The Eastern New Mexico News - Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

Cow house tragedy haunting

The terrifying demise of Elsie -- a tale for the eons


Last updated 10/30/2021 at 6:36pm

Illustration by Gary Williamson

Merriam-Webster tells us a ghost story is "a tale based on imagination rather than fact."

So what I'm about to relate may not qualify as a ghost story worthy of Halloween since it's mostly true. The truth is what makes it so terrifying.

Fair warning: This report contains graphic, spine-chilling details that may not be suitable for children or anyone who's ever feared being eaten alive.

This is the story of the cow house.

Nothing will jump out from behind a gravestone and shout boo! It's the guttural mooooooooo I'm about to put in your mind that will haunt you for the rest of your days.

Of course there's a grave yard nearby

The exact location of the cow house cannot be revealed here because it's on private property and anyone trying to find it would be subject to the dangers associated with rattlesnakes, rabid prairie dogs, red ants, opportunistic coyotes, and sticker weeds.

I can tell you it's near the Texas-New Mexico border, about a scream away from a long-forgotten cemetery.

The source for the information comes primarily from one person with four personalities. Their names are Doug, James, Butch and Sarabelle. We're not to the scary part, yet. Don't we all have multiple personalities?

Doug grew up in the cow house. It was just a regular people house in the 1940s.

Doug was a carefree kid, rolling with the sandstorms that sometimes blocked the sun for days in those days.

"I don't remember many rain storms but recall a lot of sandstorms," Doug said when asked to recall his childhood.

"The soil in the area, once turned over and removing vegetation for farming, exposed a very sandy loam. The tumbleweeds grew to a very large size in the summer then blew into the fences making an effective wind block. Then the winter and spring winds would pile the sand onto the weeds making a sand hill completely covering the fences.

"In places, the sand hills grew large enough to supply recreational areas for us to slide, roll and, with a board, surf down them."

Visibility was zero sometimes because of the blowing sand.

"The dust was so bad you could break a light bulb and find dust inside it," Doug claimed.

Doug also remembers a number of transient farmhands through the years, including one clever kite maker.

"He would take wooden crates and split them into thin sticks and using newspaper and glue we would fabricate kites," Doug said. "Once we made a good one, which we tied to a fence post in the afternoon and it was still flying the next morning. However we lost many with broken strings."

Doug said most of those lost kites would ultimately end up in the nearby grave yard. Maybe that's just the way the spring winds took them, or maybe, Doug said, "the spirits were searching for new ways of accession. Thankfully we never found one burning."

They have so many stories to tell

Doug's family, dryland farmers financially crippled by the prairie dust storms, moved to Portales in 1950 and started a laundry business. It's not clear what happened to Doug during the transition, but James soon emerged, followed quickly by Butch and Sarabelle.

His second-grade teacher first recognized James, who today is 78 years old, "still speculating on the hereafter," a responsible adult with a family and multiple fix-it skillsets that make him invaluable in the tiny Western New Mexico community where he lives.

It was James' family who first identified Butch and then Sarabelle.

Butch was sort of an older version of Doug, widely recognized as laid back, but always ready for adventure. Some people still recognize "Butch" today when he visits Portales.

Not many know about Sarabelle, whose persona is a bit darker. Sarabelle's memories of the cow house involve a "constant flow of mooching relatives and derelicts showing up." James, Doug and Butch don't let Sarabelle out much because of that attitude, but it adds drama to the scary ghost story.

All of these people – Doug, James, Butch and Sarabelle – came together recently on the dark web to talk about the cow house, the tragedy that happened inside, and the grisly memories that haunt so many of us still today. They will haunt you soon if you continue reading.

Cow house had structural integrity

Doug said his parents and other family members built the house in 1944. The fact that it still stands after being abandoned eight decades ago speaks to the quality of its structural integrity.

A mason and two carpenters were involved in its construction.

"The old structure is basic red clay tile, interestingly plastered but never color coated or stuccoed," Doug said. "The second story was occupied by the two oldest sons and everybody else occupied the downstairs conservative spaces."

Not everyone in the region had electricity at the time, but Doug said this house had basic wiring and was powered by a wind generator with storage batteries located in an adjoining garage.

"A second wind generator, of limited capacity, powered a single battery connected to the radio," he said. Propane powered the small cook stove, a gas refrigerator, a console heater and a water heater.

It was James who returned to the old house in 1994 and sparked its memories. That's also when he first learned of the cow's recent death.

"I went there to show my new wife some of my roots," he said. "The old house was open, doors mostly all broken out, and an ugly smell emanating from the old bathroom. There we discovered the poor bovine had made its last moo."

Final hours must have been terrifying

No one knows exactly what happened. Varmints were the only witnesses. But we can speculate. (This is the part of the story that makes it only mostly true.)

The house hadn't been lived in for decades, at least not by people, in the early 1990s. But cows roamed in and around, including the one Sarabelle has since named Elsie.

Sarabelle suspects Elsie wandered through the porch and into the living room after herd gossip claimed that's where the good alfalfa was being stored.

There was no alfalfa inside.

"Nothing but sand and the spirit of a dead rattler remained in that room," Sarabelle said.

Elsie undoubtedly had difficulty meandering through the house as her horns were wider than the doorways she encountered. She ignored the voices of long-passed rodents lining the hallways, warning her to go back outside.

Then Elsie saw the bathtub, "looking just like her feed trough," Sarabelle said.

"In her haste to verify the sweet taste she hadn't had for eternity, she knocked over the water heater," Sarabelle continued. "In her panic, she tripped, breaking a leg, and fell into the tub."

The water heater may have come crashing down on her at the same time, further limiting Elsie's movement.

All speculation, of course.

What we know for sure, according to Butch, is "the poor thing joined the spirits of past eons."

"Curiosity killed the cow," he said.

Of course it probably didn't die immediately. Here comes the scary part.

Warning: This is the scary part

We know the cow was trapped inside the bathroom. We know this because dozens of ranch hands, trespassers and thrill-seeking teenagers saw the cow's remains. They were there for years before eventually disintegrating or being carried off by critters.

Ghastly, ghostly memories are all that remain today.

What we don't know is exactly why the cow was trapped in the bathroom.

It's possible, as Sarabelle imagined, the cow broke a leg in the bathtub and was immobile after that. But the real story may have been even more horrific.

What if the horned cow was never hobbled, but simply unable to bend its head in the proper configuration to navigate through the door again? Maybe that's when the water heater went down, while the panicked cow was storming around the room, violently trying to escape its new prison.

Another theory is that the cow somehow closed the door to the bathroom on entry and couldn't get it open again.

Whatever the reason it couldn't escape the bathroom one has to wonder what kind of visitors the dying cow received during its final hours. Rattlesnakes? Those red ants crawling across its hide? Coyotes, birds and other predators ripping meat from its hindquarters as it became weaker from the ordeal, unable to defend itself?

Any veterinarian will tell you a cow could live for weeks, maybe even months, without food. But it cannot last more than a few days without water.

Think about that for a minute. You die of thirst next to a bathtub, sink and water heater, while coyotes are munching on your flesh. What kind of psychological torture is that?

The kind of torture, one would imagine, that results in a guttural moooooo loud enough to stir the spirits at the cemetery down the road. It's been nearly 30 years, but the wind may still be blowing the animal's fear through the eternal grains of sand.

Happy Halloween, Elsie. Here's hoping you're feasting on heaven's finest alfalfa now.

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