Lisle was a hereford, born for meat and leather. When she was younger, the ranch manager had given some thought to breeding, but the girl grew up small-framed and narrow-hipped, so she was turned out into the fields. If it hadn't been for the whistling, she would have gone off to the slaughterhouse with the rest of the twelve year-olds.
Meyer first heard the whistling on a cold fall morning when rain clouds crowded the margins of the yellow sky. It had been a tiring week, what with pulling in the feeding troughs, gathering the remains of salt blocks, moving the herd to the low pasture, and generally getting ready for winter.
Meyer was taking advantage of the distance between his line shack and the nearest ranch to spend an extra hour in his cot. He was dreaming of town, and of a girl who lived there, and of what she might do for him when he showed her all the money he had made at roundup. It was a pleasant dream, the best in weeks, and even when the strange sound invaded the fantasy, Meyer was reluctant to surrender.
But gradually, note by note, the whistling drove the town images from Meyer's mind. He groaned beneath the coarse sheets and opened his bleary blue eyes. With the last ghosts of the town girl still drifting through he head, he raised up from his cot, pushed lank blond hair back from his face, and stared across the room.
The line shack held none of the comforts of his dreams. It was a narrow structure with walls of stacked sod and a door woven loosely across a bone frame. An overnight storm had kicked the wax paper window from the soddy's lone window, leaving behind a murky pool on the mud floor. Continuing gusts waved the torn paper back and forth, providing fugitive glimpses of the low brown hills that fronted the shack. For the space of ten precious seconds, there was no sound but the crackling paper. Meyer let out a sleep-sour breath, convinced that the whistling was only another, less agreeable, morsel of his reveries. But that hope was short lived as a fresh trill of rising tones drifted in though the busted window.
Meyer winced at the noise. The whistling didn't sound like any of the red grass creatures he had heard before, but that didn't mean much. There was a lot of red land out there -- a whole world, if the proctors could be believed -- and the variety of invaders seemed as boundless as the land.
Not one of them had so far proved friendly. And while to date, the red had sent Meyer nothing larger than his little finger, whatever it was that made this whistling could be something new. It could be something big.
A chill settled along Meyer's spine that was far colder than any breath off the southern ice. With his heart beating hard at his throat, he laced on his boots and reached into his kit. The metal tongs, worth more than the house, or even the herd, gleamed as he tugged them into the light. He jerked on his jacket, summoned up his courage, and went out to face the enemy.
The sun rose above the fields while Meyer slogged up the muddy slope to the pasture. Some of the herd was nearby, but they hurried to stay out of his way. After a season under his care, most of the herd had learned to judge Meyer's modes -- and they had learned very well the pain of the red grass prod he carried at his belt. Listless and hungry as they were, the herefords had no desire to get between the ranch hand and his goal.
Meyer topped the hill and caught his first clear view of the red grass.
The scarlet line stretched along the horizon, defining the limits of the ranch and providing a better fence than any that could ever be built. The hand started toward that fiery barrier, but before he had gone ten steps, he realized that the odd sound was coming from somewhere much nearer at hand.
He turned slowly and found himself facing a spray of tall barley and oats whose grass heads had been nibbled clean by the herd. The whistling came from within the circle of stalks.
With the tongs held ready, Meyer advanced slowly on the tall grass. At any moment, he expected some hopping, dancing, flying thing to buzz from the grass, bringing with it a bundle of pain or death. But as he shuffled the last steps toward the gnawed oats, Meyer saw that the source of the whistling was not a red grass creature at all. It was Lisle.
About Leather Doll, Mark says:
Sometimes a story is heavily dictated by the background. In this
case, that background includes ten thousand frozen embryos, a quartet
of nanny robots, and instructions that boil down to "build an agrarian
paradise." Of course, despite the background you'd still haven't a
very different story if our boy Meyer wasn't such an ineffectual jerk.
The real trick with this one is going to be seeing how much of the
background I can reveal in the narrative without making a "positron
speech." You know, one of those passages that begins, "Well, Jim, as
you know, this is a positron..."