It wasn’t the time in the truck that bothered James, even if it meant missing Alex Gordon at bat. It was the inefficiency. The service station was east of their house and the interstate was west, so it made the most sense for Annie to just get on I-70 and not fill up til she was halfway to Hays. But she hated having to stop; she wanted to just put on an audiobook and drive straight through. What did it say about her husband’s sense of chivalry, she asked, if he couldn’t be bothered to spend twenty minutes to get gas and be certain his wife would travel happily and safely to her sister’s?
This kind of drama was new for Annie. She’d lately acquired all sorts of anxiety to which James had no solution other than blind obedience, so he paused the TV and pulled on sweatpants. It was good, he thought, to let the game run ahead, that way he could fast-forward through commercials. Plus the station had ice cream bars. After passing miles of split-rail fence, his high beams combing the shifting fields of wheat and turning their shadowless blue thickets to individual yellow stalks, he came upon a bent figure at the edge of the asphalt. He slowed and drifted right, his passenger side dipping where the ground graduated down to the runoff ditch and braked just behind the man rising with a hand before his eyes. A mountain bike lay at his feet.
‘Kellerman? What in the world are you doing out here?’
‘Gimme a ride to the station? Lemme borrow your cell and Janie’ll meet me.’
James had never seen Kellerman outside of jeans. In exercise clothes his neighbor seemed frail, older than his late forties, T-shirt wrapped around that famous gut, combover-bangs tucked behind an ear, shorts billowing over bird legs, one of which was stained red. His face was soaked with sweat and bunched up like a rag. James hoped that he himself had aged better and made a mental note to inspect his own forehead in the rear view mirror. And skip the ice cream. He offered to drive Kellerman home.
‘Alright.’ Kellerman wasn’t one for thanks. ‘Can I throw this in the back?’ He lifted the bike by the handlebars and hefted it into the truck’s bed.
‘Watch out for the feedbags. You cut your leg there?’
‘Looks like it.’
‘Let’s just wait til it stops bleeding before you get in. I’ll catch hell at home if I stain those seats.’ James pulled out a towel and tossed it to Kellerman, who whacked it against the truck to knock out the dust and pressed it to his shin. It instantly soaked through and James decided to let the seat go to ruin. He made a U-turn toward the Kellerman property. Though their kids had been friends the men were never especially friendly. James recalled his wife cataloging some inscrutable slight from Kellerman’s, linking the families by feud, but he forced conversation to distract the man from his shredded leg. They discussed the late September heat that refused to break, even at night, and hoped for relief.
‘So why you out here so late? One of those Holsteins run off?’
‘They say I need exercise, say I have the blood pressure. Janie made me give up coffee and Tommy let me have his old bike.’
‘Nice of him.’
‘Yeah, he’s a good kid.’ Kellerman winced as he pressed both hands to the wound. A football-sized indention pulsed under his palms, like someone had held a belt sander to his shin. ’He’s going through a time though. Doesn’t know what to do with himself. Trying to get him to look at schools, though I’m not trying too hard. Not crazy about paying for it. Already paid for Diane’s school and she’s yet to do a darn thing with it. Yours is in school, right?’
‘You want to use my shirt or something?’
‘On your leg there.’
‘I’m doing alright.’
James let it drop. ‘Yeah, Keith’s up in Chicago since the summer. Just saw him last week. Me and Annie drove him up. She doesn’t know what to do without a kid in the house. Starting to make me crazy.’
‘You know I think I heard he was up there.’
‘Yep.’ James tilted the rear-view to see into the truck’s bed. The jostling had driven a bike pedal deep into a plastic feedbag. Grains spilled from the growing hole. Nothing to do about it. ‘No coffee, huh? Not sure how I’d handle that.’
‘After a week you wouldn’t miss it. Least I didn’t.’
‘So how’d you hurt that leg?’
‘Was riding and I looked down and somehow it was all tore up. Must have chafed it on the chain but I don’t remember it. Same thing happened the other day, just rubbed against the side of the milk parlor and came away with no skin on my shoulder.’
‘You’re getting closer to old farthood.’
‘Maybe I am.’
‘Look Kellerman, lemme pull over and see if I can’t put something around that.’
Before his neighbor could object James had stopped the truck. He cut a length of twine from the feedbags and wrapped his flannel jacket around the leg while Kellerman squeezed the headrest and spoke in a low, pained tone.
‘How’s your production this month?’
‘Guernseys did pretty good, but my Ayrshires are getting dry. May have to add a few younger ones soon.’
‘Well, you must be doing alright, paying for a school like that. Not even in-state.’
James secured the jacket via granny knot. His fingers were red from contact with the wound. ‘Keith got himself a scholarship so we aren’t paying much at all.’
Kellerman let out a dismissive breath. ‘I remember Keith coming around the house with Tommy. Never struck me as real academic.’
James chuckled, pretending to hide the sound but making sure Kellerman could hear it and know he wasn’t bothered. He pushed the leg back under the dash, slammed the door and restarted the truck. ‘He does alright. But it was their film program gave him the money. About two Christmases back we got Keith a camera, just a cheap little thing, combination Christmas and birthday present. He did a short little movie on it and put it together on the computer, and that’s what got him in.’
The man beside him didn’t seem to be listening. He just stared at a barn that came into occasional visibility through rows of baled wheat, assembled like a stone-age monument. ‘What’d you think of Chicago?’ Kellerman sounded tired, maybe slipping into shock, so James spoke loudly to keep him alert.
‘Not bad. Very, very busy. But folks were friendly enough. You been?’
His passenger’s eyes were closed.
James just about shouted. ‘You been to Chicago?’
Kellerman roused, more annoyed than startled. ‘Yeah, years back. Some convention I think. Keith likes it?’
‘Sure he does. Don’t think I would so much. And after Annie saw her first rat, that was about it for her.’
‘Oh, you wouldn’t believe how many of those rats we saw.’
Kellerman sat up straight, released a gentle belch and held his stomach. ‘Well, that’s where I’d head, if I was a rat.’ He breathed heavily and massaged his right side. ‘I bet you every restaurant up there feeds more rats than people, just from what they throw out. Easiest life there is. Same with my cows. Just spit out calf after calf and don’t give a thought to feeding em. Leave that to dumbshits like me. I tell you, they got it figured out.’
James had no response. They drove for a minute in silence until Kellerman asked, ‘So what’s Keith’s little old home movie about?’
‘Oh, it was awful.’
‘You feeling okay? You’re rubbing that belly pretty hard.’
‘Yeah, I’m fine. Must have hit it on the bike somehow, or maybe it’s from eating a big dinner right before I got on the bike. Janie can’t cook for shit.’
All men bitch about married life to their buddies, but James didn’t think himself Kellerman’s friend. He pitied Janie, living with this relentless critic of all things, and realized that maybe it was he, not Annie, who had started the grudge against her. He remembered chiding Annie for chatting Janie up at a football game after some fight between their boys, as if it were Janie’s fault her son took after his blowhard father. Whatever stink was on the family seeped directly from Kellerman Sr. As serious as that leg looked James found it impossible to generate any concern. He was taking care of his neighbor because he had to, it would be evil not to, but in the end he didn’t give a shit.
‘I don’t mean to say he did a bad job with the movie. He’s always been a pretty talented kid and he worked his butt off on it. It was just nasty. You remember last year when that woman out in Paola caught something?’
‘When they shut down the schools? She got some bug that ate up her skin.’
‘Right, so everyone in the world gets what she had, but on a quicker schedule, so once you catch it you have about a day before you turn to goulash. The way Keith did the effects looked real as anything. But it’s a romance. These two kids are deciding whether it’s worth it to fall in love before their faces fall off.’
Kellerman sat for a moment before responding with a groan. ‘They paid his tuition for this?’
‘That’s what they did.’
‘And somebody’s taxes pay for this school?’
James was about to make some jab about being happy his boy was in school at all, no matter how he got it in, when he saw Kellerman’s torso. So much for the seats. Kellerman looked down. He searched dumbly for his fingers, hidden up under his ribcage, dug into a wound sudden as a sinkhole in the earth.
Miss Collins spied her friend at the edge of crowd, milling aimlessly as the rest. She maneuvered herself through the gaps, each step sinking into the mud with a digestive sound, until her way was blocked by the willingly oblivious Miss Ruggles, raised head pulling up her baggy skin like drapes cut too long. Miss Collins snorted and went around, making sure to thump that black and white mass with her own dichromatic backside. She settled with her eyes alongside those of Miss Plumpton, their shoulders aligned and nearly touching.
‘And how are we getting on?’
Miss Plumpton shuddered. ‘I’m a bit shaken after last night. On top of all that’s happened lately, well, I think it’s shot my poor nerves.’
Miss Collins nodded. ‘I understand completely. We’re all so distressed. But you must buck up. You have the little one to look after.’ With her head she indicated the skinny thing peering out from behind his mother.
‘I know it. I certainly do.’
‘And how is young Charles?’
‘Charles won’t eat.’
‘Won’t he?’ Miss Collins bent down and bit a clump of brownish grass, as if to show him how. ‘How long?’
‘Since the boy stopped coming.’
‘Miss Plumpton! That was months ago!’
Some scent in the air, a trace of fur and blood, wafted into the crowd and made it nervous. The bodies pressed tighter, each fighting for the center. Old Miss Ruggles nipped Charles on the back of his neck and shooed him to the perimeter, exposed to the world. Misses Collins and Plumpton automatically repositioned themselves around him.
‘That Miss Ruggles.’ Miss Plumpton rolled her anger into the R. ‘I swear, it’s so long since she had young she’s forgotten how to treat them.’
‘Oh, let her be.’ Miss Collins rubbed her snout against her friend’s shoulder, hoping to calm her. ‘She’s so old and frail she probably won’t last until spring. You know the man was soon to retire her.’
‘Then she’s the only one to make good from all that’s happened. I know I was exaggerating; I suppose Charles has eaten recently. But only a nibble, and only when I cajole him. But now, I don’t know that I’ll eat again myself. Just look at them. Look!’ Across the field, near the fence, a body lay on the ground surrounded by intruders nose-deep in its torso. ‘Still digging into poor Miss Nighhart. They’ve been distressing that poor thing for hours.’
One intruder sat aside from the rest. Its fur was caked with dried mud and its head drooped low. It stared at the meal with intensity, eyes unmoving, ears submissive and pleading.
Miss Plumpton snorted at this pathetic creature and its gaze shifted from the dead to the living.
Miss Collins said, ‘I hope they keep at it a week. As soon as she’s gone they’ll come after another of us.’
‘There must be a way out of this field. Damn that wretched man. He spent so much time on the fence, then he leaves us trapped inside to starve. The ground is getting stiff, the birds are leaving, the squirrels are making their beds, and we’re stuck sleeping in the open with nothing to warm us but our own lumpy selves. Charles, poor thing, asked me yesterday why the boy stopped bringing us food.’
‘How did you answer?’
‘I told him the boy died, his father died, his mother died. Maybe every last person in the world died, and he’d have to start fending for himself.’
‘Miss Plumpton! You didn’t!’
‘Of course I didn’t. I sold him some nonsense about the boy having a fever or exhaustion and Charles would have to grow up a little. It’s been trying enough scrounging to sustain ourselves. But when those over there showed up… why bother eating? Just to make a better meal for those hirsute thugs?’
The lone intruder rose and slowly crept toward the crowd. Whatever space remained between the bodies was closed as they pressed tighter.
‘Miss Plumpton, you have a point. We must find a way to keep them sated, so at least they spare the little ones.’
The intruder broke into a sprint. Its tail went high and its teeth were bared. As it approached, Misses Collins and Plumpton showed their backsides and shot out their hind legs. The intruder danced behind them, snapping its jaws and growling, looking for a soft opening. All it met was kicks and gas, so it let out a steamy snort and sulked back to the others.
Miss Plumpton panted from exertion and terror. ‘Only flesh will satisfy those trotting stomachs, and I’m not prepared to supply a single spoonful of my own. I’d rather they ate old Miss Ruggles, that stroppy, sour-milked old bint, than little Charles. If they could stand her wretched skin, that is.’ She licked her son’s face clean of mud and sweat. It did nothing to stop his shaking. ‘My poor Charles.’ He bleated and closed his eyes, near collapse. ‘Eaten before he’s grown his horns.’
‘Resolve, Miss Plumpton. Resolve is our only option, other than elimination from this earth.’
Miss Plumpton scoffed. ‘Resolve?’
‘I don’t know that any of us have it.’
‘We’re a damn herd, Miss Collins. The lot of us have no use for resolve. But one of us needs it, and the rest will follow.’
The Corporal’s ass was wet. When she first sat on the soaked asphalt, the sky still dark and uncolored, she figured her own body heat would create a patch of dryness. Not so. Her fur was thick with dew and now she felt an itch in the back of her throat. She tried to snort it out. Changing seasons always gave her a little cold, even if the shift was to the warmer.
Twisted branches covered the ground in crosshatch patterns and scraps of paper and plastic fluttered atop them like shredded flags. Despite her sickness the Corporal was glad for the damp air and its quickening of sound. She strained her ears and stared at the northern-stretching road, which dipped out of sight after a hundred yards. Nothing yet. The operation was to start shortly after dawn, when the targets were groggy and docile. She was stationed at the south corner of a T-shaped intersection. The road extended before and behind her, and turned east to her right. To her left was a fence sheltering an empty house and an abandoned farm.
An approach. Four light steps on grass. Before the form came into view she knew him by smell.
‘Morning, Corporal.’ The Captain jogged up the field on the opposite side of the fence. He was bigger than her, taller and longer, though still built lean and fast-looking, none of her billowing white fur. He was trim and gray all over, except for his white lower jaw, throat, and belly. And the underside of his tail, which was raised and bopping from side to side as he bounded toward her.
‘What are you doing here, Captain?’
‘Oh, I’m completely lost. Don’t know where my post is. Maybe I’ll just reinforce yours.’
Her ears drew back in suspicion. ‘Go. I’d hate for the Marshal to come across us chatting.’
The Captain started to crawl under the fence’s rails, thought better of it and leaped over in a showcase of energy. ‘Who’s chatting? And presently our Marshal is occupied in the haunches of a certain private. Don’t pretend you aren’t happy to see me.’ Playful as a pup, the Captain stretched his front legs, bringing his head to the ground, got up and nipped her shoulder. The Corporal lowered her tail and growled.
‘Why would I be happy to see you?’
With a whine he feigned shock and injury. ‘So we can finish what we started the other night.’
‘Whatever you think we started you can finish on your own.’ She walked across the intersection and he trotted after her, sniffing her backside.
‘Corporal, do you know your coloring is different on the backs of your legs? Of course you don’t, how would you? There’s a slight, almost reddish tint to it. It’s really something. I’ve noticed it for years. Don’t leave your post now. They’ll be starting soon.’
‘What’s taking them so long?’ She was anxious, had been all night. They had never tried something like this before. No company had. In the last two seasons the Field Marshal had changed everything about how they operated. They’d camped in the same field all winter, inside the fence with a whole herd of nervous hoofers. There was no need for strategy or command against such defenseless prey and so the first few days were one long massacre, with hunters breaking into small groups and having their way with whatever target looked tastiest. The Field Marshal could not tolerate such independence. He soon forbade ad hoc attacks and would personally punish any hunter who disobeyed. After that, kills happened on a slow, deliberate schedule, days after the marrow had been licked from the last pile of bones. And then something absurd happened. The herd began to choose the hunters’ next target. Whenever the Field Marshal approached, growling and hungry, they huddled up and pushed out the oldest and weakest of their number. Never the young. Always some emaciated hoofer without the strength to force her way back into the fold. Within the company there had been resistance to the new protocol. A few hunters brought open challenges to the Marshal, which all ended the usual ways: upstarts either dead or banished.
The Corporal listened for howls, barks, pounding on pavement. Instead, claws scraping frozen dirt. On the other side of the fence the Captain was digging.
‘What do you have there?’
‘I left something for you.’
‘I don’t want it.’
‘Wait til you smell it.’ Clumps of brown were tossed between the Corporal’s legs and grew into a smile pile behind him.
‘Have you been hunting?’
‘I wish.’ His voice came muffled from below the grass. ‘Aren’t you bored with those fat homebodies? They got no fight in them. Might as well eat dead people.’
‘You know what would happen if you did.’
‘Don’t you miss taking down an eight pointer? Those thin-legged pricks think they’re faster and fancier than you, the way they snort before they take off running. Then you bushwhack them and they get that stupid look, like they’re insulted you beat them.’ He was down in the hole to his shoulders. ‘And when you first dig in, while they’re still groaning, the meat just pulses in your mouth for a second. My tongue gets wet just thinking about it. And I miss how nobody gives a damn about rank in the scrum. Not even the Marshal can eat from someone else’s spot.’
Overwhelmed by curiosity, the Corporal crossed the fence line and watched the Captain’s progress from the edge of the hole. ‘I can see why you’d want to forget rank.’
He glared up at her. ‘Excuse me? Corporal?’
She sat and assumed a haughty, disinterested tone. ‘I’m happy with my place. You turning ambitious? I can talk to the Marshal when I’m with him tonight.’
His ears drooped and he resumed digging in silence. She felt guilty throwing it in his face like that. The truth was the Captain was nearly strong and vigorous as the Marshal, and could in a few seasons become a rival. And more than that, she was tired of their ever-serious leader, obsessed with protocol in all things, including breeding. The Captain might be too clever, too broad-minded to ever lead the company, but that didn’t hurt his chances of giving her exceptional pups.
‘You’re a quick digger.’
He spoke through the side of his mouth, still angry. ‘That’s what happens when you’re on engineering duty for a week. Had to dig out three fence posts to make an entrance to our encampment, then dig out three more around that target field to get those hoofers out.’
‘I saw you do it. I’ve had to guard the gap you made in the fence to keep our captive herd from wandering off.’
He did not respond and soon unearthed a small tan form. The Corporal backed away.
‘Is that one of us?’
The Captain took rolls of skin between his teeth and pulled the kill to the surface. ‘Course not, look at its face.’ The thing’s snout was broad and compressed, as if smashed, squat and underdeveloped as its four legs and tiny puff of a tail.
‘I’m not eating that. It looks misborn. Its mother shouldn’t have let it live.’
‘Suit yourself. But I stowed it here for you.’ Before he could tear into the body she forced herself in front of him.
His voice curdled. ‘Careful about giving orders. I’m no bitch and you’re no officer.’
She growled back. ‘You only think with your prick and your gut. If you feed they’ll smell it on you, the Marshal will know you disobeyed. And they’ll come and find your kill by my post and think I was in on it.’
He shook his head and sulked away. ‘I’m so tired of this, smelling the same grass and trees and prey and having to keep myself from doing what I’m meant to do. A hunter is kept fed by his feet.’
‘That’s just an old saying.’
‘It’s against our nature to stay put. The entire hierarchy will break down and we’ll turn fat as these milkbags.’
The Corporal caught up with him halfway to the old house, with its door open and windows broken. From inside came a rotting smell, and not the appetizing kind. Something sickly and terrible. ‘That’s the whole point, stupid. If we let the hoofers breed we’ll always have easy food. And if we aren’t on the move we don’t have to bring food back to a litter. Regulations will have to be relaxed. Even the ones on breeding.’ She nipped him and gently said, ‘We’ll be the biggest, strongest company there is. Who could ever challenge us?’
He stopped and she lay her head across his shoulders.
‘Who do you think?’
He shook her off. ‘Marshal says that when you two are alone. Big deal. He’ll say anything to a bitch in heat.’ But his mood had turned back to playful and he rubbed his snout against hers. ‘I’d say anything, too. I mean, if you were in heat.’
She walked away, slowly shifting her weight, and asked, ‘What would you do?’
He came after her. ‘I’d… I’d bring you food.’
‘Any food. All the food.’ He put a paw atop her rump. ‘Venison, beaver, muskrat, moose.’
‘How would you bring me a moose all by yourself?’
Before he could respond their ears went stiff and upright. A growing rumble came from the north, clops and panting and moans. The Captain and Corporal sprinted back to the road as a mass of blocky shapes crested the hill and hurtled toward the intersection. The air smelled of panic and sweat. They jumped the fence and made out a few young hoofers well ahead of the herd, some white spotted red, some brown spotted white, all turned thin and crazed by a harsh, hungry winter. The Captain and Corporal planted themselves at the intersection’s south corner. They leaned forward and raised their fur, frothing and barking, trying to create a wall of intimidation that would turn the herd east, toward the encampment.
The youngest and fastest targets rocketed past the hunters. The Captain followed them, overwhelmed by the instinct to chase a fleeing animal. The Corporal yelled after him to let them go. She turned to see a yearling bull barreling down on her, its brow lowered to focus its small horns. She shook her head to confuse her attacker and juked just in time to evade the charge but still caught a passing hoof in the stomach. She lay groaning on her side, feeling the ground shake beneath her. The young bull whipped round to come back after her, and as the main herd approached the Corporal showed her teeth, ready to sever hamstrings from legs even as they stomped her to a puddle.
The Captain bolted past her and dashed back and forth across the pavement, all the while barking at the oncoming wave. The herd slowed. The Corporal rose as the yearling dipped its horns low, hoping for a hook and toss. She ducked and lunged at his throat.
Spooked by the Captain’s manic pacing, those leading the herd veered left at the intersection to avoid him. The rest followed and the herd was turning east. The yearling realized he was about to be left alone and scampered to rejoin them. But the Corporal was angry. She ran alongside the yearling and with a few vicious bites tore open his stomach, letting him trip on the falling guts. Soon he was out of his misery.
The captain joined her by the kill. They watched the hoofers thunder past. ‘I thought we were supposed to leave the bulls for breeding.’
‘I have a short temper with males.’
He licked the blood from her snout. ‘You okay? I saw you take a kick to the gut.’
‘I can’t tell yet. Might be something, but I don’t think so. How many are driving the targets on?’
‘About nine or ten I think.’
‘You have to take off. They’ll be right behind the herd and’ll find us here together. Where’s your post?’
‘At the encampment, fencing the new targets in and making sure they mesh with the old ones. But I don’t want to leave til I know you’re good.’
‘I thought you forgot your post.’ She licked him back. ‘Tell you what. Meet me here tonight, when the operation’s over.’
His tail wagged. ‘Really?’
‘You can take a look and see if I’m alright. Now get going.’ She snapped at the Captain’s haunches and he raced down the roadside ditch, past the hoofers. The Corporal helped herself to her favorite cuts of yearling bull. The captain was right. Meat always tasted freshest after a fight.
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