The Heart of a Man
The distant crowing of a rooster pierced the early morning silence. It was soon followed by similar, shrill, grating cry as another barnyard herald joined the fugue of the feathered symphony. Inside the front room of a weathered house, a pile of quilts in the middle of a big, old-fashioned, poster-bed began to unfold, and slowly assumed a more recognizable shape. A few short strands of matted red hair emerged from under the lumpy patchwork. Suddenly a freckled hand swept open the warm cotton nest exposing a sparsely clad body to the filtered chill of the room. Thirteen year old David Reins slowly raised himself into a sitting position, and turned so his legs slid off the edge of the bed, and dangled aimlessly as his mind focused on his surroundings. He glanced through the darkness and his eyes stopped as the luminous dial of the alarm clock came into view. The hands were spread to read .
David knew his mother would object. Just in the last year she had become extremely overprotective. David eased his weight onto his bare feet. His hands kept steady pressure on the rusty bed springs until he was in a position to release them slowly and silently. Everything had been carefully placed so it could be found easily without the use of a light. His faded jeans, and his old checkered flannel shirt were carefully draped on a short bench which stood in front of the dressing table with its three arched-topped mirrors. His worn leather boots were directly beneath the bench. From the top of each boot, a thick wool sock hung like a large worm about to escape a tin can. David was almost ready. All he had left to do was to pick up the canvas hunting coat, and the shotgun that stood by the dusty, old chifforobe next to the door. The coat and the shotgun belonged to his father who died just the year before. The coat was stiff and heavy. The shell slots in each pocket were full, and the vinyl game pouch at the back of the coat still smelled of last year’s hunting successes. David’s arms hung inside the warmth of the sleeves which were several inches too long. He pushed them back in accordion fashion so his hand could grasp the cold, blued-steel barrel of the
Winchester .12 gauge.
David opened the door and stepped outside. His eyes watered, his cheeks burned, and his nostrils ached as he followed the white puffs of his breath through the darkness. A November cold front was moving across the southern countryside. His boots crunched on the gravel in his grandfather’s driveway as he moved toward the gap in the barbed wire fence that opened into the woods. David stopped at the gap. The roosters had stopped crowing. Everything was quiet. It was the silent time near dawn when everything pauses to await the crest of the sun. His heart began to beat faster as he gazed into the dark chasm formed by a large hickory-nut tree and some small pin-oaks whose branches arched over the narrow path that led deep into the swamp of the creek. Things were different; he missed his father’s presence on the trail beside him. David’s numb fingers fumbled in the pocket of his hunting coat as he pried three of the new magnum plastic shells from their slots. He pressed two shells into the magazine, then he moved the slide beneath the barrel all the way back, and with a quick, forward jerk it slid back into position, chambering one of the shells. Even with a loaded gun, David still had trouble getting his feet to move further down the dark pathway.
Soon he heard the gurgling of the creek that signaled his arrival at the prime squirrel hunting area. David moved himself into position beneath one of the decaying, hollow, hardwood trees that lined both sides of the creek. His listened patiently for the tell-tale chatter of the gray squirrel. The darkness faded with the rising of the sun, and David’s surroundings became clearly visible. Suddenly the silence of the swamp was broken by a bedlam of chatter. David’s keen brown eyes turned skyward as they caught a slight movement on a leafless limb of a nearby oak. The fluffy tail of the fat squirrel moved slowly back and forth in a motion similar to that of a metronome, as he barked indignantly at those who had invaded his private play ground during the night. David’s muscles tightened as he slowly raised himself and lifted the heavy shotgun to his shoulder. His thumb caught the exposed hammer and pulled it back into the cocked position with a slight click. He gripped the large gun as tightly as possible, and planted both feet firmly into the spongy soil. His arm extended full length down the dark oil stained stock, and his forefinger stretched to make a slight arch around the trigger. David moved the barrel so that the silver bead at the end was centered on the squirrel’s body. His heart began to pound furiously, his face took on a powdered appearance, and shiny beads of sweat appeared on his brow. His finger nervously began to pressure the trigger. The guttural roar of the shotgun ruptured the early morning serenity of the swamp. David struggled to retain his balance as the barrel spewed forth its contents and arched skyward. His ears rang, his shoulder throbbed, and his nostrils were filled with the strong sulphur smell of burning gun powder. Beneath the tree, David could see a writhing lump of gray fur. He moved quickly toward his prize, pushing aside the underbrush as he went. He stopped and gazed down at the suffering creature in sickening horror. The wounded squirrel’s teeth were bared in pain, and his eyes focused momentarily on the creature that loomed over him. His hind legs moved in quick staccato jerks, and dark red drops of blood oozed from the bristled fur that covered his body. David’s stomach retched, and twisted. He wanted to cry. The squirrel twisted again and stirred the dry, spongy leaves. David knew that the job must be finished. He had seen his father do it dozens of times. He knew the suffering had to be stopped, but now it seemed so brutal. He leaned his gun up against a tree, and extended his trembling hand down, and grasped the warm underside of the squirrel. He could feel the tiny thumping beat of the heart, and see the rise and fall of the miniature chest as it expanded against his fingers. He knew if he was going to do it he couldn’t wait any longer. Carefully he placed the small head on the exposed root of a nearby oak. David’s jaw tightened. There was no time for second thoughts as he raised his boot and slammed it forcefully down causing the oak to resound with a muffled thud. He glanced at the squirrel once more, sighed, put the squirrel in his pouch, shouldered his gun, and headed home.