He paused in the moment and scouted the bayou; re-familiarizing himself with the area and present time. Trying to clear his head, he stood up to stretch. There was no sign of life around except for the butterfly fluttering about his chair. He wondered for a moment if he was dead. The thought didn’t scare him. “Everybody’s got to go sometime.” He mumbled in a whisper.
Once again, he was attentive and on the lookout for buck deer. He felt as though he’d dozed off for a minute. Sitting in his metal chair, noticing the rust he thought, “I need to take better care of this chair. It’s been good to me and mine arse.”
A squirrel was perched on its hind legs, looking at him with its head cocked like a curious dog. “Hey squirrel.” He said. His mind was racing. Thoughts were bouncing around in his head like crazy balls bouncing in a concrete room. He leaned his head back against the pecan tree and drifted to the past.
The snow melted as it landed anywhere near the fire pit. The wide open field- stone fire pit was decades old. It had character. The parking lot was graveled and orderly. A sturdy rail led from the bottom of the stairwell up to the screened porch that was lined with racks of buck deer from the past. The roof was tin and made a beautiful sound when it rained. The four rooms inside the camp were all utilized to their utmost capacity. An open great room led to a small kitchen that was fully equipped with out of date equipment. The two bedrooms each had dual bunks, so eight could sleep comfortably with beds to themselves. The bathroom had running water, but it was not called the reeking shitter for no reason.
The camp house and grounds reminded him of his grandfather and his buddies, probably woopin and hollerin around the fire, drinking whiskey, or maybe, moonshine. “Shit, I kinda like you guys.” Saul said reaching for another log to throw on the fire. “Ya’ll know how to party!”
“Yee haw!” The three young men said nearly in unison.
Late nights at deer camp were often a thin line somewhere between fun, dangerous and just plain stupid. Buster, the dog sniffed as if there were a magical dust in the air that tickled his nose. He always got so excited to be at camp, like a puppy. His aging was noticeable each year after the long weekend. He would limp for a week and sleep about twenty hours in a full day. Saul wondered if the old members had dogs running around playing sniff butt with one another.
“Hey, ya’ll think any of the old guys, like Great Grandpa Earl and his buddies ever got high?” Al asked.
“Well hell yea. People been gettin high for years.” Then Al exhaled a thick strong smelling cloud of marijuana smoke. He took a deep breath, stood up from his chair and walked around the fire to his older brother. J.R. leaned forward, accepted the joint; no words were said and he took a drag. “Good people smoke, since like…before Ghandi and folks like that.” J.R. said while at the same time exhaling a thick cloud of smoke from his hand rolled Lucky Brand cigarette.
“Hell no! I think Granpa’d roll over in his grave if he knew my older brother was out here giving me da pot.” Al joked in his best gangster voice.
Al had been to deer camp every year since he was four years old. He was a master with most any weapon, be it shotgun, rifle or bow. He’d rather participate in target shoots than hunt for game. Skeet and traps shooting were his favorite, but he also showed his rifle a skill by consistently shooting a half-dollar at ranges over fify yards.
“Hey Al, you remember the time you killed your first deer? You cried.” J.R. said, starting to laugh. “You’re a puss. P.U.S.S. – puss.” He laughed and doubled over as he spelled out the word.
“Shut – up.” This time Al’s dialect was native hick and long draw. “You’ve been trying for seven years. Did you break a mirror or something?” Al snapped back at his older brother sarcastically.
J.R. made a quick move and before Al knew it, he was in a headlock, and on the receiving end of an uninvited noogie. “Quit, J.R., that fuckin hurts.”
J.R. noogied his little brother’s head even harder, smacked him in the back of the head, pushed him and said, “You could use a good ass whoopin this week, Lil Al.”
It got late into the night and the snow kept falling. It fell at a constant speed and the flakes were pearly white and shimmering. They sat in the chairs by the fire, drank bourbon whiskey and burned wood to stay warm.
“Is it true, that all the flakes in the whole wide world have unique shapes?” Al slurred a bit, his draw heavy, and it was evident he was drunk. “Hey, let’s do something crazy.” Al stood up from his metal chair, staggered a bit towards the fire and continued, “Let’s go burn the rival deer camp’s deer stands. The ones close to the gravel roads.” Al’s hands were waiving in the air like a southern baptist preacher spitting fire and brimstone. The more words he said the more his speech slurred.
J.R. was leaned back in his chair, sunglasses on – in the dark. The gray streaks in his beard shown bright, reflecting the fire light and snow caught in his whiskers. His hair flipped up from his round-billed leather hat. He looked at his younger brother and said, “Are you crazy, man? That’s the stupidest shit I’ve ever heard.”
“Come on puss. P-u-s-s.“ Al started to mock and taunt his older brother. “Puss, you’re scared. Step it up, leave a legacy, do something crazy.”
Nothing was said for what seemed like an eternity. Al dozed off and Saul was drunk. J.R. leaned forward in his chair, elbows on his knees and his glass of whiskey gripped tightly between his thumb and fingers.
“O.K., fuck it. Let’s do it, but just one. Let’s burn that big son of bitch, right on the fuckin gravel road. I hate that bastard. I heard that dude hits his old lady and when his mamma said something about it, he whacked her. Now how in the hell are you gonna hit yo momma?”
Now, J.R. seemed to have taken Al’s gangster voice and all of the sudden had a burst of energy. “You drive Paco.” J.R. looked at Saul with a blank, almost scary stare.
“Hell no! I ain’t driving anywhere.” Saul replied. Then he stood, turning his back to the two brothers and made his way back to the camp house. “Hell no!” He said again without turning back. The last thing Saul heard was something J.R. said to his little brother. Saul turned towards the two brothers once he got up the steps and through the screen door of the front porch he saw J.R. grabbing the back of his little brother’s coat and moving him towards the jeep. He said something about, showing him p-u-s-s-.
J.R. and Al tore down the road in the old, blue jeep and then there was peace and quiet. Saul climbed to the top bunk, opened a bottle of pills, chased one with the last of his whiskey and fell asleep.
“Wake up Saul, wake up!” J.R. was frantic and Saul could barely see him from his drunken state of sleep.
“Where’s Al?” Saul replied, still mostly asleep.
“He’s in the jeep. Come on, grab your shit.” J.R. was already out the door with an armload of gear.
“What? What’s wrong?”
J.R. stopped just outside the door, turned and said slowly and emphatically, “Get your shit & go home. The fire department is on their way. We accidentally set the pine grove afire. It’s blazin, man, it’s blazin. Go through the pastures and use the back gate. Don’t worry about locking it; me and Al will be right behind you. I’ll come by tomorrow and explain. Now hurry up.”
Buster was awake and Saul loaded his dog and gear into his truck. He drove down the hill, through the pastures, still trying to shake his drunken sleep. Saul opened the gate, drove through and made his way down the gravel road taking the back roads all the way home hoping to avoid any sight of law enforcement.
Arriving at his home, he unlocked the door, went to the bedroom and woke his girlfriend, Leigh Anne. “We had to shut down camp early because of some stupid crap J.R. and Al were getting into. No big deal, I’d rather sleep hear with you, in my own bed.” He stripped, climbed into bed and faced away from her, wide-awake, wondering what had actually happened.
The next day was beautiful. Saul woke early, after only sleeping for an hour or two. It was seven in the morning. He went into the kitchen and found Leigh Anne making breakfast. The sun shone bright through the kitchen window framing the baby blue skies and white fluffy clouds.
Saul and Leigh Anne had been together for several years and had lived together for the past seven months. “J.R. called early, sounded as if he hadn’t slept. He wanted you to call him soon as possible.” Leigh Anne said in a suspecting manner.
His thoughts immediately turned to the night before. The entire night was a bit hazy. “He better not be messin with me.” Saul mumbled.
“Who, J.R.? What did ya’ll do last night?” She asked, without looking up from her mixing bowl. “I don’t know. They just woke me up and told me to go home, they weren’t mad or anything.” “Well, you’d better call J.R. He sounded a bit crazy.”
The phone rang. “Yellow.” Saul answered the phone with his usual greeting, which he thought was stupid because it’s a color greeting, but still did it anyway. “Saul, this is Al. J.R. is in jail. They came and got him about five this morning.”
“Shit man, what happened?”
“You don’t want to know, man. It was hell. We lit that damn deer stand and…”
Saul interrupted. “Come on over and tell me exactly what happened. Leigh’ Anne has breakfast, she’ll fix you a plate and we’ll talk.”
“Man, Saul, it’s bad, man, it’s real bad. We really fucked up this time.”
“Just come over.”
“Alright, but I don’t know if Miss Leigh Anne needs to hear this, man, it’s bad.”
Saul assured him everything would be o.k., then hung up the phone. “Is everything O.K.? Was that J.R.?” She asked.
“No, J.R. is in jail. Al’s coming over to tell me the story, we will be on the front porch”
“Not a problem, are you in trouble?”
“No. Not yet.” Saul layered his long underwear with coveralls, a wool coat and a knitted toboggan. He went outside, sat in his rocking chair and rolled a cigarette. He lit it and took a long drag, then blew out the smoke. Halfway into his cigarette, Al came driving up the gravel drive in the old blue jeep. The same jeep he and J.R. left camp in the night before. He was not speeding nor was he driving like a madman, which was the way Al usually drove. He parked, got out of the jeep and strolled towards the house. He was wearing a ridiculous hat turned backwards, baggy jeans and sunglasses.
“What in the hell are you wearin?” Saul said with his eyebrows angled downward.
“They might be after me. I’m hidin out for now.” Al was looking around as if someone were stalking him.
“What happened? And turn your damn hat around so I can take you seriously.” Saul said to Al shaking his head. “You look ridiculous”
“Shit hit the fan. We lit the son of bitch, me and J.R., at the same time, so that neither of us could call the other one a puss. It burned hot, and fast. We lost control; the deer stand flamed like nothing I’d ever seen. Twenty-five, maybe fifty foot high, it caught the brown pine needles on afire, and then it was like dominos, they started flaming and one would tree would catch the tree standing next to it on fire and that tree would catch two at a time. It happened so fast.”
“Are you telling me ya’ll started a forest fire”
“And J.R. is in jail?”
“Yep.” Al was looking down at the ground and he kicked a pinecone. “Police said he arsoned the place or somethin, and told him that he’s gong to jail, for a long time.”
Leigh Anne opened the door. “Good morning, Albert. Would you like some coffee?”
“Mornin, can you make it Irish?” He said to her in a dismal, weak voice.
“Not a problem, breakfast will be ready soon, I’ll be right back with your coffee.” She walked inside and left them alone on the front porch.
“Al, come inside and take that stupid hat off.
“We’re up shit creek, J.R.’s in jail. What are we going to do, Saul?”
At that moment, Saul realized that he was the closest thing to family Al had. J.R. was in jail, and Al was now the decision maker and didn’t know what to do. “So, start from the beginning.” Saul said to Al.
Leigh Anne came from the kitchen with coffee, Al’s Irish, laced with bourbon and Irish cream, and then she left. “Well, you remember when we left camp? We bitched at each other for a while, then decided we’d both light that bastard deer stand. And we did, the pine forest caught fire, and burned, damn did it burn.”
“Did the fire department come?”
“Yep. Sometime around three in the morning, it didn’t take long. They had to bulldoze the outer perimeter. The entire two thousand acres burned. Hell, it’s still burning. But they said on the news this morning that it was under control.”
“Holy Shit, the news?” Saul was stunned, and they both saw Leigh Anne standing in the doorway of the kitchen, wide eyed and listening intensely.
“What am I going to do, Saul?” Al said, choking back a sob.
“I think I’ll also have my coffee Irish.” Saul said.
“O.K.” she said with an operator tone, and she turned and walked through the kitchen.
Saul knew she had been taken by surprise. “Drink your coffee, Al, eat some pancakes, and I’ll make some calls.” Saul followed her into the kitchen. She had a sip of the bourbon straight from the bottle and handed it to Saul. He took the bottle, dripped an unmeasured amount into his coffee and said, “Go in there and visit with Al, try to keep his mind off the incident for a minute.”
“Incident; is that what we are calling it; an incident. You burned the entire pine tree farm. That’s a felony. There was probably a million dollars worth of pine out there.”
Saul was flushed and said emphatically, “Me! I was asleep. I did-not have anything to do with this.”
“I’m sorry. What are we gonna to do?” She asked, and started to cry.
“Don’t cry, go and sit with Al, he needs you right now, try to be strong. I need to make some calls and find out exactly what’s going on.”
Saul sipped the Irish coffee. He had no idea what to do, or whom to call. He thought about starting with the police, but didn’t want them knowing Al was at the house. He pondered at the idea for a minute, and decided to visit with Al a bit more before calling the police station. Saul walked to the table and sat down. Leigh Anne was talking food with Al and the conversation seemed to stray his mind for a moment. Al was eating, and Saul thought that was a good sign. He cleared his plate, the conversation ended, and Al looked up, directly at Saul and said, “What am I gonna to do?”
“I don’t know. I want to know exactly what the police said when they came to get J.R.”
“I told you earlier, when I woke up they had J.R. in handcuffs. They were sayin he arsoned the place. They told him that he was going to jail, for a long time.”
“How did they know it was J.R.?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do they think you had anything to do with it?”
“I don’t know. Am I in trouble, Saul?” He looked like a child sitting back in his chair looking at the ceiling and he took a deep breath. “I’m up shit creek, ain’t I Saul.” He looked at Leigh Anne and said again, “I’m up shit creek.”
“Just stay here for awhile, Let me make some calls.” Saul looked at Al with the most promising eyes he could stir up. He stood up from his chair and made his way back to the kitchen, picked up the telephone and called the police.
As he dialed the number, he recalled the last time he called the police station. J.R. had gotten a D.W.I.; they were not a pleasant group of people to deal with. Saul tried to build a bridge with the police, he felt nervous.
After Saul hung up the phone, he could hear Al in the next room re-telling the story to Leigh Anne. He leaned against the kitchen wall and listened to him tell Al tell how the cops knocked on the door and J.R. answered it and went outside. “I ran to the bedroom window and watched the cop put the handcuffs on J.R. I ran outside, but a cop met me at the door and told me to settle down. J.R. was in the back of the police car looking at me. The police tried to make me call someone, but I convinced them my uncle would be at the house soon and they left.”
“Hell Al, you ain’t even got an uncle. That’s quick thinking, you done well.” Saul said, swinging the kitchen door open.
“Saul, do you think I ought to tell the cops I was with him?”
“Hell no; and don’t ever say that again. As far as you’re concerned you weren’t there. Do you understand me? Say it aloud, say Saul I was not there, I was asleep.” Saul looked at Al with stern eyes.
“I understand, I wasn’t there, I was at home, sleeping.”
“If anyone asks you about it, that’s what you say, memorize it, convince yourself that you weren’t there, that’s how J.R would want it. Do that for J.R., o.k.”
“I understand ya perfectly clear. I stick to my story and I stay out of jail, right?”
“Do we need to take J.R. anything in jail? He’d like to have his book; he was right towards the end. He’s been telling me about it for a week. He’d like to have it, and some other things.”
Al was usually self-dependent, confident and direct. Now, he looked like a small child, lost, in need of his older brother. He and Saul drove to Al and J.R.’s house, packed a small cardboard box with J.R.’s book and some personal goods; deodorant, toothbrush and gold bond powder. “I doubt if they’ll let us bring the peter picker upper, that stuff is just too good for jail.” Saul said. Al laughed for the first time since sitting by the fire at deer camp. Saul put his arm around Al’s shoulder and carried his overnight bag; Al carried the cardboard box.
They drove directly to the town jail, walked in, and were coldly greeted by an attendant sitting behind a Plexiglas window. “Help ya?” The attendant said without even looking up from his newspaper. “We are here to drop off some items for my brother, he’s in jail. Do ya’ll allow cigarettes? J.R. likes his cigarettes.”
“Yea, we allow them, what else you got?
“Gold bond, a toothbrush…” The attendant interrupted Al, looked up from his paper and said, “Gold bond, this ain’t no country club.”
Al set the box on the counter and the attendant looked at him, sipped on his coffee and stood up to evaluate the contents of the box. He mumbled something under his breath and said he’d make sure everything but the Gold bond Powder would get to his brother. Al took a half pack of cigarettes out of his jacket pocket and tossed it in the box. “Tell him I’ll be back with more cigarettes tomorrow.” Al had a stronger tone to his voice and turned to walk away, then stopped, looked back at the attendant and said, “Promise me you tell him I’ll be back tomorrow.”
“I’ll make sure he gets the message.” The attendant said.
Saul took a deep breath and felt a lump in his throat and he and Al left the police station without another word. Saul and Al sat on the front porch drinking and smoking cigarettes for the rest of the afternoon. They talked, smoked and drank until they were drunk.
The next couple of days went fast. A weekend of what was to be a rowdy deer camp had turned into hell on earth. They kept busy cutting and stacking wood. One evening before J.R’s trial Al and Saul were stacking wood – creating woodpiles when all of the sudden Al stopped, dropped his ax on the ground and said, “We’ve cut and stacked a lot of wood.”
“Yep, a ton.” Saul replied. He lifted his ax and prepared to thrust it down again.
“We couldn’t burn all of this wood in six winters.” Al said.
Saul looked around at the woodpiles realizing they had been cutting, chopping and creating woodpiles all day for two days straight. Al was thinking aloud, “Thirty three to be exact; all thirty-three are stacked five feet high and are approximately seven feet wide, nine feet long. It takes around four hundred medium wedged logs for each woodpile. It took us about three and a half hours to create each woodpile.” Al was in a daze. He sounded like a robot or a prerecorded how to build your logging business tape. “I’m going to start a business. He looked Saul in the pupils of his eyes. Do you know about how much a truck load of wood goes for?”
Saul paused and said,“Yep, round three hundred dollars? That means if you sold these thirty three piles of wood, you’d make…”
Saul paused again, adding the numbers in his head.
“Nine-thousand nine hundred dollars.” Al said.
“Damn. Well you can have every wood pile we’ve cut.” Al stood, looking as clear headed as Saul had ever seen him.
The next morning, the day of J.R.’s trial, Saul and Leigh Anne met Al at the courthouse. Al was seated near the front and Saul and Leigh Anne walked down the long aisle and sat beside him. Al was staring at the podium where the judge would soon sit. “What ever happens, happens, it is what it is. I love J.R – hell he’s my brother, but I feel helpless. I’m going home after the trial, hopefully with J.R., but if he get’s convicted, I’m going home anyway.” He continued, “You still o.k. with me selling all that wood we cut, I’m going to give you half of whatever I sell of the thirty three piles of wood we cut. It’s only right. You cut, chopped and stacked half of it, and you own the land, so I’m not going to hear of you saying no, half of the money is yours.”
“It’s a deal.” Saul said with hesitation and a confused look on his face.
“Yessir, Rick-a-wood, is what I’m going to name it, got a nice ring to it, don’t it, J.R. will be proud of me.”
“Al, are you o.k?” Leigh Anne asked. She was looking across Saul towards Al.
“I don’t know, my big brother – the guy, who pretty much raised me, might be going to prison, and I deserve the same punishment. I understand what he’s doing, taking the rap and all, but it just ain’t right. I feel like he’s taking the blame and letting me off the hook. So, I’m just going to do my best, take care of him – while he’s in prison, the best I know how. That’s it I guess. So, am I o.k.? Not really. No. But, I’ll be all right. Just going to do the best I can, for J.R. When he get’s out, I’m going to repay him.”
A policeman escorted J.R. through the door. “Damn.” Saul said, humbled, noticing J.R’s orange jumper the county jail had issued. J.R. was clean shaved, and his hair was cut short and parted to the side. The trial was short and the wooden hammer came down against the judge’s podium and it was over. J.R. was going to prison. J.R. stood, turned to Al and said, “Don’t worry little brother, we going to be all right. Just listen to Ol’ Saul there,” and he nodded toward his friend. Saul nodded back in agreement, and accepted the mentorship. “He’ll help you find your way.”
Al looked scared. His face was white as snow and he was breathing hard, holding back tears. “Are you o.k, Al?” Saul asked while studying his younger friend.
“Yea, I’m o.k. Go on home. I’m going to visit with the cops for a minute and see what all the rules are.”
“Do want me to stay?” Saul said with easy eyes.
“No, I’ll be aright.”
The next few weeks Saul kept a close eye on Al. Al called the first night and said, “Just calling to say I’m aright, like you ask. Do I have to do this every night?” Saul laughed and knew Al was going to be o.k. “I sold ten rics of wood today; two hundred and fifty dollars a rick. That’s two thousand five-hundred dollars. One thousand two-hundred fifty each, I’ll need to pick the wood up tomorrow. Is it o.k. if I come by around ten? I also bought a small trailer; got it licensed and everything.” He paused. “Is that o.k.?”
Saul was on the receiving end of the phone call, jaw dropped, surprised. “Of course, Al; that’s good, that’s real good. I’m proud of you. And for a bonus, keep my half of the money.”
“Hell no!” Al said hastily. “Hell no, I knew you’d say that. We had a deal; I’ll bring you your half every Thursday. That way I won’t let it slip away during the weekend.”
“All right, I like the way you talk.”
“Well, see ya when I see ya.”
Saul stood, phone still to his ear, stunned. The next few years Al stayed close to Saul. He visited his brother every Sunday. He never missed a Sunday. Not long after J.R. went to jail, Leigh Anne got pregnant. Nine months later, she had a baby boy and named him Julius.
They visited J.R. less frequent when the baby was born. Three years later J.R. was released from prison. The day after J.R. was out of jail, he went to work with his little brother. Together they bought more land, cut, chopped and sold wood. Al was always adamant about replanting the trees. He’d replant the trees in pine. A quick growing breed that would reproduce in seven years; his plan was to sell the pine as kindling and if he could ever land a corporate account he wouldn’t have to sell anymore, just cut, chop and deliver the kindling.
J.R. had not met Saul’s baby. Six months later, the second week of November finally came. Julius was four and this was his first experience with deer camp. Arriving at camp, the fire was already lit and smoke seeped from every opening in the grill. J.R. and his new ten-week old puppy were sitting by the fire and Al was sitting next to them.
Saul and his son Julius, parked, got out of the truck and shut the doors. J.R. stood up and greeted them. He knelt down, extended his arm to Julius and said, “Hi, Julius, I’m J.R. Welcome to deer camp. Julius shook his hand. “This is our camp dog; she doesn’t have a name yet, do you think you can help us name her. The dog was a beautiful Chocolate Labrador Retriever. “Since you’re going to be a member of our camp, you have to help take care of her also, can you do that?”
Julius’s face lit up and he smiled and accepted the little dog in his arms. He looked up at J.R. and said, “Can we name him Little Al?”
“Hell no, ya’ll ain’t naming no dog after me, hell no.” Al said nearly coming out of his seat. J.R. looked at Saul and they both doubled over with laughter.