As Bob drank his coffee with only the stove light on he wondered why he was even sitting there in the kitchen at four in the morning, but something had made him get up. Perhaps he was just excited to be on spring break, his last before graduating high school, and not a moment too soon for him.
Through the screen door the usual chirping of crickets was loud in the dark so he noticed when they just stopped, all at once. It was like something had flipped a switch. A little shiver ran down his spine and he started to wonder what that was about, but there were chickens to tend, eggs to collect, and before that the dogs to feed and turn out for the day.
Out the back door, across the walk, to the old canning shed. Something, just there, dashing into the english ivy, small thrashings through, making a B-line towards the creek below. What would move like that? Not a rabbit—too loud, too big. Not a cat—wouldn’t be staying under the tight vines that way. Whatever it was, now silent, had gone to ground and waited to see if Bob was coming after it.
It wasn’t the first time Bob couldn’t figure out what an animal was by its stirrings. Still, this felt. . . different. “Never get between a bear and its cub,” he said to himself. He wondered why—certainly no bears in South East Kansas.
Carrying the two big old coffee cans of dry food balanced in his left hand, he curled the five gallon water bucket up with his right to where he could lock his elbow. Halfway through the sprawling back yard, he stopped, set the bucket down (same place as always), carefully switched the dog food to his right hand (without spilling it), and picked up the bucket with his left. When his elbow started to hurt, he grunted slightly and gritted his teeth. It was still easier to walk carrying it this way than it would have been to hold it down at arm’s length, swinging and sloshing all the way.
It was then he realized the dogs weren’t doing their normal good morning yelping and prancing. They were standing inside the fence, shoulders hunched and heads held forward as though at point. The hair on the back of his neck stood up. Something was wrong here, something that drew the dogs attention—something that held them, barely in check, staring at—no through—Bob, to a point somewhere behind him.
He kept walking, not wanting to stop and upset his arm loads like a goofy kid, and more, not wanting to look behind. “Whatever you do,” he thought, “don’t look.” Twenty feet to the door of the dogs’ shed, he knew he had to get in. Fifteen feet, now ten, five, he didn’t care that the water bucket splashed all over him. He almost threw it down, reaching for the door, swinging it open. The dogs, now growling, burst out and past him at full speed. As soon as they cleared the doorway, he dove through it, into the shed, and slammed himself in. He threw the bolt fast and crouched down, his back against the door, his eyes scrunched tight, grimacing.
He could feel through his insides, the charging of the two big labs, practically roaring as they went, the sound pushing out of them hard with each stride they made. Little bits of dirt and sod ripped up by their claws pelted the door of the shed as they tore back the way he had just come.
Bob realized his ribs hurt where he still clutched the big cans, too hard against his side, forgotten just as he had forgotten to breathe. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale, inhale. He set the cans down. Still crouched there, shaking, he could hear the dogs fighting now, fighting with something big. A bark, a yelp, another, more angry than hurt, and then charging off again.
He finally rose and looked out the wire mesh window. He could barely see them, going faster than he’d ever seen them go. Whatever they were after was faster still, out of sight, in the dark, over the bank and splashing now, loud as a horse, down the creek and under the bridge—sounds echoing off the cement and then gone.
He started to open the door to go after them and then right away thought “To Hell with THAT.” Whatever it was, the block-head twins were way more capable of handling it than he. Fifteen minutes passed, twenty minutes, however much longer it was, before he got up the nerve to venture out. He left the door to the shed open as he went, something he never did.
Three hours later the retrievers came back, panting heavily and bounding to him as though they hadn’t seen him in years. They knocked him down in their haste. He didn’t mind the being licked all over the face until he noticed the blood on their muzzles. Not theirs he saw with relief, but then he was hit by the smell. What the Hell was that smell?! Like a skunk, but not. Like an old snapping turtle he recalled, fresh drug from the bottom of the neighbor’s pond, reeking of things half rotted, found and eaten there. . . but not. It was like nothing he could name, and nothing he realized, that he wanted to.
Later in the day the “boys” each got a bath. Big haunches barely fitting in the old galvanized tub, and rinsed down with the hose in the yard. They were always happy for any excuse to get wet. Yet they would stop, cast furtive glances over coal black shoulders towards the creek, nearly inaudible growls deep in their throats.
That night, behind locks checked and checked again, Bob slept, but not well. He left on the big mercury light next to the twins’ pen. It was shining through his bedroom window, but it didn’t give much peace of mind.
Little Head-Bob woke with a start. There was something moving, snuffling around the bottom of the young owl’s tree. It was something big, much bigger even than the coyotes or the calves they sat and watched so keenly in the twilight. Something there insatiably hungry and more, possessed of a terrible, vicious need to kill. It carried a smell of death unlike anything he had known. His brothers and sisters in the nest hole shook and ruffled their feathers as though cold, even though the spring night was warm. They all waited. They all listened. Neither he nor any of those owls hunted that night.
Even the biggest Great Horned Owls didn’t cross some things.