BY SCHULER BENSON
APRIL POLLEN DRAPED the landscape like a chalky yellow gown, and the stuff was nickel-thick on the windshield of Dennis Shackleford’s Oldsmobile. The car crept a slow roll over the last twenty or so feet of gravel leading up to the makeshift police barricade of two cars and a sawhorse in front of Crabapple Bait & Tackle. Sheriff Heidenreich sauntered around the hood of his tired Monterey, approaching the Oldsmobile and shaking his head. Denny thought the sheriff walked like a movie cowboy taught him how.
“Hello, Karl,” Denny said, as he climbed out of his car and extended his hand. He ducked a wasp that buzzed by to rejoin one of the huge nests settled in the trees around Crabapple, hanging fat like upturned gourds of pine straw and parcel paper. The woods around Calion had a reputation for being choked with red wasps in spring and summer. They were out in full force.
“Denny,” Heidenreich said. “Sorry to drag you out like this, but it’s the damnedest thing I’ve had to deal with in a while, and, with it bein’ the weekend, I wasn’t sure who else I might give a holler.”
“It’s fine, friend,” Denny said, still shaking hands. “How’re May and Margot?”
“Good. They’re good,” Heidenreich said. “Jane?”
“Jane’s fine; the girls are fine. Karl, what can I do for you?”
“Yeah, ’course, just a …” Heidenreich patted down the pockets of his uniform, tapped the butt of his pistol, and then jutted both hands into his back pockets. “Winslow!”
“Uhyessir!” piped a red-faced, chubby deputy, as he trotted to Denny and Heidenreich from behind another patrol car.
“You got that note from earlier?” Heidenreich asked.
“Yessir.” Winslow produced a sweaty, wrinkled piece of paper from his breast pocket. He handed it to Heidenreich, who handed it to Denny.
“Karl,” Denny started, thumbing the corner of the folded note with his left hand, “I’m gonna do whatever I can for you here, but before I read this, I’d like to hear from you what, uh … what we’ve got goin’ on here.”
“Arrite,” Heidenreich said, lighting an unfiltered cigarette, prompting Denny to do the same. “You know ole Hank Hindershot from out ’round Calion?”
“I may.” Denny crossed his arms and clenched and unclenched his jaw, a process that’d helped him think since flying choppers in Korea. “Heard of the family, of course.”
“Well — and I tell ya, Denny, this is just the damnedest thing — but Hank Hindershot is in that bait shop, and he’s got some kind of damn bomb he’s rigged up, and he says if the bank foreclosure on his timber stretch south of the river ain’t reversed, he’s gonna blow the damn thing up.”
Denny pulled hard on his cigarette and looked the sheriff up and down. “Karl, are you feedin’ me a line?”
Heidenreich chuckled. “That’s the same thing I said when I got here. Winslow? What’d I say when I got here?”
“What’d I say to ya when I got here?! Tell Mr. Shackleford!”
“Sir, he asked me if I was feedin’ him a line,” Winslow said to Denny.
“See?” Heidenreich said.
Denny replied, “Uh huh,” then shook his head and spun the yellow note, still unopened in his hand. “Karl, why am I here?”
“Hell, I told you — I don’t even know what direction to take this in! All ’emm Hindershot fellas got somethin’ wrong with ’em, so I don’t wanna take it too serious. But, on the other hand, if he’s got a damn real bomb in there, we have us a problem!”
“If he blows up a bait shop?”
“Denny, he ain’t alone in there. He says he got him some hostages.”
“Who? How many?”
“Two. One’s Kenny Foley, owns the place. The other’s, uh …” Heidenreich looked at his feet. “He says the other’s Byrd Barton.”
“Bullshit.” Denny slid the note into his pocket and removed a small Swiss Army penknife.
“Yeah,” Heidenreich said. “He says he’s got the mayor.”
DENNY THOUGHT FOR A TIME, turning scenarios over in his head. Clench. Unclench. As he watched wasps dance along a nest hanging from one of the smaller pines across the road’s drainage ditch, he clicked the file blade from his penknife and slid it along the underside of his fingernail whites. “Alright, Karl,” he said, “who else’ve you called?”
“Okay. Well, who do you have that deals with explosives?”
“We have a, uh, a technician from the academy over in Camden. Not green like Winslow, but, still, he’s just a trainee. He’s waitin’ for us to holler on the radio if we think we need ’im.”
“You very well may. Go ahead and have him come on down.”
Heidenreich nodded to Winslow, who ran in awkward strides to the radio in his cruiser.
Denny asked, “Have you called the FBI?”
“Denny … it’s Sunday.”
“Well, Denny, you can’t call the FBI on a Sunday.”
“Mr. Shackleford,” Winslow stage-whispered from his car, “I wouldn’t wanna guess for certain as to whether or not the FBI’s even open on Sundays.”
“Denny,” Heidenreich said, “we got a drunk in there who’s prob’ly blowin’ smoke, lookin’ for attention, and hopped up on God knows what else. I called you down here because I figger you can just tell ’im to come on out, and he’ll listen since you’re a lawyer and people know you. Now, I trust you, and I known your brother thirty years. You tell me to take it serious, I will. But this ain’t the kinda thing I’m best at, this tryin’ to talk a man down. I know when to admit my faults, and this is one of ’em. You get ’em outta there.”
“You say he’s on something else? You know it?” Denny asked.
“Well, ’course, I can’t say for certain, but I know all them fellas smoke marijuana ’round the lake.”
“And we don’t smoke it in Muskogee,” Winslow added sternly.
“Forget it,” Denny said, closing his knife and returning it to his pocket. “Alright, you’re giving me the go-ahead to talk to this man, then? Realizing that if things go wrong, there’s a possibility of a bad outcome?”
“Denny, just talk ’im down,” Heidenreich said. “I don’t wanna be sittin’ across from you in a courtroom no more’n you want me tryin’ to put you there.”
“Okay, partner.” As Denny walked back to his car, he ran a finger down the length of the Oldsmobile’s sleek, midnight frame, crisscrossing chrome trim to form a single, pollenless snake of clean paint. Opening the back door and reaching inside, he called over his shoulder to the sheriff, “I see now why you asked me to bring this.”
Denny pulled a three-foot-long, cream-white ceramic megaphone, with WILDCATS monogrammed down one side in purple cursive letters, and Carol down the other. The polished metal lip at its base gleamed in the sun like still water, and it smelled like lilacs. In the distance, he could see the lake glimmering through the sturdy pines surrounding the shop. Nubby rocks and dust ground beneath the soles of his cracked weekend loafers, as he paced back up to Heidenreich’s cruiser. Apart from Denny’s car and the sheriff’s, the other vehicles were Deputy Winslow’s patrol car, Kenny Foley’s primer-gray Scout, and two pickups Denny didn’t recognize. Heidenreich was fidgeting with his cruiser’s rearview when Denny got back.
“Alright,” Denny said, “let’s pull one of the cars around to the side so we can talk to him through the window.”
“Nossir,” Winslow said. “Note said we can’t come no closer.”
“Then we’ll be talking to a blank wall. Do you think he thought of that? Did you think of that?”
“I don’t reckon.”
“Alright, alright. So we talk to the wall. Now, which Hindershot is this? The streaker or the one who fights chickens?”
“Which one’s the streaker?” Heidenreich asked.
“Might be the one who was gon’ dam up the Ouachita on account of him havin’ heard two rivers was better’n one,” Winslow said.
“Good Lord,” Denny sighed. He straightened his back and raised the megaphone to his mouth. “Hello in there! Hank Hindershot!”
There was no response. Heidenreich hooked his thumbs around his belt buckle. Winslow covered his left nostril with a finger, then blew out of the other until his face went mayhaw pink.
No answer. Denny shrugged. From the east side of the shop, the men heard the hitches and scrapes of a window screen being popped from its frame.
“Hello! Sumbitch!” came a shrill voice, country as cornbread.
“Am I speaking with Mr. Hindershot?” Denny spoke into Carol’s echoic megaphone.
“Yeah, I’m him.” The words were wet and garbled, like he was talking to Denny through a mouth full of rock salt. “Who’re you?”
“Hank, my name’s Dennis Shackleford. I’m a friend of Sheriff Heidenreich, and he’s asked me to step in and talk to you about your demands.”
“Like them lawyer Shacklefords from El Dorado?”
“That’s right, I am. And I can be your lawyer after this, if you need me to.”
Winslow whispered to the sheriff, “Ain’t that a, uh, ‘conflicted interest’?”
“Deputy,” Heidenreich growled, “shut the hell up.”
“Hell, I might could use me a lawyer,” Hindershot shouted. “’Em boys out there tell you why I’m here?”
“They did. If I can lend a hand, I will, Hank.”
“Yeah, we’ll see ’bout that.”
“I hear you got the mayor and Kenny Foley in there.”
Heidenreich and Winslow exchanged glances like two mutts hearing sirens.
Denny replied, “I’m gonna need to talk to ’em and be sure everything’s okay.”
“You gon’ do what I say you’re gon’ do! All uh y’all son of a bitches!”
“We are,” Denny said. “We certainly are. But the law’s out here, Hank. They gotta know you’re not sittin’ in there with a couple dead fellas propped up in the meat locker.”
For a moment, there was no response. Denny could hear muffled exchanges coming from inside the shop.
“Dennis Shackleford?” a new voice entered the colloquy.
“Yes, I’m Dennis Shackleford.”
“Denny, Kenny Foley. I’m in here; Barton’s in here. We’re arrite.”
“Mayor?” Denny shouted. “Can we hear from you?”
“Doubt it,” Foley called. “Byrd been in here on my shine since two hours ’fore all this done started. He’s on my floor in a heap.”
“Bullshit,” Heidenreich said to Denny. “That don’t cut it.”
“Sounds odd,” Denny said into the megaphone, nodding at the sheriff. “You say he’s passed out drunk?”
“I do say that, as that is the damn case,” Foley said.
“Kenny, that sounds … odd — ”
“Mr. Shackleford,” Foley interrupted, “have you met the mayor?”
Denny and Heidenreich thought for a moment, and both lit on the idea that Foley’s claim wasn’t that odd at all.
“Alright, Kenny, we’ll buy it,” Denny said.
“Now, lemme te — ruuuagh meyeaeeah!” Foley screeched.
“Y’all alright in there?”
Foley yelled, “Sumbitch kicked me!”
“Tell ’im!” Hindershot said.
“Tell us what?” Denny asked.
“He wants y’all to know what we got in here, that he’s serious. It’s a bomb, I think, y’all. I think it’s a real bomb,” Foley said.
“Ain’t bullshittin’!” Hindershot shouted.
“Alright, okay. It’s all gonna be okay,” Denny said. “Now, Hank, I need you to understand something. This is a Sunday, and there’s only so much we can do. We wanna help you. Hell, I wanna help you. I do. But there’s just no way we can get loan officers and whoever the hell else to open up the bank and the vaults, then come down here with some paperwork in the middle of the day on a Sunday.”
“That don’t confront me none! You got a problem!”
“Hank, do you know anything about me?”
“Do what, now?”
“When I tell someone I’ll do something, I do it. I have friends. I have colleagues. I’ve worked with people who can tell you I’m telling the truth. I want to help you, but you’ve got to gimme some room to breathe here.”
Hindershot didn’t respond.
“I don’t like that I can’t see you, Hank. Can I come to the window?”
“Keep yer distance!”
“Alright, alright. We’re just lookin’ at a blank wall out here, Hank.”
“And I’m to take blame for how the Good Lord put this sumbitch shop up?”
“Well,” Denny said slowly, “no, I, uh … I s’pose Mr. Foley’s to blame.”
“All uh y’all can go get fucked, cain’tcha!” Foley screamed. “I was gon’ shut down early today!”
FROM A FEW HUNDRED FEET DOWN THE ROAD, Denny and the officers heard that radio-static gargle of tires on loose gravel as the bomb man from Camden arrived.
“Who’s all else out there?” Hindershot yelled.
“Another officer,” Denny said. “Don’t panic, Hank. We just have somebody we need to talk to, and he may wanna ask you some things.”
“Who’s askin’ me? You don’t ask me nothin’! I tell you!”
“Just sit tight, Hank. We’re gonna handle this bidness.”
From the plain, black Ford sedan that joined the growing fleet outside Crabapple Bait & Tackle, a young man with a crew cut and a thick neck approached Denny and Heidenreich. Winslow made another awkward run from his cruiser to rejoin the group.
“Sheriff Heidenreich,” the crew cut said, “I’m Don Marx. Hear you got a bomb.”
“We may,” Heidenreich said. They shook sweaty hands.
“Who’s this?” Marx asked, nodding at Denny.
Denny extended his hand. “Dennis Shackleford.”
“Denny’s a lawyer down in town,” Heidenreich supplied. “He’s helpin’ us talk to the fella inside.”
“Has the fella said anything about the explosive?” Marx said.
“No,” Denny said, “besides us knowing he’s got one.”
“Can I talk to him?”
“You can try. He’s been fairly receptive so far. A little spry, but … you know.”
“Are we, uh,” Marx said with a fake cough, “are we communicating with the bomb-making hostage taker with a, uh, cheerleader megaphone?”
“Go Cats,” Winslow said.
“Arrite,” Heidenreich snorted. “You ever done anything like this before?”
“Done plenty in the class,” Marx replied. “Did some unofficial work in ’Nam.”
“I see,” the sheriff said. He looked at Denny, troubled. “Do what you need to do.”
“Sir,” Marx said, gesturing to Denny, “may I?”
“Sure, sure,” Denny said, handing Carol’s megaphone to the officer.
Marx pulled a small notebook from his back pocket, and, holding the megaphone between his knees, flipped to a marked page in the middle. He cleared his throat and looked at Heidenreich, who gave Marx a nod. Denny couldn’t figure out if it was for confidence or approval. Marx raised the megaphone.
“Hello, suspect!” Marx began to stammer like a student athlete reading words from an acceptance speech. “My name. Is. Officer. Marx. And I am here to help you reverse — resolve your issue.”
“Son, what the hell is this?” Heidenreich said, batting the megaphone away from Marx’s face.
“Sir, this is what’s in the manual.”
“The manual, you say?”
“Maybe you better let me keep on with him,” Denny offered.
Heidenreich grabbed the megaphone from Marx and handed it to Denny.
“Look, we need to know what he’s got in there. That’s all,” Marx said.
Denny raised the megaphone. “Hank?”
“What kinda shit show y’all got goin’ on out there?” Hindershot called.
“Hank, this fella wants to know about your bomb. Can you get Kenny to tell him about it? Just so he knows what we called him here for?”
“Ain’t bluffin’, I tell ya!”
“I know, Hank, I know. We gotta let this fella know, too.”
After a few awkward seconds, Foley called out again: “Whatchall wanna know?”
Marx jerked the megaphone away from Denny, catching Denny’s finger in the metal handle bolted to the side.
“God dammit,” Denny hissed through his teeth. “Son, you don’t have to snatch it.”
“Sorry, sir,” Marx said to Denny, then into the megaphone, eyes fixed like a sniper scope on his little black notebook, “Sir! What. Does. The dee-vice look like?”
“Do what, now?” Foley called.
“The dee-vice! Can you dee-scribe it to me?”
“Well, it’d appear to be four paint cans filled with perforatin’ charges, and they all held together with what looks like the fan belt off a damn Chevy.”
“Um,” Marx said. He looked to Denny and to the sheriff, then flipped frantically through the manual. “A, uh. A what charge?”
“I say, ‘a perforatin’ charge’!”
“Uhhhuh,” Marx brayed. “Sir! Can you tell me the technical name for the explosive?”
“The what, now?”
Marx threw his right hand up and sent the manual sailing into the woods. “The textbook name of the explosive!”
“Y’all goldbrickin’ around out there?”
Marx lowered the megaphone. “I’m not familiar with a device like that,” he said to Heidenreich. “He says ‘percolatin’ charges’? Um. I can’t say I know exactly, what uh. It’s just that I — ”
“Well, ain’t that about boar-tit worthless,” Heidenreich said. “Son, step back. Go get in that car and stay there in case I holler atcha again. Don’t come back over here. Lord. Worthless.”
Marx handed the megaphone back to Denny, whose left middle finger was already swelling. Marx walked back to his car, shoulders slung low under shame, in a far less officious capacity than the one that first brought him from the car.
“On our own,” Denny said.
Heidenreich chirped and produced a flask from his hip pocket. He took a hard pull, then handed it to Denny, who followed suit. The two lit up more cigarettes.
“Hank,” Denny said, smoke pluming from the mouth of his daughter’s megaphone.
Hindershot called back, “What now?”
“How’s the mayor?”
“Still flat on his backside like a ole lush!”
“We’re gonna have to take a second to think about this. We gotta get a plan together. Something real. Something that’ll work. But I’m tellin’ you, Hank, I have got to talk to you face to face. I don’t know how else to make this happen to everybody’s satisfaction.”
Hindershot mumbled something inside the building, and Denny thought he heard Foley talk back. The two voices bickered for several minutes, as Denny and Heidenreich burned down smokes in rapid succession.
“Arrite, now,” Hindershot finally called. “You come up to this winda, but you stand on that side of the wall, hear? Don’t be stickin’ your damn noggin in here, or I’ll blow this whole spot to Kingdom Come, and you gon’ take that same ride we do! Do not try to get in here! Sumbitch!”
“Alright, Hank,” Denny said. “That’s A-okay. I’m gonna set the megaphone down, and I’m gonna come up. Here I come, Hank.”
AS DENNY APPROACHED THE BAIT SHOP, he felt a keen unease. Somewhere in the building in front of him, some home-cooked bomb sat waiting, and all that separated him from the blast was the warped, rickety wood of Foley’s shop walls. The gravel beneath his loafers gave way to thick grass, and with each step, a puff of sooty pollen breathed up from his footprints. When he reached the corner of the shop, he noticed on the ground what Hindershot must’ve had to break through in order to get the window screen loose: a broken piece of plywood, whitewashed, with TAKE A CHILD FISHIN scrawled in black paint. He got a few steps closer and announced himself.
“Yeah, I’m here.” Something was different about Hindershot’s voice. He was hoarse from all the yelling, but he seemed softer at the same time.
“Alright, Hank, this is what I’d like to do.”
“You got my ear, counselor, but all this is wearin’ me ’bout old-denim thin. You better say somethin’ good.”
“I hope to, Hank. Listen to me. Banks don’t just change their minds on foreclosures. If you owe ’em for the land you’re on, you’re gonna have to pay that money, and there’s just no way they’re gonna reverse it otherwise. Now, this is what I’ll do for you, Hank. You stop this; you let the sheriff and his man in there, and I will talk to the bank president. Not a loan man, but the president. I’ll see if he’ll reconsider, and I will cosign on a loan with you in order to get another chance on this. Now, I’m not gonna pay your mortgage for you. Not one cent. I will stake my credit on it, and my credit is excellent, but that’s as far as I can go. I got a family, too. Hank. How’s that sound?” Denny could hear Hindershot breathing around the corner.
“Don’t need your lawyer money, and I don’t want your credit,” he said.
Denny edged as close to the building as he could, then peeked around the corner to look at the window from the side. Hindershot was close. Denny could see two sets of tan, rough fingers gripping the outer edge of the windowsill.
Denny leaned back to sound further away. “Hank, this is a hell of a deal. More than you’re gonna be able to get on your own, and more than even the sheriff was willing to give you before I came down here. Don’t throw this back at me. Let me help you, and let’s end this.”
“It ain’t about the damn money!”
Denny watched blood flee Hindershot’s fingers as they tightened on the splintered, wooden sill. An opportunity arose, and Denny took it. He leaped from around the house and grabbed the two hands, shifting his weight backward and giving all he had to pulling Hindershot from the window. As Denny tumbled, his six-foot frame gained momentum, but it wasn’t enough. Hindershot’s wrists slipped free like wet soap, and his hands jerked back like Denny was a hot iron. Denny scrambled to get up and around the side of the shop, but when he reached his knees, his vision was framed by the barrel of a revolver.
“Easy,” Denny stuttered. “Easy now.”
Out of dusty shadows leaned a face Denny didn’t expect: tanned, oily skin taut with tension and fear and anger, punctuated by wide eyes, blue as a Confirmation Bible.
“Get your sorry ass back to them cars,” Hindershot said. “We’re done with this. You get me somebody else. Somebody with juice. I have the mayor in here, man! You screwloose?! On your feet! Get the hell outta here!”
Denny stood, arms raised high, and walked slowly back toward the barricade where Heidenreich and Winslow waited, guns drawn.
“Well, Denny, what was that?” Heidenreich asked.
“I thought there was a chance. I took it.”
“You almost got damn shot.”
“I know. I know. But this changes things.”
“Sure as hell, it does! Can’t tell ’im nothin’ now!”
“No, that’s not what … Look here,” Denny said. “That’s not Hank Hindershot.”
“DO WHAT, NOW?” Heidenreich said.
“That is not Hank Hindershot in there,” Denny said. “It’s just some kid!”
“Like, a truant kid?” Winslow asked.
Heidenreich put his hands on his greasy forehead and began massaging his hairline.
“Karl,” Denny said. “Karl! Listen, I couldn’t be sure ’til now, but I have met Hank Hindershot before. Him and Hal, and I think Harmon, too. It was years ago, at a livestock auction. That in there — that ain’t Hindershot. Looks like Hank a little. I think … Does he have kids?”
“Hell, I suppose he does, yeah. Yeah! Hard to keep ’em straight, but I know Hal’s got at least three.”
Winslow added, “Sheriff, we’ve picked up Hal’s oldest at Hill’s, hustlin’ billiards a number of times.”
“Jesus,” Heidenreich said. “Well, what does this change?”
“He said it wasn’t about money,” Denny said.
“Money. The kid said that this wasn’t about money.”
“The bank thing?”
“Yeah. Listen, I think maybe we can wrap this up a different way now, but this is still a delicate situation.”
Denny glanced back to see Marx sitting on the hood of the sedan. Marx noticed Denny looking and shrugged, raising his hands. Denny waved him off and looked at Heidenreich and Winslow.
“One more thing to remember,” Denny said, “is he’s got a pistol in there, Karl.”
“Did you see Barton?”
“No, I didn’t see anything but a barrel in my face and a kid pointing it.”
“I s’pose if he’d shot nobody, we’d’ve heard it,” Winslow said.
“I suppose,” Denny said, glaring at the deputy, “but somethin’s not adding up here. If money’s not the problem — and that’s just one of the Hindershot kids in there — I just don’t see why we’re all here. What’s he care about his daddy’s land? Or his uncle’s, or whoever’s it is?”
“Mr. Shackleford,” Winslow said, “you say he ain’t that old. How old?”
“Couldn’t be more than eighteen,” Denny said. “I’d be surprised if he was outta high school. Hell, he looks like my oldest’s boyfriend.”
“Huh,” said Winslow.
Heidenreich asked, “What’s on your mind, Deputy?”
“Well, just him bein’ a kid. Reminds me of bein’ a kid out here, and uh, I think maybe I got a idea ’bout how we can flush ’em all outta there.”
“Well, Mr. Winslow, we’re all ears,” Denny said.
“Uh huh,” Winslow replied. “Y’all think ’at bomb fella’s got any kinda, say … bomb-protection clothes or some such various ’n’ sundry items?”
DENNY AND HEIDENREICH SAT inside the sheriff’s patrol car and watched through the windshield as Winslow emerged from behind Marx’s sedan. The deputy was decked head to foot in Camden Academy’s police-issued bomb-protection gear, which Denny recognized as a ball-catcher’s mask and pads. Winslow carried a gaff pole he’d pulled from the back of Foley’s truck, and on the end of it hung the biggest wasp nest Denny had ever seen. Even with Winslow as far off and moving as slow as he was, through the patrol car’s cracked windows, Denny and Heidenreich could hear the buzzing growing louder. Winslow neared the edge of the building where Denny first spoke to the kid. The deputy, still looking toward the shop, put his left fist next to his head, and raised two fingers, signaling to Denny and Heidenreich to take their positions. The two quietly exited the car, leaving their doors open, and crept up the foot-worn path to the opposite side of the bait shop, approaching the front entrance. They knelt by the driver’s side back wheel of Foley’s truck and waited. On the opposite corner, Winslow slowly reared back his gaff pole, and in one quick, smooth arc, flung the nest through the window and into the bait shop.
“Red Baron! Red Baron!” Winslow yelled, his voice wavering up and down like an air-raid siren.
The reaction was instant.
From inside the shop, Foley screamed first: “Myeeaaaap! Sumbitch, sweet Holy Jesus!”
Foley came barreling through the front door, his round gut bouncing beneath his shirt like he was carrying a piglet in an apron. Behind him, waving a pistol, ran a skinny kid, a few inches shorter than Denny, and behind the kid, a frantic swarm of red leaders. As Foley and Hindershot looped around the hood of the truck, Heidenreich popped to his feet and grabbed the kid by the back of the shirt collar, jerking the boy down to the dirt. Denny heard the whoosh of air leaving lungs, and the kid lay on his back squirming and breathless. Heidenreich pulled his own revolver.
Winslow came trotting around the far side of the bait shop, still dressed as a minor leaguer, with his drawn sidearm in one hand and a plume-spewing smoke grenade in his other. He tossed the fogger into the bait shop and stood clear of the door, counting aloud, “One Mississippi, two Mississippi …”
“Lemme up, dammit!” the kid screamed at Heidenreich. “I got a allergy!”
“And I got a pistol!” the sheriff said. He put one foot on the kid’s chest and leaned.
“Pull me back; I got a allergy! I got a allergy!”
“Karl!” Denny said. “Grab his ankles!”
Denny grabbed the kid’s wrists, kicking Hindershot’s unhanded revolver back toward the front of the shop. Heidenreich took up the boy’s lower end, and they followed Winslow — who’d stopped counting at “Twenty Mississippi” — back into Crabapple Bait & Tackle.
“Y’all crazy son of a bitches!” Foley yelled from back near Marx’s sedan. “A flurry uh sumbitch wasts in my shop! Y’all son of a bitches, ever’one!”
“HE JUST A-SAWIN’ LOGS,” Winslow said, as he knelt by Mayor Barton, who remained comfortably passed out on a pile of lifejackets near the shop’s front counter. On the counter, by a tan cashbox and a display of slick, black lures, sat a square piece of plywood to which were bolted four full-sized paint cans, lashed together with a rubber fan belt. From the tops of each can trailed thick fuses that met in the middle in a single fat braid. Denny and the sheriff stood over the kid, who lay whimpering and cursing as he leaned against a shelf of cricket buckets.
“I am Hank Hindershot,” he spat. “I’m the third.”
“Well that figgers,” Heidenreich said.
“Son,” Denny said, “what the hell have you done here?”
“Look, damn y’all, it ain’t my fault my deddy and his deddy and all ’em sumbitches is drunks and worthless! That stretch is my stretch, and that timber is mine. I got money to pay what’s owed to the bank man! Done worked since I was thirteen, knowed it was comin’ someday. Didn’t think it’d be now, but it come! I go see them fellas at the bank two weeks ago, and they bound and determined to not take my money. Hell, I tried to pay ’em! All I wanna do is keep what’s mine! We already got three acres laid rot out there on account a’cuz my deddy got in the bottle and let it all go! I just wanna harvest my timber and keep what’s mine!”
“A Hindershot that don’t get a fair shake,” Heidenreich joked. “Lo and behold. Somebody hold me up.”
“Piss on you!” Hindershot yelled, shooting spittle.
“Alright!” Denny shouted, patting Heidenreich on the shoulder, pacifying him. Denny turned and walked to the counter. He pulled his knife from the pocket of his trousers and used the wedge to pop the top from one of Hindershot’s paint cans. He looked inside, shook his head, and replaced the lid.
“It’s just paint,” he announced, as Hindershot frowned, furrowing his brow and curling his hands into trembling fists, and Heidenreich scoffed. “Son,” Denny said to the pouting kid, “do you really have the money the bank needs?”
“Every red cent.”
“Mm. Karl.” Denny looked to the sheriff. “What charges does Hindershot the Younger, here, face?”
“Sweet Jesus, Denny, we’re ’bout where I toldja we were when ya got here.” Heidenreich swung open the cylinder of Hindershot’s recovered revolver. “Ain’t no bullets in this pistol. If it ain’t nothin’ but paint in them cans, and ain’t nobody here hurt, and Foley ain’t gon’ press charges for the damages to his place — ”
“I should press some damn charges on all uh y’all son of a bitches!” Foley heaved breathlessly from the front door.
“Well, hell, Kenny, why don’t you just do that?” Heidenreich said. “Tell ya what, I’ll help ya. We can g’on ’head file a insurance claim for the damage while we’re at it. And after they come fix the shop up, why not send ’em back to that shed about thirty foot past the tree line out there? See if they can’t work on it some, too.”
“Do what, now?”
“Well, Kenny, that shed that I know about that you think I don’t know about.”
“Now, wait just a damn minute, Sheriff,” Foley whimpered. “As I look around, it occurs to me ain’t too much broke anyway that didn’t need fixin’ as is.” He moped like a sullen runt as he grabbed a small, red toolbox from a shelf and headed for the front door. “Godamighty.”
“As I say, if Foley don’t press charges,” the sheriff continued, “there ain’t too much gon’ happen.”
“What about the mayor?” Winslow said.
“Hell, we can prob’ly stick ’im in his bed at home, and he won’t never even know he was here.”
“Alright, Hank,” Denny said. “This is what we’re gonna do. You’re not your old man. I can respect that. Like I told you earlier, I’ve had my share of dealing with the bank in town. Tomorrow morning, I’m gonna go down there, and I’m gonna talk to the people I know about your situation. We’re gonna have them take that money and give you back your land. You’re gonna go with Sheriff Heidenreich after this, and you’re gonna spend the night in lock-up, and there’s not a single thing anybody’s gonna do about that. But you’ll be arraigned in court tomorrow or Tuesday, and when that happens, I’ll be there to represent you.”
“I can’t pay nothin’,” Hindershot said. “All I got’s gotta go to the bank.”
“Oh, you’re gonna pay,” Denny said. “You’re gonna pay with that paint right there, because I got a whole back side of my house we just added on to, and I’ve been waitin’ for a deal just like this one. If it takes you a year of workin’ weekends around workin’ your timber, you will paint every stick and then some.”
Heidenreich lifted Hindershot from the ground, pulling the boy’s wrists behind his back and cuffing them.
“Mr. Shackleford,” the kid said, “I ain’t my deddy.”
“I’m countin’ on that, son.”
The sheriff walked him out and into the back of the patrol car. Denny walked over to the counter and wrapped the paint cans, still attached to plywood, in a burlap cloth that lay beneath the board. As he lifted the parcel, Mayor Byrd Barton stirred.
“I would appear to find myself upon a damn floor,” Barton slurred groggily.
“Evenin’, Mayor,” Denny said.
“Yessir, Mr. Mayor.”
“Why, hello, Dennis. Anything bitin’ on the water today?”
“More’n you can shake a stick at.” Denny walked out of Foley’s shop, back to the trunk of his Oldsmobile.
“KARL,” DENNY SAID, shaking hands with the sheriff.
“Denny. Hell of a day, my friend.”
Winslow exchanged baseball equipment and pleasantries with the Camden cadet as Foley huffed at the side of his shop, hammering his TAKE A CHILD FISHIN sign over the broken window.
“One to tell the kids about,” Denny said.
“Hell, Denny, I ain’t gonna tell nobody about this.”
“Me, either,” Denny laughed.
“Tell Jane and the girls we say hello, and gimme a holler if there’s anything you need. I’m sure I’ll be seein’ you in court for this one.” Heidenreich pointed his thumb at Hindershot, who sulked in the back of the sheriff’s car. “Careful, Denny. Another ne’er-do-well Hindershot from Calion.”
“Anyone ever bail you out, Karl? Give you another shot,” Denny said, slowly adding, “Sheriff?”
Heidenreich grinned and looked at the ground, nodding. “Better say hello to Marshall for me, too.”
“My best to May and Margot,” Denny added, as Heidenreich started up his patrol car. Through the window, Denny could make out Hindershot mouthing, Thank you.
“It is a beautiful evening,” Mayor Barton said, when he finally staggered from the front of Crabapple Bait & Tackle. “Foley! I seem to’ve left my billfold at the house, so I’m gonna have to getcha for the bottle and the crickets on Tuesday.”
“Son of a bitches,” Foley muttered. “Son of a bitches, all uh y’all. Ever’one.”
JANE PICKED UP after the third ring.
“Hey, honey,” Denny said.
“Hey, Den. Gonna be a late one?”
“No, ma’am. I’m just about wrapped up at the office. Headed home shortly. Just wanted to give a holler.”
“Okay. The girls are home. Everything turn out alright today?”
“I s’pose. Thinkin’ of the girls. I’m grateful.”
“Oh, are you?” Jane chuckled.
“Yes, ma’am.” He smiled. “I don’t think I’ve got a tolerance for young men. They’re just … crazy.”
“Come on home, Den.”
“Yes, ma’am. Be that way soon. One quick stop to make first.”
Denny placed the receiver back in its cradle and walked out of the offices he shared with Marshall on the third floor of the building downtown. He took the front exit out to his Oldsmobile and headed a few blocks away to the new building on Church Street. Aside from some of the interior trim, plumbing, and a bit of electrical work, the new firm was nearly done. He pulled into the red-brick-partitioned private parking area they’d set aside to the east of the building, got out of his car, and unlocked the side door that would eventually lead straight to the private offices. He followed the hallway to the partners’ lounge and winked at Marshall’s seven-foot marlin they’d mounted as a centerpiece. No furniture yet, but the marlin was in place. Denny passed through the nearly completed bathroom to a small doorway leading down a set of stairs into the basement they’d built, about which neither Marshall, Norwood, nor Denny told anyone. Leaving all the doors open, he returned to his car, opened the trunk, and removed his heavy, burlapped parcel. Making his way through the darkness, Denny tiptoed carefully through halls and doorways, down the stairs, into the small basement, to the far back corner, directly beneath the office that would be his. He placed the parcel in the corner and turned to go, feeling his way along walls, up stairs, past the marlin, and back out to the car, lighting a cigarette as he climbed in.
Driving home, Denny slid his hand into his pocket, removing Hindershot’s wrinkled note. He took two hard pulls on his smoke, then put the note to the tip. Denny thought of youth while the paper caught fire. He thought of the future. He thought of his wife, his three daughters, and Hank Hindershot III. He thought of the four paint cans packed to the rims with dynamite in the basement of his new law firm. Denny extended his hand from the car window and let wind take the note. He saw it flicker in the rearview as it hung like a feather in his wake, still burning. Denny thought and drove. Clench, unclench. On into the night.
The 2015 Luminaire Award for Best Prose
SECOND PLACE WINNER
We are pleased to announce the second place winner for The 2015 Luminaire Award for Best Prose, honoring the independent press’ best short stories and hybrid prose works of the year. The winner is selected by an external panel that judges all pieces blindly and selects the full list of finalists. Alternating Current does not determine the final outcome for the judging; the external judges’ decisions are final. The second place winner receives a printed certificate, publication on Alternating Current’s award page, publication on The Coil, and publication in our forthcoming Luminaire Award print anthology collection.
SCHULER BENSON’s work has been featured in Hobart, The Lit Pub, Kudzu House, The Pinch, and elsewhere. His first book, a collection of short fiction titled The Poor Man’s Guide to an Affordable, Painless Suicide, was released in 2014 by Alternating Current. He currently lives by the ocean with his wife and animals in South Carolina, and has an MA in Writing from Coastal Carolina University. He tweets from @schulerbenson.
This story was originally published on Go Read Your Lunch on 10/14/13, and is available in The Poor Man’s Guide to an Affordable, Painless Suicide.