By William Burtch
Surging flood water pitched a hateful tantrum. Death itself surfed upon its waves. The roiling river currents so feral that the rickety shack on its bank would be gulped like a raw oyster.
An aged hound endured a tethered existence just outside of the shanty. A beast of no papers, a lineage put to no written record. As the flood waters rose, the old hound doggy-paddled in an ever-shrinking circle, dictated by the length of leash yet available. At some approaching moment, the leash, spent of all remaining slack, would pull the dog under.
Inside the dank shanty snored Chet, the lord of the manor, stoned to the Seventh Circle. Chet was a self-styled carver and curer of meats, such as venison, squirrel and woodchuck. And other luckless quarry dropped off by local hunters and poachers. Chet also processed the freshest mammalian carcasses the county roadsides could offer, served up in the soup, stews and chilies that always simmered in the valley. The odd milk cow, succumbed to old age, a revered treat.
Chet was a tanner of animal hides. Raw pelts of indeterminable vermin, tacked to the ceiling to cure, hung like morbid stalactites. The ancient art of taxidermy held particular fascination for Chet. A completed but yet to be retrieved bull moose head stirred in him a modicum of self-love.
But, etched for eternity, there was a confused, almost startled, expression upon the countenance of the moose. Chet hoped his client, Rudy, would still approve of it, in the main. Rudy was the local plumber. Rudy had saved up, overcharging for the occasional stopped-up toilet, for the hunting adventure of a lifetime. To the northernmost regions of Ontario.
Rudy’s lone hunting companion on that excursion was concluded to have become lost, never to be found. His presumed demise opened up suspiciously just enough room in the camper for Rudy’s moose head, which seemed to peer out the RV’s window the duration of the drive back to the States. A VW van full of already sensory distorted occupants was startled right off the road at the sight.
“Rocky, I’ve got some bad news about Bullwinkle,” Chet had said, when Rudy presented him with the severed moose head.
Chet’s cot, a jerry-rigged assemblage of mismatched and patched tire inner tubes, was bound together by butcher twine. A plank of scrap plywood served as a mattress of sorts. A quilted blanket, rotted by rye whiskey sweated from every pore, covered Chet head to toe.
The tire tube bedframe was buoyed, spinning, trapped in the raging whirlpool of rogue river water. The flood consumed the shack’s interior, save for three feet of remaining oxygen between the water surface and the ceiling. Chet and the moose head filled the dwindling airspace. Chet was passed out, like a dozing frog on a lily pad.
Outside the shack, Chet’s hound paddled on, to a state of exhaustion, in a circle shrunk to the circumference of a family-sized pickle jar. The leash was taut, expended. Only the dog’s nose still breeched the surface. In less than a minute the hound would vanish to the depths.
Approaching the end of that minute, a flat-bottomed boat sidled up to the frantic canine, water lapping at its lone remaining nostril yet above the surface. A swift flick of Rudy’s hunting knife severed the death leash. By the collar Rudy hoisted the gasping hide sack full of bones into the boat, where it slumped to an unrecognizable, but still breathing, heap.
Rudy nudged the small droning outboard motor toward the shack, a structure on the verge of succumbing to the whims of the bank-breached river. He reached the lone shack window still above the waterline. Rudy jolted. His prized moose head gazed right back at him. It’s bewildered and alarmed expression, permanently frozen for all of time.
“Jesus Almighty,” Rudy yelled in disgust. “What the jump’n hell, Chet?”
Rudy could make out the blanketed form of Chet, riding on the whirling cot next to the moose head.
Rudy knew he had to act with haste, with an uncharacteristic urgency. He had mere moments. He evaluated the boat’s capacity for the rescue of a mounted moose head, its drunken taxidermist, a geriatric hound dog, and Rudy himself. The small outboard motor was already over-taxed, to the point of belching white smoke. The spatial geometry did not calculate well at all.
A decision loomed.
Ginch Yoder, who had fled his Amish heritage in pursuit of heightened worldly offerings and temptations, never once waivered in his account of what he saw that day. He would pay a hefty toll for the tale he told. He would endure the mockery of his liquor capacity, at best, and his very sanity, at worst. Nutty Ginch he would become.
The rain had been torrential, sure. Visibility limited. Some booze may have been abused. But Nutty Ginch would swear to his grave as to what he had witnessed. A bull moose, in the heart of Ohio. Antlers like the satellite dishes of old. A confusion, even terror, upon its face. Swimming right down the middle of that raging river. Perched on the moose’s back, waving to Nutty Ginch, sat Rudy the Plumber.
Situated behind Rudy, an old hound dog. Grinning, wagging its tail to beat the band.
About the Author: William Burtch has been a finalist for the American Fiction Short Story Award, appearing in American Fiction Volume 17 (New Rivers Press). Recent work has been published in Great Lakes Review, Gone Lawn, Barren Magazine, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Riverbed Review and others. He tweets at @WilliamBurtch2. More at williamburtch.com