A boy reminisces about his childhood best friend and their hunting trips in the cypress swamps, in Fred Miller's sad story.
"You gotta be the robber," he said.
"But I'm always the robber. I wanna be the good guy."
Younger than Billy by a year, I had to learn to fall and fake death... me a villain, my fate in life.
Once I prepared for a vicious Indian role, my face smeared with vivid paint from Dad's workshop. But Billy just laughed. And it's difficult to say what stung more, his jeers or the reformation measures applied to my bottom by my mom.
Pistols gave us creative opportunities, our hands balled into fists with one finger pointed and a thumb up. Thumbs would drop forward and we'd scream "pow" or "bang." And we'd conjure up makes and calibers that suited us, racing about like the cowboys and outlaws we'd seen the previous Saturday at the movies.
Weekends were filled with matinee extravaganzas: Westerns, Our Gang comedies, cartoons, and the latest Batman or Flash Gordon serial. And in the final scene of every episode, the hero'd be sailing off a cliff in his car or pushed into a freefall from a high rise. And a loud wail would erupt across the audience when the screen went dark, because we knew we'd have to return the following week to learn the fate of our imperiled idols.
But we loved intermissions best of all. We raced to the concessions en masse. Smaller than most, and with glasses that added little to the image I wished to project, I'd find myself nudged or shoved to the back of the line.
One memorable summer, my world collapsed when Billy announced he'd been promoted to the junior high across town. My darkest hour had arrived. I was crushed. Billy was the only friend I had. Oh, he'd regale me with tales of his adventures with his new chums and attempt to teach me the teen lingo, including "neato" and "cool" and "macho," but he'd frequently abandon me and disappear with his junior high buddies.
Yet sometimes we'd still hang out together in the back of the local drug store reading the latest comics. Mad was my favorite, and for this Billy called me precocious, a word he'd picked up in class. He knew I'd no idea of its meaning or how to look it up, because my spelling was abysmal.
Billy was hooked on detective stories, and when I'd try to get his attention, he'd point a finger, drop a thumb, and whisper "pow." And I'd quickly mirror the gesture. And this became a hallmark of our friendship, a shared common greeting for life.
The images he'd painted of junior high life paled against the onset of unexpected realities that swooped into my life: facial blemishes, feelings of inadequacy, hormones magically transformed into excited ping-pong balls. And the need for a boy to stuff his fists into his pockets to hide an unwanted boner just as the teacher would call him to the blackboard. We'd no idea of the changes taking place in young females nor did we care. Our lives centered on baseball and hunting.
It was the winter of '58 - or perhaps '59 - when Billy's parents gave him a .410 shotgun for Christmas, just the finest squirrel gun a boy could ever want. And I recall his excitement, and my spirit, rife with envy. A year would pass before I'd be given a gun and allowed to accompany Billy and his dad on weekend hunts.
Later, we'd be considered mature enough to hunt alone. And nothing thrilled us more than treks into the famous Great Panther Swamp. Just the name created chills because of tales we'd heard of ghosts of Confederate soldiers and runaway slaves hidden in the Spanish moss and dense morning mists, and bootleggers who were leery of intruders, and gators that'd latch onto the legs of unsuspecting boys.
But we loved the swamp with its mysteries and night calls of whip-o-wills and echoes of barn owls deep within the shadows of the forest. Yet one noise would unnerve us: the cry of the panther. Like the plaintive wail of a lost child, it comes out of nowhere, rises in pitch, then drifts into silence behind a cacophony of river crickets and frogs. On these occasions we'd huddle close to the campfire. And sometimes Billy'd try to sneak up behind me. But I wasn't scared.
Before daybreak we'd split up and wander about, each looking for a shaded nook under one of the oaks. There we'd sit and wait for the cry of the jays announcing daybreak, swamp mists arising from the bogs into branches where we'd hear the chatter of awakening squirrels.
Shy creatures with a keen sense of hearing, squirrels are wary of unusual noises below. But if they failed to detect our presence, they'd begin to move about, and our barrels would rise to the sound of soft barks in the still air above. "Boom." The echo would carry deep into the woods and a strange silence would settle over the swamp. Soon birds would resume their songs and other creatures would sense that danger had passed. And perhaps we'd have another opportunity to bag our prize.
By late morning squirrels would have fed themselves and settled down on branches to bask in the late morning sun. The hunt would be over. Billy and I'd find each other with whistles and calls and gather up our gear. Regardless of our successes, we'd be happy... we were hunters, we were men.
It happened late one cold January morning, as best I can recall. But to me it was just yesterday. The hunt had ended, and I'd called and whistled for Billy in every direction. I wondered if he'd drifted off in a nap or something had happened to him in that vast swamp. A chill crept down my neck.
"Pow!" came from behind me. Startled, I wheeled about, my gun at my shoulder, and yelled, "Bang!"
But there were two "bangs." My gun had fired.
I remember his body rising off the ground, hurling backward, the toes of his boots pointing down, his mouth agape, his eyes wide with wonder. Then clump... he was down, sprawled on the forest floor. I raced to his side and saw a dark circle emerge across his chest, his eyes fixed on something above.
I dropped to my knees calling his name, but there was no response. Chuffing, I turned away and ran down to the murky water nearby. Why, I cannot say, nor how long I stood there gazing at bubbles of swamp gases rising and popping across the surface. Finally the sun moved from behind a cloud and the reflection on the water brought me to my senses.
Scampering back to Billy's side, I saw his eyes blink. I've recited this moment over and over to myself and I'm sure of what happened. Absolutely sure. Now understanding my mission, I tore off in the direction of an old country store I knew to be a half mile away.
The hunters lolling on the porch of the store had a time understanding my babbling between sobs.
And with a team of men behind me, we trekked back into the swamp, but for some reason I couldn't find Billy. The looks of doubt I saw that day haunt me still. We spread out, there was a shout, and I hurried to where Billy lay. His eyes were open, but there was no blink.
The memory of this incident is keen: the hammer of my gun was not cocked. I'm sure of this. And I said so. Many times. I'm very sure.
I'm old now and sometimes I come here to enjoy the rusts and ambers and the musty smells that linger in my throat. The distortions of light that accompany a winter's day.
A tide of memories takes me back to those halcyon days of cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, Batman and Robin... days when I knew I'd be forced to play second fiddle to Billy. But, no more.
Leaves, sere and silent, drop in serpentine spires and settle into cozy beds below where I imagine expectant eyes looking up, a hand reaching out.
But reality fades with time, leaving little one can ponder with any certainty. No more, Billy, I muse. No more.