Valley of the Shadow

Few stars twinkled in the partially overcast sky as Piper gripped her walking staff and hesitated in the doorway of the pole barn.   Clete stood just behind her, and although the brown goat would follow her anywhere, she’d tied a rope to his collar.

No droning of engines or rattle of equipment betrayed soldiers patrolling out on the road.

She wasn’t going to return to town by way of the road, of course.  Her mission of mercy involved trekking nine miles through backsides of farms.  The troops assigned here three years ago, just before she turned sixteen, strayed from the beaten paths only when actively searching for somebody.

She led Clete away from the barn and skirted along the edge of the fence that stretched toward the fields.  The canvas saddlebags that straddled him and the backpack she wore contained various homemade medicines and some foods that couldn’t be obtained in town.

One of those concoctions was tincture of lobelia, desperately needed by a boy in her neighborhood who collapsed from an asthmatic attack when evening fell.  The blue-flowered plant wasn’t commonplace in this region, and his family had only enough on hand to keep him from dying on the spot.  But death could claim him yet if he didn’t get more, and soon.

It was only a couple of hours ago that Piper arrived at the Martin farm.  Mrs. Martin, a widow who lived alone, chided her.

“It’s too dangerous to travel alone!”

“When it rains, it pours.”  Piper released Clete into the barn, where he could keep company with the sheep flock housed here during the night as protection from prowling coyotes.  “Before Phil collapsed, Dad got called to Ol’ Dave Steward’s bedside.  And then Mom needed to go help Stella Waters because she went into labor.  When I found out about Phil … he’s got to get that tincture, or he might not make it another day.”

“They don’t know you’re out here?  You couldn’t snag one of your friends?”

Piper sighed.  So many of the people she’d grown up with were gone now, many relocated by pressure or force.  A couple had even died since the disaster four years ago.

“It’s simpler this way.”

Mrs. Martin shook her head.  “I swear those pompous bureaucrats want to punish us for surviving as well as we did during that first year after the grid crashed.”

That was a common perception.  “They hope we’ll finally believe we can’t get by without their help if they can keep us from helping ourselves.”

“Their scheme would work better if they’d ever provide more than just a trickle of supplies.  Speaking of which, I’ve got a full load to send back with you.  Folks around here are always eager to contribute their produce to the cause.  I just wish I had somebody around who could go back with you.”

Piper was well acquainted with this pastoral route she and Clete hiked now, even though it changed as her community rotated through different farms for their arranged exchange of supplies.  They had to keep the soldiers from discovering their contraband commerce.  If anybody like her was caught, they’d wind up in a labor camp, which the politicians called relocation centers.

She and Clete walked along the edges of fields, located in valleys bordered by hills overgrown with woods.  Her eyes were accustomed to the dark, although she would have appreciated more moonlight.

About twenty minutes into their journey, Clete’s rope became taut.  Piper stopped also, and glanced back.  He probably just needed a potty break.

No … the goat was staring into the forest beside them.

She caught her breath as her heart thumped harder.  Yes, there was soft, sporadic rustling in the midst of the trees.

Maybe it was just a raccoon or possum, but these days no person could be too careful.  For one thing, if it was a larger predator, it could be considering Clete would make a fine main course.

She’d already saved him from freezing to death when he was a newborn kid.  And back then she’d determined nobody was going to make him into a meal.

Clete snorted, a sort of guttural sneeze used as a caprine warning, and she stroked his neck to help soothe him.

“Let’s go.” She kept her voice low from habit, but hoped it would also underscore to whatever stalked them that she was human.  Maybe it might regard her as an apex predator and stay away.

She led the goat at a gentle angle farther into the meadow and away from the sloping woods.  Thanks to their overlords, the only weapons she carried were her walking staff and a skinning knife.  Should she take the time to lash them together into a spear?

No, that would reduce her options….

A high-pitched, repetitive yip sprang from the forest.  Clete swung to one side in his attempt to see the instigator, and Piper tightened her grip on his leash.

A coyote … but why it was betraying its presence?  The odds were against it attacking … unless it was calling in others to outnumber her.  She wasn’t the one they were after … unless, perhaps, she got between them and their prey.

Her heart pounded as she leaned the wooden rod against her shoulder and slipped the rope’s loop from her wrist to under her belt.  She tied the leash, and gripped the staff with both hands.

“Stay close to me.”  Her words probably didn’t offer much comfort.

Despite the darkness, heading farther into the pasture should give her an advantage.  The coyotes wouldn’t be able to launch an ambush if she could see them coming.  Piper scanned all around as she and the goat walked through a hay field that was weedier than it used to be.  Clete kept looking back, but no more yips pierced the air.

Night’s shade appeared to ripple in two places at the edge of the forest.

Looking more like shadows than canines, they were eerily silent as they skimmed toward her and Clete.  The goat swung to the side again and snorted louder.

The coyotes lunged like specters released from the netherworld.

His instinct to bolt overcoming him, Clete yanked on the leash.  Piper managed to brace herself, but the tug on her belt pulled her off balance.

The closer coyote shot past her and pounced on one of the saddlebags.  Clete lunged against the rope again, jerking her back a few inches, but she swung the wooden rod at his assailant.

It smacked right behind its shoulders.  The coyote yelped and darted back, but its companion charged Clete from the goat’s other side.

Its jaws clamped on the side of his neck.  A shrieking bleat erupted from the goat as he veered toward Piper.  She swung again.

This time the stick dashed on the top of her target’s skull, producing a loud pop.  With a strangled gurgle, the predator released Clete and staggered to one side.

But the first coyote, snarling, charged at her.

The goat bolted again, yanking her back just enough to grant Piper room to swing the staff.  It slammed into the side of the coyote’s head.  The beast stumbled to one side, and then growled.  She lunged against the rope that kept pulling her back, and swung again.

The coyote darted away, but she clipped its rump before it sprinted several yards toward the forest.  Then it stopped.

She spun to face off with its companion again.  But the other coyote was staggering away, wobbling as though it had imbibed too many tequila shots.  She grasped the rope and turned back to the first attacker.  It trotted toward its partner.

The first coyote circled its discombobulated accomplice, and appeared to hesitate long enough to sniff its rear and confirm its identity.  The pair continued a slow retreat.  Would they regroup and try again if the second one recovered enough to gather its wits?

As she watched the sable shadows slink in the dark, she started trembling.  The speed and strength and accuracy that had gushed through her veins now ebbed and waned.  She might not be able to call upon adrenaline again.

Clete uttered a low bleat and leaned against her, and Piper absently stroked her hand down his neck as she confirmed the coyotes’ retreat.  Her fingers slid onto a damp and sticky patch.

“Clete!”  She kneeled beside him and tried to determine how bad his injury was.  The darker splotch on his brown coat was obscured by the night.  A flap of skin rolled beneath her fingertips.  Clete jerked with a sharp bleat, and she steadied him with her other hand.

“I’m sorry, baby,” she murmured as she scratched beneath one of his ears.  “Lie down, and let’s get you wrapped up.”

Making him lie down first would make the job of bandaging his wound easier.  When he was still a newborn kid, before she started teaching him tricks as part of earning his keep and staying off the menu, she thought about what to name him.  Folks who visited their home, often because they had business with her father since he was a minister, occasionally cracked a few jokes about the holy goats he’d acquired.

Piper remembered a formal designation for the Holy Spirit was Paraclete.  In its entirety, it was much too ostentatious, but the final syllable seemed a perfect fit for her little goat.

The pocket-sized first aid kit in her backpack had barely enough gauze and tape to cover his wound, but it would have to do until they returned home.  She urged Clete to his feet and also stood, and both of them scanned the dim meadow.

Something darker rippled along the edge of the woods, near the end of the pasture.

Her heart fluttered as she gripped the staff again and studied the shadowy form.  There seemed to be only one.  It was also too tall for a coyote.  In fact, she determined, it was human.

This could be even worse….

Clete stood beside her and also watched, but didn’t snort.  He had no fear of people.

She remained motionless.  If they didn’t move, maybe the stranger wouldn’t notice them.

But the form hesitated, stood for several seconds, and then a voice she immediately welcomed carried across the field.


“Dad!”  She strode toward him.

His pace was even faster than hers, and he spoke again as they drew nearer.  “Thank God I found you!  When I got home and you weren’t there, it gave me a fright!”

“I’m sorry, but when I heard Phil had an asthma attack, I just had to come get the medicine.”

They stopped a couple of feet from each other, and he shook his head.

“It’s precisely because Clete was also missing that I knew where you must have gone.  You shouldn’t travel alone.”

Wasn’t that what her father had just done?  “Um….”

“Never mind.”  The hint of a chuckle suggested he knew what she was thinking, but his tone became serious again.  “Phil had an attack?  But why were you in the middle of the field?”

“Coyotes tried to get Clete, and one even bit him in the neck.  I ran them off, and I taped the wound, but … boy, am I glad to see you!”

“Are you all right?”  He rubbed the goat’s head as he looked where Clete was bandaged.

“Just rattled.”

“Then let’s get back and give Phil his treatment, and take care of Clete.”  He shook his head again.  “What you did was as foolish as it was brave.”

She broke into a smile as they set off.  “Well, they do say the Lord looks over small children and idiots.  Clete might not qualify as a small child, but I admit he’s definitely not the one who’s the idiot!”


Here is this month’s contribution to #BlogBattle, and the word this round is Pastoral.  Be sure to check into all the other submissions!

Too Many Rules

We’ve already discussed the need for rules when it comes to writing.  And we’ve contemplated this framework reflects how writing mirrors life.  But what happens when rules proliferate for their own sake and become arbitrary?

Let’s go in that other direction and overburden ourselves with rules.  For instance, every sentence must be minimally subject and predicate (Floppy ran.).  Every sentence can only follow the subject-predicate-object format (Floppy ran home.).  No sentence can be longer than fifteen words.

Let’s check in with Floppy:

Floppy the hen led her chicks into the yard to eat bugs.  She spied a recognizable shadow slide along the ground.  She realized a hawk was flying overhead.  Floppy exclaimed “I say yikes!”  She spread out her wings and dashed to the coop as fast as she could.  The chicks ran under her wings.

The potential for page-turning drama (if you’re a chicken) falls as flat as the exposition.  There are even some fairly active verbs (spied, slide, dashed) used in an attempt to compensate, but the story doesn’t flourish.

Without any rules for writing, reading would be an experience of mass confusion.  But unnecessary rules in writing choke the vitality from the reading experience.  Just as we need laws (don’t murder and steal) to have a free society, oppressive laws (shut up) suck vitality from the culture.

It’s no shock writers tend to be proponents of free speech (spoken and written).  It’s no surprise people disagree on some matters (notice the range of reviews on any one book).  It’s true certain subjects should stay in their place (you don’t read War and Peace to kindergarteners), but some themes are universal (anybody can read Horton Hears a Who).

Let’s revisit Floppy now that she’s free of arbitrary rules:

Floppy the hen led her chicks into the yard on a sunny day when the sky was clear.  While they scratched around for bugs, she spied a sinister shadow ripple across the grass.  “Yikes!” she squawked.  Floppy whipped out the sawed-off shotgun strapped beneath her wings, and blasted off the hawk’s tail feathers.  Her chicks cheeped with delight as he bolted into the next county.

The hawk landed on a dead tree branch and rubbed his blistered rump.  “What the %*#& just happened?”

Yes, I know hawks are federally protected … but chickens don’t have inalienable human rights, so they live by their own set of rules….