A HARD WAY HOME
Peter felt it was important to leave the grove and find a safer place, no matter how exhausted we were. “We’ve spent too long here as it is,” he said. “Somebody might have seen the fire. They’ll come.”
Such a burden I was. I could move with a three-point waddle for a short ways, but my thoughts were in even worse shape than my leg, so I spent more time staring at the mountains, the clouds or simply gazing off into space than waddling. Ah-Teena was in no condition to carry me, and whenever Bandy tried, he dragged my leg through all sorts of agonizing gyrations. It wasn’t his fault. He just wasn’t tall enough. So if I moved at all, I moved with Peter as conveyance, and he was as tired as flesh can get. Stopping often to rest, it took us half the day to reach a significant forest. We dodged into ditches and brambles to escape the sight of men, and circled in great detours to avoid farms. As addled and broken as I was, I was still the lucky one. Swinging from Peter’s jaws like a newborn, I drifted in and out of sleep, or something that seemed like sleep. I didn’t even know exactly when we came upon shelter. I awoke close to the end of the day with Peter sleeping next to me, his chest heaving. Ah-Teena was licking my leg and padding it with tufts of soggy moss, and Bandy wasn’t even there. He came back soon after, bearing chickens.
“It was my turn to pick up dinner,” he explained.
* * *
A bite—not even a full bite—is all I got into my belly. Then I threw it up.
The next day Peter brought an entire goose, and I did better. I took in three bites before I threw it up.
“You must eat, Daks,” Peter scolded. “Mish-Shka didn’t bring you this far just to have you puke up and starve!”
On the third day, some trout went down and stayed down, but it also made me think of Mish-Shka—his aversion to eating fish—and I cried throughout the day. Ah-Teena cried with me and Peter had to leave the shelter. I suspect it was because he didn’t want anyone to see him cry.
On the fourth day, I was so depressed I didn’t open my eyes all day, and none of them could talk me into eating a thing.
* * *
I’m not certain how many days passed before I could eat and not cry, regurgitate, or become so morose that I felt as if I were dying from the center out. But on that day, Peter decided we had to move on. “We can’t keep taking their chickens and geese and garbage without them coming to look for us,” he said. “My strength is back. I can carry Daks.”
When he picked me up, Ah-Teena asked if I was comfortable, and I assured her I didn’t want to burden them for one more moment, and that I was as comfortable as I could be. But I wasn’t. My leg, which was tolerable when propped up on the bed of moss and wet sand Ah-Teena had arranged, felt like a stab in the eye when it dangled from my body as I dangled from Peter’s jaws. But I bit my tongue and kept my pain to myself for as long as possible …
… which was for about thirty paces.
I yelped, I whined, I gasped, but in between I insisted we carry on. “I’m fine … really … it doesn’t hurt … really … but if we could stop for just a little bit …”
Peter deposited me on top of a flat stump and looked at me with exasperation. “Daks, I’m not trying to hurt you, but every moment we stay is more risk we’ll be discovered.”
Ah-Teena spit her scorn. “He’s not fit to travel yet, you fool. Can’t you see that?”
“No, no, no. That’s okay, Miss Ah-Teena. It’s just when he bounces me. That’s when it hurts the most.”
“But he bounces with every step he takes, Daks. He walks like he’s chasing butterflies.”
“That’s not true,” said Peter. “I’m being as careful as I can be.”
“Oh … ‘I’m being as careful as I can be-e-e-e’.” She mimicked his rich baritone and swung her hips around with mock arrogance. It infuriated Peter.
“I am! I am! I can’t walk any smoother. You don’t know anything, Teena.”
“Oh, gloop! I know this much. You flounce when you walk! You always have, you always will. ‘Flounce-About Peter,’ that’s what we call you back at the cave. ‘Flounce-About Peter’.”
Bandy climbed up onto the stump with me. “You see? What have I told you all along?” he said. “Fate has put us at the mercy of consummate idiots. Be thankful I’m here, Daksie. If you have any hope whatsoever, it’s with me.”
Oddly enough, it was good to hear his insults again, just as it was good to hear Peter and Ah-Teena fight. For so many days—I’d lost count—there had been no fighting, no insults. Except for my sporadic babbling, we had spoken only in whispers and sobs and deep, wishful sighs. I seemed to be the only one to have such tumbling, unfocused thoughts, but we all shared the same gaping wound. There would always be a scar, but the familiar insults and bickering meant that, perhaps, the bleeding had stopped.
“I can travel. Really I can. I might make some noise, but … but that’s better than having men find us, isn’t it?” Ah-Teena smiled, her eyes moist and even rounder than her belly, and still another pain gnawed at my heart. “Miss Ah-Teena, I … I’m sorry … really sorry I called you a witch.”
“Daks … dear … you didn’t call me a witch. Did you? When did you call me that?”
My skin, from the tip of my nose to my stub of a tail, flushed with heat, and I couldn’t look into her soft eyes any longer. “Anyway, I’m sorry.”
The pain of my leg seemed less significant after that and we continued on. With every “flounce” it still felt as though I’d run a locust thorn through my foot. But if melancholy serves no other purpose, at least it deadens the sensations.
* * *
It took many days, but we solved most of the problems my ruined leg had brought upon us. Each of us contributed ideas, some of which worked and some of which didn’t, and we eventually came upon a passable way of dealing with the handicap. This is what Peter and Ah-Teena took to calling my broken leg, “the handicap”—as in: “this river (or that cliff or the chasm ahead) will be difficult to navigate with (and a nod over the shoulder in my direction) ‘the handicap.'” There even came times when I wasn’t entirely convinced they were referring solely to my leg.
Peter could only carry me for short distances without a rest, so he suggested someone share the burden—”the handicap.” For a while, we tried it with one part of me in Peter’s grasp, and another part in Ah-Teena’s. First, they walked side by side, with my scruff in his jaws and my hindquarters propped on her snout. Of course, I kept sliding off because her snout was much too sleek for such a juggle. She next took my stub of tail between her teeth. That didn’t hurt as much as it sounds like it might, but there was no way the two of them could walk at the same speed and maintain the same horizontal plane. I was being twisted about like a discarded stocking between two month-old puppers, and the contortions made me fart like a bloated cow. It was humiliating to an extreme, and I had to protest. I told them that I would rather be left behind to freeze and die than be subjected to such indignities. Ah-Teena said, between giggles, “Don’t be embarrassed, Daks. I can hold my breath for a while, then I’ll switch ends with Peter.”
Bandy laughed himself into a case of the hiccups, then spent the rest of that day in deep thought. I could tell whenever he was thinking hard because his eyes crossed and his nose twitched. Later, when we had settled into a shelter for the night, he scurried off into the dark and didn’t return until after I’d fallen asleep. When he came back, he was as excited as a spring squirrel. “We must try this out right now. Daks, I’ve looked for this half the night and I simply will not wait to try it.”
He was carrying a plastic netting, a thing that carries beer cans together in pods of six. Men drop them in the forest when the last beer is gone. He made me stand and forced my good front leg through one of the holes. “Teena, don’t just stand there. Take the other end and pull it over his back while I hold this in place.” She was as bewildered as I, and even more sleepy, but she did as he directed. Reaching over my shoulder blades, she held the loose end in her teeth. All this while Peter grumbled and grouched in half-sleep.
“Fawrlingswad, this had better be good. What are you up to? We all need sleep and you’re playing tricks with plastic trash?”
“Help us out, Pete old chum. Hold that hole open.” Bandy nodded towards the loose end in Ah-Teena’s mouth.
“What do you have in mind, Rawl’ Colmb? You woke us up to see how Daks would look in a leash?”
“Just stretch that hole open. You’ll see.”
Peter took a corner, still grumbling. Between him and Ah-Teena, they tugged gently so that the netting was tight on my back and pulled up into the hollow under my good foreleg. Then, with a rapid movement, Bandy bent my broken leg at the knee. I screeched with the pain. “Sorry, Daksie. I know it hurts now, but you’ll thank me later.” He pulled at my kneecap until the useless wing was firmly snugged into a hole of the beer net. The leg couldn’t move.
Bandy adjusted the net so that my paw was tucked right up next to my shoulder. When I pulled, it only drew the noose tighter, and I jerked around like a bug in a bottle.
“Relax. Take in a deep breath,” Bandy said, and held me steady. “It’ll feel a bit cramped at first, but we have to hold that leg in place, Daks. It won’t hurt as much when we travel. It won’t bounce. And who knows? You might even walk on it again someday.”
Peter sat back and eyed the contrivance closely. His brow furrowed over his nose. “I have to say it. When it’s good, it’s good. You might have hit upon something here, Fawrlingswad.”
As the initial claustrophobia subsided, I began to realize the substantial benefits of this plastic truss. “It … it feels better, Bandy … I think.” I tested the restraint to see how much pressure could be applied before the pain came back. I wiggled and jumped, shook and limped around the shelter. The leg stayed tightly to my side and the pain was negligible. “It really feels better.”
“Great idea, Bandit.” said Ah-Teena. “How did you come up with this.”
Bandy curled up and licked himself with mock pride. “It’s nothing, really. Nothing any Rawl’Colmb of royal birth couldn’t have devised.”
Even Peter grinned. Ah-teena and I laughed. Then Bandy said, “Actually, I took a wild chance. It worked. That’s all.”
* * *
The next idea came from Peter, and it worked out as much to his benefit as mine. Even though my leg, held firm by the plastic sling, didn’t trouble me nearly as much as it had, the skin on the back of my neck—the scruff by which he carried me—was being stretched out from the abuse and the hair where his teeth gripped me was getting quite thin. Without Peter’s fine innovation, I might have ended up with a permanent bald spot and skin loose enough to trip over.
Two mornings after Bandy fit me into the net, we passed beside a small lake that was obviously a gathering place for humans who drank a great deal of beer. Empty, crushed cans and other refuse were stacked in heaps around the remains of a large fire. The fire had been out for many, many days, but the trash was as fresh as the moment it had been sown. Bandy and Ah-Teena wanted to be away from there, but Peter pawed through the garbage until he found what he wanted. “Aha! Got it!” he crowed, and pulled a flimsy sack from the garbage. “Get in, Daks. You’re riding in style from now on.”
I had seen these bags before. Humans carried food home in them. Constructed from some crinkly fabric that looked like paper—but wasn’t—I wouldn’t have imagined it could support a litter of mice babies. It was so thin you could see light through it. But in I went, not wanting to dismiss Peter’s idea. He held it open by stepping on one edge and holding the other with his mouth. I entered, all the way to the back of the sack. “Now what, Peter? I can’t breath very well in here.”
“Turn around, silly. Stick your head out and lie down.”
I did as he said. I laid on my side with my nose in the open. Bandy was munching on some potato chip crumbs, watching us with only a minimum of interest. Ah-Teena paced around the edge of the lake nervously. Peter said, “Ready? Here we go.”
The bag provided two loops on the open end, opposite one another and designed for human hands. It was stronger than it looked. When Peter picked it up by these handles, I didn’t fall through. The bag didn’t tear and I was actually quite comfortable, cradled like a young possum in its mother’s pouch. Bandy stopped eating and snapped to attention. “Well done, Petey boy. Well done! I would never have thought you had it in you. But say, big fellow, let me be the first to applaud you.”
“I’ve stolen food from humans in these things for years. But I would never have thought of using one like this without you showing the way, Fawrlingswad. You may now add ‘Master of Invention’ to your list of honorifics.” They bowed to one another playfully, like two youngsters pleased to be in each other’s company.
* * *
It was easier for Peter to carry me in this manner, with his jaws clamped onto the sack’s handles rather than my scruff, but it was still hard on him. The fabric, if that’s what it was, pulled down between his teeth and cut into his gums. He wanted to go on anyway. “It’s not perfect, but it’s better,” he said.
I am proud to say the next great idea came from me, but not for another three days. It had become quite the game, to see who could come up with another labor saving device. Peter never complained about the sack handles biting into his lower jaw, but we could all see it was uncomfortable for him.
“Put the handles over you nose,” suggested Ah-Teena. “Take the pressure off your teeth.”
Peter tried that for a ways, but something about it made him sneeze. And every time he sneezed, he dropped me on my bottom.
“I knew it wouldn’t work,” Ah-Teena confided in me during a particularly violent sneezing fit. “I just wanted to see if he’d try it.” Then she winked.
Upon awakening the next morning, we found that Bandy had inserted a stout branch through the holes in the sack. “Daks, get in. You two, grab an end.”
This worked—sort of. Peter and Ah-Teena both thought it was an idea worth trying, so for the best part of that day, the two of them carried me between them, slung from the branch like a hornet’s nest. It was easy on me, as long as I remained curled up in a ball in the bottom of the bag. But whenever I tried to see where we were going—and to do that I had to stand—it threw them so far off balance that both of them would stumble. And when I did lie still, they would often forget to include my presence in their joint navigations. They dragged me over all sorts of knobby, thorny, jagged and ragged terrain. The ultimate indignity came when they each tried to pass on opposite sides of a thin tree. If they hadn’t been arguing again, they would have given more attention to what they were doing and where they were going.
It was a silly spat over who would name the puppers when they came, and I had stopped listening because it still upset me to think about Ah-Teena carrying Peter’s litter. Besides, with the branch in their mouths, their enunciation was miserable and hard to understand, anyway. I couldn’t help noticing, though, that as the argument picked up intensity, our pace picked up speed. They were growing increasingly angry at one another, stomping along in accelerating disgust. By the time we hit the tree, they were racing along fast enough to snap the stick. The collision pained all three of us. As the wood shattered, it cut Ah-Teena’s tongue and loosened a tooth in Peter’s mouth. It hurt me first when they rammed my noggin into the tree, and then again when I tumbled to the ground, all wrapped up in that sack.
I was mad, Peter and Ah-Teena were mad, and Bandy was mad that they could show such disregard for my well-being. Yet out of the experience came my singularly marvelous innovation. When our tempers had cooled some, I discretely approached Bandy with my idea. “Another bag and another plastic beer-can mesh … that’s all we need, Bandy.”
He thought it over. “Daks, it’s not that easy. We’re not as close to men and their trash as we were. It will take some doing to scrape that stuff together now.”
He was quite right. During the days we had spent trying to outdo one another with marvelous inventions, we had entered the lower mountains, where the land was un-farmable and the men were sparse. But I was adamant. “Bandy, I’ve never asked you to do anything important for me before. Go find what I need, and I’ll make Peter wait for you. I promise.” He sighed and at the next opportunity, disappeared without a sound.
* * *
“NO! I won’t get back into the bag! And I won’t go another step until Bandy comes back!”
Oh my, was I adamant. I held my position, no matter how furious Peter became with me. Even Ah-Teena lost patience. “The Rawl’Colmb will catch up, Daks. Get in the sack and let’s get moving.”
“No. I’m tired of this. It’s like I’m some kind of … of dead chicken dinner. It’s like the whole world is flopped bottom to top because I can’t walk. It’s like you … like you two will stop liking me until we fix this right here, right now. I know what you call me. The handicap! And I won’t go any further until Bandy comes back. It’ll be worth the wait. You’ll see.”
Exasperation has so many physical symptoms they are hard to enumerate. But between Ah-Teena and Peter, I believe they displayed them all. In the end, Peter found a feeble shelter and we waited for Bandy to return. It was the best feeling I’d had for a long while, to be so adamant.
* * *
The rest of that day and all of the next, that’s how long we waited. It wasn’t the tools I sent him after that delayed him. Those things, the extra food bag and the extra plastic web, he found within hours. He would have been back before the sun set, had not his return been slowed by the wounds he suffered while escaping from Roth and Anna-Bar.
No one could be angry with him when he finally did crawl into the shelter, through a newly fallen snow in the deep of the night. He was so near to death that anger was out of the question. He was covered with his own blood.
“Here’s the stuff you asked for, Daksie,” he said. “Next time you send me out scavenging, be a good fellow and … and …”
He fainted away …