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Tom and Huck Get a Shotgun Reception in the Woods

by Kevin Brennan

The boys went out for a Saturday joyride in Tom’s vintage International Harvester Scout, dubbed “Ol’ Yeller” by Tom for its awesome lemony paintjob. The top was down, padded rollbar bright in the sun as they tooled south down Missouri Highway 30 looking for a rutty backroad to tackle.

Huck spotted an opening. “Fence down over there, Tom. On the left.”

And there was a clear entry where it was obvious other vehicles often went in for off-roading hijinks. Tom steered into it, but neither boy noticed the sign nailed to one of the downed fenceposts, spiraled in rusty barbed wire.


This would be a fine ride, they told each other. The trail was scarcely wide enough for Ol’ Yeller, branches and vines grasping at the doors and quarter panels like animate creatures. Ruts aplenty too, giving them a nice rough tossing as Tom yanked the wheel back and forth to accommodate obstacles and quick turns.

“This here’s one great find, ain’t it though, Tom?”

“One of the best,” Tom said. “Let’s not tell anybody ‘bout it, all right? It’s our secret hideout.”

They rambled through the brush and berms for a while, laughing and relishing the pure freedom that belongs to young men of a certain age and character, until they came to the lip of a formidable ditch.

“That’s a ravine, I’d call it,” said Huck.

“Maybe not a canyon, but yeah, definitely a ravine. Whatya think we ought to do?”

Both boys hopped out of the Scout to estimate the angles. Tom, who owned Ol’ Yeller in the first place and had installed the heavy-duty suspension gear, shook his head. “I ‘magine it’s too steep for the ol’ dog. We’ll either hang up on the edge or go butt over head on the way down.”

“Best turn around then,” Huck said. “Looks like this ain’t the Garden of Eden after all.”

Just then they heard a shrill finger-whistle and turned to see an older fella in bib overalls, standing at the edge of the woods. He had a shotgun angled at his waist, with the muzzle still pointed, to their relief, toward the earth.

“Whatchyall doin’ back here on my land?” he asked them with a growl in his throat.

The boys explained in stuttering voices that they didn’t know it belonged to anybody. The trail wasn’t fenced or gated.

“Y’all didn’t see the sign then?”

“No sir.”

“Sign says PRIVATE PROPERTY. TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT. Don’t know how y’all coulda missed it.”

The boys realized they were well and truly trespassers at that moment, according to this man, and, according to the terms of that sign anyway, they were about to experience the second half of the warning.

Tom took the initiative. “Look here, sir, we’re real sorry but we didn’t see no sign. We’ll turn right around now and head on out.”

“The hell you will.”

Huck said, “Hey now. They’s no reason—”

“Y’all leavin’ but chain’t leavin’ that way.”

They tried to whisper a strategy, guessing at their chances of surviving if they were to jump into the truck and speed on out of there as that man fired a funnel of buckshot at their back end. Lousy odds.

Tom said, “Just tell us what you want, and we’ll go.”

He waved the barrel of the shotgun at the ravine that was so steep the boys now thought it might well be called a canyon by some, or even a damn gorge. “You’re goin’ out that way. Trail on the other side loops around back to 30. Otherwise I’ma have to shoot you.”

A buzzard floated overhead as if to presage the imminent tragedy. Tom tried to explain to the man, who shot out a wad of dark tobacco from his thin lips, that the Scout couldn’t make that drop into the gorge, nor the climb up the other side. “It’ll surely flip,” he said.

“In which case you’ll crawl out, leave the goddam truck, and walk home.”

“Get in,” Tom said to Huck, and the two boys hopped into Ol’ Yeller like they had wings on their heels.

What an ordeal then commenced. Tom eased the front of the truck over the edge, and there was a sudden sliding and a lurch as the rear wheels slipped over half a second later, flung by gravity. Tom was braking and gunning at the same time, hoping the four-wheel drive was muscular enough for the steepness. Huck had his eyes only on the side mirror to keep tabs on the armed man back there, who now stood at the edge of the ravine with his gun lazily aimed, more like a water divining rod.

It seemed like decades, but they found themselves at the bottom and then began the roaring push up the opposite wall, which crumbled like red chalk and raised a huge choking cloud all around them. Huck could not see the man now because he was flung back against the seat like a spaceman getting launched to Kingdom Come.

With a sudden jolt, they landed more or less horizontally on terra firma, and without looking back Tom sped into the welcoming forest there.

On the way out they went past a hip-high groundfire, where blackened volunteers bearing anaconda hoses looked at them like they were apparitions in the smoke.

Huck said, “This is fuckin’ Dante-esque.”

Tom said, “Totally.”

When they emerged back on the highway, a few miles down from the deceitful entry, they laughed without control for no more than twenty seconds, then made the rest of the ride home in heavy silence.

Kevin Brennan is the author of seven novels, including Parts Unknown (William Morrow/HarperCollins), Yesterday Road, and, just released, The Prospect. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Berkeley Fiction Review, Mid-American Review, Twin Pies, The Daily Drunk, Sledgehammer, Elevation Review, Tiny Molecules, Flash Boulevard, Fictive Dream, Atlas and Alice, LEON Literary Review, MoonPark Review, talking about strawberries all of the time, Atticus Review, and others. A Best Microfiction 2022 nominee, he's also the editor of The Disappointed Housewife, a literary magazine for writers of offbeat and idiosyncratic fiction, poetry, and essays. Kevin lives with his wife in California's Sierra foothills.


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