Our first work of fiction for your reading pleasure thus far. We enjoyed the humor present in this story’s dialogue sections and in the unique characterization of Bessie. We have a feeling you’ll come to agree.
The Hobby Cowboy
About three years ago, my wife, Pinky, talked me into moving. I say she talked me into moving because I was content where I was. Regardless, she had found a place she liked better and was moving with or without me. Not seeing any other choice, I moved.
Pinky picked a good place, forty acres with a spacious farmhouse that was older than both of our ages combined. Fortunately, the fella who had it before us didn’t waste any time hunting or fishing. The house had been totally gutted and redone. New plumbing, heating and air, cabinets, and paint; even the house inspector found little to write up about the place. Having been a sucker most of my life, I knew it was too good to be true.
“The previous owner, did he die or something?” I asked attentively of the realtor.
“William?” Pinky snapped. Pinky, having never attended the school of screw-overs as I have, finds that kind of questioning offensive. I couldn’t imagine a guy spending all this time on a house and then selling it. I kept my mouth shut.
It wasn’t until we were signing the papers that the scam was brought to light. Under property description were the words “hobby farm.” I broke into a cold sweat. Unable to speak, I meekly pointed with a trembling hand.
“What is it, sweetie? Did you find a grammar error? I know how you love a good grammar error.”
“There,” I managed to say, afraid to repeat the words rattling around in my head.
“Yes, hobby farm. I don’t see the error.”
“Hobby doesn’t bother me—it’s that second word.”
“Farm?” said Pinky. I unconsciously started grinding my teeth. Flashbacks of endless chores, broken equipment, and animal dung broke like a dam from some suppressed area of my brain, rushing into my conscious mind like floodwater. I swear I heard a rooster crow.
“But you grew up on a farm?”
“Actually,” the realtor piped in, “it’s more of a hobby ranch. This reminds me that I need to tell you about Bessie.”
“Please tell me she’s a ghost that haunts the house,” I said.
“No, she’s actually a cow. An Irish Dexter that the previous owner left with the property.”
“This is a nightmare,” I said, putting my head in my hands.
“An Irish Dexter?” Pinky asked.
“Yes, they’re a smaller breed of cattle. Really cute.”
“Cute? Oh god, I think I’m hyperventilating.”
“Oh, calm down, William. You knew this place had acreage. What did you think we were gonna do with it, hunt?”
“Yes! I thought that was the deal. You get the house and I get ground to play on, not work on.”
“Oh, it will be fun. You grew up on a farm. You’ve told me dozens of times about those hilarious mishaps.”
It was true I’d wasted half my youth laboring on farm duties. It wasn’t until I went to college that I realized not everyone farmed and that was okay. Pinky, on the other hand, always seemed delighted by my tales of farming as a youth. I think the idea intrigued her urban logic.
“Fortunately,” the realtor piped in again, “it’s more of a ranch than a farm.”
“See, it’s not even a farm. It’s a ranch, Will.”
“A hobby ranch,” the realtor said, smiling.
“No, it isn’t true. It isn’t,” I muttered. I was in denial, the first stage of farm-purchase grief.
Then I got angry. Not the scream-and-shout kind of angry. The bitter kind of angry where I quietly seethed through the whole moving process, followed by me making a bargain with myself that if I got rid of the cow it wouldn’t be a farm anymore. Then I got depressed reflecting on bitter memories of kicks and stomps I received as a youth. Then I accepted the fact that I now lived on a farm. All this took about three-and-a-half days. I understand that the larger the spread, the longer the grieving period.
“Forty acres with one cow,” I told my wife as we were placing dishes in the kitchen cabinet three nights after moving in. “That’s chump change. Heck, as a half-grown kid I was in charge of whole milk-barn of Jersey cattle.”
“Well, I’m glad to see you’re feeling better, dear. Say, we’ve been working on this house all day. Let’s go for a walk around the forty.”
“Sounds great, dear. Have you seen my boots while we’ve been unpacking? All I’ve got are these tennis shoes to wear.”
Looking back, my limited selection of footwear may have been the only thing that saved me on that first encounter with Bessie. Who knew I’d be running?
We had just made it to the very back of the property when my wife elbowed me and whispered, “Look over there.”
I thought she’d spotted something important like a ten-point buck, only to look over in disappointment: a mini black cow.
“That must be Bessie,” said my wife.
“Sure, or her sister.” I said.
“Isn’t she cute? Oh, William, can we keep her?”
“You keep kittens because they’re cute. It doesn’t work that way with cows.”
The whole time we had been talking, Bessie had been eyeing us with suspicion while chewing her cud. A nonthreatening glare meant to keep our alarm down. The top of her back came to about my waist and the two horns on her head didn’t look long enough to cause a flesh wound. Bessie looked like an overgrown toy.
“Do you think she’ll let me pet her?” Pinky said, taking a step toward Bessie.
All at once Bessie’s potential energy exploded into kinetic. Bessie grew three times her size with horns as long as pool sticks. I heard my wife scream (or it could have been me) as I turned tail in the direction of the house. After a few hundred yards I noticed my wife wasn’t with me.
I pushed the image of Bessie stomping the mutilated body of my spouse out of my head long enough to yell, “Pinky?”
To my great relief, there was a response of, “Over here, you stupid blank-of-a-blank.”
Carefully, I eased through the brush until I came to Pinky thrashing in the waters of a mudhole pond, Bessie on the other side condensed to her original size and resuming the chewing of her cud.
“What happened to you?” I asked.
“What do you mean? You left me!”
My wife, unschooled and unconditioned in farm life, didn’t understand that when cows attack, heroic gestures only cause bodily harm and it’s better if every man accounts for himself. I was trying to think of how to break this to my wife when she intruded on my train of thought.
“She chased me into this pond. And you just left me!”
“She chased you into the pond?” I asked, making a mental note of Bessie’s behavior. She doesn’t like water.
“No, it just looked so inviting I couldn’t restrain myself from taking a swim. Now help me out of here.”
Finding a long stick, I gave Pinky a hand, doing my best to keep my sneakers dry. Covered in bright green duck grass from head to toe, she looked like Swamp Thing.
“What are you smiling at? I could have been killed.”
“You know those hilarious mishaps? I think this makes the top of my list.”
Pinky stomped off, muttering. The only two words I made out were “horses” and “ass.” I didn’t think it a good time to school her on the fact that horses and donkeys are different animals. Left alone, I turned to look at Bessie—who wasn’t there. The hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I knew she was still watching me. I hurried after Pinky to the safety of the house.
After two showers and a glass of wine, Pinky finally spoke a direct full sentence to me as we climbed into bed.
“Get rid of Bessie.”
Evidently, Bessie’s cuteness had worn off quickly.
“It’s not that easy,” I stammered.
“I don’t care. I’m afraid she’ll hurt someone.”
“Yeah, me too. Mostly me.”
“Just get rid of her.”
The next morning I searched the Internet for a cattle hauler. After a few phone calls, I had a gentleman who agreed to come out that day and take a look. An hour later, he turned in the drive, pulling a long aluminum trailer behind his Ford Dually truck. He stepped out donning a palm-leaf cowboy hat, a pearl-snap, long-sleeve shirt, Wrangler jeans, and boots. A thick mustache covered his upper lip, the tips of the hairs stained by Copenhagen. A real cowboy, I thought—he’ll know what to do. He introduced himself as Buck Thompson. Even his name sounded heroic to me. I’d found my man.
“You been cowboyin’ long?” I asked. It was such a stupid question to ask; a real cowboy is born in the saddle.
“Oh, well, what’s your horse’s name?” I asked.
“Taco. Won the team-roping event off her last weekend.”
“Fascinating,” I said.
It’s a little-known fact Missouri ranks number two in cattle production in the United States. However, it never had the rich cowboyin’ history of Texas. Growing up, we never had a horse. Our cowboyin’ was done on foot with buckets of grain, willow branches cut for swatting sticks, and—if things got bad—rocks. For this reason I’d never considered myself a real cowboy growing up. I mean, when was the last time you saw John Wayne rope a milk cow?
Buck disappeared to the end of the trailer and there were a few thuds as he unloaded Taco, a tall chestnut roan. Taco was already saddled and Buck climbed onto her back with the ease of most people stepping into a warm bath. Adjusting the saddle a bit, he took a can of Copenhagen out of his shirt’s chest pocket, tapped it on the saddle horn, and pinched a bit of the snuff into his gums.
“Alright, where is this pygmy cow?” Buck asked.
“Right back that way.” I pointed in Bessie’s direction. “Say, uh, you don’t… I mean, I can if you want… Need help?”
“Probably not this time, Bud.”
“Right. Okay, well, I’ll be in the house doing some work. So, yeah, if you need me,” I said, trying not to sound too excited that I didn’t have to help.
“I’ll let you know when I’ve got her all loaded up,” Buck said, leading Taco into the pasture. I watched him start to take the trail Pinky and I had taken the night before. Immediately, Buck met his first adversity to Ozark Cowboyin’: tree limbs. Not able to take the direct path Pinky and I had followed, he maneuvered Taco around some buckbrush and disappeared. I retreated to the safety of the house.
Watching through the back window, I counted the minutes waiting for Buck’s triumphant return. Around minute sixteen I heard the first sounds of a fierce struggle. Pinky came along about this time and asked what was going on.
“Hush,” I said.
“Don’t hush me. What’s going on?”
As she stood glaring at me, Bessie burst from the brush. She didn’t look as intense as I remembered during the attack, but she didn’t look happy. One end of a rope was looped around one of her stumpy horns and she jerked and bucked as if being stung by bees. She was shortly followed by a disheveled looking Buck holding the other end of the rope.
“What’s he trying to do?” asked Pinky.
“What I hired him to do.”
“Maybe you should help him.”
“He’s a professional. He made it very clear he didn’t want my help.”
Even though I could see Buck was flustered, I was confident he would come out on top.
Boy, was I wrong. He’d played right into Bessie’s plan.
Now in the open, Bessie rushed around a lone blackjack tree, then shot back toward the woods. Taco was doing her best to take up the slack in the rope as Bessie disappeared back into the woods, dragging Buck and Taco into the low limbs of the blackjack. Buck’s hat flew off as a tree branch whipped off Taco’s neck and into his face, bloodying his nose. A few expletives were released as Buck and Taco disappeared back into the woods. We heard Buck yell, “Get back! Get back!”
Then all went eerily mute.
“You know, maybe I should call 911,” I said.
“Maybe you should go out there and help?”
“You want to be a widow?”
As I said this Bessie came marching victoriously from the brush, the rope and Buck having disappeared. She paraded up to the fence, her tail arched defiantly, eyes blazing, looking for her next victim.
I’ve heard of elephants using low-level bellows to communicate with other elephants several miles away, of whales having a vocabulary of calls and songs that scientists have yet to decipher, and of the amazing chemical communication of ants. But I have never sensed a connection with an animal like I did as Bessie eyed me in the window, stopped dead in her tracks, and stared into my soul. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and I must have blacked out, for when I finally felt my eyes blink, Bessie was gone.
“Where’d she go?”
“Back in the brush, but more importantly, where’s your cowboy?”
An image of Buck’s mangled body hanging from a tree limb was just starting to form in my mind as Taco and Buck limped out of the woods. I hurried to the back door. Buck was bloody. Taco had no visible flesh wound but seemed to be favoring her right hind leg. I asked what any reasonable, non-medically trained person would ask.
Buck didn’t answer. He just laid Taco at the back of the trailer. I’d never seen a horse load so fast.
Again applying my most sympathetic voice, I asked, “Anything broken?”
Buck still didn’t answer, only limped to the front of his truck and climbed in the cab. He fired up the engine and rolled down the window.
“When will you be back to try again?” I asked.
“Don’t call me. I’ll call you.”
A few days went by and I hadn’t heard from Buck. I dialed his number, feeling that same tight-gut feeling I’d had calling up some girl I had a crush on in my juvenile years. I could feel myself swallow with every ring on the line, dreading the moment when he might answer, and wishing to God he would. He didn’t.
I hung up the phone and wrote him off. I thought I’d reward myself for the effort with a stroll into town for a visit to the gun shop. Heck, maybe I’d buy a new gun to hunt down Bessie.
My friend Frank runs a hunting and fishing/knickknack shop in town. He attracts a variety of weirdos that make a weekly stop to visit, me being one of his favorites.
“Hello, Will, what’s new with you?” he asked as I walked through the door.
“What’s a good caliber for cow?”
“No, cow cow.”
He gave me a puzzled look and I explained my situation.
“You need to call my cousin Carl,” he said when I finished.
“Is he a good cowboy?”
“I wouldn’t call him a cowboy, but he knows how to handle cattle—that is, he did until he got locked up.”
“Locked up? Listen, thanks, but I don’t want some tweaker on my property.”
“No, he got locked up for cattle rustling.”
“Like stealing cattle? That’s a thing?” I asked ignorantly. I thought they only existed in Western movies.
“Oh yeah. If he can’t catch ’em, no one can. I’m gonna see him later. I’ll give him your number.”
“Great, thanks,” I said, figuring I’d never get that call.
That night, at about eleven, I was awakened from a sound sleep to my phone ringing. Thinking it might be Buck, I answered on the third ring.
“Is this Will?”
“This is Carl. When do you want to catch that cow?”
“As soon as possible.”
“I can come over tonight, but it will cost more.”
“Tomorrow will work.”
“I’ll be there at sunup.”
“Sure.” And then the phone went dead.
“Who was that, dear?” Pinky asked from under a night mask on her side of the bed.
“That’s nice dear, and who is Carl?”
“Some cousin of Frank’s that catches cattle.” Leaving out the part about Carl being a convicted felon, I lay back, wondering what time sunup was and how Carl knew where I lived. But I guessed rustlers have their ways.
I didn’t sleep much after the phone call and was awake by 5 a.m. The sun wasn’t up yet so I figured I wasn’t late. I was going for my second cup of coffee, just as the first signs of daylight were emerging from the window, when I noticed a rusty pickup sitting in the drive with an even rustier stock trailer connected to the bumper. Shocked, I stepped outside, wondering how long a vehicle had been parked there without my knowledge. A man was leaning against the front bumper of the truck smoking a cigarette. He looked nothing like the image of a rustler to me.
He was pudgy and dressed in bib overalls. His feet were adorned with some camouflage Crocs. He was bearded and had on a sweat-stained truckers’ hat from the local feed mill. He looked vaguely familiar, like I might have seen his picture on the People of Wal-Mart website.
“Are you Will?” the man asked, and I recognized the tone from the phone. I thought of saying no. I stood there trying to decide what to say when Carl spoke again. “Let’s go catch this gyp before it gets any brighter.”
“But how?” I asked. The question was meant to be geared toward the truck. How did it get in the drive without me knowing? I think Carl thought I meant Bessie.
“Minor details,” is all he said as he lifted his butt off the bumper and gestured me to follow. I was too stunned to decline.
The trailer was parked in such a manner that, with the trailer’s rear door open, it blocked the gap left by the open gate. Carl entered the trailer via a side door toward the trailer’s front. Following, I noted the trailer’s floor was blanketed with carpet. I turned to ask Carl the purpose of the carpet, but he was already heading toward the woods, two dogs on either side of him that hadn’t made themselves noticed until now. Dumbfounded, I stood there watching them go until they stopped at the edge of the woods.
“You coming?” he asked.
“Listen, I’m not sure what kind of help I’ll be. Maybe I should just wait in the house. I’m more of a hobby cowboy.”
“Cowboy? Shoot, son. Cowboys got nothing to do with this.”
“Well, yeah, maybe. But I’m…” I was digging through my bag of lies, but couldn’t clutch anything valid enough to use.
“I’ll tell you what. Since it’s your first time and all, I’ll let you be the racer.”
“Racer? What’s that?”
“Oh, nothing much. You just run back through the trailer and exit via the escape door.”
“That’s the door on the side? And how will I know when?”
“Yes. I’ll holler. Oh, and be sure to shut it behind you.”
And with that, he turned and walked into the woods. I took a tentative step off the trailer, wondering just how fast I could make it back to the trailer. I’ve never been known for my ground speed. I’m no dummy; I knew what Carl was asking me to do. I should’ve turned and gone into the house. Maybe I was just desperate to rid myself of Bessie, or maybe it was the way Carl just marched off into the woods so fearlessly, but something mustered what minor hero material was in me. Stupidly, I followed, feeling like a lamb being taken to slaughter.
Our quartet found Bessie by the mudhole pond, patiently chewing her cud. I thought Carl would send the dogs instantly, but he only stood staring at her in silence.
Finally, I asked, “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing. I’m just figuring. You stay here. I want to see what she does when she’s approached.”
“Explodes,” I said.
Carl either didn’t hear me or didn’t care because he took the dogs and started around the pond. Bessie noted their movements with the skilled tactician of a seasoned veteran. As Carl and the dogs circled the pond, she shifted her hind legs around, keeping her pointed stubs of horns pointed in their direction. Then she started backing up. I’d never seen her back down from a fight, but the dogs, I figured, were a new threat she had not dealt with before. As she backed up, she kept edging around the pond, keeping the water between her and Carl. I stood stock-still, not sure of my role in this tango, watching as her rump inched closer to me.
Transfixed on Carl and the dogs, Bessie finally backed around the pond until she was a mere ten yards away. I hadn’t moved, wasn’t even sure I was breathing, but she abruptly whirled around to face me. I felt death was certain now—that at any moment she would charge, drilling her horns into me before stomping me to death with her mini-hooves.
“Run!” Carl shouted, startling Bessie who glanced his direction. “Run, now!”
I swear Bessie knew what he said, because she turned and looked at me, an evil smirk coming across her face. Bessie was looking for a fight. I wasn’t giving her one. I ran.
I ran as fast as my short legs would go, and, feeling Bessie’s hot breath on my backside, jammed into another gear I didn’t even know I had. I was preparing to hit Mach 1 when the trailer came into sight. I took a quick glimpse back before entering the trailer and could see the dogs nipping at Bessie’s heels. I exited the escape door, slamming it behind me. The trailer shook violently, Bessie bouncing off the sides like a wild bird put in a cage.
“Good job, Sport,” Carl said, coming around the end of the trailer, “Better get half-pint here to the yard before she brains herself. Have you got my pay?”
Stunned by my near-death experience, it took me a moment to answer. “Yeah. Yes. It’s inside. I’ll be right back.”
Rushing inside, I found Pinky at the back door, no longer wearing her night mask, but still in her robe.
“Where have you been?” she asked.
“Catching a killer cow.”
“You caught her?”
“Of course.” Playing it off, I continued, “Say, Carl wants to get paid. Grab me a check, please, before Bessie breaks out.”
She disappeared around the corner and I heard the drawer open and slam where we keep the checkbook. “How much is it?”
“I have no idea.”
Back outside I found Carl already in his truck, the two dogs in the passenger seat. Spontaneously, there would be a big thump from the trailer as Bessie tried her best to free herself, the truck rocking a little with each blow.
“How much is it?”
“Two hundred is my standard hauling fee.”
“Great,” I said, and started writing out the check.
“I prefer cash.”
“Oh, well. I don’t…”
“A check will do, as long as it’s good.”
“Oh, it’s good. I promise.” I tore out the check and handed it to him.
“I guess you want the check from the yard mailed to here? That is, if she brings more than the postage cost.”
“Yes, here’d be great.”
“All right then,” Carl said, and put the truck in drive. “Take ’er easy.”
Following Pinky through the grocery store a month later, I found myself in the meat department. I realized I hadn’t thought of Bessie in a while, but seeing the red meat lying on Styrofoam plates wrapped in plastic made me wonder where she was now. Her display on the selling floor at the stockyard must have been impressive; she brought a whole fifty dollars, according to the check I received. She may have been compact, but she fought like a giant.
Will Brooks received his bachelor’s degree from Drury University, with a major in creative writing and a minor in business. He currently works for his family’s propane company. He loves working with his hands and enjoys many outdoor activities, hunting being his favorite pastime. He lives on a large farm, in a house that was built with lumber harvested and milled right on the farm over sixty years ago. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hawaii Pacific Review, Pencil Box Press, Ignatian Literary Review, Critical Pass Review, Stirring: A Literary Collection, and The Penmen Review. He is also a member of the Missouri Writers’ Guild.