She knew Doc Weber worried way too much about her and her bull.
But when Doc returned to her house to warn her about some dude in a grey car with Arkansas plates parked on the road outside, Avery was well and truly spooked.
Was it Curtis? Possibly.
Probably. Avery’s heart raced and she put a hand to her throat at the very thought. She rang her mother to let her know Curtis may have come looking for her. Just in case…
She locked every door and window that night, but slept very little. When she did sleep, her dreams of Baby strung up and chopped into steaks were interspersed with nightmares about Curtis, her brain having made a bizarre connection between them that it simply could not break. One moment, she was being punched and strangled, the next she was standing in the slaughterhouse haggling over the price of Baby’s carcass. She woke in a sweat, only to drop back into a dream of being gored and trampled by Baby, then hiding behind the green draperies of a motel room, naked and bleeding, listening to Curtis snore his way through another high.
From its very beginning, Avery’s Sunday seemed to be steeped in doom. She woke cranky and bad tempered with a severe case of pillow hair, her undyed roots having grown to ridiculous lengths. It was time for either a haircut or a color correction, but who could afford it with a bill at the feed store that needed paying? Feeding 600 pounds of beef was no easy task for a girl making little better than minimum wage.
To top it all off, she had started her monthly. It was going to be one of THOSE days.
She scanned the road outside for signs of the grey car, then set about doing her chores and getting ready for work. There was no point in borrowing worry – it might not have been him after all. Plenty of people came from Arkansas. But whether it was Curtis or not, Avery was determined not to let him inside her head again.
Baby met her in the barn that morning and snorted loudly, sniffing the air and turning his side to her when she approached. “What’s the matter, Baby?” she crooned, moving around him cautiously to do her chores. She had always felt that he understood her every word… now she began to wonder if he had overheard her conversation with Doc the day before. In any case, Baby was not his usual self this morning either, and she gave him a wide berth on account of it. Well, that and the horns…
Avery finished feeding and grabbed the dung fork up from a corner of the barn, turning to find that her 600-pound bovine suddenly filled the barn doorway, blocking both light and exit. She could feel her adrenaline begin to pump, and she fought to keep it at bay. Between Doc’s warning and her nightmares, Avery was spooked for sure.
She was unsure about what to make of the man in the grey car, but there was no mistaking the clear danger her beautiful red and white bull now presented. She slid to her left, opening a small gap so that she could escape the barn if need be. Baby circled around and approached her slowly, pushing his head forward, breathing deeply.
She realized with astonishment that he was sniffing… her. Her adrenaline. Her fear.
Baby drew closer still, first nuzzling her, breathing in, snorting out. Her muscles tensed to the point of pain beneath his bizarre inspection of her person, but Avery knew backing away was the wrong move. She took a side step closer to the open barn door, keeping her front toward the bull. He then butted her arm, rubbing his forehead against her and nearly knocked her flying.
An unpleasant thrill of shock ran through her in that moment, and Avery hooked a hand around the back of Baby’s jaw, rubbing him in the sweet spot between cheekbone and neck as she had always done. Baby stopped sniffing and regarded her from under his white lashes. His brown eyes seemed to laugh at her. Without warning, he tucked his chin and raised his nose abruptly, knocking the air clean from her chest and propelling her backward as if she were a mere bag of feathers. Still he advanced, pressing his forehead to her chest.
Winded and shaking, Avery’s ribcage was bracketed by Baby’s new horns. Still she dug her heels in and held her ground as best she could. The result was a slow slide backwards through the dirt, and the stark fear of falling to the ground and being crushed under his cloven hooves.
“Baby, I think we’re out of our depth here,” she said shakily, playing brave into the face of the bull’s new-found awareness of his own strength. Oh, how she wished Doc were here…
Baby rubbed his head up and down on her belly, pushing her slowly but surely toward the fence. He could have been scratching an itch, but Avery was not so sure. “Stop!” she said firmly, “Stop!” Avery pushed at his forehead with the heel of her free hand. He responded by butting her soundly in the chest and continuing his advance. “Stop it!” she yelled. Avery stepped back and, in her panic, smacked Baby hard on the nose with the handle of the dung fork.
An outraged Baby tossed his head and jumped back a few paces, bellowing loudly. He again presented his side and shook his head, snorting angrily, rubbing his nose on the inside of his front leg.
Avery stepped carefully backwards, each step taking her closer to the safety of the metal fence, while Baby turned to face her again. He shook his head, then lowered it between his shoulders and began pawing the dirt.
There was no clearer sign a bull could give of his intent to charge.
Stark fear flooded through her veins, tingling along the backs of her knees and raising beads of sweat in its trail. “I said STOP!” Avery shouted in the loudest, deepest voice she could manage. She was shaking so hard she almost dropped the dung fork as she turned it in her hands so the tines faced Baby’s shiny pink nose.
Baby stopped pawing the ground, but a grumble formed deep in his chest, the lowest sound on earth, rattling the barn and the very earth with his discontent. He considered her unblinkingly from beneath his beautiful, white lashes. He seemed to understand, as she did, that their whole world was forever altered. He eyed the fork warily though, pausing long, breathless seconds before turning a 180 and trotting out into the pasture. Once clear of the gate, he mule kicked and lowered his head to charge across the frosty field.
Avery watched him go and took a deep, quivering breath. She backed up to the fence behind her and slid to the ground, still clutching the fork and unmidful of the what she may have landed in. Doc was right. Like it or not, Baby was growing up and feeling his oats. Through the fence she watched him come to a halt on the far side of the pasture, lifting his nose to breathe in the sweet scent of pheromones that hung thick in the autumn air.
Baby snorted and sent out a series of rumbling bellows which were answered by the herd of cows across the road. As was true of all adolescent males, her bull had but one thing on his mind. And obeying Avery was not it.
She swallowed past a painful lump in her throat, but her eyes remained dry. Having just faced certain death once today already, Avery figured Curtis couldn’t do much worse. She had faced down a bull, after all. What could be more terrifying than that?
Avery climbed back to her feet and brushed at her muddy jeans. Maybe it was post-adrenaline elation. Maybe it was relief, but she felt curiously lighthearted as she vaulted nimbly over the steel panel fence. Still wielding the dung fork, she felt good, almost powerful.
Her decision was made. It was time for Baby to go.
As for Curtis?
“Bring it!” said Avery as she scanned the road again, her words curling white in the frosty morning air.
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