In the Shadow of the Mound

In the Shadow of the Mound charcoal drawing
In the Shadow of the Mound short story illustration. Charcoal drawing by author.

In the Shadow of the Mound

The rumbling of a freight train woke the young man around 3 a.m. or so, but thankfully he was hidden in the shadow of a small Indian mound planted with corn.  The rest of the bottom lands on either side of the little river were completely lit up by the light of the rising moon.

The man was stunned by all the moonlight.  It had been dark when he had fallen asleep. Now he could see the rows in the field across the river, plain as day, and the trunks and branches of the cypress trees beyond that.  He could also see how closely the tracks ran to him once they crossed the river upstream of the mound, and that made him nervous.

The train was getting louder, and the man felt a sudden sense of being exposed and needing to hide.  He fought the urge to crawl over and jump behind the shallow bank and lie down in the sand with his kayak. He had no idea how close the train was without lifting up and looking around, and it already seemed too risky to do even that.

The man flattened himself as best he could in the shadow of the Indian mound and closed his eyes in anticipation, but the rumbling only got louder.  The more he felt the urge to flee, the more he felt like it was too late to move without being seen.  By the time the engine rumbled past the mound, the man was trembling with adrenaline and fully awake.

But once the engine had gone by, the man could see how well hidden he was in the shadow of the mound.  He was like a cat or predator stalking a trail from the underbrush to the side.  He raised up and watched the empty cars screeching past.  They banged and clattered as they went, and suddenly all the ridiculously loud noise seemed hilarious, like a dumpster rolling down the side of a mountain in a comedy movie.  The man laughed out loud at all the noise and how it had scared him.

Then the last car rolled past, and the man listened to the sound of the train fading away into the distance.  He tried to focus on the low rumbling sound as long as he could, but already the frogs had started up again, and he lost it.

After that, it was difficult to keep his eyes open.  He was tired.  He hadn’t gotten good sleep during most of the early evening due to all the noise. First the raccoons or something had been splashing in the river, and then an owl started hooting loud as hell every time he managed to doze off.

The man fixed the mosquito net over his head and closed his eyes. He did his best to sleep, but then the train blew its horn for a highway somewhere miles away, and suddenly the man was awake and laughing again.

The man laughed soft and low.  He was always careful to keep his voice down when he was out in the countryside alone searching for fossils.  He was terrified of being seen by anyone. He never knew whose land he was on or if it was posted or patrolled or being used to grow dope or any number of other things that might get him arrested or killed.

The man thought about what he would do the next day.  He was glad he had circled this part of the map and put in here first.  He would keep going and try the other places next time.

He like this sandy little river.  It had the type of gravel bars he liked, and he had already found a fossil tooth the size of his hand and some pottery shards much older than the Mayflower Compact.  Plus all the arrowheads and agates and usual stuff he found when he walked creeks and rivers.  And the really good piece of petrified wood with the knots and the beetle tunnels and the one end with tree rings.

Yes, he would stay on this river.  If the water forked up into separate creeks too small to paddle, he would walk up each tributary like he had done before he had gotten the kayak.  He actually felt safer without the kayak anyway.

On foot, it was easier to hide when you suddenly noticed people approaching, like that time with the people on the four wheelers.

That time he had been walking a creek on foot, and they had come up fast on a pair of four wheelers.  By the time he heard the engines over the sound of the wind, he barely had time to jump in the honeysuckle and freeze.  They rode past so closely that he could have reached out and touched one rider’s shoulder.

There were lots of vines and cover on either side of this river, and the bank wasn’t so steep that you couldn’t get into it in a hurry.  The man liked the river. There were also plenty of gravel bars, and the roads and houses seemed sparse.

The man began to think of how he might stretch the trip into three days if he made his water last, but then an owl hooted and startled the pee out of the man. He held his lock blade close to his chest and decided to stay awake and listen for a while.

He thought he heard a truck out on the distant highway, but he couldn’t be sure.  He held is breath and listened and imagined he heard its radio, but then he began to dream about trucks stopping at drive-thru’s to order hamburgers at night. The next time he opened his eyes, the sun had been up for an hour or two.

short story by Joe Riverson Smith