CUT AS IF BY KNIFE
JOHNNY GARIBALDI trudged up the soft clover-covered hillside. A black strand of hair, fallen from his pompadour, lay curled on his forehead. Johnny’s shoulders were broad and he had egg-shaped biceps from working-out with the Charles Atlas Expander bar (3 easy payments 9.95 each). Donny Baguette walked beside Johnny: thin, long-legged Donny wore glasses and was pale skinned, even in the summertime.
Johnny stopped at the crest of the hill, leaned his arm against the split and lightening-blackened trunk of an oak tree.
“Come on, you guys,” he called. “Move it!”
Eddie Kelly, Jimmy Garibaldi, and Charlie Baguette tramped side by side up the hill. “We are sergeants,” Charlie said to the other two. “And they—“ he glanced downhill at Weed Garibaldi and Butch Kelly—“are privates.” Charlie snickered.
“I am a scout,” Eddie said, thinking of Kit Carson, subject of a book he had recently taken out of the library and read.
The hill top stood above an inclined stony white road that lay at the base of a rocky hillside. On a plateau above the hillside sat a group of disused rusted tin buildings.
Johnny and Donny emerged from the brush at the base of the hill and stepped out into the road.
“Come on you guys!” Jimmy Garibaldi called from the first hill’s crest. “Move it!”
“Yeah, move it!” Charlie said.
“Shut-up, Baguette,” Weed Garibaldi said. He and Butch moved crab-like on hands and toes.
“Wait for us!” Butch called.
“I am a scout too,” Jimmy said.
“Me too,” Charlie said.
“I thought you were sergeant?” Eddie asked Charlie.
“I can be sergeant AND scout, can’t I?” Charlie shouted angrily, face reddening.
“We will each be scout,” Jimmy said. “Like the Three Musketeers!” He put his arms around Eddie and Charlie’s shoulders.
Johnny and Donny moved along the road, past the tin buildings and up a steep incline between rock ledges and thick woods.
The steep road leveled out above a huge bowl-shaped rock quarry pit, hundreds of feet deep and a quarter mile across, strata of walls a colorful array of stone.
“Hello!” Donny shouted. “Hallo-lo-lo-lo…” the quarry pit answered. Johnny pushed a boulder over the edge of the pit; the boulder shattered on a ledge below and pieces of rock fell further to the quarry floor. Eddie, looking down, felt himself grow faint. To think of falling so far down, and of hitting the floor! He turned and walked ahead into a meadow of knee high grass. Springing grasshoppers bounced off his legs. The ground lumpy with red and yellow crab apples, fallen from a gnarly crab apple tree. From a thicket beyond the tree a partridge burst from the brush, its wings whirring like the tongs of an electric cake mixer.
“Look!” Eddie shouted, pointing.
Charlie raised his hands and, holding an invisible gun, blasted the bird.
Eddie led the way along a narrow path trodden into the ridge line. Thorny balls from picker-bushes clung to his shorts. He took off his cap and wiped sweat from his forehead. The grass along the path was speckled with white lime dust. Eddie heard the lime kiln roaring in the distance. Right of the path, a lime kiln road sat glowing, limestones sparkling in the sunshine.
“We will head down the road and walk up,” Johnny said.
“Alright Johnny baby,” Weed said. “You are the General.”
Along the roadside, dense woods thick with vines and brush. Above, the mid-day sun sat like a polished coin in the white sky.
“Quiet!” Donny said. “I hear something!”
“Scatter!” Johnny called.
Eddie leapt into the thicket. Dried leaves cupped like little hands crunched underfoot. He crouched behind a wheelbarrow-sized chunk of orange and white quartz crystal rock.
A pickup truck, loaded with kiln workers, passed by trailing a cloud of dust.
“Alright, let’s go,” Johnny commanded, wiping dust from his checkered Bermuda shorts.
The top of a narrow shoebox-shaped canyon came into view.
Eddie thrilled at the sight. The canyon stood like an upended box, the rock walls cut as if by a knife. The pinnacle of the canyon sprouted small crooked trees and mossy vegetation. A series of steeply pitched hills–dirt hills newly seeded with grass seed, rose in tiers from the road to the ridge line high above, parallel the top of the canyon. The new grass soft-looking as hairs on a baby’s head. Lime stone boulders sparsely scattered on the hillside.
Johnny stood gazing up at the canyon. “What do you think? Should we stay on the road or climb up and go along the ridge?”
Donny scratched his head.
“Stay on the road,” Eddie said. “It is shorter. We can climb the canyon trail.”
“Yeah, stay,” Jimmy said.
Johnny stared up the road. The steeply inclined road dipped a hundred yards distant, making it seem as if the road ended in the bluish-white sky. A drop of sweat ran down Johnny’s forehead.
“I say we climb the hill.” He tapped his chest. “I am the General, and I say we climb.”
“I am going up the road,” Eddie said.
“That is insubordination,” Johnny said. “You could be put up before a firing squad.”
“I don’t care,” Eddie said. The road is faster. Why kill ourselves climbing?”
“Let’s go,” Johnny ordered. He strode to the base of the tiers of hills and began climbing.
Eddie walked up the road. “Come on, Jimmy.” The road made more sense, Eddie told himself. It was easier, shorter…Johnny and the others were dopes. Let them kill themselves, he thought.
Eddie glanced back: like beads on a necklace, Johnny, Donny, Charlie, Jimmy, Weed, and Butch, climbing. Eddie groaned turning back.
Eddie’s sneakers sank into the soft loam; dirt and pebbles rolling downhill bounced off the visor of his cap. Should have kept to the road, he thought. It was stupid to—
The blast sounded like a shotgun going off beside Eddie’s ear. He glanced to the road. Rocks—small rocks—rocks the size of washing machines—fanned out through the sky, sailing through the white haze, their shadows flashing like birds across the landscape.
Eddie squirmed, wormed his way into the soil. Deep as he could get. But not deep enough. He wrapped his arms around his head. He heard rocks crashing into the woods as the blast echoed through the valley. He raised his head: Charlie Baguette ran, galloping downhill, Charlie’s arm twisted to reach behind to his back, hand reaching to a big red splotch on his white t-shirt. Charlie’s screams cut through the echo.
Eddie leapt to his feet and ran, listening, as his feet beat the sharp stones of the road, for the sound of the next blast.
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Wayne F. Burke’s short stories have been widely published in print and online. He is author of a short story collection titled TURMOIL & Other Stories (Adelaide Press, 2020), as well as eight published poetry collections–most recently BLACK SUMMER, Spartan Press, 2021. He lives in Vermont (USA).
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