A Way in the Wilderness

by C. Joseph Jordan

I

t started when I went out before dawn to feed the dogs. I’m at the point in my life where I can’t sleep any later than about five o’clock most days, and after you’ve been up for an hour and read the whole newspaper there isn’t a hell of a lot else to do but go out and feed the dogs. Every day Dottie says she’ll do it and every day I get bored before she’s ready and head out there myself.

It was damned cold, the sky clear, stars in it. The sun just saying hello over the high desert to the east. I turned on the porch light and the thermometer said two degrees. A light dust of snow had fallen on top of the hard snow we already had, and it blew around the yard and hit my face and it stung like I was bleeding. My breath froze in my mustache. I knew it wouldn’t get much above twelve, fifteen degrees today, even when the sun was high. It’s been a long winter with a lot of days like that. La Niña they say. The river out behind the house frozen over.

When I got to the barn — the old barn, we call it, to keep it separate from the big, new barn we built down the way some years ago when our business changed — when I got there, I saw that the door was unlatched, and it stood ajar a good eight inches or so. That got my hackles up right off. I hate it when that barn gets left open. Nothing really lives in there anymore but those two black labs we got, and maybe a rat or three but you leave the door open all night — especially in winter — God only knows what you’ll find inside come morning. Badgers, feral cats. One time I was in the house and I heard a scream and I ran out to the yard to see what was the ruckus and Dottie comes running down the hill yelling that there’s a mountain lion in there. I wanted to shoot it myself, but she made me call the county. They came out and captured it. Shot it with a tranquilizer dart and everything. Those dogs aren’t too friendly to animals, but there’s not much a couple of labs can do about a mountain lion.

I stuck my head inside. When we first put the dogs out to the barn, Dottie made me put in a covered pen at the back with a thermostat that we keep at 40 degrees all winter. They sleep in that pen, curled up together. So I wasn’t afraid they’d frozen to death or anything like that, but they weren’t gonna be a happy pair of dogs, either. I whistled and banged the food can against the door. Usually that draws ’em out. But this time it took a minute. And then only one dog came, Jess, his muzzle gone noble with gray hairs even though he wasn’t yet ten years old. He was limping.

Aw, hell, I said.

I shuffled into the darkness with Jess simpering at my heels, listening hard for Doug. Doug and Jess were brothers. Nice dogs, good out hunting, good when my grandkids were around, good when I went out for a walk or a ride on the back acres. I knew if Doug was hurt in here, I’d hear him. He was not the sort of dog to keep quiet. Just the same I took out my flashlight and poked it into the pen. Empty. Jess gimped into the corner where they usually slept, turned a couple of circles, and then looked up at me, whining.

I know, boy, I said, and went back to his bowl and dumped the food in it. He didn’t seem much interested, and when I went out in the yard he followed me.

I ran down the hill to the house, only a hundred yards or so, but enough to make my left knee ache. Can’t run that far these days. Shouldn’t run at all, really, makes my joints hurt so much. I busted into the kitchen with my knee throbbing and Jess right behind me, even though he’s not supposed to come in the house. Dottie had her computer out on the table and she was drinking coffee, slurping it ’cause it was hot, but she looked up when I came in, her blue eyes still clouded over with whatever was on the screen there. She always says she’s doing bookkeeping for the local hospice foundation in the mornings but I know for a fact she’s actually reading celebrity gossip websites.

What’s the matter? she said.

Somebody left the barn door open last night, I said, flipping the switch that turned on the lights in the yard. The window blinked from black to blind white.

Somebody?

Jess edged right up next to her and put his big paw in her lap. She stared down at it, and a little bit of her hair — gone white now — fell in her face. I looked at the floor and saw that Jess had tracked blood into the house.

Don’t know who, I said. Maybe me.

Could it have been — ? She nodded toward the closed door of the guest room.

Maybe. I said something to ’em about it yesterday afternoon, but I don’t know. Doesn’t matter.

Where’s Doug?

Gonna find out.

****

I said it started that morning, but maybe it actually started the day before, when Victor and Manny came around with their pop. I was already in a bad mood ’cause I’d spent all day crunching numbers — it’s all I ever seem to do anymore — and hadn’t got down to the new barn even once. Then those boys showed up, and I don’t know, I love ’em, I really do, but they look an awful lot like Sharon with their blond hair and brown eyes. Miguel always wants to talk about her and the truth is I just don’t feel like it most times. Three years and I still can’t really think about her without getting all bunched up in my guts. Usually I’d just let Dottie deal with him, but she’d gone off to get groceries, and with the weather like it’s been the last few weeks, and what with the fact that it’s thirty miles each way from town, it takes a good three hours at least to run that sort of errand.

So I was stuck with him. I tried to keep the boys in the kitchen by offering ’em food and things. Miguel is smart enough not to want to talk about their dead mother when they’re in the room. But the lure of that snow was too much for the boys — they come from the valley, never get to see snow. They ran around making an awful racket in the kitchen for a minute or two and finally Manny started tapping the table, his thin face wild with the thrill of bad weather, saying, Poppy, Poppy, hey Poppy, so I opened the back door and they ran out in it and soon enough they were throwing snowballs and Miguel was moping at the table with his coffee. I told Miguel he should get out there, try seeing some women. Try one of those websites, I said. If you’d told me ten years ago that one day I’d be advising my own daughter’s husband to go out and kick up his heels, I woulda laughed in your face, but there you have it.

I dunno, Des, he says, and stares down into his coffee. It just wouldn’t be fair to them I don’t think.

The boys?

I looked out the window. The snow wasn’t very deep, but they were making the best of it. They’d let the dogs out of the old barn, and had ’em running in circles and yelping. I tapped the window, and when they looked at me I pointed up at the barn, and tried to mime closing it. I don’t know that they understood. Manny waved a mittened hand, and Victor turned to throw a stick for one of the dogs to chase.

Boys need a female influence, I said, still watching ’em. Or they grow up and never learn how to talk to a woman.

Not just the boys. The women, too. I just wouldn’t be all there for them.

Shit, Mickey, I said. Men are never all there for women.

And he just shrugged.

He stuck around until Dottie got back, and then he said good-bye to the boys and got in his car and drove all the way back to Portland. Had to go to work, he said. Merry Christmas, he said. I’ll be back on Saturday. Maybe we can watch that Ducks game. I just nodded. Maybe.

Dottie and I went back in the house and the boys already wanted to go out again. Victor, he’s eleven, he’s more like me — stoical, they call it. He was just sitting in a chair looking at me and his grandma with his eyes big and sad and hopeful. Manny is nine, and he’s like Sharon was, confident and full of mischief. I’m not supposed to say things like this, but he’s my favorite.

Hey Poppy, he said, and grabbed my shirt at the elbow. Hey Poppy, can you skate on the river?

Can I what?

I mean, can people skate on the river out there? It’s frozen.

I looked out the back window at the white river, which had been frozen over for a couple of weeks now.

No, I don’t think so, I said.

But I saw this guy out walking on it when we were driving!

The world’s full of idiots, son.

I hadn’t meant to sound like I was calling Manny an idiot, but I realized as soon as I’d said it that that’s what it sounded like.

What I mean is — that guy you saw, he can decide for himself if he wants to take risks. But I say it’s dangerous. It only froze up two weeks ago. If it was a lake, I’d say maybe. But rivers are different. Can’t be that thick yet.

But I could see that it was too late. Manny’s face had already started to close up. I was just another grownup who would never understand adventure in quite the same way he did.

****

I trudged out into the yard and I knew what had happened as soon as I got up by the old barn with the lights on. Two extra sets of tracks, canine, the wrong size to be Jess and Doug, paced all around in the snow. Coyotes. They hunt in twos. My old man kept huge dogs — not pets, rottweiler mutts usually — to head ’em off from the pigs and cattle in the old days. I did, too, till we had Sharon and she started turning ‘em into house dogs whether I wanted ‘em that way or not.

My old man used to say that since he was a boy the coyotes had got bigger, bolder, meaner, and I think he’s right. I’m pretty sure a couple times lately I heard ’em out in the yard at night snuffing around. And now they’d gone in the barn and got at Jess and Doug. Probably something startled ’em and they ran off and dumb old Doug decided to stick after ’em.

I looked around the yard and found a few drops of blood headed south toward the river alongside some loping paw prints that brushed across the snow. It looked like maybe one of the coyotes ditched out quick, but the other one left only later, tangling with Doug as he went. Here and there the prints blurred out where some big body had writhed across the snow drifts.

Shit sure has changed since I was young. Used to be dogs were meaner. Used to be the coyotes were scared of people. Used to be I woulda heard that dogfight, I think. Used to be I could hear good.

I lit out for the new barn with my knee aching and my hip hurting me. They both twinged when I shoved open the big door and walked into the dark humid cavern with all the horses in there, breathing and sleeping and farting and keeping it warm. A couple of ’em got restive when they heard me come in and started kicking around in their stalls some. I thought about turning on all the lights, but I knew that would just bring the hands out to see what the hell was going on — Frank and Jenny, they oversee the place for the most part, live in a trailer not a hundred yards away. I clicked on my flashlight and went into the office. I got at the gun safe, opened it up, pulled out a .22 Winchester rifle, locked the safe back up and went down the rows of stalls.

I love the smell of a horse barn. Dry grass, and their shit is sweet, believe it or not, I suppose because they don’t eat meat or cauliflower or any of that stuff I’m told makes a man’s crap stink. And horse smell. Can’t really say for sure what that is. Hair and sweat and musty old breath, I guess. For a moment as I gimped down the way I forgot the grim things that awaited me out in the cold and just felt good that I was getting on a horse before sunup. Used to do that every day. Used to do it with my old man — he was a real horse-man, talked to ’em like they were his children. Shit, we’d go out, him and me and sometimes my brother, and in four hours of riding around the ranch he’d say ten words to us and two hundred to his horse. Sounds bad, but it wasn’t. I never really minded not being talked to.

I saddled up Zorro, the bay horse I’ve been riding for the last four years, and we cantered down the center aisle, past the office, and out into the breaking dawn. The sun pushed at the icy land as we came up the hill and past the house, and it glittered off the frost on the junipers and bitterroot as we came abreast of the river, the old Shevlin that rolls through our property and into the Iquala up north of town. It turned the sky blue as a torch-flame above me as we turned east along the river, scanning the ground for evidence of Doug and his coyote. It failed to warm me as we found the blood track again, heavier, fresher, easier to follow.

****

I used to have this friend, Gary Duchamps, who lived a little closer to town than I did on a ranch that was a good piece smaller than ours, maybe 700 acres. He was a good old boy, tall as a fir tree and a hell of a basketball player. We graduated the same year, got drafted not ten days apart, both missed the real shit in Nam by pure freak flukes of where we got assigned — Gary sent up to Korea, me to a desk job in Saigon ’cause they gave me some test that said I had a head for numbers — came home, got married, and so on until by about thirty years ago we were both running our family ranches. We were peas in a pod, me and Gary. Did the Rotary together, went fishing and hunting. He had a real thing for hunting turkeys. Just liked killing ’em. Said he didn’t like their looks.

Well, about twenty years ago, the town started to change. All those Californians started trucking up here, as though all of ’em at once got tired of the sunshine and decided to come up and get blasted out by the wind. They’d come up and go skiing on Quigley Butte and think, Hell, I like this town. And they were all what they call house-rich: they’d bought houses back in the sixties and seventies, and now they were worth ten, fifteen, twenty times as much as they were back in those days. So they sold up those houses and came on up to this little town in the high desert — 200,000 people moved to Lesleschers County since ’90, which might not seem like so much until you realize we were only 45,000 here to begin with.

There was money on the wind, I tell you. Lots of people got rich. Developers, contractors, lawyers – land owners. Nobody wanted to stop it, though we used to have a pretty little town out here and it was becoming an ugly mess in an awful hurry. And Gary wasn’t dumb. He could smell that money. I went hunting with him in the spring of ’92, I think it was, and the whole time he kept telling me, Desmond, there’s a big bucket coming this way and you and me, we’d better get a drink from it before it goes on by. I thought it was just talk. He said it every time we’d go out there, he’d say, There’s a bucket, Des, and there’s a ladle in it. Said it so many times it quit meaning anything. Until he did it. Seven years ago he sold. Made more than a million bucks, then moved to the valley to be near his kids and grandkids. I remember I went round his place and he had this brand new pickup he’d just bought, candy red, and he’d loaded a bunch of barrels of home-brewed beer in the back. He left it idling in the driveway while we said goodbye. And he said it again. Des, he said, It’s coming at you. But don’t wait too long. He was smiling when he said it.

We’d just started the new business then, given up real ranching, which wasn’t paying the bills anyhow. Sold off the last of the livestock, built the new barn, started renting out stalls to the rich folks who came up here from California and wanted to play cowboy but didn’t know how to take care of a horse. All Dottie’s idea. Big gamble. Biggest of my life. I didn’t want to bail out on it right then, not right when we’d just started. It wasn’t long before we started getting offers, though. We got ’em pretty steady for a long time, each one a little bigger than the last, but we kept turning ’em down. Business was good. Actually, we had more money than we knew what to do with for a while. And we thought — I guess we thought one day there’d be one so big we couldn’t say no. We never talked about a number. I never let myself think about it in real terms.

And then one day it was over. The bucket had passed us by. The market bust and the banks started collapsing. We lost a third of our business. Suddenly the desert around town was cut up by scars where folks had started out to subdivide a ranch, pave it up and plant lawns — and when the money ran out, all that was left were these empty mud pits pocked with unused pipes and wires that wobbled in the wind. The old Duchamps place is like that now. They tore down Gary’s house, cut out the Ponderosas, and all it’s got there is a bunch of decaying streets and big stone sign with the absurd name Whispering Pines on it out by the main road. Gary, he’s on the wind. I haven’t seen him nor spoken to him since the last day he told me not to wait.

****

Moving fast along the river flats, wind stinging my eyes, all I thought about was the trail — the blood, the paw-prints, the tail marks. But once we had to cut away from the riverbank and slowed down, my mind started working and working, gnawing over Gary and his ranch, me and mine. Without the movement, I couldn’t make it stop. I remember he had a pond way out the back end of his property. Sharon used to go out there with his twin boys, who were a year older than she was, and swim in it. She’d come back muddy and tan and smiling, but just as soon as I asked her how it was her face would go flat as an old tire and she’d shrug. I used to want to tell her to at least use a condom, but I never could get myself to say it. I asked Dot about it once and she told me not to worry. I asked why not, and she just gave me this look, like there was so much she knew that I could never know and it just made her so sad that I wouldn’t. So I tried not to worry. I never doubted that there are things that go on between girls and their mamas that men will never understand.

Anyway, I don’t figure anymore she was sleeping with either of ‘em. Gary told me, years later, he used to go out there and surprise ‘em sometimes, turn up with a case of orange pop and make sure everybody had their clothes on. I think she thought me knowing too much about what she did for fun might be dangerous . . . I don’t know. Sometimes I think my memory’s like a dog that gets hold of something it wants to kill. It latches on with fierce jaws and then yanks it around and around and around, trying to break its neck.

Zorro picked his way up the side of an incline, out of the shade and into the sun, and all at once we’d come to the plain and I could see for miles off to the south and the east where the hills rolled through scrub grass and junipers and pines, and I could see the white stripe of the frozen river right through the middle of the desert where it jogged out before bending back up into the mountains, where it starts somewhere in a cold spring among the big trees.

Zorro snorted and a big plume of his breath rose around us, and then a sharp wind came and whipped it away south. I realized I’d been staring at the river for some time.

Hep, I said, and nudged the horse in his sides, and we moved on.

We rode high along the edge of the plain, next to a sheer slope where it bluffed down toward the river. At some point we came to a spot where the trail we’d been following split. One animal had trudged off, tired but moving well, across the shallow snow of the plain toward the distant spot where the trees grew tighter together near the base of a big black cinder cone. The other had tumbled down the slope, bleeding hard. I couldn’t tell for sure, but it looked like it had probably stood up at the bottom and cut across the frozen surface of the river. My guess was that it couldn’t have gone much farther — we’d already come more than two miles across the high desert, and that animal had been bleeding all the way. I had a bad feeling I knew which track was Doug’s.

I dismounted Zorro and took one more look back across the plain as I led him over to a tree to lash him up. Rough land, red lava rocks, silvery in the rising winter light. I tried to imagine it dug up and pawed over and abandoned, like Gary Duchamps’ place. The thought made me want to be sick.

All right, Zorro, I said, as I fastened his reins to a tree.

He jostled restlessly. I made sure he had enough slack to move around if he got too cold. Even in the sun you could freeze to death on a day like this if you didn’t move. I slung the rifle over my shoulder and pulled a length of rope out of one of the saddlebags. If I had to do what I thought I might have to do, I was going to need a rope.

Be a good horse, I said, and Zorro snorted again.

I shifted over to the spot where Doug had gone down the embankment. The wind that blew against it meant that there was little snow on the side of it there. Only behind the bigger lava rocks could it pile up a bit. Mostly it was raw, frozen earth, sharp with pebbles and cattlegrass. I took it sideways, chopping my feet as deep into the ground as they would go. Now and again I’d put my foot on something that looked solid but it would break away, and the whole mass would threaten to avalanche. It was a good thing the slope only covered about twenty or twenty-five feet. Much farther and I might have killed myself.

At the bottom the ground flattened out into the riverbank. Normally here the water would have been rapids, shallow, fast — dangerous. Up by our place the river is big and placid ’cause of all the little dams that have been thrown up along it, but back here, it shoots through rocks, no more than waist deep on a tall man, but strong enough to knock him over. On the far bank, maybe twenty feet away, a forest of Ponderosa, silent and lonely in winter, the sun threading weakly through the needles. I knew that to get from here to there would be an adventure. Rapids freeze more slowly than runs, and water still rushes underneath the ice long after it looks solid. There was a bridge a mile or so up the river, but I didn’t want to walk it — didn’t want to leave Zorro standing still too long. Nope, the only thing to do was to try to walk across the rocks that poked their black heads up through the ice, and trust that the thick treads on my boots would be good enough to give me traction.

I sucked in a breath, trying not to think about what would happen if the ice broke and I fell in, and set one boot on the first rock.

****

I believe I said before that Sharon passed. That’s a bit of what she woulda called euphemizing. Sharon didn’t slip out of this world on a featherbed of hospital morphine, didn’t disappear like snowbank eroding in a wind. No, she was driving a Toyota Prius at legal speeds on a mostly empty road out west of Portland when a driver coming at her fell asleep and drifted across the yellow line. That’s what they think happened, anyway. Everybody in that wreck died, so there was nobody to ask.

Where was she going out there? Why did she have a young male graduate student riding shotgun? That’s a hole I don’t care to peer into. I have succeeded in not answering those questions for myself in any way at all. The answers don’t matter to me. If I knew exactly what she was about, would that make her less dead? I know Dottie thought about it a lot. Worried over it, like she could make it less true, or at least less unseemly. But Sharon was a funny girl — funny a lot of ways, funny like she’d make you laugh, and funny like she kept a secret. We never met Miguel until they got engaged — then it turned out they’d been seeing each other since their sophomore year at U of O, three, four years by that point. We’d drive over the mountains to visit her every spring for parents’ day, and every spring she must have sent him away, and somehow she convinced him that it wasn’t strange. I remember on the door of her dorm room she kept a white board, like for writing on with a marker, and it always said, Where Anne hath a will, Anne Hathaway.

If only she’d have told us things, Dottie would say to me, usually at night when we were in bed but couldn’t sleep.

And I’d say, What the hell difference does it make?

I took the call. Sheriffs out in Washington County, they couldn’t get Miguel on the horn, so about six o’clock in the evening, right on the heels of a high summer’s day, I picked up the phone in the back room and said hello and as I was looking down at the river behind our house some fella with an official-sounding voice asked me if this was the Banks residence. I said yes it was. He wanted to know if I knew a Sharon Rojas and I said, Yessir, she’s my daughter. What’s the matter?

Well, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but –

And he told me, though I have to say I don’t remember the exact words. And I told Dottie, though I don’t remember that, either. She says I came down to the new barn where she was touring some potential clients around and I dragged her into the office and told her, but I have to take her word for it. I do remember that I never saw the body. They said I ought to, but I didn’t, and every time the phone rings to this day I still think it’s gonna be somebody to tell me it was all a big hoax, Sharon’s not dead, she’s been hiding out in Argentina all this time under a false name. They say that happens because I never saw her body. I say it happens because death is rude.

****

I barked my shin awful bad on a tree root when I jumped off the last rock onto the riverbank, and I sat for a moment in the frozen mud, swearing and listening to my swears echoing back at me. When I stood up it bit at me some, and I gimped as I followed the blood, which was heavy on the ground now. I felt under the sling, loosened the rifle off my shoulder, and found myself hoping Doug’d be dead already.

I realized he had doubled back once he’d got across the river, like he was trying to head home. It wasn’t long before I started hearing something up ahead — a high, sad sound on the wind, not even really a whine, just troubled breathing. I came around a tree and down into a little gully, where I found the Doug stretched out in the lee of a bitterroot bush.

He was cut up bad. His whole back hock had a big gouge in it, from his knee right up to the tail, and that’s what had done a good bit of the bleeding. He’d also got cut at the neck, though, and that’s what was gonna kill him. He lay breathing so hard his whole body pulsed like a giant heart. His breath wheezed in his chest. When he saw me, he blinked, and his tail gave one weak flop on the ground.

Shit, I said, and crouched down on my hams next to him, my knees clicking the whole way down. Shit, Doug, you’re in bad shape.

His face didn’t have much expression left. His tongue had lolled out and frozen to the ground. I ran my hand along his head and he blinked again in appreciation.

Okay, I said, and stood up. Okay, boy, it’s almost over.

I won’t speculate as to his state of mind. Part of growing up on a ranch is you learn that animals don’t think like people do, no matter how much the people who sell you pet products on the television want you to think they do. I unslung my rifle, took a couple of steps back so I wouldn’t get messy, and aimed at him.

All right, Banks.

And I shot him. Pop, throw the bolt, pop. Two bullets through the brainpan. The big black body twitched a couple of times and stopped breathing. The shots echoed through the empty reaches of the forest and up the river and across the scrubgrass of the high plain. A moment later, back came the hungry wuh-wuh-wak-wooooooooo of the coyotes somewhere off in the distance, a sound I must have heard ten thousand times in my life but which never fails to freeze me right down to the black bottom of my soul.

The noises died away. Now I had to do the unpleasant thing. Most animals, I woulda just left ’em out there, at least until the ground thawed, but I knew Dottie wouldn’t think much of old Doug rotting out in the wilderness, so I had to lean down and hoist his carcass over my shoulders. But hell, he was heavy. At least sixty pounds, maybe more. My legs quaked a second and my knees and hips started bitching at me, but I got him situated and staggered back over the cold ground toward the river.

When I got there, I dropped his body at my feet, and tied the rope around his ribcage. Getting over this ice was going to be a trick. I slung the rope around my forearm a couple of times, thinking I’d tiptoe across the rocks, like I did before, and then drag Doug behind me. I stuck one foot out and got it on the first rock all right, though I wobbled a bit. The second step was where it all started to go wrong. Something about that rope threw off my balance. I jigged my hips back and forth, then my knee popped loud like a branch snapping, and I lost it. I pitched forward and landed on my chest on one of those rocks and let out a long slow wheeze that I couldn’t suck back in, and then without thinking I rolled onto my side and found myself spreadeagled on the ice.

I snapped my eyes open. The ice creaked under me. Up above, the pine branches bickered. A gust of wind came through and knocked a puff of snow off one and it sprinkled down onto my face, and I could hear the flakes rattling down on the ice all around me. I don’t know if I was going crazy but I was sure I could feel the current rushing underneath me. It felt like it would surge over me soon, pull me under, wash me down the river under the ice cover. I would drown down there, get stuck on some rock. Nobody’d find me for weeks. Till the next thaw. For a second I thought I would let it happen. It might be peaceful, just me and the water. But then I looked down at my feet and saw old Doug between them, his hindquarters facing my way, and I knew I had to move.

I couldn’t stand — didn’t want to concentrate my weight. Didn’t even want to crawl. I had to wedge one foot up against one of those rocks and push myself a little bit, until I could grab the next one with my hands. And the next, and the next. Pretty soon I was scrabbling along like a cat on a tile floor. Panic rising, breathing fast. Sure the river was gonna open any second. I got one hand on the rocky riverbank and pulled myself onto it, and for a second — just a second — I lay with my face pressed to the icy ground, felt the rocks pressing sharp into my skin, and was glad of it, the pain and cold of it. I was beginning to feel my ribs where I’d crunched them on the rock. They made it hard to breathe. I sat up on my rump and tugged the rope, wheezing all the while. Slowly, Doug’s body came off the far shore and slid across the ice toward me, till finally I could reach out a hand and get hold of Doug’s torn up leg and yank him onto the land.

It took me a minute of thinking hard and remembering why, but eventually I got that old dog up over my shoulders again and started heaving him up the slope toward Zorro. There were pieces of pumice and river stone stuck in my mustache. When my breath froze over them, the hair started tugging at my face.

****

By the time we got back to the old barn, Doug’s body slung over Zorro’s rump and going stiff, I was feeling pretty broke down, and pissed off, too. At Doug and at the coyotes and at whoever had left the old barn open and at Dottie and Miguel and Victor and Manny and Sharon and most of all me. With every step some part of me hurt.

I pulled Zorro up short for a second outside the old barn, trying to gather myself up and bind myself together. I heard Victor and Manny shouting at each other. Not mad, just loud like boys do. And that’s when I saw ’em. First Manny, and then Victor after him, each shuffling in his boots out onto the icy river, throwing snow at each other.

I was so mad I coulda shit out a rattlesnake and not noticed. I jumped out of the saddle and started for the river. With each step everything on my body hurt a little more, like all of me was snake bit, ass to eyeballs. I came around the side of the house at a fast march, and saw the boys’ backs.

Dammit you two, what the hell you think you’re doing?

They spun at the same time to look at me, and Manny’s eyes got big.

Get back over here right now!

Victor hopped to, sliding right at me, but Manny — just like his mom woulda done — dragged his feet and hung his head and slumped his shoulders. The pain in my ribs thumped with my heartbeat. As soon as they were within reach I grabbed each of them by the ear. Victor yelped.

What in the hell is the matter with you two?

Manny tripped, and I lost hold of his ear. I let go of Victor altogether and snatched at Manny’s arm. He tried to yank it away from me, but I seized it, hard, and didn’t let go. I could feel Victor’s fear and Manny’s anger. He swore at me, What the hell are you doing? Mighta been the first time in his life he used one of those words. It made me even madder.

I told you two in so many words not to go out on that ice! And the first goddamned thing you do, the minute I go away –

Manny whipped his whole body around in a fury, as strong suddenly as a mean dog, and I lost hold of him. His coat ripped in my hand and he dropped on the rocks at my feet, landing on one that jabbed him hard in the butt. He swore again. Victor dropped on his knees next to him.

Are you looking to go meet your mama? Is that the trick? Bust your fucking head open and bleed to death?

Manny growled, and Victor pitched his body across him.

Desmond!

I spun around to see Dottie storming out the sliding door.

Desmond Banks, you leave those boys alone!

One of Manny’s boots smacked mine, and I realized that the reason Victor had fallen on him was to keep the kid from getting up and attacking me. He writhed with the rage of a rabid animal, trying to kick me again.

I staggered back, away from the boys, as Dottie came upon ’em, her hair wild. I banged into a tree and pressed my back against it. She crouched down next to ’em and it was two or three seconds before I realized that she was looking ’em over for injuries. Like I mighta hurt ’em. Suddenly I felt so hot I thought I’d pissed myself.

I — Well, I . . . I said, and looked down at my pants. They were dry.

Dottie snarled at me, her face so angry and red I thought it would never heal up and be normal again. I bolted away up the hill, back to the yard, where I found Zorro cantering aimlessly in a circle, Doug’s body jouncing on his back, threatening to bust loose of my knots and tumble into the snow. Behind me I could hear Dottie’s voice, trembling and songlike as she soothed the boys.
Whoa, horse, I said, my hands shaking as I placed them on Zorro’s muzzle. He was unhappy, blinking and twitching his neck, snorting jets of steam at me. I had a feeling like I might vomit, or cry. It’s probably been at least fifty years since I did either of those things.

Whoa, horse, I said again, but Zorro was calm now.

I felt back over the saddle to the knots I’d tied to keep Doug on the horse’s haunch, and found I’d not done much of a job of them. One had already unthreaded completely, and the others were on their way. I decided just to help them along a little. The first one I plucked apart let Doug’s body drop an inch or two, but before I undid the next the rope lost purchase completely and he tumbled headfirst into the snow at my feet.

I dropped on my ass next to him. Zorro wandered in the direction of the new barn. I let him go. The hands no doubt would find him. I looked down at Doug’s stiff body, the wounds in his head and neck and legs. A wind punched through the yard and tossed snow all around. I was going to have to bury him.

I stood, pitched his body once more over a shoulder, and made my slow way out behind the old barn. I dropped him at the base of the wall, then fetched a heavy shovel and returned to begin digging his grave. It was hard work. It was cold, and each shot of the shovel against the earth sent ropes of fire up my arms and into my back. I’d chosen a spot just through the wall from the dog pen, hoping the thermostat inside might have kept the ground outside from freezing solid, but it didn’t seem to have done much good. The sun scaled the sky, and then fell again toward the Cascades. A blister raised up on my hand, and the cold bit at every bare patch of skin on me, my nose and cheeks and the spot on my wrist where my parka didn’t quite reach my glove. But surely the hole got deeper, an inch at a time, so that by mid-afternoon I stood in it to my knees.

Not till after dark did I judge I’d made the hole deep enough to hold the body, and I looked up. The moon fell on things, turned them silver and black, hid what moved and lit what stayed, so that all the world seemed to be made of frozen trees and shining land, and Doug’s body next to me, his black coat awash in moonlight. It was as I reached for one of his stiff legs to drag him in with me that I saw: Manny, in the shadow of a juniper not ten feet from me, his hands in his pockets and his face flat as his mama’s used to go, staring. Not at the dog, nor the barn, big and bright though it was, but at me, his old grandpa, out burying the evidence of something.

Manny? I said.

He disappeared, quick as a startled bird.

I went to pull myself out of the hole and follow him, but thought better of it. That was for later. It would have to be done — I would have to go down to the house and set my tools aside and draw myself up and enter, and find out if I owned the strength to stay, and speak. But first I had to finish what I started that morning before sunrise. I took hold of one dead paw and dragged the body into the grave with me. Then I pulled myself out, and began to cover it.

~~~~~~

Author Bio
C. Joseph Jordan was born in Oregon and currently resides in Brooklyn. He once dug a hole in his mother’s garden… More >

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