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Authors: Newton Thornburg

Black Angus

Black Angus
Newton Thornburg
Copyright

Diversion Books
A Division of Diversion Publishing Corp.
443 Park Avenue South, Suite 1008
New York, NY 10016
www.DiversionBooks.com

Copyright © 1978 by Newton Thornburg
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

For more information, email
[email protected]

First Diversion Books edition April 2015
ISBN: 978-1-62681-753-1

Also by Newton Thornburg

To Die in California
Cutter and Bone
Dreamland
A Man's Game
Eve's Men
Valhalla
The Lion at the Door
Beautiful Kate

To my mother and my father

1

It crossed Blanchard's mind that from the road everything must have looked nice and peaceful: Tommy sitting on the top rail of the corral watching him and Clarence as they worked the cattle along the fence perimeter and into the chute at whose far end Doc Parnell and his son would lock one of the cows in a headgate and draw from her a specimen of blood before letting her on through, to lock another in her place. But nowhere was there peace, not in Tommy's slack and wounded look and not in Blanchard and especially not in the cattle, which were walleyed with terror, plunging and crowding, fouling their black coats with a founting olive diarrhea. At the headgate, after the younger Parnell would force a clamp into the cow's flaring nostrils and lash her head to one side, his father would drive a needle into her neck vein and then the beller would come, like a death cry, a feral trumpeting that Blanchard felt in his own bowels, almost as if he were one of the herd.

It was a weakness Clarence did not share. If anything the old man was enjoying himself. Squinting and chawing, he gimped about the corral with his heavy cattleman's cane, whacking any animal that stalled or turned or threatened escape. Yet he was careful not to stampede them, not to crowd them so tight they would have no choice in their panic except to turn and run, run right over the men. Nevertheless Blanchard was prepared at any moment to dive for the safety of the corral fence—especially because of the bull, the huge young purebred Angus he had bought to upgrade his herd, to give him fine productive females in the years ahead, but which now, irronically and irationally, threatened the herd's destruction instead.
The bull was of the Emulous bloodline, long and broad and deep, a ton of carefully bred muscle and bone. But he did not know his pedigree or excellence, only his maleness, his bullness. And bulls did not like to be driven. They did not like to be crowded or frustrated. They did not like men.

This one, however, was in the midst of the herd, going along with the surge of the females and calves. Still, his great black head, held high above the others, kept whipping menacingly back and forth, especially when one of the cows would beller from the headgate. And his anger seemed to have infected Tommy sitting on the corral. Helpless, Blanchard watched as his brother began to sway in unison with the bull, at the same time pressing his fist against his mouth to keep from crying. Though he was in his early thirties, just four years younger than Blanchard, he cried often, and like a child, smearing his face with tears.

In time the last of the herd was in the crowding pen, a semicircle through which Blanchard and Clarence began to swing a twelve-foot steel gate, squeezing the cattle into the chute itself, which was only thirty inches wide, a dirt alley running between two-by-ten oak planks bolted to railroad ties sunk three feet into the ground. Once in it, a grown cow or bull with others crowding behind had no choice except to move forward. So Blanchard felt a sharp sense of relief as he saw the bull enter the chute. From behind, the men kept the pressure on, Blanchard pushing on the gate while Clarence prodded and whacked the cattle with his cane. And one by one, they kept moving toward the headgate, there to beller and lose blood and then plunge on through, free again, kicking up their heels like calves as they dashed for the far end of the pasture behind the corral. And finally it was the bull's turn. For long seconds he stood in the chute staring at the headgate, which was partially open, falsely promising freedom. And he breathed; his breath came like the roar of ocean surf. He
pawed the ground and tried to back up, squeezing the cow behind him up out of the line so that she briefly had to ride him. Cursing happily, Clarence clambered up onto the chute and, cakewalking it, balancing there, he began to pound his cane against the bull's haunches. When the animal still failed to move, the old man tossed the cane aside and twisted the bull's tail brutally forward, oblivious of the fact that if he fell he could have been trampled to death. But the bull moved, tentatively, sniffing at the headgate, and finally pushed his head on through—just as it closed on him, trapping him. Immediately the Angus exploded forward, with a high keening trumpet, and there was a sound like a rifle shot as one of the railroad ties anchoring the headgate split in two, and the headgate came away, came free, still clamped on the bull's head, a hundred-pound collar of tempered steel, but apparently weightless for him, an irritant at best, a face fly. And he tried to shake it off as if it
were
a fly, whipping his head back and forth as he plunged free. With one swipe he smashed in the door and window of the veterinarian's pickup; with the next he tore up the back pasture gate and fifty feet of barbed wire. And then it seemed to get through to him that the headgate was something more than a fly, something terrible and frightening, and he began to beller wildly and to lunge about, trying to shake it off. He lowered his head and plowed the sod with it, he pawed at it, he raked it against a tree.

Behind the bull, the remaining cows and calves had thundered through the opening left by him, scattering across the pasture. And Clarence had the look of a kid at a party. On the ground now, he did a little jig in honor of the event.

“I told ya!” he yelled at Blanchard. “I told ya to have the doc bring his squeeze chute.”

Parnell nodded grimly, looking at his battered truck. “Yeah, a headgate just can't cut it with a bull. 'Specially one that big.”

Blanchard said nothing. He did not know what to say or for that matter what to do except just stand there and watch—watch a three-thousand-dollar bull not yet paid for leaping and twisting and plunging in the wooded pasture, about to destroy itself as well as anything else that got in its path. And even as Blanchard was thinking this the bull whirled and caught a young heifer with a corner of the headgate, dropping her bleating into the grass.

But if Blanchard did not know what to do, Clarence and the Parnells had no such problem. Wearily, as if he were picking up a lunch bucket and heading for a factory job, the old man got his lariat off the corral. At the same time young Parnell got one out of the pickup and started after him, toward the bull.

“Now hold on,” Blanchard cautioned. “You can't do that. You'll get yourselves killed.”

Clarence and the youth ignored him. Parnell meanwhile was filling one of his gun syringes with a cloudy liquid.

“We get him still for a minute, I'll shoot him up with this,” he said. “Thorazine. Maybe calm him down enough to get the blood sample.”

In his four years of ranching Blanchard had seen much and learned much, but this still struck him as incredible, a pair of little men with ropes heading out to subdue a two-thousand-pound bull on open ground, while a third prepared to draw his blood, just as if they still had the animal immured in the chute. But Blanchard also knew he had no choice finally except to go along with them and share their madness, for it was his ranch, his bull. So he found himself falling in with them as they moved toward the animal, exposing himself to the same danger as they were, though with the difference that he would not be able to do anything to end that danger. A lariat to him was still just a rope, a stiff and unwieldy length of rope.

The pasture, only ten acres square, was more a holding lot than anything else, used mainly for moving the various groups
of cattle back and forth between the four large pastures. As such, Blanchard had left it “unimproved,” still in native grass and covered with cedar, hickory, and white oak, with a small pond near its center—a peaceful and beautiful place where Tommy daily played his child's games. Now, though, it was more like a battlefield as the bull raged and trumpeted through the brush, breaking saplings and thudding into trees, gouging and tearing them with the headgate, pawing the ground up into geysers of dirt and rock and grass.

But he could have been a goat for all the respect Clarence gave him. Limping and yelling, the old man got in close enough to throw his lariat time after time, until finally it was his, that great black barrel of a head, and immediately he was scrambling to get the rope around a tree, to begin cinching the animal in tight. A flick of the bull's head sent him sprawling into a cedar, however, gashing his face and making him come up lame, hopping on one leg, but cold-eyed furious now, outraged at the bull's temerity. Hopping and stumbling, he went straight for the animal and snatched up the end of the lariat, somehow got it around a small oak, all the while screaming at Parnell's son to use
his
rope.

“On his hind foot, boy! Git it! Git it!”

Unbelieving, Blanchard watched as the wiry old man worked the bull, winding and rewinding the rope around the tree, stepping quickly to keep the trunk between him and the animal. Every time the line went slack he would cinch it tighter, twice getting his arthritic hands out of the way a millisecond before the bull pulled back and the line jumped taut, quivering into the flesh of the tree, crushing the bark and sawing into the green wood. And each time Clarence yelled with delight. He was winning. He had bigger balls than the bull.

Parnell's son finally got his lariat around the animal's right hind leg and, using another tree, began to cinch him tighter
from that end. And somehow, within minutes, the bull was standing there immobilized, splayfooted, half-strangled, his breath coming in a mighty bellows, his black coat curly with sweat, as sopping as on the hour of his birth. Even in the heat of the Ozark spring morning, he steamed.

Doc Parnell moved in gingerly and injected him with the tranquilizer, then a few moments later drew the sample of blood. Clarence started to move in to take the headgate off the animal, but Blanchard waved him off.

“No, you stick with the rope,” he said. “I'll get this.”

He knew that if one of the ropes suddenly gave, his life would be on the line. But he felt he had to do something, could not just stand around forever watching them like a dumbstruck tenderfoot. Carefully he took hold of the handle and tripped the release, and as he lifted the gate off the bull's head he was amazed at the animal's docility, the cool brown-black eye with which it regarded him.

“Okay now, git ready,” Clarence said to young Parnell. “You keep an eye on me, and the second I git my rope off him, you loosen yours and git the hell back. Understand?”

The young man nodded. For some reason, he did not look frightened at all, just cautious and alert. And Clarence was not even that. Grinning and working his gums, he moved in upon the bull's head and roughly loosened the lariat, yanked it free.

“Now!” he yelled, scrambling back.

Immediately young Parnell tried to loosen the noose of his rope, so it would fall off the bull's leg. But the animal moved too suddenly, whirling sideways, somehow snaring the youth's hand in the rope and dragging him almost underfoot. At the same moment his father dropped his vet's kit and flew straight at the bull, screaming like a ripsaw. And the bull jumped back, spinning away from Parnell and his son and abruptly plunging in the opposite direction, right over Blanchard, who had no idea what part of the animal struck him: head, shoulder, leg.
He only remembered the suddenness of it, the shock of the impact and the sensation of being airborne, the sapling snapping against his shoulder and raking his back with the jagged teeth of the break. And still he tumbled, flopping through the grass like a caught fish. Dazed and bleeding, he heard Clarence cackling his approval.

“Holy hell, now ain't he somethin' else, that critter? He shore give you a lick.”

The old man was standing over Blanchard in the grass, grinning and wagging his head. And Blanchard divined that he, himself, was still alive, and evidently going to stay that way. The pain in his back confirmed his diagnosis. Touching it, his fingers came back bloody.

Clarence reached down and pulled him roughly to his feet. “Come on, you ain't hurt,” he drawled. “Bull was jist teasin', that's all. He was serious, you'd of knowed it.”

Through the trees Blanchard could see the animal moving among the herd with his slow and ponderous dignity, as if to show all of them that he was still around, that he still reigned, their great black king and sire.

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