The Old Man
The Old Man noticed a twinge of arthritis in his left knee as he climbed the last step. He paused before opening one of the heavy doors of the county high school and stepped inside. The halls were silent, but he smelled the cafeteria off to his left, and through the double doors to his right, he could hear a single bouncing basketball in the gym. Sam Kenton entered the principal’s office and removed his hat.
“Come on in, Sam,” came a voice from an adjacent office.
“How are you, Arthur?” asked the Old Man as he shook the principal’s hand.
“I’m good, Sam. School’s almost out and I can get down to some serious fishing. June’s a good month for me.”
The Old Man sat down and smiled, “If it weren’t for all the snow you’d of been out by now, I bet.”
The principal loosened his tie. “Yep, it was a terrible winter... I really appreciate you coming by, Sam. I need a favor.”
The Old Man placed his hat on his knee and flicked a grass seed from the crown with his thumb. “All right.”
“Do you know John Russell?”
“Yea... lives way out on Spring Creek. Nice young man, best I remember... kind of quiet.”
“That’s him... well, he’s gotten into a bit of trouble.” Arthur Anderson leaned back in his chair and looked out the window at the heavy green leaves of a nearby oak tree that were moving in the welcomed June breeze.
“Twenty years I’ve been foolin’ with kids and every once in a while you find one that grabs a’hold of you. Every now and then one comes along that’s different... John Russell is different. He’s quiet. He’s neat. He actually studies hard to make good grades. He’s respectful to his teachers and the other students like him, or maybe they just respect him. I don’t know. He’s not one of them... I mean he’s not a member of any social group, but everyone likes him. He’s extremely serious... never laughs much, but always pleasant.”
The Old Man smiled. “He’s also very good in the woods. First time I ever met him, was ‘bout two years ago. We were working the same turkey one morning, neither of us knowing the other was there. After a long time, I finally figured he wasn’t a turkey. He’s very good in the woods.”
Arthur smiled. “I understand that he’s the best. That’s what all the people around here tell me... Anyway, this whole thing started about a week ago. I’ve talked to several students and I think I’ve got the story straight. It started on the football field between classes....
John Russell stared across the silent football field at the four crouched figures under the opposite goal post. He walked slowly down the center of the field. When he was twenty yards away, one of the four looked up and nudged the others. In unison, the other heads turned toward John Russell, who had closed the distance to only ten steps. The four had stood and turned to face the six-foot youth, who now confronted the largest of the group face to face.
“What do you want, plow boy?” spit out the long-haired senior. He stood a full head above John Russell, who almost smiled before talking.
“Your truck was on my farm last night. I know ‘cause I saw it.”
“Maybe... maybe not.”
John Russell never took his eyes from Bubba Black, who had now lighted a cigarette. He blew the smoke directly into John’s eyes.
“I found a doe this morning... shot last night. Shot from your truck. She was carrying a fawn. That fawn would have been born this week.”
“So...,” yelled the smoker. “What are you gonna do about it?”
“Listen to me, Bubba,” whispered John Russell. “Never... never set foot on my farm again. I don’t even want to see your truck around my farm.”
Bubba started to swing, but at the first movement of his shoulder John Russell struck. He drove the heel of his hand into the big boy’s chin in a quick, deliberate motion. All of the front teeth in Bubba’s mouth broke, and he fell into a pile at John Russell’s feet. The other three stood awestruck.
“All of you, never come around me again.”
As he walked away, he heard them coming like a herd of cattle running to the barn. The first one left the ground in an attempt to make a flying tackle. John turned and met the tackler’s shoulder with his knee, breaking his collarbone with a loud “crack.” The others hit John at the same time, knocking him to the ground. As the bell rang inside the school and the classes began, they continued to beat John Russell at the center of the field.
At 1 a.m., Bubba’s truck pulled slowly into the graveled driveway of John Russell’s house. He killed the motor and whispered to the thinner boy next to the window.
“Let’s get the deer... don’t make no noise.”
They got out and dragged the freshly killed deer from the bed of the truck. It bled on the ground as they carried it to the front porch of the house, where they quietly laid it against the front door. After sneaking back to the truck, Bubba grabbed a brick from the seat.
“This ought to wake’em up,” and he heaved the brick through the front window of the house. The breaking glass shattered the silence of the peaceful June night, and the two young men jumped into the truck. Bubba fiddled violently at the steering column.
“Where’s the keys?”
“Hurry up?” yelled the passenger. “Let’s get out of here!”
“Where’s the keys?”
Somewhere from the darkness a set of keys crashed loudly onto the hood of the truck. The two poachers froze, staring at the keys on the other side of the windshield. A whip-poor-will resumed its calling.
Suddenly, almost ghost-like, John Russell was standing at the front of the truck. His left eye was swollen shut, and there was a cut across his nose.
“Well, now what are you gonna do?” he asked in a quiet, but sincere manner. He held a short-barreled pump shotgun in one hand, and as he spoke he gently rested the muzzle across the hood of the truck pointing toward the driver.
Bubba laughed nervously. “Nothin’ John Boy... we ain’t gonna do nothin’. Don’t shoot us, o.k.? John... o.k...? The thin boy began crying out.
“Please, John Russell? Don’t shoot us!”
“Shut up,” John stated flatly, and there was silence again. “Get out... both of you, on that side.” He pointed toward the passenger door. They swiftly slid out the door and stood facing the shirtless young man with the shotgun.
“What did I tell you this morning?” he whispered.
Bubba’s cheek was twitching nervously at the corner of his mouth.
“Uh..., he said... uh... never set foot on your farm....”
“Where’s your feet?” John asked quietly.
Bubba looked down. There were fresh drops of red blood on the toes of his boots.
“Tell me,” John continued, “when I take the time to speak to something as worthless as yourself, do you think I haven’t thought about what I was saying and for what purpose?”
“What?” Bubba smiled.
“Do you think I mean what I say?”
“Yeah... I know you do, John.”
“Good, nodded John. “What’d I say about this truck?”
“You said you didn’t want to see it?”
“Very good, Bubba.” he paused. “You see, every time I see this truck I think of dead does... dead deer on my farm. Deer that I like... that I protect... in order that I can hunt them legally... in season, so that I’ll always have deer around. You see, I eat deer... I have very little money... I eat deer... some people eat beef, others eat pork... I eat deer. You don’t know about needing life, do you?”
Bubba swallowed hard.
“Bury her,” John whispered.
“What?” asked the thin boy.
“Bury her,” John repeated.
“We ain’t got a shovel,” Bubba pleaded.
And John Russell blew the windshield out of the truck with a single blast from the shotgun. He quickly chambered another shell, reached in his pocket, and slid another in the magazine.
Bubba and his partner were already dragging the deer off the porch when the last piece of glass fell to the floorboard of the truck.
“Carry her,” he ordered.
“Where?” they cried.
John stepped back three steps and blew a hole in the radiator. Hot, rubber-smelling water drained noisily to the ground.
“Out here,” he motioned as he refilled his shotgun, “and be gentle with her.”
At 5 a.m. the Sheriff arrived with the County Wildlife Officer. A neighbor down the road had called to report shots fired all night long. What they found was two exhausted young poachers with bleeding hands digging a three-foot grave. They also found the remains of one doe deer and a 1979 Chevrolet pickup truck. John Russell was sitting peacefully on the porch with a shotgun in his lap. They walked slowly around the bullet riddled truck and approached the young man on the porch.” What’s going on here?” asked the Sheriff.
John Russell stood and looked at them through his one good eye.
“It’s a long story, sir.... Could I get you some coffee?”
Arthur Anderson got up from his chair and walked toward the window.
“It’s a crazy thing, Sam. But the heartbreaking part of the story is that through the questioning by the officers, we found out that John is living alone. You know his father was killed in Viet Nam in 1969.”
Arthur Anderson stopped. He turned toward Sam Kenton and smiled. “His mother died six months ago, and John buried her on their farm. He never told anyone. He has no other family. He was afraid that he would be made to leave his home.”
The Old Man sighed. “How did she die?”
“Inoperable cancer... she chose to stay home. She never even entered a hospital.”
The Old Man stood and held his hat with both hands. He looked across the room at this friend.
“Sometimes,” Arthur said, “you meet a kid that tears your heart out.”
“Sometimes,” repeated the Old Man, “a kid can teach us what’s important, because somewhere, somehow they’ve learned how to concentrate on those things in our lives that are the most meaningful to us, but maybe we never took the time to see it in ourselves.”
On Saturday, the Old Man drove slowly down the gravel road toward John Russell’s farm.
To be continued next week....