Read Steven Hunter Short Stories Online
Enclosed for your enjoyment are several pieces of short fiction.With the exception of the last,'The Broken Heron' which is a sad story, the rest will surely put a smile on your face.
Short Stories (** As published in BC Outdoors Magazine)Smiles are Free**
Humour from the BC Cariboo Outdoors
Steven Hunter writes a regular column that appears in ‘BC Outdoors’ magazine several times a year. The ones marked with an asterisk have been published between 2012 – 2015.
As they appear here all of these works are the original and unabridged versions.
Look for the next yarn in BC Outdoors Sept/Oct 2015 edition – “A Canadian Tail” or read it here later in the fall.
It was two AM on a crackling crisp October night. Dan Maclean stood on his sundeck leaning on the railing peering out into the night, naked, empty wine bottle in hand. The ruckus had started minutes ago when he heard slamming and banging below the bedroom window under the deck near the freezer. He scanned the yard with a dim flashlight beam and made out the dark shape of a black bear happily engaged in tossing the contents of their deep freeze around the yard. Dan went straight for the bedroom door, stubbing his toe on a chair. Cursing under his breath, trying not to wake his wife Esther, he shut the door behind him and began turning on lights.
Out on the sundeck, with the frosty air nipping at his extremities, he leaned over the railing above the freezer, sternly reprimanded the little bruin and ordered him off the property.
“ Get the hell outa that freezer and beat it!” he yelled. “ Put that down! Get outa there!”
The bear seemed to understand the tone and sentiment of the command and he calmly took his prize around to the north side of the house, where the deck stairs met the lawn. There he sat, at the foot of the stairs beside an old Northern Cottonwood with his back to Dan who was now shouting from a perch at the deck railing directly above the unwelcome diner.
Unaccustomed as he was to throwing wine bottles, empty or full, and perhaps it was that good sense suddenly struck him, his aim was off. The bottle landed with a thunk beside the target and rolled out into the night.
The bear seemed not to notice the bouncing bottle. He may have even been somewhat amused by it.
What kind of fool would try to brain a black bear less than twenty feet away with an empty bottle of Pinot Noir, Dan thought.
He picked out a juice jar from the recycling bin just the same, for protection. Dan was still only half awake.
He finally realized that his shouting wasn’t doing any good. The bear wasn’t going anywhere until he finished his snack.
Not being used to all of the attention though he grew a bit nervous and suddenly hauled himself a few feet up into the Cottonwood. The treed prowler was now eye to eye with Dan who was about fifteen feet away on the deck. The bear eyes that met Dan’s were absolutely expressionless. They weren’t like dumb cow eyes that bulge at you as they block your way on a bush road and they didn’t glare like an angry cat. They simply betrayed no thoughts.
“ What’s on your mind,” said Dan. “ Am I safe? I’m really hungry. Should I fight? Should I run? Should I stay in this tree til that guy goes back to bed? Should I ignore him and eat my fish?”
“ Hey I know you,” said Dan. “ You’ve been here before. You’ve been coming to this yard for at least three years now.”
Dan recalled the signs that had been evident around his house for the last two weeks: shrubs stripped of young branches, scat, and worst of all a limb torn off his only producing apple tree.
The year before he had shown up in mid afternoon and charged around the yard aimlessly, kind of panicking one second and then back to bear business the next. He’d climbed up into a young tree with branches much too small to hold him, thrashed around for a few seconds and then fell a few feet to the ground. Then he left. It had to be the same bear. It looked like him and he had that same quirky way about him.
As Dan studied those bear eyes trying to figure out the thoughts that lay behind them, he began to have thoughts of his own.
Why do we fight with the things that are the very reason that we live here? How is this little guy supposed to know that he can’t just help himself to a deep freeze? Why are we so quick to assign character and intent, good or bad, and treat things as though they were either pests or guests, one or the other? Those garden bandits, those deer. That cocky squirrel chasing our treasured Grosbeaks and Goldfinches from the feeder.
We’re so quick to judge from our own small perspective instead of from the grand scheme. We’re so ready to lash out at things we don’t understand and to perpetrate aggression of a magnitude far greater than the perceived offence. Dan remembered a bumper sticker he once saw in Phoenix,
“ I don’t dial 911. I dial a .357”
Dan couldn’t see how a handgun could save anyone if they fell in the bathtub and hit their head but the message was plain enough. A robbery justifies a shooting, if you’re the one being robbed, at least in the eyes of some.
Dan’s thoughts continued to the next level. He couldn’t seem to stop them. The bear just loafed in the crook of two poplar limbs.
It seems that out of ignorance or fear we jump to the worst possible scenario to justify aggressive acts toward mindin’ their own business bears or anything else for that matter.
He recalled the narrow escape of a porcupine recently as it waddled through the neighbour’s yard. The neighbour had raced in search of his rifle and ammunition. Then there was the customary phone call to Dan to announce that the shooting was about to begin, just enough time for the porcupine to rattle its quills to safety deeper into the adjacent woods.
“ Shoot a porcupine,” Dan said aloud, to the bear actually. “ Why would anybody want to shoot a porcupine? Call the dog and put it in the house. Wait til the porcupine goes away…..”
Dan could feel himself being drawn deeper and deeper into his own mind, not the bear’s. That mystery remained in the Cottonwood.
People do things to each other for those same reasons don’t they, thought Dan, out of ignorance and misplaced judgment. Human beings seems to have a knack for finding their way to prejudice and to justifying violent acts. It’s rare that we react to unforeseen or surprising events with acceptance or appreciation.
There was noise coming from the house. Esther was up and calling his name. Dan’s mind abruptly returned to the moment.
“ So how about it Bruno?” he said. “ Why don’t you just come down, finish your midnight treat, and hit the road.”
With that the bear shinnied down the tree trunk and resumed his snack, lips smacking as he tore the shrink wrapping off of what turned out to be a tuna filet. He sat down and was devouring the fish when Esther arrived at the scene.
“ Dan,” she said loudly. “ What are you doing out here like that in the freezing cold.”
“ We had a bear in the freezer, and, uh, there it is, eating,” he said.
Now it was Esther’s turn “ Hey you, get outa here! Go on, get the hell outa here!”
“ Aw, just leave him alone,” said Dan. “ He’ll leave when he’s done.”
“ I’m not feedin’ no furry thievin’ bears!” Esther yelled.
She went back into the kitchen and came out with two pots and their lids.
“ Here,” she said, “ start makin’ some noise”
The pot banging and shouting reached a new level of racket and it clamored out into the night surrounding the dining bear. He finished his filet, took a look back toward the freezer, and decided to go back up the tree.
“ What are you doin?” Esther shouted. “ Come down and get out of here!”
“ It doesn’t seem to do any good Esther,” said Dan “ The more you yell the longer he just sits and stares at you.”
“ Stares at us! Cut it out!” she yelled.
“ Maybe he thinks it’s funny, you know, two naked people on a sun deck in the middle of the night yelling,” said Dan.
“ It’s not right,” said Esther still shouting. “ The next thing you know we’ll have Yogi here sneaking around trying to filch a handout every night.”
“ What do you mean, ‘ What’s not right?’
“ I didn’t say anything,” said Dan.
She said, “What’s not right is that it’s stealing and it scares me to have a bear lurking around the yard at night.”
“ What does a bear know about stealing and are you really afraid of him? Just look at him,” said Dan.
Now it was Esther’s turn to catch the dull gaze of the little bear in the tree.
Silence fell over them both and it lasted for a full minute until Dan said,
“ Esther, are you having thoughts?”
“ Well, sort of,” she said.
“ What were you thinkin’about?” asked Dan.
“ I was just thinkin’ about the time, and don’t ask me how it came to mind, that I stuck my head out of the window of the pickup and yelled at some guy who didn’t notice that the lights had turned green. Then I wondered how that guy might have felt with me yelling at him like that, stupid, angry? Why would I want to make somebody feel stupid and angry just ‘cause I had to wait a couple of seconds before they drove off. Then I thought what if he’d had a seizure or a stroke and there I am yelling at him. How stupid would I look?
There was a pause and Dan watched her.
“ Then I remembered the time, I’ll never forget this,” said Esther “ in grade three, a teacher yelled at me and put me in the corner for breaking some crazy rule or other. I had to pee so bad. I tried to tell him but he just kept shushing me saying to knock it off if I ever wanted to get out of that corner.”
“I peed my pants. Can you believe it! I ran out of the school and cried all the way home. You can imagine what the other kids did to me after that. And he never even said he was sorry.”
“ Ugh, that criminal,” said Dan “ Yeah, how often does that happen where someone abuses their authority and then abuses it again by thinking they’re above owning up to their mistake.”
“ Aghh! All right, all right.” Esther proclaimed. “ Just get down outa that tree and gwan outa here. There’s plenty of other freezers in these parts so don’t come back picking on ours. And tell your furry friends too. This yard is off limits.”
About a minute went by in silence, their eyes fixed on each other’s. Then the bear slid down the tree trunk again and ambled away into the night around back of the garden. They heard a loud splash as he jumped in the lake and swam away.
Dan and Esther surveyed the damage, which surprisingly wasn’t all that bad.
“ Just throw this stuff back in the freezer and I’ll take a good look in the morning,” said Esther.
Soon they were back in bed.
“ He’ll be back,” said Esther.
“Chasin’ bears makes no sense,” said Dan. “ I’ll move the freezer into the basement,”
He tried to sleep but pots were still ringing in his ears.
By the time Jack Jenkins heard the caterwauling coming from the lake it was nearly too late. He stood on his back porch listening to the bawling. Three of his cows, all ready to calve, had wandered out onto the spring ice and broken through. The thaw was early that year.
He stuffed himself into his boots, snatched up his jacket and hat and ran to the tractor shed where he grabbed a rope and fired up his snow machine.
At the scene things did not look good. One of the animals was already done for and the other two were fading, too weak to holler. It took him five tosses before he finally got a loop around the nearest cow’s head. He threw the rope over a limb on a nearby tree for lift and hauling down on it he was able to hold the poor thing’s head above water for a few seconds while he tied up to the snowmobile. With the engine whining and the cow struggling with the last of her strength he dragged her onto the shore where she lay gasping and wheezing. Shock would set in. Jack knew that but she might get over it.
He decided to go back to back to the house and finish his coffee. The cow would either recover or she wouldn’t. There wasn’t anything else he could do. He’d check on her in an hour or so. He’d probably find the other two drifted up onto the shore somewhere in a few weeks and he’d deal with them then.
Sitting at the kitchen table Jack reflected on how utterly alone he felt these days. His wife Beverly had finally lost her long battle with cancer last year. One of his sons was in Chile with his young family, working for a mining company. The other son was in the oil patch in northern Alberta. He was on his own on the family ranch in the Cariboo.
He and Beverly and the boys had led a good life there on the ranch for thirty years or so. He now realized how much Beverly had taken on the job of holding things together for them, things like their social fabric: friends, hall dances, and busy kids. She’d been the glue.
Now it was like living on a deserted island.
He wondered then what it would be like if something happened to him out there beyond all earshot. Well, best not to think about things like that.
The next day Jack drove to town to report the incident of the two cows going in the lake to the Resource Management office. In all likelihood they wouldn’t be too concerned but he needed a break from the place and somebody beside himself to talk to. The Dog and Suds coffee shop was always a good source of news and conversation.
Arriving there Jack ran into Frank Sutton, a fellow rancher, and the talk quickly turned to hunting. Years ago Jack had been an avid bird hunter. Frank still was. He told Jack about this new breed of bird dog from South Africa that he had heard about called a Highland Red Spaniel. It was one of the few breeds of Spaniels that would point as well as fetch and they were reported to have an excellent temperament, very trainable.
“You know Frank,” said Jack. “ Maybe that’s just what I need to do right now, get myself a bird dog and take up hunting again. I could sure use the company.”
That evening Jack sat with the weekly paper he’d picked up in town. He looked over at the old blanket behind the woodstove. He had left it there to keep the memories warm and as a tribute to the retriever that had occupied it on so many winter nights.
Good old Bessie, he thought. I sure miss that old gal. He continued to reminisce about Bessie and he thought about the conversation with Frank.
He opened the paper to the classifieds and scanned it for dogs. Amazingly, coincidentally, there they were, Highland Red Spaniels.
He dialed the number and a man answered.
“ Are you the fella with the add in the paper for those Red Spaniels?” Jack asked.
“ Yep,” said the man. “ Brought in a breeding pair a couple of years ago. I got a litter on the way and I’ve also got a couple of young ones about a year old. You hunt birds?”
“ Not fer a long time but I’m thinkin’ about takin’ it up again,” said Jack.
“ Oh you’ll like these dogs,” said the man, “ nice and low key for a Spaniel but real sharp. The young ones are trained a bit and they’re already starting to perform.”
“ How much for one of those young dogs?” asked Jack.
“ I’d like $500 for one of them,” he said.
“ Okay I’ll take one,” said Jack. Whereabouts are you?”
“ I’m down near Nakusp, where are you?”
Jack jotted down the directions, which were typical for rural locations: third cattle guard past a bridge over a small creek, turn left, half a mile up a narrow road there’s a gate…
“ Okay, I’ll try to make it there next Saturday,” said Jack.
By the time Jack hung up the phone he was already feeling better. He’d taken a step, not a huge one, but at least he was doing something to climb out of the hole he was in.
Jack’s brother lived near Salmon Arm. He hadn’t been to Walter’s place for years. Walter had come up for the funeral but that had been a brief visit. Things were pretty sad at the ranch then.
Walter hunted pheasant. They were abundant in the brush and thickets around Salmon Arm. Jack called him and told him about going to Nakusp to pick up his new dog. On the way back he’d stop in for a visit. It wasn’t pheasant season but maybe they could go out and Walter could show him the kind of places to spot them, give the dog a run and see how he worked the bush.
Jack set out early on Saturday. It was a long drive to Nakusp. By mid afternoon he found himself on the twisting back roads of the West Kootenays. He knew he must be close but darn there were a lot of bridges over small creeks and he couldn’t seem to find the right number of cattle guards within the distance he’d been given. He’d come this far. He couldn’t give up now. Finally the signs lined up and sure enough there was a left turn up a bush road that led to a gate. Going through the gate, and closing it behind him, he drove for a minute or so until he came to a house. Half a dozen dogs charged the pickup surrounding him with a racket of country charm.
A fellow appeared on the porch and shushed the dogs.
“ Afternoon,” he said. “ What’s up?”
“ I called last week,” said Jack. “I’ve come down for the dog. I brought cash with me.”
“ Right, I wasn’t sure if you were going to make it. Come on in. Which one did you want?”
“ One of those year old males,” said Jack.
“ Well, those two over there are brothers,” said the tall, long haired disheveled dog breeder. “ That one there I call Mars and that one over there is Jupiter.”
What kind of dog names are those, thought Jack. Oh well, it was the Kootenays.
Both of the dogs had the same rust coloured matted fur.
“ They sure don’t look like any Spaniels I’ve seen,” said Jack.
The lanky fellow shrugged his shoulders.
“ Okay,” said Jack “ I’ll take that one, Jupiter. Kind of reminds me of a distant cousin of mine. He’s kind of, ah, out there if you know what I mean.”
“ I don’t really follow you,” the guy said. “ Would you like a cup of coffee or something?”
“ Thanks but I’d like to make it to my brother’s in Salmon Arm tonight if I can. Here’s your money.”
“ All right, thank you very much,” said the man who was still on the porch. He came down then, took the money and they shook hands. “ Yeah, you better not waste any time. You’ll have to hurry to make the last ferry from Galena Bay.”
Jack held out an open palm to Jupiter who was wary of him at first. Jack patted his head and rubbed him behind the ears and Jupiter melted. When he saw the sweeping underhand gesture inviting him to jump into the cab he became ecstatic. In a bound he was on the front seat bouncing and bucking and shaking his head with joy.
As Jack drove off the fellow gave him a casual two-fingered wave, or maybe it was a peace sign. It didn’t matter. Jack had his dog.
Jack and Jupiter arrived late at Walter’s, about 11 PM. There was only time for a quick nightcap and a few minutes of catching up before bed. Walter seemed to have some reservations about Jupiter but he didn’t say anything. He was glad that his brother seemed so pleased with his new dog.
The next morning Jack and Walter woke to a wagging and refreshed Spaniel, one that had been busy for quite some time. There was a mound in the middle of the carpet worthy of a well fed grizzly. Pieces of a paperback Walter had almost finished lay strewn around the living room and one of his favourite slippers had been mutilated.
“ This has got to be an outside dog Jack,” he grumbled
“ I suppose that would be wise,” said Jack. “ I’m glad to learn that on your account though……just kidding.”
Out on their walk the morning had a feel of reluctance to it: spring not knowing if it was finally time to show up and winter still hanging around.
Jupiter enjoyed himself immensely: storming the lightly forested ravines, lunging at clumps of brown grass one minute and the next racing the wind until almost out of sight.
“ That’s a real fine dog you got there,” said Walter. “Great spirit, real enthusiastic. Might have to work on his range a bit though.”
“ It appears so,” said Jack. “ I’m looking forward to workin’ with him though.”
Jack arrived home late in the afternoon that day. Jupiter scrambled out of the pickup, took a quick look and without wasting a split second put the run on Jack’s cat, Beverly’s cat actually. Harmonica was the living breathing heart and soul of the memory of his deceased wife. She cherished that cat. She worshipped that cat. Having the cat around the house at night in a way kept Beverly close to Jack. When he looked at her on these late winter evenings he pictured his wife on her overstuffed easy chair, with the lamp down low reading a magazine, Harmonica purring on her lap.
Harmonica, didn’t know what hit her. She went down, a tumbling ball of spitting, yowling fur. Then she sprang up and socked Jupiter on the end of his nose, abruptly ending the introduction. Without more than a yelp of hesitation Jupiter continued his frenzied recon of the barnyard.
Jack thought it was kind of strange that he didn’t pay any attention to the free range chickens getting jittery over by the garden. You’d think a bird dog would notice them.
The assault continued into the house. Jupiter went straight for the sofa and lifted his leg on the arm. Then he proceeded to wolf down Harmonica’s bowl of cat food.
Jack sat down in the living room with a beer, suddenly skeptical.
“ C’mere,” he said “ C’mere right now.”
Jupiter came over and grabbed Jack’s wrist playfully spilling his drink.
“ Knock it off Jupee!”
He began to wonder if this whole thing had been a mistake. Maybe a dog wasn’t what he needed, or at least not this one. He was supposed to be calm and attentive, not a one dog wrecking crew. Poor Harmonica. She wouldn’t show up for a week.
The next morning Jack went out to check on his cows. Jupiter was with him, on the job, front feet up on the dash looking out through the windshield. It was a sunny, promising spring morning. A family of grouse pecked their way through the gravel on the side of the lane.
Jack stopped the pickup to let Jupiter out. He leaped out of the cab and promptly put the run on the small flock scattering them into the trees. He didn’t even slow down, let alone make any kind of a point.
This concerned Jack even more so he decided to walk with the dog for a few minutes. That was just fine with Jupiter. He ran off down the road almost out of sight and bailed over the bank. Jack heard him sloshing through the creek coming back toward him and he emerged nearby covered in mud.
Back at the barnyard hunched over the snow machine doing some maintenance Jack heard a commotion nearby in the pasture. His favourite horse Bonanza was going bananas: bucking, running and kicking up his heels. Jupiter had chomped onto his tail and was swinging in the wind on it. Bonanza could look after himself but it didn’t improve Jack’s opinion of his new dog at all.
That night Jupiter lay tuckered out on the blanket behind the old wood cook stove. Jack looked at him and suddenly he missed Bessie a lot. But he thought he should give the dog a chance. Maybe he’d grow up and settle down.
The phone rang. He thought he recognized the voice.
“ Hey there,” the voice said. “ When are you comin’ to pick up your dog? I thought you’d be here last weekend.”
Jack didn’t say a word as the truth slowly turned and faced him. He put down the phone and sat alone with his new dog, the biggest idiot on the planet. There was no one to blame but himself. He’d never get his money back from that con artist bush road mutt monger and beside it would cost as much in gas to go back there and get it. Suddenly he was a lonely man again, but not just lonely. He felt like a complete fool.
Harmonica walked into the kitchen. Jupiter’s tail whacked the floor behind the woodstove.
Jupiter was going to the pound. Jack decided he didn’t need the galloping headaches of the rambunctious and unclassified hound as well as the constant reminder of how stupid he’d been.
He’d kept the dog around for a while to give him a chance but nothing much changed. He’d grown to like him a little but not enough to withstand the problems he caused. He thought it would be better to just put it all behind him.
Spring was heading into mid May by the time he was to deliver the life sentence to Jupiter. Blackbirds squawked and whistled. The ice was off the lake. Calving was done. Why not take the dog out for a last run, to kind of say goodbye to him.
The sun was bright and the warm air was host to the odd mosquito. Jack threw his tin boat in the back of the pickup and off they went to the nearest early trout lake. Jupiter rode shotgun, paws up on the dash.
Out in the boat Jupiter became strangely calm. He sniffed at the loons cruising nearby and fixed his eyes on a cow moose with a calf browsing on the shore across the water. They were alone on the flat lake. Jack set up and started trolling a fly and broke out a sandwich. He handed half to Jupiter. For some reason the dog declined. He seemed to be too preoccupied with the lake. Jack noticed an intensity and focus that he had never seen in him before.
As Jack sat back with one hand on his fly rod and the other on his ham sandwich the strangest thing happened. Jupiter, up in the bow of the boat, froze setting a perfect point: tail straight back, left front foot lifted bent at the wrist, black nose pointing down into the water just ahead off the port side.
Jack couldn’t believe what he was seeing but he aimed the boat in the direction of Jupiter’s point. As he passed over the spot, the dog turned and looked at him. Pow! Jack’s Rod doubled over. It wasn’t anything like the finicky tapping of sleepy young trout that he was used to on this lake. This guy was big and headed for town.
Five minutes later Jack had the tired fish slipping through the water toward his net. When the big rainbow was almost in the net Jupiter leaned out over the water and gently grabbed the fish just behind the gills. He lifted it out of the water, turned and presented it to Jack placing it into his outstretched hands like he had done it a thousand times before.
Astonished, Jack took the fish and removed the hook. He leaned over the side and released it, unharmed by the dog’s teeth.
They repeated this feat three more times that day. Oddly, all of the rainbows were big. Jack had never seen fish that size in this lake before.
On the way home Jupiter didn’t stand on the dash or clown around. He sat beside Jack, calm and alert. From that day on he was a different dog. There was an end to the reckless and defiant acts.
Something changed that day for both of them.
As time went by their mutual respect grew and they became good friends. Jack didn’t feel alone anymore.
Jupiter got his own woodstove blanket. Most nights he lay there, Harmonica curled up purring beside him.Jupiter never pointed at a trout less than four pounds.
Goose was missing. Kenny Daniels sat poking a sharpened stick at the fire in his hunting camp dejected and disgusted with himself. He knew better than to get angry and shout at his dog. His undocumented, one of a kind, slobbering sort of St. Bernard, Goose, had a huge heart and would do anything for him. The poor thing was now suffering somewhere in the bush in self imposed exile for incurring the wrath of his master. Deeds he’d at first deemed heroic later had been judged a disaster. Now, somewhere, the spruce forest that surrounded the camp harboured a dog living with acute shame, too sad to heed the pleas from Kenny and his girlfriend Rachel to come back.
Up until then life had taken a turn for the good for Kenny Daniels. Coming out of a couple of years of bad luck and layoffs in the logging industry he’d finally landed a pretty good gig at a new mine in the area. It was a camp job but it paid well. His bills were caught up and he’d managed to scrape together enough to buy a jet boat, just right for hunting trips on Francois Lake or fishing up tributaries of the Skeena.
Then along came Rachel, whom he had known as a kid but who had left their little town years ago. Suddenly, there she was back and in his life. She was adventurous, loved dogs,and had a good sense of humour. Now here was potential.
So it was with great optimism that Kenny decided to take Rachel and Goose on their first moose hunting excursion. The previous day in a cool mist of rain with the possibility of snow in the forecast Kenny stood at the helm of his jet boat, hair straight back in the wind flying up the lake. Rachel huddled under a blanket trying to stay out of the slobber blowing from the ecstatic Goose’s jowls. Kenny’s favourite camp was about an hour away at an old log sort.
They had the place to themselves that night. Nothing like night sounds at a wilderness lake: fire crackling, gentle waves lapping the shore, loons. Rachel snuggled Kenny on a log by the fire. Goose lay beside them chirping occasionally, having giant dog dreams.
There was no way Rachel wanted to see anything get shot. She was strictly there for the camping and the meals to follow.
The next morning Kenny set out alone in the dark. There was frost on the jet boat and on the quad loaded up front in the cargo area. It took him longer to get to his spot, get the quad unloaded and drive for three kilometers than it took for the actual hunt.
No more than ten minutes up the overgrown logging trail there he stood, a big eight point bull. In the dim light of the grey morning it took Kenny only two shots to bring down and finish off his moose.
Just before noon he waved at the camp grinning and triumphant. The crowd cheered, well, kind of. Rachel hoorayed. Goose pranced up and down the beach like a steer on drugs.
Kenny powered the jet boat up onto the shore and began to unload his cargo. Rachel took a deep breath and pitched in, trooper that she was, helping to haul the quartered moose up to camp where they spread it out on a tarp. Over the half hour that this took Goose kept his distance. He was fascinated but fearful. He whined and growled and barked a bit, occasionally leaning in for a sniff. Kenny lowered the heavy antlered head onto the tarp.
“Boogadah, boogadah, boogadah!” he hollered at Goose who tucked in his tail and ran for his life. He stopped just inside the perimeter of trees that circled the camp and studied his situation.
Rachel laughed “Do I run? Do I fight? Do I try to be its friend?”
Kenny guffawed and began skinning his moose. Once he’d finished he sliced two huge tenderloins, about ten pounds each. He laid them out and rolled them up in some paper.
“We’ll take half of one of these tasty bits and give the rest out to family. Will you keep an eye on this Rachel. I should go back for the quad before it gets dark.”
Off he went.
Not really grasping the inclination of certain poachers like coyotes, ravens and eagles to relish an offering of this sort lying there in full view Rachel retired to the tent with a magazine. After ten minutes or so she took a look and all seemed to be in order. No Goose to be seen though.
She picked up a pail and set out to the lake for water. As she stood on a rock and leaned out trying get the cleanest water a calamity broke loose. A hideous roar stormed from camp to the shore. Terrified but duty bound she dropped the bucket and hustled up the trail wondering just how many grizzlies had shown up. The snarling was vicious and a terrible battle raged.
As she neared the camp all went still. Using extreme caution she peered out from behind a tree.
“Goose!” she hollered. “Goose! Bad dog! Get out of there!”
Goose looked up at her from the middle of the disarrayed and mangled partially butchered moose limbs, the last of the twenty pounds of tenderloin dangling from his jaws.
It didn’t go well when Kenny returned. An out and out brawl broke out between man and dog. He held Goose by the scruff of his flabby neck pushing his nose in on the broken antlered head of the moose, chastising him.
And then, to make matters worse,
“I thought you were going to keep an eye on things!”
So that was that. Rachel stomped off, ripped open the zipper to the tent and cinched it back up tight. Message delivered.
Goose slinked away, burping and farting, to find sanctuary in the wilderness haven, nurse his savaged feelings and sleep off his feast.
Kenny, dejected and disgusted with himself, poked his stick into the fire long into the night. He eventually joined Rachel. There’d never been so much room in that tent before.
Breakfast was chilly on all fronts. The ice was finally broken when Goose, sheepish but hopeful, limped into camp with a dozen or so porcupine quills stuck in the end of his snout. He allowed the essential first aid and then curled up by the fire.
They salvaged a few pounds of moose meat, broke camp and were ready to head home by noon. When they were in the cab of the pickup with Goose happily riding in the back seat, still farting, Rachel looked at Kenny.
“You know, you got to learn how to not mess up a good thing.”
“Aw, I’m really sorry Rachel. Don’t worry, I can get us an elk.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about.
I’m sending you an entry for your contest titled ‘Fibs and Follies of Woods Wise Women’.
It’s a first date story. Nothing like a true account of an inaugural encounter with a male of the same species, gone south.
I suppose it’s not all that unusual for a first date to involve some activity in the great outdoors. It began by strapping on a pair of new hiking boots, bundling up for fall weather and hauling myself up into a 4 by 4 pickup beside a handsome fellow I’d recently met. A hunting we will go.
The air was crisp, fall colours were beautiful and the road was rough. He told me that logging trucks make a lot of ruts and pack the road down so hard that water stays in the ruts forever. Okay, well that explained the road conditions but not why we were hurtling through water filled mud holes at ridiculous speeds. If I hadn’t had my seatbelt on my head would have been pounding on the roof. The bigger the mud hole the harder he stomped on the gas. I later learned that his friends had nicknamed him Robby ‘Rambo’ Robillard.
About ten kilometers down the road the ‘force’ met the ‘immovable object’. Splat. We high centred in the mud with all four wheels churning uselessly. Water was up to the doors. All we had was a screw jack, which in one way seemed appropriate but it had absolutely no practical application to our predicament. We quickly realized our best bet was to walk out to the highway. There was still plenty of daylight. So we abandoned ship and began our hike.
“Why are you taking the gun,” I asked him.
“Why are you taking your purse?” he says.
The forest being a maze of bush roads we soon made a wrong turn. We walked for what seemed like hours until we hit the end of the road at an old landing.
“It’s okay Judy,” he says, “I think if we just cut through the bush that way we’ll come out on the mainline and there’s still time to walk out.”
“Do you think that’s really a good idea Robby?”
“Sure, sure, no problem.”
Well, the plan failed and we became hopelessly lost with no road of any kind in sight. Only if you’ve ever been lost in the woods can you comprehend the feelings that grip you. Panic and fear overcame me. I was so completely disoriented that I felt dizzy and sick to my stomach. I sat down on a log and began to cry.
‘Rambo’ Robillard did take charge at that point and we began collecting firewood. His matches had fallen in the water back at the ship. As foolish as the purse had seemed it was able to produce a lighter from its depths.
They say you shouldn’t sleep together on your first date. No problem. I was terrified by the sounds the night made. Then, in the gray hours approaching dawn, there were these shadowy shapes lurking in the trees, big ones.
“Robby, aren’t you going to shoot them?”
“Judy, those are cows.”
Finally there was light in the east and we figured out the general direction we should go. My feet hurt from my new boots, my eyes burned from smoke and lack of sleep and my hands were freezing. My purse, slung over my shoulder, felt like a ton.
It began to snow. On a good day it would have been lovely, the solitude of the forest with soft white flakes floating through the trees. But that day it was cold and wet and slippery.
Finally we stumbled out onto a road in full daylight and I burst into tears again. He put his arms around me, holding me close trying to warm me up. And then he gasped.
“Look,” he says, “There’s a sign.”
‘Gavin Lake Forestry Education Centre – Ski Trails – Map – You are here.’
He began to chuckle and I slugged him. Then he began to laugh. Soon we were both laughing and crying and hollering until our sides were bursting.
We noted our course from the map and began walking towards the camp. After another hour of blisters and wet snow he says,
“Listen, power saw, up ahead.”
Now I don’t know what went on in that poor woodcutter’s head; one second he’s happily working away and then he turns around and there’s a woman with a red leather purse draped over her shoulder and a guy with a hunting rifle coming at him. Who cares, we were rescued.
The thing is Steve, I wound up marrying ‘Rambo’. Our walk in the woods was over 25 years ago. Good things find their way to you from strange places don’t they.
Freddy the logger limo had seen better days. In his time the Cadillac of all crummies had been the trustworthy escort for many a man and his power saw, rumbling far and wide on mountain bush roads in the wee hours before the crack of dawn and home again as the sun set on snow capped peaks. The tired hulks of men jostled on the broad bench seats as they thundered through endless washboards and cavernous potholes, grizzled jaws sagging in a snooze or chawing on a plug of snoos. There was never a doubt that they would make it to and from the job site. Freddy was king of the back road.
Finally the long hard miles began to beckon the laws of Mother Nature. Gravity and corrosion took their toll. Freddy was put out to pasture. Luckily that pasture belonged to Jack Jenkins, widowed Cariboo rancher, whose knowing and capable hands renewed the vigour in the life of the old pickup. He cut away the rusted box and replaced it with the sturdiest planks his neighbour’s sawmill could provide, planted his old camper on the flat deck and cinched it down. A perfect fit. The motor purred and the heater still worked. He hitched up his ancient truck box trailer with the quad in it. Time to go out and bag some venison.
He set out around noon one chilly morning in late fall, his dog Jupiter on the seat beside him. He was dropping the dog off with Esther Wilcox down the road and he hoped to pick up a dozen eggs for breakfast. Her hens were the best around.
“Where do you think you’re going with that rolling pile of scrap yard junk?” says Esther.”
“Hey, don’t talk that way about my ride. I’m going hunting. I’ll be back tomorrow.”
“You’re kidding. Well, at least you’ve got sense enough to keep the dog out of it.”
“Can you spare some eggs Esther?”
“Sure, but you climb outa that thing and come in here and file a flight plan.”
“Nope, get in here and draw me a map. It’ll only take a minute. I’ll get your eggs.”
Long ago Esther had assigned herself the impossible task of preventing Jack Jenkins from doing anything stupid.
Grumbling, Jack knew she was right and climbed out to draw the map.
Handing him the eggs she said, “If anything happens don’t worry, stay with the truck and I’ll come and get you.”
He drove for about an hour before coming to a fork in the road. He took the fork opposite to the one he showed on the map. Can’t let a silly thing like a map interfere with a man’s intuition about where the bucks might be.
He found a campsite and unloaded the quad. He unhooked the trailer and parked Freddy on the flattest piece of ground he could find. He had no ‘E’ break so he just left old Freddy in gear. It was getting on in the afternoon so he packed up the four wheeler and roared off down an old skidder trail. About twenty minutes in the quad was handling badly. Flat tire. Oh well, he had a tire repair kit and it was still light enough to fix the flat.
“Aagh!” he yelled. “How could anybody be dumb enough to bring a repair kit but leave the pump in the camper.
It was an hour walk back to camp. By the time he made it there it was getting dark so he decided to fix the flat in the morning. He leaned across the cab and fished for the camper key in the glove box. He climbed up into the camper, shut the door and turned on the light. As he opened a can of beans Freddy hiccupped and he felt his rig jolt and slowly start to roll backwards. Before he could get to the door the camper slammed into something, probably a tree. Oh well, what’s one more dent. He turned the doorknob and tried to push the door open to go out and have a look at the damage. He couldn’t. He leaned into the door with his shoulder but it absolutely wouldn’t budge. The pickup had jumped its old worn out gear and he’d rolled back with the door up against a tree. Trapped! Caught like a rat in a ‘Have a Heart’ trap 50 kilometres down a bush road. He couldn’t break the window because it had been boarded up for years. He was stuck. His only hope was that someone would come along and find him before he froze to death. The propane was low. He had a spare tank but it was in the quad trailer. He lit the first of two emergency candles, set it on the table and turned out the lamp. He stared at the candle. Solitary confinement in his one man prison.
After an hour the candle died. He turned the heater on low and crawled into bed heaping as many blankets on him as he could find. The thermometer was going to dip to -15C. He wondered if this is how it was all going to end.
It was a sleepless night and he could barely tell when morning arrived. The propane ran out and so did the heat so he lit the last candle. He picked up the cast iron frying pan that should have been cooking his eggs by then and pounded on the plywood covering the window. Nothing. He wrestled with his mind to keep calm. Hours passed. He ate cold beans in the dark of his cell and warmed his hands over the last of the candle. His mind began playing tricks on him. He thought he heard a quad coming but it turned out to be a plane. A wind came up and a couple of pine cones banged on the roof. He wasn’t sure how much time passed, sitting in silence in the dark camper. Finally he heard a vehicle . He shook his head thinking it was another illusion. A door creaked open and then slammed shut. A dog whined a familiar note.
“Hello, Jack, you around?”
“I’m in here. Esther, is that you Esther? I’m trapped in here. You’ve got to pull me out.”
“How on earth did you do that?”
“Pickup jumped gear and slammed into a tree I think.”
“Ah, yeah, it sure did. You okay?”
“Yeah, kind of cold. I’ll open the fartilator and throw you the keys.
“Open the what?”
Jack turned the rusty crank that opened the roof ventilator, tore off the bug screen and tossed her the keys.
Jupiter danced around like nothing ever happened. A few snowflakes began to fall.
“Why’d you come looking for me and how did you ever find me?”
“The map, and I followed your tracks. Nobody else in here. You were an accident waiting to happen so I thought I’d check on you.”
“Thanks, I guess that map was a good idea. Should I make us some eggs?”
Lulu Barquette, reigning champion of the Horsefly River Women’s International, (there were at least two Americans), Flycasting Championship, was getting skunked on Miser Lake. Two hours and not a sniff. She’d tried everything in her bag of tricks; beginning with chironomids, moving on to one of her favourites, a purple leech, then to small black halfbacks, a pheasant quill and even a boatman. She seemed doomed to defeat on the still waters of this frustrating lake. To make matters worse she was sure she heard laughing. Someone was laughing at her.
Throughout all of her younger years people had made fun of Lulu. They laughed at her name, they laughed at the way she talked and the way she dressed. They even laughed at the way she laughed,( she was a snorter, she just couldn’t help it).
So Lulu decided to become someone that nobody would ever laugh at again. She took up fly fishing. She fished and fished every chance she got until her fly casting abilities became a local legend. She could launch a cast over a distance of eighty feet and within forty she could settle a fly on a hockey puck.
In her early days she preferred to perch on her pontoons in the solitude of lonely lakes in the east Cariboo or the west Chilcotin. Now it didn’t matter. She was someone people looked up to no matter where she fished.
Unfortunately though, because of her solitary ways, she became pretty much a loner. There were days that she didn’t speak to another soul. She didn’t have any close friends, just people she recognized out on the water or in the fly shop. She was a big woman, self conscious about her appearance and she didn’t have a knack for social graces.
On this particularly unusual day, when she couldn’t catch a fish to save her life, what was doubly aggravating was that there was only one other boat on the water, and the guy was whaling on them, one after the other, not far down the lake in front of a cabin, the only one around .He was putting her to shame AND it must be him laughing at her.
Eventually she drifted in close to the guy in his trendy laminated wooden row boat,
“Hey buddy, are you laughing at me? Just what do you think’s so funny Buster?”
Puzzled, the fellow turned to her,
“Laughing, there isn’t any laughing miss. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Sure, smart ass,” she replied and began to row away.
“Hey, don’t go way mad like that,” he said “ Not going so well today? This is a tricky lake. That’s why they call it Miser. Here let me share a little something with you."
“What’s the one thing that a miser can’t resist?”
Grumbling, Lulu played along, “Gold? Silver? Money?
“Right and right,” he said. “ Here, try some of these.”
He eased over and handed her a half dozen flies, his thick strong fingers touching her delicate soft palm momentarily.
“The secret is to show him the colour of your money: greens for twenties, blues for tens, with lots of gold and silver tied in, copper tails.”
“Yeah? Well okay. I’ll try anything about now.”
“Don’t worry, there isn’t any laughing. I’ve been watching you cast and it’s a sight to behold.”
Lulu harrumphed and rowed away.
Fishing improved almost immediately. Lulu caught and released rainbows steadily for an hour or so. She began to think. Had there really been any laughing? Was it all in her mind? Was it all just really the way she felt about herself.
Lulu had both feet firmly planted in the school of fishing where you don’t give up your secrets: the location of that perfect lake, techniques, an effective modification to a fly. She’d earned every ounce of still water sense she had. So should everyone else.
But now it occurred to her that perhaps she’d become something of a miser herself; a fledgling curmudgeon hoarding her knowledge like coins in a strongbox stashed and locked up in her fly tying closet.
And here she’d been completely rude to a total stranger who had turned around and awarded her with his secret weapons, all the while keeping a smile on his face.
Yes, in fact she had, because of years of solitary pursuits on pristine waters, become a miser herself, or something even worse.
She tactfully nudged her boat closer to the stranger.
“Thank you sir, you were absolutely right. My deepest apologies for being such a cranky old bat.”
The fellow cocked his head and gave her a crooked smile.
“Would you like to come up to the dock for a cup of tea?”
Without hesitation Lulu replied,
“Yes, I’d enjoy that. And then, if you like, I’ve got a couple of casting tips you might be interested in.
At the edge of the lake a heron hunches in the sun, head tucked between her shoulders, feathers ruffled. Clearly something is amiss. These elegant blue and silver birds fish here occasionally and when they do they hold their heads high on slender necks, reaching for the best view, tilting an eye to the water. This one looks for nothing at all.
In the summer they fly in all directions cast into the sky on sweeping wings from a rookery in a giant cottonwood nearby. They seek lakes and ponds where they spend their days spearing at frogs and small fish. Regal and still they pose among the bulrushes, on grassy banks and in the shallows. When disappointed with the catch they stalk away in careful, considered steps.
At dusk their shadowy forms sail across the sunset returning to their tree. Then, for an hour or so, in mockery of their beauty and poise, the forest resounds with a cacophony of croaking, squawking celebration. Prehistoric. What fun to be among friends each night.
It seems like a pretty good life. So what went wrong? Is she sick? Had an eagle taken a stab at her? Had she crashed into a tree in the wind trying to reach her roost? Had she broken a wing or a leg? Either way the end seems near.
A heron fallen from grace. Should she be rescued? Is there such a thing? No, no, one mustn’t interfere with nature, mustn’t jump in and upset the natural order of things. What then, just let her die? What else?
Let her be, she might come around like the finches that bounce off the kitchen window. Shake it off girl. Time to rise up and fish.
But she looks deeper and deeper down the well. There will be no return.
She hisses and struggles an inch or two. She falters. What life has she known?
Once the chosen soloist in the cottonwood choir, her coarse bellows above all the others lurching across the water with her mate in awe beside her on their perch. He’s alone now, bewildered, ashamed. Why she left him he’ll never know.
Sickness or circumstance thrusts itself in the path of hope and desire. They languish miserably together, unrecoverable.
Tender pods in the garden pea patch ripen to their fullest. Broad squash leaves hover over bursting flowers. The ground is beginning to swell under the potato plants. Tree swallows twitter and soar, bits of straw dangling from their beaks. All so vulnerable to the shredding of hail or a rushing hawk.
Brides who once lifted their lips on the alter stand shaken, downcast and alone. Young men with simple, honest aspirations calling to them stop listening and lose their way. The bold pursuit of passion turns cold and becomes yesterday’s ashes.
A garden can be replanted and there are many nests with birds. No, best not to meddle with the order of things. The heron will fend for herself or die.
The neighbour’s dog slinks by going for the bird. Being a spectator is suddenly rendered unacceptable in view of the pending attack. But there’s no need to put the run on the sneaking hound. As it leans in for a sniff the heron strikes, like a rattler, stabbing the dog on the end of his nose, sending him howling home.
Disgusted, her station defended, she resumes her hunching.
It’s sure to be over in the night when more determined adversaries patrol the willows along the lake’s edge in search of varmints that dig into the bank or hop and pick their way through thickets. Even a bush wise housecat has to be careful. Coyotes mostly, but foxes and cougars also prowl the shore at night.
There is no party this evening, nothing to be heard from the rookery in the cottonwood beside the lake. So that’s it, they’ve left her behind. She must be too old or sick or broken to keep up. Or did she leave them? After all, at the end, why stick around dying. It’s hard to watch.
Who left who? Always the question. And then come the reasons. They must because they need to be assessed and judged, approved or disapproved of. Rightness or wrongness must be decided in order to assign blame or lend a hand. Empathy is never enough.
And what about her young? Had she hung on until they could make their own way? With luck each of the two or three are well on their way by now, in search of their own fishing holes where the water stays open year round. To the coast they’ll soar, to rivers and southern fields. They were ready to leave or to be left. They’ll find their way and thrive. They’ll return one day, choose a mate, tend to a nest of their own and join the cottonwood choir.
Without luck her young will be left in the nest alone while her mate is away fishing. Bald Eagles rule the water and shoreline forest here. Young herons don’t stand a chance.
Perhaps that’s the explanation, the reason for her suffering. In the most unthinkable way she failed to protect them. Now they’re gone and all the rest of them have abandoned the tree, the heronry evacuated by all those that could escape. She was unable, couldn’t join them, failure that she is.
There’s one now, an eagle putting on a show from the top of a tall spruce tree, chirping and twitching his snowy head, ready for a lunge at the sad bird. But he doesn’t. Instead he stumbles off his branch on broad wings and goes off to search for one of the many rows of immature flightless ducks obediently paddling behind their mother. A fitting buffet for a royal coward.
Dusk settles in. The dark heron is hunched in silhouette against the setting sun, probably her last. Such a pity to lose a beautiful creature. So shameful not to step in and help. No, one mustn’t interfere.
In the morning, on the brown summer grass beside the wild rose bush blooming pink in the sun, there she is. She stands tilting on one leg looking as if she’s about to fall. She takes a step and staggers. Somehow she’s survived the perils of the night. Or there may well have been an encounter that she has narrowly escaped.
The garden chores are a distraction. Who wants to watch death at work. Or is it play?
By design or by folly a work of art is dashed to the ground, stolen from a golden future. It’s not fair.
It isn’t long before she lies on the grass by the wild rose, her long beak open, gasping, her yellow eyes burning at the world. She lies there for another hour. I let her be. Then when her eyes are shut and she’s motionless I poke her with the wooden shovel handle. Her eyes flash open. I can’t stand the sight of her suffering. I stare at the steel blade of the shovel. Just one swing. I resist.
Later, as the day drifts in silence, I spread an old bed sheet beside her and poke her again just to be sure. She’s gone.
I wonder what a bird that size will weigh. She might be heavy. I lift her onto the sheet, as weightless as a broken dream.