In the dim, neon truck stop light, I studied Gerald’s face. His jaw was clenched tight as he said, "Pharyl, these things are complicated. It's not like working at fucking McDonald’s,” Gerald rolled the words off his tongue giving sound to each letter. “You can't just quit."
Looking out over the empty parking lot, I thought a long minute before I replied. "I never give nobody a time or a date. It was just for a while, until I could get my shit together. Get the fuckin taxes paid on my land.” My mouth suddenly filled with bile and I spat it out the side window of the car onto the ground. “Some people are startin to poke around in my business. Asking questions. Truth is, I'm getting skittish." Odds on my walking away were slim.
"You just lay low. If it was me I'd let you walk away, but the man” Gerald paused, I guess to give me time to conjure up the monster-man. “He won't be happy. He doesn't like to lose earners. When the man isn't happy, people end up hurt, hurt bad."
"Tell your boss to give me a time, a date or an amount,” I said. “ Ask him how much shit I have to move to buy my freedom. I climbed out of Gerald’s car carrying a black duffel bag. The same routine we'd done for almost a year. “I want out."
I threw the bag into the seat beside me as I climbed into the cab of my truck. Instead of pulling onto the highway I exited on the service road at the back of the lot. Gerald had said to lay low. Didn’t he know I was laying as low as I could? I hadn't been in town for over a month. I didn't have a life. Just moving dope and trying to keep the Kudzu from over taking the farm.
I knew Grandpa had been strapped for cash the last few years of his life. Just not how bad. When Grandma got the cancer, she hadn't wanted to go to the nursing home and Grandpa promised her she could die at home, in the house where she'd raised my mama and then me. Grandpa kept his word. He'd hired nurses from town to come in every day to give her medicine and bathe her body as the cancer ate it up.
After Grandma passed, Grandpa just give up. Still, he never said a word to me about the hard times he was having, not a word about debt. Seemed like Grandma took all his will to live with her. After I laid him in the ground, between Mama and Grandma, I went rambling through a shoe box of papers, looking for his burial insurance policy. Then I run across the papers that said Grandpa owed the bank pert-nigh ten thousand dollars. To top it off, there were three years of back taxes. I couldn't raise enough tobacco to make a dent in the debt. I thought I'd found an easy, quick money scheme when I met Gerald. Grandpa had been right when he told me nothing that's easy is worth having.
I saw Lonnie Earl's sheriff cruiser before I got to it. He was parked on the old rock quarry road at the foot of the mountain. Cutting my headlights I pulled in next to him.
"Good evenin', Sheriff. You waiting on me or taking a nap?" I asked.
"Pharyl, don't go to gettin' smart-assed with me. I got some news for you, Feds has got the road blocked about four mile up." He nodded his head toward the winding mountain road. "They're loaded for bear. I think they're planning on bringing you off the hill tonight."
I shook a cigarette from my pack and lit it. "I appreciate the information, but I don't rightly understand why you, of all people, are telling me."
"Two reasons. First, your grandpa was a good friend to me. I know he raised you right. Second is, they ain't no love between me and those Fed boys. They come in here acting like we're all a bunch of hillbillies that don't know shit. I just decided that I'm gonna throw a few monkey wrenches in their path." Lonnie Earl's chuckle sounded like a donkey braying. "What them city boys don't understand is that I could take you in, and might still, but they got no business interfering with ours. They's them and they's us. We take care of our own.” Lonnie Earl paused and rolled his chew around inside his mouth. “The bitch of it is that they really don't give a shit bout you. You're just small potatoes. They want names that you can give. Why don’t you make it easy on both of us and surrender to me right now?"
I swallowed hard and thought, Lord, I wish I could just say Gerald’s name and have this mess over, but I really didn't want to find out what Gerald's boss would do if I sicced the Feds on him. I shook my head not trusting that “no” would make it around the lump in my throat.
“Hell, you’re as mule-headed as your Grandpap. Won’t take help when the hand is held out.” Lonnie Earl started the cruiser's motor and pulled out onto the road toward town, without turning on his headlights. I followed suit, without headlights. Heading up the mountain instead. Toward trouble.
I was born on this old hunchbacked Kentucky mountain. Spent all of my twenty ‑three years here, walked my first steps here and drank my first sip of water from a spring here. My grandpa's grandpa settled this place with his brothers when they weren’t nothing much here except Injuns. There's a straight line running across this mountain from me to Ireland. I was the last one left, living on the land, and I didn't plan on being the Murphy that broke the line.
At the backside of my grandpa's place, there's an old log road. If you didn't know it was there you'd never be able to find it. Twenty years of sassafras bushes and kudzu have hidden the opening, but I had walked it all my life, first hunting with my grandpa, and then hunting alone, after he passed a year ago. The Feds thought they had my only route home blocked, but there was too much outlaw hill-jack in my heart to ever get boxed in. They didn’t know bout the log road that connected Highway Eighty-Nine to Mount Scratchum. Glancing at my black bag co-pilot, I made a sharp left and headed up the brush-covered log road.
Limbs scraped against the windows of the truck and at times if it hadn't been for the ruts in in the road left by long ago log trucks, I wouldn't have known where I was. Gripping the wheel tight to keep my hands on it, I tried to steer the truck in the ruts, using the full moon as my only light. I had to get to the cave about a half-mile up the hill and stash the black bag before the Feds caught up with me. Getting caught with four kilos of coke wasn't going to happen.
The brush on the log road was getting thicker, and somehow I had steered out of the ruts. Still running with no lights I strained my eyes and I searched for some sign of the road. All of a sudden, there was two giant oak trees smack-dab in front of me. No time to turn the truck away from the trees. I tried to maneuver it between them. Not enough space. I locked my elbows and gripped the wheel with all my strength. Metal crunched as the truck came to a bone-jarring halt. The front quarter panels caved in with a loud metallic screech sound as the truck wedged between the trees. "Motherfuckin son of a bitch."
Jamming the gears into reverse I tried to back out. No luck. I shoved the gear, hard into first, jammed the gas pedal. The truck rocked, but didn’t move. I continued to jam the gears forward, then reverse, shoving the gas pedal to the floor. Sweat burned my eyeballs. The engine roared, protesting my ill treatment. Black smoke boiled from the tailpipe. I couldn’t shake loose. If I wasn’t being followed I could get my chainsaw and whittle away at one of the trees, get loose. If they weren’t after me, I wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place.
I flipped open the glove box and shoved my Glock 19 into the waist of my jeans. As I climbed out of the truck, I grabbed the duffel bag and continued up the hill on foot. The going was slower, but my sense of direction was stronger. From my vantage point on the hill, I could see a group of faint lights moving around on the hillside below me. The Feds must be looking for me with flashlights. "Stupid assholes." Don't they know how far light carries on this hill?
I left the log road and stumbled through the undergrowth to the mouth of the cave. Using my cigarette lighter, I searched around the wet limestone wall looking for a ledge to stash the duffel bag. Finally finding a crevice in the rock. I shoved the bag in as far as it would go.
OK, step one complete. Now I just had to figure out what step two was. I lit a cigarette and leaned against the damp cave wall to smoke and think. Lonnie Earl was right. They's us and they's them. The Feds didn't have any stake in this mess. To them everything was black and white, right or wrong. I had to get back to town and turn myself in to Lonnie Earl. I crushed out the cigarette with my boot. It was going to be a long walk to town.
As I walked out of he mouth of the cave, I heard a loud rustling in the leaves. Dropping to a crouch I scanned the woods, looking for the source of the sound. After the darkness of the cave, the moonlight seemed as bright as day. To my left I caught a brief glimpse of a man just as he raised a pistol in his right hand up and fired a round. It hit the rock above my head and a spray of rock and lead fragments ripped through my shirt and embedded into the skin of my shoulder. I fumbled with the pistol in my waistband. Before I could free it the man fired off a second round. Sparks danced off the rock beside my head.
Finally freeing the pistol from my jeans, I aimed and fired two rounds off quickly in the man's direction. I guess my night vision or aim was a little better than his because he screamed as he crashed into the underbrush. I dived behind a big log and listened. I could hear him breathing heavily. Each exhale was punctuated with a soft moan. He wasn't moving.
I called out, "Don't shoot. I'm coming out. If you shoot me, we'll both die here on this hillside. It's a lose-lose situation." As I began cautiously scooting toward the end of the log, I paused, listened, still just the ragged, moaning breathing. I half-stood and began inching my way toward the sound. The toe of my boot connected with something hard in the forest leaf bed. It was his weapon. I picked up the Sig and shoved it into my pocket. Once again I strained my eyes, searching the underbrush. He was laying about fifteen feet away, tangled in leaves and grapevines. Even with just the moon for light, I could see blood splatter on the leaves and in the spot where his kneecap should have been was a big hole that spurted blood in time with his heartbeat.
Keeping my pistol aimed at his head, I watched as he weakly fumbled in his jacket pocket and pulled out a shield. I couldn’t make out the words, but I could see the letters DEA engraved on it. "You shoot-happy motherfucker, you just wanted me dead. I guess things didn't work out like you planned."
I tried to hold the Glock steady as I pulled my belt free of its loops. I threw the belt onto his belly. "Put this around your leg, pull it tight, and when I get to town, I'll send somebody for you." I watched as he struggled to stop the flow of blood with my belt. "Hang in there. Somebody'll come for you,” I repeated, even though he knew I was lying. We both knew that he'd bleed out before I would get help to him.
I turned and started making my way back down the hill. I could hear the man grunting as he struggled with the belt. I could no longer see the dim lights. They must have wound on around the hill. That would explain why the man's buddies hadn't come running at the sound of gunfire. The hill must have muffled the shots, just like it now muffled their lights. I would walk about fifty yards then pause, listening, for the sound of anyone in the brush.
Occasionally when I'd stop I'd hear the rustle of small animals in the leaves, then a Whippoorwill began his lonesome cry far off in the deep trees. It trilled its sad cry, “Whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, “the sound close, but just out of reach. A memory flashed in my mind, my grandpa and me coon hunting, late at night, in almost this exact spot. My Grandpa told me once that the Injuns said that the Whippoorwill was the spirit of the dead calling out to the living. Letting them know the dead was watching over them.
I had come up on this hill tonight a dope mule, and I was walking down a murderer. I wanted to howl at the dark sky, "I ain't no murderer." It sure wasn't what my grandpa wanted when he left me this piece of dirt, along with all its debt and back taxes. Until that bird began to sing, I thought Grandpa meant for me to hold onto this land any way I could, but now I was beginning to understand that he wanted me to not only survive, but to thrive. He left me the land so I'd be grounded, to have something to work for. The debt he couldn't help.
I turned around and headed back toward the cave, not listening for sound nor trying to be quiet. As I stumbled through the brush, I realized that I was more important to Grandpa than a piece of dirt. Just owning a piece of land didn't mean nothing if you didn't have family around you. It didn't mean nothing if you had lost the part of yourself that was a human being. I pulled the two pistols out of my jeans and threw them hard as I could into the brush.
When I reached the DEA agent, he was pale and sweaty, but still breathing.
"This is going to hurt, but I have to stop the bleeding,” I said as I pulled with all my might, cinching the belt tight around his wounded leg. He cried out with pain, but the bleeding slowed to an ooze. I had to get him to help as quick as I could. Damn, if I hadn't got the truck stuck.…..If I hadn't jammed the truck into the trees, I wouldn't be here right now, trying to save the man I'd put a bullet into. I was going to have to carry him off the hill. I'd carried gutted deer down before. I'd carry him in the same way, slung over my shoulders. If I could carry a deer, I could carry a man.
Dropping to my knee I tugged his body into my arms. Sticky, thick blood oozed from under the belt and ran onto my hands. The Agent’s eyes were glazed, but he looked directly at me just before I grunted with everything in me and hoisted him onto my shoulders.
He groaned weakly. A man, a dead-weight man, is a lot heavier than a gutted deer. The muscles in my legs quivered as I struggled to rise to standing. He groaned and I grunted as I heaved myself to my feet. Bracing his injured leg against my chest, I tried to stop the stream of blood with my body. I staggered and stumbled down the hill. The old log road would be easier walking, we needed to get off the hill fast and the fastest route was straight down, through the underbrush.
With each step I stumbled, my feet tangled in saw briars. I cursed and prayed when I tripped over half-rotten tree limbs. "Please, God, don't let me be a murderer." I wasn't praying for the man's life. I was praying for myself. With every blundering step, I repeated my prayer. My right foot sunk into a deep hole and I crashed forward onto my face. As I fell, I dropped the man. He thudded to the ground and rolled forward about three feet without making a sound. I lay there, sucking air into my lungs around the leaves that now filled my mouth. With each breath I tasted the earthy-copper taste of the agent’s blood. My ankle throbbed. Standing slowly I tested my weight on it. Painful, but not broken.
I limped over to the agent and as I searched his neck with my fingers for signs of life he opened his eyes and in a weak voice whispered, "Thank you."
Now I prayed, "God, don't let this man die."
I once again hoisted my burden onto my shoulders and began struggling on down the hill. Just as the lights from the Feds' cars came into view, my boots became tangled in vines and leaves and I tripped, once again falling, dumping the agent into the tangle of kudzu vines.
The agents standing by their parked cars grabbed their lights to see the cause of the noise, the darkness was penetrated by beams of light from their high-powered flashlights. Suddenly the hill was lit up like a city street. I held my hands in front of my eyes to shield them from the blinding light as I struggled to my feet.
"Down on the ground! Get your fucking hands behind your back! Down on the ground or we'll shoot!" Ten voices yelled at the same time. Then the distinct clacking of a pump shotgun being racked. Quickly, I dropped to the ground. I didn't want to hear the next sound.
Before I could get my hands behind me, a booted foot stomped into the middle of my back, forcing all the air out of my lungs. I coughed and sputtered, as handcuffs were clamped tightly onto my wrists. Practiced hands patted down both sides of my body and tugged my wallet free of my back pocket.
"We got him! Boys, meet Pharyl Murphy,” said the smart-ass with my billfold. “In the flesh. He's not a ghost after all."
Rough hands pulled me to my feet and as I was shoved on down the hill, I saw men gathered around the agent. He wasn't dead. They wouldn’t be moving so fast just to haul a body off the hill. Thank the Lord, he wasn’t dead, at least not yet. Without much ceremony, one of the agents read me my rights and threw me into the back of an unmarked patrol car. He leaned against the side of the car resting his hand on his holster.
"Man, is that guy going to be ok?" I asked.
"Shut the fuck up,” the agent growled.
I leaned back in the seat and tried to get a glimpse of the man in the unsteady flashlight beams on the hill. I could only see the movement of arms and legs. It wasn’t long before I heard the whine of sirens coming up the mountain.
When the ambulance pulled up to the base of the hill, I was surprised to see Lonnie Earl park his cruiser behind it. He followed the paramedics up into the brush, and it seemed like an awful long time passed before he followed the medics carrying the cot back down. As they quickly loaded the man into the back of the ambulance, I caught a partial look at his pale face. He appeared to moan as one of the ambulance boys stuck a needle in his arm. He was still alive. I might be a shooter, but I weren’t no killer. As I leaned back in the seat I became aware of the handcuffs digging into my wrists and the throbbing in my ankle. He was alive, and so was I.
"Can I have a word with your prisoner?" Lonnie Earl asked the agent who was guarding me.
"Guess it won't hurt nothing. As long as I'm listening,” the agent replied.
"You hurt?" Lonnie Earl asked as he stuck his head through the car's front window.
"I’m all right. Is that other fellow going to make it?"
"Looks like he lost a lot of blood,” Lonnie Earl nodded toward my shirt, which was stiff with the agent's drying blood. “And most of its on you."
"I guess it’s all on me."
"Son, keep your mouth shut, and I’ll see you in the morning. Nothing’s going to get settled on this hill tonight.” Lonnie Earl stood, rapped the side of the car with his knuckles and walked slowly back to his cruiser. Somewhere far up the hillside the whippoorwill wailed a sad song.
Cecile Dixon is a retired ED nurse, who has returned home, to her beloved Kentucky hills to pursue her writing. She holds an MFA from Bluegrass Writers Studio and her
work has appeared in Tributaries, The Dead Mule, Pine Mountain Sand and Gravel and KY Herstory Anthologies.