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By Robert Kalkreuter
They tramped through sunlight speckled and striped by the shadows of tall, spindly pines, two men booted and grim, fording the pebbled creek in urgent unison, like a team of familiar horses. Kicking up puffs of silt and mud, they splashed across the shadow-dappled creek like shadows themselves, somber and ominous in the fierce Florida heat.
Joseph was seventeen. He carried a rifle yoked on his shoulders, fingers dangling over the ends.
"Sure is a long way to go, Uncle Merle," he said, jerking his head sideways and blowing, trying to rid himself of the gnats and mosquitoes tunneling into his eyes and mouth and nose. Scattering, they spun away in erratic retreat, then snapped back, as if coupled to rubber bands.
"Don't know how to make it no shorter," said Merle, cutting his eyes. He was a short, stocky man. His voice was deep and guttural, the hair on his temples grizzling with gray. He carried a rifle too, but carried it army style, slanted on his shoulder.
"It's just that it's a long way to go, that's all," said Joseph. He unyoked his rifle and gripped it barrel down. He rubbed a finger across a scar stretched naked and pink, like a worm, in the stubble of his thin beard.
Side by side they left the creek, mounting the soft, sandy bank. A path angled off between the trees. They moved ahead, still in tandem. Sand stuck to their wet boots, clinging like tossed flour.
"Well, anybody cut me like that, I wouldn't worry about no long way to go," said Merle. Taking a sweat-damp tobacco pouch from his shirt pocket, he balanced the rifle stock with his thumb and handrolled a cigarette, striking the match aflame against one of his thick, yellowed nails. The cigarette flared up, burning quickly to the uneven bulge of tobacco.
"I just wanted to see Seth's car, Uncle Merle. You know, that old Packard."
"I know it. But Seth, he's always been a half too jumpy," said Merle.
"I only touched the door. Run my hand over it. I didn't know she was inside til she screamed."
"You didn't do nothing wrong, Joseph."
"He just run up and cut me" said Joseph, touching the scar.
"Well, he won't do that no more," said Merle. He knuckled up his sweat-brimmed hat, then yanked it back down, coughing out a puff of smoke, which floated away, sucked into the humid air. "Now, you know what to do. Right, Joseph?"
"Yes sir. I know."
"And you ain't gonna do nothing else. Unless I say."
"No sir, I won't. Just what you tell me."
Merle held the cigarette between his fingers. A fluff of ash fell and bumped down his shirt, leaving spots of gray debris. Joseph stayed abreast, as if by instinct. The earth was sandy and their boots scuffed the dry, powdery ground. A piece of rusty metal lay among the leaves and Joseph sent it spinning with his toe.
"Your daddy tell you that Seth's gone and got himself a deal?" said Merle. Behind them a bull gator roared. Joseph glanced around, but Merle's eyes were steady and low, slitted against the spiraling cigarette smoke. "You know what a deal is, don't you, Joseph?"
"Sure I know what a deal is, Uncle Merle." Joseph jutted his chin. "I ain't dumb."
"Course you ain't dumb, Joseph. Everybody knows that."
Joseph nodded, looking distracted and confused.
"Your daddy tell you that Seth's meeting a goverment man tomorrow?" said Merle.
"Yeah. There's a goverment man coming all the way from Tallahassee, just to see him."
"What's the goverment man want to see Daddy about?"
"He ain't coming to see your daddy. He's coming to see Seth."
Joseph pondered this with a pained expression, as if he were lifting a heavy weight.
"Seth's gonna turn states evidence. You know what that means, Joseph? States evidence."
"States? Like Florida's a state?"
"It means that Seth tells him about your daddy's liquor operation, and the cockfighting, and some of the money folks've been giving, of their own accord. He wants to put us in jail, you and me and your daddy. And Seth, he gets off scot free."
Joseph squinted. Then his eyes widened, as if he'd just paid ten dollars for a dollar watch. "Jail?" His face fell slack. "You mean I'm going to jail, Uncle Merle?"
Silence, impinged only by footfalls among the dead leaves. The rotary calls of an unseen Mockingbird, high on some sun-checkered branch.
"Say, why don't we shoot the goverment man too?" said Joseph.
Merle shook his head, his browned, leathery face mottled with jiggling patterns of sun and shadow. "Nobody cares what happens to a two-bit loser like Seth Chapman. But shoot a goverment man, they'll hunt you to hell," he said. "Ask your daddy."
"Did Daddy shoot a goverment man?"
"He's the sheriff, remember. He knows about goverment men."
Joseph laughed, as if he'd just heard a joke. "I know he's the sheriff, Uncle Merle. I ain't dumb."
"I know you ain't dumb," said Merle.
The path narrowed, forcing them to walk closer. Joseph moved the rifle from one hand to the other, then hung it from his elbow, hunter style. Off to the right a strangler fig twined itself into the head of a massive cabbage palm. Ahead, a jumble of slash pines, gnarled oaks, a thick, stunted palmetto. They crossed a pine log lying splintered on the path.
"Watch out, Uncle Merle!"
Merle halted in mid-step, fear racing through his eyes. Just beyond his raised boot, a small gopher tortoise lay among the leaves, jerking its head out of sight, under a brown, dusty carapace.
"Don't step on him, Uncle Merle." Joseph stopped, reached around to pick up the tortoise. "Look."
Merle swore, smacking the tortoise to the ground. "Leave that Goddamn thing alone now. We got better things..." The tortoise struck with a lopsided bounce, coming to rest upside down.
Joseph looked stunned. "I'm sorry, Uncle Merle," he said, stepping back. "I didn't mean…"
Merle shook his head and frowned. "It's okay," he said, sounding tired. He touched Joseph on the sleeve, patting his arm. "But we got to go. Okay?"
Joseph looked at the tortoise, all squeezed up tight. "Can I… Can I put him back right?"
"Here," said Merle. "I'll do it." He stooped to turn the tortoise rightside-up. Patting the shell, he straightened and moved ahead. He puffed his cigarette once more, and flicked away the red-burred stump. Watching it tumble in a cavalcade of sparks.
Joseph fell behind.
Merle held the rifle at his side, barrel up. Single-file, they trekked through the scrub. Off to the left, a ring of black vultures huddled over something on the ground, leaning forward to snap at the dead flesh like some ghastly fondue. Joseph looked away. Above them, squirrels prattled among the branches.
"Tell you what," said Merle, stopping to point. "You stay here, parked against that pine yonder. Make sure nobody gets by, you know, comes up behind me."
"But I want to go, Uncle Merle."
"There ain't nothin to see."
Joseph touched his cheek, where the skin was puckered into a jagged scar. "But you said…"
"I know, Joseph. I know. But maybe, maybe you don't want to do this. To see it."
"I told you, Uncle Merle. I want to go."
Shrugging, Merle struck off again, this time slower, almost thoughtfully.
As they entered a thicket of spiny palmettos, Merle stopped, setting his rifle butt on the ground.
Joseph ran into his back. "Unff," he said, stiffening.
"Shhh," said Merle, spreading his feet to maintain balance. Beyond the thicket was an open glade, with a small house overhung by Live Oaks and dangling gardens of gray moss.
"What's wrong?" said Joseph.
Merle pointed through the slatted fronds. A skimpy breeze stirred the clinging, heated air, tilting the green-bladed palmetto leaves like string-pulled window blinds. Joseph looked into the clearing. Merle nodded, touching a finger to his lips. Surveying the area, Merle found a rot-eaten log and sat with the rifle resting flat on his knees. "Might as well get comfortable," he whispered, motioning for Joseph to sit.
Joseph stood fidgeting with the barrel of his rifle, turning the butt among the brown leaves while he looked at the house, his breath quickening. Merle told him to sit and he did so, much like a pouting child, sitting on the ground itself, the rifle upright between his boot soles.
The house was small, no more than a single room. The eaves were black and mildewed, the windows taped. From the sooted chimney trickled a thin strand of greasy smoke. In front was a porch frame, bare and unfinished. Beyond the steps, a well. About the well, piles of uneven stones scattered to the edge of the house. To build a path maybe, or a wall around the well.
Blue Jays squawked. Gnats and mosquitoes buzzed like tiny helicopters. Joseph swatted. Then again. As shadows shortened, they sat amidst the layered odors of sweat, musty earth, rancid cooking fat. Rare breezes stirred the ruthless heat.
"I'm thirsty," whispered Joseph, rising.
Merle reached into his back pocket. He pulled out an ancient whiskey bottle, nodding at it.
Joseph stared. "You know I don't drink liquor, Uncle Merle," he said, stepping back.
"It's just water," said Merle. He unscrewed the cap and drank. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
Joseph took the bottle, sniffed, drank. He grinned. Sweat dribbled down his nose. He handed the bottle to Merle who hoisted it into the sunlight to inspect the diminished water level. He put back the cap, setting the bottle on the ground.
From the house, no sound, no movement. Waning chimney smoke dissolved into lazy, gray wisps. Joseph sighed. He held the rifle by the barrel, stock on the ground.
"You ever shot anybody?" asked Joseph, his face pinched.
"Your daddy and me, we was both in the war. Korea. You remember us telling you, don't you?"
"Sure. I remember things, Uncle Merle. I was only wondering if you'd ever shot anybody is all."
Merle glanced away. "A few times, I reckon. When I had to."
"Why'd you have to?"
Merle looked past Joseph's shoulder, speaking slowly: "When you're in the army, it's just something you got to do."
"What's it like, killing somebody?"
Merle hesitated. "You've shot a snake, ain't you?"
"Well sure. There was this big rattler once…"
"And you didn't feel sorry for it did you?"
"Well no, Uncle Merle…"
"So just think about going to jail, Joseph. And Seth cutting you like that. For no reason. You won't have no trouble."
Joseph reached for the scar, running his finger along the puckered flesh. His eyes widened. "I don't know why he done it. I didn't mean to scare her. I just wanted to see that car of his, that Packard. It looked real fast. I'd sure like to have me a car like that someday."
Merle shifted around. "Seth's like that rattler, Joseph. But even rattlers don't go sending their friends to jail."
"Yes sir," said Joseph.
The front door of the house squeaked, stopped, squeaked again. A blonde head appeared, the head of a ponytailed girl, her face scrubbed pink and bright. She wore an old print dress, tucked around her waist with a length of black cord. Extending her bare feet, she moved with adolescent grace, balancing herself on the wooden bones of the porch. She carried a water bucket.
Merle peered through the branches, tensing.
The girl jumped from the porch. The bucket flopped in her hand, but she tossed her arm to counterbalance the swing, landing soft and straight on the balls of her feet.
"Jessie!" said Joseph, pushing through an intervening frond to step into the clearing, dragging his rifle behind.
"Godda…" Merle leaped to his feet sputtering. He squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again, as if trying to make this nightmare vision vanish.
Jessie turned and sucked in a scream, as if she'd seen a scarecrow come alive.
"I only wanted to see your daddy's car," said Joseph. "I didn't know you was there." Dust trailed the stock of his dragged rifle, floating like the track of a phantom train.
She dropped the bucket. "Wh…what're you doing here?" she mumbled. "Daddy," she said, soft and uncertain, and then, as Joseph continued, louder: "Daddy!"
Merle hissed to himself. "Joseph… you Goddamn… you dummy…"
A large man with red hair rushed from the house, digging his bare toes into the crossbeam for balance. He wore no shirt, carried a pistol in his belt. Spotting Joseph, he stopped to yank out the pistol, shouting: "Run back, Jess! Quick!"
His first shot hit Joseph in the arm, spewing blood.
Jessie screamed, throwing her hands to her face. She dropped beside the well, scrambling behind the rocks.
Diving back into the house, Seth Chapman fired through the unopened window, launching slivers of taped glass between the porch timbers and into the yard.
Joseph jerked from the impact of bullets thunking into his chest and side and back, marking his turn. Letting the rifle slide, he fell.
Merle reached up his rifle, screamed. He cursed to himself, holding the hoisted weapon like a dead stick.
"Jess! Now!" screamed Seth.
The smell of cordite drifted among the motes of stirred dust. Sobbing, Jessie dashed toward the house, tripping across the porch beams, her cotton print dress flaring as she tumbled to the ground underneath.
Sheltered by the thicket, Merle sat down hard, dropping the rifle among the fallen detritus of palmetto waste. He stared at Joseph's crumpled body, sprawled limp and twisted like a suit of cast off clothes in the angled oak shadows.
"Jess!" shouted Seth. Leaning out, he reached a hand toward the girl, gripping her outstretched wrist to haul her up and into the house. Slamming the door.
Merle picked up the rifle and stood behind the green fronds, his eyes twitching with unruly concentration. His fingers clutching the blued steel like the legs of a dying spider.
"I know you're there," shouted Seth. "One or the both of you."
"You didn't have to do that, Seth," said Merle, trembling. "He wasn't gonna hurt her."
"Why's he got a rifle then?" shouted Seth.
"This is between you'n me, Seth. Joseph never hurt nobody." Merle stared at the window, the taped shards of exploded-out glass dangling in random disorder. His eyes flicking back and forth, trying to spot some movement.
"Where's Roy?" said Seth.
"He ain't here."
"So he sent the dummy?"
"He didn't send him, Seth. I was the one brought him."
Seth laughed. "Roy's gonna kill you when he finds out what you done to his son," he said.
"Ya'll come here to kill me. It's your risk," said Seth.
"Goddamn you!" said Merle. In a rage he pulled the trigger without aim, levering shells into the chamber as quick as he could move his hands. Hot, empty cartridges zinged past his ear. Pieces of the house and door, even the roof, ricocheted into the air, spinning through the tree-filtered sunlight.
"Why'd you go out there?" said Merle, shouting at the body. His voice was thick. He patted the front pocket of his pants, where he kept the shells, found two more, and sent them both through the shattered window. Nothing moved, not even a quiver of taped glass. Then he checked the rest of his pockets. Empty. He even rummaged through his shirt. Fear and realization rose up in his eyes and he patted his pockets over and over, the same ones, finding not a cartridge.
"Damn," he muttered, dropping his head, closing his eyes.
"Seth!" he shouted, looking up.
"Let me get him, Seth."
There was no sound but the flutter of fronds rippling in a tepid breeze. The smell of burnt powder stayed in his nose like sprayed-on paint.
"Seth, I can't just leave him here. I got to take him back. Let me go out and get him. I'll let you alone." Gnats and mosquitoes bombarded his face, but he didn't notice.
"How do I know Roy ain't out there, waiting to shoot me?" said Seth.
"He ain't. Just let me get him, Seth. It ain't human to leave him there."
Merle took a deep breath. "I shouldn't of let him come, Seth. I shouldn't of let him. Just let me take him back to his momma. That's it, Seth. I'm leaving my rifle. Okay?"
A moment of silence, then Seth replied. "Go ahead, but I'm watching. Throw out your rifle, hear?"
Merle nodded to no one, then threw the useless weapon into the clearing, where it cartwheeled several times and lay still. He leaned forward and parted the fronds, stepping into the bright sunlight. Hardly breathing. He looked at the house, at Joseph, at the house. He took a deep breath and a step.
Joseph's head was canted to the side, almost twisted under his body. Merle lifted a limp arm, already stooping to hoist the body on his shoulder when he heard the first shot.
He never heard the second.
Copyright © 2006, Robert Kalkreuter, All Rights Reserved.
© Copyright 1997, 2023, The Fairfield Review Inc., All Rights Reserved.
Document last modified on: 11/11/2007