Portage Trail of Tears

When I was little, boys skipping stones were never to be trusted. Once a boy starts throwing stones, he never stops. For the rest of his life, he’ll break windows, hearts, even the occasional bone. A thrown stone that breaks a bone is rarely your own. Stones aren’t always made of rock. Sometimes they are bullets or worse yet, words. This day, as I tickled the handle of my gun, stones were made of solid ice.

The sobering impact of the first hail stone smacking the bottom of the overturned canoe startled me into irrational thought. I glanced up at the bottom, cursing irony ex post facto, uplifting the inborn idiocy that had me wondering in that split-second how he made it all happen. By the time my diverted eyes focused on him once again, the roar of a million falling stones somehow removed the toxins from my thoughts. Not that I suddenly trusted him, but I no longer mistrusted him, influenced by the awe of what I was experiencing.

Many became few until only hard rain remained and even that tapered off. As the storm moved on, we could hear the thunder again. The lightning just didn’t seem right without it.

I cannot say with any certainty, but I believed he kept his stare focused on me through the entire event. I thought it best to get out in front, to make sure whatever he felt he had to do, meant dealing with me as much more than an afterthought.

“Hey man, I’m not afraid to say you’re kind of creeping me out,” I said to the man.

Ross looked at me as if I insulted his mother. The man may have chosen to believe I was bluffing about reaching for a gun, but he would not make the mistake of thinking I was doing anything else.

“Do you mind?” the man answered while tapping the green bag.

“Depends,” I said.

“On what?” he asked.

“On what you have in the bag,” I said.

We advanced token to go, staring at each other again, passing short moments in terms of forever as the tension built. 

“Maybe I don’t want to tell ya. Maybe I feel like it’s none your damn business what’s in my bag,” he said defiantly.

“Well then I most definitely do mind,” I said through a fake laugh.

“C’mon now, let’s all just calm down and not get riled,” the woman said as she slid out from under the canoe.

“You know these big storms can get a body all up in arms, my daddy always said they’ll cause a man to get down right tuckered out with worry. Name’s Darlene, Darlene Hatchka. This here’s ole Bob. As much as I gotta claim him cause we’re married and all, I also gotta apologize for the way he is sometimes.”

She moved towards us with an outstretched hand. Ross slid out from under the boat first.

“Hello, Ross, nice to meet you,” he said, shaking her hand.

Bob crawled out and away from us, avoiding any sort of greeting. I rushed to get to my feet before him, moving aggressively. I wanted that edge, the same edge that wouldn’t allow me to waste the use of one hand shaking hers. I circled to his flank and stood near him.

“Hey sweetie, you still seem kinda keyed-up, why don’t y’all just,”

“I’m nobody’s sweetie Darlene,” I said quickly, cutting her off.

“I think I might know why dear,” Darlene said.

“Is that right? Maybe it has something to do with the way you and your creepy husband act. Staring me down, ole Bob here being all weird about whatever he has in that bag. Do you ever watch old movies Darlene? For all I know he could have a damn human head in there,” I said.

Part of me was angry at whatever assumption this foul woman was trying to make, and I began to answer her with equal rudeness. By the time the first sentence left my mouth I really didn’t see her as a legitimate threat and decided to lighten the tone with the next. Even without my gun, I was pretty sure I could take her. It’s a general assessment I make when I meet a person for the first time. ‘Can I beat the hell out of them if I need to?’ 

Darlene Hatchka seemed to me to be someone’s Episcopal mother who would feed the hell out of you, offer you her home, make sure you took your shoes off at the door, and passive aggressively pick away at everything about you she was generally intolerant of but was too much of a fake Christian to say anything to your face. Maybe she was all of that and then some, but the ‘then some’ is what had me concerned.

Darlene was dirty. I don’t mean like a dirty cop, but that may also have been true. I mean she was physically dirty. Her skin harbored the sort of filth usually reserved for auto mechanics and coal miners. It was deep in her pores and I’m quite sure it would take considerable abrasives for her to ever have a clean face again.

The thing is, I’ve seen dirty people before. Where I grew up, dirt poor was normal. I was taught to see beyond it, to not judge others like so many judged us. The most beautiful flowers after all are born from the blackest soil. But dirt that deep doesn’t happen on a weekend camping trip. Darlene’s black was not soil. There would be no flowers born from her. I knew this to be true because Darlene very unceremoniously, quite casually and most likely unintentionally, flinched.

Find any group of adults in any room and mention a joke featuring a human head in a bag. You can expect three to four different types of responses. The first group or individual will be those who understand and appreciate the movie reference. The result will vary, could be anything from a high-five to a silent nod of approval. Next are the appalled types who think it was the world’s most offensive thing to say and because you said it, are the worst person to walk the face of the earth. These people are generally the loudest, the most theatrical and dramatic. These people probably couldn’t go to sleep without knowing everyone else in the room noticed how appalled they were, and therefore everyone must consider them to be two feathers short of angelic. These are almost always fake representations of real people. A well – represented group would be the normal people who understood you were telling a joke and offer the appropriate response of acknowledgement whether any of them found it funny or not. Then there’s always the ‘I don’t get it’ person. There’s nothing you can do to help these people. For the purposes of our discussion we have to mention them because there is always at least one, but they will not be granted a category in the survey. Darlene was a multiple choice ‘D’ for none of the above. Like I said, Darlene flinched.

Darlene did not speak nor would she look me in the eyes. Bob stood up and sat back against their still-overturned canoe. His folded arms were a body language trigger that told me he was trying to protect himself. I threatened him and I was relishing the advantage. Ross immediately and cluelessly went to work getting us ready to get back out on the water. In no time at all he had our boat on his shoulders and was headed back to the lake. I leaned back on their canoe next to Bob.

“So Bob, I’m dying to know. What’s in the bag?” 

Darlene froze and gave Bob a grave look of concern.

“You really want to know huh?” Bob said in the grittiest of voices. 

“I do Bob, I really do,” I said.

Bob pulled his poncho back finally giving me an up-close look at the bag. 

“Hungry?” Bob asked while removing something I can only describe as brown.

“It’s kinda big for jerky, but it smokes up better that way,” he said.

“Hey Darlene, cut her off a piece.”

Darlene stepped over to us and reached around up under the canoe about the time Ross was coming back up the trail.

“Him too,” Bob said.

“Him too what?” Ross asked.

“Jerky,” Bob said.

“Hold on there a second young’uns, my gol darn knife is up in the thwart bag,” Darlene said.

After retrieving it she cut a few strips off and handed one to both Ross and I, as well as a strip each for her and Bob.

“That’s different. Good though, what is it?” Ross asked.

“We make it ourselves, sometimes it’s deer, sometimes goose or bear. Bear is the best, don’t rightly remember what this batch was though. How ‘bout you Bob? You recall?” she asked.

“Nope, don’t rightly do,” Bob said.

Darlene threw the knife blade first into a nearby log sticking it in place. Ross’s face fell as quickly as he stopped chewing, appearing to choke on the dried meat.

“You get a chunk of bone or something?” Darlene asked.

Bob and I both looked to Ross for an answer as to his odd behavior. Ross stared at me with his eyes opened uncharacteristically wide. He looked down at the knife, and then back at me. I was so busy being the supposed woman in charge that I didn’t take a moment to notice the obvious. 

“Here, I got something here that’ll straighten you right up,” Darlene said as she reached back under the canoe.

I stood up abruptly while Ross was desperately using his head and neck to presumably gesture for me to either inquire about, or physically pull the knife from the log. I chose the latter as from the corner of my eye I watched Bob’s poncho move away. Before I could even stand up straight again, much like the now familiar and distinct call of a loon, I recognized the unmistakable clank of a cartridge being fed into the chamber of a lever-action rifle.

“I keep her snagged up inside so’s in case we tip I ain’t gonna lose her,” Darlene said referring to her rifle.

“And real slow like, I’m gonna have Bob take that there gun out from behind your britches. Yeah missy, I seen ya before. I’ve been seeing girls like you come and go for years. Now hands up high, and back up against that there tree. You too young man, you too. And don’t you move, or I swear to God above I’ll cut you down and nobody ever gonna find where’s I put ya,” Darlene said.

Bob slid the pistol from my belt. People will consistently lament past events of failure by stating they never had a chance. I was never that person. I grabbed Bob’s arm that held the gun and spun him around, trying to point it at Darlene. My hope was even if I failed to gain immediate control, maybe I could still fire a shot at Darlene. 

“Hey! Hey!” Darlene yelled as she raised the rifle to her shoulder and fired.

The shock of the close-range percussion from the rifle and the real time possibility of not even knowing if I had been shot immediately tempered my attack. Bob back-handed me, opening up my lip and causing me to stagger backwards. Ross made a half-hearted attempt to defend my honor, a required display of faux chivalry that both Bob and Darlene seemed to appreciate and dismiss.

“Jesus Darly, you damn near shot me! Look here,” Bob said holding up the left wing of his poncho which was sporting a shiny, new hole.

“Quit your yappin’. I woulda too. You damn near let that little girl take the best of ya,” Darlene scolded him.

“Look, we don’t have any money, but take whatever you need. Nobody has to say nothin’ to no one,” Ross said.

For a split second I felt a closer kinship to Darlene and Bob than I did Ross and his pathetic begging.

“I swear if you start crying, I’m going to ask her to shoot you,” I said.

Darlene laughed a sickening laugh, a noise that can only come through a mouth nearly devoid of teeth and a body nearly devoid of soul.

“Lemme tell ya how this is gonna work miss thing. Bob is gonna tie your boyfriend’s arms and legs around that there tree. Then he’s gonna take my boat down to the other side. Ya’ll gonna come down there with me and we gonna take a nice ride. You be layin’ tied in the bow for the duration. You ain’t gonna talk and you ain’t gonna run cause you know we got him and will kill him cold if we got to. Ya see it’s really easier that way anyhow. Almost rather leave him than take him anyways. If y’all cooperate ya might even get to see him again.”

The salty blood in my mouth tasted like gravy on the jerky still stuck in my teeth and after her little speech, it was just what I was in the mood for.

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