Reuben James had spent most of the morning running his trap lines, as he did nearly every morning. It had become a necessary routine, never to be missed, ever since the day he lay in bed with fever and left his traps unattended, only to find that a red fox, caught by a Newhouse #2 spring trap, had gnawed off its own foot to escape.
Nearly a year later, he stumbled upon that same fox, its corpse flattened by age and decomposition, hidden in a small hollow underneath a fallen sweet gum tree. He leaned back upon his haunches and considered it for a spell, contrite for the indignity the creature had suffered, only to die in vain underneath a log. Finally, he stood back up and went on his way, checking each trap before moving on to the next.
By the end of the line, Reuben had collected two raccoons and four muskrats, all stuffed into a canvas sack that was tied off with a bit of string and slung over his shoulder. While the muskrats were dead upon his finding them, drowned by the same waters that afforded them protection, the raccoons were very much alive. In order to preserve the pelt, he would stand over the animal as it hissed and growled its general hatred for him and then strike it in the head with a short iron rod he carried for just that purpose. In his pocket he holstered a short-barreled .45 caliber Navy Colt once carried by his father, a Confederate soldier during the war.
Reuben’s trapline was situated along a trail used primarily by game. It followed the river’s edge until the embankment became too steep. There the path would wind farther inland, underneath large poplars and the occasional cypress trees. It would eventually make its way back to the water where the embankment became less steep. That side of the river was sandy but well packed, with an occasional limestone outcropping which could be the home of any number of beasts. He would often spot a mountain lion on one rocky spire in particular, its tail twitching nervously as Reuben walked past, always keeping his distance, a hand on the pistol in his pocket. The other side of the river, which Reuben had never visited but would gaze upon frequently, was flat and often flooded.
Upon checking the last of his waterborne traps, Reuben circled back, checking up on a few that were placed inland, along a stream bed. If it were a bad day and his traps were empty, he might spend some time in the stream catching crawdads. But his sack was not empty and his sister was expecting him for supper, so he hurried upstream, checked his two remaining traps, and then hustled his way back toward the house.
The return trip was a nearly straight line through the wood, another game trail, beaten down by the numerous whitetail deer that seasonally traveled its length. His mouth watered at the thought of venison, and he wondered what his sister had prepared for the midday meal.
Whenever Reuben arrived home, his sister, Eliza, would take the sack from him and begin preparing the animals for skinning while he washed his hands and face and prepared for the meal. She would come to the table with a pot of muskrat stew, roasted venison, or some other bit of roasted meat with potatoes, and always freshly baked bread.
Eliza would bow her head and they would clasp hands as she prayed. Reuben never prayed; he didn’t have much purpose for a God.
Then they would eat and speak on any number of topics. He wasn’t much one for conversation, but his sister could talk to just about anyone, about anything, and sometimes about nothing at all.
Afterward, Reuben would skin the animals, beginning with the raccoons, slicing their coats open from anus to lower lip and down each leg to the paw. Then he would separate the animals from their pelt and scrape the excess fat and flesh from the inside of the skins on a fleshing board with a blunt stone he selected years before. Then he would salt and stretch them on a board to dry. He would hand the meat over to his sister for preparation into future meals. Not his favorite of game, raccoon was a tough and sinewy meat, but when roasted, it could be made tender and quite flavorful. Muskrat, on the other hand, was a tricky animal to prepare; one wrong move with a knife and the scent glands would put a quick end to any meal plan.
Thirty minutes after inspecting his last trap, Reuben entered the small clearing upon which his home had been built by his father, over forty years prior. It’s chimney expelled smokey tendrils that enveloped the nearby cedar tree and clung to its branches and evergreen needles, as if desperate to linger near the earth, to not dissipate into nothingness.
The log structure was aged but well maintained, with sturdy timbers that supported two floors, the first containing a kitchen and living space, complete with a large dining table, with bench seats, that had been used by their family for decades. Above, accessed via a ladder near the far wall, was the sleeping area, a sizeable loft with a large wooden bed.
Attached to the back of the home was a small smokehouse, used by Reuben for both the smoking of various meats and for the preparation of pelts for either their use or trade.
As Reuben approached the house, he could hear his sister speaking with another, a man’s voice, deep and rough; that of Jeremiah Woesby.
Jeremiah Woesby was a gruff man with what had been jet black hair in his youth, now streaked with grey. His long, unkempt beard was also black and grey, though Reuben always assumed he was grey just a bit early for his age. He owned his own parcel of land, located downriver, near a shallow and reclusive section known as the Ghost River. There, where the river shallows and widens into a cypress filled flat area, it is often difficult to determine the actual flow of the river and to become lost. Reuben avoided the area, for the most part, and when the opportunity presented itself, he recommended to others, the same.
Upon walking through the door, Reuben dropped his morning haul and removed his broad-brimmed hat, placing it on a large nail hammered into the wall, just for that purpose.
Once he turned back to the room, he was greeted by the elder man with a nod of his head, which Reuben returned in kind, and an extension of his hand, which he also accepted. He sat on a bench opposite Jeremiah and his sister placed a steaming tin cup on the table in front of him. The rich aroma of coffee and chicory immediately set him more at ease and he was grateful.
It was no secret that Reuben James didn’t care much for the company of Jeremiah Woesby, and that his animosity had no effect on the other, made him dislike the man even more. A widower and man of ill repute, it was said that Jeremiah’s former wife, lovely as the sun, died suspiciously, and Jeremiah left their home in Virginia before the law could fall upon him.
Nevertheless, with Jeremiah came news from outside their land, and an opportunity for Reuben to sharpen his wits. The two men sat and spoke while Eliza finished supper preparations. Their discussion ranged from how the winter seemed to be coming earlier that year, to how cougars were running off the fur-bearing animals and needed to be dealt with, sooner rather than later.
The conversation and the evening wore on uneventful, and Reuben soon found himself tired of company and yearning to retire. He spoke with his sister about sending the elder man on his way, but she argued that time had gotten the better of them all and that his home was too far to travel this late in the evening. She, instead, went about making a place for Jeremiah to sleep by the fire, complete with a bear pelt Reuben had acquired the year before during a hunt further east; a pelt Reuben considered among his finest.
That bear pelt becoming tainted by the smell of that man angered Reuben. It would be one thing if that smell were of pipe tobacco, which he had developed a fondness for, or of bourbon, a scent he also grew to enjoy despite having no taste for the drink itself. But Jeremiah instead smelled of death; he smelled of old death, of things musty and damp. He smelled of wet burlap and mold. He smelled of rot and decay, and it bothered Reuben that he could never decipher why.
He climbed into the loft above, undressed, and readied himself for sleep; that sleep finding him quickly. He no sooner laid his head upon his pillow and closed his eyes before sleep had pulled him into its waiting arms, and he was soon walking amongst the reeds near the river’s edge, all the stars reflected upon its still surface. He was nearing a fox den, when the sounds from within of a mating pair, muffled by earth and rock, found his ears. He hunched down and peered within the hole, the moon’s light strangely bright enough for him to see within, and he witnessed the three-footed fox, dead and decayed, eyeless, with its foul mouth ajar, mounted upon a small female, barely old enough to breed.
Reuben was awoken, suddenly, by noises like those in the fox dens, the sound of muffled yelps and high pitched panting, the rhythmic sound of two bodies meeting in the darkness below. He could make out the distinct pattern of each one’s breath, Eliza’s quick and chaotic, Jeremiah’s slow and deep, more of a grunt than a breath.
Reuben slid free of his blankets and slipped to the edge of the loft to where he could see the couple below.
Jeremiah Woesby lie naked upon his back, splayed upon Reuben’s bear pelt, with Eliza sitting astride his waist, her nightgown gathered up about her midriff. Reuben watched as she forced herself against Jeremiah, hands upon his chest, face turned slightly upwards, and mouth agape as she panted her pleasure. His eyes, reflecting the burning firelight, looked upon Eliza lustfully. He moaned loudly and he pulled her down upon his chest, panting, his body shuddering intensely.
Reuben slid back from the edge and pulled his father’s pistol from his trousers, which were hung up on the bedpost. He could hear Jeremiah’s heavy breath as he himself sighed heavily and pulled back the hammer of the pistol.
The unmistakable sound of a pistol’s hammer alerted Jeremiah, and the trespasser was up in an instant, stumbling, cursing, and attempting to dress as he made his escape.
Reuben slowly, cautiously made his way to the ladder and rung by rung shortened the distance between himself and Jeremiah Woesby.
Woesby opened the front door, pants up to his waist and a single bright red suspender over one shoulder. He dared not chance a glance back as he made his exit, bare-footed, through the opening and across the clearing, toward the woods to the west.
Reuben strode, naked, across the floor of his home, across the now tainted bear pelt, stepping over his now tainted young sister, her mouth opened mid-scream, her eyes fearful of her brother’s wrath. Reuben noticed none of this, his eyes affixed down the iron sights of his father’s Colt revolver, affixed to the back of Jeremiah Woesby as he ran into the darkness. He fired once and then again before he could no longer see the shape of man. He fired twice more blindly and then stood facing the darkness.
Eventually, Eliza’s screams subsided, as did Reuben’s anger.
Six years later as Reuben walked through the familiar wood, following the blood trail left by a small whitetail deer he had wounded with his rifle, he stumbled upon a rock formation at the bottom of a hollow he had never set foot within. He motioned for his sister’s son, Noah, to follow, and together they slid down the slope, to where the deer lay on its side, panting, tongue askew.
Noah walked to the deer and pointed.
Reuben’s eyes followed Noah’s pudgy finger to another shape huddled beneath the rocks, that of a man, long dead and gone from this earth, his skeletal remains seemingly never disturbed by man nor beast, wearing only a pair of trousers with one dull red suspender. He gazed upon the ivory-colored bones and thought only briefly of Jeremiah Woesby, reflecting upon his tainted bear pelt, his young sister, Eliza, and of her untimely death, delivering that wretched man’s son into this world.
Then, Reuben James and the young boy field-dressed the doe and made their way back to the house, neither again mentioning the bones they found in the wood or the red suspenders that it wore.