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Polite Squirrel by Syd Phillips

He had always wanted to go hunting with his big brother, and this was going to be his first trip. It was also going to be his last.

He got up early. Real early. They wanted to be in position by dawn. Sunrise was at 7:30. That meant they had to leave the house by 6:30, allowing for a half hour drive and a 20-minute walk into position. He was up at 5 o’clock. At least that’s what he told his brother. He was actually up at 4 o’clock, but he didn’t want to admit that.

They had a big breakfast. Scrambled eggs, Bacon. Toast. And coffee. It was his first time drinking coffee. His brother said he could have it because he would need it to stay alert. He tried drinking it black at first because that’s how the men on TV did it.

It was bitter. After three sips, he put the cup down. He didn’t realize it but he put it down much further way from his plate from where his brother had placed it. His brother looked at the cup, didn’t say anything, just got up, grabbed another cup, poured some milk and some sugar in it, and then the rest of the coffee.

That tasted a lot better. Well, he thought, at least not as bad. He finished the coffee and walked, as manly as he could, to put the plates and knives and forks in the sink. When he turned around, his brother was standing there with two guns in his hand. One, his semi-automatic .22. The other, the oldest brother’s single shot, break action, 20 gauge shotgun.

“Which one you want?” his brother asked.

He pointed to the .22.   It held 18 rounds of bllets. The shotgun had one shot. He figured his odds were better with the .22 even though the shotgun had a wider field.

Neither one said anything on the drive. Neither said anything when they got out of the car. His brother picked up the .22 and handed it to him. Then the brother handed him a carton of bullets, picked up the shotgun, and headed to the door.

“Ready?”

“Ready!”

They walked into the woods. A trail the older brother knew; A trail the younger brother didn’t know and couldn’t see. The sun started to rise. Birds started chirping. The more they walked, the lighter it got.

The air was cold, but it felt bracing. It felt like he was sucking on an ice cube with each breath he took. The cold made his nose run, forming what seemed like icicles at the end of his nose. He had to spit them off every few steps. It got lighter. The birds chirped more.

The brother stopped, nodded at a tree. It was a small pine tree, but at the base was a large pile of leaves. Something he could sit on.   Around it was a variety of hardwoods with nuts, lots of nuts. Or, what his brother had called them in their many conversations back at the house – squirrel bait.

He flipped the leaves over, pulled a small log out and sat down. He leaned back against the tree. His brother disappeared in the darkness. He knew he was there, somewhere. He just couldn’t see him in the dark. The sun was a few minutes away from rising.

Those few minutes were long minutes, made longer by the cold. The walk-in had built up his body heat. Sitting down, that heat evaporated and all he knew was that it was cold. It hadn’t rained, but the morning dew made everything wet, and colder still. He put his face in his jacket and his mouth near his armpit to make the air coming into his lungs warmer. He kept his ears out so he could listen for the animals even though the cold air made his ears stiff and painful.

“Hey, get up.”

It was his brother. He’d fallen asleep. His brother walked a few feet away and looked up in the trees. He got up and grabbed his rifle still leaning up against the tree. He walked up behind his brother, stopped and waited for him to say something. All he said was, “let’s check over there,” and started walking, slowly picking up one leg and putting it down, then the other. It was a slow motion dance, designed to keep down the noise and to create as little movement as possible. His brother told him that’s how the Indians hunted.

The sun was up. The various birds were up with it. Some making calls, letting other birds know where they are. Some making songs of mating and courtship. In between all that was the clear screeching of squirrels in the trees. His brother waved for him to move off to his right. He stepped over slowly, imitating his brother’s walk.

He was ten feet away when his brother waved for him to stop. The squirrels had stopped screeching. The woods were silent. Even the birds had stopped singing. They both stood silent.

He watched a woodpecker hop up the side of a tree. It was a live-oak tree, one of many scattered in the pine forest, along with dogwoods, hickories, a few cedar trees, and one lonely palmetto. Somewhere there was a magnolia. He couldn’t see it, but he could smell it in the cold, crisp air. His eyes went up each of the trees, looking for the curled bundle that would be a squirrel.

The bird calls and songs started up again, growing slowly louder as more and more birds joined in. The light wind made the leaves rustle lightly. He heard a louder rustle in the woods far away. He held his breath every few seconds, hoping it would help him hear better. He felt like he was hurting his ears, straining to catch a screech. One finally came but it was where that rustle came from, far away.

BANG!

A gun shot followed by an echoing boom, followed by a crashing sound. He snapped around to see a light smoke around his brother, and then something falling from a tree twenty yards in front of his brother, followed by a thump as it hit the ground.

His brother slowly lowered his gun, watching the spot where the thump hit. When there was no movement, his brother broke open the shotgun, the shell popped out and he put in another. His brother turned to him and with a big smile on his face and gave him a thumbs up.

The smile went away and he saw the brother point up to a tree. He turned to look, and there on a branch sat a squirrel. It was frozen in place, trying to camouflage its position. It had made the mistake of twitching its tail and his brother had seen it.

He slowly raised the gun to his shoulder. He leveled the sights on the squirrel’s head. He wanted a clean kill. He took a deep breath to steady his aim. The squirrel twitched. He pulled the trigger. The squirrel fell from the branch, hitting other branches as it fell.

He ran to the spot where it fell. When he got there, the squirrel was twitching and jumping. His brother ran up behind him. The squirrel was still twitching and jumping. His brother smashed the butt of his gun on the head of the squirrel. Once. Twice. The squirrel stopped moving.

The brother picked up the squirrel and put it in the pouch on the back of his hunting vest with the other squirrel. That’s when the brother realized he had his back turned to him. The brother looked at his back for several minutes, saying nothing.

He was crying.

His brother un-cocked his shotgun and removed the shell. Then he reached over and took the .22. The brother unloaded all the bullets into his hand, then put both guns under his arm.

The brother walked on towards the car location. He didn’t move. After going a couple hundred yards away, the brother took the two squirrels out of the pouch and threw them away.

“Let’s go home.”

He didn’t move. The brother walked on a few yards, stopped, said, “I need a cup of coffee,” and then continued walking. He followed.

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Image: Polite Squirrel by Syd Phillips via Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.
Michael Castengera

Michael Castengera

Michael Castengera is a newspaper reporter, turned television reporter, turned news manager, turned news consultant, turned university teacher.

He started out as a newspaper reporter, first while living in Australia, and then for newspapers in Orlando and Jacksonville, Florida.  He made the cross over into television reporting in Jacksonville, going to work for Post-Newsweek’s WJXT.

Since then he has worked in virtually every position in the newsroom, including reporter, assignment editor, producer, managing editor, assistant news director, news director and, finally, station manager.  His career has covered markets large (Miami and St. Louis), medium (Jacksonville, Fort Myers, Oklahoma City and Lexington, Kentucky) and small (Beaumont and Corpus Christi, Texas).

He cites as career highlights, investigative reports into police abuse, tornado coverage in Oklahoma and riots in Miami, being at the birth of the first 24-hour news station (KMOV) and heading up what was, at the time, the highest rated news affiliate in the country (WINK).

It was while he was station manager and news director in Fort Myers that he made the cross over into consulting, working with Audience, Research and Development of Dallas as a senior strategist with a variety of stations around the country.

He now is a senior lecturer in Digital and Broadcast Journalism at the Grady College of Journalism at the University of Georgia.  In addition to that, he runs his own consulting company, Media Strategies and Tactics.  Clients include media groups in America as well as in India.