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The Warden by David Ackley

The Warden by David Ackley

Fiction, Vol. 4.1, March 2010

The store occupied a weathered frame house on a lot scooped from the dispirited woodlands along Maine’s western border. Matching green pickups were parked near the door, drawing the eye of the man filling his tank at the lone gas pump. The traveler wore a tweed jacket and jeans, and an unhurried air. Watching him from the store window, Spook Wilder, one of the three wardens waiting inside, guessed his employer must not sweat his hours; it had been nearly 10 when they’d run Coudreau to ground here.

For the traveler, the borderland was probably no more than an hour lost getting from here to there. And, in fact, though he’d been coming this way for a couple of years, he only knew what he’d apprehended from behind the wheel: the rippled passages and receding chambers in the light-cracked shadow of the trees; the brief clusters of cottages or trailers on the narrowly habitable isthmus between road and forest. Other transients glimpsed through windshields, or, severed from context, adrift along the shoulder of the two lane highway.

When the man hung up the hose, Spook turned away from the window. Coudreau was slouched bitterly against the counter, smoking a cigarette. A few feet away the major tapped his fingers on the wall, urging the phone to ring; a fresh smear of green marred the back of his pressed shirt. In the bed of Coudreau’s pickup the motorist would see the blue tarp the major had turned aside, the tan foreleg and delicate hoof left exposed, inside would encounter three men uniformed alike and standing apart, make of this what he would.

* * *

Thirty-six hours before, Spook lay in bed listening to the bubbles and faint whistles in Lila’s breathing as she weathered the last of her cold in the next room. He’d been on watch in a way, letting Danielle sleep beside him, but about ready to join her, his eyes closing just before the phone’s ring jacked him upright.

“Fish and Game. Corporal Wilder.”

“Major Halsey, Wilder. I need you tomorrow.”

Just like that: drop everything. “For?”

Instead of replying, the major said, “Can you meet me late tomorrow at the Gilead Grange? You know where that is?”

He did, but said, “I can find it.”

“How’s 5:30 work for you?”

The question implied choice. Once upon a time, when the word came down, it came as an order: you got to it or refused straight up and took your chances. Now you were managed, your responses solicited and gauged. Between orders, you’d been on your own, but the managing never let up. He waited, letting the major supply his own answer.

“Best not to mention this,” Halsey added, just for the insult, no doubt. “All right, then,” the major said, “Gilead, five thirty tomorrow,” and hung up.

Out along the border lay Gilead, where they would meet on Coudreau’s beat without his knowing it. Eventually Coudreau would realize Spook hadn’t warned him. Not that it was now possible. His silence had given Halsey his consent; he was bound to say nothing, his silence his word.

At 4:30 a.m. he woke as he almost always did, on the minute. He tried to hold on to that blank consciousness, stayed for a few seconds from recollection and regret. At least there’d been no call.

He sat up, took a breath, then let his right leg sag carefully to the floor, everything from patella to pelvis offering the expected complaints; the audible rub in his hip socket, the bone splinters that pricked, a quad stiff as dried leather that needed to be coaxed into motion. He’d regained full use, but for a slight hitch on the uphills—though it looked and sometimes felt like the leg of an old man, grudging every claim but retribution.

Until he met Halsey he’d have the day to lose himself in the illusion that his life and work were his own. He dressed and released his piece, first from its metal case, then from the trigger lock, took four rounds from a locked drawer and loaded them, lowering the hammer on one empty chamber and leaving another behind it. Checks against the germ of rage that pricked like those splinters: he’d been bushwacked by a moose poacher and part of him still demanded satisfaction.

When he stepped outside, the darkness was thickened by overcast, the pond below only a slight metallic gleam like a vague recollection of light.

He drove down the long curve of driveway, past the house, the breathing shapes inside slipping back into the dark. A one-story ranch, pale yellow, ordinary, but set in a way he’d liked at first sight, halfway up an open slope that crested in a grove of rock maple. Wild grasses spread down to the road along the pond; rising from the far shore, the wooded hills shuffled colors under the play of sun and cloud. Looking from the deck that first time, he’d eased into the long unfolding of the scene, feeling the walls at his back. You could see a long way, with, like any good sanctuary, a clear field of fire.

*

The major’s pickup carried a white-tail decoy, a ten point buck, the head turned slightly in mild alarm, the points polished white. The glass eyes were a deep purplish brown with a wet sheen, more than convincing, almost too artful to waste on mere bait. They set it up in an abandoned orchard behind a collapsing stone wall after the major had left his pickup in Gilead and directed Spook to the place from notes on a page from a message pad. It was still daylight so they drove to a diner across the state line, where the locals gave them the frank looks they wouldn’t risk on their own law.

The major’s knife and fork moved over his Salisbury steak as he explained things to Spook. Not the present matter, but things of larger scope.

“Our job would be a lot easier if we stuck to the essentials. Investigate, apprehend, testify and move on. All the rest is fluff to impress the legislature and keep the funds coming.”

Halsey had come over from the state police, no-one willing to say whether he’d jumped or been pushed. As with his uniforms, he was tailoring the job to fit. Maybe that was what Fish and Game wanted; he’d made major soon enough. These tendencies flowed through the service, slower than seasons, then receded over time. Back at headquarters, the biologists, out of favor, muttered in their cubicles.

“What do you say, Wilder?” The major’s knife and fork paused in parallel as if framing Spook’s answer.

What did it matter? “It’s part,” Spook said. “It aint everything.”

“Mm.” Halsey chewed and thought. “I’d expect you of anyone…” He was a little perplexed that the poacher’s bullet had failed to convert him. “You’ll come around. An honest man can’t avoid reality.”

A little after dusk they drove back along the orchard; in the half-dark he navigated the dirt track without lights, left off the major, parked a few hundred yards farther in and walked back. By then the major had settled himself on the orchard side of the wall; Spook found himself a soft spot in the leaves on the same side but far enough off to discourage conversation.

The tumbled wall marked a farm not so much abandoned as expelled, like the stones, from the bony, sour ground. His own people had given up on such land. Under the apple trees tangled in their unpruned shoots, notched hoofprints wandered among pitted windfalls and clusters of glossy turd. A warm breeze carried the smells of fallen leaves and fermenting apples and in the sudden way of the forest it was everywhere dark. On a facing hillside a pair of coyotes exchanged frenzied yips, their normal conversation, then abruptly fell silent. He nearly forgot he wasn’t alone. But then there was Coudreau, whose beat it was; like it or not, awkwardly present.

II

The first and only time he’d seen Coudreau and Halsey face to face he’d been on temporary duty to Headquarters between surgeries, some months after coming out of the spruce barrens west of Moosehead on his bloody leg and splintered femur.

All the wardens had been brought in to go over the new regulations; ‘poachers carnival’ they called this annual meeting, for the mischief it loosed on their untended beats. They’d greeted him with handshakes and jokes about the bullseye on their backs; but, later, lugging down the hall lined with uniforms during a break, he felt a different regard, the pack coolly assessing his ability to keep up. The attention chafed, as had reports of his “saga,” when to his mind he’d narrowly survived his own stupid oversight.

In the hallway he’d paused, short-winded and in pain, beside a tall warden who was slouched against the wall smoking. His open-collared shirt wore shadows of old spills. The worn field boots weren’t recommended for visits to the state house, nor the wool pants that had lost track of their crease. His uniform hinted at derision.

Spook was examined for a moment then offered a long bony hand; “Spook Wilder, aint it? Virgil Coudreau. They got me out on the West Coast,” his joke for the landlocked western border, mocking the state fixation with ocean views and coastal real estate. “How’s this for a waste?” He could have meant the droning workshops or headquarters itself.

Spook shrugged. For him it was either take it or leave it for a disability furlough that would probably allow them to ease him out the door.

Coudreau studied him, unfazed. “Could be worse, right?”

Spook grinned despite himself. “Usually is.”

“You’d be the expert.” He had a long face, deeply seamed from nose to jawline, which, with his half-buried eyes, gave him the downcast look of a hound. “What about the ratfuck that done that to you?”

A flicker in the shadows of the trees, the slither of a sliding bolt, that was all; he hadn’t heard the next sound. The sky through a tremor of outspread green hands or maple leaves was intensely blue. “They’d rather you don’t take it personal.” If they gave him a beat again, it would be far away from the old one.

“What about you?”

“Sometimes it’s the one, sometimes the other. Sometimes I’d like to run him down and gut him. Probably just as well to let it slide. ”

This seemed to satisfy Coudreau. “After we’re done here I got to go over the range and qualify. Prob’ly won’t. Give me a wing shot or a running deer and I’ll drop her nine times out of ten. Stand still like them paper targets and I couldn’t hit your ass with a shovel.” He held out his hand and mimed the shakes. “Too yippy.”

Halsey had come up then, all crease and brass and spit shine. Coudreau tossed his cigarette in the butt can and peeled himself away from the wall.

“Wilder.” Halsey nodded, having finally left off the handshaking after their third or fourth encounter. “Just in from the field, Coudreau?” As if Coudreau’s appearance pled for an excuse. Bulletins came from the Halsey’s office on the proper state of the uniform.

“You bet, major. In from the field.”

Halsey’s mouth under the moustache twisted oddly and he turned abruptly and left. When he was out of hearing, Coudreau said, “Cops. You won’t see him out where every other shitheel is packin’ a twelve gauge and a grudge…Friggin’ right the field. Like they was anyplace else. It’s all the friggin’ field.”

Little enough, he’d thought at the time, just personalities, in an organization where there was room enough to swim apart; now he wondered if there’d been more to it that he knew nothing about.

*

After the last surgery, he’d gone back out with MacNeil, an old timer assigned to the south coastal suburbs to ease him through his last few years to retirement, Spook enduring the riding around and the biweekly physical therapy in hope of leaving such places behind. Most of the open land in this part of the state was under contract or pavement; they rode past thickets of real estate signs in MacNeil’s cruiser, pausing for the roadkill which they tallied and pulled or scraped each day from the public thoroughfare. Every field paved, every species carrion; the carnage evoked trench warfare.

Once with Spook behind the wheel they were northbound on the interstate near Gray, carried along on the evening commute, when a skipper—a yearling whitetail—jumped a fence into the melee. It had come through the backyard of a row of duplexes like somebody’s runaway pet, with that stifflegged bounce nearly over the hood of a red Subaru, nearly under the great, chrome bumper of a semi, across the median and into the flow south, the lanes so close-packed they resembled three trains on parallel tracks; in the rearview he’d rooted the deer across two of the three lanes when it went airborne, pinwheeled nose over tail in a high arc, then disappeared beyond the staccato flash of metal.

In the mirror no one had even hit their brakes, but by the time they got to an exit and turned back, two cars had pulled over. The first on the scene, a bulky man in a dark suit, was backing toward the open hatch of his SUV, dragging the deer by its hindquarters, its chin plowing a small furrow in the gravel. When they came toward him, he paused, still gripping his trophy, and gave them a look that solicited approval. Spook grinned and jerked his thumb, dismissing him empty-handed. MacNeill clipped a tag to the skipper’s ear.

They donated the meat to the Little Sisters of Charity in Gray. “Perfect hide,” MacNeil said, a little wistfully when that had to be given away as well. “No marks, soft as butter. Make a nice glove.”

After Spook got away, the time and place resided for him in the driver’s look, pleading indulgence for some strain of avarice detached from need or even desire, not even really his, but of the place itself, like the low charred haze over the cities and the sweetish smell of carrion baking into the pavement.

*

The beat they gave him happened to be the one adjoining Coudreau’s in the crumpled terrain of the state’s western foothills, sub-boreal forest insistently logged for pulp but still wild enough to suit. Coudreau seemed cheered by his arrival. He’d been covering both beats since Red Lovett had retired and was drawn pretty fine. Once Spook had got his wife and daughter settled and introduced himself at the town and county offices, Coudreau took him around, following obscure back roads between their beats. Coudreau had grown up nearby and had the local’s feel for the countryside, negotiating the twisting, narrow blacktops at speed with one hand on the wheel, occasionally pointing out a honey hole as they passed a small trout stream. Spook pictured a boy carrying a fish pole and a can of nightcrawlers, coming home with a brookie half the length of his leg that would send his old man swearing out the kitchen door.

On the third day they were on Spook’s side, driving up a mountain road gouged by logging trucks, freeze cycles and indifferent repair. Midway through a curve, Coudreau swung to the shoulder and shut off the engine. A small sign on a tipped stake said, like a terse directive, Overlook .

They got out and walked to the edge, where a steep pitch of parched grass and scrub fell to a ledge which cut away to the lake, stilled by distance, a thousand feet below. Windrows seamed the blue surface. Below them, the minute silhouette of a raptor grew larger as it rose on a thermal, then stroked once and banked down and away. A white ribbon, the wake of an invisible boat, was towed deliberately across the blue. From the distant shore, hills rolled north, shifting from blue to slate to smoke that merged with the sky. Over all was an immense quiet. He tried to take it all in. Beyond sight to the north his beat came to an end in a jig northeast along the Quebec border to a line due east through several of the unorganized townships—unsettled places, mere formal designations on the map of the northern timberland. He didn’t even own the house he lived in but all that could be seen in every direction, and a good deal more, was in effect, his.

He looked at Coudreau and laughed.

“Bunch of it, ain’t they?” Coudreau said. “Takes a while to get to know, I tell you what. Put two armies up here and they’d waste the goddam war looking for each other.” He could have meant the old forest wars centuries gone, the long whispered trek through wood and bog, the quick bloody ambush and harried retreat… “Wonder we never catch nobody,” he added―an excuse lying in wait for a complaint, it sounded like.

Coudreau had gotten on as one of the last few under the old standard, before a bachelor’s degree became mandatory and a high school diploma, experience in the woods, and a passing score on the test boosted by a few points of veteran’s preference was enough to make you a warden. He was divorced and lived alone. He and Spook had both grown up on the same kind of tilted, rock-grubbing farm that had sent him into the Air Force and Spook off to the university, neither with much more in mind than escape. After a second hitch, Coudreau had taken his discharge and come back home to a lathe in a turning mill making dowels and mop handles until the warden’s job came along. Spook had graduated in Forestry and after a few years timber cruising for a paper company north of Bangor, decided marking stands for pulpwood had him in the right place for the wrong purpose. Though they were about of an age, he had five years as a warden on Coudreau. They talked with shared loathing of indoor jobs they’d had, like ex-cons sharing stories of life on the block.

Near the end of the week they were up on 49, one of the townships on Coudreau’s beat, when he turned the truck onto a logging road, which, from the dust on the leaves and crisp tread marks in the dirt, had seen recent and regular use. “I been saving this,” was all Coudreau offered. He drove it fast and familiarly, gravel pinging off the fender wells as they followed long curves and shallow undulations through clearcuts filled with slash.

Around a quick bend, Coudreau grunted, “Oh shit,” and fought the pickup to a slewing halt. “Somethin’ new.”

A double strand of barbed wire, rigged just below bumper level, had been strung across the dirt road. On the right side it could be opened and closed—assuming you knew it was there or had seen it in time. Spook got out to unhook it and left it aside and they drove on through, Coudreau drawing his right hand across his forehead for the close call.

A half mile beyond they broke starkly into a clearing where the ground was hardpacked and bare; a two-story dwelling, a hunting camp with ambitions, had been left partly covered in Tyvek, partly in unfinished plywood. Along its front, there were eight or ten vehicles, mud-runner pickups, a listing Dodge van, a polished black Harley, dirt bikes; even an army-surplus deuce and a half still bearing its battalion insignia.

Two shirtless men sat on a sagging porch peering at the pistol one of them held; when Coudreau shut off the engine, they stood without moving closer and the one with the handgun tucked it into the back pocket of his jeans. Three others drifted from inside, while another, taller and fatter than the rest, came around the corner cradling a rifle and approached the wardens with a spew of cheerful curses. Black curls covered his ears and he had a splayfooted rocking gait and the demeanor of a large and lethal boy.

“What’s this?” Spook asked. “The hole-in-the-wall gang?”

“Workin’ on it,” Coudreau said. They slid out of the cab and stood beside the truck. Two young women in halters and shorts had appeared on the porch.

“Whatchoo doin’ up here, Virge?” The rifle-toting greeter shouted from six feet away. “Come to fuck me over again?”

Coudreau’s head jerked from side to side, discomfited, overemphatic.

“Nothin’ like that, Joe. Nothin’ like that. Just passing by, is all.”

Somewhere in back, roused dogs bawled, hounds for the most part, though silent among them were likely pit bulls, with raw pit slashes. The breeze carried a rank streamer of dog shit. There was the pulse of a diesel generator; lights in the windows, the blare of a TV. There’d be a freezer, with haunches of frozen venison, ready for sale.

The other men had moved closer, young studs in dirty jeans with pistol butts overhanging their pockets. The women watched from the porch, hip-slung, arms folded across their breasts, their faces in the shadow of the porch roof.

“Who’s your friend, Coudreau? That Spook Wilder hisself? Heard you was out this way.” The voice came from the middle of the half-circle they’d formed around the side of the truck body where Spook and Coudreau rested, a neat, compact man, with short hair, a new white T-shirt and immaculate black jeans. His face was smooth, as featureless as an eggshell with a low, downturned nose and a compressed slit of a mouth. The eyes that slid across Spook’s were flat, indifferent.

“Tell him what you done to me, Virge,” the fat boy demanded.

“Caught Little Joe redhanded, didn’t you, Virge? Got him six months down the county.”

“Hell, no-one was going to overlook that,” Coudreau appealed to Spook. “They was half a moose in his pickup.”

He wondered why Coudreau was apologizing. The smooth face said to him, “You ever catch up with the one put that hole in your leg?”

“Not yet.”

“They say you crawled three mile out of them woods bleedin’ the whole way.”

“That so? Who says that?” He let his eyes wander the compound as if the conversation was of no interest. A shed leaned against the side of the house and there was another structure about thirty feet from where they stood, something knocked together from eight foot pallets and rough boards in a kind of enclosure.

“Them.” The man laughed without much mirth.

“I don’t recall seeing them, but if that’s what they say…”

“They say you can track anything anywhere. Track a cat up a stone wall. Found that sugar got lost up to Baxter and brung her in alive.”

“Movie Star!” Joe offered.

“Teevee, you dumb shit. Kim Melaney, that’s on that Hope Reborn in the afternoon.” His attention returned to Spook. “Downstater’d get lost pissin’ by the turnpike.” Downstate seemed to take in most of the continent to the south.

As if to confirm the obvious, he added, “You fucked her, right? I mean you did fuck her? That’s way too sweet to pass up. Fact, I might of kept her. Put her in a pen like my wolf over there. Feed her right. Take her out for a ride couple times a day.” His friends were amused.

“Wolf.” Spook unfolded his arms. “I’d like to see that.” He ambled through the encircled men toward the pallets nailed together in a rectangle, about eight feet tall and open to the sky. He looked through a crack and when his eyes adjusted to the shadow, saw the dark form curled in one corner, the yellow eyes looking through the walls, through him to something beyond.

The same voice, now at his shoulder, confided, “Prob’ly aint no wolf. Prob’ly German Shepherd or somethin’ like that. Just some old stray wandered up this way.”

“Like one of those old strays Jib Gentry was breeding from the stock they trapped up near Chibougamou.”

The man shrugged. Spook walked back to the truck, nodded to Coudreau and got in.

“Good seein’ you boys,” Coudreau said, leaning forward behind the wheel so they could see his face.

“You too, Virge,” the man said, looking at Spook through the open side window. “Come on up anytime. Bring all your friends. We’ll get down to see you one of these days. Still out to Coventry Road in that double-wide? Old lady still living in the house?”

They’d know where he lived as well. He applied that smooth face to a form moving up through the wild grass to the yellow house at a time when Danielle and Lila would be alone—after school, making brownies in the spare little kitchen, maybe—and he miles away as usual, off somewhere in the wild. His leg, with its own reasons, endorsed a pre-emptive barrel crease across that incurved nose but Coudreau had started the truck, gunned the engine and they were already pulling away; in the side mirror he watched them watching the truck recede.

On the ride out, little was said. Coudreau lit one cigarette from the butt of the other. They stopped so Spook could clip off the barbed wire trap and throw it in the truck bed, knowing it would be replaced before the day was out.

If Coudreau had asked, he wouldn’t have minded helping clean them out of there, but he didn’t want to insult the other warden by offering. You were put out where you might be the only law worth the name for a hundred miles and expected to handle whatever came up. Asking help from those who had their own problems could be a bad career move. As Coudreau had said, guns and grudges came with the territory. Maybe he’d hoped showing Spook would be worth something, but the boys up on 49 weren’t impressed. If Coudreau was going to go poking nests, he’d best be ready for what came flying out.

The man’s name was Pud Lester, the camp a leasehold on Worldwide’s timberland where there had been sporting camps close held by families for generations. There was no open paper on Lester except for a restraining order taken out by an ex-girlfriend. There’d been a few moving violations, one simple and one aggravated assault, both filed when the complainants backed down. Lester’s sporting licenses were clean though he’d been hunting—and tagging deer—since he was eleven. Finding nothing in the paper trail, Spook dropped the matter and though he and Coudreau were often in touch over the following year, the encounter on 49 only came up once more and then just in passing.

In late fall they manned the weighing station together, compiling the whitetail kill for both beats. After the first big snowfall, they snowshoed in to check on black bear sows snoozing with their new cubs. One windy day in February, Coudreau belayed him down a frozen waterfall to a couple of stranded ice climbers just good enough to get higher than they could get down from.

Come iceout they backpacked brook trout in to stock the remote ponds.

The best, a blue teardrop on the map near Kilburn Gore not far from the Quebec border, was a five mile hump over rough country. Red Lovett had started sowing the pond early in his thirty year run and there were now a few brookies pushing six pounds. Though no secret, the pond wasn’t exactly publicized either and most who fished it somehow happened to be wardens, their kin or friends. Anyone who’d want these trout had to earn them by being willing to fight through puckerbrush and black flies, rockfalls and spruce bogs where the ATV’s couldn’t go. Even in Fish and Game there were fewer and fewer willing to make the effort. Like MacNeil they’d got comfortable behind the wheel and on days off, some preferred golf, riding the little electric carts over shorn grass.

“Ford Rangers,” someone called these wardens.

The pond could have been stocked by plane; more and more were. But there were no good estimates on how many fingerlings would survive the fifty foot drop to a surface that from that height was stiff as brick. Anyway, the truth was they both liked packing the trout in; they didn’t really need an excuse.

It was one of those astringent days in early June—still spring in those parts—when the bruised hues of the leafless hardwoods were spattered with early greenings of poplar and birch, before the black flies came out for blood, the sky a milky blue transited by fat white clouds, flatbottomed scows scudding east to the sea. Water sloshed in the jerry cans strapped in their wicker pack baskets, jostling the bright fry they’d dipped, shimmering in panic, from the hatchery tank. There was no trail to speak of, Red having set the custom of bushwacking to the pond, freshening Coudreau’s aggravation whenever he had to bull through deadfall or retrieve his boot from black muck; “Loony old Davy Crockett!” But he grinned like a kid barefoot in a puddle.

Coudreau was as alert to signs as he, but selective; deer prints, moose browse, tufts of black hair snagged on spruce bark all drew his hunter’s eye, which passed over the shaggy nest of an osprey, the tiny prints of a Meadow jumping mouse etched in a sheen of mud. They argued amiably over coyotes, Coudreau defending a bounty for control or—better—extermination.

“You see coydogs take down a doe? I see this pregnant doe once, they’d chewed their way up her ass-end and pulled her insides out while she was still running. Pulled out her fawn, et it too. Coyote’s just another name for a shiteating cur. We ought to trap out ever one of the fuckers.”

Like most hunters he was advocate for the deer he’d kill.

“A field biologist told me coyote speed up their breeding cycle when the population’s threatened. Everywhere they put on bounties ended up with more than what they’d started with.”

This only fueled Coudreau’s disgust: “Just like the goddam things.”

On the high ground, spruce and fir gave way to hardwood, the sugar maple just starting to bud. A gust of wind had stripped away branches and with them, a white-faced hornets’ nest which had shattered to expose the papery innards, like a handful of torn pages. Normally the inhabitants would react viciously to threats, but only a few feeble survivors were left to crawl over the wreckage, lifting their forelegs as if feeling for their walls in the dark, leaderless, undone by dispossession.

Not far ahead the pond appeared, glints of gunmetal through the trees.

*

It was some months before Pud Lester’s name came up again. Spook was on the southern end of his beat, in a mill town with a state two-lane doubling as the main drag. A few peeling stores leaning together were flanked by faded double deckers with shades but no curtains in the windows, making up the town’s center, which tailed away in a string of several trailers across from the planing mill that more or less accounted for the place.

Behind an outbuilding was the tallest visible structure, a rusting water tower whose tank bore the usual class numerals in red paint and the shadows of previous years under patches of gray primer. He got the story from the owner of a hardware store, a wiry man in an old fatigue cap with the three faded stripes of a buck sergeant:

One hot Saturday a few summers back, a fellow name of Billy Navins charged out of his trailer with his deer rifle, a box of shells, and a fifth of Wild Turkey and climbed to the roof of the mill where he began sighting in the rifle on various targets of opportunity, being the display windows of this same store and Claire’s fabric store beside it; glass insulators on the crosstrees of telephone poles, dissolving in a satisfying cascade of green splinters; the mirror of a parked car; the stop sign for the one cross street; a cat moving across so fast it seemed to outleg the bullet. Baking in the heat, the town laid low, listening in silence for the retort of the rifle and the intermittent howl of Billy Navins, cursing his wife (they thought she must have been disposed of on his way out the door), his super at the mill, the dealer who’d repoed his pickup, this shithole where he’d been born, raised and stuck his whole fuckin’ useless life.

Law? Christ, the nearest statie was down to Sabbathday Falls, eighty mile south and Red Lovett was up by the Quebec border. One of the shots had done in the phones. Sure they had a town constable―part-time, paid from the moving violations he wrote up, never seen a problem he couldn’t avoid.

In the end it was Pud Lester who took it on himself to climb the water tower, his scoped Remington Two-Two-Three slung, climbed the ladder to the catwalk in plain sight, if Navins had thought to turn around and look, which he didn’t. On the catwalk Lester moved around from the off side, sat back against the tank, put the crosshairs on Billy’s left earhole and with no more forethought than you’d give a dumpster rat, touched off a 125-grain copper point that made hardly a mark going in and removed the offside of his skull coming out.

“Like you’d slabbed off the side of his head with a ax. And brains—lord. You wouldn’t figure the damn fool for half what was sprayed all over that roof.” The storekeeper removed his cap by the bill and rubbed his forehead hard with the same hand.

Afterwards, whether Lester should be charged became the hot question. Billy’s widow, loud and alive as ever, his few friends and the young minister pushed hard for satisfaction from the law. Aside from Billy’s, the only blood spilled was from a slight cut on Claire’s wrist that owned the fabric shop from when her window fell in on her. Otherwise, just a lot of shattered glass and punctured tin, for which crimes Billy Navins had been executed on the spot.

“Call that justice?” roared the grieving, who swore her husband couldn’t shoot worth a shit, drunk or sober, was no risk to anybody but his self, had never even tagged a deer in the 15 seasons he’d snuck off to deer camp to play cards, drink and get away from home. That day he was just mad because she’d kicked him out of the trailer, deer rifle and all.

Lester, for his part, was a big game hunter who’d been all over the country and the provinces, killing grizzly in British Columbia; spikehorn in the Yellowstone Valley; mountain sheep, elk and cougar, and had the heads and hides to prove it. There wasn’t anything righteous in what he done, some said, just the chance for a trophy you couldn’t get a permit for.

But others maintained that Billy Navins was a mad dog who had to be put down and were just glad Lester had been around to do it. Someone even said: “Call it a mercy killing… Put the poor bastard out of his misery, didn’t he?” As usual, the more opinions, the fuzzier the picture, until even those who’d started with strong views weren’t really sure what had happened or what they thought about it.

No charges were ever filed. Nobody was going to come out looking very good if Lester got brought up by the guardians of life and property for doing their job for them. The county attorney let it slide without even an inquest, the only record left, filed away in the memories of those like the storekeeper who’d told Spook the story.

But the tale turned out to have a life of its own, people kept going back to it and for that or other reasons, Lester left inside a year for the camp up on 49.

Massaging his forehead again, the hardware store owner had said, “I still can’t see the satisfaction in it.”

“You think that’s what he did it for?”

“Lester? He aint what you call civic-minded.”

“Well, if it needed doing, maybe it doesn’t matter why he did it.”

The storekeeper laughed. “Too deep for me, Warden. I never can tell why anyone does half the shit they do. All’s I know is that Pud Lester lives to hunt… I’m just glad he’s up on 49 where I don’t have to worry about getting crossways with somebody what…”

“Got away with murder?”

He laughed again. “You said it, I didn’t.”

*

Of course Coudreau knew Lester’s story. When Spook told him about the conversation with the storekeeper, he said, “I tell you what: it wasn’t no fun taking Little Joe out of there.”

“Still, you did it,” Spook offered.

“Yeah,” Coudreau had said. “Just.”

III

Major Halsey’s subdued, even breathing was interrupted by the scuff of cloth, the chink of loose change as he woke and shifted position. The quilled crests of the hills had begun to precipitate from the skyline. A pair of doves a hundred yards apart took up some old grievance. Awake without lapse, Spook felt lightheaded but still alert. They had an hour so until daylight, when Halsey’s nameless project would have to terminate. They’d pick up the decoy and the major would go back to headquarters to nurture some other vendetta. Something coasted overhead, a soft rip in the air like a knife slicing bread, close enough to make his neck prickle. A shriek spiked deep into the ear. The major’s boot scraped: “ What…?”

“Owl,” Spook said, low. “Rabbit.”

Presently, from a limb high in the pines, the snap of small bones.

Then quiet again, the slow exchange of light for dark, the spiky apple trees advancing from the shadow. This would be a likely time, the last feeding before daylight sent the deer back into the shadows. They listened again for an approach along the way they’d taken in…who they would let pass to find the decoy while they circled from behind, unseen, blocking escape, to apprehend. He’d heard something, possibly an engine but it was wrongly oriented, too far off when it went quiet. In the silence he had the uneasy feeling that something had been overlooked.

Familiar, charged, the doubled snick of a bolt chambering a round, cocking—just like his nightmares. They’d passed the night in the shelter of the wall, waiting for someone coming the same way they had. The sound had come from the woods across the orchard they’d been exposed to all night. How could he overlook the other way in that was always there? He rolled across the wall, leaving the slow thinker behind.

The major struggled to his feet in the white blaze of the jacklight, a monstrous flapping bird hopelessly ensnarled in the black barbs and twisted branches of the silhouetted apple trees. Blinded, he clawed at his holster, threatening self-harm.

“I KNOW YOU!” he bawled, dancing in the pitiless light.

His right foot beat the ground, he tugged at his revolver, stomping and turning in a half circle. It was only when he dropped both hands to desperately grab his leg that Spook realized the major’s foot had gone to sleep on him. The light held like a gaping audience.

When it winked out, Spook groped, caught the major’s polished belt and hauled him backward across the wall.

“Uff,” Halsey said when he hit the ground. His pistol, finally in his hand, flew off and landed somewhere behind with—only—bless the luck―a dull clank rather than the discharged round that might have cleaned one of them out. Likely me, Spook thought, given his luck with bullets.

“Stay down,” Spook suggested.

Halsey scrabbled for a lift up, as if anxious to offer them a clean shot at him.

“Can you see him, Wilder? Can you see the little sonofabitch?”

He coughed to muffle the laugh. He couldn’t have picked out a roman candle from those arcing through his vision.

The spotlight flared again; the beam touched the spot where the Major had been, then tracked along the wall, dropped and crept along the ground to the magnificent decoy, emblazening it for one grand moment like the withheld star suddenly revealed. The rifle fired: small caliber, high velocity, snubbed by impact. The dark returned. The bullet had struck well to their left. They hadn’t been fired on.

Into the aftersilence, the voice across the orchard, barely raised, flat, almost familiar:

“You know shit.”

Before long an engine started, revved, and gradually diminished in the distance, the sound broken at intervals by wild whoops that could still be heard even after the engine died away.

Halsey stood, brushed himself off, picked up his revolver. His turn in the spotlight must have been the major’s first such performance ever, his audience out in the dark beguiled by the rare delight of making a clown of an enemy.

Halsey took it badly. Someone—culpable or not—would have to pay.

The single shot had done for the decoy, the deep jewel of its right eye a few splinters of dark glass, the left antler snapped-off at the root, a concavity where the forehead had swelled—familiar mayhem, somehow.

Halsey prodded it with his foot. “Leave it,” he said. As though he hadn’t heard, Spook lugged it to the wall. When he returned with the pickup he tossed the ruined decoy in the bed to be stowed later in his garage, safe from the uses of those jokers, who would have hung it on somebody’s garage for a trophy portrait with a dozen smirking hunters, copies for every bar and crossroads store from the border to the capitol.

Halsey grimly directed Spook on an aimless tour through the border country, following dwindling back roads which would end at a shack or trailer with a yard full of gutted vehicles and greasy parts, loose piles of cordwood, a few sullen dogs; reversing direction to the silent stares of skinny men and heavy women, on to another road not much different. He needed a hide.

“You know where Coudreau lives?”

Spook drove up Coventry Road to where Coudreau’s own small trailer was vacant, his pickup gone. He felt relieved; if Coudreau did turn up it would take a long stretch for Halsey to connect him with what had happened in the orchard. Coudreau would have to endure an asschewing—it had happened on his watch after all—and an indefinite stretch of oversight. It would not be easy, but maybe it would be good for him, though once Coudreau saw Spook together with Halsey, things would never be the same between them. But he’d still have his badge and his beat and a life in the open, reprieved still from that half-life amid the din of machines and grinding repetition, breathing sawdust in the crimped, airless space of a turning mill.

It wasn’t until they’d come on Coudreau’s pickup parked at the store, hours later, and Halsey lifted the blue tarp that Spook saw his error; Coudreau might have slipped free from Halsey’s maneuvers but the doe still warm in the bed of Coudreau’s pickup had nothing to do with Halsey—Coudreau had stepped in his own shit, the shit of habit and thinking yours are the only eyes that see.

They’d entered the store, the major ahead, having already adjudicated the matter to his own satisfaction in guilt and dismissal, with only the formalities to negotiate. Seeing instantly how it was, Coudreau appealed to Spook; “I was just now going home to get my tags, she’s all busted up by the side of the road, just now put her d…” Spook dismissed the plea with a light flick of his hand cutting off Coudreau’s voice as effectively as if the hand was wrapped around his windpipe.

“Save the fiction for your statement,” the major said, brushing past to the pay phone where he’d put in a call to the county courthouse for a stenographer.

Coudreau’s cutoff words would be nearly the last spoken between them, at the last moment they’d look at each other with anything like trust. Both would believe they’d overlooked what counted about the other. To Spook the ease between them would be vividly missed; his silence needed to be broken by other voices so it didn’t settle over his own thoughts and leave him with nothing much to say to himself either.

Spook watched the man at the pump filling the tank of his Honda, watched him walk past the two pickups and register what was under the tarp, watched him begin to interrogate the scene for its sense. In the few moments while the girl processed his credit card, the traveler fought the urge to look again at the three wardens. He had a sense of a charged moment, a hinge in time.

Outside he glances again at the deer with a kind of wonder at its power, one beast among the many they saw turned to meat, the common currency of their working lives, utterly ordinary to them. The traveler slides again into his car, starts the engine and heads east, a passing presence who’d seen nothing really and who before long would have forgotten it all.

So, Spook, at least, preferred to believe.

IV

Pending disposition of the charge, Coudreau was reassigned downstate to fisheries, checking for short lobsters from an outboard skiff in the bays and inlets and open waters of the Atlantic. The lobstermen, especially around the islands, bore an implacable hatred for lawmen passed on father to son. And would let you know it in every possible way―spit, spray and gunshot. It was a hardening assignment for rookies which nobody outlasted; you were either moved on to your own beat, or with no hope of that, walked away. Everyone knew which direction Coudreau was headed. Eventually Spook stopped asking after him and heard no more.

They added Coudreau’s old beat to Spook’s and he tried to cover them both—waiting for the replacement, as Coudreau had once waited for him.

The tale of what had happened in the apple orchard swiftly began to circulate. It came back to Spook in a couple of versions, one smirking, embellished, as it might have been seen from out there behind the jacklight, the major dancing on the strings of the original teller’s devising. The other hesitant, partial, shorter on the detail and audience hilarity, but close enough to the truth, offered up to Spook for his verification. Which, in both instances, he withheld.

Though he kept his own version to himself, without his help the story made its way to Augusta and up the ranks of Fish and Game.

A few months after he’d last heard of Coudreau, Spook was up on 49 with Garrity, the Chief Forester for Worldwide Paper, the company which owned most of the land. There wasn’t anything planned, but while Spook was looking over the USGS map and Garrity drove, he realized where they were and saw that it had been in the back of his mind to look in on them for some time, drawing nearer to it without really thinking about it.

They hiked in around a pond and climbed a knoll that overlooked the camp downwind of the dogs. They watched for a while, handing his field glasses back and forth. The pen had been knocked down in place, reduced to a jumble of overlapping pallets and he wondered if they’d got bored with the wolf and turned it loose to run down with the dogs. Joe slept on the porch, beer bottle in one hand, rifle on the porch floor. After about half an hour, someone that looked like Lester stepped out the door, stretched, looked around and went back inside. Through a window they could see the blue flicker of a TV screen.

Garrity stretched out with his head comfortably against a stump, smoked a cigarette and looked at the sky. “What you got on these fellas?”

Nothing much, he had to admit, just suspicions.

“Of what?”

Grinning, he said, “Dope smuggling,white slavery, theft and trafficking of wild game. Mixed mayhem and assorted mischief.”

“Better get on it, hadn’t you?”

“Probably, but if I come up with something it won’t look too good for Worldwide’s image, outlaws on their land and all.”

“What image? It’s a paper company, for Christ’s sake.”

In another half hour, Spook stood up and looked out beyond the camp. From the top of the knoll the boreal canopy stretched away, a nubby blue-green carpet all the way to Labrador, a seamless fabric that concealed all scars and inroads. He could wait until something came up. The long view offered the option of leaving things to the land itself, final arbiter of what would stay or go.

Heading out, they circled widely, leaving the dogs as silent as when they’d come. A few hundred yards on, Garrity paused at the new stump of a white pine, three feet or more in diameter, ran his hand across the cut, looked off in the direction of fresh skidder marks and muttered what sounded like, ‘My goddamn timber…’ They went on their way.

In another ten days, Spook was back on 49 alone. On a rise, he pulled off the road to try Linda, the county dispatcher, and when he raised her, gave her the coordinates of the camp from the map he’d spread out on the hood.

“I’ll be looking in on some sports, thought I’d let you know where.”

Her voice, even through the crackling had a worried, maternal lilt: “Spook, honey? You want me to patch you through to Augusta?”

“Don’t bother. When I get into their camp I’ll try you again. If you don’t hear from me by four, give Lieutenant Benoit down to headquarters a buzz.” He considered suggesting she tell Ray to bring the dogs and shovels, then thought better of it, not wanting to strain her sense of humor.

But a couple of miles farther north, when he turned onto the logging road where Coudreau had first taken him into Pud Lester’s camp, he found the way blocked by a newly installed gate, steel pipe hinged to sawn-off telephone poles set in concrete, secured with a foot-long padlock of stainless steel.

The sign on the gate read:

Property of Worldwide Paper Inc.

Authorized Personnel Only

Trespass Subject to Prosecution

That night he called Garrity. “I guess you cleaned out that nest.”

He’d wanted it quick and final, without any procedural waltzing. He’d taken in two vans of employees and a D-9 on a flat bed. One of the vans held a half dozen security guards, and the other some loggers who’d been cooped up in a rainy logging camp where the only fun had been wearing out their knuckles on one another—they carried axes, cantdogs, chainsaws. It must have been Lester that Garrity had handed the paper, to a three-line notice to vacate which he’d typed up and signed himself without bothering to clear it with legal. “Short brown hair, kind of a flat face? Seemed like he run the show?”

“Sounds like. He give you any grief?”

“Not about to. Them loggers was just begging for an excuse.”

Garrity gave them an hour and they got to it, hauling the half-wild dogs into cages on one of the trucks and shoving others into a van. “The trouble with half-wild is that the tame half never shows up. Ask the fella loading them about the chunk got took out of his leg.” From the house there was a range of weaponry, an empty freezer, folding chairs and tables, filled garbage bags, TVs, a video player. They carried out and loaded the generator, two to a side, from the shed. Left on the floor of the kitchen were haunches of frozen venison which disappeared with the loggers —nothing else incriminating that he saw. Spook sighed with the loss of what he might have made from the contents of those garbage bags. He recalled something else unaccounted for: “Any women with them?”

“None that I saw,” Garrity said, “Maybe they was buried out back.”

Then they were gone, Lester leading them out on his Harley, the rooster tail of dust enveloping the last ones in line, the engines fading in the distance. At the end of the road they’d begin to separate and scatter over the ragged land.

Once they’d left, Garrity backed the cat off the flatbed, let the loggers exercise their chainsaws on the corner studs and turned the place into matchsticks and kindling. It’s always a surprise how much less a building seems in the rubble, all that enclosed space turned back to the surroundings like air from a punctured balloon. He packed down what was left by driving the cat back and forth over it a few times then graded dirt over it until there was no trace of dwelling or occupants, just a low tapered mound in a bare clearing, waiting for the pale shoots to drive through the buried rubble and retake the ground.

*

When it came his turn, Major Halsey’s departure was handled more tenderly than Coudreau’s, benefitting from the self-insuring courtesies bosses grant their own. They let him go back to the state police with only the mild embarrassment of a drop in rank to his permanent grade of captain. Maybe over there, where other standards applied, the story wouldn’t weigh too heavily; but back at Fish and Game his presence would be erased and as quickly as could be managed, forgotten.

Asked about their night in the apple orchard, Spook kept his silence. The job could do without another entry in the annals of cunning woodsmen outwitting stiffs in smokeybear hats, those barstool legends where even some feral little sniper could bushwack himself a place. To the questioners, Spook’s silence served just as well; they knew if it was untrue he’d have said so. Not that it really mattered. Whatever he said or didn’t say, the story would be told. Such stories always were, as if they had to be.

No One Expects a Widow to Speak by Emily Adrian

Reversals by Jessica Maybury

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