by Phil Geusz
©2011 Phil Geusz
I sure was proud to be driving the hay rake for Dad! It mightve been hard work, with all the raising and lowering and backwardsing and forwardsing that went with the job, and Ill grant that it was powerful hot out in the middle of the field even though it was still early. But Dads smile as he worked up and down the windrows with his sweep rake and wagon was better than all the lemonade and shade there ever was. Here I was, eleven years old and doing an adults job, even if I could barely throw the control lever when it came time to lift my tool. Not bad, Johnny! Dad cried as he passed within earshot, showing his extra-big buck teeth in a smile. Very straight rows indeed! They werent, of course, unless you called the track of a well-moonshined possum a straight line. But they were the best I could do, and Dad seemed happy enough. Thats all that really matters when youre eleven and doing something truly big and important.
I didnt feel much like a man when our neighbor Mr. Longfoot came striding across the fields, however. Mr. Longfoot didnt much cotton to me; he was always hinting to Dad that just maybe I was one of the kids constantly stealing his corn and squash. My father didnt care for it very much when he did thatin fact, sometimes his ears sort of lowered themselves and he grew downright cross. Mr. Longfoot had that effect on a lot of people; he was constantly complaining that someone was stealing his crops or moving his fenceposts or even casting spells to turn his land sour. Mind you, Father didnt take kindly to this sort of talk. Spellcasting was superstitious mumbo-jumbo, he claimed, and not a fit part of a modern farmers toolbox. Nor had Mr. Longfoot ever been able to produce any actual evidence in support of his claims, or at least not any beyond I swear to you, this fence used to be at least ten feet further north than it is now! I certainly wasnt stealing his cropshis corn tasted funny anywayand none of my friends were either, that I knew of. I mean Whod steal stupid squash and corn, when just down the road Granny Rodgers would let a kid have all the watermelon and carrots he or she could eat? The whole thing was silly! And so was Mr. Longfoot, though of course you couldnt tell him that to his face.
Whoa, Mabel! I ordered our friendliest mare, as my neighbor came up alongside the rake; as usual, his face was all screwed up like his belly ached and his fur looked like it could use a good comb-out.
Hello, Jimmy, he greeted me, employing far more civility than usual. Perhaps it was because he could see that I was doing mans work now? Is your father around? Its official business, Im afraid.
I blinked. Dad was the local Councilrabbit; even though he didnt care for the job, he did it anyway. The governor had personally asked him to run for the office, and Dad was notoriously unable to tell an old friend no. His being asked was mostly on account of him being such a big war hero, but it was also because he was so good at solving problems. So on top of running his own farm, he had to help everyone else deal with all sorts of minor and major troubles. Hes up at the barn, unloading the wagon. I expect hell be back before long.
Mr. Longfoot nodded, looking even more sour than usual. All right. If you dont mind, Ill wait in the shade under yonder tree.
I blinked againit was difficult to imagine our neighbor being so polite, especially to me. Sure thing, I replied with a shrug. Its as good a place as any.
Not half an hour later Dad came trundling back with the awkward sweep-rake and wagon rig. Hey, Jimmy! he called out as soon as he thought I was in earshot. Come and take a break with me! I brought some cider for us both!
My holler wasnt half as loud as Dads yet, so I pointed to the tree instead. Dad raised a hand to shade his eyes, then his ears lowered. I see him! Meet me there!
By the time I pulled up with my rake and climbed down from the big wooden seatboy, was my tail sore!Dad had already poured both Mr. Longfoot and himself a nice drink. Mom kept the cider down in the deepest, coolest part of our cellar this time of year, and we toted it out into the fields in a thick earthenware jug. The stuff wasnt ever anything resembling coldthe only time Id ever had a really cold drink in summer was right after a hailstormbut it was still pretty nice. And boy, was Moms cider delicious! I didnt get nearly as much as Id have liked, because of course Mr. Longfoot got a share, too. If he liked it, well Maybe he said so before I got there.
just what youd expect of a smelly damn bear! he was saying as my father nodded and poured me my share. We only had the two cups, of course, so hed had to gulp his down before I arrived. What a shameit was so good! I explained to him that the bee tree was on my land. But did he back down? Of course notbears never do! Instead he got all pushy and claimed his brother is a licensed surveyor, and that he just happened to be passing through.
I see, Dad replied, nodding. A bee tree is a valuable thing; everyone likes honey. So what happened next?
Mr. Longfoot looked down at the ground, and I felt my ears perk a little in apprehension. I wasnt about to let him steal my bee tree, he explained.
Of course not, Dad agreed. Weve got a good, solid treaty with the bears nowadays, and the border is the border. Whats ours is ours and whats theirs is theirs. In the event of a dispute, we send the matter to the Board of Arbitrators to settle in a legal, responsible manner. Thats the basis of the peace, and every year it grows more solid. His eyes narrowed a bit. Doesnt it?
Well our neighbor muttered. Then he looked away from us and back towards his own land. It was my tree, and thats that.
What do you mean, was? Dad asked.
Suddenly Mr. Longfoot turned to face us again, this time with hard features and a glint in his eyes. I cut er down, he explained. Then I cleaned out the entire hive. There was twenty pounds of honey in there, by god, if there was an ounce! There wouldve been even more later in the year, but this way at least those damn bears didnt steal it!
There was a long silence as Dads ears lowered and his eyes narrowed to slits. All right, he said finally. Youre a fool, Henry. But whats done is done; we cant undo it. What we can do, though, is go back and offer the honey as compensation. He turned to me. Jimmy, I know its a bit much for you, but I need you to
Cant, Mr. Longfoot interrupted, looking down at the ground again.
Why not? Dad demanded.
Because just as I was finishing, the bastard came back with his brother, carrying all kinds of chains and spirit-levels and heaven only knows how many other kinds of phony gear to cheat me out of my tree with.
Mr. Longfoot sighed. Well He said he was going to go back into town and raise a posse, you see. To kill me and every other damn theivin rabbit in the territory. He raised his eyes. So I came to see you, Councilman. Because I guess maybe were about to have another war.
Almost any other adult I knew wouldve gone ape one way or another, either getting all scared or angry or, well something. But Dad just stood there for a long moment, thinking. Then he turned to me again. Put up the gear, son. I know you cant reach all the hooks yet, so just this once you can leave some of it lying on the ground. The heavy bits, toodont even try to lift them. Then take care of the horses and meet me back up at the house. Do the best you can, but its even more important to hurry. All right?
Yes, sir! I replied, standing straighter and taller than I ever had before. Putting away the gear was mans work indeed, even though Dad was right about my not quite being able to do it properly yet. Right away! Then I was off on my rake, tongue-clicking to hurry Mabel along and grasping the reins of the horses pulling Dads rig as well.
The last time I looked over my shoulder, Dad was still shouting and waving his arms at Mr. Longfoot, who stood meekly looking at the ground with his big straw hat clasped in his hands.
I moved like lightning putting things away and tending to the horses; in fact, I was so excited and feeling so worked-up that I was able to hang up two pieces of gear that Id never been able to before. The horses didnt get rubbed down properly, and you could tell they resented it, but Dad had told me that hurrying was more important than doing stuff right, just this once. So less than an hour later, I was standing respectfully in the kitchen, watching Dad finish a letter. He was wearing his spectacles, which always made him look older than he really was, and his handwriting was so florid it was almost girly. Mom told me once hed been to a university, but hadnt been able to finish because of the war. She stood next to me, watching and waiting with an arm wrapped around my shoulders. Has Buck come by yet? he asked her as he added his signaturemy, was it impressive!
No, love, she replied. Buck was the mailman, and today was delivery-day for our route.
Good. Dad folded up the paper so that it made its own envelopehe considered envelopes a waste of moneyand poured some wax from the candle to seal it. Then he pulled his metal Councilrabbits stamp from its walnut box, pressed it into the little inkpad, and added his official imprint instead of postage. Lastly, very carefully, he added Emergency Express across the top in large letters. I gulped when he did that, and Mom was a little scared, too. You could tell by the way she sort of took a deep breath and never quite released it.
Just then someone knocked at our door. I ran to answer; it was Buck the mailman, sure enough. But instead of greeting me with a friendly smile and a pat on the head like he usually did, he half-collapsed through the door and might well have fallen if I hadnt caught him. Oh my! Mom cried as we staggered together towards her chair, which happened to be the closest. I almost folded under the weight until Dad took most of the load, and then together we got him situated.
Get him some water! Dad directed; now that I wasnt underneath him,
I could see that Buck was at the ragged end of exhaustion. His fur was all awry, he was covered in road-dust, and he was panting like the steam tractor Id seen at the state fair. Mom was off like a shot, so I was able to stand and watch as, slowly, Buck caught his breath.
A mob, he gasped, once he was able. Bears! Maybe a hundred of them!
Dad nodded and smiled encouragingly.
Roaring drunk, Buck continued. Armed, too. Shotguns, pitchforks, knives.
Where? Dad asked as the water arrived.
Buck nodded his gratitude to Mom, then downed the cup in a single gulp. Boy, he mustve been parched! On the road from Cavern City. When I got close enough, the bastards shot at me! He closed his eyes. Sir I had to drop my mailbag to get away. Im so terribly sorry! I mean
Dont worry, Dad said with a smile. You did the right thing, coming straight here as quick as you could, and your supervisors will understand. Ill write a letter to that effect, once we get this mess all straightened out. Then his smile faded. Now, tell me everything you can about this mob of bears
The news kept growing worse and worse. Cavern City was maybe twenty or thirty times as big as New Rabbiton, our little village, and it never took much to fire up a feud between bunnies and bears. The war was much too recent and the fighting had been much too hard for things to be any differenteven a dumb kid like me knew that much. The last conflict had been so devastating and costly, however, that the leaders on both sides were committed to a lasting peace, and someday maybe even an active partnership. Dad was a big believer in peace; hed told me many times that any veteran guerilla fighter who wasnt in favor of peace, by definition had to be insane. And after killing as many bears as people claimed he had, well
I mightve been a little sick of war myself.
At any rate, Dad sat in his chair by the fire and silently rocked for a few minutes. Meanwhile, Mom was helping Buck lie down to rest a bit before carrying Dads message to the next-higher level of government at Clover Hill. I stood silently and watched my father rock; sometimes he looked up at the pair of big revolvers hanging on the mantle. They were famous, those revolverspeople had offered more than hed ever earn as a farmer in a lifetime for them. And sometimes he looked at me.
Once when he looked at me, there was a tear in his eye.
No, he said finally, rising to his feet. I wont let it happen again. Not on my watch, by god!
I knew exactly what he was talking about. But Dad, how can you stop it? I mean Anyone can see that it wasnt your fault at all.
He shook his head. Im in charge here, sort of. So everything is my fault.
We cant evacuate, I pointed out. Wed never get word to all the outlying farms in time. And there arent enough of us for a stand-up fight!
Then he smiled, flashing his extra-big incisors again. If theres one thing that being a guerilla leader teaches you, he explained, its that things are never quite as hopeless as they seem. Were always surrounded by opportunities, if we but open our eyes and allow ourselves to see them. Then his smile faded. Listen very carefully, son. Im about to give you a whole list of things that simply must be done, and you cant afford to forget a single word
It was short notice, sure enough. But it was simply amazing, how people flat-out accepted whatever I told them in my fathers name, once I showed them that I was carrying his official seal! Normally it took days and weeks to plan this sort of thing, and Ill admit that the results wouldve been a lot better had we had that sort of time to work with. Even so, however, it was impressive how many rabbits we were able to turn out at the schoolhouse playground. And the food! My heavens, did we put out a spread, considering! There were even five blackberry piesMrs. Warrenmaker happened to have been baking them for a big family reunion.
So when the mob of angry bears crested last rise into Rabbiton, they were greeted by absolutely the last sight they expected to see: A town picnic in full progress. There were red-checkered tablecloths on the tables, big bowls of steaming food, mobs of kids running about playing tag and such Wed even managed to assemble a pitiful little banda tuba, two flutes, a fiddle and a banjo. They were playing with more enthusiasm than skill, but it was the thought that mattered.
At first, the bears milled around at the top of the hill and stared. One or two fired shots into the air, but wed all been coached to ignore them. Then Dad took me in one arm and Mom in the other, and we began walking up the hill. Hed told me that he hoped our visitors mightve sobered up considerably by now, and that many wouldve grown tired of marching and dropped out along the way. And so it seemed to beI was supposed to signal by stepping on Dads foot if I saw any suspicious-looking jugs, but they all seemed to be gone. And if there were as many as fifty bears left, Id have been surprised to hear it. It was still a scary little walk, however, and an uncomfortable one as well, since Dad made me wear my little-boy short pants that Id outgrown last year and wasnt ever supposed to have to wear again. But I went along with it, even if it did make me want to blush.
I know you, Rafe Willow, one of the biggest, meanest-looking bears growled as we closed to within speaking distance. You killed my brother, you sneaky bastard! Shot him in the back!
And I know you, Travis Stubtail, Dad replied, not missing a beat. Its been claimed that you and your provisional company ate your prisoners, though I never believed it. Others did that sort of thing, yes. Many others. But not you. He removed his hat and flourished it as he bowed. However, that was another time and another place. This is my wife Emma, and my son Jimmy.
Mr. Stubtails fangs showed themselves for a moment, then vanished. You rabbits have broken the peace. He clawed at the ground and waved the axe he was carrying. Weve come to kill you all!
Dad shrugged. If you like. We cant stop you; never couldve, given how few of us there are hereabouts.
The angry bear waved his axe again. Every last one of you!
Dad shrugged again, and Mom took his hand. Okay. Go ahead.
Oh, jeez! a bear near the back muttered.
I smell blueberries! another added.
You stole our honey, damnit! Chopped my brother-in-laws bee tree down!
No one here did that, Dad countered. A certain Henry Longfoot has confessed to that particular crime. Hes in my root cellar, under guard.
Then turn him over! Mr. Stubtail roared. Well hang him and leave peacefully, by god! All we want is justice!
Dad looked down at the ground and sighed. When he raised his eyes again, they seemed to bore right through Mr. Stubtail. Ive hung men before, sir. After court-martials, on the field of battle. Have you?
The bear frowned and looked away. Cant say that I have. Not until today, at least.
Any of you? Dad demanded of the bears. None of them answered.
Its an ugly business, Dad continued. Not at all like youd imagine. The prisoners usually terrified out of his wits, you see. People claim after the fact that the condemned accepted their punishment with dignity, but few actually do. Its a lie meant to make their families feel better. He sighed. They weep and scream and foul themselves before the rope so much as touches their neck. If you have a regular gallows handy, well thats bad enough. Usually theres a hysterical scream when the traps released, then a nasty crack as their spine snaps. When you have to improvise, though He shook his head. They strangle instead of going cleanly, you see. So they kick and hiss and gurgle, and you have to stand and watch it all happen. It takes longer than youd think. A lot, lot longer.
There was a long, cold silence.
We dont have to do it all again, Mr. Stubtail, Dad continued. All the fighting and raiding and counter-raiding He sighed. My mans clearly in the wrong, whoever actually owned the damn tree. But I assure you, sir, in all sincerity, that theres not a bee tree in the world worth hanging a man over, much less wiping out a village full of women and children! Trust me to know, on both counts.
There was another long silenceitd been a particularly nasty war, and Dads record was well-known to both sides. Aww! a bear in the back muttered. This is a load of crap! Lets go home! Then another spoke up, and another.
No! Dad interrupted. Dont go home! Come and join us for dinner; stay overnight if you like! He smiled. I hear tell theres twenty pounds of honey on one of those tables, if theres an ounce!
For a time the bears hesitated. Then at last Mr. Stubtail lowered his axe and stepped forward with his arm extended. Youre still a sneaky bastard, Rafe.
And youre a smelly brute, Dad countered as he shook the bears paw. But well find a way to get along with each other regardless, I reckon. Or else well die trying.
Then we held the strangest picnic ever known in the hamlet of New Rabbiton; soon bears and bunnies alike were dancing and eating and telling war-stories together! You could practically hear the wounds a-healing.
And when I finally went to off to attend university myself, it was in Cavern City. Every last one of my classmates were bears.