Deadstock was a submission for Dennis Covington's undergraduate creative writing workshop at Texas Tech.
Content Warnings: Animal death, blood, death or dying, racism, self-harm and suicide, and violence.
The sheriff walked to a pine fence post near where the deputy stood, and he followed the deputy’s gaze out over the borderland pasture and to the heaps of toppled animals, upside down and bloated with their hooves sticking in each direction. Cows and sheep and chickens mostly, but the chickens were small things in all that bigger death. The sheriff put an arm on the fence post, and he squinted toward the low, South Texas sun. Sweat beaded on his forehead despite a cool passing breeze.
You ever seent anything quite like that sheriff? the deputy said.
No. No Rex, I haven’t.
That’s a tragedy there. All that livestock.
Livestock ain't the word for it no more, Rex.
Oh. I suppose it ain't. What would you call it, sheriff?
I don't reckon it matters what it’s called at this point.
Yeah, the deputy said, and he shook his head.
The sheriff turned back to the old farmhouse and looked it over. Wind-beaten and fogged windowpanes hid away its lightless interior. The weathered bottom of the house cracked and rotted like a bad tooth. A mosaic of white and yellow stucco covered the exterior walls, with large pits throughout that exposed chicken wire and the industrial branding of ripped insulation.
You been inside yet? the sheriff asked.
No. I thought it best I wait for you.
You thought right.
You know ol' Clayton was what they called a minuteman?
I know. The term used to mean somethin different before, though.
I didn’t know that, the deputy said.
Used to be noble.
You know he don't like the law much, sheriff.
You know he’s liable to shoot you, like he shot all his animals, if he’s still in there.
You still intendin to go in?
No changin your mind.
Probably not, the sheriff said.
The sheriff approached one of the windows from an angle and rubbed the bottom of his fist against the glass in a circle, trying to clear it. When he couldn't, he ducked under the window and walked along the exterior wall. Around the house's corner, a bloody dog chain lay wound along the bare ground from a rusted metal eyelet. An empty food bowl sat toppled beside the chain, and an unreadable name was scrawled across a faded red doghouse several feet away.
Big chain, the deputy said.
The sheriff stepped to the chain and squatted over it. He swiped two fingers over across its links and lifted his blood-wetted fingers in front of his face. His lips thinned, and he glanced at the deputy as he stood and wiped his fingers near his belt.
Rex, I want you to stay out here. Should Mr. Clayton decide to take a shot at one of us, I’d prefer it be the one without the baby and young wife at home.
You got a wife yourself, sheriff.
I said young wife, Rex. Besides, my wife'll probably be better off if I was dead, insurance and all.
The deputy stared at the sheriff dumbly before he nodded and stepped back. He put his hand on his holster, while his other hand tipped his hat to the sheriff.
I’ll be just outside, and you can holler if you need anything.
I appreciate that Rex, the sheriff said, and he walked to the door, standing clear of its front. He waved for Rex to move away from the door, and Rex did.
The sheriff reached a hand toward the doorknob and knocked on the door three times, each hitting sharp. The door's high windows rattled in their slots.
Clayton, the sheriff shouted. Clayton, you home? It's the sheriff. You come on out now. We ain't here for no trouble if you come on out now.
The sheriff leaned to the door and listened but heard nothing. He looked at the deputy, and the deputy shook his head and tapped his index finger against his leather holster nervously.
How many guns you reckon ol' Clayton has in there?
The deputy whistled, and his face slacked as he shook his head again. His eyes went up, and his lips mouthed words as if counting. Rex focused on the sheriff again, and he shrugged and said, I dunno, sheriff, but I assume more than we got.
Me too, the sheriff said.
The sheriff tapped the knob like it was hot before turning it, and the door opened with an agonized creak. A square of sunlight shot through the fogged kitchen window, and the sheriff saw the circle he tried to rub clean from the outside, smeared on the pane like a twisted face. The sheriff looked back to the deputy and nodded, but the deputy didn't nod back, so the sheriff walked inside and closed the door behind him to a crack, hiding away the deputy's paranoid and dismayed face.
Inside, yellowed linoleum stretched across the kitchen floor, cracked and rolling near swollen cabinets. A narrow door in front and to the right of the sheriff opened out into what he assumed was the living room. Frantic dust buzzed in the light of the window despite the subtlety of his movement. A urine stench pinched his nose, and dog food spread across the floor crunched under his feet as he stepped further inside. Small roaches scurried across countertops, ducking behind cobwebbed kitchenware and breached caulking. A ticking clock matched the rhythm of dripping water, and the sheriff didn't know where either sound came from.
Clayton. It's the sheriff. I’m here in the kitchen now. I noticed the door was unlocked. Just wanted to check on you now. Make sure everything's alright.
The sheriff waited for a response, but the only sound he heard was the wooden groan under his boot as he leaned. The ticking. The dripping.
Clayton, now I don't know if you know it, but all the animals outside is dead. You know anything about that?
The sheriff listened again, and he heard intensifying breathing in the room to the right. He flicked his holster open with his thumb and pulled his gun out. He turned off the safety with a click and held the gun against his thigh.
We don't want no trouble, Clayton.
The breathing strengthened and curdled like a draining bathtub.
The sheriff pulled his hat off and put it on a countertop. He leaned a shoulder against the wall near the open doorway to the living room and peeked into the other room. There, Clayton sat on the ground against a couch with a six-shooter in one hand and the other on a still German Shepard. Clayton’s eyes rolled back and forth, and he whispered secrets as his ribs heaved within a pair of denim overalls.
The sheriff ducked back and looked down at his gun as if to see if it was still there. When it was, he leaned over again and spoke softly, with only one eye exposed to the man.
Mr. Clayton, it's the sheriff. I’m gonna need you to push that firearm away from you.
Clayton’s eyes turned up, and they were red and cracked like broken earth. His face twitched, and he heaved. His shoulders shook, but he didn’t move.
How long that dog been sleepin, Clayton?
That dog’s dead, Clayton said through a web of phlegm.
How long you been sittin there, Clayton?
Clayton coughed recklessly. He spat onto the ground, and spit puddles surrounded him. When he stopped coughing, he ran a hand over the dead dog next to him.
People come when they have a reason, Clayton said.
All your cattle’s dead out there, the sheriff said.
Ain't gonna be no one to feed em. So, I shot em in mercy.
You intend to lock me up, sheriff?
Maybe we can get you a doctor, Clayton.
We can get you a doctor if you let us, but you gotta push that firearm away.
That Indian doctor?
I reckon he's Indian.
Clayton hacked toward the dog, and the dog’s hair stood with the force of the cough, and for a moment, the sheriff considered that the man’s breath had resurrected the thing. He let the thought loose as soon as it came.
Clayton, you mind if I come around here and just talk to you?
I ain't goin to no doctor. Specially ain't goin to no Indian doctor. The hell you think I am?
Clayton’s eyes lowered. The sheriff inched around the corner and stepped into the living room with his gun against his thigh, and he watched Clayton's hands. The rotting wood beneath the carpet bowed under the sheriff's moving weight, and he feared where it would have led if the floor gave. The living room was mostly empty, but an old TV showed the news on mute. The sheriff saw the word Terrorist run across the red ticker at the bottom of the screen, but then he watched Clayton's hand again and noticed blood pooling between Clayton's thighs. Flies crowded the man, assuming his death. Then Clayton’s eyes rose to the sheriff, and his mouth opened, and the sheriff saw a fly go right in. Clayton didn't do anything to stop it.
You know this is all that Obama's fault.
What’s that, Clayton?
This country’s gone to hell cause a him.
The sheriff watched Clayton’s hand and said, I try not to bother with politics.
You's the law. What else you bother with?
It ain't all the same.
I wish someone’d done shot him.
You suppose it’d make a difference?
It'd make some difference, Clayton said.
The sheriff sighed and holstered his gun. He walked forward and stepped onto the blood-soaked floor surrounding Clayton and squatted down in front of him.
You know I killed twenty metzicans, Clayton said. Then his glossy, red eyes lifted and stared at the wall across from him. The sheriff glanced back and knew that everything Clayton ever built was dead on the other side of that wall.
That so? the sheriff said.
I shot women and children, too, and it didn't matter. Cause you kill one and some other'd come. None of em belonged. This is my land.
The sheriff reached for his hat but remembered he already pulled it off.
We used to stand for somethin in this country, Clayton said, and he coughed.
And what's that? the sheriff said.
Oh, you's all the worst of em. Can't stop a leak sprung right on your thumb.
Clayton's wet eyes rolled to the dead dog, and he curled his fingers in the dog's fur and said, This here is Milo.
It's a fine dog.
He was my only friend.
The sheriff just nodded.
You got any water?
You want water?
Clayton's fingers curled again.
The sheriff watched Clayton's hand and frowned.
I have some out in the truck, the sheriff said.
This here is Milo.
I’ll be right back, the sheriff whispered as he stood.
The sheriff stepped backward into the rancid kitchen, and he picked up his hat and shook it out, and things fell from it. He put it on his head. He stood in the hollow, square light from the kitchen window and sighed and rubbed his eyes with his finger and thumb. He listened to the struggled breathing from the other room. Then he opened the door to the outside, and the deputy jumped and looked his way.
Everything alright, sheriff?
C'mon, Rex. Walk with me.
As they walked silently, the deputy kept his hand on his holster. When they arrived at the sheriff’s truck, the sheriff placed a shaking hand on the deputy’s shoulder. The deputy looked at the hand and then to the sheriff.
That man dead in there, sheriff?
The sheriff smiled faintly and squeezed the deputy's shoulder.
A shot rang out from the house, and the deputy fell to a crouch with his weapon drawn.
Sheriff, he shouted.
The sheriff turned from the house and deputy and looked at his reflection in the truck's tinted window.
Put that weapon away, Rex.
Put it away.
The deputy did, and he stood up. He looked between the sheriff and the house. The sheriff opened his truck door and pulled out a jug of water. It was tepid and heavy. He pulled the cap off and poured the water onto the ground just outside of the truck’s door.
You’ll need it yet, the sheriff whispered.
The deputy watched the sheriff but didn't say anything. He looked at the house again.
Radio the coroner and tell them we'll need coroner assistance from other towns and plenty of men with shovels, the sheriff said as he put the empty jug back into the truck and closed the door. He stepped around to the truck's bed, and beyond it, the sun fell on the Mexican horizon and the graveyard pasture.
The deputy’s brows knit together. He followed the sheriff's gaze out over the dotted land and watched the spreading darkness.