The school bus containing the sixth grade class of James Bowie Middle School passes the exit for Lincoln Street on its way to the Ghostland Creek Nature Preserve. “Prairie dogs!” one of the girls squeals and points out the open bus window. “Ahhh, they’re so cute,” her seat partner adds. Neal Harris glares at the girl and thinks, “Didn’t I say to keep hands inside the bus?” Neal has taken this substitute teaching position because it is a four-day placement and he likes knowing where he will be working each day. That morning he had welcomed the weeklong predictability of his commute, despite the fact that it began with a fieldtrip. He had learned early on that teachers try to schedule their sick leave around fieldtrips. It is difficult enough managing a full classroom of nine-to-ten-year-old children without adding the frenzy of school buses, sack lunches, potential wild animals, and non-recess outdoor time.
Neal looks out his window. He had forgotten they would have to pass this place on their way to the nature preserve. Just one month earlier this had been an empty lot – empty of human use at least. Now a proud new drug store stands surrounded by a slick, black parking lot with painted lines not yet old enough to be sun bleached. He observes the square outlines of turf grass recently laid down in the building’s narrow curbed-in lawn. A mess of beams, fencing, and other construction paraphernalia lie in a pile to one end of the adjoining lot. Heavy mounds of bulldozed ground sit in between this and a small patch of level earth where tiny burrows peak up like pimples in comparison.
There Neal sees several prairie dogs racing from burrow to burrow, grooming and chirping at one another, and picking around 44 oz. drink cups, crumpled paper skins of drive-through hamburgers, and plastic grocery bags to get at what little grass remains on their dried up lawn. They represent the original inhabitants of the land, too stubborn to move or die when the drug store arrived. They remind Neal of the prairie dogs he counts as neighbors living in the field behind his apartment. Their unimposing presence was the primary reason he had decided several months ago to move from his downtown loft. It certainly was not for the new higher rent. Neal turns his head as the bus rushes by and he watches two small prairie dogs creeping along the concrete curb, inches away from impatient tires.
At the nature preserve, Neal unloads the thirty-two students from the bus and calls them to lined attention. He greets the too-young volunteer park guide and gladly hands over the responsibility for his class into her hands whether she is ready to take those reins or not. She immediately grabs their attention with her energy and singsong voice that seem more at home in a Saturday morning television set. As they hike along the Lower Bluff Trail that parallels the dried up creek bed, their guide stops them several times to observe specimens of the local flora: slender stalks of sideoats grama – their split-oat seeds hanging off to one side, now faded reddish tan in the fall sun; blue green spindles of buffalograss stretching up in between; a canvas of yellow prairie sunflowers held together by black button centers; the gnarled, black, up-reaching arms of mesquite.
Taking up the rear of their elementary caravan, Neal stops to wipe the sun-warmed sweat from his forehead with his palm. He pads his damp hand on one side of his khaki pants and pulls a folded park map out of his pocket. They have just passed the old Hemmings Ranch windmill. Next stop: the abandoned prairie dog town. Neal returns the map to his pocket and wonders if they will see any prairie dogs up close, though the qualifier abandoned does not encourage him. Neal wishes he had pointed out the drug store refuge town they passed on their way here. He has a feeling those dogs will not be there much longer. He imagines heavy machinery preparing, or as developers call it “improving,” the land for new construction.
“Ow!” a small voice jars Neal out of his own head. When the class had stopped at the next attraction, Neal had continued walking and stepped on the back of the student’s shoe. Neal takes an apologetic step back. His eyes move over the thirty-two heads to the barren mounds of earth opposite the trail. He unconsciously starts counting them. The scene reminds Neal of pictures he has seen of moon craters, except with slightly more vegetation. The ground immediately surrounding the squatty, dirt cones lay mostly barren while the several feet in between each mound displays more specimens of buffalograss, grama, mesquite, and other scraggly shrubs not mentioned during their tour.
The park guide launches into a recital of prairie dog facts, but the sun’s dry heat combined with the hours distance from lunch saps her former energy. Neal observes a catatonic glaze forming over many of the students’ eyes and he finds his own mind wandering. “This would be a lot more interesting if they could see actual prairie dogs instead of this old ghost town,” he thinks. The guide is naming off several prairie dog predators: coyotes, bobcats, weasels, hawks. Neal’s mind returns to the drug store dogs. The guide didn’t mention bulldozers or strip malls. An idea suddenly takes hold of him and he looks at his watch. “Maybe. It would be more educational than the busy work planned for when we return,” his mind justifies to itself. “I’ll have to sound convincing though, like it was all planned out.”
“Any questions?” the guide asks halfheartedly, her speech completed. The students are unmoved, most of them unaware she has stopped talking. Several hot minutes pass before the guide addresses Neal, “Yes?”
Neal glances at his arm that now stands alert over his head. Is he a child that he must raise his hand? He quickly returns it to his side. Throughout the tour he has been content to stand back and watch, yet an insistent question demanding resolve now compels him to interject, “Where did they go? The prairie dogs that once lived here, what happened to them?”
“Where did they go? Well, prairie dogs will abandon a town for various reasons: an outbreak of plague may wipe them out, or they may run out of food due to changing climate or the loss of natural predators which would cause overpopulation. When ranchers first settled these parts, they often poisoned or gassed whole prairie dog towns.”
“My uncles go shootin’ prairie dogs!” one student boasts. “They say it’s pest control. They’re gonna take me next summer. We’ll sit in the back of their truck and pop, pop, pop!” The student aims an imaginary rifle at the empty burrows and fires several times.
“Ok, but we don’t play guns in school,” Neal reminds the child while lowering his imaginary rifle.
“Yes, sometimes people shoot them for sport. Of course their meat’s not good for much,” the guide chimes in. “And it is kind of cruel – prairie dogs form strong bonds and picking them off like that disrupts their social order. The little ones starve to death. It’s really better just to poison the whole lot.”
Back at the bus, Neal counts the students and reminds them to keep their hands inside the bus. Once they are all seated but before the driver can put the engine into gear, Neal leans forward and flashes a lesson plan. Before the driver can read it, Neal folds the document and, in his most authoritative tone, says, “So it looks like we’ve just got this stop at the Lincoln Street intersection and then we’re back at school.”
“I thought it was just here and straight back. I don’t remember a second stop.” The driver shuffles through a folder of papers between his seat and the door.
“Yes, my plans say we’re to stop at the pharmacy parking lot there to let the kids have a look at some real prairie dogs,” Neal assures him, patting the folded lesson plan.
“You’re the boss,” the driver says and slowly maneuvers the bus out of the visitor center parking lot.
Neal sits down in the row seat behind the driver. His extremities tingle from the left over adrenaline of his little lie. He had never thought of himself as especially impulsive. He had, after all, chosen this substitute assignment because of its weeklong predictability rather than the potential chaos of a field trip. The problem was not his adjustment of the lesson plans; it was the insufficiency of the plans themselves. He had no choice but to improvise. “It’s always the quiet ones you have to watch out for,” his mother often said when Neal got into trouble as a child. But he had never really broken any rules back then. He had simply made up his own.
Neal Harris arrives home and drops his briefcase in its usual place beside the door before walking to the window next to his kitchen. He opens the window blinds, pulls out a chair from his small kitchen table, and sits down. His cat gives a chirping meow and jumps from the windowsill to his lap. His hand absently strokes her neck and under her ears. While Neal had liked the idea of living across the street from prairie dogs, he did not pay them special attention until his cat developed an obsession a week after they had moved. One morning she simply refused to abandon her post at the windowsill. She gave only an insincere acknowledgement of his attempts to gain her attention before returning her gaze out the window. While, under normal circumstances, this was not unusual behavior for his cat, it was unusual during feeding time. “What’s so interesting out there, girl?” Neal asked his cat. The cat’s tail swished back and forth in answer. He widened the space between two open blinds with his fingers and saw several of what looked to him like chubby squirrels with short, skinny tails. He imagined evolution had deemed the energy expended on the squirrel’s fluffy, high wire tail was better spent on girth in these sub-terrestrial cousins. Neal joined his cat’s study of their diminutive neighbors and they made a regular breakfast date of it every morning after. The local morning news blared to an empty audience in the adjoining room while Neal and his cat breakfasted to the view of young, jumpy pups tentatively exploring the grassy edges of their burrows under the watchful, black eyes of protective mothers.
“This whole area used to be a giant prairie dog town, for miles and miles,” he now hears the park guide say in his mind. “For miles and miles,” he repeats in whisper. “We just poison ‘em, pave over, and give the place a new human name,” he tells his cat, but his cat is not listening. Neal tries to imagine the land before – without the highways and shopping malls and subdivisions. If it was anything like the little neighborhood across the street it was far more inviting than what the sixth grade class of James Bowie had seen that afternoon. His family of prairie dogs keeps a tidy home with short-cropped lawns, neatly swept front porches, and invisible white picket fences – a far cry from the disordered, overgrown nature preserve.
He hasn’t given them names – they are not pets – but he has become familiar with the one family, or coterie as he has learned today, that live closest to his window. He watches the different members greet one another with a quick sniff to the face, so intimate their mouths touch in a kind of kiss. Neal imagines them squeaking with French accents. When they are not foraging grasses or flowers, the adults often sit in a tight row and groom each other while their pups scamper over themselves in play. Neal has trouble distinguishing between the three mothers. They have matching golden brown coats and the same black eyes. One has a slight strawberry blonde shimmer to her hair, but this is only apparent when the sun hits her right – usually in the evening. With the children he is hopeless. They do not appear particularly attached to a specific mother, at least not that Neal can observe, and they dart so quickly in and out of their burrows. When he pointed the family out to his girlfriend, Tara, Neal joked that they probably cannot tell the difference between all their tall, hairless neighbors either. The father prairie dog, however, Neal knows. He carries more bulk than the women and possesses a lighter, almost white, stomach that is clearly visible when he stands up to bark warnings to his family and neighboring coteries. This evening the mothers stay close to their children while he patrols the invisible boundaries of his homestead.
Suddenly a far off prairie dog stands at attention, ears focused on the road. It leans its head back and emits two short chirps. Neal’s prairie dogs glance in its direction and then return to their foraging. They have grown accustomed to traffic. A few minutes later the doorbell rings and Neal opens his door to greet Tara and the pizza she has brought for dinner. She puts the pizza on the table and pulls out a chair while he secures drinks from the refrigerator.
“How did the fieldtrip go today?” she asks him.
“Oh, fine. Didn’t lose anybody.”
Neal returns with two glasses and a bottle of rosé. He tips his chair to remove its feline occupant and turns it around to adjoin the table.
“Watching Buffy’s favorite reality show again?” Tara jokes. The cat purrs at the sound of her name, but holds her focus on the window.
“Yeah, she’s hooked. I think they’re bringing in a hawk for sweeps week,” Neal says. “It’s crazy to think this whole area used to be one big prairie dog settlement. Kinda makes me feel like Cortés building his church on top of an Aztec temple.”
“Sure, except it’s the prairie dogs that can infect us with the plague.”
“They also have a very sophisticated form of language. Did you know they have different barks for coyotes, badgers, hawks, and people? They can even distinguish color!”
“You seem to have become a little obsessed yourself.”
“They’re just so interesting. I don’t see how people can destroy them without feeling anything – destroy them for fun.” Neal pours more wine into his glass. “Refill?” he asks Tara.
“No thanks, I’m still working on mine. I may need more if we keep this conversation going any longer though. I’m not saying I necessarily agree with them, but not all people see prairie dogs as cute and cuddly like you. Cattle can break their legs stepping in one of those holes.”
“You don’t think cows pay attention to where they’re walking? Prairie dogs and bison lived together just fine out here for thousands of years before we moved in and I’ve never heard any stories about a lot of bison with broken legs.”
“Well, you still see ‘em all over. There’s that little patch on the other side of the Interstate overpass and Lincoln with those prairie dogs on it.
Neal chews on the crust of his pizza. After a minute of silence he remarks, “I was thinking today, somebody should do something about those prairie dogs.”
“By somebody, to you mean you?” Tara asks. “You could call the city or the SPCA – or are they only for dogs and cats?”
“No, there’s too much talking and bureaucracy with groups that like. Who knows when the rest of that land will be developed?”
“What do you know about bureaucracy? You’ve never been a part of anything in your life,” Tara teases him.
“Intramural volleyball in college.”
“You were an alternate. And don’t try and tell me you joined for any reason other than the fact that was the only coed sport available.”
“Still,” Neal replies in between a mouthful of pizza and gulp of wine, “too much bureaucracy, not enough coed.”
“Whatever. Just don’t do anything stupid.”
“When have I ever…”
“This afternoon,” Tara interjects. “Neal, I work at that school and sixth graders don’t exactly have tight lips.”
“Oh, that, I was just supplementing the nature hike.”
“You’ll never get hired fulltime if you keep pulling stuff like that. Teachers leave lesson plans for a reason – they don’t need supplementing.”
Neal Harris pulls his car into the parking lot of the new pharmacy at the corner of Lincoln Street and the Interstate Highway. The sun will not rise for another few hours, so he stuffs a flashlight into his coat pocket. The job would be easier in daylight, but Neal is unsure about the legality of his mission. He grabs the empty cat kennel and the plastic jug that once held a gallon of milk. It is now filled with a soapy mixture of water and biodegradable dishwashing soap. He wants to scare them out, not poison them. He approaches the prairie dog burrows. He thinks he hears a faint “chee, chee,” but does not see any animals. They must have seen him coming. He places the cat kennel next to a burrow and opens its door. He then reaches for the flashlight and thick gardening gloves. “Gloves! Where . . . ?” He looks back at his car several yards away. He has forgotten his gloves. He stands up, pauses, and kneels back down over the burrow. “Well, I’m already over here,” he sighs to himself. Neal is new to matters of clandestine nature.
He shines the flashlight down the hole and spies only earth in ever increasing shades of night. “Please don’t bite,” he whispers as he opens the milk jug and pours its soapy fluid in. His plan is to scare the prairie dogs up the burrow forcing them to run into the cat kennel that he will quickly place over the opening. This plan is the result of typing “How to catch a prairie dog” into an Internet search engine. With one hand he positions the kennel opening an inch above the jug’s gushing mouth. “This would have been easier with Tara,” he thinks. But she had left his apartment many hours earlier. He had been unable to engage her in substantial conversation, his mind preoccupied with a plan he knew she would never agree to. She soon grew tired of watching television alone, despite his presence beside her on the couch, and left early.
The jug is nearly empty. Neal looks around quickly. “This is the one. Third from the road. Top of the triangle with those other two. I know I saw one come down here this afternoon. Maybe it ran to a connecting tunnel? Maybe I need more water?” As the last of the soapy water swirls out, Neal feels a swift thump against the jug’s mouth. Shaken, he drops the jug and instinctively slams the kennel door shut. The hand that had dropped the jug now holds tightly to one end of the kennel while his other holds the door in place. The kennel is shaking violently as if a small firecracker has gone off and is bouncing off the walls in search of sky. Neal realizes that his lungs have stopped at capacity and he exhales slowly. The convulsing kennel prevents him from realizing that his hands are trembling. His body feels like running and fighting at the same time. He takes another long breath and places his knee on top of the kennel to steady it. With fingers from both hands he secures the door lock. He knows that shaky hands could easily loose him from his lucky prize.
He looks inside. A dripping, wide-eyed prairie dog returns his stare from the back corner of the kennel. The flashlight glints off its eyes and Neal cannot tell if what the light catches is fear, anger, or a residue soap bubble. A noticeable bald patch shines pink on the top left side of its head. Neal holds the kennel securely against his chest and looks around him. No one has come to stop him or ask what he is doing. No one seems to care or even notice that his plan has worked. His plan has worked. “What now?” his mind wants to ask him but cannot think of the words. His plan was to rescue the prairie dogs from further commercial development that was sure to develop their small piece of land out of existence. His plan was to capture a prairie dog by pouring soapy water down its burrow. He had no plan for what to do if he actually caught one. Neal squints into one of the slits in the kennel. The prairie dog glares back at him with its short, damp back hairs erect and moving only its front legs in excited side-to-side hops. The naked spot on its head jumps in and out of the flashlight’s view. Neal places the kennel on the ground and opens the door. He steps behind and waits. He tilts the back of the kennel upward and the prairie dog slides out and disappears into a nearby burrow. Neal retrieves the empty milk jug and kennel and walks back to his car.
Three hours and twenty-two minutes later, eight minutes before his alarm clock rings, Neal wakes up, turns on the bedside lamp, and nearly shouts, “The Lower Bluff!” From her curled-up position at the bottom of his bed, Neal’s cat raises her head, winks a sleepy eye at him, and goes back to sleep. “The abandoned prairie dog town on the Lower Bluff Trail! Of course, how could I be so dense? They lived there once, why couldn’t they live there again – with a little help?” As he readies for work, his mind labors to develop a new strategy. One prairie dog at a time in the middle of the night will not do. That afternoon, Neal leaves the school and a stack of ungraded papers at a quarter to four. Several minutes later he turns his blinker on for the Lincoln Street exit.
He wants to stop in the drug store and see if he can discover who owns the lot. Perhaps the landowner would let him work during the evenings or set out traps of some kind. Once he arrives in the store, Neal explains that he is concerned about the prairie dogs and asks for any contact information available regarding the landowner. He waits by the cashier’s desk for the manager to retrieve the relevant information. “You might be surprised, but this is not the first time I’ve had someone ask me about that,” she informs Neal. When she returns from her office, Neal places the scribbled on piece of paper she hands him in his pocket and thanks her for her help. Neal has parked his car so that the dashboard window is facing the urban landlocked prairie dog town. He sits in the driver’s seat and watches them for a few minutes before pulling out the torn paper from his pocket. “Smith and Son Properties, ask for Jacob Smith,” he reads and then dials the number on his mobile. After waiting through half a country song, his call reaches Jacob Smith’s office.
“Mr. Smith, thank you for taking my call. I was hoping to speak with you about your property next to the TopMed Pharmacy on Lincoln Street. I’m concerned about the small prairie dog settlement there and . . .”
“Lemme stop you right there,” an angry voice cuts in. “If I get one more call from you hippie, PETA jackasses I’m gonna just bulldoze over those rats myself! That land is . . .”
“Mr. Smith, I’m sorry, but I think you have me confused,” Neal attempts to interject. “We’ve never spoken before and I’m not with PETA. I just want to talk to you about relocating the prairie dogs. You see I have this idea . . .”
“Now prairie dogs are dirty, diseased pests and just a nuisance and I have a right to do with my land whatever I want. I own it and as last I checked this is still a free country! Though I’m sure you’d like to change that, making your signs and carrying on about little rats as if they’re more important than people. Why don’t you take ‘em and put ‘em on your own property and see what happens. I bet you’d be singin’ a different tune then!”
“Mr. Smith, I’m sorry, but . . . Mr. Smith . . . ?”
Neal realizes that he is apologizing to a disconnected line. He looks through the blank screen of his phone for silent minutes. He is looking for a reason for Mr. Smith’s anger and fierce defensiveness. Neal puts his phone down and engages his car’s ignition. He turns left under the interstate overpass toward his apartment. He cannot understand the conversation with Mr. Smith, though the word conversation implies a higher degree of civility and communication than he just experienced. He turns on the radio, realizing just now that it has been off for several minutes, and hits his steering wheel. He strikes the wheel again and, finding no satisfaction for his frustration, regrets the pain in his right palm. With his left hand he takes the next exit and U-turns back onto the highway in the opposite direction. In a few minutes he passes Lincoln Street and maintains a deliberate stare forward. A few minutes later he pulls into the school parking lot, relieved to see Tara’s car still there.
Tara sits at her computer preparing for the next day’s lesson. She looks up when she hears a knock at the door and is surprised to see Neal’s face at the window. “I thought you’d already left,” she remarks as she opens the door.
“I did. Now I’m back,” Neal says and sits on a student desk.
“Ok,” Tara responds returning to her own desk. Several silent minutes pass before she adds, “Did you come in for some tutoring?” Her banter fails to lighten Neal’s mood. “Well, what is it?”
Neal recognizes her tone bordering on irritation. He looks up. His fight is not with her. “It’s that lot on Lincoln,” he answers.
“Still on those prairie dogs?”
“Yeah, I kept thinking about them last night.” Neal recounts his midnight misadventure to her ever-widening eyes.
“Neal, I cannot believe you did that!” Tara remarks once he finishes. “No, I can believe it. This is just like your little field trip detour. You think you know better than other people and then you launch off on some half-cocked scheme.”
“I eventually thought it out. Relocating those prairie dogs to the nature preserve is a good plan.”
“Oh, I agree. It is a good idea. But did you even ask the people in charge of the preserve if you could unload a bunch of new animals out there? You’ve spent so much time trying to understand the prairie dogs, but you’ve got to consider the people involved too.” Tara walks over and pulls up another student desk to his. She sits down resting her hands on his knees. “Let me tell you something I tell my history students. Maybe you’re old enough to get it. The difference between an extremist and a revolutionary is that the latter has popular support. Neal, something like this is too big for you to do alone.”
“What am I suppose to do? I already tried talking to the landowner. That went real well!”
“Talk to the nature preserve; call the news. I don’t know. Maybe there are other people out there concerned about this too. You said you weren’t the first to call him.” Tara stands up while she speaks. She thinks better on her feet. “Ok, you know that old saying: It takes a village to raise a child? Well, think of those prairie dogs as your child. Now where’s your village?”
Two weeks later Neal pulls into the TopMed Pharmacy parking lot. He is thirty minutes late and the volunteer team is already setting their traps. He gets out of his car and stuffs his gardening gloves into his back pocket. “Hey, the milk man’s here!” a grad student with shaggy hair yells as he approaches. Neal waves back, unsure whether his new nickname is a complement or insult. Denise Rayburn, the park manager at the Ghostland Creek Nature Preserve, had laughed when he told her how he had caught one of the prairie dogs, yet she could not help admiring his ingenuity. After Neal’s conversation with Tara at the school he had gone home and, after waiting a sufficient amount of time for his pride to recover, emailed the nature preserve. Mrs. Rayburn responded the following afternoon and they met in person two days later. She was enthusiastic about the possibility of reintroducing prairie dogs to the Lower Bluff trail, though she cautioned that it could take time.
“Prairie dogs are a keystone species,” she said at their first meeting. “Several native plant and animal species depend on them. Maybe we’ll start seeing a few more hawks around after a while – our bird watching club would sure get a kick outta that! All those mesquite trees do worry me though. Prairie dogs don’t like mesquite. They’re too tall for ‘em and the roots get all up in the tunnels.”
“So the abandoned prairie dog town won’t work?” Neal asked, discouraged.
“No, I didn’t say that. It will just need some preparation. We’ll need to round up some volunteers for a couple work days before we can transplant the animals. Of course that depends on whether they are healthy and if we can collect enough to form a viable colony. I have a friend at the Ag College that can help us there. We’ve collaborated on other projects in the past. But before any of that, I’ll have to talk to the rest of my team and we’ll need Board approval.”
Neal sat across from her desk in breathless quiet. Tara was right – this was bigger than him.
“Oh, don’t worry. I’m sure the Board will give us the green light,” Mrs. Rayburn assured him. “Twenty years ago perhaps not, but now they like all this educational and community outreach stuff – looks good on grants.”
Neal squats down next to the shaggy haired grad student. “How many can we catch with these?” he asks.
“Each trap holds one prairie dog, but that should give us enough for a good sample,” the student replies glancing around at two other traps being set up across the lot.
“So then you’ll take them to the Lower Bluff?”
“No,” the student laughs. “This is just to get a basic count and see if they’re healthy. We’ll tag the ones we catch and take their blood samples back to the lab for testing.”
Neal appreciates the interest and support Mrs. Rayburn’s team has brought, but he doesn’t like being so out of the loop. He feels like a layman waiting in a pew while all the real action happens up at the alter. The grad student’s arrogant tone does not help. “Well, what can I do?” Neal asks.
“There’s a couple volunteers unloading traps from the truck over there.”
Neal stands up. “And how would you like your coffee?” he comments under his breath as he walks toward the truck. He has found his village, but that does not mean he must esteem all of its citizens. He is surprised to be working with other people on this lot at all after his initial phone contact with its owner. He had had doubts when Mrs. Rayburn insisted that the project would need the cooperation of the landowner. Neal described his unsetting initial phone call and she suggested that he let her team handle all future contact.
“Letterhead,” she told him, “letterhead can be very convincing.”
A man helps a woman remove a box trap from the bed of the pickup truck and they place it beside another on the ground. “Need a hand?” Neal asks as he approaches them.
“Sure,” the man answers. “These hunks of metal are heavier than they look.”
“Hi, my name is Maria Gomez,” the woman greets Neal with a smile and a gloved handshake.
“Oh, sorry. I’m Martin Johnson,” the man says, offering his hand as well.
“Neal Harris,” Neal responds.
“Harris. Oh, Denise told me keep an eye out for you. I’m a regular volunteer at Ghostland Creek – nonpaid staff you could say,” Maria proudly informs him. “Martin, this whole relocation was Neal’s idea.”
At the truck, Martin grabs a trap from one end and indicates for Neal to take the other. “I’m glad someone finally got together a concerted effort to help these little critters.” They lift the cage. “Right beside those two,” Martin directs. “I drive by this place every day and it just eats me up seeing their space get smaller and smaller. You know I called the owner of this lot once about his destruction of these prairie dogs – not a pleasant conversation.”
Neal laughs, “I know what you mean.”
“You going to the work day next Saturday to start preparing the new site?” Maria asks Neal as she checks the trap’s mechanism.
“You can count on it.”
Neal rests a cold, half-consumed bottle on his kitchen table. He wipes his mouth with his shirtsleeve and pulls a chair out to face the window. He sits and bends down slowly to pull off his dusty boots. His back aches and his fingers are sore from a second long work day at the Lower Bluff prairie dog town. Awoken from her nap on the couch, Neal’s cat walks an indirect path to him via her water bowl. She sniffs his boot and then positions herself on the windowsill. They watch the family across the street. One of the mothers is grooming the father while three pups take turns jumping in and out of a nearby burrow. Another mother stands alert farther off, head twitching in all directions, ears upright. A pup gallops up to her, kisses her nose, and nibbles on the turf beside her. Neal sees similar scenes repeated across the several open acres.
“No mesquite trees out there,” Neal mutters as he examines a cut on his arm. His cat looks up wondering if he has spoken to her and purrs. The once little pups in the neighborhood across the street look so much bigger now. They all look so much bigger, even the father, who Neal imagines possesses a furry resemblance to The Honeymooners’ Ralph Kramden. Neal’s cat jumps from his lap and stalks to her food bowl. “Must be storing up for winter,” Neal thinks. His phone suddenly vibrates on the table and he reads “Tara Taylor” flash across its screen. He wonders if he has forgotten a date.
“Neal, you’ll never believe it!” He understands from her shortened breath that this is not a social call. “I drove over to the pharmacy on Lincoln,” she continues. “I had half a loaf of stale bread I thought the prairie dogs might like. You know how little grass they have there and you’ll never believe it! They’re dead. They’re all dead.”
“Dead? What do you . . .? How?”
“I don’t know. Just lying there. A lot of them, just lying on the ground. I saw one near the curb with its little tongue sticking out. I don’t know what to do. I feel sick.”
“I’ll be right there,” Neal assures her.
“I can’t stay.”
Neal grabs his keys off the table and heads for his car. He exits on Lincoln Street. He sees little mounds of golden fur, but no movement as he pulls into the TopMed Pharmacy parking lot. He leaves his car for a closer look. Tara was right. They’re all dead. Neal counts thirteen and stops. It doesn’t matter. The majority are likely still underground, already buried in their tunnels. He walks into the lifeless lot. Should he bury these above ground? If he were a child, his parents would have a shoebox ready. But he stands alone and these are not pets. Neal thinks of the night he first tried to save them and his eyes unconsciously locate the third hole from the road that forms the top of a triangle with two others. A half concealed form blocks the opening. Neal approaches it and recognizes the still front feet and head of a prairie dog, bald on the left side.
Neal has left his car’s motor running. He pulls out of the parking lot and back toward the highway. He cannot look at them, though their images burn in his mind. The radio is on this time, but he cannot hear it. They’re all dead. Neal’s hands remember the road home, but his mind is a white fog. The small lives he has tried to save are all gone. The plan that he thought was going so well has suddenly failed, unequivocally. No second chances. He knows that no one will investigate much less prosecute the poisoning of some rodents that most people in his town consider diseased nuisances. He is too shocked to feel anger, though that will come later.
Entering his apartment, Neal tosses his coat and keys on the floor and picks up the television remote from the arm of the couch. He pushes the “On” button and leans back. He cannot think. He knows he should call Mrs. Rayburn and tell her that all their hard work has been for nothing, but that can wait for another day. Right now he just wants to shut off his brain with the flickering light.
Once he finally does call Mrs. Rayburn it is a short conversation. “You’re kidding me!” she nearly shouts. “After all the work we put in on this project! You know, I was worried something like this might happen. That Mr. Smith rubbed me wrong from the beginning. He gave a curt rejection to my initial letter. When I called him later he backtracked and agreed to work with us. Then, whenever I met with him, he seemed very concerned, practically paranoid, about bad publicity and the length of our proposed time schedule.” She pauses. “Neal, I’m so sorry this happened.”
“Yeah, me too.” Neal hangs up.
When he arrives home from work Neal’s cat meows and trots to the window beside the kitchen. The blinds have been closed for three weeks. Neal sits on his couch and turns on the television. He pulls a crumpled orange paper from his pants pocket. He has forgotten about it since that morning when he found it partially stuffed under his door. He unfolds it to find his apartment’s insignia printed across the top and a computer-generated image of a new boutique shopping center and gym. Below the image he reads the bold faced words: “Second phase of the Yellow Mesa Ranch development to begin soon! During construction the street entrance for Yellow Mesa Apartments units G-J will be closed – Management apologizes for any inconvenience.”
Neal drops the paper and leaps to his window. Outside he sees a strawberry blond head peeping out of a burrow. She is watching two of her pups forage several feet away. One has already moved out, tempted by a single female in another neighborhood. Neal reaches for his phone and dials Mrs. Rayburn’s number. She doesn’t answer. He sends a text: “Hope you kept some letterhead. Will explain tomorrow.” The Lower Bluff site is nearly ready, but he does not know how long tests on a new colony of prairie dogs will take. “I’ll need a bigger village this time,” he thinks as he moves to the hall closet. He takes down a telephone book from the top shelf and flips through the Ts. “Channel 4 News Line,” he reads and then punches the adjacent numbers into his phone. He pauses before pressing “Dial” and puts down his phone, bookmarking the page. He retrieves his gardening gloves from under the kitchen sink and removes two empty milk jugs from his recycling pile. Placing them under the windowsill, he then walks into his bedroom and returns with the kennel under one arm. “Just in case.” His cat, confused by the sudden transposition of objects, joins him by the window. Neal kneels down and pets her. “Better say good-bye to our little neighbors. They’ll be moving soon.”
Daniel Miller is a Texas-based writer and teacher. He has published one book, Animal Ethics & Theology (Routledge, 2012). His short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in literary journals such as Amarillo Bay, Cleaver, Entropy, Gulf Stream, and The Tishman Review. www.drdanielmiller.com