At the time, I had no way of knowing all that my plan would set in motion.
The problem was, I was behind in my weeding. And tired of it, too. So, leaning on my hoe, cursing the heat, looking at the river, and wishing the raft was finished so I could float away from this boring garden, I'd come up with a plan. A dandy.
I'd worked pretty hard most of the summer, wearing last spring's new hoe handle smooth and dark like an old saddle--even darker than my summer-brown skin. But I hadn't kept up very well lately, and now the weeds were winning. I didn't like that.
The instant the idea hit me, I cried, "Ha-e-e-e-ah!" in a fierce but muted shout, my neck cords taut like I'd once seen a movie Judo warrior do as he struck an enemy across the neck and pitched him headlong into the sea. I vaulted into the air and brought my hoe down in a savage chop, sending the nearest button weed to simultaneous death and burial in an explosion of dust. The hoe dropped to the ground like a broken spear as I headed to the granary for the matches.
The squeaky hinges on the yard gate startled Keno awake from his shady afternoon nap, and he gave me one of his barks with a question mark on it.
"Shhhhh," I said. "Be quiet, black buzzard." I didn't want Mom or my little sister, Marie, to know what I was up to just yet. Keno put his head back down, not because of my command but for lack of interest. I routinely dragged the sprinkler to a new spot on the grass as I went around the house.
I got the matches and a shovel. Then, because I couldn't resist, I detoured around behind the granary for a glance at my half-finished raft on the river's edge, a project still of less beauty than promise.
Over two or three summers I'd gathered materials--old boards from Dad's leftover jobs around the place and small logs from the river. After wiring and nailing some of these scraps together, I had a raft that looked pretty good on the ground. But in the water it wasn't to be trusted, and I wasn't about to risk my life on it until it floated better than it did now.
Fortunately, my cousin Jerry would show up tomorrow to spend a week with me. Our main task would be the raft--and that would help a lot.
I was determined that another summer wasn't going to end before that raft got on the river. But we had to hurry. School would start in just eighteen days, and that fact hung over me like a judgment.
The tail end of summer can be a hard time. Not that school is so bad, really--especially this fall, when I'd be a freshman and take the twenty-mile bus ride each day to the high school in Emmett. But summer's freedom comes to an end, so it's bittersweet--school's starting is--like something dying and something being born at the same time.
The big Payette River--higher this summer than usual and flowing not thirty feet behind the granary and our other outbuildings--beckoned me through shimmering heat waves. I took a second to skip a rock on its glassy surface. I remembered how in June, when the riverside cottonwoods shed their white fluff, this stretch of quiet water below the logjam looked like a field of snow. Rocks skipped across, it then made a momentary thin trail before the whiteness closed in again, like the river never knew the rock had been there.
I wanted to climb out onto the logjam--a good source of raft materials and one of my favorite places to be, although at times it scared me to death--but that would have to wait, too. Dad always made clear that work came before play. And right now, I was very excited about work--at least about my new idea for weeding.
I hurried back around the house to the garden, which lay east across the dirt road from our house. As I passed Keno, I said to him in my best imitation of Uncle Remus, "You hain't seen nothin' yet, Br'er Dog. Today, you is g'wan to see things the likes of which hain't ne'er been seen in these parts afore."
He paid as little attention as ever when I played my language games with him. He didn't even open one eye. Over his long life with me, Keno had endured my various attempts at dialects and accents, made-up vocabulary, and speaking in unknown tongues--silly things I did when no one else was around. He'd heard my orations on all manner of sense and nonsense--though he didn't seem to much distinguish between the two.
With no wind, it seemed to be an absolutely perfect day for burning. I struck a match and dropped it into the dry grass between the garden and road.
Poof! A circle of flame spread in every direction so fast it startled me. But with my shovel ready, I walked beside the flames as they ate their way rapidly along the five-foot strip. "This is great," I said to myself. It was exciting to see more weeds killed in two minutes than my hoe could chop in two days. Hearing them hiss and crackle as they shriveled into blackened clumps brought me intense pleasure. Fire was a splendid thing.
I didn't fool myself that I was really doing much good. I could only use fire around the outer edges of the garden, and I never hoed there, anyway. But I told myself that this outside strip was where the weeds went to seed, and getting rid of them would help in the long run.
Frenzied grasshoppers flew out of the way of the flames like helicopters evacuating a bombed city. For sure, no more seeds would come from this patch this summer, and no tall weed skeletons would poke their defiant, brittle heads up through the snowdrifts come winter.
I'd have to be careful, though. Years before, when I was about Marie's age, I'd watched a range fire up on Jericho Flats surge before a hot wind like a stampede of crazed buffalo. Dad and dozens of other men chased that fire, dug around it, and threw dirt at it to no avail. Finally, the wind died down enough for Cats and graders to get in front of it and scrape out a firebreak. It took a day and a half to get that fire stopped, and it had covered hundreds of acres and jumped two roads by then. It was both wonderful and scary to watch.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Hero by Ron Woods. Copyright © 2002 by Ron Woods. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.