Light streams through the chain link fence and casts a mosaic of peach-colored shapes across the concrete floor. JoJo lies curled up in the corner with her muzzle tucked into the black feathery plume of her tail.
“JoJo!” Ham rattles the door to her kennel. “Samson is freaking out in the bull pasture, and Mom needs backup. Duff’s with her but they need another dog. I tried to help, but it made it worse—that bull hates me.”
JoJo leaps to her feet. “Let me out!” She shifts back and forth with the intensity of a caged lion while Ham pokes his tapered white nose around the locking bar. Considering her majority black coat as compared to his white one, they hardly resemble the same breed much less, siblings.
Once the lock is released, she bounds past him and sprints down the road. The trees blur as JoJo stretches her legs into full strides across the gravel. She dives under the fence to enter the south side of the pasture and springs through the meadow to look for signs of trouble, but all she sees are the cattle nibbling the grass, and yellow butterflies fluttering over the dung piles. JoJo slows to a trot, wondering if the trouble could be at the north end? In a thunderclap of pounding hooves, a bull charges over the hill. JoJo spins around and takes off, as twenty-five hundred pounds of rage wallops the earth behind her. She leaps over the twisted-wire fence and tumbles to the ground on the other side.
Samson puts the brakes on five feet from the rusting cables between them. Dirt and grass spray over JoJo’s head as his hooves dig in. Hot air blasts from the bull’s cavernous nostrils. “What are you doing here, dog?”
“I’m …” JoJo takes a moment to catch her breath. “I’m looking for my mother. My brother said there was a problem up here, and—”
“Your brother lied,” he snorts. “He was up here earlier, running his mouth about busting up Runaway plots and threatening to load me on the next truck to the butcher.” JoJo shakes the grass from her flossy black ears. “I’m not sure what he’s up to, but I have no problem with you. Gabby said you’re gonna be a Runaway. I wish she would go, too.”
The bull looks around. “Of course, Gabby turned me in, she’s—harrumph!” Samson’s exhale trumpets across the grassland. In a surprisingly graceful manner for an animal of his size, he whirls around. His back broadens, and his head sways side to side.
Ham rounds the top of the hill on the opposite side. “Look what we have here! My sister the traitor and the Runaway ringleader!”
“Bring it on, dog!” Clumps of dirt spew left and right with each stomp of Samson’s hooves. “I’ll flatten your hide and kick it to the road like toad leather!”
“Not today, burger breath!” Ham flips and scrambles over the hill as Samson’s hulking frame tears through the grass with the fury of a freight train that’s jumped the tracks.
“Wait!” JoJo takes off after them, right into the path of a sea of spooked cattle cresting the incline. A cut to the left to avoid the mini-stampede places her into an uncontrolled slide through the sandy soil with her legs asunder. And a searing hot pain blazes through her lower right leg as she skids to a stop.
At the base of the bluff, her brother belly-flops under the barbed wire, scraping his back and spraying blood-red polka dots across the yellow-green turf.
On the other side of the fence, a ton of charcoal muscularity glides along the barrier with the unwavering fixation of a shark on prey. “Come back here!” Samson roars with the wire straining against his chest. He glares at Ham until the border collie’s white tail vanishes between the trees across the road. The bull lumbers over to where JoJo lies in the dirt. “Are you injured?”
“Hurt my leg. Where’s my brother?”
“The fool got away. Tell him next time he won’t be so lucky.”
“Ham won’t listen to me,” JoJo said. “You heard him—I’m a traitor. I told Gabby the truth about the Yonder Meadow.”
“Your brother has it out for me because I’m telling the truth, to any cow who has the guts to listen, that is. But our lives are on the line, yours isn’t. Why would you risk saying anything? The Elders will take you out." Samson huffs. “You’re either daring or foolish.”
“Both, I guess. My mother says that story is supposed to protect the cows from the truth, but I can’t lie to my best friend.”
He backs off. “Aren’t you dogs all about submitting to your alphas?”
“Yes, but sometimes they make up crazy rules that make no sense,” JoJo said. “Gabby’s been my best friend since we were little, and now I’m not allowed to talk to her or any cow? I don’t get it.”
“You’re wasting your time fighting them," Samson said. “Besides, Gabby is probably the one who told.”
“No, she didn’t! And if it’s the last thing I do, I’m getting her out of here. She deserves to be free, you all do.”
“I’ve discovered first hand,” he said, “you can only save someone who wants to be saved. Most of the cows on this farm don’t want to be free. They’re willing to spend half their lives working as calf machines to spend the rest of their days at the Yonder Meadow. That’s a nice life for the common cow.”
“Not for you?”
“Not for my father or me. He led the first group of Runaways, and I will take the next.”
“The Elders say my dad helped yours to escape,” JoJo said. “And I’m gonna do whatever it takes to get Gabby out of here. I guess I’m kinda like my dad that way, too.”
“Your father and mine disappeared that night.” Samson’s dark eyes narrow. “I don’t get it. Why would you risk your life for a cow who doesn’t want to be free?”
“My dad is still out there.” JoJo turns her head as her eyes well with tears. “And if Gabby doesn’t leave, she’ll get trucked out. I have to help her—if I don’t, she’ll die.”
“She won’t believe you." Samson gazes at the lonely gravel road. “Her father has convinced her that he has all the answers. He tells her lovely stories, like one day she and all the well-behaved cows will go to the Yonder Meadow. No doubt about it, munching grass in a field of wildflowers is a much happier ending than staring down a butchering machine.”
“So, you think Cornelius knows the Yonder Meadow is just a story?”
Samson laughs. “I think Cornelius wants to believe in the Yonder Meadow because he’s afraid to leave. That’s why your friend Gabby isn’t listening to you. And since she’s the number one heifer, I’m sure he promised her that she’d lead a glorious life as the Lead Cow. Gabby is counting on living a long time here.”
“Then what can I do? It’s my word against his.”
“Proof,” said the young bull. “You need to show Gabby proof.”
“That the Runaways are alive?” JoJo asked. “There are thousands of acres in the Untold Woods. How will I find them?”
“You have to make it to the Freeland in the north,” he said, “that’s where the Runaways were headed.”
“When are you going?” JoJo asked.
“Soon,” Samson said, “things are becoming more dangerous by the day. Cornelius is spreading rumors that Ham is more powerful than Duff. Who would believe that?”
“In Ham’s mind, that would be everyone. I used to think Gabby’s too smart to listen to that crazy talk, but I’m not sure, anymore.”
“While they’re busy bragging that Ham’s a genius, they’re underestimating me. I plan to use that to my advantage,” Samson said. “As for now, you need to look out for yourself.”
JoJo’s head spins as she watches Samson walk away. She crawls under the wire to the grassy slope that leads down to the road. The pain in her leg hits the roof, making her wish she had stayed put in the pasture. The grass and the sky turn into a swirling pinwheel of green and blue. A bass drum pounds in her ears with each beat of her heart and the heat sucks the last ounce of energy she can muster to hold herself upright. JoJo slides to the ground and falls unconscious.
The rumble of a diesel engine grows louder until a late model pickup jerks to a halt on the gravel, sending up a cloud of red dirt. Rancher Duff jumps out of the truck and wrenches the hat from his head. In five long-legged strides, he’s by her side. “Oh, no! JoJo, how’d ya git out here? You hurt? Dang, it!”
Years ago, a small herd of cattle disappeared into the forest surrounding the ranch. Rancher Duff’s grandparents, the original owners of Cedar Brush Ranch, called the missing cows the “Runaways.” Meanwhile, the stock dogs appointed a group of elders to form a Dog Council to enforce the laws and prevent wayward cattle from escaping again. When Duff’s grandparents became too ill to manage the ranch, they turned the property and the farm operations over to him. Poor Duff was not prepared to take over, and soon he was overwhelmed with the many duties of running a cattle operation. Most of what needed to get done didn’t happen. The buildings and fences crumpled, the beef business dwindled, and the headstrong dogs who made up the Dog Council performed more and more of their duties unsupervised. As the dogs’ sense of independence grew, so did their desire for power.