They shot the elk family from the ridge. They’d pulled the trucks up, stepped out, seen the elk and started in on them. The two-year old had run, and was still flopping in the snow, shot twice, once in the shoulder and once in the hindquarters, but the cow and the yearling, they’d just looked up and waited.
There were no bulls because the bulls were alone or just with each other by this time in November.
For the first two minutes or so after shooting them all, James and Nick and Garrett were all deaf, and the air smelled like burn.
“Babies,” Nick said, smiling some.
James, who’d known where this ridge was and how to wind their way up the back of it, snaked his hand down the path the two youngest were going to have to take to get down to the elk.
Nick shrugged like he wasn’t stupid, he knew this place too, yeah? He was nineteen, had lived on the reservation his whole life already, in and out of jail and the hospital.
Garrett was twelve years older, and only came to the reservation after Thanksgiving each year, for this. He was thirty-two, with a steady enough job.
Nick asked what time it was and Garret told him eleven.
“Shit,” Nick said, throwing the bolt back on his rifle and setting it on the seat of the truck.
“What?” James called back.
“I got to be back by three, man.”
James laughed his old man laugh, all wheeze and shoulders.
Garrett stepped forward, studying the path down James had told them. It was no path at all.
“Show him,” James said to Nick, and Nick led Garrett down, each of them sliding half the way.
They started at the back, with the yearling, but then the two-year-old craned her neck up from the scrub and watched.
“You’re not dead yet?” Nick called across to her.
Up on the ridge, James was easing the truck up to the edge and popping the hood to connect the winch.
Garrett looked from the truck to the two-year-old. He was sitting on the yearling’s neck, holding her forelegs back so Nick could saw through the sternum. When it finally cracked open, Garrett stood, took his rifle, said he’d take care of that other one.
“Shit,” Nick said again.
Garrett turned half around. “What?”
“I’ve never shot the girls before, yeah?”
Garrett nodded, fought through the snow up to this thighs, finally made it to the two-year-old. She was still fighting, getting herself deeper into a bad part of the hill.
“I’m sorry,” Garrett said, and shot her in the head, flipping her back around so she rolled maybe ten more feet down the slope she’d been trying to climb.
But then she tried getting up again.
This time Garrett put the gun right between what would have been her eyebrows, and it was over and like always when nobody was listening, he was telling her he was sorry and promising to eat all of her meat, and thank you.
Nick popped up thirty yards over. “See something?” he called.
Garrett waved no with his gun then peeled his jacket off and cleaned the two-year-old as best he could on the slope, with her sliding away every time he sat on her wrong. By the end of it he looked worse than her. He hooked the rifle over his shoulder and made his way back to Nick, to help with the cow, but Nick was already done with her.
“We should leave that one,” he said, pointing with his chin to the two-year-old. “We’ll never get her back over here.”
Garrett looked back at her, and all the broken snow and scrub buried trees between.
“I don’t know,” he said.
The next hour they spent tying together cable and rope and wound-up tarps, to try to get the winch to reach far enough down. By the end of it they were each soaking wet, and Garrett had lost a glove. When James saw this he laughed, threw one of his down.
“The baby first,” Nick said, and they each hooked onto a back leg, started dragging for steps at a time before they’d fall in the snow.
“Wait,” Nick said, out of breath, and found the saw again. It was by the cow. Garrett held the yearling’s head back tight while Nick cut it off, pushed it to the side, its mouth open.
“Hey,” Garrett said, looking at it.
Nick looked to him.
“The mom,” Garrett said, and made his way to her, opened her mouth. “Ivory,” he said. The eyeteeth. “Didn’t these use to be good or something?”
Nick shrugged, but Garrett nodded, had read it somewhere. They’d been like jewelry for the Blackfeet. Special.
Because his knife had already broke he used Nick’s to pry the first tooth up. When the second wouldn’t come, Nick twisted the cow’s head down, held it between his knees so Garrett could cut deeper into the gum. The tooth came out.
“I’ll give these to my daughter,” Garrett said. “Every girl should have a necklace of elk teeth from her dad, right?”
Nick cut the mom’s head off, rolled it out of the way. “Fifty pounds,” he said about it.
Thirty minutes later they’d worked the yearling far enough up the slope to hook the nylon rope through its back legs.
They waved and James started the winch. When the cable snapped, Nick and Garrett scrambled for the yearling, wedged themselves under it.
“You,” Garrett said, pointing uphill with his head, “I can hold it.”
Nick nodded, went up to the fix the rope.
Ten minutes and one break later, the yearling was up with James.
He saluted them with a cup of coffee, it looked like.
Nick flipped him off. Garrett could see James laughing, because he’d been young once too, and had to be the one to go down and drag the elk.
“I’m going to kill him someday,” Nick said, fighting through the snow to the cow.
Garrett laughed. “You play any ball in high school?” he said.
“My fifth year, you mean?” Nick smiled back.
They started trying to drag the cow. Even with the head gone though, and gutted, she was still better than five hundred pounds.
In forty minutes they made maybe twenty feet, and were wet close to the skin now, from sweat.
“We should quarter her,” Nick said.
“I promised the hide,” Garrett said.
Nick looked at him like he’s told a joke.
“She’s the one I shot, right?” Garrett added.
They cut her front legs off at the knees, lower than you’d skin, then turned her around and dragged some more, until they were laughing it was so stupid.
Finally they got her hooked to the winch. It strained, the cable and rope tightening, and then snapped before she could even move.
“We should quarter her,” Nick said again.
“I’ll do the rope,” Garrett said.
After two more breaks, she clumped up over the ridge, with James.
“What time is it?” Nick called up, pointing to his wrist because James couldn’t hear that far.
“Two,” Garrett said.
Nick nodded, looked back at the bloody snow.
“You remember where the saw is?” he said.
“There’s still the other one,” Garrett said, pointing with his chin all the way over to the two-year-old.
Nick closed his eyes in pain, looked up the hill again.
This time they did quarter her, but when Nick wanted to leave the front parts, that didn’t have much meat, Garrett said he’d take them, no big deal. Even dragging just quarters was stupid, though. The snow back on that part was up their waist, and the trees and scrub were tearing their clothes every time they moved.
A thousand cuss words later, when Garrett was tying the hindquarters to the rope—Nick had been the one to drag them, when Garrett couldn’t—he remembered the ivory.
“Did she have her teeth yet?” he called back to Nick, when he could breathe.
They couldn’t even see the place where they’d quartered her now.
Nick laughed a sick laugh.
“It’s for my daughter,” Garrett said, trying to stand. “I’ll go back.”
Nick shook his head no, went back instead. Ten minutes later he handed the two teeth to Garrett. There was hardly any gum on them this time.
“Do you drill a hole in them or tie them with string or what?” Garrett said, studying the teeth against the sun.
Nick shrugged, already had the saw back in its case, was trying to work the button with numb fingers.
“Can you make earrings from them, you think?” Garrett said on the way up. “Maybe just a necklace. I don’t know.”
“You have to get the meat off first,” Nick said. “And the insides out.”
“She’s going to love them,” Garrett said.
Instead of stopping for coffee up by the truck, they worked the cow and the yearling up into the truck, then heaved the quartered-up two-year-old in with it.
“Where do we put the tag?” James said.
It was a joke.
They drove away.
At the first gate Nick took Garrett’s wrist, looked at the time and said it again: “Shit.”
It was three.
“Fast, okay?” Nick said to James. “I promised.”
With the elk weighing down the back they were able to break through the snow better, didn’t have to chain up or anything, but were still ten minutes late getting to Browning.
Nick dove out of the truck before it was stopped—they had to park around back, because they didn’t have tags on any of these—and ran around to the front of the house. Air brakes hissed, and between the houses Garrett saw a school bus shudder to a stop.
He came around a minute later, his rifle hooked over his shoulder.
In the yard, Nick was playing with a little girl, his daughter, trying to get her distracted enough to forget that he hadn’t been there right when the bus stopped.
She was smiling but trying not to, and when she looked up to Garrett for the first time—his cousin, he guessed, but it was all complicated—he already knew where those eyeteeth were going to be six months from then: in a plastic baggie out in his garage, like something you hide, are trying already to forget. Nothing special at all.
(First printed in The Florida Review)
When Tone and Ricky and the rest of them came to shoot my brother in the street in front of our house, I was eleven years old. My brother took the first shot in the chest, and the second too, and then stood up all the way and walked into the rest of them, like they didn’t matter to him, like they weren’t going to be enough. He was a rag doll, though. His shirt jumped in spurts from his body, so that my index finger dropped from my right fist, into the shape of a gun, and I looked after Tone’s car, and then the day swelled up, the only sound the sound a balloon would make if you were inside it, somebody blowing it up. The houses and streets stretched out like a cartoon around me, then slammed back down tight, to a point. To my brother, his cheek on the asphalt. He’d been looking back to the yard. Later, the paramedic with his hat on backwards would count sixteen bullet holes in the front of his body, would tell my mother how any one of them would have killed him, and my mother, she would laugh, shake her head, because she knew that a sharp, rusty bottle cap underfoot could have killed him just the same, or the steering column of a primered LeMans, or a hundred other things. Already her two oldest sons were dead. She’d been thinking about them earlier, even, before Tone and Ricky and their lowslung Impala. She’d been thinking about them from her side of the screen door, while my not-shot-sixteen-times-yet brother adjusted the stereo he’d just wired into his car, and turned it up for me. I’d moved my head back and forth and he smiled, took me by the shoulders so I faced him, and started dancing the way he danced, the way our two oldest brothers were supposed to have danced. They’d learned it down at the Center, when Lou still taught boxing. You could still see it in the way my brother’s shoulders moved, like he was feinting and jabbing, but smiling too, his feet light, tracing important patterns onto the sidewalk. I looked back to my mother to see if it was all right and that was when I knew what she was thinking. She had the side of her fist to her mouth, and wasn’t looking away. Later, if there had been a later that day, she probably would have told me that I moved just like one of them, Gabe or Odale, and then she would have pulled me too close to her, until I lied that she was hurting me, come off it already. When what I really meant was that I was eleven. That I couldn’t let my still-alive brother see me being a kid like this. But that night, instead, the whole family was over drinking, counting to sixteen on their own chests and then gone in a line of purple-dot taillights, to find Tone and Ricky, or at least an Impala. My mother didn’t stop them either, just me, her hands on my shoulders, both of us watching out the screen door. After a few minutes of nothing, I pulled away from her, walked back to the bedroom that was just mine now, and grew up for four years, into all the clothes my brother had left in the closet. I put them on like a ceremony, wore them like a badge, and kept my lips thin and serious. One night one of my uncles talked to me in the backyard about how I didn’t have to be like the rest of them, how I was charmed, the last of four. All his sister had left. I gave him back the same obvious shrug I’d seen him give the guys down at the store, the shrug that was a dare, really, my hands still in my pockets, and he shook his head, looked out across the warped roofs of all the houses. People say he looks just like my dad, but I know it’s a lie. Later that week he got picked up, tried resisting, had to go the hospital, and his wife, the white girl Leeny, nobody knew what happened to her. Maybe she went with one of the cops, even, or had been the one who called them in the first place. His kids, though, my little cousins with the sandy hair, they had to come live with us. There were four of them. In the living room they crawled all over me and I wrestled them and the days passed, became other days, and then Leeny showed back up in my uncle’s Grand Prix. She was there for the kids. It was sometime after midnight. I just stared at her through the screen, and then my mother pulled me back, stepped out onto the porch, pulled the door shut behind her. The next morning, the Grand Prix was still there. I walked around it almost until lunch, appraising it, imagining it with different rims, less obvious chrome. Me behind the wheel. Well, my mother said, just suddenly there, biting back her smile, What do you think already? Shining there in her hand, the keys. I asked about my uncle but she just shook her head no, her eyes unfocused. I nodded, understood: he wasn’t coming back, wouldn’t need a car inside. For the rest of the afternoon I polished the Grand Prix, got to know it, and then, right when it was getting dark, I finally put the key in the ignition, rolled it back to the radio. My uncle’s rancheria shit seeped up out of the dash and I smiled, looked into the rearview. Behind me, everything was red. I was pushing the brake. I let it off, closed my eyes: my brother wasn’t back there. But still, I pushed the brakes again, made myself look, then walked back around to where he’d been standing that day, and tracked the memory of Tone’s Impala, sloshing around the corner, all the guns of the front seat leaving paisley lines of smoke up near the headliner. My right hand made into a fist, and then I looked back to the front yard. My oldest little cousin was there, escaped from the house. Running to his dad’s car, maybe. I nodded to him that he was cool, that it was all right, I was out here, and then looked back to the street, and felt a thing rising in my throat that I didn’t want. I couldn’t swallow it back down, though, couldn’t look away: the line of fire from Tone’s rolling Impala, it went through me, stopped at my little cousin, and then that sound was there again, like the air in a balloon, and my brother was staring hard into the Impala, locking eyes with Ricky, daring him to do it again, even if that first bullet had already killed him, like the paramedic said. It didn’t matter. My brother had walked anyway, towards the Impala, into the bullets. Meaning Ricky and the rest would have been sweeping their guns back that way. On the low cinderblock wall of our neighbor’s house then, I saw what I should have seen that day: two little chips, where two bullets had flaked up the brick. The fence, instead of me. I pulled my top lip into my mouth, looked back to my little cousin in the yard, and nodded, reached in through the passenger side of the Grand Prix for a better station, and, as the light failed all around us, I got down on my knees and moved my shoulders back and forth for him smooth and hunched like a golden gloves, so he could learn how to dance, and when he closed his eyes to let the music pour through him, I looked back to the street, for my brother, his cheek to the asphalt, his face angled back to see if he’d done it, if he’d walked far enough, if he’d saved me.