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Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Western · #1517784
Cowboys mysteriously dying. Can you figure it out?
                                                                      JONQUIL IN SPRING
    His mother, her brain slightly addled by the incessant West Texas wind, was overly fond of flowers. When she first glimpsed the tiny face of her new-born son with its delicate creases, it reminded her of daffodil petals; so she named him "Jonquil." His father, a cattle rancher, did not object to this sissified name because he did not know what a jonquil was. Besides he left such matters up to his wife.

    His grandfather was Lt. J. B. Stallings, CSA, aide-de-camp to General John Bell Hood. At the battle for Fredericksburg, his staff around him, Hood was singled out by a Yankee sniper. Lt Stallings flung himself in front of his general and the ball passed clean through his side. All in attendence declared that it was a supreme act of bravery. Lt Stallings was granted a medical discharge. He returned to a grateful state of Texas, whose legislature awarded him a huge piece of property in the desolate western part of the state. The South was winning the war then and could afford to be generous with worthless land. Stallings' parcel was not measured in acres, but in square miles, being only a few shy of the size of Delaware. Lt. Stallings called his ranch "Delaware," and adopted the Diamond D brand.

                                        *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

    Now, Jonquil Stallings, bachelor, ran 2,000 head of white-faced Herefords with the help of twenty ranch hands. The ramrod was a man named Martin Holyhill, whom everyone called "Mart" to his face and "holy Hell" behind his back. He ran the ranch in 1985 the same way it was done in 1885-- riders on horseback were able to traverse the crumpled landscape far easier than mechanized vehicles.

    That November, 1985, the weather suddenly turned bitterly cold. The oldest hand on the place was called Sam Rockitt. He had iron-gray hair and a pure white mustache, neither of which had been trimmed in decades. He also had a gravelly, deep voice which lent him an air of authority.

  "I seen this afore," he declared, "sometimes when cold weather comes this early it means the rest of the winter will be mild. Kinda like Mother Nature was apologizin' for trickin' us thataway."

    "I hope you're right," said Breezy Lawnton, "I'll be lookin' fo'ard to a mild winter."

    But Sam Rockitt was wrong. The freezing weather persisted deep into February with the temperature hovering around zero degrees. Maybe four above or four below, but then nobody had a thermometer. The constant wind, usually out of the West, turned to come out of the Arctic North-- a "blue Norther." Then it began to snow-- sideways. It was  something of a mystery how snowflakes travelling in a horizontal direction parallel to the ground could accumulate, but they did. At first only two inches or so, but enough to hide the grasses and forbs the cattle ate. When the snow reached six inches with the cows hungry, Jon Stallings summoned Mart Holyhill.

    "Time to distibute the Alfalfa grass in Barn No. 2," was all he said.

  Mart assigned the task of hitching the mules to the hay wagon to Sam Rockitt and Breezy Lawnton. The mules had not worked since September and were reluctant to start. They stomped their feet and kicked up their murderous heels.They clacked their teeth, snorted and brayed. But the two cowboys, only slightly more intelligent than the two jackasses, prevailed. Soon, the mules were in their traces standing before the loaded wagon. Breezy Lawnton threw wide the double doors of the barn. An icy wind from Saskatchewan hit the mules square in the face and froze them.Their eyes became as wide as milk-jug lids; they locked their knees and stiffened their flanks. They wouldn't budge outside in this weather. Breezy Lawnton pulled on the reins in front; Sam Rockitt had found a flat board and was whacking their rumps from behind.

    Cap Hall, admiring the cussing, came into the barn bundled up against the cold. He had a heavy woolen muffler around the lower half of his face. It extended up over his ears and tucked into his hat which was drawn low over his eyes. He wore a dark green blanket coat and fur-lined mittens. Thus disguised, he was not recognizable as a human being to the mules. He slowly approached the front of the right side mule, gently grabbed the reins beneath the animal's chin and exerted slight backward pressure. The bit prodded into the corners of the mule's mouth; a signal that meant "Stop." With his other hand, Cap began to stroke the velvety hairs on the beast's nose, all the while cooing sweet-nothing words. It took a full twenty minutes, but the mule's laid-back ears came forward, its eyes fluttered and blinked, the muscles relaxed. Cap then pulled forward on the reins meaning "Go." The mule took several tentative steps forward, its mate, attached by the tree, followed. Soon the entire wagon was outside the barn. In the twenty minutes Cap spent in persuasive distraction the temperature inside the barn had fallen to zero and it was no longer a shock for the mules to be outside. They resigned themselves to resume work.

    Sam Rockitt climbed onto the seat and Cap Hall and Breezy Lawnton swung into the bed. Sam drove out five miles and then turned left. This was the prompt for Cap and Breezy to begin hurling armsful of hay out either side of the wagon. By the time the wagon was empty, they had lain down a double swath of hay in a semicircle. The following day they completed the circle. The next day Sam drove out from Barn No. 2 ten miles before turning. It took four days to complete this circle. But now there were two concentric circles of hay. The farthest ring extended a full twenty miles wide in every direction; enough to encompass almost the entire ranch. Any cows beyond could easily walk to the outer hay circle.

    Coming back to Barn No. 2 on the last day, Sam Rockitt noticed a heifer lying on her side. He stopped the wagon and jumped down to investigate. Breezy Lawnton did not like sick cows; they bit and kicked cowboys who were only trying to help.

    "Careful thar, Sam," he warned, "she mighta been bit by a coyote and has the rabies."

    But Sam Rockitt knew the cow was not rabid. Her tongue lolled out of her mouth; her eyes rolled eratically. She was having difficulty breathing. When he lifted her head, she let go a collosal hiccough. The air was drenched with the odor of sour whiskey. Sam Rockitt stood up, arms akimbo.

    "Damn me," he swore, "this cow is drunk!"

    But Sam Rockitt was wrong. The cow was not drunk and in two hours she was dead. The next day when Sam rode out to check on the heifer, he found her frozen solid.

    When Sam Rockitt returned to the bunkhouse he learned he was not the first to report a dead steer. Several cowboys were standing around Mart Holyhill, detailing their sightings of carcasses. But Sam was the only one who had seen a cow sick.

    "She were drunk," Sam Rockitt declared. "I seen this afore. Seen Injuns git drunk, stumble in the snow and lay down to go to sleep, then wake up dead. The elerments gits to 'em. The cold seeps in and freezes their innards. Kills 'em. As long as them bossies are standing on their stony hooves the elerments cain't touch 'em, but loaded and tired. . .well. . ."

    "Drunk?" Mart Holyhill broke in. "How's a cow get drunk?"

    "Fermented hay, I reckon," Sam Rockitt reasoned authoritatively. "It seems to be just after we put down the hay that the dyin' started."

    "Takes wet hay to ferment," said Mart. "We better check the store, don't want no rotten hay."

    But Sam Rockitt was wrong. Fermentation is indeed a phase of the process of decomposition the boys called "rot," but this process requires bacterial activity and bacteria require warmth. The temperature inside Barn No. 2 was not zero, but was below freezing and too low for bacterial growth even if the hay were sodden. The boozy breath Sam detected on the dead heifer came from gastric gases. In her stomach was warmth and moisture; the bacteria present were helping her digest the hay plant fibers, converting them to alcohol along the way.

    Mart Holyhill enlisted the help of Sam and three more cowboys and the five men spent the better part of two hours sifting through the hay stored in Barn No. 2. They could find no moisture. When they sniffed it, the hay smelled fresh and sweet, appealing to a cow. There was no musty smell of decomposition and certainly no odor of alcohol.

    "Better let the boss know," said Mart Holyhill.

    He was in the Big House standing before the door to Jon Stallings's office ready to knock when he figured he'd better brush off his coat. Jon Stallings opened the door just at that moment, on his way to the privy, and was greeted by a cloud of hay dust in his face.

    "Er, sorry there, boss," said Mart meekly.

    " 'At's all right, Holyhill. What's up?"

    "Bad news, cap'n, the cattle is dyin' right quick."

    Jon Stallings blanched. A certain amount of death in a cold winter could be expected, but he saw by Holyhill's demeanor that this was out of the ordinary. At $200 a head, his herd was worth $400,000, a small fortune. The loss of one or two, here or there, was bearable, but. . .

    "How many do you mean?"

    "'Bout fifty or sixty or so," Mart responded indefinitely. "Sam Rockitt thinks the cows were drunk from fermented hay."

    "You mean to tell me you put up wet hay, Holyhill?"

      Stallings wagged a finger just below Mart's chin. It was difficult for Jon Stallings not to call him "holy Hell." His pallor had turned choleric red. It felt natural to blame someone else for his troubles and Holyhill was conveniently handy.

    "No, sir, a'course not. We was just checkin' the hay and it's dusty dry, as you saw. I reckon the moisture mighta come from snowmelt."

    "Snowmelt?" Jon Stallings roared. "In this weather? Not likely. I want an accurate count of the dead ones. Send out all the boys and tell 'em to count exact. Have 'em write down the number right there on a slip of paper. I don't want no relyin' on memory."

    In two days Jon Stallings had on his desk a six-inch high stack of fluttering toilet tissue squares; it being the only slips of paper the boys were familiar with. It took him a slap hour to total up the numbers. He calculated and re-calculated until he was sure he had a reliable figure: 438. A disaster! He suddenly became aware of a catch in his chest and the most violently severe headache he had ever known.

    Too much dust, worryin' and arithmetickin', he thought. Spring can't come soon enough.

    Spring did come, in the usual West Texas way. Overnight, the temperature rose thirty degrees. When the sun came out it rose another thirty. The unending wind shifted around back toward the East and blew the stench of rotting cows into the settlement. County Sheriff Prescott Eagan was summoned to investigate. He simply followed his nose to the Diamond D Ranch.

    There he was astonished to find hundreds of dead cattle strewn across the prairie. He stopped at one cluster of a dozen bodies and kicked the corpses. Some were firm while others were squishy inside from internal decomposition. He reasoned the firm ones were recently dead and the squishy ones old and rotting. He had it backwards, though. The firm flesh had been dead the longest. Frozen solid, it took a long time for 1800 pounds of beef to defrost. The bacteria responsible for decomposition demanded a warmth that was not yet available. On the other hand, recently dead cows provided body heat and the Spring sun did the rest.

    Sheriff Eagan remounted and took out a large bandana, scented with his wife's perfume, which he had brought along specifically for this purpose. He wrapped it around his nose and mouth and rode off like a bandit toward the Big House.  He had to recalculate his earlier count. There were not hundreds of dead cows, but thousands!

    He tied his horse to the porch railing and knocked long and hard at the door. No answer, but the door was unlocked. Prescott Eagan had never been in the Stallings Mansion. A series of doors led off the foyer; some hid rooms that had not been used in years.

    Eventually, he opened the door to Jon Stallings's office. There he found the owner slumped over his desk, his head resting on folded arms. Prescott Eagan instinctively reached out to prod the man awake when he realized by the ghostly grey of his face that Jon Stallings was dead.

    Eagan bolted out of the house leaving the front door open. He ran past his horse; sprinted the two hundred yards past Barn No. 2 to the bunkhouse. There he found the twenty cowboys all deceased. Some in their bunks, others slumped in chairs and many lying on the floor. He did not kick these corpses. Sam Rockitt was reclined on the dining table, face up; his hands gently clasped across his waist, clad only in faded red longjohns.

    Back at his office, Prescott Eagan did his best to write up a report:

              "This morning, I uncovered the inhabitants of the Diamond D Ranch, both   
          four-legged and two, succumbed to the terrible cold weather we have been
          having this past winter."

    It only briefly crossed his mind how odd it was that twenty-one fully clothed men, in separate heated buildings, could be killed by the cold. But strange weather phenomena were typical in West Texas. Perhaps the temperature had dropped suddenly to, say, one hundred degrees below zero, just in a pocket of air above the Diamond D Ranch. He hadn't a better explanation.

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    In 1993, a Native American residing at Zuni Pueblo in northwestern New Mexico, died suddenly and mysteriously. His name was Porfirio Ketasikibatiwa. The Medical Examiner in Gallup performed an autopsy expecting to find cirrhosis of the liver or coronary infarction. Instead he found the Indian's lungs had turned to mush. He scooped up a sample and sent it to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He reasoned that Indians were wards of the Federal Government, somehow, and maybe Walter Reed would send back the pathology report for free, saving the county $27. The victim's name was too long to include in the block marked "Name" on the vial label, so the M.E.'s secretary left it blank.

    The pathologist assigned to the sample was able to isolate from it a new and strange virus which belonged to the family of Hantaviruses. Searching for a name for this new bug, he noticed the empty entry under victim's name. So, rather facetiously, he called the new virus "Sin Nombre," literally "without name." Assuming also that all New Mexicans must speak Spanish.

    When laboratory rats were exposed to the new virus, they universally died! This was one nasty pathogen; second only to the Ebola virus of Africa.

    Later that year, it was determined that the transmission vector for the spread of Sin Nombre was dried mouse droppings inhaled by victims as dust.

                                                *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

    This revelation came too late for "the inhabitants of the Diamond D Ranch both four-legged and two." Barn No. 2 at the spread had been infested with mice which had come from miles around to get in out of the cold and to feast on Alfalfa seeds.

    Six months after Sheriff Prescott Eagan had "uncovered" the grisly tragedy at the Diamond D, a stone marker was erected at the Brewster County Cemetery. It read simply:

                                                                                          Here lies

                                                                                    Jonquil Stallings

                                                                                    Born October 3, 1924
                                                                                  found dead April 18, 1986
    The incessant West Texas wind swirled a handful of red dust past the gray granite. It was too late then for anybody to be interested in reading the unusual name on the inscription. Besides, nobody in West Texas knew what a jonquil was.

                                                                                              THE END
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