In 1977 Huckleberry Finn toppled into a salt water pit, reaching for the cap that had dropped off his head as he stooped over while attempting to catch a bullfrog with his bare hands and Tom Sawyer reached down from the bank and pulled him from the tainted water. Or was it the other way around? The blue cap read “Lester Pfister Seed Corn” and both boys were ten and the boy who had fallen in could not yet swim. So that must have been Tom Sawyer.
They were neighbors, with Tom living on a grain farm with his uncle and aunt, Silas and Sally Phelps, while Huck stayed at his dad’s old house though his father was rarely there and when he was home he was bitter and cussed and hit Huck with the forearm crutches he used to walk because of the polio that had plagued him since before time. Tom helped his aunt and uncle in their garden and eventually joined 4-H though his aunt never allowed him to bring Huck along when the family traveled to the Ducoin State Fair in August.
The boys rode an ancient Blue-Bird school bus an hour to school and then rode the same route in reverse on the way back home. The sun shined hot through the side windows of the bus and made the boys sleepy though they still wrestled and joked around in their assigned seats and one day when they rode the bus across the low-water bridge they witnessed a truck driver dumping salt water into the river, right where they sometimes refilled their canteens on their hiking and fishing excursions.
When they weren’t in school or doing chores they explored the remaining woods, those woods not yet pillaged by farmers and developers. They walked, then biked, then later rode Honda three-wheelers down trails and lease roads, across fields and sometimes into town to buy sodas and cigars and Hawken chewing tobacco at the gas station on the highway. Often they would see the man everyone just called Walter, who had been arrested for window peeking several times, using the outside payphone though he was never talking, merely listening, scratching his gray whiskers and wiping his nose on the sleeve of his filthy shirt or jacket, depending on the season, but no matter what the weather Walter always sat astraddle of his bicycle. And usually when Walter encountered teenage boys he pedaled away quickly to avoid their verbal abuse and the occasional rock or bottle.
The boys fished every farm pond and every good camping spot on the river that slid by their hometown and down along their rural neighborhood, although whenever Huck and Tom trespassed on Fred McDougal’s land, the farmer who owned and farmed most of the land in the county, they were more cautious and always double-checked to make sure they left no signs of them ever being there.
In the fall and winter they coon hunted with Huck’s dog Rockford until Huck’s dad took Rockford hunting while Huck was asleep and the hound followed a coon across Route 50 and was killed by a passing semi.
In the spring the boys hunted mushrooms in the woods along the river and every year Huck got poison ivy on his legs and fingers. Or was that Tom? In the woods they carried empty bread sacks to fill with mushrooms, sneaking onto McDougal’s property for those big morels, and one year they grew thirsty as they bicycled back up the road and stopped to refill their canteens at the church on the county line where Tom attended services with his family though Huck had never been inside and in the basement they discovered sugar and packets of cherry Kool-Aid and mixed up a pitcher using water from the faucet. Then a few weeks later the school bus broke down and those kids who lived relatively close got off and walked home, traipsing past this church, and when Tom suggested they go inside and make some Kool-Aid the older kids said, “Don’t you pay attention in church? You’re not supposed to drink that water. Some kind of chemical run-off from Fred McDougal’s fields ruined the well.”
They fished all spring and summer and squirrel hunted in the fall and when they discovered the oil field tank truck down by the low-water crossing, dumping salt water into the river then reloading with fresh water — though there were two signs stating, “No loading or dumping water” — they waited in the weeds like snipers and after the truck driver stashed the intake hose under the edge of the decrepit and unusable iron bridge the boys blasted that long black rubber tube full of holes.
They fished constantly and hoarded packets of salt from restaurants in town and used the salt to season channel cats they caught and cleaned and rinsed in the same water from which they had been taken and roasted the fish on sharpened sticks, foil-wrapped potatoes baking in the coals of their fire.
They fished non-stop in good weather and at fourteen knew everything. They knew Walter was a pervert and a window-peeker but more than likely posed no threat to them. They knew Fred McDougal to be a counterfeit-Christian who would do anything for a dollar. They knew Becky Thatcher was pretty and kind and truly religious but Amy Lawrence was much more fun to take into the trees at the edge of the park at night during the Fall Festival. They knew everything about everything until they brought up the day’s last trot-line, the river water like chocolate milk, and they saw the evil mystery fish snagged on a 5⁄0 hook, crawdad’s tail hanging out one side of his mouth like Castro’s cigar. Huck steadied the boat while Tom lipped the fish as one would a bass — or did Tom steer the boat while Huck removed the fish? — but this beast sank his fangs deep into the fish remover’s thumb. Their little jonboat rocked and jerked and six eyes grew wide and a previously caught bullhead flopped over the transom. And so they stashed their holey boat, bandaged the hand with an oily rag, and bicycled out of the river bottoms with that mysterious evil fish and five catfish, twisting on a stringer tied to the handlebars, collecting dust and flopping less the further they pedaled up the path. When Uncle Silas met them on the county line he said, “That’s a grennel. They ain’t good for nothin. Huck, your dad’s gonna be in jail quite a spell this go round. You’re probably gonna have to go stay with your aunt in town.”
So Huck had stayed with his aunt occasionally though he often slipped out and stayed at his dad’s old house, alone but comfortable, and when he did stay in town he would get up early and wait for the bread man to leave his truck unattended behind the grocery store and then Huck would snag one or two boxes of donuts for Tom and his other friends at school. Then at noon he would walk up town and spend his lunch money on two-cent pieces of green-apple gum and various flavors of nickel Jolly Ranchers, selling most of it later back at school for a dime or sometimes a quarter apiece to any kid with a sweet tooth and cash.
Huck smoked weed with the older kids in the park while Tom took sports too seriously and hung out with the jocks but the boys maintained their friendship and Huck often rode his three-wheeler to Tom’s house and once when Huck was kicked back on Tom’s bed, reading a fishing magazine, waiting for his friend to finish the putter-butter and jelly sandwiches they were taking with them fishing, Tom’s Aunt Sally stepped out of the shower and into the hallway, thinking she had the house to herself, and Huck saw her in all her glory as she strolled down the hallway naked, and afterward he liked her much more and was even more polite to her though he knew he was still not one of her favorite people.
And later when they got their driver’s license the boys roamed the country roads in the darkness. In 1983 large coons would bring twenty to thirty dollars at the fur buyers, even road kill coons if the fur was not damaged, so they cleaned the roads of any carcass worth selling. Then when muskrats invaded the river and began to destroy the river banks and the large levee around the nearby fields the boys began trapping muskrats and selling them for eight bucks apiece. The farmers who owned the acres inside the levee praised the boys and thanked them and gave them permission to hunt and fish and whatever else they wanted. So every morning at daylight the two boys, both juniors in high school at this point, made their way along the top of the levee, down the rough narrow trail that seemed to consist entirely of lime and mud and relentless thorn bushes. And even though Huck was against it, when Fred McDougal flagged them down, wanting them to trap the rats on his property adjacent to the levee Tom agreed.
One particular Wednesday morning the taller of the boys carried two muskrats in each hand, his blond hair blowing in the cold wind where it fluttered down past his brown sock cap. Thorns and bristles scratched against his coveralls and hip-boots. The other boy wore stained and faded overalls and a heavy tan coat with a long tear across the shoulder where red insulation peeked through, three muskrats in each of his hands. A black cap covered his scraggly brown hair and the briars clung to his clothes and vines laced around his thigh-high rubber boots and when they reached the place where they usually descended into the woods onto the trail that led to Tom’s truck Huck said, “Wait up.”
The teenager dropped the wet rodents and retrieved a pint bottle of Jim Beam from his hip pocket and took a swig. The whiskey glugged within the clear glass then warmed his chest.
“Give me a shot of that,” Tom said. He tossed down his dead rats, wiped his hands across the backside of his coveralls and took the bottle.
White ribbons of clouds streaked the gray sky and though it was seven o’clock in the morning the sun was nowhere to be seen on the murky horizon. Even the birds remained quiet and after another quick drink the boys moved on toward the rusty blue 4×4 Chevy that sat parked on a dirt road a quarter mile into the trees, their crunching footfalls the only noise in the cold solitude of the woods.
They tossed the animals in the bed of the truck among five other muskrats and shucked out of their over-clothes and traded the rubber boots for tennis shoes. Then Tom stuffed his trapping attire into the front corner of the truck bed before he hopped in, fired up the motor, and flipped on the heater and the radio. After a quick weather report the DJ spun Centerfold by The J. Geils Band and Tom said, “Have you seen this video?”
“I don’t guess so. Do they play it on channel 13?” Huck took another drink of the whiskey then tucked the pint bottle deep into one rubber boot.
“I doubt it. Me and Becky saw it in town there at Willie Temple’s the other night. They got cable, ya know.”
“Willie Temple?” He rolled up his overalls and stuck them in the floorboard beside his boots, then climbed up in the 4×4 and slammed the door. “What was you doin at that peckerhead’s house?”
“His folks were out of town so he had a little party. No big deal. Just a pony-keg. We just stopped in for a little while.” When Huck said nothing Tom said, “I bet you’d like that video.”
Both boys had gotten their hands wet earlier, setting the muskrat traps under water, and though their hands were now dry they remained dark red and painfully cold, as were their feet. Huck leaned forward and held his hands over the warm air from the defroster vents in the dash as they drove out of the woods.
“So when are we gonna go sell that fur?”
“Well, I can’t today,” Tom said. “I gotta take Becky to Effingham after school. You wanna go sell it?”
“I’m not sure when my aunt’ll get home with the car,” Huck said. He gazed out the filthy passenger window at the bleak muddy fields and the leafless trees. “She don’t really like me haulin dead stuff around in her trunk anyway.”
When they reached Huck’s dad’s old place they tallied up their take out in the garage. Tom said, “Well, let’s see. If old Muff gives us the same price as last week we’ll have twenty-three muskrats at eight bucks.” He found a small scrap of paper and an old ink pen on the oily disaster of a work bench and after swirling the pen around a few times to get the ink flowing he multiplied the price by the animals. “One eighty-four. And then ten coons at — say, twenty-five.”
“He ain’t gonna give us no twenty-five dollars for those run-over coons.”
“They ain’t too buggered up. But let’s just say, seven coons at twenty-five and then maybe twelve bucks for those others.”
“He probably won’t even buy that possum.”
“Oh yeah Huck, they get five or six bucks out of em. And he might give us thirty for a couple of those big coons.” He figured on the paper then said, “We might get a couple hundred bucks apiece.”
“That’d be handy,” Huck said.
After hanging his boots and overalls on a hook in his dad’s old garage Huck hopped in with Tom and the boys hit the road again. Fifteen minutes later when they reached the city limits Huck said, “Run up by the grocery store so I can get a Mt. Dew.”
“Hang on. I gotta swing by and pick up Becky. Then we’ll all stop and get a drink.”
“So you and Amy Lawrence are done with, huh?”
“Oh yeah. Me and Becky are the real deal. I’ll probably end up marryin that girl one of these days.”
“Good luck with that.” Huck had no interest in Tom and Becky’s love life though he had been contemplating Amy Lawrence more and more all the time.
They took a left on Jefferson Avenue and when they pulled up into the yard at Becky’s house she immediately stepped outside in her brown suede coat and pink stocking cap and gloves, books clutched tightly against her chest. Her father the judge stepped out on the porch and waved to them in the truck and they waved back.
Both guys opened their doors but she walked around and climbed in on the driver’s side and she and the driver kissed. “Hey, Huck,” she said to the passenger.
“Hey there,” he said.
As they turned back onto Main Street Tom squirted some window washer fluid on the windshield and the dried mud streaked and smeared and grew much worse before it finally got a little better but before Becky could complain about not seeing the road Tom said, “You sure smell good today.”
“Thanks,” Huck said.
“I meant her perfume.”
“Thank you,” she said then wrinkled her nose. “But something definitely reeks in here. What is that?”
“It’s Huck’s aftershave.”
“That’s bullshit. I don’t even wear aftershave.”
They all three laughed and Huck said, “Really, it’s that coon scent we use to cover up our smell.” He pulled a tiny round glass bottle from Tom’s glove compartment. “Here, try a little.”
Becky pushed his hand away and said, “Don’t you even open that while I’m in here.” Her blond hair was pulled back and she wore Tom’s class ring which she had resized by wrapping blue yarn around the side opposite the azure stone. She said, “Ya know, that smells just like Study Hall did last week. Like someone poured some of that nasty stuff down in the heat register or something.”
“I wouldn’t know nothin bout that,” Tom said. He parked on the street in front of the grocery store and the guys bought Mt. Dews from the machine. A few kids they knew cruised by and honked and across the street a few underclassmen hunkered down in their coats and trudged south down the sidewalk toward the school, book-bags in hand.
Becky said, “What are we doing this weekend, Tom?”
“Don’t you remember? Me and Uncle Silas are goin deer huntin down south in Pope County. I been tellin ya for a month now.”
“Well crap,” she said. “I wanted to go see An Officer and A Gentleman at the movies.” She sipped her soda. “Maybe I’ll just get Huck here to take me.”
“He’s probably got other plans.”
Huck said, “Hopefully.”
By late Saturday afternoon the temperature had risen to 47 degrees but a fog settled over the landscape and the air hung damp and surreal. After his aunt left her house with her new boyfriend Huck loaded the coons and muskrats into the trunk of her old car, leaving the run-over possum to lie beside the conibear traps they had taken up Friday morning.
Then he took a shower before driving south-east to Potter’s Fur Shed which sat way back in the river bottoms but up on a high bluff so that even though the driveway flooded almost every time it rained no water ever reached the building. Huck wore his new gray boots and blue jeans and a black western shirt under his denim jacket and his hair was still damp and combed in place when he stepped into Muff Potter’s amid the displays of rubber boots and overalls and hunting coats and knives and traps and calls and scents and lures and an outrageously huge bear trap leaning in one corner just for show.
Behind the desk old Muff, deep in conversation with a rough looking coon hunter, stopped himself in mid-sentence and said, “Good Lord. Look at that.” He slurped coffee from a heavy ceramic cup. “You gotta hot date tonight, Mr. Finn?”
“Not really. Just takin somebody to see a movie here afterwhile.” The room smelled of raw flesh and musk and new rubber boots. “I got some coons and rats out in the trunk for ya.”
Muff said, “A movie? Well, my land. Now don’t you go handlin that fur. You’ll get yourself all greasy.”
He pushed back from the desk and as if on cue the rough looking guy disappeared behind the curtain that divided the office from the skinning room.
“You been deer huntin, Huck?”
“Naw, Tom went down south huntin with his uncle. I just been busy helpin one of my neighbors feed hay. You go?”
He pointed to the orange pin on his hunting cap. “Killed out this mornin.”
“Get a big buck?”
“No, I shot a young doe. But she’ll be better eatin anyway.”
Muff followed Huck outside to study the animals in the trunk. There were splotches of blood and fat on his Carhartt jacket, the cuffs of his gray work pants tucked half-heartedly into his black engineer boots.
“Boy, you and Tom sure been busy, ain’t ya?” he said. He hefted a few of the larger coons and brushed their hair back and held them out at arms length and then he blew a part into the fur of a few of the muskrats, as if merely a formality.
He inspected the road kill coons a little more closely then scratched his chin stubble. “Tell ya what. I’ll give four hundred for the whole lot. How bout that?”
“How bout four-twenty-five?” Huck asked.
Muff smiled. “How bout three-seventy-five?”
“I guess four hundred’ll be alright.” He followed Muff back inside. A young man, not much older than Huck, in greasy blood-streaked overalls and a flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up carried the fur in from the trunk to the skinning room.
“So, is this young lady you’re takin to the pictures someone special or just a passin fancy?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” He cleared his throat as Muff brought out his checkbook. “Think you could make it out for three-fifty, then just give me fifty in cash?”
“I don’t think that’d be a problem.” He smiled and handed over the long blue check and then removed a fifty from his ragged billfold. “Now you kids have a good time at your picture-show?”
That Sunday evening when Tom returned from deer hunting with his uncle he immediately drove to Huck’s dad’s old place where he found his friend watching a black-and-white television and eating Vienna sausages out of the can.
“Get a deer?”
“Shot a button buck,” Tom said. “Here’s some pictures.”
Huck picked up the Polaroids and flipped through images of Tom squatted down beside the deer in the bed of the pickup, his cousin Sid smiling with his nine-point buck.
“Them deer’s hangin down there in the shed if ya wanna go see em.”
“Maybe after this movie’s over,” Huck said.
“You get that fur sold?”
“Yeah, got four hundred even. We’ll have to cash the check tomorrow but I had Muff give me fifty in cash so I’d have a little spendin money.”
Tom plopped down in the only other chair in the run down living room. “So what all did you do this weekend?”
And so Huck told Tom about taking Amy Lawrence to the movies, leaving out most of the film’s plot and how he spent too much on sodas and Twizzlers and Bottlecaps. He skipped to the part about getting some wine from Old Joe outside the tavern and driving around in the river bottoms with Amy.
“I didn’t even know she drank wine,” Tom said.
“We had a pretty good time, I guess.” There had been a Cheech & Chong and a Richard Pryor and a few other movies playing that Huck would have much rather seen than An Officer and a Gentleman but that was the film Amy had wanted to see so that was the one they watched.
Huck said, “Later when we was drivin around we found an old lease road that goes back in behind the levee. Back on McDougal’s land. There’s a little low-water crossin there too, so we can use it to get across the river down there.”
“I’ll take you down there tomorrow after school when we put the traps back out. You are givin me a ride to town in the mornin, ain’t ya? I took my aunt’s car back to her house last night after I took Amy home, then just rode my three-wheeler back out here.”
“Well, I am supposed to take Becky to Flora tomorrow but we do need to get those traps back out.”
“Yep,” Huck said, thinking to himself, that girl always needs to go somewhere. He guzzled a can of pop and then tried to get the television station to come in better by adjusting the rabbit ears.
“Me and Uncle Silas stopped in up there at the gas station on the way back into town — he gassed up my truck since we drove it down there huntin — and them guys in there was sayin there’s been some more break-ins here lately. Ben Rogers’ dad had a bunch of tools stoled out of his shed and then old what’s-his-face over there by Wilcox Bridge had a three-wheeler and some chainsaws ripped off.”
“Yeah, I heard about that,” Huck said.
“I heard they’s trying to blame Walter but I don’t know.”
“Now where would Walter hide that stuff? In his little room there behind the Laundromat?”
“That’s what I was thinkin. But who knows.”
“Well, he is a weirdo but I don’t imagine he stole nothin.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right.”
That Monday afternoon they loaded the traps back into the bed of Tom’s pickup and drove down to the levee. This time they went down the same lane as usual. They set the traps in the muskrat runs on the inside of the levee and took turns pointing at the deer and turkeys roaming around the enclosed fields. They counted thirty-seven deer and eighteen turkeys among the bean stubble and corn stalks and the seven or eight pumpjacks pumping oil into the tank batteries over by the east bank of the levee. The flares beside the wells seem to brighten and grow larger as the sun set and darkness took over for the evening.
Tom pointed to the gun case hanging in the rack in the back window of his truck. “Still got the 12-gauge here if ya wanna poach one.”
Afterward they sipped a little whiskey as they drove out of the woods in Tom’s truck. As per Huck’s direction they headed east at the county line until they reached the church, then cut back south, dropping back down into the bottoms. They followed along the outside of the levee, the road scarred deep with potholes and washouts. The path curved around a bend in the river then stopped at a T. They hung a right and crossed Jackson’s Bridge.
“Go on up the road a ways here.” He pointed ahead. “Okay, turn in that little road up there on the right.”
Tom said, “I never have been back in here. I figured the road just ended at this old well.”
“So did I. But keep on goin. I made it okay in my aunt’s junker so we won’t have no problems gettin down through here in this.”
It was now dark as they drove down this unexplored lease road covered with the typical hard dusty/oily road pack, trees thick on both sides and overhanging the path except at the wide place where sat an old rusty pumpjack like a dead dinosaur. They ventured further and further back into the woods then drove through a low-water crossing Tom had never seen.
Suddenly the road forked and Tom stopped. “So what was you and Amy doin way back in here?”
Huck ignored the question and said, “See, if ya just keep goin to your right, you’ll come to the backside of the levee, the south side. Okay? But see, if you took this here road to the left, you’ll come out right behind McDougal’s farm.”
“I’m tellin ya. This comes out at that oil well behind McDougal’s house. Back behind his sheds. The pumper has to go down his driveway to get back there to pump that well. He don’t come this way.”
But Doubting Thomas had to see it for himself. He veered to the left and headed toward McDougal’s farm as Huck lit a cigar and rolled down his window. Soon the path widened and they could see the oil well flare glowing just over the next rise but as they topped that hill they suddenly drove up on Fred McDougal’s pickup parked crossways in the lease road. “Oh hell. There’s McDougal,” Huck said.
Tom shut off his truck and cranked down the window, listening to that laboring pumpjack, like a tribal drum. Huck said, “Let’s get outta here,” but Tom had already climbed out.
They heard voices among the silhouettes and as they walked closer to Fred McDougal’s truck they saw Fred pointing a shotgun in the face of a man on the ground while his son-in-law Archie aimed a flashlight in the same direction. Fred and Archie were dressed alike in practically new Carhartt jackets and workpants. Caps on their heads.
The filthy man on the ground wore dark thin dress pants and an old black sports jacket. His ivory ankles shining between the cuffs of his pants and his cheap blue tennis shoes. No socks. A red and blue sock-cap askew on his head.
Huck puffed on his cigar. He could tell it was Walter from town and noticed a bicycle lying in the weeds. The flare from the oil well blazed a dull orange, casting a gothic glow over the immediate landscape. Beyond that the world seemed distant and dark to the east. On the other side of the lease road a combine sat idling in the cornfield. Up ahead Huck could see a tractor hooked to a grain wagon.
McDougal said, “You boys been trappin?”
“We sure have,” Tom said. “We uh… we just come in a different way this time cause we’s thinkin about settin a few traps on the south end of the levee here.”
McDougal said, “You should’ve hung to your right where the road splits back there. That’ll take ya to the backside of the levee.”
The boys stared at Walter who seemed to be regaining consciousness, as if he had been knocked out.
Tom said, “What’s happened?”
“You boys might as well go on home and forget about all this,” McDougal said. “No need for you to get mixed up in it.”
Huck noticed Walter didn’t have any teeth and then he realized the bloody mouth and the broken dentures on the lease road. He tossed his cigar down and mashed it out with his boot.
“Don’t leave me with em, boys,” Walter slobbered. “They’ll kill me.”
“Shut up, dumb ass,” Archie said.
Walter leaned up on one arm. “They’s fixin to kill me before you all got here.”
“No, we was gonna call the sheriff and have him haul you back to the nuthouse,” McDougal said.
“What did he do?” Tom inquired as if working for the local newspaper.
McDougal turned to Tom but kept the gun in Walter’s face. “He was up at the house, nosin around. Lookin in the windows like he does. When I seen him, he took back down through here and I hollered at Archie there on the CB. He was shellin corn right yonder and then when I come down the lease road here in the pickup Walter here run right into Arch.”
“I’m tellin ya,” Walter said. “I was ridin by on my bike and saw two guys slippin into that west shed of yours. They’s gonna steal some tools or somethin.”
“Then why’d you take out down this way when I hollered at ya?” McDougal said.
“The way you was wavin that there gun I figured you was gonna shoot me.”
Arch said, “He ain’t as dumb as he looks.”
“So I guess we was lucky you just happened to be ridin by on your bicycle. You was protectin us from those thieves.”
“That’s right,” Walter said.
“Well, I didn’t see nobody else run through here,” Archie said.
“Them guys didn’t come this way,” Walter said. “They headed west. Probably had somebody waitin to pick em up in a car down the road.”
Archie kicked him in the ribs and said, “How many times you been caught lookin in on some old lady changin clothes? How many times you been arrested for makin obscene phone calls? How many times you done been down to Anna to the nuthouse?”
Tom said, “Have you already called the Sheriff or…”
“We’ll haul him back up to the house and use the phone here in a minute,” Fred said.
“Don’t leave me, boys,” Walter called out again.
In town Walter usually scurried across to the other side of the street just to avoid Huck and Tom. Not that they would ever have punched him or anything, just maybe unleashed their vulgar teenage mouths. But now here Walter was groveling, begging for help, as if he thought for some reason they were on his side.
“Shut up, Walter,” Archie said. He kicked Walter in the head. Then the ribs and groin.
“Hey, now,” Tom said. “Hey!” He could not feature them actually killing Walter but Archie just kept stomping him until finally Huck stepped back toward Tom’s truck. He reached in the open window and pulled Tom’s 12-gauge out of the unzipped case. When he stepped back around the truck he said, “Get off him.”
Archie stepped back and said, “What are ya doin, takin up for that sick bastard?”
“Look here, Huckleberry,” McDougal said. “You better think about this for a second.”
The pumpjack continued drumming its trance-like rhythm. Thump thump thump thump thump thump BAM thump.
After Walter somehow managed to sit up on his knees McDougal pushed the barrel of the shotgun against his whiskered cheek.
“What’re ya gonna do if we just shoot him?” Archie asked him. “Are ya gonna shoot us?”
Huck had not thought that far ahead but he knew he did not want to shoot anybody.
“Maybe,” he said.
“You boys got your head in the clouds,” Fred McDougal said. “Takin up for this pervert.”
“We’re not takin up for nobody,” Tom said. “But you need to either call the cops or… or somethin.”
“Don’t tell me what to do, boy,” McDougal said. “I work my ass off to raise a family and do what’s right and then ya got people like this. Or ya can’t even call em people, really. Runnin around — rapin — doin whatever the hell they want.”
“Then let’s call the cops,” Tom said, already envisioning his name in the paper once again.
“What’re they gonna do, lock him up again for a couple months? It obviously didn’t help the last time. He just can’t control his urges,” McDougal said.
“Go ahead and call the law,” Walter said. “Maybe they can catch them real thieves before they get plumb away, then you’ll see.”
“Shut up, Walter,” they all said.
“Oughta lynch ya right here and now and be done with it,” McDougal said.
“I thought you was supposed to be real religious or somethin,” Huck reminded him sarcastically.
“Hey now, I am a God-fearin man,” McDougal said. My whole family — we’re good people. Unlike this thing. So don’t even start that nonsense.”
Tom did not really know what to say but for some reason he said, “Uncle Silas said the reason everybody out here started drivin into town for church now is because your family ran em all off.”
“Your uncle can kiss my ass,” Archie said.
McDougal said, “Hey now, we work hard down here at the church. All of us. Me and Laverne. And Tina and Archie here. Darren and his wife Carla. Darren even fills in for the preacher sometimes. But that ain’t got nothin to do with this.”
“Your son Darren’s a preacher?” Huck asked. “The one who embezzled all the money from the Co-op?”
“Now… that was just a misunderstandin. And every dime of that was paid back. We’re good people.”
“So I guess it ain’t stealin if you pay it back, huh?”
“You don’t know nothin about it, Huckleberry.”
“I know if it’d been me or any of my friends we’d been in jail, not somewhere fillin in for the preacher.”
Walter chuckled weakly and spit blood onto the lease road.
Fred McDougal, Archie, Walter, and even Tom were all staring at him and Huck was not sure where he was going next. What should he say and do? What was Tom thinking?
Suddenly Walter made a clumsy grab for the gun in his face and a shocking blast exploded in the country night.
Nothing much remained of Walter’s face. It reminded Huck and Tom of a busted watermelon.
Finally Fred McDougal said, “He just… he just pulled on the barrel… he… I… I wasn’t really gonna shoot him.”
The boys stepped back toward Tom’s truck.
“Where are you goin?” Archie said.
“Home.” Tom tasted bile in the back of his throat. “You can call the cops yourself.”
“You’re witnesses,” McDougal insisted. “You gotta tell the law it was an accident.”
“Oh, I’m sure they’ll believe whatever you tell them,” Huck said. “You’re good people, remember?”
Archie started after them but McDougal said, “Let em go.”
So the boys quickly left the scene, knowing this time they would not be heroes in the newspaper. The town would not celebrate them and their classmates would not be impressed.
Though the boys did wonder what would became of Walter’s body. Would McDougal call the sheriff? And if so would he mention Huck and Tom had been there? Would the sheriff decide keeping the whole mess quiet was the best resolution for everyone. That McDougal had performed a public service by ridding the community of a pervert? Or would Fred and Archie simply and quietly chain Walter’s corpse to a concrete block and sink it in the river? Along with his old bicycle? Never telling anyone, not even their own wives, what really happened? Should the boys head straight to Becky’s father the judge with this story? Or should they simply forget it ever happened?
But none of that really matters. If the story continues Huck and Tom become adults and that story is not meant to be.
Tom does not marry Becky Thatcher and eventually become a vegetarian and Huck never lives long enough to die in a car wreck or any other unfortunate mishap. In some form or another Huck and Tom are destined to relive those years from age ten to seventeen for eternity. The name of the river does not matter. Nor does the year or the name of the town. Never will Huck or Tom grow up or grow old and right now they are out there somewhere living the only way they know how. And that is the way it should be.
Joey Dean Hale is a musician and writer in the St. Louis area. He received his MFA from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and has published stories in several magazines, including Temporary Infinity Press, Marco Polo Arts Mag, and Octave Magazine, which also has his song “High Noon” posted online. In September 2012 he was the featured writer in Penduline Press — Issue 6 “WTF” — which included four flash fiction pieces and an interview with the author. He has stories forthcoming in The Dying Goose and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine.