Thinning of the Herd

Hellraiser

Michael Knost is a Bram Stoker Award-winning author, editor, and columnist of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and supernatural thrillers. He has written many books in various genres, and helmed anthologies such as the bestselling series Legends of the Mountain State. His Writers Workshop of Horror recently won the Black Quill and Bram Stoker Awards for superior achievement in nonfiction. He has also served as ghostwriter for several projects, including associations with the Discovery Channel and Lionsgate Media. He is currently writing a Mothman novel slated for release next year. To find out more, visit www.MichaelKnost.com.

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The Wyoming sky darkened with rain as a chilling wind swept through the plains. Max Carson shifted in the saddle, pulling his jacket’s collar together with one hand. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt the sun on his face.

“Maybe we ought to get back to town, girl,” he said, patting the horse’s neck. “My rear’s gone numb.”

The rain stirred an earthy scent, transforming the dirt into reddish mud. Even with the muck, Max loved the peace and quiet of the open plains. No sheriff duties to worry about. No empty house to face. Just ordinary nothingness as far as the eye could see.

He was ready to head back when movement on the horizon caught his attention. The rain and distance made it impossible to make out the figure, yet bristling neck hairs prompted him to rest a hand on his Remington Rolling Block. After losing track of whatever was there, Max ground coarse knuckles into weary eye sockets. I must be seeing things.

He pulled out a tarnished flask, downing what remained of the whiskey. The cheap liquor left a trail of warmth in his chest, settling in his gut. Beatrice bought the flask for him as an anniversary gift, yet moved back to Utah six months ago--taking little Emma with her--after accusing him of using the flask more than she’d intended.

Max found the movement again, this time he thought the thing may have been walking upright, yet knew it was too big for a man. But that blob of movement--what little he could see of it--seemed familiar. Is that a buffalo? He put away the flask and turned back toward Lander City. “I can’t seem to--”

He eased the rifle a few inches from the saddle scabbard before recognizing the approaching rider’s red hair. Max often joked about a campfire he’d supposedly set with nothing more than wet kindling and a single strand of deputy William McDougal’s hair.

“I figured I’d find you out here,” William said, riding closer. “Seeing how tomorrow’s such a big day for you.”

“You heard, huh?”

“Look, maybe she’s coming to patch things up.” William sounded as though he was trying to convince himself. “She probably misses you just as bad as you miss her.”

“The telegraph said she wants a bill of divorcement, Will.”

“Well, that doesn’t mean--”

“I appreciate your concern, but I really don’t want to talk about it.”

William shrugged. “Well, I wanted to let you know a couple of ranchers came by the jail claiming somebody’s stealing cattle.”

Max rolled his eyes. “Let me guess, they’re blaming the Arapaho.”

“Actually they say Ben Porter’s behind it.”

Max laughed. “Ben may be guilty of watering down whiskey but he’s no cattle rustler.”

William offered a decaying grin. “We’d best be going, we’re liable to have the whole town waiting for us.”

Max looked back, catching sight of the distant motion again. “Tell me something,” he said, nodding toward the movement. “Does that buffalo look peculiar to you?”

Will leaned forward, squinting. “You sure that’s a buffalo?”

“Not really.” The silhouette disappeared behind rock formations. “But what else could it be?”

“You know, when I was a boy, buffalo ran by the thousands ‘round here.” Will made a tisking sound. “Hardly see any these days, though.”

“That’s because the government paid a bunch of men to kill them in order to feed railroad workers.”

“God almighty, there must have been an army of rail hands,” William said, gesturing toward the plains. “You couldn’t throw a sandstone out there thirty years ago without hitting one of the poor bastards--buffalo that is, not railroaders.”

“Well, as usual, the government didn’t give a shit about feeding railroaders, their goal was to exterminate Indians. They figured it’d be easier to destroy the one thing the natives depended on for everything.”

William shook his head. “Buffalo.”

“They called it thinning the herd, and you can bet your bottom dollar they weren’t talking about buffalo.”

“You know quite a bit about this.”

Max reached for the flask but remembered it was empty. “I was one of the hired guns.”

On the way back into town, Max noticed Nathan Jessup and his two sons riding out toward them. Although appearing tall in the saddle, Nathan was smaller than the average rancher.

“Something’s got to be done,” Nathan said, face red. “I’ve had two head of cattle stolen in four days.”

“Three, Daddy,” the older boy said. “Counting this one.”

The youngest boy, no older than seven, smiled while twirling a wooden pistol on his index finger. Max wondered if Nathan spent all his time carving toys instead of keeping track of his animals. “Are you sure they’re missing? You’ve got an awfully big place here.”

“I know my property, Sheriff!”

Max forced half a smile. “Mind if we look around?”

Cattle grazed in a small valley not far from the bunkhouse. A few hired hands turned toward Max and William as they approached.

“Don’t mind us.” Max revealed the badge under his jacket. “We’re just checking on things.”

A light breeze carried the smells of coffee and manure, reminding Max of his early years at his father’s ranch. Dick Carson was as tough as Mexican leather and just as unrelenting. But the old man’s workers befriended Max, introducing him to his most faithful life companions: plug tobacco and Wild Turkey.

William took a drink from his canteen and handed it to Max. “What do you figure is going on?”

“Hard to say.” The canteen’s warm water shocked his senses as he’d expected the soothing bite of whiskey. He started to spit it out when something on the hillside caught his attention.

William turned to follow his gaze. “What is it?”

Max pointed to circling vultures on the hillside. “I guess Nathan don’t know his property after all.”

They headed up the embankment, entering a wooded area where the stench of death lingered like fog near the top. A turkey buzzard took flight from a maggoty mess, startling them.

“Looks like a large calf,” William said, pressing a dingy bandana over his mouth and nose.

Blowflies clouded the carcass, buzzing as if a single entity. “Damn.” Max’s throat tightened. “I’ve never laid eyes on claw marks like those.”

“Reckon a bear did this?”

Max shrugged. “Whatever did it drug the poor creature here.” He pointed out blood specks on broken branches. “Away from the herd.”

 

 

(C) Michael Knost 2010

 

 

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