Separation papers in hand, Beau Jim Early sets out one hot, dry August morning in 1960 from Fort Jackson, South Carolina, for his brother’s farm in Cocke County, Georgia. After six years in the army, civilian life is not as easy as it looks. In short order, Beau Jim gets conned by a shoe-shine boy, buys a Studebaker with bad brakes, and spends nearly every cent of the $400 he won in a crap game the night before.
But Beau Jim is a man who can roll with the punches, and the drive into his hometown is as exhilarating as he thought it would be. His brother’s farm, however, is a different story. Older by fifteen years, Dan Early has given up his apartment and gone into debt to buy a barren piece of land that his wife, Charlene, calls a “wore out patch of misery.” Sheila, their seven-year-old daughter, is unnaturally slow and shy and has been held back in school—a source of great shame. As Beau Jim hustles pool with Claire, a former high school classmate whose secret life is not as safe as he believes it to be, and makes time with Yancey, a voluptuous redhead finally looking to settle down, Dan’s frustration and pity for himself mount. When Charlene sparks his rage, he commits an act so shocking and horrific it brings the whole county to its knees.
A spellbinding tale of decent people fighting for their lives in a world overrun with poverty and ignorance, The Trapper’s Last Shot is vintage John Yount—forceful, finely crafted, and absolutely unforgettable.
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The Trapper's Last Shot
By John Yount
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1973 John Yount
All rights reserved.
The summer of 1960 was hot and dry in Cocke County, Georgia. No rain fell from the second week in June through the entire month of July. The loblolly pines turned yellow in the drought. The grass scorched and withered in the fields, and bare patches of red clay earth began to appear and to crack and cake in the sun like the bottoms of dried up lakes. The first day of August some clouds drifted in from the mountains in Tennessee and the Carolinas, and the air grew still and heavy, and for a while a thin rain fell as warm as sweat. But before the rain had quite stopped, the sun came out again, and steam began to rise from the fields and woods, from the dirt roads and concrete slab highways, and the countryside cooked like so many vegetables in a pot.
The next day five boys started out to go swimming in the south fork of the Harpeth river. Except for a thin crust like a pastry shell over the pink dust, there was no evidence of the rain. As they walked toward the river, the heat droned and shimmered in the fields, and locusts sprang up before them to chitter away and drop down and then spring up again as they came on. When they got among the trees on the river bank, the oldest of them, who was fourteen, shucked quickly out of his britches and ran down the bank and out on a low sycamore limb and, without breaking stride, tucked up his leg's and did a cannonball into the water. The surface all around, even to the farthest edge, roiled when he hit as if the pool were alive, but they didn't see the snakes at first. The boy's face was white as bleached bone when he came up. "God," he said to them, "don't come in!" And though it was no more than a whisper, they all heard. He seemed to struggle and wallow and make pitifully small headway though he was a strong swimmer. When he got in waist deep water, they could see the snakes hanging on him, dozens of them, biting and holding on. He was already staggering and crying in a thin, wheezy voice, and he brushed and slapped at the snakes trying to knock them off. He got almost to the bank before he fell, and though they wanted to help him, they couldn't keep from backing away. But he didn't need them then. He tried only a little while to get up before the movement of his arms and legs lost purpose, and he began to shudder and then to stiffen and settle out. One moccasin, pinned under his chest, struck his cheek again and again, but they could see he didn't know it, for there was only the unresponsive bounce of flesh.
According to the coroner who saw the body, the boy had been bitten close to two hundred times.
Sheriff Tate Newcome and Deputy Earl Wagner dynamited the swimming hole that same afternoon and reported that just beneath the surface, there were hundreds, perhaps thousands of cottonmouth moccasins, the bodies of which practically formed a dam at the lower end of the hole and all but stopped the flow of water.
For days afterwards no one could think or talk of anything else. Some said they had heard of snakes congregating like that before, but nobody seemed to know what caused it. The drought, some offered. A biology professor at the college in Seneca was quoted in the paper as saying that it might have been a kind of breeding orgy that belonged, evolutionarily speaking, to a more primitive time. Some thought it was more than likely a consequence of the infernal testing of atomic bombs. And some felt very strongly that it was a judgement on them, connected somehow with the disrespect of the young for the old, the Communists taking over, the niggers getting too big for their britches—a sure sign given them to show the degeneration and sinful nature of the times.
But whatever their disagreement about its cause, everybody in Cocke County had heard what had happened, and they couldn't free their minds of the thought of it, nor their stomachs of a sick and shaky feeling that lasted for days and days. Even Deputy Earl Wagner—who, given any back talk, could come out of his hip pocket with a sap and beat a man almost to death and all the time be sucking his teeth as if he were bored—when he told about setting off the dynamite, would blink and swallow and rest the heel of his hand on the butt of his holstered pistol for comfort. "They was snakes all over the whole Goddamned river," he'd say, "blowed out on the bank and clean up in the trees, and that hole there, where that boy jumped in, after we taken and set off that dynamite, was solid snake bellies. Look like a bowl of spaghetti." The men standing about to listen in Sharaw, standing by the barbershop or in front of the courthouse, shook their heads when he told it and grunted as if they had been poked with a stick. And after, they seemed unable to walk away and looked at the ground or off at the horizon, their eyes glazed over with thought.CHAPTER 2
It was a morning in the middle of August that same year when Beau Jim Early signed his separation papers at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and stepped out of that last yellow frame army building and stood with the hot sun cooking the top of his head. He looked around at the quadrangle, the squat, ugly buildings in stiff rows, the grounds without tree or shrub, and the scattered army personnel he could see here and there upon the narrow gravel walks; and he tried to believe he was free to go. He had been in the army six years, and it didn't seem possible that he could just walk away and go home to Cocke County, Georgia. Just like that. The process of clearing post, the equipment and clothing check, the signing of papers, the counting out of his mustering out pay had seemed plain, ordinary, army routine, and there was no feeling of having reached a precise end. He wondered if he could have forgotten to perform some last official act. He rubbed the back of his neck thoughtfully. He had signed his separation papers. He even had a card in his pocket that said he was separated. There should have been nothing to do beyond that, but he puzzled a moment more. Finally, abruptly, he took hold of the duffel bag he'd left leaning against the side of the building and swung it to his shoulder. I'm gone, he thought, and if you get me back again, you'll have to burn the woods and sift the ashes. He started walking, though he felt less sure of himself than he wanted to feel.
He hadn't the least idea which way to go to get off the post, and he didn't even think about direction until he'd walked a hundred yards or so; still, he was in no mood to worry about such a small detail, and he never slacked his pace. Sooner or later he knew he'd run across a bus to catch or a taxi to hail that would take him into Columbia. He felt confused and numb and not quite all there, as if he had left a little of himself all along his back trail from Germany where he'd been two weeks before—some of him still riding the ship across, some still gawking at New York City, some still strung out and lingering along the train track from Pennsylvania Station down the country to Fort Jackson where he'd been sent to be released. He had been in the army ever since his brother signed for him to enlist when he was seventeen (at twenty, in a moment of terrific irresponsibility, he had signed up for three more years; they had given him six hundred dollars in cash and put him in for sergeant stripes, but he lost the six hundred in a poker game and the promotion didn't come through until eighteen months later); and now that he was finally out, he felt strange, as though he didn't know exactly who he was taking home.
Up ahead there was a wider thoroughfare, and he picked up his pace, hunching his shoulder under the duffel bag to settle it more comfortably, and at the same time reaching around with his left hand to adjust the wallet in his hip pocket. It was thick with money, and his pants didn't fit right. He had won over four hundred dollars in a crap game the night before, and that morning the army had given him five hundred and thirty-six dollars and some cents in mustering out pay, and there was a pressure at his hip, a discomforting sensation. When he got to the corner and saw the Post Exchange just down the street, he knew immediately what he would do.
He bought the grandest things that caught his eye and took great pleasure in counting out the frayed crap game money which accounted for much more bulk than the crisp new bills the army had given him. He got a new double barrel shotgun for his brother, Dan; a set of china for his sister- in-law, Charlene; and for his seven year old niece, Sheila, a stuffed pink tiger that must have weighed twenty pounds and was as big as a heifer calf. He was lucky, for when he got all that carried outside, he saw himself a taxi to wave down and didn't have to call one. The driver, a small, sour looking man, helped him get his presents in the back seat and trunk. But Beau Jim took no notice of him. He got in the front seat, pushed his cap to the back of his head and stuck his elbow out the window.
"Head her toward the greyhound bus station," he said, "and if you get caught for speedin, I'll pay the fine."
The driver gave him the fisheye and pulled off slowly.
Downtown, the driver helped him carry his things just inside the door of the bus station sandwich shop and pile them by the nickelodeon. It took them two trips apiece, and the packages attracted some attention, particularly the tiger, which was bigger than the driver who carried it and which he set on top of the boxes of china as if he were planting a marker, a flag. And though Beau Jim gave him a two dollar tip, when the little rooster of a man walked away, he looked toward the waitress and the two or three customers sitting at the counter and gave a toss of his head back over his shoulder toward Beau Jim as if to say, "Get a load of the big man here," and they gave Beau Jim a quick look before they flicked their eyes to one another and smiled. Immediately, as though they were so many mirrors, he saw himself from another angle and was shamed. He abandoned his presents in the coffee shop and went into the bus station lobby.
At the ticket counter he found that there was an express from Columbia to Atlanta in an hour; from Atlanta to Sharaw he would have to take a milk run bus, but that was all right with him, and he bought his tickets. He found that the baggage clerk, however, had stepped out somewhere for a break, and after waiting two or three minutes for him to return, the urge to get his presents out of sight became so strong, he decided to put them in a baggage locker and check them through later. Once they were safe and he was released from them, he could go out and walk around the streets, get a taste of freedom, see what being a civilian felt like. He gave himself a moment to get ready.
He lit a cigarette, tucked it into the corner of his mouth and went back into the sandwich shop. He looked at no one, picked up his huge pink tiger and started out again. It's girth was twice his and he could get his arm no more than halfway around it; still, he carried it as nonchalantly as possible against his hip. It's tail, long and loose and as big around as his forearm, wagged and jounced when he walked and threatened to trip him, and the irises inside its goggle-eyes were loose, and they shifted, so that the tiger was with one step, cross-eyed, and with the next, walleyed; and they made a noise too, like a baby's rattle, though he could only barely hear it over the self conscious buzz in his ears. By the time he got to the baggage lockers, his ears warmed the side of his head. He put his money in the slot, turned and withdrew the key, and opened the door, but one look at the clean, rectangular space, and he knew the tiger wouldn't fit. He left the door standing open and tried one of a row of larger lockers on the end. Even there he had difficulty, for the elbows of the tiger were bent and stiffly braced for lying down, and he had to put the thing in catty- cornered, one elbow in the lower right hand corner, and one elbow in the upper left hand corner, and had to bring some of his weight to bear in order to force it in. Still, he was careful. They could not cause him to despise Sheila's toy, or harm it. Finally he got it in, its tail coiled behind it. It filled the locker completely. He went back for his duffel bag and his brother's shotgun, and back again for Charlene's china. It took three lockers in all, although one was less than half filled.
Once he was out upon the sidewalk again, his anonymity returned and he breathed easier and thought to himself that a man who cared about his privacy ought to travel light. The more you carried with you, the more you gave away about yourself. But it was a thought with only a little bitterness, for he was out of the army and free. Still it was a very hard thing to understand or believe. He rubbed his chin and mused, trying to get his mind around it. The ring finger on his left hand was missing at the first joint, and somehow, more with that insensitive fleshy nub than with the other fingers, he felt stubble, as though the whiskers didn't slide so easily across the deadish skin there and translated better to the sensitive layers beneath. He had allowed himself the luxury of not shaving that morning, his first, funny expression of freedom, since, after spending most of the night hunkered down by the metal legs of an army cot watching dice bounce off the wall, it would have made him feel better to shave. Tall, tired, a little rumpled, he walked the sidewalks as though he expected, without knowing it, to meet himself, the old civilian self, six years abandoned, and get reacquainted. The odd scraps of memory that came to him of Sharaw seemed strong, if unimportant. High school football games on a Saturday night, the lights around the field making a kind of false gauzy ceiling up in the night sky. On the cinder playing field behind the gymnasium, a fist fight he had lost to Foots Taylor—picking cinders out of the heel of his hand afterwards, such bright pain, it caused his mouth to water. Honky-Tonks. Riding around in a buddy's forty-nine Ford which had a chrome Tennessee Walking Horse as a hood ornament, tooling down the streets looking for some vague and imperfectly imagined adventure which stayed always just a little out of reach.
Oddly then, a little at a time, he did begin to get the sweet, sad taste of being out of the army and going home. It was something like the first clear cold days of Fall when he could catch in his nostrils the spice of dying leaves and grass, and feel, somehow, more permanent than those things, feel full of possibility and promise. He was, by God, going home. And he was going to make something of himself. He was going to amount to something, for he had grown tired of being nobody.
Strangely, it seemed exactly right that he should look up in that moment and see her coming toward him, for she was exactly the way he remembered them from High School, and something about her made him shy. She was wearing a kerchief over the rollers in her hair, short shorts and sandals. She couldn't have been more than seventeen or eighteen, but she was confident in her near prettiness already. Her legs were smooth and tanned, and she had a short, pert, sexy body, even though her face looked a little muggy as if the stations of her brain hadn't quite opened for business. Her jaws were worrying a piece of chewing gum, her sandals skuffing and slapping the pavement, her eyes roaming the store windows. It struck him that there were no girls anywhere like American girls, and when she passed and gave him no more than a bored glance, it broke his heart in such a familiar way, he felt suddenly almost at home again. He would make something of himself, no doubt about it; and when he did, he would forgive all the girls who had the power to break his heart, although he felt satisfied that they would not forgive themselves. He was as certain of his future as if he had it in writing, and it made him very happy. "Hot Damn!" he said to himself, barely able to keep from doing a little dance in the middle of the sidewalk.
Around a corner a Negro boy sitting on a wooden box with a loop of rope attached to the side, saw him coming, sprang up, and slipped the loop of rope over his shoulder.
"Hey soldier, lemme shine them shoes!" he demanded.
The boy was so threatening he was funny, and Beau Jim laughed. "Not today, I reckon," he said.
"Come awn, fifty cent," the boy said.
Beau Jim winked at him and shook his head, no, but the boy didn't go away. He was in front of him, facing him, and walking rapidly backwards. "Twenty-five cent!" the boy said, his face and the tone of his voice, fierce.
Excerpted from The Trapper's Last Shot by John Yount. Copyright © 1973 John Yount. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
by Elena E. Smith The book begins with an intriguing literary opening about a painting, then degenerates into the grotesque style that hampers so much of the fiction from the southern U.S. This author will never let you really like his characters. When given the chance, they will always choose the worst option. The only thing I liked was the stylized dialogue that kept me in mind of southerners I have known and loved. But by the end, it descends into the predictable negativity and hopelessness I have seen described by both black and white southern authors. Unfortunately, the foreshadowing from the book's opening is fulfilled, but IMHO it didn't have to be.