Thunder in the Hills
A story come down from the hills, told by the town sage, in the dialect he would deliver it.
There was a storm brewin’ up in the hills. The whole deal started when the town sheriff, Seth Jenkins, had his name come up in a fedral investigation into racketeerin’ and gamblin’. The feds weren’t sayin’ nothin’, but somebody leaked his name as bein’ involved. And that got everbody talkin’. Even Cletus Morrison, Sheriff Jenkins’ best friend, was talkin’ about it. Which when ya thought about it was strange on account a Cletus could usually be counted on to back up his buddy Seth, no matter what. Those two were thick as thieves. Which, come to think of it, was sorta ironic.
Rumors were everywhere and all over the place. They ran from Seth the sheriff takin’ bribes to look past the local criminal element’s enterprises — which included illegal distilleries, payoffs, low-level drugs, prescription painkillers, and your typical numbers rackets — to some pretty serious stuff like givin’ a pass to the family members of these minor-league kingpins and lookin’ the other way when they allegedly committed some pretty heinous stuff, like maybe even killin’ somebody. Yes, there were a few people around town who were pretty unsavory, but well-connected locally.
Take for example Ricky Watson. Ricky was the son of a local lumber yard owner who was always gettin’ himself in trouble. See, Ricky was kinda crazy. He started gettin’ his reputation while in kindergarten, when he threw a brick at a fish tank and stomped on all them little fish when they poured out of the ruptured tank onto the classroom floor. About half the kids in class lost their minds and had to start gettin’ counselin’ over that one. He was six when that happened and nobody ever looked at him normal again. And it just continued after that; hurtin’ animals and shootin’ BB guns at people’s pets of various kinds, throwin’ rocks through people’s windas, takin’ .22 shots at people he was mad at for somethin’ or other. (He never actually hit anybody, luckily) And he never got in serious legal trouble once. Never went to court or nothin’. Certainly never went to jail.
But now Ricky was 23, a grown-ass man and an adult under the law, at least under the law that was on the books, if never enforced; certainly not an adult by his lunatic behavior and the way his damn rat-brain worked, but a legal adult nonetheless. People had been makin’ excuses for him his entire life, runnin’ interference for him, payin’ off the people he’d injured. Nobody ever wanted to press charges. Nobody from one of the important local families ever seemed to get in any trouble for the crap they did.
In Ricky Watson’s case, part of the reason for this was Ricky was a pretty scary dude. The little hellion who’d killed them fish in kindergarten had grown up to stand about 6’ 3” and he weighed over 200 pounds. By most accounts he could handle himself in a fight, and the ones people had seen established Ricky as one of those guys who would do anything to win, even if it meant cheatin’ under most civilized societies’ fightin’ rules. He’d gouge eyeballs, bite ears, stomp feet, and kick, punch and even grab and squeeze crotches if necessary. So eyewitnesses to these fracases tended to move quietly away from Ricky if they came near him around the county. He was meaner than a bothered water moccasin and just as dangerous. Probably more.
But an old sayin’ says even the biggest of badasses eventually collides with a bigger badass. Or somethin’ like that. You know what I mean. A lot of folks in the hills were just waitin’ for that to happen to Ricky Watson. They damn near couldn’t wait. I can’t say people were prayin’ for it, but it was close to that.
So back to that fedral investigation. Somebody had gone missin’ up in the hills. And it wudn’t some local citizen. It was some soldier home on leave, just visitin’ somebody, and the last time anyone had seen him he said he was headin’ out to do a little huntin’ for his momma. The soldier wudn’t from one of the local big shot families, and people didn’t recognize the name.
That had been two weeks ago now, and nobody, not one single witness, had seen the solider since. His poor momma was worried real bad. His truck had been found parked just off county road 451, but his rifle and pack were gone. It looked just like he had walked into the woods and never came out. No footprints in the mud back at the truck, no nothin’.
Word leaked from the investigation that this scenario was supported by the fact that they ran a search on his bank and phone records and found out he hadn’t done one transaction, hadn’t used any of his credit cards or his bank cards, and hadn’t made or received a single cell-phone call, since he disappeared. That was very creepy. Seventy-two hours after he was reported missin’, a search party with dogs had combed the area and found nary a trace. That was even creepier.
And then, pretty soon after the search came up empty, some disturbin’ things started to happen. See, this was a very rural county. Most folks knew the people they saw and came in contact with from day to day. But a week after the soldier went missin’, the local people started to notice a few strangers mysteriously showin’ up around town.
They’d show up and then disappear again. And these strangers were a little scary themselves, although they moved around town a lot quieter than Ricky Watson.
The first one walked into “The Wagon Wheel” — a dive-bar out on highway 26 — at 1:30 a.m. one dark, late-October night/mornin’ and took a seat at the far end of the bar, on the last barstool. When he walked in, many of the customers did a double take.
He said nothin’ to nobody until the bartender, Johnny Cash Crowder, walked down to get his order. As Crowder approached, he observed a man about 6 foot, 5, thick-chested, with pretty short salt and pepper hair and about a one-inch thick beard filled with equal-parts black and gray.
Although clean, the guy’s hair and beard were not crafted or cut in the prevailin’ urban trends of the day; no funny-lookin’ shave-line at some random point under the chin like a 25 year-old, new graduate bikin’ to work in Manhattan in a Banana Republic suit.
This man was about as opposite of that as you could get; he looked like he might actually live in the mountains. The guy had muscles and veins bulgin’ up and down his neck. He wore a thin, dark flannel shirt and faded blue jeans, over well-worn black leather military style boots that looked to be about size 15.
The man at first glance looked maybe like a lumberjack or somethin’, but as Crowder moved in close, he could sense this man wudn’t no lumberjack, that Johnny could tell for sure. His face was rough, with lots of wrinkles and a few scars. But he was too young to look so … weathered. His skin looked thick as leather, like he’d been out in the desert or in some freezin’ mountains somewhere for way too long.
Somethin’ about the man spoke danger. He threw off an aura of power. He looked more like …. a soldier of some kind. And a mean one at that.
Crowder swallowed, and managed to stammer a “What can I get you Sir?”
The guy slowly lifted his focus from whatever it was his eyes seemed to be locked on behind the cooler and through the wall across from him and met Johnny’s gaze. He had piercin’ eyes the color of a gray, mottled sky. Behind them was ice. His expression didn’t change one iota.
“Information,” came the answer, in a low, gravelly baritone.
Crowder blinked in confusion. “What?” he said.
“I’m looking for somebody,” the man said. He took a small picture from his shirt pocket and slowly slid it across the bar in front of Crowder.
“Ever see this guy in here or around town?”
Crowder looked at the picture, which showed about six guys, all about the weathered man’s size and age, standin’ side by side in some place outside, like Utah or Arizona. It looked like a desert of some kind. Each man wore blank expressions and were dressed in what appeared to be military uniforms and gear. Each man had hair and beards longer than the way the weathered man currently wore his. And although Johnny Cash Crowder was not the gun aficionado most of his fellow citizens in the hills were, he thought he saw each man in the picture carryin’ long-barreled rifles. Lethal-lookin’ rifles. Bolt-action rifles with scopes attached.
“Which guy are you lookin’ for?” The man pointed. Crowder had seen the man bein’ pointed at, but only in pictures in the newspaper; it was the missin’ soldier. But Crowder had never seen the missin’ solider in person anywhere, and for a second his heart fluttered. He wished he had, but he figured lyin’ to this guy was not a good option.
“I’m sorry Sir, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that man before.” “You’ve NEVER seen him before,” the man said, not with the tone of a question, but a declarative statement. “He grew up in this town.”
“No Sir, I haven’t. I’d tell ya if I had.” As Crowder braced, the man just looked him steadily in the eye, paused for a few seconds, drew the picture back, and placed it in his shirt pocket.
“You might want to pass the word that his friends are in town. And we’re looking for him.” The man’s voice had a slight hint of menace in it that sounded intentional.
“Uh, yes Sir. I will,” Crowder finally sputtered.
The man stood up, looked methodically at the rest of the patrons who by now were cautiously lookin’ in his direction, locked his gaze on several of them one by one, and after about a straight minute of this, turned and walked out into the crisp, October night.
Glen Hines is the author of five books, including the recently published Of Time and Rivers, and the highly-regarded Bring in the Gladiators, Observations From a Former College Football Player Who Was Never Able to Become a Fan, all available at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. He is the writer and producer of the book and podcast Welcome to the Machine, available on most podcast platforms. His writing has also been featured in Sports Illustrated, Task & Purpose, and the Human Development Project.