Coyotes dangled like Christmas ornaments from the tree. Coup D. Gracen closed the gate and stopped beside his pickup to admire his work. He didn’t take credit for inventing this trap—someone else somewhere must have tried it too—but he had perfected it: 150-pound test fishing line and 14 ought treble hooks triple-knotted and baited with pig liver. The limb would break before Coup’s tackle gave way.
“I count eight from here,” Coup said to Champ, the black-and-white border collie standing atop the toolbox, tail wagging, body shivering with excitement. His long nails squeaked on the rusted metal. The dog would not leave his post until ordered.
“And one pup running around underneath. Must have mama hanging there, I reckon.”
Coup opened the driver’s side door, the hinge singing a full octave up range and then back down the scale as the door closed. He had left the engine running as he dealt with the farmer’s gate, so he clutched and shifted into first to get rolling then took the pickup out of gear and coasted down the slope to the gigantic lone elm in the lower pasture.
Without leaving the truck cab, Coup raised his .22 lever-action Marlin and poked a near-silent short round through the ear of the coyote pup. It flinched once, shook its head as if to dislodge a troublesome deer fly, then fell dead. At the report the coyotes still hanging by their mouths began flailing and yelping. One hook held only a bluing tongue that had ripped off or been bitten through. Coup walked among his quarry, pressing the muzzle of the barrel at the base of the skulls. Then he drove beneath the overhanging limbs, positioned the bed of the truck under each limp carcass, climbed aboard and snipped the fishing line. The coyotes landed with watery thuds as Champ overlorded from the toolbox what could have been a winter’s worth of pelts stacked high in a wagon from years long past.
“You best ride up here with me,” Coup said, and Champ leaped from his perch to the ground, then into the cab, and sat politely on the passenger side like a damp hitchhiker ready to make conversation. “Now let’s go get paid.”
Little Perry, the young farmer who tended his deceased father’s acreage, didn’t even know Coup was on the property. Coup pulled into the gravel driveway and laid down on the horn. Little Perry appeared directly at the front door, nursing a cup of coffee that steamed in the coolness of the morning. He was still wiping his mouth of breakfast crumbs. “What’s up, Coup?”
“I got your coyotes here, looking to collect.”
“Did you shoot one? I can’t ever get close enough to do no good. Ain’t never been much of a shot though neither,” Little Perry said, blowing and sipping from his cup. He reached into the bib pocket of his denim overalls and produced a wallet. “Ten bucks, that right?”
“Eighty, ten bucks apiece. I’ll throw that pup in for free.”
“Eighty? Hell, Coup, I meant for you to bring ‘em in one at a time, not hoard ‘em up after a week or two and dump ‘em on me all at once.”
“That’s this morning’s work, LP, and I can keep it up or not until they’re all dead or run off. Today you owe me eighty.” Coup leaned against the fender and crossed his arms. “That’s what we agreed to, ten bucks a head.”
“Yeah, I know,” Little Perry said, “but I didn’t expect, you know, for you to have so much luck. How ‘bout I pay you part now and we can settle up later.”
“Lucks got nothing to do with it,” Coup said as he reached into his back pocket for a pair of cattlemen’s gloves. He opened the tailgate and grabbed the uppermost coyote by the hind leg and tossed it in the driveway. The dead animal slid to Little Perry’s feet and rolled into a furry ball.
“How many you want to pay for today, LP, cause the rest of these freeloading bastards is gonna rot right here at your doorstep ‘til you move ‘em.”
“Goddamn, Coup. Load that one back up and let’s call it quits. I’ll holler at you if I need you again,” Little Perry said as he started counting twenties from his billfold.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Ain’t you got traps to run?
The morning was still night and cold. The wood stove hissed with embers left from the evening’s stoking, all but gone. Coup rolled to his side and sank into the feathered cocoon of mattress, tucking the covers up under his ears.
I said, ain’t you got traps to run?
“In a minute,” Coup said to no one. Even after Elizabeth died, he heard her around the house at dawn, cooking and cleaning, sweeping, calling him up to chores. She had always been his alarm, and now—seven years later—her voice soothed him into waking.
Coup opened his eyes and stared at the wood stove and wished it would fill itself. Champ was drawn into his own body on the tow sack in the corner; he slept inside during bitter weather and the wind shuffling down the holler the night before would have rattled a dead man’s teeth. Coup rolled his socked feet to the floor; he could see his breath. He pulled the double wedding ring quilt around his shoulders and in his long underwear lumbered to the cupboard. From a Mason jar of clear liquid, he poured half a tumbler of shine and drank it in one gulp. It would be the only drink of the day, a trick he learned from his granddaddy who lived to be 101: Take you that one nip first thing in the mornin, the old man trilled, do your chores and you’ll have yourself a appetite for breakfast.
“Are you happy now?” Coup said to the empty room. “I’m up and ready at three score and ten and had my tonic and you ain’t cracked the first egg.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Halfway around the courthouse, Coup cut the engine and coasted into a parking spot. The old Ford Ranger was still rocking on its struts when he took the two concrete steps in one stride and marched to the pod of men—young and old—who sat in a circle on benches; some had brought their own folding chairs. Their daily traffic had robbed the grass and at the center of their gathering was a bare patch of earth stained with tobacco juice.
"There he is," said Alf Johnston. "What's cooking, Coup?"
Before he could answer, Cobb started in: "When you gonna trade in that piece-of-shit Ford and get you a real truck, Gracen? That thing looks like it's got bed springs for a suspension."
Coup was satisfied to let it go. Cobb was a loudmouth lightweight, busy with a jab but no power punch.
"Hey, Johnston. Boys. Turned into a right pretty day after all." Coup hovered at the edge of the circle, saying his helloes before going inside the old three-story courthouse to renew his tags.
"Be fishing weather here fore you know it," said Clifton Green. "You gonna show me some of them trot-line honey holes this spring?"
"Damn, Clifton, if I show you, every swinging dick in the county'll be dipping a line."
"I said—when you gonna get rid of that shit-trap truck and buy you a new one?" Cobb had brought a straight back chair and was leaned against a chestnut oak. His feet hung at either side like a lazy king on his throne holding court with peasants.
"'Course, if you ain't got the cash money, old Hornblower over at the used lot'll finance you," Cobb said. "I heard tell he'll tote the note for most anybody."
Truth was, Coup was fond of his '84 Ranger, bought it brand new at the dealership and paid with a wad of hundreds. Coup thought the salesman would pass out when he dug the roll out of the pocket of his patched pants.
"They's a lot of life left in that truck," Coup said to all the men except Cobb. "I wouldn't be afraid to take out for California in it right now."
Cobb perked up. "They'd sure as shit hear you coming 'bout the time you crossed the Mississipp’ the way that thing squeaks and complains."
That last remark drew a round of laughter from the younger men who—Coup thought—should have been working to support their wives and babies instead of loafing on the courthouse lawn. The older men just watched in silence as Coup, with stealth that belied his age, crept around the group to stand beside Cobb.
"Maybe your old lady could loan you some of her daddy's famous money," Cobb said, winking at the man to his left. "'Course you got that money already I guess."
"How long you gonna be here, Cobb?"
Coup's voice was strong, timbered, and right beside him. Cobb jerked his head to the right, startled by the proximity.
"What you mean?"
"I said, what time you leaving for the barn?"
Cobb was nervous now, his volume lower. "I don't know. Couple of hours, I guess. Why you want to know?"
Coup moved a little closer and slightly behind Cobb where he was propped against the trunk of the tree. Cobb rolled his head up and back to take a look at Coup.
"I’ll tell you why. I'm going to run in here and get my tags, then I thought I might swing by your place on the way home and see that pretty wife of yours. I sure hate to have a man walk in on me while I'm plowing his pea patch."
"You son of a bitch," Cobb sputtered, and tried to bring his chair's front legs to the ground. With one kick Coup sent the chair's back legs scooting across the dust, and Cobb's head bounced against the bark on the way down like a rubber ball. He landed splayed and helpless on the ground, his cap shoved over his eyes. Coup stepped over him and turned to the courthouse. The older men were chuckling and slapping their knees.
“What’s the matter with you, Cobb?” Johnston asked. “You don’t go running your mouth about a man’s dead wife, specially not a man like Coup.”
"God damn," said Cobb. "I guess some fellers ain't got no sense of humor."
“That there,” Johnston said, pointing to Cobb splattered on the dirt like roadkill, “was his sense of humor.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
He didn’t know Elizabeth was sick until one winter morning when he found her sitting at the kitchen table doubled over, her forearms crossing her stomach and her elbows pinched in her palms.
“I heard you kick the mud from your boots on the porch, and I tried to get up so you wouldn’t be scared, but I just couldn’t,” she said. Perspiration beaded on her forehead and her hair was limp with sweat.
“What’s the matter,” Coup asked. He dropped his coat to the floor and kneeled down beside her chair.
“I don’t know. Nothing. Just female trouble, I think.”
“Female trouble, hell. How long have you been hurting like this?”
“It comes and goes. I didn’t want to say anything. I thought it would go away on its own but it’s worse the last few weeks.”
“Why didn’t you say something?” Coup rose to his feet and put his arm around her shoulders. “Let’s get to the doc and see what’s wrong.”
Elizabeth tried to stand but pitched forward, putting her hands out just in time to keep from falling headfirst onto the table. Coup picked her up, folded like a left-open pocketknife, and carried her to the bedroom. She couldn’t straighten her body, so Elizabeth rolled to her side and pulled her knees up to her chest.
“I’m sorry, Coup, I’m sorry,” she kept saying as he walked out the door to warm the pickup.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Louise Neeley stood at the sink peeling potatoes. Her paring knife slipped away the skins which mounded in a red pile in the basin. She looked out the kitchen window across the narrow backyard to the dog pens where Floyd kept his coon hounds. He’d come home from work at the sawmill, eat his supper in near silence, then switch on the TV, waiting for the phone to ring. The air all day had been crisp, and his buddies, just like him, would be hankering for a hunt.
“A hunt,” Louise huffed. “More like setting around a fire and listening to those dogs run the hollers while the bunch of them gets sloshed on a passed bottle.” Floyd would stagger in early Saturday morning, stumbling over the furniture as if she’d moved the pieces to confuse him, then collapse on the couch and snore.
Out of the corner of the window a figure appeared. Coup Gracen walked into the backyard like it was his own, a tow sack tossed over each shoulder and a length of seagrass string in his hand. He didn’t look to the house until she opened the back door and stood in the opening, wiping her hands on her apron.
“Floyd ain’t here,” she said. Coup stopped and turned to face her, tipped his cap—a yellow-brimmed red Dekalb corn hat—and said, “Ma’am.”
“Floyd won’t be here till later,” Louise said.
“I won’t be but a few minutes,” Coup said. “I got some dog business to take care of.” He turned his back to her and began again across the lawn.
“I think it’d be best if Floyd was here,” Louise said, trying to feign some confidence, but the truth was that Coup Gracen made her nervous and she could only imagine what the neighbors might say about his truck parked in her driveway in the middle of the afternoon.
Coup turned again and faced her, looking at the ground in front of his boots. “I can take care of this mess and be on my way, or you can explain to Floyd that you wouldn’t let me do what he asked and already paid me to do. You know, if Floyd took better care of his bitches, he wouldn’t have to call me at all.”
“Mr. Gracen, I don’t appreciate that kind of language.”
“Course I’ve knowed Floyd since he was just a chap, knowed his daddy too, and neither of ‘em’s ever been much for taking care of their belongings.” He shot a glance at Louise, dismissive, like she was just another of the responsibilities her husband failed to maintain.
“I knowed your family too, Mrs. Neeley. You was a Harder before you got married. Ain’t that right?”
“Yes, I was a Harder.”
“And your daddy’s the one they called Tripod, wouldn’t he?”
“My father’s Christian name was George. I’d prefer you call him by…”
“You got any notion why they called him Tripod?” Coup said through a grin.
“Why, I never…”
“Well, I should hope not. Seeing a thing like that could scar a young girl for the rest of her life. Now, you just go back in there and tend to your affairs and I’ll be gone here directly, unless they’s something you need help with in the house.”
Louise felt as if she might faint. The only movement she could manage was to step back inside, close the door, and click the deadbolt in place.
Coup continued across the yard and opened the gate to the dog pen. The hounds inside the fence backed away and huddled in a far corner. He walked past them as if they did not exist and opened the kennel door. The old bitch—her teats full and nearly dragging the ground—growled at him and put up her hackles. Nine black and brown mongrel pups waddled across the dirt, their tails wagging, their legs unsteady.
“Now, mama, you and me ain’t gonna have no problems, are we?” Coup asked the dog. She had lowered to her haunches and dipped her tail between her legs. Coup eased toward her, speaking in low tones until he could grab her collar and lead her out the door which he closed. He turned to the pups, picking up each one and sexing them. The males he lowered by the scruff into one of the tow sacks. The females he dispatched one at a time by placing the heel of his boot at the back of their necks and pressing until he heard the spine snap. The lifeless pups went in the other sack. When he had gathered all the animals, Coup tied the string around the wiggling parcel and carried it in his right hand. The dead weight he tossed across his left shoulder. Walking past the hounds and through the gate, he looked at Louise who peered through the curtain at the back door window and made his way to the pickup.
Going home, Coup turned down River Road and stopped on the one-lane wooden bridge at the mouth of Painter Branch. He reached into the floorboard of the passenger side, drew out the untied sack, and dumped the bodies into the water below. The males would make quick sales to newcomers who couldn’t tell they were not full-bloods, or he could sell them to the McGill brothers who were always looking for dogs they could raise to train their pit bulls. He watched the lifeless pups catch up in a swirl and disappear beneath the green surface.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
At first light Corporal C.D. Gracen stepped into the western edge of the forest. Treetops that survived the mortars from the evening before were paled by frost and reminded him of the white-barked sycamores back home. The other trees rose from the frozen ground and ended in splinters as if each had drawn its own bolt of lightning from the gray sky. His coat pocket sagged with extra 7.65 cartridges for the Luger he carried in his right hand. He had already shouldered a round into the chamber and the eight-shot clip was full. He preferred the confiscated Luger for this business. At close range it made only a high-pitched pop, unlike the boom of the issued .45 holstered to his belt. The battlefield was littered with Hitler’s infantrymen. Under the cover of night, the First Army medics had removed the wounded GIs by stretcher a safe distance from the front line and cloaked the deceased with green blankets. Gracen’s boots crunched the hardened surface of snow as he eased among the German casualties. Those that spat obscenities or tried to drag themselves away were shot on sight. Of the mortally wounded who offered no resistance he asked, ”Leiden oder die,” but the question was just a formality. The Krauts who chose to suffer, he shot through the eye as they uttered a response, and to the ones who did not answer and often looked away, he fired a single round behind the ear. Gracen sat on a fallen tree limb to reload and smoke. His eyes grazed the landscape of stiffening man-shaped humps, looking for ragged breaths suffusing the December air. On both sides he heard voices, sometimes pleading, as fellow soldiers with the same clean-up duty went about the task of killing the dead.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The long front room became home, the kitchen on one end and the wood stove on the other. Wrapped in a double wedding ring quilt her mother pieced and stitched, Elizabeth sat in a rocking chair beside the fire and watched as Coup reassembled their wrought iron bed against the wall closest to the bathroom. She wanted to help but the radiation and drugs left her weak and unsteady.
“Just get everything in here,” Elizabeth said, “and I’ll put on the bedclothes.”
“You set yourself there and stay warm. I can manage to move a bed and make it,” Coup said. “I know I ain’t that good around the house, but I’ll make do.”
“I wouldn’t say that. The way you’ve taken to cooking and cleaning and caring for an invalid, I think you might make someone a good wife one day after I’m gone.”
Coup stopped in the middle of casing a pillow, then returned to his task. A month ago he would have said something—made some retort—but he’d learned that Elizabeth’s comments were not for his sake but to help her prepare for what was coming.
And he didn’t reply at the kitchen table where he sat eating a bologna sandwich for lunch. “I wish I could have given you children while I was still alive,” Elizabeth said between sips of cold buttermilk. “They would be a blessing to you now that I’m dead.”
And he didn’t correct her when she misremembered: “That day was special,” she said one evening in bed. Her back was turned to him, and her figure under the coverings glowed in relief as the space heater he bought to keep the room warm during the cold nights ran its cycles of on and off. “That Sunday when we took that picnic down by the river, and we spread out a blanket on the gravel bar and ate cold chicken and leftover biscuits and skinny-dipped, and those canoers came by while we were in the water and pulled up on the bank and just set there in their boats talking and we had to stay under up to our necks so they wouldn’t see our nakedness. You remember that?”
Coup pretended he was asleep and listened to the heater’s thermostat click and watched her disappear again into the darkness of the room.
On the last day of Elizabeth’s life, Coup waked to the smell of burning meat. With one motion he kicked away the bedcovers and stood in his sock feet. The sun was already up an slanting through the easterly windows. He could see Elizabeth standing at the cook stove; she held a spatula in one hand and rocked back and forth, the hem of her nightgown swaying in a slow dance. The coil beneath the cast-iron skillet glowed red, and smoke climbed from the blackened bacon toward the ceiling. Coup grabbed a dishtowel from the table as he ran past and moved the skillet to a cold stove cap just as it ignited. He slapped a lid over the flames and turned to her. Elizabeth’s eyes were closed; she didn’t realize anything had happened until he touched her cold arm, and then he saw she was standing in a puddle of her own urine.
“Come on, baby, let’s get you warmed up,” Coup said, as he lifted her into his arms. He carried her into the bathroom and sat her on the toilet while he ran a tub of warm water. He had to remove the spatula from her hand to take off her soiled gown and undergarments. She sat with her knees together and her feet apart, with her hands clenched in her lap. She had wasted away; her upper arms seemed pulled away from her bones, and her shoulders were knobs. The skeleton above her deflated breasts protruded as if it had broken and healed wrongly.
Coup pulled Elizabeth to her feet and lowered her into the tub. She shivered even in the warm water and ripples moved away from her body like a tiny earthquake had occurred beneath the surface. After she stopped shaking, he helped her out and dried her with careful gentleness and dressed her in a new flannel gown. From the bath she had watched him remove the wrappings and work loose the buttons with his clumsy fingers. When she was dressed, he led her back to bed and tucked the blankets around her. He started to leave and clean up the kitchen, but she stopped him.
“I could have burned the house down.”
“But you didn’t.”
“I could have, with you in it.”
“And you too.”
“I don’t matter. I’m dead already.”
Coup looked toward the kitchen. “I’ll be right back. I’m going to clean up that mess.”
“No, wait. I love you, Coup.”
“I know you do.”
“And I know you love me.”
“I don’t love anyone or anything else.”
“I’m not in my right mind.”
“I know, but that’ll pass. You might seem to be getting some better.”
“Yeah, and the sky’s going to start raining gold coins that’ll pile up in the yard. It’s the cancer that’s making me crazy. It’s gone into my head. I can see him.”
“What do you mean you can see him?”
“The tumor—it’s a strange little man in a black suit with a shitty brown hat setting on a milking stool deep inside my brain where no knife can reach. He smiles at me, like he’s teasing, and whispers, ‘You think this is bad, you ain’t seen nothing yet.’ He’s letting me know it’s either him or me, and I want it to be me.” Elizabeth paused and took a deep breath. “I love you, Coup.”
“I know you do.”
“And I know you love me.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever loved anyone or anything else. That’s why I can’t do what you’re asking.”
“I’m trapped in here, Coup. I’m alive inside and trapped in this corpse. I can’t do it myself—Lord knows I’ve thought about it—but I’m not strong enough. I’ve always depended on you to be the strong one.”
“Elizabeth, I can’t do it. I just can’t.”
“It won’t be hard, as weak as I am.” She reached a pillow from Coup’s side of the bed. “Just hold this down over my head. I won’t fight. I’m too tired. It won’t take long.”
“I won’t do it. I don’t know if I can stand to lose you.”
“You lost me already, Coup. That little man’s got me now, and he’s not gentle like you. He’s got sharp teeth and he’s eating me from the inside out, a bite at a time. If you love me, you’ll show me this kindness.”
Elizabeth placed the pillow over her face and waited. Coup finally took hold with his oversized hands and pressed as if he was shaping a funeral mask for a final remembrance. Then he wanted to stop and started to remove his hands. She grabbed his wrists and he expected her to push him away, but with a strength that must have emanated from some deep desire she pulled him even closer, and he leaned into it with all his weight. When her grip relaxed, it was over.
She had been right. It didn’t take long.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Coup didn’t expect to catch anything but Clifton Green’s talk about honey holes and trotlines made him want to wet a line. Except for it being so early in the year, conditions would have been right. A late winter storm had pushed the creeks out of their banks and the runoff had put the river on a rise. The water was too cold—the river hadn’t turned over yet—but a big fish might be lurking in the deep hole below James Black Bluff, drawn awake by the promise of a quick meal after frigid months of inactivity.
Coup put in under the new bridge. He left his pickup on the launch ramp and the trailer submerged. Champ had taken his position in the bow, his front paws on the aluminum seat of the flat bottom boat, his tail jerking back and forth like an overwound metronome. The dented Evinrude turned over on the second pull, and Coup eased it into reverse and left the trailer. The motor at first sputtered and coughed smoke but smoothed into a purr when the fresh mix reached the carburetor.
“Probably a waste of time, buddy,” Coup said to the dog that did not acknowledge him but kept his eyes focused up-river as the boat began its crawl against the current. The pair passed under the old floorless bridge, a Tinkertoy construction of rusted metal I-beams and heavy bolts. The hand-hewn rock abutments rose from the water like ancient, oversized tombstones, one on each side of the twin spans that gathered themselves into hexagons crisscrossed by smaller arms of steel.
Coup idled the motor and pulled alongside a rock outcropping where a cedar tree older than the fisherman himself had found purchase in dirt collected in a wide gap, then sent out roots like feelers along the face of the limestone in search of better footing. The tree leaned out over the river like an old man trying to hear what was said. One twisted finger of root gnarled away from the rocks, and Coup tied the stern rope there and let the current swing around the bow of the boat. Champ turned to face upstream again and climbed into the seat to watch Coup bait the trotline hooks.
“Just a goddamn waste of time, I tell you,” Coup said as he pulled the Styrofoam bucket between his feet. “Too cold, water’s a little dingy. Just too early, bud.”
Coup tied one end of the trotline to the same root and laid the nylon cord—sixty feet long with leadered hooks every two feet—across his lap. He reached into the bucket for chicken liver he’d salted the previous day to firm up the flesh, pierced it with a hook, and dropped it over the side of the boat. He had baited only a few hooks when he heard the boom of the log.
Behind him the Buffalo River came rushing through a wide shallow, only a few feet deep, before slamming perpendicular into the bluff that rose in a sheer ascent. There the stream took a ninety degree turn and began to deepen, eventually plummeting over an underwater stone ledge to a hole of thirty or more feet. The log had been lifted by the high waters and sent racing downstream like a surface torpedo. It crashed into the stone face, turned, and homed in on the stern. Before Coup could untie the line, the log crushed the outboard, almost foundering the boat, and snapped off the root where he had tied up. Coup was thrown back and up, the boat shooting away below him. He saw Champ mid-air for just a moment, then felt the cold stream rush over him. His skin was being stung—arms and face, chest and legs—as the hooks bit into his flesh and barbed there, and the line wrapped around him like a straitjacket. Under the surface he opened his eyes and saw Champ’s legs paddling toward shore, and he tried to paddle himself, but his arms were restrained and his legs heavy. He resurfaced once by holding his breath and heard Champ’s frantic barking before he went under again, this time deeper than before, the darkness of the water trailing off into murk.
Out of the depths a ghostly figure rose to meet him. Elizabeth, in her funeral blacks and with her eyes still closed, pulled the hooks from his skin with hands as quick as wrens, but causing no pain. Coup felt his arms untangled and his legs unbound and started to push for the surface, but Elizabeth grabbed his wrists and he smiled, knowing she would shove him toward daylight, but he took a breath and felt his lungs freeze with icy water when her grip tightened beyond reasonable strength and she pulled him toward her, toward the bottom darkness, down to depths where the great catfish waited with gaping mouths to catch everything that washed downstream.