The Secret of Cawley’s Skull

PART THREE

KRUK

Chapter 24

 

They shut me in the truck over night with the elk’s head and Buddy, it being Buddy’s truck. The other two slept in bags on the cold ground. But before they slept, they continued to drink for hours and argue who, exactly, had been the most instrumental in saving them all from the “Hawr’bul sass-quatch beast what ’bout kilt us all.”

          I didn’t mind sleeping with the elk’s head nearly as much as I minded sleeping with Buddy. The head didn’t hold a grudge, for one thing, nor did it wake up every few minutes and swat me on the noggin. “Ah’ll teach yew to chew on mah arm, y’ dern mon-grewl.” What’s more, the head didn’t fart—the most vile, liquor-induced, sour meat-enhanced, odious farts imaginable that lingered all night long within the confines of that stuffy truck.

          For a long time, they debated whether to keep me or not. Buddy wanted to hang me by a rope from a tree branch and shoot at me … ” ’til all ‘at’s left is the rope.”

          Zeener thought I should be left behind in the wild. “That sass-quatch monster out there’ll take care o’ his shaggy hide, if’n it’s still alive. Let the runty mutt take care o’ hisself.”

          But Ferb was the most adamant. “I wanna take ‘im home to m’ kids. I ran over their dog when I came home last Saturday night. Dang thang was sittin’ right there in the middle o’ the lawn an’ didn’t see me comin’.”

          “But he chewed on m’ arm,” Buddy sobbed. “Ah t’ink he waz goin’ fer m’ throat. Ah wanna kill ‘im.”

          “If’n’ yew want any o’ that elk meat, Buddy, ya’ll let me have that dog. M’ kids’ll love ‘im. I’ll call ‘im ‘Elvis’.”

          I told them what my name was, but I wasn’t surprised that they weren’t listening.

* * *

          Ferb wrapped the elk’s head in a burlap sack. “That way, it won’t mess up y’r truck seats, Buddy.”

          “Wull … wull uh, why does it have to be in the cab, Ferb? Why don’t’cha put it in the back?”

          “This here head’s gonna be the kid’s Chrizz-muss present, an’ you want me to toss it in the back where just any ol’ thang can come and gnaw on it?”

          When morning came, they put the head, along with the rest of her, into the back of the truck and covered everything with a large piece of slick fabric. “Wull, uh … mays be we ought o’ cut ‘er up here,” said Buddy. “Atta way, if’n we get stopped, they won’t know she was a cow.”

          Zeener spat on the ground and sneered. “Hellz ‘a’ Bells, Buddy. You didn’t get to be head oiler by thinkin’ like that, did ya’? Those rangers know a cow from a bull whether she’s cut up in pieces or not. Wha’d’ya’ think they are? Stew-pid?”

          “Besides,” said Ferb. “I gotta get back to town. I’s promised the kids we’d go t’ the wrestlin’ match tonight, so let’s git agoin’.”

          Gglongh’Ribblm protested loudly over being put into the trailer. “BLOOD! WE HAVE TO SMELL THAT BLOOD ALL THE WAY BACK TO THE PASTURE!”

          Brawdle’Whingree was more levelheaded. “As for me, I would much rather smell elk blood than my own.”

          “What do you mean?” Gglongh’Ribblm asked.

          “What’s happened to your nose, chap? That monstrous Ogg thing is still out there. Can’t you smell it?”

          With that, Gglongh’Ribblm pranced expeditiously up the ramp into the trailer.

          My view of the decampment was from the truck, with a slight crack in a little sliding window in the back to hear only the bare outlines of the various conversations taking place. Ferb wouldn’t let me out of confinement for even a moment, and every time they opened the door to chuck another filthy something in, they swatted me back so that I wouldn’t run. I did my best to tell them how I had a very good reason to need out, but I might as well have been talking to the elk’s head. So, having no other recourse, I was forced to poop on the floor of their darned old truck.

          And we all know how much humans like Ogg poop.

* * *

          At last, they had everything but their trash stowed somewhere in either the truck or the trailer. They left the trash, scattered as it was throughout the clearing. Buddy took the steering side and the other two climbed into the riding side. Had I been using my head, I would have never emptied my bowels on the steering side, it being Buddy’s truck and Buddy being the driver. It was best to stay clear of Buddy as much as possible, given his feelings about me. But I guess my judgment was clouded by anxiety, for I knew that once the truck started moving, there would be no hope for another rescue attempt. Even Mish-Shka can’t fight steel and artificial speed.

          “Wull, uh, what the . . .WHAH, AH’LL BE GLAMN BRAMNED. THERE’S DOG SHID ON MAH BOOT! DAM DOG CRAPPED IN M’ TRUCK.” If not for Ferb and his Ogg-less children, I do believe my bones would now be lying there in those woods amidst the rusting beer cans and greasy sandwich wrappings. Buddy grabbed me by the head and began twisting. “SAY G’BYE, MONG-GREWL. AH’M GONNA BREAK Y’R NECK!”

          “Don’ chew kill that dog! That’s m’ kids’ dog now. Have a beer and relax. What’s a little dog shit among buddies, Buddy?”

          I experienced a sense of giddy elation. With crystalline certainty, I knew then what was going to happen in the next few seconds. And it was going to be wondrous, made so since my salvation would come only because I had pooped in the truck. Simple, humble poop. Buddy would get out of his truck to remove my simple, humble poop from his boot, and while he was preoccupied with that task, Mish-Shka would fly from hiding, knock him into the unlucky elk’s intestines, and scoop me away from a life of lice-infested children. So went my revelation. I laughed, I was so certain.

          Saved by a bowel movement.

          I continued to laugh when, instead of getting out of the truck, Buddy pulled off his offended boots and threw them through the small window into the back, onto the elk’s body, and drove his truck away. “Wull, uh … if’n it’s yer kids’ dog, I’ll let them scrape their dog shid off’n mah boot when we get home.”

          Since no one had witnessed my vision but me, and since there was no one to understand how foolish I had been, I kept laughing. At myself.

          And I laughed because I wouldn’t allow these men to make me cry so early. There would be plenty of time later for crying, in the paws of those lice-infested children.

* * *

          A rough road, that. Rough to walk on but rougher still to drive over. Ferb held me on his bony lap for a ways, but I got sick from the constant jiggling about and gagged up on his pants, so he swatted me off. After that, I had to find room on the floor among six human feet. Buddy turned on something that blew hot air into my ears, and Zeener turned on something else that flooded the compartment with awful sounds. “AWWWWWL MAH EXES LIVE IN TEXES … .” It was loud and horrible. What with the heat, the noise, and the bouncing around, I became more and more ill. There wasn’t much in my belly to start with, but an hour into the trip, there was nothing but clear liquid.

          “Wull, shoot … now ‘e’s pukin’ all o’er m’ truck. Damdamdamdam dog.” Buddy’s hatred for me grew like thistles. He hunched over the wheel and chewed his tongue.

          Zeener turned in his seat and looked out the back window, kicking my head in the process. “Buddy, yer drivin’ too fast. Y’ got my horses jumpin’ ’round like squirrels.”

          “Wull, uh … heck, Zeener. Yer glamb bluskered horses been jumpin’ around like that fer miles. Since we left. Ain’t mah fault. Ah can’t help it if’n’ yer horses can’t stand up.”

          I jumped up on Ferb’s lap again, and before he could sweep me off, I went farther up and looked over his shoulder, out the back window. Zeener was right. The trailer was rocking from side to side in a violent way for which the rough road alone could not account. Gglongh’Ribblm’s head poked out of a window on the side and he appeared to be trying to climb all the way out. His teeth showed all the way back to his ears. Something was making him awfully unhappy.

          The men wouldn’t stop. “Wull, uh … they be just horsin’ around, Zeener,” said Buddy. “Hawgggg-hawgggg!”

          Ferb pushed me off. “Yeh, Zeener … just playin’ around. Besides, I gotta get home an’ get the glamb bluskered kids to that wrestlin’ match, ‘er my Lew-eze’ll skin me an deep-fry m’ baaawwwlz.”

          So we continued on, over an infinite number of bladder-jarring ruts and teeth-cracking potholes, and through an endless series of screeching, human caterwauling. “YOOOR CHEE-EE-TUN HAWRRRRT …”  Occasionally, whenever a segment of particularly bouncy rhythms came up, all three men sang along with the screech machine. There was no way of shutting out this nasal cacophony. Instead, I tried to concentrate on the grumblings from my stomach, which reminded me I hadn’t had a bite to eat for a good long while.

          The rough road came to an end, and Buddy guided his truck onto a much smoother byway. Thumping and rattling gave way to a steady whine and the men quieted down. Buddy continued to hum wordlessly along with the noise while Zeener and Ferb slumped down in their seats and slept. Zeener leaned against the window, and Ferb leaned against Zeener. The two of them kept shifting about, lacing their legs together, then unlacing them. I had to continually shift my own position to avoid being stomped on. Eventually, I found a niche, my belly draped over Ferb’s booted foot and my head lying on the floor under Zeener’s muddy ankle. It wasn’t comfortable, but it was a somewhat stable arrangement. I, too, slept.

          And dreamt.

* * *

          They weren’t horrid dreams of my friends dead and rotting away in a soggy wilderness, and there were no cows. In these spotty and disconnected dreams, my friends were alive, I suppose. I couldn’t be certain because these dreams didn’t include my friends, except for Ah-Teena. These dreams were filled with smudged human children holding me to their chests by my neck and pulling my tail. (Oh yes, in these dreams, my tail and I were still connected, as though losing it had been another, more distant dream)  It went on forever. Endless children endlessly tweaking my ears and slipping globs of pork fat to me beneath the dining table. My paws dangled from over chubby and freckled arms, and my fur became streaked with mottled gray. I grew old but the children stayed eternally young and abusive. My age meant nothing to them. They passed me amongst themselves like a ragged toy and dragged me by my ears from yard to cluttered yard. They pulled me across streets, through blizzards of roaring pickup trucks, and as a treat, they rolled red rubber balls with broad yellow stripes out into the traffic for me to retrieve. I never failed to retrieve. Retrieving red balls meant everything to me, the only thing worth leaving the fat, freckled arms for. Trucks passed around me and over me, and I almost lost my tail to them, but there was never any real danger. This was my life and my destiny, and how could such a trivial destiny be dangerous?

          With my mouth full of rubber balls—all of the rubber balls that all of the children had thrown for me to chase down in my graying life—I waited in the middle of the street for traffic to clear enough to carry them back to the cluttered lawn. The children called. “POTSY (DAISY, WIGGLEY, BUFFY, CHOMPY—my names were legion) BRING IT BACK! BRING IT BACK! BRING IT BACK!” And from the other side, a small voice, soft and firm, crept in under the roar of traffic and demanding children. “Daks, come to me and I’ll meet you halfway. Come away from them, Daks, and get out of the street.”

          I barely remembered her, I was so old and fat and dumb. But she hadn’t changed in any way. Her coat glimmered amber in the sunlight and even her pointed ears mocked my dull life. “Halfway, Daks. Meet me halfway, then we’re off to the woods.”

           She moved into the street, into the path of a muddy red truck and from behind the wheel, Buddy bellowed, “WULL, UH … AH’LL SHOW YA’! SHID ON MAH BOOT, WILL YA’!”

          He pushed his heavy foot and the truck jumped.

* * *

          I did too. Jumped awake and cried out.

          I had moved like a woolly worm in my sleep, and was now on the driver’s side of the truck, wedged between the underside of the seat and Buddy’s stockinged feet. When I jumped awake, the top of my head collided with Buddy’s calf and my toenails scraped his ankle. As I cried out, so did he.

          “Ah-Teena … oooh! Miss Teena!”

          “WUUUULLLRAHOOWWW! GILMONY GHEEST! WHAD THE . . .” then he realized who had scratched him. “Y’ MANGY, LIDDLE, BOOT-CRAP-PUKE . . .”  He kicked at me furiously and caught my ribs a glancing blow with his heel. The truck veered and I was thrown backwards into Ferb’s knees. Buddy kept kicking. “I’LL SHOW YA’!” He kicked Ferb in the ankle and the truck swung sharply in another direction. I heard a high scream, maybe the horses from behind the truck, or maybe the tires pulling away from the paved road.

          Ferb bawled like a cow in delivery. “RRR-OOOW! WHATCHER DOIN’, BUDDY? Y’ DONE GONE JUMPIN’-BEAN NUTS!”

          I clambered onto Ferb’s lap and scratched my way through Zeener’s thighs, but there was no haven from the reach of Buddy’s smelly foot. His body contorted with rage. He flailed at me with one leg, pummeling Ferb and Zeener with his heel. The truck snaked from side to side, and I was certain it was going to tip over. “GLAMB FRASKERED … BE-SMITTEN FIBBERKORN … AH’M GERNA MUNCH YOU INTO MUTT GREASE AN’ POOP!”

          Zeener and Ferb were equally vocal. “BUDDYBUDDYBUDDY! Y’R GONNA GO OFF’N THE ROAD! WATCHOUTWATCHOUTWATCHOUT. Y’R GONNA HIT THAT CAWR!” And—”Y’R LOONY AS A WINDSHIELD FRUIT FLY, BUDDY. DRIVE THE GLAMB BLUSKERED TRUCK!”

          I clawed at the door and tried to tell Buddy I didn’t mean to scratch him, tried to apologize, but nothing I could do or say would calm him. It was Zeener who finally brought him out of his crazy rage. “Buddy, jeeskers … that was a cop ya’ just drove off’n the road. A cop!”

          “Uuuuuuhhh, Gilmony Gheest!” moaned Buddy. “Hide the elk, fellers.”

          “HIDE A’ ELK! HIDE A’ FRASKERED, GLAMB  BLUSKERED ELK!” Ferb was frantic. His voice was high and dry, like tree limbs rubbing against one another in a winter wind. “JUZZ WHERE D’ YA’ HIDE A’ ELK, BUDDY? UNDER MUH FRUGGERN HAT?”

          From behind the truck came a thin and agonized shriek, a sound I hadn’t heard since I’d left the world of men. A wailing siren.

          “SHUH-BIDDLE! AH THINK ‘E SAW US.”

          Ferb’s voice continued to climb. “Y’ THINK HE SAW US? Y’ THINK HE SAW US? BUDDY, YA’ KNOCKED ‘IZ REAR-VIEW MIRROR OFF!”

          Buddy’s voice dropped to a steamy whisper. “T’ink ah ought o’ try an’ out-run ‘im?”

          Zeener covered his eyes with his hands. “Yeh, Buddy. Y’r truck’s only twen’y years old an’ y’r pullin’ a horse trailer. So let’s do it. Let’s out run ‘im.”

          Buddy slowed the truck and steered it to the side of the road. All three held their bowed heads in their hands and breathed with raspy, nervous gasps that bordered on being sobs. Almost as an after-thought, Zeener brushed me off of his lap. “Get down, feller.”

          “Wull, uh … at least we’re not drunk.”

          “Shud up, Buddy.”

* * *

          The siren stopped and a large, powerful man knocked on the window next to Buddy’s face. He wore a hat that was almost as broad as his shoulders, and he looked out from under its brim like a Scrat watching something small and fleet through a curtain of tall grass. “Been doing some hunting, boys?”

          “Thazz right, Awv’sir,” Ferb screeched. “We sure been doin’ sum huntin’. Ain’t that right, boys?”

          “Yup yup. Huntin’ f’r sure, Awv’sir,” the others mumbled.

          “Get anything?”

          Buddy’s lower lip protruded out and he shook his head wildly. “Wuuueee din’t e’en see a fat jack rabbit, Ahv’sir. Never fired a shot.” Zeener groaned and Ferb sunk in his seat like a wilted puffball.

          The cop started to smile, but squeezed his face in to suppress it. “Well, feller, before I write you up for driving like a maniac, let’s see what you have in the back, what say?”

          As the three climbed woefully out of the truck, I considered the open door and the grasslands beyond. Snow and cold hadn’t stripped this land of hiding places. There was green brush in the distance and not far from the truck was a large patch of cattails. Nearby, fat red cows gaped at the spectacle from over wire fences. The company of cows was a long, empty ways from the company of Mish-Shka and Bandy, but I was strongly tempted. Ferb seemed to read my thoughts. “Yew ain’t goin’ nowheres, dawgie. Y’r the only thing gonna keep Lew-eze from nailin’ me up to the garage door an’ skinnin’ me.” He took me by the scruff, sat me on the seat, and slammed the door shut. The small window on the truck’s back wall was cracked open so that I could get the tip of my nose through it, but no more.

          “Cute pup,” said the officer, and he waved to me. “Now, fellers, why don’t you pull that tarp off an let’s see what’s under there.”

          Like pouting children, the hunters pulled off the cover and stood back, regarding the mutilated elk carcass from beneath fluttering eyelashes. “Wull, uh … we found him laying next to the road, Awv’sir. All gutted out ‘n’ ever’thin’. Don’t know what happened to her head … er, ah mean his head.”

          “You boys have your hunting licenses, don’t you?” The cop took off his striking hat and rubbed his brow.

          “Wull, uh … Ferb here found it. Ah was just ‘long fer the ride.”

          Ferb’s jaw dropped. “Buuhh-deee! I didn’t find it. An’, Awv’sir, I left m’ license in m’ other pants. The ones at home. But it duzzn’ matter, duzz it? I din’t shoot nuttin’.”

          The policeman put his hat back on. “I have so much writing ahead of me, I’ll have to do some hand limbering-up exercises. Now let’s see what you have in the horse trailer, fellers.”

          Zeener perked up. If humans had long ears, his would have been standing on end and quivering. “Honest, Awv’sir, there ain’t nothin’ in there but my horses.” In telling the only truth that had been told so far, Zeener was earnest to an extreme.

          But the policeman insisted. “Open ‘er up and let’s see,” he said, and stood aside while Ferb, Zeener and Buddy marched in line to the back of the trailer. With the men out of sight, I went at the window with my nose, trying to broaden the crack, but it would not move. I pushed until my snout felt like it might bleed, but the glass wouldn’t slide even a little bit. In a way, I was relieved. Had the window opened wide enough for my body to get out, I would’ve had to jump down onto the elk’s sad remains, and then over the side to the ground. While it seemed a very long ways to the ground, the worst part would have been the soft landing on the carcass.

          ” … fergot I locked it up, Awv’sir. Wo’n’t want the horses t’ fall out, would yah?” Zeener came back around the trailer and the cop followed.

          “C’mon, pal. As it is, it’s gonna take me until suppertime to write out the citations you boys have coming.” Zeener groaned and the officer waved to me again and winked. “Sure is a cute pup you have there. But don’t you ever give him a bath? He looks like he’s been running around the hills for weeks.”

          “That’s it,” I said. “You’re exactly right. I’ve been in the hills and that’s where I belong. I’m wild and untamable.” As men go, this uniformed man seemed sympathetic, and since it also seemed he was somehow in opposition to the hunters, I took a chance that he might hear my pleas and side with me.

          He heard them well enough, but interpreted them wrongly. “What’s he whining about? Has he been out for a walk lately? He had any water? Let him out and so’s he can run around for a while.”

          “Uh … gee, Awv’sir. I don’ know if’n’ we ought o’ be doin’ that,” said Zeener. He had cautiously opened the truck door and was pulling his ragged coat out from under me while holding my face with his other hand. “He’s sort o’ wild. An’ he’s Ferb’s dawg, anyhows.”

          “That’s silly. ‘Sorta wild’, my foot.” The policeman nudged Zeener aside and took me in his arms. “Heh-hee pup. How you doin’, Stinky?” He ruffled my ears and scratched my belly at the same time. “Heh-hee, pup.”

          Behind the trailer, Ferb and Buddy were whispering to each other in tones not meant for the cop’s ears. “Wha’d’yer mean, yer driver’s license expired last year? Buddy … yew stew-pid son ‘o’ . . .” When we approached, they hushed up, and were kicking at rocks on the side of the road. Inside the trailer, the Whawr’Hawrz were shuffling about and gurgling with nerves.

          Zeener fumbled with a ball of keys and a large metal block that held the trailer door shut. “Honest, Awv’sir. There’s ain’t nothin’ in this trailer we din’t want yew t’ see.”

          “Gentlemen, I pride myself on my own judgment. Now, open it up and let me go to judging.” As he talked, he tickled me under my chin.

          There are those who claim an Ogg’s loyalty can be purchased with a tickle under the chin or a skritch behind the ears. I would never admit to their faces they are right, but there is a string of truth in what they say. “Please, take me home with you,” I said.

          “Yes sir, pup,” he whispered. “You have no business being with a flock of knot-headed birds like this bunch.”

          Who can say? He might have understood. He might have been one of those rare—if not nonexistent—humans who share the world joyfully with other souls and who hear the music of their separate songs. He might have taken me to his gentle home and I might have had a wonderful and fulfilled life with that big man and his family.

          But these are speculations best left for when I have nothing else to do with my mind. And times like that have been rare in my life. For instance, my mind had plenty to occupy it when Zeener swung open the door of his ratty horse trailer …

           … and took the full mass of Gray Mish-Shka in his chest.

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