Wednesday, July 9, 2008
A Hazy Night in Coon Holler
“Can you two youngun’s quite climbin’ around on the furniture—like two squirrels high on poison buttermilk! Hop up into yer granddaddy’s lap and let me tell ya a story.”
The two young boys settled in, one on each knobby knee. With wide eyes they looked at one another and then back at their grandfather’s wrinkled face, with all of the anticipation of a coon dog eyein’ a fresh plate of biscuits.
It all begun on a particular hazy and eerie night. As a young boy I could barely keep my eyes from the slumberin’ notion they was given to. My younger brother, Timmy, hadn’t put up such a valiant fight and sat across from me snorin’, so I leaned forward just enough to kick the toe of my work boot against the heel of his. You’d have thunk I’d sent a stray bolt of lightnin’ up his leg. His entire body rose, and stayed horizontal fer a second ‘fore meetin’ abruptly again with the seat. His glassy eyes looked like one of ‘em stuffed deers up on the wall above ya. He swung his head wildly from side to side tryin’ to get his bearin’. Reminded me of the neighbors cat after we’d put ‘em on the merry-go-round and spun him until we seent what he had for breakfast that mornin’. Just like the cat, soon enough he figured what I’d done to him.
Although us King Brothers was only fifteen and thirteen, our slight of years didn’t keep us from a very important mission. We was to sit in the church bell-tower and was proud as pickles to be the first line of defense. You see, the townspeople of Coon Holler weren’t an educated bunch, but they aimed to see someone brought to justice. Most likely, if we caught ‘em, some old boy would be swingin’ in the breeze ‘for sundown.
‘Bout a month earlier a fire destroyed a barn and most of the critters in it. No one knew for certain how old Klem Watkins was, including him, but his advanced years could have caused him to leave a lantern burnin’ long after the cows had been milked. When directly confronted about the possibility he simply scratched his gray beard and admitted he couldn’t recall. The entire community felt badly for Klem, but didn’t think much of it—‘til just two weeks later another fire broke out. This time things wasn’t so innocent—worst part was Misses Bandy and her baby didn’t make it out of the old shack in time.
Old man Bandy had gone off to look for work on account the saw mill had closed and times was tough. Poor old feller—strain of finding out such news when he returned left him on the verge of crazy, some say he didn’t travel far. Just sit by the graves and cried all day, twernt nothin’ he could do, ‘cept what he done I guess. All that pain and grief took hold and the only way he seen out was to swaller a shotgun barrel. Pitiful sight—three fresh graves all in a row; they was a good young family, come from good stock.
The officials of the village called a special meetin’ and the hall was jam packed. Lots of folks was beside themselves, couldn’t hardly come to grips with what had happened, but mostly they was mad and lookin’ forward to a lynchin’.
It had been more than forty years since anyone graced the ‘hangin’ tree’, a large old oak at the north edge of town. Most figured just the simple reminder of the old noose swinging in the wind prevented the need for its use, but that night there weren’t no hagglin’ ‘bout the need for it.
The only decision needed made was who would climb up there and replace the old rotted rope with new. Since no one jumped up to volunteer, I suppose Coot Jeevers felt obligated. Now I don’t know Coot to be his real name, but it fit. Coot was the only form of law this town ever seen. Whether he had any official trainin’ remained in question, but most important he did have a silver badge with U.S. Marshall on it and that’s all the convincin’ most folks needed.
Coot and a makeshift posse come together and hatched a plan to catch the scoundrel that was settin’ fire to things. They was local fellers posted all over town, ‘specially along the roads comin’ and goin’. It was me and Timmy’s job to ring the old church bell soon as we seen anything suspicious.
Well, ‘bout the time we quit laughin’ we heard horse hooves comin’ up the main road in a hurry. Among the haze and excitement in my head ‘spose I seent things I weren’t shore of, but what we think we seen scared the tar outta both us. Poor Timmmy, scart him so bad he couldn’t speak for more than a week.
Once that horse and rider come into view, there weren’t no doubt the two of ‘em been raised straight from the ashes of hell! The rider was dressed in black, his cape a flyin’ and flitterin’ behind him. The black mare wore some kinda metal mask like her mount, but neither of ‘em could hide them eyes that glowed cherry-red against the black. The steam that rose from the mare’s flared nostrils made a whistlin’ sound that caused my skin to turn to goose-flesh.
The rider paused directly ‘neath the tower, as if he knowed somethin’ wasn’t right.
Timmy and me knew we shoulda been ringin’ the bell, but neither of us moved a muscle, for fear he’d climb that ladder and hack us into fish food. Like long-tailed cats in a room full of rockin’ chairs, we sat completely still. Timmy and me took turns a breathin’, scared exhalin’ at the same time might bring unwanted and deadly consequences.
Then quickly as he come, he went. We both grabbed the rope and pulled fer all we’s worth. Soon the bell began to ringin’, louder and clearer than I ever heard it. Once we seen the townspeople arrivin’ at the square with guns, pitchforks, and whatever else could maim or otherwise deter a man, we ceased to ringin’ the bell. It seems no one caught a glimpse of the evil marauder ‘cept us two. As we was tellin’ of the hellish things we seen a flash of light lit up the dark—come from the Carver place and the flames began to crawl up the shingled roof.
Coot told us to stay put and good thing he did, them wobbly knees of mine woulda just carried me in circles. I was still numb from fear, why I coulda set on a porkepine and never knowed no different. But somethin’ happened in the next few minutes, somethin’ dark and evil. A black cloud rolled in coverin’ up that little slice of moon, the temperature dropped noticeably, and a heavy wind blew in from the north, fannin’ them danged old flames. ‘For anyone knew it the whole town was set ablaze. Women and kids was screamin’, while menfolk was runnin’ in circles confused—seems like the firebug stayed one step ahead of the water buckets, first at one end of town then a second later at the other.
Timmy and me was feelin’ pretty secure where we was at ‘til I noticed the flames beginnin’ to show through the roof of the church. I knowed neither one of us wanna be no roasted quails so we made our way down the steps in a hurry, like we’d been called to dinner. Once we reached firm terra I grabbed my brother and pointed him in the direction of home. With a push I sent him off, yellin’ behind for him to run like a scalded dog, and he done just that. Soon after he disappeared in the smoke I too got the hankerin’ I needed to be somewhere else, but seemed I was runnin’ in a pool of molasses.
Not more than twenty yards from the church I heard horse hooves from behind. ‘Fraid to turn around—knowed who it would be. ‘Fore I got up the nerve to set eyes on him, I begun to hearin’ the whistlin’ of horse nostrils. I felt the adrenaline rush through me and my legs was pumpin’ like pistons on a steam engine headed upstream. It seemed like the faster I run the louder the horse hooves got. I shore didn’t know what I wanted to do in life, but couldn’t imagine bein’ chopped up in pieces was gonna get me there.
Soon I noticed the runnin’ seemed much easier—nearly fainted dead away when I seent the gap ‘tween my feet and the ground. The evil one had snatched me up by my shirt collar, just like an old barn cat carries her babies around. But I wasn’t convinced he meant to carry me to a safer place. As the mare continued to gallop I was thrown around like a rag doll on Christmas morn. I didn’t know where we’s headed, but that mare was anglin’ for the cemetery, and this ole boy ain’t none to fond of buggers and haints.
‘Bout the time I seen the entry gate fer the graveyard was when I got real serious ‘bout figurin’ a way out of this thing. Never was much good at cipherin’, but I come to a swift conclusion. My old faithful Barlow pocket knife didn’t let me down, just in the nick of time she sliced through my collar and sent me arse over tea-kettle. By the time I shook the cobwebs free I seent the ground open up wide and the black mare leaped into the sky, before plungin’ back into the fiery pit whence they came!
Just as the story concluded the boys mother entered the room and informed the two youngsters it was time to find their jackets and get on the road. She had listened to the last several minutes of her father’s story, waiting in the doorway. He had recently celebrated his eightieth-second birthday and his failing health seemed to concern everyone other than himself. She knew there had never been a Coon Holler or a marauder from hell, but she also knew that each time they visited might be the last time she saw the gleam in his eye as he entertained.
She leaned down and kissed him on the forehead.
“Pop, you didn’t fill these boys full of craziness about Coon Holler again did ya? Last time we visited they wouldn’t sleep in their own beds for a month.”
“No Ma’am, may God send a bolt a lightnin’ down and strike me deader than a hammer if every word ain’t true!”
“Well I just know you tend to remember things slightly different than most.”
He smiled and used his forefinger and thumb to stroke his chin in a reflective manner.
“Might wanna keep them boys away from the cemetery for a spell.”