by G. Wilford Hathorn
© 2001. All Rights Reserved

     Toby McPherson, chest heaving and perspiration dripping from his face, where burst capillaries spidered around his nose and formed filaments in the whites of his eyes, chopped wood with the purpose of a man who would rather be doing something else and wanted to get about doing it as soon as possible. The TV on which he would watch the WWF and a twelve-pack of Budweiser waited in the house thirty yards away, and the sooner he finished the wood the sooner he could kick of f his boots and relax a while. Damned working man always had something to do, Toby thought. He couldn' t sit back and coast a few days and enjoy the comforts of life. Had to be that the forces of the universe had conspired against Toby, for no matter how hard he worked something or someone always made demands on his time.

     Toby worked in front of his garage-slash-tool shed, his light coming from a 100-watt bulb screwed into a socket on the middle beam within. It washed the space in which he stood with a trapezoid of yellow-white that was periodically darkened by the shadows of moths bumping against the bulb. The shed smelled of gasoline, for inside he kept the fuel for the eight-horsepower Evinrude he clamped to his twelve-foot aluminum boat to run his fishing lines, which he always did at night because he had no license and Lute Jobson, the game warden, was as shrewd as a panther. Damn, Toby groused mentally, a body can' t catch a few catfish for his dinner plate without some cop buttin' in and wantin' to fine him for all his hard-earned money. Like the catfish in Adams Creek were an endangered species or something. Other smells coming from the garage-slash-tool shed were old rope and Go-Jo hand cleaner.

     The heat, intensified by the humidity flowing into East Texas from the Gulf of Mexico, was harsh, which, along with the mosquitos, attracted to his sweat and humming about his ears, added to Tobys bad humor. Overhead was a full moon peeking from behind an armada of clouds, their passage reminiscent of smoke over a battlefield.

    Shit! Toby exclaimed as he slapped his neck for the umpteenth time. I need a cigarette! Maybe the smoke will drive a few of these mosquitos away. Toby had been raised in East Texas and had smoked since he was a teenager and knew that cigarette smoke wouldn' t budge a mosquito, but hoping it would was as good an excuse as any for taking a break. He looked at the wood he had chopped, short of the half cord he had intended, sighed with disgust, and laid his new axe against a block that had yet to be split. He' d had to use the axe, the spare, because he had misplaced the old one. This pissed him of because the old one had a shorter handle and thus, like a hitter choking up on a bat, delivered a tighter swing and made for better control. He would get around to cropping a few inches of f the new handle, but not tonight. He’d have his smoke, chop the rest of the wood, and go have a few with Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock as they kicked the hell out of somebody -- that sissy-ass Chris Jericho, Toby hoped -- on TV. He fired up a Camel non-filter and sat on the ground, leaning against the same chunk against which he had leaned the axe, and inhaled a puff of smoke. He was not aware of the eyes watching from the woods. He did not know that the circumstances of his life were about to change. Permanently.

    To get to Toby’s place one had to leave the dirt county road that cut through Daniel Boone National Forest at its east end and turn down a lane canopied by pine and oak trees. At the end of this lane was an opening of about two acres that Toby had cleared in a circle rather than a square, surrounded by a thicket of trees, bushes, vines, and briars. Toby did not like nosy neighbors.

    The Animal, eyes a rich juniper green and aglow with inner distress, stood fifteen feet from the edge of the clearing and watched Toby smoke and swat mosquitos. Every so often Tobby uttered an obscenity and looked around as if the woods held the answer to every mystery he had pondered, the majority of which dealt with why his life had been such a pus-pocket, and the Animal quivered. In its gut churned a maelstrom of rage and its muscles, rippling beneath ist skin, were taut, but under control. It had waited a long time for this moment and the thought of seeiny Toby’s blood flow aroused in the Animal a thirst that watered its mouth and made saliva drip from its tongue. Tonight would be the reckoning.

    The prey thumped his cigarette away and the Animal watched the trail of sparks alight like tiny stars on the ground. Toby rose, picked up the axe, and, after stretching a kink from his back, began to chop anew. The exertion caused a fresh flow of sweat and from it and Toby’s breathing the Animal smelled the alcohol from the beers Toby had drank earlier. The Animal’s brain cranked out memories of those fumes from times past, when the prey had kicked him and beat him with boards, only to bribe him close again with soft words and the promise of friendly touches. But when he was drunk was not the only time the prey was hateful. He could be equally mean when as sober as a sinner in church, but then it was because he had a hangover or felt bad for other reasons, or because the Animal had unwittingly gotten underfoot while the TV was on and the prey did not wish to be disturbed. After the hurting the Animal would go to its corner and hope the prey, known as the Master in those days, would turn back into he of the gentle words and touches, like when the Animal had stepped on a nail one time and the Master had removed it with the skill and tenderness of a triage nurse. The times when the Master had been warm and attentive almost made the pains and humiliations worth it, but not quite.

    A car passed beyond the woods on the county road, headlights painting the trees a muted white, and from the ragged exhaust the Animal recognized it as belonging to Skip Rutherford, one of the prey’s neighbors who had a big nose and farted a lot as he and the prey sat around swilling beer and crooning to songs on the radio. The Animal recalled several occasions when Skip and the prey had been drinking and Skip had laughed in his chugga-chugga way, belly shaking like a wheelbarrow full of frog eggs, while the prey showed off by pulling the Animal’s ears and slapping him across the nose. The Animal wondered how people could laugh while another creature was brutalized for sport, and decided it must be because the creatures were helpless and therefore convenient fodder for the abuser’s sadistic palate. Little did they know that one night, under an obese moon that for some reason looked red to the Animal, a blow would be struck for every creature that had been hit, had things hurled at it in a hail of cuss words, or kicked in the balls.

    A sound from the woods froze the Animal. It stopped breathing. First was a rustle, then the liquid scrape of flesh on leaves, and the Animal knew a copperhead snake had appeared. It was a big one, too, perhaps four-feet long, which for a copperhead was humongus. To have grown so big it must have been smart on its forays into farmers’ coops to filch eggs and baby chicks. The Animal listened as the snake neared, catching the scent of death and old dirt, and hoped he wouldn’t have to take his focus from the prey to deal with the reptile. The copperhead slithered to within two feet of the Animal, sensed something, and stopped, its forked radar asking questions of the air, its eyes probing the night but seeing nothing. The Animal knew the copperhead felt him and was deciding whether an attack would be worth the energy. The Animal was patient. An ancient instinct kicked in and the snake pointed its head toward the clearing. Straightening its coils, it continued its glide over the ground. It had not survived this long by taking unnecessary chances.

    The Animal watched as the snake moved toward the prey, toward, the Animal mused wryly, a man holding a weapon with which he could cleave the reptile in half. The last thing the Animal wanted was for the snake to startle the prey and send him bolting into the house, for that would necessitate a change of plan. As had happened in the past during moments of stress, a sound crept to the edge of the Animal’s mind, one that began as whispers but amplified into a cacophony like that heard in crowded rooms when everyone speaks at once. The Animal winced, closed his eyes, and concentrated until the din lessened, then faded. It was increasingly difficult to push the voices away but the Animal felt that would change once he conquered the prey. Then would come the reward about which he had heard much in the penumbra of his dreams: freedom from domination.

    It opened its eyes and saw a scaly tail disappear beside the prey’s foot; the snake went around the side of the garage-slash-tool shed, on its way to wreak mischief in a less threatening environment. That suited the Animal fine. Hopefully there would be no more interruptions. The prey had a son named Joe but the Animal wasn’t worried that he would show up because Joe was off in his own little world in his bedroom. Because his mother had abandoned him to the abuse of a father he wanted to love but had his affections rebuffed and replaced with icebergs in the sea of his heart, Joe had withdrawn. Like many of the forest’s leaves and blooms at nightfall he had tucked his head under his winy and closed up, concentrating on a light of which the Animal was unaware and locking himself in a vault to which he had the only key.

    Joe’s life had been tragic. One day the local Baptist preacher, resplendent in black slacks, white shirt, and brown shoes, came to the McPherson place to cadge money for the church, and walked smack into the middle of Toby beating the crap out of Joe with a piece of switch cane. The whacks landed solidly across the boy’s back and legs, and from an anonymous place the Animal watched the good parson wipe sweat from his brow, smile supportively at Toby, and state, "Spare the rod and spoil the child is what I always say. Used to give my own kids a taste of the ‘Bible belt’ quite frequently, I did. Praise God!" Toby was so pleased that the caning of his son had drawn endorsement from that man of the cloth that he, after sending Joe squalliny into the house, plucked several dirty bills out of his Budweiser moey clip and shoved them into the preacher’s ready hand.

    No wonder Joe had decided to check out for a while, for, unlike the Animal, he wasn’t free to roam and kill.

    Eyes luminous and savage, the Animal circled the clearing, from every angle gauging the distance between itself and the prey. The hair on its neck stood tall and a grunt of anticipation escaped its pink, snarled lips, though because at that moment thunder rolled in the distance and announced the coming storm, the prey did not hear it. Cousins of the mosquitos bedeviling the human had found the Animal, and, seeking a place to sink their beaks and drink its blood, they attempted cautious landings on its body. Tap-tap-whine. Tap-tap-whine. Making passes around the Animal’s head. Tap-tap-whiiinnneee. A mosquito veered off course and found itself in an ear canal, and the Animal, reminded of the voices that too often invaded its peace, shook its head and sent the mosquito back into the clammy air to resume its reconnoiter. Continuing its trek the Animal stopped at a tree, the circumference of which matched that of a larye culvert, and drew a breath redolent of pine sap, honeysuckle, and the waxy leaves on the vine trailing up the tree’s trunk and disappearing into the darkness beyond. It smelled fear. A boy’s fear. The Animal knew that in his place of retreat from his troll of a father Joe McPherson sensed its presence, felt what was about to happen, and in the way of one caught in the web of his own mind felt trepidation. He understood that Toby was about to answer for every wrong he had committed against his son. Joe was not vindictive and didn’t really want his father hurt, but needed an end to the pain so he could return from the netherworld swirling with colors arid sounds that held him in thrall.

    The boy’s fear did not affect the Animal. It was invigorated by the hunt and continued to stalk its prey. It stepped on a twig and Toby, nervous, looked in the Animal’s direction. Thunder rolled again, closer this time, and a few drops patted on the carpet of leaves and pine needles on the forest floor. Lightning lacerated the sky and lit the woods in stark relief. Like a monolith placed by a superstitious people the Animal stood, fearing the prey would see its eyes and panic. No matter, the Animal thought, if he runs now I’ll catch him. In fact, let him run, let him taste the terror as it crawls up the back of his throat. Let him feel the terror as it clenches his insides and threatens to spew their contents into his underwear as he wonders if he will, make it to safety before I take him down. He won’t. He’s smoked too many of those things that make him cough and drank too much of what makes him stagger when he walks.

    These thoughts were foreign and the Animal didn’t understand them. It seecied that the voices were near again, lapping like waves at the shores of its mind. The prey took another look and resumed his chopping, thinking the sound came from an armadillo rooting around in hopes of a morsel or two before the storm sent it home to its burrow.

The Animal inched closer to the edge of the clearing, tightened every muscle, and growled.

Toby McPherson, so unnerved that he felt like clabbered milk inside, turned in time to see the Animal spring.

The fury charged.

Death was not kind.

Nor slow.

    Jubal Kendrick and Whizzer Carson sat on the porch of Brannen’s Farm Mercantile, talking about what had happened at the McPherson place and swatting gnats. The store sat at the crossroads of Farm Road 380 and Spur 1420, and therefore watched as people went to work at the prison just outside the town of Elfin, or passed on their way to various homesteads in the rural areas of the county. Jubal and Whizzer were in their sixties and typical of geezers who sit on porches across America and swap opinions about everything from politics to religion as they spit tobacco juice at spitoons. These two geezers missed the spitoon more often than not and splattered the walkway with splotches that resembled brown pigeon droppings, much to the consternation of Brannen’s owner, Lucy Rae, who had in good humor dressed them down countless times about their filthy habit. These geezers were also unforgivable gossips who had nothing better to do than waste their twilight yoars commenting on the business of others, re;ardless of what they perceived that business to be or whether their pronouncements about it contained a scintilla of truth. So when at 7:10 that morning two sheriff’s cruisers turned off the SQur and with sirens yowling and lights flashing flew like bats out of hell toward the McPherson place, Jubal and Whizzer deemed it their civic duty to make inquiries about what was going on, because when they later told the story thoy wanted to know which facts to embellish at will and which to leave alone.

    "Bad dome out there at Toby’s," Jubal said gravely. By then, at 4:19 that afternoon, they had received the details from Whizzer’s niece, who worked at the Sheriff’s office and had stopped into Brannen’s for milk and bread on her way home.

    "Ya-uh," Whizzer responded, slapping at his twentieth gnat that hour. Last night’s rain and today’s humidity had sure brought them out. "They say it was a helluva mess, too. Said Toby’s head was offin his shoulders and his face was froze in a ‘spresslon of total shock. Fat Bill Taylor, Claudy Renfro’s new depiddy, upchucked in the weeds and Claudy had to chew 'im out for muckin’ up the crime scene!" Whizzer’s voice was watery and he lofted a pretty fair dollop at the brass can. Part of it went in, but most ran down the side. Whizzer wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and settled back to chew some more.

    "Yay-uh," the other man said. "I bet ol’ Toby was surprised when he seen young Joe comin' at him with that short-handled axe." Jubal had seen Toby cut wood with the axe many times and thought it ironic that that very tool had been the murder weapon. A man killed with his favorite axe, now ttiat was a hoot if there ever was one.

    "I allus knew somethin’ bad was gonna happen out there, Jubal," Whizzer offered. "The way Toby beat on the kid alla time. Shit, ever’body knew what was hap’nin, even some of his teachers at school, but nobody ever called the Sherf on Toby. Coulda stopped this yere tragiddy from hap’nin, if’n ya ask me."

The men became quiet, pondering what Whizzer had said.

If only...

If only...

    As Whizzer and Jubal wrangled with their thoughts, Sam Gaddison over on the west side of the county was raping his twelve-year-old daughter, Michelle. It wasn’t the first time, nor the second, and several of the county gossips had often burned up the phone lines to share their suspicions, confirmed satisfactorily enough by Michelle’s withdrawal -- she used to be such an outgolng and sweet girl -- and signs attested to by the school nurse after a routine examination of the girl, that Sam was defiling her in despicable ways. Years would pass with no one involving the authorities, until the gossips would one day burn up the phone lines talking of how Michelle, now a 17-year-old prostitute and drug addict, had stabbed a policeman who got too friendly while frisking her. His partner had shot Michelle to death.

    Jubal Kendrick and Whizzer Carson would spit tobacco juice and opine that the tragedy could have been avoided had somebody just called the Sheriff on Sam Gaddison. If’n you asked them, that is, but no one had.

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