Published in 10,000 Tons of Black Ink
Ethan lay in the hotel bed, uncomfortably hot despite the cold Dakota air streaming through the window. He stared at the dark ceiling. I just don’t know how it could have happened, he thought. He walked to the window, stumbling over hunting gear strewn about after returning from the pheasant hunt in darkness. His gun fell to the floor, waking Martin in the other bed. Now the window was opened wide, and he could see other hunters exercising their dogs far below.
“As soon as it gets light,” Martin said. “As soon as it gets light, we’ll go out there again. I don’t see how we could have missed him last night.” His legs ached from walking miles with his heavy gun and shotgun shells through the unharvested corn, the fields filled with twisted, storm-fallen stalks and dense brush. The first day of hunting had been good, but a strong wind had made shooting difficult. They had missed lots of shots, the birds speeding away downwind as the harsh afternoon light softened to a dusty gold before fading to copper.
Whistling for his dogs, the guide, Jake, said to call it a day. But the hollow, rattling leaves of the windblown corn erased all but the loudest shouting and the dogs hadn’t returned. The men drove to the distant end of the cornfield, where Blake, the third hunter, had been blocking the pheasants’ escape. Perhaps the dogs had run ahead through the mile-long field to him. The muddy truck pulled up where Blake had been standing when they left him, but he wasn’t there and neither were the dogs.
The hunters were close friends, partners in a real estate corporation started by Blake’s father, who managed to meet clients in the early years with his left hand concealed in his pocket. His portrait in the real estate office lobby showed his hand under a suit coat, hiding the frostbite loss of most of his fingers during the Battle of the Bulge. With urging, he would sometimes tell long, frightening stories about the war to his son, hoping to bring a measure of determination to Blake.
The old man had won the hunting trip in a raffle at his trap and skeet club but thought he was unfit for the trip and gave the prize to his son and his two business friends, all of whom, he thought, could use some toughening up.
Used to living well, the partners had large homes in Highland Park, their children attended notable schools, and their wives were still beautiful despite the men being past their prime in their forties and grasping at remembered manly adventures. They were very successful and even quite wealthy with the recent steep rise in property values, selling skyscraper condos as soon as they could be built and buying expensive, carved double-barrel shotguns and the best clothing and boots. Perhaps their hunting skills would revive after years of neglect spent at festive dinners and parties for charity.
* * *
Martin put down his wine glass and looked out the window of the company jet. The flat land below was a patchwork of browns and greens, first arranged in squares, but farther west, golden Dakota country stretched endlessly. Only a few buildings dotted the sand hills, and open expanses arched to the cerulean horizon.
After landing at Pierre, the three friends and Jake, their guide, drove in a mud-caked Suburban along a narrow, potholed street and parked on the gravel in front of Crazy Al’s, a narrow, crowded tavern on the ground level of their hotel. A ripping, freezing wind tore at their lightweight sports coats as the men hurried into the bar, past a rusty pickup with For Sale, $725 painted on its door. A taped windshield message read: “If you hate Toyotas, this is for you.”
They walked past the cigarette and candy vending machines before sitting at a table across from a dingy wall mirror and a Smoking Allowed sign. Stuffed deer and faded coyote skins hung high on the wall. Most of the bar stools were filled with barrel-shaped, middle-aged and elderly hunters, dressed for the cold with flannel shirts and stiff khaki pants. The heels of their heavy boots hung against brass foot rails, dropping clods of mud to the floor while they bent over foamed beers and loudly told a few raunchy jokes.
Someone shouted: “What do cow pies and cowgirls have in common? The older they get, the easier they are to pick up.”
Someone else: “What’s the fastest animal in the world? An Ethiopian chicken.”
Smokers crowded the room; pillars of smoke pulled up by greasy ceiling fans amid a clatter of dishes by rough-handling busboys. Another drinker, his orange hunter’s cap pushed back, shouted to Dottie, the waitress standing nearby: “What do you call a smart blonde?”
Dottie shouted back, “Oh for God’s sakes, Harry, a golden retriever. Can’t you old farts come up with something new?”
A tight-jeaned, hard-muscled waitress walked to their table. Hair pulled back, beginning wrinkles around her eyes and across her forehead. She smiled at Blake and the other greenhorn hunters.
“How’d you boys do today?” She gripped the order pad with hardened forearm muscles, biceps pushing against her shirt cuffs.
“We start the hunt tomorrow,” Blake answered. He had always been the most aggressive salesman of the three. “I’ve got this trick knee that makes it hard to walk sometimes.” He looked up at her and smiled. “Maybe I should just stay with you at the hotel.”
Her smile faded into a straight-lipped expression until the ordering was completed.
“I’d leave Kelly alone,” Jake said. “She’s one of the star players on the Pierre roller derby team. May even be the captain. Last week she bumped one of her opponents over the guardrail into the crowd. Started a fight that didn’t end until the sheriff and his deputy showed up.”
After dinner, after the others in the group left the bar, Blake signed the bill and left a generous tip. Kelly smiled again.
“Bring me some tail feathers,” she added.
And then what? he thought. It seemed to Blake that this part of the country was a hard place for women. A bad place to be feminine. More friendly to those who were comfortable shooting a passing deer or elk through an opened window while fixing dinner than belonging to a tedious book club or attending regular meetings about gardening.
Blake was on his once-a-year acting-out vacation with the boys and felt relaxed as hell already. This is my kind of place, he thought. Maybe I can meet her after she’s off work. We could soak in the Jacuzzi for a start. She’s probably hot to get the hell out of town.
* * *
Driving to the hunt, the highway was empty and ruler-straight. Later they turned onto gravel and then dirt roads. The unlimited view of flat, dusty fields was shocking to Ethan, who was used to looking at skyscrapers and signing contracts. He looked over at Jake. “Jesus, don’t you get tired of this emptiness?”
“You got to look at it closely. There’s a lot that happens most people don’t notice,” Jake replied. “Besides, if you look at anything long enough, it gets interesting.”
The dirt road ended at a deserted farm, the house long gone, perhaps never there, old barns and sheds in disrepair, some collapsed against the ground. Jake went over the safety procedures.
“Keep your guns pointed up all the time,” he said. “And keep that safety on until you shoot. Don’t shoot near the ground. Let the pheasants fly up and get above all of us first, take that extra second for safety. The fields are huge and the birds run ahead of us. We need a blocker or two at the end of the field.”
The dogs were whining and howling; cornstalks and leaves blew rapidly around the desolate farmyard. Dense clouds were forming in the west.
“The birds run to the end of the cornfield and see the blockers standing there. Either they fly then or hunker down. Blockers are free to take any good shots, but keep the guns up and away from the other hunters.”
Because of his painful knee, Blake had chosen to stand at the end of the long cornfield while the guide and his two friends walked toward him through the densely planted crop.
“This is where you can stand,” Jake said, looking at Blake and pointing to a tangle of dark weeds. “The birds will run through the corn toward you. Just wait, be patient and be ready. It takes maybe an hour for us to walk the field to where you are. You may get more shooting than we will. Never know.”
The other three got back into the Suburban to drive to the far end of the cornfield. Jake rolled down his driver’s window as they drove away. He shouted to Blake, who looked uncertain, standing alone in the brush at the cornfield’s edge, his gun pointed skyward.
“Just stay alert, stay alert, Blake. Don’t shoot at the low ones, goddamn it, that’s where we’ll be coming toward you.”
Steering the Suburban through the muddy grassland, Jake thought about the many times he had blocked for walking hunters. Standing and waiting like Blake was the hardest job. It’s almost like the pheasants are watching you. Relax, look around, scratch your balls, and out the birds come, flying right past you.
Blake stood there, concentrating on the corn, looking for any birds running toward him. He looked and stared until his eyes blurred from the strong wind and blowing dust. He blinked, rubbed his gloved hand across his face. He had to take a whizz, so he put his heavy gun down and walked away from the edge of the field before unzipping through all the trouser layers. He turned downwind, let it go, and two cocks flew past, cackling loudly. He jumped for his gun and wet himself.
“Son of a bitch!”
He stared carefully at the cornfield again, this time standing like a soldier at attention, gun at the ready. His fingers felt frozen in his new gloves, which were a size too small. He thought about his dad, Frank, his fingerless hand, how he froze it during the Battle of the Bulge, hiding in a snowed-in foxhole, out of ammunition. How cold it was and nothing to eat, just staring at a few trees and the piles of windblown snow around him until the skies cleared and help came. Blake pulled his hands partway out of the gloves and curled his fingers into his palms.
“There aren’t many things in life you can’t solve with patience and a couple of bullets,” Frank had told him.
But Blake wasn’t really a hunter, didn’t really enjoy it the way his buddies seemed to. A pile of dead pheasants at the end of the day made him sad as much as anything. He thought about home, about relaxing in his favorite chair, comfortable in its soft leather padding, sipping a beer while watching the Bears on his wide-screen TV.
He had fallen into bad habits; comfort and softness habits. He rarely exercised anymore and was gaining weight. It was all because of his bad football knee, he reasoned, not his fault. Besides, the parties and fancy meals were good for his real estate business. He bent over to pull some weeds from his boots. Another cock flew past him. Blake jumped up, raised his gun quickly, and fired three times as the bird flew out of range. Frightened by the gunfire, two more flew away, untouched, toward the distant horizon.
A freezing, gusty wind blew across Dakota. Ripped, low clouds moved in rapidly under the gray overcast. It was cold standing there. He tried pacing back and forth, even jumping jacks to stay warm. A cock pheasant flew up. Blake got the bird with one shot and put some tail feathers in his jacket. He smiled. I’ll get some more, he thought, reloading his gun and walking into the dense cornfield. The stalks extended above his head, the shifting, wind-rattled leaves erasing other sounds except his heavy breathing. More birds flew up; he shot repeatedly and two pheasants fell deeper into the field. He could not see them, so searching, he walked further away from where he had stood at the field’s edge. He had no more shotgun shells. Where the hell are the dogs? he thought. They never seemed to have trouble finding the fallen birds. But Blake, moving slowly through the tangled stalks of corn, had found only one more pheasant when the golden light faded to a smudged darkness. They should have walked the field by now, he thought. They should be here. He shouted for them but could hear nothing but rattling leaves.
Now, unsure of the direction to the edge of the field, he tried walking randomly, searching right and left. Instead of being straight, the rows of corn often intersected each other like a kaleidoscope. It was confusing. He found two of his spent shotgun shells on the ground and realized he had walked in a large circle back to where he had stood an hour earlier. It was darker now. The wind, still strong, whistled through the field from many directions. He reached into his large rear pocket. The feathers were still there. He saw Kelly in the Jacuzzi with him, her nipples pushing through a thin bikini. He would be warm this evening. They would have such fun together.
No need to tell Ethan or Martin that he had gotten lost in a fucking cornfield. Never hear the end of that. No, he was just hunting a little while he waited for them. His cell phone! Why hadn’t he thought of that? He turned it on. The screen indicated he was not in a service area. He began running, changing directions, tripping over broken stalks, shouting for help, sometimes jumping slightly despite his sore knee, trying to see above the corn, not aware of a large badger hole in the muddy ground before falling into it and reinjuring his leg. The fall broke the stock of his gun. He picked up the gun barrel, using it as a cane, a sort of crutch as he limped heavily, slowing finally to a crawl. Now it was dark and started to rain.
Bent over with exhaustion, hands grasping his knees, out of breath and frightened. The cold now invaded even his bones. Why had he come way the hell out to this country, a place that he knew nothing about? He saw his wife, Amy, tearful and dressed in black, opening condolences. They were mostly from his business rivals, who would derive humor at Blake freezing to death in the middle of a Dakota cornfield. How fitting for a scoundrel like him.
He thought again about his father’s war stories. Blake dug a hole in the soft, muddy dirt. He dug it deep with what was left of his gun and lined it with brittle stalks of corn. Blake lay down and covered himself with the yellowed leaves, which soon became covered with icy snow. Nearby, his orange cap, attached to his gun barrel like a flag on a pole, swung in the wind.
That’s how they found him.