It seems just like it all happened such a short time ago as I look back on my childhood. Living thirty miles from the nearest town put us quite a ways out from the heart beat of the general public. Just me, my paw, and my little brother and that farm. Way out in the middle of no where was our home. I still remember it all like it was just the other day.
When Mom died not too long after giving birth to my little brother. Of course we had to learn to be pretty self sufficient where we lived. Weren’t many doctors around. Guess that’s why Mom died. Daddy worked so hard to feed us, and had to drive so far just to pick up feed for the livestock and the kind of groceries that we couldn’t make ourselves. Maybe Mama just didn’t want to tell Daddy that there was something wrong with her. Maybe she didn’t want to burden him with one more problem to deal with.
The first time I think I ever heard about the thing out in the woods I must have been no more than three years old. Mama had just had Tyler, my little brother. Grandma was complaining to Daddy. She was saying, “that terrible thing has been on my porch again, son. It comes at night. Scares me half to death. Sometimes it just goes away, but sometimes it makes a terrible ruckus. You got to do something about it, son.” she pleaded with him. “Your dad is too sick to deal with this kind of stuff anymore.”
Being that I was so little I guess I didn’t really completely understand, especially when Daddy was trying to make Grandma be quiet so as not to scare me. Tyler was just a baby then. They didn’t have to worry about him too much. Why I can still hear daddy say, “Ma, don’t start in about that-that, well you know what I’m talking about. I promise I’ll come out with my rifle and check the place out for you and Daddy tonight.”
Why they didn’t call the sheriff I’ll never know. Probably because my paw was a proud man and didn’t take too well to being made fun of or having people accuse him of making up things, but we weren’t the only people in Glades County who’d seen that thing. Anyway, it was just something we’d learned to live with after a while, kind of like knowing there’s a panther somewhere on your property and sooner or later you’ll have to deal with it if it starts killing your cows or worse. So it was.
After Mama died it put a greater burden on all of us, and once Tyler and I had to start going to school, Daddy was forced to get a hired hand to help him with all the chores that my little brother and I couldn’t do yet. So, my brother and I would get up about five thirty every morning, take our bathes, clean up our bedrooms, and Daddy would make breakfast before we went outside to wait for the school bus to pick us up. By then the first orange rays of the sun would crackle right over the purple outline of the horizon making my brother and me squint as the dew on the mailbox began to drip off and hit the dusty road in front of the house.
Daddy always pretended not to be afraid of it, but he always kept a loaded shotgun in the house at all times. It was just after dark when we would just be finishing up our dinner when we’d sometimes hear it out in the woods somewhere not far off the property or deep in the thicket. Daddy was good about acting unconcerned trying not to make his two boys get frightened, but there were times when I saw fear in Daddy’s eyes, and that’s when I got the most afraid myself. Of course I never let my little brother know I was scared. Then he’d start crying and we didn’t need that. Sometimes Daddy would just turn up the volume on the TV hoping it would go away.
Sometimes that would work. The noises would just subside and it would probably just go back deeper in the woods where it belonged. At least that’s what I had hoped. It was times like that that made me appreciate my Daddy even more and it was those times that I feared losing him the most being that we’d all lost Mama not too long before. Yes, we were all that each other had, and Daddy did his best to care for us. Where we lived it was hard to have friends because your classmates lived pretty far away. It wasn’t long before Grandpa died. He’d been sick a long time after having a stroke, Grandma had said. One day after she had gone to fetch his favorite treat, some of her apple pie, there he was in his rocking chair, eyes wide open there on the front porch. He’d gone to meet his maker, as Daddy had said.
Even when Daddy had asked Grandma to move in with us after Grandpa died, she refused. She said her life was in that house where she had raised her family and been married to the only man she’d ever loved. It was there that she died a couple years later. Daddy had gone to check up on her, leaving Tyler and me at the house telling us to lock the door and not come out until he got home. There she was Daddy had said later, laying on the couch with that favorite white sweater of hers on. The TV had been blaring, and she had been reading her Bible when the Lord had taken her. I knew the minute Daddy had returned to the house that evening that something was wrong cause his eyes were all red from crying. Grandma had been good to all of us. I’d miss the chocolate pudding she used to make us, the brownies she used to bake, the cookies she always gave us to take home after we’d have Sunday dinner over at her house, but most of all I missed her smiles and hugs. It almost made up for not having Mama around sometimes.
There was only one thing that bothered me. Something made me wonder if Grandma had actually been scared to death by the thing out in the woods. I just couldn’t get that out’ve my mind until the day after when I knew my hunch was right. When Sheriff Wilcox’s deputies came by to ask about how Daddy had found his mother, Daddy had replied, thinking that I was not within earshot, but I’d been spying all along, he’d said, “I found her on the floor next to the back porch window. Her eyes were wide open as if she’d seen a ghost. And I‘ve told you before about that damn thing out there!” Wasn’t like Daddy to use such words unless he was really upset about something, and he sure was that time.
Deputy Murphy frowned when he heard that, “and just what do you think would have made your mom so scared that she would’ve died?”
Suddenly Daddy’s voice got even lower as he looked over his shoulder, not noticing me hiding around the corner, “you know damned well what could’ve scared her to death, Deputy. But, none of you will get off you butts and do anything about it.”
“Well now Lloyd,” Deputy Murphy answered back. “Would you like us to start a big panic in the area about some,” and he too lowered his voice suddenly, “bout some creature in the woods and that we’re collecting a hunting party for it?”
Daddy just gave Murphy a mean look and replied, “if this had happened to your mother, what would you be doing right now, Deputy, twiddling your thumbs?”
Weeks passed after Grandma’s funeral. We were all pretty sad and quiet after that.
I remember, Chuck, the hired hand that Daddy had living on our farm. He stayed in a small shack that we had all made up for company on those rare occasions when family visited. It was just a simple one room building with a stove, a fridge, a bed, and a bathroom that Daddy had built using the old family toilet and tub after he had remodeled our old lavatory in our place. I remember Daddy made me and Tyler scrub those old porcelain fixtures till our hands and arms were sore, but when we got finished Daddy told us we’d done good.
Chuck was like having an extra uncle around us at times. Usually he was off somewhere working on the property with Daddy or doing some chore while Dad was off on his way to town to buy hardware, or get grain at the feed store, or something like that. Sometimes Chuck would come by and check up on us. He’d play games with Tyler and me, or just sit around and tell us stories while he was resting up after bailing hay in the barn. Chuck was funny too. Sometimes he’d tell us funny stories that’d make us laugh until our sides ached. It was fun having him around while it lasted.
Then came the day that Chuck left. Tyler and I had just gotten off the school bus and were walking toward the house when I heard him, “I can’t do it anymore. That thing was here again last night making noises. The animals were all nervous in the barn. Hell, I couldn’t sleep half the night!” He told Daddy.
“Aw come on Chuck, nobody’s going to pay you as good as I do and you know it. Now look just keep a gun in your room with you. Nothing will happen it always goes away after a while!” Daddy shot back at him.
“Hell, man, I don’t know what that thing’s capable of. I can’t work if I can’t get a decent night’s sleep with that damn thing out there!” Chuck insisted.
“Look,” Daddy explained, “we’ll just go out and find and kill it. If we both have rifles we can take it. Will that make you feel better?”
“Oh come on,” Chuck just shook his head. “I aint no professional hunter especially up against that thing. I can’t work here anymore with things like they are here. How do you deal with it specially with them kids you got to raise? Aren’t you afraid for their safety?”
“Chuck, you telling me you’re too scared to work and stay here with all the money you’re saving living on my property?” Daddy told him.
“Look, Lloyd, I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, but I just can’t live with that thing around here anymore. I just can’t. You-you ought to get a posse of hired men and find that damn thing and kill it before it hurts somebody!” Chuck argued back to Daddy.
“What am I going to do now, Chuck?” Daddy yelled at him. “There’s more work than one man can do out here!”
“I don’t know what you’re going to do, but I just can’t do it anymore, Lloyd, I’m sorry,” Chuck told Daddy.
“Then just go and get out’ve here then!” Daddy finally replied disgustedly.
Chuck packed up and loaded everything it seemed that he had in the world inside his old Ford pick up truck, came over and patted Tyler and me on the head telling us he would miss his two favorite little boys in the whole world, then shook hands with Daddy from where he sat in his truck with the old engine roughly idling. Chuck’s eyes got wet just before he threw the clutch into gear and drove off. We were going to miss him a bunch.
“What are we gonna do now, Daddy,” I asked while wiping my wet cheeks with the back of my hands.
Daddy just gave me a tired smile, “well son, I guess your dad is just going to have to work a little longer and harder than he has before. You’re going to have to start fixing dinner now before I get home. I’ve been showing you how to cook. You and you brother are going to have to do a few extra chores around the house to make up for the time I don’t have to do it anymore. Can I depend on you, Boy?”
“Sure,” I smiled wondering how much past dark Daddy would be gone at night. I sure didn’t want to hear that thing coming out of the woods and onto the property when Daddy wasn’t in the house with us!
Over the years we had just come to accept that there was something in nature out there deep in the woods that came by occasionally even though we didn’t really know what it was and just how dangerous it was, but we didn’t really want to find out either. Sometimes we wouldn’t hear from it for weeks, and then just when we thought it had finally gone, it would come back with that horrible cry that it sometimes seemed to shake the whole woods with. That was usually when Daddy would go and grab that shotgun of his and stand with his shoulder against the door looking through a crack in the curtains.
From then on when Tyler and I got home from school we had work to do if we expected to get dinner ready in time for Daddy and get any of our homework done for the next day at school. I remember frying up hamburgers, heating up canned beans, and boiling potatoes to mash with milk and butter. Sometimes I’d make macaroni and cheese, a green vegetable like broccoli, and fry chicken, or maybe mix salmon patties together and cook them in the skillet.
Daddy never seemed to complain about my cooking. Either he was too tired and hungry to, or I was must have been a pretty good cook. Daddy always stressed not letting Tyler play with matches or get too close to the burners on the stove, but I knew what to do. Either I would put Tyler in front of the TV when I cooked or get him to do some chore and make a game out of it. He loved that at times. Always though, always, whenever the sun started going down and the shadows from the trees began casting a cloak of threatening darkness over the house, we both got nervous. Without saying a word about why we were both scared, Tyler and I went about our business quietly listening to the sounds in the approaching night outside, making sure the doors and windows were locked, and anxiously waiting for our Daddy to return home from wherever he was on the property or from town.
This was our existence. We really didn’t have a normal childhood in a sense. We didn’t go out and play with other kids very often except at the school yard during recess. Every once in a while some kid would make fun of us because we had the make believe monster on our property. All the kids called us chickens and liars making me wish I’d never told anyone about our scary little secret out here so far from town and so close to the deep woods. I really wished we could move at that point once Chuck was gone and Daddy was working longer hours. Home started to become a place that I dreaded at times. I especially felt for Tyler. He’d lost his Mama at an earlier age than me, and had had less time to feel the security of that kind of love before having to deal with what we were faced with.
Time dragged on, and I was now eleven and feeling so much older than I really was. Daddy hadn’t found him another woman yet, in fact he never went out. He was always tired after working so hard. Why, there was always a calf to attend to on the weekends or a fence to mend somewhere on the property, or new wooden planks to replace the busted ones on the walls of the barn.
Daddy had finally showed me how to shoot a rifle. So, sometimes on Sundays when we took the day off, and Daddy would barbecue for Tyler and I and have himself some beers while I target practiced with the hunting rifle. Daddy had a .22 caliber deer rifle that he let me have, and was I proud of it. I got to where I could shoot five cans in a row off the fence without a miss. Boy, was Daddy proud of me. Tyler wanted to play with that gun so bad he used to cry, but Daddy would never let him, saying my little brother was still too wet behind the ears.
Deep down inside though I knew what the real reason was for Daddy letting me have that gun. It was unspoken. I was finally old enough to protect Tyler and me if that thing from the woods ever showed up while Daddy was gone. I knew it and Daddy knew that I knew it, but we didn’t dare say anything in front of Tyler. Daddy was always like that being protective of Tyler. I guess it was that my little brother reminded Daddy of Mama because Tyler looked more like Mama, and I like Daddy himself. Besides, Tyler was a gentle and peaceful sort of kid brother. He was good at finding things to amuse himself with.
A few months later it was fall. A lot of the farmers were predicting a cold winter according to their almanacs. Tyler and I decided to go fishing in the creek that was close to the property line of Daddy’s farm. Whenever we had a chance these days we liked to go fishing. I was pretty good at catching cat fish and crappie. We always went earlier in the day after getting our chores finished in the early afternoon by the latest, and we both knew why too.