A Shot from the Ledgeby Mike Milliner
It was the first time Reuben had ever been on the back of an ATV, jerking from side to side in the unpredictable wake of Downs' navigation. Reuben sensed a gleeful bucking in Downs' movements. The way the black and gray ponytail flicked into Reuben's nose, some satisfaction in feeling Reuben flinch as they bounced in and out of creek beds. Downs leaned way over to spit his tobacco juice, but there were trailers that hung on and gathered across Reuben's face like icy cobwebs in the wind.
Downs yelled back over his shoulder, "Know what those bobcats'll do to ole Fido here before they eat him?"
"I don't know, piss on him?" Reuben said. The dead yellow lab strapped to the front of the ATV was called Justin, if Reuben remembered right, and belonged to the Estills out on Runyon Creek Road. Reuben wondered if Downs had truly found the animal on the road or just gave the wheel a hard tug.
"You are one silly ass bastard," Downs said. Reuben could smell stale alcohol blowing back. "You piss on your food before you eat it?" Downs always had a smart mouth. Reuben still remembered him in the back of the cruiser cursing and spitting on the Plexiglas.
"They'll skin him," Downs said. "Two of them can do most of the torso in fifteen minutes. You probably won't let them get that far. Isn't that right? Deputy." He pronounced the syllables with his head turned so Reuben could see the sharp puckering and stretching of his lips, dep-U-DEE.
"When are you off parole anyways?" Reuben asked. Downs went rigid.
"While yet to go." Downs said.
Downs was pretty stupid and didn't think sometimes. You had to remind him of what he had to lose. Reuben tried to think if shooting bobcats out of season was a jailable offense and imagined Delores, his wife, in the jail processing area with the rest of those sorry women.
Reuben had tried to get a bobcat before all this. He'd hoarded up all the books, tapes of their horny screeches, cat estrus from some Indian up in Canada, even a blow up bobcat decoy he'd last seen tumbling down the bald side of a knob outside of Ft. Knox. He'd never even seen a cat. Nineteen years patrolling the county roads, not one sighting, not one road kill, not one silhouette against the high beams.
Downs cranked down on the throttle as the ATV climbed a hill throwing Reuben's body backwards. He grabbed Downs' shoulder for a second before gripping the seat edge, holding tight as they rounded a turn and passed from beneath the trees into a field, the sky opening up like wet shale overhead. They circled the expanse of browning grasses and scrubby cedars as wind whipped up off the field across Reuben's face. Cold was something he didn't deal with too well. Every year for New Year's they visited Delores' sister in Tampa, and every year, when they returned, Kentucky looked a little grayer, a little more dead.
"Here we are," Downs said. He hopped off the A.T.V. and squatted down to a rebar stake colored the orange of rust.
"Sides the cats, coyotes come too," Downs said. He pulled up handfuls of bone and tossed it into the briars like so much kindling. He grabbed up a thick thigh bone, examined it. "Was a still born calf of one of the neighbors," and flung it blindly behind him.
Reuben looked down and saw tracks hardened in the dirt around the stake. He looked through them noting some coyote prints, lots of raccoon. He stopped, bent to his knees. This track could fit easily in the palm of his hand. He traced it with his fingers: four toe marks and the foot pad like a bubbled M. They were scattered everywhere.
Reuben heard Downs rise and walk up behind him. "Yeah, you can tell they're cat tracks, no claw marks."
"I know," Reuben threw a glare up at Downs.
"Hey Deputy I'm just trying to help, it ain't no skin off me if you go hunt cats somewhere else. I'd just keep the money still. "
Reuben kept studying the ground, letting the comment dissipate into the gray sky.
"You ever seen a bobcat?" Downs asked. It reminded Reuben of his older cousin asking if he'd ever seen a girl's snatch.
"Yep, bow hunting for deer, I've seen two. Too far to get." Reuben said, lying. This was only the second track he'd ever touched.
"Yeah, well I've seen plenty up close. I've killed thirty-seven, the first when I was fifteen. I even touched a little kitten that was alive and free. Found it behind a log and it sits up on its haunches and raises its paws like it wants to box me. Sold it to some rich woman in Nashville. She wanted me to come get it five months later when it starting slicing up her Bernice Mountain dog or whatever." Downs laughed. "Four hundred for the cat and four hundred to come get it."
Reuben rose from the print. When he turned the yellow lab was suspended sideways off the ground, skewered on the stake, and Downs, knife in hand, raised his boot and stomped, first near the shoulders, then the rump, the dog's body seesawing downward. Downs slitted the hide, shifted the carcass till the spike popped through, and pressed the it solid into the ground.
"I'd set up a little ways out in the field." Downs said. "That's where I do when hunt them."
The wind rippled the tall grass of the field, made the cedars wiggle over sideways in an endless dance. Reuben shivered and turned to look into the trees. A few feet beyond the briars the earth climbed in a wall of limestone. Thirty feet up roots curled over the cliff edge and trunks leaned out and up. That's where I'm getting, Reuben thought, the hell with that field. He felt the thump of excitement between his shoulder blades, picturing himself up on the perch. The shot would be less than twenty yards. Easy peasy.
"Remember, you get one cat," Downs said. "And, I'll be watching." Downs pointed to the tree line. "I'll turn it on remotely when I get to the house." The camera was camo patterned, tacked to the trunk of a red oak, and facing squarely at Reuben and the yellow lab.
"You sure you don't want me to come out tonight and get you? Going to get down to twenty. I can't have you dying out here. I'm getting too old to go digging holes."
"I'll be fine," Reuben said. "Got my tent and sleeping bag. Besides, that ATV would scare the devil off."
Downs fired up the ATV, revved it, and looked at Reuben standing near the dog. Downs talked but it came only as murmur over the engine.
Reuben pointed at his ear, stepped forward. "WHAT?"
"I SAID, the devil don't sleep Deputy," Downs yelled it, the chords of his neck tight as bow strings. "You should know that."
Daylight was slow dying itself out. The gray of winter melted into light purples and peaches rising up on the clouds and the sun blazed out crimson far to the north and south. Reuben had to close his eyes from the brightness. He'd been sitting atop the ledge looking down at the dog for three hours and his brain flexed its imagination through the scope: he saw odd partings in the field, black thistle buds like a cat's ears, and, once, he thought the dog had started twitching.
After two Little Debbie's, Reuben pulled the Playboy from the pack. She looked good on the cover, Drew Barrymore. She still looked good of course, but here she was at her best. Young, shining, the skin of her body that perfect texture under the tips of a man's fingers. Delores had looked like this, long ago. She had the same pointy chin, the same good cheeks, and a smile that could be used in a thousand different ways. She'd changed of course, Delores. She'd grown jowlish and whiskery, looking more like Reuben's own Grandmother than the springy girl he'd married thirty years ago.
Reuben opened the magazine and flipped till he saw pale butts and breasts twisting around the pages. Her hair was very short here, dyed so that the dark roots were obvious. A fad he guessed. He held the magazine close to inspect the tattoos, a butterfly on her belly and a rose just above her pubic hair. The next picture was his favorite. She was bent over, seeming to roll a tire in a garage.
Reuben stood. He unzipped and pulled off his jacket, undid his pants, the wind out of the southwest cold against his skin, and he held the magazine close in the dying light. He scanned the field over the magazine, the colors continued to cool as darkness pushed them down and he thought that fitting. The pictures in the page mixed with vague flashes of Delores long ago by a creek, the sky bright blue behind her.
Reuben stopped, turned toward the woods behind him.
A crack, like a twig? He wasn't even sure he'd heard it. He tucked his penis into his pants and searched back among the trunks. He turned, stared hard down at the dog lying in the shadow of the earth. He scanned the brush line and out into the field. Something had moved, Reuben thought. He looked up at the limbs stretching overhead. He closed his eyes and listened.
Reuben looked at the magazine, squinting. Too dark. The first stars blinked up between the clouds and Reuben bent to his bag, pulled free the lantern, punched the button and illuminated the ledge in an orange light. He unrolled the tent and pad and thought he'd finish with the Playboy once inside.
Past the trunks, deep in the darkness, a pair of eyes flashed, there and gone like two fires at a distance. Reuben froze. He glanced at the rifle and back into the trees. The eyes flared again, there and gone.
Reuben sidestepped toward the rifle, slowly, his ears thumping with adrenaline. The eyes appeared and slowed, floating steady, a glassy yellow. Reuben thought, this is a cat, moves like a cat.
Stooped, he reached toward the rifle. He watched the eyes, afraid they'd vanish and this would be over, he'd get nothing. He inched sideways. One more step. He lifted his foot, trying to make this last movement smooth and he thought he could make out the cat's form in the dark. He imagined the slow weight of the rifle as it came to his shoulder, imagined the shot, and, as his fingers wrapped around the cold metal, Reuben felt his foot step into air.
His hands flew before him into the blackness and he thought for a quarter second, I'll be okay. He flipped, hit feet first, heard a pop. His left leg erupted in pain. He crashed sideways into briars, hit against the rocks and bounced, screaming out, full into the night. The pain in his hip roared up over his body and everything else from his life was gone at that moment.
It might have been fifteen minutes or an hour later when he tried to stop screaming. Even then he moaned with each breath as he clutched his left leg, felt the odd angle of it, the protrusion stabbing through his pants. He smacked at his chest. His cell phone was in his coat. His coat was on the ledge. He let out a moan and twisted his neck. Through the briars the lantern light shined off the ledge above and he found it inconceivable that he'd been there, and now he was here. He dropped his face into the ground, the steam of his breath ruffling the oak leaves trapped there with him.
Reuben rose up on his right elbow and pulled his body, eyes closed, through the briars. His leg clenched and bone ends pulled through flesh. His mouth stretched open into a frozen wail. He stopped moving, stopped breathing, just lay with his cheek boring through the ground and his eyes clenched shut, absorbing the pain as it pressed out slow and rotund in its exit.
The spasm gave slow and Reuben exhaled. He collapsed his shoulder into the ground, sucking air and his face touched something wet and cool and a corroded smell of flesh punched into his brain. Two inches from his face he saw the white fur in the moon light. He swiped at it, pushing it away and lay his head down. Reuben brought his left hand away from his body, stretched it to something hanging in his view. Soft and sticky, another piece of hide, a small bone beneath. There were dead things all around him. Thick, glowing femurs, shoulder blades, limbs hanging from tendon and claw and, as thorns twisted in Reuben's face, he imagined for a moment the earth had swallowed him whole.
He'd seen dead men before: twisted in with metal or laid out by rail tracks or hanging bloated in the barbed wire across a creek. Always his first reaction was to walk away, call the coroner and wait. Reuben needed to move. Just go up the ledge, all the way up to the coat.
Reuben gulped a breath. He pulled through the hold of the briars and into the grass, his whole body out before he collapsed down. His breath wouldn't come. He lay still, counting them to a hundred, over and over in his head, trying always to slow the cadence. He closed his eyes and saw Delores straining through the birth of their daughter, red faced and blowing air through her teeth.
I'll go for the phone and get the fire department or somebody, he thought. They had some good boys over there and hadn't Reuben always cut them some slack. He let out a series of little grunts hauling himself up on the elbow, pulled once and folded to the ground.
His breathing wheezed and he coughed, gathered spit and pushed it from his mouth. He waited to catch his breath. Just a little longer, he thought. Just a little bit longer. The pain seemed to grow distant, still part of him but in a separate life somewhere and he saw dark things: his brother as a child, screaming with his face full of hornet stings, Grandma, long dead, smoking on the couch with the oaty smell of cancer floating up off the phlegm in the coffee can.
He dreamed of being drug through the forest by Delores, the kids, and his parents. Delores screamed into the woods at wild things giving chase, their eyes glowing up, swarming endless in number as she stomped at them, clapped her hands, and one by one everyone disappeared into the dark and all around him wolves snapped their jaws and grew large, humpbacked against the sky as they circled, stomping the odor of their piss into the mud.
Reuben saw a white flash, jerked, his eyes opened to falling snow. The dog's face was suspended off the ground seeming to call out and Reuben wished the dog was still alive, as though this good wish toward it would grant his own.
The flash came again, throwing everything into a second of white shadows. Reuben called out, "Hello. Help." He stared off down the tree line through the snow and out into the field. There was a man walking toward him.
"Hey, help." Reuben called. He pulled his left hand away from the bent thigh and waved. Downs, he thought. Reuben blinked and looked harder. The man stopped and stood.
"Hey, right, here, goddam it." Reuben took the toboggan off his head, turned it inside out so the orange showed, waved it. "Hey, heyyyyyy." He threw it in the air. The flash came again, electrified the orange hat against the snow, seared an oil stain of wet purple over Reuben's vision. He wiped the tears from his eyes and tried to scream once more but it came out mute.
The figure swayed and Reuben felt the wind on his face. Goddam drunk, Reuben thought, imagining Downs enjoying the sight of Reuben lying there. The hero Downs would be. Reuben kept looking, blinked, watched the wave of the grass, trees in the field, searched from one to the next and back and the man was gone.
"Where, are you?" Reuben whispered. He held still and listened to the sound of his breathing. He was staring right into it when the light flashed again. "Who is it?" Reuben whispered. "Somebody screwing with me?" He searched the bushes for men, glowing eyes, the shadows of predators waiting for the rush and felt tears rise up in his eyes.
He saw the box affixed to a trunk. The camera Downs used. Reuben's heart thumped. He waved his arm in the air, whispered, "Help." The light flashed bright. Reuben kept waving. Downs is going to check it and see, he thought. When the light didn't flash, Reuben dropped his arm to his leg, gulped a breath down. He rested his head in the dirt.
He saw a wave of movement through the snow, something low and quick. He searched eyes wide and remembered the bodies they'd found in fields or on creek banks, the cheeks and lips chewed away and teeth exposed, forming something altogether inhuman, something cornered.
Reuben hugged himself. The shivering was full bodied and the spasms of his leg and the ragged breathing tugged him from unconsciousness, walled him into a stillness at the edge of this world and that of his memories. Through the falling snow Reuben saw the first apartment he and Delores had over the bank, just two rooms and a mattress on the floor. Past the windows he heard the clenched curses and saw all the men he'd arrested, with eyes blooded out and teeth bared. He smelled their body odor and spit wafting in, the cats and wolves twisting among them.
Not now, he thought. Reuben lay in the bed with Delores as he lay in the field with snow dusting over him, old and injured. He spooned up to her, young and naked, her hair piled on his nose, smelling like shampoo and his arms wrapped under her neck and over her waist. He knew the men outside would come but he wouldn't say anything yet. Just soak in her feel, her smell before it all came crashing in.
Air, he thought. Reuben let his breathing slow, heard Delores whisper, Just rest a minute Ruby. The want of air wasn't too bad anymore, and his body stopped bucking, the shivering stopped and it felt so good to rest. Just a minute.
He was naked against Delores, the skin over his pelvis and belly pressed into the softness of her buttocks. He kissed her neck over and over, heard her moan, and felt her hand reach back and caress him.
Reuben opened his eyes. He saw the orange sunlight stretching from behind him out into the field, heard the birds singing out in their morning calls, saw everything all at once and separated as he'd never seen it before: the last of the snow crusting the shadows, a cardinal blazing red, and the smell of the sun cooking the earth.
A bobcat. Just sitting there, front paws together. The cat slowly blinked its eyes into the morning sun. Waiting for me, Reuben thought. He looked into the cat's face, the dark angles and white lines of it, and could only think how peaceful it looked, how content.
Reuben's sight grew cloudy at the edges, purple and red blotches spun around the cat just as it stood and stretched and swayed forward and Reuben could see the whiskers and tufts off the ears, the eyes grew large, a bright amber in the sunlight and as Reuben's eyes blacked over he felt a paw rough at his neck, the claws sharp against his skin.