NaNoWriMo, Part VIIPart 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6This big chunk of text is basically a re-working of a short story I'd submitted several times. I know it's probably not in line with the 1600 words a day edict, but free time's at a premium. Things will slow down after Thanksgiving, and I'll have a little more free time.
Like I said, this is a reworking of ashort story I wrote a couple or three years ago. The narrator's voice changes some, but it works for me.
There's more written, but I want to get a stopping point worked in. Willie's the last person from the town I want to introduce.
I didn’t know exactly where to say all this part, but I figure now is as good a time as any.
As I at there in the newspaper, with its disquieting pictures and its deeply frightened intern newspaperman, I thought back to a night the previous December.
I was in town, after nearly three weeks on the road installing wireless routers for a chain of grocery stores centered around Clusterfuck, Alabama. I’d visited the house, and Cletus, who had been singularly starved for affection (my next door neighbor being the only human contact he had). I’d checked the refrigerator and the cabinets, and found them disgustingly bare. I made a trip to the grocery.
On the way, I got distracted by the promise of liquid nourishment.
I stopped at The Mule to have a beer or four. It was there that I saw Willie Hammond for the second time in four years. Willie and I had worked together for a time. Willie driving the truck for the office supply store we both worked at.
I wandered up to the bar, and sat next to the little guy. We caught up on all the aspects of our lives, Willie doing most of the talking. Willie was five or six beers ahead of me, and he’d had his jaws lubricated quite a bit more. After my third beer, I thought about the last time I’d seen him, a couple of years back
At first, he didn’t remember. As I told him the circumstances, I saw the buzzy good-time gleam that eight or ten beers will give you leave his face. By the time I’d finished the story of our short encounter at the Gas n’ Grub a couple falls before, he was staring at me soberly. All the good humor had fallen from the expression, and left only hanging skin.
“If I tell you this,” he said, “you can’t let it go beyond here.” He pointed at the bar for emphasis.
I laughed, and said, “okay.”
“I’m serious as a heart attack, Michael.”
Like I said, I’d known Willie for years. Known him to be capable of a certain theatrical melodrama. A melodrama that I didn’t see here.
I nodded in consent.
He launched into his narrative:
The little man had reached his limit.
Carrying his rifle by the stock, the squirrely, one-armed man tore his way through the Priest Woods, cussing the trees, their branches, their leaves, the shrubs, the ditches and the ankle-deep holes as he went. He’d tired of cussing the coon hounds that he could no longer hear. Likewise, cussing his son who was struggling to keep up his father’s frenzied pace just did no damned good. But every now and then, he’d renew his attack on either, and sometimes both at the same time. Also, he’d reserved choice words for the darkness, the moon, the lantern (which had broken), the flashlight and batteries (which had died), the clouds, his boss, his wife, the gravel on the roads, the unseasonably cool temperature, the fact that the had just the one good arm and anything else that crossed his mind as thwarting him this miserable night.
His name was Willie Hammond, and it was his first night off in three weeks from delivering milk to the grocery and convenience stores that dotted Dickerman County. As soon as he’s gained the respite from work, he’d loaded the dogs into the pickup, roused the boy and driven the 60 miles from Ooltewah to get some good coon hunting in.
And just about everything after that had gone tits up.
Caught up in both his ranting and the rhythmic whoosh his boots made as they tore through the fallen leaves, Willie completely missed the start of a gully in the dark. He half-slid, half-fell down into the eight-foot ditch. Landing mostly on his feet, he started a new refrain of vitriol.
No, the night was definitely not going as planned.
“Daddy, are you alright?” asked Willie’s son Ronnie, peering down into the gully.
“Goddammit, Where the fuck are those Goddamned dogs?” Willie roared into the night.
No answer came.
“Daddy, are you okay?”
Under his breath, Willie swore.
“Goddammit, yes, Ronnie, I’m fine,” he sent up venomously. Adding after a moment: “Can you even hear them running any more?”
Ronnie was silhouetted in the moonlight. Willie saw his son cock his head, even put a hand to his ear.
After a couple of seconds, “No, Daddy.”
“All that fucking garbage you listen to makes your ears for shit.”
An audible sigh came from the lip of the gully.
Willie turned a circle, looking around.
“How do I get out of here?”
No answer from the top.
The moon, mostly full, dodged behind a cloud. The night doubled upon itself. Willie groped his way along the sides of the gully, first along the side he’d fallen, then the other. He tried using exposed roots for purchase, all the while propping the gun against his body with what was left of his right arm, which was missing below the elbow. After a minute of trying, he realized he couldn’t climb and hold the gun.
“I can’t get a foothold.” Admitting defeat was not in his nature.
Ronnie said nothing.
“Ronnie, help me, Goddammit!” he screamed, voice tinged with violence.
The teenager leapt into the gully, landing with a whoof. With embarrassing speed, he loped up the other side of the ditch with a ridiculous ease that, in Willie’s eyes, was meant only to spite him.
“Real fuckin’ nice, Ronnie.”
“Give me your rifle, Daddy.” Ronnie reached his right arm down into the gully.
Willie handed his gun up, butt first.
Ronnie set it carefully against a tree, and reached again into the gully, this time with his left hand.. “Now your hand, Daddy.”
Willie grabbed his son’s hand, while Ronnie braced himself, grabbing a poplar tree with his right. Climbing out, Willie slipped. Ronnie held tight to his hand, though. Before Willie could regain his footing, Ronnie dragged all 140 pounds of his father up the embankment on his belly.
Grumbling and cussing, Willie clamored to his feet. He gave his boy a poisonous look and thought a wicked though about scissors and the braids hanging from underneath his son’s stocking cap. In the moonlight, Willie could make out the threaded word “SlipKnot” on the edge of the toboggan.
He looked away while he dug into the chest pocket on his coveralls for his cigarettes and lighter.
“Ronnie, how long has it been since we even heard the dogs?”
“Dunno. A few minutes.”
Willie found a cigarette. He shoved the pack into the pocket, then lit his cigarette. He gave a silent curse for the sin tax and the generic brand he was forced to buy because of it.
There was an awkward silence for a minute or more, while Willie smoked and seethed.
“What ya wanna do, Daddy?”
The last thing Willie wanted to admit to the boy was that he didn’t have the first clue of how to proceed. Normally, a coonhound wouldn’t shut up. He couldn’t think of a night when he’d been out and the dogs had run off and stayed completely quiet.
If he’d lived in Tellico, as he once had, he’d have chanced leaving and then calling around to one of the half dozen farms that surrounded these woods to see if the hounds had turned up. But he lived an hour’s drive away now, and rarely made it up this far for anything more than an ice cream delivery. Plus, he had to admit that he didn’t know anyone in the area, anymore. If anybody found the dogs, they’d just as likely claim them for their own as go looking for the owner. The Paper Mill owned a lot of the land, nowadays, anyway. He knew the type of man to log for the mill. They’d see the dogs and put them in the cages they had in the backs of their trucks for their own coonhounds, and say they were going hunting after work. If he left, he wouldn’t get the dogs back.
Willie took a couple of drags off the shitty cigarette.
Ronnie jumped when Willie, without warning, whistled sharply and started yelling: “Shep! Pete! Where are ya?”
For such a small man with such a voracious smoking habit, Ronnie’s father had a surprising, tremendous lung capacity.
A small bark came in reply. Then another. Then a third and a fourth, in quick succession. From the east. It was the first such sound they’d heard from the dogs in several minutes. They weren’t at all the sound of dogs that had even the faintest scent of a coon. Ronnie and Willie gave each other a glance.
“How far off you think, Ronnie?” Willie asked, taking a last suck on his smoke before he stubbed it out on the sole of his right boot.
“Not far, I don’t think, Daddy. Short of a quarter mile.”
“And why are they that way?” Willie demanded, pointing East, to their left, the direction the barks came from. “Shouldn’t they be in front of us?”
“I donknow.” Ronnie answered, not totally following his father’s logic.
“Well. Let’s go get’em,” Willie said with a sigh.
As they trudged through the woods along the edge of the gully, the moon emerged from behind the clouds. A night short of a full moon, it still lit up the night, making it easy for Willie and his son to find their way through the forest. Willie would give off a yell, calling the dogs by the names he’d disallowed the boy and his sister from using. A dog with a name is a pet. A coonhound is not a pet. Sylvia, their mother and his wife, had insisted upon the names, though.
Willie thought bitterly that it was more his wife’s attachment to the dogs than their monetary value that had he and Ronnie traipsing through the forest in the middle of the night searching. At the very least, he didn’t want to hear her complain and bitch and moan if he came home without the dogs.
“Doesn’t sound like the dogs are movin’, Daddy.”
“You don’t know what you mean,” Ronnie,” Willie bristled.
“Ronnie, I’m tryin’ to hear for’em.”
Ronnie was right, though. Usually, if he yelled, and they didn’t have the scent of a coon, they’d start moving toward him. But the dogs didn’t seem to be moving at all. The only comfort was that the dogs didn’t seem to be getting any further away.
After a couple of minutes of marching in silence, Willie said it sounded like the dogs were just over a rise from them.
“It smells like a skunk, Daddy.”
“Shit,” Willie swore. “They’d better not’ve run up on a skunk. If they did, you’ll be cleaning them off tomorrow.”
“That ain’t fair, Daddy,” said Ronnie, not relishing the prospect of giving two unwilling coonhounds a bath in tomato juice.
“Life ain’t, Ronnie.”
Ronnie’s long legs gave him six-inches on his father. But, Willie was pissed off and through sheer force of will topped the rise first. He yelled again for Pete and Shep. The dogs gave a yelp in reply.
Willie high-stepped over a couple of fallen logs and made his way downward into a hollow.
Ronnie entered the clearing just behind his father, and stopped behind his left shoulder.
A small hollow parted the woods, and Willie and Ronnie found themselves on an outside edge. Shafts of bluish moonlight parted their way through the trees. The forest floor was clear, except for ferns, for thirty feet in front of them and maybe a winding hundred to their left and right.
“Where are they, Daddy?”
“I dunno,” he admitted. He yelled for the hounds: “Shep! Pete!”
The dogs yipped from across the clearing, about five yards on their right.
“There they are,” Ronnie pointed. The white and chocolate colored hounds had wedged themselves between a couple of ancient oaks, beneath the heavy cover of May Apples and ferns.
One of them gave a yip. Willie frowned, and was uncommonly worried for their welfare. Not once since he and Ronnie had located them had the dogs given their typical “Doh” call. These were yips and yelps. He wondered for a second what had spooked the dogs into a corner.
“C’mere, dogs,” Willie commanded.
Another yip, but neither Shep nor Pete moved a muscle.
“Goddammit!” Willie cussed as he stomped across the clearing. “You’d better not be fucking hurt,” he threatened as he reached the dogs.
“What’s wrong with you two?” he asked as he reached the dogs in their hidey holes.
“Come the hell out of there,” Willie growled, his ire about to reach its boiling point.
The dogs wouldn’t move. They wagged their tails in response, and gave their canine grins, as if to say it was nice of Willie to offer, but they preferred not to.
“Ronnie, grab Shep,” Willie said as he bent, grabbing Pete by the collar. If they had to drag the dogs out. It was then that he noticed Ronnie wasn’t at his side. Willie turned and saw his son still standing at the edge of the hollow, where they’d entered.
His son wore a look of real consternation. In the blue light of the moon, Willie saw an odd apprehension on his son’s face, and saw a lot of white in his boy’s eyes..
“Something ain’t right, Daddy.”
“Goddammit, Ronnie. C’mere!”
Anxiety gave way to annoyance as Ronnie regarded his father.
“Listen...” he said.
“No, Ronnie, you listen. You come here and grab Shep.”
Before he crossed the clearing, he looked left, then right, as if he were looking for oncoming traffic.
“Still smells like skunk,” Ronnie said as he stepped across the hollow.
Willie took a sniff of the air. Something stank, that was for sure. He’d been too angry to notice. It was pretty awful. It didn’t smell like skunk, to him. It was as bad as skunk. But more like spoiled meat. With a hint of something else. He remembered his mother as she lay on her deathbed, too heavy to move on her own for the last months of her life. She’d gained a putrescence all her own in that awful summer. She died stewing in her own filth. That’s what the smell reminded Willie of.
As Ronnie reached his father, the dogs ran over to the boy. They sat at his feet and put their noses into his crotch.
“I guess they like me better than you, Daddy.”
“Well maybe you should hunt with them and I’ll stay home next time and play Intendo. How’s that sound?”
“Nintendo,” Ronnie corrected. “I didn’t think you liked video games, Daddy.” Ronnie bent and scratched Pete behind his ears.
“You’re as useless as tits on a boar hog, you know that Ronnie?”
Willie began digging in his coveralls again, wanting another cigarette.
He found it, and while he lit it, Ronnie wondered aloud: “What do we do now? Go home?”
“I don’t want to go home empty handed.”
“I’ve never seen the dogs like this, Daddy.”
Willie said nothing. He stood and smoked.
“Wanna take them to the truck?”
Willie cocked his jaw and regarded his son. The dogs acting spooked should have been enough, but that Ronnie was wanting to leave, too, really bothered him. As much as Ronnie liked his shitass loud music and his Intendo Games, the boy was a natural hunter who enjoyed getting out into the woods as much as Willie did. But Ronnie was nervous. Almost more than the dogs, Willie saw.
“They stink,” Willie said, pointing to the dogs.
With another drag on his cigarette, Willie admitted defeat.
“Let’s go,” he said.
Ronnie went digging in his pants and pulled a length of choker chain out of each of his side pockets. He handed one to his father to use on Pete and used the other on Shep. He bent to clip the chain onto Shep’s collar.
He surprised his father when he stopped in mid-motion. Instead of hooking the chain into place, Ronnie bent even further, and planted his nose right onto the hound’s back. Shep, who had planted himself between the boy and his father, took no mind.
Ronnie took a deep whiff off the tickhound. He straightened, eyes rolled back into his head. He studied what he found.
He took a step toward Pete, and repeated the process.
He stood, and announced, “I don’t think it’s the dogs that smell, Daddy.”
“Hook Shep up. Let’s go.”
Willie looked up at the sky, and then fumbled in his left pocket for a compass. He flipped it open, and thought for a second.
“Ronnie, if I ain’t wrong, the road ain’t but three quarters a mile or so thataway.” He pointed in a vaguely southern direction, toward the far end of the hollow. The roundabout way he and Ronnie had traveled chasing the dogs had put them relatively close to New Hope Road, where they’d parked. It was a twenty minute walk at most.
Ronnie finished hooking Shep’s chain into place.
Willie took one more sniff of the air. It smelled a little cleaner. That, or he was getting used to the smell. He decided that something had probably died nearby. A deer, or maybe a bear that had gotten shot but had run far enough away that its hunter hadn’t found it. They were too far away from the road for someone to have made a garbage dump.
Ronnie straightened up after checking Pete’s chain
Willie stomped off toward the edge of the hollow.
Willie had always thought leashing a coonhound is often quite the trying process. Getting them to cooperate once they are leashed is doubly difficult. That night, Shep and Pete were eerily patient and compliant with the two men. Ronnie had taken both chain leashes and both dogs walked right at his heel. Occasionally, they would stop to look off to their left, into the woods. This odd behavior, Willie noticed because he walked behind Ronnie. If Ronnie noticed, he gave no sign. His son walked straight ahead.
They re-entered the woods at the end of the hollow.
Willie moved ahead of the group again. Ronnie followed, chains for the dogs in his right hand, his rifle in his left. The men and the dogs were walking in the direction of New Hope Road.
Their path lead them into an indention surrounded by a horseshoe shaped ridge. To their left, about 20 yards away was a sharp rise that went up about 60 feet. On their right the forest floor went on flatly before giving way to a rise of its own about 400 yards away. On the other side, the North River gurgled. As they walked, their path gradually rose, and would come to another steep ridge. If it wasn’t too steep, Willie, Ronnie and the dogs would simply walk down the 60 feet or so to the road. If it was, they would walk along it until they found a safe place to climb down. The forest was somewhat sparse here, with only young oaks and maples spaced out along the forest floor.
They’d walked about ten minutes when Willie mentioned they’d be on New Hope Road in just a few minutes.
“Good,” was Ronnie’s response.
Willie didn’t say anything, but he shared his son’s relief. .
They walked another minute, and then Shep and Pete stopped. They would go no further in the direction they currently traveled. The dogs stopped. Ronnie walked the length of their chains, and then he too stopped, jerked comically backward at their refusal to move.
He pulled a couple of times on the chain, a little harder than he meant to.
“Come on, guys.”
Willie stopped at the sound of his son’s voice. He saw the dogs had stopped. Their tails were between their legs and they were on their stomachs. They whined when Ronnie walked back to coax them on.
“Goddammit!” Willie roared, finally having reached the his limit, “I’ve had just about enough of these fucking dogs!”
“They’re scared, Daddy.”
Ronnie rubbed Pete’s back, where Willie saw, the dog’s fur was standing on end.
Willie looked around them. He couldn’t figure out what was making the dogs act like this. He thought briefly of coyotes, or maybe wild dogs, both of which sometimes showed up to run cattle in Dickerman County. Either could tear a dog to shreds. But he’d have heard them, he thought. Willie thought of a bear, too. Maybe the dogs had run up on a bear, and it’d scared the shit out of them. This prospect gave him a little pause, since he didn’t much like the chances of a 15-year-old and a one-armed-man should they run into a bear that felt threatened by the dogs. He dismissed the idea, though, since he and Ronny were near, and he’d been shouting up a blue storm. Enough to scare a bear, anyway.
That thought gave Willie a little courage.
He took a look into the forest. All around them.
“Dammit! Pete, Shep, C’mon!” He cried, trying to make as much noise as possible, if only to rouse up the dogs just a little bit. “We only got a little ways to go before we get to the truck!”
The dogs didn’t budge.
“This is horseshit, guys,” he said, ashamed of his dogs.
“Let’s go, guys,” Ronnie added, a little more gently.
If anything, the dogs hunkered down a little more deeply.
“Mother Fuck!” Willie screamed, dropping his gun. He whirled quickly on his heel, yelling into the woods: “You dogs want to go home, but yer too fuckin’ stupid to move!” He added for the benefit of anybody listening: “Fuck!”
Then he whirled on Ronnie, who flinched.
“Once we get back home, we’re selling these fucking God Damned Dogs!”
Ronnie blinked, then sighed.
“I gotta piss,” Willie announced, winding his diatribe down. He spun again on his heel and walked over to a fallen pine tree.
He unzipped and started peeing, continuing to Ronnie: “I don’t understand, ya know? You work and work and work to raise a couple of good coondogs and you get into the woods and they go crazy fucking chickenshit and aren’t good for anything.”
Ronnie listened with half an ear. He was looking at the dogs as their ears perked up. They raised their heads and looked forward, at the corner of the ridge they would have to cross to get to the road.
He started to mention something to Willie, but stopped.
He heard it.
His breath left him.
Willie finished peeing. He stuffed everything back into placed pulled his zipper up and turned again on the dogs.
“I really oughtta take up fishing, ya know?” No fuckin’ dogs to screw you out of yer first night off in....”
“No, you listen, Ronny! I....”
“Listen!” Ronnie said, pointing up in the direction of the ridge. It was still 300, 350 yards off.
His first thought was tom toms. Like the kind you hear in the old Cowboys and Indians movies. From the 40's, like they showed on Saturday afternoons on TV when he was a kid. But not tom toms. Just one: tom tom. It came every couple of seconds or so. One beat. But it wasn’t a tom tom.
Willie lost his arm while driving for the Paper Mill in Quincy. He’d driven a log truck, and one of the sounds he’d gotten used to was the sound of pine logs, the trunks of the entire tree, being loaded onto a trailer. One solid piece of live, green wood would strike another, and it would make a thick, “thunk” sound. One rainy afternoon, the load on a trailer he’d been pulling shifted. It caused the whole rig to tip. He heard that “thunk” sound several times that afternoon. He’d lost his arm in the wreck as the load bounced across the highway
The sound was unmistakable to him. What he, Ronnie and the dogs were hearing was the sound of one tree being hit against another. Maybe not a tree. But definitely one large log being struck against another tree. But it sounded so heavy. It didn’t make sense. A regular sound. As they sat there for half a minute, and then a minute, listening, the rhythm never changed, even as the wind picked up and shifted.
“What is it, Daddy?”
“I donknow, Ronnie.”
“It’s gotta be someone up there doin’ it, right? Like an axe or something?”
“I....I don’t think so Ronnie...” was all he could manage.
He looked back at Ronnie, whose eyes were as big as eggs. He heard his son’s throat work with an audible click. He thought better of saying what it sounded like to him.
The dogs stared intently ahead into the night, in the direction of the sound. But now, they seemed ready to bolt in the other direction if given reason and opportunity.
“I don’t blame them,” Willie whispered.
“Let’s go this way,” Willie said, pointing a path running perpindicular to the one they had been traveling.
Ronnie nodded, and the dogs seeming to understand going away from the noise, stood and trotted that way immediately.
While they talked, the beating sound from on top of the ridge didn’t stop.
Willie, Ronnie, Shep and Pete walked in silence, away from the noise. After maybe five minutes (an eternity), the noise stopped. Willie stopped them then, and checked his compass in the moonlight.
“We ain’t too far from the truck, I don’t think.”
“How far?” Ronnie asked, a little breathless. He looked over his left shoulder in the direction they’d come.
“Not far. Over that rise.” Willie pointed over to his left, where the ridge was curving around to meet them. “We parked just before the North River Bridge, remember?”
His boy nodded.
“You can hear it, if you listen.”
Ronnie strained his ears, but he did hear the faint whisper of the river. Normally, it would have been rushing, but the summer and fall had been dry.
“The truck’s just over that ridge,” Ronnie said, more to himself than to his dad or to his dogs.
The dogs didn’t seem to mind when Willie altered the direction ever so slightly to the left, heading toward the corner of the ridge horseshoe. In fact, the dogs seemed to pick up the pace. They started to trot, and edge ahead of Willie and Ronnie. Ronnie, who’d been leading them, started struggling with their chains. Shep trotted ahead of Ronnie on his right, while Pete darted between Ronnie and his father, on Ronnie’s left. Ronnie struggled with the chains twisting around his legs.
“Damn it, Pete,” he said, stopping Pete and stepping backward over the chain with his left leg, and then his right. He gathered the chains into his right hand again, and then froze, listening.
A shaky sigh rolled out of him. He forced himself forward.
He licked his lips, and croaked: “Daddy!”
Willie walked but cocked his ear toward Ronnie.
“Somethin’s trailin’ us.”
Willie and Ronnie both heard it. One step, and nothing. But it was enough. In the woods, only a stone’s throw away back and to their left, something else was walking with them. That something had stopped with them. No, somebody, Willie thought darkly.
“Okay, Ronny,” he whispered. “Walk, but slowly. Don’t talk.” Wedging his gun in the crook of his missing arm, Willie pulled a shell for the .22 from the pouch of his left pocket. He loaded it into the chamber with a dexterity that belied his missing hand.
The dogs had likewise taken notice of the body behind them, but they kept their cool. As Ronnie started walking with them, they seemed to understand the plan. They forged a path through the leaves in front of Ronnie, but kept nosing the air and looking back in the direction of their tracker. Willie walked behind his son, carrying the gun in his left hand at the ready.
His kept his ear on the woods coming from behind them. The sound definitely somebody on two legs. It was behind them. The canopy of trees was growing thicker, and moonlight wasn’t filtering to the ground so much. The light was dim, and Willie couldn’t see through the brush. But he figured the somebody was maybe forty feet off. No more than sixty.
He had the vaguest dark notion that whatever (whoever, he corrected) was back there, was big. He didn’t know why he knew it, but he knew it as sure as he knew his name was Willie Hammond. He thought again of the sound they’d heard minutes before from the top of the ridge. Suddenly, he was sure that whatever had been up on the hill was now down in the woods. Escorting them, almost.
They reached the bottom of the ridge. It wasn’t a bad climb. A little steep. All in all, Ronnie guessed about fifty feet. He figured the slope down to the road was a little trickier. Steeper, and more rugged.
Ronnie paused, and shot his father a glance. Willie nodded that he take the dogs on up the hill.
Then the world fell apart.
From behind them, to the right, on top of the right edge of the horseshoe came the sound they’d heard earlier. “Thonk, Thonk, Thonk,” came the sound of heavy log against heavy log.
The dogs stopped. Ronnie stopped. Willie stopped.
Willie and Ronnie looked at each other.
Then came the reply from the forest, some forty feet away from Willie and Ronnie.
For the rest of their lives, neither would forget the sound that erupted from the night.
Willie thought of the overflow alarm on the Ryan Dam on the Hiwassee River, the one that had burst when he was a boy. He thought of a train whistle. He thought of a wolf howling, his wife screaming. That, if the whole kit had been run twice through Hell itself.
Ronnie had absolutely no frame of reference. When he heard the awful, piercing cry, he knew that he didn’t just hear it. He felt it, all the way into his soul. He knew only that it was as loud and as awful as anything he would ever hear for the rest of his life. A couple of years later, he would hear the word “visceral” used in an English class. He raised his hand to ask what it meant. But he already knew, somehow. for this sound he was hearing now was the most visceral, animal sound he could imagine.
The Scream, as Ronnie would call it for the rest of his life, lasted an infinity of four seconds. It was followed by a shorter, second yell.
The Scream got a reply from where they’d just heard the logs being knocked together many minutes before.
And then came a reply from just on their right, where they’d heard the “thonk” sound the second time.
Ronnie looked and Willie.
Willie said, “Run.”
Ronnie needed no incentive. He and the dogs were gone.
Willie turned back to the forest, and scanned. Without thinking, he raised the .22, pointed it in the direction the Scream had come from, and fired.
He wasn’t sure if he’d imagined what he saw next until much later. As the muzzle of the rifle lit up the night. About thirty feet away from him, and a little to the right of where he’d been pointing the gun. In the night, ridiculously high, to Willie’s mind, there were two red eyes.
And Willie ran.
Ronnie and the dogs had a couple of seconds head start.
The two men and the two dogs sprinted up the hill. Willie would give thanks for the moonlight, and for all the luck, that he or Ronny hadn’t run headlong into a tree or tripped on a stump or in a hole.
Even if they had, Willie would have kept running. Because whatever had been back there, Willie knew, was now following them up the embankment. The noise of terrific and horrible. It was a like a freight train was barreling up the hill behind him, tearing down the forest in the process, knocking aside whatever was in its path.
Ronnie and the dogs got to the top of the hill first. Ronnie tried to pause and look for a footpath, but Pete and Shep had other ideas. They wanted no more part of this crazy night. They would get off this hill and out of these woods if it meant dragging Ronnie down and out with them.
To his credit, Ronnie managed to keep his footing most of the way down. He half ran/half slid until about eight feet from the bottom. His heel caught on a root. He flew the rest of the way down the heel and landed on New Hope Road on his stomach.
He had blinked the dust out of his eyes and had taken his first breath when he heard his father yelling from the hill, himself tumble-running down the steep slope. What he was saying was mostly unintelligible, but Ronnie did recognize “Shit” and “Truck.”
For Willie’s part, he felt like whatever monster/train had been chasing him up the hill had stayed on top fo the ridge. He shared a kinship that moment with the dogs, wanting nothing else to do with the woods, coon hunting or this fucked up loony shit night in general.
He managed to more jump than fall out of the woods. The edge of the hill before the road was actually a four-foot high wall of limestone. Willie managed to clear this and rolled to a stop halfway across the gravel road.
Ronnie was already up and making for the pickup truck, which was only a hundred feet from where they’d jumped from the woods.
Willie picked up his rifle, which had skittered across the road, and followed his son at a sprint.
Ronnie had already made for the passenger seat, which seemed just as well for Pete and Shep, who’d joined the boy in the cab. Willie ran, fishing his keys from his chest pocket as he did, knocking cigarettes and lighter to the ground. He got in the truck, handing his rifle across to Ronnie as he got in.
He fumbled with the key, trying once and twice to get the key into the ignition.
Ronnie was muttering, “C’mon, C’mon.”
On the third try, Willie got the key into the ignition. For half a second, he was just knew the truck wouldn’t start.
But he was wrong, thank Jesus for small favors. The rusty Dodge fired right to life.
The tires sang for purchase, spitting gravel and dust into the night. Willie looked out of the corner of his eye at the driver’s side mirror. The truck leapt into the road. In the crimson glow of the tail-lights, Willie thought he saw something big cross the road in his wake. In two steps, the shape went from one side of the road to the other, and then vanished into the canopy of the forest.
He put his eyes in front of him. He drove as fast as he could to rid himself forever of the Priest Woods.
Willie and Ronnie stopped at the Gas n’ Grub in Trainersville as the sun poked its way over the mountain. Neither had spoken in the hour and a half they’d driven down the winding backroad.
That’s where I saw them. I hadn’t seen Willie in a couple of years, and I told him hello.
Willie was pumping the gas while Ronnie pulled the dogs from the cab of the truck and put them into the metal pens in the bed.
“Coon hunting, Willie?”
Willie only grunted. I irked me that after two years, this was the only response I was getting.
“Didja get anything?”
Willie looked at Ronnie, who stared glassily back. His boy was exhausted. He topped off the tank, and looked back at me for a second.
“No, we didn’t,” he said.
“You want to buy a couple of coon hounds?”
Do you want to know what I’ve always thought about that story?
I always thought it was bullshit.
I knew Willie was scared. I knew Ronnie had been scared. But I’d never given them much credit for brains.
I figured they’d run up on a bear, and had it blown up in their minds to be something else.
I figured the next time I saw Willie Hammond, I owed him an apology.
I also thought of one last thing:
I got up from my conversation with Willie to hit the head, telling him that I had to see a man about a horse. I returned from the toilet to find Willie gone. I ordered another beer, figuring to myself that it needed to be my last if I was going to make it to the grocery before they closed.
I was taking the first sip from the bottle when I saw a body move into the stool on my left.
“Mr. Waverly. How are you?”
“Call me Lyndon, Michael. It’s good to see you.”
“You too. How’ve you been?”
“Pretty good, for this part of the road.”
We talked for a minute or two about the little nothings of life in a small town. Then he asked:
“What were you and Willie Hammond talking about so intently?”
I tried to wrap my mind around it. Finally, I could only say: “Willie’s not so much for coonhunting anymore.”
Lyndon considered that. He patted me on the back, and said “See you next time, Michael.”
That was the last time I’d seen him.