BIG YELLOW DOG
“Man, this dump is too much like a south Chicago used car lot,” Jackson said.
I glanced at Jackson over on the other double bunk in the alcove. He was lying on his back, arms crossed under his head, one leg balanced on the raised knee of the other.
“You feeling used, Homey?” LeRoy asked from the lower bunk under Jackson’s. He was the only Hispanic I knew named LeRoy, Jackson’s invention. “You going to hang around with us brothers you got to have a real name. Ain’t no blacks named Carlos,” was the way he’d put it in the Vietcong prison camp we lived in. So, Carlos became LeRoy. After a couple of years with Jackson, LeRoy even talked black.
My name is Jack Kilroy. Jackson had named me Bad Hand, because of poker. I tended to win a lot, but that wasn’t the way he explained it, not now. “Don’t none of us dare shake his hand,” he’d announced one day, knee raised. “Don’t know where it’s been.” That posture just meant Jackson was bored and up to no good.
“Used?” Jackson asked with disdain. “Man, I own the lot.”
“Where’s the chop shop then?” LeRoy asked, mock aggrieved. “Can’t be a south Chicago used car lot without a chop shop. I been there. Where you get the spare parts?”
“You sign a donor’s card when they checked you in?” Jackson asked coldly.
“Sure. Wasn’t given no choice.”
“You saying you didn’t volunteer to give spare parts? You die, you give spare parts. People die in hospitals. That’s how you get spare parts out of a chop shop, too.”
“Chop shops get parts from stolen cars,” LeRoy said. “Everybody knows that. Nobody going to steal my parts. Only crazy people like Bad Hand here volunteers.”
I had, too. I’d asked my father if he could use his influence as a Congressman to get me a deferment, and he damn near disowned me. I should have known better. He thought President Nixon walked on water, hand-in-hand with Jesus. After he chewed me out for twenty minutes and left with a threat on his lips, I packed my clothes and books in cardboard boxes and left them stacked in my dorm room. Without taking my final exams in my last semester of law school I walked down to the nearest army recruiting center and volunteered. Three months later I wrote my mother about it, just before I left for Vietnam. She and my father were divorced and I left it for her to tell him, if she wanted to. Smart, huh?
“So, what about this place is like a south Chicago used car lot?” LeRoy wanted to know.
“Well, you and me are out front,” Jackson told him. “We’re like foreign sports cars, all shined up and beautiful, to bring the customers in.”
“Makes sense,” LeRoy said. “What about old Bad Hand?”
“He’s something domestic, a three porthole Buick with a sign, saying ‘solid family car’ on the windshield.”
“I can see that,” LeRoy said in agreement. “And the rest of the brothers?” he asked, waving a hand at the row of beds on the other side of the ward, filled with men in casts and slings, some suspended in traction.
“Junkers. Buy as is, no guarantees. They give the spare parts,” Jackson said.
“That’s harsh,” LeRoy said.
“Southside Chicago ain’t no Sunday school,” Jackson said.
At the end of the first week a fat-assed major in dress uniform, without a Vietnam campaign ribbon on his chest, came to our alcove. “Sergeant James J. Kilroy, attention!” the young second lieutenant flunky yelled, walking a half pace behind him.
I made a show of painfully moving from my top bunk to the floor and came to attention, wincing. Jackson and LeRoy did the same. The major turned red, either from embarrassment or rage at the thought that he might be being mocked, but read off a citation awarding me a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for service in Vietnam. He just handed me the boxes and saluted, me answering, and left with no further comment than, “Get a shave and a haircut, soldier. That’s an order. You’re still in the army,” before marching out of the ward.
“I’ve been thinking about that,” I said, after they’d gone. “Just changed my mind.”
“No, do it,” Jackson advised. “That’ s the kind of asshole that will check back. You don’t want six months in the brig.”
He was right. I walked to the barbershop with my two friends and we all got cleaned up. We’d left Vietnam in something of a rush.
“I’m getting out of here,” I told them. “I see that bastard again and I’m likely to say something rash.” I did not like the army. My tour in Vietnam left me with partial hearing in one ear and none in the other, chronic bronchitis, march fracture in both feet, the condition of being permanently scared and culminated in over a year in a Vietcong prison camp. I also had picked up an abiding mistrust of authority in uniform: prison guards, MPs, and commissioned officers of any army, not necessarily in that order of significance.
“What’s the Purple Heart for?” LeRoy asked.
Thinking back, I must have earned the Purple Heart when mortar shrapnel tore skin off my back. The guy at the aid station, who smeared something on the raw spots, said, “Lucky.”
“Lucky enough for a ticket home?” I remember asking. “‘Not hardly.’ Lucky to be alive?” He’d said, shaking his head, “‘This just missed doing serious carnage.’”
“Shrapnel,” I said to LeRoy.
“Ours or theirs?”
“Hard to say. At the time I had to sign a form to get a new shirt and have the cost deducted from my pay. I guess some clerk somewhere must have spotted it. Records are records.”
“How about the Bronze Star?”
“He mumbled, didn’t he? I kind of heard him say something, but I have no idea what he was talking about,” I said honestly. “I know officers get them instead of Good Conduct Medals, which are reserved for enlisted men. I don’t know why enlisted men get them.”
Following up on my decision, I went to see the hospital social worker, a deceptively motherly-looking middle-aged woman, who had substituted efficiency for compassion.
“Can you get me discharged?” I asked. “Nothing’s wrong with me that’s going to get better lying on my back in the hospital. And I’d appreciate it if you could recommend a place where I can buy a good used truck, something I can live out of for a while.”
“Well, Sergeant Kilroy, there is a hold on your discharge placed by Congressman Michael J. Kilroy. Any relation?”
“My father. Can he do that?”
“It says in the memo I got that he is on the armed services committee in the House of Representatives. That means he can do pretty much anything around here that he has in mind. Sorry.”
I figured that my father wanted to congratulate me on my army service and have me admit he was right about Vietnam. That wasn’t going to happen. My father arrived the next day, blowing into the ward like a pit bull on steroids. We’d been warned he was coming up by the receptionist at the front desk. Jackson and LeRoy fled.
“Chickens,” I muttered.
LeRoy just waved his hand in acknowledgment but Jackson stopped by the alcove doorway long enough to say, “I ain’t even told my old man I’m back. I’ll let him know just after I get discharged and can find a place to hide. I don’t need to share your ordeal; I got troubles of my own,” and he scooted over to talk to some of our prison buddies stuck with casts in beds against the ward’s far wall.
I must have looked worse than I felt; I’d lost a pound a month in the prison camp, and was thin and worn down when I got there. My father took one look at me as I stood in the alcove doorway and it sobered him up enough to make him clumsy in his approach. “You look terrible,” he said, awkwardly reaching out to hug me. “Should you be out of bed?”
“I’m gaining weight in the hospital much faster than I lost it in the prison camp,” I said. “There’s nothing seriously wrong with me. I’m asking the social worker here to get me discharged.”
“Fine, fine. You can fly home with me. I have a government plane waiting for me at Kirkland Field,” my father said.
“Actually, I want to get away and be by myself for a little,” I said. “For three years I’ve been living in a crowd with no privacy and a quiet time is what I need.”
“We still have the fishing cabin in the Adirondacks up on North Lake,” he said. “You always liked that place. Nobody would bother you there.”
“Good idea,” I said. “I’ll keep it in mind.”
“I can get you out of here this afternoon,” he persisted.
“No, I have to say goodbye to friends from the camp,” I said. “There are a lot of them here. It’ll take me a few days to do that and I need to find some place close by to just think. I have to get my head straight.”
“I called your school and they’ll take you back. You just need that last semester. There’s a place waiting for you in my firm,” he said. “I can see you in politics with your service record.”
I couldn’t, but said nothing. He soon left, probably satisfied in his own mind that I’d come around. Except for the last time, he’d been right. This would be the second time he was wrong.
I went back to see the social worker and she had me fitted for a hearing aid which made my deafness no handicap at all; found a foot doctor to x-ray my feet and prescribe metatarsal pads for my broken arches, which I threw away, and another, who x-rayed my chest and advised me to stop smoking for my bronchial condition, which I ignored. She said my medical record entitled me to a thirty percent disability pension. It amounted about to what my army pay had been, not much. I told her I’d get a post office box so she could mail my checks.
“I found you an army surplus carryall, like you said you wanted, that you can have for the cost it would take to junk it. There’s nothing seriously wrong with it except that it’s noisy. You can take out your hearing aid when you drive it,” she said.
Jackson had come with me, and asked her, “How do you know there’s nothing wrong with it? It’s an army vehicle. Army truck maintenance is crap.”
“People don’t lie to me,” she said, looking him straight in the eye. It shut him up. “I got you a free driver’s license,” she added, seeing that Jackson had no more to say. “Your discharge entitles you to that, too.”
“No driving test?” I asked.
“No,” she said shortly.
I thought that was funny, but learned from Jackson’s experience to keep my thoughts to myself. I gave her a list of other stuff I thought I needed: a tarp, a sleeping bag, a hammock, a full sized single-bitted ax, a file to keep an edge on it, a long handled shovel, a hundred feet of half-inch rope, a Coleman stove and lantern, a cast-iron Dutch oven, a blue graniteware coffee pot and a folding camp chair. I'd had plenty of time to make out the list in my head lying on my back on the hard hospital bed.
She called in her secretary and handed it over. “Have it here by tomorrow with receipts,” she told the woman.
I gathered her secretary was used to orders of that sort for she took it without comment, merely nodding. I also wanted a rifle, a knife and a fly rod, but wanted to pick them out myself.
At my next appointment three days later I found everything I’d ordered waiting for me in her office. “I added a couple of red and blue flannel shirts and a pair of blue jeans,” she told me. “You could get in trouble going around dressed in army clothes, even get in fights if you hung around the wrong places,” and gave me an itemized authorization to sign to deduct the cost from my accrued pay, just like with the shirt that earned me the Purple Heart. I don’t know why she thought I’d get in trouble.
She also had my discharge papers, a warrant for eight thousand dollars in back pay and over nine hundred dollars in cash which she counted out for me, saying, “You’re free to go.”
“You’re the best thing I’ve run into in this whole damned army,” I told her, and gave her a hug. It must have surprised her. It surprised me.
Jackson helped me carry my stuff back to the ward to get my personal gear and to say goodbye to my prison buddies. That was harder than I thought it would be.
“You got to talk to our ward boy,” one of them said. “He’s an Indian. He knows where you can hide out for a while,” and called him over. “Hey, Kilroy, come talk to this guy.”
I shook hands with the man and found his hand just brushed mine, not gripping it. I figured maybe he didn’t like white men too much.
“I’m from Santa Cala Pueblo,” he said, “just north of here. You can find it just following the river. Our own river empties into the Rio Grande up at San Ysabel. You can camp along our river and fish, if you want to. Nobody will bother you. We don’t eat fish.”
It was that easy. On the way north, I stopped at a pawn shop in Albuquerque long enough to buy a model 94 Savage 30-30 lever-action rifle and some fishing gear.
“This gun spent forty years under the front seat of a series of pickup trucks,” the pawn shop owner said. “Look . . . one side of the barrel is all shiny where it must have rubbed along the floor boards.” He ran a patch through the barrel and swore it had never been fired . . . said it probably had been touched only to move it from one pickup to another over the years. Maybe. I picked up two boxes of ammunition, a cleaning rod and patches. I’d fire it.
For a knife I chose a stag-handled Schrade Old Timer with two high carbon steel blades in a leather case I could attach to my belt. I never saw a stainless steel blade worth a damn, and I tended to lose knives out of my pocket. He had some fiberglass fishing poles but I chose an old marked-down Heddon spilt-bamboo that had been top-of-the-line before they invented fiberglass. Part of the fun of fishing is the gear. At one time I only used dry flies I’d tied myself, but until I got around to that again I bought a box of assorted bait hooks and chose a few number ten readymade brown and gray hackle files just to get started. “There ain’t no decent fishing in the state until you get up into the Chama country next to the Colorado border,” he said.
“Someone told me there were fish in the Santa Cala River,” I said.
“Yeah, but you got to have permission from the pueblo governor to fish on the reservation,” he said. “The reservation don’t go all the way down to San Ysabel if you want to try. Or you could go through the pueblo and on up north. Fish and Game don’t stock the Santa Cala so anything you catch would be cutthroat trout. They’re native fish, not very big.”
Sounded fine to me. Small fish are better eating than big ones and fish hatchery fish are tasteless no matter what the size. I needed food supplies: coffee, flour, bacon, but I figured I could pick that up on the way.
The carryall rode the way all army trucks ride: rough. It had overload springs and the seat was as hard as a park bench. It was a gas hog, too, but had a nineteen-gallon tank and an auxiliary one that held ten gallons, both full. Its appearance gave evidence of hard use, but the social worker had assured me it was in good mechanical condition. She would know. It would do fine.
I left the highway at the Bernalillo turnoff. I could see the green along the Rio Grande and I sure wasn’t going to find any place to camp next to water up on the mesa. I stopped at a small general store in Bernalillo and asked questions while picking up a sack of yellow corn meal, a can of coffee and a slab of bacon. “They have a gas station up at San Ysabel?
This store had sliced bacon, too, but that doesn’t keep well without refrigeration. I added a box of sugar and several cans of milk as an afterthought, along with a blue agate ware cup I’d forgotten to order earlier. “How do I get to Santa Cala Pueblo?” I asked.
The storekeeper said, “This road runs north to state highway forty-four and that takes you to San Ysabel. That’s the turn-off to Santa Cala.”
I found San Ysabel was a scaly looking place, with a dirty, two-pump filling station blighted by several half-dismantled cars strewn around that the storekeeper in Bernalillo had been dismissive about, a rundown general store and several nondescript buildings I guessed to be houses. I bypassed it and drove up a dirt road toward the river like the Indian ward boy, Joe, had told me to do. Even if it wasn’t the right one, dirt roads all lead someplace. This one led to a one-track bare turn off to the right and finally to a deserted one room adobe house within a hundred feet of two old cottonwoods shading the Santa Cala River. I parked and got out to look at the water. A fish jumped and something atavistic stirred inside of me. It was the first time I’d felt any emotion but fear since I could remember.
I broke out the fishing gear and caught a grasshopper for bait. Okay, so dry flies were more sporting; I wanted to catch something. Fish ate what was available, and there were grasshoppers everywhere here. I got a bite before the bait floated ten feet; a small fish hooked itself before I could react. On the four-ounce rod, I could feel every move the fish made and I’d almost forgotten to breathe as I hauled it in. Before I could detach it from the hook and throw it back, a creature sprang at the fish from a clump of willows next to the river’s edge and pounced on it. My God! It was the biggest cat I’d ever seen! Except for its pink collar, it looked like a bobcat. It was a brown tabby with a short, thick tail, tapering toward the end. Its eyes were a fierce gold green in color. What in the hell was it doing here?
The cat pinned the fish against a rock with a huge paw and glared at me challengingly.
“Go ahead, Mac, eat it,” I invited. I wasn’t going to argue with anything that looked like that.
The cat ripped the flesh from the bones and swallowed it as if it were starving. I’d been that hungry a time or two in Nam, and nodded sympathetically. When it released what was left of the fish, I hauled it over, detached the head and ragged skeleton of the poor creature from the hook before catching another hopper and throwing the line back into the water. This time, the cat waited until I could remove the catch. “Here it is,” I offered and it snatched it deftly from my outstretched hand. He could have taken a finger. The third was big enough for me to eat and I’d have kept it anyway, but when I laid it in the cool grass at my feet, the cat ignored it, engaged in the absorbing task of washing its paws and face. I cleaned it and the next one, tossing the guts back into the water after the two stripped carcasses the cat had devoured, and brought them back to the truck.
The cat followed and watched as I set up the Coleman on a handy stump over two feet high, smoothed like a table top by whoever had lived here before. I made a fire in a ring of stones near the stump and put on coffee water. After rolling the two fish in yellow corn meal, I cooked them on the turned-up lid of the Dutch oven along with two strips of bacon I’d cut off the slab with my Old Timer knife; I ate from the lid with it. The lids of Dutch ovens are slightly concave and when I finished I set it on the ground, pouring some canned milk in it for the cat, in case he was thirsty as well as hungry. I usually think of all cats as she, but this one was outrageously male from the rugged look of his head, to the tight fuzzy bails under his tail.
When the coffee was ready and I'd poured myself a cup, the cat padded over and drank from the lid. We sat companionably in silence for a bit. Then the cat came over to me to rub against my leg and I stooped to scratch him under his chin, pulling his collar around in the process. On impulse, I asked him, “You want this thing?” unhitched it and let it fall at the cat’s feet. He bent and sniffed it, picked it up daintily with his teeth and carried it over to bare ground before dropping it and scratching sandy soil over it, half covering it. Uh huh. He thought it was dopey looking, too.
The cat came back and settled down a few feet from the fire, closed his eyes and purred. Fine. He talked to himself like I did. I tossed out the dregs of coffee and took out the hammock, tying it to hang between the truck and one of the trees, and stretched out for a nap. The cat sat up and watched me until I lay still before retreating back into the willows. I dozed off thinking it was the biggest damned cat I’d ever seen.
The first night on my own I slept badly. I’d taken off my hearing aid and realized that with my hearing in the shape it was in someone or something could sneak up on me. Being by myself had some drawbacks. So, I lay on my back, cradling my rifle and looking at the stars, barely dozing most of the night. I used to do that in Nam, too.
On the second night, the cat joined me, jumping up on my hammock and pushing against me until I moved enough for him to settle down comfortably. I bet he weighed close to twenty pounds. I’d seen him coming or I’d have kicked him twenty feet, but I let him stay. He could do my listening for me. He was as spooky about strange noises as I was. He was gone by morning.
Over the next few days, I fished and slept, sharing my catch with the cat, who appeared from the willows as soon as a fish flapped in the shallow water, struggling against the hook. Taking the fish seemed as important to the cat as to me and I had a fellow feeling for the beast. I talked to him, offering observations, and he’d snug down for a few minutes after eating to purr, morning and evening. He allowed me to pet him briefly after each meal; I did not over-extend the liberty. I figured that he was about as prickly as I was; it was hard for me to let people touch me.
On the fourth day, I heard a truck turn into my dirt road. The cat, who had been sitting companionably on the table, jumped down and streaked into the willows. Without thinking, I rolled out of my hammock, picked up my rifle and ran to hide behind the adobe hut. The truck sounded in a hurry and folks in a hurry are not restful to be around. It was a light olive-colored VW van and it squealed to a stop just short of my camp. A pony-tailed young woman slammed the door as she got out, looked around and stamped over to where the cat had discarded its collar, picking it up and inspecting it carefully.
I came up behind her, the rifle pointing over my shoulder, and said, “You looking for something?”
When I emerged, the cat did too, walking up to rub against the girl’s legs. After a quick glance the girl ignored me. “Oh, Mr. Meph! Where have you been?” She scooped up the cat and hugged him. She looked like the kind of girl I used to dream about until I stopped dreaming. She wore only a sloppy t-shirt, khaki shorts and low cut sneakers.
The cat glanced at me, as if slightly embarrassed, before rubbing his head under her chin.
“What have you done with your pretty new collar, you bad beast?” she cooed.
“I don’t think he liked it,” I said, putting the rifle up against the stump. I didn’t think I’d need it.
The woman turned to me, “Did you take it off him?” she asked accusingly. “He’s been missing for a week. I’d almost given up hope of finding him.”
“He suggested it,” I replied defensively. “He’s the one that buried it. I’ve been feeding him,” I added, hoping to gain approval.
She shifted the cat so that her arm had its hind legs trapped while her hand cradled the cat’s chest. She glanced around the camp. “Raw fish? I’ll probably have to worm him. Raw food is not good for cats.”
“He seemed to like it that way,” I answered. Dumb bitch. She was pretty, though.
“You live here?”
“Well, thanks for looking after Mr. Meph. I really appreciate it,” and she flashed me a smile that might have been sincere if it hadn’t come so easy.
I nodded and asked, “Like some coffee?” I filled my one cup from the pot resting in the coals.
“No thanks,” she said quickly; too quickly.
The cup was clean and the coffee not bad. I added canned milk and sugar, sat in my chair and sipped it. I’d learned to drink it with canned milk and sugar in the army as the only way it could be drunk at all. Army coffee in an aluminum cup is
terrible stuff, turning black in hot swirls as the liquid ate into the surface of the container. I planned to wean myself from the milk and sugar, going back to the black coffee I’d always drunk before I enlisted, but not yet.
The woman hesitated a moment before turning back to the pickup, posing Mac, as I called him, on the hood of the vehicle and refastening his pink collar before getting into the truck. She started off down the road and I heard her turn onto the highway and then the squeal of brakes.
A moment later the cat dashed by, diving into the willows and out of sight, followed shortly after by the truck.
“Where did he go?” the woman demanded, as if I’d conspired to hide her cat. I guessed Mac had used her lap as a launching pad to go through the window, because both of her legs were scratched and bleeding.
I nodded toward the willows. “He’s in there. He spends most of his time in there,” I answered.
She strode off determinedly only to backtrack when she found the thicket impenetrable. “I’ll never find him in that brush,” she said, close to tears. I think she was more mad than hurt.
“Probably not,” I agreed.
“You don’t understand. He’s not just any cat. He’s a Maine Coon cat, a rather rare breed. I have papers on him. He’s worth four hundred dollars!”
Did I look like that should impress me? I set the cup down and stood up, reaching for my wallet. I had hundred dollar bills. I counted out four, which still left me with more money than I was used to carrying. The eight thousand dollar warrant was locked in the glove compartment along with my discharge papers.
“Here,” I said, holding out the money.
“Four hundred dollars,” I responded. “Drop the papers by when you can and I’ll burn them. No one should own a free spirit like that cat.”
“What’s wrong with you? I wouldn’t sell my pet!”
“If he was your pet, or your anything, he wouldn’t have run away. Twice. He belongs to himself,” I said firmly.
“You’re not going to help me?”
“Not with this, no,” I told her.
She glared at me for a moment, then turned and stomped off again, slamming the van door and spinning her wheels as she left. She seemed to anger easily. Too bad. She should smile more.
An hour later the girl came back with two guys in tow. I recognized the sound of her vehicle and resisted the fight or flight urge that had become second nature in Nam. I was resting in my hammock, sharpening my knife on a flat stone I’d picked up and listening to the river. Mac was still back in the willows. I saw him peek out briefly as the van rolled up.
“Where is he?” she demanded. She’d put iodine on her scratches and combed her hair out. Looked good. I was glad I’d had mine cut. Now that there was no one to tell me to spruce up, I’d keep it short. I waved one hand toward the willows and saw a small quiver as Mac slipped further back into concealment.
“See here, you can get into trouble if you don’t give that cat back,” one of the blond youths with her threatened.
“I don’t have the cat,” I objected, squinting up at him, drawing my knife blade slowly across the sharpening stone. He was younger than me, by the look of him. Bigger, too. So was his friend. They looked like twins.
“Taking anything worth more than a hundred dollars is a third class felony,” the other one said. “If we lay a charge on you with the sheriff’s office, you’ll go to jail.”
Law student, I decided. I got out of the hammock, folded up my knife and put it carefully in its case. “No,” I said. “I just got released from a Vietnamese prison camp, and no one had better ever try to put me behind bars again. I won’t go.”
“Hey, he didn’t steal the cat,” the girl said, pushing between us.
“Baby killer,” one sneered while the other pulled the girl away. “Don’t get in the way, Lou,” he ordered. “We’ll handle this.”
The lawyer type pushed me and said, “How tough are you without a flame-thrower in your hand?”
“That’s battery,” I said mildly, using a term I was sure he understood. Catching his wrist with my left hand as he reached for me again, I twisted it and hit him in the belly with my right, a solar plexus punch that dropped him to his knees, stunned. His buddy jumped toward me, so I hit him in the nose with a left jab, hard enough to draw blood. It’s wonderful how the sight of one’s own blood will take the fight out of a man.
“Take your punk friends out of here before I have to hurt them,” I told the girl. “They’re too big to fool with. Come back by yourself this evening while I’m fishing and maybe your cat will be willing to talk to you again.”
“Why can’t you do it now?” she asked.
“Because the fish aren’t biting now,” I told her and stretched back out in the hammock. Lying down, I didn’t represent a threat to the two muscle men and she succeeded in bullying them into following her back to the van. I didn’t watch them leave. College boys!
I started fishing as soon as I heard the van returning, just as dusk was falling. I continued until I had a fish on the line and splashing in the river shallows. Mac couldn’t resist it and came to capture it, batting it in the air several times, showing off for the girl, I suspected. He watched me catch three more, glancing over toward the stump from time to time. I didn’t look around, but guessed the girl was there. Even deaf as I am, I would have heard her leave. I was showing off, too, a little bit.
I nodded to her as I brought the three cleaned fish back to camp. She nodded back, but her eyes were on Mac, who seemed not sure of what he wanted. The cat settled on sitting some distance from either of us with his feet tucked up under him and his eyes at half-slit.
I’d made some cornbread for breakfast in the Dutch oven and before I cooked the fish, cut what was left in three pieces, one little one for the cat, laying them all out on a clean rock. “You’ll have to eat with your fingers,” I said. “I only have the one knife.”
“I have a knife of my own,” she said gravely, rising and taking a red Swiss army model from her pocket. I never could see the use in a tool like that, too many fussy little bits of things with too specialized features. She took one of the small fish when I offered it. I turn big ones loose when I catch them if I can get to them before the cat does. The little ones are the best eating. Before cooking them, I’d stuffed them with slices of apple from the overgrown orchard near the abandoned house, a trick I’d learned as a Boy Scout.
I put a bite of my trout on the rock next to Mac’s slice of cornbread, tapping on the rock with the blade of my knife to get his attention. He padded over and inspected the offering, eating it daintily before wolfing down the cornbread. I saved a piece of the bacon for him for desert, and he ate it from my hand.
“All that fat and salt is terrible for him,” the woman murmured as she set out a tidbit for the cat. He considered it briefly but decided to refuse it, crouching down beside me warily instead.
“He doesn’t like me anymore,” she said shakily.
“Nah,” I disagreed. “He’s just being a cat. Pour a little canned milk into the Dutch oven lid pan and put it down where he can get it.”
She did as I suggested and Mac followed her to drink the greasy milk, allowing her to pet him with the ends of her fingers. She didn’t try to pick him up again.
“You might undo that collar,” I said. “He hates that.”
“How do you knows so much about it?” she muttered, but she did as I suggested.
Mac stopped his greedy licking of the lid and rubbed his head across her knee briefly.
I carefully didn’t make eye contact with the woman, but I knew she glared at me. “Would you like me to make coffee?” she asked, finally.
“If you want to. You take the cup. I cut the top from a milk can yesterday I can use,” I said and went to get it from the truck. I’d twisted a loop of rusty wire around it to make a handle. It wasn’t great, but it worked.
“I want to apologize for what happened this morning,” she said hesitantly.
“No harm done,” I said.
“Neither Keith nor Kevin would agree with you,” she retorted grinning. “They wanted to get the sheriff. They would have, too, if I hadn’t told them I’d testify they’d attacked you.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“I’m sorry about the ‘baby-killer’ thing, too.”
“I didn’t understand that,” I admitted.
“It’s what they called anyone who fought in Vietnam. They were protesters.”
“Protestors? What were they protesting, being drafted? I don’t remember meeting anyone over there who was happy about it,” I said.
“Oh. Well, lots of people think that we shouldn’t be there, particularly doing what we were doing. Stories came out about villages being destroyed by napalm and women and babies burning.”
“Napalm? Jesus! Where the hell would I have gotten napalm? I was a grunt. And I didn’t kill any women and babies. I fired into the brush maybe a hundred times, but I never saw anyone die, certainly not any women and children. In fact, until we were surrounded and captured, we never saw anyone out there. We heard them, though,” I added, the fear a remembered sourness in my stomach.
We sat in silence for a bit. I was thinking about Nam. I don’t know what she was thinking about.
“I’m an anthropology graduate student,” she volunteered as she gestured upstream. “I’m doing a study of the role of women at Santa Cala Pueblo, working with the public health nurse.”
“Hmmm,” I said noncommittally, sipping my coffee and watching Mac.
“I’m trying to explain about the collar. The Indians think a cat as big as Mr. Meph has to be a wild cat of some kind. I put a collar on him to show that he wasn’t, to keep him from being shot. I can see it was a mistake, but I was trying to protect him.”
I nodded. It made sense. Silly looking collar though. Pink! A red one with studs on it would have been better.
“Look, you going to be around here for a while? The cat likes you and is safer with you than me as long as I’m living in Santa Cala.”
“The owner may come and tell me to leave just about any time," I said. “I can’t promise anything.”
“I’ll look into that,” she offered. “If it’s okay, will you stay?”
I looked at her then. “I’ll promise not to go and run off with your cat,” I said. “You come by from time to time, and I’ll tell you if I decide to leave. Here is as good as anyplace else right now for me, if I don’t get bothered too much.”
“I won’t bother you," she assured me. “I’ll just come by to check on Meph. My name is Lou Elwood," and she stuck out her hand to shake. Good sized. Good grip.
“Jack Kilroy,” I said and nodded, vaguely dissatisfied.
After a last pat for Mac, she left.
I had one more visitor that afternoon, one who woke me even before Mac launched himself from my belly, where he’d elected to snooze, and scurried into the clump of red willow. This vehicle had a bad valve and was making a lot of racket. I rolled from my hammock, picked up the rifle and hid behind the corner of the adobe before it came into sight. The driver honked and I stepped out to meet him, an old Indian with a bandana tied around his head.
His eyebrows raised and he asked, “You fixing to shoot somebody?”
“Probably not,” I assured him.
“You staying around here?”
“For a while, at least, unless somebody runs me off. You own this place?”
“No. Some Mexican used to own it. He died a long time ago. You want some firewood? I’ll let you have the truckload for ten dollars.” He indicated the load in the back of his pickup by jerking his head and pointing with his lips. I glanced at it. The load was twisted juniper logs, some dry, some green. It’d take a lot of ax work to turn it into firewood, but the price was fair enough, I thought. I had no real idea what firewood was worth.
“Sure,” I said. “I probably won’t use it all, but I was getting tired of scrounging little bits of scrap for my fire.”
“Where you want it?”
“Over there where there’s room to swing an axe,” I said, pointing.
He drove another twenty feet and stopped, so I leaned my rifle back against the stump and climbed over the side of the pickup to pitch the crooked logs over the pickup railing onto the ground. He watched.
“Have some coffee,” I invited him as I worked.
He grunted and served himself, watching me as I took off my shirt and went on unloading the truck.
“You been in the war?” he asked.
He’d seen the shrapnel scars along my right side. It looks worse than the wound had been. When I’d finished I pulled my shirt back on, climbed over the side of the truck and reached for my wallet. I pulled out a ten and gave it to the old man, who was sitting comfortably on my only chair, drinking my coffee.
“My grandson was in the war,” the old man said. He looked as solid as a brown rock. I wondered if the chair was strong enough to hold him.
“That right?” I asked, sitting on the ground up against the stump with the milk can full of coffee. I decided I needed at least one more real cup if I was going to keep having visitors all the time.
“My grandson drinks too much beer,” the old man said. “Maybe you hear him walking back at night with his friends. Sometimes there’s fights.” He shook his head in dismay.
“No, I’ve not heard anything. Where does he get beer around here?”
“There’s a bar down by the general store. They’ll trade for anything of value. Some of the young fellows have been stealing stuff to swap for beer. Folks are upset about it.”
“I didn’t see the bar.”
“It don’t look like much. At night there’s a sign in the window.”
“Tell the cops.”
“We don’t have cops. And the sheriff don’t have no say on pueblo land. Only the FBI can arrest anyone there, and they don’t care about Indians unless they do something real bad.”
“You talk to the bartender about your son?”
“Yeah. He threw me out,” the old man said flatly.
“Sounds like a hard case. Maybe you ought to burn it down with flaming arrows like in the old cowboy and Indian movies.”
“The Indians never win in the movies,” he said. “You carry that rifle inside the bar and he’ll call the sheriff on you. There’s a law in this state about bringing a gun into a place that sells drinks.”
“The sheriff drink there?”
“Lots of big shots drink in the back room. They play poker.”
“I like poker. Could I get in the game?”
“Maybe, if you got money. Don’t drink though. You pass out, you’ll wake up outside, broke.”
I’d thought about it after the old man left. Might be fun to check out that game. I was already getting bored just fishing, eating and sleeping.