by: Steve Passey ((Header art by Chad Hasegawa.))
An engaging, gritty tale of fellowship and revenge, set amid the backdrop of a ungoverned frontier, that examines man’s overbearing authority over beast…
Three days after the massacre at Little Big Horn, Colonel Myles Keogh’s body was found at the center of a group of soldiers that included his two sergeants, the company trumpeter, and the guidon bearer. Keogh’s corpse had been stripped but not mutilated, perhaps because the Lakota saw the Agnus Dei he wore on a chain about his neck. By the time of the battle many of Sitting Bull’s Sioux were Catholic…
After Big Mike killed his first grizzly bear with a Lee Enfield rifle he christened the “Rocky Mountain Bear Fucker,” he decided that him and his hunting companion, a much younger man named Chris, should cross the border and go to the Babb Bar in Babb, Montana.
In the Babb Bar there is a chalkboard behind the bar with a list of the interdicted, their offenses, and the length of their exile from the premises. One man has been banned for a month for “kicking the jukebox.” Another was banned for a week for “excessive (illegible).” One banished for “Double Life” for “Striking a bartender.”’ Judging from the list of names on the board, half of the Blackfeet Nation has been barred. The other half were there in the bar, drinking alongside a scattering of tourists on their way to Kalispell to golf, and a Mormon couple from Cardston who were hoping no other Mormons from Cardston showed up and recognized them.
Big Mike ordered a couple of schooners of beer and brought it back to the table. There was still blood and viscera coating his hands. The scads of flies in the bar began to pick up on the scent and moved in broken lines and frantic spirals towards the hunters. The common fly’s lifespan is measured in days and as such their laws are desperate and few (feed, reproduce, die), and they are as hard to dissuade as they are vile and necessary.
An old man approached. He smelled of cigarettes, wore a black J.B. Stetson hat, and a fraying denim vest over a second-hand black collared shirt. He also wore a bolo tie with a silver and turquoise clasp. In the old man’s hat band could be found a playing card, yellow with age and the smoke of a thousand Babb-like bars. The card was a Dougherty King of Hearts with a hole right through the center and he took it out of his hat and showed it to the pair of weary hunters.
“This card is from Little Big Horn,” the old man said, “My great-grandfather took it from the body of a soldier he killed. He killed the cavalryman and took his scalp and his possessions, including a pack of cards he had on him.”
The back of the card was printed with a pattern of small red stars on a white background.
“June 25th, 1876,” the old man said.
“That’s a good story chief,” Big Mike said.
“It is not a story. It’s the truth,” the old man said. “The King of Hearts is a Dougherty ‘plain back’ King of Hearts which was made in 1852. The hole in it is from a Henry rifle fired by my grandfather on the afternoon of June 25th, 1876.”
Big Mike just nodded.
“If it’s that good of a story,” the old man said, “you could buy me a drink.”
Big Mike asked the old man what he liked.
“Rye whiskey,” sang the old man. Big Mike recognized the harmony from an old Pete Seeger tune called “Rye Whiskey.”
Big Mike sent Chris to the bar to get a shot of Crown Royal. He brought it back to the old man and set it down in front of him. The old man thanked him formally then sipped the rye from the shot glass.
“What are you men up to today?” The old man asked. He had placed the Dougherty King of Hearts back in his hat band in the exact same spot from where he had taken it.”
“We killed a goddamn bear this morning,” Big Mike said.
The old man raised an eyebrow. “That’s good,” he said. “Everyone should hunt the bear once in their lifetime.”
“Well,” Big Mike said. “We aren’t hunting bears. We’re killing bears. And we aren’t done killing bears. We are going to kill more bears.”
“More than one? Why?” The old man asked, sipping at his shot of premium rye. “More than one is just greedy.”
“Revenge,” Big Mike said.
“Ah” the old man said. “So, you killed the wrong bear this morning. Now you want to kill them all.”
“All, or as many as it takes,” said Big Mike.
“I see,” said the old man. He finished his rye and thanked the hunters for the drink. Big Mike offered the old man another whiskey.
“No thank you,” he said. “You have been kind enough. Be careful on your way, and good luck killing all the bears.”
He walked away and Big Mike watched him approach the Mormons, taking the card from his hatband exactly like he had with the hunters. Big Mike could see his lips move and knew exactly what he was saying: “This card is from the Little Big Horn… “
Chris leaned in towards Big Mike and asked, “Do you think his story is true? Is the card the real thing?”
“No,” Mike said. “I think it’s just a story. I’ve bought that old man a drink on the King of Diamonds story before, yeah, it was a different card but it had the same hole and the same story. He just doesn’t remember me. I think he has a pack of those cards, and shoots holes in them one at a time as he needs to. It’s a good story though, and truthfully, I think those cards are real enough. A collector might pay good money for them. But he’s gone and put that hole right through ‘em and it’s hard to say they are worth more than the shot of Crown Royal given the condition they are in
Chris said that it seemed to him that if they had played it better they might have come away with the card.
Big Mike shrugged his viewpoint off. “It’s all he’s got. No need to grind him down. Not for the price of a drink.”
“What’s his name?” Chris asked.
“I don’t know. I’ve never asked him for it and he’s never offered.” Big Mike nodded towards the chalkboard and the list of banned individuals. “I’ll tell you what though, it’s probably been up on that board.”
Big Mike’s nephew Dan had been recently killed by a bear while fly-fishing. Dan was out in the middle of the Kananaskis River, on some rocks when the bear charged him. When he didn’t come home, Dan’s mother, Kim, called the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the next day they started a search. Fish and Wildlife found Dan’s body about a quarter mile way from his gear on the opposite side of the river. The bear had buried him beneath some dead leaves and wet earth. “Bears do that,” had said the Fish and Wildlife officer. “They like you to soften up a little before they eat you.”
Dan was cremated and there was a funeral. Mike went with Kim and her sister Mary. They had come many miles to scatter Dan’s ashes over the Kananaskis River. Big Mike didn’t own a suit so he wore a black oil-cloth coat, like cowboys wear, clean jeans with a white collared shirt, and his good black boots. After Dan’s ashes had settled upon the cold waters of the river, they went back to Kim’s place for the wake. At the wake, when people spoke quietly of Dan’s love of the art and artifice of fly fishing, they described the way in which he flicked his wrist that made for a good cast, and the hours at his work bench tying new flies, and of how he fished catch-and-release only. Afterwards, Mary sat down at the piano. She’d always played piano and gave lessons out of her home. She played Beethoven’s “Für Elise” quietly and with an uneven tempo, and by the time she finished the room was quiet. Kim sat down beside Mary and laid her tired head on her sister’s shoulder. Mary played “Für Elise” again and it was perfect in tempo and tone and it filled the room like the breath of the Almighty.
When all the guests had left the house, Big Mike found Chris and told him, “My daddy had three children: My sister Kim, my sister Mary, and myself. But between the three of us we only had Kim’s boy Dan and now he’s gone. So we’re all gone, done as a people. It’s the end of our line. I tell you what, I’m going to go find and kill that very same bear and every other bear I see. I’d like you to come with me.”
Chris nodded. “I will go with you.”
The next morning Big Mike set off in his old pickup, an old three-quarter ton Mercury with a topper, with his Lee Enfield Rifle No.4. He picked up Chris and shortly after and on the west side of the Kananaskis River, while shooting slightly uphill, Big Mike killed a bear with two shots from less than one hundred yards. They walked up to the bear; it appeared to be a young boar, a grizzly, no older than four years and not yet three-hundred pounds. Big Mike tried to skin it but all he had was a folding buck-knife and he soon made a ghastly mess of the animal’s hide and offal.
“To hell with it. I should take something,” Big Mike said, “Hide or head or claws. Unfortunately I haven’t brought a proper knife.”
The two hunters left the carcass where it lay and walked back down the slope and then back to the truck. They could hear ravens calling to each other in the tree line to bear witness to the destruction of the big animal‘s flesh. When they arrived back at Mike’s to the truck they drove to Babb, Montana, and there met the old Blackfoot man with the Dougherty King of Hearts.
A week later Big Mike picked up Chris in his truck and they drove back into the mountains. A half an hour into their drive they were pulled over by a Fish and Wildlife officer in a green uniform and a tan Stetson. He assumed the pair to be spotting for elk and warned them about bears, telling them about Dan. Big Mike nodded to the officer and didn’t give any sign that he knew about Dan. The officer asked to see Big Mike’s Lee Enfield and Big Mike took it off of the gun rack and handed it to the officer who worked the bolt and sighted down the road with it. He was checking to see if it was loaded, which would be illegal, but Big Mike hadn’t loaded it and the officer handed it back.
“Damn fine rifle,” the officer said. Lee Enfield Mark IV model No. 1. We beat Hitler and Rommel and all of those boys in World War II with this and not much else. Good for any game right up to and including a full grown bull moose. Heavy bastard though.” The officer handed the rifle back to Big Mike and went on his way.
Big Mike put the rifle back in the rack but before he did he showed the younger man the rifle strap where he had taken a wood-burning kit and engraved the worn leather strap of the rifle with the words “Rocky Mountain Bear Fucker.”
“Fish cop didn’t even notice,” Mike said.
They drove a half an hour more and then turned down an old logging road and drove for another fifteen minutes until they had to stop and walk. Fifteen minutes after that, Big Mike shot a second bear which he guessed to be at least six-hundred pounds, maybe even seven-hundred. Big Mike had brought a bigger knife this time, a Damascus-steel Bowie knife he said was worth a thousand dollars. He took the bear’s head and front paws. It still took him over an hour to saw through the all of the gristle and bone, muscle and tendon, and larynx and spine. His own sweat poured like the dew. The ravens and magpies cheered Big Mike on with every cut.
Back in the truck the younger man could smell the bear’s head and paws back in the box, under the topper.
“Is that it?” he asked. “Did you get the right one?”
“Fuck if I know,” said Big Mike. “How can I really know? I’ll have to think about it.”
Two years before the bear killed Dan, Big Mike sat with his sister Kim and Dan in her kitchen and showed her a letter. It was postmarked from the Philippines from Big Mike’s wife.
“Mary says she isn’t coming back,” Big Mike said.
Kim put her hand on her brother’s shoulder.
“It’s the cold,” he said. “She says she can’t stand the cold. She says she isn’t coming back. She wants an annulment. The church in Luzon will provide the annulment. I have to pay two-thousand dollars for it and I have to sign some document saying the marriage was never consummated. She isn’t asking me to do this, she’s telling me to do this, as if it’s all been decided.”
“I’m so sorry Michael,” was all Kim said.
“It’s not like we’re living in a sod-roof farmhouse shitting in an outhouse thirty yards from the back door when it’s thirty below in January,” he said. “We’re not pumping water from an irrigation ditch. I’ve got town water, I’ve got heat. What else is there? What else? The cold? That’s horseshit. She couldn’t bring this up before she went back to visit her family? I fucking paid for that too.”
Kim said nothing. She sat with her brother encircling him with her arms.
“She can have the divorce or annulment or whatever she wants to call it,” Dan said, “But I ain’t sending her any money. She can pay for it herself. I’ve worked how many years for the railroad? I have a railway house, a railway pension; all of it earned, and thought I had a railway wife. Two winters is all she can take? Two?”
Big Mike shook without making a sound. Kim kept her arms around him until she eventually persuaded him to go to bed. He stayed the night on the couch and in the morning her brother was gone before she woke up.
Big Mike picked up Chris two Saturdays after the one on which he had taken the bear’s paws and head.
“I thought you were done,” Chris said, “I thought you killed the right bear last time.”
“I don’t think it was him. I just don’t. Anyways, I’m killing every last fucking bear in the woods and not stopping until they’re all dead.”
Chris reluctantly climbed into the passenger’s seat and they drove on gravel roads and then dirt-track logging roads for hours on end. They stopped for gas in the Corwsnest Pass and bought a case of coke and twelve dollars worth of bad beef jerky. The cab of the truck stank of the poor quality meat and their sweat fouled the air even with the windows rolled down. They didn’t see any Fish and Wildlife officers. South and west of the Peigan reserve they saw three Peigan boys not a hundred feet off of the road skinning a buck. None looked to be older than thirteen and all were stripped to the waist with their flannel shirts bound around their waists by the arms. The boys stood up and stared at them as they drove past, sullen-eyed on the balls of their feet in their hand-me-down cowboy boots, equally ready to fight and ready to run. The buck lifted his head off of the ground for a second, not dead yet. Big Mike waved as he drove by and the boys, relieved, knelt down to their work without looking back at the truck. The buck, shot through the lungs, unable to get up and run, lay his head back down on the ground and died while they flayed him
They stopped for gas in the mountain pass and bought a case of coke and twelve dollars worth of bad beef jerky. The cab of the truck stank of the poor quality meat and their sweat fouled the air even with the windows rolled down.
By the light of the setting sun they stopped at the end of an old surveyor’s track and started to walk uphill. Big Mike carried the Lee Enfield, Chris hauled a burlap sack and a splitting maul Big Mike had brought. A half hour from the truck and a half hour’s trek from the United States border, they walked across some treeless red-hued scree and spotted a sow with two yearling cubs emerging from the tree line. The sow’s nose told her that men were closeby and right away she stood up on her hind legs to look for them, her cubs standing in miniature beside her. Big Mike shot her in the stomach. The bullet moved into her and in the shock of its passing her muscle and fat and golden-brown hair moved like the waves in water when a stone is dropped in. She bellowed and ran into the tree line but her cubs, confused by the presence of the men upon their mountain and the indecipherable crack of the Lee Enfield, bolted uphill towards Big Mike and Chris. They bawled in fright and turned in circles and their mother, shot through the stomach and bleeding, had to come back out from the darkness and cover of the needles and pines to get her cubs. Big Mike walked down hill and shot her four more times, breaking her shoulder with the second shot, a hip with the third, and after that coldly shooting her through heart. Big Mike walked her frantic cubs down one by one, missing his first few shots before quickly killing them both. Big Mike laid his Lee Enfield down and walked over to one of the cubs. Picking one up by its hind paws he swung it in a great arc and flung the corpse towards the trees. It landed with a thud like a loin thrown onto a butcher’s table. He picked the cub up again and tossed it twice more before he landed the animal’s corpse in the tree line.
“I think it was the mother bear,” he said. “If not, then I do not know and I am defeated.”
Big Mike took the splitting maul over and swung it like a pagan deity forging a hammer. He cut off the mother’s front paws in a half-dozen swings, spattering himself in gore. He took the paws and put them in the burlap sack, then took the Lee Enfield back and set Chris to carrying the splitting maul and bloody trophies. By the time they had hiked back to the truck the sun had almost set, and the constellation of Orion had risen, proud and bright, in the early evening sky.
“You see that?” Big Mike said, pointing at Orion.
“In the olden-days Orion was said to be carrying a pelt or hide, the skin of a lion mostly. You know what that means?”
Chris shook his head. In the darkness all he could see was the whites of Big Mike’s eyes.
“Animals, indifferent to suffering,” Big Mike continued. “They hunt for sustenance. Man, aware of his place in the world and prejudiced by it, he alone is thinking. He alone hunts for trophy. It is because man hunts for trophy that man holds dominion.”
Big Mike jerked his head towards the rear of the truck where, in the box under the topper, rested the blood-spattered splitting maul and the burlap sack now slick with death that held the mother bear’s front paws.
“Dominion,” he said. “Our Gods, all made in our image, take trophies. We exercise dominion over all other living things, we set the writhing butterfly on the pin, we hang the flayed hide on the wall. All of them, our dominion.”
He looked back out the front window and pointed to the sky and they looked up at the mighty Orion presenting its trophy before Big Mike fired up the truck. They drove home in the darkness along the surveyor’s trails, mining tracks, and logging roads. Big Mike drove slowly, so slow at times as to be idling. They didn’t arrive back in town until after midnight. They had brought no water with them and the dozen cokes were long gone. Chris fell asleep at some point. When he woke up they were under the streetlights and in the shadow and light he did not know where he was for a moment and was afraid, afraid in the way of child having night terrors is scared, knowing only that they have been scared and believing in the fear but not able to articulate of what it is, or why, even to themselves.
Big Mike and Chris never saw each other alive again. Big Mike died in his truck outside of the post office three years after he’d killed the sow and her two cubs. He’d parked his truck to go pick up his mail but never made it inside, having a heart attack after turning off the engine. People walked by and thought he was sleeping and it wasn’t until the next morning when someone knocked on the door that it became apparent that Big Mike was dead.
There would be no funeral service, in accordance with Big Mike’s wishes. He left his former wife, now somewhere in Luzon, ten thousand dollars. He asked that his house be sold and the proceeds split between his sisters. He left Chris a bear’s skull, a box containing forty grizzly bear claws, and some old playing cards — a J. Dougherty “plain back” King of Hearts and a J. Dougherty plain back King of Diamonds — each with a hole through the middle.
Big Mike’s sisters contacted Chris and told him him of Big Mike’s generosity towards him and thanked him for being a friend. Chris asked them about the gun, the Lee Enfield Mk 4, No. 1, and Kim told him that Big Mike had sold it to a collector a couple of years previously. Chris asked Mary if she still played the piano, and if she still played “Für Elise” and she said “yes,” and he told her how he had remembered her playing it at Kim’s house for Dan when they were all there after Dan’s funeral. Chris asked if she might consider playing it for him, for Big Mike, the same way she had on that day and she said she would. They left it at that but made no particular plans, setting no specific time.