How To Be A Cowboy

By S. Brady Tucker

By the time he gets there the calf is dead and has been for some time — the meat will be sour and rank by the time it gets to the hooks in the ruined barn; it won’t even be good enough to grind up for stew meat.  He sees dollar signs dead in the water, but what’s another lost five hundred dollars at this point?  Goddamn mother cow doesn’t let him near it, just stands there straddling the limp calf, legs still stained by birth, watching him, lurching her dense body about in the mud to block him from the dead newborn.  She bends and nuzzles the drowned calf, licks at the matted coat, her stare fixed at him hot and stupid — her eyes are white and wide open, burning with dumb animal hatred.  She would be no good after this, and he knew it, she would blame him for her baby’s death simply because he was there for it.  He has seen this before in grieving mothers.

He remembers the long peace when the ranch was a whole family outfit…

The rainwater is rising up to her udder, churning with the mud running by in sticky clumps, and her calf is slowly beginning to rise up, about to float away, but she just stares at him, waiting for his next move.  He knows she would run him down, stomp him, maybe kill him if given the chance, so they wait, watching each other as the roaring brown water rises slowly around them.  The rain makes his hat stink of hard work, and before him, the flooded pasture and the partially submerged fence churn the flood-waters like clotted butter.  He steps back to the safely of higher ground, his boots filled with water and slipping on the muddy clay and grass, and hooks his tool belt to the barbed wire fence near the water’s edge so if he slips he won’t fall into the rushing torrent.  A dead horse floats serenely by, and as the corpse turns in the water, he notes solemnly that it is his favorite animal — a cherry colored Arabian named Spike.  It is then that he knows it is all over for him.  He watches as other remnants of the flooded farm float by — the last ruined elements of a life his grandfather had built from nothing, just four children and an angular wife, the last product of the singular work of his two rough hands. The cow sees Spike turn over in the water, legs straight out, and huffs and paws at the invisible island she stands upon.

Her calf begins to float away and finally she realizes that she too, is in trouble.  She thrashes about, the whites of her eyes rolling and panicked.   She is stuck sure in the mud, and as her calf swirls away, open slate eyes staring at the splattering of raindrops, the cowboy finally puts his rifle to his shoulder, takes careful aim, and shoots her behind the ear.  She goes down slowly like a long log into the water, and he hangs onto the fence-post and tries to salvage her for meat by stabbing and chopping at her hide with a hay hook, but it is too late, and she is off, into the quick and funneling river.  Her carcass bumps and rolls along the overhang of the bank, turns the corner, and that is that.  The musk of his hat runs warm water down his face, and he is reminded of his early life on the ranch — holding down yearling calves while his brother branded them — holding them down, enveloped by the stink of their burning flesh, told not to let go or they would have to do it again.  He remembers the long peace when the ranch was a whole family outfit, when the work of a day loomed cheerful on sharp early mornings, when he stood near the fire pit by the well with his father, their sugar poured over coffee burned in the kettle.

He will lose the family ranch to the bank, because who can afford flood insurance anymore?  He will move to the city, take a job as a bartender and some odd jobs as a carpenter, he will walk the streets with his thick hands shoved deep into his wranglers.  And he will be an oddity, certainly — a ranch kid out of place, with his cowboy boots, his rodeo buckle, his jeans, the fearsome scar that circles his left eye.  He will use his father’s saddlebag as a tote, he will ride the metro deep into the city for work, down into the bowels of a strangeness beyond all his years and beyond all the puritan knowledge of his ancestry. And these people.  Like they know what it is to care about something so much it makes the acid rise up in your throat.

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About S. Brady Tucker

S. Brady Tucker is originally from Wyoming, and served as an Army 82nd Airborne paratrooper in the Persian Gulf. His first book, Mormon Boy, won the 2011 Elixir Press Editor’s Poetry Prize, and was a finalist for the 2013 Colorado Book Award. His poetry and fiction has won numerous awards including the Shenandoah Bevel Summers Fiction Prize, and is forthcoming or has appeared in The Iowa Review, Gemini Magazine, Verse Daily, Poetry Northwest, Connecticut Review, Chautauqua, River Styx, Asheville Poetry Review, storySouth, Crab Orchard Review, among many others.


  1. Gary Schanbacher
    Posted April 2014 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    Stark, poetic and visceral. A fine story, a punch-to-the-gut story.

  2. monique
    Posted April 2014 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    Great and moving piece…It makes me think of origins; how we all come from some particular root but how circumstance usually yanks us along, away from that root…not always to the places we seek on our own. Very thought-provoking story!

  3. Judd Rogers
    Posted May 2014 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    The reality of true romance. Wow! Excellent work Mr. Tucker.

  4. Heidi
    Posted May 2014 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    So vivid. Loved it

  5. Mary Jane Nealon
    Posted May 2014 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    I loved this piece, visceral and desperate, I’m haunted by the mother cow.

  6. Soley
    Posted May 2014 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    Ah, Wyoming. Moving piece my friend.

  7. Meg Griffitts
    Posted May 2014 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

    Fucking brilliant, especially the last one was something that stuck with me and I thought it was especially pertinent in this day and age. Lovely.

  8. Posted June 2014 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    The focus and economy in the work are admirable, and this very particular yet nameless man’s story is at once unique and resonant of so many more. The storm and flood are mythic, the loss and grief entirely and agonizingly human. Hay hooks and branding irons mortify the flesh; helplessness and dread mark the soul. Real power here.

  9. Seth Tucker
    Posted June 2014 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Thank you, everyone, for the kind responses to my story–it means a great deal to me!

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