Dale glanced down at his legs as they spun the pedals of his aluminum road bike. Tiny beads of frost clung to the dark hairs on his calves. His deep breaths exploded steam into the early morning. He braked hard and pulled onto a paved turnout. Looking back along the country road, he watched Sharon crest the ridge and descend toward him. His wife would be mad that he’d left her behind. They’d been riding together for years and he still couldn’t find the right pace.
In a few minutes she pulled up and unclipped her helmet. “You creep. How come you always ditch me on the hills?”
“Sorry, hon. I just get into a rhythm. I don’t do it on purpose.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that before.” She reached for her water bottle and took a long drink. They’d been riding a loop route through the coastal California hills, with home in San Luis Obispo an hour away.
Sharon pointed across the road to the small marsh lake. “Let’s check it out. Amy told me about this place. There should be lots of birds and ducks.”
Dale frowned. He hated when she stopped to explore. It broke his concentration, left his muscles cold. As they hobbled across the pavement in their bike shoes, a horn blared and a car blasted past. Instinctively, Dale raised a fist with its middle finger extended. He relished the quiet of these rides, where the only sounds came from the whirr of his bike and his deep breaths. “Look at this,” Sharon said excitedly and pointed to the lake’s muddy fringe.
“What am I supposed to be seeing?”
“The tracks, stupid. Every kind of critter must use this place as a watering hole: deer, possums, raccoons … and these look like a coyote’s, or maybe a fox.”
“No way. They’re probably from some rancher’s dog, out taking a dump.” He liked kidding his wife about her knowledge of nature. She knew more about bugs, birds, and bobcats than she did about fixing a flat tire—a regular event since she rode with her head up, surveying the world and not watching for road hazards.
She pointed. “Come on, there’s a trail.”
“You go ahead. I’ll stash the bikes.”
Sharon picked her way along a narrow path that wound through rushes and willows. Dale hurried to hide their bikes in the roadside bushes, locking them to the base of a young oak. When he returned to the lake, his wife had disappeared.
“Where are you?” he called.
Rushing along the path, he found her sitting at the edge of a cove bordered by cattails, cradling something in her lap.
“She was just lying on her side,” Sharon explained. “Didn’t even try to escape.”
“What the hell is it?”
“An American Coot.”
“Those are funny-lookin’ feet for a duck.”
“It’s not a duck. People call them mud hens. They like wetlands. This one looks like a female ’cause she’s slightly smaller than those.” Sharon pointed to a flock of white-beaked coots moving across the lake, their black bodies glinting in the morning light, red eyes staring.
“What’s wrong with it?” Dale asked.
“I don’t know for sure, but it looks like her legs are broken.”
Dale sat on a mound of matted rushes and watched his wife run her hands over the bird gently. The coot stayed quiet, but a tremor ran through its body. Sharon made soft cooing sounds. The marsh’s stillness enveloped them and they sat without speaking until his legs started to cramp.
“So, what do ya wanna do?”
“I’ll call Amy. She’s with the Wildlife Rescue group.” Sharon slipped her smartphone from her rear jersey pocket. After a short conversation, she took close-up photos of the crippled bird and sent them to her friend.
“What do we do now?” Dale felt his impatience grow.
In a few minutes, the phone’s annoying ringtone broke the silence. Sharon held it to her ear, frowning. “Yes … okay. We’ll be here … take the trail east toward the hills. We’re not far from the road.”
“What did Amy say?” he asked.
“They’re sending someone out. But it doesn’t look good. With broken legs and her lack of response, they’ll take her to the center and probably put her down.”
“Why don’t we just leave it here?”
“The foxes or coyotes will get her. She’s too badly injured to flee. Removing her is the humane thing to do.”
“Yes, really. How would you like to be left in pain while you wait to be eaten?”
“I get your point. But what about the other critters? Don’t they depend on injured animals for food … that web of life thing? It’s gonna die anyway.”
From across the lake, a raft of coots swam toward them. They stopped a few yards from shore, clucking to themselves. Dale took the dying bird gently from Sharon’s lap, placed it in his own, and moved his calloused fingers over its quivering body. Gazing into the distant hills, he wrapped his hands around the bird’s neck and twisted. It shuddered for a few moments but made no sound, then it lay still.
Sharon covered her face with her hands and wept. Groaning, Dale stood and moved to an open spot next to the trail. He laid the coot on the ground and returned to his wife, hugging her shoulders.
“How … how could you do that?” she murmured.
“It was the humane thing to do.”