“Is he the one?” asked Tysius. “The one hiding under that pile of leaves?”
“Yes, he’s the one,” replied Fleytius.
“You were expecting someone else then?”
“Oh no, it’s not that. He’s – he’s just so young.”
“He is that,” agreed Fleytius. “At least in earth time. But in many ways, he’s a bit older than he looks. I’ve seen him before in my coming and going. You’ll understand what I mean when you meet him, which I think you may do shortly. You’ve seen his companion as well?”
“Indeed. Yes indeed.” Then Tysius turned to his friend. “Sometimes I don’t know exactly what’s coming next, and that is certainly the case now, isn’t it?”
Fleytius nodded as he put his powerful hand on the golden hilt of his sword. He drew the heavy weapon skyward, the sound of the blade reverberating from its sheath. “I must be off now. There are battles on many fronts.”
The smaller yet burly angel drew his weapon and held his blade up against Fleytius’ sword. “For the King!” cried Tysius.
“For the King!” echoed Fleytius, a shower of multicolored sparks encircling them as it cascaded from their swords.
In an instant Fleytius was gone.
Joseph and his companion watched in silence as five of the deer – three does and two fawns – disappeared into the yellow and orange brush toward the northeast. From under the leaves atop the small knoll, Joseph felt the reassuring warmth of his buddy on his left as they lay side by side on their stomachs. The aroma of damp earth mixed with the autumn leaves just under his nose. Joseph filled his lungs with the evening air and closed his eyes for a moment. Remember, remember.
From their vantage point Joseph and his friend now gazed at a large buck several yards behind the other deer. The buck lifted his big head and pointed his wet, black nose high to scent the air. Joseph noted that the buck spent more time doing this than the other deer, and that he looked about with an air of guarded confidence. Even so, Joseph saw that the buck took smaller steps than the does, keeping his feet under him, ready to dart off in any direction at a moment’s notice.
A small piece of dried velvet suspended from the buck’s antlers caught Joseph’s eye as it hung down and swayed slightly in the cool evening air. The buck walked close enough that both Joseph and his companion saw his chest expand as he took in a deep breath. As the deer crossed the creek below them, Joseph strained his ears to hear his hooves on the rocks, the clatter almost obscured by the rush of water sliding past the black stones. Neither Joseph nor his friend moved as the buck slipped up the hill and into the brush toward the fading light. Joseph kept his head on his hands and took in another deep breath of the fragrant air. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll get to see him this time.
Next to Joseph lay Moondog. His right shoulder rested against Joseph’s left, his golden-colored head down on both front paws, eyes alert and bright, and ears up beneath the pile of leaves. Suddenly, Moon saw movement toward the southeast and let out a quiet breath. “Hafoof.”
Joseph saw the gigantic buck a moment later and softly breathed his command to be still, barely audible to Moon lying only inches away. Even with Joseph’s finely honed observation skills, the massive buck seemed to materialize out of nowhere.
Joseph sucked in his breath. This deer is even more magnificent than I thought! Joseph squinted and willed his sight to cut through the fading light of the autumn evening as he tried to count the tines on the antlers. Seven or eight points on one side and at least that many on the other, perhaps more. The tips of those tines look as white as ivory. Joseph deliberately blinked to help clear his thinking. The beams of those antlers look thicker than my wrist, and there are drop-tines at the end of each beam that make them look almost like stars. This animal is enormous. He looks like he’s from another planet!
The two camouflaged spectators watched the buck amble downhill toward the creek in front of them. Joseph observed how the tremendous animal continued to look back over his shoulder and from side to side as he came. This guy knows things are safe in front of him, thought Joseph. The smaller buck and other deer are out in front and will warn him of any danger from that direction. That’s why he let them go first. The breeze is behind him, so he can smell any danger from that direction long before the threat ever reaches him. He’s in no hurry. You don’t get to be the biggest deer in the woods by being careless.
Joseph and Moon watched in astonishment as the big animal seemed to float across the ground in front of them. Although much heavier than the previous buck, Joseph never heard the sound of his hooves on the rocks as he crossed the creek. The buck stopped and turned to his left. He then looked directly at Joseph and Moon as he studied the landscape. The massive deer stood only ten yards from them now.
Joseph could feel his own heart thumping in his chest so loudly that he feared everything in the woods could hear it. As the buck stared at them, Joseph tried hard not to breathe. The young man and the magnificent animal seemed to have locked eyes, and Joseph didn’t want to be the first to blink. Little did Joseph know the dilemma brewing only a few inches from his left ear.
Joseph’s efforts in his meticulous arrangement of the leaves upon Moon and himself to make them all but invisible to the deer had, thus far, worked well. However, sometime while the gigantic buck moved down to the creek, Moondog had snorted a small piece of a dried leaf into his left nostril. The leaf now tickled the inside of his nose unbearably. Moon could breathe in without any problem, but as soon as he tried to exhale, the tickling became worse. In the past few moments, Moon had filled his lungs with the cool autumn air. Now his sides looked so swollen that if Joseph had seen them, he would have thought his dog to be ill. As the huge buck stood staring at them, Moon could wait no longer.
“Wwwwssssssnnnnnfffffccchhhhhh.” Moon let out a sneeze so massive that his head whipped around from side to side and his front paws lifted off the ground. In an instant he scattered the pile of leaves as if a small grenade had gone off.
The giant buck almost tripped over himself as he jumped ten feet away from Joseph and Moon in a single leap.
“Aaaayyyyyeeeaaaa!” Joseph jumped to his feet and flailed his arms wildly as he screamed, his left ear ringing from the sound of Moon’s explosive sneeze going off a few inches away.
In a flash the huge buck vanished.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Joseph puffed as he put his right hand on his chest while his heart pounded. He looked bug-eyed to where the buck had stood only seconds ago and then back to Moon. Moon lay down as his ears and tail drooped, a whimper coming from the golden dog’s chest.
Joseph watched a large orange maple leaf, airborne a moment ago, settle on top of Moon’s head. Then his dog began to crawl toward him while the sound of the crunching leaves mixed with an occasional grunt as Moon’s stomach bumped into a protruding root.
As his heart began to slow a little, Joseph let out a shaky sigh. He looked to where the buck had stood and then back to his dog inching toward him, the reality of what had just taken place slowly sinking in. Joseph began to smile, and then to laugh out loud.
At the sound of Joseph’s laughter, Moon stopped crawling, cocked his ears up, and tilted his head to the side. The maple leaf balanced for just a moment on top of Moon’s ears, and then slid off toward the front of his face. Joseph watched Moon raise his eyebrows as he caught a glimpse of the stem of the leaf. Then Moon arched his eyebrows straight up as he rolled his eyes to see the edge of the leaf less than an inch from his eyes.
Joseph started to laugh so hard that he felt his knees buckle. He doubled over and collapsed on the pile of leaves. Then he rolled on his back and looked up at the fading crimson sky through the trees. Moon stood up and shook the leaves off his body, then walked over and stared down into Joseph’s face.
The silhouette of Moon’s golden head filled the sky above Joseph as the big dog’s dark eyes sparkled at the sound of his master’s laughter. Joseph ruffled the fur behind Moon’s ears as he continued to replay the buck’s reaction to Moon’s enormous sneeze. Joseph laughed so hard his eyes started to water and blur his vision. Finally he took a few deep breaths and composed himself as he wiped the tears from his eyes.
“Oh my Moondog, what am I going to do with you?” said Joseph softly as he kneaded Moon’s thick yellow mane. He could feel Moon’s tail swinging from side to side at the sound of his voice and touch of his hand.
As the sun set, Joseph felt chill bumps on his arms from the crispness of the autumn air. He stretched out his hand to Moon and felt his companion’s cold, wet snoot. Joseph sat up while Moon lay underneath his left arm, a soft sigh of contentment emerging from his dog. Then a stark remembrance of what the coming cool weather meant sent a chill of its own through Joseph.
“What do you want?” Joseph could still hear a classmate he’d thought was his friend say mockingly as a group walked past him outside of school. “You know you don’t belong with us guys,” added a second. “Yeah, why don’t you go and play in the woods some more with that squirrely dog of yours and leave us alone?” chimed in another. Joseph’s sharp observation skills betrayed him as he replayed the details of the event in his mind.
Moon looked up at his master as Joseph let out a deep sigh. What is wrong with me? Why can’t I fit in? If they want to do things I know are wrong, that’s up to them. But I’m not going to give in to them. Why can’t people at school just leave me alone? Joseph began to recall other times he’d been bullied much more severely and when he’d felt the peer pressure to cave in to do something he knew was wrong. And he remembered the vivid details of the flak that he’d caught because he wouldn’t give in to the pressure. Joseph clenched his teeth. Then he closed his eyes and shook his head as he tried to scatter the thoughts into the leaves around them. Scatter them off and away where they couldn’t bother him and steal away the current peace which surrounded him and Moon. Enough of that, enough already! Focus, focus on what is here right now. Bend your mind to it – Focus.
Joseph looked down and noticed the stark contrast of the golden fur of Moon’s thick mane and the dark bronze color of his arm. So many days in the sun with Moondog this summer, Joseph forced himself to smile. This has to be the very best time in the very best place with the very best dog in the whole universe. Now keep focusing.
As the light of day faded, Joseph watched a red-tailed hawk circling toward the north, searching a field beyond the forest for an unwary mouse or rabbit. At the same time he forced himself to concentrate on the high-pitched chorus of crickets and tree frogs all around them. He once again took in a deep breath and noticed the sweet smell of maple leaves under his feet.
Joseph closed his eyes as thoughts of a bully at school tried to crowd in. Not again, not this time, Joseph determined.
A big grin spread over Joseph’s face as he studied the creek and remembered how he and Moon had tracked a raccoon through this area a few weeks ago. Joseph recalled the warm weather on that day and the direction of the wind as they followed the animal up the edge of the stream. He remembered how Moon’s remarkable sense of smell led them away from the creek as they tracked the unsuspecting critter right to the base of a huge oak tree. From there Joseph saw the raccoon asleep in the crotch of the tree about 30 feet up. Then Joseph backed up and called Moon to him with a hand signal. He sat down and lined up his head next to Moon’s and pointed. Joseph studied his companion’s face as Moon concentrated on the tree. He knew the moment Moon saw their target. Moon’s cheeks puffed out and Joseph heard Moon’s quiet “hafoof.” Then Moon grinned at Joseph and buried his head in Joseph’s chest, tail swinging so hard that his whole body rocked from side to side.
Then it happened.
A shrill cry from the red-tailed hawk pierced Joseph’s memories and shattered his daydream, shaking him back to the present. He knew the meanings of many bird and animal sounds and instantly recognized the bird’s distress call. The echo from the scream had not yet faded when Joseph and Moon felt a blast of cold wind slap them from behind. They jumped up and whirled around to see dark purple clouds rolling toward them along the horizon with incredible speed. Suddenly the air was filled with hundreds of yellow and red leaves whipping past as if shot out of a jet engine.
Squirrels, surprised by the fast approaching storm, bolted back to their hollow trees for shelter. Joseph and Moon caught glimpses of birds zipping in close as they rushed to settle near the trunks of the large maples and oaks. Joseph jumped as he felt the brush of a bird’s wings on his face. Large trees began to sway wildly around them in the swirling wind. Joseph knew that animals are always the best of weathermen, but he was stunned that he and Moon, and all the other critters, never sensed the approach of this storm.
“Come on, Moon,” Joseph urged as they began jogging toward the southwest and home. Before going 20 yards he felt the chill of cold rain coming down in sheets against them, driven from right to left as they headed for shelter.
Suddenly a tremendous cracking noise split the air behind them. They spun around in time to see a huge beech tree, one of the largest trees in the area, uprooted and crash to the ground across the creek. Joseph turned and stumbled a few more steps before hail began to pelt them, driving them further from home.
The hail stung Joseph’s eyes as he struggled to see Moon through blurred vision even though they were only a few feet apart. “Moon, heel!” Joseph cupped his hands and shouted to his dog, then staggered several more steps toward the south as the hail and wind stung the right side of his face and side. Joseph’s mind raced. If we’re separated, we’ll never find each other until this storm is over. We’re in big trouble if we don’t find shelter soon. This hail is getting bigger by the second. He felt his heel catch Moon under the snoot as he took another step, and knew that Moon understood the need to stay close.
If I can somehow locate that big, hollow maple tree, it might be big enough for both of us to get inside. Joseph thought of the huge beech tree that had toppled in the wind only moments before and knew it would be a risk getting inside a hollow tree in this kind of wind. But the hail continued to get bigger and large branches now began to snap off trees all around them. Thousands of multicolored leaves flew past, many sticking to Joseph and Moon’s right sides as the two struggled to keep moving.
The hollow tree abruptly appeared a few feet in front of them. A moment later, to the right of where they stood, the wind sheared off the top of a red-oak twenty inches in diameter. With tremendous force the entire tree top hurled down directly toward them. Joseph instinctively put his hand up at the sound of the tree tearing apart. An instant before it crushed Joseph and Moon to the ground, the treetop struck something unseen and stopped only inches above Joseph’s hand, splintering into thousands of pieces. Joseph quickly dropped to all fours and crawled inside the hollow maple, feeling his cold, wet Moondog burrow his way up against him.
Drenched and covered with leaves and ice, Joseph breathed a cautious sigh of relief. He stood up slowly and tried to shake off some of the water and leaves. Moon shook off in a far more efficient manner and looked up at his master in the dimming light.
“You’ve got to teach me how to do that someday, buddy,” Joseph managed to pant while trying to mask his fear. He knelt down and held his dog close so they could get some warmth from each other. “This tree is barely big enough for us to fit inside,” Joseph tried to reassure his companion, “but it’s enough to keep us out of the brunt of the storm for now.”
Looking out the entrance they could see leaves and hail whipping past, along with water running down the side of the tree trunk. The hail beating on the trunk and the wind swirling across the hollow treetop sounded like a freight train roaring over their heads.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before, Moon buddy,” shouted Joseph as he brushed hail from Moon’s ears. “I’m grateful we’re both still here, the way the top of that tree came flying down on us.”
Moon started trembling under Joseph’s arms. Joseph couldn’t tell if Moon was cold or if he somehow understood how close they had come to being killed by the falling tree. In the past Moon had never shown any major distress from the cold or heat. Then Joseph noticed Moon’s fur start to stand on end.
“It’s okay, Moon, don’t be afraid, we’re alright…” Joseph’s shouting trailed off as he began to realize that what Moon felt wasn’t fear. His own eyes grew large as he noticed the hair on his arms stand up as the truth of their dire situation dawned on him. With all the strength Joseph could muster, he grabbed Moon up in his arms and dove out of the tree back into the teeth of the storm, holding Moon close to his chest.
Lightning ripped through the tree just as Joseph and Moon passed through the opening of the hollow trunk. They flew high in the air and completely flipped over, the concussion of the lightning strike knocking them both unconscious. Joseph landed on his back with the front half of Moon’s body lying on his chest. Joseph’s left arm lay under Moon’s front legs and his right arm wrapped over Moon’s back, hands joined, forming a complete circle.
The heavy rain, which had turned to hail only moments ago, began changing to snow.
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