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Predatory Animals

by Conor Boland 10 months ago in literature

This was written in response to the Night Owl challenge - I simply couldn’t afford to upgrade to Vocal+ at the time. I hope you enjoy, constructive criticism is always welcomed. Thanks for stopping by.

It was a day like any other when the postman delivered my draft notice.

I’d woke at dawn, roused by Father, and went about my morning duties on the ranch.

I prepared tack and saddle for our horses, which included loading and scabbarding father’s Henry rifle. All sorts of predatory beasts roamed our corner of California, from coyotes to mountain lions to bears. It was a necessary tool to protect the ranch and our livelihood.

I returned from the stable to the ranch house for a breakfast of eggs and bacon.

Mother, Father, and I ate in each other’s quiet company; talk was saved for supper, as no one had a pleasant attitude in the morning. After finishing our meal, Father and I took coffee and set our minds to the task at hand - driving the cattle to pasture and back.

It was about the time we had finished our coffee when a knock came at the front door.

Mother paused from sweeping the packed dirt floors.

“Mighty early for the postman to be coming around” she remarked.

Father, seated across from me, leveled an icy gaze at the foyer.

He didn’t appreciate surprises. Having survived the war in the Philippines, he was known to say he’d had enough surprises for a life time ‘over there’.

Mother set aside her broom and approached the foyer.

She cracked the door to peek, and upon confirming it was in fact the postman, invited him inside. “Hello, Harold. Do come in, don’t stand about in the cold.”

Harold doffed his cap with a mumbled “Ma’am,” and stepped inside.

“Jack and Junior were just finishing their coffee, can I offer you a cup?”

“While I appreciate the offer, I must decline. There are many other notices for me to deliver.”

“Notices?” Father asked in a gravelly baritone. His gaze hadn’t shifted.

“Yes, sir.” Harold held the brim of his cap in a way that suggested he was quite anxious.

“I have one here for your son.” Harold looked at me. “Your full name is George Gould-Hollis Junior, correct?”

“It is.” I cleared my throat.

Harold reached into his postbag and withdrew a letter, looking over the name of the addressee. He then handed it to me.

“Good luck to you, son.”

I took the letter, and read the return address. It was from the Department of the Army.

“Sir, Ma’am. Thank you for inviting me in, but I must be getting along now. More of these to deliver.” Father nodded to him, as if giving permission to him to leave.

Mother opened the door for Harold, unable to look him in the eyes. She shut the door behind him, then quickly made her way to Her and Father’s bedroom. I’d never quite seen such a look of concern on her face.

I began to open the letter, until Father stopped me with a firm “No.”

“Not yet. We tend to the cattle, then tend to that business.”

I tucked the letter into my pocket.

“Yes, Father.”

Father clenched his jaw, furrowed his brow, and swallowed. He finally broke his gaze, as if he’d been staring at the memory of Harold in the doorway, and looked me in the eyes.

“Good man. Let’s get to it, then.”

We spent the day driving our hundred head of cattle to feed in pasture, to drink at the stream, then back to the ranch, keeping watchful for predators or cattle rustlers.

As with many a spring day preceding this one, though, we were met by no enemies, man or beast.

Father and I successfully drove the cattle back to shelter, stabled the horses, and stored their saddles and tack. Father unsheathed his Henry rifle and brought it inside to be cleaned after supper. Hours spent plodding along, kicking up dust could heavily foul the moving parts of the gun’s action. Upon entering our home, we discovered that Mother had prepared a thick stew of salted beef, carrots and potatoes. After a hard day on horseback, it smelled magical.

I rinsed my hands in a bucket of well water, then took my place at the table. Father did the same, followed by Mother. We each took turns ladling our portions into our bowls. Father led us in thanking God for our meal, after which he and I began to eat. Mother sat in silence, fuming as if something was burning to get out of her.

“Jack, why don’t we just read the damn thing already?”

Father set down his flatware and shook his head.

“We have to see if there’s any address listed to write back to, to protest! We won’t make it through the year without Junior’s help, he can’t just go off to fight the damn Huns.”

“If the Army wants him, they will take him, regardless of our protests, Colleen.”

“Damn you, Jack. And damn the Army.”

Mother left her still warm bowl at the table and darted to their bedroom, locking the door with a loud clack.

After a short pause, father spoke up.

“Suppose I’ll be sleeping with the horses tonight, then.”

He started eating his stew again.

“Wouldn’t be the first time.” He remarked, his mouth half-full.

“I’ll send home whatever they pay me, Father. Maybe you and Mother can hire a ranch hand.”

“Thank you, Joe. Maybe so…”

Father rarely called me by my nickname.

“In the meantime, go on and read that letter. Let’s see what the Federal men have to say to you.” Father set aside his dish and withdrew a pouch from his pocket. From it, he produced his corncob pipe, and proceeded to pack it. I tore open the letter and started reading its contents. By the time I had finished, Father’s pipe was lit, and he was drawing from it heavily.

“Go on.” He said, pointing at the letter with the mouthpiece of the pipe.

“It says I am to report to a recruit depot in Tulare, then be transported to a training camp somewhere in Oklahoma.”

“And then?”

“Then I am to report to the thirty ninth infantry division, and await transport to France.”

Father sat, huffing at his pipe, deep in thought.

“What do you think, Joe?” He said after awhile.

I chewed my lip, looking at the letter, then back at him.

“I’m ashamed to say that I’m scared.”

“Good. You should be.”

I was taken aback, I didn’t understand.

Before I could respond, he held up his hand to silence me.

“If you were not afraid, you’d be a damned fool. I say so knowing that you haven’t seen what men are capable of doing to each other.”

Father drew deeply on his pipe, and fell silent.

“Father?”

“Yes?”

“How… how do I kill a man?”

His cold stare bore down on me.

“I’ve killed cows and pigs and chickens for food, but… a man? I don’t think I can.”

Father set down his pipe, exhaled heavily through his nose, and clasped his hands.

“It pains me greatly to say that it is much easier than you may think, my son.”

Father stared at the table. I was at a loss for words.

“But how… how do I… how am I supposed to...”

My stumbling words were cut off by the fearful braying of cattle.

We met each other’s eyes.

“George! George!” Mother shouted from the bedroom.

“Stay there, Colleen!”

Father picked up his Henry rifle and I followed him as he kicked open the back door.

A coyote had a calf by its hind leg and was attempting to drag it through our wire fence, some fifty paces away. The calf’s squeals had woke the other cattle, causing them to stir and panic. Father leveled the Henry, and shot the coyote square in its gut. He stepped off our porch, walking towards the coyote, throwing the Henry’s lever and chambering the next round.

He approached the coyote and shot it a second time, silencing its moans and growls.

He then stood over the calf as it writhed. I could see from the porch that its leg jutted at a wrong angle.

Father threw the Henry’s lever and fired a third time, this time putting the calf out of its misery.

As he approached the house, I saw that his shirt and trousers were spattered in mud and blood.

“It’s a lot like that, son. You’ll see.”

I arrived in France near the end of October, 1918. As part of Baker company, second brigade, thirty ninth infantry division, I was sent to occupy positions near the town of Lucy. It seemed that the Germans were somewhat on the back foot, fighting a retreating action, driving our spirits up. The war, however, was not at all over yet. Most of the boys were treating it as such, carrying on as if they needn’t be afraid. Most of the boys ended up dead.

Our lines had been static for awhile, and our commanders were itching to start another ‘push’, to oust the German from his position and drive him further back. Before ordering such a thing, our commanders wanted intelligence to be gathered upon the German line: fighting positions, machine gun nests, troop strengths and so on. I was paired with an Indian scout from Oklahoma that went by Crow, and we were sent over the top on the night of 4 November to attempt to gather this kind of information. Crow spoke little, and had a hard look in his eye that very much reminded me of Father. I took a liking to him, and asked him what his whole name was on the night that we were to set out. He told me he is Crow Calls Loudly, and I found that profound.

We crawled through mud, filth, decaying bodies, and rats’ nests. Bodies of men who had died in the most gruesome of ways lay strewn about us. Crow handed me a cigarette, then broke another in half so I could see him stick the pieces in his nose. Surprisingly, it cut the stench. We continued squirming through the muck and broken stretches of barbed wire until we made ourselves snug against the outer walls of an earthen redoubt. Laying on our backs, we heard voices speaking German, confirming that the position was still occupied. I stayed put while Crow scrambled up the low embankment. He returned after some time, explaining that there was a machine gun position manned by five men, but the rest of the Germans had already retreated. We could confirm where the German unit had pulled out to by taking prisoners.

However, if our unit made its advance, many men would be cut down.

We had to take the position, destroy that gun.

I shuddered, thinking of what I must do.

I started breathing heavily. My fingertips and face started to tingle. I bit my lips.

If I didn’t commit to act, I’d end up like all the poor bastards I’d crawled around.

Crow placed a heavy hand on my shoulder, and squeezed a little.

I met his gaze, and he nodded, as if he knew what I was thinking.

He pointed two fingers two his eyes, then outward along the path we’d crawled through.

He pointed to a very large rat, some twenty yards away.

I looked back at him, confused, until he pointed back to the rat.

A heart-faced barn owl swooped out of the night sky, briefly crashing into the rat and rolling about, until it took flight again, clutching the rat’s corpse.

I looked back at Crow, very much now reminded of Father.

“Here, now, we kill… or we die tomorrow. Owl or rat. Choose.”

I slung my rifle over my shoulder.

Crow did the same.

I drew a Colt automatic pistol. He, a Bowie knife.

Both of us took Mills bombs from our webbing, pulled their pins and tossed them overhead.

One week later, the Great War ended.

I’d carry the weight of that choice for the rest of my life.

literature

Conor Boland

I’m a veteran of the GWOT, a bartender, and a lost boy from California. My heaviest literary influences are Hemingway, Le Carré, and Nick Harkaway.

Forever a stranger in a strange land.

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