Authors: Terry Southern
Tags: #Fiction Novel, #Fiction, #General
EXAS SUMMER MORNING,
the softly bleak hour after dawn, the boy Harold and his father slowly hunted across a vast scrub-brush tumbleweed field, toward a mist-seeping river-bottom grove in the middle distance — Harold, at twelve, carrying his old single-shot twenty, and his father the twelve-gauge double with the Magnum-load.
Moving a few feet ahead of them, a shoot of Johnson grass in his mouth, dangled there, shifting it from one side to the other in his own ultra-blasé fashion, was C.K., the twenty-three-year-old black who worked for Harold’s father. Ahead of C.K., and ranging out on either side, were the two bird dogs, Red and Ring — an Irish setter and a short-haired hound of more obscure lineage.
C.K. maintained a soft unbroken flow of conversation with the two dogs that was mostly incomprehensible, except of course, presumably, to the dogs themselves. Steady and rhythmic, it was at times almost hypnotic: “
...look out now...git on it, Ring...pick it up, Red...study the bird...look out now...that’s right...you got it, Red...look out now...
Suddenly, the red setter froze, on point, an oil painting, while the black-and-tan, looking the other way, failed to pick it up and continued ahead, sniffing the ground from side to side.
Red got ’im,
” said C.K. in hushed urgency to the other dog, “
quit it, Ring...
At that instant, two quail burst from the bramble cover as if they had been blown out of it. Both guns came up together and three shots roared almost as one. The nearest bird dropped straight down, in an oddly unreal way, as though it had been suspended by a wire, abruptly snapped — but the second one veered crazily to the right, then down in a fluttering spiral, and the dogs looked on with what appeared to be genuine interest and curiosity before rushing forward to find the birds.
“Meat-on-the-table,” murmured C.K., less in anticipation than habit, as he followed the dogs.
“I think you got that second one, Son,” said Harold’s father, not looking at him as he reloaded.
Harold said nothing, and dropped a shell into the chamber of his single-shot.
His father snapped shut the twelve-gauge. “Ain’t that right, C.K.? Didn’t it look to you like he brought down that second bird?”
“Aw you got both of ’em,” said Harold. “No use makin’ him lie about it.”
“I didn’t hear you, C.K.,” his father persisted, tilting his head, waiting for the right words.
C.K. spoke without looking. “Well now, ah cain’t rightly say....C’mere, Ring....Ah knowed that he come up too late on this here one — gimme the bird, Red — but he might of got a piece of the second.”
Harold sighed in exasperation. “He got ’em both, an’ you know it.”
C.K., undaunted, already smoothing the feathers of the dead quail in his hand, half closed his eyes and spoke with softly labored patience: “Well now, like ah say, ah cain’t rightly be sure ’bout that second bird, ’cause ah wudn’t studyin’ that second bird — you unnerstan’ what ah mean, ah had my eye on the fust one.” Finally flicking his expressionless gaze past Harold, he took the other bird from the dog’s mouth. “These here are good young birds,” he observed. “Nice and plump.”
Harold glared at him. “Uh-huh. Well, I’d sure hate for my life to depend on how good you can lie.”
His father frowned at him. “Now, boy,” he said severely, “you got no call to talk to C.K. like that. An’ I don’t want to hear it again, you understand?”
Harold’s mouth set as he looked away from his father, who then demanded: “Well, do you?”
“Yessir,” Harold mumbled in his most perfunctory manner.
Satisfied, his father looked toward the eastern sky, the red light there feathering up through the gray dawn, slowly bleeding across the whole endless Texas horizon.
“Well, I reckon these will do us,” he said. “Let’s head on back to the house...’fore the biscuits git cold.”
And as the three of them turned to go — Harold’s father in front — C.K. caught Harold’s eye and, with only the faintest smile on his face, gave him a wink.
Harold and C.K. worked to repair a break in the barbed-wire pasture fence. Without shirts, they sweated under the terrible sun, C.K. wearing an old straw hat and a pair of worn-out rawhide gloves. They worked in silence, C.K. kneeling to use the wire-stretcher on the bottom strand, and telling Harold when to place one of the heavy wire-staples that the boy was carrying in his mouth, point-ends out.
“That be fine, Hal,” C.K. said, “hold it right there.” “Hal” was not a nickname but the way C.K. pronounced “Harold.”
The boy placed one of the staples over the wire, and C.K. hammered it in.
“Best use two,” he said then. “This old locus’ wood done begin to rot out on us.”
“How old is it?” Harold wanted to know.
“This wood post? Oh it mighty old awright, likely older’n you and me put together. See, this here is
locus’ wood. They reckon that the hardest wood they is.”
Drawing away from the fence after C.K. started nailing the second staple, Harold brushed the back of his hand against one of the double-pronged barbs of the wire.
“Dang!” He dropped the staples from his mouth into his right hand and licked the back of his left.
“You snag you hand?” C.K. asked. “Lemme see,” and he examined it. “Ah done told you to wear you gloves, din’t ah? ‘Always wear gloves when you work with bob-wire n’ bramble’ — that’s gospel, anybody tell you that...but you hand be awright, that wire ain’t rust out yet. Jest lick it again.” He took off his left glove and tossed it to Harold. “Here, we each use one of these.”
Harold muttered something just short of thanks, putting the staples back in his mouth.
“An ah tell you somethin’ else,” said C.K., “long as ah set up here in the free ad-vice business. You shouldn’t talk with them hook-nails in you mouth. Fact is, you shouldn’t put ’em in you mouth noways.”
“I ain’t gonna swaller none,” said Harold, and added for good measure: “You must be crazy.”
“Uh-huh. You try sayin that when you got one caught down in you throat like a big ole fishhook! Hee-hee! Then you go, ‘Aaaacch...aaacch...’” He did a comic grotesquerie of someone choking to death, falling back on the ground, gasping, clutching his throat, eyes rolling, legs kicking, playing the fool.
Harold had to laugh at the outlandish spectacle, and in doing so, nearly swallowed one of the staples.
He spat them all out in a fit. “Dang you, C.K.! I nearly did swaller one of ’em! ’Cause of you carryin on like a dang idiot!”
“Wal, maybe now you take serious what I say.”
He helped Harold, who was still muttering accusations, find the staples he had spit onto the ground. “Shoot,” he said then, “you know what? All this talk ’bout fishhook put me in mind of that big ole bullhead catfish. Maybe we oughtta mosey on down to the tank and git him on a stringer.”
The idea was not without its appeal to Harold. “I turned up some bloodworms this mornin’,” he said, “right next to that old hog-trough — they was big as grass-snakes! Heck, I bet they’re still there.”
C.K. hung the wire-stretcher on the top strand of the fence and brushed his hands. “Shoot,” he said, squinting up at the sun, “that’s jest what that catfish go for ’bout now...big ole fat juicy bloodworm.”
With their poles and their worms, they started across a pasture, down toward the water tank. Scattered about the pasture were six or seven cows and, much farther away, one very large bull. When they were about halfway across, the bull raised its head and stared at them.
“Look at that,” said Harold, “there’s that dang ole red bull...lookin’ straight at us.”
C.K. laughed. “Uh-huh...an’ lookin’ mean too, ain’t he?”
mean. And you know it.”
“You ain’t scared none though, is you, Hal?”
Harold chuckled. “Scared of a mean bull? I guess you’re gonna say you ain’t.”
C.K. shifted the stem of grass in his mouth, laid his head back, eyes closed, blasé-style. “Ah ain’t scared of nothin’ that ah knows how to handle.”
“Shoot, you’re crazy. Besides, how can you handle a mean bull?”
“Well, ah tell you how — that red bull come at me right now, you know how ah do?”
“Run like all dang get-out, that’s how you’d do.”
C.K. shook his head. “Uh-uh. Oh no. Ah stan’ my ground...ah wait till he close” — he pointed — “like right up to that mesquite bush, then ah quick-step to the side” — he executed an exaggerated matador movement — “like that, you see, an’ that bull jest go right by me.”
Harold stared at him for a moment. “Shoot,” he said, “that’s the biggest dang lie I ever heard.”
About fifty yards away, the bull, still staring fixedly at them, slowly pawed the ground with one front hoof, then lowered his head...and resumed grazing, at the same time moving off, unhurriedly, in the opposite direction. Both had watched him, but neither spoke, until C.K. said: “Want me to git him over here an’ show you how ah do?”
Harold scoffed. “Is that how come you waited till he was headed the other way?”
“Ah bet ah still git him — you want me to try?”
Feeling the blood rise along his spine, Harold looked at the distance to the nearest fence, calculating the risk.
“Sure,” he said, trying to sound calm, “go ahead.”
“Okay, now you watch how ah git ’im ovah,” said C.K., “an’ then how ah do.” He began clapping his hands and jumping up and down. “You! Red Bull!” he yelled. “Come on! Come on! Come git me! You ole Red! Come on!”
He danced around crazily, waving both arms and his fishing pole over his head.
The bull stopped grazing and looked up, regarding him curiously.
Come on, Red!
” C.K. continued at the top of his voice. “
Come on, you ugly ole Red!
The bull raised his head higher, and then, quite suddenly, began trotting toward them, slowly at first, head still high, almost doglike in its strangely alert and inquisitive manner...while C.K. kept at it, cavorting about, carrying on, playing the fool, though at the same time now eyeing the fence line and angling toward it, with Harold alongside, when the trotting changed, as though in a shift of gears, into a gallop, and now the bull was charging full tilt, his approach an awesome rumble. Harold and C.K. tried briefly to outwait each other before breaking into a run, as they finally did, more or less at the same time, and just slightly before the last available moment.
And then they were in all-out and ludicrous flight to the fence, hurling their poles ahead of them over it and scrambling after, tumbling in a heap on the other side, gasping and laughing — while the great bull stood behind the wire, head down, the brass ring in its nose glittering in the afternoon sun, eyes glowering, nostrils flared and snorting, front hooves pawing the ground as though preparing a foothold for a monumental charge through the taut four-wire fence itself.
“God dang,” said Harold softly, sitting up, breathless and excited, “he sure can run, can’t he?”
C.K. tried to be more restrained in his assessment. “Uh-huh, well, you seen how ah don’t take no chance, how ah done cal-culate jest how close he be to us, an’ us to the fence, you see what ah mean?”
“Oh sure,” said Harold sarcastically, “an’ I seen that quick-step you was gonna use, too. That was some quick-step you used. Ha.”
Just beyond the fence, head low, the bull still glowered.
“Look at that red bull!” exclaimed Harold, slightly in awe. “He’s jest about ready to tear through that dang bob-wire.”
“Naw he ain’t,” said C.K., waxing expansive as he stood up and leisurely brushed himself off, head back, eyes half-closed. “He all bluff. He ain’t mess with us again — now he knows ah onto his move.” He leaned over and adroitly swooped up another piece of Johnson grass to chew at the jaunty angle, while Harold, still sitting on the ground, could only gaze up at him, mouth slightly agape in dumb wonder at the enormity of the lie.
C.K. looked down with a frown of mock severity.
“Well, saddle up, my man,” he said then, smiling and extending a hand to help Harold to his feet. “Let’s head on down to the tank an’ git that ole catfish in the skillet!”
The half-acre pond, or tank, as it was known, was about one-third the size of a football field, and was surrounded by weeping willows. It had been dug out by shovel and a mule-drawn plow, many years ago, by Harold’s grandfather and a hired hand — after consultation with the dowser woman, Willow Wanda, whom they referred to as “Willer Wander” or, sometimes, “the Dowsin’ Demon.” Now long dead, she was still remembered and talked about throughout the county. An ancient crone of indeterminate lineage, she was toothless, crippled, and smelled of strange ointments. Sometimes she claimed to be a “Gypsy dancer,” but others said she was a half-breed Comanche who had been cast out of her tribe. Frowned upon by men, loathed by women, feared and taunted by children — yet it would have been deemed the ultimate folly to dig into the parched red earth of Johnson County in search of water without the advice and sanction of “Demon Willer.”
Closed-eyed, she would traverse the general area where the water was needed, hobbling grotesquely, dribbling saliva from her thin lips as they trembled in the “unknown tongue” — in which she appeared to be proficient, both at work in the field and in her devotion at the Tabernacle of the Seventh Seal, the Holy Roller church of her persuasion. People who had seen her in action would recount how the willow branch, with which she divined the location of the subterranean stream, would fly toward the ground with such force that it would sometimes cause a red welt on her ankle, should it strike there instead of the earth.
“Did you ever see that dang old dowser woman?” Harold asked now, as they came in view of the pond — or at least the tops of the willows around it. “The one that planted the first of them willers.”
C.K. gave him a frown of surprise. “Who, the ole Dowsin’ Demon? Why she be dead an’ gone long ’fore ah git heah, Hal — you oughtta know that.”
“Oh,” said Harold, mildly chagrined. “I guess I wudn’t thinkin’...”
He fell silent, but C.K., as if not wanting to disappoint the boy, went on in a cheerful tone: “But ah tell you who ah did see onct — was that ole Wander’s
“What the heck is that?”
“Well now, you see, ‘pro-jay’ is what they call somebody who try to be somebody else.”
“How could they do that?” Harold wanted to know.
“Well, they study his moves, you see...an’ they listen to what he say...an’ they try to do like he do...so they’s called the ‘pro-jay’ — that’s what they’s called. Like take me’n you now, goin’ fishin’, you be my pro-jay at fishin’...other things too.”
Harold frowned. “Like what?”
“Oh” — C.K. smiled up at the summer sky, feeling sublime in his infinite richness of choice — “like stringin’ fence wire.”
“Uh-huh,” said Harold, “well, I’ll tell you one thing — I’m sure glad you didn’t say ‘bullfightin.’ Ha.”
But C.K. was not the flappable kind. “Oh that red bull knowed when he beat — ah respect him for that — he seed how ah was onto his move.”
Harold scoffed. “Yeah, well I seen how you move, too
—I seen you head for tall cotton!”
C.K. laid his head back with a sigh of exasperation, eyes half-closed as though in suffering. “What you seed,” he explained, “was my
’sponsibility in action
— that’s what you seed. ’Cause when ah knows they was a chance of you gittin’ hurt by that bull, that’s when ah put my move on — you see what ah mean?”
“Oh sure,” said Harold, now pretending to have lost all interest.
“But like ah say,” C.K. prattled on, “ah seen this ole woman who claim she the pro-jay of the Dowsin’ Demon. She a white woman, but she come to the colored-people church, an’ she be touched an’ speak in the unknown tongue...fack be, she claim she in di-rect descent from Willer Wander.”
As was often the case, Harold found himself half wondering if C.K. might not be making up the whole thing, and from the side he watched his face with suspicion. At times like these, C.K., aware of his listener’s skepticism, might venture a remark to reassure credulity — or, for mischievous reasons of his own, to magnify disbelief.
“’Course ah never seen her dowse,” he went on, “but they say she mighty good, they say she never miss, eben in red-dirt.”
“Shoot,” said Harold, and he was about to comment further, but C.K. suddenly gestured caution with his hand, staring intently ahead, face tilted to one side, as in an odd attitude of listening, and his eyes slightly wild. “Let’s jest ease up now,” he said softly. “Ah don’t want that bullhead know we comin’.”
Harold shot him a quick look. “I reckon you think he
see us. Ha. I guess you really
crazy after all.”
“That ole bullhead know more than you think he do,” said C.K., moving carefully to his left, still keeping his eyes toward the pond. “How come you think he git to be so old an’ so big? Shoot, that fish know more’n me an’ you put together ’bout some things.”
“Yeah, like what?” the boy demanded, following C.K., and keeping his voice down, just in case.
“Like when a grasshopper got a fishhook in it.”
C.K. nodded sagely. “That how smart Mistuh Bullhead be — if they two grasshopper kickin’ roun’ in the water, an’ one of ’em got fishhook in it, ready to snag that bullhead, right away bullhead know which one, an’ he don’t mess with it, he go for the one without no hook.”
“Sure,” said Harold, more to argue than agree, “that’s because a grasshopper with a fishhook stuck through it ain’t gonna move like a regular grasshopper — it’s gonna be all jerkin’ round. Anybody knows that.”
C.K. sighed in closed-eyed exasperation. “Ah talkin’ ’bout when you
the other grasshopper — like twist it in the middle, so it be all jerky and kickin’ round, too, jest like the one with the hook in it — that bullhead still know the difference.”
Harold stared at him for a moment. “Uh-huh, then how we ever gonna catch ’im?”
“We outsmart him, that’s how...we
prise him. He don’t know we here he won’t ’spect no fishhook.”