Hunting Season

Hunting Season

A Story by B.G. Clark
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An unknown narrator tells the story of an unforgetable hunting season in a small Vermont town in the 1950's.

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I

 

            Winter has begun.  The season has settled in, bringing with it days of dampened snow and dried chill.  I sit in my den most weekends and think about the season, immobilized by the ice and snow, reflecting on the many winters that have descended upon this small town.  Hunting season is barely over.  I’m not a hunter myself, although I’ve tried once or twice. I’ve never had the spirit for it.  For northern Vermont and its clusters of small towns, hunting season is the ritualistic beginning of a long colorless hibernation.  Deer are gutted, hung by their hind legs in garages or out in the open in the yards of forested homes, where piece by piece, they are chopped, cut, and sliced up into larger and smaller portions.  The venison is stocked in freezers, sold to butcher shops, and given to family and friends.  Hunters feel pride, the pride that comes with providing for their families, and for some more than others, a sense of self worth.

            I’m old now.  I’ve lived in Garrison most of my life.  What I have to share with you isn’t really about hunting and it’s not about me, lord knows I haven’t led an interesting life.  It’s something that happened years ago in this town, when I was just a teen.  This season as with others before, while I listen to shots ring out and echo through the windswept forest surrounding my home, I’m brought back to that time.  As a youngster I had, as I still possess now, a curious knack for observation.  Never one to enjoy being entangled in conversation, especially the gossip and rumors that small towns like Garrison churn out, I was always along the periphery listening in and recording. 

What I will tell you, begins decades ago when the town was experiencing an influx of new residents.  Garrison, at first resistant to the arrival of new families, or invaders as most town’s people saw them, became more tolerant through the fifties.  Third generation Irish, French Canadian, and others who seemingly had no past learned to call Garrison home.  With new people came a new labor force.  Furniture factories opened up and those skilled in woodworking gained stable employment.  The opening of grocery stores, clothing boutiques, restaurants, hardware stores, butcher shops, and bars had the same effect.  They were just some of the many developments the town underwent in those days.  It was a prosperous time.

Garrison with a population of a thousand before the boom had increased to three thousand by the fifties.  Most welcomed the economic surge, embraced it and thought it to be a sign of great progress and perseverance in the face of a seemingly invariable gray cloud that was the depression.  But not everyone was as pleased with the town’s new direction.  Undercurrents of resentment pushed through the town, permeated through social cliques and culminated into the formation of an upper echelon of residents.  These people were relatively wealthy, yes, but it wasn’t wealth that marked their austere sense of privileged entitlement.  It was nativity.

One such native family, the Harkleys, now no longer a part of the community, are at the center of this story.  To give you some insight as to how this family sustained its prominence throughout this period, you must know a bit of family history.  I’ll begin by telling you briefly about the two Harkley brothers, Benson and Samuel, and their rearing in Garrison during the twenties.    

Benson and Samuel were born in 1917 and 1920 respectively.  Their father and mother, Charles and Mildred Harkley, owned successful dairy farms which supplied the town and much of the state with milk and other dairy products.  By the time the boys were born, Charles and Mildred had already been close to forty and when the brothers had reached their twenties, they had sold their successful farming properties to the highest bidder.  They were stern parents, but loving nonetheless.  Early on in their childhood, as several accounts speculate, Samuel was favored over his older brother.  It wasn’t unintentional.  Both parents recognized from an early age that Samuel was a genuine boy, kind, complacent, and appreciative of everything he had.  Benson on the contrary wasn’t happy unless he received things he demanded.  He also found joy in exerting control over his little brother, ordering him to do mischievous acts, and punishing him if he didn’t comply. 

One such instance, as it had been talked about over time and passed from ear to ear, happened in one of the Harkley barns.  The boys were along with their father who often made inspections three times a week at each of his farms.  The boys were playing in the barn near the cows and as you may know, on the floor, behind each of the rows of cows there is a long rectangular gutter.  When Samuel bent down to tie his boots, Benson pushed him into the overflowing gutter for no reason at all.  Samuel wailed, slipped, and rolled in a pool of runny feces and warm urine.  When their father appeared Benson had tried to say Samuel slipped and fell, but their father had seen what happened.  The cruel act made Mr. Harkley angry, but the lie made him incensed.  As Samuel stood there dripping with excrement, Mr. Harkley proceeded to take off his worn leather belt.  He grabbed a fistful of Benson’s dark hair and ignoring shouts of pain and pleading bent him over a large feeding bucket.  Hardheartedly, yet justly, Benson’s pants were ripped down, revealing his tender lower back, butt, and thighs.  People close to the Harkley’s used to say it took more than a month for the welts to disappear. 

By the mid forties time had ravaged old Mr. Harkley’s eyesight.  His obduracy wouldn’t allow for spectacles and one foggy Sunday morning when he and Mrs. Harkley were on their way to church he compressed a newly bought Ford Super Deluxe wagon against an old birch that had fallen in the road.  Without seatbelts the two were thrown from the car.  Mrs. Harkley died instantly, but Mr. Harkley, with broken bones and half of his face missing, held on long enough to say goodbye to Samuel and his wife Emma in the hospital.  Some say that day changed both the Harkley brothers for the worse.  I happen to believe Samuel just retreated into himself.  Benson however, created the hell he was feeling on the inside for others to suffer on the outside.

With the wealth the Harkleys had accumulated over the years and with the life insurance policies benefiting the two brothers, Samuel and his wife Emma, and Benson and his wife Sandra were completely taken care of financially.  Samuel or “Sandy” as he was called, because of his light hair and complexion, became a skilled woodworker, carpenter, electrician, and all around handy-man.  He enjoyed helping his neighbors, often lending a hand to plough driveways in the winter, bring extra firewood to those who ran out during the long cold months, and fix up houses that needed repair work.  He was a generous man, but intensely private.  He valued his family and kept close watch over his only son Nicholas, whom he taught to always be honest, speak his mind, and stand up for himself.  Emma, Sandy’s wife, complimented him totally.  She too was private in her doings.  Never one to talk behind others’ backs, always just and fair, she made her life by her husband’s side.  A rotund woman with a ruddy skin tone and full lips, she supported her husband and looked after Nicholas like an exemplary wife and mother.  Uncharacteristic of women in Garrison at that time, she was not the quiet type.  She was outspoken and often pressured her husband to say the right things and to speak out against injustices occurring throughout the town.  This tendency went against Sandy’s nature, as it often collided with his reclusiveness and pithy conversational encounters.

Benson lived in the village on Maple Street, one of the side streets that connected to the one long main street.  He, with the help of his family name and by the good graces of the village manager, Mr. Steven Seals, who had become quite close with old Mr. Harkley before the untimely death, became town sheriff.  With age Benson grew to be more underhanded.  He would often patrol the town in his car, targeting unfamiliar people who committed minor violations.  He also pocketed elicited bribes from those who were considered newcomers; he would often visit their homes (new families just settling down in Garrison) to make his presence known.  Most people in town respected him and thought he did his job well, but they were either ignorant or underhanded themselves. 

Benson married the town’s socialite, Sandra Hamper, the only daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Francis Hamper, the town’s first and most prominent real estate developer. They were an affluent family of upper middle class standing.  Sandra was quite the opposite of Emma in every way.  She loved gossip, listening to it and spreading it anywhere she went.  She had no concern for work.  In fact her daily occupation consisted of maintaining her appearance.  She savored her daily routine of shopping, chatting with the wives of other well to do men, and ordering around a housekeeper in her employment.  She enjoyed the special attention paid to her by the townspeople, especially the shop keepers who waited on her hand and foot.  With long wavy blond hair, a small dainty nose, light blue eyes, and a slender frame, she had no trouble satiating her need for feeling self-important.  With Benson working most of the time, she was free to cosset the person she cared for most, herself.

 

II

 

Today I sit here in my home, holding a suicide note most likely forged by Benson Harkley.  I can’t help but recreate the story for you, as it probably happened.  As the years passed, time seemed to work its magic, erasing all memory of concern for that dreadful day.  The truth, now outdated, would likely seem insubstantial to most around here, but not me.  So I write, piecing together parts of what still remains lucid in my mind.

It had been an exceedingly cold October in 1957.  By the time November came around the cold had seemed to expand into midday and blister the air, despite the warmness of the sun.  The sky and most of the ground was snowless.  Patches of frozen crusted snow existed on roadsides and steep rail-guarded embankments.  With hunting season beginning, the hunters of Garrison cursed the lack of snow.  It meant they wouldn’t be able to track the deer as easily.  They would also have a harder time keeping quiet in the woods, crushing frozen leaves and snapping twigs as they walked.  Nevertheless, most were ready and excited to begin rifle season.

For Nicholas Harkley, it was his first season.  Sandy had promised his son that he would take him out and around their multi-acre property on the first day.  Nicholas was anxious, having just turned twelve that April, he wanted to learn from his father and prove to him that he was a good hunter.  Sandy too, had been anxious when the first few days of hunting began.  He wanted to teach his son all the tips and strategies he himself learned as a boy.  It would be another way for Sandy to strengthen and solidify his already concrete father-son relationship.  He loved his son immensely.

On the third day of hunting Nicholas and his father woke up early, had a breakfast of oatmeal, eggs, and bacon cooked lovingly by Mrs. Harkley.  They needed a full stomach for walking through the hilly terrain of the forest surrounding their country home.  Mrs. Harkley wished them good luck as they set off just as the sun was rising.  They were dressed in bright camouflage.  Sandy wore his old orange and black hat with a matching vest and pants.  Nicholas dressed the same, only his outfit was bright red.  Nicholas, when he was younger, had often wondered why hunters wore such bright clothing.  His father explained that it was necessary, because there may be other hunters who would mistake people for deer, if not for the bright colors.  The bright colors were like a warning sign.  The deer, Sandy told his son, are color blind, so everything is black and white to them.  It made sense to Nicholas. 

To make it easier for Nicholas, his father had not carried a rifle with him that morning.  Sandy walked alongside Nicholas, who carried a new Remington .270 caliber rifle.  When it was becoming a bit heavy for him, Sandy carried it awhile to give his son’s arms a rest.  They walked for a few miles, first crossing the dirt road in front of their house and then straight back behind their mailbox.  Gradually they walked in an arch in a northwest direction.  Sandy remembered there were many apple trees he had seen in the fall, where the deer liked to gather and eat the fallen apples.  He had also seen many rubbings on tree trunks, signs that bucks had sharpened their antlers.  He told Nicholas that they would go to this spot and wait a while, to see if any bucks would come into sight.

They walked carefully, avoiding the small twigs and branches that had fallen from the various trees and shrubs surrounding their chosen path.  The sun, almost in full bloom, pierced the woods with its rays and cracked the frozen ground with a criss-crossing of black branched shadows.  Repeatedly stepping into bright sunlight and back again into the darkness of shadowed ground caused Nicholas’ eyes to become maladjusted to both light and dark.  He had been getting more and more anxious after his father had whispered that there might be some deer nearby and to be very quiet. As they got closer to the apple trees Nicholas could feel his heart canter.  He tried to look experienced carrying the gun, but he was sure his outward appearance didn’t match what was happening to him on the inside. 

Nicholas walked until his father motioned with his hand for them to stop.  Nicholas froze in his tracks.  He could hear the reverberations of loud car mufflers bounce off the trees.  He knew the dirt road wasn’t far away.  His father drew near and whispered to him.  This was the spot.  Nicholas could see some crab apple trees bunched together and isolated from the evergreens.  They would wait there next to an old knee-high stone wall, hoping to get a good look at a buck in search of food.  Thirty minutes passed and Nicholas could only hear random birds and the sound of his own breathing.  His father had settled behind him on the other side of the stone wall.  Sandy said he would raise his hand if he saw anything.  Nicholas was supposed to look in the other direction, toward the road, and scan the apple trees.

Another twenty minutes passed.  Nicholas was not attentive.  He let his mind drift and he grew sleepy.  He looked back and saw his father crouched down in the same position while his head moved from side to side.  Then he heard it, a crashing sound of twigs and branches snapping.  He regained his nerves and they immediately took control of his body.  With jittery hands and a hurtling heart, he took the rifle’s safety off and brought the butt up to his shoulder.  He could hear his father turn around and make a psssst sound, but it didn’t shake him from his nervous stare ahead.  Behind an old birch in the distance he saw movement, brown colored flashes.  Without hesitation Nicholas looked through the sights, aimed hastily and fired at the slow moving thing.  The bang jarred his shoulder and made his ears ring.  For a moment he didn’t know where he was.

His father stood and hurried over to Nicholas and asked what he shot at.  Nicholas was still in a daze.  Sandy took the gun away from him and put the safety back on.  He told Nicholas to get up and follow him toward the birch.  Nicholas knew he had done something horrible.  He could feel it in his stomach.  Sandy got closer to the birch and his face, reddened from the cold, turned sickly white.  There was blood everywhere; a pool of deep crimson soaked into the crusty snow.  Nicholas watched from a distance.  His father dropped the gun and let out the loudest scream he’d ever heard.  Nicholas drew closer and then he saw the body, lifeless on the shadowed ground.  His own heart beat was all he could hear.  His father, in shock, kept repeating to himself:  It’s a man.  It’s a man.  It’s a man…

 

III

 

In the spring of 1956 there seemed to be a wave of new families settling down in Garrison.  One younger couple, the Travers, had moved from the suburbs of Boston to Garrison with the hope of beginning a new and better life.  Married only two years, Bill and Constance “Connie” Traver had already experienced the hardships of married life.  Bill was a good man, hard-working and proud.  He loved his wife incredibly.  But when the competition of health and life insurance sales increased around the big city and thoroughly diminished his breadwinner earnings, he turned to alcohol to escape the manifold pressures of financial strain.  His binges would last for days and then he would sober up.  The cycle continued without an end in sight until Connie gave him an ultimatum.  She told him either you quit drinking or I’m going to leave.  The truth was, Connie would never have left Bill.  She loved him just as fiercely as he loved her.  With the past firmly behind them, they chose Garrison as their new home.

 Their new house had been fully furnished in a few weeks.  Things looked promising for the two of them.  Bill opened a little office in town and for the first few months his insurance sales picked up and they were able to afford comfortable living.  However, not long after they became accustomed to their comfortable life in Garrison, Bill started to lose business.  His streak of selling seemed to have hit a wall.  Doors that were once open to him began, without words, to close in his face.  He was perplexed and distraught.  He had a real hard time, especially with Connie.  He hated coming home after every long unsuccessful day just to give her bad news.  It wasn’t long into the sales draught, when he started his binges again.  Smith’s Pub, the cheapest bar in town, where all the drunks gathered, gradually became his second home.  Then the rumor mill spun out of control.  He had alienated himself from everyone except Connie, who tried to keep their marriage together, but not without hidden troubles of her own.

Sheriff Benson Harkley had made sure to stop in on the Traver home when he heard the new family had settled down.  He had heard of the young Mrs. Traver and her big city beauty.  Her long shining elegantly styled black hair, perfect curvaceous body, long shapely legs, and innocent doe eyes, couldn’t keep Benson’s curiosity fettered.  He had to see for himself.  The day came when, not without coincidence, Bill was out gathering prospective customers; Benson surprised Connie outside her home by her new clothesline in the back yard.  It was a beautiful summer day, hot, but less humid than most, with a cool light breeze.  She jumped a little when Benson said hello, dropping a clothespin from her tightened lips.  She hadn’t heard him drive in.  He apologized for startling her, introduced himself with a firm but gentle handshake, and looked into her eyes, which averted shyly.  I happen to think she was struck by how well he balanced being modest and forward, with an ineffaceable confidence that emanated from his own self-convinced truth that no other man could replace him.  He offered her protection in return for her trust.

As the summer days evaporated into the cooling air of autumn and as Bill began spending more time away from his wife, secluded at Smith’s pub, Benson had managed to worm his way into the middle of the Traver union.  Weekends were especially incendiary.  Connie had fallen out of her marital bed repeatedly, with each time being easier and easier for her to justify.  Bill remained dormant and inebriously unaware.   She however, remained attached to him.  Her heart called out for him.  Wanting her husband back, she wished she had never taken that first step toward indiscretion.  She thought Benson had robbed her of herself, exposing her vulnerabilities, shaping and shifting her into a mold of insecurity, pliable and unable to resist temptation.  

Benson however, had no difficulty abandoning his increasingly materialistic wife in favor of the more understanding, earth-bound Connie.  He was in love.  But as their time together increased, their desires diverged.  For Benson it was an unfathomably heartbreaking correlation.  For Connie it was the only thing she could do.  The affair ended at the end of October the following year.  Benson’s pleas and confessions of love ricocheted off of Connie’s resuscitated will of resistance.  It was a kind of defiance he had never seen before.  Shaken, yet not yielding to defeat, Benson persisted and pursued, planning to win her heart, whatever the price.

 

IV

 

Bill Traver sat at a small round table alone near the entrance in Smith’s pub.  He could feel the bitter November night coldness singe his skin every time the door opened and closed.  But he didn’t care to move.  Finishing off his eighth shot of whiskey, he felt the hot sensation glide down his throat into his empty bubbling stomach.  He focused on the bartender, who seemed to do his job with prideful grace.  He wanted that.  He was desperate.  His mind spun, scattering his thoughts in a mixed whiskey based reality.  He couldn’t count how many homes he had visited, in and around Boston and now here, in Garrison.  Sitting at families’ round dining tables with his binder of insurance plans in front of him, as mothers cooked meals for their husbands who had worked all day and as their children played on rugs in front of the television, he placed his livelihood in their strapped hands, hands that were just as tight with money as his own.  He had been a fool to think he could be a successful insurance salesman.  He lit a cigarette and fell into a trance as the whiskey washed away his dejectedness.      

A couple hours passed.  It was already well into the last hour of night.  Bill, still at the small table, rambling to himself, mostly mutterings of unintelligible words and his wife’s name thrown in here and there, noticed with a drunken disregard, that he was the only one in the pub.  He heard a voice behind him close to the door.  Someone said his name.  A taller man in a tan uniform sat down at his table next to him.  The man asked Bill if he knew who he was.  Bill nodded and told the man, you’re the one who keeps this town safe and secure, the one the only Sheriff Harkley.  Bill started to clap to an empty pub, laughing to himself out loud.  That’s right the man told him.  The man looked Bill over.  Right now you don’t look too safe, he told Bill.  Bill said I’m fine sheriff, I’ve just got a case of the blues, that’s all.  He laughed again through a few coughs.  I’m going to get you home and with a good night’s sleep, you’ll feel better in the morning, the man said.  I doubt that, but let me finish my drink first, Bill said to the man while staring blankly at an old jukebox.  I got to go to the washroom first though.  I’ll be right back.  The man told Bill to take his time. 

When Bill opened his eyes he felt numb.  He could hardly move.  His joints seemed cemented and his skin seemed thick and inflamed.  He noticed he was breathing heavy and although it was bitter cold, he realized he was sweating unnaturally.  It took a few moments for him to recognize that he was in the woods.  He couldn’t hear anything.  He tried to lift himself off the frozen ground and after several attempts he got to his knees.  Pain radiated throughout his body and his vision became distorted.  His heart began to beat faster as he struggled to move.  Crashing through some brush and snapping branches with stiffened legs, he stopped and thought that he was dying.  He tried to let out a scream, but couldn’t.  All he could do was visualize his wife’s face and think about how sorry he was.  Lying on the ground and shutting his eyes slowly, he could feel the blood leave his body and only then, feel the bitter cold.  His wife’s image, little by little, faded into absolute blackness.    

 

V

 

That is how I believe it happened.  After Connie Traver found out her husband had been shot, she left Garrison the next morning without giving any notice.  No one saw her again.  There was a big clamor for a couple weeks, but slowly it fizzled out.  Some said she took her own life, jumping into the Misisquoi River from the North Garrison Bridge.  But no one ever found her body.  I believe she went back to the suburbs of Boston, despairingly guilty for not only what she had done in secret, but because a  small part of her was glad to be free from the hopelessness of her marriage.  When the bank seized the Traver property, it auctioned off everything.  I needed to replace an old desk at the time, as I was heading off to study business at the state university, so I placed a small bid on a beautiful mahogany hardwood desk Bill Traver sat at to arrange and organize his customer information.

 I was lucky enough to get the desk.  It lasted me for years, but it wasn’t until I was in my studio apartment near campus in the fall of 1960, when I needed to fix the large bottom drawer on the right side, that I discovered the old dusty envelope I have in my hand now.  It was hidden under the drawer in the back, impossible to see without taking the drawer off its track and completely out of the desk.  As you can imagine, I was puzzled and curious to see what was inside the envelope that had the name Connie written on the back.  I read the note, as I do still to this day, with wide-eyed amazement.  For a time I pondered whether or not I should go to the police, but in the end I had decided to let time run its course, and it did.

Sandy Harkley was eventually persuaded not to take the blame for the death of Bill Traver.  Instead the lawyer advised it would be best if Nicholas pleaded guilty to manslaughter.  Nicholas, being a juvenile, was sent to a kind of probationary reform school in New York for no less than three years.  People used to say it broke Sandy’s heart.  The words rang true.  He died of a heart attack a year after Nicholas, who ended up with some sort of extreme anxiety disorder, came home from reform school.  Emma Harkley died fifteen years ago in 1990 from Alzheimer’s.  People said she would often drift back to that cold November morning when she wished Sandy and Nicholas good luck, only to stare blankly at her husband’s picture and not recognize him.

I’ve often heard the phrase “only the good die young,” and I can’t help but think there may be some truth to it.  Benson had outlived most of his family and remained, during his final years, in a small nursing home in town.  He turned catatonic his last year, unable to move well or speak.  But he could, I found two years ago on an early November morning, think and feel with great vividness.  Well into my first year of retirement, I decided to pay him a visit.  Looking back on it now, I realize it wasn’t the noblest act of my life.  But I had an unbridled interest in finding out if my conjectures about what really happened to Bill Traver, were accurate.  I still can’t say for certain, but what happened that morning put a lot of my doubts to bed. 

He wasn’t expecting any visitors.  I walked into his small white-washed room and sat across from him in a small collapsible metal chair.  He was in a wheel chair, dressed in forest green corduroy pants, wool socks, and a navy blue Boston Red Sox sweatshirt.  I began to speak, telling him my name, how I bought the old desk back in ‘58, and what I had found hidden in the bottom drawer two years later.  As I spoke, I watched his eyes tighten and dart from the floor to my face.  I could see my words stirred something up inside of him.  He made some sounds of grumbling, but nothing intelligible.  When I revealed the old envelope and brought the name Connie to his eyes, he began to shake his head feverishly.  As I read the note, his grumbling increased and grew thunderous.  He struggled to turn his head to the side; his sparse white hair rubbed on the cushioned wheelchair back.  His eyes closed, as though he wished to be blind.  Nurses came when they heard him.  I apologized and excused myself.

I had learned a couple weeks after my visit that Benson Harkley died sometime in the night.  The nurses said he refused to eat. They thought he tried to say the words “I’m sorry” over and over again.  As for me, I feel better, now that I’ve shared this story with you.  I can finally let go of this note that has burdened me all these years.   

          

    

 

 

 

 

    

© 2010 B.G. Clark


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very gripping story, I couldn't stop reading.

Posted 10 Years Ago


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Added on February 20, 2010
Last Updated on February 23, 2010
Tags: hunting, murder, accident, adultery, love, small town

Author

B.G. Clark
B.G. Clark

Busan, South Korea



About
For now I'm just writing for myself. I like to write stories that reveal, even if it's just a glimmer, the heaviness of human existence, however tragic and/or uplifting. Remembering that it's all mo.. more..

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