The first time Gavin went down there to the stables he didn’t throw anything on over his boxers, he just stuck his bare feet in the old rubber mucking boots by the door and stomped down the hill with nothing but a flashlight. There was nothing but the sound of the wind in the high pines and the wet sucking noise of the boots in the mud when Gavin cut across the runoff trench. He was back in a few minutes with a crooked smile.
– Prolly just coons, scratching around in those feed bins. You know how the mares hate that.
We all shrugged. John dealt a new hand and we forgot about it, except Gavin, who kept saying:
– Prolly just damn coons or something.
The second time we heard it Gavin stood up but didn’t go to the door at first, and he grabbed a coat before he finally went out. Again there was nothing but that liquid whisper of the air moving through wet needles and, again, the wet slurping sound of Gavin pulling each step out of the mud down near the bottom of the hill.
The last time we heard it, Gavin didn’t get up at all. He finished his beer sitting there, quietly, looking at each of us, one at time, each side of that weird five-sided coffee table we got from Uncle Herman when he passed. Finally he got up and opened the heavy wooden case by the door and stood there, staring at the old break-barrel and John’s Winchester. He took a deep breath and bent down. He pulled out Grandpa Luke’s old war-box, set it on the floor and opened it.
Uncle LJ shook his head.
– Don’t mess with that thing, boy.
– You want I should take your gauge?
– Ain’t nothing down there that needs shooting, ‘specially not with that thing.
– You don’t know whatcha talking ’bout Louie, this is a well-made piece.
– It ain’t right.
– Jesus Christ alive and bitching, you got to be the most superstitious sumabitch I know. The pistol ain’t nothing but steel and grease and we done been over that.
Gavin spoke loudly and then laughed again, loud but faltering and we could tell he was near out of breath. LJ shook his head again. Gavin walked over to the table and spoke again, quieter this time.
– -It ain’t the gun itself. Remember what happened with John-boy there. The gun’s just a gun, a good, well-made gun.
– Take an axe if you’re feeling scared.
– I ain’t scared. And that thing’d prolly snap in half if I used it.
– Why he’s gotta go down there anyway?
No one said anything. It wasn’t that Mikey didn’t know. It was that Mikey wasn’t the youngest anymore, not after John and LJ’s kids had joined the clan. He was only two years younger than me, four years younger than Gavin. That didn’t give him a lot of time to decide what he’d do.
– Take the thirty-thirty, Gavin. Leave that box be. I’m asking you.
We all looked at John. John was a bit older than us. He hadn’t touched his rifle in nearly a decade, though for five of those years it was because he was in lock-up. At the time we joked that he could have told the judge the story, but then again, five years at York Central beat a lifetime in a straightjacket. Gavin would probably feel the same way. He came by John’s sense of things honest.
– Thanks, but just the same, I think I’ll take the pistol. Could be a mountain lion down there. You want I should try and hit ’em with a damn axe? Or you want I should wait, see how much horsemeat he can eat? I ain’t cleaning that mess up. I’m taking the pistol, ’cause it’s just a goddamn pistol, that’s all.
Gavin stood there for a full minute. I really thought he was going to sit back down at the table and take his turn as dealer but then he sucked in a mouthful of air and walked out of the house and we just sat there watching him go. I guess we were all waiting for LJ to get up and stop him. I think I was still waiting for that when the lights went out and we heard Gavin cry out. We sat there in the dark, holding our beers and our cards and I think Mikey might have pissed himself but nobody said anything about it. Finally we heard a gunshot. Then six more, slow and steady, like the way a team of guys drive a cutting wedge into a tree. Then we saw the flashlight beam coming up the hill. LJ finally spoke:
– Papa had no business bringing that thing home. He oughta left it where it lay.
– We don’t talk about that. And we ain’t laying blame.
We were quiet for a while until the lights came back on.
– I ain’t. I’m just saying.
John didn’t say anything else, but after a minute he nodded, though it seemed mostly to himself. Gavin walked in through the door in his bare muddied feet, we never found out where the boots went. He went into the pantry and we heard him pull up the loose baseboard. He came back in holding the pistol and a mason jar. Mikey spoke up:
– We’ve been saving that.
Gavin stared at him but didn’t say anything. He took the lid off and took a long drink. He passed it to LJ and LJ drank long and hard. LJ passed it to me and I tried to take a little sip but Gavin reached across the table and tipped the back of the jar and then my throat was burning and my eyes went blurry. Gavin took the jar from my hands and handed it to Mikey. Mikey drank and then handed it to John, who drank long and deep and then handed the jar back to Gavin, who finished it.
You could tell Mikey wanted to ask him. Holding his nose and trying to blink the tears out of his eyes, Mikey wanted to know. Hell, I wanted to know, I was next, if the thing kept working the way it had been, working the family line from Grandpa Luke down to us. LJ looked down and I couldn’t make out his face. But I caught John, flicking those tired eyes at the pistol, at Gavin’s face. Had he forgotten? Did he wonder if it was different for each of us? How would we know? LJ never spoke about his turn, it had happened out in the woods. Afterwards, he took to drinking until he got locked up for a DUI and his wife, a quiet woman from the Mohawk Nation, took the kids across the border to New York. There could have been kidnapping charges but LJ wouldn’t press them and, anyway, he eventually got the kids back. But she was gone for good. She said she loved us but couldn’t bear our family. No one ever spoke badly of her for it. And John? He had said little more than LJ, only that he was lucky, all things considered.
Gavin took the pistol and walked outside. Mikey moved to follow him but LJ stopped him.
– Let it be.
John looked away. Mikey looked at the door.
And I remembered one cold morning, sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, before his mind went, when Grandpa Luke showed me how the gun worked, how to strip it and clean it. He took me out to the back fence with a six-pack, shook each bottle before he lined it up on the slat. He loaded the greasy little clip with those hard little copper beetles, slid the clip into the pistol’s handle, pulled back the slide to chamber the first round. He fired a single round into an old oil-drum and then handed the pistol to me, holding it cautiously, as if it were a puppy. I remember feeling the weight of the gun, so unexpectedly cold and dense. My first shot disappeared into the tall grass. Grandpa Luke squeezed my shoulder, stiffened my left arm and wrapped my left hand around my right. He covered my left eye and whispered ‘kill the bastards’. I remember the rush when I started shooting, watching those brown bottles explode in bursts of white foam. I was so enraptured that when the clip was empty and the last trigger pull yielded only a quiet, hollow clicking noise, I just stared in wonder. Grandpa scolded me, told me that dropping the firing pin on the empty chamber was real bad for the mechanism, told me it was important, for that reason, to know how many rounds were in your weapon at all times. He told me, ‘take care of it, and it will take care of you, you gotta have a relationship with it, you hear?’ I’d heard him give this speech to Gavin and even to LJ, so I recognized the same stern words but couldn’t help notice this time he was smiling, because I had hit all six bottles.
Benjamin Schachtman is a retired line cook and bass player who now lives and teaches in New York City with his wife and dog. His work has appeared in Slush Pile, Ozone Park Journal, The Conium Review, and is forthcoming from a few other small journals.