As the COVID-19 pandemic intensified in March, Paul Taylor launched a collaborative writing project that was inspired by Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron. Boccaccio wrote his collection of one hundred stories in response to the devastation caused by the Black Death sweeping across Europe during the fourteenth century. The following story was written by UBC member Paul Taylor as part of the Decameron 2020 project.
I was twenty-seven when I started working for a widow woman named Flora Perkins. She had a place on the Brazos River a day’s ride south of Waco. There was a bunkhouse with eight beds, but five of them were empty, and she owned half as many cattle as the land would support. I reckon she couldn’t afford more cows. She must’ve fallen on some pretty hard times after her husband died.
Me and the two other boys did whatever needed doing. Mostly we took care of the cattle and fences, but sometimes we’d chop wood or patch the roof or dig a new hole for the outhouse. Mrs. Perkins always treated us right. She didn’t pay much, but she paid us on time, and every day she scraped together something to set out for breakfast and supper. Nobody got fat at that table, but nobody starved, neither.
She had this big old Hereford bull she called Goliath, and every morning before the sun came up, that bull would be waiting for her at the front gate to the house. She’d walk out to meet him with some kind of treat—turnip, carrot, apple—and she’d feed him by hand. She scratched his cheeks and ran her fingers through the curly white hair on his face and talked softly into his ears. Made me wonder what it would be like for her to run her fingers through my hair and whisper my name. Not that I was any competition for that bull. She only had eyes for Goliath.
Late one afternoon in the spring we were trying to lead the cattle to another pasture, but Goliath was being contrary, lying down under a mesquite tree near the river with no intention of moving till it suited him. We yelled at him and threw a few sticks, but he ignored us. I got out my whip and stung him across the flank. That made him stand up, but he still wouldn’t budge. He shook his head and pawed the ground to show he was mad. I was, too. I flicked the whip right at his face, and he charged. Dan rode up from my left and turned the bull, pushing him south along the river. That was more or less the direction we needed him to go, and I should’ve left it at that, but I wanted to teach him a lesson. I spurred my horse and stayed on his heels, cracking the whip across his hindquarters over and over.
Suddenly he stumbled to the ground right in front of me. My horse veered off, and then we circled back to see what happened. He was thrashing and bellowing but couldn’t stand up. His right foreleg was broken, a jagged white bone sticking out through the red hide. Jackson rode up beside me, then turned and headed for the house at a gallop. I knew he was going to get Mrs. Perkins, and that was the last thing I wanted. I drew a bead on him with my rifle but didn’t pull the trigger.
I hadn’t moved an inch when Jackson came back with Mrs. Perkins. She leaped off her horse and ran to Goliath. The way he was flopping around, he could’ve hurt her bad, but she wasn’t afraid. She threw her arms around his neck and talked to him until he calmed down a bit. I couldn’t hear what she was saying.
Then she stood and walked over to me, fire in her eyes. “Why didn’t you shoot him?” I had nothing to say. She grabbed the gun out of my hands and put a bullet in his head, just above the eyes. He jerked a few times and then lay still.
“Jackson, ride out to all the neighbors and tell them we’re having a barbeque tomorrow. When you go by the Fischers, ask them to send Pedro for the head.” She turned and threw the rifle back at me. I caught it.
“You and Dan dig a pit and start a fire. Then butcher Goliath.”
While Dan went to fetch some tools, I kept the buzzards away. By the time he got back, the bull’s eyes were starting to cloud over. I got to work with the shovel, and Dan gathered firewood. The whole time I was digging, those eyes stared at me, getting whiter every minute.
Once the pit was laid out, we lined it with rocks and piled the firewood in it. Dan lit the fire and tended it. I pulled out my Bowie knife and walked over to the bull. I meant to start cleaning it, but before I knew it I was on my knees stabbing that bull in the side over and over. Dan grabbed ahold of me and said, “Hey, take it easy! He’s already dead. You don’t have to kill him again.” I shook him off and told him to get back to the fire.
I got to work cutting off the head, wrapping it in a blanket, and setting it out of the way. The Fischers had a Mexican who cooked for them, and he would use it to make barbacoa. I skinned the carcass and used the hide to keep the meat off the ground while I quartered the beef. The fire was burning down to a good bed of coals, so we put more rocks on top of the coals and laid the beef quarters on the rocks. The quarters must’ve weighed close to three hundred pounds apiece, so it took both of us to pick them up. I went off and cut a few green branches from a pecan tree to lay across the pit. Dan scrounged up a couple of sheets of tin roof and put them over the branches. Then we covered the whole thing with dirt except for a few holes to let in some air and let out the smoke. I noticed Goliath’s head was gone; Pedro must have taken it away while I was cutting branches.
The sun had set, and Dan brought out our bedrolls so we could keep an eye on the fire through the night. We agreed to take turns staying awake, but I hardly got any sleep at all. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw Mrs. Perkins with her arms around that bull, and the bull’s eyes blazing at me like a preacher sending me to hell.
Come sunrise we had other chores to do, but by midmorning the women and children began to show up, followed two or three hours later by the menfolk. They swarmed all over the place, brought tables and chairs out of the house, laid boards across sawhorses, and set up barrels and sawed-off logs, making room for the food and more than a hundred people. I mostly kept my distance, but Mrs. Perkins seemed to be everywhere at once, serving up brisket with a smile, complimenting this lady on her strawberry pie and that one on her calico dress, admiring a horny toad one of the children caught, blushing at something a lanky teenager said.
A few folks brought instruments to play—a couple of fiddles and banjos, a guitar, a mandolin, an autoharp—and every now and then some of them would strike up a tune. Toward evening they got more serious about it, and folks cleared out a space for dancing under the live oak trees. I do believe Mrs. Perkins danced with all the single men and half the married ones, too. I sat on a fence rail in the dark and listened to her laughter ringing out above the music.
I expect there weren’t many people in the whole county who watched the sun come up the next day. I know I didn’t. It must’ve been close to 9:00 when I finally stumbled out into the morning light. The first thing I saw was old Pedro riding up the road with Goliath’s gleaming white skull tied behind his saddle. When he reached the front gate, he untied the skull and carried it to the front door. After Mrs. Perkins answered his knock, he told her he knew how much the bull meant to her, and he thought she’d like to have the skull to hang up somewhere.
“Thank you kindly, Pedro,” she answered, “but that’s not the part of Goliath I miss. You keep it.” He took the skull back to his horse and rode away with it like a trophy. I worked up enough courage to walk to the door, where Mrs. Perkins stood looking past the gate, across the pasture, to the river and the woods beyond. She turned to me and smiled. “Good morning, Sean. We seem to be the early birds, even if it’s not that early.” I answered and stammered out some kind of apology for what I had done. All she said was “It’s all right.”
“I don’t understand. Two days ago I killed your favorite bull. Yesterday you acted like you didn’t have a care in the world, talking and joking and dancing with the neighbors. You even ate a couple of Goliath’s ribs and went back for more. And now you’re being as nice to me as if I done you a favor. You should hate me.”
She smiled again. “Sean, I loved that bull more than you can know. I loved my husband, too, and my little girl who was taken away by typhus. Nothing could make me happier than to have them with me here again, to watch Loretta playing with her rag doll, to listen to Bruce humming while he shaved at the kitchen sink, to look up from these steps and see Goliath waiting for me at the gate. But that’s not what I have. What I have is this moment, standing with you on the steps, watching the cattle graze in green pastures. I have all of this, and a lifetime of precious memories that help bring meaning to each passing day.”
I did my best to understand, but her forgiveness was more than I could handle. At the end of the month I collected my wages and drifted to the northwest, up outside Fort Worth, where I found work for a while. The family there was decent enough, I guess, but they didn’t have much to say to me, and I minded my own business. I just worked and ate and slept, and sometimes I’d go into town to get drunk. Then one Saturday in a bar, some fella I hardly knew said something I didn’t like. We got into it, and he wound up dead. That’s when they put me in here.
Anyhow, thanks for coming by. I don’t get many visitors, and it ain’t hard to see why. But every afternoon I do get that bit of sunshine you see coming through the window, lighting up the specks of dust like stars flashing in the darkness. And it always carries me back to the Brazos, and the feast, and Flora Perkins dancing into the night.