At the edge of the orchard, Sonny asked Jason to stop the truck so they could examine the gutted remains of his house. The roof had collapsed, and what had been the living room and kitchen were now piles of cinder and charred lumber. Sonny tried the drawers in the roll-top desk by the front door where he’d kept his papers, but the blackened wood did not give. He sat on the edge of the desk and lit one of the thin cigars he carried in the front pocket of his shirt, the lighter unsteady in his shaking hands. It was the first time he’d been back since the night of the fire.
“Still don’t seem real to me.” Jason was rail thin, but had a voice that carried. “I had the TV and stereo right there.” He pointed at a corner buried beneath plywood and shingles, then pivoted and took four long strides, measuring the distance. “The door to the kitchen was right about here. I had the screen turned so I could see it all the way to the refrigerator.”
Sonny had taken Jason in after he was released from prison the previous summer. When his daughter, Lydia, heard the news, she called to declare that the entire family opposed the idea of him habitating with a convicted felon. Sonny replied with the truth as he saw it: his grandson was a good kid caught up with the wrong people. The same thing had happened to Jason’s father when he was this age. “But my brother never stole from you,” Lydia hissed. “And he was certainly never a drug addict.”
They repeated this argument when Sonny hired Jason to work on his land after the fire. The doctor ordered a month of rest to heal the shoulder Sonny separated in his escape from the burning house, and his daughter installed him in one of her spare bedrooms to make sure he followed orders. When Sonny asked her to pick up cash so he could pay Jason for feeding the cattle, she said, “Why don’t you just deduct what he’s owed from the $10,000 he already stole from you?” Sonny tried to explain again that Jason’s ex-girlfriend had stolen the checks, and that the police had only blamed him because of the blood relation. Lydia called Sonny an old sap. “His handwriting is all over those checks,” she said. “I have the photocopies in the closet anytime you want to look.” Sonny dismissed this with a wave of his hand. “You can’t tell anything from that chicken scratch. You see what you want to see.”
Jason began to clear the debris that blocked the hallway to the bedrooms on the back of the house. Sonny watched him for a few minutes, then he said, “Coming back here sure makes you feel lucky. Like we ought to buy a lottery ticket on the way home.”
“I’m with you there, Son.” Jason paused in his work long enough to wipe his brow with a bandana. “I keep thinking that, in some kind of backwards way, the night this place burned down was the luckiest night of my life.”
Jason was with his new girlfriend in town when the fire broke out, and returned before dawn to find the clearing around the house filled with flashing lights and smoke. Sonny had been asleep when the smoke alarm erupted. The doorknob had burned his hand, so he’d shattered the window and thrown himself out. He didn’t immediately realize he’d injured his shoulder. Adrenaline carried him around to the front, where the windows glowed with the vivid orange of embers beneath a campfire, and flames curled around the latticework above the porch. Sonny kept going. He climbed halfway up the rise that faced the house and lay down in the damp grass. The fire threw off enough light that he could see the billowing mass of black smoke against the backdrop of stars above the orchard. Pain radiated from his shoulder, and he closed his eyes. He tried to imagine what could have sparked the fire. The possibility of arson did not occur to him until he spoke with the investigator who came to take a statement after he’d been fitted with a temporary sling. The investigator lead him up the front steps, slick now with water, and pointed his flashlight on a spot where the concrete was pockmarked as though broken up with a hammer. He explained that an accelerant had enabled the fire to burn with enough intensity that the concrete exploded from the heat. The way he figured it, someone had dragged a hay bail in from outside, doused it with diesel, and lit a match.
On the other end of the land, the generators at the new oilrig thundered to life, and Sonny told Jason they ought to get going. Through the space where the roof should have been, he could see the top of the derrick, looming above the trees that edged his southern pasture. A geologist had contacted Sonny at the beginning of summer about a possible oil trap beneath his property, and within months they had the first well up and running. The oil flowed so robustly, they broke ground on a second pad site before Labor Day. Sonny told anyone who asked that only one good thing had come about from the drilling—a roughneck on overnight watch had spotted the fire at his house and notified the authorities in town.
“How much longer this drilling supposed to go on?”
“As long as the oil lasts, they’ll keep putting in wells. And every time they do I lose five acres. Won’t be long until this whole place is a gravel lot covered with pump jacks.”
“Why don’t you tell them to get gone then?”
Sonny explained the realities of the situation to Jason as they’d been explained to him by his lawyer. Mineral rights had not been included when Sonny purchased the land, and the great-grandson of the original owner had signed a lease with the oil company. In light of this, it was in Sonny’s best interest to cut a deal with the oilmen. Otherwise, he’d end up in court, where a judge would force him into an agreement less favorable than what he could negotiate on his own. This set Jason off on a rant about freedom and rights guaranteed by the constitution, which he punctuated by slamming the door of the truck. The vibration sent a jolt of pain through Sonny’s shoulder, and he took a sharp breath. Jason didn’t notice. “I’ll tell you how we should handle this.” His voice seemed to fill the small space of the cab. “We do what the founding fathers would’ve done. We sneak out one night and sabotage their well. Let them know it’s not safe to do business around here.”
They rode into the orchard, following the rutted tire tracks that cut between the rows of immense pecan trees. Each time the truck pulled even with a row, the trees fell into a perfect line that stretched for half a mile to the south, and Sonny felt the same sense of wonder he’d experienced forty years before, inspecting the place for the first time with the man whose father had planted the orchard on a grid measured with lengths of rope in the last years before Oklahoma became a state. The sale of the orchard had included harvesting equipment—a shaker, a picker, two tractors—and everything the man could teach him about pecans in a day. Sonny put up his house as collateral for a loan from the bank, but received only half of what he needed. He borrowed from his brother, an insurance salesman in Oklahoma City, but, finally, he had to approach his father-in-law, who would only give him the money if Sonny agreed in writing to continue setting tile for his company three days a week until his debt was repaid. He didn’t think Sonny would earn enough off the land to support his family, and he wanted to make sure his daughter had enough to get by. This agreement filled Sonny with a doubt that he hadn’t encountered before, and he decided to sneak back into the orchard for a second look before he signed. In the precise arrangement of the trees, Sonny found what he needed. The symmetry imposed an order over the chaos and uncertainty of nature. Stepping in line with a row and seeing all of the trees fall into place restored his belief that everything was secure and manageable.
Jason sounded the horn and cattle began to jog toward the feeding troughs and hay ring ahead of the truck. Sonny stayed in the cab while Jason shouldered one fifty-pound bag of feed, and then another, pouring out pellets the size of shotgun shells. The cattle crowded around him, bellowing. The calves stood off to the side, afraid of the crush. While Jason worked, Sonny leaned over the driver’s seat to check the odometer. He’d loaned Jason the truck for trips to and from the land and errands in town. That was all. Lydia had laughed at Jason’s promise not to cruise around, but Sonny was no fool. Jason was a young man, only a few months out of prison, and Sonny expected him to enjoy his freedom. He only wanted to make Jason feel accountable to someone, he told his daughter, not control his behavior.
But something was not right with the odometer. Jason had put two thousand miles on the truck in two weeks, triple the number Sonny had estimated on the high end, much more than he could have accumulated in town. In the years before Jason went to prison, Sonny had become familiar with the routine of meth addiction. He’d learned that the labs were often remote, an old barn or abandoned trailer in an isolated piece of unused land, where it was unlikely they would be discovered, and that addicts would drive hours each way to buy, if necessary. Sonny heard his daughter, again, warning him against his grandson. She’d read everything she could find about methamphetamine after Jason was arrested a second time for possession, and considered herself an expert. “I tell you how I know he’s lying about the drugs,” Lydia said with the same sideways smile she wore as a little girl when she’d corrected him with something she learned in school. “He claims he kicked that addiction, but it’s impossible. Meth changes the way the brain works. Once you’re hooked, you stay that way for the rest of your life.”
Jason climbed back into the truck, and they continued, veering from the worn track to take a straight line for the river.
Sonny had let his cigar go cold in the ashtray, and he relit it. He said, “I’ve been meaning to find out how you’ve been holding up since the fire.”
“Getting along. Not much to report. I come down here every day and do as much work as I can while the sun’s up.”
“What about the rest of the time? You get up to anything in the evening?”
“Can’t go to the bar because of my probation. Can’t watch the baseball game with you at aunt Lydia’s house since she won’t have anything to do with me. I don’t have any money to spend.” Jason shrugged. “Most nights I just coast around. Try to stay out of trouble.”
“You stick to town, or you go out to the countryside?”
“I don’t know where I go, just around.”
“You’ve got to have a destination in mind.”
“What you getting at, Son? Somebody been telling stories about me?”
“No, I just happened to notice how many miles you put on the truck.”
Jason leaned forward to check the odometer himself. “Well, I’ll take it in for service, if that’s what this is about.”
“I trust you will. But I also have to remind you of our agreement. I gave you this vehicle for necessary trips only.”
“And that’s all I’ve used it for.”
“That can’t be true. You’ve driven too many miles.”
“You want me to start tracking where I go, Son? Keep a little journal with me so I can write down where I went and how far? Maybe you and Lydia can look over it together. I bet she’d love that.”
They were moving fast over the uneven ground, and the truck hit a dip that launched them both out of their seats. Sonny cried out from the pain in his shoulder. The burning cigar fell from his mouth and landed between his legs. He hoisted himself up with his good arm to avoid the burning stub.
Jason stood on the breaks. He slapped at the seat until he knocked the cigar to the floorboard. “Did I hurt you? My God, Son, you all right?”
“I’m fine,” Sonny answered. “More startled than hurt.”
“It was an accident. I swear I wasn’t trying to do anything.”
Jason’s face twisted in to an ugly grimace. He let out a high strange noise trying to keep himself from sobbing, then he slid out of the truck and stood with his back to Sonny, his shoulders shaking. Seeing him like this reminded Sonny of the day he’d taken Jason out with the .22 rifle he’d given him for his tenth birthday. Jason had patrolled the brush at the edge of the orchard while Sonny fed the cattle and checked the late summer weevil traps. On the way back, they stopped at the stock tank where turtles skimmed just below the heat at the surface. Jason laid on his stomach with the rifle in the shade and waited for a turtle to come up for air. His first shot ricocheted off the water and shattered the headlight of the truck parked on the opposite side of the tank. Jason cried all the way back to town, but Sonny only laughed. “Boy, you should be proud of shot like that. You couldn’t do it again if I gave you a thousand tries.”
Sonny walked around to the front of the truck. Jason was bent at the waist, gulping air as if he’d just run a dead sprint. Sonny put a hand on his back to comfort him. “Don’t worry. You didn’t do anything wrong. We’re all right.” Sonny said this, and then Jason dropped to his knees and vomited on the grass.
Jason wanted to go on. His breakfast had done him wrong, he claimed, and he’d been feeling it all morning, but he was better now. He cleaned his nose with a bandana and rinsed his mouth with a few swigs from the thermos of coffee while Sonny removed the .30-06 rifle and the case with the .45 pistol from behind the seat. He fastened the pistol to his belt and loaded two magazines, one he slid into the rifle, the other Jason stashed in the pocket of his Carhartt coat. They side-stepped down the embankment that descended to the river ten yards below, mud caking on their boots and coloring their pants the rust red of the soil. The fast current swirled and eddied. The riverside was littered with driftwood carried downstream by the recent rains.
“A few days back, I came on a herd of pigs up yonder.” Jason pointed to the north hayfield. “I scared them down this way.”
“They wouldn’t stay on this end with the oilrig making all that noise.”
“I was cutting hay all week and didn’t see a sign of them anywhere else.”
“Could’ve slipped under the fence line. No telling.”
Jason loaded a cartridge into the rifle and switched off the safety. “There’s nothing to eat over there. They’ve got to stick close to the orchard.”
The bank was impassable to the north, so they headed south, pushing into the reeds that grew eight-feet high along the river and as thick as Sonny’s thumb. Jason walked a few paces ahead, the stock of the rifle nestled against his shoulder, ready to fire. Sonny couldn’t see more than a few feet in any direction, but they were close enough to the river that he could hear the water. The Washita was running as high as Sonny had seen since the flooding twenty years earlier, which left high water marks on the trees in the orchard he measured afterwards at five feet off the ground. At the peak of the flood, Sonny borrowed an aluminum fishing boat and went out to survey the damage. His harvesting equipment was underwater. Most of the cattle had been driven to rises that crested only a few feet above the water, some were dead, their distended bodies caught in the low hanging branches of pecan trees. That had been the only time Sonny feared he would lose the land. He’d declined the flood option in his insurance, and a lost harvest combined with the cost of new equipment threatened to take him under. He’d spent the months after the water receded attending to the pecan trees one by one, paring away dead branches and hacking the thick vines that grew up from the ground and encircled the trunks. After the harvest, he’d ended each day by going back and gathering a bucketful of pecans that the machinery had missed.
It was in the year after the flood that Sonny saw the first wild pig along the southern edge of the orchard. Thinking a neighbor had begun raising hogs, he tried unsuccessfully to catch the stray, which was no bigger than the spoiled schnauzer his wife had at home. Not long after, wild pigs began to rove his land in packs, wallowing in his hayfields and excavating the roots of his pecan trees. Other farmers told stories about calves lost to the packs on their property. Sonny began to keep a loaded rifle behind the seat and would shoot at any pig in sight. Once Jason was big enough, Sonny took him out hunting every Saturday morning, walking the riverbank and brush where his truck could not go.
They made slow progress through the reeds. After more than an hour, they emerged in a clearing and sat on the stripped and sun-bleached trunk of a dead tree run aground. Sonny’s shoulder ached and he moved it in small circles to stretch as his physical therapist had instructed.
Jason held his rifle at arm’s length, studying it. “Man, back in those reeds I was thinking about that Ma Duce.” This was the name Jason had given the .50 caliber rifle Sonny bought for him when he graduated high school. The gun was gone now, pawned in the years before Jason went to prison in order to pay for drugs he swore he wasn’t taking. “You remember what it did to those pigs,” Jason added. “I was such a killer with that thing I scared myself.”
Sonny laughed. Their first time out with the weapon, they’d topped a rise at the edge of the hayfield where the second oilrig now stood and come across a herd of pigs that numbered five or six dozen. Sonny worried that Jason would open fire without thinking and end up flat on his back from the recoil of the first shot, but instead he calmly eased down onto his stomach, letting the forestock rest on the ground. He held the rifle just as Sonny had taught him, butt high on the shoulder to align his eye with the sights, his grip firm but loose. He fired in short bursts. The heavy bullets lifted the pigs off their feet and sent them tumbling down the incline. Jason had purchased a thirty-round clip from a gun show in the city, and he managed to kill a dozen pigs before the herd scattered into the brush. The largest was five-feet long with eight-inch tusks obtruding from the lower jaw.
The money Sonny spent on this rifle had led to a fight with both his daughter and his wife, already confined then to her bed with cancer. When Jason’s parents began to receive truancy letters over his absences, Sonny promised to buy Jason anything he wanted if he would get his act together and graduate, and he had no regrets about the bargain. Jason’s success, he told the women, was worth ten times the price of the rifle.
“I’ve been kicking around an idea for a few days, and I want to run it by you,” Sonny said presently. “You still living in that little Airstream?”
“I don’t have anywhere else to go.”
Jason had found the trailer for rent in a broken-down mobile park on the outskirts of town after the fire. Lydia had a spare bedroom in the mansion she kept after her husband ran off with another woman, but she wouldn’t let her nephew stay on her property. “He’s a criminal. That’s what he deserves,” she said. “You can’t treat your own kin that way,” Sonny replied. “What happened to, Judge not, lest ye be judged?” Lydia smiled. “I prefer eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.”
“On account of all the work you’ve put in since I busted my shoulder,” Sonny said, “it occurred to me that I ought to help you find a decent place.”
“Hell, if you’re offering I’m in no position to refuse.”
“All right, it’s settled then.” Sonny lit another cigar. “The only thing is, if I’m going to put my name on a lease, I have to insist on a few rules.”
Jason didn’t say anything.
“Fortunately, there are only two, so they should be easy to remember. One is that you’re home by midnight, whether you work in the morning or not. And the other is that you have to take a drug test each week.”
“Are you serious?” Jason jumped to his feet and began pacing the small area in front of the tree trunk. “I already piss in a cup for my probation officer every month.”
“So what’s the problem then?”
“Man, I bet this was all Lydia’s idea. Trying to trip me up.”
“No, I only talked to her about it because she has a friend who works in a lab—”
“See, I knew she was behind this. And I bet she made you go along with the drug test before she let you give me any money.”
“I don’t take orders from my daughter.”
“Yeah, does she know that?”
“Lydia told me not to give you anything, you damned fool. How many different ways do I need to tell you it was my idea?”
“So you don’t trust me anymore either, Son? Is that how it is?” Jason stopped to face him. He held the rifle down at his side, the barrel pointed at Sonny’s legs.
“Please watch where you point that thing.”
Jason looked down at his hand, then raised the rifle above his head and spiked it into the ground with the full strength of his arm. The chambered shell discharged on impact. The bullet nicked a jagged root at end of the trunk where Sonny sat, then sailed harmlessly out over the river. Sonny was on his feet with the sound of the shot still echoing back at them, his fists clinched. He caught himself and stopped, but Jason had already turned and scrambled up the embankment hand over foot.
Sonny took a long draw from his cigar, which only made his stomach feel more sour, and he turned and pitched the stub into the river. He picked up the rifle. The stock had fractured, a thin line beginning at the butt and fading a few inches above the grip. Another blow would’ve broken it in two pieces. The rifle belonged to Lydia—his weapons had been destroyed in the fire—and Sonny dreaded the scene she would make when he returned it to her. Lydia had warned him that there was something dangerous about being around Jason, that trouble followed the kid. When Jason picked him up that morning, she’d hugged Sonny longer than she had since the fire and told him to be careful. “Quit being dramatic,” he said. “Jason’s been hunting his whole life.” “Even so, everything he comes into contact with ends up destroyed.” “You afraid he’ll shoot me?” Lydia shook her head. “But I am afraid you’ll end up shot.”
When Lydia spoke of the fire, she employed the same type of double talk. In the days after Sonny moved into her spare bedroom, Lydia informed him that she’d phoned the arson investigator to suggest he look into Jason and his friends. Sonny couldn’t help but laugh. “You think your nephew set that fire? Was he trying to kill me?” “No, I don’t think he intended to,” she said, “but he also didn’t intend to become a drug addict or to get caught forging checks, did he?” Sonny waved her out. “Go on somewhere else. I’m not interested in hearing this foolishness.” “Mark my words, Jason was involved with that fire,” Lydia added before going. “I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life. You’ll see. In the end, it’ll come out that he brought this on you, too.”
Sonny climbed the embankment and stood at the top to catch his breath. His entire shoulder throbbed, and he could feel his body tilting in that direction, the pain a weight pulling him down. He’d come up in to the band of scrub oaks that grew along the southern edge of his property. Jason was sitting against a tree a few hundred yards away, his hat tilted to cover his face.
Sonny took his time getting over to Jason. When he was close enough that he didn’t need to raise his voice, he said, “I want you to know first off that I’m not angry about what happened. I’m ashamed that my grandson could be so reckless.”
Jason pushed his cap back and wiped his face with his shirt.
“This is why I have to give you those rules. I know you’re capable of doing the right thing, you just don’t always do it.”
“I’m sorry. Temper just got the best of me.”
“And I’m sick of hearing you apologize. Our lives would be a lot easier if you’d get your head on straight and start acting like a grown man.”
Jason hugged his legs against his chest and began to sob once more, small and pitiful at Sonny’s feet. Jason was not built like the men in his family, all wide-shouldered and barrel-chested, a head taller than everyone they met. Sonny had trained as a boxer and fought in smokers around Oklahoma and northern Texas in his youth. Jason’s father had done the same. But Sonny did not push his grandson into the sport. He’d understood that Jason lacked the discipline for training and that he was too slight to endure the violence. He was weak. This was what Lydia failed to recognize even now. Jason had never had a chance against the force of a generation that expected to get everything without work or sacrifice, and he wasn’t resilient enough to start over on his own now that he’d been knocked down and left behind. Lydia told him not to blame society for the way Jason had treated him. “He’s an adult,” she said, “and he’s responsible for the choices he makes, just like everyone else.” But Sonny insisted she was wrong. Jason was still a kid, making the kind of mistakes kids do. He was no different than the boys who raced each other along the gravel roads that connected Sonny’s land to town, or who fishtailed around in the mud when the river dropped. Jason just got caught up in a situation with higher stakes. “That’s ridiculous,” Lydia said. “What those boys do in their trucks may be stupid, but it’s not criminal. You have more sense than that, Daddy.” “You’re not listening to what I’m trying to tell you,” Sonny snapped. “All these boys think the same way. They want to have a good time, impress girls, all that. Only thing different is the situation. Jason got caught up with the wrong people is what I’m trying to say. If you went back and changed the circumstances, he’d be the one out driving around and some other kid would be in jail.” “But that’s the thing,” Lydia replied. “You can’t go back. What’s done is done.”
With great difficulty, Sonny lowered himself to one knee beside Jason. “Lift your head up,” he told him. He pulled the cap off Jason’s head and rubbed his shorn hair hard with his hand. “Boy, if this is how you react every time something goes wrong, I’d hate to see you when things really get rough.”
“Things are rough for me now, Son. If I was any worse off, I’d be dead.”
Sonny didn’t say anything.
Jason began to pull tufts of grass out of the ground and toss them into a pile between his feet. He told Sonny that when he was waiting to get out of prison he’d imagined how happy he would be in the future, with a job and his own place, back around the folks he’d known all his life. But it hadn’t been like that. People were afraid of him now. They stood an extra step away, laughed a half-second late at his jokes. He was too broke to live anywhere but a tin bucket, and couldn’t afford to have a vehicle of any kind for his own. And there was no sign that a single thing would change anytime soon. Locked up, he had something to look forward to, but now that he was out, there was no reward in the distance, no better days ahead. He hadn’t been happy since his release, not one day. Instead, he’d been angry. “I’m not going to lie,” he concluded. “Since that fire I’ve been wanting to light out for some place new. Make a clean break. It’s the only move I have left.”
“Where would you go?”
Jason shook his head. “Into the city, maybe. Work construction. Maybe try to get on with one of these oil crews and head off to the middle of nothing.”
“I’d hate to see you go someplace you don’t know anyone. Especially with your whole family back here to look out for you.”
“They’re worse than everyone else. Probably glad to see me gone.”
“You think getting out of that trailer and into a real place would change things?”
“Sure, I guess. But I’d still be going nowhere.”
Sonny reached for the pack of cigars in his shirt pocket, then thought better of it. “Let me ask you this,” he said. “If you did leave and go to work somewhere, what would you do after that? What’s your long plan?”
“I don’t think that way. It’s all I can do now to keep my nose above water.”
“That’s a lie. Everyone has a plan for what they’d do if the right amount of money came along. Be straight with me now.”
Jason took a long time to answer. He told Sonny it was probably a stupid idea, but if he could ever get enough saved, he’d liked to buy a piece of property and begin raising hogs as a product. He’d come across some articles on the Internet about wild boar being sold as a delicacy in fancy restaurants in Dallas and Austin and Oklahoma City. It was free money, the way he figured it. All a person needed was to set up traps and wait for the pigs to come to him.
Sonny leaned his weight against the tree and lifted himself back to his feet. “How about this,” he said. “After I come back to work, I want you to set up an operation like that out here. And if you show me that you can earn a living, I’ll loan you the money to buy a piece of property for yourself, no interest.”
“Like I said, it’s a dumb idea. Probably won’t work.”
“That’s why you’re trying it on my place first. If you fail, you won’t lose anything but time.” Sonny reached out to shake Jason’s hand, and then he pulled him to his feet. “See how easy that was?” Sonny said. “Things are looking up already.”
They had gone as far out on the land as they could, and they started back for the orchard. The scrub oaks along the southern property line abutted Sonny’s largest hayfield, a half-mile across and four times as long. The grass had been overdue for cutting before the fire and now stood waist-high. To the west, the drilling rig towered above everything in sight, close enough that the hollow din of the roughnecks fitting pipe in place carried over the rumble of the generators.
Jason suggested they spread out and see if they could scare up a pig.
“There’s nothing in this field,” Sonny said. “Too much noise.”
“I swear the herd is down here. Nowhere else they could go.”
“Tell you the truth, my shoulder is getting to me. Why don’t we just head in, try again some other time?”
“You stay on your line. I’ll go further up. It won’t take hardly any more time.” Jason turned and started off with Sonny shouting after him still. He put fifty yards between them, then slid the rifle from his shoulder.
Sonny had emptied the shells from the rifle before he left the river. It had seemed a necessary thing at the time, but he felt ridiculous now for having taken such a precaution. He reached into his pocket to feel the brass casings, counted them with his fingers to be sure that, in his rush, he hadn’t left one in the magazine. They were all there. He called out to Jason, but could not bring himself to admit what he’d done. He decided it was better to wait, let him carry the rifle back to the truck unaware since there was no chance they’d encounter a pig anyway with the rig running. When Jason looked back to see what he wanted, Sonny waved him on.
The thick grass made Sonny’s feet heavy, as if he were slogging through shallow water. He gasped for breath, pushing himself to keep pace with Jason, who hiked steadily onward. Halfway across the field, Jason stopped and cut to his left. Sonny bent over to rest with his hands on his knees. He watched Jason stalk through the grass, the rifle trained on a spot just ahead. The field all around him began to churn. At first, Sonny thought the wind had kicked up, then he saw a dusky shape flash across the swath Jason had left behind him, and knew he had found the herd. Jason picked out a pig running blind through the grass and raised the rifle. He tensed and leaned into the shot, but nothing happened. Releasing the bolt, he cleared the empty shell left in the chamber and aimed again quickly, but still nothing.
The pigs reached the edge of the hayfield and turned together, like a flock of birds, for the cover of the scrub oaks. Jason ejected the magazine from the rifle. When he saw it was empty, he spun on his heel and hurled it at Sonny, although the magazine fell only halfway between them. Jason wasn’t done. He spiked the rifle again and stomped it into the ground. Unsatisfied, he tore off his cap and stomped it as well. He jumped into the air and shouted something in the direction of the fleeing pigs that Sonny couldn’t make out. And then, suddenly, Jason froze. He cocked his head to the right, and Sonny followed his gaze to a goliath of a pig rising to full height a few yards away, his pointed ears and the lump of muscle between his front shoulders visible above the grass. Jason removed the extra magazine from the pocket of his Carhartt coat and crouched slowly to reach for the rifle. The pig lunged, and Jason threw himself back, flailing for traction in the damp soil beneath the grass. He fumbled the magazine but managed to grab the rifle by the barrel and use it to hold off the pig. Back on his feet, Jason threw up his arms and screamed, trying to scare the monster away. Instead, the pig lowered his head and charged.
Sonny had been watching with his pistol drawn, and it was at this moment that he opened fire. The recoil sent a shock of pain to his shoulder that reverberated back down his arm as a numbing heat that tingled and stiffened his fingers and left his hand dangling at his side. He didn’t know if he’d fired two rounds or three, but the pig was still there and Jason was on the ground again. He switched the gun to his left, where it felt awkward and unfamiliar, then aimed and pulled the trigger.
In the aftermath, Sonny was asked on several occasions why he used his pistol at all in that situation. Anyone with sense knew that the tusks on pigs in their corner of the world weren’t long enough to cause real damage. Jason would’ve escaped the attack with a few of gashes, maybe a couple broken bones at most. Lydia told him to ignore this talk. “Did they also tell you that JFK should’ve avoided Dallas?” she asked. “Hindsight is about as about as valuable as last week’s lotto number. Besides,” she added, “if Jason hadn’t loaded an empty magazine in his rifle, you wouldn’t have been in that position to begin with.” This was the conclusion reached after a brief investigation by the police. Sonny never told anyone that he removed the cartridges from the rifle, or that he returned them to the box of ammunition in his truck before driving back to the place in the hayfield where Jason bled to death.
Sonny sent two shots smacking into the grass before he knocked down the pig. Another bullet rolled him onto his back, his legs thrashing the air. Sonny kept firing until he was still, then dropped the gun and rushed forward. Jason was screaming, a steady, open throated rhythm without any emotion, as if the bullet had overloaded some breaker inside him and tripped an alarm. He gripped his leg at the hip, although the wound was much lower. Blood pooled beneath him, dark and thick as motor oil. Sonny dropped to his knees and yanked off his belt. He looped it around Jason’s thigh and pulled hard. Jason screamed in pain now. He thrashed, and his hands went for the belt, but Sonny held tight.
“Don’t worry,” Sonny said. “Everything’s all right. Take a few breaths. We’re about to go.” He heaved Jason up onto his uninjured leg, and they staggered a few yards before Jason buckled again. Sonny tried to lift him, but his shoulder was too weak to bear the weight. Jason was sweating and taking quick breaths as though the effort to stand had exhausted him. Sonny cinched the belt and wrapped the loose end around Jason’s hand. “Hold on to that. Don’t let it get loose,” he said. “I’m going for the truck. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Sonny began to run. His chest burned, and he couldn’t hear anything over the sound of his labored breathing. The pain in his shoulder was a spring, tightening and ready to break. But he knew very soon he would escape the grass clutching at his legs, trying to pull him down. Beyond the hayfield, the land would swell beneath his feet until he reached the peak of the rise, and then he would begin to descend, gaining speed that would carry him as far as he had left to go once he was back on the steady, level ground of the orchard.
Matthew McKenzie Davis received an MFA from Boston University and is currently a Toulouse Dissertation Fellow at the University of North Texas. He has published scholarship on Philip Roth and James Joyce. His fiction has appeared in Connu.