Sundown at Coffin Rock
By Raymond K. Paden
The old man walked slowly through the dry, fallen leaves of autumn, his
practiced eye automatically choosing the bare and stony places in the
trail for his feet. There was scarcely a sound as he passed, though his
left knee was stiff with scar tissue. He grunted occasionally as the tight
sinews pulled. Damn chainsaw, he thought.
Behind him, the boy shuffled along, trying to imitate his grandfather,
but unable to mimic the silent motion that the old man had learned during
countless winter days upon this wooded mountain in pursuit of game. He's
fifteen years old, the old man thought. Plenty old enough to be learning.
But that was another time, another America. His mind drifted, and he saw
himself, a fifteen-year-old boy following in the footsteps of his own
grandfather, clutching a twelve gauge in his trembling hands as they
tracked a wounded whitetail.
The leg was hurting worse now, and he slowed his pace a bit. Plenty of
time. It should have been my own son here with me now, the old man thought
sadly. But Jason had no interest, no understanding. He cared for nothing
but pounding on the keys of that damned computer terminal. He knew nothing
about the woods, or where food came from...or freedom. And that's my
fault, isn't it?
The old man stopped and held up his hand, motioning for the boy to
look. In the small clearing ahead, the deer stood motionless, watching
them. It was a scraggly buck, underfed and sickly, but the boy's eyes lit
up with excitement. It had been many years since they had seen even a
single whitetail here on the mountain. After the hunting had stopped, the
population had exploded. The deer had eaten the mountain almost bare until
erosion had become a serious problem in some places. That following
winter, three starving does had wandered into the old man's yard, trying
to eat the bark off of his pecan trees, and he had wished the "animal
rights" fanatics could have been there then. It was against the law, but
old man knew a higher law, and he took an axe into the yard and killed the
starving beasts. They did not have the strength to run.
The buck finally turned and loped away, and they continued down the
trail to the river. When they came to the "Big Oak," the old man turned
and pushed through the heavy brush beside the trail and the boy followed,
wordlessly. The old man knew that Thomas was curious about their leaving
the trail, but the boy had learned to move silently (well, almost) and
that meant no talking. When they came to "Coffin Rock," the old man sat
down upon it and motioned for the boy to join him.
"You see this rock, shaped like a casket?" the old man asked. "Yes
sir." The old man smiled. The boy was respectful and polite. He loved the
outdoors, too. Everything a man could ask in a grandson ....or a son.
"I want you to remember this place, and what I'm about to tell you. A
lot of it isn't going to make any sense to you, but it's important and one
day you'll understand it well enough. The old man paused. Now that he was
here, he didn't really know where to start.
"Before you were born," he began at last, "this country was different.
I've told you about hunting, about how everybody who obeyed the law could
own guns. A man could speak out, anywhere, without worrying about whether
he'd get back home or not. School was different, too. A man could send his
kids to a church school, or a private school, or even teach them at home.
But even in the public schools, they didn't spend all their time trying to
brainwash you like they do at yours now." The old man paused, and was
silent for many minutes. The boy was still, watching a chipmunk scavenging
beside a fallen tree below them.
"Things don't ever happen all at once, boy. They just sort of sneak up
on you. Sure, we knew guns were important; we just didn't think it would
ever happen in America. But we had to do something about crime, they said.
It was a crisis. Everything was a crisis! It was a drug crisis, or a
terrorism crisis, or street crime, or gang crime. Even a 'health care'
crisis was an excuse to take away a little more of our rights." The old
man turned to look at his grandson.
"They ever let you read a thing called the Constitution down there at
your school?" The boy solemnly shook his head. "Well, the Fourth
Amendment's still in there. It says there won't be any unreasonable
searches and seizures. It says you're safe in your own home." The old man
shrugged. "That had to go. It was a crisis! They could kick your door open
any time, day or night, and come in with guns blazing if they thought you
had drugs ...or later, guns. Oh, at first it was just registration -- to
keep the guns out of the hands of criminals! But that didn't work, of
course, and then later when they wanted to take 'em they knew where to
look. They banned 'assault rifles', and then 'sniper rifles', and
'Saturday night specials.' Everything you saw on the TV or in the movies
was against us. God knows the news people were! And the schools were
teaching our kids that nobody needed guns anymore. We tried to take a
stand, but we felt like the whole face of our country had changed and we
were left outside."
"Me and a friend of mine, when we saw what was happening, we came and
built a secret place up here on the mountain. A place where we could put
our guns until we needed them. We figured some day Americans would
remember what it was like to be free, and what kind of price we had to pay
for that freedom. So we hid our guns instead of losing them."
"One fellow I knew disagreed. He said we ought to use our guns now and
stand up to the government. Said that the colonists had fought for their
freedom when the British tried to disarm them at Lexington and Concord.
Well, he and a lot of others died in what your history books call the 'Tax
Revolt of 1998,' but son, it wasn't the revolt that caused the repeal of
the Second Amendment like your history book says. The Second Amendment was
already gone long before they ever repealed it. The rest of us thought we
were doing the right thing by waiting. I hope to God we were right."
"You see, Thomas. It isn't government that makes a man free. In the
end, governments always do just the opposite. They gobble up freedom like
hungry pigs. You have to have laws to keep the worst in men under control,
but at the same time the people have to have guns, too, in order to keep
the government itself under control. In our country, the people were
supposed to be the final authority of the law, but that was a long time
ago. Once the guns were gone, there was no reason for those who run the
government to give a damn about laws and constitutional rights and such.
They just did what they pleased and anyone who spoke out...well, I'm
getting ahead of myself."
"It took a long time to collect up all the millions of firearms that
were in private hands. The government created a whole new agency to see to
it. There were rewards for turning your friends in, too. Drug dealers and
murderers were set free after two or three years in prison, but possession
of a gun would get you mandatory life behind bars with no parole.
"I don't know how they found out about me, probably knew I'd been a
hunter all those years, or maybe somebody turned me in. They picked me up
on suspicion and took me down to the federal building."
"Son, those guys did everything they could think of to me. Kept me
locked up in this little room for hours, no food, no water. They kept
coming in, asking me where the guns were. 'What guns?' I said. Whenever
I'd doze off, they'd come crashing in, yelling and hollering. I got to
where I didn't know which end was up. I'd say I wanted my lawyer and
they'd laugh. 'Lawyers are for criminals', they said. 'You'll get a lawyer
after we get the guns.' What's so funny is, I know they thought they were
doing the right thing. They were fighting crime!"
"When I got home I found Ruth sitting in the middle of the living room
floor, crying her eyes out. The house was a shambles. While I was down
there, they'd come out and took our house apart. Didn't need a search
warrant, they said. National emergency! Gun crisis! Your grandma tried to
call our preacher and they ripped the phone off the wall. Told her that
they'd go easy on me if she just told them where I kept my guns." The old
man laughed. "She told them to go to hell." He stared into the distance
for a moment as his laughter faded.
"They wouldn't tell her about me, where I was or anything, that whole
time. She said that she'd thought I was dead. She never got over that day,
and she died the next December."
"They've been watching me ever since, off and on. I guess there's not
much for them to do anymore, now that all the guns are gone. Plenty of
time to watch one foolish old man." He paused. Beside him, the boy stared
at the stone beneath his feet.
"Anyway, I figure that, one day, America will come to her senses. Our
men will need those guns and they'll be ready. We cleaned them and sealed
them up good; they'll last for years. Maybe it won't be in your lifetime,
Thomas. Maybe one day you'll be sitting here with your son or grandson.
Tell him about me, boy. Tell him about the way I said America used to be."
The old man stood, his bad leg shaking unsteadily beneath him.
"You see the way this stone points? You follow that line one hundred
feet down the hill and you'll find a big round rock. It looks like it's
buried solid, but one man with a good pry bar can lift it, and there's a
concrete tunnel right under there that goes back into the hill."
The old man stood, watching as the sun eased toward the ridge, coloring
the sky and the world red. Below them, the river still splashed among the
stones, as it had for a million years. It's still going, the old man
thought. There'll be someone left to carry on for me when I'm gone. It was
harder to walk back. He felt old and purposeless now, and it would be
easier, he knew, to give in to that aching heaviness in his left lung that
had begun to trouble him more and more. Damn cigarettes, he thought. His
leg hurt, and the boy silently came up beside him and supported him as
they started down the last mile toward the house. How quiet he walks, the
old man thought. He's learned well.
It was almost dark when the boy walked in. His father looked up from
his paper. "Did you and your granddad have a nice walk?"
"Yes," the boy answered, opening the refrigerator. "You can call Agent
Goodwin tomorrow. Gramps finally showed me where it is."
Editor's note: "Sundown at Coffin Rock" is a work of fiction.
Any similarity to actual events or to actual people, living or dead
remains to be seen. - Mark Pixler, Editor