header banner

Short Stories by Peter Dabbene

“Taxi”

  

Edwin Cameron gripped the currier's knife that he'd fashioned from an old saw blade five years before. His hands found the proper angle, and his arms applied just the right amount of pressure to shave the heavy coyote skin without cutting it. The delicacy of the task made it difficult, but after thirty years, he could nearly do it blind.

The small cabin stunk of entrails. Its floors were stained with ancient dried blood, now looking like a living organism of rust, slowly expanding with each day’s efforts to gradually consume the once-beautiful pine flooring.

He hovered over an unusually large coyote skin. The coyote's face hung facing him, its body draped upside down over the fleshing beam. Edwin did not hesitate to stare at the face as he worked over the body. He liked to leave the natural eyes in as long as possible, and they stared back at him now, as glassy and lifeless as the replacements he would eventually insert into the sockets.

In his opinion, the truest attribute for a taxidermist, or “taxi,” was an objective detachment with regard to nature. There had to be complete respect for the natural order; there was no room for weakness or squeamishness, either in nature itself, or the art of realistically capturing it. He’d found his coyote stalking a snowshoe hare, and managed to pick off both of them where they stood. It was a lucky coincidence, with the annual contest fast approaching. This was the taxidermist’s calling, to preserve the steely gaze of the hunter, and the silent terror of the prey.

There were few taxis that held to the highest exacting standards and philosophy of the craft. He had, over the years, noted the work of colleagues who'd impressed him, and engaged in correspondence with them. Beyond a small circle of locals, they were the closest thing to friends he had. The annual contest among the ten members of their group was smaller and more intimate than the big national and international competitions. Aside from judging a winner and exchanging tips on technique, the contest got everyone together for a weekend (or more) of drinking, playing cards, and much-needed companionship. Being a taxi was a largely solitary endeavor, and Edwin looked forward to the contest every year. He had begun to count the days till it was time, exactly five weeks out.

He labored over his work, focusing through battered bifocal frames. With tufts of white hair surrounding his ears, and his pot belly, spectacles, and permanently disheveled appearance, he looked like the wizened old cobbler his nephew’s kids imagined him to be. His nephew told his children that Uncle Edwin was a close friend and neighbor of Santa Claus. Edwin let them believe what they wanted – to his nephew, and anyone else who lived below the 60th parallel, the people who inhabited the vast expanse of the Yukon were shrouded in myth and mystery. 

Edwin’s ears pricked up at the sound of heavy boots on the old wood planks of his porch. A loud, purposeful knock followed.

It was a strange time for a call, since most of his potential customers would be hunting this early in the day. Maybe someone bagged something unusual and couldn’t wait? His heart fluttered a beat. Bert Montrand had been trying to track a big moose he'd sighted a week ago; maybe he’d found it.

Edwin stood back and assessed the coyote skin; it was nearly finished, now shorn of all remnants of flesh. He laid it on the floor behind his work area, flesh up, and quickly coated it with some of his homemade pickling solution. He scurried over to the door, where the intermittent knocking was growing impatient.

Bracing himself against the harsh cold that awaited him, he removed the deadbolt and opened the door.

He could not hide his surprise when he saw the man outside. This was no one from the area, he was certain of that. “I don't know you,” Edwin said bluntly.

The man was big and solid-looking, probably in his forties; it was always tough to tell with the typical outfit of the Yukon, which covered up everything except a small circle around the face. Eyes, nose, and mouth were all one saw of another person most of the time. In that environment, it got so you could tell things about someone from just their eyes, and Edwin Cameron didn’t like the looks of these.

 “My name's Hunter Jeffries. I just came in from Vancouver.”

Edwin was suspicious, as he was with all newcomers. The Territory drew its share of trophy hunters, but it also drew lots of people who just wanted to escape from civilization for various reasons. Edwin didn’t have much that was worth stealing, but that might only be a minor disincentive to theft here, with the nearest law enforcement twenty miles away by snowmobile. He decided to test the stranger.

“Where you stayin’?”

“Rented a cabin for huntin’ from some guy, had an ad in the paper. It’s about five miles north o’ here.”

Edwin let down his guard, just a little. “Jimmy McNicol’s place. Yeah, he never comes up anymore. Married a girl downstate; he’s become a city boy.” He laughed shallowly, drawing back from the door for Jeffries to enter. “Welcome to the neighborhood. What’d you say your name was?”

“Hunter.”

“Hunter? That's a sport, not a name.”

“It's my name. My daddy figured he'd mark me for it from the beginning, I guess.”

“You catch 'em, I’ll mount 'em,” Edwin replied.

“Yeah, well, being new to the area, I was wondering if you could kinda point me in the right direction, far as where to find the best game. I figure you must hear from everyone where they been catchin'. Knowledge like that might help a man.”

“No offense to you, Hunter, but I make it a policy not to tell anybody that kind of info. Everything’s confidential. Guys 'round here get very protective of their secret spots. And if I was going to help anyone—well, no offense, but it wouldn't be a guy I just laid eyes on for the first time.”

“I figured as much. That's why I brought this.”

He uncurled his left hand to reveal a rolled-up wad of Canadian currency. “One hundred Canadian,” he said. “I figured this might get us started.”

Edwin assessed Hunter Jeffries with a weary gaze. Luxuries were few and far between, this far north. A hundred dollars might not be much, but there was plenty of wild game for everyone this time of year, so why not make a few bucks on his accumulated knowledge?

“You keep your mouth shut?” Edwin asked.

“Don't like talkin' to anyone but my girlfriend. An’ she hates hunting.” He smiled a yellowed, crooked-tooth smile.

“That so? She up here with you?”

“Yessir.”

“She don' mind the cold?”

“She better not. Another thing: You get many supplies here?”

“You mean taxidermy supplies? Yeah, couple times a year I stock up.”

“Not taxi stuff. Food, clothes, that kinda stuff. You get it?”

“Just for myself.”

“Could you order food for me if I needed to?”

“I'm not really in that business. But if you need food, it's not that much farther to the gen'ral store. Lots of the guys stop off here and then grab supplies over at Tom 'n' Edna's.”

“How much would you need to do it?”

“I don't know, I guess just a few bucks. It wouldn't be that big of a deal. But why can't you—”

“I'm not looking to advertise my arrival here.”

“You in some kinda trouble?”

“No, just want to be left alone. Here's what I need.”

He handed Edwin a piece of torn-off newspaper—the classified section, of all things. It was a few seconds before Edwin could detect the tiny pencil scrawls hidden behind the bold type of the newsprint. Edwin strained his eyes to read the list of requests.

“Pretty standard stuff,” he finally said. “Shouldn't be a problem.”

 

Over the next couple of weeks, they developed a system. Jeffries would stop by on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, when the rest of the hunters were out on trail, and press Edwin about the recent hot spots. Jeffries claimed to be doing well with the advice, eating heartily on hare and larger game every night, and his payoffs to Edwin Cameron continued.

The stream of bills disposed Edwin more favorably to his sullen confidant, and he tried to learn more about the man who had quickly become his best customer. Jeffries was resistant, however, and skilled at changing the course of conversation, or, failing that, clamming up entirely.

Three weeks after they’d first met, Jeffries came into the shop, looking like he’d gotten scratched up by a buck that wasn’t quite ready to die. Edwin knew better than to ask about it right off, so he waited patiently, angling up his shot like a good hunter did.

“The usual?”

                “Yeah.” Edwin went to retrieve one of the bags in which he’d stored Hunter’s food, but he did it a little slower than normal. As he reached inside and pretended to double-check the contents, he took the opportunity to ask about the mysterious woman he hadn’t yet seen.

                “So, uh, what does this girlfriend of yours do all day if she don’t like huntin’? There ain't much shoppin' out here.” He laughed. The hard wilderness was the last vestige of chauvinism.

Jeffries didn’t go for it. “She's okay.”

“You sure? What happened to your face? Looks like she gave ya a good scratchin'.”

“Mind your own business,” Jeffries growled.

Edwin hesitated. He’d thrown it out as a decoy, a distraction to get Jeffries talking; now it seemed he might have hit closer to home than he’d intended. He decided to press his luck. “Seems a woman shouldn't be let to scratch a man like that.”

“You sayin' somethin'?”

“I'm just sayin' what you're hearin'.”

Edwin watched as Jeffries angrily grabbed his supplies and exited the store. Edwin picked up a deer head, a six-pointer he was retouching and remounting, and realized he'd somehow learned quite a bit about people despite, or perhaps because of, being around dead animals most of the time.

 

It was Friday, and Edwin Cameron had Hunter’s groceries and supplies packed and ready to go, as he always did. Every week it was the same: two cans of corn; two cans of peas; two bags of trail mix; a box of instant oatmeal; and, every other week, a five-pound sack of potatoes. Every time the same, until:

“I'm goin' to cut back on the food. Make it one of everything a week from now on.”

“Sure,” Edwin said softly, slightly jarred by the prospect of a change in routine. “Guess that woman o' yours won't be eatin' eh?”

Jeffries said nothing, merely stared meaningfully. Edwin handed over the bag of groceries, adjusted as he’d been instructed. Jeffries seized the bag from Edwin’s grip and left without another word.

Edwin Cameron sat on his wooden stool and pondered the situation. He had a gut instinct about Jeffries; the man was definitely hiding something. Or was he? All this time alone in the shop, maybe it was finally affecting him, making him imagine things that weren’t there. Jeffries couldn’t really be planning to kill his girlfriend, could he? If he was, why would he make it so obvious to a potential witness? Unless…

Unless Jeffries planned to come back and kill the nosy old taxi, too.

Edwin’s mind raced back to his first few exchanges with Hunter. There was never any proof that Jeffries had rented the McNichol place. Maybe he just knew it was vacant and moved in, confident he wouldn’t be disturbed.

No, this was all ridiculous, Edwin chided himself. His mind had been thinking lots of strange things lately, and now here he was accusing his closest neighbor of plotting to kill his girlfriend. Was it so crazy? Was he crazy?

Edwin glared at the hundred dollar bill Jeffries had left on the counter. Then he remembered: No one but me knows that Jeffries is here.

Edwin went to the rear of the store and began digging amid the debris. After a few minutes of searching, he found the two objects he sought: a faded white sign with black painted letters that read “Gone to Lunch,”and an old but well-preserved twelve-gauge shotgun.

                 

Edwin slowed the snowmobile as soon as he sighted the McNichol cabin. The winds were deceptive, and they could carry or stifle the sound of an engine depending on their mood; it was better to walk the remaining distance. The vehicle’s dusty and salted black and chrome chassis was a blot against the stark white landscape, even in the dim light just after sunset. Soon enough, December and January would come, and the daylight would shrink to eight hours, and then six.

                 Given the time, he guessed that Jeffries and his woman would be inside preparing dinner. A nice sit down dinner sounded pretty good; Edwin had become accustomed to filling himself on venison jerky and cheap whiskey. The wide landscapes of his youth had settled into narrow channels of taxidermy, junk food, and sleep. So what was he doing out here in the cold? He knew the answer as soon as he considered the question: he would not be able to forgive himself if he turned his back on this situation.

Edwin half-fell out of the snowmobile, his body unaccustomed to rapid motion. He tried again to raise the sheriff on the wide-band, but the Northern Lights were out tonight, and were wreaking havoc with the radio band. For the next few hours, no one would be able to call in or out. 

He removed his glasses and, with some effort, wiped them clean on the undershirt buried three layers under his parka. Movement was laborious in the snow, as he raised his legs high to rise above the drifts. The snow seemed deafening crunching beneath his feet, the sound echoed by the pink-lighted snow.

Upon reaching the cabin, he peeked inside from a corner of the nearest window. His teeth began to chatter, whether because of the rapidly falling temperature or his own sinking level of confidence, he did not know. He pressed his eyeglasses close to the window pane to eliminate the glare, and watched for what seemed forever, as he imagined what would happen when he finally barged in.

Jeffries and the woman sat close together huddled near the fire, raising wooden spoons to their mouths as they ate a fresh venison stew. Edwin did not crave the food so much as its heat in his belly. Edwin watched as they finished the meal and Jeffries lit his pipe. The woman reached around him to take his dish, and Jeffries stood to get out of her way.

As he rose, Hunter Jeffries caught a glimpse of something outside the window.

Edwin pressed himself low and flat against the cabin, below the window and out of sight. He sensed Jeffries at the window, and did not move.

What now? Had Jeffries seen him? Would he be content with a quick glance out the window before returning to his chair?

Edwin stopped breathing as he heard the front door swing open on old, rusty hinges, around the corner. He swallowed hard, knowing he faced a much larger and younger man in Hunter Jeffries. He held the shotgun close to his body.

“Hello? Who’s out here?”

Edwin huddled down and pointed the gun toward the front of the cabin, where Hunter’s voice was growing closer.

“Hello? Edwin?”

Hunter’s right leg and the head of his hunting rifle cleared the edge of the cabin, and before he could turn the corner, Edwin’s nervous finger pulled back on the trigger of his own gun. The shot caught the front of Hunter’s body, and he went down backwards, in a heap.

Edwin slowly approached the corner, wanting to turn around but compelled to see the result of his handiwork. He turned, leading with the shotgun, and saw Jeffries flat on his back, convulsing and struggling to stand up. He’d been caught in the midsection, and blood had soaked through his flannel lumberjack’s shirt. He still held his rifle, and though he could barely turn his eyes to look at his attacker, he was trying to prop it against the porch to brace his arm and fire accurately.

 Edwin shot again on pure instinct and adrenaline. Again it hit Jeffries in the midsection. This time he stopped moving completely.

Edwin’s heart pounded as he crept closer and kicked the rifle out of Hunter’s lifeless hand. There were other sounds, too: shaking uncontrollably, Hunter’s girlfriend stood at the door with a knife in her hand. She looked from Hunter’s body to Edwin, to the shotgun, which still steamed from the last blast. She ran inside and slammed the door shut, locking it behind her.

Outside, Edwin reloaded. He put the barrel of the gun to the knob and blew a gaping hole. He pulled it open, and saw the girl crouching by the fire, holding the knife up like a talisman to keep Edwin from coming closer.

As he walked through the kitchen area, Edwin saw a stockpile of food on the plain shelves, still unopened in their cans.

The girl flung herself at him, the huge hunting knife in her hand, the steel glistening off the firelight. Edwin saw the terror in her eyes, and the raw, blind hatred. He pushed her away with the shotgun, then aimed it at her, making sure to stay clear of the face.  

 

“Gin,” Edwin called, tossing the winning hand on the table.

“You win again, Edwin. Second place in the annual contest, four games of gin in a row—looks like it’s your lucky day.”

“Guess so,” said Edwin, grinning to himself. Jim MacKinnon’s “Bear Attacking a Coyote” was a masterpiece, and had rightly defeated Edwin’s “Coyote Stalking Snow Hare” for the grand prize. But Edwin knew the satisfaction that came from a job well done. He knew that the pride of a professional did not depend on prizes or the opinions of others, and that sometimes one simply couldn’t share one’s best stories or trade secrets. And, he knew that back at his shop, locked away in the old bedroom, was the best work he’d ever done.

[END]

 

 

              

 

 

 

Publication details:
Dabbene, Peter. (2009). "Taxi
." peterdabbene.com (accessed ).

This story is copyright protected and may not be reproduced or modified in any way
without the express written consent of the author.

All content on this site is copyright © 2009- Peter Dabbene unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved.

Web site design by willever design logo © 2009-