I recall dancers chanting in high, children's voices. Drums, hid away from the light, beat fast like thunder, then the rattle of rain. The dancers leapt into the air and landed, all together, painted feathers like flying, buckskin turned deer and elk living. Ed and me hunted, we hunted our father and discovered him at the stick games. In the firelight, his face was gold and ripe for creases, his nose bent from some unrecalled scrape. He could've been a young man weathered by battle.
The gambling songs bluffed and called. Me, I didn't understand the words, but the song skinned of them was like seeing underneath an animal, the bones and all that moves him. Listening was seeing a body picked clean. I'd not seen the bones of the stick game. Weren't bones anyway. Just blue glass.
A few threw money on the blankets. My old man sat silent, his eyes wild. He was crazed, I saw, but not near enough. The elders turned, the game over, the money on the blanket won. Them just waiting on the song. My father, he tried his voice, but all it could croak was a sound none of them heard before. When he opened his mouth again, just breath followed, breath and quiet. He unclenched his fists and let the sticks loose like a thief, red-handed.
The fall after, he turned mad. Who'd blamed him? Our mother hooked up with the butcher in the town grocery and she never was shy. The old man would try to follow on their dates but mother would drink him blind, then favor the butcher in whatever way suited her. That winter, the roads froze two months solid. New Years me and Ed pressed our faces to the window, keeping vigil, sure they were dead driving, just waiting the night through so we could see enough to hike to the neighbors.
But they turned out just hungover. A cup of coffee and they were at each other again. Father claiming law and marriage bound her and mother saying she didn't think much of the speed limit either. Mother put us to bed with a shot glass full of cough syrup and they'd renew their warring. First lull me and Ed would decide paper, rock, scissors which one would work himself to crying. My turns, I'd roll on my stomach and let my face sink into the feather pillow until I breathed only what I'd let out and my head was swimming in my own fumes. Ed would stab or beat on himself with whatever was at hand. If the old man determined one of them had an honest wound, the door would open and pour in light and he'd take a corner of the bottom bunk where we cowered and cluck until we feigned sleep. By then mother was onto town and he'd start the diesel truck to track her. By spring, if dollars were ire the old man'd fit in the high income bracket, and, finally, he spent his fortune on me and Ed.
Ed liked cats. He always shot them a little tit when he was doing the milking, and he'd collect a bucket of tripe when we butchered and haul it out. Them cats would see him, and congregate like Sunday morning believers. The old man didn't like it. My old man. He teased him by whacking or booting the things around whenever they got near him.
Well, one day he brings out the old .22 to Ed. I see him whispering and Ed nodding like he's agreeing that cooked spinach tastes like apple cobbler, when everyone knows it tastes like what a dog'd shit if it ate nothing but grass.
When the old man hiked up his pants and walked away, I asked Ed what was he going to shoot with the gun and if it might be the old man I wanted to be there for it. He looked at me funny. He hated the old man same as me, but there was something in him that told him he hadn't ought to.
He said I got to shoot old Rat Eyes.
Rat Eyes was the grandpa to all the cats. He was big and yellow and his fur looked like a bad mop end. Andre'd named him for his hunting tricks. Rat Eyes was partial to cornering rats and whipping them blind. Then he'd have himself a rat hoe-down, do-see-do-ing them all over the barn. Seems he'd taken a chunk out of the old man's hand when he tried whack him off the tractor seat. Well, the old man didn't care for rivals, especially when it came to mean, so he gave the gun to Ed and told him to do the chore.
Now, my dad could've give that gun to me or he could've shot the cat himself. Age had stove that tom up so it'd been no trouble to box him and cart him someplace for killing. Or, he even could've told him to drag the cat down the road to some other barnful. But, he didn't do that.
Ed was never a one to disobey, which was one way in which we parted. He sorted through the mangy gathering until he got to Rat Eyes, then took him under his arm and knocked through the shed until he came out with his fishing pole. Then he went into the root cellar out back and got himself a full milk bottle.
I watched him mount up, but he didn't tell me until later on what had all happened. He'd gone to the river and fished that afternoon. The trout were hitting worms he said, and he landed five or six. Old Rat Eyes ate fish and drank milk from your daddy's hand until he didn't want for more of either. Ed commenced then to tell him the bad news.
'You get it done? He asked Ed at dinner.
He threw the tail across the table and then he lifted a cur colored yellow tabby with the same striping as his pappy from his pocket. He let it eat off his plate right at the table. The old man nearly spilled the gravy getting up, and I could see a clobbering coming. But Ed looked at him and it stopped him like nothing I ever saw stop that man. I'd like to say that was what stopped the old man, that my father knew Ed had a soul and it was wounded, but I think it was more pure fear. I think he thought Ed had murder in him, that he had it inside him to do it. He's still the only man I know could do it. Old man was like a rock thrown, he'll land on whoever's where he lights. Took Ed to swat him out of the air someplace safe.
I'd like to say it was a heart thing. That my father knew Ed had had his hurt, but I think it was more pure fear. I think he thought Ed could kill him, that he had it inside him to do it. I never was too partial to a petting animal. If he'd done what he said he did, I'd'a give Rat Eyes a whole bowlful of milk and wished him a happy life. But I never would've stood against the old man over it. Even then, Ed had himself a conscience, one he wouldn't back off from.
That cat -- he never did have a name -- went with Ed everywhere. It sat the saddle horn when he was working cattle and it was likely to be at the edge of the field, mouse hunting during the plowing, bringing Ed his part of the kill to square himself. It slept with him and dinner time rode his shoulders. He'd feed it off his own fork every third bite or so. It was quite an animal. You could understand it most of the time. It had a way of making sense. Nights sometimes he'd hunt a rat and Mom warmed its milk, and I liked to scratch its ears. The old man even got to where he'd throw it a fat scrap off and on.
Once, I remember the barn cats ganged him. For his housecat standing, I guess. I woke to Ed in the kitchen tipping the thing backward, leaving clear it's two white testicles and ruined ball sack. Neither of us thought of dehorning the thing like you would a steer or gelding. Instead, I found the leather gloves and Ed hunted the sewing drawer for thread to stitch him. I pinned his head and front legs while Ed worked the bottom. He spooned the balls into the butchered scrotum, but the sack itself wouldn't take a stitch. Every try it'd shred worse. I thought the cat might die and leave Ed crazy, which seemed not a far place from what he did next.
He found the sharpest knife in the drawer and sawed off chunk of arm skin, then sewed it in a tent over the tom's rigging. The next morning the old man rose to Ed bandaged and that cat next to him. It was a caring beyond my father's figuring. Mine, too, if I hadn't witnessed it. Wasn't a graft, was just a covering until he could heal himself. Cat fathered a couple litters after. There's proof for you, Will told him. We were just about thirteen when we found it in a gut pile in the rocks up river. It was just short of an elm that could've saved its life. There wasn't much left but hair and bones. Enough to tell, though.
'Coyotes, I figure. I told him.
We looked around some. Ed shook his head. 'Dogs. Just plain dogs. Look. It was a dog track, just like he'd said. We counted two separate or maybe three.
'I can't abide dogs killing my cat, he said.
'Let it go, I told him. I knew the old man. He wouldn't go for any fix Ed had in mind, but he had that look that no one wanted to match words with.
We rode back to the house and packed a bed roll, some food and bullets, then scabbarded our rifles. The old man broke from his plowing when he saw our fussing.
What's this? he asked.
'Got to kill a dog, Ed told him.
'What in hell for?
'Killed the cat.
The old man wiped his brow. 'Dogs kill cats, son. That's what they do. I know you were partial to that one, but Christ there's plenty others. You got a whole barnload. Make yourself a new pet. It was as human as I ever recall the old man being. He never would've talked to me that kindly. Of course I don't think he ever thought I had it in my heart to kill him either. But I want to be fair to him on this part, because he don't come off so well the rest of the way. And what he was asking wasn't so far out of line. It's what I would've done. It's what anybody would've done. Excepting Ed.
'We got their tracks by the river. I expect we'll find them quick enough.
'No, the old man said, 'Now I forbid it.
'I already packed, Ed told him. He sawed the horse's reins and was off.
I stood there, waiting to be forbid, too, but he never saw fit to do it. I guess he figured one forbidding would carry for the both of us. I turned my horse. 'Don't you pick him over me, the old man said. But I'd chose a long time ago.
Those dogs took a long time to find. We spent the first night almost to Creston then doubled back to Davenport, then headed the river way again. We never spoke much. Ed wasn't a talker like me, but the hunt shut him all the way up. He was mad. That's all there was to it. When he was getting tired or bored -- tracking's slow work -- and I thought he was considering quitting, he'd stop by a rock or a cool place and sit. It was like he'd swallowed a hot coal and he was nursing it inside him, and all the sitting and contemplating was blowing air onto it until it turned bright again. When he'd get his mad back up, we'd go on.
One of them first nights camping, we built a fire and roasted a rabbit.
'You sorry you came? he asked me.
No, I told him. But what I meant was I would've been sorrier if I'd made him go on his lonesome. I always figured us being twins cut us in two. I know I always felt half of something, and I think he felt in half, too. It made me kind of mad for being born and divided, but it was of some comfort at least being in the company of the person you were half of. I guess I didn't want him in half out there hunting and me in half at home waiting for him to get beat.
Three days and we figured their range and the pattern to it. It took us two more to close them down. They weren't smart dogs, not like a wolf who can figure its being tracked and lose you in rock or water. Even a coyote will lay low and until you pass. They were just wild dogs running. Time was all it took to come upon them and at the end of a week exactly, that's what we did.
'These your animals? Ed asked him.
The man said they were.
I'm sorry to hear that. I'm going to have to shoot them.
The man was bald and his scalp had peeled skin on the top like a birch shedding bark.
Did they kill a calf or some sheep? I have some money at the bank in town. I can offer you market price for them.
They killed my cat, Ed told him.
'I'm not sure I know what a cat's worth, the man said, 'But whatever you say, I'll pay you.
I don't want money.
The man nodded, understanding Ed that minute more than any of us.
He asked us to supper. The food was agreeable after all the dirt we'd swallowed. Our canteens were fresh and we offered him water. He put it in a pot and stirred up coffee which we drank. The man gazed at the dogs scratching up what used to be yard. They were his only kin. That was clear.
They're good dogs, the man said. They've been good to me at least.
They killed my cat, Ed said.
I'm asking, the man said.
I know you are, Ed told him.
The dogs wrestled at a bone. The man had told us their names but not his own. His eyes filled with tears. I looked away not wanting to shame him. A big shepherd-cross nipped the short hair.
That one's the ring leader, The old man said. He had made a leash out of a split rein, he looped it over the mutt's neck and led the dog to Ed. Can you haul him out of earshot?
Ed told him he would. We thanked him for the meal then hunted until dark when I finally scared up a badger. I dressed him out and Ed fed the dog, then loaded his gun.
We gotta do this? I asked him.
I don't want to, he said.
He sat and stared at his handful of bullets. I guess sometimes right backs a person like him against both walls.
When the dog finished eating and had a good drink, Ed petted him until he lay at his feet sleeping. My gun was closer and I took it from the scabbard and shot the dog myself. It died without a whimper, blood puddling under its jaws the only way you could tell death from its nap the moment before.
We dug the hole and covered it with rocks, then rode back and told the old man how to find it. His remaining dogs had given up the porch for the hard ground. They stared at the old man like they knew what had proceeded, and I saw it was never going to be the same between that old man and his dogs, nor for Ed, then I gathered for me neither.
We got home the next morning. The old man hadn't hit the field yet and we caught him fresh. He busted my eye open but saved the worse whipping for Ed. Finally when he tired of pounding him and him not showing any uncle over it, he chased us into the root cellar and locked it. He left us there three days, with one canteen apiece.
The last day we heard shooting. We could see through the cracks in the door frame The old man, with his ten gauge, blasting the cats out the back of the barn. The pellets knocked holes in the feed crib and hobbled the heifer. The old man shot and reloaded and shot and reloaded until those cats were no more. Then he built a fire and burnt them where we could see. The heat drove us away from the door, but we could smell the cat's flesh and their hair cooking.
I cut that old cat tail off , Ed told me.
What? I asked.
I let Rat Eyes loose on Mills' place, he said. Losing a tail left him grumpy, but he's still there. I checked a month back.
He paused. 'I never would've killed that dog.'
You said it needed done.
I know it.
Ed returned to the window and the cats burning. 'It isn't anything like this, your killing.
But killing's killing, now it's all I'm good for.
Publication date: 12/25/03