Short Fiction Contest: First Place Winner
"At Jackson Creek"
by Eric Heidle (Great Falls)
The boy awoke. The truck had stopped moving and as the light came into his eyes he saw his father cupping a lit match to a cigarette and sitting up the boy found they were stopped a quarter-mile inside their own gate. Late-winter snow had blown into slabs running through the sage and grass along the road. A few hundred yards below them stood a line of new fence posts, with the figure of a man stretching bright wire between them.
The heater purred softly in the cab and the boy shifted his boots atop a pile of greasy chain. His father, in profile against the morning light, drew from the cigarette before the hand holding it drifted down to rest on the wheel. The man at the fence hadn’t seen them, and late morning news piped in from the radio’s wrecked speaker as the wind pushed curls of spindrift up the slope toward the truck.
The boy saw his father watch the loop of wire drawn taut, across a bare grassy slope and a faint set of tracks made before the truck was new. The man at the fence, a young lanky shape against the snow, was fighting a come-along he was using to tighten the wire against the green posts. The tracks meandered beyond and up into the draw holding the galvanized stock tank, the tank that was no longer theirs.
The radio issued murmurs of unrest in the holy land. A hard gust reached the truck, spraying grit against the faded paint. The man at the fence leaned into the wind and stumbled as the winch let go of the wire, causing him to kick the nearest post in vain. Sensing his father shift, the boy looked across the cab.
His father’s hand lay across the stock of the lever-action rifle resting against the seat. The hand was cracked and grimy and the cigarette burned down toward his busted second finger and the pitted receiver of the gun. Always loaded, it was kept in the truck for porcupine and skunks. The rear sight had been shorn away and a scope mounted along the side, clear of the bolt. The boy had seen it fired many times, felt its report
compress the air, and knew how far it would reach.
Another gust sent a skein of snow hissing across the windshield and the world faded off to white. The boy watched his father’s hand flick the spent cigarette into a can of roofing nails on the floor, then return to the rifle.
The wind picked snow off the glass, and the dark line of posts reformed into view. The man at the fence had retrieved the come-along and was jerking the wire tight against the next post, at a cairn of stones where a section marker lay hidden.
The boy heard the click. His father’s hand held the rifle, fingers through the loop of the lever, thumb easing the hammer to half-cock. The radio’s litany fell silent, then mumbled that it was Montana Public Radio and the time was twelve o’clock. A seam of snow lit across the truck’s hood and off toward town. The man at the fence paused and stood upright to stretch.
A violin came out of the speaker, cracked and ruined. It pushed weakly through the radio’s grey wiring, its fragile strength seeping faintly into the cab through the scent of damp hay and machine oil. The wind wavered and failed.
The boy saw the limb of his father’s face framed in the light of the window as the broken hand came up to the cheek, scratching the stubble on his jaw. Then it dropped to the shift knob and eased the truck into low. “Your mom’ll be waiting.” The truck crawled forward, gas sloshing in the tank behind the seat.
The hired man finally heard them and waved from the fence. His father lifted some fingers off the wheel as they drove past, to the turn in the road by the white post lettered with the names years gone, down into the sparse line of trees they still owned.
From our judge, Caroline Patterson:
"First of all, it must be said that the stories were really excellent and picking a winner was difficult. Many of these stories were varied, rich in detail, well written, and richly imagined. I picked 'At Jackson Creek' because of its tight, clear language and the way it conveys--in a taut, beautifully drawn scene--the story of loss of land experienced in so many places in Montana."