The Newton Enigma.  A novel by Linton Herbert

Chapter 5b


At one point they found a large hognose snake.  It reared up like a cobra and threatened them.  It was rear fanged, harmless to anything not deep in its mouth.  They took turns holding a hand down to see if they could not flinch when it struck, tapping the skin lightly with its upturned snout.  When the snake had been pestered long enough it lay on its back and played dead.  Ivan flipped it on its belly, and it twisted over onto its back again. 


They came to a halt at a river.  Cypress grew near the bank.  There was a sound of traffic occasionally crossing a bridge a few hundred yards away out of sight beyond a bend.  Ivan stripped off his clothes, took his jackknife and went into the river for a few moments.  He worked underwater among the cypress knees and then brought out a long pole.  He went back to work and presently began hauling up a long dark object.  Jon kicked off his shoes, rolled up his pant legs and went to help.  They muscled a hollowed out cypress log onto the shore.  Ivan dressed while the dugout canoe drained. 


They launched it, and Ivan said, “All right get in.  Stay low.  When you get to about the middle lie down and curl up so I can step over you.” 


Ivan poled them a mile or two along the river bank.  Then he made the dugout swing into a barely visible backwater.  For most of the afternoon they toiled along the meandering waterway.  Great trees loomed overhead.  Frogs grunted and dived for the water.  Occasionally a fish jumped.  From time to time Ivan would swing the pole to clear an overhanging bush of a basking snake.  Sometimes the way was impeded by water plants.  Ivan would go to the bow, plant his pole and walk to the stern over the bodies of his inert passengers, forcing the craft past the obstruction.


Jon and Tracy were lying head-to-head.  They took the occasion to chat.


“Ivan tells me that gay males are getting more common all the time.  Is that true about women?”


“That’s hard to say.  With women it’s different.  Most women like the looks of a good looking woman as much as a man does.”


“That’s a lot of like.”


“But it’s true.  I guess it has always been true.”


“The Bible mentions gay men but never gay women,” said Jon reaching back for memories he hardly knew he had. 


“Maybe it’s because it was too obvious to need comment.”


“But is it changing?  That was his point.”


“Well women are doing a lot of things we didn’t do before.  And we are a lot more independent.  But that doesn’t help you.  We were always capable of being independent.  But we didn’t need to be.”


“Back when I was your age women wore skirts.  They wore them all the time.  Maybe you’d see them in shorts playing tennis or something, but skirts meant a woman.”


“What about Scottish men in their kilts?”


“It was a standing joke.  There they were looking so bold and masculine, and they were wearing a skirt.  It’s like they were so tough they didn’t have to worry about image.”


“Gay men can be tough.”


“Yeah.  I know.”


“But pants are so much easier.  You just pull them on and you’re done.  With a skirt you’re always wondering if it looks right.  And you have to be careful where you put your legs.”


“Begging your pardon, but women look to me like they are thinking about how they look all the time even when they’re wearing pants.”


“That’s because you stare at them.  It makes us self conscious.”


“I stare at men.”


“But you’re no threat to a man.”




“No, that’s not what I meant.  I mean a man doesn’t care what he looks like to you.  He’s just trying to figure out if he needs to treat you with respect.  If you are a threat, then the answer is probably yes.  Or if you are older.  Or if you might be a friend.”


“So I’m right.  Women are thinking about how they look.”


“O you wouldn’t understand.”




By late afternoon the canoe beached in a little lagoon.  Huge oaks overhead shut out the sky.  The cleared land was sand as white as table sugar.  The light was so bright off the sand that the trees were lit from below.  It gave the whole scene a magical appearance.  There was a cabin tucked under the trees and a chikee, a Seminole stilt house.  The uprights were of palm trunk, the thatching of palm fronds.  An older woman sat in it sewing.  At the sight of the canoe she squealed, ran down to the shore and threw her arms around Ivan.  A man came out of the door of the cabin.  He and Ivan faced each other formally and each laid a fist near his own left shoulder.  That was as far as male hugging male went around here.  The older couple looked like a Seminole or a half breed with his white wife.  


There was a whinny, and a little horse came trotting up.  It nuzzled Ivan with great affection as he lavished attention on it.  It was exceedingly muscular and had an odd angle at the pastern. 


“Cracker horse,” Jon said to Tracy.  “It’s the smartest, gentlest, smoothest riding, toughest, longest lived, best winded and over a very long distance fastest horse there is. Very rare.”


“Only it’s not a cracker horse,” said Ivan.  “We had it first.  I mean the Spanish brought it, but we made it what it is.  The white man just took it and named it after himself.”


“Out west they call the wild horses mustangs.  You could call it a Florida mustang.”


“And you could call a Western mustang really good dog meat.  Daddy, this guy who was recently my friend but is insulting my horse is named Jon.”


The old Indian saluted as he had his son. 


“And the girl is Tracy.” 


“You will stay for supper and the night.”


Jon certainly hoped so.  And maybe Ivan’s father could lend them a pickup truck. 


It was early the next morning as the borrowed pickup truck was about reaching Orange Heights that the forest ranger they had met the day before was reaching under the hood of his jeep.  He adjusted the carburetor to raise the idling speed of the jeep to a merry note.  Then he got in, reached under the dash and took a chain that was hanging there.  A tug on the chain made the cutout under the hood open the exhaust manifold to the air.  The engine suddenly emitted a hideous racket as the explosive opening of the exhaust valves dumped hot gasses into the atmosphere instead of into the exhaust system.


It was an old hotrod trick, little used any longer since modern exhaust systems give so little back pressure that they do not affect performance.  An old mechanic who remembered how to set one up had worked all night.  But now the engine gave a very satisfactory roar.


Gunning the motor, the ranger drove about a mile to an open hill, where the gunmen were just reaching the crest.  They, too, had been up all night working with bloodhounds to follow the group Ivan had led along an intricate route that seemed always to end blindly in impassable swamp that had to be covered before the route was backtracked and the correct turn taken. 


The men had not been happy about venturing out of all cover, but the path left them little choice.  They moved alertly, tired as they were.  The jeep entered the clearing and came boldly up to the leader.


“You boys got permits for those guns?” the ranger inquired cheerfully.  He had to shout over the noise of the motor.


“You don’t need a permit to carry a gun,” shouted the leader. 


“An automatic you do.  They automatics?”




“Are those automatic weapons?”


“If they were, I’d say you were a brave man to challenge us.  It’s lonely out here in the woods,” the lead gunman shouted back, trying to sound subtle with his threat.


The ranger turned off his engine.  The silence was not complete.  There was still the sound of a helicopter overhead which had approached under the cover of the noise of the jeep.  The leader looked up.  He was not happy.


“I guess you boys are playing survival games,” offered the warden. 




“Any other reason you might have left flankers out while you crossed the field?”


“What flankers?”


“These flankers,” said the ranger.  He pulled out a cell phone.  “Bring ‘em out, boys.”  To left and right, at about right angles, two gunmen stepped into the clearing with their arms up, escorted by rangers. 


The leader glanced up at the menacing gunship, looked at the unarmed ranger and the two men with rifles.  He was calculating chances.  The ranger made it easy for him.  He spoke to the phone again.  “Give us a wave, you all.” 


About two dozen armed men stepped into the open all the way around the perimeter.  They waved and then stepped back behind trees again.


The ranger went on.  “Now lets see that gun of yours.  Yep.  Fully automatic.  Illegal size clip.  Sophisticated sights.  You sure do take your war games seriously.


“But it happens you have entered an ancient sacred Seminole ground.  They don’t mind the occasional fool stumbling through.  But this kind of thing gets their dander up.  And seeing as how you are breaking the law forty ways, I’m going to have to run you in.  So stack ‘em up and lie down to where we can check you out.”


The captured men complied.  The men on the perimeter, a mixture of state and county cops and a number of rangers, moved in and secured them.


“Now listen,” said the ranger.  “I know you are good old boys and got a perfectly good reason to be playing out here.  Other time and place I’d be proud to join in, probably.  And I don’t need to know what you’re up to.  And of course once we get back to town and get you all properly checked in you have the right to make phone calls.  But I should point out, that having put on this big a show, I’ve got to act real suspicious.  So if anybody does actually ask to make that phone call …


“Well we just might have to decide that you look like a bunch of terrorists, and then we’d have to ask the feds what they think.  Current laws, they’ll keep you ‘til they’re happy.  And they don’t get happy easy.  How many years have those guys been in that marine base in Cuba?  Maybe they get to make their phone call, but it sure gets recorded if they do.”


The party started the walk back toward town.


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