Under The Scorpion

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Action and Adventure  |  House: Booksie Classic
A not really about hunting hunting story.

Submitted: August 13, 2013

A A A | A A A

Submitted: August 13, 2013

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Under The Scorpion

 

The blue numbers of the truck’s stereo say daylight is an hour and twenty minutes away when Mark opens the door and steps out.  He will never find the old man without the boy, and he’ll never find the boy if he waits for sunup.  He grabs the top of the army surplus packboard from the passenger seat and pulls it out of the truck behind him.  Its cut down straps are a tight fit, so tight they pull his shoulders back, but wearing the board is as necessary as starting in the dark.

Placing his feet carefully, Mark picks the trailhead out of the dark trees and heads for The Ridge.  At the first bend Mark gives in to temptation and looks for the constellation.  The trees are too thick and the scorpion too low in the sky and he doesn’t see it – and he had known he wouldn’t.  It will be another mile, where a long ago rockslide took out the trees and opened the view, before it’ll be visible.  There are other ways to bring the boy, but seeing the constellation glittering above the rocks is the surest.

After the bend the trail begins to climb and grows rockier.  Mark maintains his pace until the trail skirts around the downhill side of a large boulder and turns straight uphill.  Knowing he is close, he picks up the pace.  He steps through the steep stretch, leaves the trail to bypass a windfelled tree, and rounds a bend.  Out of breath, but seeing rocks ahead through the thinning trees, Mark leans into the hill and pushes hard into the opening.

The constellation, glinting like points of frost through the fog of his breath, hangs framed by the dark trees on either side of the slide.

Focusing on the scorpion Mark takes one uphill step out of the trail.  Swinging his arms long and fast and breathing hard, the boy, at least 5 but no more than 9, brushes past him.  As he passes he turns his head to look at the constellation.  With its cockeyed square and bent tail hanging from the lower corner, it looks to the boy like a scorpion.  Keeping up with the men is hard for the boy so he makes it easier by breaking the trail into stages.  First sight of the scorpion is the end of stage one.

Mark drops in behind the boy.  At the end of the trail – his and the boy’s anyway – they will find the old man.

A mile past the rockslide the trail drops into a pass.  An ancient blue spruce stands by itself just off the trail in the exact bottom of the pass.  Both Mark and the boy glance at it as they pass.

After the pass, the trail resumes its climb.  Two hundred yards from the tree, a spring bubbles through a pipe laid when the trail was cut.  Mark removes a battered can that once held peaches from the broken stub of a tree limb and holds it under the pipe.  The can, or one like it, has hung from that stub since before the boy’s time.

The water break is the boy’s second marker.  Though the water is so cold it makes his teeth ache, he, just like the men, always drinks the full can down without stopping.  The water hitting bottom and radiating its cold outward always tells the boy that he’ll make The Ridge.

The water is as cold as it ever was.

When it hits The Ridge, the trail flattens and bends east.  The boy, and then Mark, step out of the trail at the bend.  Stepping high to clear the deadfall, the boy drops over the top of the ridge and into the canyon but Mark stops.  He doesn’t want his presence to keep the old man from appearing.  Mark sees the back of the boy’s head drop out of sight behind the hill and then a beat later watches as first the top of the old man’s head, and then, as he steps toward the trail, his face and body move into view.

The old man was a hardrock miner.  For over forty years he worked in underground phosphate and copper mines.  Part of the job was to clean fiberglass lined cement cooling tanks.  With his seniority and skill level he never had to do such a menial job until one day there was no one else and he volunteered.  He wouldn’t know until it almost killed him, but he was deathly allergic to fiberglass.  Growing increasingly weak but not telling anyone, he continued to work while a finger first became infected, then turned gangrenous spreading poison throughout his body.  The year before the boy was born, severely ill and in tremendous pain from his finger, the old man had his wife drive him to the hospital.  Doctors removed the finger but told the family to gather as we probably wouldn't live.  He fought it off, but the illness transformed him from a vigorous hard working hard hunting man that lived life on his terms into an old never to be well again shell.

The Ridge is where the old man and the boy and the old man’s son hunt elk.  They walk in together and separate at The Ridge.  The son drops into the canyon and hunts the long semi-open sides while the boy and the old man walk back to the spruce in the pass.  The son will meet them there sometime in the early afternoon.

Mark lets the old man and the trailing boy pass and then drops in behind.  The old man no longer really hunts but he still wears an orange coat and has a packboard slung on his back.  A knife hangs from his belt and he still carries the scoped .300 Savage pump rifle with the scarred stock that he has carried for forty years.

The boy doesn’t see what Mark sees.  He doesn’t see the pause in each of the old man’s steps, he doesn’t see the age-spotted scalp above the fringe of wispy white hair, he doesn’t see the wistful look when the old man’s son tops the ridge and drops into the canyon, he doesn’t even see the knife, the packboard, or the rifle – but his eyes never leave the old man.

The boy walks exactly one step behind the old man, stepping long and leaning hard to put his foot exactly in the track before him.  He too wears an orange coat and has a knife dangling from his belt.  He too has a packboard slung on his back.  The straps have been cut down to fit his little shoulders, but the board is the original size, sticking out three inches to a side and hanging so low that it gently smacks his butt with each step.

Elk killed on The Ridge are quartered and packed out piece by piece.  The old man can no longer make two trips and handle his half, but he insists on packing out a quarter.  The boy’s job is to pack the antlers and he is as vehemently determined to do his part as the old man is to do his.

Mark watches the old man hands.  The long illness has shrunk him around his frame and he hadn’t ever really been a big man anyway, but the hands remain as huge as they ever were.  Perfectly square, with prominent knuckles and short thick fingers, they hang from his arms like the shovels he had wielded underground.  He wears a ring with a large, red, flat stone on his right hand.  The boy likes to watch the stone wink into view and then disappear as the old man sings his arms.

When they get to the spruce, Mark gathers firewood.  He takes out a folded sheet of waxed paper, crumples it, and puts it on the ground.He arranges sticks on the paper and strikes a match.  The fire is important.  The old man never sat long without a fire and he had built them in just that way.

Mark backs away from the tree.

The old man is seated leaning into the spruce, the boy cross-legged next to him.  He has the old man’s spare rifle clip and is alternately loading and unloading it.  As the boy works the clip – looking from the rifle shells in his lap, up to the old man, and back to his lap – he and the old man maintain the completely unselfconscious conversation of two old and comfortable friends.

They discuss sports – the old man loves baseball generally and the Yankees specifically.  They talk about fishing.  They talk about hunting.  Despite the great age difference, or maybe because of it, they are able to hold meaningful conversations on life.  The truths of the boy’s world grow from these days.

The man and the boy flicker behind the smoke of the fire, almost disappearing when the breeze puffs the fire.  Mark leans in.  Sometimes, if he really concentrates, he can hear them.

“See that?” the old man is saying, “see how the grass is blowing in first one direction and then another?  When the wind switches around like that it means a storm’s comin’.”

The boy solemnly nods his head and adds to his store of truths.

The old man and the boy fade as the fire dies.  When the last flame flickers and dies, they are gone.

The old man’s heart quit the year the boy turned 18.  This year marks 18 since then.  Mark has a book that the boy gave the old man three months before he died.  The top corners of the pages are smudged gray.  Looking at the smudges, the boy can see the old man reading.  He had quit school midway through the 8th grade and read slow.  Tightly gripping the top corner of each side with a big old hand, he would poke his tongue through the gap in his front teeth and plow on through.  Every single page is smudged – Mark knows, he checked.

Mark rises and grinds the coals of the fire out with his boot.  He slips a pinecone into the pocket of his orange coat and starts down the trail.

The wind swirls the grass first one way and then another as he walks.  Going to storm, he thought.

The End


© Copyright 2020 Shedhorn. All rights reserved.

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