“Charles, how was your meeting with the shaman?” Sad Eyes asks me over the rushing wind.
“It was intense, but I think the hunt will be good.” The lie tastes funny in my mouth; I don’t really know what the vision meant, but the shaman said to be careful with the wind today, so I lower myself out of the slipstream.
“See that Ben, the Indian is scared of a little wind,” George laughs.
“You went to talk to that rattler didn’t you?” Old Ben asks, sounding somewhat disappointed. “I tell you, one day he’s gonna bite you on the ass and then you’ll see.”
“Whoo, that’s gonna sting, and them bastards don’t let go neither,” George says knowingly.
“Are you alright?” Sad Eyes asks, looking down at me. I look only for a moment before I have to look away. It isn’t easy not telling him what I know, but I’ll have Balthazar to talk to when we get back. He’ll know what it all means.
Father sun is now well into the sky by the time we get to the cottontail’s field, and the moment the trucks stop we all jump out… except for Old Ben of course. The men ready their gear and let us romp and play gaily as we please; even Ben trots about. I wish Madeline didn’t stick with the girls so much, but she’s looking over at me an awful lot though.
“Charlie, get over here. We’ve got to strategize on this here hunt,” Old Ben calls out, and after taking one last look at Madeline I run over to the boys.
“Look here. My eyes ain’t as good as they use to be. Alight?” Old Ben growls, “but I’ll bet a sack of feed I can smell them rabbits before any of y’all. So let’s take them humans back down the road a ways and turn into the wind. I know them little bastards have their holes scattered around, but the exit is always to the east, if we come at them from the west we’ll be downwind with the sun on our backs.”
“Don’t forget not to go into the high bush,” George chimes in. “We ain’t never going to catch them in that.”
“Of course we ain’t goin’ into the tall bush you old coon mutt,” Ben scolds. “Charlie, you take the south side with Madeline. She has a good pair of eyes on her—”
“And a good set of legs too,” George interrupts. He can be an ass sometimes.
“I swear boy, if you don’t shut your snout I’ll maul you good,” Ben bares his teeth.
“And what will Anna and I be doing?” Sad Eyes asks, keeping a mindful eye on me.
“You two will be on the north side in case the wind decides to change direction and spooks them rabbits. And you,” Ben looks down at George, “you and Rose will be ahead of us making a racket, trying to get them rabbits out of them holes.”
“Giving them the easy job so they don’t go messing things up, huh Ben?” I ask.
“Oh I think they’ll find a way,” Ben growls as the master whistles for us to get ready.
“Charlie, hurry up!” Madeline shouts. “Those rabbits aren’t going to catch themselves.”
“Yeah Charlie hurry up,” Mindy shouts, mimicking her voice. The look on my face must have been something because even Old Ben laughs. Luckily for me the masters are ready so we have to take our positions. We all head to the east of the field on the road then turn in at Old Ben’s command. He sniffs around as we all head to our posts, and at his growl, the hunt begins.
“Charlie, Madeline, get further out in case they run!” Old Ben barks.
“Got it,” I respond.
“George, Mindy, stop stepping on the holes!” Old Ben barks ahead. “Anna, Sad Eyes, keep yu’r eyes on the holes we leave behind! They might—”
“HA! I got me one! Whoooo!” George yells from up ahead. He bolts to a cottontail who has unwisely stuck its head out from safety. Before it could react, Georg’s jaw snaps shut around its head.
“George!” his master yells. The dog shakes and breaks the neck of the cottontail. When the master finally takes it from him the poor cottontail’s body is a bloody mess.
“God damnit George. Now it’s useless. You stupid mutt, we want them in one piece!” Old Ben barks, running up to him. George hangs his head.
Back in formation, the hunt isn’t over, but now the pray is scared. Surprisingly another cottontail pops up right in the middle of the hunting party. This one makes a break for the east of the field right at Mindy. She lunges for it, and it lunges at her. Mindy instinctively swats it down with her paw, and she swiftly claps down on its neck, but not before it take a swipe at her with its sharp little claws.
Old Ben and I run at George to stop him from tearing this one apart, too. His temper might get the worst of him on this hunt. With the cottontail now safely in a satchel, and George in a murderous mood, we get back to the hunt. The next to claim a cottontail are Anne and Sad Eyes. While George may be a passionate killer, those two are artists.
Sad eyes sniffs around a hole and gives a whine that readies us all for the cottontail. He circles around waiting, listening for the animal, and then with a great breath of air he bellows his thunderous bark. The sound resonates through the hole and spreads across the very ground we stand on. I can feel the cottontails shudder. The ground stops vibrating, and Sad Eyes sniffs around a bit then lets out another deep bark, but two cottontails dash out of the tunnel’s exit before he can finish.
They run a few feet before coming face to face with Anna; they turn tail and make a break for the road. They almost make it too, but Anna is fast. The cottontail’s only hope now is to make it back into a hole. They turn to run back to their tunnel, but again they find their way blocked by Anna. She bites down on one of them and flings it into the air. The cottontail flails around as it plummets, smacks against the ground, and before it can run Sad Eyes smashes its spine.
The second cottontail makes it to the hole in time, but this doesn’t seem to deter Anna and Sad Eyes. They both run to either end of the tunnel and smash the exits, trapping the Cottontail, then begin digging in the middle. Within the minute there is a screech, and Anna lifts her head out of the hole she’s dug with a dead cottontail in her mouth. Their master walks up to them, holding Sad Eye’s kill, and the three of them thank the father sun and the mother earth for their catch.
“Come on Charlie, we can’t let the Indians win! We need to catch three, maybe four rabbits,” Madeline says with her nose to the ground.
“Don’t worry. There are plenty out here to quench your thirst for blood,” I tease her; she barks happily and scampers back and forth between a few holes with strong scents. “Madeline I wanted to tell you, I don’t think I can ever be as happy as I am now, hunting with friends, and with the girl I—”
A strong breeze runs through the field and licks the cottontail burrows, making the fur on my back stand on end. I could swear I heard his voice, regardless of how long it’s been, I remember his voice. I shut my eyes tight against the wind; I can feel him. A scuffle and whine bring me back. I look over at Madeline but the last thing I see is her tail disappearing into the high bush.
Without a word I jump into the bush after her. I can hear the others yelling but I strain my ears for Madeline. I can see the bush ahead moving aside as something runs through it, but I don’t hear her. She must be in pursuit of the scent again. I run for the soft smell of the farmhouse that always wafts from her. I run for a full minute until the first clearing appears and I stop to listen. My stomach turns to ice when I hear the long low howl from the other side of the bush. Her yelp of pain sends a thunderbolt of fear though me, making my knees weak.
“Charlie where are you?” I hear old Ben bark from a long way back, the urgency in his voice cutting through the bush.
She yelps again, and I leap over a wall of dried grass and find myself between two coyotes, one on either side. Madeline lies whimpering at my feet, and Crooked Face sits in the shadow of a slender tree. I can’t control my breathing, and I feel like I might lose consciousness, but my eyes are locked onto Crooked Face.
“Charlie…” Madeline whispers. When I look down and see the gash in her side I turn to stone.
“So, you changed your name since the last time I saw you?” Crooked Face calls out from beneath his tree. “I remember when your mother called you, ‘Little Squirrel.’ Do you remember?
“It seems like just yesterday I was hunting you through the grasslands. I may have followed you and your family for miles, waiting for them to lose their strength. I think we walked for two whole days, and on the third, father sun granted me a gift. The wind changed, and your family thought they had lost us, but I was there. I could smell your sister and her fear.” Crooked face stands and walks out of the shadows and into the light. “When they finally fell asleep, my two friends here and I walked up to them…. I could hardly contain myself; they just lay there, waiting for me.
“I killed your father first. These two took care of your brothers, your mother tried to pull…. What was your sister’s name? Martha, I think. Yes, she tried to pull Martha to safety, but she was too frightened to move. The pray was too easy.”
“I don’t think he can talk, he’s too scared,” the coyote to my left says.
“He should be. I gutted this one the same way I did his mother. Of course you two can continue to do what you will with her, but first, get rid of the squirrel.” At his word the two coyotes lunge at me, but with a gleam from their collars, George and Old Ben tackle them to the ground and viciously claw and bite them.
But even when Sad Eyes makes it to Madeline and I, I can’t move. I can hear the coyote George is attacking crying in agony. Old Ben barks something at Sad Eyes, and he begins to pull at me.
“Hurry young one. The masters have the other two in the truck. Please run and I will take her!” Sad Eyes says through a mouthful of my fur as he tries desperately to pull me away. “Charles, run! I will take Madeline!”
Her name awakens me. My muscles tighten, and I look directly at Crooked Face and throw myself at him. I jump over George as he rips the throat out of one of the coyotes, and dodge Old Ben as he chases the other to the edge of the clearing. I crash into Crooked Face with such force that the slender tree snaps from our impact. We claw and bite at each other like demons; I grab hold of the side of his face and try to tear it clean off. His long claws dig deep into my left eye and I let him go. We separate, bearing our teeth at each other then lock jaws again. He drops me to the ground and scratches at my belly; then he thrashes my neck and face with his massive teeth.
I grab hold of his right ear and twist around until it rips off like burlap, spraying us with red. He whines and stumbles away, leaving a trail of blood. He looks back at me with such hatred that his eyes ignite like two hellish embers. Just as his legs tense for another attack, a bullet rips though his foreleg and he drops to the ground. The masters have returned with weapons and chase after him through the tall grass.
I limp a few paces then fall to a heap beside Madeline. Her breathing is uneven, and Sad Eyes can only lick at her wounds. Old Ben and George walk over two us, the both of them covered in blood, theirs, and the coyote’s.
“Madeline, look at me,” I pant. She is facing away from me, and I can’t get up to look into her beautiful eyes. “Please, don’t leave me. Sad Eyes, tell her not to leave me.”
“I am sorry my friend, but she must go,” Sad Eyes says, as she breaths one last time and goes still. My panting turns to whimpers, and the three of them leave me with her. My vision starts to blur.
“I am sorry for your loss,” a small voice says from somewhere near my nose. The blurry form of the shaman snake moves before me. “Don’t worry. I am only here to take away two souls to the afterlife.”
He crawls over me, and the world fades away into darkness.