Smith Henderson: Separatists
The wheels slipped on the wet dirt road heading into Billie Gulch and slipped again up the steep drive to the Short house. The drive itself was pitted like shell range. A pollarded goat drank from a halved oil drum and watched the car slowly pass by and was still watching through its rectangle pupils when Pete looked in the rearview to see it trotting after. He leaned forward to get a better look at the house, and his car dipped into a severe pothole. He stamped his chin on the steering wheel, stalling out the car fifty yards from the place. His tongue throbbed and smarted sharply at once. He shuddered it hurt so badly. In the tilted rear view the gaps between his teeth turned bright red.
Pete got out of his car and weaved up the drive working his jaw, which was sore too, and the ram trailed after, its yellow demon eyes unnerving him. He shooed it away. He said something like “Muthathuck,” and spat blood. The goat nickered and stopped to sniff where Pete spat and nickered at him again and ate the dirt, saliva, and blood, the godawful animal.
The Shorts kept a brace of black and tan Rottweilers that were the nicest things they owned and that now lifted slobbering heads and growled in a low rheumy register in near harmony. They had met Pete, but always with Tony Short. Tony Short was now nowhere about. They watched Pete sway heedless through the thin, gray mud, spitting blood. To the dogs he was merely some bent and slipping man, muttering and scraping off his shoes on the edges of the flagstone approach to the fence, now walking upright to the open gate. He was thirty, forty feet away from the porch when they barked. Pete halted, regarded them, and clapped his hands, beckoning them to heel. They might have recognized him. They might have not. His voice was suspiciously garbled. He might have sounded wounded. Definitely hinky.
He peered around and over them at the windows, what trodden hardpan littered with broken toddler bikes and rubber toys that passed for a lawn. The Rotties barked in unison and stood. They took quartersteps in his direction, quivering, teeth bared forth in the slow peeling back of their faces.
This got Pete’s full attention and tingled up his back, charging the air between his skin and his shirt, his whole torso. He wondered if the dogs could sense this.
“Eathy boys, ith me,” he said, and they charged, brimmed hearts pounding, hot throats open. Pete yelped and swung closed the gate, and they skidded into it. The latch rattled but the gate held. They fell over one another and clambered up snarling, spittling, and furious. Pete backed away, palms up, and they reared hindlegged at the gate like dwarf landlords, whimpering upright dogmen. He stopped backing up. It was okay. He was okay. He grabbed his own chest in relief.
“Sweeth Christh,” he said. About had a damn heart attack. Heart still rattling in this shallow brisket.
Their barking continued unbroken and they seemed to need no breath to do it. Pete flipped them off, turned, and walked back to his car, dodging puddles, happily hopping over them, really almost giddy at this point, I about shit myself, sweet Jesus that was close—
He realized of hot white sudden that the barking was halved, that the rhythmic tread of dogfeet was at least one of those fine animals loose and headlong at him.
He didn’t even look.
He ran leaping the potholes to where his car had died, yanked open the door, and flung himself inside, tingling with terror as the dog hit the open door, skidded past and immediately recovered, lunging, snapping at his hand before he could close it. For a moment the dog just barked at him, as Pete dared not reach for the door handle. Then he did. The dog bit him. He was somehow able to snatch back his hand—yank out it out of the dog’s mouth really—but the dog was able to budge into the car with him, and from the yard, the less clever of the two animals stood and barked in high agony, completely forgetting the gap in the fence. The vehicle rocked at the combat within it, and the dog watched the man spill screaming out the passenger door, and leap atop the car. The rottie followed him out, ran back into the vehicle, and out the driver’s side door, bewildered that it didn’t somehow arrive on the roof.
Pete, panting and shaking with fear, checked himself. Dark blood pooled out the back of his hand that was bruised and sore besides. There were abrasions under his coat. There was a long tear in his pantleg where the dog’s jaws had snapped closed like a sprung trap. Which Pete felt the animal was, the animals were. A trap. A hatred for Tony Short swelled in his breast. Fucking hill people and their fucking dogs like lying around like loaded guns.
The vehicle shook under him as the dog began tearing the upholstery. The second perfect animal had found the hole in the fence, sprinted over and joined the other in the car, and from the sound of it, the two of them fought a moment themselves. Then they circled Pete’s car and Pete on top of it, heaving up their chests. They whined and smiled at him, circling. At last one of the two attempted to scramble up to him, claws slipping on the bumper and hood, and slid off with grunt. It would not be long, though, before one of them simply leapt onto the hood and drove him off the roof and into the jaws of the other.
The moment to move was now.
They’re going to get up here, you don’t do something—
Pete slid over and slammed the passenger door, and the dogs closed in on him, jaws clacking at his hand, and then he flung himself over to the driver’s side, dropped off the car, sprung into it, and slammed closed the door.
The rottweilers scratched at the door and window, and then snapped at one another in their outrage. The gnashing inches from him on the other side of the window like something you wouldn’t even see at a zoo. Buffeting the car with their muscle, the keys jangling in the ignition.
He opened the glove box and soaked up blood from his hand with a paper napkin. He grabbed the flask and opened it against his chest with his good hand and dribbled liquor onto the holes in his bad hand. Nothing and then it suddenly burned and he winced hugely. He pressed the saturated and ripping napkin against his hot wounds until it finally stanched the bleeding and clung poulticed to his hand. The dogs crazed and slicking his window with slobber the whole time. He yelled at them, but of course they could not leave him be.
He dropped his head back and tried to cease shivering. He pictured the Short house in flames. How he’d do it. He didn’t even care about the Short’s children anymore, who’d turn out just like Tony or get pregnant by guy like Tony who bought and bred dogs for sheer destructive power. Raze the thing. Scatter the Shorts to the winds.
He grabbed their case file from the seat, and bloodied the case log:
The Shorts breeched their agreement with Agency and were again (fifth time) absent for a previously scheduled from this agent. Agent believes that they Shorts are evading inspection as ordered by the Rimrock County Family Court and Rimrock County Office of the Montana Department of Family Services and may again be involved in criminal activity (see log 9/30). Agent was unable to survey house due to attack by the Short’s wild dogs who were left unsupervised at home location and may pose considerable danger to Short children. Agent was bitten on the hand and—
Pete set the paperwork aside, fetched the canister from the glovebox, and cracked the window. He paused for a moment of sympathy for the guiltless animals, genuinely touched by the raw beauty and ideal breeding snarling wildly at the inch-wide gap in his window. Then he maced each animal square in its snapping maw with exquisite joy. They bucked back and twirled coughing, fell, scrambled up in the mud, and then careened blind. One collided into a metal shed at full speed with an explosive bang and for a time didn’t move. The other bore into the field trying to simply outrun the hot torment. The hornless billy chuckled and peace settled over the scene.
Pete stashed the spray and wrote some more:
Agent recommends to the Court that the children be remanded to their aunt’s (Ginny Short) until such time as Crystal and Antonio Short can demonstrate their willingness to work in good faith with the State of Montana and as per their plea agreement with the District Attorney’s Office and the Office of Child Protective Services.
—Agent P.W.S. Sept. 9, 1980