The Old Man

Friday, August 11, 2017

Journeys

Part 2, continued from the August 4 edition.

“Sounds good to me... and Sam... I appreciate your coming.”

The Old Man took the last swallow of his lemonade and wiped his bushy mustache with the back of his hand.

“Believe me, the sight of them two young’uns running across that field just to give me a hug was worth a week’s work.”

At dawn the next morning, Russ and the Old Man were waiting in a small blind at the edge of the cornfield. They had walked over three hundred yards in the dark to the blind, Russ picking the trails through head-high weeds and rattling corn. The Old Man had forgotten how good Russ was in the woods. Even with the bad leg, he was quieter than most. He talked with his eyes or hands showing the Old Man the obvious rooting sign and damage. They waited in the blind for two hours, without so much as a twitch, until Russ abruptly stood up.

“It’s over,” he announced. “Maybe later today. Let’s get some breakfast before we fix the tractor.”

They worked on the tractor. They worked on the combine. They worked on the farm truck. They worked until their backs hurt, and their hands blistered. Karen would meet them at the barn with lunch. Kary and Kristen brought lemonade and homemade cookies, which they ate with grease blackened hands. They worked until the malfunctions became funny; their painful, bleeding knuckles became laughable.

They continued to hunt the hogs, morning and night, fighting mosquitoes and no-see-um gnats. Sometimes the sign said they just missed the rooting animals in their unpredictable feeding patterns, but through the days they saw trophy bucks and colorful wood ducks, groundhogs and redtailed hawks, fox squirrels and racoons. They smiled with their eyes at these animals they saw from the hog blind.

And finally, on the afternoon of the fourth day, Karen heard the front door swing open with the usual following of fast moving little steps.

“Momma!” Kary yelled. “Daddy said to come quick to the barn with the camera.” She began her usual tugging at her mother’s arm.

“OK! OK! What does he want a camera for?”

“I don’t know, but he’s acting crazy with Uncle Sam and they said to hurry ‘cause it may not last too long.”

The mother and daughter grabbed the Instamatic and hurried down the fence to the barn. And, there in front of the cattle corral they saw an organized line of engine-driven machines. First was the tractor, then the combine, the farm truck, a hay baler, and old ‘48 Willys Jeep, a riding lawn mower, a 2-cycle weed eater, a chain-saw, a push mower, the family car and the Old Man’s truck. The noise was deafening, for all the engines were running smoothly. Russ and the Old Man stood proudly in front of the line. Kristen was perched atop her father’s shoulders.

“Quick!” yelled Russ Shaw, “take a picture! First time in ten years everything’s working!”

Karen was laughing so hard she couldn’t hold the camera still. Kary ran over to the Old Man and they promptly began to dance a waltz.

“What’s wrong?” Russ yelled above the engine noise.

Karen fumbled awkwardly with the camera. She looked up and shrugged.

“Would you believe... no film!”

Russ smiled. Karen smiled back, and the five of them walked arm in arm back to the house.

“Grab the guns, Sam,” Russ instructed as they entered the house. “We’re on a roll.”

The Old Man looked at his watch. “Not much time left, but maybe... just maybe.”

They left the truck as the first crickets began, and the Old Man checked the double-rifle once more as he walked. He thought about the fun and all the years past that Russ had admired it. He remembered selling ten acres of his two-hundred farm to buy three of the fine Westley-Richards doubles from the money troubled banker in 1939. He remembered Sarah threatening to leave him when she found out. He smiled to himself as he carefully stepped over a fallen limb, for any one of the guns would now fetch a price that would buy the best of ten acres of river bottom farm land in the county.

And, suddenly, Russ had stopped in front of him. Motionless, the Old Man listened, but it was his nose that first detected the hogs. It was a strong sweet-sour smell. Then he heard them as well, breaking corn stalks off to his left. Russ turned slowly and motioned with his eyes. They eased toward the wood line, but not until Russ stepped out of sight did the Old Man see the hogs at the edge of the corn. There was a large sow and four 70-pound pigs between the corn and the woods. Eighty yards ahead, they fed toward the corn. Their blackened forms stood out against the deadened stalks.

“Take her,” whispered the Old Man, and Russ slowly raised his .270 Winchester bolt-action rifle.

“Ready?” asked the younger man, and Sam Kenton raised the .30-06.

“Go.”

The .270 fired and the Old Man saw dust fly from the shoulder of the sow. She fell quickly off her short legs, but was up again. The Old Man shot as she stumbled and Russ saw dust fly from her neck. She rolled. Russ picked out a smaller pig. It squealed and fell. Another one crumpled as the Old Man let go the second barrel. Their world became a blur of exploding guns and squealing pigs. The Old Man reloaded and found the shoulder of another quartering away toward the woods. As he shot, the pig rolled sideways kicking in the weeds. And... it was over. Both men stood looking, breathing as if they had just run a marathon.

Russ was suddenly smiling and slapping the Old Man on the back.

“You hear it?”

“Hear what?” asked the Old Man. “I can’t hear nothin’ ‘cept a ringing in my ears.”

“The click,” replied Russ.

“Click, my backside,” said the Old Man. “I’ve got to sit down. I’m too old for this kind of excitement.”

“You’re gonna think I’m crazy, but all my life when things are fixin’ to really go right I hear a click in my head... like a clock.”

“You are crazy, but you sure shot good for a crazy man.”

Russ smiled. “We better call the wildlife officer and the neighbors. There’s two years worth of bacon out there. Let’s go inspect it. C’mon, Sam.”

They walked to the edge of the field, and the Old Man loaded a fresh round in the right barrel. They took another four steps into the field when they heard the corn breaking to their left. The Old Man turned as the boar broke from the last row of corn.

“He’s chargin’!” yelled the Old Man. “Kill him!”

Sam Kenton fired when the boar was thirty feet away and the slug hit high on his back. The hog’s snout dug a trench in the soft ground, but he was up again and the Old Man fired the left barrel. It took the boar in the end of the nose, spattering blood on the big pig’s chest. He slammed against the ground, but his legs kept running, and the Old Man’s fingers searched frantically for more shells in his coat pocket. At five feet he heard the .270 roar. The hog hit the Old Man at the knees, knocking him backwards into the ground. Sam Kenton couldn’t breathe. He batted his eyes and coughed, but he still couldn’t get a breath. He suddenly realized that his face was full of hog hide, blood and rifle stock. Somewhere in his vision he could see Russ pulling on the hog, and finally it all gave way. Air rushed back into his lungs. Russ was kneeling over him.

“Sam! You OK?”

And the Old Man began to laugh.

“Is he dead, for cryin’ out loud?”

“Graveyard dead,” replied the farmer. “He landed smack dab on you, Sam, and I couldn’t get him off.”

“Killed by a corn stealin’ hog. I really thought that’s how I was gonna go... how come you waited so long to shoot?”

“Sorry about that, but in all the excitement from the first time, I forgot to chamber another shell. While you were firin’ away I was bolting the gun. Terribly sorry, Sam. Here, try to sit up.”

The Old Man sat up, but his head felt awfully light. He looked down at his blood-filled lap.

“Are you sure none of that’s mine?”

“Are you kidding?” answered Russ.

“I told you I heard the click. Nothing goes wrong when I hear the click.”

“Oh yeah... well, I heard my own click. Look here,” and the Old Man raised his left hand. His ring finger lay flat against the back of his wrist. “Caught my finger under the rifle when I fell. Broke it cleaner than a whistle.”

“Does it hurt?”

“A’course it hurts! What’d you think, a broke finger feels good... where’d you hit him anyway? I never saw no animal take that much.”

Russ stretched out his broken leg and sat facing the Old Man. “Well, I saw you hit him in the back and then in the nose. Neither of them did any good, so I figured I best try the eye.”

“The eye you say,” laughed the Old Man. “I figured I best try the eye,” he mocked. Sam Kenton glanced sideways at the dead hog beside him and saw a small hole where the left eye used to be. He smiled.

“What kind of click did you say that was?”

Russ Shaw reached in his pocket and pulled out a plug of tobacco.

“Chew?”

“Don’t mind if I do,” said the Old Man.

“Never knew what the click was before you came,” he continued. “But now I know. It’s a safety click, like on that fine old double you shoot. And, it goes off in my head to let the best of me shine through, just when I need it the most. Just like you said the first day on the porch....”

The Old Man spit. “ Which one of us is gonna help the other one up?”

“C’mon, Old Man, let’s gather up our guns and go to the house. I believe I’m a tad tired.”

They shakily got to their feet, and started for the truck.

“Ain’t life wonderful, Sam?”

“Shut up, Russell. There are times for feelin’ happy and there are times for shuttin’ up. So, shut up!”

“You’re getting’ awful cranky in your old age. Say... don’t reckon there’s any more hogs out there in the corn, do you?”

The Old Man’s pace quickened.

“Shut up and keep walkin’. Don’t turn around unless you hear corn shucks a rattlin’.”

Kary and Kristen were sitting on the front porch of the farmhouse. They could hear their father’s laughter a half a mile away, down in the bottom where the hogs used to eat their family’s corn.

Two days later the Old Man left. And when he did, the girls all hugged his neck and cried. When the Old Man was two miles from the farmhouse, he stopped at the wooden bridge. On cue, exactly five minutes after leaving, Kary and Kristen followed the Old Man’s orders. They pulled the Westley-Richards from the closet where Uncle Sam had hidden it, and very carefully carried it into the den where their father was lying outstretched on the sofa. Hearing their footsteps, Russ Shaw opened his eyes.

“Uncle Sam said to give you this,” smiled the younger girl. “He said that this gun was the only treasure you didn’t already have.”

The older sister proudly interrupted. He said that us and momma were the other part of the treasure.”

Karen entered the room as her husband was holding his treasure tightly against his chest. She paused, and cried again for the second time in ten minutes.