The Squirrel Nest
A squirrel hunt with two boys goes from bad to worse.
Part One of Two, A Hunting Fiction Series
The travel trailers were arranged in a nearly perfect circle that reminded Eugene of the covered wagons of the wild west. He leaned back in his folding chair watching his son try to build a fire.
“Need any help?” Eugene asked.
“I got it,” Joseph replied.
Between sips of coffee from his black tin mug, he surveyed the various trailers. Featherlite. Summerland. Baja. Summerland. Airstream (though not a silver one). Jayco. He did not look behind his chair, at his own camper. He knew what it was—a 21-foot Starcraft Comet with fresh water stored underneath and solar panels gathering free electricity on top.
Blue-gray smoke rose from over Joseph’s hunched shoulders, then vanished almost as fast.
“You’re…” Eugene began, then stopped.
You’re crowding the wood. It needs air. You’re choking it, he thought to himself.
Seven trailers representing a total of seven dads, 10 sons and two daughters rounded together on the banks of the WMA property for the yearly squirrel hunt. An annual ritual eight seasons strong. Attendance varied, but Eugene had been coming for all eight years, the first three with his son. Then the boy had turned 13 and suddenly felt less interested in hunting with Dad. Joseph was now 18, bound for college in Statesboro this coming fall. Eugene had all but begged that his son come with him for one last hunt before going off to college.
The cry snapped him from his musings and caused a few drops of hot coffee to escape the rim of his cup and burn his hand.
“I got it, I got it!” Joseph called again, standing now.
“What about it?”
The boy looked back, gloating a bit, and smiling all the while. Eugene knew that look, and for a satisfied moment, he breathed the clean air of a wild landscape and a boy who was not yet too old to be happy for Dad’s approval.
“Well done, son. Good one.”
He reached up to rustle the boy’s hair. He used to do that but had not in years, not since Joseph had started using gel and getting no-joke angry when anything broke his style. As Eugene was reaching, Joseph snapped his head around, looking away. This move, though, was not to escape Dad but to look at what everyone else was now coming out to see.
A horn blowing loudly and Lynyrd Skynrd blaring even louder. Something that sounded like a dirt-track car coming up the gravelly path. The RRMMMPPP and RRMMMPPP of the exhaust pipes—or lack thereof—marked the rev of the engine whenever it was passed through the concrete dips where water crossed the road.
The horn stopped after a long blast, but the pipes and the engine and the “Tuesday’s Gone” grew louder and louder until the beams of a single working headlight rounded the corner, and there in the remaining sunlight of a fading evening erupted a 1978 Winnebago, complete with flaking paint and mismatched tires.
Joseph took off toward the camper, which skidded to a stop outside the completed circle of trailers.
“Watch out you don’t get hit,” Eugene called weakly, but his son either did not hear or did not care. He plopped back down in his chair and tossed what remained of his coffee onto the dirt beside the fire. Then he tossed the mug, too. He knew who was in that wreck of a wagon, who his son was reaching up on his tiptoes to talk to through the sliding glass door on the driver’s side, just in front of the chipped and fading Flying-W. It was Scott Benhardt, and who-knew-who-else shacked up in the back of that thing.
“This trip just took a dive,” Eugene said to himself, and he leaned forward to throw a log onto the fire roaring before him.
• • • •
The next morning, Joseph sat alone in full camouflage outside Scott’s Winnebago. He held his Remington upright, spinning the stock on the toe of his boot. He was waiting on Scott but thinking of Dad.
“Scott wants me to go hunting with him today,” Joseph told his dad earlier that morning.
“With him? Fine. Just be back to camp by lunch. Be safe.”
Dad left the camper, Winchester in hand, just as the gray morning dimness was being overtaken by the rising sun. Joseph had gone to the Winnebago and sat there ever since. Two hours had passed, and he debated on knocking. Resolved to do so. Backed out. Resolved again.
By nine o’clock, enough was enough. He rose. Leaned his .22 on the folding chair. Approached the door. Hesitated. Tapped three times. Then three again. He was readying to knock once more when the door opened. Scott stood there in his same clothes from yesterday.
“You still want to go squirrel hunting with me?” Joseph asked.
“This early? Don’t you know what a headache is? Sheesh. Hang on, let me get my gun.”
Scott shut the door and emerged three minutes later in the same outfit, only now he had on his Nikes and carried an all-black shotgun. Without a word, Scott began marching into the woods upriver. Joseph could not believe this guy was going hunting in bluejeans and a white Def Leppard shirt. Dad would cringe at this, he thought to himself. But he followed without argument, picking up his Remington as he went.
Scott led them right along the bank for about 30 minutes, smoking periodically, tossing his butts into the muddy current.
“Take one, Joe.”
“No thanks.” He cringed at being called Joe.
They stopped after about an hour of walking. Joseph was a bit surprised Scott had made it this far. His headache must have worn off. They had not seen any wildlife except for one fish that had sloshed mid-river. Joseph was not surprised at the deadness of the woods. Between his glowing white shirt and his noisy foot-dragging, Scott probably scared off every creature in the county.
Joseph looked around the treetops with an alert eye, saying nothing, gun held at waist height in both hands. He was scanning the forest canopy for a shaking limb, the happiest of sights among squirrel hunters, when a thundering noise jerked him around.
BOOM! BOOM! Two quick bursts from Scott’s shotgun. Nothing fell from the trees except twigs and leaves. No thud on the ground. Joseph wondered if he had missed. Scott was chuckling.
“Well, nothing in that nest.”
“Oh,” Joseph replied.
“What’s matter, Joe?” Scott asked as he stuffed two 12-gauge shells, red with wide brass caps, into the tube.
If the white shirt would have raised Dad’s blood pressure, shooting a nest would have sent him into an all-out seizure.
The pair walked on, Joseph wondering why they did not stop and sit, wait on the woods to wake up, stay still and silent beyond the gray squirrel’s 15-minute memory.
“Where are we going?”
“We’re squirrel hunting,” Scott said. “And I got something else I been wanting to see.”
“Stop,” Joseph whispered, short but sharp. High up a red oak, a limb was shaking. Leafless and gray, the branches moved in silence. Joseph raised his .22 and trained his iron sights in the area where the squirrel might show itself. There they were, two chittering squirrels playing tag high up in the tree.
Before Joseph could fire, Scott fired five shots, more than a legal tube allowed. Down from the clouds fell the curled body of one of the squirrels. It thudded on the ground and buried in the thick blanket of dry leaves.
“Got’im! Let’s go see that sucka.”
What’s left of him, Joseph said to himself. He was not looking toward the fallen squirrel but had his eyes still trained on the skyline above. The remaining squirrel jumped, slipping and clawing, nearly falling, to the next tree.
“Come on, I got him, he’s over here,” Scott said, lighting another cigarette.
Joseph’s gun was up to his cheek again. One eye closed. “There were two.”
“Where?” Scott began stuffing shells into his shotgun, dropping several on the ground in his hurry.
The .22 seemed as silent as a pellet rifle compared to Scott’s blaring assault on the treetops. One shot. The squirrel came straight down, thumping on the ground. The tree branches above were still.
“Lucky shot, Joe.”
• • • •
Several miles later Scott decided to turn from following the river. The pair had seen no more life and shot no more squirrels since those first two. Joseph carried his in the pouch sewn in the back of his camo vest. Scott had left the shredded corpse of his kill on the ground. Joseph thought of his dad. This would put him in the ICU.
“I want to go this way. I think it’s this way,” Scott said turning from the river.
“What is? Maybe we should sit and let things settle down.”
“Forget the squirrels, man. I want to see the old water tower.”
“The water tower?”
Joseph’s dad had told him of it. Apparently there had once been a cotton plantation in this area in the days when harvests were sent by barges downriver—or so the stories went. This plantation burned years ago, but in its day the operation had been big enough to merit its own water tower, a tall and rusty structure, the only remaining artifact of the farm.
“Do we have time? Dad said I’ve got to be back by lunch.”
Joseph looked at his watch—he did not carry a phone. “It’s 11:15 already.”
“Plenty of time,” Scott said, “Your dad’s probably still out hunting anyway.”
Joseph knew Dad wasn’t. He would be back now with four squirrels—only four, always four—cleaned and in the cooler. But Joseph didn’t argue.
Scott’s path took them to the old limestone quarry. Joseph knew it but had never actually seen it. Dad had pointed out its rough location years ago as they drove down one of the WMA’s interior roads.
The woods around the quarry were thick and briary. They reached the tower at 12:15. Joseph saw it looming above the blue sky. It was taller than he had expected. And older. The whole structure was rust-brown, and the roof of the cistern—conical-shaped and hut like, unlike any of the towers in town—was caved in on one side.
Scott smiled. “Joe, we’re going up.”
Continued next month.
Editor’s Note: Wesley Young can be reached through his website wesyoungwriter.com.
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