S&R Fiction

S&R Fiction: “Out in the Far Hills,” by Thomas Healy

One at a time the server at the Hookah Lounge placed three smoldering charcoals on top of the perforated foil that covered the bowl of the water pipe which was filled with mint-flavored tobacco.  Carefully, then, he took several long draws on the pipe to get it started then put on a clean mouthpiece.

“Enjoy, gentlemen,” he said, with a slight bow, after setting the mouthpiece in a glass bowl in the middle of the small brass table occupied by the three tire salesmen.

“Who wants to go first?” Arnett asked, leaning forward in his cushioned chair.

Norville winked at Gartland, knowing Arnett liked to go first in just about everything.

“After you, Robb.”

“You sure?”

He nodded along with Gartland.

After taking a sip of water, Arnett set the mouthpiece between his soup-cooler lips and inhaled slowly, savoring every bit of the tangy smoke.  Then, aware from his previous visit to the lounge that it was considered impolite to pass the pipe to another person, he set it back in the bowl when he was through and leaned back and crossed his arms.  As he did before, listening to the seductive Arabic music playing through the speaker above the front door, he imagined he was in Beirut or Damascus, somewhere far removed from the familiar shopping mall that was only a few blocks from the store where he and his friends worked.

“Oh, look,” Norville said, staring at the television attached to the wall behind the espresso bar, “there’s been another sighting of that coyote.”

Gartland groaned audibly as he reached for the water pipe.  “There seems to be a sighting reported every few hours.”

Arnett looked up at the television whose sound was off so it didn’t interfere with the music.  “I bet there’s more than one of them.”

“Not according to the sheriff,” Norville said quickly.

He disagreed.  “I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a couple at least.”

“If that’s so, no wonder they are having so much trouble getting this thing taken care of.”

“The folks they hire these days in the sheriff’s office are lucky to find their way home at night, let alone some wild animal on the loose,” Gartland cracked.

“Oh, I don’t believe that’s why they haven’t killed the coyote yet,” Norville remarked after returning the pipe to the glass bowl.

“You don’t?”

“It’s just not a priority for the sheriff,” he contended.  “I have no doubt if the coyote was loose in the Emerald District, say, it would have been killed by now.  But he really isn’t that much concerned about what goes on in the east corridor of town.”

Gartland smiled, aware that the Emerald District was one of the areas where the sheriff garnered a great deal of support in the last election.

“So what you’re implying is that it’s up to us to kill the coyote,” Arnett said, sitting up in his chair.  “Is that right?”

“I suppose we can wait for the sheriff to get around to it but by then a lot of damage probably will have occurred.”

“I understand a number of cats and dogs already have been attacked.”

“Lord knows, this critter has to be killed before it goes after some person because, if I’m not mistaken, coyotes sometimes carry rabies.”

Gartland exhaled a faint ribbon of smoke.  “Remember last year, just before Thanksgiving, when that drug dealer released those pitbulls in the Emerald?  The sheriff rounded them up in a couple of days.”

“More like a couple of hours, if memory serves,” Norville remarked.

“That’s not going to happen here.  That’s for sure.  He’ll take his own sweet time just as he always does when it involves something at this end of town.”

“We all have a rifle or two in our closets,” Arnett interjected.  “I suppose we could go after it ourselves.”

“I wasn’t suggesting we do it,” Norville said hastily.  “I just pointed out that it’s more likely someone in this end of town is going to kill it before the sheriff does.”

“Then why not us?”

Norville, frowning, glared at Arnett.  “Because the only thing we’ve ever shot are jack rabbits and birds.  That’s why.”

“We could do it, though,” he insisted.

“Maybe you could, Robb, but not me.”

“Or me,” Gartland added before he inhaled another mouthful of smoke.

*

“About ten o’clock last night a man walking in Cedar Hills claimed he saw the coyote race across a footbridge,” the reporter on the radio announced.  “Deputies were dispatched at once but the animal was not found.”

Arnett, relieved, leaned back from the kitchen table, smiling to himself.  It’s still out there, he thought, still waiting for him to come and kill it.

After the weather report, which called for rain all weekend, he turned down the volume on the radio and resumed cleaning his father’s hunting rifle.  Scattered across the table were a roll of paper towels, some cotton patches, a bore brush, a cleaning rod, and a can of Remington oil.  A stub of a cigar burned in the ashtray on a corner of the table.

As expected, his friends didn’t waver from what they said the other night at the lounge so he would have to go after the coyote on his own.  He didn’t mind, though, almost preferred it because he wouldn’t have to share any of the accolades that were bound to come after he killed the animal.  Maybe, for once in his life, he would be seen as someone who could accomplish something significant instead of one of those people who only wished he could do such a thing.

Seemingly, ever since his younger sister died six years ago, he had lost the trust of many members of his family, particularly his father, who no longer acted as if he could rely on him.  As her only brother, it was his responsibility to look after Jenny, and he believed he always did the three summers they worked together as grooms at a riding stable across the river where a friend of their father’s was a longtime trainer.  But then early one morning that third summer, shortly after they arrived at the stable, a stallion broke out of its stall, and as it charged through the barn, Jenny tried to stop it and got kicked in the face.  She died in a matter of minutes from the severe trauma she suffered to her head.  He was only a step or two from her when the accident occurred so some in their family felt he should have protected her.  He didn’t know what he could have done, really, the horse stormed by so quickly, but that sentiment was shared by a lot of people who believed he had let her down.  That was preposterous, he knew, absolutely preposterous.  No one at the stable that morning thought he was in anyway responsible for her death.

At times, he almost wished he had been the one kicked by the horse but he wasn’t and would just have to accept that some people never would think he did enough for his sister.  They were wrong, dead wrong, but he doubted if he could ever change their minds.  But maybe, just maybe, if he shot the coyote, they would have a better opinion of him.

*

It was so early it was pitch dark out but Arnett wanted to get started as soon as possible so he was surprised to see Ignatius, who lived in the apartment below his, already in the parking lot.

“You’re up bright and early this morning,” he said as he unlocked the back door of his panel truck.

“A little too early,” he admitted.  “I’m still half asleep.”

“Quail season hasn’t opened yet, has it?” he asked, noticing the rifle tucked under his arm.

“Not that I know of.”

“You going to a shooting range then?”

He shook his head.  “I thought I’d see if I could find that coyote that’s causing all the ruckus around here.”

“You and plenty of others, I gather, from a report I heard on the news last night.”

Arnett opened his trunk.  “I reckon one of us ought to get it this weekend then.”

“Where are you going?”

“Cedar Hills.”

“Yeah, that’s the last place where I heard it was seen,” he said.  “Well, I wish you luck.”

“Thanks.  I’ll need it.”

Because of the earliness of the hour he scarcely encountered any traffic on the drive out to the large stretch of wilderness in the east corridor of town that was owned by the county.  For as long as he could remember, people in and out of government had discussed developing Cedar Hills into an eighteen hole golf course, maybe even a football stadium, but nothing ever came of the discussions so a couple of years ago it was designated by the county as a migratory bird sanctuary.  He parked near the footbridge at the north end of the refuge because that was where the person was walking who spotted the coyote the other evening.  A few other vehicles also were parked there so he assumed he would not be the only one looking for the creature this morning.

Occasionally in the summer, when the temperature rose into the nineties, his family would seek refuge in the shade of all the trees in the sanctuary and have a picnic beside one of the ponds.  He and his sister would often skip rocks across the linoleum smooth water, always competing to see whose rock went the farthest before sinking, but most of all he remembered the games of hide and seek they played with friends their parents let them bring along on the outings.  She always found the best hiding places, managing to blend in wherever she was, and seldom lost a game.  The few times he beat her, he suspected she let him win because she didn’t want him to get too dejected.  Since her death, he had visited the sanctuary only a few times, and whenever he did, he imagined she was still hiding there somewhere, refusing to show herself until he spotted her.

The day was every bit as dreary as forecast.  It rained steadily throughout the drive to the sanctuary but, almost as soon as he got out of his car, it intensified, the drops noisily pelting him like pellets of ice.  He had on an orange felt hunting hat so he would not be mistaken for the coyote but quickly realized that the hat would not keep its shape very long in the heavy downpour so he took it off and put on a dark blue baseball cap that was waterproof.

Not really having any idea where the coyote might be, if it was even still here, he decided to follow the narrow creek that passed under the footbridge and headed west, the rifle cradled in the crook of his left elbow.  He moved cautiously, not wanting to step on anything that might alert the animal of his presence.  “Walk as if you’re in a house full of people sound asleep and you don’t want to wake them,” his father told him the first time he took him quail hunting.  The ground was flat for nearly a mile then began to rise, and soon he could feel the strain in the back of his legs but he trudged on, knowing it was too soon to take a break.  He passed through a field of Scotch broom, through prickly hedges that were needle sharp.  He passed a boulder the size of his car and another the size of a tractor.  Above him herons circled, even a falcon appeared briefly between the limbs of a towering tree.

He proceeded at such a deliberate pace that he almost felt as if he were half asleep.  So, before he started up another rise, he removed his cap and lifted his face to the rain.  It stung like a dozen slaps but it jolted him awake and he continued on, one step at a time through the muddy ground.

*

Suddenly, off to his right somewhere, he heard what sounded like a rifle shot.

“Oh, Lord,” he sighed, halting at once.

Intently he listened for another shot, a voice, but all he heard was the pelting rain.  Perhaps what he heard before wasn’t a shot at all but only a branch snapped by the wind.  Lord, he hoped so, because he didn’t want anyone else to kill the coyote.  It was his prey, he believed, and his alone.

*

“Jesus, man,” a voice above Arnett snarled as he approached a blackberry vine, “I almost plugged you.”

Startled, he looked up and saw a grizzled figure in a camouflage jacket and hat perched in the neck of an oak tree.  A rifle rested on the top of his left shoulder.  “Thank God you didn’t.”

“Don’t thank Him,” he snorted.  “Thank me.  I might have more yesterdays in my life than tomorrows but my vision is still good.”

“I didn’t even see you.”

The hunter grinned, revealing a badly chipped front tooth.  “That’s the point, isn’t it?  Otherwise why would I have my bony butt up in this tree?”

“You here for the coyote?”

He nodded.  “There’s nothing else worth shooting in this goddamn swamp.”

“Have you seen any sign of it?”

“Nah, and I’m beginning to wonder if it’s even still around here.  I figure I’ll stay up in this tree another hour or two then call it a day.”

“I’d wish you luck but I want to shoot it myself.”

“Believe me, if it comes by here, I have no doubt I’ll kill it.  As I said, my eyes are sharp as ever.  Otherwise it’s all yours, friend.”

*

Breathing hard, Arnett slumped against the side of a tree and looked at his wrist watch.  It was nearly ten o’clock, and still he had not come across the coyote.  He wondered if it wasn’t here any longer, as the guy in the tree speculated, if maybe it was never here at all and the person who claimed to have seen it was mistaken.

“Damn,” he groaned to himself, as he fished a cigarette out of his pocket.

He started to reach for a match when he saw the pair of pale yellow eyes staring at him from behind a manzanita shrub.  Immediately his pulse quickened, and the cigarette dropped out of his mouth.

There it is, he realized, not more than fifteen feet away from him.

His heart was in his throat.  And for nearly a minute he didn’t budge a muscle, afraid if he did he might spook the animal.  But he knew he had to retrieve his rifle, which he had set across a stump beside his left foot, if he hoped to get off a decent shot.  He almost wished the coyote would start to move away but it remained as still as he was, its eyes as lifeless as tacks.  Ever so slowly, while still staring at the lemon-colored eyes, he reached for his rifle and, just as he was about to pick it up, the animal darted out from behind the shrub and raced past him and disappeared in some fireweed.

“Goddamn!” he shrieked.

To his amazement, it wasn’t the coyote but a reddish brown fox and, in frustration, he fired a shot at it and missed.

*

Minutes later, maneuvering down a narrow slope, he stumbled on a tree root and fell to his knees.  His pants were caked in mud, his hands too, and as he got up he suspected he must have looked like someone who had fallen through a chimney and was covered in soot.  He smiled.  Certainly he didn’t look like a person others were likely to embrace in celebration.  Not at all, he thought, continuing down the slope.  But he knew his appearance really didn’t matter if he killed the coyote.  He could look like a scarecrow and people would still want to shake his hand and have their pictures taken with him.  And maybe his perceived failure to protect his sister would finally be forgiven by those who still held him partly responsible for her death, if not forgotten.

He truly hoped so, mindful of the convicted arsonist last spring who rescued an elderly man and woman from an overturned car.  Many in the neighborhood who remembered that, as a youngster, Metheny set an abandoned warehouse on fire congratulated him for saving the couple, including Arnett who had gone to high school with one of his younger brothers.

“You must feel as if you’re back,” he remembered asking him one evening.

“Back?”

“In the good graces of the community?”

He shrugged.  “Some folks will never forgive me for what I did but a few might after they see I am really not such an awful person.  I don’t know.  I wish I could say I don’t care but I do very much.”

So did he, Arnett thought, climbing over a cracked tree.

*

Around half past one, when Arnett returned to his car, his hands were shaking he was so cold and he had to steady one hand with another in order to insert the key into the lock to open the door.  Immediately he turned on the heater, full blast, and toweled off his face and hair.  He was soaked down to his socks and decided to warm up a little before he headed back to his apartment.

He had not found the coyote, hadn’t come across any trace of it, and was terribly discouraged.  He wasn’t really sure if it was in the sanctuary, but if it was, he realized he wasn’t going to find it.  Not today, anyway, because it was just too miserable out so he decided to stop looking before he caught pneumonia.  Tomorrow, though, he would be back, maybe with some cold cuts from the butcher shop to use as bait.  He didn’t intend to sit up in some tree but he might set up a blind near the creek and wait for the animal to come after the meat.

“Seduction is every bit as important as marksmanship,” his father told him time and again when they hunted.

He had never killed anything larger than a jack rabbit but was confident he wouldn’t have a problem killing the coyote after all the trouble it had caused.  Briefly he looked at his drenched face in the rearview mirror, remembering when one of the trainers at the stable asked if he wanted to shoot the horse that killed his sister.  He did, certainly, but he knew Jenny wouldn’t have wanted him to because she hated to see any harm come to the horses at the riding stable.  She was the sort of considerate person who would stop whenever she saw a dead squirrel in the road and bury it.  So he declined and asked that the horse not be killed.  It was a decision that disappointed the trainer who he was sure thought less of him because of it, probably considered him weak and irresponsible.  And it was a decision that he came to regret five months later when the horse kicked another groom, severely fracturing her hip, and was put down at once.  The trainer didn’t ask for his approval then, didn’t say anything, just looked at him with what almost seemed contempt.  His attitude would be much different, Arnett believed, after he took down the coyote, much, much different.  He would see he wasn’t the weakling he thought he was but someone capable of doing something important and necessary.

His hands still shivering a little, he turned on the ignition, put the car in gear, and got back on the road.

*

Ignatius, removing a small crate from the back of his panel truck, smiled when Arnett pulled into the parking lot of the apartment complex.  “You get it?” he asked as soon as Arnett climbed out of his car.

Wearily he shook his head.  “Didn’t even see it.”

“Well, someone did, and I thought it might be you.”

“The coyote’s dead?”

“That’s what was reported on the radio not more than half an hour ago.”

His shoulders slumped in disappointment.  “I’ll be damned.  I thought for sure I was going to be the one to get it.”

“It’s too bad you weren’t.”

“Where was it shot?”

“Somewhere at this end of town.”

“Out in Cedar Hills?” he pressed him.

“I don’t recall but I don’t believe so.”

“There must be more than one loose because I’m sure one’s in the hills.”

“I thought you didn’t see any sign of it.”

“I didn’t but I just have a feeling it’s there somewhere.”

His eyes narrowed.  “You do?”

“I do.  I definitely do.”

Despite the skepticism of his neighbor, he went to the butcher shop that evening and purchased three pounds of ground beef.  Still convinced the coyote he was after remained at large, he returned to Cedar Hills early the next morning and hiked deep into the sanctuary.  The rain wasn’t as intense as it was yesterday but it was just as cold and blustery.  After he found a place that provided some cover, he set out the meat and waited for the elusive coyote to appear.  It didn’t, though, but he wasn’t discouraged and planned to return to the hills next weekend, and, if necessary, the following weekend and however many after that until he found the animal.  He was so confident he would kill it he could almost see the smiles on the faces of the people in his part of town and hear the compliments they surely would extend to him for his accomplishment.

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