West Texas – Early 1950’s
“Snatch up that rifle, goldbricker.”
I lifted my head out of my hands. “I’m half-dead, you know?”
“Yeah, yeah, half-dead, I know, I know.” Hect lay atop the fender of the truck’s crushed headlight, positioned his rifle on the hood, and fired repeatedly. The shack he aimed at absorbed the shots to no greater effect than if they’d all missed, except for a tinkle of glass now and then when a bullet nicked a shard left in the window frame. Out of ammunition, he sat on the running board beside me. I could feel his disgust.
“It’s a mighty sorry soldier what leaves a weapon in the dirt like that. It’d serve you right if they come yelling for blood out’a that bunker with guns blazing and your barrel’s clogged up.”
“I don’t feel good, I told you.”
“Humpteen jillion times, ‘s’all. That’s humpteen jillion and one.” He reloaded his rifle.
Damaged cars lay all around—some turned on one side, others upside down, still others demolished beyond recognition. Many had bullet holes that spider-webbed the glass of several windows.
The West Texas sun hammered our heads like nails. Heat off the metal truck body felt hot as off a stovetop. Worse than that, gasoline fumes hung in the air, making me dizzy. A fuel tank on the truck dripped gas, leaving a dark, crusted stain on the dirt.
Hect squeegeed his brow with one finger and popped a line of drops in the dirt. He sweat a lot anyway, and the droplets ran down his face as if beads on a string. His buzzed haircut and almost perfectly round face, along with his being chunky, made him a target for kids at school. They taunted him with names like “Full Moon” or “Charlie Brown,” after the cartoon strip. He’d dropped out of the seventh grade after failing it the year before, and I wished he hadn’t, as his south-side accent needed improving badly. Because of it, I’d come under my own share of teasing, especially from my country-club pals. Instead of Hect or his real name, Hector, they called him “Hick.”
“You hear me, Private? Snatch up that gun. What if them killers was to come squalling out of that hut? What’re you to do about it—chunk dirt clods?”
“I’m not in the mood.” Miserable, I dropped my head into my hands again. “No one’s inside there anyway.”
“Says you, no one’s in there. If you don’t think so, sashay out in the open and see if them murderers don’t fill that ain’t-in-the-mood noggin so full of pellets you’ll be a walking maraca. At least then, you’d be useful as a decoy. Now get that weapon out of the dirt, soldier.”
I picked up the end of the rifle, but only because the gun didn’t belong to me, and I felt guilty treating his uncle’s rifle like that. I brushed the barrel off.
“We’re in a skirmish here, soldier. This ain’t no child’s play. Them cutthroats would die happy as eating pie if they could kill us, so you get serious.”
“I’m not well, I told you. You wouldn’t be either if you went through what I did last night. It was the worst of my li—”
“’Not well’? Is that what you said?” He shook his head as if he’d heard all he could stand and returned to loading his rifle clip. “You ain’t half thought ‘not well,’ if them maniacs in that bunker get their blood-crusted hands on you. Now get up here and help out. I ain’t able to finish them off alone.”
“Gunfire hurts my headache.”
“How’d I wind up with such a sissy partner? That’s what I’d like to know. And don’t tell me them skunks ain’t in there again on account of they are so. I don’t care what you say. Now, my plan is a frontal attack while you flank attack. We’ll duck best we can, you left, me right.”
“If I move, I’ll throw up.”
“You ain’t got no say in this, Private. Which one of us is the officer here? Me, not you. These are my uncle’s rifles, and we’ll do as I say so.” He snorted. “Shoot, your momma won’t even let you own a cap pistol, so don’t tell me I ain’t in command. Now, we’ll rush the enemy head-on. They won’t be expecting that.”
“Here goes!” I bent over and made a gagging noise. “Ugh, almost.”
“I ought to shoot you for insubordination, is what. I’d be within my rights too. It’s legal for a commanding officer to kill a coward who disobeys on the battlefield. If I didn’t need you to help fight these scoundrels, I would too.”
“Ack! For real, this time!” I bent over, my shoulders on my knees, my head between my thighs, and burped. Nothing else.
“My blamed luck,” Hect muttered. “Here I am in desperate straits, facing fanatic killers, and I got a pansy for a sidekick. Come on now, won’t you help?” His tone reduced to pleading. “Buck up and cover me, at least. I’ll do the rest.” He stood up and leaned around the fender and emptied his clip into the shanty. Pieces of glass shattered. “Wahoo! That’ll show them killers. If only I had me a flamethrower,” he said while peeking over the truck’s hood. “I’d set that place ablaze with a flamethrower and cook them rascals.”
A humming noise caught my attention and I forgot about being sick. “You hear that?” I cupped one ear. “That buzzing—where’s it coming from?” With the barrel of the rifle, I pushed aside a branch of a large mesquite bush. “Look at that!”
A wasp nest big as a dinner plate had so many yellow jackets covering it that the branch bent under its weight. “You ever see one that big? Watch this.” I picked up one of our beer bottle caps and tossed it at the swarm. The tiny tin disk glanced off a limb, ricocheted off another, and nicked the brown, paper-like wad. Wasps broke away like a hunk falling off a cake, dissolving all to crumbs and buzzing furiously. They flew every which way, zipping around, but then returned to their labors, droning softer as they worked.
“Here, soldier!” Hect cried. “Are you going to help me or no?”
“I told you already. I’m lucky to be alive after last night. I should be in a sickbed in the hospital, not out here with you. Now, for the last time, I don’t feel well.”
“You kidding me? You ever once thought what’d become of Iwo Jima if John Wayne had left off on account he don’t feel well? We’d lost the Pacific, if not World War II, you nitwit.”
“Look, if you want to fight Japs, go ahead. I’ll fight who I want.” I shook up my beer, put my thumb over the opening, and released a stream of suds over the nest. The wasps flew out in a screaming squadron. Some dipped close to our heads and dive-bombed all around us. After that, they flew back to the sopping nest, starting repairs.
“Will you leave off with them yeller jackets? You keep messing with them, and they’ll be on us.” He sat on the running board and blotted a sweaty forehead on his sleeve, and then wiped his lower face with the last dry spot on his shirt. “I know why it is you mess with them hot-tailed devils, on account of your yeller, just like them.”
I flinched. Sometimes his teasing went too far. When the insults got out of hand, drastic measures only would make him take it back. “Yellow, am I? Is that so? You know, I heard once that if you hold your breath, wasps won’t sting you.”
“Oh, they’ll sting you, all right. Don’t think they won’t. They’ll sting you good. Don’t believe them old wives tales, no siree. They ain’t true. Not a bit of it. You can swell up like a blimp, and they’ll poke them chili-hot stingers in you till you yodel Dixie.”
“But, you just said I was ‘yellow,’ right? Isn’t that what you said?”
“Hold on now. I know that tone. OK-OK, I didn’t mean ‘yeller’ exactly. It’s just a joke. Don’t…”
I lurched forward, jabbed the wad with the rifle barrel, and knocked it swinging. A banzai charge hurtled out of the bush, RRRRRing like mini buzz saws, zinging around our heads fast as bullets, darting every which way. We both balled up and threw our arms over our necks. The loud buzzing went on for what seemed like minutes and then died away. I peeked out from under my arms. All the wasps had gathered in a ball around the dangling nest, swarming at the thread still attached to the branch.
“Whew!” Hect sighed, uncovering his head. “That was close.”
“Not so yellow after all, huh?”
“Not yeller, I meant stupid.” Hect stood up, and his rifle fell out of his hand and struck the truck’s gas tank. “Man alive!” He snatched the weapon back away. “This baby’s loaded and might’a shot that tank and set off the…” He stopped and gave a curious look. His eyes widened, and his round, sweaty face broke into a grin. “Gas! How come me not to think of it ‘fore now? Why, the answer’s right here.” He patted the barrel. “Here’s my flamethrower. We’ll smoke them yeller buggers.”
“Smoke them?” I looked at the mesquite bush, thinking he meant the wasps. “How?”
“This wreck’s got fuel, ain’t it? Has to on account of the leak. See?”
Sure enough, a glistening bead trembled at the bottom of the tank’s welded seam and fell in a single drop. The dark, hard-packed sand quickly absorbed it.
I snorted. “At that rate, it’d take a month to fill a beer bottle.”
“Not if we taken the cap off first. A beer bottle will fit down in the opening easy.”
“Yeah, and one spark will blow us both to kingdom come.”
His face fell. “It’s on account you ain’t never done any real work or fixed nothing on your own that you’re so short on common sense. Everything’s always been done for you.” He held up his beer. “How’s it to strike a spark? It’s glass, moron.”
“Aw, why don’t you shut up? That’s enough with the name-calling. I’m tired of playing stupid war games. Let’s quit.”
“You sure are touchy lately. Can’t hardly tease you no more.” He shrugged. “Anyhow, I ain’t about to set off no explosion, but we are fixing to have us some fun. Watch this.”
I stepped back, just in case, while Hect undid the cap and inserted an empty beer bottle, reaching down until his shoulder fit into the opening. After pulling the bottle back out, he took his handkerchief, stuffed one end in the neck, and turned it upside down until the rag dripped.
Then it hit me. “Molotov cocktail!”
“Not no smudge pot, Tim-boy.”
“This ought to fix those little yellow buggers.” I rubbed my hands excitedly, hoping the nest didn’t fall before we got our chance to set it on fire. “Let’s see how they like a bomb. Their little fried yellow bodies will be scattered all over the place.”
“There’s my old partner again.” Hect produced a book of paper matches from his front jeans pocket. “Here, light me up.”
I struck a flame. One touch and the rag burst into a bluish tongue. Rather than pitch the bomb under the bush, as I’d expected, Hect stepped away from the truck and, in a sidearm swing, hurled the fiery bottle. It arched in a sputtering, comet-like streak over the wrecked cars, fell as a smoking missile, and vanished behind the peak of the shanty’s roof.
We both waited. I didn’t dare draw a breath.
“Missed!” Hect clapped his hands in anger. “Durned, if I ain’t throwed it too far.”
“Have you lost your mind?” I jabbed a finger at the mesquite bush. “I thought…How come…I thought you’d put it under the wasp nest. Where’d you get the dumb idea of setting the shack on fire? You want the cops, the fire department, the whole town out here?”
“Don’t nobody know about this place. It’s been deserted for years.”
“They’ll know if it’s on fire. Besides, I might have to sleep out here tonight. Where else can I go? Not home, for sure.”
“You? Out here?” He snickered.
The way he said it, he thought that the dumbest idea ever. After thinking about it, I couldn’t really disagree.
“You? Out here?” he said again. “Oh, that’s a good one. Remember, there ain’t no fridge out here and no fluffy bed neither. And no ironed sheets, no water cooler blowing cool air down on you, no maid to fix your meals and make your bed for you. All them comforts you’ve got used to—there ain’t none out here.”
“So?” I would’ve liked to sound more confident.
“And no sleeping all day neither. You know why? On account of there’s creepy-crawlies out here. Scorpions! Lots of them. Ain’t no one more scared of scorpions than you.”
He had me there. Wasps at a distance I could handle, but scorpions were another matter. Hect knew it too. Once, we caught one in a jar, and he dared me to let the insect touch my palm. I tried, being careful to tilt the jar slowly in order to stay away from its stinger, but at the last moment, lost my nerve. He never let me live it down either, no matter how daring I might be in other ways. All in all, then, who knew where I’d end up staying tonight. Maybe I’d have to eat humble pie and return home after all. Besides, with no place to stay and no place to hide, they’d find me in time anyhow. A snapping noise made me look up. “Hect!”
A black cloud entwined with orange flame erupted out of the roof of the shack, scattering cinders in tracer-like arches. Dry, sun baked wood exploded in a ball of fire as the roof collapsed, gulping beams and shingles and spewing up sparks and embers. The heat made me turn my face and hike a shoulder for a shield. Peeking past my arm, boiling smoke towered above the shanty making an asphalt-colored road across a blue sky.
“Man alive!” Hect yelled. “I ain’t never!”
“Everyone for miles saw that.”
“Let’s git!” Hect sprinted in the opposite direction from town, leaving his rifle.
I started to follow but stopped, looking toward home, wondering what to do. Behind me, Hect had already shrunk in size with the distance. I must decide. Once he reached the brush, he’d be gone, and I’d be left alone. Hearing the wail of sirens from the direction of town, only one thing came to mind—they’re coming! Oh, they’re coming! They’ll be here! Still undecided, I looked at the burning shack.
The sight almost knocked me over. Within a fiery window, a figure stood like someone having a peek outside, except for being engulfed in flames. For a horrifying instant, we faced each other as two strangers meeting, except that one of us blazed in a ghastly torch. Fire leaped out the window, past the human shape, in petals of rosy flame. Glass shards blew out in what must’ve been a furnace-like rush of wind, shattering in the air. The tinkling noise jolted me. I took off after Hect. “Wait! Wait! Wait up!”
Hect stopped and put his hands on his waist rolls. He huffed and blew as his shoulders lifted and fell.
“Wait!” I ran with all my might, gasping for air. “Wait up! Someone…in…there!”
Hect bent over, huffing, his round face lifting, looking at me. “Can’t be.”
“Someone…I tell you.” Running in the soft sand was more like falling forward and catching myself with each step. “In window.”
“On fire. I saw him.”
“Why ain’t…he showed hisself…’fore now?” he said in between breaths.
“Shooting at him.” I caught up to him. With my hands on the small of my back, I leaned backward, panting. “Or maybe…drunk.”
We both turned and looked at the shanty. The smoke reached so far into a cloudless sky, it looked like a narrow thunderhead. Sirens wailed in the distance.
“Gotta go! Let’s git!”
“Wait!” I couldn’t think. Everything happened so fast. “Don’t leave me…alone.”
“Not alone…for long.” He panted. “Firemen coming…sheriff, too.”
“We run, we’ll look guilty.”
“We stay, we go to jail. Ever been?”
“Meanest rascals on earth in jail.” He took a breath. “A softy like you wouldn’t last no time.”
After one last look toward home, we ran into a broad, waterless desert.