The Old Man

Friday, September 8, 2017

SOLITUDE – Part I

The Old Man repositioned the wool scarf over his nose as the numbing lake wind found the holes in the makeshift cedar blind at the water’s edge. He blinked his eyes against the biting air and purposefully exhaled into the scratchy scarf, sending the warmth of his breath through the woolen fibers that were wrapped protectively around his neck. The results were brief, however, and he began a series of long exhales to prolong the warmth around his face. Instinctively, he slipped his hand from its glove. Without taking his eyes from the sky, his fingers found their way down the quivering back of the dog at his side until in the palm of his left hand he felt the strong pulse of the Lab’s heart. With his aching fingers sandwiched between the leg and chest of the black dog, the Old Man felt an immediate relief from the cold, as if each heartbeat was pumping life into his stiffened hand.

The Lab’s head jerked up and the Old Man heard the wings of the passing mallards overhead; muffled whistles hung like a quick gust of wind and were suddenly gone. Whining softly, the dog followed the ducks with her staring eyes. The Old Man watched the dog... the dog’s face told him. He need not move his head. She cocked her ears, blinked and whined again.

The Old Man smiled, for the ducks had turned. Slowly, he moved his gloved right hand to the jerk string tied to the milk carton under him and tugged lightly. Immediately, he saw the dog’s eyes shift to the now bobbing decoy and quickly return to the sky. The Old Man dropped his right glove to the mud and grasped the wrist of the double gun in his lap, never taking his eyes from the dog’s eyes at his side. The black dog whined once more and shifted her weight from one front leg to the other. The Old Man put his thumb on the safety, until at last her gaze nervously left the ducks and looked square into the Old Man’s eyes. Sam Kenton stood in an easy, swinging motion to face seven mallards with their wings cupped over the decoys. He swung on the closest greenhead as it scrambled to get airborne, and fired. The second barrel swung above another climbing drake, and as he fired again the first mallard hit the water, followed closely, by another splash farther out.

The Lab barked once at the Old Man as she quivered with excitement. He removed the empty shells from the battered old double gun and gently slipped them into his coat pocket.

“Fetch,” he whispered, and the black dog cleared the cut cedars in a single leap.

Jed Johnston stood at the top of the ridge looking into the first slice of the sun, as it rose above a distant ridge to the East. It was the first time since before daylight he had felt any warmth at all. His toes ached in his boots from the cold, and he twitched them up and down in hopes that some feeling would return. He could see the open fields below him that ran half a mile long toward the lake. Five hundred yards to the south at the edge of the field, nestled protectively in the trees, was a camp. From his pack he pulled binoculars, and upon closer inspection he saw a large wall tent with a black stove pipe billowing soft, white smoke. There was an old pick-up truck and a stack of firewood, a crude table and a chair.

The wind rattled some dead oak leaves above him. His arms shivered from the weight of the binoculars, or the cold, and suddenly he was sick inside. It was the quiet, he reckoned, or the wind, or the loneliness, maybe. He watched the camp and its smoke for another five minutes until in the distance he caught movement toward the lake. With the binoculars, he made out a figure on the dirt path leading to the camp. He watched the slow, deliberate walk of the man and the black dog at this side. Quickly, the sick feeling disappeared and he was all right again. Like the thought of going home, the sight of another man made him smile. Without thinking, he slung the rifle on his shoulder, and started down the ridge through the frozen leaves toward the camp below.

The Old Man reached the tent, untied the door flap and stepped inside. The black dog followed, quickly assuming her position by the wood stove. Suddenly, she sneezed, sending a single down-duck feather twirling helplessly over the rising air from the stove. The Old Man sat in a camp hair and warmed his hands over the stove before opening the door and adding a stick of split hickory.

“Hello in the camp!” came a voice from outside the tent. The Lab looked up quizzically from her bed. The Old Man moved to the door and threw back the flap.

“Saw your camp from the ridge,” said the visitor. “Hope you don’t mind... thought I’d come say hello.”

Sam Kenton studied the younger man. He stood tall, much taller than most. He carried a Ruger gun on his shoulder and an army pack on his back. His smile was friendly enough, reckoned the Old Man, and

it was clear that it had been awhile since the stranger had seen anything but the woods.

“Mind?” answered the Old Man. “Don’t mind at all. Would you care for some coffee? Name’s Kenton. Sam Kenton.”

“Jed Johnston, Mr. Kenton. Pleased to meet you,”

Jed took off his Ruger and the pack and rested them against the truck. They shook hands at the door of the tent.

“C’mon in,” said the Old Man. “Take the chill off in here.”

“I’m warning you in advance, Mr. Kenton, I quit smelling myself three days ago which means I’m probable pretty ripe by now.”

The Old Man laughed as he placed a pot of coffee on the stove.

“This ain’t no social banquet, Jed. Don’t fret about such things.”

Jed found a chair and relaxed.

“This is nice. I haven’t been in a wall tent since two years ago in Colorado,”

“Well, I’ll tell you son. If it’s one thing I learned in the high country when I used to chase elk, it’s that those western boys know how to make do in cold weather and a tent with a stove is fine for long hunts.”

Jed smiled. “Yes sir, I agree. I’ve been cold for so long out here I forgot what warm feels like.”

As the new wood caught in the stove sending familiar “pops” in their ears, the Old Man sat again, and began removing the scarred hip boots.

Jed unbuttoned his wool coat. “I heard your shots this morning. This is the first time I’ve hunted in this direction from my camp.” He paused. “It’s funny... I usually hunt alone and try to find a place free of people. I avoid other hunters... but this morning when I heard your shots on the water....”

And the young man stopped talking. He ran his left hand across his growing beard and smiled. “It’s been so long since I talked. I’m afraid I’m not making much sense.”

The Old Man tossed the second hip boot in the corner of the tent and extended his wrinkled, white socks in the direction of the stove. The Labrador took much trouble in getting up, walked two steps and promptly collapsed against the Old Man’s feet. She was sleeping before Sam Kenton could rub her ear with his big toe. He looked up at the stranger who was smiling at the dog. The Old Man noticed that the young man’s eyes were blue, a sharp contrast to his black beard and hair. Sam Kenton smiled.

“How long?” asked the Old Man.

Jed smiled at the dog and then looked up. “This is the fifteenth day.... Is it that obvious?”

“To one who has been there, I suppose it’s fairly plain. Most wouldn’t know. Most haven’t been there. Think about it, Jed. How many hunters would walk half a mile just to say hello to a perfect stranger?”

Jed slowly turned his head as if to soothe a tired muscle in his neck. “It’s crazy, Mr. Kenton. The whole thing’s crazy. I can’t make any sense out of it. The whole year when I’m working, I dream of this... the woods, the sights... the cold... the wildlife... the solitude... the unbelievable peace out her. I can’t wait to get here. And, after three days it ceases to be a hunt... I mean after three days you stop hunting and all of the sudden you’re just living. I continue to hunt, but the urgency to hunt is gone. My priorities change so fast, it seems like I’ve been gone for a year. Does that make any sense?”

The Old Man grabbed two mugs from the camp box as the coffee began perking on the cook stove. The blackened pot rattled, pumping wonderful smelling puffs of steam from its spout. He also retrieved a small mirror from the box and tossed it across the tent to the man facing him.

“Seen yourself lately?” he asked.

Jed tilted the mirror toward himself and sighed. “Funny thing,” he laughed. “I don’t feel that bad.”

“How old are you son?” asked the Old Man.

“Thirty,” replied Jed.

“You look forty.”

“I agree, maybe forty-five,” smiled the young man.

“Does it make sense,” continued the Old Man, “that a man can age ten years in fifteen days?”

“No, sir, it does not to me.”

The Old Man stood and poured the two mugs full of coffee. He handed one to the stranger.