The Henry Rifle, a short story by jaylevon. Date added: 2009-01-04. Times viewed: 1715.
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- Intro: The price for what a father teaches a son.
- The sun had just risen and the sky was a dull winter gray. Henry watched his breath rise and disappear like tiny wisps of fog. He pretended he was smoking and tried to blow rings like he used to watch daddy do, but it was hard to blow rings with breath. There wasn't enough substance to it. It lacked the volume of real tobacco smoke, but it took his mind off the cold so he kept trying until he grew bored with it.
He turned his attention to the rifle he held in his hands; it was his most prized possession. A Henry repeater his daddy had bought brand, spanking new before the war. The bluing was worn and the stock smelled of his daddy's hands, the sweet mix of wood, sweat, and tobacco. At the place on the stock where your cheekbone would rest as you sighted down the barrel, there were five clumsy notches carved into the wood. Two of the notches were about a half inch long with the other three being about an inch. The shorter two were for injuns and the longer three were for damn Yankees, or at least that's what daddy said, and Henry had no reason to doubt it.
Daddy also claimed to have killed countless Mexicans and more than a few niggers, but they weren't worth cuttin' your gun up for. He said that Henry got his name from that rifle and that he had loved the rifle more than anything in the world until Henry had come along. Loved it more than Henry's momma. He never married the women on account she wasn't worth marrying, just a half used up whore that daddy had the misfortune of knocking up on a wild, drunken night.
Henry didn't remember his momma. She died when he was just learning to walk. It was account of her growing up in Fort Worth and being a town girl not tough enough for the country life, or so his daddy had said anyway. Henry took it as the truth.
It had been just Henry and Daddy until a few months back. Henry woke up one morning to find the cabin cold because the fire had not been fed. He found his daddy in bed as cold and stiff as stone, with blue eyes wide open and staring into nothing. Tears had started to congregate at the corners of Henry's eyes but he quickly stifled them. Daddy didn't like no crying, that was for little girls and titty-baby sissies, and not for men like Henry and Daddy. Even though he wasn't but fourteen years old Henry knew that with Daddy gone he was now a man. There was the cabin, a few chickens, and two goats. All these things had to be looked after and with Daddy gone the job was all Henry's.
Henry didn't really know what to do about Daddy. It was foolishness but the thought of burying Daddy made a hurt well up inside his guts. A lump would swell up inside his throat big enough to choke a bear whenever he thought on it. He did finally close Daddy's eyes but couldn't stand it and had to open them again. After a week or so the smell started. It slowly filled the cabin and made Henry feel as if he could vomit. He knew he had to give daddy a proper burying so he wrapped him in a blanket and secured it with a length of old twine.
It was a struggle for Henry to get Daddy outside but he finally did it. There was no shovel so Henry found a pointed rock and went to digging the grave. Daddy used to say there weren't no dirt in Texas just rock and more rock, and Henry found this to be true. After a hard days labor all he had to show for it was a trench about two foot wide, five feet long, and three foot deep, but Henry was wore smooth so he rolled Daddy into the grave and went to scraping the dirt and stone over the top. It weren't enough to cover so Henry went to collecting rocks to pile atop the shallow grave. He had never seen a grave and was unsure of what one even looked like, but he was proud of his work, and decided that Daddy's grave was a fine one.
That first night some varmint, Henry figured coyotes, had robbed Daddy's grave and made off with his right arm and chewed most of his face. If Henry didn't know better he would never recognize this chewed up mess to be his daddy. He studied for a moment and then retched up the jerky and goat milk he had eaten for breakfast. It took nearly all day but there were finally enough rocks piled up that the heap came almost to Henry's waist.
"Ain't nothing gonna get you now Daddy."
Henry spoke these words out loud. It was the first time he had spoken since Daddy died and it felt good. Loneliness overcame him. He had never been anywhere but this cabin, and never known anyone but his daddy. All he knew of the world was the injun hunting and the war stories that his daddy used to tell. Henry had once asked Daddy about going to a town like the one Momma was from, but Daddy said towns were terrible, stinking shitholes neither fit for man nor beast, God made man to live off the land, that was the only thing them demon injuns were right about, and besides, Daddy couldn't go to town no more on account there were evil men looking to hang him. Daddy said these things and Henry never asked about town again.
The night after the grave robbing Henry decided to watch over Daddy and make sure the coyotes didn't come back for seconds. Some hundred feet from the grave he sat against a tree stump, wrapped in a blanket, with Daddy's rifle laid across his lap. Sometime in the night he had fallen asleep and was awoken by some god-awful racket. In the moonlight he could see the coyotes scrambling at the rocks that covered Daddy's grave. The beasts were growling and snapping at each other as they frantically tried to dig through the piled stone. After his eyes adjusted to the dark, he could see they weren't coyotes at all, but a pack of feral dogs. Fangs and white eyes gleamed in the reflected light of the moon. His heart raged against the confines of the ribcage as he raised the rifle and sighted on the dog closest to him. It had short, wiry black fur with a strip of tan around its muzzle. Half its left ear was missing from some battle past. Hank breathed deeply trying to still his shaking hands, and when he did the big beast sensed him. It turned growling and snarling with a string of drool stretching from its yellowed teeth to the dirt it stood upon.
Henry jerked the trigger and the shot fell short hitting the ground between the dog's two front paws. The sound of the blast was terrible in the night, but the beast never wavered. As the boy was ratcheting another round into the rifle the black hound launched itself at a dead run. It hurled growls and trailed drool as it ran with eyes delirious from rabid hunger. Time seemed to slow as Henry was forced to make a split second decision. Dropping the rifle he pulled his daddy's old bayonet from the rawhide sheath he had tucked in the waistband of his trousers. As the dog hurled itself at the soft meat of Henry's throat he raised the knife. The impact was severe, with the force of it impaling the beast as the bayonet burrowed into its abdomen, killing it instantly.
Boy and beast crashed backward to the hard stony ground. Blood and rancid fluid ran from the beast's wound and drenched the front of Henry's shirt. Fearing an attack from the rest of the pack Henry frantically crawled out from under the dead beast and scrambled for the rifle. Half crazed, he ratcheted the rifle and turned it on the pack. The beasts were slowly advancing on him in an irregular semi-circle. Henry raised the rifle and drew bead on the biggest of them. The pack snarling and growling in unison sounded like a symphony of demons that would make the devil himself proud. It was a stand off. Boy and rifle against beast and fang. Boy drew first blood. After putting a bullet through the biggest dog's skull he quickly worked the rifle and drew on the next in line. The pack looked warily from the boy to the fallen beast. Its back legs still quivering and jerking despite the fact that the back half of its skull was missing. Its brains were strewn about with little bits steaming in the cold night air.
The pack decided it had lost enough and began receding backwards in slow simultaneous steps. Once the beasts had backed into the darkness of the forest Hank could hear them turn and run. Dropping the rifle, he fell to his knees and retched, but nothing came out for he had not had anything to eat on this day. After regaining control of himself he walked to where the first dog had fallen and pulled Daddy's bayonet from its stomach.
Daddy had taught him how to hunt, gut, and clean. Meat is meat, that's what his daddy used to say. Henry pulled the loose fur at the dog's scruff and made a cut long enough for him to slip his hand into. Working the knife with one hand and pulling at the fur with the other, he peeled the hide back far enough to access the long muscled straps that ran along either side of the animal's spine. After cutting out the straps, Henry went through the whole process with the other felled hound. Completing the task, he carried the meat into the cabin and began to stoke a fire. Tonight he would eat from the backs of his enemies.
The next day Henry had whittled branches into stakes nearly as long as he was tall. Using a rock for a hammer, he drove the stakes into the ground at either end of daddy's grave. Cutting the heads from the two hounds, he impaled them on the stakes, and they stood watch over the grave like a pair of decaying sentries. Whether it was the battle that had led to two of their numbers dying, or the rotting spectacle of the sentries, the dog pack never returned. Henry's daddy was allowed to rest in peace.
Henry was fingering the notches on daddy's gun and watching down the hill. After the sunrise is the best time to shoot a deer. That's what Daddy used to say. Henry hadn't killed anything but a fox since the night he fought the dogs. The fox had killed the last of the hens and was about to finish off the rooster when Henry shot it. He cleaned and ate the fox and the gnarled chickens. The fox was better than the dog, but still tough and not too tasty. The chickens tasted of heaven, but with every bite he knew he would have no more eggs, which made the meal bittersweet. He still had the goats for milk, and the creek ran not five hundred feet from the cabin, so there was no shortage of fresh water, but he needed meat.
He was salivating for a taste of venison. If he killed a deer and cured the meat, it would probably be enough to last him through the winter. This was his daddy's favorite spot for deer. It was a hilltop, about a mile from the cabin, with a clearing at the bottom that butted up to a tree line on either side. There was a deer crossing that run through the clearing from tree line to tree line. Daddy had fixed a rifle rest on top of the hill. Fashioned from stone and log it was useful in keeping the rifle steady for the long shot into the clearing. Henry was lying on his belly with the rifle in place on the rest. He eyeballed down the barrel and tried to will a deer to step warily into his sights.
The sun was nearly overhead, and Henry's whole body was aching from holding the same position for so long. It was nearly midday and the deer wouldn't be wondering around. They became more leery and would not grow a little less careful until the sun was leaving, and the moon was rising in its place. Henry was about to give up for the day and go on home with nothing but an empty stomach to show for his efforts when he saw a quick flash of tan along the western tree line. He made slow deliberate movements so as to not attract attention.
The deer here usually ran from east to west, so the rifle rest was pointed more toward the east tree line, and now he had to shift carefully to the west tree line. It was a small maneuver, but whitetails were notoriously jumpy, so movements had to be slow to allow them to blend with the surroundings. He briefly wondered why the deer would have changed directions, but he decided it was a mystery he could ponder on later. Confused deer taste just as good as a deer that knew where it was going he reckoned.
Another teasing flash of tan, and maybe white, flashed among the trees. Daddy had taught him a deer would stand in the tree line, and suss out a situation before ever setting a hoof in a clearing, so you just had to wait them out.
Henry waited. Several minutes passed and he nearly lost hope, thinking maybe the deer had regained its senses and went the other way as nature intended. Suddenly stepping from the tree line was an injun all decked out in buckskin. Hank nearly gasped, but quickly swallowed the sound before it escaped past his teeth. He drew bead on the strange apparition that had seemingly come from thin air like a ghost. Daddy had told him there weren't no dirty injuns around here no more. They'd been hunted and killed so much they ran north to Canada or south to old Mexico. Never trust no mangy injun, they'll tomahawk you in the back, and scalp your head before you even knowed they was there.
Daddy's words and warnings were crashing through his brain. Injuns ain't nothing but the purest evil. It's like satan himself shat them from his big red bunghole. I seen many a town or wagon train after some injun raiding party done swept through. All the men scalped and shot in the back, and all the women and children buggered, and cut up into little pieces. You don't ever hesitate to kill an injun, for if you do they will certainly kill you.
Henry watched the injun through the sights. It was standing at the edge of the clearing with its face upturned toward the sun, too far away for Henry to make out any distinct features, just a bundle of buckskin and fur. Henry couldn't tell if it had a gun, or bow and arrow or what no, but he reckoned no bloodthirsty, murderous injun would go anywhere without some weaponry of some sort.
There was a decision to make. Shoot the injun and hope it's alone, or try to slide out of here unnoticed, and pray the injun doesn't stumble upon the cabin. Daddy made the choice for him. Daddy would kill the savage before it could kill him. Henry tried to relax and suck in a few deep breaths. The smell of his daddy's hands, forever one with the wood and oil scent of the rifle, helped to calm his nerves. It was a long shot and Henry knew he couldn't miss or that injun would surely be gone on the wind and would circle back and find the cabin and scalp him as he slept.
The injun turned and faced north, its back made a broad target. Henry drew bead right in the center, where he reckoned an injun's heart might be. He inhaled deeply, and while exhaling slowly, he squeezed the trigger. A puff of red mist danced from the injun's back as it fell straightforward on its face. Henry worked the rifle and watched for movement, but there was none. A crimson stain was spreading across the injun's buckskins and furs. Henry was wrestling with fear, waiting to see if any more injuns came whooping and hollering into the clearing. Having heard from his daddy the sneaky, treacherous nature of injuns, Henry knew he must be careful, but as he watched and waited minutes seemed disguised as hours.
The sun was well past overhead when Henry decided that no more injuns were coming, but he was now facing another dilemma, what the hell to do with a dead injun. He couldn't just leave it there, or the odiferous nature of decay would surely ruin his daddy's best deer hunting spot. There was no choice, but to drag the injun off somewhere, and try to make it to the cabin before dark.
Every muscle, joint, and ligament screamed in defiance as he slowly stood to his feet. He waited for the blood to fill his limbs before shouldering the rifle, and taking a first timid step. As he walked warily toward it, his eyes never left the injun, and although
He knew he should hurry; he could not bring himself to do it. His daddy used to say that a man has got to get the job done no matter how bad he ain't wanting to, that's just what a man does. The only thing that kept him from turning and running was the thought of Daddy watching him from somewhere beyond.
Stopping short a distance of ten feet or so, he stooped to one knee and studied the dead thing. It lay where it had fallen, on its front with one arm twisted underneath its torso, and the other stretched overhead with hand clutching like it was reaching for something it would never find. The red spot on its back had grown to near a foot in diameter, while blood also leaked from its front, and mixed with the dirt, creating a sort of crimson mud. It had a different scent than he or Daddy, like earth and wood with a hint of sweet milk.
Along with the buckskins, it wore a hood of rabbit fur and moccasins that came nearly to its knees. Long, oily black hair spilt from the back of the hood and rested across its shoulders. With one eye on the tree line, and rifle readied, Henry walked a circle around the fallen savage. A sudden noise, from somewhere amongst the trees, caused Henry to startle, and with rifle raised he studied the thick brush, but could see nothing. The sound came again, like the cry of some animal that Henry had never heard. A faint, high-pitched squeak of a noise that came and went quickly, like the animal's lungs weren't big enough to lend it any strength or volume. Henry knew he had to try and find the source of the noise, for it had occurred to him that the noise sounded almost human.
Weaving and ducking, he made his way into the tree line. The noise came again and he crept in what he thought was the direction of its origin. There was a flash of gray ahead in the brush and Henry dropped to one knee, bringing up the rifle to sight at the same time. Among the shadows and tricks of the forest, he could almost make out a shape. A long ear, and a muzzle sprinkled with white, was it a horse? No. It was a mule that had been tethered to the trunk of a mesquite. Stooping, Henry made his way toward the mule, it paid him no mind as he came along beside it and patted its flank.
"That's a good boy."
To the east of where the mule was tethered, Henry could see the remnants of a campfire, its coals still smoking, and beside it a stick had been forced into the ground with what looked like the hindquarters of a squirrel impaled upon it. Hunger overcame caution, and Henry ran to the meat, devouring it in two bites, and then loudly sucking the taste from its tiny bones. Startled again by the squawking sound, he dropped the bones and raised the rifle, sighting it on a pile of furs that lay on the ground next to the dying fire. From somewhere in that pile of furs, the sound came again. Henry felt a knot well up in his throat, for he was certain the sound was human. Pushing back a layer of the furs with the barrel of the rifle, revealing what Henry already knew. A tiny injun looked at Henry with big, bright eyes and smiled, as if it were happy to see this stranger.
Realization hit Henry as hard as a punch in the guts. Dropping the rifle and all pretense of caution, he ran through the trees and arrived breathless in the clearing. After rolling the dead injun over, his fears were realized. It had too soft of features to be a man, it was a woman, a momma.
He ran his fingers through his greasy hair, and pulled fistfuls of it, hoping the pain would bring clarification. It did not. Realizing he'd left his rifle, he set out to retrieve it. Small, weary steps and slumped shoulders, like he was carrying a weight on his shoulders. The baby was cooing and gurgling, and looking wide-eyed at the world. Henry picked up the rifle from where he had dropped it, and stood looking down upon the innocent thing.
Injuns ain't really human beings, they're devils who've hid themselves in human skin, that's why they're all red. It's the hell seeping through. Daddy's words brought strength, and Henry centered the injuns little skull in the rifle sights. He knew what Daddy would do, kill the devil and save the world from suffering its evil, but as Henry stared into the wide-eyed wonderment, he could see no evil, there was only innocence and joy in those dark eyes. His whole body shook violently as he lowered the rifle, he had never seen a baby of any kind, and wondered how different he had looked as a baby from the creature before him.
Dirty Mexicans, niggers, and injuns are all the same manner of beast, born of satan to kill, steal, and destroy, and to be a scourge and a terror to the God-fearing white man. It's our Christian duty to rid the world of these devil-bastards, and to reclaim the Garden of Eden as the good Lord intended.
Henry didn't allow himself time to think it over anymore. He sighted the rifle and squeezed the trigger. The report echoed through the trees, and was as loud as an earthquake. Due to the close range, and the tiny size of the target, the damage was catastrophic. The bullet had completely erased the infant's face, leaving nothing but jagged strips of flesh, little patches of fine black hair, and shards of bone, brilliantly white against all the red. The brain lay in a pile about two feet away, steaming and gray like discolored animal innards after a fresh kill. Henry retched.
There was a crack of a footstep on a dried out twig, and the sucking sound of wind being forced from lungs. Turning toward the noise, Henry looked into the eyes of an injun man. A pair of dead rabbits hung from the injuns left hand, and in the other was a clutched bow. His chest was heaving as if he had been running, and a light sheen of sweat made his grief-stricken face appear to be shining.
Henry quickly sighted the rifle and squeezed the trigger, but he had forgotten to eject the empty shell, and all the rifle did was make a pathetic click. The click seemed to break something loose in the injun, and it let out an anguished scream that sounded more beast than man. In one movement it dropped the dead rabbits, and reached over its shoulder to retrieve an arrow from the quiver it wore on its back. Henry ran. Desperately, he worked the rifle's lever as he broke from the tree line, and jumping the injun woman's corpse, he sprinted toward the hill.
A searing pain tore at his left thigh, and took his legs out from under him. A tangle of limbs and rifle, he rolled a few feet, and came to a stop at the foot of the hill. The bloody, razor-edged point of the arrow had passed all the way through the meatiest part of his thigh, and the turkey feather fletching protruded behind. The injun was standing over his fallen mate, and readying the bow to send another arrow into the flesh of his enemy. Henry sighted the rifle and fired. The bullet tore through the belly of the bow, and into the injun's abdomen. The ruined bow flew from its hands, and the force of the bullet knocked the injun to the earth, where it rolled a few times before coming to rest in a fetal position with bloody fingers clutching the new wound.
Henry was crying as he made way to his feet, and holding the rifle's barrel, he used the stock of the gun as a crutch, and with great struggle, hobbled up the hill. The injun had forced itself to hands and knees and gave chase. Henry tripped on a stone and landed face down, forcing the arrow back through his thigh. He yelped in pain and rolled to his back, clutching at the arrow's shaft.
A shadow fell and Henry looked up to see the injun standing over him with a bone-handled knife grasped in the bloody fingers of both hands. Henry scrambled for the rifle as the injun raised the knife overhead, and with the force of all that pain that had been thrust upon him, he brought the knife down. The blade buried itself, all the way to its bone handle, into the top of Henry's skull, and Henry ceased to be. His body spasmed and his bowels loosened, and then he was still. The injun pried the boy's dead fingers from the rifle and after pressing it between the boy's eyes he squeezed the trigger.
Henry's features disappeared. A light, red mist filled the air and came to rest upon the injun's face. Dropping the rifle across the boy's chest, he turned and took a step, but lost his footing and rolled down the hill. Again, he found the strength to stand, and staggered across the clearing to where his dead lover lay. Weeping, he carried her in his arms and half walked, half stumbled toward the trees.
He laid her beside the dead fire, and after holding his ruined son, he laid him across her bosom. In terrible pain, he lay beside mother and child, and while gathering
them in his arms, hot tears rolled down his cheeks, cleaning away the dried blood of the boy who had murdered his dream of life. It took six more hours to die from the gut-shot. His wife and child, held tight in his arms.
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