By James Manley © 1988
Issue: January-February, 1988
Around three o'clock I decided the day was perfect for hunting. Unfortunately, as I loped out of the house with my .22 over my shoulder, Lucy Mae Wheeler cut me off at the back gate and tried to act surprised to see me. But I knew better. She'd been bird-dogging me for weeks at school, and now that school was out for the summer she was in my back pocket every time I turned around. For a fourteen-year-old girl, she didn't have a lick of sense.
"Hi," she said.
"Hi," I mumbled.
"Where you going?"
"Can I go too?"
"Well, Why not!" She squared her shoulders and stuck out her chin, somehow managing to look more gangly than usual in a thin brown dress that didn't quite reach her knees.
"'Cause you can't," I explained, and started off towards the dirt water tank about a half mile from my house. The tank was a great place for hunting with my single shot. Many times a jack rabbit or a cottontail would pop up along the way, and sometimes there'd be a stray duck or two sitting on the murky water once I got there. Usually I'd sneak up through some thicket, hoping for a shot at a fat mallard, or perhaps to catch a fox or coyote slinking around. After that, I'd sit and still-hunt awhile.
But I wasn't going to sneak up on anything with Lucy Mae trudging along behind me.
"You gotta go back," I said, stopping to glare at her.
"Listen, you don't have a gun, and you'd make too much noise. You'd scare things away."
"I will not!"
I gave her my no-nonsense, I-mean-it stare, but her big brown eyes were unwavering as she stared back. Her lower jaw was set, her bottom lip in full pout. She wasn't taking no for an answer.
"You're gonna be in the way, Lucy Mae."
"No I won't. I've been hunting before."
"Yeah, I'll bet you have." I glanced down at the flat strappy sandals on her bare feet and remembered that several paths to the water tank were lined with thorny shrubbery. I rubbed my chin and smiled. "Okay, you can go. But you gotta keep up."
She was surprised for a moment. Then her face brightened, probably because she thought she had won so easily. I turned around, grinning, and marched off with my rifle crooked under my arm.
About halfway there I glanced behind me. Lucy Mae was struggling along in slow motion. The skirt of her dress was coated in burrs. A few scratches were visible on her bare legs. She seemed awkward and helpless.
"Are you coming?" I goaded.
"Yes, I'm coming," she said, brushing at her dress.
A few yards farther on I spotted a jack rabbit sitting stiffly under a shrub. I stopped, very quietly flipped the safety off my rifle, took steady aim, and began my trigger squeeze.
"Oh, look, Benny!" Lucy Mae exclaimed, barreling against me, pushing and pulling on my arm. "It's a rabbit! See it...oh, never mind, it's gone."
I bit my tongue and put the safety back on the .22. The water tank wasn't far away, so I decided to circle it and approach from downwind. If I were quiet enough, perhaps I'd get my duck.
"I spun around, ready to explode. Lucy Mae was hopping along with her left foot in her hand. I supposed I grinned some more. "What's the matter with you?" I growled.
"Nothing," she said. "Nothing."
Naturally, there weren't any ducks on the water. There probably weren't any ducks in the country now, what with Lucy Mae whomping around like a wounded wildcat in an empty rain barrel.
I sat down on a big log and began waiting. Lucy Mae plopped down beside me and started picking stickers out of her feet. In about a minute she was practically on top of me.
"Do you have to sit so close, Lucy Mae?"
"You're just as close as me!" she huffed.
I gave her a hard stare and she moved a foot or so away and began sulking as she pulled more thorns out of her ankles. I sat silently watching for game, certain that none would show. Perhaps five minutes of peace and quiet had passed when Lucy Mae leaped straight up into the air, shrieking at the top of her lungs. I almost dropped my rifle.
"A snake, Benny! A snake!"
I jerked around, my eyes scanning the ground. Lucy Mae was in a flutter, dancing and prancing and pointing. Just as I saw something, she threw her arms around my neck and screamed again. Her breath was hot on my face and her arms clamped me like a vice.
Even as I was lining up my sights with the object on the ground, my brain sent me the message that I was getting ready to shoot a mildewed tree limb. Disgusted, I lowered the rifle and freed myself from Lucy Mae's grip.
"That's not a snake," I said.
She bent over and peered at the tree limb. "Well, it sure looked like one."
"What does it look like now?"
"Oh, you don't have to be so smart-alecky! You don't know everything!"
"I know that's not a snake," I said.
She looked at me with her big pouting eyes, but I ignored her and sat back down on the log, wondering what else could possibly go wrong today. In a moment or two she sat down beside me. The silence was awkward now, and I was considering going home. Then, without warning, Lucy Mae leaned over and kissed me hard on the cheek. My rifle fell out of my hands.
"What's the matter with you?" I squeaked.
"You're the bravest boy I've ever known," she said softly.
My face reddened, but my wits were still quick. "Huh?"
"When you were going to kill that snake."
"It wasn't a snake!"
"Well, it could have been."
"I told you, it wasn't -"
Her soft fingers touched my forearm and felt unexpectedly warm on my skin. "And you weren't afraid," she said. "You were very daring, and so courageous."
My mouth turned dry. My heart thumped against my ribs. Lucy Mae stood up and started to walk back the way we had came. I groped for my rifle, brushed it off a bit, and stumbled after her.
Most of the trip home I walked behind her, feeling strange, wondering about the sudden changes that had taken place inside me. While I was hobbling along like my feet were tied together, Lucy Mae's steps were light and sure-footed. Her head was high and her back was straight. She was graceful and elegant, not at all the numb-footed, knobby-kneed kid she had been an hour ago.
When we got to my house, I tried three times to open the stupid gate latch before Lucy Mae reached down and unhooked it, smiling sweetly. Then she turned and walked on down the hill towards her house. I stood there and gawked until she got across the road and went out of sight around the corner of the Mercantile.
For some reason it occurred to me that I might have misjudged Lucy Mae. After all, she was smart in school, especially in algebra and history and homemaking. She sewed her own dresses, and I could see they were fitting her better than they had last year.
But more than that, she understood me. She knew I was brave and courageous and protective, and that I would step in front of danger with no concern about myself. Perhaps after supper I'd put on a clean shirt and go see if she wanted to go sit on Mr. Babcock's front porch and listen to him play the harmonica. Maybe later we could talk some more about what I would have done it that tree limb really had been a snake.
Who knows? Maybe I could even teach Lucy Mae something about hunting.