Saturday, February 4, 2017

Montana in the Mourning

It’s likely I did not look comfortable in my role. Nestled in the clump of sagebrush and cradling a deer rifle called a .243, I sat with my back propped against that of Trent’s. We’d been alerted by two-way radio that a “good” buck was picking its way under the rimrock and should be within “a hunnert yards and anglin’ toward the cedar draw. ‘Member to hold low if it comes out well below y,’” said the whisperer, Brownell Smythe.

Earlier that morning, when we separated from Brownell and the others of the hunt, before daybreak, Trent had been instructed to “take the .270. Give Summers the .243.”

The pre-dawn smelled of diesel exhaust, crushed sagebrush, and fresh horse manure. We left the odors behind to stalk quietly to the spot where we were told to sit and wait. As we set off, Trent told his dad.

It’s Kinkade, Dad. Claude is a Kinkade.”

Whatever. Just make sure you aim just behind the shoulder if he’s standing broadside an’ walkin’. Pass up anything that might turn into a gut shot. Better to wait and see if he’ll give y’ a broadside later. Even if it’s longer––you can reach out with that rifle, y’ know that much.

All right. You’d better get going. They’ll be moving soon. If they’re gonna move a’tall. An’ be quiet about it.”


I tried to stay motionless until my legs started to ache. I felt certain the slightest movement could be detected from 500 yards away by these wily mule deer with the legendary eyesight. No, wait, the book said the pronghorn antelope possessed binocular vision.

Trent and I sat with our backs propped against each other. He rasped in my ear. “I see ‘im. . . . He’s right . . . he’s good. Might as well get this over with.”

I froze. I did not want any screw-up of my doing to jeopardize what seemed almighty important to the Smythes. I heard a click and felt Trent’s shoulder bracing against mine when a Boom! sent its shock wave shutting down my ear drum.

He’s down, Claude! We’ll wait a decent minute. Sometimes they travel in pairs and y’ might get a crack at his pardner.” Then, as if confirming Trent’s understanding of mule deer lore:

There’s two!” Rita crackled on the two-way. “There’s two! Get your butts on that other one! He’s on a high lope.” Trent keyed his radio.

Don’t see ‘im yet.”

Rita started swearing. “We can see it from clear over here!”

Shoot then.”

Too far! Scramble to the point an’ get there. He’s breakin’ for the cedars. Move yer butts, you boys!” Rita screamed.

We stood and I waited on Trent for instructions. He waved off any urgency. “It’ll be in the trees by the time we get there. Let them others over yonder have a crack. Lester goose-egged last year and Val’s got that new whiz-bang rifle he’s so proud of.”

He started down the slope. “Watch now. These rocks will slide and roll out from under y’. Rifle on ‘safe’?”

Y-yes,” I answered.

Where is it?” someone asked over the radio. Trent snapped his off, an act of defiance.

I tried to follow my friend closely as we angled across the slope and where I grabbed a handful of sagebrush when it seemed prudent.

There’s our buck, down amongst those little outcrops. Good. I hope it was quick. Let’s hol’ up here and see if the other one shows up somewheres.” I couldn’t see anything that looked like a mule deer, live or otherwise.

I’d ease your way up here, Clauders, and lay out on your belly, if y’ can. He may be down in the quakers. If he breaks for that little ridge, he might top out and look back at us. They’ll do that some if they’re kinda stupid or he’s lookin’ for his buddy. Hold your crosshairs just a shade low,” he whispered, “just even with his belly if he shows.

There! Movin’ . . . might stop and look back. Let ‘im turn a bit. Now’s good.”

I squeezed my rifle’s trigger but no muzzle blast, no jolt against my shoulder.

Your safety’s on.” 

I slipped it off and tried to follow my target now trotting and dodging through the sage and cedars like a running back weaving toward the end zone. I started to squeeze at the object dancing in and out of my scope’s field of view when a Boom! high and behind us made me flinch and fire. Then there followed two sharp Ka-bams! 

Trent turned his radio on and we heard a livid Rita––“Gone, you worthless teats!” More swearing. “Well . . . that was pretty. Four shots an’ no score. I shoulda been there, is all I gotta say. I shoulda been there.” There followed a string of cusswords, and Trent turned his radio off as we reached his fallen buck.


We set about dressing the deer. “I’ve helped with enough of these to be mindful of the guts and glands,” Trent told me. “Gonna catch it for missing that other one,” he looked up from the chore and watched the Smythes and Maynards assembling.

A high-water pickup worked its way to a staging area as did a flatbed. Rita and Brownell roared their new ATVs down to the scene where Granddad Lester and Val, the aging uncle, joined us on horseback. Rita stormed our way and spun Trent around to face her.

Why. In the hell. Didn’t you get that other one?” she demanded.

It was Claude’s shot.”

Yeh, well, he doesn’t need the venison. We do.”

Gramps and Val missed. It was a hard shot, downhill, and on the trot.”

Well, you were closest. You coulda shot and put his tag on it––Geez Louise! How hard is that to figure out?”

Mom . . . you gotcha a nice buck for all the sausage y’ wanna make. All that needs doin’ is to get some pork from Hampton Pack and you’re set for the winter.”

Don’t get smart-mouthed about it.”

I’m not!”

Rita,” said Brownell, “the boy’s got him a nice big buck. Let’s let it go. Everybody . . . just back off and we’ll get another chance.”

Chance, you say––fat chance, I say.”

Even I could appreciate the heft and fine condition of Trent’s buck. Rita lifted its hind leg and sniffed, “That better be a clean gut job.”

It was.”

Trent, lay your rifle alongside there. Summers, bring your camera. This here’s Trent’s first buck,” Brownell said, “and we need some decent photos. Nice five point. Best I’ve seen in some time.”

Yeh an’ we coulda had two tags filled before noon.”

Lift his head a little higher.”

Well. Smile. Trent. You don’t look very happy about it.”

I’m not.”

An’ why not, I’m askin’?”

I’m just not that crazy about this stuff, that’s all.”

Trent. Sometimes I don’t know you.”

No, no one around here does, and furthermore, Mom, I don’t care.” Rita advanced on him and Trent stood up.

And what does that mean, mister smart mouth?”

Rita, easy on the boy.”

I don’t care if I never shoot another deer if y’ wanna know the truth.”

Well, aren’t you the namby-pamby, little candy––”

“‘Cause I don’t like it, that’s why.”

And why don’t y’ like it, if I may ask?”

I don’t like it,” Trent snarled. “I don’t like it . . . because You . . . Love It!”

Rita then slapped Trent with her right and tried to connect with her left but missed. Trent uncorked one from his belt and planted his right fist with such anger, the blow slammed Rita into the pickup door. Blood spurted. Then flowed. Then washed the teeth down the front of Rita where she slumped to the ground.

Horses, both those of Lester and Val and those tied to the stock racks of the pickups shied, stamped, rattled the racks, and coughed in alarm. The humans added their “whoa, whoa, now, hold on there, what the hell, whoa now––boy, that’s outa line!”

Brownell advanced on Trent who picked up his rifle and waved him off.

Son, son, . . . now boy, you’re outa control here. That’s a loaded gun.”

I know that.” Trent and Brownell stared at each other, father in alarm, the son in resolution. 

Your ma needs help. Let’s get her in the truck.” By now Rita was bawling, tears and blood puddling down her vest.

Go away.” She waved at them. “Just . . . go away,” she burbled through the blood in her mouth.

By hell, Brownell, you’d better do something. That girl’s hurt. Trent, you lay that rifle––”

Shut up, Granddad!”

Lester cut loose with a string of condemnation. “Now you a-listen here––”

Shut the hell up!” Trent shouted. “You’re the big reason why this here family’s such no- account trash an’ trouble––why Dad lost his hand. You know it’s your fault and y’ never owed up to it!”

Trent then knelt by his mother and shouted so every mule deer hiding out in the cedar breaks could hear: “Mom! Shadee Was Not My Fault! Shadee was no one’s fault. Quit taking it out on us and blamin’ everyone you know.”

I shot a glance around the stunned family members and watched the blue shade of reality cloud their faces in the frosty morning light. Rita turned away and could not meet Trent’s red-faced glare. Everyone looking on recognized the issue: 

So that’s what this is all about. Shadee. Everyone’s dealing with gettin’ over Shadee. 

Those who laid Shadee to rest also buried the care-laden words of advice from Reverend Peter Benedict. On a brittle ridge in Montana, the sorrow of Shadee Smythe for her family blocked the morning sun.

Brownell,” Rita sobbed as she reached out to her husband. “Help me.” 

Trent grabbed his mother by her shoulders and shook her. 

“Shadee’s in a better place than here, livin’ in this white trash, redneck family you got out here.” 

Trent shook Rita with such vigor, he was banging her head against the pickup door, leaving a halo of blood spatters. Rita screamed. The others came forward. Brownell pulled his son to his feet and Trent shoved him away, leveled his rifle and waved it menacingly. “Back off!

Back away. Shadee’s better off. Better off,” he said through his tears.

B-boy,” Brown quivered over his heaving chest. “Rob, son––”

I’m Trent, not Rob,” he said, wiping his face. “Rob’s way th’ hell and gone from this sorry place. And this sorry, . . . no-good, riffraff, white-trash of a family.”

Okay, okay, Trent. Trent, now, . . . now, you try to calm down, son. It’ll be all right.”

Trent,” Lester wheezed. “You’re no grandson of mine actin’ thisaway.”

Dad, you’re not helping.”

Yeah, Lester. Take a good look.” And with that, Trent hoisted his father’s stainless steel hook high above their heads. “Y’ ever really looked at what you gave my dad, have y’? You’re right––I’m no grandson of yours and I’m glad of it.”

Now, Trent,” said Brownell, pulling away, “let’s not get into that.”

I’ll stand up to him, Dad, if you won’t. That’s the kind of father you are, Lester, have it your way or no way,” he shouted at the old man who looked away, torquing his jaws. “Well, look what it got y’.”

Trent dropped the hook and stood towering over his mother, a more dismal figure I cannot to this day remember.

Mom, Dad won’t tell you but I will. No more of this anger. I hear anymore about Shadee bein’ our fault, I’ll go through the house and tear down every picture, every scrapbook and burn ‘em! I swear I will.” 

Rita kept sobbing, “Brow . . . Brown . . . help us. Oh, God help us . . . God help us.”

Dad lost his hand. I lost a sister but never did we hear a thing about it from you, ol’ man,” Trent shouted his way.

At that, Lester turned his horse away from the group and Trent shouted after him: “You could say you’re sorry, old man. You and your havin’ to get it done and we can’t wait to do it the right way business. Cost your son his hand, old man!”

Son,” said Brownell, “there are things here you don’t know about––”

I know enough I’m gonna quit this family!”

One of the older Smythe cousins sidled up behind Trent as if to make a play for the rifle. Trent jerked it out of reach and told him. 

Don’t be no hero, Koye. Let it be.” Koye raised his hands in resignation and backed away. “And by the way, Koye and all you Maynard rednecks, you keep your dogs in the trucks from now on, or I’ll .270 every one of those bitches––I swear I will.”

Uncle Val turned his mount to leave, lifted his oxygen bottle to his horse’s offside, and muttered, “Brownell, that boy’s temper is gonna make things worse. Better get––”

Shut up, Val!” Brownell barked. “This is a private matter. Get back to town and your bottle and your trailer house. Huntin’ season is over.”

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