• Cow Man

    Tom Franklin

    Spring 2017

    A bull, dead in a field, this field, just before dusk, the giant creature mangled, broken. Its backbone was snapped mid-way down and its neck snapped, too, red jags of bone sticking out, flies and yellow jackets congregating at the torn hide. Miller stood up for a different angle, cocking his head. He’d tied his handkerchief around his nose against the smell—old York said he’d only found King, the bull, that morning. And only then because he’d followed the buzzards, some now standing back a ways, watching and stinking, others that lazed across the sky, shadows dragging below.

    “How long since you last seen him?” Miller asked over his shoulder. “Alive, I mean.”

    York cleared his throat and blocked his baseball cap. “Tomorrow morning be two days.”

    He wore a blue dungaree shirt and blue jeans. Cowboy boots. Exactly what Miller, twenty years his junior, wore, except Miller wore a cowboy hat too and, today, a .357 magnum on his hip. Mostly he left it in the truck, but out in these back lands you never knew what you might run up on: a timber rattler, a bobcat, a coyote or, now, a thing that could break a bull like balsa.

    Miller squatted in front of the bull’s massive head, which was twisted to the side and jammed into the dirt, one horn stabbed into the grass. That side eye was closed but the other gazed out, glassy. Miller wondered about the last thing it had seen. He looked closer at the hair between the horns.

    He squinted and bent closer still, batting away flies. A big gash between the bull’s horns, a cut to the bone. It had knocked the hell out of something. Like a tree. Had it cracked its own skull? What would drive it to such a length? Maybe there was some rogue matador running about, turning his red cape into a pecan tree with a flip of the wrist. Miller took his logbook from his pocket, unwrapped its leather cord, and opened it to nearly the end, his mechanical pencil serving as bookmark. He began to sketch the bull’s head.

    York walked over to stand at Miller’s shoulder, but he rose and turned and the older man, smiling at Miller’s kerchief, raised his hands.

    “I surrender.”

    Miller pulled down his bandanna to show a smirk, untied it from his neck and stuffed it into his pocket. They walked off a ways, and he fished out sunglasses and put them on.

    “Where’s your deputy?”

    “Trixie’s at the vet. Getting wormed.”

    “I need to get wormed myself, I reckon,” York said. “Ain’t had a good worming in years.”

    Tom Franklin is the author of a story collection, Poachers, and three novels, Smonk, Hell at the Breech, and Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. With his wife, Beth Ann Fennelly, he co-wrote the novel The Tilted World. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, and teaches at the University of Mississippi.

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