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ADELAIDE Independent Bimonthly Literary Magazine / Revista Literária Independente Bimensal, New York / Lisboa, Online Edition  








By Michael Hetherton 




The old man looked out over the sandhills. A cool wind waved the tall grass, pale from fall frost, blue and grey clouds moved across the sky. The sun broke through, lighting the grass, sage, green juniper, and dark chokecherry. A flock of grouse burst loudly from the grass and sage, their wings flashing white and grey, fighting to rise­—then they caught the wind, drifting quickly away in the early morning light.

The old man lay in his warm bed, believing he was there, in the Miller ranch pasture overlooking the grassy sandhills, the birds gliding into the blue horizon. Since they had told him, the old man had felt a monotonous fear at times creeping in at night when sleep wouldn’t come. But he’d slept well this night, and for the first time in months, was without pain. He felt good, and strong—he would hunt today.

Pulling himself up he put on trousers, an old plaid shirt and wool sweater. He ignored the medications lined up on the dresser. In the kitchen he filled the coffee pot and set a pan on the stove. This morning, he will have bacon and eggs and coffee.

With coffee started the old man went to the living room and looked out the front window. Grey clouds moved above the bare treetops in the yard. Copper and red leaves from the apple tree dappled the garden dirt. A picture of his late wife, Betty, hung on the wall above the old box TV. Another photo, of their small family, sat on an end table. Jack, their only child, was just five then, small, and sweet looking, his hair short and slicked-back.

A large poplar in the yard had gone down last winter from heavy snows, the old house and garage badly needed paint, but not much had changed­—he’d lived there going on sixty years, now, since selling off his father’s small farm and going to work for the town. Farming did not provide a decent living then and Betty wanted to be closer to the school, and town facilities, for Jack’s sake.

He took a deep breath, remembering his son as a small boy. He’d not seen Jack, or Jack’s wife Cindy, in almost five years. The last few Christmases he’d not even gotten a card from them.

Betty left him in 1975. It was years after that he realized she’d been unhappy a long time. He’d been blind to it, and had become set and narrow in his ways, silent, and distant. Earl, the town foreman had been calling him old grumpy, for years now.

Eventually, Betty moved in with Frank McGivney, a widower who owned a small oilfield service company. Betty took Jack to live with her and Frank. Jack was thirteen and got along well with Frank’s kids who were near his age; he fit in there, and seemed happy being part of a large family. Jack would visit him at the house once and awhile, but he always seemed excited to go home to the McGivney’s. He watched him play ball in summer, showed up at his school events once and awhile, but did not ever spend much time with his son, or develop much in common with him.

As Jack and the McGivney kids left home, and the oil patch picked up, Betty and Frank did pretty well. They had friends, went out lots, and traveled some. In ’94 Frank sold out the oil service business, they bought a home in Kelowna, and spent winters near Scottsdale. Jack, married to Cindy now, spent most Christmas’s with the McGivney’s. Frank and Betty came back occasionally to visit Frank’s family, attend a town homecoming, an anniversary, or funeral. Betty was happy, he could see. She worked at staying slim, wore nice clothes, and had her hair done a new way every time he saw her. Then she died, suddenly, in ‘98. Her service was at Grace United in town, with a commemorative lunch at the hall. He did not attend the gatherings. He had not seen much of his son Jack, since.

He kept working for the town past retirement age, as much to give himself something to do as anything. Year after year he remained reliable and steady, so Earl was glad to keep him on. The old man had lived alone in the house, now, for over forty years. After the diagnosis, he visited the lawyer Ibrahim. What little he had would go to Jack and Cindy.

He’d not hunted this season, had not been able to. It was a cold, windy fall, with many rainy days. The wind was up again, but he would hunt anyway.

Smelling the coffee he went to the kitchen, poured a cup, took out a few strips of bacon from the fridge and set them in the smoking pan. As the bacon began to crisp-up he cracked two eggs. He put bread in the toaster, and basted the eggs with bacon fat until they went white on top, then buttered the hot toast. He ate, slowly, and sipped the hot coffee in the quiet kitchen. “God damnit, that’s good,” he mumbled to himself.

After breakfast, from a basement cedar closet he took out his brown canvas hunting jacket, worn and faded and blotched with old bloodstains, smelling of sage from sprigs left in the game pockets. He pulled out his Winchester model-12 pump shotgun and a full shell belt; the meat getter, he used to call the gun when Jack was a boy. He took the gear upstairs, struggling a little on the steep steps, put on boots, an old blue neckerchief with white polka dots, and a wool cap, then went out.

The old garage smelled of spilled oil, and dust. On the wall was a mount of a large sandhills mule deer buck he’d killed on the Elkink ranch way back in 1967. He loaded his hunting gear, backed the truck out carefully and let it idle to warm.

He’d tried to stay in contact with Jack over the years, had tried in his way to tell him he loved him, but Jack, though always polite, seldom responded. He missed him—had not ever stopped missing him all these years—a dull aching that faded, but never left. And he still worried about him, though Jack was over fifty, now. On coffee row not so long ago Bill Harder let him know that he’d bumped into Jack in Medicine Hat, where he and Cindy had settled after buying into a tire shop years back. “Your boy looks good. Sounded happy,” Bill told him. He just nodded, unable to say or ask anything.

On the road north through rolling harvested grain fields the old man could see lights from oil well pump jacks and compressor stations dotting the country. There’d been a boom in the Saskatchewan oilfields. He hoped the development would not bother the birds and wildlife.

By the time he turned onto Christopher Road the morning had brightened a little. A big, dry, alkali lake in the shortgrass cattle pastures shone in the distance. Beyond the blue-white alkali, was the Miller pasture; mile after mile of low grassy hills.

Further on the dusty road he passed broke-up rows of old caragana hedges lined out like an abandoned orchard up a grassy slope into the sandhills. He’d hunted these hedgerows back to the 1950’s: sharp-tail grouse, and fast flying Hungarian partridge. A few weathered wooden buildings tilted from the constant wind stood in the grassy fields. Men like his father had broken this land and farmed it—but it was sandy land that drifted badly in dry years and most of them abandoned their farms. His father had stayed, married his mother, and made a go of it.

He pulled in along the caragana rows and drove slowly below the open slope. After a mile or so he turned onto an overgrown car trail. He passed some tangled barbwire; fallen over fence posts, and grey weathered planks once part of the barn, lay scattered in the grass. A few stubby caraganas marked the yard where their small house had stood. The old man stopped the truck, opened the window, and looked out at his old home. Only the rusted shell of a coal burning stove, half buried by drifted dust, and grown over by grass, remained. He always understood it had been for the best, to sell out—but though he’d admitted it to no one, he always deeply regretted letting go his father’s homestead acres with the rest of the farm.

Back on the main road, past the Branson ranch yard he came to the approach into Miller’s east pasture. Over a Texas gate he drove slowly along the sandy trail. Over a gentle rise lay an open valley of sandhills, sage flats, and stands of aspen, many of the trees still with bright yellow leaves dangling on them. Near a long esker of grassy dunes he stopped, looking out over the hunting lands.

When he was little Jack had sometimes come hunting with him. In the field the boy would look at the shot birds, admire and stroke their patterned feathers, but he’d never shown much interest in hunting. He mostly stayed quiet in the truck satisfied just to sleep in the sun shining through the windshield. As Jack got older it became obvious he did not want to hunt, so he stopped asking him to come with him.

In the 60’s and 70’s he’d hunted with locals, for geese in the morning, and “chicken” in the afternoon. Some of the men mixed drinking with hunting and he drifted away from them. Others moved out of the country, some died, many just quit. Eventually he only hunted alone.  He wondered why he hadn’t got a hunting dog, maybe a pair, and trained them for upland? And he could not understand why he failed to connect with his son, or how to change to make it possible. He’d never asked Jack and Cindy why they had not had children of their own. When they were married he remembered tears rising, seeing them so young, a little apprehensive and nervous, but smiling and happy as they looked into each other’s eyes. At the wedding Betty had told him he was a stubborn son-of-a-bitch. On coffee row at the café, not so long ago, Ed Bass told him he was an old stubborn son-of-a-bitch.

The old man opened the truck’s center counsel, took out a small silver flask and shook it. There was a splash of brandy left—he put the flask in the chest pocket of his jacket. He pulled three #6’s from the belt, stepped out of the truck with the shotgun and slid the red and copper shells into the chamber. A year or so after Betty left he indulged, buying a semi-auto Berretta, but then seldom used it, still preferring the feel of the Winchester. His desire to kill birds fell away over the years, he took fewer and fewer. But he still walked the sandhills and fields with the old model 12, the flask, and a small lunch, learning how game birds lived, where they danced fed and roosted, the population ebbing or falling, after good and bad winters. He eventually sold the Beretta to young David Campbell.

He started out, the cool October air smelling of sage, juniper, and damp grass. The wind made his eyes water. He walked slowly toward the long, lumpy string of dunes thickly covered with black-branched chokecherry, bent grass, and green juniper on some slopes. He’d walked that stretch of dunes maybe a hundred times over the years.

The grass in the flats came to his hips, the sagebrush bright and thick there, too. He slowed as he neared the grass dunes, stepping into a brown patch of rosebush as sunlight broke through the streaming clouds. He stood now in the quiet, puffing, using the old shotgun for support, the bright grass waving in the wind around him. The rhythm of his breath, slowly came back to him.

… Then, six grouse broke from the grass, cluck-cluck-cluck, flashing white and grey in the morning sun as they fought to rise. He instinctively raised the shotgun­—then lowered it, and watched the birds gain height and speed as they went with the wind, wildly beating their wings, then gliding, toward the dark horizon clouds. He was a little surprised, having expected only a single or two, thinking most of the birds would be feeding in the grain fields in the morning¾as he relaxed, four more grouse burst from the grass, followed quickly by a single from the nearby sage, then three more lifting loudly, wings flashing, from the chokecherry. A familiar feeling of excitement came, with so many birds rising—and that old lingering worry from thinking that one fall it could all be over, the birds gone forever, began to dissipate—it was always good when he found them again, after a tough winter or wet spring. He always found them again in the fall.

The old man watched the last grouse glide away and then disappear.

He took out the flask, opened it, tipped it to his mouth, swallowed the last of the brandy, and then dropped the flask into the grass. He knew it was over, deep in his heart and bones—the pain was gone, and he was finally calm inside.

Cloud shadows moved across the grass and hills. As he looked out at the sandhills more grouse began to lift now, from all around him, across all the grasslands, singles, small flocks and large, all of them rising, rising, loudly beating their wings; lifting, lifting, filling the air and sky. And they kept rising­—rising, rising, rising, without end.

Early that morning, Earl stopped by the old man’s house. He had not seen him lately, and was worried about him. He knocked at the door, but he did not answer. He slipped into the house, turned on the kitchen light, and yelled his name. The old man still did not answer, so he walked through the quiet rooms. He found him in bed. He had been dead, he thought, for some time.





About the Author:


Michael Hetherton's short story collection, Grasslands, won a Saskatchewan Book Award for best first book, and was runner-up, best short fiction collection, Independent Publisher’s Book Awards. In past years his stories have appeared in Greensboro Review, Grain, South Dakota Review, and many others. He lives in Saskatchewan, Canada.                                                                 











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