Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

 The Rifle

 

 

Casey’s walking down the street toward the bus stop in Addison, Iowa, carrying the rifle he’s just stolen from Tommy’s house.  He’s cradling it in his arms, one hand over the stock and the other under the barrel so that the telescopic scope’s free.

 “Now you wait a minute, son,” says Mr. Anderson.  He’s standing outside his Maple Heights bus smoking a cigarette.  “You wait just one moment there.”

Because that’s what Mr. Anderson would say.  Or something like that.  If Casey were really carrying a rifle while he was walking down the street and if he really tried to get on the bus with the rifle.

Mr. Anderson might also say, “Now, boy, I think you’d better tell me.  Where’d you get that rifle?  You sure didn’t steal it, did you?”

Because Casey’s thought about it, actually doing it, when Tommy’s not looking and Tommy’s mother isn’t looking, stealing the rifle out of his best friend’s house, carrying it down the street, trying to get it on the bus.

Well, Casey knows he’d never do anything like that.  He’d never do anything like that because . . . .

Because, for one thing, right now at this very moment as he’s walking down the street, the rifle’s locked in the cupboard in the hallway of Tommy’s house.  Locked means that if he were back at Tommy’s house and walked down the hallway to the cupboard and tried to open the doors of the cupboard to get at the rifle, the doors wouldn’t open.

You need a key.

But, here’s the thing:  Tommy has shown him where the key is.  A secret place.

Tommy’s not even supposed to know.

“Want to see something?” Tommy had said.

 “Sure.”

First Tommy went down the hall from his room out into the living room checking for his mother, then he pulled a chair back and put it next to the cupboard and stood up on the chair and reached up behind a little ridge that runs along the top of the cupboard.

“Got it,” said Tommy.

He held out the key in his hand.

Then he climbed down off the chair and put the key in the lock and turned the key and pulled the doors of the cupboard open.

 “There,” said Tommy.

Casey saw Tommy’s father’s rifle.  Telescopic sight.  Everything.

“She’s a beauty,” said Tommy.

“A beauty,” said Casey.

Tommy closed and locked the doors of the cupboard and climbed up on the chair and put the key back over that little ridge running along the top.  Then he pulled the chair back down the hallway to the living room.

But Casey’s not really in the hallway with Tommy.  What he’s really doing is walking down the sidewalk toward the bus stop.  But he’s not really walking down the street toward the bus stop either.  He’s up in the mountains.  The high mountains.  Out west in Montana or Wyoming.  There’s rocks and pine trees and lakes and lots of snow, and he’s walking up toward the pass with the wind whipping around, cradling his rifle in his arms, one hand over the stock and the other under the barrel making sure the telescopic scope’s free.  He’s at the pass now looking down.  A valley below him.  A river running through.`

He sees it.  The panther.  The black panther.  It’s walking out of the woods slowly swinging its sides out as it walks.

Casey positions himself against a rock and brings the rifle up.  He feels the wooden stock against his cheek.  He leans his head over and brings his eye up to the scope.  Inside the scope he sees the crosshairs.  And there, right in the middle of the crosshairs, the black panther.  Casey aims at the heart.

The panther senses something.  The panther’s looking this way, then that way.  And now it’s looking right up at the pass, right where Casey is.  Its eyes are yellow.

“Good afternoon, son.  And how are we doing today?”

That’s Mr. Anderson, the bus driver.  Without really knowing it, Casey’s made it all the way to the bus stop.  And Mr. Anderson, like always, is smoking a cigarette outside the bus.  That’s what he does until he’s ready to go.

“Fine, Mr. Anderson.”

“Glad to hear that, son.”

Casey climbs in the bus and takes a seat about halfway back.  He doesn’t really have the rifle with him.  That’s why Mr. Anderson lets him on the bus.  And there aren’t any panthers outside the bus either.  Not around Addison.

Mr. Anderson’s finishes his cigarette and climbs in and swings himself into his seat.  He starts the motor and without looking back says, “Ready, Casey?”

“Ready.”

“Shall I let her rip, boy?”

“Yes, Mr. Anderson.”

“Then here we go.”

Casey watches outside the window.  First they go through the business district and then down the hill all the way to the old warehouses near the river, then across the bridge to where the woods start next to the city dump.  Looking into those woods Casey sees a trail of smoke coming up between the trees.  Gypsies, probably.  They sometimes set up their camps in there during the summer.

But Casey’s not interested in gypsies.  He’s cradling his rifle and looking for the panther that lives in those woods.  And even though he doesn’t see it this time he keeps looking for it as the bus turns up the hill to where the big houses and big yards begin.

“Well, son, I guess you got your own chauffeured ride this afternoon.  Pretty lucky, I’d say.”

Mr. Anderson’s stopping the bus at the corner of Maple Avenue and Lynnwood.

“Thank you, Mr. Anderson.”

“Now, you take care, Casey.”

Mr. Anderson doesn’t say anything about Casey’s carrying the rifle because Casey’s not really carrying the rifle.  Still, he cradles it in his arms as he walks down Lynnwood.  He keeps an eye out.

Tracy, the Browns’ dog, comes to the edge of the Brown yard and barks and barks at Casey.  That’s what Tracy always does.  But she never goes beyond the borders of her yard.  And if you walk up the Browns’ sidewalk, she runs away.

What, thinks Casey, would it be like if he really were carrying the rifle?  Walking down Lynnwood.  That Brown dog would sure hightail it.

He thinks:  I haven’t stolen it.

He thinks:  I won’t steal it.

He thinks:  I can’t steal it.

But he also thinks:  I know where the key is.

“Yoo-hoo!  Casey!”

That’s his mother waving at him.  She’s in the side yard talking to the gardeners.  Now Casey sees the gardeners’ truck in the driveway.

Casey waves back at her but keeps going up the driveway and past the gardeners’ truck and past the basketball hoop on the front of the double garage and goes into the side door of the house up to his room.

 

* * *

Casey’s lying on his bed.  He’s got his hands behind his head and he’s looking up at the ceiling.  And he’s thinking about it.  Because he’s not really in his room lying on the bed.  He’s with Tommy over at Tommy’s house.

Here’s how it would work.

See, Tommy’s mother is some other place in the house, maybe out in the garden, and he and Tommy are playing soldiers in Tommy’s room.  Then Tommy says, Oh, I got to go to the bathroom.  You know, a big one.  Something like that.  So, Tommy’s gone.  He’s not in the room anymore.  Casey sees himself going out into the hallway and looking around and making sure Tommy’s mother isn’t anywhere around and that Tommy’s still in the bathroom, and then going down the hall to the living room and pulling the chair down to the cupboard and standing up and reaching for the key just over that railing that runs along the top.  And he’s got the key in his hand.  He gets down off the chair and puts the key in the lock and opens the doors of the cupboard.  And there it is, the rifle, telescopic scope and all.  One more look up and down the hall.  Then he takes the rifle and walks right through the living room and out the front door, just like that.

So, now what to do?

Well, there’s that big tree out in the front yard.  Maybe that’s the place to hide it.

So Casey walks over to the tree and leans the rifle up beside it—but on the far side so you can’t see it from the house and probably not from the sidewalk either.

It’s okay there.

Then Casey walks up the steps of the front porch of the house, through the living room and down the hall.  Tommy’s already back in his room, probably.  Probably he looks up when Casey comes in.  He’s surprised.  He thought Casey had been in the room all the time.  Where you been? Tommy asks.  Me? says Casey.  Yeah, says Tommy, where you been?

So that won’t work. Because later when Tommy’s father comes home from work and opens the cupboard and discovers his rifle’s not there he’ll start asking questions.  You can be sure about that.  He’ll ask lots of questions.  And Tommy for sure will remember Casey’s going out of the room.  Casey? Tommy’s father would ask.  Out of the room?  Yes, Tommy would say.  Tommy’s father would say, When?  Where?  How long?

So that won’t work.

Casey tries it again.  He’s back in Tommy’s room.  It’s right after school and they’ve just started to play with the soldiers.  But this time Casey doesn’t wait that long, not until Tommy says he needs to go to the bathroom.  Maybe Casey waits only 10 minutes.  At the most, 15.  Then he says, Oh, I forgot.  I have to meet my father.  Your father? says Tommy.  Yeah, I totally forgot.

This works better, see, because Tommy’s all interested in his soldiers, getting them together ready for the attack.  So he doesn’t even follow Casey out of the room or down the hallway.  Tomorrow, says Casey at the door of Tommy’s room.  Sure, sure, says Tommy.  But he’s not really talking to Casey anymore.

So Casey’s going down the hallway toward the living room and he stops in front of the cupboard and  gives a good look up and down the hall.  This time he doesn’t bother with pulling that chair down the hall but reaches up on his very tip-toes and, yes, see, he didn’t need the chair,  finds that key just over the railing of the cubord and inserts the key into the lock.  He’s turning the key.  He’s opening the door.  The door doesn’t make any noise.  And there it is!  The rifle!

Now Casey’s out in the yard and he’s going over to that big tree in the front yard and he’s got the rifle with him and he leans the rifle up against the tree.  The telescopic scope glints in the sun.  But the rifle’s hidden from the street.  No one, no one at all, can see anything.

 “Casey!”

That’s Casey’s mother.  This is happening now.  Not at Tommy’s.  His mother’s opened the door to Casey’s room and has come in.  She didn’t knock.  She never knocks.  She just opens the door and comes in.

“Yes,” says Casey looking at her from the bed.

“Your father called.  He can’t make it home for dinner.  He has to stay in his office and interview witnesses.

“Oh,” says Casey.

At least his mother closes the door behind her.  Because Casey’s already in the mountains, the rocks and the pine trees and the lakes, snow falling.  He’s walking up to the pass cradling the rifle in front of him.  Now he’s at the pass and looking down:  a valley with a river running through.  And now he sees it, the black panther coming out of the woods.  It’s walking slowly, its middle part swinging from side to side.  Casey’s got it in the crosshairs.  The panther senses something.  It looks this way, then that way.  Now it’s looking up at the pass, right at Casey.  Its eyes are yellow.

 

* * *

 

It’s the middle of the night and Casey’s heard something.  Or he remembers hearing something.  He was sleeping, he knows that, but then he heard something in his sleep and now he’s awake.

Maybe the sound won’t come back.  Or maybe he didn’t hear it at all.  Maybe he just imagined he heard something.

No!  There!  A soft padding kind of sound.  Out in another room of the house.

The panther!

The panther is in the house.  It’s all black except for its yellow eyes.  It’s moving from room to room.

Slowly Casey pulls the covers up to his head.  Although he knows it won’t make any difference.  The panther is going from room to room searching and sooner or later it will find Casey’s room.

Now the padding sound is coming closer.  It’s coming down the hall.  Now it stops.  The panther is in the hallway just outside Casey’s room.  Casey hears it breathing.  The next thing that will happen is that it will come into his room.

Except now lights are moving along the wall of his room.  A car in the street.  The lights on the wall start going the other way as the car comes up the driveway.  Casey can hear that the car has stopped in front of the double garage and now he can hear the rumble of the garage doors lifting, then the muffled sound of the car’s motor as it enters the garage, then the rumble of the garage doors and they close behind the car.

What time is it?

Casey doesn’t know.  But his father’s home.

 

* * *

 

In the morning the panther’s out in the hallway outside Casey’s room.  Casey sees it and its yellow eyes as soon as he opens the door.

“Hello,” says Casey.

The panther runs its tongue across its lips and thumps its tail on the carpet.

“I won’t be long,” says Casey.

When Casey comes back from the bathroom the panther is in his room up on his bed.  It turns its head watching Casey dress.

“Time for breakfast,” says Casey.

The panther stretches from front to rear, straightens out, reaches for the floor with one front paw, then with the tiniest of leaps, leaves the bed.

“Come on,” says Casey.

The panther follows him down the stairs and when Casey sits at the breakfast table across from his father the panther settles on the floor next to the bay window.

His father doesn’t say hello to Casey because he’s talking on the phone.

“Yes?” his father is saying.  “Well . . . Bill . . . .”

His father’s still in his pajamas and his hair isn’t combed and he hasn’t shaved yet.  He doesn’t have to be in court until ten o’clock.  He’s the country prosecutor.

“Really, Bill,” says his father, “I just don’t think we ought to push this one that far.”

Casey’s mother comes over to the table carrying a plate of eggs and some rolls.

“And drink your orange juice,” Casey’s mother says.

“Bill, let’s just wait and see if anything more happens.” says his father into the phone.  “Right?  Okay?  Okay, then.”

His father hangs up the phone.

“Gypsies?” says his mother.

“The usual sort of thing,” says his father.

All the time the panther lies on the floor next to the bay window.  Sometimes it thumps its tail.

“Casey, are you coming home right after school?”

“Can I go to Tommy’s first?”

“Yes, to Tommy’s.  All right,” says his mother.

The phone rings again.

“Damn!” says Casey’s father who had just started sipping his coffee.  He picks up the phone.  “Hello?”

The panther follows Casey out of the kitchen.

 

* * *

 

The three of them are in Tommy’s room.  It’s in the early afternoon after school and the black panther’s up on Tommy’s bed, curled there sleeping, its head down on its paws.  Tommy and Casey have got all the soldiers out and Tommy’s assembling his battalion on his side and Casey’s assembling his battalion on his side.

All the time Casey’s wondering whether he’s really going to do it.  Because if he does, then it’s not pretend.

“Roll the dice,” says Tommy.

“No, you roll,” says Casey.

Casey watches Tommy shake the dice in the leather covered tube, and then he watches Tommy spill the dice out on the floor.

And he does it.

He actually says to Tommy, “Oh, I forgot!  I forgot all about it.  I’m supposed to meet my father!”

“What?” says Tommy.  He’s checking the numbers that came up on the dice.

“My father.  I’m supposed to meet my father.”

“Now?”

Casey’s doing the next thing.  He’s getting up.  He’s pretending he’s getting ready to leave.  Only he’s not pretending.

Tommy looks up.

“Isn’t your father in court?”

“We can finish this tomorrow.” says Casey.

The panther’s already stretched from front to rear and now jumps off the bed with the tiniest of leaps.

“So, tomorrow,” says Casey standing with the panther at the door of Tommy’s room.

“Yeah, okay.”

It’s happening.  It’s happening right now.  Casey’s going down the hallway.  He’s next to the cupboard.  And Tommy’s father’s rifle, telescopic sight and all, is inside the cupboard.  Only the cupboard is locked, so if he tries to open the doors right now they won’t open.  But Casey knows where the key is.  It’s up on the top beyond that little rim.

Casey follows the panther down the rest of the hallway until they’re both in the living room.  Right in the corner of the living room Casey sees the chair.

But first, that is, before he starts pulling the chair down the hallway, Casey looks into the dining room.  He doesn’t just look in the dining room.  He goes into the dining room and from the dining room looks into the kitchen.

Tommy’s mother isn’t there.

She has to be out in the garden, Casey decides.  Somewhere out in the backyard.

The panther is over by the chair waiting for Casey.  Casey goes over to the chair, takes it by its arm rests and starts pulling it.  It makes a noise as it slides across the floor.  Casey didn’t remember that.  That is, when Tommy pulled the chair down the hallway, he didn’t remember that noise.  So he stops pulling the chair.

The panther’s gone halfway down the hallway to the cupboard.  It thumps its tail on the floor and looks back at Casey.

So Casey starts pulling at the chair again.  It’s making noise as it slides on the floor, but as soon as he gets next to the cupboard he stops sliding it and it stops making a noise.

Casey looks up and down the hallway.  Tommy’s not there.  His mother isn’t there.

This is really happening, thinks Casey.

Casey looks up to the top of the cupboard.  He sees the rim up there running around the edge.

Casey places one foot up on the chair and gives a push and he’s up on the chair.  He reaches his hand up to the rim.  He’s feeling for the key.

“Casey!  What in heaven’s name?”

Casey sees Tommy’s mother standing at the end of the hallway next to the living room.

Casey’s down off the chair.

“Casey?”  That’s Tommy at the other end of the hallway.

Casey’s running.  Right past Casey’s mother.  Through the living room.  Out the front door.  Across the porch and down the porch stairs.  Past that big tree.  Along the street and not stopping at the bus stop where Mr. Anderson would be smoking his cigarette and saying hello to Casey if it were time for his bus to go.  At the business district Casey slows down.  He walks past those buildings and when he comes to the hill he walks down the hill.  But as soon as he gets to the bridge across the river he starts running again.

And, finally, he’s at the other side where the dump and the woods begin.

He turns into the woods.

As soon as he’s in the trees he thinks, they’ll never find me in here.  Because there’s all kinds of paths going this way and that way.

But even though he’s on one of those paths, he’s not so sure which one it is, which direction it’s taking him.

Then, suddenly, right in front of him:  the gypsy camp.  Pick-up trucks and trailers, the pick-up trucks more on the outside of a kind of circle and the trailers more on the inside.  Casey sees a man standing next to a campfire and the campfire has smoke trailing up from it.  The man is wearing a yellow bandana around his neck.

Slowly Casey backs away.

Except . . . except . . . .  Because he’s hearing it.  He is.  Behind him:  A padding sound.  A breathing sound.  In the trees.

Casey stops.  He looks at the gypsy camp again.  He sees the pick-up trucks and the trailers.  He sees the man with the yellow bandana standing next to the campfire.

The man has turned toward Casey.  The man is looking at Casey.

And he hears it again:  the padding sound; the breathing sound.

This is real.  This is not pretend. 

Casey walks out of the clearing toward the campfire and the man with the yellow bandanna.

 

 

 

Karl Harshbarger is an American writer living in Germany and has had over 75 story publications in such magazines as The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, The Antioch Review, The New England Review, and The Prairie Schooner.  Two of his stories have been selected for the list of “Distinguished Stories” in Best American Short Stories and twelve of his stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He was a finalist for a collection of short stories in the Iowa Publication Awards for Short Fiction, the George Garrett Fiction Prize for Best Book of Short Stories or Short Novel, and the Mary McCarthy Prize for Short Fiction.