The Secret of Cawley’s Skull

EPILOGUE

          By the time autumn was fully upon us again, our move was complete. This is not to say men couldn’t still find us, couldn’t still shoot us down with utter disregard as they had poor Bon-Bon. But our new home makes their cruelty much harder to achieve.

          After our return, Peter allowed himself a few days of rest and recuperating gluttony, then he and Jahl-Habra went high above the cave, up to where there were more rocks than trees. Up to where the ice and snow hung on in compacted patches almost until the next season’s storms. Up to where humans seldom went. They weren’t entirely sure what they were looking for when they left, but as Chew counseled, “Y’ll know it when ya’ see it, fellers. A place whar we c’n keep the fire alive. ‘At’s what we need. A dry spot.”

          They were gone until well after the lupine bloomed. I worried so much for them, and I know Ah-Teena worried even more than me, but we kept our fears to ourselves. She made herself busy with her youngsters, teaching them all her foxy tricks. Krookle was an attentive and diligent student, always eager to please her mom and master the latest lesson, and she picked it all up quickly. She is so smart, Krookle is. Almost as smart as she is pretty.

          In contrast, Billy-Mouth and Groom squirmed like slugs in agony every time Ah-Teena tried to show them anything new. “Aw, Mom! D’ we have t’ lurrrrn somethin’ t’day? Me an’ Mout’ got us a cave of our own we been diggin’ an’ we wanna make it bigger.”

          “Yeah, Mom. Gamdassit! We wanna dig!”

          “Yes, you have to learn today,” Ah-Teena scolded. “You’ll never know when you need to crawl like a panther or stalk like a Wolf. And you mind your mouth, Billy-Mouth. I’ll have none of that language in my family.” She scowled at Chew, but the old scoundrel only snickered.

* * *

          I occupied myself with becoming the second-best storyteller in the tribe. The first-best was, of course, Bandy. I simply couldn’t compete with him, with his natural flair for embellishing even the most mundane incident, along with his inherent disrespect for the truth. But what he left out, I filled in. I was thankful for the diversion telling the tales provided, seeing as how it kept my mind off Peter’s absence, and seeing as how my ruined leg precluded my doing anything truly useful, anyway.

          Different adventures appealed to different individuals, and they never tired of hearing their favorites. Henrietta hungered after the smallest details of what happened to her collar, clucking with pride whenever I told how the trinket had came to an end on Mish-Shka’s pyre. “Oh, what a gracious fate. What a noble destiny for my treasure. I shall personally see to it that we shan’t ever forget that collar. Or from whom it came.”

          Poo-Lee and his siblings, no longer puppers but not yet mature, wanted exhaustive descriptions of every Wolf in Kruk’s tribe. “Is it true they eat your heart while you’re still alive, Mister Daks? That’s what Chew says.”

          Chew seemed to take comfort from knowing the exact circumstances of Mish-Shka’s death. “Sounds like he went down a’ fightin’, the ol’ stink. But it’s too blam dinkerin’ bad he had to waste a good life rescuin’ a stump-tailed rat!”

          And everyone was fascinated with Bee-Hee-Mouth. Most of the tribe had grown up hearing of him. His name had fostered dreams in three generations of Oggs. “Is he really as big as a bear? Can he really bite through stones? Do his eyes still glow like the moon?”

          “Yes,” I told them. “Everything you’ve heard is true.”

          I figured a few myths never did any harm.

* * *

          When Peter and Jahl-Habra finally returned, they brought good news and bad. The good was that they had found a new home for the tribe. At a height near where the forest ends and gives way to a landscape of granite and wind, they found an immense face of stone had sheared away from a towering escarpment and collapsed in such a way that it completely covered a depression at the foot of the cliff. It had been an ancient catastrophe and the bowl beneath was almost entirely sealed off by scrabble rock and boulders that had tumbled down from above. Scrubby brush completed the illusion, leaving no hint there was a space beneath. Had Peter not noticed a dribble of ice-melt flowing into a thin opening under a wind-twisted pine, he would never have discovered it. He and Jahl-Habra dug away at the hole until it was Ogg-sized, and what they found when they crawled through was a deep chamber, illuminated by only the thinnest shafts of sunlight, with a floor of sand built up over a great age of erosion. In one corner was a shallow pool of clear water, almost as cold as the ice it came from. The place was a day’s climb from Cawley’s cave and was big enough for a tribe twice our size.

          The bad news, obviously, was that we had to move.

          Most understood the necessity of having to distance ourselves from men further. Even Chew agreed it had to be done, but Henrietta was distraught. “Why, Peter? Oh why, oh why, oh why? I feel my heart shall wither away if I have to leave this cave. Why are you making us go?”

          Chew didn’t give Peter a chance to answer. “Henny, what’d ya rather have happen to that heart o’ yorn … f’r it to all wither away an’ such? Or f’r it to get blown out through your liver when one o’ them shooters comes across ya’ whiles y’r out tryin’ to move them nervous bowels o’ yorn?”

          That argument seemed to make the case, at least for Henrietta.

* * *

          Peter insisted we gather as much food together as possible. We ate well and put aside even more: fish and veal and venison, apricots and corn and potatoes. The packs ranged far. They went into the lowlands and raided hutches, gardens, and refuse pits. They went higher and brought back deer and morels. In parties of three and four and five, they were gone for days at a time. And when the others were tired, Peter went by himself. “My puppers will never go hungry,” he declared.

          “Your puppers are fat and insolent,” Ah-Teena shot back. “And they could use a bit more of Papa’s presence.”

          “There’s no time to sit on our haunches and relax, Teena. The sooner this is over, the safer we’ll all be.”

          Ah-Teena thought for a moment, then giggled. “Okay then, Pete. Now that you’re such a dedicated and conscientious fellow, I have a little chore for you that has been awaiting your attention. And don’t you dare say no. This absolutely can’t be put off.”

          Ah, how sly Ah-Teena could be. She had made a solemn promise to Henrietta, and even though nearly a year had passed, neither of them had forgotten it. Any individual of less character and integrity might not have honored such a vow, but Ah-Teena was not just anyone. By the force of her will alone—plus a few dire threats–-she finagled Peter into mating with Henrietta.

          Ever a slave to duty, Peter did as Ah-Teena demanded, though he took Henrietta far into the trees so he wouldn’t be seen. We heard them, though. Or rather, her. “Don’t be alarmed, Daks,” Ah-Teena said. “He’s not hurting her.”

          Chew snickered. ” ‘At’s right, rat. Henny’s just gettin’ emotional.”

          Afterwards, Peter tried to explain. “Teena made me do it, Daks. Take my word, I didn’t want to. I have no trouble with females. Not normally. But that Henny … ugh. I think she could make a stone go soft.”

          “But you did it anyway? Henrietta’s going to have your puppers now?” I had a difficult time understanding how Peter could spread his affections about so casually, as though fathering litters carried no more significance than peeing on every tree he came to.

          “I told Teena the promise didn’t count anymore. That since we didn’t use the collar as an offering to Lah-Tsee like we meant to, I told her the arrangement was off.”

          “But I take it Miss Ah-Teena didn’t agree.”

          Peter rolled his eyes and mimicked Ah-Teena’s voice at its most stern. ” ‘A promise is a promise.’  That was her answer. She said, ‘It’s not Henrietta’s fault her collar didn’t go to Lah-Tsee. Henrietta did her part, now you do yours.'”

          Near the end of summer, after a store of corn cobs, potatoes, desiccated fruit and sun-baked venison filled every cool recess of the cave—after Henrietta was swollen with what would later become the most pampered puppers in all of history—we began our exodus. Peter took stock of the pantry. “This is a good start, Daks. This much food will give us time to adjust, to find a new way of doing things. It won’t be easy, not up there. But we’ll find a way, won’t we, Daks? We sure will. Won’t we?”

          I had seen this uncertainty in Peter’ eyes before, on the other side of another mountain. Back then, I didn’t know what to say to take the doubt from his mind, to assure him he was doing the right things. To calm his fear and soothe his insecurity.

          I still didn’t, but at least this time I tried. “You bet, Peter. We’re going to be fine. Just fine.”

* * *

          The rest of the tribe wondered how we could ever move such a store of food. “Whaz de pointz, Peet-erz?” asked Louis. “We’z may az well eats it here, ‘cuz we’z ain’t nev-rez gonna get it all da’ way up’n such a longz hill.”

          But I knew better. Ah-Teena and Peter and I and Bandy, we had a trick nobody else knew about, and I talked the other three into keeping it a secret until the time was right. Had they known, it would have calmed their fears some and soothed a bit of their insecurity, but I wanted to save it as a surprise. I couldn’t wait to see their faces.

          When the time came, Peter sent a pack out to gather the necessities—the plastic beer saddles, the crinkly bags. “Fawrlingswad,” he said. “This is a job for you. But you can’t carry back all we need alone, so pick your own help. And bring a lot of those things. Enough for everyone.”

          “Pick my own help, you say? And I’m to do the leading, you say?”

          “You’re the leader, chum. And I would ask whoever Fawrlingswad picks to do what he says.” Peter looked around the tribe, from face to face, from eye to eye. “He knows what he’s doing, brothers. And he’s very good at it.”

          Poo-Lee leapt to his feet. “Choose me, Mister Fawrlingswad! Me me me me me! I’ll do everything you say. Promise.” Not to be out-volunteered, his siblings all took up the chant. “Me me me me!”

          Their mother winced, but Ah-Teena said, “It would be good experience, Bandy. And there’s plenty of trash to be had within an easy lope of here.” She smiled to their mom. “They’ll be fine.”

          Bandy shrugged and sighed. “All right, all right. But listen here, youngsters. You must … absolutely must … follow my directions to the finest nuance. And I agree to this only if another adult comes along as my assistant. Furthermore, that individual must be comfortable in a subordinate position, I insist. Say there, Lewww-izzzzz? Do you think you might comprehend the language to a sufficient extent that you can follow my instructions?”

          In spite of my misgivings that Bandy and Louis should be together, alone in the woods—ever—they left early the next morning and were back just as the sun was setting. Bandy, Poo-Lee and his clumsy siblings, and Louis—each with a bag draped from their jaws, each bag filled fat with more bags and a slew of the beer cradles. Ah-Teena set immediately to showing everyone how to attach them properly, and everyone was as perplexed as could be.

          “Teena, whar’s the point t’ all this? Tain’t we got better t’ings to do than tinker wit’ garbage?”

          “You’ll see, Chew. You’ll see.” I helped Ah-Teena hurry to complete the first one, then she said, “Peter, stand still while I show them. Daks … Bandy, when I get this on Pete, fill it up.” The tribe sat patiently, ears cocked, nostrils quivering, excited in that way only curiosity can cause. When we were finished loading, Peter proudly strutted around the cave, his burden bulging with potatoes. The meaning of what they were seeing dawned in their eyes like springtime. I tell you, it was well worth waiting for.

          “Ohhhh, marvelous. What a marvelous thing.”

          “Howz deed youz ever t’ink of itz?”

          “It’s better than fire. Or at least as good.”

          Chew’s chest swelled like a belly full of young. I do believe he almost cried. “You blam daskit kids! What’ll ya come up wit’ next?”

* * *

          The days ahead were so busy, I lost track of how many had passed. Peter led the first party up the mountain. There must have been ten of them, each laden with our winter food. The day after he left, Jahl-Habra took another caravan up. The bigger Oggs could carry two of the saddles—even three—without much trouble, while the shorter members struggled with one. The very shortest among us, which in essence meant myself and Ah-Teena’s brood—carried none. Even had I four sound legs, I would have bumped and banged our groceries over the terrain. There was simply no way to fit those things high enough on my back to accommodate for—as Bandy graciously called it—my ”stature deprivation.”

          So I stayed behind, always, throwing an occasional stick on the low fire just to keep it alive, watching Krookle and her brothers play, helping Miss Ah-Teena construct the devices and load them onto the backs of our tribe. One day up … one day back. They passed one another on the trail like foraging ants. I’m guessing when they met, they would stop for a while, take a rest, and tell one another any news. I could only guess they did that, just as I could only wish I could take a more substantial role in the migration.

          As more and more of the tribe became involved in the carting, more and more time passed with only Ah-Teena, her puppers and me left in Cawley’s cave. Even Bandy took a trek to the new home, wanting to see for himself if certain Rawl’Colmb necessities were met. It was during one of those quiet moments, when Krookle was out practicing her mother’s lessons and the boys were digging away at another toy cave, that I raised a question which had troubled me for some while.

          “How is Peter going to get the fire up there, Miss Ah-Teena? I mean … a whole day it takes to get there. No branch burns that long, does it?”

          “No branch I know of, Daks. I don’t know how he’ll do it, and I don’t think Peter does either. It’s something to think about, isn’t it? We’ll need fire more than ever. We can’t live in such a place without it. Not through the winter. Not up there.”

* * *

          On that last morning, the Oggs took their turns saying farewell to Cawley’s skull. I even heard a few of the older members thank him for the shelter he had provided their families over the years, however unintended. I guess I simply hadn’t been there long enough to grow as attached of him as the others.

          The night before, those of us who hadn’t taken up permanent residence in the other location (which was already being referred to as “Peter’s Hole-In-The-Rock”) had a heated discussion as to whether we should take Cawley’s bare bone with us. “Gamdassit YES we ought o’ take ol’ Cawley wit’ us! He’s been watchin’ o’er the clan longer ‘n most o’ you been born. He’s … he’s part o’ what we are. Whar we done been. I t’ink he’d want to come, if’n he had a vote in the matter.”

          “Chew, does this have to do with Meesher?” Peter was gentle in the asking. Mish-Shka’s memory wasn’t something many of us dared evoke around Chew. He was still terribly hurt, but rather than expressing his sorrow in tears, it came out in pure grumpiness.

          “Wull … wull sure it does!  Dinkerin’ right it does! Cawley meant somet’ing to dat ol’ stink. He meant a lot. An’ … an’ I t’ink Meesh would o’ rather died than leave Cawley ahind.”

          Ah-Teena reached over and licked the old Ogg’s trembling shoulder. “This is Cawley’s home, Chew. Long before it was our home. Meesher knew that better than anyone. Cawley made this cave, it was important enough to him to risk dying for, and this is where he belongs.”

          In the end, and in his own way, Chew agreed. “Meesh al’ays tol’ me it was dem empty eyes lookin’ out o’ the wall what helped ‘im keep t’ings in perspective. But I’m supposin’ we got us plen’y o’ perspective t’ keep without ol’ Cawley’s help.” As he spoke, he watched Groom, Billy-Mouth and Krookle tussle in the dirt. “I shor’ wouldn’t want any’un digging up my bones an’ moving me about once I’m a goner. So’s I guess y’r right, Teena. Let ol’ Cawley have his peace.”

* * *

          Even then, I was not allowed to go.

         It was still dark, but I could see Peter huddling with Bandy, Chew and Miss Ah-Teena off to the side. The others were gathered around the warm springs, the last of our provisions on their backs, eager to be up the hill. Krookle and her brothers were so excited to be going, they had to piddle whenever they stopped wriggling for a moment.

          I approached the huddle, wondering what they were talking about, but they stopped as soon as I came in range and would tell me nothing. Then Peter called everyone together. “I’m going away again, and I might not be back for many days. Jahl-Habra, lead them up and see that there’s fresh meat. We mustn’t eat everything we’ve stocked up at once. Louis, keep sharp. I don’t believe men will climb that high just to shoot Oggs, but we can’t assume we’re safe. Chew, watch over my family.”

            The tribe boiled with questions, but Peter remained stubbornly vague. “You’ll find out everything when we return. I must finish something. I owe a debt, a great debt, and I mean to repay it. Only Daks and Fawrlingswad will be coming with me.”

          I looked to Ah-Teena for an answer. Groom, Billy-Mouth, and beautiful Krookle were pressed against her body and all four of them were staring at me as though my head were set on backwards. Ah-Teena winked at me and Krookle sighed.

          In the way a yawn spreads, whenever Krookle sighed, I could not stop myself from sighing in sympathy.

* * *

          The sun rose on our backsides. We were well down the mountain, reversing the course Peter had brought me almost a year earlier. Farm land and orchard opened up below us. Powerful machines had turned rape-seed waste and corn stubble under. The valley was a sea of black earth. On a stone shelf overlooking an unremarkable cluster of buildings, Peter stopped and asked, “Do you recognize that place down there, Daks? That farm? You should.”

          “Farms all look alike to me, Peter. What makes that one special?” I was already in a sour mood. I’d gained some weight over the summer, enough to make three-legged travel a particular nuisance.

          “That’s where your tail was shot off.”

          We slept, whiled away the rest of the day under the cover of tulles and willows that lined a meandering drainage, then passed in the night within an easy sprint of the house—the very lair of the very man who had so callously blown my tail into a fine mist—and were not seen. In the following nights, we crossed open meadows, curving roads, and exposed barnyards, unnoticed by anything more threatening than sleepy cows and Rawl’Colmbs on the raid. The farm and the ghost of my tail that haunts it were far behind us.

          Yet I spent all that time, dodging into roadside grass at the sound of approaching motors, sleeping under abandoned machinery, eating the sort of speedy meals that one has to eat when traveling …

          . . . and wishing I had done something, just about anything, to avenge my poor, lost tail.

* * *

          No matter how many times I asked, whether I begged or demanded, Peter would not tell me where we were going or what we were going to do when we got there. “Daks, there are some things simply too awful to talk about.” His chest heaved from what seemed to me to be exaggerated dread. “If I were to tell you our mission, it would send you into convulsions, believe me. It’s best you don’t know. I must wait until the last moment and rely on your instinctual courage.”

          All along, Bandy knew what was happening but pretended ignorance. “If you tell me, I’ll tell you,” he offered.

          “Tell you what? I don’t know anything.”

          “Ah Daksie … dear, plotting, plodding Daks. What a conspirator you have become. Okay then, have it your way. Keep your little secrets if you must. But don’t insult me by saying you’ve no idea where this excursion is taking us.”

          “I don’t, Bandy. I really don’t. But I think you do. Peter talked with you before we left. Not me.”

          “True. Quite true. He did indeed confide in me. He told me he needed intellectual guidance. That’s it. That’s all. Peter told me how he would provide the muscle, that you would provide the comic diversion, and that I would provide the brains.”

          “So help me understand. You are to provide the brains … you are to do the thinking … but you don’t know what it is you’re supposed to think about?”

          “My boy, the best intellectual guidance doesn’t require that I waste myself on the tedious details.”

          “Oooohhh, Bandy. You make me so mad.”

* * *

          Suddenly, I knew where we were.

          We were following a tiny rivulet, a convoluted and indirect course through the ragged brush. We used the slashes in the hills for our path and seldom came to the top of a ridge. After three nights and two days of travel, it seemed to me we’d just been meandering about, following the footprint of the hills in some purposeless way, with no discernible direction. I had long ago given up on trying to get any answers from either of them. Bandy wouldn’t stop speaking to me as though I were a baby, always turning everything he said to me into some cryptic and pointless riddle. “Daksie, what has no beginning and no end, but fits neatly under the tongue of any respectably-sized creature?”

          “I don’t know, Bandy. I have no idea. And even if I did, I wouldn’t tell you!”

           Peter barely spoke to me at all. Earlier, after I realized he wasn’t about to let me know what we were doing, I tried to bring up another matter. I broached the subject of fire with him, of how he intended to get some to our new, cold, home. In a manner I thought abrupt and dismissive, he mumbled something about how “Fawrlingswad and I are looking after that problem. You needn’t concern yourself with it, Daks.” Then he sped ahead, without so much as a glance back. When I caught up, he and Bandy were whispering to one another. Again. And I can’t swear to it, but I think they were giggling.

          And furthermore, I think what they were giggling at was me. When they saw me, they trotted off together.

          I wouldn’t swear to this either, but I think, at that moment, I was almost as angry as I’d ever been.

* * *

          I didn’t even try to catch them after that. I stomped along at a pace of my own choosing, not caring whether I kept up or not, while bitter words churned in my mind. “From now on, you guys … from now on, if you don’t tell me a thing or two and … no! If you don’t LISTEN to me and … no! If you don’t DO WHAT I SAY … that’s it! I’m making a few decisions from now on. I’m not following you guys … you oafy, inconsiderate guys. I’m not following you around like a cabbage fart any blam daskit more … and you’re BLAM DASKIT not gonna treat me like a CABBAGE FART anymore!

          It sounded perfect, finally, with just the right blend of stunning logic and wicked insult. I knew exactly what I was going to say, and I could almost picture the shame in their eyes as I said it.

          Around the next rock, they were waiting for me, prancing with impatience and rolling their eyes as though they were thoroughly disgusted with me. I twisted up my nerve. “Hey listen here, you guys. I’m not going to let you guys treat me like a cabbage … “

          “Daks, could you kindly jump it up a bit?” Peter interrupted. “We have places to be and no time for dawdling.” They raced away, and this time, I knew for certain they were giggling at me.

          I chewed through my tongue and spat smoke through the hole. I clawed at my chin. I burned with blue fire. I didn’t really do those things, but I was plenty mad enough to.

          Then they stopped, framing a water-carved overhang of the creek bank, and grinned with delight. Suddenly, I knew where we were.

          We were following the tiny rivulet, a convoluted and indirect course through the ragged brush. We used the slashes in the hills for our path and seldom came to the top of a ridge.

          I’d been here before.

          The ravines were filled with a stringy mist that hung to the lower ground like frigid puss. The sun barely penetrated this fog and as we moved through it, the wetness soaked my coat.

          “This is where … it’s where . . .”

          I would have walked to the very tops of the hills, had I been making the decisions. I would have gone to where the sun lay uninterrupted and bright upon the rolling crests and let them lead me wherever they wished. I suggested as much to Mish-Shka in as polite a way as possible, but he replied, “We need as much cover as we can get, Daks. I know it’s cold, but being cold isn’t the worst thing you could be right now.”

          “That’s right, Daksie,” said Bandy. “It certainly is.” Then he dove head-first into the pile of grass and leaves … the same pile of grass and leaves that had soaked up Mish-Shka’s blood and kept his body temperature at a life sustaining level … and when he came up, he held the ball between his paws.

          My ball.

          My friends didn’t have to talk me into leaving it behind. I just knew I had to. I had come to realize that most of what life has to offer precludes the luxury of carrying a pretty red and yellow ball wherever you go.

          Oh my. How pretty it still was. How pretty it remained. Flakes of coloring had peeled away in spots, exposing the rubber beneath. One side even looked like a vole or chipmunk had nibbled away a chunk, just to see how it tasted. Still, it was even prettier than I remembered it.

          “Fawrlingswad told me about it, Daks. He led me here. He and Teena planned it, but it was all his idea from the start. I’m happy we came. We owed you this. I owed you this. Without you … the way you are, dear friend … I’m not sure I could have found what it takes to … to … “

          “Let’s not get overly maudlin, what say? You Oggs! Will you never learn the secret to life is proper decorum? Goodness! Without dignity, we might as well be humans!” Bandy waddled over and put the ball in my mouth. He grinned at me like I was a long, lost brother.

          “Which is it, Fawrlingswad? ‘Decorum’ or ‘dignity’?” Peter laughed, Bandy laughed, and I cried. Simply couldn’t help it. The ball alone was enough to water my eyes, even without what I felt at that moment for Bandy. For Peter. It swept through me like sunlight.

          But there was more. With the ball there in my mouth, right under my feeble, feeble nose, I could not help but detect a lingering trace of Mish-Shka.

* * *

          On the way back, we made a detour to the farm where I was first given the ball. Bertie’s farm. Bandy claimed he had a mission to complete and Peter agreed. “It’s about the fire, Daks. Fawrlingswad seems to think he knows a way to steal some from this place and carry it all the way home.”

          I wasn’t pleased with this idea. I couldn’t help but recall how that fat farmer had chased us over his property, his shed, his kitchen. My running days were over. With three legs, I would be as easy to catch—or shoot—as a rolling pumpkin with one flat side. “Bandy? Are you sure? We almost got killed here, remember?”

          “My plan is perfect, Daksie. And your only involvement will be as witness. A distant witness. Trust me … you’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. Peter will be fine. It’s perfect!”

          It wasn’t a bad plan, after all. At dawn, I crept through some tall weeds and rusting machinery to get a better view while Peter took up his position in the gravel yard. He waited for Bandy to scoot around the back of the dilapidated house, then started yelling as loudly as he could. “COME OUT HERE YOU UGLY, FAT PEOPLE! I HEARD YOU TRIED TO KILL MY FRIEND DAKS! I HEARD YOU ARE AS STUPID AS DUNG! I HEARD EVEN YOUR CHILDREN ARE STUPID. THAT’S WHAT MY FRIENDS SAY!”

          I could see him gaping through the kitchen window, the hairy man, all angry and greasy. Then his wife’s amazed face appeared next to his. A moment later, they came flopping out the door, he with a mop in his hands, her with that same broom. Evidently, he’d never found his double-eyed rifle, the thing Mish-Shka had taken from him and buried in the mud.

          They went clomping after Peter like two cows. He stayed just out of their reach, laughing at their clumsiness. Booger and Bertie came out onto the back yard, still in their grimy bed clothes. Truthfully, I wouldn’t have minded giving my regards to Bertie, to thank him once more for his fabulous gift. But that was not part of Bandy’s perfect plan.

          Bandy had assumed he would have to scratch another hole in the screen door, but the boys made it easy for him. It hung open wide, just as Booger had left it. Bandy came around the corner at their backs, so fast he was hard to glimpse, and he was inside. I could only hope there wasn’t a kitchen full of fish heads (burned up crispy and black) to distract him from his mission.

          Little Bertie turned just in time to see him come back out. The boy squealed to his parents, but too late. Bandy was around the corner in an instant, out of sight. A crinkled bag dangled from his mouth, and I marveled to think those things could carry even fire.

* * *

          As it turned out, the bag carried what was left of the prior evening’s baked ham dinner, an unopened loaf of bread, three ripe peaches and, yes … fire. Many fires, in fact.

          Peter saw Bandy leave, too. He took off in the opposite direction, but not without one last insult. “AND YOU SMELL BAD, TOO!” I backed out of the weeds and snuck away down a shallow ditch. By the time the sun had cleared the horizon, we’d all made it back to our pre-arranged gathering point. I was anxious to see the fire, then and there, but Peter insisted we move on immediately, should the fat farmer come looking.

          Only later, back in the comfort and cover of heavy brush, could Bandy show us what he’d stolen. “I noticed these things the last time we were there, Daks.” He dumped the ham, the peaches and the loaf of bread from the bag. With them came a small cardboard box. When it hit the ground, it slid open and several tiny sticks spilled out. Each stick was painted red on one end.

          “Aha!”

          I was gnawing my way through the tasteless plastic wrapping on the loaf of bread, but I stopped. “‘Aha’? ‘Aha’ what?”

          “That’s it! That’s the fire. Right there before you. Those little twigs.”

          Peter slumped and shook his head. “Fawrlingswad! What are you thinking? Even if they were on fire, those ‘little twigs’ of yours wouldn’t burn long enough to … to … AAHHRGG! And they’re not even on fire! I trusted you!”

          “Oh, ye of faltering faith.” Bandy would not stop grinning. He carried one of the twigs to a flat rock and stepped on its red tip. “Watch and behold. I bring you … FIRE!” He pulled his paw across the stone, rapidly, as though he were clawing for grubs. We could hear the twig rasp beneath his foot, then smoke billowed out from between his toes. “YEEEEEEEE-OOWWWW! Ow ow ow ow ow!”

          Bandy recoiled like a snake had taken a bite out of him. He reeled about on three legs, fanning the other and cursing. Next to the flat rock, where the twig had come to rest, a tiny fire spread slowly through a tuft of yellow grass. Glorious, wondrous … warming … fire.

          With eyes swollen huge with marvel, Peter stared at the flickering flame, then at me, at Bandy, then back at the fire. “This is magic,” he whispered. “How did you ever know about this?”

          Bandy was shoving his paw into a mound of moist dirt left behind by gophers. “One cannot pilfer as much bacon and watermelon from humans campsites as I have without observing a thing or two about how they do what they do. But I’ll have to figure out another way to spark them up. That hurt. My oh my, did that hurt.”

          “I nosed the box. “Peter, there are dozens and dozens of those twigs in here. We’ll never have to worry about the fire dying again.”

          Peter was stricken speechless. I finished opening the bread, which we all shared along with the ham. We finished off our meal with a peach each. Only then, after he had spit the pit, did he say anything. “Wait ‘til the tribe sees this. Fawrlingswad, you … you … well, you simply amaze me.”

          Bandy stopped gnawing on his peach and gazed thoughtfully into the distance. “You know, old chum, sometimes I amaze even myself.”

          I took a nap and dreamed that nobody, not in all the world, had ever had better friends than me.

* * *

          Four more days, and we were home. Had we been in a hurry, it would have taken three, I’m sure. Possibly even two. But there was no hurry. Our adventures were over, everything we could do had been done, and we took our time.

          We couldn’t know, then, that there would be more adventures, that there would be much more to do. As far as we were concerned, in those golden days of the setting summer, all of our worries had been put to rest.

          All but one.

          “… and by the way, Daks, is something wrong? You’ve been awfully quiet tonight.”

          “I’ve just been thinking. I’ve been thinking a lot. Peter, do you suppose it could ever happen that … I don’t know quite how to say this … but we’ve done so much, I mean. You and Miss Ah-Teena and Bandy. Things even Mish-Shka couldn’t have imagined. You know what I mean … the bags and the fire and moving and everything. Is it impossible to imagine that maybe someday … you know, after everything has settled in and we have nothing else to do … that maybe we could figure out a way to find my Mom?”

          I brought it up in Cawley’s cave. We had stopped there on our way up the mountain, one last time. I don’t believe I’d have chosen to stay there on our last night away from the tribe, had I been doing the choosing. I remembered so vividly that first time I stepped through the opening, how crowded and warm and lively it was. It made my stomach twist to see the cave so empty. It made me rather melancholy, so cold and quiet.

          But Peter said he wanted to go through it one last time, to make sure we weren’t leaving anything important behind. That’s the excuse he gave, anyway. Honestly, I think he just wanted to see it again, to be there again, and maybe relive his own memories.

          “Let’s have one more good time here, fellows. Let’s brighten up the place and have ourselves a bash. Tell you what, I’ll go chase up some dinner if you two build a little fire. We can spare one more of those flame twigs, I’m sure. And we’ll have us a fun time, just the three of us.”

          Bandy was all for it. He’d been aching to try out another fire twig and he thought he’d figured out a way to do it without putting another burn blister on the pad of his paw. “I agree. Let us have ourselves a frolic. Daks, you get some kindling together and I’ll bring some dry grass. Pete, by the time you get back, we’ll have this place acrackling. And incidentally, what do you suppose we’ll be supping on this evening?”

          “Well, Fawrlingswad, the way I see it, we have a choice between rabbit or quail. If I could carry both back, we’d have both. But it’s one or the other. You chose. I have no preference. Daks, what’ll it be? Rabbit or quail?”

          “Can’t carry both back, you say? My, how soon you forget.” Bandy turned the sack we’d been toting upside down and out tumbled the box of flame twigs and my ball. “What’s the point of all we’ve discovered if we don’t put it to constant use. And say, would it be too much to ask for you to round up a little fish as well. Rabbit, quail, a trout or two … maybe even a crayfish, should you come across one. Oh, I feel a fabulous feast coming on!”

          Peter laughed, took the empty bag, and raced away. He was in giddy spirits, knowing we were so near to reuniting with his family. He would have agreed to anything. Bandy and I put the fire together and I found a few potatoes and carrots that had been forgotten behind a rock in a corner of the cave. By the time Peter returned, they were cooked from one end to the other and black on one side. It was, indeed, a fabulous feast. The rabbit was a tad stringy, but the quail was scrumptious. The trout—two of them—were scrumptious. And the crayfish? … I couldn’t say. It’s unlikely I’ll ever be hungry enough to eat a crayfish.

* * *

          After eating all that, I should have been drowsy enough to fall asleep like a contented Scrat, but I couldn’t. I listened as Bandy and Peter were engaged in a discussion about the possibility of devising a script which could be read by all creatures. Something that—according to Bandy—would require nothing but toenails, sharp sticks and small pebbles to execute.

          “I’m serious about this, Pete old pal. It can be done. I’ve spent the summer thinking about it. Just a variety of crooked lines and broken circles, preserved on flat rocks and tree bark, that’s all it would take.”

          “What purpose would it serve, Fawrlingswad?”

           “Think about it. I mean, really think about it! We’d be remembered long after we are gone, you and I and Daks. Our legend would spread. Maybe throughout the world! Maybe even throughout history! It would be like living forever, wouldn’t it? Like floating through all of time on a raft of matted grass and our heirs will wave to us from the banks, thanking us for their heritage. And that means we live forever, in a way. Don’t you think? Our stories are what we’re all about, Pete. And we’ve had ourselves a pretty good story, don’t you think?”

          Peter mulled it over while he munched on a carrot, then turned to me. “What do you think, Daks … and by the way, is something wrong? You’ve been awfully quiet tonight.”

          “I’ve just been thinking. I’ve been thinking a lot. Peter, do you suppose it could ever happen that … I don’t know quite how to say this … but we’ve done so much, I mean. You and Miss Ah-Teena and Bandy. Things even Mish-Shka wouldn’t have imagined. You know what I mean … the bags and the fire and moving and everything. Is it impossible to imagine that maybe someday … you know, after everything has settled in and we have nothing else to do … that maybe we could figure out a way to find my Mom?”

          They both looked at me for a long time before saying anything—for so long, I feared they thought I’d gone mad, or that I was simply stupid for suggesting such a thing. Finally, Bandy sat up on his bottom. “Daksie, if I’ve learned anything over this last year, it’s that nothing is impossible. Absolutely nothing.”

          Peter rolled over twice in the soft dirt, until he lay next to me, our shoulders touching. “Daks, it’s certainly worth thinking about. It would be a challenge, no doubt about that. But if I’ve learned anything over this last year, it’s that life without a challenge or two isn’t hardly worth the living.”

          That night, I dreamt of how wonderful it felt to have such friends consider me a friend.

* * *

          “So, Daksie. What do you think of my idea?”

          “You mean the one about making a way to save our stories? I don’t know, Bandy. It sounds awfully hard. And besides, I’m not sure what good it would do.” Peter nodded in agreement.

          “Ah, you two. What doubters you are. There’s still so far to go with you Oggies. So much to teach, so much enlightenment to bestow. It exhausts me to think about it. But let’s just say you could scratch a message into the wall. Say, there next to Cawley’s sad remains. Something that would last forever. What would you scratch, Daksie? What would you have to say to the future?”

          I thought. And thought and thought. I fell asleep thinking about it. It wasn’t until we were preparing to leave the next morning that I had an answer.

          “I know what I’d scratch, Bandy. I’d scratch, ‘WE WERE HERE, ONCE. AND YOU OUGHT TO HEAR WHAT HAPPENED!’”

          On my way out for the last time, I went to Cawley and gazed for a time into his empty eyes. “I think I know what Mish-Shka meant by keeping things in perspective, Mister Cawley. I met another skull once, one night, way far away, and … and … I couldn’t forget him even if I wanted to. I’ll never forget you, either.” I licked his dusty brow and imagined my tongue was where another’s had once been. The broad, brave tongue of my favorite myth.

          And so we left, the fire smoldering down to nothing, the darkness softly covering the memories from all but Cawley’s silent skull.

the end

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s