Southern Hospitality

scary woodsJack relaxed for the first time in miles. A lonesome stretch of Texas highway lay behind and ahead of him, not another car in sight. Slowing down, he pulled the Mustang to the shoulder of the interstate and, as the engine idled, he casually rolled a joint. After a few minutes, he eased back onto the pavement, traveling at a more leisurely pace. He took another deep drag, held onto it, and then choked on the magic smoke. His rear view vision swarmed with flashing blue lights.

Every nerve in his body screamed, “Run!” He snuffed the weed and floored the accelerator. The Mustang plunged ahead, and the blue lights receded a little. “Faster!” he yelled, as his brain doused his body with adrenalin. The speedometer needle fell out of sight as his eyes scrambled for an exit.

The lights moved closer, and his heart pounded. There had to be an exit. Topping a hill, he saw one. Taking the service road for a short distance, he hung the first left. The patrol car gained on him. He knew there would be others soon, a horde of blue lights sparkling the countryside. He slid into the first road to his right, throwing gravel.

Behind him, a caravan of blue lights advanced. He jammed the accelerator to the floor. A stop sign appeared and he decided to turn right, to circle around, planning to get behind the ridiculous parade tailing him.

Immediately he realized his mistake as another set of blue lights barreled toward him. He gunned the engine, taking another sharp turn. The Mustang fishtailed, and he almost lost control. Before his pursuer could follow, yet another road appeared, and he turned again. Sirens screamed, disturbing anyone’s sleep for miles.

The road veered unexpectedly. He had picked up too much speed to negotiate the turn and he saw the steep embankment just as he slammed into it. A massive oak tree plowed through the Mustang, stopping short of the windshield. Jack’s senses abandoned him temporarily. Bewildered, he sat behind the wheel rubbing his numb forehead, wondering what the hell had happened.

Then the adrenalin kicked in again. He grabbed the moneybag from the back seat, but the solid earth wall had jammed his door, preventing his escape. Quickly, he threw his body against the opposite door and pulled the handle.

The door swung open and he bolted from the vehicle. He stumbled, almost falling. Blue lights flashed and the sirens deafened him. He lunged, grateful for the night, into a grove of cedar trees. Easing forward, his eyes adjusted quickly to the darkness and, after a short distance, he found himself surrounded by woods. Tangled underbrush grabbed at his feet and ankles. Branches snatched at him, and he felt the scratches stinging his face and arms. Curiously, it seemed his legs had acquired an uncanny knowledge of the place, for they carried him expertly deeper and deeper into the property, distancing him from the sirens and the blinding blue lights.

He heard a dog barking somewhere. He gasped for breath, his lungs burning, but, finding himself in a wide-open field, he pushed onward. Taking advantage of the view offered by the moonlight, he picked up speed. Behind him, the blue lights flashed incessantly. He saw other flashes, amber lights, spreading out from the vehicles in different directions. Flashlights. The officers pursued him on foot now, and he raced toward a solid wall of trees

Sliding between the tree trunks, he leaned against one of them. Breathless, his chest heaved and his heart hammered while his eyes searched the darkness ahead of him. Nothing but trees. The barking grew much louder. Suddenly, the ground splashed beneath his feet, and he sunk up to his ankles in mud and water. He trudged through the sludge, cursing the dog he heard plummeting toward him. On the other side of the stream, the animal blocked his path, its white teeth bared menacingly. Man and beast faced one another, each contemplating the other’s next move. The dog growled, raising its hackles.

“Hello, Pal.” Jack hardly recognized his own voice. “Hey, I’m not gonna hurt you.” Incredibly, the growling turned into a whimper, then a friendly whining, as the dog brushed against Jack, offering his head, obviously wanting to be petted. Jack scratched it gently behind an ear, and patted the broad shoulders. “Good doggy, now where do you live? Huh?” Jack looked warily behind him and saw lights bouncing across the opening he had just crossed. “Come on,” he whispered hoarsely, clapping his hands quietly. “Let’s go!”

The dog loped away, stopping once to look back. Obviously satisfied that the man followed, the dog ran faster, apparently a destination in mind. “Smart doggy,” Jack said under his breath.

They ran indefinitely, deeper and deeper into the woods. The lights and sounds pursuing him disappeared. Abruptly, the trees opened into a tight-knit clearing, large enough to accommodate the sturdy looking cabin situated there as naturally as if it had sprouted from the ground along with the trees. The place appeared deserted, its windows dark. Jack eased around the house in search of a door. The dog loped along beside him. Man’s best friend. Jack chuckled softly at his change of luck.

He switched the moneybag to his other hand, flexing his fingers in an effort to ease the stiffness caused by the intense gripping, to circulate the blood flow. He cocked his ear for sounds coming from the house, or from the direction from which he had come. He heard nothing.

As he considered breaking the glass in the door in front of him, it occurred to him that it might not be locked. Turning the knob, it swung open easily. A peculiar musty smell permeated the place, and he assumed the cabin belonged to some outdoorsman who came here to hunt occasionally. He had only moved a couple of feet into the interior when a hand grabbed him from behind, gripping his right shoulder. Jack’s blood gelled.

“I didn’t hear no knock, Mister.” A woman’s voice came not from behind him but from another room, a little to his right.

“Sorry, I didn’t know anyone was here.” The gargantuan hand squeezed tighter, and Jack winced from the pain, his knees almost buckling.

“Bring him here, Babe. Let me look at him.”

The hand released his shoulder, but shoved him forward, once, then twice, pushing him through the darkness. Snap, the smell of sulfur, then a light flickered. The yellow-glow of a kerosene lamp brightened the room. Babe’s asthmatic breathing followed Jack.

The woman peered at him as she rocked in a chair near a window. Babe pushed him toward a wooden bench across from her. “You lost?” She had a deep coarse voice, almost like a man’s.

“Had car trouble out on the road.”

“Road?”

“Other side of the woods.”

“How come you didn’t go out to the highway?”

“Had a run-in with the law.”

“What law?”

“I don’t know.”

“What for?”

“A little dealin’.” He decided to confide in them to a point, but attempted to hide the bag behind his back. “Guess somebody told.”

Weirdly, the notion struck him funny and he snickered. The sudden run-in shook him, surprising for a man whose life was nothing but a string of bad deals, one after the other like a train of empty boxcars. The humorous moment vanished when he got a good look at Babe.

The man towered over Jack a good twelve inches. A silly grin spread all over Babe’s boyish face as he reached over and tweaked Jack’s right ear. Just pinched it, right above the ear lobe, and grinned broader, exposing ugly crooked teeth. A meaty fore finger slid down to touch the ring in Jack’s ear.

“My boy likes baubles.” The woman rose from her chair. “What’s your poison, whoever you are?” She paused in front of Jack, an old woman whose age he could not guess. With her thumb and index finger, she flicked his earring soundly with the tip of her fingernail, clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth, and peered into his face. “Whisky, gin, or rye?” She danced a little jig, a kind of mountain clogging routine, pulling her dress above her knees. “Tell me your name, or I’ll spit in your eye!” She leaned closer, reeking of dirty hair, tobacco, and perspiration.

“Jack, my name’s Jack.”

“Jack be nimble or Jack Sprat?”

“Jack Rabbit.” He figured he’d been truthful enough.

“Smack, Jack, if he moves, Babe.” Throwing back her head and raising her hand to her mouth, she whooped like an Indian on the warpath.

Jack needed an exit plan, immediately. He wondered if the pair, obviously deranged, could be dangerous. He shifted a little on the bench and Babe edged closer. Finding a crumpled pack of cigarettes in his shirt pocket, Jack shook one out. “You got a light?”

Babe stared at him like a brainless bull. Jack felt around inside his pants pocket for matches, knowing he had left them in the Mustang. He placed the cigarette between his lips and stared at Babe. The man’s colossal shoulders shook with silent laughter. Jack decided Babe must be mute, for he had not uttered a word.

The woman returned, proffering a drink. “A cup of hospitality, for that bag in your hand,” she bargained.

He dropped the unlit cigarette into his shirt pocket. Taking the goblet, he tightened his hold on the moneybag. She winked slyly in his general direction.

The scent of whisky came from the glass and it smelled like good whisky, too. The old woman raised her own goblet to his and clicked it.

“Drink up, Jack-o-lantern, mornin’s comin’.”

Jack wanted the drink. Against the advice of every rational cell in his brain, he wanted it. Needed it. A tremor shook his hand slightly as he raised the liquor to his lips. It tasted good burning its way into his stomach. The next mouthful tasted better. The woman rocked in her chair holding her drink between both hands. Babe and his mother watched Jack drain his goblet.

He woke up in total darkness. Paralyzed, he thought he was dead. He opened his mouth as far as the tight fabric covering his head allowed, and screamed. He screamed over and over, terrified.

After a while, exhausted by his fear, he realized he was wrapped from the top of his head to the tip of his toes. He examined the fabric stretched over his face with his tongue. It felt like a bed sheet. He tried to bite the cloth, to tear it with his teeth, but it was too tight. He lay on a semi-hard surface and concentrated on the echo of his own breathing, knowing that it was the most important sound in the world.

The scent of urine assaulted his nostrils and he discovered that he was soaked in it. He assumed it was his own. He attempted to roll over only to find the space too narrow, the walls too close. He lay there flopping from side to side, desperately groping for comprehension. There was a strange softness to the solid floor, and to the walls encasing him. Jack sniffed a familiar scent and sickened by its horrible revelation, gagged from nausea. The smell of freshly turned soil overpowered him and he understood. He was lying in his own grave.

The worse kind of fear seeped through him like ice water into every pore and his heart clamored inside his shrouded chest. Terror forced him to try to sit up, but found his shoulders wedged too tightly. His brain urged him to keep pounding his shoulders against the walls, to attempt to raise his body into a sitting position. He knew he could either try, or lie there and die. With a surge of energy, he believed he could do it, that he could knock away enough dirt if he pushed long enough. If he could sit, he might be able to raise himself to a squat, then to stand.

Every muscle in his body strained to assist him in the effort. Gradually he raised his shoulders a little higher, as he kept pounding, up and down, up and down, in agonizing partial sit-ups. His stomach muscles knotted and his lungs felt like they might explode. Still he pushed his shoulders forward, each time feeling the dirt shift a little. He had no idea how long his body performed the rigorous task. His shoulders grew numb, and the back of his neck ached. Still he pressed forward. Back, forward, back, like a mechanical wedge, pushing, pushing.

If not for his breathing, the grunting of his labor, there would be no sound. The death-like silence motivated him. The sound generated by his continuous, excruciating effort sustained his fragile grip on sanity. Otherwise, awareness of the life-robbing silence of this grave would kill him. Pure supernatural instinct empowered him, turning his body into a constantly moving survival machine.

Finally, his shoulders sprang forward, meeting no resistance. Elated he sat upright. Then the pointlessness of his futile achievement crushed all hope. It would be physically impossible to stand, arms and legs bound as they were. He repelled the crouching certainty of his own death by pushing against the binding that pinned both arms to his sides. Regardless of the amount of force applied, he could not move them. He tried to separate his feet. They remained tightly bound as though his legs were one single limb.

With difficulty, he inhaled, trying to suck in enough air to fill his tortured lungs. The atmosphere seemed tight, compacted. Could air solidify? “Noooooooo!” He expelled the words with all the strength he could muster, only to have them fall back over him like chunks of marshmallow, tumbling through the black velvet atmosphere. He jerked his head from side to side, and heard sinew, tendons, something grinding painfully inside his neck. Alarmed at first, then grateful for it, he welcomed it. Pain was better than feeling nothing. Pain was life! He worked his neck faster. Growing dizzy and faint, he almost fell backward. His brain screamed at him. Stand! Stand! Stand!

Jack verbalized the command. “Stand! Stand! Stand! Stand you bastard, STAND!” It became a chant, and with each syllable, he willed his body forward. “Stand! Forward! Stand! Forward!” Relentlessly, the ritual continued, until, unexplainably, he bounded forward, willing his legs to bend. Miraculously, he heard a snapping sound around his knees, then the sound of fabric ripping. His legs bent!

He fell backward again, and then threw himself forward, his body one unified muscle pulling his feet into position. He bounced into a squat. The close walls now served a need. They became his support system. He pushed himself into a standing position, thankful for the closeness; he leaned against one side and rested. He stretched his shoulders and neck until the top of his head bumped something hard. Sounded like wood. A board?

He choked on dryness as thirst overwhelmed him, and licked his dry lips, attempting to swallow. The strenuous workout produced no sweat. His body was bone dry and the dampness of the urine, gone. He wondered how much time had passed, but refused to dwell on the temporal, the rational. Reason did not exist in the dark hole of Jack’s predicament. No cause for sanity now. Intelligence was not his friend, not any more. Only an animal’s instincts could survive the reality now.

He began to jump, banging his head against the wooden barrier. His head pounded, and what little sense remained inside his deranged mind warned him that he would soon lose consciousness if he continued. Dizzy, he felt himself slipping, falling forward, and he pressed into a wall until he regained his balance.

Again, he pounded against the door, certain it would open if he hammered it long enough. He felt warmth trickling over his scalp. The sensation tickled, and the aggravating need to scratch the itching overcame him. He rubbed his head back and forth, twisting as far as possible from one side to the other, managing to rub the back of his head against a wall. This newfound activity took his mind off pounding the door. Sometime later, the continuous rubbing produced another sensation. He felt the dirt wall, not through the fabric, but against his bare head!

Frantically, bobbing his head up and down, and then in sideways circular motions, he twisted faster, shredding the fabric against the sandpaper effects of the wall. He kept maneuvering his head, managing to tear the fabric more and more. Finally, he had worn an opening large enough. Leaning against the wall one more time, he shoved his neck and head upward, through the fabric. He noticed a throbbing tenderness in his right ear lobe, and understood why the earring had not snagged on the sheet. My boy likes baubles.

Although he still faced nothing but the same encompassing darkness, he had never experienced such hopefulness, such victory. Yes! He shouted the word repeatedly. Renewed faith sparked another idea. Somehow, if he could manage to knock dirt from the walls, he could accumulate a pile on the floor, a pile high enough to elevate him, to enable him to push his head against the door.

He began the same sideways circular motions with his knees. This task, much less strenuous than the head twisting and rolling, went faster. The dirt fell away. He jumped, and felt the piles accumulating on both sides of his feet. He figured out a method for maneuvering the dirt towards the center of the floor, and soon he felt himself rising, the mound growing, becoming more solid each time he jumped. When he could no longer jump without bending his head, he balanced himself on it, stretching to his fullest height. His head pressed firmly against the wood.

His hands! He could free his hands! He should have thought of it sooner! He began manipulating his right hand first, back and forth against the wall, rubbing, twisting. He envisioned miniscule bits of glass and gravel inside the sandy loam and worked faster. Another thought processed itself. The door could not be solid, for even in his near delirious state, realization nudged the notion that he could not breathe without air, and he certainly would have depleted all of it by now.

That flash of reason boosted his optimism! He moved his hand against the wall faster, the friction burning his skin. Good! He worked harder, harder. Time had no meaning, he did not know if he remained completely conscious as he worked, so involuntary his actions became. At some point, he felt coolness against his hand, soothing the burning, and he knew the fabric had shredded. Another fear surfaced. What if his arms were bound with something other than the sheet? Not rope. He certainly would have felt its bulkiness against the wall. Tape?

He began rubbing against the wall, rolling the frayed fabric back a little each time. His little finger wiggled free. With it he worked the material away from the next finger, then the next, stretching, struggling to free his thumb until at last his entire right hand ripped through the sheet. Right arm strained forward, his hand pushing against the fabric while he willed away any further constraints. He forced his hand, his arm upward, aiming for a Nazi salute. It worked, splitting the sheet in one long rip! His right arm flew to the ceiling and his fingers scrambled, moving his hand over the rough board like a blind spider.

He felt cracks in it. He felt a loose knothole and poked at it. It wiggled. He poked again, and again. His finger shot through it, and he felt a breeze. A gut feeling told him to pull his finger back. The dimmest possible ray of light about the size of a small egg poured through the opening. Definitely not daylight, but more like the pale light of the moon trying to filter through thin clouds.

He worked on his left hand; he would need both of them to force open the door, which seemed to press down solidly. Could something be sitting on it? Then, the worst fear of all—could Babe be standing on it? His left hand moved faster, adrenalin pumped. He needed water. His hand rubbed and twisted, feeling the anticipated burning followed by the glorious coolness. Finally, the cold dirt touched his skin. Again, his fingers did their job. Working like a miniature expert team of rescuers, they ripped and tore, rolled and stretched, slipping the fabric away. His hand popped free. Again, the arm strained, stretching and tearing the cotton.

Both hands against the ceiling, he pushed, jamming his feet into the dirt mound. Ducking his head forward as much as possible, he stood to his fullest, and heaved with the combined force of every muscle. He heard the creaking, and a slight giving away of the wood, just as he heard breathing on the other side. A familiar sound. Then the light disappeared from the knothole.

Jack moved his hand over the wood and jerked back in shock when he brushed something wet protruding through the hole. The breathing changed to whining, then a friendly whimper. The dog! Its nose sniffed Jack’s hand. Jack prayed the dog was alone.

He ripped the sheet slowly away from his body, inch by inch due to his limited arm movements. Knowledge that he wore no clothing had oddly escaped him until now. He moved downward, bending at last to free his feet. Nothing more than the sheet had bound him, wrapping him like a full body tourniquet. He stood completely nude. The light returned. The dog scratched the wood, fast excited scratching signaling Jack to hurry! The scratching intensified, the whining now replaced by heavy panting.

Jack strained harder against the barrier, his muscles bulging. He felt the door budge slightly, then saw the outline of a heavy pipe bolting it. Dry sobs shook his body. The scratching above him persisted.

The knothole! Energized again, he crooked his fingers through the hole and pulled with superhuman strength. The board splintered and he tore back a large section of it. Loose dirt poured over him. With both hands, he gripped the edge of another board and pulled. Then again, and again, until he had torn an opening large enough. The dog looked down at him, tail wagging.

Rubbing sand from his eyes, Jack began wildly kicking dirt from the walls, chunks of it. Building steps, he climbed higher, kicking, then climbing until, incredibly, he pulled himself from the grave. Furtively, on all fours, he scrambled away from the ghastly hole into the safety of trees.

Disoriented, and completely drained, on the verge of collapse, he forced himself upright to stand beside the dog just as a door closed nearby. Horrified, Jack turned toward the sound, and then he heard something else much closer. Raspy breathing and shuffling noises behind him!

One last burst of adrenalin gushed from his brain. Run!  Ruuuunnnn! Jack ran, his bare feet scarcely touching the fallen leaves glistening in the moonlight. Fleeing naked into the fog, he followed the dog.

Jack had no sense of time or direction, not a clue how many hours had passed since he’d fled the scene with the police in pursuit. Hours? Days? He didn’t know. His mind seemed to have lost control of his body; otherwise he would have long ago collapsed. Pure irrational instinct drove him on, his glistening skin now wet from the moisture in the air and from exertion. The sweat mixed with the dirt from his ordeal. After a while he stopped. Bending over, he gasped to catch his breath, clasping both knees with his hands. His entire body felt bruised to the bone, and his lungs felt like they could explode.

When his breathing seemed more normal, he cautiously surveyed his location. The dog had disappeared, Jack knew not when. He noticed the trees were now less sparse, and the dirt beneath his sore feet felt softer. Like sugar sand. He looked over his shoulder in the direction of the old cabin, and saw nothing but trees. The fog was dissipating. Heading onward away from brightening sky in the east, he realized it was early dawn. Not long before sunup.

Suddenly he was out of the woods entirely, into a clearing. Frantically his eyes scanned the area for some sign of a house, a building. He must keep out of sight, hidden. Jack had no idea what he was going to do now. Dirty naked man running around in the woods like a scared rabbit would get him locked up faster than anything! “What the…” He squinted, staring into the flat open field in front of him. He broke into a full run, abandoning caution, nothing on his mind now, but the food in front of him. There wasn’t even a fence to stop him.

He grabbed up the first big round dark green melon he came to, and bounced it on the ground. It burst wide open, its dark red meat lying in dense juicy chunks at his feet. Dropping down on all fours, like a famished hog, he devoured the black diamond melon, burying his face into the rind, drinking the juice. His grandfather had been a watermelon farmer, and this was the kind he raised. Jack had visited him in as little boy, and the smell and taste of the sweet fleshy meat took him back to his other life. He felt his energy returning, his senses sharpening. He helped himself to another one, but knew better than to gorge himself. He remained there, on his knees amongst the rows and rows of watermelon vines and huge green melons, trying to decide his next move.

Where’s the dog, he wondered. Probably belongs to the watermelon farmer, Jack decided. All was quiet, except for a distant, steady hum to what Jack deducted would be to the south of him. Interstate traffic. He was getting his bearings.

As the sky turned a pale yellowish white, just before the sun peeked over the trees, Jack’s eyes glimpsed a figure about 50 yards away in the middle of the watermelon patch. He stared amazed as the scarecrow came into focus. A fully clothed scarecrow! “How about that, Jack Rabbit!” Jack said under his breath. Crawling down the middle of the rows, keeping himself as long to the ground as possible, he wasted no time undressing the stick fellow. The old flannel shirt was ragged and thin, and the Dickie overalls were stuffed with straw, but the rags would cover him. He wished for shoes, but grabbed the clothes and dropped down again on all fours, hurrying back in the direction he had come, into the cover of the woods.

Undercover again, he shook the hay from the clothing, and dressed himself. The overalls hung on him about like they did the scarecrow, not a good fit, but they’d do. He felt safer already, and a notion came to him, directing him back to the cabin. He scooted into a clump of huckleberry bushes. He needed to sort out all that had happened since he left Dallas. It was time for some serious problem solving.

He knew no one had seen him as he watched that drug deal go down behind the gas station. He had gone behind the dumpster to smoke a joint before he went out to hustle a ride for himself, when he witnessed a drop being made. He wasn’t but a few feet away when the Mustang pulled up in front of the dumpster. Jack watched the driver head to another parked vehicle on the side of the building, package in hand, leaving the driver’s door open and the engine running.

Jack had seen an opportunity inside that car. The money bag on the seat was it. Jack knew that if what he suspected was true, there would be cash in that bag. It might be the kind of cash he needed. Shelby was waiting for him in Shreveport, the boat was ready. She was ready for him, as long as he brought enough money. They had plans, life on the river plans, and the chance he had always known would come along, did. Jack had always been lucky like that. So, he didn’t hesitate. Sliding behind the wheel, he sped away. Through the rear view mirror, he saw the car’s owner running after the Mustang, but lost sight of him within seconds. Perfect.

It was full daylight now. Jack knew time was not on his side, that the old woman and Babe could already be gone with his money. If not, he feared they would be soon. He was satisfied the police would be focusing on the owner of the Mustang. Jack was not in their radar. His identity was invisible. He needed a smoke. Nervously, he settled back into the bushes to clear his mind, to think about things, to formulize a way to get back in the game, to resume his journey. After a while, he was ready.

He crept furtively back toward the cabin, hoping the dog didn’t reappear. He needed nothing announcing his arrival. He surmised he’d walked a couple of miles before he saw the cabin in the distance through the trees. Creeping closer, he noticed a ramshackle shed a few yards from the house, its double doors flung open, with an obviously very distraught Babe sitting on the steps. The giant oaf of a man’s broad, ugly face was buried in his hands, and the muscles in his massive arms bulged. Moving slowly, carefully, Jack inched closer. He saw the gaping grave a few feet from where the lamenting Babe sat. He sobbed like a baby, groaning and babbling, in a deep guttural voice, rolling his oversized head from side to side in his hands. “I’m sorry, Ma. Babe’s sorry, Ma, Oh, no, Mah-ah-ah-ah,” he moaned over and over, in agony, obviously overcome with his fear of the old woman. Jack assumed, from the way Babe was carrying on, that he had not let the cat out of the bag yet, that the old woman had no idea that Jack had escaped. Babe sat there, apparently oblivious to anything, other than his own dilemma.

Jack crept closer. He could see dirt piled high next to the hole, its splintered wooden door still chained and bolted to steel rods protruding from the ground on each side of the grave. Every nerve was on high alert. Every movement had to count. He must not miss a thing; his eyes darted back and forth. He watched in all directions for any sign of the mother. The cabin seemed quiet, no movement anywhere around it. Babe still sat blubbering hoarsely, indecipherable words Jack supposed expressed the terrifying inhuman fear the son had for his mother. Where was the old devil bitch, anyway? Jack had to stay focused like he had never focused on anything in his life!

If Babe remained lost in his own agony, unaware of anything outside his own fear, Jack might be able to sneak around behind the little shed, taking advantage of the thick clump of honeysuckle that was, for the most part, covering it. Tree by tree, he slid his way closer, flattening his body against each trunk large enough to hide him, until he was close enough finally to smell the honeysuckle. His feet hurt from the bleeding cuts, his heels were bruised and scraped. He raised one foot and rubbed it against the leg of the scarecrow pants, which he had rolled to his ankles to shorten them. Just as he was lowering his foot, a brown and black snake slithered across his other foot. He almost stepped on it with the raised foot. He froze, and held his breath while his skin crawled. The snake looked all of six feet long, as it wriggled its way into the tangled vines. Babe, still unaware of any other presence, whimpered and mumbled, talking incoherently to himself, interrupting himself with a pitiful wailing, calling out Ma-a-a-a-a-h! The words were muffled, for his face remained buried in his hands.

Jack was close enough now to smell him. He vacillated between wanting Babe to shut up, for fear his caterwauling would draw the old woman out to the shed, and wanting him to keep carrying on even louder, so as to keep his attention diverted from Jack. The last thing Jack needed now was for her to show up. He hoped to deal with her, when the time was right for him. That old crow had his money, and when he had it back, he would be out of this inhospitable neck of the woods lickety split. You evil old hag! He grimaced. He remembered her cackle when she mocked him, before they drugged him. Where is she? Odd, he thought, she must be dead to the world in there, sleeping off the whiskey, most likely. He hoped.

Now, Jack managed to ease himself around the back of the building, and coming around the other side, he saw a shovel and a pick axe lying on the ground. He chose the pick axe. He noticed the handle was nice and long, and the pick tapered to a sharp pointy end. Leaning back close to the side of the building, he prepared himself. Then, in two long steps, he pushed himself into the open, and stood in front of the man on the steps.

Babe raised his face, and his blood-shot swollen eyes stared back at Jack in complete and utter surprise. With both hands fisted, Babe raised himself, lowered his head, and charged at Jack, giving Jack the perfect target.
It happened in an instant it seemed, but time slowed down, and that instant pulsated with energy and power, and Jack knew strength he never thought possible. He raised the pick axe high as his arms could raise it, and before Babe knew what hit him, Jack slammed the point of it into the top of the oversized head. Jack fell backward, and Babe came forward, blood gushing, the pick axe embedded all the way, all the way through his brain. The point protruded from the forehead, between the still bewildered eyes. Jack rolled to one side, just as the pathetic creature fell with a resounding thud, face down beside Jack, its head about a foot from the grave.

The unnatural strength still controlled Jack, as he moved quickly, to the side of the man, pushing the dead weight toward the hole. Pushing, pushing on his hands and knees, he put all his weight into the effort until the top half of Babe fell into the pit, the pick axe still embedded. Jack stood, and taking both of the huge man’s feet, he flipped Babe backwards into his final resting place. The body hardly made a sound as it fell on top of the mounds of dirt Jack had left there during the night. Jack retrieved the shovel, and with one eye on the house, he began shoveling dirt into the hole. He felt as though he was standing outside of himself, an observer, directing these events, but at the same time, completely unattached to what was happening. It had to be done. Quickly.

Time was picking up momentum now, the minutes no longer standing still, it now raced against the odds. Jack worked, moving the dirt shovelful by shovelful into the grave, until the body was out of sight. The heat bore down on him, the humidity heavy and stifling. The sun was still eastward, but before long it would be directly overhead.

His body ached, every inch of it, but Jack kept moving, stayed focused. Jack had no time to contemplate the deed he had committed, that he had viciously murdered the man and buried him. It flashed through his mind how easily he had sunk that pick axe into Babe’s skull, how effortless it had seemed. All he felt now was a relief that part of his plan had worked. He knew there was no other way around doing what he did, and he wasn’t finished yet.

He decided to carry the shovel with him. Uneasily, he moved closer to the cabin, coming around to the back of it, which was lined with windows. They were covered, so he could see nothing inside the place. However, he could not shake a sensation, an odd feeling, that had come over him, that he was being observed, had been watched through the whole bloody affair with Babe, but his eyes saw nothing, his ears heard nothing, only the slight crunching of his bare feet on the leaf covered ground. Far away, he heard interstate traffic, the steady hum a mile or two away.

There was no door at the back of the cabin. He circled on around it and saw a small porch and side entrance. He paused, gripped the shovel handle, and stepped onto the porch. He put his head against the door, and listened. Nothing. He noticed his clothes lying in a pile next to the door on the floor of the porch. Like they had been placed there, to be disposed of later. He saw a burn barrel nearby. He diverted is attention away from his clothing, and hesitated before turning the door knob. He hugged the shovel close to him, gripping the handle in his right hand. He tensed his body, and slowly turned the knob.

When the door opened too easily, he realized it had been ajar, not completely closed by the last person who used it. His heart pounded, but he was ready for the old woman. He pushed the door hard, in case she was behind it, waiting to attack him when he entered. He opened it so fast and hard, the knob hit the wall. He froze, not breathing. He waited. The cabin was dim; he had to let his eyes adjust. He paused, listening, looking around the empty room. The smell of liquor and cigarette smoke overpowered any other scent in the house, but it was stale smoke, from butts and ashes.

Nothing moved anywhere, but his eyes could focus now, and the room he had entered was the kitchen. To the left of him, he could see through a larger room, all the way to the front door, where he had entered that night. He saw the rocking chair where the old woman had been sitting. It was empty now. Where the hell was she and where was the money! Jack grew impatient, anxious to complete his plan, to leave this god forsaken place.

For some reason, he was confident she had no gun, which in itself was a peculiar fact, considering they were occupying what he assumed to be a hunter’s cabin.
She had not used the gun on him, either to gain control over him or to finish him off when they had him incapacitated. Wouldn’t they have, if they had one? The method by which they overpowered him, stripping him naked and binding him with a sheet, before disposing of him, sickened him. But the thought of it prodded him on, through the small house. She would pay for that!

He crept, glad now he had no shoes, for his footsteps were silent. The short hallway led to two opposite doors, which he knew would be the bedrooms. He stopped, listened for sleeping sounds, movement of any kind, but heard nothing. No breathing, no snoring. Was it possible she had left? Abandoned Babe? Taken Jack’s money and bailed out?

Now, that thought worried Jack. It worried him more than the fact that she could be hiding in one of the bedrooms, just waiting for him, knife ready. He gripped his shoved tighter, ready now to end this charade, to rid himself of the power of this wicked old woman. The door to his left was open. He peeked inside, cautiously. There was nothing in the room, but a rumpled bed on the floor. Just an old mattress, under a ragged quilt. It reeked of the odor of Babe. The door to the right was closed. That’s where she is, he thought, if she is here at all. She is asleep in there, or she has gone. He dreaded opening the door and finding no one more than he feared the deadly encounter that would occur otherwise. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and waited a few seconds before exhaling. Then he flung open the door.

She lay there on her bed, still wearing the old high topped shoes and dirty stained dress. Her gray hair spread out beneath her head and her wide open eyes stared through the ceiling, and beyond. He mouth gaped, and her head lay on her shoulder, in an unusual position. Jack moved closer and saw the purplish blue bruises all around her neck. It became clear to Jack now, the source of Babe’s agony; his terrible fear came from knowing he had killed his ma. The old crow’s neck had definitely been wrung.

But it was the bag in her hands that interested Jack now. The old woman had clung to that money bag through it all, until she was dead, and even in death, she did not release her hold. Her bony, crow-like fingers had fixed themselves in a death grip. Rigor mortis had set in, and retrieving the bag took a little more time. One last good tug, and once again the money was back where it belonged. Jack considered it his money, well-earned. Well-earned, indeed!

He backed from the room, the air too close, the sweet sickly smell heavy now. It nauseated him, and he bolted, rushing outside for fresh air. Out on the small porch, he shed his scarecrow clothes, and put on his underwear and jeans. His wallet was still in his back pocket. He checked it. Nothing appeared to be missing, not even the five dollars he had tucked inside. Beneath his pile of clothing, he found his shoes, with the socks neatly folded on top of them. What a crazy old bitch!

He opened the money bag, and for the first time since he had hijacked the Mustang, he counted the cash. Quickly, he thumbed through it, then let out a low, between-clenched- teeth whistle. There was roughly ten thousand dollars there! More money than Jack had seen, ever! He took out five twenty dollar bills and slipped them inside his wallet with the five. Then, he pushed the bag down inside the waist of his pants, and searched the area carefully for any kind of movement, any sign of life.

He needed badly to wash his feet; he feared some of the cuts could become infected. A water tank was located just beside the porch to his right, and when he turned the faucet, water gushed out. He rinsed each foot, his hands, and his face, holding his head beneath the faucet, letting the water refresh him. He tasted it, and it seemed fresh. Warm from the sun, but not rancid. He drank a little, for he was thirsty, but only enough to last him until he could make it to that highway.

He felt exhilarated, like he as alive for the first time. Everything sparkled. The trees, the blue sky, it was like someone had sprinkled magic dust all around him. Nothing could touch him now. Quickly, he dried with the old flannel shirt he’d discarded, and put on his shirt, tucking it inside his jeans over the money bag. He tightened his belt, and finally, he put on his socks and shoes.

He remembered the unsmoked cigarette in his pocket, and out of necessity, went back into the kitchen in search of matches. He found a small box on the window sill. Outside he lit up, taking a couple of drags, all the while keeping a sharp lookout for visitors. The only things missing from his belongings were the partial pack of cigarettes, and his earring. He threw the scarecrow clothes into the burn barrel, pushed them down into the bottom before tossing in some dried leaves. He threw in a lit match, watching for a minute for the fire to catch. Then, he headed back around the house, to the grave.

He replaced the splintered board over the opening, taking no time to bolt it in place. He finished off the cigarette, and began shoveling again, covering the wood with more dirt. The big mound beside the hole was almost gone now. Tapping it down evenly over the board with the back of the shovel, he kept adding more. When he was satisfied, he threw down the shovel and began dragging fallen tree limbs, which were in plentiful supply all around him. He laid the limbs over the grave, arranging them in such a way to hinder anyone who might happen by, a hunter perhaps, from walking over the grave, and falling through the board. Jack wondered, briefly, if Babe would ever be found. And how long would the old woman lie there, staring through the ceiling? Jack shrugged, and headed toward the sound of the highway. He couldn’t get there fast enough!

In no time at all, he came out of the woods, and could see the interstate, the ebb and flow of the living, the rest of the world. Jack climbed through the barbed wire fence, and began walking down the service road. He could see the overpass just ahead of him which would take him across the interstate over, to the south service road. From there he would access the eastward bound lane of the interstate. He walked faster. It was hot, and he was hungry. He crossed over and heading east, he saw a large truck stop about a half mile away. No problem catching a ride with one of the truckers, he’d done that before.

He judged from the location of the sun, that it must be midafternoon. Three-thirty, maybe. He had no idea what day it was, but he planned to be in Shreveport by sundown.

Published by

Anita Stubbs

I am a private person, but need a place to publish my writings, which have accumulated over the years.   I am in the autumn of my life, and feel the need to preserve some of what I have written in forms of poetry, short stories, and articles.  I have written one novel and now am working on my second one. I live quietly with my husband of 57 years, as of this coming November, in Texas.  My ancestors first came to Texas prior to the Civil War.  Other than the five or so years when we moved out of state, I have lived my life here. Anything more you may wish to know about me, you can hopefully gather from my writings, as far as my values, my character, and my impressions of humanity -- in as much and as far as I have experienced it, or imagined it.

2 thoughts on “Southern Hospitality”

  1. Wow! This was intense and kept my attention.. I was scared once he escaped the grave. Great storytelling!

    Like

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