Dale Hensarling: Fiction: June 2020

Southern Legitimacy Statement: I am a native Mississippian, born in Hattiesburg, and raised just across the river in Petal, Mississippi. Most of my life, I was a professional illustrator and graphic designer. About two years ago, I moved to South Carolina, and I am now pursuing my MFA in Creative Writing. My goal is to write Southern Literature, drawing from my memories of the piney woods, deep south Mississippi in the 1970s-1980s. This story is a bit like the Little Rascals, and it is based upon my memories of building forts in the woods and having dirt clod wars.

The Red Dirt Brigade

From my tent, I watched them build the makeshift wall with twigs and loose pieces of lumber stuffed with mud on Wolverine Hill. I watched them with one eye closed and the other barely open, so they would not know I was studying their plan.  They had been a formidable foe, and we had battled for days in the hot summer sun, ending in a stalemate between two mounds of red dirt.  We fought every day, but there was no champion.  And, we fought, not so much for territory, but for honor, the right to say to others that we were the best.  They were strong.  We were tired.  They were the Wolverines.  We were the Red Dirt Brigade.

They were led by Captain Joey Braswell, a punk kid who had moved to the area in May from some city up North.  He was always talking smack about how great he was, how smart city kids were, and how much money his dad made.  His squad was Tommy Cooley, Chris Cooley, Tony Petro, Danny D, and a girl named Summer Bridges.  Captain Joey had given them all necklaces with wolverine claws on them, and they had matching wicker t-shirts with an official logo on the front.  They were an elite squad, very technical and very determined.

Last night, the Wolverines cooked hotdogs on a portable grill and they roasted marshmellows for s’mores.  My team smelled the food all the way over to our camp, while we ate leftover PBJ sandwiches we had stored in a Sunbeam bread bag, along with a few Tootsie Rolls.  As we sat silently, we could hear their music playing, along with the firecrackers popping and the sparklers glowing.  It was a real party.  Shameful, if you ask me.  They knew not the suffering of true warriors.

My name is Ryder Collins.  I was the captain of the Red Dirt Brigade, a loose band of soldiers from the neighborhood.  We didn’t have matching shirts or color-coordinated necklaces.  We did have nicknames.  My team was Gadget Lee, Preacher, Birdman, Flowmaster, Tink, and Stitch.  Besides that, we had my dawg Tater and his brother Biscuit, great war dawgs who had earned several medals of honor in past battles. 

This had been our hill since the beginning of the neighborhood. And, by dern, we were determined no new hustler squad was gonna take it from us!  The red mounds, the hollow between them, the creek, the trails…. they were ours.  We knew every inch, every bump, every root, and every drop of water. Every Brigade member could walk the area blindfolded.  Heck, we had already done so two weeks ago as a part of training!

“Everybody awake?” I woke them.

“10-4, Captain,” the Brigade sounded off from their tents and cots.

“They are getting ready.”  I pointed to Wolverine Hill.

“Let me take a look.”  Gadget Lee had a telescope he had gotten at a garage sale two years ago.  He positioned it on a piece of plywood and focused the lense.  “Yep. They have set up a fort perimeter to the left and right sides of the mound.  Looks like they have put some stacks of dirt clods on both sides, too.  There are two openings in their wall on either side, probably for slingshot shooters.”

He scanned down the hill from the mound to the trails and creek.  “Two of them are carrying buckets of water up from the creek.  They have erected a trap on trail 2 and some barriers on trails 3 and 5.  They took out the plank bridge on trail 1.”

“Dang!  They’ve been busy!”  Birdman said.

“Make sure they are all in sight,” I told Gadget.  “You never know if they are sneaking around.”

“Sure thing, Cap.”  Gadget counted.  “All accounted for, Cap.”

“Good.  Let’s initiate Protocol Dark Bird.”

“Oh, yeah!”  Birdman said.  He had designed Protocol Dark Bird, and we had never used it from the official war play book, but today was the day.  I sensed everyone’s excitement at the decision.

“First, synchronize watches on my mark.  Mark!”

“Mark!”   All Brigade watches and iPhones were synced.  We were in countdown mode.

“Flowmaster, get the vibes ready.  We need a real thumper this time.”

“Will do, Cap.”  That guy could find some real grinders, for sure.

“Stitch, you and Preacher go back to Turner’s house, and come up the lumber mill back trail.  Find out what the Wolverines have behind them and report back.”

“On it,” they both said.  They took off on their bikes.

“Gadget, make sure the canopy is ready.  Take Tink with you.  Gotta be solid.”

“Checking it, Cap.”  Gadget was a reall techie.  He could make an app to run anything.  Tink always had his toolbelt on.  The two were geniuses at creating shock and awe.  Protocol Dark Bird was a dream come true for both of them, with lots of flying materials, water canons, and bugs.  Lots of bugs.  They were laughing as they headed out.  Some folks just love disasters.

I looked across the hollow to the other red mound.  No flag yet.  They were not ready.  Still prepping.  Perfect. 

I decided to check all the equipment one last time before the assault on Wolverine hill.  I checked all the bikes.  Chains were good.  Tires were aired up.  I checked slingshots, buckets, sticks, baseball mits & gloves, helmets, and all other protective gear.  I replaced two straps with duct tape.  Everything was in working order.

“Mix tape is ready to go live, Cap,”  Flowmaster said.  “Its got some of that new dubstep stuff in it.”

“Awesome.” Hey, any war needs a good theme song, so Flowmaster saw it as a calling from God to set the mood before we rained terror down on the Wolverines.  I smiled thinking about it.

Gadget and Tink were back.  “Canopy is good.  All tie-offs are good, hanging baskets are still a go.  Water canons are fully charged.  Everything is dual linked to our phones. They will never see what is coming.”

“Awesome.”

Stitch and Preacher reported back.  

“Verily, the enemy is completely exposed on the back right, just past the ancient oak up there,”  Preacher said, as he pointed.  He was always talking in King James English.  It was weird, but we just all figured he heard it around home, ’cause his dad was a preacher.  “Last night, they didst dig a trench on yonder hill, methinks perhaps 20 feet below the mound.  They didst covereth it with the straw of the pine, and we couldst not see what is within.  Yet, we are not afraid.  For they will utterly perish.”  He loved using the word ‘perish.’

“We also found some of their secret hideouts down near Hollimon’s pond,” Stitch said.   She made all of our protective gear.  Nobody had better, not even from a top sporting goods store.  “Looks like they are planning for a retreat.”

“Yay!  Verily, they shall run to the hills e’en before the battle ensues!”  

“That’s interesting,” I said.  “I checked all our equipment.  We are good to go. Let’s review Protocol Dark Bird and get our gear on.”   We gathered in a circle behind the mound on Red Dirt bluff, our war headquarters.  I drew in the sand with my official red stick, and we all discussed every detail of the assault on Wolverine Hill and the execution of Protocol Dark Bird.  

After that, we sent Preacher down to reason with the enemy.  He held his white handkerchief in his hand, waving it to them as he went down to the creek to yell up to the Wolverines.

“Behold, enemies of the Red Dirt Brigade.  We offer this to you.  Give up your quest to control yon Wolverine Hill, beat your swords into plowshares, and live at peace among us.  Repent of your plans, lest you feel the full fury of our assault upon that dirt, and you face a humiiliation beyond your worse nightmares!  Repent quickly, for we are ready to destroy your hopes.  You have been warned.”  He turned to come back to our camp.  We were all very impressed.

We looked up to see a runner with a white flag, coming down from Wolverine Hill over the creek to our camp.  The runner stopped about twenty feet away.  It was Tommy Cooley, the stutterer.

“R-r-r-red Dirt Brigade.  C-captain Joseph P. Braswell of the Wolverine Army is offering freedom to anyone who puts down their arms and surrenders.  Y-y-you will be fed well.  Th-th-this is your chance to end this c-c-craziness.  Th-th-there is no shame in surrender.  If you d-d-do not surrender, you will be defeated, and you w-w-will lose control of both hills by s-s-sundown.  You will n-n-not be able to play here again.  What say you?”

“We ain’t surrenderin’,” I said.  We all began to laugh.  The word just wasn’t in our vocabulary.

“Th-th-then Captain Braswell told me to tell you the following.  You have f-f-five minutes.”  He turned to go, but stopped.  “Oh, and he said to tell you, Captain, that your mother is fat.”

Fat?  He said my mother is fat?  Them’s fighting words.  Nobody speaks about my momma like that.  

“Uh-oh.  You shouldn’ta said that,” Tink shouted to Tommy as he ran back to Wolverine Hill.

“Guess we all need to get ready,” Stitch said.  She hated anybody talking about our mommas.  She would make sure to aim a dirt clod at Tommy for saying it.  He really needed to fear for his own safety.  Honestly.

“Yep.”  I was in shock.  My momma was not fat!  She let everyone know she was pleasantly plump.  But, NOT FAT!

“Let the fire of God fall upon the infidels!”  Preacher was fuming.  His mother was also pleasantly plump.

We looked across the hollow, and we saw their flag go up on the red mound.  It was really fancy, all silvery and shiny, with a blue claw painted on it and their official logo.  We raised our flag over our fort.  It was a black flag with a red handprint on it.  I put the extra copy of our flag inside my chest gear, thinking of the moment I would raise it on their fort across the way.  I was the Captain of the Red Dirt Brigade, and this was war. 

I lined up all the troops in front of our flag.  We put our gear on.  Stitch had made special armor for our arms, chest, shoulders and legs from old football equipment.  We each had a LaCrosse helmet and protective visor, batting gloves, and baseball cleats.  Each member got to choose a weapon from the bats, sticks, and slingshots we had gathered.  Stitch and Preacher each got a regular bike.  Birdman got his own Western Flyer, cause he had rigged it with springs to make it jump higher.  I got in my Big Wheel that had been rigged with a protective cage and mud tires.  Tink and Gadget used souped up all-terrain skateboards, and they double checked their iPhones.  We were ready, so I gave us the last word.

“Red Dirt Brigade, today we will stand tall.  That enemy over there threatens our playground and our way of life.  They are newcomers!  They do not know our ways!  They want to remake us to be like them, a group of cityslickers who think we are not smart enough to play with them.  It ends today!  Today, on these hills, we show them we are the Red Dirt Brigade, and nobody takes what is ours.  We are trained.  We are ready.  We are the best.  Remember today why you fight!  You fight for honor, for land, for friends and family!  When this day is done, we will lift our flag upon their hill, and they will know our name, the name that we will make them say over and over again every day of their miserable existence!  Red Dirt Brigade!”

“Red Dirt Brigade! Red Dirt Brigade!”  We all chanted.  We heard them yell from the other hill, “Wolverines!”  So, we yelled even louder, “Red Dirt Brigade! Red Dirt Brigade!”  Then everyone waited for my call.  I yelled, “Count 5” and they all counted with me “4 – 3 – 2 – 1.  AAAAAAAAAHHHHH!”  And it was on!