My grandpa raised his head off the pillow, stared big-eyed at the stygian darkness and whispered, "Dora, you hear that?"
[quoteright'/>"Hush, Fred, I'm tryin' to listen."
"Bygod, there it is again. I'm gonna get my shotgun and see what it is."
"Fred, don't you go out there in the dark. No tellin' what kind of varmint that is."
Minutes passed; black night lay on the land with an ear-ringing silence. The air had the feel of a breath-holding predator.
Another low, mournful sound was heard across fields and pastures, hills and valleys. Night creatures listened; day creatures drew back in nests and trembled.
"Lay back down, Fred. That was further away; whatever it is, it's leavin'."
"I'm gonna git the shotgun and put it here by the bed. You know how a panther will put his head to the ground, cover his mouth with his paw, and sound like he's leaving."
The next morning, as usual, breakfast and sunup came at the same time. I listened closely as they told us about the night happening. Us was me and the three of my grandparents' four children that were still at home. My mother, their oldest, had come back home after my father got killed. Bill, the only son, was next, and then came Vallie, the youngest daughter.
My mother said, "Son, you eat the rest of them molasses. Here's another biscuit. Mama, soon as the dew dries I'm goin' to take the boy and walk over to Uncle Owen's and git that sack of peaches. I'll ask him and Aunt Virgie if they heard anything."
Grandpa spoke up. "Hazel, you stop by 'Lonzo's and W.C.'s and see if that thing come by their places too."
Grandpa and Bill took their guns along when they went to work cutting timber that day. That night I noticed, but didn't ask why, they kept the coal oil lamp lit even though we were sitting on the porch. When it got too dark to see the bull bats swooping around the pecan tree, we went inside and my Aunt Vallie closed the doors.
The next day everybody seemed tired and uneasy. Mama told me, "Boy, don't you git far away from this house. You play right around the yard here."
It was just before supper time that evening when my Grandma's older brothers, Uncle Alonzo and Uncle Owen, came by to talk to Grandpa. Grandma had just brought some cups and the coffee pot out on the front porch when old man Jones came riding up on his saddle-broke mule. Mama told me to go slop the hogs, so I missed most of their talk. All three hogs were hungry and pushing on the gate, then they stood over the trough trying to stick their snouts in the slop bucket. I had some trouble kicking them out of the way so I could wrestle that big bucket full of clabber, biscuits, and table scraps around to pour it in the trough without spilling any.
I made it back just in time to hear old man Jones saying, "...hear that thing again tonight, let's all meet at the schoolhouse tomorrow at dinner time and decide what to do."
"So far as I can find out," Uncle Alonzo was a strong talker, "nobody's lost any livestock yet, but we damn sure better find that thing soon and kill it before..."
"Now, 'Lonzo, don't you go flying off the handle," Grandpa cautioned. "You 'member the time you thought Elmore's boy burnt yore barn."
I remembered folks saying that if the Callahan boy had been a few years older, he just might have turned the tables and whipped Uncle 'Lonzo that day at the schoolhouse.
That night after supper, Grandma told Vallie and me to put the cows in the stable, not to leave them out in the lot. And then she told Mama to make sure the chickens were shut up in the henhouse.
After those chores were done, I was on the floor playing with Togo. He was a big brindle, half hound and half bulldog, that belonged to my Uncle Bill. My folks said old Togo was better off than anybody because all he did was eat (you couldn't throw a biscuit by him--he would have made a good infielder), fight (he whipped every dog in the county until he lost his teeth when he was twelve years old), and hunt (when he felt like putting his mind to it, the squirrel, rabbit, coon, or possum wasn't born that could get away from him). Anyway, I was using him for a horse until Bill took him, the shotgun, and the carbide headlight, and went out walking the ridges. He said he aimed to spot that varmint or whatever it was's eyes, and then hang its hide up to dry.
I knew that if anybody was going to get that thing, it would be Bill, because the times he had taken me hunting and I had forgotten and made noise that disturbed the woods, he had still brought back game that meant meat on the table.
The next morning, after he turned up empty-handed, I stayed out of the way because everybody was a little snappy. Grandpa said Bill could go to work in the woods if he wanted to, but as for himself, he was going to stay close to the house and work in the garden. Nothing much happened that day except he went to the meeting.
That night he and Bill went off to meet old man Jones, Uncle Alonzo, W.C. Marsh, Uncle Owen, Cull Maliner, and a few others. They all took their guns, dogs, and lanterns, although a few, like Bill, had carbide headlights. They all made sure their women folks, children, and livestock were safely barricaded before they left.
The way we heard the story at breakfast, that had been quite a night. They had decided to start hunting over on the Robinett place, then work around to the spring bottom on our place, then down the big hollow along Tantrough Creek. Early on in the hunt, they heard it.
That soft, haunting, hackle-raising sound was over toward Providence Church. They spread out, kicking the yelping dogs to silence. Separating till the next lantern could be seen, they made a line about a quarter-mile long and advanced through the dried cornstalks of Uncle Owen's field and across the creek into the hillside underbrush and timber.
Again it sounded: gentle, muted tones floated down the hill off to the left end of their line. They had been flanked.
Men started running, dogs started barking, and Uncle Alonzo, yelling directions and forgetting to pay attention to them himself, fell in the creek. His lantern went out. Grandpa, running downhill, got snarled in a grapevine hanging under a big white oak tree and almost hung himself. He dropped his gun and broke his lantern, which set the dry leaves afire. Men were hollering and yelling and cussing. Dogs were running every which way through the woods barking. A few sounded as if they had treed, all in different places. Somebody fired a gun. Confusion spread, and personal safety became very important.
Between the shooting, shouting, and cussing of the men, the barking of their dogs, and the howling of half the house dogs at that end of the county, they woke up every living thing, and, some said, even raised the dead.
The next day another meeting was held at the schoolhouse, and the posse membership more than doubled. That night at supper, Grandpa was talking. "...neighborhood is scared. A lot of talk is goin' 'round, and 'Lonzo is hollerin' louder than anybody."
Bill asked, "You reckon gettin' wet in the creek has got anything to do with it?"
"Son, don't you say anything to him about that. You know how he is."
"Papa," Vallie asked, "has anybody got any idea what the thing makin' that noise is?"
"Nah. That's the trouble. Nobody has seen any tracks or knows what it looks like or even how to hunt it. But there's one thing certain. We got to git it out of this country 'fore somebody gets hurt."
Nearly all the men in the neighborhood met and started out from Howard Hansen's place to begin the hunt up on the headwaters of Short Greek where the varmint had last been heard the night before. Last night's battle plan was executed again. They spread out and tromped through fields and woods, across bottoms, over hilltops. Lanterns, held head-high, cast little pools of light that surrounded each man. Fear of the darkness conquered fear of being a target. There were many quick-over-the-shoulder glances. Veterans were cautious, novices anxious. Even the ones familiar with the terrain blundered into sink holes, got tangled in underbrush and briars. Lights went out and were hastily relit. The dogs were excited and chased shadows. J.D. Sessler got spooked and shot old man Jones's prize coon hound. Jones told J.D., "That warn't no damned varmint. That was ole Boomer, and I'm gonna whup you for that."
"Goddammit, we didn't come out here to fight!" Matt Nelson was trying to break up the fight. "Fred, help me get these fools separated so we can hunt that damn varmint that we ain't even heard tonight."
Lights began moving toward the commotion. A crowd of tired, scratched, muddy, bedraggled men with guns and lanterns gathered. Panting, tongue-lolling dogs lay sprawled around the edge of the clearing, eyes gleaming bright green in the reflected lantern light.
"If that thing ain't out here in the woods," Uncle Owen was being heard from, "it might be at somebody's house." Visions of torn-up homes and mangled bodies rose in each man's mind like fog over a warm pond on a still winter night. That broke up the posse. Every man for himself, they headed home--to wives and children behind barred doors and windows, scared, worried, and jumping at every strange sound. Most, like us, lived in tin-roofed frame houses that all of a sudden seemed very fragile.
All of them were in a hurry to get home. Fresh in their minds from just a few years before was what happened to a widow and her four children down in the delta. A panther had come to her place one night. After killing a calf in the lot and her dog in the yard, it circled and squalled all around the house. It had gotten up on the roof, scratched and pawed around, and finally it came to the front door that had a hole cut in the bottom for the housecats to go in and out. It stuck its right front paw through that hole and rattled and pulled at the door. She handled the situation by taking her double-bit axe and chopping off about half of its leg. The big cat's yowls vanished in the distant night, and years later, long after the bloodstains faded, she still had that dried panther paw for a souvenir.
The hurrying men all got home safe, although it was a good thing that Cull Maliner's wife didn't know how to handle a rifle well, because she almost shot him when he forgot to knock or call before he tried to open the door.
That strange, ominous, haunting, goose-pimpling sound that lifted heads, rounded eyes, and brought stillness was never heard in the hills again.
The color of the woods turned from gold to gray to green and gold again. Folks had mostly quit talking about, but had not forgotten, that varmint, the one that had drifted in but must have gotten scared and left.
That time of year brings elections. Some candidates for sheriff were holding a rally and giving speeches over at Uncle Alonzo's house. Grandpa and Bill decided to go, and let me and Togo tag along. The crowd of neighborhood men were standing around whittling, rolling cigarettes, or chewing tobacco and swapping lies. A few fruit jars of homemade whiskey were being nipped at.
Somebody brought up the subject of the varmint, and Frank McGuinn started laughing. Everybody booked at him. That wasn't a laughing matter. A big, hearty, jovial man, he had trouble laughing and talking at the same time.
"You fellers are crazy, out runnin' 'round these hills in the dark. Why, that warn't no varmint, that warn't nothin' but me and brother David blowin' rambos."
He didn't notice that nobody else was laughing.
"All it was, was us settin' on different hills takin' turns blowin' on them rambos while you all was actin' like fools and runnin' through them thickets."
Uncle Alonzo spoke up. "I shore hope you're not tellin' the truth, Frank."
"Course I'm tellin' the truth, it was..."
With that, Uncle Alonzo broke for his front porch, ran through the front door, and grabbed his shotgun off the rack over the fireplace mantel.
Aunt Annie tried to stop him. "Lonzo, don't! 'Lonzo, give me that gun! Don't you..."
He gripped her hair and slung her back so that she fell over a chair, losing both her balance and her grip on the gun. He ran back out across the porch, pushing shells into that old double-barrel. As he jumped into the yard and snapped the barrels up, breech locked, the crowd broke and scattered, stumbling and tripping over each other and falling through Aunt Annie's flower beds and rose bushes. Frank finally realized what was happening and spun around to run toward his horse, which was tied to the yard fence by the gate.
Uncle 'Lonzo didn't realize that Frank's back was turned when he fired. Everybody, including the sheriff, said they never thought he meant to shoot Frank in the back. Not with both barrels, anyway.
Allen J. Pettit
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