April 4
by Bill Booth

A low, throaty growl awakens me in the darkness of night. My dog Pat is standing, facing the landing below our campsite. Against the gray, moonless sky, all I can see are Pat and silhouettes of enormous cypress trees against a dark background with a million stars. A sudden breeze fans embers of my dying campfire, sparks glowing, drifting downwind.

“What’s wrong, Pat?”

Then I hear the soft “thunk – thunk — thunk” of a paddle bumping the side of a wooden boat. It moves closer to the landing with every stroke.

I roll over and fumble with Pat’s tether.

***
This is my first solo campout. It precedes by one day the annual gathering of my family around the fourth of July for a weekend of picnicking and fishing on Big Cypress Creek in East Texas. Dad and his brother, Uncle Otis, traditionally camp here on Saturday night after a day of fishing and picnicking. They stay up all night by a campfire running trot lines and checking set poles, drinking beer and messing with each other.

Uncle Otis always drinks a lot, and he likes to fight. He is a couple of years younger than Dad, who is forty, but Otis looks older. He is medium height, about five foot eight, stocky and muscular but with a small paunch. He has short, brown hair and deep set eyes that can drill holes in you if he squints. His nose is not quite what can be called “Roman” but leans in that direction — and a little to one side of his face too. He once took a mail order muscle-building course and is proud of his strength. As a rule, you don’t want to mess with Uncle Otis, because he can be one mean SOB.

This summer, several months after my thirteenth birthday, I have decided to camp out by myself, sort of a ritual of passage from childhood. I know I will be safe, because I’ll have Pat with me. He is half lab and half something else, but he is a big, black dog and a grand companion. He is my dog, and he listens to nobody else.

Dad drove us to the isolated camp area down on Big Cypress in our four year old ’41 Ford and dropped me and Pat off with my camping stuff. I have an army surplus cot with a mosquito bar that suspends over a frame and covers the cot. One old quilt and a pillow are all I need for sleeping gear.

Mother made me some ham sandwiches for supper and added some cinnamon rolls for breakfast. She also gave me a big Irish potato to roast in the campfire and loaned me a cast iron skillet with some grease for frying fish, in case I caught any and wanted to cook them. For Pat, there is some leftover stew and a can of dog food.

I also have a big Thermos jug of water and a tin plate with a knife and fork. A cardboard box lined with layers of newspaper is my ice box, and that’s where I keep my cinnamon rolls and sandwiches wrapped in wax paper alongside Pat’s stew for his supper.

After Dad drives off, I set up my cot and collect some wood for a fire, then go down to the creek to fish. My fishing gear is a Shakespeare bait-casting reel loaded with heavy, braided line on a five foot steel rod. It’s a beauty, and I can side-arm it with a large, twin-bladed, black Shannon Spinner up under the moss hanging on those low cypress branches like you wouldn’t believe. The bass just love that big deer hair spinner.

While I fish, Pat roams through the woods near the camp. Enormous cypress trees draped with Spanish moss line the banks of the creek, and the water is almost black from all the dead leaves in it. There is a slight current in the dark water as it flows eastward toward Caddo Lake. It is so quiet down there that it is almost spooky. It reminds me of being in church.

I step between some cypress knees, getting as close as I can to the edge of the water and look around. The air is cool for summer and almost tea colored from light filtering down through all those trees. One cypress taller than most of the others stands across the creek, a little to my left. The water under the lower limbs is shaded and looks like a great place for a huge bass to be napping, waiting for his supper.

My first cast lands a little short and barely reaches the front edge of the tree’s shadow, but I fish it anyway, watching the spinners turn real slow just under the surface. The second cast requires a little more effort to get the bait under those low limbs, but it lands perfectly with a soft splash near the bank.

I start the retrieve the instant the bait hits the water and give it a twitch every so often to make it look more alive. When the spinner swims out of the shadow of the tree and into the sunlight, something big grabs it and takes off.

The fish almost jerks the rod out of my hands when it runs upstream. My little reel doesn’t have an adjustable drag, and I nearly burn a blister on my thumb trying to slow that fish down. I have never experienced anything like the pull he puts on my rod when he dives. Then he comes up and jumps for the first time. I can see it is a large bass!

Wow, can he jump! Swimming upstream he comes out of the water full length. He shimmies and shakes three or four times like a wet dog, splashing water back to the trees. After doing this a few times he slows down, and I get some line back on my reel when he turns and begins to move downstream. Just when I think I have him beat he changes his mind and makes another run upstream, jumping and shaking all the way. He really wants to get rid of that spinner bait.

The bass finally tires and comes to me with only a few more low jumps. When I pull him up to the bank his big mouth is wide open, and his gill covers are working fast, trying to get more water. His tail flips some when I lift him by the lower lip and hold him up in the sunlight. He is magnificent! His jagged, dark lateral line stands out against the pale, yellow scales that are on the belly, turning dark green toward the top fin. Water runs off him in little rivulets and drips onto my tennis shoes.

I take the hook out of his jaw and guess he weighs four, maybe five pounds. When he grows quiet, I stake him out on a stringer and start working my way farther downstream so I can retrieve against the current.

A few minutes later, I am trying to cast near a group of cypress knees when some movement catches my eye. Turning, I see a decrepit looking man with a shaggy beard, wearing overalls and a ball cap, creeping quietly along the trail by the creek.

“Howdy,” he says when he sees me looking at him.

“Hello,” I answer, looking away, continuing to turn the reel handle.

“Catchin’ anything?” he asks, looking up and down the creek.

“Just one nice bass,” I say, looking back at him, keeping him in view.

The man walks closer, still looking around. “Where’s your folks?”

“Oh, Dad will be right back. He had to go to the store for something,” I say, hoping he believes me.

“I didn’t see but one cot set up in the camp back there,” the man says and reaches into his back pocket for a flask that appears half empty. He takes a swallow and swishes it around in his mouth while he replaces the cap on the bottle.

“Yeah, Dad will set up the rest of the camp when he gets back. He told me to catch something for supper.”

“Oh, he did huh? Well — I guess I better mosey on out o’ here and let you catch some more fish.” With that, he shuffles down the trail and disappears from sight.

The sun is getting lower, and the excitement of catching the bass has been dampened by the bum’s visit. I reel in my bait and walk back to where I have the bass on a stringer. He is calm now, swimming quietly in the cool shade. I would like to show him off, but I know the turtles will eat him if I leave him on the stringer overnight. I pull him to me and slip the stringer line out of his lip, then watch as he glides away, free again. I feel much better now than I would have felt if I had killed him. He is a great fish.

Pat comes up to me on the way back. “Where were you a little while ago when that tramp came through here?” I ask him. He wags his tail and smiles at me as if to say, “I would have been here if you needed me.”

Back in camp, I take Pat’s supper out of the ice box. He gulps the leftover stew with enthusiasm while I stack some kindling in the fire pit.

In just a short time, I have a fire crackling and popping. I sit on the ground cross-legged and eat both ham sandwiches, watching the fire. I consider keeping it going all night but reconsider a little while later when I see how quickly my supply of wood turns to ashes.

I push some of the hottest coals to one side with a stick and put my potato where they heated the ground. Then I pull the hot, glowing coals back over the potato. Mother told me it should be ready to eat in about an hour, but I don’t have a watch. I’ll just wait for the coals to get cool.

The night is moonless, clear and starry. Light from the flashlight Dad left barely reaches the edge of the woods, and foxfire shines brightly back at me. I first think the glow is a reflection from eyes of animals, perhaps wolves, staring at me. Then I remember Dad telling me about how scary that greenish-yellow foxfire can look unless you know what it is.

A little time later, I retrieve my potato, dust it off and cut it open with my knife. It is cooked just right, nice and soft, and is delicious with a little salt and pepper. I add a few sticks of wood to the fire, tie Pat to a leg on my cot and get him bedded down between me and the fire. The folded quilt feels good when I turn in fully clothed except for my shoes. In no time at all, the world disappears, and I am catching bass in my dreams.

***

The woods are completely silent except for Pat’s growl. I have no idea how long I have slept or what time it is when I first hear the sound of the paddle bumping against the side of a boat.

Pat stands up and pulls hard against his tether, jerking my cot, trying to get down to the edge of the creek. The thump of the paddle grows louder until I hear the scrape of a boat at the water’s edge.

My hands shake, but I manage to get the tether off Pat’s collar while he pulls against me as hard as he can. When he is free, he flies off down to the creek in a fury of barking and growling. Then I hear a man yelling, “Git out a’here! Dammit, git!”

Water splashes and Pat continues his attack until I hear someone jump into a boat and splash water furiously while paddling away, cursing.

I call Pat back to camp but he obeys reluctantly, staying down by the creek growling and barking for several minutes before he returns soaking wet to the fire. He shakes vigorously and sprays me in the process, but I hug and praise him anyway, telling him what a grand dog he is and that he is my best friend. I build up the fire again, and Pat sleeps under my cot the rest of the night.

***

Early light of dawn easily wakes me. Stars are yet visible overhead when I climb out from under the mosquito bar and stretch. I release Pat, and he promptly goes to a tree and does exactly what I imitate a few seconds later.

Pat wolfs down a can of dog food, then runs down to the creek and sniffs around where the boat had been last night. I can still see a few stars when I eat my cinnamon rolls and drink some cold water. Over the treetops across the creek I spy the faint shape of the Little Dipper then quickly locate the North Star, something I always do when stars are visible. Its constancy reassures me.

A low mist hangs over Big Cypress, and it looks like a good morning for fishing. Sure enough, I have a couple more decent sized bass on the stringer before Dad, Mother and my two brothers drive into camp.

In no time at all, the car is unloaded and everyone starts fishing along the creek banks beside the big trees. They use cane poles that Dad rigs with corks, sinkers, and hooks. They fish mostly with worms, but Bobby catches a small frog and tries to snag a catfish with it. I continue to cast my trusty Shannon Spinner.

Dad is the best fisherman in our family. He has a stringer full of bluegill by the time Uncle Otis and his bunch arrive later in the morning.

I have all but forgotten about the visitor the night before. That is, until Uncle Otis wanders up to me and asks how the night passed. He takes a pint of Early Times out of his back pocket and takes a healthy swig from it.

When I tell Otis about the visitor, he gets a little redder in the face and says something under his breath that I can’t quite understand. Then he goes down the Creek to where Dad is catching bluegill near a dead limb lying in the water. They talk kind of quiet for a few minutes, and Dad looks over at me a few times but shortly afterward goes back to catching fish.

Mother and Aunt Hazel are busy preparing lunch, and the rest of us are fishing when someone drives right into the camp in an old green pickup truck. A bearded man wearing a ball cap and overalls steps out and slams the door real hard before he swaggers up to the women and demands, “Who the hell set a dog on me out ‘a this camp last night!?” It is the same bum that I saw on the creek yesterday.

Uncle Otis is in the camp in a flash and has the guy by the shirt collar up against a tree. “Who the hell do you think you are, comin’ in here and talkin’ like that to our women? You must be the sorry SOB that come up to the camp in the middle of the night trying to walk in without so much as a ‘hallo to the camp’!”

Otis shoves the man down to the creek where he falls in the mud near the edge of the water. He stays there for a few seconds on his hands and knees like he is trying to decide what to do. Uncle Otis helps him make up his mind.

“I’ve got a good mind to throw you in the creek for coming into a kid’s camp like that,” Otis yells. The man is a good bit bigger than Otis, and he starts to get up while he swears and says, “By God, you just try to throw me in the creek, and we’ll by God see who gets there first!” My eyes are the size of saucers.

Otis pushes the man down with his foot then grabs him by the belt and the back of his shirt collar. Before I know what is happening, he picks that guy up and throws him over the bank into Big Cypress Creek. The man doesn’t seem to know how to swim, and he does a lot of splashing and spluttering while he struggles back to shore, still cursing.

“And you better shut your goddamn mouth before I knock your goddamn teeth down your goddamn throat,” Otis adds, walking up to the man with his head low and his fists in front of his face.

The guy holds his palms out as though pushing Otis away. “Never mind, never mind. I’m leaving.” With that, he gets back in his truck and drives off in a spray of dirt and gravel.

Otis pulls the bottle out of his back pocket and takes a long pull on it before he says, “Let’s eat. I’m hungry.”

And that’s why you don’t ever want to mess with Uncle Otis when he is drinking, and probably not when he’s sober either.