Salamander 2024 Fiction Contest

SUBMIT: May 1 through June 2, 2024 | READING FEE: $15


Cattle Country

Maxim Loskutoff
| Fiction


There was no warning when the cattle turned. Just an October day like any other. It was weaning season, and they were peeling the yearlings from their mothers, so maybe that’s what did it. But why that year, that day, only the cows knew.

The call came in around 0900. It was just me and Travis in the station. Usually there were three of us on duty but Kyle had drawn a mountain lion tag and was out hunting in the Big Horns. Mrs. Walkili’s voice on the phone was near a scream.

“They’re on the porch,” she said. “They got Don and Don Jr., and they’re trying to get in.”

I’ll never forget it.

Travis and I mounted up quick as we could, taking the Suburban and heading east. The Walkili place was ten miles out of town, right on the edge of Johnson County. Halfway there we realized the shotgun wasn’t holstered on the backboard where it belonged. I had my standard issue but Travis had left his thinking he’d use the shotgun. Between us, we had twenty rounds. “I’m saving myself,” I told him. “I will leave you behind to die.”

“Christ, Nep,” he answered, grinning. He was a year out of the academy and a lot of it was still a joke to him. I didn’t know what we’d find out there and that was no joke to me. Even in a town as small as Banner, if you’re at it long enough you’ll see something that takes the fun right out of it. I kept my eyes on the road. Little Piney runs along the foot of the Big Horns. It’s packed clinker, rod-straight, and I never had to slow below fifty. We were out there in fifteen minutes.

The Walkilis had a cattle guard across the head of their driveway and right off we could tell something was wrong. A line of black cows stood on the other side. Not milling and crosswise with chaw hanging from their lips like usual, but lined up, shoulder to shoulder, all staring at us with their flat cow eyes full of meanness and their hairy bat ears straight out. Travis reached over and laid on the horn. They didn’t even flinch. Just stared. Yellow tags were stapled through their ears and somehow they made them look even meaner.

I realized I’d never really looked a cow in the face before. I’d seen thousands, millions maybe—there were more of them than people in our county—but they’d always just been part of the scenery. I hadn’t noticed the odd anchor shape of their heads, or the way their flared nostrils looked like angry little eyes.

Travis jumped out. He walked over, hitching up his jeans, cocky as ever. “Careful now,” I said, out the window. I wanted him brought down a peg but I knew his kin and it would fall on me to bring him home if he came to any harm.

He waved me off. As usual, he was only wearing the half of the uniform that suited him: the beige button-up with the County Sheriff patches on the shoulders. Other than that it was all dumb young buck: shiny boots, tight jeans, and a belt buckle with more turquoise in it than a Caribbean tide pool.

Maxim Loskutoff was raised in western Montana. His stories have appeared in The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, Witness, Narrative, and The Chicago Tribune. He has worked as a carpenter, field organizer, and bookseller, among many other things.

Old Stonington, Connecticut: 1989