Today I'm posting a story written by my good friend, Terry Black. Terry's a member of my writing group and I'm lucky to know him.
by Terry Black
Micawber's first thought when he saw the humans was, Great! Another food source.
They were always dropping things, forgetting things, leaving food unattended — practically an invitation for Micawber to swoop in and help himself. That was a high priority, especially now, with his mate almost ready to lay her eggs, depending on him for food and protection. He perched on his roost, cooing softly to Whitethroat, and watched for his chance.
It soon came.
He counted three hikers, two men and a woman, with thick boots and laden backpacks, ripe for the plunder. They stopped to rest at a talon-shaped rock, near the lodgepole pine where he and Whitethroat had made their nest. Micawber didn't like them coming so close, but he kept quiet for fear of drawing attention.
The woman spoke first.
"How much farther?" she said irritably. She was slightly built and breathing heavily, her skin wet with perspiration. "Maybe we should turn back, Vince."
"And waste the whole morning?" The taller man, with cinnamon hair, swept his arm over the densely wooded hills of the Shoshone River Canyon. "Shame to come this far and then give up, before we reach the hot springs."
"But they're so remote! Couldn't you have picked something closer?"
"Ask my brother, he's the expert."
The woman turned to the third man, who was husky and tan, wearing a Park Ranger's uniform. “How about it, Hal?”
Hal shrugged. "You know why we're here, Alice — we want to avoid the tourist spots. You're can't appreciate nature with a dozen cameras popping. It'll be nicer this way, you'll see."
"I guess." Alice unclipped her backpack and let it slide to the ground. "But I'm not taking this pack any farther, Hal. I'll pick it up on the way back."
The tall man started to object, but Hal cut him off. "That'll be fine, Alice. It's safe, there's no one around for miles. And the hot springs are just over that rise."
She turned to the tall man. "Sure you don't mind, Vince?"
"Not at all, honey." He coaxed her back onto the trail. "I just want you to be happy."
They set off again, leaving the backpack. But Vince cast a quick glance behind, seen only by Micawber. The glance was not loving. It was swift and calculating, a look of cold appraisal — the way a crow looks over its hunting ground.
Micawber waited until they were gone, and glided earthward.
The pack was tightly sealed, so no animals could plunder its contents. Micawber didn't care. He picked at a zipper with his beak, pulling this way and that until the pull ring slid back on a tempting side pocket.
There was no food inside, but something almost as good. Micawber poked around and pulled out a beautiful diamond bracelet, glittering in the sunshine. Whitethroat loved bright and pretty things, and it seemed the perfect gift for her. He flapped up to the nest and gave her the treasure. She cooed with affection, tilting her head to catch the play of light on the diamonds.
Micawber left her and went scouting, to see where the humans had gone. He found them at the hot springs, where boiling water bubbled up from the thermal cauldron deep underneath Yellowstone Park. Alice and Vince were standing at the lip of a rainbow-colored pool, watching the steam rise from its hypnotic depths. Hal stood back, uneasily.
"It's beautiful," said Alice, staring into the water. "I'm so glad you brought me here. This is something you see once in a lifetime."
"And now you have," Vince said.
"Have I told you how much I love you?"
"Much too often. But you won't anymore."
Alice looked baffled, then stricken as she saw the sudden malice in Vince's eyes. She started to say something, but had no chance. In one swift motion, her husband shoved her with all his strength, propelling her into the hot spring.
She plunged into the scalding water, and came up screaming. Her skin turned beet-red from the furnace heat. She tried to claw her way out, but Vince kicked her back in again.
She kept screaming for a long time.
Micawber had no opinion about Alice's murder. The affairs of humans were not his own. He circled back to the lodgepole pine to check on Whitethroat, gently cawing, coming to rest on the sturdy branch supporting her nest. Micawber had chosen the branch carefully, checking for rot and infestation. Whitethroat seemed comfortable there, nestled in her jury-built home.
They heard the humans — the remaining humans — crunching back through the underbrush.
"I didn't realize how bad it would be," said Hal, looking pale and unsettled.
"Deal with it," said Vince. "We're almost done here. You just have to sound convincing over the radio. Keep it simple — she wandered off, by the time we found her it was too late."
"What about the backpack?"
"She left it here. We don't know why. Make the call." Hal was thumbing a button on his radio when Vince said, "Wait, stop."
He held up the backpack, showing the unzippered pocket. "The bracelet’s missing – that fancy one she drags everywhere. Someone took it while we were gone.”
"Hold on, Vince." Hal stooped to inspect the ground. "No footprints but ours — the thief wasn't a person."
"You mean, an animal? What kind of animal opens zippers and doesn't leave tracks?"
Hal looked up into the trees. He squinted, frowned, and pointed directly at Micawber. "That kind."
Micawber realized he'd been spotted. He didn't like it. He dropped into a swooping dive, cawing furiously, banking and swerving into a distant stand of pines. Vince pulled a .38 automatic from his jacket and tried to draw a bead on him, but the speed and distance were too great.
"You've got a gun?" Hal looked horrified. "Are you insane?"
"They're legal in national parks, haven't you heard?"
"We're trying to look innocent," Hal insisted. "Put the gun away, leave the bracelet."
"It's worth fifty grand. I'm not leaving it."
"It's in a crow's nest, fifty feet off the ground! What are you going to do, climb up and get it?"
"I'm not going to—"
Hal sighed. "This one," he said, tapping the base of the lodgepole pine. "The bird's trying to lure you away. They do that. They're clever, they can trick you."
"Wait for me."
Vince grabbed a low-hanging branch, hoisted himself up, and reached for the next one. Hal went apoplectic. "Don't do this, Vince! It's a bad idea."
"You're okay with killing my wife, but you're worried about a bird?"
"It's trouble we don't need."
Vince ignored him, and kept climbing. He was strong and fit, and made rapid progress. He remembered tree-climbing as a boy, the sense of exhilaration. And shooting birds with a BB gun. Now he was much bigger, and his gun packed a lot more wallop.
He brushed aside a pine bough, and Micawber came screeching at his face.
He recoiled, fighting for balance, losing his grip. He almost went over but he managed to snag a branch and catch himself. He cursed and drew his .38 and sent a fusillade at Micawber, BANG BANG BANG, but the bird dipped and swerved and went unharmed.
"Don't shoot!" yelled Hal. "You'll attract attention!"
"Like I care." Vince wanted to wring the bird's neck, but he forced himself to take a deep, calming breath. The crow was small; it weighed about one pound. It couldn't hurt him. He put his gun away and resumed climbing, slowly and methodically, wary of another ambush.
He looked up and saw the nest.
It was coarse and bulky, the size of a dinnerplate. It sat twenty feet above him. He saw another bird, probably the crow's mate, peering over the side. She had a white spot on her throat, like a dab of paint.
Micawber came at him again, hectoring, screaming. Vince held tight and ignored him. Just keep climbing. The nest was ten feet away, now five. He saw a glitter of sunlight on the side, and realized he'd found the bracelet. Perhaps he could strangle the bird with it, be a nice bit of poetic justice.
He heard a soft caw.
Vince turned and saw something he wouldn't have thought possible: Micawber was hovering in mid-air, riding an updraft, not far away. Looking right at him with his black marble eyes.
A stationary target.
Vince drew his gun. He stepped out onto a branch, fixing Micawber in his gunsight. He shifted his weight, preparing to fire, and the branch (which was rotten clear through) snapped under him.
He pitched forward. There was still a moment when he might have saved himself, if he'd dropped the gun and grabbed for purchase, but he kept on firing even as the shots went wild and he came down hard on the talon-shaped rock at the base of the lodgepole pine.
Snapping his neck like that dried-out branch.
Hal tried to pry Vince's gun from his hand. He couldn't. He saw Micawber diving toward him, screeching in a way that sounded oddly human and disturbingly plaintive, like the dying screams of Alice in the hot spring. His courage left him then, and he bolted.
"I'm sorry," he said over and over, to no one. "Christ, I'm so sorry." He fled into the woods, panicking, crashing through the brambles like a man insane.
Micawber let him go. Hal was no threat to them, not anymore. He wheeled around and flew back up to find Whitethroat cooing sweetly, looking proud but exhausted. In the nest were three eggs of greenish-blue. The diamond bracelet set them off beautifully.
Her job was to tend the eggs until hatching. His was to guard the nest. Micawber took his roost and scanned the forest with utmost care, keeping a sharp eye out for other vermin.