A Rick Hallow Short Story
“Joey,” Tom shouted, “Joey where are you?” His voice broke on the latter and he stopped for a moment, one leg over the barbed-wire fence, sucking in great gulps of air. The world spun unevenly about him, as though on a carousel, and he didn’t notice the tears the wire had torn in his trousers and thighs. He gripped the fence post beneath him tightly and forced his thoughts into tenuous focus. The last mile or so was a blur during which he had blindly tramped onwards, shouting Joey’s name and staggering from one field to the next, falling repeatedly.
He needed to think. When was the last time he had seen the boy? Just before they had begun filling the last trailer of turf. Shame rose within him and was quickly batted away by fear and anger. The young fella had been trying to help, but he had been slowing down the work and Tom had shouted at him to “Get out of the way, will ya?” There had been venom in his voice, but it was misdirected. There were two more hours til sundown and two more trailers to bring home – with rain forecast for tomorrow, the main thing on his mind was to get the job done.
He looked at his watch. That had been an hour and half ago; it had been twenty minutes since they had noticed Joey was gone. Michael and his father Peter had first driven towards the village, thinking Joey might have started to walk home, or maybe gotten a lift. Tom could hear them now again, shouting out the boy’s name back near the plot.
Images jumped unbidden into his head of the lad, usually all smiles and ready to laugh, shouting for help from some ****** boghole. Sinking slowly into the wet, muddy earth. He threw himself down from the fence, falling to a knee. The ground beneath him wasn’t hard, but still he rose slowly, a new throbbing in his leg. His heart was racing and as he called out “Joey!” again. His head seemed of sharpened clarity as the echoes rolled off the hills back to him.
Onwards he tramped, unaware that he was running the list of possibilities over and over in his mind – not at the car, not where they had spread a blanket for the dinner, not where he and his brother had played with the frogs the day before and, evidently, not on the only road which led back to the village. The news from across the country last week, that a young boy the same age as Joey had been kidnapped, beaten and left for dead – from right outside his front door. They hadn’t caught the ******* that did it, what if he had come out west now?
“Joey,” he shouted, “I’m not mad, I promise. Come on back now.”
Tom jerked to a stop, his left welly sucked two feet into the boggy ground, water climbing the cloth at his thigh. Another image flashed before him, of Joey in the rockpools last Summer, playing dead face down in the shallow indent, but the water about his face was brown and dotted with peat. He gave an almighty and heave stumbled forwards. The boot stayed behind.
What would his mother say? She had been sceptical about letting the boy work with them this year, for fear of him getting a clout to the head from a stray sod of turf, but Joey had begged and pleaded to be allowed and permission had been grudgingly awarded.
“Look after him,” she had said, “You know what he’s like.”
Tom did know what he was like. His grandson had awakened something in him since his birth five years before. He was a headstrong, curious lad, whose uninhibited ways had lent Tom a new outlook on life. The pair had a special bond and were every bit as much friends as family.
Get out of the way, will ya? jolted through him again and a fresh pang of pain blossomed in his chest. He was snapped out of his reverie by the wail of a horn away to his right. A hundred yards from him was the old road and he saw Michael, Peter and the local guard, Matt Gibbons, standing by the tractor. Tom saw Matt’s bicycle perched behind the driver’s cabin. He was beckoning for Tom to come over to them and, grudgingly, he went, still scanning the countryside.
“I was on my way out to Mrs. Duffy, when I heard these two shouting”, Matt said as Tom got there. “Michael and Peter told me what happened. I called back to the village and Damian Bryers said he’d have a look around and ask if Joey’s been seen. Tell me what happened, in case they missed anything.”
“We brought a trailer to the road. John O’Malley was waiting there – he’s driving them home for me – and we hitched the full load to his tractor and the empty one to mine. John asked if Joey had gotten bored and that’s when we noticed that he wasn’t with us. We hadn’t seen him for about an hour. I thought he must be back at the car, but when we went back, there was no sign of him. We’ve been looking.”
“What was he wearing?”
“A red jumper, tracksuit and green wellies.”
Tom turned to go back into the fields and Matt called after him.
“What?” he said, his cheeks colouring.
“There’s no point traipsing about like a wild thing, without any order. We should split into pairs and look. If there are two of us, we’ll be sure not to miss anything. You take Michael with you, and stay to the left of here. I’ll go with Peter. Don’t worry Tom, we’ll find the young fella.” Tom saw in his mind’s eye Joey kicking and screaming, being shoved into the back of a van and his vision flickered. He staggered and Peter caught him underneath the arm.
“You’re right,” he said, straightening and catching the guard looking at him warily. Before Matt tried to do any more talking, he nodded to Michael and they hurried off. Michael’s young lungs bellowed across the land and Tom’s eyes scoured, looking for any sign of colour amongst the rushes and brambles.
Another ten minutes they clambered across ditches and over fences. The sun was low in the sky and the fading light brought a heaviness over Tom’s body. Where could he be? John O’Malley would have called back to the house by now. Joey’s mother would know that her boy was missing. She had cried during the Six One when the Kildare boy’s body had been found. Would she ever be able to look him in the eye again if something had happened to her only child? Would he ever be able to look at himself in the mirror?
“Tom,” Michael said. His voice sounded surprisingly close and concentrated, compared to the shouting. Silence swam in upon them. It seemed even the birds had stopped chattering, as not to detract from the gravity of the situation. Tom turned to him as Michael spoke again.
“Tom, where’s the dog?”
Tom cursed himself as Michael sprinted back towards the road to tell his father and Matt Gibbons that Joey might be with the dog. He could have thought of Shep much sooner. If there was anyone that Joey was closer to than his grandfather, it was that old Border Collie. In the worry and excitement it hadn’t dawned on him to wonder where the dog was. Shep was liable to wander off when the men were at work and if he missed the last drive home, well, he knew the way.
Tom whistled now as he went and called for both Joey and Shep interchangeably. The whistling was hard, as he was out of breath. He barely dared to let his hopes rise, but a part of him thought it might be a good sign that the dog was gone too. If they were together, Shep wouldn’t have let anyone do anything on the boy. The dog was getting on in age, but knew who his masters were and would protect them viciously if necessary.
The dark thoughts crept back into his head. There was no reason to think that the pair were together; he had no recollection of seeing Shep when he had had last spoken (Get out of the way, will ya?) to the boy. The memory burst the banks holding it back and flooded Tom’s thoughts. The injured look on Joey’s face at the bite in the words carelessly flung his way. The way he had slunk off, head down, had immediately awakened remorse in Tom, but he had callously pushed it away – nothing would distract him from the work. What if those were the last words he would ever speak to him? A lump pushed at the skin of his throat and it hurt to swallow.
He was coming back to where he had started now, where the car was parked, near the blanket where they had eaten cold chops and potatoes. It seemed a lifetime ago, although it had only been hours. Faintly in the distance, he heard whistling a calling. The lump in his throat was accompanied by sour bile.
“Joey,” he shouted again, his voice heavy with barely-held-back sobs, “Shep! Come on now. It’s time to go home.” He whistled and stopped, a stone’s throw to the car and the road on either side of him. The sky seemed to rest heavily on him.
His head flicked over his shoulder, his body reacting more quickly than his brain could process the information. He had heard something. He held his arms out, balancing his body as still as he could manage with his heaving chest and tried to listen above his racing heart. There was a whining, coming from somewhere behind him. It sounded like the dog.
Tom whistled again. “Shep,” he called” C’mere boy, come on.” There was no sign of the dog, but as he moved towards where the sound had come from, he heard it again, a low, throaty whine.
He stepped on a sharp rock and his boot-less foot was sliced open at the heel. He didn’t notice.
Onwards he walked, the whining growing steadily louder. All at once his optimism was replaced by dread, like a bucket of cold water being poured over him. He was convinced that Shep was whining by the side of his fallen master, unsure of why he wouldn’t move. Tom’s pulse thundered in his ears like a motor and he was faint. He continued moving regardless. Now it seemed that the noise was coming from somewhere close, more to the right than Tom had reckoned.
He came to a stop before a thicket of blackberry brambles. “Shep?” he whispered. There was a small yelp to punctuate the whine. Tom got down to his knees, then his stomach and looked underneath the bush. There was a hollow in the centre and he pulled his way towards it, thorns raking deep furrows into his balding head.
“Joey?” he said.
His head cleared the edge of the hollow and he looked down to see the dog curled protectively across Joey’s body. The boy’s leg was bent awkwardly, broken by a fall. Tom’s eyes adjusted to the gloom and he saw the lad’s hands covering his face and heard him weeping gently into them.
“Don’t be mad, Grandda,” the boy whimpered. “I fell and hurt my leg, but I can wait ‘til the turf is finished.”
Tom’s heart broke and mended in quick succession as terrific shame and relief overcame him. He lay down, face in the dirt and felt the world open up around him. The pain in his foot, thighs, head and heart screamed for his attention, but were beaten back by his awful delight.
“Don’t worry about that, son. Sure, we can finish it tomorrow.”