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High Hunt

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Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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“Dog had to do his share, too, in those days, Dan. People didn’t keep dogs for pets back then. They kept them to work. Anyway, pretty soon Dad could hear the dogs baying, way back in the timber, and he took the old rifle and the twenty-six bullets and went down to the edge of the lake.”

“He took his pistol, too, I’ll bet,” I said. Out in my camp in the forests of the kitchen, I took my pistol.

“I expect he did, Dan, I expect he did. Anyway, after a little bit, he caught a flicker of movement back up at camp, out of the corner of his eye. He looked back up the hill, and there was Old Buell slinking back to the fire with his tail between his legs. Dad looked real hard at him, but he didn’t dare move or make any noise for fear of scaring off the deer. Old Buell just looked right straight back at him and kept on slinking toward the fire, one step at a time. He knew Dad couldn’t do a thing about it. A dog can do that sometimes, if he’s smart enough.

“Well, it seems that Old Pete was able to get the job done by himself, because pretty soon the deer started to come out on the ice. Well, Dad just held off, waiting for more of them, you see, and pretty soon there’s near onto a hundred of them out there, all bunched up. You see, a deer can’t run very good on ice, and he sure don’t like being out in the open, so when they found themselves out there, they just kind of huddled up to see what’s gonna happen.”

I could see Jack leaning forward now, his eyes bright with excitement and his lips drawn back from his teeth a little. Of course, I couldn’t look straight at him. I had to keep everything in place out on the other side of the doorway.

“So Dad just lays that long old rifle out across the log and touches her off. Then he started loading and firing as fast as he could so’s he could get as many as possible before they got their sense back. Well, those old black-powder cartridges put out an awful cloud of smoke, and about half the time he was shooting blind, but he managed to knock down seventeen of them before the rest got themselves organized enough to run out of range.”

“Wow! That’s a lot of deer, huh, Dad?” I said.

“As soon as Old Pete heard the shooting, he knew his part of the job was over, so he went out to do a little hunting for himself. The dogs hadn’t had anything to eat since the day before, so he was plenty hungry, but then, a dog hunts better if he’s hungry—so does a man.

“Anyway, Dad got the team and skidded the deer on in to shore and commenced to gutting and skinning. Took him most of the rest of the day to finish up.”

Jack started to fidget again. He’d gone for almost a half hour without saying hardly anything, and that was always about his limit.

“Is a deer very hard to skin, Dad?” he asked.

“Not if you know what you’re doing.”

“But how come he did it right away like that?” Jack demanded. “Eddie Selvridge’s old man said you gotta leave the hide on a deer for at least a week or the meat’ll spoil.”

“I heard him say that, too, Dad,” I agreed.

“Funny they don’t leave the hide on a cow then when they butcher, isn’t it?” the Old Man asked. “At the slaughterhouse they always skin ’em right away, don’t they?”

“I never thought of that,” I admitted.

Jack scowled silently. He hated not being right. I think he hated that more than anything else in the world.

“Along about noon or so,” Dad continued, “here comes Pete back into camp with a full belly and blood on his muzzle. Old Buell went up to him and sniffed at him and then started casting back and forth until he picked up Pete’s trail. Then he lined out backtracking Pete to his kill.”

Jack howled with sudden laughter. “That sure was one smart old dog, huh, Dad?” he said. “Why work if you can get somebody else to do it for you?”

Dad ignored him. “Old Pete had probably killed a fawn and had eaten his fill. Anyway, my dad kinda watched the dogs for a few minutes and then went back to work skinning. After he got them all skinned out, he salted down the hides and rolled them in a bundle—sold the hides in town for enough to buy his own rifle that winter, and enough left over to get his mother some yard goods she’d wanted. Then he drug the carcasses back to camp through the snow and hung them all up to cool out.

“He cleaned up, washing his hands with snow, fed the team, and then boiled up another pan of coffee. He fried himself a big mess of deer liver and onions and heated up some more of the biscuits. After he ate, he sat on a log and lit his pipe.”

“I’ll bet he was tired,” Jack said, just to be saying something. “Not being in bed all the night before and all that.”

“He still had something left to tend to,” Dad said. “It was almost dark when he spotted Old Buell slinking back toward camp. He was out on the open, coming back along the trail Pete had broken though the snow. His belly looked full, and his muzzle and ears were all bloody the same way Pete’s had been.”

“He found the other dog’s deer, I’ll betcha.” Jack laughed. “You said he was a smart old dog.”

Beyond the kitchen doorway, one of my shadowy dogs crept slowly toward the warmth of the pilot-light campfire, his eyes sad and friendly, like the eyes of the hound some kid up the block owned.

“Well, Dad watched him for a minute or two, and then he took his rifle, pulled back the hammer, and shot Old Buell right between the eyes.”

The world beyond the doorway shattered like a broken mirror and fell apart back into the kitchen again. I jerked up and looked straight into my father’s face. It was very grim, and his eyes were very intent on Jack, as if he were telling my brother something awfully important.

He went on without seeming to notice my startled jump. “Old Buell went end over end when that bullet hit him. Then he kicked a couple times and didn’t move anymore. Dad didn’t even go over to look at him. He just reloaded the rifle and set it where it was handy, and then he and Old Pete climbed up into the wagon and went to bed.

“The next morning, he hitched up the team, loaded up the deer carcasses, and started back home. It took him three days again to get back to the wheat ranch, and Granddad and Grandma were sure glad to see him.” My father lifted me off his lap, leaned back and lit a cigarette.

“It took them a good two days to cut up the deer and put them down in pickling crocks. After they finished it all up and Dad and Granddad were sitting in the kitchen, smoking their pipes with their sock feet up on the open oven door, Granddad turned to my Dad and said, “Sam, whatever happened to Old Buell, anyway? Did he run off?”

“Well, Dad took a deep breath. He knew Granddad had been awful fond of that old hound. ‘Had to shoot him,’ he said. ‘Wouldn’t hunt—wouldn’t even hunt his own food. Caught him feeding on Pete’s kill.’

“Well, I guess Granddad thought about that for a while. Then he finally said, ‘Only thing you could do, Sam, I guess. Kind of a shame, though. Old Buell was a good dog when he was younger. Had him a long time.’”

The wind in the chimney suddenly sounded very loud and cold and lonesome.

“But why’d he shoot him?” I finally protested.

“He just wasn’t any good anymore,” Dad said, “and when a dog wasn’t any good in those days, they didn’t want him around. Same way with people. If they’re no good, why keep them around?” He looked straight at Jack when he said it.

“Well, I sure wouldn’t shoot my own dog,” I objected.

Dad shrugged. “It was different then. Maybe if things were still the way they were back then, the world would be a lot easier to live in.”

That night when we were in bed in the cold bedroom upstairs, listening to Mom and the Old Man yelling at each other down in the living room, I said it again to Jack. “I sure wouldn’t shoot my own dog.”

“Aw, you’re just a kid,” he said. “That was just a story. Grandpa didn’t really shoot any dog. Dad just said that.”

“Dad doesn’t tell lies,” I said. “If you say that again, I’m gonna hit you.”

Jack snorted with contempt.

“Or maybe I’ll shoot you,” I said extravagantly. “Maybe some day I’ll just decide that you’re no good, and I’ll take my gun and shoot you. Bang! Just like that, and you’ll be dead, and I’ll betcha you wouldn’t like that at all.”

Jack snorted again and rolled over to go to sleep, or to wrestle with the problem of being grown-up and still being afraid, which was to worry at him for the rest of his life. But I lay awake for a long time staring into the darkness. And when I drifted into sleep, the forest in the kitchen echoed with the hollow roar of that old rifle, and my shadowy old dog with the sad, friendly eyes tumbled over and over in the snow.

In the years since that night I’ve had that same dream again and again—not every night, sometimes only once or twice a year—but it’s the only thing I can think of that hasn’t changed since I was a boy.

The Gathering

1

I guess that if it hadn’t been for that poker game, I’d have never really gotten to know my brother. That puts the whole thing into the realm of pure chance right at the outset.

I’d been drafted into the Army after college. I sort of resented the whole thing but not enough to run off to Canada or to go to jail. Some of my buddies got kind of excited and made a lot of noise about “principle” and what-not, but I was the one staring down the mouth of that double-barrelled shotgun called either/or. When I asked them what the hell the difference was between the Establishment types who stood on the sidelines telling me to go to Nam and the Antiestablishment types who stood on the sidelines telling me to go to a federal penitentiary, they got decidedly huffy about the whole thing.

Sue, my girlfriend, who felt she had to call and check in with her mother if we were going to be five minutes late getting home from a movie, told me on the eve, as they used to say, of my departure that she’d run off to Canada with me if I really wanted her to. Since I didn’t figure any job in Canada would earn me enough to pay the phone bill she’d run up calling Momma every time she had to go to the biffy, I nobly turned her down. She seemed awfully relieved.

I suppose that ultimately I went in without any fuss because it didn’t really mean anything to me one way or the other. None of it did.

As it all turned out, I went to Germany instead of the Far East. So I soaked up Kultur and German beer and played nursemaid to an eight-inch howitzer for about eighteen months, holding off the red threat. I finished up my hitch in late July and came back on a troopship. That’s where I got into the poker game.

Naturally, it was Benson who roped me into it. Benson and I had been inducted together in Seattle and had been in the same outfit in Germany. He was a nice enough kid, but he couldn’t walk past a deck of cards or a pair of dice if his life depended on it. He’d been at me a couple times and I’d brushed him off, but on the third day out from Bremerhaven he caught me in the chow line that wandered up and down the gray-painted corridors of the ship. He knew I had about twenty dollars I hadn’t managed to spend before we were shipped out.

“Come on, Alders. What the hell? It’s only for small change.” His eyes were already red-rimmed from lack of sleep, but his fatigue pockets jingled a lot. He must have been winning for a change.

“Oh, horseshit, Benson,” I told him. “I just don’t get that much kick out of playing poker.”

“What the fuck else is there to do?”

He had a point there. I’d gotten tired of looking at the North Atlantic after about twenty minutes. It’s possibly the dullest stretch of ocean in the world—if you’re lucky. Anyway, I know he’d be at me until I sat in for a while, and it really didn’t make that much difference to me. Maybe that’s why I started winning.

“All right, Arsch-loch.” I gave in. “I’ll take your goddamn money. It doesn’t make a shit to me.” So, after chow, I went and played poker.

The game was in the forward cargo hold. They’d restacked the five hundred or so duffle bags until there was a cleared-out place in the middle of the room. Then they’d rigged a table out of a dozen or so bags, a slab of cardboard, and a GI blanket. The light wasn’t too good, and the placed smelled of the bilges, and after you’ve sat on some guy’s extra pair of boots inside his duffle bag for about six hours, your ass feels like he’s been walking on it, but we stuck it out. Like Benson said, what else was there to do?

The game was seven-card stud, seven players. No spit-in-the-ocean, or no-peek, or three-card-lowball. There were seven players—not always the same seven guys, but there were always seven players.

The first day I sat in the game most of the play was in coins. Even so, I came out about forty dollars ahead. I quit for the day about midnight and gave my seat to the Spec-4 who’d been drooling down my back for three hours. He was still there when I drifted back the next morning.
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