The Squirrel Nest, The Finale

Two boys climb an old water tower 100 feet in the air.

Wes Young | August 31, 2020

Part Two of Two, A Hunting Fiction Series

Neither said anything as they stomped through the high blackberries that grew all around and underneath this isolated dinosaur—the tower loomed high and old and brown. Joseph’s legs were mostly protected by his camouflage jeans, but several needles still made it through, hanging there to irritate his shins with every step.

It was getting late. He pictured his dad sitting there, worried or angry or both. He imagined his dad’s speech when they finally made it back to the camp.

Reaching the iron leg of the tired, rusting monster, Joseph could see the length of pipe that had once carried the water down. It was detached near the tank. About 10 feet of pipe caught among the supporting wires and dangled there. The rest, he supposed, had fallen into the blackberries, was buried now beneath a crown of thorns in the brambly space amid the four legs. Scott placed his shotgun down onto the mattress of briers and Joseph did the same with his rifle. The innocent squirrel hunt was over.

The leg nearest them held the ladder. Or rather, what was left of the ladder. The bottom-most rung was at least 15 feet off the ground. Joseph wondered if that section had been removed to keep teenagers from attempting to climb. One hundred feet above their heads, several rungs were rusted through, bent and broken in the middle. Higher still, however many feet it was, the top of the ladder curved backward at an impossible angle before finally connecting to the catwalk that went all around the tank.

Joseph was surprised when Scott reached down to the short concrete pillar on which the tower leg was bolted and picked up the only thing there that did not look 100 years old: a length of rope.

“I left this here a few weeks ago. We’ll climb together,” Scott said. “I’ll go first. You follow right beneath me. We won’t fall, but if we do, it’ll be better to have this rope tied to our belts. As long as we both don’t slip at the same time, we can catch each other.”

Not if this rusty ladder falls off completely, Joseph wanted to say. What he actually said was, “Yeah, good plan.”

Scott tied one end of the rope to the backside of his belt and handed Joseph the other, who then tied it to the front of his own belt. The rope was stupidly long, Joseph thought, for such a purpose.

Scott started up, laughing oddly. He overcame the first obstacle—that of a missing lower section—by gripping the tower leg and planting the soles of his shoes on the flat, rusty surface. The leg was a giant piece of angle iron, manageable with a strong grip. He took a while getting to the first rung of the ladder. This gave Joseph time to reach to his waist and untie his end of the rope. He loosely hung it through a belt loop so it would still appear in place. The rope was running out of slack.

Joseph started up, copying his leader’s style. They climbed. Joseph matched his pace so that the rope never grew too slack to be a tripping hazard and never too tight to pull from his belt loop. Synchronized foolishness, he said to himself.

Joseph concentrated on keeping one hand firmly clasped as the other reached for the next rung. No fudging on this. His mind repeated the classic advice about heights: Don’t look down. Don’t look down. Don’t look down. Higher still and he thought back to a Florida spring he had visited years before. It had a high dive. That was when Joseph learned just how much taller heights look when standing atop them rather than viewing from the ground. He was reminded of this lesson now. His palms were sweating, and this wetness on the rust caused a brown stain to form on both hands. Reddish and dark.

Scott looked down as much as he looked up, apparently not heeding the time-tested advice.

“How about it, Joe? What a view! Want a smoke now?”

Joseph shook his head. To his horror, Scott hooked his left arm around a rung of the ladder and released both hands. Half way up this thing and Scott was letting go. With both hands free, he lit a cigarette, then resumed his climb, the tobacco apparently spurring his motivation—he was climbing faster now, far faster than Joseph was comfortable with. He thought of the rope looped on his belt. He was glad he had untied the knot. If he needed to slow down, he could. If the rope ran out, oh well. Scott would just have to be mad at him. Hopefully it would not come to that.

Three-quarters up now and Scott stopped. He tossed his flaming butt over the side, and Joseph closed his eyes against stray sparks. The leader had reached another obstacle, a section of four broken rungs. Joseph looked at this impasse and realized something frightening. Rust alone had not broken these steps. If it had, they would have merely grown thinner but would not have bent down in the center as these did. Someone’s foot was on these decaying bars when they gave way. Some climber from days gone by. A salt sting of sweat hit Joseph’s eye, but he did not remove it. He just held there, blinking.

Scott said something that Joseph could not make out. His hearing was blurred, somehow. He felt dizzy, muddled. He was thinking to himself, Am I really doing this… really doing this…really doing this? He had to consciously fight an impulse, pointless considering the distance back to the camp, to call out for his dad.

The rope was moving again. Scott had found that by pointing the tips of his shoes around the outer edge of the ladder he could catch a hold not on the actual rungs but on the braces that held the ladder to the tower leg. The toe of a shoe. Death was just above a briar patch in the middle of nowhere and a toe was all he had. This was the closest Joseph came to telling Scott to turn back. To give it up. But he just couldn’t.

Scott passed the toe-hold portion, then Joseph followed. Things were unfolding in a strange fog, almost as if someone else was doing the climbing. Higher still, grip tighter and sweatier than ever, and one rusty jag cut his right palm. He felt nothing, only saw the blood trickle to his wrist as his mind thought vaguely of tetanus, of camp, of Easter, of Dad of mangled squirrels falling from trees.

Scott was now at the final obstacle. The frightful bending back of the ladder at the top. From the ground, the ladder had looked broken at this final segment. Joseph expected it to be bent and twisted and detached. Up close he could see that it was actually solid and had been built this way on purpose. The architectural reasoning for the bizarre angle was that as the four tower legs ascended, they leaned gradually inward, so that at ground level they were much farther apart than at tank level. The cistern was wider than the narrowed legs at the top, and the catwalk around the tank made it wider still. The back-sloping ladder was the builder’s way of compensating for this.

Joseph wondered for a moment who had climbed this thing when it was in use, and for what purpose? Did they have to check the water level? Fix leaks? Surely there was some sort of safety harness, even back then. He looked again at the rope hanging loosely from his belt. He considered retying it, but without two hands free, he could think of no way of managing a knot. Maybe if he hooked his arms as Scott had done when lighting the cigarette. His hands clenched tighter, refusing.

That’s when it happened. He did not know how. He did not see. There was a sharp cry above his head, a passing shadow, and then the loosely looped rope snatched from his belt and disappeared.

•   •   •   •

Eugene walked to the fire, then to his chair. He started to sit but stood again. He walked back to the fire. Then to the door of his camper, then back to his seat. He sat. Staring again at the empty folding chair next to him, he rose and put on his hat.

His throat grew tight as he walked out of the circle of campers and toward the Winnebago. The occupants had kept him up last night with their music and hollering. He noticed they had parked on a slight hill and made no effort to level the rig. He knocked on the door.

“It’s open!” a voice called from inside.

He pulled the lever and swung the door. A screen opened separately, though only shreds of wire remained in the frame. Inside it was dark. A portable heater stood burning on the sink. Two teenagers sat on the couch, their faces glowing in the darkness from the light of a single cell phone that wholly held their attention.

“Hey boys, have y’all heard anything from Scott?” Eugene stepped fully into the camper now and shut the door behind him. The interior smelled of something between a locker room and an ashtray. He looked down on the sitting boys.

“Who wants to—” the first kid said.

But the other interrupted. “They went off this morning, him and Joe, I think. We were still half asleep. Squirrel hunting, right?”

“Does Scott have a phone?”

“Uhh, yeah,” the first spoke again. He coughed. “It’s this one here,” he wiggled the phone in his hand.

“So Scott has no phone with him?”

“No phone.”

“Say when they’d be back?”

“We ain’t they daddy.”

Eugene swallowed hard. “What about you,” he said to the politer of the two.

“No sir. But I think—”

“Shut up, Daniel,” the other cut in.

“But what?” Eugene said.

“Nothing,” Daniel replied, darting his eyes to his friend.

Eugene stared hard from one to the other, then turned toward the door. His hand shook as he reached for the latch. He acted before he had entirely made up his mind. He wheeled around and in one stride had the kid named Daniel up against the window.

“Look, my boy’s out there. Joseph. Not Joe, got it? Now you go ahead and finish that sentence.”

The look on Daniel’s face was like a hog in a high-beam. Eugene cut his eyes to the right to make sure his flank was secure. No worries there. The mouthy one had cringed to the far side of the couch and showed no signs of moving.

Daniel did not hesitate. “It’s Scott,” he began, “he’s always trying to get folks to go up that water tower. Takes whoever will go with him. He took us a few weeks ago. We told him we wasn’t going up that thing and he called us a bunch of names and he said he’s gone find someone who would and I bet that’s where they are right now, sir, I bet it is.”

Eugene was out the door without another word. He pounded on the two nearest trailers in the circle then ran in his own to get his truck keys. When he came back outside, other men were stepping out of their campers as well.

“Did Joseph make it back?” one of them asked.

“No,” Eugene said. “Sam, I need you to get up a few guys and walk upriver to the water tower. I think they went there. I need you to, please. Maybe everything’s fine, but I got to know.”

Eugene said all this without breaking stride. He reached his truck and stepped in.

“What are you doing?” Sam asked.

“I’m going Wide Lake Road. He might come back through the woods though. I need you to go that way. Meet me at the tower if you don’t find him.”

With shots of gravel, the truck was off. Eugene had known Sam since high school. He knew Sam would do right.

The path from the river to the main dirt road was a well-kept one, but the deep dips that allowed for creeks to pass made it slow going. Eugene hit these concrete ditches harder than he liked to, certainly with more speed than he ever had before. His thoughts were torn between I’m overreacting, it’s nothing, it’s nothing and I’m not doing enough, I should have gone sooner, I should drive faster.

He drove faster. The gravel drive got him past the check station and then spilled him onto Wide Lake Road. He was off WMA property now. He looked for traffic without stopping and sped down the open road, taking care to stay off the pedals when the snot-slick red clay got loose. The last thing he needed was to end up in a ditch.

He had not been to the quarry in years, not since before Joseph was born, but he still knew the way. After 7 miles of fighting the mud, he pulled his truck over a culvert and then across the railroad tracks that ran parallel to the road. On the far side of the tracks, he stopped, locked his truck and took off at a jog through the scattered pines and scraggly brush. He had left his rifle in the camper. The squirrels were not his concern now.

The dirt road and rail line looked very much the same as they had two decades ago. The woods did not. Last time, the trees were oak and sweetgum and cypress. Then came the loggers and the clearcutting. Then the pine seedlings. And now the tall pines and scattered undergrowth. There were no trails. Things looked so different. He felt he was heading the right direction but continually looked up through the treetops to maybe catch a sight of the tower up ahead. Some reassurance. The canopy, though, was too thick, so he jogged on in the shade not minding the poking and slicing going on below his knees.

Soon the pines gave way to a small clearing with a rocky bottom. He saw 20 yards ahead the rim of the quarry. He had navigated well. This was it. He walked up to the edge of a sharp cliff where the machines had once-upon-a-time dug for limestone. On his last trip he could look from this spot and see the tower off to the left, but now the trees in the bottom of the quarry had grown higher than the cliff itself, and all he saw was branches. Two squirrels evacuated a nest at the top of a tree. One was a baby. The nest was eye level with Eugene.

Even with no view, he knew the way for certain now that he had found a landmark. Follow the rim of the quarry along the left side and eventually the water tower will show.

He jogged on, the path now more manageable, beaten down by deer or humans or both. Then, there it was. Still a ways off but clearly visible. The elevated vat of the tower. He could see the catwalk stretching around both sides of the water tank. He saw no one there.

“Thank goodness,” he said aloud.

But he could not yet see the tower legs through the trees and brush. He could not yet see the ladder. He ran on, faster now and breathing hard.

The path veered right, following the rim of the gorge. To continue toward the tower, Eugene had to cut left into the thick woods. This section of trees was not pine but was the scraggly thicket of an old clearcut that had never been reseeded. It was a thicket filled with whatever happened to sprout, a real mess. He fought through as best he could, going uphill all the while. This reassured him. The tower, he remembered, was on top of a sizeable hill.

His face was slashed and bloodied, but he ran on, still thinking how ridiculous he was going to seem back at camp, where Joseph was probably sitting right now, roasting hot dogs over the fire in front of their camper. He thought of how much more ridiculous, unbearably so, he would feel if he chose not to do something when there was something that needed to be done. This was the thought that led him on, clambered him up the hill at a near sprint.

When the thicket finally released him, he let out a deep, huffing cry. There was Joseph atop the tower—high, very high, just below the catwalk.

“Jo-seph!” he called as he ran forward. The boy must not have heard him. He neither looked down nor moved. The breeze was blowing steadily, and Eugene wondered if the wind had drowned out his call. He yelled again and again as he ran the remaining way up the hill, treeless now, but still knee deep with blackberries.

“Jo-seph! Son! Hold on!” He must have heard that. Why didn’t he move? The boy was hugging the ladder with both arms, his chest pressed right up against the rungs. He was staring straight ahead, no motion.

Eugene reached the ladder leg and threw off his jacket. He began to scramble up the angle iron. Half way to the first rung of the ladder, he looked down and noticed an impression among the thorns. He then saw what he never wanted to see. Scott. Motionless. A dead human, a dead man, a dead teen, a dead child. Somebody’s child. He hopped down and ran to the spot. Scott lay on his back, face up. A length of rope trailed from below the body and off into the briers. He touched the boy’s neck for a pulse but knew already it was useless.

Turning back to the tower, he leaped up the rusty leg faster than a man his age is normally able. He had the bottom rung of the ladder in both hands now and was flying up, thinking nothing of keeping one hand latched, thinking nothing of himself, thinking nothing. He climbed the ladder as quickly and carelessly as a kid climbs a water slide. He called to his son again and again as he worked his way up. He told the boy to hold on. He told him it was all okay. Eugene crossed the broken rungs with little delay and climbed on until he was just a step away from his son’s boot. He climbed one more rung and then, reaching, touched Joseph on the back.

The boy flinched hard but still hugged the ladder. He looked down. His face was red and wet, and he seemed unable to speak.

“I’m here, Joseph. We’re going down, you and me.”


“I’m here.”


Then a sound snapped Eugene’s head around. He heard his name called from below. It was Sam and three others fighting their way through the blackberries.

“Sam!” Eugene called. “Stop! Leave your boy there. Don’t bring him near the tower. Call 911.”

The wind was stronger and noisier up here than it had been down below, but apparently Sam heard. Only three men pressed forward toward the tower. They left the kid behind.

“Let’s go, Joseph. I’ll come up a step more and hold the ladder around you. You just climb down on your own and I’ll be around you in case you—I’ll be there.”

“Yes-sir,” Joseph said.

When Eugene was over the boy, he could see him shivering.

“You’re cold, son.”

“I’m so cold, Dad. I’m cold. It’s all my fault. It’s my fault.”

“Forget all that, boy” Eugene said. “Just one step at a time, that’s all there is in the whole world right now. One step. Good.”

The two began stepping. One rung, then another. Then another. At the section of broken rungs, Eugene pulled in even closer.

“I’m right here. You can manage it. I’m right here.”

Down they went, Eugene talking calm reassurances all the while, trying to make light.

“Good job, son. I’ve got my jacket at the bottom, that will warm you up. You really need a fire. You sure know how to build one. You know, that one you built last night was still going this morning.”

“It was?”

“Oh yeah, sure was. I just stirred up the coals and added some wood and up it went. You saved me a match.”

Eugene reached the bottom rung. “Son, I’ll have to go down ahead of you here.” He turned below, “Sam, back up now, I can manage, I don’t want to land on you.”

He looked over to where Scott’s body lay. He saw they had covered him with their jackets.

“Just hold tight, son, let me get down, then I’ll spot you as you come down.”

“You’ll catch me?”

Eugene looked up at his son. The boy seemed younger somehow, cradled there and needing his daddy. His eyes, though, looked older, deeper, more mature.

“Yes,” Eugene said, “yes, I’ll catch you.”

Editor’s Note: Wesley Young can be reached through his website

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