Contemporary Short Stories


      He always made one mistake.
      He didn't err with his wife Macedonia, whom he married after the Hitler war, when he settled next to his tough old mother on deeded land, or when he produced two sons and two daughters. But he always screwed up when he messed with cows. Why couldn't he understand that a cow is a cow and not more than a cow? The bad pun that he had been udderly foolish with bovines since he had brought four females to his ranch in Costillo, New Mexico, was painfully true. To Narciso, four animals qualified as a herd. He likened raising cows to modern day business. First, an investor creates operating stock in an enterprise, which in his case consisted of four cows. As further capitalization is added, meaning the reproduction of new cows, the business would increase its future shares of stock and their respective value, while earning the shareholder greater dividends. Although Narciso hazily believed in the theory of financial success, he was not so sure his barnyard commodities would cooperate.
      His cow-splurge began some time ago, when his black hair had no gray streaks, his mustache didn't droop along with his six-foot frame and his gut didn't bulge beyond his belt. Regardless, as a heavy equipment operator, he, Narciso Taverez, was one of the few respected elders in Costillo, and he still maintained ownership of four cows, one-two-three-four vacas.
      He treated them like pets. They were his darlings and they required care. He pastured them on land he leased on the mountain and they grew silky and fat, which pleased him. After providing them with a quiet adolescence, he arranged with a neighbor who owned a bull to let his cows pasture in the man's field. Narciso anticipated calf dividends.
      The summer was arid with brittle grass and a howling, oppressive winter struck early. The cows withered. One had a false pregnancy and the others ran around ragged and looked like sorry cases for an animal shelter. Narciso tried to nurse them back to their former state but they never recovered. In a foul mood he sold them for a pittance and purchased another four. They were the same White Face breed. Nothing right happened: they became sick with brackish water, broke the fence, ran away and were secretly sequestered by a devious neighbor, and they got skinned up on the barbwire fence. They courted a bad fate.
      At long last Narciso felt like divesting himself of cows.
      The mare he then acquired was truly wondrous, a fast, smooth runner, quick to respond, and when ridden on long stretches didn't breathe heavily. Narciso was a winner. The mare made him smile when he rode her and allowed him to overcome the layer of seriousness which often smothered his face. He relaxed. But his grandchildren could not learn to ride such an active horse. They must be considered. So he fretted.
      His new urge was to exchange the mare for a gentler mount. Inexplicably, he failed to carry out this purpose and somehow managed to trade the mare for four small cows, as he understood the deal, four young animals. Adding to the complete bewilderment of his family and neighbors, he spotted a young, springy bull, also owned by the man with the cows, and proceeded to buy it for five hundred dollars. As amazed as they were, the villagers admitted that, given the weight of the evidence, Narciso had concocted an excellent trade-one horse got him four cows and five hundred dollars snagged him a young bull. Obviously the beast sold cheap because it must have defects. It was eight months old, born and raised in the seller's mountain pasture, and only during the last two days, when it had been brought down by truck and trailer and traded, had it been exposed to the slightest veneer of the ranching world. In short, the bull was too young to release and too old to change. It was wild. A wild bull. Clearly, that was the reason he was disposed of at an advantageous price.
      But why, the town inhabitants pondered, why would Narciso wish to raise cows again after he had dispensed with them for a fine mare, and how he could forget his past failures? What could he gain? Although Narciso wondered, too, he prided himself that he was a good trader, and moreover, he had fallen back to cows because he liked them; they were his first love. Later he discovered that what he thought had been sold to him as young cows were actually midgets, veritable dwarfs.
      To haul the animals to his rented mountain pasture involved a sturdy truck and a good-sized trailer. That morning, with his cowboy dude son, Atencio, and his young son-in-law, Candido, helping him steer the herd into the corral and then through the chute and into the trailer, Narciso felt the sun had risen for him. Not the least of the reasons for his raised spirits was the arrival of the bull, his bull, which he must admit did not disappoint him. His livestock fortunes, he predicted, could only improve.
      The lead cow started toward the corral, trailed by the herd. Narciso chuckled as he remembered the nursery rhyme about Mary's lamb, the lamb was sure to go, only it was a bull. But the bull did not follow. In fact, it balked, became jumpy, jittery, and backed away. When the men attempted to hem it in by crowding it toward the net of corral fences, it darted away, nimbly avoiding their efforts, and broke free to the outside field. The men swiftly pursued and the bull, like a magnet, pulled them up the mesa and down, down and up. It was as if they were playing an endless game of insane tag. Winded, the men threatened obscene consequences, hurled screaming oaths and swore and swore unkind thoughts as they streamed by up and down in disarray. Then they stopped, their chests heaving in agony, their bodies smeared with sweat. Their quarry likewise stopped.
      Narciso now realized that the bull could only be regarded as quarry and no longer as reliable livestock. Disgusted and shamed by the mistake he had made, he yelled out that he was at fault and should have known that a bull of eight months, bred in the mountains, would only turn out wild. How could he be other than an "hombre estupido?" A stupid man. "Loco!" he bellowed, "El toro es loco!"
      Forming a human dragnet, the men reorganized and carefully advanced. At the same time they waved their hands in the air, hooted, whistled, shrieked and jumped up and down, effectively forcing the bull to drop down the mesa toward the corral. It stepped forward gingerly, tentatively. Narciso quickly moved in back of it, while his helpers went to each side of the gate. The bull paused, mired in distrust and doubt, and abruptly charged into the enclosure where the lead cow and brethren were patiently waiting.
      The men immediately closed the gate. Round and round coursed the bull until finally it stopped, stood still and eyed the cows as they passed through the chute. To Narciso, its eyes crackled with wily calculation as it sized up the situation. The open chute seemed to offer the only passageway to freedom. The bull plunged through the chute and into the trailer that was hitched to the truck. Instantly it realized its error and tried to jump over the trailer railing. With equal agility Narciso lassoed it and tied its head to the lower trailer rails. The bull struggled and attempted to rear up its head. Two oversize hand-forged iron weights, a pound each, were attached to the sharp tips of its perfectly straight and especially dangerous horns in order to bend and shape them into rounded curves.
      During this operation, Atencio held back and watched. Because he wore fancy clothes, many thought he was above the rough and messy job involved in raising cattle. But, in reality, he didn't wish to see the animals suffer and he particularly disliked watching the bull tied down, its eyes rolling in terror.
      Narciso drove the truck across sheltered fields interspersed with adobe dwellings and arrived at the canyon's mouth, which led up to the summer mountain pasture. Upon release the lead cow first climbed the steep trail, when the bull in a burst streaked past her and assumed command of the herd. Relieved, the men grinned and kicked up their heels.
      Winter came and talk about the bull reigned supreme in the bar, cafe, firehouse, poker parlor and most of the private homes in Costillo. Narciso and his pet bull. The joke's on-who has the bull by the horns, the bull or Narciso? The ranchers contended the ranch hands were lucky to stop the animal before it reached the open pasture above the corral, where they would still be chasing it. Dubbing it Loco, Narciso must have been plenty angry to give it that name. For a young steer maybe the name Poco Loco would be better-just a little crazy. But could the vacqueros get it down, and if they could, could it be trained? Some wild mustangs have been ridden like ordinary horses. But was Loco actually too loco?
      Narciso hiked up the mountain a few times to check on the cows and to take them a block of salt. He had a good lead cow that he could trust to guard the calves and guide the others to the best grasses, streams and salt licks, and in September or just before winter she would show the group the right way home. When the middle of September arrived, Narciso decided not to wait for the herd to materialize but to go into the mountains and bring them back himself. He met them halfway and then understood why they were late. The lead cow had twisted her foot and was limping. Narciso spied the rest of the group but not the bull. He climbed higher and found it, holding back and nervously distancing itself from the cows. But a transformation had taken place.
      The young bull loomed big, enormous to be sure, spreading out in all directions, filled solid with coiled bunches of tight knots and yet surprisingly lithe for an animal its size. It had flawless control over every quick step it took-an amazing talent for a beast so large. He faced a twelve-hundred pound masterpiece of its kind. And certainly testy. Almost before Narciso moved, the bull seemed to be everywhere at once, hooking back to the mountains, then thunderously rushing down and circling the cows, causing them to panic. Narciso thought that this was the creature so well qualified it could define the word rapido, it was that fast; the bull moved like the long-legged wolf.
      But the bull looked odd: one of the weights on its horns was sheared off, giving it the bizarre, surreal look of a satyr. Continually maneuvering the beast, Narciso prodded and pressed it downward, while he stumbled on the harsh path. He was grateful for the stream frothing next to the trail because being near it made him feel better about his work and himself. The bull ripped ahead in jerks, even bounces, and Narciso noticed its muscles moved like inner gears. The bull was heading for the lower reaches, where on the left appeared a tangled brace of stout trees and on the right a cliff which ran straight down and out of the canyon; in order to avoid capture in the open fields it had to circumvent both. Narciso hoped to contain it to a leisurely pace along the side of the cliff wall.
      However, the bull devised its own scheme, and exploding past the excited cows, it accelerated and crashed into the lead cow down the trail, knocking her over into a crevice below. The cow landed between two large boulders, and the more she struggled the further in she became wedged. Worse, Narciso saw that she had either broken some ribs or perhaps her back. Alone, and with the remainder of his stock at stake, he had to continue. Anyway, she would soon die from shock.
      A more costly blow could not have befallen Narciso. Enraged, he clenched his right fist and shoved it into heaven's face and he vehemently shrieked, "No es loco, es diablo! Diablo malo!" A bad devil. Not letting up for a second, Narciso kept behind the bull when they came in sight of the canyon's entrance. The bull hesitated a moment, vainly searching for an escape route, groping, when with a spurt it instinctively veered to the right and into a ragged ravine that rose up towards the cliff and continued some distance above the trail. The last exit.
      Was it possible the bull had the power to will whatever it wanted to take place, Narciso wondered? Was Dios on its side or his? A God for a bull? Whatever. This could only be a strange God, indeed. This miracle ravine, more like a wash, had hardly existed to him. Although the bull had won a delay by losing itself in the ravine, Narciso had the mental comfort of knowing that the arroyo would end at a wall and the bull must soon return. By keeping himself uphill from the bull, he could force it down the ravine and as it crossed back on to the trail, he could coerce it to leave the canyon. The beast, thwarted by finding its route blocked, came cascading back down the wash, with Narciso bravely positioning himself above it and to its right. When it reached the trail, Narciso began throwing rocks at the toro in frustration. He pelted it so hard that he clumsily fell forward, and completely off balance, he awkwardly threw a stone down on his foot. The bull brushed off the bombardment, and probing to discover a way out of its confinement, it paused again. Ignoring the canyon exit, it launched off, prancing like a deer across the trail and stream, and undaunted, violently hurled itself into the thick density of ponderosa and Douglas pine, which was reinforced with a mesh of scrub oaks and willows.
      Lunging, ramming, churning, battering, ripping, uprooting and to Narciso's mind probably cursing, the bull plowed into all resistance and powered through to the other side. It vanished into the mountains. Narciso stood there hopeless and helpless. He supposed the brute was laughing. Tired and anticipating darkness, he decided to call it quits. He had already lost his most valuable cow-an expensive venture. With the remainder of the herd traumatized by the turmoil of events, he dejectedly headed home.
      A cow had gone down and a bull had gone up; this was the conclusion the town folk drew from the stories brought down from the mountain. A bull leaping like a deer. Magical. Magical and evil at the same leap. Pity the lead cow. Up there where the snows swirl on the peaks, emotions get mixed up in the high thin air. Funny things happen. Spirits can take other forms. Deer mate with wolves. A young bull raised in the mountains may crave blood and howl at the moon. Fellow spirits, gone mad, run together.
      It nagged Narciso that the bull thrived on the mountain, totally free and out of place, challenging the natural working order. He knew it shouldn't be there, shouldn't mingle with the wild creatures. It was just becoming wilder and wilder and day by day harder to bring in. Narciso could feel its stubborn willfulness spreading in its brain, enveloping its heart. It was time to grab the demon.
      With his son-in-law, Candido, Narciso attacked the mountain. He didn't take Atencio because he couldn't square his cowboy dude clothes with the rigors of winter and Candido worked best as an all-purpose hand.
      The bull could be anywhere. Since it was a mild winter, it did not need to graze at a lower range but could stay up higher and survive. At first Candido asked to try his luck alone, but after confronting a cutting, chilling wind he came back exhausted. His lungs hurt from taking in the cold air. Still, he discovered signs of bighorn mountain sheep or maybe something else unusual. A bit further on they found large, wide tracks in the snow, positioned at fifteen-foot intervals, one after another inclining steeply downward. It was as if some strange, hopping monster made tracks disfiguring the slope. Suddenly they looked up. Fleeing before them, the bull jumped, sprang and bounded, soaring high and clear from rock to crag to pinnacle, thrusting and jamming its front legs straight down before it, hard and stiff, sufficiently bracing itself to absorb the shock of its airy landings. Almost three quarters of a ton of whirling acrobatics speeding from jump to jump. The men followed, grappling with the timberline and its mass of huge evergreen trees. But the bull couldn't be found. It had disappeared into thin air.
      Candido had to relieve himself and squatted low in a crevice. Glancing over the terrain from his ground level, he unexpectedly caught a glimpse of the bull hiding just beneath the line of trees. Barely buckling his belt, he ran out and with Narciso chased the lunatic. Down, careening, catapulting, surging, nimbly hurdling over the rock-route, the bull flung itself away in a skyward dance, away, far from its pursuers. The game, Narciso complained, playing its piss-poor game of racing up and down, down and up with cunning, he couldn't half match. He could hardly keep the enemy in sight; shit! The haggard men passively watched the phantom effortlessly dash toward the summit. The bull was always out of their reach. Both of them burned, tightened up inside, scowled, dropped their heads, shrugged and squeezed out an abortive laugh. They felt silly.
      Narciso came down without the bull. The village teased him. No bull; poor Narciso. He couldn't cope. The bull ruled. The joke circulating around was, if you need good cows, especially a bull, avoid Narciso.
      Finally, Macedonia intervened. She told her husband that he saw the bull wrong. It is not a bull anymore but some piece of the mountain with deep roots there. Can you tame or capture a mountain? There are things no one can do. No more should Narciso go after the bull or he'd find trouble. He should listen. Narciso shook his head and countered. It made no difference what she said. The bull was still a bull, for which he had paid good money, and he, the owner, planned to get it back. Now the bull is big with folds of meat and is worth more. And the cows, they can't have calves without his bull. Besides, it's a man's life.
      Macedonia agreed with him-she always agreed when he put down his reasons carefully-but she protested: his arguments didn't work this time. It's not about arguments, she said; you can't reason with a bull. This wild bull kicks down all his arguments.
      It snowed. Each night Narciso clumped in his special chair facing the immutable fire, while the bull continually remained with him, prancing in the edges of his mind. Loco, he pondered, who's more loco, he or the bull? Yes, it might not be right for a bull to run on the mountain with deer and elk, mountain sheep and, he conjectured, a few wolves or at least wild dogs. He didn't think so. But why did he mind? Because the bull outsmarted him? Or rather fooled him? No, outsmarted him. Did he view the bull as a rival? To a degree, but not all the time. What bothered him most was that the bull up there pawing the mountain didn't fit. It was not in its correct place-with him and the cows on the ranch, where it belonged. Instead it lingered in the dark and wild. He, Narciso, must remedy that.
      The next day, quite early, Narciso left. He admitted Macedonia had good instincts. He was dumb to go. The snow banked three feet high and his horse painfully worked through the white stretch of opposition. It came to Narciso that the animal must be wondering why he chose today of all days to ride. Narciso brought his gun with him, and this little bit of stealth he had not told his wife. He took it because if he could just manage to locate the bull, since he couldn't catch it, he would shoot it. At least that way he would have the meat. He would mark where it was and leave it there until the next day, when he would return with two sturdy horses to pack it out. He considered his decision a poor solution at best but he didn't feel bad about it. There was nothing illegal about shooting your own bull.
      With no bull in sight, his hopes wilted, and as he hunched along he thought of himself as a splotch of soggy, crusty frijoles, beans half dead, beyond hope. No bull could be seen, only sullen, endless snow. At the mouth of the creek he sensed that he had failed. He was out of control, acting out of desperation. Stepping carefully around a protruding rock, his horse got tangled in a stray willow, lost its footing and tumbled down into the creek, throwing Narciso free. As he landed on his back in the snow, it struck him that this disaster was the proper conclusion to his madness. At the same time, as if in a ballet in slow motion, he watched his horse roll over on its back, fold its legs underneath, and catching itself, push its body up and onto its feet in one miraculous swoop. Narciso lay there happy. His horse had not broken a leg and he wasn't hurt. All the pieces could be put back together again.
      Except for one. His best gun lay smashed on a rock, and without inspecting it, he could tell it was hurt, its action bent, shattered, a twenty-two he had hoarded from his World War II days. This underlined a lesson to be learned or a precept he should have absorbed-he shouldn't have taken his gun. He was almost glad that the gun was dead and the bull alive.
      Back home, Narciso studied his remaining stunted cows. He now had no stomach for them. He was discouraged. When the news that Narciso contemplated disposing of his herd reached the community, it was received with good humor. He was deemed fickle. One year Narciso loves cows and buys his usual quota of quatro-always four of them. The next he tires of them and wishes them gone. Today is gone time. Tomorrow he might turn to those fancy, hairy animals-llamas-that the new gringos like. Imagine! A whole field of llamas like daisies. Might as well be looking at giraffes.
      The day the rumor set in that the missing bull had journeyed down and crossed over onto the Indian Pueblo, land forbidden to trespassers but for the bull a haven, Narciso decided to visit the vet. The vet told him the bull had done its job: two cows would calve in the early spring. Narciso listened without a word, went home and waited. He took the coming births seriously. He carried out his business, reinforced the pig pen, continually tinkered with the fences and sold his bulldozer, but essentially he waited.
      But what he wanted to do was seriously worry. A bull, now sixteen hundred pounds, could weigh heavy on anyone's mind. But soon the worrying ended. The smallest cow gave birth to a dead calf, a bull. The vet explained that the calf had a breach. It couldn't be discharged from the mother because one of its legs folded underneath it and the calf got stuck. An accident. The calf had smothered, and afterwards was removed from the cow, which pulled through.
      Narciso exploded. To everyone's surprise he turned violent. He cursed, many times stronger than he did at the bull, and raged and stormed, but his friends figured his behavior was a torrent of emotion directed at the bull. Narciso blamed it for killing its calf, his calf. By the bull nagging and scaring the herd and continually disturbing and badgering it, the cows became upset and the babies inside the mothers got mixed up and turned around upside down. The bull had done it. Narciso fumed. Should he get the cow an orphan calf to mother? This had been known to work. Would this help the mother and ease his own anguish? That's all he could do. But six hours later Narciso had changed his mind.
      His other cow delivered a healthy bull. The herd at last had a bull to protect it. That's what he cared about. He was content; he had been rewarded. The bull paid him back and he didn't lose any money. Now at peace, he could forget the bull he lost and from this day on concentrate on the bull just born that he could call his own, an idea that comforted him for a long time.
      The town took Narciso for granted. After all, it acknowledged, what else could Narciso be but Narciso? Besides being just like a bull--crazy.