It was that sticky kind of sunlight when the air hangs still and you can hear the bugs flying. We trudged across the railroad trestle, its white rock bouncing the sun up just that much hotter. Buddy had the canned food in a cloth sack and I carried the Coleman ice chest thinking any minute that it would pop my arms out of joint. Jimmy was more frail and just mending from a broken arm so he carried the important stuff--the cigarettes and ammunition. The guns and tent were still back in the car, two more trips for stuff that three sixteen-year-olds really didn't need for one night in the woods.
The kudzu vines covered the hill where the railroad had been cut through, but there was a path that headed east into the shade of the tulip poplars. It was really an old wagon road which followed the creek through the hollow, all grown up now because nobody used it. The kudzu was as tall as our shoulders everywhere but on the path, and you could hear the snakes rustle through the dead-fall as we came through, disturbing them in the middle of their morning sun bath.
"Come on, you poky fuckers," Jimmy yelled from up ahead. He had just learned that he could say the word "fuck" and not get struck by lightning and he used it every chance he got.
"Ya' wanna' kill him now or later?" Buddy said with a groan.
"Later. He's got the ammo," I said shifting my grip on the chest.
"Right, just as long as it's not too quick."
"He's going to slip and say that in front of his mom and she'll make him wish he was dead," I said trying to see past Buddy to the place Jimmy had picked for a campsite.
"I hope I'm there," Buddy in a snicker.
"You and me both."
Jimmy was leaning against a tree grinning from under his sunglasses when we caught up to him.
"This it?" Buddy asked with a disgusted grunt.
"This here is it," Jimmy grinned, "I swear you guys better give the ladies a break. They're sapping your manhood."
"I wish. I'm so horny I could screw a grizzly bear," Buddy bombasted, letting the sack slide to the ground.
"I'll sell tickets," I said putting the chest down hard.
"Ya'll take it easy on that stuff. Josephine will have my ass if we tear up that ice chest," Jimmy said with a sudden fit of seriousness. Josephine was his grandmother, a lovely old lady who was not likely to get anybody's ass, least of all her darling Jimmy's.
"Jimmy, give me a smoke," I said.
Jimmy rooted around in the brown paper sack, "Salems or Winstons?"
He tossed a red and white pack over to me.
"We go get the guns first, then smoke," Buddy said in his best John Wayne. Buddy loved war movies.
I sat down on the ice chest and a big crow screamed in the top of the tree, "I tell you what--I'll sit here and smoke a cigarette. You can go get the guns, and when you get back I'll tell you whether you blew your ass off or not."
"They're not loaded," he said, shifting instantly into his most responsible tone.
"We got all afternoon," Jimmy said, easing down to sit on the roots.
"I came out here to do some plinkin' an I'm gonna' do some," Buddy said and turned back to the trail into the kudzu.
"Ten to one he joins the Army," Jimmy said blowing smoke in two dense streams from his nostrils.
"I got no use for the jungle," I answered and felt the first surge of nicotine wash over me in a calming wave.
Jimmy took off his sunglasses and rubbed his eyes, "Do your folks know you smoke?"
"What did they do when they found out?"
"Well, my dad put his cigarette out and told me it wasn't good for me. What about you?" I liked to tell that even though it didn't happen.
"They don't know. Polly would hang my ass out to dry if she caught me. Daddy's already had two heart attacks an' I've got a murmur."
"You think we ought to go see if Buddy needs some help?" I said, shooting the burning butt into the air. It fell into the creek with a hiss.
"Crazy fucker's liable to shoot us."
"Only if he's aiming at something else." We stood up slow and walked down the path, crossed the trestle, and then broke into a foot race back to the car. Jimmy won. Buddy had everything out on the ground except the guns. We had brought two .22 caliber rifles, one .22 caliber pistol, one .38 caliber pistol, one twelve gauge automatic shotgun, and a 7.6mm Mauser. Buddy had the .38 stuck in his belt and the Mauser over his shoulder on the strap.
Jimmy winced when he saw the pistol, being much more interested in romance than warfare, "Don't trip there, partner, or your courtin' days are over."
"I told you they were unloaded--you think I'd take a chance with the family jewels?" Buddy came back with a swaggering drawl.
Jimmy scratched his head and said, "They're your balls, man. How we gonna' do this?"
"I'll carry the rifles and we can put the pistols in the bag," Buddy said. "Jimmy, you get the twelve gauge and the lantern. Mike's a brawny fucker--he can get the tent." He looked over at me, daring me to object and admit that maybe I wasn't quite so "brawny."
We spent that afternoon walking up the creek, shooting at everything that moved or didn't move--crows, ground hogs, but mostly the empty whiskey bottles thrown from the train as it crossed the trestle.
I saw a blue jay sitting in a tree, big and sassy, talking to the world and preening his feathers. I leveled the sights of the .22 rifle at him, wondering if I could hit him. I squeezed the trigger and the rifle gave its sharp little bark. The blue jay's wings jerked to a strange angle. He became very still, and slowly toppled from the branch, landing with a soft whump in the tall grass.
It's hard to describe the little thrill and the sense of power that comes the first couple of times that you kill something, but it vanished when I found the brilliantly blue bird, its head laying at a twisted angle and a thimble-full of blood oozing from its mouth. I didn't tell them what I felt then, but I stuck to popping whiskey bottles for the rest of the afternoon.
Night fell and we built a big fire to roast our hot dogs and heat our beans. We smashed the cans and buried them off from the camp to keep the skunks away. As we sat around the fire proudly smoking our cherished cigarettes, the talk turned to the subject we thought about the most and knew about the least--girls.
"I heard that Randy, Paul, and Dorkus all flipped a coin to see who would marry Laurie when she came up pregnant," Buddy said.
"It's the truth, I was there," I answered gravely.
"A gentlemanly solution if I eva' heard one, suh," Jimmy said in his Kentucky colonel accent.
"Were they all really layin' her?" Buddy struggled with this profound violation knightly courtship.
"Either that or somebody was afraid to admit they weren't," Jimmy laughed and laid back against the cooler.
Buddy leaned over and started re-lacing his boot, "Man."
Jimmy started blowing smoke rings into the night air which lay thick and still around the camp, "Suckers. I always carry protection." He pulled out his wallet to display the circle shape pressing through the soft leather.
"Like you really use that," I said.
Jimmy grinned with all of his teeth showing.
Although it seemed impossible, Jimmy grinned a little wider.
"Really?" I never knew when to believe him.
Buddy squinted his eyes at Jimmy, "Whadaya' say we ask Donna, and find out what she thinks about it? I'd love to see the look on her face-- `Donna do you and Jimmy use a rubber?'"
Jimmy didn't move a muscle, but his face and voice went into his TV gun fighter, "You do and I will kill you."
"You an' who's army?"
Jimmy didn't answer, but only nodded his head slowly. A big moth dived straight into the leaping flames of the fire.
"Silly bastard," Buddy said.
"You mean Jimmy or the moth?" I asked, flipping my cigarette butt into the coals.
"Take your pick," Buddy grunted.
"He's jealous," Jimmy said. "He's a virgin."
"I AM NOT," Buddy said, not quite yelling.
"Who?" Jimmy puckered his lips out slightly and fixed his eyes on Buddy.
"None of your damned business," Buddy snorted and fished in his pocket for a cigarette.
"Never met her," Jimmy chuckled.
This went on until we had finally slandered every girl we knew. The dew was beginning to set, giving the air a cold feel, and we crawled into our sleeping bags since there was nothing else to do.
A tremendous sense of security comes when the warmth of a sleeping bag wraps around you. It lingers until you begin to listen to the sounds in the woods around the tent. We got up half a dozen times, guns loaded and ready to blaze away into the darkness after hearing the occasional rustle of a raccoon or possum out in the undergrowth. A skunk in the stillness of the night sounds like a rampaging grizzly bear, and a hoot owl can turn the blood to ice. Somehow we got to sleep. I was the last, listening to Buddy and Jimmy mumble to their angels through restless dreams.
In the morning, I woke up sweating. The sun had climbed over the trees, heating and turning the tent fabric a luminous orange. Jimmy was still sleeping and Buddy was already up, building a fire and rooting through the cooler. I crawled out of the tent feeling sticky and wishing that I could have slept the night in my own bed.
"What are you building a fire for?" I asked, trying to push my cowlicked hair down with my hands.
"Breakfast. A man's got to have a good breakfast to put in a good day," Buddy said with a bright energy that seemed almost supernatural for someone who had spent the night sleeping on the ground.
I boiled some coffee and Buddy busied himself with some scrambled eggs. Our voices must have roused Jimmy, and he crawled out of the tent, pale with swollen eyes.
Buddy grinned, "Sleeping Beauty has arisen."
"I didn't kiss her. Did you?" I returned.
"Not me, hoss. Must've been the skunk."
"Thought she was his mother," I said and we laughed.
"What're you assholes talkin' about?" Jimmy asked, still unable to open his eyes beyond narrow slits. "On second thought, I don't wanna' know. You got coffee?" I poured him a cup of the pot-boiled coffee, opaque and twice as strong as it needed to be. He took a sip and wrinkled his nose, "Whadaya' call this?"
"Nah," he replied, but he took another sip. "Gimme' a cigarette."
Buddy passed a paper plate full of scrambled eggs over to Jimmy, "Here, wrap your gums around that. You'll live longer." The eggs tasted good, if a little gritty. I washed the skillet in the creek and we burned the rest of the garbage.
Buddy was still a little sulky from the ribbing of the night before. He crawled back into the tent and stretched out on his sleeping bag. Jimmy was sitting on the ice chest loading the old Smith & Wesson .38. "Let's pop some caps," he said as he slid the cartridges into their chambers.
"I'm ready," I said, picking up my rifle. "Off and on, there, Buddy."
"You all go ahead. I think I'll catch up on some of the sleep I missed listening to brother James talking to his ladies," he answered. Jimmy glanced over at the tent with a smirk but didn't answer.
Jimmy stood up and closed the revolver with a click. "I left my other pack of Kools in the car. I wanna' get them first," he said. I swung my rifle to my shoulder and we took of into the kudzu. When we were out of earshot, Jimmy said, "He's pissed off at us."
"Yep. I don't think he's ever had a girl."
"I know he hasn't...SHIT!" Jimmy gasped and the .38 thundered. The snake, a grown timber rattler, thrashed in the dead fall minus its head. We stepped back and watched it die. Jimmy's hand shook as he took a cigarette from his pocket.
"Nice shot," I said, exhaling the breath I had been holding.
"Nearly stepped on the ugly bastard," Jimmy said. He lit the cigarette, shielding the flame with the handle of the pistol.
We stood on the train trestle for a while shooting bottles at the edge of the creek. I hit more using the rifle, but Jimmy's speed and accuracy with the pistol impressed me. Jimmy ran out of cigarettes and we left the trestle heading for the car. We had to cross an open field of broom grass to get there.
A rabbit jumped up to our left and started running north toward the creek. I squeezed off two shots and missed. Jimmy tracked the rabbit with the pistol, holding it with both hands, as the rabbit ran in a large arc, turning toward the trestle. Jimmy fired three times, the kick of the weapon jerking his whole body. Buddy yelled from across the creek but the sound was muffled. We froze and listened, realizing in the same instant that we had been firing in the direction of the camp. "Sorry, cuz," Jimmy yelled, but no sound came back to us. Jimmy looked at me and we didn't need to speak the thought. Buddy should have been cussing us in three languages by now. We laid down the guns and raced back to the camp.
When we got to the camp the tent was collapsed and Buddy's legs stuck motionless out of the door. The second thing I saw was the ragged hole where the bullet had torn through the tent.
"Oh God, I shot him," Jimmy said with quiet intensity. We yanked the tent off of him in a single motion. He was laying on his stomach. I steeled myself for the gore, and gently turned him over but there was no bloody wound. He was white as porcelain and I felt his neck for the pulse. It was there, weak and slow.
"He's passed out," I said with the distinct feeling that we had witnessed a miracle.
"What?" Jimmy's eyes were big and wild.
"He's fainted." Jimmy's face sunk into his hands and I turned back to Buddy, "Buddy, wake up." I shook him a little.
Buddy's mouth moved a couple of times before the words came out, "I won't tell her Jimmy...I swear to God..."
Jimmy looked at me and we started laughing, and once it started we couldn't stop. Buddy came to and sat up, "I don't see what's so damned funny..."
Jimmy got a hold of himself, "It's not--it was an accident. I'm sorry...I...never mind," Jimmy turned away, trying not to laugh or cry. I never knew which. We went home early that day, and come to think of it, that was the last time we ever went camping.