Reuben James

by Robert Bear

Reuben James had spent most of the morning running his trap lines, as he did nearly every morning. It had become a necessary routine, never to be missed, ever since the day he lay in bed with fever and left his traps unattended, only to find that a red fox, caught by a spring trap, had gnawed off its own foot to escape. Nearly a year later, he stumbled upon that same fox, its corpse flattened by age and decomposition, hidden in a small hollow underneath a fallen sweet gum tree. He leaned back upon his haunches and considered it for a spell, contrite for the indignity the creature had suffered, only to die in vain underneath a log. Finally, he stood back up and went on his way, checking each trap before moving on to the next.

By the end of the line, Reuben had collected two raccoons and four muskrats, all stuffed into a canvas sack that was tied off with a bit of string and slung over his shoulder. In order to preserve the pelts, he had stood over each animal as it hissed and growled its general hatred for him, and then struck it in the head with a short iron rod he carried for just that purpose. For larger predators and his own protection, Reuben carried a revolver, a short-barreled .45 caliber Navy Colt once carried by his father, a Confederate soldier during the war.

Thirty minutes after Reuben had inspected the last trap, he crossed the small clearing upon which the family home had been built by his father, over forty years prior. As he approached the front door, he could hear the voice of his sister speaking with another, a man’s voice, deep and rough — the voice of Jeremiah Woesby. Upon entering his home, Reuben greeted the bearded man with a nod of his head, and the two men sat and spoke on all manner of topics, while Eliza finished supper preparations.

It was no secret that Reuben James didn’t care much for the company of Jeremiah Woesby, and that his animosity had no effect on the other, made him dislike the man even more. Jeremiah smelled of old death, of things musty and damp. He smelled of wet burlap and mold. He smelled of rot and decay, and it bothered Reuben, but the conversation and the evening wore on uneventful, and he soon found himself yearning to retire. After arguing that time had gotten the better of them all and that his home was too far to travel this late in the evening, Eliza went about making a bed for Jeremiah by the fire, complete with a bear pelt Reuben had acquired the year before; a pelt he considered among his finest.

Reuben climbed into the loft, undressed, and found sleep quickly, though his dreams were troubled and dark. He was awoken, suddenly, by noises that sounded far more bestial than human, and sliding free of his blankets, he slipped to the edge of the loft, where he could see the coupling below.

Jeremiah Woesby lay naked upon his back, splayed upon Reuben’s bear pelt, with Eliza sitting astride his waist, her nightgown gathered up about her midriff. Reuben watched as she forced herself against Jeremiah, hands upon his chest, face turned slightly upwards, and mouth agape as she panted her pleasure. His eyes, reflecting the burning firelight, looked upon Eliza lustfully.

Reuben slid back from the edge and pulled his father’s pistol from his trousers, which were hung up on the bedpost. He could hear Jeremiah’s heavy breath as he himself sighed heavily and pulled back the hammer of the pistol.

The unmistakable sound of a pistol’s hammer alerted Jeremiah, and the trespasser was up in an instant, stumbling, cursing, and attempting to dress as he made his escape. He opened the front door, pants up to his waist and a single bright red suspender over one shoulder. He dared not chance a glance back as he made his exit, barefooted, through the opening and across the clearing, toward the woods to the west.

Reuben quickly made his way down the ladder and strode, naked, across the floor of his home, across the now tainted bear pelt, stepping over his now tainted young sister, her mouth opened mid-scream, her eyes fearful of her brother’s wrath. Reuben noticed none of this, his eyes affixed down the iron sights of his father’s Colt revolver, affixed to the back of Jeremiah Woesby as he ran into the darkness. He fired once and then again before he could no longer see the shape of man. He fired twice more blindly and then stood facing the darkness. Eventually, Eliza’s screams subsided, as did Reuben’s anger.

Six years later as Reuben walked through the familiar wood, following the blood trail left by a small whitetail deer he had wounded with his rifle, he stumbled upon a rock formation at the bottom of a hollow he had never set foot within. He motioned for his sister’s son, Noah, to follow, and together they slid down the slope, to where the deer lay on its side, panting, tongue askew.

Noah walked to the deer and pointed.

Reuben’s eyes followed Noah’s pudgy finger to another shape huddled beneath the rocks, that of a man, long dead and gone from this earth, his skeletal remains seemingly never disturbed by man nor beast, wearing only a pair of trousers with one dull red suspender. He gazed upon the ivory-colored bones and thought only briefly of Jeremiah Woesby, reflecting upon his tainted bear pelt, his young sister, Eliza, and of her untimely death, delivering that wretched man’s son into this world.

Then, Reuben James and the young boy field-dressed the doe and made their way back to the house, neither again mentioning the bones they found in the wood or the red suspenders that it wore.

Professionally, Robert Bear spent fifteen years as a video editor and producer, where he wrote scripts for television and corporate communications almost daily. He is an Emmy-winning editor with numerous Telly and Addy awards to his name across two decades of work. He has a wife, his high-school sweetheart, and two children. He works currently as a high school teacher while he attends Lindenwood University in search of his MFA in creative writing.
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