My collection of stories, Views from an Empty Nest, includes twenty fiction and eleven nonfiction tales. Today I’ll offer you this “nougat” from my new “box of chocolates.” Happy Valentine’s!
By Madelyn F. Young
The old man shifted in the straight-backed chair, reached inside his collar, and ran calloused fingers across the back of his neck.
Dadgum tags! The things were itching him to death. He should have cut them out before he left.
The door to the office opened, and the mayor’s secretary smiled. “You may come in now, Mr. Whitaker.”
He rose, made his way past the woman, and entered the meeting room. The mayor, seated at the head of a long table, stood to welcome him.
“Come in, come in, Jeremiah. All these folks are eager to meet you. Gentlemen, this is Jeremiah Whitaker, the best hunting and fishing guide you’ll find anywhere in Arkansas.”
Jeremiah surveyed the group assembled around the table. Several wore glasses and looked like professors. He stood there waiting.
The mayor continued. “Come on over here and have a seat.” He motioned to an empty chair near the far end of the table. “Jeremiah here knows the Cache River Basin like the back of his hand. He’ll be a great asset to your team.”
Jeremiah pulled out the chair and settled down. He looked up and cleared his throat. “I reckon I’ve been on the river now for forty years or more. Seen lots of fellers try their hand at reapin’ the river’s rewards. Plenty of ducks, geese, fish, even an ol’ ’gator or two have been collected out there.”
“Well, this excursion will be a bit different, my friend.” The mayor gestured toward the others. “These fellows are here to spot a very special bird—the ivory-billed woodpecker. Everyone thought the bird was extinct—one hasn’t been seen in sixty years. But a few weeks ago a kayaker from Hot Springs reported on a canoe club web site he saw the bird while he was out in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge.”
The mayor paused, sipped water from a glass, and then continued. “At first this guy wasn’t real sure if he’d actually seen an ivory-billed. Thought it might have been just a large pileated woodpecker. They’re about the same—both have that red top-knot, only the ivory-billed has more white on the top of its wings. It’s larger, and it has that white beak, of course. But he was pretty excited about it.”
“Mr. Whitaker, we’re here to verify the sighting.” The man seated directly across from Jeremiah adjusted his glasses. “My name is James Simmons. My colleagues and I are from Cornell University Department of Ornithology. Before we announce to the world this rare bird is alive and well, we need to make sure. We’re putting together a research team, and we’d like you to guide us into the bird’s habitat. All of this is under wraps right now, though, so we won’t have a thousand birders swarming in here to catch a glimpse. You understand, you’ll be sworn to secrecy.”
Jeremiah’s sharp eyes squinted at the man. “Well, I reckon I can lead you anywhere you want to go, but I’ll need some pay for my time.”
“Of course.” The man nodded. “We understand that. The university is financing this expedition, and you’ll be well compensated. But we need your expertise to navigate through the refuge.”
“I ’preciate your kindness, Mr. Simmons. Me and my grandson, Will, live back down in the river bottom. We don’t get nothin’ but welfare and food stamps most of the year—at least, till duck huntin’ season opens. Then I get a little bit from the big city fellers who come in here. The boy goes to school, though, and he needs clothes and all. Your pay will help us out.”
“Then it looks like we’ve got a deal.” Mr. Simmons rose and extended his hand across the table.
Jeremiah stood and grasped it firmly. “Yessir, I’ll be glad to help. Just let me know when.”
“Great! We’ll get started in the morning. Let me introduce you to the rest of these gentlemen.”
Mr. Simmons recited the names and occupations of the others, and Jeremiah acknowledged each with a nod. This was going to be some kind of a trip, but for the right kind of money, he’d do whatever these Yankees wanted—even try to find some crazy ol’ woodpecker. Man! Some folks was weird.
Chuckling to himself, Jeremiah left the office, climbed into his truck, and headed toward home.
* * *
Down the gravel road the yellow school bus rumbled along and screeched to a halt. Clouds of dust billowed as Will swung down the front steps onto the ground and turned to wave as the driver proceeded on his way. He trotted across the bare yard, bounded onto the porch, threw open the door, and tossed his books on the kitchen table.
Grandpa’s pick-up wasn’t parked under the tree out front. He’d be back before supper, though. Will looked at the clock. Only four. There would still be a couple hours before the sun went down.
Will grabbed cookies from the package on the counter, picked up his rifle, and made his way down to the dock behind the house.
The Cache River offered great adventure for a ten-year-old boy. Paths of murky water undulated through miles of swampy underbrush where bald cypress, tupelo, and oak stood silhouetted against the horizon. Many kinds of water-fowl, birds, and other wildlife inhabited the river basin. The boy rowed his boat under overhanging branches, keeping a watchful eye for water moccasins and alligators.
It was peaceful out here on the river. The hum of insects droned around him. Occasionally, he would see a beaver slip off the bank into the water. Fish wriggled up to investigate the boat’s hull and then darted away.
In the distance Will could hear a steady drumming of something. Rap-rap. Rap-rap. Rap-rap. Rap-rap. His boat drifted toward the sound. Must be an ol’ pecker-wood. He lifted his hand to shield his eyes.
High in the tree the large black-and-white bird busily worked. The bright red crest on its head shone in the afternoon’s light. That sapsucker was huge! Two feet long, at least. The bird flipped pieces of bark left and right, left and right as it scooted around on all sides of the tree. Its ivory beak glistened as it hammered the dead trunk. In the boat below, Will didn’t move.
* * *
It was getting late by the time Jeremiah pulled his truck into the yard and turned off the ignition. He entered the kitchen. Books scattered on the table told him the boy had come and gone. Outside, he looked to see if the boat was at the dock. It wasn’t.
A gunshot rang out. Jeremiah shook his head. Every afternoon that boy could hardly wait to get out and shoot that new gun of his. Probably killed another snake or a turtle.
* * *
On the river Will laid his rifle down and took a deep breath. He’d done it. Then he turned the boat around and headed for home. Grandpa wouldn’t believe what he had killed today.
Thirty minutes later he maneuvered the boat next to the dock, threw the rope around the post, and pulled in close. He stepped out and scurried up the bank.
The back door slammed. “Grandpa, I’m home.”
“Figured you was out huntin’ again.” Grandpa smiled as he peeled taters at the sink. “Heard that gun of yours.”
“Yeah! When I was down about a mile from here, I spotted this huge bird—a big black-and-white woodpecker. He was really goin’ to town, tearin’ up a big ol’ hick’ry.”
“Whoa.” Grandpa spun around and glared at Will. “You didn’t shoot him, did you?”
Will shook his head. “Nah, Grandpa, I wouldn’t do that.” The boy ducked his head and grinned. “But while I was watchin’ him, this ol’ bobcat was watchin’ him too. I saw the cat ready to pounce, so I took aim, and I got him. Pow! Right in the neck. He fell off the limb, and that was the last I saw of him. I couldn’t believe I got him with one shot.”
Grandpa threw back his head and cackled. “Dang it, boy. You’re getting’ to be a real sharp-shooter.” He paused. “But no matter what those fellers said, I think I’d better tell you where I was today. Nature’s done given us a gift, and today you was on her side, but tomorrow might be a diff’rent story.”
“Don’t you worry none, though. You’re a good boy, Wilson Whitaker.” Grandpa pulled Will close and gave him a hug. “I’m proud of you, boy. Yessir, right proud.”
Smiling, Will wrapped his arms around the old man’s waist. He pressed his face into Grandpa’s new shirt. It smelled good—real good.