DECONSCRIPTION-Writings of Curtis Cottrell

Hunter's Epitaph

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"Three Indians were sitting around a fire.

The chief got up and said,

'Three Indians were sitting around a fire.

The chief got up and said,

"Three Indians were sitting around a fire,

The chief got up and said,--"

"Shut up, Professor!"

"Yeah, we don't like your dumb jokes."

"Well, I don't like your dumb jokes either!"

"You'd better can it, Tom, before I take a shot at you."

The Scouts' hunting trip had fallen into pandemonium. The three boys were sitting around a fire. The Scoutmaster got up and said, "All right! I think it's time for all of you to cool it--and now!"

The three boys were sitting around the fire more quietly. They had spent their tempers for now, but they would be at it again sooner or later. That's just how they got along.

The man started to say, "That reminds me of--"

"Tell us about le feu follet?" was the eager chirp that broke him off. The man's stare momentarily chilled that young enthusiasm. He rubbed the whiskers on his throat as he coughed to clear the tobacco tar that blocked his voice box.

"That reminds me of an old story from the Depression," the man began again. He had to clear his throat again. The thought of that era always choked him up. That was when he had wanted so many things.

"We don't want to be depressed," remarked Tom as he brought his hand up to try to cover a sly smirk. This gave the first boy his cue again.

"Tell us about le feu follet!"

"OK. If you insist, but first I was going to tell you that Tom's story reminded me of another we used to tell in the Depression that led you around in a circle without bringing you anywhere. The Depression was like that in a way because there were always people waiting around in lines for work that never was available. In any case, the joke went like this."

It was funny how every time the man went to tell a story he would brace himself up and set himself back so as to deliver it with utmost impact. He seemed to be putting himself into the characters that were supposed to be saying what he said when he said it.

"That's LIFE."

He turned his head to the side to give a half-startled expression. This exaggerated double take had everyone almost ready to laugh as he soon continued.

"What's LIFE?"

The group began to laugh uncontrollably when he changed again to the first character. He put his fists on his hips and scrunched up one side of his face in a sneering grimace that suddenly reminded Tom of the smirk he himself had on his face a few short seconds before. In fact, the man looked right at Tom as he went on half-seriously hamming it up.

"It's a magazine."

"How much does it cost."

"Two bits."

"I ain't got two bits."

"Well, that's LIFE!"

His rapid-fire delivery of the rest of the joke had them rolling around the campfire as it always did when he told a story. He knew just where to put in the punch line.

Tom was the only one who sat silent. It seemed to him that the joke was always on him. Every time he tried to put in his two bits, he always had to take it back. For Tom there was no quarter. Life was always something elusive for him. Still he tried to catch it.

"Isn't there another one about TIME?" said Tom trying to recover. "I think I read them both together somewhere with the one about the Indians, too."

"No. I don't know that one," said the man as he became more serious, and the audience began to settle down. He looked at Tom and then at the other boys as they solemnly stared his way. Then he looked back at Tom again.

Only this time it was different. This time it was a hard look. Tom could not describe the vague glimmer of something lurking behind the cold gem-like twinkle of the man's eyes. There was something in there that the more he tried to catch the more he needed to escape. Would he be helpful or hostile?

"Your problem, Tom," the man started again, but coughed again, and this time spat up a big gob of tar. He wiped his mouth and then went on. "Your problem, Tom, is that you get everything from books. You need to look around and check things out. You need to see things as they really are."

"And how are they?" the youth retorted.

"Well, that most anybody can plainly see," said the man as he looked smugly to the other boys for subtle reinforcement. They turned toward Tom as if he were an intruder upon their territory.

Tom continued to try to bring out whatever it was that he needed to express himself. There was something that he had to say, but it was hard to tell exactly what it was. Anyhow, he knew that they did not know what they were talking about either, yet they pretended to, since for them agreement was reality.

"Well, what is it? What is Life? What is Time? Why are we sitting around this fire? You keep talking in circles, begging the question. Just what does it all mean?" Tom felt that all these questions were somehow more important than their answers would be. Would there even be any answers at all?

"We're tired of your creepy questions, Professor! We want to hear about le feu follet like the Chief promised."

"Yeah, Chief, you promised!"

The man saw this as his opportunity to break the tension. He looked away from Tom and tried to smile to the other boys. He had to get himself ready again to tell another story. He was not so sure about this one. It was not really a story.

"OK, boys, settle down. I guess that I can try to tell you just about all that I know about it, but that is not really much. No one knows anything about it because no one has ever caught it."

"Then what is the whole point in talking about it in the first place," said Tom who was young, fast and scientific. He was not one to believe in the hobgoblins of small minds and such things that go bump in the night. "Ghosties and beasties are what you are talking about, right?"

"Well, some people believe in that sort of thing, Tom. It's OK to believe in things to a certain extent. Some people have even said that it must be UFO's."

"What's it look like, Chief?" asked the smallest boy in anticipation.

"It's kind of like the Northern lights that some people say are the reflection of the infernal flames which eternally burn those who have sinned in this world."

"I thought that Aurora meant 'dawn' yet you talk like they are something from the sunset or twilight zone. We're too far south to see them anyway," remarked Tom with a remarkable self-assurance that his skill in wrangling words.

"Some people may say that, too," said the man whose moves seemed to smooth out the former disagreement a bit. He went on and added, "Some people say that they are the souls of the slain who were lost in the wars of the past. Some say they are Indian warriors who carry their ghastly torches through the swamp to lead white men astray away from the tribal burial mounds. Those wily redskins could take you into the marsh where you would never find your way out. They say that there is a wild hunt, too. Souls in purgatory flee from those whose sins are never forgiven. Some say this soul may be freed by a kiss from a willing woman. She has to do this before the hunt catches up to him, or he is lost forever.

"Then again," the woodsman went on, "I myself have never seen one of these things. I guess that is because I am always early to bed and early to rise to make me ready for the Department of the Healthy, Wealthy and Wise."

The sardonic point of his wit sent shivers of shock that cracked the icy silence into slivers of laughter. It was good for them to tell stories, but they did not have to take them too seriously. Everyone wants a happy ending.

Tom took this chance to say something that he thought smart. "This thing that you call le feu follet must be the same thing as the St. Elmo's fire cause by atmospheric conditions around the masts of ships during storms. There is a glow sometimes on the highest point of a three-masted schooner."

"And when have you been on a three-masted schooner, Professor?"

"He's always coming up with stuff that no one has ever heard about before like that joke about time. He ought to say things that mean something to everyone."

"Does that mean that I have to say the same things as all of you?" was Tom's reply that failed to take them back. He always went on struggling even though he knew that they would not accept. The more he kept trying to see and show, the more they looked away.

"So let me give you my theory," Tom wanted them to listen. "I think that this glow on trees in the swamp that you talk about is caused by pollution. This ignis fatuus or will-o-the-wisp may be caused by petroleum compounds that collect on twigs. It would be like the rainbow swirls of color you see in the murky oil on stagnant ponds."

"That's not it at all, Tom. I think you fouled out. How could there be pollution years ago when there were Indians, huh?" The man thought this the time to take over the conversation again. "Tom is lost in the woods in the dark night of his soul. Some say that this light appeared to the Crusaders as they searched for the Holy Grail that held the blood caught by St. Joseph after Jesus was lanced by the Roman soldier. A priest told me once that it had something to do with communion, but me, I don't know how."

He himself had wandered off in his words, and he noticed that they were all getting drowsy. He thought that would be about enough of that story for now. He was about to tell the boys to go off to say their prayers and call it a night.

"I don't know how either," said Tom, "And this doesn't make any sense to me. We live in a scientific world, and there is no room for any more of that superstitious stuff. What is the supernatural anyhow but a bunch of words that happen to mean something somehow to somebody sometime? I don't know just what it is that we are looking for out here anyhow, but I want to go home."

"We're looking for ducks," said Bill, "Not turkey like you."

"All right, that's it," jumped Tom; "You've been asking for it all night!"

"Break it up, you two!" yelled the man, jumping over the fire to pull them apart. Sparks leaped up from loose logs jarred by the jump. Coals glowed like fiery eyes witnessing a spectacular scene.

"That's it for the night," coaxed the man, "You all need to learn to be more courteous."

"Kind, obedient cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, reverent and hungry!" piped in the other three who were always ready for a laugh even if it was an old joke. It was funny how soon they could forget about the fight.

Maybe they didn't.

"All that we have been talking about here, ahem!" the man concluded. "All the things we have said are just stories that people tell around campfires. They aren't supposed to make you have bad dreams or anything"

"It's just like when you chase a chameleon," said Tom. "It's always changing colors, yet when you think that you have caught it, the tail breaks off in your hand. It's something that has really happened to me, and I didn't just read about it."

"Maybe you've got something, Tom," said the scoutmaster coolly. "I don't always follow you, but I think that sometimes your intentions are right. I can say that about all of you," he added to avoid provoking another conflict due to favoritism.

Bill was older than Tom. He always looked at Tom from the corner of his eye while he kept an eye on Joey. Joey was on his side. He took up for Joey whenever Tom said that he was wrong. Tom didn't always have to be right. Even if Joey was wrong, Bill thought that Tom didn't have to always be right, so he took up for Joey no matter what. Tom would find out how smart he really was. Bill sat there and looked at Tom through the swirling soot.

Bill squinted hard through the corners of his eyes at Tom. Bill rose and the smoke swirled away from him. Bill commented, "I hear that you can kill those things if you have a cross on your bullet. It's kind of like vampires and werewolves or the Lone Ranger, you know."

Joey looked at him in awe. Tom had been talking today of a James Bond book where the agents of SPECTRE had filed crosses on the heads of their shells. These were called dum-dum bullets.

Bill laughed at Tom. He called Tom a dum-dum. Tom told them that the reason that they did that was so that the shell would break up to make more pieces. This made sense to Joey. He took out his scout knife and cut crosses into the soft lead. He had not thought at the time that they could be magic. No spook was going to get him now.

Now Tom did not know whether to laugh at Bill or what. He was obviously making this up from seeing too many late night movies. Tom knew how Billy told Joey things just to see what he would do. Tom did not know why Bill would want to keep on pulling Joey's leg all night long. He decided to keep it to himself for a moment.

"Goodness gracious, great balls of fire," said the man. "I thought that I told some tall tales in my day, but you have them beat out there, Billy. How did you ever come up with that? You shouldn't be telling my boy Joey things like that. I said I didn't want anyone to be having bad dreams. Anyhow, you shouldn't fool around with your rounds in any way, or you may have a misfire."

Joey gave his father a slightly guilty look. He decided that he would have to get rid of the bullets as soon as possible. Then his father would not find out about them, and there would be no trouble. He could shoot them in the morning as soon as they went out. He was not such a good shot, but if the bullets broke up, he might have that much more chance of getting something.