APRIL COMES TO THE FOREST

 

The first time I saw April I didn’t much like her.  But you know how first impressions are.

April walked into our store with her husband and father-in-law–a tall solid-built woman, and pretty.  Even  in brown twill pants, a man’s shirt and sweater under a heavy hunting jacket.  April looked feminine and attractive, meaning she had be right beautiful.  When an ankle is trim and slender in a hunting boot–a woman has to be really stacked.  Of course, I merely gave her a curious glance, but my six-foot kid brother, Roger, why, he actually could not take his eyes off April.  She seemed about twenty-eight, perhaps a year or so older than her husband, and certainly bigger.  At first glance April looked like a rangy man in those hunting clothes.  But on second glance you saw the strong curves of her figure, the demand of her heavy lips, the bold cool eyes, a sensuous warmth to the clean strong features.  In short, on second glance you realized April was a lot of powerful gal.  I don’t know what Roger thought on his third–and hundredth look.

 We’d seen the men before: they’d stopped at our store last fall.  Guess I’d better explain about the store.  We’re up near the Canadian border; only a spread of thick woods and badlands separates us from Canada.  No rivers, guards, or even customs stations.  No need for them.  This stretch of timber is about the roughest hunk of land and rock you’ll ever see.  Pop used to tell us how during Prohibition some goons figured this would be the ideal spot to send in booze from Canada by backpack.  Three of ’em made a try at it–the one guy who finally staggered out alive was more than convinced how wrong the whole idea was.  In winter these woods are absolutely impassible.  The rest of the year they’re filled with queer rock and mud formations, tangled undergrowth, thick trees, and timber rattlers big as your arm, bears and mountain cats.  There’s hardly any trails.  Once you get lost, man, you’ve had it.  Couple of ancient Indian trappers are said to live somewhere in the woods, but we never see ‘em as they sell their skins on the Canadian side.

Ever since I was a kid the woods were nothing.  I mean, they were merely a place a person with any sense stayed out of.  I know the woods as well as any man.  My family have been farming and running this general store for well over a hundred years back.  We had a few other farmers for customers, and about got by.

I certainly never figured the wastelands would ever do any good.  But right after the war some rich fellow comes by and says he’s going hunting in the woods.  We tried to talk him out of it, but he said he’d done big game hunting in Africa and other places.  It ended with me selling him our rifles and rush-ordering boots and ammo.  Naturally, this was all very expensive.  Well, sir, this man went into the woods and returned a week later with a bearskin, quite happy about the “joy of hunting in virgin woods.”  Hw was a talkative type and must have kept talking wherever he went–started a kind of fad.  Not that there was ever a great rush of hunters, because to reach us and buy an outfit you have to drop plenty of dollars.  But in the fall and spring parties would come up tom try for a wolf or a cat.  Some of them even flew in, landing their private planes deep in the woods on hidden lakes, where the fish are frantic and plump.

All this proved a big deal for us.  We began stocking high-powered rifles, ammo, fancy hunting clothes.  We’d put [people up for the night before they started out, and when they returned, help load their station wagons.  Like I told you, you had to be loaded with bucks to hunt this way, and we made more money from the hunting parties than we did the rest of the year.

Mike Bowlin, April’s father-in-law, was a short and stocky man in his late fifties, and he must have married late because his only boy, Mike Junior, looked about twenty-two, but I understood he was few years older.  They were up for the first time last fall, him and his son.  Now they were back, and Mike Junior had a wife–April.  They had one of Ma’s big suppers and retired early.  The next morning, Monday, they took our jeep and drove off.  You see, there’s the start of a path and you can drive the jeep about sixteen rugged miles into the woods; then you have to walk.  Roger once wanted to build us a road, but Roger’s simple.  I explained to him that if there was a road and other improvements, these rich folk wouldn’t come up any more; it was the rough-and-tough side which sold them.

The Bowlin party was due to be gone a week.  We didn’t think nothing about them, except Roger, I suppose, until dreaming about April, until Wednesday afternoon, when the jeep acme roaring back.  April Bowlin was driving and her husband was stretched across the back seat.  She looked wild, her long dark hair undone and hanging to her shoulders.  Her face was pale and scratched, her clothes torn, and blood all over her shirt.  Mike Junior was in a coma.  His head and face was busted, so was his shoulder, right arm and ribs.  He looked death-white, in real bad shape.  April got out of the jeep and actually picked Mite Junior up, as if he was a child, and carried him to bed while we phoned for a doc.

Up here it takes a doctor about a half a day to drive up–if you’re lucky to get Doc Gibbs.  If he’s out or busy, you try Doc Sommerfeld, and he won’t come unless it’s a hell of an emergency because it means one helluva lot of driving and old Doc Gibbs has no confidence in planes.

Although April Bowlin  was on the verge of passing out herself, she sat beside her husband’s bed as we waited for Doc Gibbs.   April even ate her meals beside her husband’s bedside, never left him for a second, although me and Roger and Ma were around all the time.  If big Roger wasn’t doing nothing else, he’d sit and stare at April–like the kid he was.

When she was able to get herself together and talk, April told us they’d made their second camp in a rocky gully we call Limestone Gut.  During the night old man Bowlin had got up to investigate some animal sounds he heard outside the camp.  April was sitting by the fire, waiting for her father-in-law to return.  He tripped and his rifle went off, shot himself in the belly.  Now, a person has to be out of their mind to shoot off a gun with all that loose rock above them, but then, Mr. Bowlin tripped and shot the gun by accident.

Mike Junior was in his sleeping bag at the time and the vibrations from the shot started a small landslide, crushing him.  Now Limestone Gut is a good twenty miles from the end of the “road” and that is where the jeep was.  April with two badly wounded men on her hands, had to make a bid decision, because she could only help one of the men.  So she put Mike Junior on her back and carried hi9m the twenty miles–walking, climbing, crawling, all that night and the next morning, until she reached the jeep.  She was lucky she didn’t get lost.

Of course, it was a real tough decision to make, knowing whomever she left would certainly die–from animals if not from his wounds.  But Mike Senior wouldn’t have made it with a belly wound and Mike Junior was her husband.  It was a rugged ordeal for her to walk those woods at night, carrying a dying man.  I mean, you got to be a hell of a woman (or man) to do that.

Roger, and Clayton Byrd–a farmer who knows the woods best–immediately went out to Limestone Gut.  (Clayton Byrd will probably be Roger’s father-in-law soon, or as soon as Clayton’s daughter Billie reaches sixteen.  It happens Billie Byrd is a sweet kid, but even if she wasn’t, she’d still be the only young gal around.)  Me and Ma helped April as much as possible, tried to make her get some rest.  I kept thinking how wrong I’d been about her.  I mean, my first impression of April as a kind of hard-looking babe.  It took a real woman to carry her man out of those woods.

Even when Doc Gibbs drove up around suppertime, April refused to leave Mike Junior’s  bedside.  She sat there in a daze, exhausted, haggard-looking from lack of sleep, but never taking her eyes off her husband.  He came to once, told April how much he loved her, before Doc put him to sleep again with a shot.  The Doc begged April to take a pill, get some rest.  She refused any drugs, but when we brought a cot into the room, she stretched out and had a few hours sleep, still in her torn bloody clothes.  Even Doc Gibbs, who’s pretty cynical, was moved.  It was the first time I ever saw Ma weep.  (Ma is my wife, not my mother.)  Ma opened the Bible and read, offered a prayer for April and Mike Junior.

Doc did what he could, but it seemed Mike Junior was booked to go.  We phoned for an ambulance, although Doc suspected Mike would  never survive the trip.  When April heard that–we thought she was sleeping–she went to pieces, hysterically bawling and begging Doc to save her husband.  Doc is a fine doctor, but Mike Junior was badly hurt.  He’d lost too much blood and the next day he died.  April didn’t cry much then.  Instead she seemed in kind of a shock–still sat beside her husband’s bed, barely able to answer Doc’s questions for the death certificate.

Along about noon Roger and Clayton Byrd returned.  They’d found the spot where Mike Senior had shot himself–there was blood to prove it, his coat, and some other camping stuff–but they couldn’t find the body.  Now you don’t find any better woodsmen than Roger and Clayton, and they searched the gully from end to end, figuring a bear might have taken him away.  But they didn’t find anything.  Of course, a pack of wolves might not leave much to see.  When April heard about Mike Senior, she really went to pieces–for having left the guy out there, feeling guilty, I suppose.  This time Doc gave her a needle and Ma put her to bed.  April slept around the clock.  There wasn’t any reason for her to feel like that; she couldn’t have carried both men.

 Well, sir, when April was finally up and around, wore a dress, with her face rested, she was something.  Man, in a dress April was all flashy curves.  Ma went for April’s chic clothes, while poor Roger stared at her like a lost soul.  He was set to ask her to marry him–like that–until Ma talked some sense into his empty head, telling him it was not only silly, but hardly the proper time.  Meantime, back on the meat house slab, there was the problem of what to do with Mike Junior.  Doc Gibbs suggested he be buried at once in the little old cemetery at the bend of the main road.  We’d called off the ambulance and it would be a long trip by truck to the railroad.  April thought it was a good idea, too, for Mike would want to be near the remains of Mike Senior.  Clayton Byrd is a kind of preacher, and Roger rushed to make a plain box; so we buried Mike Bowlin, Junior, in a simple ceremony.

Doc was action to return to town hat night, and April suddenly decided to drive back with him–send for Mike Senior’s car later.  But first she insisted on ordering a double stone for the grave, stating Mike Junior had died on the nineteenth day of the month and Mike Senior on the sixteenth day.  I was on the phone for almost an hour giving exact instructions and making a deal with the stonecutter.  Before she left, April gave Roger her city address and set up a standing reward of five hundred dollars for anybody bringing in the remains of Mike Senior, to be buried beside his son.

Although I well knew April was sick of our place, at her leaving my eyes watered, Ma openly bawled, while big Roger was shook up and downright ill.  Ma kissed April and was given one of April’s ritzy dresses.  Roger said he’d drive then car to April’s home for nothing, any time she sent him the word.  I just squeezed her hand.  I wondered what this tragedy would do to our business.  Well, sir, Doc had about got his car turned around and headed for town, when a State Police car came racing up and two fancy-pants troopers jumped out.  Darn if they don’t arrest April Bowlin for murder!

Doc and I couldn’t believe it.  I mean, after all April had been through, this seemed just a little to much.  As for Roger, well, me and Ma had to tackled Roger, keep the idiot from throwing a gun on the troopers.  But it all came out like the troopers said, later at the trial.

Seems Mike Senior wasn’t one to part with his money easily, despite having plenty of the green stuff.  Junior didn’t have a dime of his own.  April–who it turned out had been around before she made this quickie marriage to young Mike–figured the sooner Mike Senior died, the quicker her Mike would inherit, and she had Mike Junior jumping through hoops.  The hunting trip gave her the idea.  So while they were camping in the gully, and when Mike Senior came over to their sleeping bags to say he was going out to see what was prowling around, Mike Junior was already sound asleep.  April followed the Senior, plugged him in the stomach and was all set to claim it was an accident.  But being new to the woods, she didn’t realize what the shot would do.  When she rushed back to yell accident at Mike Junior, she found him under this small rockslide.

April did some pretty fast thinking.  Under state law (and she’d looked into that months ago) if her husband  died before his daddy, then April, as Junior’s wife, wouldn’t get a cent of the father’s estate.  But if he could keep Junior breathing until Mike Senior died, and prove it, then Junior would inherit everything and–as his wife–April would get it sooner or later.  So April made this really superhuman effort to carry Junior out of the woods–and to get him out, if possible, before he died–in order to have witnesses as to the time of his death.  She figured Mike Senior would die in a few hours.

Mike Senior wouldn’t have lasted that long, except one of the trappers happened to eb a mile away, came running when he heard the shot in Limestone Gut.  He found the wounded man and carried him over the ridge to where he’d seen a guy in a seaplane fishing the lake.  They flew the wounded man to a Canadian hospital.  Mike Senior was not only able to tell the police what had happened, but he was up in time to testify against April at her trial.

So there it is.

Roger still claims it was wrong to send a woman as pretty as April to prison.  Even Ma, with her strong streak of righteousness, claimed April had to be a darn good woman to carry her husband out of the woods, try to keep him alive, no matter what her motive might be.

Me–I don’t know.  While I secretly admired her quick thinking and courage, I guess I didn’t really like her from the start.

 

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