Article originally published at Sporting Classics Daily
The hank of jute rope Jed had hung from the barn rafter swung limp and cold and bristly, and never knew the weight of a buck that year. With Christmas two weeks gone, the prospects were bleak. Nothing of promise showed on the horizon. It was the hard time of year again, the one Jed had avoided considering while sitting on stumps through the dregs of deer season. He’d held out hope, which warmed him barely at all, though he let that slip too when the skies clamped shut and drooped, and the tracking snow never came.
With January established, and the bleak midwinter living up to its name, he slept later than normal. There was no reason to be in the woods by sunup, and no other job that seemed worthy of his early morning presence.
On Saturday, Jed leaned against the window with his coffee, and watched the overdue snowfall. He pressed his nose to the pane and leaned the weight of his forehead on the muntin. The glass under his nose bloomed with fog. He reached with a shirtsleeve and wiped it clear, and kept watching.
The snow was arriving too late and not kindly; it was the hard, windblown stuff that stung bare cheeks and sharpened the world instead of softening it, making outside chores a burden. Drifts gathered against the barn and nearly touched the cow shed windows, but the dooryard remained mostly bare. A crust of dead grass and matted leaves and ice showed in patches, disappeared beneath the swirling flakes and surfaced again.
Jed sighed and plopped into a chair beside the woodstove. It was not yet noon. He considered a slug of whiskey in the coffee. Time, taking its time, wallowed Jed in the depth of the season.
His wife Polly showed no mercy.
“Jeezum, Jed, you’ve got that hangdog look so bad it’s almost sinful. Go do something . . . put some plastic over the upstairs windows, or split some kindling, or re-fill the woodshed at least.”
Her Yankee pragmatism irritated him, particularly when it held some truth.
“Or take Sleeper for a run. He’s moping around, looking bored just like you. Go over to Moore’s and run him through the fields. The exercise’ll do you both some good, and I won’t have to catch my death of gloominess from either one of you.”
She returned to her bread dough, and smiled at it. “And that’s not just a suggestion . . .”
Jed didn’t answer. He swirled the last swallow of coffee in his mug, tossed it into the stove and examined the grounds. He was disappointed that the black smear at the bottom of the mug bore no indication of how to improve his mood. He walked to the closet and got his plaid jacket, the check cord and some woolen mittens. He thumped up the stairs and padded down the hall to the room he and Polly shared. The door was just barely ajar. He pushed it open, and slipped in.
The baby was sprawled on her belly on a sheepskin, nursing on nothing at all. She was the picture of contentment, working away on the memory of wonderful things. Her nose whistled soft and high with her breathing. Jed envied her. He bent over, kissed her hair and went to his closet. He took his wool pants from the top shelf, shook them loose and pulled them on, tucking the cuffs into his socks. He walked softly back to the door and looked at the little girl sleeping. Her little lips puckered and sucked, and he couldn’t help but smile.
Downstairs, Jed retrieved the old .22 from the workshop, released the hammer and shucked the slide, and slid the rifle into a tattered case. He pulled a box of long rifle rounds from the shelf above the workbench and stuffed them in his pocket, then walked out the workshop door to start the truck. He went back inside to refill his coffee with the gun slip over his shoulder. Polly was sliding loaf pans into the oven.
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