Jacob’s breath fogged in the cold morning air. The dew on the grass beneath his feet had frozen, and crunched underfoot every time he took a step. He hefted the long hunting rifle strung across his back, repositioning it to stop the ice cold barrel from touching his skin. The scent of old iron mingled with the smell of the damp forest as he pushed through the undergrowth. His little brother was at his side, chewing on bits of burnt bacon. It was hard to play soldiers with the loud smacking of lips in the background.
“Where are we going?” Michel asked, stuffing more meat into his mouth. The gristled bacon was another scent in the air, one that could attract unwelcomed friends.
“Put that away,” Jacob whispered, crouching a little and hefting the rifle, aiming it into the wilderness. “You don’t want the Red Coats to spot you, do you?”
Michel’s eyes widened, and he too crouched down, scanning the trees. “Ay, ay, Captain.”
Jacob muttered a curse to himself. “That’s the navy. We’re army.”
The two boys stalked the wilderness, hearts fluttering and eyes vigilant. The dank forest looked the same, no matter where you stood in it. The overcast sky made it impossible to know what time it was at a glance. Jacob fumbled for his pocket watch and opened it. He had forgot to wind it, and the hands stayed frozen at four thirty.
“What time is it?” Michel asked, looking over his brother’s shoulder.
“Clock’s dead,” he replied, sliding the iron watch back into his pocket. He glanced back in the direction of home, knowing that being late for church would earn a harsh punishment. “We should probably head back.”
Michel looked back too and gulped. “Dad said we had till ten. It can’t be ten yet.”
Jacob scowled, “Too risky. Just shut it and follow.”
As Jacob turned to walk away, a figure moved in the corner of his eye. He whirled around and started fumbling for the rifle on his back. Before it could come loose, a girl with long brown hair sprung from the bushes and tackled him to the ground. He grunted and tried to roll, but the girl had him pinned. “Nice try, brother, but slow on the draw, as usual.”
Jacob shoved his sister hard and stood up, smearing to mud away from his arms. “I could have blown your damn head off” he said, spitting dirt from his mouth.
She smiled, “You’re not that good of a shot.”
Jacob stomped his foot, and clumps of mud fell out of his pant legs. “Shut up Violet.”
Michel was giggling, pointing a finger at the two of them. “V kicked your butt!” he cackled.
Jacob strode over, placed a hand on his chest and shoved him down, forcefully. Michel hit the soft dirt and made a “guh” sound. Jacob stared at him and kicked some mud at him. The younger boy looked at the dirt on his jeans and his lips began to quiver. Violet watched, her eyes just tracking over the scene, her arms folded.
Jacob turned away as his brother began to cry. Violet tutted and shook her head. “Bully.”
He balled his fists. “You pushed me first!”
No one spoke for a while. Michel got up with Violet’s help. He had snot bubbles in his nose and he slowly gasped for air. The tears on his cheeks had fallen to his shirt, and the little drops were still visible. They walked back to the house, Violet in the lead with Michel right behind. Jacob trudged behind, never looking off the forest floor. The boys wanted to stay out, but she wasn’t having any of it. Jacob kicked a rock as he passed it. Jacob’s rifle was in his hands, and he was checking it over.
“What are you doing?” Violet asked after a long period of silence.
“I’m going to shoot a bird,” he replied, checking the sights of the weapon before swinging it back over his shoulder.
His sister rolled her eyes. “Is this about what I said?”
“Maybe,” he admitted, “I’m a good shot. You’ll see.”
Michel kept his eyes away, but listened intently.
“You’ll never hit a bird,” she said, crossing her arms again.
“Shut up V.”
The trail through the woods led into a clearing, open to the air and light. A breeze could be felt once more, and the high up stratus clouds were blindingly bright. Jacob took out his rifle and began scanning the tree line. He had never shot a bird. They were too quick and cunning. His father had given him the hunting rifle to practice for a deer hunting trip a few weeks later. Jacob had been practicing, but was never able to hit a live animal. His gun jerked at the last minute or his aim was too low. Violet and Michel had made fun of him for it.
“You two go on ahead. Tell Dad I’ll be back before long.”
“I’m telling Dad you’re going to shoot a bird!” Michel yelled before trying to run off.
Jacob grabbed him by the arm and spun him around. “Shut up, you hear?”
V stepped in and pulled Michel free. “Both of you, shut up. Mic, you shut your trap and don’t tattle. Let Davie Crocket miss his shot, okay?”
Jacob began to fume, his eyes watering the slightest bit. He tightened his grip on the rifle and ran back into the bush. They left, talking about him in hushed tones. He didn’t look at them. His eyes scanned the trees.
In the corner of his eye, he saw something move. He trained his sights up a tree and saw nothing for a while. As he focused his eyes, he caught another flicker of movement. On the top most branch of an old fir tree, an owl sat, its eyes open and scanning. It must have just finished its hunt, and now be looking for a place to sleep. It was camouflaged, almost invisible.
Jacob held his breath. It was far away, further than he had ever shot. The rifle began to shake in his hands, and he had to take a deep, calming breath. He focused the sights on it, and held his breath. He clicked the trigger, feeling the gun recoil with a defining roar. The smell of gunpowder cut the air, and a flock of birds exploded into motion somewhere behind him.
The great owl disappeared from the branch, leaving behind a haze of feathers. Jacob stood up from the bush he had been hiding in, shaking off the morning dew. He ran to the base of the old fir and found the Great Horned Owl, laying on its side, its wings outstretched in a final desperate motion. Its eyes were glassy and open, and stared far away. The beak was lulled open, and moved up and down a few times. The chest of the thing was heaving and gasping. A gurgling sound emanated from its chest. Blood sputtered from its mouth, and after a few seconds, everything just stopped.
Jacob watched, his eyes wide. The bullet wound was visible in its chest, and looked red and angry. The blood coated the bird’s feathers, turning them from a bright, brilliant silver to a dull, sticky red. He walked over and kneeled down beside the bird. It was bigger that he thought, and its wings, spread out, looked as long as he was tall. Jacob touched the feathers, feeling the warmth of the creature. A drop of water, dew from one of the tall hanging trees, fell directly into the birds eye. It didn’t flinch.
Jacob looked down at his own hands. He stood and tried to wipe them on his jeans, but the feeling stayed. He leaned down and picked the owl up. Its wings dragged across the earth as he carried it further and further into the forest. He laid the bird down next to a small stream that ran through the undergrowth. The soil there was soft and damp, and his hands carved through it easily. The mud crusted under his fingernails as he dug. His fingers became raw, and before he finished, blood of his own coated his hands.
Tears fell down his cheeks, but he didn’t whimper or sob. He just frowned, glancing over at the bleeding body every few minutes. Jacob placed the bird inside the hole and piled dirt around it. He packed the dirt around the bird, and when he finished, a few of its feathers poked through the dirt. He stood, looking down. His shirt stank of dirt and blood, and was stained horribly. The stream wasn’t strong enough to wash the blood away.
He walked home. His feet dragged through the dirt as he walked. The trees gave way to the open field and the small house at its center. The sun was high in the sky, beginning its decent toward the horizon. It was silent as he walked, except for the soft bellowing of cows.
As he rounded the final curve toward the house, he saw his brother, dressed in his Sunday best, chasing a chicken around the barn. The boy froze when he saw Jacob. He ran inside, and Jacob sat on a downed tree and waited for his father.
“You get it?” Violet’s voice came from the door of the house.
Jacob looked up, but didn’t say anything. A voice came from inside, and Violet ran off.
In his mind, Jacob felt something new inside himself. It was a cold feeling that lingered. He realized that the gun wasn’t on his shoulders anymore. It was still beneath that old fir, and would stay there.