There's something wrong with the goats.
For the hundredth time today, that thought gave Ed Tyler pause in his work, and made him cast a worried glance in the direction of the pen. Just visible from his work area inside the barn, Ed could see the small herd that his wife had kept, rest her soul, and he was sure they were talking about him. Planning something way back deep in their animal brains.
He brushed the dirt from his hands onto his worn jeans and gave another quick, nervous look at the goats, and then Ed leaned back to survey his work. Three large pulleys were attached to the main rafter beam at regular intervals fourteen feet over his head. Originally these were used to hold deer for the bragging rights, and then for the skinning and processing that took place during those more plentiful times in years past. Just two seasons ago, all three of the Tyler men had bagged trophy bucks on the same trip, making the installation of the third pulley necessary. That momentary flashback brought with it thoughts of his sons, smiling and alive, and though the memory was a happy one, crushing grief nearly drove Ed back to his knees.
Edward Junior and Frank (never Eddie or Frankie) had been almost fully grown when the sickness overtook the town. The Tyler homestead was set far enough away from LaPierre that it didn't seem to matter much when things came to affect the townsfolk, one way or another. The Tylers had weathered each type of catastrophe before, both man-made and Wrath of God, and they'd just thought to keep to themselves till this latest passed. Truth be told, LaPierre was damn near a ghost town to begin with, and the few people who still lived there were just plain peculiar, to put it mildly. That was why Ed always figured his family would be safe, and why he was thoroughly shocked when Lily took sick.
Always a bright and lively girl, his Lil, quick to laugh and quick to forgive, whose daily presence was the sun around which life in the Tyler home revolved. Everyone who knew the couple wondered what such a vivacious woman saw in dull and plodding Ed Tyler, and certainly not the least of which was Ed himself. There wasn't a day that went by without Ed giving sincere thanks for the mysterious generosity of women.
Then the sickness arrived, and slowly dimmed the light in Lily Tyler's eyes. She got quiet and furtive, started watching Ed day and night, and though she never came right out and said anything, he could tell she was planning something. Planning and waiting.
Ed shook himself back to reality with the kind of involuntary shiver a man gets on a frosty morning. Best not to travel too far down that road, he thought. And besides, he had more pressing matters than these recollections to attend; daylight was burning, and those damn goats weren't about to fix themselves.
The sickness had somehow jumped from people to animals, and Ed knew he had to figure out why, before it was too late. Even Sassy, the family mutt had caught sick, and every time Ed got a little too close to her shady corner of the barn, she'd raise up and growl at him. Could be that she was getting near her time, belly sore and all swoll up with a litter of pups, but he couldn't be sure. She just didn't seem right in the head.
Sassy fought a bit when he tied her legs, the knots nearly turning loose, but the rope hitched up tight against the little knobs of bone at her ankles and held firm. The back legs went more smoothly than the front, seeing as how she couldn't get around her own belly and the first two ropes to get a clear shot at Ed's hands. She whined a little, then yipped in surprise when Ed hauled on the pulley rope tied to the spreader bar. Sassy got jerked off her feet and flipped upside down in one swift motion, then kicked and struggled a bit in the air before wearing herself out.
Ed judged that she was at about the right height for what he had to do, and then tied the rope off on a sturdy shovel peg. He sat down to work, using the old milking stool left over from when they still had some dairy cows at the farm. Sassy yipped again when he slit open her belly, and he had to drop the big butcher knife, just so he could stop her swinging. Then he went right into the incision, got wrist deep and started to root around a little. While he was searching, Ed gazed off into the middle distance, going more by feel and instinct than anything else. Sassy made an almost human mewling sound, causing Ed to halt the inspection, his eyes narrowed as he looked down at her. Then, suspicions confirmed, he came out with a handful and quickly cut the umbilical.
Ed sat back into the light and studied the feeble wriggling of the pup in his hand as if the secrets of the universe could be read in her movements. Blood and amniotic fluid dribbled down his arm as he searched intently for the telltale sign that he knew had to be there. With his visual inspection done, he raised the dripping pup to his right ear and shook it back and forth, the way you might with a busted pocket watch.
"Nope," He said, disappointed, and threw the unhelpful pup over his shoulder.
Sassy had all but stopped struggling as he went back in for another one. Deeper this time, brow furrowed in concentration as he pulled out pup number two.
"Nope," Another inspection, another disappointment.
After he was certain that there were no more, Ed sat up again and wearily wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his gore-smeared hand. He looked overhead at the three pulleys, and then at the lowering sun, and decided that working on them one by one wasn't going to cut it. With almost a dozen goats to inspect, he'd have to do three at a time if he planned to finish before nightfall.
Blowing out the deep, resigned breath of a man carrying the entire weight of the world, he untied Sassy and threw her on the pile. The second pulley rope held more weight and required a bit of finesse to get untied. Ed managed the knot, but the rope burned his hands a little when he finally dropped the spreader bar. Edward Junior came off the bar easily, and then went onto the pile without incident. All the time he was growing up, he'd always been the good son, obedient and eager to please, and this occasion was no different.
But as usual, Frank was proving to be a bit more trouble than his older brother. One of the meat hooks had caught bone and took some persuading. And just as Ed was carrying his younger boy to the pile, slippery entrails spilled out, and almost caused them both to take a tumble. After he'd recovered his balance, and from his embarrassment, Ed had to chuckle at his near fall. Frank, being the youngest and an attention getter, always did have a little of the Devil in him.
With the hooks and pulleys cleared for the next chore, Ed took a deep pull from a bottle he no longer had to hide from Lil, and then figured he'd best get back to it.
Those damn goats weren't about to fix themselves.