George Piper lives in the small town of Hammonton, New Jersey, and loves to read and write whenever he has free time. He favours writing horror, especially the kind with a psychological twist, and dreams of one day having one of his stories in an anthology with his childhood icon, Stephen King. So far, his works have appeared in such ezines as Red Asylum and Deadman’s Tome, and he has an upcoming story appearing in Abandoned Towers Magazine.
by George Piper
Nathan Lassiter walked along the makeshift trail that brought him back home. In one hand, he clutched the barrel of his trusted long rifle, while in the other he swung his kill from side to side. It was a sweltering hot day, and, despite Nathan’s best efforts to keep the flies away from the festering rabbit carcass, quite a few of them had latched onto the mottled fur. As he approached the cabin, he could discern the high-pitched squeals of his daughter’s relentless crying. With a loud smack, he struck the rabbit against the side of the small house to disperse the aerial scavengers and opened the door.
‘Is she all right?’ Nathan asked wearily, stepping onto the packed dirt floor of the one and only room. His wife, Evelyn, and their young son, Elijah, were hovered over the bassinet he had made for Hannah.
‘She’s teething, dear,’ Evelyn answered, removing her finger from the wailing infant’s swollen gums and straightening up. She placed the lid over the wooden jar she held and turned to face him. ‘Honey will ease the pain, but she’s nearing the worst of it now. In another day or two, they should start poking through.’
Evelyn looked at her husband’s catch as the piercing howls toned down to a soft whimpering. She frowned at the emaciated remains of the rabbit. ‘Is that all you could get?’
Nathan sighed. ‘Yes, and I felt fortunate to find it. Nearly three hours out there and this is all that I managed to track down. I don’t understand; it’s like something just spooked all of the game away.’
Evelyn nodded, grabbing the animal and laying it on the table. ‘It doesn’t have much meat to it. I’ll have to make a stew using some of the corn and potatoes from the garden.’ She began the task of stripping the hide from the taut flesh of the rabbit, knowing the fur would make an adequate blanket for Hannah once it was steamed out.
‘Hi, Dad,’ Elijah said as he approached his father.
Nathan smiled at his boy’s wide blue eyes and mop of brown hair, hiding the dismay he felt at the haggard appearance of his linsey-woolsey clothes that Evelyn had stitched time and again in a struggling effort to cover the youngster’s sprouting frame. ‘Hello, son. Did you do anymore exploring today?’
Elijah shrugged, standing attentively as he answered. ‘No, not really. I’ve been too busy watching over my baby sister, just like you told me.’
‘And he’s done a wonderful job at it, too,’ Evelyn chimed, parcelling the meat from the miniature bones of their dinner.
‘I knew I could count on you, boy,’ Nathan proudly stated, clamping his free hand, the one that wasn’t still holding the rifle, on his son’s shoulder.
‘Nathan, I’ll need water from the creek,’ Evelyn said, handing him the iron kettle.
‘Right away, dear,’ he remarked as he turned to leave.
‘Dad, can I go with you?’ Elijah asked.
Nathan furtively glanced toward his wife, who gestured that it was fine with her. ‘Sure, partner,’ he boasted, opening the door and allowing his son to pass before following him back out into the wilderness.
For a long while, the pair walked side by side down the hill in silence. ‘Is Hannah going to be okay?’ Elijah finally spoke.
‘She’s going to be just fine,’ Nathan replied. ‘You went through the same thing at her age.’
‘I’m always going to protect her, no matter what,’ Elijah professed.
Nathan saw the determination in his eyes, and knew that he meant it. ‘I know you will,’ he said.
Their conversations were never very long; Elijah had trouble conjuring up topics from his naïve experience that would interest his father. For his part, Nathan concerned himself primarily with the day-to-day chores that enabled his family to survive. They were within an earshot of the creek’s babbling water when Elijah suddenly asked, ‘Dad, when do you think I’ll be old enough to learn how to shoot?’
Nathan instinctively settled his gaze on the long rifle he always carried with him on any excursion through the woods. It was essential for not only hunting, but protection as well. It was also about time he showed his son how to use it.
He set the kettle on the ground and handed the weapon to Elijah, just as his father had once handed it to him. The boy took it with shaking hands and an awestruck expression. Nathan perched on one knee so he could face him directly. ‘The first thing you have to remember, Elijah, is that this gun is very old. It’s called a flintlock rifle. Nowadays, they have something called percussion rifles, with a caplock that ignites the gunpowder. You may have one someday, but you can be sure that this gun will be yours when I no longer have the need for it, and if you take care of it, as I have, it will be no less effective than one of those newer rifles. Do you understand?’
Elijah nodded, listening closely to every word.
‘All right, this—’ Nathan continued, pointing to the curly maple stock of the rifle with its metal butt plate, ‘is the part that goes against your shoulder when you squeeze the trigger. You’ll notice the raised section, here, that supports your cheek.’
With his father’s aid, Elijah raised the long rifle to the proper position, barely able to heft its weight. He curled one of his digits around the trigger. ‘Can I fire it, Dad?’
Nathan smiled at him. ‘It might help if we loaded it first.’
The boy lowered the weapon to his waist while Nathan slid the strap holding his powder horn off his arm. He gingerly removed the wooden stopper from the tapered end, tilting it sideways so that none of the black powder would seep out.
‘This is gunpowder,’ Nathan said. ‘You want to try to never let it get wet. Lower the stock of the rifle to the ground and hold the barrel with one hand.’
Elijah did as he was told, taking the powder horn from his father. He began to lift it to the top of the barrel, then stopped, looking at Nathan questioningly.
‘Go ahead and pour it in,’ he allowed.
Elijah carefully emptied the contents of the horn into the barrel. Nathan retrieved it from him when he was done and rummaged around in the leather pouch that was fastened to his belt. He pinched the ball ammo between his fingers and showed it to his son.
‘This is your bullet. They come in many different sizes, or calibres. I use forty calibre.’ Nathan tore a piece of patch material from what he had left in the pouch and held it up next to the ammo. ‘When this rifle was new, the bore, or where the bullet goes in, was also sized at forty calibre. Through the years, as it’s been fired more and more, the bullets have eaten away at the inside of the bore and made it larger. Now, to make sure the ammo fits properly, I wad it up in this first.’
Elijah grabbed the bullet, rolling it between his thumb and pointer finger before surrounding it with the material. He shoved it into the barrel as far as his outstretched finger would allow. Nathan watched, impressed that his son knew to remove the packing stick from its place beneath the barrel without being told. Keeping a wary eye on his father, in case he did anything wrong, he slowly manoeuvred it down the length of the long barrel and began to tug it back upward. Nathan gently put a halting hand on his elbow.
‘Push it down again, son. A little bit harder this time. You want to make sure that the gunpowder is tampered down properly, or the rifle could misfire.’ Elijah obeyed, making sure to replace the packing stick in its notch afterwards.
‘All right, very good,’ Nathan said. ‘Now bend down on one knee, like I’m doing, and hold the rifle level over your other leg.’ He presented the powder horn once more to his son. ‘Do you see that little open groove right where the barrel starts?’
‘Yes,’ Elijah answered.
‘Tap whatever gunpowder is remaining in there,’ Nathan ordered.
Elijah upended the horn. A few particles of fine powder drifted downward into the groove like flakes of black snow. ‘That’s it,’ he stated, slapping the blunt end of the horn repetitively while pumping it up and down a few times.
Elijah smiled, a dawning sense of apprehension crossing his features. ‘Can I fire it now, Dad?’
‘Shortly, Elijah,’ Nathan softly responded. ‘What do you say we give you a target to hit first?’
The boy shrugged his shoulders, waiting impatiently while his father strode toward a nearby tree. Nathan removed his pocketknife from his pouch and carved a rough circle on the surface of the bark. He rejoined his son and led him a short distance back along the path they had already taken.
‘All right,’ Nathan proclaimed, ‘I believe that’s just about eighty yards or so. An adequate start for a beginner. When you have more experience under your belt, you’ll be able to shoot something three times as far. Just relax, and fire only when you feel ready.’
Elijah raised the long rifle, trying his best to steady the wavering barrel at his father’s circle. He took a deep breath, and revolved the hammer toward him until it clicked. Closing one of his eyes while squinting the other, he rested a sweaty finger on the trigger. An eternity of three seconds passed before he found the strength to depress it.
The barrel slanted at a crazy angle as Elijah was forcefully thrown backward. He landed on his side amid the dirt and scattered leaves, while the bullet soared into the heavens, coming nowhere close to its intended target. Nathan suppressed a laugh and bent down to help him brush off his clothes.
‘Didn’t do so good, did I, Dad?’ Elijah wondered.
‘You’ll get better,’ Nathan said, tussling his son’s dishevelled hair with a quick swipe of his hand. He met his eyes with a stern look. ‘Not one word of this to your mother. Let’s get that water before she blasts both of us.’