The Hunt -2

Through the cracks in the pine plank walls, he could see daylight. Smells of mold and stale coffee grounds and rancy lard. He placed his BB gun underneath the cot, nudging it out of sight with the toe of his prissy brown hiking boot. He felt childish for bringing the gun, in light of the fact that Country and Stub were equipped with 30.30 rifles and enough ammunition to blow up the state of Florida. If they had noticed his puny B.B. gun, so far they hadn’t mentioned it, or anything else that stuck out as sissy, for that matter, but it was clear that Rick would be their little Negro. They hadn’t said that he would be but they’d been using what was now called the N-word in reference to the black fellow in Jennings Florida who sometimes came along to help with the dogs and the cooking but this time had “niggered off.” Not that they’d said it in a mean way, it just kind of dropped out of their mouths like everything else they said. 

Out and in, carting supplies, he placed both men’s old dark canvas grips on top of the cot to the left of his own. He had no idea where the linens were kept. Having been to camp so many times before, he should have known to bring his own sheets and towels and soap, but he had thought that with Country having money they would probably be put up in some fine rustic hunters’ lodge meant only to imply roughing-it but with all accommodations, like the dude ranches out West that he and Nathan had been farmed out to one summer. Or like those out-door toilets with quarter-moon cutouts on the door, which were really plush rest rooms, pumped full of cool air, and supplied with French milled soaps and fluffy fresh hand towels. Come to think of it, if there was a bathroom here of any kind Rick hadn’t seen it. 

Country might act country but he couldn’t be this country.

But when he went back out, Country and Stubb were pissing behind the truck. Spat tobacco juice and foaming urine drying in on the powdery gray dirt. 

Making a big show of it, Country and Stub began unloading the six dogs from the box on the back of the truck. Over and out, you son of a bitches! The men cussing and spitting and herding them toward a ramshackle crib facing the front of the lodge. Dogs snarling and barking, switching whole bodies, straining toward the woods. Dust flew like smoke from a wildfire. It was as if the dogs and men hated each other. Next instant Country would be crooning to one, a honey-colored bitch he called Sugarbabe, in a tone that ordinary decent men reserved for women, children and fools. “Smell that ole cat, don’t you, gal? Ole cat’s whatcha wanting! Well, we gone get em, we going after em.” 

Dogs inside the crib finally, Stub used his left elbow to slam the dog-gnawed beveled door on them and set the wooden latch into the groove with his right hand. With his reddish gray hair and pale eyes he looked like a tarnished penny that had once been bright.

Rick was starving by sunup. Expecting that they would stop at one of the Hardees or McDonalds along the interstate he hadn’t eaten before leaving home. Besides, it had practically been nighttime when Country had picked him up. Rick was sleepy too. All night he’d only dozed, so afraid was he that he wouldn’t be up when Country came for him. Alarm clocks were of no use to him, and either his daddy or his brother generally woke him for school. During the summer he just slept till he woke up to while away the rest of the day before the TV or computer. Well, before Jill, that’s what he would do, what he used to do. He thought of that time with longing until he recalled the gnawing emptiness, how his legs and brain would feel numb by dinnertime. Then back to the TV and computer after dinner till he grew sleepy again.

Finally hovering above the treetops, the sun bore down on the campsite, steeping the smells of pine, dog and rotted leaves.  Locusts rattled in the trees and crickets clicked in the weeds, lonesome sounds offset by the dogs’ whining and growling and outbursts of barking. Gnats swarmed and deer flies and mosquitoes buzzed, lit and bit. Not even a breeze and Rick had never been so hot in his life. Or so confused about what he should be doing. 

Really, he had thought that Stub might be one of Country’s flunkies. Dog handler, go-for, dishwasher and cook. Rich men, powerful men, always had a poor man to tote for them and to contrast their accomplishments. But it was turning out that Stub was in fact on level ground with the old cuss. Country’s buddy. And Rick was, by virtue of being youngest, the one assigned to tasks that the other men found too demanding or demeaning. In brief, Rick was the one who was there for the purpose of toting and contrasting.

While outside setting up camp with Stub and Country, Rick decided he looked dorky in his cat-hunting getup. His daddy’s old flannel shirt, found in the give-away bag for the cook to distribute to the poor people in her church, spoke of trying too hard. But one of Rick’s Ralph Lauren uniforms wouldn’t have been right either. Besides, he felt stamped in those look-alike jeans and shirts. And anyway no matter what he wore he wouldn’t belong. Not in school or at the mall. Not here or anywhere. He never even feigned looking brooding, in a bad mood. He was out of place everywhere and no use trying to hide it. Of course, having a stud brother quarterback for the Valdosta Wildcats caused Rick by comparison to look coltish, dismal and doomed.

But he had to try. He had to say something. Hands in his pockets he said, “Man, like this is some place! Like, a guy could get lost big time in these woods.”

Country and Stub glared at him. Then they went on about their business of feeding and watering the dogs in the crib.

“At-a girl, at-a girl.” Done with dumping water into the trough for the dogs, Country shut the crib door, then reached back through the gnawed half-circle near the latch and petted the dog he called Sugarbabe as a reward for her having stuck her pebbled-leather nose through, for seeking him out, for bestowing upon him and him only her rapt attention and devotion. She had short hair and lit yellow eyes and was so well-fed that her hide stretched tight over her frame. Shrunk-wrapped as one of the cook’s pot roasts.

Rick’s hands felt like iron hooks down by his side. Crossing his arms was out of the question, pocketing his fingers made one hip cock.

Abruptly Country turned, and in a gruff voice called out to Rick, “Hey, boy, go yonder and draw a bucket of water from that well.” He waved out toward a sinking brick well, north of the lodge, backed by the run-on green of the woods.  On the well ledge was a dull aluminum bucket with a rusty chain hooked to the bail and tracking over a wheel-like rig and handle attached to a wooden frame overhead.

Glad to have something for his useless hands to do, Rick loped off. Halfway there, he spied a red rat snake sliding close along the well’s curve, so he stopped. It was the same color as the bricks, like brick-edging in motion. Not a poisonous snake but a warning that Rick had better watch his feet. In Montana about every five steps a diamondback would rare up from the cured sage and rattle a warning. The fact that he’d been wearing leggings hadn’t made Rick feel any safer. He had dreaded the spring and strike of the snakes and the milky venom dripping down his leggings like the guide’s, a runty Indian-looking fellow who grinned all the time. Rick’s mother had been dead only a couple of weeks, and death had felt as close as tomorrow. Just a misstep away, leggings or no leggings.

Looking back to see if the two old codgers were watching—they were standing, mopping sweat and talking loud—Rick eased toward the well, eyes on the snake, now so still it looked dead but crinkled the full length of its two-foot silky hide. 

Only a few feet away from the well, Rick saw the snake slide around to the other side, wood-side. He sucked in his breath, sweating, tingling scalp to toes, lifted the aluminum bucket from the well rim and dropped it down into the well. The squealing chain played out from the wheel, as the bucket bonged hollow and fast past the ferny bricks to the circle of green-stained water below. Bull’s-eye and rings on the water. Having no idea how to “draw” water, he began hauling hand over hand on the clanking rusty chain. “We’re going to drink this?” he whispered to himself. As if in answer, the teakle feeding out the chain began yowling like a pack of coyotes. The spinning wooden handle went into a spin, pummeling the right side of his head.

Water sloshed from the bucket, trilling back into the well, as it swung wall to wall. By the time it reached the top it was only about half full.

“Crank it up with the handle, boy,” Country shouted. “CRANK IT UP!” Then to himself, “I dang if she ain’t put me to babysitting!”

At the sound of their master’s voice, the dogs began milling, barking wild. Sugarbabe’s yodel leading the pack.

Babysitting! Rick let go of the chain and the bucket plunged into the bowl of bothered water below. Face on fire, he began cranking the handle on the wheel, reeling the chain and the bucket rising, water brimming and twinkling. Holding the tension on the handle with his right hand he leaned forward and pulled the swinging bucket onto the rim with his left, then unhooked the chain from the bail. Where was the snake now?

He wanted to go home. He was hungry, he was sleepy. The trilling of water dripping back into the well made him thirsty. Lifting the bucket from the well rim, he longed to look down at his feet but if he took his eyes off of the bucket he would dump the water on the dirt.

“Take it on up over there to the house,” Country shouted. Then to Stub, “Hell, go help him, Stub!”

Stub strode over and took the bucket from Rick, grinning with his mouth full of rotten snags, leaning pegs. Bucket out by his side and stub arm swinging for balance, he headed toward the porch, went up the broken steps and set it on a shelf on the north end.

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