By John Brantingham
Jack is in the barn when he hears the steam engine pumping through the valley. When he was a boy, there was no train, but he likes the sound cutting through the tule fog. He’s smiling at it in these first moments of twilight when he hears the crack of a rifle, then silence for the longest two seconds he has ever experienced. Then three more shots, one right after the other.
“I got him!” It’s his son, Amos, his voice rising in passion. “I swear to God I got him.” That makes Jack smile, too, thinking that his son has bagged a deer.
His wife says, “Oh my God,” and that’s the first time he’s heard her curse, so his body takes over, and soon he’s running as fast as he can until the figures of his wife and son form over by the back door.
“What’s…” But when Jack tries to speak, the train whistle screams out his voice.
His wife knows what he’s going to say, so she points out toward the road.
“He had it coming. Why does he keep lurking out there?” Jack asks. So it must be the old man who’s been hanging around the edge of the property. Jack told him to leave when he sat out there on the stump near the road for one entire Saturday. Amos told him to leave the next Wednesday. Jack supposes this was his third warning.
When Jack was a boy, that would have been enough to shoot someone. Or maybe that’s wrong. Maybe it’s that when Jack was a boy, they were far enough from any law enforcement it didn’t matter so much what you did.
As he comes closer, he can hear that the man’s still breathing. He’s moaning, but he doesn’t turn to Jack. He stinks of sweat and onions and something else, and he hasn’t shaved in weeks. His eyes are glassy. Jack’s never seen a man die up close, but this one is going to. He’s sure of it.
“What happened?” Jack calls. He feels for the man’s pulse at his neck and finds it, but he’s not sure what that’s supposed to tell him.
“He was out there again,” Amos calls. “Just kind of lurking.”
“Did he do anything? Did he threaten you?” When Amos doesn’t respond, Jack turns back to his boy who is standing there uncomfortably. “We’re going to have to call the police.” As he says it, he thinks about the kinds of questions his boy is going to have to answer.
“Jack?” his wife asks. It’s a question without any words.
“You’re going to have to call.”
Jack looks down the long dirt road that leads to his house toward town where the sheriff’s office is, as though he might see it all those miles away through the fog. Another thing, when he was a kid: no one had a telephone.
Jack’s wife doesn’t move, so he stands and turns to her. “I need you to call, Mabel.” And now she does move. Jack follows her into the house, but when she goes to the phone, he goes to the front closet, into his hunting supplies. He finds his old clasp knife, the one he doesn’t use any more.
Amos is still standing in the spot where he shot the man, still watching the figure. Jack strides over to him, wiping the blade, wiping the handle with the corner of his shirt. The train whistles again, but now it is down the valley a bit, and it doesn’t bite into his head so much. The man’s breathing is slower, and Jack takes a moment to stare a him.
“Jack?” his wife asks again.
Jack nods, takes a breath, and then pushes the knife into his own left arm, gasping when the blade cuts into his bone.
“Jack?” she asks again, but this time she’s more urgent.
Jack pulls the knife out and slashes his face and chest, making sure the cuts are deep, so involved with what he’s doing he doesn’t notice that Amos has come up behind him until Amos asks, “Dad?” He’s inherited his mother’s gift for speech.
He lets himself go limp, sits next to the man, who may or may not still be alive. He just allows himself to fill his lungs, and then he puts his clasp knife in the man’s hand.
“When the sheriff comes,” Jack says, “you saw him knifing me, all right? Don’t tell them anything you don’t have to.”
Amos nods his head. He’ll do all right. He’s inherited Mabel’s gift of silence. He’ll need it with the police. His wife has gone back inside, and he knows that she’s going to call the doctor or get a bandage. Something like that. She’ll be out here in a moment. Until then, he’s just going to think about that train going off to Bakersfield. He’s going to listen to it until he can’t hear it anymore.