Robert James Russell
In the dark of the lowcountry between the baritone ruckus of beef cattle, the man named Lucas Shaener toiled. The steers had been corralled at dusk into the pen adjacent the barn by the farmer’s sons—adolescents ordered to aid the vet who shared no grand ambition to take over, talking instead about movies or about traveling to exotic places like California and Florida as they worked. A fierce rain had fallen soon after and had halted the work but now the boys were feeding them one by one into the squeeze chute, pinning them in place while Lucas’s cramped hands plunged the syringe into the beasts’ veined necks. Each steer would holler as if pinched—almost always in the same inflection—and then be released to join the others as Lucas discarded the large needle into a plastic tub and picked up another from the seemingly endless supply carried in a large black duffel.
They had been going on like this for hours and nearly three-quarters of the herd had been shot up. Lucas stood straight and stretched his back as the steer squirmed free of the stall. Made eyes with the boys who squinted through the floodlights posted on the angles of the barn roof, hands visored at their foreheads. “Let’s take a few,” he said.
The boys mumbled and walked away toward the fence talking and laughing, minds elsewhere completely. Lucas stepped back and looked at the ground—soaked with mud and cow shit, the occasional green sawgrass blade peeking up, desperate to break free. In the resulting stillness the steers had gathered together, finding comfort in one another, and as Lucas slushed across to the far side of the pen he quietly uttered “Hey ya” and, as if they understood, they parted to let him through.
“How’s it?” a voice called out suddenly. Lucas stopped and looked out behind him beyond the pen to the pickup that had suddenly appeared, headlights ablaze. Like the boys, he too had a hard time seeing—the whole pen was lit up like a gladiatorial arena, making it impossible to see the darkened fields beyond that rolled into one another and eventually bled into the late night sky—but he could just make out the unmistakable pear-shaped man shuffling slowly to the fence. The sound of his wheezing.
“Tom?” Lucas shouted.
Tom laughed. “Worried it was someone else?”
Lucas stood there, green rubber waders caked the color of pitch. “Pretty much.”
“Taking a break, then?”
“Just a breather.” Pause. “Hold up. I’ll come over so we don’t have to yell.”
As he approached, Tom removed a rag from his pocket, grinned like some hardboiled taskmaster. Lucas accepted it, wiped his hands clean. Smiled back. “The boys working out alright?” Tom said. “Give you any trouble?”
“No, they’re fine.”
Tom placed his hands in his coveralls along his great belly, clicked his tongue against the back of his teeth. “How much longer, you figure?”
Lucas breathed in deep, held it, exhaled out his nose. “If they continue behaving…couple hours, I guess.”
“The steers, or my boys?” Tom laughed, deep from the gut.
“Steers,” Lucas replied dryly.
“Good. Real good.” Pause. “How many other farms you do?”
“You know I can’t talk about that.”
“Afraid of those bad men finding out?”
Lucas cleared his throat, looked out past Tom, past the truck to the farmhouse about a hundred yards away. A tiny box lit up orange in the darkness. He thought of all the others just like it he’d seen this week. The men just like Tom—not just pear-shaped, some apple- and bean-shaped too—all restless, all thinking they’d be getting the leg-up. Beat out the rest and hold on to their livelihood just a bit longer. Sure, they could always wait for the factory farms to buy them out, but they were seeing less and less of that these days, and fattening their own cattle up and marketing them—as natural, organic, vegetarian-fed—to the new generation that preferred buying from the small outlets. To care about where the food came from and pay handsomely for it. It was what Lucas often joked was one of their “special needs”—the needs of the privileged. And the Toms out there, they called Lucas, the man who was able to perform what needed to be done, and maybe didn’t like it but did it anyway to avoid fading away. Prepared to pay whatever the cost for just a while longer.
“I know that’s just a joke, Tom, but I can’t stress enough how serious all this is, what we’re doing. You know that, right?” Pause. Lucas motioned around the pen, back at the cattle, then the barn. “You could lose all this. And I’d be in jail.”
“Shit, I know that. Besides the boys, not a soul.”
Lucas shifted in the mud. The steers were hollering, getting restless. The tired hit him hard, sudden, and his eyes burned. “Was there anything else?”
“Just remind me: how much fatter we talking? Just like to remind myself what all that money’s buying me.”
Lucas thought of the hormone cocktail, the bad men who had sold it to him. The men awaiting payment. He grew cold, said, “I can guarantee between a fifteen and twenty-five percent increase. No more, no less.”
“Fantastic,” Tom said scratching his fat chin. “Just wonderful. That should really help give us a chance round here.”
“Right. That’s the idea.” Pause. “Well, should get back to it. Need to be gone by dawn.”
“Right. Sure. You need anything, just let one of the boys know. They can run up to fetch me.”
Tom scuttled back to the truck and the engine turned over, echoed across the fields like a shout. Lucas waited until he was nearly back before he turned and called after the boys. “Hey—back at it you two.”
From the dark end of the pen Lucas heard their mumbles and the sloshing of their boots before they emerged from the tar-dark night.
“That Dad?” one of them said. Lucas had already forgotten their names.
“What’d he want?” the other said.
“Just checking in.” Pause. “You ready?”
“Yeah, get in position and we’ll feed ’em to you.”
Back at the squeeze chute Lucas knelt and took stock of the syringes in the duffel—plenty for tomorrow’s job, too—and calculated his earnings for the week. He heard a large and sudden splash from out in the darkness where the light had no jurisdiction, followed by the sound of cattle hustling in unison and—finally—an agonizing scream.
“What is it?” Lucas was standing now, alert. “Hey!” He scanned the pen. “What’s going on out there?”
More screaming: one voice, then two.
Then: “Help! Come help!”
Lucas ran, scattering the steer with pats on their hinds and emerging finally from them to find one of the animals lying nearly supine, lowing wildly with its legs kicking up in the air, unable to grab a hold of the slick ground to pick itself up—and under it one of the boys, the younger of the two, not hardly moving. Lucas stood there, dumbfounded, and watched as the other boy hit and kicked the clueless beast. The boy on the ground was quiet now, no longer moving, and with every rocking motion in the steer’s feeble attempt to rise it pushed his body deeper into the wet earth.
“You have to help!” the older boy screamed at Lucas. “I can’t tell if he’s breathing! Go get my dad!”
Lucas’s brain throbbed. A state of excitement and alertness he hadn’t felt in some time. The boy dropped to the ground and pulled on his brother’s arms, tried to free him while the steer, wide-eyed and deeply alarmed, still tried to get to its feet. Then, without thinking, Lucas turned and ran.
Through the mud and shit, dodging the spooked beasts, his legs and lungs burned. He stopped to catch his breath back at the chute, could hear the boy calling his brother’s name—Kevin or Calvin, he wasn’t sure—then looked back up at the farmhouse in the distance to see if Tom had heard the commotion and was coming to check on it. He hadn’t.
Lucas thought of every complication that was sure to follow, could feel his pulse in his neck, then grabbed the duffel and dashed toward the car careful not to drop a single syringe. He hopped the fence and caught himself before tumbling on the other side, mud and shit spraying with every step he clumsily took.
At the car he opened the door with shaking hands and tossed the duffel onto the back seat. He turned back once more toward the scene, waited and listened. It was quiet now, save for the cattle that erupted only short bursts of calm dialog at one another. No shouting, no crying. Nothing. He wondered what that meant and for a brief moment thought of turning back, of calling Tom to let him know what had happened and why he had to leave, but instead chose to speed away toward the hollow moon deep-set in the dark night, thoughts dwelling on those bad men, the ones calling and leaving threatening messages. And so he erased the boys’ faces from his mind and hoped the job tomorrow—a farm over in Franklin about fifty miles west with twice the head of cattle—wouldn’t hear about this. That their money would still be good.
Robert James Russell is a Pushcart Prize nominated author and the co-founding editor of the literary journal Midwestern Gothic. His work has appeared in Crime Factory, WhiskeyPaper, Joyland, The Collagist, Gris-Gris, Thunderclap! Magazine, and LITSNACK, among others. His first novel, Sea of Trees, is available from Winter Goose Publishing. Find him online at robertjamesrussell.com.