Manzano Mountain Review is an online New Mexico literary journal affiliated with UNM-Valencia.

Blanco
by Michael Thomas

Blanco was all black except for a blaze on his forehead. Angie and Pete had a six acre property with two houses and a trailer. I lived in the back house. I had more time than money and yet more money than sense. For a consideration on the rent I fed two hogs, a sheep named Daisy, two useless horses, three pissant goats, and Blanco.

Blanco was generally in a five acre pen south of Pete's houses or a corral near the houses. There were also some stalls. Pete moved Blanco around according to a logic I was never able to fathom. Wherever he was, he was a sad little guy, wrenched away from his mom and doomed to slaughter. For several weeks he stood bobbing his head starring out of eyes that had a startled look, like he'd just awakened to his fate. He stood there in that pen, small and solitary, apart from his breed.

Eventually, though, he got used to the place. He buddied up to one of the horses. I swear I had to laugh at that teeny little calf mooning after that old mare. He'd caper around and she'd give him a look of boundless disgust. This mare (Pete called her "Martha") had seen her share of horse existence and she did not like it. She was blind in one eye. At some point in her life, maybe as a colt back in Old Testament days, someone had tried to correct her behavior by walloping her in the head with a two-by-four. No one can know what effect it had on her behavior, but anybody would note the lingering image of a two-by-four pressed into her features. The blow probably contributed to her disposition. She survived and she was bound to survive Blanco. I expect she liked him better than getting walloped in the head.

Pete bought and sold turquoise jewelry. The business took off like mad about the time that he bought Blanco. He didn't have much time for the animals and neither did Angie. Angie had a job giving mice cancer and then putting their little livers in a blender. It was demanding work. She had to keep the mice healthy so their cancers could grow. I admired Angie and I admired the mice, living their little cancerous lives in service of the cure. It got to be that I was the only one doing the animal chores. So they gave me that nice break on the rent.

My place was just behind Pete's. Beyond me, next to the stalls, a fellow named Colin lived in the trailer, with his wife, Katz, and two dirty little boys. Katz was a stripper and worked under the name, "Katz Meow." Colin had a head the size of a number nine wash tub. He'd sit in the trailer and stare into space out of that big head. Then, all of a sudden his eyes would narrow and he'd start yelling, either at Katz or the boys.

Colin was a doozy. Rent time would come and go. He'd wait. He considered himself a man of leisure and liked an unhurried pace when it came to parting with the money Katz made. When he finally decided to pony up, he'd have Katz get him the money in tens and ones. He always picked a time when Pete and Angie had company for dinner. He'd knock on the door and say something like, "Well, good evening Mister Landlord. Here's the rent, ten, twenty, thirty, fifty. Oh! I guess the rest's here in this other pocket, ten twenty, darn. I left the rest back at the trailer. I'll go get it. You know landlord-man, our toilet's backing up and the old lady's got diarrhea. We could sure use a fan in that shitter. Oh look, here's the rest of the money... hundred ninety, hundred ninety-one..." and so on. Colin had delicate hands and could play guitar like an angel. But he was not much for taking a turn with the animals. Everyone was content to let me do it. I didn't kick. I'd grown up in a little wind-blowed town called Clayton. My dad grew up on his dad's ranch, but I was a town kid. I whiled away my childhood days watching my folks fight. Having Pete's animals to look after made me feel like a cowboy.

Eventually, Pete gave me a pig and one of the goats. He felt guilty about being gone all the time. He enjoyed caring for the animals. I think it made him feel like a rancher. There he was with his spread. He had him some livestock and even a hand. Pete was from New York. He was a decent fellow. He thought, since I was from Clayton, that I naturally knew about animals "Pete," I told him, "I know which end to feed. Outside of that, I'm in the realm of speculation.” We laughed, quite a couple of vaqueros.

Months passed and Blanco grew big. He kept his ways. He was sweet on Martha and had a look like he was sorry for himself. He looked like he wanted something different. I don't know. Maybe it was just that I wanted something different myself and saw it in him. When he bellowed, he'd start a high clear bawl that'd drop off to a moan, like he was disappointed. When he'd see old Martha, though, after they'd been separated, he'd trot over, shaking his big old head and wiggling his ears. She'd regard him out of that eye and give him a withering stare. He never noticed, but nosed right up while I choked with laughter.

I don't think Pete had Blanco for fifteen minutes before he started worrying about castrating him. He didn't like the idea but he'd heard it had to be done. He bought a book. That's the last I heard of it for a while.

One night I went over to see Pete. He was sitting at his kitchen table reading that big book on bovine husbandry and smoking a big cigar. "We've got to castrate Blanco," he said.

I had nothing to say. I supposed it was so.

"Let's go out and look at him," Pete said.

There is no desert on earth more barren than a livestock-trampled corral. The night was moonlit and bright. Blanco was standing by himself, casting a long shadow across the cold white clay of that corral. Martha was against the fence. She liked to keep Blanco at a distance. We went in. Pete went up and scratched Blanco's big head just behind the horns. Blanco was seven or eight months old, the big dufus. Pete held him and stroked his neck. "Shit," he said. "The book says they ought to be castrated. What do you think?"

I said that I didn't know, but probably it ought to be done young, and that it ought to be humane. I thought he should call a vet. Pete agreed. "You never think, do you," he went on, as we walked back to the house, "about cattle being such beautiful animals?”

We had some coffee inside. There was activity back at the trailer. Cars kept driving
up, stopping, and driving away. This involved a lot of slamming doors. Pete shook his head and sighed.

"I don't want to know what Colin's up to. Angie wants me to evict them."

"She's probably right," I said.

"He's probably dealing heroin."

Pete cracked the door and stood there listening. We could hear Colin playing "The Girl from Ipanema.” We walked outside to listen. I looked at Pete. He was staring into the heavens. "You know," he said, "we're here on the surface of this rock. We look up, out, and all we really see is the past, all we know is what's already happened."

I smiled like I agreed, which I guess I did.

Colin played "San Antonio Rose" and we listened. When it was finished Pete looked over at Blanco. "Shit," he said.

"Get a Vet," I said.

Pete smiled "Good night," he said.

He went in and I went back to the corral. I listened to the music and watched Blanco. Pete had a point. Blanco was a perfect example of his breed. I'd never noticed before what long eyelashes beef cows have. I looked at Blanco's feet. Those split feet are just keen for standing in mud. Colin was still playing when I went in. It was hymns now, “A Mighty Fortress is Our Lord.”

The next morning I woke early, ate, and fed the animals. I hurried. I wanted to get to the flea market before nine. Every weekend I went to the flea market, set up and sold Indian jewelry. Everybody was going ape for it. Pete gave me stock and I didn't have to front a nickel. I hustled over to pick up the jewelry. I met Angie at the door, on her way to the mice.

"They're out of their minds," she said. She got in her Volkswagen and left. I walked in. Pete and Colin were standing in the middle of the kitchen.

"If you wait, the animal will be ruined," said Colin.

"You're right," said Pete. "Ernie and I decided last night. I'm calling the vet.” He walked to the phone, picked it up and dialed. Colin looked at me and rolled his eyes. Pete talked to the vet. It'd cost $100.00. He’d come Tuesday.

"What a ripoff," said Colin. "I guess cattle raising is a gentleman's pastime. I can just hear them laugh back up Natrona County. A hundred bucks to get a calf castrated. Damn. But, hey, you're the rancher, Pete, Mr. Livestock Man, Mr. Turquoise Tycoon. If you've got it, flaunt it, man. Hell, Ernie, did you know 'ol Pete's paying some guy to give Angie enemas?"

Pete blushed to the tips of his ears. For weeks Angie had been extolling the virtues of colonics to all who'd listen. Colin had listened.

"Seriously," Colin went on, "veterinarians are for housecats. If you have cows, you have to be your own veterinarian and you can't coddle the animals. Pete, I'll tell you what, for fifty dollars and a few lines of toot, I'll castrate your calf, your boars, and your billy-goats. Hell, I'll even help Angie with her enemas.” He laughed. "How about it, landlord man?"      

I'd heard all I wanted to hear. "Pete," I said, "I need to pick up the flea market case."

We walked into the room Pete used as his office.

"What do you think?" he said. My palms were sweating. Pete was pacing back and forth.

"He's right. I wouldn’t be in this quandary if I was a real rancher."

"If you were a real rancher you wouldn't have to put up with know-it-all dope-pusher tenants, either. There's no shame in ignorance, Pete. Just let the vet come Tuesday. It's set."

"No, we might as well do it today. Colin could help."

"Well, I think that's a bad idea. Besides, I have to go to the flea market. I need to make some money."

"No, look. Why use a vet when there are people around with experience."

"Well, Pete, Blanco is your calf. I am having nothing to do with any plan involving Colin. I'm going to go to the flea market." He set up a jewelry case. He usually had it ready for me but Colin had shown up selling cocaine at 7:15 in the morning. That's why Angie was out of sorts. Pete bought some of the cocaine. Colin stayed, sucking up all he could. Disgusted, I went to do the animal chores.

When I came back for the case, Pete was chopping powder with a razor blade on a mirror. Colin had a knife he was sharpening with a whetstone and three-in-one oil. Pete was talking, organizing. The room was alive with activity. The noise, the scrape of the whetstone, the screed of the razorblade, the regular snorting of cocaine, and the drone of Pete's voice, overwhelmed the ordinary sounds of morning. I got out of there.

What a day at the flea market! Around noon the wind came up and the temperature began to drop. I took it as long as I could and started home around four-thirty. I pulled in Pete's driveway just at dark and went to feed the animals.

Blanco was standing alone in his pen. Martha was turned out to the back pasture. The sun was setting. The light was poor and had a washed-out quality. Off to the west the solitary peaks of the old volcanos cast their shadows over the valley. It was a moment to make you wonder if the planet could support life.

Blanco was hunched. Dried blood covered his legs. He'd spattered diarrhea all over the place. His head drooped. He met my gaze. He was cold. He was alone as if he'd have been on the moon. I felt heaviness in my chest. I got him half a bale of alfalfa. I got him a two pound coffee tin of grain. He just stood there, hunched, tense, defeated, humiliated. Not hungry. I walked away. I came back. I fed the other animals. All the pens smelled of blood. The pigs and goats were hungry, barely bleeding at all. I fed Martha. She had a big appetite. I went back to look at Blanco. He hadn't moved. It was dark. The wind was dying but the temperature kept dropping. The cold came through my pants. It hurt. I couldn't see Blanco, except for his blaze. In the black, I could sense the misery. It was a pulse, a rhythm like the red lights that cops turn on when they're fixing to pop you. It'd come across the ground and hit you, then it'd pass. I walked away. I could hear Colin playing "You Are My Sunshine."

Later, I took the flea market case to Pete's along with his share of the day's money. It wasn't much. Angie met me at the door.

"Lucky you were gone," she said. "They castrated everything in sight."

"Blanco looks bad," I said.

"I don't want to talk about it," she answered back. "I gave him oral antibiotics from work. He sure seemed dejected."

"Is Pete around?” I asked.

"I guess that depends what you mean," she said. “He doesn't seem much better than the calf. He called and a vet’s coming tomorrow at seven."

I fed at six-thirty the next morning. Blanco was dead, lying stiff and frozen, stuck to the mud. I went and got Pete and Angie. Angie cried. Pete stared at the dead, frozen animal.

"He's laid there all night," he said. "We can't even salvage the meat."

The veterinarian pulled up. He drove a pick-up that had a covered bed and side compartments. He had an assistant with him, a Mexican fellow.

The veterinarian was a big man with eyes that grabbed up everything. He moved fast for a man with bulk. In no time he'd vaulted over into Blanco's stall to examine the sad, inert creature.

"Lotta blood," he said. He got down on his hands and knees and poked around. He shook his head. "Sometimes," he said, dragging Blanco's hind quarters into better light, "they go into shock. It can't be helped in..." He yanked Blanco's back leg up to look. You could see the color go out of his face. He got up slowly, looking away into distances towards the west. He took off his jacket. He rolled his sleeves. He pulled out a can of snuff and took a pinch. He turned on a heel to face Pete. Color came back to his face. His neck swelled.

"Point out to me the man who did this. I want to know by GOD. Look here.” He lifted the back leg. “A person could have done better with pinkin' shears." He stood there with a fist clenched, his knees shaking. He was going to hit Pete.

We stood there. Pete looked so miserable that it probably would've been a relief for him to catch a punch or two. The helper raised his hand and spread his fingers, stroking the air as though calming a horse. "Inútil," he said softly. The vet turned from Pete to poor Blanco and actually broke down "Poor son-of-a-bitch," he said, wiping at his eyes, "And what's the use anyway?” Before we knew it he was out of the stall, grabbing pigs to examine. The rest of us stayed put. The other animals were okay. The vet called this "a miracle." He chewed Pete out about twelve different ways. Pete stared at the ground. At the end, though, he gave Pete a big slap on the back. "Son," he said, "don't let it get to you."

Pete and Angie stayed married. They never got another calf and they never had any kids. Countless cancerous mice gave their lives and nothing came of it. Katz' mom died and left money. Colin bought a big double-wide mobile home and they moved to a trailer park. He never cared. A rendering company came and hauled off Blanco's carcass. They gave Pete thirty-five dollars. Blanco's stall filled with weeds. The gate fell off. Life went on.

A cousin of mine phoned. He’d developed a concern flying fresh vine-ripened tomatoes to Paris, France. They sold for big money. He wanted to train me to pilot the damned planes. “Call back,” he said and hung up.

I went outside. The gate to the big pen was open and Martha was gone. I rushed back towards the houses and found her. She was in Blanco's stall grazing on the huge, high weeds. I went over and cobbled up the gate, locking her inside. She gave me the withering, hateful look she'd always used on poor Blanco who had always loved her. I met that gaze and decided to have a try at flying.

Michael Thomas is a novelist born in Raton, NM and living in Albuquerque. Recently retired, Thomas served for many years on the faculty of the Honors College of the University of New Mexico. An anthropologist, Thomas directed the Honors College's Conexiones study abroad programs in Mexico, Nicaragua, and Ecuador. His published novels include Crosswinds, Ostrich, and Hat Dance.