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Rufus drove. Rufus always drove.
“How come you always get to drive?” Bud complained. He took the last swig of his beer and flung the bottle out the window where it smashed against a live oak. He hooted and reached between his feet to pull another out of the carton.
“What? What's why?” Bud had already forgotten the question. He took a long pull from the long neck.
Rufus nodded at the bottle in his friend's meaty hand.
“You forget what Sheriff Dalton said last time?” Rufus asked.
Bud shrugged and belched, his beery breath saturating the cab of the old pickup.
“He ain't gonna do nothin',” Bud insisted. “Granny Dalton would tan his hide if he threw her favorite grandson in the slammer. 'Sides, I don't think Cousin George ever threw no white boy in jail.”
“You got a point,” Rufus conceded, “but there's always a first time. Maybe I just want to live a little longer.”
Bud snorted. “I drive better when I've had a few!”
“Famous last words,” Rufus said. He squinted to see through the spider web of cracks in the windshield and flipped on the low beams. “Shit, left headlight's out again.” He scowled and pulled a wrinkled cigarette out of the crumpled pack in his shirt pocket. He let it dangle crookedly from his lips before flipping open his Zippo.
“Aw, man, do ya have to?” Bud whined. He'd just been cranking up the window, but cranked it down again and waved his hand in the air. “LouAnn's gonna think I started up again.”
“Just blame it on me,” Rufus said, blowing a smoke ring toward Bud's head.
“I usually do,” Bud mumbled. He coughed and stuck his head out the window. “Where we goin' to anyway?”
“Up a piece,” Rufus said, nodding toward the road.
“Up a piece where? How far?” Bud was getting suspicious. “'Thought you wanted to shine in Stewyville Holler. Ton a deer there, some nice bucks, too.”
“We ain't shining.”
“Nope,” Rufus said, scuttling the cigarette butt out his window. “We're shinin' and shootin'.”
Bud let out a low whistle. They'd hunted together off-season before – plenty of folks paid good money for off-season meat, hides and racks, but Rufus already served three times for it. Fourth time would mean big bucks and big time. And Rufus sure as hell didn't have his license back yet to begin with. Bud shook his head.
“What's up, Ruf?” he asked.
Rufus pulled out his last cigarette, crumpled the package and tossed it out the window. This time, Bud didn't object when he lit up.
“Aw, it's MarySue,” Rufus said. “She's got a bee in her bonnet.” He made his voice into a high, nasally whine. “'I ain't had a pair of new shoes since Melvina got married two years ago! We ain't been anywhere since then neither! When you gonna find a job? I'm sick of this, I'm sick of that … blah, blah, blah.”
Bud shook his head in commiseration. “Women,” was all he said. He knew better to say anything against MarySue, only Rufus could do that. Bud made the mistake just once and ended up with a broken nose. He eyed his friend.
“So, what's the plan and how come you didn't let on?”
Rufus cut him a look. “Miller Road,” he said.
“Bullshit, no way, Ruf. I ain't goin' down no Miller Road.”
“Com'n, Bud, you don't believe that shit, do ya? Ghosts and demons rising out of the fog, disappearing horses?”
“And riders, disappearing riders. Seen it with my own two, you know that.” Bud was wishing he hadn't finished the last of the long necks.
“How many long necks you drink that night?” Rufus sneered.
“Not enough,” Bud said, hunching over, his hands between his knees, “not enough.”
He still had nightmares. Him and Jonny Durbin, cutting up, riding side-by-side through ravines and pastures, passing the 'shine between them. Until he saw the mist rising from Miller Pond, Bud had no idea where they were. They were still well away from the pond itself, but its fog roiled out toward them. Bud pulled back on the reins, stopping just shy of the thickening mist, but Jonny kept charging ahead. The fog seemed to part for the horse and rider, then slam shut behind them. It was the last anyone ever saw them.
“People don't just disappear unless they have a mind to,” Rufus said. “Maybe Jonny had a mind to.”
Bud had heard all the rumors before – Jonny and some little gal the next county over, money missing from Durbin Hardware – didn't matter, Bud saw what he saw.
“You don't need me along,” he said. “Just let me out here and I'll hitch back.”
“In a pig's eye,” Rufus said. “I need you to do the shinin' – I'll do the shootin'. You gotta help me dress 'em, too. I need at least four.”
“Four!” Bud gave another low whistle. “First shot and the rest'll run off.”
“Using the bow, it's quieter. Besides, we got all night. I got corn, I got a salt lick … they'll come back.”
“But why Miller Road? Stewyville Holler has a passel of 'em, I tol' ya.”
“Miller Road because your cousin George and his deputies are chicken shit, too. They ain't likely to messin' into our business.” Just then Rufus saw something come slinking out of the ditch. “Cat!” he yelled. He stomped on the gas and aimed the pickup toward the creature.
Bud braced his hand against the dash. “It's a black cat, fool!” he hollered.
“All the better,” Rufus growled through gritted teeth. Rufus hated cats, especially black ones. A black cat sucked the life out of his baby sister when he was just a boy, he was sure, and that sucked the life out of his mama. Crib death, they said, but he knew better.
Rufus' aim was true. The old pickup's right front tire rolled over the cat's midsection with a barely detectable bump, like hitting a rock or a slight rise in the road.
“Shit, man,” Bud said, looking back. “Cursed for life is what we are, cursed for life.”
“It dead?” Rufus asked.
“Flatter than Becky Sue Cropp in a two-piece,” Bud said. He turned back just in time to see the nose of the truck enter a thick cloud of fog as if it were being sucked inside. Time, movement and sound seemed to stop as the gray-white vapor enveloped them.
Rufus kept steady hands on the steering wheel and a light foot on the gas pedal while Bud rocked silently in his seat, his hands tucked beneath him, his mouth hanging open. It was almost magical; they were moving, but it was like they were standing still.
Straight and narrow with low guard rails, Miller Road passed directly over Miller Pond, slicing it in two. No one knew how or why the fog formed and it happened during all times of the year. It pressed down so hard on them that Rufus half expected it to start crushing the truck. He wasn't spooked, though, until the cab started shaking.
“You feel that?” he asked. He got no answer. “Bud? You feel that?”
“I-I-I c-c-can't b-b-b-breathe,” Bud finally said. Rufus cut Bud a look; the cab wasn't shaking them, Bud was shaking the cab, he was shivering so hard.
“Easy, Bud,” Rufus said. He resisted an urge to put a steadying hand on his friend's leg, but there were some things a guy just didn't do. Other than breaking Bud's nose that one time, he'd never actually touched him on purpose.
And then, just like that, they were clear. One second they couldn't even see the front of the truck and the next, Rufus was cranking the wheel hard left to avoid going into the ditch that appeared out of nowhere. He pulled to the shoulder and cut the engine.
“Hoo-boy, that was sumpthin', wasn't it?” he said.
Bud kept staring at path of weak yellow light from the headlight, but he had finally stopped shaking. “When we go home,” he said through his teeth, “we go straight ahead and not back there.”
“That's 30 miles outta … okay, fine,” Rufus said. He'd deal with that later, right now he had some shooting to do.
While Bud got himself together, Rufus cut the lights and went around to the truck bed. If they were just shining deer, they could use the truck-mounted spotlight, but Rufus wanted to get clear of the truck. His hand-helds would do, unless Bud was still shaking. He put on a head lamp and hoisted the sack of corn over his shoulder and cradled the salt lick. Fog or not, the deer would come to the pond to drink, he reckoned, so he walked about a 100 feet out and dropped the lick, and then back toward the mist where he scattered the corn. A small stand of trees would provide good cover. He hurried back to the truck to get his gear, hoping Bud had gotten his shit together.
But Bud wasn't there.