For PART 1 of this story, click Meribah*
I work my way around the rim of the hollow, walking carefully through dry leaves. I leave the trail, choosing a more circuitous route that will allow me to go slowly as I make my descent. Although I am expected at my destination some 500 feet down and a half a mile below, I don’t want to come unannounced. No sir. That could be hazardous to my health.
The hollow that I am hiking into is steep on three sides. The fourth, a narrow canyon that leads away to the south, follows the creek and gradually widens out into a flat bottom that fans out into a broad green valley. I suppose if we were out West, rather than in North Alabama, you would call this hollow a “box canyon.” At least that’s what they were called on the old Westerns I watched when I was a kid. They seemed to be a part of the setting of every story, and the cowboy heroes of my youth were always making their last stand there. I can hear old Festus in his whiney drawl: “Matthew, I believe them boys is holed-up in that there box canyon. What we gonna do now?”
Anyone hiking into this hollow would likely take the path of least resistance, through the big yellow poplars and red oaks along the rocky creek, up through the narrow gorge that leads directly into this hidden place.
I don’t come in that way. There are trip wires there, hidden in the undergrowth. I know, because I help set them. You don’t get into this hollow unannounced.
No one in their right mind would enter the way I do, especially if they are seeking stealth. The crunching of the leaves under my boots, the openness of the forest under the big mountain oaks and shagbark hickories that cover the rim of this hollow — all of this makes me visible to anyone or anything near the creek below. That is why I choose this route — to be seen.
Even now, I’m quite sure that I’m being watched through a rifle scope. I take my time and keep my head up where my face can be seen. I’ve hunted deer since I was twelve. Raised-up with guns. I know what an exit hole from a 150 grain 30.06 rifle shot looks like, even at this distance. I’m not looking to get shot. Not today.
The going will be difficult for the next fifteen minutes. The first half of my descent down to the bottom is very steep, a sixty per cent slope that will put a man on his back in the blink of an eye, sliding through the dry hardwood leaves until he comes to rest against whatever granite outcrop or big mountain oak stands between him and the ledge below. It is the kind of ride we would have looked for as kids, using a flattened cardboard box to sled down hills like the kids up north got to do every winter in the snow.
I smile for a second at a memory — a cold December so many years ago. We were ten, maybe twelve, and it was the kind of winter day in Alabama when the sun is so bright and the sky is so blue that it almost hurts your eyes. It was his idea. He was always the one with the crazy ideas. Always the one looking for the next thrill, the next adrenalin rush. We stood at the top of a pine-strawed slope, seeing nothing but the edge of a neatly raked lawn below. We would slide down in tandem, giving no thought to what lay at the bottom of the ride, and certainly no thought as to how we would stop. But stop we did — about a third of the way into old lady Johnson’s prize rose garden. Laughing, scratched to pieces and bleeding, we high-tailed it out of there, hoping we hadn’t been seen, but it was too late. He got off with a few rose thorns embedded in his arms, torn jeans, and a big scratch on his forehead. My daddy whipped me when I got home, and I spent two Saturdays the next Spring working in that stupid rose garden, old lady Johnson alternating between lecturing me and bringing teacakes and lemonade.
It was the way we spent our childhood: me accepting his challenges. Me getting the punishment when things didn’t quite pan-out and a window was broken or a rose garden defiled. Him always walking away without consequence.
Times have changed. We aren’t kids anymore. Debts come due. There are always consequences, and although thirty years have gone by, I still have to wonder if things haven’t changed so much after all.
He is down there now.
Waiting for me.