My Friendship with Ray Haney
About three years ago, we must have been thirteen, nearing fourteen, me and Ray came up with this hair-brained plan to explore the exotic twists and bends of Mossy Creek where it rushes past the bucolic hamlet of Oxbow, population 108, if that.
The idea we hatched was to get his mom, who had a hair appointment in the town over from Oxbow, to drop us off at Mossy Creek Bridge, our launching point to bushwhack downstream — “a fur piece” Ray reckoned — all the way to the old dilapidated Cooley farmstead, long ago abandoned, and rumored to be haunted by the sad specter of one of the Cooley girls who was, so the story goes, murdered in her upstairs bedroom back in 1948, it must have been, by some wayfaring psychopath, but it turned out, so the story goes, she had really been bludgeoned to death in her sleep with the blunt end of a maul by her jealous boyfriend, but they couldn’t pin the crime on him, so he got away with bloody murder, so the story goes, until the vengeful father, Sam Cooley, tracked him down and put a bullet between his eyes and then turned the gun on himself in his murdered daughter’s bedroom. Or so the story goes. We hoped to sneak in through a broken window or something and see if we could find any clues, some remnant of the tragic mayhem, maybe faded blood stains on the walls, or Sam Cooley’s old rusted shotgun, who knows, but it was an exciting prospect to put our detective hats on and try to glean a few clues among the cobwebby rubble of the run-down house. We’d only driven by the place once, a long time ago, because it was far from our town, out of the way hidden in a maze of dirt country roads in the neighboring, poorer county, and mostly people avoided it as a cursed and spooky place, but by way of Mossy Creek, we figured it was, like, only a mile or so downstream, and we could easily make that and get back in time to have Beverly pick us up.
Beverly approved our plan, hedging a bit, but giving in finally, figuring it would be an adventure for us boys and allow her some alone time. Before she dropped us off, she gave us precise instructions to be back at the bridge at two pm sharp, which was great, because that would give us almost three whole hours to explore!
The day had an especially exciting appeal because over the past week torrential rains had swelled Mossy Creek nearly beyond its banks, but with sunshine the last couple of days, the water had run its muddy course and enough ground looked exposed to dare to venture onward. But if you actually checked out the foamy white swirl of Mossy Creek barreling madly down its sinuous channel, it was probably totally irresponsible of Beverly, whom my Mom had entrusted me with for the day, to even begin to think it was okay to let us embark on our little riparian adventure under such dangerous conditions.
“Okay, mom,” Ray assured. “We’ll be back in time. See you at two!”
Beverly admonished us one last time with a little wag of her finger, “You boys better not be late, either, or I’ll have your hides!”
And off we marched downstream from the bridge, BB guns slung over our shoulders in case we had to fend off a wild beast or some deranged fucking hick out there looking for trouble, and come to think of it — this is nuts! — we didn’t even bring a canteen of water or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with us ’cause, well, we thought we’d be gone just a couple of hours.
Before we knew it, we were lost in a wet, lush world of pungent black walnut trees and osage orange growing along fertile stream banks. We hoisted ourselves up their slippery trunks, shimmying up using ropy vines to help us ascend to high branches before swinging like Tarzan and tumbling back down to the soft earth where we rolled around like pigs in mud. We found plenty of lucky charms all about us — round, smooth shiny buckeyes — and stashed a couple of them in our pockets, and then we reached down for fallen hedgehogs, we called ’em, and tossed them overhead like grenades where they exploded open on hitting the ground or a tree trunk.
We were in heaven in our adolescent boy’s world of playing Indian warriors, lost cowboys, archaeologists, and explorers, with every little thing grabbing our attention. Cheap thrills and easy to please entertainment for us boys who could delight and revel in the simplest of pleasurable moments in the great outdoors along a beautiful crick.
We couldn’t tarry too long in any one spot, though, no matter how alluring, because we had an end goal in mind, remember — to investigate an old murder! — so we pressed farther and farther on, around unfamiliar bends in the creek and finally came to a dead-end on our side of the streambank, where the only way we could keep going was to take a big breath — “Ready, set, go,” I said to Ray — and enter an area of thigh-deep water and ford to the other side with the help of crude walking sticks to maintain our balance and keep us from falling and being swept away. It was a risky thing, crossing over to the other side, because Mossy Creek was more dangerous than it looked, but being athletic and brave we made it across safely and continued pushing on, through the mud and puddles and occasionally forced up on the higher banks where we stomped through prickly thickets of wild blackberries, stopping to scarf down sweet delicious handfuls that slaked our unconscious hunger and thirst, and then onward another hundred yards or so, on the lookout for the tell-tale indicator of the haunted farmhouse. Finally, we came upon three bullet-riddled DANGER! NO TRESPASSING! KEEP OUT! signs tacked to a huge gnarled tree.
“Wow, Ray, we made it!” I exclaimed triumphantly.
“Cool! Let’s go for it,” Ray said.
He led the way, delicately pinching a rusted strand of barbed wire and lifting it up so I could shimmy underneath, and then I took hold of it so Ray could follow, and at that instant we both froze on hearing an alien sounding howl and screech, quite chilling in effect. We looked at one another with wide-eyed expressions of “HOLY SHIT!”
“Did you hear that?”
It sounded like a horse whinny, but coarser, and more violent, with one fierce animal in deadlock with another frenzied one. Then we heard this spine-tingling, bloodcurdling guttural barbaric yelp from some agonizing animal, all happening within earshot, but we couldn’t see the action. Scared witless, make that shitless, we hid behind an old shed for a few moments, our BB guns at the ready, about as useless a weapon as could be in this situation of maybe having to protect ourselves against a fierce, hungry beast. We were frozen in our tracks, listening in horror to the primal struggle which finally let up and we were able to go take a look and see what turned out to be the scene of a mountain lion kill, we suspected, based on a bloody ripped apart carcass of a deer with its pile of slimy guts spilled out, the bulk of it dragged away into the brush by the big beast. The whole event shook us up badly on the one hand, and on the other, it fascinated us to no end to witness a life and death struggle before our very eyes.
“Shit, man,” Ray said, “I didn’t even know there were mountain lions around these parts.”
“Me neither. I kinda knew about them, ’cause my dad and his hunting buddies claimed they saw one once out in the boonies over near Clampittville. Ever been out that way? I haven’t, it’s pretty far, but I guess mountain lions can range pretty long distances.” Ray nodded silently.
By this time, our adrenaline was pumping pretty good, and we took one look at the haunted house, which was totally boarded up anyway except for a couple of broken windows with dangerous jagged shards of glass preventing us from dare entering, and at that moment we both swore to God that we heard eerie screams and moans coming from the upstairs room where the atrocity had taken place, and decided without further words or ado to get the hell out of there, right now, lickety-split!
We raced back down the yard, through an abandoned apple orchard, not even stopping to pick up a couple of good-looking ones that had fallen to the ground, and in our haste to scram the fuck out of that creepy place, we nearly tripped over buried remnants of rusted out skeletal farm equipment hidden in the yard overgrown with tall prickly grass and thistles, a riot of weedy sticklers and burrs and foxtails that tore us a new one, but we made it safely back to the creek where we took a quick breather for a few minutes before heading back upstream to the bridge.
We’d been so involved in our fantasy pursuits and alleged detective work at the haunted house that we figured, what, maybe a couple of hours, tops, had passed. We didn’t know, or hadn’t even thought to care, but as it turned out, we were like — “Oh, shit!” — because when we finally thought to look up to judge the position of the sun across the cloudless sky, we reckoned several more than two hours had somehow slipped by and it was probably nearing four or five.
We said, “Oh, shit!” in unison.
“C’mon, man, let’s pick up the pace,” I urged.
“Plenty of daylight left,” Ray said — “if we hustle back.”
And so we hustled like nobody’s business back upstream, following our original tracks, fording the deep pool again, where, out of mental mush and physical fatigue, we both fell in, and I lost my BB gun, dammit. We stopped for a moment to feel around the bottom of the pool, but it was nowhere to be found. At that moment, we were exhausted and realized we hadn’t had any water and felt sunbaked and dehydrated, so we looked at one another, shrugged, and bent over to cup up some of Mossy Creek’s water where it was riffling over some rocks, a pretty scene glinting in sunlight and reflecting tree and sky in the pool, and we helped ourselves to several big gulps and splashed our faces and felt refreshed enough to move on.
We had to keep pushing, pushing, and finally, thankfully, we knew we were nearing the Mossy Creek Bridge when we saw a big vine that had come tumbling down after Ray had swung on it too hard. That’s when we next heard our names being called out with hoarse urgency. We saw two burly guys in overalls approaching, slashing through the brush, and then more echoes of our names being called out, and finally, a big search party of a dozen men appeared, out looking . . . for us!
These were caring, concerned, deeply worried men from our town and the surrounding area who had formed a search party to track our whereabouts. We were presumed lost, abducted, or worse, dead. Everyone was placing bets on the most pessimistic outcome possible, given Mossy Creek’s raging torrents and how long we’d been missing.
One of the sweaty men yelled out to the others, “I found the Haney boy! He’s alive!” and grabbed him by the arm. Another wet, muddy man yelled, “I got the other kid, he’s okay!” They kinda shook us by the arm and roughed us up a little, not out of meanness, but more in the spirit of relief and happiness that we were found alive and unhurt, if a bit worse for the wear with cuts and scrapes and we even had leeches and ticks on us the men had to extract. Plus we were sunburned as hell, and both of us started to feel cramping in our stomachs from the dirty water we’d drunk earlier.
The men marched us back to Mossy Creek Bridge, practically scolding us the whole way, where we came upon a cheering crowd of damn near the entire town of Oxbow, population 108, if that, all peering over the bridge railing, eyeballing us and shaking their heads in wonderment at the roiling water whooshing below on its way to the Wabash, then to the Ohio, on to the Mississippi, and into the great Gulf of Mexico where our bodies had been rumored to end up. If it hadn’t been so danged dramatic and all, it looked like the good townsfolk were having a shindig or something up on the bridge. But far from that, as we were about to learn, the gravity of our disappearing act had caused great and unprecedented consternation among all present.
The ominous flashing of police car red lights (the county sheriff and his two deputies) were the first clue that we were in for a good licking. Then we spotted Beverly and my Mom, the last person I expected to see. Beverly rushed over and snatched Ray from the arms of the wet, muddy man and slapped her errant boy across the face, then gave him a big hug and started crying. My Mom, was she ever red-faced with anger, but she sighed in tremendous relief that her errant boy was okay, too, and hadn’t drowned like the whole crowd of gawkers insisted had happened, because what else on earth could have happened? Certainly not a bit of boys-will-be-boys hijinks. Mom grabbed me by my arm and said, “Don’t you know better than to do something like this! You had us all scared out of our wits that you and Ray had drowned to death. You should be ashamed.” Then she spanked me on the bottom about five times, kinda hard, not that it hurt, it was more that I was totally embarrassed by the whole episode, with all these people, mostly strangers, surrounding us and watching with lurid fascination at this point as Mom was demanding that I thank every member of the search party. There was nothing more I could do but almost cry, ’cause I hurt so much from being sun-blasted, tick-ridden and now on the verge of shitting my pants from a cramping gut full of diarrhea.
The irony of it all is that it was my birthday the next day and Mom was going to give me Grandpa’s stylish old Hamilton watch as a coming of age birthday present, but she said, “As punishment for being so irresponsible, you are grounded and there will be no watch for you, young man.” I’m not sure what punishment was doled out for Ray — I can guess — but I always thought not getting that watch was funny, in that I had lost track of the time, but maybe if I’d had that watch on me, we never would’ve lost track of the time and none of this would’ve happened; but then again, there’d be no story to tell if we hadn’t lost track of the time, so, all in all, it was pretty worth it to have gotten in trouble like this and caused the whole town of Oxbow, population 108, if that, and most of my town, a heartache of worry, and anyway, before long, everyone got over it and forgot it ever happened, and I ended up getting that watch a few months later at Christmas.
All in good time.
Stay tuned for CHAPTER SIX!