“Yo, Tark! We’re almost ready for that last group!”
Tark waved at his boss standing on the platform at the other end of the chute to let the man know he’d heard him. Jumping off the fence, he jogged out of the building and headed for the holding pens at the other end of the lot. The final herd of cattle going into the slaughterhouse today were in the last corral. Last to arrive, last to be handled, as he’d always told himself.
Approaching the dozen or so head, he scanned them with expert eyes. This was the main reason why he’d taken the job, as abhorrent as it was. He was on the lookout for one of his own, in the rare case one of them had accidentally been rounded up and thrown in with the other cattle.
It had been a little over six weeks since the last time he’d spotted one. That guy made number five in the eight years he’d worked here. But to Tark, that was five lives he’d saved. Five souls who’d been returned to their families.
The herd was unusually quiet as he drew closer. That immediately put him on alert. Scanning them, he knew something was wrong. None of the animals were moving. Not even a shake of the head or twitch of a tail.
He broke into a jog. Before he reached the pen, he felt his Taurus senses go on alert. There was another one of his kind here.
He spotted the lone heifer standing in a corner at the farthest end of the lot where she’d separated herself from the others. One hard look at her human eyes was all the proof he needed.
Climbing over the fence, he strode past the animals and walked up to her. “Don’t be afraid. I’m one of you. I’m going to make sure you don’t get sent inside, but I need you to follow my instructions to the letter. Do you understand me?”
The cow mutely stared at him. She was terrified, and he didn’t blame her.
He held out an arm and transformed it into a hoof. Her green eyes widened in shock, and he quickly morphed it back into human form.
“I told you. I’m also a Taurus. I don’t know how you got mixed up in this herd, but I work here to specifically make sure none of our kind are harmed.” He let his voice harden. “You must trust me. By the way, my name is Tark. We don’t have much time. Let me know you understand what I’m saying.”
“I dooo.” Her response was low and harsh.
“Okay. This is what’s going to happen.” He pointed to an area on the other side of the pen. “There’s a chute over there. I’m going to open it and shoo these animals into it. You stay right where you are.” He glanced around to get a feeling for where the security cameras were located. Luckily, the heifer had positioned herself out of their direct line of sight. “I’ll be right back,” he informed her. “Remain in your current state. Don’t change until I tell you to, all right?”
The cow nodded.
Tark worked the rest of the animals, yelling, whistling, and waving his arms to urge the creatures through the narrow gate and down the chute toward the slaughterhouse. When all the cattle had moved on, he closed the gate and proceeded to follow the herd, urging them onward until they were all inside.
Running to a nearby feed bin, he opened the lid and extracted a blanket. Double-checking the video cameras, he returned to the far pen.
The heifer was still there. She hadn’t moved, as he’d instructed. Opening the blanket, he shook it out and walked over to her, throwing it across her back and shoulders. “Okay. Now you can change.”
The cow stared at him. Terror still filled her emerald-colored eyes.
Tark nodded. “It’s okay. You can’t remain in your current state if I’m to get you out of here.”
She stared past him, looking to see if they were alone. Tark also glanced over his shoulder to verify no one would see them.
“Come on. Hurry!” he whispered.
She morphed, becoming smaller, slenderer. Her brownish coat transformed into chestnut colored hair on her head. As her front legs became arms, she straightened and pulled the blanket tighter around her to cover her nakedness. When she was complete, she continued to watch Tark, waiting for his next move.
He smiled. “Hi. What’s your name?”
He guessed she was in her mid-twenties. Young but not a juvenile.
“We gotta get you outta here. Come on.” Placing a hand at her back, he helped her out of the pen and led her to a trailer sitting on the edge of the property. He went up the short steps and opened the door. “Go inside and wait for me. I won’t be long, but you can’t stay out in the open like that. Help yourself to whatever’s in the fridge. You can also check the third drawer in my bureau. I keep extra t-shirts and sweatpants in there for moments like this. You’re welcome to whatever’ll fit you.” He shook a finger at her. “Just don’t leave here, okay? Not until I’m sure you won’t be missed.” He gave her another grin. “Don’t worry. You’re safe with me.”
From the expression on her face, he could tell she was still apprehensive about him, but he didn’t have time to try and convince her otherwise.
He hurried back to the main building to bring up the rear. As the animals cleared the chute, he called up to the boss. “That’s all of ‘em! I’m calling it a day. I’m about ready to crash. See you Monday!”
The man waved to show he’d heard, and Tark jogged back to the trailer. When he got to the front door, he gave it knock before entering. “Audrina?” He looked around the front room, finding it empty. “Hey, Audrina?”
A face peeked around the bedroom door. Recognizing him, she opened it and stepped out. She’d taken advantage of his offer. Although the gray t-shirt was way too large for her, as were the gray sweatpants that bunched around her ankles, fortunately she’d been able to tie up the drawstring waist to keep them from falling down.
He perched his hands on his hips. “I know the clothes swallow you, but at least they’ll help you keep your modesty until you’re able to get something in your own size.” He threw a thumb over his shoulder. “You’re safe now. In another hour or so, you can leave.”
She slowly drew closer to him. “You’re one of us?”
“Yeah.” He nodded. “Remember? I showed you.”
“And you work at this place?”
He shrugged. “Somebody has to. A little over eight years ago, I found out one of us accidentally got included in a herd of cattle that were delivered here for processing. A few of us tried to get to him before he was taken inside, but they weren’t in time. I was working at a ranch in the next state over, and that’s when I decided to apply for a job here as a wrangler. I figured if I managed to save one life, it would be worth the inconvenience.”
“Well, you’ve saved that one life,” she remarked.
“Actually, you’re number six.”
She gave him an incredulous look. “Six?”
“Yeah.” He went over and parked himself on the nearby couch. Letting out a weary sigh, he stretched his legs out in front of him and crossed them at the ankles. “Lordy, I’m tired.”
“Can I get you some water?” she offered, walking over to the kitchen area. Opening the cupboard, she paused to see his answer. Instead, Tark shook his head.
“Come. Sit down and tell me how you ended up here.”
Audrina shuffled barefoot over to take a seat in the rocker recliner. As soon as she sat down, she visibly wilted. He could tell she was fighting not to break down in front of him.
“Hey. Go ahead. Bawl your eyes out if you need to. It’s normal when it hits you how close you came to meeting your maker.”
She softly sobbed, using the tail of her t-shirt to wipe her eyes and blow her nose. After several minutes, she managed to get herself together. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“Not a problem,” he assured her.
“I, uhhh…” She sniffed.
“How’d you get caught in that mess?” he repeated.
“I was fleeing my abusive boyfriend.”
Tark narrowed his eyes at her. She noticed and smiled. “I won’t blame you for not believing me.”
“There’s not much to tell. I met him about six weeks ago. We started dating. He wanted to move in with me. I was reluctant. He kept pressing. When I continued to say no, he got…”
She nodded. “We were on our way to Augustino when the subject came up again, like I thought it might. When I continued to put him off, he started yelling at me. He hit me a couple of times. We stopped at a rest stop so I could go to the bathroom, but instead I stripped, shoved my clothes into a trash barrel, and changed. I jumped the fence on the other side of the rest stop and ran away.”
“Does this guy know you’re a Taurus?”
“No. That’s the reason why I didn’t want him to move in with me. Something told me I shouldn’t tell him. He started accusing me of seeing another guy. I told him I wasn’t, but he didn’t believe me.” Her voice broke, and she buried her face in her hand again.
Getting up from the couch, Tark went over to the kitchen, got a glass from the cabinet, and filled it from the water dispenser in the refrigerator door. He took it over and gave it to her. She accepted it with a soft thank you and drank half of the contents as he resumed his place on the sofa.
“Let me guess. You mingled among the other cattle you found out in the pasture, not realizing they were bound to come here.”
“So why didn’t you change back once you discovered what was going on?”
“I was afraid to. I thought I’d be able to switch back after we arrived.” She held out her arms. “It’s rough when you don’t have anything to put on after you change.”
Tark chuckled. “Tell me about it! I could tell you stories. So now that you’re freed, what’s your next move?”
“I don’t know. If I go back to my apartment, I’m afraid Grady will be there. I left my purse in his car…”
“And he now has the keys to your place,” Tark filled in.
He glanced out the window. “Well, it’s starting to get dark. Tell you what. You’re welcome to have the couch tonight. Tomorrow’s Saturday. It’s my day off, so I can take you home if you want. Watch your back while you check out the place to make sure it’s safe. It’s up to you.”
“I’d like that.” She smiled timidly. “I can’t thank you enough, Tark. Out of curiosity, how did you know I was a Taurus?”
He pointed to his face. “The eyes. We don’t have bovine eyes. They’re the only things that don’t change when we do.”
She dropped her gaze to her hands, then looked back up at him. “I didn’t know that…Tark. That’s an unusual name.”
“It’s short for Tarkington, and don’t ask. I have no freaking idea why my parents named me that.”
She snorted. “Thank you, Tark, for saving my life.”
He held out his hands. “Hey. We gotta watch out for each other, right? There aren’t that many of us, that I know of.”
The comment got a little laugh from her. “To be honest, you’re the only other person besides my mother that I know of.”
A nod. “Yes.”
“How about your father?”
“That’s a whole ‘nother story,” she confessed.
A whole ‘nother story. In that instant, Tark knew he had to hear it. In fact, he wanted to hear all about this young woman. Her life history, her family. And that was just for starters.
Getting back up, he returned to the kitchen. “Listen. I’m hungry. How about you?”
“Yes. I’m starved.”
“I’m going to make some spaghetti. Then I’m going to get my shower. You’re welcome to watch TV until I’m done. Tomorrow after breakfast, I’ll take you back to your place and make sure that Grady fellow isn’t waiting for you.”
“What if he is?” she asked, worried.
Grinning, he slowly transformed just his head. Audrina stared wide-eyed as his facial features and neck thickened and grew broader, until she was looking at a bull with thick, curved horns. He snorted when he was done. Realizing what he was implying, she burst out laughing.
At the sound of it, Tark knew he’d lost his heart.
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