Chapter One | A Good Day to Live
Armadillos might be ugly, but they sure are dumb.
—Will Stapleton, 1962
Crab nets were not intended to catch armadillos. But it was the best idea Danny, Will, and Trout could come up with. The long handles seemed like they’d help, and the net at the end was about the right size. What the boys didn’t account for was the tiny beast’s surprising speed. Armadillos don’t run like normal, godly animals. They bounce like four-legged kangaroos and scurry behind palmetto bushes faster than, well, faster than three twelve-year-old kids swinging crab nets.
Ono Island, a hot, mosquito-infested strip of land with nothing but sand dunes, scrub oaks, and malnourished pines, was the best place along Alabama’s Gulf Coast to track the wily possum with an armored overcoat. The island was hostile to the senses, but for kids on a quest, Ono was the New World, devoid of parents or rules and chock-full of ’dillos.
It took thirty minutes for the Johnson Seahorse, 5 horsepower to chug the skiff southward across Perdido Bay, around the sandy tip of Innerarity Point to the north shore of Ono Island. From there, they could see the opening to the Gulf of Mexico just five miles away. Too far and too dangerous to explore without adult supervision, the Gulf could rip Greenie apart, rib by rib. In her day, she was a solid boat, but years of pounding waves and abusive older brothers had aged her. Now Greenie, simply named for her green wooden hull, hauled kids around the backwater where the seas were calm and a shoreline was always within swimming distance.
Greenie allowed them to be captains of their own destiny. Sometimes that meant scrapping with wild rodents. Armed with three crab nets, a hefty supply of potato chips, and a gallon of lemonade, the boys were ready for action. Shortly after they dragged Greenie onto the beach and tied her bowline to a pine tree, Will spotted the first critter burrowing under a palmetto root.
“There’s one!” he shouted as he sprinted toward the oversized rat.
It’s one thing when an armadillo is frozen in the headlights. It looks positively clumsy, slow, and stupid. Of course, when armadillos are dead on the side of the road with their rigor mortis feet in the air, they’re even less imposing. But in the dunes with lots of scrub oaks and palmetto bushes to provide cover, the little buggers were downright agile—squatty gazelles of deep sand.
“Hot damn, they’re fast,” Will said after fifteen minutes, throwing his net on the ground in frustration. “Tell you what. Trout, you get on my left, and Danny, you get on the right. When we see one, we’ll spread out, surround him, and bag his gray butt.”
That was the answer: teamwork. Within minutes, Trout and Danny had cornered one by an oak tree. Will covered the rear flank. They moved in slowly, crab nets poised for the snatch. With its little head lowered, the creature stared at the boys through cold, suspecting eyes. Before they could strike, it took off and juked left past Will, right past Danny, then bounced away in a spray of sand. Crab nets flew but missed again.
For the next two hours, the boys tracked and chased. By the time the chips and lemonade were gone, the game was over. Score: Armadillos, 23, Boys, 0.
Nothing had gone as planned. They were covered in sand and sweat. They were tired and angry. Dejected, they packed up Greenie and left Ono Island behind them. But they were not beaten. Never underestimate the ingenuity and tenacity of a preteen.
Early the next day, Will, Danny, and Trout were back at Ono with a sixteen-foot shrimp trawling net. Cone-shaped for dragging behind a boat, it was the perfect armadillo trap. They hung it between two trees and camouflaged it with palmetto fronds. After an hour of chasing and herding, they finally wrapped up a big one. As it hissed viciously and wriggled wildly in the netting, the boys stepped back, wide-eyed.
“What are we going to do with it now?” Trout asked.
“Let’s just watch it awhile and see what it does,” Danny said.
“I say we kill it,” Will said. “I’ve heard you can eat ’em.”
“How we gonna kill it?” Trout asked.
Will took a mighty swing with an imaginary club. “Whack it on the head with the paddle.”
Danny held up his hands and shook his head. “Wait a minute. We’re not really going to eat it. Let’s just let it wear itself out, then untangle it and let it go.”
Will and Trout were already fetching the death paddle.
“We’ll be back,” they yelled as they disappeared around a sand dune.
Danny eased closer to the mesh, looking into the animal’s hollow eyes and pointed snout. It was one of the ugliest of creatures God had ever dreamed up, and just as useless as far as Danny knew, but it wasn’t worth killing. As he untangled the net, he realized the armadillo had already chewed a hole large enough to poke its head through. The little beast snarled at Danny as its sharp claws ripped at the netting. Using a pine branch, Danny spread the net just enough for the critter to squirm through and run off. Danny’s father didn’t know the boys had taken the net. Now there would be hell to pay.
“Hurry with that paddle,” Danny yelled, hoping they’d never make it back in time. “It’s getting away.”
Like paratroopers, Will and Trout appeared in midair, flying from the crest of a sand dune. Will shrieked as he held the paddle over his head like an ax. The wooden blade must have broken the critter’s neck. There was an awful squeal as its jaws clamped shut over its thin, red tongue. The boys had never heard or seen anything so horrible. Time seemed to stop, and a deep sadness swept over them as they witnessed death—a killing they were responsible for. The animal quivered for a few minutes, then lay motionless.
Without talking, Will scooped up the lifeless body with the paddle and carried it to the biggest oak he could find. Danny and Trout knelt on the ground and took turns digging the grave in the soft sand. After he slid the carcass into the hole, Will dropped the paddle and wiped a tear from his cheek.
“Lord,” he drawled. “I’m sorry I killed that armadillo. I was just trying to knock it out. I swear.”
Trout shot a glare at Will. “You can’t lie to God.”
“I’m not lying.”
“But you already said you wanted to kill it,” Trout said.
“Yeah, but I’m still sorry I did it.”
Trout shook his head in shame. “We shoulda just let it go, like Danny said to.”
“If you’d had the paddle, you woulda killed it, too,” Will shot back.
Trout clinched his fists and moved toward Will.
Danny stepped between them and sighed. He’d seen them battle too many times. “Y’all just shut up,” he said. “Fighting won’t help that armadillo. It won’t help us, either. Let’s just go home.”
Silently, they gathered their gear and loaded into Greenie. On that day, the glamour of armadillo hunting had lost its luster and a chunk of innocence had been chipped from the boys’ childhood. Chapter 2