“There’s the sign.”
I turned left, drove through the gate and across the cattle guard onto the Blackstock Ranch. I guided my old Ford truck along the rough ranch road for a mile or more until I found the dirt track leading down to the Brazos River. We were now on Corp of Engineer land; public land along the flood plain of the river, free to access if you could find it. I cautiously steered along the deeply rutted trail, navigating stretches of deep loose sand you had to power through to avoid getting stuck, alternating with expanses of hardened clay, impressed with deep chasms formed by travelers during the rainy season. Cavities deep enough that if you weren’t attentive and slid into a crevasse, you might as well call a wrecker to winch you out.
“Gottdam, this sumbitch rougher than the last time we were in here.” Ronnie complained, as the ruts sloshed us back and forth into each other. I had my two compadres with me. Brothers Randy and Ronnie. We were country boys who had gone to school together, rode bus #19 to and from school everyday for many years. Ronnie was a big strapping young man who stood 5’10’’, with dirty blonde hair and black horn rim glasses. Randy, a year younger with the same dirty blonde hair and black horn rim glasses, looked like an emaciated holocaust survivor because he had been born with cystic fibrosis. His life expectancy wasn’t good, he might make it to 22 years of age, if he was lucky, he had just turned nineteen.
I followed the two track trail through a thicket of cedar and passed onto an expanse of open land. The clearing was about the size of a football field and I parked alongside an assortment of older cars and trucks belonging to others who had braved the rough track here. Randy and I had graduated from high school the night before in a ceremony that I would have been happy to miss. Just send that diploma in the mail for all I cared. Tonight was the real celebration, as a couple of guys of legal age had purchased two kegs of beer to for one big ass graduation party.
We three exited the truck, stretching to work out the kinks from the trip in. We sauntered over to the kegs, each of us pulling five dollars out of our pockets to purchase the red plastic cup that was our ticket of admission to the kegs. We each drew up a cup full, quaffed it down and immediately refilled our cups to wander through the gathering and greet the people we knew.
The sun was setting and several young men had been out gathering wood for a fire. It was a comfortable cool evening and the fire would light the area once darkness took over. Many had brought their girlfriends with them and we were surreptitiously checking them out. Being caught ogling a girlfriend was a quick way to get your ass kicked with this bunch.
More people were arriving as I did a quick head count, “Man, there’s nearly sixty people here now.” We hadn’t wandered too far away from the kegs and we three had just polished off our third beer. Refilling, Ronnie admonished,
“Boys, we better slow down if we want to make it through the night.” We moseyed another trip around and through the drinkers, many on the outer edge of the ring of firelight. We stopped and listened in as a young man, I recognized but could not remember his name, pontificated about the Ku Klux Klan and black folk, although he used another term to refer to them. “Boys, the klan is the only ones that knows how to deal with ’em, and believe me when I say that the time is comin’ soon, just wait and see. Them niggers out marchin’ won’t know what hit ’em when the klan rises up.” Several listeners murmured and nodded their heads in agreement.
Our high school had desegregated in 1968, only four years ago. There were serious problems the first couple of years but by my senior year, for the most part, white and black were getting along not great, but better. I had come to know several of them and though I didn’t socialize outside of school, I liked them. In fact, truth be known, there was one black girl in my class that I would like to have dated, but I just didn’t have the courage to break through the barriers. I wasn’t proud of it, I just didn’t have the balls to go against the social grain.
I reckon having nearly four beers in me loosened my tongue to pop off, “The Q Klux Klan cain’t do shit.” I put heavy emphasis on the mispronunciation. The pontificator’s face went apoplectic as his eyes sought to burn a hole through me. Ronnie wrapped an arm around my shoulder and pulled me away from the group, “Gottdam, Clyde, your bulldog mouth ‘bout to get your chihuahua ass whipped. That’s Steve Perkins, he is the Klan in these parts.” “Aw, I could’ve taken him. I ain’t worried ‘bout the klan.”
“Well you may think that, but that peckerwood don’t mess around, he’s a mean sumbitch. He’s got a saturday night special in his back pocket and he’d use it on you in a heartbeat. Just stay away from him, OK?”
One enterprising young man backed his truck to the edge of the firelight, pulled a couple of stereo speakers out of the cab and placed them on the roof. He punched in an eight track tape of Conway Twitty and cranked the volume up. Several of the couples began to Texas two step, slow around the fire. Randy and I had just started sipping on our fifth beer, as we sat cross legged on the ground to watch the dancers. One couple was so into each other they seemed totally oblivious to their audience as she straddled her crotch against his thigh. Their slow movements more dry humping each other than dance. Watching their intimacy gave me a chubby as I sat longing to have a girl here beside me.
Randy asked, “Last weekend when we went to the drive in movie with Linda and Dora. You remember?”
“Yeah, I remember last weekend, what about it?” “Linda and I were kissing and she started pushing her tongue into my mouth. What was up with that?”
“That’s French kissing. Me and Dora do it all the time. That’s all she’ll let me do, everytime I try to feel her tits, she pushes my hand away. I always thought french kissing was supposed to get the girl hot enough to go along with anything, but it don’t seem to work on her that way.”
“Linda put my hand on her tits. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do so I just kinda squeezed ’em for a little bit.”
“Are you shittin’ me? . . . Damn, I’m gonna take you up to the Riverside Drive-in in Fort Worth to watch some XXX movies so you’ll know what the hell to do next time. Damn, she handed it to you on a platter. Boy, Dora won’t let me do nuthin’. Gottallmighty!”
For a long time we just sat lost in our own thoughts as the couples continued to slow dance. One of the dancers pushed away from her partner, swayed momentarily and then staggered out of the dance circle. She stopped, leaned her head to the side, took a long look at Randy and me, then bent over at the waist and began to puke her guts up. Randy and I scooted back to avoid the splatter. Her boyfriend looked our way, then wobbled over raising his fists and commanded, “Get up you two, I’ma gonna kick y’alls asses.”
“Slick . . . why are you gonna kick our asses?” I asked as I moved to rise.
“Y’all made her sick when she looked at you. You made her puke.” Wavering, his eyes rolled back in his head, he folded to the ground like a cheap accordion, passed out cold. His girlfriend was now on her hands and knees beside him, dry heaving.
“Randy, alcohol sure brings out the best in some people don’t it?”
A ruckus broke over the distant hill, coming fast on the dirt track toward the gathering. Headlights, flashing lights and siren wailing as a dust plume rose behind, the tail lights painting it scarlet. The lights disappeared momentarily as the machine entered the thicket of junipers. Someone shouted, “IT’S A FUCKIN’ RAID!!!”
It was as if someone had fired a shotgun in the middle of a large covey of quail, a chaotic explosion of people streaked in every direction to escape the apparent imminent arrests for underage drinking. Randy and I were side by side running for all we were worth into the surrounding thicket of pecan, oak, cottonwood and cedar along the river bank. Another shout of “IT’S A FUCKIN’ RAID!!!” sent a spasm through my sphincter as I tripped over a tree root at full speed. I flew through the air, arms spread wide and impacted the ground on my chest, knocked every molecule of air from my lungs. Randy ran on, leaving me behind, hell he may not have seen me go down, I thought as I was on hands and knees attempting to re-inflate my lungs.
I struggled to crawl to the base of the nearest tree to lay there, try to recover and breathe normally again. Several people ran by me headed further into the woods. It was so dark that I could only see shadow forms hearing their footsteps as they ran.
I recovered enough to sit up and lean back against the rough tree trunk, taking inventory of body parts to discern how badly I was hurt. I seemed to be in one piece although I knew I’d be bruised and hurting tomorrow . . . what time is it? . . . Well later today. Where the hell is Randy?
I looked back toward the fire and saw a few people milling around, heard some shouting but was too far away to understand what they were saying. I could still see the flashing lights on the other side of the fire. I bet they’re trying to call us back in and arrest us. Those deputies don’t want to wander around out here in the dark to get us. They’ll have to come get me, I ain’t going in to volunteer to be arrested. If Mom and Dad have to bail me out of jail . . . O shit’ll hit the fan. Who has jurisdiction out here. Johnson, Bosque or Somervell counties? Fuck, where’s Randy? How the hell did the sheriff’s department know we were out here?
I continued to watch from my hide as the facts of the matter finally began to re-ignite the alcohol sodden synapses of my brain. Those flashing lights are yellow . . . sheriff’s cars only have red and blue lights . . . FUCK ME!
Chagrined, I meandered back to the fire, embarrassed and humbled, yet taking comfort in the fact that I was only one of many who fell for the hoax. The perpetrator holding court from a lawn chair before the fire was a well known trickster, con artist, teller of tall tales and general all around braggart, Jink Jones.
As each smattering of rubes returned, he re-told how he and his bud had passed the road construction warning sign with the flashing lights, decided to steal it and conduct a ‘police raid’ on the keg party they were headed to. As they topped the hill to descend to the gathered celebrants, they set up the sign for the lights to be visible from above the cab of the truck, laid on the horn and made as much racket as possible, blasting into the gathering. With hands waving and tears of laughter running down his cheeks, he demonstrated how the group disintegrated and fled in abject terror into the woods.
I laughed, and it was funny . . . but the body aches from my fall reminded me others could have been seriously hurt running through the dark woods. Ronnie asked, “Have you seen Randy?” a look of deep concern on his face illuminated by the fire.
“I haven’t, we ran off together but I fell and I haven’t seen him since.”
“You got a flashlight in your truck? We need to go find him.”
“Yep. He had a good bit to drink, he might’ve gone to sleep out there.”
We trudged through the woods in the general direction Randy and I had fled, the beam of light slicing through the darkness. Ronnie mumbled, “Gottdam that Jink. Somebody could’a got bad hurt because of that stunt.” We ambled along the riverbank, the water shallow through this stretch, calling out his name with no response. “How much did he have to drink?”
“Ronnie, I don’t know, we weren’t together the whole time. You know his skinny little ass can’t handle much alcohol.” “Mom wants me to keep him protected at all times, he hasn’t much longer, two three years, maybe. He’s gotta be able to live while he’s alive, hell, I cain’t protect him from everything.”
“I still think he’s curled up asleep out here somewhere. He’ll wake when the sun’s up and head back in. Why don’t we head in, get some sleep. He’ll come walkin’ in when he wakes up.”
Ronnie stretched out on the bench seat in the cab of my truck and I crawled into the camper shell on the bed of my truck. I had the better of it because the cot I had in the camper was much more comfortable than the truck seat. I fell asleep fast.
Walking through a forest, I came upon a beautiful woman with long brown hair, barefooted, wearing a simple, white cotton shift. She looked at me and smiled, “Are you the one I’m looking for?”
She took my hand as I reached out toward her.
“I think so . . . I don’t know.” “It will be a long time.”
“Where have you been?”
“I’ve been looking . . . looking for my friend.”
“You won’t find him, you know.”
“Is he dead?”
“He is very much alive, just not where you can find him.”
I looked at her face, now velvety as dark chocolate, her hair in a large afro.
“Do you like me?”
“Very much . . . Who are you? . . . Am I the one?” She smiled as we turned to walk through the woods holding hands, as fish swam under and through the leaf litter toward the water.
I looked out over the calm sea, Randy stood beside me. He smiled,
“Everything’s alive, man. It’s all alive.”
“You just don’t get it, man. All is alive, everything Clyde, everything, everybody.”
I woke with a start, the dream faded quickly as my hangover took control. I reached for my ice chest, drew it to the cot, opened and thanked God there were a couple of pasture cool Dr. Peppers, along with a couple bottles of beer. My stomach spasmed at the thought of beer. I took a long draught of the soda, the carbonation cutting the sludge in my mouth and throat then whined, “God, I hurt all over.”
I crawled out, stood at the rear of the truck and drained the last of the soda, then drew my pecker out to piss.
Ronnie was already up, standing by the dead ashes of the fire, looking off into the distance. “We have to contact the sheriff’s department, get them to do a search, I don’t think the two of us can find him. Drive us up to Grady Boone’s store, we can call the law there, get some breakfast . . . God I’m hungover.”
Officers from two different departments came. South side of the river was Bosque County, the north Johnson County jurisdiction. They called for volunteers and by three o’clock that afternoon there were twenty people searching for Randy on both sides of the river. The tree canopy was thick, keeping the ground in heavy shade with little underbrush, easy to walk through. The river was shallow along this area with a few holes waist deep. Several of the searchers waded along with bamboo poles probing the deeper pools. A full mile on both banks of the river had been searched by sunset with no trace of Randy. It was as if he had simply vanished into thin air.
The deputies called off the search. They suspected Randy, a grown man, perhaps didn’t want to be found as there was absolutely no evidence of foul play.
Ronnie broke, sobbed, “Gottdamit . . . how am I gonna tell Mom and Dad?”
**Six Months Later***
The sun was just beginning to lighten the horizon. I shifted on the camp stool, my left haunch was going numb. It’s colder than a witch’s tit out here, the morning temperature significantly lower than the weatherman predicted. I had only been here for thirty minutes and I already regretted not staying home in my comfortable warm bed.
I was sitting in my hide on Corp of Engineer public land, the same land abutting the Blackstock Ranch. The same location of last May’s infamous graduation kegger. The last place anyone had seen Randy alive. He remained disappeared.
The past couple of years I had success hunting deer on this land. On this public land I could hunt legally as long as I had a proper license and tags. Last year I took a nice young buck and a doe here. I sat waiting for daylight, in a hide I had constructed a couple of years ago of limbs, branches, brush and weeds, with a good view of a game trail through the trees. I had debated with myself as to whether I should hunt here again, I talked myself into it and now I was regretting my decision. It began as I walked from my truck the quarter mile to my hide. My mind replayed images from that terrible night in which one young man’s prank was the catalyst for another’s disappearance.
I had seen Ronnie a couple of times since to talk to him, he looked haggard. He told me his parents, especially his mother, were having a difficult time coming to terms with Randy’s disappearance. There was no closure, no body to mourn and bury, just a tenacious hope that one day Randy would step through the front door and be home. In reality they knew he couldn’t live long without his medication and breathing treatments, but their hope enabled them to survive each long, miserable heartsick day.
I sat and stared into the darkness, as fog rose above the water. Spectral forms levitated from the river and passed through the trees toward me, causing the hair on the back of my neck to stand. The wan pre-dawn light molded phantasmal creatures to menace. I observed as Randy glided along the game trail, inscrutable as he wafted past staring at me as he drifted into the woods behind. Another specter levitated in front of me, a young beautiful woman with long blonde hair flowing, but her eyes . . . her eyes black and haunting, provoking an icy chill to course through my body.
A third apparition approached, a female form clothed in flowing black gauze, long black hair scattered in waves behind. Her mouth agape in the wailing keen of a mystical banshee. My heart raced and my body trembled, as I shuttered my eyes to put an end to this torment.
I leaned against the oak behind me and forced myself to reflect on the plans Randy and I had to attend a university sixty miles from home, we had expected to room together. Randy’s vanishing provoked a re-evaluation of the path I wanted to take. My intentions had been to become a veterinarian. Growing up on the farm instilled in me a love for animals and I wanted to make my father proud as that was what he wanted for me, but I came to realize that this was not what I wanted . . . I didn’t know what I wanted. I had to acknowledge I didn’t have the aptitude for science required of a veterinarian. Over the summer I decided to go to a junior college locally, giving myself time to mature and think through what was right for me. My change of plans seemed to be working out.
I heard a faint snuffle. I cracked open one eyelid and before me stood a whitetail buck with the largest rack I had ever seen. Ten points. He was magnificent. We scrutinized each other, then with a snort, he turned and slowly ambled away. In a moment of illumination I perceived that my hunting days were over. I had recognized the intelligence revealed in those eyes studying me, that he was a sentient being with a right to live his life out in peace just as I possessed.
Full light now, I rose, stretched and took a piss. I dug my thermos out of my backpack, poured a cup of coffee and ate a banana while appreciating the beauty of this cold morning. With full sunlight the cold was now invigorating as I stood taking in the quiet beauty of the river and woods. I was at peace with all of creation. In some way the decision to come back to this place had brought closure with the loss of my friend and I sensed I was now able to move on into my future.
Walking back to my truck, my attention was drawn to a murder of crows making a ruckus high in a pecan tree. They were loud enough, I looked to see if perhaps there was an owl they were tormenting. There was no owl but my eyes were drawn to a mass I couldn’t quite identify about half way up the tree, hung in the fork of a large branch. I removed my backpack and dug out my binoculars to get a better look. It was a desiccated body, dressed in sun faded, weather ravaged denim with black horn rim glasses on what was left of a face. The head and neck contorted as if the neck was broken.