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Living with Fred

Chapter Seven

Ralph squatted down next to the fire and leaned into it. "Jake Crowley was raised out here on the Neches River bottom," he breathed in a voice so low we were obliged to crouch around the fire just to hear him, "and he spent his life huntin' and fishin'. He only went ta school up ta third grade, til he could read and write. He never set foot out a Fred before 1969, when he got his draft notice and before he knowed it he was headed over ta Viet Nam."

The flickering light from the fire illuminated Ralph's face from below, stretching his eyebrows into his hairline and casting the wrinkles on his brow into bold relief. His words came out in white clouds.

"He was green but they was short on good men, so they set him in charge of a squad and sent him out in the jungle. The first thing he did was ta walk right through a mine field, only he never knowed it because he didn't hit a one. But, when his squad follered, they was all cut ta shreds and he just had ta stand there and watch." The contours of Ralph's bur haircut blended with the darkness behind him, which made his face seem to be detached and floating in space above the fire.

"Well, ever body told him how lucky he was ta be alive and they sent him out again with a new squad. They was creepin' through a clearin' when all a sudden they found theirselves in the middle of a mess a snipers in the trees." Ralph leaned back his head and looked around at the trees surrounding us. "When the noise ended, Jake was standin' alone in the middle of the clearin' without a scratch on im."

"Well, ever body told him again how lucky he was ta be alive, except some started talkin' bout how he was jinxed and they was scared ta be in his unit. But he was a good fighter, so they sent him out again, this time at the back of the squad. They was sneakin' through a swamp when the next thing he knowed they was all sinkin' in the mud. He runned up ta pull em out, but he couldn't get a holt on em and they all sunk. He decided he wanted ta die, so he walked in the same place, but he wouldn't sink." The shadow from Ralph's big, curved nose danced on the left side of his face, obscuring his eye, which glimmered occasionally when it caught a stray beam of light. I glanced without turning my head. We were crouched around the fire in a tight circle close enough to singe our eyebrows.

"After that, Jake just disappeared. Nobody ever seen him back in Viet Nam. But, a few years ago, somebody saw traces of a feller livin' back in these here woods, and then somebody else come out with a story of a wild man in camouflage huntin' with a crossbow." I glanced nervously into the darkness beyond the edge of the fire. I noticed everyone else did, too. "When they asked his pa about it, he wouldn't say nothin'. When they asked him again, he showed 'em his shotgun and told 'em ta leave. So," Ralph hissed, looking across the fire at me, "Wouldn't go out there if I was you."

Everyone sat frozen around the fire. Then Jimbo split the air with a prodigious belch that knocked pine cones from the trees and I jumped into the fire. Everyone collapsed in laughter as I brushed the ashes off. We banked the fire and crawled into our sleeping bags.

For some reason the comfort of a thin inch of padding between me and the ground failed to lull me into a peaceful slumber. I shivered in the dark and thought about Jake Crowley. At first I was certain Ralph had invented Jake to keep me from whatever was in the bushes. However, while Ralph had many good qualities, imagination wasn't one of them. I doubted he could make up a story like that off the cuff. It might be true. But a crossbow-wielding Viet Nam vet roaming the Big Thicket in camouflage? It sounded more like a movie than reality.

Of course. He probably had seen it in a movie. Yeah that was it. So, I should sneak out and see what was in the bushes. And I would, too, except I was so cold and I was so tired and I really needed the sleep because you have to get up really early to go hunting. Everybody knows that! Otherwise I'd go out there right now, Jake or no Jake. I finally dozed off to a fitful night of dreams haunted by deer in camouflage ice skating and shooting at me with crossbows.

The next morning I awoke to find Ralph standing over me, giggling. I tried to jump up but I became entangled in the sleeping bag and fell over to the general hilarity of the entire party. I extricated myself and demanded an explanation.

"I saw ya layin' there with your mouth open, and I wanted ta put some Copenhagen in there real bad. But I didn't want ya ta get sick."

"Get sick! Not likely,"

"Oh, yeah. You would definitely get sick, doll."

"Nonsense. If you can do it without getting sick, so can I."

"Oh, but yer daddy got sick the first time." Ralph motioned to the others. "Just ask 'em. They'll tell ya." Bubba, Darnell and Jimbo nodded their heads like gooney birds in a mating dance.

"You guys might have gotten sick, but I can assure you it will have no such affect on me." When I was defensive, my acquired East Texas accent would fall away and my speech would become formal. It merely served to egg the others on.

"OK, then, yer lordship. Let's see ya put yer money where your mouth is." He groped in his pocket and pulled out a crumpled bill. "Here's five bucks says you get sicker'n a dog."

"Well, I don't have five dollars on me." This revelation was greeted with hoots and cat-calls. "But, I have a box of shells I can put up against it."

"Done." Ralph turned to the gallery. "Jimbo, hold the goods." He handed over the money. I turned to get the shells out of my pack. "Hold on a sec, there, Toddy Raymer," Ralph called. "Where do ya think yer goin'?"

"I was going to get the shells."

"First the Copenhagen; then the shells." He handed me the tin and instructed me to insert a pinch between the cheek and gum. It stung like a jalapeno. My eyes watered, but I maintained a stony facade.

"Just be sure not ta swaller any juice." Ralph winked at the others. "The more ya swaller, the sicker ya get." He chuckled in anticipation. "See me in 45 minutes to pay up."

ŇOK.Ó I made a mental note to not swallow and retrieved the shells for Jimbo.

"Hey! These is .22 shells." Jimbo held them up for Ralph to see.

"What am I goin' ta do with .22 shells?" Ralph demanded.

"Hunt," I replied defensively.

"But we're deer huntin'!"

"Yeah? So?" I suddenly remembered I was supposed to spit. I did so inexpertly and wiped my chin with my sleeve, wondering if I had swallowed without realizing it.

"So, ya don't go deer huntin' with a .22!"

"You may not, but I do," I said as if I had done it all my life.

A silence descended on the camp as they speculated on the depth of my insanity, looking for signs such as foaming at the mouth. Tobacco juice dripped off my chin, but I stood resolute and stared back at them.

Then Darnell sparked to life. "Did ya ever get one?"

"Well . . . not actually . . . I mean, not yet, that is."

Darnell's laughter broke the spell. Ralph shook his head. "Let's get goin'."

Darnell grinned like a voodoo skull. "Not yet. That's a goodun. Not yet. I like that."

Everyone else had already grabbed breakfast. With the snuff in my cheek I wasn't feeling particularly hungry, so we set out in different directions to find some deer. On my way out of the camp I stumbled across a pile of empty beer cans, discovering the attraction of the night before.

This gave me something to think about besides my queasy stomach as I trudged along. Why would they sneak off to drink the beer? Why not just drink it in the camp? Surely that was what they usually did.

When I realized the answer, it also explained the reluctance to invite me in the first place. I was the preacher's kid. I could change my speech; I could change my wardrobe; I could change my interests. But I couldn't change the fact that I was the preacher's kid. I realized as I stumbled along that unless something drastic happened, I would forever sit on the other side of that wall, peering over at everyone else. Preacher's kid. Holy Joe. Goody two-shoes.

I returned my attention to the task at hand. I peered around at the brush, wondering where I would hide if I were a deer. In the bushes? By a creek? Staring intently at a suspicious sound in a gully, I ran right into a tree. The snuff had made me dizzy and I was having trouble walking straight. After an hour I found myself retching what little remained in my stomach, glad that no one was there to see me. I wandered on a quarter mile and collapsed against a sweet gum tree to rest.

I must have dozed off for quite a while because when I was awakened by a noise I realized I was feeling much better, almost human. I looked up. About 10 yards away stood a deer with an impressive rack, must have been five or six points. He was upwind, looking away from me. Perfect!

I held my breath, slowly raised my rifle, and tried to remember what the hunting book had said. I zeroed in slightly above and to the left of the target and gently squeezed the trigger. Just before the shot went off, I heard a strange twang and fffffft-thud. The deer fell to the ground to reveal a figure standing behind it. A wild figure in tattered camouflage, matted black hair and mud smeared all over its arms and face. The smudges highlighted the narrow face, hollow cheeks and hooked nose. It was holding a crossbow in much the same way I was holding the .22. I saw slightly below and to the right of my sights a mirror of my own surprised expression. All this happened in the fraction of a second before my finger squeezed the trigger and the world exploded.

"What have I done?" my mind screamed, but I sat silently frozen in the firing position, leaning against the tree. My eyes were squeezed shut. I slowly opened them. There was the same gaunt face, hovering in the same location. I lowered the gun and let it drop into my lap.

The figure placed a new shaft in the bow in one smooth motion and slowly advanced toward me. I sat immobile and prayed fervently that I didn't look the slightest Asian. Frozen by fear, I watched as the crossbow gradually lowered toward my head. The last thing I heard was the sound of the catch releasing.

Some time later I jerked to consciousness and, remembering what was happening, I jumped up. I hit my head on a crossbow shaft buried in the tree an inch above me. Rubbing my head, I looked up to see the deer hanging from a limb, field dressed. The wild figure was gone.

This was a remarkable situation. Lacking a precedent I pondered my next action. After considerable effort I extracted the shaft from the tree and hid it in my jacket. Then I whistled and hollered and the gang trickled in.

"Whoa," Ralph said as he stepped out of the brush. He looked at me suspiciously. "You did that?" I looked at him and raised my eyebrow. "With a .22?" I smiled confidently. He sniffed the barrel. "Well, it's been fired, anyway."

The rest of the gang arrived shortly and were astounded. Darnell slapped me on the back. "Not yet!" he hollered. "Ya sure got me this time."

Jimbo was ready for action. "Let's get this thing cut down and haul 'er back ta camp." He turned to me. "Let's have that knife."

I looked at him blankly. "Knife?"

"Yeah, yeah. The knife. The one ya used ta dress it with."

"Oh, that knife." I patted my jacket pockets, my pants pockets and looked around in the bushes. "I don't see it." I looked up to see Ralph staring at me. "I wonder where it could have gone."

"Yeah, me, too." He kept staring.

"Heck, I got one," Bubba said and stepped up to the rope. Jimbo and Darnell held the deer while Bubba cut it down. Ralph and I carried it back to the camp while the rest returned to the hunt.

I was the only one who got a deer. The rest of the gang was disgusted. They gave up any pretense of going to the bushes that night and dragged the cooler next to the fire. After a few cans, the mood lightened considerably. Jimbo, genetically incapable of recognizing a faux pas, handed me a beer. Ralph froze. Bubba smiled but otherwise gave no indication of his thoughts.

"Here, ya deserve one after today. Ta Mark Crowd, the only man I knowed ta bag a deer with a pop gun." Holding up his can, he belched long and deeply and then leaned on one cheek and passed gas in like manner. Everyone laughed.

I looked at the beer in my hand, all eyes on me. Then I remembered The Question. What would Jesus do? I didn't remember any stories of Jesus going hunting, but he had hung out with fishermen. And he had hung out with prostitutes and embezzlers. And, as Bubba himself had pointed out, he was accused of being a drunkard, which made no sense to me if he didn't drink wine or something. I looked up at Bubba. He held up his can and I could have sworn I heard him say winebibber.

I gingerly opened the top and sniffed the opening. Whew! It had a delicate bouquet of sour milk mixed with apple juice. I took a trial sip. Hints of rotten tomatoes and decaying logs, with an aftertaste of dirty laundry. A very good year. I grinned bravely and nodded my head, choking down the swallow on a stomach that had barely recovered from the snuff.

Around me they resumed telling stories and emitting superfluous gasses from all available orifices. I made occasional token sipping gestures. After an appropriate time, I excused myself to the bushes where I emptied the can, leaving a little in the bottom. I wanted an excuse not to have another one. Then I came back and watched.

They had finally accepted me. I had scaled the wall, was no longer looking over. I had achieved the end of a four year struggle for acceptance. And what did that mean? It meant I could now sit in the middle of some God-forsaken wilderness nursing a drink that tasted like a failed chemistry experiment and listening to a litany of profanity and crudity recited to a chorus of eructation and flatulation. I congratulated myself. That's progress, baby!

What would Jesus do? Was I now obligated to sit here enduring cultural torture when I could be home reading Tolkien? For that matter, would Jesus read Tolkien? Why not, Tolkien was a very devout Catholic, wasn't he?

Quietly, I slipped from the fire and gathered up my gear. Jimbo had begun a series of jokes; nobody noticed my absence. I chucked it all into the back of Darnell's truck, figuring it would get home eventually. Taking a last look at the gang hunched around the fire, I started a long, brooding walk home.