At last they surged through, one after the other, following the pied ginger male at the head of the pack. Like hogs off a cliff, they leaped from the tailgate to the ground, sniffing circles, then again fell in behind the lead dog scamping around brush and gone into the dark woods.
Dusk only in the clearing now, Rick slapped at mosquitoes and listened to the throb of woods, the katydids’ seesawing ringing, the dogs’ hacking—some hoarse, others sweet as a song, a chorus of barking, with Sugarbabe’s pure tenor in periodic solo. He listened and watched the gold diamonds on the hide of the snake till all that was bright filmed over and blurred into the filthy bed of the truck.
When the clearing grew up in darkness, literally, the grains of gray coming together and blacking in like a dotted paint-with-water picture in an activity book, Rick hopped down off the side of the box to the ground to relieve himself and began peering off in the direction of the baying dogs. He thought he spied a light, but it was only a warped moon rising through the trees. An owl on the limb of a dead hickory or oak was rotating his cat-size head, going WOW-OW WOW-OW.
The first shot brought a delayed ripple of stinging from Rick’s heart, radiating from his scalp, all the way down to his toes. Surprise more than fear as he waited for the next shot to blow the dark into grains of dusk again.
The dogs’ barking at once came together, a swollen medley of barking.
At last, Rick spied a dull yellow beam of light followed by Country crashing through the palmettos to the right of the truck. Scolding and kicking at the knot of yapping dogs. “Git on away from here!” Shining the light behind on Stub twitching and yanking at something wallowing limp on the ground at his heels.
When the dogs and the men were gathered at the back of the truck, Rick could see that Stub was dragging an animal by the tail, a medium tabby wildcat with its legs overlapped and its long tail permanently curled. Together they slung him up on the tailgate, undulating and settling next to the snake in the beam of Country’s flashlights.
The dogs were sniffing and hassling in the clearing, leaping up to the tailgate with their front paws and dropping back to the ground. The cat smelled warm, of animal fur and blood, and even with its sharp needle teeth showing through a grin, it looked less than menacing.
“Ole coward,” Country said and laughed. “Too lazy to hunt for live food. Ain’t a dab of harm in him.”
“Why did you kill him then?” Rick asked, standing next to the cat and gazing down.
“What you mean kill him?” Country said.
“Pshaw, boy!” Country spat off to the side. “We was just spooking him out of a tree for the dogs to chase is all.”
Rick wanted to ask if the dogs had killed the cat, but he figured the answer was obvious. He was beginning to catch on: the object of the hunt was to listen to the dogs. A kind of classy coon hunt. At the same time, he knew from listening to Country’s cat-hunt stories that the old man had shot cats for trophies, probably the largest or rarest. No, he wouldn’t ask; they might not let him come back if he asked. He felt on the edge of something he couldn’t yet name but felt that it was the living of it, the being in it, where he belonged.
One of the dogs had been cut on the side, a bloody gash that parted its fur like a red marker.
“Yeah,” said Country, and he seemed to be speaking for Rick’s benefit for a change. “You bring these ole dogs out here, you better bring along a vet. Cause ole cat’s gonna cut em, first chance he gets.” Then, “Load up, boys,” he yelled to the dogs, onto the game and flocking around the tailgate.
Not load em up, boy. Same thing, Rick was learning as he scampered up onto the box, dogs scrambling up and shaking the truck. He raised the gate for the dogs to surge through. Snake forgotten, same as the dogs when he had let them out.
Almost daybreak and they had another diamondback rattler—bad night for hunting cat, they said. Twice more they had set the dogs on tracks sniffed out by Sugarbabe. At first the men sat inside the truck listening to the dogs bay, then they built up a fire and made ground-rich coffee. Once the dogs got lost circling a cat and the men had to search for them, cats circle, don’t run off in a straight line, property line to property line. The truck got stuck in a swamp and they had to wench it out.
On the way back to camp, Rick sat atop the tool box, cooler now, not at all afraid, even of the new dying snake rattling at his feet. He was so sleepy his eyelids sank, leaving only slits of darkness, same as if he’d closed them. The moon’s forming of flocked shadows on the ground was darkness.
Rick’s newfound life was the only light. This was real. These men were real. Before he’d felt itchy and exposed to bright light, like staring at the sun. Now he’d found a simple life, one in which he could shape out a place for himself. He’d found a time suited to him. Not too much expected of him; he could just be without having to become.
At the lodge, just before sunup, when the world glowed rose and amber along its edges, the only cool time in August, and the sleeping sounds of the woods and the dogs at last satisfied with a coward and two bad snakes, Country lay down on the left cot, Stub on the right, and Sugarbabe on the plush pale sheepskin rug with Country’s hand in her fur, scratching, with Rick curled up next to her.
On the way home, that afternoon, after Country had dropped Stub off with his gear, they had a flat on the left rear of the truck and had to coast off an exit and onto the parking lot of a small service station/convenience store to get the tire fixed.
Rear end jacked up and motor oil burning on sun-bright concrete, the truck was still loaded with the penned dogs, two fly-buzzed, baking snakes, and the coward, hardened now as if by the hands of a taxidermist. Heavy traffic roaring on the interstate and Country leaning against the concrete building in the eave-shadow, the only shade, Rick carried water from the spigot between the two gas pumps to the dogs in the box on back. Listening to the dogs lapping at the water, after closing the gate, he had to step over the coward and around the sprawled S-shapes of snake to get to the hiked-up tailgate, where he sat waiting for the tire to be repaired. Grease gun and air tank hissing from the garage tacked onto the store part of the building in front of the truck. Swinging his feet, he watched the sun glint off the slick paint of automobiles swerving onto the exit ramps, people eyeing the sorry service station and hitting the on-ramp in search of a better stop-off at the next exit.
After several automobiles had slowed and looked and passed on and up the interstate, Rick realized that the pickup with the dead snakes and cat and filthy, grinning boy swinging his feet off the tailgate were the reasons they weren’t stopping.
A green SUV, driven by a harsh-faced, youngish woman, came to a full stop. Too polite to point but staring out the side window while speaking back to the three children buckled up, safe and cool. All three were wearing Mickey Mouse ears.
Rick waved, glad he couldn’t hear what she was saying. Glad he wasn’t touring the interstate with them, listening to this enlightened woman lecture on people she’d never met and places she’d never really go, judgments formed from something read or said in generalities. Rick knew the spiel. No allowances made for what men did in another time, or for the fact that her air-conditioned SUV and all she stood for now would before long be viewed as obsolete as Country and his truck. How much sense did it make, even now, to travel hundreds of miles and spend hundreds of dollars to visit a fantasyland ruled by a king mouse?
Behind him a loud thump sounded and the truck shook, and he looked back to see Country with a wad of tobacco in his jaw dropping a long green-streaked watermelon onto the front bed of the truck.
“Got you something to take home with you, boy,” he said, grinning.
About the Author
Janice Daugharty, artist in residence at Abraham Baldwin Agriculture College, in Tifton, Georgia, is the author of 7 print novels and two story collections. Her newest novel, “The Little Known,” is now available in ebook and print. Daugharty is in the process of uploading e-stories to Smashwords for your reading pleasure.