This short story was based on writing prompts of heifer, mumbles and Where’s the beef.
The photo of the heifer used on this post was provided by Carrie of Dairy Carrie.
There was something strange in the air that day, and it was more than the harsh brushes of wind whistling through the burgeoning corn fields.
I remember sitting astride Callie, our 9-year-old chestnut horse, at the edge of the cattle pasture, right where the wood post fence tangled with the nearly sideways corn stalks, which were rendered horizontal by the strong, angry winds.
Old Mother Wind was busy that day to be sure, yes, but there was something else. Something I just couldn’t quite wrangle up.
No matter, I thought, watching as the wind gusts let up briefly and the corn stood up again, proud and nearly ready to deliver its fruit.
But there was something underneath those harsh winds, something that I could not quite shake. I bounced to and fro atop Callie, moving her around in a circle, trying to figure out what that was.
There was no figuring going on. I’d like to think my frown scared the winds back into the next day. Calm was restored to the prairie, if only so briefly.
Near as I could tell, that something was a rumbling, a low and guttural noise. Husky yet quiet, barely noticeable. It’s like what the beginning of an earthquake must feel like, that moment when you just start to realize something terrible and devastating is happening. Well, I assume that’s what it’s like at least. I’ve never stood in the middle of an earthquake, you see.
It’s easier for me to say that the rumbling that day was more like that big moment before a twister touches down across the prairie field. Just before the touch down, it’s a calm moment. Not a blade of grass is torn away from the soil in anger. But then the winds start to whip up, a howling noise builds, and all you can do is grab your family, grab your friends and head to safety.
But as I sat astride Callie, I just could not find what that noise was.
Meanwhile, the cattle sat and stared at us. I bucked against Callie a bit as she came to a halt about 50 feet away from a few of the Holstein Jersey cross heifers. They were grazing, grasses briefly being chewed between their teeth. The one in the middle faced us, its muzzle showing a faint smile.
In the middle of the field, several young heifers surrounded one that was standing up, facing me down: The smiling heifer.
Her brown hair was matted back on the top of her head, and her eyelashes were long and lustrous around her curious eyes. Every once in a while, I saw her mouth open and close, almost as though she were whispering secrets about the full-grown bulls in the nearby pen to the other heifers gathered around her.
And I noticed that the low, nearly continuous rumbling along the roots of the prairie grass seemed to match perfectly with her muzzle movement.
I motioned Callie into a trot as we grew closer to the heifers, perched in the middle of the field atop what was a mountain in the prairie, but was really just a small hill of a couple of feet. And I kept watch of her, the smiling heifer in the middle of that crowd. She eyed me cautiously, her mouth moving up and down.
That’s when I saw it, even if I didn’t believe it. The heifer was mumbling.
I dismounted Callie, patting her along her mane, letting her know that I would be right back. The smiling heifer was still standing there, in the middle of her heifer squad, soaking in the wind and sun.
When I reached close to her mouth, I could hear the mumbling more clearly: “Where’s the beef?”
Yes, there was something strange in the air that day.
Her amber hair and deep green eyes searched the crowd swelling around her. And then she landed on mine. I felt my face open up into a nice, wide smile. “Jim,” she said. The tension and relief flooded out of that single lonely word. It was the most incredible feeling I had ever felt. My heart swelled in size as she rushed toward me and swallowed me up in a big hug.
She was shaking.
I hugged her back.
I pulled her in tighter. I could feel my heart pounding against her body, pressed up against me. We unraveled, and she looked up into my eyes.
“I’m so glad you’re here, safe and sound,” she said. “When the rex came, I was sure we were all going to die. That was one pissed off momma.”
“I woke up after the attack and there was nothing. It was just me. I was so confused and disoriented. And then Keith stumbled upon me and pulled me in to this makeshift village.” I looked about, and the majority of the crowd had dispersed, just another person welcomed to their new, temporary town. But a few stayed, including Keith. He was talking with a bunch of elderly men and women, and another man in his 30s, all in a huddle, just a few yards away. I could see him peek over another person’s shoulder every minute or so and flash me a Keith smile.
“She was a mean old rex, and I think this town is actually close to her nest. I saw a couple of nests on the way here, and I think she’s going to come back.” Angie took my hands in her, a feverish look in her eyes. “We need to get out of here, Jim. It’s not safe here. Let’s head back to Old Salem. The village still has some structures intact, and we’ll be out of the way of the rex.”
I didn’t know what to say. It wasn’t like Angie to be so forceful, to put her idea forward and not want to hear any debate. And as I looked around the makeshift jungle village and saw huts and forts and other pop-up homes made of branches and leaves and other jungle debris, I couldn’t blame her. This was not a permanent home.
But my head still ached, the bump still throbbing dully, just background noise against the din of the village.
“Maybe we should stay here one more night before we head out. I don’t know if I’m in too good of condition to travel right now.”
She looked at me, pain flashing across her face. She hadn’t even noticed that I had been injured. Or maybe she had, and felt it wasn’t as big of a concern.
I frowned. “OK, how about this? Let me rest for another hour or two. During that time, you can pack up some stuff, anything you think we might need and they might let us have. Then you wake me up and we head on out.”
Angie smiled. It was the prettiest smile.
All I felt was someone shaking me, and then I was up again.
It was Angie. She had pain in her face. And then she said the four words I’ll never be able to unhear: “The rex is back.”
Terror filled the air as I jumped off the cot and was flooded in between waves of men, women, children and others, rushing by as everyone once again ran for safety.
A thunderous roar filled the village and nearly knocked me over. The rex. She was angry.
Angie was still by my side and we grabbed for each other and started to run. Although it was chaos everywhere, nearly everyone was running the same way, and Angie stopped.
“Do you …?” she started to ask me.
“Let’s go back the other way.”
We had made it a mile or so away from the pop-up village when we heard the ground shake beneath us, and we were thrown to the ground. Angie fell forward, tripping over a big tree route connecting a family of trees. I stopped and rushed to her side, and her face flashed with pain.
She reached for her ankle.
I wanted to pull her to safety, to lift her up, to carry her on my shoulders. But I knew I wouldn’t be able to.
And she knew it, too.
A roar thundered close by, shaking some leaves off of trees around us.
“Run!” She screamed it at me. It was not a plea. It was not a question.
It was a demand.
I ran, faster than I remember being able to, until I was a little bit away, but could still see her. I don’t know why, but I turned, and I saw her, laying in pain on the ground, hobbled by her ankle. The rex stood over her, salivating down on her, its short, skinny arms circling in terror just above her head.
And then I saw the rex, as easy as it had ever done anything, bend down toward Angie and feed.
I just sat there, unable to turn away, wondering why I had to rest so bad in the pop-up village.
I couldn’t even feel the throb of my head anymore.
My ears rang. Echoes roared in my head, and I sat up, or what I felt was up. I could feel the dirt grinding against my body, mixing with the rain that had started to fall in sheets. The mud coagulated against my skin. The cold balls of earth grabbed on, up and down my arms and legs, my stomach, everywhere I looked.
I pushed myself up, lifting my torso off the ground. My arms sank deeper into the mud.
Through the sheets of rain that kept pummeling me, I could see the large footprints, three feet wide, longer than my torso.
I scrambled to my feet and paused to look around. There was an edge of forest just a hundred feet or so away. I ran for it, sweat pouring down my cheeks despite the buckets of rain. My heart was thump, thump, thumping, and my breathing would not slow down.
The clearing that had been abuzz with injured men, women and children, guards and more was empty, filled only with the large rex prints and muted metallic red blood stains.
Leaves crunched nearby, and I slowed my breathing instinctively. I turned my body around toward the other way and saw a man’s head poking out behind another tree just a few yards away. He saw me and waved me over with his hand.
“Quick, come on.” His voice was a loud whisper. A rex must still be near.
I ran toward him, my feet flailing behind me as great gobs of mud locked on to my feet. I wiped them off against the trunk of the tree the man hid behind. He patted me on the back quickly. His enthusiasm was contagious.
“You’re the only one I’ve seen,” he said. “I don’t think anyone else survived that attack.”
My thoughts turned to Angie. She had been standing right next to me when we realized a rex was coming. I remember diving away from her, to my left. I had hit the ground hard and tried to roll toward some of the tree and shrubs close by. They would give me cover from the rex if it made its way here into the clearing.
I remember seeing one of the Jianchangosaurus kicking up a few rocks and watched as one soared straight toward me. After that, blackness.
“How long ago did the rex come through?” I said.
He smiled a bit at me. “Yesterday.”
Keith was leading the way through the jungle, tearing through branches and leaves and other vegetation dangling in his way. He had taken the lead on bringing me back to the larger group after he found me at the rex attack site. He had told me how the others had fled the site before the rex hit, how it was awash in chaos as people ran in all directions and a herd of Jianchangosaurus had stormed right through, leading the rex in.
Some of the others, he told me, had made their way through half of the jungle and found a small alcove to hide. Others had gone on to the hospital near Old Salem that I had sent the injured to. When they met up with the others at the alcove, they had told how the rex had gotten through the hospital defenses and laid waste to the building and much of the Old Salem village.
And others who were at the site before the rex attacked, well, they didn’t make it, Keith said. But the rex certainly was feeding her and her young ones well these days.
All I could think of as I scrambled after Keith was Angie, and whether she was safe or not. Keith had not seen her in the crowds of those who had made it to the alcove, which included some who were injured in the attack. Nor had anyone provided word about her.
It made me wonder whether I wanted to continue, whether I should just turn around and go back to the rex attack site and wait for it again. She had never shown an interest in me, that I know. But to live without her? To not even be able to see her anymore? I did not know how I could live that life, but I kept on after Keith.
And after what felt like hours, we turned a corner down a sharp hill, stepping on large boulders that lined the way down. Around the corner at the bottom was the alcove, alight with activity as men and women came to it, arms full of sticks and stones, berries and meat, and many other things. Overnight a village had sprung up here, as they are usually do after a rex attack.
I had told Keith that I was a doctor, but he had urged me to rest, to lay down, to attend to the bump on my head.
I reached up and felt it. It was a slight protrusion stick up from just above my right temple. Of course, the rock, I thought. Perhaps it was best I laid down if I did not have the faculties to figure out that I would be hurt by a flying rock.
I laid down on a makeshift cot next to an elderly man. He was groaning softly, his arms wrapped around his stomach. Soon his groans were softer. “He must be dying,” I thought.
But then I was dreaming instead.
When I woke up the small pop-up village was wash in activity. I reached for the top of my head and felt the bump. It had gone down a bit, but it was still quite apparent. I shoved myself up off the cot and stretched. My muscles ached, and I let out a yawn, curling my feet onto my tiptoes.
Keith entered the small area that was now the clinic and right toward me where I had slept on the cot.
He smiled. “Come with me,” he said. “I think you’re going to want to see this.”
Like he did in the jungle, Keith made his way through the swath of bodies gathered around the entrance of the alcove, where fires lit brightly against the dark night sky. A buzz was in the air, and the people we pushed past were murmuring. Electricity was in the air. Keith turned toward me as he led me on.
The only thing adorning his face was a bright smile, half in shadow as the fire played off of it.
He stepped through to the front wave of people and stepped aside.
And then there she was.
READ PART 3 ON FRIDAY, JUNE 27.