The Good Mother
by J. Brooks
Note: This was in response to a long-ago challenge to write a story in 24 hours, using an opening paragraph provided by the mighty Twyla Jane. Just a bit of fluff. Get it? Fluff. Heh!
The road was empty. Not a soul was in sight as he walked along its side under the early morning sky. The rays of light just peeking over the lush tree line did little to cut through the chill that had settled deep in his bones. Ezra Standish was at complete loss as to exactly how he ended up there.
He threw a wary glance over his shoulder. Make that, how they ended up there. Ezra sighed and turned slowly to face his pursuer.
"Are you following me? To what end? What could you possibly hope to gain?" He threw up his hands and turned to go -- only to collapse in a sodden heap as the movement sent a nauseating bolt of pain through his shoulder and head.
Face pressed into the dew-dampened roadway, Ezra rolled one eye to watch as his pursuer exclaimed happily and waddled over to join him, curling up in the hollow between his shoulder and chin.
"Stupid bird," Ezra mumbled.
+ + + + + + +
Wha-? Ezra's eyes fluttered as the high-pitched cries took on a frantic note. PEEP PEEP PEEP PEEP PEEP Slowly, the world around him came into focus, resolving into a single image of something small, gray and fluffy standing inches away from his nose.
"Peep?" the image inquired, pecking at the bridge of his nose for emphasis.
"Ow," Ezra grumbled, rolling away from the peeping and the pecking. "OW!" he yelped, rolling quickly back to his original position.
Cautiously, he searched for the source of the pain. There. His fingers brushed across a clumsy bandage. He reached toward his head and found a collection of throbbing lumps. Ow indeed. Slowly, he levered himself up on his good arm and took stock of his situation.
On the down side, he was separated from his associates, injured, unhorsed and utterly lost, with nothing but a baby -- what? duck? goose? swan? loon? heron? crane? flamingo? -- waterfowl for company. A baby waterfowl that labored under the delusion that he was its mother.
On the up side ... well, at least his waterlogged clothes were finally dry. And in some circles, duckling was considered a culinary delicacy.
Was it his imagination, or was there a hint of reproach in that peep? Ezra sighed and extended a hand. The bit of fluff hopped aboard trustingly.
"Come along, bird," he said. "I'll return you to your mother and be on my way."
He heaved himself to his feet and retraced his steps from the road to the steep banks of the nearby river. Unsure of his footing, with a bullet in one arm and a chick on the other, he was forced to slither down the embankment on his backside, adding insult to the injuries his wardrobe had already suffered. He slid to a stop next to a rumpled-looking nest and scuffed tracks in the mud that bore the clear imprint of a prone human body. There was no sign of the mother bird or her other chicks.
"Aw, hell," Ezra sighed, surveying the spot where he had washed up, bleeding and choking on river water, the evening before. The duckling, if it was a duckling, hopped out of his hand, splashed into the river and began nibbling on a clump of weeds, cheeping happily.
Ezra's attention strayed to the river itself. He'd fallen in, hadn't he? Knocked off his horse and into the river by a lucky shot from the dimwitted cretins who had ambushed them during the prisoner transfer to Redfern. Josiah and the prisoner had gone off one way, he'd gone off the other, trying to draw off pursuit.
The plan had worked splendidly, up to a point.
Well. Ezra pushed himself upright again, ignoring the protests from his injuries, and headed up the embankment again. The road must lead somewhere. No doubt if he started walking upstream, he'd run into the rescue party Josiah would have sent after him. Assuming Josiah had gotten safely away, which was the only assumption Ezra was prepared to--
Oh good lord.
"I do not have time for this," Ezra scolded the tiny creature as it rushed to follow him, strands of greenery dangling from its bill. "You have everything you need to survive right here. Food, shelter and a mother who no doubt will return to collect you in her own sweet time."
The hatchling ignored his advice and threw itself up the hill toward him, flapping its stubby little wings in a vain attempt to move closer to the object of its affection. It missed its footing and cart-wheeled down the slope, peeping pathetically.
He cast his eyes to the heavens and spotted a hawk circling above them, eyeing its mid-morning snack.
Ezra stomped back down the hillside. "You, bird," he said, scooping the chick up to eye level. "Are a nuisance and an encumbrance."
"Peep," it agreed, pooping on his hand.
Ezra closed his eyes, counted to ten, and deposited the creature in his jacket pocket. He stalked to the river, rinsed, drank deeply -- upstream -- and took a long, considering look at the patch of water weeds the baby had been eating. Shaking out his handkerchief, he scooped up a liberal handful of greenery and water bugs and slid the mess into his pocket next to his passenger, shuddering.
Don't think about it, he told himself. Don't think about it. You can burn the jacket as soon as you get home.
+ + + + + + +
Two hours later, the sun was beating down mercilessly. The lush tree line had dwindled away to a few stunted desert scrubs beside a river that had turned to raging whitewater. Ezra stumbled to the shade of the largest available shrub and sank down.
"I don't know what you're complaining about, ungrateful bird. I was doing all the work," he said, digging the protesting chick out of his pocket.
The little creature gave itself a full-body shake and hopped excitedly across his lap, pooping with abandon. He stretched out a finger and stroked is downy head. Its black button eyes closed ecstatically as it butted his hand, begging for more attention.
"You can't expect me to squire you about for the rest of your life. Wait, come back here -- you can't swim in that water. It's moving too fast."
He deposited the duckling, if it was a duckling, in a low crook of the tree and crawled toward the river, feeling the ache and burn of every one of his injuries. Had he really floated through this whitewater? He couldn't recall the trip.
"There," he sighed, moving cautiously back to the tree with a few teaspoons of water sloshing in the hollow of his hand. The hatchling drank greedily. "You're going to have to learn to fend for yourself in the wide world, bird. Can't wallow in self-pity for the rest of your life just because you've been pushed out of the nest."
Whatever sage advice he planned to dispense next was forgotten as the world shifted and tilted abruptly around him. The next time he opened his eyes, the sun had moved again, chasing the shade to the other side of the tree. He groaned softly, trying to lick dry lips with a dryer tongue. No wonder he felt so wretchedly hot. His eyes slid shut again. He would just rest here a moment, then be on his way.
Rest, yes, if only someone would stop making so much noise.
"PEEP PEEP PEEP PEEP!!"
Ezra cracked open his eyes. A pair of beady eyes studied him from the shade of his jacket pocket. A few wilted scraps of greenery lay scattered on the sand.
"Problem, bird?" he croaked.
The chick bobbed up and down, peeping conversationally, happy to have his full attention at last.
"What you must learn," Ezra said, rolling to his hand and knees with a groan. His right arm dangled uselessly, throbbing in time to the bullet wound. "Is some sort of life skill. At the rate you're going, you'll wind up in a stew pot five minutes after we arrive in Four Corners."
He staggered toward the river that swam before his blurry vision. Honestly, what use were baby birds? You couldn't ride them like horses, couldn't hunt with them like dogs. They had no use at all, except as food and feathers. He fished the chick out of his pocket and set it down gently by the riverbed.
"I believe the ancient Romans employed geese as guardians for their palaces and temples," he said, staring blearily down at the sandy banks, looking for anything that might please the palate of a baby bird. "Have you considered a career in law enforcement? If you prove useful, the others might just keep you around."
Before the chick could reply, Ezra collapsed again. The bird sighed and waddled over, padding up his midsection to nestle down under his chin. Its button-bright eyes watched the roadway, where six figures had appeared on the horizon, riding to the rescue.