They were barely on the interstate, striped by the overhang of lights, before they got off again, up the u-turn of the ramp and heading east out of Jennings, Florida, into the dark pinewoods. Yellow beams of the truck’s headlights closing more than opening the narrow gravel road.
Rick hated talk for the sake of talk but couldn’t help himself, the silence was too awful. “So, you and Stub cat hunt much?”
Country screwed his mouth, staring around the bug spatters on the windshield. Seemed not to have heard Rick, which suited him fine. Cat hunting was rumored to be the old man’s life. No huge cats in South Georgia and North Florida, but he’d managed to hunt down the biggest, the fiercest and finest. Not really for mount—Rick was pretty sure they didn’t even kill the cats—but to set the dogs on them and tree them, to hear the dogs bark. More likely, Rick decided, Country hunted cat for subjects of his hunt stories. The really big ones always got away.
“You going with me, boy,” Country said finally, “you gotta ask real questions or keep your trap shut, heah?”
Rick’s face burned. Jill had already told him that her daddy hunted cat, rain or shine, when the notion struck him, which was every weekend. She had asked Country if Rick could go this Saturday and that was the only reason he was here, in this truck, with this contrary new step-granddaddy.
Country turned the truck left onto a raw clay ramp and up to the door of a dark faded-blue house trailer. Again, he set down on the truck horn though the man called Stub was standing by the doorsteps. One arm with no hand, like a flipper, clamping a stuffed black canvas bag, the other hand holding his rifle at a safe angle. He was tall, wiry and quick but alarmingly thin, tiny brown jeans hugging slim hips and legs like stilts.
Loping out, he slung his grip into the back of the truck alive with barking dogs, then laid his rifle easy to one side.
Okay, so maybe they did shoot the cats. Hanging on the hooks of a three-gun rack behind his head was Country’s shotgun, rifle and another gun with a scope that looked new and lethal.
Rick slid over closer to Country to let the other man in. His left arm, the flipper, already was assisting the right hand steadying a tall thermos between his bony clasped knees and unscrewing the cap.
“They waiting on us,” Country said.
“Uh,” said Stub.
Rick took his grunt to mean they’d been delayed by this sissy fourteen-year-old with bruise-easy pale skin made paler by contrast with glossy black hair tagging along. Too tall, too pale, too light and clean, that’s how he felt.
On the interstate again, heading south, the semis swung into the left lane and laid down on their horns and Country said, “Cussfire if them ole truckers don’t wanta run over somebody the worst.”
Rick could smell the flowery fabric softener in his jeans and shirt, an old plaid flannel with too carefully rolled sleeves, which he would like to shed. He hoped the tobacco and coffee and gas smells covered his sweet reek, his sweetness in general. He wondered what would happen if suddenly he said, I want to go home. Which he had no intention of saying, but he might get out when they stopped to eat and get gas and call Jill or his daddy to come get him. He could go home and play videos or hunting games on his computer. Maybe wander the hickory grove with his B.B. gun behind the house, where once he had shot a squirrel and had to bury it because the cook wouldn’t cook anything that wasn’t shrunk-wrapped on a Styrofoam tray. She cooked chicken, fish, pork, even rabbit once. He could imagine her buying a skinned squirrel under cellophane wrap from Publix and making it into something delicious, a stew maybe.
Rick had been to Dove shoots in Costa Rica, hunting in Montana even. But those hunts had been shrunk-wrapped in social and family bonding. He never fit in. He never knew what to say. They were being groomed to become successful gentlemen, he and his brother. That was walking the right way, talking the right way, and like those girls with degrees in communications from Vanderbilt, drinking the proper way. He felt stuck at only fourteen, paging back over his life. And what he found in his mind bank were magazine ads of trips and holidays, his mother and his daddy and brother, the actors, and he, little Rick, with his black hair and pale, tender, heart-shaped face, just a prop. Actually, the purpose of the hunts had been makeup for time not spent with the boys.
Stub and Country were swigging black coffee from plastic thermos caps and talking cat—a thousand light years away from the Montana and Costa Rica hunts.
The Costa Ricans’ ragged clothes had served as contrast for the Americans’ mail-order Cabella hunt-wear; their hunger-gnawed bodies contrasting the Americans’ splendid health. Who they were marked who the Americans’ were and were not, where they came from and why they were there. The Americans flying all those miles to shoot the Costa Ricans’ birds said it all. Even the Americans sharing the birds that the Costa Ricans cleaned for the Americans said how rich the Americans were, how poor the Costa Ricans.
The trip to the camp in the North Florida woods was less than fifty miles from Valdosta, just across the Georgia/ Florida line. But because of the slow progress of the truck, the plane trip to Montana had taken less time. They were in woods now, deep, green and rough with close-growing pines, oaks, wax-berry myrtle, and palmettos cabled together by vines. Then rising up before them like something read about in a book was an arched bridge of sun-leached wood with cross-bracing along the sides and ribbing overhead, old sturdy pilings anchoring the bridge to islands of water-grass and sandbars. The Suwannee River was only a snaking black stream, low in August, and besides according to Stub the drought had about dried it up. The dogs on back went crazy as the truck wheels bucked over the mismatched wood planks. Rick’s nerve endings flared as Country stuck his head out the window, alternately cussing and crooning to the dogs, while the truck veered close along the shaky left wall of the bridge. So close that Rick could see the heat-drawn spike heads and splits in the wooden cross-members and beyond that, upriver, fake-green grass growing from the riverbed like the country club golf course.
Country hadn’t stopped even once along the interstate, so Rick hadn’t been able to call Jill or his dad to come get him. Now, heading up the two-path road to the camp, he was glad. If he’d handled the getting-there, he could handle the being-there. One day and night he could handle.
But not even sunup, the horizon being the sky-rise tops of the thick trees, and Country and Stub were treating him like a pack mule. Them messing with the dogs and spitting tobacco while Rick trailed from the truck to the dim run-down lodge with supplies.
The inside of the lodge was made up of one long room: two bare-ticking cots along the northeast wall and an oily squat white stove and bow-legged table on the south end. Without thinking, Rick placed his canvas grip with his clothes atop the cot on his right along the unpainted wall. He’d been to camp, lots of camps: introductory hobby and career-initiation camps. He knew how it went—get there first and pick the choice cot. Although he wouldn’t exactly call this narrow lumpy black and white striped mattress much of a choice, but the other one was sweat-ringed, little puffy summer cloud sketches outlined in brown, which called up other possibilities.