The sheep were panicked. Streaming down from the upper pasture, the stampeding thuds of their hooves were accompanied across the sloping back lawn of the farm by the nearby howl of a coy dog. “Shit.” Tim squinted into the setting sunlight trying to get a glimpse of the dog as the flock thundered towards him.
At first the coyotes were just a nuisance to the Eversons, weird cries in the night and shadows moving near the trees on the hill at dusk. Sitting in his lawn chair earlier by the pond, he had to admit that the opportunity to handle a rifle with the intent to actually use it, was far superior to the desk job being dangled in front of him. Now standing, alert and straining his eyes up the hill, the adrenaline coursing in his system only confirmed this.
He fidgeted and swatted at his calf, straining to hear the barks again. The arc of the sun was just starting to drop towards the horizon, and long shadows stretched out across the pasture and pond. The sky was lit up an electric blue, darkening into ebony pockets at the edges visible through the trees. Ripples from the feeding trout pocked the water’s surface as the spooked livestock congregated by the gate waiting for admittance into the paddock. Scanning the hill once more and coming up empty, he rested the gun against his chair leg and hurried over to open the gate. The sheep, nervous and fidgety, queued up and filed through. He watched them filter through to the relative safety of the paddock before slamming the bar shut and making sure it was secure.
As he turned to navigate the twenty yards back to his chair and gun, which stood at ninety degrees and left a thin, long shadow on the dirt, a blurring caught his eye from beyond the pond. It was a second of motion, a blip in the hazy, bug swirled early evening, but it was something. He paused and rubbed his eyes, heavy with a too long day of fence painting and surveillance and fighting, and looked again. For a moment nothing happened. The air buzzed, the shadows lengthened, but nothing moved. Even the fish froze. And then it was there again; a lighter fuzzy gray splotch against the darkening greens and blacks of the tree line moving in and out, heading up to the back pasture.
Racing up to his chair, Tim grabbed the .22 and took off around the sandy beach. He had made the far side of the pond in eight steps at a full sprint and mounted the grassy sloping bank. Ahead of him, the blur had made straight for the upper pastures, sticking close to the trees but avoiding entering the copse to its right. I’ve got it, he thought.
Rounding the slight bend at the crest of the hill, Tim momentarily lost sight of the dog. It must have turned the corner and kept on climbing to the upper reaches of the back pasture. He slowed down and trotted up the hill, breathing hard. It was then that he heard the frantic bleating of one of the sheep and saw in the twilight a young ewe, a straggler, careening down the hill towing what appeared to be a small German shepherd in its wake. The coy dog, now only half a football field away, looked huge. Tim could see its snarling fangs as it approached the terrified sheep, and heard the snapping of its jaws as it closed in. From below, he could hear the sheep screeching in the paddock.
He stopped and raised the gun. His hands trembled as he ran his eye through the scope. In and out of the shadows, the coy dog and the sheep were whirling and spinning across the grass, and he had to keep swiveling the barrel left and then right and left again, always missing a true shot. The pair doubled back and headed for the tree line, and he followed with the barrel of the .22, the dog’s flanks always appearing in the cross hairs for a tantalizing split second only to slip out as the race changed course again.
The ewe, somehow sensing his presence on the darkening lawn, shot right for him. The dog sensed him, too, and came up short, black eyes fixed on the threat before it. Tim swiveled the rifle barrel and stared through the scope, the dog’s heaving chest squarely in the crosshairs. He ran his finger through the trigger loop. Sweat, absent during the chase, returned, dripping down from his forehead onto the barrel. The dog, still panting from the exertion, stood stock-still.
The fifteen seconds that the two locked eyes seemed an eternity, Tim willing his finger to pull the trigger, the dog willing her legs to move. And then, with the mosquitoes silent and the frogs silent and sheep holding their breath, the dog turned and, with one hop, disappeared into the woods.
Tim slid his finger off the trigger but swept the rifle up and down the tree line, straining through the eyepiece to catch another glimpse, before he lowered the barrel. The sounds of the oncoming dusk came rushing back to him, and as he stood he caught sight of a lone turkey vulture lazily circling overhead. The haunting calls of the coy dog could be heard in the deep woods just beyond the farm’s border as he turned to head back down to the frightened ewe. In his head, the clamor was dissipating to a dull roar, leaving the evening to drop around him.
Trudging back to the car once the sheep were secured in the barn, he placed the .22 across the seat and eased back up the driveway and onto Swan Road. Heading down Swan Road’s steep decline, the sunset emblazoning the hill behind him, he pulled over in the driveway of the old Appleby farm and let the car idle while he rubbed at his eyes with one hand, the second clenching and unclenching the steering wheel. Looking up after what seemed like forever, he took in the road’s extreme drop, the hairpin curve, the view of the distant Albany skyline and the surrounding fields spreading out around it were still splashed with late afternoon sunlight. Closer, and down below the driveway, a thick copse of maple trees jutted out and crowded the road, which disappeared down to the right. It was very quiet.
In the grassy ditch that ran parallel to Swan Road, he spotted movement on the side of the curve that ran down past the trees into the valley. In the ditch ahead he saw the furry movement of a woodchuck, only its head, really, as it nibbled on the overgrown weeds. It paused and rose onto its haunches, jaws working furiously, and sniffed at the air. In an instant he grabbed the rifle and slid out of the front seat, leaving the front door open. Bracing himself, he silently raised the .22 and sighted the woodchuck. With no pause he pulled the trigger, the gun’s retort somehow lost in the blood howling again through his ears. The woodchuck flipped, somersaulting twice like some crazy acrobat, arms and legs splayed out as it whirled, and came to a stop in a cloud of dust half on the shoulder of the road. At first, panting, Tim thought he had missed and the critter was running away from him, but when it didn’t move, he lowered the gun and walked on shaky legs towards his kill.
He slowed as he neared the spot where it lay. Tall, stalky weeds hid the woodchuck’s lower half; its torso and head rested on the macadam. A brilliant red semicircle covered the fur below its shoulder; its eyes were open, staring off at the curving slope of Swan Road. When the world returned to him it started small with the droning of the mosquitoes. Then the far cries of the circling birds overhead. Then the stifling closeness of the air and the cloying smell of cut hay. And last, from behind him in the front seat of his car, came the buzzing of his cell phone. He thought for a moment, then decided to let it go. It seemed to him that it buzzed a long time, longer than usual, before ending with the one final tone that signified a voicemail.
He stood over the carcass for a long moment, the gun hanging by his right leg, with the world careening around him. He willed his feet to move, shaking the heaviness out of his sneaker by nudging the woodchuck before he turned back to his car, now draped in shadow. Fully enveloped in the gloaming, he started to trudge back, the promise of the evening looming ahead. Further up Swan Road, the sun’s last brilliant flare slipped below the crown of the hill. It seemed to Tim as if it crested the rim of the world and, once below, left everything behind in the gathering gloom.
# # #
Brian Stumbaugh is a writer and English teacher in upstate New York where he lives with his wife, four daughters, three dogs, two cats, and one demonic goldfish. His work has appeared in the Square Table, Antithesis Common, Stirring: A Literary Collection, Black Denim Lit, and, most recently, Flash Fiction magazine. http://brianstumbaugh.net/