Ears to See and Teeth to Tune.

By Jay St John Knight.


Autumn had finally awoken. Somewhere in the scrub nearby a meadowlark chirped as it plucked fat bees out of the air, and the snarls of coyotes in the low valley slipped through the gaps in the workshop. The alluring scent of wet prairie grass mixed with varnish as the old man finished stringing a guitar on his lap. Each string was threaded into the headstock and wound until tight. So acute was his ear that it took only a few plucks for him to find each note perfectly. The guitar had a sparkling tone; the notes dancing with each other through the air. His hands were made to shape wood that made beautiful music.

He spent the remainder of the afternoon checking the instrument over. His fingertips ran over every millimetre of the instrument, feeling for tiny hairline fractures in the woodwork and varnish. Finally, as the bullcrickets took up their nocturnal chorus and the night-birds stirred in the bush, he hung the instrument amongst the others on the wall. He was done. It was done. He shuffled slowly out of the workshop and locked the door.

Night had the world firmly in its grasp. A wind howled through the trees and battered against the log cabin. He was sat in a padded armchair pulled close to the fire. In the corner of the room a phonograph played a Willie Brown record, the fuzzing of its surface noise blurring with the crackles of the fire as he sipped whisky. The evenings had been quiet recently. His apprentice had been sent back home before the snows made travel impossible. He’d return in the spring, along with the prairie violets and the frogspawn in pools of freshly melted snow. The boy was eager to learn.

The bottle of whiskey was running dry. He’d gained a stockpile of it from the store owner down in New Creek, in exchange for fixing a mandolin. It was good stuff, keeping him warm each night when the cold crept in. As he sunk back into the armchair, he noticed the wind had stopped howling. There was no rustling of the trees outside, no creaking of their branches. The midnight calls of the nocturnal birds had ceased too. The world outside of the cabin had fallen silent. The final notes of Willie Brown’s guitar faded and the record player joined the empty orchestra. All that remained was the gentle purring of the fire and the sound of his breathing. He cocked his head, straining to hear. Then, there was a knock. He froze, heart pounding. Three sharp taps on the door to his cabin. The old man rose and moved towards the door, running his hands over the furniture, feeling for the gun that was propped up against the wall.

‘Who is it?’ he called.

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The Passing of a Prairie Dog.

By Jay St John Knight


All that’s left to show for my old pa is this piece of junk car. It can barely outrun a coyote on the straight and I’m sure it wouldn’t hit the state line without falling apart. Piece o’ shit same as him.

My stomach won’t stop rumbling. Haven’t eaten in two days and it’s too hot out to go hunting on the prairie. Ain’t had a nickel for food since I was dropped from the farm and no one wants to hire a nobody who ain’t ever been to school. So I gotta do what I gotta do. If that means sticking up gas stations and shops for a few bucks then so be it.

There’s one now. A little shop in the middle of nowhere, probably run by an old-timer too. He won’t kick up a fuss. Easy pickings. Got me a shooter too. Swapped it for my ma’s gold ring after she passed. Used to use to it keep the coyotes away from the chickens back when we used to have the old house. Back before pa gambled it away. Don’t work no-more, seized up a while back, but they don’t know that.

It’s too hot. I hate this bit. Walk in, case the place, see what’s what and then grab the money and run. Fills me up with nerves. Exciting too mind, like pluckin’ up the courage to kiss a girl. It goes one way or another. Yes or no. No in-between bit, no medium.

He is an old-timer. I can’t see anyone else in this shop save the boys stacking potatoes on the other side. They’ll be easy to handle. Just stroll on up, pull the shooter, ask for the money and go. That’s the plan. Easy. Here goes…

*

It was a hot day. Outside, the road stretched in both directions towards the horizon where it dissolved away into a rippling mirage, occasionally disturbed by dirt covered pick-up trucks that pulled over every now and then to pick up groceries before going on their way. It was a small shop, right in the middle of the road that went from Louville to Cairn’s Creek, but it was his shop. He’d married into it, the shop originally being owned by his wife’s father and then passed on down to them when he became too old to run it anymore.

It was a slow day today. That was the heat; people kept to the shade on days like these. Old man Lester was shuffling about picking up his milk and other bits and pieces and a couple of the boys from the Shenningham’s farm were dropping off potatoes and other vegetables.

“You got any eggs left, Harry?”

“Should be over there by the chiller, Lester, unless we don’t got none left.”

Lester shuffled off in the direction of the chiller, mumbling as he went. Outside, Harry heard another truck pull across the loose gravel and stop. He chewed a few times, hacked, and spat a brown sludge into a bucket he had behind the counter, before putting another pinch of tobacco in his mouth.

The clang of the door opening shook through the quietness of the shop and Harry looked up from his paper. A man stood in the doorway, quickly scanning the shop. He was sweaty, more so than he should be on a day like today and scruffy looking, his jeans caked in dirt and grime and his hair a thick matted mess of brown. Harry watched carefully from behind the counter as he walked up towards him.

“Afternoon, old-timer. If you could just reach on into that there till and hand over all your money I won’t have to shoot you up and make a mess of this here shop.”

Harry met his gaze. He looked desperate, unhinged. “’Fraid I can’t do that, mister.”

“Well look here…” The man reached into his trousers and quickly pulled out a rusting revolver. “…I don’t want to have to kill you, friend. Just needs your money is all.”

Harry smiled wryly. “Alright, buck. Cool your boots.”

Just then Lester had emerged from an aisle, dropping his eggs the second he clapped eyes on the gun. The robber span at the noise and, as he turned, Harry reached under the counter with lightning speed. A low boom silenced the little shop and the robber dropped to the floor with a quiet thud. Harry stood there, a smoking sawn-off pointing at the lifeless body, and hacked again before spitting into the bucket with a resounding twang.