© James J. Doyle 2012
Texas was burning.
Dry from drought, the parched pastures and withered forests ignited at a spark.
Driven by hot gusts, the flames leaped to consume whatever stood in their path or could not move away from the raging conflagration.
After the fires passed, little remained.
* * *
“We can bale the corn stubble.” Charles stood in the harvested field.
“We can.” Uncle Joe squatted down and picked up a handful of shredded stalks, husks, cobs and kernels left behind by the combine. “It makes good hay. We can rake it into rows and use the baler.” He tossed the stubble into the air and watched it float and settle back onto the field.
The brothers had been fortunate. They’d made a corn crop. It was a moderate crop, but others saw far less or none.
“Joe, Frankie called from over near Bastrop.”
“How’d he sound?”
“Happy as ever. Laughing and joking. He was Frankie. Talking about ‘whatchamacallit’ and asking ‘whatyousay?’ I could hardly get a word in edge-wise.” Charles paused, gazing at the stubble. “He said the cattle could use some hay. Didn’t make a big thing of it.”
“They need help, Joe.”
Nodding, Uncle Joe saw in his mind gaunt cattle standing next to a dry stock tank, running on shaky legs at the sound of a pickup and bellowing at an empty tub for water and food.
“Did they burn?” Uncle Joe asked.
“Around them. It missed most of their place. Trees near them were caught in the fire.”
“The Lost Pines?” In his head, Uncle Joe saw the tall old conifers, a remnant stand of loblolly pines from long ago when Texas was a cooler and wetter land forested with majestic old growth trees. The Lost Pines survived along a band of windy hills near Bastrop and southeast of Austin overlooking the cooling waters of the Colorado River. They were the last of their kind.
“Parts burned,” Charles answered. “It was difficult to stop, but the firefighters with local volunteers stopped the flames. A few of the old stands are gone.”
Uncle Joe pulled on his gloves. “We’d better get to work.”
“Yes, Joe, I’ll hook up the rake. You can bring the baler.”
* * *
The highway out of Bastrop skirted the edge of the old forest.
Joe drove. Frankie’s land was just up the road to the left. The big pickup had a goose-neck trailer attached to its bed. On the trailer were fifteen large bales of hay made from the corn stubble. This was the first trip. There was more hay back home.
From the side window, Charles watched the tall pines climbing into the hills. “Folks say there are strange creatures up there,” he mused. “Animals lost from another time. You can see their shadows among the older trees.” Charles looked over. “What do you think, Joe?”
“I think this is our turn.” He drove into the lane and saw Frankie waving next to the barn. A few of the ranch hands stood by. “Looks like we have a welcoming committee.” Uncle Joe pulled the rig over and stepped out.
Frankie grabbed his hand and started pumping. “Whatyousay you two are up to with that load of whatchamacallit hay? I like the lookandseeyou of those whatchamacallit bales. You youngsters are good balers. You are a welcome sight, a welcome sight, indeed.”
Uncle Joe carefully disengaged his hand before his arm was pulled out of its socket.
Frankie grabbed Charles’ hand and went to work on it.
“Where do you want the bales, Frankie?” Joe asked, rubbing his shoulder.
“Over yonder there, by that fork lift thingamabob. The boys can use that to move the bales. No need to do anyoldthing. You two are staying inotherwords for the night to eat and sleep. There’s room in the bunk house and plenty of food.”
“We appreciate the hospitality. If it’s okay with you, after we unhook the trailer, Charles and I would like to drive up into the Pines to see where the fire came through.” Charles turned his head at his brother’s words, wondering what Joe was thinking, but not saying anything, as Uncle Joe continued. “I saw a turn back a mile or so before your place. We won’t be that late, but it’ll probably be after dark.”
“Sure, Joe. Back door to the kitchen will be open. Come on in and get some vittles and whatsyoufindthere. The place is yours. Whatyousay?”
“I say that sounds good. Let’s unhook the trailer and we’ll be going.”
* * *
Not far out, the side road started to climb through the burn.
“Look at that, Joe. The trunks look like scorched telephone poles. The side branches are missing, and the ground’s covered with ash.”
“The green’s gone, Charles. Just black and gray. Not much survived this.”
Around a bend, Joe slowed the truck. “Charles, did you see something move off there?” Uncle Joe waved with one hand. “Between the burnt trunks?”
“What did you see?”
“It was fast. Like a dark shadow.”
Uncle Joe guided the pickup onto a dirt side road and followed the ruts up the old track. He stopped the truck. “Let’s walk. See what we can see.”
Charles followed his brother across the bleak landscape.
Signaling quiet, Uncle Joe pointed and said softly, “There, by the fallen tree.”
“It’s a wolf, Joe, a black wolf!” Charles was excited. “I’ve never heard of a black wolf in Texas. I read that the biggest wolf ever reported in Yellowstone was black. That was a long time ago and a long way from here.”
“She’s here now.”
The wolf didn’t move. She stood still, watching them. Then she turned her head.
“Charles, she’s looking at that fallen tree. Let’s move closer.”
“You sure you want to, Joe?”
Uncle Joe was already walking. He stopped and tilted his head, cupping a hand to his ear. “I hear something, Charles.” He took a few steps, knelt and touched the ground.
Charles followed his brother. When he stood beside him, Uncle Joe’s head came up and they both turned around.
The she-wolf was gone.
“We have to go back to the truck,” Joe said. “We need the shovel and the pick, and we need them fast.”
* * *
Uncle Joe was in the hole, digging with his bare hands.
“I can hear ‘em, Charles.”
Breaking branches and shoveling dirt, the brothers had cleared an area beneath the base of the fallen tree. Joe was following a line of softer dirt, scooping and throwing the soil up where Charles could shovel it aside.
The faint sounds grew louder.
“Look out Charles! They’re coming through.”
Uncle Joe squeezed over on his side, making a space.
“Don’t touch ‘em, Charles!” Joe yelled up at his brother. “They bite.”
Three black wolf pups rushed up and out of the hole. Excited to be free, the young wolves rolled over, nipped and jumped at each other. Their loud “Yipp-Yipp-Yipp” echoed through the silent wood.
Joe climbed out and stood with Charles watching the young pack play.
“WOLF, WOLF, WOLF, WOOOOOOOOOOOOLLLFFF . . . F!F!F!”
Startled, Uncle Joe and Charles turned around to face the call.
Racing between the brother’s legs, the pups ran up the hill.
“It’s their mom, Joe.”
Standing still with the young ones rubbing her legs, the mother wolf met Joe’s eyes. She nodded once and turned away. The black wolf loped off with the three pups bouncing and following at her feet.
After a moment, Uncle Joe spoke, as much to himself as to his brother. “It was their den. They were safe from the fire in the cool earth. The fire must have weakened the tree and it blew down on the entrance. It probably happened when she was away getting food. The pups would have died.”
“She led us here, Joe.”
“Yes, she did.”
“That’s a pretty smart wolf.”
“She needed our help, Charles.”
“Before she left with the pups, that black wolf looked right at you, Joe, and nodded. Why’d she do that, and how’d you know to get out and walk this way?”
“She was grateful, Charles, and I had a hunch.” Uncle Joe looked at the den and their tools. “Let’s pack up.”
Charles stood for a second watching his brother before he moved to help.
* * *
“How about driving up and around?” Joe asked.
They were about to turn onto the paved side road. Right would lead them to the main highway. Left moved into the hills and eventually circled back to the main road. They could get to Frankie’s place either way.
“Day’s about gone, but I’m for it.”
Winding around and higher, they crossed the burn line and entered the towering green of the old growth. As the light faded, a quiet pervaded the landscape. Uncle Joe turned on the headlights as they drove into the silence of the lengthening shadows. A full moon blinked at them between the heavy branches of the pines.
Climbing out of a dip in the road, Uncle Joe slowed, pulled over and turned off the lights.
“What is it, Joe?”
Uncle Joe leaned forward into the windshield, bent his neck back and focused on a rocky outcrop on the hilltop ahead.
“Can you see him?”
As he followed his brother’s gaze, Charles felt his mouth drop open, his eyes widen.
“It can’t be real,” Charles stammered. “It’s huge.”
Watching them, the black wolf stood quietly. In the moonlight, the jet black fur of its coat glistened and sparkled. Moving in a slow rhythm, the massive chest and large head lifted and fell.
“It’s the dad,” Joe said quietly. “He’s been waiting.”
Not taking his eyes off the apparition, Charles asked, “Why, Joe? Why would he do that?”
“To say ‘Thanks.’”
Charles jerked his head toward his brother and when he turned back, the black wolf was gone.
Not saying anything, Uncle Joe started the truck and pulled back onto the road. Over the hill, the grade started down. Leaving the Lost Pines, the terrain opened to fields interspersed with groves of scrub oak and individual cedars standing lonely in the night.
Lost in thought, Charles slowly straightened in his seat and faced the driver.
“Joe, they say some of the ‘old’ animals in these woods could talk to humans.”
“Yes, Joe. And, they say some humans could understand them.”
At that moment, from the last hill of the old forest behind them, came a long low otherworldly “HHHHHOOOWWLLL . . . LL . . . LL . . . LL . . . L, L, L – L!L!”
Charles jumped in his seat and glanced back over his shoulder. “What was that?”
“’Goodbye,’” Joe said calmly.
Sinking back, Charles sat quietly, took a deep breath, pulled himself up and turned to his brother again. “I think you’re right, Joe.” He let a few seconds pass, before he said very slowly. “And, I think some humans, like some wolves, are pretty smart too.”
With that, he turned back to the windshield and smiled, not seeing, but knowing, that Uncle Joe was smiling too.