butch

1952, Sunday, January 20, 6:10 p.m.

To work off fear-induced adrenalin, Orville lugged into the back porch a heavier than normal armload of firewood, the last armload for the day. He kicked the door shut behind him, a harder than normal kick, to work off adrenalin. After dropping the wood into the woodbox, he arranged it in place on top of the stack. A thermometer sitting on a shelf read 47 degrees. The thermometer had been a gimme Christmas gift from the hardware store three years ago. Because no one had ever mounted it outside, he did not know exactly how cold it was out there. Maybe he would mount it outside tomorrow. At noon KDAL radio in Duluth said it was 28 below. By Orville’s reckoning the temperature had fallen at least ten degrees since then. Coming into an increase in temperature of 75 degrees made the back porch feel warm, which helped against his adrenalin-and-cold-induced shivering.

The woodbox was filled for the night. With this spell of Canadian air hanging over the Arrowhead, he knew he would have to fill the woodbox again tomorrow morning before getting on the school bus. He hoisted himself up to sit on the wood and looked at his mittens. On his shaking right hand he wore a red mitten over a green mitten, both faded and worn. On his shaking left hand he wore a mitten striped in brown and orange over a glove, a stray right-handed glove, but luckily too large for his hand, allowing Butch to wear it backwards. He was left-handed. He had needed to be able to yank off the outer mitten so his gloved finger could pull the trigger on the .410.

Balls of ice hung from the threads of his mittens. He chewed off a few to slake his adrenalin-driven thirst. The ice tasted of wool and barn and blood. He must remember to dry the glove and mittens behind the stove tonight or they would have no insulation value in the morning. School tomorrow was not a pleasant thought, but tomorrow had to be better than his afternoon. At the moment, sitting on the wood, remembering his afternoon, thinking about his future, he was looking at school under a new light.

Butch, Orville only to teachers and the principal, pulled off the three mittens and the glove to study the dried blood on his winter-chapped hands. His hands were still shaking; he clamped them between his thighs. He must calm himself before he went in to face his mother, the Old Man, and his eight siblings, who would be gathered around the kitchen range or the wood stove in the living room. He had guessed by the lack of sound coming through the door from the kitchen that supper was over. His mother would still be in the kitchen patching clothes and keeping his share of supper warm.

Butch had to be calm to tell his lie, a lie of omission, a huge omission. The Old Man, who was a quick study of his sons, might see something was wrong, draw him out, and give him a licking, this time with a belt. At Christmas the Old Man had announced to the family that starting with the new year Butch was old enough to start receiving his lickings with a belt and not a lath. His two older brothers had gone through the same rite of passage at the New Year after their eleventh birthdays. The injustice Butch detected in his father’s system was that his brothers’ birthdays were in April and May. Butch’s was December 22. He decided it was best not to call attention to the injustice.

He was struggling to understand what had happened to him in the woods and how it changed him. First he had been proud, then terrified, and then proud again just before a man grabbed him from behind and lifted him off his feet, a large and strong man. Butch, unlike his father and brothers, was small, but his classmates and neighborhood friends and enemies knew he was nasty in a fight and stronger than anyone would guess. He fought intelligently, as he had with the man. When he knew the man had him in control, Butch had gone limp. He had looked up at the man and sworn.

Sitting now in the woodbox he unbuckled the chin strap that held down the ear flaps of the red-plaid wool cap. The cap, like all of his clothes, was a hand-me-down from his brothers or a neighbor or both. It, like the glove, was over-sized, another lucky happenstance because it allowed him to wear a hand-knit faded green stocking cap underneath. In 1952 layering of wool was the only answer to the extreme cold of northern Minnesota. Both caps would need to be dried of the frozen snow and sweat that clung to them. Winter in the Corcoran house was the sour stench of drying wool, which was true of most homes in the area.

Being careful of his sprained left index finger, he stood and unbuckled his lined rubber boots. Buckles could freeze shut in cold like this. Butch, however, had an advantage. On his left boot only four of the six buckles worked. On his right foot only three, which meant he could slip his feet right in and out of them if he needed to. Underneath the boots he wore three layers of worn long woolen stockings into which were tucked his long johns, that were also frayed and too large. His feet and hands were tingling back to life in the warmth of the porch. He took off the two jackets leaving him wearing a stretched-out wool sweater. Next off was the outer pair of red-plaid-lined dungarees, beneath which he wore a pair of tan corduroys.

Out in their small barn he had tried to wash the blood from his hands in the water trough. The heat of the three milk cows, the two heifers, the one horse, and the two dozen free-roaming chickens could not keep the water trough free of ice. He had broken through the ice to plunge his hands into the 32 degree water. Rubbing his hands together for warmth and cleansing, he had been able to rub off only a little of the grit and gore.

Butch sat back down on the wood and tried to scrape his hands cleaner. Because he bit his fingernails down to the quick, his efforts bore no results. He clamped his hands back between his thighs.

What would supper be? The house had acquired REA electricity only two years ago, which his father was able to wire in himself, having been an electrician on the railroad before he managed to wheedle disability pay, a new concept, which John Corcoran II did not give a positive image. The family had saved to buy a freezer, which in this weather seemed superfluous, but for most of the year was a godsend. There was no beef left from the steer they had butchered in early fall. The remainder of pork from their two pigs they raised each year was reserved for breakfast. The two deer taken during the hunting season were all but gone. Butch guessed part of the bear, also shot in-season, was still in the freezer. His tongue curdled thinking about the tallowy taste of bear meat.

Meat! Meat was how it had all started for Orville “Butch” Corcoran that day.

1952, Sunday, January 20, 7:15 a.m.

Butch and his two older brothers slept in an attic room with scant insulation and one rattling window, which was coated in three inches of fuzzy frost condensed from their breath. Butch shared a sagging double bed with his fourteen-year-old brother Maynard. Seventeen-year-old Navy-bound John III, called John-Three, slept on a narrow improvised bed without benefit of a real mattress and the heat of another body. With the deep and penetrating cold outdoors, they slept fully dressed under piles of scratchy Army surplus blankets.

Butch, always the first to awake, called his brothers to their morning chores. They rushed down to the kitchen to be warmed by the wood range. First one there commandeered the prized spot between the stove and the wall, often forcing a sister out of the space. 1952 was an era when the males of the family were superior. No one in the family questioned how the mother of nine managed to be the first up, the last to bed, and the hardest working yet still be secondary to her lazy husband and to her young sons. Once he was warm, John-Three lit a fire in the living room stove, asking, as he often did, how a stove that cold every morning deserved the name Warm Morning.

The back porch was a heaven of warmth when you entered from outside and a hell of cold when you entered from the kitchen. Butch gathered the outer clothes for all three boys from the porch and took them into the kitchen to warm up. Their mother was frying eggs, spuds, and side-pork for breakfast. John II, Butch, Maynard, and John-Three would eat in the second shift. When all three boys were dressed, they launched themselves off the back stoop into the cold. While the two older brothers milked, getting much less milk in the cold, Butch filled the woodbox and then hunted down eggs in the barn. All three boys fed the livestock. After the two dogs and six cats were given a small portion of milk, the dogs were let out to hunt for rabbits, grouse, and squirrels. The cats hunted mice in the barn.

Their father, John Patrick Corcoran II, had declared himself an invalid when his WWII draft physical rated him 4-F for a slight heart murmur. The doctor told him then that he doubted it was serious, a detail which John II never shared and soon forgot. He was a drinker but not an alcoholic, for one thing his wife managed to cajole most of the money from him before he bought much whiskey. While their neighbors were willing to help the family with hand-me-downs, food, and labor, they were not willing to provide him booze.

John was sociable, a true “hail-fellow-well-met.” Devoid of worries and responsibilities, he might have been a criminal but for his lack of ambition. Many people considered his extortion by guilt and pity a crime, not to mention how he treated his family. In 1952 people did not interfere in other people’s families. At the second breakfast shift, John II announced, as he did every Sunday, the family should be going to church, by which he meant everyone but himself, forgetting they could not all fit in the car. The family assumed he meant the Catholic church, but none of them had even been baptized.

After breakfast the three boys went back outside to clean the barn with manure forks and a wheelbarrow. Then they split wood, an easier task in the extreme cold, which made the wood, like everything else, brittle. Dinner was ground venison. The mother did the best she could with the meat, but it was gamy and tough, despite having gone through the hand-turned meat grinder. The potatoes were a county-provided commodity, the home-canned green beans a gift from a neighbor. Butch’s sisters had many chores, which he knew in general but not in detail because he was seldom in the house to watch, and when he was, he ignored their labors. John II often bragged he was teaching his children the value of hard work, with which no one argued.

After dinner the males, and then the females, once they had done their work, gathered in the living room. They listened to the radio, read, napped, played cards, and and played board games. This Sunday the mother called the three older boys into the kitchen to tell them the family needed meat. She did not directly tell them to break the law. However, they had only one option, which the family used every winter. The boys drew straws. Butch lost. He was the best hunter of the three: most patient, best marksman, and most familiar with the eighty acres of Corcoran land and the couple hundred acres of adjoining woods owned by three neighbors. Butch, Maynard,and John-Three had placed a salt block where Butch knew two deer trails met. Butch had built a blind of of brush and fresh balsam boughs to hide the sight and scent of a human inside.

The best time to hunt was near sundown. The brothers reminded him to pick out a young doe. Deer meat was tougher this time of year, less so in smaller and younger animals. A fawn was fine. A second animal could be poached in another week or two.

It was poaching they were planning. The legal season had closed weeks before. They snared rabbits as they could, which was legal, but most were eaten by tame or wild canines before the boys found them. Bears were in hibernation. When they emerged in the early spring, scrawny as they were, the boys would hunt them, too. Deer were active in the cold, moving to keep warm and to find extra browse.

Before he went out, this being his first time to poach, Butch was nervous. He had shot a deer in-season. Poaching was different. Being cooped up indoors always made him fidgety; today he was jumpy. He tried reading three different Little Big Books handed down from neighbors. None held his attention. He played a game of checkers with his older sister, which he won easily. She could not plan more than two moves ahead, which were always apparent to Butch, who was a long-range strategist in everything. Two younger girls were doing a puzzle, to which he added three pieces and quit. The radio was playing the pop songs of the era, which he tuned out. Rock and roll was over the horizon. His pacing woke his father from his nap. The Old Man told him, “For Pete’s sake, sit down before I take your belt to ya.” The Old Man preferred not to know about or discuss the boys’ poaching, although he did it himself when the weather was warmer.

Butch decided to move his nervous energy to the barn. John-Three, who kept the family’s two guns, gave him the .410 double-barrel shotgun and six slugs. After feeding the livestock for the afternoon and stroking the horse’s soft nose, Butch loaded the shotgun. He imagined himself a big game hunter in Africa shooting elephants and lions. How did you make money from that, he wondered. How was he going to make money as an adult, after he got out of the US Navy? He knew he was never going to have children or even marry.

He tricked the dogs into a shed and locked them in; otherwise his brothers might let them out when they came to milk. If loose, the dogs would track his scent to the deer blind. He looked at the sun falling from the high clear blue sky. He decided it was time.

He worked his way in a loop over a road and then across it again to approach the blind from the back side. The salt block sat just across their property line on the land of a neighbor, who would probably not care he was poaching, but it was better to be careful. Butch resented how the neighbors helped the Corcorans, resenting not the help, but that his family needed it.

His small size was an advantage when stalking up to the blind. Both his older brothers, like the Old Man, were large and heavy of foot. The game warden covered the whole southern half of a large county. The man would be a moron to be out in this cold.

Butch crept into the blind. The air was dead calm; the balsam boughs covered his scent. He peeked out through the small window he had built into the blind. Four animals were headed right at him down a deer trail from the north. A buck, a large doe, a small doe, and a fawn from last spring. He sized up the small doe; he would be able to carry her back. She needed to be closer. The slugs would not carry accurately and with full impact for much distance. For him to get a clean shot at her heart, she needed to be broadside. But if he took too long, he would begin to shiver and his aim would be ruined. He pulled off the left outer mitten to allow his gloved hand access to the trigger.

As the four deer approached the salt block, he recognized that the fawn belonged to the small doe. After he killed the mother, the fawn would probably die in the cold. He had scant chance of shooting both. He would concentrate on the doe and see what fortune gave him. Fawn and mother were first to the salt block but faced him head-on. He might try the shot. Then the buck helped him out. After finding no alien scents in the frigid air, the buck pushed her out of his way, which turned her broadside. Butch did not rush. He took two quiet breaths, cocked the left hammer, aligned the bead on the front in the notch at the back, and squeezed the left trigger.

The sound was an explosion in the cold air, carrying perhaps to neighbors. Three deer scattered in three directions. His target leaped in the air, screamed her pain, and took three bounds before plunging into alder brush.

In fear Butch crouched in his blind, the gun report and the doe’s screams echoing in his own ears. Who else had heard? He thought he was being so stealthy. His legal kill last fall had been quieter in the warmer, windier air. No one reacted to a gunshot in hunting season. He was frozen in place. He needed to get to her body, drag it out of the brush, and cut her throat to bleed the meat. In the time he waited, the fawn came back to its mother. The right barrel was still loaded. More meat for the family. A second shot would be more noise. As he pointed at that fawn weighing risk versus benefit, he was grabbed from behind, one arm around him, the other arm wrenching the shotgun from his hand, spraining Butch’s finger. Butch almost escaped while the man set the gun carefully on the ground, not realizing Butch had not yet cocked the hammer, although dropping an old shotgun could be dangerous even when not cocked. When the man had two hands free, he lifted Butch off his feet and crushed the boy against his body. After a moment of fight, Butch knew he was taken and went limp. His contortions had turned his face into the man’s chest. His cheek was scratched by the edge of a badge.

Butch swore.

The game warden looked down into Butch’s face, barely able to see it in the failing light. “Not the quarry I wanted to catch, but a Corcoran for sure.”

Butch weighed his options. Mercy was his only chance. “You didn’t think the Old Man would be out here in this cold, did ya?”

Which one are you? You can’t be but nine or ten.”

I’m eleven.” He tired to make it sound pathetic, but it had more the tone of bravado.

Your name, boy. I know your last name. Give me your first name.” This voice carried more authority than Butch had ever before heard.

Orville.” Now he did sound pathetic, but only because he hated that name.

Orville? I don’t know of an Orville. I know there’s a Maynard and a John. I thought the next was Butch.”

I’m Butch. Why d’ya know our names?”

Your family is of interest to me as a game warden. I do know your history of poaching, and getting away with it, until now. You got a knife, too, I bet, boy.”

In my coat pocket in its sheath.”

The game warden set Butch down on his feet, but kept hold of one bicep, making sure he clamped hard enough to hurt. With the other hand he took the knife out of Butch’s pocket. “We don’t want any accident with the gun or the knife.”

As he sized Butch up and down, Butch blurted out, “Ya coulda killed either one of us, jerking the gun out of my hand, an’ ya hurt my finger, too.” Butch had given up on being pathetic. He knew he was not good at it.

The warden sized him up again, boots to cap and cap to boots. “How were you fixing to get home the doe and the fawn.”

Two trips.” He did not say he was going to ask Maynard to come help with the fawn, if he had decided to shoot it.

You’re an ambitious poacher, and a damn good one at that. That was a fine shot . . . I’m trying to figure a way to arrest your father for your poaching. I just don’t think I can. You ready to go to jail, boy?”

It’d be warm. How’s the food?”

A mighty practical answer . . . You promise not to run if I let go?”

Where’d I run to? Ya know where I live.”

The warden released Butch’s arm. He slapped the sheathed knife lightly in his gloved palm. He was still thinking.

Well, am I going to jail, or what?”

You are the wrong quarry, but you’re sure right that John Corcoran would not be out here in this cold. But to send an eleven-year-old boy!”

I drew the short straw, an’ I killed a buck last fall, during hunting season.”

I bet you did. Did you bleed it and gut it and skin it yourself?”

Bled and gutted it. My brother John-Three skinned, but he showed me how.”

Come with me.” The game warden picked up the shotgun, broke it open and gave Butch the the unused shell. He led Butch to the doe, handed him the knife, and drug the carcass out of the alder brush. “Either way, let’s not waste meat.” He lifted the rear end off the ground and gave Butch a throat-cutting gesture. Butch cut the doe’s throat and watched the dark red blood soak into the snow. “You know how to cut a throat, I’ll give you that, Boy.”

Butch stood shaking from cold and fear. The warden sized him up again. “What meat you got in your house?”

Not much, but it’s all legal. What business is that a yers?”

None, really. How many of you are there now? Kids I mean. Seven, is it?”

Nine.”

What’s your mother cooking for supper?”

How’d I know? She don’t tell me her plans.”

The law doesn’t care about why. The law says I impound the gun and knife, take the deer, not to mention what I’m going to do with you.”

What’s impound mean?”

Take and keep. You never get them back.”

Butch tasted the green bile of fear rising in the back of his throat. The deer he knew was lost. The Corcorans would get by, as they had before. But the gun and the knife! The Old Man’s lickings weren’t that bad before. But now he would use Butch’s belt and he would be angry. The Old Man could get real angry. Despite himself, tears welled up in Butch’s eyes. He hoped the game warden would not see them in the dark, but enough light remained to glint off the tears.

Could you have carried the doe all that way home?”

I know a straight trail back. It’s not that far, not half a mile.” As the game warden studied his options, Butch asked, “How’d ya catch me?”

Luck. I saw you cross the road with the gun on your shoulder. If you had hung it straight down . . . I was a ways off. You looked bigger to me in the shadows. I thought you were John, your old man John, not your brother. He likes to brag about his poaching, which makes me look a fool. I was following you into the woods but lost you until I heard the shot . . . what will I do with you?” He dropped his hold on the doe’s rear legs.

Butch’s shivering made up his mind. “I’d drive you and the doe back to get you out of the cold, but I just ain’t going to do that. I expect this little doe will last the eleven of you maybe two weeks. So in two weeks I will not be around here. When you cross a road, hold the gun down along a leg. You can gut this deer out?”

Butch nodded, his teeth chattering. “I help when we butcher beef and pigs.”

Maybe you should get her home and do it there. Carrying the doe will warm you back up before you use a sharp knife. Sorry, boy. Not for doing my job, but for what you live through . . . Butch the butcher. Maybe in seven years you can get yourself out of here and learn something like butchering.”

I’m going in the U.S. Navy. John-Three goes in after graduating this year.”

You can learn butchering and lots of things there, but graduate first, boy.” Butch started to lift the doe onto his shoulders. “Hang on a second.” The warden put the knife in Butch’s pocket. “I don’t imagine you’re going to be telling this story.”

No, the Old Man would lick me good.”

Give me your hand, boy.” They shook hands. “I’ll help you get that up.” After the doe hung draped over the boy’s shoulder, the warden handed him the shotgun. He watched Butch head off. “Son of a gun,” he thought, “he will make it back.”

The effort of carrying the doe warmed Butch enough to stop his shivering. Escaping from the game warden also helped. He did have to set the doe down once to rest his shoulder, after which, shivering again, he struggled to raise the doe back in place. He managed to make it to the edge of their yard, where he dropped the doe. After another rest, he dragged the doe by her hind legs to the woodshed where they did their butchering. A hook on the end of a rope hung from a pulley in the rafters. He drove the hook through the hock of both rear knees and pulled up the doe to hang free of the ground. He brought the manure wheelbarrow from the barn and rolled it under her head. Having smelled the blood, the dogs were going frantic locked in the other shed.

In the barn he bared his frozen hands and pressed them against one of the milk cows. After fifteen minutes he decided they were warm enough to use the knife. He stuffed his bare hands into his coat pockets and went back to the wood shed. He sliced open the belly from tail to neck and started to pull out the guts. The sprained finger made it slow and awkward work, but at least the doe’s body heat kept his hands warm. When the guts were cut free and dropped in the wheelbarrow, he found a stick to brace the cavity open to freeze the meat quickly. He rolled out the wheelbarrow and dumped the guts behind the other shed. The moment he freed the dogs, their noses led them around the building to eat their fill.

As he carried the gun and knife bare-handed to the back porch, being careful not to let bare skin touch bare metal, the adrenalin hit. He began to shiver. The gore was congealed on his hands. In the barn he broke the ice on the water trough and tried to wash his shaking hands clean, with little effect. After warming his hands for only a minute or two against the same cow, he started filling the woodbox. Before his last armload, he dragged the dogs by their collars back into the barn. He carried out the last armload and bolted the woodshed door shut, a balancing act he had perfected two years before.

1952 Sunday, January 20, 6:35 p.m.

Sitting in the wood box, Butch decided he was as calm as he needed to be. The last two hours had been . . . he did not know the word surreal but now understood the sensation. He did not know the word patronized, but knew he had been. He knew the word grateful, but resented that he was. He did not know the word resolution, but he was forming one at that moment. He would not be a butcher, but would be something more . . . He needed the word prestigious to express the thought to others, which he had no intention of doing. He would need to be a better student, now that he had a reason to work harder in school. He would even do history homework, even though studying history was stupid.

He knew the word pity, and was ashamed to accept it for his family. His family lived off pity. In seven years he would be free of pity.

Right now it was time to go in, give John-Three the .410 and knife, scrub his chapped hands clean, and sit down to eat whatever was for supper.

©Clyde L. Birkholz 2017

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