George had been digging since early morning.
The ache of a day’s work echoed in his bones, tendons stretched thin, threatening to free themselves from his exhausted shins and swollen forearms. His hands, once belonging to a formidable bar-brawler and brick-layer, now trembled, chewed raw by the naked pine of a splintered shovel. And though it was pulsating torment, George couldn’t help but smile at his renewed ruggedness; the ache as familiar to him as a long-lost drinking buddy.
At the retired age of sixty-five, two-hundred-and-ninety-eight pounds sat unnaturally upon George’s looming six-foot-three frame, giving him the body of a retired powerlifter: wide shoulders teetering atop a gut inflamed by decades of greasy burgers and cheap beer. Though his once jagged jawline had receded into the trunk of his neck, George maintained his boyish sneer; the smirk of an instigator, which he flashed as he dabbed at his temple with his sweat-soaked shirt. Surveying the trench, the hefty man heaved a guerrilla grunt.
“What says the peanut gallery?” he asked the Australian Shepherd laying close by. An equally plump animal, lethargic with age, Cassie appeared disinterested.
“Not my best work,” said George. “But it’ll keep the pasture from flooding.”
He sought her approval once more, but instead, the old shepherd peered into the alfalfa resting beyond the pasture. George gave the field a once over, the alfalfa yawing with the illusion of a gold and green, oceanic swell. Finding nothing but undulating horizon, George turned his gaze to his two, fattened bay horses, their long faces draped over the oxidized fence, limpid eyes begging for affection or grain.
“Probably just skunks, sweetheart,” he said to his dog.
In the distance, the cry of a bird. Cassie strained as she rose, a growl humming in her bulky throat. The neighbor’s peacock. George noted it had been crying quite frequently. Though, the bird was a notorious alarmist, screaming when a predator was lingering, but equally prone to overreact to threats as tiny as gophers.
George’s back ached as he bent forward, giving Cassie a pat, causing her to jolt, then wag her tail with consternation.
As they meandered to the house, George pulled his phone from his damp pocket. He dialed, listening as it rang twice, then went to voicemail. He spoke in a grizzled voice.
“Boy, I got vision. And the rest of the world wears bifocals.”
He hung up.
It was a joke between him and his son. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was their favorite movie, the quotes from which served as their primary language; the more obscure, the better. But lately, their exchanges had become sparse. Since the passing of the boy’s mother, it seemed George’s son had little patience for the old man’s bombastic ways. George felt he was being kept at arms length, the same mouth that worked so well at the job site was unwelcome in the bleachers of his grandson’s little league games. And after a recent political spat at a holiday gathering, George’s son was less apt to converse in their playful language.
George stood on the lawn, delaying the inevitable trek inside to an empty house and microwave dinner. His eyes searched for even the slightest task or loose end, but when he caught Cassie fixating on the alfalfa again, he gave her another pat and ushered her inside.
After polishing off two Farmer John corn dogs and a bag of Kraft pre-mixed salad, George sat on his couch, pictures of his deceased wife and distant son littering the walls like those of enshrined hall of famers.
Budweiser in hand, George binged a marathon of Jerry Quarry fights running on ESPN Classics. This particular fight from 1969 had “The Bellflower Bomber” in a toe-to-toe scrap with “Smokin’” Joe Frazier. George sipped his beer as he absorbed the tenacity, only to pause when he felt Cassie’s judgmental eyes.
“I know, girl. But we worked hard today.”
He sipped, directing his eyes back to the fight before pulling out his phone again. After several rings, voicemail.
“Kid… Next time I say, ‘Let’s go someplace like Bolivia?’ Let’s go someplace like Bolivia!”
George chuckled to himself, then scrambled for a purpose.
“Hey, kiddo… I know you’re busier than shit, but ESPN is running some Jerry Quarry fights. He was no pussy, just kept fuckin’ swinging, man. They don’t make ‘em like that no more… Anyways… Hey! Did I tell you I’m digging a trench out back? Busted my ass today. Should be ready for the rain. Boy, do we need it. Dryer than Satan’s asshole out there… Welp, that’s all I know. I’m just sittin’ around. Give me a jingle if you get time. And give my grandson a squeeze for me. Miss the little bastard… Adios, partner.”
George’s mood soured as the fight turned on Quarry. He was cut badly, crimson streaming from his brow to give him the mask of a demonic hulk. He swung wildly, red leather whipping air as Frazier countered with staunch overhands. Still, Quarry remained upright. The referee called over the ringside doctor and the fight was called. Quarry threw up his hands in disbelief, feeling he could’ve continued. George agreed.
George finished his beer and stood, surprised to find his balance askew. He barreled into the kitchen, his weight lopsided and forward. Grabbing a beer from the fridge, he stopped to admire the trophy buckle sitting atop the freezer. A silver and gold-tinted piece reading, “1979 Yuba-Sutter Rodeo – 1st Place – Calf Roping.” He smiled, drunken and wistful, as he remembered how his wife hated any occasion in which he wore it.
“It’s so gaudy,” she’d say.
“But I won it,” he’d say.
“I think it’s badass,” his son would say.
“Don’t swear, Junior,” she’d say.
Pulling George from his time traveling was the blanket of stillness and alarming quiet. Angling around the corner, he noticed Cassie by the door, silent and coiled. As he stumbled toward her, cracking the door, he was surprised as Cassie bolted, vanishing into the muggy evening.
“Musta hadda piss real bad,” he slurred.
It was the combination of his indolent tongue and rising dizziness that made him realize how fucked up he was. Having just been prescribed new blood pressure medication, the doctor had cautioned George against consuming alcohol.
“Sorry, cowboy,” the doc had said. “Kiss those days goodbye.”
Somehow blitzed on three Buds, George staggered onto his sprawling lawn, the grass painted a pitiful blue by a sputtering bug zapper. He wandered beneath the crab apple tree, the spastic light splitting the branches to illuminate a web of impressive size. He observed a captured mosquito hawk struggling as a bulky widow encroached. The insect fought valiantly, but George knew the score. As he awaited the inevitable, George’s scope widened to witness fifteen to twenty webs of similar size spread throughout the tree, widows either nearly upon their prey, or in the process of devouring them in the midst of an eery midnight banquet.
Ba-thump. Ba-da-thump. Ba-thump. Ba-da-thump.
The pounding of panicked hooves. He’d forgotten to put the horses away. Through the night, George stumbled for his pasture, but before he could reach the bays, he tumbled. Surprised by his work, George had twisted his ankle in his own drainage ditch. He rolled in the dirt, cursing and rubbing his swelling ankle.
Ba-thump. Ba-da-thump. Ba-thump. Ba-da-thump.
The horses were cloaked outlines, weaving amongst the darkness; black masses of twitching muscle darting with panic, ears pinned as they reared and bucked.
Evasive maneuvers, he thought. Fear.
A scream to congeal the blood. Reminiscent of George’s son, the boy’s nighttime cries. The times the kid bit his tongue. When he’d fallen off the tire swing. When he was beaned by an inside fastball.
Desperate to reach his boy, George attempted to rise but buckled. Afforded the luck of an opportune landing, his blistered hand fell upon his shovel. Propping himself up, the big man rose.
As he limped and came upon the lawn, the bug zapper flickered and flashed with strobing surges, illuminating a creature of alarming size. The animal too became aware of George, lifting its angular skull to showcase its thin but muscular structure, ragged beneath its mangy coat.
In the flashes of blue, George deciphered the frame of a large coyote, along with its victim: a bloodied, still-screaming Cassie.
“Get the fugg outta here,” he boomed, limping forward, swinging his shovel.
But the coyote remained, beady eyes leering as George plodded. He stopped ten yards from the beast, the animal’s bloody tongue tumbling from its wet maw as it panted. The moment between them taut, Cassie screamed once more, which caused George to make a snap decision. He raised the shovel above his head, hurling it like a tomahawk.
Though the shovel missed by several feet, the coyote darted for the pasture, weaving between the kicking horses and disappearing amongst the black alfalfa.
George limped, gritting his teeth as he fell to Cassie. Her throat was torn, eyes wide. She sporadically bore teeth, nipping the air as her legs pedaled, fighting as Jerry Quarry had, with every ounce left.
Though she thrashed when touched, George kept attempting to pet her. He cooed, whispered, but it was no help as the old girl’s eyes flashed white with shock. George rocked back, knowing what was demanded of him.
He grabbed for the shovel, struggling to stand. He lifted the spade into the air, but before he could do what had to be done, haunted images flipped as if ghoulishly projected upon his clouded vision. His boy, his wife. His grandson. Like the familial memorabilia strewn across his bleak walls, George was surrounded.
And though the big man’s hands were hardened only hours ago, they softened, dropping the shovel as he fell back to his knees. Tentatively reaching for her, George was able to make contact with Cassie’s shivering scalp. A scratch behind the ear. She allowed it.
Her eyes met George’s with a moment of recognition, a small wag of her tail. Then, a whimper that let him know she was gone.
In the morning, the trench became a shallow grave. George had barely slept, his beloved dog’s body locked safely in the mudroom. As dawn broke, George was amidst the dew and pale hues of morning, digging added inches to the trench to thwart any attempt by the coyote to reach her.
This digging differed greatly from the previous day. His hands were chaffed and brittle, his back weak, forearms empty. Adding to the biological reprobation, George’s head shook with the tremble of a clenched fist.
Arriving at the appropriate depth, George placed Cassie in the hole, showering her with earth. But as he patted the soil, he felt the eyes of another besides the curious bays. George turned toward the pasture to find the coyote lingering at the edge of the alfalfa. It stared back, stoic. George shook his head, turning to the grave, closing his eyes to whisper words to God, or something greater than himself. And when he glanced back at the field, the animal had vanished.
After mulling his options over a pot of burnt Folgers, George grabbed the trophy buckle, tightening it around his waist. Reaching beneath his bed, wrapped in an old bedsheet, he grabbed his father’s .270 Winchester; the gun was the only thing his father had left him, not fired since the man had passed. After a brief inspection and clean, George placed the gun in the cab of his pickup.
Driving into town, the weathered road paraded relics of significance only to him. There was the Lunch Box, an old burger joint where he’d taken his son to get soft serve during the unbearable summers. The little league field where George had coached his son and his friends, all grown with families now. And finally, Carwell’s Ammo, Sport, & Tack, where George had outfitted his son with his first pellet gun; a gun that was only fired once when his son shot and killed a blue jay, sending him running into the house, demanding his father destroy the weapon.
Weighted with memory, George reached for the rifle and entered the store, only to be abruptly pulled from his reminiscing by a Billy the Singing Bass crooning Reverend Al Green’s “Take Me to the River.”
“I just g-g-got that thing! Ain’t it hilarious?!” said Dale Carwell, the lanky old-timer leaning behind the counter. George smiled with relief at his old friend.
“Dale. I gotta get me one of these! That’s just good, solid fun right there. How’s this day finding you, my friend?”
“Right as rain. I s’pose you’re my first c-c-customer who ain’t lookin to buy a puppy.”
“What you mean? You selling puppies?”
“Howard Dumlaut got a litter for s-s-sale at the Lunch Box. He put up a flyer, but p-p-people keep gettin’ confused. Keep comin’ in here askin’ ‘bout puppies.”
George nodded, savoring his walk to the counter as he observed the ornaments of cowboy nostalgia blanketing the walls: black and white photos, saddles, ropes, chaps, banners from rodeos belonging to a bygone era. He stopped at a bronc saddle, a belt buckle hanging beneath it.
“That the saddle from your ’77 ride?”
“You kn-n-now it is, George. Why you askin?”
George chuckled, studying the wall of photos, many of a much younger Dale Carwell riding broncs and bulls.
“You were tough as a motherfucker, Dale.”
“You were no daisy yourself, G-G-George.”
George came to a picture of his younger self, aged eighteen. He was roping off a strong, chestnut quarter horse, horns snagged on a steer, mid dally.
“I guess I wasn’t too bad, was I?” George snickered.
“You st-t-till got the buckle?”
“I’m wearin it,” said George, pointing to his belt where the silver and gold buckle rested.
“My store is p-p-probably the only place someone gonna recognize it,” laughed Dale.
George arrived at a large, aged bull rope hanging by the counter. “And there it is…”
“Yup. One I used when I got s-s-stepped on,” said Dale, wincing has he touched his chest with a delicate finger.
“I’ve never asked you, but what’d that feel like?”
“Like g-g-gettin struck by lightinin’.”
“You quit after that, didn’t you?”
“Both b-b-broncs and bulls, yeah. I tried to keep ridin’, but I got a c-c-case of the yips. Cracked sternum and a stutter’ll have ya rethinkin’ things. Well, y-y-you just come to remember our rodeo days, or you gonna shoot me with that there rifle?”
He handed the rifle to Dale, who took it like a man comfortable with firearms. “Got a coyote problem, Dale. Big fucker. I’m figurin’ this will do the job. Might be a bit overkill.”
“Nah, j-j-just right. Looks ready to go,” said Dale as he inspected the chamber, then pulled out a box of bullets from below the counter.
“He j-j-just been hangin round? Scarin’ Cassie?”
“He got her.”
“No…” said Dale with disbelief and heartbreak, grazing the scar on his chest again.
“I had to put her out of her misery. It was awful.”
“Well… k-k-kill the fuck out of him.”
“I aim to,” said George without emotion. He reached for his wallet, paying for the bullets with cash. But once he was handed the receipt, George remained.
“You ever feel like you ain’t quite the same?” George asked Dale, who reeled with surprise.
“What you m-m-mean?”
George looked to the old photos of their cowboy days.
“Sometimes those days feel like forever ago. It was so easy to be full of piss and vinegar.”
“Oh yeah. Like them old D-D-Duke movies. You got yourself a shaky hand?”
“Yeah, but it’s not just my hand.”
Dale didn’t quite understand, but nodded as if he did. “H-h-how’s your boy? And that grandson of yours?”
“Great. They’re busy. But real great.”
George grabbed the rifle and the ammo, starting for the door, but stopped when he reached a picture. It was of his boy, ten years old at the time, riding on the back of a steer at a Junior Rodeo. George remembered he’d made sure to dress the boy in full, bull rider regalia. Harmless fun, but his wife had hated it. In the end, so did his son. And while the kid never rode again, George still cherished the memory of the boy’s attempt.
“Where’d you get this picture, Dale?” asked George.
“F-f-found it the other day. Figured, when he comes back ‘round, you could bring him by. He’d get a k-k-kick out of it.”
“I’ll have to do that.”
“Yep. H-h-he made the wall!”
George stared at the picture, intently. Finally, he reached down to his belt, removing his buckle. He tossed it to Dale, who caught it as if he’d been expecting it.
“That belongs here.”
“S-s-sure does, George,” said Dale, inspecting the buckle.
George headed for the door, but stopped. “You said Howard’s got puppies?”
“P-p-pugs. The ones that look like aliens with their eyes b-b-buggin out their head.”
George nodded. And as he left, Billy the Bass went off again, which made him double over once more.
“Dale, this thing is goddamn priceless.”
“I kn-n-now it.”
George made a pit stop, picking out a beige pug puppy. The one that caught his eye flashed a particular bullish demeanor, rampaging over its siblings, stepping on spines, backs, and barely conscious heads. Acknowledging the pup’s temerity, George knew this was his dog.
“This is your new chariot, Jerry Quarry,” he said to the pup as it fumbled in his passenger seat. A brief shiver rippled through him as he noticed the remnants of Cassie’s shedded fir forming a dandruffed bedding in the seat the new pup occupied. But Jerry Quarry seemed unbothered as he curled into a ball and faded off just as George made a phone call.
It went to voicemail quicker than before.
George took a breath, “‘Well… the way I figure it… we can either fight or give. If we give, we go to jail… We could fight, but they’ll stay right where they are and starve us out… or go for position and shoot us… Might even get a rock slide started, get us that way… I mean… what else can they do?… They could surrender… but I wouldn’t count on that…’”
Hanging up, he glanced at the sleeping pup. After a moment of content, both were startled by a thudding flap.
George screamed expletives as he pulled over the truck.
He gripped the wheel, heart pounding with the panicked rhythm of one of his bay horses. As he fought the shock, he could tell the way the truck was sitting that the tires were fine. He looked in the rearview to see a strange lump in the road.
It spasmed and lurched as if electrocuted. Though unable to stand, its injuries didn’t keep it from trying. George grabbed the rifle, loading three bullets as he spun from the pickup.
The coyote was on its side, its breathing shallow. A trail of blood about twenty yards long winding behind it in an ominous slither. No puncture wounds were visible, just a bloody mouth and nasal cavity, however, the bones within its hide reached every which way like a canvas bag of yard debris.
George lowered the rifle and observed. The animal was wide-eyed, jawing at the air, stumbling as it failed to rise. George remembered the wag of Cassie’s tail, the faint recognition in her opaque eyes. Did the coyote remember him? In the broad light of day, it seemed to be nothing more than a dog itself, an injured one at that. Bringing the rifle to his shoulder, George peered through the scope, switching off the safety. He placed his finger on the trigger, easing it back with a rasping exhale.
George was forced to dig once more.
The coyote was placed beside Cassie, which made sense to him in a way he couldn’t articulate. As he spread the last bit of dirt over the grave, Jerry Quarry danced around the yard. George marveled at the puppy’s bravery, venturing to the far reaches of the lawn, smelling the patch of red grass where Cassie had expired.
George patted the dirt, condensing the top layer of both graves. He stuck the spade into the ground, wiping sweat from his brow, only to quickly realize that it wasn’t sweat, but a drop of rain.
Another. And another. More.
George let the drizzle dampen his face and soak his shirt. He looked to Jerry Quarry who kicked and screamed, running around the yard like a loose piglet, finally seeking cover beneath the crab apple tree.
As George walked across the lawn to rescue his terrified pup, he realized his pocket was vibrating. He grabbed his phone, answering.
“Hello?…” he asked with trepidation.
“‘Would you jump if you didn’t have to?’” asked a voice similar to his own, but half his age.
George smiled, then answered quickly. “‘I have to and I’m not gonna!’”
Both father and son chuckled as George took pity on his sensitive pup, swooping him up and heading inside as the intensity of the rain picked up, wetting the graves and flooding the back pasture.