The Lynching

by Stafford L. Battle

“Dirty South! Ninety-nine good ole Confederate descendants hanging like rotting  fruit from an 100-year-old, ivy-choked tree; their battered, mutilated bodies leaking blood, piss and other nasty tidbits; in the middle of a snake-infested Great Dismal Swamp; land cursed by Native Americans, but formerly used as a secret haven for escaped slaves; now a suspected hideout for an illegal meth production facility created by international dope distributors. YES!! That’s a kick ass story we can sell and maybe raise from the dead your miserable writing career; if you can verify the crime scene and upload the story to our publishers before some pesky, local yokel high school reporter steals your headline and twitters it away. Also, include stock images of half-naked female crack addicts and a drooling posse of violent Jamaican drug lords. Clients online and print will pay big, Big, BIG for rights. But the editors need an eyewitness, some background color, some grit, Grit, lots of grit. Of course, a few dead bodies always helps. And, of course, be sure to not get shot by desperate drug dealers or nervous cops BEFORE you submit the story. Timing is critical!”

“I got a woman who can help me,” said Quinton on his Blackberry as he speeded recklessly through a lonely cornfield along the North Carolina/Virginia border. The needle on the rental car’s fuel gauge floated a hair’s width above the red line; earlier, he had hoped to find a gas station with the help of some of the locals before he stalled but he saw few people inhabiting this area of the south. “I should be there a few minutes before sunset. I need to get in and out.”

“Write first, fornicate later. That’s why your career is circling down the toilet bowl,” warned his agent.

“Just a joke, asshole.” Quinton slammed his foot down hard on the gas petal to bounce over a deep pothole on the dirt road.

“Focus on business. It’s been two years since your last paycheck. Get productive. Think! Spooky, North Carolina swamp. Dead white people. Be sure to email high rez images suitable for print reproduction. Who’s the babe? Get a few sleazy photos with that expensive, hi-tech digital recorder I lent you . . . maybe her standing by an outhouse. Skinny dipping in a gator contaminated pond. Daisy dukes. Fat, freckled boobs. Rusty shotgun. Polka dot underwear. Missing front teeth.”

“She’s somebody’s great grandmother. She’s old.” Quinton swerved abruptly to avoid a small furry animal on the bumpy, dirt road.

The literary agent persisted, “A lot of websites are into Granny sex. That should help sales. Put on your famous charm. Smile. You could be the next, great Black writer. Chicks spread wide for potential million book authors. That should make you very happy.”

“Against my better judgment, I’m back in Dixie land. I doubt if these swamp crackers can mumble through the Sunday comic strips.” Quinton’s dark green Ford Explorer rumbled over some loose wooden boards on a narrow one lane bridge. “Shit, I just missed a rusty spike. Where the hell are the street signs?”

His agent exclaimed, “Oh, oh, oh . . . we need pictures of snakes. Big ones. Maybe, 5, 10 feet long. Poisonous are the best. Cottonmouths, copperheads, rattlers, coral. Readers love that shit. What’s her name?”

“Margaret Garner. That’s the name she told me on the phone. The name has numerous references in pre-civil war chronicles. Margaret was an enslaved Black woman who was celebrated for killing her own infant daughter rather than see the child placed in a life of slavery. The woman I spoke with today claims to have known my great grandfather.”

“Grandparent sex in a dank, dark swamp with snakes. Damn, I almost got a woody! I may write this story myself, if you screw this up.”

“Asshole. Good thing you are well connected to the New York publishers and bloggers or I would dump you and get a better literary agent.”

“If you were a better writer, you would have a better literary agent. But for now, we are stuck with each other.”

The racing Ford crested a hill and suddenly tilted violently downward and careened madly toward the lake shoreline. Tires screeched, spitting pebbles and dirt in every direction as the vehicle came perilously close to diving into the deep, tea-colored water. Shaken by his near brush with catastrophe, Quinton stepped out of the vehicle and immediately sank ankle deep into the thick swamp mud. “Damn. I’m here. A fog is coming in. I think I see the tree. Things are hanging from it. Could be human bodies. Not completely sure. There is the wooden shack. On the porch, appears to be an old woman in a rocking chair. Wireless signal is weak. I may have to record my story and post it to your email when I get — SHIT! Something just slithered over my shoe. It’s gone. I will not stay here longer than I have too. The old babe is waving at me. Hard to tell how old she really is. She is thin. Long hair. This could be awkward; she is not wearing a lot of clothes — just a simple, very short cotton skirt and a thin blouse. Damn, she’s got firm, perky boobs; very unusual for an old, crusty babe.”

His agent warned again, “Stick to business! Write first, fuck later. This could be your LAST chance to resurrect your career!”

“I am losing the signal. Be sure to let the local police know about this. I may need their help.” No response. No bars on his cell. He stuffed the Blackberry into his pants pocket. Then, he got back in the vehicle,  rolled up the windows tight and locked the car doors. He wanted no nasty surprises coiled up in the vehicle when he returned. He took a quick glance at the afternoon sun, noting its low position in the sky. He activated his digital AV recorder and spoke: “In the pages of Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, this wild and exotic desolation is known as the Great Dismal Swamp. The terrain gives the visual impression of a vast primeval metropolis rising majestically out of the brownish water. Cypress, red cedar, sweet gum, tulip, poplar, beech, and holly shoot up in cathedral-like columns fifty, seventy-five, and a hundred feet in height; and below on the ground are colorful clusters of evergreen gall-bushes, with thick and glossy foliage, mingled in with sweet smelling, swamp honeysuckles, copious grape-vines, as well as skin-piercing barbs from briar, laurels, and other shrubs, creating almost impenetrable thicket. It would seem impossible that humans could infiltrate this wild, dangerous jungle; but the natural barriers might well bid more than adequate defense for swamp savvy fugitives who sought discrete refuge here.”

He spoke softly as he carefully threaded his way through the thorny briar towards the old woman’s house, which, like many houses that were built in this region of the country, was elevated off the soggy ground, resting on sturdy columns of red brick nearly a foot high. The structure itself was constructed from pine wood boards now weathered gray. It was a typical shotgun house popular in the old south; a narrow rectangular domestic residence with a basic door at each end. Superstition holds that evil ghosts and malicious sprites were attracted to shotgun houses because they could easily pass straight through to seek human prey, and that some houses were built with doors intentionally misaligned to foil these supernatural agents. Discreetly, he pointed the audio/visual capture device at the house and the old woman in the chair, and tried to send the images to his agent. Unsure whether the file transfer was actually successful, he put away his equipment and stepped up to the door.

“Good afternoon, I am Quinton Brown. We spoke earlier.” He stood respectfully below the brick steps leading up to the small porch of the house where the elderly female occupant waited.

“I know who you are. Step up. Come closer. The light is failing. You can call me Maggie.” She smiled widely, proudly displaying a perfect set of pearly white teeth.

Quinton looked beyond the grinning woman to view a grisly tree in a clearing not far behind the house. Indeed, the afternoon sun had to be playing tricks on his vision; several of the things hanging from the boughs of the ancient oak seemed to be twitching.

“I need five dollars,” Maggie said. There were thin curly streaks of gray in her otherwise smooth, shiny black hair. Her breath was fresh and slightly cinnamon scented. She rocked slowly.

Quinton pushed his hand deep into his pocket. He commented, “You look young to be a great grandmother. Where are the drug dealers? Did they leave?” He handed her the money. Her thin hands brushed lightly against his fingertips. He gasped at the unexpected contact.

She cackled an old woman’s laugh, “No drug dealers here, sweety! HE scared them away.”

Quinton asked, “Are you the same Margaret Garner I spoke with on the phone, about the lynching of 99 white men?”

“That’s me. Are you afraid of what you might see?”

“I’m a crime reporter and triple divorcee. I’ve seen it all. You said you knew my great grandfather who lived in this county. Is that true?”

“Your great pappy was well known. Everyone called him Pud. Pud was always horny right up to the night he died,” her voice took on a different, milder quality. “You remind me of Pud. That’s why I only charge you five dollars for services to be rendered.” She deftly stuffed the money in a fold in her blouse, then she reached down, parted her legs slightly, and pulled her short cotton dress back a bit to scratch a fresh mosquito bite on what was nearly a blemish free, smooth, coco-colored thigh. “We can go inside,” she suggested. “The bugs are biting.”

“What services?” asked Quinton as he considered the woman’s invitation to enter her abode. “This is business. I need information about the lynching, before the police get here.”

She winked at him and croaked, “This here is my business. But besides that, HE is awakening and HE is coming. Police don’t much come out here after dark. It’s safer for you inside.” Maggie stood and moved with youthful fluidity into the house, a breeze fluttered her thin cotton dress exposing a brief glimpse of a surprisingly firm round butt and small, tight fitting, pink lace panties.

Quinton at first hesitant, but mildly intrigued, slowly followed her into the shotgun house; but she had moved past the first room which contained a large bed with a multi-colored quilt, into a second room that contained several chairs and small table. Quinton inquired, “Who is he?” he asked as he sank into a padded wicker chair directly across from where Maggie sat rocking.

She scowled, wrinkling up her forehead, “The name is HE!”

“Pardon me. I misspoke,” Quinton said calmly, quietly apprising his informant as she crossed and re-crossed her legs exposing taut and shapely thigh muscles.

“I thought you were a top notch reporter. Did you research anything relevant for this story?”

“Of course,” said Quinton refocusing his attention on his job. “Your big tree out back is supposed to be haunted just like every other large tree in North Carolina. Evidently, a runaway slave on his way to sanctuary in the Great Dismal Swamp was caught and chained to this particular tree as a bloody lesson for other runaways that came this way. But these slave catchers were a really sadistic bunch of Appalachian inbreeds. They kept the runaway alive, and had a big celebration. Big party. Booze, fiddlers, games, and feast. They expertly carved off pieces of the man and made stew. Fingers, toes, ears, hands, skin were all part of the main dish. Legend tells us that the man survived for nearly 6 days in incredible pain. His wails could be heard for miles around. But the slave catchers just prodded their musicians to play a little louder and they danced a little harder. On the morning of day 7, the decision was made to finish the meal and head back home in the hills. But a thick fog rushed in and the man, or what was left of him vanished in an instant.  Only his bloody chains wrapped around the trunk remained as if the tree had swallowed him whole. The white men pondered what to do next. A group picked up their axes and saws and agreed to hack down the tree. As they approached the giant oak, however, leaves began rustling, then the branches of the tree shook violently while its roots angrily rose up out of the ground and began clawing and ripping human flesh. The slave catchers tried to run away but a howling African tree demon strangled every one of the men except for one who somehow got away.” He shuddered. “The story is told in various versions. But the end result is the same.”

Maggie sat quietly for a few moments.  Then she offered, “Lemonade?”

“No,” said Quinton.  “I want to see the tree. That’s the only reason I’m here.”

Disappointment briefly washed over Maggie’s face. “Males are always impatient for the wrong reasons.” Quinton stood and headed toward the backdoor. He was armed with his digital AV recorder and his Blackberry. Maggie warned, “Take that long stick by the wash basin with you. Cottonmouths hunt this time of day. Stay on the dirt path, watch where you step and you shouldn’t have any problems. I’ll wait for you here. We’ll have a little time to socialize before dark.”

“Thanks,” said Quinton grasping the heavy wooden staff. “When I get back I may have to ask you a few background questions, and take some photographs.”

“Pictures,” she smiled. “I’ll do anything you ask, but it may cost a little more than five dollars.”

“Sure,” he grumbled. He walked out the backdoor into the approaching dusk.

Maggie yelled, “I’ll have fresh-made, cold lemonade ready when you get back.”

#

Indeed, the sun was quickly sinking as Quinton’s digital recorder switched to flash mode. “Now, I remember why I left North Carolina and went to school in Boston. Testing, Testing. This is Quinton Brown recording. Luckily, I managed to arrive on the scene before the police. By now, my literary agent should have informed the local authorities. They will want to see this. Dead white men hanging from a tree.  The bodies still smell fresh. Blood has not yet congealed.  Corpses show marks of suspension: bruising and abrasions on the neck. Multiple sphincters have relaxed spontaneously and urine and feces has been liberally evacuated creating a thoroughly disgusting smelly mess beneath the tree. Never understood why white racists would bring their wives and children to witness a lynching of a Blackman; oftentimes, it was part of a Sunday afternoon picnic right after church. My friend Wiki suggested that southern whites also used lynching to terrorize and intimidate freed Blacks who were voting and assuming political power. A study of the period of 1868 to 1871 estimates that the Ku Klux Klan was involved in more than four hundred lynchings. This looks like a white supremacist rally that went really bad for them. Somebody had a real grudge against these men.  But, I find it difficult to feel sorry for them. Only ninety-nine victims. I wonder what happened to lucky number one hundred?”

He went closer to the tree doing his best to avoid stepping in the noxious puddles of human life substance collecting under the tree.

“All of sudden it just got freaky cold! Why the hell are these bodies still twitching and jerking? No wind. Involuntary muscle reflex after death? I will have to ask my friend Wiki about this phenomenon. Damn, something IS writhing in the branches. What the hell! The corpses’ eyes are all open. Camera! Camera! Stupid. Take pictures. Be scared shitless later.” Quinton pushed the digital shutter button rapidly before realizing he could capture more images by shifting to the VCR mode and make a digital movie of this appalling setting. He had never seen anything like this. His hands were numb with fear. But, he hoped, perhaps his asshole agent could sell the video rights to a small horror film company. He tried to email some images, then went back to filming.

But while his attention was focused upward, he was paying no attention to the tall grass terrain he wandered through and where he placed his feet. Veteran swamp dwellers tell you that the serpent that you see, seldom bites you; it’s the snake you don’t see that could kill you. “AHHHHH!!”

#

Back at the house, Maggie chuckled at Quinton’s high pitched wailing. She chided, “Sweety! That’s why I gave you a stick.”

Quinton had almost shit his pants when he saw the long black scaly body coiled by his feet. In a heart beat, the highly venomous reptile had sunk long white fangs deep into Quinton’s calf. “It was a damn big snake, real thick in the middle and nearly 5 feet long! White mouth! Hissing. Crawled forward again and again, as I limped away, and it lunged several times after the first strike!”

“That was ole Henry. Mean bastard. He’s laid claim to this patch of waterfront. You got lucky,” she said examining the snake bite.

“Lucky?” exclaimed Quinton, hot sweat still streaming down his face.

“Sweety, it was just a dry bite. No venom was injected; which happens about 50 percent of the time. Have a rest on the bed. A little iodine and hot soapy water should help. Have some lemonade.”

“I got to call my agent. I need emergency medical treatment.”

“This is not the big city. No ambulance. No police. No lawyers. Just me.  I thought you were a seasoned crime reporter. Do you want to know what happened here or are you too afraid because of a little scratch?”

He sniffled once. “A dry bite won’t kill me?”

“More people have died from gonorrhea and syphilis than poisonous snake attack. Don’t twist your gizzard for nothing!”

Indeed, the throbbing in Quinton’s leg was gradually ebbing. He was more embarrassed than in any physical pain. And, he did have a job to complete. “I need my recorder.”

“You dropped everything and ran screaming back in here. You fainted for a minute, so, while you were resting, I went out, chased ole Henry away and got your stuff. I whacked him pretty hard. He’s mad as hell but he’ll stay away for a few days.”

“Thanks.” Quinton took several deep breaths. The lemonade was sweet and cool and delicious. Each sip eased his hurts and help to rebuild some of his injured male pride. Feigning confidence, he hopped off the bed and sat down in the chair across from Maggie. She had changed clothes into a long, silky, almost transparent red gown. In the dim light, it was hard to tell that she was elderly. In fact, to Quinton, she began to look even more sensuous each second he stared at her. “You put anything in this lemonade?”

She chuckled softly, “Just a little blue mountain sweetener to help calm your nerves.”

He wasn’t sure what that meant. “Well, you look damn good for a great grandmother,” he admitted. “You must get a lot of exercise out here.”

“Well, not as much as I’d like. Have some more lemonade.”

“Earlier, you looked older, elderly, but now you look . . . hot.”

“Yeah, you’re just like my dear Pud. I miss him.” She sighed for a moment as she recalled some distant memory. “Since the early 1900s, the coloreds have called this soggy stretch of swampland, Redneck Valley. Whites called it Bad Luck Cove. There was some good white and Black folks that use to live here. They would eat Sunday supper with you; give you a ride to the store or church. But there’s denizens in the hills who are real messed up. Some could pass for human, but truly aren’t.” She paused, then walked over to the stove and lit a kerosene lamp. The flicking flame cast long, dancing shadows on the wall. The burning fluid was scented and soon the entire house was filled with the comforting essence of roses.

“It’s getting late,” said Quinton. “Maybe I should come back in the morning with the county Sheriff and cut those dead men down from the tree. At least, they deserve a decent burial.” There was still a thin sliver of sun on the horizon; and he was anxious to transmit his story with the digital images. That would guarantee a small payday to cover the costs for the rental car and hotel room. The leg seemed to have not suffered much but he planned to have a doctor examine the wound. “Can I borrow your stick, again?”

“You can have anything you want.” She fetched the stick, handed it to him, pressed close and whispered, “The Hill folk congregate under the tree; bringing bootlegged booze, deer meat, and pelts to trade. At night, the men drink and seek the company of women.  Decent people stay away and barricade their doors and windows at sunset. But I was young and foolish and wanted to see what everybody was so scared of.” Maggie stroked Quinton’s chin very tenderly and gently touched her moist lips to his cheek as they embraced.  She leaned back and sighed, “I wish you were older.”

Quinton was moved by her sincerity. “Well, age is only a number and –“

“I want to show you something, that I never showed any man before.”

“Okay.”

“Do you believe in ghosts or demons?” Her full bosom heaved as she closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

“I’m not sure, ahh, exactly in what direction this conversation is going,” confessed Quinton. He had never felt this excited and scared around a woman in a long time.

“The stolen people from Africa brought with them the seeds of their magic and gods. On occasion, the gods demand revenge.” She paused and gazed deeply into his eyes and said mysteriously,  “Do you know what a Conjure woman does?” She slipped out of his embrace and pranced around lighting candles throughout the house. Her flowing gown twirled and twisted around her trim and shapely body.

“I can stay a little longer. It’s still early.”

“Concentrate on these words.” She whispered in his ear. “Say them out loud, three times. Then close your eyes,” she added mischievously.

“OK,” he mumbled the words wondering what in the hell had gotten himself into. When he finished the chant, he felt slightly lightheaded.

“Good! Now open your eyes and take your pants off.”

“OK.”

“Leave your draws on! Damn! Just like Pud. Anxious for the wrong reasons.”

“But, but . . . I’m confused.”

“Of course, you’re confused. But I can help you find your destiny. Wear this.” She helped him don a long white gown. “And this.” She positioned a hood over his head. “And white gloves.”

There was a tiny mirror over the wash basin. Quinton peered at his attire. “Maggie, this may be a little too kinky for me. I look like–“

“I know what you look like,” she deftly dropped her sparse clothing, standing for a moment like a supple, smooth skin, brown goddess completely naked except for her satin panties. “Hurry, we don’t have much time. Help me get dressed.”

In a few moments, there stood in the shotgun house two vintage Ku Kluxers. “Come here,” she pressed her body close to his, and lifted the bottom of his hood to surprise him with a long, wet kiss. They both swooned. “Wow,” Maggie looked at Quinton with new appreciation. “That should inspire you.”

Quinton, indeed, was inspired with the gift of wild abandon. Legions of warriors had sailed thousands of miles on the whim of a kiss. Quinton became more alert. “I hear music, men laughing.” He peeked out the window. “There is a Klan rally in the clearing. We’re going undercover!”

“You are smart just like Pud! But be careful. Observe and remember.”

“What happened to the bodies in the tree?”

“Gone.”

“Where?”

“You’ll see. Let’s go. This is a rowdy bunch. If we get separated, meet me back at the house. Lock the door, whether I here or not! Good luck!”

In the clearing near the tree, the rally apparently was shifting into high gear. Many of the participants had their faces covered, but others chose to expose their identities to enjoy unencumbered drinking and eating. Banjos and fiddles added their rowdy reverberations to the mixture of drunken laughter and high pitched rebel yells. The night was bright with torches and several small bonfires. Quinton noted that the celebrants had all apparently arrived by foot or horseback. “I need to get my equipment. I must shoot some pictures.”

“Not with those fancy gadgets of yours,” warned Maggie. “Wait a few, until they get too drunk too notice.”

“Good idea.” The wet, dense fog, bonfire smoke, and loud cursing and swearing created a nightmarish carnival, but no one seemed to notice Quinton. There were several long stares at Maggie and one intoxicated, bearded man tugged roughly on Maggie’s robe. But she slapped his hairy hand away and light-footedly merged within a knot of hooded figures crowded by an open whiskey barrel. Quinton attempted to follow but was cut off by a smelly trio of drunks stumbling and punching each other in the chest. He was separated from his guide but still miraculously no one paid any attention to him.  It was as if he wasn’t even there; which suited him fine. But he felt more and more giddy as events rapidly seem to progress independently around him.

“Don’t touch me, you filthy demon!” screamed a woman.

“Careful, she’s a Black witch woman! Dressed like one of us. Put a rag in her mouth.”

“Damn, she’s strong!”

“Don’t look at her eyes. Cover ‘em.”

“Take her clothes off! Take her clothes off! Yelp!! Yelp!!!”

“Gawd Dang! She’s a purty little Black wench!”

“Can I cut off a tit?”

“Not yet!”

Panicked, Quinton tried to push his way through the circle of men surrounding Maggie but it was very difficult to move the heavy men aside. Considerable commotion arose with even more yelling.

“There’s another imposter! Grab him!!”

“Get some rope!!”

“Gun! Somebody get a gun!”

Angry men rushed toward Quinton and filed pass him. The intended target was many yards away but Quinton was swept along with the tide of bodies that chased a single Black man mounted on a Palomino Appaloosa mare. The rider and horse swept boldly through the crowd of cursing and swearing men. The Black man had stripped off the reviled white robe and rode bare-chested wearing only heavy riding boats and coarse woolen pants. He charged and scattered the clump of men that held Maggie. Pausing for only a moment, to unbind her and remove her gag, he helped Maggie pull herself up on the rump of the horse. She wrapped her arms around her rescuer who methodically kicked men away and expertly maneuvered the horse to keep the crowd at bay. Maggie screamed a dreadful oath promising a hundred years of bloody torment; her voice seemed to stun some of the pursuers who fell to the ground in severe distress.  “HE is here!” Maggie screamed. “Now face HIS retribution!!”

Quinton felt the ground tremble as for a brief moment he and Maggie locked gazes. Her month formed a single word: RUN. The Palomino, foaming at the mouth, kicked mightily and leaped over a circle of men and galloped away at high speed into the night. In a moment, riders and horse disappeared in the wet fog. Amidst terrible chaos and confusion, Quinton turned and tried to pushed his way through the angry mob back toward the house. Some of the men were trying to mount their own horses and give pursuit, but the animals were all white eyed with fright and refused to be ridden. They reared and kicked sending several would-be riders to ground in agony with shattered ribs and fractured skulls. The tremors in the earth became more intense as Quinton hopped over fallen bodies and a tangle of tree roots.  Then he heard a blood-freezing screech that nearly burst his eardrums. He covered his ears and barely ducked a tree branch that whipped violently over his head; he stumbled, falling face down in the bloody mud. Quinton tore off his hood and looked behind him, but his mind had trouble focusing on and accepting what he saw.

Men were being snatched off the ground by long thorny vines that swooped down from creaking branches in the old oak. Horrifically, the howling tree itself was transformed, its rough bark and  trunk were turning into a twisted version of a human face; an enraged countenance with large yellow incisors and bloodshot eyes that darted back and forth searching for new victims to be bashed and strangled before being strung up and dangled like perverse Christmas tree ornaments. More than once, a threatening vine twisted in his direction but would suddenly veer to the left or right and snatch a different victim. He ran, stumbled, and crawled to get away and had abandoned all rational hope for survival. He expected at any moment to be snagged and ripped apart by the maddened tree demon. But by amazing grace, Quinton, breathless and quaking with terror, stumbled and fell against the backdoor of the shotgun house. He scrambled inside and dropped a heavy iron bar across the door. He still could hear men running, screaming and pleading for their lives. In sheer exhaustion, Quinton dropped down in Maggie’s rocking chair and shut his eyes and covered his ears and prayed for the night to end.

#

At dawn, Quinton was startled awake by the sound of multiple police car sirens. He had fallen asleep in an old rocking chair. The house was empty; layers of grime coated the floors and walls.  He called out, “Maggie?” No answer.  A small field mouse scurried along the wall; its tiny claws shredding cobwebs and scattering dust balls.  He saw no other living creature and a mindless panic started to crawl up his spine. “Maggie!” This was not the same house he had willingly entered yesterday at dusk. No candles. No soft, quilted bed. He shivered uncontrollably as he sought to grasp a rational explanation of what he had experienced and seen. Childhood fears of old ghostly houses that swallowed people whole and spit out their bones crept into his mind. Time to go. But Quinton was groggy and staggered a bit as he made his way to the front door and into the reality of morning sunshine. At the portal, he hesitated as a large, angry crow swerved nosily across his path. He shielded his face but when he opened his eyes he saw that several white lawmen had surrounded the house. They had their service revolvers drawn. Quinton blinked, his face contorted into a frightened smile, “Wait!! Wait! I’m not a drug dealer. I am a news reporter! I have ID!”

“STOP! Stay right there. Don’t move!”

The sheriff, a large white man with a puffy red face and wild gray hair, whispered to one of his deputies, “You got him in your sights?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Shoot.”

A single loud bang and blast of fire and smoke filled the clearing. “Good marksmanship,” smiled the sheriff, pleased to rid his county of yet another petty annoyance. “Pick up the body, we’ll dump it deep in the woods somewhere. I don’t want any trouble with the National Park Service boys. They’re a humorless bunch.”  He scratched the thinning hair on his head. “By the way, you can put your hands down, Mr. Brown. We may have just saved your life. Some rattlesnakes don’t rattle before they strike.”

Indeed, Quinton had failed to hear or see the 7-foot long Eastern Diamondback rattlesnake sunbathing on the brick steps leading to the front porch. The fangs of the dead snake glistered with a thick yellow fluid seeping out. “Thanks,” he said taking a deep breath and recovering his composure, “I am here to cover a crime scene: the lynching in the clearing back behind the house.”

“Lynching? We’ve been all through the perimeter. It’s all very peaceful except for the occasional poisonous critter. Which, by the way, federal law says we shouldn’t kill. They are part of the eco system. You look confused. You ok?”

“Maybe. I think so. My head hurts.” Glancing back at the tree, there were no signs of bodies, blood, or anything to indicate human mischief. “But I wasn’t dreaming.”

The sheriff continued. “We figured you got lost last night. So, at first light we organized a search. Smart move on your part to find shelter. But you got to watch where you step. Every swamp child knows that.”

“A lady called me to report a lynching—”

The sheriff approached in a neighborly fashion and dropped a heavy, bear-like paw on Quinton’s shoulder, “Son, you can write whatever you like, as long as you file it in the category of fiction. As far as me and my deputies, well, we just rescued a foolish northerner who got lost in the swamp. There ain’t no corpses, no lynching, no haunted tree. No ghosts! The place is deserted. No human has lived in this old shack for decades.”

“But,” Quinton shook his head, blinking hard in the bright morning light. Indeed, the house was empty except for a few pieces of broken down furniture. “Was the last occupant living here a woman, named Maggie?”

The sheriff scratched his bald spot. “How the hell did you know that?”

“She lived alone; but she had a lot of male friends. Her favorite beverage was lemonade, laced with home brewed moonshine.”

The sheriff stared down at the ground and spat out a fat glob of mucus. He yelled to his men, “Go back to town. Direct some traffic. Earn your paychecks. Git!” He waited until the last patrol car had turned and sped back down the dusty road. “Son, I know you are a news reporter; and sometimes reporters have a very unhealthy imagination. Maybe you ought to consider a new profession.”

“Are you threatening me?”

The sheriff tucked his thumbs into his gun belt. “Son, if I thought you were a problem, you’d be at the bottom of the swamp lake doing your best impersonation of gator bait.  But, I swear, you do look familiar. Do I know you?”

Quinton swatted a deer fly on his neck trying to suck blood. “You may have heard of my great-grandfather, Pud.”

“Pud?  Ole Black Pud! Sheeeet!! You and I might be kin!” The sheriff let out a huge belly laugh that scared a flock of egrets that were resting on the lake. He gripped Quinton in a mighty bear hug and released him. “Well, that answers a lot of questions. I’ll be damn! Your great-grandfather and my grandfather were as close as brothers; closer than any white and colored man safely could be in those troubled times. They fought side-by-side in the War in Europe! 2nd Cavalry. Decorated heroes. And, then they came back here and raised holy goddamn hell!”

“Where does Maggie fit in?”

“Well, the two men had a special arrangement with Maggie. They both loved her. Gave her land, built her houses. So, she accommodated both of them.  I was a real young boy when she died. She was a sweet, pretty lady, dedicated to helping people. Attended church frequently. Traveled the county, offering home-cooked meals and lemonade for fifty cents. Some of the elders didn’t approve of her somewhat checkered past; and malicious rumors about being a colored bootlegger didn’t help. Some folks just were outright jealous.”

Quinton was intrigued and would have turned on his recorder if he knew where it was. “Are you a hill man?”

A dark cloud crossed the Sheriff’s face. “A what?! Do I look like a po white hillbilly retard?”

“No sir, of course not. But, allegedly, Hill men would come down here and have a big party, rape a few girls and hang a Blackman just for sport; once a year.”

The sheriff guided Quinton to the porch steps. “Let’s sit down a minute. I’m not sure where you got your information from, but you need to understand some things. Maggie’s murder investigations ended decades ago. State and federal judicial officials have closed the case. And, the Klan has been totally shutdown in this county. I personally saw to that.”

“Was Maggie a conjure woman? I swear on my granny’s grave that I saw — “

“Whatever you thought you saw was merely a dream; just a swamp induced dream from stories you heard as a kid.” A small breeze suddenly swept pass the two men pushing open the front door of the house and whistling through the rooms to the backdoor.  The Sheriff turned pale as a sudden cold filled the space they occupied. He shuddered, “I don’t believe in ghosts or tree demons or werewolves or shape-shifters. It’s just crazy talk from old coots in the nursing home or BS spouted from Saturday night drunks. This land may be cursed or not but whatever, it’s your problem, now.”

“My problem?”

“Yeah, you are probably the last legitimate, surviving heir.  Maggie was wealthy. In her will, she left everything to Pud’s colored descendants. You might own this here soggy patch of swampland with its damn snakes, gators, legends and curses.” The sheriff stood and took one nervous glance back into the rundown shotgun house. “Tear this shack down and tow in a doublewide trailer home. Start a horse farm; ole Pud liked horses. You own about 150 acres here and another sixty on the other side of the lake. Come down to the courthouse, Monday. Get the paperwork started.” He paused and breathed deeply the clean, pine-scented air.  “Well, you seem to be OK. I’m gone.  We put gas in your Ford. See you around, cuz.” He made haste to vacate the porch and walked gingerly through the tall grass. Once safely in the car, he stepped down hard on the gas pedal and sped away.

Quinton watched the sheriff’s car fade in a cloud of dust then turned around to observe his new domain and ponder his next move. “Maybe I could open a writer’s retreat,” he mused. On a whim, he checked his leg. There were two tiny marks that appeared to have healed very rapidly. He couldn’t remember where he dropped his digital recorder, probably somewhere in the grass. His Blackberry buzzed. Five bars. “Good morning.”

His agent screamed at him, “ASSHOLE! There is nothing there! I am looking at your camera phone images. I see a dark green SUV, a shack, a tree, goddamn big lake. NO dead bodies. No drug lords. No naked grannies.  Help me here. Where the hell is the story!”

Quinton smiled, after last night and this morning very little would ever twist his gizzard again.  “I got a cold case that’s heating up. Decades ago, a beautiful Black heiress living alone deep in the forest stumbles into a lynching and is brutalized by a hundred Klansmen. However, she is rescued by a Black soldier, a war hero on a Palomino Appaloosa mare. This champion saved the girl and over the years hunted down each of the guilty perpetrators. Only one of the attackers has escaped justice. However, the chase is soon to be concluded by his descendants who will bring the last man to justice in a few days.”  The rest of the story, he’d hold for later.

Silence on the Blackberry, then his agent exclaimed, “Hell yeah! Push the point that it’s a true story and you might have a sale. When can I read it?”

Quinton said simply, “I’ll get back to you in a few days. ” He turned off his Blackberry and walked slowly to his car, carefully watching where he placed his feet yet enjoying the sweet smell of wild roses.   Then, he started the car and slowly headed towards town for breakfast at the motel. He expected a long day at the county library. He heard a distant voice calling his name and on a whim he glanced in his rearview mirror and saw on the porch of the shotgun house, an old woman in a rocking chair, waving goodbye. Quinton stomped down hard on the gas pedal.

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