Webb had been unable to sleep and at four a.m. gave up and put some coffee on. He scrambled three eggs with elk sausage, spread butter and strawberry jam on toast, ate at the kitchen table with the radio on low. At this hour the station was unmanned, and a mechanical voice read the weather. A high of twenty-two. Clear, cold, and calm. Tomorrow would be the same.
An empty house. The pop of a pine log in the woodstove. After a breakfast like that it can be hard to gain traction on the day. A Sunday-morning kind of breakfast, following which you should return to bed with your woman and stay there. That’s a different way of living, though, and Webb hasn’t had it like that in a long time.
His dog is a Chesapeake. A thick-chested male with a hard head that once bit him on the calf when he came home altered from the bar. Two deep punctures that took a month to heal. Other than that single incident, Webb and the dog got along just fine. He’d been blind drunk. Who knows what that looks like to a dog. He let the dog out to piss and did the same, standing on the porch, arcing a stream into the dark. Bitter enough to make his breath catch in his throat. Stars in abundance.
Lately his days were things to be destroyed, and—there on the porch, with his dick cold in his hand and dawn far off—he could see that this one would be hard to manage. A blank wall of twenty-four stubbornly mortised hours. He whistled the dog in and decided he’d walk the slough on the Jefferson River and try to jump-shoot a duck.
He started his truck to get it warm and went back inside to dress. Long johns under flannel-lined pants, wool sweater, vest, down coat. He filled a thermos with coffee, nearly sweating now. As he came outside, the cold was almost welcome. He threw the shotgun in and loaded the dog. The defroster had cleared only a portion of the windshield, and he drove slowly, crouching slightly to see out.
Still dark with a faint, gray cast to the east. He took the river road. The mountains flanking the valley were low and rounded, darker than the sky, hunched black cats snapping at the white mouse of a fading moon. The river was out there to his right, a shapeless mass of cottonwoods. He had the radio on again, the same station as in the house—broadcasting out of Butte, it was the only one within range that didn’t play basic country. Brain-dead music for a brain-dead world. The soundtrack for a lifetime of work. All the guys on every job loved it. He didn’t miss that. Every girlfriend he ever had too. Country music all the way. It seems like a small thing until you track it down to its roots. A woman who enjoys the music of Toby Keith is not someone you can have a real life with.
He parked the truck on the shoulder of the road and waited for shooting light, pouring the thermos top full of coffee. The dog, ready for action, whined in the back seat.
Two cups, and then it was time. The sun peeked out on a frigid world. Steam rose up from the brush that hid the slough, which was spring-fed and covered in a mat of electric-green algae. The ducks would be there, a pair or two of mallards at the very least. Webb had been coming to this spot since he was a kid, since his dad had showed him, and it was always the same. He’d walk the river bottom and sneak up the slough. The ducks would break. He’d make the shot. The dog would retrieve. He could see it all clearly, an outcome certain enough that the actual doing of the thing was in effect unnecessary.
“How about we just stay in here?” he said to the dog, which whined again and thumped its tail. “Well, that’s what makes you a dog. You can’t see into the future like I can. And so you get to be happy. OK then. I guess we’ll go.”
He loaded the twelve-gauge and set out across the flat to the river, frozen grass breaking like glass straws under his boots, his breath coming in white blooms. Shelf ice extended from the banks, an open channel flowing black and cold between. He weaved through the fallen, beaver-chewed cottonwoods and at the mouth of the slough called the dog in close. Thumbing the safety off and easing down a deer trail that followed the curve of the water, he saw the ducks before they saw him, and he watched them for a moment, two pairs of mallards, the drakes’ bottle-green heads dipping occasionally to root in the cress. He moved until he had a clear lane above, and then he said, “Good morning,” and the ducks erupted from the surface. One pair flew straight out and away, but the other passed over, and he got a clean shot on the drake, which dropped with a dead splash.
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