GUNS ARE FOR MEN
All was love and laughter in the log cabin until the midnight marauder came between them. And Clara learned that sometimes in the New World the woman could be the hunter
L. JOHANNE STEMO
UP IN the hills above the farm the coyotes courted spring in amorous chorus. In the big new corral Litago and Blomster, the two cows whose names translated literally become Littlegood and Flower, chewed contentedly on their cud. Their moist eyes glowed in the dusk; their tails flicked half-heartedly and now and again the skin on their flanks rippled with the irritation of mosquito. In pleasant state of tranquility they drooled. swallowed and reswallowed, only to begin the whole process again.
In the log barn could be heard an occasional stomping and movement. Five horses in varying shades from brown to black stood docile and content after the day's work, their bellies roundly filled, their coats well-curried. Occasionally they changed weight from one foot to another: rubbed a forelock against the cribbing of a stall; blinked and dozed.
Nearby a shelter of poles and straw housed a flock of chickens. They slept, stirred, crowded, scolded softly and rearranged themselves on the low roost.
The house sat on the hill above the outbuildings. It was a log house with comers notched and fitted, the space between logs chinked and filled and the inside walls thickly plastered. Two small-paned windows faced south and two west, spilling yellow lamplight into the dusk. Godfrey Storliefsen pushed his empty plate forward on the creamy oilcloth-covered table. "Is there more, Clara?”
"More than even you could eat,” said his wife, rising to return with a bowl of thick milk, the culture of which she had carefully guarded in the long weeks it had taken them to come from the old land across the sea to this new home on the sparsely settled prairie.
A large enamel kettle sang gently on the back of the iron stove. The room was pleasantly warm, fragrant with the smell of good food, stirring softly with fife. A fair-skinned child sat in a low chair her blue eyes filmy with sleep. She nodded twice.
Out of the night floated a long mournful cry and then a. burst of short yips followed. The child came sharply alert, looking round-eyed up at her parents and then breaking into breathless glee-filled laughter as she banged at the side of her chair with a bent spoon.
“Herr Coyote, eh Klumpen?” said Godfrey to the child. He scraped his chair back from the table, stretched his long legs in front of him and set the little girl on his
“It’s a friendly sound in the night,” said Clara. "Ho-ho,” laughed Godfrey. "Friendly!”
"I think it’s friendly,” she said. "It’s like a song
out there in the black night keeping us company.
A single wail echoed out over the rolling prairie to be taken up by others in various directions. The yipping burst forth anew and the chorus of voices seemed to become a part of the mysterious transient quality of
‘■See,” said Clara. Her mind returned from the distant hills and she smiled at her husband.
He nodded. "Yah,” he said. “But just you wait.” She stared at him and then understanding dawned in her eyes. "Oh, no—.”
"Nothing as sneaky as a coyote.”
"Pooh—I don't believe it.” Her silky lashes shadowed the quick fire that flashed instantly.
"Ho-ho. Better watch that temper.”
"But my chickens, Godfrey—they wouldn’t dare touch my chickens. What should we do?”
"Well I've been kind of expecting a visit.”
"Ah—you! You are full of talk,” said Clara. "You know they never come near the buildings.” Her face became sober, almost pleading. "Don’t you think so, Godfrey?”
He met her worried look. "I wouldn’t bet on it,” he said.
"Come,” she said to the child and snatched her up out of Godfrey’s arms. "Time for bed.”
Godfrey sat silent watching her get the child ready. "Let me take her,” he said reaching for the little girl now swathed in a long flannelette nightgown. He cuddled her a bit.
“Just spoiling her,” said Clara but her tones held complacency as she stood hands on hips, c self-satisfied smile playing around her mouth.
She pulled the covers back from the home-made cradle and Godfrey laid the child down and tucked her in. The cradle swayed gently to the touch of his hand.
The chorus from the-hills receded into the distance. Clara went to the window and looked into the dark night. "They’re miles away now.”
Godfrey nodded. "They sure sing up in them hills.” Clara turned to face him. "Anyway I have never yet lost a hen.” She began to set the room to tights.
"No,” admitted Godfrey. "But those crazy chickens of yours go farther and farther afield. And it’s spring. And Herr Coyote is hungry.”
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Guns Are For Men
Continued from page 18
Clara flushed. “Herr Coyote! HenCoyote'. He's just a poor wild animal, not a person.”
“He’s a pretty smart fellow.” “Talk, talk,” said Clara. She shrugged her shoulders. “I am not ; going to listen to such talk.”
But restlessness had invaded the room. Clara poked at the cold embers in the big iron stove and reached for the knife.
“I'll make up the fire.” said Godfrey and began slicing ofF kindling.
She gathered up the few dishes from the late meal, washed and stacked them. The iron stove once again gave off warmth and the kettle began to hum but the phantom voices of the coyote spilling out on the night air had taken on a quality of cunning in her ears.
THE spring morning came over the hills and flooded the land with pink haze. The sun poked sharp hot fingers into the earth until it came alive and trickles of water made a pattern over the black crusted field while below the house an almost forgotten stream bed gurgled and overflowed in an exuberance of rebirth.
Godfrey, busily stretching a second barbed wire on the row of sturdy willow posts that encircled his hundred and sixty acres came abruptly erect as he heard Clara call his name. She called again and the urgency in her tones discharged a series of shocks down his spine and sent him running across the fields to meet her.
But even with the taste of fear in his insides as he dropped his tools and closed the distance between them he couldn’t fail to notice how the wind ; molded the dark print of her dress against her slim young body as she ran and how her hair, usually so neatly pinned, streamed out behind like a cloud of shining silk.
“Clara.” he called to her in concern. “He came.” she screamed between gasps for breath. “I heard a noise and
“What came?” He held her by the shoulders striving to calm her.
“He came—I ran down there and
“What in heaven’s name,” said Godfrey. “Who came?" Fear for their child rose to a peak within him. “Where is Klumpen?’’
“Nothing’s the matter with Klumpen. It’s the coyote—.”
“Oh,” he said and heaved a sigh as the fear fell away like i dust devil when the wind dies. He dropped her shoulders.
She stood waiting, getting her breath and then she clutched at the suspenders that hooked onto the bib of his faded overalls. Her voice came harsh and brittle. “Don’t you understand? The coyote got one of my hens.”
Godfrey nodded. “Yah—.”
“But why? Why never before? They were out all last summer.”
“Now that we are finished with the buildings I work off in the fields all day—well—those foolish hens don’t use any sense either.”
“No sense? What do you mean?” “Well look where they go—away out in the bush.”
“What are you going to do?” Her tones should have warned him
“Do?” He shrugged. “What can I do? I've got to finish this fence.” “What!”
His eyes dropped. “Well—.”
“I guess you’re not going to be up here fencing while that coyote comes back to steal another one. My nice fat chickens—I didn’t raise them for
the coyote to make a great feast on.” “But Clara—.” He stood helpless and then his thoughts took another turn. “Maybe he didn’t get a chicken. Maybe you frightened him . . .” “Ho,” she cut in scornfully. “What do you take me for? I heard those chickens cackling and with my own eyes I saw the feathers flying.” She pushed her hair from her face and plucked out the loose pins but her eyes didn't waver from his. Finally she said. “You have a gun.”
“But Herr Coyote will be miles away by now.”
“Herr Coyote! Herr Coyote!” She shrugged expressively. “Are you not the man?”
Her tone raised goose-pimples over his skin. “I tell you, Clara, there’s no use for me to go now.”
‘‘Godfrey!” The well-known storm signals were in her voice. “That lowdown sneaky coyote steals my chickens —you better come.”
He heaved a sigh and began gathering up tools and wire. “It won’t do any good.” he protested weakly as he unhooked the two horses from the stoneboat and clucked them on their
She walked beside him across the field and when they came to the gate Godfrey looped the lines together and bade the horses stand.
Clara pursed her lips in disapproval as he called them each by name. “Tom, Bess.” she repeated. “Such funny names.”
“Your poor animals. They must be ashamed of ugly names."
“Ho-ho—.” Godfrey’s face broke into smiles. “Now you sound like yourself. But let me tell you, I don’t have to explain them like I have to explain the names on your cows. Litago ! And Blomster! Ho-ho, when I explain those people roll their eyes.”
“Ah—you,” said Clara. She went into the house.
Godfrey followed. He got the twentytwo from its niche above the clothes cupboard, loaded the magazine and went haltingly in search of Herr Coyote.
Half an hour later he returned. “He got her all right,” he said. “I found a heap of feathers on the far side of the crik."
“Did you find the coyote?”
“It’s not so easy.”
Clara eyed him strangely. “Does it have to be easy? You are the man.” “Look, Clara, the coyote is gone. He’ll be miles away by now. I can’t track him." He stared around the room as though it might yield a solution. “I could maybe set a trap.” “A trap you think and catch chicken maybe.”
“Well—.” He lifted his hands in a helpless gesture.
“All you got to do is keep your eyes open.” said Clara. “Keep your eyes open and you’ll be bound to see him. And of course you must carry the gun always.”
Godfrey did not reply. He rose and went out to stable the horses.
THREE days passed, three days in which the gun was always within reach; three days in which he hardly stirred from the shadows of the buildings. On the fourth day of his vigil he knew that he would have to begin the field work. When he sighted the horses in the pasture below the house he slung the gun over a spike on the outside wall of the house and went down the slope.
He had barely reached the bottom when he heard Clara’s urgent cries and great cackling in the vicinity of the henhouse. He raced back, scrambling through rose briars and underbrush, hardly knowing if he went over or under the barbed - wire fence that enclosed the yard. He snatched up the gun but he was too late. Clara met him with a fat grey hen in her arms, its neck dangling.
“Where were you?” Her blue eyes were slaty. “Right in front of my eyes he was when he dropped the chicken and ran.”
Godfrey took the hen from her and probed with his fingers. “Broken neck,” he said.
It was the middle of the week and they ate their chicken dinner in an uncomfortable atmosphere of strain. A chilling and absurd silence filled the room with unsaid words. Through it all the kettle sang on the back of the iron stove, the dry poplar wood sent up a shower of sparks and the child laughed and talked and drooled while her fat round cheeks glistened.
Godfrey, chewing on a juicy brown drumstick, found it suddenly flat as he became aware of Clara’s pale accusative stare across the table.
“How can you sit there and just eat?” she said and rose. She crossed the scrubbed floor, bleached a creamy white from many washings and went to stand in the open doorway.
Godfrey shoved hastily back from the table. The milk jug spilled and broke and the dishes rattled. “Hush,” he exploded at the child as she began to scream. He reached for his gun and strode past Clara and out the door.
The woods were green with new leaf, the earth was damp underfoot, a robin called to its mate and overhead, in a dead and crumbling birch, a crested woodpecker beat out a staccato rhythm.
Godfrey carried the gun loosely under his arm, pausing to listen now and again but there was nothing. Only the distant almost inaudible trickle of water in the gully below came to his ears. He sat on a fallen log smothered by a feeling of helpless inadequacy brought about by Clara’s unreasonable accusations. Of Herr Coyote there was no sign nor had he expected any.
Ways and means of disposing of the thief made wide and exaggerated circles in his mind only to be replaced by the urgency of all the work that needed doing—fields to be plowed and seeded, land to be cleared, more fences that
needed building. There was no end to what must be done and now he was tied to the house on account of a coyote and a few paltry chickens.
Deep in his heart he had a contempt for the stupidity of these birds craning their necks far afield and seemingly asking to be caught. If he had his way he would limit the flock to eight or at most a dozen, just enough to keep them in eggs. But such a traitorous thought he dared not voice aloud.
His anger spent Godfrey returned to the house and called Clara. Almost he flinched as he saw her in the doorway, her blue eyes smoky and impersonal and the soft lines of her face filled with a sick kind of pain. “How would you like to learn to shoot?” he offered.
She shook her head then came slowly forward and took hold of the gun barrel gingerly.
“You could, you know.” He put the stock to her shoulder and showed her how to sight “Come on, have a try,” he urged and pointed to «. welldefined knot in a post less than fifty feet away.
She closed her eyes and squeezed the trigger.
“Ho-ho—Involuntary laughter escaped him. “Better if you keep your eyes open,” he said reloading.
She glared. “Give it to me.” For long moments she sighted until the gun wobbled loosely in her grip.
“Better rest it,” he said taking the gun and bringing it slowly up into position and firing a bull’s-eye. He instructed her again.
This time she brought it up and fired coming within inches of the knot. “It’s awful noisy,” she said and squirmed with distaste.
They held a kind of target practice several times after that but Clara was never very enthusiastic and the quarrel between them slumbered uneasily. But even she had to concede that the field work had to begin so that when he left in the mornings she took charge of the gun.
IT was late afternoon of the same week when he heard the shot and pulled his horses to a halt. He listened, heard nothing more but, looking at the sun low in the sky, he decided to call it a day.
He hated the guilt that enveloped him whenever he thought of the thieving coyote but he resented even more the accusations that flared anew in Clara’s eyes whenever the subject was broached between them so that he was completely unprepared for the triumph in her face as she met him now at the gate.
Flushed and breathless words and laughter spilled over one another. “I had a shot at him. You must of heard it, Godfrey. Did you not hear it'7” “So you shot him.' he said and a weight removed itself from his insides.
“I took the gun with me when I went to feed the chickens and then" — laughter broke from her again—“then I waited and there he was.”
“You hit him?"
“I must have hit his tail I saw him tum. I saw his ears sticking up and that brown bushy tail ”
Godfrey stared at her for a moment. He began to laugh “So you hit his tail,” he said. “Well, never mind, my Clara. You probably scared him half to death and he won't be back for a time.”
"Do you really think so?" Her eyes were shining and warm and suddenly the old good feeling was between them "I'm glad I didn't kill him.” she confided. “You know, he's like you said—like a person. And so graceful.” “Ho—and I thought you were all set to do away with this chicken thief —hang him from the highest limb.”
“Well, he makes me so mad—but now if he is scared . . .”
“Sure.” said Godfrey. “I knew it all the time. You’re an old softy. Well. you leave it to me. I'll get him one of these days.”
He unharnessed the horses, watered, stabled and fed them. “Now we'll have a look,” he said returning to the
He swung the child up in his arms and the three of them went down the hill. They -kirted the draw where water trickled in an almost inaudible whisper and on the far side they
stopped and listened but there was no trace of Herr Coyote, nor blood, nor feathers.
THE days leaped ahead. Spring work was upon them —fields and gardens and broody hens. And. because there had been no disturbance in the chicken yard, a false sense of security lulled Godfrey's conscience to rest.
He was sitting peacefully on the front stoop after the day’s work when Clara's almost hysterical voice accosted him.
“What in heaven's name?“ he said leaping up.
“Have you been counting the hens at night. Godfrey?” She came up the hill from the vicinity of the chicken
“So you didn't. You knew that coyote would be back but it didn't matter to you.”
“But Clara. I’ve been busy.” “Pooh—words and excuses. How long does it take to count a few chickens? I have told you how I count them before I close the door on them at night but no, not you. Now three more are gone.”
He stood wordless. It always amazed him how her temper flared so hotly into fire.
“My nice fat chickens. Soon there won’t be any left.”
“Yrou have the gun, too,” he reminded her.
“Yah, but you are the man,’ she said. “Tonight you must take the gun and make your bed in the straw and wait for him. For shame that you should forget to count the hens! Here, here is the gun. Go now.”
He felt the cold barrel in his arms. “Here,” she said. “Here’s an old cover to keep you warm but not so comfortable that you forget to wake when the coyote comes, I hope.”
Some shortcoming in himself made it impossible for him to protest or deny her accusations. Instead he turned from her in a glum kind of anger and went down the hill to the shelter of poles and straw that was the henhouse. For a while he sat brooding over his unpleasant thoughts and then he laid the gun above his head, kicked off his boots and crept under the old cover.
Each night after that he took up his position in the straw shelter and each night he fell asleep to the song of the coyotes in the hills. Sometimes there were only a few short yips but sometimes the chorus continued far into the night, invading his dreams and stalking his subconscious, until he wakened in a nightmare of sweat.
Daytimes, while he was at work, he could hear Clara target practicing and a sharp yearning would be in him to return to the house and take her in his arms. But when he thought of how two more hens had disappeared from the flock he didn’t have the courage to ignore the absurd barrier she had built between them.
“You are the man,” she had said. He swore softly and wished he had never given her the gun.
A dozen or more shots rang out anc a vague apprehension seized him and though he continued with the seeding of the field his thoughts were not on his work.
Once more he went home to an evening meal interspersed with unnerving monosyllables. "See anything today?” he enquired.
“No.” She avoided his eyes and in that moment he could have laid his head on her bosom and wept for the emptiness that had become their life together.
He sighed, picked up the gun and took himself off to the straw shelter, pulling the old cover about him. He thought of Clara, alone in the big double bed, her white high-necked gown around her throat, her soft cheek on the down-filled pillow, her eyes closed, her lips partly open as though waiting to break into a secret smile.
How often he’d seen her like that. He'd been so sure of her. of the goodness of their life together. He'd thought . “It’s all been a lie,” he said aloud. “A lie.” And for the second time that day he cursed softly.
With the words aloud, in the open, he accepted the inevitable and his mind was suddenly free. A practical scheme for ridding them of the marauder began to take shape. Heir Coyote must go. Any fool knew it was better to live in peace than to be ät war with your wife.
THE darkness fell like filmy chiffon over the land. Blomster and Litago rumbled pleasantly in their corraL The horses shifted weight from one foot to another as they dozed in their stalls. On the other side of the straw shelter the chickens stirred, scolded and slept .
Godfrey twisted and turned, came erect and listened and then, hearing
nothing but the night noises—the whisper of leaves and thump of a rabbit far off, he slid deeper into the straw and he too slept. The moon and the stars came out silvering the treetops and deepening the contrast of light and shadow. Beyond the draw a long low form skirted the wallows. With wise eyes glowing and bushy tail outstretched it bounced noiselessly through scrub and underbrush to cross the tiny stream and come out below the barn.
A horse stirred restlessly and neighed. Herr Coyote circled warily and continued. Litago came alert, lifted her head questioningly then went contentedly back to chewing her cud Up at the house in the big double bed Clara tossed in a flood of conflicting emotion. She drew herself upright and listened and the silence filled her with foreboding. Angrily she flung herself down and squeezed her eyes shut to blot out the empty expanse of pillow beside her.
But sleep refused to come. At last, tossing aside the covers, she rose, slid her feet into a pair of old shoes and pulled a sweater of Godfrey’s over the long nightgown. She stooped over the child, listened to the regular breathing then tiptoed from the room.
When her eyes became accustomed to the shadows she stole softly down the hill. For long moments she stood in the shelter of the henhouse, watching the covers rise and fall on Godfrey’s dark form. Exasperation lay open in her face mingled with a disturbing tenderness that had no affinity with thieving covotes or their extinction.
Movement winked at her from the hushes ahead and she came suddenly alert. Standing motionless, making herself a part of the shadowy background, her breathing came soft and controlled but her heart hammered. Breathlessly she waited and this time a single loping motion was unmistakable below the trees.
The soft lines of her face stiffened and the blue of her eyes turned smoky as she reached for the gun with steady hand This graceful loping night marauder was the cause of all her troubles — the bitterness in the days and the emptiness of the nights. Her heartbeat slowed to a steady rhythm: her fingers found the safety catch and slid it off. Carefully she aimed, held her breath, pressed the trigger smoothly.
Godfrey leaped out of sleep. He found the gun in his hands, the stock against his shoulder and the hammer cocked. As though in a dream he made out a dark form against the familiar background below. He fired.
They ran forward, Clara’s white gown streaming out from the long confining sweater and Godfrey, pulling at Iris suspenders while sticks and straw fastened themselves to his heavy wool socks as he ran.
Herr Coyote lay stretched at their feet. Godfrey probed for the wound and found it. "Ha." he said, scratching his head. "I can hardly believe it. You see that a perfect shot." He began to laugh. “A perfect shot and me half asleep. Hah—guess it becomes second nature when you’ve been waiting so long."
Clara's voice was soft. If she had ever heard of the equality of the sexes she chose to ignore it. "Of course, she said. "You are the man." She lifted her face to his and waited for his arms to encircle her.
"Clara.’’ Godfrey said and all the pain of the past few weeks went out
There was a stirring in the tree beside them and they drew reluctantly apart. Godfrey peered into the shadows and reached his hand into a low branch. "Dummkopf," he said. "Don’t they know better than to be roosting out-
side for the coyote to get them?”
He plucked the protesting hen off her low roost and without ceremony dumped her inside the henhouse. Then his face turned again in the direction of the dead coyote. He shook his head in puzzlement: “Hmm— right in the shoulder. I couldn’t have done better in broad daylight.”
“That’s what I’ve been telling you, Godfrey. I knew you would shoot him. Come now," she said clutching the sweater about her.
"Yes, 1 had a feeling in my bones.”
IN the east a rosy glow lifted the shadows of night: in the corral the cows, done with drooling and chewing, dozed: in the henhouse the chickens leaped from their roosts, one by one and then in clusters, to feed and scratch in the straw. A rooster crowed.
But up at the house all was silent. The child stirred as though caught up in a dream then was still. Godfrey lay with one arm flung wide, his face deep in the down pillow, his breathing even. The deceptive softness of Clara's face
was almost smug in sleep and a smile, secret and enigmatic, flickered at the comers of her mouth. ir