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Hounded by Heritage

by Kevin McFarlane

part 1 of 3

“You’re not going out in this weather, Russel?”

“Aye. There’s a delivery to be made.”

“You aren’t serious. The weatherman said the worst is yet to come.” Marm shifted her massive frame around on the couch so she could see him. At just over three hundred and fifty pounds, getting herself repositioned was an effort all in itself.

“The storm will blow over,” Russel said as he planted a kiss on her forehead. “They always miss us. Besides, Mr. Wren said it couldn’t wait.”

“I swear, that man takes all advantages of you.”

“He is the reason we’ve got this roof over our heads protecting us from the rain.”

“And he’ll be the cause of me being a lonely old widow with barely a memory to cling to.”

“Oh, Marm, your worrying will put you in the grave long before I’m ready to go.” Russel chuckled as he bent for another kiss along her brow. “I won’t be long.”

“Don’t forget to take your pills.”

“I’ll take them when I get back,” he replied, already headed out the door.

Marm huffed her disapproval but let him go without any more fuss. She was a good woman, after all, and she understood that sometimes personal sacrifices were needed to keep up with the rest of the pack. With a couple of other lads on the payroll who would be just as willing and probably twice as able to make the delivery, Mr. Wren was actually doing them a favour by giving Russel the extra work. Lucky for him, Mr. Wren was a sentimental sort who took extra care to make sure he and Marm were well looked after.

Outside a fearsome wind howled and lashed about like an untameable beast that had escaped its leash, driving the chilling raindrops into a torrential downpour that soaked Russel before he was even off the front step.

A severe thunderstorm warning was in effect for the entire Valley. Most times, the worst of the weather seemed to find its way around them, but tonight it looked like the residents of Fulton Falls would be in for a real dandy of a light show.

Russel pulled the collar of his coat up around his chin and his hat down tight to his ears, ducked his head, and ran the two blocks to the pharmaceutical store. Mr. Wren was already waiting on him in the doorway, holding a white plastic bag.

“Sorry to bring you out in such terrible weather,” Mr. Wren said as Russel joined him under the protection of the canopy. “That’s some storm.”

“Haven’t seen anything like it in years.”

Mr. Wren handed Russel the bag. “This has to get to Mr. Bernstein as soon as possible.”

“Bernstein? That’s a couple of miles out of town.” Russel wasn’t exactly thrilled by the prospect of having to walk all the way out to the old farmer’s place. It would take nearly half an hour to get there and at least as long coming back in this weather. By that time Marm would be snuggled up all warm and comfy in her bed and he would have to do without his nightly cup of tea, likely winding up with a nasty case of the shivers instead.

It wasn’t like it was Bernstein’s fault. Getting on his years, the old farmer was no longer allowed to drive into town on his own. His driving licence had been revoked following a rather unfortunate “accident” involving his ancient ’76 Ford pickup and the glass-plated front of the local insurance agency.

That the incident occurred just days after he found out his rates were going up for the third straight year in a row was pure coincidence, Bernstein insisted, but it was decided in the interest of everyone’s safety he only be allowed to operate the machinery critical to his livelihood within the boundaries of his own property. Despite Bernstein’s advancing age, there wasn’t anyone around brave enough to try and chase the old coot off the land he had harvested for almost as long as the town itself had existed.

So he needed someone to bring him his medication once in a while. Considering Russel’s own condition — he had been popping his own pills for about as long as he could remember — he could have been a little more considerate of the situation. He just couldn’t help himself though. The idea of making the long trek in such terrible weather pissed him off.

Russel cringed inwardly at the flagrant use of such a harsh word. Marm would never tolerate such foul language at home and he instinctively heard her scold: “Russel! What’s gotten into you?”

The problem was, he really wasn’t sure.

“I would have asked one of the boys to go, but the starter on the van is busted so they can’t use it.” Mr. Wren pulled out a small roll of bills and stuffed them into the pocket of Russel’s coat. “A little bonus to make it worth your while.”

Nearly thirty-eight of Russel’s fifty years had been devoted to running supplies for the local pharmacy. Before Mr. Wren, it had been Russel’s father who ran the little store. Russel had never managed to get his head around all the fancy names for all the different medicines so he’d contented himself with a much simpler life.

This was his job. Making deliveries was expected of him. The extra cash made Russell nervous and suddenly very self-conscious.

“It’s really not necessary, Mr. Wren.”

“Don’t be silly, Russel. This is no weather for a man to be out in. Besides, Marm could probably use a new foot massager. We have a wonderful unit on sale this week.” He stopped Russel from pulling the bills from his pocket. “You just keep that now and make sure it’s put to good use.”

Russel decided to keep the money despite his misgivings. “Thank you, Mr. Wren.”

“You hurry on now. Mr. Bernstein is expecting you.”

The rain seemed to intensify as Russel stepped from the doorway. He hurried down the sidewalk, following the concrete path with his head down against the lashing drops. Once outside of town he was able to walk a wooded path.

The rain was almost completely blocked out by the overhanging branches, and he’d been this way often enough that he was able to follow the path without stumbling about too much in the dark.

While Mr. Bernstein wasn’t — as yet — a regular of the pharmacy, Marm had taken a particular liking to the farmers’ eggs, and once a week Russel was expected to make the hike to restock their supply.

Some of the lads might have told her to get off her lazy rump and fetch them herself, but not Russel. Marm was a good woman and he enjoyed looking after her. In return, he got a decent bit of company and a woman who’d remained faithfully by his side despite their taking on more than their share of hard times. An industrious man he wasn’t. Marm understood this, and for her, he was enough.

The path broke off at different intervals, leading to any number of farms dotting the area, as well as an old quarry where the kids went swimming in the summer, and a vacant lot where some of the older boys were known to take target practise. With stricter gun laws being enforced in recent years, it had been some time since anyone had heard a shot fired in these parts.

Which was why Russel was so surprised when he heard the sharp echo of a weapon blast.

At first he thought he might have been mistaken. He tried to convince himself it was only the rumbling thunder from overhead, but a second shot filled him with a sense of dread and convinced him there had been no mistake The shots had definitely come from the Bernstein farm, he was convinced of that.

He was close enough now that he saw the flash burst through the barn window. A moment later the sound of the third shot reached him.

The plastic bag in his hand all but forgotten, Russell raced through a clearing in the bush and out into a half-harvested hay field. The soft, soggy soil gripped at his feet to slow him down and caused the muscles in his legs to burn and ache with an exhausting pain.

A sudden spasm clutched at his calf and Russell lost his footing on the uneven ground. Stumbling, he almost tripped, the delivery flying from his hand and into the waist-high hay. He didn’t even give it a second glance, he was back up on his feet as quickly as he could and running for the barn.

A fourth shot ripped through the side of the building and almost tore his ear off as he came up alongside. Hot, searing metal sliced the skin and bit into the flesh to send a terrible stab of pain throbbing across his earlobe and right into his jaw. Though the blast had barely grazed him, the hot sting of the wound made his blood boil and his body scream.

Diving beneath the safety of a tractor, Russel called out for Bernstein to stop shooting, but the rumbling thunder and constant splatter of rain washed away his shout. He wasn’t sure if Bernstein had spotted him through the window and was purposely aiming for him or if Russel had simply been unfortunate enough to be in line with the shot, but until the booming stopped he was perfectly content to stay right where he was.

He might be wet. His ear might have felt like an amateur tattoo artist was using it as his drawing board. But more than anything, he wanted to be sure he could return home to tell Marm all about his little misadventure. Oh, how she would giggle over how ridiculous he could be and how he’d sat shivering and soaked instead of going for help like any sane person would.

Well that was it, wasn’t it? He needed to find help. All he had to do was make it around to the other side of the barn and he would be hidden all the way to the house.

Only, as he started out from behind the tractor, a series of rapid fire shots filled the night with a deafening roar to completely drown out the howling wind and forceful rain.

He dove back behind the tractor. Russel couldn’t count the number of shots fired but it was fairly obvious Bernstein wasn’t alone inside.

A guttural wail, loud enough to be carried over the raging storm. A sound of pain, but not of the human kind. An animal dying.

Or was it? What kind of animal would make that kind of sound? Certainly, nothing like Russel had ever heard before. His life in the small farming community had offered him many opportunities to witness nature’s wondrous workings; birth and death, the continuous cycle always a seeming miracle. Whatever was dying in the barn made an unnatural sound the likes of which Russel had never encountered.

The dying wail cut off suddenly with one final shot.

Though he knew better by this point, curiosity won out over Russel’s fear and after making sure the gunfire was finished, Russel crept from behind the protection of the tractor and quickly waddled his way over to where the fourth shot had splintered the wood siding and almost took his head off.

Cautiously, Russell slid up to the hole and peered inside.

Straight down the long, dark business end of a shotgun barrel.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2009 by Kevin McFarlane

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