A Leaf in the Wind

CB Bassity ©1994  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

    From where he knelt beside the rototiller adjusting the carburetor, Joe Rankin looked west, wondering what his two dogs were raising such a barking fuss about. Wind's from the south, it can't be scent, he thought, they see or hear something.
    A fingernail new moon hung just above where the sun had recently set, but nothing out of place caught his eye. The swampy lower end of the wheat field adjacent to Joe's homeplace was filled with ducks feeding, splashing, and preening feathers. The dogs probably hear coyotes, Joe figured, and he turned back to the rototiller. The two Airedales finally abandoned their tirade and lay down near the porch of the faded old frame house set among the trees where Southwest Oklahoma climbed out of the river bottom and into the scrub oak hills.
    Joe's wife, Margaret, was eager to plant her garden. But the damn Briggs motor was balky, and Joe fiddled with the idle and fuel-mixture adjustment screws until the machine would pull right. He straightened his big frame and guided the lurching tiller through the garden soil. The unwieldy machine would drag Margaret along flailing in its wake, but it fairly dangled from Joe's fingertips, and his lumbering gait was unaffected by the effort.
    Joe didn't care as much about the garden as Margaret did, but he liked almost anything that would keep him outdoors. The way some people escape into books and others find refuge in church, Joe was at home outdoors.
    He lived in the house where he had grown up with his grandparents, who were gone now. Joe's first home was a mile west, but he hadn't lived there since he was four years old, and that was fifty one years ago.

    Joe was half Wichita Indian. His mother had married a white man, Don Rankin, an early Oklahoma cattleman who had also raised horses and sold them to the Army at Fort Sill back in 1936 when Joe was born. It was a good living, until Don was killed by an outlaw stallion--kicked in the head during an unguarded moment. Joe was two.
    Joe's mother was known by all as a good hardworking woman, a loving mother, but she had had the misfortune of stepping outside for a bucket of water just in time to see her husband felled by that miserable pinto, and she never was right after that. She saw that white and chestnut hoof from hell slamming her man's life away everywhere she turned--saw it in her dinner plate, saw it in the window, saw it in her dreams. She took to drinking, trying to wash that hoof out of mind, but it never happened. A neighbor found her dead when Joe was five, but he was already living with his mother's parents.
    Although they raised him well, Joe grew up with a hole in his life where his mother had been. He remembered her when he was young, but later he knew only that she wasn't there--and he knew that well.
    The further he moved from childhood the more insulated he felt from grief. He spent some time in the army, learned surveying at Oklahoma A&M, and worked around the West at his trade--mostly for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Joe had married, helped raise a daughter, divorced, and now was married again. His solitary manner and his habit of carrying a rifle or shotgun on his frequent walks (his first wife had said that he listed without a rifle in his hand) had led to his reputation as an outsider--slightly threatening--although he was generous and loyal to those few who knew him well.
    Joe killed the little Briggs motor and stood still, absorbing the quiet. He had dark eyes set deep in his wide flat face, with smooth skin the color of oak leaves in winter. His thick black hair hung slightly over his collar, and he wore a felt cowboy hat, a little rumpled. About the time the moon went down and darkness arrived, Joe left the rototiller and went to the house.

    The last glow of daylight disappeared from the end of the sky and took with it the curved white sliver of light that had hung over the trees. She lifted her long sleek nose higher into the air, searching for that ominous scent, her ears raised and alert for the chasing sound. She was hungry and wanted water, but she had been unable to graze or drink since the chasing had begun.
    The big yellowish brown one had barked a deep ARR-OOOF as it ran after her. The brown one made the same noise in a higher pitch and the black and white one called YIP-YIP-YIP-YIP! She had outrun them to hide in the thick tangle of brush in the timber, but now she needed to drink from the pond far across the open green field. Normally she would amble across the field toward the water, grazing the short sweet grass as she went, but the chasing had prevented her.
    She picked her way cautiously through the trees, stopping often to listen and sniff the air. At the end of the trees she looked again for the chasing ones, then stretched her neck down to feed on the grass. After grazing briefly her thirst overcame her, and she began to hurry, still alert, toward the pond.
    Toward the end of the field by the water, she caught the scent--the chasing scent--and she froze, nostrils quivering. No sign of them, so she moved warily, watchfully to the water. Then as she began to drink, the tall grass nearby erupted with ARR-OOOFing and YIP-YIP-YIPping. Her white flag of a tail shot up, and, terrified, she bounded back across the field, racing toward the trees, where once inside the canopy of the timber, she found refuge in a thicket. They found her again later, and she bolted again, racing through the timber and across another green field, up the stream, and into the trees until she knelt carefully in a stand of brush, listening, panting....

    Three days later Joe, home from a day of paperwork--filing forms to satisfy the BIA bureaucracy, needed to walk. Feeling askew, Joe headed instinctively for his folks' place a mile west, his refuge. The 160 acre farm had one 90 acre wheat field that encircled about 40 acres of thick oak timber and was itself surrounded by more timber and some overgrown grass no longer used as pasture. There were timber and brushy areas on the neighboring farms where they joined the place; the seclusion of the area appealed to Joe. It was prime territory for quail and deer and all kinds of wildlife. He enjoyed watching one doe in particular; for several years now she had kept to the same trails, grazed the same area of wheat, watering in the small pond near the road.
    He stepped outside carrying a Winchester 30-30, just as Dave Allen wheeled his dusty green pickup into the yard. Joe smiled--he liked Dave who farmed and ran cattle on several leases around the neighborhood. The kid was smart and worked hard, but he lacked the hungry edge, the all-or-nothing drive that characterized some of the farmers he knew. (Joe's closest neighbor, Sam Calhoun, about Joe's age, always had perfect crops, no weeds, lush wheat and thriving cattle, but that's all he had--no time for friends, never a vacation--just a singular devotion to his work. Some life, Joe thought.)
    "What're you hunting this time of year, Joe?"
    "Nothin'--just target practice. Figured I'd shoot the tires out of the first green pickup I see."
    "Will you give me a running start?"
    "From here to the mailbox."
    "Hell--that's not much. Where's the sport in that?"
    "Who said anything about sport? What brings you by anyway?"
    "I need to open up a ditch. I was wondering if you'd shoot the grade for me--show me how much I need to dig out."
    "Where at?"
    "Kodapassey lease, a mile south--that crossing on the east end."
    "Well. . ."
    "I can wait if you're busy."
    "No. I'll get my level and tripod." I'll see the homeplace some other time, Joe thought. As he came from the shed with his surveyor's gear, Joe looked up to see the dished out moon showing faintly in the evening sky. About two days shy of first quarter, he thought.

    Her chest was pounding and her head was hot, her insides ached. Hidden in the timber she had fed on twigs, some of them swollen with new buds, but she was hungry still, and she craved water. She could hear YIP-YIP-YIPPing. It was not near, but the sound drove such fear into her, she dared not stir--just as in the falling-leaves-time when the tall-two-legged-ones walked the woods with their booming sticks and she stayed hidden during daylight. But even then there was quiet in the darkness. Now the chasing ones followed her in light and dark.
    She lay still, waiting . . .

    Joe had had a run-in with his supervisor over differing interpretations of some conservation measures. And when he parked his old Ford pickup in front of the house, the first thing he saw was Margaret's car, its left front fender mashed. Scowling, he tromped into the kitchen, letting the screen door slam behind him.
    Margaret, medium height and dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, came in from the livingroom with the Ladies Home Journal in her hand, her long, dark hair flowing down her back. Normally Joe liked her direct air, her confidence, but now it stuck out at him.
    "What the hell did you run into?"
    "Frank Peters's Dodge."
    "What shape did you leave it in?"
    "Look Joe, you don't need to holler at me."
    "What you expect me to do--compliment you on your driving skills?"
    "I told you last week my brakes were spongy, and you said you'd fix them. I come around the corner an--"
    "Oh it's my fault," he bellowed, "you run into Frank and it's my fault--I like that!"
    Margaret glared at him, flung the magazine on the floor, and stalked out of the kitchen. He followed her to the doorway. "You drive like you do everything else--half-assed." Immediately he regretted it, knew he didn't mean it. Margaret whirled on him.
    "You big jerk, you. . ." her voice trailed off but not her poise. Joe felt small in front of her. He turned toward the kitchen, reaching automatically for the 30-30 in the gun cabinet. The screen door slammed again on his way out. The dogs arose with tails wagging at the sight of the rifle, but hung back tentatively behind Joe when he snarled.
    He started walking west, but he could see Dave Allen's pickup and Dave and someone else working--fixing fence it looked like--just this side of his old home. Joe was in no mood to visit. He cut across the road to the north, toward the cedar hill.

    The pangs of hunger and thirst had become almost unendurable, but now suddenly gave way to something new. She felt strong again. The fear was gone--replaced by determination. She stood, browsing at some twigs. Despite not having eaten for so long, she felt no need to.
    She moved purposefully through the timber toward the higher ground of a small knoll where the trees broke for several patches of dry grass. She stopped and listened, combing the air for scent. Twitching her tail in agitation, she waited. She knew this feeling--she had done this before. She was aware of her thirst and discomfort, but unmoved by it. She lay in the dry grass and looked at the half-round white light directly above in the darkening sky, and then the pain began. Deep inside her something gripped unmercifully. She stood, turned, lay down, changed position, but the pressure remained. Then it stopped. She lay still, waiting. The vise tightened, relaxed, and tightened again. She fretted. Then she picked up the scent that started a new longing and looked back beneath her tail to see a wet shape emerging, glistening in the moonlight.
    All thought of hunger and thirst was forgotten now. As she stood, out slipped the sloppy, wet thing which now lay flopping in a heap. She turned and licked hungrily at the squirming, wet mass of hot flesh. She started at the head which wriggled and snuffled. She licked the warm, salty ooze from the wet hair. As the kicking little body began struggling to stand, she lay down again.
    Again the pain, although less now, and another form slipped from her. She cleaned both now, licking ravenously and turning from one to the other. Each clambered up to stand, wobbling, on spindly legs. Soon the two little ones turned, nudging toward her underside. First one, then the other, found and suckled the teats between her hind legs. The two stood splay-legged and sucked hungrily, and she stood content but vigilant in the moonlight. The three became one again, like some great ungainly bird, its wet wings jerking and undulating from their common point of origin, her udder.

    As the afternoon waned, Joe was leaning in under the hood of Margaret's Oldsmobile in front of the house. He had apologized, but she was still cool toward him even after two days had passed. He had pulled the brake master cylinder and was bolting in a new one. Margaret was planting peas in the garden.
    The dogs were barking toward the west again. Margaret called to Joe from the garden, "I wish those hounds would quit their damn racket."
    Neither one of 'em is a hound, Joe thought, but he kept it to himself. "Yeah, I don't know what they're goin' on about. Dave said something about stray dogs around the home-place; maybe they're talking it over." Joe backed out from under the hood, wiped his hands on a rag, and squinted toward the west. Just trees, wheat, water, and sky. "Y'all shut up," he called to the dogs.

    She had ventured away to feed, had drunk from a ditch, but as she returned to nurse her fawns the chasing ones had returned, bursting from the timber. She had led them away from her young, and when she felt safe she lay in a tangle of vines and brush, feeling weak. Her chest was pounding, and she longed to nurse her young. She could hear yip-yipping and a few arr-rroofs in the direction of where she had left her fawns. The sounds were moving away from her. The noise grew more intense, then stopped abruptly.
    After a time she picked her way carefully back toward the knoll. She didn't sense the chasing ones until she got near. She froze at the chasing scent coming from the direction of her fawns. Listening, she heard busy, rustling noises and a low-pitched rrrr-grrrrr in the brush. She retreated some, found a thicket, and waited . . .

    The B.I.A. sent Joe to Topeka for a two-day training update. This was the part of the job he hated--bureaucratic bullcrap to satisfy a bunch of idiots and jackasses in Washington. But it wasn't as bad as Joe had expected; he ran into a couple of old buddies whose outlook matched his.
    Vernon, "Vern the germ", Bedford had been in college with Joe way back when. And Joe had worked with Bill Whiteeagle on a surveying crew out of Elk City back in '61. The three of them spent Thursday night in a bar swapping stories, and then Friday they managed to get under the skin of the instructor from the regional office--"Say, are these revised forms 7468 made with recycled paper?" And then, "Are you recycled?" Instead of being tedious, Topeka took on more the feel of a boy scout camping trip. Joe enjoyed himself so much that he and Vern laid over Friday night, and he drove home Saturday. Even Margaret was glad to see him.
    Saturday evening Joe sat on his porch with a small glass of bourbon, watching the full moon rise through the oaks and thinking, a man could do worse than this.

    She had tried to reach her fawns, but the chasing ones stayed on the knoll for three days; she could not return. They had chased her once but without spirit and not far, and then had returned to the knoll. She ached for the little ones, wanting to nurse, to lick, and nuzzle them. But she could not find them--only the ever-present chasing ones.
    Now the oak timber was ghostly white, quiet, and full of shadow; the round white light hung in the upper branches of the trees. There was no breeze. The air was heavy and warm. She looked in the shadows for the fawns. She was hungry, but hungrier for her young. She picked her way through the trees toward the knoll. There was a vague scent of chase, but it mingled with those of grass and dewfall, and she longed for the nuzzling at her udder.
    She stopped at the edge of the knoll, all her senses alert. Had she heard it? Did something stir? She looked, probed the deceptive mix of light and shadow. There. . .ahead. . .in the grass. . .something twitched. Then she heard a low grrr-rrrr from the grass, and a form appeared, creeping slowly and close to the ground. She stood still, waiting . . . The thing came toward her, and another sound answered in a lower pitch. Then a loud ARRR-RROOF exploded from the knoll. She turned and darted with the two following her.
    She bounded through the trees ahead of the YIP-YIP-YIP-ARRR-RROOFing. But suddenly another form leapt at her from one side. She twisted quickly to escape, and her head cracked against a tree limb. Her eyes filled with teeming lights and she tumbled forward. She struggled blindly to her feet, but a snarling fire shot into her foreleg. Then another burning, tearing, pain bit into her hindquarters. They were on her now, and she worked futilely to escape. She heard the snarling and thrashing, and felt each new tearing attack. She collapsed and felt teeth tear into her throat, her breath now strangled and mixed with hot, wet, choking fluid. The pain, the pulling--all turned hot but faraway and then white . . .

    Joe woke up in a sweat, his heart pounding. It had been her--his mother's voice, crying, screaming. He had tried to reach her, but something had kept them apart. A veil? Distance? Her voice had been vivid--he knew without question it was she.
    All these years, he thought, and still . . . He lay in bed trying to make sense of the dream. He couldn't remember any more than her voice tearing at him. Moonlight made the room almost bright, but it was nothing compared to the disquiet that kept him from sleep.
    Finally he gave in, got up, and went to the kitchen. He sat at the table reading a month-old Newsweek and drinking a beer. Margaret stumbled in at one point. "Are you all right? What are you doing up?"
    "Go back to bed. I'm okay," he said. He read for a while, cleaned the 30-30, sat out on the porch, laid on the sofa. But Joe got no rest.
    A little before six in the morning, the moon sat low above the trees in the west, and light rimmed the sky in the east. Joe scrawled--Gone for Walk--on an electric bill envelope and left it on the kitchen table. He shut the screen door quietly behind him. The dogs got up and stretched, tails wagging, but Joe pointed at them and uttered a low, forceful, "No, git!" Their heads dropped and they crept back under the porch. He started for the homeplace.
    It was fully light as Joe left the road, passing by the derelict remains of the house he had been born in, the overgrown corral and lots. He cut across the farm road that wound through the wheat to the timber. At the water hole he checked habitually the areas of bare ground for tracks, and noticed more traffic than usual. The normal deer tracks were accompanied by dog tracks--more than one, for there were big paws and smaller ones. Joe remembered Dave saying something about strays in the neighborhood. People often dropped off unwanted pets out here.
    He crossed the wheat field and headed for the timber. He watched for tracks now and noticed that the doe's tracks were covered with dog tracks. They've been running deer, Joe thought. And then, knowing it was birthing time, he chambered a round in the 30-30.
    Joe prowled through the main part of the timber, but all was quiet. He walked around to the northwest end. Coming across the grassy knoll he found an area where the ground had been disturbed recently. Dog tracks everywhere, some bones, hair, skin--fawns, he thought, the damn dogs've killed fawns. He moved on quietly. He hadn't gone far when he heard them.
    Joe crept in until he could see--a big yellowish dog and two smaller ones. They were tussling with a deer carcass--freshly killed by the look of it. He raised the 30-30 and sighted in the big yellow one. As the shot exploded through the morning quiet, the dog tumbled backward into a heap. The other two jumped up and ran. He chambered another round and dropped a brownish black mutt. The other was gone.
    Joe walked over to examine the doe. It could only be her--he knew--the one he had watched for several years. His chest drew tight, and he felt weary. He found a fallen limb, dragged it to a tree, and fashioned himself a seat. He sat with his back against the tree and the rifle across his lap, and closed his eyes. It wasn't a comfortable seat, but Joe was tired now; he dozed fitfully, waiting.
    Later in the morning he heard the dog whine. It eyed him from a distance, wagging its tail hesitantly and creeping toward him, low to the ground. Joe waited until no brush obstructed his shot and raised the rifle in a slow, fluid motion. The 30-30 found Joe's shoulder the way a magnet finds iron, as if of its own accord, as if neither the rifle nor the dog nor Joe had any more control of themselves than a dry leaf in a tornado. The dog sat at a distance with its head cocked and whined. It rolled backward as the bullet struck.
    Joe stood and collected himself. There was no relief, no avenging satisfaction--he felt only weary, that and the old numbness. It was midmorning and he started for home.
    Sam Calhoun, approaching in his pickup with a load of hay to feed cattle, saw Joe walking toward him on the roadside. Sam, drawing near, raised his hand to wave but saw that Joe didn't even look up as he passed. That sour son-of-a-bitch, Sam thought.

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