The weapon erupted again, but I didn’t die.
I was yanked off of my feet, violently, and dangled like a fly husk trapped on a windblown web. The ground swirled by beneath my feet. I hadn’t been carried by the scruff of my neck since the earliest days when Mom kept my brothers and me penned up in a box, swinging us around like rags by the loose skin behind our heads. It made me furious then, and it was making me just as furious now. Rage flushed through my body and I growled, “Let me down, or I’ll . . . I’ll . . . ” but I was unable to think of something awful enough. A vague, numb sensation had enveloped my back half.
The teeth and jaws carrying me were big, much bigger than Mom’s. Even as mad as I was, the strength in those jaws was somewhat intimidating. The farming man let go with his thunderous weapon twice more, and the shock of it twice more stabbed at my ears. Grit flew from the ground and stung my eyes. Dampness from my abductor’s mouth soaked into my skin and his strenuous breath spilled over me like warm water. From my bottom, I could feel first a tingle, then a dull pain. I thought, Maybe this is death . . . or the crossing into death, and the thought made me even more furious. What had I ever done to deserve this, being carried into the next world in the most demeaning manner possible, like a misbehaving whelp?
Cool shade covered me and pine needles took the place of gravel beneath. We were climbing a hill, my ride and I, reversing the same route I had just come, but instead of returning to the pasture and the sophomoric cows, we followed the ridge higher and higher. I could hear the murderous farmer start his plowing machine up, but it was from a distance and the rumble was muffled by trees. By the time I was finally dropped, the sound was like that a mosquito makes, dim and irritating.
I came down on a bed of ant dirt and decaying pine needles. My captor snorted vigorously, as though to blow the taste of me off his tongue, and something splattered onto the top of my head. I rose to my feet, shaking dust from of my coat and out of my eyes. “The least you could do after jerking me around like I was an old shoe is keep your nasal fluids to yourself,” I complained. I had not yet cleared the grit and tears from my eyes.
“If you’d rather I took you back and let that man bury your pudgy body behind his barn along with your tail, just say the word, little fella, and we’re off.” It was a rough, deep voice, corrupted with the sting of sarcasm.
I was in no mood for sarcasm.
My eyes cleared. My rescuer was sitting on his backside, watching my tantrum with his tongue lolling out the side of his mouth. He seemed amused and my anger grew like a grass fire.
“Who do you think you are? And what problem do you have with my tail, Sir?”
“I’m Peter, friend. I have no problem whatsoever with your tail, and neither do you. Not anymore. We left your tail down there on the road. I don’t think it’s worth going back after, do you?” He rolled his tongue into his mouth and swallowed. He seemed to be trying so hard not to laugh his eyes were watering.
I couldn’t possibly know what he did next, whether he laughed or not, for by the time he did it, I had fainted.
* * *
My senses returned one at a time, some eager to be home while the rest continued to enjoy their little vacation. The pain in my backside put my mind to work again, then smells returned like mice, timidly investigating the corners before taking charge of the room. Hearing followed, with the trill of a meadowlark slicing through the sound of distant machinery. I didn’t allow my eyes to resume work for some time after because there was nothing I wanted to see. The forest would still be there, with all those monotonous trees and conceited birds and the oversized ruffian who had snatched me. There was not a single thing I cared to open my eyes to, least of all the stub of bone and bloody hair that had taken the place of my tail.
I concentrated on remaining oblivious, wanting nothing more than to melt into the fabric of pine needles and dust, but I felt his cool tongue on my brow. He licked the tears from my eyes, the grime from my coat, and the blood from my backside. “You’re awake, little fella, and I know it. Be brave and eat this chicken with me. You’ll feel better.” He was gentle, almost like my Mom was when gentleness was the only thing that could make me forget whatever hurt. “Tails aren’t all they’re made out to be, anyway,” he said.
“That’s easy for you to say, when it’s not your tail that got knocked off.”
“You’re right about that, I’m sure. But of all the parts that might have been knocked off, you’ll find you can get along easiest without your tail. You could have lost your head, you know.”
The sun was nearing its high point for the day. We were bathed in its autumn heat. For the first time, I took a full accounting of my large companion. If one of my brothers were to stand on my back, and my other brother were to stand upon his, the three of us together might be a little taller than this fellow. But we would never be more beautiful, even if thirty of us were stacked upon one another. Since I never knew my father, and had no loyalty in particular to him or his Kok Span-Yell clan, I’d often wished that my Mom might have mated with a male of the Golden clan. There are larger Oggs, of course. And more powerful, and smarter. But I believe there are none more beautiful. The way the sun shimmered on his bronze coat, together with his absolute calm, washed away any impulse I might have had to argue.
“Where’d the miserable chicken come from?” I asked, trying to maintain a mature disdain.
“I went after her while you were, uh . . . incapacitated. That farmer owes you this much, and he’ll never miss one silly banty.”
“You went back down there? After you saw what he can do with that . . . that thing he’s got?”
“That ‘thing’ was a rifle. I’ve seen them before, all too often. Eat now, while it’s still warm.”
I reluctantly took a nibble. I’d eaten raw flesh before, even raw chicken. Sometimes, Mom and I were thrown chicken scraps even before the woman had fed her family. I can’t say I liked the cold, raw meat any better than the cooked meat, with all of those exquisite flavorings added on. But that freshly killed chicken was about the best thing I’d ever had in my mouth. Blood still dripped from wounds around it’s neck and the flesh was warm. After the first taste, I attacked the corpse and devoured most of it before my belly cried no more. My companion watched, a bemused smile never leaving his face. Midway through the bird, I asked him if he was going to eat. He said, “When you’ve had you’re fill, then I’ll finish it.”
I left him virtually nothing to finish. The gristle on a leg and the stringy meat on the wings were all that remained. “I was really hungry,” I told him when I had given up on the fragments. “I haven’t eaten for a whole day.” It seemed prudent not to mention the pancake morsel that had caused me to lose my tail.
“Now you’ll want a nap, I’m sure,” he said, and it was so true. My black faint hadn’t been in the least restful. The warmth of the sun and my full tummy ganged up on me. I could hardly hold my eyes open. It wasn’t a question of whether or not I wanted to go to sleep. Sleep was coming to me.
“What was your name again?” I asked while my mind was still in the immediate vicinity.
“My name is Peter, little fellow. Peter. And I’ll be here when you wake. And you?”
“Me?” I slipped into feathery semi-awareness.
“Your name? What name do you go by?”
“Daks. My name is Daks . . . and I have no good reason to change it.”
* * *
The sun was midway through the afternoon when I awoke. The Golden was there watching me, just as he’d said he would be. He had slept as well. His coat on one side was covered with pine needles and dust, but he was alert and anxious to be away from that place.
“Good. You’re awake,” he said. “I want to be back with the tribe by dusk. They come hunting for us when their work is done.”
“Back? Tribe? And who comes hunting? What do they want us for?” I sat back on my hindquarters, forgetting that my sitting assembly had recently suffered a painful loss. “Ouch!” I squealed.
“Mister Daks, you’ll have to treat your wound a bit more seriously and stop plopping your fanny down on it. And you make too much noise.”
“It’ll hurt more if they find us. Follow me.”
“Where are we going?” I asked, but Peter was already loping down the slope through the trees. For a moment, I wondered why I should follow him. What would happen to me if I decided to stay on my own, take my chances and deal with my future alone? Who was this Peter, anyway? I didn’t know him any better than I knew the cows from the morning or the vicious farmer. Why should I follow him and not him me?
Something stirred a few feet up the hill, just a whisper from within a thick copse of rough grass. It was a small movement, simply a rustling at the roots and a tiny shiver running through a blade or two. Not much, but it brought me out of my thoughts and to my feet. It’s just a sparrow, scratching for seeds, I told myself. Nothing to be alarmed over.
Then a head as small as my nose appeared close to the ground, pushing aside a blade of grass. At first I thought I was seeing an earless, hairless field mouse, but when it flicked it’s tongue out at me—it’s sneaky little red and forked tongue!—I knew it wasn’t a mouse. I decided I could have a chat with Peter later about who should follow whom. By the time I had my wits about me again, I was well on my way down the hill.
“Don’t worry, little Daks,” Peter said when I caught up with him. “Later, you can decide for yourself if you want to stay with us. But admit it. For now, you could use a warm place to spend the night, am I right?”
“Well . . . “
“And couldn’t you use a good breakfast when you wake in the morning?”
“Well . . . “
“And couldn’t you use a friend? At least for a while? Until you learn a trick or two?”
It occurred to me then that if my thoughts were so easily divined, it was possible that I wasn’t yet fully prepared to take on the world by myself.
* * *
We went for miles and miles. We stayed in the trees when at all possible, skirting open pastures and avoiding farms. Cows trudged down rocky lanes on their way to milk barns and men guided powerful machinery up and down fields but none of them saw the Golden and me. We had to cross an occasional road, and once I thought we were going to be discovered. We were readying ourselves to make a dash across a lonely stretch of highway when a big orange bus came around a hillock and stopped close to where we lay in tall grass. Two children tumbled out and yelled back at others. The bus was full of human youngsters and I wasn’t entirely sure why we were hiding from them. But Peter seemed to know what he was doing. As the bus drove away, a little girl with hair as black as crows saw us. I looked directly into her eyes and she waved to me.
“A little girl waved to me, Peter. And she smiled.”
“It might well have been her father who shot your tail off this morning,” he said.
We didn’t talk much on the way. Peter seemed interested only of getting where he wanted to be, trotting faster and faster. I think he occasionally forgot I was with him, and I often fell behind. But he always stopped and waited for me to catch up. “Sorry, Mister Daks. I’m a bit worried about my friends,” he said. As I plodded along in Peter’s wake, I could think of little but the persistent throbbing from my back regions. The only relief from that was when I remembered my Mom and how much I wished I could see her. I can’t say that one pain troubled me any more than the other, and eventually it made no difference. The two blended together as one and I felt black and desperate on my insides. My legs became tired and weak. I followed Peter like a cocklebur stuck in his coat, for even the will to lie down and cry seemed to have left me. My head hung low. My nose might have dragged through the red soil and I wouldn’t have cared a whit. Silently and sadly, I wondered whether Mom would still recognize me without my tail. It was a silly concern, and when the answer came to me, it didn’t improve my spirits, not one little bit. Why worry whether Mom will recognize me when I’ll never see her again, anyway?