Chris La Tray is a writer, a walker, and a photographer. His freelance writing and/or photography has appeared in Montana Quarterly, The Drake, the Missoula Independent, the Missoulian, Knives Illustrated, Vintage Guitar, Montana magazine, Alaska Airlines’ Beyond magazine, and World Explorer magazine.
His short fiction has been published in various crime, noir, and pulp collections and anthologies.
Chris is Chippewa-Cree Métis, and is an enrolled member of Montana's Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians. He lives in Missoula, MT.
I knew from a young age my dad could kill if he had to. Or if someone else needed him to. I never really wondered if that included killing people, though.
One time I remember was winter. I could have only been four or five, because we were living next door to the dairy farm down in Huson. We were only there a year or so, and that's where I turned five, so … anyway. I don't remember the specifics, but something happened to one of the dairy cows—one of those big, black and white Holsteins. It got into something it shouldn't have, or broke its leg, I don't know. The farmer was away, in town maybe, which was a good twenty miles away, and his wife came over in hysterics. My mom made me and my sister, Patty, go to our room. A little later we heard a gunshot. Eventually we managed to sneak outside and run off into the field that separated our house from the dairy. The farmer's two kids—Colt, I think, and Jamie, maybe?—were standing there by this cow sprawled on the ground. It was cold, and though there wasn't any snow, the earth was just a frozen hard crust of frost with some tough stalks of grass poking through. The cow was all piled up on its belly with its head flat on the ground and its tongue sticking out. I don't recall much blood, but there was a perfectly round hole in its head, right between the eyes, all pink and black around the edges.
"Your dad done it," Colt said. He didn't even look at us. I remembered he dropped down to his knees in front of the cow, said, "Put that .30-06 right between her eyes and shot her dead."
Then he stuck his finger in the bullet hole. I ran away back to our house.
This story is as much about my sister Patty as it is about me and my dad. She's a few years older than me, but we are more different than can be explained away by age. We're like total opposites. She was always about fashion magazines, primping, posing, and wanting nice things. She's very pretty; beautiful, even. Or she was. I like to think she could be again.
Me, I was dirty all the time. I grew up a tomboy and never wanted to be anything but. I was always outside, running with the dogs, exploring the woods behind the house, twigs and pine needles all tangled in hair that my mom wouldn't let me hack off short. I spent a lot of time hanging around in the garage with my dad, handing him tools, shuttling beers and smokes from the house, things like that. I don't know why my parents never had more kids, but they didn't. If my dad felt like he was missing out by not having a son, he never said anything. He and I did all the things you'd expect a father and son to do.
"If you ever get in a fight," he said, more than once, "You gotta not care about fighting fair. You just hurt 'em, hurt 'em as bad as you can, as fast as you can, so they never mess with you again."
Mom would shake her head. "Bill, she's not a boy!" He'd just laugh and slug me in the arm.
I was in junior high, my sister a couple years graduated from high school, when our family broke. It was over a man—Jerry.
I had always considered Jerry a creep. He used to hang around our house a fair amount, even when Patty and me were just kids. He used to work with my dad at the mill, though he's a few years younger. He's still pretty old, though. I didn't like him because when he would come over Dad would make me go inside, like we couldn't be buddies in front of his friends. He and Jerry would be out in the garage or driveway, drinking beer and talking about cars and engines and stuff like that. Maybe other things too, I don't know. To hear him talk about Jerry, you'd think my dad didn't like him. Dad would always cuss him, commenting on the stuff Jerry would say or brag about doing. We'd see him coming down the driveway, which was almost a mile long, and Mom would get mad and say, "Here comes that goddamn Jerry." Dad would roll his eyes and go outside. Sometimes Jerry would leave pretty quick. Other times he'd be there a while. Mom was never one to try and talk too much when Jerry was around.
"That man is nothing but trouble," she'd say, shaking her head.
This was after our time in Huson. We lived several years in an old farm house out in the middle of a big field. Every year the landlord would run cattle in those fields; fat Angus beasts. When I think about that time, I remember mostly the critters. I don't know where they came from, but every now and then animals, mostly cats, would just show up. I mean, there weren't neighbors for miles around us, but these kitties, and a dog or two that I can remember, would find their way to our house. We almost always adopted them in one way or another. They might not become house pets or anything, but we always had a pile of animals around to go with the others we chose to keep: dogs, a cow or two, maybe some horses. Goats. Chickens. In the summer there'd be an old glass aquarium with a couple inches of green water in it that I would watch tadpoles turn frog too.
I remember one little cat that hung around for a while. I don't think it was with us long enough even to get a name, but she was really friendly and lovable. I don't know if they still do it, but in those days farmers weren't shy about using poison to kill anything from rats to coyotes to you-name-it. We figured the cat got into some poisoned grain, likely put out to kill rats or something, because it came home one day in horrible shape. Staggering, frothing at the mouth. Patty thought it had rabies, but it wasn't rabies.
Dad caught it in a gunny sack and carried it out behind the barn along with his rifle. I sat in the living room, bawling my eyes out, holding my hands over my ears trying to block out the sound of that damn gun firing. When he saw me crying my dad got mad. I don't think he was mad at me; I always thought he was mad because he didn't like to shoot animals. He always talked about shooting coyotes we'd see in the fields because there was still a bounty in those days, but he never did it. Didn't even kill gophers or squirrels.
That's the thing. Other than an old .22, I almost never saw my dad's guns. Mom hated them, and he wasn't a hunter or anything, so they just weren't around. They were something unseen in this old metal case that seemed the size of a closet he kept in their bedroom. Never seeing them, it was weird when I did see him with a gun in his hand. It seemed to mean more business.
The year before Patty graduated we moved to where we live now, up in the mountains. It was a smaller house, but for the first time Mom and Dad owned the place we lived in. Patty hardly had time for any of us, especially me. She didn't seem to want me around, and definitely didn't get along with our folks. There was so much tension all the time I was glad when she graduated and moved out.
She started working at some bar in town. I was ignorant of these things at the time, but I later learned it was this real dive out by the truckroads. My folks weren't too happy about it; they wanted her to go to college. People I knew at school would ask about it, and her, and I would get embarrassed. I sure as heck didn't know what she was doing. I hardly knew what was going on with her when she lived in our house, how should I have known when I barely ever saw her?
Then she started seeing Jerry. That didn't go over well at all. I don't even know how it happened. I imagine he must have started hanging out in the bar she worked at.
He hardly came around anymore anyway, but once he started hooking up with Patty his name became forbidden around the house. The arguments and fights that would erupt every time Patty was at home were something to be seen. Then she finally just stopped coming. It always grossed me out to think of them together anyway, and seeing her just made it worse.
When Patty and Jerry ran off to Idaho and got married, it was like someone died. I really wasn't involved in all the fighting, but even I could feel the difference. As long as Patty was living with that man, it's like this bruised cloud of anger and unhappiness was hanging over all our lives. They only lived a few miles away, up higher on the mountain, but it may as well have been on the other side of the planet. Nobody spoke to each other for almost a year. Mom, always feisty and stubborn, was even quicker to blow her top. Dad took to drinking more, and not just beer. Sometimes Dad would get all liquored up and rave about how he wished he'd "killed that sonofabitch" when he'd had the chance. That would set Mom off and then they'd go at it. The two had always fought, but not like this. I felt like a ghost in my own house. A presence unable to affect events. For the first time ever I didn't want to be part of my family. It sucked.
When my nephew Clay was born, it kind of broke the ice a little. Grandkids will do that. Jerry was still unwelcome, but at least Patty could come around. She put on weight, started looking twice her age in dirty sweatshirts and pajama pants, got bags under her eyes, and just seemed not to care anymore. Sometimes we wouldn't see her for a couple weeks or so, with her saying she, or the baby, was sick or something. When we did see her later she'd have the lingering stain of a black eye, or maybe some old scrapes and bruises on her arms.
Two more years passed and I became an aunt again. Patty had another baby boy, this one called Jacob, just as I was going into my junior year of high school. It was a good year: I was busy running track, playing basketball, and being captain of the archery team. I got along with my folks okay, and even had some good times around Patty and the boys. But it wasn't the same as it used to be. That's just life, I guess.
It was a Friday evening in late spring. I was only a couple weeks shy of high school graduation. We'd just come from a softball game; I was still in my uniform. We'd brought home a pizza from the convenience store across the highway from the high school. Mom, Dad and me were just getting ready to eat when we heard a car come bouncing down the driveway. It was Patty's beat-up old Ford Taurus. She skidded to a halt in front of the gate to the yard, dust billowing all around her. She got up out of the car and almost fell. I remember hearing both my parents gasp.
Patty was all beat to hell. She looked terrible bad.
Mom and Dad went to help her. She was crying, the whole side of her face puffy and bleeding. She held her left arm like it was broken. Patty was going on about how "he's drunk" and "he's crazy" and this and that.
My mom had a stricken look on her face. "Patty," she said, "where are the boys?"
"He's got them, Mom," Patty said. "He wouldn't let me take them. Told them their mama was dead, then told me if I ever come back he'll kill me."
Dad cussed, went in the house, and came back out with his Carhartt coat on and his truck keys. "No, Bill!" Mom said. "Let's just call the sheriff and get them to go get the boys. You know they'll do it!"
Dad just walked right past her and shrugged her off when she tried to grab on to him and stop him. "That'll take too long, I'm going to get them right now. Can't have that drunk sonofabitch up there waving a gun around those boys."
Now Mom was crying too, and Patty wailed even harder. I was looking from them to my dad, and back again. "Dad!" I said. He turned around. "Let me drive." He looked at me real hard a moment, then sort of nodded and set the truck keys on the hood of the Chevy on the driver's side. Then he walked around and got in the passenger door.
Jerry's place was a few miles away. It was up against the side of the hill at the end of a long dirt road that switched back and forth several times before it dead-ended just past his driveway. Toward the end it was all washboarded so that I had to drive slow or risk having our teeth rattled out. In other spots there were deep ruts from where vehicles had driven through the snow melt when the mud had been thick and soft. In places the sun couldn't get to yet it was still fairly sloppy.
The whole way up Dad didn't say a word. I could just feel him beside me, fuming. I'd steal a look out the corner of my eye now and then. He sat staring ahead, his jaw set. His stubble looked gray, and he seemed older somehow. I didn't say anything either. Wasn't even sure why I came along. I just had a sense he would need someone with him. He must have had the sense too or he wouldn't have let me go.
I parked the truck in front of Jerry's driveway and shut it down. Where his property faces the road he'd built this tall fence out of battered tin sheets, all gray and rusty, screwed into a wooden frame behind them. A five- or six-foot-high double-chain link gate was closed across the end of the driveway. It was all bowed in the middle and leaning on its hinges. I couldn't recall it ever being closed before. A rusted length of chain held it that way, with a blocky old padlock keeping it tight.
Dad sat a minute. He reached inside his coat and took out his metal flask, unscrewed the cap and tipped the thing into his mouth. He started to put the lid back on then paused and offered it to me. I took a sip; it was awful stuff but I tried to keep my face serious. I think he might have almost smiled but it was hard to tell in the shadows.
Dad opened the door and got out. When I started to follow he said, "No, you stay here until I get back. No bullshit. Understood?"
"Okay then, now lean forward." I pressed myself up against the steering wheel so he could work the lever behind the bench seat and push the backrest forward. He rummaged around behind the seat then came out with a big set of bolt cutters. He walked over to the gate and looked through the links. I doubt he could have even seen much with all the forest. Already the trees sloping up hill to our left were nothing but silhouettes against a sky going red.
Satisfied, Dad positioned the cutters and leaned into the handles. His back hunched up and his arms started to shake as he pressed them together. Finally one of the links snapped off; with a couple tugs he pulled the chain free and the gates swung wide on their own weight with a screech that seemed way too loud.
Back at the truck Dad threw the bolt cutters behind the seat and brought out an old axe handle. The business end was splintered and mangled, wrapped with strips of tape, the axe head long gone. He hefted it in his hand, then gave me another look as he pushed the seat back into place. "Now stay here, remember?"
"Dad?" I said. "You know Jerry's gonna have his gun."
My dad opened up the left side of his jacket. I could see the handle of a pistol I didn't even know he owned shoved into a holster under his arm. "Jerry isn't gonna do anything to me, Kelly," he said. "Now sit tight and I'll be right back with those boys."
He turned and walked through the gate into the dark.
It was only a couple minutes before I couldn't take the waiting any longer. First I got out of the truck and stood beside it. Then I went over and peered through the gate. Finally I stepped through it and started up the driveway.
Jerry's place was a junkyard. The driveway just a dirt path snaking around the rusted-out husks of who knows how many dead cars, trucks, and other equipment. I swear the place had to be a superfund site from all the leaking gas, oil, and grease. Some of the wrecks had saplings growing up through them, while others were all but hidden by brush. In some ways all the pines and bushes made it worse. In the gloom and circumstances it was frightening.
The driveway climbed up about fifty yards and then crested a hill. Another hundred or so down the other side was the clearing where the house and yard, such as it was, were. The house was about half normal and half shack, particularly the parts where Jerry had thrown up his unfinished additions. Blue tarps hung all higgledy piggledy, just like they always were.
I stood at the top of the hill and looked down. Jerry's truck was parked next to the house so I figured he had to be around. The porch light was on, lighting up about a third of the yard, but I couldn't see anything. Not Jerry, not my dad, not even the boys. Everything was quiet; the only thing I could hear was the breeze blowing through the trees and a wind chime somewhere. The sound ebbed and flowed, kind of like waves on the beach.
I started making my way down the hill, slowly, in a crouch. I didn't want Dad to see me, and I sure as heck didn't want to run into Jerry. I was like the stupid girl in the horror movie where everyone is, like, "What are you doing?!" It was then that I heard a sound; something metal hitting the ground and rolling. I angled my head about halfway in the direction I thought it came from, watching from my peripheral vision. A light flashed one time, then was gone, like a lamp clicked on then off. Another sound, this one human, and I knew what it was.
I headed toward where the light had flashed almost at a run. I rammed my shin into something metal planted in the ground that knocked me down and hurt like hell. I got back up and started again, limping pretty hard. I could feel blood trickling down my leg.
I started calling out in a loud whisper. "Boys! Clay? Jacob? It's Aunt Kelly!"
I heard a quiet whimper; I came around a tree with an old tractor parked against it and a flashlight beam hit me in the face. Little Clay was holding the light in one hand and the hand-me-down beginner's bow we'd given him for Christmas. He was standing in the doorway of a moldy old camper Patty had cleaned up for them to use as a fort. His little brother was on the floor behind him.
Clay dropped the bow and all but tackled me as soon as he saw me. He was crying so hard, blubbering first about his mom, then his dad, and I could make no sense. Which makes perfect sense, the poor kid only being about five. Jacob tottered to the door with his hands up, bawling just as loudly.
The boys were a mess. I could tell from the reek that Jacob's diaper hadn't been changed for some time, and Clay smelled like maybe he'd messed himself as well. I was trying to get them calmed down and back to the truck when an eruption of noise and shouting came from the direction of the house. The boys reacted from habit and bolted back into the camper. I went in after them.
That's when I heard the two shots, loud through the trees.
Adrenalin rushed through me. I told the boys, "Stay in here! Do not come out until I come get you!" I grabbed the light from Clay and shined it around the camper. Mostly toys littered the place, but next to the door was a quiver with four target arrows in it. I was irritated to see them out there even as I was ecstatic to find them. I grabbed the arrows, handed the light back to Clay, and issued one more command to stay put.
Another gun fired.
Outside the camper I grabbed up the bow. It was a small thing made of battered blue resin, called a Genny Bow. Made by Mathews, designed as a model for beginners to learn with—they even donated them to school programs and hunter safety courses. I had learned to shoot with this very one. I dashed as quickly as I could through the trees toward the house, careful not to trip on anything else.
I paused at the edge of light from the porch. The front door was blown open, the cheap panels shredded from gunshots. I could hear voices inside. I nocked an arrow and set the rest on the hood of Jerry's truck. I sidled forward, up onto the porch, and peeked through the opening into the house.
A gun was on the floor just over the landing in a pool of what looked like a lot of blood. More than I could imagine. It trailed into the house and stopped where my dad was stretched on the floor on his side. He had hold of the axe handle in his left hand, but he looked to be barely holding it.
Jerry was right next to him, also bloody, struggling to his feet. He held a gun, waving it at Dad. He was cussing something, but I don't even remember what. It was like all their bad history, stuff between them that I'd never known about, was coming to a head, right here, right now.
I didn't pause to think about it. I pulled and let fly with the arrow. The bow was more than powerful enough at short range to drive even a target arrow through a person, and Jerry isn't exactly beefy. It caught him just behind the right shoulder.
He howled and staggered, swinging that big gun around in my direction. From my vantage point it looked like the cannon up on the hill at the Big Hole Battlefield. The kind that in movies sends people flying all over the place when it hits. He took a shot at me, but I'd already bolted. The sound all but imploded my ears anyway.
I sprinted to Jerry's truck and grabbed another arrow. Nocked it, turned, and saw Jerry leaning on the door frame. I fired, but the arrow slammed into the wood above his head. He still flinched like crazy and almost fell down over backwards. He raised up the gun and shot at me. The blast of that thing and the shatter of the truck's windshield behind me seemed to happen at the same time. I swear I felt the bullet rush right by my ear too. It all happened so fast.
I remember the odd thought, wondering, Who will get the boys? to myself because I was sure Jerry would shoot me dead.
But Dad laid him out with the axe handle from behind. Jerry fell down the stairs off the porch. Dad limped after him, hit him a couple more times while he was on the ground, then collapsed on top of him.
I held my dad for what seemed like hours, but it was probably only thirty minutes or so before the cops showed up. Jerry had shot Dad in the shoulder, and for all the blood loss he didn't die. Dad was in and out, asking about the boys, and I told him I found them and they were fine. When it was obvious he wasn't going to die, I hollered to the boys that everything was okay, that I was helping Grandpa and would get them soon as I was done.
Jerry didn't die either, but not as a result of any help I gave him. I just left him on the ground. If he'd gotten up, I probably would have axe handled him again. Or put another arrow in him. Lucky for him, the combination of liquor and getting his butt kicked kept him passed out.
The whole thing was pretty crazy, but that's exactly how it happened.
Copyright © 2012 Chris La Tray. Winning short story of the 2012 Watery Graves Invitational contest.