By: Andrew Dunn
“Well I reckon I don’t know what to do!” Hoss didn’t mean to come across coarse. But that’s how it came across. He couldn’t help it.
“It’ll take state police at least an hour to get out here!” Jim shot back.
At least an hour. Probably more than that, The nearest state police barracks was way off to the southeast. By the time a telegraph machine clattered to life in the duty room and the Trooper on watch scribbled the message out, Jim and Hoss would’ve been out there already for a good long while.
“Jim,” Hoss ran his hands over his face, “even when I was in the Army…I don’t know what to do about something like this.”
The whole thing was way outside anything the Sheriff’s Office had ever seen. A great big long gouge that stretched from County Road 45 across Old Mitch Percival’s land, through a stream, and into a low mound on a patch of unkempt ground.
“What’s going on out here fellas?” The deep gravely voice belonged to Curtis Percival, Old Mitch’s middle son.
“I reckon” Jim paused as his eyes shifted over to Hoss who was leaning against the 1939 Ford the Sherrif’s Office used as Patrol Car #1. “Well to be perfectly honest Mister Percival I reckon what we done got here is a direct attack on our soil by them Nazis or Japan!”
“Jim!” Hoss grumbled.
“Well c’mon Hoss,” Jim argued back, “you tell me who else would bomb us.”
“We’ve been bombed?” Curtis was perplexed.
“I think it they was a shootin at something and this is a rocket or somethin that went off course.” Jim nodded,
“Jim!” Hoss shouted.
“What Hoss?” Jim hollered back.
“Look,” Hoss eased off the Ford and walked over to where Jim and Curtis was standing, “that trail right there, that ain’t nothing no Nazis and no Japanese done did. It just ain’t so.”
“I don’t see how you can say that.” Jim crossed his arms and stared hard at Hoss.
“That,” Curtiss eyed the deep trough in the ground, “that’s some of my father’s best land right there. Some of the best land in three counties. Planting season is coming up. I don’t need to tell you he isn’t happy about this.”
“Look I understand that too,” Hoss again massaged his face in his hands, “but I’m telling you that ain’t a sneak attack or a misfire or anything like that.”
“I’ll tell you what Hoss,” Jim planted hands on hips, “I was in the Army too and know what that done learnt me? That when something like this happens we need to go to town, sound the air raid siren, and deputize every able-bodied man in town. And then…”
“And then no we don’t Jim.” Hoss stared hard at Jim. “Fact is, until you’ve followed that down to where it ends up…”
“What?” Curtiss asked.
“We need to wait for the state police to get here.” Hoss muttered as he lit a cigarette.
“But there ain’t no time!” Jim stormed off to his pick-up truck that doubled as a county service vehicle.
“Then I’ll tell you what,” Hoss called out, “why don’t you and Curtis walk down there and see for yourselves. You can take the rifles from the patrol car.”
“Don’t let the boss man see you.” 11284 had been in long enough to know. It was a privilege, or as the boss men said, “a priv-eh-ledge”, to get out on work detail.”
“You listen to what he’s telling you,” 13800 rasped, “don’t you get us in trouble out here.”
13800 had been in for a long time. Long enough that nobody bothered him anymore other than the bossmen. Nobody knew what he was in for though. Other than it was something real bad from a long time ago.
Porter shimmied along like the others behind the tar truck. As it laid down lumps of steaming black, he tried his best to do like the others and smooth it out long and wide into what would someday be a road. It wasn’t his thing though. He hadn’t done much work with his hands.
Except for stealing cars. Funny thing was, he thought when they booked him, stealing cars was just something he thought was fun. He never got in deep with chop shops. Never sold a stolen car either. Steve Porter liked to “borrow”, he preferred borrow to steal, a nice car once in a while and show it off. Especially for his ladies.
“Listen here son,” 13800 rasped, “you better get it right or bossman’s gonna knock you in the head.”
Steve nodded. It went this way every day on work detail. Line up. Get on a bus. Ride for longer than an 8-track. Then get sandwiched in between 13800 and 11284. Hadn’t either of them thought about it before? It being, escape.
The taste of the air outside prison walls was better than candy or a joint, Steve thought. Way off in the distance, especially as the road they were making rose in elevation a little bit, Steve could see what he imagined was a highway. There were cars out there. They had their windows down. They were blasting Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath and Blue Oyster Cult and The Rolling Stones. Sometimes, if he turned his head just right, Steve swore he could hear one of his favorite songs carried along the summer wind.
“What are you humming boy? 11284 would complain.
It was hard to remember 11284, everyone called him Luscious, hadn’t heard any new music other than what the bossmen played on the radio in their pick’em up trucks. It must have bothered Luscious terribly. Before prison he had been a musician of some sort. Some said he was a really good one.
“Just a song.” Steve smiled as he said it.
“Only song I care about anymore,” Luscious said, “is that sound of your rake making this road good enough for the bossman.”
“I think both of you need to shut up,” 13800 grimaced, “I swear you get me pulled off this detail you won’t live to forget it.”
Steve didn’t doubt it. There were rumors about him. He had nearly bled a man to death in a bar fight back in 1941 over a girl. Or he had robbed banks and took a cop hostage. If he had ever killed somebody the state would’ve killed him already. That meant somewhere, his victims were out there. Probably on that highway Steve swore his could see, waiting for 1982 when the road they were raking into life would be open.
Later that night, after work detail and showers and dinner were done and the 10pm bed check went down, Steve thought about that road. The cars that would drive over it someday. Every bump and wiggle. Eventually it would lead to neighborhoods and stores. There would be a factory too. The bossman mentioned that one day. That after the road was done they’d have to come back and cut a notch into the ground and lay some asphalt for the entry way into the factory.
“This isn’t our land,” Jean whispered, “we have no claim here.”
“Shut up!” Piers gritted his teeth. “Just do as I tell you.”
Jean swallowed hard. They should have gone north, he thought. Tried their luck with the Tunica and the Chickasaw. By now half the New Orleans garrison no doubt was hot on their trail. The other half would be working through the night to build the gallows from which he and Piers would hang.
Piers lay as flat as he could against the ground, peering out into the darkness. He was looking for the Spaniards. They were out there. Somewhere. If the New Orleans garrison didn’t catch them, the Spanish would. That would almost be worse than the gallows. True, the Spaniards would put them to the gallows too. But the Spaniards would exact information, any information, from them as painfully as needed.
Jim and Curtis didn’t say a word as the walked down the middle of the trough across the Percival ranch. Both thought it was weird how the underneath their feet seemed hot. It seemed to get hotter the further along they walked. Just before the stream it had become so unbearable they climbed out of the trough and back on to flat ground.
“Would you look at that.” Curtiss was stunned. Year round the stream was known to run rich and deep with water, fish, and crawdaddies. But for puddles, the stream was dry.
“Look at that!” Jim exclaimed at piles of mauled fish carcasses strewn about.
“Do we go on?” Curtiss asked.
“Well,” Jim wanted to back down but he couldn’t, “let’s just walk on down there a bit and then we’ll head back. Maybe state police will be here by then.”
The stream was the unofficial boundary of the Percival property. Beyond it, the forest closed in thick and deep, except where the scar across the earth bored in ever deeper.
“I’m thinking about well,” Steve nodded.
“Well what?” Luscious asked.
“I think we could bust out of here.” Steve said as he heaved a lump of steaming black underneath his rake.
“What?” Luscious laughed. “You ain’t been in long enough to have lost your mind like that.”
“Really though,” Steve went on, “there are three bossmen right?”
“And there’s one of me.” 13800 hissed. “I’ve told you one too many times already you get me off this detail and it will be the last thing you remember doing in this world.”
“Will it?” Steve felt his entire body flush cold as he said it.
“You trying to confront me boy?” 13800 stopped raking.
“Nah,” Steve sassed, “I’m trying to build some stupid road for the almighty bossman.”
“Shut it!” 13800 barked.
“The three of you,” one of the bossmen called out, “more working less talking. Got it?”
“Yes sir,” Luscious smiled.
“You got it boss,” 13800’s eyes burned hard in Steve’s direction.
“You hear me boy,” the bossman called to Steve.
“I hear you,” Steve muttered.
“He said this thing was little. Like a little bump one the ground.” Jim marveled as the gouge through the earth stopped and a mound began. Twenty feet high or so Jim figured, and stretching about fifty feet wide maybe.
“Do you hear that?” Curtis whispered.
There was a sound A low sound. Rhythmic. Soft. Almost like breathing.
“Yeah,” Jim didn’t want to acknowledge, “I hear it.” Jim wished Hoss had walked the gouge with him and Curtis had stayed back in case the state police showed up. Curtis didn’t have a rifle. He’d always said he didn’t believe in shooting. Conscientious objector he called himself. When the Army found out they gave him a job in motor pool. Jim wished there were two guns out there in case the sound really was something breathing.
Then again, what good would Hoss be. The only reason he was with the Sheriff’s Office was because of his daddy, Jim thought. His daddy got him that job after Hoss’s brother went off to fight in the war. That way only one of the two sons would be gone. There was also Hoss’s drinking. That was probably why he messed up the size of the mound so badly.
“It’s breathing,” Curtis opened his eyes wide.
“What are you talking about.” Jim said.
“I swear to God that mound is breathing,” Curtis begged.
Jim looked hard at the hump of ground in front of them. He listened to the soft and low inhale and exhale. It sure looked like the ground was moving up and back down again just a little bit with every cycle.
“You remember what I told you?” 13800 muttered between swallows of supper.
“No,” Steve said as he chewed a bite of a roll.
“Yeah you do,” 13800 smiled, “you mess with me being on the road work detail and I’ll make sure it’s the last thing you remember doing in this world.”
“Oh yeah,” Steve stared hard at 13800. “That.”
“Leave it alone man.” Luscious said to both of them.
“Sure,” 13800 grinned at Luscious, “after tonight. It’ll all be left alone.”
“You threatening me old man?” Steve challenged.
“Cute,” 13800 jabbed at meat on his tray, “trying to play it like you’ve been here a while.”
“C’mon guys.” Luscious eyed the guards overseeing dinner from catwalks that ringed the dining area. “Y’all are gonna get us all cut off the detail.”
“Yeah,” Steve flicked a piece of dinner roll in 13800’s direction, “and you’re going to waste what’s left of your life rotting away in here when I’m your ticket out of here.”
“You got any idea how many times since 63 some cute kid’s come in here and told me that right before I cut him?” 13800 said as he flicked the same piece of dinner roll back into Steve’s face.
“You never cut nobody old man,” Steve laughed, “I know it and you know it.”
“Want to try me?” 13800 hissed.
“And get busted and stuck in here forever?” Steve muttered, “I’ll take my own chances with those guys.” Steve peered up at the guards on the catwalks. Black pants. Blue shirts. Rifles and batons.
“There’s a fire down there,” Piers whispered, “a little one. That’s where we’re going.”
Piers scrambled to his feet and dashed off into the darkness toward an orange glow in the distance. Jean looked all around. Nothing but darkness all around, except for the orange glow Piers ran off after. Jean dashed into the darkness after Piers.
Maybe it was a trick of the moonless night, or just plain old fear, but to Jean it seemed like he’d never make it to the fire. But before he knew it, he was close enough to smell its woodsmoke and hear its lazy crackle and pop. Jean dropped to all fours and crawled into a light growth of brush.
“Piers,” Jean hissed.
Nothing but silence and the sound of the fire nearby.
“Piers,” Jean tried again.
There was no sign of Piers. Was he already there by the fire, sharing food with whoever had made the fire and waiting for him to come tumbling out of the darkness? Was it a trap? Spaniards. Troops from the New Orleans garrison? An encampment full of Tunica or Chippewa?
“Piers,” Jean said as he eased from the brush closer to the fire.
As his eyes adjusted to the light he could tell it was a cooking fire. There was no way it was Tunica or Chippewa. They didn’t build cooking fires that way. People back in the old country did though. Jean wondered what was simmering in the metal pot atop the fire, and where Piers was.
“He isn’t here.” A voice from the darkness whispered.
Jean pretended not to hear it. He moved a little closer. Beyond the fire he could make out a shelter. A lean to or a tent perhaps. Between the shadows and the black of night, it was hard to tell if a man was sitting by the shelter or if it was just a trick of his own eyes.
“He isn’t here.” The voice whispered again.
Down in New Orleans the older folks told stories about men that lived along out in the woods away from everyone else. Spiritual men but they practiced something different from the voodoo down in the bayous. Mystical figures that seemed to live only in tales told by the dying.
“He’s not here!” The voice hissed.
Jean started to back away from the cooking fire. He looked up at the sky, at what seemed like a thousand stars, and wondered how soon it would be before he hanged.
“I don’t know what happened!” Hoss knelt on the ground, tears streaming from his face and blending with the spattered blood that blotched his skin and clothes.
“It’s got to be the shock of it all,” one of the state troopers said, “I don’t think Hoss would’ve killed them.”
“We got to take him in though,” the other trooper said, “even if it’s just for his own good.”
Their Sergeant returned his clipboard to his patrol car and walked over to where the two troopers stood near Hoss. It was the worst thing he’d seen since the First World War. Jim lay about twenty yards from Hoss. He was still alive but barely. A trooper was on his knees begging him to hang on until the ambulance arrived. Whatever had happened to Jim, whether an animal had mauled him or Hoss had…well, whatever it was had been severe. And the burns. Jim had been burned over a good portion of his back and legs. It reminded the Sergeant of the things they’d find sometimes when they overran the enemy’s lines back in Europe.
“Hoss,” the Sergeant sat down on the ground beside him, “you and me go back a good ways. I like you Hoss. You’re a square dealin kind of man. So I hate to do this to you but I’m gonna have to ask you to tell us what you know about all this.”
“I don’t,” Hoss sobbed, “I don’t know. Jim and Curtis went down to see if they could figure out what made that gouge through the ground. I waited right here by the car for when you all made it out here. And then Jim, he comes screaming out of there and he looked like he’d been attacked and he was saying something about Curtis and I just don’t know!”
“Curtis?” The Sergeant asked. “Curtis Percival?”
“Yeah,” Hoss replied, “Curtis come down from Old Mitch Percival’s ranch to see what was going on. So me and Jim were arguing a little bit…”
“Arguing?” The Sergeant probed.
“Nothing big,” Hoss went on, “we were trying to think through what made that gouge. If you follow it down it ends at this mound out there in the woods. So anyway I told Jim and Curtis to walk down there if they wanted.”
“Where’s Curtis?” The Sergeant furrowed his brow.
“I never saw him come back.” Hoss’s voice cracked.
“Alright,” the Sergeant said as he climbed back up on his feet, “I want one trooper to stay with Jim until that ambulance gets here and it’s gonna be probably fifteen more minutes. I want two to go down through that cut in the ground and see if you can find Curtis Percival. He never came back from down there so he’s out there somewhere.”
The trooper already with Jim nodded in the Sergeant’s direction as the other two gathered flashlights and made their way down into the gouge.
Jean moved slow into dense growth, taking care to keep as quiet as possible and using his hands to feel his way through in the darkness. There weren’t any good options. By morning a regiment from New Orleans would be out there, moving into the woods. Jean thought his best chance would be to find somewhere to hide and rest until daybreak, and then he’d make a plan.
There was supposed to be a river somewhere. A small one. Jean thought, if he could make it to the river, he could follow it upstream until he was further than either the French or the Spaniards would be willing to look. He’d still have to contend with the Tunica and Chippewa. He’d worry about that when the time came.
Acrid and unusual. That’s what Jean thought about an odor that crept into the air around him. Something had burned out there in the woods. Could it have been a cooking fire? Maybe an old camp site?
The tree trunks Jean’s hands found where dry and cool to the touch. He reached out as far as he could carefully finding each and then drawing himself close to it before reaching out for the next. As his hands played over each he imagined what they looked like and what kinds they were. Some would have been dressed in thin bark and soft green moss. Others would have had rougher exteriors. Back in prison, someone had said you could survive off of tree bark if you had to. Jean was almost at the point where he might have to.
Jean wondered what his last meal would be like the day they hanged him. Or if he’d get one at all. That’s what he got for escaping. If he could’ve done it all over again, he’d have talked Piers out of it. They could have stayed in prison a few more years and their sentences would have been complete. They could have gone someplace else and started all over again.
The next tree trunk Jean felt was oddly warm and moist. It stunk of that horrible odor out there in the woods. Jean explored it with his hands, stopping when he found the iron bracelet that had once been attached to a chain that held Piers’ left arm to the floor of their cell.
“Piers?” Jean struggled against what he now realized were the smells of burned clothing, flesh, and blood.
Jean backed away. He’d have to stay there with Piers until morning. Bury him if he was dead or try and help him if there was any life left in him.
Steve, Luscious, and 13800 huddled in a drainage ditch off the road they’d been building. Escape had been the easy part. The hard part was going to be staying ahead of what by now had to have been hundreds coming after them.
“I’ll give you credit kid,” 13800 said, “you did it.”
“So where do we go now?” Luscious asked.
Steve had daydreamed that question inside prison, but now that they were outside he didn’t have good answers. He thought heading down near the road they were working on would be a good starting place. Kind of like hiding in plain sight. There wouldn’t be a detail working the road either. The whole prison would be on lock down.
“I figure we’ll follow the road down to the woods over there,” Steve thought out loud, “and then on the other side of those woods there’s a highway. We’ll get us a ride and head out for good.”
“How are we going to get a ride?” Luscious asked.
“Thumb it?” Steve asked.
“Nah kid,” 13800 said, “they’ll have us all over the radio and TV. What else you got?”
“I can hotwire a ride in ten seconds flat.” Steve offered.
“You gonna steal a car for each of us?” 13800 countered.
“We’ll figure it out.” Steve replied. The woods off in the distance and the highway beyond really didn’t seem like a good way out. There was a hill the jutted up sharply off toward the northwest though. They could head in that direction and then use the hill as a vantage point. If they got really lucky maybe there would be a place to hide somewhere too.
Even before the sun came up, in those low blue hues of morning Jean could tell Piers was dead. Mauled by something. A coyote maybe. Piers had been burned too. He looked like he’d fallen into a fire and it had burned hard and deep in patches all over him. Then he had to have run off into the woods until he couldn’t go anymore. He’d leaned against a tree, the kind that separates into branches low near the ground, and that’s where he breathed his last.
“It’s my fault,” Jean whispered to himself, “this is all my fault.”
There wasn’t going to be any time to bury Piers. By now they’d be on horseback and they’d have dogs. They’d find the smoldering cooking fire and the lean to and they’d realize the woods were too deep to go in with horses. So a bunch of them would dismount and they’d run behind their dogs.
Jean started retracing his path through the woods. He’d try and catch the mystic man living in the lean to. If there was time he’d ask what had happened to Piers. He’d see if the man would hide him for when they came with their dogs. Or, if he had to, he’d take what he could and try and build some distance between himself and the gallows.
“Hoss,” the Sergeant said, “I hate to do this to you but we’re going to have to take you to the barracks.”
“For what?” Hoss was incredulous.
“Curtis ain’t out there,” the Sergeant said, “and Jim’s barely holding on. I don’t like doing it but look at the hand I’m dealt.”
“Do you think I did that to Jim?” Hoss begged.
“Now Hoss,” the Sergeant explained, “you and me are both lawmen. You know as good as I do that it’s not our place to make those decisions.”
“So why are you taking me in?” Hoss asked.
“I’ve got to my friend,” the Sergeant reasoned, “the circumstances well…”
“There ain’t no circumstances,” Hoss said, “there’s something out there and that’s why Jim is hurt and Curtis is missing.”
“I hear you Hoss but,” the Sergeant paused, “I’ve got to do my duty.”
“So what were you really in for?” Luscious asked 13800 as they trudged toward the hill.
“You fellas really want to know?” 13800 asked.
“It’s up to you” Steve replied. Somehow, outside of prison, 13800 and his past didn’t seem as interesting.
“Well,” 13800 began, “they locked me up in 1963. I spent a long time drifting and I got into some trouble one time.”
“Where abouts?” Luscious asked.
“I don’t reckon that’s too important anymore” 13800 continued, “It was some bar someplace. That’s all there was for me back then. Bars and drinkin. One night me and this guy got into a fist fight and next thing you know they put 1-3-8-0-0 on me and that’s who I’ve been ever since.”
“Who were you before?” Steve asked.
“Hoss,” he answered, “Deputy Hoss Logan back when the Sheriff’s Office out here was two guys and one car.”
“For real?” Luscious was in disbelief.
“That’s the truth my friends,” Hoss said, “a long, long time ago some bad stuff happened right around here and that’s when my life started coming apart.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Steve offered.
“They accused me of some things that happened one night,” Hoss went on, “but I swear I didn’t do it. Back then the Percivals owned most of this land and they had a lot of power out here. They tried to get me in court but it was a hung jury. I tried to get back into being a deputy but the Percivals made sure that didn’t happen. So I started drifting. Odd jobs. Drinking. All that stuff.”
Jean made it to the mystic man’s encampment just as the sun was breaking across the horizon. The fire had reduced down to smoldering ashes during the night while the lump an old man underneath the lean to slept. Whatever had been simmering in the cooking pot was now just a thick residue.
“Who are you?” The mystic man’s accent was English or maybe Irish.
“None of your worry,” Jean fired back as the old man lifted himself up to a seated position, “what did you do to my friend?” Jean hadn’t planned on going so hard on the old man. The dogs were getting closer though so Jean had to move fast if he wanted to take what he could get and disappear.”
“Your friend?” The old man laughed.
“My friend,” Jean’s tone was firm, “I found his remains out in the woods.”
“You’re lucky there’s much left of him.” The old man replied. “See that?” The old man pointed toward the cooking pot.
“I see it.” Jean was growing anxious. The dogs were louder now. There were French voices in the distance too.
“I burn that at night to keep it away,” the old man grinned, “so when your friend come running in here last night I said to him to put a handful of that on his neck and arms so he had the smell too. That way they’ll leave you alone.”
“Did he do it?” Jean asked.
“Of course not,” the old man laughed, “you city people never listen. He demanded some food and asked if I had any money. I gave him some leftover rabbit I cooked up last night, a couple of pounds sterling, and wished him the best of luck.”
Jean hated himself for thinking of it, but if he’d searched through what was left of Piers he’d might have found the pound notes. That would’ve been better than nothing if he could’ve made it to Mississippi Territory or someplace further north.
“If he’d taken my advice,” the old man eyed Jean intensely, “it would’ve gone after them instead of you and your friend.”
“What would have?”
“Those are French no?” The old man said as he steadied himself upright. There were riders coming over the horizon. Even at a distance, Jean knew they were from the New Orleans garrison.
“Hide me!” Jean demanded.
“Hide you?” The old man laughed. “Well by now they no doubt see the both of us. You’d be better off to beg them for mercy. Hide you indeed.”
“Give me money!!” Jean cried.
“So that when they get here they take me to New Orleans too when they realize you have pound notes in your possession.”
Jean turned to see the first of the dogs closing in on the encampment with riders close behind.
“They can’t be that close already,” Steve said as they neared the top of the hill. Sure enough, a column of police cars was hurtling down the road the three of them had spent time building.
“We’re done guys,” Luscious said, “if we give ourselves up maybe they’ll go easy on us.”
“What’s the worst they can do,” Steve smirked, “take us back to prison.”
“You really ain’t been in that long have you now.” Luscious piped up. “You ain’t done time in solitary. You ain’t been up for parole and had them turn you down even though they know you got family out there waiting for you.”
“Stop it!” Hoss demanded. “They haven’t seen us yet and…”
“And what?” Luscious asked.
“There’s something in this hill,” Hoss knew it sounded crazy but he went on, “so if we can get inside we can hide out in there.”
“Like a cave?” Steve asked.
“Yeah,” Hoss replied, “a cave or something. Let’s spread out and see if we can find an opening or something.”
“I am not,” Luscious asserted, “and I said not, going to try and find some cave. I’m giving myself up.”
“I swear Luscious you give yourself up and...,” Steve began.
“And what 19772,” Luscious slapped Steve across the face.Steve lunged at Luscious and locked both hands tight around his throat.
“Stop it both of you!” Hoss shouted before kicking Steve in the forehead. “Half the state police force are 200 yards from here and they are going to be up here in about three minutes.”
“Alright Hoss,” Luscious caught his breath, “so what do we do?”
“See that over there?” Hoss nodded at a limestone outcropping about forty feet away. “You and Steve get over there and see if there’s a way inside the hill.”
“I’m not going in there with him.” Steve complained.
“Look,” Hoss grabbed Steve by the neck of his shirt, “you are going in there with Luscious and you are doing it right now!”
“What about you?” Steve fired back.
“I’ll wait up here,” Hoss said, “see if they come up. If they do, I’ll give myself up. I’ll say you two run off and I don’t know where you are.”
“Hoss,” Steve said, “they’ll take you back.”
“I know,” Hoss said, “maybe I need to be back.”