Walk five miles to see my Babe,
For paradise, I’m bound.
But my sugah, she done left,
‘N she ain’t comin’ ‘round.
Naw, she ain’t comin’ ‘round.
Up ‘n left me all alone.
Pack her lovin’ in a sack.
Heart ah mine, jus’ break in two,
Babe ain’ comin’ back.
No, she ain’ comin’ back.
Got my blade ‘n cut her.
She didn’ make a sound.
Left her cold, like she left me.
No, Babe ain’ comin’ ‘round.
My Babe ain’ comin’ ‘round.
Undertaker, take my heart
And put it in the ground.
‘At Devil gonna string me high
‘Cause Babe ain’ comin’ ‘round.
For paradise, she bound.
For paradise, she bound.
Walk five miles to paradise,
Baby’s gone to heaven.
Walk five miles to paradise,
I never be forgiven.
Lawd, I never be forgiven.
Roundhead Gumption’s famous 1933 cover of Blind Memphis Joe’s ‘Five Miles to Paradise’ kept spinning in his head like a rabid carousel. When Heck saw the battered truck parked under the shade tree near the dam at the old abandoned mill, he cut the motor and let the car drift to a stop. He sat there, windows down, surveying the landscape.
“Dag-gone it,” he muttered under his breath, letting loose a thick, brown arch of tobacco-laden spit.
The air was damp, but there was no coolness in it. Heck watched as heat lightning silently lit the sky in the far off distance. It will surely be a scorcher, if it don’t rain, he thought.
“T-Bone! T-Bone, you hear me? Thayard! Thayard, you out here? You hurt? Where are you? You hear me, T-Bone! T-Bone! Answer me, T-Bone!”
He knew right away the pickup belonged to the old man. There was just no mistaking that one – a black rust bucket that had taken a real pounding from its many years of service. The truck looked like a flea-bitten, old nag ridden hard and put up sopping wet. As the weak beam from his flashlight danced on the side of the junker, he couldn’t help but be reminded of a cheap whore who should have quit the streets long ago.
The house paint T-Bone had splashed onto the sides to cover the rust, dripped and ran like a hooker’s rouge in a rain storm. The few patches of factory paint still clinging on were bordered by dings and dents and some pretty mean looking holes. Some of those ‘air pockets,’ as T-Bone called them, were the old man’s own doing – a miscalculation of distance and speed and the stubborn, mule-headed resistance of the stationary object in his path that refused to budge, no matter how hard he smashed into it.
But in truth, most of the damage came from years of neglect. It was the running joke at the diner that soap never touched T-Bone’s grimy chariot. The only water that truck had ever seen came from the sky above or the shallow creeks that occasionally flowed beneath the chassis. He’d never even bothered to build a shed to park it out of the elements. Yet, anyone who really knew him had to give the old man credit for one thing, T-Bone kept the motor of that old heap purring like a cozy kitten.
And he still had enough of a young man’s heart pounding in his chest that a candle lit his knickers when he turned the key and revved the engine. Heck secretly suspected T-Bone left choking clouds of dust snaking through the trees on many of the back country roads, as he floored the gas pedal and coaxed the clunker to its limits, yelling whoops of joy with reckless abandon. That’s the picture Heck wanted to keep in his mind as he carefully edged his way closer to the vehicle.
The most striking thing about the truck was what T-Bone always referred to as the best idea that had ever seeped into his stubborn skull. It had been over a decade since inspiration sparked. Heck never knew what ignited T-Bone’s creative bend, but something had.
There they were, and you couldn’t miss them unless you were dead drunk or stone blind. And Heck didn’t, as he warily stepped up behind the truck. Hanging proudly from the back end of the bed were two full-sized American flags. T-Bone begged them off Claudette Lester from the post office when new flags were sent to replace old ones.
The still rich, deep colors were striking against the faded metal and worn wood. Cleverly tied with ropes onto two weather-beaten broomsticks, the flags provided fluttering displays as T-Bone rolled up and down the back country.
The wind was still, so the twin symbols slept peacefully, draped in graceful folds on either side of the truck’s tailgate, like elegant wrappings on a pauper’s coffin – solemn and stately.
In the gray light of the early morning, Heck noticed T-Bone’s two latest additions were more worn than usual, but they were not so ragged that the old man would have considered throwing them away.
Not just yet.
‘Tatty, yes suh. But dey ain’t tore to pieces,’ T-Bone might have said.
Heck was positive that in the old man’s mind, those two flags were nowhere near the point of having to be burned. They were far from threadbare, and they were miles away from the line that separated worn from worn out. T-Bone would have insisted this had he been standing beside the sheriff.
An empty hollow feeling suddenly filled the pit of Heck’s stomach.
Heck let the blunt end of his index finger trace a line down the damp cloth of the flag nearest him. His touch crushed the dewy droplets into the weave, leaving a trailing worm of moisture that traced a tearful path toward the ground.
* * * * *
Thayard Jackbo Bone had been a fixture in LeFayettah County, Mississippi for over sixty years. Known simply as T-Bone, he lived in a tiny shack on a few acres of land deeded to his family after the Great War. With minimal effort, he managed to wheedle enough from his acreage to keep gas in his truck, clothes on his back, and food on his table. His wants were simple. He often referred to ‘small sums’ that kept him going, and he was always taking on any odd job that might be offered.
Heck never knew a more skilled day laborer. No job was too little or too tough for the grizzly, old geezer, if he was in the mood to work that day. He was a genius when it came to laying stone or brick. There was no wood that would not bend to T-Bone’s wishes, and his skill as a master carpenter was known for miles around.
There wasn’t a motor this side of the Mason-Dixon that he couldn’t make purr like a kitten. He mended fences, dug post holes, and picked cotton. He was a wizard with tools of any description. His hands had the strength of a locomotive running at full steam and the precision of a surgeon completing delicate operations.
T-Bone was so good that he could pick and choose whatever paying offer struck his fancy. But like just about everyone else in rural Mississippi, he’d been hit hard by the Depression. Everyone was tightening their belts and making do with less. He accepted the occasional odd job, tended his small vegetable garden, and milked his lone milk cow, Pixie. When the mood struck, he took off in his truck with his pole and a can of worms and fished the day away.
Heck often spotted the old pickup parked by the roadside. Most colored folks were careful to stay out of sight if they were fishing on a white man’s property. Not T-Bone.
All you had to do was look toward a riverbank or the edge of a grassy pond where a big bass might be sulking in the shadows of an overhanging branch. On any given day, you might see him. It was easy to spot the old man’s beat-up straw hat or his thatch of silver hair in the sunlight. Most folks didn’t really mind T-Bone’s trespassing. He only took what he could eat. He never fished for sport – just for dinner.
And most landowners would rather have him tromp a few weeds here and there than go without meat on his dinner plate, for they revered his skills as a craftsman and master carpenter. And that was a good thing, for no matter how much the sheriff preached to the old man that he was trespassing on other peoples’ lands, T-Bone shook off the sheriff’s words and good-naturedly ignored Heck’s warnings.
“Gawd don’ trubble his’sef with prop’ty lines, Sher’f Heck, suh. Dat’s somethin’ mens comes up with. He take awful good care ‘em lilies, ‘n He watches ovah all ‘em sparrows in His sky. He gonna take good care a’ ole T-Bone, too. Always has. Always will. I cain’t complain, ‘n I ain’t gonna.”
“You got it all figured out, huh, T-Bone.”
“Sho’ nuff, suh. See, Ole Bone kinda like ‘em birds. They circle de he’bens. They goes where dey please, ‘n Gawd don’t arrest ‘em fer flyin’ cross’t prop’ty lines, do He?”
“No. I guess He shorely don’t. But what if a trespasser crosses yo’ lines, T-Bone?” Heck asked. “You wouldn’t like it a’tall, I bet. Not one bit.”
“Don’ mattah to me none, Sher’f Heck. Theys welcome on my place whenever theys takes a notion, suh. We all on ‘is earth, and we all gotta lib on it ta’gatha.
Kinda like when I ‘uz growin’ up, ‘n all us sque’zed in one tiny room. Lawd have mercy! Doe had a lot a youngins! Why, we wuz packed tighter in ‘at shack dan hawg feets in a jar!
But we makes do. Yes suh. We makes do.
Dat Doe wuz always preachin’ to us chill’in.
‘Gits ‘long wit ev’body,’ she say. ‘Claims ya space, ‘n don’t be no trubble to ya neighbor.’
Dat’s what Doe say. But, you don’ ‘membah dat woman whut raised me, dos ya, Sher’f, suh. She die ‘fore yo’ time.”
“No, T-Bone. I don’t remember her. But, I’ve heard many good stories ‘bout Miss Doe. Folks never mention her without saying what a good woman she was.”
“Dat’s right. My Doe, she sho’ was a good woman. She done a lot fah folks in dese parts. Cain’t see dem same folks grudgin’ ole’ T-Bone a fish or two, now ‘n den.
‘Sides, Mistah Heck, ain’t like I’s stealin’.
Fishes puts there by Gawd’s hand. They parts of de Almighty’s blessin.’ I jes’ takin’ my part a’ His blessin,’ s’all.
Like ‘em birds eats de seeds ‘n de worms. Gawd give ‘em all dat, n de Good Book say, all dat’s given by Gawd is good. I claimin’ my good po’tion from de Almighty. Dat’s all.”
Heck silently looked at the old man.
“Now Sher’f, suh, you knows me. I ain’t aimin’ ta cause no trubble. I don’ leaf no mess. I do my fishin’. I makes shore de place look like I ain’t neber been ‘air. Don’ strow no trash. Don’ leaf nuthin’ ‘hind. Jes’ my feets prints is all. Takes my fishes, if Gawd lets ‘em bites my hook, ‘n I goes home.
If I lucky,” he added with a twinkle in his eye, “I be carryin’ me a nice bass home ‘at day. If not, well, no mattah. Dat be Gawd’s bid’ness, not mine. Fishes ‘er no. He still good to ole T-Bone. If I ain’t got no bites, I go home as happy as iffin I dos.
As fer folk got’s a hongry pain in dyar belly, dey welcome to drap by T-Bone’s patch. I be glad if dey make dem’self to home.
Somebody need a melon or a ‘mater, why dey’s welcome to it. If ‘at melon stop ‘at honger gnawin’, why I’s glad.
Same’s with ‘em fishes, Sher’f Heck, suh.
Dey stops ‘at honger gnaw in my belly. ‘N dey tastes mighty fine, too.”
“Well, most folks know you don’t mean no harm, T-Bone, but if they make a complaint, I’ll have to run you in. You know that.”
“That’s alright, Sher’f, suh. You gibs me a dry roof ‘n feeds me purty good, you ain’t gonna hear no bad mou’f outta ole’ Bone.
You just do what you gotta, Sher’f, suh. Do what ya gotta.
Lawd knows, I ain’t no saint. Ain’t come ‘cross many saints in my day, neither. I shore ain’t. Heh. Heh.
Guess the Almighty’s gonna welcome ‘is nigger into Hea’bin e’ben if I gots a strike ‘er two ‘gin me. Heh. Heh.
Buts ‘at day comes when you gotsa run me in for trying to feeds my belly, well, guess dat’s your job. Cain’t blame a man fer doing his job.
Naw, suh. Sho’ cain’t. Sher’f Heck, ef dat day comes, jes you ‘member ole Bone gots no hard feelings fer a man’s jes doing his job.”
“Okay. T-Bone, I hear ya. I swear you are like talkin’ to a stump, sometimes. You know that?”
“Yes, suh. Kinda seem like it, I guess.”
“Well, I ain’t gonna waste no more of your time, T-Bone.
Be careful out here in this sun. You ain’t as young as you used to be. It gets pow’ful hot. Don’t let me come ‘n haf’ta call Farris to put you in the ground ‘cause you fried your brains ‘n overheated on me.”
“Haw. Haw. Dat’s a good’un, Sher’f, suh. Haw. Haw. But you right, dough. Ain’t none us no spring chik’kins, no mo’, Sher’f. Don’ fret ‘bout ole’ T-Bone, Sher’f Heck. I bees awright.”
That was one of the many conversations Heck recalled as he surveyed the scene. The sheriff could hardly imagine someone hurting the old man because he’d trespassed to fish for his dinner. That didn’t make sense. He’d talked with many of the landowners in the area through the years. They knew the old man and treated him like a mosquito.
A nuisance perhaps, but one that you just had to put up with. T-Bone and mosquitoes came with the territory. And it wasn’t like the old man tried to sneak around and do his fishing. He always drowned his bait in the daylight hours.
That’s what bothered Heck about finding T-Bone’s truck like he had. In all his years as sheriff, he had never known T-Bone to spend one night out of doors fishing or camping or anything that didn’t involve a woman and some cheap liquor. And even if it was tying on a bender with a friend, the old man would do it under a roof. Even if it was only a lean-to shed. Heck suspected T-Bone was afraid of the dark.
The old man was forever saying that decent folks needed to be inside ‘a right smart ‘fore nightfall.’ T-Bone said if you weren’t decent, at least, you ought to have a roof over your head.
And for all the years Heck had known the old man, nightfall had always found him inside, away from mischief and harm. Too many bad spirits, spooks, shades, or whatever the hell T-Bone called them, roamed about, lurking in night’s ebony shadow.
Heck recalled the old man saying the devil stomped about, waiting to trap souls ‘dumb enough not to see him a’ standin’ right smack-dab in front ‘a dyar face.’ And T-Bone was positive that the old scoundrel did his best hunting at night.
“I ain’t gonna be eat up by no devil at no crossroads at midnight,” T-Bone was fond of saying, “Not if I kin help it. Naw suh. I shore ain’t. Ain’t gonna give Lucifer no chance to try to git me to sell my soul.
He tempt me, why I might take ‘em up on his offer. Cain’t never tell. Naw suh. Cain’t never tell what a body might do if he be tempted.”
So, for T-Bone at least, it proved the more sensible thing to go inside early, stay out of harm’s way, and avoid trouble as much as possible. Trouble came on its own. You didn’t have to go sweep it out from under the rug or beat the bushes to find it. It would find you, sure as shooting, sooner or later.
“Man’s gotta be a mighty big fool to go hunts up trubble come night. Dat’s what I t’ink. Best let trub’some kettles boil on the fire,” he’d say. “No sense stirring up dat stink if dat stink be sleepin’ peaceful in de pot. Go stirrin’ up stink, no tellin’ what bound to happen.”
So when Harley Bardwell, a local long haul trucker, phoned Heck before five a.m. from the diner to say he’d spotted the old man’s truck by the mill pond, the sheriff thanked his friend and told him he’d drive right out and check on T-Bone.
“Yeah, he might need some help,” Heck said groggily. “A flat tire, maybe. He might even be sick. I’ll go see.”
The cogs in his brain were dusty with the cobwebs of sleep.
“Thanks, Harley. He could have got hold of some shine. Might be sleeping one off. Maybe, he died in the cab.”
“Oh God, Heck, I hope not,” said Harley’s disembodied voice over the receiver. “But I was thinking along them same lines. I’d check it out myself, but I really can’t spare the time. I gotta be in Shutahville by noon, and I was in the hole ‘fore I even got started, today. Darlene wanted a little more nookie before I left the house. Hell, I couldn’t say no, you know what I mean?
Now, I’m runnin’ later than a sharecropper with two hundred acres to plow ‘n summer comin’ on. I hate I can’t help you, Heck. But, I gotta be twice as good as the next guy to keep this job.”
“I hear you, Harley.”
“Ain’t much of a haul, but it pays the bills. Least for this month. Times ain’t what they used to be, Heck, but what good does it do to grouse? Take it easy. Hope it turns out he’s just gotta a flat tire. I don’t wanna think nothing bad’s happened.”
“Yeah. I know what you mean. Thanks for the heads up, Harley.”
Heck put his clothes on, mumbled to Leah, who still half-asleep, and stepped out into the predawn morning. Even the birds ain’t woke up, he thought as he cranked his old sedan that served as his police cruiser. His car sat parked in front of his little white framed house on Bouvaye Street, and he hoped the engine wouldn’t wake the neighbors.
He shook his head to clear it.
It’s going to be a bad summer.
Heck could feel it in his bones.
Already, he’d had to tell Peg Wurdistay that her oldest son, Tommy, had accidentally drowned at Whippoorwill’s Crossing. The boy, barely twelve years old, had been walking across the old railroad trestle, a mile or so from Hide Away, with his little sister, Annie.
When Annie got about a third of the way across, she began to whimper, begging her brother to turn back. She reached out for Tommy’s hand, but Tommy, in a particularly mischievous mood, ran farther down the tracks, tormenting Annie, who began crying fiercely.
“You little chicken butt. Chick, chick, chicken butt. Bawk, bawk, bawk,” Tommy yelled back at her.
He was walking backwards calling out to Annie, egging her on, laughing as she bawled.
“Liver-belly, yellar gizzard chick, chick, chicken, chicken, chicken-butt Annie, bawk, bawk, bawk!”
Annie, who was almost eight, became infuriated by her brother’s taunts. She wiped her tears away and took a few fearful steps forward, determined not to let Tommy’s heckling get the best of her.
“I am not. You dawg-face pussy!”
She had overheard this phrase passed about more than once among her brother’s friends as they lit leaves with an old magnifying glass Petie Burch had or smoked the butt-ends of cigarettes they picked up off the town’s streets and brought back to their clubhouse behind Petie Burch’s daddy’s barn.
“I am not no such thaaaaang!” Tommy yelped, stumbling backward and falling through a hole in the wooden bridge.
Annie watched in horror as her brother’s eyes got big and round. For an instant, his feet danced in the thin air, frantically trying unsuccessfully to find some kind of solid foothold. Her brother’s body disappeared from sight, like a rabbit swallowed up by a magician’s hat.
Annie screamed, “Tommmmmmy!”
She turned around, racing back the way she’d come, running to a small frame house beside the railroad tracks. She told the old lady standing outside, hanging out her wash, what had just happened. The old lady called for her husband, Hank.
“Git the sher’f, Eula! I’ll go down ‘n see whut I kin do. Great Gawd Awmighty! Them kids take to that damn trestle like bears to honey! I jus’ knowed sump’in like this was bound to happen one day! Tell Sher’f Heck to bring the skiff. I bet we gonna have to get a net ‘n drag the river!”
Eula grabbed Annie’s hand and swept her into the old truck parked beside the house. Annie heard the motor grind and complain, but it finally turned over, and Eula flung the truck into gear. Annie felt the bald tires spin in the grass. With a jerk, the two were headed toward town.
Heck, Heck’s two deputies, and Hank helped search for the boy. They found Tommy’s body a mile or so down river. His corpse had become entangled in a fallen tree at the river’s edge. They retrieved the battered body, jeans torn and tee shirt in shreds, and headed back to town. As bad as that part was, Heck knew having to tell Tommy’s mother her only son was dead would be a million times worse.
When he drove up to the house, Tommy’s mama was sitting on the porch in a printed house dress and her everyday apron. Heck had not had a chance to get out of the car before he heard the woman’s shrieks of agony.
“Tell me it ain’t true! Oh, no! Oh, no! Sweet Jesus! Don’t let this be true! Annie’s lying! She lying! My boy’s alright! Tell me my boy’s alright!” Tommy’s mother cried.
Little Annie was pale and crouched in the shade in a far corner of the porch. She had not said a word since the accident. When Heck stepped towards her to offer a quiet word of sympathy, she flinched, drawing back with fear.
“Your little girl’s in shock, Irna. I know it’s hard right now, but you might think about takin’ Annie to see Doc Drew.”
“Oh, Sher’f! Annie’s alright. We ain’t got the money to spare for Doc Drew. She took a jolt, but she’s young. She’ll git over it. Me, I don’t know if I will ever git over losin’ Tommy. That boy was my pride ‘n joy, Sheriff. The apple of my eye!”
Here, the grief-stricken woman melted in a torrent of tears. Heck stood silently by and let her cry.
“His paw, God rest his soul, thought the sun rose ‘n set in Tommy, too. I know it’s awful to say, Sheriff, but I’m kinda glad Arnell Roy ain’t alive to see this day. It wudda kilt ‘em. I knowed Arnell Roy, ‘n I knowed it wudda broke that man. He set all store by little Tommy. So proud of him, we was!
Oh dear God! What am I gonna do?
Annie, stop pickin’ your nose! What is wrong with you! We got comp’ny!
Sorry, Sheriff. Annie’s my plain Jane. Not like Tommy, at all. Oh, Sheriff! Did my little angel suffer? Tell me he did not suffer! I will grieve myself to death if I thought he suffered!”
Irna lost it again. Heck stood with his head bowed, allowing her to recover. When the sniffling subsided, he continued.
“Naw. Tommy didn’t suffer, Irna. He didn’t suffer. Doc Drew told me that his’self.”
“Well, the good Lord’s giving me that. I can find some comfort knowing that Sheriff.”
She wiped her eyes and blew her nose on the hem of her apron. Irna seemed to have gained some control, but she was twisting her cotton handkerchief fiercely, so much so, that it wouldn’t have surprised Heck if she had twisted it in two.
The fact that she said Tommy was her favorite in front of her little girl rankled Heck, but he kept his mouth shut. It was none of his business, though he felt mighty sorry for the little girl. He would remember to give her a nickel the next time he saw her and her mother in town. Meanwhile, it was time for him to leave.
“Well, Irna, like I said, I’m awful sorry to be the one to have to bear such terrible, bad news. Doc Drew says he will be more’n glad to stop over, if you need him to. Is there anything I kin do?”
“Naw, Sher’f. Me ‘n Annie will be alright. Church folks ‘er gonna keep us fed good a few days. I done talked to the preacher. We’ll be holdin’ service for my Tommy and burying him in the churchyard beside his daddy. Try to come ef ya kin.”
“Just let me know when. I’ll be sure to be there, Irna. ‘N like I said before, if I kin do anythin,’ give me a call or send word by little Annie, here.”
“Thank ya kinely, Sher’f,” Irna said, wiping her last few tears away with her apron.
As Heck drove away, he wondered what would become of that winsome little girl. She was so pale and tiny, ghostly would be the word he would have chosen to describe her, if he’d given it much thought at all.
* * * * *
Barely two weeks had passed when Heck took a call to check Bud Rhemfield’s place. It was a couple of miles outside of town. Bud and Beulah Rhemfield had not been seen for several days. A neighbor reported that his wife had dropped by to give Beulah a cake she’d baked.
“When Fannie came back to the house, she was all out of breath. Jack, she says, Jack! They’s the smell ‘a death about that place! I know the smell ‘a death when I smells it, Jack! I ain’t imaginin’ nuthin’! It’s fer real! You call Sher’f Heck, ‘n git ‘em ovah there right this minute!
So’s I calls ‘cause Fannie ain’t like one of them high strung women, ya know, Heck, always runnin’ ‘round like a chicken with her head cut off. She’s got a level head on her shoulders. My Fannie has. I try to keep her off Rhemfield’s place, but Fannie feels sorry for his wife.
Tries to carry her ‘xtra eggs, onc’t in awhile. It ain’t like Fannie don’t know that Bud Rhemfield is ornerier than a pent-up bull in matin’ season. But Fannie’s so gall dern mulish. Too dadburned stubborn for her own good, sometimes. I could preach till the cows come home, but she feels it’s her Christian duty to help out Beulah, ever so often.
Bud’s gonna fill Fannie’s butt full ‘a buckshot one day, but I can’t convince Fannie to mind her own biz’ness ‘n leaf them Rhemfield’s be.”
“I understand, Jack. I’ll check it out. Don’t be too hard on Fannie. She’s a good woman. Just bein’ neighborly.”
“Yeah. I know. ‘N I’m lucky to have her. Mule-stubborn ‘n all.”
“Take care, Jack. Take care of Fannie, too.”
“I will. See you, later, Heck.”
* * * * *
Most folks kept their marital troubles hidden behind closed doors. Doing this kept what little pride they had in one piece and allowed them to hold their heads up in front of their friends and neighbors.
But Bud Rhemfield was not like most folks.
Bud was about Heck’s age, a year or so younger, but Bud had lived a hard life. To see him now, you’d almost think Bud looked old enough to be Heck’s daddy, not because of any family resemblance, but because Bud looked so wrinkled and used up. He had always been a hellraiser and a brawler, but all the girls swore young Bud Rhemfield was the best looking boy that had ever been born.
Heck often wondered if those girls were enthralled with Bud’s looks or excited by Bud’s antics. Moonshine, cars, and backseat loving were some of the things Bud was famous for. As a young man, Heck pondered why such fellows seemed to attract the popular girls.
Why were those beautiful girls so fascinated with Bud? Did they want to tame him? Did they like the sense of danger that seemed to surround him?
Back then, Bud seemed to be living on the edge. He was always scraping the last raw nerve of the Law, but Bud was only taken in for minor infractions. He’d spend a few nights in jail. Once, he was sent away to reform school, but he popped back up in the landscape a few months later. Nothing seemed to stick to Bud for very long.
The few times Heck hung out with Bud and his friends, they seemed just like Heck’s regular pals, a bit rowdier and more brassy, but it wasn’t like Bud was Billy the Kid. Everybody snuck a swallow of hooch whenever they could. Everyone tried to get as far as their girlfriends would allow. So, what made Bud so special?
Heck and his friends got into a scrap, every now and then. An eye was blackened, some knuckles bruised, but Bud Rhemfield’s exploits always seemed to make Heck and his pals’ shenanigans pale in comparison. Compared to Bud, Heck seemed about as interesting as a four-eyed, bucktoothed, spiked-haired wallflower with two left feet at a third-grade dance.
Bud Rhemfield had ‘it,’ and he had it in spades. Heck and his friends did not.
You couldn’t explain exactly what ‘it’ was in polite company, but Bud was blessed with ‘it’ by the bushels. Heck never figured out the secret to Bud’s magnetism. How could such a louse attract so many fine girls?
Still, they seemed drawn to him like a moth eager to singe its wings in his flame.
And from the gossip Heck heard as a young man, Bud treated his women like dirt. Even back then, Bud Rhemfield was not known for his kindly ways. Bud had a mean streak. He was a rogue who refused to be changed.
As an adult, he never held a steady job for long. After a scrape with the law that could have sent him to the Big House, Bud married Beulah Edgemond Whithurst.
How Bud snared Beulah was another of Life’s inexplicable mysteries, and it was a damn shame, Heck thought, that such a catch was wasted on such a no-count scoundrel like Bud Rhemfield.
Beulah Whithurst was one of those waxy, velvety magnolia blossoms that the South produces every so often. She was a beautiful country girl, bred on buttermilk and biscuits, and indulged and spoiled horribly by her parents. Her flowing hair was thick and luxurious, falling down her back in cascading shimmers of golden silkiness. She came from a good family, and she was an only child.
Her father, a successful lawyer, parlayed his legal connections into a lucrative job influencing politicians in the state capital. Mr. Whithurst owned acreage in the county, but he was never one to dirty his hands in the soil. Beulah’s mother, a born socialite, decided the state capital, and the people associated with it, suited her just fine.
Beulah was allowed to stay home and complete her high school education. Her parents hobnobbed, partied, and rubbed shoulders with their peers, leaving Beulah to her own devices. Naturally because she was a Whithurst, it was assumed Beulah would attend a nice woman’s college, marry some well-to-do Southern boy, settle down, and produce a litter of healthy, happy, golden-haired grandchildren for Mr. and Mrs. Whithurst to spoil rotten in their old age.
But Beulah had other plans.
She was crowned LeFayettah County’s Belle, Boll, and Cotton Queen the summer before she married Bud. She was seventeen and a junior in high school. Perhaps the high honor drew Bud’s attention, for shortly after the crowning, Bud and Beulah became a couple.
The hoopla of her coronation died down shortly after the ceremony. Most of the older adults had left for home, and Beulah was ripe for something more exciting than a pageant banner and a dime-store tiara.
She met up with some of her girlfriends outside of the school’s auditorium. They stood about in a knotted cluster, rocking back and forth on their low-dress heels, chewing bubble gum, and giggling spontaneously at something one of them said. The breeze rippled the hems of their dresses, tangling a silken curl that fell carelessly over a shoulder. Cotton Candy Pink lipstick and printed cotton dresses. Cheap perfume and heavily sprinkled bath powders.
They discussed going to a moving picture show but decided it was too hot to be cooped up in a dark storefront sitting on crude wooden benches. They thought about walking to Spooky Hollow to cool off in the river. The night air was sticky and oppressive, and fewer and fewer teenagers loitered outside the old school building. Beulah noticed Bud, standing a few feet away from the cluster of younger kids.
He leaned against the wall, a blade of grass between his lips, silently watching the group. The bill of his soft wool cap was pulled low, and he spit a stream of tobacco juice that landed inches away from Jimmy Luke’s spit-shined shoe.
“He’s cute,” Beulah whispered to her friend, Mary Jane.
“Stay away from him, Beuls. No kidding. My daddy says the Rhemfields have been breeding white trash in this county for generations. Mama says Bud’s a heathen,” whispered Mary Jane.
“I don’t think I’ve seen him around lately.”
“No,” said Mary Jane, “you haven’t. Bud’s just got out of reform school. You were at the state capitol celebrating your father’s birthday. I mentioned it to you, but your head was somewhere else.
“Yes! They sent him to Fortner. There’s no telling what awful things he learned down there. Or brought back in his clothes! Cooties! Who knows! You know Fortner’s reputation. Ew! I don’t want to think about it!
Don’t look now. He’s watching us. Jeepers, Beuls! No, stop! Don’t look! Act like you don’t see him!”
But Beulah had come under Bud’s spell, and she was hooked.
If Bud was the keeper of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, she was Adam’s willful Eve, about to partake of something sinful and delicious. And Beulah could not wait!
She had felt her stomach drop to her knees the second her eyes caught his attention.
“He can’t be as bad as they say, Mary Jane. Oh! He’s taking his hat off to us. Look! Look, Janie! He’s an angel!”
“An angel! Huh. So was Lucifer, Beuls.
I’m telling you. Nothin’ but trouble with a capital T!”
“Oh, Mary Jane, you are too much! He looks like a lost puppy. I bet nobody in this place will give him the time of day because they think he’s a no good.
Well, I feel sorry for him. He looks lonely. I think I’ll just go over and be friendly. Say ‘hi.’ Nothin’ wrong in bein’ friendly, is it, Mary Jane? I mean, it is the
Southern way, aftah awl, ain’t it?”
“Stop foolin’ around, Beulah, You’re playing with fire. I’m not hanging around while you burn yourself to a cinder. If papa caught wind that I’d been within twenty feet of Bud Rhemfield, he’d lock me in my room until next year. You do whatever you want to, Beuls. I’m going home. Just remember, I warned you.”
Laughing at Mary Jane, Beulah made her way over to Bud.
Mary Jane watched her friend strike up a conversation. She waved a weak goodbye and left Beulah to her own devices. After that night, Mary Jane’s friendship with Beulah cooled. The two rarely talked, not that Beulah had time to talk. Bud seemed to monopolize her time. It was almost as if Beulah was Bud’s property now, and Bud was determined to share Beulah with no one. He wanted Beulah all to himself.
Still, Mary Jane couldn’t help but wonder if she was being hard on Beulah because she was jealous. After all, Bud had the most soulful eyes, and Ricky Bill Chardonnay had dumped her only two weeks before Beulah and Bud became an item.
Ricky Bill Chardonnay.
Mary Jane would give her eye teeth to be back with that sweet-talkin’, sweet-smellin’ son-of-a-southern debutante. Mary Jane wondered what Ricky Bill was up to, just now. He was probably dating every girl within ten miles of the middle of nowhere. There just weren’t all that many eligible young men in town, nowadays, Mary Jane brooded.
If only she was a couple of years older, this town would be a memory. She would leave this place. It would be a fading panorama in her rear-view mirror. She’d go someplace big. Really big and exciting. Atlanta, maybe. Get a job.
She let herself dream on.
She’d be dating so many handsome men . . . but, that was just wishful thinking.
Mary Jane was still stuck here in Hicksville, USA. And with one more year of high school, how could she ever hope to survive?
What if the college she was applying to rejected her? Would she be doomed to become an old maid, sentenced to a life of immeasurable boredom, forced to live out her days in this backwater, too small to register as a minuscule dot on a wrinkled road map?
Her life was just too depressing.
Mary Jane snuck into the kitchen and stole six cookies from the cookie jar.
Bud proposed to Beulah after her graduation ceremony on Friday night. Beulah promptly accepted. When Beulah sprang the news on her parents, they were mortified. Beulah’s mother burst into a flood of tears. Her father’s face turned cherry red. He yelled at the girl, threatened her, pleaded with her, bribed her, and cajoled her, but Beulah could not be dissuaded that she was throwing her life away like so much scrap meat to the dogs.
No college education. No Mr. Right. No mansion in town. No big house on a big farm. No easy life. No grandchildren with pedigrees.
Beulah was under the cad’s hex, her parents decided. That Rhemfield boy must hold some kind of magic over her. Either that, or Beulah had lost her mind.
Something must be done to change their daughter’s decision, her parents decided. She must be persuaded to give up the idea of marrying! A Rhemfield! It was preposterous! It was absurd. It was impossible! It could never happen! Not in a million years!
Her parents were certain that once the rush of hormones subsided, Beulah would see their side and agree to call off the whole farce.
“I’m her father, for god sakes,” Beulah’s father bellowed, “I think I know what is best for my daughter! After all, I have funded her survival for all these years. I’ll be damned if I will let her throw her life away like this! I’ll stop these wedding plans, or I’ll die trying!”
Mom and Dad decided to pull out all the stops in their campaign to make Beulah see things their way.
“We’ll buy you a new automobile so that you can visit us when you go away to school. We’ll buy you new clothes. You can go to Atlanta, New York, out West. Hollywood! Anything you want, dear. We’ll gladly pay for a tour of the islands. Bermuda, Australia, anywhere!
Beulah! Darling! Please! You’re throwing your life away on a boy who is common! Beulah! You deserve so much more!
You are so young. You cannot possibly know what is best for you!
You are beautiful! You are rich! You have been sheltered!
You don’t know what true love is or how hard marriage can be!
You are still a child! Beulah, darling, listen to reason!
Please, don’t do this to us! Please, Dearest! Please!
Don’t ruin your chances by marrying this young man who is so beneath you, darling, darling, dearest child.”
Her parents threw any enticement they could think of at their daughter’s feet in hopes that she would give up the crazy notion of marrying Bud. They offered her an apartment near the Capital. A larger allowance. She could postpone college and take a grand tour of Europe.
But Beulah would not budge. She had set her sights on becoming Mrs. Bud Rhemfield, and nothing could change her mind.
Her parents seriously considered kidnapping Beulah, locking her away in a cabin on a steamer bound for South America, and releasing her once she had traveled far out into the ocean and out of reach of Mr. Bud Rhemfield. But her mother believed it would tarnish the family’s reputation if the state newspapers caught wind and created a scandal out of it all. So, those plans were scrapped.
Day and night, they continued to try and persuade Beulah to come to her senses.
“Beulah, dear, he has no job. He has no education. No prospects. I don’t think ‘ambition’ is a word that has ever entered that boy’s head. He’s a hooligan! A scoundrel!
How on earth do you think you will live? Where in the world will you live?
The troubles in Europe are coming to a head! The world is falling apart! We may be in the middle of war very soon, Beulah. Who knows what will happen? That last one was atrocious! Let us protect you!
Don’t throw your life away on a poor, deadbeat. Beulah!
The boy’s been in trouble! He has no future! No initiative! No drive! You’ll be throwing your life away and all our dreams for you, Beulah!
Be reasonable,” her mother pleaded. “Your father and I love you so much. We do not say these terrible things to hurt you. Your father and I are trying to help you see what an enormous mistake marrying this boy truly is. We want you to be happy, Beulah. We want you to be able to live the life you have been accustomed to living here with your father and me.”
Beulah looked on, her mouth set in a firm line of determination. The words were bouncing off her forehead like droplets in a spring shower.
“Well, by God! I forbid it, Beulah!” her father yelled. “No daughter of mine will ever marry a Rhemfield. That lot is sorrier than the excrement you scrape from your shoe after a stroll through a cow pasture!
I am a respected citizen of this proud state, and I will not have my little pearl cast before such swine. No, sir! No daughter of mine will ever stoop so low! I would rather see you starve, Beulah! I mean it! Starve and die!
You will not be allowed to bring shame upon this family! You will never marry that rascal!”
But Beulah stuck to her guns. She refused to listen to reason.
She and Bud got in a car and crossed the county line and eloped the day after Beulah’s birthday. They quickly consummated their vows, ensuring that Beulah’s parents would have no further say in the matter.
Her father popped more than a few blood vessels when he heard the news, but he wasn’t very surprised. He knew Beulah. Beulah was an apple who had not fallen far from the tree. She had a stubborn streak twenty miles wide and ten miles long. Just like her daddy.
Far from disowning his only child, Beulah’s father did the next best thing. He told her she could live on a few acres of his land. He built his daughter a small frame house, hired a man to paint it white, and had no further contact with her or his son-in-law.
“When hell freezes over,” was always Beulah’s father’s reply when his wife asked when they should try to make friendly overtures to Beulah and her husband. And time passed.
One day, a lawyer appeared at Beulah’s doorstep. He entered the tiny kitchen and sat down in a straight back, rag bottomed chair.
“I’m sorry, Beulah,” he said, spreading the will upon the bare wooden kitchen table. “I feel certain that had your mother outlived your father, provisions would have been made for you, but, as that is not the case, I must tell you that your father has specified the taxes will be paid for this place from his estate for as long as you live.
You will be allowed to live here as nonpaying tenants. You will never own this land. You will never own this house. This house will always belong to your father’s estate.
Upon your death, Beulah, the land, and all the contents within, shall revert back to your father’s estate. Your husband has no claim on any property. Should Mr. Rhemfield outlive you, he will be forced off this property within twenty-four hours of your death. Should you outlive your husband, you will be allowed to live here until you leave this earth.
A trust fund has been established, according to your father’s wishes, and all the proceeds will go to your father’s alma mater upon your death.
Until then, as I said, small allowances will be withdrawn to pay the taxes while you live. Your father’s will states that, so long as you live, you will have this house as your home, but beyond that, you will receive nothing.”
“Nothing?” Beulah asked.
“Not a penny,” said the lawyer.
Beulah looked like a whipped dog. After that, she did not even acknowledge what her father’s lawyer was saying. Bud had been lying on the couch, never bothering to rise at the visitor’s entrance.
“Can’t you do something, Mister Legal-man? Bud asked. “Seems like Beulah being the only child, she oughtta get all a’ what her daddy’s got left, don’t you think?
Her daddy’s rich. Everybody knows that. Beulah, here, oughtta git a wad a dough. She deserves it. Not some damn al-ma-mate-her or whatever the hell that is.”
“I am sorry,” the lawyer said, uneasily. “My hands are tied in this matter. It is an iron-clad will. Beulah, your father was adamant that his wishes be followed to the letter. The will cannot be broken. I certainly tried to dissuade him, but there was no changing his mind. Not a nickel, Mr. Rhemfield. Not a dime of his fortune should come here to his daughter or to you, her husband.”
“Well, I’m damned. That old son-of-a-bastard’s got the last word in after all, ain’t he? Left you high ‘n dry, Beulah. High ‘n dry. Not a nickel, huh? Well, Mr. Lawyure man, guess it’s time for you to hit the road. You done shit on us about all you can. Good day to you, sir.
Never seed one of your kind that wasn’t as bent as a willow saplin’ in a hurricane.
Git out now, ya done told Beulah she’s cut outta her daddy’s will.
Damn, if that don’t make me mad enough to bust a gut.
Tell you what else, Mr. Fancy Suit. I’m damned if I’m gonna lie here, and give you the time of day!”
Bud began to rise.
“Shyster crook lawyer! Stealin’ from the poor! Nuthin’ but a crook, yer self! Git outta this house, ‘n leaf us alone!
Git out ‘fore I git my gun, ‘n fill you so fulla lead you’ll sink to the bottom of the river, never to rise a’gin!
Throw out the bastard with the rest of the slop, ‘fore I knock you into next Tuesday!” Bud yelled.
The lawyer quickly gathered his papers and left.
As he climbed into the car, the lawyer heard Beulah cry out, but he did not look back. He quickly started his car and drove away. Beulah’s husband was screaming at the top of his lungs. It was all her fault they were cut out of the will.
As he drove away, the elderly lawyer could only shake his head. He had known that girl since she was a baby. It seemed unfair that she should be treated so shabbily by both her father and her husband, but he could not judge. He was not God. Only the messenger.
The dark cloud that hung over the faded shack was menacing. With a crack of thunder, the rain suddenly pelted the rusting roof. It was as if her father had reached out from the grave, rending the skies with the thunderous disapproval he held for his daughter.
Perhaps, Beulah’s mother had crossed the heavens to cry for her wayward, lost child.
The lawyer did not have time to contemplate such things. He switched on his wipers and headed his sedan toward town. He was late for dinner.
* * * * *
As Heck pulled his car up by the Rhemfield house, he was bowled over by the smell. Fannie was right. Heck could just about guess what he would find. As he walked up to the porch, the sheriff noticed that a couple of the boards had come loose from the side of the house. Bud had not bothered to repair them.
The house was gray. Only flecks of the original white paint that had dressed it so long ago remained. Heck surmised that Bud had never been moved to repaint it. Probably too busy pressing the wrinkles out of the old sofa to be bothered by such menial chores. And it looked as if several places in the old shingled roof had rotted clean through. How many pans would Beulah have to place about the place to catch the rainwater?
Heck wondered how Beulah had managed all these years as he made his way up to the back door. There was no screen in the frame. It had long ago rotted away. Heck opened the ‘screen-less’ door and knocked on the dirty solid one that opened into the sitting room.
There was no answer.
He tried the doorknob. It was not locked.
“Bud! Miss Beulah! Bud Rhemfield, it’s the Sheriff,” he called out.
The house was quiet. Too still.
As he entered, he noted that the Rhemfields had not installed electric lights. An old hand pump brought water into the kitchen. Surely, there was an outhouse out back. Heck felt like he’d been thrown back in time to the era when his own parents had been young.
The house was sparsely furnished. There were no pictures of any description on the walls, save a free calendar whose opened page displayed the dates of three months prior. A hand-knotted rug was in the center of the sitting room, along with one handmade straight back chair, and a small sofa draped with a homemade throw.
In the middle of the couch, Bud’s lifeless body sprawled obscenely, arms and legs askew. He looked like a scarecrow thrown down from the high hay loft of a barn, landing helter-skelter in the barnyard. He was fully dressed in a plaid shirt and work pants. His feet were stretched out, one on the floor, one on the sofa. His work boots were on, but they were untied. One of his hands was by his side, the other hung loosely towards the floor. Both were splattered with blood. A bright red stain painted half of Bud’s shirt.
The shotgun rested between his legs. A large urine stain flowered darkly in the center of Bud’s crotch. His head was leaning to the left, one eye opened, the other missing. Under his chin was the black scorch and hole of the entrance wound. A dark trail of dried blood trickled down from his dusky lips. Behind his head, or what was left of it, was a sticky pool of mangled flesh and blood. Flies buzzed and landed about the body. Heck brushed them away. He quietly memorized every detail of the room. Heck could tell Bud’s death had been quick and instant.
As he walked through the house, Heck continually called out, ‘Beulah!’
There was no answer.
In the bedroom, Heck noticed that the covers on the iron bed looked as if a wind storm had blown through the room. It looked as if they had engaged in an epic battle of some kind – the linens losing. A broken mirror lay scattered across the floor. The pieces reflected shattered fragments of the room. A torn dress lay heaped in a corner. The small scatter rug was rumpled, tossed aside like it had been thrown away.
The wardrobe door hung like a drunken hobo from one hinge. Three dresses on wire hangers dangled, limp and sagging, like silent sentinels that had witnessed the violence and mayhem that had occurred within these walls.
When Heck looked out the window, he spied Beulah’s body in the grass, flat on her back, lying face up near a bush in the side yard. She was spread eagle, her arms out from her sides, her bare feet pointing East. From the angle of her head, it appeared as if her neck was broken. The flies were feasting on Beulah, as well.
Heck left the bedroom to investigate.
Poor Beulah, he thought.
She deserved better.
But, maybe not.
Long ago, Beulah had planted her seeds in her own Garden of Sorrows. Now, she reaped thistles and thorns, screams, bruises, and tears.
As Heck made his way to the yard beside the house, he remembered the many times he’d driven by, just to check on things. Beulah always answered the door, often sporting a black eye or a knot to her forehead. More than once, her lip was cut, and the marks on her arms looked like brown potatoes under her skin.
Bud beat Beulah without mercy, and he didn’t even try to hide the blows. Heck had come up against a few wife beaters in his time, and most of them, at least, tried to deny or hide their handiwork.
Heck believed the man took perverse pleasure in beating his wife. It seemed as if Bud was proud of the marks he’d inflicted on Beulah. Each one was an advertisement of Bud’s manliness, a testimony to the fact that he, Bud Earl Rhemfield, was truly lord and ruler, master and despot, over his domain.
But what a pitiful kingdom Bud lorded over.
And Beulah, the once proud, beautiful Belle, Boll, and Cotton Queen. How far she had tumbled. So absolute was the erosion of her self-esteem, destroyed by the years of Bud’s relentless abuse and bullying, that she could she not see her way clear to live without him.
Heck knew Beulah’s family had washed their hands of her decades ago. Her parents were dead. She and Bud had had no children. Beulah had finally gotten her wish. She had Bud all to herself.
He had isolated her, making her the scapegoat of his anger, his frustration, and the recipient of his just plain, old, no-excuse-for-it mean nature. And Beulah had lived out her life on the few acres of land her father had lent her so long ago.
A few acres of scrap land.
A frame house falling down about her ankles.
And a living hell with Bud.
Heck recalled the day he’d stopped by the Rhemfield place. Beulah had received a particularly bad beating from Bud and could barely walk, but when she answered the door and Heck had asked if she was alright, Beulah had typically replied that she would be fine.
“Took a bad fall. That’s all, Heck,” Beulah said.
“You sure, Beulah?” Heck asked.
“Oh, yeah. Heh. Heh. I tripped over my own feet, Heck. Bud always says I should box them up, they’re so big. Clumsy of me. But that’s the way I am. Horse hooves. No grace.”
She’d never looked Heck in the eye as she said the words. Heck knew it was a lie, but without any other evidence, his hands were tied. No one had seen Bud beat Beulah. Beulah denied being beaten. She refused to stand up for herself. She was terrified of accusing Bud. Heck was helpless to help her.
He felt the burn sear up the back of his neck as he drove away that day.
As he looked down at her lifeless body, Heck knew Beulah had made her bed and had been forced to lie in it. Bud had known it, too.
Heck prayed Beulah could find rest, now that Bud was dead, too.
Maybe the two tormented souls would be forced to haunt this unhallowed ground forever.
And now, T-Bone had gone missing.
What in the world is this world coming to? Heck wondered.
LeFayettah County is Delta farm country. Most of its vast acreage is dedicated to raising cotton. Reaping the bounty from its fecund soil has been going on for generations. But lately, to Heck, at least, it seemed his part of America was dying a slow, agonizing death.
The population declined every year. Negroes migrated North, in ever greater numbers, in search of higher paying jobs. The few remaining white kids didn’t seem to like where they lived any more than the coloreds. They went off to college or simply moved away, leaving the Delta as soon as the opportunity arose, like so many hot coals had been dumped in their britches.
The diehards who remained got grayer and poorer with each passing year.
But still, Heck wouldn’t trade his little piece of paradise for anywhere else in the world. Anyone who has never sat by the side of the road near a cotton field, whose rows seem to go on forever, would never understand what an old timer meant when he said ‘the fields talk to you.’
On moonlit nights, crickets chirp riotous melodies. The land is bathed in a silken sheen of soft silver and shadow. Often, Heck sat by the roadside, listening, waiting. Sooner or later, the wind would pick up, its fingers tracing through the endless rows of earth and verdure.
The leaves would brush the soil, scratching against the very dirt that imprisoned them; the cotton balls would twirl and shimmer in the moonlight. The low stalks would dance and bend to an ancient rhythm, long forgotten.
The field was transformed into a dreamy landscape.
The ghosts of exhausted laborers rose, singing their work tunes to the endless cycle of chop and hoe, bend and pick, plant and harvest, in sync with the never-ending circle of timeless toil.
Heck was sure he’d heard their voices echo softly under the starry twinkle of an indigo sky. He felt their hopeless resign somewhere within the deepest chasm of his soul, bone-tired weariness baked black beneath the scorching hot, merciless Mississippi sun.
Yet, he loved this flat, unforgiving land.
The Delta was as much a part of him as the air he breathed. He relished its quiet peacefulness, the monotony of its slow-paced life that blended one day into the next in a seamless tapestry of far-gone yesterdays and unforeseen tomorrows. He was sure his heart would never pale to see the majestic panoramas of towering mountain peaks or his soul yearn to commune with the brash tempo and crashing waves of the tempestuous seas.
He discovered calmness blanketed him when he looked out over the level landscape whose flat planes were broken here and there by trees and the weathered shacks of sharecroppers. He wondered if his corner of paradise would be shattered if it turned out T-Bone had succumbed to anything other than the countless natural ways men die.
The view that filled Heck’s windshield that morning was still soft and fuzzy, muted grays and greens and browns of early dawn. There were three rivers in the county and a few big lakes. There were numerous ponds and streams. When Heck was growing up, this spot by the mill had been a popular hangout to float an inner tube and drink whiskey or cuddle with your girlfriend beside a campfire under the stars.
Now, it was basically forgotten.
The stream-fed pond near the old structure was large and deep. It was rumored to have a healthy population of good-sized fish. Once in a while when Heck was out on patrol, he’d see a truck parked there, and he’d throw up a hand to the old fisherman trying his luck.
Any angler he’d ever spotted had always been content to cast a line from the banks. He’d never thought about it until now, but he could not remember ever seeing a small fishing boat of any kind out on the water.
Now, he wondered if he’d be dragging the pond for T-Bone in the skiff. He put such thoughts aside. He’d cross that bridge when he came to it.
If he came to it.
To his left was the old mill. Though the roof was sagging badly in the middle, the two-story beam and clapboard structure that had operated for over a century was still standing.
The weathered boards were gray with age, but the faint red lettering – JOS. BLEAKER MILLING CO. – still clung to the side of the sign facing the road, stubbornly refusing to fade into oblivion.
The water wheel had been dismantled and carted away long ago. The scene was as tranquil as any other time Heck had driven by, but in the wee hours of the morning in the dusky light of dawn, the place had an almost sinister feel about it.
Nerves, he told himself.
He felt the butterflies bang against his stomach, and he cleared his throat and spat once more into the weeds beside the car.
“Thayard!” he yelled out once more.
His headlights still shown on T-Bone’s beat-up truck, and in the morning mist, it almost seemed as if the high beams lit upon something just this shy of prudence and good taste.
Heck couldn’t explain it, but he felt somehow he had offended the dignity of the old pickup by spotlighting her under such an unflattering aura – like spying an old lady out in the woods taking a squat.
Nonsense, he thought.
He threw his weak flashlight beam about the scene.
I hope you’re o.k., T-Bone, Heck thought as he peeked into the empty cab with its torn seats and litter strewn about the floor.
* * * * *
He searched the area for quite a while, calling out T-Bone’s name until he grew hoarse. The only sounds Heck heard were those of nature and his own voice echoing back to him off the water.
There was no sign of a campsite. No sign of any human presence, for that matter. The grassy areas around the truck and pond were mostly undisturbed. There was nothing that might have suggested T-Bone had been here.
Other than his truck.
There were no tackle or rods. No tin can of worms.
Heck searched the perimeter of the pond looking for anything – a discarded paper sack that might have held a sandwich or a chicken leg, the telltale ‘Y’ branch stuck in the mud by the water line that might mean T-Bone had rested a fishing pole there while waiting for a bite, anything that might tell him where T-Bone had been.
He found nothing.
Where the hell are you? Heck wondered, kicking at a silver spider’s web in the dewy grass.
“Bone! Hey! T-Bone! You ‘round here? You in the woods takin’ a dump or something?” Heck yelled. “Jackbo, you hurt?”
He hadn’t expected any.
He felt the skin crawl on the back of his neck. He wondered if someone was watching – someone other than the missing old man. It was just a feeling he had.
Now would be the perfect time to call the station for some backup, if there was anyone at the station to take the call, but his part-time deputies, Palmer Manning and Mervyn LeRoy were snug under the covers asleep.
Lately, there wasn’t much reason to call them in, and since the Depression, there was more dust than money in the county’s coffers. He tried to give those two boys a few days work each month, but it was hard to justify the extra expense.
It wasn’t as if their sleepy little burgh was a rat’s nest where crime and violence festered and spread like a contagion. Still, there would always be accidents, horrible and unforeseen tragedies, acts of Nature, and the like, but out here in the middle of the bucolic boonies, petty theft, neighborly disagreements over trifling things, or the occasional runaway teenager or wandering cow was what Heck was called on to deal with. He’d probably have more for his deputies to do once the farmers in the area finished putting in their crops.
Folks with spare time on their hands and spending money in their pockets were more likely to stir up a little trouble, if Palmer and Mervyn were still around. Recently, they both had been dropping hints that they thinking about moving on to greener pastures.
Heck couldn’t blame either of them. They were young, and there were certainly no career ladders to climb in the LeFayettah County sheriff’s department.
Palmer’s wife, Wilda, had family back in Tennessee. Mervyn had a cousin on the force in Baltimore, and Mervyn said his cousin would be glad to put in a good word if Mervyn wanted to try and get on there.
But the way the news was coming in from Europe, it looked like Mervyn and Palmer would be carrying guns on foreign soil before they ever got a chance to do it in some other state.
Heck sure hoped neither of them would be called up. He liked those boys too much. He’d known war, having fought in the one that was supposed to end all others, but all such talk was a crock of lard. Men would start wars as long as two of them were left standing.
Now, the war drums were beating again across the ocean. Heck’s stomach soured at the thought. War was something he would never wish on his worst enemy. But that crazy Hitler seemed hell bent on dragging the whole world back into another one. It made Heck’s head spin to ponder such things.
He shook off the feeling of watchful eyes.
Stay alert, Heck told himself. Stay focused.
He let the tips of his fingers brush the handle of his revolver. For some reason, this made him feel better. Still, he was as high-strung as a winded fox with the hounds on his heels.
It seemed like he saw the outlines of crouching forms throughout the woods beyond. He could only pray no one was waiting to ambush him. Heaven help him if someone was out there, intent on harm.
Leah would miss him, but how would she know where he was?
She was half-asleep when he’d told her he was leaving. Besides, it was early Saturday morning. No one would be in the office until Monday. The door to the sheriff’s office was never locked, but Jonetta, his secretary, only worked weekdays. If a problem arose and he needed extra help, Heck called on Palmer or Mervyn.
Although Heck stayed out on patrol most days, he always swung by the office and checked the board he’d hung outside the office door.
If something came up on Saturday or Sunday, everyone knew to stick a note on the nail if they needed his assistance when the office was empty. Heck would check in, read the note, and address the problem. If they needed him at night, they simply called his house or paid him a visit. The system had worked satisfactorily for years.
Rayanne, Heck’s wife, hadn’t minded him working weekends, although it worried her that her husband never attended church. Heck told her not to fret. He worshiped the Lord in His fresh air chapel.
Still, Rayanne would have liked it better if Heck had accompanied her once in awhile and sat on a real pew in a real church. But she never complained.
She used the time to deep clean the house and cook. Since she’d died, Heck kept to his routine of working as much as he could. It was better than rattling around in an empty house.
There was a telephone in the sheriff’s office, and Heck could call out if the storms did not whip up and wreck havoc with the poles and phone lines, or if Eunice, the local operator who worked the switchboard in Sylvander, wasn’t on the rag or in one of her difficult moods.
Heck wasn’t a doctor, but it really did seem that Eunice had her ornery spells like clockwork, once a month. Many times, he’d simply bitten his lip and endured her tirade, then calmly explained who he needed her to connect him to, and waited until the spirit moved Eunice to put his call through.
Heck had often wondered if maybe Eunice was just too high strung for public work. He didn’t know. But she really could be a biddy, sometimes.
Yet now, even if she could, Eunice couldn’t connect him to anyone. He was miles from the office and the telephone. No one but Harley knew where he was, and Harley was on his long run and probably wouldn’t be back for three or four days.
Heck was on his own. He knew he had to be careful. Yes, Leah would miss him, but she’d be the only one.
Leah’s nice, he thought, but no one can ever replace my Rayanne.
Without warning, visions of his dead wife flashed before his eyes. He hated these times when his brain played these kinds of tricks. Maybe he was getting too old for this line of work. He tried to concentrate. Now was definitely not the time to stroll down Memory Lane.
The scenes that flashed before his eyes scorched his soul like acid. Nothing he tried made his brain shut down. The memories came at odd moments, and Heck never knew when they would crash over him like a tidal wave destroying a tiki hut.
He just couldn’t seem to shake them off, no matter how hard he tried. He’d tried drowning them in a bottle, but that hadn’t worked. In disgust, he’s sworn off drinking. Nothing could wash Rayanne from his soul.
She had been so beautiful.
Heck had been a goner the first time he’d ever laid eyes on Rayanne. All through grade school, he nurtured a secret crush on her. When he told his mother he was going to marry Rayanne, she laughed.
Heck was undeterred.
And as luck would have it, his persistence paid off. He felt himself the luckiest man in the world when Rayanne started dating him. They married almost a year later, and Heck never looked back.
Rayanne had been his whole world, right up until the day cancer snatched her from him.
He recalled the night they’d decided to elope. It was summer. Heck was filled with all the optimism of any red-blooded boy in love.
Rayanne was never more beautiful, and Heck wondered if his heart would not burst if she refused his offer. He had no ring, just a promise to always cherish and protect her. When he tried to propose, he became so tongue-tied, Rayanne burst into fits of laughter. He never even got the words out. She simply kissed him and said ‘yes.’
They snuck away under the cover of darkness, driving two hundred miles to a justice of the peace south of Boydkyn, Mississippi. They’d gotten the poor, old man out of bed. He was a withered, skinny little prune who would have had a hard time weighing in at one hundred and twenty pounds soaking wet.
All of five feet four inches of him, and the couple had to wait as he got dressed.
He looked like a little boy masquerading in his father’s Sunday suit. He had a kind smile, though, and a friendly manner, in spite of the hour. Both Heck and Rayanne noticed the twinkle in his eye after he’d performed the ceremony and told them not to do anything he wouldn’t do. Heck and Rayanne turned twelve shades of red, and Heck quickly paid the man and thanked him for marrying them.
How fast the years had flown by!
It hardly seemed like yesterday since they’d had settled into their little house in town. Although they’d tried, Heck and his wife had never had children, but Rayanne always managed to have one or two of the church kids around. That seemed enough for her. She was forever planning outings for her Sunday school class, and there had always been pets around the house back then, too.
Life seemed so full, then. Dogs, house cats, a pet rabbit or two over the years. Once, Rayanne even tamed a squirrel.
Heck half-heartedly griped that he was spending a fortune on those animals, but Rayanne accepted his good-natured grousing and kissed his forehead. She would look into his eyes and tell him she loved him, and Heck melted inside. He had been so lucky to have her for a wife.
The hairs on his arm stood on end. His fingers twitched. He could almost feel Rayanne’s fingertips brushing his hand. At times, he thought he could just hear the echo of her voice and still see the light and sweetness that always filled her face. His heart skipped a beat with the ache of loneliness, but the wounds were too raw to even contemplate searching for a new partner, although she’d been gone for awhile now.
Heck’s thoughts danced about the edges of the bottomless ravine of guilt and bitterness he carried inside. Rayanne, in the end, was a skeletal phantom of her former self. He felt his chest beat in ragged bursts as he recalled his wife’s last days.
How she’d struggled to force the air in and out. Each breath was torture, but each breath kept her living, kept her with him, so she forced her lungs to move in and out in spastic jerks called respirations.
If anyone loved life, it was Rayanne.
Heck would have gladly traded places with her on that bed of agony, giving his life willingly for hers. But Fate dealt the cards, and Rayanne drew the worst of all possible hands.
She lasted a few weeks after the diagnosis, and he was still in shock. It was impossible to believe one woman could suffer so much in such a short period of time. It was even harder to watch her precipitous slide toward Death.
Each twenty-four hours saw a little more life drain from her body. During those days, he dreaded to see the sun go down and hated its rise each morning. Rayanne’s days were numbered, and during her illness, it felt as if the Grim Reaper was always lurking in the shadows on Bouvaye Street.
Why hadn’t he made Rayanne see a doctor sooner? Heck wondered for the millionth time.
But he knew the answer. Rayanne was just like him.
What wouldn’t kill you, made you stronger.
Growing up as they had, they both relied on home remedies and their body’s own defenses to maintain good health. Such things as doctor’s visits and hospital stays were luxuries meant for other people.
The sheriff and his wife were like most folks they knew, accepting the chips as they fell, and praying that when the grits hit the fan, they’d be well away from the splatter zone.
Heck and Rayanne weren’t fatalistic, so much as too poor to have the resources to stave off catastrophic illness.
If a lightning bolt scorched your house and burned it to the ground, you were just out of luck. Although it may have taken a lifetime to build your little nest, disaster could take your possessions away, and Life would otherwise go on as if nothing much had happened.
If you were lucky, you had family who’d take you in, and there would be just enough food and hope to get you through a few more winters. If not, well it was a shame and all, but there just wasn’t much anybody else could do about it. The Depression had placed many in that great ship called Poverty.
That was Life. Hard knocks and cake walks. Party socks and cedar blocks.
So, Heck was left pretty defenseless when the Big C struck Rayanne.
The doctor immediately suggested a trip to Alabama or Georgia to visit other clinicians he’d heard of who might be able to help her, but Rayanne refused all treatment and demanded that Heck take her home, at once. There was a steely calm in her eyes that told Heck there would be no argument. No compromise. She would let Nature take its course.
Heck told her as they drove home they could sell the house and take their savings and seek treatment, but she turned a deaf ear to him. He read the hopelessness in her eyes.
“Who would buy it?” she’d asked.
Nobody, these days. That truth was left unsaid between them.
So, he helped her out of the old sedan and up the front steps. Heck believed that from the moment Rayanne crossed the threshold, the die had been cast.
Although Rayanne was always ready to help a needy soul, she was mortified by thoughts of burdening others. Even her loving husband. Heck helped Rayanne undress and slip beneath the covers.
He looked deeply into her eyes. He felt she knew immediately that he could never stand by her bedside and watch her waste away.
She flashed a hesitant smile and whispered, “It’s o.k. You’ve got a job to do. Go out and protect us, Sheriff. Go on. I’ll be fine.”
Heck went downstairs and got on the phone and called Bern Gurdwin, a retired nurse who attended Rayanne’s church. He explained Rayanne’s condition. Bern agreed to come right over. She moved in and took over Rayanne’s care, looking after her like Rayanne was her own daughter.
Heck got busy and stayed away from the house. He prayed Rayanne understood.
Near the end, it got so bad, Rayanne moaned for hours on end. On those days, Heck’s patrols seemed endless. He’d drive from sunup until sundown and catch a cat-nap at the office. Then, in the middle of the night, he would drive by his place and look for the light on the porch.
It was the signal Heck had arranged with Bern.
As long as the light burned, Rayanne lived.
Bern remained silent about Heck’s long absences. When he lighted late at night or early in the mornings, coming home to change his shirt or grab a bite of dinner, Bern saw the haunted look of fear in his eyes.
She had seen the look many times before. No words could help Heck at this point, so Bern did the only thing she could do, she nursed Rayanne.
Day and night, the porch light burned. Then, late one night as he swung by the house, Heck’s heart sank. He saw that the porch was dark. The light had been turned off. He pulled the sedan up by the curb in front of his house and sat there. His mind went blank. He felt destitute and numb. He wasn’t thinking about anything in particular. He just felt empty inside, like something deep within him had drained out of his body, too.
Finally, he forced himself out of the car and up the steps. The house felt strangely vacant in the late night air. Cold. Desolate. As usual, the front door was unlocked. He softly opened it. It was well after midnight, and he had a passing notion that Bern might be sleeping.
The door had just closed when Bern’s voice broke the silence.
“She went easy, Heck. I know you’ll find comfort in that later on after you get over the first shock that’s hitting you right about now.
I’ve cleaned her up and put fresh clothes on her. She’s got peace, now. She truly has.
You can go up and see her if you like.
Say your goodbyes.
I know you’ve been kinda skiddish ‘bout stayin’ close by. Don’t feel bad, son. Lotsa folks are that way. We all deal with this kind of thing in our own ways. Everybody’s different.
She was took care of, Heck, and she knew you loved her. But you go on up now, and let her know you’ll miss her.
Go on, son.
She’s waiting upstairs for you.
Go on, now. Go say goodbye to her, Heck.”
Heck felt his body turn robotically toward the stairs. The sound of his heavy footsteps echoed in his ears. His breathing came in uneven gasps, and his heart felt as if it would jump out of his throat.
The door was ajar. He saw Rayanne lying in their bed with the spread to her chin. But this was not his wife. This was not the Rayanne he loved. She looked so tiny beneath the covers. Her eyes were closed, and her pale, blue skin looked as if it had been stretched over a skull.
How could she have lost so much weight this quick, Heck wondered.
Heck had seen Death, but this was the first time the Grim Reaper had come for someone he loved with all his heart and soul.
The thing that made Heck cringe and shrink back into the dark hall was Rayanne’s slack mouth, opened and jutting to one side. It looked like Rayanne was screaming a silent scream from her twisted face.
Heck could not make his feet take him to the bedside. He stood in the doorway of the shadowed hall crying like a baby.
“Oh, sweetheart, I’m so sorry,” he managed to whisper. “I will always love you, Rayanne. Always.”
Fifteen minutes later, he made his way downstairs. Bern was busy brewing a fresh pot of strong coffee.
“I know you’re not studying on such things, Heck, but later on, when you’re up to it, there’s roast beef and cold chicken in the fridge. I’ve fixed you a few vegetables, too. Warm them in the oven. You’ve got enough to tide you over for a couple of days. I woulda’ baked you a cake or fixed you a pie, but there was no time.”
“Bern, how can I thank you?”
“Your thanks ain’t necessary, Heck. I did it all for that sweet girl upstairs. She was a good friend. I loved her like she was my own.”
“I know you did,” Heck said softly.
“Now Heck, these next days you gotta face are gonna be mighty rough.
I want you to know that she died about six hours ago . . . . No, don’t fret yourself. How could you have known?
And don’t feel guilty that you weren’t here by her bedside when she died. You did what you had to do.
I don’t judge another person’s way of handling grief.
You’re a good man, Heck.
A decent one.
You were good to Rayanne.
You loved her.
I know that.
It’s often hardest on the living when there’s nothing we can do.
You’re a man, and men want to fix problems. Well, some things are beyond us. It makes us feel so impotent. Helpless feelings are hard to cope with, no matter who you are.
Anyway, Heck, I want you to know that Rayanne’s not been part of our world for a good long time, now. There was nothing you, or any of us, could do about that.
I kept her clean and as comfortable as possible. Rayanne was in God’s hands. She still is.”
Heck sat at the kitchen table trying to put into words all that Rayanne had meant. But it was too late. Rayanne was beyond caring what people thought anymore. Bern was right. Rayanne was with God. Heck put his head in his arms and sobbed.
Bern touched Heck’s shoulder.
“I’ll call Felix to come for her, Heck, if you’re through saying goodbye.”
“Yes,” Heck managed to say between sobs. “Go ahead.”
Although Heck wore the badge, he knew that Rayanne had been the pillar of strength in their house. He had a sinking sickness in the pit of his stomach. He could see, even then, what life was going to be like without her.
“There’s coffee on the stove or a stiff shot of scotch in the cabinet, if you prefer. I’ll call Felix, now. I’ll tell him he can come on over and pick up Rayanne. If you change your mind and want to spend some more time with her, just let me know. I’ll have Felix cool his scrawny heels in the kitchen.
If not, Felix will go ahead and take her body to the funeral home, and you can go over tomorrow and sign the papers. Rayanne has everything arranged, Heck. I’ll send the clothes she wants to be buried in with Felix. You’ll only have to sign some papers.”
The burial was a blur in Heck’s memory. To this day, he could not tell you who attended the memorial service, though, in the days that followed, many folks told him that they had thought his wife’s memorial service was lovely.
He felt like a sleepwalker going through the motions. He shook hands, accepted the usual condolences, and buried his wife.
After the service, Rayanne’s church held a covered-dish dinner in her honor, but he chose not to attend. He stayed by her grave until the last shovelful of dirt covered her.
Heck drove straight home to an empty house, a dead house, took off the black suit, white dress shirt, and black tie, and put on his uniform. He got in his old sedan and hit the roads.
If nothing else, driving around the county occupied his mind and gave his hands something to do. Otherwise, he knew he would have started screaming, not silently like Rayanne had, but like a maniac, and he knew he would have pulled every hair out of his head while he was at it.
* * * * *
Heck’s search of the scene where T-Bone’s truck was parked turned up nothing of consequence. In his business, there were few tools to pull out of the toolbox when it came to solving crimes. He had his physical five senses and his common sense. He had a car, a telephone at the office, his gun, a typewriter, and a two-way radio in his car that connected to the office – sometimes.
All this, and not much else.
If there were no witnesses or no obvious clues, Heck was left up the proverbial creek without a paddle, and he hated to admit it, but nothing rang any bells or blew any whistles this time.
Heck felt a hard knot in the pit of his stomach. He’d have to go round up Palmer and Mervyn.
After that, who knew what would happen?
Heck got in his car and headed south.
* * * * *
Funny, how fast bad news travels.
Heck drove out to Palmer’s place, woke him, and told him to fetch Mervyn and meet him back at the mill pond as fast as possible. All three would begin a thorough search for any trace of the old man.
“Yes sir, Sher’f, I’m on it,” Palmer said, struggling to get his uniform shirt buttoned.
“I’ll see you both there, then,” Heck said, getting into his car and heading back to the pond.
As soon as word spread that T-Bone had gone missing, four or five men showed up trampling up the scene like frenzied bulls in Bennet Fierabend’s fancy dress shop. They milled about, talking softly among themselves. They leaned against the vehicle, opened the door of the old man’s truck, and sat in the seat like it belonged to them, rummaging through the debris that littered the cab, fingering the old tools, and such.
Heck ruffled more than a few feathers when he calmly asked them to step back over by his car and leave T-Bone’s truck alone. It was clear that any evidence that may have been in the cab or on the outside of the truck itself was ruined.
“Ty,” Heck called.
“Yes sir. Make yourself useful. Go tell Nuel, we need him.”
“Shore thing, Sheriff.”
Nuel Fielder arrived with his bloodhound a couple of hours later. Nuel was rubbing one of T-Bone’s old rags near the wrinkled, soft brown muzzle of the dog.
The dog shot off like a .22 fired at close range.
“He’s got something,” Neul yelled.
Like I didn’t know that, thought Heck, holding his tongue.
The scowl on Heck’s face suggested he was raging mad, but it was just the fear knotted tightly in his gut that distorted his features. Although nothing looked out of place, Heck couldn’t shake the feeling. He was missing something. It kept eating away at him like a month old bowl of chili in the pit of his stomach.
Yep, something bad had happened to Bone.
Something really bad.
And then, it began to rain.
I hope you enjoyed this part of Book 2 in this series.
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