Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 963
Buzbee is a seventy-seven-year-old man who has spent his entire life in a tiny community settled by his parents. Hollingsworth, his son, is only fourteen years younger; the two men have lived together primarily as friends for sixty-three years. One summer, Buzbee runs away to live in the thick, mosquito-infested woods alongside the bayou, and Hollingsworth posts an offer of a thousand-dollar reward for his father’s return.
Hollingsworth is lonely without Buzbee and has to fight down feelings of wildness, especially in the evenings when the two used to talk. The town was once well populated, but epidemics of yellow fever have killed everyone but Buzbee and his son. They have buried family and neighbors in cemeteries across the countryside and lost an edge of some sort because nothing again would ever be as intense as holding out against death. Even so, Hollingsworth is not sentimental about losing Buzbee. He does not offer a larger reward for his father because he does not want people to think he is sad.
Hollingsworth runs an old barn of a store, which attracts so little business that some cans of milk have stayed on the shelves for forty years. The Coke machine still has old-formula Cokes in bottles, and it is for these that a young bicycle racer named Jesse stops by. The first time that Jesse visits, Hollingsworth is speechless with excitement. He begins waiting for Jesse to appear, and even has the driveway paved to look like a snake in the green grass that makes a path straight to the store.
Jesse is slower than his teammates because he has an older bike. He begins each day by checking the wind; the slightest breeze means his ride will be harder, that he will slide along the roads looking for paths of least resistance. He is the only rider on his team to stop at Hollingsworth’s for a cold soda; the other cyclists are too serious about their sport to take such breaks.
One day, Jesse mentions Buzbee. He has seen the reward posters, and wants the money. He tells Hollingsworth he has seen a man who looks like him, describing an old man wearing dirty overalls crossing the road with a live fish tucked under his arm. Jesse suggests they use Hollingsworth’s tractor to run Buzbee down and lasso him; Hollingsworth suggests they use the neighbor’s wild hounds.
As the summer progresses, Jesse stops racing in order to help Hollingsworth catch Buzbee. He builds a go-cart so he can drive to the store, eat old cans of food, and listen to Hollingsworth talk. Even though Jesse cannot stand to listen to the man for more than twenty or thirty minutes at a time, he returns each day, growing soft and fat. Hollingsworth, on the other hand, thinks of Jesse as his true love; he hopes the cyclist has an accident so that he cannot return to racing. The older man talks endlessly about his life, and practices roping a sawhorse with a lasso, dragging it across the gravel, reeling it in as fast as he can.
Meanwhile, Buzbee knows that his son wants him home, but he has no intention of returning. He has found the remains of an old settlement near the bayou, where he keeps a small fire going to ward off mosquitoes and to smoke catfish and small alligators. He hangs his food from the trees by looping vines through their jaws and stringing them up “like villains, all around in his small clearing, like the most ancient of burial grounds: all these vertical fish, out of the water, mouths gaping in silent death, as if preparing to ascend.”
He brings a rooster and four chickens to his camp, and the birds locate the precious quinine berries that Buzbee’s father planted long ago during a malaria epidemic. After women hear about Buzbee’s settlement, they arrive a few at a time. They are middle-aged laundresses from such abusive situations that Buzbee’s camp seems luxurious by comparison. They laugh and talk together, “muscled with great strength suddenly from not being told what to do, from not being beaten or yelled at.”
As the women grow comfortable around Buzbee, they stop wearing clothes, and he sits in a tree above them, watching them move around naked, talking happily. At night, they all sit around the fire, eating roasted alligators and smearing the fat over their bodies to repel mosquitoes. The women begin sleeping with Buzbee, and one becomes pregnant. Another contracts malaria, but all of them prefer life on the bayou to life in town.
Several attempts to catch Buzbee fail. Hollingsworth and Jesse try to sneak into the settlement, but Buzbee and the women hear them coming and run through the swamp to hide in the trees. Hollingsworth and Jesse dig large pits and cover them with branches, hoping to catch all of them, but the women find a pit after it traps a deer. Finally, Hollingsworth borrows his neighbor’s hounds. They muzzle the dogs and lead them into the swampland after Buzbee. Jesse brings an extra lariat and rope to truss him up, because he figures the old man will be senile and wild. The dogs are nearly crazed; they jump and twist at their leashes until they are too hard to hold. Then they silently and swiftly race straight into Buzbee’s camp.
Jesse buys a new bike with his reward money and begins riding by himself, growing faster than ever. He now rides by Hollingsworth’s store without stopping, disgusted by the sight of Buzbee chained to the front porch. Trapped by his over-talkative son, Buzbee squints at the trees in the distance and thinks only of breaking free again, for good.
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