On the Port Tack

1958, March

The Long Winter had been cold, leaving the Land buried in six feet of granulated Snow with a glaze of Ice on top. The Long Winter added to the economic burden of the Eisenhower Recession, which historians describe as modest and short-lived. Those historians are ignorant of its impact on Northeastern Minnesota.

The Valley was first homesteaded by farmers who supplemented their income with day work on the railroad and in the timber industry. The Valley in 1958 was transitioning to a residential neighborhood with a scattering of hobby farms.

The Two Red Pines stood on a small rise in the young second growth forest a half-mile from the Valley Road. The uppermost branches of the Two Red Pines grasped out in different directions like something drawn by an exuberant small child.

The Seven Ravens who claimed the upper branches of the Two Red Pines were silent, waiting for the Dawn in one hour. The Seven Ravens, like all Ravens, were more eaters than killers. Opportunists, the naturalists say. The Seven Ravens cleaned their wide territory of carrion provided by disease, old age, the Long Winter, ill-fortune, and satiated predators.

The Eight Deer were gathered within the lowest drooping branches under the Two Red Pines holding the Seven Ravens. The Eight Deer huddled together for warmth and security, the instinctual response of herd animals. The Seven Ravens kept track of the Eight Deer with the hope Nature grants to its opportunists.

The Dog slept under the hanging family coats on the unheated back porch of a house in the Valley. The Dog was descended from two genetic lines: one line zigzagged up through tame dogs, to half-wild dogs, to feral dogs, and then to the Wolves who had witnessed the arrival of the Europeans eighty years before; the other line descended down from long-haired Collies who ranged with sheep across the fells of Scotland. With her long slim body, long thin snout, and feathers draping from body and legs, the Dog proclaimed her Collie ancestry and hence in a family short of inventiveness, she was named Lassie.

Lassie lay on the floor trapped between two latched doors, one door leaking cold from the Valley outside, the other seeping heat from the warm kitchen. As a pet, she should have been attracted to the human world inside, but she was drawn beyond her control to the natural world outside. With her nostril pushed against the bottom of the outer door, she was cataloging the scents drifting on the light winds. The Dog, you see, was “red in tooth and claw,” words attributed to Alfred Lord Tennyson, who had borrowed them. Even poets are predators.

The Dog may have looked like an animal bred for human purposes, but she behaved, when away from her human owners, like her Wolf ancestors. She was alpha-female, if not alpha-entire, of a pack of Valley Dogs who were all red in tooth and claw with the blood of Deer. Of this their owners were ignorant. Some of the owners would have been angry with the Dogs if they had known. A few would have been indifferent. Most would have denied the truth.

Wolves, according to the farmers and hunters of Minnesota, were a fault of Nature, a fault which the legislators and obedient citizens of Northeastern Minnesota had all but corrected. Wolves were an evil. Lassie and Rex and Snowflake as predators—was that the same or a different moral issue?

The Dawn came. The Dog and her pack-mates were released. The Seven Ravens rose in the air, drifting apart to trace carrion scents. The Eight Deer stepped from under the Two Red Pines to seek browse, which was hard to find, much of it buried under the Snow, most of the rest already eaten.

The Man felt the Dawn and arose to build a fire in the kitchen stove for his wife. Bundled in layers of wool, Werner Fenstad trudged to his small barn to tend to his one horse, one milk cow, two steers, two heifers, and eleven chickens. Werner had just exhausted his unemployment pay, which it galled him to accept. No hope was given for men to be called back by the D.M & I.R. Railroad until June, if then, the result of financial predation. Werner and Emma would survive the Eisenhower Recession, as they had the Great Depression before they met. They had dried up the cow in February to prepare her for calving in the Spring. Powdered milk would get them through. They had each other. They shared by choice a simple life; they still loved each other in a quiet and life-sustaining way.

From a hidden cabinet in the barn, Werner took his Winchester 30-30 deer rifle and thirteen cartridges. The gun was old, once his fathers, but well oiled and clean, like all of his tools. After counting the cartridges again, he loaded five of them into a clip, which he put in an outer pocket. The ammunition was not that expensive, but money saved was money to serve another need. If he took care, the thirteen cartridges would last more than two years, especially if he used none today. He would make a decision when the moment came.

Werner took off his boots one at a time to be sure that his long underwear was tucked into the inner socks, that the inner pair of wool pants were tucked into the boots, that the laces were tight, and that the outer pants hung well below the boot tops. He was preparing to walk through deep Snow, Snow that could work its way past his preparations and chaff and freeze his legs and feet. His toes and cheeks, frost-bitten as a child and then in the War, were sensitive to cold.

Dawn had come, but it was hard to tell, especially for the Man. The light was defuse and misleading. Was more Snow to come? Without electricity, Werner and Emma had only a battery-operated radio to hear forecasts. Leaving the radio silent saved on the expensive batteries. What difference did it make what weather came? What came was beyond their control or need for further preparation.

Werner had to cross several hundred yards of his hayfield, blanketed with six feet of Snow. He planted his left foot in the deep Snow. The Snow reached above his knee before his foot compressed enough Snow to hold in place. He placed his right foot eighteen inches ahead of his left foot until it too held in the Snow. Using the rifle for balance, he extracted his left foot to place it ahead of his right. After a dozen steps, he found a slow rhythm: lift and plant a foot, take three deep breaths, lift and plant the other foot, take three deep breaths. Slowly, calmly, he worked forward until he reached his destination, a crude deer stand nailed six feet up three birch trees. Before climbing up the board rungs nailed to one of the birches, he looked and listened. Three Ravens luffed into the tops of the three birches. They knew him, knew him as the Man who in the fall left the best part of a Deer for them, the nourishment-rich guts. Two of the Ravens flew back to the Two Red Pines a quarter mile away. One remained to report on any food left by the Man. Werner understood the actions of the Ravens. He admired their ability to learn and their awareness of their domain.

Werner attended to the sounds. Only silence filled the cold. Not one of The Ravens had cawed. It was the Dogs for which he attended, except he did not hear well, a legacy of the War. He alone of all the humans in and near the Valley knew of the dog pack and its blood thirst. On his Land surrounded by the woods the Dogs shed their culture of domestication. It was not meat Lassie and her kindred sought but the excitement of the chase, the gore of the kill, the ripping open of the throat and stomach. All to be left to the Seven Ravens.

Who in the Valley paid any attention to the ever-present Ravens? Who thought evil of the group of canine friends out for a winter lark? Who realized the advantage the Dogs had in the deep Snow? The Dogs’ lighter weight and spreading paws kept them buoyant on top of the glazed Snow. The Deer’s sharp hoofs pierced deep into the Snow, bogging them down to a leaping crawl. Werner had heard the Dog pack a few times in the last month, the bass park of the finding, the tenor cry of the chase, the soprano lust of the kill.

Werner was not a man to interfere with his neighbors. In fact he avoided talking to them, as he did all people except Emma. He doubted they would believe him. He had his Winchester and the five cartridges, but he had no vision of himself taking an action. Yet he had brought with him the Winchester and the five pricey cartridges.

He climbed to the shelf of the deer stand, kicked off the Snow, and sat on the rough seat he had added before last fall’s hunting season, a nod to the damage age, work, and the War had done to his legs. He sat. He listened. His toes and cheeks complained of the cold. He heard a car start in the Valley, the wind coming from that direction for a moment. He stood. He stomped his feet. He sat. He listened. He waited. His toes and cheeks tingled. He looked up to see his Raven sentinel still waiting with him. It had been mid-mornings and late afternoons when Werner had before heard the Dogs. If there had been work to be done, he would not be here. Like the Land and all who lived on it, he was waiting for Spring. The Thaw would be slow. Roads and pathways would be a slick skim of Mud over frozen earth until one day the bottom would drop out of top inches of rock and spoil. The Mud would grow downward, forcing Werner and Emma to park their car at the end of their mile long road. The walks were nothing for them, except for the Mud which caked on their boots. Spring would be a bastard. A rotten Muddy, dirty, slow bastard.

The Raven rose and beat slowly towards the Valley, circled, drifted, luffed, and lit. The Raven, too, had no work to do except keep itself warm.

It was time for Werner to give it up, to slog his way back through his deep footprints and sit in the kitchen with Emma. Maybe she would read to him another Zane Grey. When he was drafted in 1942, the army discovered he could not read. They put him in a school taught for four hours a day by a WAC, a former country school teacher. Despite her patient efforts, the letters still tumbled and spun. Dyslexia was as yet unnamed. Why did he have to be able to read to be one of the numberless foot soldiers? The teacher faked Werner’s test scores, as she had done for other soldiers, whom she watched be crushed by their failure in her class. Why did they have to know how to read to be among the numbed-by-battle foot soldiers? The teacher and Werner kept in touch all through the War, his platoon-mates reading and writing for him. The teacher’s name was Emma, the Emma who sat now in the warm kitchen waiting to hear his decision, content with the elemental life they had chosen together.

After three dozen steps back into the field Werner heard a Raven caw, as if calling him back. He turned his head this way and that, tuning his deadened ears to the sound of the pack. They were not far now, coming right at him. He would have to decide. The Raven circled over him cawing for the other six. A Buck came out of the brush, leaping and sinking, laboring to leap and sink, leap and sink, leap and sink. The frantic Buck had no sense of the Man’s presence. The Dogs would not care; the Man would do them no harm. Werner put the clip in the 30-30. The other six Ravens arrived. The Seven Ravens circled over the drama.

Twenty yards from the Man, the Buck gave up in exhaustion. Lassie, the killer of the pack, grabbed the throat and used her weight to rip it open. The Buck screamed its outrage at its own Death. The four other Dogs tore at the flesh, trying to reach the soft belly deep in the Snow.

Werner had his five cartridges.

The first bullet pierced the brain of the Buck.

The sound scattered the Seven Ravens and confused the Dogs. Lassie stood on top of the Snow, quivering from adrenalin, staring at the Man. A second shot into the air or into the Snow might drive off the Dogs. But they were red in tooth and claw forever. Other deer, other days. Until the Snow melted. Until next winter.

The Seven Ravens returned.

A moral choice had to be made. Did the Man have the right? Did he, standing knee deep in Snow, have the moral high ground? Was the Collie, in her other guise, an old man’s companion, a child’s beloved pet? How were the Dogs different from Wolves, on which the state placed a bounty? If he kept the venison, which he decided that instant to do, could he save enough money from saved groceries to pay the cost of four cartridges?

The Deer lay dead.

The Seven Ravens circled overhead.

The Man and the Dogs stared at each other.

©Clyde L. Birkholz 2017

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