News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Jody Burrell Buys the Farm
10,800 wds (far too long and meandering...)
first draft July 27, last edited Aug. 08, 2004

When Jody Burrell come to my store, he’d rush through the door, bursting with energy, with no mind for who was inside or might bump into. He was there, and no matter who else was there, he was first. It was like he hardly ever so nobody else, didn’t want them to exist and so they didn’t. He was too country for them, too rural even for me, and I was born here.

He’d go to ask a question of me, fetch up and go shy of a sudden, and brush a wavy cowlick off his forehead -- real men ought to have straight hair, he figured. He’d open a mouth of teeth fit for a mule, real root-crunching choppers, and ask gaily: “Hey, Mr. Richards? Like, when are you going to get around to ordering up bird shot for me? Hunting season or none, there's folks that want to shoot for practice. Even these here millionaires,” pointing with a smirk to whoever might be in the store, “even they must get buck-fever come fall hunting season too, right?”

How many times had I told young Jody that I needed, but didn't have and wasn't going to get, a license for ammo? He didn't quite understand licenses, didn't have none and didn't want any. In a way his mind was pure and virginal. The outside world, and its wicked and fascinating mysteries, began at the door of my highway convenience store out here in boondocks central. He was a piece of history just sitting out the present. Not moving into the future. Not moving a muscle on that account. Nope. No sir.

Jody's family lives up about ten klicks down the Trans-Canada from here in an old rickety wooden relic of a farmhouse left over from before the Depression. Grey and shabby, splintery and temporary-looking, it has those low ceilings from back in the old days when folks ate worse and grew shorter; I hear you have to bend over and watch your head as you go. I fondly call it an icon of the past. Some just call it an eyesore.

Jody didn’t do well in high school. He was picked on by the red-necks for being too much of a cracker. When he got older and bigger, he did some pickin on of his own. He never did graduate, I hear. After the principal got tired of him they cut him loose. Some lucky he didn't end up a jailbird in that jackdaw flock of criminals they’re raising up there at the provincial reform school.

But like most of our poorer folks, he didn't seem to mind his stock in life. He didn't know any better and besides, he had company; in his case the whole feral family Burrell, living under one roof and under what circumstances, nobody really knew.

Nobody I knew personally had ever been in the Burrell home. Nobody'd really wanted to get in there but the taxman and they're federal mostly and ain't nobody's friend. They ain’t much for talking. They seem to resent me for some reason. They come a-scowling into my store and complain: “What? You don't got Doritos? What the hell kind of crazy one-horse dump is this?” They pull their hair some of them and then get to shrieking on my porch. It’s bad for business.

Anyhow, I liked the Burrell's. And I liked Jody. He was a good crazy kid.

But old-fashioned craziness can catch up with you in the modern world. He didn't have a place. He didn't fit in. Didn't try. He wasn't near current enough for the present. How was he going to get a job in the new economy that was showing up, even around here? We were getting a lot of computer people and government employees moving out here. “Getting back to nature” they call it. But then they hire students and foreigners for their menial work. The point is: they’d never hire Jody.

His family was like white Injuns or something. Didn’t fit in with today, and not primitive enough to live off the land anymore. There's skills needed to live off the land. I don't mean farming; I mean live off it like a wild animal. Like before Noah and the Flood, ancient times when people was eating nuts and caterpillars, tickling fish in rivers, and stuff.

Jody wasn't neither fish nor fowl. That's the opposite of what you got to be today. It's like my store here, it's supplying a niche market, you know? I sell more than just gas but it wouldn't pay to open up a grocery store. Not enough customers. Just do the math. I did.

Jody didn’t think that way. Now way, no how. He was all for keeping old-fashioned country traditions going. He didn't have no niche. No niche and you're out of the game. Extinct. This world don't wait for no one.

It all caught up with Jody. It had to. You could say he got lost.

And it's ain’t so easy to get lost in the woods these days. Everybody's got the GSP, cell phones, terrain maps, and all that. But being prepared is more than taking the right gear, especially if you’re out there alone.

Jody was the youngest in the family. He came from a big enough family, but he was the last of the line. The next brother in line was five years ahead of him and the sisters in that family don’t speak much to the brothers.

The Burrell boy’s ain’t giants, but there ain’t no runts in that family neither. Once he got into his mid-twenties he was just shy of six foot tall, but not at all shy of three foot wide. He had muscles on the back of his arms big as thigh muscles on a young city woman. He was strong and proud: had a cap that said Tuf Nut. He took pride in being crazy. He could afford the reputation: he was gainfully unemployed, like the rest of the men in his family, and planned to remain that way. When you don't have a job, when you don't run a business, you can have any old reputation you want.

He was the last in our parts of a breed that's been dying out since the Great Depression: a happy-go-lucky country-boy, born and raised in God's green acre without a care in the whole damn world. But there are country-boys and then there are country-boys. We get a lot of clodhoppers from up the way and when they seen Jody they’d sometimes swell up with pride, suck their teeth, and announce: "By the bejesus that there fellar's a goaler or I ain't never seen 'n before". This was when Jody was safely out of earshot, of course.

But this didn't mean Jody was dumb, or dumber, just that he was hard-scrabble simple. A simple man of simple pleasures. Everyone grows into the life and lifestyle God gives us.

Jody come into my general store right regular, here just off the Trans-Canada highway. When Jody'd come in, his hair usual wasn't washed and he'd be growing the dandruff like wet snow. You could sniff a mustiness in him or his clothes -- I never could tell which it was, and was too polite to ask -- from a good ten yards. His momma, a good woman, bless her soul, would come in smelling like a hard-working man at five in the afternoon. But he was happy and she was satisfied. So was I: all my customers’ money is good enough for me.

They'd come in at all hours and gape at the products, most of which they wouldn't buy, unless they five-fingered ‘er, and Jody would yell, “Holy cats, Mr. Richards, you all got any of that chocolate. The stuff they millionaires eat. You got some or what, eh?” I liked them. They were alright. Characters. Peculiar as an orange tree growing out the ass-end of the North Pole.

Jody’s education wasn’t much better than a foreigner’s. His English, the way he spoke it, was quaint, real backwoods. A dying tongue, you could say, almost, and when the Burrell's get called to heaven, that'll be all she wrote for it. Jody didn't know much history or geography. His math was weak. He could read a little if he had to, traffic signs and that; instead of writing, he could sign his name if he had to.

And like many people who're down-and-out generation after generation, he was addicted to stealing. But stealing wasn't about surviving; not anymore. Stealing was just a part of the family tradition. It was in their blood and maybe they just brought it in from the old country. For them stealing was sport. None of that “stand and deliver” stuff though. More like smaller, pleasanter stuff like calculating when the tax man (a pest to people around here) was coming around and moving the valuables, valuables as measured on the modest Burrell scale of wealth, to a safe haven. Like to one of their ramshackle hunting camps, also unknown to the tax man.

So when Jody's mom told him that they were getting short on meat in the storage freezer again, he showed some Burrell initiative. He stole the neighbor's car, again, knowing they wouldn't report it to the police who were already tired and down at the mouth after years of rescuing stolen goods that the Burrells were constantly piling up in front of their porch right behind a For Sale sign.

Not that anyone in these parts had dared purchase anything from the Burrells for years now anyway. The Burrell's always had a reputation for good-natured wildness. Lately they'd gone and freshened it up some. Just a while back, a couple of millionaires pulled up in a Ford Mustang Fastback (a fine looking woman of a car that'll piss-cutt'n tool down the road, by Gum). Well the millionaires stopped by to take a look at the Burrell tractor on the yard, though of course they didn't know it had been borrowed without permission. They were moseying around this candy-apple red John Deere tractor, a fine one-lunged antique, 1950's vintage, with the engine fired up and idling nicely. That single-cylinder makes it shiver funny, like it has the D.T.'s: you can tell it's special right off as you come up to her. They fingered the moving parts, whispering to each other real eager and sneaky-like about the asking price, while Jody's able elder brother, Vernon, crept around back the side, master-keyed or hot-wired the Fastback and screamed her right off into the bright sunny morning, hooting and hollering in the ecstasy of his success.

Of course, after the joy-ride, Vernon drove it right back on to the family property, the scene of the crime that is. This in itself is an insight into the Burrell understanding, or lack thereof, of just what constitutes criminal behavior. The truth was you just couldn't say such naïve folk was criminals. Real criminals come into my store once complaining hard that the Burrells was giving them a bad name. But us, their neighbors who knew 'em, felt the Burrells just plum didn't deserve the title.

Either way, Vernon was welcomed back as a conquering hero by his pa and his brothers, even though everyone knew he'd have to give the car back. His mom was just used to this business and sighed. His sisters didn't approve at all and fussed and clucked. Not because of the Indian-giving, but because, like all members of the fair sex, they wanted to marry up and snag something more respectable like a grocery store clerk or a gas station attendant; the climax of their romantic ambitions was a traveling insurance salesman: a breed that can retire after ten years in the field, settle down in a prefab with a view of a big rock and eat an Irving Gas Stop lunch right regular. To the man-hunting sisters, the sum and total of Vernon's antics was that he was scaring their prey away.

And so the Burrells was a dying breed; their bloodline was getting watered down to nothing. Their women-folk did their best to marry out of the family, right out of the whole Downeast region if they could manage it, coming back only to show off their newly acquired fancy airs, teeth braces, puffy hair. They always seemed to be trapping men, whether they was from up or down the river. Burrell men though, were happy with the status quo. They didn't have much money sense. They didn't need any. They paid no taxes, hunted or stole the better half of their food supply, brewed wicked moonshine that they sold for a wicked good profit to old-timers who preferred corn liquor and potato beer to the fuzzy horse-piss for tourists that cost an arm and a leg in a grocery store.

In sum, the Burrell boys were a pristine parcel of the wild and untamed past. They didn't have a disposition for the present, and were out of their element in it, though I never heard them complain. They weren't up for planning for the future, at least not a future that was more than 24 hours down the road. They were too boisterous, just full of natural-born animal spirits: the hell with the discipline of planning when there were dirt bikes to race down logging roads, snowmobiles to jump off the low cliff at the front of the property and onto the highway shoulder, game to be poached, and the Holy jumpins hot-damn fun of giving the slip to rangers and tax collectors always in hot pursuit.

Poaching, a high-sounding word used mainly by wardens, might have been Greek to the Burrells who used the proper word for the thing, which is jacking. Negatives in the area of game license and game season were overcome by the Burrells with positives like a flashlight slung with duct tape to the barrel of their shotgun or rifle. They jacked partridge in the spring, deer during the summer, shot crows out of the sky on the Sabbath, and just basically blasted to smithereens anything that moved, any time, anyhow. If you were in the neighborhood and heard buckshot scattering down like a sprinkle of light rain through the leaves behind you, or heard a bullet twang a mean streak as it when by, giving you no time to pull out of the way, the lead already plonked into a tree just over yonder by the time you take a look, well there was half a chance you'd hear a Burrell horse-laugh burst out somewhere in the woods, the echoes hee-hawing in the rocky pine laden hills. They were a bullish breed of goalers and you just couldn't keep their spirit down.

The Burrells were alright. Even if they stole everything, they could never sell nothing. If you went over to their property to reclaim your property, they never got in a snit or showed any bad humor. If anything, you were welcomed in for a glass of lemonade or more likely moonshine by one of the remaining Burrell girls, who never let an opportunity for matrimonial possibilities pass them by. If you needed a hand, and you tucked all the purloinables out of sight, you could always rely on a Burrell to lend a helping hand.

They weren't bad by design, but by habit. And everyone's got bad habits. We knew what theirs was, and adjusted to 'em, so it weren't no big deal for the rest of us. It sounded funny to outsiders, and it took a bit of explaining, but around here we grew up with them and knew them all and we felt they were pretty good reliable people in their own way. And besides, there was never any support for having the kids thrown in jail; if you threw the law at any one of them, he'd go straight into the caboose; you'd end up having to throw them all in. And then who would take care of the parents? Who would provide for their sisters? We're all for self-reliance out here and so we all felt it was better to leave them out in the open, free ranging, gallivanting and frolicking as was there wont. Besides, they were great source of entertainment in a neck of the woods that was otherwise pretty hard up.

So it was hard luck all around, when Jody bought the farm.

Jody stole that car and drove her up river past the Nackawick, Woodstock, and on a ways then. He took her up beyond the covered bridge that keeps getting smashed into by drunk drivers. Up into Acadia he went, where some of the French people only speak English and some of the English people only speak French. Most of them, though, speak both at the same time. “Sur le weekend, Je drivez le car a la gas station pour achete un hotdog ou un hamburger.” That sort of thing. You can't tell if they're coming or going.

Problem was neither did Jody once he got out of the car. This was new territory for him. He'd took his favorite pooch, Martha, just in case he got lost.

Martha was Jody's pit-bull. She was smart and loyal, and did no harm to no one. About thirty five kilos, she came in piebald, her muzzle graying a bit. She and Jody had been introduced during his teens and they grew up together and were real close, like a brother and sister almost. Jody's real sisters were too busy man-hunting to give him the time of day.

Jody peeled off the TransCanada, found himself an unfamiliar paved road going west toward the US border. There was no traffic, none at all. This was one of the new improved roads the gov'ment put in for tourists from out of the province and sportsmen from the city, but which had little real application for locals. He was taking her easier now, peering up both ways through the woods, looking for a good mix of hard and softwoods, not just the northern pine, cedar, larch and tamarack which leave acidic soils no good for much else but theyselves to grow. He was looking for mixed cover, the kind that would provide food for deer. Best of all, he wanted a patch of abandoned farm-land. There was lots of that around his place farther south, with all the people pulling up during the Depression and heading West.

Martha wasn't interested in their destination. She just sat on the front bucket seat, snoozing and cracking an eye when they hit a rougher bump and then snoozing some more. She'd done this all before. She knew there's no sense in worrying about something when you can't do nothing about it.

Heading down the road some more, more excited by the prospect of finding some light broadleaf greenery and not paying attention to where he was, Jody advanced another 20 km or so. Still finding nothing, he made a personal promise to hit the first dirt trail he found ahead. He found something on the right, pulled up, took a look at the tracks. It wasn't a skidder's track, with ruts three foot deep, but a sportsman's track. Or maybe it was a prospecting road built through Crown Land. There was grass growing up, larger in the midsection, but also growing up in the ruts as well. It must have been a couple of months at least since someone else passed through here with a vehicle.

As to who owned the land, it never crossed Jody's mind to wonder. Private property wasn't an obstacle, but a challenge. A natural hunter, his pulse quickened at the thought of virgins, virgin land and virgin wildlife, and he put the car into gear, floored her, spun the tires, and headed in.

Perhaps this is good place as any to explain why he stole the car. It wasn't because he needed a vehicle, although he did, but mostly because if you get caught jacking deer then the government confiscates your vehicle. If you walk out of your house and jack a deer, then the government confiscates your house. They're pretty strict about that kind of thing. I even heard of a fellar's helicopter being confiscated once. Serious.

Jody navigated the road for another twenty or thirty kilometers, coming into the kind of bad lands that was probably underwater once. It looks sort of like seashore: beaten up into weird pretty shapes and demolished into smithereens the rest of it. It's that kind of property that's full of hundred meter bluffs and drop-offs for no good reason. It's full of stumps of mountains just jumped up out of nowhere that got chopped off at the hip and only reach half-way up into the sky. It's full of clumps of land that shoot out the ground wearing a crown of trees like a carrot top. It looks like something out of biblical times or maybe what the world will come to after Armageddon, Lord preserve us.

It ought to be full of savages or demons, but it's empty as a funeral parlor come Monday Night Football. You could never farm it. Your livestock and your women would break their necks every other day if they had to tramp it. I can't even be sure if even the wild animals like it. It gives anyone with imagination the creeps, though I guess in all fairness it's not dangerous to be there and you aren't cursed if you look at it too long, but by Jimminy it's sure not a good place to go out by yourself without a cellphone or a buddy or something.

Well, Jody wasn't well traveled and he'd never seen anything like this. Though, truth be told, down in the Gagetown Military Base, they got plenty of this crazy wildnerness that nobody wants but the airforce and the artillery boys, both of which loves themselves better than Jesus and is crazier than hell and loves to bomb anything that moves, or doesn't even. Their excuse was they were bombing badlands into good lands. Well, whatever gets your crank going.

Jody kept driving through a parcel of these bad lands and was ever so tired of finding nothing what he wanted to find, before he got to something like what he wanted. He put the car into a stop. He rolled down the electric windows, and then rolled them up and down again just for the sheer fun of it, feeling particular proud of himself today and enjoying the fine weather, and inhaling the plasticky smell of the new car which he then figured he'd help break in with a smoke. He got out a pack of Carleton Craven A's, his grandaddy's Zippo, lit 'er up and took a puff. Lazily leaning out, he said to Martha, "Well what's your opinion on this old gal?"

He tickled her and she barked at him, lazily getting up, panting and leaning against the car door, impatiently signaling Jody to open it. He leaned over, patted her graciously and then pushed the door open. Martha plopped out the side door, sniffed around a bit, looking for a place to wee-wee.

Jody got out to do his own business, unzipping his Levis and taking care not to water his Greb Kodiaks, both of which came from the Salvation Army Store down there in Woodstock. Jody was dressed good, wearing a solid tartan lumberjack jacket, cloth gloves in his pockets for heavy work, a Tractor Caterpillar cap (probably quick-fingered from an Irving store) on his head for show. If it wasn't for his nutty yellow teeth, his skin porous like volcano rock, and the sort of stale meaty ripeness that reached out to you when you were indoors with him, you'd never tell him from no one else. He was a little grungy, but that’s almost fashionable these days? He was seldom outright dirty. Burrells had standards like anyone else.

Looking across from the edge of the road, he saw a spit of lazy valley in between two of these menacing breaks. Their color, the speckled yellow autumn leaves of deciduous birch and poplar, contrasting with the hillside cedars and hilltop pines made Jody figure this would be a spot of acreage damper than the rest, maybe warmer too depending on how the wind broke around these pokey hills, and which maybe held a cove of broadleaf trees which might stretch out and prove to be a streak coming on several kilometers. This ought to attract game and might maybe have attracted farm people in the old days. Warm images of apple trees gone wild, fallen feral pears being pecked up by partridge and nibbled on by deer filled his mind's eye. That just goes to show how little Jody knew about farming. He was way out in the middle of nowhere. Farmers need neighbors, amongst other things.

But Jody didn't need a lot of learning, he only needed enough to get by. He'd had enough of homework at school. He went around the back of the car and opened the trunk and took out his 12 gauge, a pack of slugs (for deer or moose) and a pack of bird shot (for everything else). He opened up his Coleman cooler and moved the ice aside to get at his wonderbread bags in which he'd cached his hot dogs, hotdog buns. He reached in and found his sole luxury, a sixpack of Moosehead and stuff the whole kit into a hard-worn blue backpack. He was carrying food and drink for him and Martha.

He loaded up a couple of slugs into the shotgun, feeding them through the breech, called Martha out of the car. He looked for a open way, an animal trail or a barren break in the rocky soil where the brambles and trees hadn't got a foothold into the soil and gone and selfishly choked everything up. Finding something promising, he started tramping down and made his towards the valley area.

But just as soon as he started hoofing good and proper, he felt a gust of wind at his back. He pulled up. When the gust reached a grove of poplar trees ahead of him in the distance, they shed leaves from their upper branches, coming down like flurries of cornflakes.

He pulled up. He needed to get behind this wind so his and Martha's smell wouldn't spook the deer. Today the wind was gusting and blowing, sure to make everything, from the partridge to the red squirrels, flighty and fidgety.

Well that was a pain in the arse. Hunt with the wind in your face and you could load yourself up with cologne and pomade if you liked and you wouldn't scare nothing off. You might attract varmints downwind though, like an old-timer bear that thought you was a pile of garbage on the move or a swarm of bees that mistook you for a pretty flower and decided to settle down in your hair and scrounge around. It's just better to go natural-smelling like Jody and Martha.

Jody thought for a second. He figured he ought'n not tramp through the valley and double back, 'cause that leave tracks and a smell trail behind. These animals not being used to people, might scare particular easy.

He took a round-about route. He'd have to navigate the crazy badlands, but he was full of beans and spirit. When he got tired, he'd light a fire and cook up some hot dogs and crack open a couple of home-brew.

He lit a cigarette and spat on the ground. Martha looked at him and whined, wondering why he was hesitating. She was excited by the new smells, the smell trails that crossed her high-powered nose and got her right eager to search out everything out in her invisible world. Jody said, "Hold your frickin horses girl! We'll get her going up the trail there in just a minute. Give us a second to enjoy our smoke."

Flicking the butt into the bushes, Jody hauled off a few minutes later. They tramped and tramped, Jody keeping the sun to his left as it rose high in the morning sky. They passed through groves of spruce, infested with budworms that fell and got to crawling in his hair. The occasional copse of already naked maples, made things easier now and again, the leaves went red as blush as early as August and had now faded into a healthy dirt-brown. The lay of the territory was uneven, a lot of broken rock and loose gravel tumbled down from the hillsides around them making it like treading on sand sometimes, sapping your energy by making you work twice as hard for every step. Everywhere was hillsides and sloppy ground. Visibility was piss-poor, there being no end in sight of these badlands.

And this forest was virtually un-traveled by man which meant it wasn't cleared of brush. There was a terrible clot of branches at body height every which way you went. Jody had to put on his work gloves right quick but he still got scratched up good in between where the gloves ended and where his sleeves was being pushed back by the tangled brush. Where the light filtered down, speckled and sparkling as it reached the ground, there was knee-high ferns, fiddle-head stumps, and bracken. And where this ran out, there was streams and slippery rocks, where he spent most of his time going slow and careful, trying not to sprain his ankle

But he was a tuf nut, and it didn't bother him much at first. Wild land like this ought to hold a lot of good sized animals back in that valley. Not that there was much here right now. He hadn't raised so much as even a partridge yet and he'd gone, he figured, at least a kilometer, and he'd had such high hopes. Well, he kept going. Further and further, deeper and deeper.

The sun got covered over around noon, about three hours after he'd started out. He and Martha was getting hungry and he looked about for a place to start up some lunch. The forest was thick as thieves with brush and hardly a clearing anywhere, except for deadfalls, where mostly huge red and white pine had died and toppled over. It wasn't safe for a camp fire though, as it was dry as tinder and would go up as fast as kindling. He kept tramping around, through endless spruce forest, sometimes a quarter acre of it half-killed by the budworm. And then he found a patch of bog and some alder, right next to a patch of forest. The alder was useless for fire, and he couldn't find any rocks nearby.

He continued on for another quarter of a kilometer, when he found a patch of pine. He had a sudden premonition that there would be a patch of snow underneath. Sure enough, there it was, and as he followed the rim of it, he saw the outline of half a footprint. He stood up and stared at it. He couldn't have been more shocked if he'd seen a ghost. He was out alone out here for sure, weren't he? He looked around, wondering if there was rangers in the area. He thought, Holy o Martha! Of all the gravelroader places in the world for to meet up with a ranger.

Martha sniffed at the footprint and looked up and started barking. Jody sunk down to his knees and muzzled her with his hands: "Fucking Jesus H., girl! We ain't alone out here maybe now..."

But then he started to have second thoughts. He went over and looked at the tread on the footprint. As he got closer it looked to be Greb Kodiak, though half the people around these parts wear that brand of boot when they go trotting in the woods. He went to measure his foot up beside the print, but not before Martha trotted over and stopped right in the middle of it, staring up at him.

Jody shouted, "Jumpins! Will you get the jeepers away from there, girl?" and shoved Martha impatiently, though she was ready for him and sunk down and put her weight into the snow, making Jody work twice as hard. By the time, he'd shoved her off, he was saying "Aw, for the love o' Christ, girl! Get to..." The track was gone and replaced with Martha's doggy snow angel. He couldn't reckon the size of the print now, but he'd got a good enough glimpse to starting to wonder if it was his own boot print.

Anybody could wander in a circle, he thought. No shame in that. Many people did it. But those that did it often ended up doing it again. And again. Nobody did it on purpose. That was the problem. Nobody ever felt lost until they got lost. And once they got lost, they often stayed lost.

He didn't want to worry; he wasn't the worrying kind anyway. Besides, he and Martha needed some food. Perfect opportunity to stop and think. He pulled out some snow into a pile. But he couldn't get his mind off of where he was. He'd been out of sight of the valley for a while now, and then he thought back, maybe he'd been out of sight of it for an hour. He wasn't sure.

He'd got a watch for his birthday once. He came into the store real proud, but he got tired of it real quick. It was just a toy to him. Not serious.

The Burrell men seldom held a job, so they didn't usually operate by schedules. They laughed at regular people and we laughed back. It was all good-natured.

But now Jody felt like he could do with knowing the time and looked up at the sky. It had been overcast for a while now. How long, he couldn't remember. What time it was now, he didn't have a clue. Somewhere around noon anyway. What'd it really matter, anyway?

He looked around for a patch of white birch trees, for to take the naturally peeling bark as kindling. But he found none. The pine needles would have to do, a little damp as they were on the ground.

He pulled out some snow and piled it in a ring. Then he gathered some twigs for kindling and some larger branches and the like. He piled it up pretty rough as was his way and then scooped up pine needles, mostly from the top drier layer on the ground under the pine trees and placed them in a good way to get the kindling going. He pulled out his daddy's zippo and gave the light to her. The needles started to crackle slowly, resisting the flame. The moisture in 'em made 'em twist and smoke something awful but Jody kept the Zippo moving around, touching up this bit of needles and that bit when they looked like they was getting ready to give up the flame. After fifteen minutes, he finally got the fire going tolerable.

He coaxed it and controlled it right, not letting it get too big and fetching some more snow to keep the fire from spreading on the ground by itself. Sometimes the needles on the forest floor can be several feet thick, but usually the stuff underneath is too damp to burn.

Then he took up a fine long green stick that he'd cut off a poplar and took out a greasy wiener from his pack and impaled it and held it over the fire. Propping it between his knees, he took out another and gave it directly to Martha for her supper. Martha held it down with a paw, like it was threatening to run off, and then attacked it from the side to give herself full advantage over the slippery pink devil. Jody smiled and hauled a bun out and got ready to put toast it as well. He'd put his beer out early, away from the fire, to let it settle after all his tramping so all the fizz didn't come out when he opened it. It was pretty good looking pilsner bottled by his ma in 3/4 liter jam jars, as is her way.

With the weather front coming in, the wind was still carrying away up in the tree tops, but it was no worry to Jody. It didn't look like it was going to rain anytime soon.

The weather up here by the Atlantic, where the St. Lawrence River comes into the ocean, often gets backed up. Weather fronts get hemmed in by hurricanes coming up from the south and Arctic winds blowing down from the north. The weather can stay sunny or overcast or anything else for two weeks at a time.

Jody didn't understand this, and wouldn't have felt he needed to know if you told him. All Jody cared about was whether it was going to rain, which it wasn't, and if the wind was going to stop and make the hunting better. That's what he was wondering.

As if to answer that last question, he heard another gust of wind blew through the trees above him but he didn't pay it any mind. And so he didn't see the flurry of pine needles and broadleaves that started to fall down in the woods around him like in slow motion, all around him. As the first needles hit the fire, they crackled brightly. They were dry as a bone; wind-blown and sun-dried. They fell like chips of cardboard dabbed in kerosene, like bits of paper dipped in starter fuel.

He heard the crackle get louder, but paid it no mind. Fire always wants to grow, especially in dry woods, and the flames started climbing the column of falling needles and leaves. They moved up into the airborne trail in thin lightening-quick orange tongues. Up six feet, then twelve, then twenty, climbing and climbing and making the upper extended branches of the pine tree sizzle and smoke. And then, with a great whoosh that pressed in on your eardrums, the whole side of the pine tree conflagrated.

As he looked up, he instinctively pulled back away. Woodsman cutting down trees were killed every year by falling branches, and it was second nature to move away from any tree when in doubt. Sure enough, termite eaten boughs and wood-pecker decimated branches, began to fall as Jody leaped out and away. Martha joined him barking loudly in a panic, wondering why fire was falling out of the sky.

Jody pulled up about thirty feet away, the tree beside his fire completely aflame in the way only pine trees seem to go. Like nature's fire cracker, they go up into flame real fast, snap and pop and crackle, their branches crashing and exploding into showers of sparks as they hit the ground.

Then Jody realized that all his food plus his shotgun was at near the fire. There was nothing he could do but move to a safer distance and pray. And so he took Martha with them another hundred feet away from the fire, waiting for the shells to heat up in the shotgun and explode.

"For fuck's sake. That's a bitch. Well fuck me, already, eh!"

He cursed and cursed, but what good was it? Anyway, it was clear that it was time to be getting back to the car. At least Martha had some food. He reached in his pockets for his cigarettes, looked as a pocket found, to his relief, his pa's Zippo lighter. Things could have been worse he thought. Much worse. He thanked his lucky stars.

He turned his back on the fire, there was nothing he could do about it anyway. Not that this was how Jody looked at the situation; he was another responsible more not responsible as far as he sighed. The fire happened, it got out of control, and that was the end of it. But he was lucky, the wind was blowing in the right direction, and he was right up close to a rock face so when the fire blew up towards it, it had nowhere to go and it went out within 20 minutes.

Once Jody got going, he started to think about that footprint again. He kept popping into his mind, and he was determined not to go in circles. He tried to get a fix on his general direction, but the sun refused to come out. He didn't know if he was coming or going. There was no line of sight from where he was.

So he made his way to climbed to the top of one of the steeper taller hills. It was a devil getting up but he was made of solid stuff and he'd get there hell or high water. He run into a bee's nest but made it past with only three stings and Martha whimpering with her own complaints now. It was all dry pines up there, about one hundred and fifty foot above the land and all around him all he could for the life of him was more of the same Badlands.

And then he looked real careful and at a great distance, he made out two mountains. Yeah, there they were, coming in and out of focus, at a vast distance, lighter, almost whiter maybe, than the deep green background. He was puzzled. He'd never seen them before. He'd never even seen anything properly described as a mountain in his life. But he'd never looked for one either. He'd never tried. He'd never had to. So he wasn't the preparing kind.

But now that he'd found them where were they? The mountains could've been to the north in Québec, to the south by St. Andrews, or to the west in Maine.

He had no idea what he was looking at, and even if he had, he hadn't brought a map. And even if he had, he couldn't read maps. Geography wasn't an interest of his. The Burrells didn't exactly have hobbies. Life was a hobby and that was the end of it.

Then he thought back to movie that he'd seen, in which this fellow grabbed a couple of geese and wrote directions on pieces of paper and then tied the paper to their ankles. But then he thought, he didn't have a paper, he didn't have a pen, and he couldn't write much more than to sign his name.

With the overcast weather, what he really needed was a compass. But of course that wasn't part of his gear. Instead, he went rooting around the woods looking for some spruce, with Martha tagging along behind. He wanted to find some grandfathers beard, because he knew that it grew on the North Side of spruce trees. But we found some, it was growing in every direction, often wrapping right around the whole tree trunk.

Perhaps the most obvious tool missing from his kit was simply a mobile phone. But Jody spent more time talking to Martha than anyone else. And if Martha didn't have a phone, then who was he going to call? I never heard his mom say nothing to him but: “Don’t touch that Jody.” The only thing she ever said to me was: “He takes after his daddy.”

So Jody realized he was in a fix. But he was nothing if not resourceful.

Smoke was still coming up from the fire, though just a little now, and it occurred to him but maybe he should get another big fire going. This time on purpose. That was the ticket! What he needed to do was get a signal going, like the Injuns with their smoke signals, eh? he thought to himself.

The rangers had professional fire watchers watching in towers, and they'd surely come. Where there's smoke there's fire, the rangers always say. All he had to do was get a good fire going, and that would bring out the government boys like a swarm of flies to a steaming pile of road apples. He'd hide out somewhere close by and follow them when they went out. They'd blame her on heat lightening and never figure out what really happened.

He looked at Martha and patted her shaggy coat lovingly and then exclaimed ouch! Pulling up his hand, he found a bee attached to it by the ass end. He pulled the bee away from his palm, the doomed insect's stinger still inside his skin. But it was a minor irritation, nothing that would slow Jody down. He was a tuf nut.

But now he needed to rely upon his wits. The Burrells weren't dumb, or dumber, just hardscrabble simple.

He looked around, looked around for a good thick clump of trees, ones with leaves still on ‘em or plenty of needles that might make for a good fire that’d have to last long enough for it to be spotted and considered dangerous enough to warrant putting out. And so, instead of setting fire to the clump of trees at the top of his Badlands hills, a fire which would have started and gone out of its own accord, running out of timber and underbrush in a jiffy, he did the smart thing and went down to the floor where the forest was thicker and broader, and with its more mixed stock of wood, just better all around for fires. Well he was right. It would be better all right. Even better than he could have hoped.

He'd used up so much fuel in the Zippo getting that first fire started that he wanted something good and fierce this time, no mistake. He looked around from his elevation and saw a fine bunch of hardwoods, white and gold birch, on the outside of a moist depression in the land that was filled with water-loving cedars. He’d have bark for kindling, the cedars ought to go up like that exploding pine tree of his and the hardwood of the trees themselves would keep burning and smoking for hours he figured, just like in the fireplace.

He was being smart, relying on his wits. He had no choice. He had to. All the more power to him. He had no experience and no primitive man’s common sense for this sort of thing.

Coming down a different side of the hill, he and Martha came down sliding and skidding through the loose stone, fetching up on a tree now and again, but making pretty good time. Jody didn’t want to waste no time and have to spend a damp evening out here getting his arse chewed up by mosquitoes and no-see-ums, and wake up with his clothes soaked in morning dew.

They got down into the flatland and lost sight of the lay of the land. They were back to being surrounded by huge hillocks and knobby shoals of stone with carrot-tops of pines.

When they got to the birches and cedars, Jody found the cedars a bit green for his liking. The worms and caterpillars were eating the spruce and left the cedars alone. Woodpeckers drove holes into them, deer rubbed their antlers on ‘em, and bears practiced their clawing on ‘em, but they weren’t no worse for it. The cedars would burn, but only with an effort and he was worried about his Zippo fuel.

So he went around tearing off birch bark, building up a pile about three feet high. The stuff was everywhere and he was done in twenty minutes. Then he got some wood going, collecting underbrush, which was everywhere too. He looked around and decided to collect it around the base of three birches that was growing close together, like three trees coming out of the same root system. He looked up and figured they’d topple three different ways and the rest of the woods would catch.

He was explaining this to Martha, for no reason other than his lonely habit of talking to her, when he said, “and then girl, the rest of the woods, they’ll fetch a hell of a fire and then…” The words stuck in his mouth at this point as he realized that he was in the woods. If they burned, he’d burn.

That could be a problem. He looked around and figured, he’d better figure out which way the wind was blowing. He looked way up to the top of the hillocks. There was the occasional waft of wind but it looked pretty quiet. He ought to be safe, but which way it was blowing, he still couldn’t be sure. Would the wind change? He looked at the sky. It hadn’t changed a bit. But now that the clear skies had changed to overcast and the new front had moved in good and solid, the original gusting wind had given up the ghost. He wanted to head back up there and check the wind. But he was getting tired, he’d had no food all day now and it took a hell of an effort to climb the loose scree, the gravel that fell away and made you work twice as hard to get anywhere.

And the time… It was late fall and the sun would be going down. He couldn’t tell with the overcast sky and without a watch. Maybe it was down already and the late country twilight would start to fade real quick. If it got dark, there wouldn’t be no rangers until the next morning at the earliest.

He scratched his head. Sea breeze, land breeze, heat lightening, northern lights… The only thing he really knew about weather was to come in from out of the rain.

He didn’t farm, he didn’t sail. The weather forecasts in these here parts was useless anyway. Wicked unpredictable weather. It rained warm rain right regular in winter. It could snow wet snow in summer. The temperature got warmer 10 degrees Celsius a month as you came onto summer and colder 18 degrees Fahrenheit every month as you got towards winter. The only thing that didn’t change was change. The only thing reliable about the weather was that it was unreliable.

But still, it weren’t so crazy that you couldn’t tell if you were coming or going in the next half an hour. He looked around, looking for answers. What would the Injuns do? He cracked a smile. Picturing their casinos, they’d probably call for a taxi and a rent-a-squaw.

Be serious now, he thought. Alright now, he looked around some more. Up and down. He heard ducks and looking up saw a late gaggle flying south, way up high in a high irregular V, missing a couple of birds as if some hunter had already potted two out on their left flank.

His eyes came back down from the sky and landed on a couple of red pines, their branches extended out to his left, out from their chopped flathead mountaintop. That had something to do with something, didn’t it? Maybe. Was they growing out into the sun. Or was they growing away from the wind to get away from it, like a tail on a bird? Or was they growing into the wind to fetch more rain, like a rain spout? Or was it something else, even more scientific? Scientists would know; Injuns would know. But he didn’t.

He blew out his cheeks and said aloud, “Shoot!” Should he flip a coin and decide? He thought about plants: grass (grows every direction), alders (grows out messy), birch (grows up like a light-bulb), cedars (grows up straight like an arrow). He wished to hell he had a phone so he could ask somebody what to do. He thought to himself that if he was a millionaire he’d call in a taxi with a flat of beers and a deluxe pizza. Too slow. He’d have it delivered by helicopter. Tell a ranger to fly it in and be quick about it. He wouldn’t give him no tip if he put on any uppity airs.

And then he snapped out of his reverie. “Boys oh boys! Shut up! For the love of Christ, Jody! We got to get a move on here!”

Martha yawned.

Jody looked up at the trees and made his decision. Up above, behind him, the remaining tree leaves on several maples were starting to come down to ground as the prevailing afternoon breeze started to pick up and gust a little bit.

Jody didn’t notice. He’d already made his guess about the prevailing wind and chosen his direction of retreat after he got the fire going. He took out his lighter and got a nice blaze going. It didn’t take any coaxing, the bark catching quickly, spreading to the dead and dry branches. It was something to behold. The bark on the trees was catching now, sometimes peeling off and falling back to earth and burning out, but more often catching and climbing the tree, piece by piece, until the fire got up to the patch of yellow leaves on the first birch and they went up nice and crisp, faster than newspaper, first one patch then another then another. The first tree was in flames all over and then the second started to go. Jody backed up, turning around and getting some distance, letting Mother Nature do what she does best: destruction on a massive scale.

You get a good forest fire going and it rolls up like a volcano exploding at you, like I seen on TV. It comes at you like a storm-front with the clouds of smoke going up thousands of feet sometimes, like a small slice of Armageddon.

But Jody wasn’t thinking this. He was just playing it safe using what he did know. He was playing it smart too by keeping at a calculated distance and going in the direction his wits and judgment told him to go. And just in case he was wrong, he was staying down in the flat area, where he could run hell for leather in any direction required, though he wasn’t planning on it.

The fire grew and grew and he began to smell the sweet fragrance of success. The perimeter of the fire was growing gradually, but most importantly there was lots of flames and smoke as the underbrush got heated up and the green cedars released clouds of steam before they got dry enough to shoot into flames like rocket fuel.

Jody was sitting down and getting comfortable. He was so tired he fell asleep. The perimeter of the fire kept expanding, but his falling asleep didn’t make his situation any more dangerous. What counted was the prevailing wind, west to east, that moved from up in the hillocks and down into the flatland.

The rangers clocked the fire starting at 4:14 pm. When it was still going and they could see she was getting bigger, they sent a spruce budworm spray plane out to take a gander at about 4:35. The weather folks say the wind that afternoon was ten mile an hour with gusts of 12 to 15.

Ten miles an hour sounds pretty slow and the gusts are only now and again. But the wind don’t quit. On a straight road you’d have to be a marathon runner to outrun this wind and then some. Now try to imagine sprinting through the deep woods. Forget it. Now try to imagine being Jody, three hundred pounds of good-natured muscle and fat. The only time he ever run was to the bathroom when a meal didn’t suit his digestion. Now imagine him hoofing it through the waist-high tangled brush in steel-toed steel-shanked work-boots, crashing through untrimmed trees, traversing tiny slippery brooks too small but for minnows and twisting your leg that they got up there. So Jody’s napping had little to do with anything. Probably just made it worse because he had more energy to panic and fight against what couldn’t be defeated.

He woke to the sound of Martha barking and whining, and as he opened his eyes, he saw the yellow golden light of fire in the branches above him. He jumped up and looked around. “Holy jeepers Mother of Martha!”

There was wall of fire in front of him that rose as it reached around to behind him. He hotfooted it through the back, going straight behind him, leaving his jacket and lighter and booting it, hell for leather. But the fire was traveling with the free unbroken breeze above, in the crown of the forest, leaping and jumping, slower than he could run but with an awful unstoppable purpose. It didn’t slow down to take a breather. It burned from the top down and though Jody got off to a terrific speed, the fire never let up on him.

He never understood what was happening. He had no conception of fire traveling untrammeled through tree tops. He didn’t know that the principle problem, even now, was carbon monoxide poisoning as the oxygen got burned up and sucked out from below, leaving him in a breathless death trap. He didn’t even comprehend carbon monoxide. He’d never heard of it.

All he did know was that embers kept falling down at him, branches crashing down from the top of the forest, threatening to brain him. As soon as he got ahead of the conflagration, it’d catch right back up to him within a couple of minutes. He’d have to sprint all day and all night at top speed to get away from it. A deer maybe could do it, but not a human being, he figured. Maybe not even an Olympic athlete jumped up on crank.

And there was this strange tiredness he felt. His energy being sapped, an odd drowsiness that broke through his excitement, that slowed his footfalls, that gave him a tunnel vision that came and went, but seemed particularly strong when the fire got particularly tight on his heels.

He ought to have tried to head for high-ground, to get himself up and above the flames. But he was so suddenly fagged out that the prospect of a slow climb through sapping gravel seemed crazy. He figured the whole valley had to be in a conflagration by now. Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea after all. He had no view of the forest from where he was and no time to get one. It would be getting dark any minute now, no it was getting dark wasn’t it? With all this smoke, with no way to tell the time, he couldn’t be sure.

But still this didn’t have to be the end of him. He could have headed for wet, low ground, getting his nose down as low as possible to the ground, so that the air he was breathing was the same oxygen-rich brew as Martha’s. Martha wasn’t getting tired, old as she was; or at least no more tired than usual. But he wasn’t paying attention to Martha and even if he had, he wouldn’t have understood the significance of it. He would’ve figured there was something about Martha’s constitution, being a dog, that gave her better wind. That it was natural. He had little knowledge of science. He didn’t know about situating yourself in the right air-stream. He didn’t know that most folks die of bad air before the heat of the fire ever gets to them.

He kept at it heroically for two kilometers, driving himself on and on. He stumbled many a time, falling down flat, cutting up the meat of his hands on the stone and twigs, the pain not hitting him sharply though and his fatigue curiously comforting and evermore accompanied by a strange pressing thought to give in, give in, give in. But Martha barked fiercely whenever he hesitated. More importantly he was determined to win; to defeat this adversary through sheer force of will, through his usual impertinence, through throwing all care to the wind and just going for it, just as he had defeated so many other adversaries: the law, rangers, social conventions. He wasn’t about to die a fool, a failure, a clown who had brought on his own demise. And so he forced himself to get up many a time, over and over, but lurching increasingly drunkenly, with fatigue pulling ever harder at his heels, a smooth fog dulling his mind.

Martha was in the good air and didn’t feel any of this. She only understood the need to get to safety. She was forever barking, whining, pressing him on when he fell. She didn’t understand his tiredness, his heavy footfalls, his tendency to founder and be brought up by even the smallest of obstacles now. This wasn’t like Jody at all.

When it finally got too much for him, he was just tramping along, following Martha who had gone from follower to leader. He stumbled a last time over a stray root, not precisely an obstacle for it only protruded an inch from the ground. But his legs weren’t pumping normally and his feet weren’t rising properly. He fetched up and fell to his knees, as if ready for this, as if only needing the right excuse to fetch up and take it easy.

If he would have collapsed fully, gone prostrate, he might have got a few lungfuls of real air and regained his energy, cleared his head. But, like all of us, he was a creature of habit and dignity. He decided he wanted to meet his maker in a proper dignified manner and so he sat up, leaning against a rock protruding from the thin soil sparsely covering the ancient glacial moraine below. It was more peaceful here he noted.

The wind was howling and swirling around the base of the taller trees like tornadoes, the fire atop of them pulling up the good air from the bottom of the forest and sucking in the already combusted waste air from all around the vicinity, filling Jody’s surroundings with a poisonous miasma.

He suddenly jerked, panicking with a vision of himself found blackened and crispy, like an overdone barbequed chicken, the skin split and the meat scorched. But the panic faded, like everything was strangely fading in his mind. He really was tired, but then calm, relaxed, comfortable, happy, almost delirious. His remaining instincts told him to run, but the rest of him told him to stay a while and take it easy, to see what would happen and take in the sights.

He heard an unusual noise. Not the whoosh of the fire, the crashing of falling tree limbs, or the climbing volume of the crackle of the leaves, which were so regular that he no longer heard them. It was Martha barking right up close at him, baring her teeth as if to attack. She was confused, scared at this odd languorousness of Jody’s in the face of clear and pressing danger. She’d never seen this before.

Jody was feeling really good now, at peace with himself and the world, and decided generously that he wanted to share it Martha. He grabbed her up carelessly, though she felt unusually heavy. But she was his dog, his faithful, his best and only friend. He wanted to protect the old girl, calm her nerves. He’d stay with her till the end.

Martha relented in the old convivial embrace. But another falling branch came crashing down, dropping sparks on her and Jody, and the fear of her coat catching on fire brought her sharply back to the present. She didn’t share Jody’s notion of getting called to Heaven. She barked fiercely at Jody, whose head was falling down, slumping happily, heavily, clumsily, insensibly on his shoulders. She barked again twice, again failing to understand his complacency and then bit hard into Jody’s arm to put some sense back into him. Jody felt the bite, not deeply or sharply, but still he felt it and he made a fish-mouth expression of tired surprise, inhaled more poisoned air, and reflexively let go his grip on Martha. She bounded out of his lap and stood there in front of him barking fiercely to get Jody to move.

But again there was that smile on his face where there should have been fear. His eyes were closed again, when they should have been open. And so Martha left, left him there, running for her own safety, running for her own life, running for the sound of the sirens her sharp ears could vaguely distinguish now and then through the howling hurricane force winds that swirled about her.

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