Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Magnificent Obsession

When you're 17, nothing is impossible. In Todo's mind, this was a firmly fixed fact. To him, it didn't seem at all outlandish to kill a javelina with only his hunting knife. We had discussed the prospect several times. I enjoyed playing Devil's advocate and describing, in graphic detail, the horrible possibilities that might be tied to the act. However, he stoutly maintained that the attempt was not only possible, but success was probable, if the approach and frame of mind were correctly coordinated. Todo Myane was my best friend and I loved him like a brother. He had the gift of being able to convince many of us that most anything was possible, although in this case I remained very skeptical of his theory.

We heatedly debated differing viewpoints as we rolled along the highway in his father's old faded green Chevrolet pickup truck. Joining in the discussion were two other friends, Paul Visel and Robert Garcia. The truck was moving northwest, away from the small South Texas town of Premont in the direction of the Hill Country and Mr. Myane's hunting lease near Uvalde.

Todo was, and remains, one of those individuals who finds it impossible to talk without using his hands. The truck would lurch to the left or right from time to time as he reinforced a particular point. As teenage boys, we had no real cares and found the ride and rollicking arguments great fun.

Embracing our impending manhood, Paul and I were chewing "Red Man" tobacco and gave every appearance of relishing the activity. Robert had never tried to chew, but found the opportunity and encouragement irresistible. He scooped a healthy knot from the offered pouch and worked the wad into his cheek with minimal skepticism. Things started out well enough, but in due course he had to spit. His eyes reflected desperation as he had no cup like Paul and I.

With a broad smile, I advised he use the passenger window, as he was riding shotgun. He stuck his head out to release the accumulation of juice. To our combined amazement, he spat directly into the wind! Needless to say, his problems had only begun. Robert immediately got horribly ill. I feel reasonably sure that he has not touched chewing tobacco to this day. We helped Robert off his knees from the shoulder of the road after a brief, but badly needed stop.

Later, his face still in the grip of a deathly pallor, Robert stepped from the truck to unlock the gate leading into the ranch. Our good natured ribbing did nothing to steady his wobbly legs or improve his disposition. It seemed he was going to hold a grudge awhile. We rolled to a stop in front of the camp house and hurriedly unpacked in the golden light of late afternoon.

At this time we made a grim discovery. None of us had brought any food! There was no meat, salt, potatoes, beans, sugar or coffee. Nothing. No supplies had been left in the house either. We grabbed rifles and rushed into the rapidly approaching dusk in hopes of getting something to eat . . . and we did.

A jackrabbit and a javelina.

Under a burgundy sky, fading into blackness, we pulled together the makings of a good campfire. Soon, javelina and jackrabbit were roasting over the flames on a sheet of tin. The results remain firmly fixed in my mind as the absolute worst meal I have ever endured in my life. Juices from the javelina ruined the rabbit, which was not fit for human consumption in the first place. Truly, it was a "just right" meal. If it had been any worse, we couldn'ta et it! Had it been any better, wed'a feed it to the dogs! Robert grinned at our discomfort as he still wasn't hungry anyway.

Our first night in camp was punctuated by a blend of growling stomachs and fitful snores.

As day broke, we stretched, stomped into our boots, then rode on into town for a few badly needed supplies. Our quality of life improved dramatically. Rich, strong black coffee with sugar! Bacon and eggs! Buttered toast! Life was good! The rest of the day was spent in a combination of hunting and exploring an interesting cave Todo knew of. He had stumbled onto its entrance on the side of a remote brushy hill.

The mouth was roughly four feet across and dropped away into a hole going down into the dark earth some 15 feet. We laid a cedar fence post over the opening and slid down a lariat to gain access, stirring up a colony of bats in the process. Guano was about a foot deep, and the array of stalagmites and stalactites was extremely beautiful. We spent several hours exploring the wonders held secret within the side of that hill.

After supper, we shook out blankets and stretched out on our backs, staring out into the matchless beauty of the Texas Hill Country night sky. We talked of the things men/boys do and kept a rough tally of the occasional falling star. Finally, clothes smelling of sweat and rich wood smoke, we rolled into our blankets and beside the embers of a fine campfire gave ourselves over to the embrace of a deep and dreamless sleep. The last thing I remembered hearing was Todo muttering that he would, at some point, kill that javelina with no more than a knife...

The searing hiss of bacon in a skillet--its unique aroma drifting gently on the morning breeze pulled me back from the other world of sleep. My eyes opened to the soft light of pre-dawn. I kicked out of my blankets and eased over to the freshly fed fire where Todo hovered over an old cast iron skillet of frying bacon. His face glowed red as he took a pull on his Travis Club cigar, a habit he retains to this day. He smiled that lop-sided, irresistible grin of his and said, "Bill, today I'm going to get that hog!" Our eyes were pulled to the amber glow of the eastern sky. I smiled at him and said, "We'll see who gets who."

He cracked eggs over the bacon and stirred them thoughtfully as I poured coffee. Paul and Robert were soon with us beside the fire, enjoying breakfast.

We had a brief morning hunt and returned to break camp for the return trip home. Todo had not gotten his hog. He seemed genuinely perplexed as we loaded our gear into the bed of the truck. "Bill, I just knew that this was the day..." he muttered.

"It ain't over yet," I responded.

The last thing loaded was Mr. Myane's oak water barrel. He took great pride in it and had asked that we bring it home rather than leaving it at the camp to dry out and possibly collapse since deer season was now over and the camp would not be used for several months. We piled into the truck and gripped the dashboard as it wound its way over gravel ruts, churning along toward the distant gate and highway.

Todo's thick black eyebrows would arch, then furrow as he repeated, "I can't understand it," he mused. "I was so sure! Bill, you know how sometimes a feeling is so strong, it's telling you ahead something's gonna happen. I was so sure...," he repeated again, gazing into the distance.

About half an hour later we came to the Frio River and decided to pull over for a quick bath. We sought the cover of a wooded bend in the rushing stream. This saved any innocent passerby the unwelcome shock of coming upon us frolicking in the river wearing nothing but our hats and grins.

Soon, we were underway again, our spirits lifted after the refreshing swim. Todo seemed more his old self again as the miles flew by.

That is, until Paul said, "Todo, there's a pack!"

Todo immediately slammed the brake pedal to the floor, leaving twin strips of black skid marks as the truck fishtailed to a stop on the shoulder of the road.

Todo kicked open the driver's door, took a fix on the pack as he pumped his arms and legs in a wild sprint to the fence. He palmed the top of a cedar post and vaulted over the top of the wire. The rest of us assumed positions in the back if the cab along the headache rack for a better view and shouted encouragement.

"Further to your right," Paul yelled. Todo turned, stalking the perimeter of the small oak mott, jerking his well honed knife from its sheath. He worked his way around scrub oaks and cedar outgrowths in pursuit of the animals. We watched with glee and shouted encouragement until, finally, his shoulders seemed to slump and he dejectedly turned back toward the truck. He began to plow through the knee-deep grass and had only taken a few steps when Robert cupped a hand to his mouth and shouted, "Todo, to your the cedar bush!"

Todo spun around, eased over toward the bush and peered into the depths of its shadows. His eyebrows knitted into a frown. He slowly folded into a crouch, then dove right into the center of that cedar bush! Immediately, screams for help filled the air. "My God," he shouted! "Somebody help meeee!" he bellowed with more than a touch of shrillness in his voice.

We jumped from the truck bed and flew at the fence. Robert had the hardest time as he was rather portly at that time in his life. We all ran, side by side to the aid of our companion. I glanced over at Robert and saw his clothes in tatters. Blood flowed from a number of wounds inflicted as he dove through the barbed wire. He looked like he had been pulled through a cheese grater, but he never missed a step.

We slowed and cautiously approached the wildly gyrating cedar. Just beyond it, stood an outraged sow. Every coarse, hairlike spine on her body stood upright. Her substantial ivory tusks were clacking together fiercely and sounded like small limbs cracking under stress. Her beady eyes radiated pure hatred. She looked like a huge porcupine with a mouth full of razor sharp tusks! A half grown piglet stood beside her squealing hysterically, adding to the noise and confusion. This mother was ready to charge the cedar bush.

In the middle of that bush hunched Todo, pleading for help. His hands were firmly locked behind the ears of a second half grown pig. It was pinned to the ground between his knees. The knife lay forgotten on the ground at his side. The mother snorted, glared balefully at us, then broke and ran as we closed on the scene. Through huge eyes, Todo looked over his shoulder at me. "Bill, take it!" he demanded over the furious thrashing and snapping teeth of the creature beneath him.

"Pard, this has always been your quest, not mine," I retorted. "Want you to enjoy the full benefit of the experience," I added.

Todo's sense of humor seemed to be getting a little strained.

"The #@*&$^% thing will cut me to shreds!" he groaned.

"Please, guys. Get me something to put it in," he spat through clenched teeth.

Robert rolled his eyes and bolted back toward the truck. Paul and I watched as he again dove through the fence, inflicting more damage to himself.

Todo was in no mood for teasing, but this was just too good an opportunity to pass up. "Compadre, could I hand you your knife?" I offered. His eyes blazed, then gleamed with relief as Robert made his way back with a blanket.

To my horror, I recognized my treasured wool blanket. This stinking javelina would ruin it! There was no time, however, to debate the issue. The danger to Todo was too real.

We worked the blanket into place, then lifted the struggling bundle in its makeshift sack. Todo's relief was obvious and immediate. We laughed and pounded his back as we moved back to the truck, the squealing, squirming captive held at a very respectful distance.

Todo worried that we should not keep the pig. "Let's let it go, guys," he plead. "It'll be nothing but trouble." Todo had been involved in a minor misunderstanding with our local game warden and his dad a few weeks earlier and had found religion as far as state game laws were concerned. He just wasn't sure if we should keep the pig.

The issue was faced and addressed as we always did on any point of disagreement. We promptly took a vote. Three to one. We kept the hog.

Mr. Myane's water barrel was the only obvious means of containment for our new friend. Over Todo's objections, we dropped the nasty tempered little bugger through the lid into his small temporary prison. Though we hoped to tame him, his disposition seemed to get worse by the minute. We were soon on the road again.

The truck was low on gas as we pulled into the town of Benavides, and a stop was called for. As we climed from our seats and stretched, an old Mexican man approached to pump the gas. The scent of javelina hung over the bed of the truck as he slipped the gas nozzle into place. He peered into the bed of the truck, searching for the source of the odor. None was apparent, so he leaned against the side of the truck and hummed contentedly as he continued to pump the gas.

"WAANNKKK", came the sound from within the barrel. The old man's stooped shoulders came erect and he lifted his head, now fully alert.

"Que dice?" he asked. "Javelina?" he questioned.

"Si," I answered. "It is."

"Can I see heem?" he asked in his musical accent.

"Si, senior," I responded and nodded toward the barrel. With stiff joints, he shuffled over to the tailgate, hooked his ancient cane on its lip and gripping the top with gnarled leathery hands, pulled himself slowly upward toward the rim of the oaken barrel.

"WAANNKKK" came the soft sound from within the barrel once more.

With a smile on his face, he lifted the hinged lid and peered into the shadowed depths of the barrel. His smile turned into a look of shocked horror as he was greeted by a snarling mass of razor sharp tusks lurching desperately upward toward his face.

"Madre!" he exclaimed, falling backward off the rear bumper and landing with a sickening thud on the concrete beneath the truck.

He was up like a cricket, bouncing on his toes and gesturing with his cane excitedly. I had been sure that he had broken every bone in his body.

"Que bueno!" he laughed. "Will you sell heem?" he queried. "Cuantos?" he asked.

"He's not for sale," we insisted.

"What a fine leetle peeg," the old man mused.

Laughing, we bade him farewell. Todo still had not killed a javelina with a knife, but all in all, it had not been such a bad weekend...

I am often asked, after relating this story, what ever happened to the javelina? Well, he was just too large to ever truly tame. He would tolerate humans to a point. However, he was completely unpredictable and would turn on a person in a second. A few weeks after arriving on our farm, he escaped.

A neighboring rancher, Leamon Jones, saw him in his pasture and walked over to pick him up and return him to me. He nearly lost an arm. Showing a torn sleeve and a gashed forearm to Dad and me, he gestured in the general direction the animal had headed. Gazing into the distance, I decided it best to leave well enough alone. He was allowed to return to the wild.

To my knowledge, Todo never has killed a javelina with a knife, nor, after that episode expressed any further inclination to do so.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Fish Camp

My world was a suffusive, murky grey. I dared not breathe in the sullen stillness that surrounded me. My body floated effortlessly, completely submerged in the waters of Mathis Lake. I was held in place by several hooks on the trot line we had just been running and re-baiting. These malevolent hooks now pierced my jeans, shirt and the middle knuckle of my left hand. I was held quietly in place, unable to lunge toward the surface and the air that my lungs were desperately, silently screaming for. A hand descended and groped at my face from above. It gripped my hair and pulled me swiftly toward the surface. Through blinking eyes blurred from rivulets of water, the smiling face of my godfather materialized slowly. I inhaled a huge gulp of air deeply into my lungs. His face vanished as I plunged beneath the surface once again.

The morning had been a mirror image of many others as Dad, Sleepy and I shot across the silty water of Lagarto Creek to gather fish and re-bait our lines. The twenty-five horsepower Evinrude left a small rooster tail of a wake with our passing. The surface reflected fragmented morning sunlight appearing as countless golden coins dancing over the distance to the horizon. I smiled in contentment. Dad loved fishing, and I had grown very fond of it. Truth be told, I came to love the trips flying over the surface of the water more than the fishing itself. For me, the journey surpassed the destination.

A new dam had raised the level of the lake significantly, and huge, silent groves of live oak trees had been partially submerged as a result. Their slow death had created silent, stark forests through which our baited lines now wound. The barren branches had become home to a variety of nesting water fowl. Turtles sunned on the limbs slicing through the surface of the water. Snakes drowsed on the upper reaches as well. I had heard a story of a water moccasin dropping from a high branch into a boat driven by my uncle Whitey about dusk one fine summer day. Whitey dove into the water straight away, allowing that if that viper could steer the boat, he was welcome to it!

I had draped myself over the closed bow of the boat. Tepid water and moss dripped through my fingers as I hauled on the main line, dragging the boat slowly along. The wind had risen strongly out of the southeast, creating great rolling swells through which our boat rose and fell. The strain of holding the mainline had become tedious, so my toes were hooked over the starboard side of the bow to help my arms and shoulders pull against the strain the line exerted.

Sleepy was behind me and Dad was aft, each of them threading chunks of venison liver onto the sharp stainless steel hooks as we worked our way along. Dad was a big believer in venison liver, so we always saved it from the preceding winter hunting season. The catfish seemed to love it. They would congregate around the snags and stumps, and when conditions were right, we caught them in great quantities.

This being our first run since the previous weekend, there were no fish on the hooks. We rubbed away the accumulated muck to clean the lines and hooks as we baited them out, hoping for a good fish fry for supper.

Blue cats were the favorites, though yellows were also good eating. Mud or channel cats were the least desirable as they were mostly head, and developed a somewhat gristly texture as they grew larger. This did not complement the slightly muddy flavor that their meat always hinted of. Two- to five-pounders were the perfect size for frying, though we were always excited at the prospect of a larger fish to show off or brag over.

The morning grew quickly hotter and my attention started to wander as sweat dripped from my nose. Monotony had set in. I stared blankly at the reflected sunlight shimmering in the rippling surface of the water. The large swells rolled and the wind continued to push against us.

That was when Sleepy stood up in the boat.

His unexpected release of the line combined with the popping force of the southeast wind taking in slack with a fresh shove against the hull caused the bow to tilt. I felt myself sliding off into the water.

My instinct was to hold rather than release the main line. I did just that. In and under I went.

Now I found myself ensnared in a mass of lines and hooks. The one embedded in my knuckle made me extremely cautious about any sudden lunge back to the surface. Others had bitten into the fabric of my clothing, and I had no desire to redouble a problem that already seemed fairly significant.

Why had Sleepy let me go? Why didn't he pull me back up and into the boat? It had been only a few seconds, but it seemed an eternity and my lungs screamed for air. Again, I felt his fingers grasp my hair.

Water streamed from me as Sleepy hauled me up and over the side of the boat. I coughed and sputtered as various hooks were removed from my shirt and jeans. Deep breaths of clean, sweet air pumped life and energy back into my body. Looking down, I stared at the single hook embedded in my knuckle, then grasped it, tearing it free of my flesh.

It was not the smartest move I ever made. My head swam and my stomach knotted in nausea as blood poured from the torn flesh. Above all, I had to bear up in front of Sleepy and Dad. I looked accusingly at Sleepy and demanded to know why he had released me before pulling me back on board. "Was afraid my cigarettes would get wet," he replied. His laughter was nervous and infectious. I realized that he had also been caught by surprise, off balance and knowing that two of us treading water while entangled in trot lines would have only compounded the problem.

"You OK?" Dad asked.

"Yessir," I replied, trailing my injured hand over the side. I watched blood from the ragged wound drift away in the currents.

It took a few minutes for my head to quit swimming. Though forced at first, good humor soon relieved the tension of the situation. Dad's cloudy blue eyes focused on me, concern still showing in them. "Sure you're all right, son?" he asked.

"Yessir, I'm fine," I smiled.

"Then let's finish getting baited out," he replied.

By the time we worked through to the last of the hooks on our three trot lines, fish were already set on hooks that had been baited earlier. We made several passes up and down the lines, bringing in a fine catch that assured supper would be something special.

Easing back into the calm waters of our boat slip, we dragged the heavy stringer off the boat and into a wheelbarrow to ferry back to the fish camp to be cleaned. It was a really good feeling. I shucked the fish free of the stringer and lifted the slick, struggling body of a nice blue onto the cleaning table behind the boat shed in the back yard near the rear of the cabin. I remember looking up through the swaying limbs of the huge hackberry trees towering over our heads. The beams of the late afternoon sun sprayed through the shifting openings. The yard was an amazing play of amber and shadow as we cleaned those fish, sharing laughter.

Dad looked at my swollen finger and suggested I go in and get it cleaned up and wrapped. On the way in I noticed that I was reeking of muddy, pungent water. Stepping into the shower, I took one last deep, grateful breath before washing it away. Mother and Sleepy's wife, Phyllis took on over me shamelessly. A shower and clean, dry clothes had pretty well revived me.

That evening as I watched the grown-ups play dominoes in the cabin, there was an abundance of laughter. The smell of fresh fried catfish and cornbread floated in the air. I was grateful for that wonderful meal, the comfort of the cabin and the feeling of love and kinship we all enjoyed. As I turned, chewing a mouthful of fish, I gazed at my sister, Charlotte. She grinned, lowered her gaze and quickly turned away. After all, I was a major source of irritation in her life, but that was an older brother's job. We both had an image to maintain. I grinned at her and now admitted to myself and no one else that I loved her. After all, even that confession would not change the fact that she could be a real pain in the neck. The years have seen us drift apart, but the clarity of that special time and place still shines in my mind.

Staring at the wall over the smiling face of my father, I read, once again, a faded verse inscribed on an old plaque...

Sitting still and wishing
Makes no person great.
The good Lord sends the fishing-
But you must dig the bait!

That's a wealth of wisdom about living. What a grand gift life is; even more grand is the real living of it. I dozed off that marvelous night smiling and wondering if the fish would be biting tomorrow...