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by Michael Randles



Halfway Oregon, 1980

Halfway Oregon
Above the Woodlot, Pine Valley Oregon

He lay on the animal's side, speaking in low soft tones. The mid morning crisp autumn air had ladled a blanket of dense fog in the valley below. He had gentled the yearling for some time; its thick fleece smelled of lanoline. He selected the long thin blade honed to a fine polish. With his deft firm sweep, blood shot over the frost-bitten clover. The weight of his body pressed against the animal as he pulled the nearly severred head back for a clean bleed.

Behind, hanging from gimbels in the breeze-way, were two carcasses, stripped clean of legs, head, and hide; naked muscle hung steaming, expiring its last body heat. Entrails lay heaped on a tarp, their scent positioning the dogs downwind. Anxiously waiting, they knew their time would come. The pup was learning quickly; his mother the bitch was again too close, pushing the limit, splitting hairs.

The fumbling hooves beneath him lay still. He rose from his work looking into the fixed stare of the slaughtered sheep. Already glazed and lifeless, the eyes reflected a world to which it was no longer a part. curdling red pool lay below the sheep's chin, seeping through the clover into the frost-cracked ground.
The slaughter had been hard. He had learned to give himself time to appreciate his part in a very old ritual: the skinning and butchering followed as a matter of course after the first act had been committed.

This job would have been done the week before but for autumn emergencies falling one after the other. Last week while working in the orchard, the dogs had alerted him to a crippled elk above the wood lot. She had been there for days, tangled in a thicket, lying in her shit, her right buttock blasted to bits. Paralyzed by the gangrenous wound, she couldn't move. She accepted him without struggle. Speaking in low gentle tones, he had finished her off with the same knife. It took two days to butcher and save what meat he could. His neighbors were like raccoons in the chicken coop: they poached regularly and without regard to fences, rearing each generation with increasing suspicion for the laws of nature and man, culling game one at a time until all was gone. He had hoped that last year's message would have been heeded. He had reported three members of the Fitzer clan for trespassing. The State Police caught them red-handed with two elk in their barn. It was a big deal to have one valley member turn in another for something so trifling "New-comers don't know how things are done in these parts," he was told a week later by a neighbor. "Elk ain't all we like to poach." Despite the cloaked threats, he had testified to the identity and place of the poaching for the state.

Three carcasses now hung in the breeze-way, the un-usable entrails loaded in the truck for disposal. Late morning was warming. Frost had turned to a dense dew except in the shadows of the outbuildings. A low-arc hazy sun made its way predictably through the autumn chill. While the dogs bickered over the scraps of the slaughter, he took off his bloody apron, crossed the court, and entered the house to wash again in hot water. The mud room was crowded with crates of fruit and vegetables, sacks of potatoes and onions; the smells of earth and food spilled into the kitchen with his entrance. Generous amounts of natural light poured into the large kitchen. The cupboards had no doors and were filled with canned goods, storage jars, and brightly colored enamel cookware. The woman was fussing about. The enameled range popped and snapped from a fresh loading of tamarack. The warmth of the fire was squandered on its occupants. Conversation was slim due to the day's activities. She showed no interest in the slaughter and he was in no mood to discuss the problems of the world. He was barely noticed as she worried about the cooking area, her movements hurried, almost frantic. Her solitary question about the weather passed unanswered; they both knew winter would come soon enough without any additional chatter on the subject. A boiling kettle of cider being rendered into syrup filled the room with a fruity aroma. He poured a cup of boiled bitter coffee and excused himself to the shop where he spent his evenings. He would work late on one of the projects crowded into his workspace.

It had rained so hard in the night, his paranoia had driven him out to follow and clean the ditches of debris. The hundred-year old ditches were a labor to keep and maintain. Their tree-lined meanderings were, to him, sacred: the work of Chinese in the last century. He could not imagine them as other than streams, the eastern brook and rainbow trout heartily agreed. The torrent had choked the ditches' flow with pine needles and limbs, flooding through the pasture and over the embankment to threaten the access road. He had managed some sleep from three to six a.m., then spent all day covering material, repairing roofs, digging drainage ditches, and caring for livestock.

Now, with rifle in hand, he deserted the shop and went up to the breeze-way, where he grabbed a shovel from the hand tool selection lining the west wall. Pitching it in the truck among the anxious dogs, he drove out the other end bound for the wood lot. As he drove through the breeze-way, he noticed her look out the kitchen window, her glance momentary. Unable to return his stare, she returned to the duties she had created, leaving him alone to do what he must.
He drove past the barn, corrals, the storage building and the half erected windmill. The excavation for the root cellar was ready for forming the walls, another of his projects abandoned to concentrate on immediate priorities. The pond was a still calm, reflecting the muffed grey sky through tiny goose bumps from the drizzle. He was careful not to follow his previous routes through the pasture so as to avoid tearing the sod. Snow was nibbling at the slim margin between his farm and the forest. One more trip to the wood lot before it all locks up and comes to a screeching halt, before the snows bury the guilt of all the projects left undone.

Standing in a rain-soaked stupor, the livestock parted way for his rumbling passage. The three dogs leaned into the truck's momentum, looking for any disparate occurance. The bitch was in the back, detached from the excitement of the other dogs. After loading the last of the seasoned wood, he sent Queep,the lead dog, back to the farm so as not to distract the others from his job. The bitch stood out in the rain without interest, just waiting until they would head home, her coat soaked by the unrelenting drizzle. Confused haste left him with the dull shovel. It was too late to select the proper tool for his chore. He led the way up the hill above the wood lot, calling words of encouragement to her as she trailed behind. She came reluctantly. The steep-pitch was sparse with vegetation; the topsoil was thin with a rain-slick clay surface.

The best spot was halfway up the slope, just under a lichen-covered rock shelf. Above the shelf, nested on a flat spot, were a few climax bull pines, dark against the grey mist of a dreary sky. Rhythmic drops of icy condensation drained from the long needles, the spat of the large drops punctuating the silence. The choke-cherries were almost leafless but for a few remaining splashes of red and yellow; they floated among the lifeless perennial grasses, brown and seeded out.
He began digging. The exercise and the chilling drizzle made his body clammy with expired sweat. She arrived and sat next to his project, facing downhill with her back to him. As he dug, she became increasingly bored and slumped on her haunches, sitting next to the expanding crater with a fixed stare at the misty green valley. The woodlot below was tidy for the winter, with stacks of cordwood ricked to cure here and there under the forest canopy. The farm lay a mile down the slope, its north boundary only a few hundred yards away from his toil. Steam rolled off his hands with the effort of the project and his nervous excitement. All the while he questioned the solution: it was his job, his duty to complete.

As he dug, sweaty and clammy, his eyes attended to her more than to the hole in the ground. The mound of dirt grew, partially covering her bottom, its incremental expansion unnoticed by her. His shovel--clay-caked and muddy--made digging slow, much slower than he would have liked. He didn't knock the soil free for fear of making a disturbance that might shake her from her trance. A solitary raven overhead hawked its throaty rasp, winged through the grey white soup, and disappeared.

His excavation was less than half complete when, with sweat rolling down his face, his shaking hand reached for the rifle. Not thinking to drop the shovel, he stood with shovel and gun, momentarily faltering in his choreograph. Foolishly, he thrust the shovel in the soft mound and trod it deep. Bolting and locking the weapon, he turned, the muzzle lowered to the same elevation as her head. The barrel swung into alignment. Her stupor was broken by the call of her name. Awakened from boredom, she slowly turned her head to the sound of his beckoning voice. He pulled the trigger with the barrel two inches from her forehead. The report echoed around the shallow gulch.

Not a quiver. Her body slumped backward, still and lifeless. Carelessly dropping his weapon on the clay slime, he dug in a maniac frenzy, his steamy breath operating in uncontrolled bursts. Her mud-covered coat lay motionless, facing downhill. He dragged her body into the shallow misshapen hole, placing her on her side in a fetal position so as to occupy as little space as possible. So little blood.

He knew the grave was too shallow but excused himself, knowing that the frosts--closer together, longer and harder--would soon give way to snow and bitter cold, sealing the ground to scavenging predators. Large stones placed over the mound of wet clay would secure her resting place from pillage and pilfer.
Finished with a job too long postponed, he couldn't believe it was done. He had conjured the act to the same completion; however, his imagination had never cooperated as well as the actuality. Too easy, he thought, so clean.
Wasting no time, he picked up his slimy rifle, pulled out a handkerchief, and wiped off the worst of the mud with hands shaking and numb. There was no escaping the thudding heartbeat that raced through his throbbing temples.
The weather had lightened a little, a blot of momentary sunlight showing on the valley floor. With shovel and rifle in hand he meandered down through the scrub leafless vegetation to the wood lot. Carefully picking his way on the slippery hill, weak-kneed, he watched every step. In the wood lot, he slung the muddy shovel on top of the loaded firewood. Leaning against the truck bed, he looked down to the farm buildings and beyond to the valley below. In the changing light, the other farms were separated by now barren hawthorne hedges. They were distant, unfriendly, fortified by their thorny hedge walls. The hamlet lay centered in the snow ringed valley, remote, removed from the world beyond. The passions of this capsule of life remained, like an echo to play again and again against its barrier of granite.

The snow-line was creeping lower while he stood, working downward to separate his existence from the workings of the world beyond. Those people have done what they don't want to do for so long, he thought, so many unpleasant duties done that they no longer see. They kill each other for water, disown their children, and feud among families and clans. Their internal hatreds are postponed only to direct their wrath outward to those things not understood. Unforgiving, knowing how their world was ordered, left him with no means of reconciling his feelings. Had they known of his weakness, his character would be demeaned to a level of that beneath the village idiot; at least Wilber had an excuse for his gentleness.

Chilled from the soaking and within, his adrenalin was exhausted. He opened the door, pushed his rifle past the sleeping puppy, and climbed in. The pup awoke with a squinty-eyed curled tongue yawn. His natural docked tail let out a burst of quivering wags.

Sitting slumped over the wheel, he looked out at the near snow collecting in droplets on the windshield: they raced each other down the glass without regard to winning or losing. Beyond, late day fog crept down from the mountains. His hands stiffened around the steering wheel: labor on the land was draining his spirit with its unquenchable demand for his attention. Jealous competition for his touch compromised his every action. What could he do with the rest of this day's light?

He looked down at the pup next to him, dry, snug and warm in his spot on the truck seat.

"Well guy, I just murdered your mother," he mumbled in a low jerky monotone.
The dog's stub tail wagged his behind. He rose and, with coy affection, moved close to his sopping master. Looking up into the tired eyes, he poked his master with his nose, looking for affection. The pup looked just like his mother: his dead mother.

She had been a beautiful animal, with a natural docked tail like her off-spring. She had the intense stare of a cognitive being: a dishonest being. With cunning manifested in a divisive subterfuge, she had controlled the other dogs and manipulated them to commit crimes for which there was no forgiveness, but too smart to get caught herself. It was through her that he learned the meaning of the word bitch. She had had no compunction to serve him or any man.
His right hand slipped off the steering wheel and dropped across the little animal's back. His glance passed down his rain slicker to where, shocked by the oversight, he saw a before-unnoticed red glob of clotted blood stuck to the yellow rubberized material. The young male sniffed and then nosed his master's coat again. Quickly facing forward, he turned the ignition switch. The wipers lept into action, swiping the windshield clean. He hit the starter and the motor ambled forth in a throaty, broken muffler pipe start. From the corner of the windshield through the cleared pane he saw movement.

Out in the fog, near the cleft that separated the orchard from the pasture: something was there. He strained to see. It appeared to be three figures moving up the hill. They slipped through the thickening mist into the grove of walnuts. Grabbing his weapon, he left the motor running. Leaving the truck door ajar he moved slowly through the wood lot. Up the cleft, above the stacks of cord wood, to a position above the walnuts he moved cautiously with steps of anticipation. Darkness falls early in a November fog. The truck's rumbling idle silenced his steps toward the poacher's cover.

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