The Crow Wrangler
By Sean Grigsby
Here they were, red eyes staring from the woods. Pepito couldn’t believe they were there at first. They’d come with no sound, no warning. They’d faded into view just as slowly as the sun was burrowing into the dark belly of the trees beyond. The crows bobbed along, unalarmed in the patch of sand between the porch and the woods.
Pepito willed his hand to grab for Mister Segundo’s blunderbuss. It was leaned against the table to his right where a cup of horchata had grown neglected and warm. Slowly, Pepito rested the weapon against his lap.
The red eyes blinked. It was only once, but it was slow enough that Pepito had time to conjure the hope he’d only imagined them. But no. They appeared again, and that just made it all the more real.
He had the sudden feeling he was at the opposite end of a game board. His objective, of course, was to stop whatever it was in the woods from making off with one of the crows. It was something he’d prepared for all summer, but now that it had come…. His finger twitched near the trigger.
Two months before he’d been walking home along the Polvo road when he came upon a crow. Its feathers were clean, shiny black in the sun. The bird cocked its head and seemed to wink at him.
Pepito smiled. “Hello, grandpa.” He wasn’t sure why he’d called the bird that.
The crow must have taken offense. It flew off at shoulder height down a path through the baking grass. Pepito followed. He laughed the only way a boy in the summer can, running through unknown terrain and letting the air embrace him as the sun poked its glory through thick branches.
Pepito had begun to tire by the time the crow led him to the square patch of sand in the middle of the grass. It beat its wings and landed among its brothers and sisters who were pecking at the grains beneath their feet, every so often finding something worth eating.
“Hello, friend!” An old man in a large and weathered hat waved to him from the covered porch of a small house to match the man’s simple and well-worn attire.
“Hello,” Pepito said. He was unsure if he was trespassing. The man’s welcoming smile under dusty moustaches and that the man’s gun was against a post and not aimed at Pepito’s chest said that he hadn’t gone where he wasn’t wanted. But still, Pepito felt he was in a place he didn’t belong.
“Come, come. I have horchata to share.” The old man waved again. He turned and dragged another chair from inside the house.
Pepito took a step then stopped. “I’ve never had it before.”
The man raised his eyebrows. “No? It’s very good! Especially in the heat of the day. Please, please. It’s very nice to see you.” He waved again for Pepito to join him on the porch.
Pepito decided he liked the man, strange as he was. The crows paid the boy no mind as he walked to the porch where the old man directed him to a chair and filled two cups with creamy liquid.
“Tell me how you like it,” the man said, nodding to the cup closest to Pepito.
It was wonderful, cold. The horchata was sweet and nutty and the best thing that had ever passed Pepito’s lips. Not much to say since an occasional drink of milk was the only change from the well water his father made him fetch every other morning.
“I’d say it was good,” Pepito said, “but I don’t think that’s enough. I love it!”
The old man laughed, pleased to please. “Tell me, what brings you out to my little paradise today?”
“I followed the crow.” Pepito pointed to the one who’d shown him the way, surprised he could pick it out again among all the rest.
“Ah,” the man said. “He just got here. Like you.”
Pepito looked over the porch rail to the large square between the house and the start of deep woods. It could have been a garden if it hadn’t been covered with sand, and all those big, black birds.
“My name is Mister Segundo.” He held out a hand across the table.
Pepito took it. It was the first time in his life he’d shaken anyone’s hand. He liked it. It made him feel like he’d grown up in the two seconds it took to make Mister Segundo’s acquaintance. He gave his name.
“It’s wonderful to know you,” Mister Segundo said. “What do you think of my home?
Pepito looked through the front door and then at the old wood that made up the porch. He couldn’t find anything worth noting. So he said, “I like your crows. How do you keep them from flying away?”
Pepito nodded, and for a few minutes without the man saying anything, Pepito searched his mind for something else to say, but then Mister Segundo said, “They come when it’s their time and they leave when it’s their time. I just spread seed in the sand for them and make sure they’re safe until they go.”
“Safe from what?” Pepito asked.
Mister Segundo shrugged. “I hope never to find out. Never seen anything in all the years I started this work. I just keep my eyes on those woods there for anything strange.” He tapped his fingers on the gun leaning against the porch. “I always keep it loaded.”
“You make money doing this?” Pepito never knew there could ever be such easy work. His father had always pointed a dirt-covered finger at him after a long day in the fields and told him how it was a man’s duty to work hard for his family. This crow business was a much better idea.
“I make enough to live,” Mister Segundo said. “No more.”
Pepito gulped the rest of his horchata and smiled. “This seems like the best job in the world.”
“And why is that, my friend? Because you think it’s easy?”
“Well, isn’t it?” Pepito looked around him, searching for any soiled tools or any other evidence that there may have been more to the job than Mister Segundo had let on. But he didn’t see anything besides the comfort of the porch and the happy hopping of the crows. “You sit here and drink horchata, watching the crows peck at the sand.”
Mister Segundo smiled and rubbed his chin. “Do you think you could do it?”
Pepito nodded furiously. Seeing that he’d grown up after climbing onto the porch, it was about time he began his career in crow watching.
“All right, then.” Mister Segundo stood.
“Where are you going?” Pepito asked, guarding his empty cup.
“We,” Mister Segundo said, “are going to talk to your parents.”
Night was falling by the time they came to Pepito’s home. He grew more worried about what his father would say. Mister Segundo’s lengthy legs kept him at a pace Pepito couldn’t keep up with, and so there was no conversation between them to put Pepito at ease.
Mister Segundo went straight away to Pepito’s door without thinking to ask if it was the right house. The tall man rapped against the door and turned back to Pepito with a smile that showed a tooth missing.
The door flew open and Pepito’s father stood on the other side. He took in the full height of Mister Segundo and then saw Pepito. “Where on earth have you been? Your mother was about to throw herself into the fire for grief!”
“Hello, my friend,” Mister Segundo said, sticking his hand out and seeming to ignore Father’s inhospitality.
“Thank you for finding him,” Father said with no enthusiasm. He forced himself to shake hands.
“In fact, Pepito found me. May I come in?”
Father looked back into the house and grumbled in his throat. “Yes, yes. If you like.”
Father wagged his head for Pepito to come inside and the boy hurried to do what he was told. Mister Segundo removed his hat as he bent down to enter. His hair was scraggly and white, just as clean as it could be. The hat must have protected his hair from the dust.
Mother ran to Pepito, crying. She wrapped her arms around him and wailed into his ears, kissed him and got his cheeks wet. Then, she slapped his arm and proceeded with a more heated line of questioning that resembled his father’s.
“Hello, dear lady,” Mister Segundo said. Although he was already bowing to prevent hitting his head against the ceiling, he bowed lower still to pay her respect.
“Did you find my Pepito?” his mother asked, wiping her cheeks. “Thank you so much. Please eat with us. We have very little in the way of taste but there’s plenty of it.”
Mister Segundo grinned, “I have to get back to my flock, but thank you. I was hoping to ask you and your husband something.”
“What?” Father asked.
“The food is the most we have.” Mother put her hands on Pepito’s shoulders.
“I’m not looking for payment in bringing Pepito home. I had a hand in keeping him out later than he should have, and he’s a very talkative young man. I am here to ask your permission.”
“For what?” Father had his arms crossed and he leaned against the wall.
“Yes,” Mister Segundo said, smiling, “I was getting to that.” He turned back to Pepito’s mother. “I was hoping Pepito could come and work for me. Just for the summer. I would provide him with a bed and food, of course. And he would learn a valuable trade in the process.”
“What sort of trade?” Father asked.
Mister Segundo still addressed Mother. “I aim for him to apprentice as a crow wrangler.”
Father barked laughter and Mother wrinkled her face. Pepito couldn’t help smile. A job and a fantastic title.
“He’s crazy,” Father said. “Please leave, you old fool. Pepito has work to do in the morning.”
Mister Segundo spun and tossed something into the air from his pocket. It sang like a horseshoe as it twirled, small and glinting firelight. Father caught it and held it in front of his face to get a good look. Gold. A single coin, but more than Pepito’s family would make in a year.
“When does he start?” Mother asked.
They hurried through the night to Mister Segundo’s house. The man was determined to return as quickly as possible. This time, Pepito kept pace. He’d found an abundance of energy and could have run on, leaving Mister Segundo behind.
“I’d save that energy for the morning if I were you,” Mister Segundo said, chuckling.
Ha! Yes, more energy to sit back and drink sweet nectar under the shade. Pepito was looking forward to a very enjoyable summer.
“This is where you’ll sleep,” Mister Segundo told him when they’d finished counting the crows.
It was a small cot against a wall inside the little house with a tiny gray blanket thrown over. It was no king’s bed, but considering how well the rest of his time would be spent, he had no problem with it. It would be just like his bed back home.
“We will eat after I wake you,” Mister Segundo said. “And then we will get to work.”
Work, yes. Pepito couldn’t wait. “Where are you going?” Pepito asked after Mister Segundo darkened the house and stalked to the front door.
“I have to watch the crows,” he said.
With that, he closed the door behind him and Pepito fought for sleep. It was hard, seeing how excited he was. Probably the hardest thing he’d have to do all summer.
Water hit his face and soaked every part of the blanket covering him.
“Time to start!”
He didn’t know when he’d finally fallen asleep, but this wasn’t Mister Segundo’s house. This was not where he’d become a crow wrangler. He must have wandered off into some bizarre torturer’s garden.
But there was Mister Segundo above him, smiling. He held an empty, dripping pail in one hand.
“Here!” Mister Segundo shoved a tortilla at him. “Eat this quickly and meet me on the porch.”
Pepito chewed the flavorless thing out of habit. His mind was racing with confusion and picking over the short list of events that had brought him here. Had he said or done something to make Mister Segundo angry? Maybe it was some joke the old man was playing or perhaps Pepito had a particularly large bee land on his face while he was asleep and Mister Segundo was only being helpful in removing the insect with a full pail of lukewarm water.
The sun had only begun to crest over the woods when Pepito walked out onto the porch. Mister Segundo was sipping horchata and still holding the pail and the pail was still dripping from the lip.
Mister Segundo shoved the pail at Pepito. “Go around back and fill this from the well.”
Pepito started to ask what all this was about, but had fetched enough water for his father to know it was best to just do as he was asked. He stomped through the tall grass surrounding the outer edges of Mister Segundo’s home, wincing at a few stickers that managed to snag him along the way.
The well was small, almost undiscoverable among the weeds. One of the large stones from the top had fallen long before Pepito had come. He finished the job and brought the filled pail back to Mister Segundo on the porch.
“Now,” Mister Segundo said, bringing a chair over, “step onto this chair while holding the pail. Do it fifty times and we can move on to your next task.”
Pepito looked down at the water still sloshing and kissing the edges of the pail. “What does this have to do with watching crows?”
“Then you can do it a hundred times.”
Pepito dropped his jaw.
“You agreed to become my apprentice. You will not argue or question how I go about instructing you. Understood?”
Pepito nodded. He considered running back to his parents and leaving the crazy old man to his birds and horchata. But he knew Father would chide him for walking out on an agreement and, more so, giving up the gold coin for not wanting to fetch a bit of well water. He would have been doing the same thing at home anyway. No, he would stay, if only to spite Mister Segundo and his father. Some exercise wouldn’t hurt him.
“And don’t spill one drop of that water,” Mister Segundo said. “If you do, you’re going to have to fill the pail back to the brim and finish out your hundred chair steps.”
The man was insane.
But Pepito took as deep a breath as he could find and began the useless task he’d been given. First one leg, then the other. Pepito held the pail by its thin handle with both hands. It was much too heavy to only use one. Mister Segundo sat, sipping horchata, watching him. Pepito was about to complete his thirty-third step, legs burning and chest heaving breath, when he was careless with his footing and slipped from the chair.
The gush of water was at first refreshing when it ran down his shoulders and chest. But soon, the realization he was on his backside and would have to make his already-exhausted legs take him back to the well to refill the pail, came down like a landslide.
“Back to the well with you,” Mister Segundo said.
Pepito spilled the pail three more times before he made it to a hundred. By then it was time for lunch and Mister Segundo came out to where Pepito sat on the floor of the porch, praying his legs would stop burning. The old man handed him another tortilla.
“I’m thirsty,” Pepito croaked.
“Does a dog have to ask to drink when there’s water near him?”
Pepito looked around for a cup but only saw the pail and the water he’d managed not to spill. Mister Segundo wrinkled his brow expectantly.
“I would love some horchata,” Pepito said.
“I’m sure you would,” Mister Segundo said, “but it will do nothing for your shriveling body. You need water.” He nodded toward the pail.
“You’ve given me horchata before.”
“Ah, when you were a guest. Now you’re my apprentice. Well, drink! You say you’re thirsty. Stick your head in if your arms are failing you.”
Pepito swallowed and found there to be nothing in his mouth but a dry and sticky film. He lifted the pail to his lips and drank.
“After you finish your tortilla, meet me by the trees over there.” Mister Segundo grabbed his long gun and marched down the steps. “And don’t walk through the crows’ sand. Go around.”
Pepito took as long as he thought he could in eating the tortilla. After a while, though, hunger took over and the thin morsel was gone. Mister Segundo was waiting for Pepito with his back to the house. The old man was staring out into the trees, either listening for something or he had very well fallen asleep, standing up with his gun laid across his shoulder.
Pepito’s legs wobbled and sang harsh songs of agony when he began to pull himself up. He had to limp, and slowly, to get around the crows and come to where Mister Segundo was very much awake.
“What do you think might be in those woods,” Mister Segundo asked.
“I have no idea,” Pepito said.
“Exactly. We have to assume any kind of evil, terrible thing may be lurking just the other side of those cedars.”
Pepito looked into the dark of the woods, unable to see much past the first few trees.
“There may be something watching us right now, just as we’re looking at the trees.”
In a blur, Mister Segundo raised the weapon and fired into the woods, the blast sending Pepito a foot into the air despite his fatigue. Mister Segundo cackled and slapped Pepito on the back. Normally, Pepito would have grinned along, to be polite. This was not one of those times.
“I’m going to show you how to load, aim, and fire this blunderbuss.”
“I’ve never held a rifle.”
“Neither have I,” Mister Segundo said. “This is a blunderbuss. Not as accurate maybe, but much more devastating than your common rifle. Here.”
Mister Segundo tossed the blunderbuss to him as if it were paper. Pepito caught it with both arms and nearly dropped to his knees. The treacherous trips back and forth from the well, the chair steps, had whittled him down to nothing. But he fought to hold onto the weapon and straightened his legs.
“Well, maybe today we’ll just show you how to load it, huh?” Mister Segundo retrieved the blunderbuss, much to Pepito’s relief. “First, you cock the hammer halfway and prime the pan here.” Pepito hadn’t seen where Mister Segundo had brought out the bag of powder, but here it was. He poured it into the barrel. “Then you put your powder in, followed by your shot.” He plopped a handful of metal balls into the same hole.
Mister Segundo showed him the wad to put in next and the rod to push it all down. After pushing the hammer further back, the blunderbuss was ready to kill.
“Do you think you’ll remember that?” Mister Segundo asked.
“I think so.”
“You’ll have plenty of practice with it in the days to come. So, we’ve come to your day’s final task.”
Pepito sighed. There was to be more?
“Don’t look so glum,” said Mister Segundo. “I did say final.” He returned his blunderbuss to lean on his shoulder and turned to the patch of sand. “Catch a crow.”
“Pardon?” The blast of the blunderbuss must have damaged Pepito’s ears. Surely Mister Segundo didn’t expect him, with weakened legs and barely enough food in him, to catch a crow.
“Go over there to where those big, black, winged things are hopping around and seize one with your hands.”
Pepito attempted to convince himself it couldn’t be that difficult. After all, the crows hadn’t left the sand all day and were much fuller than he was on the food Mister Segundo had spread out for them. It could have been argued that the odds were even.
A quick rub to each leg and Pepito sauntered to the sand. None of the crows bothered to even give him a glance.
All right, you snobby, flying rats.
He picked one of the fatter ones to aim for and ran toward it with outstretched arms. The crow fluttered out of his way and went back to its monotonous pecking. Pepito rethought his strategy and shuffled along outside the sand square until he was behind his selected prey. None of the other birds gave warning or even acted as if they knew he was there.
Pepito pounced, aiming his chest for the crow’s head, ready to swipe it up in his arms. But again, the bird flew and Pepito found his mouth full of sand and the bitter taste of something he wasn’t familiar with. And then the birds descended.
“You fool!” Mister Segundo shouted.
The black of feathers and beaks swarmed him. Pepito covered his face as the crows pecked at every inch of his body. It was like being stabbed with a thousand tiny forks. He was too frightened to swat at the attacking birds, too afraid it would leave his eyes vulnerable to their sharp mouths.
A hand grabbed his arm at his bent elbow and pulled him through the sand. Pepito felt his feet trail through the rough grains and as soon as they touched grass he was let go.
“Tell me,” it was Mister Segundo’s voice, Pepito still covered his face, “when did you decide to become the hunted instead of the hunter?”
Pepito sat up and searched around him for any crow sneaking up for another round of pecking. But all of them were still in the sand, back to searching for food.
“I missed,” Pepito said.
“You don’t say.”
“I didn’t think they would hurt me. They don’t even care that I nearly died!”
“Any creature will defend itself and its own when attacked,” Mister Segundo said. “The threat was removed and now they’re back to what matters.”
“Hopping through sand and filling their bellies?”
“They can leave whenever they want. What could a bunch of scraggly birds be waiting for that’s so important?”
“Their turn,” Mister Segundo said. “In time you’ll learn how important it is. How significant all of this is.” He stretched out his lanky arms and turned to address his homestead.
“Now,” Mister Segundo said.
Pepito sighed and it came out like the beginning of a weep. More terrible work was coming his way.
Mister Segundo chuckled and leaned against his blunderbuss. “I think you’ve earned some proper supper. Don’t you think?”
Pepito widened his eyes and stared up to the tall, old man. The sun was at Mister Segundo’s back and put his form in shadow, a character from stories his mother told him before sleep.
“And maybe some horchata?”
Pain and weakness aside, Pepito scrambled to his legs and followed Mister Segundo back to the house.
After a meal of cheese, the most delicious warm bread, fruits, and vegetables, Pepito sat with Mister Segundo on the porch and sipped at a well-earned cup of horchata. It was strange. It all put him into such a place of comfort and pride. His throbbing legs and tight muscles were complimented by a full belly and sweet drink. He’d earned it.
As the sun began to set, two of the crows suddenly took flight and flew over the tops of the trees. The remaining birds were as apathetic as ever.
“Good bye, my friends,” Mister Segundo said.
“I guess they were done waiting.”
“Yes. But there’s always more.”
Not a few minutes later, two more crows flew in from the road Pepito had followed the day before. They were new crows, not the same ones who’d just flown away. He wasn’t sure how he knew this, but he just…did. Each of the crows could be distinguished as if they were distinct members of his own squawking, feathered family.
“Where do they come from?” Pepito asked.
“All places. Where they go is the real question. I hope to find out someday.”
It grew darker then. The woods became a blanket of black. If it weren’t for the sand, Pepito wouldn’t have been able to see the crows dance.
“Now,” Mister Segundo stood. “I think it’s time for you to get to bed.”
When the man said it, Pepito closed his eyes briefly and felt the sting of sleep there. The cot sounded as good as a soft cloud.
“Tomorrow we’ll do it all again.”
And they did. Each day was the same besides Mister Segundo showing Pepito in greater detail how to operate the blunderbuss. After a few weeks, Pepito began to shoot it himself. Mister Segundo said that he needn’t worry too much about his aim as long as it was straight.
“Just make sure there are no crows between you and whatever you’re aiming at,” he’d say.
The chair steps became easier, even though Mister Segundo kept the number at a hundred.
“No sense in going backwards,” he said.
It got to where Pepito could do them in one set without dropping a bit of water. The crow catching was a different story.
“I just don’t understand the point of catching them if they’re just going to fly off at sunset,” he complained one afternoon after failing for the thousandth time.
“If you truly think it’s about the act of catching the crow, you haven’t learned a damned thing,” Mister Segundo said.
After that, Pepito made it his goal for the summer to catch one of the fidgety flock. After all, if he couldn’t catch one of them, could he truly call himself a crow wrangler?
One morning Pepito woke before Mister Segundo could do it for him. He rose and grabbed a tortilla from the cupboard. The house was empty and Pepito guessed that Mister Segundo had once again fallen asleep on the porch as he guarded the crows. Pepito stepped onto the porch and found it empty besides the blunderbuss waiting beside the door and a newly arrived crow perched on the railing with an envelope in its beak.
“Hello, friend,” Pepito said, because he knew it’s what Mister Segundo would have done. “Have you seen the old man?”
The crow dropped the envelope and cawed. Pepito didn’t look to the floor where the envelope had dropped, not at first. He was too interested in the crow. None of them had ever left the sand unless they were leaving for good over the trees. Even when they arrived, they went straight for the tan square.
And none of them ever brought mail.
The bird spread its wings and turned, gliding to the sand in the time it took Pepito to exhale. Pepito looked down to the envelope on the porch. Its sealed side was up. On the other side was a note that read, “Don’t open until tomorrow.”
Was this some kind of test? Mister Segundo must have been watching from the woods, seeing how he would do on his own. Well, Pepito would show the old man that he could wrangle crows better than anyone else.
But he also thought he deserved a day without the annoyance of his regular schedule. For a time he sat on the porch, drinking horchata and cleaning the blunderbuss, watching the crows as vigilantly as he could. He stared at the envelope for several hours, wondering what could be in the mystery letter. He finally had to take it inside and put it on his cot to avoid the temptation to break the seal before its time.
After his lunch tortilla, he grew bored and found himself headed to the well, pail in hand, as he’d been doing every day for the last few weeks.
His chair steps done, Pepito practiced loading the blunderbuss like Mister Segundo had shown him, away from the crows. He became quicker and quicker with every load.
The day was fading by that time and Pepito decided not to try his hand at crow catching. The one that had just arrived was bigger than the rest and would surely have no problem flying off with Pepito in its talons. Unlike the other crows, Pepito thought he saw it more than once lift its head from pecking and watch him perform his chores.
Mister Segundo had shown him how to make supper and Pepito thought it would be rude not to go inside and make enough for two should Mister Segundo come back then from whatever place he’d gone. But Mister Segundo didn’t return and there was a good amount of food left over after Pepito had taken his fill.
Pepito took his usual spot in a chair on the porch, horchata neglected beside him. He tried to focus on watching the crows but couldn’t stop himself from looking over to Mister Segundo’s empty chair and thinking for the briefest moment, every time, that the old man would be there.
And that’s when he saw the red eyes.
He stayed his hand and took his finger away from the trigger. Don’t put the crows between you and what you’re aiming at. Another thought occurred to him. It was Mister Segundo out there, maybe with some special candles he could make to look like a beast was stalking him. This was a test. Mister Segundo was trying to see what Pepito would do under pressure.
This notion was crushed when the thing rushed from the trees.
It was big and steady in its stride, its black fur sleek under the small amount of moonlight. The body was like a wolf, snout and long tail, but two curled horns protruded from its head, like a ram’s. And Pepito had never heard of a wolf with such terrible eyes and such large, slobbery dagger teeth.
The urge to shoot came again. No! Not with the crows. The beast had stopped after escaping the cover of the woods and kept its glowing gaze on the offerings hopping across the sand.
Every muscle held Pepito in place. He knew he had to go to the crows, to scare off this intruding monster, but he trembled and tears stung at the corners of his eyes. It wasn’t just that he was afraid, but that he was utterly disappointed in himself for not being brave when it counted.
You didn’t grow up when you first stepped onto this porch. You were only fooling yourself.
It was then Pepito saw he’d gotten up from the chair and was now standing at the edge of the porch, blunderbuss in a firing position in his arms.
The beast darted for the crows.
It was easy to run after Pepito was already standing. His legs moved more swiftly than he knew they could, the muscles had been primed for it. But it wasn’t fast enough.
The wolf-thing leapt into the crowd of crows, scattering sand and snarling as it found an unlucky bird to bite. The new arrival, the big one. The rest of the crows assaulted the beast as it whipped its head to and fro with its kill between its teeth. It wasn’t until Pepito had reached the sand and swung the blunderbuss at the beast’s head that it let go of the crow and scampered off the square. With a snarl that made its eyes flare up bright red, fresh blood on its jaws, the wolf-thing disappeared into the woods.
The crows didn’t attack Pepito. They hopped away from him and their unfortunate brother. The big crow that had brought him the secret envelope lay in a tussled heap, its dark fluids seeping into the sand.
Pepito took the bird in his hands and cradled it.
A flash. For an instant, so fast he could barely comprehend, Pepito saw the ghostly form of Mister Segundo rise from the dead crow and vanish into the night like the last puff of a blown out candle.
But he knew if he stayed there crying in the sand, the thing that had killed Mister Segundo’s spirit would get farther and farther away and he wasn’t going to let that happen. He leapt to his feet and entered the woods.
A hill greeted him a few yards in. The beast stood at the top and turned in surprise when it heard Pepito snapping twigs under foot. Pepito readied his weapon but the animal scampered over the other side.
The hill was steep, so much you could have slid back to the bottom if you didn’t keep your feet moving. But Pepito kept pumping up the hill. His legs didn’t tire. His feet plowed into the mound and thrust him forward, up. Easy since doing all those chair steps.
Yes! That was it exactly. He’d been conditioned for something just like this. But how did the old man know?
Pepito reached the top of the rise in only a few strides and spotted the beast zipping through the maze of tree trunks.
I’m right behind you, you terrible thing.
He ran, dodging trees and fallen branches. The beast was always just ahead of him, although Pepito’s legs kept him close behind enough to catch a glimpse of the creature’s tail. It wasn’t just his conditioning that kept Pepito moving. He had an urge inside him he’d never felt before. I need for vengeance. I desire to kill.
The beast climbed another hill and when Pepito was halfway up he heard a thick, wet plop and the yelping of a dog. After he reached the top he saw it. The wolf-thing had fallen into a deep pool of mud, the sucking kind that would grab anything and pull it under.
Pepito raised the blunderbuss and aimed at the struggling animal. It whined and thrashed uselessly, only getting itself covered more in mud and deeper into the pit. The beast’s red eyes burned with the unyielding wish to survive as its whine cut through the dark of the woods. But no one was coming to save it. Not like Pepito had tried to save the crow, Mister Segundo’s soul.
The trigger was at his finger. He breathed in. Out. This thing would pay for what it had done. There had to be restitution. He’d blow the animal away and—
What was he doing?
The thing looked at him with pleading in its red eyes. Please, it looked to say. Help me!
This wasn’t a monster. It was just some animal come along and saw a chance to eat and live, if only another day. Monsters didn’t sink into mud pits. And even if they did, Pepito wouldn’t feel this unbearable sinking in his gut and the desire to save the ugly thing. This wasn’t right. He couldn’t do it. Wouldn’t.
Shoot. Don’t shoot. Minds could always be changed. He knew it. And he also knew Mister Segundo would have approved. Pepito squatted and grasped the slope with his fingers, steadying himself so he wouldn’t fall into the mud.
“Come on,” he said, stretching the stock of the blunderbuss to the beast. “Take it.”
The animal yipped louder and tossed with what little mobility it had left. The movement put its head under the mud.
“No!” Pepito slid further down. It couldn’t end like this. He’d get the beast’s head out and then the thing would bite the stock and he would pull it out, letting it run off to lick away the mud. As he scooted closer, Pepito’s foot dipped into the pit. It was stuck.
He pulled and pulled, keeping his eyes on what remained of the wolf-thing’s body that squirmed every other second until it was finally still. Pepito stabbed the blunderbuss into the dirt above him and used it to pry himself free. It was only when he’d clawed back to the top of the pit that he turned back and stared at the mud below.
The wolf-thing was gone, the mud undisturbed and blank as canvas. Pepito buried his face into his palms and again, he cried.
The sun was rising by the time Pepito stumbled back to the house. The crows were at their daily errand and there was no sign of the Segundo crow. Pepito would have wept, but there was no more in him.
He strained up the steps to the porch and set the blunderbuss beside the table where he grabbed the unused cup of horchata. It was another day. The house put back in order, Pepito chewed on a tortilla and stared at the envelope on his cot. “Don’t open until tomorrow.” And tomorrow had become today.
The envelope opened with little effort. Inside was a small piece of paper adorned with the scribble of a man who had little experience in writing, but the strokes were sincere. It was from Mister Segundo.
Do not be troubled, my friend. Go into my room. There you will find a small but comfortable bed and a chest below. Every Sunday morning in this chest you’ll find a single gold coin. From where this money comes, the man who came before me never said. Use this money to buy food to keep you and the crows strong, and shot to arm you. I will not be coming back. Know that I am proud of you and think you are a better crow wrangler than I ever was. I’m sorry if the training was hard, but you may discover some day that it has prepared you. Continue to practice like you’ve done with me. You’ll find your parents accepting of your new life and they can visit any time they wish. I’m off to see where the crows go when they leave our patch of sand. I will miss you dearly, my boy, but know that I am happy.
As Pepito grabbed a pail and headed for the well, he knew it was true. When he returned to the porch, a new crow flew in and landed upon the sand. The summer was near an end, and he still had one more thing to do for Mister Segundo. But there were plenty of crows he could catch.