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Imagine three grown men off on their first adventure together. They packed everything they needed except "common sense". A boat, water and wind, too much booze and something to smoke.....what could go wrong?
This is one of my favorite short stories. It didn't happen this way, but it could've.
The story was originally shared on the Scribbler a few years ago. It has been published in my second collection of short stories titled SHORTS Vol.2.
This is Part 1.
Pioneers in a Hurry
It feels lonely where I’m standing even though more than a hundred people are about me, divided and aligned by wooden pews. The church is cavernous absorbing the low buzz of sympathy and disbelief that whispers from the crowd of mourners. I can’t take my eyes from the decorative urn that holds only ashes. The burnished wood gleams; the hockey player etched upon the front reminds me of Robbie, the man that was my friend. The tiny tomb blurs in my vision, memories burst in my head like someone threw a deck of them in the air and you try desperately to see them all. I search for the one that sparkles, of the time him and me and our brother-in-law became boys again, pretending we were pioneers of a sort. It was a defining moment in our lives.
We were all crowding fifty. Robert was the oldest, we called him Robbie and he knew everything, man was a walking newspaper. He was average height, average build but there was nothing average about the confidence his blue eyes expressed. He and I were friends before but by the time the weekend was over we became great friends. Our mutual buddy Nicholas, a slender and kindly man, was also our brother-in-law as we all married sisters; he centered the veneer of our friendship. He was the youngest, certainly one of the smartest. He usually always has the best pot east of Vancouver. He’s the type of guy you always want to hang with, the ones that keep you laughing. We called him Nick. My name is Randolph. I prefer Randy.
We were loading the boat at the marina; it was about 7:30 am on a Saturday, the first week of November. The sun was hidden behind low eastern clouds. The rest of the sky was empty, topaz blue. We joked about our good fortune with the sun about to burst out on our first camping trip together; we had vowed to go rain or shine. I was walking back from parking my truck listening to Nick tell Robby about the time he and I had went winter camping. Every time Nick told it the weather was much worse and quite a bit colder. The three of us were soon in the boat, Robby and I sharing the middle seat of an eighteen foot dory. Facing the stern of the boat we could watch Nick as he guided us out of the bay towards the nearest shore of the long slender Island about a kilometer away, our adventure destination. Sailing under an aging wooden bridge, Nick steered it through the rippling waters following the starboard shore. Giving the throttle a slight turn lifting us and the bow, he reached into his jacket pocket, withdrawing two similar packets of twisted aluminum foil the size of a twelve year olds fist. He gestured for us to each take one. He shouted out over the engine noise.
“It’s not too early to get high.”
Robby and I eyeballed each other, grins splitting our faces. We didn’t need to be detectives to know what was wrapped in the silver skin. He had rolled each of us twelve joints. Robby, upon opening the flap exposing the twisted ends, look at him with a grin.
“Shit man, we’re only gone two days.”
Nick looked at him quite serious, his face scrunched in concern.
“You don’t think it’s enough?”
Robby and I burst out laughing at the man’s generous naiveté. He soon joined in not too sure what we were laughing at but true to the stoner’s creed, it was probably funny. I opened up enough thin slivers of foil to remove a fat doobie. It looked like a shrub. To understand what happened next, a person would need to know that all three of us smoked tobacco, Nick only smokes tobacco in his joints, Robby and I smoke cigarettes, therefore when Nick rolled ours, he didn’t put any tobacco in. The pot was very young, sticky, and potent but the damn stuff wouldn’t burn. Robby and I had to light the uncooperative missile over and over. After three or four attempts made worse by the breeze off the moving boat, we were cursing and frustrated. Giving up we looked up at Nick who was smoking away, his joint half filled with tobacco, burning like a good cigar. We glared at the red tip as it jutted from the corner of his mouth almost falling out as he tried not to laugh. His both hands were busy with the engine and the rudder. He was flipping switches as the boat began to sputter and lose power. Suddenly it quit.
He addressed the engine in anger calling it un-pretty names. Robby of course knew what was wrong telling Nick what he should do. I watched the two, I didn’t know anything about engines; they were as foreign and mysterious to me as Islam. Being Acadians they were speaking French, it’s their mother tongue; I had no idea what they were saying. It was the language they grew up with, I’m too dumb to learn and they always talk English when I’m around. Soon the engine hiccupped and revved up. The boat took off suddenly giving Robby no warning. He was half out of his seat almost losing his balance. I grabbed him by the jacket before he crashed into Nick, yanking him back. He was about to give Nick a blast to be careful when our driver cut the boat a sharp left heading across the open water towards the island rocketing him back into his seat next to me.
Right then the wind from the Northumberland Strait livened making the water choppy and churlish. The prow of the boat sliced and split the bulging waves making the tips mist in the stiff breeze spraying Robby and I as regular as a lawn sprinkler. Nick yelled out over the groaning of the engine.
“I can’t slow down, the wind is picking up; we need to get to the island as soon as we can.”
This was said with much gravity but the eyes were laughing at us. Still, we were inexperienced seaman so whatever our pilot told us made us grip our seats a bit tighter. Ten minutes later we idled to the shore on the leeward side of the island, Robby soaked on his left, shirt, pants, face and hair; me the same condition but on my right, he and I both slightly tiffed that the trip was getting off to such a cheerful beginning. The boat soon scratched on to a hidden sandbar coming quickly to a stop in about a foot of water, the beach forty feet away. Robby looked at me and we both looked down at our feet at the same time. He wiggled the toes of his sneakers.
I didn’t say anything, I was wearing hiking boots; they might keep out a little water. We then looked at Nick’s rubber boots, both sorry we’d made fun of him earlier. Nick stared back at us with red veined eyeballs and started to laugh, uproariously. Robby turned to me.
“Bugger thinks it’s funny, he’s not wet.”
Only half of Robby’s hair was damp, plastered to his skull, his skin was pale and I couldn’t help it, I started heehawing too. The sun joined us just then, its crescent exposed by the departing clouds. Robby broke into a handsome grin, began to chuckle.
“What does it matter, right guys?”
We all agreed we were there to have fun. Robby and I unstrung our foot gear, balled our socks into their throats before tying them to our backpacks as Nick stowed the engine and chucked out the anchor. We arrived at the base of a twenty foot cliff made up of roots, huge sandstone rocks, fallen and broken sod. We eventually found a route not far away where water runoff had created a shallow path that would bring us to the top of the escarpment we landed at. It took two trips for the stuff we had brought, tent, cooler, sleeping bags, packs and our cache of “booze”. We were very gentle carrying that. We joked about Nick’s sailing skills or lack thereof, with him reminding us that it was his boat and we should treat him with more respect or it would be an even wetter day for us tomorrow if we had to swim home.
By noon we had secured a fine site just above the same cliff where we came ashore. Our tent was pitched under the branches of three robust spruce trees whose trunks spoke of old age. We had cleared the dead limbs from their base; they would be the first of our firewood. We could see the water but were too high and too far back from the lip of the drop-off to see our boat. The ground was peppered with red and yellow fallen leaves. We lined a pit with stray stones for the fire we would make later. It was in a natural indent about five feet from a fallen tree on which we had cleared the withered limbs creating a wooden sofa for three.
I can still see the tall skinny maple trees that edged our chosen spot creating a porous canopy with their naked limbs shattering the sunshine into dozens of friendly yellowish beams. The crows were noisy and making a fuss as if we’d disturbed their peaceful habitat, the gulls were complaining too. I remember watching Robby stop from digging through his pack standing up with his nose raised slightly in the air; he closed his eyes to take a deep breath and I mimicked him. Sap from thick spruces and decaying plant smell seasoned with the salt of the water was not unpleasant. I remember his tight lipped smile and how happy he seemed to be.
Nick was digging in his bag looking for the lunch he had packed, Robby brought the salmon and I the veggies for later. We each brought our own breakfast for tomorrow.
All morning we talked about each other’s families; our kid’s accomplishments and woes; about our neighbours, critical as ever and our wives with the latest trouble we were in or had just been in or that was coming with me buying my uncle’s half ton without telling my wife. Nick had set up a makeshift table with my now empty pack and a cheap plastic tray he had carted along. He was positioning three thick roast beef sandwiches on paper plates.
“It was so cheap and I’ve wanted a truck for some time, so why would she be upset?” I said.
Robby usually had an answer for most inquiries but this one thumped them both, they knew she would still be provoked. We all agreed that women were puzzling.
“I don’t know, you gotta love them anyway, I mean we’re not perfect either.” Nick said.
Robby who was cutting up the dead limbs into fire size chunks didn’t agree.
“Speak for yourself, my friend. I think I’m a very good husband!”
Nick raised his eyebrows at that statement.
“Your woman’s so cool she’d make any man look good.”
To be continued.......please come back on Wednesday, November 23rd, to read the rest.
Wednesday November 23, 2016
Pioneers in a Hurry - Part 2.
We all agreed and sat to stuff our faces, munchies be damned. We opened our first beers; looking back, I wonder if we should’ve waited a few more hours. It probably wouldn’t have mattered; after lunch we re-rolled the bombs Nick brought, did several and that pretty well set the pace for the afternoon. We decided to circumnavigate the northern portion of the island figuring that if the hike was not too strenuous on “us old guys”, we’d do the southern portion as well if we had time because we all knew we were going to dawdle over something, none of us had been there before. We rigged up the smallest of the three packs as our portable bar, six beers and a pint of Southern Comfort, chucked in some granola bars and gorp, a bottle of water and the first aid kit, we didn’t have room for common sense so we left most of it behind.
The beach below our site was coarse sand, packed and keen for hiking. Our camp was not far from a sawgrass covered isthmus in the center of the elongated island. It narrowed to about fifty feet from beach to beach and maybe a thousand feet long. Deciding to cross over we would begin our trek on the opposite side wanting to see the minor cliffs and an abandoned foundation from a house once located here, eventually towed across the ice to its present location in the community Nick grew up in, Cocagne, New Brunswick. Nick became the leader of our foray steering us through the swaying fronds as tall as us, of brownish grass that was dead but not fallen.
We came out on a wider beach shaped like the edge of a bowl; the sand was coarse also but much paler, almost white. Mollusk shells of every kind cluttered the shore, thousands of pieces having yielded to the rough tides and crushing ice of the bay. It was a mosaic of broken white and oddly colored debris. Nick stopped halfway across, stared at the beach for a few moments before turning to us.
“You wouldn’t have to be stoned to appreciate this.”
Robby patted him on the back and made reference to one of our oldest jokes.
“How would you know? The only time you’re not stoned is when you’re sleeping.”
“That’s not true and I wish you guys would stop that nonsense.”
I was tossing beach rocks into the oncoming waves as I listened to them, the sun on my back. I smiled at their banter; I’d heard the same insults many times before. The last rock I threw was flat and almost round about the size of a coffee cup lid. It nicked five tops of the foot high crests; a personal best. I headed up the beach towards the windward side of the island.
“You two sound like an old married couple, let’s go.”
I briefly took the lead. Twenty minutes of poking at the sandstone cliffs, examining odd or fresh shells, kicking at some driftwood brought us to a clearing on our left. The edges were not high and we scrambled up to discover a rough stone cavity about a hundred feet in. It might’ve been twelve feet square and seven feet deep, filled with wild grass, a rusted broken wood stove, a mysterious old tire still on its rim, rotting pieces of wood and dozens of stories. We decided it was time for our first break and sat beside each other with our feet over one edge. Robby had been carrying the pack setting it down beside me before he joined us. I leaned back, removed three beers before doling them out. About to reclose the zipper I was halted by Nick.
“Wait Randy; give us a little slug of the SC before you close that up.”
I had a slight shiver as I thought of the raw liquor but I grinned at the beer in my other hand thinking ‘chaser’.
“Why not?” I asked.
We all knew the answer to that question but we indulged nonetheless. After a two slug, one beer, one re-rolls intermission we were off again. We had two more breaks before we finally flopped down on the nearest empty space around our campsite three hours later. Robby’s sneakers, socks and the hem of his jeans were clumps of brown mud and he couldn’t have cared less. Nick only wore one boot, his other foot was bare except for a ring of dried mud around the ankle, a piece of seaweed was strung between the second and third toes and he thought it was funny. My boots and socks were all wet from when I washed off the mud we waded through and it was starting to feel good.
Robby had his nylon jacket tied around his waist and his long sleeved t-shirt was full of burdocks and he didn’t mind. The knee was torn out of Nick’s new work pants exposing the scrapped and bloodied skin of his knee cap and he thought it was hilarious. My shirt was torn on the elbow and the shoulder and arm ached like crazy. All of us had mud smeared on our faces from when we had been set upon by a squadron of wasps, Robby just above the eye, Nick on the ear and me on my neck. It would probably be hurting us but by then we were too drunk to feel anything. The empty Southern Comfort bottle was sitting on the arm of a lopsided Inuksuk we had built on the beach. We were soon dozing off exactly where we had come to rest.
I woke up an hour or so later, around 6:30 in the evening greeted by the smell of smoke. Twenty feet in front of me, Robby stood poking at some hot coals of a small fire he had made. I figured him to be still drunk as he wobbled staring at the flames. My movement caught his eye and he spoke up.
“Where’s those veggies you brought, let’s get them on the fire, I’m famished and wake up Davy Crockett there will ya?”
Earlier we had ventured off the shore once and along the edge of the woods until Nick led us into the wasps, then we had to jump ten feet to the beach with Robby tripping and falling amongst a host of thistles before he jumped, Nick landing on his knees, one of them on a rock, I landing on my side scraping my elbow and shoulder. We had to run through a spring fed mire before they stopped pursuing us. The mud sucked one boot right off of Nick, Robbie and I up to our ankles in slurpy slimy sludge. The insects caught up with us there and it hurt! After that we started calling him Davy Crocket.
At least he got us back to the camp site. My mouth was dry as the bark on the trees. I searched my bag for my water bottle and drank almost half. I nudged our friend on the leg telling him to rise. His mouth was hanging open and with a snort he shot up yelling to watch out for the bees. As he shook his head to clear it Robby spoke up.
“They were wasps, they’re worse than bees; the buggers can sting you more than once.”
Nick stretched, groaned a little as he sat up shifting closer to our sitting log using it to prop himself up as he watches the embers. He pulls a well-used baggy from his jacket pocket and removes another joint, lighting it up. I was digging three foiled packages from my pack that were wrapped tightly with a freezer pack. They were each the size of a tin pie plate and contained sliced potatoes, garlic, green onions, butter, fresh oregano and cheese. I separated the three and place them in the center of the hot embers while Robby placed three smaller but similar wrapped packets along the periphery of the fire bed as the salmon would cook quicker than the vegetables.
“That’s going to be good. I’m so hungry I could eat the ass off a porcupine,” said Nick.
We all started to laugh trying to imagine such an encounter.
“While that’s cooking I’ll go get my other boot.”
He chucked the roach into the coals between the cooking packets and it flared as the heat consumed it. He grabbed another beer before passing us each one whether we wanted one or not and we watched him limp away. Robby and I sat on the log chatting as he flipped the packages over to keep them cooking evenly. We could hear the butter sizzling inside the foil. Aromatic steam was escaping from the tiny holes we poked in the foil. A half hour later we were devouring the tasty morsels as if we hadn’t eaten for a week, while drinking the two bottles of Chardonnay we brought with us. After our meal we staggered about the site cleaning up our mess, stashing our garbage away before settling in for a night of friendship.
The sun was setting in front of us, the sky blazing along the horizon. The light faded and night slowly filtered in as Robby kept feeding the fire. He reeled about the stockpile of dried wood we had gathered earlier, almost falling into the fire a couple of times as he whacked the bigger pieces in to smaller bits. Needless to say we were quite inebriated, stoned and blessed with a warmer than usual November evening. Through the rest of the night we told jokes especially about the absurd notion of us becoming pioneers in a world already discovered, offered each other useless advice, confirmed our appreciation for each other, recapped our afternoon exclaiming how much fun we had even with the bugs, laughed until our stomachs hurt, complained of life’s quirks and toasted our wives twenty times. I marvelled at the two men knowing then that I would want them as comrades for the rest of my life. They told me the next day that I passed out first, Nick and Robby dragging me into the tent, Nick stayed up for another hour until he crawled into his sleeping bag boots and all, while Robby tended the fire until 1am before he finally yielded to tiredness.
The last of my memory was disturbed by the rustling of the crowd in the church. I had missed the mass and eulogies I was so wrapped up in my recollection. Nick and I are pall bearers so we have to accompany the tiny box with our friend’s ashes as we precede the crowd along the main aisle. I couldn’t see clearly as my eyes were puddling. The last of my thoughts as we continue the painful and final march with him was about us having our breakfast the next day of our trip. Nick and Robby elected to add hot water to the instant porridge they had brought while I waited for my regular oatmeal to cook. I told them that they weren’t real pioneers to be eating that gloop. I’ll always remember what Robby replied, it had become our creed for all the other camping trips we had taken.
“Yeah, well we’re pioneers in a hurry.”