by John W. Steele
Did you ever hear the saying “He ain’t a bad feller after you get to know him”? Well, I’ll tell you that sure weren’t so with Jack Ketchum. The longer you knowed him, the worse he got. Meaner than a rabid dog Jack was. Smart aleky, cruel, uppity, and just plain nasty, pretty much nailed his finer points.
Me and Rufus Taylor watched him sandpaper a cat’s ass when we was younglings. He poured kerosene on the critter and set it to blazing. Course twern’t nothing we could do about it, his Pa, Lester Ketchum being the High Sheriff and all. Let’s just say you didn’t cross Jack lest you were full of moon, or just plain inbred.
Big good-looking feller Jack was. Tall, thin as a fence post, long black hair trailing on his shoulders. He always wore a leather vest that matched his dark eyes; and cleated lizard-skin cowboy boots with silver toes.
I reckon a lot of the lady-folk here in Wheelwright Junction thought the same, because there was a passel of little fellers running around that looked just like him. Course ain’t no telling where they’d come from. But some of them called him Poppy, and we seed him walking the marble treads to the courthouse on more than one occasion. I heard nothing much ever came of it though. Jack’s Uncle, Aza Ketchum was the Lee County circuit judge, and he thowed a lot of female “caterwauling” out of his courtroom for lack of evidence.
Seems like only yesterday Jack and Lester crossed the cobblestone bridge up in Krypton. Old Mira Leonard the barfly told me they went looking for shiners up on Chickasaw Ridge.
That no good sum-bitch Jessie Lee Crawford was with ’em. The big ugly bastard butchered his wife and unborn and got away with it. He fed them to his hogs. Lester fixed it so he’d claimed it was Negras that kilt em, and Aza sealed the deal. Crawford would do anything Jack told him to. They wasn’t a lick o’ good in the whole damn bunch of em.
My Pa’d been shining on Chickasaw Ridge with my Grandpa, Evelyn ever since he was old enough to tote a rifle. Pa was an honorary man. He spoke in tongues and understood the word. He took up serpents: rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths. He got bit a dozen times, but he throwed it off and they never harmed him none.
I remember one time my Pa held his hand over a fire until the flesh cooked clean to the bone. Pa never flinched once, or even groaned. He told me it was the power of faith that lived in him, and made him to conquer his pain. Pa never ate meat, nor would he kill a living thing lest it was in self-defense. They wasn’t one in that group of murderers that amounted to the tracks he left on the mountain. I ain’t ever knowed one like Pa since, and I know I never will.
Seems they cornered my Pa in the barn. Pa had his shotgun in the cabin, and he never saw ’em coming. They opened fire, the three of them, and pumped a dozen rounds into Pa’s chest. But he just kept coming at ’em until Crawford ran him through with a pitchfork. Pa fell to the ground, and they thought he was dead.
Jack and Lester somehow learnt where Pa hid the money, and they found the saddlebag buried in the hay. When they turned to leave, Pa sprung up from the floor and buried a long maul in Crawford’s skull, killing him dead. Lester pumped a slug between Pa’s eyes and finished him.
Afterward, they went down to the Dew Drop and got drunk. All the while bragging about what they’d done.
When I come home from school all’s I found was Pa’s charred bones. The cabin where my Ma bornt me was burnt to the ground. My Ma run off with the Reverend Wilcox two summers prior, and Pa was all I had.
It was powerful hard them days afterward. I quit my schooling, and went to working for Amos Whipple the blacksmith. He was a kindly man unless he was drinking, but then you’d better stay out of his way.
Rufus used to haul coal for the Ashwood Brothers. He’d come out to the shop with a load ever’ week, and we was fast friends.
Ruf was kind of a peculiar feller until you got to know him. He liked to sniff that air glue. Course there weren’t anything wrong with him really. He just acted a little claggy sometimes. But his word was as good as gold, and we were always finding work together.
I never paid Ruf’s ways no mind, until the day he caught his family jewels in the cog wheel of the hay bailer at the Hawley farm down on Chimney Creek.
Doc Prichard sewed him up. But he said Ruf would always be what they call a u-neck. Rufus sure growed powerful big after that. His shoulders swolt as wide as an axe handle. I never could figure why his voice got girlish and squeaky. I reckon they’s some things we ain’t supposed to know.
One day we were fishing for blue-cat down on the banks of the Savannah, and Rufus ast me, he says, “Jarred, don’t you reckon it’s time we picked up the pieces of what them Ketchum’s did to your Pa?”
“I’d admire a chance to make things right for sure, Ruf. But them Ketchum’s ain’t got a weak link in the chain. The best we’d do is get ourself kilt.”
Rufus stood up and stared out at the muddy brown water. “Your Pa’d sure be proud of you, Jarred Estep,” is all he said.
One thing I’d learnt about Rufus was; he might not be the brightest berry on the bush, but when he was right, he was right.
“They... Lord... what can we do?” I ast.
“I got it figured.” Rufus said. “Jack’s been humping that Collins gal up on Necker’s Knob. They meet every day around suppertime. I been watching them through the bushes. I figure we could sneak up there and pump a pellet into Jack’s butt. Then when he got off her to chase us, we’d lead him down to that pocket of quicksand we found in the gumbo swamp by the end of the rise.”
“That’s an admirable idea, Rufus. But how are we going to cross the pit?”
“They’s a big tarpaulin in the warehouse at the coal yard. I figure we could stretch it across the hole and wedge it down. When Ketchum chases us we’ll run across it and then pull it up from the other side. All’s you got to do is taunt him a little, and he’ll charge across that hole like a bloodhound after a wounded rabbit.”
* * *
Late afternoon the next day we hitched the tarp to stump roots and covered it with muck. Then we army-crawled up the bank of the knob.
Shure-nuff, Jack and that Collins gal were going at it on a blanket like a couple of hamsters. His behind was pumping faster than one of them whirligig log splitters they sell to the city folk down at the Agway in Raleigh.
Well, Ruf raised his air rifle and slapped a pellet smack dab on Jack’s ass. I swear that boy could shoot the pecker off a hummingbird at fifty yards.
Anyways, Jack hopped up from that Collins gal quicker than a flea off a hot brick. He howled like a wounded coy-dog and looked over towards us. “I’m gonna kill you, sons-a-bitches,” he bellowed.
Rufus stood up, and made a sound like a swamp peeper.
Jack flung open the door of his Cadillac, and came out with two pistols.
Well, Jack commenced to chase us along the rise, running buck naked through the briars, his pistols blazing. Me and Ruf hit the gumbo flying and shot across that sippy-hole like we were made of feathers. In no time we sunk the canvas and hid behind a big cypress stump.
Jack crashed through the brambles, and stood a-looking from the top of the ridge; his chest heaving, and his eyes on fire. Ruf stuck out his head from a gnarl of roots and hollered, “Hootey, Hootey Hoo.”
“I’m gonna kill you bastards,” Jack cried, and he charged down the bank. Both his pistol were a flaming, and his stones slapped side to side on his thighs like a couple of hockleberries in a tote sack.
Just like magic, he jumped right into the bog and sank directly up to his chest; all the while a waving his arms and floundering in the muck like a toad tossed on an anthill.
“Help me! I’m gonna kill you bastards,” he bellowed. Jack fired the last of his bullets until the triggers just kept clicking like the sound of a ratchet wrench.
We walked over to the bank and stared down on him. The gumbo had already swallowed him to the chin and they weren’t much time left.
“Please, please. Help me out of here. I’m gonna kill you sons-a-bitches.”
I looked over at Ruf, “What do you reckon we ought to do?” I ast.
He looked down at Jack and said, “The Lord gives ’em... and the Lord takes ’em back.”
I took off my hat and held it to my heart. “Blessed be the name of the Lord,” I replied.
“Amen, Jarred, Amen.”
They was a clump of cattails growing on the bank. I broke off a thick stalk and said, “I’m gonna give you more of a chance than you gave my Pa, Ketchum.”
I thowed him the shuck. He dropped his pistols and they splashed in the water. Jack clutched at the reed like it was a river log bobbing in a flood.
“I’m gonna kill you sons...” were the last words from his mouth, before the quicksand sucked him under. His shiny black mane floated on the surface, and then sunk beneath swamp water, and followed him to hell.
When we looked up, that Collins gal stood staring at us from the top of the rise. We gazed at each other for a spell; Ruff says my jaw was hanging open. They Lord... she sure was a looker; towhead, long curly hair, ivory skin. The nipples of her breasts stuck out like a couple of red raspberries.
In a while she ast, “What should I do?”
“Keep your mouth shut,” I said.
We kept eyeballing each other.
“What’s your name?” I ast her.
“Rinthy... Rinthy Lyn.” Then she looked down, and rubbed her toe in the red clay.
“We best be moving on, Jarred. It ain’t wise to tempt the devil,” Rufus said.
I’ll never know why, but Rinthy never told a soul what happened that day.
* * *
Things changed considerable after that. They never found Jack’s body. Lester retired shortly after. He drank himself to death in six months.
Aza took a bullet in the skull. Seems he didn’t honor the bribes he’d made with the Klan. I always knowed they was good for something.
Beauregard Ashwood, the middle son of the Ashwood clan was elected High Sheriff of Lee County. Rufus and him get along real good.
Me and Ruf rebuilt the still up on Chickasaw. The following year we finished the cabin.
That Collins gal came calling so often she moved in with us. A while later her sister Tammy Beth followed. You give them two a little hooch and they go plum crazy. They sure love to dance. Great balls afire! We have us some fun, you bet. ’Course, Rufus just likes to watch. It seems you lose a lot of burn when you’re a u-neck.
I see lately Rinthy’s commencing to swell. I reckon I knocked her up. But it’s righteous; I always wanted a young-un of my own.
Ruf still takes a sniff now and again. When the spirit strikes him, he sings “Amazing Grace.” For a big feller he sings so pretty it brings tears to my eyes, and I have to take my hat off. He’s devoted, same as my Pa was.
Business is good and we got us a respectable enterprise. As long as we tithe a tenth of our earnings to the Ashwoods, Sheriff Beauregard don’t allow nobody to fuss with us.
We got a dozen shotguns stashed ever which-a-away on the farm, and Ruf has just bought himself a crossbow. We traded a trunk full of lightning to Moses the Indian down in Raleigh, for three cases of buckshot and a grenade launcher.
They’s a whole heap of trouble back in these hills, and me and Rufus ain’t the least of it. Anybody that comes up on Chickasaw Ridge knows they best be a-looking for shine.
Ruf can fling an arrow through the eye of a scarecrow on the other side of the cornfield. He don’t believe they’s a world beyond these hills, and he don’t cotton to strangers.
Copyright © 2010 by John W. Steele