"There she is," Calvin says. "The bottoms run along for miles, thousands of acres. Lots of coon, of course. But there's whitetails, bobcat, coyote, turkey. You name it, and it lives there. Haven't messed with that other stuff for years. Like running my dogs too much."
I glance at Ivey, her eyes wide and fascinated.
We turn off the pavement and onto a dirt road, the occasional rock shooting up from the tires, banging against the chassis. The open fields of corn gradually give way to the timber. Twisting oak, maple, poplar, the forest floor littered with dying and dead wood, switch grasses, grama grasses, bluestems, penetrating through. Dad rolls the window down, the cool air of the river bottoms whipping in. Through the wooden matrix ahead lies the wide river, running flat and slow, murky red.
At the river, the road abruptly ends at a two-track pathway that parallels the water. Calvin turns the truck around and backs up to the water's edge, parks. We get out, Dad grunting as he swings his legs over. Calvin opens the tailgate, opens the cooler of fried chicken and coke. I lean against the tailgate, Ivey in front of me staring down at the cool water. My arms fold over her chest, she cradling her head against me.
"So peaceful," she says. "Even better than our creek, I think."
Her hair tickles my chin.
"Yep. Better. Wanna move?"
She looks back, grinning. A playful slap on the leg.
Dad and Calvin busy themselves setting up their folding chairs and plating up chicken, the fizz of their coke bottles hiss as they open them.
After we eat, Calvin gestures for Ivey and I to follow him. Dad is leaned back in his chair, arms folded, half-asleep.
"C'mon," Calvin says. "Show you something."
He walks precariously up the narrow two-track road, his cane gingerly negotiating exposed rocks and roots and tall bunch grasses.
"Stay behind me so I can watch for tracks," he says.
His head is slightly bent over, eyes moving along the muddy rut.
"There," he says. "See that track picking up and following the road? Buck whitetail. Big one, too, from the looks of it."
Ivey bends down, tracing the outline of the distinct pattern with her finger.
"How can you tell it's a buck?"
"Size, mostly," Calvin says. "That one's well over four inches. Does are three or less."
He walks further up the road.
"Okay, now look here. Hog track."
Ivey bounds up to it.
"They all look alike to me," she says.
"Ha, I guess they would, little lady."
He sets his cane down in the grass, slowly gets down on his knees, his stubby, brown finger points.
"See the ends? Lot more rounded off. And it's harder to find clean prints, too. They step in their own tracks a lot more than deer do."
"Oh, I see," Ivey says, genuinely fascinated.
"Out here when I'm hunting or just looking for 'em, you learn the little things about sign. Little details. Get an eye for 'em. You notice hair on grasses, broken twigs, little differences in walking patterns. Get to where you see just about everything."
Calvin strains to rise, and I quickly support his arm to help him up, reach down, hand him his cane.
"I thank you, sir," he says. "Getting too old to be messing around out here, I suppose."
We walk back to the truck, Dad in his chair, cap brim pulled down, mouth partially ajar. Calvin chuckles as he walks up behind him.
"Hey, old man."
Pushing his brim up, Dad looks around at him.
"You get 'em squared away on finding critters?" he asks.
"Good as a Seminole," Calvin says, sitting down next to him.
Ivey and I sit in the grass on the riverbank beside them. They're silent for a few moments. The sun is making its way down, only half exposed over the looming oaks on the opposite side of the river. The light casts an orange hue on the water's reddish surface, illuminating the edges of the forest. Way off in the distance, a flock of geese are making their way to the adjacent fields to feed and roost, their honks barely perceptible as they appear as one, a darkish triangle in the dying light.
Calvin shifts forward in his chair, rests both hands on the cane, watches closely the school of bream rising to the surface, feeding on mayflys and the occasional grasshopper. Dad glances at him.
"When do you go back for another round of chemo?" he asks.
Calvin picks off a blade of buffalo grass, tosses it in the midst of the feeding bream, watches as they momentarily disappear, then reappear, give it a nibble, then go back to their mayflys.
"Quit going," he says. "Cancer spread to my pancreas."
Dad rubs his lips, eyes back on the river. Ivey's hand covers mine, squeezes. Dad clears his throat, his face searching. Maybe, I think, looking for answers somewhere along the riverbank. Perhaps he wants life to backpedal. Just for a little while. The echo of a dozen hounds hot on the trail. Calvin's powerful legs racing after them, yelling with excitement. Later, he and his brother and Sue at the bar in town, cold beer and stories, laughing. When the world was new.
"How long?" Dad asks.
Calvin lays his cane down in the soft grass, leans back.
"Three months. Give or take."
Mike Hancock holds an B.A. in English Literature and a M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Southern New Hampshire University. He spent seven years as a wilderness guide in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and New Mexico, and was a deckhand for two seasons in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. A Creative Writing teacher and freelance writer, Mike is an instructor in the Community Writing Program at the Writers' Colony at Dairy Hollow. His fiction has been published by multiple literary journals and London's Ether Books.