By Carole Lynn Jones
“Give me him back,” I said through gritted teeth.
Steve “Bully” Bullard dangled the salamander above my face as he pinned my hands behind my back.
He dropped it and I ducked before the orange speckled amphibian hit me square in the mouth. It landed on the rocks that bordered the creek bed and lay motionless. Bully shoved me forward. I desperately wanted to bend down, pick the salamander up, and try to save it, but I knew that would mean more retaliation from Bully and the other older boys that now had walked over to see his latest victim.
“You can have him now,” I said, tears forming in my eyes as I ran up the dirt path away from Johnson Creek and back to the park.
“Run-away baby,” Bully shouted after me.
Once I reached the crest of the hill and the safety of the picnicking adults, I turned back to see Bully angrily kick at the rock that contained the salamander.
* * *
“There you are, Martin. Please stay where I can see you and don’t ruin those shoes, your dad just got them for you.” My mother took her hand and dusted my back and knees off like I was the coffee table in our living room.
“How many times have I told you those woods are no place to be playing, you might get bit by a snake.” Unlike my dad, my mother thought the woods were filled with snakes and other animals that waited in the shadows to bite young children. I had seen my share of black snakes sunning on the paths that wound through the woods, but I knew they wouldn’t hurt me. They ate small rodents and bird eggs. She grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the picnic crowd. If only she knew a few minutes prior that hand had held a salamander, she wouldn’t have been so quick to lead me over to my two cousins standing restlessly squinting into the sun.
“Your cousins, Dawn and Cassey have to go home shortly, Uncle Bob has to meet a man about his chickens, so let’s get your picture together before they have to leave. Stand still you three.” Mom picked up her new Coronet Cadet camera that she had bought with green stamps and wound the dial. Five minutes later, I could move from my picture spot and told to play on the swings with the girls until they had to go.
The playground area was filled with girls swinging and playing tag. One other guy was there. My friend Johnny was pushing his little sister, Suzie, on a swing. Johnny is in fourth grade, a year ahead of me, and lives one street over. Sometimes I ride my bike to his house and we play in the fort his older brothers built.
“Anything going on down at the creek?” He kicked at the gravel that framed the swing area.
“Bully is down there. I had a huge sally, and he stole it and killed it.” I lightly kicked the grass, remembering my mother’s words about my shoes.
Johnny clenched his fists. “Someone needs to teach him a lesson,” he said.
Normally I would think it great to have a friend who had my back, but Johnny, even though he was a year older, was even smaller than me in height and build.
“Good thought, but who? Everyone, including kids older than him, fear him,” I said.
“Yeah, well forget him, I got something to show you.” He opened up his coat, which lay on the nearby picnic bench, and pulled out a new “Marvel Tales” comic.
“Man, that’s cool. Where did you get it?” My hands reached toward the comic, but I didn’t touch it.
“My older brother Dan said I could borrow his collection cause he’s going to the Army.” Johnny was the youngest of five brothers, so he got a lot of handed down things. This was definitely the coolest.
“It looks like a new issue, but it’s old. I don’t care though.”
I didn’t either, looking at it sure helped erase what had happened to me fifteen minutes earlier.
“You want to meet me tomorrow to go to the creek after school?” Johnny asked.
Normally after school, homework, and dinner, I had to help my dad with chores.
“Sure,” I said.
We made plans to meet, and I crossed my fingers behind my back, hoping that my dad would let me go. He wasn’t as strict as my mom. He knew what it was like to be a nine-year-old boy.
* * *
The next day I rushed home from school and did my schoolwork. I was glad Mrs. Richards didn’t assign too many spelling words and that I knew most of them. Mom quizzed me on them and sent me outside afterwards to help Dad, who was repairing the fence.
“You in a hurry tonight, son? You got a lot of schoolwork to finish?” Dad asked after I had brought out a bucket filled with tools without asking.
“No sir, I am done with my schoolwork. Johnny French asked me to meet him to go down to the creek and look for frogs if you think it would be okay. I’ll be back by dark?” I stood as straight and tall as I could.
Dad stood and eyed me up before speaking. “A boy can’t be expected to work all the time. Sure, go on, but be back early. Hasn’t rained in a while, so the creek should be low. Don’t get wet and if there is any mud, don’t get it on your clothes. I can only do so much to smooth things over with your mother.”
“Thanks Dad.” I gave him a rare hug, which amounted to me hugging his knees. Dad reached down and tussled my hair.
“Don’t worry, you will have a growth spurt, I wasn’t always six foot, three.”
* * *
Johnny was waiting right where we agreed, next to the railroad tracks. He carried a minnow bucket and a flashlight.
“I wasn’t sure you were coming ‘Havs,’ I’m glad I waited.” Most of the guys in school call me “Havs.” It’s short for Haverson, my last name.
Johnny handed me a big silver flashlight. “Here, carry this.”
We walked along the railroad tracks in silence until we came to a dirt path that cut through the woods at an angle and dropped down to Johnson Creek.
“I got to be back before dark.” I played with the flashlight switch, turning it off and on and casting light at Johnny and my feet.
“It was sitting next to the mini bucket, so I brought it. Besides, it gets dark quicker back in the deeper part of the woods, so I figured I would bring it.” He grabbed it out of my hand and switched it off. “Don’t wear down my batteries, Havs.”
As we reached a split in the path, both of us stopped. A noise rustled up ahead in the brush. I didn’t want to be a baby, but boy I wished now for one of Johnny’s brothers.
“Shh.” Johnny grabbed my arm. I don’t know if it was because he was scared like me or if he thought I might say something and roust whatever lay in the brush up ahead.
We stood there silently for what seemed like five minutes, but was probably only thirty seconds. Then, out of the brush, a deer jumped up and bounded off across the neighboring field.
“Jeez, that guy gave me a fright,” I said.
“Just a deer come on, we can reach the creek this way. It’s a shortcut my brother showed me.” Johnny turned left and started down a thin overgrown path. Trees hung low, blocking my view of the pathway.
“You sure?” I asked.
“Yep, here, you can hold the flashlight if you’re scared.”
“I ain’t scared, but sure, I will carry it.” The flashlight felt good in my hands if I needed to defend us.
As we walked, I shined the light around ahead of us. Johnny said nothing about the batteries now. I guess he was glad I was mapping the way too. As I shined the beam to the right, something caught my eye. It was a cave cut into the hillside.
“Your brothers ever show you that?” I said as we stopped about 15 feet from the opening.
“Nope, but there used to be mines here, probably an old shaft.”
“You see that rock over there, there is a blanket on it,” I said.
A big lookout seat rock covered with a red and orange wool blanket sat at the cave’s entrance.
Johnny ran toward it. I approached slowly, keeping the flashlight beam trained on the cave’s opening.
We both stood in the cave’s mouth next to the rock as I shined the light into the darkness.
“I can’t see an opening,” I said.
“Probably an old shaft like I said,” Johnny replied.
We turned our attention to the rock with a red and orange wool blanket positioned on it.
“What do you think of that?” Johnny asked.
“I don’t know, looks pretty old, like it’s been here for a while.” Neither one of us touched it.
I walked to the edge of the cave where a stack of rocks had been neatly stacked on top of one another. I could make out the edge of a cloth sticking out from under the rocks.
“Look at this pile,” I said as I eased some rocks aside. Johnny knelt beside me and together we unstacked the rock pile.
Once we had all the rocks removed, we saw the cloth that lay underneath.
“That can’t be blood, could it?” I asked. I had only seen a bloody cloth once before in my life. The time my dad cut his hand on our table saw and my mom wrapped it up and hurried him into the neighbor’s car and the neighbor and mom drove dad to the hospital while the neighbor’s wife watched me. This cloth looked similar with splotches of dark red on it, but because it had been buried under rocks, the spots were dried and a dark brown color.
Behind the rocks, stuck into the hillside, I could see a metal container with an old rusty hinge. Johnny and I both worked to free the container from its hidden spot. We pulled and dug until from its dirt encasement popped a rusted metal box. He handed it to me.
“Open it Havs, you saw it first.”
The hinge was rusty, but I pried it open. “Wow,” I said and then did my best whistle my dad had taught me. In the container was a “Marvel Tales” comic book and some money.
“We better put it back,” I said.
“For who? It looks like whoever put it there left it for someone else to find,” Johnny said.
Frog hunting forgotten, I carefully picked up an end of the cloth and placed it in the container. We headed back the way we had come with our find in hand. As we got to the tracks, we heard voices. Steve Bullard and two of his buddies. It was too late to backtrack. The only way home was past “Bully” and his friends. They were sitting on the rails and smoking cigarettes. I tucked the comic under my shirt and Johnny filled his pockets with the cash we had found.
“Well, look it here. What are you babies doing out on the tracks? Don’t you know a train could come by and run you over?” Bully laughed.
“What you got there, something for us?” He yanked the container out of my hands and it fell on the ground and sprung open.
I knew I had to be brave and react quickly or face more teasing. I picked up the rag and shouted, “Stay away from us!” At the same moment I said that, a deer crashed through the brush and ran straight past Bully, coming within four feet of him, and continued down the tracks. The sight of the bloody cloth and the deer scared even the biggest bully, because when we all stopped watching the deer run, one of his buddies said, “Hey Steve, you’re nothing but a big fraidy cat. You’re scared of a deer. You wet your pants.”
I shined the light at Steve Bullard’s pants. My mother would be really mad at me for causing further embarrassment to another person, but she didn’t know the thrashing I had taken from this guy.
“Shut up!” Steve Bullard said and then he burst into tears and ran off.
“You better run,” Johnny said once Bullard was out of earshot. Then we both turned to face Bully’s friends.
“Go on, get out of here, you twerps,” one guy said after he picked up my container and cloth and handed it to me.
We ran as fast as we could and didn’t stop until we were at the corner of our streets.
“Let’s go find your dad,” Johnny said. “Mine is probably asleep or working on his fourth beer of the night.”
Dad was outside his garage looking at the engine on his Ford pickup when we approached.
“Good thing you boys are back. Your mother told me I wouldn’t get pie tonight if you weren’t here before dark.” He put down his ratchet and wiped his hands on an old rag. I handed him the comic and Johnny emptied his pockets.
“Well now, that doesn’t look like frogs to me.” Together we counted the bills. There was $147 in all. More money than I had ever seen, even when I stayed after church to wait for my mother while she counted the weekly donations.
The story of what happened came out of me and Johnny as fast as a baseball hit to center field. Dad had to stop us several times to get a better explanation. We told him about the cave, the rock pile I spotted next to it, the bloody cloth, and of course, Bully and the container.
“Who do you think left this there?” I asked my father when we were done spilling our guts.
“I don’t know, Martin, but I will take it to the Sheriff’s office tomorrow and turn it in.” He turned to Johnny. “You best get home, John.” He shut his still open truck hood. “I don’t want your mother mad at me as well.”
Johnny and I said good night, and he took his flashlight and mini bucket and ran down the street toward his house.
Three weeks later, the sheriff came to visit. He and his deputy found the cave and the blanket. Turns out the cloth had blood on it, but it was very old blood. The deputy said we will never know why or how the blood-soaked cloth got there. No foul play had been reported in the area. They confirmed it was an old mine entrance closed up over 15 years ago. The sheriff even drove to the neighboring town and talked to the mine boss. No one knew of anyone leaving anything at the old mine or reporting money missing.
“It’s yours now, boys,” he said as he handed it to me and Johnny. “Save it for something you really want.”
Dad took Johnny and me out for ice cream that night. Our treat. We split the remaining money, and I kept the “Marvel Tales” comic. Johnny said he had his brother’s collection, and this was my first. From the portion of money I received, Mom allowed me to keep $10 and the rest she bought a savings bond with.
Bully never bothered me again. I heard Johnny’s four older brothers made it clear to him that although I wasn’t a “blood” brother to Johnny and the French boys, I was like their little brother and he was to steer clear of picking on me or answer to them.