Tobin had supper with Teresa, in her office. They kept the door closed. None of the other hands, not even Mel, said a thing about it. Tobin had been there the longest of them all, since before Michael Cole, the old man’s heir, had taken control and left his sister, Teresa, in charge of the day to day matters. Cole went to the city to spend all the money they made of the cattle he could. Even before the old man had died, the younger Cole was a rare sight on the land. Teresa had been raised up among the horses and cattle. Tobin had been a young man, new to the Texas sky, when he taught Teresa how to ride the mare her father gifted to her. There was no need for talk of the time they spent together. Old man Cole had thought highly of the Okie. He had always been a good worker, the best on the ranch. There was talk from the old man that he would sell the ranch to Tobin one day, but the old man’s son had raised a stink about it, about how the ranch was his inheritance, that it was only right it came to him when the old man decided it to be time to give up control, and when the old man’s health took a turn, Michael Cole signed the papers and the ranch was his, but he gave his sister the position as manager to placate her. He came by maybe once a year to make sure it was running as best to keep his bank account full to the brim.
Tobin had a bunk out with the other hands, in the cabin old man Cole had built, with a television and showers and enough beds for ten men, but he spent most nights in the main house with Teresa. The younger Cole may not be the most loved of bosses, but Teresa was fair, and Tobin a respected elder, though he could still do all he needed and had no issues throwing a few punches when necessary. No one talked about the time they spent together. There was no need.
After having their suppertime in the office, Tobin went out to help Mel put together what they needed for the night. Canteens of water, a bundle of tortillas and beans, the goat and the bottle Tobin had conceded, their rifles, and a bedroll for each. Teresa gave Tobin a peck on the cheek, and not a hand there so much as snickered. Mel was up on his horse and looked away, out to the southern field. Tobin nodded at the woman, put his foot in the stirrup and lifted himself up to the saddle. The two vaqueros were off with out a word into the dying light, their horses moving without a hurry through the standing cattle.
In the northern sky stars began opening their eyes to the lonesome men, watching with interest as they rode towards the clouded night. In the south, a cord of blue light cracked through, out over Mel’s homeland, and some moments later a rumble came out over the land, into the heart of each man, a reverberation that rattled their ribs as the evening wind blew coldly over them, bringing the smell of cattle droppings to their nose, a smell familiar and comforting to each. The moon rose like a black eye in the east. The cows murmured in their slumber. The goat trailed behind them, its rope tied to Mel’s horse.
The low, childlike gurgle of the thirsty river met them after an hour’s travel. From his saddle pouch, Tobin drew forth a flashlight, and as they went along the river, he shinned it like a searchlight until he found what he was hoping not too.
“Un toro,” Mel said, looking at the bull awash in the halo of light, less than five feet from the river.
Tobin got down from his horse, as did his compatriot. Both men crouched down low on their knees over the deceased. The wound on the animal’s neck was still steaming in the cool night, and he didn’t have to, but Tobin put his hand to the beast’s chest. “Still warm.” He stood back up and shined the light over the surrounding sand. A trail of tracks led to the bull and back to the water. The air smelled of shit.
“What do you think?”
“Seems whatever did this is across the river.”
“Come on. Let’s cross here.”
“The river’s barely a foot or two deep. Get your lazy ass back up on that horse.”
“Pajero.” Mel went got back on his horse, and Tobin picked up the goat and handed it up to him.
The river was fifteen feet wide and came up to their horse’s knees. They crossed slowly, keeping the animals calm, each man mindful of loose rocks. The foul stink in the air got heavier when they got to the other side, and the horses started to behave skittishly, jumping at the wind in the brush, the water running by. The two horses were tied to a low tree. Tobin found a thick stick, two feet long, and started whittling a point on the end. Satisfied, he pushed it deep into the ground, and tied the goat’s leash to it. The animal went to the end and started eating the fresh grass.
The two vaqueros sat at the base of a tree and waited, a rifle across each lap. After an hour of silence, Mel took out the bundle of tortillas and beans.
“Frijoles están fríos.”
“What you want me to do about that?”
“Get a fire going.”
“Give it an hour.”
“Eat them cold, then. Let’s wait and see what we see before we start up a fire.” Mel put the food back in the bundle and set it to the side.
“What do you think that smell is?”
“Don’t smell like no cow shit I’ve ever smell.”
“You a connoisseur of cow shit now?”
“You know what I mean.”
“Ever been this side of the river?”
“Maybe once or twice. We never kept nothing out this far.”
“We’re not all that far from the border.”
“Nope, we’re not. Be quiet.”
“Could be anything out here. Narcos.”
“Ain’t no narcos out here. We’ve never had a problem with anyone crossing the land. Be quiet.”
“I don’t like it out here.”
“I mean it, shut up. Did you hear that?” he asked, standing to his feet, clutching the rifle. Mel mirrored him. They stood stock still, watching the outer dark, listening. There was a sound like breathing, quieter than the horses, the goat. Tobin lit up the flashlight and shined it out over the surrounding brush.
A flash of movement, and something like a growl came from the north.
Quick footsteps away and the two vaqueros were following, away from the horses, the bait. After a minute, Tobin stopped, and Mel almost ran into his back. The sound of the pursuit had gone quiet.
“What was it?” Mel whispered. Tobin swept the light from side to side, all around him. The breathing was still there, just outside of sight. It was heavier, winded.
“Don’t know. Looked white.”
“White? Un gringo?”
“Don’t know. It was low to the ground. A wolf, maybe.”
“Thought you said there were no lobos out here.”
“Quiet.” Tobin extinguished the light and put it in his back pocket. He held the rifle like a soldier, stepped softly, avoiding twigs or rocks. Mel took his lead.
There was a rustle to their left.
Tobin turned and fired at the sound. The explosion kept anything else from reaching their ears.
The older hand took the light back out, shined it where the bullet had gone.
A drop of blood on the dirt.
A trail of red leading away from the river.
They followed the markings through the brush, direct for fifty feet to a small cave made from two boulders. The outside was littered with the bodies of small animals, squirrels and rats, rabbits and bats. Not a damn drop of blood anywhere to be seen.
“I told you. El chupacabra.”
Tobin shined the light into the opening of the cave. The dark was stronger than the light, refused to give any ground.
“Come on,” he said.
Stepping inside, they found the cave to be deeper, going into the ground, like a burrow. They heard the breathing, louder, echoing off the walls. It was harsher. Whatever the source, it was in pain. Something like a whimpering came to the two.
“You hit it.”
Ten feet into the cavity, there was a rustle of movement. The flashlight illuminated crude designs on the dirt walls, shapes like bulls, buffalo, and something like a person, more animalistic. The drawings looked to be made in blood.
They went towards the sound, deeper underground. The walls got closer, more claustrophobic. The light save for their torch grew darker. The air thicker. The smell fouler, shit and sulfur and decomposition. More animal corpses lined the walls.
The tunnel opened up into a small den, ten feet wide. A nest of twigs and scraps of cloth was in the center. A body rested there. The source of the breathing.
It looked like a man. Emaciated, with not an ounce of fat under the pale, luminescent skin. Thick fibers of muscle. Hair long and dreaded with dirt. A patchy, black beard crusted with blood. The thing’s eyes were the color of the sky by the horizon, twisted with hate and pain. It growled, not the sound of a man, but a cornered animal. The bullet had hit its shoulder, gone straight through. Thin rivers of blood on its chest and back.
Chris Deal is from North Carolina via Texas. He has been published in several journals and anthologies, such as Warmed and Bound by Velvet Press and the forthcoming Booked. Anthology by Booked Podcast. His debut collection of microfiction, Cienfuegos, was republished by KUBOA press. He can be found at www.chris-deal.com.
The thing got to its legs. They trembled at first, but grew steady. Tobin raised his rifle, took the thing’s head in his sight.
With an obscene screech it threw itself at the man closest, at Tobin.
He didn’t hesitate with the trigger.
The explosion was louder in the close walls of the burrow. The thing fell to the ground in a pink mist of matter.
Tobin waited for his breathing to steady, for the hearing to come back to his ears. “Told you weren’t no damn chupacabra.”
Mel didn’t respond.
Tobin turned slowly, making sure another bullet was in the rifle’s chamber.
Mel was on the ground. Another thing on top of him, it’s broken yellow teeth in the man’s neck.
Mel tried to speak; only a bubble of blood came out.
Three more things stood between Tobin and the exit.
He fired, once, twice, until the cartridge was empty.
The things kept coming.