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He wasn’t a bad-looking man.  In his mid-fifties, The Landowner was the stereotypical aging Texas frat boy.  He had a full head of graying hair, a healthy-looking tan, and the two-day stubble favored by the rugged outdoorsmen he ran with.  The rear of his khaki shorts hung loosely over his nonexistent backside while a slight beer gut threatened to obscure the silver buckle on his expensive-looking leather belt.  A purple golf shirt, hiking boots, white country club logo visor and Ray-Ban aviators completed the ensemble.

“Okay, boys, here’s the plan,” he said, leaning jauntily against an all-terrain vehicle.  “I mark the limbs that need cuttin’ with this orange ribbon, and you guys follow along and whack ‘em off.”  He grinned, thin lips stretching across straight teeth.  Somehow, the smile failed to reach the rest of his face.

It was late September, just a month before opening day of deer season.  This ritual — getting the camp and the blinds ready, clearing the roads, setting electric feeders to scatter the corn just right — was as sacred as the hunt itself.

The Landowner, along with The Boys (who were armed with long-handled loppers) had observed this tradition since they were fourteen and The Patriarch had deemed them ready.  Throughout the autumns of their youth, they had learned to build a blind, to field dress a buck — to swear and drink “like a man.”

The Patriarch had drifted through the fog of dementia for the previous seven years, dying a month after his eighty-eighth birthday.  For four decades now, the group had remained intact.  Regrettably, it seemed the host had gone from privileged man-child to petty tyrant.

Climbing on the ATV, The Landowner accelerated and putt-putted away, roiling dusty swirls up into the still, hot air.  He stopped frequently to lean right or left, tying pre-cut lengths of bright orange nylon ribbon to the thorn-covered mesquite branches that hovered like bony witch’s claws above the crude dirt road. The three rolled their eyes and began ambling along behind, clipping the marked limbs as they encountered them.  Nobody bothered pointing out that it took longer to tie the ribbon than it would to cut the branch.  Each carried a sweating Miller Lite; they bent and set the cans on the ground while they pruned.

The ATV was out of sight when the white Chevy truck of a neighboring rancher surprised them.

“What’s up with the surveyor’s ribbon?” he asked, once greetings had been exchanged.  After they’d filled him in, he shook his head, gazing off into the distance.  “I don’t know what’s wrong with that boy,” he said.  “I stopped by for a visit last week – spotted his pickup at the camp.  Was driving up to camp – saw him grab a spray bottle an’ soak his shirt so it’d look like he’d been sweatin’.  Damndest thing I ever saw.”

The Boys nodded silently as the putt-putt of the ATV drew nearer; then the vehicle appeared.  The Landowner braked and climbed off.

“Hey, man!”  Smiling broadly, he strode toward the group, a welcoming hand outstretched. “How you been?”

The Boys turned quickly to conceal smirks that threatened to expose their disdain.  Cracking open fresh cans of beer, they continued along the dusty road, silently clipping the marked branches.  Deer season would open on the first day of November.  There was plenty left to do, and they wanted to be ready come opening day.

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