ON THE MIDWAY

ON THE MIDWAY

Len Norris September 1 1950
ON THE MIDWAY

ON THE MIDWAY

Len Norris September 1 1950

The Strange Death of Sam Fletcher

The prairie was beautifully peaceful under the golden fall haze when Sam went out to kill his enemy — the great white bird with the cruel, red-rimmed eyes

Fiction

JOHN CLARE

ALL THROUGH that summer the old war between people and the other animals was fought pretty much as usual. The reporting of it made a casual, sometimes crazy pattern in odd corners of newspapers during the news-scarce dog days. In fact, if you didn’t know someone like Sam Fletcher you wouldn’t know that there was a war, full of strategy and honor and death, just like the wars between people.

You couldn’t know, for instance, from the newspaper report that a North Ontario muskelonge in a desperate rush for freedom had deliberately caught a fisherman off balance and pulled him to his death.

Nor would the piece about the pyromaniae robin give rise to any feelings other than doubt as to the truth of the story. This deceptively benign bird was seen carrying a smoldering twig in its beak from a boys’ campfire near New Westminster. The bird dropped the ember on the roof of a summer

cottage which shortly afterward burned to the ground. There was no one in the house at the time.

Nothing very ominous or even significant there. Nor was there any hint of disaster, except for the geese already flying south in loose undulating V’s over the town, in Sam Fletcher’s getting out his carefully stored 12-gauge pump gun the day before the season opened.

Sam was a bachelor about 50 years old who lived in the white frame house which had been his father’s, and where he had been born, near the centre of the small southwestern Saskatchewan town of Indian Bluffs. He was a small man whose twisted back gave him a gnomish appearance but did not prevent him from earning the reputation of the shrewdest and best goose hunter in the southwest corner of the province.

Had there been a psychiatrist in Indian Bluffs he might have made something out of this little

man’s love of hunting. He might have found that Sam’s compensation for some of the things he had missed in life was the primitive thrill of the big grey birds falling before his gun.

But there was no psychiatrist to indulge in such speculation, and if there had been he would have been wise to keep his mouth shut because Sam was respected. Not liked, because he was a dour, solitary man, but respected.

The farmers along the South Saskatchewan River, where the geese paused in their long flight from the Arctic Circle to their winter home along Atlantic seaboard, were always glad to tell him where the big birds were feeding. Farmers like Nick Kovac were willing to dig his blinds for him. They were proud to have a good hunter like Sam shooting off their stubble. Besides he always gave them something for their trouble when the shooting was good. And the Continued on page 33

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shooting was always good for Sam. He never failed to get his limit, sometimes a few more.

THE night before the season opened Sam was sitting in his living room cleaning the heavy protective grease from the working parts of his shotgun. On the floor around him, in much the same pattern he would use in the stubble, he had set out his decoys, custom-built for him by a Ukrainian fellow who could do anything with a jackknife. Even under the pale light of the single floor lamp against the unconvincing background of a carpet they looked real enough to honk.

Their backs slate grey, they all wore the black collar of the Canada goose; their bellies blended realistically from light grey to white. Most of the dozen had been carved in feeding attitudes with their long necks gracefully curved forward as though even now they were sweeping the dark design of the carpet for grain. But two had been given the lifelike poses of sentries, their heads held high, cocked a little to one side at the alert, so they looked like the birds who watched while the others ate.

Later that evening a neighbor, Frank Bailey, dropped in to have a drink and a chat with Sam and to ask his advice about a good place to go hunting. He would never have thought of asking if he could go along because Sam hunted alone, but he knew Sam was always willing to share the information he didn’t need, once he had picked the best spot for himself.

Frank thanked him, after Sam had told him of a farm where the geese were feeding, and glanced down in admiraation at the decoys.

“God help those geese tomorrow, Sam,” he said laughing. “You better get a couple extra for me'. I’m still not a very good shot.”

Frank left shortly after 10 and Sam slipped his gun back into its leather case, gathered the decoys together with strings around their necks so they could be carried in two large ungainly clumps, and lay down on the sofa with the alarm clock beside him set for 2 a.m.

He was up and half-dressed before the clock went off. A light sleeper anyway, the excitement coursing lightly through him even while he slept had kept him close to wakefulness.

He quickly stowed the gun and the decoys in the back seat of the car, moving with quick little steps that occasionally broke into a hop. Sam had been going out like this on the first day of the goose season for as long as he could remember. The old eagerness was there each time, fresh and tingling as

He moved away slowly from the front of the house, sliding the gears into place quietly so he wouldn’t waken his neighbors. Under the cottonwood trees that lined his street the night was dark and heavy; the headlights made a hole in it as though it were solid. Out on the main highway, with the gravel hissing under the tires, he saw that a big bright moon grown pale was setting; the air was smoky and sweet with the fragrance of straw fires.

The sideroad down to Nick’s farm was a prairie trail deeply rutted with the grass still growing between the grooves worn by the car wheels. The run down to the farm gate was only a mile and a half, and Nick’s house was just a little past a high culvert bridging a stream bed that was dry except in the spring.

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Nick was waiting for him at the gate with a lantern in his hand.

“They’re still there,” said Nick. “A big flock. You’ll shoot lots of geese this time.”

“Hope so,” said Sam, turning to the back seat and his gear.

Nick moved forward. “You need any help with that stuff?”

Sam grunted. He could manage. He always had. Nick stepped back again and rolled a cigarette.

“You come back here when you’ve shot your geese and the woman will make you some breakfast,” he said quietly as though he were afraid the geese, a half a mile away down on the river, might hear him.

“Thanks,” said Sam, shouldering his load. “Where did you dig the blind?” “On the other side of thé same field where you shot the last time. You’ll find it all right. Good blind,” said Nick.

SAM nodded and trudged across the farmyard, through the gate leading to the first field. His heavy shoes rasped against the stubble as he crossed the field, and pushing his gun before him, slid under the barbed wire fence into the next field where Nick had fixed up the blind. It was a good one. Nick had dug a gravelike pit about two feet down and banked the parapet with sheaves to make it look like a forgotten stook on the edge of the bare field.

Sam set out his decoys, with the sentinels flanking the group, he skipped back to the blind, took out his gun and settled back on a sheaf to wait. He was, he figured, about a quarter of a mile from the river. At dawn the geese would rise from the water and fly in to feed. That was when he would get his sport. His right hand tightened on the breech of his smooth gun in anticipation. If they liked the look of the decoys the big birds would land, planing down on their five-foot wing spread, rocking slightly in the air as they gauged their approach. When they were coming in Sam would have his chance. As a matter of fact he would have a second chance while they completed their landing and made the short run to get air-borne again.

Sam would pick his birds and he would, have six shots. While they were taking off again he would have time to load and have another shot at them, if his fingers had not lost their skill or did not become suddenly boneless with excitement. With luck, when he was through there would be six, maybe eight or even 10 of the big grey birds flailing the harsh stubble with their broad wings.

Sometimes that would be the day’s shoot. But if a man were patient he would sometimes get another shot at another flock. And there was always the evening flight. There was always another day. Sam smiled, leaned forward and peered into the thin ground haze rolling slowly across the field. He could hear the geese now, gabbling as they stirred themselves, the sound carrying well on the still morning air, clear enough to seem even closer than a quarter of a mile. Sam threw the breech open to make sure he had a shell in the firing chamber, put his hand in the big pocket of his canvas hunting jacket to make sure there were plenty of shells loose and ready to be snatched.

The sound of the birds, the characteristic quarrelsome noise they made only on the ground, was clearer now. They were active and ready to move. The mist was lifting as the first light of the sun, just below the flat line of the prairie horizon, burned through.

Sam scanned the sky carefully now. Any moment there would be the powerful pinions. Sweating a little, he

pushed his cap back from his brow, and as he did, his eyes were attracted by something moving along the wire fence where it snaked over the slope down to the river.

The bright edge of the sun was visible now and in the new hard light it gave Sam saw something which made his breath come faster. Geese, about 50 of them, were walking in Indian file along the line of the fence where he had seen something moving. They moved with the awkwardness of birds who are graceful only in the air. They rocked and waddled as they marched behind their leader, a huge albino

Sam peered closer. He had heard of geese walking short distances but never a quarter of a mile. This was unnatural. In fact there was something unearthly about the whole scene—the big white goose (he had seen albinos before but never one of this size and majesty) the ponderous, slightly ridiculous birds trudging and rolling along on their broad-webbed feet.

At a point opposite his decoys they swung into the field and not more than 50 feet from him began to feed. The albino stood guard, solitary and strong while the rest of the flock, with their long necks curved so their broad bills lay flat along the ground, swept the stubble with greedy speed for the forgotten grain.

It was daylight now and the ground haze had gone. Sam lost his last doubt. The scene was real, all right. It had never happened before, not to him, at least, but it was happening now.

A flock of geese had walked a quarter of a mile to their feeding ground and were now stuffing themselves in full view of him and there was nothing he could do about it. You couldn’t shoot a sitting bird—that was against the rules. They were supposed to fly in, swooping swiftly down to offer a sporting target.

Sam spat. But there was something he could do about it. If he hadn’t been so startled he would have thought of it at once. A shot over their heads would make them rise and then he would have his shooting.

He grinned as he slid his shotgun up until he was holding it lightly in both hands ready to throw it to his shoulder. The white drake was looking in his direction now and his small pink eyes seemed to be staring right at Sam’s. The old bird probably knew he was there. Probably had it all figured out. Sam felt a sudden new respect for the enemy.

He crouched tensely for a moment; he stood up; he threw his gun to his shoulder. To his left there was a blur of white that distracted him for a moment andhis finger hesitated on the trigger. And then it was too late to shoot for Sam had been knocked flat on his stomach over the edge of the wheat sheaf parapet and his gun had flown out of his hands in the other direction.

He had fallen so quickly that he was not sure what had happened. There had been a beating rush and a heavy body striking him between the shoulders. He had smelled the familiar wild oily smell of geese and now he lay on his back looking up into the baleful redrimmed eyes of the albino drake.

Sam sat up slowly and shook his head. The bird remained motionless a yard away watching him.

What had been unnatural and a little ridiculous was now an outrage. Sam felt nothing but anger now, a fierce anger that carried him to his feet on its crest. He advanced a step toward the big goose and batted at it with his cap. The bird retreated hissing, but kept between Sam and his gun.

Then Sam lost his temper. Lashing

the bird with his cap he advanced shouting wildly, “Get out, get out!” The goose retreated slowly, its long sinuous neck undulating and weaving. Sam was close to his gun now and if he could just get his hands on it he would blast every one of them—whether they were on the ground or not.

A step, and he would have it. Flailing at the bird with his cap he attempted to step around it. With a vicious swipe of his cap he lunged forward. The goose recoiled as he passed it, and then as he saw his gun lying on the other side of the blind the albino struck him in the back. Its strong wings beat him down. He fell heavily forward. The stubble gouged his face and he breathed dust as he lay prostrate and stunned.

Slowly he rolled over on his back and the drake was still there watching him. The anger was gone now. Sam was frightened. Each time he stirred the bird advanced menacingly. He lay there for an hour while the sun wheeled high. Sweat mingled with chaff around his neck to make a cruel abrasive.

PERHAPS Nick would come to look for him when he was late coming back, although he often stayed out this long. Nick might think it was strange there had been no shooting. But Sam had heard other guns and to Nick they might have been his. Besides Nick would not disturb him, not for a long time. Nick knew he liked to hunt alone.

Another half hour passed. He had to get out of there somehow. He couldn’t be held prisoner by a goose. Perhaps if he tried to go in the other direction, away from the gun, the bird would not attack him. He sat up slowly and the bird stood steady.

Sam rolled over on his hands and knees and began to crawl—away from the blind, from the gun, in the direction of the farm. The bird was following him, not pecking at him, just following him. The stubble cut his hands and tore through his trouser knees. He was 50 yards away now. Perhaps if he stood up. There. He looked over his shoulder. The bird had stopped stalking and was watching him. Still looking over his shoulder Sam began to run.

He stumbled into Nick’s yard scratched and bleeding with his breath coming in painful jets. Nick ran to the gate to meet him.

“Hey, you hurt! What happened? Did you get shot? Hey!”

Sam sat down on the step of the pump in the yard and held out his hands. Nick gave him a dipper of water and ran to the house. “I’ll get bandages,” he shouted as he ran. When he came back Sam was leaning forward, his elbows on his knees, looking out to the field from which he had come. He glanced up and waved the little firstaid kit away.

“Nick,” he breathed heavily, “I’ve got to tell you. I don’t expect you’ll believe it,” he began hesitantly. “You’ll probably think I’m crazy, but I’ve— out there in the blind—.” He talked slowly, pausing frequently to convince himself again that it had really happened.

When he had finished Nick’s tanned face was grave. He did not smile. All he said was: “They’re smart birds,

Sam lurched to his feet. His torn face was flushed with darker anger once

“Sure they’re smart. Why do you suppose I’ve been hunting them all these years? But they’re no smarter than I am. I’m the hunter, Nick. Me,” he said, punching his narrow chest once.

Nick looked up at him. This time he smiled.

“Don’t get excited. Maybe it didn’t happen. Besides . . .” Nick shrugged his shoulders.

“Besides what? 1 tell you it did happen! And I’ll tell you something else! I’m going back to town and get another gun and I’m going to kill that white goose and every other goose I see. Every goose I see!” Sam’s voice was close to a shriek as he finished and there were little flecks of spittle at the corners of his mouth.

Nick rose. “Look Sam you go home and have a drink and a good rest. Try to forget about it. This is a crazy business. What if it did happen? No one knows about it. Everyone knows you’re a good goose hunter. You’ve got nothing to worry about. You go home, eh, like I say.”

“You think I’m crazy, don’t you? Well, maybe I am. But I’m coming back with another gun, Nick. Sure, I’m a good hunter. I know that. But . . .” Sam was looking across the fields to the river.

“Sam,” said Nick softly. “Don’t do it. Something bad might happen.” He snorted.

“Something will happen all right. That big white hoozier is going to get killed.”

SAM followed part of Nick’s advice.

He had a drink; he had several before he took down his number two gun, cleaned it and put it back in the case and came out to the car. It was late in the afternoon as he turned off the highway into the sideroad that led to Nick’s. Sam had driven fast all the way from town and now that he was on the trail he had not slackened speed.

Half a mile from Nick’s gate, where the road curved over a rise and then dropped down toward the river, down past the high culvert to the edge of the wheat field Sam slowed down momen tarily, and, shading his eyes against the sinking sun, looked to the place where he had been that morning. The field looked neat and barbered in the golden fall haze of late afternoon. It was a peaceful, beautiful setting and in it he was going to kill his enemy.

And yet it was not so strange, Sam thought as he looked. All his life he had hunted the big birds. He had plotted against them, tricked them and killed them. Could it be that in their secret wild cunning they knew? He thought of the humiliation of the morning. Sam was sure the big white one knew who he was. Sam hoped he did. He wanted it that way when he killed him.

Once over the rise, Sam slammed the accelerator hard again and the car slipped down the smooth grooves of the trail. He was almost there now. Just time to get ready and go back to the blind by dusk and the great white bird with the cruel red-rimmed eyes.

He slackened speed as he approached the high fill of the culvert. The road was narrow here and light guard rails narrowed it still more. The sun glare was bad too.

The explosion came out of the sun, it seemed. First there was the crash and the windshield was shattered in a sunburst of its own. The flat glass suddenly became a mosaic, intricate and strange, and then the pattern dissolved and Sam felt a hundred little knives of flying glass and a heavy blow on the side of the head. He fought for the steering wheel, but the car, in its flight, took it away from him. He heard the splintering of the wooden rail and then he was falling. It seemed as though he was falling for a long time.

The jolt, when it came, crumpled time and space and feeling, leaving only silence. Sam opened his eyes and he saw the sky. All around him was silence, silence and a familiar smell. He tried to rise, but he couldn’t. He could turn his head, though, and he saw he was lying near the car from which

he had been thrown. The door was h bulged and blown open as though by an c explosion. Gas was dripping and its t stench rose slowly over the other smell. k He looked away. Beside him on the £ ground was the broken body of the white drake. That was the smell. f Dead birds. Death. c

He tried to reach out to touch the I white bird but he couldn’t. He could h

hear sounds now. Was it someone calling? Nick, perhaps, was running to help him. Or was it the wild high keening of a flock of geese flying south? Sam couldn’t be sure.

He sighed and the breath fled painfully from his crushed chest. He couldn’t be sure of anything except that Nick had been right and something bad had happened, it