Deke Faldergrass stood in the middle of the narrow cattle trail and shaded his eyes from the clear sun with his hand. His fingers shook and jumped from his coarse gray eyebrows. He dropped his hand to his chin and scratched at his gritty whiskers.
Over the short rise to Deke’s right, through a snag of oak brush, a startled chipmunk chattered. The breeze in the tops of the aspens was making the sun’s one o’clock rays sparkle off the emerald leaves. A shock of white clouds was building high over Brennan Range to the south. To Deke’s left, the body of a man lay under a fallen pine tree in the tall blooming elkweed and mule ears down a slight incline just 25 feet from the trail.
Deke, having given his whiskers an adequate scratch for the circumstance, started towards the fallen pine. He did not move as fast as he did even 10 years ago. The hitch in his pace frustrated Deke. He had always been a man who, when the reason called for it, could move with haste. His mind these days was still telling his body to get up, but his body had lost most of its go.
With his having stumbled across the dead man, Deke gave up on finding Erleen. The 12-year-old sheep would have to find her own way back home. And Deke would have to trim her wool tomorrow. After all, it was her fault. Deke had pulled the gate shut like he always did when he was giving Erleen and his other sheep, Patsy, their early summer shearing. It was Erleen who leaned up against the gate and discovered that the loop wire wasn’t secured around the post. Deke—helpless with Patsy on her back, legs jutting straight up and gyrating from the clippers action across her side—shouted at Erleen, appealing to her sheep nature not to slip alone through that open gate and lumber out across the meadow with her thick wool coat shuddering along with her. And when Erleen made the far edge of the meadow and disappeared into the oak brush and quaking aspens, Deke’s afternoon had been reluctantly laid out before him. But now this body.
He skip-slid his way down to the fallen pine. He felt the breeze dribbling up over the mule ears that carpeted the slope in new summer green and yellow flowers ending abruptly in the line of pines to the south. The air smelled like fresh blood to Deke. Earth’s blood.
Deke looked down at the body. He ran his fingers through his whiskers and studied the state of affairs there before him. The tree, weakened from a beetle infestation years back, had fallen true and covered the man’s upper half and one leg completely under the wide trunk. The man’s denim pants had faded near white where his leg stuck out from under the log. His foot was gone and the hem of his jeans was tattered and dark stained and lay flat up to the knee joint. The bulge of a wallet floated in the hip pocket above the decimated buttock.
Deke stared at that bulge in the pocket for a full two minutes.
Deke bent his knees and put his left hand against the fallen tree. He worked the fingers of his other hand into the dead man’s pocket. The body beneath the denim was stiff, giving off a dimly hollow rattle like a dried gourd as Deke shook the fat leather wallet out. The ghost of it pressed out there in the empty pocket. He stood up and shuffled his feet back on the bone-dry dirt, looking at the remains of the man and feeling a mild sense of remorse for having pick-pocketed him.
The dead man’s driver’s license affirmed what Deke suspected. Nine months earlier, a hunter had gone missing. Deke remembered the man’s wife on the news. Some suspected the hunter had just taken off, set up life somewhere else.
“Ah damn.” Deke felt the familiar cramps building, and he knew he had to relieve the bloating or he would never make it back to the cabin.
“Damn.” He slid the wallet into his hip pocket and shuffled off through the weeds down along the fallen tree until the log’s width was of the diameter that would make for a comfortable seat. He backed his calves against the log, checking over his shoulder for broken branch spikes, and then dropped his trousers and his drawers and sat back on the log hanging his backside over the edge. “Damn.”
Deke sat there with the rough bark of the dead tree digging into the soft backs of his thighs and looked down along the log to the scavenged leg sticking out there. “Poor sorry-ass son-of-a-bitch,” he said. He wiped himself with some of the tissue that he kept in his shirt front pocket for just this occasion, and stood up brushing bark from his legs and hitched up his pants.
Walking back along the fallen tree to where the dead man was, Deke stepped on something that crunched under his boot like an empty walnut shell. He stepped back and looked down. It was the head of a crow. A season or two old, the white skull bones were brittle and the head feathers were dusted and sun-bleached and fallen away into the dirt. The beak was long and black as darkness and parted as if in mid-caw. The eye socket was empty and a single shoot of grass poked through it and was bent over from Deke’s tread. “Sorry,” Deke whispered. He looked around for any other remains, and seeing none, he started for the trail. He walked on past the dead man, making the mule ears rustle like canvas against his feet.
Back along the trail, he thought about Erleen and hoped she had circled around and was waiting for him in the shearing pen. He hoped this more than anything.