We were saddened at Lethe this week to hear of the passing of author Ken Smith, and in his memory this week we're sharing his novel Cowboys Can Fly, a classic story of gay adolescence that is as heartbreaking as it is triumphant. The book can be bought as part of our ebook sale, or in paperback from Amazon or other similar websites.
Read the first chapter of Cowboys Can Fly or listen to a preview of the audiobook:
It was the first Monday of the summer holiday. The back garden was once again drenched in sunshine, the flowers open to its rays and wafting all manner of heady scents into the air. I was on my first mission of the day, foraging in the scrub beneath the small orchard, checking my mole traps to see if any had sprung overnight. There had been an army of moles of late, molehills appearing on the lawn overnight, to Mum’s annoyance. I’d found that trapping them around the orchard scrub had been more successful than placing the traps in the lawn mounds, my mother keen to get them flattened down as soon as possible and not wanting unsightly traps spread about.
Mole traps were like giant clothes pegs. To set them you pressed the wings at the top together. This opened the jaws. A small metal plate slotted between the jaws and kept them open. When the mole’s nose pressed into the plate, it pushed the plate out of the way, and the jaws slammed shut. Hopefully, you had one very dead mole.
The open wings of the third trap heralded success. I swiftly and excitedly bent and pulled it from the soil. “Damn and bugger,” I cursed on finding it empty. “Cunning little sod.”
Finding empty traps was more often than not the case. I often wondered how the moles managed to spring them and not have their head chopped off, not that I wanted them to have their heads chopped off. I wasn’t that cruel a lad.
The final trap had sprung. Kneeling into the grass, I keenly pulled it up. “Oh dear.” I sighed as I stroked a finger over the silky smooth fur. “Blame Mum. It’s her lawn you are buggering up.”
I released the beautiful creature from its trap of death, a little sadness apparent. Tossing the mole into the nearby hedgerow for other wild creatures to feed upon, I went in search of a fresh molehill. Finding one beside a long lost garden gnome buried in deep grass, I dug down until I’d found the run, pressed the wings of the trap together, reset it, and pushed it deep into the soil.
“If you leave Mum’s bloody lawn alone, I won’t have no need to catch you, now will I?”
I scooped up the dirty gnome, patted it on the head and tucked it under my arm. I checked the rosy-cheeked face. “Now then, which one are you? Anyhow, how come you’ve left home and hidden yourself in the orchard? Don’t you like it here?” I brought the gnome’s face to my ear. “Oh, you’ve been hunting moles.” I tapped the gnome’s bottom. “Well don’t. That’s my job.”
I brought the lost gnome to the hosepipe stand beside the potting shed. “Better clean you up before you go back on guard duty.” I rubbed a palm over the dirty green trousers.
I spotted the wallet poking from the rear pocket. I laughed. “Oh, it’s you, Dodger.” I’d named him that, telling Mum that the gnome was a thief and stole wallets. Dodger must have been upset and had made a run for it.
“Soon have you spick and span. When you’re nice and clean, you can go out front. You’ll like it there. You’ll be able to watch the tractors and farmers go by. And the cows when they go for milking. It’s a whole new world out there.”
I stepped into the kitchen, supped a glass of cold water, to help cool and refresh myself, grabbed the washing-up liquid, and returned to Dodger.
“Still here then?” I thought I saw Dodger’s expression change. “Don’t tell me you don’t like baths. I’m afraid you’ll just have to get used to it. Mum don’t like dirty gnomes wandering around the place. Or boys.”
I tipped the washing-up liquid bottle and squeezed a huge dollop over Dodger’s head. “Well close your eyes, then it won’t sting.” Chatting to a plaster gnome was the way of things when you lived alone in the countryside. You made your own fun.
I rubbed Dodger and built up a nice froth all over him. “Don’t worry; this won’t hurt a bit.”
I reached for the tap on which the hose dangled. The tap had seized from lack of use. I needed two hands to free it. After a few gushes of air, the water came rushing out.
Like a frightened snake trying to evade capture, the green hose lashed out in all directions, water gushing all over Dodger, the windows, the lawn, the back door, everywhere.
In a panic, I reached for the tap to cut the flow. The heavy nozzle of the hose went for my ankles. I leapt high into the air, the nozzle whizzing kneecap height. With a final thrash, just before I’d turned the tap, the nozzle snaked across the path, leapt into the air, smacked into Dodger’s cheeky face, and decapitated him.
I stared at the headless gnome lying in a pool of suds. After a few seconds of silence, I burst out laughing, my stomach knotting in pain as I curled up in hysterics. “Don’t worry, won’t hurt a bit, Dodger.”
Still giggling, I climbed to my feet before reducing the force of water and hosing the suds from the path. After shutting the water off, I scooped head and body into my arms. “Major surgery, methinks.” With that, I placed Dodger into the potting shed to await repair on the next rainy day.
My bedroom was my next port of call. It was not a daunting place to visit. Because Mum was mostly busy at work, nurse, domestic and many other talents, I was a good lad and kept it clean and tidy. I also had other chores, which I did regularly. I knew it could be a tough life for a busy single mum, who was trying to feed a forever-hungry lad, as well as pay the bills.
I tapped several Airfix planes hanging from the ceiling. They swung back and forth, as if in a dogfight, as I went in search of my catapult. The remainder of the morning I would spend up in Nuthatch Wood. I needed pocket money. To get some, I hoped to bag a few grey squirrels and sell their tails to farmer Cartwright. Grey squirrels were vermin, and I’d get a couple of bob for each one. The tails were of no use really but were proof of a kill. I had no problem with killing them. As their numbers increased each year, and they were driving the lovely red squirrels from the pined area of the wood, I was pleased to do so.
I retrieved my catapult from on top of the wardrobe, gave the rubber a good tug backward, and then let it loose. The pouch shot forward, just missing my fingers, then sprang back. It still had a few years life in it. There was a knack to firing it. On many occasion, especially when I’d first made it, the stone and pouch would catch them. Many a newly acquired swearword had left my lips when it did.
A dip into the box below my bed, and a small pair of binoculars slipped into my rear pocket; another must when out on a woodland trek.
I peered from my bedroom window and did a weather check. A blue mass and a few fluffy clouds filled the sky. I would stay dressed in red Sloppy Joe and matching shorts. It would not rain today.
In the kitchen, I prepared grub for the sortie, a couple of doorstep-sized cheese sandwiches and a can of Coke, all stuffed unceremoniously into baggy pockets.
Ready for the off, I checked the back door was locked. There was no need really. People didn’t steal around these parts, not that there were that many people around these parts, only local farmhands and the occasional rambler type.
At the front door, I collected my staff, which always awaited me in the same spot, alongside Mum’s more elegant stick. A staff, or some sort of stick, was a must for country folk, handy for steep hills, good for whacking inquisitive cows on the bum, great to beat down brambles or gain access to thick thickets, and, of course, pinning adders to the ground with the compulsory fork at the head, though I’d never done that.
I stepped into the sunshine, pulling the heavy door shut, the big knocker giving a clunk as I did so. The key hanging on the string inside the door beneath the letterbox released a quieter tinkle. A spare key sat in a cracked flowerpot on the top shelf in the shed, should the main key ever break away from the string.
The front garden was not so big but beautiful none the less, planted mainly with an assortment of roses, the scent of which could knock you sideways, the multitude of colours delicious to the eye.
At the front gate, I did a quick glance back to make sure all was well; I spotted my open bedroom window. I gave it no mind. It was good to let my boy-odours evacuate the room on a regular basis. The burglar would need to bring his own ladder anyway, as there was none in the shed.
I sucked in a breath and contemplated which way to head. The tractor path was the only road, skirted by stunning hedgerows along its entire length, a fine haven for birds.
By taking a left turn, the path meandered along, all downhill. It would take me to Cartwright’s Farm and Cartwright Copse. It divided the two as it passed through. A quarter mile on and it stopped at the stream that skirted Nuthatch Wood. Across from the bridge, a narrower path climbed high into the wood, until it reached the spectacular New Forest and its glorious wildlife; a regular haunt for me.
By taking a right at the gate, it gave you a steep climb until you reached The Folly, a tall, triangular heap of bricks, which somehow remained standing after all these years. It served no purpose apart from being a perfect trig point. It wasn’t even a good place to play, the only entrance bricked in some years ago, after a lump of concrete came tumbling down and knocked out a rambler.
The tractor path continued for a good three miles beyond The Folly, running beside fields, a couple of small copse, and yet more fields. A few cottages nestled in each copse but were only just visible. None had any youths in them but both had old women. Millie Tanner and Daisy Westwood were the occupants.
Daisy had been born in her cottage. She would most likely die there, her lonesome life made bearable by the company of five cats, a gaggle of geese, fifty hens, and a cockerel that could be heard two counties away.
I had noticed on my first egg and chutney trip that she didn’t even possess a TV, a tiny Ferguson radio her only entertainment, usually tuned to classical or easy listening music.
Daisy was a friendly soul. Her chutney was scrumptious, and the eggs always huge and often double-yolkers, sometimes triple. I would chop wood or do other chores as payment, as was the way. Sometimes, after I’d finished, I’d sit and listen to her fascinating tales while I ate homemade scones and jam. She seemed to give more than she got for her wares but I suspected the pleasure for her was that we loved her preserves and cakes. As I well knew, mums and old ladies loved to see their grub eaten and enjoyed.
The tractor trail eventually met up with a B road, with an equal lack of life, apart from a few single-decker buses each day, to take folk to and from the small town a further four miles on. To my dismay, it also took me to school and back, that dreaded place where bully Baxter and I learnt to read and write, or not, in his case.
The only other direction I could head, apart from those at the rear of Little Thatch, was straight ahead.
Beyond the hedgerow were many fields, fields that changed crop year on year. The crop directly beyond the hedgerow this year was corn, wonderful golden corn, the ripening ears swaying in the welcome midday breeze; a sea of gold, gold more precious than the real thing to farmer Cartwright.
Yes, precious gold, punishment for which was the removal of other treasured nuggets from any boy who dared trample through it.
I decided to go straight ahead but first headed to my left, to a gap in the hedgerow, where I could gain access to the field. As I did so, the sound of a chugging tractor filled the air.
Bouncing up and down, when the tractor traversed the lumpy dry soil as it climbed the hill, I spotted Cartwright’s youngest son at the helm. I gave a wave of my staff.
“Morning, Toby.” Charlie drew alongside me, then brought the tractor and trailer to a halt with a bounce. “Off to the bus stop? Want a lift?”
I tapped a fat tire with my staff. “No thanks, Charlie. Just over to the wood. Bag some squirrels. Where you off?”
“Collecting some fence posts from Sam at sawmill, then pop in to see Daisy. Fox got into her hens last night and killed half a dozen. See if I can fix the wire.”
“Vicious buggers. She’ll be short on eggs this week. They often stop laying after they’ve been spooked. I’d better pop down tonight and bag some before she runs out.”
Charlie rubbed a strong palm over his big chest and wiped away the sweat. “I’ll grab some and pop them in on the way back if you like. Okay?”
I didn’t reply, my mind elsewhere.
“Okay?” repeated Charlie.
“Where you gone? I’ll grab some eggs and pop them in on my way back.”
I nodded. “Sure. That’ll be great. Thanks.”
“Right, gotta be off now. Have fun. Keep out of the corn, mind. Dad’s in a bit of a grump today.”
“Always do!” I pulled back into the hedgerow as the tractor jumped when given gas. It bounced away, smoke puffing from the chimney as it climbed the steep hill. With a wave, I set off for the gap in the hedgerow.
Of late I’d become more aroused than on previous meetings with Charlie. When he asked about the eggs, I was daydreaming of Charlie and me wrestling in the cornfield, his big naked chest and muscular thighs pressing me down.
Lying flat on my stomach, I squashed a bed of ferns as I wriggled through the tight gap leading to the field of corn. A clump of angry nettles brushed my face when my head poked through the other side. It began to smart when the venom got to work. “Bugger,” I cursed, my bum wriggling as it followed my torso through. “That bloody stung, you sod!”
I jumped to my feet and sought out some dock leaves, which grew close by nettles. I squeezed them into my palm until the juices began to flow and then rubbed the green slime over my cheek. It wasn’t long before the stinging began to subside.
I decided I would not cross the corn but skirt around the edge. I was in no rush.
While I moved beside the yellow sea, now almost chest height and nearly ripe, I watched the wave-like motion of the corn rush down the hillside, its course changing direction as the wind swirled around. At the same time, shadows of clouds raced patches of darkness eastward. It almost made you feel seasick after a while, especially so if you stood in the middle of the field.
The racket, that was the only way to describe the call of pheasants, met my ears. They were no doubt feeding on the corn and well hidden but were close by.
I spotted a cluster of pebbles beside the roots of a small chestnut tree, scooped them up, withdrew the catapult from my rear pocket, and loaded it.
After tossing one of the pebbles into the corn, I pulled the rubber back and readied myself.
Closer than I’d thought, the first of the pheasants took to flight, flying low and directly toward me, it’s alarm call shrieking loudly. My outstretched arm followed the bird, eyes glued to the feathery ball. By the time my arm had travelled into an awkward position above my head, the pheasant had swooped over the hedgerow.
The second bird took to flight, this time flying away from me, the best angle for bagging them in flight. Without much time to take better aim, I reloaded the catapult and let loose the pouch.
With a swish and a thwack, the pebble sailed toward its target. I watched the missile bare down on the tail feathers. Within inches of a hit, the pheasant instinctively swooped low, the pebble missing by a whisker.
“Roast potatoes!” I cried. “You lucky bugger, you.”
A rustle from within the corn brought me from the excitement of a possible first kill of the day. I stuffed my catapult into my pocket. I thought I’d been caught and the gamekeeper’s head was about to pop up from the golden sea. I ducked low.
A gasp escaped my lips when an enormous hare bounded from the stems of the corn, then bounded back between them again on catching sight of me.
“Rabbit stew.” I fell backward into the hedgerow, heart pounding harder than the hares. “Do that to me again and you’ll be in my pot instead of the pheasant.”
I stood and double-checked for gamekeepers. I’d be up to my little neck in it if caught poaching Cartwright’s pheasants, even if gamekeeper David was a nice bloke. He always gave Mum a brace for Christmas, reward for the beating I did on winter shoots, so I shouldn’t have been poaching them.
I loved going on pheasant beats but bagging an illegal one was much more fun. The last time I’d bagged one took a lot of convincing before Mum accepted my lie that I’d found it by the roadside. “Lkely been knocked down by a tractor.”
I doubt I’d have gotten that lie past David. In all honesty, I doubted I’d truly gotten it past Mum. She wasn’t gullible but she also wasn’t going to turn down a nice plump pheasant for Sunday lunch.
I set off beside the hedgerow, skirting the cornfield, all the while my eyes peeled for good ammunition. Several times, I scooped up perfect pebbles and dropped them into my pocket.
Reaching the corner of the cornfield, I ducked under the barbed wire fence and moved into a larger field. Cartwright used it for grazing or renting out to the occasional campers and sometimes Boy Scout troupes. There were no campers or Scouts present today.
The main reason that field seldom contained crops was the huge crater in the middle, a hole made by a bomb or meteorite. Cartwright had fenced the crater off, and a big red sign warned all to keep out. I had no idea what treasures or traps lay in its depths but was sure there must be something very exciting secreted there or maybe something gruesome like the bones of boys who had dared trample cornfields.
Breaking into a trot, I soon skirted a ploughed field as I headed ever downward toward the stream.
Stopping when I spotted a crowd of crows on the scavenge; I swiftly loaded the catapult. Selecting a big bugger of a crow, though they were all pretty big, I let loose the missile.
I cursed when the pebble hit the top of a furrow with a loud clunk, then whizzed inches above the crow’s head. It continued skyward until I eventually lost sight of it.
The flock of crows took to flight, squawking as they headed for the tops of trees. Seconds later, two loud bangs echoed around the valley. High in the sky, a black feather mass began to flutter earthward.
I knew straightaway who the competition was; gamekeeper David. There was no need for panic; he’d be more than pleased I was having a go at the crows. I’d done him a favor putting them to flight.
I scanned the wood’s edge several times. Had he not moved I wouldn’t have spotted the dark-green jacket. I didn’t shout but waved my staff above my head. Sure enough, he waved back. He had a keen eye. Also had the cutest of faces and the blondest locks ever. I have to confess I’d had many a naughty dream about him.
Whilst I continued toward the stream, I remembered that I had to be home by four o’clock, on Mum’s orders. It was important, she had told me last night. I didn’t like “important” things. It usually meant bad school reports or someone had spotted me doing something I shouldn’t have been doing, or major chores. It meant bad news.
I did a quick inventory of the past few days’ events. I could find nothing that warranted worry on my part. Mum didn’t know about Dodger, yet, unless she was psychic, and I sometimes wondered if she were. Yes, I had torn one of my new Sloppy Joes on the barbed wire fence but that was now sitting on the scarecrow in the top field, where she seldom ventured, so there was no way she’d know about that. My only other sin, I might have stained my sheets of late, but she had never mentioned that subject before. I hoped she never would. Nope, I had a clean sheet. Or rather, a clean slate.
I reached the stream, though I classed it more a river. It had a fairly fast flow, was a good five foot wide in places, could reach two or three foot deep, a good deal deeper when it flooded, and contained a fair few minnows and sometimes larger fish.
Kingfishers, one of which I’d already spotted take a quick dunk and fly off with a mouthful of minnows, were regular visitors, as were vole and other water loving creatures. Cows too would shove their heads through the fencing and take a gulp.
I’d spent hours down here searching for treasure but mostly finding bits of broken pottery or glass, sometimes whole bottles, all worn down by the flow. They were still treasure to me though, and a box in my bedroom contained the most precious and prettiest of the hoard.
A falcon’s hood was the most prized of my finds. Very old and worth a few bob, I reckoned. It must have had many a tale to tell. I suspected it might have belonged to a gent back in Henry VIII days. Maybe he was out with his son and teaching him how to hunt with a bird of prey. Perhaps the falcon flew off by surprise, dropping the hood as it did so, catching the young Master off guard.
He’d dash across the field in pursuit. No doubt dressed in that strange garb they wore back then, a type of outfit I wouldn’t have minded wearing myself.
I loved imagining these woods, no matter how long ago, had so many boys of my age doing the very same things I did. They’d climbed the same trees and had taken the same short cuts. I often wondered, if one day I might see the ghost of a boy who’d never wanted to leave Nuthatch Wood, and who still played here. I was sure one often watched me play on balmy summer evenings, though I’d never seen him.
I often chatted to Boy Ghost and suspected he watched over me. I’d spotted low branches just before they decapitated me, jumped over small roots sticking up from the soil, zigzagged around potholes, and avoided all manner of mishaps as I ran through the woodland, thanks to Boy Ghost.
I crossed the stream using an old fallen tree trunk, now free of bark but moss covered. A forester had removed all branches. The top had worn flat from use but it could still be a slippery bugger on damp or frosty days. I’d fallen in a few times when I’d lost my footing.
Feeling peckish, I plonked myself down, pulled a sandwich from my pocket, and began to munch.
Arms going about my waist made me jump. I tried to stand but they held me fast in a bear-like grip.
“Poaching, eh?” David’s cheek pressed against my own as he spoke. “Where’s that pheasant you bagged? I saw you taking a shot at it.”
A tingle of excitement rushed my entire body. I should have been trying to escape David’s grip. Instead, I savored the heat of his chest as it pressed into my back, his heart beating heavily, my own racing like a captured robin.
I gripped his wrists, not to prize his arms from my waist but to keep them wrapped about me. “I don’t bag pheasants, only crows and squirrels. That was just a practice shot.”
My face had turned toward his when I spoke, my lips close to that luscious mouth. If I only dared to kiss him.
David chuckled. “Good lad.”
As I swam in his beauty, my thoughts fixed firmly on kissing those plum-coloured lips; David slipped his arms from around my waist and moved beside me, crouching onto the leaf mould soil.
It was the perfect opportunity to jump upon him and have a friendly wrestle. Sadly, fun and frolics was a forbidden act when he was toting his gun.
David’s hand moved into his crotch and made an adjustment. My eyes focused there as he did so. I needed to adjust my own crotch after witnessing that, but knowing what was going on inside my shorts, dare not bring his attention there. I took a big bite from my sandwich in order to divert my sexual thoughts.
“Thought I’d pop up to the oaks and bag a few squirrels. If I can bag four or five today, I’ll have enough to buy a new Airfix kit. Thinking of getting a warship this time. Hood, maybe.”
“Bagging squirrels? I thought a handsome lad like you would be taking his young lass for a nice walk on a sunny day like this.”
What did he have to go and say that for, spoil the moment?
“Woods are for boys, not girls with squeaky voices, girls who are scared of everything and don’t even know how to climb a bloomin tree,” I said, rather defensively.
David laughed; a lovely laugh. I wondered if he knew I liked boys, liked them in that sort of way, and perhaps was hinting at that. He dipped a hand into his jacket pocket and pulled out a couple of squirrel tails. “Here you go, Toby. Couple of tails. Shot the squirrels early this morning. Give you a start.”
“Thanks.” I reached out to take them, forgetting my palm had been covering what was going on inside my shorts. The tenting was obvious when I leant back.
I wondered if David had noticed. Somehow, I hoped he had. I think I also hoped he too was all a tingle inside when he’d wrapped his arms about me. As far as I knew, he had no girlfriend either. Might he be hiding the same feelings, secrets? Could a man of twenty fall in love with me at fourteen?
David stood. My eyes did their usual dance over every inch of his scrumptious body. “Right, Toby me lad, I’m off. Have fun.” He began to walk away. “Oh, there’s a stallion and four mares up top. They have foals. Give him a wide berth. He’s a bit frisky. No trying to rope him!” I gave a frown. “Yeah, I was a boy not that far back. Playing cowboys with real horses is fun but it’s dangerous with New Forest ponies.” He bent over and rubbed my locks. “I’m off. Take care. Catch you later.”
I watched David cross the tree trunk and climb under the barbed wire fence, twelve-bore open and slung under his arm. I could hold back no longer. I dropped my sandwich and dashed into the thickness of a rhododendron. Secreted in its darkness, but still able to see David crossing the field, I relieved myself of the sexual urges bursting every bone in my body for the past twenty minutes.
I moved from my hiding place, a little guilt apparent. It often happened after I’d lived a sexual fantasy. I paid it little mind and set off up the steep wooded slope.
I heard a scamper behind me. Swinging about, I caught sight of a squirrel making off with the remains of my sandwich. “Cheeky little sod,” I called after him as he sped up the trunk of a tree.
I pulled my catapult from my pocket but decided not to go for a shot. Anyway, I’d already lost sight of him in the leafy foliage and you’d never hit one on the move.
There were no paths in the wood apart from the main one, only tracks. I held a map in my brain and knew where each of them led. Horses, badgers, gamekeepers and the like had made them over the years. The one I was taking at present would take me to my favorite tree, a huge beech, the best climbing tree ever. Not only was it a good climber but it had fantastic roots. They spread out wide, were gnarled, lumpy and interwoven, the ideal place to build forts, a game which kept me occupied for many an hour. They were also a favorite hideout for pixies and elves.
I made the forts with sticks pushed into the soil or laid across the roots to form cabins, lookout posts, and other attack or defence posts. They were a masterpiece of design; at least I thought so. This was where the cowboys or soldiers lived. I gave each a spot to defend, the “captain” usually in a secure dugout. The Indians I would place in surrounding foliage, behind sticks, in hollows, or tents also constructed of sticks and leaves. It often took a good hour or so to set things up, after which the war began.
Using fir cones, pebbles or anything to hand, each side would take it in turn to send a missile into the other camp. One by one, or sometimes a few at a time, cowboys and Indians would meet a bloody end. To keep the tension going and to give the game more fun, at various intervals each side could move their men to safer positions, especially the chiefs, if their shelters had taken a battering. Hand-to-hand combat also came into play. I added sound effects for good measure, too. I tended to side with the Indians. Mum had told me that my great grandmother was in fact a real Canadian Indian. Now and then I imagined myself as an Indian boy dressed only in a loincloth type of thing, single feather in my hair.
Hours later, with all the men of one side killed, the game would come to a halt and the carnage examined. What was once a very smart camp was usually a mass of twigs and leaf mould dust. Sometimes a cowboy or an Indian even lost a limb and several had war wounds from previous battles. Many had lost rifles or bows. The game was especially fun if played by two, each building your own camp, but I mostly played it alone, there being no lads in the area.
I reached the beech. It towered far above me and looked grand. Crowned with lush leaves, the sun’s shafts sliced through the foliage changing the shades of green as it did so.
I couldn’t resist and soon scrambled up the thick lower branches and then onto smaller ones as I climbed higher and higher.
There was something exhilarating about climbing to the top of a good tree, a feeling shared by rock face climbers, I reckon. Like rock face climbing, there was also a knack to knowing where to place your hands and feet and which route to take. It came as second nature after a while. All you needed to do was study the tree, and the path became clear. ’Course, getting down from a tree could often prove a different challenge, as many a cat will tell you, but that too became easier after you’d done it a few times.
As I sat absorbing the wondrous wood surrounding me, I heard several voices not far off. They were clearly those of youths, youths who had no right to be here.
I retrieved the binoculars from my pocket and began a scan of the area. In a small clearing some hundred yards away, a sight I did not wish to see greeted my eyes. Baxter and two of his loutish mates were up to no good. I could see they had set a small fire and were standing beside it. They were smoking, trying to look manly.
A fire in a dry wood could spell disaster, especially one lit by idiots who knew nothing about such things, and hadn’t the remotest idea about what you should and shouldn’t do in a wood. Then again, perhaps they knew exactly what they were doing and their intentions were to set the woods ablaze.
Baxter was a bully and like all bullies, he was a coward and only maintained his status by surrounding himself with likeminded idiots. He gave me hell at school and had somehow figured out I hadn’t the slightest interest in girls. He made a point of calling me pansy or referring to me as ‘she’. I’d have loved to smack him in the nose but that wasn’t in my nature. Not only that, Baxter was bloody huge compared to the rest of us boys at school and I don’t think any lad would have dared take him on.
I doubted he would dare camp in these woods all through the night, or even dare come here in daylight on his own. I doubted he’d be brave enough to do many things if alone. I suspected he could be spooked very easily.
They moved further into the open, away from the fire. I didn’t think they’d spot me.
Now that I had a clearer view, I pulled my catapult from my pocket, loaded it, pulled the rubber back, and took aim. I would knock Baxter’s bloody block off.
I knew he would drop like a dead tree if I managed to hit him, which I’m sure I would, having become a darn good shot. The pebble would smack right into his left temple. Had he one, it would explode his brain inside that thick skull. He wouldn’t even know what hit him. He’d be out of our school, out of my life forever, never to bully again.
I relaxed the rubber and sighed deeply with disappointment. There must have been a way to spook him without killing him. I searched the surroundings for somewhere to send the shot; somewhere it would make a clatter. I couldn’t see one. I sighed again. I could go for his legs, I considered.
Just as I went to admit defeat, and shove the catapult back into my pocket, something flashed as it met the earth. It landed a few feet from the fire.
I brought the binoculars to my eyes for a closer look. Two more cans joined the first when the other lads tossed them away.
A firecracker of excitement exploded my insides. I had a target, and what a perfect target it was. Trying to stay calm, I pushed my back hard against the tree trunk and steadied myself for the shot. Taking a deep breath, I pulled back on the rubber.
“You only get one shot at this,” I heard Boy Ghost whisper.
“Thanks for reminding me,” I replied.
I held my breath, my eyes glued to the three cans. I let loose the pouch. With a whoosh, out sailed the missile. I could barely hold back my yelp of delight when pebble hit can with an ear-splitting pliiiiingggg! It sent two of them flying skyward with a clatter.
“Shit!” screamed Baxter when a can whizzed over his head. He fell backward with the shock. “What the fuck was that?”
His mates didn’t hang around to discover the cause and were already legging it, one of them yelling, “Did you see that? What the fuck did that? D’ya think it was a ghost?”
“Ghost? Someone’s trying to fucking kill us,” yelled the other.
“Wait for me you bloody cowards,” Baxter hollered after them, his legs and arms barely able to propel him forward in his rush to get off the ground.
I flung my arms into the air in delight, almost falling from the branch. What a joy it was to watch bully Baxter and his thug mates run in fear of their lives. I’d loved to have been following in their wake, listening to their explanations and then the ‘I wasn’t afraid’ boast from Baxter, his mates knowing full well he’d almost wet himself.
I smelt burning and remembered the fire they had set. Scrambling down the beech, my face still full of chuckles, I legged it to the spot. Before rushing into the open, I had a quick listen for any signs they were still about. Swiftly, I had the burning leaves and twigs covered with earth. I even peed on it for good measure. Baxter wouldn’t be returning here for some while, that was for sure.
Reluctantly I gathered up the tin cans. I didn’t want to be cleaning up after Baxter but no way could I leave his rubbish in my wood. Although the ‘kill’ I just had was reward enough for today, I continued on my journey to the oaks, in the hope of bagging some squirrels.
“What you think of that?” I told Boy Ghost. “Won my first battle with Baxter. Beat him good and proper.” I thought I heard sniggering. It then occurred to me that perhaps I’d missed the cans altogether and Boy Ghost was the one who’d kicked them. I laughed, and wagged a finger. “Oh no you don’t. I’m not letting you take the credit for that one.” I made my fingers into a pistol and blew on them. “That was some shootin, eh, kid.” I offered them up to Boy Ghost. I was sure I felt a breeze pass over them.
I moved higher up the wood, as far as the start of the New Forest, where I dumped the cans into a bin before heading back down the slope. A few hundred yards into the wood, I spotted the stallion and his mares. Backtracking, I headed for the five-bar gate and wedged it open. Taking on my horseless, cowboy persona, I rushed back for the roundup, David’s warning whispering in my ears.
He was a frisky bugger for sure, that stallion. A bit of a temper going, I’d say. Before I’d even gotten close, he began warning me off, rearing up and kicking his front legs. No way was I going to attempt to get close to him. Instead, I moved around the rear of the mares, using trees as cover, and began to do my “yeeha” bit while smacking my staff against tree trunks and waving my arms.
It did the trick. The mares went into a trot. The stallion soon rounded them and moved to the front. Keeping well out of danger, I kept to one side, still shouting and thwacking trees. Typical of animals, several times the mares doubled back and I had to go through the whole process again.
It took a good twenty minutes of exhausting running about before the stallion finally caught sight of the open gate and freedom. With a thunder of hooves, the mares were soon through. However, just to prove who was boss, the stallion pulled up outside the gate, turned back, and did a damn good kicking and neighing act.
I kept my distance but stayed put between the gateposts. “Calm down Trigger,” I softly told him. “The mares are all yours. I don’t fancy girls.”
With a final snorting and neighing, and a clattering of hooves, the stallion took to the head of his harem and trotted calmly away.
I pushed the gate shut, secured it and continued on my journey, though bagging squirrels now seemed less fun than Baxter beating and bossing it over stallions.
After twenty minutes, I found myself at the pylon cutting. The trees surrounding it, on my side of the wood, were all pines, home to the red squirrels. The scent was delicious. It wasn’t the most attractive place beyond the wood’s edge, the whole landscape, about five hundred yards across and several miles long, cleared of all trees, a line of pylons left in their place. What was good about the area was that the view was stunning. You could see for miles: the big river Avon winding through the countryside far below, several small villages nestling in the valley, cottages and farms dotted all over the shop, and Fordingbridge, the largest town where my school lived, some twenty miles off. All were busy, bustling with farmers, livestock and children at play.
Cleared of all trees, the place readily soaked up the sun, and on most summers the bracken, bramble and ferns soon burnt to a crisp after weeks without rain.
I plonked my bottom onto the scorched soil. “Slippery snakes!” I yelped. “Ssssstay away from me.” I pulled slowly back from the adder basking at the base of a pylon, and only a foot away from my hand. That was the reason I’d named it Adder Alley. It was a haven for adders, adders best left well alone.
Never once had I dared cross to the wood on the other side. Sometimes it was wise to be wary. That said, you’d be unlikely to die from an adder bite, but no way did I intend to find out. You would, however, become very ill indeed and need to go to hospital for an anti-venom jab. I’d heard that you got it in the bum, another good reason not to get bitten.
I pulled back to a safe distance and sat on a disused ant mound, taking in the splendid view. While I supped my warm Coke, I began watching a hawk hover and swoop as it searched for grub. I’m not sure if they ate adders but if they did, Adder Alley was a five star restaurant, where the food was free and plentiful.
There wasn’t another bird in flight, nor any chirping or birdsong while the hawk hunted, only the constant hum from the cables slung between the pylons as they sent food to factories, milking machines, shops and the like, and, of course, televisions.
Moving away from adder striking range, I pulled my Sloppy Joe over my head and began to soak up the sun, eyes closed as I basked. My thoughts soon drifted over this and that, Baxter and school, David and Charlie, sex. Somewhat predictably, they then moved to Tommy, a lad at school.
Very soon, I began to get that familiar all-over-tingle as I recalled the two of us showering after cricket, my keen gaze absorbing every detail of his beauty. Without fail, the predictable soon happened. Once again, I needed to do something about it.
With my palm sneaking inside my shorts, I opened one eye to check if anyone might be about. I caught site of the sun’s height above the trees of the adjacent wood.
I was up and running, and bounding back into the wood quicker than a hunted deer. Although Mum had said for me to be home by four, it really meant five. She knew I would seldom make it at the designated time, so always set it an hour before she needed me home. By my guesstimate, I’d arrive around ten to five. That was, as long as I didn’t trip and break my neck, my body barely able to stay upright having taken on a momentum of its own as I raced downhill, around the trees and toward the Little Thatch.
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