Authors: Glendon Swarthout
Tags: #"coming of age", #kids, #buffalo, #western, #camp
BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN
by Glendon Swarthout
Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1970
Scanned and Proofed by RyokoWerx
In that place the wind prevailed. There was always sound. The throat of the canyon was hoarse with wind. It heaved through pines and passed and was collected by the cliffs. There was a phenomenon of pines in such a place. When wind died in a box canyon and in its wake the air was still and taut, the trees were not. The passing trembled in them, and a sough of loss. They grieved. They seemed to mourn a memory of wind.
Six of them waited in early morning, held in a kind of enclosure behind thick posts and planks and bunched up not because they were afraid but because, unused to being penned, they were excited and, close together, they could communicate by odor. They snuffed one another.
Through dilated nostrils they drew in the hot, animal odor of their excitement.
Then men came, horsemen. A gate was opened. Shouted at, they tried to stampede out together, but the gate was slammed after the lead three, Teft and Shecker and Lally 1, were through. The others waited. Soon the air was split by riflefire. It spooked the three remaining. They milled in circles, bending planks and sideswiping posts, unafraid yet more excited than ever, since it was a stimulus in the ear which they could not identify. In the after-silence they waited again.
The horsemen returned. The gate was opened and the last three, Cotton and Goodenow and Lally 2, were let out down a lane of wire fencing. It was good to be unpenned and free in the vivid morning. But when they paused to drink from a pond the horsemen harried them on, waving hats and shouting.
In an open field they made a stand. One hundred yards away a line of vehicles confronted them, and before the vehicles, a line of humans. Released earlier, Teft and Shecker and Lally 1 were nowhere to be seen. This puzzled them, as did the gunshot and Goodenow's going down, first to his knees, then folding his hindquarters, then heavily upon one side. He did not move. Cotton and Lally 2 snuffed the new strange odor emanating from the carcass.
At the next report Lally 2 leaped up and came down stifflegged, and at the other violences in the ear shook his head and toppled, his eyes glazed, his limbs doubling and extending convulsively and brilliant red blowing from his mouth and nose. Cotton snuffed the blood. This smell he knew.
One lunge sent him into top speed, running this way only to be turned by vehicles, running that way only to be hemmed in by horsemen. Snorting, he tried another, battering head down into a wire fence and recoiling upon his haunches. He bounded up, maddened by the obstacle of steel which must give way before him.
Raging, he stood. Omnipotent, glaring at the line of humans, he centered on the muzzle of a rifle and down the barrel and into the half-face of a woman seated on a tarpaulin sighting him. She fired. He recognized her. The microsecond's recognition shattered his heart even as her bullet broke his brain. It was the face of his mother.
Cotton woke with a cry.
His forehead, palms, and inner thighs seeped sweat. He disgusted himself. He was fifteen, the oldest, too old to have bad dreams.
He checked the time. It was five of eleven. He had been asleep less than half an hour. Hoisting himself on an elbow, out of habit he checked his personnel. Goodenow, Teft, Shecker, Lally 1—where was his brother? Then he remembered: Lally 2 had moved pillow and sleeping bag under his bed at lights out. In the seventh bed, Wheaties, their counselor, about whom no one gave a damn anyway, snored. All present, sir, and accounted for.
Cotton saluted himself and lay back listening to the sorrow of wind in pines outside the cabin and the pulsing of transistor radios inside. That was how they induced sleep, the other five, with their radios, the way puppies ceased to whimper and dozed off if you tucked a ticking clock in their boxes to represent another heartbeat. At lights out they slid into sleeping bags and tucked the tiny radios under their arms and tuned them to the Prescott station for country & western or to the one in Phoenix for soul. At first the dark was full of twang and nasal lament for lost loves and defunct broncs or electronic incoherence about baby, baby, and the blues, but as they twisted in their sleep, as the radios worked down in the bags, the music fuzzed and faded until it was not music but a presence near their feet. Eddy Arnold kept them company, and Aretha Franklin. Through the night the radios pulsed, and they were not alone.
Mornings and evenings were their most difficult times. Mornings they were reluctant to leave the security of the sack. Goodenow groaned, Teft scratched, Shecker and the Lally brothers dawdled dressing as though the reality beyond the cabin lay in wait for them with fang and claw, crouched. Evenings they dreaded the coming of the dark, and with it emigration into dreams, the conscious sending away of conscious self into the unknown. They put it off as long as possible. Teft went to the latrine. Shecker talked. Goodenow read paperbacks and magazines by flashlight. Lally 1 threw things. They drank from canteens slung over bedposts. Shecker ate candybars. In the gloomy corners Goodenow poked for omens, using flashlight for fingers. On the bare cave walls of the cabin Lally 2 painted hieroglyphs in light, undecipherable messages to tomorrow. Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my batteries keep. Evening was better for them now than it had been in the beginning. Cotton was proud of that.
But it was still bad enough, and tonight they had slipped. This had been the worst of the summer.
They had returned in late afternoon from an overnight camp-out in the Petrified Forest. After washing up they went to supper in the chow cabin, forcing food down. No sooner were they outdoors again when in the midst of everybody, Goodenow vomited. He urped everything.
Goodenow wet the bed. He was driven from two cabins for it. Cabins were not assigned. Boys bunked where they wished at first, or where they could, by chance or hunch or necessity. In a few days, according to camp theory, everyone would find his group, his home far from home, and his achievement level as well, for the laws of temperament and competition inevitably separated the deviant from the normal, the losers from the winners. Let them alone and the thirty-six youngsters would divide themselves naturally into six teams, each with its own cabin and counselor. But even at fourteen Goodenow still wet the bed. He was also a sissy, and thumbs at everything except making Indian beadwork belts and headbands. He was also homesick and cried much and when, the second morning, he was driven from a second cabin, he put on swim trunks, went to the tank, a small artificial lake, waded in up to his chin, and stood sobbing an intention to drown himself. Neither counselors nor campers took him seriously. To demands that he duck and do it, he bawled that the water was too cold. Spectators rolled on the ground. When asked why he didn't suicide in his sleeping bag, which was wetter than the tank anyway, and certainly warmer, he splashed out of sight between canoes. He remained immersed until Cotton that afternoon talked him out of the tank with an invitation to join his cabin. There, he was assured, no one would laugh at him, and if anyone did, he, Cotton, would beat hell out of him
. How they passed the evening after Goodenow vomited, Cotton could not recall, except that it had been an evening unlike any of the summer. No one hung or horsed around. What they had witnessed during the day had traumatized them. They dared not discuss it. Like walking wounded they scuffed separately among the trees, hiding from one another in the twilight. For the first time they welcomed the onslaught of the dark.
At lights out the cabin became a ward. Lally 2 regressed under his bed. The others zipped themselves into sleeping bags as though into burrows, tuning radios in and volume higher than ever before. There was no going to the latrine this night, no talking, no throwing things, no reading or eating or slurping from canteens or confession with flashlights. They fled into a sleep which was not repose. Now they could speak. Now all could upchuck what they had seen that day. They turned the night into an echo chamber. Goodenow thrashed. Teft ground his teeth. The Lally brothers chorused horror. Cotton dreamed of them being penned like beasts and murdered by their own parents. All of them cried out in a babble of id, ego, odor, blood, and the madness of men while Dionne Warwick ululated soul and Roy Acuff sang of sin and redemption. It was a catharsis by voice, and in vain.
Cotton listened again. Something was wrong. He counted off four radios, not five. Easing out of bed he peered under the bed beside his. Lally 2 was gone. Pushing feet into sneakers, he padded outside in his skivs and along the path to the latrine. Lights were on but the john was deserted, as was the shower room. More swiftly this time he jogged back to the cabin, and bending under the bed again found the half-burned foamrubber pillow Lally 2 had brought from home also missing. That cinched it. He stood for a moment shivering, knowing why but determined not to admit, even to himself, that he knew why. He stepped across to Lally 1, put one hand firmly over his mouth, and with the other fist gave him a punch in the ribs. Lally 1 squirmed and grunted.
"Where's your brother?" Cotton whispered, removing his hand.
"I know that. Where?"
Lally 1 told him, adding, "He said he was going and he did, so what."
Cotton was furious. Lally 1 was fourteen, his brother only twelve. "Don't you even care?" he hissed.
"No, I don't. It's no skin off mine."
"Well, I do and you better. How was he going—walk all the way there and back?"
"He said walk into town, then hitch rides."
"He's crazy. Okay, out of the sack. We're going after him, all of us."
"Yes, you, damn you, or I'll destroy you. Now move it. I'll wake the others."
Bed by bed, with hand over mouths and mutters to throw on clothes and move it, Lally 2 had taken off and they had to catch him, Cotton roused Teft and Shecker and Goodenow, who sprang sweating from the locked, tormented cells of sleep. Action offered escape. They seemed to know, as he did, why Lally 2 had gone, and where. And after what the day had done to them, the night could do no worse. By the time he pulled on pants and a T-shirt they were ready, following him out the door as stealthily as Indians and remembering, even, to leave their radios on to lull the counselor, Wheaties. Cotton was proud of them. They were finally showing him some smarts.
A brood of cabins nested in the ponderosa. At an elevation of three thousand feet the great trees feathered them. Plain splitlog sides and shingle roofs outcropped it seemed from rock, thrust up here and there through a floor of granite shale and needle droppings.
Over this floor the five walked warily, circling the camp to reach the sand road which led up, then down the canyon throat into a piney woods a mile or more to the paved highway into town. Striking the road at the top of the rise they stopped. From here they could look down and back over the cabins and corral and tack barn and rifle range and ballfield and truck shed and tank. There were lights in the two latrines, but none in the cabins of the senior counselors or that of the Director. Beyond the camp the box canyon closed. A barricade of cliffs cut off the world. Higher than these, however, a range of Arizona mountains bulked, and then another higher, and another, a herd of huge black beasts plodding its patient way to a frontier not yet found, snorting clouds and bumping heaven with its humps and hooking stars upon its horns. It was the Mogollon Rim.
They gathered around Cotton.
"How long's he been gone?" Teft asked.
"Twenty minutes, half-hour. We have to grab him before he hits the highway. He gets a ride and zoom."
"I was sure one of us would go," said Goodenow, half to himself. "I didn't know who."
Shecker yawned. "He won't hurry, not him. He's doing his thing, he should care how long it takes."
"Okay, okay," Cotton said, "let's not dink around. We'll double-time to the highway. C'mon."
Off they went together at a trot, down the sand road winding through the woods, panting and pumping elbows in unison except for Lally 1, who lagged a little behind since it was his brat brother they were after. For five minutes they double-timed, in and out of stipplings of moonlight, the cadence of their footfalls muted by sand, till Cotton held them up and said to listen for the radio. He'd taken his pillow, so probably his radio, too. Listening, they heard the sounds of their breathing and the sorrow of the pines.
"No use." Lally 1 caught up with them. "He's nuts anyway."
Goodenow wheezed. He was the least strong. "We're too late. Our fault. We should've all gone."
"Knock it off," Cotton panted. "C'mon, move it."
He led them into a jog again, dogtags jingling round his neck, and away they double-timed, faster now. Goodenow's words whipped them. Guilt nipped at their heels. Around an S-curve they pounded, and were nearing the gate which marked the boundary of camp acreage when, simultaneously, they saw him, and Lally 2, tramping down the middle of the road, saw them. He froze, then darted into the woods.