""Lieutenant, I think you'd better come," Stanley Charbonneau said. "At your earliest convenience, I mean," he added, when he saw the flash of worry hit his commander's eyes before he got it all nicely, properly hidden, like a good commander should.
"What's up?" Ott said, as they walked down the tunnel.
"And he and the men will kill me if I ruin the surprise, sir. Please don't offer to kill me if I don't. A man likes to have some way open to him to survive, sir."
Ott could concede that point, but that's not to say he liked the situation. He braced himself for anything, knowing from long, hard experience that Leo Talent, the resident technical genius, had brainstorms that were all over the board, from valuable to hazardous.
"I don't suppose you'd at least tell me where we're going?" he asked.
"The supply depot, sir," Stanley said. "The tunnel gets a little too tight just this side of there."
Ott felt like rubbing his forehead. If Leo had something too big to come through the bottleneck, it wasn't his usual sort of surprise. The man delighted in small but powerful devices, and it usually showed in the inventions and innovations he came up with. He tried to not look worried, though, especially after he saw Stanley eyeing him to see how his vague hints were being received.
As they got near the supply depot, Ott heard an odd sound, but couldn't get it to register as one thing or another. He also smelled something which seemed awfully familiar, but again couldn't be sorted into something recognizable. He shot a glance at Stanley, who got an over-innocent look on his face.
"I'm not in a mood for practical jokes, Charbonneau," Ott warned.
"In that case, I'm glad this is just a surprise, and not a joke, sir," Stanley replied.
They rounded the corner and entered the supply depot's yard. There stood Leo, dwarfed by the biggest bull Ott had ever seen, its majesty enhanced by an oversized set of horns.
Leo grinned ear to ear. "Remember saying you wished we had big bulls to turn loose, sir?" he said. "Meet Puny, The Pride of the Elkhorns. Or, I should say, formerly the pride of the Elkhorn mountain region. I won him in a bet. He's ours now."
Ott let his jaw drop. It was easier than keeping it up, and it seemed a reasonable response.
"That's what the other guys did, too," Leo said, just about to burst with pride.
A goat bleated. Ott recognized the bleating as the sound he'd heard, muffled, while just down the tunnel, but hadn't been able to place. Looking at the goat, which was standing underneath the bull's belly, he noticed manure on the ground nearby. That explained the smell. No wonder it hadn't registered. Manure was an outdoor smell. It didn't belong in tunnels.
"I had to bring the goat along, sir. Puny and him are friends, and they refused to be parted. Blevins is his name. It's an inside joke, the name is, or that's what I understand. No one would clarify, but the general feeling seemed to be that somebody who deserved to have a goat named after him got a goat named after him. I decided not to press, sir. It didn't seem decent to pry, when they weren't volunteering."
"Besides that, he didn't want to prolong the experience, once he realized he had to buy the goat, before he could get the bull to budge, sir," a man not of Ott's company said. The man bore rather a strong resemblance to Leo, which was a bit surprising, since Leo's family tree would make an ethnic purist have a heart attack (topside, Leo would have been called a mongrel, and would have been slaughtered for being 'unscientific').
"Meet my cousin, Kenley," Leo said. "He's been a tattletale since he learned to talk. He's less prone to it now, but he has his moments, as you can see."
"Yeah, what we hear, is you won the bull for nothing, but had to pay a prize bull's price for a goat," a serviceman said from the safety of a pack of servicemen.
"Laugh. Go ahead. But it's my money, and a good cause, and I didn't give up when the going got tough," Leo protested, a bit too enthusiastically, showing that he was embarrassed.
"In fairness, he got a good deal on the other bulls," Kenley put in. He pointed to two animals in the back of the room that had escaped Ott's attention, as riveted as he'd been on Puny. They looked to be yearlings.
"I got thinking. If we're mostly counting on baby bulls from the current herd, there might be too much inbreeding. So I brought some outside blood besides Puny, just to better the odds," Leo said. "By the way, those are also cousins, holding onto the lead ropes back there. Tim and Tom."
Tim and Tom waved. Ott nodded back.
"They'll be heading back as soon as we turn these critters loose. If you approve turning them loose, of course. I thought we might be able to get them out at the Meyer Stairway, if that's all right with you?" Leo said.
Ott nodded. He tried to stay official about it, but gave it up. He laughed. "Leo, I don't know what to say – other than thanks, and good luck. And you have my permission to widen the stairway if you need to. Just be sure it's sturdy and sealed and hidden again when you're done."
"Thank you, sir. The yearlings won't be any problem, but to get Puny through, we're going to have to get him to angle his horns and body just right, I think. We've had to do that a few places in the tunnel already. We should be all right."
Ott turned to Stanley. "Send an engineering detail along, just in case," he ordered.
"Yes, sir," Stanley said.
The little pack of servicemen went to pick up tools, and got into formation. Just like that, they were engineers on duty.
"We were kind of expecting you might want to send an engineering detail along, sir," Stanley said with a wink. He turned to his little gaggle of eager workmen. "Head 'em up. Move 'em out," he ordered.
His men yipped and yowled gleefully in reply, the way they thought cowboys had yipped and yowled back in the legendary days of the Wild West.
"Whoa. Careful there, don't get too loud or exuberant," Leo begged, gingerly waving the engineers to a standstill and silence, while the bull rolled his eyes and fidgeted. "Puny's been gentled and halter broke since he was a baby, but he's not used to being in tunnels, or around strangers, and although I know you all have a very high opinion of me, I regret to inform you that if Puny gets spooked or upset, there is nothing on or under God's green Earth I can do to control him, until he's good and ready to be controlled."
"I can attest to that, by the way," Kenley said, leaning down to rub a bruised leg. Catching a look from Leo, he shrugged, "But, just to prove that my dear cousin's representation of me as a tattletale is bogus, I won't provide any details," he said. He grinned, and pulled on the lead rope attached to the goat's halter. "Come, dear Blevins. Let's get you and your best friend out into the sunshine again, shall we?"
Another excerpt from The Birdwatcher.
Just a 60-something American woman who's been writing for publication since 1979. I started out as a newspaper reporter, and branched out from there.