Dustin had been on autopilot again. He forgot that he laid a snare trap and didn’t expect a female elk in its grasp. He sighed. He hated snares, even though they made prettier trophies—no bolt holes to cover up. The elk was still warm, yet barely alive. He looked behind him expecting to see his big white pickup, but instead saw a bleak array of trees and a winding path. The cabin was far off, so leaving the elk for scavengers while he fetched his truck wasn’t an option. Fuck it. He maneuvered the dead elk, first freeing its neck from the trap. As he cut the line that strangled it, he noticed the dried blood where the wire had cut into the pelt; a sign of struggle. He let loose another sigh of disappointment, snapped the elk’s neck, and began dragging it by the legs. Even for a man of Dustin’s size, this was a task. He shuffled backwards, bent over. The forest echoed with the hiss of the body winding through the pine needles and snow, punctuated by the heavy crunching of Dustin’s boots. He was too tired to be bothered with the physical state of his prize. After all, he had been out in the wilderness for almost a day and a half, with little luck bow-hunting his next taxidermy project. He stopped, freed one of his hands from the elk, and felt the back of his neck. Necks shouldn’t be that easy to snap. He was used to breaking the necks of squirrels and rabbits, but an elk should have been a different story.
Dragging the elk was hard. The further he walked the heavier the body became, and for a moment, he was as lost in the forest as he was in his thoughts. He dropped the legs and looked in every direction: trees, trees, and more trees. The snow was so thick on the ground that it obscured his usual path. He approached the nearest tree to see if it bore the mark of his red spray paint. He was in luck. Autopilot could get a man killed in the wilderness. He had been on autopilot a lot lately. He turned back to the body. It peacefully lay on the powdered ground. He stroked his long ratty beard. How could death could be such a horribly beautiful thing? He grabbed the elk and continued walking.
The white fog of Dustin’s breath cut the cold autumn afternoon air. His joints creaked and squealed. Although he had done this many times before, he couldn’t help but feel a shiver rush down his back to his feet. Something was biting at Dustin lately and it wasn’t a common tick or the frigid air. He dropped the elk with an abrupt yelp. He placed his hands on his lower back and pushed until he was standing up straight. If only I were twenty again. Bad brain, bad back. He thought about how much of an idiot he must have looked like dragging an elk by the legs. At least there weren’t any people around to laugh or poke fun. He thought about the last time he had actually had a conversation with another person. It had been a while. Most of his customers only came by the cabin to drop off or request exotic animals and pelts, not to stick around. That was okay, though. He just needed the fine Wyoming air to keep him company.
After a series of labored stretches, he approached the elk, looked into the washed out eyes of his victim, and began thinking of the last time he saw eyes like those. He was much younger then. It had been his first big kill and it had been much harder than this one. His vision narrowed, and he heard a familiar voice in the recesses of his mind.
He shook his head, grabbed the elk’s legs, and trudged on. The air was thicker than usual. His breathing was labored. Dustin looked down at his gut. He needed more exercise desperately. It wasn’t long before he was thinking about the last time he ran. Hanna. He was so wrapped up in his thoughts, his boot snagged a root, and he fell. As he tumbled down he smacked his head on a small boulder protruding from the snow. He faded in and out, a half mile from the cabin. Blood flowed into his eyes. Hanna. His vision dimmed. He saw the dark trees. The black seemed endless. He couldn’t help but think how somebody could be so brave—so crazy—so stupid. Hanna.
Hanna was a plain and fragile woman who had an attitude very uncharacteristic of her appearance. She didn’t seem at all afraid of Dustin, the back of a rusty pickup, or a cool Wyoming night in the middle of a field. They had been talking all night long. The tailgate sunk under Dustin’s weight while lifting Hanna up, making them almost equal in height. Cans of beer littered the grass beneath them.
“So what brought you out to Wyoming anyway?” Dustin said.
“Heard you had something worth checking out up here.” Her strawberry-blonde hair ruffled in the wind. “I like how cold it can get. Whatever happened to April showers bring May flowers?” They exchanged awkward laughs.
“That can’t be the only reason you brought yourself up here,” Dustin said.
“Well, Benny gave me your name. Said you’re good at what you do.”
Dustin smiled. He and Benny were childhood friends, but he hadn’t seen Benny since he decided to make gator boots in New Orleans.
“Benny, huh? It’s a shame he left. He was really talented at stuffing goats.”
“Stuffing goats, huh?” Hanna chuckled at Dustin’s furrowed brow, “That some kinda euphemism?”
“What? No!” Dustin gulped. “Yea, uh, goats. They’re hard as hell to stuff. I can never get the proportion of their legs just right.” Dustin had never been good at small talk. Hanna’s generous laughter made him uncomfortable. He knew he wasn’t funny. That’s why the frontier of Wyoming had always been appealing to him—not a whole lot of people, not to mention the clientele that taxidermy attracted were often shut-ins like Dustin. Hanna was the exception.
Hanna cleared her throat, breaking the awkward silence. “Yea, Benny and I used to have a thing, but he left me. Said I wasn’t ‘tough enough’ for him.”
Dustin awkwardly put his arm around Hanna’s shoulder to comfort her and said, “You seem plenty tough to me.” His jaw tightened.
Hanna curled into Dustin’s arm, seemingly unfazed by his advances, “So, uh, seeing as I’m a bit new to these parts, Ill need to know good places to stay.”
“Well, the nearest hotel is about thirty miles out from the cabin.”
“Your cabin? Does it have any extra rooms?”
Dustin panicked. “Unfortunately not. Gimme thirty minutes to sober up and I’ll drive you back into town.”
“Why don’t we just sleep under the stars tonight?” She looked Dustin in his big brown eyes and laughed. “Come on. It’ll be fun. Either that, or we could share your bed?”
“You’re not shy at all are you? I’ll need a few more beers to warm myself up.” He said.
“I’ll match you.”
After a while, they were both under the spell of inebriation. Dustin’s jaw loosened up just enough for him to be able to pucker his lips. They kissed.
“Gimme another beer,” she said.
“I don’t want your lap to get cold, baby doll.” Dustin, with a new-found drunken bravado, rested his left hand on her lap. “Maybe we could lay back and enjoy the stars now?”
“You think these stars are going to get you a free pass, huh?” She pushed him away from her with a smile. “They might but another beer definitely will. Hop to it ‘baby doll.’”
Dustin rolled his eyes and laughed as he hopped off of the tailgate. He stumbled to the passenger side of his pickup, opened the door, removed the lid from a little orange cooler, and grabbed a Budweiser. He wished he could afford a better beer, but he figured Hanna was such a brazen woman (and, at this point, so drunk) that she wouldn’t care.
“You picking daisies?” Hanna said.
Dustin laughed again and shut the door. He made his way back to the bed of the truck. “Here you go, princess.” He tossed the beer up to Hanna, who caught it with one hand.
“You see that shit?” she said.
“Wow. We should sign you up for the big leagues.” Dustin grinned. He loved her attitude. He loved her hair too, and her eyes, but mostly he loved her neck. It was slim and gentle—like the crane Hanna had brought to him to be stuffed. He took his seat next to Hanna on the tailgate and began to rub her back. She cooed and grabbed his knee. It wasn’t often an attractive female customer asked to grab a few beers under the stars, let alone grab his knee.
Hanna slid her hand slowly up Dustin’s leg. Don’t think the Budweiser was a problem at all. Dustin leaned back, anxious but embracing the moment. Her hand was inches from Dustin’s belt when all at once, she gave his upper thigh a light pat and jumped off the back of the tailgate, barely sticking the landing. She whipped around to face him, but stumbled against his lap. He could smell the beer on her breath as she looked up and laughed at her own clumsiness.
They kissed for a second time.
“Why don’t we play a game?” Hanna said.
“What kind of game?”
Hanna looked towards the woods. “Hide and seek?” She pointed in the direction of the trees.
Are you crazy?” said Dustin.
Hanna made a beeline for the woods and disappeared in the pitch darkness of the trees. Dustin placed his beer on the edge of the truck and took off after her. He had to get her. She was drunk and didn’t know the land like he did.
“Hey!” Dustin screamed.
The tree line gave a silent reply.
Dustin ran to the side of his truck, opened the door, and grabbed a flashlight from the glove box. He turned a little too quickly on his heel and stumbled. Brushing himself off, he bolted toward the forest. Once he breached the trees he cried out, “Hanna? These woods are dangerous—traps and predators everywhere.”
Dustin ran through the woods faster than he’d ever run. His tracking skills were rusty, and it was hard to see in the darkness, but he was still careful enough to mind the traps. He bolted by a tree, but something caught his face. He yelled, but realized it was a cloth hanging from one of the branches. He pulled it off and straightened it out in his hands. It was Hanna’s blouse. She was close. She wasn’t responding to his calls, but he kept a steady pace deeper and deeper into the woods. He stumbled on shoes, then pants, then a bra.
“Alrighty sweetness! Where you at?”
He heard a scream come from his left. He jumped at the sound and ran to the nearest tree. He turned off his flashlight and began navigating the darkness, feeling his way to the scream in case an animal got ahold of Hanna.
He approached one of his own snares. “Hanna!” There was an ever growing pit in his stomach. He heard rustling in the pine needles to his right, so he pointed the flashlight there and turned it on—afraid of what he would find.
There she was: naked and seizing. His hunter instincts monopolized all other senses, and he tended to Hanna like he’d tend to a trapped and frenzied animal. She was snared by her ankle, so he held her tight and cut the snare loose with a pocket knife. “It’s alright baby, you’re gonna be just fine,” he said as he cradled her shaking body, trying to calm her.
He tried to flip her over onto her back, but she was stuck on something. One good pull to her side and he saw the blood. She had fallen on a small stake that Dustin placed as a marker. It had punctured her chest pretty deeply.
“Holy shit.” Dustin’s hands shook. He propped Hanna up, got behind her and laid her in his lap. She was still seizing pretty badly, so Dustin knew he had to do something. It would take a good couple of hours before he could get her the medical attention she needed. They were a forty-five minutes away from his cabin. She’d be dead by then. He slid his right arm under her chin and grabbed the left side of her face with his hand. She was almost wriggling too hard, but he managed to cross his arm around the backside of her head, lift and twist.
Dustin lay just a few feet away from the elk, but he could hardly see it because night had fallen and blood dried over his eyes. Fuck. He hoped the body wasn’t as frozen as he felt. As he lay useless, he could still hear the crunch of Hanna’s neck. If he didn’t get the body back in time, it would attract predators. So he continued through the woods, one hand on the elk, the other pressing the wound on his head.
The screen door of his cabin was a welcome sight. As he began to hoist his kill over his shoulder, he started crying. The flow of the tears fell onto the bruised neck of the elk. This is the last time. No more after this. He hauled the limp corpse up the stairs, through the door, and into the kitchen, where he had installed a large walk-in freezer to keep his game before stuffing it. He had sorted the animals from small to large. He worked his way past the squirrels, rabbits, and raccoons. He passed the crane and stopped for a second, admiring its beauty. What a damn shame. He continued on through the freezer until he finally made his way to the elk, moose, and black bear. For a moment, Dustin felt as lifeless as the game. He kept walking, stopping just feet away from the furthest corner. You’ll be in good company.
The back corner of the walk-in was dark. Dustin adjusted his grip on the elk and held the body so that he was cradling it gently. He placed the elk with care on the floor, right next to Hanna’s frozen corpse. He repositioned her body, and laid down next to her and the elk. He stroked Hanna’s long, beautiful neck until he froze. You’ll be safe here, baby doll.
About the Author
Writer & Editor
As a senior Theatre and Dance student and general disappointment to his father, Logan gives a new meaning to ‘old dogs, new tricks.’ By that we mean he tricked a bunch of old dogs into relative sapience, and demanded they give him feedback on his creative works—aptly explaining the following manifesto we tried to obtain from him while he was eating garbage in a Shoney’s parking lot: “Woof, woof! Arrrrggghhh ARRRGGHHH.” Logan’s favorite thing is comedy at the physical expense of others. Furthermore, his favorite romantic activity is watching geese attacks on YouTube. He seems excited to begin his journey with Reduced Pulp, but it might be the typhus fever getting to him. If you wish to contact Logan, place a bowl of golden berries outside your front door.