The Secret of Cawley’s Skull



Chapter 23


          The hunters didn’t see me. Owing to some trickery of angle or shading, they were never aware of my witness to this atrocity. It’s possible, I suppose, that a side effect of blood-lust is tunnel vision, but for whatever reason, they didn’t see me.

          To remain unseen, though, I couldn’t stay there any longer, trying to glean understanding from the elk dame’s meaningless flesh. From up the hill, a man let out a triumphant hoot and came running through the brush. “GOT ‘ER! GOT ‘ER! SLICKER’N GREASY POOP!” His friends were not far behind.



          They sounded like trees falling over, they made so much noise. Mud sucked at their boots and thin ice cracked beneath them. My eyes and mind stayed on the elk’s twisted face, but once again my legs did a bit of thinking on their own and backed me off the road, into a thicket of thorny blackberry shoots. Sticklers pricked my bottom and my nose was lying on the very edge of the road. I could go no deeper into the cover and I trusted in the burgeoning darkness to hide me. My body settled down like a wet leaf. I allowed only my eyes to move.

          The first of them, the one who had done the killing, came out of the trees dancing like a child. A skinny and dried man, he held the rifle over his head and waved his arms. His back was hunched and his knees went nearly to his chest as he performed some sort of squalid jig over the corpse. Two more joined him, but they seemed less jubilant.

          “Wull, uh … wull’re ya’ gonna share d’ meat, Ferb? After all, ah brought mah truck an’ Zeener brought ‘is horses, so’s d’ least ya’ can do is share d’ meat.”

          “Hell’s Britches, Buddy. You fellers can have all the meat,” Ferb said. “All I want is ‘er head. M’ kids’ll crap green when I bring ’em home the head.”

          One of them—not Ferb the killer, but another—turned away from the carcass and came directly towards me, fiddling with his crotch as he approached. I considered running, making a wild dash between their legs and away, praying that they were done with killing for the evening. But instead, I pressed even tighter to the ground. It is never prudent to assume that men are done with killing.

          He spoke over his shoulder and peed obliquely into the berries. “I thought I’z gonna brist ma’ bladder before you pulled the trigger, Ferb. Ya’ took yer sweet time ’bout it. What were ya’ waitin’ on?” He wasn’t peeing directly on me, but I was taking a lot of ricocheted moisture. I had to either lick it off my nose or sneeze. His urine held the odor of alcohol and the taste of salt.

          Ferb replied, “I was sort o’ hopin’ she’d climb up into the truck a’fore I shot ‘er. That way, we wouldn’t have to tote her a lick.” They all laughed, and by doing so, the peeing man shook much too frantically to control the destination of his fluids. My backside was soaked.

* * *

          They hung the elk from a low branch by her hind feet and cut her soft throat, then slashed her open from tail to neck and dumped the guts to the side. In a final desecration, they cut off her head and sat it on a stump, eyes staring coldly into the gathering night. All the while, the men drank from cans and bottles that sparkled with light imps from a fire they built in the center of the road. I stayed as still as my revulsion would allow, though I couldn’t suppress the occasional shiver, a quaking that had nothing to do with the settling chill. Ever present in my mind was the question of what had become of Mish-Shka and Bandy. I was fully prepared to forgive them their lustful musings, if only they would come and get me away from this abominable scene.

          The more the men drank, the louder they got, yelling at one another and cursing. And the louder they got, the more wood they heaped onto the fire. Huge, flaming logs rolled off the stack, but the men didn’t care. They were too occupied with screaming at one another and wrestling in the snow banks. It seemed they were going to kill one another at times, but then they would hug each other with arms soaked in elk blood and go back to their drinking.

          One of them left for a time and brought a muddy red truck and trailer out from a hidden place. From the trailer behind the truck came sounds that could only have been made by something living, large and upset. Heavy feet kicked at the metal sides of the trailer, and voices came from within. “Quiet! QUIET, FOOLS! AND GET US AWAY FROM YOUR FIRE!” It was a novel language to me, filled with wet, guttural trilling and lips flapping, but the intent was clear. Whatever was in that tinny trailer was trying to sleep and these drunken brutes were preventing that from happening. “MAY YOU ALL ROLL DOWN A HILL AND BREAK YOUR NECKS.”

          Ferb took a deep drink from his bottle. “Zeener, you ain’t fed them horses yet.” Whatever was in the bottle ran from his chin as he spoke.

          “We don’t need no damn horses, seein’s how that mama elk was consid’rate enough to be stan’in’ on the road.”

          “Wull, uh … wull, uh … yeh … but ya still gotta feed ’em now ‘n’ then, don’cha’?” asked Buddy, who was heating something over the fire that smelled both rancid and wonderful. This man talked slowly enough to fall asleep to, and he began everything he said with “Wull, uh”, which made him sound as though he were belching up gas to clear his throat.

          With exaggerated petulance, Zeener opened the trailer and brought the horses out, two of them. I was stunned by their size, bigger than cows, bigger than elk, and just one broad hoof could smash the better part of me into a gooey jam. Their hooves was what concerned me most, since Zeener led them to the berry bushes and tied them by a leather thong to branches above my head.

          At first, the horses were too concerned with their proximity to the blistering fire to notice me. Zeener came back with some dry alfalfa, pressed into a tight bundle and wrapped with rough twine. He cut the twine and threw the dusty stuff before the horses—and all over me. The cloying scent filled my nose and played havoc with my sinuses.

          There was no suppressing a sneeze this time. The horses’ snouts were inches from me, already buried in their dinner, and when I sneezed, it terrorized the huge creatures. They jerked away and reared up on hind legs, screaming in terror. That’s the only conceivable reason the drunken man didn’t catch me then and there, because my sneezing fit and the horses’ shrieks came so close together. He slapped their noses and yelled at them. “SHUT UP ‘N’ EAT THE HAY, ‘ER I’LL PUT YA’ BACK IN THE TRAILER!” But his threat didn’t convince them of anything. They continued to pull violently at their tethers. Zeener picked up rocks from the road bed and threw them into the horses’ ribs and flanks, all to no effect. Evidently, my presence under their feed worried them more than rocks and curses.

          I took an enormous risk. The horses didn’t seem overly-fond of this Zeener man, even though he was their master, and I gambled they would calm down and sympathize with me if only they could see I wasn’t much of a threat. Zeener was entirely occupied with punishing his animals and his loutish friends were convulsed with laughter at his cruel antics, so I raised my head and in the lowest whimpers and mewlings I could manage, I tried to explain why I was nesting in their evening meal.

          “Please, ssssshhhh … please, horses … or whatever you call yourselves … shussshhh! I mean you no ill will. I couldn’t hurt you if I wanted to. Pah-leeeeeeze be quiet. These humans mustn’t discover me.”

          “OGG! OGG IN THE HAY!” They were more excited than ever. “FOUL OGG FILTH IN OUR HAY! NNRAWFF-UBBLE!”

           A word like “nnrawff-ubble” is translatable from any language. Clearly, it meant horses didn’t have a very high regard for Oggs.

          “Don’t give me away, pleasepleasepleaseplease. I mean you no harm. My name is Daks.”

          One of them finally paid attention to what I was saying. The one closest to me, a big reddish fellow with muscles rippling under his hide like foraging gophers, ended his frantic protestations and asked, “Daks? That’s a name? Daks?”

          “Yes, that’s my name. And I’m begging you to stop. These men mustn’t find me.”

          He nipped his companion under the chin with broad, blunt teeth. “Did you hear, Gglongh’Ribblm? He said his name is ‘Daks’. Isn’t that a hoot?”

          This Gglongh’Ribblm slowly quieted and looked down at me with a shocked expression. “DAKS? Daks? What a fine and noble name … if you’re a broad-leafed weed.” They pawed at the ground and blew green snot from their nostrils as they laughed. That’s when I learned a horse laughing sounds almost exactly like a horse farting.

          In Zeener’s obtuse perception, his animals appeared more obedient, so he stopped throwing rocks and returned to his friends. The three humans seemed content to nurse on their liquor, but I was still nervous about the undue attention the horses were paying me. “Pretend I’m not here. Pretend nothing is unusual. If those men discover me, I’m a goner. Eat your food like everything is perfectly normal.”

          The red horse sneered and said, “Eat our food? EAT OUR FOOD?  Now that you’ve wallowed in it and befouled it with your Oggy dretch? Whawr’Hawrz do not eat food corrupted by Ogg filth.” To emphasize, he threw his head in the air and stamped a flat foot on the ground. All three men turned to see what the fuss was about.

          I was desperate. “Fine. Don’t eat the food. I don’t care. Just don’t give me away to those men.”

          “Why not, Ogg? He’s our master and he feeds us, not you. Give me one reason why we should protect you.”

          “He throws rocks at you. Not me.”

* * *

          The men talked for hours, and if that slurred conversation is any indication, humans are entirely preoccupied with whatever it is their mates do for them. “Ya’ll ain’t had mashed spuds ’til my Lew-eze fixes yew mashed spuds. I say her mashed spuds can make a grown man cry.”

          Buddy clucked his tongue and shook his head. “Wull uh, Ferb … now, uh … when’s the last time ya’ had a grown man around the house?”

          At that, Buddy and Ferb went to wrestling in the bloody snow bank while Zeener choked with laughter and a gullet full of drink. When his breath was back, he said, “Don’t get so mean now, Ferb. If’n my wife could get a rack o’ jugs and as ripe a booty as Lew-eze’s got just by eatin’ mashed spuds, I’d be forcing taters down ‘er throat ever’ day.”

          Then Ferb and Zeener went to wrestling in the snow bank while Buddy opened another can of foamy beer. He drank deeply and spewed a spray from his mouth over the fire, then said, “Wull uh, Zeener … only thing ever gonna get yew a rack o’ jugs an’ a ripe booty like Lew-eze got is major surg’ry.”

          His neck twisted, his rump in the air, Zeener looked out from under Ferb’s arm pit. “Whad ya’ mean … ‘major surg’ry’?”

          “Wull, uh … A WIFE TRANSPLANT! ‘AT’S WHAT AH MEAN!”

          Then Zeener and Buddy went to wrestling in the snow.

* * *

          For hours. That’s how long I listened to this indecipherable prattle. But as mysterious and incomprehensible as the words were, I sensed that underlying these drunken abstractions was a deep and cold aquifer of clear stupidity.

           But I listened, not only to the hunters but to the “Whawr’Hawrz,” as they call themselves. Gglongh’Ribblm and Brawdle’Whingree (the red fellow) went on and on, explaining to me how their ancestors had been critical participants in everything from great wars that decided the fate of empires to crucial foot races that determined the fortune of kings. As grand and vital as they made themselves sound, I only pretended interest. What made it all the more absurd was that during the course of their boasting, I learned that Brawdle’Whingree and Gglongh’Ribblm were called “Sam” and “Dave” by their master.

          Several times, I pushed backwards into the berries, thinking I might slip into heavier brush and escape in the darkness. I hadn’t given up on Mish-Shka and Bandy, but I reasoned if they were to come for me, it would be after these hunting louts had gone to sleep. I wasn’t sure I could wait that long. My bowels demanded to be emptied and my stomach demanded to be filled. I peed in place a number of times and my belly was soaked with my own urine, but I wasn’t about to befoul myself.

          Yet as blowzy and vague as they were becoming, the men showed no inclination to lie down. So I tried to push away, a toenail’s length at a time. Only, the farther I pushed, the deeper the thorns cut. I gave it up, mildly ashamed I could not endure the pain, that a few blackberry barbs were preventing me getting myself out of there. I resolved if I ever made it away from that predicament, I would forever be self-reliant and strong … just as soon as Mish-Shka and Bandy came and saved me.

* * *

          An argument broke out between the horses. Of the two, Gglongh’Ribblm was the biggest braggart. Brawdle’Whingree, or “Sam” as he was more universally known, simply tried to hold his own as Gglongh’Ribblm (“Dave”) marched out ancestor after glorious ancestor. I was watching Zeener, Buddy, and Ferb extricate themselves from an incredibly complex knot they had ended up in after another trip to the snow bank, when Gglongh’Ribblm suddenly raised his voice. “Don’t be ridiculous, ‘Whingree. Surely you can’t compare your great uncle … thrice removed, as it were … with my father’s father’s father’s father. I mean, really … pulling a wagon around a circus tent is flashy in a cheap sort of way, I agree with that. But it’s not in the same class as carrying the greatest general in history from battle to battle.”

           Brawdle’Whingree snapped back. “The way I heard it, the general was a doddering, senile fool and those battles you boast of were actually parades at county fairs. And your father’s father’s father’s father kept pooping in the streets so they put him to pulling a hay wagon. That’s what I heard.”

          That enraged Gglongh’Ribblen and he bit Sam on the shoulder. “Take that back! In the memory of a great hero, I demand that you take that back!”

          Dave kicked out with both hind legs and made an angry, chirping sound. “I WILL NOT! IT’S THE TRUTH. HE FOULED THE STREETS SO MUCH THEY HAD TO FOLLOW HIM WITH A WHEELBARROW!”

          If they hadn’t been tethered, the two of them might have leapt into the snow bank and had it out like men. Instead, they went to stomping and biting and trilling. They pushed back and forth against one another and suddenly I was in the center of their disagreement. Hooves pounded the ground all around me and I had no choice but to move. I think it was Gglongh’Ribblm’s forefoot that came so close, since he seemed to be on the losing end of the roughness, but it was hard to tell. They were so entwined they might have been one mountain of muscle with two heads.

          I pushed away just as a hoof came down, completely covering the spot my head had just occupied, and took an extraordinarily long and sharp thorn in one of my testicles. I let out an appropriate exclamation, my silence over. I went through all eight horse feet, under their broad bellies, and came to a stop in the center of the road, in full fire light and surrounded by the men.

          Momentarily, my addled mind forgot about them all. I squatted over a puddle of cold water and swished my scrotum around in it because it felt so good.

          Then I drug my nuggets through cool mud by pulling with my front feet while I sat, because that felt even better.

          Only then did I remember the hunters, after my punctured testicle had stopped demanding my full attention. The three of them were looking down at me as though their noses had unexpectedly fallen off into the puddle.

          Ferb spoke first. “Gilmony Gheest … it’s a damn dog.”

          “An’ uh ugly, runty, damn dog at that,” added Zeener.

          Buddy grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and held on.

* * *

          Mish-Shka tried.

          He told me later that he had an intricate plan to get me out of there, but he didn’t have time to implement it. So he was left with bounding out of the darkness and demanding I be released.

          It didn’t work. Mish-Shka was lucky to escape with his brains still in his skull, let alone me. Above him, on a limb that extended over the road, was Bandy, chattering nonstop. When raccoons talk that fast, it sounds like a small boy running a stick over a metal grate, and it’s to next to impossible to understand what they say. But I caught parts of it. “UNHAND HIM, OAF … YOUR SEMEN WILL CURDLE (something, something) SUN-CURED GOAT’S MILK AND … NAVEL WILL FILL (something something) RANCID PUSS! BITE HIS ARM, DASKIE! HARD!”

          In a lower, more threatening voice, Mish-Shka said,  “If you harm him, I’ll pull your guts out through your nostrils.” His back was hunched and his eyes glowed.

          Buddy held me tightly against his ample belly. He bounced from foot to foot and blubbered, “OH MAH GAH MAH GAH MAH GAH! SOME’UN SHOOT THAT NAWTMAWR! KILL ‘IM KILL ‘IM KILL ‘IM!

          The horses added nothing to the discussion but frantic noise. “WREEEEK’LLLLL’BRBRBRBRBR! MEEEEET-EEEEEETER! MEEEEET-EEEEEETER!”

          Zeener and Ferb lurched for their rifles leaning against the truck, but on the way, they collided, head to head—-nose to nose—and bounced off one another like pigs in a very tight pen. Panic drove them to crawl that last few feet to their weapons. There was no time for Mish-Shka to reach us, but he wouldn’t move, wouldn’t run back to the safety and cover of the trees, even as they shouldered their hellacious rifles. He growled from the depths of his body. “You will rot away like worms and your families will rejoice.” My own capture suddenly meant nothing. Mish-Shka was about to be blasted into tattered hide and shattered bone.


          As hard as I could. Buddy’s bicep lay before me like a lardy goose’s neck. Mish-Shka’s eye teeth would have met one another at midpoint in the man’s arm with plenty of room left over to cluck his tongue. But my teeth are tiny, befitting the space they must occupy in my mouth. They barely made it through his flannel shirt, his woven underwear, and his skin. I bit him equidistant from the elbow and the shoulder, where the muscle knots, as hard as I could.

          If his hide were being slowly peeled from his flesh, I don’t believe this man could have made any more a racket. He started out low, down where moles and bull frogs speak, and quickly climbed, chromatically, through several octaves, until he was well above the squealish pitch of Gglongh’Ribblm and Brawdle’Whingree.



          That trio, Buddy and the horses, made an unearthly, monstrous music, not unlike what the children in my mom’s home seemed to prefer on their noise machines. The flannel cloth of his shirt absorbed most of the blood, but I got a mouthful. Human blood is foul, corrupted by the vilest chemical slop and garlicky, alcohol flavors. Buddy dropped me, or tried. He flailed his arms about, beating me with his free fist. He ran in an erratic circle, kicking mud and fiery embers about. But I tightened my jaws and hung on. I wanted so much to let go and spit that filthy taste from my mouth, but I hung on. It’s the only thing I could think to do with my friends’ lives in the balance.

          At the edge of the orange light, Mish-Shka made an easy target. His broad chest stood out, almost begging to be riddled with holes. Yet he wouldn’t move. If Buddy hadn’t been whirling in pain and fear directly in front of them, the marksmen Zeener and Ferb would surely have punctured him from his toes to is ears. “GIT OUDA’ D’ WAY, BUDDY. GILMONY GHEEST! I CAN’T SHOOT THREW YA’.” Ferb had squatted down, trying to sight Mish-Shka though Buddy’s bandy legs.

          I could finally do no more. Buddy fell to the ground and rolled over me. With that kind of bulk squeezing the breath out of me, I had no choice but to open my mouth and gasp. “MAH ARM! HE CHEWED UP MAH ARM!” Obviously, drunken men are prone to great exaggeration, because I had hardly chewed up his arm. There were flannel fibers stuck between my teeth and some blood on my gums, but that was the only evidence of my meager ferocity.

          With Buddy down, Zeener commenced to shoot. His first shot whizzed into the black night above Mish-Shka’s head and might still be circling the world for all I know. His second shot splattered mud over one of Mish-Shka’s forelegs, and his third shot hit the branch upon which Bandy chattered. Ferb fired three shots as well, the first going straight up towards the stars when he accidentally discharged his rifle as Buddy writhed at his feet. His second shot missed Buddy’s head by the width of a red-veined ear when his rifle—again—accidentally discharged. His third shot hit Mish-Shka.

          My friend vaulted in the air and screamed. My heart stopped, but when he came down, Mish-Shka was on his feet and running. Long, swift strides carried him into the brush to his right and down an embankment. Before he blended into the thick night, I saw his wound, a furrow filled with blood cut across his shoulder.

          Bandy let out a furious squeal, flew from his limb to the main trunk, and was gone. Mish-Shka, from the black wild, let out a single, resolute howl, “I’ll be back for you, Daks,” and then it trailed into a declaration of great pain.


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