Jimmy had a difficult time keeping still. He squirmed and grew restless in his chair and waited as patiently as any nine-year-old boy could wait. He attempted to watch his favorite television program in order to send his thinking in a different direction. But there was no use. The growing excitement the boy felt on that late summer evening exceeded beyond anything that he had ever experienced before. He was on the brink of receiving the most glorious of gifts, one that meant everything to him, one that would make his dreams come true.
Jimmy Harrison was an undersized kid. He wore a pair of cut off denim shorts and went shirtless, just as he had done all summer long. Sprinkled with dark freckles was his tiny nose. Most of his tangled hair hung well over his ears, while the rest tried desperately to escape the confines of his worn out Little League cap. Turning in his father’s reclining chair, he looked nervously out the window behind him.
“When is Dad gonna be home?” he asked his mother. “He should’ve been here like an hour ago.”
“Just relax, honey,” said Sandra Harrison. “He hasn’t been off work for very long. He’ll be home soon enough.”
Jimmy’s mom was a petite, soft-spoken woman who did not have a lax bone in her tiny body. In her waking moments, there were always chores that needed doing.
“See…look. I told you,” she exclaimed as she unfolded the ironing board. “He’s pulling in the—”
Before she finished, Jimmy bounced out of the reclining chair, sprinted out the front door, and jumped off the porch. He bolted through the yard and leaped over his bicycle just to greet his old man.
Allan Harrison rolled into the driveway just as he had done every evening after working a ten-hour shift. His spirits were high and his favorite country-western station blared from the speakers of his 1985 Jeep Laredo.
With the Jeep still rolling down the driveway, the eager lad ran alongside, demanding answers. “Did you get it? Did you get it?” asked Jimmy, shouting over the music.
“What? I can’t hear you, Jimmy boy,” said Allan, teasing. He kept the radio’s volume at its max. “What in the world are you talking about?” he yelled back, bearing a juvenile grin, the cigarette hanging from his mouth staying securely in place.
“Oh, you know what,” Jimmy hammered back while nervously pumping the bill of his Little League cap. “Did you get my shotgun?”
“Oh…is that all you wanted?” asked Allan. Finally stopping, he turned off the Jeep, rolled-up the windows, and got out.
Jimmy’s dad was an average-sized man who stood around 5 feet 10 inches and weighed nearly 200 pounds. His once prominently flat stomach from his twenties no longer existed. Now, at the age of 35, his mid-section stretched the buttons on his navy-blue work uniform. He had a mustache that was dark and thick and hid his upper lip from the rest of the world, giving him the appearance of a western outlaw from long ago. Smudged proudly across his face was the day’s work from the forging plant, just as it was every day at this time.
“Well, Jimmy boy…” he said and paused with a brief sigh. “I did stop to look at the Remington you’d picked out.” The cigarette dangling from his mouth bobbed up and down as he answered. “It was the one with the walnut stock, right?”
“Yeah, yeah, that’s the one,” answered Jimmy. His patience was all but gone.
“Well,” Allan said and then hesitated once more. “I’m sorry, son; but someone else must have bought it.”
Jimmy paled as his father’s words registered in his mind and all at once his anticipation came to a disappointing end. Emotionally crushed, he dropped his head and gave a couple more discouraging thrusts to the bill of his cap.
“Relax, Jimmy. I’m only kidding!” Allan gave his son a few playful pokes to his ribs. “I bought the last one…you little knucklehead.” Jimmy perked up immediately. For a brief moment, he’d thought his life was over.
When Allan pulled the carrying case from behind the seat of his Jeep, Jimmy was overjoyed. After all the waiting and dreaming, he now had his very own twenty-gauge shotgun. Allan removed the gun from its hard-shell case and handed it over to his glowing son.
“Well, what do you think?”
Jimmy cradled the gun while trying to determine if the moment was real. He looked up at his father and produced a tender, monumental smile. This ceremonial exchange was like no other for the boy. Staring down at his gun, Jimmy realized the importance of what was happening. From this moment on, things would be different. Because now, he held the highest of all bragging rights over each and every one of his buddies at school. This gun was sure to spur some jealousy among any group of nine-year-old boys. However, as important as that was to Jimmy, it did not compare to the gun’s real significance. Jimmy held in his hands the one object that would ensure him the freedom for which he had been waiting all summer. This new twenty-gauge shotgun granted him with his own means to track down and harvest those furry-tailed squirrels.
He had heard his father boast of his successful hunting adventures time and time again. And come morning, Jimmy had great aspirations of doing the same or even better. He had participated in a few hunting excursions in the past, but never toting a gun of his own. Jimmy had also fired guns before—just like the one he was holding now—but usually at nothing more than plastic jugs and paper targets. For Jimmy, this was the big time.
That night, sleep did not come easily for Jimmy. He tossed and turned thinking of the grand hunting adventure and finally having his very own gun. When the alarm clock rang at 4 a.m., Jimmy sprang from his bed. Allan, who had awoken an hour before, was drinking coffee, puffing on a Winston, and watching the early news programs. Sandra was also awake busily preparing breakfast for her two dedicated hunters.
“It’s kinda windy out there this morning,” said Allan as his son staggered into the living room. “It might be hard to hear them. They’re calling for rain too.”
“I don’t care about all that,” said Jimmy, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. “We’ll still find those suckers.”
“Yes, son, I’m sure we will. Now go ahead and start getting ready so we can head out in a few minutes.”
Jimmy needed no more persuading. After a delicious breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast, and bacon, he and his dad were out the door with their gear loaded in the Jeep and heading down the road. The ride to the local wildlife refuge seemed to take an eternity for the anxious lad. With his gun by his side, Jimmy sat listening to the high, lonesome sounds of his dad’s country-western radio station. He daydreamed about having a successful hunt, one concluded and celebrated with a bagged limit of five squirrels each. He had seen his dad accomplish such a feat many times before and he was sure he could do the same.
“You think we’ll see anything?” asked Jimmy.
“I don’t know…maybe,” answered Allan after taking a sip from his coffee mug.
“I hope so.”
“So do I, son…so do I.”
Jimmy and his father pulled in at the refuge around 5 a.m. and Allan began briefing his son.
“When we get in there and settled in, you’ll have to be quiet the whole time. If you make any noise, you’ll scare them away.” Jimmy knew the protocol, but still listened carefully. “Keep your gun unloaded until we hear or see something. Soon as we locate one…well…you know what to do after that.”
“Yeah, I remember,” Jimmy assured his father with gleaming confidence.
Donned in their camouflaged hunting attire, the two started by hiking down a logging road that Allan had traveled many times throughout his years of hunting. Father and son walked side by side. Allan chose the left side and Jimmy walked on the right. The pair trekked a hundred yards deeper into the woodlands and selected a large beech tree to rest and wait under.
Sitting next to his dad, the young hunter tried to take notice of his surroundings. The key to being a good hunter is observing, Jimmy remembered his father’s advice. The sun, however, remained hidden behind the horizon, which caused poor visibility throughout the forest.
The early morning winds subsided and Jimmy was captivated by the sounds of the waking wilderness. The tree frogs chirped messages back and forth. The morning songbirds were waking one by one. Their brief melodic solos rang sweetly, high above in the hidden treetops. Jimmy heard the thunderous jack-hammering of a redheaded woodcock pounding away on a defenseless tree. The natural sounds were all around and the forest was proudly coming to life.
As the pair sat, they watched as the sun rose above the Earth’s horizon. It was not long after and the morning air became hot and thick with humidity. The sunlight peeked through the natural canopy from high above, revealing the vastness of the forest. Jimmy scoured the openness, but not a squirrel in sight.
“Now what?” he asked, turning to his father.
“We’ll wait here a little longer,” Allan whispered. “They should be up and moving about soon.”
They waited and waited, but not a squirrel anywhere. Jimmy’s focus soon moved from hunting to the harassing mosquitoes. The little bloodsuckers swarmed ferociously, buzzing all around, trying to feast upon his face, ears, and neck. He slapped, swatted, and scratched as red welts began to surface upon his exposed skin. Allan was able to keep the flying rascals at bay with a prevailing exhale of cigarette smoke. After seeing his son tormented by the annoying mosquitoes, Allan decided that he and Jimmy should try their luck elsewhere. Scratching fanatically, the boy followed his dad as they ventured deeper into the woodlands.
It was then the persistent hiking became strenuous for the young, adventurous hunter. His hunting attire was soon saturated with sweat in the lingering heat. Jimmy’s camouflaged hat had acquired a noticeable wet ring on the bill while his soggy pants clung to his legs, making it almost impossible to slip comfortably through the forest. The road, which initially was flat and straight, became a hilly trail of hell. This hunting adventure was not the one for which Jimmy had planned.
Hiking up a steep incline, Allan turned to his lagging son. “Are you gonna make it? You’re looking a little peaked.”
Jimmy was feeling whipped and beat down, but he would never confess that particular truth to his father. His flushed cheeks radiated as he cradled his new gun. He looked down to the Remington, searching for a spark of inspiration. He then looked back up to his father.
“I’ll be fine,” said Jimmy.
Allan grinned and then answered, “Okay, son.”
A few steps later, Jimmy’s dad spoke again. “This is a good spot right here. I’ve seen them in this area many times. We’ll stop for a bit and see what happens.” The only thing the boy could do was give an exhausting nod.
The rest was refreshing, but it allowed Jimmy’s mind to wander. He tried to remain focused, but now, it was almost impossible.
He thought of school starting back and entering the fourth grade in the coming weeks. Which teacher will I get? I hope it’s not Mrs. Penn. She has to be the meanest teacher in school. Jimmy’s mind shifted to the camping trip he and his family had taken over the summer. That was a big bass mom caught. It almost pulled her in. Good thing—
“Did you hear that?” asked Allan.
“Hear what?” Jimmy asked, returning from his reverie.
Allan nodded to the left. “Over there.”
“I don’t hear anything.” He did detect a few rumbles of thunder in the far distance.
“I think we got company, Jimmy boy.”
The big moment was finally here. Jimmy pulled his focus together and with persisting effort he too heard the bustling of a woodland squirrel. The rattling of the tree limbs sent his heart racing out of control. However, his stirring mind went blank. He had been instructed earlier in the truck, but was not sure of what to do next.
“Load your gun, Jimmy…but slowly and quietly,” Allan whispered.
He proceeded to do as his father said and carefully broke down the single shot twenty-gauge. With his trembling hand, he removed a shell from his front vest pocket and slid the cartridge into the gun’s chamber. Jimmy then quietly closed the barrel back to its original position, and he and his father stood up slowly and waited.
Jimmy’s anticipation was growing and his heart continued to race uncontrollably. He scanned the treetops with determination. He could hear the lively critter, but could not see it wandering about. He worried that his only chance at making a shot was going to pass him by.
The fear of going home empty handed ended quickly when Jimmy finally spied the furry squirrel scurrying gracefully back and forth on an oak tree limb about seventy yards away. He waited for further instructions. Allan thumbed in the squirrel’s direction, signaling his son to proceed onward.
The distant thunder heard moments ago was moving in and the wind began blowing in heavy gusts. The tree limbs propelled wildly, which made keeping an accurate account of the furry tree climber more difficult for the young hunter.
After a few steps, Jimmy stopped behind a hickory tree and again scoured the treetops. His heart pounded as large, round beads of sweat formed across his brow. He swiped his forehead with his sleeve, looked about once more, and then carried on with his hunting pursuit.
In between heavy blasts of wind, the woodland squirrel came into Jimmy’s sight once again. He discovered the critter perched on the side of a large oak tree, raking on a hickory nut, and flapping its tail. A surge of adrenaline coursed throughout the young man’s small body.
Jimmy was about sixty yards away now and in desperate need of closing the gap as quietly as possible. Allan stayed behind and watched from a distance. Jimmy turned to look back and, with a nod, Allan signaled for his son to continue.
Jimmy’s heart was pumping like never before. He looked at his surroundings and tried to determine the most efficient approach. He gazed to his left where he found a thicket of briar bush, which he knew trying to maneuver through would be hopeless. He then peered to the right where he discovered sparse undergrowth and a fallen log. His worry was steadily growing and he determined the second option would have to do.
Accompanied by a steady drizzle of rain, the wind now blew in constant blusters. As he battled the elements, Jimmy semi-circled in the direction of the oak tree, stopped within thirty yards, and now stood at a comfortable shooting distance and a promising view. He observed the tree with a keen and careful eye while his heart continued to beat like a timpani drum. No longer frolicking about, the critter had moved from the spot that Jimmy had seen it in earlier, and again his young mind raced with both eagerness and worry.
After another quick scan, Jimmy pinpointed the flapping of a bushy tail. The squirrel had moved much higher up and off to the right of the tree, perching itself on a skyscraping limb. Jimmy feared that his shooting skills could not accommodate such a challenging shot, but he had to try. He could not give up now.
With everything riding on this big moment, Jimmy intuitively squared his body. He set his feet, taking his shooter’s position, just the way his father had taught him. He slowly brought his new Remington up to his right shoulder and pointed the long barrel into the high tree loft. After pulling back the hammer, he swayed the barrel only for a few moments before he carefully brought the woodland creature into the sights of his gun. He squinted as sprinkles of rain bounced steadily off his face. He pulled in a deep breath, held it, and gently squeezed the trigger.
The blast bellowed throughout the forest, sending many birds fleeing in all directions. The gun’s deafening discharge produced an instant ringing in Jimmy’s head and the powerful recoil jolted him back a few steps.
“Nice shot, Jimmy boy!” Allan shouted as the squirrel fell to the ground. “Nice and clean. I knew you could do it. Go ahead and pick him up and throw him in your vest. We’d better get out of here. This storm is picking up fast.”
“Okay,” was the only word Jimmy managed. The young boy was overwhelmed with joy and self-confidence.
“Dang, son. Wait ‘til your mom hears about this…and your buddies at school!”
Allan continued to dote on his son as they began their long hike back to the Jeep. Neither the rain nor the hilly road troubled the young boy on the return trip. Instead, the two hunters laughed and joked as they always had. Along the way, Allan gave his son a few trademark pokes to the ribs and Jimmy returned a few of his own. The boy now felt like a real hunter, dignified in a way, just like his dad.
In Jimmy’s mind, he has no problem visualizing that wonderful day which happened so many years ago. Though, the recollection stops when he hears his mother’s voice.
“Jim,” Sandra Harrison softly speaks. “Hey…Jimmy.”
“Yeah…sorry,” he answers, returning from his daydream while his mind skips back to his parents’ living room.
“The minister is here.”
Jim Harrison turns in his father’s reclining chair. His heart beats rapidly, just as it did the morning of that memorable hunt so many years ago. Except now, he sits by his father’s side hoping, praying, and believing the angels will spare his life a little while longer.
He watches as his father’s chest slowly rises and falls. Allan Harrison’s large, calloused hands, now skeletal in appearance, rest gently at his sides while his dying body lies peacefully in the contentment of his own bed. The cancer had spread viciously throughout the 70-year-old man’s body.
Sandra Harrison, looking frail and tired, sits on the opposite side of the bed from Jim. She takes her husband’s hand and places it into her own. She begins to gently rub and caress, hoping to induce some kind of reaction from the man whom she has loved all her life. She gazes down with anticipation, but there is no use. The old man is overloaded with pain medication and unresponsive.
Jim continues to watch his father’s chest as it struggles to inhale and then exhale. He waits and anticipates the inevitable. With one last, laboring breath, Allan’s chest moves no more. Jimmy circles around the bed to comfort his crying mother.
While looking down at his father, Jim realizes it’s not sorrow that he’s feeling, but an overwhelming sense of pride and honor. As he wipes away one lonely tear from his cheek, he begins to realize how lucky he is that a great man like Allan Harrison was his father and his friend.
This story is available in the collection Under the Willow Tree and Other Stories.