Picture, if you will, a campfire. Symmetrical logs, artfully arranged, all about the same size, which might seem odd if you think about it for too long, because if you look away from the campfire, there aren’t any trees around for miles. Just stands of cactus plants. Tufts of wild grass taller than a man on a horse. There are also men on horses, and men near horses, and horses on their own, all gathered around a camp fire as night approaches.
Out there in the darkness, beyond the ring of campfire light, are cows, occasionally lowing, milling about. It’s a mostly quiet night, except for those cows. Creaking metal from somewhere… oh, it’s the bean pot! A pot of beans suspended over the fire from a tripod!
We’re in the Wild West somewhere. One of those big flat states in the US.
From the way the conversations are going, we’re just in time for the post meal story telling. These men have got story themes for every night of the week when they’re out on the “range,” which is what they call this depopulated stretch of land they’re passing through.
The man with the largest beard clears his throat. “All right, men, it’s Tuesday, and you all know what that means.” There’s a general murmuring of assent.
“It’s Ghosty Story Tuesday, so anyone who’s got a good spooky story’s gonna wanna get themselves our prime story-telling seats by the fire. And everyone else, hurry up and wash out your cups and get them put away, because we don’t want to hear any mid-story clanking… unless it’s relevant to the story, because we all remember that time Elmer told that story about the ghost with the chains and how he used some cups to supplement the tale. That’s all right. But it was purposeful, too.”
A man wearing a Stetson hat cracks his knuckles, his wrists bearing two differently patterned handkerchiefs. “Reckon I’ll go first,” he says.
There’s a general murmuring of assent, and a “Go ahead, Patrick.”
Patrick, with a grand gesture, begins his tale.
There was once a guy who was in charge of getting a whole herd of cows from Kansas City down to Amarillo because there was going to be a big cow sale and the guy who owned these cows, Mr. Eldridge, wanted to sell them there. So Eldridge hires this guy, who went by the name of Erik Guitar. That wasn’t a family name, “Guitar.” Just a nickname. Guy probably owned a guitar once. Didn’t have it with him when he got the job. Anyway.
So he gets on his horse and with the cows heads out from Kansas City and on his first night camping, right when he’s trying to bed down, this cow comes up to him. And it talks.
“Erik Guitar,” said this cow. “You should not have taken this job.”
Erik, though, he knew more about the state of his finances. He knew he had to take this job. But even more important than that, he knew cows didn’t talk.
“Cows don’t talk,” Erik said.
“Dead cows talk,” said the cow.
Now… this was new. Erik, to the best of his knowledge, had never talked to a dead cow before. “So how is it that I can–”
OH GOD DAMN IT, PATRICK.
A cowboy with a well-waxed moustache, handle-bar shaped, with one handle slightly bigger than the other, seemed agitated. “I’m sorry to interrupt, Patrick, but this story sounds a lot like the last story you told, where the cowboy was dead the whole time and he didn’t even know it.”
Patrick frowned at the ground. “This is a different story, Eustace.”
“So you’re telling me,” said the asymmetrically-moustached cowboy named Eustace, “that this cowboy who’s talking to a cow in your story is 100% definitely alive?”
“Ayup,” said Patrick. “At least… so far!”
And at that, all the other cowboys leaned in and Patrick continued his story. But I’m going to save us all some trouble and skip ahead, because Patrick wasn’t telling the truth. About 20 minutes later, after the story involved a quest to bury the bones of a troubled cow, plus a mad horse chase through a flooding canyon, he did say that the cowboy was dead the whole time, sort of, but as this was a universe where life wasn’t even a concept, and everything was composed of a kind of spiritual energy that his fellow cowboys might recognize as “dead,” in the universe of his story, it’s… it’s convoluted. The other cowboys mostly shouted him down when he tried to explain the big twist.
The horse chase through the flooding canyon was fun, though. Maybe we shouldn’t have skipped that part. Too late now. So yeah, the cowboy was dead the whole time and that’s why he could talk to the dead cow. And all the other cows were dead the whole time. And Kansas City was a cemetery. Something like that.