Book Excerpt: Legend of the Boy, by Sal Cruz


Well, Dad was fishing. I was just wetting my hook, as he would say. I was as far removed from angling as some poor sap born in the desert. That’s how dad would say it. Or, “You should have been born in the desert because I have no idea what’s wrong with you.”

“I just don’t know how I can’t catch anything,” I would say in frustration.

“You don’t know how to do much of anything,” he said.

“I know.” At ten years old, my life wasn’t that complex, but I wasn’t good at school, and it appeared that I wasn’t much good at anything else. I sat in the boat and watched the cork on my line do absolutely nothing. My eyes and ears wandered to the surroundings. The river was beautiful. I loved being on the river. Dad was usually the nicest to me when we were fishing on the river. It was lined on either side by dense forests of trees and scrub oaks and underbrush. Only a few feet into the woods, it became dark. Lost in my thoughts of wanting to explore the woods, Dad said something that startled me.

“Do you know how to shoot?” he asked.

“Do we even own a gun?” I asked.

“Don’t sass me, boy,” he said. “Why would you talk to me like that? What is wrong with you?” His eyebrows furrowed, and he shook his head. It was not my intent to be sassy or disrespectful, but his emphasis on wrong was an indication of how upset he would be. I knew the wrath of his disappointment far too many times. I was never really able to communicate with him in the way I wanted, to talk to him as one adult would talk to another.

Contrary to my fear, he did not continue his berating. Instead, he reached into the cooler, grabbed a beer, and handed it to me.

He started talking to me about this guy he knew, someone he worked with. Dad repaired fuel lines at the naval air station, and this guy he knew had been arrested for drinking and driving. He had been driving drunk but what got him into trouble was that he fell asleep at the wheel, and his car veered over and hit a car with a woman and her child. This was long before car seats and any realistic expectation of wearing seat belts, so the woman and child had died. I was sad for the woman and her baby and thought of her husband, and how sad he would be. I even felt sorry for this guy Dad knew. What was more amazing was that Dad was telling me a story. He was talking to me. Stories like this were usually reserved for sharing with my uncles. I forgot about the useless cork and listened intently.

Then he told me he had better never catch me behind the wheel with the slightest degree of intoxication, or else he would take care of me before the judicial system had any chance to implement punishment, which, in his opinion, would be far too light.

In spite of the warning, I was still in awe. I had never heard him speak in such a way to me or even tell me a story. He was telling me a story about a guy at work. Was it his friend? My mind wandered, wondering what my dad was like at work and then I remembered he was talking. He continued talking about the bad habits of drinking. Drinking and driving was equal to armed robbery in his opinion. He expressed sorrow for his friend and his irrational decision to drink and drive, but sorrow doesn’t bring a man’s wife and baby back. He said the law was too light on drinking and driving. So, my dad had thought about the husband, too. I liked that we had thought about the same thing.

“Ain’t nothing wrong with drinking, like there ain’t nothing wrong with shooting the head off a moccasin. But you don’t point a gun at no one, and you don’t drink and drive; pointing a gun at someone, that’s just like drinking and driving.”

“Now,” he said, and he placed his beer and fishing rod down onto the boat, steadied his hand on the rod to make sure the vibration didn’t make it down to the hook so as not to scare the fish (he always had three rods going at the same time and managed all three better than I ever did with just one; the other two were already perfectly balanced against the edge of the boat) and ensuring the rod was steadied against the boat, he carefully opened and reached into the well of the boat with both hands, and managed, not easily, but ever so quietly, to release and pull out a gun.

“This ain’t just no gun,” he said, somehow knowing what I was thinking.

“This, son, is a semi-automatic .22.” This meant absolutely nothing to me.

“Do you even know what that means?” he asked.

“No, sir.”

“Boy, I don’t know what’s wrong with you, but all right, just listen up. First of all, when I ask you a question, you answer it with an answer, not a question.”

He was still upset about me asking if we even had a gun. “I knew this guy. He was from New York. This is when we were over in Korea,”– Dad was in the navy during the Korean War– “and this joker would always answer a question with a question. He was some type of smart aleck. Son, you listen. When someone asks you a question, you just answer the question with a sentence, not a question. You understand me?”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“That kid, that smart aleck from New York, no one liked him–he got beat up bad. One time I came back to the barracks from furlough, and it was late, like three in the morning, and he was up, and I said, ‘Hey, Baxter, did you have a good week?’ and he said, or asked, ‘Did you have a good week?’ Well, I had enough, and I pulled him off the top bunk there and laid into him. He was eating soup for a week. So you answer right. People don’t like people who answer questions with questions. And it didn’t help that he was from New York.”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“And second, you don’t point guns at people. You only point a gun at what you intend to shoot. You understand me?”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“Now, the gun is loaded. You’ve seen enough John Wayne movies, and you know what a gun can do. Now, you see that moccasin over there behind you?” He pointed off the bow of the boat where I sat, and sure enough, there was a moccasin about sixty feet from where I was sitting. I hate water moccasins.

Water moccasins, sometimes called cottonmouths, like to sit on top of the running river and just look at you. They wait for you to turn your head, and then they edge up, waiting to get close enough to attack. I usually had a stick to chase them off when they got close enough.

One time, I poked at a moccasin, and he bit the stick and hung on. Instead of letting go of the stick, I just banged it against the boat, which infuriated Dad because I was scaring off the fish. He kept yelling at me to let go of the stick, but I didn’t want to lose the only stick I had. Finally, Dad yelled loud and long enough that I let the stick go, terrified that the moccasin would enact some type of revenge on me.

Moccasins also like to sit on the high branches of trees and wait for unsuspecting prey–usually us. Many times I would be staring off the bow of the boat when I would hear a thump. I would turn, imagining it was some moccasin wanting to take out his revenge on me for hitting it with a stick. I would sit mortified, but Dad would grab his stick, pick it up and toss it overboard and then tell me how worthless I was. I don’t care, I hate moccasins. I hate everything about them, and looking at that cursed thing, I was about ready to pee in my pants. Dad handed the gun to me, and I pointed it offshore, and then I looked at Dad, waiting for instruction.

“Just line up the rear sight with the front sight, then line it up with moccasin’s head and pull the trigger,” he said. I sat there waiting for more instruction, and he finally said, “For crying out loud, son, go ahead.” That was it? Those were my only instructions.

The gun, or rifle, wasn’t that heavy. I had always imagined they would be heavy, they seemed heavy in the movies. I held the rifle up as I imagined John Wayne would. I closed my left eye, aimed up the two sights, and moved the gun until the moccasin’s head fit into the sights. The moccasin was coasting in the flowing river. It was probably protecting its nest, but it sure seemed like it was staking us out for a kill. I hate moccasins. Hate. Hate. Hate.

I looked at the moccasin long and hard. I wanted to wait for him to open its mouth. The inside of a moccasin’s mouth is white, like a ball of cotton, hence the common nickname Cottonmouth. This one was about four feet in length, so a little larger than average. I could hear my dad talking to me, but I wasn’t really paying attention. Usually, when he was teaching me something and I wasn’t doing it to his specifications, he would say things like, “Come on, son,” which usually came out like, “C’mohn, son,” the c barely audible. He could have been saying, “We ain’t got all day. We got fish to catch,” which I found to be discriminating since I was ineffectual at best at fishing (maybe the moccasins were eating all my fish). He was probably saying, “You are as slow as a grandma, son,” which was a typical epithet to me for any task I was working on.

At this point, it did not matter what he was saying. All I knew right then was that if I missed that bugger’s head, I wouldn’t have a second chance, for one, because the snake would be gone, and two, because Dad would say something like, “Aw, I should have known better than to give a gun to a little panty-waste,” or “Ab…so…lute…ly worthless, son, you are absolutely good for nothing.” Those were his sentiments most often expressed.

But no matter. I had never shot a rifle, but it was my intent to make my first shot the best shot of my life. I held it steady. The sights were rightly aligned. The snake was in view. Our eyes locked. I could sense that it knew I was there. It lengthened its body and then scrunched, moving closer to me, about a foot. I wanted to smile but did not. I did not want to expose my intent. I wanted the venomous snake to move a little closer so that it would open its mouth in defense, and when it did, I would blow its head right off to smithereens.

I felt a sense of authority holding the gun. I had never held one, had never shot one, but I felt clearly a foot taller. I basked in the superpowers befallen upon me. The snake ever so slightly cocked its head up, looked up into the tall scraggly scrub oaks above us there on the banks of the Choctaw River, and then looked back at me. I did not budge or flinch. I did not blink. And it again lengthened its body and scrunched and moved a foot closer.

When he cocked his head, I realized at that moment that I would have to make two shots. I would shoot the snake in the river, which I now realized was the mother, not a “he” as I had previously thought, and then, as soon as I shot the mother, the father, who was up in the tree, would fall down either onto me or close enough to attack me. They were working together. She was a sly one. She was a snake. She was giving me confidence. She would get closer to me, then go into the defensive position, I would react, and then her male counterpart would fall from the tree and attack.

I, again, about peed in my pants, thinking of the falling snake.

The male would be five to six feet in length, and about two inches in diameter. For the glory of repetition and in a manner that my dad often spoke of me, I ab…so…lute…ly hate snakes. I heard my dad whispering from behind, but I paid no attention. But the silence between his whisperings was getting shorter. And then I heard a branch snap. And I knew what that was.

Father snake was inching closer to the ends of the branch above us, and his weight was bearing down on the thin branch which caused it to snap a little. My time was short. I told myself that I would wait for her to open her mouth, then count to three and shoot mother snake, stand up, and then turn upward and shoot father snake before it had a chance to fall from the tree.

What I then decided to do was to go ahead and shoot the head off the mother snake before she recoiled into her defensive stance and open her mouth. This would throw off the attack of father snake. That would give me enough time to point the semi-automatic .22 upward, shoot his head off, and hope that it did not fall on me.




The rifle did not kick as I thought it would. As it pushed against my shoulder, I saw the moccasin’s head explode. I heard the pop of the rifle echo between the trees lining either bank of the river, and simultaneously, I heard the pop of the branch above me, which meant that father snake had been startled by the gun. I quickly stood up in the boat and pointed the gun upward and met the eye of the snake, and pulled the trigger without thought or the blink of an eye.

Again I heard the echo of the rifle and saw the snake’s head explode. His body became erratic as if shocked with a thousand bolts of electricity and I froze because now all that I could think of was that it would fall down on me. Dead or alive, I wanted no snake touching me. The snake’s convulsions caused it to unbalance, and the snake began to fall, but fortunately for me, the snake had twisted its body around the branch so that it did not fall onto me or the boat. It hung in the branch, headless and twitching.

When I felt safe, I started to shake from the tenseness of the moment, the fear of what could have happened. I sat down and put the rifle on my lap; the end pointed toward the shore. I did not move. I heard my dad taking his lines in. I didn’t ask why. He had not said anything since I sat down, so I was unsure of my situation. Had I done good or not?

I heard him place the first rod down, then the second, then the third. It took him about two minutes to take a line in. I always did like to hear the turning of the reel, the line bouncing against the water. When the line was about the length of the pole, Dad would bring in the hook, hold it with his left hand, and twist the pole with his right hand, securing the line on the pole. He would set the hook on the handle, then lay the pole down. Then he grabbed the next pole. Then I heard the third pole hit the boat. I was still shaking.

“Hand me the rifle, son,” he said to me. I pointed it up and handed it over without looking at him. I heard him put it away without caution for noise or vibrations.

“Hand me your rod,” he said, and I gave it to him. I heard him take in the line, put it with the others, secure them, and then pull in the anchor. He grabbed his oar and steered us down the river toward the dock. He didn’t speak at all. Our drives were usually quiet, but this was unusually quiet. He usually had disparaging remarks about the other drivers and often spoke as if they could hear him. On this drive, he didn’t say anything about or to other drivers. As we got close to the house, he pulled into the IGA grocery store and said, “C’mon.” I got out and followed him. I had never been to the grocery store with my dad before. I did not know what to expect.

We went in and went over to the deli, and he opened up the door to the Coca-Cola ice chest.

“Grab what you want,” Dad said to me.

I did not counter with disbelief. I reached in and grabbed a Coke. I had only had one Coke in my life, my Uncle 4Z had bought it for me, and I had dreamed of the day I would have another. Mmm, an ice-cold Coke. In reflection, I wish I had known God or things like manna so that I could say something like: “And I reached in and grabbed that Coke as if I were plucking manna from the ground.”

Before I even opened the bottle, I knew that it would be delicious to the taste. But God was no part of our lives at that point. I did not know God but for an idle word in the Pledge of Allegiance, and I didn’t even really know what that meant.

Nevertheless, in my ignorance of God and manna, I did reach for that ice-cold Coke, and I knew that this was going to be a great treat. My dad grabbed a Coke as well. He shut the lid, put his bottle into the bottle opener and popped his open, and then pointed to it and said, “Go ahead.” I did not debate or counter. I slipped the head of the bottle into the opener and gently banged my fist against my hand that held the bottle, just as Dad had done, and heard the slight expression of fizz escape and the cap fall into the receptacle below on top of the other caps. And then I heard a slight clink. I looked up at my dad. He brought his bottle to mine, tapped it against mine, and he said, “Good work, son. Cheers.”

He was not smiling, but I was smiling so broadly that I could hardly drink. So, I just rested the head of the glass bottle on top of my bottom lip and poured the Coke into my parched mouth. Man, was that drink good. It was different from all the other drinks that I had ever had. Up until that point in my short and insignificant life, I couldn’t even name the last time Dad had bought a soda. That’s nothing my dad would have ever wasted money on.

But at this point, on this day, I deserved that Coca-Cola. I had done something special, and I was being rewarded. This was mine. It was mine to enjoy. This reward was like none other. Last year, I had won an award in a field day for the running long jump. It was a blue ribbon with a gold medallion on it. I didn’t have it long as a kid named Billy beat me up and took it. But right now, I thought about that ribbon and that fake gold medallion, and I said to myself, “I’m gonna keep this bottle forever.”

It’s been almost forty years since that day with my dad. And I still have that bottle, it is my only personal memento of him. It was the one physical possession in my life that he personally gave to me. The old bottle has had many purposes in my life. I’ve used it to launch bottle rockets. It has been filled with white sand from the Gulf of Mexico, red sand from the Valley of Fire in Nevada, and brown beach sand from San Diego. It’s been a candle stand. I’ve filled it with gas and lit it. It was in the kids’ toy box for years; who knows what they did with it? I know it was a skyscraper for the longest time sitting in the middle of their little train town, and I remember having to fish it out of the toilet once (no questions asked). And once I saw it in the barn filled with oil. I don’t know the story, and again, I never asked. But the old Coke bottle has continued to fill a purpose. One year I saw it cleaned out, and it was sitting on top of the fridge in the barn. One of the kids must have done that. The kids all knew my story with the moccasins; they knew it well. Whenever we were on vacation, usually at the beach, and we were drinking ice-cold Coke, they would ask me to tell the story.

The kids are all on their own now, and the old Coke bottle; old, yes, but still with a bit of its red logo on it. It still sits on top of the fridge in the barn. I still remember the taste of that ice-cold Coke pouring off the lip of the bottle into my dry, parched mouth. I had earned that Coke. And that was pretty darn cool. It was, effectually, my first real reward.



Sal Cruz is known among some writer circles as a theo-philosophical author, injecting hard-hitting reality, and deeply flawed characters into irresistible stories that grab the reader. His latest novel, “Legend of the Boy,” is due for release on December 5 and is available for pre-order now. HERE.

Sal travels extensively and often writes while visiting family in his native Florida as well as Nevada, California, Idaho, and Utah.