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Running the Line.

Under the single-lane bridge, the shallow water of Brown's Run slides over the rocks and speeds westward toward Edenborn. On a slope of muddy bank in the still gray morning, I pull black rubber gloves up over the sleeves of my Carhartt coat to my shoulders. No sun lifting yet over the bare trunks and branches of the trees on the eastern horizon. No heat to melt the patina of frost from the wind-tilted broomsage in the field above.

I lift my father's wooden Clint Ishman basket up from the bank and its contents--a jar of fish oil, a one-ounce bottle of peppermint oil, a rusty hatchet, two No. 1 1/2 Victor long-spring steel traps, and a plastic grocery bag of sectioned, rotting, windfall apples--rustle and clank. As I step into the water, the loose rubber of my chest waders crushes in, gripping my ankles and shins.

A splash of headlights, and the hum of tires on the grate of the bridge overhead. Rust flecks sift down, settling on my shoulders and the bill of my hat as I reach into the chest pocket of my coat and fish out the index card that depicts a crude map of my father's trapline. A single stripe of blue ink curves up the card's length with thin slashes crossing its contours to indicate fallen trees, beaver dams, the trickle of feeder streams, and other landmarks to help me locate his sets. I trace a gloved finger up the line, counting the Xs that indicate set traps. Thirty-one Xs to find before the line gives out on the white space of the card, before the creek passes my grandmother's farm. I shift the basket higher onto my shoulder and begin walking toward the first.

During my week of Thanksgiving vacation from my junior year of college, I spent six days running my father's trapline. My mother called the house I shared in Pittsburgh to tell me that he was in the hospital. The drugs my father took to suppress his immune system, to prevent rejection of his transplanted kidney, had caused him to develop a hacking cough, and the doctors found two spots in his lungs they suspected were tuberculosis. The doctors were right, and my father was confined to a private room in the Uniontown hospital, keeping him from home and the work required of a full-time trapper.

Since I was seven years old, I had spent time on weekends with my father on his trapline, riding in the truck, holding his trapping basket on my lap as he drove from farm to farm to check his land sets. We walked treelines and ridges and the edges of harvested cornfields in the fall, my father always stopping and pointing to the locations of his traps if I hadn't been present to see him set them. I fought through the briar patches on the banks as he checked his traps in the streams below. Days when he set the traps were longer. I watched him dig pockets or build shelves with the soft mud of the creek bank to bed his traps, watched him cut trenches that transformed narrow muskrat slides into expressways, watched as he stacked rocks and pushed sticks into the soil to help funnel the animals over his traps. I waited as he snipped 12-gauge steel wire and secured his traps to roots or as he doubled the wire over and tied the traps to heavy rocks pulled from the creek bottom to anchor the animal if it struggled. He explained why he chose each location, pointing to droppings on rocks, toenail scratches and tracks pressed in the earth, holes that led under the banks to dens. He explained the importance of properly bedding the traps so they wouldn't shift, flip, or snap without securing a firm leg hold. I fetched items from the basket as he called for them and listened as he explained why he was using different baits for different animals: rotting fish and fish oil for raccoons; pieces of apple and cherry, peppermint, or wintergreen oil for muskrats--something to make them linger at the set a moment, to increase their chances of stepping on the trap pan and triggering the jaws.

By the time I was ten years old, I had the lessons memorized. I often finished my father's sentences, speaking in unison with him as he hammered a trap stake into the rocky soil. "That's right. You got it," he'd say, looking up over his shoulder. Body language and the tone of my voice were the only clues I offered that by this time I had realized I didn't share my father's passion for trapping. I disliked the annual lessons. I disliked receiving trapping gear I never requested each Christmas. I disliked the execution-style shootings, the way my father approached each trapped animal, pistol cocked, using the same high voice he used to talk to our pet cat Annie. "Easy there. Hold still now. Hold it right there."

Still, when my mother called, I agreed to help. I agreed to forfeit a week of vacation to spend each day hiking streams in the freezing weather, killing the animals caught in his traps, skinning and stretching their pelts, and then resting up to repeat the process the following morning. As I drove my old Escort toward the Liberty Tunnels on Saturday, my friends left waving behind me and making their weekend plans, I wondered why I couldn't say no. The early winter sunset at the tunnel's end brought no concrete answers as I merged onto 51 South toward home.

Nine o'clock and still no sun. The gray sky above me threatens snow. I walk slowly up the center of the creek, the push of current against my thighs. Two dead muskrats lay on top of the gear in my basket, adding weight to the strap on my shoulder. I take high steps to avoid tripping over tires and debris that litter the creek bottom. My boot treads slide over large, flat rocks, and I pinwheel my arms to regain balance. The creek bends, and I spot a disturbance on the bank, the earth scratched and glistening with fresh water, the brambles beaten and pushed into wild angles.

A trap chain stretches up into the hollow under an exposed tangle of tree roots at the water's edge. I lean down and peer beneath. Two eyes flicker in the darkness, and I pull the hatchet from my basket, hook the chain, and tug a trapped raccoon from its shelter. It crouches on the creek bank, blackened steel jaws clasping its rear right leg.

I reach inside the front of my waders and unsnap the .22 pistol from the holster on my belt. The raccoon's muzzle curls in a low growl as I level and sight down the short length of barrel. A clap of report, the jolt of recoil in my wrist, and gunsmoke stings my nostrils. The raccoon kicks and thrashes, mud caking its fur as it rolls on the creek bank. It growls for more than a minute and then lies limp at the water's edge. I lift the raccoon's body as I seat the trap on my knee and press down on the springs. The raccoon's trapped leg drops free from the open jaws. I cup a gloved hand and splash water over the thin trails of blood on the muddy bank and reset the trap, pressing it firmly into the gritty shelf of soil, and then lift the raccoon by a hind leg and dip its head into the water. Pink clouds of blood thin to nothing, swept on in the current.

I lower the raccoon's body into the basket and hoist it to my shoulder, moving forward with the added weight. On the index card are thirteen more X's to check, the potential to find and kill thirteen more trapped furbearers. This, to my father, would make it a good day.

My father began trapping at the age of twelve. When he returned home from school, he would put on his hip-boots and walk up the stream behind my grandmother's house to check his small line of eight traps. In a shed that still stands beside the barn on my grandmother's property, he skinned and stretched the pelts he caught. My grandmother now uses the shed to store straw for her dog in the winter. When I pry the door open on its stiff, rusty hinges to fetch a bale, light spears through the dust to show a pattern of holes in the plank wall that once held nails to hang the pelts. A rusted roll of wire rests on the windowsill beneath a heavy layer of dust. My father told me the family was poor then, and he used the money he earned from the sale of his pelts on candy and baseball cards--penny and nickel luxuries he rarely enjoyed in the summer months.

If my father began trapping out of necessity, his desire to trap never waned after he and my grandfather prospered in the coal industry. My father never arrived to work at their surface mining business in the fall and winter until he had checked his trapline. When he operated heavy equipment at the local landfill, he scheduled his two weeks of annual vacation to coincide with the heart of the trapping season: late November, after the furbearers' coats have thickened and primed. Even now, in his late fifties, he delves further into the sport. He removes glands from muskrats and cuts off oil sacs and castors from beavers; he chops pieces of meat from the carcasses to jar and produce his own homemade baits and lures. He keeps a hypodermic needle a friend pilfered from the Uniontown hospital to remove essence from trapped or road-killed skunks, and he has begun ordering springs, pans, S-hooks, and swivels through the mail to customize and modify his old traps, filing down the metal tongues on the trap pans to create hair triggers.

Evening in the trapping shed, a square room built onto the back of my parents' garage. I stand on a layer of old newspapers spread over the concrete floor. A dusty sixty-watt bulb casts light over the fly-specked walls and the pelts of the red and gray foxes, coyotes, raccoons, and muskrats my father had already caught this season. Skinned and stretched, they hang stationary from hooks hammered into the roof trusses. Jars of rancid meat and glands, gallon jugs of fox urine, and one-ounce bottles of skunk essence line the shelves of a dusty metal cabinet. Milk crates of rusty traps are stacked in one corner. Unused stretchers lean next to a sun-bleached cow skull my father found on the line. A small space heater hums near the door, pushing back against the cold seeping underneath.

I lift the dead raccoon to the hooks that hang from the center truss and press the pointed ends up into the padded undersides of the raccoon's back feet. The chain swivels and the dead raccoon spins at chest height, blood still beaded on the fur between its ears, its black lips peeled back and frozen in a final snarl. I run a comb down over its fur and dried mud and burrs patter down over the newspapers and my boot tops.

I reach for the pocketknife resting on the corner of a shell unfold the blade, and then push the raccoon's stiffening striped tail away from its left ankle. The blade passes beneath its hide, and I pause to pull down on the pelt with my free hand, exposing red thigh muscles and glistening patches of cream-colored fat. I keep the knife's edge close to the animal's carcass, leaving a heavy layer of fat on the skin, trying to remember my father's methods, careful to avoid cutting holes in the pelt. When I push the blade too deep, blood runs down the exposed underside of the pelt, landing in heavy, dark drops on the paper below. I cut open the underside of the tail, pulling down on the banded tuft of fur with my left hand and up on the thin, cylindrical vertebrae with my right until the tip tugs free of its casing.

I move slowly, my hands unpracticed. Blood drops speckle the sports pages in various shades and degrees of drying. Within a half hour, the case-skinned pelt lies like a heavy, discarded sock on a clean newspaper beside the fleshing board. I drop the red carcass into a Hefty bag, its black eyes naked and bulbous on each side of the bullet wound. Above the door in a rectangle of window, snowflakes flutter and swirl on wind gusts in the darkness like moths coming to the light. I sit down at the fleshing board and begin to scrape off the layer of fat still clinging to the pelt. I look at the three muskrats still left to skin and wonder if I will be any quicker by week's end. I think of my father watching television in his hospital bed, and I pull the blade faster, leaning back into each stroke.

I've traveled with my father to a number of trapping conventions, state and national, run by the National Trappers Association and Fur Takers of America, taking shifts at the wheel during the long drives. As we walk the county fairgrounds, through metal buildings and past rows of dropped tailgates and tables where dealers peddle traps, parts for traps, lures, gloves, waders, knives and knife sharpeners, hatchets, baskets, bricks of wax, bags of dye, and freeze-proof buckwheat hulls to mix with soil over sets in the winter, I recognize the same faces--every year older, more weathered and gray. My father points out the respected celebrity career trappers from a distance: Charles Dobbins, Pete and Ron Legget, Johnny Thorpe, guys who have written books on their methods and filmed the instructional videos they sell at their tables, and who will perform demonstrations for the crowd in front of rows of bleacher seating. Some of the dealers remember my father and me from previous conventions. They ask my father about his health and if he had a successful season, and my father runs through the figures, breaking down his catch, sometimes exaggerating the totals, sometimes not. They ask if I help my father and if I enjoy trapping. I say I help whenever I can work it around school. The old trappers grin and pat my shoulder and tell me they think it's great that I'm trapping, tell me how computers, television, and video games keep most young people inside these days.

With our home too rural for cable television in the 1980s, my memories of childhood games include baseball and freeze tag, running laps in the backyard in the late summer, my father seated by a black kettle over a small fire in the dried and browning remains of his vegetable garden as he boiled, dyed, and waxed his traps for the coming season. I remember games of hide-and-go-seek, sitting inside the low boughs of the hemlock tree, wired bundles of traps wind-drying in the branches above. I remember standing with my father in his trapping shed as he opened new lures he had purchased, the rancid odor of the dark liquids filling the shed as he held out the bottles. "Smell this one," he'd say. I'd hold my breath and lean closer.

Thanksgiving morning. A half-inch skin of ice over the creek. I push down on its surface, and my gloved hands plunge into the water, breaking a path up the center of the stream. The jagged edges scratch at my thighs as I move up the broken channel. I chance my steps, focusing more on the ice over the water's surface than on the treacherous footing beneath.

Wind slices in at my collar. One dead muskrat lies in the basket on my back, its wet fur freezing in the cold air. Most of the traps are undisturbed; the animals that traveled overnight passed above them on the ice. I peer down to find the dark circles of spread jaws pressed into the mud beneath the cloudy surface.

The creek bottom plunges deeper and the still, pooled water in the channel laps at the suspender hooks at the top of my waders. Ahead, a circle of unfrozen water beside the base of a downed tree. As I approach, a trapped beaver surfaces and slaps water at me with its flat, leathery tail. Drops speckle my cheeks and run down my glasses. I pry a stout, stripped limb from the ice and turn it over in my hands. A short cylinder, it's covered with a scrabble of teeth marks, no trace of bark on its circumference. I raise it overhead and move closer to the downed trunk, waiting for the beaver to surface for a breath. The beaver's head breaks the water and dips back under in a blink, leaving only a pattern of widening circles radiating from the spot of disturbance to the edges of the ice. My footfalls and the beaver's struggles churn sediment from the creek bottom that billows up like smoke in the water.

The teeth-carved totem still overhead, I look left and right over the water. The beaver's nose surfaces and disappears, and I strike down where it had been, sending water up in sheets that pelt my face and splash the creek bank. Three sparrows whir from the bankside brambles to the drier, deeper woods. I brush at my wet cheeks with my shoulders as the cold air stings my flesh, and I think of my family arriving at home for dinner. My sister, both of my grandmothers, my aunt and uncle all seated in the warmth of the living room, awaiting my return from the line. I think of the time I'll need to waste for cleaning up, the late hours tomorrow night in the trapping shed to compensate.

Minutes pass and the beaver surfaces again. I connect with a blow and it rises, stunned, the coarse brown fur of its round back a target above the water. I strike down again, the thud traveling up my forearms past my elbows. Its head now above the water, I strike down again and again. Tendrils of blood stream from the beaver's mouth and nostrils, collecting against the top of my waders. I brace the stick against its back and hold the beaver underwater. As I wait for the muted struggles to subside, I breathe and look down at the murky shape pinned beneath the white stick. "Sorry," I say, my voice little more than a whisper in the wind and the rattle of branches.

Each day of the week of Thanksgiving break, after I had cleaned up and we had finished dinner, my mother and I visited my father at the hospital. We were required to wear pink duck-bill particle masks before entering the room. When we walked in, my father turned down the volume on the television and lay under the bedcovers, his hair greasy and bed-flat. I pulled up a chair, and he asked me about the trapline, what I had caught, what sets had made the catches, if the creek was iced over, how often I rebaited the sets and what I used. When I told him of the fight with the beaver, he responded with the flicker of a smile.

I've never hated the sport of trapping, and I've never hated that my father engages in it, but seated by his bedside, hours removed from the clubbing, I couldn't find humor in my lengthy and difficult killing of the trapped beaver. Since I was young, walking with my father on his trapline, I could never shrug off the sight of brown, severed toes pinched in the closed jaws of a trap, of half-eaten muskrats--captive, stationary prey that met in the night with a mink, dog, or other predator traveling the creek bank. What my father dismissed with a brief curse of disappointment for a missed catch or ruined pelt before resetting the trap and walking upstream lingered as I imagined the animal's fear, its three-legged struggle, or its twisting and chewing at its own foot to achieve disabled freedom.

In agreeing to tend my father's trapline, I accepted a position I've been conditioned for years to fill through observation and my father's guidance. Now I am no longer able to follow three paces behind him. No longer able to turn and stare into the trees until the pistol crack and death spasms have passed. During my first day alone on the line, I realized that I could set off all his traps, that I could make certain I would not have to kill a single animal and remove its pelt until the week ended and I returned to Pittsburgh. If he asked what I was catching, I could tell him nothing. A run of bad luck.

Six full days of hard work, nagging guilt, and regret over the time missed with my friends composed my punishment for choosing to help my father, to tend his trapline as he would. There were no nightmares, no dreams of undead carcasses filing out of the garbage bags as I worked in the trapping shed, mouths slathering and teeth gnashing as they backed me into a corner. And there was no show of gratitude or appreciation to reward me for my choice. My father never shook my hand or thanked me for tending his trapline. And I didn't expect it. He always insisted on helping me pay my tuition, keeping me free of the burden of loans and debt, always worked to provide for his family, always shared with me the things that he knows, despite my lack of interest in learning them. I can't remember thanking him either.

Friday. My last day on the line. New, thin ice covers my broken passage. Angular pieces of shattered ice lay at my sides like shards of glass. The index card stays tucked in my pocket as I rely on memory to lead me to each location. My feet navigate the creek bottom swiftly, with confidence. I know where clay pulls the boots from my feet, where the bottom plunges too deep for my waders.

Through the bare branches and tangles of briars, orange squares of light fill the windows of the houses in Messmore. Cars idle in driveways, windshields defrosting for the trip to work. Thin contrails checker the morning sky overhead, flights carrying their passengers back to work from the holiday, and I think about the drive north to Pittsburgh, the welcome I'll receive from my roommates. They'll ask questions, and I'll tell them stories until their curiosity fades and the ache leaves my right shoulder where the basket has rested for the past six days. I am my father's height and build, his smile and his tenor voice, his thinning hair and glasses. I am a proven trapper, whether I like it or not, until my participation ceases and all spoken and physical reminders fade.

I crunch toward each trap, raise my boot, and step down. The jaws press up, urgent against my boot sole and snap shut on empty water. I leave the traps behind me wired to their rocks or staked to the earth like litter at the water's edge, small black arches of closed jaws above the shallow surface, waiting for my father's release and return to the line.
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Author:Oberlechner, Steve
Publication:Prairie Schooner
Article Type:Literary essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2009
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