by Rodford Edmiston
©2000 Stickmaker -- all rights reserved
The get-together began winding down not long after dark. The family had only kerosene lanterns and candles for lighting, after all. Even so, excitement still ran high in some of the younger family members, especially Billy. The adults had mostly themselves to blame for this, what with their talk of how nearby Middlesboro -- just five years old -- was getting electricity and gas plumbing and even a sewage treatment plant.
But they weren't entirely to blame in Billy's case; the boy had been feeling restless, lately, and taken to moody silences punctuated by outbursts of anger or manic enthusiasm. Most folks just put it down to him getting ready for his growth spurt, but some felt that there might be more happening. A few feared that might be the case.
Billy was sitting on the edge of the porch, staring into the darkness under the trees, when his Uncle Clayton dropped down beside him.
"Having fun, Billy?" his uncle asked.
Billy grinned at him and nodded, but didn't say anything. Clayton smiled back, but there was something else there, something evaluating the boy. Suddenly, the man's smile turned impish, and he leaned towards Billy in a conspiratorial manner.
"Tell you what. You wait 'till about half an hour after they put you to bed and turn out the lights, then you sneak out and meet me by the well. I've got something to show you."
Billy nodded eagerly, feeling an odd excitement. He sat, shivering a bit in eager anticipation, as Clayton slapped him playfully on the knee and rose to go talk to the adults. Billy noticed that some of them frowned when they saw Clayton coming. He was puzzled as to why most people didn't like Clayton much. Even his own Pa, Clayton's older brother, sometimes made it clear that Clayton wasn't to stay after dark. But here, at the family get-together at Granpaw and Granma's, Billy's uncle was welcome, in spite of what other relatives and in-laws thought of him.
Billy couldn't understand any of this, not really. Clayton was always friendly, especially with the kids, and never bothered anybody who didn't bother him or one of his kin or friends first. Billy was little troubled by the fact that he didn't know what his Uncle did for a living. He figured that was adult stuff, a view confirmed by the way they fell silent or became vague when talking about Clayton, at least when there were kids around.
He had heard some folks say he took after Clayton, which gave Billy an intense feeling of pride. He hoped he grew up to look like his uncle, with those dramatic, bushy, joined eyebrows and piercing brown eyes.
Of course, just because the adults wouldn't talk about Clayton around the youngsters didn't stop them from speculating. Some said he was a trader, or a moonshiner, both honorable professions in their own way. Whenever Billy heard kids spreading gossip about his Uncle he was quick to correct them, loudly and firmly, giving the official story that he was a surveyor. But that just didn't satisfy some people, usually the ones eager to say bad things about folks. Why, just last week one older boy had stated as a fact that Clayton was a Pinkerton.
That had led to a rather spectacular blow-up, aright blizzard of a fight. Billy grinned fiercely in the shadows, remembering. He'd been hurt some, sure, but that bigger boy had gotten the worst of it. The other kids knew better than to tackle Billy with odds of less than four to one, but this boy was new. Well, he'd learn soon enough.
"Billy!" Aunt Levinia called. "Time for bed! Where do you want to sleep?"
"How 'bout on the porch?" Billy replied, turning to look at her.
"No, hit's gonna git too cool tonight. Everybody's inside."
"Oh. Well, how about the big feather bed in the kid's room, on the side near the window?"
That satisfied everyone but a couple of his cousins, who promptly yelled they had first rights to that position. Billy ignored them, since his claim was already accepted, and let them fight over which one of them had actually called it.
Later, after everyone had settled in and all the lanterns were out and the fire banked for the night, Billy waited impatiently. The Moon was nearly full, and he could see clearly the yard outside the window. The cool Spring air seemed to call to him. Finally, he could stand it no longer and quietly slipped out from under the covers.
"Whatcha' doin'?" Cousin Josephus sleepily murmured.
"Outhouse," whispered Billy, as he pulled on his jeans.
"Shoulda' thought o' that 'fore."
Joe turned over and was back to sleep before Billy could reply.
Billy slipped his nightshirt off and pulled on his regular shirt. Pants, socks and shoes were next. Then he slipped out the window. He skirted wide around the chicken coop. Those scrawny birds were nervous types anyway, and always protested noisily if Billy came too near. There, in the shadows by the well, barely visible even in the moonlight, was Uncle Clayton. Billy hurried over to him, but before he could ask any of his questions Uncle Clayton smiled and put a finger to his lips. Then he beckoned silently and slipped deeper into the shadows, headed for the woods opposite the road. Billy quickly followed, happily abiding by the rules of this mysterious game. Without saying a word, as silently as he could and still keep up, he hurried after his Uncle.
Clayton was a wonder. With only a bare whisper of sound, he slipped easily through places where Billy had trouble squeezing without disturbing something. Shortly they came to a game trail, and Clayton turned down it, moving even faster now. He almost seemed to have an appointment to keep. Soon, they arrived at a small clearing. Clayton moved in and sat on a log, half-rotten but still capable of providing a good perch. Billy joined him.
For several long minutes they simply sat there, drinking in the night without words or thoughts. They were in a hollow, here, but near the crest of a hill. Wind moved softly overhead, carrying a chill, but down here little of that stirred the woods, and the heat of the day lingered. The situation was actually quite comfortable.
"What do you hear?" Clayton asked softly, without warning, startling Billy.
"Uhm..." Billy looked around. "The wind in the tops of the trees. The..."
"Close your eyes," said Clayton. Billy obeyed. "Now, what do you hear?"
"Wind," whispered Billy, actually listening for the first time in his life. "Things moving. And... a fiddle?"
"Sounds like it's coming from the House place," said Clayton, with a soft chuckle. "Pretty good hoedown."
Now that he had that hint, Billy could hear the music clearly. He grinned, opened his eyes and looked at Clayton. His Uncle, however, had his own eyes closed, head tilted, nose to the wind.
"What do you smell?"
Billy closed his eyes and adopted a pose similar to his Uncle's.
"Flowers. Plants." He snickered. "Something got skunked."
Again, his Uncle chuckled a bit.
"Uhm..." said Billy, frowning in concentration. "Smoke. Wood and tobacco. Somethin' spicy."
Billy continued for several minutes, with occasional prompting or comment from his Uncle. He was amazed. He'd never paid much attention to his nose before, and not realized that he could smell this well; or that anyone could.
"What do you feel?"
Billy opened his mouth, and paused. He was filled with a strange mix of emotions and sensations that he didn't know how to describe. "Wild," he whispered, finally.
Billy could sense his uncle moving beside him, but was too caught up in this new world of sensation to think much of it.
"Now, what do you hear?"
There was a soft whisper of air over wings, followed by a squeal of pain and a brief thrashing.
"Sounds like an owl just got supper," said Billy, grinning. "And... there's somethin'... no, several somethin's, comin' this way... fast!"
Billy opened his eyes and stiffened, suddenly alarmed. He looked at his uncle, and to his vast surprise saw Clayton was in the process of removing his clothes. The older man put a comforting hand on Billy's shoulder, as several large wolves came out of the underbrush.
"It's all right, Billy," he said, smiling, as he began to shift to join them. "They're family."
Billy simply stared for a moment. Then he grinned fiercely, as the wildness filled him, and reshaped his body.
The scattered residents of Puncheon Hollow heard the joyous howls and double-checked their doors and windows, as the pack welcomed their new member.