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A Touch of Spring Fever, Ch. 1

Chapter One

It was warm where he sat in the half-darkness of the barn and that was by design.  Truitt McBride had situated the work bench to be out of the weather, almost dead-center of the barn and ringed by piles of loose hay, a wall where the harnesses and other livery items hung and a crib that went from floor to loft.  Though he could hear the wind outside, he didn’t need to feel it.  And he knew that wind would be sharp, stinging.  It didn’t take much of the “sight” to know that.  This time of year and this time of morning it couldn’t be anything else.  But that really didn’t matter.  He sat at his workbench, in the bright glow of yellow light from a coal-oil lantern hanging from a rafter peg.  The workspace was snug all year round.  The lantern light was more than enough to work by and he didn’t need illumination for anything else.  He had spent part of every day of his life moving about the structure and the shadows held no secrets for him. 

Freshly-oiled leather harnesses glistened on his workbench as Truitt ran a file over the precisely-honed edge of the turning share of his plow.  The gleaming steel had no more need of sharpening than his harnesses had of oiling but that wasn’t the point.  Every spring since he was strong enough to hold a turning share in a furrow, he hitched a pair of mules to this ancient plow.  Every spring since he was strong enough to keep the blade in the soil, he broke ground on the small farm nestled in the valley between Devil’s Saw Ridge and Hog Heaven Hill.  Both the plow and the land had belonged to Truitt's father, and to his father before him.  Now they belonged to Truitt and in the natural order of things would one day belong to his sons Walter and Amos.  He hoped so anyway.  Walter and Amos; his sons come hell or high water.  Now there was a real chore if he needed one.  If only he could get them ready to go as easily as he could the tools or the mules.

Like his father, and his grandfather, and all the McBrides for as far back as Truitt knew, Walter was tall, dark, thin, and with good enough looks to catch the eyes of the ladies.  Amos, on the other hand, was more like his mother’s people, tall and thin enough to be McBride stock but with the same thick red hair and splash of punctuating freckles that jumped up from time to time in his maternal lineage.  Truitt did the best he could by his boys but he just wasn’t as good with people as he was with things.        

Truitt took exceptional care of the plow and the land.  All winter long he periodically oiled and sharpened the turning share, repaired harnesses and prepared for the day when he would guide the plow through the fields, feel the share knifing through the dark soil with surgical ease.  And today was that day.  The share needed no sharpening; the harnesses needed no oiling.  But Truitt needed the labor.  He needed to care for the things that were important to him, the things that he loved.  

Everyone in the valley waited for Truitt to begin plowing and he knew that.  It did not feel like a responsibility or a burden.   Not really.  He had a knack, which he could in no way explain in reasonable terms, for knowing exactly when to start.  It was a feeling more than anything else, this sense of timing that had proven pin-point accurate over the years.  He knew, knew with every bit of himself, the very moment when soil, weather, water, and God All Mighty came together to fulfill the promise of renewal.  He was as heavy with the knowing as the crops in harvest time and it felt to him that he was a part of the great collective gravidity that overwhelmed him no matter how often he experienced it. When Truitt broke ground the frosts were over.  There would be no late freezes to turn the soil to stone, to murder fragile, young plants in their earthen cradles.  As inexplicably as ever, Truitt knew today was the day.  And that knowing was as reliable as the seasons themselves.  It was the “sight” and he was not the only man on the mountain to possess it or, perhaps, to be possessed by it.

Truitt stepped outside as he finished his coffee.  The mountains towered darkly on the gray pre-dawn horizon and his breath clouded in the morning air.  He shivered slightly and walked back inside for his jacket.  The mules snorted and stamped inside their stalls, every bit as impatient as he was for sunrise.  In less than an hour, the sun would climb into the sky, beginning the morning-long process of burning the mist from the fields.  By mid-morning it would fill the valley with pleasant warmth but, for now, the chill overwhelmed the gray world outside.  Truitt sat his coffee mug on the workbench and shrugged into his coat.  Before leaving the barn, he took a short nip from the bottle he kept upon the shelf next to the workbench, just a precautionary nip against the spring chill.    

The whiskey burned pleasantly inside him as he walked toward the pig pens.  There was some corn left in the pigs’ crib and the porkers would appreciate a few ears.  Truitt’s pigs were every bit as bad as the most shrewish nag.  He had to feed them first thing in the morning or else be ready to put up with their squealing complaints for the rest of the day.  Of course, they squealed every time they saw him anyway, taking him for a soft touch no doubt, but the squealing never bothered him much if he’d fed them.  In fact, it usually didn’t bother him at all.  Like Aunt Tildy always said, “you can’t heap guilt on an innocent soul”.  Though no one could rightly accuse Truitt of having an innocent soul, they couldn’t accuse him of ignoring his livestock either.  And all the dishonest livestock in the world—lined up upon whatever side of their enclosure Truitt was on at the time and thrusting their perpetually moist and dirty snouts between the rails to tell every passerby their shamefully dishonest lies of starvation—just couldn’t make the accusations stick.  Pigs, as far as Truitt was concerned, didn’t have an honest bone in them and were worse than housecats when it came to their disregard for the truth.   

Truitt sang softly in his off-key voice as he walked across the dew-wet grass that soaked his overalls from mid-shin down. 

“Last night as I come home just as drunk as I could be,

I spied a hat on the hat-rack where my hat oughta be.

Come here my little wife and explain this thing to me

Why’s that hat on the hat-rack where my hat oughta be.

You fool, you fool, you blind-drunk fool why don’t you even see,

That’s nothin’ but a milk-pail your granny sent to me.

Well, I’ve traveled this whole world over, a hundred times and more

But a sweatband on a milk-pail I ain’t ever seen before.

Last night as I—”

Truitt stopped singing abruptly.  Someone was already out near the pig sty.  He grinned.  Maybe Walter, more likely Amos rising early and without a fight.  Would wonders ever cease?  He began to whistle the rest of his song.  The wet legs of his overalls stuck heavily to his work boots.  A hundred feet or so from the barn and twice as far from the house, leeward to the prevailing wind entering the valley from the west, the shed that offered his pigs shelter from the sun and rain squatted in the dense shadows of the forested horizon.  As Truitt neared the structure he peered into the darkness but still couldn’t make out who was standing in the shadows at the corner of the enclosure. 

“Amos, that must be you boy.  I’m havin’ to line you up with a fence-post to see if you’re movin’.”  Truitt grinned wider, expecting a smart reply from his youngest son but he got no reply at all.  This irritated him.  “I suppose I should be grateful that you got your lazy ass up at all.”  Then he felt a sudden apprehension.  Whoever it was standing by the pig pen, it was neither of his sons.    

At first, he thought he might be mistaken, that it was simply a trick of the early light but as he moved closer, he saw a man, a small man much smaller than either Walter or Amos.  The man said nothing and didn’t move a muscle but Truitt could feel the stranger’s eyes on him.

 Truitt stopped.  Inside the pen, he could see the carcass of a pig lying in the mud and his anxiety was replaced by anger.  If Truitt hated anything on God’s earth, it was a thief.  Lordy, he wished he’d brought his gun.  He was unarmed and more the pity.  If he’d brought his Long Tom he could have peppered the little man’s backside with some birdshot.  It wouldn’t damage the fellow as much as give him something to think about every time he sat down for a few days.  On the other hand, a good, old-fashioned and sincere ass-kicking would likely be just as effective.  Truitt picked up a length of fence-rail from a pile on the ground and swung it a couple of times like a ballplayer stepping up to the plate.  He liked the feel of it.  The length of rail should do the trick and get the man’s attention right enough.  Though he could not see well enough to tell, he could still feel the little man’s gaze.  He felt it the way a jaybird might feel the gaze of a cat and he didn’t like it one bit.  Damned if he was going to break weak on his own land because some sneak-thief half-pint was staring at him.  He gripped the fence rail tightly in his right hand and took a resolved step toward the pen.   

"Looks like you done come to the wrong place lookin’ for free bacon, shorty.   You’d best get the hell away from my pigs if you know what's good for you."

The little man stepped forward to meet him, totally ignoring the club in the irate farmer's hand. 

“You best be movin’.  Now!  I’ll tear your ass up like a new ground,” Truitt said, brandishing the rail like a war club.  “I mean it.  If you know what’s good for you, you’d best be clearing out.”

The little man apparently didn’t give much credence to Truitt’s threats.  He strolled a bit closer to the fence.  This bothered Truitt.  It bothered him a lot.  The man was not intimidated at all by either Truitt or his threats.  He fixed Truitt with a gaze that stopped him in his tracks.  The stranger was not a man at all, but a youngster, twelve, no more than thirteen-years-old.  Fresh blood dripped from the boy’s chin and there was a tacky stain on the front of his filthy shirt.  Truitt’s legs almost buckled.  The kid’s eyes were harder than any eyes he had ever seen.  No wonder he had felt them so.  And they spoke to him, promising him more than he ever wanted to imagine.  The kid pulled his lips back over a pair of canine teeth that would have looked right at home in a mountain wolf.  A low snarl rumbled up from the boy's chest and squeezed through the glittering ivory of his mouth as he took another step forward.

“Oh?” the youngster said his voice as sharp and dangerous as the Reaper’s scythe.  “And do you know what’s good for you, old man?”

 Truitt took a step backward, dropping the fence rail. 

The boy's snarl intensified until it became a howl as he rushed forward to vault the rail fence.  Truitt never saw him leap the fence.  In fact, he never saw him rush forward. As soon as the boy took a second step, Truitt spun and headed for the safety of the house. Though he had at least forty years on the kid, Truitt ran like a young buck.  The boy could not close the distance, then Truitt hit his stride and the race was on.

* * *

“Shit!  What in the hell is that?” Amos McBride said as he rolled from his bed.  Reeling sleepily, he didn’t take time to dress or put on his boots as he stumbled to the door.  His mother, her two sisters, his grandmother and his older brother were also hurrying toward the front door.  They could hear the screams, hair-raising and terrified out in the yard. 

“Oh, Lordy, that’s your papa,” Ellie McBride said to Amos as she hurried out the door.  Amos and Walter followed.  Walter, anyway, had the good sense to grab a weapon, his double-barrel, rabbit-eared, Long Tom twelve gauge.  But he was much too astonished to use it.    

While still a hundred feet from the farmhouse, Truitt screamed frantically for help.  With his eyes focused on the front door and the sound of the wind and his own voice in his ears, he moved like no one in the family had ever seen him move before. 

Sleepy-eyed and confused, they milled about on the porch and barely got out of his way as he vaulted the steps and hurried past them.  Walter finally shook off the fog of sleep long enough to kneel at the edge of the porch and rest the Long Tom on a railing as he aimed the weapon into the darkness.  Amos, too, moved quickly across the porch and crouched behind the railing as if it might afford protection.  He was unarmed and the hair on his neck and arms tingled and rose but he could see nothing.  Still he waited for the boom of Walter’s shotgun.  It never came.  Seems there was nothing to shoot at. 

“Who the hell’s out there?” Walter demanded.  “You’d best sing out and let me know.  Else, by God, you’re singing in a heavenly choir by breakfast.”  But there was nothing, not a heavenly choir, not a chirping bird.  The morning was as still and quiet as any other morning.  Except for the noise his mother was making. 

"Now if that don’t beat all.  Truitt?  Truitt, what in the world’s wrong with you,” Ellie shouted as she entered the house.  She would have slammed the door behind her, but Amos caught it and started to follow her inside. 

Ellie had barely cleared the door when Truitt suddenly rushed out again, colliding with Amos and nearly knocking him down.  He ripped the door from Amos’ hand and pushed it open as wide as possible. 

"Hurry!  Hurry!  Get in here!"

Wilda and Margie, came inside followed by their mother, Maybelline.  Maybelline Williams, stopped just outside the doorway to spit a stream of snuff over the porch rail before crossing the threshold. 

"Now what's got into him?"  Margie asked, of no one in particular.

"Corn," Maybelline said with disgust, spitting another stream of snuff.  "I always told Ellie he was low-down and now the good-for-nothing's got the rum-fits."

Truitt grabbed Amos and shoved him forward through the door, then followed him in. 

"Is he gone?"  Truitt asked as he bolted the door.

"Is who gone, you damn fool?"  Maybelline answered, over Ellie's shoulder.  "There ain’t nobody out here but us."

Truitt didn’t answer.  He was obviously rattled. 

“Who in the world did you see?”  Ellie asked, pressing for an explanation.  She was usually tactful in dealing with her family, a careful and diplomatic mediator most of the time and skilled in drawing what she needed from the more-often-than-not stubbornly hard-headed members of her clan.  But this wasn’t a usual circumstance.  Truitt ignored her as he headed straight for the bottle on the pantry shelf.  His hands shook as he uncorked it.

"Whatever could have scared you so?"  Ellie asked again, taking the direct approach as she pulled up a kitchen chair for him. 

But he did not sit down.  He paced instead.  Truitt took a long drink of whiskey and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. "I don't rightly know," he said.  "But you all seen it, didn't you?  That thing out there in the pig-pen?"

"I didn't see a thing, Papa," Walter said, looking to his brother Amos for support.  Amos merely shrugged, spreading his hands and shaking his head.          

Truitt paced up and down, clearly rattled, as he recounted the experience, pausing from time to time for another shot from the bottle.  He looked into Ellie's eyes and saw the confusion as well as the skepticism there.    

"But we didn't see anything," she said.  "The only thing I saw was you running and carrying on like nobody's business."

"It was out there, Ellie, I swear to God it was.  Didn't you even hear it?  Howling like–like some kind of banshee or something.  Jesus.  I'll bet that's what it was.  Grandaddy used to tell me about them but I thought that was just an old story.  But Lordy, Ellie, I just saw one.  That’s no good.  The only time a banshee comes around is when somebody's fixin’ to die."

“Well, he wasn’t no banshee,” Ellie said.  “Banshees are women.”

“Sure enough,” Wilda said.

“And if you catch her,” Margie added, “she has to tell you who it is that’s gonna die.”
            “Oh, bullshit,” Maybelline said testily.  Maybelline stomped across the rough wooden floor and squared herself around to face her son-in-law.  She stood nose to nose with him, her face just inches from his and jutted her jaw forward, challenging him.  At just a hair over six feet tall, Maybelline Williams could stand eye to eye with almost any man in the valley.  She was a big women but she moved even bigger.  Her heavy, lurching gait was distinctive, intimidating and misleading.  She could not have weighed more than one-hundred-eighty pounds but she moved like she weighed three hundred.    

"Well this one wasn’t about to catch no Banshee.  That’s if there was one and there’s not.  You got no sense at all, Truitt McBride, and never had any.  I've always said that.  Ain’t I always said that, Ellie?"

She did not wait for her daughter to reply.

"This fool ain’t seen nothin’ that didn’t come from the bottom of that bottle of his.  Remember how his uncle Flannery used to carry on about bugs and boogers and what not when he had the rum-fits?  Well, it must run in the family because this one's no different.  I always told you, Ellie, I always told you.  I always said this is a sorry excuse for a man."

"You hush, woman," Truitt said, angrily.  "I don’t have to take a thing from you while I’m under my own roof.   I got half a mind to put you out there with that thing."

Maybelline totally ignored the threat as she settled herself down in the chair Truitt had passed on.  She was not about to let things lie.  It was not in her nature.  Maybelline Williams, as far as Truitt was concerned, would argue with a stump–and cuss one, too.                  "Anybody who ever said you got half a mind was talking out of pure Christian charity," she said.

She sat directly across from Truitt and glared at him.  And Truitt glared back.   There had never been any love lost between Truitt and Maybelline Williams.  Things had certainly not improved between them in the three years she and her two daughters had been living with him.

Truitt always figured that Maybelline had badgered her husband to the point that there was nothing for poor old man Williams to do but die in self-defense.  Pretty much everyone in the valley could agree that Maybelline, whatever else she might be, was a bit of a ring-tailed bitch.  The soil had not settled on Sean William's grave before his son, Freeman, had turned his mother and sisters out of the home–at his wife's generally strident request. 

Truitt, weak and foolish as he was sometimes, allowed Ellie to convince him to take her family in.  Truth was—at the time anyway—Truitt hadn’t taken a lot of convincing.  He honestly did feel sorry for the women.  Besides, he figured that if he held out the olive branch, so to speak, then Maybelline would likely take it, at least under her current circumstances, without ripping the arm that held it from its socket.  Too bad he didn’t know as much about women, particularly this one, as he did about crops.  It wasn’t long before he began to feel a deep resentment toward Freeman for starting the chain of events which led to Truitt sharing the same roof with Maybelline.  But, at the same time, he also held a grudging admiration for the man.  Freeman displayed remarkably good sense.

Maybelline looked steadily at Truitt with her surly expression.  Then something happened behind her eyes and she sat bolt-upright.  Truitt noted the change in her expression as a shocked look appeared on her face and hardened into anger.  She leapt to her feet, sending the straight-back chair clattering across the floor behind her.  Although a stout woman, she was toughened by years of hard work and her ponderous way of moving about belied an innate quickness and agility when she was so motivated.  She crossed the floor in a flash and swung at Truitt's head with a roundhouse right that just barely clipped him as he ducked out of the way.  Still his momentum caused him to stumble and he sprawled on the floor. 

“Here, that’s enough of that,” Ellie said, moving quickly to intervene. 

"You no-good, son-of-a-bitch," Maybelline said, looking down at her son-in-law.             Amos and Walter immediately moved to either side of Maybelline, prepared to restrain her if the situation escalated.  But Maybelline seemed content to drop the assault, content at least to drop the physical assault.  Truitt made no attempt to rise though he did sit up. 

"You see," Maybelline said, standing over Truitt and pointing her finger at him imperiously.  “You see what you’ve gone and married, Ellie?  There’s nothing out there that’s not supposed to be there.  There’s nothing out there that hasn’t always been there and anybody with a lick of sense knows that.  But if there was a . . . a banshee or a . . . a crazy boy or whatnot, then this spineless coward would have shut us all out there with it just to save his own worthless hide."

Truitt's face grew red.  He was overwhelmed with shame.

"It, uh, it wasn’t exactly like that.  I was tryin’ to get my gun.  Nobody brought a gun outside did they?"

"I had my gun," Walter said.

"Well I didn't see it anyway, even if you did."

"You can surely go to hell for lyin’ same as for anything else," Ellie said.

Truitt was about to continue pleading his case when he was interrupted by the sound of heavy footsteps on the porch.  Heads turned toward the doorway even before the sound of the loud knocking.

"Don't open the door," Truitt said, rising to his feet as Maybelline walked over to answer it.  "Damn it, Maybelline, don’t you open that door."

Maybelline looked over her shoulder and raked her once again terrified son-in-law with a look of contempt.

"Who is it?"  She called out.

"Mrs. Williams?  This is Percy Way.  Can I come in?"

"Come on in and make yourself at home," she said, as she threw the bolt.  She turned and swaggered past Truitt making sure he felt her disdain as Percy entered the room.

Percy was accompanied by his brother Bill and their cousin, Ernie Weems.  All three were armed. 

"I hope we ain't come at a bad time," Ernie said.  "Seems some strange doin’s around last night.”

“Y’all noticed anything peculiar?"  Percy asked.

"The only thing peculiar round here is this fool," Maybelline said, nodding toward Truitt.  "Claims he seen some kind of ghost, or goblin, or crazy boy or something."

"And, I did, too.  He had long teeth, like some kind of animal, growled like an animal, too.  Killed one of my pigs then come after me.  I think he would've killed me, too, if I hadn't outrun him.  I can't get none of these hard-heads to believe me."

"I’d believe him," Bill said.  "That pig of yours is dead all right.  We seen it when we come in.  And Ernie and me run three fellas off one of my cows this morning.  If we hadn't shot at them, they'd probably got after us, too."

"It made me sick," Ernie said, placing his hand on his stomach and grimacing, “what they was doin’ to that cow and all.” 

"Percy?  Are you all right?"  Ellie asked. 

Percy did not look all right.  Truitt thought his strained expression was a mite more than a body would expect for somebody who’d only lost a cow.       

"I don't think so, Ellie.  We're looking for my daughter, Chloe.  She didn't come home last night."