Just An Idea
Ned liked the early morning ride to work. The wind in his hair felt like freedom and when they passed by Little Lake he smelled mist clinging to the air around the water.
As they passed the Widow Morrison’s house, Ned caught a whiff of polecat just at the moment he looked at the widow’s mailbox. The thought that slid into his brain lifted his eyebrows and bubbled out into a laugh. He leaned over to tell Jamie.
But there was no time. As soon as the truck pulled up to the cabin Snow called out for them to climb down and pulled Jamie off toward the saw. Ned watched them go then looked down and was glad to see Toby sitting at his feet.
Jamie’s father called, and as Ned turned he saw the Indian standing beside him.
“Ned, this is Cyrus Conner. Everybody calls him ‘CC’. You’re working with him today clearing out tall grass and scrub bushes inside the fence. You’re going to start out by the back gate where the logs are stacked and work your way up to the front. You know what poison ivy looks like? You allergic?”
Ned’s brain balked for a bit as he tried to swallow both questions at once. “Uhh, yessir and not that I know of.”
“Keep an eye out for it. Here’s your sling blade.” Jamie’s father handed him the tool. “You hack down the tall grass while CC gets the big stuff with the bush axe. Don’t chop your toes off.” Jamie’s father turned and walked toward the saw shed.
Ned gripped the handle of the sling blade and looked up at the Indian. He was tall, rangy and muscular. The heavy blade of the bush axe hung loosely in his hand.
“Ready?” The Indian’s voice was husky and low.
“You go first. I’ll come after you with the axe. We’ll drag the brush over to the trash wood pile out of the way after we get an area done. Sound about right to you?”
“I guess.” Ned nodded again and headed toward the back gate. His back crawled as he heard the footsteps of the tall man crunch behind him and thought of the broad curved tip bush axe. When he tried Ned could usually read people, read their emotions if not their thoughts. Not this man. On the Indian Ned drew blank. He glanced over his shoulder at him, then lifted the sling blade and swung at the tall grass. Toby trotted out the back gate and into the woods beyond. Ned wished he were going with him.
They worked hard, hacking and sweating, till the mid-morning train whistle, Ned glancing over his shoulder every now and again to check where the Indian was. When the whistle blew, Toby bounded back in the gate and jumped up on Ned. “Hey, fella. Am I glad to see you.”
The Indian set down his axe and held out his own hands palms up. “Let me see your hands.”
Ned didn’t want to be foolish, but he didn’t want to be chicken either. “What for?”
“Let’s see your hands.”
Ned placed his hands into the Indian’s palms down. The Indian turned them over and looked at them. “Humph.” He dropped Ned’s hands and turned and walked toward the well. Only then did Ned look. His palms were red raw with tiny bright wrinkles that threatened blisters, particularly around the base of his thumb.
Ned followed him toward the well, looking for Jamie. The men crowded around the well and the water cask, filling their mason jars. Ned had to wait until they cleared out to fill his own. Toby pawed at his leg.
“We need to get you some water, don’t we boy?” Ned retrieved an old tin plate from the trash pile by the cabin and set it down on the ground. He poured water into it from his water jar. Toby slopped at it with his tongue. Ned sank down by the cabin wall and drank deep. None of the men talked much except for Crazy Charlie, who never seemed to stop. Jamie was no where to be seen.
After the break Ned changed his grip on the sling blade and spent a little more time clearing out the brush branches they’d already cut out away from the fence. He again glanced at the Indian over his shoulder from time to time, but the man seemed oblivious. Ned took less and less notice while his shirt became more and more sweat-soaked as the sun climbed high.
At the noon train whistle Ned dropped the sling blade and plodded straight to the well to fill up his jar before he ate. Toby trotted beside him.
He tried to beat the gray dirt and green streaks from the bottom of his pant legs but couldn’t bring back the new dark blue. He poured out more water for Toby and had no more gotten his lunch and sat down, leaned his head against a tree in the shade and closed his eyes before he heard the grind of boots on hard sand. He squinted up and saw Jamie, who was covered with grease. He looked Jamie up and down. “What have you been doing?”
Jamie grinned back. A glistening steak of black grease was smeared across one of his cheeks. “Helping Snow work on the saw and the planer. You never seen nothing like it.”
“Yeah well. Haven’t much chance, now have I?” Ned closed his eyes and took a bite from his chicken sandwich.
“Hell, who rained on your parade?” He felt Jamie plop down beside him and turned his head to watch him dig into his sack and gulp water out of his mason jar. Jamie mumbled through his mouthful of food. “Oh, what was it you were laughing about this morning? We got pulled apart before I could ask you.”
Ned laughed as he remembered. “I just thought how surprised old Nosy would be if he found a polecat in the mailbox while he was starin’ into the widow’s window.”
Jamie’s snort almost blew the bite he was chewing right out of his mouth. “’Specially if he caught it hind end first.”
“We do have that rabbit trap.” Ned slid his eyes toward Jamie.
“Oh ho, no way, no how. I’m not dealing with no skunk and that’s final. I’ve had my bath in tomato juice. It ain’t no fun. Momma and Daddy both would skin my tail.”
“But wouldn’t it be something, though? There’s just no way he’d ever mess with the widow again. What do skunks eat?”
“I told you, I ain’t doin’ it.”
“I’m just wonderin’.”
He watched Jamie take a bite out of his apple. “Most any kind of human food.” He held up the apple. “Apple cores, table scraps, anything. Momma’s always telling me to be careful when I go down to the woods to throw out slops to watch out for them. They’re not much afraid of people.”
“Mmm, that so?” Ned leaned back against the tree, his head taken with the image of Nosy Norris twisting in scented agony.
“I told you, no way, no how.”