Sooner or later you’ll tire of hunting. You’ll wish for something gamer.
With intricate motions of his hands, Loyal scratches out a spare cadence with slate and bone, calling a flock of turkeys roosting on a saddle between twin mountains. The trees are a maidenhead swath overlooked by the survey in 1885, a rare place where men go missing. Loyal watches the flat below and wonders when the saws will come, wonders if and when they’ll round up a lynch mob.Palming a saucer of slate, Loyal grinds the bone’s end against the surface in minute circles. The wingbone came from last year’s kill, the slate from a railroad grade notching Mozark Mountain. He cradles an ancient side-by-side worn the luster of old nickel, the checkering leached away by the salt of his hands. He angles the bone and makes staccato scrapes across the slate, screeching like a jakebird calling his fellows. When no answer comes, Loyal paws the dry leaves: the scratching of a turkeyfoot for acorns. The boy watches from a distance. Loyal is a strong, spry-looking man near 70, and jets of red give violence to a head of stiff iron hair, like that of a gray fox.
A phalanx of gobblers sails down the mountainside and alights in a flapping pile. Masked in greenbrier, Loyal yelps again. Five reptile heads rise in tandem, their chests dangling long beards of black, glossy hair. They see nothing of Loyal, dressed in tones of moss and hickory. The lead turkey cackles, and his fellows reassure one another with soft guttural clucks. Loyal’s grip tenses around the gunstock, he thumbs off the safety. Their faces are fleshy, blue, red. Loyal lifts the gun as they enter a gash in the oaks, and the largest ghosts in front of him.
The sun shifts and a Jacob’s ladder falls across Loyal’s body, and the glint of gunmetal flusters them. He squeezes both triggers and a thunderclap rolls through the hollow, the rustle of escape and a soft rain of dust and wingfeathers in the wind. The smoke clears and the bird has fallen, its russet legs thrusting. Loyal walks over. Crippled by the shot, a second bird tosses beside a wedge of stone. Loyal snaps the neck under a boot-heel, feeling the warm, pleasant rise of veins broken in his shoulder.
Keen, finger-long spurs jut from their ankles; they are trophies, and at home he will lop off the bony legs with a hatchet. The boy appears from behind an enormous oak, where he studied every gyre of Loyal’s thumb and finger, the elaborate dance he initiates with the birds. The boy must darn it into his mind. Loyal nods at the boy and kneels. He binds their feet together with twine, tosses the birds over his shoulder, and picks his way down the mountain. With every step the turkeys’ spread wings jounce in mockery of flight, making them seem alive again, black angels that cling to Loyal’s back and whisper temptation in his ear. The boy follows.
The skull of an old kill lies half-buried in the weeds, greenbrier grown through the eye sockets. He smiles but says nothing to the boy. They have no visitors and go days without speaking. He glances up at a sky blue and hard as a china plate. The smoke from his stovepipe curls against it and they move again.
He is a doyen of callers, famous in these parts. Other men nod respectfully when he comes to the dry goods store to barter in wild things. Last week he brought a brace of gallbladders torn from the bellies of bear cubs, which Mr. Scarbrough sells to Chinamen to improve their lot with the Chinawomen. “Make you stiff as a wrecking bar,” he said, making a lewd gesture with his good hand, the other sleeve pinned at the shoulder. “I slurped one down last week and it got downright painful.” The men laugh.
A bachelor, an anchorite, Loyal walks to the merchant of a Tuesday morning and trades for thread to patch the rags he calls a jacket. His sack holds mason jars of wild honey, the mouths sealed by wax of the same said hive. His apprentice follows on his heels. A dozen roustabouts laze about the porch, kinging checkers, sharpening knives, prying mud and horseshit from the latticework of their boot-soles. The talk is of Roosevelt, Roosevelt and the men gone missing. They will hang a man to-night, the wrong man, and the proper knot is in dispute, coils of hemp at their feet.
“Hidy Loyal,” the merchant says.
“Got some sweets for us?”
He nods. The other men admire his reticence, measuring out each sentence and reply as keenly as a root-trader. They live in a place that cherishes jacktales and gushing laughing men, but when he leaves Scarbrough will say, Still waters run deep, my friends; still waters have something to say. A curious thing to profess in a land of rivers that rage and talk, where anything deeper than a boar-wallow runs downhill. I’ve never seen a lake, myself.
Scarbrough beckons the man and the boy into the darkness of the dry-goods store. The establishment is threadbare but meticulously kept, smelling of liniment and buckets of fresh nails. The shelves are empty for the most part, but the essentials—fishhooks, packets of seed—will rest there until judgment day.
“Arnold,” Loyal says, “go fetch us a box of thirty-thirty shells there.”
“Yessir.” He struggles up the aisle in an oversized set of clothing, the pantlegs pooling at his ankles, the elbows worn through. Loyal stacks honey-jars on the counter, each one deep amber with a comb suspended inside. Scarbrough makes change out of a cigar box.
Deep into the Depression and a long climb out until war and prosperity. Our suffering town is called Job. This misleads. It is named not for a wealthy slaver gleaning God’s favor with boils and prayers but for Job Scarbrough, the merchant’s antece- dent, who did nothing but trade a bay mare and a 10-gallon copper kettle for the land. Bad trade, the idlers say. Your pap ought’ve rode that horse to someplace less half-assed.
But Loyal and Arnold will never go hungry. They witch trout from the river’s belly, slay the canniest of deer. Even the deepest laurel hell can’t hide its sustenance, balled in a fist of brier; they merely pry open the fingers and take. Scarbrough holds the honey up to the light to admire its bead, like you would a good whiskey. He smiles. Loyal sweeps his goods off the counter and says, “Thank ye, Mr. Scarbrough.”
“Anytime, Loyal. You hear about them hunters went missing up Mozark?”
“Something like it. Heard the Hartless boy disappeared on us.”
“Three of them this fall.”
“Hunh. Painters, maybe. Or some kind of outlaw. I never seen a sight worse than myself up there, as they say.”
Scarbrough nods. “Bad for panthers up there,” he says. “But maybe I heard wrong. If they was up Mozark, I’m sure you’d of run across their sign. Do you?”
“’Deed I don’t.”
“Maybe I heard wrong. You keeping that boy honest?”
He looks at the boy. “Christian of you to take in a foundling like that,” he says.
Arnold remembers the day of his orphaning. He is eight years old, sitting on the swept floor of a cabin. He sees the diamond of a spiderweb in the door, the geometry shining with dew. He stands. A brown recluse spider spins like a temple dancer. Arnold stares into eight eyes, their onyx gleam. He knows if the spider sinks a fang into his arm, it will swell, blacken, and fall from his trunk like a ripe melon. He steps back to fetch a broom. His mother walks through the door and wraps the entire web about her head. She is dead by morning, and the father burns the cabin and disappears. Arnold cowers in the yard, watching it hiss down to cinders. He makes his way down a chain of persons to Loyal Walker, bartered by an uncle for the price of a bluetick hound, the last thin tether to flesh and blood severing with a handshake. Or that’s how I’ve heard it told.
“You’ll learn much,” the uncle said. “He’s a highlander, more at home with trees than men. Had a wife for a whole month till he run her off.”
“She wanted him to take a money job in town. He said, ‘Upon my honor, I’ll put down my rod and rifle for no woman.’” His uncle slapped his knee, laughing, and said, “They ought to put that on a coin.”
They leave the store and the idlers wave them by. There goes ole Nimrod Walker, they say, king of the hunters. And that boy his squire.
“Lucky boy. His momma dying was the best thing ever happened to him.”
It is five miles to the cabin, but they are accustomed to riding shank’s mare. The route takes them past a ramshackle camp of trashy whites, children in doorways with bellies slack and distended. Clamoring dogs approach as if to devour them, and Loyal beats one back with a rifle stock. As winter goes by, there are fewer dogs in the hamlet. Arnold wonders why until one day they pass a house and see two men skinning out a yellow dog hung from the T of a clothesline, a bonfire smoking beside them to render the fat. The men look thin and mean as knives sharpened to their utmost efficiency. They appraise his gun, his body. “Turn away,” Loyal says. “Don’t gawk at a man’s suffering.”
Sundown and they are home. The house comes alive with the cast-iron pulse of a Singer sewing machine, Loyal’s foot rocking the treadle, doctoring their coats. He knocks back a few glasses of whiskey, neat. Arnold oils their guns in front of the fire, tearing rag-ends off old shirts and hooking them on a ramrod. He runs it again and again through the barrel until the cloth is black as creosote. It’s his second year there, but they have no calendar, marking time on the wheel of the seasons. Loyal asks, “You know what to do if you’re out in the field and ain’t got a ramrod?”
“Piss down the barrel. Funny feeling, sticking your wang down a gun.”
“Ha. I reckon.”
When drunk, Loyal drops pieces of woodslore like breadcrumbs. The turkeys hang and drip blood into a pan. He takes up the hatchet, crosses the room, and hacks off a turkeyfoot. He sits and twirls it in his hand, testing the spur with a thumb. It draws blood. He pours three fingers of bourbon from the demijohn he keeps on the table. “You want a sip?” he asks, figuring 12 old enough. The boy nods, and Loyal divvies out another swallow. The boy cups it in two hands and swallows down a jag, like his father and mother and many others used to do. It sears down his flue and tastes of turpentine and catpiss. Arnold gags.
“Bites back, don’t it?” Loyal says.
Arnold’s knee strikes the table in surprise, upsetting the bottle. Dogs explode from underneath and it falls to the floor, the neck snapping. A sepia half-gallon races over the boards and into a wide crack in the floor.
“That’s ten dollars worth of liquor!”
The firelight stresses the bones of his face, his sharp shoulders. Loyal grabs the boy’s hair and thrusts him against the wall, holding the spur against the soft white of his neck like a straight razor. The boy struggles, is overpowered, feels a sharp edge biting into his larynx.
“You have any idea what you just done? You have any damn idea?” The old man’s breath is hard on his face, like a kerosene fire. “I should slay your dead ass,” he says. “You scared?”
“Yessir.” He begins to piss himself.
“Make you scared. You trust me?”
“Then why are you pissing yourself?”
“I don’t know,” he says softly.
“What you say?” He bores the spur into Arnold’s throat, and the skin begins to shear.
“I said I don’t know!”
He throws the boy outside and tells him to wash up, slamming the door. Arnold paws at his face, trying to wash the old man’s smear of corruption. Cleaning himself from the iron pump, he looks out into the night, knowing he has nowhere to run.
When he returns, Loyal rocks by the fire as if nothing has happened. He has a wet, distant gleam in his eye, rolling the claw over and over in his fingers. The boy returns to the guns, slicking oil into the seam where wood and metal cleave. Loyal says, “Turkey is the gamest thing to hunt. A turkey is near a man. Know why that is?”
“’Cause they’re smart?”
“That ain’t all. He’s got thumbs.”
“They’re close. The spurs. The turkey, he can’t bend them. Thumbs is the mark of higher intelligence, what sets us apart from the beasts of the forest. A third of the bones in your body is in the hand. It’s like a machine, full of moving parts, pulleys and the like.”
Loyal holds out his right hand. He makes the fingers dance, and Arnold watches the fluttering of bones under a layer of skin thin as cigarette paper. He says, “It allows us to ball a fist, pick a guitar.” He pauses, considering the sheer complexity of bone. “And call up turkeys.”
Great God, Arnold thinks. He’s spider-eating drunk.
Trophies adorn the room, spanning decades on the mountain. Foxes, wildcats, huge deer heads crowned with knotty masses of antler like tangled cedar. They stare back through glass eyes. Arnold needs a trophy, something gargantuan to put him level with his master, to break the indenture. Loyal notices the boy studying them. A storm passes over the landscape of his face, and the boy tenses for violence. “You’ll get tired of hunting,” Loyal says. “A trophy ain’t a thing.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s all in the stalk. That’s where the pleasure lies. But then one day you’ll get too good. You’ll outhunt them all and wish for something gamer.” He looks at the mounted heads. “No, a trophy ain’t a thing.”
“Sounds pretty damn good to me.”
Loyal shrugs, his eyes flat, uninflected. The old man takes up his rifle and hatchet and walks out of the cabin, into the darkness. Arnold hears him step off the porch and scuffle into the leaves, but rain comes hard to the tin roof, its metal patter masking all else. Away from Loyal, he feels detached from the world, a shadow unloosed from its host. He will come to hate this feeling with the deepest gall. He lies down in a pile of dogs and sleeps like one of them, drank from by common parasites.
Behind Scarbrough’s store, a man’s body stills at the end of a rope.
Arnold comes to hunt like a man. Loyal is the county’s best poacher, and after dark they harvest deer like corn from their neighbor’s fields with bow-and-arrow, selling them to meat-dealers from the city who haul them away in train cars. Scarbrough arranges the deal on the shop’s magneto telephone, helping them hang the swaying bodies with his good hand. Each one brings two dollars, and they keep tally on a slate. An edge of competition comes to their work, and they sharpen each other like two knives. Arnold keeps his money, minus the room and board and rifle-rent Loyal deducts, in the leaves of a tattered King James. Recognizing the name, he presses the dollars into the Book of Job, along with a dirty picture he buys from one of the idlers. Arnold swears that when there’s a hundred in Job, he’s cutting out for Michigan like his daddy, stopping at a Chicago cat- house long enough to plant seed in cleft.
Loyal unlocks the drawer of a highboy and stuffs fistfuls of bills inside. The boy noses up to see, but Loyal throws back an arm and strikes the square of his chest. Arnold falls, flailing.
“Why you so jealous of that dresser?”
“You got your share,” he says. He slams the drawer and locks it shut. “I keep my important papers in there. Voter’s card and such.”
After a long night of slaughter, Arnold flops down on his tick and thumbs the dirty picture. The woman leans over a chair, leering, but the gaping anatomy fails to comfort him. His mind wanders to money, the Philadelphia mint stowed mere yards from his body. His insides twist into a hard, bitter knot that only freedom can undo. He absently pulls a clot of deer blood from his hair and tosses it into the corner.
Arnold grows lean and strong through the spring and summer, their lives a cycle of killing, gutting, payment. Most nights they venture out together, but sometimes Loyal insists on going alone. “No need for two on this trip,” he says, “and you need to get salting that meat for winter or we’ll starve.” Arnold stays in and contemplates murder, pitching an open jackknife again and again at the cabin wall while Loyal reaps the full profit. He needs another 40 dollars for Michigan, and another year with the old man is untenable.
Two more men go missing on the mountain, and those of us who gather at Scarbrough’s know we can’t pull a body from the earth and give it life any more than a rifle can call back a shot.
Arnold proves himself the next week. The idlers hoot and holler when he comes off the mountain dragging a massive piebald buck, legally killed, with antlers like candelabras. Even field-dressed it weighs 250 pounds, bottoming out the store scale, and not even the biggest man can lock hands around its neck, swollen with rut. A trophy, a break from the old man’s stead. The men offer praise, even Scarbrough, who’s been handling their blood commerce for ages and seen many a fine antler sawn from the skull. “That’s the best I’ve seen out of this country,” Scarbrough says. “You got bragging rights, even over ole Loyal here. Ain’t that right Loyal?”
The old man doffs his hat and says, “Maybe so, but he’s got a lot to learn yet.”
The boy stares into Loyal’s face. “Like what?” he asks.
The men grow silent, bashful. Some turn away, hold their hats.
“Like what?” he asks again. “Seeing’s how I got a deer to beat hell out of anything you ever killed.”
“I’ve killed ten like it. Hell, I passed that buck last week to let you have it, and now you go Judas on me in front of Job’s finest.”
The men laugh.
“You damn liar.”
“You wouldn’t have shirt nor rifle without me. Mind your manners.”
“To hell with that, you old pansy.”
“Listen to that. Me not even blood kin and pulling him out of the ditch like a sick pup. Ungrateful!”
The other men flinch, and I think he’ll hit the old man. Arnold walks off in a rage, shoulders twitching, and leaves the huge deer hanging. Loyal looks to the men and shakes his head. “Lordy,” Scarbrough says. “He boil over like that all the time?”
“Not a thing you can do with young ones these days,” Loyal says.
“I’ll second that,” Jim Fordyce says. “My boy Rafe went up on Mozark last Tuesday and ain’t been back since.” The man has a harried, vacant look. He points across the way and says, “There’s his wife, a-wasting away without him.”
Fordyce nods at a slight woman bringing a basket of eggs up to the store, wearing a black eye like a smear of makeup. The men look her up and down, assessing the two bulges under her blouse. “I’ve put three wives in the ground,” Loyal says, tearing off a shard of jerky with his teeth. “First two went from eating poison mushrooms. You know how the third one died?” He wipes his mouth and looks about slyly. “Bad thump on the head. Wouldn’t eat her poison mushrooms.”
The men laugh deeply, a haw haw haw like crosscut saws biting into timber. They are tense from the murders, tense from the botched hangings, but laughter stitches up the wound of unrest and they become idle again. “Loyal, that’s the most biography we got out of you yet,” Scarbrough says.
On the way back home Arnold shoots three yapping dogs to quell his anger, leaving them to hemorrhage in front of drab houses. One gnaws its bleeding hindquarters, and he opens its face with a second round. Two miles down the road he hits the high trail
to their cabin on Mozark Mountain, another three to go. It follows a winding creek down to a thin valley at the base of the mountain. Loyal steps into the trail in front of him.
“Where the hell did you come from?” Arnold asks. “I had at least a half mile on you.”
“I know every draw in this county, like they was writ on the back of my hand.”
“Hell. I’m ten times the man you could ever hope to be, you old fart,” Arnold says. “You’re jealous.”
“You got a lot to learn, son.”
“I ain’t your son nor no one else’s. When are you going to give me a full cut of the profit? I kill half and make a wee little sliver. I ain’t a friend of your math.”
Loyal looks up over Arnold’s shoulder, to the molten sun spilling down the mountainside. “You think you’re ready?” he asks.
“You say you’re a man. You ready to bet like one?”
“What you got in mind?”
“Give you half a mile start to the cabin. The key hangs in the knothole of the bent hickory, near the waterfall on Black Run. Big ole den tree. Know it?”
“You get to there first, the money is yours. If I tag you beforehand, you got to serve me till I die.”
“Till you die? You’re fooling.”
“I’m getting old.” He shrugs. “I’ll need someone to see me through at the end. And if I get it, no lip, neither, and do whatever I say. Judge Elkins’ll write me up legal guardian. I touch you and it’s done.”
Arnold pauses. He wonders what the old man has in mind, his soft decaying mind.
“I’ll take that bet. I’ll be out of town in an hour.”
They clasp a bony handshake, and Arnold takes off around the bend running full-bore, rifle slung and bouncing across his back. This is a game, the gamest of games, knights and bishops not of marble but of blood and bone. Loyal smiles, fingering his hatchet.
Three miles. The long loop around the base of the mountain, up Bone Creek, will sap time and energy, so Arnold etches a new map in his brain. Out of Loyal’s sight, he quarters up a faint deer trail through open woods to an old railroad grade clotted with briers. With his shoulder he bursts through knots and thorns, belly-crawls through the multiflora, his lungs enervated by the blue air. A half mile on the flat, then he angles back down the mountainside a ways, crosses the road again, and scans the hillside for Loyal but sees nothing. No footfalls, and the silence unnerves him. He leaps over a nasty deadfall, hits a chasm cut by the North Fork of Bone Creek. The rush of whitewater masks his step. He crisscrosses the water like a fox, damping footprints. Arnold knows that he can leave the creek trail in a half mile and cut over the saddle. Sweat pours down his back. A waterfall blocks him. He grabs a root to pull himself up the wet earth bank, twice as tall as he stands, to forge ahead. It is wet and slippery in his fingers.
Loyal stands at the top, reaching out a hand to help him up.Arnold lets go and falls flat on his back, his rifle clanging as it strikes rock. A pain knifing through the muscle. Loyal lets himself slide down the bank. Arnold bolts like a deer and doubles back down the mountain, his shoulder throbbing.
Arnold runs full tilt until the old man is out of sight. He decides to loop back to the road, cross a low rocky point where they kill rattlesnakes for the bounty, and climb straight up the far side of the ridge. There he will skirt Black Run, walking the rocky flat above so as not to leave himself exposed. He charges forward, his legs burning. The day’s last light flits on the ferns and the rippling surface of the water. Half a mile, one mile, his foot crushes a grouse nest. The point is close. He hears footfall, unsure if it comes from man or something dire. In the darkness he runs past Rafe Fordyce, stiff and blooming green with rot. Under dry leaves a deep purple wound gapes like a second mouth. He hears the waterfall churning. The rifle weighs him down, and he throws it aside, flinging himself blindly through the forest.
Night comes faster, and he sees the firelight blinking from the cabin, a polestar in the distance. Rivers are loudest at night, and he follows the crashing sounds of rivers to freedom. The hickory stands, its knothole gaping. He drives his arm up inside to the hilt, finds the key, and turns. A rock explodes on the hillside, the muzzle flashing orange in the distance. Jesus Christ, he thinks. The son of a bitch is trying to shake me up. He yells, “I seen worse than that, old man!” He hears the slick gunmetal wrack of the lever behind him, the empty cartridge pitched into the leaves. He is not surprised. He knows the ways of men, the worth of money.
Arnold snakes up the hillside, trying to shake Loyal’s line of sight. He remembers Loyal’s words: You’ll tire of hunting. You’ll wish for something gamer. Another shot skips through the forest; a tree sprays pieces of bark over his head. He steps through the cabin door. “You’re out of luck, old man,” Arnold shouts, driving the key into the lock. “I won! I won the wager!”
He flings open the drawer and finds it full of blackened thumbs, strange and loose, rolling around a carpet of dollars and mercury dimes. Hunters. He steps back, and Loyal bears down on him, the hatchet smiling like a June bride.
A West Virginia native, Matthew Null is currently studying at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.