Maud was bent over one row suckering tomato plants and Lovely was bent over the next one. They were talking about a girl Lovely had his eyes set on. But a cow’s bawling interrupted that. Maud unfolded and looked toward the river. Lovely did the same. The bawling was loud, unnatural, and awful, and it set them to running. They ran first toward the house, not toward the sound, because neither had taken a gun to the garden. Maud stopped at the steps; Lovely rushed in for their rifles. Armed up and not bothering to talk, they both ran straight toward the pump to get to the pasture below the ridge where the howling was coming from. If they hadn’t been fearful, they would’ve run fifty more yards to the gate and gone through it. But they were scared and hurrying, so they climbed the barbed wire just past the pump, and Lovely snagged his sleeve, leaving behind a piece of blue cotton waving like the flag of a small foreign country. Maud did worse than that. She snagged her leg below the knee at the back, opening a tear deep at its top and three inches long. Maud was vain about her legs and Lovely had only three shirts, but still they ran, focused on the bawling, without minding their mishaps.
When they got to the cow, Betty was folded with both her head and her rump sticking up. Between them, smack across the ridge of her spine, were three wide, angry gashes. She was thrashing all over the ground. She’d flattened out a circle of weeds, and, oddly, out of the center wound, a stalk of poke protruded. It was a thick stem of poke and resembled, stuck out as it was, a spear. That’s what Maud thought as soon as she saw it.
Lovely yelled, “Her back’s axed. We’ll have to shoot her.” He moved toward Betty’s head and raised his rifle. But then he just stood, cheek on the stock, eye down the sights, finger on the trigger.
Maud yelled, “Pull it.”
But the end of Lovely’s gun shook like a leaf in a breeze. So Maud raised her rifle, moved a step west to keep from shooting her brother, and waited until she had a good look at an ear.
The blowback of skull and brain splattered onto Lovely’s overalls and shirt. He lowered his gun and looked down at his bib. He said, “I’m gonna be sick.” Before he completely bent over, he threw up fatback and biscuits over pieces of cow head.
Betty’s legs kept flailing. Maud shouldered her rifle again; said, “Move farther back”; looked down her sights; and sent another bullet into the white patch between the cow’s eyes. Then she cradled her gun in the crook of her arm, cupped her hand over her mouth, and cried, “Betty, I’m sorry.” Her shoulders heaved. She felt the blood trickle down the back of her leg. She looked at the rivulet, laid her gun on the ground, and tore off a Johnson grass blade. She plastered it over the wound and then sat in the weeds and watched the cow twitching to death.
Tears watered Maud’s eyes and spilled onto her cheeks. Betty was a tough Hereford with a big heart and strong legs and, the year before, had climbed a fallen tree to escape the worst of the flood. But any dead cow would’ve been a disaster. They’d lost all but three of their herd to the water. To take her eyes and mind off of Betty’s trembling, Maud looked over to Lovely. He was wiping his bib with a leaf. She said, “Don’t worry about that. We’ve got to save this meat.”
Maud sent Lovely off to round up their uncles, Blue and Early. The men came back with Blue driving Great-Uncle Ame’s 1920 Dodge sedan. He maneuvered it into the pasture as close to Betty as he could get, and the four of them strung her up to the sturdiest tree around. They set to butchering, talking about the meanness it took to ax a cow in the back. They gave Blue the hide to cure and packed Betty’s meat in old newspapers and feed sacks. They deposited those on the floor of the backseat and agreed they’d pay Hector Hempel, the dwarf who ran the icehouse, two rump roasts for storing the meat. The men drove off with the car loaded so heavy it didn’t rattle.
Maud walked to the house. She first tended her leg and then drew her dress and slip off over her head. At eighteen, she was fit, dark, and tall like the rest of her mother’s family and most of her tribe. She was more of a willow than an oak, and her figure and personality had grown pleasing to every male within a twenty-mile radius, to some of the women, too, and to most of the animals. Maud carried that admiration the way eggs are carried in a basket, carefully, with a little tenderness, but without minding too closely the individual. She drew on another slip and dress, tossed her and Lovely’s dirty clothes in a tub, and pumped cool water over them until they were completely covered. She left them to soak while she filled one of the front-yard kettles with water and lit a fire under it.
While she stirred their clothes in the kettle, her heart sank further than it’d sunk since the flood, and tears came to her eyes again. Heat rose up to her cheeks, and the fire under the pot made her shins hot. She poked the clothes with the pole and gave in to crying and to some self-pity she didn’t much admire. She wanted a washer with a tub and ringers. They were advertised all the time in the papers. So were refrigerators, lamps that turned on with buttons, toilets that flushed in the house. She lifted her dress out of the water with the end of the pole and dipped it again. She wiped her nose with the back of her hand and forced her mind off of the things she wanted. She turned it to the cold kind of cruelty that would kill an innocent cow. She felt Betty’s twitching in the wound on the back of her leg, felt her bawling all over again in her heart.
But she was recovered and hanging the clothes on the line when the men got back to the farm. And although they were noticeably tired from the butchering and lugging of meat, and Lovely was still shaken from the whole ordeal, they pitched in and scooped out the wash water, carried it to the garden for the tomato plants, and set wood for a fire in the pit. Maud had saved back enough meat to feed some of their extended family: Blue and Early, of course; and her grandpa Bert; and her great-uncle Ame and his wife, Viola; and her aunt Lucy and her husband, Cole. She didn’t save out any for her father. It was Saturday and late in the afternoon. He wouldn’t crawl back until well into the night.
Blue left to clean up and fetch the others. But Early hung around to eat his share of the beef. He was only twenty-six, and his talk was about going to town, gambling, and people of the female persuasion. Maud found Early a lot of fun, and having him to herself raised her spirits some. She teased him about his plans for the evening and fed him the food that was ready, except for the onions. She told him he needed to hold off on those out of respect for the women.
Shortly after Early left, Blue came back in a wagon with his father, Ame and Viola, Lucy and Cole, and their baby boy. He pulled the wagon close to the fire and hitched the mules to the rail. There weren’t enough chairs for everybody to sit, so they ate from the wagon bed, some in it...