Green Hills Literary Lantern

Johnson’s Camp

 

They first heard the dog barking when Pete’s father let them off at the dirt lane that went down past Old Man Johnson’s farm. It wasn’t barking all that much. Just now and again.

But still. It was a dog. And it was Old Man Johnson’s dog. And to get to the river they had to pass right by his place.

“You ready?” said Pete.

Casey was just pulling the zipper up on his coat and watching the taillights of Pete’s father’s car disappear around the corner.

“Oh, sure, you bet, ready,” said Casey.

Pete already had his pack on. So Casey swung his pack up, got his arms through the straps and eased the weight down on his shoulders.

“It’s you and me, O’Brien,” said Pete, starting down the lane.

Casey followed, hunching his shoulders under the straps and putting his hands in his coat pockets to keep them out of the cold. At least they could sort of see where they were going because the sky was clear and full of stars.

And that was really lucky because if it had been cloudy and really dark, they would have had to use their flashlights and then Old Man Johnson might have looked out of his house and seen them—even if he was about 90 and deaf. For sure he would have sicced his dog on them.

As they got closer to the farm Casey could see a dim, yellow light coming from an upper window of Old Man Johnson’s house. He didn’t have electricity or anything like that, so probably the light came from a kerosene lantern.

The dog began to bark again.

Pete stopped and Casey stopped behind him.

After a while the dog stopped barking.

“Okay,” whispered Pete.

Casey kept as close to Pete as he could and concentrated on not stepping on any twigs or making any kind of other noise.

All the time they were passing the farm the dog didn’t bark.

After about two minutes they came to an old, broken-down wooden gate, and just beyond the gate the lane changed into a tractor path, which went between two cornfields towards some woods.

Even without using his flashlight, Casey could see that these weren’t real cornfields, not like his father’s fields or his two uncles’ fields where the yellow stocks of corn were a lot taller than he was. This corn hardly came up to his shoulders and looked pretty scraggly. His older brother had told him that the land down there near the river was shit land because it kept getting flooded all the time.

“Look at these suckers,” Pete said in his normal voice when they got to the woods.

He had turned on his flashlight and was shining it on two white signs, one of which was leaning halfway over and had bullet holes in it. Around the bullet holes it said, “No Trespassing,” and then in red, “This means you!”

The other sign said, “Violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

“Hey,” said Pete, swinging off his pack and bending over and picking up some stones.

Casey let his own pack slide off.

Pete threw and missed the sign.

“Damn!”

He kept throwing and maybe on the seventh or eighth stone got a hit.

“Your turn,” said Pete.

Casey picked up a stone and threw. It hit one of the signs making a clunking sound. The sign even pivoted around on its post.

“Hey, bingo!” said Pete.

Casey picked up another stone, threw, and again hit the sign.

“O’Brien, you know what?  You got a good arm there!”

The dog began to bark back at the Johnson Farm.

“Shhhh!” said Pete dropping the stone he had been getting ready to throw and raising a finger to his lips.

Casey stood there with Pete, but after a while the dog stopped barking.

“Ain’t nothing,” said Pete in his normal voice.

When Casey had shouldered his pack, it seemed heavier than before, although he knew, of course, that it wasn’t.

“Ready?” said Pete

“Sure, ready,” said Casey.

It was a lot, lot darker in the woods, and Pete switched on his flashlight and shone it in front of him. Probably that was okay now, thought Casey, because there was no way Old Man Johnson could see them here in the woods. And, anyway, he wouldn’t be looking.

“You gonna try out for the team next year?” said Pete. He meant the junior high baseball team.

“Oh, sure. I guess I will. Why not?”

“You ought to with an arm like that.”

“I’ll give her a try.”

“Maybe you’ll be a big time pitcher some day.”

“Like Bob Feller?”

“Yeah, like Bob Feller.”

“Or Warren Spahn?”

“Could happen.”

“What about you?”

“Me?  No, no. I’m a hitter. Big time. I’ll be another Ralph Kiner.”

“We’ll probably both end up playing for the Cubs.”

“You as a pitcher. Me as the clean up guy.”

“Could be,” said Casey.

“Could be,” said Pete.

Ahead of them it was already beginning to get lighter through the trees, and that meant they were almost at Johnson’s Camp. Pete turned off his flashlight.

“Camp’s right ahead,” said Pete.

“‘Course it is,” said Casey.

As they came out of the woods, the first thing they could see were the big logs around the fire pit, then the other improvements the hunters had added over the years, a metal grill, a place to hang meat, a rifle rack, even a shed with a couple of bunks in it. But the shed had pretty much fallen apart, and the roof had caved in. Beyond the camp the sand went out all the way out to the river.

“Well, O’Brien, we made it,” said Pete slipping his pack off onto one of the big logs.

“You bet, we made it.”

Casey also eased his pack off onto one of the logs.

“You can’t stop guys like us.”

“Never,” said Casey.

“Not Bob Feller and Ralph Kiner.”

“Not Ralph Kiner and Bob Feller.”

Casey opened his pack at the same time Pete did, and they both started pulling things out including their sleeping bags and groundcloths. They had thought about bringing a tent but decided against it because Pete’s father had said there was no way in hell it was going to rain tonight.

“O’Brien, you know what I got in here?”

Pete had his arm down inside his pack.

“No, what?”

“Look at these suckers!”

Pete lifted out two bottles of beer.

“Gift from my father, O’Brien.”

But from the way he said it Casey knew Pete wasn’t telling the truth. Of course, Casey’s father had beer down in their cellar, too, but Casey hadn’t thought of stealing any.

Pete popped the caps with an opener.

“You are drinking, aren’t you, O’Brien?”

“Oh, yeah,” said Casey. “Naturally.”

“One Miller’s,” said Pete handing Casey a bottle.

Casey took the bottle. Actually he’d only drunk about a quarter of a bottle once before in his whole life. That was last Thanksgiving when his father had poured some into a glass before the family made a toast.

Pete held up his bottle.

“To us, O’Brien.”

Casey also held up his bottle.

“To us.”

They pushed their bottles at each other, and the bottles made a clinking sound.

“Bottoms up,” said Pete.

Casey raised the bottle to his lips and took a swig. The beer tasted somehow funny, and he couldn’t remember if that’s the way it tasted last Thanksgiving or not.

“Yeah!” said Pete.

“Yeah!” said Casey.

Pete turned on his flashlight and started looking around the fire pit.

“Hey, you know what, O’Brien?  Those last suckers didn’t leave us any wood.”

“Yeah?” said Casey also turning on his flashlight and shining it around.

“Sonsovbitches!” said Pete.

Casey saw it was true. He even shone his flashlight behind the big logs.

Whoever was here last hadn’t left any wood. And that was a rule of the woods. Everybody knew it. When you used wood you replaced it before you left.

“How about that?” said Casey.

He took his second swig of beer and could feel it go down.

“Suckers,” said Pete.

“Well,” said Casey, “I’ll tell you what. We’ll just gather some ourselves.”

“Right. That’s just what we’ll do.”

“There’s plenty around.”

“More than we’ll ever need.”

“A lot more than we’ll ever need.”

Actually, gathering the wood was really easy. As soon as they got to the edge of the woods they found all kinds of stuff. Casey was just picking up some of the bigger sticks when he heard Pete call out, “Don’t take any of that rotten stuff.

“What’ya think?” Casey called back.

“See, that rotten stuff don’t burn good.”

“Think I don’t know?”

Casey had just brought his load back to the fire pit and was dumping it on the ground when he heard what sounded like a rifle shot in the woods. Only he knew it wasn’t a rifle shot. It was Pete breaking a small log in two.

Probably that wasn’t the best thing to do—breaking a log in two like that—because the dog back at Old Man Johnson’s place might hear that noise.

Casey listened out for the dog starting to bark, but he didn’t hear anything.

Well, probably the camp was far enough away from the farm, Casey decided. And hunters used it all the time, didn’t they?  No matter what those signs said 

“I guess that’s enough, O’Brien,” said Pete bringing in his load and piling it on top of what Casey had brought in.

“Yeah, I guess that’ll do her,” said Casey.

“Make a great fire.”

“A super fire.”

Pete went over to his pack and pulled out some newspapers.

“You know me, O’Brien. I think of everything.”

Casey watched Pete wad up the newspapers and place them in the center of the fire pit. Then they both started laying small sticks teepee-like over the wads and then larger sticks and then a couple of small logs.

“That should do her,” said Casey.

“Should, O’Brien, should.”

Casey watched Pete strike a match and reach the burning match through the sticks and light one of the wads of newspapers. The flame ate at the first wad, then the second one; then the flame jumped up into the smaller sticks.

Casey picked up his bottle of beer from where he’d left it, sat on the ground, and leaned back against one of the big logs. Pete also got his beer and slid down not far from Casey and also leaned back against the log.

“Yeah,” said Pete.

“Yeah,” said Casey

Casey took a swig from his bottle and watched the flames climb higher and begin to lap at the undersides of the bigger sticks. Little popping explosions began and each time they went off a cluster of red sparks floated into the air.

“You know, this is the life,” said Casey.

“You bet, O’Brien.”

Casey took another swallow of beer.

“We should do this more often,” he said. “You know. Maybe once a month.”

“Or every weekend?”

“We could just live out here all summer.”

“Hey!”

“Yeah,” said Casey.

He didn’t really mean that—the idea of living out here all summer. It was just something that came to him, and so he said it.

He took another swallow of beer.

“You know, O’Brien, you know what I think?  What I think is that you and I ought to go out west.”

“Yeah?” said Casey.

“Hire on as cowboys.”

“Cowboys?”

“Sure.”

“There aren’t any cowboys anymore.”

“Sure there are.”

“That’s just movies.”

“What’re you talking about? There’s cows out west, right? There’s lots and lots of cows. And who do you think takes care of those cows? Cowboys, that’s who.” 

“Really?” said Casey.

“Sure.”

“Sure they would. Guys like us?  Come on!”

This was a completely new idea to Casey. That there were still cowboys out west. Of course, he had seen lots of cowboys in the movies, six-gun battles at the “OK” Coral and all that, but he hadn’t thought there were any cowboys still around. Or that he and Pete might actually go out west and get hired on. Ride horses. Wear chaps. Throw a rope. Bulldog a calf. Well, that was really something to think about.

“Bombs away,” said Pete giving his bottle a throw backwards.

Casey heard the clunk as it hit the ground.

“And there’s more where that came from, O’Brien,” said Pete pushing himself up and going over to his pack, reaching in and pulling out another bottle.

Casey held his own bottle up to the fire and saw he’d only drunk down about a third of it.

What the hell, he thought, and tipped the bottle up again.

He was just getting in a good couple of swigs when the barking started again. Only not way back at the Johnson Farm. Closer than that. Maybe in the woods behind them.

Then a snapping sound.

Suddenly Pete was there kneeling beside Casey at the log looking toward the woods and holding a finger up to his lips.

Casey turned around so he could also look over the log. But he couldn’t see anything in the woods. Just blackness.

But the barking kept going on.

“I think,” Casey whispered to Pete as quietly as he could, “I think maybe we should put out the fire.”

Pete just kept looking toward the woods.

Casey whispered again, “I think it’s probably a good idea if we put out the fire.”

It was as if Pete hadn’t heard him.

So Casey tried again. “I think . . . .”

But he stopped because the barking stopped.

He waited for it to start again, and when it didn’t, whispered, “Maybe we should . . .”

“Hell, ain’t nothing,” said Pete in his normal talking voice, sliding back down against the log, holding his bottle up and taking a swallow. “Ain’t goddamn nothing at all.

Suddenly Casey had to “go.”  Just like that. Sometimes that happened to him. One minute he didn’t have to, the next minute he did.

“Gonna take a leak,” whispered Casey, pointing toward the river.

Pete looked at Casey.

“Won’t be long,” Casey whispered.

Casey started out across the sand. Halfway to the river he discovered the bottle of beer in one of his hands. It occurred to him that he must have been holding onto it the whole time.

He stopped and looked at it.

Oh, what the hell, he thought.

He tipped the bottle up and took a good swallow.

And looked out ahead of him. He was pretty sure he could see the river and beyond the river the darkness of the bank on the far side.

And guess what?  He didn’t have to go. Not at all.

Well, sometimes that happened to him, too. He would think he had to go, but when he got there, he didn’t.

He took a swig of beer and this thought came to him:  The river comes from up there and goes down there.

More:  The water flows by and I am here.

That was very true, thought Casey.

Very, very true.

He turned around and when he looked back he could see the red sparks rising from the fire and to each side of the fire the pale color of the sand running to the edge of the woods. Of course, he couldn’t see into the woods, and he couldn’t see the other side of the woods. But he knew that beyond those no-trespassing signs the tractor lane led through a broken-down gate and then past Old Man Johnson’s farm all the way to the hardtop road where Pete’s father had let them off.

Maybe, Casey thought, maybe, you never knew, you just never really knew about these things, but maybe it hadn’t been anything. Nothing at all. Not a goddamn thing.

He lifted the bottle of beer to his lips, but when he tried to take a swig all he got was a dribble.

 How about that? he thought.

Just how about that?

“Bombs away,” he shouted, giving the bottle a toss. He heard the clunk as it landed somewhere out there.

 

 

 

Karl Harshbarger is an American writer (living in Germany) with stories in over 80 publications, including The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, The Antioch Review, The New England Review, and Prairie Schooner. Two of his stories have been selected for the list of “Distinguished Stories” in Best American Short Stories, and twelve of his stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He was a finalist for a collection of short stories in the Iowa Publication Awards for Short Fiction, the George Garrett Fiction Prize for Best Book of Short Stories or Short Novel, and the Mary McCarthy Prize for Short Fiction.