Engie looked at the piece of barbed wire he’d kicked loose from the dirt. It was coated in red dust, the barbs eaten by rust until they were delicate crumbles of metal, looking as though they would fall apart at a touch. Until his boot caught on the raised twist of wire, it had been a great day for a battle. Now, not so much. He closed his eyes, trying to shake the memories he’d dug up with the length of wire but unable to. Engie groaned and picked the piece of wire up, flinging it as far away from him and his nest as possible. Walking back to his sentry, he sat in the meager shade provided by a rock and leaned his head back, deliberately slowing his breathing, concentrating on the cool stone against the back of his head.
Closing his eyes, he drifted off, lulled by the warm sun, the familiar scents of dust and gunpowder. He let his mind wander and quickly found himself back in the rundown old barn on his dad’s ranch in Texas. He was young, not even tall enough to see over the stall doors yet, but he could hear the occasional rustle of mice in the stalls as he walked. He climbed up the ladder into the hayloft, hiding from his chores for a moment of uninterrupted play, something that didn’t come often on the busy ranch.
Settling down into the soft layer of hay that covered the loft, he reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out the toy soldiers he’d brought along, lining them up on a spot he’d cleared on the floor. He sneezed, ignoring the dust motes dancing in the golden rays of sunlight that came through cracks in the walls. He turned his head, listening for a moment as his Pa called him in the distance. He could pretend he didn’t hear, he decided. He might get a whipping later for shirking his chores, but it would be worth it. Mind made up, he turned back to his toys.
He’d been playing for about a half hour when he heard the meow. Moving into a crouch, he listened carefully. He could hear them, kittens nearby. Trying to be silent, he began moving toward the sound. He loved the barn cats that lurked on the farm, half feral and skittish as hell, but they would occasionally let him run fingers through their soft fur, purring loudly until their pride overtook them and they darted off, watching him from a distance.
He moved down the ladder, following the soft meows, hoping that he could find the kitten and maybe catch it, tame it down, and make it a friend. He grinned as he caught a glimpse of grey fur moving through the shadows. He darted after the movement, rewarded when the kitten wandered into the open area behind the barn. He crouched beside the door as it batted at a leaf, making him smile with it’s antics. The kitten looked up then and froze, back arching as it saw him.
“Here, kitty, kitty.” He kept his voice soft and low, not wanting to startle it any more than he already had. The kitten moved away from him, fur glowing blue grey under the warm Texas sun. He moved toward it in a crouch, fingers wiggling on the ground by his feet. He continued to make soft noises deep in his throat, imagining how the fur would feel on his fingers.
The kitten looked tempted for a moment, then backed away, edging toward the manure pit behind the barn. He followed, nose wrinkling at the thick odor of decaying manure, but not wanting to give up on the kitten just yet. He edged closer, the kitten slowly retreating. He was almost within reach, nearly able to feel that soft fur on his fingers. The pit loomed behind the kitten, dark and malevolent, edges going nearly straight down. His pa had warned him about the pit, that it was deep and not a place for boys to play, though he couldn’t imagine why anyone would willingly get too close to that big pile of nasty. He understood the need for it, he was a farm kid and knew that manure was the best fertilizer around, not to mention cheap and easy to come by on a ranch, but still, when the wind shifted in the evenings and blew the smell toward the house, even his mama, the most proper woman he’d ever met, would utter a curse word or two.
He watched the kitten edge closer to the pit, then jump up on one of the fence posts that supported the barbed wire that kept unwitting cattle from wandering into the pit. With a grin, he straightened and walked over to it, reaching out for the kitten. His fingers just brushed the soft fur when the ground he was standing on began to crumble. He yelled and staggered back but his shirt sleeve snagged on the barbed wire and he couldn’t get it free as the ground collapsed beneath him.
He screamed as he fell, the scream abruptly cut off as his head was submerged beneath the horrid, partly liquid surface of the pit. He could feel the burning sting of cuts as the barbed wire raked up his arm, a coil of it slipping around his wrist and catching him, preventing him from sinking all the way beneath the dark surface. His head broke the top of the pit, he dragged in great gasps of foul air as he tried to make his way to the bank. He couldn’t move, his arm snagged under the surface of the pit, the cruel stricture of barbed wire sinking deeper into his wrist, pulling him further down and then, something grabbed his leg, holding him tightly.
The boy panicked then, kicking and flailing against whatever was holding him, feeling it tighten around his leg, hard barbs sinking deeper into his flesh, pulling at him. He tired quickly, one hand wrapped in the coils that stretched down from above, one leg held under the surface, his foot balanced precariously on the wood of the fence post as he panted and heaved in his terror, eyes fixed on the edge of the pit.
He whimpered as he tilted his head back, chin just above the viscous surface of the muck filling the pit and coughed, a gout of black fluid coming out of his throat and spewing back to land on his filth covered cheeks. Out of the corner of his eye he caught movement, turning his head a bit he looked at the tarry black surface of the pit. White worms were crawling in the muck, their slight weight not allowing them to sink. He clamped his mouth shut as his brain identified them, maggots, swarming in the mire, growing and eating, flies buzzing above the surface as the maggots transformed, ate more, then laid eggs in the effluvia, an endless circle of death and grotesqueness. He gagged through his clenched lips, swallowing down the bile that rose in his throat.
Above him, the strand of barbed wire ensnaring his wrist twanged at the tension on it and he briefly wondered what would happen if it broke. He’d seen a guitar string break once, leaving a bleeding welt across his uncle’s cheek. He tried to focus on his hand, the fingers turning purple as the wire tightened even more, cutting off the flow of blood to his fingers, leaving them thick purple sausages sticking straight up. He grimaced as flies landed on them, covering them in a moving black glove, hiding the color, if not the distended shape of them.
Moving slightly, he shifted his weight, wincing at the sting in his leg as whatever had hold of him tightened below the surface. To his left, a bubble rose to the surface and popped, the flatulent sound drawing his eyes. He rolled them and watched as more bubbles rose, then something big, moving toward the surface, breaching like a whale and rolling over. He bit back a scream as he stared into empty eye sockets, the cow’s skull seeming to stare at him for a moment, streaks of glistening foulness creating rivulets like black tears as they poured from the empty sockets. The skull settled, watching him as it slowly sank back below the surface. He screamed, knowing what was wrapped around his leg now, it had to be a tentacle.
He’d watched enough Twilight Zone to know about vengeful ghosts and their hatred of the living, read his cousin’s Tales From The Crypt comics, knew what had happened. The cow had died in here, drowning slowly and with no one to help and now the soul was trapped and sucking down anyone wary enough to fall in. He could feel his mind teetering on the edge of sheer panic at the thought, the ghostly barbs of the Death Cow digging deeper into his leg, wanting to watch him go under, wanting to suck his soul out the way he sucked on a juicy slice of watermelon, devouring it hungrily. It was too much. He gave in to the screams.
He wasn’t aware of the barbed wire wrapping ever tighter around his wrist, the trapped blood causing the ends of his fingers to explode, bright red fountaining out and spraying the pit’s dark surface, wasn’t aware of the fence post slipping under his foot as he slid off his precarious perch. He was only aware that he was sinking, the Death Cow tightening it’s grip around his leg, dragging him down into the murky depths where he would lay unfound forever. His screams turned to choking sobs, fetid liquid oozing into his mouth, down his throat. He couldn’t breathe, lungs filling as his head went under.
He didn’t know when the big hand wrapped around his, grasping the blood and muck covered slickness, dragging him back to the surface, and then heaving him to the shore, was unaware that his leg was shredded as the weight of the fencepost tightened the barbed wire wrapping his thigh and dragged it down, slicing as it went. He wasn’t aware of the panic as his Pa and his Uncles carried him up to the house, unconscious, barely breathing, dripping blood and black water with every step. He was aware of nothing until he woke up, two weeks later, in a pristine white bed in a sterile white hospital room, his hand missing, amputated after gangrene set into the damaged and shredded appendage.
After he was out, they told him how the bank had been eaten under where he stood, causing it to collapse, how the barbed wire from the fence post had entangled him, simultaneously damning and saving him. Even after they told him, he couldn’t look at barbed wire without a nameless dread filling his chest, the ghost of the foulness he drowned in filling his lungs, making it impossible to breathe.
Engie’s eyes jerked open and he sprang up with a start, his beer bottle tipping over and pale golden fluid wetting the dry earth. He sighed, righted the bottle with his mechanical hand, gaze lingering on it for a moment.
“Hey man, you alright?” a voice asked from behind him and he turned to look at the Scout standing there, bat over his shoulder, eying the mess askance. “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine.” He hoped the boy didn’t hear the slight tremble in his voice. “Just thinking about when I was a kid. Why don’t you get out there and do something ‘stead of hanging around here and scaring old men while they nap?” He let the aggressive tone cover the tremble, narrowing his eyes behind the goggles. “Go on, boy, war ain’t gonna win itself.”
“Jeez, man, whatever.” The boy turned and stalked off, and Engie watched him go. When he was out of sight, he glanced down at his metal hand one more time.
“Fuck barbed wire.” he muttered, then turned back to his work.