The Hunt -3 

Everywhere skinks like tiny gators crawled. Lizards flashed, red wattles under their necks like clotted blood.

All three hunters were sitting around the rickety square table in the kitchen on the south end of the lodge. Country and Stub took slices of white bread and smeared them with potted meat out of a can, folded the bread over and chomped down. Half sandwich gone inside their mouths, washing it down with coffee, their faces gleamed with grease and sweat. Rick did as they did. The greasy meat-spread made the doughy bread stick to the roof of his mouth, but it was salty, tasty. He made four half sandwiches, then opened up a can of Vienna sausages and pinched them out one by one with his thumb and forefinger. They almost slid down his throat.

“Heah, boy, have a sodie cracker with them wienies,” Country said and slid a long packet of wax-wrapped saltines his way.

What they talked about was old cat stories, their glory days, when men were men and cats were cats, leisurely smacking their lips and swigging coffee. The stories went on and on. Intended for Rick? Not that he could tell. The stories seemed to be for their own edification, and for all Rick knew they could be lies. Regardless he felt like a lizard evolved from dinosaurs. 

He could not imagine what next, and was shocked to find out the two men were at that point hell-bent on napping. 

“You better get you some shuteye, boy,” Country said and stretched out on the left cot on his back. His boot toes pointed out and his belly rose up as if inflated with an air pump. On the floor by his bed was a pale, dirty sheepskin rug shaped like a map. No way could you make it into a sheep shape, even imagining it stuffed with sheep flesh and stitched up the sides.

Stub, on the other cot, the one with Rick’s BB gun underneath, lay on his side with his old brown scuffed boots hung off.

Immediately Country began snoring. A peaceful blow-by from the mouth that made his loose lips flutter.  

 The dogs outside were finally quiet and the sun was ticking on the tin like an oven heating up.

It was too hot to move, so Rick, sitting at the table still, ate a tart, mayonnaise and canned pineapple sandwich—two slices of bread. Then another potted meat sandwich, two slices of bread this time, mayonnaise and meat. What kind of meat? He lifted the top slice of bread and peeped at it. Just meat, something meat-like, brown as rat. He had shed his flannel over-shirt; his T-shirt was stained with the stuff. He drank water and waited at the table. 

One hour passed and he was dozing and the strange sheepskin rug next to Country’s cot looked like a good place to lie down. But the old man’s thick left hand was hanging down and his fingers were alternately grazing and scratching in the furry nap. Stub looked dead, corpse-like, with his long hand cupping the gathered flesh of his stub on his chest.

So this was how they cat hunted, Rick thought. Two old cusses acting tough and country, laid up inside a shack, sleeping. He felt superior, sort of, one up on them because he knew. But he was relieved too. The wood stock of his BB gun, which he could see at the foot under Stub’s cot, seemed a little less like a boy’s Christmas toy.

Sliding back from the table, his chair overturned and the whole lodge shook. Country snored on; Stub boxed at his sharp nose, then slept on. Hands in his pockets, Rick walked out to the sloping porch, drawing a deep breath of the still heat. He leaned against one of the porch posts at the top of the rotting doorsteps and stared out at the woods, smelling dog and pine tar and baking dirt. The air in the clearing steamed, dead but for the floating gnats and buzzing flies. A dog inside the crib growled, one yelped. Then silence. The dense rattle of locusts and katydids ringing in the trees made the woods seem to close in.

Safe on the porch, a while later, Rick longed to peep inside the woods, to part the trees and open up the first deep woods he’d ever been in like a door. The katydids were shrieking now and the locusts seemed set on buzz forever, something to hold to and yet get lost in like quicksand.

No longer sleepy, and so full he felt as stuffed as Sugarbabe, he sat on the only doorstep not broken, feeling the heat of the wood through the seat of his jeans.

This is a cinch, he thought. He was so relieved to be safe and full that the heat from the white sun overhead hardly bothered him. Tomorrow he’d be home. He might even go swimming at the country club; he knew he wouldn’t though. But he would tell Nathan about the trip and they would laugh about Jill’s phony-tough father, that old blustery character everybody bowed down to.

The two men didn’t rise from their afternoon nap like anybody else would, but instead burst like firecrackers through the door of the lodge and headed for the crib and the dogs now straining against the slat walls and doors, on the verge of bursting out too.

“Get on out heah, boy. Help load up these dogs.” Country didn’t even look back—not that he had to for the boy to know he meant him. Who else? Rick was onto the both of them, Country and Stub—two old cusses using cat hunting as an excuse to get off and reminisce about their glory days, to get out of the house and away from family. Country maybe excusing himself from some party or other, though Rick could not imagine him having to excuse himself to anybody for anything, not and him owning more timberland than anybody in Southeast Georgia.

On back of the truck, seated atop the dog box with the dogs inside snarling, snapping and yapping, Rick could see the sun like a blistered face settling behind the west rows of pines. Surrounded now by the racket of dogs and heat like the fires of hell, he was glad at last to be moving, doing what they had come to do, if nothing but riding the woods with a box full of dogs, Country at the wheel and Stub perched high on the other side of the truck.

“Ho now!” Stub shouted.

Country braked. “Hell of a rattler, hell of a rattler!” 

Stub got out, carving a club from a sapling with his pocketknife. 

Rick couldn’t see the snake in the middle of the road ahead of the truck or hear the rattles from where he was sitting, but he could see Stub making chopping motions with the green limb, jumping back as if from impact with the dirt. The dogs were throbbing with heat and motion and racket inside the box. Then Rick could hear the snake’s rattles, see the snake, up close and personal, as people on TV would say, because Stub had pitched it from the end of the sapling to the floor of the truck at his feet. Rattles raised and simmering like a cook-pot lid. The dogs, already full throttle and thronging toward the dying, slithering snake, struck a higher chord, record-decibel barking.

Next stop, Country got out and came around, climbed up on back of the truck, sweet-talking Sugarbabe and cursing the other dogs for the sons of bitches they were. By some magic, with his hardened old scratched up hands, Country parted the crush of dogs in the raised door, and Sugarbabe came twitching and gleaming in the sun, her golden fur, eyeing the snake and sidling toward the other side of the truck bed, then over and out and prancing in place while Country took his time but looking hurried and excited hopped off the tailgate. 

The other dogs thronged in the small square entrance of the box, baying but shying away from the snake. 

“Shut the gate! Shut the gate!” Country roared back at Rick.

 Rick with his feet up slammed it down on the head of a dog, raised it, loosing the caught dog, inside now and glad to be.

The other dogs inside yapped and snarled and shoved against the walls of the box. Their excitement vibrated through Rick as he watched Country, Stub and Sugarbabe trailing off through the green myrtle bushes, palmettos and pines. Flashlights in the men’s hip pockets and rifles down by their sides.

It was just dusk when Rick heard the peculiar baying, that almost yodel, of Sugarbabe and the men hooting way off east through the woods.  The other dogs seemed almost silent in the absence of Sugarbabe, whose voice he could conjure into a song by Leigh Ann Rimes. The snake’s raised tail rattled and now and then its diamond-patterned hide crept on the floorboards of the truck bed, coiled, rolled up, then stretched out and still. Hearing Sugarbabe and the men, the dogs in the box came alive with new barking and thrusting against the walls, snake forgotten and fevered with anticipation of joining the hunt.

The katydids in the moss of the oaks trilled one side of the road and then the other. Mosquitoes wove a circle around Rick, pricking his neck, face and arms at random.

“Let em go, boy!”  

That’s what it sounded like Country was calling out, but ghosting as in echo, at least a mile away.

And again: “I SAY, LET EM GO, BOY.”

Trim brown hiking boots still up on the box, the boy knelt and lifted up on the wood gate, and the dogs, so eager to be gone before, began milling inside, shying away from the snake and the door. 


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