…in which the kids visit Snake Creek.
Timmy Wragg pulled down a hatchet off the wall of his daddy’s workshop.
Will Rogers chopped down pine and sweetgum saplings.
Mary Rogers dragged the trimmed poles and stacked them high.
It took the children all Saturday to build a fort in the woods. They passed up cartoons to strike out early down a path behind the Rogers house. They carried a lunch they made the night before and a big canteen of water.
They chose a shady clearing under big loblolly pines.
After some intense architectural work on a scrap of notebook paper, Will marked the corners with four white chunks of limestone. The old stones, full of ancient seashells, had likely been the foundation settings of a cabin, long gone, which once occupied the same little spot of high ground.
“We’ll build it right… here!” announced Will, flourishing his arm. “Fort Rogers!”
The children kicked away pine cones and cleared old beer cans left by hunters, and they yanked up a few chin-high poke plants bare-handed. The pulpy stalks stained their hands with purple juice.
Timmy didn’t help pull those weeds.
“Daddy says them pokeberries are deadly poison,” Timmy warned everyone. “They can kill a mama cow… and her milk will turn purple and kill the baby cow, too.”
Will usually didn’t pay much attention to Timmy Wragg’s frettings. Timmy worried about everything – dirt on his hands, sky, rain. A scratch with a single red drop of blood freaked him out. But this time, Will’s manly little forehead actually produced a wrinkle.
“You know what? I heard about pokeberries, too,” Will said. “You can eat the leaves if you boil ’em and boil ’em a bunch of times. But purple berries… no way.”
He looked at his palms. Red-handed.
“Mary, we gotta go wash this juice off. It might accidentally get in our mouths.”
When Will showed concern, Mary showed alarm.
“We might accidentally get it in our eyes!” she added. “We might all go blind!”
Mary held up her own two purple hands in front of her face. She looked like a hog butcher.
“Let’s go to Snake Creek!” Will urged them all. “I’ve got the hatchet! Timmy, you bring a stick!”
They left the fort site on a path that wound through thickets of Chinese privet and over a spot where kudzu climbed the trunks of every growing thing, small or large. The three explorers, two wearing new purple gloves, passed under a canopy of wild dogwoods. They emerged in a little sedge grass field. As it always happened in that spot, no matter how they braced for the shock, a covey of quail burst up from a hiding place and scared the daylights out of them.
“Damn!” said Will, practicing his cussing. “Them damned bobwhites! Damn! Damn! Damn! They do that every time!”
“They’re the scariest things in the whole world!” Mary answered, with a kind of thrill in her voice.
One final quail took off, late, its wings whistling. The children ducked and yelled and waved the hatchet and sticks – yeii! yeii!
“Next time they scare us like that,” Will boasted, “I’m gonna throw this hatchet and split one right down the middle!”
Timmy looked at Will with absolute admiration. He stood before a young god.
Mary didn’t share that opinion.
“What if there’s a baby?” she asked Will.
Since yesterday, Mary had not been able to get the image of the dead baby bird out of her mind. It was horrible… but far sadder than scary.
Her brother was tapping the sharp edge of the hatchet on his purple palm, maybe testing its heft as a throwing weapon. Will seemed fascinated by any kind of steel blade, the shape, the function.
“What if there’s a baby?”
“A mama bobwhite.”
Will stared at her quizzically.
Mary blew hair out of her face, exasperated. “The bobwhite you hit with the hatchet. When they fly up and scare us. When they’re flying to get away ’cause we scared THEM. What if the mama you hit has a baby?”
Timmy Wragg offered an idea.
“We could save it,” he piped up. “We could put the baby bowhite in a shoebox with a hot water bottle and feed it bread crumbs. And give it water with an eye dropper.”
He added something else, after a tick.
“I know where we can dig up some wiggle worms, too. There’s a million billion under that rabbit cage at school.”
Will suddenly felt something, just like the others.
“Well,” he admitted, “I don’t think I can hit a bobwhite with a hatchet. Not when it’s flying, anyway.”
That was all. Will didn’t talk about throwing hatchets at birds any more.
The blaze of the June day and the humid woods had made the trio thirsty now, but Will reminded his companions that they didn’t dare open their canteen before they washed those dangerous purple stains off their fingers.
They rounded a turn in the leafy path, and there ran Snake Creek.
About ten feet wide, the little happy stream frothed along between low, fern-flanked limestone banks. Black water snails covered the creek bottom. Long blackberry spines drooped off the far bank and dragged the surface of the water.
The end of June in Alabama always had bugs. A swarm of gnats twinkled over the water like a ghost either coming or going. Will and Mary took a good long look around for snakes – they’d seen a skinny black one in this very place last year. Will insisted it could have been “the horrible Gaboon viper.”
They decided to wade, and Will left the hatchet stuck upright on the creek bank. Timmy, who didn’t need to wash his hands, grabbed the implement immediately. He practiced hatchet marksmanship by throwing it at a sweetgum tree.
It wasn’t like TV shows. Daniel Boone made throwing a hatchet look easy. But Timmy’s didn’t stick the hatchet in the sweetgum even once. He flung the shining weapon, then again and again hustled after it into the undergrowth to retrieve a bad carom.
Timmy, like always, wore hard-bottom shoes. Will and Mary never put on a pair of shoes in the summer.
The cold creek made the backs of their heads ache a little. It took a while for their feet to get used to the temperature.
Mary waded up to her ankles, then stooped to wash her hands. The clear water running over them magnified her purple fingers. Each digit suddenly looked enormous and sort of scary. A crawfish, white as a ghost, fled Mary into a crevice beneath a limestone shelf. She scrubbed the poke juice aggressively on loose sand in the creek bottom. The stains mostly washed off, slightly coloring the water that pushed past her ankles. Her red hair fell down and touched the creek.
A dragonfly paid a visit, helicoptering for a moment in mid-air to take a close look at Mary and at Will, these strange creatures. Will had actually sunk to his knees in the creek, peering down, his head leaned.
“Wow!” he announced.
Will had found something.
He lifted a shiny sort of ornament on a muddy ribbon. Though discolored, it gleamed in the sun as it spun and dripped – the object had obviously been at the bottom of the creek for a long time. The metal surface even had a snail cemented to it.
“It’s a piece of treasure!” Mary said.
“It might be!” Will agreed, excited.
Timmy jumped up and down on the bank.
“That ain’t treasure,” Timmy announced. “It’s a army medal. My daddy’s got one. He wears it on his uniform.”
Will stood now, creek water dripping off his elbows, the bright metal thing swinging before his face in the sunlight. Mary came close.
“It’s a one that’s called a purple heart,” Timmy insisted. “See the shiny part hangin’ down? That’s a heart.”
Will wiped mud off the front of the medal with his thumb. The snail shell fell in the creek.
“Who’s that lady?”
“That ain’t a lady. That’s George Washington.” Timmy sounded, for once, authoritative. “They wore their hair funny in them times.”
“Whoa! A purple heart…” Will mused. “How do you get one of ‘em?”
Timmy sounded proud now, and he spoke with braggadocio. “The generals give you one if you get shot. My daddy got shot.”
Will took his eyes away from the medal for the first time since he’d pulled it out of the muck of the creek.
“Our daddy got shot. He got shot in Iraq.”
Mary corrected her twin.
“Daddy got blowed up. He got in a bomb, and it broke his leg right there…” she pointed to her thigh, “…and hurt his insides. He’s got a bunch of scars. And he don’t talk about it, ever.”
“Well,” Timmy shrugged, “maybe your daddy got a purple heart too.”
Timmy loved Mary. His face looked tormented with the effort of logic he came up with to agree with her.
Will carefully separated two strands of muddy ribbon – they turned out to be purple too – and slipped them over his head. The medal hung down to his waist.
“It’s a million times better than an arrowhead,” he said pointedly to Mary. He would never ever forgive her for finding the first relic on that Sunday Elmore took them out in the red clay field looking for Indian artifacts.
Mary tried not to feel jealous, but she did.
“Well, a Indian arrowhead is good too,” she said. “And I let you play with mine.”
Will said nothing, swatting instead at a yellow jacket that suddenly buzzed around his red head like an electron.
Well… Mary thought to herself. I’ll find something else good, one day. And it will be better than a purple heart.
Will sloshed out of the creek to avoid the pestering insect.
“Let’s go build a fort!” he cried. “Let’s go build Fort Rogers!”
They sprinted back down the path. Will’s medal bounced brightly, crazily, in the morning sun.
They constructed the fort exactly like a log cabin… only they made a limb cabin.
Will and Timmy placed the pine and sweetgum poles for the long walls, one boy on each end. They held them steady while Mary lashed them together, and then tied them to shorter wooden poles to make the fort’s end walls. Mary used tough little smilax vines that they stripped off tree trunks and pulled out of snarled thickets. Will expertly shaved sharp thorns off the vines with Timmy’s hatchet. Mary knew how to tie knots better than either of the boys, and her nimble fingers and the sinewy smilax held limb after limb tightly in place.
By noon, the four walls of Fort Rogers stood higher than their heads – even Will’s, the tallest. They all agreed the entrance should logically be on the side of the fort facing the Rogers house, and Will made them leave a window looking out at the grassy natural clearing under the loblolly pines.
“Why does a fort need a window?” Timmy asked.
Timmy had turpentine blotching his white T-shirt and a glob of it, the color of amber, stuck in his hair. Mary had been impressed – Timmy was a hard little worker. And he made a good point. Mary couldn’t remember seeing pictures of any forts with windows.
“Windows are to shoot out of,” Will explained. “Wildcats don’t mess around.”
Will claimed for the hundredth time that he had seen a wildcat under those pine trees one time, and he wanted to be ready if it ever came back.
After they laid on the fort’s roof, the three worker bees covered the whole structure with the leafy branches Mary had collected.
It looked very good. It looked like a professional fort.
The sun had passed its high mark in the sky. The kids leaned happily against the solid four walls of Fort Rogers and opened the paper sack with their meal-ready-to-eat, as Elmore called it.
“This fort,” Will predicted, “will be here till Doomsday.”
“Even longer,” Mary said. “Cause that’s just Doomsday.”
The twins shared bites of peanut butter and grape jelly sandwiches with Timmy. They had saltine crackers with American cheese too, and Mary handed both of her crackers to Timmy, who gave her the grateful look a hound dog gives the hand that feeds it.
Their lone banana gave Will another good new excuse to use the hatchet, and he whacked the fruit into three yellow chunks. Will chopped their Hershey bar in three pieces too, and he used a wet thumb to fastidiously pick up scattered little chocolate fragments off the grass and leaves of the fort floor and nibble them.
Mary said something with her mouth full, and it made Timmy laugh. While Timmy’s mouth was wide open, Will threw a bite of chewed banana. The mush went right down the hole.
“Yukkk!” screamed Mary, but she laughed like crazy.
“Bleeech!” went Timmy, but he laughed, too.
They rolled all over one another, crying with laugher, hardly able to breathe. Each time they thought their hilarity had passed, one simply said – bleeech! – and away they went again, hooting and howling and beating the world with their palms in a little hideout in the woods.
Finally, after a long time, things grew still. They might even have taken naps.
Long shadows fell across Fort Rogers.
At last, Timmy sat up.
“My mama went to the hospital last night,” he said out of nowhere.
Mary’s head popped up.
“What made her sick?” she asked, her voice filled with concern. Mary’s red hair had leaves in it.
“She didn’t get sick,” Timmy said. “She woke up in the middle of the night with bruises all over. She said she didn’t remember how it happened. But she got in the car and drove herself to the hospital and left me and daddy at home. Right by ourselves.”
“Wow!” Mary whispered, and Will sat up, sleepy eyed, paying attention too. The tarnished medal and the muddy purple ribbon firmly stuck to his bare freckled chest.
“She’s okay now,” Timmy insisted. “She came back this morning. She got some medicine. But she still had them bruises.”
Timmy Wragg waited just a second, like something important would come next.
“She told daddy something,” Timmy said. “I heard it, but I wasn’t supposed to.”
The fort waited.
“Well?” Will finally demanded. He buried the hatchet to the hilt in the soft dirt by his dirty bare foot. “What?”
Timmy turned to Mary, not Will.
“My mama saw your mama,” Timmy said. “A police car brought her to the hospital.”
Mary and Will traded glances. They only talked about their mama in private. Ever.
Last night, after The Milky Way, they secretly climbed into the same bed together and whispered for an hour. They talked about how beautiful mama looked. How hard she hugged them. How sad her eyes seemed. How she recognized them right off the bat…
“It was Deputy Turnipseed brought her,” Timmy said. “The big fat one. My mama said your mama was wrapped up in a white blanket, like she was soakin’ wet. And she shook like she was freezing cold, mama said. And she was asleep.”
Things grew very quiet.
Will was the one who noticed how late it was, how low the sun had dropped into the leafy summer woods. A crimson disk showed through cracks in the side of the fort, this long day of June softening at last into twilight.
They heard the whistle of a bobwhite far up the path toward the creek.
“Well,” Will said, “our mama has spells. That’s what daddy says.”
“She probably had a spell,” Mary echoed. “After we saw her. That’s probably what happened.”
Timmy took a breath.
“Mama didn’t ask the policeman,” their little neighbor said. “But she was probably going to be all right.”
“Mama had a spell,” Mary repeated. “That’s all.”
Nobody said a word.
All at once, a lightning bug popped into existence right there inside Fort Rogers. Their first visitor.
Timmy Wragg set his face in some expression the twins weren’t used to seeing. Determination? Bravery?
“My mama told me all about your mommy,” he confided. He gave a breath at the end like he had run through a fire.
The twins traded glances again. Then, sweet Mary turned to Timmy and looked him square in the eye.
“What did she say?” Mary demanded. “About our mama?”
At that instant, someone cleared a throat, and a deep voice rumbled from the other side of the fort wall.
The kids were paralyzed. Three little hearts beat so loud they could barely hear the voice.
“Will? Mary? Y’all decided to live out in the woods now? You done turned wild?”
All three children melted with relief. How long had Elmore been listening?
“Y’all come on,” Elmore said. “Time to git back to the house. We’re serving hot dogs with melted cheese on top.”
“No onions!” Will yelled.
“No onions. You come too, Timmy. Supper’s on. And the radio.”
The trio stumbled out the door of Fort Rogers into fading light. Flights of lightning bugs seltzered the woods now, one little bright idea after another being born.
The insects reminded Elmore of the lights on the planes and helicopters flying in and out of Mosul those nights after the Alabama guard unit landed.
Mary hugged her daddy so hard, and Will did too.
But then, after the embrace, Elmore held his son at arms’ length from him.
“What’s that, Will? That around your neck?”
Will looked proud and excited. He held up the medal up for his dad to see.
“It’s a purple heart medal, daddy. It’s got a…”
Elmore cut him off, adult, no-nonsense.
“Where’d you get that?” he asked sharply.
Will looked shocked.
“In Snake Creek,” he stammered. “In the sand at the bottom.”
Elmore’s grip on little Will’s shoulder tightened so hard that the child squirmed a little to one side.
Elmore eased the grip.
“Daddy,” Mary said, “Timmy told us that his mama saw…”
Elmore spoke directly to Will, not Mary, as if he didn’t hear her.
“Son, you take that piece of cheap jewelry… right now… and go throw it right back where you found it. You understand me?”
Will and Mary didn’t ever remember hearing this tone in their daddy’s voice.
“Right now, Will. Go on. Why are you standing here?”
Will frantically stripped the medal and ribbon off over his head as he raced down the path back to the creek. His legs moved as fast as they could. He quickly disappeared around a curve in the woods.
“We’ll wait right here!” Elmore called, and this time his voice carried a more fatherly tone.
Mary searched her dad’s face with wondering eyes. Timmy Wragg stared at the ground. For some reason, he kept the hatchet hidden behind his back.
All at once, from the direction Will had gone, they heard a weird thrumming sound… and a scream.
Elmore bolted in that direction… but drew up short after he heard Will’s furious, faint, exasperated voice.
“Damn! Damn bobwhites! Damn!”