Susan Jay Watson

Sheila had just come up from the garden where she’d picked the last of the green tomatoes. After wrapping the biggest in newspaper and placing them in crates, she set aside the rest in a large ceramic bowl. A faded blue copy of <i>Joy of Cooking</i> lay opened to a stained page where “Green Tomato Pickle Relish” was starred. In a warm summer with an abundant harvest, she’d already put up twenty-four quarts. And with those ripening in the crates, there would be enough for canning two more batches, as well as plenty for eating fresh.

Pastel sketches of morning glory and squash vines rose above the crates, framing the west-facing window. On the opposite wall, next to the cookstove, hung a poster of Peter Kropotkin with the caption: The Choice Lies With You! Through the window, the late afternoon sun flooded the poster with a liquid brilliance, making the anarchist’s beard resemble dark seaweed on white water.

Sheila stoked the fire, bringing the water bath to a boil. Then she spread out instruments for canning: paring knife, lids, rims, honey, vinegar, and spices wrapped in cheesecloth. Glass jars bobbed in the water, knocking against the sides of the canner. She began coring the tomatoes and had just started singing: <i>I am a lonely painter: I live in a box of paints. I’m frightened by the devil and I’m drawn to those who ain’t afraid</i>, when the first barks ripped through the late September air like shrill, high-pitched explosions.

Dropping the knife, she rushed to the front window. The view overlooked a meadow edged by a dense forest of old growth conifer. Cutting through the dark trees, a dirt drive marked the top of a quarter mile climb from the county road. Sheila’s eyes fixed on the narrow opening but saw nothing. Yet her dog, Luna, a wiry black terrier, charged into the meadow, punctuating her barks with dramatic yelps and growls. Behind the house — silent up till now — another dog let out a long low howl.

Sheila went to the bedroom and from under the bed got a single-shot .22 — not exactly a man’s gun, but the only one she could shoot. She knew it was loaded, but checked the chamber before returning to the kitchen. There, at the window, she held the rifle while running her thumb across the red safety latch.

She was alone and without a phone. Her husband had gone clear across the state to an alternative energy conference in Billings. She’d stayed behind because of the canning and the goat milking. And it seemed (although he hadn’t said it) that Erik wanted to go without her.

The phone had been the subject of an ongoing argument. Erik said it was too expensive to run a line this far from the road. Besides, he didn’t want her mother calling — or anyone else for that matter. Now she wished she’d insisted, even though on some points, Erik was right. Her mother <i>would</i> call and eventually begin to question the life Sheila was leading and the one she was not. And there were her clients. She was a welfare worker, and not having a phone kept some of her most needy cases and their complaining neighbors at bay. When the police wanted to contact her about emergencies, — kids beaten or left alone — Cleve Ripley, the deputy, drove up to tell her.

She was hoping it was Cleve now and not some drunken poachers who’d found out Erik was gone. She yelled at Luna to shut up so she could listen. Outside, a greengage plum tree had begun to drop over-ripe fruit. Yellow jackets swarmed around the branches and just above the ground. It was hard to tell through the bee drone, but she thought she could hear an engine: a truck, definitely not Cleve’s Camaro. Then she spotted the lightweight pickup.

Before she could see the driver, Sheila noticed the 4 on the plate and felt the tight grip of nervousness loosen within her chest. Whoever drove the 150 miles from Missoula would most likely be someone she knew. She and Erik had friends, living on the periphery of the university — friends who often promised to visit but rarely did.

The truck inched across the meadow and stopped on a small knoll beyond the house. Sheila returned the rifle to its spot under the bed. She had tied up her hair for canning and now yanked off the kerchief, removing bobby pins and running her fingers through the thick uncombed mass that spilled down her back. Her light brown hair was streaked after summer with red and gold, giving her a horsy look with wild, mottled colors. She shook her head, letting her long hair fall over her breasts. She wasn’t wearing a bra and didn’t want whoever was here checking out her nipples. Her period was late and she felt a fullness in her not quite skinny body, making her a bit self-conscious. Grabbing Erik’s denim work shirt and buttoning it over her t-shirt, she hurried outside.

A young woman with long straight black hair stepped from the truck. It was her old friend, Arlene Little Bear, who once worked with Sheila at the Elk River School and Hospital when they both lived on the other side of the Divide. Arlene was slender, with classic Cheyenne features — long, runner’s legs, ebony eyes, and high cheekbones that gave her an exotic, Asian look. She lived with Jay Sturgeon, a skier from Colorado, who looked a little like John Denver, blonde and friendly.

Sheila’s mood shifted to planning dinner. She could thaw venison stew or perhaps make gazpacho. Erik wasn’t especially sociable and they had few friends in Moxler. It would be fun having company for a change; she didn’t like being alone after dark.

In Elk River, there had been a distancing between the two couples after Erik and Arlene argued over strip mining. The Northern Cheyenne was embroiled in a heated debate after geologists located a rich vein of coal on their reservation. Erik said he trusted Arlene would oppose the company’s offer of compensation for land, which would be stripped of topsoil and left with contaminated ground water.

Arlene was unprepared to discuss the subject. Flustered, she muttered, “There’s hardly a future for those unfortunate enough to be stuck on that reservation.” Before Erik could respond, she continued, “And you have no fucking idea what it’s like to live there. At six I was shipped off to Catholic boarding school so I could be fed and taught correct English. At eighteen, I was married and had a miscarriage after my husband got so drunk one night, he beat me unconscious. When Lloyd agreed to counseling, I went back and stayed until the next time he put me in the hospital. You bet I’ll let Shell mine that piece of shit land if it means money for me to stay as far from Lame Deer as I can get.”

Arlene and Jay soon left in an awkward end to the evening. Not long afterwards, they moved to Missoula where Jay returned to school. Sheila hadn’t seen them for more than a year and heard that Arlene was telling some people she was Hawaiian and introducing herself to others as Vietnamese. All the same, Sheila was glad to see her. She had missed Arlene, who was smart and possessed a strength that Sheila rarely found in women her own age.

As Sheila walked past the plum tree, she realized it wasn’t Jay who climbed from the driver’s side of the truck, but a very pale, thin man, wearing a <i>Dark Side of the Moon</i> t-shirt and a cowboy hat. He’d brought a dog with him — a mix-breed of shepherd and maybe dingo. Luna growled as the larger dog bared its teeth.

“Hold on to your dog,” Sheila called out, “I’ll put Luna in the house.” Now she’d have to keep their alpha dog away from Bones. Great. Coming back outside, she glanced up at a large grey-white malamute curled beneath a wide cable strung between two tamaracks behind the house. The animal jumped up, as if sensing her gaze, and stared back with feral, yellow-green eyes. Then, as she walked up the hill, the dog lay back down.

“What a surprise,” she said, approaching the couple. “I can’t believe you made it to Moxler. Sorry about Luna; she’s so protective, she’d take on a bear.”

“I told Darryl not to bring the dog, but he just couldn’t stand hearing Buster whine when we left.” Arlene hugged Sheila and said, “This is my friend, Darryl.”

“Some spread you’ve got,” Arlene’s skinny companion exclaimed, taking in the whitened peaks above the tree line. “Is that wilderness?”

“Yeah, those are the Cabinets, southeast of here.”

“Far out.” Darryl spotted two hawks, circling over the barn. “Look <i>Hon</i>, buteos. They’re letting us know they’re up there watching us.”

Arlene laughed and said that Darryl was from Arizona and she hoped Sheila didn’t mind her bringing him. “I needed to get out of Missoula and didn’t want to drive this far by myself.”

“Of course not,” Sheila answered, mildly startled by Darryl’s Hon. She wondered if Arlene was as stoned as she looked.

“Listen, I told Jay I was coming up to keep you company. We ran into Erik at the <i>No Sweat</i> on his way to Billings; so I knew you were alone.” Arlene spoke in a soft low voice, in which Sheila could detect the timbre of another tongue — not quite an accent, but a soothing tone. She imagined men found it attractive — different from her own fast talk, which sometimes led men to tell Sheila she had a big mouth or too much to say.

“I’m glad you came; it’s great seeing you. I’m in the middle of canning: the kitchen’s a wreck.”

“You know how much I give a shit about housekeeping,” Arlene said with a broad smile that made Sheila think she might be doing mushrooms. It was hard to tell.

Arlene had always done a lot of drugs but also managed to project the same calm demeanor no matter what she’d swallowed.

Darryl, who’d been exploring the farm with Buster, came up behind the women. “Your gardens are incredible. What do you do with all the food?”

“We put up enough for the year. And we sell kale and cukes to a local restaurant. Erik’s a great gardener.”

“Grow any weed?”

“I’m the county welfare worker: I couldn’t risk getting busted. The locals are already suspicious of anyone who wasn’t born here or who doesn’t work in the mill.”

“As secluded as this place is, it shouldn’t be a problem.”

“It’s just not worth it.”

“You shouldn’t be so paranoid; you could make a lot of money, you know,” Arlene added. “Then you wouldn’t have to have a job taking kids from their parents.”

“I don’t do that often, only when kids are in danger. I always try to get children back with their parents as soon as possible,” Sheila said defensively. She wondered if Arlene had ever been in foster care. “It’s getting chilly,” she said. “Why don’t we go inside? I’ll fix some tea.”

“What about Buster?” Darryl asked.

Sheila was annoyed they’d brought the dog. “Maybe you should tie him up by the truck,” she suggested. “We just got a dog that might be part wolf. He’s on a chain run and might feel threatened.”

“You’ve got a dog on a chain? That’s so fucked.” Arlene sounded uncharacteristically censorious.

“We have to for now. He goes nuts when he’s loose — pisses on everything and then takes off. I bought him from one of my welfare moms whose boyfriend staked him to a two-foot tether. She needed money, and I felt sorry for the dog. He’s a lot happier now.” Then she added, as if altering the unfavorable image she’d presented, “His name is Bones. He’s got the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen and he howls at the moon.” The dog also howled whenever she came, but she wasn’t about to share that fact with them.

Darryl led Buster into the house, as if indicating he wasn’t going to treat him any less than a family member. In the small kitchen, the three adults plus the dog made the room instantly crowded. Darryl sat at the table, playing with Buster’s neck while looking around the room.

“Neat stove; where’d you get it?” he said, taking off his cowboy hat. His flat, thin hair clung to his skull, making him look almost ghoulish. Erik would take one look at Darryl and sum him up as a city-wimp. Erik would have said to tie the dog up or leave.

“It came with the place. The owners were moving to Spokane and didn’t want to take it.” Sheila put the kettle on the stove, added wood to the fire, and dumped the green tomatoes in a pot she put aside.

“My grandmother had one in Lame Deer just like it,” Arlene remarked. “Only hers was blue, a very pale blue,” she said almost wistfully as she stared at the stove. Placing a beaded pouch on the table, she sat down.

“What kind of tea would you like?” Sheila asked. “There’s peppermint, lemongrass, and chamomile — Earl Grey if you want black.”

“I’ve got Guatemala Antigua. How about a good buzz?” Arlene announced, taking the beans and a bag of weed from the pouch.

“Sure,” said Sheila. She might as well drink coffee. She’d probably be staying up later than usual. Arlene deftly rolled a thin joint, which she licked and lit.

After a long toke, she said, “Try this.”

“Just a little.” Taking a hit, Sheila coughed. “God, that’s strong.”

“You think so? It’s Hawaiian.”

“Your people.”

“All indigenous are my people.”

Embarrassed, Sheila said, “Just kidding.”

Arlene laughed, “So was I. I couldn’t care less about politics or even yesterday. It’s all about now and right now, I’m feeling Hawaiian. Why not? I’m sick of the Indian princess number.”

Sheila realized they were ignoring Darryl, who was thumbing through a copy of <i>Mother Earth News</i>. “Darryl, are you hungry? I’ve got venison stew,” she said.

“No offense, but I’ll pass on Bambi.”

He looked like he could use a little meat on his almost emaciated body. “How about minestrone?” she asked. “I froze some last week. The garden was putting out more beans and tomatoes than we could keep up with.” She decided against offering to make gazpacho.

“That’s more like it: sounds great.” Darryl began stroking Arlene’s back like someone who had taken a massage class. She’d finished the joint, and closing her eyes, dropped her head as Darryl made small karate chops around her shoulders and neck.

The kitchen reeked of a skunk-spray pot smell and Sheila opened the window over the sink. The air had cooled and the bees had stopped humming. As she turned to the freezer to get the soup, she noticed Darryl’s eyes watching her. Taking out a container, she emptied its contents in a Dutch oven, which she placed on the stove.

“That’s so cool,” he said, getting up to look. “You just go to the freezer and get a garden meal. Arlene says you make great bread too. Your husband’s one lucky dude.”

“He gets in the wood and I like baking on a wood stove,” she said without looking at him as she turned to a stone mill grinder, poured the beans, and cranked the handle. The crushed coffee smell mingled with the sinsemilla, tomatoes, the minestrone, and an acrid odor exuding from Darryl’s skin. The kettle whistled and Sheila poured the boiling water over the grounds.

“Cream or molasses?” she asked, placing bread and mugs on the table.
“We drink ours black,” Darryl said.

Like his <i>Hon</i>, the <i>ours</i> hit the air so sharply, Arlene looked up at Sheila. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t say anything about Darryl to Erik. I don’t want Jay getting bent out of shape. We haven’t been getting along at all lately. He comes home from school and bitches about what I’ve done all day — as if I should have been cleaning the oven or something.”

The coffee was strong, and Sheila felt mildly anxious. Suppose the deputy drove up? That was all she needed. “I forgot about the goats,” she announced. “I’ve got to run down to the barn to check on one that’s pregnant.” Opening the back door, she added, “Watch the fire. I’ll be right back.”

Outside, scooping a fruit from the ground, she slipped past the plum tree. She wiped it on her jeans, and sucking on the sweet fleshy pulp, entered the meadow. The dry grass bristled against her legs as she breathed in the lingering scents of summer. The knapweed and ripened fruit. From the river below, dampness seeped into the purpling dusk. In it she could taste a new wind moving down from Lethbridge. The next freeze would be a hard one. She was glad she’d harvested the tomatoes. Tomorrow she’d pick plums. A half moon poked through the tall white pine limning the horizon. Like fireflies, a few stars slowly lit the darkness. Soon there would be thousands. Her body began to relax as she sensed the immense life around her. Trees breathing oxygen. Owls, hawks, deer, bear, and elk — listening. Lynx watching. Waxwings drowsy from fermented berries. She broke off a bunch of knapweed. Gradually, she began to distinguish sounds. Animal steps on pine needles; a coyote’s yip and an answer from across the river. Then she heard his howl: a plangent signal that filled her with something like longing for what she couldn’t name.

She reached the barn and opened the creaking door. The goats were bleating as if in a conversation that crescendoed with her arrival. After giving them feed and knapweed, she ran her hand along the belly of the doe.

“How are you doing, Nana?” she whispered as the animals munched and talked. The belly was warm and swollen. Sheila smoothed the silken hairs and imagined babies being comforted by the animal voices swelling like a gospel chorus.

Walking up toward the house, she decided she wouldn’t smoke any more pot. Tomorrow she’d tell Arlene and Darryl that she had to go somewhere. She’d never get anything done with them around; it was obvious they weren’t about to be of any help.

Then she remembered she’d forgotten to feed Bones.

She ran to the woodshed behind the house where she scooped a container of dried food and carried it to Bones. The motionless dog looked like a pale rock or a pile of snow. But as Sheila approached him, Bones sprang up with his mouth open and his eyes on her. While gingerly petting the back of his head, she filled his dish. She didn’t want to admit that he sometimes frightened her.

When she first saw him at Roselle Ferguson’s cabin, she’d fallen in love with his wild, alert beauty. And she wanted to free him from his tether. Now she wondered if he would ever be tamed. Indifferent to her touch, he continued to devour the food as Sheila turned to go back to the house. She hoped she hadn’t been gone too long.

Opening the door, she saw the scene hadn’t changed since she’d left — except that the shadowy cast of sundown had entered the room. Kropotkin’s face stared darkly from behind his full black beard. The smell of marijuana hit her instantly along with the coolness of the kitchen. The fire was out.

She was about to say something when she saw the powder on the blue plate. Fuck, they were doing coke. Now they’d be up all night.

“Hey, you’re back fast; want some? It’s clean, no speed.” Arlene beamed a sensual smile, which didn’t seem to fit her face. For a moment, Sheila thought she detected a trace of uncertainty or panic in that too wide grin.

At another time, Sheila, whose sense of adventure had led her to this far corner of Montana, might have said, “Why not?” Now, because she viewed risk differently, she said, “No thanks, I might be pregnant.”

After closing the window over the sink with more force than necessary, she went to the stove and added crushed newspaper and kindling to the remaining embers. She blew on the coals until the shards of cedar caught fire.

“Wow,” Arlene said, “You’re having a kid? You’ve got more guts than I do.” She shook her head with an expression of mild incredulity.

“It’s all I dream about,” Sheila said, “I’m twenty-six, you know; maybe it’s biological.”

“I got pregnant last year,” Arlene said. “Jay said he wasn’t ready to be a parent. And when I accused him of not wanting to be the father of a half-breed, he punched me.” Arlene spoke without emotion, as if talking about a trip she’d taken that hadn’t turned out as planned. Sheila figured it was the coke.

“I’m sorry Arlene; I never imagined Jay could be that violent. I wish you’d come here.”

“Frankly, I wouldn’t want to be around Erik when I was feeling vulnerable. His idea of support would be launching a speech on zero population growth or something equally helpful. You know, I never could get why you’re with him. Jay’s a jerk, but Erik’s the most negative person I’ve ever met.”

Sheila added wood to the fire and stirred the soup. The steam from the tomatoes, basil and beans made her hungry and she sipped a spoonful to taste it. “Erik’s just passionate about his opinions. He comes from an argumentative family.” She changed the subject. “Did you lose the baby?”

“Fetus. I had an abortion and left town. I went to Arizona to hike in the desert. I was sick of the cold and sick of Jay. That’s where I met Darryl. He was studying anthropology at Tempe and writing his thesis on the Peyote Cult. I showed him how to remove the arsenic. Now he thinks he’s a shaman, don’t you Darryl? We’re going to the Flathead to do a sweat tomorrow; want to come?”

“I’d like to,” she lied, “but I have to finish canning. I’ve got to work on Monday. And I forgot, I might have to pick up a run away foster kid in Spokane.” She ladled the hot soup into bowls, which she placed on the table with more bread. “Would you like Parmesan?” she asked.

“No thanks, we don’t do dairy,” Arlene said. “You know, I’d run away too if anyone put me in foster care.”

“Well, sometimes it’s necessary,” Sheila said, dipping her bread into the soup.

“Yeah, and sometimes it’s not,” Arlene said in a tone that convinced Sheila that Arlene had not only been shipped to boarding school, but also been taken from her parents.

Darryl, who had finished his soup, began wrestling with Buster under the table. Then he stood up and announced that even shamans had to shit sometimes and could Sheila point him in the direction of the outhouse. Sheila got a flashlight, lit the path to the outhouse behind the dog run, and suggested Darryl leave Buster in the kitchen.

“Damn, I forgot about the wolf.”

“He won’t hurt you. Close the outhouse door if he bothers you,” Sheila said.

Darryl grabbed Buster’s leash, took a quick snort of coke, and left with the dog, saying: “We ain’t afraid of no wolf, are we Buster?”

Arlene got up to spoon out more soup. “I don’t know how you can stand having an outhouse,” she said. “And don’t tell me you get used to it. Forty below in January with three feet of snow on the ground; and in August, wasps under your butt. No thank you. Do you have any salt?”

“Above the counter. An outhouse saves on water: we’ve got a shallow well. And you know, it forces us to plug into nature and weather. Once I’m out there, I check out the sky and notice things I might have missed indoors. It’s not so bad.”

“Just wait till the kid comes. You’ll be lugging shitty water while you’re trying to wash diapers and take care of a baby. I can’t see Erik helping out much on that end either. How does he feel about being a daddy?”

“He doesn’t know yet.” Sheila didn’t explain that having a baby had little to do with what Erik wanted. She’d already had an abortion when Erik insisted. Now she’d decided she was having this baby, with or without him. She was about to tell Arlene how happy she’d become since making that decision, when she saw Darryl’s face — white with anger or fear — as he burst through the door.

“That fucking wolf. Arlene, quick: Buster’s in trouble.” He looked at Sheila. “I need rope and a crow bar. Do you have a crow bar for Chrissake? Buster fell down the fucking shithole.”

Sheila ran outside to the tool shed. The stars and a cloud-covered moon dimly lit the otherwise black night, and her flashlight shone like a stream of spectral vapor floating up the path. Luna, who had been hiding from Buster in the bedroom, was now emboldened by the shouting. She began barking with her former fury as Buster’s strident cries arose from the depths of the outhouse. Bones, silent as a stalking silver tiger, paced back and forth, his leash grating across the long steel cable.

Coming up behind Sheila, Darryl started to rant like a teenager defending himself after a car wreck. “When I opened the door to leave, that wolf was in front of me, staring with those yellow eyes and his wide-open mouth. I could see his Goddamn teeth. I backed up and Buster fell into the hole. I can’t believe you people don’t have a phone.”

As she searched for the crow bar, Sheila found the rope and handed it to Darryl, saying, “It’s your fault. You must have pushed Buster down the hole when you freaked out over nothing. I told you to leave him in the kitchen. Here’s the crow bar.”

Darryl jerked it out of her hand and then picked up an ax lying on the chopping block. He ran to the outhouse where he and Arlene proceeded to break down the boards while reassuring Buster they were getting him out.

Sheila decided to take down the laundry she’d hung out that afternoon. As she listened to the yelping and the hacking of wood, she thought of Erik. He would be furious. About everything: the dog, the coke, the outhouse, and particularly about Arlene and her lover. He’d blame Sheila for her poor judgment and her need for company. He would probably tell Jay. Folding the laundry, she tried to plan how she would undo the damage before Erik got back.

She was tired. She’d been up since dawn and it was now almost midnight. She carried the clothes into the house, went to the bedroom and lay down, imagining how she’d repair the outhouse. It wouldn’t be difficult. Maybe they would help. Closing her eyes, she began to relax as she felt her body slip toward sleep. Darryl’s shout of, “We got him!” jolted her back awake.

Doused in liquid shit, Buster looked like a different dog: shrunken and humiliated as he cowered in the chilly air. Darryl and Arlene were wiping his coat with towels they’d grabbed from the kitchen when Buster abruptly broke away. As if chased by killer bees, the dog began to race around the perimeter of the house, shaking wet shit everywhere he ran. After exhausting himself, he crawled under a lilac bush where he lay, whimpering and licking his paws.

Sheila dragged a large tin tub outside and dumped the hot water from the canner. She told Arlene and Darryl to wash off and to put their clothes in a bag. Then she took the pot of half-cooked tomatoes, added soap and more water, and poured the mixture over Buster.

“It works for skunking and he’ll smell a lot better,” she explained before they could protest. She got the hose and sprayed Buster as he tried to shake off the tomato wash. He ran over the coulee and up the hill where he hid under the pickup.

Sheila began to hose down the house. From now on, she would take control of the situation. She thought of asking them to leave but hesitated because it was late and they were still wired from the coke. “There’s a campground six miles west of town,” she said. “We can wash the clothes and take showers.”

No one spoke on the drive along the river to the Bull Creek Campground, vacant now with tourist season over and hunting a month away. Under the cold stars, they took hot showers while the machines chugged against the occasional downshift of a truck on the highway.

On the way back, Sheila closed her eyes, picturing the hard freeze coming with the next full moon; the six long months of snow. There in winter, she saw herself, pregnant and sleeping, as thick layers of whiteness enveloped the landscape in silence.

It was after two when they got back to the house. Sheila showed Arlene and Darryl the spare room in the attic, reached by a steep outdoor staircase. Arlene smiled and said the room was romantic.

Just before dawn, Sheila was awakened by Luna’s frenzied barks and Bones’ long banshee howling. In a fog of half-sleep, she tried to quiet the small dog now making sharp staccato cries while scratching at the back door. Then she heard the screaming: the piercing, hysterical squawks. In the grey light before sun, the day was dreamlike with shadows and damp air. Sheila reached for the rifle. Maybe she’d have to scare off a coyote or a bear.

Flicking off the safety, she went to the door. Through the screen, she could see the slaughtered chickens littered around the henhouse. And in the chicken yard, stood a dark animal with a leghorn in its mouth. Sheila opened the door; and in one motion, aimed at the head and squeezed the trigger. It was only when the dog dropped to the ground that she realized she’d hit him. The morning turned a lighter shade of lavender, revealing Buster who lay in the dirt on a bed of feathers, dead as the hen that fell from his bloody mouth.

She rushed out to the yard, and kneeling down beside Buster, felt for a breath or a heartbeat. Slowly, she got up, picked up the chickens, and brought them into the house. She put them in a bowl, which she filled with cold water and salt. Maybe she could butcher the ones that hadn’t been mauled. It looked as if Buster had just been into the sport of killing and hadn’t eaten anything.

She got an old blanket and took it to the chicken yard. Then she rolled Buster onto the blanket, tied the corners, and dragged his body up to the truck. She was standing in the truck bed, trying to hoist the dog up, when she heard footsteps behind her. She dropped the blanket wrapped carcass to the ground.

“What are you doing?” Darryl said. “I heard barking and came to check on Buster. I hope he didn’t run off somewhere. What’s in the sack, shit?” He spoke with a grin that disappeared when he saw Sheila’s face.

“I’m so sorry, Darryl. I shot Buster; he was killing the chickens. At first, I thought he was a coyote. I was half asleep. I’m sorry. He’s dead.”

Darryl opened the blanket and muttered in a low voice, “You God damned bitch. What kind of crazy cunt are you anyway? You can’t just shoot my dog.”

Sheila jumped down from the truck and headed toward the house. But Darryl lunged after her, grabbing her by the arm and twisting her around. She screamed as he threw her onto the ground. She got up and started running.

But now he had her hair and was yelling, “You’re gonna pay for this. You think you’re something, don’t you? You’re nothing. You’re not worth shit.”

From behind the house, an eerie howl filled the morning air like a siren. Darryl stiffened, loosening his grip. As Sheila pulled away from him, she saw someone coming toward them. Arlene had the rifle and looked pissed.

“Darryl, what the fuck are you doing?” she yelled, keeping the gun on him.

“She shot Buster.” Darryl’s pale sweating face flushed a deep beet color.

“Yeah, well maybe he had it coming. I told you not to bring that dumb dog. I should have realized who raised him. Why don’t you just get in your truck and head south to Missoula. You can take Buster with you or we can bury him here.”

“Aren’t you coming?”

“I’m staying to help clean up and do some canning. You know, maybe you should go back to Arizona; you won’t like the winter here at all.”

Sheila stood, half-dazed as adrenaline pumped through her. “I’ll get his things,” she said, turning back to the house to retrieve Darryl’s backpack and cowboy hat. Just as she approached the door, she saw the broken chain glinting in the sunlight.

“Bones,” she called out as she ran toward the rise behind the woodshed. “Here boy,” she cried out while racing back to the woodshed for the dog food, which as she dumped it, clattered against his bowl. But the sound didn’t lure him back.

Now as her eyes searched the property, she saw no trace of his large grey shape. He was gone. She called out his name again, knowing he was indifferent to words or commands. He was unlike any animal she had ever known. What was he? Wolf? Dog? Some coyote-dog mix? She hoped he was headed toward the Cabinets where there were no houses or people. No guns allowed in wilderness. She’d have to notify the deputy and feared that before they found him, Bones would wind up shot by a rancher or a frightened sub-divider. Darryl would have his eye-for eye and Sheila her punishment.

She got Darryl his things; and she and Arlene watched his pickup cross the frosted grass and disappear through the cedars. Then the two women walked the land, looking for Bones and hollering out his name until they were hoarse. They got in the car and drove up forest service roads, past the bone yard of clear cuts that overlooked the river and valley; but they never spotted any trace of him.

They returned to the house where they butchered five chickens they were able to salvage. Later, they canned twelve quarts of green tomato relish. Down in the barn, they found an old door, which they took apart for boards to rebuild the outhouse.

“It looks as good as the last one,” Arlene said with the first smile she had that day. At five, the air took on a sudden chill and the sky turned a pale milky blue. “I swear, it smells like snow,” Arlene said as they headed into the house to stoke the fire. “We’d better get an early start, just in case.”

In the morning, after feeding the animals, they headed out for Missoula. But first, Sheila stopped by the deputy’s house. When she told him about Bones, Cleve said he’d keep his eye out for the dog but didn’t expect they’d be seeing him again.

“Those kind of critters generally just keep going once they’re cut loose. No telling where he’ll turn up. Most likely gutting some rancher’s sheep. Not a good idea to tame a wolf if that’s what those folks did. Course you didn’t know it when you got him.”

They drove slowly down the highway, past Perma and through the tip of the Flathead Reservation with its sharp curves and white crosses marking deaths. Arlene told Sheila about a man in Lame Deer who'd tried to kill his wife, five children and himself by driving off a bridge. “When he came to, he was the only one who lived. Ironic, huh?”

For one hundred miles, they talked about Catholic schools and the nuns who had terrified them, how they had been virgins when they’d met their husbands, and how they both had terrible taste in men. While they spoke, they scanned the creek bottoms along the river and the open plains of ranchland. Searching for some sign of Bones as the first flakes began to descend. They knew it would be even harder to spot him with his bone white coat racing through the light snowfall as the season moved toward an early winter.


Popular posts from this blog


Problems Encountered by the Armchair Sports Fanatic

Flight Plan