The Secret of Cawley’s Skull

PART THREE

KRUK

Chapter 25

        I believe it a symptom of the policeman’s empathetic nature that he didn’t drop me to the ground and step all over me in a rush to get away from Mish-Shka’s attack. Instead, he clutched me to his breast tightly and fell to one knee, protecting me with his bulk, as though he expected an aerial attack. And what a testament to the man’s intelligence and foresight that was, for an aerial attack is precisely what he got. Bandy sailed from the top of the trailer and clamped onto of the policeman’s snazzy hat with all twenty claws.

        With Rawl’Colmb sureness of foot, he had come from the trailer’s front window, along the slippery roof, and positioned himself for the moment Mish-Shka began the battle. The cop wasn’t hurt or scratched in any significant way, thanks to that fine hat. Had his head been bare, he would have borne the mark of Bandy to his grave. As it was, Bandy tore at felt rather than flesh, until the hat slipped from the man’s head. Bandy continued to wrestle with it on the ground, too excited to realize he was locked in mortal combat with an item of haberdashery.

        Zeener was writhing about on the ground, trying to voice his terror, but the breath had been slammed from his lungs. He was able to produce only a raspy, dry rattle. His eyes blossomed out of his purple face. Buddy went to vault a fence, the one the cows had so recently been mooning over, but limited as he was by his ample girth and clumsy brain, the vault was more an arms-askew flop. He found himself wrapped inextricably up in the tough metal strands that—much to the prolonged misery of Mister Buddy—were punctuated with steel thorns at regular intervals. While Zeener’s lungs struggled to produce even the most feeble sound, Buddy howled as though his chest held ten or twenty healthy lungs. “GILMONY SWEET GILMONY GHEEST A’MIGHTY! MONSTERS EVER’WHAR! AAAAHHOOOOWWW!” The horses echoed his terror and crowded to the front of the trailer with enough racket to curdle milk.

        I pushed loose from the policeman’s grip. He was reaching with one hand for a blue-steel lump of dense metal hanging from his belt and couldn’t keep hold of me with the other. As accustomed as I was to killing rifles coming in long, graceful shapes, I still recognized this lump for what it was—a remote-controlled, flesh-drilling, bone-smashing machine. And the policeman had no intention of using it on Zeener or Buddy …

        … or Ferb, who for being such a scrawny, brown, wheezy man, was amazingly fleet of foot. I wouldn’t wager on him next to a Whawr’Hawrz with four sound legs, or even an aged Wolfhound. But still, he was moving quickly. By the time I captured the scene in my mind, Ferb was a good ways away, loping down the center of the road with Mish-Shka snapping at his buttocks. Mish-Shka stopped and turned, but Ferb continued on. He might still be continuing on, as far as I know.

        Mish-Shka turned his eye to Buddy, who was securely entrapped in the wire fence, and I had my eye on the policeman, still on one knee. His eyes were flitting from Mish-Shka to Bandy, trying to decide which one presented the most immediate danger. Bandy abandoned the hat, convinced it was dead, and had his eye on Zeener, who had regained his breath to the extent he could rise to all fours. Bandy chattered, “If you know what’s best for you, Human, you will stay on your back and play O’Pah’Zum.”

        “RABID COON, PAL,” bellowed the policeman. “ROLL AWAY WHILE I BLAST HIM.’ He held the dwarf rifle with one, trembling hand and his arm followed Bandy’s erratic posturing with matching movements.

        I told him he was wrong. In my strongest voice, I told the policeman it was my friend he was about to blast. “HE’S NOT RABID. THAT’S JUST THE WAY HE IS. PLEASE DON’T SHOOT HIM, MISTER!” and I pawed at his knee, but this otherwise fine man would not listen.

        “Get away, pup. You’re messing up my aim.’ He swished me aside like I was a grasshopper on his trousers …

        … leaving me with no choice. If you need anymore evidence that the world is a hard and cruel place, think about how often you have had to hurt one friend to spare another.

* * *

        Normally, I’m no better at vaulting than Buddy, and the policeman’s hand with the terrible weapon in it was three times my height above the ground. But I was propelled not as much by my legs as by the urgency to save Bandy. I caught the cop in the fleshy mass just below his littlest finger. Not a fatal blow, by any means, but painful enough to cause him to yelp and drop the weapon. He jerked and I let go. The night before, when I had Buddy’s flesh in my mouth and Buddy’s blood on my tongue, I’d hung on for as long as it was possible, for Buddy represented all the evil and inconsiderate things that men do, and I felt no guilt.

        With the bearish policeman, it wasn’t the same. When his blood crossed my tongue, I tasted his surprise at my betrayal. I tasted his regret and moral ambiguity for what he was about to do.

        And certainly, I tasted a potentially comfortable future drop away like down off a molting duck.

        “Dang it all, pup. You rabid, too?’ He looked at me with sad eyes and reached down to the ground for his gun. “Hate to do it, but I guess I’m gonna have to …”

        Mish-Shka came like a hot wind, his jaws closing over the policeman’s wrist.

        “Mish-Shka, don’t! He’s not a bad man.”

        I expected to see an awful thing, I expected to see Mish-Shka separate the cop’s hand from the cop—to witness the hand drop unattached to the ground like a soft and rotting apple. There’s no doubt he could have done it, with one snap and a twist. He could take down a mature stag, very nearly severing the deer’s head, with one snap and a twist. And Mish-Shka doesn’t hate deer.

        But he hesitated. The policeman, himself no blubbering coward, clenched his other hand into a fist and prepared to fight back in the only way available to him. But when Mish-Shka hesitated, so did the man. Some sort of nervous truce took hold, but I knew it could not hold for long.

        “Let him go, Mish-Shka, and he’ll let us go. Won’t you, Mister?” I looked the policeman directly in his blue eyes and appealed to his broad nature, “Let us be on our way, Puh-leeeze.”

        With movement in his eyes alone, Mish-Shka studied my face carefully, then the policeman’s, then back to mine, I held my breath—a habit I have when tension is running high—and was dizzy by the time Mish-Shka let the man go. If he were delivering a sick and shivering mouse babe back to its worried parents, he wouldn’t have been any more gentle. With the policeman’s wary cooperation, Mish-Shka guided the hairy wrist to the ground, well away from the weapon. “Let us pray your judgment is better than your sense of smell, Daks,” he mumbled. The policeman relaxed his other hand, the fist, and sweat glistened on his brow.

        Zeener gasped and started to his feet, but Bandy bared every one of his teeth and threatened to bite off the man’s nose if he made another move. “He’s terrified,” I told him. “Much too afraid to hurt us now, Bandy.”

        “Au contraire, Daksie,” he said, using the coy dialect of overly-puffed frogs. “They’re the most dangerous when they are the most frightened. And when they are trapped.’ Then, as if to defy his own logic, Bandy hopped forward a smidgen. Zeener recoiled and huddled against the horse trailer.

        Mish-Shka and the policeman eyed one another like two male Scrats might, mutual respect and distrust mixed in equal portions. “Daks,” said Mish-Shka without looking at me, “You leave first. Lead the way.” With his forepaw, he reached out slowly and pulled at the gun until it was well away from the policeman. “It’s not that I don’t trust your character evaluation, but your friend here might change his mind before we’re out of range.”

        Before I entered the tall grass at the side of the road, I turned to the cop. “Sorry, Mister, But I have to go with my friends. I’m sure you would have given me a good home. You seem to be a very fine fellow.”

        “Stay out of trouble, pupper.” He grinned, This fellow said as much with a grin as most human’s do with a season of talk. “Goodbye.”

* * *

        I looked back once more, from the far side of the pasture before we entered the trees, The policeman had picked up his hat—both pieces of it—and was shaking his head while he continued his business with the hunters.

        Mish-Shka lay down next to me so that his eyes were on a level with mine, but he was unable to meet my gaze. “Daks, I would understand if … if you want to go with him.”

        Even Bandy was somber, “Meesher’s right, my little friend. Maybe … just maybe .., you’re not cut out for the wild life.”

        If feelings are such a darn important part of our makeup, why is it there are so many ways for them to be abused?

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