by Scott T. Barnes
Bugs Alford stood in Milkshake’s stirrups and squinted at a shadow in the tall grass of field four. From atop his mare Bugs could see the morning sun reflecting from the snow on Crater Lake volcano twenty miles to the north, but the web of dikes, waist-high grass, and cracks in the peat soil made spotting a missing animal in the flats of Oregon’s Fort Klamath valley nearly impossible.
He might have ridden by her any number of times already. She might have gotten caught in quicksand and all he’d find is a smelly bubble gurgling through the mud.
Not a shadow, a black angus cow.
“Ho! Found her!” Bugs called to the other searchers.
Lucky she had fallen close to Seven Mile Canal where the road ran. They could take her to help if there was still time. And she’d need it—her head lay against the ground like she hadn’t energy to hold it up. She wasn’t sick last time he’d checked, which meant that something had gotten to her recently. Something…
Flies. Hundreds of them. Not so unusual in this bog country, but these rode her flanks rather than the small of the back where the tail couldn’t swat them.
Dead? No. He could hear a raspy pant. And the only stench of rot came from the tule reeds across the canal at the wildfowl refuge. Bugs slowed up until the rotund veterinarian Doctor Stewart, owner Steve Tuttle and cowhand Louise Hanford caught up on horseback. Following behind on the pumice-covered road a Ford Explorer raised a storm of white dust. Little Mai, Steve’s Vietnamese fiancé, couldn’t ride a horse to save her life. She drove or she walked.
Bugs fist tightened on the reins. Lousy luck, Steve’s first day as patron since his old man died and they had to put everything on hold to search for a missing cow. Six cowboys and the vet twiddling their thumbs, and a dead cow cost upwards of $1,200. Hard money in tough times. Enough to make a new owner run back to the city to work for someone else.
Probably the taxpayers.
Bugs pulled his .22 Remington rifle from the saddle holster, feeling the smoothness of the stock, the rough patch where he’d carved his initials when he was sixteen. It took more than a coyote—even a pack of coyotes—to bring down a half-ton cow.
They dismounted. Mai pulled up and joined them, her wide eyes darting like a nervous animal’s. Her flat, elongated nose added to her exotic appearance. Bugs understood Steve’s attraction, though he never would partner with a gal whose heart beat on pavement.
The cow didn’t flinch as Bugs knelt and shooed the flies away. Five precise cuts lined her flank, foreleg to haunch, as if a claw had raked her. Throat tightening, Bugs spread one of the cuts, a watermelon gash with the white of ribs showing at the bottom.
It’s happening again.
Steve staggered away and vomited.
“What, what is it?” Mai asked, trying to see around the men.
The wood and steel of Bugs’ rifle felt alive. The trigger, he knew, would yield with a pressure just so. Six years ago cows had started to go missing. And on that day the air had felt crisp like this morning, filled with electricity like the world was about to explode.
After mutilating fourteen animals in so many days, the Modoc Beast had murdered his pa and disappeared. Until now.
The reeds in the Wildfowl Refuge twitched. A flock of geese rose into the air. He stood and brought the .22 to his shoulder, sighting along the bead to the base of the reeds. His vision focused to narrow points.
Nothing. Too easy to hide. It could be sitting there laughing and he wouldn’t see it. But he’d come back with his hound and flush the thing out.
You took Pa, but I’ll make sure you never kill again.
Doctor Stewart was speaking into a palm recorder. “Subcutaneous lacerations, just touching the muscle. Hardly nicked the bone. Not deep enough to kill, only deep enough to bleed. There is no blood in the grass except right beneath the animal; my guess is that she was wounded on the spot and didn’t wander. Whatever tool was used was sharp as a razor.”
Steve looked better than Bugs would have expected. Enough to break an old cowboy, seeing an animal torn up like this, let alone city folk. Mai clung to his hand, a vein in her wrist pulsing.
“When did it happen?” Steve’s voice cracked a little.
“Late last night. I’m not a forensics guy.” Doctor Stewart tugged on the cow’s ear and the tongue protruded. “But she’s not dead yet.”
Bugs stalked back to the animal. “I’m sorry, mama.” He lifted his Remington and killed her with a bullet to the temple.
The balding vet shook his head. “We’ve got to call the sheriff. An animal didn’t do this.”
Bugs mounted Milkshake. The mare twitched against his thighs.
“What do you mean?” Steve asked. “What killed her?”
“Not what,” said Doctor Stewart, “but who. Animals don’t cut so precisely not to kill. This is just like…just like someone wanted her to suffer.”
Just like six years ago.
Mai reached for her phone but Bugs waived her off. “Cell phones don’t work out here. I’ll call the sheriff from the corral on the land line. You can stay or go back to the corrals. It’ll take an hour before he gets here.”
Doc Stewart and Louise stared a hole in his back as he trotted along the dusty, pumice covered lane. There was a big ‘4’ painted on a sign on the canal side indicating the field number. The Klamath Oregon Wildfowl Refuge, a morass of tules and bog, bordered the canal along this entire side.
Bugs fretted about the sheriff. He’d ask awkward questions.
Your brother still in prison? He gets out tonight.
Tonight? Quite a coincidence. Yeah, but Spike didn’t do it the first time, and he couldn’t have this time. The Beast did it.
Where were you last night? Sleeping. Alone.
No witnesses? None.
Six years ago they had blamed his brother. But it’d be different with Spike in prison. They’d blame Bugs.
He kicked Milkshake into a trot and covered the three miles back to the ranch house before the sun cleared the evergreens of the valley rim. Pickups and horse trailers littered the parking lot, four wheelers jammed between them. A green canoe rested on the canal bank, probably Mai’s idea of a suitable mount.
He told the cowboys to run the corral sprinklers to keep the dust down. He tied Milkshake to a pole inside the barn and called the sheriff. Then he retrieved Wild Bill Hickok. The honey-and-white basset hound squirmed gleefully as Bugs set him on the back of the four-wheeler. Good old Hickok, always faithful. Always willing. He held his straw hat on with one hand and gunned it with the other, back to the crime scene.
“He looks so ancient!” Mai patted Hickok’s salt and pepper nose and got a licking.
“Hickok’s got the finest nose in the Klamath Valley.”
“Really, at his age?”
The old hound ran circles around the carcass, then took off across the road and plunged into the canal. Bugs and the others rushed to the edge. Hickok swam in a great circle, mouth open in glee. Then he dragged his sopping self back up the bank and shook dry, drenching Bugs. His white-tipped tail wagged.
“I think he’s gorgeous.” Mai laughed with the others.
Bugs wiped the slime from his face, trying not to get angry. Maybe Hickok was getting too old.
* * *
Old Dick leaned over the wooden rail of the chute and zapped the cow with his hotshot while Steve rattled a plastic bag tied on the end of a stick. They hollered and rattled, rattled and zapped until the Angus’ eyes got wild. The black cow bucked, sending manure flying like sticky bees. Another zap and she backed up into the head of the cow behind, panicked, and charged towards the only opening: the squeeze. When the head flashed past, Bugs slammed the metal jaws on her neck, squeezed the iron walls over her body and swung the back door shut so no other cow could charge forward and kill Doctor Stewart, who had already shoved his arm in the yearling’s anus to the shoulder in order to feel her fetus without contaminating the vagina.
Bugs kept his hands overhead on the hydraulic levers in case something needed moving now. Next to him fluttered the schedule of which fields to gather which day.
Three hundred animals to go and the noonday sun had come and gone. It’d be dark before he could set up for Beast watch. Bugs ground his teeth and resisted the urge to yell at the others to go faster. Fast meant mistakes, and mistakes took time to undo.
“Pink eye!” Dick shouted, hobbling along the catwalk.
Bugs cursed. He hadn’t even noticed.
The yearling had a wound across her left eye which grew in from the outside like the Devil’s anus. Blood pooled over the cornea and dribbled to the ground.
“Open!” Doc Steward painted a white O on her back. Not pregnant.
Louise pushed her gun between the squeeze’s bars to stick the cow with five ccs of Eight Way. She wore a tee-shirt, jeans and manure-encrusted tennis shoes, and her curves looked fine.
Mai worked the other side. She wore skinny jeans, cowboy boots and a white tee-shirt that said Hanky Panky in pink. Her griddle cake stomach showed when she stretched up her arms.
“So Bugs. Why did the sheriff want to talk with you?” Steve’s attempt to sound casual fell flat.
Bugs grabbed the shears, clipped off the fly tag and wrote down the yearling’s ID.
“Because Bugsy has a history,” Dick said.
“Dick, don’t let your whale mouth overpower your hummingbird ass.” Louise’s twenty-something voice made the ancient expression hilarious. Her auburn hair muffined from under a 49ers ball cap.
“Well, he has a right to know. Steve’s the owner here. Besides, I’ve known Bugsy since he was a gleam in his father’s eye. I can talk about him, right Bugsy?”
Bugs wrapped his meaty arm around the cow’s neck and twisted it to the side. “Sure thing, Dickie.”
“What do you mean a history?” Steve asked.
“A few years back in Chiloquin—that’s a town, not a chewing gum—a bunch of cows were butchered up the same way as that one last night. The Indians said it was the Modoc Beast, some Indian legend.” Dick chuckled. “Maybe the buffalo god taking revenge on whitey’s cows.”
“Dickie!” Louise said. “Bugs has shaman blood in him.”
Dick caught Bugs’ eyes and winked. Dick, too, was half Modoc.
Mai arched her eyebrows. “Shaman? Cow torture? This place is a riot.”
“It didn’t stop there. It killed Bugsy’s father. I knew him, one mean son-of-a-gun. Brought up two tough sons. Course the sheriff said Bugs’ brother Spike killed him. Put him away for years.”
Tonight. I’m picking him up tonight.
“Perfect.” Mai jerked the plunger on her vaccination gun, sucking in the white vaccine.
Louise held the yearling’s eyelid open and dumped sulfa powder in the wound. The cow bellowed. “The Beast protects the land from trespasses.”
How is killing my Pa protecting the land? My Pa loved his cows more than he loved…anyone.
“Some PETA freak could have killed that cow,” Doctor Stewart offered, glancing at Bugs. “They’re willing to do just about anything to give ranching a bad name.”
Steve pushed his hat over his forehead. “Bugs, I have to ask, these being my cows and all, and you foreman here… Why did they blame your brother?”
Louise sucked in her breath. The jawing stopped. Time stopped. The lows from the corral sounded distant as Bugs’ heartbeat thudded. The revelations from the trial flooded back: animal mutilation, murder.
He confessed. He confessed! But he didn’t do it; I saw the Beast do it.
Old Dick dropped from the catwalk, walked over and squeezed Bugs’ bicep with a hand hardened from ranching. Compassionate. Warning.
The cow jerked her head, throwing Bugs to his knees. He rose, lifted the hydraulic levers and released her. The cowboys took their places.
“The Modic Beast killed that cow,” Bugs muttered. “And I’m going to kill that son-of-a-bitch.”
* * *
Bugs and Spike climbed back into the cab of the F150 after stopping at the Fort Klamath cemetery. Spike didn’t put on his seatbelt, and Bugs fumed at himself for not saying anything.
No conflict. Keep it peaceful.
“You always put flowers on mama’s grave?” Spike asked.
“A rose from me, and one from you. I use snowshoes if I have to.”
Spike snorted. His raven-on-skull tattoo stretched wide on his deltoid, exposed in his yellow muscle shirt. He flung his arm across the F-150’s bench seat, forcing Bugs to scrunch over the steering wheel. His jaw was square, solid, and covered with gray stubble, his neck muscles looked like tree roots. “So, what’s new on the Flying J?”
Bugs couldn’t keep the pride from his voice. “Dickie works for me. And Louise Hanson.” And four other cowboys.
“So Bugsy got his dream job—thanks to Spike taking the fall.”
Bugs didn’t permit himself to grovel yet again. He’d done enough of that in letters and phone calls over the years and it never satisfied Spike. He let the wheels whine over the asphalt of route 97.
“You giving me a job?”
Bugs hesitated. “We got enough people…”
Spike glared. “You told the owner about me.”
“Shit, Spike, everyone in the valley knows you’re a felon. When winter comes around you can build fence.”
“After all, I protected your ass, and you can’t even give me a job. You know they would have convicted you, little brother. I bought you six years of freedom.”
Bugs pulled an envelope off the Ford’s seat, fat with twenty dollar bills. “Here’s my last paycheck. I put a room at the A-Frame Inn on my card for two weeks.” He’d planned to say, ‘After that you’re on your own,’ but the words caught in his throat. He’s a felon now. Who will hire him if not his brother?
Spike slammed his palm against the dash. In almost the same motion he snatched the envelope from Bugs’ hand.
“I’ll get more, Spike. I’m just a little tight right now.” Spike’s unpredictability scared him most. He could go from laughing to rage in moments, as if his skin veneered over a hurricane. A year younger, Bugs took Spike’s wrestling title in high school, but he doubted he could do it now.
Spike protected me. By confessing he did more than all my friends combined. “I’ll talk with Steve about the job,” he allowed.
Spike withdrew the bills and counted them one by one. “Forget it. With cows being butchered I don’t want to be anywhere near the Flying J.”
How did he hear about that? Bugs tried and failed to keep his eyes from widening. He loves those mind bends.
Spike grinned sideways. The lone traffic light in Chiloquin flashed by, illuminating his face in ghastly reds and greens. “I got my sources. In prison, everyone has sources. Stop here. I need to stretch my legs.”
“We’re three miles from the motel.” And then he saw the glow up ahead. “I’ll just drop you off at the casino. No need to walk.” No need to pretend.
They pulled up to the one-story building, its brightly-lit awning covering the driveway circle like at a fancy hotel. A group of forty-something women dressed like sorority girls staggered out of the automatic doors. Spike eyed them hungrily.
“Don’t spend it all. I don’t get paid again until next Friday.”
Spike grunted and slammed the door.
* * *
Arms crossed, Louise waited at the pumice road’s fork, where one branch led to the ranch house and the other to the aspen wood. Bugs stopped the backhoe and she climbed in, scooting him over with her hips and putting her feet on Hickok. Her hips were nice, firm and full, but whatever pleasure he felt from their contact disappeared from knowing she had come to lecture him. She had that look.
He put the backhoe in second high and rumbled ahead. The murdered cow the backhoe dragged by a chain spit up dust like a peat fire spit smoke.
“You think to lure the Beast to a blind?”
He tried his warmest smile. “Bout time for you to get home, Louise. It’ll be dark soon and we’re gathering field three early tomorrow.”
“We’ve got to talk.”
She frowned. “I’m not like your kid sister anymore. I’m twenty five, though you hardly seem to notice.”
He looked at her sideways. “Sure I noticed, but I don’t believe you came here to talk about your age.”
“That’s right. I came to offer you a job.”
“A job. You’re a fine welder and my dad’s welder just up and quit. You could make double what you’re making here. The winters would be easier. Besides, I’d like to see you. You could take an apartment in Klamath Falls…”
“Being a cattleman is all I’ve ever wanted to do.”
“And how long do you think this will last? That’s three cows murdered in three days.” She pinched her thumb and index together. “Steve’s about this close from closing shop.”
Bugs shifted up and they rattled over the bumpy ground towards the woods. Occasionally the road noise would change as they ran over diversions criss-crossing the valley.
Louise tapped her lips. “I’ve been thinking about that third cow. Whoever killed her chose a place a long way from anywhere. Did you look for tire tracks on the road?”
“Well I did. There weren’t any. We drove the herd up the lane the night before, so if the killer had come in a pickup there should have been fresh tracks.”
“Um-huh.” The Beast doesn’t drive a truck.
“That means he either rode across the fields or through the Wildfowl Refuge. Across the fields is a twenty mile trip to Kildeer Road and you’ve got to cross the Wood River. Mighty risky for a man on a horse and too far to walk.”
“So the killer came across the Wildfowl Refuge,” Bugs said, interested in spite of himself.
“Either that or he passed directly in front of Steve’s house, and those gates are locked. Bugs, only you and Dick know that refuge well enough to ride a horse across it. Not many people could walk it, and no one would want to.”
Spike knows it too. But he was in prison until two days ago. “So you think a man on a horse risked his neck to cross the refuge just to kill our cow. Like that’s a lot more probable than the Modoc Beast.”
“Bugsy, either you take this seriously or…” She threw up her hands.
He couldn’t stand Louise staring at him from the sides of her eyes. “I know what I saw. My pa ripped to shreds, the Beast standing over him. I’ll never forget…it looked animal, bison-like, but partly human.”
“You were a boy; you saw what you wanted to see.”
“My brother never did kill him. He protected me.”
“My dad said your pa was mean as a whip—drove your mother to suicide and drove your brother crazy enough to torture cows—and murder his old man.”
Bugs banged his fist against the steering wheel. If she kept talking, if she said one more thing about his brother…
“You know what the sheriff’s gonna think?” He could feel the air from Louise’s words puffing against his ear. “He’s gonna think that you’re following in your brother’s footsteps. You better take stock of your situation and stop this Beast nonsense.”
He slammed on the brakes. The metal on the backhoe rattled and banged. Hickok barked in surprise. “Get out.”
“Think about what I said. Dad won’t hold that job open forever.”
“Out!” She had another mile to walk, but he didn’t care. She could walk barefoot on glass for all he cared.
She jumped off the tractor and he popped the clutch, leaving her chocking on a carcass-blown storm of pumice. He didn’t slow down until he bumped over the twisted ground between the aspens behind the ranch house. He left the carcass in the middle of a ring of trees as bait, parked the tractor back on the road, and then returned on foot with Hickok and his .22 to wait out the night. He regretted not being a hunter—he’d own something with bigger stopping power than his .22.
Too bad he’d fought with Louise. She meant well, he knew that, but the way she said things. He shouldn’t have made her walk, that’s wasn’t cowboy-like. He bundled the blanket around his legs, grateful that Hickok was there to keep him warm. He’d apologize next time he saw her.
The cold crept down from the mountains and chilled his hands until he wasn’t sure he could even pull the trigger. At least it killed the stench of dead cow. It recalled six years ago when he was out looking for a missing yearling with Milkshake while summer lightning flashed over America’s deepest lake, Crater Lake.
He’d heard a shout.
He shone his flashlight into the distance. All he could see was grass and the light’s reflection from the flooded fields. He spurred Milkshake but she reared. He yanked the bridle to the side and her front hooves came crashing down. “Move, come now.” He spurred again, she reared again, and he yanked to the side, forcing her to turn in a full circle. “Come on!” The third time he kicked with anger and Milkshake surged to a gallop. He leaned to the side and shone the light just beyond the horse’s hooves.
Then the horse stopped short and Bugs ate the horn and the light tumbled from his grasp. As the beam swung it illuminated the Beast: tall as the horse with a buffalo’s hindquarters and a bear’s head—but not claws. No, the Beast had human arms and white, white hands. And Pa lay at its feet, sliced to ribbons.
Then the flashlight flickered in the water and died. Bugs dismounted and ran forward, crying out, expecting any second to be stuck by the Beast. Pa was hurt. Pa was hurt. He felt with his hands until he found the body, tacky with blood. Lightning flashed and he saw his father’s eyes.
Bugs saw those lifeless eyes every night before sleeping. And they had blamed his brother. The cops interrogated Spike until he confessed.
They might have blamed me.
Hickok whined and stirred against his legs. Bugs blinked his eyes open. He hadn’t realized he had closed them.
“What is it?” The dog shimmied free and ran. Bugs felt on the ground for his gun, stood, and tripped on the blanket. He stumbled forward, losing sight of Hickok among the silver dollar, moonlit aspen leaves. Branches thwacked him, logs tripped him and a barbed wire fence ripped a hole through his shirt and into his side. In two hundred yards the trees began to thin, the land sloped towards the ranch house and the open parking lot.
Bugs kept moving. Lights blazed on the wrap-around porch. Then the Beast flashed into sight, two legged and bear-like. It crossed the lot in two strides.
Bugs dropped to one knee and squeezed. Crack!
The Beast stumbled and Hickok scampered into the parking lot behind. The stupid dog would try to take it down by himself. Bugs worked the bolt and fired off another shot.
“Steven!” Mai glared at Bugs from the porch.
Steve burst from the house in an open jacket and boxers. “What the—” he spotted Bugs “—hell are you doing shooting in my yard?”
Bugs tried to make the .22 look unthreatening. He gestured with his chin beyond the house, where Hickock’s yaps sounded fainter. “The Beast…”
Mai wore a white terry robe with one shoulder bare. Her hand sliced the air as if it could cut Bugs down from 30 feet away. “I told you we needed to get off this ranch and back to the city. Look at this. Look at this!”
“Go inside Mai.” Steve’s temples pinched with tension. “We’ll talk later.”
“The Beast… I seen him.” Bugs pointed stupidly beyond the house. Words jumbled in his head.
“You shoot a gun in my yard in the middle of the night? Don’t bother coming to work tomorrow.”
The world shrank to a pinpoint. Bugs felt his legs wobble. “But I seen him…”
Hickok scrambled around the corner of the house, sopping wet. He must have jumped into the canal.
Steve held out his hand. “Give me your keys, Bugs. You can pick up your paycheck after we’re through working cattle. You’re done here.”
* * *
The sheriff had wedged a card on the frame of Bugs’ single-wide trailer door and left two phone messages. Telling himself it was too late to call, Bugs drove five miles south of Fort Klamath to Mel’s, a bar-diner with dim lighting, country-western music and waitresses with tanning-booth grins and three ex’s each. Dick would be there, eating the chicken fried steak before heading home to his six PM bedtime. Like clockwork.
He patted Hickock on the seat next to him. “Good boy. You stay in the truck, keep an eye on things.” The evening mist created a miasma around the red neon Mel’s sign. He rolled his tongue around his teeth, hesitating. He hadn’t set foot here in years. It was fine, mostly. But Mel’s was a drinking establishment, and in cowboy country that meant fights. And Bugs being large attracted fights. The last time, the wiry bartender had hustled him and the other man outside in the middle of a left jab Bugs knew was about to connect… He didn’t remember much about the rest except being surprised to find himself in the snow. And losing.
Dick knows something he’s not telling. And with Dick, that was surprising as hell. Bugs grinned, thinking how easy it’d be to get the old codger to blab.
Inside, the neon beer adverts gave the mostly empty tables a red hue. Two TV screens showed the Steelers versus the 49ers, third and goal. Dick sat in the corner alone in his cowboy uniform: buttoned shirt, jeans, a belt with an oversized buckle. Dick’s Big-R cap sat on the table next to him.
Bugs nodded at the bartender on his way over.
Dick scooted the empty chair out with his boot. “Bugsy. Tough luck with the job. You should have told Steve you were going night hunting…in his parking lot. What were you looking to get, Bugsy? Snipes are all holed up for the winter.”
Bugs turned the chair around and straddled it, leaning on the back. “I already got a job offer in Klamath Falls. I might take it.”
“I might too, if I weren’t so old. Louise’d make a nice catch.”
Bugs puffed air out his mouth. The old man knew more about Fort Klamath’s goings on than anyone.
Dick cut into his chicken fried steak, white gravy drowning the chicken and fries alike. The smell made Bugs’ mouth water.
The waitress twisted off a Budweiser cap and set it down without asking Bugs’ preference. Its smooth biters relaxed his throat and quelled his stomach growl. He normally skipped dinner to keep his weight down to an even 220. He gave her four dollars. “Dickie, I need help in corralling the Beast. I seen it last night in Steve’s yard.”
Dick sliced off another triangle of meat. “Lost another mama today from field six, cut up the same way. Steve’s letting us keep her for the barbecue.”
The Beast killed the animal in the field they were scheduled to work. I’m missing something and I don’t know what. “If we get a bunch of hunters out there we’ll get it. We can clear my brother’s name…
“Dickie, I’m desperate here. I’ve been thinking and thinking, and I can’t see the sheriff blaming anyone for these mutilations but me. At best, I am…was, the foreman there, and I let it happen. At worst, well, he thinks I’m crazy already.”
Dick leaned back and scratched his bald head. “You’ve been through a lot, Bugsie. Why don’t you take that job offer, get out of Fort Klamath for a while? Steve won’t stick around. He’ll sell the Flying J and I’ll put in a word with the new owners.”
Bugs stood slowly, feeling a hundred pounds heavier. “Dickie, not you, too. You of all people. You’ve always believed me.”
Dick took a second to answer—an eternity for the old man. “Well, Bugsy, I know you didn’t kill your pa. The Beast did it, sure as the hair growing out my nose.”
Bugs knew a conversation split, a place he could lose or gain some valuable insight. He chose his words carefully. “How are you so sure?”
In answer, Dick asked Bugs to bring Hickock inside. No worries, the bartender was a friend. Feeling anxious but curious, Bugs returned with the 30-pound hound squirming under one arm. He set him on his chair and stood behind, knuckles white on the chair-back.
Dick gave the dog a quick pat on the rump. “Good boy, Hickock. Now don’t take this personal.” Then he gargled something from the back of his throat, bobbing his Adam’s Apple, producing a throaty, inhuman noise.
Hickock’s tail stopped mid-wag. He sat still…too still, a rigor mortis-like stillness. Bugs touched him, and jerked his hand away in fear. The flesh felt stiff. The hound didn’t react.
Dick recovered his knife and fork. “When this started six years ago, they never found tranquilizing agents in the mamas. Now, how do you get a 1,000 pound animal to sit still while you carve her hide?”
Bugs blew on Hickock’s eyes. They watered, but the dog didn’t blink.
“You see, your pa neglected your history. The shaman magic started simple, freezing deer and rabbits, making it easy to hunt. The Modocs aren’t like the coastal Indians that could reach into the rivers and scoop out salmon. We had to survive in the evergreen desert of Eastern Oregon. But we ain’t only hunters, we’re warriors. Always fighting.”
Bugs felt panic begin to grow. Dick was killing his hound…
“And one of the shamans learned how to freeze people. Easy to shoot arrows into statues. Soon all the shamans learned. Modocs dropped like flies on poisoned shit. The tribe would have disappeared—”
“Dickie!” Bugs growled.
“Eh? Oh. Now don’t you do anything foolish, Bugsy. He’ll be fine.” With another inhuman noise, Hickock stumbled, falling face-first off the chair onto the stained, blue carpet.
“Anything the matter?” The bartender called from behind the counter.
Bugs knelt down and stroked the dog’s fur. Hickock, whining, tried to bury himself in his arms. Bugs wanted to tear Dick’s head off…but he knew, beneath his anger, the old man was trying to tell him something important. And he had already missed a sentence or two. The old man was still talking.
“…he gave up everything to save the tribe.”
“You said the shaman became the Beast?” Bugs asked.
“He used up all the magic he had, and all that of like-minded shamens, and turned himself into a spirit. Louise had part of it: the shaman hates trespasses on the land, cow killings and such, but that isn’t his purpose. He exists to kill anyone using the magic against another human.”
Bugs stood, hefting Hickock in both arms. The dog trembled. “I don’t know this magic. Pa never taught me.”
“Your pa was a shaman, and he got himself killed. Maybe he got in a fight with Spike and froze him. Maybe he caught Spike butchering cows. He used the magic and the Beast heard.” Dick drew his steak knife across his throat.
It made sense, the first time this whole craziness had made sense. “And the cows? Who is killing the cows?”
Dick leaned back. “You get yourself to the city, Bugs. Leave this mess behind. It’s haunted you enough.”
Bugs frowned at the old man. He thinks I’m doing this.
* * *
Bugs used his cell phone to call the A-Frame Inn. “Spike?”
“What does little brother want?”
“I need your trigger finger. Spike, I saw the Beast last night at the Flying-J. It was fast. But you can hit it. You can shoot a mosquito at 50 yards.”
He could hear Spike grinning. “I could shoot the mosquito’s prick off.”
“Yeah. It’d be like bagging Sasquatch. It’d clear your name.”
“Sure thing, little brother. Pick me up.”
No hesitation. No price. This is way too easy. Bugs returned to his single-wide and loaded his .22 and ammo, cammie jacket, flashlight, and Cheetos into the Ford. He slipped a Bowie knife and case onto his belt and checked that he carried the spare ranch keys, keys he’d return after this ended.
He owned one bolt-action 22, which meant only Spike would carry a gun. No stores were open at this hour, and none would sell him a gun if they were.
Whatever Spike’s price, I’ll know by the end of the evening.
* * *
They parked under the evergreens bordering the Wildlife Refuge. Spike insisted Hickock remain in the truck, saying that the hound would make noise. Bugs didn’t like it, but Hickock was mighty shook up. He relented.
They spread the barbed wire fence, climbed between the wires and went trespassing. Bugs leapt across the first watercourse and headed straight into the five-foot tall tule reeds. Spike called him back.
“The Flying J’s that way.” Bugs pointed west, his arm a ghost in the moonlight.
“We’ll follow the ditch so we don’t get lost.”
“I won’t get lost.” Within thirty feet Bugs fell twice into bogs up to his hips. He hauled himself out by the tules and returned to where Spike waited.
They turned to follow the ditch, Bugs trailing, red-faced and shivering. His cammie pants clung to his legs, chaffing them, adding drag. The shiny ribbon skirted the edge of the refuge. Then it intersected other watercourses and Spike began picking ones to follow. The banks were built up, more or less solid, and the moon-lit water made a trail of sorts. Crater Lake’s distant cone, shiny with snow, gave them due north.
Each mile took a good hour, a miserable cold, wet hour. Bugs’ face itched from the mosquito bites he got before the temperature dropped below 40 and the insects holed up. Spike became a shimmer of fabric. Bugs fancied now and then that he and Spike had gotten separated and the Beast tromped beside him. The thought would send a chill along his neck. He’d turn his head real quick and squint until Spike came into focus.
All their sloshing and grunting frightened the water critters into bolting, and occasionally a goose honked, disturbed from slumber.
Finally they crossed a bridge where the diversion poured into Seven Mile Canal. Bug’s key opened the lock to the Flying J. The manure smell here differed from the slime of the refuge. Drier. More civilized.
“Where’s the body?” Spike asked.
“I don’t know, exactly.”
“Then we’ll kill another.”
“No! We’re not killing any more cows. The Beast will find us. I have a feeling.”
They spotted a good blind, a stand of willows growing on the field side of the canal, and they flattened a hollow inside it.
Spike pulled on tight leather gloves. Expensive, but they wouldn’t hurt his aim much. “You going to give me the rifle? Seems I can’t buy a firearm, being a felon and all.”
As Bugs passed the rifle across his lap, hand on the forestock, a chill ran down his arm, the sort of alarm he got when leaving home without his wallet, only a hundred times stronger.
Spike checked the chamber, sliding the bolt with a well-oiled click. Bugs settled back onto his elbows. He’d made up his mind to trust Spike, right or wrong. The Beast’s fate now rode on his brother’s marksmanship. Still, Bugs’ right hand fiddled with his knife holster, snapping and unsnapping the guard, unwilling to be defenseless.
They didn’t talk much. A few words. The night sounds resumed, rustles, splashes, gasses long trapped beneath water and peat gurgling to the surface. “I put a bullet into him last night,” Bugs whispered. “Barely slowed him down. The Beast, just like I remembered. The human arms, the bear-like head.”
“Like a werewolf?” He heard Spike grinning behind the words.
Bugs kicked out his boot. “Did you come out here to laugh at me?”
“No Bugsy, not to laugh.” And then he did laugh.
Bugs began to make out cows outlined against the distant hills. Most slept standing in knots to fight the cold. Others browsed. Something crawled spider-like atop the canal bank, its profile barely visible. “There.” Bugs sat straight.
Its arms gleamed. The beast paused and peered at their hiding place. Spike eyed it along the sight, two hunters facing off. Then the beast scampered down and disappeared among the foliage.
“Why didn’t you shoot?”
“I’ll only get one chance, and that wasn’t it.” Spike brought up his knee to rest the stock on. “It knows we’re here.”
Sweat chilled on Bugs’ fingertips. “It’s patient. It has waited six years for this.” A tiny breeze ruffled the grass. A satellite scooted across the sky. “The mutilations have drawn it out.” No, that wasn’t it. He tried to steady his breathing, to focus on the present. The Beast mutilated the cows. So why hasn’t it been doing this for the past six years, taking cows year after year?
Because the mutilations had drawn it out.
The Beast hates cow killings, Dick had said.
“What did you say earlier, about getting lost? ‘Follow the ditch.’ We’ve found all the animals close to waterways. Hickok jumped into the canal when he smelled the first cow. The killer follows the water. Holy Jesus, I know who it is.”
“Calm down, little brother.”
Something rasped through the grass. Bubbles from the sodden peat burst with audible pops, forced to the surface by a large mass, a mass that was getting closer.
“The animals by the canals, the canoe…it’s Mai. She wants Steve to sell out!”
“Bugs, snap out of this. That thing is out there and it’s coming for us.”
A sharp smell like pear blossoms wafted from the impenetrable grass, sweet and bitter. “Mai set me up. She’s been paddling her canoe through the canals. She can see the field numbers from the water to know which fields we’ll be working in. I got to stop her. I got to protect my cows.”
“Don’t talk crazy, Bugsy,” Spike warned. “This is our chance.”
The grass parted and the Modoc Beast emerged. Its bear head was massive, like some giant, New World Minotaur. Its eyes were larger than he remembered.
Spike squeezed off a shot. The Beast dropped away. It didn’t holler, didn’t make any noise at all. Bugs couldn’t tell if it had been hit or not. Suddenly he wasn’t sure he wanted to kill it. But he knew one thing. “They are working field nine tomorrow. We’ve got to go there.”
“This thing’s wounded and dangerous,” Spike said. “Let’s not go tromping off where we can’t see.”
Bugs stood. “Come on, we’ve got a cow murderer to catch.”
* * *
The landscape passed in a blur. Not because they ran hard—too easy to twist an ankle—but because the night turned everything gray. The Beast was a distant worry. Maybe Spike killed it, maybe not. If Dick was right it wouldn’t be after them.
But Mai would be dangerous.
Bugs opened the final gate. “The Wood River is the most direct line by water to field nine. With luck, she hasn’t even left the ranch house and we can set up an ambush.”
Spike carried the rifle over one shoulder. “Whatever, little brother.”
They strode to the river side by side. Bugs was keenly aware his breath labored while Spike’s had leveled off. There was no trek, only mud and deeper mud and tough slogging. They slipped and skidded until finally Spike walked on the dry side of the bank while Bugs kept close to the water, laboring through the mud.
He stumbled across Mai’s canoe pulled up on the bank before he saw her. Her tan clothes blended with the grass. Her black hair was a patch of night. She had a blowgun in her hands.
He took a step and stumbled. She wheeled towards the sound, raising the blowgun.
“Mai, it’s me, Bugs.” He spoke as calmly as he could. His damn boot was stuck. He couldn’t pull it free without a struggle.
Mai slowly squared her body towards him, assessing the situation with quick eye movements.
Then he noticed a black-baldie flopped on its side between him and Mai, its eyes rolled back. Not frozen by magic, but crumpled by a tranquilizer. To tackle Mai he’d have to go around it. He began rocking his foot back and forth, slipping it inch by inch from the boot, trying not to pull so hard the mud would make a sucking sound. “I’m not a talker, Mai. I can’t talk you out of this. You got to do it yourself.”
At the same time, he reached his left hand into his cargo pocket for the flashlight.
He heard a whispered I’m sorry. Mai raised the blowgun.
“You hit me with that thing, my heart will stop beating. It’s designed to drop a thousand-pound cow.”
Her chest expanded.
Bugs dove left. His foot wrenched free of the boot and he crashed to his elbows.
The dart passed harmlessly by, and Mai fumbled around trying to reload. Bugs pulled out his flashlight and held it at arm’s length, shining it in Mai’s eyes. She’d be blinded, and if she shot, she would shoot at the light…or so he hoped.
He climbed to his feet and charged.
Maybe she shot, maybe not, Bugs couldn’t be sure. He slammed her to the ground and heard humph as her breath was knocked out. He knew the sound from wrestling—the sound of victory. He straddled her with a knee on her right arm and shone the light in her face. She covered her eyes with her free hand.
Crack! His flashlight exploded. The shock reverberated up Bugs’ elbow to his shoulder. He gripped his wrist in his other hand, waves of pain flowing up radius and ulna.
“That was nice, little brother. You ought to apply to the po-lice.” Spike used a fake ghetto accent for ‘po-lice.’
“Let me up, you oaf!” Mai snarled. “Get off.”
“Do what the lady says.” Spike gestured with the rifle. “Mai and I go way back.”
Spike? Mai? Numbly Bugs shifted his weight. Mai stood and spit in his eye.
“See,” Spike said, “I had lots of time there to figure out what happened the night the Beast killed Pa. The Beast tolerates a few cow murders, but eventually it takes action. I figured it’d tear up Mai and you’d get blamed. This is even better. Now little brother killed Mai with his own rifle.”
“Spike?” Mai asked. “What are you talking about?”
Bugs figured it out faster. “Run, Mai. Run!”
Spike shot. Mai wore a confused look as she dropped, a bullet hole in her forehead. Spike reloaded before her body hit the grass. “It is cleaner this way. Cleaner.”
Bugs tried to keep his brain from shutting down, from being overwhelmed. He unsnapped the knife holster’s safety, hoping Spike wouldn’t notice. He’d not go down without a fight. “Why did you kill Pa?”
Spike’s eye movement said he did see. “All Pa loved were his precious cows. He drove Ma to hang herself. So I hurt them.”
“This is about Ma, about her suicide? My God! She was ill. Depressed.” But Bugs was developing a plan. He prayed Dick was right about the Beast. Bugs could beat Mai with a blowgun, but Spike with a rifle? No chance. Better to use his ego.
Bugs pitched the knife to the side. “You are such a coward, Spike. Using Mai to do your dirty work. You never could stand against me. You’ve been afraid of me ever since I took your wrestling title. Put down that rifle and see I can’t do it again.”
Spike laughed. “We don’t do John Wayne in prison.”
“Come on,” Bugs said, dropping into a Greco stance. “Put down the toy and wrestle.”
Spike laughed again, with less certainty. He tipped the barrel downward, and then he spoke the spell, a throaty gargle rippling through Bugs’ flesh, separating meat from nerve. Bugs observed his body from a distance, unmoving, helpless. Numb as a mouthful of Novocain.
Just as he hoped. The coward used a spell.
Spike lay the rifle on top of Mai’s body. “I don’t want the Sheriff to miss it. He’s kind of stupid.” With his gloved hands he stroked the hair off her pretty face, bent and kissed her cheek.
Come now, Beast. Let Dickie be right. Let Dickie…
“Now you pay for all six years of prison.” Spike advanced, fingers twitching with anticipation.
A bear-headed beast tore from the night, knocking Spike into the Wood River. The white arms gripped Spike’s struggling body. The bison-like back bunched up, and the back legs pinwheeled, hooves sharp as knives. The Beast roared…
Purple dots swam in front of Bugs’ eyes. He couldn’t breathe; he couldn’t expand his lungs. His heart labored, ka-thump, ka-thump.
Pa, if I survive I’ll lay a wreath on your grave.
* * *
Bugs saw Louise’s red Ram pickup parked in front of the Fort Klamath post office and whipped in alongside. The sign on the door read ‘Counter open Wednesdays, 10-4.’
Louise leaned her breasts against the counter, talking to the woman behind it. She straightened when she saw Bugs and the woman wandered to the back. “Bugs, it’s been a long time.”
He hesitated just a second, then strode forward and crushed her against his sheepskin jacket. “I, uh, don’t get to Klamath Falls too often. A lot on my mind.”
He hadn’t meant to say that. She might think he was looking for pity.
“I’m sorry about your brother.”
“It…brought some clarity. Spike was guilty, after all. Mostly.” Someday he’d tell her the whole story: Pa caught Spike mutilating cows and used a spell, forgetting the Beast in his fury. Pa and Spike paid the price, Spike going to jail and Pa dying.
Louise brushed snow off his collar and he realized his hands had strayed to her hips. “Sounds like you have a lot to talk about.”
“Yeah. Yeah, maybe I do. Did you ever fill that welder position?”
“You’re looking at him, best stick welder in town. Dad thought with the economy and all, best to keep the business in the family. How about you?”
“Dick’s in charge of the Flying-J until Steve finds a buyer. He hires me to fix fence now and again. Mostly me and Hickok stay home.” Bugs leaned in and kissed her on the cheek.
Louise frowned, but her eyes were smiling. “That’s awfully bold.”
“Sorry. You know, out here in the sticks we forget our manners.”
She turned the other cheek and pointed towards it. “Well, you’d better start learning. This one’s jealous.”
Scott T. Barnes