Early morning, I throw feed to the chickens. Most of them run to the mesh wire fence that encloses the pen and where I am standing and cackle loudly, almost in unison, like a choir of chickens as they peck and scratch in the dirt, finding the corn I’ve thrown to them. The nine year old rooster named Mortimer is staying near the coop, which isn’t like him. He’s pretty old for being a rooster and has always been spry, but lately he just doesn’t have the same pep. My wife, Jenny, had made Mortimer her pet. He used to sit in her lap and eat out of her hand.
I go into the house, grab my fishing pole and tackle box before leaving the house, and get into my pickup truck.
From this side of the river I can see the young women on the other bank, their summer skirts fluttering in the summer breeze. I’m seated on a bed of smashed down prairie grass. They seemed to have not noticed me, at least as far as I can tell.
My wife wore skirts like that all the time when she was young. Time changes lots of things except for the unique beauty of a pretty girl in a flowing skirt. In some ways I wish the girls across the river would see me and wave, but whatever they are doing that is eliciting so much laughter makes that unlikely. If any of them have seen me, to them I’m just an old man fishing.
“I saw some pretty girls on the other side of the river,” I tell Jon as he trims the hair along the back of my neck. “It reminded me of Jenny before I married her.”
“Ya, girls in skirts is always a pleasant sight,” he says with a Swedish accent even though he was born in this country fifty years ago. His parents immigrated here from Sweden.
The barber shop is empty except for him and I. The ceiling fan is whirling about at a slow speed, doing nothing to reduce the heat in the shop. Jon is taking his time cutting my hair. He has nothing else to do, and since I did my fishing earlier I haven’t much else to do today either. I’m facing the huge plate glass window of his shop and I see a dust devil twisting its way up the street.
“We need some rain,” I say as he turns me away from the window and snips hair from around my ears.
“Ya, rain would be good,” he says.
Mrs. Fordsky is sweeping my kitchen floor as I come through the kitchen door.
“You get a haircut?” she asks briefly glancing at me while continuing to sweep.
“Yeah, no more than thirty minutes ago,” I say. “Jon’s growing his garden again this year.”
“Him and his wife had me over last night for some of their homemade vegetable soup,” she says, pushing a very small pile of dust into a dustpan lying on the floor.
The brief silence gives me time to shift subjects.
“I went fishing this morning,” I tell her. “I didn’t catch any fish but I saw some girls in pretty skirts on the other side of the river. They seemed to be having a good time.”
“Be thankful you never had to wear a skirt,” she says. “Damned nuisance when the wind is blowing.”
“Jenny loved wearing skirts,” I say.
She puts the broom and dustpan in the space between the refrigerator and the wall. “I just need to vacuum the welcome mat and I’m all done for the day.”
“I think I’ll go out back and see how the chickens are doing,” I tell her.
The chickens run to the wire and cackle excitedly, expecting food. Mortimer is sitting on a pillow of hay beneath the raised coop.
For a Saturday night the Gold Mine Saloon is pretty empty. I sit at the bar as I always have, slowly sipping on a beer.
“So what’s new ol’ timer?” Nick, the bartender, asks as he lifts my bottle of beer and replaces the paper coaster under it and sits the bottle back down.
“I went fishing today,” I tell him.
“You go fishing every day,” he says, “Did you catch anything?”
“Nah, but saw some girls in pretty skirts across the river,” I say.
“What were they doing?”
“Mostly just laughing,”
Jake Thorton who lives further out in the plains sits down on the stool next to mine. “What you fellas talking about?” Before I or Nick can answer he asks Nick for a shot of whiskey.
As Nick turns to get the bottle of whiskey and a shot glass I say to Jake, “I was telling him I was down at the river and saw some girls in pretty skirts on the other side.”
Nick sits the glass in front of Jake and pours the whiskey.
“Those girls in the skirts . . .” I start.
“There are some good places along the river to fish but you have to know where to find them,” Nick interrupts, leaning back against the shelves of liquors.
“Those skirts in the breeze . . .” I start again. “Jenny . . .”
“I know a great place for catching some big fish,” Jake says. “Fish so big you have to beat them on a rock to kill ’em.”
Driving home I have the windows to my truck down. I know it’s just my imagination but I can hear the laughter of those girls in those fluttering skirts coming from the waves of prairie grass.
I pull into my driveway and hear the chickens furiously clucking. I jump out of my truck and run around to the coop and see a coyote running off into the grass with one my large chickens in its mouth. Inside the coop another chicken is dead. Mortimer is lying on his side on the ground, bloodied but breathing. I pick him up and cradle him in my arms and sob out loud while he dies.
The next morning, Mrs. Fordsky arrives before I get out of bed. I hear her heavy footsteps on the floor outside my bedroom door as she goes down the hallway to the kitchen. Several minutes after hearing her taking the skillet out of the drawer at the base of the oven I get out of bed and go to the window. The prairie is blanketed in the white light of the hot summer morning. Even from a great distance I can see a small herd of buffalo traversing the ridge of a dry river bed. I turn from the window and dress in the same clothes I wore the day before.
A few minutes later, standing in the kitchen doorway I watch Mrs. Fordsky who’s humming a song. I crack two eggs and drop them into the pan. For a moment I listen to them sizzle and pop in melted butter.
“I’m going to feed the chickens and then go fishing,” I say.
Startled by my voice, she whirls about. “If you had been a thief . . .” she stammers breathlessly, her hand on her heart as if soothing its beating. “Ain’t you eating your breakfast?” she asks flatly, not hiding her annoyance by the eggs left frying in the pan.
“It can wait,” I reply.
I cross the kitchen to the back screen door in three strides, push it open, and step out into sunshine. Before me is the chicken coop surrounded by the fencing I had hastily mended and reinforced the night before. The chickens are scratching in the dirt as they have always done.
Cooked by the heat of the sun, the river has the aroma of fish soup. The only sound is that of the constant hum of the grasshoppers. Sitting on the red tackle box Jenny bought me for my sixtieth birthday, I cast the fishing line out to the middle of the slow-moving current and watch the lead sinker dip beneath the surface. Without a single breeze the air is still and heavy, weighing me down, keeping me held inertly in place, securing me to the river bank. Three plastic bottles from a box of water bottles that I always carry in the back of my truck lay empty in the dirt around me. The heat has me too lethargic to get up and go get another one although my throat is parched.
In the fog of the heat-induced sedation, I think for a moment it’s Jenny who says to me, “I saw you here yesterday.”
Quickly coming to my senses I turn my head and see a young woman in jeans and cowboy boots standing a few yards behind me. A white stetson hangs on her back, held there by a thin cord around her neck.
“I don’t remember seeing you,” I reply.
“I was with my friends on the other side of the river,” she says.
“The girls in skirts,” I say.
She giggles, self-consciously as if wearing a skirt is something to be embarrassed about. “It was my best friend’s engagement party. We had our picture taken. In a group, you know?” she says. After a brief hesitation, she asks, “Do you always go fishing by yourself?”
When I was a boy I went fishing at this very spot with my father, but I don’t mention it. She wants to know if I have friends. “I find fishing by myself is peaceful,” I answer. “It gives me time to think.”
She glances up at the sun that stands out in the sky like a brilliant yellow egg yolk, pulls her hat onto the top of her head, and adjusts the cord under her chin. “It was a pleasure meeting you. Good luck with the fishing,” she says. She turns and walks to where a horse is waiting for her. I’m slightly amused, and a bit alarmed, that I hadn’t noticed the horse before.
“I like seeing girls in skirts,” I call out.
She looks back at me, smiles, waves, and then climbs into the saddle.
Jon is standing between the rows of onions and carrots whose tops are poking through the freshly watered dirt. A wicker basket filled with tomatoes, cucumbers and radishes hangs from his arm. His garden smells like a salad. Jon’s golden retriever, Max, stands beside him, its body against Jon’s leg, its tail wagging. I was severely mauled by a dog who was our family pet when I was a child and I’ve mistrusted them ever since; they’re everyone’s best friend, except for me.
“I shoulda been a farmer and not a barber,” Jon says as he glances around at the rows of vegetables growing in his large back yard. His Swedish accent is gone for just that moment, and then quickly returns. “So, it was good fishing today then, ya?”
I had already told him, twice, that I only caught a couple of small trout that I threw back into the river. “One of the girls I saw yesterday stopped by where I was fishing and said hello.”
“The ones in skirts.”
He switches the basket from one arm to the other. “Mrs. Fordsky came to dinner last evening,” he says. “She ate two full bowls of my Marta’s vegetable soup,” he announces loudly and emphatically as if it’s important that I know it, that the world knows it.
I have no opinion about Marta’s soup, having not been invited to Jon and Marta’s for dinner since Jenny’s death. Marta treats me as a man with an arm that has been cut off, left only with a bloody stump, to be pitied but kept at a distance. As Jon steps over a row of carrots, Max follows, keeping his nose to Jon’s red galoshes, the ones he wears when gardening.
“What’s Mrs. Fordsky fixing for your Sunday dinner?” Jon asks as he bends down and pulls a carrot out of the ground.
“Probably fried chicken like she does every Sunday.”
“We’ll have to have you here for Sunday dinner sometime,” he says. He and I both know that will never happen. He stands and brushes dirt from the fully grown carrot. “We sure used to enjoy it when you and your misses came over.”
I glance over at the back window of my truck where the empty gun rack is still attached, long after Jenny put a stop to me hunting for sport and sold off my rifles to buy a new chicken coop, a dozen chickens, and Mortimer. “You still have your rifle?” I ask him.
“Ya, you never know when it’ll come in handy.”
I’ve always wondered why the Gold Mine Saloon is so busy on late Sunday afternoons following the ending of the church services. Nick likes to joke about it saying, “Religion drives people to drink.” I sit at the bar and sip on a bottle of beer and watch the skirts worn by the young women billow out like floating parachutes as they do turns while dancing with their men. Even as busy as he is, Nick stops, leans on the bar, and speaks loudly to be heard over the din.
“Did you go fishing this morning ol’ man?” he asks.
“Yep, but didn’t catch anything worth keeping.” I take a swig of the beer. “I met one of them girls I was telling you about, though?”
“The ones I saw yesterday. The ones in skirts.”
Nick stands and wipes the top of the counter with a damp rag. “Did you hear what happened to Jake on his way home last night after leaving here?”
I stopped liking Jake the day he made a drunken pass at Jenny shortly after she and I were married, but I never said that out loud to anyone other than Jenny. She had slapped his face which put the matter to rest as far as she was concerned. I’m not that forgiving. “No, what?”
“He ran his car off the road and right into a tree,” he says with a laugh. “There ain’t but one tree between here and his place and he ran right into it. Netty Beales talked to Jake’s wife this morning. He’s okay but kinda banged up.”
I take a long drink of the beer, swivel about and see the girl who I had seen earlier that day. She’s being twirled around like a top by a cowboy wearing a black Stetson. She’s wearing a floral-patterned skirt that floats above her knees like the petals of a flower caught on a breeze. I catch her eye, raise the bottle to her, and smile.
That look of being seen but not recognized passes from her eyes to mine.
Riding home with the windows down the fragrance of the promise of rain rushes in. The prairie is dark with the outlines of the near-distant rock formations cloaked in the black of night. Jon’s rifle in the gun rack jiggles up and down making a metallic rattle. Perched on the post of the barbed wire fence that extends almost the entire length of the highway, a meadowlark warbles its staccato aria just before I turn onto the road to my place. The porch light to my house is like a beacon in the dark before I reach it. “It’s always a welcomed sight, like a guiding star,” Jenny would say.
I take the rifle from the rack, get out of the truck and go into the house. It’s quiet inside; so very quiet, unbearably quiet. In the kitchen, Mrs. Fordsky has left a note on the table that she put my dinner in the refrigerator for me to heat up in the microwave when I get home. I grab a ball of twine from the utility drawer under the sink and go out the back screen door. I cross the yard to the chicken coop. The chickens have all retreated to the safety of their nests inside the coop. I go in, grab the chicken Jenny named Sylvia, from her nest and carry her out to the perimeter of the yard, on the border of the tall prairie grass. She is noisy, combative, having never been carried by me before. I tie her to a stake with the twine and as she continues to protest loudly, I retreat into the shadows. I then crouch down, and with the rifle cocked and ready, I silently await the return of the coyote that murdered Mortimer.
The first sign of the coming storm is the rumble of thunder that echoes across the landscape. Then a streak of lightning slices across the sky, flashing light across the prairie and the yard. In that moment, as if caught by the flashing bulb of a camera, I see Sylvia turn quickly about, her wings raised, her white feathers aglow. In that instance she’s a young girl in a billowing skirt; she’s my Jenny. I run to the panicked bird, untie her from the stake and carry her cradled in my arms back to her nest.
In the broader scheme of things, the atrocity committed against Mortimer was, after all, a small one. I’ll revenge his death at another time, in a different way.
Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 630 short stories – new and reprints –published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories published. A Map of Humanity, his eighth collection, published by Hear Our Voice LLC Publishers came out in January, 2022. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.