The pulse of the river came to the tent in the predawn on muffled, even steps, like an army tiptoeing. Paul had his woolly orange and aqua Miami Dolphins cap pulled down over his ears but he could still hear the river. He said if it wasn't for the brass knob that had grown in the valley of his shoulder blades he would as soon get the paddle right now and go take a few more slaps at it. Just for fun.
"It'll wait 10 minutes," I said, my eyes closed, listening for the consolatory twang of crickets. "Make a false move in the dark and Marshal's liable to shoot you."
"Do you think he sleeps with it on?" Paul said.
May 13, 1973
"No. But it's probably right there in the tent next to his trigger finger."
Marshal has a thing about falling out of the canoe. He is a born insurance man. He says if we were all swept over in a sudden reckoning he'd be the only one with anything left to face the wilderness. Shotguns, fishing rods, flashlights, compasses, our five-day supply of fruit and cookies—all over the side. Everything that's not strapped to us. Over and gone. In my mind, in the snug tourniquet of the tent with the sleep leaking out of me, Marshal's calamity is very clear, except that I am unable to resist a garnish. We are all wearing holsters, but as we capsize into the brawling water down some yet unseen (and unlikely) gorge we grab for our holsters and only Marshal has a gun. The rest of us are packing Mallomars.
"Maybe he's right," I said. "Maybe the Ochlockonee takes no prisoners."
"I don't think it's that tough," Paul said. "Just a lot of nice curves and some tricky places. And pretty. Per-retty."
"Are you talking about the river or your secretary?"
The sleeping bag swished beneath him as Paul altered his position to get at the tent flap. He was zipped up to the eaves of his bushy brown mustache. The heavy rains of the night had been shoved through by a broad front that plunged temperatures near freezing. A slight tug and the outside moved in on us. Sweet, woods-redolent, nostril-flaring cold.
"Ahhh. Wouldn't Onassis love to be in my shoes," Paul said, genuinely at ease. Which he is in most situations, a maddening quality of his. That and his consideration. He is a maddeningly considerate person. He has decided, for example, that although he is crazy about guns and subscribes to the rifle magazines and talks blue streaks about foot-pounds and muzzle velocities, he would leave the shooting to Marshal and me. This is because Frank, his canoe mate, is essentially a pacifist. If Frank can't kill it with a fishhook, he would as soon leave it alone. Frank does not buy hunting licenses.
We have come but a few miles south of the Georgia line, but 20 or more as the Ochlockonee flows—twisting, curling, giving ground, taking it back. At some Noachian time the river had to struggle to make it, and if it was contorted at birth, age did nothing to soften its figure. It is a reluctant conveyor, the Ochlockonee. I find it difficult to stay oriented, but what does it matter? West. North. East. We are polyps on the vine, riding with it. Hopefully, to the Gulf.
The paddling, sometimes hard but often effortless, is mainly for direction, to take the quick turns and to avoid the scaffolds of fallen trees protruding like antlers and the smaller spidery snags and zippers that suggest deeper, darker trouble beneath. The paddling is fatiguing, but no more than an overdose of pushups. I am aware of being six or eight years behind in my push-ups.
The memory moved me. Unzipping to the waist, I stretched my arms up, seeking relief. My hair was stiff and refrigerated, like a wig of bean sprouts. I thought how ingenious Paul was to be a Dolphin fan and be married to a girl who knits.
"I have only one regret when I do something like this," he said. "That I won't see all the Ochlockonees of the world before I die. It's the feeling I get when I walk into a library and realize I won't be able to read all the books."
"Next time check out an easy-method deer-slaying manual. Or "How to Harass a Largemouth Bass,' " I said. "We can't live through this on grits and store-bought meat. It's unpure. What will Al think?"
Al Burd is our guide, more or less. He comes and goes. He is a man of the river, to look up to, and for, at crucial times.
"If you don't get something today, there's a fellow in Crestview who has deer fenced in, corn fed twice a day," Paul said. "You can shoot one for $550. He lets you shoot right out of the jeep. How's that grab you?"
"Where'd you get that one?"
I can feel, more than see, Paul's grin lifting the mustache. He draws from what he calls his Personal Treasury of Nonessential Information. He is a professional records manager by occupation and a voracious 10 p.m. to one a.m. reader. I have a theory, privately held, that he once thought he was going blind—he wears powerful glasses—and in a controlled desperation memorized every issue of the National Geographic Magazine, 1956 to 1972.
"Al wouldn't exactly cut a bouquet if we shot a pet deer," I said.
Typical of dilettantes—typical, for that matter, of even the most experienced hunters—we have developed a need to please our guide. It is not necessary. Al Burd does not lay on us the contempt professional outdoorsmen usually have for clients. The fact is, he is not a professional; he is more our substitute pro, our taxi-squad guide, and that should be explained. So while you picture us getting fires going against the sight of our own breath, slapping our ears and beating our hands together, pumping up the propane stove to cook another pot of grits that will be enough to feed the Boy Scouts of America (I have difficulty mastering the formula; I add grits and they clot; I add water and they run like broth. Invariably the pot swells), and while Marshal agitates openly for a speedy return to the deer he knows is waiting to be killed in a place we have scouted, I will, sotto voce, fill you in on Al Burd. You never know when you might need him.
Al Burd, as best I can figure, is part Choctaw Indian. From Muskogee, Okla., he says. I think the Indian part would be his jaw, which has a resolute bricklike quality, as if it were fired rather than grown. Otherwise he is a broad, friendly, weathered, tea-colored, young middle-aged man who has led a life worth uncorking around a campfire and passing around, like a prized Cognac. His shrapnel scars jump in the shadows of the fire. He seems, in repose, to be illuminated by a deep-seated serenity.
A couple of beers and it comes to light that Al Burd fought with Merrill's Marauders in Burma and spent considerable time in prison camps and buried in rice paddies, sucking air through a reed while Japanese soldiers padded around overhead. After the war he helped in the occupation of "the finest hotel in Canton, China," a push of the call button from all the firewater, women and song a part-Indian could want. "I sent the bills up to the colonel's room," Al says. "He charged everything to 'charcoal.' "
Things would naturally tend to balance out after that, and Al wound up in Tallahassee where the touch-and-go life of television repair finally claimed him. But the remnant Choctaw blood still washing in his bilge surges up every now and then and he retires to the Ochlockonee, to establish camp, to hunt and to fish for weeks on end. That, at least, is my interpretation. He says he does it to get away from those grieving people who suffer problem picture tubes and vertical roll.
A couple of seasons ago, near midday, Al was squatting Indian-fashion on the downwind bank of the Ochlockonee, along a remote stretch where the mud at the edge is thick and white as boiled icing. He had a line out for speckled perch and was sipping a beer when he suddenly dropped the beer and leaped to his feet and went crashing into the river. In the noonday glare, at an oblique angle from his fishing spot, a deer with a small but lovely rack was emerging from the water. Like a ponderous, attacking goose, Al swooped down on it. The woods and water exploded with the sound of thrashing hoofs and antlers, of flailing arms and legs, of human cries of excitement, outrage and joy.
Al had the deer in a kind of indecisive half nelson and had his knife out, trying to make a proper incision. The deer fought gamely. At that point two of Al's hunting buddies appeared on shore. They were slower to react, being a few beers ahead, but they now had their rifles out and commenced a crossfire of intercession. Fortunately, their aim was faulty, and Al was able to wrestle through to a final, if bloody, victory. He says it was nothing, really. "The tough part was getting those bastards to stop shooting." That's Al Burd.
"Where is Al?" Paul said. We are down on the river washing up, loading up. The others are breaking camp. Marshal is looking at the sky, complaining that dawn is gaining on us.
"Off hunting cowboys," I said. "I dunno. Somewhere."
Today Marshal is confident there'll be deer. Marshal is, hands down, our most intrepid hunter. Thanks to his insurance-selling prowess, he is always jetting off to Timagami or someplace where I picture him leaping out of the plane and, simultaneously, into his hunting clothes and a jeep, bagging his moose by midday and then, in the airport telephone booth, changing back to coat and tie for the night flight home.
Marshal has picked a slough that parallels the river a quarter-mile upstream. We were having a last look in there before reaching the campsite the night before and found fresh tracks.
"I don't care if I ever dirty a gun barrel," Paul said. (See? Maddening.) "It's beautiful. Not another canoe on the river. I used to think this kind of thing was impossible anymore without beer cans all over hell. But you know what? I'm convinced now it won't happen. And you know why?"
"I give up."
"Because the more available these places become to people, the deeper people will be buried in their family rooms, growing pale by the light of their TVs. Lethargy. Think of it. Lethargy's the thing that'll kill pollution. So I now feel I can relax and enjoy."
It was Paul who had touted the Ochlockonee, though he had never seen it. He is an enthusiastic tout. "Ok-lock-nee. Apalachee Indian for yellow water," he announced one night on the patio of his home in Perrine, Fla. He was half-slumped in a vinyl lounge chair, his favorite position for dispensing N-E.I. It was summer then, and the warm doughy air and a third wine cooler had put sand in his itch to be someplace else.
"But it's not yellow at all, just wild," he said, plunging into his plan. "We gotta do it in a canoe, the way the Apalachees did it. And obviously, you gotta do it in the hunting season."
"You've been reading up," I said knowingly.
"Naturally. There are 15 or 16 canoe courses in Florida, most of them pretty primitive, but safe, and some of them, like the Withlacoochee, full of rapids and damn hairy. But the Ochlockonee's probably the best all-round. It's long enough. Starts way past Moultrie someplace, west of the Okefenokee Swamp, but no sense starting there because you'd have to portage a lot and you'd need too much time to make it to the Apalachicola National Forest, which is the prettiest part.
"I gotta tell you, though. It's not exactly a stroll down Collins Avenue. It's virtually wilderness. There's a point nearer the Gulf where there's activity now, but years ago it got the name Tate's Hell. A man named Tate went in there to hunt, into the pine thickets and the cypress swamp, and got lost. When he came out his clothes were in shreds, his eyes were wild. His hair had turned snow-white. He'd only been lost a couple of days, and he looked like that. And he was snakebit. A rattler. He staggered out and keeled over dead."
"You'd make a marvelous travel guide," I said. "Tell me about the cannibals. How about the smallpox and the malaria?"
"I have a friend, an archivist, who's been on it three or four times. He says the deer crossed right in front of his canoe. And teal, mallard, wild turkeys. Wild hogs. Bear. And a few rednecks."
"What's the limit on rednecks?" I said.
But he had me and he knew it. We got out his Hammond atlas and voyaged with our eyes the Ochlockonee's retreat from Georgia—a jagged blue ribbon squirming down and to the west of Tallahassee and then bleeding into the tidewaters of the Gulf of Mexico. Like all map rivers, it struck me as being inviolable and totally dependable, like a railroad track, its destination locked in. By contrast, when I contemplate the charts for a long boat trip on salt water and see the desolate expanses of potential error in navigation, I am filled with a sick sense of disaster.
After that night, one wheel geared into another and arrangements were soon made. Now, in mid-November, our party is intact: the four of us, each with only a vague intuitive notion of what we are up to, and two like-new canoes—a green fiber-glass Apache, 13 feet long, and a somewhat clumsier aluminum model. In advance of our coming, Al had run the river from the landing at Ed and Bernice's Fish Camp, just below the dam at Lake Talquin on the junction of State Highways 20 and 375, using a battered, flat-bottomed curio of an outboard, making sure the river was navigable the 100 or so miles to the Gulf. He has marked with red streamers, which stand out like knife wounds against the hanging Spanish moss, the places he thinks we might get lost. He has penciled the route on the outside of a Publix Super Market shopping bag that I keep; bold, crude strokes designate campsites.
Al left the bag-map with Ed and Bernice Lane, expecting never to lay eyes on us, for Ed was to guide us downriver. But Ed Lane was not able to make it. When we gathered at his camp, the sickness read on his face like an address—a small, haggard man with the taste for food gone from him. But Ed did not really know the Ochlockonee anyway, the way Al Burd did, and at camp that first night, when Ed came to us in the tiny outboard, he had grown crabby, as if wrung by his own doubts and infirmities.
"How many squirrels you want me to shoot?" he said. "I ain't cleaning 'em, so you better tell me how many you want."
"None," I said, letting go my irritation. "I don't want you to shoot anything. Squirrels, deer, elephants. I didn't come here to have you shoot for me."
I immediately wished I hadn't said it, because with Ed it was pain talking. It was therefore a relief all around that he gave up after the first day and turned us over, unofficially, on a part-time basis, to Al, to return to his fish camp and the business of getting well and, co-incidentally, to see to it that our equipment got downriver to the various points marked on Al's Publix map.
We had needed the time anyway, alone, at our leisure, to sort out our individual needs, to try our tackle, to feel the river under us and sort it out, too. Getting the kinks out of a skill none of us possessed to any degree was no great difficulty. Marshal knew which was the business end of the paddle, as did Frank, so they were logical heirs to the stern seats of the canoes. Marshal is a blond, vigorously friendly fellow who as a schoolboy swim star developed poise in groups and a winning smile I suspect has been enhanced over the years by chlorinated water. He enjoys command.
Frank, on the other hand, allows his gifts to creep up on you, like an old-maid aunt who flips a page in the photo album and shows herself to be an ex-Rockette. He confessed to having been in a canoe "a couple times," and from the first day handled it without a hitch. Whip-lean and graying, Frank is the perfect model of the retired bush-league shortstop (good glove, no stick), except that he is an artist and is, as artists go, noncholeric.
The darkness has begun to weaken as we scramble, hurly-burly, into Al's outboard for the return upriver to Marshal's deer run. Al had left us for the night and has not returned. "Probably sitting up with a sick horizontal output tube," Frank says. Paul's flashlight cuts the black sheet of the river ahead. Bare yards from shore the mist hits us like a fist, heaving back the light, and then swallows us, and we grope for direction.
We had taken the outboard because while a canoe is a breeze going downstream it is a scow when you have to dig against the strings of moving water. The overloaded outboard, however, was a worse problem. It waddled through the turns, scraping the snags we had easily avoided before; we were on them before the light could seize them, or we did not see them at all. The river crooked and looped, backward now, and the sky slowly grew color, giving swaying dimension to the rigging of the hickory and bald cypress.
"Gotta hurry. We'll be late getting in position," Marshal said.
"Don't give up yet," I said. "Did you bring the cookies?"
"Under your seat."
And then with a grind, an oddly dry scrape, we stopped. Hung up. Pinned like a note on a bulletin board to something we could not see. The stern of the little boat washed around in line with the current, the water creaming up on either side.
"Reverse," Paul said, unalarmed, because we were not teetering, only held. I gunned the engine, but there was no relief. We seemed to be on something pronged, at the center of the boat's balance, and it had us like a claw. Paul ran the flashlight around the bow, held and pushed at the higher shoots of a snag. Marshal, with a small paddle, shoved downward and away on something solid near midships. We rocked the little boat, gently at first, then with vigor, an exercise worthy of any suicide club. We slid and resettled in the grasp of the unseen thing.
"Geezus," Frank said.
"Call a tow truck," Marshal said.
Getting out and pushing crossed my mind, briefly. Without daylight there was no guessing the depth around us. The Ochlockonee's deeper runs average four to 10 feet, and here it was probably less, but Al said he had fished good catfish holes that were 20 or 25 feet deep. None of us wore a life jacket either, which, I remembered bleakly, was against a law or two. A double humiliation presented itself: 1) drowning haplessly, and 2) having a stark white summons sticking in among the funeral arrangements.
Then, as rudely as we had been caught, we were free. For no apparent reason. At least none of our making. The outboard bucked; then there was a slackness, then a backward sluicing, and we were again in control.
"We gotta hurry," Marshal said.
"Stay in the right-hand lane," Paul said.
We finally came to the last turn, and the iridescent streamer Marshal had hung from a laurel that wept down over the river was there, marking the entrance to the slough. The mist was lifting now; out of the waning purple to our right front there came suddenly a massive panic-stricken rush of wings. Thumping the air, 10, maybe 12 bluebills took oft" up-river, low and then rising like a golf shot, presenting their crinolines as perfect targets.
"My gosh," said Marshal.
"Somebody grab Marshal's gun hand," Paul said.
It was a sight oft repeated in the days ahead. Teal, mallard, wood duck, blue-bill. And it never failed to thrill us. But our timing was bad. Ducks were out of season.
We watched their silhouettes out of sight, which was not long in that light, and then plunged the snub bow of the outboard into the bank, threw the anchor-can of cement onto the shore and gathered up our weapons. Marshal had his .30-30 Marlin and, of course, his nickel-plated Colt .38; I had my Winchester 12-gauge, loaded with buckshot, and a pocketful of No. 4s. Paul had consented to bring his Iver Johnson 16-gauge, in case, he said, he was attacked, and Frank, as Paul's backup, had his fingernail clippers. We trudged into the slough behind the riverbush as silently as we could and, one by one, stopped at our stands, roughly 50 yards apart. I was at the end of the slough, where the brush opened onto the river; I settled down, back against a hickory tree.
The river was at my far right, ruffling with first light and grunting like an infant. I checked my perimeter of fire, straining to see against the solid tangle ahead of me. Listening. Waiting. Hearing only the river. And on the other side, far off, the throaty echo-chamber voice of a solitary hound.
The light condensed; in front of me the bush began to thin. The shadows leaped around. I saw deer, sometimes two or three, standing and watching; I saw raccoon, bobcats and bears, and alligators crawling out onto the limbs of oak trees. I saw nothing. In the mud around me I could now pick out the fresh spoor of deer that had passed through. The other tracks had been watered down. They all led to the river and then away toward what looked to be a long-abandoned logging trail.
I thought it that—a logging trail—because from his registry of obscure facts Paul had remembered that 150 years or so ago, in John Quincy Adams' administration, the Florida panhandle had been plundered by lumber exploiters who sickled through the oak forests. The Florida live oak was perfect for warships—tough, shaped almost to order. The hull of the U.S.S. Constitution was supposedly made of live oak. The cannonballs bounced off. But the lumbermen who ravaged the area did not waste time planting new trees. "Ships of iron, men of wood," Paul said.
The shrill, unmistakable call of Marshal imitating a bobwhite interrupted my reverie. On the first day, when we chose to hunt off the river and encountered the density of the underbrush, we worked out a three-part signal, of sorts. One bob-white for identification and position. Two bobwhites for game (something's coming). Three bobwhites for boredom (let's scram). The first time we tried it, I could envision bobwhites for acres around holding their little bellies with their wingtips and rolling on the ground in laughter. So far we had used only signals one and three. This, alas, was another three.
"I'm sure we'd get something if we stayed here," Marshal said as we reassembled at the boat.
"Yeah, but we've got a lot of river to cover. We'll stop farther down, wherever it looks good."
Back at the campsite Al was sitting on the riverbank ("Nothing, uh? Maybe one of you was wearing after-shave"), and we switched to the canoes. With the mist in tatters, and full color coming to the river, tinseling the black water and lessening its meanness, we again headed downriver. The carapaces of turtles the size of soup plates glistened on the snags, then fell in comic dives at our approach.
I got out my spinning gear and, in the other canoe, Frank his fly rod, and thus occupied, the canoes gradually separated, almost as if they had minds of their own. We would go minutes without seeing one another. Then hours. I fished while Marshal, not then inclined, looked longingly at the passing woods. We tried one bank and then the other, zigzagging or letting the canoe dictate, taking one turn close, then flattening out and scudding to the opposite bank.
I am not sure what quarter the moon was in, but it was not in mine. Except for a nudge or two, a couple of small bass and one fairly nice bream, I was not supplying the groceries. Neither, as it turned out, was Frank, though his collection was better. Paul caught a nice trout using a live worm and declared with a grin that he had mastered fishing on the Ochlockonee.
Just before lunch Marshal shot an oak tree. ("A tree?" Frank said later. "A tree?") One of my Chinese casts had arched into a small cluster of live oaks. My favorite lure, a red and white Rebel, was hung up good and I couldn't reach it, and the current was yanking us. Without a word, Marshal pulled his nickel-plated .38 and shot the branch off. Actually it was a pretty good shot, when you think about it. I retrieved the branch. A genuine oak-leaf cluster. I told him he could get it mounted.
We sat on shore eating lunch, shoulder blades against oak trees, me facing the water, Marshal inland, and rummaged through the secrets of life, the pitfalls of success and sex, trying priorities out on each other. It was deep stuff, and before we were done I had polished off half a box of chocolate pin-wheels.
"Better hide the rest of 'em," I said. "You never know when Paul's going to want a share. Let 'em eat tangerines."
For a while we foraged there for tracks, found some that were old and some new, but all ultimately ran out, or led too deep in the brush to chance.
And downstream, just about at that hour, Frank was guiding his canoe headlong into a watering deer, and, of course, we got the story from Frank later.
They had heard the deer's splashing, just beyond a hidden place where the river slewed and looped to one side, and Frank suddenly put his finger to his mouth. Paul hiked his paddle, and they glided silently, approaching. The splashing indicated a deer of considerable size. Paul held his breath and reached tentatively for the 16-gauge. But now the river was driving them into a snag that blocked the turn. No choice—they had to paddle. And when they dipped in, ever so gently, their arrival was announced. The supple emanations from the deer stopped and then suddenly turned to anarchy, as if the water had detonated. Frank dug in hard, completed the turn and got into position—to see the flag of a huge Virginia whitetail being swallowed up by the bushes on the river's east bank.
"Wow," Paul said. He had his hand on his gun, but it was still in the bottom of the canoe.
"A beauty," Frank said. "One-ninety, 200 pounds." He could not judge the rack because he had caught only a glimpse, but it was "formidable."
"Marshal," he said, "would have gone ape."
That night we were finishing Al's make-do bream dinner, tasty enough despite the paucity of the main course, when a red panel truck backed down a nearby sand road to the edge of our camping area. Two men in camouflage suits got out to pick up a skiff they had left on the water. We went over to the truck and there, the tips of its rack protruding outside the tailgate, was a still-warm buck, not large but large enough.
They were agreeable, country-talking men, with short hair and no sideburns. One said he had shot the deer less than an hour before. He was skinning a raccoon at the edge of his camp just as dusk closed in, "and the doggone thing walked right up on me." He had only No. 4 shot in his double-barrel—for the raccoons, he said—but at that range he could have knocked it over with a load of fried rice.
Marshal said there was no justice.
A dilemma is growing. Our plan had been to cover 20 miles a day in order to make the Gulf. But now, with greater resolve born of an enlarged frustration, we have intensified our hunting, which, in turn, slows us down. Paul and Frank leisurely fish and scout the banks; the river is opening up more, a lovely un-tethered flow, and though we are still being dragged by it, the speed is slackening and there are now, occasionally, fishermen on the river.
One afternoon we came to a place where the river's unseen hands ceased to tug us, or rather beckon us, in different directions. The river had forked four or more ways and we paddled around aimlessly in the middle of the confluence, trying to choose our route. Finally, we plunged into the most logical opening that soon broadened onto what amounted to a private lake with a homestead fenced to the water's edge. A second stab was even more fruitless: a quickly pinching stream where the river branches jumped out at us. With some difficulty we again turned back.
"What the hell do we do now?"
"I dunno. We could try any of them, or all of them—that one," Frank said, pointing to the largest opening, one which, Paul calculated, would take us north to Boston.
"Well?" Frank said.
He might as well have been addressing a group of mutes. We were at a loss to proceed. The canoes circled one another like confused, battle-weary boxers.
"Where's Al's bag-map?"
"Right there," Marshal said evenly.
For, sure enough, Al Burd materialized, he and his ugly, battered, beautiful outboard. He didn't get close enough for conversation, just waved and headed for the least likely spur, a narrow, shallow-looking place where the water broke crazily and the river was choked by its own refuse—broken trees, twisted branches. We stroked after him and plunged into the tunnel of foliage. The water's pace suddenly quickened, and then it was obvious what had happened.
An oak tree, heavy with branches, had fallen—or been blown down by some long-forgotten hurricane—and shut the gate on the river surface. But one end, the top of the tree nearest the far bank, had been axed away, allowing just enough room for a single-file procession of outboarders and canoeists. On the other side, clear, the river spread around us again.
Al grinned and took off again. To fish, he said. "Somebody's gotta get it done," he said.
The river was single-track once more, and hurrying, and it held us like the flanged wheels of a railroad car. And soon enough the canoes were again separated. Marshal and I picked a spot and landed on the bank. We scrambled out and up a sharp embankment and looked down into what had become, after the rain, a checkered swamp—one fairly alive with the evidence of game. Evidence you could easily see just by standing on the high ground: a smorgasbord of spoor—deer, hog, raccoon—and fresh ruttings, and in the trees above us, in keening hysteria, a colony of squirrels.
"Do you wanta sit and eat cookies, or do you wanta hunt?" Marshal said.
"Don't get yourself lost," I said, and scurried down the bank into the mud. We took opposite tacks. I slipped, stumbled, slipped again, using tree limbs like subway straps, and the mud sucked up and came over the tops of my desert boots, oozing in like marmalade. And in fewer than 20 yards I could not see Marshal or the river. We bobwhited our positions a couple of times, and though it was evident by the diminishing volume that we were getting out of range, I was more concerned with finding higher ground. Which, eventually, I did, and sat down on a log to scrape my shoes.
Then, two bobwhites. Two?
Marshal, all right. Any card-carrying bobwhite would have recognized that. But two? I gave him one back. There was no reply. Then there was one. A single emphatic blast from his .30-30.
I yelled, but he did not answer. I began to make my way toward the shot, not sure now which direction I was going, or where I was in relation to the river, stopping now and again to whistle. I was back in the mud, out of it, in it again. I stepped over stricken, decayed trees, watching carefully for snakes that might not realize how cold it was.
Marshal was standing in a small leaf-caked clearing, his happy face mottled by the sun shredding through the trees. He was near a heaving mound of bristly black hair streaked with mud. The snout of the hog was turned away and down, into the mud. I imagine if all pigs had a choice they would want to die that way—with a snoot full. Marshal went over and gingerly poked the body with his rifle tip. The flesh quivered and lay still.
"Dinner," I said.
"And lunch," Marshal said.
I looked for the blood hole.
"There, on the shoulder. A perfect shot," I said. "You done good."
Marshal grinned, his teeth together.
"It was me or them," he said.
"Gee, there musta been 15 or 20. There were so many tracks around here I didn't know which way to go, and I was leaning against that tree, half thinking I was lost, and looking up at the squirrels, when I suddenly had that creepy feeling, you know? Like I wasn't alone. And there they were, the whole damn herd standing there gazing at me. The first thing that crossed my mind was Al's story and I didn't know whether to climb the tree or what."
Al had told us at camp the first night that the wild hogs around the Ochlockonee were vicious, spiteful things. They had been known to bite through a man's leg.
The biggest hog, Marshal said, was at the far side of the group. "Musta been 300 pounds but if I shot him they were all liable to break this way. So I went for the biggest, closest one. Then I thought out the equation: six shots in my .30-30, 15 or 20 pigs. Six into 15 won't go. I wanted to whistle for help but we didn't have a bobwhite to cover it. So what the hell. Then after I shot they still didn't move, not right away. They took their own sweet time about it. I don't think they went far. Over there. Want one?"
I said yes, and in short order we came upon the stragglers, smaller ones. We stared back and forth, and it struck me that it would be redundant to kill a second pig. What would we do with it? They broke and ran, and we stopped, partly because the hour was late and also because we each had, at some point, thought we were lost.
We returned to the clearing and carried—half dragged, actually—Marshal's hog down to the river and, with many a dramatic sigh, sat down with it, waiting for Al, knowing he had heard the shot and would, eventually, come to us.
I looked at the dead boar. "What's this?" I put my finger through a hole in the beast's right ear. "Looks like it was done with a punch."
"It's.... You don't think it's somebody's private...? Hell, it can't be private stock. This land isn't posted."
"Where you gonna hide the body?"
"Aw, c'mon. This is wilderness, remember?"
"I think you've murdered Porky Pig."
Marshal showed his teeth.
Al came. Without a fuss, he slit through the hind legs, threaded a rope and hoisted the animal into a hickory tree to hang for bleeding.
"What'd you shoot it there for?" he said.
"What you mean? Right in the shoulder. A book shot."
"Wait'll you see what you did to some of those ribs. Next time shoot him in the head. Don't be squeamish."
I asked him about the hole in the ear.
"Have I killed somebody's pet?" Marshal said. "Is this an illegal kill?"
"Maybe," Al said. "When you shot it, did you have one foot or two on the rail of the pen?"
"C'mon, Al. Level."
"Did you notice any Hormel Co. signs over the barn door?" Al said. He raised an eyebrow at me. Already he had the pig half skinned.
"Don't worry about it," he said. "The evidence will be in our bellies tomorrow night. This'll be a helluva barbecue." His broad face split into a grin. "Besides, this'n was probably a man-eater. That hole was made by a bullet. Somebody who couldn't shoot as good as you. This pig's been living on borrowed time.
"Now get a knife and help me. It's your goddam hog."
Our last days on the Ochlockonee are uninterrupted by exceptional happenings. There is little fun left in the paddling. The river, as it nears the Gulf, spreads out like an aging milkmaid, and the turns, once hair-raising with crooks and curls, are longer and slower. Drawn from a place where it is free to run, the river is its own boss until it bucks the tidewater of the Gulf, and there it goes limp, and a canoeist has to labor.
By degrees, the river is losing its charm. The river colonies increase as we work down: more people, more hard-fished areas. I feel no kinship to these river dwellers; rather, I find to my surprise that I resent them. I consider them the intruders, with their neat little houses and tin roofs, and when I see one hauling in an exquisite black bass the envy is warm inside me.
Still, there are the mornings, alone with that vast churning mist, and of an evening after the pig kill when Al brings the meat to the camp, butchered and wrapped for barbecue. All our campsites have been good, but this one especially—up an incline to a rock ledge overlooking the river. Marshal's hog is supplemented by a raccoon and a few squirrels I had shot, and we celebrate with gin Ed Lane has sent us, and it is altogether delicious.
Nonetheless, Marshal's itch had grown again. That afternoon, paddling down, he had raised his .38 at the sight of a slate-colored, disoriented-looking bird that took off before us, its flight erratic.
"Want a coot?"
"A coot? What'll we do with a coot?"
"Makes a great pet," he said, giggling, and then holstered, unfired, his .38.
Shortly after that a single mallard surged up over us with that massive cardboard sound of wings, and Marshal sent a salutatory bullet out to accompany it upstream. More, I think, for the pleasure of squeezing off a round than with any intended harm.
The sounds of the gunshot blended abruptly into the whine of an outboard motor coming—on cue, it seemed—fast from downriver. One second it was hoving into view, the next it was on us, and in it two uniformed game wardens, one a younger man with flesh straining his shirt and spilling out over his belt, and the other an older, shorter, more leathery figure with an eye that wandered in his head like an amoeba under a laboratory glass.
"Doin' any huntin', boys?" the older man said, not unfriendly, but official-like.
"Yeah. Marshal here just tried to kill a duck with a .38," I said. (The bald truth would be too much to swallow.)
"If'n you shoot at any ducks, you better shoot poorly," said the warden. "Hit one now and the state'll relieve you of $100. Can I see your licenses, please?"
Marshal handed him his. I knew exactly where mine was—in a duffel bag I had left with Al Burd. I went through a fumbling, wallet-checking ritual, hoping for heavenly intercession. I gave the warden my best 10-most-wanted-list smile and tried to explain. The words were weak with conviction.
The older man looked at me with his good eye, unsmiling.
"S'all right," he said. "We heard about you fellas. Kinda been expectin' you. I'll check the license tonight at your camp."
"What about deer?" Marshal said, allowing me to regain my composure.
"Lot bein' shot," he said. "From here down, though, you don't stand a chance in that canoe. You'll have to get out and study a while."
"I thought so," Marshal said and gave me a hard look.
We tried it one more time, before dawn the last day, down an overgrown bush trail off the river. Again we waited for the woods—mostly pine, now—to thin with light, waited for the emerging color and, hopefully, the sounds of game. Still no deer. I whistled for an exit, but, as before, there was no reply. I made my way down the path to where Marshal and Frank were huddled contemplating a move.
"Marshal heard a bear," Frank said.
"I think it was a bear. It growled like a bear and it made sounds like a bear when it moved. Couldn't have been 20 yards from here. But it kept going."
"Probably to see Goldilocks. You kill one more Disney character and your kids will have your suitcase on the front steps," I said.
"No, I'm serious," Marshal said.
We were whispering.
"Why are we whispering?" I said.
"There's a turkey over there someplace. I was trying to tell you. Wanta shoot a turkey?"
Marshal led the way. I recalled that Al had said turkey hunters were a breed apart, stealthy and patient, finding droppings and sitting over a spot for hours at a time. Not us. We crashed ahead.
Marshal reached the place he figured the turkey had flown and turned to Frank.
"How do you call up a turkey?" he whispered.
"I dunno. I just work here."
"Don't ask me," I said. "At the Kwik Chek I just say, 'Gimme that turkey.' "
Marshal turned back and put his hand to the side of his mouth. In a powerful, beautifully modulated falsetto, he called out over the palmettos:
"Gobble gobble?" Frank said, awed. "Gobble gobble?"
I straightened up, trying to suppress a laugh. It came out through my nose.
Marshal began to giggle in spite of himself. And then we all laughed. And, I would think, somewhere under that dawn-washed palmetto scrub, the turkey laughed, too. And may be laughing to this day.
We put in, finally, at Ochlockonee River State Park. The last day is drudgery, a battle with negligible progress against the encroaching tidewater and the wind whistling up from the south; a south wind, but still biting cold. Now there is the open, brackish water of Ochlockonee Bay, and, past great sweeping horizons of lion-colored saw grass, the Gulf, and the warrens of docks and restaurants and fish houses that proclaim civilization.
A ranger met us at the landing of the park and Marshal threw him a rope.
"What you think you're doing?" the ranger said.
"Not with them guns you ain't. No guns in the park." ("Cold-eyed little bastard," Paul said later. "I wonder if he realized he was messing with Jon Voight?") We worked out a compromise. Marshal unbuckled his gun belt. All the guns were piled on the landing in a scrap heap.
Ed and Bernice Lane met us there. Ed's health had improved and so had his spirits. Bernice fried up a batch of hush puppies and some catfish Al provided, and we sat under the trees at a picnic table, near the river and the gun pile, to polish them off. The ranger pitched in. Between bites, he even smiled once or twice.
For a long while after finishing we just sat there, not quite knowing how to end it, or whether we wanted to, or how to change it if we had had the chance. Paul said he would have preferred to travel without deadlines, go as far as you want, put in where you want, fish and hunt when you want. He said he'd take freeze-dried food so there would be no compulsion to kill anything. (He had not fired his gun.)
Frank said he'd do it Al's way, with a base camp. He seemed to think Al had discovered the secret of life, that after a tempestuous youth—no telling how tempestuous—Al had found a becoming "peace." Maybe the river had done it, Frank said.
"I dunno, maybe peace has to come before you can enjoy this," Paul said. "The chicken or the egg. I dunno. People we live with ride expressways for an hour and a half a day and step over you when you're bleeding on the sidewalk. No river'll change 'em."
Al left us that afternoon, and while we were flying out of Tallahassee in various directions, he was plugging upriver in his battered little outboard. A few days later I called him in Tallahassee. He was up to his elbows in struggle with a 25-inch color set, but he let go to tell me a very touching story. He said on the way back, near Whitehead Lake Landing, he made a turn in the river and there, scrambling to make it up the far bank, was a fat, full-grown buck, its spikes as big as an antelope's, its wet coat shimmering in the sunlight. He said it was a snap. He shot it through the neck with his 12-gauge.
And when he skinned it, he said, the fat was an inch thick all around. Positively the best venison he'd ever eaten. And after that, he said, he ground the remains—together with what was left of Marshal's hog—into sausage. That, too, he said, was something else.
Listening long-distance as the story unfolded, I put the fingertips of my free hand to my eyes and held them shut.
"Say it isn't so, Al," I said.