As a Thanksgiving present to our readers, the Jesse Stuart Foundation offers the following short story by Jesse Stuart.

“Hold your rifle like this,” Uncle Wash said, changing the position of my rifle.  “When I throw this marble into the air, follow it with your bead; at the right time, gently squeeze the trigger!”

Uncle Wash threw the marble high into the air and I lined my sights with the tiny moving marble, gently squeezing the trigger, timing the speed of my object until it slowed in the air ready to drop to earth again.  Just as it reached its height, my rifle cracked and the marble was broken into tiny pieces.

Uncle Wash was a tall man with a hard leathery face, dark discolored teeth and blue eyes that had a faraway look in them.  He hunted the year round; he violated all the hunting laws.  He knew every path, creek, river, and rock cliff within a radius of ten miles.  Since he was a great hunter, he wanted to make a great hunter out of me.  And tomorrow, Thanksgiving Day, would be the day for Uncle Wash to take me on my first hunt.

Uncle Wash woke me long before daylight.

“Oil your double-barrel,” he said.  “Oil it just like I’ve showed you.”

I had to clean the barrels with an oily rag tied to a long string with a knot in the end.  I dropped the heavy knot down the barrel and pulled the oily rag through the barrel.  Then I rubbed a meat-rind over both barrels and shined them with a dry rag.  After this was done I polished the gunstock.

“Love the feel of your gun,” Uncle Wash had often told me.  “There’s nothing like the feel of a gun.  Know how far it will shoot.  Know your gun better than you know your own self; know it and love it.”

Before the sun had melted the frost from the multicolored trees and from the fields of stubble and dead grasses we had cleaned our guns, had eaten breakfasts, and were on our way.  Uncle Wash, Dave Pratt, Steve Blevins walked ahead of me along the path and talked about the great hunts they had taken and the game they had killed.  And while they talked, words that Uncle Wash had told me about loving the feel of a gun kept going through my head.  Maybe it is because Uncle Wash speaks of a gun like it was a living person is why he is such a good marksman, I thought.

“This is the dove country,” Uncle Wash said soon as we had reached the cattle barn on the west side of our farm.  “Doves are feeding here.  They nest in these pines and feed around this barn fall and winter.  Plenty of wheat grains, rye grains, and timothy seed here for doves.”

Uncle Wash is right about the doves, I thought.  I had seen them fly in pairs all summer long into the pine grove that covered the knoll east of our barn.  I had heard their mournful songs.  I had seen them in early April carrying straws in their bills to build their nests; I had seen them flying through the blue spring air after each other; I had seen them in the summer carrying food in their bills for their tiny young.   I had heard their young ones crying for more food from the nests among the pines when the winds didn’t sough among the pine boughs to drown their sounds.  And when the leaves started turning brown I had seen whole flocks of doves, young and old ones, fly down from the tall pines to our barnyard to pick up the wasted grain.  I had seen them often and been so close to them that they were no longer afraid of me.

“Doves are fat now,” Uncle Wash said to Dave Pratt.

“Doves are wonderful to eat,” Dave said.

And then I remembered when I had watched them in the spring and summer, I had never thought about killing and eating them.  I had thought of them as birds that lived in the tops of pine trees and that hunted their food from the earth.  I remembered their mournful songs that had often made me feel lonely when I worked in the cornfield near the barn.  I had thought of them as flying over the deep hollows in pairs in the bright sunlight air chasing each other as they flew toward their nests in pines.

“Now we must get good shooting into this flock of doves,” Uncle Wash said to us, “before they get wild.  They’ve not been shot among this season.”

Then Uncle Wash, to show his skill in hunting, sent us in different directions so that when the doves flew up from our barn lot, they would have to fly over one of our guns.  He gave us orders to close in toward the barn and when the doves saw us, they would take to the air and we would do our shooting.

“And if they get away,” Uncle Wash said, “follow them up and talk to them in their own language.”

Each of us went his separate way.  I walked toward the pine grove, carrying my gun just as Uncle Wash had instructed me.  I was ready to start shooting as soon as I head the flutter of dove wings.  I walked over the frosted white grass and the wheat stubble until I came to the fringe of pine woods.  And when I walked slowly over the needles of pines that covered the autumn earth, I heard the flutter of many wings and the barking of guns.  The doves didn’t come my way.  I saw many fall from the bright autumn air to the brown crab-grass-colored earth.

I saw these hunters pick up the doves they had killed and cram their limp, lifeless, bleeding bodies with tousled feathers into their brown hunting coats.  They pick them up as fast as they could, trying to watch the way the doves went.

“Which way did they go, Wash?” Dave asked soon as he had picked up his kill.

“That way,” Uncle Wash pointed to the low hill on the west.

“Let’s be after ‘em, men,” Steve said.

The seasoned hunters hurried after their prey while I stood under a tall pine and kicked the toe of my brogan shoe against the brown pine needles that had carpeted the ground.  I saw these men hurry over the hill, cross the ravine and climb the hill over which the doves had flown.

I watched them reach the summit of the hill, stop and call to the doves in tones not unlike the doves’ own calling.  I saw them with guns pointed against the sky.  Soon they had disappeared the way the doves had gone.

I sat down on the edge of a lichened rock that emerged from the rugged hill.  I laid my double-barrel down beside me, and sunlight fingered through the pine boughs above me in pencil-sized streaks of light.  And when one of these shifting pencil-sized streaks of light touched by gun barrels, they shone brightly in the light.  My gun was cleaned and oiled and the little pine needles stuck to its meat-rind-greased barrels.  Over my head the wind soughed lonely among the pine needles.  And from under these pines I could see the vast open fields where the corn stubble stood knee high, where the wheat stubble would have shown plainly had it not been for the great growth of crab grass after we had cut the wheat; crab grass that had been blighted by autumn frost and shone brilliantly brown in the sun.

Even the air was cool to breathe into the lungs; I could feel it deep down when I breathed and it tasted of the green pine boughs that flavored it as it seethed through their thick tops.  This was a clean cool autumn earth that both men and birds loved.  And as I sat on the lichened rock with pine needles at my feet, with the soughing pine boughs above me, I thought the doves had chosen a fine place to find food, to nest and raise their young.  But while I sat looking at the earth about me, I heard the thunder of the seasoned hunters’ guns beyond the low ridge.  I knew that they had talked to the doves until they had got close enough to shoot again.

As I sat on the rock, listening to the guns in the distance, I thought Uncle Wash might be right after all.  It was better to shoot and kill with a gun than to kill with one’s hands or with a club.  I remembered the time I went over the hill to see how our young corn was growing after we had plowed it the last time.  And while I stood looking over the corn whose long ears were in tender blisters, I watched a groundhog come from the edge of the woods, ride down a stalk of corn, and start eating a blister-ear.  I found a dead sassafras stick near me, tiptoed quietly behind the groundhog and hit him over the head.  I didn’t finish him with that lick.  It took many licks.

When I left the cornfield, I left the groundhog dead beside his ear of corn.  I couldn’t forget killing the groundhog over an ear of corn and leaving him dead, his gray-furred clean body to waste on the lonely hill.

I can’t disappoint Uncle Wash, I thought.  He has trained me to shoot.  He says that I will make a great hunter.  He wants me to hunt like my father, cousins, and uncles.  He says I will be the greatest marksman among them.

I thought about the way my people had hunted and how they had loved their guns.  I thought about how Uncle Wash had taken care of his gun, how he had treated it like a living thing and how he had told me to love the feel of it.  And now my gun lay beside me with pine needles sticking to it.  If Uncle Wash were near he would make me pick the gun up, brush away the pine needles and wipe the gun barrel with my handkerchief.  If I had lost my handkerchief, as I had seen Uncle Wash often do, he would make me pull out my shirttail to wipe my gun with it.  Uncle Wash didn’t object to wearing dirty clothes or to wiping his face with a dirty bandanna; he didn’t mind living in a dirty house – but never, never would he allow a speck of rust or dirt on his gun.

It was comfortable to sit on the rock since the sun was directly above me.  It warmed me with a glow of autumn.  I felt the sun’s rays against my face and the sun was good to feel.  But the good fresh autumn air was no longer cool as the frost that covered the autumn grass that morning, nor could I feel it go deep into my lungs; the autumn air was warmer and it was flavored more with the scent of pines.

Now that the shooting had long been over near our cattle barn, I heard the lazy murmur of the woodcock in the pine woods nearby.  Uncle Wash said woodcocks were game birds and he killed then wherever he found them.  Once I thought I would follow the sound and kill the woodcock.  I picked up my gun but laid it aside again.  I wanted to kill something to show Uncle Wash.  I didn’t want him to be disappointed in me.

Instead of trying to find a rabbit behind a broomsedge cluster or in a briar thick at Uncle Wash had trained me to do, I felt relaxed and lazy in the autumn sun that had now penetrated the pine boughs from directly overhead.  I looked over the brown vast autumn earth about me where I had worked when everything was green and growing, where birds sang in the spring air as they built their nests.  I looked at the tops of barren trees and thought how a few months ago there were waving clouds of green.  And now it was a sad, dying world.  There was so much death in the world that I had known:  flowers were dead, leaves were dead, and the frosted grass was lifeless in the wind.  Everything was dead and dying but a few wild birds and rabbits.  I had almost grown to the rock where I sat but I didn’t want to stir.  I wanted to glimpse the life about me before it was all covered with winter snows.  I hated to think of killing in this autumn world. When I picked up my gun, I didn’t feel life in it – I felt death.

I didn’t hear the old hunters’ guns now but I knew that, wherever they were, they were hunting for something to shoot.  I thought they would return to the barn if the doves came back, as they surely would, for the pine grove where I sat was one place in this autumn world that was a home to the doves.  And while I sat on the rock, I thought I would practice the dove whistle that Uncle Wash had taught me.  I thought a dove would come close and I would shoot the dove so that I could go home with something in my hunting coat.

As I sat whistling a dove call, I heard the distant thunder of their guns beyond the low ridge.  Then I knew they were coming back toward the cattle barn.

And, as I sat whistling my dove calls, I heard a dove answer me.  I called gently to the dove.  Again it answered.  This time it was closer to me.  I picked up my gun from the rock and gently brushed the pine needles from its stock and barrels.  And as I did this, I called pensively to the dove and it answered plaintively.

I aimed my gun soon as I saw the dove walking toward me.  When it walked toward my gun so unafraid, I thought it was a pet dove.  I lowered my gun; laid it across my lap.  Never had a dove come this close to me.  When I called again, it answered at my feet.  Then it fanned its wings and flew upon the rock beside me trying to reach the sound of my voice.  It called, but I didn’t answer.  I looked at the dove when it turned its head to one side to try to see me.  Its eye was gone, with the mark of shot across its face.  Then it turned the other side of its head toward me to try to see.  The other eye was gone.

As I looked at the dove, shooting grew louder; the old hunters were getting closer.  I heard the fanning of dove wings above the pines.  And I heard doves batting their wings against the pine boughs.  And the dove beside me called to them.  It knows the sounds of their wings.  Maybe it knows each dove by the sound of its wings, I thought.  And then the dove spoke beside me.  I was afraid to answer.  I could have reached out my hand and picked this dove up from the rock.  Though it was blind, I couldn’t kill it, and yet I know it would have a hard time to live.

When the dove beside me called again, I heard an answer from a pine bough near by.  The dove beside me spoke and the dove in the pine bough answered.  Soon they were talking to each other as the guns grew louder.  Suddenly, the blind dove fluttered through the tree-tops, chirruping its plaintive melancholy notes, toward the sound of its mate’s voice.   I heard its wings batting the wind-shaken pine boughs as it ascended, struggling, toward the beckoning voice.

“Thanksgiving Hunter” is among the 34 stories included in “The Best-Loved Short Stories of Jesse Stuart,” a 412-page softback book available at the Jesse Stuart Foundation at 4440 13th Street in Ashland.  The book can be purchased ordered on this website or by calling 606-326-1667.

By James M. Gifford
JSF CEO & Senior Editor

As a Thanksgiving present to our readers, the Jesse Stuart Foundation offers the following short story by Jesse Stuart.

“Hold your rifle like this,” Uncle Wash said, changing the position of my rifle.  “When I throw this marble into the air, follow it with your bead; at the right time, gently squeeze the trigger!”

Uncle Wash threw the marble high into the air and I lined my sights with the tiny moving marble, gently squeezing the trigger, timing the speed of my object until it slowed in the air ready to drop to earth again.  Just as it reached its height, my rifle cracked and the marble was broken into tiny pieces.

Uncle Wash was a tall man with a hard leathery face, dark discolored teeth and blue eyes that had a faraway look in them.  He hunted the year round; he violated all the hunting laws.  He knew every path, creek, river, and rock cliff within a radius of ten miles.  Since he was a great hunter, he wanted to make a great hunter out of me.  And tomorrow, Thanksgiving Day, would be the day for Uncle Wash to take me on my first hunt.

Uncle Wash woke me long before daylight.

“Oil your double-barrel,” he said.  “Oil it just like I’ve showed you.”

I had to clean the barrels with an oily rag tied to a long string with a knot in the end.  I dropped the heavy knot down the barrel and pulled the oily rag through the barrel.  Then I rubbed a meat-rind over both barrels and shined them with a dry rag.  After this was done I polished the gunstock.

“Love the feel of your gun,” Uncle Wash had often told me.  “There’s nothing like the feel of a gun.  Know how far it will shoot.  Know your gun better than you know your own self; know it and love it.”

Before the sun had melted the frost from the multicolored trees and from the fields of stubble and dead grasses we had cleaned our guns, had eaten breakfasts, and were on our way.  Uncle Wash, Dave Pratt, Steve Blevins walked ahead of me along the path and talked about the great hunts they had taken and the game they had killed.  And while they talked, words that Uncle Wash had told me about loving the feel of a gun kept going through my head.  Maybe it is because Uncle Wash speaks of a gun like it was a living person is why he is such a good marksman, I thought.

“This is the dove country,” Uncle Wash said soon as we had reached the cattle barn on the west side of our farm.  “Doves are feeding here.  They nest in these pines and feed around this barn fall and winter.  Plenty of wheat grains, rye grains, and timothy seed here for doves.”

Uncle Wash is right about the doves, I thought.  I had seen them fly in pairs all summer long into the pine grove that covered the knoll east of our barn.  I had heard their mournful songs.  I had seen them in early April carrying straws in their bills to build their nests; I had seen them flying through the blue spring air after each other; I had seen them in the summer carrying food in their bills for their tiny young.   I had heard their young ones crying for more food from the nests among the pines when the winds didn’t sough among the pine boughs to drown their sounds.  And when the leaves started turning brown I had seen whole flocks of doves, young and old ones, fly down from the tall pines to our barnyard to pick up the wasted grain.  I had seen them often and been so close to them that they were no longer afraid of me.

“Doves are fat now,” Uncle Wash said to Dave Pratt.

“Doves are wonderful to eat,” Dave said.

And then I remembered when I had watched them in the spring and summer, I had never thought about killing and eating them.  I had thought of them as birds that lived in the tops of pine trees and that hunted their food from the earth.  I remembered their mournful songs that had often made me feel lonely when I worked in the cornfield near the barn.  I had thought of them as flying over the deep hollows in pairs in the bright sunlight air chasing each other as they flew toward their nests in pines.

“Now we must get good shooting into this flock of doves,” Uncle Wash said to us, “before they get wild.  They’ve not been shot among this season.”

Then Uncle Wash, to show his skill in hunting, sent us in different directions so that when the doves flew up from our barn lot, they would have to fly over one of our guns.  He gave us orders to close in toward the barn and when the doves saw us, they would take to the air and we would do our shooting.

“And if they get away,” Uncle Wash said, “follow them up and talk to them in their own language.”

Each of us went his separate way.  I walked toward the pine grove, carrying my gun just as Uncle Wash had instructed me.  I was ready to start shooting as soon as I head the flutter of dove wings.  I walked over the frosted white grass and the wheat stubble until I came to the fringe of pine woods.  And when I walked slowly over the needles of pines that covered the autumn earth, I heard the flutter of many wings and the barking of guns.  The doves didn’t come my way.  I saw many fall from the bright autumn air to the brown crab-grass-colored earth.

I saw these hunters pick up the doves they had killed and cram their limp, lifeless, bleeding bodies with tousled feathers into their brown hunting coats.  They pick them up as fast as they could, trying to watch the way the doves went.

“Which way did they go, Wash?” Dave asked soon as he had picked up his kill.

“That way,” Uncle Wash pointed to the low hill on the west.

“Let’s be after ‘em, men,” Steve said.

The seasoned hunters hurried after their prey while I stood under a tall pine and kicked the toe of my brogan shoe against the brown pine needles that had carpeted the ground.  I saw these men hurry over the hill, cross the ravine and climb the hill over which the doves had flown.

I watched them reach the summit of the hill, stop and call to the doves in tones not unlike the doves’ own calling.  I saw them with guns pointed against the sky.  Soon they had disappeared the way the doves had gone.

I sat down on the edge of a lichened rock that emerged from the rugged hill.  I laid my double-barrel down beside me, and sunlight fingered through the pine boughs above me in pencil-sized streaks of light.  And when one of these shifting pencil-sized streaks of light touched by gun barrels, they shone brightly in the light.  My gun was cleaned and oiled and the little pine needles stuck to its meat-rind-greased barrels.  Over my head the wind soughed lonely among the pine needles.  And from under these pines I could see the vast open fields where the corn stubble stood knee high, where the wheat stubble would have shown plainly had it not been for the great growth of crab grass after we had cut the wheat; crab grass that had been blighted by autumn frost and shone brilliantly brown in the sun.

Even the air was cool to breathe into the lungs; I could feel it deep down when I breathed and it tasted of the green pine boughs that flavored it as it seethed through their thick tops.  This was a clean cool autumn earth that both men and birds loved.  And as I sat on the lichened rock with pine needles at my feet, with the soughing pine boughs above me, I thought the doves had chosen a fine place to find food, to nest and raise their young.  But while I sat looking at the earth about me, I heard the thunder of the seasoned hunters’ guns beyond the low ridge.  I knew that they had talked to the doves until they had got close enough to shoot again.

As I sat on the rock, listening to the guns in the distance, I thought Uncle Wash might be right after all.  It was better to shoot and kill with a gun than to kill with one’s hands or with a club.  I remembered the time I went over the hill to see how our young corn was growing after we had plowed it the last time.  And while I stood looking over the corn whose long ears were in tender blisters, I watched a groundhog come from the edge of the woods, ride down a stalk of corn, and start eating a blister-ear.  I found a dead sassafras stick near me, tiptoed quietly behind the groundhog and hit him over the head.  I didn’t finish him with that lick.  It took many licks.

When I left the cornfield, I left the groundhog dead beside his ear of corn.  I couldn’t forget killing the groundhog over an ear of corn and leaving him dead, his gray-furred clean body to waste on the lonely hill.

I can’t disappoint Uncle Wash, I thought.  He has trained me to shoot.  He says that I will make a great hunter.  He wants me to hunt like my father, cousins, and uncles.  He says I will be the greatest marksman among them.

I thought about the way my people had hunted and how they had loved their guns.  I thought about how Uncle Wash had taken care of his gun, how he had treated it like a living thing and how he had told me to love the feel of it.  And now my gun lay beside me with pine needles sticking to it.  If Uncle Wash were near he would make me pick the gun up, brush away the pine needles and wipe the gun barrel with my handkerchief.  If I had lost my handkerchief, as I had seen Uncle Wash often do, he would make me pull out my shirttail to wipe my gun with it.  Uncle Wash didn’t object to wearing dirty clothes or to wiping his face with a dirty bandanna; he didn’t mind living in a dirty house – but never, never would he allow a speck of rust or dirt on his gun.

It was comfortable to sit on the rock since the sun was directly above me.  It warmed me with a glow of autumn.  I felt the sun’s rays against my face and the sun was good to feel.  But the good fresh autumn air was no longer cool as the frost that covered the autumn grass that morning, nor could I feel it go deep into my lungs; the autumn air was warmer and it was flavored more with the scent of pines.

Now that the shooting had long been over near our cattle barn, I heard the lazy murmur of the woodcock in the pine woods nearby.  Uncle Wash said woodcocks were game birds and he killed then wherever he found them.  Once I thought I would follow the sound and kill the woodcock.  I picked up my gun but laid it aside again.  I wanted to kill something to show Uncle Wash.  I didn’t want him to be disappointed in me.

Instead of trying to find a rabbit behind a broomsedge cluster or in a briar thick at Uncle Wash had trained me to do, I felt relaxed and lazy in the autumn sun that had now penetrated the pine boughs from directly overhead.  I looked over the brown vast autumn earth about me where I had worked when everything was green and growing, where birds sang in the spring air as they built their nests.  I looked at the tops of barren trees and thought how a few months ago there were waving clouds of green.  And now it was a sad, dying world.  There was so much death in the world that I had known:  flowers were dead, leaves were dead, and the frosted grass was lifeless in the wind.  Everything was dead and dying but a few wild birds and rabbits.  I had almost grown to the rock where I sat but I didn’t want to stir.  I wanted to glimpse the life about me before it was all covered with winter snows.  I hated to think of killing in this autumn world. When I picked up my gun, I didn’t feel life in it – I felt death.

I didn’t hear the old hunters’ guns now but I knew that, wherever they were, they were hunting for something to shoot.  I thought they would return to the barn if the doves came back, as they surely would, for the pine grove where I sat was one place in this autumn world that was a home to the doves.  And while I sat on the rock, I thought I would practice the dove whistle that Uncle Wash had taught me.  I thought a dove would come close and I would shoot the dove so that I could go home with something in my hunting coat.

As I sat whistling a dove call, I heard the distant thunder of their guns beyond the low ridge.  Then I knew they were coming back toward the cattle barn.

And, as I sat whistling my dove calls, I heard a dove answer me.  I called gently to the dove.  Again it answered.  This time it was closer to me.  I picked up my gun from the rock and gently brushed the pine needles from its stock and barrels.  And as I did this, I called pensively to the dove and it answered plaintively.

I aimed my gun soon as I saw the dove walking toward me.  When it walked toward my gun so unafraid, I thought it was a pet dove.  I lowered my gun; laid it across my lap.  Never had a dove come this close to me.  When I called again, it answered at my feet.  Then it fanned its wings and flew upon the rock beside me trying to reach the sound of my voice.  It called, but I didn’t answer.  I looked at the dove when it turned its head to one side to try to see me.  Its eye was gone, with the mark of shot across its face.  Then it turned the other side of its head toward me to try to see.  The other eye was gone.

As I looked at the dove, shooting grew louder; the old hunters were getting closer.  I heard the fanning of dove wings above the pines.  And I heard doves batting their wings against the pine boughs.  And the dove beside me called to them.  It knows the sounds of their wings.  Maybe it knows each dove by the sound of its wings, I thought.  And then the dove spoke beside me.  I was afraid to answer.  I could have reached out my hand and picked this dove up from the rock.  Though it was blind, I couldn’t kill it, and yet I know it would have a hard time to live.

When the dove beside me called again, I heard an answer from a pine bough near by.  The dove beside me spoke and the dove in the pine bough answered.  Soon they were talking to each other as the guns grew louder.  Suddenly, the blind dove fluttered through the tree-tops, chirruping its plaintive melancholy notes, toward the sound of its mate’s voice.   I heard its wings batting the wind-shaken pine boughs as it ascended, struggling, toward the beckoning voice.

“Thanksgiving Hunter” is among the 34 stories included in “The Best-Loved Short Stories of Jesse Stuart,” a 412-page softback book available at the Jesse Stuart Foundation at 4440 13th Street in Ashland.  The book can be purchased ordered on this website or by calling 606-326-1667.

By James M. Gifford
JSF CEO & Senior Editor

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