August 16, 1998
"Of Disasters, Livestock and Otherwise...."
He found the duck cowering in the mud of the dug out where it had tried to bury itself. At first glance, it resembled the victim of an oil spill; it was covered from head to webbed toes in gray muck. Bernie couldn't figure out what was wrong with it.
He brought it out on to the lawn where, with Lila's help, we hosed it down. We couldn't completely clean it because the mud had dried and had become caked on by the heat of the sun, but at least now it was a dirty white duck, not just a mud-encrusted lump of feathers with a bill.
The duck was still not a happy duck. It cried out as we handled it. Then Bernie brought his hand away and it was covered in blood.
"There," I said. "See?" Down the right side of the duck's breast were puncture holes. Across its back were other smaller punctures. Something had grabbed this duck with the intention of making it its dinner.
We cleaned it up as best we could and Bernie put it into "solitary confinement," a small enclosure on the side of the lean-to he has set aside for sick or injured birds. Then we went back to the chicken yard and counted feathered heads.
Four ducks were gone. A goose was gone, too. And we had an injured duck that probably wasn’t going to survive.
No one had heard a thing. Lila did say she thought she heard the coyotes howling nearby last night, but no one had heard a struggle or a fight. The geese should have made a hell of a racket at the intrusion.
The coyotes had done their work quickly, silently, efficiently. But they slipped up – they left a witness, a witness that might just be able to identify them if he recovered. It was a long shot at best, but I owed it to Marlowe.
The doc let me in to see the witness. "Only a few minutes," the sawbones said, "he's still weak."
"Sure, mac," I said, slowly undoing the buttons on my old trench coat. "A few minutes is all I ever need."
"And you'll have to get rid of that cigar."
"Sure, mac." I took one big drag, then blew blue smoke in the doc's face. I pulled open the chest pocket on the doc's lab coat and butted out my Cuban in it.
The nurse, Candy, tried to muffle a snicker. She must like the old geezer as little as I did. I wonder how she keeps her stethoscope warm.
I turned the handle, opened the heavy, wooden door and entered the room. The doc tried to follow me in, but I shut the door behind me. I pressed my ear to the inside of the door and waited until I heard his Gucci shoes squeak away down the hall. I didn't trust the doc, and he didn't trust me. The only person I trusted was my partner, Marlowe.
The light was off and I couldn't see him, but I knew the witness was here. His breathing was rushed and shallow. I could hear his ribs rattling and fluid bubbling in his lungs. He kept making this strange, animalistic sound, almost like a cough. Maybe the doc was right, maybe this guy didn't have much time left.
I turned on the light.
He didn't flinch, but I did. What had the bastards done to him? He was the ugliest bird I'd ever seen. All I could see was his head and neck, but it was enough to tell me that some rough customers had done him over good.
His neck had been stretched long and thin. His head had been crushed almost flat, so flat that each of his eyes was on the side of the head instead of the front. His nose was gone, like it had never even been there. His mouth had been elongated and pulled forward and flattened out, sort of like what those weird African tribes do in those issues of National Geographic that Jimmy the barber keeps piled up in the corner of his stinky little shop which he has the gall to call a “salon.”
His skin was snow white, like an albino's, and covered in some strange stuff, like scales. The only good part about it was that he wasn't going to be any competition for me when it came to Candy.
I lit up another Cuban, hesitated, then offered it. This guy just made like I wasn't even there. Either he was far gone, or he was playing me cool.
I told him who I was, and how I needed the info so I could get the dogs that roughed him up. I figured they were the same dogs who did Marlowe, but I didn't need to tell that to this guy. A bird in the hand, as my momma used to say.
He wasn't talking. He kept looking around the room like a crazy, like someone who'd escaped the demons of hell barking at his heels. After a few questions, it seemed all I was going to get for my effort was a merry-go-round to nowhere. I was starting to think there was more to this strange duck than met the eye. And I was getting pissed.
I grabbed him by his scrawny, little neck. I didn't care, I didn't think. Marlowe was gone and this little stool pigeon was the only clue I had left. "You think you can just give me the runaround?"
He froze. I could see the fear in his eyes and smell it on his breath like bad gin with a Big Mac chaser. I was beginning to think that maybe he was never gonna talk, that there was a force at work here that was even more frightening than me. That was hard to believe. It was time to lean, and lean hard.
"You think I'm just a two-bit barnyard dick fresh in from the farm? I know your game. I know how it went down. You think those stupid sons of bitches could just raid the hen house without knowing where the holes in the fence were, or when the guards wouldn't be around? I know it was an inside job, and the cops know it, too. You'd better not play chicken with me now, 'cause all the cops will do is put away for twenty-five. I'm going to roast you on a skillet. What did they offer you to join their flock? How did you become birds of a feather? Did they deal you a little nest egg in Switzerland? Some little chickadee? How much scratch did they give you? And what was your angle? Did you feel fenced in? Did you want the run of the roost? With the competition out of the way, you could've been cock of the walk. Was that it? Did you sell 'em out so they could be butchered? And what about Marlowe? He fingered you, didn't he? You were crowing because you’d thought you’d gotten away with it, the perfect scheme. You thought it was over easy, didn’t you? Well, forget it, shorty, your goose is cooked. You know what happens to the best laid plans of mice and hens. He caught you poaching. He got your number, but you called in your hounds and had him tarred and feathered. That’s where the chick came in. He could never resist an easy lay. What a turkey I've been! All along I figured you were set up too, just another chickenshit patsy, but it was you, yes, you behind this fowl plan. I come in here on a wing and prayer, hoping to find out who scrambled my partner before you flew the coop, and it was you all along. Boy, do I have egg on my face…!"
But I digress.
There seemed little doubt the coyotes would be back. "Right now," said Paula, "they're reporting back in to their buddies. 'Hey, have you tried that new take-out duck place?'"
The coyote defense system swung into action. First, Paula made plans to sleep out in the chicken yard all night. Paula believed her presence would keep the coyotes away, or at least frighten them away when she started yelling. But what do you say to a coyote that’s feasting on one of your ducks? “Freeze! Drop the duck!” “Put the duckie back on its nest and no one’s going to get hurt.” “Step away from the duck. Put your paws on top of your head.” I have my doubts about this part of the operation, and doubts about Paula staying awake. And since we didn’t hear a thing last night, or any night for that matter, I fear that we might be dealing with some sort of hi-tech stealth coyotes that are impervious to Paula’s radar.
Second, Bernie went into town to buy shotgun shells. Bernie hopes that if he doesn't wing a couple of them, at least he can scare them off. Over the course of the evening, he’s fired off a few .22 rounds hoping to do just that. It’s not working. As night falls, there are at least four groups in the area, all of them howling up a storm. “Listen,” said Bernie, “if you see me running around naked, screaming my head off and firing the shotgun at two in the morning, it’s nothing to worry about. It’s nothing unusual or out of the ordinary. I’m just going after the coyotes.”
“Sure,” I said, “if that’s the story you want me to give to the arresting officer, that’s fine. I’ll tell him you run around naked, screaming and firing weapons all the time. Just don’t shoot out my windows, okay?”
Third, I took a pee along the chicken yard's perimeter. Bernie believes that when you're dealing with wild animals, you must communicate like wild animals. In effect, we're marking our territory and declaring the chicken yard off limits. By marking the chicken yard, hopefully they'll think twice. Bernie's only advice to me on placement was, "If you hit a fence post, make sure you hit at least two feet off the ground. Make them think you're a big coyote!” I'm giving everything I have for this job.
Later, Bernie and I brought the animals in for the night. There’s a sheep house and a hen house that seldom get used, but tonight as many animals as possible were going to be locked up tight. Arthur the Goat was little help. He was trying in his own goatish way to herd the ducks, but he was only scaring them away from the hen house. Except for one duck, who decided enough was enough. In fact, this duck resolved that it wasn’t a duck at all, but a bull, and started running Arthur, lowering his bill and head butting the goat. Arthur enjoyed this immensely – someone was finally playing with him! The animal comedy act continued well past the point that Bernie found amusing. I could tell this by Bernie’s continual stream of newly invented invectives.
The sheep took even longer to lock up because they're even stupider than the ducks. They're so stupid that they ignored us and followed Arthur around. This scenario resulted in one happy goat, seven confused sheep, and one frustrated Bernie. Eventually, Arthur managed to disorient himself and accidentally lead the flock into the sheep house.
By now Bernie was seriously giving thought to the idea of leaving Arthur outside and changing the goat’s name to “Bait.”
And later, as I turned off the light and crawled into bed, a coyote howled nearby. My spine shivered. I wasn’t sure how far away it was, but it was the closest that I’d heard one since I had arrived here. I guess it wasn’t close enough, because Bernie did not appear firing a shotgun, naked or otherwise.
But the still of the night was shattered at about 1:30, and later at 3:00, as Bernie did indeed run from the house as naked as the day he was born, cursing all the gods ever created, and blasting away at the coyotes with the shotgun.
Or so I was told. I slept through the whole thing.