Five thirty-eight a.m. Less than an hour before light. Out there in the back-country darkness, great pines on either side, the red clay road winding like a reptile in the headlights, a man couldn't help but feel that he had fallen out of everyday life into a surreal land.
That time of night had an eerie quality the same as twilight, when brilliance slid slowly off the edge of the world and darkness, like some crawling beast, inched gray then black, over the rim.
But now there was a jigger of rose-and-gold morning mixed with the night; and perhaps that, with the heady brew of darkness whipped thick about it, was what gave the air its unnatural look and feel.
Yes, feel, thought Lieutenant Maynard. It was as if one could reach out, hold the air, and work it between the thumb and forefinger like fine gossamer.
The three of them had come out of sleep to the fire bell's ring. The dispatcher, a strawberry blond woman nicknamed Red, had sent them on call.
In the depths of the pines lay a cow pasture where, according to the coon-hunter who had called it in, a small grass fire was burning. After crossing the pasture and threading through woods, he had found his pickup and driven to the nearest phone, in the town of Nacogdoches, Texas, just three miles away.
It wasn't much of a fire, the coon-hunter had said, and perhaps it would die out on its own, but it should be checked. He had given directions. Now they were checking.
Finally they stopped by the side of the road. The lieutenant got out first, went around the truck, and leaned on the top wire of a four-strand barbed wire fence. The other two firemen climbed out of the truck and leaned on either side of him.
"This seems about right," said the lieutenant. "Best as I can tell from the directions."
"Mileage would indicate," said Martin, and he spat a brown stream of snuff over the fence and against a tree.
Ted, the other fireman, said, "I don't see a fire."
"Doesn't mean it's not out there," said the lieutenant.
"How we gonna get a truck in there?" said Martin. "We could spend all night looking for a road."
"We won't worry with the truck for now," said the lieutenant. "Maybe nothing to it. Get me a pump can, would ya, Ted?"
Ted trotted to the truck and returned with the pump can. The lieutenant strapped it on his back. "If it isn't much of a fire this will take care of it. If it is, well, guess the sonofabitch'll burn the whole pasture up before we can get in."
"We could cut the wire," said Ted.
"Uh huh," said Martin, "and then we could squeeze our little red rubber fire truck through the trees and out into the pasture there."
"All right, all right, don't be a smartmouth," said Ted. "Just trying to make a suggestion."
Martin spat on another tree.
"It's sort of wide over there," said the lieutenant, pointing to a gap between the trees. "I think I can get through. I'll go in and head right first. Follow me through the trees with the spot. That way I can tell where you are out here, and I'll keep in touch with the walkie-talkie."
"All right," said Martin. "Find something, then maybe we can snake a hose through."
"Maybe," said the lieutenant. "Well, before the world burns away...." Ted and Martin pushed down the bottom two strands of wire with their booted feet, held the top strands high with gloved hands. The lieutenant, pump can and all, worked his way through, found the opening, and wriggled his way into the pasture.
Behind him Martin called, "Watch for cow plops!"
The lieutenant smiled in their direction. He could barely see them through the trees, the engine behind them, a splotch of clay road. He turned and walked. After a while he turned on the talkie.
"Nothing I can see. Thought you guys were going to start the light?"
He waited. No responding voice. No light.
"Start the light," he repeated.
"Martin, would you start the light, please?"
Nothing. There wasn't even static on the talkie. "Dead," the lieutenant concluded aloud. He started back to the truck for another communicator. He would have to start over.
Presently he came to a patch of wood, but could not find the opening. It looked different somehow, but common sense told him this was the right spot.
He took off the pump can, leaned it against a tree, pushed his way into the foliage. Branches picked at his uniform like magpies. He went twenty feet, thirty.
The wood seemed to go on forever.
Now how in the world could I have gotten that turned around? he thought.
He navigated back to the pasture, strapped on the pump can, and began to walk along the edge of the pine stand. He tried the walkie-talkie again, but still no soap. He called out by cupping his hands megaphone-style over his mouth and got the same nonresponse.
"Hey, Martin, Ted," he yelled. "I'm turned around out here. Say something. I'm lost."
He started across the pasture toward a clutch of pines on the other side. Like those near him, they seemed to run as far as the eye could see, then mixed with the strange pre-morning darkness.
Perhaps he was completely turned around, so much, in fact, that he had crossed the entire pasture and was trying to get out on the wrong side. That was a pretty crazy thought, but it was possible. It was early and he was half-asleep, and his wife had always said, "You wake up crummy."
As he neared the other side of the pasture, he noted that it sloped off dramatically to his left, dipping down into the greater darkness. He could hear sounds down there. Ted and Martin, perhaps? He walked that way.
It was too inky to be sure, but something seemed to move down there. Shapes — animals, from the way they milled about — and it looked as if there might be a pond. Yes, thought the lieutenant, that was it, animals drinking from a pond. Cows, most likely.
Behind him came a sound, like a truck. He turned, saw lights. At first he thought it was the fire truck, that they had found a way in after all. But no, the lights were different from that of the fire engine, and the motor sound, now that he listened closely, was different. This vehicle breathed its roar with a smaller set of metallic lungs. Probably a pickup.
Some strange compulsion caused him to stop staring and turn in the direction of the pines at his left. He walked briskly, removed the pump can, and placed it between two pines, easing himself into the concealment of the trees. Fire department or not, uniform or not, it was not wise to wander about in a man's pasture at night. People still rustled cows, and ranchers still shot rustlers. It might be judicious to wait until a more opportune moment to introduce himself. Were they to come upon him suddenly they might shoot first and take names later. In many ways the Old West was still very much alive in this part of the country. Besides, not too long back this area had, like much of the nation, been plagued by oddball cattle mutilations. If they spotted him with this pump can out here, they just might mistake him for a little green man.
He waited silently in the pines.
The lights swelled. It was a pickup, all right. Two men were riding in the truck bed. He could make them out against the gray skyline. There was also something else stacked high in the bed; it looked like bales of hay. Attached to the truck, and rattling behind it, was a long, narrow trailer made of bars.
So he had been right about the pond and the noise. Cattle. Made sense. Early morning feeding, and these folks were the sort to start early.
The truck came even with him, stopped on the slope above the pond. He waited until they killed the engine. He was about to call out from his concealment and explain why he was here, when his mouth froze forming a word. His brain locked up like a frozen brake.
Was it Halloween? Something was very wrong here.
The two men in the truck bed, standing up and looking over the top of the cab, did not look like men at all. In fact, they looked like —No. Couldn't be.
Lieutenant Maynard rubbed his eyes and looked again.
The truck doors opened and two more got out, one on either side. The one on the passenger side took hold of a spotlight fastened to the door and flicked it on. The light was harsh in the near-morning darkness. It gave Lieutenant Maynard a good view of the pond.
Down there by the water, milling about like cattle, were people. Women, men, and children. Black, brown, and white. There must have been two dozen. They were stark naked.
Suddenly one of the men turned to look up the bank. He made a snorting sound, rushed halfway up the incline, threw his massive chest out, opened his mouth, and yelled "Moooooo." He tossed his head from side to side. Spittle foamed and rolled out of the corners of his mouth. The mooing turned to a loud bellowing.
The others, mostly women, drifted away from the pond and gathered behind him in the same manner the lieutenant had seen cows gather behind the lead bull in a pasture.
The one with the spotlight chuckled softly. "Ferd'nand's a feisty old male, ain't he?"
Lieutenant Maynard looked at the speaker, hoping he would fade away like cotton candy on a hot afternoon and that he himself would wake up on his hard firehouse bed with a stomach ache from the spaghetti they had eaten for supper. It had caused bad dreams before.
But the image did not fade. It was as real as pain. The one with the spotlight, like the others, was dressed in farmer attire: overalls, boots, coarse shirt, and straw hat. One even had a hay strand in his mouth, and he was working it between his leathery lips like old Huck Finn.
However, their resemblance to farmers stopped right there. Horns poked out on either side of the hat crowns and reminded the lieutenant of those ridiculous University of Texas Bevo caps. Only these horns were not attached to the hats, he was certain of that. Below the hat brims were bull heads. Wattles of thick flesh draped their necks; dark snouts glistened with dampness. Their chests were massive.
Lieutenant Maynard trembled. This was the real thing, not a masquerade. But how? One moment he had been wearing the coat of reality, and now this. It was as if crossing that barbed wire, pushing through those woods, entering this pasture, had plunged him into madness.
Or did something lie catlike and ready to pounce at the turning of twilight to day? Did this coincide with stories he'd read about people starting off across a pasture and suddenly disappearing? Were there rifts in reality, little rips in the tent of life? Did an even bigger and wilder circus lie beyond our everyday world?
Lieutenant Maynard looked down at the pond again. The people did not go away; and when he turned back to the pickup, the bulls who walked and talked like men were still there.
"Jerry Caleb, toss down some hay," said the driver.
"Sure thing," said one of the bulls in the truck bed, and as he swiveled toward the bales, Maynard could see that his back was humped beneath the overalls like a brahma bull's. And God, now that more rosy light had percolated into the morning, he could see the others more clearly. Wasn't the one with the brahma a white-face Hereford? And the other two, with black and white spots on their face and hands — could they be holsteins?
The brahma cut the hay with his pocket knife, and the little hay squares fell apart like cough lozenges. He cut another. The white-face began tossing the bundles over the cab toward the humans, who, like wild animals, were dropping down on all fours and tearing at the hay with their teeth. Strands of it projected from the corners of their mouths like massive whiskers, wiggling savagely as they chewed.
My God! thought the lieutenant, They're herbivorous! And that means the bulls are...
He didn't like to think about that part.
"How many ya want loaded?" the brahma asked the holstein who'd been driving.
"Aw, better make it four good ones, Caleb. Goin' to be a pretty good sale at the auction barn this afternoon."
Producing four ropes from the truck bed, the bulls uncoiled them and moved down toward the humans, speaking calmly and softly to them as they went. "Easy there, old girl. Easy now."
Maynard considered making a break for it, but where could he run?
Then, as he watched the four bulls drive four humans up from the pond toward the loading trailer, something occurred to him. If he could get turned around topsy-turvy by coming through those woods on the other side, then just maybe, if he went back through, he could find his way home.
If that were possible, he would have to move quickly. Daylight was sticking its bright, pink claws into the gray, and soon he would be spotted. There was another thing. If daylight came, it just might close the door to his world forever — the door that may have been opened by twilight.
One thing was for certain: the idea of being some cow's filet mignon did not appeal to him.
The bulls loaded the humans in the trailer and locked the gate. After tossing their ropes in the pickup bed, the brahma produced a big ice-chest from the cab and set it on the hood of the truck.
"Oh, hell," the white-face said. "You mean to tell me you guys can drink beer this early in the morning?"
The brahma opened the ice-chest and smiled. That smile was a hideous thing to see. He lifted out a beer in his fist and said, "Breakfast of Champions, Jerry."
The bulls got comfy by leaning on the pickup, three of them with beers in their hands, and rode Jerry about not drinking. They laughed and guzzled like Maynard had seen so many of his friends do in the past. Christ, like he himself had done.
Daylight came on pinkly.
It was now or never.
Lieutenant Maynard removed his clothes. He eased silently out of the wood and, creeping low, started for the pond and the humans. The bulls were so wrapped up in joshing one another that they didn't notice him. And maybe, without his clothes, they would think him one of the herd.
The lieutenant reached the water hole and the other humans. One of the women caught his eye. Except for her tangled hair, she was a beauty — could have been a Playboy foldout. She turned and looked at him with what Maynard could only think of as cow eyes. She sniffed at him curiously.
"I won't hurt you," he said softly
She just looked at him.
"I'm getting out of here. Want to come? Do you understand?"
The woman opened her mouth and mooed.
"Say," Maynard heard the white-face say, "is that one of ours?"
Oh, hell, Maynard thought. He turned and bolted the wood beyond.
"A stray," he heard one of the bulls yell.
"Not when he's branded," another said. Suddenly Maynard heard the roar of the pickup.
He ran as hard as he could go. Damn! If only he had kept his shoes on. The grass burrs were tearing him up.
"We about got him," someone yelled. Maynard chanced a glance over his shoulder and saw the pickup roaring across the pasture, clattering the trailer behind it.
But now the woods were looming before him. He was going to make it. Less than ten feet in front of the truck, he entered the woods, felt limbs and branches tear at his naked hide as if it were ancient cheesecloth.
"I'll get 'im," one of the bulls said. Maynard turned to see the brahma hop out of the truck bed and enter the trees after him. Not far behind him came the white-face.
The woods went on and on. Maynard felt himself tiring. His feet hurt and he bled from a score of wounds. He looked over his shoulder again.
The brahma had considerably outdistanced the white-face and was closing in. In an instant the big bull would be on him.
Frantically Maynard spun, and though it was tight going, he managed to land a solid right to the brahma's shiny black nose. The bull went down on one knee. "Take that, and moo to you," Maynard snapped.
The brahma looked up at Maynard, shook his head, and blinked his eyes, but already the fireman was turning and running again. Behind him Maynard heard the white-face crashing his way to the brahma, heard him ask the downed bull, "What happened to you?"
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you," the brahma said. "But you're right, it's too early for beer."
"He'll break out on the other side soon," the white-face said. "Boss and Billy have gone around with the pickup. They'll get him."
Oh, God, thought Maynard. They've gone around, and it's almost light. I'm trapped, lost here forever in something right out of the Twilight Zone.
The trees thinned. Maynard began to run. He could see the road before him, dimly illuminated by ever-widening bands of sunlight.
Suddenly he felt a sharp pain and found himself flipping head over heels into the middle of the road. He realized that he had run blindly into a four-strand barbed wire fence and had somersaulted over it.
Shaking his head, he staggered to his feet. His body was crisscrossed with wounds from the barbs, and the punctures stung violently Worst of all was the bee in his bonnet. There was a roaring in his head like — Wait a minute. It wasn't in his head. It was the sound of the engine.
Terrified, he turned.
Grill and headlights absorbed him...
It was solidly morning when they opened the doors of the truck, climbed out, and stood over Maynard's body.
"Dead," said Ted. "He's dead. We've killed the lieutenant."
"Seemed to just come out of nowhere," said Martin, "like he was tossed."
"Dead," Ted repeated, "and I killed him."
The lieutenant sat up and held his hand to his head. "Oh, shut up, will you, Ted?"
"You're alive!" Ted yelled.
"No joke," the lieutenant said, and then he remembered the bulls. He looked at the fence he had catapulted over. The sun was bright now, and he could see through the trees to the pasture beyond. Way out there he could make out something moving—a cow, of the real variety. He had made it back home, through the gate of twilight.
Or he'd been sleepwalking, which seemed more likely.
In either case, Lieutenant Maynard felt it would be a while before he could eat a hamburger.
"It was an accident, Lieutenant," Martin said. "The kid couldn't help it. But why—"
"Uh, did I get hit before I went into the pasture?" Maynard interrupted.
Ted and Martin looked at one another, then back at the lieutenant.
"Never mind," said Maynard. "Well, are you going to just stand there with your mouths open, or are you going to help me up?"
"Sure," Ted said. "But Lieutenant—?"
"Uh, why are you naked?"
Roll back here Thursday, September 01, for another free short story from Champion Mojo Storyteller Joe R. Lansdale!
"The Pasture" originally appeared in Rod Serling's Twilight Zone Magazine. It later appeared in A Fist Full of Stories [and Articles], a collection published by CD Publications. "The Pasture" © 1981 Joe R. Lansdale. All Rights Reserved.