For two weeks Penny concerned himself with the salvaging of crops. The sweet potatoes were not ready, by two months, for digging. But they were rotting and would be a total loss if they were not dug. Jody worked long hours at them.
The smell of death lay everywhere.
Penny said uneasily, “Somethin’s wrong. That stink’s due to be done with. Things is yit dyin’.”
A month after the flood, in October, he returned with Jody in the wagon beside him to Mullet Prairie to gather the cut and cured hay. Rip and Julia trotted along behind the wagon. Penny allowed Flag, too, to follow for he had begun to make a great commotion whenever he was shut up and left behind in the shed.
(Chechar’s note: But even so they continued to hunt deers…)
Penny stopped the wagon and took up his gun and went with Jody over the fence to the dogs. A buck deer lay in the corner. It shook its head, making a menacing motion with its horns. Penny lifted his gun, then lowered it.
“Now that buck’s sick, too.”
He approached close and the deer did not move. Its tongue lolled. Julia and Rip were in a frenzy. They could not understand the refusal of live game either to run or to fight.
“No use to waste shot.”
He took his knife from its scabbard and went to the deer and slit its throat. It died with the quiet of a thing to whom death is only one short step beyond a present misery. He drove off the dogs and examined it carefully. Its tongue was black and swollen. Its eyes were red and watery. It was as thin as the dying wild-cat.
He said, “This is worse’n I figgered. A plague has hit the wild creeturs. Hit’s the black tongue.”
Jody had heard of human plagues. The wild animals had always seemed to him to be charmed, and beyond all human ills. A creature died in the chase, or when another creature, more powerful, pounced and destroyed. Death in the scrub was clean and violent, never a slow sickness and lingering. He stared down at the dead deer.
He said, “We’ll not eat it, will we?”
Penny shook his head.
The dogs were sniffing farther down the fence-row. Julia barked again. Penny looked after her. A pile of carcasses lay in a heap. Two old bucks and a yearling had died together. Jody had seldom seen his father’s face so grave. Penny examined the plague-killed deer and turned away without speaking. Death seemed to have appeared wholesale out of the air.
“What done it, Pa? What kilt ’em?”
Again Penny shook his head.
“I’ve never knowed what give the black tongue. Mebbe hit’s the flood water, full o’ dead things, has got pizenous.”
A fear shot through Jody like a hot knife.
“Pa–Flag. He’ll not get it, will he?”
“Son, I’ve told you all I know.”
Penny said, “I hope you do a heap of it, for the flood’s done you outen a teacher. The Forresters and me had it settled to board a teacher between us for you and Fodder-wing this winter. When Fodder-wing died, I still figgered I’d do some trappin’ and git cash money that-a-way. But the creeturs is so scarcet now and the hides so pore, hit’s no use.”
This is the image that my dad showed me when I was a kid. He told me that the illustration was beautiful as it reflected how a dad taught his son with a loving mother in the background (with very, very different words of course).
Jody said comfortingly, “That’s all right. I know a heap now.”
“That jest proves your ignorance, young feller. I do hate for you to grow up and not know nothin’. You’ll jest have to make out this year with what leetle I kin learn you.”