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Big Sky

Jesse kicked open the battered door to his trailer and released a tremendous burp into the crisp morning air. To further punctuate the matter, he arched a yellowed meteor of phlegm into a rusty coffee can, mixed in with other miscellaneous trash out front, which landed with a satisfying splat. Surveying the landscape in front of him while pulling on his hat, he mentally organized what would become the rest of his day.

Not a particularly smart man, nor a clever man, Jesse prided himself on having a wide array of interests ranging from practical to terrifying. A rancher by necessity, he was hired seasonally to maintain the cattle range of one Edward Lower, a crusty cuss from Alabama who fell into ownership of family land in Houston when the powers that be couldn't locate anyone better in the bloodline to give it to. For the most part Lower left Jesse alone to do the tedious, brainless work required in keeping cows from wandering off to die in the elements, or of dehydration, as the only water available to them was the water that Jesse poured from barrels into various metal tanks spaced out on the property. It was long and lonely work, but it paid decent and gave him a place to stay for nearly half of the year.

The good and bad thing about solitary work of this nature is that it allows for a great deal of free time. In Jesse's case free time could lead to thinking, which was something he preferred not to do, if he could help it. Some people have good thoughts, and happy memories that they enjoy rolling around in their mind like you'd roll around good whiskey in your mouth before you swallow it. Jesse's thoughts have never been of this sort, and he'd much rather keep them at bay, or spit them out as they came, like he does with his smoker's phlegm into the coffee can. What he's found works best is to just keep busy. Working himself to the point of exhaustion would allow for him to sleep much easier at night. And when that didn't work, well there was always booze, but there was only so much of that to go around and the two guys who dropped off supplies once a month made it clear that liquor could not be added to the list.

Grabbing his clipboard and counter clicker, he set out on foot to get a start on the day's task that ate up the most amount of time, counting cows. Lower meant nothing to him when it came to being a man, or a human, or a property owner, but he signed his check at the end of the season, so for five months out of the year he was God. There was one thing Lower cared about, and one thing only, having as many cows at the end of that season as he did going into it. So Jesse counted them twice every day, checking their ear tags by hand against the range's master sheet, a process which took about four hours. After this was done he filled their water tanks using a twenty times bought and re-sold forklift, dumped cow mix into the wall of troughs along the property line, and then the rest of the evening was his to do with as he pleases.

The property line where the cows all met up to eat was near both a country road, as well as remote Amtrak rails. This being the case, an odd assortment of things would often get discarded there by people passing through who had stuff they wanted to make disappear, and who wanted to then disappear themselves. Throughout this year's run alone Jesse had collected several cats (nice to have around for the feed mice), license plates (good for rolling cigarettes on), an old dog that helped him with the cows for awhile until he up and died, and a sickly looking horse. The horse, starved to the bone and dried up around the nose and lips from dehydration, was the most surprising to come across. It had been tied to a metal fence pole and was so malnourished that its skin was hanging off its body. Upon first approach it shivered in fear so badly that the skin moved in waves like the thighs of a well fed woman in full sprint. Jesse fed it some cow mix, gained its trust, and then fashioned a too small sized pen for it behind his trailer. He could have made the pen bigger, to give the horse more room and comfort. He had the supplies laying around, stuff repurposed from fence mending and such. But there was something about seeing the horse buck and thrash and run in circles that Jesse liked. Sometimes late at night, when it had become clear that sleep wasn't a possibility, he'd walk out to the pen in only his under shorts and stare at the poor horse. The healthier he got the more panicked he got. And there was a look in his eye that suggested he knew he would have been better off left tied to that fence pole where he was found.

Things went on like this for while. The cows. The counting. The feeding. Jesse's private time. No one day particularly stood out from the other for many weeks, so much so that he lost track of time completely and got caught off guard by the two supply delivery men making their monthly drop off. The men, Juan and Billy, were used to Jesse eagerly waiting for them outside his trailer door, but on this particular evening they had to go looking for him. There were not that many places on the property for a person to be. Aside from the trailer, and horse pen they saw he had made behind it, there was nothing but flat, dry land and a shed for the storing of cow feed, water tanks, and maintenance gear. Figuring this was the only place Jesse could be they walked towards it.

Opening the door to the shed they were immediately struck with every possible smell that could be associated with cats. Cat pee. Cat poop. And cat death. Jesse stood at the back of the room facing a work bench and was so occupied with whatever it was he was in the middle of that he didn't hear them in the room at all. When Juan touched his shoulder to get his attention he jerked with such alarm that what he was holding in his hand flew out and hit Juan's shoulder. Looking down, Juan saw a severed cat leg plop to the floor. There was blood on his shirt from where it had hit him. Both he and Billy backed out the door with Jesse staring blankly at them the whole way. Just before they shut the shed door and made a run for their truck they saw Jesse turn back to his work bench. His right elbow moving back and forth in a sawing motion.

The next morning, before the sun was even out, there was a knock on the door from Edward Lower. There wasn't much conversation about what had obviously been relayed to him by Juan and Billy, but it was made clear that Jesse had until that afternoon to clear out. He was given his payment minus necessary cleaning costs for the shed.

Whether he hadn't known about it, or plain didn't care one way or the other, Lower hadn't said anything about the horse. After his Cadillac pulled away, and he was alone again, Jesse gathered up his duffel bag of stuff, stashed it in his pickup, and then walked over to the pen. When the horse saw him its nostrils flared. The closer Jesse got, the more agitated the horse appeared. A tension grew in the air as an unspoken exchange between man and beast was had amounting to the fact that neither of them knew what was going to happen next.

Jesse unlatched the pen and stepped inside the space that was barely big enough for the horse, let along the both of them. Left with no other choice, the horse reared up to kick Jesse but he grabbed its legs before they could connect. The horse, having been fed and watered more regularly in the past months than it likely had in its whole life, was still small for its age and breed due to prior neglect. Its two front legs, which should feel like solid muscle in Jesse's hands, felt like kindling. He gripped them harder and with two quick, upward moves of his wrists heard two loud cracks and then the horse was down.

Jesse pulled the horse out of the pen so he could have more room and then began to throw punches into its side. He'd been fond of the punching bag at his old gym, back a million lives ago, and noticed that the blows he was landing into the side of this dying animal felt similar. Well, aside from the boniness of it all. He kept hitting until he couldn't hit anymore and there was no distinguishing between the blood from his own hands and the blood now pouring from the side of the horse. Once a wound had been opened he went from punching to grabbing and pulling. Tearing chunks of the horse, and the horse's entrails, and flinging them wildly into the dirt all around him. When his arms and back tired from this he allowed his eyes to focus. There was nothing left of the horse but a stain, and nothing left of his mind but a muffled buzz.

Wiping his hands on his jeans, and through his hair, Jesse looked up into the big sky above, not knowing what to do from there. He sat in the dirt, next to the horse's head, shut its eyes, and then shut his own.