Charlie Knagel needed a chew. The old F-150 climbing up the rutted access road was temporarily on its own as he engaged in a war of wills with his solid buttocks and full stomach, his objective to heave both across the truck’s seat so he could grab the can of tobacco that was rolling back and forth in a sea of clutter on the dashboard. Neither butt nor gut nor tobacco seemed much inclined to cooperate that morning.
Every lurch of the truck’s cab sent the clutter raging against the windshield like feral cats in a cage. Neatness was for the house, and that was woman’s domain; the less Charlie had to do with that, the better off he was. Amazingly, nothing ever seemed to fall to the floor, where he kept a lunch box, Carhartts, spare motor oil, and, just beneath the seat, a secret stash of girlie mags. The truck may have been a rolling monument to his messy manliness, but it was also his mobile office, and he kept all things of importance in it.
Charlie and his one-eyed yellow lab, Gus, were out on ranch business. He had had a big breakfast that morning and his wranglers felt to bursting, making it damn near impossible for him to lean forward. The ‘roof of his toolshed,’ as he proudly called his stout midsection, strained against his checkered coffee-stained shirt.
“Lordy, Gus,” he groaned, “sometimes I wish Mama wasn’t such a good cook.”
Gus, another well-fed member of the Knagel ranchhold, said nothing as he braced his own barrel-shaped body against the jolting truck seat, slavering profusely. With his one good eye, he stared forlornly at Charlie. Gus suffered from arthritis and carsickness, but he’d be damned if he’d let Charlie drive out of the yard without him.
With the tall prairie grass swishing against its rusted sides, its engine revving, the pickup truck pitched and yawed over the swells and valleys of the jeep trail that ran beside the barbed wire fence, marking the southern end of the Knagel ranch. Startled grasshoppers sprung from their hiding places before it, and dull clunking noises proclaimed their inevitable collisions with its metal body.
Charlie at last overcame his opponents and snagged the can of chew. While he could have stopped the truck to retrieve the canned tobacco, unless he was a Hollywood movie star a man who lived upside the Rocky Mountains didn’t do things just because they were easy or convenient. Charlie was on a mission that day, and he didn’t have time to lollygag. Besides, if he stopped, Gus was sure to puke, and if he didn’t let him out, he’d puke inside the cab. And if he let him out, at least twenty-four hours would pass before Gus had forgotten his miserableness and allowed himself to be coaxed back in. Charlie couldn’t even think of letting him run alongside the truck; the dog would be dead after ten minutes of that.
“Ever since you run yourself darn near to death them few years back, you ain’t been the same, Gus,” Charlie mused, giving the dog a sympathetic glance.
Once, in his younger days, Gus had run after Charlie in his truck. Charlie had gone ten miles before he happened to look in the rearview mirror to see a small yellow dot wavering in the heatwaves rising off the blacktop. He turned right around and retrieved Gus, who was so intent on running himself to death that at first he didn’t stop when Charlie pulled up alongside and whistled. For three days after the poor dog couldn’t stop panting and heaving. And Charlie was right; Gus was never the same after that. Dogs, Charlie knew, were just not that smart. Not like the wolves that had invaded his land to prey on his livestock.
Charlie wedged the can of tobacco between his thighs and one-handedly pried open the lid, releasing a heady plume of sickly-sweet wintergreen into the cab. He extracted a moist wad and shoved it between his cheek and gum, then closed the can and tossed it back onto the dashboard.
With the nicotine fix now in, he turned his attention to the environs outside the cab. The sight of the fence line – his fence line – that ran west up and over the hills, as true as if it had been drawn with a straightedge, always brought him pleasure. Not the fence exactly, with its weathered gray posts holding up the three strands of slack ‘bob-wire,’ but the line. That government-certified and tax-stamped line was proof that this was Knagel land, and had been for one hundred and six years. Timbered foothills and prairies that stretched for miles lay beneath endless skies and towering shale and sandstone cliffs. Charlie grew mostly hay on those primordial, lupine-covered sea floors, but he also ran sheep and a few head of cattle to keep the freezer full in winter.
It irritated Charlie that his government-sanctioned fence line was powerless to stop the wolves from entering his property and taking whatever morsel of ovine or bovine flesh they felt they had a God-given right to. Livestock predation was a fact of life for a rancher, and Charlie put up with a certain amount of it, but it was getting worse, and one night wolves howled eerily close to the house. The next day, Gus, who had slept through the night’s excitement, had sniffed out wolf spoor in the front yard. The effrontery of that little calling card had sent Charlie into high dudgeon, and he decided right then and there that enough was enough. But before he could storm out of the house with a loaded rifle, Mama convinced him to talk to Ed Blakely, the warden over at Fish and Game, to see what could be done.
“Wolves have rights nowadays, Charlie,” she reminded him.
He eventually calmed down enough to pay Ed a visit, at which time he was informed that Ed’s hands were tied because of the Endangered Species Act. Ed said that Charlie could apply for a permit to shoot the wolves. Charlie sat in stunned silence as Ed handed him a ream of papers and explained the application process. Charlie said he didn’t have his reading glasses and that he would fill out the permit application at home and get back to Ed in a week or so.
Charlie didn’t like having to lie to Ed, whom he’d known since childhood, but he figured at his age he’d be long dead before the federal bureaucrats got around to issuing a permit. He added the papers to his dashboard filing cabinet and proceeded to take matters into his own hands, something he should have done in the first place. Carefully avoiding Mama’s watchful gaze, he retrieved a bone-crusher of a trap from the tool shed and set it about fifty yards into the trees on the western edge of his property, up in the hills where he had seen plentiful wolf signs. He had intended to check on the trap sooner, but damned if he didn’t take a spill off the tractor the very next day and crack his skull open. Mama had forbidden him to drive until the lump on his head subsided…and she had a way of always getting what she wanted.
Charlie chuckled and spit a wad of dark brown goo out the window. “Damn that woman,” he said good-naturedly, tipping his stetsoned head to address Gus. “Ain’t it the truth? When Mama gives orders, you best listen up and do what you’re told, unless you want to be wearing your ears for a hat.”
Gus, who understood perfectly, drooped his ears.
Besides the bump to Charlie’s head, it had rained for a few days, turning the jeep trail into two impassable ribbons of greasy Montana mud. But eventually the ground dried out, his head got better, and now he was anxious to see if the trap had done its job. If it had, he would skin the wolf and bury its carcass. Maybe someday they’d lift that onerous ban on wolf hunting and he could sell the pelt without worrying about the possible repercussions of his actions. In the meantime, he would tan the pelt and store it in the tractor shed.
The pickup crested the top of the hill. Up here the topsoil was thinner and the jeep trail flattened out and wound lazily north across level ground. Charlie steered left off the trail and tooled over the clump grass until he spotted the piece of orange flagging he had tied to a branch to mark where he had set the trap. Gus sprang to life as soon as Charlie turned off the truck, thrusting his head out the window, sniffing the air, and vigorously wagged his tail in Charlie’s face.
“Looks like you ain’t gonna get sick this time out,” Charlie observed as he fended off Gus’s fanning tail. “I guess I can let you go without your hauler-in.”
With a labored grunt Charlie leaned over and flicked open the passenger side door, breaking wind as he did.
Forgetting his arthritic joints for the moment, Gus bulldozed to the ground, eagerly emerging at the front of the truck with his nose down and scanning for scent. Charlie watched him move steadily toward the trees, his tail keeping the beat like a hairy yellow metronome. Then, realizing that the trap may still lay unsprung beneath its concealing layer of twigs and leaves, he whistled sharply. Gus stopped and looked inquiringly at Charlie, then immediately resumed quartering the ground.
“Goddamn you, Gus!” Charlie yelled out the truck window. “You want your goddamned leg broken? G’back here!”
Charlie’s bellow conveyed sufficient authority to override Gus’s instincts and reluctantly the dog came trotting back. Charlie got out of the truck, grabbed Gus’s hauler-in from behind the cab seat and snapped it onto his collar. He took his rifle from the gun rack and loaded it with shells from a box on the truck seat. He flicked the safety and slung the rifle strap over his shoulder.
Gus strained against the leash as he and Charlie moved into the trees where the orange flagging fluttered in a puff of late morning breeze that was lazily making its way south along the ridge line.
Charlie spotted a second, smaller bit of flagging which marked the tree that the trap was chained to. His gaze dropped to the foot of the tree and a tangle of underbrush that obscured the ground to a height of several feet. He reeled Gus in next to him, and together they moved closer. He didn’t see anything yet, but his heart thrummed wildly. Gus’s ears pricked with anticipation. Now they were close enough to see a wolf, or any animal, lying in the underbrush, if it was there. But Charlie saw nothing.
“Damn it,” he muttered, and spit out the last bit of tobacco.
Suddenly Gus perked his ears. He stared curiously at the spot where the trap lay hidden in the underbrush. He lifted his snout and sniffed. Something in that noseful of air made him abruptly tuck his tail and cower away from the spot. He whined, a low keening sound that set Charlie’s hair on end.
Charlie squinted at Gus, then at the base of the tree, then back at Gus. “What the bejesus is wrong with you?” he said.
Gus continued to whine and back away.
Now alert for danger, Charlie quickly unslung his rifle. He stepped cautiously forward, but Gus refused to follow. Charlie dropped the leash and continued by himself, his rifle thrust out in front, his head swiveling from side to side. Left alone, Gus began barking frantically, making Charlie nearly jump out of his skin. He stood beside the tree. He saw the trap chain, secured around the base of the tree and running into the brush that showed signs of trampling. Gus continued to bark.
“For chrissakes, Gus, shut up,” Charlie said. His breakfast roiled in his innards.
He moved the brush aside with his rifle barrel, revealing the hulk of gray metal, its jaws snapped shut. Something purplish-black with a jagged white center was caught between them, extending down from the jaws in a misshapen L.
“What the hell is that?” His breathing was heavy as he bent down to get a closer look. He prodded the thing with his rifle. It gave, but just a little.
Suddenly his breath caught. For a few stunned seconds, his mind refused to process the data his eyes were delivering. Adrenalin rocked his stout frame and his heart slammed painfully in his chest. He staggered backward in horror as he realized that caught between the steel jaws of the wolf trap was…a human foot.
Cheryl Lassiter © 2012