--- G E R A L D R . W H E E L E R
The tall hillbilly in a long-billed denim railroad cap, grimy khaki work clothes and clodhoppers motioned toward us with an Indian bow. A second lanky man, hatless, wearing a sleeveless undershirt, identical boots and overalls that could stand up by themselves, was waving a bullet-riddled pail in the bow hunter's face.
Fifty yards away, my best friend, "Gogitem" Daily and I ducked behind a moonshine still. I nodded toward the trees. Gogitem could barely squat down because he had a buckskin quiver stuffed with Indian arrows strapped on his back, stolen from the hillbillies' cabin, like the beaver and squirrel pelts jammed under his cartridge belt, and the unstrung snake-skinned- covered osage bow he clutched in one hand. The other hand held a loaded.22 pump.
I wanted to make a dash for the woods, but knew Gogitem would not jettison his booty to make the clearing. Knew how he got his nickname. Short and wiry, Daily had the fury of a tornado which he unleashed in honky-tonks, drive-ins and while chasing down ball carriers on Friday nights. He was Audie Murphy with machine-gun fists. For him to bug or retreat, one would have to reverse the force of gravity.
Lying in a prone position, I gestured for Gogitem to stay down, aimed the bolt-action .22 at the man with the bow, my sweaty eyes uncontrollably blinking against the sharp metal edge of the Weaver scope. The intent was to get a better glimpse, not to shoot. After all, we were the thieves and intruders, and at this distance, I'd figured a bow was no match for guns.
The image in the cross-hairs shook until I held my breath. A ghostly face with green marble eyes filled the lens. But the whites of the eyes were not white, but the color of Pepto Bismol. And his bushy eyebrows, like the coils of hair springing out of the bottom of his cap, were snow-white. I'd seen an albino once, at the feed store last year, except he was a kid, not a giant hillbilly. He must've caught a flash off the scope. Suddenly, the pinkish corners of his eyes swelled, and his hand reached behind his back. The next sounds were the dogs. The hell with Gogitem.
It was the week before the start of football practice in our senior high school year.
"Let's go shooting," Pat Daily asked, brushing his hands on the cushions of the wicker couch on my aunt's sun porch, sucking in his long angular nose. We had flattop haircuts one could land a plane on, except Daily's hair was so blond it appeared bald. Whereas my hair was jet-black, the only reminder of a father I'd never seen. My mom's side of the family was all flaming redheads. Rolling one of my uncle's Dutch Master cigars in his mouth, Daily said, "Like my dad says, a day off hiking and plinking in the woods is a retreat for city boys."
We stored the guns, ammo belts, and canteens in the trunk of my aunt's new Buick Roadmaster and headed for Wayne National Forest southeast of Lancaster. It was especially exhilarating for me because I rarely had access to a car. That week it was entrusted to me while my aunt accompanied her husband to a medical convention in Atlanta. Usually I'd bum rides with Daily or other friends. Daily transferred to my school the year before after being expelled from Culver Military Academy for curfew violations, fighting and sneaking a girl into his dorm. The only son of a local real estate tycoon, he drove his own red MG roaster, dressed flashily, and gravitated to me because I had a penchant for chasing girls, sneaking into nightclubs to hear Dixieland, playing hooky, and pulling pranks at school. Got away flouting the rules because I was given latitude granted to orphans and star halfbacks in a community where football was king. Of course it didn't hurt that my mom's oldest sister who took me in after she was hospitalized was married to the governor's and U.S. Senator's doctor.
After two hours of speeding past cornfields and pastures of lolling cattle, we came upon the rolling hills of the Wayne National forest and parked near a towering water tank.
Wearing Levi's, white T-shirts and hunting boots, we stood in the shade, doused our faces and arms with mosquito repellent and got into our gear. I adjusted the leather sling of the .22 Winchester rifle to fit my shoulder, filled the pouches of the cartridge belt with Mars bars, ammo, and restaurant packs of Lance cheese and crackers. I also had an army commando knife, a canteen and a first-aid pouch filled with two extra loaded 10-shot rifle clips. Gogitem inserted .22 bullets into the barrel tube of a Remington pump he bought off a drunken carny for $10 on the Fourth of July. Drooped on his pistol belt was a full canteen and WW II leather holster with his dad's loaded .45 semi-automatic.
We synchronized our watches at 10:05 a.m. The clouds looked like cotton balls in a blue sky. The late August humidity already turned our T-shirts into a loose layer of skin. I regretted having to breathe pollen and losing the breeze to the trees, but the adventure of shooting up the woods sure beat hell out of shooting eightball in Gogitem's knotty pine basement recreation room. I took the point.
We trekked on a mat of dead yellowish-brown switch grass and rotting leaves, dodged punishing cat briar, and batches of wild grapevines that spiraled from the ground like groping emaciated insects or dangled like pythons from the low branches of oak and white ash. The sound of snapping twigs was answered by the boisterous caws of flushing crows, and darting shadows of a thousand tiny birds.
I sideswiped a trio of beech trees, their smooth light gray trunks caught in a stranglehold of dark horizontal bands.
"Better leave some trail markers," Gogitem said, his deep blue eyes scanning the thick foliage
We paused. I tore off strips from an extra bandanna, looked back through the brush and trees, got our bearing in the diffused light and tied a red strip at eye level on the tip of a dead branch and moved on. After several paces we ducked under an arch of vines and I planted another trail ribbon.
"What's that?" my friend asked, pointing his rifle at ten o'clock toward a cluster of lingering blackshaw. He rushed ahead of me, stopped to set his rifle against a log and picked up a three-point deer skull. "Dibbs," he grinned, poking an index finger through its eye socket.
"Jest a skeleton," I said, downplaying my jealousy. I suggested using the skull for a trail marker. "Pick it up on the way back." Ten minutes later, Gogitem stuck it in a forked branch of an oak tree, its prominent antlers pointing ominously ahead.
We took the first canteen break sprawled in high grass among buckeye trees. The water was tepid, leaving an after taste of metal, which was good because it encouraged conservation. I picked up one of the dry, prickly bulbs, peeled away the shell, rotated the smooth brown surface with my fingertips until a cream-colored eye stared back, discovering the tree nut had two eyes. Feeling like I had found a four-leaf clover, I pocketed the two-eyed buckeye.
After an hour of tramping through dense trees and underbrush, spooking birds, and wiping sweat out of our eyes with bandannas, we reached a slope leading to the forest bottoms. Walking sideways, grasping limbs to descend the steep grade, we negotiated a difficult ridge and found ourselves gazing upon a natural orchard of sugar maples, easily identified by half-gallon sap buckets suspended on spike-sized tubes impaled in the trunks.
Before I had a chance to inspect one, Gogitem laid down his rifle, stepped in front of me, unflapped his holster, drew the .45, and started blasting. Suddenly, pails of syrup went flying and I was deaf. Not to be outdone, I flipped off the safety and emptied a 10-shot clip of .22 hollow- points into the nearest survivors, leaving them bleeding syrup.
Having littered the orchard with shot-up pails, we followed a deer trail to another gully, humped a low ridge, and tied a trail marker to a vine.
"Hey, lookee there!" Gogitem yelled, rushing to a big-toothed aspen, his eyes locked on an arrow lodged in a high branch. One could tell by the angle of the shaft that it was shot from the base of the tree.
"Huntin' arrow," I said, not missing a step.
We continued hiking deeper into the forest, spotting more and more trees shot by arrows out of reach. Finally, unable to resist, I shinnied up a pine and dug one out with my hunting knife. To my amazement it was an arrow made the Indian way--three feathers attached to a dogwood shaft by sinew like Chippewas used that I'd learned about in scouts. After I climbed down I showed my partner the hand-painted band markings and custom-made steel tip. "Probably made from old scrap metal. You know, Indians didn't always use bones and flint for hunting tips, but pieces of wagon wheel rims, whiskey barrels or pot-iron killets left by white men."
"Shit, Radcliff, can't be Indians in these woods."
"Well, somebody's around here harvesting maple syrup, and bow hunting." I said. "Hillbillies, maybe." Gogitem brushed the edges of the feathers with his fingertips. "Those are hawk feathers. It's illegal to possess them, same as eagle or owl. Most Indian arrows are now made with turkey feathers." I paused, stuck the arrow under my cartridge belt like a sword. "Dibbs."
Gogitem took the point, searching the treetops for more arrows. Finding one, he climbed a tree. That's when he saw the log cabin.
I scanned the immediate area for any sign of life, while Gogitem yelled and hit the door with his rifle butt. My attention was drawn to a tar-roof lean-to shed in the middle of a clearing behind the cabin. The shed was next to a large copper pot that looked like an old heating-oil tank, and a makeshift dog house. Before I could mention we'd wandered into a moonshiner's homestead, I was standing in the middle of a warped plank cabin floor, watching my best friend's goggle-eyes devour an assortment of pelts, a double-barrel shotgun, a bead decorated leather quiver stuffed with arrows, and several tiers of unstrung bows made from osage orange logs displayed on wall pegs. Each bow had a deer sinew backing and a buckskin handle. I knew that osage was not native to these parts but had been planted by settlers and was the choice bow wood for Plains Indians. He reached for the bow decorated with varnished snake skin. There were also cooking utensils hung on nails, shelves of canned goods, a coffee pot on a wood burning stove, a small table and two chairs made of pine. One side of the room was taken up with a GI metal bunk bed with naked mattresses, matching footlockers and a pile of dirty clothes.
"Better put that shit back," I said, coughing from the dust. "We gotta git outta here."
"You kiddin?" Gogitem barked, jamming a fox pelt inside his pistol belt, and slipping a quiver of arrows over his shoulder.
"Jesus Christ, Daily, you fuckin nuts." I grabbed the bow but he would not let go.
"No way," he said.
"Shit." I retrieved his rifle against the wall, and pushed him outside.
Gogitem eyed the still. "That what I think it is?"
"Yeah, but gotta get back."
"Maybe we'll find some hooch," he said, double-timing toward the still.
We were standing behind the still when we heard dogs yelping in the woods on the other side of the cabin. "Now we're in for it, goddammit," I said, stepping behind a large black metal pot half-filled with sweet-smelling mash. I could tell by the barking one of them was a hound and the other something meaner.
The dogs must've rounded the cabin as I got the albino in the cross-hairs. That's when I yelled, "Run!" and made a beeline for the trees.
Halfway across the clearing, I heard screaming like a hyena. When I turned around a goddamn pitbull was dragging Gogitem backwards by the pant leg. A hound was a few feet away, yelping, but afraid to commit. Gogitem, howling louder than the dogs, had dropped the bow and rifle, and was twisting on his butt in the dirt, reaching for the .45.
A rifle with a scope at a moving target at that range was useless. But I was afraid he'd shoot himself. So I ran back, picked up Daily's .22 pump, aimed at the pitbull's rump and fired, kicking up dirt behind it. I pumped again and squeezed the trigger. I Knew I'd hit the mutt when dirt didn't fly. But the pitbull's iron jaws stayed clamped on Gogitem's trouser, jerking and pulling, its behind gyrating. I pumped and aimed again. That's when the dog's head exploded from the .45, an arrow whizzed past my head, and the hound ran back to his masters.
Instinctively, I raised and aimed the rifle at the albino hillbillies loading another arrow and yelled, "Back off, motherfucker."
Daily's bright blue eyes were wide open. He was pointing the semi-automatic at the ghost- face hillbilly who had a pinch grip on the nock of an all-the-way pulled back hunting arrow, and three arrows in his bow hand, points up, for instant reloads. The man who had waved a bullet- riddled sap bucket was pointing the double-barreled shotgun we'd seen in the cabin.
"Cool it!" I screamed, "We don't want trouble."
The shotgun welding hillbilly took a baby step forward and glanced at his partner. "Day kilt Burly."
"Easy, Daily," I implored, hoping we could reach an accommodation with the woodsmen. "Sorry about the buckets and your dog."
"These guys are fucking crazy," Gogitem said, holding his aim.
"Shut your mouth, Daily" I said, glancing at the mangled pitbull coiled in a pool of blood in the dirt. I raised my voice. "We'll pay you for the dog, and the pails we shot up."
The man with the shotgun scuffed his high-top clodhoppers. He had the same white curly hair of the albino except his skin was tanned. The albino hillbilly reduced the tension of the bow string, but not the position of the bow.
I slowly knelt on one knee and laid the rifle on the ground, talking at the same time. "I'm gonna get out my wallet and give you all I got. Think it's about $25. I'll stick it under this rock, here. My buddy'll do the same, unless we see you move. Okay?"
Daily's burning eyes were melting the muzzle of the shotgun now aimed at him because I was unarmed. He said, "I'm not doing shit until you pick up your rifle, Radcliff. What we got here's a Mexican standoff."
I nodded, retrieved the weapon, aiming it from the hip, thinking it would be less threatening. "How much you got, Daily?"
"Two twenties and a five." He placed it with mine, and stepped back five paces beside me, and retrieved his .22 pump.
"So, are we even-steven?" I asked.
The ghost-faced hillbilly moved out of the shade, faced the sun, and squinted his translucent green eyes. "Gimmeback my skins and arrows."
Muttering obscenities, Gogitem raised and lowered his shoulders, switched gun hands, and slipped the quiver off, dropping it in the dirt, spilling the arrows. Then he pulled out the pelts under his cartridge belt and threw them on the ground.
"Even-steven" I said. My tone was a statement. "We're gonna leave now. No more trouble, right?"
"Fuckers better not follow us," Gotgitem grunted. "Assholes got all our money."
"Button it, Daily. Let's just ease our way the hell outta here."
Sun at our backs, guns in hand, we backed into the trees like bandits exiting a bank in the old West. My mind was racing on how to find our trail, and wondering if the hillbillies would follow. I'd figured the first sign of them tracking us would be hearing the hound dog. Gogitem was on the same frequency. We wove among the underbrush and trees as close to the perimeter as possible to use them as a shield until we reached the woods where Gogitem spotted the cabin. I cast an eye on a hunting arrow we'd passed that had a broken shank, led us down a ravine, keeping my balance by grasping low hanging limbs. Then I looked up, saw a bandanna strip tied to a vine, caught my breath, and used the rifle butt as a walking stick to make the ascent.
"Crazyass Indian albino," Gogitem said, stopping beside me, looking behind us, riling my nerves. His face was beet-red, but not from the heat. I'd seen that change in the complexion. When Daily's about to spring on an agitating opponent at a bar or at a Friday night game--the glow of a volcano about to blow. Shit. I couldn't believe it. Gogitem turned around, started sidestepping rocks, and leaping over stumps like a hurler, toward the cabin.
I yelled, "You stupid son-of-a-bitch," and raced after him, tackling him in a pile of deer shit. "You trying to get us killed?"
Gogitem yanked his legs from my arms. "I ain't scared," he said behind clenched teeth, crawling on all fours up the ravine, rifle in one hand, canteen and holster slapping his hips, boots cracking dry twigs and leaves.
I cussed again and ran after him. Halfway up the ravine, a shotgun blast resounded among the trees, and birdshot zinged over our heads. We fell on our sides. The next sounds were a rebel yell and the high-pitched bark of a hound dog. Gogitem must've known that our only chance of escaping from the hillbillies' backyard was wasting their goddamn tracking dog. We quickly scooted behind a boulder. Using the scope as binoculars, I scanned the dense underbrush and pine trees above us, wishing I could take a drink, wishing we were back smoking cigars on my aunt's sun porch, or shooting eightball in Gogitem's rec room.
Damn. The lens revealed an image of a pair of paws clawing a log 20-feet away, and a pink tongue panting between snarling teeth. I sighted the cross-hairs on a deep-brown eye, and squeezed the trigger. Simultaneously, the dog leaped over the log at his masters' signal. The .22 hollow-point tore into the hound's gut. Its body's momentum carried it to a pile of leaves, where it landed, howling, and wallowing like a colic stricken horse. Before I could fire again, Daily pumped two slugs into the dog's head, putting the animal into its final death throes.
The cracks of the .22s were answered by a voice calling, "Two-bits, two-bits." The same voice that said earlier: "They kilt Burly!"
I pulled Gogitem's arm, nodding a retreat with a stern expression.
To my relief, he grimaced and started edging backwards. Suddenly the leaves jumped above our heads and floated down like confetti to an echo of a 12- gauge from the ridge. A second later, an arrow glanced off the side of the boulder we'd just abandoned and slithered like a snake into the high grass a yard from my right foot.
"Jesuschristallmighty," I yelled, crabbing backwards as fast as possible to the bottom of the gully, Gogitem beside me. We turned on our heels hell-bent for whatever nature offered as cover and a decent path of escape. We bounced off trees, danced through a maze of vines, rolled over stumps, chased by the tattered leaves of birdshot, and spat earth as Indian arrows slammed into trees like stones shot with a slingshot.
Miraculously, we made it to the top, saw a red cloth waving on a twig by the deer trail leading to the maple tree orchard. I didn't bother to grab the rag or attempt leaving a false trail. The hillbillies owned these woods. Speed and prayer were all we had. They had made it out of the bottoms when I saw the first slain pail on the ground. It was a path of destruction easy to follow. I thought the next trail marker was the deer skull Daily found. At the edge of the orchard, I stopped and saw the antlers pointing in the direction of our doom. Whatever little sun flickered through the trees splashed our faces in the clearings. Gasping for breath, eyes burning from sweat, I caught a glimpse of a red bandanna when I heard the rebel yell and Gogitem let out a cry that must've spooked every bird and critter in the forest.
I spun around. Daily was wincing, rocking on his right side, left knee to his chest, hands grasping the shank of a hunting arrow impaled in the top of his leather boot above the ankle. The next arrow landed next to his rifle stock he'd dropped. Gogitem's big blue eyes were welling as fast as the hillbilly Injun was reloading arrows. I expected to hear a shotgun blast, and a rebel yell.
"Oh, Jesus," I blurted, trying to pull Daily up so he could run on one foot. But whenever the protruding shank hit an object, it twisted the metal hunting-tip buried in his flesh.
"NO! No! No!" Gogitem cried.
I pulled him to the ground. "Gotta break it off." When I said this, I had no idea how to proceed without making it worse. Lying on my side, I tried snapping the shank, anchoring the section next to the boot with one hand and snapping it with the other. This would've left about a four-inch piece protruding from the leg. But there was too much slimy blood on the shaft and my hands. My effort only twisted the hunting-tip more, and generated a loud protest to stop. Glancing hopelessly at Daily's wincing face, I was distracted by the sound of an arrow hitting a stump the size of my head a few inches away. I unsheathed my hunting knife to start sawing the shank with the serrated edged. Daily grabbed and released my torturing hand, unflapped his holster, pulled out the .45 and fired three rounds wildly into the direction of our assailants. Then he lowered the pistol to his leg, placed the barrel against the shaft where it entered the boot and fired, splintering the wood. Deafened by the gun-blast, I quickly finished the job, praying the hillbillies were hunkering down. Then I slung the rifle and pulled Daily up by the arms.
We hobbled to a felled tree when Daily moaned over leaving his rifle where he'd been shot. But this time my face was crimson from anger and fear and he was in no shape to argue. I knew I got my hearing back when I heard the familiar rebel yell, and an arrow ricochet off a nearby tree. I scanned the area for a trail marker, saw a rag as red as Gogitem's arrow-shot boot and we three-footed into a clearing facing the sun, two first downs from the buckeye trees, a small gully and the getaway car.
We made it across the patch of high grass, wrestled through a vine fence, and fell exhausted behind an uprooted tree. Blood was oozing from the shaft. His mouth clamped, Gogitem rolled his eyes in pain, and sucked in air through his nostrils. Not knowing if it would help, I made a tourniquet, tying a square knot around Daily's thigh.
"Gotta keep moving," I said with a dry mouth. Gogitem dipped his head. I peeked over the log toward the clearing. The man with the shotgun stepped out of the tree where we had crossed, paused and waved the bow hunter forward. I remembered an albino's eyes are sensitive to light, and the shotgun was not lethal this far.
We snaked in high grass and weeds to the bottom of the gully, and started clawing our ascent when an arrow slammed into dirt up to its hawk feathers a yard ahead. We crawled to a sycamore trunk, its bark blackened by lightning. Another arrow whined passed, punctuated by a rebel yell and a shotgun blast. They were closer, following our blood trail. I gazed across the gully into the trees. Less than fifty-yards away, two shadowy figures stood shoulder-to-shoulder, eyeing us like we were wounded varmints trapped on a hill. I turned to my friend. "I think these fuckers are playing with us. Come on."
They'd watch us hobble and stumble a few yards. Then they advanced the same distance, remain silent, suspending their fire. Maybe they were afraid Gogitem would resort to his .45 or I'd set up with a scope, or they didn't want to attract attention with gunfire that close to the road. The stalking and informal truce lasted until we got to the car.
I was standing inside the opened rear door helping Gogitem inside, wandering how I was going to clean off all the smeared blood, dirt, leaves, and deer shit off the gray velour upholstery of my aunt's new car. Suddenly, a hunting-tip arrow sliced through the door's chrome strip and metal skin, directly opposite my family jewels. Shit. I screamed, fell to my knees so my head was below the window, threw my rifle on the floorboard, feeling my pockets for the car keys. Then, using the rear door as a shield I opened the driver's side door, jumped in, and jammed the keys in the ignition. Cussing a mad streak, I accelerated as an arrow slammed into the door's interior side. Wheels spinning gravel and dirt, I grabbed the arrow by its shaft and yanked the door closed, snapping the shaft to make room for myself. Gunning the engine on the road, I anxiously looked into the rear view mirror. The tall ghost in a long-billed cap, green marble eyes squinting into the sun, was releasing an arrow.
It sounded like a ball bearing when it hit.
Gogitem squealed, "Shot the fucking trunk."
"Crazy bastard," I said, weaving on the road. Of course it did no good. The albino surely had Indian blood. The next arrows hit the Buick's flanks. I glanced at the mirror again. The albino was reaching into the quiver. The next shot glanced off the bumper.
The nearest hospital was in Lancaster. When I rolled into the emergency parking lot, a red bubble flashed in the rearview mirror. I pictured myself in prison denims marching lockstep to chow at Boy's Industrial School up the road. Gogitem was crying, "There goes my fucking football career."
Responding to the police sirens and commotion, a group of nurses, patients and orderlies came out and gathered around my aunt's arrow-shot-up new car. One of them, an old farmer, scratched his head, and said, "Time to circle the wagons!"
© crossconnect 1995-1999
published in association with the |
university of pennsylvania kelly writers house |