DEATH ON THE RANGE
By Richard Paolinelli
(* – All Rights Reserved. May not be copied or republished in any form without author’s written consent)
Slim Jenkins swore softly as his buckskin dun topped the ridge and saw what he’d been hoping he wouldn’t see again for a long time. Another dead cow, the sixth in the last two weeks. Even as he rode up to the carcass he knew exactly what he’d find.
The animal would be dead, drained of every drop of blood, and no sign of the wound that caused the loss save for two small holes near the head. Even more puzzling to the lean, aptly-named cowboy, there would not be a spot of the animal’s blood to be found on the ground nearby.
He’d been riding for the Slash- S-Slash brand in the Wyoming Territory for six years now, ever since the War Between the States wound down, and for other brands most of his life before the war. He’d seen his share of dead cattle, but nothing before like this.
“Curly,” Slim shouted back over his shoulder as he heard the rider behind him top the ridge, “come on down here. We’ve got another one.”
“Damn,” Curly exclaimed as he rode up. “The boss ain’t gonna like this.”
“I reckon,” Slim replied as he studied the carcass. “You know what I don’t figure? I saw this very cow alive and well not a mile from here just yesterday. So how the hell does it wind up looking dead and dried out like it’s been out here for a month less than 24 hours later? And with all the coyotes and mountain lions we got crawling around here, why ain’t none of them come down and fed on any of this meat? None of the six cows we’ve found dead have been touched.”
Curly took off his hat, revealing a mop of hair that had earned him his nickname as a young boy. The running joke was that you could tell if it was about to rain by looking at the top of Curly’s head. The more moisture in the air, the more his hair would curl up.
“It just ain’t natural,” Curly said as he looked down on the animal. “Lots of unnatural things going on around these here parts lately, too. Why, I was down at Fort Laramie last month and them soldier boys was talking about a ranch south of there they’d come on, all abandoned. All the hands, all the stock, just up and gone.”
“Indians,” Slim replied. “Or maybe they just packed up and left? This is a hard country on folks, they might have had enough.”
“That’s just it,” Curly replied. “That family has been at that ranch for generations. Besides, all their belongings, saddles and tools were still sitting there. Indians would have taken some of the stuff and burned the rest. It was like every living thing at that ranch had been scooped up and carried away. And what about them lights right here in the valley?”
“What lights?” Slim asked. Riding the line cabin watch in the hills above the ranch, Slim rarely came in aside from a trip in for supplies and to pick up his pay every other month.
“The last week or so we’ve been seeing lights where no light should be shining,” Curly explained. “It ain’t a campfire. Ain’t no lantern neither. A couple of times we’ve ridden out toward them but they blink out before we can get to ’em. It just ain’t natural I tell you.”
“Well,” said Slim as he turned his attention back to the dead cow, Curly could carry on like a gossipy old woman once you let him get started. “People leaving a ranch and strange lights ain’t got much to do with our dead cows I reckon. I can’t figure out what’s killing them. These two holes are smaller than even a derringer bullet would leave, no arrow or knife made these either, and they damn sure didn’t do enough damage inside to kill a cow. This just don’t figure.”
Ever since Slim had hired on, cattle losses for the ranch had dropped dramatically. While the loss of six cows wouldn’t be considered a huge loss to a ranch running well over three thousand head, Curly knew Slim took it personally if even a single cow was lost on his watch. Once he figured out the how and who of it, Curly mused, Slim would no doubt be ready to read scripture to the culprit, two or four-legged. Still, Curly had to admit, it just didn’t figure.
“No, it just ain’t natural,” Curly said again. “Like that gent that came to visit the ranch. He’s been there a couple of weeks now. Some royalty from Europe, he says, and came in by way of Denver on his way to Seattle. The womenfolk seem to cotton to him right off, but he just don’t seem human to me. All pale and cold like.”
Slim, who had been trying to tune out Curly carrying on about trivial matters, had caught the undertone in Curly’s voice when he’d mentioned the women taking a liking to the visitor.
“So what does Doris think of him,” Slim said, unable to keep a slight smirk of his face as he looked up. Curly’s face flushed red.
“Now you got no call to go disparaging my Doris that way,” Curly blustered. “She’s jest being polite like the good girl she is. And that don’t change the fact that there’s something not right about him either.”
Slim chuckled as he stood up and stepped away from the carcass. Normally, he’d butcher the cow so the meat would not be wasted. But, like the coyotes and the mountain lions, he was strangely reluctant to touch the remains. As if there was something unclean about it.
With an irritated shake of his head, he dismissed the thought. Keep it up, he thought to himself, and you’re going to end up sounding like Curly. Slim glanced to the west; the sun was just starting to sink below the horizon.
“Well,” he said as he turned toward his horse, “not much more we can do out here. It’ll be dark long before I can get back to the cabin. Might as well head in to the ranch and stock up, let the boss know what’s going on out here. He may want to start moving the stock in closer to the ranch house until we figure this out.
“Besides,” Slim continued as he pulled himself up into the saddle, “it’ll give me a chance to see this feller that’s got you all riled up. Say, what’s this European prince’s name anyway?”
“He ain’t no prince,” Curly retorted as he swung his horse around to follow Slim back to the ranch. “He’s a count. Count Dracula of Transylvania, wherever the hell that is.”
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If you liked this short western story check out my full-length western novel, The Last Lonely Trail, co-written with acclaimed western author Jim Christina. Available in print and on Kindle.