May 4, 2021
Volume 1, Issue 9
Holly Springs, MS
A beech with smooth, ash-colored bark and exposed roots I sit on, my back against the trunk. The roots jut out because the ground has washed into a gulch. Sapling hardwoods grow along the slopes. At the base runs a brook, and on its banks reeds stand brittle and dead. The current flows left and bends out of sight behind a hunting blind: a four-by-four wooden box with a door in the back and a metal ladder for climbing inside. It faces a field. I can’t tell if anyone’s in it. It's too bright now to wave my gun around and look through the scope. I don’t wear camouflage but a brown jacket and jeans. From behind the sun rises. It casts shadows into the ravine.
Across, on the opposite ridge, a stone end piece for a fence stands unused and cockeyed; beside it a pair of beech trees share a trunk. A faint game trail runs between them and into the valley along the creek. It is a winding indentation in the leaves.
The sky's clear, but the woods are wet. I can't hear steps on the leaves; they are caught in the sogginess. The roots hold water too, and the seat of my jeans is damp.
Over the next ridge comes a doe's huff. It sounds hollow in the quiet woods. I shoulder my rifle but look over the scope. The huff again, and she scampers along the trail to the creek. Her white tail is raised. The doe pauses and cranes her neck, looking behind her, trembling where she stands, then takes off again and doesn’t slow. I don't have the chance to get the crosshairs on her; but I watch her sprint out of sight. Nothing else around me stirs. There is only the sound of shrill wind in the bare trees. Holding the rifle, I wait.
I see a young man crest the ridge and stroll down the path. Tall with long hair to his shoulders and a beard, he wears a camouflage jumpsuit and a repeating rifle on his back. He watches his steps into the valley, walking hands-in-pockets. I follow him with my scope; the black crosshairs hang around his eyes and cheeks. They're red and puffy like he just woke up. The safety’s clicked off and the red pin is out; the trigger's cold on my finger, and he doesn't notice my chrome barrel or me tracking him with it. In the valley he walks the stream’s bank and keeps on until his back is to me.
Under the blind he takes a piss. Through the scope I see the stream run between his legs and the steam come off it. Then he climbs the ladder inside.
The hunt’s ruined; I get off the roots and drop into the valley holding my gun out with one hand. The brook is narrow. I jump over it and retrace the hunter on the game trail. It leads me out of the valley and through the woods to a clearing flat and muddy. Parallel rows from tilling run end to end. Nothing but sprigs of wintertime grass grow from the sludge.
It's a wide plot, the kind run for big companies. The soil's treated. It's grey — grey like it’s mixed with soot and ashes and chemicals, and it's got a colorful hue in the sun like there's oil in it.
Walking along the edge, beneath reaching branches, my boots sink to the ankles. I find the hunter’s bootprints. They’re sunk about as deep as mine, and they cut across the flat, right through the middle. The mud as I get out in the field sticks to my boots and weighs them down. Tracking the hunter brings me to border woods of mostly pines. One has fallen; it is thick. The bark has flaked away, leaving smooth wood. I sit on it.
Tents are set just in the trees across the next field. I can see their colors in the leafless and bare woods — a tan and a blue one and a red one further back. His tracks lead that way. I stand and go to the edge of the pines and watch the site. Then walking along the perimeter now and again I stop and look over the tents through the scope.
In the campsite, three chairs are folded out around a stone fire pit. Heat is still in the coals. It smells like burnt plastic, and flattened beer cans are buried in the ashes. Two cast-iron skillets with burnt eggs and congealed grease in them sit on the fire ring.
In the red tent are two good pillows and a green blanket. I leave dark boot prints on the nylon.
The blue one has nothing worth carrying. I come out and scan the woods where I came from; no one is there.
The zippers of the tan tent are padlocked together. With a jagged stone I tear the nylon in the front. Inside is a red and white cooler with handles on each end and a hinged lid. There's canned beer in it, a tube of breakfast sausage, and a dozen eggs. I crack an egg and drink it; I crack another and drink it, and I throw the shells out onto the ground.
A thick sleeping bag is on the floor. I kick it over, and underneath is an ax or a hatchet that seems big enough to be one and small enough to be the other; it's two and a half to three feet long, and the head and neck are one piece of steel fixed to a wooden handle. A leather sheath on the head with belt loops that lets me hang it at my waist; it's heavy and pulls on my pants.
While I walk the handle knocks against the side of my leg between my knee and ankle. I carry away the cooler with the skillets in it and the pillows and blankets on top.
Walking through the woods, I see the weather is turning bad and the clouds are spreading in the sky. Before long they'll be the color of the mud out in the fields.
A rifle shot rings in the distance like a hollow tree being ripped in half. Then everything is hushed again.
We came in the dark last night and parked on a gravel road. Lee left the trailer hitched to the truck. He does that when we’re parked somewhere we shouldn’t be.
Brush and saplings have grown through the rocks. The gravel is thinned out and washed to the wayside, but the ground is packed and isn’t muddy. I walk up the road, and the rear of the trailer is ahead. It’s an old Airstream camper — a bullet shaped aluminum tube on wheels with a door and an awning. The whole thing's growing mildew and is fogged over.
I come underneath the awning and set everything down and open the lid for a beer and then sit on it. While I’m drinking I look out at the field in front of me. It’s flooded; the peaks of the tilled rows rise out of standing water.
Ruth-Ann is crossing the clearing in rubber boots, and her reflection’s reaching out ahead of her and trembling on the rain held in the ruts. She’s thin and gaunt and wears baggy jeans that are loose around her legs. Tied at her waist is a maroon sweatshirt, and she has on a grey long-sleeved shirt. I see her curly, tangled red hair bobbing all the way across the field while she wades.
The rifle is on my knees, and I wrack the bolt, somersaulting the shells one after the other onto the gravel, then I pocket them.
”It’s a buck,” Ruth-Ann says. "Lee’s got him a buck.“
”Alright,” I say.
She comes onto the road.
”It ain’t all that big, but it’s a buck just the same.”
She stops under the awning. I drink.
”Where’d you get that beer?”
”Where’d the cooler come from?”
”Some guys out camping,” I say.
”What else is in there?”
”Look for yourself.“
I stand up; the ax swings on my leg.
She kneels and pulls out the pans and rummages.
”Lee wants you to grab the rope out of the trailer.”
”Alright, unlock it then.”
She stands up and reaches into her front pocket. I see her look at my belt.
“You get that ax from them guys too?” She says.
“Awful generous of them,” she says.
I stand by the door. She sorts through a key ring and unlocks it. I head inside.
It’s stripped bare and torn out. The floor is metal, and old yellow adhesive is dried in strips. There’s a blue fabric couch against the wall across from the door. To the right of it, pushed against the front wall is Ruth-Ann’s and Lee’s bed. Against the back wall is mine. We all have pillows and blankets, and Ruth-Ann put sheets on her and Lee’s bed.
I take off the ax and put it between my bed and the wall.
We keep all our things in cardboard boxes so they don’t roll around while we drive. My stuff’s pushed over by my bed, but Lee’s and Ruth-Ann’s is everywhere. I find the rope, and it’s tangled up and knotted, but I jam it in my jeans pocket.
I come outside.
”You got it?” Ruth-Ann says.
She’s standing beside the open cooler. Her arms are crossed.
I set the pans back in the cooler and close it and take the blankets and pillows and carry them inside. The blanket I wrap around my ax and put it back between the bed and the wall. I open the door and step one foot out on the door stool.
”Hand me that rifle there,” I say.
I lay it on my bed, bolt open, and come out.
”Got the rope?” Ruth-Ann says.
I nod and start walking.
She locks the trailer and follows.
Lee’s got his foot planted on the deer’s rib cage; he holds his rifle, and there’s a grand smile on his face while we're coming through the trees. The smile doesn’t fade until he sees that we see and acknowledge it. He wears a blue jacket and a flat brimmed Bermuda hat. It’s pulled down over his eyes, and his chin is lifted to see from underneath it.
”Ain’t so big, but he's sure enough a buck,” Lee says.
We’re in woods next to a small and unharvested soybean plot. I underhand the rope, and he catches it and steps off of the buck’s chest.
”I’m part of the buck club now,” he says.
Ruth-Ann sits on a felled tree.
I come up closer looking at it.
There’s a sanguinary hole in the ribcage and Lee’s muddy boot print next to it.
”Whatcha think, Casey?”
”Looks like a deer,” I say.
”About me being in the buck club.”
”It’s about time, I suppose.”
”Sure enough it is.”
Its eyes are black and glossy, and one of them has dirt and broken pine needles in it. The mouth is open slightly; it’s tongue hangs out on the ground.
The antlers are thin six-inch points.
”A spike,” I say. ”Gotcha a spike.”
”He’s still a buck.”
”A spike buck. Spike buck’s a spike buck and a buck’s and buck.”
He grabs the antlers and yanks the deer’s head off the ground, bending the neck.
”I can hold it up by its antlers; it’s a buck. There’s no arguing about him being a buck.”
He looks at the deer like he’s talking to it, shaking its head, making the tongue jiggle.
”Ain’t that right?“
He drops it; the head thumps on the ground.
“Spike buck’s still a buck,” he says.
”Alright,“ I say.
Lee walks to Ruth-Ann and sets his rifle on the tree.
”Let's get him strung on up,” Lee says.
I hold up the hind legs, and he comes over and stabs the skin behind the Achilles tendon with a pocket knife.
”Where’d you shoot him from,” I say.
Across the field and into the trees a walled-in hunting blind is set high on stilts with narrow windows to shoot from.
”From that blind?” I say.
Lee doesn’t say anything.
“They got soft chairs and maybe a space heater in there?”
I run the rope through the slits and tie it, fastening the legs together.
“Hunting from a blind on a food plot…”
“Doesn’t make any difference where I hunt,” Lee says.
“Of all the deer that feed on these soybeans, you shot a spike?”
We drag the carcass to the edge of the woods where a low limb reaches out into the field.
“Shoulda plugged one with spots; the meat’s more tender,” I say.
Lee stands up with the rope, pulling at it, untangling it. He pushes his hat back so I can see his eyes.
“Lay off,” he says.
He throws the rope over the limb. We wrap it around our hands and hoist. Its legs come up easy. The abdomen and chest make the branch sway down and groan. It won’t go any higher. The neck is bent and its face is on the ground. Ruth-Ann asks if we need help but doesn't get up. Lee, on his butt with his feet planted in front of him, clings the rope to his chest. I run behind him and tie the slack to a tree.
“Let it go,” I say.
The rope stretches and the deer sinks a little and wavers.
”Doesn’t seem so small now, does it?” Lee says.
I don’t say anything; I’m catching my breath.
Lee fetches the knife out of the grass where he dropped it and cuts off the testicles and lets them fall to the ground. Fluid and blood seep onto the leaves. He feeds the blade in the skin and slices down the belly, and he sings as he works.
"I’m having visions of the country..."
He slices down over the stomach to the base of the ribcage. The innards press against the cut; the blue stomach swells out. Lee pokes a hole in it and grit spills out.
”I left it for a decent wage..."
His voice isn’t so bad when he sings low and soft.
On a knee, Lee slices past the ribs to the shoulders and neck. Hair sticks to the blade. He pries the skin apart, peels it back from the cut a bit, and then he stands up. On his hands are blood and hair, and he’s waving the knife like he's conducting a tune.
”I smell country blowing off the mountains, and farmland falling with the rain..."
He turns holding the handle of the knife out to me.
”You want me to gut him?” I say.
He grabs my wrist, leaving grit on it, and plants the knife in my hand, and then he walks to Ruth-Ann.
"I'm having visions of the country, darlin' on this stormy city day..."
The sternum is thick and even with my body weight it won’t crack, so I swing the knife in a chopping motion. There’s a hollow thump each hit. Bone fragments catch in the meat. Blood seeps through the fur on its neck. The ribcage, jagged and splintered, I pry apart.
The entrails slide down in the chest cavity. I start where the spine joins the hips. Sinews and cords hold the intestines and stomach; I cut them, and roll them out on the leaves.
Lee and Ruth-Ann flirt and giggle on their log.
In the top of the rib cage, above the shoulders, is standing blood. The heart was torn to pieces by the bullet. Bits of it swirl in the pooled blood. I pull on the lungs and cut the esophagus. I take the antlers and walk backwards with them, lifting the deer, and the blood in the ribcage drains. Leaves and pine needles stick to guts, and with my boot I roll them away. I drop the buck.
”What’re you letting him down for?” Lee says.
”You gonna quarter him?”
Lee stands up.
”You want to carry the quarters all the way back?” I say.
He walks over and looks down at the deer. It’s legs are stretched like it’s leaping over something. ”Well, what’re you thinking?” he says.
”Drag him,” I say. ”Get the hind legs and pull him.”
”That might tarnish my antlers.”
I laugh, and we look down at the carcass. The rope is still in the ankles.
”It ain’t a joke,” he says.
“It should be,” I say.
”I can’t just trash my rack.”
”Your rack? It ain’t but a couple spikes. They won’t break.”
”You ever known a man that trashed his first rack?”
I bend down and untie the rope.
”Whatcha think, Ruth-Ann, keep the antlers?” he says.
”They’re cute,” she says.
”That’s how it’ll be, then. Hand me that knife,” Lee says.
I do; he flicks the blood off. It spatters on the pine needles. I take hold of the hind ankles; Lee takes the antlers.
”Grab my rifle,” he says.
Ruth-Ann runs the strap on her shoulder. We lift and set off. Lee stops.
”Lookit there,” he says and nods.
There’s a pine over my shoulder with two buzzards on a limb standing next to each other watching us — turkey buzzards with bald heads.
She twists her neck and keeps going.
While we walk a dank smell rises from the carcass. The broken ribs curve down into the spine, and blood sticks between my fingers.
We come to the edge of the woods by a flat. Ruth-Ann drops the rifle and walks back into the woods.
”Where’re you going?” Lee says.
”To squat on a log,” she says.
We set down the deer; I clap hair off my hands and walk over to where Ruth-Ann set Lee’s rifle and pick it up and shoulder it. I look through the scope across the clearing at the truck and camper.
”You got them shells I gave you?” Lee says.
”Yeah,” I say.
”Lemme see them.”
I bring the gun down and lean it against a tree. Lee takes the shells.
We stand over the deer. A cold breeze comes across the clearing. Birds fly around the perimeter trees. The sky is capped with textured grey clouds, and wind blows against our faces.
Ruth-Ann stomps back, takes up the gun, and sets off across the flat. We carry the deer along the edge so our boots don’t sink. About halfway back we pause to breathe a minute and stretch. We lay the deer down and it’s back gets slicked with mud.
Ruth-Ann beat us to the rig, left her boots on the stepping stool, and went inside. The gun stands propped on its barrel against the trailer. We set down the corpse; and Lee takes his rifle and wracks shells from the bolt.
”Get your gun,” he says.
Inside, Ruth-Ann is lying in bed but isn’t asleep. She doesn’t pay me attention, and I take my rifle from my mattress.
Lee is at the truck leaning in the passenger side, and the bench seat is pulled forward. He’s stashing his rifle behind it. Mine goes back there too, and he brings out a filet knife.
”Skin that buck for me,” he says.
Underneath the seat is a hack saw. He takes it to the skull. Hair and bone catch in the teeth until it's brain. The saw is dull; the teeth are worn, and it moves slowly, but the antlers come free.
Lee holds them up; I nod.
”First rack,” he says. “Been hunting too long and gotten too old to just now bag my first rack.”
I roll the deer on its back, and he drops the antlers in the truck’s bed.
”Saw the feet off,” I say.
I cut back the skin off the ribs. The inside of the pelt is white, and diaphanous layers of red meat stick against it. Lee takes the ankles and throws them through the brush to the field. I slice up the forelegs and peel back — putting my weight in it, stretching and forcing the skin off.
”Get the head,” I say.
Lee starts sawing.
We’re working on the ground; the meat picks up gravel and dirt.
Lee carries the head by an ear. He chucks it through the brush onto the edge of the flat. It splashes in the water and sticks in the mud.
Once the hide is free the meat is naked on the ground.
”There’s a cooler I got inside, grab that for me,” I say.
I throw the pelt aside.
”Yeah, a cooler.”
”Where’d you get a cooler?”
”I found it. Now grab it out for me.”
Lee goes into the trailer.
Quartering the forelegs takes pulling them from the ribcage and slicing the meat. Then they come free. There’s a bullet hole in both shoulders. It went right through. The meat is ruined. On the surface is a bubbly membrane that won’t scrape off.
Lee is in the trailer. I hear him talking, and I hear pans and beer cans being set on the metal floor. His low voice drones on a minute longer. I can’t tell what is being said. Ruth-Ann is speaking too. They’re talking low and trying to talk over each other.
“Okay...Okay…” Lee says loudly, like he wants me to hear.
The door opens and slams back, and he sets the cooler on the gravel. Then he stands there a second while I work.
”You found this thing?” he says.
”I took it.”
Lee chuckles and takes out a can of chaw; he packs it against his leg and then squeezes the sides until the lid pops off.
”I saw this guy walking by just after the sun came up. Followed where he came from and found his campsite,” I say.
I turn the carcass on its stomach, and I run the blade down the spine and cut the back-straps out. They’re lean and have dirt on them. I brush them off and drop them in the cooler. Lee spits loose tobacco and looks down at me working.
”I wonder how he found the land,” he says.
”His daddy probably owns it.”
”He on his own?”
”How many fellas did ya see out camping?” he says.
I twist the hind leg in the socket and pull it. Then I plant my foot on the spine and jerk. With the filet knife I loosen the joint from the socket.
”We ain’t got room in the cooler with them fore quarters,” I say. “Can you take them out?”
Lee doesn’t say anything.
“They ain’t in good shape anyways—”
”Casey,” he says. “How many were out camping?”
“I only seen the one. But there was three tents. Now chuck those fore quarters and make some room,” I say.
I look at him; he's stroking his beard, covering his mouth with his hand. There’s blood dried on his fingers, but it doesn’t spread to his face. He’s looking past me, over my shoulder.
I carve out the tenderloins on either side of the spine.
Lee takes a step closer.
”You didn’t hurt no one, did you?” he says.
Still kneeled down, holding tenderloin in my hand, I look for fat and gristle, but there isn’t any. I stick my thumb into the meat.
”I didn’t do nothing to anyone,” I say.
He stands there silent and not moving, looking down at me.
”I didn’t hurt anyone, Lee. Take them quarters out,” I say.
Lee spits and lets his hand fall from his hips, and he digs the fore quarters out. He holds them just below the cut in the ankle, where the bone juts out.
Out ahead of him is the wide mud slick; he’s blank — doesn’t smile or frown — and stares at it, and then he hurls the legs out to the mud. They snap through the tree branches and hit the mud. I cut a slit between two ribs and stick my hand in. I carry the carcass off the road and drop it in a rut of water.
The clouds are in and grey, and thunder turns in the sky, rumbling and shaking.
“I can’t make sense of why you’re already pulling stunts and thieving, like you don’t care if you get took back.”
I don’t speak.
“We ain’t but fifty miles away… Your sister would wring my neck if I couldn’t get you home before you got locked up again.”
Lee chuckles. I do too.
“She probably would,” I say.
Lee turns from the field and looks at me.
”You know, Casey, you’re gonna have to get me that ax you filched,” he says.
”Ruth-Ann say something?”
“Don’t matter if she did.”
I look down at the deer. It’s sunk into the ditch and the ribs are sticking out of the water. Lee’s watching me and waiting on me to do something.
“I’ll give it back when we get down to Yemassee. But Ruth-Ann, you know… she don’t really know you, and she’s kiddish about things… I ain't taking it, just putting it away till we get home. She’s a little afraid, you know, all of us sleeping in there at night...”
He holds his palms up.
“I tried talking to her, but—“
”Don’t blame this on Ruth-Ann,” I say.
Holding the snuff can, he’s clicking the lid on and off again.
“I just need to hang onto it. Just until we get to Yemassee.”
I go past him and into the trailer, and it’s dark; Ruth-Ann has let down the curtains, which are pieces of cloth nailed over the windows. Light comes around them enough to see outlines of things like you can when the sun’s just coming up.
Ruth-Ann’s covered up in blankets on her bed. There’s a pillow lying over her face. Outside, Lee is rolling the moldy awning in. It’s loud and I can hear it inside. I sit down on the edge of my mattress and stretch my legs out. I take the ax from the blanket and hold it out with both hands and wave it up and down, like I’m chopping a tree. It’s heavy but balanced.
I pull the sheath off and look at the steel in the low light. It’s never been used; there’s not a mark on the blade. It’s clean and pure still, polished and shiny and big enough to bring down trees but small enough to carry; and the blade’s sharp and could shave off limbs and knots. I knit my fingers around the grip. Then I stand.
”What’re you doing?” Ruth-Ann says.
She’s on her elbows craning her neck forward; she holds sheets to her chest.
”What’re you doing with that axe, Casey?”
She sits up and pushes against the wall. Her legs are folded over her chest, and she hugs her knees.
I don’t say anything; I don’t want to. What I say wouldn’t mean anything to her. What I say about myself means nothing.
I won’t; I can’t; I wouldn’t—
Outside, the ignition turns over.
I don’t; I never; I didn’t—
“Lemme alone,” she says.
I say nothing and step forward—
“Lee!” She shouts
Between the truck and the trailer exhaust seeps up.
“Just as soon as we get home, Casey… I’ll get it back to you.”
Lee sits in the driver’s side, but he gets out and walks around the hood. He takes it.
“Damn, Casey, this thing’s got a good weight to it...”
He holds it and looks at me, and then lays it beside the guns and snaps the bench seat back.
“We ain’t all that far from Yemassee. Might be getting there in just a day or so. Depending on how the truck does.”
He’s waiting on me to say something. Maybe to assure him that I’m not angry or upset, but I can’t think of anything to say.
I turn around and walk to the edge of the road. The filet knife lies in the weeds against the gravel. It’s got blood and hair stuck to it. I pick it up and then scan over the field before we go, before the rain starts, before I get in the trailer. The sunlight of midday is muted to look almost like dusk.
The camper door comes open and slams back. Ruth-Ann comes out and is dressed and jumps in the truck. She pulls the door shut, and the window’s open; she rests her arm out of it. I can see her looking at me in the rear view. I nod; she turns her eyes.
”All right, Casey,” Lee says.
I turn around. He’s sliding the cooler inside. Blood has run down the sides and dried. He holds the door open.
I step slowly. Gravel crunches beneath my boots. I give Lee the knife while I step in.
I fold the curtains back up so I can watch the light and shadows on the curved ceiling while we drive. The truck hiccups into gear and lurches forward. I stand and watch out of the window the trees and pastures pass until Lee turns onto the main road. Then I lie down.
Ross McWaters is the Editor-in-Chief of McCoy’s Monthly.