Novels

Finding Billy Rudd (part 6)

July 7, 2016

sand

Mortality

 

Like most of my nights, the dreaded dreams assaulted my consciousness, driving, almost painful, helpless against the shit that filled my head; I never dreamt about anything good since the war. When I was a young boy my dreams varied from crazy to sometimes scary. Most children have nightmares; but as an adult, mine had brutal substance and conflicting messages. Those feelings ripped at me, inside, like the morphine withdrawal I still felt. For this night, I relived the terror of my older brother being killed, Jonathan Jacob Rudd. He was my brother, my friend gone from this earth, leaving me with memories I could not deal with.

It had been an accident of course but like all accidents we sometimes feel responsible in someway. I did. There had been very little sibling rivalry between my brother and I; we were more like pals than brothers with secrets and mischief bonding us. It was because of his strange sense of humor, his willingness to do what no one expected, that my life became permanently damaged. Jon was the craziest person I knew, crazy in a good way; I wanted to be exactly like him. I could never be. He was, in one word, an “original” thinker, his imagination exceeding of anyone I knew. Jonathan was my idol, my mentor.

The day of his death was no different than any other. We ran off to the nearby woods and played as we always had, pushing our endurance, racing each other when the mood struck. Both of us loved the outdoors, choosing the cold outside over the comfort of a warm house, getting dirty and never caring. Springtime, there wasn’t any snow on the ground but still a little damp, enough to slip on or slide on our butts when running ceased to be any fun. Jonathan ran up Ben Franklin Ridge facing the woods, the ridge a shallow cliff face, which looked onto the small creek and pond below it. It was pretty rocky and sparsely covered with trees and shrubs, nature allowing selective things to grow. There was an old dead oak at the very top with a branch leaning over the cliff face. Impulsively, Jonathan shimmied up the tree and began to cautiously scoot out onto the overhanging branch. His face was alight with excitement as he yelled down to me.

“Hey, Billy watch me act like a monkey at the zoo. Maybe I’ll be a gorilla,” he laughed, finding new joy in this game.

He gripped the branch with one hand and swung under it hooting and laughing, making monkey noises the whole time. I waited at the bottom of the cliff, where I cheered encouragement, laughing at his clever antics, swinging and scratching. Jon was so physically coordinated and agile; I could never compare myself to him. Howling and barking, he locked his legs around the branch, dangling upside down, clapping his hands like a circus seal barking down at me. Without a sound of distress or panic one of Jonathan’s legs slipped and he fell thirty feet to the bottom, inches away from where I stood. I couldn’t say a word, my eyes as big as saucers.

He opened his eyes for a brief moment, wincing and then smiling. “Pretty funny, huh?” he said, before lapsing into unconsciousness.

A dark pool of blood grew at my feet, spreading over the rocky floor. I was frozen, unable to move for what seemed like an hour. I shook Jonathan, trying to get him to wake up. I checked his pulse, something I learned as a scout; I felt nothing. I ran home and got my mother. She immediately turned to the old black phone in the hallway and picked it up.

“Judy, get off of the line,” she demanded to the woman on the party line. “Jonathan’s been hurt I need to call an ambulance. Now!”

I was amazed at the composure and control my mother displayed while calling. We ran back to where Jonathan was, the sounds of the woods the only thing we heard. Mother said nothing; she just cried and held Jonathan’s lifeless body, blood smeared on her clothes and face.

My brother was the first dead person I had ever seen. He really didn’t look dead to me, more like asleep. But there was something different about him, something missing I couldn’t describe, like looking at a picture of a person and not really seeing them. It was, after all, only a picture.

Jonathan was buried two days later. Half of the town was present, sharing the grief of my parents. Jonathan was well liked by many and the boy most likely to succeed, according to the school paper. I cried but struggled imagining my brother was actually dead. I saw the body and I could remember the blood, so quick and unreal. For years afterwards I punished myself for not acting quicker. I should have let out immediately for home, perhaps tried to stop the bleeding; I don’t know what. I shared that with my father, who told me it would not have mattered. My mother started drinking after that and life changed in our home. The real nightmare was not Jonathan’s death but the changes that took place after the fact. My family dissolved into a limited functioning collective, providing the minimum of everything. The life and joy had been sucked out of their souls leaving a shell, where human beings used to be.

My mother died several years after due to alcohol related illness, my dad a year before that. There were tears when he passed but nothing like the devastation that robbed my mother of her will to live. Looking into her casket, she was so skinny and sick; I couldn’t really accept her body as my mother. Her dreams had died with my brother and we never spoke of them again, each day of survival a chore she didn’t relish. That was a terrible thing to me to witness. The house sold and the money went to pay off all the accumulated bills. I lived with Aunt Shirley, experiencing fleeting moments of joy interspersed with long days of sad memories.

 

 

Angels and Indians

 

I woke up in the gorge, sleeping fitfully and reliving the dream of Jonathan’s accident. This was The Jonathan Dream, one of several that haunted me to the present day. I began giving the dreams names; it seemed only right to give each one its own title, not that I shared those names with the living. The living would not understand; they couldn’t imagine what I had lived through. And now, I had to live through this, alone, afraid and in pain.

It was still dark; I could see a faint rim of light coming from the eastern edge of the gorge, though it would be an hour or more before the light seeped into the dampness and rock. My body was cold and stiff trying to decide if another half-hour would bring relief. The morning dew was rolling off my tarp, dripping onto the ground close to my boots, which were now scarred and scuffed from the hike. The brown army boots reminded me of the many times we all complained about their fit but also complained when we couldn’t get new ones. A week before I got shot they issued me two new pairs. Supplies managed to catch up to us every so often. The supply people didn’t want to drag all these boots further and decided it better to give everyone two pairs instead of the mandated single pair.

Brown was such a stupid color to maintain. In basic training, failure to do this would earn you an extra detail or guard duty. I guarded a stack of old railroad ties for four hours, rats and snakes the only trespassers, hardly worth the effort. Even if someone wanted to steal them, there was no way to take them out of there. All the vehicles allowed on post were military, no civilian vehicles allowed anywhere without authorization. So, I was guarding a useless stack of railroad ties because of a dull boot or tiny spot on my brass. The army insisted it was educating the men about proper discipline.

 

The gorge stood, unrelenting, hard and merciless, my contemplation about brown boots and the army making me doze off a few times. It was the glare of the sun that brought me back to the world as it was. I pushed the tarp off of my head, stretching out my entire body, feeling the warmth of the sun on my skin. I twisted to the left and right, hoping to unknot my lower back when I saw the cabin less than two hundred yards from where I spent the night.

“Damn! You gave up too soon, Billy,” I scolded myself out loud, laughing. “Now that I’m here, we’ll see what Raymond had in store for me.”

Ray had imparted a few details about the cabin, emphasizing ‘rustic’ as the operative word. That didn’t scare me; I’ve lived in rustic conditions on camping trips and fishing trips, not to mention living in a muddy hole while in the army. How big a deal could it be? A few steps later I stood at the very front of the simple one room cabin, that resembled a pile of old lumber hastily nailed together by drunken hobos. From the outside I could see the back wall of the place was part of the mountain. This was a common way of building cabins in remote places; natural landscape made perfect sense. There was a front door and a side door with a stone chimney toward the back and another stovepipe type chimney in the middle. Ray told me not to bother with the fireplace since it never gave off much heat and ate wood faster than termites. He claimed the small Franklin stove did a better job of heating plus you could cook on top of it.

I pulled off my pack and moved toward the front door. Without warning, the door flew inward without me touching it. I leaped back not knowing what to expect, when a man with long braids, a green plaid shirt and black pants emerged.

“You scared the shit out of me,” I declared. “Who the hell are you?”

The dark skinned man looked at me and didn’t quite form a smile, yet his eyes were alive with many unspoken words, some I assume involved a clever retort.

“Saw you settle down late last night; figured you liked sleeping outside and didn’t want to bother you,” he answered without betraying any emotion. “I can understand that, sleep outside myself, sometimes. Walls make me feel all cooped up.”

Still feeling stunned by the sudden appearance of this man I said nothing.

“Was cold last night, though,” he added. “Thought I’d sleep in the cabin, stay warm, getting soft in my old age I guess. As far as my name, I don’t think you could say it; so you can call me Lee. Ya know, like the General Robert E. Lee guy. But my name ain’t Robert, just Lee. Some tourist thought I was Chinese when I told him my name. Fools don’t know the difference between a Chinaman and an Indian. I sure as hell ain’t no Chinese.”

“Uh yeah, okay Lee,” I finally replied. “What are you here for? Just stopping by for tea or what?”

“Naw, just chasin’ out a few critters and seein’ ya got enough wood and stuff,” he returned. “My cousin’s been here a week ago to clean the place; don’t take long for stuff to get messed up with critters living everywhere, inside and out. I’ll be leavin’ as soon as I eat some something. Then you can have this place all to yourself.”

It was hard to figure Lee out. On one hand, I felt like there was a joke somewhere in what he said but I didn’t get it. That might be because my body hurt and I hadn’t slept very well wedged between the boulders.

“If ya need any help when I’m gone, just make a big fire with lots of wet wood,” he continued. “Wet wood makes a lot of white smoke. I’ll figure something is up and head on over; it might take me a couple a days or so, dependin’. Don’t always see the smoke if the weather gets bad. You can think of the white smoke as bein’ like angels in the sky. They might save your ass.”

“Smoke signals? Angels?” I asked.

“Yeah, sorta; though I doubt you’d know anything about that. Just fire-up the wet wood and I’ll know. I don’t really know why you white folks think all angels are white. But that don’t matter. Just make the smoke.”

“How do you know its me?”

“Ain’t nobody fool enough to live anywhere near here, only you.”

“Oh.”

His last words did not sound encouraging. Staying in a place avoided by others made me wonder why. Lee walked down to the water’s edge, I assumed to wash up. Instead I watched him step into the edge of the river and stand with his feet apart, bent over, staring at the water. In a couple of minutes he scooped into the water and tossed a fish onto the shore. He followed that process again, extracting another fish from the water. He stood up and looked at me.

“Fish are runnin’ good today. You want any fish for breakfast?” he called. “I can get you a couple more.”

“Uh, no I’ll fish later, maybe,” I answered. This had to be some kind of trick but I wouldn’t allow myself to get sucked in.

“Okay,” he replied, sloshing out of the ice-cold water, picking up the two nice sized trout. “Got plenty, though.”

I watched him build a small fire outside and skewer the fish on a stick over the flames. It smelled good but I wouldn’t reduce myself to being the butt of his joke. I just walked in the cabin and began my assessment. It was exactly as it had appeared outside, one room, a bed in the corner, a small stove in the center of the room and a side door, which led to a storehouse and a huge stack of firewood. There were two glass windows in the front and heavy wood shutters, no light penetrating the cabin except for the open door. The fireplace was storage for pots, pans and some metal dishes. The flue had been plugged up long ago from what Ray said.

I walked to the side door wandering out to the storehouse. The heavy door was difficult to move but with effort it swung open. Inside the storeroom were cases of canned goods, boxes marked with, ‘Mandy’s Boston Baked Beans Fancy Style.’ There were a couple cases with Spam and a few with green beans. A collection of cans with missing labels, all of various sizes, sat on a makeshift shelf, the secret contents to be discovered. There was also a locker for hanging meat, pretty cold but it wasn’t any warmer outside at that time. This food locker was barren; no one had lived here for several years; not surprising. Later I found out Lee was not responsible for filling the meat locker, though I suppose he might be able to, if he hunted as well as he fished.

The cabin appeared adequate for my needs, no more rustic than I expected. I was going to have to spend some time hunting and fishing if I expected to have anything fresh to eat, which was Ray’s plan from the beginning. He assured me there was plenty of game plus a bounty of fresh herbs and edible plants, the gather of such taking my mind off of the heroin. He even gave me a book on how to identify the edible species with hints on survival in a small journal inside my pack. I promised to wait until I arrived before reading it, not that I had the time or temperament to read anything. As for reading there were two plank bookshelves tucked against the wall next to the fireplace, a couple dozen books or so, my interest in reading anything but a consideration.

I stepped up to the shelves and inspected the titles. The books weren’t in great shape, mice and other creatures having eaten away at some of the bindings. The first on the shelf was Last of the Mohicans, thick and written in a style of language that was hard to understand. Next to it was Mary Queen of Scots, Ulysses, Moby Dick, Old Man and the Sea, Greek Fables, King James version of the Holy Bible, Candide, A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court, Pride and Prejudice, a set of plays by Shakespeare and a well worn copy of Tom Sawyer. I didn’t bother to examine the contents of the second shelf. The titles were much the same, a modest library. I wasn’t much of a reader but supposed it might help pass time.

The remainder of the cabin’s contents was for practical purposes, one chair, a saw mounted on the wall and various tools neatly supported by wooden pegs near the side door. Both front and side doors opened inward taking up a lot of the interior space when opened. I thought it was stupid having the door open inward but would eventually find out why. The room was so small one could hardly afford to lose an inch of floor-space. The floor was made of thick timbers squared and laid flat against each other. The surface had been hand smoothed with an awl and rubbing stone, a primitive method but effective. One didn’t dare drop anything small on the floor; the cracks between the timbers could swallow up anything the size of a rifle bullet.

Once in France I remembered the reverse condition of a large foxhole; I spent the good part of a week in it, hating every second. The other guys and myself had scrounged some boards from a partially destroyed barn, wedging them close overhead to prevent snow and dirt fragments from filling the hole. The spaces between the boards were similar to the floor on the cabin. The makeshift roof had dirt mixed with snow sifting down creating a straight line on the floor. It would have been magical if it hadn’t melted and created more mud. That was the winter when the 101st Airborne got themselves surrounded and trapped. There was a lot of talk about getting those guys out but it was impossible without a major offensive on our part. Most of it was talk and no action. We had it tough but they had it tougher.

It made me kind of nervous at times. I wondered if all these generals and colonels knew what the hell they were doing. It sure didn’t seem that way to me. Though they boasted of their D-Day invasion, I couldn’t bring myself to understand success with the thousands of men killed on that one day. High-ranking officers referred to battle losses as “percentage, acceptable” or “well within expectations.” I wondered when they would ever say, “We screwed up.” I watched a captain break into tears when instructed to take his men over some open farmland. He had lost half of his men the day before in a similar exercise and was falling apart at the thought of a repeat performance; tears were not allowed. The dead men were dead and the living had a job to do. No romance or glory of war cheered any of us, who had been inches away from comrades, who had been dismembered before our eyes.

 

I flushed these memories from my mind, opting to go outside and see what the Indian, Lee had to say. Smoke signal was all he had offered and I imagined there had to be more.

“Hey mister,” he said wiping his face with the back of his shirtsleeve. “These here are big trout. I don’t think I’m hungry enough to eat the second one. I’d hate to waste it. Don’t keep well in the sun. Besides they don’t taste good less they’re fresh.”

I could see that Lee had no intention of toying with me and squatted down on a boulder besides him, while I accepted the sizable trout. Lee had done very little to prepare the fish except for a sprinkle of salt; it tasted fantastic. He was right about the fish being fresh. I spied a slightly amused look on his face as I ate like a starving man.

“Hey Lee, are you some kind of Indian, Sioux or what?” I asked munching away on the delectable trout.

“You gotta study them history books some more,” he returned unaffected by my ignorance. “Ain’t no Sioux here, ‘cept the ones that mighta snuck in over the years. There are all kinds of tribes in the area. Ute, Kiowa, Arapaho, Jicailla, Cheyenne, Shoshoni and a couple others used to hunt and war in these parts. There was even supposed to be some Apache in the area, once. Doubt old Geronimo ever made it this far though. His people were pretty far from here.”

He paused to lick his fingers then continued.

“I’m mostly Ute,” he continued. “Not sure about what my other ancestors might be. My people been moved all over this area, reservations, some of them. Government keeps saying we got too much land and takes away what they give us. Makes it tough to figger out where our roots are.”

Lee began to dismantle his fire, dousing it with a tin of water. He spread it out some you would hardly notice he’d been there, a trait many of his kind practiced. He looked up at me and commented, in an off-hand manner.

“I hear that you’re crazy,” he said, no malicious edge in his voice. “My people believe people like you are touched by the Great One, ya know, God.”

“I was touched by something, pal,” I returned, not be rude. “It wasn’t God. The war and a lot of bad things got to me, maybe. I’m not sure what normal is anymore.”

“Yeah, I know what ya mean,” answered Lee his face turned upward as if his life was written in the sky. “I was in that war too, fighting the Japs instead of them Germans. Didn’t much care for it. Don’t know why I ain’t crazy like you. I just come back and started where I stopped, movin’ where I’m told. Great Spirit decided I was gonna stay alive so I thanked him.”

“It didn’t bother you when you came back?” I questioned, seeking a get-well, quick solution.

“Yeah, it bothered me at first. Spent a lot of time in a bottle, drunk until I didn’t have no name, I could remember, poisoned my mind. Weren’t no answers in there,” he mused, sadness passing over his face. “I coulda been as dead, like if some Jap had blowed my head off. Never happen, though; booze was killin’ me slow like, instead. My woman wouldn’t let me kill myself with the crazy drink; made me spend a lot of time with the elders, sweats, prayin’ and talkin’. Kinda straightened me out some. But it ain’t no magic bullet, pal; still a lotta work keepin’ my head back to the land.”

“At least you have a wife,” I added, a small vein of resentment in my heart.

“Nope! She kicked my ass out,” replied Lee. “But I deserved it. Someday she’ll take me back or maybe not; don’t know. But I mostly got my head straight now.”

He pointed to the hills and the river as he continued.

“This is where the real world is; ain’t the war or a bottle here. I spose, that’s why Ray made you come here. Oh, yeah, almost forgot.”

He reached into his pack extracting a small clay pot with a lid clamped down.

“This here will keep your ass bein’ eaten alive by the skeeters. When it gets warmer they come out in droves, eat the hide off a buffalo; we ain’t got none of those here, buffalo, that is.”

I took the jar unfastening the wire that held the lid in place. Pushing my nose into the concoction I winced at the pungent smell of it. Lee hadn’t seen me make the face but I knew how repulsed I was to it. He stood up, picked up the frayed old army pack and swung it to his shoulders. He didn’t say any more about the war or his craziness. His salvation and wisdom had been hard earned. He just shifted the pack and muttered a few of words.

“Remember, the white smoke and that angel.”

Lee walked upstream a few paces, disappearing after a few minutes melting into the landscape as if he’d never been here. I figured I’d leave the salve in the jar outside in the shed and take my changes with the mosquitoes; I was wrong.

 

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