I squinted, trying to make out the little red line beneath the grimy glass. 90 degrees and climbing. It was only just noon. Removing my cap, I wiped the sweat from my brow with the back of my hand. A dusty haze hung thick in the air, clinging to everything around it. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply through my nose. No rain had fallen for weeks, but the scent in the air was unmistakeable. The rains were coming — soon. My brother, Frank and I finished our morning chores and I was starving. The hogs and hens had been fed, a small hole in the roof of the pump-house patched, and an eight foot section of wire fence repaired after a neighbour boy, drunk on cherry whiskey, ran his tractor through it.
The family farm sat on a quarter section of land west of Red Deer. After our father was killed in the mines near Fernie, we moved back to the prairies. Mama was never the same after Dad died, but she carried on and remarried. Michael was a kind man who provided for the family and loved Mama. As the oldest, it became my responsibility to look out for Frank and the other two boys, Charlie and Joe. Ma kept busy taking care of our two sisters, Emily and Mary.
“Come on Johnny, please can we go shooting before Mama catches us and gives us more chores?” Frank pleaded as we returned our tools to the pole shed. I shook my head, chuckling under my breath. Frank was as lazy as they get, always looking for an excuse to stop working and go shooting. He was becoming a good hunter and could shoot almost anything that scurried along the ground. He snatched two rifles off the wall of the pole shed and haphazardly tossed one of them in my general direction.
“Jeez, Frank! Careful with that!” I leapt upward, stretching my arm high above me in order to catch the rifle, nearly landing in a bucket of grease. In addition to being lazy, Frank was clumsy and absentminded. Mama always said she was surprised he lived past his tenth birthday.
We stomped off into the bush eagerly searching the ground and sky for anything to point our rifles at, all the while keeping an eye out for Mama and her endless list of chores. Clouds of dirt billowed at our feet with each step. The brush under us splintered and snapped as we made our way toward the tree line along the southern edge of our farm. We carried on under the hot sun, snacking on Saskatoon berries.
Frank suddenly stopped, his gaze fixed high above us. What the boy lacked in common sense, he sure made up for in hearing and sight. A large hawk circled high above a cluster of birch trees. Frank’s aim wasn’t that great, but if the hawk landed, he would have a clear shot. Quietly, we watched and waited.
The bird eventually came to rest. Frank looked back at me. He appeared unsure of himself so I nodded.
“Take the shot,” I mouthed. “You’re good.”
He raised the gun to his shoulder, stared down the barrel, steadied himself and fired a single shot. The hawk fell. My ears ringing from the crack of the gun, I laughed at my little brother as he jumped up and down, throwing his arms in the air and yelping. A few yards away, the hawk lay in a heap, feathers drifting to the ground around it.
“Nice shot,” I said, as Frank and I slowly stepped over a fallen tree toward the bird. Unexpectedly, the wing of the hawk twitched, startling me. I jumped back, but Frank carried on, gripping the barrel of the rifle.
“Frank!” I shouted as Frank smashed the butt of the rifle against the already dead hawk. “Flip that gun around!”
It was too late. The explosion from the rifle had settled into the fields around us before I could react. As my gaze settled on the motionless body of my little brother, the horror of what just happened quickly setting in.
I rushed toward Frank. The wound in his lower abdomen seeped blood into the cracked ground around his body. Taking his wrist, I felt a faint pulse. He moaned, his eyes fluttering. I tore off my shirt and wrapped it tightly around his thin body, covering the wound.
“Wait here, Frank,” I leaned in and whispered. “I’m going to fetch Mama. You just hang on.”
I prayed like never before as I tore through the pasture toward the house. It was less than half a mile, but felt like ten. Mama was in the yard playing with the girls. Charlie and Joe played marbles in the shade of the blue spruce.
Mama smiled warmly when she caught sight of me hopping the fence into the yard, but her smile quickly faded into an expression of horror when, hunched over and breathless, I relayed to her what had happened. Mama screamed for Michael, who came running from the pump shed. I ran toward the truck in the yard. She left the girls in the care of Charlie and Joe and the three of us threw ourselves into the truck and drove back through the pasture to where Frank’s body still lay at the edge of the brush.
I stayed with my younger siblings as Mama and Michael drove Frank to the hospital. Mama gave her blood for a transfusion, but it was no use. Frank had lost too much blood. He died in the night, with Mama at his side. Frank was buried with our father, nestled in the mountains near the mines. Mama never recovered from her broken heart and less than a year later, she too was buried with her first husband and son.