Dear Dirty America Reality Tour pt 3: Snagged On A Branch Somewhere
ADAM MICHAEL LUEBKE
It was well after midnight. The stars twinkled overhead. The air was still. A multitude of crickets chirped, frogs croaked, and even an owl went hoo-who, hoo-who. We were sneaking through nature’s spectacular theater, and it was mostly good, except we had a tenderfoot tromping along behind us.
My best reader and biggest fan‘s shoes made an aggravating squishing sound. He should have known better. Wear comfortable shoes, yes, but be quiet about it while on patrol. Did he have to be told?
I glanced back and shot C– an angry look, and I saw, in the pale moonlight, his buttery legs stomping ahead. The poor guy was doing all he could to keep up. I was pleased, since the reality tour should be on the strenuous side, but it was only the beginning, and hardly a test for what was to come.
Ahead, my brother kept a silent, brisk pace. He seemed to glide in the straying edges of my flashlight’s illumination. The deer rifle rested on his shoulder, and the barrel stuck up beside his ear and over his head.
We shone our flashlights into the healthy green field. The beans had grown waist high already by late July. Our light beams crisscrossed each other as they drifted over the endless green tops, like how I imagine the spotlights on the prison towers oscillate across the jail yard after a felon has escaped.
There was a very rare chance we’d see a coyote slinking through the rows, but we looked anyway. Animals are sometimes oblivious to light, and will stand dumbfounded in the glare if they don’t realize it’s coming from a human. And we wanted revenge, as much as we told ourselves we were only hunting for practical purposes of keeping our farm safe for our pets.
So far, the reality tour had been a slam dunk. My fan had signed a waiver releasing me from all responsibility in case of death or injury. We didn’t have a third flashlight for him, but we gave him a six-foot tall gnarled branch to carry, just in case we ran into any predators that were at too close of a range for my brother to fire at.
We’d turned off the yard light and slipped across the lawn toward the road. At the edge of the shelter belt, my brother likes to gaze at the stars for a few moments before flipping on the flashlight and aiming it out into the bean field as we walk the outside of the trees.
C– must have thought something was wrong when we stopped. The whistling breath coming out of his nose became more rapid, almost shrill. My brother and I didn’t acknowledge him. We stared at the majestic arrangements and clusters of burning stars.
C– coughed. He couldn’t be still. We both stopped gazing and gave him hard looks. Was he trying to tip off the already wily coyote that we were patrolling and armed?
The jaunt by the beans is the easiest part of the journey since my mother mows the four feet of grass between the field and the trees. Little did my fan know the trek would gradually rise on the difficulty scale.
At an undisclosed moment, my brother will notice a break in the thick dogwood shrubs and quickly push through the branches until he’s inside the rows of poplars and linden trees. From there on we fight our way through. We have to bend and crawl. We take pride in making as little noise as possible.
My brother never does the dive at the same place. Coyotes are known to be smart. They are sensitive to patterns. That’s why we never go on patrol the same hour as the night before. We also never take the exact same route.
In rare cases, but they do happen, a coyote will challenge a human. Coyotes are almost always frightened of us. But why? We are slower than them. We have soft, flat teeth. We have no claws. We’re harmless without a gun.
A few coyotes have understood this, but only after seeing the human in a repeated pattern of vulnerability. This seems to rip a hole in the ‘way things are supposed to be’ in nature, and they attack, knowing they can take down a human very easily.
All of this is according to UC Davis’ “Understanding Coyote Behavior” study, which we examined earnestly. There was no tell-all section, though, on how to “Nail the Bastards Using their Behavioral Tics Against Them”.
In the indigenous North American people’s culture, the coyote was often known as the trickster. A kind way to regard the Canis latrans in my opinion, but then again, the Indians didn’t keep scores of tame cats roaming around their temporary settlements, either, and worry about them during the night.
My brother stooped. He dropped to one knee and disappeared in the brush. I took four steps and found the same crevice. With blind faith in the leader, I dove in, eyes open, hoping my eyeballs wouldn’t get scratched out. And they didn’t. I was quickly on my feet. My brother had already recovered and was lifting his leg to climb over a dead log.
I straddled the log and followed my brother.
Our flashlights were a lot less effective in the trees. Leaves everywhere grabbed the light and flung it back into our eyes, crippling our visual capacity. I mostly stared at the ground and swept my eyes upward to dodge tree limbs and twigs.
Behind me, there was a grunt. A cry of pain. Branches were shaking, twigs crackling. I turned my flashlight toward the sound. I cranked the light up to high beam. I barely recognized him.
A sweating creature having been long ago stripped of all inherent survival sensibilities, having become not only too tame for nature, but for any sort of activity outside of a building and off cement.
My best reader was on his knees, crawling. A twig had ensnared his shorts and pulled them snug into his crotch. His soft white thighs sung in the bright light. He’d ditched the stick, it seemed, which irked me because my brother and I had chosen it with him in mind. Light weight, naturally sharpened at the end. It wasn’t for chucking off to the side when the going got rough.
His bald head reflected the light of my flashlight. He put a hand to his knee and tried to stand, but the thicket of twigs and leaves constrained him. I made the sound of a barn owl, slightly agitated, but concerned none the less. My fan looked up. The light was in his eyes. I waved my hand, as if saying, Untangle thyself!
I turned and hurried to catch up with my brother. Behind me, a branch snapped. There was heavy breathing.
Well, he’ll catch up, I thought. One way or another. It’s part of the tour, man! Give it 110 percent. It’s not the Dear Dirty America Babysitting Club. At some point, in the wild, a man decides for himself that he’ll survive or he won’t. I didn’t want to interfere with that crucial moment in his life.
My brother popped out of the belt of trees and onto the mowed strip of grass at the very edge of the farm. We faced west. He turned off his flashlight and immediately crept to the next belt of trees, this one running north and south, parallel to another bean field. As soon as I tumbled out of the trees, I turned off my light and followed.
At the other end of the trees a quarter of a mile away, my brother switched on his light. We scanned the field for eyes. Our neighbors had told us there was a den west of us, but nobody had pinned it down yet. The pups were drifting in from there. Our farm was in their territory.
Which was precisely the reason we had taken up the patrol. To reclaim our land and our pride, to protect our cats, and maybe even our own dear mother while she worked innocently in the garden, which was tucked against the trees to the west. Only God knew what unseen beasts prowled the trees and salivated while she tended to her onions and chili peppers.
In what I thought was a touching moment, my brother broke his ‘no talking’ rule and asked, “Where’s C–? Wasn’t he behind you?”
“He must not have been able to keep up,” I said and shrugged. “The last I saw him, he was snagged on a branch in the south trees.”
“You left him there?” my brother asked.
“This isn’t a knitting club,” I told him. “He’s a man. I thought he’d slug it out with the branches until he was free and he’d be right behind us. Besides, I wanted to give him his money’s worth. A shot of panic is what he’s paying for. Being lost in the middle of the night in an unfamiliar stretch of trees on the darkened boundaries of someone else’s farm should do it for a low-level thrill seeker.”
My brother shook his head. He shut off his flashlight, as I did mine. “He could be anywhere now. He’ll never find the way back to his van.”
“I hope not,” I said, “because he owes me before he leaves.”
We listened to the insects. From a long, long way off west a coyote howled. We stood rigid, silent in the dark. Then another, closer, called back from the east. Three or more raised a tremendous harmony.
“I wish we’d really made that Yeti call,” my brother said. “It sounds like they’re celebrating after killing a cat. I’d like them to think there’s a bigger beast around here.”
“I’ve got an idea,” I said, after the howling died down. “Let’s blast off the gun. That way C–‘ll be able to use his sensual faculties to find us, and we’ll also let the coyotes know we’re listening. You know, what Rawlie Dickerson calls ‘Diddling two birds with the same stone’.” I leaned in close to my brother’s ear. “Plus, this will give C– the thrill of a lifetime.”
“I brought the loud gun out tonight, too,” my brother said. “Mostly just for show.” He raised it to the sky and steadied himself to pull the trigger.
TO BE CONTINUED…
[header painting of trees, oil on paper, by Albert Bierstadt; charcoal grove of trees by Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo; soybean field photo from Jakec; coyote hunting photo from Alexander Kastler; juvenile mountain lion and coyotes photo from USFWS Mountain-Prairie]