The Old Man

Friday, August 4, 2017


The Old Man eased the truck into second gear and took his foot off the squeaking brake, letting the lower gear slow his speed down the long hill to the narrow, wooden bridge below. A large piece of creek gravel popped from the left front tire and bounced across the first two boards of the bridge before falling 15 feet to the swirling water of the creek. The truck rolled slowly to the center of the bridge before stopping completely. The Old Man let the engine idle briefly before pushing the truck door open. Swinging his legs sideways, he rested his boots on the rocker panel, his elbows on his knees, and his whiskered chin in his hands.

For two hours, he had heard nothing but the engine of his truck. And now, resting comfortably on the bridge, the Old Man found comfort in the quiet sounds of the creek. A lone drake wood duck got up a hundred yards downstream and the Old Man just caught a glimpse of him as the little duck quartered away through the trees to the south. Finding the pouch of chewing tobacco in his coat pocket, the Old Man prepared a chew. He flicked a blackened stem from his mouth to the moving water below, and immediately three large sunfish converged on the worm-like stem, each having its turn to attack, taste and spit out. The Old Man chuckled, “Ain’t it fittin’ to eat, little fellers?” And, as if hearing the Old Man speak, the larger fish attacked the tobacco stem again. This time devouring it and quickly retreating back to the sunken log at the bank’s edge. The Old Man smiled as he swung back under the wheel. “Greed is a funny thing,” he whispered. The truck’s engine caught right off, and he nodded approvingly as the tires once again hit gravel on the other side of the bridge.

Two miles to the East, Russ Shaw lay outstretched on his sofa, listening sleepily to the healing music of his wife’s piano. She played with a delicate confidence; her long, auburn hair bouncing gently with the occasional staccatos. He closed his eyes as she began singing and on his face he felt the cooling breeze through the screened door across the room. Her voice was clear but not too loud, and their sleeping child never stirred in the massive chair by the fireplace.

“There’s a ring around the moon tonight

And a chill in the air

And a fire in the stars that hang so near.

There’s a sound in the wind that blows

Through the wild mountain holds

Like the sighs of a thousand crying souls.”

Karen Shaw was perhaps her happiest while playing for her family. She was not the type to sing for just anyone. As long as she could remember, shyness was a part of her character. She had tried to overcome it many years past, but had finally given up, accepting the reality that only those she felt comfortable with really enjoyed her playing anyway... or so she told herself. At any rate, Russ enjoyed it and so did the kids. She remembered the times when her husband would walk through the front door after working tirelessly all day on the farm, requesting nothing to soothe his pains but for her to play Dan Fogelburg on the piano; no supper, no shower, no drink... just Fogelburg music on the piano. And, what was so amusing to her was the Russ was not a music buff at all. He required no stereo at home, or radio when he worked, but somewhere in his past had fallen obsessed with the writing of this man, whom no one else even seemed to know.

“There’s a time when the traveler is fated to find Rushing headlong through the crashing of the days

We run on and on, without a backwards glance.”

That insight has turned his gaze behind.

In the steps taken yesterday

Will beckon again

And lead to his weary journey’s end.

And in the passage

From the cradle to the grave

We are born madly dancing

Rushing headlong through the crashing of the days

We run on and on, without a backwards glance.”

The front door slammed shut as a tanned eight-year old girl came shrieking across the room.

“Daddy! Daddy! Come quick.” She grabbed her father’s arm and pulled. Kristen Shaw woke up abruptly in the chair by the fireplace. Her hair was tossed madly about her head and she rubbed her eyes as she spoke.

“What’s wrong Kary?”

“A coyote is chasing my old goose at the pond. That’s what’s wrong. Please Daddy, get your gun and come kill that old coyote!”

Russ Shaw caught his wife’s eyes over the top of Kary’s head. “Well, I’ll tell ya’ little girl. If I can get to the front porch with this here broken ankle before that coyote steals your goose, we’ll teach him to leave our geese alone. Let me get Old Betsy.”

He hobbled toward the gun cabinet, and had just retrieved a scarred stocked .270 when they heard the shot. Filing onto the front porch, they saw the Old Man stretched across the hood of his truck some hundred yards down the graveled lane.

“Sam Kenton,” Russ said. “Hey Kary! Uncle Sam took care of that goose stealin’ coyote for you.”

The two girls were off the porch in a flash, running across the yard to the Old Man at the truck.

“Uncle Sam! Did you get him?”

Sam Kenton unloaded the rifle and laid it back in the rack behind his seat, just before being overrun by the two scarred-kneed girls. They tried to talk, but were too out of breath.

“Did you...”

“... get him?” they joined in.

The Old Man grabbed them up in each arm and kissed each one on the cheek.

“Why, I shot at him didn’t I?” he laughed.

“You sure did,” yelled Kristen.

“Where’s my goose? Kary asked.

The Old Man planted the girls in the back of his truck. “He’s out there on the pond. See him out there?”

The girls looked across the fiEled to the pond.

Kary laughed. “He ain’t got any tail feathers left.”

The Old Man chuckled. “No, young lady, he hasn’t any tail feathers left.”

“Yea,” corrected Kristen. ‘talk right Kary... ”ain’t” ain’t no word.”

“Well,” shrugged the older sister, “all I know is he sure looks funny without his tail feathers.”

“That he does,” said the Old Man, “but he’ll grow’em back. You wait and see. Now, y’all sit down so you don’t fall out and we’ll ride up to the house.”

At the house, Russ Shaw was waiting in the rocker on the porch. The Old Man smiled as he climbed the steps. “If you don’t look a mess! How long you been wearin’ that thing?”

Russ looked at the dirty, shattered cast on his left leg. “Oh, about five weeks now... feels like five years. How you been, Sam?”

“Tolerable,” replied the Old Man. “I can’t complain.” Karen bounced open the door with her hip and emerged with a tray of lemonade. “Hello Sam Kenton,” she smiled. “You’ve stayed gone way too long. How ‘bout some lemonade?”

The Old Man grabbed a glass as he spoke.

“Doggone, you get prettier every time I see you. When are you gonna start aging?”

“Never,” she said. “Russ forbids it.”

“Well,” sighed the Old Man as he took a seat on the porch swing. “I wish he would have cast his spell on me. I believe I’m past old . . getting’ on into the ancient category.”

“You don’t shoot too bad for an old man,” laughed Russ Shaw. “Least ways that’s what a goose-catching coyote told me right before he passed on.”

The Old Man sipped his lemonade.

“My eyes have held out better’n the rest of me.”

“How long can you stay, Sam?” asked Katen. “It’s been so long since we had a good visit.”

“Well, I heard tell that a wild hog curse fell on this farm. Reckon I’ll stay ‘til it goes away.”

Russ looked wide-eyed at the Old Man. “How’d you hear about....” and then he turned toward his wife. “Did you call him?”

“Guilty,” Karen smiled. “I’m tired of you limpin’ around here trying to farm 400 acres with a broken ankle, and hunt those hogs at the same time. You can’t work the farm for worrying about hogs in your corn. You can’t fix the tractor or the combine to harvest the corn until the hogs are gone. You can’t hunt the hogs properly for feeling guilty about not working the farm. I’m tired of this vicious circle.”

Russ sighed. “I didn’t know my dilema was so obvious.”

“After ten years of marriage everything you feel is obvious, my dear.” She kissed his head on her way back into the house.

The swing chain squeaked as the Old Man leaned back, letting his boot heels scoot across the painted boards of the floor.

“How’d you break it?” asked the Old Man.

Russ looked down at the battered case. “I was trying to get an 800 pound steer in the de-horning shute to treat it for pink eye and he didn’t particularly want to go. You know how it is, Sam... you run it for an hour and every time you zig, he zags, and you get mad and he gets good at makin’ you madder. Anyway, I finally got a rope on him and while Karen was pulling, I was pushing. He got me cornered in the corral and stepped on my ankle. Broke it clean.”

The Old Man winced. “I’ve had horses step on me before and then you can’t get’em off.”

“Well, this one got off my ankle. Karen heard me beatin’ on him and when she saw my leg layin’ all crooked like... she grabbed the pistol and put one in his ear. I’d imagine we’ll be eating a piece of him tonight.”

The Old Man laughed out loud. “She’s somethin’, I’ll tell ya.”

“Yea, she is.”

“All of your girls are something, as a matter of fact. You’re a lucky man, Russ Shaw. Not many have what you’ve got here.”

Russ smiled. “You know, Sam, it takes all we’ve got to get by. It takes it all. If it wasn’t for my family, I’d of given up a long time ago.”

The Old Man sighed. “There ain’t no give-up in you Russ. There never has been.”

The younger man picked up his casted leg and propped it on the porch rail. “I’m not complaining, Sam. I’m the luckiest man I know, ‘cause what’s important... what counts in the long haul, I’ve got. But, when you’ve got the loyalty that this family shows, you expect fate to deal you some decent cards every once in a while. I’m tired of this constant struggle to make this farm work. I’m tired of not taking my family on a decent vacation, or a million other things they deserve, but we never have the time or money.” He paused. “I’m tired of hogs in my corn.”

Swirling the melting ice cubes in his glass, the Old Man pondered on what to say.

“I had me a friend once, Russ. He was one of the most intelligent men I ever knew. And, a hard worker too... but for twenty years he was faced with one problem after another. He did nothing wrong, that I could see, but nothing seemed to go right. Just fate, I reckon. Anyway, I learned a lot from that man, ‘cause he had an interesting outlook on life. He reckoned that the most pitiful man on earth was one that was never tested. The total worth of a man was his ability to withstand hard times and maintain his love of life. In order to do that, he said, you have to change your outlook on what is right... what is success. Success to him was the maintenance of his character through difficult times.” The Old Man briefly stopped. “You follow me, Russ... I thought nothing was going right for that man and his family... but everything was right, because he, more than any man I ever knew, had come to grips with his own character... his own principles... his own priorities. He and his family were honorable people, who defined the word success in their lives.”

Russ smiled. “Was he any good at fixin’ tractors or killin’ wild hogs, ‘cause I could use a man like that.”

“Tomorrow,” said the Old Man, “we’re gonna fix that tractor and those hogs, and... we’re gonna have a good time doing it.”