes. “I miss the city. I miss my Dad.”

I didn’t say nothing. I didn’t even notice when Caleb slipped away into the darkness. My eyes were fixed on the idol on the horizon, the jewel of the Colorado Rockies. Denver. All around me the herd moaned, trapped in their downward spiraling nightmares. The hallucinogenic poison was too much for their docile herbivore mind. Nostrils flared and eyes wide, their bloated bellies shuddered to the ground. Their flailing hooves kicked up grime and dust. I watched as it drifted away like a ghost in the night.

My muscles tensed and joints burning, I managed to shamble back to the firepit. It was like my entire body was sustaining a perpetual explosion, centered in my heart, flowing out from my mind. Scrugg grunted as I took a seat.

There were no words to say, but I said them anyway. “How you feelin, old man?”

He caught me with a wild stare, a single eye boring deep. “This is the beginning of the end, ya know? It’s how its gonna be, the end of all this.”

“Cattle’r dyin,” I said. To emphasize my words a brown steer pawed the dirt and died. “Wolves’ll probably show up fore long.”

“Let em come,” Scrugg coughed, letting out a small chuckle. “I’ll be glad to watch em tear into this damn sick old herd.”

A wave of dizziness began to wash over me, drowning me in a thick syrup of disorientation and madness. “Where’s Caleb?” I managed to croak.

“That numbskull nephew of yours? Couldn’t say. I did see him ride off south few minutes ago.”

“What?” I leered. “He can’t be off in the dark alone.” I staggered to my feet, breathing hard. My face was a mask of red desperation. “I promised his father…”

Scrugg shook his head. “Let him go, Gunn. Let him go.”

The fire crackled and shifted, sinking down into itself. The faces in the flame were gone. We sat, two silent figures sneering in the dark. Was there nothing we could do? Would we watch the herd die, pounding into the dark earth in horror? Would we fall deeper into oblivion until only the glaring green aura was our final hideous vision? The city. It pulsed into my skull like the demon giants of the fire.

“I failed Scrugg. I wanted to come up here, do my thing, and just be comfortable. Nothing fancy, I’m an honest man. Spend my days on horseback, riding into the sunset like those old movies, ya know.” I spit into the embers, watching it bubble into nothing. “But I’m no hero.”

“There ain’t room for heroes no more, not with all the gadgets they got now. A man can’t think for himself, he’s got to have a screen and two-dozen fancy buttons to think for him.

“I remember a time when I could rely on myself to survive. Didn’t have to worry about poisoned meat or dirty air. I tell you, it’ll be the ruin of all of us. Another disaster and there wont be nothing left, mark my words.

“And I’ll be glad to go. Wouldn’t want to live in a world full of those damn nano things, cloggin up the air and water. But I ain’t given in yet, don’t get yer hopes up!” The old cowboy smirked and stood up, quicker than I expected.

“Come on, Gunn, let’s get away from this place.” His sneering eyes glanced towards the horizon between the peaks, and the civilization it entailed.

The haunted meadow still pulsed with the dark aura when we rode off. And just as we trotted out of sight, I could see black chaos spread through the herd as the wolves rushed in. It wasn’t until we were a quarter mile up the trail when I heard the first howl, a triumphant call to the nightmare below.

“Death comes for us all,” Scrugg muttered as we moved through a hemlock stand in the moonlight.

“Might as well go down fighting,” I replied, grinning and pushing Paolo harder. The glow of Denver had finally faded into the darkness of the past, and it was at that moment I think I regained my mind.

Silence followed us in the night, quiet like a tomb. But I couldn’t feel more alive as we crossed into the upper ranges of the Rocky Mountains, the lower dominions of heaven.

We’ll look to the hills, twisting paths between the evergreens, boiling over with roots and rich earth. We’ll look to the Rocky Mountains, dense with dark conifers in the night of winter, the spruce and the pine drooping in heavy snowfall.

We’ll turn to the wild iris fields, stretching vast across wide valleys, nestled between gentle rolling hills and grinning jagged toothed peaks. In the morning, the mist will be a buzz on the ground, the world waking up. The sun will catch up to the light; flex its beaming intensity onto the pure blue skies. And we’ll forget the distant crisis under these ancient roiling clouds.

We’ll stalk through the tall grass, knives unsheathed and ready for the kill. Like the wild wolves we’ll become, predators from a diverted destiny. The green explosion of the city was our path, bleeding from integration and speed. No longer.

Scrugg and I turned away, to the hills and into the feral wild. Let the carcasses of the bioharvest steer rot below us, freedom comes to those who escape.

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