We don’t live in a subdivision. I wouldn’t even call it a neighborhood. Most of the houses sit on acreage. Barns and tractor sheds are common, surrounded by hay fields and pastures on rolling hills.

No large farms, however. Just folks who rent their grass for cattle grazing or cutting. They also might own a woodlot or two for firewood and hunting.

We keep up with the doings of our neighbors, but without envy or gossip. Everyone feels more secure if folks know whose car is in your driveway or who to call when a lovesick hound is howling under their bedroom window at midnight.

It’s just that no one is excessively nosey, nor are we overly concerned about who’s doing what on their own property. That is, until the appearance of a gang of ducks.

The flock of white domestic ducks waddled into our world in a feathery storm of stubby wings, short orange legs, yellow bills and an excessive tendency to poop in your yard, driveway or on the patio.

Said ducks were friendly enough. My wife and I finally deduced who owned the flock. Never knew they were waterfowl people, nor did they have a pond, lake or swimming pool. Nowhere for flock of ducks to seek rest and relaxation.

Without a body of water in which to swim or bathe, the flock took to promenading from house-to-house, visiting and looking for sprinklers or dog water bowls where they could moisturize themselves. Of course, young ducks are always hungry. People started giving them handouts: stale loaf bread, dry corn, garden produce past its prime.

They grew into quite heavy ducks. To be exact, overweight in the extreme. With bulging bodies, multiple chins and duck butts that dragged the ground, they more closely resembled those honking white geese that a famous lady chef roasted on public television cooking shows and praised with French adjectives.

The daily parade eventually slowed to a crawl instead of a march. The ducks had to sit down and get their breath after negotiating a lawn. If the terrain sloped upward, they usually gave up and went home—very tiredly.

Luckily, the local dogs seemed to accept them as approved parts of the landscape. They did not chase the portly fowl and seemed strangely protective of them. It was a good thing. Flying was not aerodynamically—nor anatomically—possible, what with all that fat wobbling under their feathers.

Then came the day when we counted one less duck in the flock. Everyone noted the absence. Speculation shifted into high gear. Our pair of house cats had suddenly disappeared, leaving no clue to their fate. I was certain they hadn’t been hit by a car. We searched the roadsides and ditches, talked to the neighbors and walked out the woods in a futile effort to solve the mystery.

Then folks on adjoining tracts informed us they also had missing cats. Soon, there was not a cat to be found anywhere, not in yards, barns or sheds. If you didn’t keep your pet inside, it would disappear.

Coyotes. This was the consensus judgement, and several of us started packing holstered pistols or short-barreled carbines when we worked outside. The off-chance that coyotes might show themselves during daylight hours when hay-cutting was underway or whitetail deer does were dropping fawns convinced us it was best to be prepared.

To date, no one has shot at a coyote, but the duck flock has steadily diminished. There have been sightings of foxes, large hawks, a great horned owl, even a gang of large weasels in the vicinity. The ducks would be easy targets.

It’s probably a combination of predators. I believe the attacks happen in the evening or early morning when the flock is most vulnerable.

Today, only Ralph remains. Poor lonely Ralph. Once he was surrounded by brothers. Now his only friends are the dogs who share their outdoor food dishes. He still makes the circuit, stopping on patios and decks for handouts. He is an obscenely obese bird and easily mistaken for a giant white yard ornament when sprawling in favorite flower beds.

Karen, my wife, named him. Why Ralph?

“He looks like one . . . Sort of lonely and misunderstood like Jackie Gleason’s character, Ralph Kramden, in the old Honeymooners TV series,” she explained.

He comes to the sound of her voice, slowly but surely, with many rest periods during which time he lays like a lump of duck fat in the grass, wheezing loudly. I am afraid he will suffer a heart attack from the exertion.

But we admire the duck. He is a fowl of habit, carrying on the former flock’s regular business each day and taking advantage of neighborly hospitality. He would never be impolite and turn down a snack.

Everyone is pulling for Ralph. He has become our mascot, a reminder that living hidden away from world is no way to live at all. He’s the sole survivor and that counts for something in my book. Woe unto the coyote, fox or other carnivore that stalks the portly paddler, if any of us are within range and packing a gun.

We noticed the other day that Ralph has picked up a bodyguard of neighboring dogs. They seem to sense there is something admirable about him.

His stately but slow progression across yards and pastures while flanked by canines reminds me of a king surrounded by his royal retainers, sworn to protect and serve. Their waving flags of tails, perky ears raised in salute and loyal attention to the well-being of this wheezy fat monarch seems fitting.

Ralph, the Last—may he live long and prosper, while avoiding his flock’s fate!

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