The squalls rolled across the valley floor like wagons hitched to the wind, each one a separate sheet of rain running to the east. Young Wes Turner stood on the porch and listened to raindrops on tin, a thousand little fingers drumming on the roof while the dogs slept at his feet, cool for the first time in weeks. The porch steps were pine, weathered and gray like the clouds, like the rest of the porch, like the house itself, which drank in the dim evening light with the same thirst that the land held for moisture.
As it had for years, the porch roof leaked.
Joe Turner sat on a crate, his back against the rough-cut siding, watching tiny drops of water run down a bare joist until they hit a knot hole. The drops condensed and then dripped in a steady line, landing just behind Blue on the porch floor.
Wes stood there with his arms crossed, watching the rain, watching Blue and his partner Red, watching his brother Joe. Mostly watching Joe.
The rain tapered off and then picked up again, the next squall blowing in from the west, bringing welcome relief from the drought. After a while, Joe got up and walked into the house, the screen door banging shut behind him. When he came back out he held a shotgun in one hand and a box of twelve gauge shells in the other.
“Let’s go.” he said.
They drove down the road in their old pickup, Joe at the wheel, both of them sitting on the hard bench seat, not talking. They never talked much anymore.
Wes looked straight ahead, his eyes following the contours of the road as the truck bounced across shallow ruts in the dirt. His left hand rested on the seat, calloused fingers tracing and retracing a metal spring that had worn through the fabric while his right hand held the door handle for support. The truck creaked and rattled over the washboard and tiny bits of rust fell from the side panels and landed on the ground, mixing with the dirt and the gravel.
Sometimes, when they’d gone hours without speaking, Wes wondered if he and Joe were rusting like their truck.
Blue rode in the back, along with Red. Their long ears flapped in the wind and their tongues lolled out, bright and reddish pink against white teeth. Rain drops splattered against their faces, but they didn’t seem to care. After all, they were dogs.
At dusk, they reached the highway. Two hours later they pulled back off, swinging into the parking lot of a Mom and Pop convenience store. Joe walked in by himself. Wes waited, the truck motor still running.
As he sat, Wes fiddled with the radio dial, trying to find something besides static. There wasn’t much. For a moment he touched on a religious program and a man’s voice, an evangelical minister of the airwaves, filled the truck, urging Wes to repent his sins while there was still time. Then he was gone, his exhortations fading into nothingness, and static crackled through the cab.
After a while, Wes shut the radio off, turned, and looked through the rear window. Both dogs were lying down, curled into tight balls, asleep.
When Joe came back a few minutes later, he handed Wes a paper bag. “They didn’t have much.” he said.
Wes nodded, and then reached into the bag. He pulled out a couple of hot dogs wrapped in tin foil.
“Thanks.” he said. “These will do just fine.”
They stayed in a rundown motel in Liberty that night. Wes dreamed of bears, and of his Pa and his brother Joe. The bears spoke in whispers, in familiar voices that he recognized but couldn’t place. His father was there, wearing his Sunday hat, his hand on one bear’s shoulder with his fingers entwined in its shaggy coat. He smiled over at Wes, a sad smile tinged with love and regret, but he didn’t speak.
Joe, a younger Joe, maybe ten or twelve, stood off to one side, chewing on a toothpick with his hands in his pockets. Once, when the bears paused, Wes looked at Joe and caught his eye. Joe started to say something, then he stopped and shook his head.
“No,” he seemed to be telling Wes, “don’t talk. Listen to the bears.”
Wes woke to a cold nose, for a moment a bear’s nose, then suddenly Blue’s.
“Damn it, Blue.” he said, “You scared the hell out of me.” Then he laid back in bed with his eyes shut, trying to go back, to find his brother and his Pa again. He couldn’t, his dream fading to a memory that just wouldn’t take life, so he got up and stretched in the dim early morning light. Joe, he noticed, was already in the shower.
They ate breakfast at the Liberty Cafe, sitting at a formica-topped counter, surrounded by loggers and truck drivers. It was loud, the grill sizzling in the back as men laughed and talked and swore oaths at the government, and their waitress poured them mugs of steaming black coffee while she chatted about the weather. When she finished with their order, Joe read the newspaper’s sports section. Once he laughed - a bit of the old Joe - and said, “Those damn Bobcats couldn’t beat the Grizzlies if their lives depended on it.”
For a while afterwards they talked like brothers, relishing their youth, and it was Montana sunshine to Wes.
When they left town, they crossed the only bridge over the river and drove north into the mountains. The road twisted and swayed, following a tiny creek, and after a while the pavement turned to dirt. They kept going, the engine growling as the truck climbed.
At noon, they reached the summit and started down toward the narrow valley floor, neither of them saying a word, refusing to give power to the moment. In the back, Blue howled once, his voice a thin tenor that echoed through the cab. Joe glanced in the rear view mirror, searching for the source of the howl, but Wes kept his eyes on the road, watching it snake through the trees as gravel crunched under their tires. A few minutes later, he looked over at Joe and said, “Blue knows.”
Joe just nodded.
Twenty miles further along, they turned off on a narrow dirt track. They passed an old, weathered, hand painted sign that read Boyd Hill Cemetery, and then they breaked to a stop. Joe got out of the truck, reached behind his seat, and pulled out the shotgun. Then he walked around the front of the cab and waited for Wes.
“I’ll be back in a few hours.” he said when Wes finally stepped out. Then he called Blue from the pickup’s bed and handed Wes the gun and the shells.
To Wes, to a young man old beyond his years but still learning his strength, the shotgun felt like duty, like responsibility, like Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Future, rather than oiled wood and cold steel. He was still trying to sort things out in his mind when Joe backed the pickup around and drove off with Red riding in the back.
Blue sat down and gave Wes a quizzical look. “Why’d they leave us here?” he seemed to ask. Wes shrugged, and then reached over and scratched Blue’s ears as they watched the truck disappear. Blue’s tail thumped a few times, hitting Wes in the leg to a percussionist’s rhythm, but Wes barely noticed. He was thinking about what he had to do, wishing things were different. They weren’t, though.
“Come on.” he told Blue. “Let’s get moving.” And they started into the woods.
They walked for a long time, Wes holding to a steady pace while Blue ranged out in front, crossing through dense thickets and open glades and keeping a northeasterly line. Eventually they dropped down into a shallow depression and the pine and larch that had shadowed their path gave way to a wide grove of aspen.
As suited the season, the aspen were in full color, golden leaves perched atop silver-white trunks, and Wes paused and watched as the leaves shimmied and danced in the breeze.
“They’re beautiful.” he said under his breath, no one but Blue to hear, and then he sat down on a rock that jutted from the forest floor. The rock was level, chair high and covered with moss; as comfortable a seat as he could ever hope to find in the woods. Blue laid down at his feet, panting, and Wes held the shotgun across his knees, his fingers resting on the barrel, unconscious of the gun’s weight, or of the shells in his pocket, or even of the pungent aroma of gun oil; unconscious of anything at all but the leaves and the way they moved against the blue sky.
He stayed there for a long time, never once looking down.
Yet eventually thoughts began to stir and simmer in the back of his mind, insinuating their way into his consciousness, and he sighed and reached into his pocket for the shotgun shells. Then he loaded the gun and stood up.
As he stood, his mind flashed back to something his Pa had told him years earlier, something the old man used to say when the meaning of life grew hard to discern, when even simple choices seemed obscure.
“If you want to learn about owls, son, then you better ask the mice.”
It made sense, in a way, a lesson on relationships and connections. Still, it wasn’t enough, not then, not now.
“What if the mice don’t answer?” he wondered aloud.
Blue had fallen asleep, but he opened his eyes when Wes spoke.
“OK, old dog.” Wes told Blue, looking down at his longtime companion. “It’s time, and there’s no point in waiting any longer.”
“Hunt ‘em up.”
Together they slipped through the aspen grove, the sound of their passage masked by the flutter of the leaves and by the grass under their feet. Wes held the shotgun chest high while his dog ranged back and forth. Within a few minutes Blue picked a scent from the air and his tail whirled round and round as he raced among the trees, drawn by the invisible promise of a bird.
Blue followed the scent, Wes trailing behind, and then a grouse flew, an explosion of brown wings whirring among the yellow leaves. Wes saw the bird erupt, Blue leaping high and just missing its tail feathers, and he raised the gun to his shoulder and shot as the grouse wove through a tangle of aspen branches. It fell in a tumble, no longer graceful or powerful, bereft of life and any purpose Nature had once intended — or any but one — and it landed on the ground amidst a scattering of gold leaves.
Wes walked over to the bird and, after just a moment’s hesitation, he reached down and picked it up. It was warm and soft in his hand and it smelled dusky, like a twilight forest in summer. He studied the bird, smoothing its feathers with a gentleness that belied his actions, and then he noticed one bright drop of blood on its breast, apple red against the light gray feathers. He held the grouse out to Blue, who sniffed it and then, very softly, licked the bird clean.
“Good boy, Blue.” he said. “Good boy.” And then, with the bird still in his hand, he started to walk back the way he’d come, back toward the sign that said Boyd Hill. He didn’t say anything else to Blue, nor did he apologize to the grouse he carried. He was saddened that he’d shot such a beautiful bird, but he held the sadness inside, walling it off in a place where it couldn’t easily touch him.
It was a long walk back, and the sun was just above the horizon when Wes neared the truck. He set the gun and the remaining shells on the pickup’s seat and then he took the path toward a fence that he could barely see through the trees.
The trail wound through giant Larch, huge and ancient, a sylvan cathedral that stretched into the distance. At the fence, a picket fence, once whitewashed but now fading toward gray, he walked through a narrow gate with the grouse in his hand and Blue at his side. He saw Joe then, bending down, tending a small fire. He paused for a second, taking things in while Blue ran over to Joe, wagging his tail in greeting.
Joe turned from the fire pit, nodded to Wes and then reached over to scratch Blue’s ears. He said something to Blue but while his tone was warm, the words were too low for Wes to catch. Blue wagged his tail even harder and then laid down next to Red, away from the heat of the fire.
As he stepped closer, Wes caught the sizzle of trout frying in a skillet and his nose picked out the aromas of lemon and butter and garlic from the soft fragrant scents of the surrounding forest. The smells brought back memories and he thought of other camp fires and other places and the people who’d shared them.
They ate half an hour later; fried trout and corn steamed on the coals, grouse breasts and Dutch oven potatoes. They drank beer because they liked the way it tasted, and even more because it seemed the right thing to do, and when they were finished they fed their scraps to the dogs.
Afterwards, Joe walked back to the truck with the skillet and the Dutch oven while Wes cut two long, thin sticks with his pocket knife. When Joe came back, they toasted marshmallows over the fire’s coals till they were perfect and brown, the exact color of tanned teenage girls or brand new leather gloves.
Wes ate his hot, almost painfully so, right off the stick. At the same time he listened to the near-silence beyond the fire; the sound of the breeze slipping through the branches, the rustle of mice in the pine needles, the occasional feather duster swish of a night bird’s wings, one lone elk's bugle way off in the distance.
An hour passed, then two, and the fire burned down to the barest hint of glowing embers. Brilliant stars framed the dark limbs above their heads, and both stars and trees stood sentinel for the young men and their dogs.
When they finally judged that enough time had passed, Wes and Joe rose in unison and doused the coals. Then, by the light of the stars above, they laid a store-bought birthday card against a white wooden cross that stood upright perhaps twenty yards away — it was one of dozens scattered through the pines — and together they walked back to the truck.
The card held an image of a whitetail deer, a lone buck with a wide, heavy rack. Folded inside were gifts for the man who’d gone before; a single tiny grouse feather and an old Royal Coachman trout fly.
Wes had written a few words at the bottom, too, words that didn’t seem enough. Still, they were all he had left to give, and under trees that had seen the close of centuries and skies so ancient that the longest life seemed but an insignificant speck, they began to take root.
We miss you, Pa.