TWO QUACKS WEST OF SLAUGHTERHOUSE
Ed Sniece resides upriver, near a branch in a fork of the stream; one you wouldn't ordinarily notice unless you already knew it was there. It's a far piece afoot. Consequently, I don't see or hear from Ed all that often.
Ed stems from a line of Snieces who've lived in these parts quite a spell. Like some readers, I have wondered about the derivation of the surname. I've pretty much given up querying on the subject. Each time I've asked, Ed deflects, most often pivoting to another unique sobriquet.
Once Ed diverted from family history with, “Ever hear of Breece D' J' Pancake?”
At the time I had not and stumbled through everything but the breakfast name. “Breeze De Je? Is that French?”
“Breece,” Ed spelled it out then said, “I don't know,” to the French question.
Ed wasn't one for making things up so I reckoned the Pancake family was real. By the time I pondered through to the conclusion that Pancakes were true as slow syrup on a winter morn, he had changed the subject to Bet, his horse.
Sure, Bet sounds like a mare's name, short for Bette or Beth. However, Bet was and had always been a male of the equine species. Ed give him the name 'cause he won him in a wager. What the nature of the wager was is lost to my memory. Perhaps more to the point is the confusion caused by the naming of the horse lo these many years gone by. For Ed's spouse's front end name is Betty. As far as I recollect and know now, it possesses the “Y” ending rather than the Bette Davis spelling.
Spelling can be important at times, but it ain't much to do with where we are headed in this narrative, which I suppose is beyond the old slaughterhouse, downstream, west of Slaughterhouse Gulch.
Bet, the horse, strode as long and proud at twenty years as a decade prior; black from mane to whip strong tail, except for a streak or two of white girdling the belly. His forehead bore a splotch, not a star, of white, jutting jagged into the surrounding darkness.
The Snieces possessed a sheepdog named Shep though they ran no sheep. He never, as I saw, bounded indoors, but stayed on the front porch and steps where both Mr. and Mrs. loved him up like a boy child they never had.
There meandered about the property a duck, a drab colored thing, presumably female. Originally two ducks existed on the Sniece place, but some wild creature made off with the male. The female proved a sharp character. It avoided being a bobcat's entree through some sort of alliance with the dog and especially Bet. At the slightest hint of danger or a chance shift in the wind, that duck rose in temporary flight then alit on Bet's sturdy back. If something like a Red-tailed hawk menaced the nearby sky, Shep might take to barking or Bet might bolt with the duck riding bare butt.
The duck far outlived its missing partner, long enough that Mr. and Mrs. Sniece took to calling the fowl, Ms. Duck. Many of the details concerning the Sniece farm menagerie would have remained unknown to me without Ed's proclivity to change from any uncomfortable subject of conversation to a dissertation on the escapades of Ms. Duck, Bet, and Shep.
One day recent, Ed scuffled down the road, right in front of where my grandparents' home has been supplanted by two Santa Rosa plums. Of course, the house was taken down quite some time ago. I do miss the staircase leading upstairs that the '06 quake crimped like a card sharp's deck.
Too late for plums, too late for most apples, outside of cider varieties. I toted Pa's .30-.30. Two bears on the prowl all season and I fancied some late cider myself, if not to share. “Dos osos,” I held the rifle straight up, acknowledging Ed afoot on the dirt road that once bore rails, train cars, passengers, and logs for the mill at the mouth of the river. Once in a great while I showed off my limited knowledge of the Spanish tongue.
Ed pretty much stared a hole in the ground in front of his boots, but he did shuffle to a standstill. He carried a shotgun. His long-sleeved shirt pocket bulged with two or three shells.
Hadn't seen a face that disconsolate since the preacher read over the overly proficient coastal child who answered a dare to swim to the buoy in the bay. The boy bested the undertow, the current and the seals guarding the buoy then back to the arms of members of the fire department only to succumb to hypothermia.
“Ms. Duck done it.” Ed gazed up at me for a second or two. “She's been quacking in Bet's ear and that fool-smart horse does whatever she tells him.”
“What are you talking 'bout?” I set my rifle against the trunk of one of those plum trees.
“That duck quacks in Bet's left ear and turns him right. Sits on his top knot and taps the kitchen window 'til he nudges it up with his nose and big teeth... The mischief that duck caused in the kitchen. All I could do to keep the Mrs. from shooting Ms. Duck right there.”
I pictured the splatter on the breakfast table. Ed kept going, swallowing harder at each phrase. “Well that damn duck did it. Got Bet to bite the rope knot off the barn door... All that feed in there...” Ed's Adam's apple jumped with a gulp he couldn't dissuade. “Bet foundered himself. Foundered himself into a bellowin' bloat and died of it.”
“Oh, geez.” All I could manage aloud.
“That duck wadn't done. She got up in the loft and somehow she knocked a bag of rat poison down to the floor.”
“Shep took them gummy pellets for dog biscuits...”
“Oh, for Christ's sake,” though I hadn't been to church but a half dozen times since graduating the sixth grade.
We both stood silent for quite a spell. Then Ed commenced shoving shells in the shotgun barrels. He'd stare in the distance a moment or two, pry them out, and repeat the process.
He must have loaded and unloaded a half dozen times before he said, “The woman blames it all on me. Too playful with that duck, too encouraging of its mischief. Like she wasn't herself, but I guess I got more of a laugh out of it... There ain't nothing to laugh at now. We got in a terrible row. Maybe more than one, depending on how you define a term like that... She packed her bags and left in the automobile.”
Maybe it was being one of the younger children of parents who were youngest siblings themselves, but Ed grew up around aunts and uncles and great aunts and uncles who were born in the century prior to his. Thus, he was prone to old fashioned words such as automobile instead of car, aeroplane, and phrases like, “come to find out.”
Well, come to find out, Ed related that the duck had escaped westward. After he buried Shep and doused Bet's carcass with agricultural lime, he set off tracking the fowl. It having grown lazy riding Bet for much of its transportation about Ed's place, the duck did not travel far at a time. Ed had it practically in his sights a time or two, he recounted, only to watch the duck take wing. “I saw it fly over your bottom lands,” he sighed.
“I looked him up. The Atlantic Monthly published most of Pancake's stories.” I found myself diverting from the uncomfortable situation before me.
Ed pushed two shells in the barrel, snapped it shut, and set off down the road to the west. I think I almost hollered after him. “The De Je came from an early misprint of his middle initials.” As if that detail might stop Ed in his tracks.
I stepped onto the old dirt road. “Breece D' J' Pancake was raised in West Virginia.” The back of Ed's pants, shirt, and head nearly disappeared behind low hanging willow branches near my western boundary. Where the road dipped at the mouth of a dried up tributary, Ed's step appeared to regain its normal bounce, but I knew it was a trick of the eye brought on by the rise and fall of the terrain. “Pancake killed himself.” I wanted to holler, but it scarcely rose above a mumble. “Sold off all his guns save one lone shotgun.”
Pret near forgot about my own weapon. However, several of the heifers browsing their way on the hill caught my eye, so I picked up the rifle and started to the west myself. Reached those willows when the stately heifer pushed her way through the brush and cut grass on the river side of the road. Well, to call it a river there was a misnomer akin to skinny bacon and thick ham being the same pork. Only at Duck Pond Gulch where tidewater commenced did the creek turn into a stream. Round the bend toward Slaughterhouse Gulch and you started to see the width and depth of a real river.
That heifer planted her “have an apple or six?” questioning gaze on me. Shook my head and showed her my hands were empty save for the rifle. Nigh on to supper time. Something made me linger there amid the graying of the willows.
The heifer munched a little while on the green swords of cut grass then stopped. Chewing time for her I reckoned.
Stand long enough in one spot and you'll notice what other things are moving, or not. The evening breeze from downriver scarcely tickled neck hairs let alone tree branches. Does the wind grow wistful on autumn evenings, regretful? Or is it merely saving its breath for winter blows?
Something sounding like two quacks wafted through the stillness from the west. Beyond Duck Pond Gulch, my mind measured. Slaughterhouse... Live here most of your life and the one word suffices for the gulch, its stream, the old lumber company butcher building and the bend in the river.
Then the blast. The echo. Shotgun.
The heifer glanced at me. Did she sense the shiver? Yes or no, she continued chewing.
Only the one shot. I waited until darkness enveloped the river valley, hoping for what resolution I do not know.
Walked up the hill, a paper thin moon for guidance beyond local knowledge. Ate a carrot for supper, no appetite. Restless reading, tossed sleep without a full salad in the tummy.
Fed the cows at first light then walked downriver, my steps cutting through a fog so thick you have to know where you're going to proceed. West of Slaughterhouse Gulch, a green grass shelf separates road from river and a couple of apple trees survive, growing at odd angles since the big quake nearly uprooted them; last remnants of a brief nineteenth century logging camp.
I spot the blood on the riverbank. Blood that is dried but moistened again by the condensation deposited from morning dew.
The red of lifelessness sliding all the way off the blades of grass into the high tide of the river, where something lies floating.