Christian awoke at 0400 hours when his father slammed the door on his way out to train the troops for opposition to the worldwide scourge of Communism at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. After that, the boy twisted and turned in an effort to regain the peace of sleep but only succeeded in rolling the sheets uncomfortably around his shins, and by 0600 hours he was watching the flying V formations of geese wondering how many he could bring down at once with his father’s shotgun. He’d slept with the Ka-bar utility blade issued to his Poppy during the great war that was gifted down to him, so he grabbed the unfinished wood sculpture of a golden eagle, which he’d often sighted out his window back home in Montana, and which would eventually take its place amongst the seven finished sculptures of aerial wonders now on his dresser. He put in almost a full two hours of whittle-work on the left wing and was nearly satisfied with it when the phone rang.
“No, M’am; the boy will not be in school today. He’s thrashing around in that bed like a pig with the measle-pox. Don’t believe he’ll be in the rest of this week, neither. Poor boy indeed, Ma’am.”
Upon this dispatch of his worldly duties, he heated up the dregs of venison stew on the gas range, and took the little porcelain bowl of it back to the room his father called the armory for a careful consideration of the day’s hunting gear. He stood in front of the 20-gun cabinet of Amish oak construction and envisioned himself out in the field with each piece from the muzzle-loaded musket that his great-grand pap employed in the dispatch of yankees at Bull Run through the scope-topped Mauser with which he could shatter a Robin’s egg at a thousand yards. He didn’t feel like lugging any of those around all day though and after some time in front of the handgun cabinet, took the Colt Python – with which he never but bullseyed when his dad would take him out on the range – respectfully off the wall.
After an hour’s prep and packing, which included strapping himself up with the mesh game bag vest he often used for family beaver hunts, he stepped out the door on his way to the school. When he got there and peered in the window of his classroom, he found, as expected, Bobby Masterson leaning back in his chair gazing out the window; and with a surprised glance and a lob of instructions scrawled earlier on a half sheet of notebook paper through an open window, they had their powwow at a locked door at the end of a long austere hallway.
“Come on, I need you today.” He lifted up both pant legs revealing handguns in ankle holsters.
“Goddamn. I can’t. Learning Algebra.”
“You mean you’re daydreaming about target practice. Come on, live a little ballerina. Tell Ms. Bellbottoms you’re sick and your mom’s got your medicine. Meet me at the big oak at the crossroads.”
Eleven minutes later, flushed like he’d robbed a bank, that’s exactly what happened. “What do you need me for?” asked Bobby adjusting his tie and rolling up the sleeves of his button down.
“Can’t hunt rabbits in the daytime with one man. We gotta flush them out together. There’s that big warren field past the pecan grove down by the lake. Here -” he unholstered his dad’s detective special and put it in Bobby’s hand.
“I’ve never shot anything before.”
“It’s easy. Just point and click. Gotta learn sometime. Take aim, Masterson.”
“I don’t know. See if you can bag a bird or something. Maybe we’ll get lucky and see some farm cats!” Bobby raised the pistol and aimed it here and there like he’d seen in Westerns.
“Be careful when you shoot, though. It kicks. Not a movie gun.”
“Oh yeah, this is a lotta fun, isn’t it.” He moved the sight swiftly from finch to woodpecker to a Packard convertible parked on the gravel drive of a farmhouse. A little loopy from the gravity of the thing, he speculated, “if I shot straight up, you think it would go up into the stratosphere like a mile and come down and smash our brains in?!”
A little head shake as Christain scanned the landscape for targets, “Well why don’t you try it out then Mr. Curiosity.”
Then a change came over Bobby and dread turned him to a wooden Indian, “We’re gonna get in trouble.”
“For what? We’re just taming nature. Anyhow, the ranchers around here must be shooting coons and porcupines all the time, let alone taking care of a sick cow. Who’s to say we did anything. I just need a little something for stew tonight. My dad will kill me if I don’t have something ready when he gets home.”
They walked on together, past the Bradford place, all the while Bobby sighting enemies in windows, on front lawns, and in back seats. As they neared the pecan grove, he yawned.
“You look like you’re dragging. My dad leaves the house like a whirlwind at 0400, what’s your problem?”
“My parents let me stay up and watch the debate. First ever televised. Historic they said. My dad got drunk and said Kennedy socked that bastard good. ‘The question is’” he copped the Boston accent, “‘Whether the world will move in the direction of freedom or the direction of slavery.’ You watch it?”
“You care who wins?”
“Not much. I don’t like that Kennedy character, though. Sounds like a school teacher. Seems like the kind you lay a trick for. Tie his shoelaces together while he’s working out the value of X in his notebook or something. You care?”
“Not when I got a gun in my hand, man! Can I shoot something?!”
“That’s what I’ve been saying.”
“What should I shoot?!”
“Mmmmmmm. Wish there were some geese. You wanna shoot that stop sign?”
“Nah, no trouble.”
“Blow out a tire.”
“Alright. See if you can hit that scarecrow.”
“Not really. Two hundred fifty yards. Aim for the head.”
He steadied his arm and focused everything down the barrel pulling the trigger and sending his arm wildly over his head and a bullet soaring out toward a distant treeline.
“Knew I shoulda brought a .22 for you, Masterson. Alright, here we are. I’m doing the shooting. Now listen. We walk ten paces together. Stomp hard. It scares them. Then you scan for movement. You see something, you don’t speak, you point. Understand?”
“Good. There’s a thousand rabbits in that field. We’re taking five or more. We can split the meat. Tell your parents we caught ‘em with traps. They don’t know one way or the other. Let’s go – Oh, wait. Isn’t Providence just shining down today!” A flock of wild turkeys were unassumingly waddling across the road. “Alright, it’s live. Game on Masterson, let’s go.” And he darted off in the drainage ditch on the side of the road within convenient striking distance and dropped the bag he’d been carrying, picking through it as his friend caught up.
“That’s a whole lotta bird Masterson. I want ‘em all. Too bad I left the shotgun, but I got an idea.” He held up a pipe with a strip of T-shirt fabric hanging out. “I was saving this for later, but when this goes off, just start shooting. It’s gonna be an earlyThanksgiving.” He struck a match, lighted the end and lobbed it in the path of the turkeys.
“Getcher gun re-” The pipe bomb exploded sending dirt, debris, and birds in a twenty-yard blast radius.
“Shoot!” They emptied their chambers in clouds of powder smoke.
“Reload.” He handed over a leather pouch with rounds. Six or seven maimed turkeys twitched in the ditch. “Those!” He pointed at five turkeys fleeing toward a house. “They weren’t blasted. Less metal to clean out. Aim for the sternum.” They climbed out of the ditch, tongues of fire leaping from each piece. The birds attempted a crippled flight, wounded, losing blood and feathers on the lawn. Three flapped a lone functional wing in desperate scramble as one flew toward a fenced-in backyard.
“Alright, we’re cleaning up after this. Steady and fire.” Chambers were emptied. Two more birds collapsed and a garden gnome’s head exploded in a cloud of smoke and shard.
“Oh shit, Masterson. You’re a cowboy now! Go get that. Then, come on we gotta get outta here, grab these guys with me.”
Three birds in the yard were motionless but one still spasmed, pipe shards draining its life. He stepped on the neck and shot it through the head, leaving a bloody mush of disconnected tissue; “Here, like this.” He loaded the leaking bird into his game vest; “These gonna be heavy. Come on.”
Four in all were heaped into the vest and they ran to inspect the massacre in the ditch, finding only one that wouldn’t be a disaster to clean. “Alright, come on, I’m starving. I got a fire pit down by the lake. We’ll just clean one for lunch. These gobblers are big!”
Despite the load, the thrill of the hunt carried them on wings down to the lake, a quarter mile from any road, and Christian dismounted the whole vest at once, leaving him bare-chested with streaks of blood clotting on his skin. “Feels good, doesn’t it Masterson?! You’re becoming a man! Here, lay one out.”
Christian inspected each bird and laid the largest feet up on a board that doubled as a carving table. Ka-bar blade in hand, he saw his friend wandering down toward the water; “Where you going?!”
“I can’t watch! I got blood on my shirt already!”
“If you’re having some, you’re at least gonna learn how to break down a bird. Come ‘ere, I’ll show you! You have had a Thanksgiving turkey, haven’t you?!”
Bobby made a broad circle and slowly made his way back to the carving; “You take the feet off first; just break the joints like this.” He bent the knees back with a pop and carved through the tendon. “Then the beard. Just get a little under the skin.” The little tuft of hair was laid by the legs. “Then the fan. She comes off real nice and easy. Here -” He handed the fan to Bobby. “Then you find the breastbone.” He knocked on it. “And you make a little incision like this and pull back the skin.” And he continued his incisions until there was half a breast full of meat and two legs that were quickly put into a fry pan and cooked on the fire.
“It’s always best when you catch ‘em yourself. It’s like a spiritual connection. Thank the bird, you know?” he said, turning the meat in the fire. “Hey, you hear something?!”
Branches cracked and dead leaves crunched as they searched for the source of the sound, finally seeing two gray uniforms emerge from the thicket.
“Perfect timing officers! Got a leg on for each of you!”
“Is that Tom’s boy?!” bellowed one uniform.
“Yeah, it’s Christian! Come on down!”
Peter Fernbach teaches creative writing at SUNY Adirondack and is a Ph.D. candidate at SUNY Albany. He is the author of The Blooming Void (BlazeVox Books) and his work has appeared in Identity Theory, English Journal, and Fiction War Magazine.