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And the winners are . . . // The angel unaware

The dock appeared in place with blue-gold ripples beyond it, what Dan Rothenberg saw without his glasses. As he slid them over his nose, the scene focused. Now, almost two years retired after 35 as head veterinarian at Paws 'n More Animal Clinic, he greeted the view like an old friend.

With his warm mug of coffee in one hand, he unlocked the glass door to the deck and stepped out _ his morning ritual. Before tasting his coffee, he breathed deeply the salt-tinged air that, in early spring, mingled citrus blossom, honeysuckle, hopbush and lily with, someplace distant, a dead fish.

In that distilled scent, the moment percolated like his coffee had earlier. What settled was a nearly perfect memory of, not simply yesterday, but years before his retirement when Margaret, his late wife, dominated his mornings, providing an ample breakfast _ hash browns with poached eggs on top; sometimes fried fish if her angler had got up early enough to make the catch _ with endless cups of rich French Roast that, in later years, had become decaffeinated. The memory of her warm company was still as priceless as it was painful. He had been grateful to their son and daughter for advocating a hospice for her care at the end.

"Dad, in your own house you'll have to relive her pain and suffering every day instead of the good times you two shared," was how his daughter, Gretchen, described the decision over which he'd had no power.

They'd been right and thoughtful to leave his memories intact. Margaret came flitting in at breakfast sometimes, and such glimpses of her were agonizing. The last thing she'd said, on her deathbed almost four years ago, was something like, "Don't you stop here. Go on with your life." When he thought about it, he realized that apart from the veterinary practice he'd continued, he had not honored her request. True, it had been his to live after that, but it seemed, up to now, a life that didn't matter.

As he scrunched his nose, reflecting a momentary sunbeam falling over his shoulder, he saw what did matter: the sheeny gray waters of the high-tidal bayou, the Cargyll Cutter neatly squared under its boathouse roof and sailboat, unmasted, swinging gently from davits on his dock. Why did such things mean so much when getting up in the morning hardly did?

He surveyed the scene for answers. What he saw, he loved. Goosebumps puckering up his arms told him that. Pelicans and gulls swooped in and over the air sink amidst a circle of houses; an egret grazed over him, screeched, then _ splat! _ just missed oiling a neighbor's dock. This action was so congenial it hardly impressed him.

He remembered a phone call he had to make. Some dental work to be scheduled. Wondering why, at his age, he needed to subject himself to such tortures, he turned back with a grim smile. He'd not taken more than three steps when a loud splash made him about-face to see what he'd missed.

He saw nothing and headed on to the house, his flip-flops brushing aside the wet grass. When he turned back for a last look before stepping up on the deck, he caught a glimpse of swirling water at the end of the dock.

Moments after, glancing out his kitchen window while washing up breakfast dishes, he noticed the water still churning, and in wider circles than before. Curiosity got the best of him. A later phone call would likely delay his dental work up to a week or two. He went back to the dock. Even before reaching the end, he heard splashes and squawks, suggesting brute force at work.

The sight that greeted him was less of a surprise. A few months ago, he'd returned from a weekend out of town to find a dead bird entangled in fishing line in the exact same spot. Today, a live brown pelican, supporting itself by its splayed brown feet propped against the side of a pylon, was trying to disentangle itself from a similar line. Embedded in its straining neck, Dan made out the momentary glint of metal _ a fishhook.

"You may have come to the right dock, bird," he said wryly.

His past contacts with wild birds had always reinforced the conviction that, for the bird, body contact with man was the worst possible fate; the creature preferred to exhaust itself to death trying to resist. But if death were a certain end _ as it is for us all, Dan thought _ there's no harm in trying.

Turning back to the house, he probed his brain for the location of his stun gun, not used since he'd taken Raleigh, their 18-year-old Cocker Spaniel, to the vet for the last time. He'd bought a package of tranquilizer darts for the occasion, and Raleigh had needed only one to get peacefully to the vet.

About five minutes later, he found the darts with his other ammunition in the garage. He loaded one pellet into the gun he kept in his closet. Standing against the side of the davit post, he aimed down at the struggling bird, at the brown mottled breast feathers the bird flashed his way momentarily. "Margaret, help me," he uttered as he fired. The orange dart thudded into the mass of feathers. The bird thrashed, then dropped its head sleepily on its breast, the bright eyes glazed over.

Dan stepped down into the incoming tide that flooded over the dock's lower step. Knowing he had 15 minutes to finish what he'd started, he hung on to the pylon with one hand and, balancing on the step, grabbed the fishing line, then reeled the bird into the dock. He reached behind him for shears to clip off the nylon line. When he had cut the line down to the hook, he gently grasped the shoulder plumage and eased the pelican close. Its yellow-gray eyes were half-closed yet seemed aware. The dull buff head feathers dripped on him as he clasped the neck and searched for the shiny hook he'd seen. He found it embedded deep enough to cause pain in spite of the tranquilizer.

The huge puff of feathers in front belied what could be a 6- to 7-foot wingspan, wider than I'm tall, Dan thought as his fingers deftly worked, not having forgotten their skill. The hook goes in smoothly to catch fish for the table, not these giant spirited fisher-birds God has created to rival man at his favorite sport. Ironically, man's law protects the bird.

The hook came free, glimmering for an instant in the sun. Dan felt it catch in his own hand as the bird trembled. None too soon, he let go, and the bird flapped away.

He removed the hook from his own flesh; it smarted and showed a minute red gash. He then stepped up on the dock. His nylon trousers were soaked up the thighs. His hand throbbed where saltwater needled his wound. He needed methyolate. But watching the pelican flap itself back up into the sky exalted his spirits, fired adrenaline into his system like nothing else he could remember.

"Margaret, my love." He heard her sigh of approval in the damp breeze. "What a day we've had."

In 1990, M.K. Buhler moved to Tampa from New York and decided not to continue working as a librarian, but to write free-lance fiction. She has published a few short stories and has completed two novels. She's now at work on two novels for young adults. She's a member of the Tampa Writers' Alliance. For fun and inspiration, she bikes, canoe and kayaks, and travels far and wide when she can.

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