The Long Range Forecast
by Dwight Krauss
part 1 of 2
Buford danced a bit. Dad saw but misread: “There’s nothing to be afraid of, son.”
Not afraid, Dad. Bored.
The wheelchair was positioned at the end of the deck, turned away from them. All Buford could see was the back of the old man’s head: white, scaled, a few clinging wisps of hair nodding as the old man drifted in and out of sleep.
Beyond that slightly repellent view was a better one, clouds breaking here and there, the rising sun throwing a random red-gold shaft at the Blue Ridge. Natural spotlights, and Buford watched as one, then another, lit the turning leaves a blaze of red or yellow against their un-highlighted cousins.
He glanced back down the stairs. The others were in line, as sleepy and bored as he was, their Dads fussy, too. Daryl looked up and rolled a pair of “Oh Gawd!” eyes at him. Buford giggled.
“Be respectful,” Dad whispered. Yeah, fine, okay. Dad picked at Buford a bit, doing unnecessary tidying, like Mom would, then stepped off, nudging him along. Thank God they were first. They stopped about four feet behind the wheelchair, silent, waiting, and Buford fidgeted. C’mon already.
Dad tsked and pressed Buford’s shoulder a little too hard. He resisted a bit, just to let Dad know that wasn’t appreciated and Dad frowned, but only frowned. Now there was a measure of Buford’s growing status: Dad would have cuffed him before. But no longer.
“Grandfather,” Dad whispered softly.
At first, nothing, so Dad whispered it again and Buford wondered if Grandfather, er, great-Grandfather, was dead. No, not quite. There was a tremor along the almost-skull and it stirred and moved and the hands drifted down to the wheels and with surprising speed and strength, Grandfather turned the chair, his rheumy gray eyes blinking at them.
“Earl,” Grandfather’s voice was cracked and high and childlike, but there was steel in it. He even smiled. “And Buford.”
Buford was surprised. He figured the old fart would just drool and gibber, barely aware of what day it was, much less Buford’s name. Granted, Buford had been presented before, at birth (he was told), at six with another group of kids starting school, once in fifth grade with a group of shooting contest winners but, hey, all those times, he’d just been one among a blob. No reason Methuselah should remember him, even though Buford was in his line. Daryl said Grandfather was a lot stronger and smarter than he let on. Maybe he was right.
Dad pushed him forward a bit and Buford almost forgot to bow, but caught himself. Grandfather extended a bone of an arm ending in a withered clump of flesh that bore some resemblance to a hand and patted Buford’s shoulder. Buford gritted his teeth.
“It is sunrise of your thirteenth birthday,” Grandfather’s voice, man, such steel, “it is the last day of childhood. You’re a man at dark. Take your place.” And Grandfather retracted the clump and wheeled the chair around to the mountains. Dismissal.
Buford blinked and glanced at Dad who was already in bow and stepping back and Buford hastily copied him, warned by Dad’s look. Maybe thirteen didn’t guarantee absolute immunity from a switching. He turned with Dad and they walked quietly down the side exit steps. “That’s it?” Buford whispered, suddenly worried Grandfather had better hearing than he had previously supposed.
Dad shook his head. “You just received your blessing, and that’s all you can say?” He sighed. “Kids.”
* * *
“So how was it?”
Buford shrugged, “Eh,” and waggled a hand.
“Boy,” Emma snorted, “you really know how to appreciate a moment,” and she playfully slugged his shoulder.
“Well, hey,” he said, playfully pushing her until she unbalanced a bit on the log, but not quite enough to fall, “some of us aren’t the Chosen Ones.”
“You may worship me now,” she primly placed fingertips on her knees and arched her hands, looking regal and privileged. God, he loved her.
“In your dreams,” he finger slapped her shoulder and she said “Oww!” but wasn’t hurt and they started a hand fight and fell to giggling uncontrollably. God, he loved her.
“You have to take it more seriously,” she said, suddenly becoming serious, “it’s really important.”
“Yeah, yeah.” He didn’t feel like it was really important. It was just another boring day on the slow boring process to full rights. Another, what, eight years to go? He didn’t think he could stand it.
“No, I mean it.” Her blue eyes flashed and she tossed that hay-colored hair, the flag of her, the marker he always sought on the playground or in the classroom. “My Dad is making sounds about Ernest.”
“Ernest!” Buford’s jaw dropped. “Oh, come on! That geek?”
“My Dad wants me to spend more time with him. Get to know him.” She tossed her head again, so wonderfully. “Maybe even develop an interest.” And she looked at him sideways.
Buford put his fingers in his mouth and made gagging sounds. She laughed. “We’d have very smart children, you know.”
“Genetics.” Buford was disgusted. “It always comes down to that, doesn’t it?”
“While you and I,” she said, “would have very beautiful children.”
He looked at her, the lake of all the universe in her eyes, the fire down there somewhere. Kiss her, something commanded, and he leaned forward, his lips pursed.
She pushed him hard and there was no backstop and he tumbled, tucking his head and rolling through his shoulder as Conley had taught him, glancing off the woodpile, which hurt a bit, and landing against the chopping stump. Thank God no axe was there.
Dammit. He flexed from his knees and stood, breathing easy, crouched, ready. “Hey,” the combat was in his voice, “that was not cool.”
“Not only handsome,” she stood on the other side of the cord, looking at him with approval, “but good reflexes.” She nodded and was perfect. His surge of anger dissipated. “Beautiful children,” she said, softly, “beautiful warrior children.”
He dusted himself off and came around the cord while she gathered her backpack and eyed the little red building in the distance. Still some kids running around the playground so, time. She waited while he hauled up his own backpack and settled it on his shoulders. “You know I’m going outside, right?” she asked as they fell in step and lined up for the building.
“What?” he was startled. “No, I didn’t know. What are you doing that for?”
“You knew,” she nodded, certain, “I told you last week. You just don’t listen to me.”
“Phew,” he ridiculed that observation. “You didn’t say anything. I’da remembered that.”
“No you wouldn’t.”
“Yes I would.”
They smiled at each other and drew up the knoll that overlooked the school. A couple of the bigger kids were wrestling in the sand pit while Mr. Oakes looked on, encouraging. A bunch of girls were tossing a football back and forth. One of them looked up and frowned at him. Missie Lyndon. Gawd, he wished she would just leave him alone.
He moved closer to Emma as they dropped down the path and noted the sudden storm on Missie’s face. Buford grinned. “So where are you going?”
“Really?” He looked at her. “What for?”
“They’re going to show me how to pull the cables and tune the system.”
“Wow,” he was impressed, “that is so cool.”
She gave him an appreciative glance. He was pretty clear on this point. Some of the boys thought it was wrong for the girls to get advanced training. “Cookin and cleanin’ and screwin’, that’s what they’re for,” some of the throwbacks would chortle and Buford would just shake his head. Morons. Use talent wherever it grows. One of the Premises.
He frowned. “Isn’t it dangerous?”
“Yep,” she nodded carelessly, “that’s why we’re taking a full patrol.” She eyed him. “Wanna come be my guard?”
“Awk!” a sound of pure delight, “Would I!” A chance to go outside? With her? He’d give a finger for that.
It was the right answer with the right enthusiasm and she looked at him warmly and lovingly and he melted. “I’ll see what they say,” she said and they stood on the edge of the playground, Missie, out of the corner of Buford’s eye, fuming. Mr. Oakes shot them a disapproving look. No dawdling.
“So what task did you pick?” she called back as she stepped towards the school.
He grinned broadly. “Hunting.”
* * *
There were ten of them, one other tasker besides Buford — a Walsh named Gregory who was an occasional fishing buddy, but they weren’t really friends — two older kids, five adults, and Conley. Gigantic Conley, wrapped in a set of black fatigues that had to have been specially made to take in his almost 7-foot, almost 400-pound frame, his long black beard a trellis down the buttons and straps and cords that kept him inside. The beard contrasted with the dazzling dome of his shaved head, as if Conley’s hair was fleeing his brain.
He held a series of leather leashes carelessly, like they ran to a pack of poodles instead of a bunch of slavering, yelping, rampaging hounds. There was an AK57 strapped around his huge back and a Bowie knife gleaming evilly in an ankle holster. He was Death Incarnate. Buford stood in awe, wondering how long he would last should Conley decide to dismember him. Daryl said Conley had a weak knee, some old gunshot wound, so Buford supposed that would be his point of attack. Might give him a second or two before evisceration.
“Gentlemen,” Conley’s voice boomed with the force of an ice floe break-up. “Today we are going to run a small herd of deer that have settled into the little valley by the South Fork, where Hawksbill meets it. We are not,” and he barked that last word, “harvesting the entire herd, just three bucks, and only bucks. No doe and no yearlings.” His caterpillar brows lowered. “Does everyone understand me?”
Nervous nods all around. They were all having the same thought about Conley’s evisceration skills.
“Now,” Conley’s voice actually got pleasant, “this hunt’s been set up for the honor of our new taskmen,” and everyone broke into applause, interrupting him. Gregory and Buford exchanged looks and blushed and grinned.
“So, boys, I mean, men, men,” he guffawed and everyone joined in, including Buford and Gregory. That Conley was a card. “What I want you to do is step up here,” he gestured at a pick-up that was backed into the trees, its bed facing them, “and select a weapon.”
Eagerly, they did so. Harcourt stood to the side, lean, hawk-faced, tough as a leather boot, dressed in the same black fatigues but only a fraction of the height and weight of Conley. He watched them closely, jealously. These were his rifles, dammit, his children. Be respectful.
Buford was. He kept his hands down, remembering what Dad said about skin oils. He gazed at the rifles. So beautiful. A Baretta 3901, long and heavy, .12 auto, very powerful. Maybe too powerful.
An M&P15T, .556, another in the long line of M-16 ripoffs, more combat than hunting. Eh. Besides, Gregory was looking at that one hungrily so Buford moved on. A Knight Revolution. Hm, black powder.
They all may end up that way, Dad said, because shells deteriorate, despite Harcourt’s magic touch. A Winchester SXR, .30-.06, kinda old, maybe... wait. He stopped. He couldn’t help his hands from reaching out and caressing the luxuriant wooden stock, the fine classic lines. M1 Garand. War-tested. Reliable.
Harcourt looked on with approval as Buford carefully, lovingly, lifted it from the display. “Excellent choice,” he nodded.
“All right then,” Conley said as Harcourt gave out ammunition and showed Buford how to load and work the action, “just remember, three bucks only. And,” Conley turned towards the truck, “the taskmen get 11 and 1 o’clock.” Buford looked at Gregory, thrilled. They were going to lead.
Conley pulled out his radio. “X1, X1, H1.” Buford knew the codes, Anvil this is Hammer. “H1,” came back in static reply. “Releasing,” Conley said. Double tap, acknowledged. “Two-second CON-versation, no tri-ANGulation,” Buford sang the rhyme in his head like he was back in the classroom.
Conley yanked on the leads and some of the hounds left their feet with yelps, so strong was the pull, while others snapped at them because they knew it was almost time. Conley led through the brush and the group spread out, patrol style, eyeshot to the man on the left and right. Buford and Gregory bracketed Conley’s 12 and would fan back once the hunt started, creating a V behind them of armed men. Set the rank, watch the flank.
“Hie, hie!” Conley bellowed and the hounds throated, gathering around him, heads thrown back and calling bloodlust to their giant, grinning master. Buford wondered what it was like to have one. Not pets, tools, Dad had warned, but still.
They were off, Conley extending the leads and releasing Hey Boy and Always Trouble on their own, best scenters who would find the herd and call out to the pack. Conley was a dance master, releasing and catching leads as they tangled in scrub and trees, not letting the younger dogs get more than four feet away before taking back control. Dogs need discipline, too, Dad said.
Conley was fast, too damn fast for such a big man in such thick woods and Buford panted as he kept position, losing sight of Conley but using sound and brush movement to keep track. He glanced to his left and saw one of the older kids struggling, too, so it wasn’t just him.
He weaved through creeper and blackberry, sweeping aside low hangs with his free palm and stepping heel first, rolling through the uneven ground and roots, the training kicking in, the adrenalin and the thrill kicking in, too. Oh my God, way, way too much fun. He grinned.
And stopped. Hard. Conley had stopped hard and tightened the leads, shutting the hounds so effectively the only sound was the far calling of the two point dogs. Buford dropped, seeking cover, the rifle sweeping before him. He looked at Conley, saw the black shape standing tall, fearless, the left hand clinched in a fist around the leads, held up by his left ear.
Conley placed the fist against his cheek. Immediately, Buford scrambled back, falling to the ground and pointing the rifle out. In seconds, the whole hunt had formed a porcupine around the big man, who remained standing. Bait. Bravest spot of the formation, everyone said. Dumbest, Dad said.
Exercise? Probably, and Buford glanced at Gregory, who glanced back fearfully. Buford frowned. Get a grip, Greg.
The radio crackled. “H1. X1. Sector 10. Bolter.”
Buford gasped. An intruder.
Copyright © 2009 by Dwight Krauss