The sun was a blazing ball sitting high in the brilliant blue sky overhead. Gus sat back on his horse, disconcerted. He shoved his hat back and scratched his head. Dust swirled around the feet of the horses and the cows. Call looked at him.
Gus sighed. “Well, I reckon as you won’t believe me, but we got some bad cows in this bunch.”
Call looked around at the milling cattle, his brow creased in concern. “I don’t see anything.”
Gus adjusted his seat, grimacing. It’d been a long day outdoors with the herd. “Well, we’ve got ourselves an infestation of a sort. Only saw the like once before, but I’ll never forget it.” He pointed. “Now you take a look at that cow. Did you see her snap at the other’n?”
Call squinted after the pointing finger. “What are you talking about, Augustus?”
“How many cows you see snapping at each other in your lifetime?”
“More than you’d believe, maybe.”
Gus shook his head. “Just watch.”
The cows lowed and shuffled. One big brown and white heifer suddenly bared her teeth and snapped at a cow who’d brushed against her. Her teeth ripped into the other cow’s flesh.
“I know you saw that,” Gus said. “And now we got to kill both of ’em.”
Call stared. “What in tarnation? Holy—do you believe that. Her ear just fell off! She’s staggerin’ too. What’s going on here, Gus?”
Gus pulled his rifle from his saddle, sighted and fired. The cow’s head exploded. The other cattle mooed in alarm, avoiding the drooling red carcass.
“Dammit to hell, do you know how much of our money you just shot dead, there? You better explain yourself and quick.” Call’s eyes were small and mean, and he reined his horse close to Gus’s, glaring at him all the while.
“I do believe that’s more than I’ve heard you say in a year or two,” Gus said, wiping the sweat off his brow with a forearm. “’n I ain’t even really told you what’s going on yet.”
“Well get with it then, won’t you,” Call snapped.
“Those cows are zombie infested. Spreads with a bite and there’s no damn cure, Woodrow. We just gotta shoot ’em down and do it quick before the whole herd comes down sick and I don’t have to worry about dragging my sorry ass to Montana no more.” Gus squinted and raised his rifle again. “There’s another ’un, see? You can tell ’em—they look mean and stupid, they stagger and their damn parts start falling off if they’re allowed to keep going. Shoot ’em in the head, you understand? Otherwise they’ll just keep coming.”
“A shot cow that keeps going—now, I’ve heard about all I’m gonna listen to. Get yourself out of the sun a while, Augustus, and stop spouting this nonsense before I take a notion to shoot you.” Call’s mouth was a tight, hard line.
A big white cow staggered not two yards in front of Call, then got her balance and made her way straight toward him.
“That what you think, huh?” Gus pulled a gun from his belt and fired into the cow’s chest. Blood rolled and dripped to the ground. The cow wobbled, then swung her head balefully and staggered on toward Call.
“I reckon you’ll believe me now—shoot!” Gus yelled when Call still made no move to defend himself. “I God, Woodrow, you stubborn no count—” Gus muttered, standing in his stirrups and aiming. The cow’s brain exploded into a liquid mess.
“What in the hell—? Those brains ain’t nothing but juice.” Call sniffed the air, his face wrinkling in disgust. “Whooo—I’ve seen and smelled a lot a’ shit in my life, but if that don’t take the cake.” Call looked grim. “There has got to be somebody I can shoot for this.”
“There is—the cows. Be quick now. And remember if they bite you you’re dead.”
“Yep. Anybody they bite. Get on with it.”
“So you’d be drooling, spittin’ in the dirt. Caterwauling some, I imagine, and staggerin’ around? How in hell will I know the difference?”
“I oughta let you get bit. Quit foolin’ around and start shootin’. Don’t miss and don’t pass over a single infected cow or every red cent of our money’s good as gone, understand?”
“’Taint natural,” Call muttered, over and over while he shot down the zombies mingled amongst his livestock.
“Ain’t a good sign of things to come,” Gus agreed glumly. He stayed close to Call. He felt like he might throw up, though he’d never have said it out loud.
The dry, trampled grass stank with rot by the time they were done. The land was red with clotted gore and liquefied brains. The remaining cows shook on their legs and rolled big brown eyes up to look at the two men.
Gus and Call sat slumped on their horses and looked out over at what they had done.
“We lost near one for every ten, goddammit,” Call swore.
Gus looked at him somberly and sat close on his horse, not replying.
“Got to roust Deets and Newt, have ’em supervise the burning.” Call's face was like stone.
Gus nodded tiredly. He stank. He felt sure the whole wide world stank right at this moment. “I’m gettin’ a drink. Then I’m gettin’ another drink and then I’m gettin’ the hell outta Lonesome Dove come morning,” he muttered. “And don’t you ever get it in your head to start over and hightail it off into parts unknown again, Woodrow, because I am done. This is my last trip with you.”
Call nodded, staring at the ground, feeling like he hadn’t felt since the Rangers had invaded Mexico in the early 40s and gotten captured. Every tenth man had been put to death.
He felt like hell. Instead of grumping more, he looked up at Gus and tried a small grin. “You got it.”
It startled Gus so that he nearly took a tumble off his horse. It made Call grin full-out. All the way home, Gus kept looking back at Call as if he might be feverish.
The next time Call thought about Gus saying he was making his last trip with him was when Call was hauling Gus’s body back to Texas the following spring.