We found the emu gutted and blind in the southeast pasture, just past the gate with wild oat growing at its posts. The bird made short, harsh croaking noises until we got too close, when it lurched atop its wobbly legs and tried to run. A rope of intestine trailing from the torn wall of the creature’s abdomen tangled with its feet and tripped it; the emu cried out in pain and collapsed, bleeding freely from the bloody gash where its eyes had been. Half of the upper level of its beak had been snapped clean off.
Emus aren’t as big as ostriches, but they have meaner tempers. They stand about as high as a man, and, unlike an ostrich, they have feathers all the way up their necks stopping a few inches below the head like an extra tall turtleneck. Emus are brown and gray in color. This one had feathers the color of hematite on its throat. The bronze of its wings was glossy. Matted lumps of blood and dirt caked the bronze of its belly. Its eyes, had they still been intact, would have been the color of a ripe Mexican persimmon.
This particular emu had wandered onto the property a few years before, right around the time I turned nine. It had traipsed up the dusty road and into the front pasture like some sort of feathered king, and then it had come to stand on the front porch, neck bending so as not to scrape the low overhang of the ceiling. Grandfather came out of his bedroom and spotted it as it stared through the front window; when it saw him it let out a short bark, like a greeting or a demand. Grandfather went out the back door so he wouldn’t have to go near the potentially aggressive bird. The emu followed him when he got in the feed truck, staying a good twenty yards or so behind the Chevy at all times. It did not come close when Grandfather got out of the cab to open various gates and cattle traps. When Grandfather came upon one of the herds, the emu strutted straight up to the cows, puffed out its feathers, and brayed at them. Its head dipped, neck lying parallel to the ground, feet spread to support the weight of its heavy oblong body. The cows scattered back, wary and unsure of how to handle the avian newcomer. When Grandfather began pouring feed cake onto the ground, they let the emu get first taste. Cows are not intelligent creatures; they operate under the better-safe-than-sorry principle. They let the bird gulp down a few mouthfuls— head tipped back, skull jerking up and down as it slid the pellets of feed down its ridiculous throat—before crowding forward to feed themselves.
When Grandfather left the herd that day, the emu stayed behind. It never left that herd for the three years that remained of its life. More than once we found carcasses of coyotes with talon marks in their backs around that herd’s stomping ground. Grandfather hadn’t expected the emu to protect the herd, but when it did, he decided the feathered king deserved the fitting name of Elvis Presley. Cows are not sentimental creatures. None of them stood around to mourn Elvis when we found him dying. The emu’s neck lay in an arc, broken beak tucked into its breast feathers, as if the act of hiding its ruined eyes could protect it from us. I fancied that it had inherited this if-I-can’t-see-you-you-can’t-see-me notion from its ostrich cousins.
Grandfather didn’t say anything for a few moments. He just looked at the bloodied Elvis. Then he turned on his heel, went back to the truck, took the smallest rifle off the gun rack, and shot Elvis in the head. The emu made no sound when the bullet hit, but a shudder passed through the bird, and its body seemed to deflate. It had been holding its breath to make itself look bigger, puffing up its feathers so we wouldn’t come close.
Grandfather handed the gun to me and pulled the bird’s neck straight. He cupped Elvis’s head in one hand and studied its wounded face through narrowed eyes.
“Bobcat got ’im,” he said with equal parts solemnity and rancher’s interest. “See here? Those’re claw tracks. You can tell it ain’t a mountain lion that did this; these’re too small.”
I knelt to look. Beneath the blood I could see the wounds that had burst Elvis’s eyes. One of the four slashes had bisected the left eye almost entirely and had ripped away some of the flesh around it. Two more had caught the right eye at either corner, pulling apart the socket. The eye hung out of the dark hollow, dangling on threads of white nerve. The last claw mark had gone between the eyes and down the beak.
“Now, the emu pro’ly had a flaw in its beak, maybe an abscess or a nick,” Grandfather explained, indicating the halved bill. “The claw got caught in the weak point and finished what nature started.”
He put the head down on the ground and moved to the emu’s body. Grandfather nudged the ropes of entrails aside and grasped one of the bird’s feet, pulling out the knobby leg until the three-toed foot lay atop his jeaned knee.
“Shoot,” he said, staring at claws as long as my fingers.
“Can’t tell if he got a shot in on the cat with all this blood. Dunno if it’s just his, or what.”
“Blood’s all the same color,” I said.
Grandfather started to nod, but he stopped because he had found a tuft of hair amid the blood. He picked it up. Bits of flesh clung to the follicles of the pale-gray fur. “Looks like Elvis got a shot in on ’im, after all,” he said, and then he asked me to get a gunnysack from the pickup as he began yanking out the emu’s feathers by the handful. I didn’t know what he planned to do with the feathers, but I didn’t ask. He would find some way to use them; he always did.
“It’ll be goin’ after the cattle next,” Grandfather said as he yanked out tufts of copper and tin. “Takes real big guts to tackle a bird this size. Real big guts.”
Dad oiled the guns the night before we went deer hunting. He had spread thick flannel cloth, patchy and rough, over the kitchen table to catch the drops of spilt grease; he blotted his hands on the flannel when his fingers grew too slick. He spent only a little time oiling his new deer rifle, the long barrel of it gleaming dark silver under the bulb overhead, and more time on his old gun, the rusty .22 he had had since he graduated college. The stock was cracking, but he rubbed off the splinters with sandpaper, revealing fresh, golden wood beneath the aged gray. He moved deftly. His hands knew exactly what to do. He had done it all before, at least with the old gun. He knew its quirks, that it aimed to the left, that the bolt stuck if it wasn’t oiled just so. He didn’t know the new gun so well. The 300 Savage didn’t need oiling, but he explored it, dismantling the entire thing before putting it back together piece by piece.
The handling was a ritual, of sorts. He had never shot the Savage, but he could already anticipate its kick and the way it would fit the hollow of his shoulder and the pads of his palms.
He asked me to get the ammunition when I walked in and saw him sitting there, bits of the guns lying slick and shiny on the table like dark, scattered stars. I went out to the shed; I found the lockbox on its shelf; I turned the combination— one, two, nine—and opened it up. In it were five boxes, some with rifle bullets, some with shotgun shells, and one with handgun rounds. I took out the rifle box. The casings looked like little chips of copper sunlight when I lifted the cardboard flap, but I frowned.
“Dad,” I said when I went back indoors, “Dad, what caliber does the new rifle take? All we have are twenty-twos.”
He grinned and jerked his head at the kitchen counter, toward the rotary phone. “Those over there. Cost a buck a pop. Gonna be pretty loud.”
I investigated. A small plastic box with little round holes for individual bullets to stand in sat atop Grandmother’s address book. Opening the box showed me maybe twenty rounds of ammunition. Each bullet was as long as my thumb.
“Thirty-cal?” I guessed.
I extracted one of the bullets. The flat part of the casing had been stamped with a maker’s seal and a “.30.”
“That’s right,” Dad said. “You’d better hit the sack. Early day tomorrow.”
“Right,” I said.
Dad turned out all the lights except the one above the kitchen table, where he sat up working for another hour. I know this because I could hear him from my usual bed on the couch, which is set on the other side of the kitchen stove and the range.
I woke at 3:30 am because Grandmother was frying bacon. Dad came out of his bedroom only a few minutes after I had begun to eat. We layered toast with bacon strips and slathered it with creamed eggs; we had Pecos cantaloupe and more toast with Grandmother’s homemade preserves after that. The creamed egg we washed down with milk; the cantaloupe and toast with orange juice. Dad drank a mug of coffee while I dressed, and then while he dressed, I helped Grandmother cook more food for Grandfather, who was putting in his glaucoma eye drops in the back bedroom.
Dad and I left the house by 3:50. I carried the .22 by its sling over my shoulder; Dad carried the .30 in its special protective case in his left hand and a backpack full of supplies on his shoulders. My gun was loaded. Dad carried his gun’s shells in his pocket. We both wore insulated camouflage pants with matching jackets, warm boots, and hats with ear flaps. I stuffed my hair up under the cap; Grandmother remarked on how I looked just like my Dad when you couldn’t see my figure or long hair. I was somewhat proud of this as we walked across the front pasture and past the copse of mulberry trees marking the edge of the next field. Without any prompting Dad began pulling the mulberry trees aside; I helped, and after a minute we uncovered the ATV he had hidden there the day before. We climbed on; it started with little trouble.
It is not hard to see at night on the ranch, especially when the moon is full. Everything looks silvery gray except the darkest places, which are black, and the brightest places, which are flecked with rusty forest green and clay brown. Every now and then a jackrabbit would scare up from the plains grasses and sprint off, white tail streaking through the dark. I asked Dad if we should shoot one; he said no, that we shouldn’t scare the deer.
By 4:15 we had gotten close to the deer blind. Dad parked the ATV a half mile off; we walked the rest of the way. The blind was little more than a wooden box mounted in a pecan tree next to one of the many gnarled Mexican persimmons growing wild on the ranch. The blind had a bench and room for two adults to sit in cramped comfort. The planks nailed to the tree’s trunk didn’t creak when I used them to climb inside. They creaked only a little under Dad’s weight. From the blind we could just see a deer feeder, a dark-green barrel suspended in the air by three metal rods arranged like a skinless teepee. It released dried corn at approximations of dawn and dusk; the deer knew this and came at around the same times every day and night to eat. We were early, so we had to wait.
The bench was hard under my thighs. Dad stared out the small hatch cut into the blind’s side through a pair of night-vision binoculars. Every now and then his hand would twitch toward his pocket, the one with the ammunition, and then go still. I played with my breath since it was cold enough to see it misting clearly in the dark. The temperature hovered a little under thirty degrees, but I didn’t much mind. “Pay attention,” Dad whispered when he realized I wasn’t looking out the hatch with him. “You’ve got good eyes. You might spot somethin’.”
I scooted up to the window, secretly wondering what the point was. Dad’s eyes had more practice than mine; he always spotted deer first, even when I had the binoculars and he didn’t. I jumped every time the wind blew in intermittent gusts and made the tops of the mesquite trees swirl like currant-flavored cones of ice cream.
Time passed. I was busy studying how the sky to the east was becoming a fraction of a shade brighter than black when Dad grabbed my arm with one hand and pointed with the other, letting out a low hiss that meant he had spotted something.
My hands clenched. I jerked my eyes back down to the feeder and saw—
Dad was digging in his pocket for a shell while I tried to find whatever it was he had spotted, but I saw nothing. Then, with a sound of metal scraping over gears, the deer feeder below us let out a stream of corn.
I saw the deer only because it flinched, head jerking back into the low scrub ringing the feeder’s clearing. I held my breath; the deer stepped back out onto the open ground. It paused, hindquarters hidden by leaves, and then took a step forward with head held high, ears twitching. When she—it was a doe—decided that there was no threat, she took a few steps forward. She floated over cactus and lamb’s ears. Deer look like they are walking on air; this one was no exception to the rule. She didn’t bend a single stalk of grass on her way toward us. The feeder spat out another passel of corn.
The doe shied away, cloven hooves kicking up dust. I half expected her to flee back into the brush and vanish, but even though she was skittish, she knew that the feeder wasn’t something to be feared. She stopped moving and turned her head back over her shoulder. I couldn’t see her eyes because the sun was still so far below the horizon, but I knew they would be large, liquid, and black. I jumped when Dad said, “Let’s wait for a buck.”
Even though we waited we didn’t see a buck that morning—not one with a spread big enough to merit shooting, anyway. The season was nearing its end, and Dad knew there was a fifteen pointer somewhere on the property; he had seen it right around Christmas, and he didn’t want to waste his last allotted kill of the season on a doe or a juvenile male. We saw maybe twenty deer, and all but one of them were does; the one lone buck had a rack of a paltry six points.
When the curve of the sun just barely touches the horizon line, the sky turns greenish gold until the sun’s body actually does rise into view. I assume this happens because the low light is filtered through trees. The higher the sun rises, the bluer the sky gets, unless there is cloud cover, in which case the sky swirls with pink, orange, and lilac. That morning there was no cloud cover at all; gold-green faded into a blue so pale it was white, then aquamarine, then royal blue, then blue as rich as velvet. Stars lingered in the deepest blue; Venus clung valiantly to the fringes of the royal.
“We should go home,” I said when Venus faded. It was about seven o’clock; the deer would be bedding down for the day, and we needed to get back to help Grandfather feed the sheep and wrestle the cattle into a fresh grazing pasture. I began packing up, but Dad smiled a little and shook his head.
“I have something I’ve been wanting to try,” he said.
Hunters catalogs feature whistles that mimic animal noises. There are calls for every kind of bird, ducks and geese and quail, calls of wounded rabbits meant to lure in predators, calls of animals during mating season. Dad used the wounded rabbit call. Blowing into the small wooden sphere with a hole bored in its side produced a noise I imagined sounded like a dying garden gnome, only much shriller. The first time Dad blew it, all the deer lingering at the feeder scattered; a wounded rabbit meant a killer was close.
I didn’t like the noise; I stopped up my ears with my fingers and glared at Dad a little, but he just laughed and kept on blowing. He made the wounded rabbit call for almost fifteen agonizing minutes, and when I finally voiced a complaint that I was cold and stiff and had a headache brewing, he said it was time to leave. I stood up and went for the trapdoor that would let me out into the world again, making sure to keep the .22 balanced safely on my shoulder, but just as I touched the handle to pull the door open, I felt a tug on the back of my jacket. I looked over my shoulder; Dad was looking out the window hatch.
“Come see this,” he said.
I crawled over.
“See there?” He pointed. “Low, next to the big cactus.”
Bobcats weigh about forty pounds fully grown and stand two feet high at the shoulders, but those numbers are deceiving. Bobcats blend with the landscape; their fur is predominantly mottled brown and silver with bars and spots of black on their legs and hindquarters. The patterns imitate the shadows of brush and fallen leaves. This camouflages the edges of their bodies so they blend with the scenery, minimizing size. When you see their faces, however—faces with tufts of white fur on the cheeks, ears peaked with black points of almost feather-like hair— bobcats seem larger for sheer presence. Their eyes dominate the face, slanted and lined with black fur reminiscent of Egyptian kohl; the irises catch light and shatter it into gold and citrine sparks. The face of a bobcat is not forgettable.
The cat sat like a sphinx between two cactus plants. Its body was in shadow, but I could see its face as plain as day.
“That’s the one that killed Elvis.”
I looked at Dad. He had somehow found the binoculars quietly enough to avoid my noticing his movement.
“Got a patch of fur missing off its shoulder,” he said without taking his eyes off the bobcat. “Good ol’ Elvis Presley.” He lowered the binoculars. “You wanna take it out? You’ve never shot one of these before.”
His tone was matter-of-fact. For a second I felt nothing. Then, woodenly, I leveled the gun I had been carrying on my shoulder out the window. I aimed for the cat’s shoulder; he sat facing us so the shoulder was the best I could do to hit the heart. I flicked the safety off. I tried not to look at the cat’s eyes. I breathed in, then let the air trickle slowly from my lungs.
“Aim for the heart,” Dad whispered.
I squeezed the trigger. I both heard and felt the telltale clicking sound of a gun jamming tight. Shame and relief washed over me in a wave.
“Dad-gummit,” Dad spat. “We’re gonna have to use the thirty-cal.”
Numbness fled in the wake of panic. My hands shook as I unslung the .22 and leaned it against the wall of the blind. Dad reached into his pocket and took out one of the sun-bright bullets; his tongue poked out of the corner of his mouth as he slipped the Savage’s barrel out the window, opened the action, and slipped the shell inside the chamber. Just as he moved to pass the gun’s butt toward me, he held up a hand and paused.
I looked out the window. The cat was rolling to its feet with a flex of lithe muscle. It stood there silently, watching the deer feeder as though trying to determine if the object was worth its precious time.
Dad broke the silence by pushing the big rifle my way.
I took it slowly, kneeling at the window as I stared at the cat. I fit the butt of the gun to my shoulder; the Savage was much heavier than the .22, too big for a kid my size. I swallowed as I pressed my cheek to the gun’s stock and looked through the saddle sight, fitting the front sight into the bowl formed by the rear sight.
Just as I trained the gun on the cat, it moved. The bobcat padded soundlessly toward the deer feeder, trotting like a more graceful version of a horse or maybe a predatory deer made of stitched silk. It eyed the deer feeder for a moment before lifting its head to sniff at the green barrel. Its short tail, the bobbed tail that gives the cat its name, twitched once, twice, three times.
The cat stood in profile, giving me perfect view of its heart. I aimed for the heart. I flicked the safety off. I breathed in, then let the air trickle slowly from my lungs. My finger slipped into the curve of the trigger guard and slowly came to rest against the trigger itself.
Just as I breathed in, slowly breathed out, and began to squeeze the trigger, Dad said, “Hurry up, Sam.”
The cat turned its head my way. I gasped; my finger spasmed, and the gun went off with a roar unlike any I had ever heard. The thing seemed alive in my hands, jerking upward and bucking hard enough to come out of my grip completely. The receiver struck me square on the ridge below my eyebrow, and I was falling backward into Dad’s outstretched arm. The butt of the gun landed on my stomach; the barrel fell against the window’s rough sill with a thud.
I don’t know how I saw it, but I did. I saw the bobcat jerk and whirl away from me before collapsing on its side in the dirt.
It should have run, I remember thinking. It should have run, things don’t die that fast from a shot to the heart. Deer with similar wounds sometimes ran miles before falling still.
“You got it!” Dad hollered. Then he paused. “You’re bleedin’!” He yanked the gun off me and took off his cap, balling it up and pressing it to my left eye socket. “That gun got ya good, but you got the cat! You got it!”
I didn’t feel any pain from where the rifle hit me until the adrenaline stopped pumping a few minutes later. Dad jabbered like a mockingbird when he wrapped my head in his bandana and helped me out of the blind; I was still shaking. Dad called those shakes a part of “the hunter’s fever,” said he got it every time he shot at game no matter how big, and cats are special.
“Let me get some pictures of you with it,” he said as we walked toward the fallen cat. Its back was to us; I couldn’t see its face from that angle. “Good thing I brought my camera, it’s—Sam, stop.”
The cat was still alive. It growled low in its throat, thrumming like an engine of a small boat. I could see from this distance the patch of missing fur on its back, Elvis’s handiwork to be sure, but there was no blood. There should have been blood.
What did I do?
The thought popped into my head as Dad told me to go back to the deer blind. I walked backward, not wanting to abandon my father as I watched him sneak forward and jab the cat with the toe of his boot.
The cat let out a ferocious howl; with a paroxysmal twist of its head and shoulders, it jerked upward and around, forcing its body into an awkward position not unlike a towel caught midway through having the water wrung out of it. Dad jumped backward with a curse; the cat jerked again, trying to lurch at him. None of the cat’s inherent grace lingered in the motion, and when it tried to pull itself upright a third time, I heard a distinct cracking noise, and the cat fell still.
Neither Dad nor I moved. Then, inch by inch, Dad crept around the cat’s body to its head. He stared at it for a second. Then he looked my way.
“C’me ’ere,” he said.
I went to Dad. When I did, the cat let out another growl. I recoiled. Dad laughed.
“It can’t hurt you,” he said. “Not anymore.”
Emboldened by his laugh, I slunk into his shadow. The cat lay before me; for the first time I saw the two wounds on its back, one on either side of the hump of its spine.
“You severed its spinal column,” Dad said. Then, joking, “I thought I told you to aim for the heart!”
“I did,” I said.
He laughed again. “The kick probably threw off your aim, is my guess. You’re not used to guns that big.” He clapped my back with an open palm. “Your mother’s gonna pitch a fit when she sees that eye. It’ll be black by tomorrow. You’ve got quite a story to tell at school!”
The bobcat lay at my feet, black lips pulled back over sharp ivory teeth as it growled and snarled. When I shifted from foot to foot, it let out a yowl and snapped at my boots. Even though I knew it couldn’t get close enough to bite, I still moved back to give it space.
Dad pulled his video camera out of his backpack and turned it on. He got down on the frozen ground, frog-crawling infinitesimally closer to the cat’s face with every second.
“This is crazy,” he kept saying, but he used a voice that said he was enjoying every second of it. “This is crazy!”
I did not agree with him aloud. I wanted him to leave the poor cat alone. When I was this close, I could see the small smudge of russet brown above its mottled pink-and-black nose, just as I could clearly discern the black and russet V shapes that created a wing-like pattern on the cat’s skull. The pattern fit right between its ears. It looked like someone had painted the outline on in ink, it was so precise. I hadn’t been expecting the markings to be so symmetrical, and I hadn’t expected the eyes to reflect the rapidly bluing sky overhead. Every time the cat blinked, the gold of its eyes would become suffused in dark blue.
The cat’s fur looked softer than I expected. The bat-like ears were filled with downy white fluff; I wanted to know what it felt like, but I wasn’t about to touch the creature I had maimed.
“Look at the look it’s giving us!” Dad said from his place on the ground. “It hates us! It’s so mad we killed it!”
I didn’t share those sentiments. Call it naïveté or wishful thinking, but I didn’t think the bobcat hated me, or that the thought of death bothered it at all. In that moment, I felt that it just didn’t want to be mocked. I stared down at the bobcat and felt pinned to the skin of the world.
Eventually Dad tired of playing with his camera. He had me hold the guns and his backpack while he picked his way through the brush, disappearing at one point behind a pecan tree. When he reappeared, he was holding a rock about the size of his hips above his head.
When I looked at it with confusion, he said, “You don’t expect me to waste another shell, do you?”
When we went back home, Dad’s boots were covered in blood. He took the shoes off before going indoors, and in his socks on the kitchen linoleum, he declared, “Elvis Presley has been avenged!”
They say birds can sense things. Crows alight on houses before deaths; buzzards trace lazy circles in the sky when hidden corpses start to rot; sparrows vanish from street corners just before unexpected storms. There might not be any explaining the crows, but the buzzards have keen noses, and all birds’ bones are hollow. Spikes and dips in barometric pressure resonate inside them, making them run for higher ground or at least scramble to find a safe eave under which to hide.
Five days after we found Elvis dead in the back pasture and two days after I paralyzed the bobcat, another emu came walking up the road. It was almost as if he had sensed the absence of his predecessor and had come to fill it. He was smaller than Elvis, though, and he had less cunning in his persimmon eyes. We did not give him a name.
Sam Butler studies creative writing at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. As a consequence of being born in Texas in 1990, Butler can identify most species of cactus at twenty paces. This is her first publication.
“Elvis Presley Has Been Avenged” appears in our Winter 2012 issue.