To look at me, you would think I am a sweet little old lady without a mean bone in her body. You would be dead wrong. I grew up on a farm in East Texas, dealing with the worst that nature, cows, varmints, and weather could hand out. Those didn't manage to kill me, so they made me strong and tough and mean as a wet wasp, when circumstances call for it. They also honed my imagination to a wicked edge. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) I look harmless. Perhaps if I looked to match the stories I write I might have been lynched early on, leaving some toe-curlers of tales untold. And it may be that when you read some of these stories you may justifiably turn to your companions and say, "Get a rope!"
Sometimes I shock myself!
* * * *
DOWN IN THE BOTTOMLANDS
(My Dad raised English setters--indeed, I grew up with a litter and pointed my first covey of quail at the age of two and a half. Mitzi, the setter bitch, backed my point, by the way, and Dad kicked up the birds just where I was pointing. Bird hunting was a part of my childhood, and this weird tale came ambling along one day from some dark thicket in my subconscious.)
I'd been warned that it would be rough going, but being young and hard-headed I put on my brand-new hunting boots, took my brand-new shotgun out of its case, and loaded my brand-new English setter into the car. We started off in high spirits, for I'd been told that partridge were thick as fleas in the Nichayac Bottoms.
That was where I wanted to hunt. The codgers who had warned me about the brush and the sawvines were short on wind and heavy on their feet. I could go where they couldn't, I knew. I was young and strong and eager, and they were just old poops.
I found my way fairly easily, but I ran out of road several miles before I got to the bottoms themselves. That didn't surprise me--in East Texas you can run out of roads and a lot of other things, when you get down into the boondocks. I've met old nesters, out on my rounds selling cattle feed, who still use kerosene lamps for light and a well and privy for conveniences.
A good few of those look as if they never have come out to see what the Twentieth Century looks like. But a lot of the old ones have died in the past few years. Now their gray board and batten houses sit in the woods and the abandoned fields, melting back into the red dirt among rampant berryvines.
I stopped my car at the end of the road, beside just such a house. Beyond was a cow-trail, leading off into brush. Old Rock, my setter, bounced out of the car as soon as I opened the door and began sniffing around the jungle that used to be a yard.
I loaded the gun and put on my hunting vest and jacket, feeling to make sure my extra ammunition and my lunch were in the proper pockets. Then we set off along a path Rock found, which soon led us into a cornfield that was a perfect hell of broken-over stalks tied together with bindweed and more berryvines. I began to understand what the old fellows meant by rough going.
Beyond the field, we found cut-over woods. It was an obstacle course of discarded treetops and sawvines and young huckleberry and hawthorn. Rock was nosing around, his tail quivering the way it did when he smelled birds, but he didn't find a covey. It was perfect territory for quail, but we worked our way through it without raising anything but a big hawk.
By then I was sweating. It was a damp, cloudy December day, chilly at the beginning but warming up later. I took off my jacket and tied it around my waist. I could feel sweat around the band of my cap, and the walking didn't get any easier at all. The new boots were chewing up my feet by then, too.
Then Rock hit a pretty fair path, a nice foot-wide trail leading right through the tangled mess. A crow called overhead, and I looked up, trying to see him. By that time I was in a stand of young pine and couldn't, but I paused and listened. There wasn't another sound, after the caw died away. Not a chickadee or a cardinal ate seeds in the brush. No woods-noise could be heard, even the ones so regular and natural that you don't realize you're hearing them.
It was spooky. I whistled to Rock, and he crashed through the brush to my side. I was glad of the noise--all that quiet was really lonesome.
The deeper we went, the quieter that patch of woods got. If I hadn't hated the thought of going back through that cornfield, I might have turned around and gone home. But by then my feet were like hamburger.
They tried to tell me about wearing new boots for an all-day hunt, but I was too bull-headed to listen. Now I had to find a place to sit down and take them off, come what might.
So we went on, following the path. Rock pattered ahead of me, not even trying to sniff the undergrowth. I could see by the way his ears twitched that the silence was getting to him, too.
It was almost noon, by then. I was ready to stop and eat lunch and get those boots off, but you never in your life saw a place as likely to hold copperheads as that woods. There wasn't even a stump or a rock to perch on.
By the time I was ready to plump down in the middle of the path, we came around a clump of huckleberries and found ourselves looking at a house. You might not have called it that--shed, maybe. I've seen smokehouses that were solider.
The yard was scraped clean down to the sand, which told me that an old-timer lived there. Pock-marked slopjars sat along the porch, holding frost-killed plants. Whitewashed tires held what had been ferns, and big bunches of herbs hung from the porch roof.
Everything was neat as a pin, though almost ready to fall down. I stopped at the fence and called, for out here that's the safe and polite thing to do.
Something was cooking. Well, maybe that isn't the right term for it. I smelled something, which didn't make the mouth water but definitely was steaming. I felt certain my peanut butter sandwiches would be much better, and I hoped the owner of the shack wouldn't ask me to lunch.
A step inside made the porch roof wobble. The doorway was filled completely with a huge man. He stepped out onto the porch and looked down from the three-foot elevation. Some six and a half feet of his own put his head over a yard above my own. I felt like a pigmy.
"Howdy," he said. He waited for me to take up the conversation.
I stepped into the yard and said, "Hello. My name's Wilson Clevenger, and I've been bird hunting. Back there." I waved back toward the woods. "Would you mind if I sat on your steps to eat my lunch? It looked too snaky to risk it, back in the trees."
He moved onto the rickety steps. They sagged alarmingly beneath what must have been nearly three hundred pounds. "Full of copperheads," he agreed. "Not safe to sit. Mighty-nigh not safe to walk, either. Not without good new boots like yours. Sit. Water?"
"Thank you." I had a thermos of coffee, but to refuse hospitality, with these woodsy people, wasn't polite.
I ate my sandwiches and drank clear, cold water from his well, which tasted faintly of the cedar bucket holding it. I threw in a comment, now and again, and he gravely tossed back a monosyllable of reply.
As I finished, he sighed. "Been a long time since I been able to hunt. Gun's wore out. Dog died. I'm too heavy to get around. Used to love to hunt." He stared at me, his head tilted as if sizing me up.
"It's a young man's sport," I said. "My Dad used to go every year, but once his legs went out on him he couldn't do anything but give me advice."
He rose from his perch on the edge of the porch. "You got to have some of my brew," he said. "Been wanting company, and sure enough, the minute I get it finished, here you come. It don't taste near as good when you drink it by yourself."
I didn't want anything he had cooked up, particularly if it was moonshine, and most particularly if it was the stuff I could still smell. But it isn't polite (or safe) to refuse such an offer. Not from someone who would make two and a half of you. I smiled and reached for the cup he brought from the shack.