“Hey! I know where we are!” Mom said when we pulled off the dark highway onto an even darker wagon track. The ground was bumpy as the ocean and made The Wagon rattle like a machine gun, but I couldn’t place the memory. “We’ve slept here before! Remember? That time you met a cow as big as a refrigerator?”
“He wasn’t as small as a refrigerator,” I said, remembering how I had stupefied the cow so much with my barking that all he could do was stare at me and blink.
This kept happening! We would go on adventures seeking new horizons, then find ourselves looking at horizons we’d seen before. It was a little annoying to come all this way seeking adventure and find ourselves in a familiar place, but it was comforting, too. It was comforting to know where the good sleeping places were, what gas stations sold the best hot dogs and post cards, and what the weather could do to different roads. It was starting to feel like all of The West was My Hometown.
In the morning we continued a little further down the machinegun road to the trailhead. “What’s this place called?” I asked, sniffing around the car kennel for a hint about what the day had in store for me.
“The trail is called Dragon’s Back or something,” Mom said.
“Oh cool!” I said. “I’ve walked on the devil’s back before, but never on the back of a dragon!” There would be new surprises on this trail after all!
We walked out onto what must have been the crest of the dragon’s forehead, and set out for the tail almost four miles away. Most of the dragon was underground with only his flanks and stegosaurus crest sticking out of the ground and curling big-spoon-ways around a canyon. The land the dragon slept in was the color of the 1970’s ––all rusty, creamy and drab greys with the rough textures of courderoy and polyester–– but the dragon’s back itself was covered in white chalky scales that flaked off and turned to dust under my paws. The trail had been ground to dust by the paws of bygone travelers, and it drew a smooth, bone-white line down the spine of the dragon’s crest. Here and there along the dragon’s back I discovered the scars of old spear wounds, where the rock cracked into dark bottomless craters no bigger around than a bunny hole.
“All this is gypsum,” Mom said, because she thinks that you don’t really understand a thing if you can’t name it. “It’s the same stuff that the white sands are made of, and it’s one of the softest rocks on earth. That’s why it’s so crumbly and makes such a smooth trail. I sure wish I were on a mountain bike right now!”
I thought that things would warm up once we reached the part of the dragon over where the fiery lungs must have been. I hoped that warmth would well up out of the dragon’s scars like heating vents, but a raw, icy wind continued to blow in our faces and through my sweater that was also like the 1970’s to match the canyon. I looked at the white gypsy dust trying to sparkle milkily in the weak sun, and felt the icy breath blowing through my sweater and fur, and realized that this must be an ice dragon and despaired of ever getting warm.
We reached the very tip of the dragon’s tail and climbed down into the valley on our way to the next ridge. In the valley some 1970’s-shade grass was dying yellowly, old blobs of pancake-shaped poo were drying flakily, and off in the distance a pack of four-legged refrigerators stared back at us.
“Well this will be fun,” Mom said in a voice that said it wasn’t going to fun after all. “I forgot your leash in the car…”
“I’ve never seen you shy away from a refrigerator,” I said, thinking of the hibernation layer of blubber she was hiding under her layers.
As we came closer, I realized that these weren’t refrigerators at all. They were MOO-COWS!!! Even though my heart was beating out of my chest, I flattened my ears and slowed down to tip-toe at Mom’s pace while I watched to see what they’d do next. All together, as if someone had called their boarding group, all the cows turned and started to walk purposefully away.
“Yahoooooo! We’re herding!” I shouted, running after them and shouting so they would scatter.
“Oscar, come here!” Mom shouted, joining in on the fun.
I looked at her, and then back at the cows. I had shuffled them too well, and I couldn’t chase them all without running in more than one direction at once, which is a trick I haven’t figured out yet. So I came back to Mom to give the cows a moment to stack back up again. All the cows but one moseyed a little farther away and went back to gazing into the Oscarless distance.
However, one cow had hardly moved during my show of bravery. His face was white, except around his nose and eyes where the fur was the same death-black as the rest of his body. He stared at me steadily from the eye holes of the skull tattooed on his face. Mom grabbed my collar and stood on the cow side of the trail as we walked toward him.
“Good idea, Mom. You take this one,” I said. “He’s not moving, so he’ll be a good beginner cow for you.”
Mom didn’t say anything to me, and kept calm and steady eye contact with the skull-cow as we walked by. Once we were past him, Mom looked back so I looked back too. The cow took a step like he wanted to join our herd.
“Hey!” Mom woofed in the voice she uses when she catches me about to nick a treat without permission. The cow froze for a second, and then took another step. “STAY BACK!” she barked so hard her voice warbled, raising a warning finger. The cow took a step back and watched us go. When he saw that Mom wasn’t going to charge him, he slowly turned around and went back to his friends to tell them all about how he got his butt whipped by a handsome dog and a loud tiny person.
“That was pretty good, Mom,” I said. “Did you learn that from watching me?”
“Not really… I took this women’s self defense class once,” Mom said.
“Why was it for women? Shouldn’t men defend themselves too?”
“Yeah, I hate the way those classes suggest that all men are violent and all women are targets and victims, but a friend of mine was teaching it. Anyway, they taught us how to use our voice to defend ourselves. You can project strength and dominance like a vicious dog was chasing us.”
“I know all about that…” I pointed out. “But you also shouldn’t have pissed off a dog with a temper.”
“There was no dog. We just practiced shouting BAD DOG! and then BACK OFF! as loudly and aggressively as we could… for like an hour. I had a terrible headache afterward. I often think about that when I see you bark, and how you use your voice to prevent violence, not start it.”
“Duh! Why else would I be barking if not for peace?”
“Well I figured that if it could work on vicious dogs and muggers, maybe it could work for menacing cows. And look! It did!”
I was so proud.
Oscar the Loudmouth