It had been about six years since I’d last seen Dave when he called me up and asked if I’d help him get rid of some beavers. I met Dave during my junior year of college. He wasn’t in school, but he was a fixture at most of the college parties. He had stories that all the over-protected college kids, hungering for news from the wild frontiers of the real world, were always eager to hear. He loved to talk about the time he fell asleep in a freight train car and rolled out the open door while traveling through a tunnel. One time he came to a party smelling foul and told us he’d gotten picked up while hitchhiking only to share a truck bed with a recently skunked dog.
We started hanging out in earnest once I discovered he was a hunter. He’d party all night and then get up at the crack of dawn, hung-over or still drunk, and go looking for a deer or some ducks to shoot. We’d shared a few beers and soon enough we were sharing a deer stand or Dave’s old, beat up, camouflaged aluminum boat, Dave sucking down Tylenol and Gatorade like there was no tomorrow, usually counting on me to to tell him if there was something he should be pointing his gun at. But for all his hard partying, he was actually a pretty smart guy (not to mention a fine shot). I remember climbing into his truck one morning and scooting a spine-down copy of Moby Dick from the passenger side seat.
He knew I’d done some trapping as a boy, which I guess is why he called me up out of the blue to ask if I’d help him do in some beavers reeking havoc on his neighbor’s ranch. I live in Moscow, Idaho with my wife and our two year old daughter. Dave was living a little ways outside Missoula, Montana, where I’d attended college and where we’d met. I still hunted, if not as much as I’d have liked to, but I hadn’t trapped anything–besides a few grasshoppers with my daughter–since I was maybe sixteen or seventeen. I told Dave as much, that’d he’d be better off getting in touch with someone who was less likely to trigger the damn trap on his own foot.
“Sean,” he said, in a tone I remembered him using to convince me, at two AM on many occasions, to wake up at dawn and go hunting. “I called you, man. I know you’re the guy for the job. Did I mention there’s a hundred bucks in it?” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that a hundred dollars wouldn’t even cover my round trip gas. It told me something about where Dave must be in life that a hundred bucks was still plenty of incentive for a ten hour drive. But there was some hitch in his voice that told me he was less concerned with my trapping skills than with something else, that maybe what he really wanted was some companionship, some time to share the new stories he had undoubtedly been amassing since we’d last seen each other. And I had moved fairly quickly from college to a family and a career as a journalist and as much as I cherished it all, I still had the occasional hankering for the good old days of low-stakes living. So, after checking in with the missus, I told Dave yes, and the following weekend, I drove back through Missoula, past my old haunts, and, following shaky directions out into the boonies, to Dave’s home.
Dave had moved about forty-five minutes out of town to a small log cabin with a steep roof and a little porch on which sat an old, green couch which I was fairly certain I recognized from the apartment Dave had previously occupied back in Missoula. It was late fall and pine needles carpeted the forest floor. A pinecone fell and thumped off the hood of my truck. Lodgepole pines stood at attention high up into the sky. I had stared down the long driveways of a number of Dave’s neighbors as I looked for his place; the properties ran the gamut from rusted-car-collecting rednecks to rich retired folks with big windows, SUVs secured behind their gated properties. It seemed a fitting community for a guy like Dave, always straddling the line between high and low societies.
Finally having found his house, I wondered how he’d ever found it, how he’d come to leave town for this out of the way corner of the world. For all his love of the outdoors, he’d also always seemed to love an audience. Walking past his truck, I glanced in the bed and saw the traps he had amassed, a combination of double spring leg traps and conibears. A part of me had given consideration to the idea that maybe the whole beaver thing was a ruse, that Dave was luring me down here for some ulterior purpose, but seeing the jumble of traps reassured me.
I walked up to the door and was about to knock when it opened, Dave grinning at me on the other side.
“Damn, son,” he said.
“Hey, Dave,” I said. He had a thicker beard than last I’d seen him, but aside from that he looked remarkably the same as when I’d hugged him goodbye outside the Union Club six years ago. His eyes were wide and expressive, his shoulders broad, his barrel chest trying to snap the staves of his suspenders. He reached out and gave me a big hug.
“Come on in,” he said and I stepped into his one room home. It was a nice place, if tiny. It almost seemed too quaint, like some version of log cabin simplicity you’d see in Martha Stewart Living. He allowed me a minute to look around, to try and assemble a story of the last six years that had led him away from the city and its parties to living out here, to this sparsely populated piece of the Montana wilderness. The room contained a worn out orange couch to which a cat had at some point taken a clawing to, an old wooden desk and an ancient looking refrigerator and stove. A few plates and cups sat atop the refrigerator and a deer’s head was mounted on the far wall, Dave’s rifle right next to it. In one corner sat a trunk like the kind immigrants might have loaded with all their worldly possessions before boarding boats bound for the New World. Following the rungs of a ladder, I saw a loft and a pile of blankets where Dave must sleep.
“It’s not bad, right?” Dave asked.
“Yeah, not at all.”
“Look, I know it’s tiny. I know you’ve probably got like a ten bedroom mansion or whatever, but–”
“Dave, I’m a freelance journalist. I’m lucky to a roof over my head at all.”
“Okay, sure. I’m just saying, I guess to be clear, that, you know, I’m happy, that I’m not settling for some podunk lifestyle or whatever.”
I nodded. It seemed like Dave had made some assumptions about my life, like the fact that I was married with a single young kid meant that I had hit some high water mark of maturity and stability. It felt like we were getting off on, if not the wrong foot, then the awkwardly positioned one. I threw my hands up in surrender.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to get all aggro on you there,” Dave said, seeming suddenly sheepish. “I’m not saying I always planned on moving into a one room log cabin in the boonies, but I dig it, really, I do.”
“I believe you.”
“Cool.” He stuck his hands in his back pockets. “So, what say you and me go trap us some beavers?”
As we bounced up the road in Dave’s old beater of a truck, he told me how he had ended up tasked with trapping a family of beavers.
“It’s a neighbor’s ranch, up the road a ways. His family’s house, which has been there for generations he said, is right along this nice little creek shaded with aspens and cottonwoods. Last month, this family of beavers moved in and started to just tear the place apart. They’ve got something like five dams built up now. They’re even chewing up all the saplings, getting ready for winter. Ted, that’s the rancher, he’s tried getting rid of the dams with a backhoe but the beavers are pretty dug in, just keeping rebuilding the things.”
“So how’d you get to be the resident neighborhood beaver trapper?”
“Oh, we pulled up next to each other on the side of the road one day, got to talking. That’s like the newspaper or bulletin board or whatever of living in the sticks, just seeing your neighbors on the road.”
“And you offered to off his beavers for him?”
“More or less. Good to make friends out here I figure. Might have told a little white lie about my previous trapping experience.” He turned to me and grinned, that same sloppy smile I’d seen hundreds of times back in the day. “Which is where you come in.”
My trapping experience, while not non-existent, was admittedly slim. I’d started out as a kid snaring squirrels until my mom got tired of me bringing home their little pelts to tack up on my wall. I moved onto rabbits, which my mother, who cut them up and threw them in stews, was more appreciative of. In junior high a friend of mine and I built a cage trap out of scrap wood we found in his dad’s garage. I couldn’t tell you what we caught, only that it must have been big because when we checked on the cage next it was in ruins.
“You know the last thing I trapped?” I asked Dave.
“A beaver, close to twelve years ago.”
“No shit? See, I knew you were the guy for the job.”
“My friend and I, in high school, we wanted to be all Daniel Boone, trappers extraordinaire, but the fucking Anaconda Company gave a monopoly to one guy to do all the trapping on their land. So, you know, being teenagers, we went ahead anyway, went and got us a beaver in a conibear up in the hills a ways where we thought nobody would notice. We thought we were pretty sneaky, but when we exited the forest service road there was a fish and game guy waiting to bust us for poaching.”
“What happened to the beaver?”
“Oh, they took it from us. Pissed us off to no end. And that was the end of my trapping career.”
“Well hey, look at it this way. This is your second chance to get that beaver. Hell, to get a whole family of ’em.”
“I suppose so.” Dave had certainly not lost any of his boyish enthusiasm. He could have made the plague seem like an exciting opportunity.
Soon enough we turned right under a wooden arch advertising the Little Creek Ranch. We drove up the long driveway to a nice looking ranch house. You could tell it was old but that it had been taken care of, kept up real nice over the years: a little landscaping scattered around, a stone path leading up to the door, double paned windows to keep out the oncoming chill.
Dave jumped out of the truck and went and knocked on the door, but no one answered. He came back and started loading the traps into a duffel bag. He threw a pair of waders at me and said, “Those should fit you,” and then sat on his tailgate and tugged a pair on himself.
We walked around the house and then on down to the creek. It was obvious even from a ways out that the beavers had been busy at work. The scene looked a little sickly, the trees sparse, stumps with the telltale spear shaped tops evident along the bank. It reminded me a little of a haircut I had once inexpertly given my little brother.
“So, Dave. I gotta be honest, it’s been awhile since I’ve been at this. I might be a tad rusty.”
“Sure, I understand. But I’ve been reading up on it too, practicing with logs back at the house. I’m getting real good at trapping logs.”
“Well you’ve got more recent experience than me then.”
“Yeah, but I need somebody to run for help when I get my arm stuck in a conibear.” Out came that wolfish grin again.
We walked about twenty feet up the creek to the first dam. The beavers had created a deep pond, flooding over the creek’s banks into the grass, lending the place a swampy vibe. Dave dropped the duffel bag at his feet and divided up the traps. Then he stood at the creek’s edge, looking out at the dam, at the jumble of saplings, sticks and thicker branches and logs keeping the water on the other side pooled up high. On the far side you could see the beginnings of a lodge. The family was likely in it right then, waiting for night to swim out and resume their work.
While Dave stood their purveying the scene, I walked past him and waded out into the water and up to the dam.
“What’re you doing?” Dave asked.
“I’m going to take off some of these top branches, create a little breach in the dam so the water level drops a little. Let’s the beavers know something is up, that they have to come out and fix something.”
“And then bam, they walk into our trap.”
“That’s the idea.”
“See, you do know your shit.”
Dave waded in after me and we set to untangling the sticks from the dam. Beavers are good at what they do, you’ve got to hand them that. I remember when I was a kid spending half a day trying to dam a creek half this size and eventually giving up in frustration, the water refusing to stay on the other side. We set the sticks into the creek and watched them twirl down the stream, or, for the bigger ones, float aimlessly on the low level of water.
Then I waded back out to set the first trap.
“You want to set the trap about where you think the beaver is going to step up onto the shore,” I said to Dave. I looked over my shoulder and saw that he was still out in the water, staring over the dam at the lodge like he expected the beavers to come swimming out any minute, stop us before we could really get started.
“Sure, sure,” he said distractedly.
I grabbed a leg trap out of the duffel bag and set it about eighteen inches deep next to the bank where it looked like the beavers had been climbing up out of the water. I dug in the bag and found that Dave at least knew enough to include a mallet and a few pieces of rebar. I hammered the rebar firmly into the ground and then attached the trap to it with a good length of wire, the idea being that the beaver gets his foot stuck in the thing and then retreats back into the pond where the heaviness of the trap drags him down and he drowns. Might seem a little brutal, but it’s better than the alternative, which is that the beaver, in a desperate attempt to get out of the trap, chews off its own foot, which it will do.
I turned around to show Dave my handiwork and explain the reasoning behind it only to see that he had crossed over to the other side of the creek and was sneaking up toward the beaver lodge. The water was slipping over the weak spot we’d created in the dam a little faster, which would mean the water level inside the lodge would be dropping, giving the beavers something to be concerned about, reason to leave the lodge.
“Hey, Dave, what the hell are you up to?”
He looked up, seemingly startled.
“I don’t know. I was just thinking how I’ve actually never seen a beaver.”
“Well help me place the rest of these traps and you can see a dead one tomorrow.”
He hesitated a second more, bending over a little to peer at the lodge, like he might be able to sneak a peak of the beaver family through the mud and sticks. Then he stood up and waded through the creek back to my side. I couldn’t remember him ever being that interested in the deer or waterfowl we had shot over the years. I almost made a crack about him getting soft, but looking at the oddly contemplative expression on his face as he waded back toward me, I held back.
We set up a few more traps that day, another leg trap at a dam farther downstream and a few scattered conibears along the half submerged trails the beavers used to navigate up and down the creek. Dave asked the occasional question, but he seemed strangely quiet and spacey, not necessarily words I would usually use to describe the man. He kept squinting out into the water, apparently looking for the wet brown head of a beaver to poke up from the pond it had created. As we laid out the last conibear and the sun started setting, I felt obliged to tell him that beavers are mostly nocturnal.
“Oh, sure,” Dave said, almost like he doubted me. He didn’t take his eyes off the pond.
“You’ll have to camp out here overnight if you really want to see one,” I said. “And I’m getting cold and hungry, so you’d be on your own.”
“Yeah, okay.” He sounded grumpy. He grabbed the duffel bag and said, “Let’s get back to the house.”
My wife had never met Dave, but when I shared with her my general reminiscences of him, she said she didn’t trust him to feed me properly and threw a few cans of soup into my bag. But it turned out she needn’t have worried. Dave chopped up an onion, threw a few cans of tomatoes and beans into a pot and added some venison to make a chilli whose aroma quickly filled the cabin and set my mouth watering.
We’d been talking about old times as Dave prepared dinner, the kinds of safe memories, distant from current events, that can always be counted on to get old friends through the night. We were recounting the time when Dave was convinced that his future fortune was in an idea he’d had for a mobile stripper operation, going as far as welding a rough stripper pole into the bed of his truck. Nobody had shown up for the auditions though. I was suggesting that maybe that they were to be held in his garage was a deal breaker when Dave turned from the stove with watery eyes. At first I thought maybe the onions had gotten to him, but then he said, in a very matter of fact way, “You’ll probably call me a pussy, but I am a little sad about the beavers.”
“The beavers?” I said as though I hadn’t the faintest I idea what he might be talking about.
“I know they’re messing up that ranchers land, but I can’t help but feel bad about the traps. What a way to go, right? Just doing your thing, building your house, managing your property and then bam, leg in a trap, you’re drowning. And I mean, a whole family, right?”
“Not to discount what you’re saying, Dave, but if I’m remembering correctly, this is not the first time you have killed an animal.”
He laughed at this. Behind him, the chilli burbled in the pot. He turned around and grabbed a few bowls from the top of the refrigerator. Ladling some chilli into each, he said, “You’ve got me there, buddy. Not the first time, won’t be the last.”
He handed me a bowl and then scooted the old chest over from the corner to act as a table. He sat down next to me on the couch. The steaming chilli in the cold air of the little cabin fogged up my glasses and I took them off to wipe them on my shirt.
“Tell me about your family,” Dave said. He hadn’t said a word about them all night and I was almost beginning to wonder if he knew that I was married, that I had a daughter. I was fairly sure I had mentioned it on the phone, certain I had done so in the e-mails or christmas cards we’d exchanged since last we’d seen each other. I was happy for the diversion from the old stories, which I was beginning to feel we could only get so much mileage from.
“Well, I’ve ben married for almost five years now. Beautiful wife. She’s a copy editor, great cook, loves to hike and ski.”
“Nope, not a big fan of guns actually. Makes me keep ’em in a safe in the garage.” I glanced up at Dave’s rifle on a rack on the wall. “But that’s good, got the little one running all over the house these days.”
“And how old is she?”
“Two going on twenty.”
“That is a crazy thing. I knew you’d do it though.”
“The family thing. Get a real job, a wife, a litter, nice house. Not sure that was ever in the cards for me. I’m too, I don’t know, crazy, or something.”
He spooned a bite of chilli into his mouth. I wasn’t sure what Dave was angling at. I thought maybe he wanted me to reassure him of all the fish in the sea, but it didn’t seem his style to play the pity card, to offer up the hard partier’s lament. He always seemed more assured than that. I tried to remember any girl’s in Dave’s life, but all I could think of was the time outside a bar when a drunk birthday girl had jumped into his arms and he’d just walked off down the block with her. Not exactly a serious relationship.
“Crazy? I’ll tell you what’s crazy. Mortgage payments, credit card bills. You, my friend,” I said, gesturing around the room with my spoon, “have got something a whole lot of guys would kill for.”
“A one room log cabin?”
“Sure, sure, I know that. That was the point, for sure. But, you know, a guy never sees himself where he ends up. Ahead of time that is. Or maybe that’s just me. Anyway, how’s that chilli?” he asked, apparently abruptly done with his original train of thought.
We ate dinner and turned back to talking about old stories. Eventually, I looked out the window and noticed it had begun to snow, the first wispy flakes of the year.
“Well shit,” Dave said. “Won’t be more than a skiff though. Shouldn’t mess things up too bad, beaver wise.”
“Might even help some, covering up the traps,” I added. “You about ready to hit the hay?” I was tired from the drive over and also wanted to get an early start checking the traps the next day.
“Yeah, I could sleep,” Dave said. He dug a sleeping bag out of the chest for me and threw an extra pillow onto the couch. It was cold in the drafty little cabin and I quickly burrowed into the sleeping bag. Dave loomed overhead with his hand on the string for the room’s single lightbulb.
“Hey, sorry about earlier.”
I looked up from the cocoon of the sleeping bag, confused about whatever slight he was referring to.
“I’m fine, really,” he said. “I just don’t want you thinking I’m some sad sack mess living out here in the woods, pining for a good woman to set me straight or whatever.”
“Thought didn’t even cross my mind,” I said, which, of course, was at least a little bit of a lie. Dave was right; I was a family man, I had settled down into the American dream. For all the simplicity inherent in his setup, I wouldn’t have traded it in a million years for what I had going. Some holier-than-thou part of me must have felt a little sorry for Dave: isolated, loveless. Maybe he sensed it.
“Yeah, okay, good,” Dave said and pulled the string, turning out the lights. I heard the ladder creaking as he crawled up into his loft.
I woke up early the next morning to the smell of coffee. Dave reached over and handed me a steaming cup and I worked an arm out of the sleeping bag to accept it. It was cold in the cabin. I could see a thin layer of frost on the inside of the window.
“Gonna have to get a little space heater soon I guess,” Dave said, his breath visible in the air.
Outside, a thin layer of snow coated the ground and stuck to the tree branches overhead. But you could tell it was going to be a nice day, blue pawing at the corner of the sky, waiting to be released by the rising sun. The snow would likely be gone by nightfall.
We drove back over to the rancher’s land. There was a truck coming down the driveway as we drove up and Dave pulled to the side and rolled down his window. The truck pulled up to us and a window rolled down to reveal a mustachioed man with a thin beard and small, squinty eyes.
“Hey, Ted, how’s it going,” Dave said.
“Getting a slow start this morning. You getting to them beavers?”
“We set the traps last night. Ought to be full by now. I brought in some out-of-state help,” he said, motioning toward me. The rancher nodded.
“Well you just let me know when you’ve got all the sons a bitches, I’ll cut you that check.”
I was still putting on my waders when Dave went barreling down toward the creek, but I caught up with him and told him to slow down, that we wanted to sneak in a little just in case any of the beavers were still active, still considering stepping in one of our traps. It was clear that the pond level had receded a little, flowed out through the break we had made in the dam. The top of the lodge had a little cap of snow like a miniature mountain. But as we stealthily crept up to the pond, I could also see that the first leg trap I’d set was gone, that the wire trailed out into the pond.
“We got one,” I muttered to Dave. We walked down to the set and Dave took off his gloves and reached into the icy water with his bare hands to pull in the wire, at the end of which should have been our beaver. But it seemed stuck on something and after a minute Dave pulled his hands back in, red with the cold. While he blew on them I looked up and over the pond and there, sitting on a log not far from the opposite bank, sat a beaver, his leg in that trap, the wire running into the water below him. Damn thing must have fought like hell to keep from having that trap drag him down, to get up on that log. I tapped Dave on the shoulder and pointed out the beaver.
“You wanted to see a beaver,” I said.
“Holy shit,” Dave said, following my finger. “Is that our beaver? Supposed to be in the trap?”
“He is in the trap. He isn’t going anywhere, that’s for sure.”
We both just stood there for a minute, contemplating what we might do to finish what the beaver had failed to. Then, without saying anything, Dave stepped into the pond. Taking slow, measured steps, he waded out into the water, his eyes trained on that beaver. I considered piping up and asking him what his exact plans were, but something about the skiff of snow, the cold, and his slow, plodding nature led me to feel as if he knew what he was up to, as if the cold air was aiding in the crystallization of a plan.
As Dave waded deeper into the pond the water rose higher against his waders. It threatened to overwhelm them at which point Dave would be pretty screwed, or at least courting some hypothermia. But then he seemed to reach the deepest point, his next few steps heading slightly uphill. All the while that beaver kept a close eye on him. It never so much as shifted, let alone made as if to attempt an escape. Maybe it understood the fragile nature of its predicament, that if it left the log it would drown.
Dave paused and reached out for a long, thick branch floating nearby. He looked over his shoulder at me and I expected him to be sporting a devilish grin like the ones I had seen innumerable times as he pulled the trigger or gutted a deer. But instead he looked uncertain, maybe even timid. I had never before had to goad Dave into the hunt and it unnerved me a little, to see him so ambivalent about the job to be done. I gave him a slight, reassuring nod and he took a deep breath and then, in one smooth motion, he turned around and cracked the beaver across the head with that branch.
The animal fell silently into the water and Dave dropped the branch back into the pond. It felt oddly peaceful, the whole thing, for what a violent act it actually was. With hunting there was always the sound of the gun or the honking and mad flapping of the ducks.
“Damn,” I said quietly.
Dave waded over to where the beaver had gone under and plunged his hands back into the water to untangle the wire. Then he pulled up the beaver. It was a big animal, likely a full grown male, its wet, slicked-back brown pelt running several hues of brown, its webbed feet, one of them firmly clamped in the trap, dripping, its big rudder of a tail dangling down. Then Dave scooped it into his arms and he cradled it as if it were not a pesky rodent he had just knocked into the frigid water, but a newborn babe. Dave held it so its little nose pressed up above his waders against his jacket.
“Careful,” I cautioned. “You might have just stunned in.”
Dave shook his head slightly at this and continued wading in. Above us a tree branch creaked. A crow cawed out and in the distance there was the rumbling of a truck on the road. Dave emerged from the pond, clutching the beaver tight, squeezing the water from its thick fur so that little rivulets ran down the rubber of his waders. When he got to shore he walked right past me, no eye contact, no nothing, just looking down into the beaver’s little eyes. He walked away from the pond up toward the house and his truck, leaving wet footprints in the thinning snow.
A month later he’d send me a hundred dollar check I never cashed and a little toy purse for my daughter that he’d had made out of one of the pelts. He also included a draft of a memoir he was writing, which he said he’d planned on giving me while I was visiting but had been too chickenshit. I’ve been reading it before going to bed and it’s a lot of fun, reading all of his crazy stories.
But that day, after Dave departed with the dead beaver, I continued on checking the other traps and soon enough Dave rejoined me, seeming a little solemn, his eyes cast down, his shoulders slumped. Between that day and the next we got the whole family, but whenever I think back to the trip, all I can think about is the way Dave carried that beaver against his breast like it was his own child, his breath frosty in the air, ripples of water forming around his steps, water trickling over the stacked branches of the dam. I consider the conversation we’d had the night before, when Dave had asked about my family, and I can’t help but wonder if my old partying buddy wasn’t maybe trying to feel something out, to get a sense, in his own, idiosyncratic way, of what it meant to hold something special so close to your heart.