The Herdby Bart Schaneman
They drove east out of town away from the sun. In the mirrors they could see its final pale pink glow coating the clouds. Then it was just gray. A radio announcer gave the markets muffled, nearly inaudible to the sound of the tires on the highway. The boy slept in the backseat with a handheld game switched on and tilted awkwardly in his lap.
"I've always hated this time of day," the father said, holding the wheel at twelve o'clock. "It's so quiet and sad. Contemplative. It makes me nostalgic. Sentimental. It feels like being in limbo."
He realized then he was being negative and of no help to his wife so he stopped talking. He looked at her and tried to decide what he could do to make her feel better. He thought about taking her hand but they were folded together and tucked between her knees so he went back to watching the road.
They passed Lacey Park empty from the cold, the grass a soft brown and beyond it the short stubble of the cornfield obscured in the failing light. He felt tired-they both were-and he turned the heater off and switched on the brights. The broken yellow line bright among all the gray.
When they came over Airport Hill he hit the brakes and stopped. She sat up.
"What is it?" she said.
They moved like shadows, their eyes flashing green as they paused to look into the headlights before ambling onto the road, yellow eartags on black, undefined shapes jostling, a few catching their back hooves on the downed barbed wire as they took up both lanes of the highway and headed east.
He waited until they had all cleared the fence before he began to drive again.
"Whose are they?" she asked.
"What's going on, Dad?" the boy asked sleepily, quiet.
"These cows got out," he said.
"But whose are they?" she asked again.
"They could be anybody's," he said. "This is the old Kaufman place but they haven't had cattle for years. I'm sure they're just renting the stalks."
Dark set in now and in the night, without their eyes or eartags to catch the light, only the few cattle in the rear of the herd appeared in the soft white car glow. The rest walked ahead into the black.
"What are you going to do?" she asked.
"What can we do? These aren't our cattle. Do you know how to herd cows? I don't."
"Maybe we should stop and talk to somebody."
"OK. We can do that. The Bauer place is just up here. If they stay on the road we'll just follow them until they get there."
The cattle stuck to the road. A few would drift off to the sides and walk down into the barrow pits and stop to eat weeds, but as soon as there was some distance between them and the herd, usually not more than twenty or thirty yards, they would stop eating and run to catch up with the others. The cows called to their calves in loud, searching bellars. The calves cried back.
When they came up to the Bauer place the lights inside were on and he pulled up the driveway.
"OK, I'll make this quick."
The house was built in the 50s and had a white wooden door facing the road. The three concrete steps had railings on both sides and as he walked up he could see the old man through the big living room window get up and come to the door before he had a chance to knock.
Bauer answered the door with strength and there was hostility on his face. He wore navy blue button-up pajamas and his white hair was expertly waxed.
"What is it?"
"Did you hear all those cattle go by?'
"I didn't hear anything. We had the TV on." He looked down the road at the cattle. "What do you want me to do about it?"
"Well, they got out by the Kaufman place, the fence was down, and we were wondering if you might know whose cattle they are so we could call them."
"No, I don't know whose cattle they are. I don't hardly know anybody that lives around here anymore. Most of the people that live out here anymore are trash, hiding out from somebody or something. Most of them aren't any good. It sure ain't like it was."
"Well, do you have any ideas of what we should do?"
"Call the police. That or just let 'em walk. They'll find something. A corn pile or something. They probably were on the stalks too long. Probably ran out of food. Come daylight somebody's going to notice they're missing. That's what I'd do. Don't think you can call the Kaufman's. They're both gone. Call the police or go home. Not my problem. Not yours either."
When he got back to the car his wife and son were sitting there quiet.
"What'd he say?"
"He said 'not my problem.'"
"Really. Did he know whose cattle they were?"
"Nope. And he didn't seem to care too much what happened to them."
Back on the highway they picked up speed. He hoped they had gotten off the road, maybe found another field to graze. But in less than two miles they caught up to them.
"This is like the running of the bulls," he said. "This is the running of the cows."
"Yep, and you're just like Hemingway. Exactly like Hemingway."
"This is getting ridiculous."
"Why don't you just honk and maybe they'll get out of the way?" the boy said. "Outta our way, cows!"
"Because we don't want to scare them," she said.
The black shapes continued to snort and buck and bellar. It went on for two more miles before they saw a truck facing toward them stopped on the shoulder. The cattle swam past and around like trout around a river rock. They pulled up next to the truck but before he could get his window all the way down the man inside waved and continued on, his taillights shrinking in the mirror.
"He probably thought these were our cows."
"And that we're herding them at six o'clock on a Sunday night in a family car, in the dark?" she said.
"No, you're right. He probably just didn't give a shit."
"You cussed," the boy said.
They withdrew and went silent. He drove on, slow behind the herd, following, watching, now feeling as though they were a part of a movement, connected somehow.
Then one of the animals stopped in the road and they could see it was the bull and that it was facing the car. He stopped the car. The three-year-old bull stood on the centerline, squared up to the car, its eyes green and bright. The rest of the cows went on.
"Maybe he's tired of us following them," she said.
"Maybe. God, he's big," he said. "Look at him. Look at his neck. He's great. He's huge."
"Powerful," she said. "A real bull."
"What if he comes over here?" the boy asked from between their seats. "What if he charges? What if he rams the car? Can he get in here, dad?"
"He's not going to get in here. He's just as scared of us as we are of him."
"I don't think he's that scared of us," she said.
"He is. Trust me. He's just acting tough."
They waited for another moment. Then the bull tossed its head up and pawed the ground. Then it broke into a charge. It had no horns but it had a low, wide head with a small white star and its body blended into the darkness behind it.
"It's coming at us," she said, smiling, her voice more amazed than afraid.
"Dad!" the boy said.
When it was ten feet from the car he put it into reverse and started honking the horn.
"Bong! Bong-bong! Bong!"
The bull stopped and stood there with its head up watching them for a moment. He stopped the car. It turned around and ran back to the herd. He waited until the bull was lost in the darkness before he put the car in drive. They were all quiet and he drove slowly, slower than before.
In time they came to their turnoff. They could no longer see the cattle ahead so they turned south toward home. The boy fell back asleep. They didn't look at each other as he drove on, the stars clear in the sky.