Leaving his chum no choice, he scrambles up the side wall and starts towards the forest. Reluctantly Chops stows the wagon behind the dense growth of small trees to follow his friend. The boys enter the woods at a tall and aged spruce that was planted sixty years ago marking the division of property between the Warren brothers. Every fifty feet there is another one the same age for the three hundred feet it takes to get to the river. A narrow path weaves through the giant trees, made by the many feet that follow an easy route to the river. Boys, a few girls, sweethearts, men and women that came to fish, they all followed the same route. John Jr is ahead by about four strides in a boyish gait, not yet a full run. Chops’ shorter legs make keeping up a tough job.
“Hey hang on, don’t run so fast.”
“No you run faster Phil.”
“Why do I have to keep telling you, don’t call me Phil”
John Jr comes to a boyish halt halfway to the water, sliding his rubbery soles along the dark earth. He faces his friend with arms akimbo. His eyes are even darker in the shade of the woods and Chops can see he’s serious.
“Tell me what’s so bad about Phil?”
Chops reddens a little remembering the cruel jibes his schoolmates making of his name when he started school. He hated his name, not that any of the other three he had were any better. Many times in his young life he was disappointed to have been called Chadwell Horatio Orville Phileas Sangster. They called him Philly when he was very little. Then Phil; until the meanies at school started using it as a verb. While randomly doodling his initials one evening he noted they spelt CHOPS. He said it out loud a few times, liking the hardness of the P with the complimentary S. That was it; he would only answer to Chops. Everybody thought it was neat.
His voice is bashful, quiet, just above a whisper. “Well you remember the jokes!”
John Jr makes a dismissive waving motion in the air with one hand while he pushes his dark hair off his forehead with the other. He has a handsome grin when he says,
“So what? That was a long time ago. Nobody cares any more. And besides we’re bigger now, we’re tougher, right? And I think Chadwell is a neat-o name, just Chad is even better. Sounds like a movie star’s name.”
Chops eyes widen at ‘movie star’. A huge grin scrunches up his freckles, he’s totally attentive as John Jr continues.
“Use that, no more Phil. Problem solved. I mean who wants to be named after a piece of meat all their life. It’s worse than going to the john.”
John Jr starts to giggle at his jibe. Chops becomes serious as he thinks of the pork chops his family ate last night. His oldest sister had cooked them and they were burnt. Even though they were a bit dry they tasted not too bad. The nickname doesn’t hold the same appeal anymore as he considers this. He stares at John Jr with pursed lips and scrunched brow before finally nodding his head.
“Okay, I’ll give it a go if you promise to give anybody a knock if they tease me.”
“Even Mary Jane Baker?”
Chad is left speechless at the reversal of his joke, not quick enough to think of a good retort. John Jr doesn’t wait for an answer but turns to begin running to the river, his laughter following him there. Chad is about to get mad when a vision of the pretty young girl floats through his pre-teen head. He usually thinks of her laughing when he does but lately he has been focusing on the budding of her slim chest. He blushes again at his own innocence and shakes the idea away. Tearing off at a full trot he forgets Mary Jane as he sees John Jr. zig to the left at the last tree before the river edge.
The water is high with the winter run off, only a foot below the bank. It’s not wide, maybe fifteen feet. It rushes towards a larger river five miles away. Bubbles froth around debris that lies just below the surface. Dead branches poke their dark fingers through the twirling ribbon of racing water. Chad can hear it over a hundred feet away. The sound reminds him of the wind blowing in the leaves. As he gets closer the symphonic gurgling of the wavelets gets louder. He stops and scouts under the branches of the last old spruce and he can see John Jr seated on a dead log that fronts the water about ten feet away. Scuff marks on the ground at the foot of the log indicate where people have sat and fished for many years. John Jr’s big brother, Dave, always said he wished the gnarly old log could talk The boy’s never understood what he meant and he never explained his comment but they would catch on soon enough.
John Jr is propped on the wooden seat, his feet about six inches off the ground and he’s a tall boy. Chad has to scrabble up the huge bole using the stubs of broken limbs for footholds. His toes dangle another three inches higher. Sitting closely he watches John Jr unfold the hankie. A forbidden fascination pricks his senses and he feels the goose bumps on his neck but he can’t stop smiling. He’s thinking how manly his neighbour Mark looks when he has a smoke, he’s in college and the girls all follow him around.
“We’ll be just like grownups.”
John Jr is straightening out the four edges upon his lap, the brown shreds flattening out on the surface. He looks at Chad.
“Well, maybe not to grownups, I ain’t going to tell any but maybe to the girls."
John Jr can’t believe what he just heard. He tosses his hair back with an upward nod.
“So it’s okay now to talk about girls”
“I don’t wanna talk about them just maybe let them know somehow that we’re smokers.”
John Jr likes that and says,
“Yeah we’ll tell Ruthie, they’re friends.”
Concentrating on the task at hand John Jr pulls out a crinkled collection of small white papers. He tugged several from his brother’s pack and jammed them in his pocket when he took the tobacco. While he is trying to unfold the tissues and loosen one free Chad says, “You know how to roll a cigarette?”
“No but I saw Dave do it, it doesn’t look so hard. Watch.”
John Jr finally gets one paper free from the group and passes the extras to his pal. He holds the glued edge facing him and sets in on the hankie edge. Pinching the weed between his fingers, he piles it on so that you can only see the white corners under the mound. They both stare at it for a minute, there doesn’t look anything round about it. Chad finally says, “Now what?”
John Jr nudges his friend who is sitting too close to his right arm. “Gimme some room and hang on a sec, I’m trying to remember what comes next, how am I supposed to pick this mess up?” Chad shrugs and says nothing. John Jr remembers Dave making a U with the long flat sides. Grasping the edges and bringing them together proves to work quite well. It’s rolling one under the other that requires a little skill. John Jr fumbles with the paper trying to roll it back and forth like he saw his brother do until he eventually tears it and spills all the tobacco on his dungarees. Chad has been quiet watching the procedure. Now young Sangster may be a slow learner with his numbers and the alphabet but he has an acute understanding of what John Jr is trying to do. “Let me try.”
On the dotted cloth spread upon his pal’s lap, he flattens out another paper, the strip of yellowish glue on the top. Two generous pinches of curly cut leaf cover the paper once more. Fumbling with the edges, the excess tobacco spilling out, he gets the paper into a respectable U shape and starts to roll it in his stubby fingers. Most of the stringy mass is in the center and when he tucks the edges in, the handmade cigarette is fat in the middle and pointy on the edges. John Jr is all smiles at his friend’s skill.
“Wow, that’s pretty good Chops…Chad, I mean. You gotta lick the yellow edge to make it stick together. Unroll it a little bit.”
Chad just nods, fully concentrating on the task. Slowly unfurling the wrinkled paper he exposes the glue. He frowns before he sticks his tongue out. Saliva moistens the yellowish strip. A quick roll back and he proudly passes his buddy the finished product. Pleased with himself, his feet are rocking back and forth like a dog wagging his tail, the heels knocking on the dead log. He beams at John Jr who has the cigarette clamped between his lips as he fumbles in his shirt pocket for a match. The cigarette dangles and bobs up and down as John Jr mumbles.
“Do I look more grown up?”
“Oh yeah, you look like you should be in Grade 9 or 10.”
Chad only nods as he watches John Jr take a wooden match out of his pocket. The red head is perfectly round and fills with fire as he runs it over the toothed zipper of his jeans. As the flame flares John Jr sticks the end of the cigarette in and takes a huge puff, remembering the deep breaths that Dave would take when he smoked. Removing the burning torch from his lips he inhales a mouthful of smoke that is half paper and half tobacco. John Jr’s lungs are as virgin as the rushing water before them and they don’t react pleasantly to the harsh and foreign substance.
Chad sits up to help his friend, dried leaves stuck to his shirt and in his hair. Tugging at John Jr, they come to rest with their backs against the log. A few minutes later John Jr finally stops coughing and looks at his friend. Snot runs from his nose, tears have trailed down his cheeks, his eyes look confused, his throat stings and he doesn’t want to cry in front of his friend. Chad doesn’t say anything, instead hands John Jr. the dusty rag from his back pocket. John Jr gratefully takes the cloth and starts to wipe his nose when Chad says,
“I don’t think I want to start smoking, not if I have to do that too.”
They can’t help it, they’re boys and start to snicker and soon they’re rolling on the ground again laughing when suddenly John Jr sits up, the laughter dies. “I smell smoke.”
The wooded area they are in is mostly alder bushes along the river edge and some narrow open grassy strips like they are on. The grass is long, stringy and dry as birch bark. The match has started a small fire, the cigarette close by is working on another one. The smoke swirls straight up turning grey as it cools, a slight breeze carries it over the fallen log. By the time the boys realize something is burning, the fire is spreading and already three feet long.
The boys stand quickly looking towards the water. The smoke shifts shape at eye level and dances in the air. The two are mesmerized by fear as they stare down at the flames.
John Jr is the first to react from the realization that they could be in a lot of trouble. Scrambling over the log he yells,
“C’mon Chops, we gotta put it out.”
Chad is broken from his initial fear to follow his buddy. They hustle over to start stamping their feet on the flames. The grass strip is twenty feet long and two to three feet wide before it tangles into the alders where more fuel lies in the shape of dried yellow and orange leaves. The puffs of sparks and bits of flame disturbed by their sneakers only spreads the fire. The smoke blooms thicker and engulfs the boys. They have to back away, terrified of the burning grasses. The two are coughing when from behind them comes a barreling voice filled with anger.
“What are you hooligans up to here?”
Old man Hamm was strolling to the river to fish. Although the water is high, he is usually one of the first to cast his worms into the chilly water. He was coming upon the last tall spruce when he smelt the smoke, soon to see it as stray wisps floated by the opening in the trees. Leaving his fishing rod on the path he rushed forward to find the two boys near the grass fire coughing. They jumped at his deep voice turning to face him with both relief and guilt etched into their youthful faces. John Jr blurts out,
“We didn’t meant to start a fire Mr. Hamm, it’s…it’s my fault. Please help us.”
“Get out of the way then boys, let me at it.”
Purvis Hamm has already eyed where the fire is going. The end away from him will stop at the worn path where the trail continues down river. This end could be trouble so he stamps his boots on the grass near them. His Kodiaks are a size twelve and crush the fire beneath their large soles. He soon has the flames under control and watches the other end die out. The river bank for about twelve feet is blackened ash, some of the grass or thicker stems still smouldering. Hamm turns towards the boys standing off behind him, his chunky arms upon his hips. The two that stand before him, one of the Sangsters and the Williams kid are about the saddest sight he’s seen for a while. He’s ready to give them a blast when he stares at them with a scowl and puffed cheeks. But he can see that they’re cowed. Their knees are both shaking. He remembers when he was about their age and started a fire in the school yard one spring. He softens inside but doesn’t let on.
“What happened? And no fibbing.”
John Jr has spied the hankie on the ground close to where he is standing. He bends to pick it up. Tiny shards of tobacco still cling to the rough fibers. Staring at it he says.
“We were smoking.”
This causes Hamm to grin, such pups being so adventurous, he thinks.
“Well, did you like it? Was it worth burning the forest over?”
The boys shake their head vigorously with nothing to say, they’re studying the ground at their feet. Both red in the face with shame. Chad thinks of his father’s thin branch in the wood shed and whispers,
“Are you gonna tell our folks?”
“I’m not sure yet.”
Hamm studies them for a moment, wanting them to know they did wrong. The heads are down. He wants to laugh at what he knows they must be feeling, he was a boy too once. He thinks the fire scared them enough
“You boys should wait until you’re older before you start smoking. You could have caused a lot of damage today and I expect you both know that.” He rubs his jowls as the boy’s chins fall deeper on their chests. “I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. The heap of drying wood behind my house needs to be piled by the shed. Make sure it gets done before the end of next month and I’ll keep mum on what you two were up to.”
Both young heads pop up in unbelief. They can’t contain their relief. Chad is jumping from one foot to the other and John Jr is shaking his head up and down. They both speak out at once. “Thank you Mr. Hamm.”
“Okay get out of here you two and no more fires.”
The boys take off running. They run all the way to the gravel pit, Chad not far behind this time. They’re panting and puffing when they reach the wagon. Both realizing how close they came to burning down the forest, they are deep in thought as they head home. Chad pulls the wagon as a matter of habit. The wheels squeak in the silence, the dust balls puff at their feet, the flames grow larger in their thinking of what might have happened if old man Hamm hadn’t of come along.
Chad Sangster started smoking when he was eighteen, the day after he joined the army. John Williams Jr never had a cigarette again for the rest of his life.
Please leave a comment if you like. Next week I'll have a guest writer - Nancy Kay - with one of her entertaining stories, don't miss it, she's a great storyteller. She is an award winning author and editor. Publisher of eZine - commuterlit.com
Dark Side of a Promise is now available at Amazon.ca or .com or .com.uk or .com.fr. A promise is made. Drake Alexander searches for the man the killed his best friend's sister.