THE COUCH WAS UNCOMFORTABLE. WHEN COLD, he slid across the seat like a puck on ice, and when hot, stuck to the plastic cover and peeled himself away in hair-tugging stickiness. But the house wasn’t his and the land wasn’t his, so he had no place to complain or even think twice about it. He sat on the floor and leaned against that forsaken couch, loosely propping his forearm on bent knee, holding an Oly between his thumb and forefinger, counting out the seconds in a sloshing metronome.
The ranch manager’s place nestled against a foothill, a one-story brick structure with an entryway that looked east, over the highway and the Yellowstone River below and to the mountains beyond. His belongings fit into a cramped guest room at the back of the house, facing west, directly into the dusty green monotony of sagebrush slope. Spare pillows and old winter jackets filled the closet; the bureau drawers burst with long johns, photo albums, and holiday tablecloths. When the old man died, no one sorted through or carted off his things and the house was rented as if he were only on vacation.
Tucker kept his belongings packed in a duffle bag and dopp kit and rifled through them as needed. It was clean and comfortable enough to not complain, but nothing about the house, or the place in general, dovetailed with his body or being.
All that fell into place, it seemed, were quarters sliding into the jukebox at The Two Bit in town, the metallic scrape of dropped change serving as prelude to the drunken slide guitar march of Wild Horses. The dancers in the bar transitioned from slinging circles to an uncertain, swaying stupor and dragged from the dance floor like scales tearing from a decaying trout pinned between submerged branches in slow current.
They leaned on the bar and scratched coarse chins with too-short nails and watched Tucker as he grabbed a girl and footslogged her over the wood-scratch hieroglyphics of the parquet floor. Maybe there was a story underfoot about someone who was content, recorded by a boot heel long ago. He couldn’t imagine worrying about being tied up and torn asunder between feral ponies but danced anyways, until the song became too long and the girl grew too weary.
A raised square grid checkered the beige carpet and Tucker imagined games of tic-tac-toe in the tidy cells: an “x” here, an “o” there, game over. He stood with soreness in his legs and walked to the porch, where the trash leaned in a heap. He started a burn barrel in the driveway, sipping beer while feeding the fire. Some people’s bones turned to smoldering wood in the fall, shrinking with winter’s approach, ready to ash away and blanket the ground. But for Tucker it didn’t matter. The service didn’t work out; the job as a lineman fell through. His cousin didn’t need him to help treat wastewater over in The Bakken after all. It was always the season for making it — moving pipe and mending fence in the summer, plowing driveways and checking on empty vacation homes over winter. It was just beginning to frost at night and he appreciated the smoky fire, even if fueled by discarded details.
A polished buckskin truck turned off the highway and onto the long dirt road that switchbacked to the house. Hep. Tucker figured he’d want his driveway cleared for the winter, just in case he and the wife decided to visit for a weekend. Hep pulled into the driveway and hopped from the cab, bounding to the burning barrel in his pressed jeans and mahogany Luccheses.
“You want to make some quick cash?”
“Fast cash beats slow cash. Let’s hear it.”
“Jim McLauglin was scheduled to fly his jet up here and cancelled last-minute. I was to return to Florida with him and take our two dogs. My wife’s going apeshit because she wants the pups down there now. I can’t drive them because I have to fly out tomorrow. Would you drive them? Name your price and I’ll pay it.”
Tucker didn’t know much about hauling pets. Mental calculations: gas and daily, pay for driving time, and a plane ticket home. He threw out a too-high-by-half figure and Hep shook on it. Tucker would deliver the dogs in four days.
“You can drive our Tahoe. It’ll be vacuumed and waiting in the driveway. The dogs and their supplies will be in the house. Lock the door behind you.” Tucker began to tell him it didn’t matter if the rig was clean, but Hep was already striding away.
The next morning, he arrived at Hep’s place and let himself in through the back door, greeted by the two dogs. The polished concrete floors were freshly mopped, the elk shed chandelier dusted of cobwebs. The place smelled of blue spruce candle. He looked to the dogs, ricocheting off his legs with excitement. The black lab had only three, the back right lost to cancer.
“My old man woulda’ put you down a long time ago, Three-Step,” Tucker said as he scruffed the ancient dog on the head. The younger Golden Retriever nudged before its companion, squeezing in for a pat. He turned to the pet supplies on the granite kitchen counter.
There was a note hurriedly slashed in Hep’s hand, the heavy card stock embossed with the wife’s initials, the letter of her omnipotent last name towering in the middle: kHp. Tucker wondered why people with money could never put their initials in the right damn order. The Golden, according to the note, was anxious during car rides and would have to be sedated. A bottle of Acepromazine sat on the counter with directions to roll a pill in peanut butter and force it down her throat.
“Ah Christ,” he sighed, setting down the pills and flipping open the McNally’s.
The blueprint of country spread before him, encrypted interstate conduits enmeshed in a transcontinental snarl of pavement—how to select a single paved strand without wanting to see the rest was beyond him. His travels at that point extended only a tiptoe’s reach into the neighboring states. He supposed he should take a camera to document his first time beyond the known world. He supposed he should sedate the Golden, to give the drug time to set in before hitting the road.
Tahoe loaded, he lifted both dogs into the back — one incapacitated by age, the other by Acepromazine — and slid into the leather seat. They began.
He glanced in the rear view, the Golden’s glazed face meeting his as she sat upright and fought the drug. Drool hung from her jowls, stretching in silver filament to the floor. She lolled over the benches and brown flatness of Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska on the first day. She loosely bobbed across Missouri, Tennessee and Georgia the next. He slept in on the third morning, lolled around town and decided to make it a short day, stopping in north Florida. He didn’t want to show early. He knew them to be the kind of people who needed the expected to happen on schedule.
It was the only part of the trip he remembered, for the egrets. They picked through the marshlands lining the highway, their toothpick bodies finding cool space within the thick air, lithe white fingers plucking violin strings in the heavy green. He stopped at the Gator Inn, advertising friendliness to dogs on a glowing marquee.
The hotel was two stories. Tucker scanned for an elevator but found only steps leading to the second floor. He and the dogs stood at the base of the stairs, a hobbled pack of wolves.
“Is this your dog?”
Two women turned from a vending machine and charged toward him. He didn’t have a chance to answer as the elder nuzzled her glasses into the gimp lab’s snout. Her legs were Virginia Slims sticking out of cut-off jean shorts; her hair, parched leaves.
“No. I’m just their chauffer.”
“I used to have a three-legged dog just like this,” she said, the lab licking her caved, wizened cheeks. Her daughter stood by and popped Combos into her fleshy face.
“This lil’ ol’ three legger really does look like Bitsy,” she said between mouthfuls of dehydrated cheddar. Gelatinous arms rolled over the top of a long, strapless floral dress. A blue and purple mushroom covered her paunchy right shoulder, large freckles beneath the ink serving as spots on the cap.
“Mama’s World” was emblazoned in black cursive over the acid image. Tucker had a tattoo, on his right forearm.
The younger woman pointed to the symbols: “Nice ink. What’s it mean?”
He adjusted his legs, which served as a prop for the weight of the delirious Golden. “It’s Japanese for ‘reiki.’ It’s a reminder of my martial arts training. If you break someone down, you have to know how to put them back together.”
“That’s awful Christian of you.”
“No, not really. After I got it, I found out that in Chinese it means ‘death by dismemberment.’ Depends on how you want to look at it.” He deadlifted the heap of flaxen dog.
“Do you ladies want to carry the three-legger upstairs? I’ve gotta’ get this one to the room before she passes out cold.”
The ladies nicotine-wheezed under the weight of the lab, but reached the top. The sun-baked mother continued the eulogy: “Bitsy chewed into a ‘lectric cord once and got shocked. But she just fell over and then stood up and squealed like a pig. Man, everyone did love that three-legged dog.”
He thanked them and ducked into the red-carpet cave of smoke-stained room. The dogs sprawled on the floor and slept. Tucker reclined on the gold damask comforter and thought to turn on the television. He stared at the off-white textured ceiling instead, seeking revelations between the spackled eddies.
He reached South Beach the next day, pulling the Tahoe before the small villa, insulated from the street behind a stucco wall with a garden gate draped in purple Mandevilla. Hep served mojitos on the dock and took him to dinner. They sat at a sidewalk table outside the restaurant, the owner appearing periodically to fill their waters and inquire about the meal. The mistress of an Uruguayan banker slinked through the jewelry store next door, pointing to the sacred cases and accepting the pieces, delicately placed into her hands by fawning sales ladies who hoped to some day speak English. She stroked the finely etched snouts of golden leopards, snakes, scarabs, lifting the pieces to her sculpted neck, clasping them around her bone china wrists, twisting her shoulders this way and that to admire the light catching in the animals’ emerald eyes.
They put him up in the guest cabana, overlooking the small yard. The surface of the lit swimming pool trembled. A mildewed marble Venus held her breath beneath the live oak. The canal beyond promised speedboats and manatees. Tucker sprawled onto the white sheets of the vast teak bed, the toile monkeys adorning the curtains looking down on him as a curiosity. This was the East.
He collected his check and hopped a plane home the next day. A science magazine was stuffed in the pocket of the seat before him. He flipped through the pages, filled with photos of exploding stars and steaming ocean vents. An article on trout caught his eye. He liked to catch trout on the line and fry them in a pan. He read.
A trout’s ear bone — the otolith — revealed the fish’s age and a map of where it had spent its days. Each day, a trout’s life is noted with the formation of a new ring in the otolith. He wondered where the concentric circles of time were hidden in a man.
He made it back in time to hunt with Caleb, as they had scheduled the week before. Caleb pulled up in his diesel around four in the morning, hauling a pair of ATVs.
“Ain’t that somethin’ — Miami one day, here the next. You jetsetter, you,” said Caleb when Tucker hopped into the cab. “Ready to fill the freezer?”
They drew tags in their first pick allotment that year, for the north face of the mountain, just above the lake. They drove up a steep Forest Service road through a tunnel of lodge pole pine until they could go no further. Caleb set out to offload the four-wheelers. Tucker pulled gear from the cab and organized it in various heaps. He asked aloud, packing a box of shells into his bag: “Did you know that, about a trout’s ear?”
“What about trouts’ ears?“ The trailer bolt holding the running board upright was jammed. Caleb sloshed motor oil on it and wiggled it.
“You can tell a trout’s age and where it’s been by the rings in its ear bone. I read it in some tree hugger magazine on the plane.”
“How do trout screw?”
“The article didn’t say. Probably like birds. Just spray it all over the place and hope it hits the target.”
“Inneresting.” The latch was free. Caleb lowered the running board to the dirt.
They rode until they intersected a game trail. Leaving the four-wheelers, they hiked, bushwhacking uphill, rounding the side of the mountain, where the trees gave way to high sagebrush and scattered Whitebark pine. The lake appeared in full view, the chalky shelf of the shallow edge shining around the turquoise center like the halo of an eclipsed sun. He was an eagle on the mountainside, scouting for a fish skirting the submerged ledge, oscillating between doubtless cerulean-white and fathomless obsidian.
The breeze pushed into their faces, carrying the scent of all that awaited them. And then it stopped, as if braking for a funeral procession to pass, the way rabbits, ground squirrels, birds freeze when a bear walks through the forest. Wait. Just wait ‘til it goes by. Then resume grazing, digging through the leaves, chattering on a limb. The two hunters held still.
A broad rack, yellowed with age and tipped in ivory, appeared above the chalky green, drawing near them at the top of the ridge. The antlers moved up and down, like the slow lift and downward swing of a sledgehammer. The sound of air rolled from a sleeping pad rasped over the hillside.
As the bull elk approached, his body emerged, offering a clear shot. Tucker held still, not daring to unsling his rifle.
The elk’s front left leg was broken, the splintered bone sticking out just below the knee joint. It must have spooked and tripped, caught its leg as it fell on a steep slope where it snapped. A rope of saliva hung from the corner of its mouth, making a lustrous whip as its head jerked side to side in a limping drag. It was the largest bull either had seen on the mountain.
The breeze resumed and shifted, pushing their scent toward the maimed elk. It stopped its gasping march thirty yards away. The bull raised its head with a moment of defeated recognition: “Oh, it’s you. You. I didn’t even see you. Well, what will it be?”
After some indeterminate syllables of time — a minute, an hour, there was no telling — Caleb broke the hush.
“Yours,” he exhaled. It was enough to fracture everything.
The elk became wild-eyed and shook its head in spastic disagreement, looking for an exit on the open expanse of mountain. Finding none, it tore off in a panicked downhill sprint, toward the road. Tucker raised the rifle to his shoulder, because he should put an end to the hobbling, the wheezing, put an end to the end.
“Pull it, pull!,” Caleb urged, “Before he gets to the willows!”
But Tucker didn’t. He followed the elk through the scope until it hit the willows and disappeared, a quivering ripple of leafy branches marking its path toward the lake.
He shouldered the gun and began to pick his way down the slope to the road.
“Is this your bleeding heart notion of Fair Chase? What the hell?!,” Caleb called from behind.
Tucker tracked the irregular gait, the smatterings of blood hoof-stamped in the soft dirt, until the trail dropped into the thick vegetation growing along the feeder stream. He stood at the edge of the willows.
“Going to water for the end, the end,” he said aloud. He suspected he might have heard it somewhere, in a song, or a movie, or a poem in high school English class. Whatever it was, he was certain it wasn’t his line.
He looked up the mountain. He knew Caleb would be waiting in his truck in an hour or so, ready to give him an earful about the elk and pissed that they’d have to come back for the other four-wheeler. Tucker would buy him a drink at The Two Bit.
That’s what he’d do — have a drink, go home, wait outside for the next opportunity to roll up the drive. Tucker turned and walked down the road, reaching into his pockets in search of quarters for a song or two. He’d try for elk some other day. The blood would dust away by then.