“I’m married, Hugh. It’s not something I’ve even thought about.” Bert said, twisting the blade of grass between his teeth as he picked his way among the brambles.
Hugh spat, a string of saliva caught in his thick, black beard, but he didn’t pay it any attention. He barked a laugh. “Shit, son. Wife like yours? Of course you’ve thought about it.”
Bert frowned and ran a hand through his lank brown hair, picking out briars and leaves. “I don’t aim to hear you talk bad about my wife. She’s … willful is all. There’s not a thing wrong with a willful woman.”
“He’s right, Hugh. There’s nothing wrong with a woman havin’ her own opinions.” Kent agreed, his young face twisted in concentration as he worked his way through the thicket.
“What the hell would you know of it? You’re what? Sixteen if you’re a day? Boy, you wouldn’t know what to do with a woman like Anna Brenton if she was buck naked and begging.”
“Almost seventeen! Besides, why would she be naked and begging anyway? Her family’s got more money than the rest of the dern county put together.”
Hugh snorted and opened his mouth to speak, but Bert talked over him. “There’s no reason is all. Hugh just likes flapping his gums. Always has, I reckon.”
“Better’n lettin’ moss grow on ‘em while my wife wears the pants. Better if she don’t wear none at all.” He said, grinning and displaying a crooked row of tobacco-stained teeth.
Bert sighed and glanced at Kent. The younger man started to speak, but Bert held up his hand, and they continued on in silence.
“Just a shame to let all that good lovin’ go to waste is all.” Hugh grunted after a while. “I mean she’s done ever’thin’ there is to do apart from outright beggin’ ya. It ain’t like your wife would have to find out.”
“I’m married, Hugh.”
“Hell, I know you’re married. I can see the stamp on your forehead, can’t I?” He swung the machete back and forth, hacking through the underbrush as he trudged forward in the lead. “Still, she’s somethin’ else.”
They subsided into quiet for some time, pushing their way through the brush as the sun eased its way across a lazy blue sky. “Are you sure this is the place?” Kent asked, not for the first time.
“I said it was, didn’t I? They’s a whole mob of the sons of bitches. ” Hugh growled. He hocked, spat, and continued on.
“Well. You’ve said a lot of things at one time or another.” Bert said.
“Like hell I have.” Hugh answered, tearing at a branch that had caught in his camouflage jacket.
“One time you said you’d quit drinking.” Kent piped in.
“Shit, son. I did quit.”
Bert laughed, “Right up until you got your lazy ass off the couch.”
“A man’s word is his prison.” Hugh replied smugly.
Kent’s face pinched in concentration. “Where’d you hear that, Hugh? That don’t sound like the Bible.”
“Fortune cookie.” Bert supplied.
“Don’t matter where I got it from, it’s the truth. A man can’t be held to every word escapes his mouth. He’s got a right to lie every once and a while. Hell, if I always told the truth I’d probably still be a virgin like the sprout here.”
Kent’s face turned red, “I–I’m not … it isn’t–”
“Don’t worry about him.” Bert said, “Hugh might not be a virgin. I’ve heard some strange things in my time. Boy over from Lafayette told me about a three header one of his females calved a few summers back.”
Hugh opened his mouth to speak, but frowned and continued to fight his way through the undergrowth. In time, they came to the edge of the brush. The thick trees and bushes gave way to a large clearing of tall, green grass that bucked and swayed in the wind, dancing in sunlight no longer obscured by trees and brush, impossibly bright. “Right about here oughtta do it.” Hugh grunted as he unstrapped the lever action 30-30 from his back and lay prone in the grass. He rubbed at his eyes, “Damn sun. It’s bright as liquor-piss out here.”
Bert and Kent removed their own guns and lay down quietly beside him.
“Won’t be long now. You’ll see.” Hugh said, squinting his eyes and scanning the field. “I’d bet my paycheck those bastards will be around soon.”
“I thought you didn’t have a job right now, Hugh.” Kent said, his eyebrows furrowed in confused innocence.
Hugh glanced at him, trying to decide whether or not he was being smart. “Shut your ass up, boy.” They lapsed into silence, their rifles cradled in their hands as they scanned the empty, sun-drenched field.
“You got the scrape made?” Bert asked.
“Hell, course I did.” Hugh answered. “Even put some brown sugar and molasses out for ‘em. Yeah, our dinner’ll be along directly.”
“You guys said you were going to show me how to make a mock scrape.” Kent said hopefully.
“I gotta attend to some business before we get comfortable. Why don’t you tell ‘em, Hugh?” Bert said, as he rose from the ground. He picked up his rifle, slung it across his shoulder and disappeared into the brush.
“You’re gonna scare ‘em off with all your pissin, smells like one hunnerd proof ammonia! Make sure you go out a ways!” Hugh shouted after him.
When they could no longer hear the sounds of his departure, Kent turned to Hugh. “You gotta tell him.” He whispered.
The bearded man’s head whipped around, his eyes wild, “I told you to keep your damn mouth shut about that. It ain’t none of your business, no way. You weren’t suppose to have seen nothin’.”
“I didn’t mean to see nothing. I wish’t I hadn’t, but my God, it’s his wife, Hugh.” The bearded man didn’t respond and Kent’s eyes narrowed with conviction, “Bert’s my friend, and if you don’t tell him I will.”
“Alright, alright, Junior. I’ll tell ‘em. But why not later? They’s some things you don’t tell a man who’s got a loaded gun in his hand. Especially one of the quiet ones like Bert. Ain’t no tellin what he’ll have a mind to do. That Model 70 can do more than kill deer, you know.”
Kent shook his head, “You’ve always got an excuse, Hugh. You tell him today. Now.”
Hugh sighed softly. “You’re sure then?”
The boy nodded. Hugh wiped a hand across his mouth. “Yeah. I thought ye was. Well, they ain’t no help for it. Some things got to get done whether a body wants to do ‘em or not, I reckon.”
“You’re right, Hugh. Besides, you’ll feel better after you do. I’m sure of it. It’s the Christian thing, and God’ll forgive you for it.”
“Yeah, I spose he will, but I don’t reckon my problem’ll be with the Almighty. Not just yet, anyhow.” He reached into his belt loop and pulled on a pair of gloves that hung there. “Gettin’ a little nippy out here.”
“Nippy?” Kent asked with a nervous laugh, ‘It’s seventy degrees.”
“Yeah, but it’s a cold seventy.” Hugh said distractedly, as he glanced around the brush. “Say, boy. You said you was wantin to see a mock scrape didn’t you?”
Kent nodded. “Bert said you guys would show me how to make one.”
“How the hell is it, you livin’ in Chattooga County, and you ain’t never been showed how to make a scrape?”
Kent shrugged, “My parents don’t like me hunting, you know that. They say it takes away from my schoolin.”
Hugh laughed, an ugly sneer on his face. “Well, come on then, Bunyan. Any self respectin’ deer hunter’s got to know how to do a good scrape. Just walk straight ahead a piece there and watch the ground. You’ll come up on it directly.”
“Ain’t you coming?”
“Course,” Hugh said, grinning and displaying crooked, yellow teeth. “I’ll be along shortly. You just go on ahead now.”
Kent smiled. “Alright then. Thanks Hugh.”
“Ain’t no problem.” Hugh watched the boy wind his way through the tall, waist high grass. Instead of rising, the bearded man reached across the ground and grabbed his gun. He worked the lever action once, feeding a shell into the chamber. He could just make out the boy’s thin form through the green cover. “That’s a damn deer if I ever seen one.” He mumbled to himself. He glanced around at the surrounding brush and listened. Hearing nothing, he took aim and went for the trigger. A blast reverberated through the air, followed shortly by a shriek of pain and fear that echoed through the small clearing. He cupped his stomach with both hands, watched wide-eyed as blood covered them, staining them a deep crimson. He jerked his eyes up at the sound of footsteps.
Bert walked through the grass toward him, re-holstering his rifle. He knelt beside the wounded man, his expression calm and unreadable. There was a thrashing in the grass and Kent appeared out of the grassy cover. “What happened!?” He exclaimed, his mouth hanging open as he stared at Hugh
Turning to Kent, Bert’s mirrored the terror in the younger man’s expression. “He’s been shot, Kent! I heard the noise when I was comin’ back.” He turned, surveying the surrounding woods, “Don’t shoot!” He looked at the boy again, “Must have been some damn hunter. I’m sure they’ll be along, but we don’t have time to wait. We gotta get him some help. I’ll see to him, you’re the faster of the two of us. You know the way back to town?”
The boy didn’t respond. His eyes were locked on the wound in Hugh’s gut, the bloody hands that clasped and clawed at it. “Kent!” Bert shouted. The boy’s innocent, wild eyes turned on him. “You have to get help now!” He said, gesturing wildly with his hands. Without another word, the boy turned and began sprinting through the tall grass, back to town.
Once the sounds of his departure could no longer be heard, Bert turned back to Hugh, his expression cold. He cocked his head and looked at Hugh, “Did you think I didn’t know?”
“You … son of a bitch. The sprout ain’t that damn … dumb. He’ll figure.” He paused to cough and a trickle of blood ran from his mouth into his thick, unkempt beard. “He’ll figure you out.”
Bert shrugged, unconcerned. “How far out do you think we are, Hugh? We been walking for several hours haven’t we?”
Hugh tried to speak, but all that came out was an unintelligible, croaking sound.
“I’ve heard tell that stomach wounds are a slow way to die. They say a man can last for hours ‘for he goes.”
Hugh tried to sit up but fell back down with a gasp. “We … was friends you son of a bitch.”
“Friends, Hugh? Well. I figure we can both say that’s done with.”
“That … bastard told.”
Bert’s eyebrows crinkled in confusion for a moment. “Oh, you mean Kent?” He shook his head. “No, Kent didn’t tell me. Don’t matter how I found out–fact is I did. Hell, I’ve known for a while. Wasn’t real sure what I was plannin’ on doing about it, truth be told. Figured maybe I’d just let ya have each other. A man loses things–the how don’t matter much, only that he does.” He paused for a second, watching the tall grass of the clearing blowing in the wind. When he turned back, his eyes were cold and dark, “You shouldn’t have tried to kill the boy, Hugh.”
The bearded man grunted, trying to speak, but a fresh wave of pain overcame him and he clenched his teeth against it. Bert bent over Hugh and started pulling off the bloody man’s orange vest. Hugh tried to fight back, but his struggles were as weak as those of a child. Bert stuck the vest in a pocket of his own jacket and grabbed the wounded man by his collar and began dragging him through the grass. Hugh cried out as pain lanced through his body and he began to feel cold. When the lurching, agonizing movement was done, Hugh saw that he lay beside his own mock scrape. The ground was churned up and he could smell the molasses. His wild, pained eyes met Bert’s, implacable and remorseless. “It was good enough for Kent, eh Hugh?”
“Bert … I was wrong. Please. Help me.” The bearded man gasped between shuddering breaths.
The other man’s expression remained impassive. “We’re past that, Hugh. I couldn’t if I wanted to.”
“Well then kill me and get it done with you bastard!” Hugh screamed, his bloody hands still cupping the hole in his stomach.
Bert shook his head slowly, his eyes roaming across the wind-swept field, the blades of grass sparkling in the sunlight like a thousand jewels, bright and perfect. “I’ll see ya, Hugh.” He adjusted the rifle strapped across his back and started toward the brush.
“Come back you bastard! You can’t just leave me here to die!”
The lone man didn’t turn to look back as he walked toward the brush, leaving the sunlight and his friend behind. Underneath the canopy of trees and hedges the path was dark and full of mystery, and he didn’t turn back.
Jacob Peppers holds B.A in English (magna cum laude), and is a staff writer for V3 magazine. His work has been accepted for publication in the literary journals Diagonal Proof and The Old Red Kimono.