Mercy by Richard Childers


The dogs whine, moan, and beg to be let loose. My father unlatches the janky door and both squeeze out of the crate at once. The beagles hop down from the bed of the truck into a puddle of mud. Their ears flop and one of them shakes a chill out of its spine. After that they never look back. They sprint from fencerow to brush pile to thickets like bees working a hive, their noses rarely leaving the frozen ground. The two of us finish off a Thermos of coffee. Steam billows up from the rims of our cups before breaking apart in the wind. We load our guns and follow down the field behind the hounds.

I stomp on piles of branches and kick at patches of weeds. We march the length of the farm like soldiers, dodging cow patties as though they were land mines and keeping our heads on a tight swivel.

The old beagle gets a hit and starts howling, the younger dog falls in with her yipping. I can no longer feel the wind smacking my face numb, my back stiffens as my mind awakens from thoughts of the warm bed at home.

The dogs track the scent through a barbed wire fence. They disappear into a tangle of briar with their blood tipped tails pointing to the sky. My father props his gun against the fencepost, a barb snags his jacket as he climbs over. He takes off through the weeds to where the dogs moan. I don’t cross behind him, but instead follow the fencerow with hopes of cutting them off on their way back around.

As I walk I thumb the safety of the 20-gauge. My father is out of sight somewhere beyond the trees. The gun is heavy in my grip and the howls are distant now. I run a hand along the twining wire, it sags loosely in places. My fingers wander along rusty patches.

I pinch a barb.

I pinch it hard between my thumb and fingertip. Hard enough to feel it stab into my skin, but not to bring blood.

            Three shotgun blasts split the air around me as fast as my father can work the pump. The shots echo out above the trees.

I can hear the dogs rounding back on the other side. I wrap my fist tightly around the strand of wire and let the sharp points tear into my palm. The hair on my arms and neck prick up. I ponder the stabbing inside my father’s chest. The mornings spent coughing blood and days spent cursing. The freezing wind burns my bare knuckles raw.

Three shotgun blasts split the air around me as fast as my father can work the pump. The shots echo out above the trees.

“He’s coming your way!”

I pull my hand back and the metal spike scratches a thin line into my flesh. The cold gun makes me wish for a pair of gloves. On the other side of the fence I can see the rabbit. His coat is dirty brown with tufts of crisp white fur on his chest. The dogs are still trailing through the brush. I bring the barrel up, place the bead, and my shoulder bucks behind the crack of the gun.

I miss.

The hot smell of gunpowder floods my nose as the spent shell hits the ground and another slides into the chamber. The second shot cuts the rabbit down. The dogs fall silent. The world around me is muffled except for the animal’s desperate squeal. I take a breath and climb through the fence. The rabbit’s fur is soaked in blood. A wet spot at its ribcage glistens in the sunlight, his sides flutter for fresh air. He looks me in the eyes as I reach down and pluck him up by the hind legs.

My father appears from the tree-line now. He seems to have aged ten years since last season. His face is knotted in the wind. His wrinkles and scars cut deep and dry. The dogs plead for a taste of the rabbit. Their tails sweep from side to side, one of the beagles stands on her hind legs and snaps her jaws.

“You sure I didn’t get that one? I swear I saw its tail-end kick sideways.” My father smiles and struggles to catch his breath as he pulls a pack of cigarettes from his coat pocket. He cuffs his hands and fights with the wind before the lighter takes. The rich smell of his first drag drifts into the breeze.

“Didn’t look like you hurt him too bad to me,” I mean to laugh, but my words come out flat.

We both stare at the animal hanging in my grip. The rabbit’s whines are stuttered and shallow now. His eyes begging for either life or death, I’m unsure of which. Joints gritty in my fist, smashed from the shot, I bring the barrel of the gun down across the rabbit’s skull. Once, twice, until the squealing stops.

Richard Childers is from Estill County, Kentucky and received his BA in English from Berea College. His short fiction has appeared in Limestone Journal, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, HeartWood Literary Magazine as well as the San Joaquin Review Online. He is currently pursuing his MFA at Spalding University.

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