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Chapter 1 – What Did You Get Into
Two riderless horses cantered purposefully across a rugged rangeland pasture.
They were an unlikely pairing: the mare a lean quarter horse, while the stallion was a Clydesdale, at his shoulders taller than any man. Their hooves crushed dried sod, the grass bleached beneath the hot September sun. Puffs of dust billowed where the ground got disturbed, wafting eastward as the soft morning breeze caught the particles. The two horses kept pace with one another, their easy gallop slowing as they approached a herd of red angus cattle.
The cows were agitated, crowded against a barbed wire fence in the far northeast corner of their pasture. Several of them were bellowing, foamy saliva dripping from their mouths as they expressed their concerns to any who would listen.
The horses walked now, slowly arcing around the perimeter of the herd. The cattle were not at all deterred by the new arrivals; after all, the horses made treks weekly to check on them. The pair would check for signs of injury or ill health. They would make note of the condition of the fodder and water supply, occasionally rotating the herd into an adjoining paddock to give vegetation in the main pasture a chance to regrow.
Most of all, the horses would count the cow-calf pairs, ensuring all were present.
The Clydesdale finished his count first and waited for his mate to catch up. He stamped a sabino white hoof, his deep red skin quivering reflexively wherever flies landed. The stallion’s dark tail swished over his flanks, swatting at the biting flies. He wished the wind would pick up; it would discourage the godforsaken flies at least.
“We’re short two,” the quarter horse said. “I counted twice. Forty-four.”
The Clydesdale canted his head, then shook it abruptly as a fly bit his ear. “Same.”
The stallion shook his head, his dark, shaggy mane tickling his neck. “No. Two calves. One of them has to be One-Fourteen’s.”
The mare turned and watched a red-brown cow standing away from the herd, bellowing hoarsely toward the distant prairie. The cow looked back briefly, the faded yellow plastic tag dangling from her ear etched with the number “114”.
“Something’s got them spooked,” she said.
“The ghost again,” the stallion said.
The mare snorted. “You really can’t let that go, can you, Winston? Even if ghosts are real—and I’m not inclined to submit that they are—why would there be a ghost out here, in the middle of nowhere? And why would a ghost bother haunting our cows?”
“They’ve been stressed off and on all summer, Jeri. Remember the neighbor’s old junk pit—the one that mysteriously caught fire last summer? You, too, felt the spooky vibes when we toured the wreckage, let me remind you.”
“It’s a spooky old homestead! What can I say? But that’s over on the Glasoe’s quarter. Not on our side of the fence.”
“Oh, so a ghost won’t cross the property line?” The stallion stamped a massive hoof again. “Coyotes wouldn’t get them this riled up. I mean, look at ‘em: they’re about to jump the fence if we let them. C’mon, let’s move them away from the wires.”
The horses pushed their way through the herd, coaxing the agitated livestock away from the fence. The cows were not having any of it.
“What in the world has gotten into you, ladies?” Winston didn’t expect an answer, which was just as well as he received none.
“Look,” Jeri said, “One-Fourteen’s limping.”
The red-brown cow took one step, favoring her right rear leg as she did. She bore a single laceration along her hindquarter. The cut in her thick hide was shallow enough, the blood clotted now and attempting to scab over, if only the flies would leave it alone long enough. Her tail swatted at the biting insects, sending them scattering for a few merciful seconds.
“Poor girl,” the stallion cooed. “What did you get into?”
“Mountain lion?” the mare asked. “I know they’re mostly on the other side of the Missouri, but someone shot one on the rez this last season.”
Winston approached the injured cow, talking softly. “It’s okay, lady. We’ll get some iodine and stitch you right back up.”
The cow all but ignored him, continuing to bellow her displeasure.
“After we find your calf and his friend, yes,” Winston said. The cow didn’t need to speak English for him to understand her.
“It must be in the coulee,” Jeri suggested. “If a cougar didn’t get it.”
The stallion’s nostrils flared and he raised his head above the heavy aroma of the herd. Above the sweat and saliva and cow patties, he caught a faint hint of something else. “Do you smell that, Jeri?”
The mare stepped away from the herd, her own nostrils moving. “I smell shit.”
“It’s faint,” Winston admitted. “I smell smoke.”
“Towards the coulee, I think.” The stallion kept his head raised, turning slowly as he continued huffing the air. “Doesn’t seem to be from the gravel pit. It’s not exhaust fumes. Smells more like a campfire than a grass fire.”
The mare turned her head side to side, looking first with one eye and then the other. “There’s a really faint haze over there.”
“I see it, too.”
“Lightning strike overnight?” Jeri squinted at the distant haze. “Brushfire, maybe nailed the two calves, too? The poor things.”
“Guess we’ll find out,” the Clydesdale said as he began walking. “I don’t know why the whole herd would be so spooked hours later though.”
“We’ll have to come back out with the fencing equipment,” the mare said as she matched his longer stride. “They stretched the wires. Don’t need them breaking out and wandering around the roads.”
“Yep. The roughnecks and truckers don’t slow down enough around the two curves. And if it’s after dark…” his voice trailed.
“Remember back when we’d almost be surprised to see a vehicle we didn’t recognize on these roads? When we’d move cows home along the ditches and not have to worry about holding up traffic?”
“You mean two years ago?” Winston snorted. “Before the boom. Before the gas plant and the gravel pits and a damn drilling rig on every section of land.”
“I never would’ve guessed we’d have so much activity around lil’ ol’ McGregor,” Jeri admitted. “Yeah, I know Tioga’s at the heart of it and during the previous boom there were all kinds of wells drilled around here. I just never would’ve guessed it would happen again in our lifetimes.”
“There’s a hole here, watch your step,” the stallion said. He stepped around an abandoned badger burrow and made a mental note to come back later. He would stick an old fence post in the hole—something to prevent a cow from stumbling over it and breaking her leg.
“What if they found oil on our land?” Jeri asked.
“Oh, I’m sure there’s oil. I don’t think there are any dry holes around here, really. Not anymore.” Winston swished his tail, as much out of habit now than to ward off flies. The farther they were from the herd and its odor, the less the two horses were pestered by biting insects. “But it doesn’t really benefit us if they do. We don’t own mineral rights to anything. Wish we did. But we don’t.”
“It’s so dumb that mineral rights are separate from surface,” she grumbled. “It just doesn’t make any sense. We have to deal with all the traffic, the surge of population and crime, the damage to our roads and land being taken out of production for well pads. We pay property taxes. But some folks in California or Florida or Arizona or wherever—people who couldn’t even find North Dakota on the map—they can own what’s under our feet and get royalties from the leases. And they don’t have to pay any taxes.”
“Well, they pay income taxes,” Winston said.
The mare scoffed. “So does everyone else. I’d gladly pay income taxes on nice, fat oil checks every month. Where do I sign up?”
“Preaching to the choir, wife.”
“I know, I know.” Jeri sighed. “I’m sorry. It just ticks me off sometimes. It’s not fair.”
He had no counter to her argument. He hated seeing her go down such a spiral of frustration. She was a good woman, one who gave up a decent career as a paralegal in Minot to come live with a cattleman far from the ley line and all the people she grew up with.
His wife adjusted to the ranching lifestyle well enough over the years. The long nights during calving season, where they would sacrifice sleep to assist the cows giving birth. Getting chased by first-calf heifers when they’d sometimes go crazy and try killing their newborns—and anyone who tried discouraging them. The emotional numbness that came with every stillborn calf.
It was a hard life, but a rewarding one. There was an undeniable satisfaction to waking up before the sun most days, getting chores done before many city folk even had their breakfast. Never bored, never distracted by the silly drama of the politicians or celebrities. No commuting to the job. No answering to an incompetent boss or having to pick up the slack for lazy co-workers. Going to bed tired each night, satisfied with the day’s work on their own ranch.
And heck, some years were even profitable. Never mind if that had as much to do with running an efficient operation as it did the whims of the global beef markets and fickle Mother Nature.
The Clydesdale walked along her side, letting the mare use a well-worn cow path while he stepped over uneven ground. “What would you do with it?”
“With royalty checks,” he said. “With big, fat checks from the oil companies?”
“I don’t know.”
“Really, Jeri?” Winston asked. “You haven’t thought of it?”
“Oh, sure I have. I guess if you really wanted to know…”
“I do,” the stallion grinned. He knew his wife well enough to know how she loved to dream. There was nothing so sure of putting her in a good mood than to ask her what if.
“If you insist,” the mare grinned back. “If I had oil money, I think the first thing I’d want to do is remodel our kitchen. You know how much I want new cabinets and counters.”
“Then I think I’d want you to get a new tractor. One of those front wheel assist John Deere models you’re always pining for. And a new round baler to go with it. That old Case of yours, I think you spend more time patching belts and fixing the picker teeth than you do actually making hay.”
Winston chuckled. “I was expecting you to say that you’d want to go travel the world. Maybe go on a shopping spree.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t rule out a cruise or two,” Jeri said whimsically. “But I know you don’t like being away from the cows more than a couple days. And I’ve no interest in traveling if you’re not there with me. As to shopping, I don’t have any use for the latest fashions. And jewelry is hard to clean when you get manure on it.”
The stallion nickered and his mate did, too. A meadowlark’s cheerful song carried across the pasture, its harmony accompanying the steady percussion of hoofbeats. This was one of the shared, simple moments Winston and Jeri Granger cherished.
Their spirits remained high until they reached the coulee. The odor of charred wood was undeniable within the narrow valley. The lazily meandering creek was calm, its water dark. Buffaloberry thickets were bereft of leaves and fruit, their thorny branches singed as though someone had held a blowtorch to them. Overhead, the haze visible from a distance now appeared as clouds, black and grey and unmoving despite the breeze.
In the middle of it all, a young steer stood still as a stone, his white-patch face staring blankly at nothing.
“Hey baby boy,” Winston called out. “Whatcha doing down there, huh? Where’s your buddy?”
“It’s chilly,” Jeri said with a shiver. “Does it feel suddenly cold to you, too?”
He hadn’t noticed until she mentioned it and told her such. “Wait here at the top of the ridge. I’ll go get the little guy.”
“I can come help,” she said.
The stallion’s head shook side to side. “Something doesn’t feel right. I don’t smell any rotten eggs, but maybe there’s a pocket of H2S that drifted in from the gas plant or a well somewhere along the creek.”
“Then should you be going down in there?”
“The calf’s still alive,” Winston said. “Hydrogen sulfide is heavy, and I’m taller than the calf. I’ll go down and chase him out of there. If for some reason I go down though, you’ll need to go for help. Don’t try coming down and getting me.”
“Don’t follow me down,” Winston said, a little more sternly than he intended. “There’s probably nothing to worry about, but no point risking your hide, too.”
The mare blinked. She said only, “Be careful.”
The Clydesdale picked his way down the steep slope. The ground was peppered with rocks and upturned soil—as though some giant mole had been tearing up the narrow valley. As he walked around the thicket, he could see that the ground was scorched in places too, yet the tall, dry grass was largely unburned. It defied logic that any lightning would cause such sporadic damage.
“Hey little guy,” Winston talked to the calf, “don’t you worry, I’ll get you back to your momma.”
The stallion sniffed the air as he descended. The scent of charred wood was joined now by barbecue. It smelled like someone had been grilling meat.
He found the source within the thicket: the other lost calf. Or, at least, what remained of it.
The calf was torn asunder, its belly ripped open and its bowels removed. Its guts were charred ash, spread across the leafless, burned brush in a pattern that suggested they were removed violently, from the inside out. If someone would have told him that the calf had swallowed a live grenade, seeing this, Winston would have believed it.
“What is it?” Jeri called from above. “Did you find the other calf?”
He swallowed and stared at the disemboweled carcass. His throat was dry when he said, “It’s dead. I’m bringing the other one up.”
Somehow, he managed to pull his gaze away from the devastated calf. His mind reeled with questions. For the moment, he just wanted to rescue the steer and get the hell out of there.
An ear tag matching One-Fourteen’s mother’s, but unfaded, identified the calf. The animal was quivering, his eyes unfocused as the big Clydesdale walked toward him.
“Come on, little guy, let’s go.” Winston shivered and when he exhaled his breath was visible. “I’m sorry you had to watch your friend…pass. But your momma and the rest of the herd are waiting for you.”
The calf made no move to respond to the intimidating horse. He stood completely still but for the constant quivering, all four legs planted stiffly. The steer’s eyes were eerily wide, unblinking.
Winston might have thought the calf was electrocuted, but there weren’t any buried electrical lines, not down in this coulee in the middle of nowhere. No smoke came from the calf, no smell of burning.
“Um…Honey?” Jeri’s voice called out, uncertain. “What’s going on with the clouds?”
Winston looked first to his wife, then followed the sorrel mare’s gaze skyward. The grey haze was no longer still but moving slowly in a swirling pattern. No birds were anywhere to be seen or heard.
Movement at his hooves brought his attention down to earth.
The calf was shaking aggressively now, his legs locked at the knees. Pressurized air left the animal at once from its mouth and rear.
“Little guy?” Winston asked uncertainly as he took a step back. “What’s going on?”
It happened between blinks: the steer’s belly blew open, its insides turned out violently. Viscera turned to ash, slamming into the ground and swirling outward. The calf collapsed, his dead eyes still open, staring.
Icy ash hit the Clydesdale’s broad torso. The horse reflexively kicked out, connecting only with air. He gasped as ice blossomed painfully within his chest. He closed his eyes and grimaced as the pain threatened to overwhelm his senses. Winston found that if he stood there, perfectly still, it hurt a little less. Only when he tried moving did the icy pain flare up.
He heard his wife’s cries and he latched onto the sound. She was saying his name, calling out for him.
When he opened his eyes, Winston saw a monochromatic landscape. The steer was there, dead on the ground beside him, near the shallow creek. Beyond was the thicket of buffaloberry and the other calf’s carcass. Beyond that was the top of the narrow valley and his wife’s voice. He couldn’t hear what she was saying, but he knew she would come for him.
The realization shook him into action. He could not let Jeri near this place. Which meant he needed to leave it, to go to her.
The pain was blinding. His vision flashed in shades of grey and red with every step. He had to rely on her voice to guide him. Though it was only a short distance up the slope, he was sure he would pass out. The Clydesdale dug in, his massive hooves finding purchase on the soft, upturned soil and loose rocks.
If he was to look up, Winston would have seen what Jeri saw: the swirling clouds ever darkening, angry and terrifying and hinting at unimaginable turmoil. He didn’t look at the sky, though; he looked only at his wife.
He could see her now as he arrived at the top of the ridge. She had shifted back into human form. Long, chestnut hair blew across her face as wind from the newly-forming storm swirled around the coulee. Jeri wore jeans and leather work boots, her plaid long-sleeve shirt rolled up above her elbows. Her skin was deeply tanned, weathered from constant exposure to bitter cold winters and sweltering summers. He felt a tinge of guilt as he recognized the sacrifices she made to be with him, the career and life she gave up to be his mate.
“What’s going on? What happened? What happened to you?” Her voice was quavering, her hand uncertain against his broad neck.
He met her eyes and knew them to be a soft brown, though now they appeared only grey to him. He blinked away involuntary tears. Even the act of breathing caused him pain.
Winston was incredibly strong. A lifetime of throwing square bales and carrying buckets of grain created a stout figure. It was with good reason his subform was a Clydesdale. Yet that was now a burden. She would never be able to get him out of there, not if he passed out in his present form.
He mustered what energy remained and shifted. His spine and legs shrank, the white tufts of hair around his hooves fading into callused hands and booted feet. His dark mane and tail disappeared, and his eyes migrated from the sides of a long face to the front of a rounded one.
The burning, icy pain in his chest remained.
He tasted dirt. He didn’t remember collapsing to the ground but realized he must have when Jeri rolled him onto his back. His head was in her lap. Winston looked up at her face, her soft brown eyes wet, tears dripping from her cheeks to land in his hair. He did not know what had happened to the calves, what happened now to him, but decided that he would survive whatever this was. He had to, for her.
“What should I do?” Jeri asked, her lips tremulous as she spoke.
Just before he lost consciousness he said, “Get word to Ember Wright.”
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