A Father's Love
He’d been out walking the woods.
It was Saturday afternoon and he was spending it the way he spent most every afternoon, quietly moving about their woods, observing it’s life. A good hunter knew his woods, his father said, knew where the turkeys roosted, where the rabbits burrowed, where the deer liked to forage, where the foxes denned. From his almost daily wandering of their woods, Jackie knew these things and more.
He’d been down near their property line, where their woods suddenly ended and afterward became the woods belonging to the McCutcheons, an invisible distinction made among the trees, when Jackie found the first of the traps. It was set out along the edge of a small clearing, tucked beneath some mulberry bushes. It was one of the expensive, factory made live traps, the kind sold for seven dollars apiece down at Castler’s Hardware in town. The trap was all steel, comprised of a low rectangular cage, the swinging trap door at one end of which was held open by a thin metal arm connected to the bait tray; when jostled, the arm would fall away and the metal door would slam shut locking the animal inside. Kneeling, Jackie closed the cage door. He knew who was responsible. Angry, he checked his bearings again, making sure they were in fact still on Shelley land.
Their neighbors, the McCutcheons, owned nearly three thousand acres, about five square miles, half of which was clear-cut, the fields sewn with corn and soybeans, the other half having been allowed to remain woodland. Despite the enormity of their own woods in which to trap and hunt, this wasn’t the first time one of the McCutcheon boys had encroached on their land; it had happened a number of times, twice over the last summer alone, and Jackie knew Derek and Prince had both been warned about coming onto their land, Jackie’s father having gone over and spoken with their father, Dave, about the matter; but whatever words had been exchanged, whatever promises made, the trespassing had clearly continued.
Confident of his location, Jackie set out on a line east, stopping and examining every bush and crevice. It wasn’t long before Jackie located another trap. He found it hidden atop a small knoll, covered by brush and set up just like the first, carpeted with a bit of hay and baited with lettuce. Rabbit droppings were scattered nearby, dried out pellets, a few days old, and Jackie felt his anger mounting; he’d no way of telling how long the traps had been lying hidden out in their woods, how much game had been stolen. Closing up that trap as well, Jackie continued east.
He was several minutes walking when the distinct murmur of a man’s voice reached his ears. Following the sound he could eventually make out the words of Cold, Cold Heart, a familiar Hank Williams song, badly sung in a low off key voice and missing words. The voice broke off, and the singer whistled part of the melody before continuing on with the next verse. Coming up quietly behind a cluster of trees, Jackie spied Derek, the older of the two McCutcheon boys, his back to Jackie, crouched over another of the small cages, working, stuffing the trap with hay, singing all the while.
Derek was three years older than Jackie and two years older than his brother, Prince, who’d been a grade above Jackie in school. The memory of an altercation some years back with Prince suddenly came sharply to mind, Prince’s insufferable arrogance having brought on the happening.
Derek and Prince’s father, Dave McCutcheon, had been the sole heir to the estate founded by their father, Max McCutcheon, a Scotch immigrant who’d taken everything he had and invested it in the struggling foundry when most everyone else who could’ve had bailed on the town during the depression; but Max had held on and when the second war came he made a fortune; afterward he purchased the extensive tract of land south of town that would eventually become the McCutcheon farm. Twenty years later and it wasn’t an exaggeration to say that between the farm and steel casting plant the McCutcheons employed everyone in town—if not by employing them directly at the foundry or farm, then by them being in local business and profiting from the employment the foundry and the farm provided: Bern’s Tavern, the Pop Shop, Castler’s Hardware, Miller’s Grocery, Cooper Brothers Tire, it wasn’t an understatement to say it would all probably be gone if the McCutcheons for some reason decided to fold it all up, take their money and leave.
Jackie, having grown up in Halton, knew all that, but it didn’t matter; this wasn’t town; these were the woods, he and his father’s woods. Trying to calm himself, he stepped out from behind the clump of trees and approached the elder of the McCutcheon boys.
“Nice singin’,” he called out walking up, his shotgun slung over his shoulder. “Shame you don’t know the words.”
Though he jumped badly at the unexpected interruption of Jackie’s voice, Derek recovered well.
“Maybe not, Shelley. But I know a few more,” and he began whistling the tune of Tennessee Border, another Hank Williams song Jackie recognized, returning to the business of trying to set the hair trigger on the cage door to keep it propped open.
“What’s it you think you’re about?” Jackie asked.
“What’s it look like?”
“Looks like trespassin’.”
“Property line’s that way, fella, and you know it.”
“What about it, fella?” Derek asked, looking sideways at him.
Jackie, who’d stopped about ten feet away from Derek, stepped closer.
“You’re poachin’ on our land.”
“These are for rabbits. That ain’t poaching.”
“It’s out of season.”
Derek, who’d finally gotten the trap set, stood up wiping his hands on his jeans.
They were just over an arms length apart.
“Pack your shit and get back on your parent’s property.”
“You fixing to call the DNR about me?” Derek asked, grinning.
“No. Just get your stuff and get the hell out. I ain’t askin’ again.”
Derek didn’t move, his smile widening, and Jackie could feel his own face turning red.
“Or what, Shelley?”
Derek was big, a couple inches taller and forty pounds heavier than Jackie; he liked getting into fights when he could find one and had a reputation for being someone you didn’t mess with unless it was a whipping you were after.
“Where’s Prince?” Jackie asked, looking around.
“Not here. Already away to school, college,” Derek said, pausing for effect before continuing. “Speakin’ of school, did you ever manage to graduate? I heard you was expelled down at the high school.”
Jackie’s fist, already clenched tightly around the strap of his shotgun, squeezed tighter, his nails digging into his palm.
“We had a disagreement, the school and me.”
“Uh-huh. Way I heard it you was kicked out for punching Mr. Schultz.”
“That ain’t exactly right.”
“No, that’s true. I heard it was cause you were an idiot, too, eighteen years old and couldn’t barely read.”
“Fuck you!” Jackie exploded, seething.
Derek, still smiling, began taking off the light jacket he was wearing over his short-sleeve t-shirt. Setting down his gun, Jackie quickly did the same. Derek began laughing.
“Oh you’re a hot one, ain’t you Shelley? But let me tell you, I ain’t Willie Schultz. And I ain’t my brother neither,” he added.
They slowly started circling one another, legs bent slightly at the knees, hands up, fists cocked. Derek feinted, making as though to come at Jackie, and laughed again, mockingly, as Jackie jumped agilely back.
“Little jumpy, Shelley, you nervous? When’s the last time you had your ass kicked?”
“Not recently. You?”
“Never in my life and you know it.”
“Too long in comin’ I say.” Jackie paused. “I ain’t one of them boys you used to bully down at the school, Derek, or one of them old timers down at the foundry or the farm who kiss your ass because you and your family strut around like assholes, actin’ you own the goddamn town just because your granddad made it.”
The change in Derek’s face was immediate; the smile abruptly disappeared and something like hatred at ingratitude took its place. Inside Jackie a righteous fury was mounting, and his heart hammered in his chest.
Derek had been a state champion wrestler and Jackie knew he had to keep Derek from getting hold of him with those massive paws if he was to have a chance.
Closing on each other, several punches were exchanged before Derek finally caught Jackie with a left hook to the mouth, knocking him down and jumping on him; tasting blood, Derek immediately had Jackie in a partial chokehold, Jackie’s left hand interfering; but the pressure was still so strong it quickly caused Jackie’s eyes to spot; gasping for air, his vision blurring, he sank his teeth into the exposed flesh of Derek’s upper arm, his canines easily breaking the skin; Derek crying out in pain and surprise, trying to yank his arm away; but Jackie latched on like a pit-bull; there was blood, and grabbing hold of the arm with both hands Jackie held it tightly to him. After several seconds of yelling and prying, Derek finally succeeded in shaking free and staggered back, looking at his arm, torn open at the bicep, bleeding freely. Jackie was crouched in front of him like an animal, baring his teeth, and he sprang on Derek, hammering away at the heavy body as Derek stumbled then tumbled to the ground; and then Jackie was on him, had his back, putting the bigger man in a chokehold of his own; writhing in the dirt beneath him, the muffled grunting, wheezing sounds of Derek fighting for air fueled Jackie to squeeze harder, the end in sight. With a last effort, Derek tried to stand, to gain leverage on Jackie to throw him off, but Jackie held tight, kicking Derek behind the knees as he tried to rise. On all fours, his whole body shaking, Derek finally collapsed, defeated. And Jackie released him, rolling off, the thing being finished.
Jackie stood panting for a few moments before the throbbing reminded him and he put his hand to his lip. It was already beginning to swell. It was a few seconds before he remembered the blood on his lips wasn’t all his own. Looking down Derek was motionless in the dirt. Cautiously rolling Derek over, Jackie saw his eyes were closed, and though his checks were flushed from exertion, he seemed pale. Where Jackie had bit through the upper arm he could see exposed tissue and blood was spilling out everywhere. Two minutes later he was dead, bled out from a severed brachial artery.
It took several seconds for the gravity of the situation to take hold, and put the fear in him. He’d been in a hundred fights in his life, and killed a thousand or more animals in these woods, but the conflation of the two, there, at that moment, seemed impossible. Yet there it was. Kneeling, feeling for Derek’s pulse up around the neck, he met with only a vague patter, his finger pressed against the warm, rubbery, sweaty flesh. The panic setting in, he concealed Derek’s body by rolling it beneath a tangle of bushes surrounding a low, broad-skirted pine, tossing Derek’s own coat over top to cover the face. Grabbing his own coat and gun, Jackie took off back toward the house through the woods at a run.
To Be Continued