He Who Owns Us

The following short story is dedicated to the American Conservation Coalition, an organization advocating for a greater respect of nature and supporting market-based initiatives to unleash technological innovation to power the green movement for a cleaner and safer planet we call home.

Learn more at acc.eco

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He Who Owns Us

Rural Montana

Summer 1952

Dust kicked up behind the line of four station wagons, their headlights giving off bouncing beams across the plains. Pulling into the cul-de-sac in front of the ranch house rented for the week, the four families tiredly exited the vehicles, able to see only due to the glimmering fluorescence of the moon. Suitcases, hunting gear, and rifles were placed on the cold, wet ground while the mothers began to unlock the ranch house. The odor of jerky and ammunition pervaded the summer Montana night.

The expansive hallways lined with decades-old animal heads from previous hunts contained occasional drafts of wind that rattled the locks on the doors. At night, the various rocking chairs atop the large porch swayed back and forth in the wind, creaking the wood panels in harmonic rhythm.

All thirteen children filed into a large room with seven beds, each marked by an elk or bison head above it, while the four couples occupied a larger bedroom upstairs, absent of the everpresent displays of dead animals, but lined with rifle safes and racks for hunting packs, elk whistles, and all other contraptions needed to eventually add to the collection downstairs.

The first night, the wind was cool and calm, and the moonlight flickered throughout the house. A soft rain came against the shingles like the sounds of elk strolling through tall, yellow grasses. The children slept peacefully until the sounds of boots and odors of lit cigarettes awoke them in the early morning hours. The four men were preparing to embark on their first hunt, eagerly grabbing their rifles, kissing their wives goodbye for the day, and heading off in a tractor-pulled wagon.

As the hunters disappeared into the horizon of flowing, yellow grasses, the children excitedly rushed to the kitchen for breakfast at the scent of smoked venison. The sudden rush of the children shook the delicately furnished room, causing elk heads to tilt on the walls.

The children discussed their ideas for exploring the outdoors surrounding the ranch house, quickly coming to a consensus that they would play “Cowboys and Indians” with their brand-new toy guns. The children playfully ran around, taking turns at “shooting” each other, with hardly a sense of violence; they were simply innocent kids mimicking their favorite actors in the Westerns on television.

The return of the hunters brought a stench of death; the children were indifferent to it since their fathers had hunted all their lives. That night, as the hunters pulled a trailer weighed down by the addition of three elk carcasses through the tall grasses, the children decided to play hide and seek inside the house before dinner.

Annie, the youngest child on the ranch at five years old, meandered through the downstairs, searching for a spot only she could fit in. Eventually stumbling on a shaft once used for laundry, she squeezed her way high enough into it as to not be seen through the opening. The chamber was dark, occasionally lit up by a flickering candle in the hallway. In a brief moment of candlelight, Annie saw a small red marking on the wall. Squinting, she attempted to decipher its resemblance. She heard her brother coming down the hall, eagerly searching for his first victim of hide and seek. She shut the panel of the chamber. Darkness. The footsteps got louder, but Annie didn’t panic. Her senses were animalistic, like those of prey being hunted by men.

Three of the children hid under their beds in the large room, unable to seek better shelter in time. They were found within three minutes. They were motionless and unresponsive to their capture, each lying perfectly straight under the mattresses, heads directly under those of the animals on the wall. As the one brother discovered them, three distinct episodes of bleating rang from the direction of the hunting grounds. Suddenly, all three awoke, each immediately gasping for air as if being drowned. Pulling them from under the beds, the brother noticed a small, red marking under each of their left eyes, appearing to resemble antlers.

The room began to shake in sporadic increments as if heavy footsteps were coming closer. A few hunting plaques on the walls fell rapidly to the ground, while the heads above the beds loosened, rattled, and squeaked due to the scraping of wood against tattering wallpaper. The three mounts above the beds being used for hiding tumbled to the ground, shattering the antlers across the floor. The three marked children grabbed pieces of the antlers, placed them in their pockets, and walked out of the room single file, the wind of their exit extinguishing the candle nearest the door.  

***

The second night, the wind was sporadically gusty, causing one of the rocking chairs on the porch to fall over. The noise startled the four couples, hurrying to seal the windows shut to prevent any further disruption. Downstairs, the children twisted and turned, recklessly trying to find comfort amidst occasional racket. Three of them, those with the antler pieces, lay perfectly flat, heads facing the ceiling, eyes wide open, almost forgetting to blink.

***

“The wind knocked o’er some mounts down ‘ere Helen,” one of the hunters shouted upstairs as he checked on the children the following morning.   

“I’ll get a broom, I’ll get a broom, darlin’,” replied his wife. “Don’t ya worry ‘bout the pieces. Ya better get out to the huntin’ grounds before sunrise.”

The three children rose soon after the hunters left for the day, proceeding in the same direction, ignoring the tilted, rusted signs that read in chipped red paint, “WARNING” followed by “Entering Hunting Area.”

At breakfast, the mothers assumed the three children had gone out to watch the sunrise in the field, neglecting to ask the ten others to confirm the assumption.

Returning to their game of “Cowboys and Indians,” the ten children scurried around the premises of the ranch for hours on end, only heading inside to savagely gulp water from a decades-old spigot.

In the late hours of the afternoon, Annie tripped on a jutting root, face planting into the unevenly damp dirt. Her brothers carried her in like a wounded animal, her tears fueling the humid heat.

Still treating Annie’s various wounds and exhausted from hours of reenacting Custer’s Last Stand using guns with orange tips, the ten children took out a decades-old box of Monopoly. The kitchen table was empty at the time, the mothers preoccupied with sweeping up the aftermath of the previous night’s gusts and consequently, failing to recognize the lengthy absence of the three other children.

***

Later that evening, the ten children yawned over occasional sips of pink lemonade, Monopoly money scattered around. As Annie dominated the board, her thimble gracing her own property with pride, the three other children, the marked ones, entered the house through the screeching storm door. Yet somehow, they drew no attention to themselves at first. They walked single file down the hall lined with decades-old animal heads, their draft extinguishing the candle as they entered the bedroom. Only one of the children, the oldest brother, briefly peered up from his handful of pink and yellow paper bills, before refocusing on his Atlantic Avenue strategy.

Within the next thirty minutes, Annie controlled the board, and the ten children went off to sleep in the bedroom, finding the other three laying flat on their beds, the remnants of the elk mounts gone from the previous night’s incident, except that Lakota writing, “wapiti,” had been etched into the hardwood, with a hint of white, where the pieces of antlers once were. Too tired to think anything of the increasingly strange occurrences, the ten children dozed off to sleep: the youngest eight, including the jittery, celebratory Annie, onto the four beds marked by bison heads; the two oldest on the cold wood floor, with a few pillows and blankets that seemed decades-old.

The third night, the wind was violent.

Without warning or initial rattling loose, the four bison heads slammed to the floor, leaving scrapes and dents, the ten children gasping for air as if being drowned, while the three others rose quietly, left the room in single file, and headed for the back porch, where the rocking chairs fought with the wind.

Upstairs the adults struggled to barricade their windows, the trembling of the wind knocking the housewives to the floor, while the fathers cursed in the name of God Almighty, flexing their muscles to fight nature’s wrath.

Downstairs in the bedroom, the oldest brothers, flying out of their scant blankets, rushed to Annie, noticing her wounds had taken the shape of symmetrical horns, bleeding profusely into the off-white sheets. Annie’s shrieks only became worse when one of the other children kicked over a green gas lamp, decades-old, causing the sheets to go up in vibrant flames. The newly arrived light, by way of fire, displayed the bleeding arms of the eight children previously sleeping in the beds. Two distinct lines of blood flowed out, curving in perfect symmetry, on their left arms. The second-oldest brother quickly extinguished the flames with a rusty red fire extinguisher, before attempting to use what was left of the sheets as tourniquets.

On the porch, the three children grabbed the four rifles, kept outside to dry, laying in a scattered stack, almost vanishing due to the wind. They marched inside, past the busts in the hallway and into the room, single file, rifles on shoulders as if in a parade. Reaching out their right arms, and for one of them both arms, they bellowed, “wapiti.” The scars on the pale white skin under their eyes signaled four of the bleeding children, including Annie who miraculously ceased crying, to clasp the rifles and proceed into the hallway, single file.     

Just before slamming the windows shut, grunts intertwined with roaring trampling hissed through the pane. Then, the rumbling knocked the window off kilter, causing a tumultuous rush of wind and the scent of the wild to storm through.

CRASH. The ranch house shook violently, knocking down every animal bust, picture frame, and even the Monopoly box, scattering the colorful palate of worthless paper onto the floor.

CRASH. The ranch nearly collapsed at the second hit, grunting noticeably audible from below. Two of the men rushed downstairs, failing to glance down the first floor hallway to their armed children, and out onto the porch where they were met face-to-face with bulky, brown bison that seemed to have struck the ranch house violently upon arrival. The bison blinked. Large black eyes ready to attack. They charged.

The steps creaked aggressively at the movement, but it didn’t last long. Speared on the horns, the two men bled profusely onto the cold wood of the porch.

Screams could be heard from upstairs as one of the housewives slipped out of the blown open window, falling tens of feet to her death.

CRASH. CRASH. Two more bison slammed into the side of the ranch house. An upstairs bookcase, decades-old, immediately smothered a housewife. Only her slippers were visible from underneath the debris.

One of the remaining couples rushed downstairs to escape the increasingly dangerous bedroom, indicative of a war zone that reminded one father of his times in Okinawa years before. They were overcome by the trampling of four bison.

The remaining wife, managing to evade the moving bison, headed for the downstairs bedroom, wishing to find her children unharmed, but instead finding four rifles aimed at her chest, before dropping to the ground at the sound, in perfect harmonic unison, of the gunpowder exploding.

The father, deeply confused at everything he was hearing—rumbling footsteps, occasional shrieks, thumps of bodies, and snaps of gunshotssprinted down the stairs and out the door, grabbing a set of keys to a station wagon that hung gently on a bulletin board near the ranch entrance. With no regard for the safety of his children, especially his youngest Annie, he ran. He ran. It was the longest thirty yards, over the dark mud, that he ever ran.

Inside the downstairs bedroom, the two oldest children were too busy treating the bleeding of the other younger ones to even comprehend the shooting that just took place. Blood was everywhere.

The station wagon wouldn’t start. Brrrrt. Brrrrt. The engine tried hard, especially under pressure from the adrenaline pumping father, but it didn’t turn over. He managed to turn the battery on, awakening the radio and the headlights, immediately revealing an odd sight in front of him. It was not the four sprinting bison he diligently managed to evade in desperation, but the slow, quiet approach of his youngest daughter carrying his prized hunting rifle. The confident manner in which she held it surpassed the strength, intelligence, and determination norms of a five-year-old.

“Honey. Honey. Oh my sweet Annie what are you doing with that?” he asked in a confused, yet pleading voice, through the windshield.

Raising the rifle, Annie’s wounds again opened up, trickling blood from her arm to the rifle.

“He owns us. He owns this land, not you,” Annie announced fervently.

“Who owns this? Who owns this land, Annie? Annie put that down. Annie! Who owns this?” he shouted desperately.

“Tatanka,” she whispered.

The shot shattered the windshield, leaving a single bullet wound in her father’s forehead, blood trickling down on two sides, in the shape of a horn.

Annie dropped the rifle into the dirt and slowly wandered toward the hunting ground, disappearing into the night.

The car battery began to falter as she left the premises of the ranch.

***

A few hours later, chirps of birds rang out in harmonic unison, and scurrying sounds of animals’ footsteps steadily set to their own tempo echoed for miles over the horizon of flowing, yellow grasses, a continuation of the natural beauty that had once been, until recent decades, untouched for thousands of years.

The rugged cul-de-sac, deteriorating under moonlight, sat poised with the occasional beating of flag grommets against a metal pole, tossed around helplessly in the wind. It was dark. The only light emanated from the short-circuiting, dim yellow flickering of a station wagon headlight. The sound diminished as the sporadic clicks blended with the muffled voice of Tony Bennett on the static radio.

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