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I may have only been close enough to catch a short glance at her over the shoulders of a few townsfolk...but it wasn't hard to tell that she wasn't livin' no longer. Something about the way her body was fixed. Stiff, and locked into a lifeless position. She was so cold that it gave you a chill just by fixing your eyes on her. And Lord, was she ever pale. More than white. Darn near blue.
It was Old Man Creedy, done found the body not long after sunrise. One of our school teachers, Ms. Samson. Such a pretty woman. Not much older than my own mother, God rest her soul. But to look at her now, cold and lying in the dirt just across from the old saloon...it's almost like she ain't never had an ounce of life in her at all. So strange.
And those eyes. Dead eyes. Blank now...but before she went to Glory...you can tell they must have seen something mighty frightening. What could have done such a thing to a sweet lady like Ms. Samson?
My best friend, Willie, was on his tiptoes, trying to get a closer look at the body. But he wasn't no bigger than I was. Heck, at 14, he was a year and a half younger than me. I don't know what made him think he was so tall this mornin'.
"She sure was pretty. Wasn't she, Deke?" Willie asked me. "That's the third one in just a couple of months, ain't it? What do you think it is, keeps laying good folk out in the dirt like this every few weeks?"
Still trying to keep a low profile by hushing him up, I said, "I dunno, Wille. I reckon she wandered out of town one night...got herself bit. Big snake or somethin'."
"Big snake? That don't make no sense." He said, still talking louder than I wanted him to. "Can't be coyotes, neither. They would have ravaged her but good. Not leave her looking as pretty as she does."
I was able to stare a bit closer, and I saw a series of bites on her. Looked just like snakebites to me...but bigger. Wider apart. Her frock was torn. Dirty. And the bite marks were in three different places. Two on her leg, two on her wrist, and one sunk deep into the side of her neck. Always in pairs. Two, two, and two. If that ain't some kind of devil rattlesnake, then I don't know what is.
It was then that I heard a shuffle in the crowd standing around her body, and I saw my daddy approaching with an undertaker and a strong hand or two to pick good ol' Ms. Samson up and carry her out from the center of town like that. My daddy's been sheriff for long as I can remember. Nearly gave it up when Mama died from sickness. Come to find out...the townsfolk didn't trust nobody else to take up the duty. The mayor is about as crooked as a bucket of fish hooks, and most everybody else got more bad deeds behind them than good ones. It never stopped them from shoving a few splinters into him whenever trouble was about, though.
"What you plannin' to do about this, Sheriff?" Came one voice out of the crowd.
"I'm countin' three bodies now, Sheriff. And I ain't seen a single person swing for none of 'em." Said another.
My daddy put his hands up to settle folks before they started too much of a ruckus. "Now look here...I want to assure you people that the law in this town is doing everything that it can to keep you all safe. I've got to work out what happened here and why, but as of right now, I ain't seen much more than you people have. If you ain't figured it out yet, I don't know how you expect me to know anything extra."
The crowd groaned, demanding some kind of miracle. Then old man Webb stepped forward, spitting a wad on the ground. "We keep losing folks like this with nobody to hang, Sheriff, and we're liable to think you've got somethin' to do with it." I never did much like Mr. Webb. Not a day in my life. "Or maybe you just done lost your nerve. You ain't got no concern about what happens in this here town, on a count of you not having a little lady of your own at home to protect no more..."
That crossed the line! Had I been a bit bigger, I would have slugged that pig faced bastard right in his snout myself!
The sheriff was a peaceful man, my daddy...but he was definitely a man of considerable size. When he heard what Mr. Webb said about my late mama...he narrowed his steel blue eyes, and slowly walked right up to him until he was staring him in the face. He didn't say a word. The silence did all the talking for him. Mr. Webb was forced to give up his pride, and with a nervous twitch, he swallowed hard and backed up into the crowd again. Maybe now he'll mind his manners some.
The sheriff looked around at everyone else in the crowd, and he said, "Now I want you all to listen, and listen good. I'm going to find out what's going on, and I'm going to bring the person responsible for this to justice. You've got my word on that. Until that time...I want you good townsfolk to get on about your day. Tend to your homestead. Drink. Gamble. Sell your wares. Whatever you reckon your calling is...let it call to you. Keep your minds off a lawman's business."
That was all that had to be said. The crowd started to disperse without a whole lot of fuss, which meant me and Willie better get to dispersing, ourselves.
"Shit, Deke...I was sure hoping your daddy hauled off and knocked Mr. Webb flat for what he said." Willie said.
"Me too. But Daddy always says violence comes to a man too easy to be worth anything in the end. I suppose he didn't want to cause a ruckus..."
"You're right..." Came my daddy's voice over my shoulder. We both turned around to see him looking down on us, taking his hat off to wipe the sweat off of his brow with the back of his sleeve. "...It's never a good thing to let your enemies know what levers to pull in order to rise a fire in you. It don't take much to get old Webb to step back across that line." He put his hat back on and saw the men he brought with him loading Ms. Samson onto the back of a wagon. "What are you boys doing out here, looking at a sight like this? Deacon, I thought you were home."
"I was just coming out to see what all the fuss was about, Daddy. Maybe I can help."
He gave me a rugged smile. "Maybe one day, Deacon. For right now, I need you stay around people and keep within somebody's eyesight at all times. You hear? Especially after sunset. That goes for you too, 'Trigger'." He said, then started to walk back to follow the wagon back to the undertaker's place to see if they can figure out what happened. "You two get on, now. Go on."
Willie and started walking through town. I figured we'd find something to get into before long. It was too hot to get into much mischief, but mischief is where you find it I s'pose.
That's when I felt Willie poke me in the side with his elbow and smile. "Turn your attention to the sight of that. Here she comes."
I looked up, and there she was. Sarah Cutler, the banker's daughter. Long hair, long lashes, longest legs I ever did see. Willie always got a kick out of seeing her cut her eyes at me all the time. But it didn't thrill me none. If anything, it made me as uncomfortable as a wet suit in a cold church.
"This could be your day, Deke!" Willie grinned. "You gonna get your kiss today, boy. I can feel it."
"Shhh! Quit with all that!" I whispered, and I looked down at the ground as Sarah and her friends came walking up to talk to us. "Hey, Sarah..."
"Is it true?" She asked. "I heard some people say your daddy found another one of the townsfolk laid cold this morning."
"Yeah. Poor Ms. Samson." I said, and the girls covered their mouths with a gasp.
"But...she ain't never done nothin' to nobody. Who would wanna do her in like that?"
Willie nudged me again, this time pushing me a bit forward. "Deke thinks he can figure it out by himself. Don't matter if you're a good person or not. When the Devil comes for you, ain't nobody safe. You can be sure to stay safe though, Sarah...provided you stick close to Deke, here. Maybe you two can find yourselves a place to hide away...all private like..."
I gave Willie a shove to hush him up, a blush working itself up into my cheeks. I peeked back at Sarah, who flashed me one of those bashful smiles that she was so well known for.
She said, "I'm sure if your daddy don't find the culprit...you can. You've always been awful smart, Deacon." She smiled. A few of her girl friends giggling to themselves behind her.
"Yeah..." I mumbled. "...Er, I mean, thank you." There's that feeling again. With her making me all nervous and clumsy. I didn't like that feeling. It felt all wrong to me.
Willie jumped in and said, "Ol' Deke, here, thinks it might be some kind of big monster snake or somethin'! Y'all better watch to see what might be trying to slither up them fine dresses of yours, ladies."
I swear that boy ain't got the good sense of an unfed goat. "Don't listen to him. He don't know what he's saying." I told them, but they just grinned at me anyway. I stumbled about for a bit, then I says, "Well...my daddy told me and Willie to get on, so...."
She said, "I understand. My father gave me some money. I'm going over to Ms. Flora's shop to buy some new ribbons. I'd be happy to show them to you...some time."
I ain't had no reason to be rude to her. So I said, "Ok. You do that...Sarah."
I don't know why I couldn't start walking until she started walking first, but I waited like a gentleman for her to be on her way. Then she said, "I'll see you soon, Deacon. I hope you find your monster snake..." Making Willie grin and wink.
And with that, she was gone. Making the air around me a little bit easier to breathe. There ain't no bigger wreck to comfort than the batting eyes of a lady who put you in her favor. I didn't know how much more my heart could take. If that's what love feels like...I'd just as well do without it.
Willie wasn't about to let it go. "I just don't get where your head is at, Deke. Can't you see Sarah Cutler's got a fever for you? You act like she's covered in poison when she comes around."
"It ain't that, Willie. I just ain't got no time to be trying to figure her out right now. That's all."
"Well, alls I know is that if Sarah Cutler smiled at me the way she done you...I would have been gave the horses in the barn something to chatter 'bout. Hear me good on that." He said. I ain't pay him no mind. Willie's got his feelings and I got mine. That's all there is to it.
We stayed out most of the day, no school on a count of the murder. But once the sun started to set over the mountains, Willie and I decided to get on back home. Whatever kind of creature it was, running around poking holes in folks...I didn't want it crossing my path no time soon. Not that I wasn't curious. Our town ain't never had nothing like this happen before. Why here? Why now? The ideas stuck with me. My head wouldn't let them go.
Daddy didn't come home in time for supper, but I managed to put together some meat and vegetables and fix myself a plate. I figure he could get his fill once he came back from doing whatever he was doing.
About an hour after dark, he came into the house, lightly kicking the door open with his boot and dragging my uncle, Buster, inside over his arm. I got up to my feet to see if I could help, but one sniff of my uncle nearly caused me to fall over from the stench.
Daddy told me, "Clear me a spot, will you, boy? Buster's been knockin 'em back again."
"Lord bless it, Daddy! He smells like he done drank somebody clear out of business!" I said, trying to cover my mouth and nose. "I thought he ain't had no more coin to go boozin' with?"
"Nothing a few good hands at poker can't fix, evidently. And he was definitely high on the Hoyle tonight." He said. I cleared off a spot for him to lay down on, and my Daddy gently put him down, turning him on his side to make sure he was alright. "Your mama's brother must have a gut of iron to guzzle liquor the way he do. Too bad he don't have the head or legs to match. Had to drag him like a sack of dirt the whole way. He'll be airing his lunch out come sunrise."
My Uncle Buster has been a drunk for as long as I've been living, but he got worse when Mama died. Every bartender in town loved to see him coming, but was fed up with him by the time he ran out of money. Still...you've got to love your kin...flaws and all. No matter what.
My daddy put a bucket next to him in case he spilled over during the night, and he said, "I'm gonna need you to take out the night's trash, and put out that fire before too late. You hear?"
"It already burned itself out." I told him.
But he said, "No, it didn't. I saw the light still burnin' from a distance when I came up. Go on out to the pump house, gets some water and make sure to get it all to die down. Every last ember. We don't want to wake up on the morrow and find half our field turned to ash." He heard Buster belch and he rolled over onto his other side to start snoring up a storm. My daddy and I chuckled at one another, and he said, "Besides...if your Uncle Buster's breath comes into contact with anything hotter than the ass end of a firefly, we're liable to burn the whole damn town down around us."
"Hahaha! Alright...I'll get it." I told him that I left him some food and he warned me to be careful out there, and to hurry back. It was awful dark outside, and I didn't plan to spend a second out there by myself longer than I had to.
I went out to the pump house and pulled the handle a few times to get a half bucket of water. Peering out into the darkness, I did see the faint light of a trash fire that hadn't gone dead just yet. So I headed on out there, the moon and stars above giving me enough light to see where my feet was stepping, but not much more. We kept the trash fire far enough away from the house so as not to cover us in smoke, in case the wind was blowing in our direction that day. It was only a few minutes' walk, but it was far enough away to make me keep alert as to what was going on around me. Ain't no devil rattler gonna get the best of me out here. There's a sure bet on that one.
I got closer to the trash fire, some of the flames still reaching up with whatever fuel they had left, and I took a moment to enjoy the added warmth of the cool night air. Besides, if Uncle Buster was gonna be intoxicating the whole house with his rancid liquor breathing and wheezing, I figured that I should get all of the fresh night air that I could before having to turn in for the evening.
The stars were so bright. So very bright.
I can remember when Mama had clothes out on the line to dry. She'd never go and get them all at once. She'd wait until the sun went down...and she'd go out to look at the night sky. Listen to the silence. Gaze at the light above. She always told me to appreciate the night. She said there was a peace in the darkness that no man could find during the struggles of the day. She made me a believer, and I kept that with me. I always will.
It was then that I heard the snap and shuffle of footsteps not far from where I was standing.
My head shot up, but I couldn't see nothin', on a count it was so dark.
I stayed quiet. Waiting to see if I could hear it again. But the night seemed still enough. "Hello?" I called out. Nothin'. Probably the wind. Or some late night critter looking for a snack. Or maybe looking to escape from being the snack for something else.
I picked up the bucket of water, and figured I'd call it a night. But as I stepped closer to the fire...I saw something standing upright in the shadows. I couldn't quite make out what it was...but I could see its eyes. Glowing eyes. Staring right through me from about 30 paces away from me.
I might have thought it a coyote, with it's eyes reflecting the light of the fading flames...but ain't no coyote standing that tall. Not by hisself.
"Hello?" I asked again. No answer. "Willie? Willie is that you?" Still, the shadow didn't say nothin'. "Willie, if that's you, I hope you don't think you're scaring me. Because you ain't." It just stood there. Gave me the shivers something awful. "I ain't gonna chase you. You ain't runnin' me in the house either. Your daddy is gonna strike you good, he catches you out here after dark. You heard what the sheriff said." The glowing eyes just stayed there, still. I saw a few blinks or more, but that was it. "Alright. Suit yourself. You'll be out here all by your lonesome then. I'm going back in the house..."
I lifted the bucket to put out the fire, and that's when I heard a voice say, "No. Don't." It wasn't a voice that I recognized, but it didn't sound much younger or much older than my own. So I let my curiosity get the best of me, and I held off on dowsing the fire just yet.
That's when I seen a boy step out of the shadows, just a touch of his face being lit up by the fire. He was about my height, give or take, with longish hair. Light brown. I don't know what came over me, but I found myself struck still just to get a look at him. I knew he was a boy from the shape of him and all...but he sure was a pretty thing, if ever I saw one. His skin was smooth as a baby's belly, with thin but shapely lips, and a slender build. As I got a better look, my voice left me...and I went all funny in the knees.
It was that same awkward sensation, that same nervous shaking in the guts, that I felt whenever Sarah Cutler came to take her daily glances at me. But...I didn't feel the need to run from him like I did from her. Something about his kind of nervous felt right. A little strange, but 'natural' like. Instead of running away....his kind of nervous only made me want to get closer. Even if I couldn't figure out why.
We stared at each other for a moment. Me feeling weak in the middle, and him looking like he was too scared to talk to me. And yet, neither one of us took a single step backward. So I says to him, "What are you doing out here? It's too dark to be wandering 'round like this."
"Not for me." He said. "I can see just fine."
We were both quiet for another spell. Such a strange boy. I says, "My name is Deacon. Friends just call me Deke."
With a hushed voice, he said, "Colby..."
I waited a few seconds, and said, "Heh...well you sure don't talk much, do ya?"
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be rude."
"It ain't no itch to me." I told him. "Are you lost?"
He said, "No. Not lost." He tilted his head to one side and asked, "Are you?"
"Me? Naw, I ain't lost. This is home for me." I gave him a smile, not expecting it to mean much. But when he smiled back...it was like I couldn't breathe. My hands began to tremor and my heart felt like it was on fire. That one smile did more for me then a whole Summer's worth of giggles from Sarah Cutler! If she was only HALF as pretty as this young fella, I might just take her somewhere private like Willie was telling me to.
Actually...I almost thought I had a hankering to take this boy himself and leave Sarah Cutler out of this altogether.
Something about him made me feel like smiling. Ain't many people around can do that just by showing you their face on a dark evening. I know it ain't right, but...he was like no other boy I ever seen before. He was pretty in a way that I wasn't used to. Maybe it was the moonlight that had me all crooked and confused but...he caused me to shiver something awful when he looked me in the eye. Made my heart feel weak. And I think I liked it.
I had to steady myself as I told him, "Well...you shouldn't be out here like this. You're welcome to come in for a spell if you want. My daddy and I have already gotten into our supper, but I ain't got no trouble scraping the pot for company if you want to get out of the elements for a while."
He made sure to keep his distance from me. He never once stepped a foot closer to the light than where he was standing. But he almost seemed grateful for the invitation. I think I may have even seen him blush. Have you ever seen the blush of a boy this pretty by the light of a fading fire? It's like being born again.
"No thank you, Deacon." He said, then he says, "I should go. I didn't mean to disturb your work. I guess I just found myself...looking you over. My apologies if I startled you."
Looking me over? I wasn't sure what he meant by that, but...it felt like a fresh bath when he told me. I heard myself giggling under my breath. Can't tell you why.
"You got a way to get back home?" I asked, wishing that he wouldn't be in such a hurry to trot off.
And he said, "Yes. I'll be fine." And as I saw him back up a bit into the shadows, he said, "Maybe we'll cross paths again. Some time soon?"
"I...I reckon. Ok..." My mouth wouldn't work right. The air got harder and harder to suck down as I felt the need to keep him from leaving me there alone.
That's when I heard the front door to the house open up, and my daddy called out to me. "Deacon? You put out that fire yet?"
"In a minute, Daddy!" I had only turned my head for a hot second, but when I turned back, 'pretty boy' Colby wasn't nowhere to be seen. I looked all around, but he must have dashed off in an awful hurry...because I couldn't catch no sight of him.
I waited for a bit, hoping to hear something. See something. But once it was clear that he was gone, I picked up my water bucket and put out the fire below. Even then, I waited for a bit longer. Hoping that he would come back. But I figured my daddy would come looking for me again if I didn't get back to the house. So I backed away from where I was...and went home.
Tired as I was, the thought of Colby got my mind all caught up on him, keeping me awake. That tremor in my chest stuck with me long after he was gone, and I kept hearing his voice in the back of my thoughts. A really sweet voice. Something to match the very grace of him. Lord bless....just to look at him was like setting fire to the very center of me. All those times that I hear Willie talking about this lady and that one...I ain't never felt nothin' close to what he was chattering about until I saw that boy by the fire tonight.
Had I told this feeling to anybody else...they might find cause to run me through over it. But, like I said...something about it felt right. To me, at least.
I wonder when I'll see him again. Or if I'll see him again.
Maybe I'll ask around town about him tomorrow. There's got to be something somebody can tell me about this curious boy in the dark. I intend to find out what it is. If for no other reason than to set this strange feelings to rest once for certain.