Asa Mercer tilted his flat-brimmed hat low over his eyes to block the noon-day sun and adjusted the sawgrass blade from the left to right side of his mouth, grimacing as it shifted, first down and then over, like cud being worked over by a cow. The white globe of the sun stood free in the blue blameless sky, but Spring had not yet shaken loose the cobwebs of winter, and Asa felt the whisper of late season rains in the air – two maybe three days away, but present – waiting.
Tonight Asa and his band of boys could sleep outside of tents if the mood struck them – it may not have been prudent, he acknowledged that, but this was the first any of these Eastern boys had seen of the great and untamed expanse of West and Asa wanted them all to remember it. He also wanted several of the boys – the talkers mostly – to feel the weather first hand and on the skin (as it were). It may drive some humility into them, thought Asa chewing at the end of the green stalk, heaven knows they will need to learn it sooner or later, better the former, for their sakes.
Asa pulled up the caravan atop a sloping green hillock around a sea of tangled cacti; he hadn’t planned to stop for another mile of so, be whenever he came across a familiar vista with its raked-over pile of campfire ashes, Asa always felt a pang of nostalgia and signaled for a halt. Winter had turned the charred remains into a soupy congealed mass, but Asa knew immediately it had been a fire of his own making from the previous year – his ashes were always scattered wide fanning out from the core, and when available, Asa liked to drop a large stone to snuff out the last remaining embers. It was a habit he had learned as a young man- a training that unlike so many other products of youth, he hadn’t discarded along the way – and it had become a bit of a calling card (a post card he sent to himself). It made Asa feel younger somehow to revisit an old campground and he liked to see if any of the young lads would pick up anything useful (a boot track, a discarded can, filings off a whittled stick); Asa liked to see what others could find. He could travel inconspicuously if the situation dictated – nearly invisibly he liked to think –but this ground was friendly and no acts of concealment had been taken. Asa doubted any voice would pipe up with useful information – interesting perhaps – but these twelve boys were young and soft on the whole, a rather sad lot really, and he didn’t expect much from them. Asa chewed the tip of his grass, enjoyed the sprawling view and waited.
Archibald Babbich, the self-fancied leader of the pack, droned on about his prowess at a variety of tasks: hunting, fishing, love making. Asa doubted the boy had actually performed any of these feats on his own (except, of course for the latter which he figured was only done on his own), the boy had probably hunted or fished with his father or maybe a grand-dad or two, but the older men would have performed the skill work – Asa was sure of that, even if the boy pulled the trigger or flushed the line, he could not be called the real sportsman – he would have been an accomplice no better than a toy dog larfing behind its master with its squidgy tongue lolling from its self-satisfied mouth.
Physically however, the boy was strong for his age – much larger than his compatriots – and if the boy could outgrow the nasty habit of pumping his own pole around others, he just might last the logging season. A small smile washed over the edges of Asa’s lips. Money had been promised for the twelve boys timely passage – hands had, in fact, been shook – but Asa had been offered a bonus for each boy who stuck until the snowfall (money he had foolishly begun spending in his head). Looking at the gaggle of wax-faced scarecrows he had nearly carried from the train station in Northern Nevada, Asa felt he could expect no more than six or seven to remain: one would get seriously injured, that was a certainty and Asa could argue for his money in that case (it wouldn’t be his fault, the boy was careless or unlucky), two would prove to be lay-about drunkards (an unforgivable sin in an industry where functional, closet drunks were the expectation), and a handful would inevitably skulk away in the night under a cloud of failure. The big one though, the talker, he had the look about him; he would stick around.
Archibald (Archie as he referred often to himself) had the broad shoulders of a plowman, and as if in agreement, his hair was the golden-yellow of Mid-western wheat fields. Electric blue eyes darted rapidly above a bushel of close-cropped and mealy whiskers supported by a thick tree trunk neck. A garish blue sombrero, tethered by a leather lanyard, clapped Archie on the back every time he blurted a loud declaration, serving as his own personal exclamation point and offending all sense of subtlety, as far as Asa was concerned. The boy was brash, but Asa thought he would fulfill any Kansas mother’s wish for a son. He thought of his own mother and wondered what may have become of her.
“The key, you see, to hunting a small rabbit is to let the bugger’s natural instincts do the work for you. And those rabbits are buggers, aren’t they? That’s a way to live, aye boy-Os? Lucky little prick, right? A bit of rubbadub in-out intercourse is all that’s on the bushy little fellows mind at…all…times. No foolin,”
A semi circle of wide-eyed faces listened intently to the self-professed expert of the outdoors all but ignoring the sunken-skinned and leathery tracker who had shepherded them all through the wild terrain. One small lad, the smallest actually, sat on a flat rock ten paces removed from the “lecture” and eyed Asa none to his liking. The boy made Asa uncomfortable, like he knew something he wasn’t sharing – saw something that wasn’t there. Asa shrugged his shoulder and turned a palm to the sky as if to say Hey kid, whatcha want? The boy, of course, said nothing. Asa hadn’t heard him utter more than a handful of words the whole trip, and never two together. Maybe he’s a bit twig in the head, Asa thought to shake his shadowy feeling; maybe the little squint is just a right dullard. But the deep look in the boy’s eye said otherwise.
“Some trackers, fools really, will tell you that a bit of fresh greens will always attract a rabbit, but I have found that not to necessarily be so – occasionally maybe, but sure as spit, not always. Mr. Cottontail is on his hunt, you understand, for a Mrs. Cottontail – above even food, even above water. This three pound fur hat-to-be is like an injin full hack for the drink – nothing else matters.”
Faces in the crowd nodded agreeably as if this were all well accepted fact, obvious really. That boy has caught about as many rabbits as I’ve caught kangaroos, Asa thought and turned to face the western ridge of mountains. They undulated in waves like a women lying seductively on her side and called to him. It was a beautiful voice.
“What I do is, I always flush out a burrow because, what will really help you out is catching a female – preferably one that is of an age to have reared a few nasty nippers – soiled a few nests, if you know what I’m getting at. You are going to use that tarted-up old doe to catch some plump young buck by the hairs of his privates – it’s like a divining rod that will lead them right into your trap.”
The boy may have been spinning fantasies, but Asa knew that even a liar tripped over some truth eventually; he had known some woman he would have called “honey pots”, and even knew a few men who employed them.
“That doe has a scent, like a bitch in heat, that will attract males from here to Havana – rabbits will be practically rolling over themselves to two-step with your noose-trap. A doe has a…gland that you slice on out and spread a little around as bait and voila,” Archie waved his arms like a vaudevillian emcee, his sombrero now thwapping as if in a gale.
“Just take care to wash the doe’s stink off nice and thorough like, otherwise rabbits will be humping you like a Frenchmen under a full moon.”
There were several bursts of laughter, of a much more agreeable timber than the laugh inching up Asa’s throat. He supposed these boys were poised to buy anything put before them, and Asa couldn’t fault them for that; after all, he had sold them on the adventure of logging in the western territories, hadn’t he? And they had eaten up his pitch with near ravenous acceptance. They came, to have some grand ole’ stories to tell, and to be men.
Well, they weren’t men yet. And let’s see what stories they’re telling when they get to Kettle Rock, Asa thought. The day is getting away from us.
Asa rose gingerly to his feet, his legs feeling less like steal with every passing year, and picked up a palm-sized rock to his left feeling its cool rough-hewn edge and walked it over to the deceased fire pit. With a clank, the rock settled next to its stout counterpoint amidst the aging ashes. Ladies and Gentlemen of the glen, until next year, Asa thought and nodded once.
“If that’s enough rest for an old hand, that should be might generous to you young’uns. Enough flapping your gums and diddling with your carrots, it’s time to move.”
The mass of boys stirred to attention, their skinny whey-colored legs looking, in Asa’s opinion, ridiculous supporting over-stuffed packs and bulging satchels. They would become stronger, tanner in the coming months; at least Asa hoped they would. Their youth made him feel very antiquated indeed, but perhaps was all for the best, sometimes the old ways aren’t best ways.
Asa roused the splotchy old mule from his digestive comatose with a sideways click of the tongue and clapped the old fella on the rump. Braggadocio brayed like a squeaky hinge, beginning to move before finishing his half-hearted protest. This was not the mule’s first time on the trail either having made all three of Asa’s previous trips; that much experience would have made Bragg Asa’s lieutenant he supposed. What the mule had seen before his time in the Northwest, Asa didn’t know, but he suspected Bragg had been driven up from the Northern Mexican territory in search of gold. Asa unlashed the mule’s hitch with a rough downward tug. He clicked again and the mule lumbered forward, pots and pans gently thumping his flanks. The boys followed.
“Archie you take the rear,” Asa said without looking behind him.
The boy moved into position amidst some muffled voices and soft tittering. Asa always made the strongest boy take up the caboose, it was another of his trail-hand habits. Strong boys keep a good pace, and can prevent stragglers from falling behind; the fact that Asa would be separated from Archie’s near constant jabbering by eleven other boys was a bit of a fortunate byproduct.
Asa and Bragg led the way over the hillock and followed a dying creek into an open mesa flat. The first fragrant blossoms of spring were beginning to timidly open in the late afternoon sun, and their perfume momentarily cut through the stink of adolescent travelers. Reedy grasses, still heavy with moisture, clung to Asa’s dungarees and swished loudly as he passed; his boots squished and were quickly made heavy by the saturated ground. Despite the show in the sky, winter had not yet been bested by his sister, the spring. But harder, drier ground lay ahead.
Asa looked to the west, at the jagged triangles of true mountains that stretched out beyond the horizon like teeth of some massive leviathan. He knew they must be crossed – on the other side rested Kettle Rock, and the coins Asa had been promised. The day would come when Asa’s path would cross that of the mountains, and that day would be a nightmare. It was every year. Thank the man in the moon, they would not cross today, and maybe not even tomorrow, but those mountains were growing taller and steeper with each passing step. Asa knew what he was getting himself into, but the boys, he would let them find out on their own time. Why waste a perfectly good surprise? The clever ones should have seen it coming anyway, but Asa doubted any of them had bothered to think that far ahead – except, maybe the little one. There was something behind his eyes – Something that suggested he might know something. Something cold.
“Keep a pace fellows,” Asa said, “A stroll in the grass and nothing more; your grandmothers could set a better pace.”
Their caravan continued across the dewy meadow, up a spine of granite, and disappeared into the darkness of the tree line.