continued . . .
“Yep, we were in the woods for darn near two hours”, Brad reminisced the next day. A crowd of the buxom lasses had gathered as they always did between class, chattering lightly and hanging on his every word. “Cold out there too, and I thought we’d be coming out empty handed.”
One of the girls shifted an armload of books across a tight sweater. “So then what happened?”, she cooed. I imagine that if Brad had been talking about changing the oil on his truck or pulling on his socks in the morning, she’d have asked much the same.
He gave that crooked smile and his eyes went ever so slightly to slits, and nodded toward me. “Oh, Outfoxed got one. Kept us from getting skunked, he did. Helluva shot, getting dark like it was.”
It was a rare thing that I would be even in the same hemisphere as a crew of cheerleaders in a high school hallway, rarer still that all of them would suddenly swing the slow beam of attention over to me, like some brilliant lighthouse on shore seeking a leaking boat.
The girl with the books favored me with a smile. “You got one? I thought all you did was write stuff for the paper, and stuff.” It was a question I’d normally shy away from, and my face felt the familiar burning.
“Yeah, got lucky, I guess,” I sighed, with a touch of drama. And I gave her a smile back, as if the sacrifice of a squirrel in the woods was one of the more compelling things she‘d ever hear.
Brad nodded, and I knew it was the right answer, lame as it was. I didn’t know it then but that was the start of it. The start of something that has lasted a long time now, has haunted and chased down the road of Southern things and pickup trucks and mud kicked from tall boots against concrete.
Within a week, he and I were inseparable, a quirk of things that worked well between two boys becoming men. School became merely the staging ground for the crisp fall afternoons, the quick trot to my car or his truck, the donning of field gear and the reverent grasp of a gun, the swinging stride to wood or field. It took me all of two weeks to determine that the universe would be aligned poorly if I kept borrowing one of his guns, his jacket or his boots. That alone should have been a big clue of things to come. I hate borrowing other peoples stuff to this day. Savings accounts were raided and K-Mart was made glad of it.
Mom got accustomed to my arrivals after dark, clad in duck cloth and trailing field mud behind me. She frowned at the mud, pursed lips at the feathers and fur trailing behind the big sack sewn into the jacket, but it was the dressed game she threw hands up for.
“You shoot it, you cook it, boy. And don’t be messing up all my cooking gear either.” Fair enough. I got to where I could make, to my mind anyway, a pretty fair snack out of a pair of squirrel. Or a brace of bird.
There was all manner of other things going on as a senior in high school but that seemed to be the constant of that particular winter. For a kid not too far removed from the copy room at the school newspaper it was, quite literally, a breath of fresh air. To be out in it all afternoon, all day on Saturday. Brad would bring along Sam the Springer, there was talk of wing shots and flushing, burr removal from a wet and panting dog and the optimal load for a shot shell in heavy cover.
It was a trip into a world I hadn’t spent a lot of time in and that few ever do. There were stops for gas at forgotten roadhouses, where everyone was dressed like us and slow nods took the place of chirpy greetings. Where two kids were looked on as men and asked, in that heady way that a 40 year old grownup might ask of a kid in high school, “Any luck today, fellas?”, and be actually interested in knowing.
There was fishing on warm days. If it rained, we sat under partial cover in the woods and convinced ourselves that squirrels ran better on rainy days. We walked miles over frozen ground, fell into hidden step-over creeks and got soaked, chased after the dog when he ranged too far.
It was a damned fine time.
It didn’t go unnoticed. Not by any means.
My teachers said: “You know, your work is slipping. Your high honors spot just dropped to honors. Better buckle down.”
My parents said: “Where are you going with the car now? You haven’t been home in time for supper in weeks!”
A couple of random cheerleaders said: “Hi Outfoxed!”
Brad said: “Got the car, eh? Good, better we hoof it down to the slew, I saw fresh sign there this morning.”
And so on. The funny part was that Brad and I talked very little, busy as we were tearing up Swampville. There was none of the pattering after existentialism from the editors room, no shopping for new shirts or shoes, no going to movies. I suppose we missed a lot of what normal seniors in high school would do over the course of three semesters. Didn’t seem to matter much. His grades stayed about the same and mine dipped as I went into auto-pilot mode, repeating back sundry information on tests and never spending one extra second on homework that couldn’t be better spent with a dog, a covey of quail and a shotgun with #8’s. Or a barbeque sandwich at a weather-beaten grocery store on the edge of a swamp, or watching a fishing boat put out at dawn. We covered the places more suited to the grown men, the old ones, in our quest for an acceptance from those tanned and lean men who were deliberate of motion and sparing of words.
It was on a rare sunny Saturday that we made the trip to Billy’s place.
Brad drove, muttering something about hitting a place deep in the woods. To this day I can’t place where it was exactly, and I know every back road in Swampville. For all I know he drove right off the edge of the map and into a dream. It took him no small amount of time, and several backtracks before he eased to a stop at a primitive cabin set right on the water, the scattered detritus of Southern life littering the yard. Several boats, a rusted truck, crab pots and nets, muskrat traps dangling by the dozen from a clothesline that had seen better days. A lone Pointer soundlessly but alertly watching us from the front porch.
“This here’s my cousin’s place,” Brad said quietly. “Lives here by himself. Doesn‘t take to folks he don‘t know too much.”
I hung back and let the Pointer sniff my hand, my overalls, and he thumped a tail twice in approval, yawning his way back into sleep. Brad rapped on the door and peered into the single front window. “Guess he’s out somewhere. We wouldn’t be knocking on his door if he was home. Funny, his truck’s here.” He idly strolled to his own truck and stretched tremendously. “Shoot, long as we’re here, might as well wet a line,” and he pulled a bait caster from the rear of the truck, a top water plug already rigged on the line, and cast over the ten yards of grassy embankment into a dark hole on already dark water.
Brad was practical. He figured his cousin would be along sooner or later, and his side yard was a creek branch known for catfish and bass. I was content to amble over to a chopping block and have a seat, half watching my buddy probe the shoreline with effortless casts of the rod and half drinking in the green and gray of the water and woods. There was actual moss hanging from a few trees, I’d never seen it in this area. The cabin, a place which could have been described as both a fallen down squatters refuge or a practical hunting base with amenities, and both would be right. A curious lodge with no sign of electrical line or oil tank, the yard shabby in a way but hardly careless.
“So what’s your cousin do, man?” I asked, to make conversation.
Brad never looked away from the water and the steady whiz! of line singing off the pole. “Well he just sorta does a lot of things, I guess. Little huntin’, little trappin’. Frames a house or two in the summer time.” He grunted as a stob slowed his twitching retrieve. “Billy Sawyer’s his full name. Raises dogs, too.” The plug jerked free from the branch hidden in the water, and Brad’s voice grew a little too casual. “That dog on the porch be worth five thousand dollars, I hear. National champion or something.”
I turned around to look at the Pointer snoozing blissfully on the porch. “Five thousand? Jesus, for that one dog?” I turned back to Brad.
He cast, cutting the spot just a little too fine, and finally hung himself up in one of the low branches of a cypress. “Crap. Yeah, supposed to be really something, pin a bird fifty yards out. Ain’t like old Sam, he’s a brush buster. This ‘uns a Pointer.”
He was on his way to unravel his lure when I heard the unmistakable sound of a Zippo behind me, and whipped around to see a small man thumbing fire to an ancient pipe, a foot propped on the porch not an inch from the nose of the Pointer. I swear, and will take any oath to this day that he had materialized from thin air without sound, somehow ignoring a creaky porch or a half acre of dried leaves in doing so.
The man blew a great cloud of blue smoke to the sky, glanced at me but fixed quickly on Brad, furiously yanking monofilament from the tree. He had a manner of utter calm, a creased brown face that could have been that of someone of twenty years, or fifty. He folded one arm across his chest and used the other to pull the pipe slightly away. “That you over there, Badly?”, he mused.
Brad spun just as quickly as I had and looked hard. “Wha . . . hey Billy, where’d you come from?”
“Y’all boys prospectin’ here or do ye always decide to park yer truck on somebody’s land just for fun?” Billy seemed neither amused nor angry. “And you, Badly, you ought to know it ain’t no time of the year for a top water plug on bass, ‘specially since I know you woulda just took him outta here and not offered your own Cousin nothin’.”
Brad grinned that little grin. “Oh hell no. Wouldn’t happen that way. This my buddy Outfoxed over there, Billy.”
I again felt the cool glance flick my way, and a nod to be polite.
“Pleased to meetcha, Mr. Sawyer. You call him Badly, eh?” I could already smell treasure in that nickname.
“Works a helluva lot better than Bradley, doesn’t it now,” Billy drawled. “Don’t know what my good Aunt had in mind with this ‘un, he’s been a Badly ever since he was a pup.” He replaced the pipe in his mouth and coaxed out another plume of smoke. “Y’all here on a social call?”
“My sister said you might be around, Billy.” Brad was leaned against the truck by now, in comfort. “Said you might be needin’ a hand.” I gave him a curious glance, it was news to me. But most of the time this was how it went. We’d be out all day and wind up somewhere, unbidden and without words, and something would come up. Something like this short man in battered boots and holding an ancient pipe.
“Aye, I reckon I do. Good of your sister to remember that for me.“ He tapped the pipe lightly against a corner of the house. “Know where Finny’s Point is?”
We both nodded. Finny’s was a backwater marina, the kind that doesn’t show up on anyone’s map. A nearly rotted pier jutting out into the marsh, maybe a couple of derelict boats and an ancient storage building. We’d rode by it many times with Brad typically jerking a thumb and grunting, “Finny‘s Point“ without slowing down.
Billy Sawyer nudged the Pointer and spat. “Wonder if you could run on down there come Monday, do a little unloading with me. Got a run of menhaden coming in.”
It was Saturday, and I had to wonder just how anyone was able to predict a load of anything being ready for unloading some two days hence. But it wasn’t something I was going to give voice to and show my ignorance.
“Well yeah, Billy. I reckon we can, so long as it’s in the afternoon. Right after we get out of school, sure.” Brad seemed pleased to be available.
The little man stared out over the edge of dead still water, sticking the pipe back with a slow motion and tilting the Zippo near. He stared for a long moment that went beyond contemplation, spun the lighter and sucked flame deep into the bowl, the sweet scent of smoke drifting our way in a trice. Another long stream of pipe smoke streamed from lips and nose.
“Nope, ‘fraid it’ll have to be in the morning, if it’s gonna get done at all there, Badly. Fish ain’t gonna wait. Fish never do. Kinda favor the mornings, they do.”
He fell silent, and I could see the wheels start to turn with Brad. We weren’t all that enamored with school, it had become more of a distraction than anything, taking away from the sweetness of spending unlimited hours in the low country. In a little more than four months, it would be a moot point anyway since June, and graduation, was looming large on the horizon. We weren’t known for actually skipping school.
But I could tell that Brad wasn’t much for saying no to this man, either.
It wasn’t my place to say, but I did it anyway. “We could do that,” I blurted, with Brad shooting me an amazed look. “Shoot, we need a day off anyway, right?”
Billy never lost that look of serenity. He coughed lightly and said, “What say ye, Brad?”
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