“Don’t forget the butter, Rickey,” said RB as we pedaled up to his driveway.
“Butter?” I backed my pedal to brake. Standing astride my Columbia, I looked at him quizzically.
“Yeah. Don’t you remember Camp Ho-Non-Wah?”
“You mean that camping trip when I touched the top of the tent during a downpour?” Nobody told me. How was I to know? It looked like a hole in the top of the tent, so I touched it.
“Uh huh. Don’t you remember before the rains came and we cooked our dinner over the fire?” RB talked about that moment a lot. It really stuck in his memory. I could see him drooling now.
We had both bought new canteen items prior to the trip out to the Camp grounds. Those grounds had been used by scouts for ages. They always learned the art of self-sufficiency on those camping trips. Merit badges were in the offing for those who mastered so many camping skills. The camp’s name was supposedly an Indian name but I was never told the significance of it.
“You know, Rickey. We had steaks. Thick juicy steaks just for that night. And when we built the fire to cook them. Remember? Sticks rubbed together over a pile of kindling until the friction got ‘em hot enough to burst the stuff into flame?”
“I think you did that,” I said. “I never could get those sticks hot enough so I cheatd and used a match. Still haven’t got that badge.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said in exasperation. “Anyway when we got our fire going you slapped a slab of butter in the hot pan and tossed your steak on top of it.”
I swear there was a touch of drool creeping out the corner of his mouth.
“Yeah, so?” I still had no idea what he was on about. “That’s just the way my mom cooks. Monkey see, monkey do.”
“You let me have some of it to cook mine.” He looked at me as if that should turn on the light.
“That’s why you want me to bring the butter?” That was my question but there was no answer I’d get that would clear up the fog in my mind.
“YES. That was the best steak I ever ate. I know it was because we cooked them in butter. Oh man I can’t wait to do it again.”
“OK. I’ll bring the butter.”
“Great. I’ll be over about an hour before dark so we can get to the campsite.”
“OK. I’ll get my stuff together and see you then.” I stepped into the pedal and began to roll along the paved road.
It was Friday. School was out for the weekend and we had been planning a campout since Tuesday.
RB, me and ID were hitting the hills beyond the pines along the marsh skirting Stono River. We’d found the hills, as we called them, while hunting in the woods.
Beyond our houses was nothing but woods and marsh chock full of wild critters. We would tramp through the trees in search of rabbits and squirrels throughout the summer time. It was wide open with a thriving animal population. Possum, squirrel and the occasional deer would pop out in front of us. When they caught sight of two boys with rifles they would disappear quickly into the underbrush. We rarely shot anything because they were so fast. Usually we would plink at cans or pine cones since the animals fled at the sight of us.
We carried 22 single shot rifles. RB had some shorts and I had bought a box of longs thinking they were better but they were just more expensive, a dollar for fifty instead of half a buck for fifty of the shorts.
A bolt action single shot was what I had received for Christmas. I was stunned. For as long as I could remember I had begged for a B-B gun to be told they were dangerous and I could shoot my eye out. Each year I was disappointed. I never got my Red Ryder. I always shot Clyde’s since my parents thought them too dangerous for me. I reckon they meant too dangerous to own because I always carried Clyde’s spare when we went shootin’ on the golf course.
Then, when I was around eleven, I saw a long flat package tightly wrapped in red and green shiny foil propped against the wall beside the red blinking light on the tree. I looked at dad. He smiled at me.
“Go ahead,” he said, “open it.”
My mother frowned. The worry was evident in that face.
I turned to rush after my gift.
“A B-B gun. Finally a B-B gun!” My foot caught on the gift beside my dad’s foot. Gravity took me straight to the floor, my head crashing into my beloved gift, my Red Ryder was finally going to be mine.
“Careful, son. We don’t want you going to the hospital on Christmas morning.” He smiled. I reached for that red and green package turning over at the same time. When I was sitting up I had the long box at hand. My fingernail snagged on the tape. It was our ritual to unstick the tape without tearing the paper. It was a game to see who could release the paper from its tight folds without damage. I think it was a holdover from dad’s past. Things were very dear during the depression and it had become drummed into him to be careful with everything that could be reused. Christmas wrapping paper was one of those things. Having watched him all my life carefully inch tape back without tearing the shine off it I did my best to copy him exactly.
After a good fifteen minutes of prying and scraping I had the taped sections free and began to easily fold back the creases to reveal a cardboard enclosure. I held the recycled wrapping toward my dad who carefully took it to lay beside his chair along with the other bits to be stored for next Christmas.
I put my weight on my knees and lay the box in front of me. The overhead bulb cast a yellow glow over the room. My shadow lay across the brown of the cardboard. It was similar to a case and I lifted the overlapping top. Inside lay a walnut stock that reflected the blinking lights of the tree next to me. The wood was richer and heavier than any B-B gun I had ever seen. The bluing of the barrel looked professional. It had a bolt action. And that’s when I shook my head in a double take.
“This isn’t a B-B gun!” I shouted.
“No, it isn’t,” said dad. “That is a single-shot bolt action 22-calibre rifle.”
He smiled down at me. I looked up at him in complete bewilderment. Thoughts began racing through my mind. All these years dad told me B-B guns were too dangerous? And now I get a 22? Something that I could kill someone with? That’s even more than dangerous. It could be lethal. Out of my mouth shot,
“Wow! A 22! Wow! Dad! Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
“Now listen, son. This is a weapon. It’s powerful enough to kill so there’s great responsibility that goes with its ownership. I want you to take this booklet about gun safety and be able to tell me everything in here before you can shoot it.”
He handed me a booklet with illustrations. Gun safety, it read.
“Do you understand what I’m saying to you?” He was looking me square in the eyes. I noticed my mother was quite pale with her frown in the deepest mode possible.
“Please be careful,” she said.
“Oh, mom, I’ll be careful. Clyde and I hunt all the time at grandma’s.”
“That may be,” said my dad, “but before you carry this around you better be able to tell me all the safety rules. What is the one thing you never do with a gun?”
It was always his major rule with my cap guns.
“NEVER point it at anyone.” It came out automatically since he had been telling me that since I shot my first cap.
“That’s right. It’s very important with this rifle. It’s not a B-B gun it’s a 22 and it shoots real bullets with power enough to kill. The killing power is just as lethal whether it is on purpose or by accident. So. No accidents, please.”
“Yes sir!” I shouted lifting my rifle to my shoulder.
“Watch that barrel,” dad said.
I aimed it toward the pine outside the window. There was no click when I pulled the trigger. The bolt slid freely up and back. I jammed it into the barrel and pulled the trigger again. Nothing.
“Something’s wrong,” I said.
“No, it isn’t. You just need to read the instructions. Spend some time with that book.” He tossed it at me.
“Yes sir.” I looked and there was the instruction to pull the firing pin at the back of the barrel. I did that and pulled the trigger which gave a satisfying click.
That had been the scene at Christmas the year before and I hadn’t accidentally shot anyone so I reckon I memorized the safety rules well enough. Unfortunately, my grandmother passed away that year. I never got to hunt with Clyde carrying my own rifle.
I packed my army surplus backpack with sleeping bag, mess kit and canteen. I threw in some swim trunks just in case and dropped in four boiled eggs. I slipped a pork chop out of the freezer and into the bag. Then I grabbed a stick of butter. Aluminum foil sat on the counter. I pulled a long stretch of it and ripped it along the jagged edge provided to separate it in a straight line. That butter had neverbeen wrapped as well as I did it then. It sat under a triple layer of foil on all sides when I finished.
I dropped a Pepsi into the bag and filled my canteen with tap water. That, too, went into the bag. RB and I had decided to leave the rifles at home and spend time on merit badges. I pulled the belt on one side of the flap through the metal catch when I heard RB at the door.
“Be right there!” I yelled throwing the strap over my right shoulder.
“Mom!” I yelled again.
“Yes, dear,” she said from the back room.
I stuck my head through the door opening in the back.
“RB and I are going now.”
She got that worried look on her face again.
“We aren’t taking the rifles, mom.” A smidge of relief flashed across her face.
“I’m so glad to hear that,” she said. “You boys have a good time and please be careful.”
RB was behind me. “We will, Mrs. Croucher.”
We started down the hall.
“Oh yeah,” I said turning back to my mother. “Please keep Princess inside. We don’t need her with us this time.”
“I will,” she said.
The screen door slammed behind us. We ran to the road. The start of our camping trip had begun. The sun was low in the sky radiating warmth and not heat. It would be the perfect temperature this night.
ID was late but showed up on his bike at the top of the road.
“Hey, guys. You weren’t going to wait for me?” His bike locked brakes skidding around in a half circle.
“We’re hiking to the site. Take your bike to my place. We’ll wait here.”
He shot up the road. He and his bike disappeared into the drive. A few seconds later he was running to catch up to us.
“I hope one of you brought matches ‘cause I never can get sticks hot enough by rubbing them together.”
“Heck yeah,” RB and I shouted out. We laughed as we jumped the ditch to enter the woods.
The sun was slipping into its final goodbye for the day when we arrived at the hills. This was an area that had been newly cleared of trees and shrubs. The hills had been formed by scooping dirt from a deep hole adjacent to them. The hole was obviously deep by the height of the mounds we called hills next to it. It had filled completely with water over the last few days which had brought rain. The water in the dying sun appeared aqua for the few moments the sky changed from red to purple to black. Overhead the moon, which had been pale in the sunlit sky, was now brilliant silver, lighting the scant clouds passing overhead. It was full and gorgeous and perfect for a story about werewolves.
We unpacked our gear. We unrolled the sleeping bags which had been packed at the bottom of our shoulder bags. RB began searching for wood for a small fire.
We pushed and tugged at the top of the hills to make level space for our bed rolls. Stretching from the foot of the hills was a strip of marsh that glittered silver as it swayed in the breeze that had begun to blow. Crickets and other night creatures filled the air with their song of life.
After leveling the top of the hills we sat. RB placed the wood atop the kindling very carefully so that the flame would come up from beneath and ignite the mall branches we had broken into firewood.
“Anybody want to try rubbing sticks together?”
ID and I shook our heads and handed him our boxes of matches. “Heck no,” we said together.
“No merit badge for you guys,” said RB. He laughed. The match caught on the striking strip. Guarding it from the breeze he touched it to the kindling. It went out.
“How about you guys sit over here and block the wind.” We scooted over on our knees gouging dirt out of the hillock. Clumps came loose and rolled down the side and into the water with a splash. I watched the still surface reflecting an over-sized silver disc break into a shimmering patch of rolling silver and black undulations. Gorgeous, I thought.
“Did you see that?” ID whispered over to me.
“Yes, it’s really something isn’t it?” I said looking down from the heights into the mirror of waves below.
“No. Out there,” he said pointing toward the tree line.
We froze looking in that direction.
“Hah! Got you two to look,” shouted ID laughing.
“Cut it out,” I said.
“Yeah,” agreed RB. “Stop that and block the wind here.”
We leaned into the pile of wood. The match scratch was followed by flame. This time the kindling took and the single flame shot up to lick at the sticks lying crosswise. As those caught alight we put heavier bits of branches over it. In a few moments we looked at the yellow and orange flames flicker across our faces.
“OK. Let’s get out the fry pans and butter ‘em up.” Mine was in my hand and open so the handle locked into place. I unwrapped the stick of butter. I held it toward RB who eagerly cut off an inch of the stick with his spoon. He dropped it into his pan. It sizzled and slid in every direction as he tilted it this way and that. When it was melted he dropped a steak into it. The sizzle grew louder. His face took on maniacal features as he stared into the pan. The flames licked upward sending dancing shadows upon his eyes. The sight sent a shiver down my spine.
I offered ID some butter which he took. I tossed a portion into my pan. We both heated them over the flame. When there was only liquid in my pan I unwrapped my pork chop and slipped it into the melted butter. It sizzled sending out an aroma that made my mouth water. We flipped them all at the same time practically and stared at the browned surface while the other side got the same treatment. The aroma rose permeating the area until the breezes whipped it away.
I offered one of my eggs to each of them. ID took one. RB refused. He skewered his steak and began to cut into it viciously with his knife and fork. His fork disappeared into his mouth carrying a slab of steak and came out clean, shining in the moonlight.
“Oh, yeah. Just like I remember it. So good fried in pure butter. Nothing better.” He continued to relish his steak as I cut into my pork chop. ID bit into his without the aid of utensils. As he shook his head back and forth ripping at the steak he growled. It was a bit disconcerting but RB and I ignored it enjoying our own.
The sky darkened over a bit as time passed. The glow of the full moon was dimmed by heavier clouds covering its surface.
Mid chew I asked, “Did anyone check to see if it was going to rain?”
ID spoke up. “It might but we’ll be OK. Unless some wild beast shows up.”
“Oh shut up!” RB and I yelled.
“Why do you have to make it seem so spooky?”
“I’m not doing anything. It’s just a possibility.”
The moon disappeared for a short interval. The darkness was complete and blinding since we had had the brightness of a full moon and its reflection in the water below.
“Ooo,” came a slow steady growl. “There’s something out there.”
“ID if you keep this up you’re gonna have to leave.”
The cloud cover flashed over. The moon once again shed its light and we could see.
“I’m finished with mine. How about you guys?” asked ID. He arced his pan over head. What was left of his steak took flight. In the dark distance it hit some brush with a muffled sound. RB followed suit. Not being one to be left out I did the same.
“Who brought the bottle opener?” asked ID. I tossed him my Swiss knife.
“You’ll find one in there.” Waiting for its return I pulled my Pepsi out of my bag.
The moon disappeared again as the clouds became thick and heavy. Darkness fell upon us. The fire’s light flickered eerily.
“Listen,” whispered ID.
“Not again, ID,” I said. “That’s getting old.”
There was a rustle coming from the area we had thrown our scraps.
The moon peeked then hid again.
The sound from the bushes grew. No, that wasn’t it. In actuality the other night sounds had stopped. The night was upon us, dark and deathly quiet. The brush shook. A sound like growling slowly filtered our way. We should never have tossed those scraps over there.
The moon appeared as the clouds broke. The wind quickly forced the clouds back across the silvery light blanketing us in darkness again. Orange and yellow danced across our faces straining to hear. The quiet continued.
“I saw something when the moon came out. It was a flash of white near the spot we tossed our trash.”
“Oh come on, ID. That’s not funny.” I was getting tired of his trying to scare us.
“No, Rickey. I’m not kidding. I saw something down there.’
We strained to hear anything. A rustle of bush rose from that point. The darkness concealed any movement but there was the hint of a growl and possibly the chewing of something. Quiet settled once again.
“Shhh,” said ID. “I swear I hear something.”
I stared into the fire. Without the moon it was the only light we had but it was barely lighting the clods of dirt just around us. The night creatures were still silent as death. Not a chirp, not a croak, not a creak was in the air. Just a slippery crunching in the brush where the remains of steak and chop had flown.
A loud splash came from behind us in the water. I jumped. I could see by the firelight RB was rattled too. ID sat with a slight smile curling his lip. After a second he roared with laughter.
“You should have seen the two of you. One dirt clod hurled over your heads and you about had to change your drawers.” He rolled over on his back then upright laughing. “Wow! You guys are such wimps.”
The clouds unveiled the moon at that moment. The eerie silver light of a full moon flashed once more bathing the area in its white ghostly light. I saw it first. RB froze. There directly behind our laughing friend was a pair of orange eyes. ID stopped rocking. He sat stick still as we all heard the heavy breathing. He touched his neck. His eyes saucered. His laughter became gasps. A ghostly image broke through the veil of darkness surrounding ID. A mist of hot breath from a white maw encircled his head. He scooted away from the ghostly apparition. RB and I sat frozen to our patch of ground. ID scrabbled over the top of the hill, crawling, clutching, grappling with crumbling dirt to get as far from that sight as possible. His momentum took him over the top and into the decline. He slid clawing at the side of the hill to no avail. His hands caught nothing but dirt. His efforts gained him nothing. His fall was ended with a loud splash. The water took him under for a moment. He broke the surface spluttering and yelling.
“Get away! It’s a wolf! He’ll kill you! Don’t you hear me!” he shouted into the heights.
RB and I looked down at ID beating the water with his arms.
“You mean this wolf?” I asked. I moved to the side allowing Princess, my white muzzled orange eyed collie, to step up atop the hill to look down at the foolish human beating the water with frantic arms.
‘She got loose and followed our trail. Those bits of steak held her up for a minute. When she finished them she trotted on up. You just happened to be the first one she licked as a hello. Nothing frightening here. Gosh, you should have seen your face. It was priceless, wasn’t it Princess?” I ruffled her hair. She nuzzled me back.